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Thirteen months later
A thud jerked me awake. I was up and moving, my sword in my hand, before my brain processed that I was now standing.
I paused, Sarrat raised.
A thin sliver of watery, predawn light broke through the gap between the curtains. The magic was up. On my left, in the little nursery Curran had sectioned off from our bedroom, Conlan stood in his crib, wide-awake.
The room was empty except for me and my son.
Someone pounded on my front door. The clock on the wall told me it was ten till seven. We kept shapeshifters' hours, late to bed, late to rise. Everyone I knew was aware of that.
"Uh-oh!" Conlan said.
Uh-oh is right. "Wait for me," I whispered. "Mommy has to take care of something."
I ran out of the bedroom, moving fast and quiet, and shut the door behind me.
Hold your horses, I'm coming. And then you'll have some explaining to do.
It took me two seconds to clear the long staircase leading from the third floor to the reinforced front door. I grabbed the lever, slid it sideways, and lowered the metal flap covering the small window. Teddy Jo's brown eyes stared back at me.
"What the hell are you doing here? Do you know what time it is?"
"Open the door, Kate," Teddy Jo breathed. "It's an emergency."
It was always an emergency. My whole life was one long chain of emergencies. I unbarred the door and pulled it open. He charged in past me. His hair stuck out from his head, windblown. His face was bloodless and his eyes wild. He'd flown here at top speed.
A sinking feeling tugged at my stomach. Teddy Jo was Thanatos, the Greek angel of death. Freaking him out took a lot of doing. I thought it had been too quiet lately.
I shut the door and locked it.
"I need help," he said.
"Is anybody in danger right now?"
"They're dead. They're all dead."
Whatever was happening had already happened.
"I need you to come and see this."
"Can you explain what it is?"
"No." He grabbed my hand. "I need you to come right now."
I looked at his hand on mine. He let go.
I walked into the kitchen, took a pitcher of iced tea out of the fridge, and poured him a tall glass. "Drink this and try to calm down. I'm going to get dressed and find a babysitter for Conlan, and then we'll go."
He took the glass. The tea trembled.
I ran upstairs, opened the door, and nearly collided with my son. Conlan grinned at me. He had my dark hair and Curran's gray eyes. He also had Curran's sense of humor, which was driving me crazy. Conlan started walking early, at ten months, which was typical of shapeshifter children, and now he was running at full speed. His favorite games included running away from me, hiding under various pieces of furniture, and knocking stuff off of horizontal surfaces. Bonus points if the object broke.
"Mommy has to go work." I pulled off the long T-shirt I used as a nightgown and grabbed a sports bra.
"Mm-hm. I'd sure like to know where your dada is. Off on one of his expeditions."
"Dada?" Conlan perked up.
"Not yet," I told him, reaching for my jeans. "He should be coming back tomorrow or the day after."
Conlan stomped around. Besides early walking and some seriously disturbing climbing ability, he showed no signs of being a shapeshifter. He didn't change shape at birth, and he hadn't shifted yet. By thirteen months, he should've been turning into a little baby lion on a regular basis. Doolittle had found Lyc-V in Conlan's blood, present in large quantities, but the virus lay dormant. We always understood it was a possibility, because my blood ate the Immortuus pathogen and Lyc-V for breakfast and asked for seconds. But I knew Curran had hoped our son would be a shapeshifter. So did Doolittle. For a while the Pack's medmage kept trying different strategies to bring the beast out. He would still be trying except I'd pulled the plug on that.
About six months ago, Curran and I visited the Keep and left Conlan with Doolittle for about twenty minutes. When we came back, I found Conlan crying on the floor with three shapeshifters in warrior form growling at him, while Doolittle looked on. I'd kicked one out through the window and broke another's arm before Curran restrained me. Doolittle assured me that our son wasn't in any danger, and I informed him that he was done torturing our baby for his amusement. I might have underscored my point by holding Conlan to me with one hand and shaking Sarrat, covered in my blood, with the other. Apparently, my eyes had glowed, and the Pack's Keep had trembled. It was collectively decided that further tests were not necessary.
I still took Conlan to Doolittle for his scheduled appointments and when he fell or sneezed or did any of the other baby things that made me fear for his life. But I watched everyone like a hawk the whole time.
I buckled my belt on, slid Sarrat into the sheath on my back, and pulled my hair back into a ponytail. "Let's go see if your aunt will watch you for a few hours."
I scooped him up and went downstairs.
Teddy Jo was pacing in our entryway like a caged tiger. I grabbed the keys to our Jeep and went out the door.
"I'll fly you," he said.
"No." I marched across the street to George and Eduardo's house. I would have to buy George a cake for all the babysitting she'd been doing lately.
"You said nobody is in immediate danger. If you fly me, I will dangle thousands of feet above the ground in a playground swing carried by a hysterical angel of death."
"I'm not hysterical."
"Fine. Extremely agitated angel of death. You can fly overhead and lead the way."
"Flying will be faster."
I knocked on George's door. "Do you want my help or not?"
He made a frustrated noise and stalked off.
The door swung open and George appeared, her dark brown curls floating around her head like a halo.
"I'm so sorry," I started.
She opened her arms and took Conlan from me. "Who is my favorite nephew?"
"He is your only nephew." After Curran's family died, Mahon and Martha, the alphas of Clan Heavy, raised him as their own. George was their daughter and Curran's sister.
"Details." George scooped him to her with her good arm. Her bad arm was a stump that stopped about an inch above the elbow. The stump was four inches longer than it used to be. Doolittle estimated that it would completely regenerate in another three years. George never let the arm thing slow her down. She smooched Conlan on his forehead. He wrinkled his nose and sneezed.
"Again, so sorry. It's an emergency."
She waved. "Go, go . . ."
I turned right and headed toward Derek's house.
"Now what?" Teddy Jo growled.
"I'm getting backup." I had a feeling I would need it.
I steered the Jeep down an overgrown road.
"He looks like someone shoved a wasp nest up his ass," Derek observed.
Above us and ahead Teddy Jo flew, erratically veering back and forth. His wings were made of midnight, so black they swallowed the light. Normally his flight was an awesome sight to behold. Today he flew like he was trying to avoid invisible arrows.
"Something's got him really agitated."
Derek grimaced and adjusted the knife on his hip. During his time with the Pack, he'd always worn gray sweats, but since he had formally separated from Atlanta's shapeshifters, he'd adjusted to city life. Jeans, dark T-shirts, and work boots became his uniform. His once-beautiful face would never be the same and he worked hard on maintaining a perpetually grumpy, stoic, lone-wolf persona, but the old Derek was coming out more and more. Occasionally he would say something, and everyone would laugh.
I wasn't in a laughing mood now. Anything that got Thanatos agitated was bad. I'd known him for almost ten years now. He'd lost his cool a few times, like when he punched a black volhv straight in the face over his sword being stolen. But this was on a different level entirely. This was frantic.
"I don't like it," Derek stated, his tone flat.
"Do you think the universe cares?"
"No, but I still don't like it. Did he say where we're going?"
"Serenbe." I steered around a pothole.
"Never heard of it."
"It's a small settlement southwest of Atlanta. It used to be a pretentious wealthy neighborhood and called itself an 'urban village.'"
Derek blinked at me. "What the hell is an urban village?"
"It's a cute architecturally planned subdivision in some picturesque woods for people with too much money. The type who would build a million-dollar house, refer to it as a 'cottage,' stroll outside to be one with nature, and then drive half a mile to buy a ten-dollar cup of special coffee."
Derek rolled his eyes.
"In the last couple of decades, all the rich people moved back into the city for safety, and now there's a farming community there. Mostly the houses sit on five acres or so, and it's all gardens and orchards. It's nice. We went there for the peach festival in June."
I gave him my hard look. "You were invited. As I recall, you had 'something to take care of' and decided to do that instead."
"It must've been important."
"Have you thought about investing in a cape? As much time as you spend running around the city righting wrongs, it would come in handy."
"Not a cape guy."
The Jeep rolled over the waves made in the pavement by thick roots, probably from one of the tall oaks flanking the road. Before the Shift, this trip would've taken us roughly half an hour. Now we were almost two hours into it. We drove down I-85, which with all the traffic and problems took us about ninety minutes, and were now weaving our way west on South Fulton Parkway.
"He's landing," Derek announced.
Ahead, Teddy Jo swooped down. For a moment he hung silhouetted against the bright sky, his black wings open wide, his feet only a few yards above the road, a dark angel born in a time when people left blood as an offering to buy their dearly departed safe passage to the afterlife.
"Show-off," Derek murmured.
"Green doesn't look good on you."
Teddy Jo lowered himself onto the road. His wings folded and vanished into a puff of black smoke.
"Do you know what he is when he's flying?" Derek asked.
"No, enlighten me."
Derek smiled. It was a very small smile, baring only an edge of a fang. "He's a nice big target. You can shoot him right out of the sky. Where is he going to hide? He's six feet tall and has a wingspan the size of a small airplane." Derek chuckled quietly.
You could take the wolf out of the woods, but he would always be a wolf.
I parked by Teddy Jo and opened the door. A blast of sound from the enchanted water engine assaulted my ears.
"Leave it running," Teddy Jo screamed over the noise.
I grabbed my backpack and stepped out of the Jeep. Derek exited on the other side, moving with fluid grace. We took a right onto a side road and followed Teddy Jo, leaving the snarling Jeep behind.
The trees overshadowed the road. Normally the woods were quiet, but this was the summer of the seventeen-year cicada brood. Every seventeen years, the cicadas emerged in massive numbers and sang. The chorus was so loud, it screened all normal forest noises, distorting birdsong and squirrel chittering into odd alarming sounds.
A hastily erected sign by the side of the road announced, stay out by order of the fulton county sheriff.
Underneath was written, coy parker, you cross this line again, i'll shoot you myself. sheriff watkins.
"Who's Coy Parker?"
"Local daredevil kid. I had a chat with him. He didn't see anything."
Something about the way Teddy Jo said that told me Coy Parker wasn't about to poke his nose into this mess again.
"Why didn't they post guards?" Derek asked.
"They're stretched too thin," Teddy Jo said. "They've got five people for the whole county. And there isn't much to guard."
"What's all this about?" I asked.
"You'll see," Teddy Jo said.
The road curved to the right and brought us to a long street. Driveways peeled away from the road, each leading to a house on about a five-acre lot. Tall fences flanked the houses, some wood, some metal, topped with razor wire. Here and there a wrought iron fence allowed for a glimpse of a garden. With transportation chains disrupted by the Shift, a lot of people turned to gardening. Small farms like this sprang up all around Atlanta, sometimes in the city, but more often just on the outskirts.
It was quiet. Too quiet. This time of day, there should have been normal life noises: kids screaming and laughing, dogs barking, enchanted water engines growling. The whole street was steeped in silence, except for the horny cicadas singing up a storm. It was creepy.
Derek inhaled and crouched low to the ground.
"What is it?" I asked.
His upper lip trembled. "I don't know."
"Pick a house," Teddy Jo said, his face devoid of all expression.
I turned down the nearest driveway. Derek took off down the street at what for him was an easy run and for most people would've been an impossible sprint. A wolf could smell its prey from almost two miles away. A shapeshifter during its lifetime cataloged thousands of scent signatures. If Derek wanted to track something, I wouldn't stand in his way.
I scrutinized the house. Bars on the windows. Solid walls. A good post-Shift home: secure, defensible, no-nonsense. A narrow crack separated the edge of the solid blue door from the doorframe. Unlocked. I pushed it with my fingertips, and the door swung open on well-oiled hinges. The stench of rotting food wrapped around me. I stepped inside. Teddy Jo followed.
The house had an open floor plan, with the kitchen off to the left and a living room space to the right. On the far left, behind the kitchen and the island, a table stood with the remnants of someone's breakfast on it. I moved closer. A glass bottle of maple syrup and plates with what might have been waffles covered with fuzz.
No proverbial signs of struggle. No blood, no bullet holes, no claw marks. Just an empty house. A street of empty houses. My stomach sank.