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Cold Moon Rising
By C. T. Adams, Cathy Clamp
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2009 C. T. Adams and Cathy Clamp
All rights reserved.
Sweat rolled down my forehead, trailing ribbons of salty wetness through the layers of caked-on grime. I swatted at another black fly intent on sucking my blood.
There were a lot of bugs hovering just outside my reach, but only the extremely hungry ones dived in for a meal. They just don't seem to like the taste of magical blood.
The muscles in my right arm were starting to get tired from all the swinging. Although sharp and efficient, the machete did little to clear a path through the dense canopy of green surrounding me. I heard Will Kerchee having to cut his own path, even though he followed close behind. Shadows still enveloped us, but a reddish-gold glow on the horizon told me two things: it was going to be hot, and it was going to rain. Both of which meant it was going to be muggy as hell for the rest of the job.
"We apparently have different concepts of access, Kerchee. When you said we could get here easily, I presumed there'd be a road." The jungle seemed to swallow my words so they were barely a murmur above the raucous noise overhead. I suppose I couldn't blame the various prey animals for screaming about our presence here. The alpha magic that enveloped me, tethered me to Will, did keep away the press of the moon that struggled to pull wolf fur from beneath my skin. But it also pressed against the animals, warned them of our journey through their home. The sheer weight of it was like being stuffed inside a dry suit in the heat — or a sausage casing. It was enough to make me want to scream too. As it was, I had to fight an urge to climb the trees and rip out their screeching, furry little throats.
Everything was too intense, a by-product of the supernatural power that made me a creature bound to the moon's whim. Every scent was like a knife through my brain for the three days surrounding the full moon. If people wonder whether animals feel joy or worry or frustration ... yep, they do. I could smell their emotions drifting on the air. But the mere reality of emotions doesn't mean I'm not going to eat my next burger with all the enthusiasm of the wolf inside. I'm more of a carnivore now than I ever was. Raw meat smells like heaven now and blended with the hot-and-sour-soup scent of terror around me, around us, the glands at the back of my jaw were drooling in time to the growl from my stomach.
"Geez, Giambrocco. Whine, whine, whine," Will replied with at least as much of a wheeze as I'd hoped to hear. "I said I could get here easily. Why in the hell Lucas stuck me with a partner for this job who can't fly is beyond me."
It was beyond me, as well. Lucas Santiago is our boss and is usually pretty bright. But this time I was wondering. It was bad enough to deal with the reality of being a shape-shifter, when such things aren't supposed to exist. But Will could shift into a bird? No, that was still a bit too much for this former mobster brain to handle this early in the morning. Yeah, I've seen him shift and fly off as the massive bald eagle he is, but it's no less hard to deal with for the experience.
Another fly bit me, and I slapped my neck. My normally sensitive ears, made a dozen times worse by the sting of the moon, registered the clap of flesh on flesh and the slight squishing sound at the level of a jet takeoff. I'd probably be deaf already if not for the healing powers us imaginary monsters have. I took my hand away from my neck to look at the smear of blood-covered insect legs on my palm. Got it! The scent was enticing enough to cause me to bring my hand up to mouth and lick the blood off. Yuck. I hate it when I do that. I spat onto the ground to clear out the taste.
A clearing appeared in front of me, and I took the opportunity to lift my canteen to my mouth and take a long swig. What I wouldn't give for a cold beer right now.
Will was still chopping away at the thick undergrowth several yards back, so I took the opportunity to take a long sniff of the slight breeze that finally stirred the leaves.
It wasn't far now. Oil, diesel, and unwashed humans with supernatural blood fought for dominance in my nose from the distance, yet we were still too far away for even my sensitive hearing. But there were no telltale outlines in the darkness. I can see colored auras around other Sazi, giving me warning when they're nearby. Will stood out like a beacon in the sunlight. But I'm told that nobody else but me and one or two others can see the lights — they call it second sight.
We could hope I wasn't missing anything.
A swishing sound next to my ear made my instincts take over. I moved sideways, fast, and reached out to stop the arm holding the long, curved machete in midstroke. The black leather glove I've started to wear on jobs squeaked from the sudden effort and slid against my sweaty palm. Then I pulled the body attached to the arm into the clearing beside me.
"Think you might be a little more careful with that thing?" I asked in a harsh whisper, because now I was starting to catch whispers of machinery in the distance.
Will took off his pith hat and mopped at his brow. I thought the pith hat was a little overkill. A green cotton headband served me just fine.
When he set the hat back on he replied, "Wuss. You'd heal. Besides, I missed, didn't I?"
I shook my head and adjusted my backpack and rifle sling. "Not for lack of trying. And keep your voice down. We're close now."
Will began to remove his backpack. The khaki cotton shirt hung like a limp dishrag from his bronze skin, sopping wet with sweat. The smell was almost enough to make me retch. I glared at him with disgust. None of the other Native Americans I've met dripped sweat like this guy.
"What?" he asked with irritation, as he dropped into a squat on a moss-covered rock.
"Have you ever heard of deodorant, Will?" I asked in the same whisper.
"Birds sweat in human form, Tony. We just do. I have antiperspirant and deodorant on," he replied in a normal voice with a withering look. "But I only put it under my arms, like everyone else in the world. I didn't coat my body with the shit. Wish we would have had enough time to get some of the Wolven cologne that would kill our scents. This job is going to be tough enough without the bad guys smelling us coming a mile away." He paused and shook his head in frustration. "Damn wolves and your touchy noses. Hope the snakes aren't as sensitive." He pulled a slightly less damp cloth from his pants pocket, then took off his helmet and set it on the ground beside him. I was a little surprised that he kept his hair high and tight, regardless of regulations. Once again, many I met around Nevada tended to fight for their tribal right. But he did strike me as the strict law-and-order type. He wiped his face again. "It's hot, and we're not exactly going to a fashion show. Besides, you've been keeping a pace that would kill a draft horse. My calves are killing me. Don't you ever get tired?"
He opened his pack and removed a roll of beef jerky. I've always been fond of beef jerky. But after three days tramping through the jungle eating nothing but, I was starting to change my opinion.
I let the backpack slide from my shoulders and leaned my Kalashnikov against the nearest tree. My own shirt was wet enough to wring out, so I figured I might as well. "Hell, I didn't get tired back when I was a vanilla human. Plus, we're on a tight schedule," I replied quietly, stripping the faded green ex-army jacket from my body. "I don't know about you, but I had other plans this week than wandering through the jungle hoping to find where a captured Wolven agent is being held. It's just good luck that I stumbled on that guard last week in the restaurant bar and could use my hindsight to fix Rayna's location. Who knew that three-day snakes got drunk on tequila so easy?" I twisted the shirt diagonally and watched as wetness poured onto the green grass. A pretty easy way to mark my territory, I had to admit.
"I'm pretty sure my foresight might have had something to do with us being in that bar, so back off, wolf." I think he was annoyed that one of my Sazi magic abilities is hindsight — the ability to see and experience someone else's memories when I touch them, while his is foresight — the gift of seeing the future. The hindsight is the reason for the gloves. It's a skin-on-skin thing, and fortunately, although annoying and uncomfortable, gloves do help slow down accidental images. Hindsight is very matter-of-fact, and pretty damned useful. You're seeing what already happened, which lets me see details of an event that Kerchee's ever-changing future visions can't provide. It's not a gift that a three-day wolf should have, since we're the lowest of the low in the supernatural world. I can't even control my own change, which was why Will was with me.
In all honesty, though, the hindsight part doesn't annoy him nearly as much as the fact that I even work for Wolven, the shape-shifter law enforcement agency. Will Kerchee is a state cop in Texas, and despite the fact that I'm slightly reformed, I'm still an accused gangster from the Midwest who would be pretty easily convicted if put in court. The new identity as J. Anthony Giambrocco doesn't negate the fact that Tony Giodone — while presumed dead — still has an arrest warrant on the books in two states, and is guilty of a lot of things that would make a jury pale. So it bugs him that we're partnered. He'd much rather be slapping cuffs on me. I don't have to do much more than watch his fingers twitch to where his sidearm would be in uniform to know that. At first, I couldn't resist making sudden movements at the edge of his peripheral vision just to watch him react ... and a bird's peripheral goes back nearly to his spine. But then came the moon, when we were all supposed to be out of here a week ago, and now he's expending energy to keep me from turning. I'm being nice, but it's not really in my nature. That's more Sue's nature — my wife. We're bonded with more of that Sazi magic. She's in my head right now, tethered to me just like I am to Will. But she doesn't really like watching when I go on jobs, so I keep the door between us locked off. I'm getting better at that. At first, I couldn't control her involvement at all and killing people really trips her trigger. Like Kerchee, she'd much rather save a person than off 'em.
Flies began to buzz around Will's head. His face lit up with a pleased expression when he discovered a fat, nondescript black beetle that had managed to crawl into the jerky roll. I shook my head as he popped it in his mouth and crunched down cheerfully. Birds and bugs. Ick.
I looked around the clearing as I put the now wrinkled, but drier, shirt back on. I looked like hell, and probably smelled as bad as Will, but he was right — we weren't in a fashion show.
Life rose up around us in the growing sunshine like a wave. I saw flies and gnats hover around both of our sweaty heads, and heard larger insects and animals farther out in the jungle. I could see them, smell them, taste them. A python in the grass had considered us prey, but stopped as it sensed that invisible magic that screamed Sazi ... shape-shifter ... predator. It slunk back, retreated, and now was giving us a wide berth. The monkeys and colorful birds in the trees continued to screech and call and scold, their numbers growing as daylight made them bolder. And somewhere, deeper in the green sea of vegetation, a panther watched us.
Sensed me sensing it. I turned my eyes toward the shadows and stared. I could feel a growl try to escape from deep inside of me. I didn't let it surface, but I sent a trickle of magical energy out toward the hidden eyes and felt it react. This was my territory now. For as long as I was here. It disappeared into the artificial darkness.
This seemed an odd place for a clearing. But no trees had been cut down for a homestead or anything. The canopy of trees and tall ferns just seemed to ... stop. The undergrowth had no such problem, and the vines and grasses were almost knee high. Damn, it was already getting hot! But luckily, the humidity's only 100 percent.
"So," said Will through a mouthful of salted meat, "what now? Which way do we go, bwana?"
"Who put me in charge?" I asked irritably. "You're supposed to be leading me to the spot, remember?"
He shrugged gracefully, nearly a flapping of feathery wings. "That ended in the bar. You're the one with the hindsight. Lots more accurate than my vision. I could tell you where we were if I was flying above. But on the ground, I'm not much better than human. I'm pretty sure we're going the right way, and you seem to be doing just fine."
Pretty sure? Great, just what I needed — to be lost in a jungle in Central America. Actually, though, as soon as he said it I realized he was right. I was sure where we were. We should reach the spot in less than an hour, if the breeze wasn't playing games with my nose. I didn't understand how I knew, only that I did. Living out someone's memories is always strange, like déjà vu. Part of me doesn't like this weird Sazi shit. But the other part, the hunter part, finds it perfectly natural. Like it's the logical next step.
Maybe it is.
I took another drink out of the big canteen in my pack and carefully filled the smaller water bottle on my belt. Most of what was in our packs was water. But the load was getting lighter faster than I'd planned. I hadn't counted on three days of blistering heat during the rainy season.
My elbow did the pointing toward the next thicket of green. "That way, another hour, give or take ... if the bugs don't chew us down to bone by then." Another fly, another slap. I winced at the sound before the background settled into a monotonous droning of a thousand different insects that I never used to notice.
Monotonous ... regular.
My brow furrowed. That one whine, high-pitched and steady, was a little too regular. No rise as it ventured closer, no fall as it darted away. Had it been there a minute ago? I couldn't remember. But whatever the expression on my face was made Will cock his head and lower his brows.
I shook my head again. "Don't know. Something's not right." I stepped a few feet in one direction and then the other — in a pattern of ever-expanding circles with Will as the center. Still the whine persisted, as though coming from everywhere. "Can you hear that hum? It's really high-pitched."
He crossed his arms over his chest and turned around slowly, face intense. But then he shook his head, and lowered his voice to a near whisper. "Nothing, and my hearing's pretty sharp. Tinnitus maybe?"
Could a Sazi get ringing in the ears without magic healing the nerve damage before it could register a sound? Well, I am as close to human as a werewolf can get, and don't heal for shit, so who knows? "Lower your shield on me for a second. Let's see if it gets better or worse."
I felt the release before I even registered the dip of his chin — sudden enough to nearly drop me to my knees from the sheer weight of the moon that crashed down on me. Pinpricks slashed at my arms and legs, as the sharp tips of fur struggled to emerge from my skin. I stayed standing, but just barely, and had to clench my fists and jaw to keep from letting out a raging howl from the abrupt pain. He watched me, not so much in concern for my welfare, but to see if I could manage the strain.
I've had worse, so I could.
Once I could focus my head a little, I concentrated on the sounds around me, trying to filter out everything except that one whine. The thing was, I recognized the sound, but couldn't remember from where. Whatever it was seemed out of context — familiar, but in the wrong place.
"Ignore it," Will said while shouldering his rifle again. "It'll go away soon enough."
"Nope. Can't do it. I've learned to trust my instincts ... even the wolf ones. We'll have to stay here until I figure it out." I tried to think of other high-pitched sounds, but none of them matched in my brain. Electrical lines ... no. Bats ... huh-uh. Fluorescent light, compressor, computer ... nope. But the word mechanical kept swimming up to the top of my brain over and over. This wasn't a natural noise.
Excerpted from Cold Moon Rising by C. T. Adams, Cathy Clamp. Copyright © 2009 C. T. Adams and Cathy Clamp. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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