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The lone werewolf smelled like silver and pain. Or maybe it wasn’t pain, maybe it was fear. In human form, Andrew Dare’s nose had missed that undertone altogether, and even in wolf it was elusive. Her trail wove beneath one of the power line towers straddling this strip of grassy, undeveloped land, and the metal bar clipped the top of Andrew’s ears as he padded under. He twitched his ears, checking again for any nearby humans, but he remained alone for the moment.
Pain and fear or not, she was a Were carrying silver, and that could mean only one thing: she was a European. Only European Were used silver on each other and would therefore have reason to carry it, and damned if Andrew was going to let any of them cause trouble in his alpha’s territory.
The lone’s trail had followed the power lines for several miles but now it diverged into a suburban development probably close enough to be considered part of Nashua, New Hampshire. Andrew stopped where the tangled unmown grass met a path into a cul-de-sac and considered, panting. The summer sun was low now, the heat was easing, and the scents he got from the development were fogged with car exhaust as everyone returned home for the evening.
Risky, to follow any farther in wolf form. The human scents Andrew found on the wind were few and far between, suggesting an upper-middle-class neighborhood with big lots. People in those neighborhoods didn’t ignore strays, they called animal control. And animal control knew the difference between a dog and a wolf, and a wolf and a creature that massed much larger than any natural wolf.
Andrew sniffed again and allowed himself a growl when he smelled no humans close enough to hear it. Damn that European. It was one of the oldest tricks in the book to stick to heavily populated areas so cars would drive away one’s scent and pursuers would have to sacrifice their wolf form’s superior nose, but knowing it didn’t make it any easier to counter. He’d have to push himself running back to his clothes and his car to not lose any more time. He was already—Andrew put his nose to the trail again—half a day behind as it was. But standing here debating would waste as much time. He started back.
It was good to run. Andrew had spent too much time stuck in traffic driving up here from Virginia. His muscles protested the pace at first, an aching commentary on how much time he’d been spending in human lately. Why bother shifting when he had no real pack to hunt with?
His nose caught a rusty tang and he jumped a few wires remaining from an old fence as he turned his thoughts instead to what the European Were might hope to accomplish here. Was she scouting the territory for the rest of her pack to follow, or did she plan to challenge and replace one of the sub-alphas in the larger Roanoke pack herself? He’d chased another silver-smelling lone last year, but that man had disappeared over the Mississippi into the Western packs’ territories long ago. Much as Andrew had hated to let the lone go, he trusted the Western packs to deal with him.
Andrew doubted this lone was after him personally, either. If so, she was long overdue. He’d escaped back to North America a decade ago. Still, the fact that she had brought silver suggested she was looking to punish someone. Andrew didn’t intend to allow that. Once he caught her, he’d drag her back to explain herself to his alpha. If she didn’t have a good enough reason for her failure to ask permission to cross Roanoke territory he’d have the pleasure of shoving her on a plane and out of Roanoke for good.
When he reached the bush where he’d hidden his clothes, Andrew crouched low and drew in a deep breath. Shifting at this moon phase was an effort, though at least the moon was waxing rather than waning. Andrew concentrated, eyes closed, pushing, pushing, until he felt the blessed tipping point. Everything fell into the new configuration: sight and scent and arrangement of muscles. He stretched his arms to settle his mind into it, and then pulled on his clothes.
It took a frustratingly long time to find the right cul-de-sac by car from the other side, but when Andrew finally returned to the spot he’d left off, traces of the Were’s trail still remained. He jogged a little to make up time as he followed the scent on foot in human form. At least the Were hadn’t been running. Her scent was thick, suggesting she’d wandered.
Andrew grew more cautious as the trail turned into a yard. He couldn’t say for sure with his human nose that no one was home, but the windows were dark and no car was in the driveway, so he strode up for a quick look. The sun’s angle made the window reflective against a faint background of blinds. A complete handprint stood stark against it. The placement—Andrew matched his hand to it—suggested someone trying to look through. He peered, but the blinds had no crack big enough to see anything beyond.
But the air held no hint of Were other than the lone anywhere in this neighborhood. A werewolf in human form eating garlic would have been able to tell that.
The trail wound away from the window through front yards until it reached some trash cans beside a garage. The lone’s scent was on them as if she had poked through after knocking them over. Looking for something?
Two women approached, pushing strollers, so he righted the cans to look like a good Samaritan. This house was blocks away from the first one where she’d been looking in. That made no sense, even if the Were had a grudge against some particular humans. What was this woman after?
* * *
Silver had been running for a long time. It began with the monster. The monster poured fire into her blood and smiled as she screamed and her wild self fled. He’d thought her so far gone in burning, he’d not watched her closely, and she’d escaped. She sensed him distantly behind her now. Following her trail. She couldn’t let him catch her, or it would begin all over again.
The monster chased distantly, but Death followed close behind. He stalked her with endless patience, waiting to claim her when the monster’s snakes of fire finished their task. She glimpsed him behind her when she could no longer run and had to walk. Her ears strained to hear the forest’s voices beneath the padding of his feet. They had something of an unspoken accord, she and Death—she did not run too fast and he did not catch her just yet. Instead, he padded in her footsteps, tongue lolling out in canine laughter as she tried to ignore him and strained for the scent of her wild self. If only she could find her wild self, then perhaps she would be whole again. But the fire made her head pound so much it was hard to think.
At night, sometimes Silver would invite Death to sit with her. He hulked there opposite her, smug and black. He was blacker than night or a raven’s wing or anything Silver could remember when words and memories wiggled and twisted from her grasp. But then, he was Death. That was description enough.
Sometimes at night the wind tossed the branches of the stately columns of trees around Silver, and the small monsters at the light’s edge shrieked and warbled, making the forest’s voices whisper in concern. Then Death would howl to the Lady’s round, shimmering disc and make the fire burn in Silver’s veins. Your death is in you, his howls told her. In your blood. You cannot fight what is in you.
Silver screamed and begged the Lady to make it stop when the fire burned bright. She curled around her useless arm as the fire pulsed. Each time Death called to the fire, the snakes engraved on her skin grew longer and twined their hissing, traitorous way from the cup of her elbow ever closer to her heart. Silver begged the Lady to protect her from Death, begged the Lady to help Silver find her wild self.
Sometimes the forest crooned a comforting counterpoint to her screams, and sometimes it drew back in shocked silence. Death panted and laughed. The Lady did nothing, as she had done nothing when the monster poured the fire into Silver’s arm.
This day, as Silver trudged through the forest, calling her wild self and searching the trees for a gray flicker of muzzle or flank, she wondered if the Lady still loved her. The Lady had given Silver her wild self from love—perhaps She had taken that wild self back when love waned. Maybe Silver had lost that love by taking the Lady’s gift for granted.
But the Lady had not waned. She was full and luminous above Silver, as always. And surely it was a sign of the Lady’s favor that the monster had not caught her yet?
Coming upon a stream, Silver found a still place with few ripples and looked into her eyes, searching for her wild self inside as well as out. Her wild self could as easily have hidden deeper rather than running outward from the fire, but Silver saw no sign of her. Dimness made it hard to see, since though the Lady’s light fell all around her, it did not touch Silver except indirectly.
Even in dim light, Silver’s hair showed nearly all white now, brown chased away. She blinked in surprise. The fire had burned the color from it, of course, but only the new growth. New growth was old now, and she wondered at Death’s patience. She pressed her hand flat against the stream’s cold surface, printing it before Death shattered everything into ripples as he lapped at the water.
At her midday meal, Silver did not invite Death to sit with her. Alone, she forced down the foul-tasting carrion she had found. She drew off her shirt to trace the snakes’ path on her dead arm, tickling their diamond-scaled backs with her fingertip. They writhed in pleasure and hissed to her. Silver frowned, trying to understand Snake. If she could speak their language, perhaps she could persuade them to leave her.
Surely this could be solved by cleverness. Perhaps it was even a test for her to prove herself worthy of the Lady’s gift. Silver considered this. Death must be outwitted somehow. She frowned at him. Invitation or no invitation, he sat on his haunches nearby, nose tipped to test the air. When he felt her gaze on him, Death turned to face Silver.
“Let go,” he said in her brother’s voice. Her brother was dead, so Death had his voice. He had all the voices of Silver’s pack. “Please. We miss you, Silver. Come back to us.” Silver knew that it was not her brother speaking, and Death knew she knew, but he liked to taunt her.
Silver sat up and threw a rock at Death, missing him by a wide margin. She needed to keep moving, and not let him distract her, or the monster would catch up. Thorns curled up to bind her feet and hands, trying to hold her there until the monster arrived. She tore free before they could take proper hold, though they rustled triumphantly at the blood they had captured from her. Time to run faster again. Always running.
Copyright © 2012 by Rhiannon Held