A werewolf's last chance at redemption. Prologue and first chapter, approx. 3300 words.
“There wasn’t supposed to be no girl, just the old man . . . but whatever,” Ron Early grunted to himself, bloodshot eyes ping-ponging back and forth between the old man and the girl shielding his head and torso with her own. She was sobbing and keening: “Oh, George, no!”
It was very much a fuck-my-life moment in a life that’s been full of them, Ron decided.
“Shh. Don’t cry . . . don’t cry,” he said almost kindly, aiming the heavy, unwieldy pistol at her head—at this range and her not moving, it’d be the easiest kill-shot he’s ever had. Easier, anyway, than the old man, who’d taken three to the chest and still had enough fight left in him to stagger toward Ron.
But another two to the chest had taken care of that handily.
Sort of, anyway. Because the old man was not only still breathing, but trying to talk.
And that’s just another fucked up aspect of this job, Ron admitted to himself as he reloaded. First the creepy, hairy, dog-faced sonuvabitch that gave me the job, then the weird orders on how to go about the job, then the designer, high-tech pistol and soft-core hollow points they ordered me to use—oh, no, the job was too good for my own Beretta and rounds, but at least they let me use a silencer—then the old bastard does his best impersonation of the Terminator! And now, this crying, fucking girl. Sobbing her heart out like she lost her best friend . . . .
It was almost enough to break the heart Ron doesn’t have. But mostly, it just made him want to get this job over and done with, get his money, and get the hell out of Dodge.
(It doesn’t, Ron had thought as he quickly jimmied the old man's pathetic lock, take a whiz-kid to know what’s been blowing in the weeds. Everyone knows this city's going to the dogs.)
“Sorry, it’s nothing personal . . . just business,” he tells her now, truthfully, grinning nervously without realizing he is. And she looks up at him with wide, wet dark eyes, accusing and innocent. This is the moment that always puts sand up Ron’s crack. If he had a conscience, it’d be scolding him, right about now.
And what would he tell it to shut it up?
“Wasn’t supposed to be no girl.” He aims, squints, and puts pressure on the trigger.
Part One: The End of An Era
Des had a better nose than any Loup in the Packs, but she didn’t need it to tell her there was trouble.
All she needed was the muffled chuffs of a gun with a silencer coming from the direction of George’s apartment to tell her that the shit was finally going down, and it was going down without her.
George was in danger and she, his Geas-Protector, because the Packs are just that old school, swearing people to blood-oaths, was definitely not doing her job.
“Ah, fuck.” She rollied out of bed and felt around on the floor for her clothes.
“Well, that’s what I thought.” The pretty brunette Hume in Des’s bed leaned up on one elbow, watching Des dress with confused, annoyed dark eyes. “What the hell, man? Where’re you goin’?”
Pulling on her worn sweater and oversized army coat—heavy with silver daggers, silver bullets, and silver throwing stars stashed in well-hidden inner pockets—Des stepped into her beat-up combat boots and stretched till every joint in her five foot, four inch frame cracked loudly enough to make the pretty brunette wince. “I have business . . . sorry, chica.”
Des squatted and felt under the bed till her hand encountered the stock of her shotgun. When she stood up, grim-faced, the brunette’s eyes widened and she cringed back from Des, her eyes squinched shut. A tiny, nasally whimper escaped from her, and she quickly covered her mouth.
Des almost says something intended to comfort this woman whose name she’s already forgotten—not that she’s good at that sort of thing . . . remembering names or giving comfort—but instead she locked and loaded. “Please be gone when I get back. And don’t take anything you didn’t come here with, comprende?”
The brunette nodded quickly, eyes still shut, hands clutched prayerfully together between pale, perfect breasts. She smelled of cheap perfume, sweat, sex, and fear, and the Loup within Des reared its hairy head, wanting to pin the brunette and finish what they’d started—taste her skin and fear and blood—
But Des quashed the Loup easily—something that’d taken far too long to learn—then she strode to the door of her one room apartment. When the door shut behind her, she stretched again, letting the molten heat of The Change run along muscle and bone for a moment. Every hair on her body stood on end—bristled in preparation for battle, and the Loup within was suddenly not so in anymore. It bared her teeth in a feral snarl.
Growling low and guttural in her throat, Des stalked toward the staircase.
Des reaches George’s landing and in the ensuing silence, creeps up to George’s door, her ears pricking and nostrils flaring.
She hears George’s labored breathing and a woman’s soft, horrified sobs. She also smells three Scents: two familiar and one decidedly not.
George’s pungent, musky Scent, like iron, blood, Loup, and pine needles. . . .
The soft, sweet Scent of cinnamon, vellum, Hume and, woman—familiar only because Des had scented it the few times she’d visited George’s apartment on Council business.
And the unfamiliar Scent of the interloper: old blood-tears-Hume-gunpowder residue, and the slighter, but more dangerous scent of liquid silver nitrate.
Des’s hackles raise straight up and she sees . . . red.
Feels it in her bones . . . wanting to Change her. The Loup always wants out, always wants to fight, fuck, and feast, in that particular order. It smells the opportunity for at least two of the three waiting in the Dyre’s den. . . .
Back in your cage, cabrón, she tells it quickly, giving it her solemn fucking word that she’ll let it out soon. Later. Now isn’t the time.
With a sullen, impatient growl, it subsides. But its want still throbs within Des like a second heartbeat. It’s tasted human flesh, in every sense of the word, and it’s never lost that taste.
Fight, fuck, and feast.
Those three things are enough to drive a Loup absolutely rabid when Humes are added to the picture.
Fucking Humes . . . always have to get tangled up in Loup matters, Des thinks bitterly, but not without a strange sense of anticipation—or maybe it’s the Loup thinking that. It can be tough to tell when Des is worked-up.
And she is most definitely worked-up.
She kicks in the door with one blow and stalks into George’s formerly cozy apartment. The furniture’s been upset and there’re blood spatters everywhere, it seems. In the center of this chaos is a tableau that might make Des want to give voice to the Loup. To let it howl until the moon sets and she wakes up from this nightmare of abject failure on her part. . . .
But Des isn’t known for subtlety or self-reflection, so instead she strides over to the one person who’s still standing, beside herself, and reverses the shotgun in one smooth motion. The killer’s barely begun to turn and see what form his death has taken—the bullet that’d been meant for the sobbing stranger, this girl, this . . . woman-Scent, burying itself in the exposed brick wall behind her—before Des is swinging the shotgun.
When the stock hits him square in the temple, the assassin goes down without a sound, a limp puddle of long, greasy blond hair and dark polyester blends.
Des looms over his body, panting. The Loup wants to tear and rend, and so help her, if the interloper isn’t dead, she’ll be more than happy to finish what the shotgun started. To go back to that awful place where Changing meant fighting and fighting meant killing and killing meant devouring—
Suddenly the silence in the apartment is torn by a pained shriek. Des has the shotgun business-side forward once more, and centered on the head of the formerly sobbing woman-Scent, who’s now screaming.
And who wouldn’t scream with someone’s teeth buried to the gums in their neck? Who wouldn’t be in utter agony as their flesh is rent by some horrible thing out of legend. . . ?
Des shakes her head once, snapping herself back to the present. This is no time for a stroll down memory cesspit. Dropping the shotgun, she takes a tentative step forward.
George’s huge, bloody hands are clamped like manacles around the screaming woman-Scent’s upper arms. Even as Des looks on, George’s mortally wounded body attempts to Change: blunt, unassuming features elongating, hands warping and sprouting coarse grey-blond fur. Thanks, no doubt, to his injuries, he’s caught mid-change, neither fully Human in appearance, nor fully Loup.
His eyes open, a wild, dangerous yellow, and he growls low in his throat. Des bares her own throat in unhesitating submission and takes a step back. The dangerous eyes shut once more.
The Hume-woman’s screams taper off into coughs and gasps as George worries at but doesn't rip out the junction where her neck meets her shoulder. Finally, her eyes roll back into her head and she goes limp, sagging heavily in George’s arms. Her body twitches and tics, then finally goes grave-still.
But she’s not dead, Des knows. Later, maybe, if she doesn’t survive the Fever, or the first Change. But for now, she’s alive, and George—
—is letting go of her. Releasing her, and gently laying her on the blood-stained carpet with tenderness Des has rarely seen. Then he himself is flopping to the carpet with little grace. His eyes—no longer that dangerous yellow—light on Des and he nods once, in obvious agony. His barrel of a chest is a map of ragged, smoking holes that smell of singed silver nitrate and charred meat.
Des is more than familiar with that type of shell. As a Protector—and Exterminator—she carries it on her person for the express purpose of putting rabid and enemy Loups in their graves. Once the outer casing breaks apart, which it does immediately upon piercing flesh, the silver nitrate leaks out into the Loup’s system.
Even if she had the tools to remove the bullet fragments, Des could never get all the silver out of his system.
George is dying. And fast.
Des steps closer, then closer still, and kneels next to him, putting down the shotgun and taking his cold, incarnadined hand. He smiles, the woman-Scent’s blood and flesh in his teeth. His fangs. He doesn’t look full-Hume anymore. Instead, he looks like what he is: the distilled essence of the Loup-Garoul, large, long-faced, raw-boned, and fierce.
“I failed you, DyreFather—” Des begins, tight-jawed, and George laughs a little, blood foaming between his grey-red lips.
“My life . . . my reign has run its course, young one.” He coughs again, and turns his head to look at the Hume-woman lying unconscious next to him, his face regaining some of its humanity, his pale blue eyes warming. “Her reign, however, is just beginning.”
Des, somewhat horrified herself, looks over at the unconscious, erstwhile Hume-woman.
She’s nothing special to look at: above average height, slightly more than average weight, dressed in frumpy, muted colors—mismatched clothing that bags on her healthy frame and dulls her rather lovely, unlined sienna complexion. Her wavy, brown hair is scraped back from a clear brow in a severe pony-tail that looks ridiculous, considering her soft, round features.
No, nothing special to look at, but when has that ever mattered? Especially when she’d done more to protect George than Des had. . . .
“What do you suppose the Pack Alphas will have to say about their new Queen: a Packless, fresh-turned Loup whose only connection to the Loup-Garoul is the charitable act of reading to a weak-eyed old man?” George coughs up more blood trying to laugh. “Those who cursed me in life, yet jockeyed to be next to me as I neared death . . . I wonder what they’ll make of her.”
Not much. Des thinks, shaking her head and sighing. It’s not her place to judge the person George, that most Dyre of Loups, Alpha of Alphas, Leader of all the Packs, had thought fit to pass his lineage and power on to. But she can’t be less than honest with her leader. “They’ll probably kill her.”
“Not with you to be her teacher and guardian, Daughter.”
Des’s mouth drops open and George actually grins. Wolfishly. “But—I can’t—I mean, I didn’t. . . .” protect you. What makes you think I could protect her?
“You failed in your Geas, it’s true. So you must redeem yourself.” Now, George’s smile is steely and unforgiving. “In blood, if necessary.”
Des shakes her head again, brow furrowed in shame and consternation. She's spilled enough blood, Hume and Loup, to know there’s no redemption in it. “I don’t understa—“
But George is taking her hand with mortal effort, his breathing becoming even more forced. With his other hand he reaches for the woman-Scent’s hand. Des takes her hand and places it in George’s. Or tries to. He refuses to take it, and instead places Des’s other hand on the Hume-woman’s warm, lax one.
“Jennifer Desiderio of No Pack, with my last breath, I charge you with the care and protection of Ruby Knudsen, Dyre-apparent . . . ah . . . to keep her and teach her, until such time as she wins true Dyrehood through contest or compromise. To die in service of her, if so called.” George takes a deep, shaking breath, but his eyes pin Des just as surely as if he’d picked her up and slammed her against a wall. “Do you accept this Geas, child, and with it your chance at redemption?”
Des swallows and glances at the Hume-woman—at the already closing, but still gruesome wound–then back at George. His eyes are sharp and keen despite his deteriorating state and they seem to see right through Des, to every wrong and terrible thing she’s done that might need redeeming. And there’s definitely a lot to see: all the mayhem and trouble she’s caused for the Packs . . . all the people, Loup and Hume, that ended their lives in Des’s jaws . . . all the people. . . .
Swallowing again, Des nods and squares her shoulders. “I accept the Geas with a heavy heart, but a willing one, DyreFather.”
“Ahhh. . . .” George exhales, smiling in obvious relief. “That’s good.”
His smile doesn’t fade even as his eyes glaze over. He exhales one last time then doesn’t take another breath. With one more sigh that comes out as a brief, muffled whine, Des reaches out and closes his eyes. “Run with the Moon.”
George Carnahan is dead. The DyreFather is dead. This strongest, canniest, most cunningest of Loups is dead; the large, ever-present force of the spirit that had once animated his strong, tall form is utterly gone. The Dyre, Wolf of all Wolfs has gone on to join his forefathers and mothers.
The towering, charismatic leader who had once spared Des’s miserable life despite the entirely just death sentence passed by on her the Tribunal is . . . no more, and Des can't seem to think beyond that single, incredulous thought.
The DyreFather is dead.
“Long live the DyreMother,” Des whispers to the unconscious Hume-woman, scooping her up and standing with her as if she weighs nothing. The Hume-woman—Ruby—moans and twitches, her eyes fluttering open. She licks full, dry lips and tries to speak.
“George. . . .” she whispers hoarsely, with obvious effort. Des hesitates then shakes her head no.
Ruby moans, her eyes shutting briefly, before opening once more. “He bit . . . me.” Her hand flops feebly up to her shoulder to feel at the wound. Weak fingers trace a raw, vicious-looking scar that will itself soon fade to practically nothing.
“It’s already healed,” Des says apologetically. She figures it’s the only apology for her hijacked life Ruby will ever get. “The rest is up to you. Surviving, and shit.”
Shaking arms wrap around Des’s neck and attempt to hold on tight, her gaze never wavering from Des’s. It’s pained, confused, and begging for answers. “Surviving . . . what?”
Chewing her lower lip, Des averts her eyes for a moment then meets Ruby’s gaze again. The Fever. The Packs. The goddamn politics. Being the Dyre.”
Ruby shakes her head a little. “Dire. . . ? I don’t understand.”
“No, Dyre. The Queen,” Des spits out, straight to the point. She’s done more talking in the past ten minutes than she has in all her twenty-three years, it feels like. At any rate, they have to get out here before more trouble shows up. “Of the Loup Garoul. The Werewolves,” she adds quickly, before Ruby can ask.
After a moment, Ruby turns her face away. “You’re awful. This whole dream is awful.”
Suddenly her eyes roll up into her head again and this time she’s really is out for the count. The Fever’s taking her fast. Ruby will be no help in the saving of her own life. Which would mean it’s entirely up to Des to get them both somewhere hidden and defensible until Ruby wakes up . . . or doesn’t.
“With all my strength and power, I will protect you,” Des promises, hugging close her only chance at redemption. She can already feel the heat baking off of said redemption. “With all my craft and cunning, I will save you. To my last breath, Ruby.”
With one glance at George’s cooling body, she exits the apartment, Ruby in her arms. They need to go underground and stay that way until the next Full-Moon Waxing. Till Ruby is strong enough to fight for the Dyrehood and win.
There’s only one defensible, completely unexpected place Des can think of hiding, but she’d almost rather chew off her own foot than go there.
By cloudy, drizzling midnight, Des was exhausted from carrying Ruby around and keeping to the shadows and alleyways. They were both drenched (which at least muddled their scents in case someone came sniffing after them), and Ruby was coughing rackingly.
Keeping that thought firmly in mind, Des stepped up to the huge wrought-iron gate and glanced at the CCD camera mounted atop it like a watchful raven. She must have looked like a drowned rat and carrying a corpse for company.
Des was, yet again, not remotely in a position of power. But there was nothing to be done for it. She’d barely reached out for the intercom buzzer before the gate swung open like something out of a gothic novel.
But any second thoughts Des had were quashed by the suddenly increasing downpour and Ruby’s soft, pitiful moans and wee, weak shivers. So Des trotted down the gravel driveway, past the gatehouse and whichever goon was playing guard that night, and to the brooding front door of the estate house. She didn’t bother reaching for the knocker. He obviously already knew she was there. Indeed, the door was swinging open by the time she climbed the shallow front steps.
A tall somber man waited in a rectangle of soft yellow light that did nothing to gentle his features. Unreadable dark eyes flicked from Des, to Ruby, then back to Des. Disdainful nostrils flared, and he sighed as one greatly put upon.
“Good evening, Jennifer,” Aaron Coulter murmured in his smooth, eternally unruffled tenor. He was the only person who called Des Jennifer—the only person left who has a right to, she supposed tiredly. But it still rankled.
“Good evening, sir,” Des mumbled, then gritted her teeth and reminded herself that beggars can’t be choosers. “Father.”
Coulter smiled his thin, amused smile and that, too, rankled, as did his regal, languid gesture to enter. But for the moment, Ruby Knudsen was safe. That was all that mattered.
Des stepped inside.