The small house on the hill was silent. Typically, it was Kate's favorite time, when the moon shone through the trees and she was the only one awake, free to do whatever she wanted. Granted, most of what she did was tame-- drawing or reading-- but it was one of the few times she didn't feel powerless.
Sometimes, if she felt brave enough, she'd take off her nightshirt to look at the newest bruises. They often hurt for weeks until they healed, depending on if they were made with her mother's hand or the belt, but no matter what, af¬ter midnight, everything seemed better.
Tonight she snuck down to the kitchen for a couple of cookies-- he knew she'd have to confess this on Sunday but she didn't care. The bruise on her arm from her mother still ached, and she'd been sent up here well before dinner.
"She deserves it. All she has to do is obey and she won't." Her mother's voice, furious, seeped through the walls.
Kate had wiped the tears from her cheeks, angry that she'd given in to them. She'd never give her mother the sat¬isfaction of seeing them-- and that, at least, was a comfort.
"She doesn't know what she's doing," her father argued back, his voice coming through the phone's speaker. He was away on business and would be back in the morning, in time for the fair and for Kate's birthday.
"I wish she'd leave and never come back," Kate whis¬pered into the phone to her best friend, Julia, after her par¬ents had hung up, as she prowled the kitchen with her contraband snack.
"Can you sneak out tonight?"
Julia lived two doors down, an easy out-the-window-and-through-the-neighbor's-backyard walk, if Kate could manage to do it quietly. The girls would sit out on the back roof, shielded from the street's prying eyes. Julia's backyard was only woods.
Kate hung up and went back upstairs, knowing where to step so there were no creaks on the old wood. Once in the relative safety of her room, far enough down the hall from her parents', she closed the door behind her and stared at the shattered lightbulb in the corner. She fought the urge to kick over the entire lamp it came from. It wasn't Kate's damned fault a lightbulb had exploded when her mother hit her.
But somehow, everything was. The house was more op¬pressive than ever. Even since she'd hit twelve and a half, things had gotten worse. Her thirteenth birthday loomed tomorrow, and for the past week, her mother had been on constant edge.
They were strict Catholics. Kate went to Catholic school, church on Sundays, confession monthly. She was regularly stripped to check for markings, and she had no idea why, since she never heard this taught or preached about.
Kate also had no idea what kind of marks the devil would leave, but she'd begun to check herself too, even as she'd stopping praying, letting her mind wander to anything but Christ's teachings when in church or Sunday school, as part of her secret rebellion.
After a while, she began to wonder if she was the devil, if maybe the beatings were bringing him out in her.
"She never should've been born," her mother would mutter after each inspection. It was as though every year she descended further into some kind of madness, and Kate's father traveled more frequently to escape it.
Kate wasn't sure she didn't despise him more because he was such a coward.
She picked up her sketchpad instead and drew the moon, the ebbing shadows apparent on either side of the nearly full orb. She threw the window open to get a better view, despite the sticky night air, and got so engrossed in it that when she finished, she realized Julia would be long asleep.
She wasn't sure what startled her. At first she thought it was something in the trees outside her room. But when she closed the window, the sound was still there--and it seemed to be coming from inside the house.
She didn't want to go out into the hall, but something com¬pelled her to. One foot in front of the other until she stood on the threshold of her parents' bedroom. The door was cracked open, and Kate was sure it hadn't been when she'd come up¬stairs earlier. She would've seen the sliver of light, the flash¬ing of shadows thrown off by the muted television set.
She opened her mouth to whisper "Mom," but her voice quickly died in her throat when she stuck her head in the room, then recoiled in shock.
Her mother wasn't alone-- and, although she was still asleep, she looked like she was struggling to wake.
On her chest sat a monster. It might've been a woman once, but it looked more like a thing. Greenish black lips and red eyes, a mess of tangled white hair and long nails. It straddled her mother's chest and laughed, a high, demonic sound that made Kate tremble.
"Get off her," Kate said quietly.
Her mother moaned. Her head moved from side to side, but the monstrous thing didn't budge.
"Get off of my mother!" Kate called out, and the street¬lights outside the house shattered in a stunning display.
When Kate looked back, the thing was gone and her mother was sitting up, holding her chest. Kate wondered if she'd acknowledge the monster, but instead she asked, "What are you doing, Kate?" in a cold, angry voice that also held some fear.
Kate vomited on the rug before she could stop herself. "I . . . got sick. I'm sorry."
She ran and locked herself back in her room and stayed under her covers for the rest of the night.
The county fair was held in the high heat of August, and even in upstate New York, the crowds sweltered under the noon sunshine.
Kate had been sure she'd be punished for what hap¬pened last night, for not helping to clean up, for being out of bed, but oddly enough, her mother hadn't said a word. Her father had given her a brief, perfunctory hug when he'd come into the house that morning, and she was thankful there was no mention of the monster or her transgressions.
Julia rode over with them, sitting quietly in the backseat. Julia hated Kate's parents-- she'd seen the bruises, although Kate refused to talk about them. She knew her best friend rode with her as often as she could so that Kate wouldn't be yelled at. Kate's parents rarely allowed her to go in other family's cars or attend any sleepovers or parties.
Her parents bought the girls tickets for rides, then went to get some lunch, making them promise to check in with them in an hour.
Giddy with freedom, the girls rode the scariest roller coaster and ate cotton candy and giggled like fools over silly things and serious things.
Kate never wanted to go home.
"This way. Come on-- there's no line," Julia said as she pulled Kate toward the fortune teller's tent on the edge of the grounds, away from the children's rides, like they were trying to hide something.
"Come; get your fortune read," the woman selling tickets encouraged.
Kate shook her head, looked over her shoulder, sure her mother would come lurching across the fairgrounds.
"Come on, Kate-- your mom's having lunch all the way on the other side of the fairgrounds. She'll never know," Julia urged.
Kate wanted to argue, because her mom always had the eyes-in-the-back-of-the-head thing going on.
"We planned for this all summer," Julia insisted. And while it was true, the last thing Kate wanted to do was go inside that tent now.
Yes, she'd known there'd be a fortune teller there-- he'd kept the newspaper clipping that boasted the details. Had wondered for months what her future might hold.
Maybe she'll tell you that soon the hitting will stop. Or that your dad will be home more often. Or that things will just get better.
But Kate couldn't bring herself to believe any of them, and to hear it shot down by the crystal ball would make it all worse.
"I already paid!" Julia called triumphantly. "She's wait¬ing for you. She's nice. She'll read me next. I'll keep a watch for your mom-- now, go."
A small push and Kate stumbled into the small tent. The woman behind the table was bent over a layout of big tarot cards, a scarf tied around her head, silver looped earrings in her ear. But instead of looking ridiculous, she actually looked . . . pretty.
Kate had seen tarot cards once in a store, but her mother had pushed her past them in a rush.
"Work of the devil, Kate," she'd said.
Work of the devil.
Kate nearly ran. But when the woman lifted her head and smiled, a brilliantly wide and beautiful smile that lit her eyes up from inside, Kate wondered how that could be true.
God made beautiful things and this woman certainly was beautiful. Not like Kate, thirteen and still in that horrible, gangly phase, hormones running amuck, making her feel like she'd never ever be beautiful or normal.
"Normal's boring," the woman told her.
"I don't read minds. It's written all over your face. Come; sit down. Let me read your past."
Past? Fortune tellers were supposed to tell the future. Still, Kate went forward and sat tentatively on the white plas¬tic chair, her feet solidly on the ground in case she had to run. She saw the woman look at the hand-shaped bruise on her arm and she pushed down the sleeve that had ridden up.
When she looked up again, the woman's eyes held a sym¬pathy Kate had seen before. It made her nearly gag.
"Tell me what you saw last night, Kate."
She wanted to lie, tell the woman nothing, but instead, the words tumbled from her mouth like a confession. "I think I saw a ghost. It was . . . ugly. Horrible. Green lips and mouth; red eyes; long, white hair . . . and it was sitting on my mother's chest while she slept."
"What did you do?"
"I told it to move, but it laughed." She shook her head. "I don't want to talk about it anymore. You're supposed to tell me about my future. What do those cards say?"
The fortune teller smiled, a little sadly. "It's going to change from what's laid out here in the tarot cards."
"I don't understand."
"I know. It's too soon. According to this spread, you would've married a nice boy. Lived here."
"And that's not going to happen?"
"None of it," the woman confirmed. "Everything that was supposed to be will change."
Her mother's voice. Kate turned to see her face white, lips pressed together. She looked furious and frightened all at once, and she said nothing as she dragged Kate away toward the car, where her father waited.
When Kate turned to see the fortune teller as she was being pulled away, there was no one behind the table at all.
Had there ever been?
She didn't know where Julia was or why she hadn't kept Kate out of trouble. She'd find out later that her friend had gotten distracted, innocently enough, by a group of cute boys, and that being left behind at the fairgrounds would be the best thing to happen to her that day.
Kate never made it home that afternoon, and her par¬ents would never go home again, but the fortune teller was right about one thing-- everything changed that sunny af¬ternoon when the big black truck slammed into the side of her family's car, killing them all.
Two Dires will be born to aid in the great war between wolf and man. One can hear, the other, influence. Brothers who, if they don't turn their wrath on each other, will cause destruction and ruin outward.
-- Prophecy of the Elders circa tenth century
The prophecy Stray had grown up hearing about himself and his brother, Killian, was coming true. Kill was coming to town and would be expected to live up to his name, and Stray needed to run to lose himself. To hunt instead of brood, to stop trying to figure out if the prophecy wanted him dead or alive.
As part of a pack of what was believed to be the last six remaining Dire wolves, he was feared and revered. Immor¬tal and therefore invincible, they currently called Catskills, New York, home. They had come back here months earlier to aid the Weres and found themselves embroiled in a shit¬load of trouble.
Still, in the woods outside the Dires' secret underground lair, there was laughter under the glow of the moon. Even if it was foggy, she shone to them as bright as the sun to humans on a hot summer's day.
The nightly run would happen on the plot of land that was protected by unshifted Weres. Under normal circum¬stances, the Dires changed their locale as often as possible. This was anything but normal. The safe place was at the end of a tunnel that let out into a thicket of woods nearly impos¬sible for most humans to pass through. Their leader, Rifter, was there, with Jinx and Vice.
Jinx's brother, Rogue, remained in a supernatural-induced coma back at the house, along with Harm, the Dire who'd walked away from the pack thousands of years ago and had come back just weeks earlier, bringing even more trouble with him.
Gwen was with them as well. She was Rifter's mate, a half Dire, half human. Harm's daughter.
Stray watched Vice rib Jinx for picking up a werechick the night before, and Rifter and Gwen were nuzzling each other. Business as usual, despite everything.
Except Stray had an even bigger secret than the brother he'd been keeping under wraps. Tonight, though, he was de¬termined to shake the maudlin shit off and let his Brother Wolf run wild. And Brother growled in agreement, barely waiting for Stray to strip before the shift began. It was a pain and pleasure kind of thing, a change that took Stray to his limits every time his wolf took over.
"Stray's gone!" Vice called behind him, and Stray knew his shift would pull the others along. Sure enough, soon he was surrounded by the wolves as they disappeared into the woods, camouflaged in safety.
Stray wasn't the name he'd been given at birth. He'd ad¬opted the moniker after he'd left his pack because he re¬fused to use or even think his birth name. Kill refused to change his. Maybe he was too proud or too stupid-- r a combination of both. Stray could be stubborn too, but living like a hermit was his specialty, not Kill's. He couldn't imag¬ine how his brother had fared all these years in forced isola¬tion.
Being a hermit was okay for Stray-- t had been lonely as shit, but it was easier than reading people's goddamned thoughts all the time, which got old and exhausting very quickly.
The Dires had never pushed him to reveal his ability, nor had they mentioned the prophecy, but that didn't mean they didn't know about it. Fact was, Rifter and his Dire brothers might have suspected there were more of their kind out there after they discovered Stray. At one point, Rifter had asked him outright and Stray had denied it. But now that they knew about Killian, would they make the connection about the prophecy as it related to them? And when would he have to admit that there was another Dire pack, one that wasn't immortal and living quietly in Greenland?
The Elders had never forbidden him to speak on them, but he was oddly protective of a group that had been any¬thing but kind to him.
Stray had already given up more in the past few days then he'd ever planned on doing. But this Dire pack had kept him safe, treated him like a brother for the past fifty years.
Maybe he should've let them in on all of it-- the pack, the prophecy-- before now. He couldn't tell if it was his guilt or their unspoken-- and possibly imagined-- disapproval weighing heavily on him. And so he ran faster, breaking away from the pack, Brother Wolf craving a solitude he hadn't gotten since all the shit started raining down on their heads.
He felt his brother drawing near as surely as he felt the moon's pull. There was a darkness in Killian, one that Stray brought out, and he was pretty sure he shared it as well.
And soon the pack that took him in would know too.
They all have abilities, he reminded himself. But putting his together with Kill's could turn them both into beings beyond all control.
Power was a damned dangerous thing, but not as much as the freedom he craved. Freedom was as dangerous as anything these days to seek out, but Brother Wolf wanted to hunt. To seek, to stalk prey while relishing in the game of the chase.
He lost track of time and the trails, knew he was pushing it by running this close to the highway, but he didn't care. His Brother Wolf pushed fast, paws crunching the packed snow.
He was searching. Scenting. His body felt hot and tight and every run made things worse, not better.
He heard confusion miles in the direction he'd planned to run. Paused, listened and let the wolf take in the scene.
Human violence. One human beyond saving. Another, alive.
He still waited, deciding.
Police arriving. Which meant Brother Wolf went in the opposite direction, paws treading the wet earth until he couldn't hear anything but his own breathing. Everything inside of him relaxed, and he melded into the forest sur¬roundings, because that's where he belonged.
He scented his prey and stalked it for miles. Sometimes the thrill of the hunt and the chase was better than the catch.
This time the catch was pretty damned good too.
Stray would be the last one back in tonight. Vice shifted and waited for him to show through the thicket of trees some¬time before dawn.
The wolf would come back bloody, the way Vice had. Not unusual, but since he'd confessed how young he was-- seventy-five to Vice's centuries-- Vice was impressed by Stray's self-control.
The kid was really a goddamned baby.
"We've got to find out more about Killian, 'cause I've got a bad feeling about it," he said finally to Jinx, who'd come up beside him.
"You shouldn't fuck with him," Jinx said finally. "This brother thing . . . it's no joke."
He knew Jinx was speaking from experience, since his twin was currently all fucked up and lying in some kind of supernatural coma. Only the death of Seb, the witch who'd cursed him, could break the spell-- nd since that witch was immortal, they needed a hell of a miracle.
"Kill needs to come through with helping to take away some weretrapper power or we're fucked," Vice said.
"If Kill's ability works the way Stray says it does, with Stray reading minds and Kill able to place suggestions into a person's mind, it will work. We'll pull it out of the fire-- e always do."
"Hell of a lot to pull out," Vice muttered. "And Kill can place those same suggestions in wolf minds when he's with Stray-- emember that. Wolf minds. Stray doesn't know if that includes Dires or if it's just Weres. This could backfire on our asses."
"Guess we'll find out soon enough. Don't say anything in front of Rifter-- he's just back," Jinx said quietly as their king and his new queen emerged from the woods, with Gwen still half wrapped around him. Vice opened his mouth to call something like Get a room, but Jinx stopped the com¬ment from flying out of his mouth by literally clamping a hand over it.
"You'd think the run would've calmed you," Jinx told him, but they both knew nothing could for long.
As for Rifter and Gwen, they'd mated days earlier-- and even though a mating ceremony would normally give them more time to revel, they couldn't afford to do so now.
Still, the Elders-- Hati, actually--loved the damned blue moon. Scientists were calling it an aberration and as¬tronomers were simply calling it a mistake. But April would now have two moons-- full and a blue, the perfect storm for Seb and his army, and the full moon was less than two weeks away. Seb wouldn't make the mistake of waiting for the blue moon this time--he'd take advantage of the full one.
So yes, Hati bought his wolves time, but Vice wondered what effect screwing with nature like that would have. It certainly screwed all of them up.
He leaned against the gazebo that was directly over the tunnels the Dires utilized. The protected underground lair was built beneath hallowed ground. There had once been an old church here, razed before the Dires purchased the land. Even though the building was gone, the consecration would always remain.
Vice figured there had to be some religious types flipping in their graves over the fact that wolves were living on church ground.
He wasn't sure why, other than the fact that they weren't human. But he'd never understood any organized religion. He'd fought in the Crusades not just because he liked to fight, but also because he liked the idea that everyone de¬served freedom.
Well, most everyone. The weretrappers had to get over themselves. Centuries was too long to hold a grudge.
This vendetta on the part of the trappers wasn't about what the Dires once did to humankind centuries earlier and, hell, they'd paid for it with the Extinction of nearly all their kind. Over the years, the Dires had saved a thousand¬fold more humans than their packs had killed. It seemed like it would never be enough. But he'd be damned if he let those fuckers use the wolves to kill. Bad enough the trap¬pers had convinced witches to get into bed with them-- although not literally, which Vice would've understood. Now the human trappers had all kinds of black magic on their side, thanks to a master witch named Seb.
Because of that, the hunt for the witch who could kill Seb and save Rogue was on. But it was more complicated than that, since killing Seb might also save their asses from the Dire ghost army Seb had raised, made up of the Dires' dead parents and various other friends and family. And if that ghost army didn't die with Seb, Rogue, who could com¬municate with spirits, would be able to take the ghost army down.
That was some crazy shit the witch had conjured. Vice and Jinx had seen them only once, but that had been more than enough. Jinx hadn't been able to contact the Dire ghost army since-- and the Dires didn't content themselves that it had been disbanded. Seb was no doubt rallying the troops for a destructive march, trying not to give away his hand too early.
Now the sky remained unnaturally dark, as it had been for days. The supernatural influence pulled at all of them, made them uneasy. Growly. Shifty. The pull would get more intense as the full moon neared.
The supernatural storms that had invaded the town weeks earlier had receded, but they were all still vigilant, awaiting their return. The weretrappers weren't about to give up this easily.
Vice, especially, was getting tense-- his shifts from one extreme to another would happen so fast his own head spun, and although he was never even close to being politi¬cally correct, the shit that came out of his mouth was worse than ever.
And Jinx was getting nowhere, except more pissed that he couldn't find the witch he'd been tracking, even though he claimed he felt her-- and that she was close.
Stray had been getting more and more agitated as his brother got closer, and Vice kept having to trail him as he left the house constantly during the daylight, as if searching for something.
Between that, training Liam, the young wereking, and ghost hunting with Jinx, Vice barely found time to get into any trouble of his own. And hell, that in itself was too un¬natural for him to deal with for much longer.
"Fucking witches," he muttered.
"Tell me about it," Jinx said. "Stray's coming-- he just shifted."
They watched him turn from wolf to human form about thirty feet from them, still covered by the surrounding foli¬age.
"You're sleeping out here with him?" Vice asked.
"Yeah, think I will." Jinx motioned to the covered porch. "We'll be all right."
Vice didn't think any of them would be, but for once, he managed to hold his tongue.
Vice and Jinx were waiting for him. Neither said anything when Stray walked back to them with blood still smeared on his chest. They were all predators who believed in sur¬vival of the fittest and enjoyed the hunt as much as he did. Wolves were meant for this, and as long as they were taking down animals and not humans, they were well within their rights.
Doing so kept their predatory instincts at bay-- they'd all learned long ago how important that was, but no one more than him.
You're a beast. His mother's words echoed in his ear. Why would she be surprised at that? Why would his nature be so bad when they'd been created in Hati's image?
All he knew was that he didn't want to be locked up again. Couldn't bear it. And he hated the old surge of panic that rose up in him, a sign that the street mutt inside of him had not been exorcized.
If he thought too much about it, his scar began to ache fiercely. His heart beat a tattoo against his rib cage as he ran his hand over the long, knotted swath of tissue that ran di¬agonally across his chest, starting just above his heart and traveling downward, as though someone tried to flay him open.
Someone had, just to see if he would die.