Magic Bites Chapter 4

I AWOKE IN GREG'S APARTMENT CLOSE TO SEVEN and reached for the phone. Dialing Jim's number resulted in three rings, a click, and a beep of the answering machine without any forewarning message. I left a laconic "call me" and hung up. He would be none too pleased. The morning after a night of hunting was the time for serene contemplation, as sacred to the shapeshifters as meditation to a Shaolin monk. Caught between Man and Beast, the shapechangers sought complete control over each and so they met the sunrise looking inward. Their moment of self-reflection completed, they succumbed to peaceful sleep. I had little doubt that Jim had hunted last night in the Unicorn. He was likely to be asleep already, and the machine would beep announcing the message until it drove him crazy. I smiled at the thought.

I stretched, working the kinks out of my shoulders and back. I kicked at the shadow on the wall, putting all I had into it but never touching my imaginary opponent. I cycled through some basic kicks, front snap, roundhouse, thrust, finishing with more elaborate forms. After ten minutes I broke a sweat and pushed on for another twenty, working mostly on strength in my arms, shoulders, and chest. Greg did not own weights so I used a heavy lead-filled mace instead of a dumbbell. It was poorly balanced but it was better than nothing.

I had not lifted for a few days and I felt weaker than usual. Still, the controlled, determined exertion felt good and my mood improved gradually, so by the time the shower started calling to me, I was almost upbeat.

The phone rang just as my hand touched the bathroom door. I did a 180, expecting Jim on the line.


"Hello," said a male voice. It was a pleasant voice, well modulated and clear. I'd heard it before, but it took me a minute to remember where.

"Dr... Crane?"


Yes, the toothpaste-named charity worker. How the hell did he get my number? "Can I help you?"

"I was hoping you would have lunch with me."

Persistent bugger. "How did you get my number?"

"I called to the Order and lied to them. I said that I had information concerning the dead vampire and gave them my credentials. They gave me this number."

"I see."

"So will you join me?"

"I'm very busy."

"But you have to eat once in a while. I would really like to see you again, some place less formal. Give me a chance and if the lunch doesn't work out, I'll vanish from your horizon."

I thought about it and realized that I wanted to say yes. It was a completely ludicrous thing to do. I was sitting on top of a bomb and both the Pack and the People stood ready to light the fuse, and here I was, considering a date. How long had it been since I'd been on a real date? Two years?

"It's a deal," I said. "I'll meet you between twelve and twelve thirty at Las Colimas. Do you know where it is?"

He knew.

"And Dr. Crest?"

"Just Crest, please."

"Crest, please don't call the Order again."

I expected him to be taken aback, but he said cheerfully "Yes, ma'am!" and hung up.

Stepping into the shower, I tried to figure out why I had agreed to meet him. There had to be a reason, something besides feeling lonely and tired, and wanting normal human contact, male human contact, the kind of male that didn't warp into a monster or shift muscles around its frame with the ease of changing clothes. Perhaps, I would use this opportunity to pump him for information about the morgue's treatment of the dead vamp. Yeah, that was it.

Halfway through the shower the phone rang. I turned off the water and went to pick it up, dripping wet soap lather onto the linoleum.


"This is Maxine, dear."

"Hello, Maxine."

"The protector wishes to see you in his office today at eight thirty."

"Thank you."

"No problem, dear."

I hung up and went back into the shower. The hot water hit me with a satisfying rush, soothing my muscles.

The phone rang.

I growled and stomped back to the phone, without bothering to shut off the water.


"You've got some fucking nerve calling me in the morning," Jim growled.

"Forgive me for disturbing your beauty sleep!" I snarled.

"What the hell did you call me for?"

"I want you to claw your eyes open and give me a list of Pack murders: locations, times, and so on."

"You know, that's classified information. Who the fuck do you think you are?"

"I'm the only person that gives a shit. Look out the window. You see a line of people waiting to help your furry asses?"

I slammed the phone and returned to the shower. The absence of steam should have alerted me, but I foolishly stepped right into the ice-cold cascade. While I was talking, the shower had run out of hot water. Choking the shower pipe would not bring the hot water back, as satisfying as it might feel, so I turned the shower off and toweled dry. It was going to be one of those days.

I SAT IN ONE OF THE VISITOR'S CHAIRS DEEP IN THE bowels of the knight-protector's office. This time Ted was not talking on the phone. Instead he regarded me from behind his desk like a medieval knight watching the besieging Saracens from the ramparts of his stronghold.

Moments stretched into minutes.

Finally he said, "I pulled your file from the Academy."

Oh, shit.

"You had an e-rating," he said.

E for electrum. Not that big of a deal, really.

"Do you know how many squires with e-ratings came to the Academy in its thirty eight years?" he asked.

I knew. Greg told me so many times that the number made holes in my ear membranes, but provoking the protector would do me no good, so I kept my peace.

"Eight," he said, letting the words sink in. "Including you."

I tried to look solemn.

Ted moved his pen two inches to the left, gave it a careful look, and leveled his gaze back at me. "Why did you leave?"

"I had a problem with authority."

"A bad case of honor student ego?"

"It went beyond that. I realized that the Order was the wrong place for me and I withdrew before I had a chance to do something really stupid."

In my mind Greg's voice said with a touch of reproach, And so you became a mercenary, a sword for hire, without a purpose or cause.

Ted said, "You're working for the Order now."


"How does it feel?"

"Well, Doctor, it feels rather sore and tingly."

He waved my quip aside. "I'm not fucking around. How does it feel?"

"Having a base in the city is nice. The MA sticker opens doors. There's a lot of responsibility."

"It bothers you?"

"Yes. When I'm on my own, I screw up and my paycheck goes down the drain, so I eat what I grow until the next thing comes along. Now I screw up and a lot of people might die."

He nodded. "Feel choked by authority?"

"No. You gave me a long leash. But I know it's there."

"Just as long as you remember."

"That's not something I would forget."

"I've got a complaint from Nataraja," he said.

I relaxed. The tide was changing. "Oh?"

"He claims that you're avoiding discussing the case with them. He had a lot to say."

"He frequently has a lot to say." I shrugged.

"You know why he's making noise?"

"Yes. Both the People and the Pack are suspects. He wants to put on a show of cooperation."

Ted nodded, approving of my assessment.

"I had no cause to go to the Casino," I said.

"You've got one now."


"Good. Then after we're done, go and shut him up."

I nodded.

"Tell me what you've got so far."

I unloaded. I told him about the dead vampire and the hidden brand; I told him about the meeting with the Beast Lord who wanted to be called Curran, and I told him about the yellow lines on the m-scan and Anna's dream.

He sat through it all, nodding with no expression on his stone face. When I was done, he said, "Good."

I realized that the audience was over and left the office. This time the Saracens escaped without burning oil scalding their backs.

I proceeded into Greg's office. Something had been bothering me since last night, tugging at my mind, and this morning, my wits sharpened by fury over the icy shower, I finally figured out what it was: the names of the women in Greg's file. I had forgotten about the four names, just let them slip from my memory, which was both irresponsible and stupid. I should have known better than that.

Finding the file and extracting the page listing the names took about five seconds. Sandra Molot, Angelina Gomez, Jennifer Ying, Alisa Konova. I checked Greg's files looking for the names, but none of the women had inpidual folders. Besides coming from different ethnic groups, they had nothing in common. I rummaged around for a phone book, found it in the lowest drawer, and looked through it. Gomez and Ying were common surnames, and Molot was not infrequent, so I looked for Konova. I found two men with the surname Konov, Anatoli and Denis. Russians denoted female gender by adding a vowel to the end of their surname, so a female form of Konov would be Konova. Given that, I thought the names were worth a try.

I dialed the first one and was informed by an indifferent female voice that the number had been disconnected. I tried the second number. The phone rang and an older female voice said with a slight accent, "Yes?"

"Hello, can I speak with Alisa, please?"

There was a long pause.


"Alisa's missing," the woman said quietly. "We don't know where she is."

She hung up the phone before I had a chance to ask anything else. Since Molot was my second best bet, I looked for it and found six Molots. I hit pay dirt on the fourth one - a young male told me that Sandra was his sister and reluctantly informed me that she was also missing since the fourteenth of last month but refused to say anything else, adding "the cops are still looking for her." I thanked him and hung up.

I called nineteen people with the last name Ying and twenty-seven with the surname Gomez. I could not find Jennifer Ying, but there were two Angelinas among the Gomezes. The first one was two years old. The second was twenty and missing.

It was a safe bet that Jennifer Ying had suffered the same fate as the other three women. I considered a visit to the precinct, but the rational part of my brain informed me that not only would they throw me out without any information, I'd also call enough attention to myself to make my job even more difficult. Cops had respect for full-fledged knights, but they did not cooperate with them unless the circumstances left them no choice. I was not even a knight.

It was possible that all four ladies grew claws and fur and called Curran "Lord," in which case it would be logical to suppose that they were missing, because they were among the seven dead shapechangers. I called Jim to verify, but either he was not home or he decided not to take my calls. I didn't leave a message.

With nothing left to do, I put away the file. It was nearly lunchtime and I had a plastic surgeon to meet.

THE DECORATOR OF LAS COLIMAS MUST HAVE been a great admirer of both early Aztec and late Taco Bell architectural styles. The restaurant was a gaudy mess of bright booths, garish pi?atas, and fake greenery. A resin skull rack modeled after the actual racks, which the ancient Aztecs filled with countless skulls of human victims, crowned the roof of the long buffet table. Small terra-cotta replicas of arcane relics sat on the windowsills among the plastic fruit spilling from wicker cornucopias.

The setting did not matter. The moment I walked in, the delicious smell enveloped me, and I hurried past the five-foot-high terra-cotta atrocity meant to personify the famous Xochopilli, the Prince of Flowers, which separated the entrance from the cash register. A redheaded waitress thrust herself in my way.

"Excuse me," she said with a smile that showed off her entire set of teeth. "Are you Kate?"


"Your party is waiting. This way, please."

As she led me past the buffet table, I heard a male voice, asking the waitress, "Do you serve gravy with that?"

Only in the South.

The waitress delivered me to a corner booth, where Crest sat, immersed in the menu.

"I found her, Doctor!" she announced. The patrons at the neighboring tables glanced at me. If the restaurant was not so crowded, I would have strangled her on the spot.

Crest glanced from the menu and shot her a smile. "You remembered," he said, his voice filled with surprise. "Thank you, Grace."

She giggled. "Let me know if you need anything!"

She swept away, putting an extra kink into her walk. I would not have thought that a woman with an ass that bony could make it wiggle so much but she proved me wrong.

I landed.

"A storm walking in," he said.

"Five minutes here and the waitresses already bat their eyelashes at you," I said. "It must be a talent."

He unrolled his napkin, took a round-tipped serrated knife from it, and mimicked being stabbed in the heart. "Actually, it's not a talent," he explained, waving the knife around. The knife's blade looked sharp. "Most people treat waitresses like dogs. They bring you food and wait on you, therefore they must be a lower breed of human being and don't mind being harassed."

I took the knife away from him before he hurt himself and put it on the table.

The redheaded Grace returned, dazzled us with another smile, and asked if we were ready to order. I ordered without looking at the menu. Crest asked for churassco and chimichurri in unaccented Spanish. Grace gave him a blank look.

"I think he would like the filet mignon in garlic and parsley sauce," I said. "The Chef's special."

Her face brightened. "Anything to drink with that?"

We both ordered ice water and she departed, wiggling furiously.

Crest grimaced.

"A sudden change of attitude?" I asked.

"I detest incompetence. She works in a restaurant that serves Latino cuisine. She should at least know how the names are pronounced. But then she probably does the best she can." He looked around. "I must say, this isn't a place to promote quiet conversations."

"You have a problem with my taste?"

"Yes, I do," he said.

I shrugged.

"You are quite... hostile." He did not say it in a confrontational way. Instead, his voice held quiet amusement.

"Was I supposed to pick a quiet place, tastefully decorated and private, that would promote intimate conversation?"

"Well, I thought you might."

"Why? You blackmailed me into lunch, so I thought I might at least enjoy the food."

He tried a different line of attack. "I've never come across anyone like you."

"Good thing, too. People like me don't like it when you try walking over them. They might break your legs."

"Could you actually do it?" He was grinning. Was he flirting with me?

"Do what?"

"Break my legs."

"Yes, under the right circumstances."

"I have a brown belt in karate," he said. I decided that he found my tough woman persona amusing. "I might put up a fight."

This was actually fun. I gave him a full blast of my psychotic smile and said, "Brown belt? That's impressive. But you have to remember, I break legs for a living while you..."

"Fix noses?" he put in.

"No, I was going to say stitch up corpses, but you're right, 'fix noses' would've made a much better retort."

We grinned at each other across the table.

Grace arrived right on cue, holding two platters. She set them in front of us and was called away before she could blind Crest with another toothy smile.

"The food's wonderful," he said after the first two bites.

And cheap, too. I raised my eyebrow at him, meaning I told you so.

"I'll stop trying to impress you if you promise not to break my legs," he suggested.

"Alright, where did you learn to speak Spanish?"

"From my father," he said. "He spoke six languages fluently and understood who knows how many. He was an anthropologist of the old kind. We spent two years at Temple Mayor in Mexico."

I arched an eyebrow, took a bottle of hot sauce shaped like a stylized figurine, and put it in front of him.

"Tlaloc," he said. "God of rain."

I smiled at him. "So tell me about the temple."

"It was hot and dusty." He told me about his father, who tried to understand people long gone, about climbing the countless steps to the top of the temple, where twin shrines stared at the world, about falling asleep under the bottomless sky by the carved temple walls and dreaming of nightmarish priests. Somehow his voice overcame the noise of the restaurant, muting the conversations of other patrons to subdued white noise. It was so remarkable that I would have sworn there was magic in it, except that I felt no power coming from him. Perhaps it was magic, but of that special human kind - magic born of human charm and conversation, which I too often discounted.

He talked while I listened to his pleasant voice and watched him. There was something very comforting about him, and I was not sure if it was his easy manner or his complete immunity to my scowling. He was funny without trying to joke, intelligent without trying to sound erudite, and he made it plain he expected nothing.

The lunch stretched on and then suddenly it was close to one thirty and time for me to go.

"I had a great time," he said. "But then I talked the whole time, so I suppose that's obvious. You should've shut me up."

"I enjoyed listening to you."

He scowled at me, disbelieving, and warned, "Next time it will be your turn to talk."

"Next time?"

"Would you go to dinner with me?"

"I would," I found myself saying.

"Tonight?" he asked, his eyes hopeful.

"I'll try," I promised and actually intended to do so. "Call me around six." I gave him my address in case the magic knocked the phone out.

I insisted on paying my half of the lunch and declined an offer to be walked to my car. The day I needed an escort was the day I'd turn my saber over to someone who knew what to do with it.

"MR. NATARAJA WOULD BE DELIGHTED TO SPEAK with you," a cultured male voice informed me through the phone. "However, his schedule is extremely busy for the next month."

I sighed, tapping my nails on Greg's kitchen table. "I'm sorry I didn't catch your name..."

"Charles Cole."

"I tell you what, Charles, get Rowena on the line for me now, and I won't tell Nataraja that you've tried to stonewall the Order-appointed investigator he's been waiting for."

There was silence and then Charles said in a slightly strained voice, "One moment, please."

I waited by the phone, very pleased with myself. There was a click, and Rowena's flawless voice said, "Kate, my deepest apologies. What an unfortunate misunderstanding."

Score one for me. "No offense taken," I told her. I could afford to be gracious. "I was notified that Nataraja would like to speak to me."

"Indeed. Unfortunately, he's in the field. If he knew of your intention to visit, he would have postponed. He will be back this evening and I would be indebted to you if you could meet with us later, let's say at two tonight?"

Score one for Rowena. "No problem."

"Thank you, Kate," she said.

We said good-byes and hung up. She had a way of subtly turning every conversation personal, as if the matter discussed was vital to her and any refusal of her request would injure her. It worked both ways - when you agreed to something, she acted as if you did her a great personal favor. It was an art I would have loved to learn. Unfortunately I had neither time nor patience to spare.

Unsure what to do next, I tapped my fingernails on the table. Until I got my interview with Corwin, I could not eliminate him as a suspect and I had no other suspects so far. Maybe if I annoyed Nataraja enough, he would supply me with other leads, but it wouldn't happen until tonight, which left twelve empty hours. I looked around the apartment. It had lost its immaculate air. There was dust on the windowsill, and several dishes sat in the sink. I pushed myself free of the chair and started looking for the broom, rags, and bleach. Come to think of it, a nap wouldn't hurt either. I had a long night to look forward to.

When I woke up later in the now clean apartment, the light outside had turned the deep purple of late evening.

Crest hadn't called. Too bad.

An interesting thought occurred to me while I lay for a few extra precious seconds in my bed, staring out the barred window at the encroaching twilight. I held on to it, padded, to the kitchen, and called the Order, hoping Maxine was still there. The phone was turning into my weapon of choice.

Maxine answered.

"Good evening, Kate."

"Do you always work late?"


"If I asked you to check on something for me, would you do it?"

"That's what I'm here for, dear."

I told her about the missing women. "The cops are involved so there has to be a file on at least one of those women, Sandra Molot. I need to know if they did a general homing spell using one of her personal effects. And same for the other three."

"Hold on, dear, I'll try to find out."

She put me on hold. I waited, listening to the small noises coming over the empty phone line. The night had fallen, and the apartment was dark, save for the kitchen, and eerily quiet.

Tap. Tap.

Something scratched at my kitchen window. It was a small sound, like a dry twig striking the glass.

I was on the third floor. No trees stood close to the building.


Silently I backed into the hallway and picked up Slayer, cradling the phone between my cheek and my shoulder.

The line came alive and I almost jumped. "Jennifer Ying has no file," Maxine said.

"Aha." I turned the light off, drowning the kitchen in darkness.

Tap. Tap.

I moved to the window.

"They do have files on the other three women."

I reached for the curtain and jerked it aside. Two amber eyes glared at me, full of longing and hunger. A face that was a meld of wolf and human leaned on the glass. Its misshapen horrid jaws did not fit together right and long strands of drool hung from its crooked yellowed teeth.

The skin around the lupine nose wrinkled. The nightmarish thing sniffed the glass, blowing air through its black nostrils and making a small opaque circle of condensation. It raised one deformed hand and tapped the glass with an inch-long claw.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

"Both standard and high-end locating spells were made in all three cases. They were blocked and produced no results. Kate?"

"Thank you very much, Maxine," I said, unable to take my gaze off the monster at my window. "I have to go now."

"Any time, dear. Play nice with the wolf."

Carefully I put the phone aside. Slayer in hand, I murmured the spell dissolving the ward around the glass and unlocked the window.

The claws hooked the window's edge and effortlessly slid it upward. The wolf-man stepped inside with marked slowness, one furry sinewy leg at a time, and stood seven feet tall in my kitchen. Dense gray fur sheathed its head, shoulders, back, and limbs, leaving the sickening face and the muscular chest bare. I could see round dark spots dotting the skin tightly stretched over his pectorals.

"Alright, pretty boy. What do you have for me?"

He reached toward me, holding a large envelope in his claws. A red wax seal with some sort of imprint secured the envelope.

"Open it," I directed.

The wolf-man clumsily snapped the seal, pulled out a single piece of paper, holding it with his claws, and offered it to me. I took it. His claws left small tears in the paper.

Four lines written in beautiful calligraphy said

His Majesty Curran,

the chosen Lord of Free Beasts,

requests your presence at the meeting of his Pack

at 22:00 of this night.

The paper was signed with a scribble.

"My own fault, huh," I said to the wolf-man. "I did tell him I wanted a formal invitation."

The wolf stared at me. His drool made small sticky puddles on the kitchen linoleum. I thought of being alone with two hundred monsters just like him, each faster and stronger than me, ready to tear me apart at the whim of their leader, and a sinking feeling sucked at my stomach. I didn't want to go.

"Are you supposed to escort me?"

The nightmare opened his mouth and produced a low guttural growl, the frustrated snarl of a mind gifted with the power of speech but locked in a body unable to produce the words. Only the most adept of the shapechangers could speak in a midform.

"Nod, if yes," I said.

The wolf nodded slowly.

"Very well. I need to change. Stay here. Don't move. This is a dangerous place for a wolf. Nod if you understand."

He nodded.

I stepped into the hallway and touched the wall, activating the ward. A translucent red partition materialized in the doorway, separating the kitchen and the monster within from the rest of the apartment. I went to get dressed.

I CHOSE LOOSE DARK GRAY PANTS, CUT TO FLARE at the bottom. They masked my foot when I kicked. The prospect of many claws at my back made me think of light armor, but my suit waited for me at my real house along with the rest of my supplies, long overdue. Not that it would help anyway, not in the middle of the Pack. I dug in the closet, where I kept a couple changes of clothes. When Greg was alive, I only came to his apartment as a last resort, which usually meant I was bleeding and my clothes were ruined.

I thumbed through the outfits and my hands grazed leather. A black leather jacket. I could dimly recall wearing it at some point. Must've been during my "Oh look, I'm tough!" days. I slipped it on and looked in the bedroom mirror. I looked like a bravo. And it was hot. Oh well. It was better than nothing. I took the jacket off, changed my T-shirt for a dark gray tank top, slipped on the tangle of the back sheath, and put the jacket on again. Thugs are us. Great. Just add a super-tight ponytail and loads of mascara, and I'd be ripe to play a supervillain's evil mistress. Ve haf vays of making you gif us your DNA sample.

I settled for my usual braid.

Having rebraided my hair, I paused, considered the arsenal available to me, put on thin wristbands loaded with silver needles, and took nothing else except Slayer. To get clear of two hundred enraged shapechangers I'd need a case of grenades and air support. There was no reason to weigh myself down with extra weapons. Then again, maybe I should take a knife. One knife, as a backup. Okay, two. And that's it.

Armed and dressed to kill - or rather to die quickly but in style - I went to get the wolf-man and together we took the gloomy staircase down to the street. I held Betsi's back door open for my guide and he slid into the backseat. As we started out of the parking lot, his claw tapped me on the back and pointed to the left. I took the hint and turned in that direction.

The traffic was light, almost nonexistent. Deserted streets, flooded with a yellow electric radiance, stretched before us. Few people owned cars that ran during tech. There was no need to invest in them, since it was plain that magic was gaining the upper hand.

An ancient blue Honda came to a stoplight in the left turn lane next to us. A man and a woman in the front seat were talking. I couldn't see the man except for his darkened profile, but the woman's face wore a blissful, slightly dreamy look as if she was remembering some happy moment. A small brown-haired boy sat in the backseat.

In a moment he would see the monster in my car. I braced myself for a scream.

The boy squinted and grinned. I glanced in the rearview window. The wolf-man was pretending to pant, black lips stretched in a happy canine smile. The gloom of the car hid most of his face and only the muzzle, illuminated by the outside light, and the glowing eyes were visible.

The boy mouthed something that might have been "Good dog." The light changed and the Honda drove on, vanishing into the night and carrying away the child and his parents, their reminiscing undisturbed.

We drove on, winding our way northeast toward Suwanee. It took us nearly an hour to reach the shapechanger compound and we had to leave the city behind to get there. All but invisible from the highway, the fortress sat in the middle of a clearing, defined by a dense wall of brush and oaks that looked decades older than they had any right to be. The only sign of its existence was a single-lane dirt road that veered so abruptly from the highway that I missed it despite my guide and had to double back.

The trail brought us to a small parking lot. I parked next to an old Chevy truck and held the door open for the wolf-man. He stepped out and paused in a kind of silent salute to the building. The compound loomed before us, a forbidding square building of gray stone nearly sixty feet high. Darkness pooled in the narrow arched windows, guarded by metal grates. The place looked like the keep of a castle rather than a modern fort.

The wolf-man raised his narrow muzzle and let out a long, wailing howl. Icy fingers of fear clawed their way up my spine and clutched my throat. The howl lingered, bouncing off the walls and filling the night with the promise of a long, bloody hunt. Another voice joined it from atop the keep, a third came from the side, then a fourth... All around us the sentries howled and I stood still in the whirlpool of their war cries. A bit dramatic, and yet it had the likely desired effect of turning a badass like me into just another frightened ape shivering in the darkness.

Satisfied, my guide strode toward the keep and I walked after him listening to the last echoes of the blood hymn flee into the night. The wolf-man stopped before a large metal door and knocked. The door swung open and we stepped inside, into a small chamber lighted with electric lamps.

A short woman with very curly blond hair waited for us. Some unspoken communication must have passed between her and my guide, and she looked at me. "This way, please."

I followed her through another door to a round room. A spiral staircase pierced the floor, stretching both up and down. I looked up and saw coils of stairs merging with darkness.

"This way, please," the woman repeated and led me down the stairs. We descended, making several loops, until my escort stepped into a dark side hallway. The hallway terminated in another heavy wooden door, and the woman pushed it open, motioning me inside. I stepped through.

A huge oval room lay before me, bathed in a comfortable glow of electric lights softened by opaque glass. The room sloped down gently, like a college auditorium, to culminate in a flat stage. On the left side of the stage, next to a door, fire burned brightly in a foot-wide metal brazier, its smoke sucked away into a vertical shoot. A smooth slanting path led from the doorway to the stage.

The rest of the sloping floor was terraced, segregated into five-foot-wide "steps," and on the steps, on uniform blue blankets, rested the shapechangers. Most were in a human form; some reclined by themselves; some sat together with their families, one family to a blanket, as if they had gathered for some sort of underground picnic. With a shock I realized there were more than three hundred of them. Many more.

And Curran was nowhere in sight.

The door closed behind me with a click. As one, the shapechangers turned and looked at me.

I wondered what they'd do if I asked to borrow a cup of sugar.

Behind me the door opened and two large males stepped inside, breathing down my neck. I got the message and started down the path to the stage. Ahead several males stood up from their blankets and barred the path midway down.

The welcoming committee. How nice.

I crashed to a halt before the men. "You're in my way," I said.

"Really?" The kid couldn't have been more than eighteen years old, with an open face and longish brown hair. His brown eyes laughed at me, and I knew this was a setup. And I knew who orchestrated it. They wouldn't blow their noses without Curran's say-so.

"Really," I said, knowing what was coming.

"From where I'm standing, you're in our way," an older, stocky male said. A corner of his mouth curved, trying to hide a smile. He enjoyed the game.

A tall male, shaggy with red hair, called out from his blanket, "Hey, Mik, don't you know to step aside for a lady?"

"I don't see a lady here." The stocky male leered at me.

A wave of catcalls and growling rolled through the room, so sudden it might have been choreographed. Mik kept sizing me up. Even his leer seemed rehearsed. There was no threat here, only a test of what I would do. I had to resolve it quickly and without direct violence or the Pack would never work with me. The sheer stupidity of the situation was staggering.

The males grew bolder. The kid grinned. "What do you say, baby, let's you and me go to the side and I'll show you a good time."

The group exploded with laughter - this one must have been an improvisation. The kid, pleased with himself, reached out and his fingers brushed my cheek. The moment his skin touched mine, I whispered a single word so quietly that even I couldn't hear my voice.

"Amehe." Obey.

The word of power pulsed through my skin to his. The rush of so much magic leaving my body nearly brought me to my knees. The kid stiffened. The others did not notice, absorbed in making noise.

"That's a good one, Derek," Mik said. "I think she could take all of us on, unless you mind sharing."

I looked at the kid and said, "Protect me."

His body exploded into motion, the mist of body fluids drenching the floor. A sleek lupine shape hit the older male, knocking him off balance. Mik fell on his back, and the huge gray wolf was on top of him, fangs bared in a vicious feral snarl a hair away from his throat.

"Hold him," I said.

The wolf growled low, black lips quivering.

The room was suddenly quiet as a tomb. I hoped it wouldn't be mine.

"Derek," Mik said in a hoarse voice, the weight of the wolf on his chest making it difficult for him to speak. "Derek, it's me."

The wolf snarled.

"Don't move," I advised, reaching back and pulling Slayer from its sheath. It made a soft metallic whisper as it left the scabbard and the gazes of the shapechangers fastened on the enchanted blade.

A woman rose from her seat to my left. Her lips quivered in a telltale precursor to a snarl. "What the hell did you do to him?"

I glanced around the room. The mood had changed. The game had ended, and their eyes burned like fire. The hair on their heads bristled, and the smell of murder was in the air.

"This is Slayer," I said, holding the saber so they could see it clearly. The saber seethed, and luminescent tendrils of smoke clung to its blade. "It has had many names. One of them was Wolfripper. Push me and I will show you how it got that one."

"You can't take all of us," a male snarled to the right.

"I don't have to." I lowered the blade onto the neck of the wolf. "Move and I'll kill him."

They became utterly still. Pack loyalty overrode their anger, but I didn't dare to push them any further.

"That's enough," Curran's voice said.

The shapechangers melted from my path and I saw Curran standing down by the fire. I looked at the wolf. "Come."

Hesitantly the beast took his paws off Mik's chest. I stepped over the stocky man and walked toward Curran, the wolf trotting at my side like an oversized guard dog.

I stepped onto the stage. Curran's irises were streaked with gold - he was pissed off. Ignoring him, I stepped toward the brazier, pulled up the right sleeve of my sweatshirt, and passed my forearm through the flame. Pain licked my arm. The stench of scorched skin and burned hair permeated the air. The room murmured. I proved my humanity and my control to the Pack as any shapechanger would. No shapechanger who abandoned the strict discipline and allowed his Beast to take charge could touch the fire. It was a vital and very private ritual, one they did not expect me to know.

Curran's face was stone. "Come," he said and the wolf and I followed him off the stage, through a door, into another, much smaller room, where eight people sat in padded chairs. They rose at Curran's approach and remained standing, three women and five men. Jim was one of them. So my old buddy was a member of the Pack Council. Fancy that.

The eight looked at the wolf, at me, at my arm, and then at Curran. Jim opened his mouth to say something and clamped it shut.

"Derek," Curran called.

The wolf glanced at him. The blaze of Curran's eyes seared him and he sat still, mesmerized. Curran made a strange sound, half growl, half word, but an unmistakable command. The wolf shuddered. Curran repeated the order. The wolf shook harder, his lean body convulsing, and whined weakly.

The lord of the shapechangers glared at me. "Release him."

"Is that a request or an order?"

A twitch ran through Curran's face as if the lion in him wanted to claw its way out. "It's a request," he said.

I kneeled by the wolf and touched his thick fur, making contact with the skin underneath. The beast trembled.

"Is the room warded with containment?"

Curran nodded. I looked at the wolf and whispered, "Dair." Release.

The strength of the power word rocked me. Red circles swam before me and I shook my head trying to clear my vision. The wolf sagged to the floor as if all strength suddenly left his sinewy legs. Curran growled, and the animal vanished in the dense mist, leaving the kid naked and wet on the floor.

"I couldn't," he groaned.

"I know," Curran said. "It's okay."

The kid sighed and passed out. One of the women, a long-legged lean brunette in her thirties, covered him with a blanket.

Curran turned to me. "Take one of mine again and I'll kill you." He said it in a conversational manner, matter-of-fact and flat, but in his eyes I could see a simple certainty. If he had to, he would kill me. He would not lose any sleep over it. He would not give it a second thought. He would do it and move on, untroubled by ending my existence.

It scared the shit out of me, so I laughed in his face. "You think you can do it by yourself next time, big guy? On second thought, you better bring some of your flunkies to box me in again - you are getting soft."

Behind him someone made a strangled sound. That's it, I'm dead, flashed through my head. Curran's face jerked. Bloodlust flooded him and then, with a single massive exertion of will, he regained control. The effort was almost physical. I could see the muscles of his face relax one by one as his anger imploded. The rage in his eyes died to smoldering amber and he stood before me, relaxed, loose, and calm. It was the most frightening thing I'd ever seen.

"I need you for now," he said. Glancing at his Council, he asked, "Is Corwin ready?"

"Yes, my liege," boomed an older man. Barrel-chested and thick, with enormous shoulders and arms that would make any blacksmith proud, he looked to be in his fifties, his curly black beard and thick mane of black hair sparkling with isolated strands of gray.

"Good. Take her to the room. I'll join you shortly."

The black-bearded man approached the door on the left side of the room and held it open for me. "Please."

I made my exit.

We walked side by side through a winding corridor, the man with the black beard and I. "My name is Mahon," the man said. His deep voice held the slight burr of a Scottish accent.

"Nice to meet you," I murmured mechanically.

"It would have been much nicer under different circumstances," he chuckled.

"Knowing the extent of the Pack's welcome, I would've preferred Unicorn Lane."

"You must understand that Curran can't permit anyone to take something that's his. If he allows it to happen, his authority would come into question and some'd ask if you couldn't do the same thing to him as you did to Derek."

"I'm aware of the Pack's mechanics," I said.

"And you are an outsider. The Pack is distrustful of outsiders."

"I'm a human outsider. The Pack treated me as if I were a loner. With Curran's permission." Very rarely, a shapechanger chose to follow the Code in his own way, refusing the Pack. Such inpiduals were called loners. They were the ultimate outsiders, treated by the Pack with suspicion and dislike.

Mahon inclined his head, supporting my assessment of the situation. "Curran never does anything without a reason," he said. "I was told you'd met him. Perhaps you indirectly challenged him at that meeting."

Indirectly? I had challenged him deliberately.

"Your knowledge of our customs is unusual," he continued. "For a human outsider. How did you come by this information?" His voice promised no confrontation.

"My father," I said.

"A man of the Code?"

"In his own way. Not your Code but his own."

"You've learned well."

"No," I said. "He taught me well. I was difficult."

"Children can be sometimes," he said.

We stopped before a door.

"Do you need some ointment for your arm?"

I looked at the angry red welt marring my skin. "No. Unless you catch it right away, the ointment won't do any good. But I appreciate the offer." I shook my head. "Tell me, do you always pacify irate guests of the Pack?"

He opened the door. "Sometimes. I suppose I have a calming influence on misbehaving children. Please."

I stepped through the door and he closed it behind me. The room was small. A single lamp threw a sharp cone of light onto a table in its center. Two chairs stood by the table, the farther one occupied by a man. He had purposefully positioned himself so the light was turned away from him.

The setup reminded me of the spy movies from my childhood.

"Finessed you, didn't he?" the man said. His voice had a scratchy quality to it. "I bet another ten minutes and you ready to apologize."

"I don't think so." I pulled up a chair to the table. The man leaned back, remaining in the shadows.

"Don't beat yourself over it. He do it to everybody. Why I don't talk to him."

"You're Corwin?"

"No, I'm Snow White." He rocked back, balancing on the back legs of his chair.

"And who's the man that walked me here?"

"Mahon," he said. "The Kodiak of Atlanta."

"The Pack Executioner?"

"The very same."

I digested the news.

"He raise Curran, you know," the man said.

"Oh? And he calls him lord like the rest of you?"

The man shrugged. "That what Curran is."

"She has trouble with that concept," Curran's voice said from behind me.

I was learning. This time I didn't jump. "You may be their lord. You sure as hell aren't mine."

Curran was leaning against the wall.

"Where are the rest?" I asked. There had to be more people watching, probably the eight that greeted me in the room where I almost talked myself into death. The alpha male of the wolf pack, the head of the rats, the person that spoke for the "scouts," the smaller shapechangers, and someone who stood for the larger beasts.

"They are watching," Curran said, nodding toward the wall.

For the first time I noticed a one-way mirror.

I looked at Corwin. "Why don't you move into the light."

"You sure?" he asked.


He leaned forward, letting the light play on his features. His face was horrible. Large, flint-hard eyes sat deep in his skull, overshadowed by heavy eyebrows. His nose was massive, his jaw too heavy and prominent to be human; he looked like he could bite through a steel wire with little effort. His reddish hair, thick and textured like fur, was combed back into a ponytail. Long side burns hung from his cheekbones almost to his chest, framing tall, pointed ears with small tufts of fur on their ends. The same hair, only shorter and thicker, sheathed his neck and his throat, leaving his chin bare at such a precise line that he must have shaved.

His hands, resting on the table, were misshapen and out of proportion to his body. Despite short, thick fingers, each hand could enclose my entire head. Clumps of reddish fur grew between his knuckles.

Corwin grinned. His teeth were huge and pointed.

Sickle claws shot from the tips of his stubby fingers. He spread his fingers in a catlike kneading motion, scraping the wooden surface of the table.

"Oh, boy," I said. "How do you fluff your pillows at night?"

Corwin licked his canines at me and glanced at Curran. "I like this one."

"Let's start," I said.

"You haven't asked me what I am." Corwin tapped the table with his claws.

"I'll figure it out." The familiar words from the long sessions at the Academy resurfaced. "I'm Kate Daniels. I'm a lawful and documented representative of the Order. I'm investigating a murder and you are one of the suspects. With me so far?"

"Yes," Corwin said.

"I'm here to question you with the purpose of establishing or eliminating you as a primary suspect. If you've committed this murder, you may incriminate yourself by answering my questions. I can't compel you to answer."

"He can," Corwin said in his scratchy voice, nodding toward Curran.

"That's between you and him. Just as long as we are clear that I can't force you to cooperate."

"We clear, sweetheart."

I flashed him a smile. "The information you provide today is confidential but not privileged."

"What do that means?"

"It means," Curran said, "that she'll keep it to herself but she'll have to give it up if subpoenaed by court."

"He's right." I looked at Corwin. "I must also warn you that if you murdered Greg Feldman, I'll try my best to kill you."

Corwin leaned back and a strange gurgling rumble emanated from his throat. A moment later I realized he was laughing.

"I understand," he said, his irises shining with green.

"Let's begin then. Have you taken any part, directly or indirectly, in the murder of Greg Feldman?"


I hit all of the major points. He knew what was in the papers and nothing more. He had never met Greg or the vamp in question. He had no idea why anyone would try to kill them. He did not know who Ghastek was.

"Would you be willing to donate some tissue for an m-scan?" I asked finally.


"Blood, spit, urine, hair. Something I can scan."

He leaned forward with a low murmur in his throat. "I could donate something to you. Something other than blood and spit."

I leaned to him until our gazes crossed. "Thanks," I said. "But I'm not available."


"No. Busy."

"You won't stay busy forever."

On impulse I reached and scratched him under the chin. He closed his eyes and purred. "There are werecats," I said.

"Yeeeees." He turned to offer my fingers better access to his chin.

"And then there are cat-weres."

His eyes opened just a tiny bit, and green shone through the slits.

"Born an animal..." I said.

"And now I am man," he continued, turning again so my fingers would scratch a farther point on his jaw. "A man-lynx. I like to read. And human females are often in heat."

"Do you still hunt among the trees when the moon is out, lynx?" I asked softly.

"Come to the Wood at night," he said. "And you'll find out."

I sat back. "Do you have an m-scanner?"

"We have a portable," Curran said.

"That will be fine."

I waited until they brought the portable out. Even the portable scanner weighed over eighty pounds. A single woman carried it in and sat it in the corner, a large construction of metal and wood that resembled a sewing machine which had undergone a Celtic-warrior battle-warp. The woman examined it critically, picked it up with one hand and moved it a few inches farther from the wall. Strength was something the shapechangers had in abundance.

"You know how to work it?" the woman asked me. I nodded, took the glass tray from the scanner's storage compartment, and smiled at Corwin. "About that hair sample?"

He held his sideburn taut and flashed his claws. A clump of reddish hair fell into the tray. I put it onto the examining platform. Green beams flashed and the printer whirred. Finally it stopped and the slip of paper slid from the slot. I pulled it. The lines were there, a series of short, faint slashes of color. But in the wrong place. I twisted the paper, trying to get the right angle of light. Light yellow-green. No match. There goes my only suspect.

"Are you satisfied?" Curran asked.

"Yes. He's clear."

Obeying Curran's nod, Corwin rose and left.

"We agreed to a trade," Curran said.

"I remember. What can I do for you?"

Curran looked to the open door and Derek staggered in, unsteady on his feet. He slumped against the doorframe, his face haggard. He looked like he needed a few more hours of sleep and a good dinner. I felt a pang of guilt. Just a tired kid, caught in a pissing contest between me and his boss.

"You can take him with you," Curran said.

I blinked. "As what?"

"As a bodyguard. As a connection to the Pack. Take your pick."


Curran just looked at me.

"We agreed to an exchange of information," I said. "At no point did I say that I'd take someone with me. Besides, why the hell would I want a wolf who'll report my every breath back to you?"

"I'll bind him with a blood oath. He'll do nothing to harm you, physically or otherwise. He won't spy on you."

Derek tensed against the wall and I tried to be reasonable. "Even assuming that I believe you, I can't take him with me. Look at him. He's a kid. If I get in a fight, I won't know whose neck to save, mine or his."

"I can hold my own," the kid said hoarsely.

"You can't force me to take him," I said. "I don't want his blood on my hands."

"If you won't take him, his blood will be on your hands." Curran crossed his arms over his chest. "You caused this. You took possession of my wolf in front of the entire Pack."

"You left me no choice. Was I supposed to squeal for your help? I came here in good faith and walked into an ambush. The responsibility is yours."

Curran ignored me and plowed on. "You've brought my authority into doubt. I can't just let it go. As of now I have three options. I can teach you a public lesson in humility, and oh, I would very much like to do that." His face left me no doubt as to exactly how much. "But I have to suffer you because you're the Order's point of contact. I can punish him, which I don't want to do. Or I can give him to you and let it be known that he was yours since our last meeting. You looked distressed and the blood oath had driven him berserk. It will let him save face."

I shook my head. "I won't take him."

"Then I'll kill him," Curran said.

All blood drained from the kid's face. He pushed himself from the wall and stood straight.

"He disobeyed me," Curran said. "He touched you, so I'm well within my rights." Fur sheathed Curran's arm. Claws shot from his huge paw and pricked the skin under Derek's chin. The kid winced.

"I like him," Curran's voice was almost a purr. "It won't be an easy kill."

"Bleed him and I'll skewer you like a stuck pig," I said through clenched teeth.

"No, you will try. You'll wave your sword around and talk a lot of shit and then back off at the last minute. And then I'll snap your neck and his."

Sickle claws danced dangerously close to the faint flicker of pulse on Derek's neck. Time to learn how to write checks I can cover.

"You win, Your Majesty. Please bind him now. I have an appointment in three hours."

THREE RED DROPS FELL ON THE COALS BURNING in a metal brazier and hissed, bubbling. The smell of burning human blood permeated the chamber, fueling the tangled cords of magic. I grimaced.

A binding was taking place, a ritual of attaching Derek's oath to the magic of his blood. The trouble was that blood oaths guaranteed very little. Derek would have a strong aversion to breaking promises made under these circumstances, but that's where it ended. When given a choice between breaking a blood oath and a stronger obligation, such as loyalty to the Pack, he would most likely break the oath.

The tall, lean alpha-wolf intoned the words of the pledge. Derek repeated them, and the currents of power licked the round room, spiraling up the impossibly tall walls, to the ceiling lost in darkness. The Council, who had formed a circle around the brazier, uttered a single word in unison. Derek held his hand over the flame. The alpha-wolf slit Derek's forearm, letting his blood run into the fire of the brazier to seal the pledge. There were a lot of pledges. The shapechanger blood clotted quickly and the alpha had to reopen the wound every thirty seconds or so. The binding took nearly fifteen minutes. Halfway through it, Derek started clenching his teeth when the knife touched his skin. That arm had to be sore as hell.

I listened to the vows. Derek pledged to protect me with his life if need be. He pledged to be at my side in danger and in peace, for as long as the Pack required it. He pledged to uphold the honor of the Pack as a whole and of his Wolf Clan in particular. I was not getting a bodyguard. I was getting a second shadow and if someone frowned at me, he was honor-bound to rip them to pieces.

He stood there, wincing over and over, looking lost and pitiful and somehow infinitely younger than me. I turned and quietly walked away, out of the room, into the shadowy hallway outside. The air was cool and smelled faintly of lemon of all things. I leaned against the wall and covered my face with my hands, shutting the world out for a moment. The blood oath took a while to set in and Derek would have to be at my side for the duration, otherwise his pledge would be worthless. He would have to sleep in my apartment, he would have to eat dinner with me and come with me to the Casino... Casino. Ugh.

"Weak stomach," Curran said at my side.

I didn't jump. It was more of a small hop, really. "You do this on purpose, don't you?"


"Never mind."

I rubbed my face, but the fatigue wouldn't go away. Just an adrenaline cooldown. It would be over in a few minutes and then I would be as good as new.

"You're out of your league," Curran said.

No shit. "I really didn't handle this whole thing too well, did I?"

"No," he said. His voice held no sympathy.

I wanted to ask for a do-over. I would be more restrained the second time around. Less mouthy. Unfortunately in real life you rarely got a do-over.

"I'm heading to the Casino from here. I need to know if I can take Derek with me. Nataraja likes to fuck with me. If Derek goes wolf, it would really screw things up." An understatement of the year.

"You know anything of the Code?"

" 'The Code is the Way,'" I quoted the Code of Thought. "'It is Order among Chaos; it is sanity amidst the oblivion.'" He glanced in my direction. Surprised, Your Majesty? Yes, I did read it. Many times over. "Without the Code, the shapechangers lose their balance. The Beast overwhelms them, compelling them to murder and cannibalize their victims. Consumption of human flesh triggers a cataclysmic hormonal response. Violent tendencies, paranoia, and sexual urge shoot into overdrive, and a shapechanger degenerates into a loup - a psychopath that engages in every perversion involving blood and sex that a human mind can imagine. A human mind can imagine quite a bit."

I was definitely tired now. Slowly I slid down and sat on the floor. Screw him, if he wanted to stand over me, so be it. "I was at Moses Creek when the Guild busted Sam Buchanan's compound of horrors," I said.

Like a servant overly eager to please, my mind thrust a memory before me. The front yard of Buchanan's holdout, past the trenches and the mud wall from which his deranged pack had sprayed shotgun blasts at us. Fall grass strewn with bodies of dead loups, a kiddy inflatable pool - blue with yellow ducks - full of blood and clumpy pale strings of entrails, and a woman, naked and bloody, black holes gaping where her eyes once were. Her hands spread before her, she stumbles on the corpses, searching blindly, grabbing the trunk of a pine for support, and calling, her voice barely above a whisper, "Megan! Megan!" And us, two dozen mercs in battle gear, unable to tell her of the tiny dark-haired body hanging from a noose in the branches of the tree to which she clings.

I clenched my teeth.

"Bad memories?" Curran asked.

"You have no idea," I said hoarsely and remembered whom I was talking to. "But then you probably do."

I shook my head, flinging the memories from me like a wet dog shakes off water. That was my third job with the Guild. I was nineteen and the nightmares were still vivid. And Buchanan had gotten away, ran into the woods while we pounded his berserk loups into wet mush. We never caught him. Knowing that was worse than any nightmare.

Curran was watching me. I opened my mouth to ask him why hadn't he done something about that rabid loup and then remembered that Jackson County had barred the Pack from interfering. That was six years ago. Today they would not dare.

My mouth was open so I said, "What does any of it have to do with Derek?"

"Derek's parents were Southern Baptist separatists. He was the oldest son and allowed to attend school. For a while at least, until his father had gone deeper into religion. He remembers burning books in the front yard, Dr. Seuss and Sendak."

I nodded. The shift to "deep religion" wasn't unusual. Half of the mountain towns had gone "deep" before the "Live-Life-with-God" movement gave them a new dogma.

Curran rubbed his neck, biceps rolling under the sleeve of his shirt. "When the kid was fourteen, they went to an end-of-the-world tent revival and daddy brought home the Lyc-V."

He sat next to me. "He didn't know what the fuck it was or how to deal with it. He didn't even know enough to get help. Went loup within days. Loups are contagious as hell. Derek's mother killed herself after she got infected and left her rabid husband alone with seven kids. Five of them were girls."

I swallowed the hard clump in my throat. "How long?"

"Two years." Curran's face was grim. "They killed a passing lycanthrope midway through the first year and Derek found the Code on his body. That and starvation kept him sane."

"So how did it end?"

"The way it always does. The kid became competition for the females and the father tried to kill him. The kid has a good beast-form and he can keep it steady."

The beast-form is the warrior form, superior to both animal and man. Most first-generation shapechangers have trouble with beast-form, unable to maintain it longer than a few seconds. They get better with practice, but it takes years of trial and error.

"Derek killed his dad?"

"And set the house on fire."

"What of the other children?"

"Dead. Two from starvation, three from daddy's affections, and the last one burned to death. We went through the rubble and buried the bones."

"And now you're giving him to me? Why, Curran? I can't be responsible for him, I'm doing a piss-poor job of being responsible for myself."

His gaze held enough contempt to drown me. "Derek can handle himself. I don't tolerate loss of control. He's been tested and he won't lose his way when he smells the blood. In your place, I'd worry more about your own ass."

"Well, you're not in my place." I rose to my feet. Time to go.

We walked back to the room, where Curran said a few words to Mahon and left. Mahon approached me. "I'll show you out. Derek'll meet us at the entrance."

"Please make sure he takes a shower," I said. "Lots and lots of Irish Spring. I don't want the People smelling blood or wolf on him."

Mahon led me a different way, through the maze of dim passages and branching tunnels that brought us to a wooden door. Mahon leaned his palm against it and it swung open.

"Curran wanted you to see this before you left," he said.

In the room, on a simple metal table under a glass hood laced with preserving spells, lay the head of Sam Buchanan.

Prev Next
Romance | Vampires | Fantasy | Billionaire | Werewolves | Zombies