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By C. T. Adams, Cathy Clamp
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2010 C. T. Adams and Cathy Clamp
All rights reserved.
The cold air cut like daggers as Eric painfully pulled in another deep breath. God, not again. Please not again. Then the howl came, riding on a magic so powerful he couldn't resist it. He raised his muzzle to the sky and rent the air with a deep, mournful sound that caused the deer ahead to scatter into the trees.
Except there were no deer ... and no trees.
A part of his brain remembered that he was actually in the basement of a low-slung concrete building in the desert, running on a treadmill with electrodes pasted on skin shaved bare of fur. But it seemed so real. The forest with pines sparkling in the snow as they passed, the sensation of ice under his feet, and the scent of blood and fur and fear. A pack surrounding him, huffing and panting and racing forward after the game like birds in flight.
Another howl, accompanied by raking magic from the most powerful alpha wolf to ever be born to the Sazi, and Eric felt his mouth forced open to answer. Would it never stop? His lungs burned from the cold — or maybe it was just exhaustion. How long had he been running, been howling so they could gather their data?
And how many people had died as a result?
"Have to ... stop. Can't ... breathe." His voice sounded hoarse even to his own ears and the cough that followed felt like he was expelling his lungs.
Just a few more times. You have to call the pack. They can't find their way without you. You have to protect them, came the response in his mind, words that weren't sounds his ears would recognize. He felt adrenaline rush into his muscles and he surged forward into the snow.
Yes. The pack. Have to protect —
Another burst of magic and this time Eric felt his chest expand, felt his throat open, and the sound that erupted reached out, and out. It sliced through the snow and the weighty canopy of trees, pushing past the pressure of the air itself to find his people. Tiny obstacles pressed back but they fell too as the howl reached farther. Another object pressed in, slicing and cutting at his howl. It felt familiar ... too familiar.
Eric tried to focus, fought against the need ... and his instincts, to remember, even as the knives tried to cut his howl to pieces.
Knives. Slicing. Chopping.
Chopper. The word screamed into his mind and he could sense it then. It was a small helicopter, not one of the big military ones, and it was falling. The sound wave was making it bob in the sky like a toy balloon. He could feel the turbine that drove the blades struggle against the pressure. More, he could feel the pilot and the two passengers inside begin to panic. Could smell their fear.
They promised. They swore there would be no flights out here. And they apparently didn't know, because the magic continued to rake over him, tried to pull more sound from his chest. He pulled back the howl, but it was like trying to turn the sea. All he could think to do was stop it cold and hope the chopper could recover.
"No!" He screamed the word, or at least hoped he did, and slammed shut his muzzle. He felt his head thrash from side to side as the wave of power tried to unlock his jaws. But still he could feel the machine in the sky falter, the wave of sound beat at it as the last remnants pushed into the sky. Eric's legs wobbled and he fell forward. The part of his brain that remembered where he was panicked as he felt the electrodes rip from his skin as his lower jaw smacked against the still-moving treadmill. His feet braced against the nearest support so he didn't go flying backward. Yet he still saw a woodland scene in his mind, and the sensations of metal and rubber didn't match the image of fluffy snow.
"Shut it down!" He heard a tinny voice crackle in the distance. "We've got a chopper in trouble! Stop him!"
The magic stopped then, cut off like a switch was thrown, so suddenly he felt like he'd slammed into a wall. Then Eric recognized the voice of Lucas Santiago, the alpha wolf who'd been supplying the magic. "I think he stopped himself. Ten-four. We've cut power. Talk to me, David. What's happening out there? There aren't supposed to be any aircraft out here tonight."
"It looks like a life-flight chopper, probably on the way to the hospital in Cortez. I think it's okay now. The prop seems to have stabilized and they're moving past ground zero. But wait until you see the video I just took. The pilot hit the wave and it went straight up and then dropped ... damn, must have been fifty feet. It's one thing to talk about this in theory, but another to see it."
There was a small growl from Lucas. Eric wished he could stop seeing the movie running in a loop in his brain. Even though his body had stopped, he was still seeing snow and trees and running game.
"Tatya, turn that police scanner up to full volume, just to make sure they arrive safely. We might have to help out if their prop was too damaged to finish the trip." Lucas paused and let out a frustrated breath. Something made a chirping sound. Probably the walkie-talkie phone. "Okay, everybody, come on in or e-mail your reports. It's been a long night. We'll correlate what data we can. Maybe it'll be enough for the council to make their decision."
His vision of trees and snow was replaced by painted concrete and half-finished drywall so abruptly it made Eric's head ache. He blinked and even that small movement was painful, as though his eyes had been wide open for too long in the wind. He had to shake his head once, then twice, before the sounds and sights around him made sense.
"Are we done?" He asked the question even though he knew the answer. No, they weren't done. They'd never be done with him.
"For now." Lucas was back in human form — had he ever actually shifted? Eric winced as he peeled the remaining electrode patches from his ears, face, and chest. "Quick thinking on your part, Thompson. We'd probably be picking up the pieces of that chopper if not for you. But it also means you weren't completely in a trance. Your mind just can't focus. We might have to put you on the Wolven obstacle course and throw the works at you to pull out a true calling howl."
Eric sighed. "Fiona tried that. I told you — it has to be the right combination of circumstances. I have to be in charge, there has to be a threat so great that I need help, and the pack has to be in danger. There's no way to duplicate it with a simple vision or course, because I just can't make myself believe the threat is big enough. No, I'm not willing to risk it, Chief. Not again. It'd just be better if the council put me back where they found me and find someone else to lead this pack. I didn't bother a soul in the Outback." With all the electrodes finally off, he backed carefully off the treadmill and padded to where his clothes were waiting. The four other people in the room didn't even glance his way when he shifted to naked human form. He'd always been rather private about nudity, but there was no way to remain modest as a shifter. Tatya Santiago stopped him before he could even pull on his underwear and started to perform an exam on him right there. He sighed. It would do no good to argue. "Did you get any readings that will help?"
"Another deep breath," Lucas's wife said as she held both a stethoscope and her flattened palm to his chest and then closed her eyes to listen and ... well, feel was the best he could figure. Being both an M.D. and a magical healer gave her an edge in treating shifters that no one else could match.
He complied as Ivan Kruskenik spun on a padded stool across the room, took off his headphones, and spoke in his usual deep baritone. A tall, husky bald man, he was a Siberian bear in animal form, and he carried that same power to his human side. "Of course, my friend. We have been working hard while you've been playing in the snow." He said it completely deadpan, and when the sharply citrus scent of humor floated across the room, it only made Eric grin.
He couldn't help but laugh at his former partner. It was a real honor for an ordinary Wolven agent to get tapped to work a special project with the head of the Chief Justice's guard. But working with Ivan had been a privilege of its own. Eric liked the big bear, so he found himself grinning even as he rubbed his aching throat. "Oh, yeah. Loads of fun playing today. So what did you find?" Of course, rubbing his throat brought it to Tatya's attention and she immediately had him open his jaw so she could stare into his mouth with a light, and laid her fingers on his neck until he could feel heat and soothing magic ease the stinging.
"We confirmed what we already knew — that your howl has physical properties beyond simple sound. Some of the agents we have stationed around the area haven't checked in yet because of the disruption of the air waves. As soon as they do, we'll know more." Ivan looked at the man across the room watching a graph scroll across a computer screen. "Since you arrived just before we started, you didn't get to hear about the full array of tests we've been running. Tony, could you bring Eric up to speed?"
"Tony" was a Wolven agent Eric had only met a few hours ago. While his real name was Joe Giambrocco, everyone seemed to call him Tony. With his medium build and ordinary features he wasn't particularly noticeable, nor did he seem very powerful magically. But there was something about him ...
"Sure. It was a bitch to set up and has been confusing to correlate, but it's really interesting." Tony rolled his stool to the side with a quick flick of his feet, and pointed at the screen. "We had three tests running at this location — seismic activity from six points around the building, sonar buoys at two points in the river about a mile from here, and a variety of security sensors in a sealed, locked room on the other side of the building that respond to heat, motion, and noise. Raven's been stationed at Denver International Airport in the control tower, watching for radar anomalies. Bobby is in Pueblo, which is a lot closer, watching for the same thing, and several hawk shifters are flying near NORAD in Colorado Springs, watching for any military activity out of the ordinary. We also have agents trained in meteorology watching the NEXRAD Doppler at the local TV station for echo intensity. We did our best to soundproof this room using various acoustic materials, so that —" The phone rang just then, interrupting him. Tony glanced at the display and put the call on speaker.
"Hey, Bobby. How are things looking in the friendly skies?"
There was a lot of background noise and static on the line, and Eric had to struggle to make out the words as he began pulling on his clothes. "Not so friendly. There were pilots all around the city reporting clear air turbulence."
"Any reports of equipment malfunctions?" Eric hopped on one foot trying to get a sock on while staring at the speakerphone with the same intensity as he felt.
Bobby paused, and only the background noise let them know he was still there. "A Cessna disappeared from radar. They're looking for it now." He hurried to add, "But I don't know if we can attribute it to this experiment, so don't get too excited. It'll depend on the time. There may have been issues with some part of the autopilot. I'll have to find a way to take a look at some Doppler LIDAR records and compare them to your test times to know for sure. I'm going to hang around here until I know more. I'll be in touch."
Bile rose into Eric's throat and the room swam enough that Tatya grabbed his arm to keep him from falling.
All he had left to put on were his shoes. He spotted an empty chair and was headed toward it when Tatya surprised him by saying, "You can put those on in the car. We're going to be late if we don't get moving."
Eric's brow furrowed. Nobody had told him he was supposed to be traveling tonight. "Where are we going?" The hint of a growl voiced his suspicions better than words could.
Tatya gestured imperiously, as if to say Don't question your superiors, child. He felt the flesh on his back raise where his hackles would be in wolf form. He didn't lower his gaze. If the council decided this was going to be his territory, he had every right to question a healer, no matter how powerful.
The radio on Lucas's hip squawked again. He picked it up, turning away as Eric and Tatya continued challenging each other with their eyes.
"This is David. I'm on my way back and found something weird. I'm bringing it in."
From the corner of his eye, Eric saw Lucas move his eyes from his wife to the other men in the room. He let out a deep sigh that could mean a lot of things and shook his head. Eric caught the wet scent of sadness from him, which was surprising. But Lucas recovered quickly and answered David with authority. "Stay where you are. I'll come to you."
Ivan gave a small dip of his head which seemed to Eric to be an odd thing to do — almost as if he was giving Lucas permission. Lucas sighed and walked out of the room without a word.
Tatya was gathering her purse and clipboard in a hurried fashion and didn't seem to notice anything odd about what was going on. Ivan leaned back against the wall and regarded her for a long moment. Finally, when it seemed she was ready to leave, he spoke.
"Vere exactly are you taking our new Alpha, Tatya?"
Eric winced inwardly. Ivan's voice was taking on a Russian accent. That was never a good sign. If Tatya noticed, she didn't show it. She was patting her pockets, apparently looking for something, and didn't even bother to turn his way. She tucked her hand into her purse and extracted a cell phone. "I've arranged for a mobile MRI trailer in Cortez to save me the last spot on their schedule. But we have to leave now to make it before they go. It'll take at least an hour to get there."
It took another long silence before it finally occurred to Tatya that something was amiss. Maybe it was the growing wave of power flowing from Ivan that stung skin. Eric hadn't seen him raise power like that in a very long time. Of course, he was always capable of it. You don't rise through the Wolven ranks and then get to be the personal guard of the Chief Justice if you can't fight off even the toughest opponents. But Ivan was remarkably even tempered. Normally he didn't raise much of a fuss about anything. Now, however, Tony backed his stool a little and winced, then scratched at his bare arm, likely to relieve the same biting ants sensation Eric was experiencing.
A deep, resonant growl rumbled from the great bear's huge chest. "And how exactly did you plan to hide the evidence this time, Tatya? You are, according to your own words, on the schedule. There will be lists and reports and data — photographs — in a computer. You vill be having human technicians looking at scans of, one would presume, a supernatural throat and chest that have stumped our best people. Ve have no idea vat they'll find. Super capacity lungs? An abnormal voice box? Are you going to ask Wolven to clean up your mess again? Vill we have to threaten them, pay them off, or even kill them? Vat could you possibly imagine you'll find that vould be worth that sort of trouble?"
There was a long pause, and while Tatya seemed at a loss for words, her underlying scent wasn't confusion or fear. It was anger. "I've already worked out the details, Ivan. It'll be in my report to the council, and is none of your concern."
Ivan's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Doctor Santiago, the council has given you a great deal of leniency due to its affection for you and your husband and things you've done in the past for the Sazi. But you've already proven your inability to vork out the details. You're barely off probation for the fiasco in Boulder." He raised one hand in a frustrated gesture that matched the scent now roiling off him. "After all of Wolven's efforts, in conjunction with the council, the healers, and the seers, to keep the testing of Mr. Thompson a complete secret, why would you make plans, to satisfy your own personal curiosity, that could ruin everything?"
She gritted her teeth, obviously unaccustomed to being spoken to in such a manner. Her scent was strong enough to choke on, peppery and thick with anger and embarrassment. "I am not ruining anything. I simply thought of the MRI at the last minute. I have contacts with the company we used to use in Boulder. They're discreet and allow me to handle the equipment personally while they go out to dinner. I've been trained and have my certifications. There's no more danger in this situation than there was when I was the healer in Boulder and had someone's knee scanned. As soon as I explain the situation to the council, they won't have a problem with it."
Ivan's eyes narrowed even further. He had small eyes anyway, but when they narrowed, they nearly disappeared from his face. "Then pray proceed. Explain the situation."
Excerpted from Serpent Moon by C. T. Adams, Cathy Clamp. Copyright © 2010 C. T. Adams and Cathy Clamp. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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