“I told you, I don’t know,” I said.
“Did her face shift at all? Did her smell change?”
I barely restrained a frustrated growl as I leapt over a fallen limb that lay decomposing on the forest path. I loved my cousin. Dearly. But sometimes her OCD with details drove me batshit. I’ve always been more of a feelings type of person. Instead of remembering the way Maria looked when she’d been about to eat me, I remembered the way she made me feel when she’d been about to eat me. Like werewolf kibble. Casey, on the other hand, was wholly unsatisfied with that, and had been grilling me since we climbed out of the tree house.
“I. Have. No. Idea,” I bit out. “I couldn’t smell anything past the reek of my fear, and I couldn’t hear anything over the sound of my own heartbeat. I don’t know if her face changed, because I couldn’t look away from those eyes. They were just…blank. There was no one home, Case. I don’t know if it was full-blown alpha, or full-blown anti-personality disorder.”
“They might very well be one in the same. Do you think that’s how she got when the vampires attacked? Why she was able to slaughter so many?”
Her mention of slaughter stopped me in my tracks, and unprepared for my sudden braking, she plowed into my back, sending us both sprawling over the pine-strewn pathway.
Werewolves. Graceful creatures.
I rolled onto my back and stared up at the green canopy. Don’t think about it. Don’t think about it, I coached. It was no use. My vision dimmed, replaced by a nightscape bathed with blood-splatters and strewn with half-eaten body parts. The death rattles of the dying filled my ears. Somewhere nearby, something was roaring with unholy furor.
I blinked and the memory disappeared. Casey’s concerned face came into view.
“Did you hit your head on a rock or something?” she asked, digging her fingers into my hair to probe at my scalp.
“No,” I said, batting her away as I sat up. I had to wrap my arms around my knees to stop their shaking.
Casey noticed, and her expression crumpled into regret. “Shit. I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”
“It’s okay,” I said, forcing myself to stand.
When we were six, the vampire overlord of New York City had tried to subjugate our pack. He’d seen one too many movies and thought that werewolves would make the perfect muscle to protect his people while they slept the day away. They’d arrived in the middle of the night armed with silver chains and wolfsbane. Casey had been visiting her father’s parents in Wyoming. She’d been spared. She hadn’t wandered barefoot through the carnage crying out for her parents. Like I had.
“No, it’s not okay,” she said, pulling me into a hug.
We were the same height, and when her arms wrapped tightly around my shoulders, I slid my own around her waist and squeezed, burying my face in her curls as I inhaled the familiar smell of a packmate. It did wonders to calm me.
“I’m really sorry, Charlie.”
“I forgive you,” I said, pulling away. And I did, easily. “I know how you get when you geek out.”
“What do you think Maria has planned for the meeting?”
I appreciated the obvious attempt at a subject change. She knew me better than anyone, knew I’d need the distraction.
“No idea. She wasn’t very forthcoming.”
“I think the elves are the ones attacking us,” she said as we started walking again.
I snuck her a sideways glance. “You would. You always want it to be the elves. Just so you can volunteer us to go talk to them. Admit it, you have a massive crush on what’s-his-face.”
She spluttered. “I do not have a crush on L’Ellew!”
I cleared my throat and sang, “Casey and Yellow, sitting in a tree, H.U.M.P.I.N.G.”
“L’Ellew, not Yellow. What is wrong with you, woman?”
“My bad. Casey and L’Ellew, sitting in a – oompf!”
She’d elbowed me.
We spent the rest of the walk arguing about her non-crush. It only lasted a few minutes, because we both fell silent when we rounded a bend in the path and a clearing came into view. In the middle of it sat a large, ramshackle timber building with a green metal roof. We called it ‘the lodge’, but really it was a command hub of sorts. The structure was dead center in our thousand acre packland. It was where we held weddings, funerals, monthly full-moon rituals, and pack meetings. Its circular dirt drive was now crammed with vehicles.
“Guess she’s really rallying the troops,” Casey said.
I was too busy scanning the parked cars to respond. It looked like every beta male and female in the pack had showed, the warrior class answering the call of their commander. My gaze locked onto the cherry red muscle car parked at the far end.
“Jake’s here,” I warned.
Casey let out a low growl. “Just keep me away from him.”
Jake was her ex. Her recent ex. Her recent ex due to copious amounts of infidelity on his part. It’d be a miracle if Casey could bring herself to trust someone again, and I would never forgive him for that.
“Right. I’ll make sure to do that while I’m gnawing on his jugular.”
The bastard deserved a bite taken out of him for every woman he’d cheated on her with. He’d be missing pieces when I was done with him, and I knew just which undersized organ I would start with; his brain. His other undersized organ I would stay far, far away from.
Up ahead, a tall, lanky man with a graying mane of shaggy hair was climbing out of a rusty old Ford. He caught sight of us and smiled. I did my best to clear all plans of murder from my expression, but I could tell by his arched eyebrow that I hadn’t been quick enough.
“Hey, troublemakers. Thought I’d see you here,” he said when we reached him.
“Hi, Uncle Jed,” Casey greeted, hugging him.
I hugged him next, but ducked quickly away, knowing he’d try ruffle my hair just to annoy me. Jed wasn’t really an uncle. Well, maybe he was. Twice removed, or something. With four hundred packmates and innumerable inter-marriages and births, it was hard to keep track of who we were related to and who we weren’t. That was a large part of why I’d never dated anyone in our own pack. My greatest fear was discovering that I’d been shacking up with a second cousin. Puke.
“Any idea what this meeting’s all about?” Jed asked as we made our way up to the lodge.
“We’re going to track down whoever’s doing this to us,” I said.
His face fell. “I heard about Matt. How are your folks?”
“Dad went wolf around noon and hasn’t come out of it. I doubt he’ll make the meeting. Mom’s holding on by a thread. And Matt…”
Jed threw a long arm around my shoulder and squeezed, dropping a kiss onto the top of my head. “I’m so sorry, kiddo.”
I allowed myself a moment to wallow in misery before shoving the memories of Matt tearing himself apart into the same box I kept the vampire raid in. I mentally padlocked it and drop-kicked it into the recesses of my mind. Dwelling on his sickness would be a disservice to him and everyone else afflicted. It wouldn’t do anything to help them get better. They needed clear heads and decisive action.
Jed’s arm fell away as we approached the wide double doors of the lodge. They were thrown open, and a spill of noise flooded from them. Voices, heartbeats, and the sound of shifting fabric filled my ears. Familiar scents of musk and fur tickled my nose, tinged with sharper hints of fear and worry. Power lapped my skin, the magic of shifters gathered in number.
I shivered as it seeped into me, filling me with a vibrant, frenetic energy that I’d been sorely missing the past few days. Bathed in its warmth, I felt calm, centered. Ready for vengeance.
People crowded together in groups in the hallways, talking in hushed whispers as they exchanged condolences. I received a fair share of my own as we made our way to the main hall, a massive, vaulted room with a raised dais at the far end. More pack members milled beneath the beams that crisscrossed overhead, drinking a sorry excuse for coffee out of paper cups as they waited on our alpha.
I spotted Jake in the rear corner with a group of other somber looking young men and immediately began to mentally abuse him.
What a lame haircut. What an ugly shirt. Leather pants? In eighty degree weather? Really? I hoped he got some sort of crotch rot from it. And were those – NO, EW, NO – sandals? With leather pants?! The horror. Clearly all that muscle mass was redirecting blood from his brain. What a moron.
No, that last one wasn’t quite fair. He couldn’t be a complete idiot. After all, it must have taken a colossal amount of planning – and showers – to hide the fact that he was cheating on Casey. I’d never even caught so much as a whiff of another woman on him. Who knows how long it would have gone on if we hadn’t accidentally caught him in the act? The sight of him pounding into Shauna Evans was another memory that belonged in my little mind box of nightmares.
Seriously, why has no one invented brain bleach yet?
I hauled my cousin to the opposite side of the room before she saw him. As much as I wanted to pay him back for the way he’d treated my best friend, now was neither the time, nor the place. Too many witnesses.
A group of women close to our age stood in a circle near the dais. They were of varying heights and muscle tone, but the one similarity they shared was their hair, which ran the gauntlet of red from near-blonde to my own deep auburn. They were all first cousins. All eight of them. Casey’s mother and my own were two of twelve siblings, and girls far outnumbered boys in our clan. We were freakishly close, even by shifter standards, and had roamed the packlands like a band of feral miscreants as children. Which we had been. And still were, come to think of it.
“Hey,” I said by way of greeting when we reached them.
May, the oldest of us, gasped when she caught sight of me. “Oh, Charlie!” I saw a flash of strawberry blonde, and then she hit me, knocking me a step back with the strength of her hug.
The rest closed ranks on us, and I was swallowed by a tidal wave of estrogen, passed from one young woman to the next as they attempted to squeeze all the oxygen from my lungs.
Shifters are more demonstrative than humans. Unlike those non-magical beings, our society doesn’t discourage emotional displays. Sure, there’s still some among us that hold their cards closer to their chests than others, but even if you don’t wear your emotions on your sleeve, your scent usually gives you away. This openness leads to as many fist fights as hugs, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. You know just where you stand with every member of the pack.
Liza, the youngest of our group at just eighteen, started bawling when she threw her arms around me. I made soothing noises as I rubbed her back. Her sister was also among the ill.
“How’s Sarah holding up?” I asked as she soaked the neckline of my t-shirt with tears.
“T-terrible,” she managed. Her face was beet red when she pulled away, and it clashed spectacularly with her carrot-colored hair. “How’s Matt?”
“I’m sorry, Charlie.”
“Me too,” I said.
There was a commotion near the door, and through the crowd I saw Maria sweep into the room, her second and third in command hot on her heels.
I ducked behind Casey, putting her between us.
“Wuss,” she said.
“You didn’t see her face.”
“What happened?” May asked, nosing her way over to us.
“Tell you later,” I said, already thinking up ways to get out of doing so.
On top of being demonstrative, we’re also gossip-hungry. Not much else to do in the middle of the wilderness other than talk about each other. Still, I loathed contributing to it. Especially when it concerned our alpha. She was one of the few who kept her cards close, and her scent rarely gave her away. She either had incredible control, or Casey was onto something when it came to her alphaness going hand-in-hand with anti-personality disorder.
People fought over scraps of news about her like vultures, and the last thing I needed right now was to be pestered by every bored werewolf within twenty miles.
The rest of the betas filed in behind Maria, and the restless energy of the crowd rose to a crescendo. We were on edge, unstable, and it led to a storm of emotions that crashed against my skin like waves battering a sea wall. It was a struggle to keep from getting swept away by them.
When the doors of the hall closed, nearly eighty people filled it, and with each of them seemingly taking up more space than the laws of physics should allow, it left me feeling slightly claustrophobic. It was an unusual reaction for me, and I couldn’t tell if it was my lingering fear of Maria that had me so unbalanced, or the mood of the room.
Casey shifted so that she was standing beside me. I looked over just as she cast a nervous glance in my direction. Guess I wasn’t the only one getting twitchy.
“Thank you for gathering on such short notice,” Maria said as she climbed up on the dais. Her dark gaze scanned the crowd, and I shrank back when it flitted over me. “I’m sure you know why I’ve called you here. As you’ve no doubt figured out by now, we’re under attack. Our healers have only been able to determine that it’s earth magic.”
There was a loud snort from somewhere near the front of the crowd, and I craned my head to see a beefy blond male striding forward.
Riley. Wonderful. This should be oodles of fun. He was one of the eleven dominant wolves in the pack, and a potential candidate for alpha – Goddess forbid anything should ever happen to Maria.
Nothing good ever came from Riley opening his big mouth, and I hoped someone in the crowd had the good sense to trip him as he passed so we could skip the pissing contest that was about to ensue.
“Anyone could have told you that. Only earth magic could do something like this to us,” he said.
“Idiot,” Casey muttered beneath her breath. “Any number of disciplines could do something like this to us.”
“Excuse me?” Riley called, turning to pin her with his gaze.
Werewolf hearing is a bitch. Can’t so much as sneak a fart without twenty pairs of ears swiveling in your direction. Not that I had learned that the hard way.
Casey, not at all intimidated by Riley’s aggression, spoke up. “I said, any number of disciplines could do something like this to us. Oh, and I also called you an idiot. Because you are one.”
I nearly choked to death trying to stifle my laughter. And she called me reckless.
“Something funny, Charlie?” Riley said, stalking toward us.
His tone wiped the smirk from my mouth. “Yeah. Your face, dickwad.”
Okay, so maybe Casey had a point about the reckless thing.
“Hey!” Maria called from the dais, putting power into the word. It felt like a whip cracked over the crowd, narrowly missing our heads. Eighty werewolves ducked in response. “We don’t have time for this. We need to find out who’s behind these attacks.”
“Sorry,” I muttered, dropping my gaze. I knew that. I knew I needed to stay focused, and still I let my temper get the best of me. One of these days I’d get a better handle on it.
Really, any time now.
Riley wasn’t so quick to apologize, and it provoked a rare reaction from our alpha. She went deathly still, her arms loose and ready at her sides. She stared at Riley in silence, waiting, her expression a study in neutrality. It said the choice was up to Riley, apologize for the outburst or leave the hall on a stretcher.
After a long pause, Riley finally spoke up. “My apologies. Please, carry on,” he said, as if he were the leader and she one of his minions.
Maria became reanimated, and it was only when life returned to her features that I recognized that maybe, just maybe, I’d been catching glimpses of her alphaness all along.
“Our seers are trying to trace the source of the magic, but the caster or casters are well warded, and as of yet, they haven’t managed to break past them,” she said.
“How are we going to find them then?” someone spoke up.
“The only option we have until they make some progress is good ole fashioned leg work.”
It set the crowd off.
“That will be like looking for a needle in a haystack!”
“How will we ever find who’s doing this?”
“My Franny is dying! There’s got to be another option.”
“We’re running out of time.”
“Our seers are useless.”
The last comment brought a barking response from the middle of the crowd. “Useless? We’re useless? Jackson Shorey, you’re not too old to be caned,” said a hunched figure as it shuffled forward. It was Temperance Howard.
I groaned inwardly as she emerged from the crowd and hobbled toward the dais. Now they’d done it.
Next to the definition of the word crone, there’s a picture of Temperance Howard. Her arthritic body had shriveled down to a mockery of her former height, her back an S curve, her skin turned to leather from years of sun exposure. White hair clung to her scalp in fluffy wisps, which stuck out from her head at odd angles given even the slightest provocation.
She took the stairs at a snail’s pace, slapping away the hands of those who tried to help her. They bore her abuse in silence. She was our eldest mystic, the only one with both the seer and healer gifts. Few in the pack were born with magic past the point of what the rest of us were capable of. Healers and seers were so rare amongst our kind that every beta was sworn to lay down their lives to protect them.
When they spoke, you listened. Even if you didn’t want to. Which was usually the case with Temperance Howard.
Casey nudged me in the ribs, and I looked over at her to see her mouth a question at me.
“How old do you think she is?”
I mouthed back, “Five thousand and seventy six.”
She clapped a hand over her lips to keep from laughing at my joke. Thing is, I wasn’t really joking. Maria looked thirty five, but she’d been leading our pack as long as anyone could remember. She was probably well over two hundred years old.
Werewolves grow to maturity with the same speed that humans do, but we start slowing down when we peak, somewhere in the mid-twenties. Our regenerative powers extend past rapid healing to cell degeneration. No one knows just how long we can live naturally, because our lives are anything but sedentary, and usually end both abruptly and violently. If Temperance was any indicator, we could live for a very, very, veeeeery long time.
I looked back to the old woman and shuddered. Too damn long, if you asked me.
“Listen up, you whining pack of pups,” she said from the pulpit.
Her voice sounded like sandpaper grating across metal when she raised it like this. I could feel it in my jaw, and it made me want to clamp my teeth together and scrunch my shoulders up.
“I’ve never seen a bigger bunch of cry babies in my life. So a few of our number have fallen ill? So what? No one’s dead yet, are they? It’s nothing to get worked up about. They’re just having their life forces sucked dry by some unknown foe.”
Oh, is that all?
Temperance rose to her full height, just shy of four feet, and glared down at the crowd. “It’s sad to see a once proud people fallen so far. I can still remember a time when you had to kill the current alpha to ascend the throne. And never did an alpha hold it for longer than a few years before they were dispatched,” she said, casting a disparaging glance over her shoulder at Maria. “We’re going to keep working to break the wards, but until we can, you need to get out from under our feet. Be good little sycophants and do what this pup behind me tells you too. Or I’ll curse you all in your sleep.”
No one so much as cracked a smile. Because she wasn’t kidding. She’d done it before.
Maria stepped forward, her face carefully blank. Even she had to show respect for our mystics. “Thank you, Temperance.”
Temperance tsked her in return. “Wouldn’t have to thank me if you could keep this nattering bunch of addle pates in line,” she said as she made her way back down the stairs. “Why, in my day, anyone who questioned the alpha was met with a fist full of claws. Including meddling old women.”
She continued to rant as she hobbled into the crowd, berating us all for going soft. None of us paid her any mind. These outbursts were a weekly occurrence. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder that if this was ‘going soft’, what had life been like for her when she was my age? I was probably better off not knowing. I had enough nightmares as it was.
Maria waited until the old woman had settled down before speaking again. “I’ve taken the liberty of dividing you all into groups of twos and threes. Sully has the list,” she said, waving her second in command forward. The lithe black man handed her a clipboard. “We’re going to split up and hit all the local preternaturals. The human elements that know about us as well. Your job is to sniff out any information you can and report back to me immediately. This is not a combat operation. You are not to engage anyone if you think they’re the guilty party.”
I leaned closer to Casey and whispered, “Maybe we can take the elves if you ask really, really nicely.”
She glared at me, her cheeks flaming.
“You think I’d send you two knuckleheads back to the elves after what happened last time? You get the Celts,” Maria called.
I resisted the urge to grumble. It wasn’t my fault those pointy-eared bastards couldn’t take a joke.