“Mom?” I called, peeking my head into my brother’s room.
She hadn’t moved from her post by his bedside, and by the looks of her, she hadn’t slept either.
She and my father were in their forties, but only looked a few years older than me thanks to our miraculous genetics. For the first time in my life, she almost seemed her age. Her hair had become a frizzy mess, the cotton sundress she wore was rumpled and bloodstained, and dark circles bruised the delicate skin beneath her bloodshot eyes.
She turned her head toward me reluctantly, as though she were loathe to look away from Matt for even a second lest he need her.
“I’m getting ready to leave,” I said.
When she spoke, her voice was hoarse from crying. “Be careful.”
I grinned, trying to lighten the mood. “You know I won’t be.”
It was the wrong thing to say. I realized it the second her blue eyes flashed with temper.
“I mean it, Charlie. We’re being forced to sit here and watch our son die. If anything happens to you too, your father and I will both turn feral and have to be put down. Don’t get killed, and don’t kill anyone. Do what Maria said and report straight back.”
“What if someone really needs killing?”
Her mouth set in a grim line. “Hide the body.”
That might be a little tricky in a city like New York, where there were pesky things like witnesses and crime labs, but I wasn’t about to remind her of that in her current state.
“I will,” I said instead. “I love you.”
“I love you too. Goddess be with you on your journey.”
I shifted my gaze to my brother. His eyes were closed, and his chest rose and fell in fits and starts as he slept. He didn’t look like he was improving, but thankfully, he didn’t look like he’d deteriorated any further either.
“Hang in there, Matt,” I told him.
I closed the bedroom door softly behind me and headed downstairs. I found my father on the front porch in the pre-dawn gloom. In human form. He’d shifted back around sunset the night before, just after I’d arrived home from the lodge. He stood with his back to me, his hands clutching the railing as he stared out into the darkness.
I followed his gaze into the shadow-shrouded forest: insects buzzed in the branches; smaller mammals rooted around in the undergrowth; somewhere off in the distance, a barn owl hooted softly, calling out to its mate. The ever-present mountain breeze drifted lazily through the trees. Their creaks and sighs filled me with a longing to shed my human form and race beneath the canopy on large, silent paws. I could tell by the way my father closed his eyes and turned his face to the wind that he felt the same pull.
“Casey’s on her way,” I said.
He didn’t respond as he turned to me and leaned back against the railing, crossing heavy arms over a wide chest. I didn’t take it personally; Dad was a man of few words.
He originally hailed from Romania, the Carpathians to be exact. He’d come to us twenty three years ago, acting as the muscle for his alpha during a series of pack meetings that had taken place here.
He’d caught one look at my mother and that was it for him. When the rest of his party left a week later, he’d stayed behind. My mother had taken a little longer to come around, but somehow the handsome brooding man across from me had managed to win her over, and they’d been inseparable ever since.
I took almost entirely after him in the looks department, with thick dark hair and almond-shaped hazel eyes. The similarities stopped with appearances though. Whereas he was content to sit in quiet contemplation, and in my opinion suffered from an underdeveloped sense of humor, I had never met a pregnant pause I couldn’t fill with an inappropriate joke or some self-deprecation.
“How are you?” I asked.
He arched a brow at me.
I held my hands up, giving him a sheepish grin. “I know, stupid question.”
“How do you think I am?” he growled, his voice heavily accented even after all these years. “Maria banished me to the house and banned me from getting involved in our search efforts.”
Wise woman, our alpha.
My father might be quiet, but that was because there wasn’t much of a need for him to speak since he basically became the physical embodiment of his emotions. When he was happy, his smile made you feel like the sun shone just for you. When he was angry, you wanted to cower before him, beg, whine, anything to stop his frowning. And when something threatened those he loved, you prayed the blame wasn’t laid at your feet.
He’d become a powder keg of rage since Matt had fallen sick, and clearly Maria recognized the danger of involving him in our search missions. The last thing we needed was for him to snap and start an all-out war via decapitation.
“I’m sorry, Dad,” I said. Never had those words felt so insufficient.
He kicked away from the railing and started to pace, his long legs eating up the floorboards as he raked his fingers through his nearly shoulder-length hair. They bunched within the strands, and I worried that he was about to suffer a fit of histrionics and start pulling it out in clumps. It had happened before. Mom had been forced to shave his head afterward so people didn’t think he had mange.
My lips twitched at the memory.
He must have smelled my mood change, because he stopped dead in his tracks and shot me a glare that wiped the smile from my face.
Right. Brother dying. Enemies lurking. Dad freaking out. Nothing’s funny here.
The sound of someone approaching through the forest saved me from impending doom. When Dad heard the soft footfalls his expression morphed from annoyance to fierce protectiveness.
“She’s here,” he said, stepping over to scoop me up in a tight hug. He dropped his lips to the top of my head, and his next words were spoken quietly into my hair. “You two be safe, and if you can’t hide the body, eat it.”
If he had a sense of humor, I would have thought he was joking. As he didn’t, I frowned. Hard.
“Gross, Uncle Raz,” Casey called from the woods.
“Yeah, Dad,” I said, pulling away from him. “What have we told you about cannibalism?”
He shrugged, unrepentant. He came from less evolved pack than our own, and was slow to adjust to our more civilized way of life. If you could call it that.
I rolled my eyes at him and turned to greet Casey. She emerged from the trailhead at the edge of our drive, her lean body clad in head-to-toe leather, as was mine. It was a common theme among our people. Thanks to our heightened sense of smell, we couldn’t abide synthetic fabrics or harsh chemicals. They made our noses itch like crazy and distracted us from more important scents. We stuck to minimally processed organic materials like cotton, hemp, linen, and leather. I liked to call it hippie-biker-chic.
“Ready?” Casey asked, stopping at the bottom of the stairs.
“Absolutely,” I said, taking them down two at a time.
An hour later we were in my beat up CJ-5, rumbling south on I-87 toward the big city, where we would find Cailleach, the local Celtic high priestess.
She was considered a close friend and ally of the pack, and had aided us time and time again over the years. In the aftermath of the vampire attack she and her clan of druids were the first outsiders to arrive and provide aid to the injured. Our healers had been stretched thin, and without Cailleach and her followers, dozens might have succumbed to their wounds.
The priestess had asked for a single favor in return, to be gifted with a small dot of land in the northern part of our territory. Maria had immediately agreed, supported by a large majority of the pack.
Apparently the land was an ideal location to perform druidry. Something about the mountains aligning with an obscure constellation, and the sun falling directly upon it during certain times of the year, and Cernunnos’s thorny butthole, and yada, yada, yada. It was all too mystical for me.
Even so, I was mesmerized by the place. As a child I’d sat and watched our pack members help the Celts clear an acre of land in that mountain field and construct a massive stone megalith in the middle of it. It was our very own Stonehenge, and once the formation was consecrated, a strange, wild magic began to seep out from it.
We were banned from interfering in the rituals the Celts performed there, but every time we felt their magic begin to rise, we descended upon the clearing en masse, hiding just within the tree line as we spied on them. The Celts no doubt felt our presence, but they continued with their rituals uninhibited, as though happy to have a forest full of wolves bearing witness to the worship of their gods.
Casey and I were to find out what Cailleach knew. We weren’t the only preternaturals she was friendly with, and we hoped she’d heard something that could aid us in discovering who was targeting our pack and why. We also planned to ask her to do a scrying for us in search of our enemies. I wasn’t above shifting and pulling the puppy-dog-eye routine on her to get her to agree. I could be downright adorable when I put my mind to it.
“What do you think of this one?” Casey asked, holding up the braided, feathered hair wrap she’d been working on for the last twenty minutes.
I glanced over at it and then back at the road. “I like it. I’ll give you a pint of tomatoes for it when we get back.”
“Sold,” she said, leaning over in her seat to work it into my mane.
Our people didn’t use currency amongst ourselves, but a bartering system instead. Casey made all sorts of funky accessories, I had a half-acre vegetable garden, Uncle Jed was a mechanic, my mother a blacksmith, and so on and so forth. Someone almost always had what you needed, and it was easy enough to exchange one product or service for another. If not, there was always manual labor. Before Matt had fallen ill, he’d been working off a debt he owed to Jed for a carburetor by helping him out in his shop.
We earned human money by selling our wares at the farmer’s markets and craft fairs in upstate New York and Vermont. It helped that we lived in a liberal bastion, and we’d found that slapping labels like organic and fair trade on our products – which technically, they were – made them sell like hotcakes. We saved the cash for things we couldn’t create ourselves, like the solar panels and wind turbines that provided the electricity to the few buildings in our village that were wired for it.
We were completely off the grid, and to the few outsiders who knew about us, we seemed like some sort of exclusive commune. We perpetuated that stereotype at every available opportunity. Better the humans think we were a tribe of snobby hippies than a pack of bloodthirsty werewolves.
“There,” Casey said, leaning back again.
I glanced in the mirror and smiled at the sight of the royal purple thread and raven feathers peeking out from my dark tresses.
“Thanks. You want cherry tomatoes, beefsteak, or roma?”
“Beefsteak,” Casey said, digging in her leather satchel to fish out more thread for her next project. “Speaking of steak, can we please talk about the irony of a modern Celt, a religion known for ritual sacrifice, living in the Meatpacking District?”
I snickered. “I hope it’s intentional.”
“Knowing Cailleach, it probably is. Everything has meaning to that woman.”
“Tell me about it. Last time I saw her, she stared deeply into my eyes and told me the smaller flecks of red and gold in my corneas signified that I had inherited the Carpathian pack’s affinity with dragons.”
“Dragons? Since when have wolves had an affinity with dragons?”
“Beats me. I thought they went extinct centuries ago.”
“They did,” she said, falling quiet. A moment later her heart began to drum an excited beat. “I wonder what she knows about our own history.”
I shrugged. “I doubt she knows more than you, but feel free to ask her once we’re done with pack business.”
Casey was our resident historian. She knew more about the origins of our familial lines than anyone else in the pack. Our mothers’ line came from Scotland, through our gutter-mouthed grandmother, hence the varying shades of red hair shared by our clan.
Gram was only 90, and hadn’t been taught to read or write until she came to America. Well, fled. For reasons she still wouldn’t tell us. History hadn’t been an interest of hers, to say the least, and she’d been wholly unhelpful in Casey’s quest to uncover our family’s roots.
“Hmm, you’re probably right. I’ve traced the line back to the seventeenth century Highlands, but the trail ends abruptly around the time of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. I doubt Cailleach is concerned with that period. More likely her area of expertise is the pre-Christian Gaelic culture.”
I feigned a yawn, and she smacked my arm.
“How are you not interested in this?”
“Because I don’t have to be with a red-headed know-it-all for a best friend.” I side-eyed her. “Actually, I am a little interested in it. Mostly because men in kilts.”
“You have such a one-track mind.”
“I’m just saying, easy access to fun parts.”
“Yeah, but they’re human. Which means they come complete with the misogyny and chauvinism of their time periods.”
“Oh, I’m well aware. Are you forgetting about the Highland romance novels Gram forced on us last winter?”
“Ugh, don’t remind me. I finally gave in to her demands in February, after that snowstorm dumped two feet on us. It was one of the time traveling ones.” She paused for a few heartbeats. “I regret every page of it.”
“I think I read that one. I could understand the acceptance of the rampant sexism and disturbingly pervasive rape culture of those from that time, but not the modern woman transported back to it.”
“Me neither. Why do you think grandma likes those books so much?”
I grinned at her, waggling my brows. “Men in kilts.”