Tam winced as he shifted his right shoulder, rotating it first backward, then forward.
"It will heal. Leave it to those bastards to implant the chip in my bicep instead of someplace where it was easy to remove." He let out a soft grunt, then took another sip of his coffee from the enamel mug.
Jason had removed the chip for him while we were aboard the boat headed for the Greens. It had been a rough, bloody surgery, but with Elan's salves, and my fire to cauterize the wound, Tam managed to avoid infection. We dumped the chip overboard, so if the Devani or the Corp Rats were trying to track him, they'd find themselves in the middle of the Pacific Sound. With the zombies overrunning Seattle, I doubted they'd even bother.
We had managed to reach the Wild Wood and were well north of the Greens, attempting to make our way through to the forest on the opposite side of Wild Wave Inlet, but the going was slow and the weather had been against us all the way. None of our cell phones worked here. The Wild Wood had taken on a force of its own since the World Shift, and even satellite technology couldn't pierce the veil that shadowed the tangle of forests.
I warmed my hands by the fire. We had yet to come across any of the Woodland Fae supposed to be living out in the wilds. Elan had cautioned patience.
"We have miles to go yet," she had said. "Verdanya is at least a week to the south, given the weather we're encountering."
Apparently, she wasn't kidding.
There were no paved roads out here, nor cars to travel them. If we had managed to escape to the south we could have hiked along the highway toward Bend and perhaps hitched a ride, but there hadn't been any time to escape that way. We had to evacuate immediately and with the Devani watching the southern border of the city, that meant traveling via the Barrow tunnels to the Pacific Sound to meet Laren's boat.
When the zombies swarmed the city, the Regent of Seattle declared martial law and every border was in the process of being locked up good and tight. Luckily the curfew couldn't affect UnderBarrow, but we had to run while we had the chance or risk facing the Devani as they began to patrol the Pacific Sound as well as the city streets. Laren would have had to sail away before they caught him. As big as our party was-eight adults and one teenager-the only way out through the chaos had been via the waterways.
Now, two days later, we were deep in the forest, caught in the middle of a massive snowstorm. I was usually good with directions, but keeping my bearings in a wild tangle of woodland was proving a challenge.
I settled beside Tam on the nurse log and leaned against him. He wrapped his arm-his good arm-around me and kissed my forehead.
"This is all new for you, isn't it? The forest?"
I nodded. "Other than a day trip or two, and an occasional excursion into the Bogs, the only interactions I've had with the forest were in the Arbortariam with the Greenlings. I'm not sure what to expect here. The sounds are so different than in the city. I don't know what to be alarmed by, or what's considered normal. Also, I can't stop thinking about Hecate. I know she said she'd be able to find me, but...will she?"
I was most concerned about the latter. Hecate was a goddess of the Crossroads. I was her Theosian-a minor goddess in my own right. She was back in Seattle. The Peninsula of the Gods had closed itself off to any visitors, including government officials. They had raised the banner of sovereignty as they isolated themselves from the chaos raging through the city.
"She's an Elder Goddess. She'll be able to find you, no matter what. Even if your cell phone isn't picking up a signal, she'll find you. You're bound to her and she holds your leash. How could she not keep track of you?"
Once again, Tam kissed me, this time on the lips. A long, lingering kiss, his touch ran through to the tips of my toes. I shivered, more out of hunger for him than because of my fears. I had never relied on anybody this much in a long time, and that in itself scared me.
Tam was around five-eleven, lanky with long black hair that curled to his waist. His features were angular, with wide, sloping eyes. His irises glimmered silver, and were ringed with black. He was the prettiest man I had ever seen. At least, he was pretty in that dangerous, glam-boy way. He also happened to be Lord of the Bonny Fae, and he was my lover.
I huddled next to him, holding my hands out to the fire as the snow fell thickly around us. Winter had come hard this year. Eons ago, before the World Shift, the Seattle area had been rainy during the winter, from what the history books told us. But now the season marched on, with long chilly autumns, icy winters, lovely springs, and then a brief, sweltering summer.
"What do you think is happening back there?" I missed the city. Even though I had lived on the fringe, hiding from the Devani and the sky-eyes, I loved the hustle and bustle, the street vendors and late night bogeys who slinked through the shadows. The city was all I had ever known.
"I don't even want to think about it." Tam slid his arm around my waist, pulling me closer. He grazed my cheek with his lips. "I'm just grateful that UnderBarrow can close against the outer world. At least my people will be safe. Someday, I want to show you all of its wonders. When we return I'll take you on the full tour." He paused, then whispered, "I wish I could fuck you right here, right now. You drive me crazy, you know that?"
I blushed. I was learning to accept his compliments, but they still made me laugh nervously. We had transformed our years-long friendship into a romantic one. It took some getting used to.
"I know." I shifted on the log. "I feel the same way, but we're in the middle of the woods, in the middle of a snowstorm, and all our friends are right here. I don't want to make them uncomfortable." I paused, glancing over at the tent we shared. "I'm just grateful Elan and Laren had plenty of survival gear stowed aboard the Golden Briar."
Born in Verdanya, home of the Woodland Fae, the twins owned the boat, and had helped us escape from Seattle.
Tam arched his back to stretch, raising his arms over his head. With a sudden grunt, he lowered his right arm, wincing. "That was stupid."
He nodded. "Yeah, I won't make that mistake again." With a sigh, he stood, holding out his hand. "Come then, let's see how the others are doing."
As we turned to join the rest of the camp, who were over by the main fire, the crackle of branches split the night as a group of dark, twisted figures lunged out from the forest. They growled and sputtered as they raced forward.
Crap. We were under attack.
I slapped my hand to my right thigh, where the long tattoo of a flaming whip came to life in my palm. Hecate had tattooed the whip onto my leg, magically imbuing the ink with her cold fire and strength. As I coiled the braided lash back, my side protested. I was still weak from a rib-bruising beating, but at least I had recovered enough over the past couple of days to fight.
Tam drew his sword, tossing it to his left hand. He was ambidextrous, and had a keen aim with either hand. I moved aside to give both of us room to maneuver. The last thing I needed was to flail one of our own party with my whip.
Over by the main fire, Elan and Laren smoothly moved in unison, nocking their arrows. Jason-a hawk shifter and one of my closest friends-drew his dagger. Though he was a magician, his spellwork wasn't geared toward fighting.
Hans, a Theosian like me who was pledged to Thor, and Greta, a newly ascended Valkyrie, also drew their swords and took up battle stance. Tymbur and Montran began to prepare their magic. Pledged to Hades, their magic ran in dark corners, like much of my own.
The only two who hung back had good reason. Neither Shevron, Jason's sister, or her teenaged son Leonard, were trained to fight.
As we tensed, waiting, our attackers emerged from the trees, looking ready to rumble. They were twisted and dark, and there were a lot of them. They must have been tracking us-they were too numerous for a scouting party, so they had probably caught our trail earlier in the day and gathered to form an attack.
As they drew closer to the fire, Jason shouted, "Lycanthropes!"
Lycanthropes looked more wolf than human and could run on all fours when they wished, though they generally slinked around upright. Unlike shifters and Weres, they couldn't transform into human and animal forms-they were stuck in-between. With long, jointed arms and legs, they could both run on all fours and yet walk on their hind legs. Their faces were disfigured, their muzzles a muddy cross between human and wolf, and their hair flowed down their back like a horse's mane. When they were on alert, as they were now, the strands stiffened into long, rigid hackles.
We spread out in a semi-Circle to shield Shevron and Leonard. The lycanthropes growled and snuffled as they slowed their approach, growing wary as they pushed toward us.
"Can we reason with them?" I asked Tam.
A flurry of snow whirled around me and Queet, my spirit guide, appeared.
In whisper-speak, so that only our party could hear, he said, "No. There is no reasoning with them, nor bargaining. Lycanthropes are filled with blood lust. Even among their own, they pick on the weak and elderly. They allow their young to grow without attacking them, but you'll never see an old or disabled lycanthrope. Strength and might are their values. Any member who feels themselves growing weak will leave the pack before they are destroyed."
"Great," I mumbled. "So we're facing fighters in their prime." I contemplated whether to charge, or to hold back for defense. But I wasn't leading the group, and it wasn't my call. We had elected Elan to be in charge as long as we were making our way through the Wild Wood.
I glanced over at her, where she was holding her arrow taut, trained on the leader. She must have sensed my question, because without looking away from her target, she said, "Hold until I give the go. Let them come a little closer, if they choose to take the risk."
Her words rang out, sounding like a taunt. I glanced at the lycanthropes, who jockeyed for position yet again. They looked a little less certain. It was then that I understood the dynamics. Just as with big cats, never look away or down or they'd take it as a sign of weakness.
I stared at the nearest one, locking my gaze with his. He was a huge beast, obviously male, and he was walking on his back legs. The lycanthrope let out a grunt. A challenge. I held my place, whip ready to strike.
As the creatures shuffled forward, Elan called out, "Ready!"
We froze, ready to strike.
Then, the lycanthropes rushed us.
"Go!" Elan let her arrow fly.
I brought my focus to my opponent. I was used to battling creatures bigger than myself-the Abominations that came in off the World Tree chose large human vehicles-but I knew their M.O.s. I knew what their weaknesses were, and I knew how to avoid most of their attacks. Lycanthropes? Not so much.
The lycanthrope careening toward me was at least two feet taller and a hundred pounds heavier than I was. His mouth was open, his razor sharp teeth gleaming and ready to snag himself some dinner. Fury-on-a-stick, to be precise.
My gaze darting over his body, I decided to strike for his face-that seemed the most vulnerable. I brought my whip back, circling it quickly around my head. The flames rushed off of the thong as it cracked through the air. Magical, they were a cold, burning fire, and deadly. They would burn on impact, and keep eating into the flesh after they hit.
My shoulder and ribs ached as I targeted the center of his face and brought the lash whistling down. I still was bruised from the shit-kicking I had taken a week or so ago, but I ignored the throbbing pain as the fall landed dead center on his nose. The crack echoed through the cascade of shouts and shrieks around us.
The lycanthrope let out a shriek and lurched back, dropping his club. I pressed in for another attack. I'd learned early never to give my opponent time to think. The moment I attacked, I kept on attacking.
He covered his face with his hands as I hit him again, this time the fall creeping between his fingers to land on the chin. As he clumsily lurched toward me, I darted to the side, trying not to slip in the knee deep snow. With my left hand, I drew Xan-my sword-from the scabbard hanging over my back. She was a magical blade, she was, ornate and engraved, and another gift from Hecate. The sword was bound to me, enhanced with magic so she aimed better and hit harder. Xan bit deep into flesh with a ruthlessly sharp edge.
I slapped the whip back on my thigh and it instantly coiled back into place, once more simply a tattoo.
The lycanthrope lunged. He was bleeding heavily, the blood dripping into his murderous eyes. I dodged to the right, twisting to bring Xan across his chest. He shrieked, howling long and deep as he stumbled forward, grabbing for his chest. By the light of the campfire, a stain of red saturated the snow, spreading as his life force pumped out through the wounds. He was bleeding so heavily that I found it hard to believe he hadn't keeled over yet. He must be tougher than I thought.
I swung again as he fell on his knees and this time, Xan cleaved into his back, lodging in his shoulder. Darting forward, I used my boot to shove his ass forward as I yanked on my sword. He lurched spread-eagle on the ground, and the sudden jolt as Xan came free sent me staggering back. I tried to steady myself, but tripped over a root and went sprawling on my butt.
Another one of the creatures leaped, landing atop of me, his long teeth snapping at my face. I thrust myself backward against the snow, trying to scramble out from beneath him.
The next moment, blood splattered on my face and chest as the tip of a sword came thrusting through his skull from behind. I cringed as the lycanthrope went flying off of me, tossed to the side like a used tissue. Tam stood there, panting. He offered his hand, pulled me to my feet, and then we were back into the fray, both of our injuries forgotten in the heat of the battle.
My blood pulsed as the adrenaline rush thundered through my veins and I fell on the first creature who had attacked me, finishing him off as he crouched on the ground. As I jumped up, I saw that Greta and Hans were plowing through the beasts. There must have been twenty-five of the lycanthropes in the attack party, but Hans and Greta advanced, guarding each other's sides as they acted like a two-person slice-and-dice team. They took down first one, then two, then yet a third creature as I watched.
Jason dodged a hail of blows from one of the beasts, managing to throw him off guard with a fake pass to the right. As the lycanthrope aimed in the wrong direction, he left his side open and Jason took advantage, driving his long dagger between the creature's ribs, into his heart.
Another quick check told me Montran and Tymbur were cooking up some sort of magic. The energy echoed through the clearing and I made sure to stay out of the way. They worked with the magic of death and decay, and I wasn't about to interfere, even accidentally.
Elan and Laren had backed up onto a slope behind us, firing arrows one after another. In another moment or two, they'd have to draw their blades. The lycanthropes were fully inside our camp. As I finished my cursory examination, a scream echoed behind me.
I whirled. Shevron had pushed Leonard in back of her, trying to protect him from one of the creatures who had broken through the lines.
"Fall back!" I rushed over, drawing my dagger in my right hand.
Leonard was cursing up a blue streak, but Shevron shoved him out of the way as I slid between them and the lycanthrope, driving the blade deep into its throat. We were in too close of quarters for my whip or sword, so I jerked the dagger as hard as I could, ripping his larynx and severing his jugular in the process. I yanked the blade away, jumping to the side to let him fall. As he landed on the snow, bleeding out, I stabbed him in the back to make certain he was dead.
"Fury! Be care-" Shevron screamed, but before she could finish, a white hot pain slashed through my back.
I turned to find another of the beasts had taken advantage of my focus on his buddy to sneak up behind me. He raked my shoulder from behind. Before I could stop him, he slashed his claws across my chest. I stifled a scream, thrusting my blade deep into his stomach. As I twisted the dagger, he struggled, impaled on the cold steel as the flames spread into his wound. I gave the blade another moment, then cleanly withdrew it, stepping aside as he fell forward.
Shevron stared at me, her eyes wide. She was shaking, but still she held firm to Leonard's arm. Len, on the other hand, was struggling against her hold. But Shevron was a hawk-shifter, and Leonard had inherited his father's human nature. Which meant Mama Bird was far stronger than her chick.
Leonard thrashed. "Let me go. I can fight!"
"Shut up." I leaned in, glaring at him.
Len quickly shut his mouth. He had always been a little afraid of me.
"Mind your mother. We don't have time to protect you from yourself. Do as you're told."
Before he could sputter a word, I turned and raced back to the fight.
We had them on the run. Elan and Laren were back to shooting arrows and the survivors struggled toward the tree line. I tried to count how many still stood. At least eight, but they had apparently had enough. Jason made ready to chase after them.
"Leave them," Elan barked out, her voice sharp.
As the last of the lycanthropes vanished into the undergrowth, we regrouped by the main fire. Shevron let go of Leonard and he sullenly moved to the side, but stayed within the encampment. I ladled more snow into the pot of water hanging over the fire. I was hurt, and it looked like Jason and Tam had taken a couple hits and we'd need to clean our wounds.
Tymbur gently took the pan I was using as a scoop out of my hands. "Go sit. You're injured. I received a few superficial cuts but I'm fine. Let me take care of this."
Wearily, I nodded, too shell shocked to protest. I knew there were dangers in the Wild Wood, but I hadn't been prepared for a pack of ferocious lycanthropes to leap out of the woodwork. I winced as I moved my shoulder.
Tam was making the rounds, checking everybody's status. He hurried over to me. "Are you all right?" He knelt beside me, stroking my cheek.
"I need to clean these scratches. As long as they don't get infected, they'll heal up." As a Theosian, I healed faster than ordinary humans. I was also tougher. But that didn't make me immortal, invulnerable, or immune to infections, wounds, broken bones, and pain. I knew that all too well from experience.
I rested my hand on his arm. "Anybody else hurt?"
"Jason took a knife wound, but it's didn't hit anything vital and while it will sting, it should heal without incident. Montran managed to hit four of them with a death spell, but apparently lycanthropes have a natural immunity, and it sent them into a frenzy instead. They attacked each other, but in doing so, one managed to clobber him with her club. He has a knot on his forehead, but again, nothing life-threatening as far as I can tell."
He paused, then added, "Fury, we have to move and we should leave soon. If they come from a tribe somewhere near, we can't chance staying. We're going to have to travel in the dark, as quickly as we can get packed up. I'll work on an illusion to mask our scent-a glamour of sorts. As soon as Tymbur binds your wounds, please help break down the camp." With that, he planted a quick kiss on my lips and headed over to where Elan and Laren were standing.
I watched as Shevron marched through the camp, dragging Leonard with her. He was bitching-all too loudly-and she stopped in front of Jason, who was holding his side where the lycanthrope's blade had nicked him.
"Jason, tell your nephew to stop trying to play hero." Shevron shoved Leonard in front of her, holding him by the shoulders. "He won't listen to his mother anymore."
Jason stared at Leonard for a moment, then slowly opened his jacket. In the glow of the campfire, I could see the oozing wound. On someone who was human, it could have easily have put them out of commission, but Jason was still standing. Hawk-shifters were fierce.
"Look at this wound. Look close." He grabbed Leonard by the head and forced him close to the angry gash. "Take a really good look."
Leonard grimaced, trying to look away.
"You don't want to look? I don't blame you. If you had taken the blade, you'd be dead. We'll teach you how to fight, son, but until we get to our destination, you need to chill out. Get it?" Jason planted Len's hand against the bleeding gash. "Feel that? It's slippery. Smell it."
That seemed a bit harsh, but then I stopped myself from interfering. This was a family affair, and Leonard been testing the boundaries all too much lately.
The teen looked sick to his stomach, but he obeyed, slowly bringing his hand to his face where he sniffed his fingers. "It smells coppery."
"That's blood. Blood keeps us all alive. Do you know how much this hurts? Like a razor sharp son of a bitch. I'm bleeding, which weakens me. But I don't have time to slow down. Every life in this camp depends on each of us doing our part. Every breath we take depends on each one of us doing what we're asked to. We can't afford to have you go running off half-cocked. If you do, I guarantee you, you're going to put somebody's life in danger. Because all the enthusiasm in the world won't matter and you'll end up being the one who needs rescuing. When we get to Verdanya, I'll teach you to fight-"
"Jason-" Shevron didn't look happy at all.
"Quiet, Shevron. Things have changed. They weren't easy to begin with, but Seattle's fighting a horde of zombies right now and we're stuck out in the middle of the wilderness. We have to adapt. Len should know how to defend himself." Jason turned back to Len. "And one more thing: don't let me ever hear you talking back to your mother again. I can argue with her because I'm her brother and we're both adults. You, on the other hand, keep your nose clean. Do you understand me?"
Leonard let out a long sigh, but finally nodded. He was caught in the throes of growing up. Jason and Shevron had inherited their parents' pale complexion and light hair, but Len was golden brown, the color of his father, and his eyes were dark and rich. His hair was blonde thanks to a bottle, but he was his father's child in many ways, including that the human nature had come through rather than the hawk-shifter. And except for the fact that his father had abandoned both Shevron and his unborn child long before Len entered the world. Regardless of his arguments with Shevron, Leonard was devoted to her and his uncle.
"I'll play by the rules, Uncle J."
"See that you do. Now apologize to your mother." Jason pointed toward Shevron, a stern look on his face.
Leonard turned to his mother and sheepishly said. "I'm sorry, Mom."
"Sorry, what?" Shevron asked.
"I'm sorry, Ma'am. I'll behave." He reminded me of the five year old who had played in my room years ago, getting into my makeup and crying when I yelled at him for eating my lipstick.
Shevron held his gaze for a moment, then nodded. She turned back to Jason. "What should we do?"
"Break down camp. We need to get out of here now."
As we fell to dressing wounds, taking down tents, and gathering embers for our next camp, I wondered if we'd make it away before the lycanthropes returned. And if they didn't return, just what else was waiting for us in the Wild Wood?
* * *
I'M KAELEEN DONOVAN, but I rarely go by that name. Most folks call me Fury, though Jason calls me Kae, but he's allowed to. He gave me a home after my mother was brutally murdered.
Speaking of my mother, Marlene and Terry, my father, were both human. But during her pregnancy, my mother took a shortcut through the Sandspit and wandered into a patch of rogue magic. Boom, bang, and hoorah. My life-to-be changed forever.
The rogue magic altered my DNA, turning me into a Theosian-a minor goddess. As was the custom, I was presented to the Seers who declared that I belonged to Hecate. And so I was bound to her. Hecate taught me to use my fire, at least to some degree. And she taught me how to seek out and destroy the Abominations that come in off the World Tree. We have a good relationship. At least, I think so. She makes sure I have work when I need it, and I make sure to play by the rules.
When I'm not chasing down Abominations, I run the Crossroads Cleaning Company that's set up in Jason's magical store-Dream Wardens. In other words, I clean up psychic messes, hauntings, perform exorcisms, offer tarot and rune readings, and anything else that I can think of. I make a living, but it's not a get-rich-quick profession.
As I said, my mother was murdered and I was there to witness it. I escaped, though it's never been clear how. We think the trauma triggered something deep within my magic. Whatever the case, I landed on Jason's doorstep that night, and he took me in. How he managed with a thirteen year old girl, I'm not sure. He was single, over two-hundred, (but didn't look a day over thirty), yet he made a home for me. Together, he and Shevron looked after me.
I was fed, clothed, and cared for. They shepherded me through school, and made sure I attended every lesson Hecate scheduled. As I grew up, they became my friends rather than guardians. Now, at thirty, my aging process is starting to slow. Theosians are long lived. We can make it to six hundred or sometimes longer, as long as we aren't killed or fall to an accident.
Until recently, everything was hunky dory-at least, as much as it could be given the corrupt government and the ruthless Devani who patrol the streets.
But when the Order of the Black Mist stole an ancient artifact and threatened to rain down chaos on the planet, everything in my world shifted. We managed to steal back the Thunderstrike, but the Order retaliated in an even more deadly fashion, turning Seattle over to a horde of zombies. Not quite the apocalypse, but not that far off, either.
Now, we're on the run-my friends and I. And we're not sure just when we're going to be able to go home again. Or if there will be a home to return to.
* * *
"EVERYTHING READY?" ELAN took another look around the campsite.
All the tents were down, the fires were out, and we were ready to move again. I desperately wanted to go to bed, but Elan was right. We couldn't chance the lycanthropes returning, fortified by reinforcements.
"Everything's packed and on the horses." I glanced over at the animals. We hadn't been able to scare up enough horses to ride through the Wild Wood, but we had three and they were carrying most of the gear.
"All right," she said, waving for us to move. "Onward. We'll journey for two or three hours and then, if we see no sign that the lycanthropes are in pursuit, we'll set up camp again. I know you're all tired but we risk our lives if we stay here." With that, she motioned for us to move out. With Elan leading, and her brother taking the rear to make certain nobody stumbled off the path, we started our slow slog through the snow again. As the heavy snow continued to fall, we headed into the darkness, cutting cross-country.