Tulip moved through the streets at a steady, even pace. The sky had lightened to a luminescent pre-dawn grey and the ruined Midtown slid by on my left, dark against the pearlescent backdrop. My blood armor had turned coal-black, its magic gone. It crumbled away at the joints with the motions of the horse, breaking into black dust. The wind caught it and carried it off.
Everything hurt. I floated in a sea of pain, anchored by it to reality. The ride would end eventually. I just had to wait it out.
Tulip turned onto our street. Familiar landmarks crept by. The heap of rubble with a chunk of a wall tiled in bright turquoise sticking out of it. The huge oak tree spreading its massive branches where Amra liked to sit. The edge of yard. The front door.
I slipped off Tulip’s back in a shower of black specks. Untacking her took a superhuman effort, but it had to be done. I settled her into the stable, made sure there was clean water, and willed myself to walk to the front door. I passed through the two outer wards, locked the door behind me, and dragged myself to my sanctuary.
Turning the key in the lock hurt. The door slid open, revealing the familiar sandstone floor and columns. Water murmured in the channel, flowing slowly. The air smelled of flowers.
I shut the door of the sanctuary behind me, heard the thick metal bar of the lock slide into place, and finally let go. The blood armor cracked, losing what little integrity it had left. I walked down the path slowly, and as I moved, the last chunks of my armor fell off me, shattering on the floor into clouds of dark dust.
I zeroed in on the metal rose on my desk. Almost there. Just a few more steps.
My fingers closed about the cold stem. I plucked the flower from the vase with my ruined fingers. Made it.
The sack of herbs was next, an ordinary bag with five pounds worth of a priceless herbal mix, tucked away into the corner of the third shelf. When you want to hide something precious, put it in plain sight.
I carried the bag and the rose into my bedroom. The water in the bath lay placid. The stream kept it filled and the magic coils buried under it made sure the water stayed warm when the magic was up.
I put the rose on the edge of the tub and emptied the contents of the sack into the bath. Herbs, flowers, and powders tumbled into the water, releasing swirls of blue color, then red. Dried leaves and blossoms unfurled slowly. Ground blue thistle, shaved mandrake, Solomon’s seal, pasqueflower, goldenseal, sage, ginseng, lavender, valerian, French mallow… All treated with magic, carefully processed, and prepared for me by my aunt. I had just dumped twenty-five thousand dollars’ worth into the tub.
The mirror on the side wall had no mercy. The entire front of me was fire engine red. The armor had kept the damage contained, but now blisters broke open all over my face and neck.
I pulled a knife off my belt and cut through my T-shirt. The chest and stomach were a constellation of blisters. The heat had cooked me like a lobster in the shell.
I sliced through my bra. It came apart. Pain jolted me and I whimpered. I just had to hold on long enough to get out of my clothes.
The boots were the worst. The soles of my feet were gaping raw sores with charred edges, all skin gone. I pulled the tie out of my hair, releasing the bun. My hair fell around me. The armor protected it from direct fire, but even if it hadn’t, I wouldn’t be bald for long.
The water in the bath had foamed and turned a nearly opaque eggplant purple. Petals and leaves covered the surface. I dipped my foot into the water. I knew it was just warm enough to let the herbs steep faster, but it felt scalding hot. I grit my teeth and forced myself into it, sinking onto the small shelf. The heat was unbearable. I submerged, again and again, soaking my face in the mix.
Slowly, the pain grew dull, blunted by the analgesic herbs. I wanted my rose, but I had left it at the other side of the tub, far out of reach, and getting there right now was beyond me. I’d dropped the cut T-shirt on it accidentally and I could just make out the hint of metal petals peeking from under the lymph-soaked cloth. Good enough.
A rush of agony twisted through me, the magic I stole from Moloch and made my own eager to repair the damage. It hurt now but I knew it would hurt more before my body was fully healed. I rested my head on the smooth edge, the water just below my lips, inhaled the aromatic mist rising from the medicinal bath, and let saffron, lemon balm, and valerian soothe me into sleep.
I sensed I wasn’t alone. I didn’t hear anything specific, but my senses caught some miniscule clues, put them together, and sounded an internal alarm. Someone was with me in the room. I reached for magic and found nothing. The tech was up.
Nobody should have been here. I had locked both doors behind me. I was absolutely sure.
I tried to open my eyes. I managed a tiny sliver of light, blocked by some sort of translucent curtain. What the hell? Had I gone blind?
I sat up. Something ripped with a dry crunch, and the curtain fell away. A thin, almost transparent layer of my skin peeled off my face and fell into the water. Ewww.
Across from me, past the other side of the bath, Derek sat on the floor.
My heart hammered in my chest. I was awake and lucid. He wasn’t a dream. He wasn’t a hallucination either. First, everything else looked normal, and second, if my medicine-addled brain were to serve me a version of Derek, it wouldn’t have dressed him into a modern ninja suit stained with blotches and dots of a black and grey. I had never seen him wear anything like this in my whole life.
No, it was him. In the flesh. Sitting on the floor of my bedroom and staring at me with fiery eyes, while I shed dead skin like a snake.
I stared back. He looked hard and cold, sharper, more awake somehow than I remembered. The thin network of scars crisscrossed his face. Years ago, some creatures poured molten metal on his face. He should’ve died. He had survived against all odds, and the scars were the price he paid. Before the scars, people used to describe him as handsome. Now they would use other words. Dangerous. Scary. Lethal. But he was still handsome to me.
He sat like he owned my bedroom. Like finding a camouflaged fortress filled with strange magical artifacts and weapons in the middle of Atlanta was just one of the things he’d done today. He wasn’t bothered by it. He wasn’t bothered by me sitting naked in the dark water or my healing rituals. He just watched, his headlights stuck on bright. Dad’s gold was like the sun, hot and yellow. Derek’s glow was the icy golden moonlight.
I forced myself to not hold my breath and searched his eyes for recognition. I would’ve taken the slightest sign that he remembered me, a hint of doubt, a trace of uncertainty, anything at all.
It’s me. You know me.
He didn’t recognize me. He couldn’t.
No trace of the Julie he knew remained. The moment I slid the Eye of Moloch into the empty orbit in my head, it began assessing my body and set about fixing its flaws. It tore my muscle and reshaped my bones. It wasn’t gentle. It was relentless. Nothing could make it stop.
Unlike shapeshifters, who benefited from a cocktail of biological endorphins and painkillers when they changed shape, I had to endure my transformation slowly and in a great deal of pain. I had asked my grandmother about it between the bouts of agony, and she’d told me that many features we considered beautiful were simply signs of health and beneficial adaptations. The bloodline of Moloch had focused on survival for generations, and the Eye was trying to improve my chances of not dying.
It started by making my face perfectly symmetrical, enlarging my eyes, streamlining my nose, giving me a longer neck and elegant fingers. I burned easily, so it tanned my skin. It didn’t like the texture of my hair, so it made it thicker, wavier, and gave it a golden tint. It turned both of my eyes a matching light green, the same as Moloch’s. I was always frustrated with being short, and it stretched me, gifting me three inches of height, bigger lungs, and larger heart. Growing pains was an understatement.
The strain proved unbearable. My mind unraveled. With each new torturous improvement, I slipped closer to madness. Knowing then what I knew now, I would’ve risked it again. I had to stop Moloch and keep mom alive.
When the pain became too much, Erra had forged a pocket realm for me, woven of her memories. It was the only way to keep me sane. She and a dozen of her retainers went into the magically induced coma with me, so I wouldn’t be alone. My grandmother loved me so much. She had risked her own safety for my sake. My aunt and uncle guarded us for nine months. To me, in the dream, four years had passed.
My grandmother dedicated that time to educating me. I lived as a princess of Shinar, the way Shinar used to be. I had lessons in magic, combat, politics, and history. I learned to speak the old language and by the time I woke up, English was a memory and I’d picked up a slight trace of an accent. I had dedicated myself to becoming worthy of my grandmother’s sacrifice. She believed in me.
The Eye once again decided to help me survive. Even as my body assimilated its magic, it changed my appearance one more time. I wanted to be like Erra and like Kate. I wanted to belong to their family. If Erra hadn’t preserved my mind, I would have gone mad and the Eye would have made me into a monster. Or perhaps into a beautiful vegetable, pretty enough to be kept alive as a human decoration. Instead it made me into a princess.
I’d lied to Luther. I could make blood weapons and blood armor, because my mother had mixed her blood with mine, and although the bond between us was gone, her blood remained in me. The Eye had found it and used it.
Nobody would confuse me with Kate. Our faces were too different. But if you put my grandmother, my mother, and me together, you would see the three generations of Shinar. You would see the same eye shape, the same eyebrows, and the same jawline. I was paler, blonder, with green eyes that matched Moloch’s, but the influence of the bloodline was still there. When I woke up, I looked like Kate and Curran’s child.
I had been examined by the best experts my grandmother could find. They concluded that the changes were permanent. If I had children, they would look like the new me. When my grandfather saw the new me for the first time, he stared at me in silence for several minutes until he finally said, “Well, you are truly your mother’s daughter.” The old me had been erased forever, and now Derek didn’t know me. He was sitting two feet from the T-shirt covering my metal rose and he had no idea.
I thought I had prepared for this, but it still hurt so much. The weight of the world had shrunk and landed in my chest.
I had to find calm. If he focused, he could hear my heartbeat.
We’d been looking at each other in silence for five minutes. One of us had to say something.
“It’s you.” Brilliant opening.
“It’s me,” he said.
“You found my house.” I kept my voice casual and calm. No quick movements.
He nodded. He seemed relaxed, wrapped in a kind of casual arrogance that came from killing a lot of scary shit. His presence filled the room. It was impossible to ignore him.
“I tried to talk to you before, but you left in a hurry.”
“I’m a busy woman.”
“That’s why I decided to visit you at home.”
“Very prudent of you.”
“I like to plan ahead.”
His shoulders were broader than I remembered. With the magic down, he still had the benefit of the shapeshifter strength and speed. It would be a tough fight.
But shapeshifters were still human, and their regeneration wasn’t instant. I knew where to strike and how to cut to incapacitate a shapeshifter. The real question was, could I bring myself to cut Derek’s throat if he forced me?
I had to avoid this fight at all cost.
“How can I help you?” I asked.
“I’d like you to tell me about Pastor Haywood’s murder.”
I pretended to think it over. “Why do you want to know?”
“I have a personal interest in the matter.”
His voice was so light. How did you find me? How did you get past the reinforced door into my bedroom? What happened to you?
“I have reservations about telling you anything. Put yourself in my place…”
He leaned forward and raised his eyebrows at the mass of leaves and petals. “That water doesn’t look inviting. Although I could be persuaded, under different circumstances.”
He looked straight at me, a hint of interest in his eyes. My mind took a sharp left turn and drove me straight off the road into the woods. That was not a thing I was prepared to deal with.
“You chase me with your pack. You track me to my home. You invite yourself into my bedroom. And now you want me to answer questions. You’re clearly not Pack. You’re not law enforcement either.”
He nodded again. “I can see how that’s upsetting. But I am in your bedroom. You have no weapons and you do your best work when the magic is up. Why not answer my questions? I’ll go away and we can forget this ever happened.”
I reached behind me and pulled out a knife from a sheath hidden behind the tub’s edge. I showed it to him. It was a simple functional blade, seven inches long, double-edged, and lively. I was very fast with it.
“This will be enough,” I told him.
“Ah. I stand corrected.”
His eyes warned me that his patience was growing short. This conversation was like walking a tight rope. Any misstep and we would tumble into violence.
“If you explain to me why you want the information, I might choose to answer your questions.”
He thought about it. “There was a time in my life when I was in doubt. I talked to Pastor Haywood and he had helped me. I promised him that if he ever needed me, I would return the favor. He called me the night he died. He was worried. He sounded scared.”
“Unfortunately, I was across the country. I got here too late. I’m going to find whoever killed him. Tell me what you know.”
That last one sounded a lot like a command.
He hit me with his alpha stare. My instincts screamed in alarm. I wanted to either explode out of the bath, slicing at him, or jump out and run for my life. Instead, I glared back. He would not force me to cringe and submit.
“What do I get if I share my information with you.”
His face told me the answer: I would get to keep breathing. “What do you want?”
“Let me think about it.”
A faint sound came from the other room. A man walked in and halted in the arched entrance to the bedroom. In his early twenties, tan, with a mane of soft reddish-brown hair he had tied back from his freckled face. He wore a similar grey outfit and when he moved, he walked with the fluid grace of a shapeshifter. Not a wolf. Something else. Something smaller.
Derek never took his eyes off me. “Yes?”
“The hyenas found Jerome. He is leading them on a merry chase.”
The slight trace of an accent. Slavic?
Derek waved him off. The shapeshifter winked at me and retreated.
“You asked for time to think about it. Time’s up.”
A low rumble reverberated in his throat, the beginning of a snarl. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end.
“I don’t wish to resort to violence.”
Don’t think of him as Derek. Think of him as an alpha wolf. Wolves were calculating. They weighed their odds and they cared about their pack before everything else.
“If you do, I will make it expensive for you and I’ll tell you nothing. There’s no pain you can inflict on me that will make me break. If you manage to kill me, the Order and Biohazard will pursue you and yours. They will take it to the Pack, and the Pack will run your crew to ground. The Beastlord can’t afford to allow foreign shapeshifters to murder a knight of the Order in his city. You won’t be allowed to escape.”
His face turned hard and cold. “None of that will make you less dead.”
If he had to, he would kill me in a heartbeat. He wouldn’t lose any sleep over it. I had to be careful. Very, very careful.
“None of it will get you the information you want, either. I’m willing to trade. Give me something.”
“What do you want?”
That alpha stare made talking really difficult. “Give me a wolf.”
“Cooking, light housework, some general cleaning…”
He smiled. Fear clamped me. Oh my, Mr. Wolf, what scary fangs you have.
“You can’t help yourself, can you? And here I thought we were doing so well.”
“You broke into my house, let yourself into my bedroom, tried to intimidate me while I’m in the tub, and you seem to think that giving people your alpha stare is the answer to all problems. Your headlights don’t scare me. You’re an arrogant ass, and I have been remarkably civil, considering the circumstances.”
He laughed. It was the raspy Derek laugh, and it went straight to my heart and broke it.
The other shapeshifter reappeared, hovering in the doorway.
“Will he do?” Derek asked.
“He’s not a wolf, and it doesn’t look like you can spare him.”
The other shapeshifter glanced at me, smiling slightly, his face at once pretty and vicious.
“A stoat?” I guessed.
He shook his head.
“What is it?” Derek asked.
“He’s brought in a second crew. Females.”
He had to be Ascanio. The Bouda females were larger and stronger than the males.
“Looks like our charming chat is coming to an end. You’re clearly needed elsewhere. So, what will it be?”
“Fine. I’ll give you a wolf. Your turn.”
I stared at him.
“What’s the hold up?”
“Trying to decide if you’re trustworthy.”
“He is,” the other shapeshifter assured me.
I had pushed Derek as far as I could. Fair was fair. “What do you want to know?”
“What killed him?”
“I don’t know. It flies, it’s large, it has feline claws, and the M-scan suggests it may be partially divine.”
The M-scan suggested no such thing, since it wasn’t sensitive enough, he didn’t need to know that.
“Divine how? A god? A cat god?”
“More like a divine beast. Not a god, but something dedicated to one or made by one. This is speculation. I haven’t seen it yet. Have your people seen it?”
Derek’s face was dark. “No. Why would a divine beast want to kill him?”
“If I knew that, the murder would be solved. I do know that shortly before he was killed, Pastor Haywood was called to authenticate an alleged Christian relic.”
“It wasn’t Christian,” Derek said.
I sat up straighter. “Tell me.”
“He didn’t know what it was. Only that it was powerful and dangerous. It disturbed him.”
“Did he describe it at all?”
“No. Where are you going from here?”
“Give me that wolf you promised, and you’ll find out.”
He rose in one smooth movement and walked out. The other shapeshifter saluted me, executed a perfect about-face, and took off after Derek.
“How was he paid?” I called out.
Derek reappeared in the doorway. “Silver. He donated it to the Church. He never kept any of the money.”
“A bag of silver dust, a bar of silver, coins?”
“Three unmarked one-hundred-ounce bars.”
“That’s what he said. They told him that while the proverbs said silence was golden, in this case silence was silver. It made him nervous.”
They dropped ten thousand dollars on him so he would keep his mouth shut. I was looking for someone with a lot of money.
Derek walked away, taking his shapeshifter with him.
I waited for a long minute, exhaled, and got the hell out of the tub. The rose was where I had left it. I pulled on clean clothes and sprinted to the sanctuary door.
It was locked. The bar securing it was fully engaged. He couldn’t have teleported in. The magic was down.
Derek had a key to my house.
Son of a bitch.