2016 is a new year. A fresh start. I have new things planned for later in the year, but first I feel like it's important to say goodbye to some old friends first. The final Dreg City book starring Evy Stone, The Night Before Dead, releases this month. My planned release date is February 15, but I may have to push it back a few days. No biggie. It's coming!
So to celebrate that, here is the first three chapters from The Night Before Dead (Dreg City #6).
If you'd have told me a week ago that I would be sitting across a conference table from an elf, about to listen to what he had to say, I'd have told you to go to hell. Might have even punched you in the mouth for good measure. Elves had been nothing except trouble in the brief period of time that they'd been a part of my life.
An elf set me up to die. An elf tricked my boyfriend into making a bargain that traded his free will for my life. An elf tried to bring a demon across the Break and into our world, which would have been a complete and utter disaster. I don't trust elves. And vampires, of all similarly untrustworthy creatures, helped us stop that particular elf.
Now our vampire allies have fled the ranks of the Watchtower—the initiative of humans, weres and vampires that try to protect the city from the darker races—leaving us at half-strength. Erratic half-vampires were rising in numbers, the Fey were plotting against us, and there was enough dissention among the thirteen Therian (shapeshifters) clans to keep everyone involved in the Watchtower on their toes.
I used to think my life as a Dreg Hunter was complicated. That old life is a fucking fairy tale compared to life as I know it right now.
The conference room was our War Room in the Watchtower—which isn't really a tower at all, it's more of a metaphor. We'd overtaken the skeleton of a defunct mall and revamped it to provide housing, training rooms, a cafeteria, showers, and a gymnasium. An obstacle course was under construction in one of the old department stores, and I couldn't wait to see that finished.
At the moment, work was at a stand-still while we dealt with the elf on our shelf.
Okay, so we he was sitting in a chair at one end of the conference table, surrounded by three guys with guns.
Like guns can do much against a fucking elf. Tovin plucked a bullet from the sky.
This particular elf was as calm as Tovin had been insane. Brevin, as he called himself, had been brought to us by one of my dearest friends in the world, Phineas el Chimal, an osprey-shifter who'd left us almost six weeks ago to seek out others of his kind. Brevin wasn't what anyone expected him to bring home as a souvenir of his travels.
Phineas towered over Brevin, who was about the size of a middle-schooler, skinny as a rail, with white hair and pointed ears. His sharp eyes didn't seem to miss a thing, and he’d been exceptionally polite about being asked to spend the night in one of our jail cells. Apparently Phin had explained our last encounter with an elf, and Brevin didn't seem to mind the fact that we were terrified of him.
Not that we'd ever say so out loud.
"We have quite a lot to discuss," Astrid Dane said. The co-leader of the Watchtower, she stood at the far end of the conference table with Gina Kismet on her left. Astrid was a spotted jaguar shifter, and had been leading the Watchtower since its inception. Kismet was a human, a kick-ass fighter, and had only stepped into the role when the vampires left and Adrian Baylor (another human ally and co-leader) was killed.
I didn't envy the pair their positions, and I certainly didn't want to be in charge. I was a soldier, not a captain. Point me at something and I'll fight it. Ask me to make a plan of attack, and we're probably going to be in trouble.
"We certainly do," Brevin said. His voice was deeper than expected, considering his frail shape, and carried a kind of authority found in few creatures surrounded by their mortal enemies. "Thank you for hearing me out."
"We trust Phineas's judgment," Kismet said.
I held back a smile, impressed she hadn't sprained something admitting that.
Okay, so most of we humans in the Watchtower still had trouble admitting we trusted the Therians. As Hunters, we'd been trained to distrust nonhumans on principle. Period. They were bad, we were good, end of story. Except our lives had too many shades of gray for that philosophy to stand, and now we were allies with the very creatures we once hunted.
I never expected a shifter to be my best friend and confidante, just like I never expected my lover to be half-Lupa. On my left, Wyatt Truman observed the scene without comment. Born completely human, Wyatt had been bitten and infected by a Lupa over a month ago. Lupa were wolf shifters and thought to be completely extinct, killed off by other Therians because their bites could infect a human and cause them to go insane from fever before dying a painful death. Wyatt nearly died from his bite, but in surviving, he was forever changed.
Human, Lupa, or something in between, I still loved him with my whole heart—something I never thought possible until recently.
"Brevin sought me out," Phineas said. "I believe we should give him the benefit of the doubt."
"I know you do, that's why we're here," Astrid said. "Forgive me for being leery of his motivations."
"I am not offended by your lack of trust," Brevin said. "Phineas explained what Tovin did, and I can assure you my intentions are more transparent than my kin."
"And what are your intentions?"
"Preventing Amalie from declaring all-out war on the world."
I glanced at Wyatt, unsurprised by the statement. Wyatt only had eyes for Brevin. On my other side, Marcus Dane watched the production with barely contained impatience. Astrid's brother and a fierce fighter, Marcus held an unofficial second-in-command position to our pair of leaders. He was a brawler and a force to reckon with, skin or beast, and he looked like he'd rather go tear some throats out than sit around and listen to elf stories.
Not that he was in any position to rip anyone's throat out. A few days ago he'd battled to the death with a Bengal tiger shifter named Vail, and he'd come out of it with some pretty serious gashes on his chest. The fight had left its scars on all of us though. One of my very best friends, Tybalt Monahan, had been killed during the ordeal, and we'd only buried him yesterday.
I need a fucking vacation from my life.
"We already know Amalie and the Fey are our enemies," Astrid said. "She's the one who manipulated a madman into raising Lupa pups and unleashing them on us."
"I know." Brevin turned his head to meet Wyatt's gaze. "You are no longer yourself."
Wyatt growled softly. He had a damned good reason for distrusting elves.
"Can we stay on topic, please?" Kismet asked.
"All of the Fey are not your enemies," Brevin said. "The Apothi have retreated from this fight, as have many of the Earth Guardians.” Gnomes and trolls, respectively, and both formerly loyal to Amalie and the Fey Council. “I am one of three elves still alive, and we oppose Amalie."
That was news.
Two more elves in the world made me all kinds of nervous.
Brevin added, "Gargoyles are not Fey, but they oppose Amalie as well, despite leaving the city for the northern mountains."
I beat back a pang of regret at the loss of several allies. Max had been a gargoyle informant I'd used to gather intel on various Dregs, back when I was still a Hunter. He'd left the city with his fellow gargoyles ages ago, because they didn't want to get involved. He'd also saved my life when I was held and tortured by a madman named Walter Thackery. I owed Max.
A gnome named Horzt had saved Wyatt's life months ago with a healing crystal, and he'd given us a magic powder that had saved hundreds of infected vampires from a horrible death. I owed him too.
And Smedge. A bridge troll friend. Part of the earth, he'd often come up in the sandy ground beneath a train bridge. And yes, he'd saved my life once. Wyatt's, too. I owed my continued existence to so many people. I didn't know how to even begin repaying my growing debt.
"We know there are other creatures who oppose Amalie in theory," Astrid said, "but who among them is willing to stand with us openly?"
Brevin shook his head. "Very few, I am afraid. That is why I come to you now."
"You got an army up your sleeve?" I asked, breaking the promise I'd made to myself about joining in the conversation. I hated elves with a fiery rage, and Brevin was no different—not until he proved himself trustworthy. Even then I'd probably still hate him on principle.
"In a manner of speaking, yes."
A silent statue this entire time, Phineas shifted his weight from foot to foot. The were-osprey didn't fidget, so something was majorly up with him. He knew what Brevin was bringing to the table, and he didn't like it. I knew Phin well enough to see it in the blank expression that was working too hard to be remain neutral. It sharpened his already angular features into something fierce and feral.
Brevin took a moment to look around the room at the people interrogating him. Astrid and Kismet, me and Wyatt, Marcus. Next to Marcus, Rufus St. James watched with the sharp care of a man used to being tricked. He sat perfectly still in his wheelchair, fingers steepled in front of his face, green eyes fixed on the elf.
No one else knew Brevin was in the Watchtower.
Sneaking him in and keeping him hidden from a mall full of Therian noses hadn't been easy, let me tell you.
Astrid crossed her arms, her long black hair pulled back in a sharp bun that made her look battle-ready. "What kind of army?" she asked.
"The kind that Amalie won't see coming," Brevin replied. "An army led by demons."
The silence in the War room was deafening.
Fuck me sideways.
As much as the idea terrified me, I stood still and listed as Brevin explained.
The warm body blanketing me from above snuffled. The arm around my waist pulled taut, pressing me back into Wyatt's belly. He exhaled hard, breath ruffling the hair on my cheek. Everywhere our naked skin pressed together was hot, damp, and so incredibly perfect. Even after waking up like this for the last two weeks, I still marveled at how wonderful it felt.
I never thought I'd find this kind of love and acceptance, or be so comfortable in bed with a man—especially not Wyatt.
Almost five years ago, I’d joined a secret organization called the Triads. Teams of three Hunters, lead by a Handler, we hunted and fed justice to the darker races that dwelled in the city: half-Blood vampires, goblins, rule-breaking shifters, and various other things that go bump in the night. Seven months ago, I was murdered and brought back to life, and then everything went to hell in a hard cart.
The Triads have since been destroyed, the tattered remains folded into what became the Watchtower. Wyatt had been my Handler for four years, and until my very brutal murder, my feelings for him had been pretty platonic. When I was resurrected into the recently-dead body of Chalice Frost, I found myself entertaining a whole host of attractions and feelings I'd never experienced before.
Our road toward being lovers had been long and rocky, but I'd never been happier than with Wyatt Truman.
Damn it. I dragged a pillow over my head and ignored the sound of Mark's voice outside of our bedroom door.
"What is it?" Wyatt said, his voice one octave below a bellow.
"John and Peter want to go to the gym. Is that all right?"
He tensed. I didn't have to turn or ask to know why he was hesitating. The three boys were the last full-blooded Lupa in existence. Once there had been six, and ever since our discovery of the remaining brothers, Wyatt had become a surrogate father and pack leader to them. They'd also accepted me as his mate and as a quasi-mother figure.
The sudden change from single Hunter to step-mother of three teenagers had been a mind-fuck, let me tell you.
Everyone at the Watchtower knew who John, Peter and Mark were, and they knew the boys were under our protection. It still didn't stop old prejudices against Lupa from affecting the attitudes of the other Therians. Lupa had been all but eradicated because they refused to follow Assembly laws, and they infected humans for sport. While one of their dead brothers had been responsible for Wyatt's infection, neither of us blamed the three red-headed teens that had been thrust into our lives. They were desperate for love and acceptance, and I could relate to that.
Everyone deserved the chance to have a family. Even one as fucked up as ours.
"For an hour," Wyatt finally replied.
I rolled to face Wyatt, unsurprised to see apprehension lining his forehead. I smoothed my hand through his thick black hair, then down his neck to rasp against the near-permanent stubble on his cheeks and chin. He leaned into the touch, eyelids dropping down over black eyes now permanently flecked with silver.
He nuzzled my palm, his free hand tracing gentle circles on my lower back. I nudged my thigh against his groin, unsurprised to find a semi-hard on. Lupa were incredibly sexual creatures, often aroused even when nothing remotely sexy was going on. I was still getting used to it, and Wyatt constantly reminded me that just because he was sporting wood, he didn't expect to have sex. It was a thing we were still working out, a push-pull battle between his ingrained desires and his unwillingness to accidentally hurt me.
"Morning," he said.
"Good morning, hot stuff."
He rolled me under, settling between my thighs. The gentle weight of his belly pressed close to mine reminded me I was wanted and loved. So much of my past was violence and hatred. Having these moments with Wyatt was worth more than I could ever measure in words or gold. The hot length of him pressed against my core, and I lifted my knees, cradling him there. Arousal curled through me, driving away the last remnants of sleep and leaving me wanting.
"How do you feel?" he asked.
I couldn't lie to him. We'd gone at it for over an hour last night. "A little sore."
The flash of regret was there and gone quickly. He started to pull away, but I locked my ankles behind his back.
"Not that sore," I said.
Wyatt snagged a condom from the box next to the bed. Because full-blooded Lupa bites were incredibly infectious to humans, we were careful about how we kissed and made love. And since there hadn't been a half-Lupa in centuries, no one knew if the same antigens in his blood would transfer through semen, and our on-staff doctor couldn’t be sure. Wyatt wouldn't take any chances with infecting me with the Lupa virus, so we used protection every time.
I loosened my hold long enough for him to put on the condom, then pulled him inside of me. He swallowed my groan, mouth locking over mine in a searing kiss that made my toes curl and my insides ache for him. For everything we were and could ever be together. He moved in long, hard thrusts that made the bed creak and sent the frame slamming into the wall, and I didn't give a shit if our neighbors heard. We belonged to each other, and I would never be ashamed of that.
In my old life, sex had been a way to blow off steam. I hadn't cared who, as long as I got off, and some days the rougher the better. And then I was kidnapped by goblins and raped to death, and sex became something scary. Something used to hurt me. Wyatt's patience and love had turned a horror into a beautiful thing, and I loved him more every single day for what he'd given back to me.
Pleasure lashed through me, heating my blood, and I thrust up against him. Often times old fears prevented us from making love like this, with Wyatt engulfing me with his bulk, on my back. This morning I was enthralled by it. I took everything he gave me, demanding more. Sweat beaded his forehead and shoulders, and it slicked the skin between us.
I grabbed his ass and urged him on, harder, faster, to end the kind of quickie we rarely indulged in because it never felt like enough. I wanted all of him, to lick and suck and stroke, not a simple wham-bam roll in the hay. But today was the day that our lives changed, and I wanted every moment I could get with my lover.
He hiked my right leg higher, deepening his angle on each stroke. I raked my nails down his back, and he rewarded me by sucking on the hollow spot beneath my collarbone. I cried out something nonsensical. He worked a hand between us and rubbed circles over my clit, and everything went momentarily white. My entire body tightened, then relaxed, as pure pleasure washed over me. My thighs trembled from it, and I couldn't stop shaking. Not even when Wyatt plunged deeply twice more and groaned through his own orgasm. He held us together, our bodies joined by sweat and ecstasy, both of us breathing hard.
He pressed his face into my shoulder and exhaled long, deep breaths. I stroked his back with gentle fingers, enjoying the fine tremors that ran down his spine. The lovely aftershocks of his release. I kissed his temple, reveling in the fleeting perfection of the moment.
"I love you," I said.
"Love you too." He kissed my cheeks, my nose, then my lips. "So much, Evy. I love you so much and for so long."
He dumped the condom, and then pulled me back into his arms. We existed like that for a while, the real world held at bay for a bit longer.
"Are you thinking about the meeting?" I asked.
"Can't stop. You?"
"Trying hard not to think about it."
"Ignoring it won't make it go away this time."
"It never does."
I wasn't the "ignore a problem and hope it goes away" kind of girl. I'm the "kick it in the face or kill it to make it go away" kind of fighter, and I always have been. But kicking and killing wouldn't solve the problem staring us in the face, nor would it do much good at today's scheduled meeting. All I could do was wait and see what everyone else involved had to say.
"What do you think the Assembly will decide?" I asked.
"It's hard to guess at this point. They're still fighting over what Vale tried to do to the Dane family."
Tried to do meaning a coup. Each of the thirteen shifter Clans had an Elder representative on the Assembly, which met and made decisions on behalf of all of the Clans. The Felia (aka the cat shifters) Pride had come under attack by some of their own, a family of Bengals led by a man named Vale, intent on overthrowing Elder Marcellus Dane and replacing him on the Assembly. The entire thing had backfired, the bad guy was dead, and Elder Dane had officially stepped down due to health reasons. An Assembly vote a few days ago placed Astrid and Marcus's cousin Riley into Marcellus’s position of Elder.
Vale's accomplices had been punished by the Assembly, but rumor was a few of the Elders had actually sided with Vale. No one was admitting to it—that I knew about—so it was difficult to determine which Clans were still Watchtower allies.
Of course, the issue went far beyond the Watchtower. If Amalie chose to go to war with the rest of the world, she wouldn't pick and choose her enemies. Every single human, Therian, vampire, and whoever else she hated at that moment would be targeted by her minions.
I had no idea how fairies and sprites went to war, and I had no desire whatsoever to find out.
"We should get up," I said. "The meeting is in three hours."
Wyatt grumbled, but released me from his iron grip.
We were in some of the newest housing in the Watchtower. Most of the single members lived in dormitory style housing built in an old store front. A larger store across the corridor had been turned into something more like multi-room apartments. We had one with two bedrooms that shared a living room type space, but without the traditional kitchen area. We did have a bathroom space to share with all five of us.
Yeah, three teenage boys shared one room.
I'd already declared I was never cleaning that room. Ever.
I'm a warrior, not a maid.
The boys were gone by the time we were showered, dressed, and deemed ourselves presentable to the rest of the our coworkers. Wyatt wore his familiar uniform of black jeans and a black t-shirt. With his black hair, scruff and olive skin, the picture was drool-worthy, and he was all mine. I stuck to jeans and a long-sleeve tee, with a corduroy jacket, now that the fall weather was inching into winter.
The meeting would happen at ten a.m. in the War room, so we had time to hit the cafeteria. My stomach was tight and squirrely with nerves, and it didn't settle at the crowd already filling the spacious eating area. Even those who patrolled at night and slept during the day were up, the air full of anxiety and curiosity.
I grabbed a plain bagel and bottle of water, while Wyatt piled his plate high with food of all kinds. His half-Lupa nature had practically doubled his metabolism, which meant he was hungry almost all of the time. I wasn't complaining about the way his arms and abs were cut to perfection, but the frequent eating made me jealous.
Wyatt nudged my hip, then angled his head. I followed his general direction to a table near the back, farther away from the bulk of the crowd. Gina Kismet, Marcus Dane, and Milo Gant sat there alone, the three of them as serious as I'd ever seen them. Seeing Milo eating in the cafeteria made my heart kick in a happy way.
Not quite two weeks ago, Milo had been nearly beaten to death by Vale in an attempt to make Marcus give up important security information. Milo had held on, never letting Vale break him, but he'd been left with serious injuries to his back and legs—swelling that had taken days to go down, bruises that still painted his skin, and pain that would be a long time fading. Tybalt and Milo had been brothers to me, and I couldn't have stood losing them both. I was barely handling Tybalt's death.
The walker Milo used for long-distance hobbling stood nearby, and he looked up with a bright smile when he saw me and Wyatt heading in his direction. "Hey, guys."
I plunked down across from him. "What's shaking, gimpy?"
"Fuck you," Milo said with a grin.
"Milo's progress has increased tremendously in the last few days," Marcus said. He tended to take my teasing a bit too seriously, but the big werecat was also seriously overprotective of Milo. I still wasn't sure if the pair was technically a couple, but they gave off serious "I want you" vibes when they were together.
Things probably would have progressed a lot faster if Vale hadn't decided to make Milo a human punching bag. I bristled briefly at the memories of Milo's torture, then shoved them down deep where they wouldn't bother me today. No regrets, no past issues. Today was about taking back our future, no matter what.
"I don't have to stay in the infirmary anymore," Milo said. "I can go back to the dorms tonight."
Marcus's expression was difficult to decipher. Something between pleasure and a silent reassurance that he wouldn't be alone, no matter what dorm he went back to. I liked knowing Marcus was around to take care of Milo. They both needed someone.
"That's fabulous news, pal." I reached over the table to ruffle his hair, because it would bother him. He stuck his tongue out, and I laughed.
"Wish I could be at the meeting with you guys today," Milo added.
"It's a pretty tight guest list."
"And for good reason," Marcus added. "Many Elders will be present, as well as other leaders. Security will extra important given the nature of the meeting."
"And they don't need a useless guard hanging around."
"You are far from useless."
"He's always good for a sarcastic comment," I said.
Milo flipped me off.
Wyatt ate in silence, as he often did around any of the Felia. Lupa and Felia were mortal enemies, ingrained in their DNA or something like that. From the moment he was infected and became aware of his surroundings again, Wyatt had snarled and snapped at Marcus specifically. To the other Felia to a lesser degree. Wyatt was learning to control himself, but he too frequently struggled to maintain his humanity.
Some days I wondered if the Lupa blood in his system was going to take away what was left of the man.
I hope not. I love him too much to let him go.
"Gina says the obstacle course will be back on schedule soon," Milo said. "I can't wait to run it and kick your ass."
I snickered. "Dream on, Gant."
"Hey, I told you I'd kick your and Tybalt's asses." His smile faltered, fractured by grief. Tybalt had been Milo's best friend and part of his Triad for almost two years, and the wound was still fresh. He'd lost a brother, too.
"We all miss him," Marcus said.
Milo shrugged and picked at the remnants of his breakfast.
One day we'd be able to talk about our lost friends without feeling such a thick, blanket of grief. I hoped.
My phone chimed with a text. Ops. 911.
Great. Emergency first thing in the morning. No one else at the table had gotten the message, but that didn't stop Wyatt from grabbing a handful of sausage links and following me.
The entire mall was in the shape of a big, square-ish U. The cafeteria sat at one corner of the top of the U, with Operations near the center of the top. It was a short walk down the corridor, which was thick with Watchtower members. Rumors about today's big meet-up had spread, and everyone wanted to see who'd show.
I entered Operations, which was the heart and soul of our organization. Besides the War Room, it also housed a bank of computers and large screens that projected pretty much anything we needed to see. Rufus oversaw most of Ops, because he had the most computer skills among the senior staff. Milo could probably give him a run for his figurative money, but Milo preferred staying in the field to being stuck behind a desk.
Given his wheelchair, Rufus didn't have much choice in the matter.
Rufus looked up from his computer terminal, his expectant look melting into a frown. "Who invited you?"
Wyatt growled. "I invited myself."
I shrugged. "I tried a leash, but he keeps breaking loose."
"You really don't need to shadow her everywhere, Wyatt," Rufus said.
"I know that," Wyatt replied.
"Right." He turned his attention back to me, the one he had summoned. "It's about the Frosts."
"What did they do now?" Lori and Stephen Frost were the biological parents of the body in which I was currently residing. While I'd absorbed some of Chalice's memories and sensory perceptions, I didn't know them as my parents. My parents were an unknown deadbeat and a drunken whore.
For a while, they'd sat by while Chalice didn't contact them for more than six months. Last week they'd finally gone on the news trying to find their missing daughter, and a private detective tricked me into meeting with them. We'd brought them back to the Watchtower for their own good, and neither one of them had taken the news about my true nature well—or the fact that shapeshifters, gremlins, and other assorted creatures actually did exist.
Not well at all.
Astrid had ordered them kept here until further notice, and I'd refused to visit them for the last week. I had too much to do and no patience to deal with them.
"Astrid doesn't want them locked up indefinitely, and I agree that it's cruel," Rufus said. "Their daughter is dead, and they deserve a chance to grieve for her."
I crossed my arms. "And what the hell am I supposed to do about it?"
"Talk to them again."
"And say what? Stephen thinks I'm possessed or something. They want me in therapy."
"I could talk to them," Wyatt said.
"No way," I replied. "You're about as subtle as a two-by-four to the head."
"You're no diplomat yourself, Evy."
Okay, so he had me there. "If I honestly thought anything I had to say would make a difference, I'd go talk to them. I'm not their daughter. All they see when they look at me is Chalice. I'm never going to make them believe I'm Evy Stone."
"We've been holding them prisoner for over a week," Rufus said. "We can't keep them here forever. They have lives to go back to. Sooner or later someone is going to start missing them."
"How do you know they haven't already?"
He pointed to his computer. "I've been sending emails on their behalf to coworkers and other relatives, so no one calls in another missing persons report."
"Oh." That was pretty fucking smart of him.
"Stone!" Astrid's voice boomed across Ops.
"I didn't do it," I said as I turned.
She faltered, then understood the joke. "I need a quick errand."
"How quick? The meeting starts in two hours."
"Your errand should take you less than an hour."
"To do what?"
"Pick up something that will help your parents forget they ever saw you."
Turns out the little thing that Astrid needed me to run out and grab was less of a grabby thing and more like a threatening thing. She gave me the address of a mage named Adolpho, who ran a small antiques store on the southwestern side of the city. And when I say small, you'd drive right past it if you didn't know to look for it, nestled among a dozen boarded up store fronts in a little used part of the neighborhood.
Wyatt being Wyatt insisted on coming with me to do my errand. Since I didn't technically have a drivers license, nor had I ever been taught to drive properly, he took Alpha joy in driving us to the mage's shop. Few other cars passed us on the street, and no one was parked in front of the papered over front doors with the tiny "Collectibles" sign in the window.
He scented the air as we stepped out of the Jeep, as was his new habit. The Lupa infection had heightened his senses of smell, hearing and taste, and he was still learning how to use those to his advantage. The smell thing was super useful, considering goblins stank like stale sea water, and he once described a half-Blood as "ass and congealed blood."
Gross as hell, but such was our life.
Despite the drizzling rain, the street still smelled like old urine and gasoline, and the combination turned my stomach. The shop had a Closed sign hanging in it. I banged my first on the glass plates anyway, uncertain if Adolpho lived near, above, or in his supposed collectible shop. Wyatt tilted his head.
"Footsteps," he whispered.
Plastic blinds parted and a bright green eye appeared, the rest of his face obscured by the door. The eye shifted to take us both in, then the blinds dropped. Nothing.
"Astrid Dane sent me," I said, hoping that would work in the vein of "Open sesame."
I'll be damned if the door lock didn't turn. He opened it with the chain still attached. "For what purpose?" the man asked.
"You tell me. She said I had to come here and fetch something."
He squinted. "She said she would send someone she trusted."
Okay, One-Eyed-Mage was getting on my nerves. "She does trust me. I trust her, too, which is why I didn't ask what I was picking up. As long as it isn't poisonous or explodable, I don't really give a flying fuck."
"I don't know…"
Wyatt growled. "You remember Brutus?"
Adolpho's eye widened. "Yes. Sorry." The door shut, the chain slid, and then it was open again. Wider this time. Adolpho was a big, barrel of a man with no hair, a scraggly gray beard, and only one eye. The left socket was puckered and empty. "My apologies, come inside."
The shop reeked of herbs that blended together into one indistinguishable odor, mixed with the musty smell of a closed-in space. The first few shelves nearest the door were filled with rusty trinkets and cloudy pieces of glassware. Beyond it was a wall, and through a thick panel of beaded curtains was a setup very much like an ancient apothecary shop. A wall of wooden drawers, many no wider than a credit card, some as big as a shoe box, each labeled in a language that I couldn't read.
It reminded me of Old World Teas and its owner Brutus, the last mage we'd ousted for working with the sprites. Adolpho seemed much more high-strung, less likely to be pulling the whole double-agent thing that Brutus had pulled with Wyatt for years.
I wiped rainwater off my arms and face. Wyatt didn't seem to notice the droplets trickling down his cheeks from his hair.
Adolpho lifted a ring of ancient-looking keys out from beneath his baggy shirt. He fitted one into a drawer and slid it open. He removed a brown leather pouch with a drawstring. "This is what Astrid asked for," he said, dangling the pouch from two fingers. "Steep it in two cups of boiled water for at least five minutes, and then make them each drink half."
I snagged the pouch and received a waft of something not unlike peppermint. "What's it do?"
"It does as Astrid required."
That told me exactly nothing. "Which is what?"
He shook his head. "You'll have to inquire with her. I've done as she asked."
Wyatt took a step forward, allowing silver to rise up and fill his eyes. He growled softly, an intense sound that made Adolpho back into a cabinet with a yelp. "Don't play word games, mage."
Adolpho gulped hard, his Adam's apple bobbing. "She required a potion that muddled human memories and she needs enough for two."
The Frosts. "How does it muddle memories?" I asked.
"They will be confused about the events of the last month or so, as though coming around from a blackout drunk."
Astrid had ordered magic used on the Frosts to make them forget they'd ever found me, or that I'd told them who I really was.
Shit, fuck and hell.
While removing their memories was a much better solution than keeping them locked up forever, I didn't like that Astrid had gone behind my back. I didn't like that she was using a mage to create an herbal spell that would make them fuzzy on "a month or so" of time. What if it was longer? What if it didn't work? What if Lori Frost woke up and she'd turned into a frog?
Stranger things have happened in this fucking city.
"If the herbs aren't applied properly, what could happen?" I asked.
"Full memory loss."
"Are the memories recoverable if that happens?"
"No, so apply wisely, child."
I hated being called child. "Okay, thanks for this."
Adolpho nodded. "Tell Astrid my debt is repaid."
The light rain had become a steady downpour by the time we got back to the car. My t-shirt clung to my skin. I turned on the heater to try and dry us both out a little bit.
"Astrid wants those herbs for the Frosts, doesn't she?" Wyatt asked.
"I have no doubt." I tapped my fingers against the dash. "Shit, Wyatt, what if something goes wrong?"
"You genuinely care?"
"Of course I do." From anyone but Wyatt, that question would have come across as condescending. He was truly curious. "They aren't my parents in the sense that I was raised by them, but they raised this body. They genuinely loved their daughter. I have a sense of connection, and I don't want to see them hurt."
"I understand that."
I stroked the smooth leather pouch, too aware of the dangerous herbs inside it. "Astrid has to know I'd ask what this does, and she'll know I won't like it."
"Maybe she expected you to balk, and this is her way of giving you a push."
"A push where?"
"A push into doing something about the Frosts."
"Why are they my responsibility? I didn't ask to get resurrected into their daughter. I didn't ask them to come here looking for her, and I certainly didn't ask for O'Reilly to introduce me to them. Nor did I ask for Vale to fucking kidnap them and put them right into the middle of this mess."
Wyatt held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. "I know all of that, Evy. In some ways, your being inside of their daughter is my fault."
"How do you figure?"
"I initiated the resurrection spell."
"Yeah, well, you had no idea I'd resurrect into a body that had a connection to the Break, rather than the dead Hunter you'd prepared for me." That particular wrinkle had been a bonus for us, because me resurrecting somewhere other than in the expected place had put the first wrinkle into Tovin's plan for bringing a demon across the Break—the magical barrier between this world and the one where dark creatures had been banished long ago.
Breaks existed all over the city, and humans went about their days unaware of them. But if a human is born over a Break, they have a connection to it which often leads to a Gift of some sort. Wyatt was Gifted. He could summon inanimate, inorganic materials into his hand from a decent distance—a Gift he was still learning to control post-Lupa infection. My new Gift was the ability to transport from one location to another. I could go through solid objects, but it hurt like a motherfucker, so I didn't like doing that. The talent had saved my life more than once these last six months, and it had been another fantastic foil to Tovin's plan.
Did I mention my other handy ability to rapidly heal? That came courtesy of the resurrection spell. I'd have been dead ten times over without it.
"You don't get to take responsibility for this," I said. "There's no one person at fault for this mess."
Wyatt grunted. "Seems to me the entire mess can be traced directly back to Tovin's first manipulations."
"Maybe. Then we'll blame the elf. No more self-blame. Understood?"
He leaned in closer, eyes narrowing. "Have I told you lately you're really hot when you give me orders?"
"Not lately, no." The gleam in his eyes was all too familiar, and we had work yet to do. "Down boy."
He grinned, and my heart skipped.
Then my phone screeched with a general alert text, Wyatt's following an instant later. I checked the message.
Kismet: Backup ASAP. Union Street Salvage.
"That's only a few blocks from here," Wyatt said.
"I'll call it in."
He made the turn. We'd both lived in this city our entire lives, and we knew every single street and side road.
Gina Kismet led Quad Four, and they were on patrol this morning. She worked alongside Shelby, an Ursia who shifted into a big-ass polar bear, and Kyle, a Cania dingo-shifter. The other person on their team had been Tybalt, and they'd yet to replace him in what were typically quads of two humans and two Therians. The problem was we didn't have any more trained humans to fold into the quad, and Astrid liked to keep the human-to-Therian ratio balanced because it fostered tolerance or something like that.
All I cared about was the team needed backup.
I let Ops know that we were responding to the call. The salvage yard was easy to find, its massive acreage surrounded by a metal fence topped with razor wire. The east side hadn't been my stomping grounds as a Hunter, but I'd heard a few stories about tracking Halfies through the salvage yard for hours on end.
Lucky for us the place was owned and operated by a family of Prosi who were human-friendly and pro-Watchtower. A big, fenced-in area full of places to climb, jump and swing on seemed pretty fitting for people who shifted in lemurs and bushbabies.
The entrance was off the corner of Union Street and a dirt road to nowhere, marking the end of city limits. Union itself trailed off into undeveloped land that eventually became part of the forested mountains surrounding the city. A rain-soaked, rail-thin man in denim coveralls held open a chain-link rolling fence for us without even asking for ID, then promptly shut it with himself on the outside.
Prosi weren't known for their amazing fighting skills.
Past a dingy trailer marked Office, dirt trails ran off in three different directions. Wyatt stuck his head out the window and sniffed. How he could smell anything over the stink of oil fuel and engine grease was beyond me, but eventually he took the center road. We trundled past hundreds of different kinds of cars, trucks, vans, motorcycles, and heaps of other metals. Salvaged parts of refrigerators, ovens, and all kinds of machinery was piled in no discernible way, but I guessed it made sense to the owners.
A goblin male darted out in front of the car and leapt onto the hood an instant before we'd have smashed into it. Wyatt hit the brakes, but the fucking thing grabbed onto the windshield wipers. It peered in at us, its red eyes glimmering with bloodlust. Oily black skin glistened in the rain. Most of the goblin warriors I'd fought wore loincloths. This fucker was totally naked and there was no hiding how much it was enjoying the fight.
I fought back the very real urge to vomit. Months had passed, and I had a completely different body than the one tortured to death by goblins, but some things never left you.
The goblin hissed, showing off rows of razor teeth.
Wyatt stuck his left hand out the open window and shot the thing in the head. Gore splattered the car hood.
"Guess we found the fight," I said.
We ditched the car. I hadn't left the Watchtower with anything on me except a serrated knife in my boot, so I grabbed a few more toys out of the trunk—two Glocks, a machete, and some extra rounds. Wyatt stuck with his single pistol, probably intending to bi-shift at some point so he could do more damage.
A roaring sound that could only be angry bear-Shelby rattled the tin roofing near the car. We bolted in that direction, splashing through mud puddles on our way to the main event. A goblin sailed overhead, its mangled body dead before it smashed into something out of sight.
It's going to be that kind of fight.
The odds were three to several dozen, so I jumped in the machete and cleaved through the shoulder of the nearest goblin. It screeched and yanked away, bleeding fuchsia all over itself as it stumbled into a friend. Bear-Shelby was going to town near a roofless school bus, batting at the goblins like he was playing a life-sized game of whack-a-mole.
Kyle hadn't shifted, so he and Kismet were going hand-to-hand. Both were bleeding, but I couldn't stop and assess injuries. The machete helped me thin out the horde a bit. Behind me, Wyatt roared. A hulking shadow and the squeal of several goblins told me he'd bi-shifted. Since he wasn't full Lupa, he couldn't shift completely into a wolf. He could, however, get taller, more muscular, grown insane claws on both hands, and reshape his face into something genuinely grotesque on a human being.
He was truly a monster in that form—nothing sexy about it. But he was also a formidable fighter, and we needed that in our corner.
"They keep coming," Kismet yelled over the battle roar and the rain.
I could see that. For every two I dropped, three more seemed to take their places. "From where?"
One of them jumped onto my back from behind. Short arms circled my neck while clawed fingers sunk into my shoulders. Teeth scraped at the my left ear and cut my scalp.
Oh hell no.
I slammed backward into the nearest hard surface. The goblin wheezed and its arms loosened. Another hard smash and it let go. I pivoted and kicked it right in the groin. It squealed, and then died when I ran it through with the machete.
Two more hit me from the side, and we all went tumbling into a puddle. Too close for the blade, I dropped it in favor of smashing their skulls together. Teeth broke and blood spurted. The awful stink of seawater rose over the other scents around me. My gut twisted. I used to take great pleasure in killing monsters like this. Once it had been fun.
Now it was a fucking responsibility.
I rolled onto my knees, fingers curling around the hilt of my abandoned machete. Kyle and Kismet were separated by a cluster of goblins that seemed to be doing their best to herd Kismet away from the battle. She punched, kicked, and slashed at them with a shiny pair of butterfly swords she'd been training to use, but the goblins were overwhelming her.
Goblin warriors were only about four feet tall, but they were strong, they were dumb, and they fucked anything with a hole, including corpses. I'd experienced the agony of a goblin's hooked penis, and I'd seen too many other mutilated human victims, both male and female.
I launched at them. On my third stride, I went sideways into a car door with a wall of goblins pressing down on me. Teeth snapped at my arms and face, scraping skin and drawing blood that the rain washed away. The stench of them filled my nose. Clawed fingers ripped at my shirt.
Bitter fury rose up like bile and came out on a long scream. I swung hard with the machete. Goblin squeals were my reward, so I did it again. Blood splattered. One of them grabbed my hair and yanked my head back, exposing my throat. Sharp teeth flashed.
Wyatt snarled and smacked the goblin away. He batted a few more hard enough to snap their necks. I hacked off various body parts on my way out of the pileup. My shirt was torn, my throat and arms stung from a lot of small wounds, and I could still feel their hands on my body.
None of that fucking mattered, because Kismet was gone.
Kyle yelped. Wyatt charged off to help him.
I ran in the direction I'd seen the goblins herding Kismet, overtaking them only a few yards down a narrow path between piles of broken bricks and cement blocks. They'd apparently given up on persuasion and had lifted her up into the air like some kind of offering to the gods. She was struggling like a champ and cussing them left and right.
Some of them turned and hissed. None of them attacked, which was what I'd hoped for, so I took the party to them. No fucking way were they carting Kismet off to become their latest plaything.
I went in low, aiming for kneecaps so I didn't accidentally take a chunk out of my friend. Bones shattered. Flesh tore. Blood spurted. I moved without cataloguing any of it, aware only of my enemies and the need to beat them. My arms ached but it didn't matter.
Palms slapped down on both of my ears, and everything went gray. My equilibrium shattered all to hell, and I fell to my knees with a jolt up my spine.
Fucker boxed my ears.
I blinked hard through the rain, aware of lots of small legs carrying my enemies away from me. I fumbled for one of the Glocks, fell flat to my chest in the mud, and opened fire. Bullets struck flesh. Goblins screamed. Faltered. Fell.
The goblin who'd boxed my ears clamped its mouth down on my wrist. Fire lashed up my arm, right to my shoulder. I transferred the gun to my left hand, and then shot the thing between the eyes. Seawater blood splattered me in the face. Teeth scored my arm as the body fell, leaving pencil-thick gouges down the length of it.
Dizzy and nauseated, I hauled ass to my feet. Pocketed the gun for now and scooped the machete back up.
Somewhere behind me a big cat cried out in anger. More backup.
"A little help!" I shouted.
I followed small rivers of fuchsia past the piles of bricks, deeper into the salvage yard. The cars and whatnot got rustier and dirtier the farther back I trailed the goblins. Small trees and bushes had come to life inside some of the husks. I couldn't exactly be stealthy about tracking them with my wet boots squishing into mud with every step, so I went for speed instead.
A goblin jumped from the shell of an old pickup truck, mouth open, hands extended. I took its fucking head off before it could blink, and I kept running.
The horde had stopped where the ground dipped down to the perimeter fence. A dozen small trees had grown up near the fence, and piles of old shingles had gone to rot nearby. I couldn't see Kismet for their moving bodies, so I pulled both guns and opened fire on anything that wasn't human.
Two, six, twelve, twenty of them fell dead, and the final few ran toward the trees. I hit one on the back, and down it went. The other two I let go.
Kismet sat up from beneath the pile of bodies, her skin smeared in gore. Red blood mixed with fuchsia in a graphic war paint that was all the more hideous due to the fact that her shirt was gone. She stared at me with wide eyes, one hand stanching blood from someplace on her neck. I picked a path over the bodies and squatted in front of her.
"You with me?" I asked.
"Yeah." She shook herself all over. "Jesus Christ. Did that really happen?"
"Almost happened." I helped her stand up. "You hurt anywhere?"
She was bleeding from at least a dozen cuts and standing there topless, but her jeans seemed intact so I wasn't going to question her on her definition of the word superficial. She finally seemed to notice the topless thing and wrapped her arms around her breasts.
A lioness leapt into the mess from somewhere above us. She sniffed at us, then followed her nose down toward the trees and fence. The small dark patch on her left shoulder was the only way I knew that was Lynn Neil.
"Evy?" Wyatt had undone his bi-shift, which left his shirt sleeves stretched out and torn in a few places. He took one look at Kismet and slipped his shirt off. "What the hell happened?"
"The goblins were trying to take Gina with them," I said.
His dark gaze went deadly.
"Evy was pretty badass with that machete," Kismet said as she tugged on the too big shirt. "You've been practicing."
"They weren't taking you." I wouldn't wish that kind of fate on my worst enemy, let alone allow it to happen to a friend.
"Why did they want me, though?"
"Something tells me they would have happily carted off anyone who was human."
"What happened?" Wyatt asked.
"We were doing a simple patrol of the area when we got a call about a possible goblin sighting out here,” Gine said, “so we checked it out. We were attacked, and we called for backup. You guys came. End of story."
"Why does this whole thing feel like a setup?" I asked.
"Because it is," Kyle said.
He approached with naked Shelby behind him—clothing became problematic when it came to shapeshifting—and flanked by humans Carly and Oliver. They were part of a quad with Lynn and an Equi named Nestor, who was the only person MIA.
"How do you know it was a setup?" Kismet asked.
"The goblins left us a present a few rows back. Nestor's guarding it."
The only presents goblins ever left behind were dead bodies.
"Where's Lynn?" Carly asked.
I jacked a thumb over my shoulder. "Sniffing down around the fence. It's where the goblins were heading. We'll check out the present if you guys want to investigate that." It wasn't a question so much as a polite order, and no one contradicted me.
Wyatt hovered close to Kismet on the walk back. Shelby seemed to know where Nestor was, so Kyle and I followed him, the other pair behind us. Wyatt and Kismet had been friends for more than ten years, and they had this brother/sister love between them. He knew she was freaked out by what had just happened—as freaked out as Kismet ever got around other people—and he was doing his silent supportive thing.
Nestor was a tall fellow, with a long face and dark hair—both things typical of his Clan. He was a zebra shifter and somewhat new to the Watchtower. He stood with his arms crossed, at attention in front of an old VW bus. "It's gory," he said.
Definitely new. "My entire adult life has been one gorefest after another," I said. "Bring it on."
He stepped aside.
I smelled it first—the ripe odors of blood and meat left in the sun too long. The interior of the bus had been stripped of all furnishings, leaving a shell that was coated in blood. Some of it had been washed off by the rain through the windows and puddled on the floor with the various parts of someone's body. Male, female, I wasn't sure. The pieces were too small. My stomach churned, and I stepped back before I got sick all over Nestor.
Wyatt stuck his head in the open door. "Male, not freshly killed. I suspect the dismemberment happened post-mortem."
I wasn't about to ask how he knew that.
"There's a note." He turned around clutching a wet sheet of paper, his expression grim.
"What's it say?" Kismet asked when I didn't.
His black eyes flashed silver. "Stone or more. Which will die?"
"Fuck me." My gut rolled. The goblins knew I was alive.