I woke to the sound of dogs barking. My eyes drifted open halfway, just enough to register the sun streaming through the open blinds. Nathaniel’s arm was thrown around my waist, his body snuggled into my back. The child inside my belly shifted under his hand. The scent of bacon cooking drifted from the kitchen.
My three dogs, Lock, Stock and Barrel, nosed inside the bedroom door, their nails clicking across the hardwood floor. They came around to my side of the bed, their doggy faces set in mute appeal, tongues lolling.
It seemed like a pretty typical domestic scene, except that there is nothing typical about my life. The dogs weren’t dogs at all, but Retrievers—powerful magical creatures who’d given me their allegiance when I’d freed them from slavery to the Agency.
The man in bed with me wasn’t a man, but the son of an angel and a . . . Well, I wasn’t sure exactly what Puck was, but he was definitely something old and powerful. Besides his lack of humanity, Nathaniel also wasn’t the father of my child. He wasn’t even my lover, or my boyfriend. I didn’t know how to define our relationship status as any other way except “complicated.”
The person cooking the bacon in the kitchen was my many-greats-uncle Daharan, brother of Lucifer, dragon shapeshifter, creature of fire and something older than the Earth itself.
As for me, I was the daughter of a fallen angel and an Agent of Death. Lucifer was my grandfather. My baby had the blood of a half nephilim inside his veins, a legacy from his dead father. I had more enemies than I could count. I’d spent the last several months trying to stay alive while those enemies tried to kill me and my very ancient family members plotted around me.
We were definitely not going to win any awards for normality in this family.
The dogs needed walking, but everyone pretended not to notice because no one could control them except me.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” I grumbled, sliding out from beneath Nathaniel’s arm.
This was harder than it sounded. I was only three months pregnant, but it appeared that I was twice that. I’d never fully appreciated the ease and elasticity with which I’d rolled out of bed before I took on the aspect of a hippo.
“Do you want me to come with you?” Nathaniel murmured.
“No one is going to mess with me while I’m walking these three,” I said. “Besides, it’s been a quiet couple of weeks.”
And it had been, I reflected as I got dressed. Since I’d killed Titania, the faerie queen. Since Nathaniel’s half brother—and heir to the court of Titania and Oberon—Bendith had been killed by his biological father, Puck. Since Puck had tricked me into freeing him from his bondage to Titania.
Since I’d had an adventure in another space and time, and discovered the darker places in my heart, the black menace at the core of my magic. I’d worked hard to force that darkness to recede, to let my natural personality reassert itself. But it seemed that since I’d tapped into that power, it floated closer to the surface, shadows seeping into my edges.
Like so many things that I’d discovered since becoming aware of my ancestry, my new magical abilities were impossible to undo. And my darling grandfather Lucifer definitely preferred it that way. All the better to tempt you with, my dear.
Lucifer cherished a long-held hope that I would give up my life and become heir to his kingdom. I’d rather eat nails for breakfast than manacle myself to the first of the fallen. Besides, Lucifer’s crazy lover Evangeline was pregnant with his child, and I knew very well that she was angling to put that kid on the throne. If I expressed even the smallest iota of interest in taking Lucifer’s offer, she would set a thousand assassins upon me, regardless of what Lucifer might want.
No, embroiling myself further in Lucifer’s machinations was definitely not at the top of my to-do list. I pulled on a pair of jeans I couldn’t button. The taut roundness of my lower belly protruded over the fly. I pushed a rubber band through the buttonhole, looped it and wrapped the other end around the button to keep the pants from sliding down. A long, baggy Cubs sweatshirt completed this uber-stylish look. I shoved my slippers on and padded out of the room.
In the kitchen, my uncle Daharan was making pancakes and bacon in large quantities and placing them on covered platters I didn’t even know I owned. He’s not your garden-variety uncle. He’s an ancient being, one of Lucifer’s three brothers, and he spends at least part of his time in dragon form.
For the moment he was living in the apartment downstairs. Locks didn’t keep him out, and he came and went freely between my place and his. Somehow I couldn’t be irritated about this. There was some quality about Daharan that made me trust him, trust that he would do me no harm. Beezle wasn’t so sure, as he tended not to trust anyone so closely related to Lucifer, but as I entered the kitchen I noticed his mistrust of Daharan did not extend to disdain of his cooking. Beezle was perched on the counter next to the platters filching as much bacon as he could while Daharan’s back was turned.
The dogs trotted ahead of me, down the hall, and stopped before the front door while I paused in the kitchen.
“That’s a whole lot of breakfast for three people and a gargoyle,” I remarked.
“You’re eating for two,” Beezle said before Daharan could answer.
“And you’re eating for five,” I said.
Daharan ignored the byplay. “We will be having guests this morning.”
“What guests?” I asked warily. The last thing I wanted was for one of Daharan’s brothers to show up. Alerian terrified me. Lucifer infuriated me.
And Puck . . . Well, when I thought of the way Puck had manipulated me into destroying one of the oldest creatures in the universe for his own personal gain, those shadows on my heart threatened to overtake me. I truly thought I could beat Puck bloody with a crowbar and it wouldn’t bother me in the least. Of course, when I had thoughts like that I knew that the darkness was spreading inside me like a cancer. I wasn’t sure if there was anything I could do to stop it.
“You will see when they arrive,” Daharan said.
I’d almost forgotten I’d asked a question, so caught up was I in thoughts of vengeance on Puck.
“Did you invite someone?” I asked.
“No,” Daharan said mildly, but with a finality that let me know he wasn’t going to tell me anything more.
Lucifer and all of his brothers could see aspects of the future. Daharan was able to see with the most clarity. So someone was coming. Someone whose arrival Daharan had foreseen, but he didn’t want to share with me for some reason.
I shrugged and went to the waiting dogs, who panted in anticipation. As soon as I opened the front door they crowded out in a rush, jumping all over one another in their eagerness to leave. They thundered down the steps ahead of me, whining when they reached the closed door at the bottom of the stairs.
I trudged slowly after them. I might be imbued with some of the strongest magic in the universe, but I was an ungainly waddler just like every other pregnant woman there ever was. I finally made it to the bottom and opened the door.
The dogs created another bottleneck in the foyer, where a final door, this one clear glass, made the first threshold between me and mine and anything nasty that might come knocking. I managed to herd the dogs to one side so I could get the door open. They ran down the front porch steps and out to the sidewalk, terrifying a nanny walking a couple of babies in a double stroller.
The former Retrievers looked like oversized black mastiffs, and while I was pretty sure they wouldn’t attack an innocent human being, they definitely looked intimidating. She gave me a look like she wanted to chastise me for defying Chicago’s leash law, but then gave the dogs a second glance and obviously thought better of it. She hurried down the street with the kids, eager to get away.
I’d tried to keep Lock, Stock and Barrel on leashes. But they would weave in and out and get tangled up, and finally I threw up my hands. They would do what I said—mostly—so why bother with leashes?
The dogs ran in three different directions to do their business. They each had a preferred spot staked out. I monitored them from the sidewalk in front of my house, wondering idly why supernatural creatures made of darkness and bearing the power to destroy souls needed to crap on the neighbor’s lawn in the first place. Was it because I expected dogs to do such things?
The Retrievers had become more doglike as I considered them so. They were connected to me in a way I didn’t fully understand. I could feel their presence always in the back of my mind. It wasn’t as disturbing as it should have been. It was comforting. It kept me secure in the knowledge that they would come to my defense if I needed it. More important, they would come to the defense of my baby.
I placed my hand over my protruding belly, secure in the knowledge that my son was safe inside me. I hardly allowed myself to consider what might happen after he was born. At night I was plagued by dreams of him being rent from my arms, stolen and kept by one of my enemies—or worse.
My own family might try to take him from me. Lucifer had made no secret of his interest in the child. Did I have the strength—and the allies—to keep Lucifer from my son? Maybe. But I didn’t want to be forced to find out. I was thinking all these things, lost in my own worries, when the growling of the Retrievers brought me back to the present.
They crowded around me in a protective circle, making horrible noises low in their throats, just waiting for me to give the signal so they could leap, rip, tear.
A figure approached cautiously, the object of the Retrievers’ suspicion. The person was dressed like a college student, a slouchy gray T-shirt over loose-fitting jeans and beat-up sneakers. But the baggy clothes could not disguise the obvious strength in his body, or hide the muscles flexing in his arms. Nor did the grimy Cubs cap completely cover the gold-blond of his hair or shade the brilliance of his green eyes.
He’d veiled his wings, and his eyes were unsure as he stopped a few feet from me. The Retrievers growled more intensely, but I put my hand on Stock’s neck, and they quieted instantly. They were obviously still on their guard, though.
The man before me stood silently, waiting to see what I would do.
“Samiel,” I said.
Everything was knotted up inside me. I wasn’t sure how to feel. There was happiness, and pain, and lots and lots of anger.
Samiel was my brother-in-law, and seeing him again reminded me of happier days, when Gabriel was alive. But I was also reminded that he had left me, left me when I was in need of help, left me after I’d taken him in and sheltered him.
He’d left even though I’d risked my life to save him from the court of the Grigori. He’d left knowing I carried his brother’s child, blood of his blood, and knowing that child needed protection.
As I thought these things the anger and the darkness rose up inside me, and he took a step back, like he could feel the pulse of dark magic. The Retrievers crouched, ready to strike.
“What do you want?” I asked, and my voice did not sound like my own. The effect was lost entirely on Samiel, who was deaf. But he could see my face, and read my lips, and know he was not welcome.
His hands moved tentatively, signing out the words, Maddy, I’m sorry.
He meant it. I could see it in his eyes, in the pleading lines of his face. He was sorry.
Part of me wanted to unbend immediately, to take the apology that was freely given, to return back to the way things were before.
The other part of me knew that we could never return to who we were before, and that part wanted to hold on to the anger and the hurt, to rage in pain and make Samiel suffer, make him hurt as I had when I thought everyone had abandoned me.
An image of Samiel bent and broken, blood seeping from many wounds, flashed across my brain.
That shocked me out of my anger, made me realize it was wrong, all out of proportion to his crime.
The Retrievers would take him down if I gave the words. They were attuned to my feelings, had sensed the building inferno inside me. I willed that anger away, fought to remember who I was.
“Stand down,” I told Lock, Stock and Barrel. They immediately sat back on their haunches and let their tongues loll out. I sensed their watchfulness despite their easy posture. “He’s a friend.”
Some of the tension seeped out of Samiel’s body, but not all of it. Am I? he signed.
“Are you?” I asked, raising my eyebrow. “Or have you come to try and eliminate me before I give birth to this baby, who just might be a monster unleashed on the world?”
Samiel looked shocked. I could never hurt Gabriel’s child. And why would you think your own baby is a monster?
It was a thought I allowed myself only rarely and briefly. Mostly because I was sure I would still love and protect him, no matter what he was.
“It’s always been a possibility, hasn’t it?” I said. “Gabriel was Ramuell’s son, and Ramuell was most definitely a monster.”
But Gabriel wasn’t. And neither are you.
“Are you sure about that?” I asked, thinking of all the things I had done, the dark compulsion that was becoming more difficult to control.
Samiel shook his head. I know who you are, in your heart. I nearly killed you twice. I cut off two of your fingers. And yet you saw how my mother had twisted my love for her. You forgave me. You made me a part of your family.
“And you left me,” I said. There was no anger now, only hurt and sadness. “I trusted you. And you left.”
I was confused, he signed. It’s not an excuse. I just wasn’t sure what would happen after everyone in the world saw you on television destroying those vampires. And Chloe . . .
Here he stopped signing and frowned.
“I know,” I said. “You wanted to protect her from the hordes you thought would be breaking down my door at any moment. She’s your girl. I get it.”
No, he signed, then backtracked. I mean, yes, I did want to protect her. But she’s not my girl. At least, not anymore.
“She kicked you out and now you’re here looking for a roof over your head?” I asked, getting annoyed again.
No, Samiel signed, shaking his head. It’s not like that. We broke up because I wanted to come here, to make amends.
“Let me guess,” I said. “Chloe didn’t agree.”
You could say that, Samiel said, grinning.
I could imagine how that argument went. Chloe has an extremely strong personality. And once she’s decided something, no force in the universe could make her change her mind.
“What’s the heaviest thing she threw at your head?” I asked.
A cast-iron frying pan.
“Seriously? A little cliché, that,” I said.
She had just finished cooking breakfast, he signed. I thought it would be a safe time to raise the subject since her stomach was full.
“According to Beezle her stomach is never full,” I said.
Beezle should talk.
And just like that, it was all right. I didn’t want to be angry at Samiel. I had enough legitimate enemies without spurning an apologetic friend just to soothe my pride. I stepped forward and he put his arms around me. I felt safe and warm there. He leaned back, his hands on my shoulders for a moment, and looked me up and down, shaking his head.
“Don’t say anything about my weight,” I warned. “Don’t say it looks like I swallowed a basketball, or that it looks like I’m about to pop, or ask me if I’m having twins.”
Samiel shook his head. I was just going to say you look tired.
“And don’t say that either,” I said. “When speaking to a pregnant woman, only compliments should flow from your lips. ‘You look great’ is an excellent fallback.”
Even if it’s not true?
“Especially if it’s not true. I already feel like a whale on two legs. I don’t need anybody to tell me I look like one.” I sighed. “I have to clean up after the dogs. Why don’t you stay here for a minute and get to know them?”
Samiel crouched warily before the three Retrievers, holding his hand out for them to sniff. I went away to collect the dogs’ leavings, confident that Samiel would make friends with them. Everyone loved Samiel.
And if for some reason the dogs didn’t like him . . . well, at least Samiel could fly if necessary.
I went down the gangway between my house and the next to drop the plastic bag in the garbage can in the alley just outside the back fence. When I reentered the backyard I noticed someone standing there, his back to me.
“No wonder Daharan made so many pancakes,” I said. “Apparently it’s my day for a family reunion.”
Jude turned around, his shaggy red beard and piercing blue eyes as familiar and welcome as Samiel had been. He looked like he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
“They told me you were dead,” he said hoarsely, taking a step toward me.
“I could say that thing about death and rumors and exaggeration, but you probably wouldn’t get it,” I said. Jude was very old, and very serious, and very literal-minded.
“I thought you were dead,” he repeated.
I realized I’d been a little thoughtless. Jude remembered the “B” in B.C. He also had lived through the “A” in A.D., long ago, when he was called Judas Iscariot and his name became infamous. He’d lost someone he’d pledged his life to, and for more than two thousand years he hadn’t made a pledge like that again. Until me. And he’d thought I died.
“Jude, I . . .” I began.
Several things happened at once. The back door flew open. Beezle, Nathaniel and Daharan streamed out onto the porch, all looking frantic.
The Retrievers came howling down the side of the house, chased by Samiel, who also appeared panicked.
Jude spun to face the new arrivals just as Beezle cried out, “Maddy, get away from him!”
And then a huge red-and-gray wolf leapt over the neighbor’s fence, into my yard, and tackled Jude to the ground.
Jude transformed into a matching red-and-gray wolf. The two canids tangled with each other, biting and clawing while I—and everyone else—stood frozen in surprise. Beezle flew to my shoulder.
“That’s not Jude,” he said.
“I figured that out,” I said. “But is the other one Jude?”
“Yes,” Beezle said, squinting at the two snarling wolves. I knew he was looking through all the layers of reality to see the creatures’ true essence. “It’s a good thing he showed up when he did. You looked like you were about to hug the fake Jude.”
“I was,” I admitted. “So who’s the fake?”
Beezle’s answer never came, for one of the wolves suddenly yelped and then bounded over the side fence into my neighbors’ yard. The other wolf growled and made to follow it.
“Wait!” I called, then glanced at Beezle. “I’m assuming that’s the real Jude there?”
“Jude, wait,” I said.
He turned toward me, his muzzle streaked with blood, and growled low in his throat. He didn’t want to let his quarry escape. But I hadn’t seen Jude since before I destroyed the vampires infesting Chicago. He’d gone away to attend to some pack business, and he’d never come back. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized just how much I’d missed him.
“Jude, stay,” I said, and fell to my knees. Beezle fluttered away.
Jude took a half step toward me, then looked back in the direction of the imposter.
“We’ll find him,” I promised. Tears sprung to my eyes. I wiped them away with the heel of my hand. “Only—don’t leave. I can’t bear any more leavings.”
Everyone in the yard was silent, watching. The last time I’d fallen to my knees in this place I’d covered Gabriel’s bleeding body in the snow. Jude had helped me stand again, pulled me away from the snow and the cold and blood. It was spring now, and Gabriel was gone forever, but Gabriel’s heart lived on inside me, in the beating heart of his child.
The tears fell fast and thick now, and I could hardly see in front of me. Jude’s cold nose pressed against my cheek, and then I buried my face in the thick ruff of fur at his neck. He whined softly in his throat.
The spell was broken by Nathaniel, who abruptly took to the air, flying into the thick leaves of the catalpa tree that grew in the corner of my yard.
I heard someone familiar say, “Ow! You can’t do that!”
I came to my feet and spun toward the tree. Nathaniel emerged grim-faced, holding Jack Dabrowski by the collar of his jacket like a truculent child. He landed in front of me with Jack wriggling under his grasp like a worm on a hook. Nathaniel held a video camera in his free hand.
Daharan moved up to my left side, Samiel to my right. Beezle returned to his perch on my shoulder. The dogs crowded around our ankles, treating Jude like he was part of their pack.
Nathaniel looked at me, then at the camera.
“Break it,” I said.
“Naw, you can’t—Oh, man!” Jack said as Nathaniel looked at the camera and it burst into flame. A second later nothing was left but ash, which Nathaniel dumped in the grass.
“I told you to leave me alone,” I said to Jack.
“And I told you that I wasn’t going to stop,” Jack said, his feet dangling above the ground. “Hey, can you get your goon to let me down? It’s kind of hard to breathe when I’m in this position.”
“It’s kind of hard to breathe when angry supernatural creatures decide to punish you for not leaving well enough alone,” I said, but I nodded at Nathaniel to release Jack.
He did so, but made sure to stand close by and loom over the blogger. Nathaniel looms well. His height—well over six feet—helps with that.
Jude gave Jack a pointed look and growled. Jack gave Jude a nervous glance and backed away a few inches, which naturally caused him to bump into Nathaniel. He glanced up at Nathaniel’s cold, hard face, muttered, “Sorry,” and tried to find a position far from both Jude and Nathaniel.
Since we were all crowded around him in our best menacing fashion, this necessitated a lot of uncertain shuffling on his part. I watched him with a mixture of amusement and frustration. He was so far out of his depth, but he refused to be scared away.
Jack had waited his whole life to discover that all the things he believed in were real. He’d blogged about supernatural happenings in Chicago before anyone had realized there actually were supernatural happenings. And now that normal folk had become aware of things like vampires and angels, Jack Dabrowski had become something of a high priest among the faithful and the true believers.
Unfortunately Jack’s hobby conflicted with my own personal preference to stay under the radar as much as possible. He’d decided that I needed to be an intermediary between the magical world and the regular world. I didn’t want this job for numerous reasons, starting with I had enough trouble and ending with I am not a people person.
“You need to leave me alone, Jack,” I said. “Every time you meet me I break something that belongs to you. So far it’s only been your electronics.”
I let the threat hang in the air, hoping it would have some kind of effect.
Jack made a dismissive gesture. “You can’t fool me. I’ve been asking around about you since the last time you threatened me. I know you don’t hurt innocents.”
“Not on purpose, anyway,” Beezle mumbled. “But if you’re in her path when the avalanche starts rolling, watch out.”
I ignored Beezle. My heart had gone cold at Jack’s words. “Who have you been asking about me?”
He shrugged. “Around online. You know, you have quite the reputation. Did you really kill the High Queen of Faerie?”
“Gods above and below, you’re not even supposed to know that there is a High Queen of Faerie, much less that I killed her,” I said. “I don’t know how you found out about that, but you need to stop talking about me, especially online. You don’t know who you’re conversing with.”
My mind seethed with possibilities, all of them bad news for Jack. Leaving aside all the creatures that hated my guts and could potentially use Jack to get to me, he might draw the attention of Lucifer. And if Lucifer decided that Jack’s pursuit of me was attracting too much notice to his court, he would squash Jack like a bug.
“Like I don’t know how to trace people online?” Jack scoffed. “Believe me, I’ve verified the identity of every source I’ve ever had.”
“Are you crazy?” I shouted. “Do you want to be killed? Do you know how insanely dangerous it is to track down powerful beings who use the Internet for its anonymity?”
“Didn’t I say he was too stupid to live the first time we met?” Beezle said.
This was even worse than I thought. He was actively seeking out dangerous people in the name of research. Sooner or later he would stumble into a situation that would get him killed. And I would be responsible, because I couldn’t stop him.
Nathaniel looked at me. He understood a fair bit of what passed inside my mind without my saying a word. Ever since I’d released his magical legacy from Puck, there had been a powerful connection between us.
“You’ve warned him,” Nathaniel said. “His fate is in his own hands.”
Daharan nodded. “You cannot save everyone, Madeline.”
Their solemnity penetrated Jack’s bravado in a way my anger had not.
“Nothing’s going to happen to me,” he said defiantly.
“Oh, yes, it is,” I said softly. I could almost see it happening—his capture, his torture, his death. A cloak of darkness seemed to settle over him, the resolute hand of the Reaper on his shoulder. We all felt it. We were attending Jack Dabrowski’s funeral.
“I’m not going to die!” he said angrily, desperately, backing away from me.
Nathaniel moved aside so Jack could free himself from our circle, from the relentless certainty of his death.
He held his hands palms up in front of him, to plead, to defend. “I’m not going to die.”
Jack backed into the fence, fumbled with the gate, stepped into the alley.
“I won’t,” he said before the gate slammed shut and we heard his footsteps running away.
“You will,” I said softly behind him. “Everything dies.”
A short while later we were all assembled around my dining room table eating gigantic stacks of pancakes. Jude had changed into clothes magically produced by Daharan. The wolf shoveled food into his mouth like it had been a long time since he had eaten a hot meal. Beezle was doing the same, but Beezle always ate like that.
Samiel, Daharan and Nathaniel ate more sedately. I picked at my food, my appetite gone.
“You must eat something,” Nathaniel said. “The baby is using too many of your resources.”
“I’m not hungry,” I said.
“She’s feeling distraught because she won’t be able to stop that moron from committing suicide,” Beezle said through a mouthful of pancake. His chest and belly were coated in butter and syrup.
“Did you get any food in your mouth?” Nathaniel asked, his face a mixture of fascination and repulsion.
“You ought to be used to it by now,” Beezle said.
“There are some things to which I will never be accustomed,” Nathaniel said.
“I couldn’t care less about that fool of a blogger,” Jude growled, breaking in. “What I’m concerned about, and what ought to concern you as well, was that shifter in your backyard pretending to be me. You’ve no idea of the trouble he’s caused.”
I’d nearly forgotten about the shifter in the kerfuffle over Jack. “What do you know about him?” I asked.
Jude shoveled a few more mouthfuls of pancake into his mouth before continuing. Now that I looked at him closely, it did seem that he had a lean and hungry look about him, and new lines were present around his eyes.
He leaned back and took a large gulp of coffee. “Remember when I left, before you destroyed the vampires?”
I nodded. “Beezle said you had pack business.”
“I did. Wade contacted me because we urgently needed to move the pack. Someone had discovered we were werewolves and ratted us out to the townsfolk. Before the vampire lord went on television, they would have thought the very idea of werewolves a load of rot. But after everyone in the world saw the nice Chicago commuters having their faces eaten off by creatures of the night, the locals were more than ready to believe in our existence.”
“And were, doubtless, gathering up their pitchforks and torches,” I said.
“You’re not far off,” Jude growled. “We’ve always lived in isolated spots, staying as far from towns as possible. Even without knowing about weres, people aren’t generally fond of wolves, especially in the country. Farmers and ranchers see us as varmints, and they shoot first and ask questions later, no matter what species-protection law might say.”
“But you have primarily resided on your own private land, yes?” Nathaniel asked.
Jude nodded. “That’s so.”
If the land belongs to you, couldn’t you keep people off it? Anyone who tried to attack you on your own property should be prosecuted, Samiel signed.
“‘Should be’ is the operative term here,” Jude said. “There are some who have decided that supernatural creatures don’t have any rights to speak of. And those who have decided also have the ear of the local authorities.”
He paused, seeming to swallow some strong emotion.
“They attacked us, chased us off our land, killed several members of the pack, including two cubs who got lost in the confusion. They hunted us until we were too exhausted to go on, until we were forced to split up and hide where we could.”
I was afraid to ask. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the answer. “Wade?”
“Is safe,” Jude said, “and so is his wife and daughter. But there are many other families torn to pieces in the last week or so, and my pack is scattered to the wind.”
“Isn’t there a safe place that you go when the pack is threatened?” I asked, remembering a fragment of conversation with Jude from long ago.
“Yes, but that place is under surveillance,” Jude said. “We were betrayed.”
Daharan spoke. “Your pack was infiltrated by this shapeshifter.” It was not a question.
“Yes,” Jude said.
“How did it happen again?” I asked. Last year, members of the pack had been killed by Lucifer’s shapeshifting son, Baraqiel. “After Baraqiel and the kidnapping of Wade and the cubs, I’d have thought you would be on your guard against any newcomers looking to join the pack.”
“We were,” Jude said. “This shifter wasn’t a newcomer. He wasn’t like Baraqiel, pretending to be a lone wolf looking for a pack. He was one of us.”
“A member of your pack gave you up to humans?” I asked, shocked. It seemed to go against everything that I knew of the family bonds of a werewolf pack.
“No. This shifter killed one of us and took his place,” Jude said. “And there was nothing to reveal the difference. His scent didn’t change; his manner didn’t change. The shifter became our pack member so completely that we never suspected, almost as if it had swallowed the soul of the person he took over.”
“So how did you discover the traitor?” Beezle asked.
“We didn’t. We didn’t even realize what had happened until Wade and I came upon the body of the real pack member while hiding from the hunters. It was decomposed almost beyond recognition.”
“Which means this shifter infiltrated your pack weeks ago and you never knew,” I said. “What put you on his trail?”
“I wasn’t on his trail,” Jude said. “We had received word you were still alive, and I was planning to come here in any case. Then the harassment began. Once the pack was broken up, I thought to come here, to see if you could help us. Imagine my surprise to discover my own self standing in your backyard, and you walking blindly into the teeth of the shark.”
“She does that,” Beezle said. “Responds emotionally instead of thinking and gets herself into trouble. I’d say it was a pregnant thing, but she’s acted like this her whole life.”
“And I stopped you from going after him,” I said, pretending Beezle hadn’t spoken. It was usually the best course of action with Beezle. Anything else encouraged bad behavior.
“You said we would find him and so we shall,” Jude said.
He did not blame me for letting the shifter go free. He didn’t even blame me for the scourge of vampires that had revealed the existence of supernatural creatures to the world, and thus opened his pack to harm. The weight of all the lost lives that could be laid at my door became heavier with each passing day.
“It seems our pack has been under a curse these last several months,” Jude said. “So many strange occurrences, kidnappings, deaths.”
“It’s because of me,” I said. “Wade’s association with me opened you to all this, brought you to the attention of my enemies.”
Jude shook his head. “I believe it is more than that. We are being targeted by someone, someone with a vendetta against us.”
“Someone using your association with Madeline as a smoke screen?” Nathaniel asked.
“Who would hate a bunch of werewolves that much?” Beezle asked.
“Perhaps it is not the weres who are hated,” Daharan said.
I gave him a sharp look. “Do you know something?”
“I have told you before that I cannot see the future clearly,” Daharan said.
“But you see something,” I persisted. “Do you know who is doing this to Wade’s pack?”
“It is not the future you should look to, but the past,” Daharan said with a pointed look at Jude.
The wolf appeared disconcerted. “My past?”
“You will discover the answer behind you, not ahead,” Daharan repeated.
“Wow, it’s like living with our own personal annoying cryptic oracle,” Beezle said.
“I only tell you what I can,” Daharan said.
Beezle shrugged. “You’re a good cook. That makes up for a multitude of sins in my book.”
“It’s the only reason he’s stayed with me all these years,” I told Daharan.
“It’s been ages since you’ve cooked anything,” Beezle said. “It’s always ‘apocalypse this, apocalypse that’ with you.”
“You could learn to take care of your own meals, gargoyle,” Nathaniel said, frowning.
“No, no,” I said. “You don’t want to see the state of the kitchen after Beezle’s been cooking.”
“She’s still upset about the s’mores incident,” Beezle said, sotto voce.
“The fire department was called,” I said.
Beezle looked affronted. “Every time you step out the front door, a city block burns down, and you’re still angry because I got a little smoke in the kitchen?”
“The microwave was destr—Never mind,” I said, because the others were staring at us. “So we’ve got two problems. First, find the shifter. Second, find a safe haven for the pack.”
“I am not certain it is a wise idea for the pack to gather together in one place,” Nathaniel said slowly.
“It would make it too easy to get rid of us,” Jude agreed.
It was a sign of how much things had changed that Jude and Nathaniel behaved civilly to each other. Time was they could barely stand to be in the same city, much less the same room. Nathaniel had changed, and not just physically. Jude was perceptive enough to pick up on that.
There was something else, too—a growing feeling that all of us in this room were linked together, and that our problems were greater than any one enemy. Ever since Alerian had risen from the lake like some Cthulhu-nightmare, I’d sensed something huge was approaching, some fate I would not be able to escape. All the crises I’d averted seemed merely a prologue. There was a larger plan at work, something that had been put in motion long before I was even born.
It was no stretch of the imagination to picture Lucifer and Puck and Alerian as major players in whatever was coming. Still, there was something I was missing. Some hand moved in the shadows, making all the puppets dance to its tune.
“Are you going to join the rest of us on Earth?” Beezle asked loudly. “Or are you going to sit there with a blank look for the rest of the day?”
“I was thinking,” I said.
“I could make a comment about burning, but I will withhold it. It’s too easy.”
“Your restraint is admirable,” I said dryly.
“Look, the Avengers are assembled,” Beezle said. “Don’t you want to develop a plan of action? Or at least charge out the door blindly the way you usually do?”
“Yeah,” I said, shaking off the lingering sense of approaching doom. “Jude, I don’t suppose you can track the scent of that shifter?”
He shook his head. “He’s like no shapeshifter I have ever seen. Baraqiel’s powers were startling enough, but they could at least be explained away by his parentage. Anything spawned from Lucifer is bound to have unusual abilities. But this shifter . . . he doesn’t just look like whoever he’s pretending to be. He is that person. He behaves like them; he smells like them. He is whoever he pretends to be.”
“How can that be?” I asked. “How can the magic leave no trace?”
“It did leave a trace,” Beezle said. “I could see through it to the essence underneath.”
“Until you patent those gargoyle-o-vision glasses, that doesn’t do us a lot of good,” I said. “Wait a second. You could see down to the shifter’s essence.”
Beezle had a speculative look on his face. “Gargoyle-o-vision. That has possibilities. I wonder why I didn’t think of that before.”
“Beezle! Focus! Did you see the shifter’s real identity or not?”
“Yeah, but it won’t help you,” Beezle said. “The essence didn’t look like anything concrete.”
“What do you mean?”
Beezle looked thoughtful. “It was almost like there wasn’t a real person—or a real creature—underneath the mask of Jude. The essence was kind of fuzzy and out of focus.”
“Like whatever it was had no real personality or identity other than what it took on?” I said. “It would have been born from something, right? Presumably another shapeshifter.”
Daharan broke in, his face angrier than I’d ever seen it. “Such things are not unheard of. There were three like this, long ago. But they were destroyed. I told him to destroy them. I watched it happen.”
“Told who to destroy them?” Beezle asked.
Daharan looked at me. “Alerian.”
As Daharan said his name I felt, briefly, that sense of the ocean closing over me. “So it’s nothing to do with Jude’s past at all, but Alerian’s.”
Daharan shook his head. “I can see that the pack’s troubles are tied to Jude’s history, although I cannot see precisely how. The shapeshifter is merely an agent working another’s will.”
“Working Alerian’s will?” Nathaniel asked.
“Alerian was asleep for hundreds of years,” I said. “The pack’s troubles are recent. Unless he left an ancient Post-it with instructions, it’s unlikely he’s behind this.” I looked to Daharan for confirmation.
My uncle nodded. “I believe Alerian has an agenda of his own, but I don’t believe it has anything to do with these wolves.”
“But the shapeshifter is connected to Alerian,” Jude said.
We all looked at Daharan expectantly. Having raised the subject, he now appeared reluctant to continue. I had noticed that while there was no love lost between the brothers, Daharan, in particular, was loyal to his blood.
I believe that he, as the eldest of the four, felt the burden and responsibility of their powers most, and thus was more inclined to keep family matters in the family circle. Although as I glanced around the table I realized everyone except Beezle and Jude were in his family circle.
Nathaniel was his brother Puck’s son, and thus the most closely related. Samiel was the next closest, as the son of Ramuell, who had been Lucifer’s son. I was the most distantly related, with several hundred generations separating me from Evangeline and Lucifer, my many-greats-grandparents. Really, the least likely person to belong at that table was me.
Yet Lucifer and all of his brothers sought me out. And Lucifer’s blood had manifested more power in me than any child of the intervening generations. I’d stopped asking “Why me?” It was pointless.
Daharan cleared his throat, and we all looked at him.
“Many thousands of years ago, when humans were still evolving into the creatures they would become today, my brother Alerian ruled over the seas of this Earth. This planet is particularly well suited to his powers, as there is more water than land. Lucifer and Puck squabbled over other places and other dimensions, as they always have.”
“Color me surprised,” I muttered.
Daharan smiled briefly before continuing. “However, as humans evolved, they became more interesting to Lucifer. He began to spend more time here, to establish a base of power. And then he was made to carry the souls of the dead, which brought him into closer contact with people. He began to covet this planet, a place Alerian considered rightfully his. The oceans were ruled by his creatures, his monsters. All life on land had come from his source, from the sea. He naturally resented Lucifer’s intrusion.”
I desperately wanted to ask just who had been powerful enough to force Lucifer to become the agent of the dead, but I resisted. Daharan might clam up if I started asking too many questions about the origins of the universe.
Daharan continued. “Although life on land had begun in his waters, the intervening years had separated humans and animals too much from this source for Alerian to wield his will over them. He decided to experiment. He wanted to create creatures that would be fully malleable. They must be able to change form but also have no strong will of their own. He also wished, however, that these creatures have a great deal of personal charisma.”
“Seems like those qualities would contradict one another,” Beezle said. “How can they have no will of their own but still be snake charmers?”