For the front row seat to the view of Derek’s issues, see Magic Stars. 🙂
I paced back and forth inside my sanctuary. Tulip watched me with a freaked-out look on her face. I had brought her inside, all the way into the inner chamber, where a stall had been put in for emergencies, just like this one.
Derek was in Atlanta. He was huge. His fur turned silver. He had a pack.
None of these things made any sense.
Why did I run? I’d been in a battle that lasted three days. I dove into Eagle’s Nest Sink, a cave so dangerous, it had a sign with a grim reaper on it and a warning “There is nothing in this cave worth dying for” because I had to talk to a mermaid. I faced horrors, avatars of ancient gods, and monsters. I visited my grandfather every couple of weeks, for crying out loud. And the moment Derek opened his mouth, I turned tail and ran.
I hid from my family because I didn’t want Mom to die. There was no reason to hide from Derek. He didn’t even know who I was.
Stupid. So stupid. Was I thirteen? What the hell happened?
He hadn’t recognized me. The look he gave me was so cold.
I stopped. It hurt.
Some fragile part of me must have been convinced that the moment he saw me he would magically know who I was. But he didn’t. The same thing happened that always happened when I let my emotions and wishful thinking trick me into believing that Derek loved me.
The realization dumped a bucket of icy water over me. Suddenly I was calm.
It wasn’t him. It was me. I made myself run away. He didn’t have any magic power over me. I was still in love with him after all these years, and that gave him a hold over me.
I sat on a plush azure divan. In front of me, a bronze statue shimmered softly with reflected light. A winged serpent winding around a slender pole, her swan-like wings spread wide, as if it were about to take flight above the white gardenia blossoms and burgundy star-shaped hoyas dripping from their trellises. At once delicate and ferocious.
Millennia ago, the world had gone through the first Shift, a mirror of ours. Instead of technology failing and magic invading in waves, magic had fallen, bringing an end to glorious civilizations and ancient kingdoms. Mom’s father, my grandfather, had lived through it, finally falling into an enchanted hibernation when magic was reduced to a mere trickle.
Erra, his sister, and the woman I called Grandmother, had also chosen to sleep, but unlike her brother, who had lingered until the bitter end, Erra hadn’t waited. She’d chosen to hibernate half a century earlier. To the enemies of Shinar, she was a living plague. But to her subjects, she was salvation, a hero who sacrificed everything for the sake of her people. She’d been beloved, and when she went into her sleep, hundreds of soldiers, servants, and advisors chose to join her. After she and I left Atlanta, we spent the first six months earning enough to buy passage across the ocean and the next year searching for the dusty tomb in a hidden cavern to awaken everyone. Not everyone made it, but those who had formed the core of New Shinar.
One of them had created this statue and offered it to me as tribute. That’s how she saw me, the princess of this new age always ready to spill blood in defense of the new kingdom, beautiful and deadly.
Thank you for the reminder, Gemeti.
I was no longer Julie. Derek didn’t know the new me. He couldn’t take advantage of my feelings unless I let him. He didn’t know they existed.
I didn’t know the new him either.
The Derek I knew had been born into a religious household deep in the mountains of Appalachia, where families were money poor but land rich. They guarded their land and their independence with “Trespassers will be shot” signs and meant it.
When Derek was fourteen, his father caught Lyc-V at a tent revival. He went loup fast, drowning in the brew of run-away hormones. Loupism had no cure. It turned shapeshifters into psychotic, sadistic spree killers. Derek’s father was no exception. Every repressed urge, every dark desire forbidden by religion and law, bubbled up to the surface and exploded.
Everyone minded their own business. Nobody helped. Derek’s mother and sisters became his father’s hostages and slaves. His mother caught the virus from his father and killed herself, leaving Derek, his brother, and his five sisters alone with a loup.
The nightmare lasted almost two years. Everyone became infected within months. They tried to fight their father, but loups were freakishly strong. Two of Derek’s siblings died from starvation, chained by their father in the basement. Three of his sisters died from their injuries. One went loup and turned on her brothers and sisters, reveling in their father’s demented cruelty. The day Derek found the half-eaten body of his youngest sister, he couldn’t take it anymore.
The local authorities finally took notice when a column of smoke rose from the top of the mountain and called in the Pack. When Dad arrived with a group of shapeshifters, they found Derek sitting by the burned-out husk of his house, his father’s blood on his hands. He’d finally stopped the nightmare, but it was too late for everyone else.
Derek didn’t resist. He made no effort to explain what happened. He didn’t speak at all. He’d ripped his father apart and that’s all he cared about. Jim, the current Beastlord, thought Derek would go loup and wanted to kill him. Dad forbade it. He took Derek with him to the Pack and slowly coaxed him back to life.
That was my Derek, and he held himself in a steel grip. Everything that influenced shapeshifters affected him stronger than normal. The moon made him half-crazy. When he locked onto a scent, nothing else mattered. And when he fought… Derek had hard time sparring. He was worried that if he let go of his control by a hair, he would fall off the same cliff his father had.
He never felt comfortable around other shapeshifters; their presence made his struggle for control harder. But he was fanatically loyal to Mom and Dad. He stayed in the Pack for their sake, and when Dad stepped down, Derek was right behind him. He didn’t hesitate for a second.
After the separation from the Pack, Derek fully embraced his Lone Wolf of Atlanta status. He worked for our family business and always had our backs, but he seemed most content when he was working on his own.
Old Derek was a loner. The new Derek had a pack. He had landed with his back to them, and they had positioned themselves to protect him. I had no doubt that if he growled a command, they would have shot forward and tried to tear me apart. That was his pack. Not Desandra’s, not a Pack crew.
Old Derek was grey. Large, by shapeshifter standards, but still within normal range for a lupine shapeshifter. The new Derek was silver, bright uniform silver, without any black or brown, and he was huge. I’d never seen a werewolf that large before.
Old Derek emanated strong hunter green, right in line with the rest of the Pack. The new Derek left a trail of mint green magic.
Old Derek’s eyes glowed amber. The man I saw tonight had eyes that shone with gold. And it wasn’t just the shine. It was the way he looked at me. He stared at me as if I had intruded into his territory and he had the right to punish me. He gave me the alpha stare. You couldn’t buy one of those. You could learn it to imitate it, but most natural leaders were born with it. It was one of the most effective means of control for a pack leader. My dad had raised it to the level of art, and Conlan was doing his best to catch up.
In all of our years together, I had never seen Derek give someone the alpha stare. He focused on them and he had what I used to call his “death glare” but it wasn’t an alpha stare.
What the hell happened?
It was Derek. The scars were unmistakable. Were they all that was left of the Derek I knew?
Ascanio knew. That time when he tried to take the cookie from me, a shapeshifter, one of his people, had run up and reported that she saw “him” and then she waved her hand in front of her face. She was indicating the scars. Besides our family and the Medranos, Derek would be just about the only person for whom Ascanio would drop everything and go chasing into the night. The rivalry between them started the day Ascanio tried to put his hands on me and Derek had shown him the error of his ways.
Derek had returned to the city and now he and Ascanio both were somehow tangled up in Pastor Haywood’s murder.
I hadn’t expected him to ever leave Atlanta, not unless he was following Mom and Dad somewhere. Something had occurred, some seismic shift must have taken place for him to disappear.
Maybe it wasn’t Derek at all. Maybe something was just wearing his body. That would mean he was gone.
The thought brought me up short, and for a few seconds I just stared at the statue, my mind blank.
The world without Derek would have a gaping hole in it, a ragged wound bleeding pain. I wasn’t sure I could deal with it.
Magic flashed in my mind. Someone had just crossed my outer ward. I shot off the divan, grabbing a sword on the way, and sprinted out of the sanctuary to my front door.
It couldn’t be him. I had used wolfsbane, and then Tulip and I swam through Lake Adair for half a mile, dodging water snakes and snapping turtles living on the drowned trees left over from when the lake had been Adair Park. It would take the pack ages to find my scent if they ever did.
Someone knocked on my door. I flung it open.
Knight Stella Davis took a step back. “Easy now. I just came to borrow a cup of sugar.”
The tension went out of me. “White or brown?”
“I don’t know, I don’t really bake.” Stella looked over my shoulder. “That’s a textbook shithole you’re living in. I admire your commitment, but just so you know, we don’t take a vow of poverty in the Order. You can live somewhere nice. With furniture that hasn’t been gnawed on.”
Ha. Ha. “It’s after midnight. Did you need something, or did you just come over to insult my house?”
Stella narrowed her eyes. “Aren’t you curious how I found you?”
“Let me guess, someone from the city called you about the phone service?”
A little of the excitement went out of her. “Yep. Funny thing, when you wave around an Order badge and a wad of cash, people still want to check you out and see if you’re legit. Great job staying off the grid. You should teach covert work at the academy.”
“Would that be before or after your class on surveillance, with an emphasis on how to lose a suspect on your home turf? That really pissed you off, didn’t it?”
“Yes. Yes, it did. But now I found you.”
“Congratulations. You’re the best that’s ever been.”
Stella grinned. “Thank you.” She raised a piece of paper and waved it at me.
Fine. I made my tone flat and disinterested. “What’s that?”
“This is a murder. I think it’s connected to yours.”
I opened the ward. “Come in.”
“Is it safe? Will the germs get me?”
“Poverty isn’t contagious. You’ll be fine.”
Stella entered and followed me to the kitchen.
“Beer, coffee, tea?”
“From this kitchen? No thanks.” She passed me the paper.
I read it. A name and an address. “Alycia Walton. Why do you think she’s connected?”
“She is, well, she was, a historian specializing in early Christianity.”
If you had some Christian relics and they had real power, the next step to selling would be to establish their history and provenance. Stella knew about the relics.
Stella grinned. “I would imagine she went to college, maybe for many years.”
“How did you know about the connection to the Christian relics?”
“Alleged Christian relics. The Christian relics Pastor Haywood may have authenticated, those Christian relics?”
I would strangle her in a minute. I sat down at the table and smiled at her. “My patience is an infinite lake. Feel free to drown yourself.”
There were times when ancient proverbs came in handy.
“You are no fun. I’m here to help. Like a colleague or a partner.”
“You screwed up and got sent to Atlanta, because that’s where the Order dumps troublemakers with potential, those who don’t follow orders. This is the end of the line if Nick can’t–” I paused, looking for the right word “–rehabilitate you. Except both times I came to the Order, you were there, in the middle of the day, at your desk, instead of being out working a case and making a difference. Nick is keeping you on a short leash. It’s killing you, and here is a high-profile murder that none of the other knights are working. You saw it and you jumped on it. So, you didn’t come to help me. You came to help yourself.”
Stella looked at me for a long moment. “That, and I don’t trust you. Also, I’m bored.”
“How did you find out about the relics?”
“Nick sent me to the Methodists to check on the boy. While I was there, one of them handed me a list of relic hunters to pass on to my ‘colleague.’”
And she put the rest of it together. Smart. She would be all over this murder, except Nick had surrendered this case to me, and she probably didn’t have authorization to investigate things on her own. She needed me.
“Do you want to see this crime scene or not?” Stella asked. “I’d love to waste more time, but if we don’t hurry, the cops will cart the body off.”
“You mean this is a recent murder? When exactly did this happen?”
“It was reported about an hour ago.”
“Were you going to tell me this at some point?”
“I just did, but if you want, we can keep trading barbs in your charming kitchen.”
“Wait for me outside, please.” I got out of my chair and went to get my horse.