Jane Yellowrock is a vampire-killer-for-hire, but her last battle with an ancient arcane enemy has brought her low. She seeks retreat in the Appalachian Mountains to grieve the loss of her friends, and to heal - or to die - from the disease brought on by her magic.
But malevolent elements in the paranormal community still seek to destroy Jane, and a terrifying foe stalks her, even into the safety of the hills. With nowhere to run and her body failing, the rogue-vampire hunter and her inner Beast must discover a way to defeat this new threat, and find a form that gives her a chance to fight another day.
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He Ate Her Body While
She Was Still Alive, Piece by Piece
Beast pawpawpawed, slow, across ridge of rock over creek. Silent. Good predator. Moving back paw into front paw track, paw prints overlapping in fresh layer of snow. Beast lifted snout and sniffed, breath in two white clouds in icy air. Wind blew own scent back, along path. Wind filled nose with musk of three male deer, upwind. Bucks did not see or smell Beast. Beast is best hunter.
Biggest buck raised head. Sniffing. Pawing dirt. Eyes on tree bark where Beast had left mark before last pregnant moon. Where Beast had sharpened claws to mark territory. Old spoor. Beast had hunted along creek then. Was best hunter's old spoor still strong with threat? Had Beast made stupid kit mistake?
No. Beast is good hunter. Want big deer. Has much meat. Will have good blood and good organs and good belly fat. Beast hungers. Big buck is strong and healthy.
Pawed closer. Crouched. Eyes on other creek bank and deer below. Watching.
Snow covered ground, deep as Beast paw. Wet rocks were black, sharp as knife blade in hands of human hunter. Sunlight was low, angled. Reflection in pool of water below did not show Beast. Did not show deer. Was good hunting spot. Water splashed from small falls, crisp, like breaking sticks. Would cover Beast sounds.
Smaller male in male deer herd finished drinking. Leaped up bank to flat ground beneath Beast's perch. Beast waited. Finally, big deer dropped head. And drank.
Beast tightened crouch, pulling all body onto paws,
shoulders high. Leaped. Shoved off with back legs. Stretched out front legs. Claws extending. Falling. Thick tail rotated for balance. Scent of buck rushed up. Heavy. Pungent.
Deer flinched. Hooves left ground. Buck leaped high. Away from other deer. Beast snarled. Not expecting jump. Whipped tail, swiveling body. Reaching.
Buck splashed into deep water. Beast missed.
Buck leaped again. Splashed hard. Hooves driving up far bank. White tail held high.
Landed half in water.
Front paws missed rock just under surface.
Paws, legs, shoulders, head, slapped into water. And under it. Nose flaps closed, but not before water went up nose.
Front feet hit bottom, back feet hit bank.
Wrenched body back. Rear paws and claws dug deep into half-frozen muddy bank. Body twisted. Out of water. Blew water out of nose in loud snort. Spat and shook. Loose coat slid around muscular body. Flinging water droplets into snow. Blowing.
Beast whirled, searching for two smaller deer. They had vanished. Beast snarled at world. Screamed. Big deer must have heard or smelled Beast.
I hunger! Screamed again, sound echoing in hills. Chuffed in anger. Pounced up and down, paws sinking into half-frozen mud.
Deer did not come back. Prey was smart.
Shook again. Water had not penetrated into deep coat. Had not washed into paw pads. Beast would not freeze.
Pulled in air over tongue and over scent sacs in roof of mouth. What Jane called flehmen response, but Beast called scenting. Stopped. Held muzzle into air and smelled again. Caught stink of cat on air. Sucked in air again, hard and long, showing fangs, smelling with nose and part of brain that Beast had stolen from ugly dog, good nose, what Jane called bloodhound.
Smelled cat. Was male. Did not smell like lynx or bobcat. Was not small feral cat humans used as mousers. Was different. Was . . . bigger. Scent was old and no tracks showed in snow. But cat had been on Beast's territory. Back feet landing in prints of front feet, Beast stalked scent. Followed old cat smell many short steps, body in crouch, to tree on edge of hunting territory. Male cat had left spoor near tree. Old scat. Male cat was healthy. Strong. Bigger than lynx. Beast sucked in scent through nose and mouth. Cat was not lion from Africa. Cat was not leopard. Not puma. Was not werecat. Beast knew those smells. Did not know this cat. Beast pawed scat and saw bones of rabbit in scat. But. Cat was gone.
Beast clawed tree, shredding bark. Clawed and clawed, marking territory. This is Beast territory. This is Beast hunting ground. Snarled again. Shook more water out of pelt. Left spoor at ground under tree, on top of male cat scat. This said, Beast place. All who hunted here would know it was Beast place. Went back to pool of water and drank. Beast water. And when Beast sees deer again, Beast deer. Beast food.
Beast screamed, mountain lion cry bouncing up hills like human ball on walls. Beast shook, flinging more water, and shoved off with all four feet. Straight-up jump, what Jane would say was too high, but Puma concolor knew was good jump. Landed on top of rock ridge. Raced into trees and down top of hill toward house that was human home.
Snow began to fall. Ran through snowflakes, slinky and lithe and lissome. Good words for Beast. Each leap covered more than Beast body and tail, body and tail, and part of body again. Was long run steps.
Sun dipped behind western ridge. Dusk fell. Beast eyes saw world as green and silver and gray and many shades of black. Cold air and snow kept Beast cool. Felt good on strong body. But Beast still hungered. Was skinny.
Thought of humans and vampires and witches. Want to hunt bison in Edmund car. Edmund is gone. Want to sit on Leo and rub jaw on Leo to scent mark. But Leo is gone. Want to curl around Angie Baby and Little Evan and new kit and keep kits safe. But kits are gone. Beast is hungry. Beast is sad.
Thought about big cat spoor. Beast is lonely.
Felt/saw/smelled change. Beast stopped. Crouched. Thought was another deer, but . . . vibration beneath Beast's paws was too big for running deer. Was like stone on stone, not deer hooves. Beast quivered in reaction, sniffing, dropping belly to snow. Thinking. Vibration got stronger. Claws extruded and sank into leaves on ground beneath snow. Vibration got stronger again. Earth moves, Beast thought. Earth is alive.
Snow fell from quivering branches overhead. Large globs landed on snow with soft plops. Dollop of snow splatted onto Beast's back. Beast hissed. Leaped high and to side, into trees, hissing, spitting, hissing, growling. Raced up tall tree into branches. Hunched tight. Smelling for enemy. But tree was shaking too.
Earth settled. Night fell darker beneath heavy clouds. Faint light came from place where sun set. Beast turned to stare at it. Sun was gone. Was too light there now. Had been darker there when sun set last time Beast hunted. More white man's lights? Hate white man's lights.
When Beast was satisfied that Earth was staying still, Beast dropped from limb, loped toward house. Smelled wood smoke on air. Smelled Brute spoor stink. Smelled Bruiser and Eli and stink of gunfire from new shooting range. Family. Saw snow fall, felt snow landing on coat. Trotted out of tree line, along row of grapevines, branches showing hints of green from warmer weather, now gone again. Bruiser said Mother Nature was fickle. Beast did not understand fickle. Trotted past unfinished cottages. Past finished cottages. Up to house that Jane called inn.
Beast did not need lights, but security lights were on. Alex and Eli trusted Beast to know if Beast was safe, but did not trust Jane to live, so littermates had come. They had put up cameras. Beast was on camera and motion sensors. Beast thought about spraying spoor on cameras and chuffed with laughter. But Bruiser was here. Eli and Alex. Family. Beast did not spray cameras.
Beast was nearing front steps when something in mind tore with harsh sound. Beast stopped. Stumbled. Fell to snow. In head, deep in mind, Edmund screamed, "My mistress! Dange-" The sound of his cry was cut off. Was sound of agony. Beast froze, lying in snow.
Edmund cry waked Jane.
Beast? Was that Ed?
Beast whirled body and spun to feet. Raced for door, sprinting, leaping, covering twenty feet in a bound.
Ed? Jane whispered in my/our mind.
Edmund screamed. Sound as if heart was being torn out with claws.
Oh no. Oh nonononono, Jane thought. He's being . . . He's being tortured.
Pain and vertigo and the scent of blood flooded through me. BeastÕs paws overlapped and we stumbled, falling hard to our side. Rolled back to our feet. Ed? I screamed for him.
There was nothing. A blank dark hole where the connection to Ed used to reside. I hadn't even noticed the bond was there, a real, tangible thing. Nor had I noticed the shield between us until it tore, that horrible ripping sound in Beast's mind. But the absence of the bond, the absence of Ed, was glaring, screaming, like night terrors and drowning and being sucked into a deep, dark hole in an underground river.
I/we staggered, raced up the stairs and inside, through the huge rubber-flapped cat door Eli had installed to the side of the human one. The silver-bell chimes announced our arrival. We raced across the thick Oriental rug of the foyer. Dry heat, artificial light, and the sound of a game on the huge TV screen over the fireplace were like being smacked in the senses, and we skidded on snow-damp paws across the marble flooring as we raced into the noisy office/TV/living area.
Beast had hunter eyes on Alex, sitting at the antique two-sided desk that took up the entire far end of the room. We leaped to cross the space, cat eyes seeing what he was working on while in midair. On three of his screens were files and research about the Dark Queen, and on two others were e-mails from witches about methods to treat magically induced cancer. We landed, slipping again on the slick floor, banging into the splayed feet of Alex's desk chair. Sending him rolling.
The Kid grunted, pulled himself back into place, and tried to wave us away. Beast reached up and took his hand in her teeth.
The game went silent.
The room went still. Sweat smell of surprise came from Alex. He slowly turned his head and looked at us, long curls sliding across his dark-skinned forehead and cheek. "Jane?"
Eli was standing behind us, weapon drawn.
They think I died and you went feral, I thought at Beast.
She snorted at that thought and let go of Alex's hand. It tasted of sweat and soot and coffee and an odd chemical under-tang. Beast rose to her back feet, placing her right paw on the desk near the keyboard.
Alex said, "Oh." He opened the file drawer to the side and pulled out the specially made, heavy-duty, oversized keyboard, placing it in front of us. Behind us, Eli relaxed and we heard the sound of a weapon click back into the Kydex holster.
Beast extruded her claws and turned over the use of the paw to me. Carefully, slowly, I typed. Letter by letter, the words appeared on the small designated screen to Alex's far left. 'ed n trouble. where ed?'
Eli grunted in worry, propped a hip on the large oak desk, and pulled out his phone, probably to text Bruiser to get back to the house. My honeybunch was out in the vineyard, checking the youngest vines and the new trellis and the stability of the terraces down the hill from the house. Beast had smelled him on the wind as we raced inside and located him reliably. Bruiser wasn't alone. He was with Brute, the white werewolf, and Pea, the grindylow. Not things I had consciously noted until I needed to.
Alex slanted sharp eyes at us and went to work, minimizing two of his screens, searching through private vampire sites he was able to access because of my position in Mithran hierarchy, and other sites that were open to the public. Beast dropped to the floor as he worked and pulled the ceramic water bowl to her with a paw. There were water bowls placed strategically throughout the house, all ceramic, since she refused to drink out of metal bowls, preferring toilet water to the taste of steel. Which had been gack until I was able to explain to the humans what was wrong. She lapped water.
The house had been an inn and vineyard that I bought before I left New Orleans. I'd needed a place to lie low while either my human body died from magically induced cancer or I decided to stay in Beast's form forever. I hadn't known what I was buying, not exactly. I was just hunting for acreage and I bought a property that had gone into foreclosure after the original owners' costly divorce. Now it was territory for Beast and a house big enough for my family and clan to live with me. If I survived.
Eli asked. "Did you hear Ed psychically through the binding?"
Beast stopped drinking and looked up at him. I/we nodded once. Deep inside, my thoughts plundered the empty place where Ed had been, a place that was now raw and bleeding and broken. He had been here, inside of us, all this time, bound to me as his mistress. Now he was gone. I needed to help him. I needed to help him now. And I couldn't.
Beast will hunt for Ed, she thought.
Ed is far away, I thought back.
"You're all wet," Eli said. "What'd you do, fall in the creek?"
Eli's face seemed permanently creased with mixed emotions, complex weavings of fury, despair, anger, grief. He seldom laughed these days, and I was the problem. If he could heal me by shooting something, I'd be healthy and happy, because he was going through ammo as if it grew on trees, in the outdoor shooting range he had set up. But he was helpless in the face of a magical disease that no one knew how to treat. A rare moment of amusement lit his face. "You did," Eli said. "You fell in."
Beast snarled at him and thought at me, Do not like water. Hate water. Hate cold water. Water helped deer get away. Water stole deer.
I let my thoughts riffle through Beast's memory and saw her landing in the icy water, plunging beneath. Inside, I laughed but said nothing.
Beast is best hunter. Water stole deer, she insisted.
Okay, I thought.
I hunger. Want to hunt bison in Edmund car.
There were at least three bison ranches within driving distance of Asheville, and we had this conversation multiple times a week. I figured that this time it was to cheer me up, to put my fear for Edmund to the side, but it was more distraction than comfort. I mentally counted to ten.