I turned the Jeep off and glanced over at Casey. “You ready for this?”
She gave me a look that did absolutely nothing to bolster my confidence. “Not really.”
“Great. Me neither.”
It was a beautiful summer day, but we’d made the drive with the windows up to keep from being overwhelmed by the constant bombardment of new scents. Okay, and if I’m being honest, also to prevent a potentially embarrassing moment if one of us gave in to the urge to hang her head out of the car, mouth open, tongue lolling in the breeze.
It had happened before. To me, of course. At least there’d only been one witness. Downside was that witness was Casey. She still teased me about it whenever we rode in a car together. Which is why I refused to let the L’Ellew thing go.
Yes, vicious circle is vicious.
“Count of three, or band-aid it?” she said, staring out the windshield at the city beyond.
We both took deep breaths, steeling ourselves against the pain to come.
“Go,” Casey said.
I swung the door open. Sensory overload hit me like a battering ram.
The riot of sound nearly burst my eardrums: engines roared in the distance; stereos thumped a cacophony of mismatched beats; thousands of feet pounded the pavement in a discordant, staccato rhythm. The man with the jackhammer at the construction site near the end of the street might as well have been drilling into my skull.
The sights were worse. Cars, humans, pigeons, rats, and even insects raced at a frenetic pace around us. I didn’t know which way to look, so I looked everywhere at once. My poor brain struggled to keep up as it processed and threat-assessed each image.
After a few moments of this sensory carnage, I was faced with a dilemma. Breath in, or pass out from oxygen deprivation? I’d never considered myself a coward, but unconsciousness held a real appeal right now.
My internal struggle became a full-blown battle of wills; primitive me vs. evolved me.
One, two, three, breathe!
Breathe in, Charlie.
Don’t want to.
Damn it. Breathe in right this moment.
No. You can’t make me. Nee-ner, nee-ner.
STOP BEING SUCH A CHILD. THEY’RE JUST SMELLS. THEY CAN’T HURT YOU.
Fine. Fuck it.
I took a breath in and immediately regretted it. It felt like my nose hairs were being burned away. My evolved self was a lying asshole. Smells could definitely hurt.
There were other creatures living in the city with senses as heightened as our own, and I would never understand how they endured this nose-numbing mélange of melting pavement, car exhaust, rotting trash, hobo piss, whatever the hell that was wafting up out of the nearest manhole, and worst of all, humans. Lots and lots of humans. Each drenched in their own cocktail of chemical scents.
I closed the Jeep’s door, but kept my grip on the handle as I battled my desire to wrench it back open and cower inside. It was humid as hell. Leather probably hadn’t been the best choice for the weather, but it provided the most amount of protection if we ran into trouble.
A bead of sweat formed on the back of my neck as I forced my fingers from the door and turned to face the street. At this rate I’d be freely sweating in no time. I didn’t’ even want to think about what was going to happen to my frizz-prone hair. Nothing like questioning the leader of a religious cult while looking like a reject from a late-80s music video suffering from serious swamp ass.
Casey came around to my side of the Jeep and peered nervously up at the goliaths of steel and glass that towered overhead. “I hate this place.”
“Samesies,” I said.
I meant it. Werewolves were not made for city life. Too many smells, too much potential for auditory trauma, and far, far too many high rises.
Even though I’d been reassured – on several occasions – that they were structurally sound, buildings taller than a tree can grow still made me paranoid. My gaze crept upward every time the wind blew while I was inside city limits. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that one of these times would be The One. I’d look up and see a skyscraper swaying in the breeze, shaking itself loose, shards of glass the size of minivans shattering against the pavement, eviscerating onlookers, metal beams plummeting toward me at the speed of…oh, crap. I was doing it again.
“Tell me a building isn’t about to fall on us,” I said, hunching in on myself.
Casey, who suffered my same irrational fear, answered immediately, because she was still staring at them. “A building isn’t about to fall on us. But let’s not tempt – shit!”
We both jumped as a delivery van careened around the corner and whizzed past. The breeze it stirred in its wake carried still more scents with it, and my nose became as overloaded as my eyes and ears. It started itching furiously, so I assumed my go-to anti-sneeze face, scrunching up my cheeks, curling my lips under as I bared my teeth, and arching my brows as high as they would go, all while frowning.
There, much better.
After a few heartbeats, Casey said, “Um…Charlie?”
I turned toward her, my voice coming out a little funny when I spoke. “Whassup?”
Her brows creased when she caught full sight of me. She looked concerned. “You doing okay?”
Her lips twitched. “I think you might be having a minor stroke.”
I looked past her to the window of the Jeep. It took me a second to figure out that the horny muskrat staring back at me was my reflection. Wonderful. I was never going to hear the end of this. Serves me right for not thinking to look in a mirror while making this stupid face.
I dropped the expression and promptly sneezed three times in a row. “Damn it,” I said, pinching the bridge of my nose. “I was trying to keep from doing that.”
“Well, maybe try something different next time. I’d like to draw as little attention to ourselves as possible, and that’s not gonna happen if you walk around with your face crumpled up like a constipated squirrel.”
“Horny muskrat,” I muttered.
I knew she’d heard me, and was asking for clarification, not repetition, but I also knew better than to answer her. I’d already dug this hole deep enough.
“Let’s just get this over with,” I said.
“Fine. Just so you know, I’m never going to let you live this down.”
“Yeah, yeah. Tell it to Yellow next time you don’t flirt with him.”
She smacked me on the arm.
“I’m beginning to think these violent outbursts of yours are manifestations of your pent-up sexual desires for a certain aforementioned long-eared fellow named L’Ellew” I said as I locked the Jeep. Then I turned to her, grinning. “See what I did there? I rhymed.”
Casey closed her eyes. She looked like she was counting to ten.
I looped my arm through hers, dragging her north toward Cailleach’s store, Wiccan Wares. “You know I love you, right?”
She gave me a long-suffering look. “I love you too, you pain in the ass.”
I smiled wider still. It was wiped from my face when we rounded the corner of the street I’d parked on and merged with the lunch hour foot traffic headed toward Gansevoort. A second wave of sensory overload hit. And I thought it’d been bad before. This was so much worse.
Too many smells. Too many noises. Too many sights. Too many humans. Do not like. Do not want. Ow. Ow. Ow.
I dropped Casey’s arm and tucked my elbows in, trying not to completely lose my shit as the crowd closed in around us. I felt caged, cornered, and I hated every second of it. Why oh why couldn’t we have been assigned to some innocuous woodland preternaturals? Hell, I would have taken the elves, even with the price they’d allegedly put on my head. Surely a swift death was preferable to this drawn-out torture.
Casey didn’t seem to be suffering nearly my level of discomfort. Her step was light, her stride was brisk, and her head was held high as she drank in the chaos that raged around us.
“Ooh, cute shoes,” she said, pointing out the strappy leather stilettos a woman a few paces ahead of us was wearing.
They were pretty cute, but in my current state I was more focused on the fact that they could also double as weapons.
“Yes, let’s ask her to borrow them. I can drive the heel spikes up my nose and put myself out of my misery.”
Casey snorted. “You just have to tune it out.”
“Not a word.”
“Irregardless,” I said, just to annoy her, “my nose didn’t come with tunable levels. If it did, I might be able to tolerate the heavy scent of bullshit that wafts off of Riley.”
“I thought for sure you two were going to go after each other again yesterday.”
Riley and I had a long, bloody history. He was too fond of telling people what to do, and I was too fond of telling him all the interesting ways he could go fuck himself.
“Yeah, well, good thing Maria stepped in, or we might have.”
“You didn’t intentionally provoke him just to get him off my case, did you?”
I raised my brows and looked over at her with wide eyes. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
She leaned toward me and sniffed, simultaneously cocking her head sideways so she could listen to my heartbeat. “Liar.”
I lowered my voice. “Okay, how can you even tell that though? All I can smell is the dude in front of us. Someone needs to tell him to lay off the garlic. Ooh! Or do you think he knows about the vampires?”
“You have to stop protecting me,” Casey said, immune to my distraction techniques. “I can take care of myself.”
“I know you can,” I told her. “I do. But you know I have Mama Bear Syndrome. Say whatever you want to me, but mess with one of my cubs – er – cousins, and I’ll chew your fucking face off.”
“Hey, beautiful,” some rando-douche in a business suit said as he approached us.
Goddess, no. Not this shit again.
I made the mistake of meeting his gaze. He stared back with an affable grin, as if he had no idea how obnoxious it was that he’d just interrupted our conversation to catcall me.
I glared at him.
“Smile,” he said, and kept on walking.
Aaaaand snap went my temper.
I turned on my heel and stalked after him, my fingers curling into fists. I was not put on this earth just to make myself more physically pleasing to some shitbag in a suit, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to let his display of dominance over me go without violent correction.
“Charlie, no,” Casey said, grabbing my elbow.
I tried to shake her off. “I’m not gonna kill him. I just want to scare him a little.”
She only held on harder. I dragged her a few paces down the sidewalk, careless of the stares we were drawing.
“You can’t go around maiming humans,” she hissed.
“I’ll be doing the world a favor. He won’t ever street harass again once I’m done with him.”
“Let it go, he’s just some assho-”
“Hey, honey,” a balding man in a track suit said to her as he passed. He looked to where Casey was latched onto me, grabbed his crotch, and thrust his hips in our general direction. “I’ll give you something to hold onto.” Then he turned and walked away.
I was so shocked I stopped fighting her.
Casey stared at his retreating back with her mouth open. He disappeared into the crowd, and she swiveled toward me, bewildered.
“How about him? Can I maim him?”
She looked like she was seriously contemplating letting me. “No,” she said a second later, using her grip on my elbow to spin me around and guide us back on course. “We can’t allow ourselves to get distracted. We knew it would be like this coming in. It always is.”
Sadly, she was right. We had known. It still didn’t make it any easier. Male and female werewolves were evenly matched in strength, we practiced a religion that revolved around a matriarchal goddess, and had lived so separately from humans that their traditional views on gender roles hadn’t bled into our society. Our men didn’t suffer from the overinflated sense of entitlement these assholes did, and because of this, they felt no need to display their “power” over us.
To say it bothered me to go from a high-ranking pack member whose emotions and opinions were valued, to being deconstructed down to body parts and what these human men thought they had a right to tell me they wanted to do to said body parts would be a massive understatement.
“How do the women here put up with this shit?” I asked.
“No idea. I guess they’re just used to it.”
“I don’t buy that. Look at her,” I said, pointing to a beautiful blonde in a business suit marching past a construction site.
The things the men working it were saying to her made me want to wrench the nearest streetlight out of the ground and spear them with it. She somehow ignored it all, her spine ramrod straight and her jaw clenched as she stared dead ahead.
“Tell me that isn’t resting bitch face. And her,” I said, singling out another woman. “And her, and her, and her. These women do not look used to it.”
Casey sighed. “It’s not our problem to fix. Humans created this power imbalance. Let them fix it themselves. We have our own shit to deal with.”
Damn it, she was right. I’d let myself get distracted again. I was not the savior of humanity. Hell, I didn’t even like humanity.
I forced myself to unclench my fists. “Thanks for the reminder,” I said.
“No problem. You do the same for me when I,” she raised her fingers into air quotations, “geek out.”
“Bunny quotes unnecessary. Geeking out is a thing. And you do it. A lot.”
“Call us even then, ragebeast.”
We managed to make it the rest of the way to Cailleach’s without another man uttering a single innuendo. It might have had something to do with the fact that I was actively snarling.
Casey pulled the door to the shop open and motioned me in first.
A blast of incense-filled air smacked me in the face, and I doubled over into another sneezing fit as I stepped inside. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the place was warded. It felt like I walked through a massive, invisible spider web, the sticky silk of which still clung to my skin.
I straightened up and began brushing off the imaginary strands. I was lucky it was just a detection spell, woven to alert the druids to preternatural presences inside their territory. If it had been something less…civil, I might have been writhing in agony on the floor.
“Little help here?” Casey called, shifting from one foot to the other as she sought relief from the magic.
“Och! Sorry, lassies!” a plump woman with long, gray hair said, coming around from behind the register. She waved her arms and muttered an incantation in a language I didn’t understand, and the sticky feeling disappeared.
“Thank you,” Casey said.
“Come on through to the back, girls. It’s so nice to see you again,” she said.
I smiled awkwardly in response. Clearly, she recognized us, and what we were too, but she only looked vaguely familiar to me. I’m sure I’d seen her during a Celtic ritual, but I couldn’t exactly place her, what with the fact that I was once again trying to keep from sneezing. Stupid incense.
The front half of Wiccan Wares reminded me of every stereotypical movie scene involving a fortune teller I’d ever watched. It was like we’d stepped off a busy city street and into a large tent. The walls were covered with delicately draped off-white curtains, voodoo dolls and crystal balls lined the shelves, dream catchers hung from the ceiling, and display cases filled with everything from chicken feet to wands stood at odd angles atop overlapping Persian carpets. It was all junk, of course.
I barely spared the spectacle a glance as we sped past and crossed the threshold into the rear of the store, where the good stuff was kept. This was where Cailleach made her fortune, selling rare herbs and obscure spell books. It was a much more austere space, neatly organized and well-lit, and thankfully, chemical-free.
I straightened up and breathed in deeply. My nose immediately stopped itching. Thank the Goddess for small favors.
The woman who had helped us bid us adieu and closed the door behind herself, putting another sound barrier between us and the city. For the first time since we arrived I felt like myself.
Cailleach was somewhere in the room with us. I could feel her. The same wild magic that filled our forest clearing filled her body. It danced and twirled around us like a woodland nymph, rustling our hair in an invisible breeze. This was earth magic, similar to our own in its most basic form, and it called to me in a way that no other disciplines did. It made my spine twinge and my fingernails itch. It made me want to throw off my human guise and howl at the moon.
I shared a nervous glance with Casey. Either Cailleach was exerting herself, or every other time I’d been around her she’d been muting her power. I didn’t know which option was more troubling.
Her disembodied, lyrical voice echoed around us. “Hello, girls.” A heartbeat later she appeared from behind a bookshelf to float forward with unnatural grace. I had to glance downward to reassure myself that she was actually walking.
As always, she looked impeccable, her tall, lithe frame swathed in folds of linen. Her skin was alabaster pale and unmarred by time, leaving her with a striking, ageless presence. A deep-cowled hood covered hair so red it seemed unreal. It left her face in shadow, and her emerald green eyes shone out from the darkness with uncanny light.
Something wasn’t right here. Something was…off. My hackles rose in response to the unseen threat, my entire body bristling. Beside me, Casey did the same, reassuring my fears that there was danger lurking in the room with us.
Cailleach spared me an unreadable glance as she approached, bringing her scent with her. I took a deep pull of it through my nose, trying to determine her mood. Instead of emotions, I was met with fragrances I’d never quite been able to place. She smelled…foreign; of grass and rich, dark earth. Of wild heather and wind-whipped fields. Beneath all of this was stone and water, the core of her scent. I’d never smelled another preternatural like her. Not even the other druids in her clan came close.
She paused a few steps away and folded her hands in front of her. “What brings you here today?”
I let Casey do the talking, not trusting myself not to growl. She got right to the point. “Someone’s attacking the pack, draining us of our life energy.”
Cailleach smiled. It was all wrong. Alien. Lifeless. More of a baring of teeth than a human expression. “I know,” she said, her eyes glowing even brighter as her power began to build.
Fuck. My. Life.