Read an Excerpt
By Mercedes Lackey
Baen BooksISBN: 0-671-57805-7
Chapter OneIt had been raining all day, a cold, dismal rain that penetrated through clothing and chilled the heart to numbness. Glenda trudged through it, sneakers soaked; beneath her cheap plastic raincoat her jeans were soggy to the knees. It was several hours past sunset now, and still raining, and the city streets were deserted by all but the most hardy, the most desperate, and the faded few with nothing to lose.
Glenda was numbered among those last. This morning she'd spent her last change getting a bus to the welfare office, only to be told that she hadn't been a resident long enough to qualify for aid. That wasn't true-but she couldn't have known that. The supercilious clerk had taken in her age and inexperience at a glance, and assumed "student." If he had begun processing her, he'd have been late for lunch. He guessed she wouldn't know enough to contradict him, and he'd been right. And years of her aunt's browbeating ("Isn't one 'no' good enough for you?") had drummed into her the lesson that there were no second chances. He'd gone off to his lunch date; she'd trudged back home in the rain. This afternoon she'd eaten the last packet of cheese and crackers and had made "soup" from the stolen packages of fast-food ketchup-there was nothing left in her larder that even resembled food. Hunger had been with her for so long now that the ache in her stomach had become as much a part of her as her hands or feet. There were three days left in the month; three days of shelter, then she'd be kicked out of her shoddy efficiency and into the street.
When her Social Security orphan's benefits had run out when she'd turned eighteen, her aunt had "suggested" she find a job and support herself-elsewhere. The suggestion had come in the form of finding her belongings in boxes on the front porch with a letter to that effect on top of them.
So she'd tried, moving across town to this place, near the university; a marginal neighborhood surrounded by bad blocks on three sides. But there were no jobs if you had no experience-but how did you get experience without a job? The only experience she'd ever had was at shoveling snow, raking leaves, mowing and gardening; the only ways she could earn money for college, since her aunt had never let her apply for a job that would have been beyond walking distance of her house. Besides that, there were at least forty university students competing with her for every job that opened up anywhere around here. Her meager savings (meant, at one time, to pay for college tuition) were soon gone.
She rubbed the ring on her left hand, a gesture she was completely unaware of. That ring was all she had of the mother her aunt would never discuss-the woman her brother had married over her own strong disapproval. It was silver, and heavy; made in the shape of a crouching cat with tiny glints of topaz for eyes. Much as she treasured it, she would gladly have sold it-but she couldn't get it off her finger, she'd worn it for so long.
She splashed through the puddles, peering listlessly out from under the hood of her raincoat. Her lank, mouse-brown hair straggled into her eyes as she squinted against the glare of headlights on rain-glazed pavement. Despair had driven her into the street; despair kept her here. It was easier to keep the tears and hysterics at bay out here, where the cold numbed mind as well as body, and the rain washed all her thoughts until they were thin and lifeless. She could see no way out of this trap-except maybe by killing herself.
But her body had other ideas. It wanted to survive, even if Glenda wasn't sure she did.
A chill of fear trickled down her backbone like a drop of icy rain, driving all thoughts of suicide from her, as behind her she recognized the sounds of footsteps.
She didn't have to turn around to know she was being followed, and by more than one. On a night like tonight, there was no one on the street but the fools and the hunters. She knew which she was.
It wasn't much of an alley-a crack between buildings, scarcely wide enough for her to pass. They might not know it was there-even if they did, they couldn't know what lay at the end of it. She did. She dodged inside, feeling her way along the narrow defile, until one of the two buildings gave way to a seven-foot privacy fence.
She came to the apparent dead-end, building on the right, a high board fence on the left, building in front. She listened, stretching her ears for sounds behind her, taut with fear. Nothing; they had either passed this place by, or hadn't yet reached it.
Quickly, before they could find the entrance, she ran her hand along the boards of the fence, counting them from the dead-end. Four, five-when she touched the sixth one, she gave it a shove sideways, getting a handful of splinters for her pains. But the board moved, pivoting on the one nail that held it, and she squeezed through the gap into the yard beyond, pulling the board back in place behind her.
Just in time; echoing off the stone and brick of the alley were harsh young male voices. She leaned against the fence and shook from head to toe, clenching her teeth to keep them from chattering, as they searched the alley, found nothing, and finally (after hours, it seemed) went away.
"Well, you've got yourself in a fine mess," she said dully. "Now what? You don't dare leave, not yet-they might have left someone in the street, watching. Idiot! Home may not be much, but it's dry, and there's a bed. Fool, fool, fool! So now you get to spend the rest of the night in the back yard of a spookhouse. You'd just better hope the spook isn't home."
She peered through the dark at the shapeless bulk of the tri-story townhouse, relic of a previous century, hoping not to see any signs of life. The place had an uncanny reputation; even the gangs left it alone. People had vanished here-some of them important people, with good reasons to want to disappear, some who had been uninvited visitors. But the police had been over the house and grounds more than once, and never found anything. No bodies were buried in the back yard-the ground was as hard as cement under the inch-deep layer of soft sand that covered it. There was nothing at all in the yard but the sand and the rocks; the crazy woman that lived here told the police it was a "Zen garden." But when Glenda had first peeked through the boards at the back yard, it didn't look like any Zen garden she had ever read about. The sand wasn't groomed into wave-patterns, and the rocks looked more like something out of a mini-Stonehenge than islands or mountain-peaks.
There were four of those rocks-one like a garden bench, that stood before three that formed a primitive arch. Glenda felt her way towards them in the dark, trusting to the memory of how the place had looked by daylight to find them. She barked her shin painfully on the "bench" rock, and her legs gave out, so that she sprawled ungracefully over it. Tears of pain mingled with the rain, and she swore under her breath.
She sat huddled on the top of it in the dark, trying to remember what time it was the last time she'd seen a clock. Dawn couldn't be too far off. When dawn came, and there were more people in the street, she could probably get safely back to her apartment.
For all the good it would do her.
Her stomach cramped with hunger, and despair clamped down on her again. She shouldn't have run-she was only delaying the inevitable. In two days she'd be out on the street, and this time with nowhere to hide, easy prey for them, or those like them.
"So wouldn't you like to escape altogether?"
The soft voice out of the darkness nearly caused Glenda's heart to stop. She jumped, and clenched the side of the bench-rock as the voice laughed. Oddly enough, the laughter seemed to make her fright wash out of her. There was nothing malicious about it-it was kind-sounding, gentle. Not crazy.
"Oh, I like to make people think I'm crazy; they leave me alone that way." The speaker was a dim shape against the lighter background of the fence.
"I am the keeper of this house-and this place; not the first, certainly not the last. So there is nothing in this city-in this world-to hold you here anymore?"
"How-did you know that?" Glenda tried to see the speaker in the dim light reflected off the clouds, to see if it really was the woman that lived in the house, but there were no details to be seen, just a human-shaped outline. Her eyes blurred. Reaction to her narrow escape, the cold, hunger; all three were conspiring to make her light-headed.
"The only ones who come to me are those who have no will to live here, yet who still have the will to live. Tell me, if another world opened before you, would you walk into it, not knowing what it held?"
This whole conversation was so surreal, Glenda began to think she was hallucinating the whole thing. Well, if it was a hallucination, why not go along with it?
"Sure, why not? It couldn't be any worse than here. It might be better."
"Then turn, and look behind you-and choose."
Glenda hesitated, then swung her legs over the bench-stone. The sky was lighter in that direction-dawn was breaking. Before her loomed the stone arch-
Now she knew she was hallucinating-for framed within the arch was no shadowy glimpse of board fence and rain-soaked sand, but a patch of reddening sky, and another dawn-
A dawn that broke over rolling hills covered with waving grass, grass stirred by a breeze that carried the scent of flowers, not the exhaust-tainted air of the city.
Glenda stood, unaware that she had done so. She reached forward with one hand, yearningly. The place seemed to call to something buried deep in her heart-and she wanted to answer.
"Here-or there? Choose now, child."
With an inarticulate cry, she stumbled toward the stones-
And found herself standing alone on a grassy hill.
After several hours of walking in wet, soggy tennis shoes, growing more spacey by the minute from hunger, she was beginning to think she'd made a mistake. Somewhere back behind her she'd lost her raincoat; she couldn't remember when she'd taken it off. There was no sign of people anywhere-there were animals; even sheep, once, but nothing like "civilization." It was frustrating, maddening; there was food all around her, on four feet, on wings-surely even some of the plants were edible-but it was totally inaccessible to a city-bred girl who'd never gotten food from anywhere but a grocery or restaurant. She might just as well be on the moon.
Just as she thought that, she topped another rise to find herself looking at a strange, weather-beaten man standing beside a rough pounded-dirt road.
She blinked in dumb amazement. He looked like something out of a movie, a peasant from a King Arthur epic. He was stocky, blond-haired; he wore a shabby brown tunic and patched, shapeless trousers tucked into equally patched boots. He was also holding a strung bow, with an arrow nocked to it, and frowning-a most unfriendly expression.
He gabbled something at her. She blinked again. She knew a little Spanish (you had to, in her neighborhood); she'd taken German and French in high school. This didn't sound like any of those.
He repeated himself, a distinct edge to his voice. To emphasize his words, he jerked the point of the arrow off back the way she had come. It was pretty obvious he was telling her to be on her way.
"No, wait-please-" she stepped toward him, her hands outstretched pleadingly. The only reaction she got was that he raised the arrow to point at her chest, and drew it back.
"Look-I haven't got any weapons! I'm lost, I'm hungry-"
He drew the arrow a bit farther.
Suddenly it was all too much. She'd spent all her life being pushed and pushed-first her aunt, then at school, then out on the streets. This was the last time anybody was going to back her into a corner-this time she was going to fight!
A white-hot rage like nothing she'd ever experienced before in her life took over.
"Damn you!" she was so angry she could hardly think. "You stupid clod! I need help!" she screamed at him, as red flashes interfered with her vision, her ears began to buzz, and her hands crooked into involuntary claws, "Damn you and everybody that looks like you!"
He backed up a pace, his blue eyes wide with surprise at her rage.
She was so filled with fury that grew past controlling-she couldn't see, couldn't think; it was like being possessed. Suddenly she gasped as pain lanced from the top of her head to her toes, pain like a bolt of lightning-
-her vision blacked out; she fell to her hands and knees on the grass, her legs unable to hold her, convulsing with surges of pain in her arms and legs. Her feet, her hands felt like she'd shoved them in a fire-her face felt as if someone were stretching it out of shape. And the ring finger of her left hand-it burned with more agony than both hands and feet put together! She shook her head, trying to clear it, but it spun around in dizzying circles. Her ears rang, hard to hear over the ringing, but there was a sound of cloth tearing-
Her sight cleared and returned, but distorted. She looked up at the man, who had dropped his bow, and was backing away from her, slowly, his face white with terror. She started to say something to him-
-and it came out a snarl.
With that, the man screeched, turned his back on her, and ran.
And she caught sight of her hand. It wasn't a hand anymore. It was a paw. Judging by the spotted pelt of the leg, a leopard's paw. Scattered around her were the ragged scraps of cloth that had once been her clothing.
Glenda lay in the sun on top of a rock, warm and drowsy with full-bellied content. Idly she washed one paw with her tongue, cleaning the last taint of blood from it. Before she'd had a chance to panic or go crazy back there when she'd realized what had happened to her, a rabbit-like creature had broken cover practically beneath her nose. Semi-starvation and confusion had kept her dazed long enough for leopard-instincts to take over. She'd caught and killed the thing and had half eaten it before the reality of what she'd done and become broke through her shock. Raw rabbit-thing tasted fine to leopard-Glenda; when she realized that, she finished it, nose to tail. Now for the first time in weeks she was warm and content. And for the first time in years she was something to be afraid of. She gazed about her from her vantage-point on the warm boulder, taking in the grassy hills and breathing in the warm, hay-scented air with a growing contentment.
Becoming a leopard might not be a bad transformation.
Excerpted from Werehunter by Mercedes Lackey Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.