Working hard this morning, so a small bribe instead of answering questions.
“Darin, why don’t you go on and scout ahead,” Conrad said. “Make sure we don’t run into something.”
Darin clicked his mouth shut and rode on.
Conrad turned to Hugh. “I know what you’re doing. If the Lady wanted you to know, she’d tell you. Leave the boy alone.”
Hugh considered stringing Conrad up by his ankles. An hour or so with blood pooling to his head, and the older scout would sing a beautiful song filled with all of his secrets. He was still deciding if he were going to do it, when Darin came riding around the bend.
“A fort!” he reported. “Looks empty.”
Hugh looked at Sam and nodded at the column behind them. “Get Sharif.”
The kid turned his horse and rode back. Half a minute later, Sharif came riding from the back. The dark-haired lean scout had been covering the rear. Sam followed him.
Hugh touched the reins and they rode on. The path turned. A wooden palisade rose to one side of the road, a ring of sharpened tree trunks ten feet high. A crude guard tower stood on the right, just inside the palisade walls, overlooking the road. A bell hung from its roof. The gate stood wide open. To the left, the road bent and rolled on, widening into what used to be main street of a small town stretching into the distance, an old pre-Shift two story house on one side, a trailer on the other, both mostly eaten by the forest. He could just make out the sharp point of a church steeple in the distance between the new trees.
The palisade lay silent. No sentries. No movement.
Hugh glanced at Conrad.
“This is new,” the older scout said. “Wasn’t here nine months ago.”
Sharif dismounted. Light rolled over his dark irises and flashed green. He inhaled deeply, crouched and sniffed the road.
“Nobody’s home,” he said quietly.
Hugh dismounted and fixed Conrad with his stare. “Stay here with the boy.”
If something happened to those two idiots, Elara would screech at him for days.
Hugh walked inside the gates. Three large log houses waited inside, two to the left and one to the right. In the back, an animal pen stood empty. The wind brought a hint of carrion.
“The road smells odd,” Sharif said quietly.
“Odd. Nothing I’ve smelled before.” He held out his arm. The hair on the back of its stood straight up. “I don’t like it.”
Shapeshifters had a freakishly strong scent memory, and among all of the shapeshifters, werewolves were the best. They had no problem taking a whiff of a blood smudge and sorting through a couple thousand scent signatures to identify a guy they shared a drink with once two years ago. Sharif had been with him for five years. If he hadn’t smelled it before, it had to be one hell of a rare creature or something new.
New. Hugh smiled. “Well, that’s interesting, isn’t it?”
Sharif rolled his eyes for half a second before schooling his features into a perfectly neutral expression.
Hugh turned to the nearest house, walked up the wooden stairs onto the porch and touched the door. It swung open under the pressure of his fingertips. A simple open floor plan with the kitchen and dining area to the far left and the living room space to his right. A dinner was laid out on the table. He moved across the floor on silent feet to the table. The reek of rotten food made him grimace. Fuzzy blue mold blossomed on the leftovers. Looked like pulled meat of some sort with mashed potatoes on the side and a serving of formerly green vegetables. A fork lay by the nearest plate, its tines covered with the mold.
He crouched and looked under the table. A broken plate.
Sam was hovering nearby. Hugh pointed at the plate. “Thoughts?”
“It happened in the middle of dinner?”
Hugh nodded. “There is a walkway built along the palisade and a tower. What was under it?”
The kid took off.
Sharif crossed his arms. “I don’t like it.”
“I heard you the first time.”
Sam came back. “A broken plate.”
“What does that tell you?”
“There was a guard on duty. They brought him dinner.”
“Something killed him so fast, he couldn’t raise the alarm.” Sam paused. “Was he shot?”
“No blood spatter,” Sharif said. “But there is this.” He slid his finger down the wooden frame. Four long bloody scratches gouged the wood.
“And this.” He crouched and pointed to the floor.
A bloody human nail.
Sam’s face turned pale. “Something dragged them out of here.”
Hugh pivoted to his right. A row of guns and swords hung on the wall, just by the door. It would take him less than a second to cover the distance from the table to the wall. “Something smart and fast.”
“Vampires?” Sam asked.
“I don’t smell the undead,” Sharif said.
“But you do smell something. If Nez resorted to snatching people from isolated communities, he wouldn’t use the regular bloodsuckers to do it.” Hugh straightened.
“But why?” Sharif asked.
“That’s a good question.”
The People bought their undead by offering contracts to terminally ill. That was one of the cornerstones of Roland’s policy. He needed to seed his Masters of the Dead into every major city, and it was much easier to do that if the People seemed like an above-board operation, beneficial to the community. They ran casinos, they volunteered their services when undead were involved, and they offered the dying a chance to guarantee a payout to their families. If the general public suspected that the Masters of the Dead began grabbing warm bodies to turn into vampires, Roland would be livid and the guilty would be dead before they had a chance to repent their sins.
But the pattern did fit the navigators. A fast, stealthy surgical strike.
He headed for the door.
“Are there irregular bloodsuckers?” Sam asked behind him.
“You have no idea,” Sharif told him.