KATE DANIELS: WILMINGTON YEARS 2
AVAILABLE ON JUNE 13, 2023
A new town, new friends, new challenges…. And a new heart-stopping adventure from #1 New York Times bestselling author, Ilona Andrews. Kate, Curran, and Conlan may have left Atlanta for Wilmington, but the usual magic mayhem has also hitched a ride!
Kate and Curran have just settled into their new home and their ‘low profile,’ when a local businessman approaches them with an offer they can’t refuse. A mysterious evil has spawned in the nearby forest and is holding a defenseless town hostage. The ‘due date’ is rapidly approaching.
It’s exactly the kind of fight the Lennarts can’t resist, not for the prize the town offers, but for the people who will surely die if they ignore it. If they succeed, they’ll be rescuing an entire community and can build a strong new base for their family and the Wilmington Pack. If they fail…well, fail is a four-letter word.
Nothing comes without a price. Now Kate must decide if she has what it takes to pay it.
PREORDER FROM ONE OF THESE FINE RETAILERS:
Same length as Magic Tides?
Probably. It’s still being written.
BN link isn’t working.
It’s still populating. The preorder is less than an hour old.
Yes, closer to the release date.
BDH focus group selected top 5 narrators. We will be bundling Magic Tides and Magic Claims for the purposes of recording the audio, so the audio recordings for both novellas will be coming out on the same date.
We are shooting for June 13th. If something unexpected happens, it might be delayed by a week or two, but the plan is to do everything in our power to release concurrently with ebook and print.
The following is an unedited first draft containing typos and errors. Everything is subject to change.
“Well, of course it blew up, Kate.”
It was a beautiful September morning. I sat on a big log cut from a beached tree. A fire blazed in front of me, laid out in the firepit on the beach. Beyond it, the Atlantic Ocean lapped at the sandy shore under an early morning sky. The water was an opaque aquamarine, the sky was a beautiful blue, and the flames in front of me were ruby red, fed by the mix of herbs and magic. About two feet off the ground, the fire faded into an image of my aunt.
The Rose of Tigris reclined on a carved wooden chase decorated with lifelike Catalina mariposa lilies. Her white gown cascaded over her large body in artful drapes, setting off the warm golden tones of her bronze skin. I resembled her, but everything about her was … more. I was 5’7”, muscular, and strong, and she was over 6 feet, more muscular, and stronger. Our faces were very similar, but her eyes were darker, her lips were fuller, and her features were bolder. Her glossy brown hair spilled over one shoulder in a luxurious mane, clasped by a golden cord. She looked like a living painting that had blossomed from the ruby flames of the fire call, an ancient empress in repose.
We hadn’t spoken for two months. She had been occupied with something she couldn’t or wouldn’t share. It wasn’t the first time she’d vanished from my radar. Once she was gone for nine months, while her subordinates made flimsy excuses, and when we finally reconnected, she told me that I was an excellent mother. Not that I didn’t appreciate the compliment, but it came out of nowhere.
Since we finally got to talk, I decided it would be a great opportunity to clear up the exploding cephalopod issue. I had accidentally blown up a kraken. It was… unexpected.
“Karsaran targets the highest concentration of magic within a living organism,” Erra said.
“Yes, which for vertebrates would be bone. In the absence of bone, it will target blood, which has the next highest concentration of magic. I understand all that.”
“Then what’s your question?”
“Why did the kraken explode? I expected it to split, maybe to burst, but it detonated like it had swallowed a land mine, and then it rained kraken for about 10 seconds.”
She laughed softly.
In the distance, about 500 yards out, a swimmer cut through the waves, moving fast, parallel to the shore.
“Oh great and powerful aunt, please enlighten this stupid one…”
“It exploded because you don’t practice. You’ve been playing house for what, six years now? Seven?”
“I do practice. I practice every day.” I had incorporated working on my bloodline powers into my workout routine.
“Not in combat, you don’t. You have no idea how much power you need to feed into a command to gracefully split a kraken along its blood vessels, and therefore it ends up exploding and landing on your face.”
“So what do you suggest? Hunting down some krakens to calibrate?”
Erra gave me one of her patented ancient power stares, reached over, and slapped an invisible ball in front of her.
“Is that you are smacking my head?”
“You are playing a very dangerous game. You’ve been trying to hide from who you are. First, you tried to do it in Atlanta, and now you’re trying to do it there.”
“You know why we left Atlanta,” I said quietly. The city had slowly smothered me. I felt like I couldn’t even breathe there, much less raise Conlan. “I wanted to give your grandson a chance at a normal life.”
Erra waved her hand. “I do. I agreed with your decision then and I still agree with it now. Atlanta was too complicated. Too messy. Too many eyes and too many powers screaming bloody murder every time you sneezed. You needed to start fresh away from all that. But you haven’t exactly hit the ground running.”
I counted off on my fingers. “Property cleared and warded, house repaired, Conlan enrolled in school…”
My aunt leaned closer. “You’re puttering around on this beach, fixing this ruin, and trying to lull yourself into a false sense of security. Do you honestly think that you’ve solved your problems, child? That if you just stay in this little fortress on the edge of the continent, the world will forget about you, and you can have a quiet life? Even if you ran away to the most remote peak in the Himalayas, it wouldn’t matter. Sooner or later, they will come for you, and you won’t be ready.”
A familiar discomfort rolled over me. “Why would anyone come for me?”
“For your power, for your blood, and for your son. If they take the boy, they can control both you and your husband. If they kill even one of you, they can make a name for themselves. And it won’t be a run of the mill enemy. It will be the kind of power who thinks they can take you.”
For the past few years, a small voice in the back of my mind kept nagging at me. It started the day I banished my father. I’d woken up to a sun-filled morning. Curran lay next to me, warm, sleeping peacefully, his muscular arm draped over me. Conlan was in his crib, making little growling noises in his sleep. I opened my eyes, looked at out white ceiling, and thought, “Who will I have to fight next to keep us safe?”
I’d punched that voice back down, because I decided that I wasn’t going to spend my life waiting for another shoe to drop. Still, over the years, it kept piping up here and there. I thought it would go silent once we were out of Atlanta, but it only grew stronger.
“It’s not just your enemies you have to worry about,” Erra said.
I raised an eyebrow at her.
“One of the men I loved had a war dog,” she said. “He was this huge drooling, farting, foul smelling beast, bred for combat. Ugh, I hated that dog. I never hurt him, but I didn’t want him near me, so I would stomp and shoo him when he got near. A surprisingly cowardly dog. He’d gone up against lions and men in battle, but he’d see me and run.”
A six-foot-tall woman built like an Olympic athlete wearing full armor and filled with roiling terrifying magic. I’d run away too if she stomped at me.
“Is there a point to this story or did you just want to share your disturbing hobby of tormenting loyal dogs?”
Erra grimaced. “You take great advantage of my love for you. Anyway, the dog was only afraid of two things: me and thunder. Every time lightning split the sky, I would find him shivering by my bed and no matter how much I stomped and yelled, he wouldn’t leave. He just sat there, shaking, until the storm passed and then he’d slink away.”
“I finally asked Leo why the dog did that, and he told me that I was the most frightening creature the dog knew. When the thunder came, he ran to me because I was so terrifying, I would scare away the thunder and keep him safe.”
“Listen to me, you insolent brat! People are the same. Whether you like it or not, you married a First.”
My laughter died.
“And yes, I know that your love is the greatest love there ever was under the sky and he left his Pack for you, but he took the reins of power when he was 15. He grew up being the Beast Lord. It wasn’t just his identity; it had shaped his way of thinking. And I don’t need to tell you that his successor isn’t faring well.”
No, she didn’t need to tell me that.
“When things fall apart in Atlanta, as they eventually will, the shapeshifters will panic. They will run from that thunder to the scariest person they know expecting that he will make them safe. Do you think he’ll be able to turn them away?”
The swimmer turned toward the beach and slid through the ocean, devouring the distance in fast, measured strokes.
“I don’t know,” I told her.
“Your face tells me that you do know.” Erra fixed me with her stare again. “And even if he somehow decided to say no, you would say yes. All it would take is one vulnerable, helpless person with a sob story and you’ll trip over your feet to take them under your wing.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m retired.”
“You need territory, a defensible base large enough to house many people, money, powerful allies, and connections to the local government to make it all work. Do you have any of those things?”
“No,” I squeezed out.
“Then you should get busy, shouldn’t you?”
“Thank you, dear aunt, for once again listing all of my failures.”
“I’m trying to keep you alive. If you want someone to tell you how special and wonderful you are, go see your father. He wants you to fail so you’ll be forced to run to him and beg for his wisdom.”
“What happened to the dog?” I asked.
“He sired many puppies and lived to a ripe old age. I kept a pillow by my bed, and I would drape a special blanket over him when the storms came. I buried both the pillow and the blanket with him when he died, so he wouldn’t be scared in the afterlife. Give your husband and your son my love and get to work.”
The fire went out.
Curran came out of the ocean, the hard muscles across his powerful frame slick with water. Oh wow.
My husband started across the sand toward me. At night he swam naked, but since it was morning, he wore blue swimming trunks and somehow that made him even hotter. But it wasn’t his body that pulled me in, although it didn’t hurt.
Looking into Curran’s eyes was like coming face to face with an apex predator. There was steel will there, raw power, and confidence bordering on arrogance to back it up, but most of all there was love when he looked at me. Erra was right. He never stopped being the Beast Lord. He was the man who could dominate thousands of shapeshifter with a single look, and he was also the man who stayed up all night with a child who’d eaten some poisonous herbs in the forest and spent 24 hours throwing them up. One couldn’t be separated from another. They were all aspects of Curran, and I loved all of him.
Try as you might, you cannot change who you are. A son of my father’s former spymaster told me this two months ago. I didn’t want to change who Curran was.
I didn’t want to change who I was either. It would take a hell of a lot more than a sob story to force me out of my retirement. I’d earned my peace and quiet and I would be keeping it.
Curran reached me.
“How was the water?”
“Invigorating. You should go for a swim.”
I loved swimming, but I liked my ocean to be right about the temperature of bath water. Our slice of the North Carolina coast was nicely swimmable in September, hovering around upper 70’s, but we had three days of storms and the water dropped to high 60’s. I had no desire to get into it.
Curran leaned over and kissed me with cool lips. “What’s the matter?”
Land, connections, money… “My aunt had given me a laundry list of things I don’t have and need to get right away.”
He laughed softly.
“Do you think it was a mistake to move to Wilmington?” I asked.
He grinned. “I have my smoking hot wife, my troublemaker son, my fort, my beach… What else can a man want?”
“I can see that.” He scooped me up off my log.
“What are you doing?”
Curran spun around and sprinted to the water with me in his arms. The beach flew by.
“Stop! Curran! Cu…”
He threw me. I hurtled through the air and splashed into the ocean. The water closed over my head.
I flailed, broke the surface, and gasped. Curran locked me into his arms, his grey eyes laughing.
“You said invigorating, not fucking freezing. Let go of me!”
“Let me warm you up.”
“I’ll warm myself up!”
His smile gained a wicked edge. “Even more interesting.”
I smacked him, kicked him in the chest, and launched into a frenzied freestyle, trying to warm up. I stopped about a minute later. In a pool, I would’ve been about 100 yards from where I started. In the ocean, against the current, I made it to about 50.
Curran floated next to me, and he wasn’t even breathing hard. It’s good to be a werelion.
“You are too much.”
He pulled me closer, and I wrapped myself in his arms. We floated in the water.
“About what you said earlier,” he said, his voice a deep rumble in my ear. “I enjoyed this summer. Conlan loved it.”
They both loved it here in the fort. Erra was right – it really was on the edge of the continent, in a place where the land ended, and the ocean began. We could get cornered here, squeezed between an angry sea and an enemy. If we were talking about safety only, I felt better when we were in Atlanta, hidden deep inside the neighborhood where every neighbor was a friend. But Atlanta wasn’t an option.
“Do you like it here?” Curran asked.
“Then it works for now. It’s simple, baby. When we stop liking it, we’ll do something else.”
Maybe it was that simple.
Three weeks later
The beach was an excellent place to work out because the sand was soft and conveniently powdery.
Curran threw me over his hip. If I’d let go, I would’ve landed on my back, but I had a death grip on his neck, and as he flipped me, I went with it and threw a handful of sand into his face. It bought me half a second, which I used to kick his feet from under him and get a triangle choke in place. Unfortunately, choking a werelion was a lot harder in practice. Normal people would’ve tapped out. Curran got up, lifting me in the air while I hung off his neck.
I was about to punch him in the head when he tapped my thigh. His eyes were fixed on the fortress behind us.
I released him. He caught me, helping me to the ground, and I turned to look at the fort.
After the Red Horn gang attacked our home, Curran and Conlan decided to erect a flagpole. It jutted from the tallest of our fort’s six towers and flew a grey flag with stylized black stripes that looked either like tiger stripes or claw rips. When something happened, we raised a second flag below the first, an early warning system, green for shapeshifter, red for danger, and so on. When we left this morning, the grey flag flew alone. Now there was a blue flag under it.
Human visitors. Not from Conlan’s school either. The lone time they came to visit after school started, he flew a ghastly orange to commemorate the occasion.
“Are you expecting visitors?” Curran asked.
The renovation crew had finished 5 weeks ago, and we were all paid up. The grocery delivery wasn’t due for another two days.
“No.” I scrambled to grab my shoes.
We found our visitors in the courtyard. A young Black woman with a wealth of hair piled on top of her head in a messy bun and a well-dressed older Black man. Our son had let them in, guided them to our outside lunch table, served them iced tea and cookies, and then parked himself on the side to keep them company. I could tell by Curran’s face that a father and son conversation would be in Conlan’s near future.
“Don’t bristle,” I murmured as we crossed the yard.
“I’m not bristling,” he murmured back. “I’m perfectly welcoming.”
The man was probably in his sixties, with dark brown skin warmed by a reddish undertone and silver hair, cut short and half-hidden by a light-colored fedora. His curly beard was silver as well, but his mustache was still salt and pepper. He was slightly shorter than average, with a trim build, shown off by a double-breasted grey suit, which he paired with a pomegranate-red shirt. He looked at the world through a pair of glasses with reddish copper frames, and his eyes were narrow and shrewd.
The woman next to him wore a yellow tank top and a high waisted black skirt. A large tote bag rested by her feet. She turned toward me and smiled. Solina.
“Is that one of the mermaids you rescued?” Curran asked.
We reached the table, and both visitors stood up. Solina came around and hugged me. I gently hugged her back.
“You look well,” I told her.
“Thank you. This is my grand-uncle, Edward Calloway. Grand-uncle, this is Kate and Curran.”
Edward Calloway offered us his hand. “Please call me Ned.”
Curran and I shook his hand in turn, and we all sat back down at the table.
Interesting. I didn’t know Ned Calloway personally, but I knew of him. I first noticed the name because I kept seeing it on Paul’s materials invoices during the renovations. I finally asked him about it. According to our general contractor, Ned Calloway was a “smart man who’s done very well for himself.” He owned many enterprises in everything from lumber and furniture to textiles and dual-engine car manufacture. A lot of businesses in and around Wilmington carried the Calloway name.
“Your iced tea is delicious,” Ned Calloway said. “What is it sweetened with?”
“Buckwheat honey,” Conlan said. Thanks to his werebear grandparents, my son was a honey connoisseur.
“I’ll have to remember that,” Ned said. “My grand-niece told me a lot about you. Thank you for saving this child. Our family is grateful.”
“It was a happy accident,” I said. “I was looking for a different child.”
“But you found Solina anyway. I should’ve come to thank you sooner, but I was occupied by an emergency. I have a summer home in Carolina Beach. We’re practically neighbors.”
They didn’t come here just to thank us, but rushing this conversation would only slow it down to the speed of cold molasses so I settled in.
“That’s good to hear,” Curran said. “We’ve only recently moved in, so we don’t know that many people. It’s always good to meet a neighbor.”
Ned smiled. “We are the welcoming sort. I’m sure you’ll be a part of our community in no time.”
Where was this going?
“Our family is from Penderton,” Ned said. “That’s not where we started, but where we ended up before I and Solina’s parents moved on to Wilmington.”
Penderton was a small town somewhere north of Wilmington.
“Where did you start?” I asked.
“My parents are from Wallace,” Ned said. “They grew up with little means, married young, and my sister and I were born in Wallace, in an old farmhouse. My father had a head for business. He started in reclamations, then moved on to construction, and did well there. They bought a bigger home in town, but then the forest came.”
“And ate the towns,” Solina said.
Ned nodded. “Until about 30 years ago, that area was mostly fields, vineyards, and horse farms, with several small towns sprinkled in. Burgaw, St. Helena, Ivanhoe… Then woods started growing and there was no stopping them. The forest pushed people together. Smaller villages were abandoned, and Burgaw and St. Helena merged into Penderton.”
A typical scenario that had played out all over United States. Magic hated technology and high buildings, but it loved and nurtured plants. Trees grew like weeds, merging into massive forests, and things with sharp teeth liked to call them home. People quickly realized that safety lay in numbers and sturdy town walls.
“Now Momma didn’t want to leave Wallace. Her family had been there for many generations. The family cemetery was there. The church where we were baptized was there. It didn’t feel right to abandon that history,” Ned said. “But they couldn’t stay. To make the move easier, my father built their dream house in Penderton.”
“It’s a beautiful house,” Solina said. “Memaw still lives there, and Grandma takes care of her.”
“After my father passed, I tried to get them to move to Wilmington,” Ned said. “But Momma wouldn’t leave. Now they’re trapped there. I love these cookies. I’m a sucker for sweets, and I have to say, these are special.”
He dropped it very casually. Yes, my mother and sister are trapped, wow these are great cookies.
“Good co0okies are an essential food group,” Curran said. “My wife is a great cook.”
“I thought these were homemade. They just have that special touch of something.”
“I’ll pack you a batch for the road,” I told him.
“Oh, I couldn’t impose.” Ned shook his head.
“I have made too much anyway. So why can’t your mother and sister leave?”
“Because of the evil in the woods,” Solina said.
And there it was. This was why they came.
“Now I’ve got to hear this,” Curran said. “What kind of evil is it?”
“We don’t know,” Ned said. “That’s part of the problem. It started after the last Flare.”
Flares were the potent magic waves that came every seven years and lasted several days. With each Flare, a bit more of our world became irrevocably changed. Flares brought disasters. Gods manifested, large structures collapsed, and weird monsters went on rampages. The last Flare was about 5 years ago.
“Three days after that Flare ended, some strange-looking women walked out of the woods near Penderton,” Ned said.
Solina reached into a bag by her feet, pulled out a rolled-up piece of paper, and opened it on the table. A sketch made in colored pencil showing a human female, but not any kind of human I had seen.
Her skin had an odd, almost bluish tint with a pattern of hairline cracks, and I couldn’t tell if that was her natural tone or some sort of body paint. Her shoulders sloped down at a sharper angle than normal, her limbs and her neck were too long, and there was something strange about the proportions of her features. Almost as if her entire mid face was stretched along the vertical axis, flattening and elongating her nose and cheekbones. Her mouth was a narrow slash, and the corners of her lips sagged down, giving her a permanently derisive or mournful expression. Her eyes were round, almost black, set close together, and completely blank.
The woman wore a tan colored garment, a kind of robe or a tunic, cinched at the waist by a belt. Her long ochre-colored hair was pulled back from her face and stiff. It looked like she’d taken a handful of white mud or clay, smeared it on her hair at the hairline, and let it dry. A metal collar clasped her neck, a kind of plaited band formed from strips of golden and silver metal. Her right hand clutched something. A sack or a net?
After the Shift hit, a lot of people turned to ancient gods and long-abandoned religions. I’d seen neo-pagans wear some weird stuff, but that didn’t explain the strange facial features.
“What is she holding?” I asked.
“A banner,” Solina said. “That’s how they communicate.”
She pulled a plastic Ziploc bag out of her tote and put it on the table. Inside was beige fabric.
“May I?” I asked.
I opened the bag and took the fabric out. Three pieces of cloth. It felt like wool, woven into a thin fabric. I unfolded the first one. On it, in bright red, was a single English word written in all caps. TRIBUTE.
The word wasn’t painted onto the banner. It had been woven into it with crimson wool.
Curran took the banner, sniffed it, and held it out to Conlan. Our son trotted over and took a long whiff.
I unfolded the second one. A symbol for the first quarter moon, a circle split in half vertically. The left side was solid red. The right side showed moon spots with paler and darker shades of red.
“The deadline,” Curran said.
There was one piece of cloth left. I opened it. A symbol for a person, one step above a stick figure and featureless but undeniably a person, woven in red in the center of the banner.
“They wanted human tribute,” Curran said.
A cold uncomfortable knot formed in my stomach. This was looking worse and worse.
“The town ignored it, of course,” Ned said. “Penderton has solid defenses, and the guards are well trained. These are all tough people, lumbermen, farmers, hunters. On the deadline, at sundown, the women came back. The town expected them to storm the walls, but they just left. Everything seemed to have blown over. Then at noon the next day a huge brown boulder shot out of the woods, landed in the town square, and exploded into brown dust.”
“Everyone who was in the open in the square died,” Solina said. “Nine people. Two kids.”
“In the evening the women were back,” Ned continued. “Same message, but this time they wanted their tribute by full moon. Penderton sounded the alarm, of course. It was all hands on deck. Forest service, National Guard, three teams of mercenaries, everyone came to find the cause of this disaster. They went into the forest. Four days later some of them came out. Pender Forest is a big place, over 300,000 acres. They’d walked around in circles. Some of them disappeared. Some were eaten, nobody knows by what.”
“Why not evacuate?” Curran asked.
“People tried,” Ned said. “Every single person that left the town after that first blast became sick two days later. Some came back to town and recovered. The others died.”
“Nobody has any answers,” Solina said.
It infected them somehow. Probably with that first boulder, although it could have been something else. And Ned and Solina’s weren’t sick because they’d moved out of Penderton before this whole mess happened.
“What happened with the National Guard?” Curran asked.
“They stayed a month past the tribute deadline, but they couldn’t stay in Penderton indefinitely,” Ned said. “The day after they left, a second boulder exploded at the school. It just so happened that most of the children were in a separate building during the school assembly. Only five people died.”
There was an awful flatness to his voice.
“Penderton offered tribute,” I said.
“Jimmy Codair,” Ned said. “69 years old and dying of cancer. He volunteered. He walked into the woods with the women, and nobody never saw him again. The next year, on the same day and hour, they were back.”
They gave it a person.
“The town fed it,” Curran said. “Of course, it would be back.”
“It’s been five years since the flare,” I said. “How…?”
“The town holds a lottery,” Ned said.
I’d learned over the years that you can adjust to just about anything to survive. Penderton adjusted to the price of their survival. One person a year to let the other 5,000 go on with their lives. It felt monstrous because it was.
“These people are not monsters,” Ned said, as if reading my mind. “They have no other options. Whatever you think they should have done, they have done. They have appealed to everyone, from the military and mercenaries to the Order and the Covens. Everyone has tried. I’ve personally travelled to Washington for help. Nobody could help and in the end the town paid the price every single time.”
“This is the fifth year,” Solina said. Her voice had an edge to it.
Ned looked at her.
She inhaled deeply and looked at the sky above us.
Curran fixed Ned with his stare. “That’s a terrible story.”
Ned nodded. “Yes, it is. Thank you for listening to me. I’ve rambled on for far too long. I should probably get to the reason why I am here.”
He reached into his jacket and pulled out a folded map.
“The town of Penderton is very excited about your move to our neck of the woods. But your lovely home is so far from us. We’d like to invite you to move closer.”
He opened the map, presenting us with an aerial view of Wilmington and the surrounding area. Sea on the east side, the Cape Fear River in the west flowing south, dense woods all around, with the narrow lines of the major roads cutting through them.
Just above the northern border of Wilmington a dotted line marked Pender County, perched like a big mushroom cap on top of the city. Almost the entire county was tinted green, indicating the massive sprawl of Pender Forest. Midway through it, not too far from I-40, a small red circle marked Penderton. And just north-west of Penderton, a big rectangle of green cut through Pender Forest, taking up about a third of the woods.
“Move closer where?” I asked.
“Here.” Ned tapped the green rectangle with his fingertip.
Conlan soundlessly moved to look at the map over my shoulder.
“What is that?” I asked.
What? “I don’t follow.”
“These are the woods that Penderton gifted to you. Our welcome present to our wonderful new neighbors. 82,000 acres of woodlands, two-thirds of it Longleaf Pine, prime timber; one third swamp with incredible biodiversity; and a thousand-acre Big Skunk Lake. Best fishing in the county.”
Curran focused on the rectangle of green as if it were a bloody steak and he’d been starving for a month.
Ned put a photograph on the table. It showed a forest of pines, straight like the masts of the sail ships, rising to dizzying height from the sun-dappled golden wiregrass.
“Ninja forest,” Conlan breathed.
“We have the prettiest woods,” Ned said. “There are many suitable places to build a keep.”
A keep. Like the Pack Keep. Damn it.
“I always appreciate a man who does his homework,” Curran said. “You think you know who we are. But do you really?”
The flesh of his head split and twisted into a different shape. A new head formed on his shoulders, a massive, nightmarish blend of human and lion. Faint, smoky stripes marked his grey fur. His black lips trembled and opened, flashing fangs the size of my fingers. Curran’s gold eyes locked on Ned and Solina with predatory intensity.
Solina jumped up and took a step back.
Ned swallowed but stayed seated.
“Think very carefully,” Curran said, his voice a deep rumbling growl. “Be sure this is what you want. Because once I take this land, it will be mine.”
“It’s already yours,” Ned said. “You have all rights, mineral, timber, access, everything. We have already registered the grant with the county. I have the paperwork.”
“Does the town understand who they are inviting?” Curran asked. Up close, his voice shook you. It reverberated in your bones.
“They understand,” Ned said.
“Even if I look like this? Even if I will bring others like me?”
“People are always more than one thing. The residents of Penderton know who you are. They know about your friends. Should they move here from down South, the town will not oppose it. Nor could it. The land is yours. Do with it what you wish.”
The sky above us was completely clear, but I could’ve sworn I heard thunder.
“We are small town people, but we aren’t bigots, Mr. Lennart,” Ned said. “And we keep our word.”
Accepting this forest meant our quiet lives would be over. This thing reeked of old magic power. Fighting it would be bloody, noisy, and dangerous. If we managed to deal with whatever evil had spawned in that forest and survived that fight, we’d need to defend that land. Sooner or later Curran would build another Keep and once he did that, shapeshifters would flock to him, and we would be right back where we started.
Territory, base, money, allies, and connections…
My “low profile” was slipping through my fingers.
“Okay,” Curran said. “You have me. But I don’t speak for my wife. Convince her and you have a deal.”
Ned stood up. “Could you open the gates for us?”
Curran glanced at Conlan. Our son jogged to the gates and swung them open. There were two large SUVs in our driveway, both with bloated hoods to accommodate the dual gasoline and enchanted water engines. Solina walked over to them and waved.
Ned invited me toward them with a sweep of his hand.
Okay. I’ll bite.
I got up and crossed the yard to the gates. Curran joined me.
The doors of the SUVs opened, and people started getting out, one after another. Just normal, regular people in normal, regular clothes, some older, some younger. A young man in his upper teens, still a kid, hopped out, and helped a woman in her 70’s exit. They lined up in front of us.
“The women came early this year,” Solina said. “They want their tribute in two weeks. The town already held the lottery.”
Ice slid down my spine.
The kid in his teens pulled a banner out of his pocket and held it out. On it, woven with the wool the color of blood, were 10 human figures.
The people looked at us.
Curran took my hand and squeezed.
I could say no. I could walk away right now, and nobody would ever call me on it.
I squeezed back.
“We’ll take it,” my husband said.