Caeruleo Lunaris is a collection of short stories, the majority of which are centered in the Howlers universe. Caeruleo Lunaris is Latin for Blue Moon, an event with strong cultural significance to Lupus Sapiens.
Father Thomas sat back in his squeaky chair and relaxed. Although he didn’t originally join the priesthood to minister to people, he found he had enjoyed it since his retirement from Lucerna Veritatis, the Lamp of Truth. It was a major transformation from a life as a warrior, warring for God under the direction of the Pope.
He reached down on the left side of his desk and pulled an old, time-beaten picture album out from the bottom drawer. Faded, gold letters, inscribed across the front, read Thomas Elliot, February 2, 1927, San Francisco, and inside were pictures of his life, from his birth on forward. He only had a few pictures from the first fifteen years or so, personal cameras being a rare and expensive toy, but he had managed to scrape together shots of his two older brothers and his two younger sisters, along with a few from his father’s woodworking shop. All of the boys spent time there learning their father’s trade.
He spent a few minutes reminiscing over the picture of his older brothers as they stepped onto the bus for boot camp. Hank, his oldest brother, ended up dying in the Pacific battling the Japanese during World War II. Thomas chuckled lightly to himself as he recalled how dismayed he became when he found out he had to wait a couple of more years before he could enlist.
Letters from his brothers arrived twice monthly, and his father read them aloud to the family in the living room, taking the time to pronounce each word carefully so as not to miss anything his sons had written. Thomas lived for those letters, praying his brothers would return home safely, and lighting a candle for them at church when he had the opportunity, while hoping the war wouldn’t end too soon so he would get his chance to enlist. His wish came true the day he turned seventeen and the same day his other brother, Zeke, returned home with a missing leg. Though Thomas had hoped for the Pacific like his brothers, the Army assigned him to Europe.
The war had progressed well for the Allied Forces by the time Thomas enlisted, and they were making the hard drive toward Berlin. To counter this threat, the Nazis trained a resistance force to operate behind enemy lines. They named it “Operation Werwolf.” The Allies, in turn, developed theirown counter to the German’s counter. They developed “Sweeper Squads,” and they assigned Thomas to one. Sweeper squads followed Allied Forces by a day or two into towns recently liberated from Nazi occupation, going door-to-door hunting for Nazi holdouts, or werewolves as the Allies had nicknamed them.
He gently ran his fingers over the picture of his six squad mates. Nicky, a New Yorker, was the runt of the squad but made up for it in attitude; he wasn’t afraid of anyone. Billy hailed from Texas. Most people fell for his dimwitted act, but in reality, he had a mind like a steel trap to go along with his degree in geology. Thomas himself, the lucky one, stood next to Billy. Sandy, from Jersey City, came next in the lineup. Sandy didn’t talk much, but he could bring his rifle up from attention and shoot the hair off a gnat’s butt at two hundred yards—without aiming it seemed. Sergeant Alawitz, a Bronx man, came off as all gruff and blood, but he cared about his men. He wouldn’t hesitate to put his boot up one of his men’s ass if the situation required it, though. Lastly came Lieutenant Brost of Illinois, and in Thomas’s opinion, a good officer. Like Alawitz, he cared about his men. Brost insisted George Patton had hung the moon and threatened to fight anyone who didn’t acknowledge that fact. If there had been bubblegum cards with Patton on them at the time, he would have had the entire collection. He also had a habit of quoting and paraphrasing Patton.
Father Thomas called to mind one of his first missions with the squad. They had entered a tiny hamlet on the Meuse River in France. Allied Forces had left a couple of days earlier, so they were to clear the town of any “werewolves.” Nicky, being the newest member of the squad, knocked on the doors while the rest of the squad covered him. Nicky had only banged on the door three times when it swung open and two belligerent “French Whores”—a common Allied phrase for female Nazi sympathizers—stormed out, yelling and cursing at him. Brost spoke broken French, which at times amounted to no more than enough to demand beer, food, and the directions north, but he clearly understood their complaints. They wanted the Americans to go away. Brost ordered Billy to keep an eye on the two “ladies” in the street while the rest of the squad searched the house.
After clearing the downstairs, they found a large steamer trunk sprawled in the middle of the floor in one of the upstairs bedrooms. They carefully lifted the lid, and a Nazi officer sprang out shooting in all directions. They killed him. They found a second trunk in another bedroom cloaked with a large blanket and a couple of boxes stacked haphazardly on top of it. They mechanically shot that trunk full of holes before they opened it up—to reveal a freshly dead Nazi officer inside it as well.
Killing the Nazis didn’t bother Thomas any more than it bothered most people. That’s what the Army paid him to do. Still, he had nightmares where he had to listen to the women’s screams all over again as they tried to escape the townsfolk’s vigilante justice.
However, another house, in another little town, cast the mold for the rest of his life.
The squad scrambled for cover as a shot rang out. It took nearly a full minute—an eternity when under fire—of crawling around and hiding behind fallen walls and burned-out tanks before they figured out what constituted true cover and what didn’t. Billy never found out. He took a bullet a half-inch below his helmet that sprayed his brains all over the street. The grey and red slimly, sloppy mess still puddled there.
Alawitz belly-crawled along a stone wall lining the church’s courtyard. It was only chest high, so standing or dashing next to it, even crouched over, left you exposed. He halted where Brost and Thomas had hunkered down next to where Billy’s helmet had stopped rolling. “Lieutenant, he’s in the bell tower and got the whole damned square under his sights.”
Brost spit a mouthful of dust to the side. “Where’s Nicky, dammit? I need to call in some artillery.”
“The damned radio’s shot to hell, Sir,” Alawitz reported. “It saved his life, but we’re on our own right now.”
Brost accepted Alawitz’s report with a glower before scanning the area around them. His gaze wandered across what was left of the street to a two-story house in better shape than most others in the immediate vicinity were. “Are you sure he’s in the tower?”
“Positive.” Alawitz held Billy’s helmet above the stone wall with a stick. The sniper let them know he was still there by putting a bullet clean through it, spinning it like a carnival toy. “That’s a Mauser 7.92, all right,” Alawitz said as he poked his finger through the hole. “We aren’t going to get any closer to the church than we are right now while the sun’s up.”
Brost pointed to the two-story house. “Sergeant, I want a man in one of those second story windows covering the north road for any enemy reinforcements. When it gets dark, he’s our covering fire while we get into better positions. Tomorrow morning at six sharp, I want him peppering that tower. Force the bastard to keep his head down while we rush the doors and make him dies for his country.”
Alawitz pointed at Thomas. “Elliot, get your ass up there and don’t get it shot off. And don’t let anyone see you. Total surprise. You read me?”
Thomas figured an hour belly-crawling across the dusty sidewalks and through the rubble until the sniper lost line of sight on him. It didn’t matter, though. He had five hours until nightfall.
“Got it, Sarge. I’ll be there.”
It actually took Thomas over two hours to crawl to the upstairs room in the house. The back door and windows were locked, and he had no desire to create a ruckus by bashing the door down. He spent twenty minutes trying to locate a way inside, first by jimmying the lock and then carving out the doorjamb with his knife, neither without much success. The rear half of the backyard resembled a blackened cinder and the charred, noxious odor made his eyes water. Then he decided to check the windows once again and found that time had rusted and partially loosened one of the latches. He finished the loosening part of the job with his knife. The recent heavy fighting had run most of the townsfolk off, but he checked the first floor anyway once he crawled through the window, steering clear of the west side as much as possible so as not to give away his position to anyone in the bell tower who might be watching. Empty, as expected. If anyone had been there, they would have surely heard him coming in the back door and shot him.
He gradually made his way up the creaky stairs to the second floor to clear it, staying away from the west side again as well. Finding only a family of rats upstairs, he crawled through the hallway until he approached the room overlooking the north road and the church courtyard to the west. It smelled like his little sisters’ room back home—girly—and an insane level of homesickness nearly dropped him to his knees. What the hell did I think I was doing when I got on that bus? Then he thought of his squad mates outside and shoved all memories of home into a deep corner of his mind, one as dark and hard to reach as a lost sock in the bottom of his duffle bag. Luckily, the door to the room stood ajar because when he crawled in, the steeple glistened through the broken west window. Opening the door would have alerted the sniper in the bell tower. He crawled along the floor, keeping his head low enough to avoid line of sight to where the sniper probably sat. If I can’t see him, he can’t see me. He sat against the west wall, the church wall, with the west-facing window on his right. He watched out of the north window until nightfall, with his loaded M1 Garand rifle across his lap and his last ten clips of .30-06 next to him, eighty rounds.
At sunset, Nicky screamed in abject terror. Five loud retorts in rapid succession confirmed the danger before his scream sheared off.
That was the first time Thomas had ever heard anyone scream like that.
The sky had darkened to a deep blue, but it still held enough ambient light to see by, so he stuck his head up over the north windowsill to catch a glimpse out what had just happened. The road was empty, so he placed his mirror in the lower corner of west window. The courtyard was empty too. He pulled his rifle up and set it on the sill, leaving no more than an inch of his barrel hanging out, while he knelt further back inside the darkened hole of the window.
A murky movement in front of the church caught his attention. The sun had barely touched the horizon, lengthening the shadows, but he saw a tall man run across the courtyard, fast, and hurdle the stone wall. Lieutenant Brost gave out a loud and short horrific scream before the silence thundered down again.
Then as quickly as silence rained down, one of his squad—he didn’t know which one—fired his rifle in rapid succession. Sergeant Alawitz bellowed, “Elliot, kill it! Kill it!” as he ran out into the middle of the street. Something long-legged and tall, agile and precise, chased close behind him and made Thomas’s blood sprint cold through his veins. Sweat coated the back of his neck.
Sandy ran out into the street, too, but froze in his tracks at the sight of the monster. It leapt into the air and landed on Alawitz, turning his prayer that Thomas shoot it into a garbled and bubbly shriek, ripping him to shreds with fingers of short, curved bayonets.
Sandy erupted as Alawitz collapsed. He snapped his rifle up, but the monster swiftly closed the distance to him and flayed him open with those deadly claws before he placed the barrel on its target.
Thomas fired in rapid succession until his rifle ejected its empty ammunition clip with a loud and distinctive “ping!” Eight rounds gone already? His first four shots swung the monster’s shoulders around each time he hit. The last four buried themselves in the dirt. Still, the fiend stayed up. Thomas subconsciously reached down for another clip and inserted it into his rifle’s magazine, keeping his target in his crosshairs. The monster glared up at the window, directly into Thomas’s eyes and howled. Thomas felt glad he was already hiding because each hair on his body, from his scalp on down, stood up straight. He fought the impulsive urge to pull away from the window and hide further. The monster sprang out of the street, toward his side of the street. It disappeared from sight, but a crash downstairs told him he was no longer alone in the house.
The tinkling and clinking of shattering glass stirred Thomas out of his fear-induced inaction. He scrambled back from the window, slid a scruffy-looking bed between him and the door, and then threw a small piece of wooden furniture, a combination nightstand/bookshelf, on top of it. He reached down for the empty clip his rifle had just ejected and held onto it, taking up a position of safety behind the barricade. A shadow materialized in the hallway leading to the bedroom as soon as he took a bead on the doorway. It’s upstairs already?
A bit of light stained the room from the west window, so he saw the soundless shadow dash across the doorway. Too fast to hope for scoring a hit, he fired twice at it anyway and then threw the empty clip into the air. He continued watching the doorway as the clip flew up and then tumbled down. The distinctive “ping” of an empty rifle filled the room when the clip bounced on the floor. Experienced German combatants didn’t usually fall for the ruse. Whatever stalked him outside the room did though, and came rushing in.
Thomas Elliot, Corporal, United States Army, stared into the face of evil, but he smelled his squad mates’ guts. His training tried to take over, but his drill instructor yelled into his mind’s ear, “Lift that barrel up, private!” The muzzle seemingly responded to his misgivings on its own at the last possible instant and raised itself six inches. He squeezed the trigger, and half of the monster’s head vanished in a red vapor.
He stayed in position behind his barricade for a few more minutes, scraping together enough courage to prowl around to the other side. He finally took a couple of deep breaths, willed his hands to cease their shaking, and rushed out from behind the bed, rifle at his shoulder and ready to fire. What his rapidly blinking eyes saw confused him. The body on the floor was not a monster, but human. And naked. And missing part of its head. The four center-mass shots he scored earlier were missing. It had a tattoo of a wolf’s head overlaid on a swastika on the left side of its chest.Couldn’t heal up from a headshot, could you, you sonuvabitch?
Thomas stayed in the room with his rifle pointed at the body until the sun shined into the east window. Years later, when back home, he wouldn’t be able to go into his sisters’ room without his mind pulling up the smell of human bowels from the bottom of his duffle bag of memories.
The squad’s radio had large hole in it, so Thomas found a man with a serviceable bicycle and asked him to deliver a hand-written message to his commanding officer. He had a hard time conveying exactly what he wanted; the man only replied to him in French. However, when Thomas produced two chocolate bars, the man’s command of the English language took a sudden turn for the better. Thomas watched the man ride off with his chocolate bars and debated whether he should hike back himself anyway.
A convoy of jeeps full of officers showed up later that evening to discover Thomas had laid his squad out in the church courtyard and covered them with their ponchos. He had their dog tags in his pocket.
He had left the monster upstairs where he had killed it.
The adrenaline rush Thomas had been operating on since noon the previous day had finally wore off. He sat in a feverish haze while he watched a whole parade of officers inspect the bodies of his squad. They pulled the body from the house out into the street and inspected it, too. They nodded and waggled their heads and glanced at each other grimly when they saw the tattoo. They interrogated him. They showed him a picture of the monster. He bobbed his head.
His company commander, Captain Hershaw, came up to him, and Thomas forced himself to stand up. “At ease, Corporal, and remain seated.” Hershaw paced back and forth for a few moments, folding and squeezing his lower lip, before he arrived at a decision and sat down on the edge of the sidewalk, resting his arms on his knees. “Corporal, things are about to move fast for you,” he said. “I’m upgrading your security clearance because what I’m about to tell you is secret. You’re to talk to no one else about this without permission. Understood?”
“Yes, sir,” Thomas said, squinting his eyes at the Captain.
“As you know,” Hershaw said, “your squad has been part of the Army’s counter to Operation Werwolf.” He took his hat off and ran his fingers through his hair. “Well, up until a few months ago, we all thought it was nothing more than as advertised, a resistance force.” He glowered directly into Thomas’s eyes. “As you’ve seen, their operation is much more than that.”
Thomas felt his anger rising, but there wasn’t enough adrenaline to fuel it. Still, he managed to cross-examine his commanding officer in a most insubordinate manner. “So the Army let my entire squad die?”
Captain Hershaw hung his head and said, “We didn’t know how much of what we had been told was true. It’s really quite fantastic if you think about it. Werewolves? Who the hell would have thought they really existed?”
Thomas sluggishly shook his head. “When I came downstairs this morning,” he said, “I still wasn’t sure that what I’d seen was real or not.” Then he glared at the row of ponchos. A slender breeze stirred up and fetched for him the smell of death. “That was until I saw their bodies. Nothing human could have done that.” Thomas handed his squad’s dog tags to the captain. “They’re real, all right, Captain.”
Hershaw took the time to stare at each tag as if trying to burn its image into his memories. When he got to Brost’s tag, he said, “Brost and I grew up on the same block. Our mothers used to play cards every Tuesday night.” He rotated the tag over in his hands a few times. “I wish I could have seen it,” he finally said, raising his head to peer at the window to the room where Thomas had killed the werewolf. “All I’ve got are pictures. Until today, I still think I didn’t truly believe they existed.”
This time, Thomas stared into the captain’s eyes. “I wish it was something I’d never seen, sir, but I did, and I’ll never forget it either. Trust me, sir; you do not want to see one face to face.”
The captain softly rubbed his neck. “Maybe you’re right.”
With a sudden burst of energy, Thomas blurted out, “Sir, how did the Army find out about them?”
Captain Hershaw said, “There’s a group of priests who call themselves the ‘Lamp of Truth.’ They may be men of God, but they damn sure knew how to hunt these monsters down. And they’re highly adept at killing them. Turns out, they have millennia of experience, because the Nazis did not invent them. Anyway, these priests came to the Allies a few months ago and warned us about what Operation Werwolf truly was. We didn’t believe them, but there was too much evidence to dismiss them as crazy. So, we started listening for certain words in our communications. You were the first one to survive a known encounter with one.”
Captain Hershaw put the dog tags into his shirt pocket and then sat there in silence for a few minutes. Without warning, he stood up, and Thomas followed him. “Grieving time’s over, Corporal. I’m promoting you to Sergeant, effective immediately, and reassigning you to a special platoon they’re forming to hunt and kill these damned things. Gather your gear. You leave within the hour.”
“Yes, sir!” Thomas said.