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Fear comes in many flavors. Tonight’s dish was sour apples with a soupcon of bile. Arjenie swallowed and swallowed again.
The moon was high and nearly full. A few tatters of high-flying cirrus clouds marred the sky’s dome like scuff marks left by skidding giants. Arjenie held herself still so as not to send any crackles or crunches out into the moon-flooded night.
She was glad of the moonlight. There wasn’t much ambient light this far from the city, just the landscape lighting around Robert Friar’s big, expensive house. That sprouted up everywhere like electronic fungi—path lighting, spots trained on trees and shrubs, the diamond glow of underwater lights in the pool.
Everywhere except at the guesthouse, that is. About fifty feet past the sparkling pool was a log cabin the size of a two-car garage. Here it was dark, especially behind the thorny bush where Arjenie crouched. Neither moonlight nor landscape lighting reached inside the window two feet to her left. The window was open an inch. Behind the glass lay darkness. A whisper floated out to her from that darkness. “You’d better go.”
“And yet you aren’t moving.”
“I hate to leave you here.”
“I can’t go with you. You know that. Go now. They’ll bring the tears soon.”
Arjenie said nothing. There was nothing to say. Dya had to have the tears, but Arjenie hated them and everything they stood for.
“Tch. I shouldn’t have called you. You’re not—”
“You’re not about to insult me, are you?”
“You can hear my knees knocking from in there?”
“Is that what that noise was?” Dya huffed softly. “Don’t worry, little fox. I will be well. Not happy, but well. He doesn’t dare hurt me too much.”
“He doesn’t dare kill you,” Arjenie corrected. “That’s what you said. Because your family would find out—”
“They are your family, too. Jidar relations are still family.”
Family she’d never met and never would. “My point is, if you miss your scheduled contact, they’ll raise a stink and then Friar has to produce you alive and well or they’ll have a grievance. That’s a big deal where you come from, so he’ll be disinclined to kill you.”
“I am also very important to his plans. He does not want me dead.”
“There can be a world of pain between well and dead.”
A single cluck of the tongue. “Then leave before you grow weary and make a mistake and are found with those vials in your pockets. He would punish me severely for them.”
“Good idea.” Especially since no one would hold Friar accountable if she disappeared. Arjenie had a dreadful suspicion that making her go away permanently would be at the top of Friar’s list of options if he caught her here. “You’ve got the prepaid phone I brought. You remember how to use it? Mobile phones are a little different—”
“I can use it, but I won’t. Do not be thinking things are bad if I don’t call you. I don’t want you in danger.”
Big sisters never stop thinking of their little sisters as little, Arjenie supposed. At least Dya had called when she really needed to. “I’ll be back. Love you, Dya.”
“Not unless I call. Love you, Arjenie-hennie.”
The pet name made Arjenie smile. If the smile wobbled, well, she was the only one who knew. She twisted so she could start easing out from behind the bush and . . . “Ow!”
“What is it?”
“Stupid, vicious bush,” she muttered. “It stabbed me.”
“Is there blood? Arjenie, if there’s blood—”
“Can you fix it?” There was certainly blood on her hand, so there was probably some on the bush.
“Pass me the part that wounded you.”
Arjenie felt for the branch, being more careful this time. She snapped off the offending portion and froze at the crack, instinctively pulling on her Gift—and winced at the stab of pain in her temple. She was too close to the window’s glass to push that much power through her Gift.
No one came to investigate, thank the Light, the Lord, and the Lady. Arjenie leaned forward awkwardly so she could push the thorny twig through that open inch of window.
For a long moment she waited, breathing as quietly as she could. Then: “Done,” Dya whispered. “No one will track you from it now.” The branch slid back outside the window and rustled faintly as it fell to the ground.
“Go! And don’t bleed on anything else.”
Arjenie made it out from behind the bush with no further injuries, then paused, still crouching, to suck on the side of her hand so she wouldn’t drip blood anywhere. Cursed thorny whatever-it-was. No wonder Friar thought no one could get near his guesthouse. He’d stationed attack plants around it.
Of course, he had the guards, too. And the wards.
The guards wouldn’t be a problem, she told herself firmly. She wasn’t depleted—not too depleted, anyway. They’d never notice her. As for the wards . . . she’d made it here without tripping any, hadn’t she? She just had to make it out again.
Slowly she stood. There was nothing but fifty feet of path and some low-lying plants between her and the pool—and beyond it, the house. She felt horribly exposed. Her heart pounded. Her mouth was dry.
Stupid, she told herself. No one would notice her, so there was no point in being a scared little bunny. But all the glass in the house worried her.
Her heart kept up its double-time beat as she walked slowly down the stone path that led to the back of the little log cabin, so out of place in southern California. But Friar went for the rustic look. The version of it he’d employed on the main house was far more sophisticated—lots of wood, lots of glass, a gabled roof pitched to repel snow that never fell.
Stupid glass. It buzzed at the edge of her awareness, a low-level but irritating static. Glass disagreed with her Gift. It was too far away to be a real problem, though, she assured herself.
However inappropriate for its setting, Friar’s house was beautiful. She wished it wasn’t. She knew evil didn’t go around fingering its mustache and twirling its cape, but it just seemed wrong that someone like Robert Friar could recognize and appreciate beauty.
The house’s setting was lovely, too, in a rough and wild way. She’d driven past in the daytime . . . not all the way to the house, which sat well off the highway on a private road. But close enough to appreciate the peculiar beauty of these scrubby mountains . . . or was she still in the foothills? Where did one end and the next begin?
Never mind, she told herself sternly, aware of her tendency to lose herself in the pursuit of interesting facts. Whatever she called it, the land around Friar’s home was all ups and downs. Not too steeply pitched, thank goodness, since she’d had to make her way over one of those ups to get here. She might be able to hide herself, but her ability didn’t extend to her rental car, which was parked on a dirt road that wasn’t on most maps of the area.
Arjenie was good at finding information that wasn’t readily available.
The cabin didn’t have a backyard. There was a little deck and then trees—pines, mostly, and they were spindly things. She supposed this was what passed for woods on this side of the country, where things were so dry. It wasn’t much like the woods she was used to, back in Virginia.
Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go . . . no river here, and no grandmother, but she did have to go through the trees and over the hill. Or mountain. Whatever.
She’d just left the path for dirt crunchy with pine needles when she heard voices. She froze, her heart doing its frightened rabbit thing. With an effort, she managed not to pull harder on her Gift. The voices were on the far side of the cabin, and she’d been using her Gift continuously for two hours. She wasn’t that powerful. She couldn’t afford to run out of juice.
The voices were male, the words indistinct . . . something about having a beer later. A moment later she heard the cabin’s front door thud closed, and the voices were cut off.
Her breath shuddered out. She wished she’d stop panicking. This was no different from hundreds of other times she’d used her Gift for fun or practice . . . except, of course, for those militia guys. Guys with guns. Multiple guns. Handguns holstered at their hips and rifles slung over their shoulders.
Assault rifles, she thought, and she moved cautiously into the trees. Arjenie had never actually seen an assault rifle, but she’d researched them, and she had an excellent memory. Assault rifles were capable of selective fire, which meant they could be set to fire automatically. The M-16, for example, could fire up to 950 rounds per minute, depending on the model. Of course, those were intermediate-power cartridges, not as powerful as the load in a regular rifle. But 950 rounds per minutes of anything did a fine job of turning a person into bloody hamburger.
How long were those rifles the militia guys carried? She frowned as she began heading upslope, trying to remember. Assault rifles had shorter barrels. But she hadn’t been close to the guns—thank goodness—and she’d been scared spitless. And she was used to seeing stuff like that on a screen or on paper, not in person.
Maybe they’d been battle rifles, such as the M-14. Arjenie didn’t know as much about them as she did assault rifles, never having researched them specifically, but she knew they were longer in the barrel and fired high-power cartridges. Military units used them to hit targets at ranges up to 1000 meters—which was roughly 1100 yards—but she didn’t think—
A ward—a ward right there, and she was about to step on it. She stumbled back, away from the line she knew but couldn’t see.
Her left foot turned under her. Her arms flailed. She landed on her butt in the dirt with a prickly pain shooting up the side of her ankle.
Her breath came fast. She patted her pockets. Both glass vials seemed intact. She checked the stoppers—still snug—exhaled in relief, and rubbed her ankle, scowling as her eyes teared up.
When would she learn? She couldn’t just walk. She had to pay attention. She really had to pay attention while clambering around on a big hill or small mountain in the darkness—a hill with wards and men with guns who’d come running if she set off one.
“Fudge,” she whispered. Her ankle started to throb in a hot, red way, pulses of pain that kept her eyes wet. “Holy Dalmatian fudge and—and rats.”
At least she hadn’t tripped the ward. Maybe she wouldn’t have set it off even if she had walked over it—her Gift would fool most wards—but this one had a fair amount of juice, and she didn’t. She’d used a lot of power staying hidden so long.
The ability to sense wards was a side effect of her Gift. She didn’t see them. She didn’t feel them. She just knew. She had to be actively using her Gift, but when she was, she could look around and know if any wards were close. It was as if her Gift did the seeing, not her, so the information didn’t get processed by her visual cortex. It arrived directly. Usually she got a rough idea of how strong a ward was, how complex, and sometimes what type.
The one she hadn’t quite stepped on was a summoning ward—she knew that much—and a strong one, probably designed to notify Friar if something large and living crossed it. And she’d known to watch out for it. She’d found it on the way in, so she’d known where it was. The plan was to follow it to the place where Earth disliked it.
Many practitioners would pooh-pooh the idea that Earth had likes and dislikes, but Arjenie’s mother had been an Earth witch, and a strong one, and that’s what she’d taught her daughter. Arjenie thought that might be why she could sense Earth a bit herself, even though her own Gift was tied to Air.
Earth was not uniform. It was granite here, sand there, clay somewhere else. Some parts liked to grow plants, some didn’t. The part of Earth that didn’t like the ward wasn’t cooperating with it, so the ward was weak there. Her Gift would let her cross unnoticed.
Now she was genuinely crippled, not just inconvenienced. If only she’d been paying attention, she could have . . . Arjenie made a face at herself. “If only” never got anything done. Better stand up and see how much damage she’d done herself. No, wait. First see if she could spot a branch to use as a walking stick. That ankle was going to need some kind of help.
Her cheeks were wet, so she wiped them. Pain always made her cry. She used to be embarrassed about that—it seemed so childish—but embarrassment was a waste of worry. Tears were one of many things that were standard for the Arjenie model: trips easily, great memory, cries when she hurts.
Arjenie had excellent night vision and the moon was right overhead. It wasn’t hard to spot a nice, long stick that looked strong enough to do the job. Or the big, furry beast sitting next to it, watching her.
Her heartbeat took one bounce and shot straight into the stratosphere.
He was big. Much too big. And he could see her. She was sure of it. She hadn’t heard him approach, but there he was, huge and dark . . . was his fur black, or did it only seem so in the moonlight? His head was up and alert, ears pricked, not laid back—that was good, wasn’t it? No snarling, no showing teeth . . . “N-nice doggie,” she stammered, knowing even as she said it that this was no dog.
He cocked his head. Their eyes met as if he were about to reply. Met and held.
She fell. Sitting on her butt in the dirt, she still fell—for an instant, for some immeasurable flash of time, the world upended itself around her, or she fell through the world and ended up . . .
He surged to all four feet. Took a step back—a clumsy step, almost staggering. Then another.
“No—not that way. Watch out for—”
Too late. His back foot strayed over the ward. Light erupted up from that spot, bright as a flashlight.
“Oh, no.” A visual summoning ward. Those were rare. It hadn’t occurred to her Friar might have one, but it made sense. The militia guys would see it and come running. “Go.” She shooed him with both hands. “Go on, get away.”
Instead, he used his mouth to pick up the stick she’d spotted at the same time she saw him. He walked right up to her and set it on the ground beside her.
Oh, he was huge. She swallowed.
But he was not just a wolf. That was good, she told herself firmly. She hadn’t ever met a werewolf, but a couple times she’d almost met Rule Turner—the one they called the werewolf prince, though that wasn’t what he called himself. But then, his people didn’t call themselves werewolves, either. They were lupi. Lupi were not ravening, bloodthirsty beasts, and they didn’t go around killing people.
At least, not without a really good reason. FBI agents didn’t kill people without a really good reason, either, and she worked with them all the time, didn’t she? So her heart really shouldn’t be pounding this hard.
“Uh—thanks.” She took the stick and used it to wobble to her feet. Her eyes filled again. The ankle was definitely not going to let her run, but she could walk. Carefully. Slowly. Maybe she could get away from the glowing ward before the guys with guns arrived. She started hobbling, following the line of the ward toward its weak spot.
The wolf stayed with her, but on the far side of the ward. Could he see or sense it? His head came to her rib cage. The top of her rib cage. “Go on,” she whispered. “They won’t see me, but they’ll sure see you.”
He shook his head.
“I don’t want to go with you,” she explained. “I’m safe enough, but if you’re with me—”
He bumped her. Just once, but intentionally, using the side of his body to jostle her. She wobbled, but didn’t fall.
What did that mean? Was he . . . oh. He was staring back the way she’d come. Listening, maybe. Lupi had very keen hearing. Maybe he’d wanted her to shut up so he could hear better. The militia guys might be coming. What did he—
Faster than she could blink, he went from statue-still to a full run, grace and speed merging in a blur of motion.
He was beautiful.
Also noisy, crashing through brush as if he couldn’t be bothered to go around. He ran straight back toward the house. Where the armed men were. He ran right at them.
Her free hand lifted as if she could summon him back—but he was already out of sight.
The first shot was impossibly loud. The second was just as loud, but the third seemed a little farther away. Arjenie’s eyes filled and overflowed as if they could drain the new fear, vast and formless, that swamped her.
She swallowed hard. Her hand still stretched out, still trying to call him back. She let it fall to her side.
Arjenie turned. Blinking at the tears that just kept coming, she began to make her slow, painful way along the hill, following the ward to its weak spot. She’d go back to her car. She was sure now she’d make it. She had to. He’d thrown himself at the guys with guns on purpose, hadn’t he? Diverting them from her.
She couldn’t help him. Couldn’t do a thing except take herself away. She had no weapons, no skill with weapons, no way to stop whatever was happening. But she wished, fiercely and futilely, that she could remember for sure about the guards’ rifles, how long the barrels were. So she’d know if they could fire those 950 rounds per minute.
Arjenie had crossed the ward and was near the top of the hill when that question was answered. The burst of gunfire was distant, heavy, and prolonged. Clearly, at least one of them had a rifle with fully automatic fire.