Atlanta was a bitch of a city.
You’d think that after I’d been gone for eight years, the place would cut her prodigal daughter some slack, just for the old times’ sake. You would be wrong.
I stopped my horse in the middle of the deserted street. On the left, a ruined heap of a building crouched, still steeped in night shadows, a remnant of the time before the Shift. On the right, a wall rose, new construction, solid, thick, and topped with razor wire. Ahead, the street ended, as if sheared with a giant’s knife. A chasm gaped, dropping full fifty feet down below, about a third of a mile across. It wasn’t there when I had left.
This was a new development, unexpected but not surprising. Our world suffered from the unpredictable tide of magic waves. With each one, a little more of our technological civilization crumbled, worn down by the magic’s teeth. Ravines, surprise rivers, and small mountains sprung up overnight in random spots. But humans were a resilient breed. We dealt with it. Atlanta had dealt with the chasm, as was evidenced by a single lane wooden bridge spanning it. The bridge wasn’t the issue. The three shapeshifters blocking it were.
I had done everything right. I rode in quietly, I stayed away from the Pack territory, and I picked the best time, just before 5:00 am, when the spring night was thinking about flirting with sunrise. Shapeshifters preferred to be nocturnal when they could help it. Morning chased them back to the Keep, their massive fortress just outside the city, so they could meditate with the first rays of the sun, then turn in for their nap.
There was absolutely no reason for the Pack patrol to be here at this hour. Yet here they were. My homecoming presents.
The three shapeshifters waited, dressed in matching grey Pack sweats. All three were male and young, and since they showed no intention of moving out of my way, very bored. I was the entertainment. So happy to be of service.
Had the Pack boundary moved while I was gone? It was possible, although neither Grandfather nor my brother said anything about it. But then I hadn’t asked.
When I left, Atlanta had been reeling from a battle to the death with a common enemy. The different factions of the city had come together to face it, with my adoptive mother in the center of it all, like a shining star. In the absence of a great enemy, the city had fragmented again, with the Pack controlling a chunk of the metropolis to the north-east. All shapeshifters within Atlanta belonged to the Pack, its various clans working together under the leadership of a Beast Lord. The Pack had strict rules, and the last I knew, hassling normal people who travelled through the city wasn’t encouraged.
“Hi there!” I called. “I need to get on this bridge.”
The middle of the shapeshifters, about twenty, tan, with longish dark hair, smiled at me. “Password?”
Eat dirt and die. “Why do I need a password? Is the bridge in Pack’s territory?”
“That’s not important,” the leader said. “What’s important is that there are three of us and one of you.”
Well, look who learned to count.
“If you want to enter the bridge, you have to give us the password,” the shapeshifter said. “If you don’t know it, you’ll have to pay the fine.”
The smaller shapeshifter on his right grinned and let out an eerie cackle. Boudas. Of course. Because my life was a gentle ride down a lazy river, and I needed some rapids along the way.
Boudas, the were-hyenas, belonged to one of the smaller Pack clans. There weren’t many of them, but they were dangerous and utterly nuts. Wolves, jackals, rats, all of them could be reasoned with. Boudas did things like climb into a captive polar bear’s cage and tickle it with their claws to see what would happen.
I could go through them, but then someone higher up the Pack’s chain of command would find me and want to have words. They wouldn’t recognize me – my face looked different, my body was different, and even my scent had changed since I left – but why tempt the fate? Besides, I didn’t need that much attention. I came to the city for a reason and jumping into the spotlight would make things so much harder. No thanks.
I tensed my right leg a fraction. Tulip turned, more anticipating command rather than obeying it, the sound of her hooves clopping on the pavement too loud in the night. Two more shapeshifters stepped out of the shadows, blocking my exit. Right.
A normal Pack patrol had two people, three on the border with the People, because necromancers made a dangerous enemy. Five shapeshifters was overkill. Sweats meant they had expected to transform, so they were likely coming back from some mission and it was my bad luck to run into them. Either way, they were in the market for some fun and they thought I was it. They saw a lone woman in faded jeans, old boots, and a tattered cloak riding a horse late at night, low threat and an easy target, and my face virtually guaranteed that they would mess with me.
I guided Tulip into continuing the turn until I faced the bridge again. Five boudas would be a tough fight, and the moment they realized that I wasn’t playing, it would escalate into real violence. I really didn’t want to kill anyone. This would be much easier if the magic was up, but the magic wave had ebbed two hours ago and having more than one wave in twenty-four hour was rare.
“Still waiting for that password,” the leader of the boudas said.
“May 15th,” I said.
“What’s that?” the shapeshifter on the left asked.
“Andrea Medrano’s birthday,” I said. “Good enough?”
The boudas paused. It was a funny thing to watch: one moment, they were oozing arrogance, the next they simultaneously lost their steam as if someone popped them on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper. To them Andrea Medrano was Boss, Judge, and Executioner. They called her Alpha. To me she was Aunt Andrea, my mother’s best friend.
A tall shadow stepped out of the ruins, as if congealing from the darkness, and glided forward with easy grace. Broad shoulders, long legs, a large guy, same grey Pack sweats. He took another step and I saw his face. There were no words to describe that face. A man that handsome shouldn’t have existed, but there he was in the flesh.
His eyes caught the moonlight. A blood-red sheen rolled over his brown irises.
“Now, that’s an interesting development,” Ascanio Ferrara said. “Please, tell me more.”
Of all the assholes in the city full of them, why did I have to run into this one? Ascanio wasn’t the person I wanted to avoid the most – that honor belonged to my mother – but he was in the top five.
He glanced at the boudas by the bridge. All three promptly looked down. So, stopping me was an unsanctioned bit of fun. When I left, Andrea and her husband Raphael were grooming Ascanio for the Beta spot, which would’ve made him second in the chain of the clan’s command. He’d wanted that spot more than anything. Apparently, he’d gotten what he wished for and all the headaches that came with it.
Ascanio turned back to me and looked me over, slowly.
I made a conscious effort to not hold my breath. Young Ascanio thought that rules were for other people. He could be utterly charming or irritating beyond all reason, and he didn’t have the best sense of self-preservation. Boudas spoiled their young males, but he had managed to find the limits of even their goodwill, so when we were teenagers, the previous Bouda alpha gave him to my adoptive mother. It was that or one of the shapeshifter grownups would snap and kill him. Ascanio and I saw each other every day for years. He knew me in a way very few people did.
His nostrils fluttered slightly. He was downwind from me, and the night breeze had brought him my scent. As far as I knew, I didn’t smell the same. Still, I couldn’t be completely sure. If he recognized me, it would throw a big grenade into my carefully laid plans.
Time stretched, slow and viscous like molasses. He stared at me and I had no choice but to stare back.
A lot of people were attractive when they were young. Ascanio wasn’t merely attractive as a teenager; he had been beautiful, with big brown eyes, long eyelashes, soft black hair, and a face that bordered on celestial. I had plenty of brushes with divinity and he would’ve given some of the demigods a run for their money.
He wasn’t beautiful anymore; he was shocking. If I didn’t know him and caught a glimpse of him on the street, I would’ve stopped in my tracks. All the beauty was still there, the bottomless eyes under the sweep of dark eyebrows, the perfect lines, the cut jaw, but his face had gained strength. His features broadened slightly. No traces of softness remained. It was a man’s face now, with a harsh edges and defined angles, and eyes that radiated authority and power.
“You’ve dropped Alpha’s name,” Ascanio said. “Care to explain?”
Red flashed in his irises. “You know confidential information about Alpha. I need to know how, because I’ve been with her for over a decade and I’ve never met you.”
Oh, he’d met me. Back then I was twenty-five pounds lighter, with legs like sticks, sharp cute face, dark blond hair, and brown eyes. None of it fit now.
“And what will you do if I don’t tell you?”
“I’ll have to insist.” His voice told me I wouldn’t like it.
When we first met, all those years ago, he was fifteen and I was fourteen. He didn’t know who I was, so he’d decided it would be a brilliant idea to kiss me. I shoved a handful of wolfsbane in his face, dumped him on the floor, and tied his arms behind his back. Clearly, he’d made no progress since that point.
“So, let me get this straight,” I said. “Five of your shapeshifters detained me without a cause outside of the Pack’s boundaries, demanded that I pay a fee to cross a public bridge, and now you are threatening me with assault.”
His eyebrows furrowed slightly. All of that would’ve been a violation of the Pack’s policies eight years ago.
“I haven’t threatened you yet.”
“I feel threatened. I’m trembling with fear.”
I was playing the part of a typical young female mercenary. Arrogant, loud, dumb, the type that had some success but never went up against a serious opponent. In other words, harmless.
“I see a distinct lack of trembling,” Ascanio said. “This is very easy. Tell me how you know Andrea Medrano’s birthday, and you are free to go.”
“You’re missing the point. You have no right to detain me in the first place.”
“You seem suspicious. I’m not sure you should be wandering around unsupervised.”
“And you seem like an idiot, yet somehow nobody prevents you from wandering around free.”
One of the boudas by the bridge giggled and clamped his hand over his mouth.
Ascanio raised his eyebrows. “An idiot?”
“One human woman in the middle of a tech wave against six shapeshifters. Only an idiot can’t understand how that math will look to the civilian law enforcement or your Alpha. Does she generally encourage you to hassle lone women late at night?”
“Since I’m an idiot, perhaps I’ll pull you off your horse in my idiotic way, stuff you into one of our houses, somewhere with a deep basement, and wait until you decide to answer my questions. You can file a complaint if you ever get out.”
You and what army? “Is this you threatening me? I’m just checking so we’re both clear.”
“Oh good. Do it.”
He didn’t move. I’d called his bluff. Ascanio had many faults, but he wouldn’t hurt a random stranger, much less a human, without a reason. Not only that, but the relationship between the Pack and so-called normal people was always strained. Every shapeshfiter was a potential spree killer, and humans never forgot it. If it got out that Pack was kidnapping young human women off the street, the fallout would be catastrophic, and with five witnesses, it would get out. Shapeshifters gossiped worse than bored old ladies in church.
Frustration sparked in his eyes and died. I’d won.
Time to ease up. I didn’t want to antagonize him too much. Getting his question answered would soothe his ego and let him dismiss me and move on.
“Since you asked so nicely, I’ll tell you. But then you’ll leave me alone. Deal?”
Ascanio held up his hand and turned away from me, looking at the wall across the street. A moment later the rest of the shapeshifters turned and looked there, too.
A boy sailed over the wall and landed on its corner in a crouch, in the lone spot free of razor wire.
Oh no. I didn’t need this backup.
He was solid and corded with muscle, only half a foot shorter than me. Dark brown hair cut short, tan face, and gray eyes that were so light, they were practically silver.
Ascanio heaved a mocking sigh. “The little prince graces us with his presence. You’re a long way from your parents’ territory, Your Highness.”
His Highness gave him an unblinking stare. He was barely ten, and that stare was already very difficult to hold.
Ascanio smiled slowly, baring his teeth. “Run along now.”
“Let her go.” The voice came out low and guttural, half a snarl. He was about to shift. Shit.
“This doesn’t concern you,” Ascanio said, his voice harsh.
I had to diffuse it before it broke into violence.
“So it’s not just lone women you hassle in the middle of the night. You also bully children. What a hero!”
He glanced back at me. That’s right, I’m still here.
“That’s not a child,” one of the bouda’s standing in the shadows said. “That’s a mo—”
Ascanio glared at him. The bouda’s mouth clicked shut.
He did not just call my brother a monster. I’ll pull your legs out.
“Little boy!” I called out. “You must live around here, right? Listen, you run and find your parents. Tell them that shapeshifters are trying to kidnap me. I’ll start screaming. Okay?”
Please play along, Conlan? Please with a cherry on top?
The boy nodded.
I took in a deep breath.
“Fine,” Ascanio said.
He’d crunched the numbers and didn’t like the result. If he did anything at all other than back away, Conlan would jump into it. In a fight with shapeshifters, there were no guarantees. If Conlan got hurt, or worse, if he hurt someone, there would be a lot of questions. I could just imagine how that conversation would go. “How did Curran’s son get hurt?” “Well, there was this girl…” “And what possessed you to stop a human girl in the middle of the night? Also, why is Bob missing an arm?” Ascanio was an ass, but he wasn’t a fool.
Ascanio jerked his head. The boudas shot past him on the bridge and broke into run.
“We’ll continue this conversation later, without children present.”
“No, we won’t.”
Blood red eyes fixed me. “I’ll see you again. Soon.”
He chased after the boudas, catching up with ridiculous ease. They tore down the bridge at a speed that would make racehorses green and vanished from view.
Conlan jumped off the fence. I got off the horse and held out my arms. He hugged me. My bones crunched.
Awww. First in person hug in eight years. Awesome.
My brother pulled away from me. “You came!”
“I waited by the I-75.”
“I didn’t come that way. I came on the old I-20 instead. Did you forget what I told you about not blowing my cover?”
He wrinkled his upper lip like a pissed off cat and gave the bridge an evil look. “I hate him.”
“I get a feeling he isn’t found of you either.”
“Are you coming home?” he asked. The hope in his voice almost made me sniffle.
“You know I can’t.”
“Can I come with you?”
“Not today. But you can visit me, if you’re sneaky, when I get a place to stay. Go now, before anybody else sees us.”
He leapt on the wall.
“Conlan!” I called in a loud whisper.
He looked at me over his shoulder.
“Don’t tell mom. Or dad. Not a word.”
He nodded and vanished into darkness beyond the wall.
I got back on my horse. For the first night in Atlanta, it could’ve been worse. I still had all my limbs and my hair wasn’t on fire…
A ghost of a presence tripped my alarms. The tiny hair on the back of my neck rose. Something waited in the depth of the ruin on my left. Watching me. I couldn’t see it or hear it, but somehow, I knew it was there, hidden in the darkness, the same way primitive people knew when a tiger lay in wait at the mouth of their cave.
I could get off the horse and say hello, but there was no telling what I would find, and every instinct warned me to back away. Tulip tensed under me. She didn’t like whatever hid in darkness either.
That made it two for two. The bridge was clear. I shifted my weight in the saddle and Tulip cantered down the narrow street and onto the bridge, grateful for permission to escape.
Nobody followed us.