THE FULL MOON rose over Blagoveshchensk, and wolves howled to the night sky, rejoicing in their freedom from humanity. I knew better. I hid so their ved’ma, their witches, wouldn’t find me. Luck alone had spared me from being caught in the monthly unveiling in the Russian city. The unlucky were branded with silver so the crescent scar on their cheeks wouldn’t fade. The more fortunate, while still branded, wore their crescents on their brows and were named the wawkalak, cursed but beloved. The unlucky bore either the name of bodark, a werewolf by choice to be watched and feared, or sumasshedshiy volk, cursed and mad. My grasp of Russian left much to be desired, and while many spoke English, none would speak of the sumasshedshiy volk, those who were branded on their right cheek and feared by the wise. The bodark wore their brands on their left cheek, and the wise pitied them as much as feared them. My wolf and I came to the same conclusion within our first month in Blagoveshchensk. The brand’s placement didn’t matter. Only the wawkalak would live, and it was only a matter of time before the bodark and sumasshedshiy volk snapped and killed those around them, for the Russian ved’ma denied them the right to become their wolves in the misguided belief remaining human would lift their curse, or somehow transform them into wawkalak. I lived close enough to Blagoveshchensk to hear the wawkalak’s song but far enough away I wasn’t subject to the unveiling. As long as I hid in my cabin deep in the forest with Bodwin’s wolf, I would be safe enough. What had I been thinking, venturing to the far eastern reaches of Russia? In terms of being remote, while Blagoveshchensk classified as a city, few outsiders ventured to it.
If tourism had been more commonplace, more would know of the supernatural, for the inhabitants believed in their superstitions. Their superstitions had substance here. As I had from the first day I’d stepped foot in the territory, when I needed to venture into the city, I made certain I was back before nightfall, returning to the property I’d begun building upon my arrival in the spring. Thanks to the proud tradition of bartering, I’d been able to build myself a home from the equivalent of a paperclip, working when I couldn’t buy, buying when I could, and trading what I didn’t need for what I did. A wiser man would have abandoned Blagoveshchensk, but with winter soon to come and my cabin almost complete, I’d decided to set down roots rather than test my luck again. The still, deep quiet of winter could drive a wolf to madness. The cold killed, and I’d found bodies on my year-long trek across Russia, a warning I refused to ignore. Sheltering in my cabin with Bodwin’s wolf would be dangerous enough, as my truck, which I’d salvaged from a junkyard in exchange for helping the owner repair his equipment, had a tendency to break down at the worst possible time. The way I figured, I’d won grudging respect from the locals for my ability to fix just about anything, something I’d picked up from the military and my time on the run. If I had the right parts and enough time, I could make it work again.
My truck had needed a lot of parts, but I’d gotten those from the junkyard, too. I liked my antiquated, battered truck, which viewed the journey between the city and my cabin as a challenge to overcome. To play the part of a morning person, of someone who would legitimately head home before dark, using an illegal ID I’d picked up on the western end of Russia, I took up parttime work in the mornings to offer the illusion I worked hard while my apparent youth deceived most into believing I attended school in the afternoons to better my Russian and become a useful member of society. It worked, as no one questioned my behavior, allowing me to flee from the city and its ved’ma at night. In reality, after confirming I hadn’t been followed, I hunted with Bodwin’s wolf, sometimes as a man, sometimes as a beast. She didn’t mind my traitorous, glowing fur. While I yearned to hunt beneath the light of the full moon, as did she, we resisted and hid from the watchful, suspicious eyes of the locals. Where the wawkalak ran, the ved’ma followed, and they branded all they found during their hunts. As long as I stayed in my cabin, hung the expected silver talisman on my door, and remained human in case someone came calling, I would be fine. I hated that cursed, silver talisman, a gift I’d received shortly upon staking my claim to the land an hour outside of the city.
An older man had brought it to me, held within a beautiful wooden box carved with wolves and symbols representing the elements. The sign of the ved’ma decorated the talisman. The damned thing gave me a headache, and Bodwin’s wolf avoided it. It reeked of silver and magic, and when I drew too close for too long, my scarab armband glowed a bloodied red. The howls of the wawkalak drew closer, and I blew out my oil lamp, locked my door, shuttered my windows, and pretended to sleep, with Bodwin’s wolf hunched over my feet and growling while stinking of fear. Animals knew when evil lurked nearby, and nothing good could come from meddling in the affairs of the wawkalak, bodark, the sumasshedshiy volk, and the ved’ma who controlled them. NO ONE KNOCKED at my door, but wolves prowled outside my cabin. I’d staged the exterior well, with a doghouse and chain indicating I owned a pet, an animal I declared to be a husky to my boss, Stanislav Dmitrijevich Morozov, who had nodded and grunted his approval upon learning I believed my girl to be Russian bred. The wolves left, and the hours dragged until the early dawn. When I emerged from beneath the covers, I peered through my windows to check for any sign of unwanted guests.
Nothing seemed disturbed, so I opened the door and whistled for Bodwin’s wolf. For an hour, while I made myself a pot of tea and watched from my cabin’s porch, she would run and pretend she still lived on the snowy peaks of the master she still mourned. She began her ritual with bolting for the trees, skidding to a halt, and charging back my way. The ground, marred with the new prints belonging to the wolves, confirmed they’d paid me a visit. I wondered what they thought of me, an American who claimed to be part Russian. Bodwin’s wolf spent a few minutes checking the woods surrounding the cabin. Now and then, she growled loud enough for me to hear. She disliked the smell of wolves, but it would be a few more nights until the full moon’s call eased and the wawkalak returned to their city and lived their human lives. Then, safe from the watchful eyes of the ved’ma, we would run far and hunt together, and I would ease my wolf’s discomfort. Resisting the urge to transform exhausted us, but he understood the price of failure as well as I did.
The rumble of an engine warned me I had a guest, and I worried who might come calling so early in the morning. I gave Bodwin’s wolf as long as I dared before whistling to call her in. Instead of her usual resistance, issued in warbles of complaint, she bolted inside as though some devil nipped at her tail. “Good girl,” I praised, speaking in English, as the locals expected of me when at home. Then, to make sure we both stayed safe, I locked her inside. “Sergei Sokolov, when you tell me you have Siberian, you did not tell me how magnificent and well trained. You have done well by her,” the rumbling voice of my boss greeted, his English far better than my Russian. When I’d drawn up my paperwork, I’d made a mistake, one I blamed on my American upbringing and my real lack of a father; I lacked a patronymic, which resulted in more attention and awkwardness than I wanted. Sometime soon, I expected someone would assign me one, as the residents of Blagoveshchensk clung to their traditions, and patronymics played a crucial role in how they interacted with each other. Playing to the expectations of those around me ruled my life, and I switched to my broken Russian in an attempt to prove I did as I should, I was as human as I appeared to be, and that there was nothing unusual about me or my wolf who masqueraded as a husky.
“Stanislav Dmitrijevich Morozov, I was about to leave for the mill. Is something wrong?” The dance began, and I waited for Stanislav to correct me. He did, although I’d done better than usual, mangling only one word, so he didn’t plead for me to speak in English rather than continue to butcher his beloved mother tongue. Continuing in Russian, he said, “You’re doing much better. You’re a quick study, and you have been practicing. Good. I came to tell you that the mill will be closed for the rest of the week. There has been an unfortunate accident, and the ved’ma wish to cleanse it. We are being paid for the work they know we would do. I volunteered to bring yours to you, for you don’t have a phone.
” “One day,” I replied, and we both shrugged, knowing that day wouldn’t come soon. “Thank you. It’s a long way to have come.” Eventually, Blagoveshchensk would grow, and the powers-that-be would bring telephone lines and electricity my way, but until then, I used a gas-powered generator for the things I needed electricity for. I’d planned my cabin well, prepared to use wood to get me through the winter while the generator handled my few modern luxuries. Every night, I chopped more for my supply, and I’d built an awning over it, which led to my porch, offering me a way to access it when it snowed. I’d been promised by the residents not much snow fell in the area, but I would be prepared if the weather surprised me. The local Russians had a dry, biting sense of humor, and I’d learned to be prepared. If I did fail to prepare properly, men like Stanislav would surely show up, correct me, and hover until I did things in the proper Russian way, after which they would offer vodka in copious quantities. Sometimes, the vodka came out before they finished correcting me.
My ability to handle their liquor had won me more than anything else, and the wise had stopped attempting to win against me when their drink of choice was involved. I still made stupid choices when drunk, but it took a lot of vodka to get me to that point. Stanislav regarded me with somber interest. Initially, I’d found Russians to be disconcerting and standoffish, until I’d learned they only smiled when they meant it, rather than Americans, who smiled because it was expected of them. “Coming here is an appreciated escape from the city’s noise. Did you hear the wawkalak sing last night?” Every month, he asked a similar question, and my answer changed little by little, accounting for the new things I learned. I wondered if—or why—he tested me, but I’d given up making guesses. He remained a mystery. “A little, but then I slept. I’ve grown used to their song.
” “This is good. It is important that you feel welcome among us.” It took me a moment to realize we both spoke in Russian. “I do, thank you.” “Do you like it here in our Blagoveshchensk?” In truth, I longed for America and its comforts, familiarity, and luxuries, but I doubted I’d see my homeland for a long time. In a few years, Sergei Sokolov would become real enough to pass scrutiny when the Russian government issued cards for me, my subterfuge finally working its way through the system. Then, with the right care, I could travel again, leaving Declan McGrady and all my other aliases behind. One day, I might be able to live a life that wasn’t a lie. “I do. I enjoy when I visit the city and work, but I more enjoy the peace I’ve found here.
” I spoke the truth, almost. Some days I forgot about the death, the guilt, and my regrets when hidden deep in the woods from prying eyes Stanislav approached, holding out an envelope, which I accepted. I considered if I needed to invite him in, decided I’d have to in order to be properly welcoming, but I hesitated when the man stared at the hated talisman hanging on my door. “Did I do something wrong? I wasn’t sure what else to do with it,” I confessed in English, hoping I hadn’t made some sort of error destined to end with a brand on my face. “No, not at all. I’m surprised is all. It is a good place to hang it. You’re respectful of our customs. This is good.” The handshake I expected came along with the oddly friendly scowl the local Russians made, since they believed smiling should be reserved for rare and special occasions.
Even laughter in Blagoveshchensk had rules, a time, and a place. One day, I would figure it out, just like I’d figured out higher ranked men led off any handshaking. “Thank you for bringing my wages,” I said. “You’re welcome.” Once again, Stanislav hesitated. “Perhaps I should tell you more of why.” Interesting. I took that as my cue to play the next stage of host. “May I invite you in? I’ve drink to share, although my home is small.” “I believe it would be wiser if I showed you some of it, or we walk somewhere quiet while we discuss.
” His request worried me, but as I saw no reason not to go about my normal day, I replied, “I could use a day in the city for supplies and studying. Where should I meet you?” Stanislav’s gaze focused on my cabin. “The mill. Your trim needs work. We’ll appropriate scrap that would otherwise be wasted, so should someone ask, you came to the mill at my suggestion.” By implying intrigue, Stanislav skirted a dangerous line, a game many in the area enjoyed playing with each other and the local police force, the politsiya among most, although I’d heard some whisper and call them the militsiya. I wasn’t sure what the difference was, but I opted to use the more common politsiya if I needed to reference the police at all. I wondered what the city’s mayor, who valued order and controlled how werewolves were branded, would think of Stanislav’s attitude. The oddity reminded me, yet again, I needed to take care, make certain I kept cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg close at hand, and drink teas smelling strongly of spice, so no one could detect I was more than I appeared to be. I had enough problems without Stanislav adding to them.
“All right,” I agreed. “I’ll meet you there.” With a nod, and his usual scowl fixed in place, Stanislav turned and marched away, disappearing into the woods following the packed dirt road. The engine of a big truck roared to life, and only when I heard it fade did I go to mine, a far inferior vehicle. I would squeeze every last kilometer out of it I could before resurrecting it with parts salvaged from some junkyard and beginning the process all over again. It kept me busy. Over an hour later, I parked in the employee lot to discover an alarming number of government vehicles and military present, and they swarmed me the instant I killed the engine. My employee badge would help somewhat; it marked me as a residential transient of Russian heritage, explaining why I had only part of a Russian name. I regretted having not understood the importance of patronymics when creating my identity, although I held some hope the frequent dance about it helped give credence to my charade. The questioning started with the basics, but my answers didn’t satisfy the uchastkovyi, someone of importance within the politsiya, although the specifics baffled me.
As far as I could tell, he didn’t count as a police chief, but he wasn’t a standard officer, either. One day, my ignorance would get me killed. “What do you do here?” The uchastkovyi asked in Russian, holding up my employee badge. Finally, a question I could answer without stressing over how the man would perceive me. Leaning against my truck, I pointed at the log loader responsible for starting the milling process. While my Russian made people grimace, I did the best I could, and the uchastkovyi neither corrected me nor seemed to care I struggled with his language. “I help load that machine.” “Are you an operator, then?” I shook my head. “I’m labor. I help line the logs, load them, and remove the securing lines so they can be fed into the machine.
The operators handle the heavy machinery. I work the ground and do as the operators tell me to do.” “How long have you been working here?” “I have worked here for four months. I work the morning shift. I am still learning Russian, so I study in the afternoon or work on my home. I built it myself.” I allowed a hint of pride to reflect in my voice and remembered not to smile. “I have land rights about an hour from here.” “Is this your first winter here?”