Regeneration made me hungry. I had to regrow several pounds of skin, as creepy as it sounded, and my stomach was screaming for calories. If I didn’t give it some, it would shut me down.
I found a chunk of ham in my fridge and a loaf of bread I had made the night I baked the cookies. I sliced everything, arranged it into sandwiches, ate them all, chewing carefully so I wouldn’t choke in a rush to gobble it up, and drank all of the iced tea I had made. My stomach looked like I swallowed a melon, and I was still hungry.
Normally I kept my fridge fully stocked, a habit driven by the time I spent with the Pack and by memories of having starved when I was a kid. A full fridge or pantry meant security, safety. But with everything happening, I hadn’t had a chance. Most of my meat was in the frozen state and the snacks were non-existent. I would have to fix that. Murder or not, I still had to eat and there wasn’t always an opportunity to cook a meal.
I had slept till noon, almost six hours. It cost me a good chunk of time, but it couldn’t be helped. My body ached now, the familiar post-healing pain that felt a little like waves of shallow muscle spasms rolling through me. They would stop once I got moving.
The herb mix was an emergency measure. It was expensive and took a long time to produce. I had one more bag, and that was it. Whatever killed Pastor Haywood and Professor Walton meant so much to Moloch that he had dispatched a high priest to handle it. Now that his attack dog was dead, Moloch would send another heavy hitter, if one wasn’t in Atlanta already. I couldn’t let myself be caught again.
While the food settled, I called to the Order. The phone worked, which was a minor miracle, or as my grandfather would explain, the direct result of all my magic having been drained below any reasonable threshold by the process of regeneration. I was so tired and sleepy, I needed little toothpicks to hold my eyes open. Too bad I wasn’t a cartoon cat.
Stella answered on the second ring. “Atlanta chapter of the Order of Merciful Aid.”
“I see you survived.”
“That’s still in doubt.”
“Did anything from Biohazard come for me? Paperwork, a file?”
“Big ass envelope?”
“Yep, that’s it. I’ll come and get it.”
“I’ll be here.”
I bet she would. “See you in a few.”
I got the list of Jasper’s known associates and compared it to the list of the relic hunters the Bishop’s people had passed to me through Stella. No matches.
I called to PAD, used my badge and Luther’s name, and got contact info for the four people on Jasper’s list and the relic hunters. If one of the relic hunters was responsible, calling them might make them want to come after me, which would be good, or it could make them go to ground, which would be bad. I needed more information before I started ringing their bells.
Of the Jasper-connected associates, one was dead, the other was incarcerated, which left me with two names. I called the phone numbers. The third man’s ex-wife confirmed that he had moved out of state and if I happened to track him down, she would appreciate a call since she hadn’t received a dime from him for the care of their three kids. That left me with one name. I called the number and let it ring.
A gruff male voice came on the line, “Yeah?”
“Who wants to know?”
“My name is Aurelia Ryder. I’m a knight of the Order looking into the murder of Pastor Haywood.”
“What’s that got to do with me?”
“Do you know Jasper?”
Okay. Strong statement, but not informative. “I understand you’ve worked with him in the past.”
“What I did was to give that fucking idiot a simple fucking job. Go talk to Joe. Remind Joe that he owes me money. Get said money and bring it back to me. What I didn’t say was go to Joe’s work, threaten him in front of the entire teamster crew he worked on, throw my name out there, and then proceed to beat Joe and five of his coworkers half to death. Do you know what happened next?”
No, but I knew I was about to find out.
“I’ll tell you what happened next. Every fucking teamster in that entire fucking building ran out, saw what was happening, wrapped Jasper up in pull chains they use to drag shipping containers onto trucks at the ley line, and then beat the living shit out of him. You know what he did next? The fucker fought them off and showed up here demanding money for ‘on the job injury.’ You might be wondering what the actual fuck? I also wondered that. That shithead cost me a quarter of my business. I only regret I wasn’t there to witness his ass whopping. It would warm my heart. Tell me he did something stupid and you’ve got him locked up.”
“I killed him.”
I listened to him laugh for another ten seconds and hung up.
Getting dressed was an effort. I powered through it on sheer will and went to the stables. Thick clouds pregnant with rain crowded the sky. The air was still and humid, baked in oppressive heat. It would storm before long.
Tulip was in her stall, but her mouth was bloody again, so she had clearly gone out this morning.
“See this? This is perfectly fine feed. Premium quality oats. Delicious hay. Would it have killed you to stay put?”
Tulip snorted at me. I cleaned her up, saddled her, and we were off.
My buddy the homeless man was back at his post on the corner, looking starved and pitiful. I rode by him, bought two oversized kolaches from a stall – both with mushrooms, less chance of rat meat that way – and brought one to him. He eyed me as if I were Sophia’s cobra, but took the hot pastry.
“It’s going to rain,” I told him. “You might want to get inside.”
He ignored me.
I chose the long route to Honeycomb Gap. It took extra ten minutes, but it let me ride by Galina’s Bakery. The little shop was still there after all these years. I bought two strawberry hand pies, one for now, one for later, and munched on the fresh pie while Tulip carried me through the streets.
Mmm, pie. Sweet and tart. Galina added strips of candied lemon peel to her filling. Yummy.
I took another bite. Derek Gaunt had a key to my house.
A shapeshifter’s house was their territory, their shelter. A protected place reserved only for those who were specifically invited and vigorously defended from all others. There were only two types of interactions when invading one’s home didn’t warrant immediate violence.
First, an alpha technically could enter the home of the subordinate without being invited. It was done to reinforce authority, and most alphas I knew avoided it. A shapeshifter would defend their den to the death. Cornering them in it was a bad idea.
The second type involved a weird courtship ritual. When one shapeshifter liked another shapeshifter, they would break into their potential mate’s house and pull pranks, the funnier the better. Andrea had carpeted Raphael’s entire house in a hideous purple shag. Dad had somehow managed to glue Mom to her chair. She’d welded his weight bench together and put catnip on his bed.
I could toss the second possibility right out the window. Courtship games only happened after both parties showed some interest. Without it, invading one’s home was breaking and entering and would lead to a brutal confrontation. Derek knew this. Besides, there was nothing funny or flirtatious in the way we interacted.
My face and body pretty much guaranteed that most heterosexual men would give me a look, especially considering that I was in a bathtub. Derek looked at me, despite the skin shedding. Not that he could see much under all those petals and purple water, but there was a definite interest simmering in those cold eyes. He didn’t ogle me. Rather it was a restrained acknowledgment. He admitted that I was hot and under different circumstances, he might have hit on me, but my value as means of solving Pastor Haywood’s murder mattered more and this morning was neither the time nor the place to explore anything else.
I squirmed in my saddle. The idea of Derek hitting on women made me itch.
Before the incident with his face, Derek had girlfriends. Afterward, I had never seen him with anyone. In my most vulnerable moments, I imagined that perhaps he was deeply in love with me and waiting for me to grow up, but even as a love-sick teenager I realized that I was deluding myself. It wasn’t about me. It was about him. Derek’s handsome face was his mask. His injury ripped it away from him, and he wasn’t sure how to interact with people without it.
Eight years had passed. He was a stranger. Confident, dangerous, strong. He exuded authority. The way his subordinate had hovered just out of the room, waiting to talk until Derek’s say-so, showed respect, not fear. He’d even winked at me, which meant he wasn’t worried that Derek was an abusive alpha who claimed all available women in sight and would rip his face off. A true alpha earned his pack’s loyalty, leading through mutual respect. Such an alpha offered a code of conduct, discipline, and accountability. Shapeshifters craved stability more than anything. It was their aphrodisiac. He likely had potential mates lining up around the block.
He might already be mated.
I bit into my pie. For some reason it was delicious a minute ago, but this bite tasted like cardboard.
I had left first. I didn’t ask him to go with me. Why wouldn’t he have a mate? I needed to get over this hurdle and fast.
No, breaking into my house wasn’t courtship. Everything he had done so far was about power.
In a post-Shift world, identifying the heavyweights wasn’t always simple. Unless you were Luther Dillon, apparently. Sometimes, powerful people demonstrated their capacity to save time and avoid misunderstanding. There was a term for it – a show of power.
Chasing me down and then shifting into a human shape like it was nothing was a show of power. Breaking into my house and waiting for me to wake up was a show of power. He was letting me know that he could kill me at any point. That he was formidable and ruthless, and it was in my best interests to cooperate.
It pissed me off. He showed me his fangs and he expected me to roll over and show him my belly.
I don’t think so.
He thought I was a human, easy to intimidate and equally easy to kill. Good. The longer I kept him in the dark, the better. Being underestimated would only be in my favor.
We had arrived at the building with the phone line. I finished my pie in one bite and jumped off Tulip’s back. He must’ve gotten to the locksmith who had installed my door. That was the only way he could’ve gotten the key. That was okay. I would fix this hole in my defenses. He would never break into my sanctuary again.
I conquered the ruined stairs. The traps were gone, and the phone line was back on the pole. They repaired it again. I loved it when a plan came together.
I took off my cloak and climbed the pole. I was two thirds up, when a familiar raspy voice asked, “What are you doing?”
I had excellent reflexes, which was why I didn’t fall off the pole and land on my ass.
Derek leaned against a crumbling wall. He wore khaki work pants, stained with cement dust and rust, a green long-sleeve Henley, and a robin-hood, a hood that fit over the shoulders and came with a facemask that covered the nose and mouth. The reclamation crews wore them to keep the dust out of their lungs and sun out of their face. He looked like he had just walked off one of the salvage crews from Ted Turner Drive. I couldn’t even see his face, let alone his scars.
“What are you doing here?”
“You asked for a wolf.”
It never crossed my mind that he would volunteer. On the scale of terrible ideas, this one was right up there with jumping into an active volcano.
I resumed my climb, keeping my face calm. “Don’t you have important business to attend to?”
“Finding the pastor’s killer is my business. My only business.”
Some werewolves took their “wolfiness” to the next level by snarling out every other word. He didn’t snarl, his tone was calm, but his voice had an undercurrent of menace that wasn’t wholly human. You could feel the wolf in him, watching, waiting, biding his time, separated from the world only by a thin layer of human skin.
I liked wolves and wolves liked me, but he unsettled me.
My hands slid. They greased the top third of the pole with WD-40. Assholes.
He watched me. My back was to him, but I knew with 100% certainty exactly where he was. He was a scalding-hot point of danger, and all my senses had locked onto him, tracking his every move. There was something primal about this, something that stretched back to the time when humans trespassing in the woods climbed tall trees to escape while hungry wolves with savage teeth circled below.
I slid again. Damn it.
Derek jumped up fifteen feet in the air and sliced through the phone line in a blur.
I slid off the pole and landed by it, turning so my back was to the wood. He circled me slowly, almost lazily. He would never let me get the spear out. My best bet was a knife.
He pulled his hood off and tossed it on a nearby chunk of concrete. “What’s the deal with the pole?”
“I like climbing poles in my spare time.”
“You fought a man in front of the church. He had a dog with metal spikes. The Honeycomb is the only place near Atlanta that spawns iron hounds. Now you’re here, cutting a cable leading into the Honeycomb. Is that a phone line?”
I didn’t answer.
“I’m waiting,” he prompted.
“Do you really need me to add anything? You’re doing well on your own.”
“No, I’m really not. I’m here for the same reason you are. I want to find the pastor’s killer and I want to do it quietly. You have a badge. At this point you know more than I do.”
“All of that is true.”
He leaned against the wall. It was a deceptively casual pose. He could explode off the wall in a heartbeat and lock his hand around my throat in a fraction of a second.
Derek studied my face. “Things would be a lot easier if you just answer my questions.”
“Easier for who?”
“For both of us.”
The menace he emanated was making it impossible to concentrate, and he wasn’t even trying. It kept filing down my patience. Talking to him while watching for the slightest twitch was stressful. I wanted it to end.
I stared back at him. “I feel like we already had this conversation.”
“And we’re going to keep having it until you tell me what I want to know. We had an arrangement. You asked for a wolf, I asked for answers. Here I am. Hold up your end of the bargain.”
“You’re not the wolf I wanted.”
“I’m the wolf you got. That’s not going to change.”
“Just give me a tracker.”
“I’m the best tracker in this city.”
And so humble too.
“Besides,” he mused, his expression thoughtful, “you need more than a tracker. Early this morning someone set the old VA hospital on fire. It’s still burning. Metal melted. Concrete walls cracked from thermal shock. Your scent is all over the street leading to it, and this morning, your yard reeked of charred human flesh. See what a good tracker I am?”
“Stunning,” I said just to say something.
He held up two fingers. “That’s twice in twenty-four hours that people tried to kill you. You’re popular. You need help, Ms. Ryder. You’re outmatched and with me you won’t be.”
Keep pushing. See what it gets you. “I’ll pass. Our deal is off.”
He bared his teeth. If I wasn’t already at high alert, this would’ve gotten me there.
“I don’t care. I’m all out of patience. Tell me now.”
“Or what? You’re going to assault a knight of the Order?”
“Do you have one with you? A very small one hiding in your saddle bag, perhaps?”
Oh really? “As you pointed out, I have a badge. It’s a real badge and it opens doors and mouths.”
He leaned forward slightly, and I almost jumped. “The badge is real, but your knighthood isn’t. The bearing is right, and normally I might’ve been fooled, but I know Nick Feldman. He owed Haywood. If he had any idea that the pastor was in danger, he would have dropped everything to keep him safe. Now that he’s dead, Feldman should be tearing this city apart looking for his killer. Even if he received a direct order from the Preceptor himself, he wouldn’t let this go. Instead he gave it to you, a knight nobody knows who’s been in the city for five minutes. You have something on Feldman, and I want to know what it is.”
“You got me. I’m Feldman’s secret love child, and I’ve blackmailed him into giving me the case that would make my career.”
He laughed softly, and all the hair on the back of my neck rose. “That’s funny. Hang on to that sense of humor if you can. Who sent you here? Who’s holding your leash?”
“Who’s holding yours?”
Moonglow rolled over his eyes. “I keep a very tight hold of my own leash. This conversation is testing my patience. I can feel that leash slipping a little. Trust me, you wouldn’t like it.”
That’s it. I took my sheath with the spear off and pulled my knife out. “Okay, I’m beyond tired of this shit. That’s three times you’ve threatened me in the last ten minutes. You’re not going to stop until I carve a second mouth across your throat.” I motioned to him with my left hand. “Come on. Let’s settle this.”
“It didn’t have to go down like this.”
“Oh, it did. You made sure of that.”
He exploded off the wall just as I knew he would, coming straight for me. But I had started moving before I finished talking, ducking to the left. He missed and I spun by him. My knife sliced across his ribs. First blood to me.
He whipped around, blindingly fast, and snapped a low kick with this left leg. I jumped back. He lunged at me, and I sliced his left forearm from elbow to wrist. His left hand clamped my right wrist. My bones groaned. I tried to drive a kick into his midsection. He blocked me with his leg, his hand still on my wrist, and plucked the knife from my fingers with his right hand.
I dropped all my weight down, trying to break free. His right hand locked on my neck. He let go of my wrist and jerked me up a foot off the ground. His eyes were like two wild moons, cold but filled with rage.
I smashed both palms against his ears. The move would disable a human. To a shapeshifter with enhanced hearing, it should’ve been catastrophic. He flung me away from him like I was a feral cat. I landed hard, rolled to my feet, and dashed to him, swiping the knife off the floor on the way. Hurt, huh?
He shook his head, and then I lunged from below up, trying to open him up from the navel to the shoulder. He leaned back, caught my hand, and pressed it against my hip, as if all of my strength was nothing. His right shoulder smashed into me, his right arm gripped my waist tight, and his right leg hooked mine. He pushed me backwards and I went down. My back slapped concrete. All of the air rushed out of my lungs.
I knew what was coming. Dad’s patented “take them to ground, daze them, finish them with a submission hold.” I went limp, pretending to be completely focused on sucking in the air in a desperate gasp. I didn’t have to pretend very hard.
He loomed over me and dropped down, trying to pin me.
I hammered a left hook into his ear.
He snarled and lunged back at me, muscling me, trying to flip me on my stomach. On my back I could still punch and kick. On my stomach with his weight on top of me, I couldn’t do shit.
I wrapped my legs around his right thigh, trying to keep him from flipping me. He arched up and smashed me back on the ground, trying to make me let go. I locked my hands on his clothes, trying to choke him out with his collar. Fat chance. I might as well have tried to choke out a horse.
A vibration pulsed into my back. Another…
“Stop,” I squeezed out.
He picked me up off the ground again.
“Stop you idiot! Something is …”
He slammed me down.
“Coming,” I coughed out.
He raised his head. I’d pretty much deafened him, but his nose still worked.
Derek inhaled, poised, a predator about to strike, and released me. I untangled my legs and rolled to my feet. He tossed me my sheath. I pulled the spear out and screwed it together.
A deep rumble announced rocks falling to the right, where Honeycomb Gap dropped off into a chasm. A thick pungent stench rolled over us in viscous cloud. It smelled like wet fur, swamp, and rotten fish, perfumed with a spritz of skunk.
Next to me Derek turned slightly green, obviously trying not to retch. Strong smells and sounds hit shapeshifters much harder, and this reek was beyond revolting. It stuck to you, coating the inside of your mouth.
The building trembled slightly.
Derek padded forward, toward the crumbling wall facing the Gap. I moved to cover his back.
He leaned against the wall, glanced through the gap, and backed away. Our stares met. He shook his head. Nothing.
I crouched and put my hand on the concrete.
Another pulse, from the right this time. I raised my hand and pointed right. He nodded. It was almost as if some enormous lizard was crawling around the building, climbing the walls in a lazy spiral.
Derek turned to me and mouthed a word. Horse.
I shook my head. Tulip would be fine. She knew when to make herself scarce.
Thud. Tiny chunks of concrete shivered on the floor.
Thud. Thud, thud.
Above ragged clouds crept across the sky. A Stymphalian bird shrieked, gliding on the air currents. A wasp landed on concrete next to me and crawled around on segmented legs.
Derek looked up and to the left. I looked too.
A frog-like head, five feet wide and shaggy with long dark green fur, stared at us from above the wall with big red eyes. Two yellowed horns, stained with dried blood, curved from the sides of its head, pointing up. Two saber fangs, almost the same size, protruded from the enormous maw studded with conical teeth. The teeth fit together with unnatural precision, like a bear trap. If this thing caught you in its mouth, it would cut you in two.
I had seen one before, years ago. They were native to Wisconsin. What the hell was this one doing at Honeycomb? And such a big one too. There was only one way for a hodag to grow that big.
The hodag sniffed the air with a flat, black dog nose the size of a basketball. A gob of mucus slid out of his left nostril. Ewww.
Derek shifted his weight, ready to pounce.
“Don’t bite it,” I murmured. “It’s poisonous, even to you.”
The hodag leaned forward. The wall shook as it dug into it from the outside. It arched its back, showing off a crest of horns protruding from its spine. Its thick body rode low on four powerful legs, each armed with absurdly long claws. A long dinosaur tail swung to the right, giving it leverage for a leap.
The world slowed down, turning sharp and clear.
The hodag sprung from the wall, aiming straight for us.
I jumped back, stabbing with Dakkan, and it went after me, swiping at the spear with its claws. Fast bastard. I whipped Dakkan around and smashed it on creature’s nose. It bellowed like an angry bull gator and charged me.
I dashed left and leaped over the hole in the floor. The concrete gave under my feet. I plunged like a rock, ten feet down, and landed on the lower floor. The impact punched my feet. Above me the hodag snarled.
I sprinted up the stairs.
The hodag jumped back and forth, a nightmarish blend of wolf and human riding on his back. Seven and half feet tall, sheathed in silver fur, and corded with muscle, Derek had grasped a horn between hodag’s shoulder blades and ripped into its neck with claws the size of my fingers. Clumps of sodden fur flew. Blood stained the floor.
He wasn’t doing enough damage. That fur was abnormally thick and matted. It was like trying to scratch someone through a wet mop.
The hodag veered right and threw itself into a roll, smashing against the wall. Concrete cracked and exploded, chunks of it flying all around. A small rock almost hit me in the face. I couldn’t see where Derek went. Shit.
I sprinted around the hole and thrust my spear at its face, stabbing into the fur in a controlled fury. The hodag flipped upright. I drove my spear into its left leg, just above the paw. The blade bit deep. Blood spurted like dark wine.
The hodag jerked back and came after me like some mutant giant gecko chasing after a cricket. I leaped back and forth, dodging its swipes. It reared, trying to pin me with its bulk.
A wall behind me. A wall on my right.
No place to go.
I dropped low, sliding under the beast to the side. It spun around and sandbagged me with its heavy tail. I flew a bit and landed on my back.
The hodag turned, impossibly limber. The red eyes locked on me. I thrust my spear up, hoping to block its claws.
The hodag reared again, screaming.
I rolled out of the way and got to my feet.
Derek clung to the hodag’s back, straining, his hand locked on the largest horn. Muscles bulged under the fur. He snarled and the horn came free in a fountain of blood.
I scrambled to my feet and stabbed the hodag through the right eye. Crimson drenched the fur. The beast flailed like a fish on the line. Derek opened his mouth. The monstrous werewolf jaws widened, elongating…
He bit down on the hodag’s neck, right where he’d broken the horn off. Idiot!
The massive creature bellowed in pain. It tried to roll left, but I was already there, driving Dakkan into its side. The hodag listed right instead, then left again, the werewolf on its back chewing through its flesh. A sickening crunch sounded, the awful crackle of bone breaking under wolf fangs.
The great beast stumbled and collapsed, the mop of its green fur dark with blood.
Derek jumped off the hodag’s back. His body folded in on itself, turning human. He took two steps and sat on the floor.
I dropped by him on my knees and pulled a canteen off my belt. “What part of poisonous didn’t you get?”
He shuddered and stared at me with his brown eyes. “I just need a minute.”
And he shifted too. Why? Changing shape took a huge wallop of energy. Most shapeshifter could it twice in twenty-four hours, and if they did it in rapid succession, Lyc-V shut them down for a nap. He just shifted twice in five minutes. If he passed out, it would make things a lot harder.
I poured water on his face and thrust the canteen at him. “Wash your mouth!”
His hand closed around the canteen.
With a wet noise, the hodag split down the middle. Blood and innards poured out in a gory clump. The stench made my eyes water.
What the bloody hell…
I grabbed Derek under his arm pits and pulled him away from the gore, past a hole in the floor.
“Stay here. Don’t move.”
Derek vomited blood.
“Good! More of that. I’ll be right back.”
I dashed down the stairs at a breakneck speed, whistling for Tulip.
The street was empty. Where was that horse?
Tulip came walking around the corner.
I grabbed the paper bag with the strawberry pie and sprinted back up, three steps at a time. He sat slumped in the corner next to a puddle of hodag blood and stomach acid. His skin had turned sallow.
I thrust the pie at him. “Eat it.”
He blinked at me.
“Eat the pie! It has lemons in it. Lemons are a hodag antidote.”
He took the pie, bit a chunk, and chewed. He swallowed the first bite, then another. Some of the color crept into his face. He wolfed the pie down.
I slumped next to him. My back burned. Must have scraped it in all the falling. My feet hurt too. Dropping onto concrete from ten feet above wasn’t my favorite. A big tear cut through my left pant leg. No blood though.
“There wasn’t that much lemon in that,” he said.
“It doesn’t take much.”
Nothing about the hodags made sense. They were the new Americana, mythos evolved after colonization, and because they evolved relatively recently, they were oddly specific in their weirdness.
In the 1890’s Eugene Shepard, a land surveyor in the small town of Rhinelander, Wisconsin, claimed to have caught a hodag. It was supposed to be a fearsome beast with the head of a frog, the face of an elephant, the back of a dinosaur, and the tail of a gator. It had horns on its head and along its spine, sabretooth fangs, and improbably long claws. It prowled the swamps of upper Wisconsin, feeding on mud turtles, water snakes, and oxen, but its favorite food was white bulldogs. It could be killed only with dynamite, chloroform, or lemons.
Shepard paid a taxidermist to stuff the hodag and paraded it at county fairs for the next several decades. Eventually the Smithsonian sent scientists to check it out and he had to admit that the whole thing was a hoax. But it was too late. Rhinelander embraced the hodag legend and the locals would tell scary stories to travelers and their children, warning them to keep their bulldogs close.
As the logging business died down, an entire cottage industry formed around the hodag. It was everywhere. They had a Hodag Country Festival, Hodag Park, Hodag BMX Club, Hodag Honda… The high school mascot was a hodag. They even built a giant statue of the creature in front of city hall. Tourists used to take pictures with it.
And then the magic hit, and all of the accumulated faith of the region, and the tourists, and the kids gained critical mass and detonated. It started with random hodag sightings, which nobody took seriously until a pack of hodags came after the crowd at the Hodag County Fair. Rhinelander was a walled town now. In a twist nobody would have predicted, hodags laid eggs, as many as twenty-five at a time. The woods around the town teemed with them, and hunting them for leather, fur, and poisonous meat became Rhinelander’s prime source of income.
They sold the eggs too, although that trade was outlawed. For obvious reasons.
I checked Derek’s color – good – and leaned back against the wall. My whole body hurt now. Everything in life came with a price, regeneration included. In a perfect world, I would have spent the day on the couch or in bed, reading books, drinking iced tea, and eating delicious snacks, while my body recovered. A week on the couch would be great.
Instead, I ran, and fell, and swung my spear, and fought an asshole werewolf…
Thunder pealed. A gust of wind buffeted me, stirring stray hair that had escaped my ponytail. The storm was getting closer.
“Tired?” he asked.
I nodded. Talking was too hard.
We sat side by side in silence. It was almost nice.
“So, are you going to tell me why we just fought whatever that was?” he asked. For once, there was no threat in his voice.
The secret to having a decent conversation with Derek Gaunt: beat the hell out of him, poison him half to death, and then feed him a strawberry pie.
“We fought a hodag.”
“I understand that part. Why did we fight a hodag?”
“Because that was the third time I cut their phone line.”
Derek nodded. “I can see how they would get pissed off. Why did you cut their line three times?”
“Because a little girl witnessed Pastor Haywood getting into a car with a fatso. A piece of shit named Jasper came out of the Honeycomb looking for her, and when he couldn’t find her, he caught one of the other street kids instead, who told him that I spoke to her. When Jasper found me, he was dragging that boy on a chain. That child looked black and blue, and when I finally got to him, he was like a ragdoll. Floppy. Bones broken.”
Derek growled, a low deep sound in his throat. “He walked around the city with a child on a chain?”
“If he came straight from White Street to the cathedral, half an hour. The boy couldn’t walk very fast. He might have dragged him part of the way.”
“This city has gone to shit.”
He was right. “He was almost eight feet tall and he had an iron hound with him. People were afraid.”
“Didn’t stop you.”
“No.” But then I wasn’t a regular person.
“Somebody should have called it in. You killed him in front of the cathedral. Did anybody help?”
I glanced at him. “They’re clergy. Healers, teachers. What did you want them to do?”
“Was the magic up?”
“They could have shot him.”
“That’s against their faith.” I sighed. “They took the boy into their hospital afterward. That’s enough.”
“Just barely. And I’m sure if he died, they would have given him a very nice burial.”
I looked at him again. His eyes were bitter. Time away had restored my faith in people. Looked like he might have lost his.
“What do you want from me?” I asked.
“I need your help. I’m spinning my wheels in the dirt.”
“And if I help you? Let’s say we find the pastor’s murderer and we kill it. What then?”
“I’ll go back.”
“Where is back?”
“Not here. Same as you.”
Not here would be good. Because until I found a way to take care of Moloch, I was stuck here. I couldn’t leave. I had to stay in the city, walking distance from my family. The only thing I wanted to do right now was to go home. I wanted to see Mom and Dad and my brother. I wanted to talk to everybody, to hug them, to fall asleep in my old bed knowing that when I woke up in the morning, everyone would still be there.
Being so close, with every street full of memories, was torture. Was it the same for him? Did he want to go home?
“I don’t want to be here,” he said. “I didn’t want to come back. There is nothing here for me.”
Ouch. Were Mom and Dad nothing? “No family here? Was it just Pastor Haywood?”
“I had a sort of older brother, cool uncle type. I was a broken kid and he took me in, taught me how to be. Stuff my dad never did.”
“You don’t want to see him?”
“I didn’t leave on good terms, and I’m not the same person he knew. He wouldn’t approve and I don’t want to disappoint.”
Curran didn’t like when people left. Grandma spoke to Mom every few months, and she had said he didn’t understand why I left. He would understand Derek’s reasons even less. I knew Derek better than anyone and I had no idea why he took off. And now he had a pack. A small pack, but still. I could just imagine that conversation. “If you wanted to be an alpha, why couldn’t you be one here? What’s wrong with the Pack I built? Why did you have to leave?” Oy.
“Will you help me?” he asked.
The sincerity in his voice made me pause. He didn’t ask for help often back then, but when he did, he sound just like this, straight forward and genuine.
A bullet dug into the concrete inches from my leg. Someone had a rifle and thought he knew how to use it. I pulled my legs in. The broken walls shielded most of us from a direct shot. My legs were about the only thing exposed.
I started to get up. My whole body whined in protest.
Derek held out his hand. “Wait here. I’ll take care of it.”
He rose and leaped over the wall.
It took a full three seconds after he was gone for me to realize he was naked.
I studied the two men Derek dropped on the concrete. He’d come up the stairs, carrying the two of them by the back of their pants and dumped them in front of me. The younger one had short chestnut hair and bronze skin and was probably a young girl in her mid-teens dressed in oversized men’s clothes. The older, about my age, had lighter skin, dark hair, dark beard, and the kind of look in his eyes that told me he expected to be beaten and had come to terms with it.
“You sent a hodag after us.”
The man spread his arms. “You cut the cable three times. Honestly, lady, what do you have against us? Do you cut other people’s phone lines or is it just ours?”
He leaned back. “What did we ever do to you? I don’t know you.” He turned to the girl. “Do you know her?”
The girl shook her head.
He turned back to me. “See? We don’t know you. We need that line to survive. We need food, we need clothes, we need ammo, and backyard gardening only gets you so far.”
“Yes. We grow things, tomatoes, cucumbers. We’re peaceful folks. We mind our own business.”
I pointed at the hodag’s corpse. “To grow a hodag to that size, you have to feed it human meat.”
The girl looked freaked out.
Surprise flashed in the man’s eyes, but he recovered quickly. “So, he ate a few corpses. They would have rotted anyway. It’s a circle of life thing, lady.”
Uh huh. Circle of life. “What’s your name?”
“Don’t tell her, Cephus,” the girl whispered and clamped her hand over her mouth.
Cephus just looked at her for a second.
“I want to know about Jasper,” I said.
“We don’t know Jasper,” Cephus said.
Derek picked him up by his neck with one hand, held him to his eye level, and set him back down.
“Yeah, okay. We do know Jasper. What about him?”
“Yesterday he left to do a job. I need to know who hired him.”
Cephus spread his arms to the sky. “Who knows? Jasper isn’t the sharing type. He isn’t exactly beloved. He had a hard childhood. The man has trouble processing his feelings, so when he has them, they make him angry. And when he gets angry, he lashes out.”
Derek leaned forward. His voice went into a growl. The hair on the back of my arms stood up. “Answer her or I’ll throw you over the wall.”
The girl clutched onto Cephus. He swallowed and rearranged his expression, looking hurt. “No need for threats. We’re all friends here and before you interrupted, I was answering. The phone line is for everyone’s use. You pay into the jar per phone call, and the money goes to buy medicine. I don’t know who hired Jasper. I do know some people he worked with.”
“Give me some names.”
He looked at the sky. “Christi Constanza, Dallas Karen, Bambi Nolastname, Markus Rudolph, Felix Goswin…”
“Okay,” I told him. “You can go.”
Cephus eyed me, glanced at Derek over his shoulder, looked at me again, grabbed the girl’s hand and took off. We heard them stomping down the stairs all the way to the bottom.
“Didn’t ask what happened to Jasper,” Derek said.
“You heard them. The man had trouble processing his feelings. Probably kept most people at a distance. Never formed strong bonds with his peers. His inner core wasn’t vibrating in tune to the celestial heartbeat.”
Derek grinned. “In other words, he was a violent asshole and they’re glad he’s dead.”
“That’s what I said.”
I got up to my feet. Above us black clouds churned in the sky. The world turned dark.
“You got the name you wanted.”
He caught that. Sharp. “I did.”
Markus Rudolph was on the list of relic hunters Bishop’s assistant had passed onto me through Stella.
I could probably turn him down. He would let me go. I could feel it. But it wasn’t in me. He’d helped me so many times. Changed or not, he used to be Derek.
“I have some conditions.”
“There are Old Powers involved in this case. I have a unique set of skills that helps me deal with them. There may be a time I will tell you and your people to run, and you must run and leave me behind. You must promise me that you’ll do it. Swear to me on your pack.”
“No problem. I swear.”
It was almost too easy, but then I was a stranger. He barely knew me. On a scale of importance, my life was far below his packmates.
I held my hand out. “Aurelia Ryder.”
Really? The name is Silver, Wolf Silver? That was a hell of a pseudonym. It must have taken him ages to think that up.
“You might want to grab your clothes,” I said.
“Does it bother you?”
You have no idea. “Not particularly, but most people frown on running around the city butt naked. Even in Atlanta. Also, you smell like hodag gore, and I’m hoping the clothes will help a bit.”
There you go. You’re not hot. Not even a little bit. No part of you is hot. Not the broad shoulders, not the carved biceps, not the chiseled abs, or the muscular legs, or … His body was the apex of what a human could become if he turned himself into a predator. There was a lethal edge to it, to him, a blend of strength and speed, the promise of explosive violence, and it was pulling me in like a magnet. He was covered in hodag guts and I didn’t care.
Not today, Satan. Not today, not ever.
“Go ahead,” he said. “I’ll catch up with you on the street.”
I started down the stairs.
“Ms. Ryder,” he called.
I didn’t turn around. “Yes?”
“Be careful as you make your escape down the stairs. The walls took a beating during the fight. I promise that by the time we meet below, I’ll be fully clothed.”
I headed down. I’ll be fully clothed, blah blah blah. Be careful as your make your escape, blah blah blah. That’s what I get for agreeing to help him.
I went down the stairs. Everything still hurt. Someone turned the muscles of my legs into wet cotton.
I limped out of the building and whistled for Tulip again. A wind gust hit me, tearing at my hair. Thunder rocked the world, the clouds broke open, and rain drenched me, warm and heavy. I raised my arms, closed my eyes, and let it wash over me. It cleaned away the gore, dirt, and sweat and wished all my troubles would drain away with the water.
I could’ve stood under the rain forever.
I heard Tulip clop close and stop. Markus Rufus had done quite well for himself. He lived all the way in Mt. Paran-Northside, an affluent neighborhood with ten thousand square foot mansions and home prices in the millions. If things stayed the same since I left, that neighborhood was protected better than the White House. They hired off-duty PAD officers to patrol it and had their own private security force manning the perimeter wall and towers. Trying to get to the northern edge of Buckhead from here and then gain entry in this deluge was all but impossible.
I had to go home and try tomorrow.
I opened my eyes. Derek stood right in front of me. His eyes were aglow, and he looked at me as if I was the thing he wanted most in the entire world.
I turned away from him and mounted. “I’m going home. You can’t come with me.”
“What about the name?”
“I’ll tell you first thing tomorrow.”
As I rode away, he was still standing in the rain, watching me. Then I blinked, and he was gone.
You may find some minor inconsistencies with the previous chapters. That’s because we are going back and editing the narrative to make the novel better.