The Others

Etched in Bone (The Others #5) by Anne Bishop 

March 7th 2017

New York Times bestselling author Anne Bishop returns to her world of the Others, as humans struggle to survive in the shadow of shapeshifters and vampires far more powerful than themselves…

After a human uprising was brutally put down by the Elders—a primitive and lethal form of the Others—the few cities left under human control are far-flung. And the people within them now know to fear the no-man’s-land beyond their borders—and the darkness…

As some communities struggle to rebuild, Lakeside Courtyard has emerged relatively unscathed, though Simon Wolfgard, its wolf shifter leader, and blood prophet Meg Corbyn must work with the human pack to maintain the fragile peace. But all their efforts are threatened when Lieutenant Montgomery’s shady brother arrives, looking for a free ride and easy pickings.

With the humans on guard against one of their own, tensions rise, drawing the attention of the Elders, who are curious about the effect such an insignificant predator can have on a pack. But Meg knows the dangers, for she has seen in the cards how it will all end—with her standing beside a grave.

Buy at Amazon 
Buy at Kobo 
Buy at IndieBound 
Buy at B&N 
Buy at iTunes


Prologue

End of Sumor

As they gathered in the wild country between Tala and Etu, two of the Great Lakes, their footsteps filled the land with a terrible silence.
They were Elders, primal forms of terra indigene who guarded the wild, pristine parts of the world. To the smaller forms of earth natives—shifters like the Wolf and Bear and Panther—they were known as Namid’s teeth and claws.
Humans—those invasive, two-legged predators—had made war against the terra indigene, killing the smaller shifters in the wild country that bordered Cel-Romano, a place that was on the other side of Ocean’s domain. And here, in Thaisia, so many of the Wolfgard were killed that parts of the land were empty of their song.
As the humans in Thaisia and Cel-Romano celebrated their victory over the smaller forms of terra indigene, the Elementals and Namid’s teeth and claws answered the call to war. They destroyed the invaders, then began the work of isolating and thinning the human herds in those two pieces of the world.
But now they faced a problem.
{Some of us will have to watch the humans,} said the oldest male who had made the journey to this place. {Some of us will be poisoned by even that much contact.} A beat of silence as they considered taking over the task the smaller shifters had performed for many years. Then the question: {How much human will we keep?}
{Kill them all!} snarled another male. {That is what humans would do.}
{You would kill the sweet blood not-Wolf?} a female asked, shocked.
A heavy silence as they considered that question.
The sweet blood, the howling not-Wolf, had changed things in the Lakeside Courtyard—had even changed some of the terra indigene living in that Courtyard. She was not like the human enemies. She was not prey. She and her kind were Namid’s creation, wondrous and terrible.
No, they could not kill the sweet blood not-Wolf, the one called Broomstick Girl in the stories that winged their way into the wild country and amused even the most dangerous forms of Elders.
Having agreed that killing all the humans in Thaisia wasn’t the answer, they considered the problem as the sun set and the moon rose.
{If we allow some humans to remain, then what kind of human should we keep?} the eldest male finally asked.
A different question. A caught-in-thorny-vines, stuck-in-the-mud kind of question. Many of the smaller shifters who had survived the human attacks had withdrawn from human-occupied places, leaving the humans who lived there to the Elders’ sharp mercy. Some returned to the wild country, retreating from any trace of humans, while others chose to resettle in towns that had been reclaimed—places that had buildings and human things but no longer had people.
But the Elders who guarded the wild country usually kept their distance from human places unless they came to those places as Namid’s teeth and claws. They didn’t study humans the way the smaller shifters did. The teaching stories told them there were different kinds of humans, but what made one human respectful of the land and the boundaries that had been set while another killed and left the meat, or tried to take away the homes of the feathered and furred? The HFL humans had made war on the terra indigene. Were there other kinds of humans who were enemies—kinds the Elders did not yet recognize?
If humans migrated to the reclaimed towns, would they fight with the shifters who were turning those places into homes for terra indigene who didn’t want to completely abandon the human form? But earth natives didn’t absorb just the form of another predator; they also absorbed aspects of that predator, traits that became woven into the shape. Were there human traits the terra indigene should not absorb? Where could they go to study humans closely enough to learn what could not be allowed to take root in the reclaimed towns?
As one, the Elders turned north and east, looking in the direction of Lakeside.
{That Courtyard was not abandoned, and it has a human pack,} the eldest male said.
It also had the Wolf and howling not-Wolf who intrigued so many of the Elders. Witnessing the stories that would flow into the wild country was worth the risk of human contamination.
All of them were curious, but only two Elders—a male and a female—were chosen to spend time in a small piece of land surrounded by humans. They had been in Lakeside before, when, as Namid’s teeth and claws, they had roamed the fog-filled streets, hunting human prey.
Satisfied with their decision, most of the Elders returned to their pieces of the wild country, while the two selected for the task of studying the human pack began the journey to Lakeside.

Chapter 1
Windsday, Messis 1

Eager to join his friends for an early morning run, Simon Wolfgard, leader of the Lakeside Courtyard, hurried toward the terra indigene Wolves who were using trees and shrubs for camouflage as they watched the paved road that looped the Courtyard. Actually, they were watching the man who was riding on the road at an easy pace.
{It’s Kowalski,} Blair growled. It was a soft growl, but the human suddenly scanned the area as if his little ears had caught the sound.
{On a bicycle,} Nathan added.
{We gave him permission to ride on the paved roads,} Simon said, a little concerned about their focused attention on a human they knew fairly well.
Karl Kowalski was one of the human police officers who worked directly with the terra indigene to minimize conflicts between humans and Others. Because of that, he had been labeled a Wolf lover and had had his share of conflicts with other humans. The latest incident had happened last week when a car “accidentally” swerved and almost hit Kowalski while he was taking a bicycle ride before work. Because the terra indigene viewed that as a threat to a member of their human pack, Simon, Vladimir Sanguinati, and Henry Beargard—members of the Courtyard’s Business Association—decided to allow the human pack to ride on the Courtyard’s paved roads.
Simon had thought all the Wolves had been told about the Business Association’s decision—especially Nathan, who was the watch Wolf at the Liaison’s Office, and Blair, who was the Courtyard’s dominant enforcer—but this was the first time any of the humans had ventured to ride on a road that still had Trespassers Will Be Eaten signs posted as a warning.
{Bicycle, Simon.} Blair’s growl wasn’t as soft this time.
Must have been loud enough for human ears, because Kowalski started to pedal a little faster.
Oh. Bicycle. Now Simon understood the real focus of the Wolves’ attention, the reason for their excitement. Humans had ridden bicycles up to the Green Complex as well as a few other places in the Courtyard, and the Wolves had been intrigued by the two-wheeled vehicles. But those instances had been about transportation to or from a task. This could be something else.
{A game of chase?} Jane, the Wolfgard bodywalker, asked hopefully.
{Kowalski could be play-prey,} Nathan said.
{Does he know how to play chase?} Blair asked.
{He’s a police officer,} Nathan replied. {He chases other humans all the time.}
{Doesn’t mean he understands our game.} Simon thought Nathan’s opinion of police work was skewed more toward hopeful than accurate. Still, they could offer to play. If Kowalski didn’t accept, they would just enjoy a run. But . . . bicycle. Simon really wanted to chase one. {Let’s find out.}
The Wolves charged up the road, Simon and Blair in the lead as they swiftly closed the distance between the pack and their play-prey. But would they have a game?
Kowalski looked back. His eyes widened—and he pedaled faster.
Yes!
{We don’t catch, only chase,} Simon said.
{He’s fast!} Jane surged ahead of the males, pulling up alongside the bicycle’s back wheel in seconds.
{Don’t grab the wheels,} Nathan said. {If you catch a tooth in the spokes you could break your jaw or worse.}
{I was listening when Officer Karl told the puppies about the dangers of biting wheels,} Jane snapped, clearly offended by Nathan’s unwanted warning. She moved up a little more, now in position to play-bite Kowalski’s calf.
Kowalski glanced at Jane and pedaled faster. Instead of going over the bridge that would take them into the Hawkgard section—and commit the human to the big loop within the Courtyard’s three hundred acres—Kowalski turned onto the road that ran alongside the Elementals’ lake, heading back toward the Green Complex.
The Wolves ran, maintaining their distance even when Kowalski slowed down while going up a rise. They took turns pacing the bicycle and pushing their prey to run and run. Or pedal and pedal. As they reached the intersection with the Courtyard’s main road, Kowalski swung left toward the Green Complex instead of turning right toward the Market Square.
Most of the pack, having slowed to a trot as their prey tired, circled back toward the Wolfgard Complex. Nathan headed for the Market Square and the Liaison’s Office, where he would keep track of the deliverymen and guard Meg Corbyn, the Courtyard’s Human Liaison. Simon and Blair followed Kowalski until they reached the Green Complex. Then Blair continued on to the Utilities Complex while Simon dashed for the water trough in the common area that formed the open center of the Courtyard’s only multispecies complex. He lapped water, then shifted to his human form and dunked his head, flinging water as he stood up and tossed his dark hair away from his face. He splashed his arms and chest, then grinned when Kowalski parked the bicycle and approached the trough warily.
“That was a great game of chase!” Simon said happily. “You understand how to be play-prey.”
“I do?”
“Yes.” Simon cocked his head, puzzled by the human’s wariness. Hadn’t they just played, had fun? “Want some water?”
“Thanks.” Kowalski splashed water on his face and neck, then on his arms. But he didn’t drink.
Simon pondered the not drinking for a moment. Humans were clever, invasive predators who had recently shown the terra indigene once again why they could never be fully trusted—not even by each other. But physically they were so much weaker than other kinds of predators. This not drinking, for example. Nothing wrong with the water in the trough. Someone had already drained yesterday’s water, using it on the potted tree and other plants in the open area, and refilled the trough with fresh water for drinking and splashing. Humans would drink water pumped from the well if it was in a glass or a bucket or some other small container but couldn’t drink the same water from a shared outdoor container?
It made him wonder how they had survived as a species long enough to become such a problem.
“So who doesn’t understand about play-prey?” Kowalski asked, rubbing a hand over his face.
“The female pack. Every time we invited them to play, they stopped riding their bicycles and asked if they could help.” Simon spread his arms in a “what’s that all about?” gesture. Then he pointed at Kowalski. “But you invited us to play, and we all had a good run.”
Kowalski snorted a soft laugh. “Well, I sure had a good run.”
“Since the females can’t pedal as far or as fast as you, maybe they could play chase with the puppies.” The pups would learn how to run as a pack without the risk of being kicked by real prey.
Simon studied Kowalski, who studied him in turn.
“I’ll talk to Ruthie,” Kowalski finally said.
They both heard the clink of glassware and looked toward the screened summer room below Meg Corbyn’s apartment.
“Must be later than I realized,” Kowalski said. “I’d better go home and get cleaned up for work.”
Simon watched the man walk toward the bicycle—and the summer room. For a moment, it looked like Kowalski was going to go in and talk to Meg, and Simon felt his teeth lengthen to Wolf size as his lips pulled back in a silent snarl. But Kowalski just raised a hand in greeting, said, “Morning, Meg,” and rode away.
Simon walked around the trough, then stopped suddenly when he realized he was naked in his human form. It had never mattered until Meg came to live in the Courtyard. But humans reacted in various ways to seeing one another without clothing, even when clothing wasn’t needed for protection or warmth. Meg had adjusted pretty well to friends shifting to human form to give her a message or answer a question before shifting back to their preferred furred or feathered form, but it was different with him—maybe because their friendship was different from any other she had with humans or terra indigene.
Most nights, he slept with her in his Wolf form. They had their own apartments, but those places were connected by the summer room and a back upstairs hallway, and more and more it was becoming one den instead of two. But they weren’t mates in the same way Kowalski and Ruthie were mates. Then again, terra indigene Wolves mated only once a year when females came into season. Meg did the bleeding typical of human females, but she hadn’t shown any physical interest in having a mate. Except . . .
She’d asked him to go skinny-dipping with her a couple of weeks ago. Both of them naked, in human form. She’d been nervous about being in the water with him, and she seemed scared after he’d kissed the scar along the right side of her jaw—a scar made by the cut that had saved the Wolfgard in Lakeside as well as many other Wolves throughout the Northeast Region and even beyond.
He’d kissed her before—on the forehead once or twice. But when he’d kissed that scar, he’d felt a flutter of change inside him, and in the days that followed he began to understand on some instinctive level that he wasn’t quite the same as the rest of the Lakeside Wolfgard. Not anymore.
Maybe it wasn’t just for Meg’s sake that, after the kiss, he’d invited her to play a Wolf game despite their both looking human. Then she wasn’t afraid anymore. And since then . . . Well, it wasn’t lost on him that, in summer weather like this, human males wore next to nothing in and around their own dens and no one thought anything of it.
“It’s hot upstairs,” Meg said, not raising her voice because she didn’t need to. His ears might look human, but he was still a Wolf and could hear her just fine. “I brought some food down here for breakfast.”
“I’ll take a quick shower and join you.”
He hurried inside and up the stairs to the bathroom in his apartment. Washing his hair and body didn’t take long, but he stood under the shower, enjoying the cool water falling over him as he thought about the complication that was Meg Corbyn.
He had brought her into the Courtyard, offering her the job of Human Liaison before discovering that she was a blood prophet, a cassandra sangue—a breed of human females who saw visions of the future when their skin was cut. She had escaped from the man who had owned her and used her, and Simon and the rest of the terra indigene in Lakeside had taken her in.
That sounded simple but it wasn’t. Nothing about Meg was simple. She was the pebble dropped in a pond that was the Lakeside Courtyard, and the ripples of her presence had changed so many things, including the terra indigene who had befriended her. Because of Meg, the Courtyard’s residents interacted with humans in ways that were unprecedented—or, at least, hadn’t been considered in centuries. Because of Meg, the terra indigene throughout Thaisia had tried to save the rest of the blood prophets who had been tossed out like unwanted puppies by the humans who had owned them. Because of Meg, the Lakeside Courtyard had a human pack who provided an additional learning experience for terra indigene who had a human-centric education and needed to practice those skills with humans who wouldn’t take advantage of mistakes.
Because of Meg, he had the uncomfortable feeling that a little bit of being human had become attached and inseparable from his Wolf form.
Plenty of human females over the years had wanted to take a lusty walk on the wild side and have sex with one of the terra indigene. And plenty of terra indigene had been equally curious about having sex in their human form. But that was about pleasing the body for a night and walking away. Or, for the Sanguinati, it was about using lust as a lure in order to feed off the blood of their preferred prey.
Sex was different from becoming someone’s mate. Mating was serious business. It was about pack and family. Some forms of terra indigene mated for life; some did not. Even among the forms that usually mated for life, the bonds didn’t always hold. Simon’s sire, Elliot, never talked about why his mate had left him. And Daphne, Simon’s sister, had told them nothing about her mate or why she had shown up in Lakeside alone just days before her pup was born.
No, the mating bond didn’t always last, and most of the time, the repercussions were small. A pack might break apart if the dominant pair split. Some might leave for other packs, even other parts of the continent. But ordinarily, a species wouldn’t become extinct if a mating bond broke—and that could happen if his bond of friendship with Meg became something more but couldn’t survive being something more, couldn’t survive a physical mating. He knew it. Tess and Vlad and Henry knew it. Maybe some of the humans knew it. But he didn’t think Meg knew it, wasn’t sure she would be strong enough to carry that weight on top of what she had been asked to do already.
She had been hurt by the humans who had caged her and used her. Hurt in ways that made her fearful of the human male form. While he occasionally wondered if having sex with a human would feel different if the human was Meg, he wasn’t willing to risk their friendship, wasn’t willing to break the bond they already had. So he needed to be extra careful now for her sake, for his sake, for everyone’s sake. How much human would the terra indigene keep? The Elders had asked that question without specifying if they meant human population, human inventions, or the intangible aspects of a form that were absorbed along with the physical shape if you lived too long in a particular skin.
Simon shut off the water and dried himself before pulling on a pair of denim cutoffs.
When the Elders had first asked that question, he thought they expected an answer in words. But after the recent war that had broken the Cel-Romano Alliance of Nations on the other side of the Atlantik, and the Elders’ decision to thin, and isolate, the human herds in Thaisia, Simon understood that the answer would be shaped by what the Elders learned from the things that happened in and around the Lakeside Courtyard.
Meg fussed with the dishes on the small table in the summer room, but her mind was still replaying the image of Simon and Karl Kowalski standing by the water trough, talking. Simon had looked happy. Karl had had his back to the summer room, so she hadn’t seen his face, but he’d seemed tense. She wondered why Karl would feel tense about something that pleased Simon so much. Then again, a Wolf and a human didn’t often see things the same way.
But looking at them, their bodies communicating opposing emotions, she noticed the similarities. Unlike Henry Beargard, who was big and muscled even in human form, Simon and Karl had the strength and lean muscles of hunters who chased their prey—although she didn’t think Karl usually had to run after the people he arrested. They both had dark hair, but Karl’s was cut shorter than Simon’s. The real difference, at first glance anyway, was the eyes. Karl’s were brown, while Simon’s were amber whether he was in human or Wolf form.
And when Karl left, she noticed the parts of Simon that weren’t usually seen. She noticed—but she wasn’t sure how she felt. Scared, yes, but also a little curious. She and Simon were friends, and she adored his nephew Sam. But more than that, they’d become partners who were committed to keeping the Courtyard—and the city of Lakeside—intact. And they were partners who were committed to helping the cassandra sangue survive in a world that was too full of sensation.
In the stories she’d read, people who were drawn to each other seemed to fight a lot or have misunderstandings or had sex and then broke up before eventually getting together. But those were humans, not a blood prophet and a Wolf. There were things that had been done to her in the compound that her body remembered but were veiled from her mind—things that made it much easier for her to be around Simon when he was in Wolf form. She knew in her heart that Simon would never do bad things to her like the men in the compound had done, but the furry Wolf still felt like a safer companion, despite the teeth and claws.
And yet, this time, seeing Simon without clothes . . . Scary, yes, but thinking about it made something flutter inside her, something that made her wonder what it would be like if they . . .
“You’re upset.”
Startled, Meg almost knocked over a glass of water. She hadn’t heard Simon enter the summer room.
“No, I’m not.” But looking at him, she was distracted by the male body that displayed everything but the scary bits, which were hidden by denim cutoffs. Then she remembered that she wasn’t wearing anything except a thin cotton shift and panties. That hadn’t seemed important when she’d put them on after her shower.
She was asking for it. Meg couldn’t remember if she had read that phrase in a story or if it was part of a rememory—an image from an old prophecy. But she knew it was the excuse a man used in order to blame a girl when he forced her to have sex with him.
She hadn’t given a thought to how little she was wearing, but if she was noticing Simon’s body, was he also noticing hers? And if he was . . .
She was asking for it.
No! A human male might think that way, but Simon wouldn’t, not even when he was in human form. Her brain knew that; it would make things easier for everyone if she could convince her body.
“Yes, you are.” Simon stepped closer, and his amber eyes narrowed—but not before Meg saw the flickers of red that indicated anger. “You smell upset—and a little lusty. But mostly you smell upset.” He snarled, showing fangs that definitely weren’t human. “Did Kowalski upset you?”
“No.” Her insides were feeling shaky, but her reply was firm and definite. The last thing she wanted was for Simon to be angry with any of her human friends. “I was thinking of something that made me unhappy.”
He stopped snarling and cocked his head, looking more baffled than angry. “Why would you do that?”
She stared at him. She didn’t want to tell him what she’d been thinking about, which would be his next question, so she shrugged and changed the subject to one she knew would interest him: food. “I couldn’t decide what to eat, so I brought a lot of stuff, including this.” She picked up a container and a spoon, then hesitated.
“What is it?”
“Yogurt.” She swallowed a spoonful and wondered why Merri Lee and Ruth said it was yummy. Was this an acquired taste? “Try some.” She filled the spoon and held it out to Simon, wondering what he would do.
He leaned toward the spoon and sniffed. Then he ate the offering.
Meg held her breath, not sure if he would spit out the yogurt or swallow it.
He swallowed. Then he looked at the other food she’d brought down. “Why would you eat that when you could eat slices of bison?”
Since she couldn’t honestly say she liked the taste of bison, she didn’t see much difference. “Merri Lee and Ruth said yogurt is good for a person’s innards, especially a girl’s innards.”
“Glad I’m not a girl,” he muttered as put a couple of bison slices on a plate before considering the rest of the available food.
Meg took another spoonful of yogurt before closing the container. There. She’d taken care of her innards for the day. She ate half the berries, then pushed the bowl toward Simon. She half hoped he’d refuse the offer, saying he had plenty of bison to eat, but he happily accepted his share of the berries without a word, leaving her to nibble on a slice of sharp cheese.
“You’re not eating,” Simon said a few minutes later.
“I’ve had enough for now.” Which was true since she intended to dash over to A Little Bite before work and see what Nadine Fallacaro and Tess had available at the Courtyard’s coffee shop.
They took the remaining food up to her apartment and washed the dishes before Simon went to his apartment to get dressed for work.
Meg stared at the clothes in her closet and considered what might be appropriate office wear for the person who was the Human Liaison and what was a practical way to dress on a hot, muggy day. She chose a pair of darkgreen shorts, a short-sleeve, rosypeach blouse, and a pair of sandals that looked nice and felt great.
After checking that the book she was currently reading was in her carry sack, Meg locked the front door of her apartment and went down the outside stairs to wait for Simon.
Lieutenant Crispin James Montgomery turned his head to look at Investigative Task Force Agent Greg O’Sullivan, who was sitting in the backseat of the patrol car. When O’Sullivan looked pointedly at the third man in the car, Monty turned his attention to his partner, Officer Karl Kowalski, who was driving them to a meeting with the new acting mayor and commissioner of police.
Kowalski was a vigorous man in his late twenties. A dedicated police officer, he believed that the best way to help the humans in Lakeside was to have a good working relationship with the terra indigene—a belief that had caused some personal problems with a landlord as well as creating a rift between Karl and his parents and brother.
But after the slaughter of humans in some Midwest and Northwest towns in retaliation for the slaughter of the Wolfgard in those same areas; after the storms that raged across the continent of Thaisia and slammed into Lakeside; after the humans saw the briefest terrifying glimpse of the terra indigene who lived in, and guarded, the wild country, Monty wondered if Kowalski still believed there was any hope of humans’ surviving the force and fury of the Elementals and the terra indigene who were known as Namid’s teeth and claws.
And he wondered what he would do if Kowalski and Michael Debany, the other officer on his team, wanted to work on another team or even transfer to another police station in Lakeside.
“Are you all right?” Monty asked. Was it pointless to ask with O’Sullivan in the car? The agent was doing his best to create a dialogue with Simon Wolfgard and the other members of the Courtyard’s Business Association, but no one knew him well enough yet to consider him a personal friend.
Kowalski stopped behind a bus that was taking on passengers instead of changing lanes to go around. If they stayed behind the bus and waited at every stop, they would be late for the meeting.
Out of the corner of his eye, Monty saw O’Sullivan cover the watch on his left wrist, a silent message: we can be late for the meeting.
In looks, Monty and O’Sullivan were opposites. Greg O’Sullivan was in his early thirties. He had green eyes that were always filled with sharp intelligence, and his short dark hair was starting to thin at the top. On the job, he had a burning intensity and a face that made Monty think of a warrior who had chosen an austere life.
Monty, on the other hand, was the oldest of the three men, even though he wasn’t forty yet. He had dark skin, brown eyes, and short, curly black hair already showing some gray—and not all the lines on his face came from laughter. Not anymore.
“I took a bike ride in the Courtyard this morning and ended up playing a game of chase with some of the Wolves,” Kowalski said. “I was the designated prey.”
O’Sullivan leaned forward. “Are you all right?”
Kowalski glanced in the rearview mirror, then swung around the bus when it signaled at the next stop. “More of a workout than I’d intended to take with it being so muggy. The Wolves didn’t hurt me, if that’s what you’re asking. Didn’t even try.”
Monty and O’Sullivan waited.
“It was a game to them, and somehow I had signaled my willingness to play. But, gods, seeing them around the Market Square . . . It’s not that you forget how big they are, but I didn’t really translate what their size means when they’re hunting. When I saw them racing toward me, my instincts kicked in and I tried to outrun them. Couldn’t, of course.”
“Do you know what you did to join the game?” Monty asked quietly.
Kowalski focused on the traffic for a minute. “Simon said the girls stop and ask if they can help instead of accepting the invitation to play, so it could be as simple as me speeding up instead of stopping.”
“Predator’s instinct,” O’Sullivan said. “If something runs, a predator will chase it.”
“But they’ve never chased any of us before, and we ride bicycles up to the kitchen garden at the Green Complex all the time.” The traffic light turned yellow. Kowalski braked instead of speeding up to slip through the intersection before the light turned red. “At first I thought the Wolves chasing me hadn’t heard that we’re allowed to ride on the paved roads. But I recognized Nathan and thought I recognized Simon. The roads are posted with Trespassers Will Be Eaten signs, and when I first saw them coming at me . . .” He blew out a breath and pressed the accelerator when the light turned green. “Just a game. Simon thought we’d had great fun. Bet the other Wolves did too.”
“And you?” Monty asked.
“We look at the same things, but we don’t see the same things. It made me realize how easy it can be to screw this up and send the wrong signal.”
Monty looked out the window and wondered what sort of signal the new mayor and police commissioner were going to send.
Meg opened the Liaison’s Office, then glanced at the clock. Nathan was late, but Jake Crowgard was at his spot on the shoulder-high brick wall that separated the delivery area from the yard behind Henry’s studio.
Just as well she had the office to herself for another minute or so.
Her arms tingled. It wasn’t the pins-and-needles feeling that warned of the need to cut and speak prophecy. This was milder, more like a memo than a screeching alarm.
Opening a drawer, she lifted the lid of the wooden box Henry had made for her and looked at the backs of several decks of fortune-telling cards that she was learning to use to reveal prophecy instead of cutting her skin with the silver razor. Maybe today she would finally take all the cards out of the box and start discarding what wouldn’t be needed to create the Trailblazer deck of prophecy cards.
She stirred the cards in a vague effort to shuffle them. Not that it mattered. When a question was asked, her hands would prickle, and the cards were chosen based on the severity of that feeling.
Meg closed her eyes so that she wouldn’t influence her choice by recognizing the back of a particular deck. Placing her fingertips on the cards, she whispered, “What will the appointment of the new mayor mean to Lakeside?”
Nothing. Nothing. Her fingers brushed the cards while even the tingling faded away to nothing. Then a buzzing in the fingertips of her right hand. She brushed away the top cards until she reached the one that created the buzz. She picked up the card and opened her eyes—and knew the answer before she turned the card to see the image. The card had come from a children’s game and had been mixed in with her prophecy cards. But the images from the game had proved useful, even if the answers they provided were usually unwelcome.
What will the new mayor mean to Lakeside? A big question mark. Future undecided. Lakeside’s future had been undecided ever since the terra indigene here realized the Elders’ response to the Humans First and Last movement’s actions was going to be very, very bad.
But she’d hoped for a different answer today.
She’d put the card back and started to close the box when she thought of another question. Lakeside was a human-controlled city, but the Courtyard belonged to the terra indigene. Any outbreak of hostility between humans and the Others could have terrible consequences in the wake of the recent conflicts.
Meg closed her eyes and placed her fingers on the cards again. When she’d first begun working with the decks, she had decided that a three-card draw would represent subject, action, and the result. She didn’t know if that was the way other people used fortune-telling cards, but it seemed to be working for her.
“What is going to happen to my friends in the Courtyard?” She repeated the question over and over while she searched for the images that would provide the answer. When she selected the three that had produced the severest prickling, she took them to the big wooden sorting table and turned them over in the order she’d chosen them.
The first card had three images: train, bus, car. The second image was an explosion. The third card . . . the question mark. Future undecided.
That was not good.
She took a notebook out of a drawer, turned to a fresh page, then wrote down her questions and the cards she’d drawn as the answers.
She felt reluctant to put the cards away before she called someone to look at them and felt equally reluctant to tell anyone from the Business Association about this particular answer. Maybe one of her human friends? Ruth Stuart lived across the street in the two-family house on Crowfield Avenue, and Merri Lee was moving into an apartment in one of the adjacent stone buildings the Courtyard had recently purchased to provide a place for their employees to live if they were turned away from human-owned rentals.
A knock on the doorway between the sorting room and the back room made her gasp. Then she relaxed when she saw Twyla Montgomery waiting to be acknowledged. The sorting room was usually out of bounds to humans except for a special few, and with so many new people visiting the Market Square, that boundary was being reinforced with snarls and sharp teeth.
“Good morning, Miss Twyla,” Meg said.
She heard a scrambling in the front room and realized Nathan must have come in while she was using the cards.
“Good morning, Miss Meg.” Twyla crossed the room and set a travel mug and container on the sorting table. “And good morning to you, Mr. Nathan. It’s going to be a sticky day, and I don’t envy you having to wear a fur coat no matter how fine it looks.”
Silence. Then Nathan acknowledged the words with a soft arroo and went back to the Wolf bed under one of the big windows in the front room.
Meg smiled. Twyla Montgomery was Lieutenant Montgomery’s mother. A thin woman with dark skin that was beginning to sag with age, brown eyes that usually looked kind, and short, curly hair that was more tarnished silver than black. But Twyla also had a no-nonsense attitude and didn’t take sass from anyone—a trait that made the Wolves keenly interested in observing her from a safe distance.
“Mr.Simon came into A Little Bite grumbling about yogurt and girl innards and how you don’t like bison,” Twyla said. “I thought he might have some kind of brain fever and was talking nonsense, but Miss Tess said you must not have eaten enough for breakfast, so she made an egg salad sandwich and a bit more for you.” A pause. “You skimping on food, girl?”
“No, ma’am. I didn’t eat much at home because I planned to pick up something when I got to work.” When Twyla stared at her, Meg added, “I really don’t like the taste of bison.”
“I tried a slice the other day and can’t say it appealed to me either. But I suspect if it was a choice between eating bison and going hungry, I’d like it just fine—and so would you.”
Meg nodded. “If that was the choice, Simon might learn to like yogurt.”
Twyla laughed. “You think so?”
Meg imagined being given a plate of rolled bison slices dipped in yogurt. Shuddering, she wondered if you could make a salad out of grass.
Twyla tapped a finger just above the three cards on the table. “What’s this about? Or can’t you say?”
“These are fortune-telling cards, but I call them prophecy cards. I’m trying to see if some of the cassandra sangue can use them to reveal prophecy instead of making a cut.” A thousand cuts. It was said that was all a blood prophet had before the cut that killed her or drove her insane. Since most prophets didn’t survive past their thirty-fifth birthday, Meg, at twenty-four, felt highly motivated to find an alternative to the razor.
“What do these tell you?” Twyla asked.
“I’m not sure. I asked what was going to happen to my friends in the Courtyard. These cards were the answer.” Meg waited until the older woman came around to her side of the table. She pointed to each card. “Subject, action, result.”
Twyla frowned at the train/bus/car card. “Does that mean travel or the transportation itself?”
“Could mean either. It was drawn as the subject, so that should mean the thing itself, but it could mean that one of these forms of transportation is bringing someone or something to Lakeside. The explosion, being the action card, could mean a call-the-bomb-squad kind of explosion or an emotionally explosive conflict between groups of people. So maybe a group of people traveling to Lakeside are going to cause some kind of trouble for the Courtyard. I’m getting pretty good at finding the cards that answer the question, but Merri Lee and I are still working on correctly interpreting them.”
As she watched Twyla study the cards, the skin between her shoulder blades began to prickle.
“What does the question mark mean?” Twyla asked, sounding troubled.
“Future undecided. That was the same answer I drew when I asked about the city of Lakeside this morning.” Meg studied the older woman. “You know what the cards mean, don’t you?”
“I have a thought, but nothing I’d want to share. Not just yet.” Twyla walked toward the back room.
“Thanks for bringing the food,” Meg said.
Twyla turned to look at her. “You’re welcome. Don’t you be skimping on food. There’s no need for that.”
Meg listened to the back door of the office close. Then she reached over her shoulder and scratched at her back. She liked Twyla Montgomery, and even the Others offered the older woman a trust they rarely gave someone they’d known for such a short time. That was the reason Meg felt uneasy now.
She just hoped Miss Twyla decided to share her thoughts about the cards before something bad happened.




You can buy the book:
 

GOODREADS | AMAZON
 


Marked in Flesh (The Others #4) by Anne Bishop


March 8th 2016
For centuries, the Others and humans have lived side by side in uneasy peace. But when humankind oversteps its bounds, the Others will have to decide how much humanity they’re willing to tolerate—both within themselves and within their community...
Since the Others allied themselves with the cassandra sangue, the fragile yet powerful human blood prophets who were being exploited by their own kind, the delicate dynamic between humans and Others changed. Some, like Simon Wolfgard, wolf shifter and leader of the Lakeside Courtyard, and blood prophet Meg Corbyn, see the new, closer companionship as beneficial—both personally and practically.

But not everyone is convinced. A group of radical humans is seeking to usurp land through a series of violent attacks on the Others. What they don’t realize is that there are older and more dangerous forces than shifters and vampires protecting the land that belongs to the Others—and those forces are willing to do whatever is necessary to protect what is theirs…



 Chapter 1
 
Sunsday, Juin 5


The sweet blood has changed things. You have changed because of her. We are intrigued by the humans who have gathered around your Courtyard, so we will give you some time to decide how much human the terra indigene will keep.

Simon Wolfgard, leader of the Lakeside Courtyard, stared at his bedroom ceiling, the words of warning, of threat, chasing away sleep, as they had for the past few nights.

The words weren’t the only thing chasing away sleep. Procrastination was a human trait, and in this past week, he’d discovered that it had its own kind of bite. Wolves didn’t procrastinate. When the pack needed food, they went hunting. They didn’t make excuses or find some unimportant thing that didn’t need doing at that very minute. They got on with the business of taking care of the things that, in turn, took care of them.

I wanted Meg to heal from the cut she made last week. I wanted to give her time before asking her to carry some of the weight of these decisions. She’s the Trailblazer who is finding ways for other cassandra sangue to survive. She didn’t make decisions for herself or anyone else for twenty-four years, and now she’s supposed to make all these important decisions that could mean life or death for . . . who? The other blood prophets? All the humans living in Thaisia?

Growling, as if that would scare his thoughts into hiding, Simon rolled over, closed his eyes, and pushed his face into his pillow, determined to get a little more sleep. But the thoughts were excellent hunters and devoured sleep.

We will give you some time to decide how much human the terra indigene will keep.

For the past week, he’d made excuses to himself and the rest of the Courtyard’s Business Association, and they had let him make those excuses because none of them—not Vlad or Henry or Tess—wanted to tell Meg what was truly at stake now. But time, like Meg’s strange, fragile skin, was not something he could afford to waste.

Rolling the other way, Simon stared at the window. As he raised his head, his ears shifted to Wolf shape, pricking to better catch the sounds outside

Sparrows. Those first sleepy chirps that announced the dawn when the sky began its change from black to gray.

Morning.

Pushing aside the tangled sheet, Simon hustled into the bathroom to pee. As he washed his hands, he glanced over his shoulder. Did he need to shower? He bent his head and gave himself a sniff. He smelled like a healthy Wolf. So he would shower later when he’d have to deal with more than the one human who was his special friend. Besides, she wouldn’t be taking a shower either.

He took a step away from the sink, then stopped. Skipping a shower was one thing, but the human mouth in the morning produced scents strong enough to discourage close contact.

Loading toothpaste onto his toothbrush, Simon studied his reflection while he cleaned his teeth. Dark hair that was getting shaggy—he’d need to do something about that before the Courtyard’s guests arrived. Skin that had browned a bit from working outside without a shirt on. And the amber eyes of a Wolf. Human skin or Wolf form, the eyes didn’t change.

He rinsed out his mouth and started to put the toothbrush back in the medicine chest above the sink. Then he looked at his reflection and lifted his lips to reveal his teeth.

No, the eyes didn’t change when he shifted to Wolf, but . . .

Shifting his head to Wolf form, he loaded the toothbrush with toothpaste a second time and brushed the other, better, set of teeth. Then he growled because a Wolf’s mouth wasn’t designed to rinse and spit. He ended up leaning over the sink and pouring cups of water over his teeth and tongue so no one would think he was foaming at the mouth.

“Next time I’m just chewing a twig as usual,” he grumbled when he shifted back to fully human.

Returning to the bedroom, he pulled on jeans and a T-shirt. Then he stepped to the window and put his face close to the screen. Cool enough outside for socks and sneakers—and a sweatshirt since they would be walking at Meg’s speed, not his.

He finished dressing, then grabbed his keys out of the dish on his dresser and went out the door in his apartment that opened onto the back hallway he shared with Meg. He unlocked her kitchen door and opened it carefully. Sometimes she used the slide lock as extra security, and breaking her door by accident would just cause trouble.

He’d caused enough trouble the time he’d broken the door on purpose.

No slide lock. Good.

Simon slipped into Meg’s kitchen and quietly closed the door. Then he headed for her bedroom.

A light breeze coming through the partially opened window played with the summer curtains the female pack—Meg’s human friends—had helped her purchase and hang. The morning light also came through the window, giving him a clear look at the woman curled up under the covers.

Was she cold? If he’d stayed with her last night, she wouldn’t be cold.

“Meg?” Cautious, because she could kick like a moose when she was scared, he gave her shoulder a little push. “Time to wake up, Meg.”

She grunted and burrowed under the covers until only the top of her head showed.

Wrong response.

Holding out one hand to block a potential kick, Simon laid the other hand on her hip and bounced her against the mattress a couple of times.

“What? What?” Meg struggled to sit up, so he obligingly grabbed her arm and pulled.

“Time to wake up.”

“Simon?” She turned her head and blinked at the window. “It’s still dark.” She flopped down on the bed and tried to pull up the covers.

He grabbed the covers, and the brief game of tug had her sitting upright again.

“It’s not dark; it’s just early,” he said. “Come on, Meg. We’ll take a walk.”

“It’s not morning. The alarm clock didn’t go off.”

“You don’t need an alarm clock. You’ve got sparrows, and they say it’s morning.”

When she didn’t respond, Simon hauled her to her feet and steered her out the bedroom door and down the hallway to the bathroom.

“Are you awake enough to pee and brush your teeth?”

She closed the door in his face.

Taking that as a yes, Simon returned to Meg’s bedroom and pulled out the clothes she would need. Most of the clothes. Apparently a male wasn’t supposed to take a female’s underclothes out of a drawer unless he was mated to that female. And males weren’t supposed to see the underclothes unless females wanted the underclothes to be seen.

He didn’t understand why everyone fussed about taking clean clothes out of a drawer. Underclothes smelled a lot more interesting after the female wore them.

Probably not something human females wanted to know.

While he waited, he made up the bed, more to discourage Meg from falling back into it than because he wanted to tidy the room. Besides, running his hands over the sheets and breathing in her scent made him happy.

Why had he thought sleeping in his human form last night was a good idea, especially when it meant sleeping alone? If he had shifted to his Wolf form as he usually did, he could have stayed with Meg, could have curled up next to her in her bed.

All right, he hadn’t thought staying in human form overnight was a good idea, just a necessary exercise. Six Wolves from the Addirondak packs were coming to the Lakeside Courtyard next week to experience interacting with humans in ways they couldn’t in their own territory. Three were adults who were already dealing with the humans who lived in towns located in and around the Addirondak Mountains. The other three were juveniles who had completed their first year of the human-centric education that would train them to keep watch over the humans living in Thaisia.

Keeping watch to make sure humans kept to the agreements their ancestors had made with the terra indigene was dangerous work. The Others might refer to humans as clever meat—and they were—but they were also invading predators who grabbed territory whenever they could. And despite what their government officials said, humans weren’t really concerned with the overall well-being of their kind. Humans belonging to the Humans First and Last movement had howled about a food shortage in Thaisia and said the terra indigene had caused it. But it was the HFL humans who had sold the surplus stores of food to the Cel-Romano Alliance of Nations for profit and then lied about it. Those lies had spurred a fight in Lakeside that resulted in the deaths of police officer Lawrence MacDonald and Crystal Crowgard. By doing those things, humans had drawn the attention of terra indigene who usually stayed away from human-controlled places while their intentions were benevolent.

Those earth natives, who lived deep in the wild country, had decided that the humans living in Thaisia had committed a breach of trust, and all agreements between humans and the Others might be rescinded. Probably would be rescinded. Already there were restrictions on what kind of cargo could be carried by ships traveling on the Great Lakes. There were restrictions on what kind of human could travel from one human city to another. The human governments that oversaw human concerns on a regional level were reeling from the sanctions. If ships couldn’t carry food and merchandise from one region to another, if trains couldn’t carry food and fuel to cities that needed both, what would happen to all the humans living on the continent?

If the humans who were supposed to be in charge had paid any attention to Thaisia’s history, they would know what would happen to the humans. The invasive, two-legged predators would be eliminated, and the land would be reclaimed by the earth natives, the terra indigene, the Others.

But that wouldn’t be as easy to do as it had been a few centuries ago. Then, there was little that the humans built or used that would harm the land if left to decay on its own. Now there were refineries that processed the crude oil being drawn out of the earth. Now there were places that stored fuel. Now there were industries that might damage the land if left untended. How much would be harmed if those things were destroyed or abandoned?

Simon had no answers, and the terra indigene who watched over the wild country—the dangerous, primal beings who cloaked their true terra indigene nature in forms so old those shapes had no names—would not be concerned with answers. Even if everything else disappeared from the world to make room for the new that would be born from destruction and change, they would still exist.

The terra indigene shifters like the Wolves and Bears, the Hawks and Crows, referred to those forms as the Elders, a benevolent-sounding word for the beings who were Namid’s teeth and claws.

Meg returned from the bathroom, looking a little more awake and a lot less happy to see him. She was going to be more unhappy when she found out why he wanted to take this walk.

“Get dressed, Meg. We need to talk.”

She pointed at the bedroom door.

He was the leader of the Courtyard and she was an employee of the Courtyard, so she shouldn’t be allowed to give him orders, even nonverbal ones. But he was learning that, when dealing with humans, pack order wasn’t always maintained inside the den. Which meant Meg was dominant in her den and could disregard that he was dominant everywhere else.

He left the room and closed the door, then pressed his ear against the wood. Drawers opening, drawers closing. Movement.

“Stop hovering, Simon.”

She sounded annoyed instead of sleepy. Having sufficiently poked the porcupine, so to speak, he went back to her kitchen and checked out her cupboards and fridge to make sure she had enough people food. Half a quart of milk; a couple of bites of cheese—maybe more in terms of human bites; a small bowl of strawberries—her share of the berries she and Henry Beargard had picked yesterday; a wrapped half a sandwich from A Little Bite, the Courtyard’s coffee shop.

Her cupboard had a canning jar of peaches, a jar of spaghetti sauce, and a box of spaghetti.

“If you’re poking around for leftover pizza, I ate it last night,” Meg said, entering the kitchen.

Simon closed the cupboard. Was this a typical amount of food for humans to store in the warmer months? He didn’t have more than this in his kitchen, but he usually chased down his meal and ate it fresh, so other foods were just supplements that he enjoyed for taste and were good for the human form.

“Did you want something to eat?” Meg asked.

“Later.” Leaving her kitchen, he went down the back stairs that led to the outer door, confident that she would follow him. Once outside, he took her hand, linking his fingers with hers, a form of contact and connection they’d started a week ago after she’d spoken prophecy about the River Road Community.

“The grass is wet,” Meg said. “Shouldn’t we walk on the road?”

Simon shook his head. This morning the road, which was wide enough for a vehicle and formed a circle inside the Courtyard, felt too human.

How to start? What to say?

They passed the expanded kitchen garden for the Green Complex, the only multispecies complex in the Courtyard. As a way to help the humans who were working for the Courtyard, the Others had agreed to let those humans share in the harvest if they did their share of the work. There was at least one human checking the garden every day, making sure the plants had enough water—and the females especially had eyes like a Hawk’s when it came to spotting a weed.

He spotted a scrap of fur at the edge of the garden but didn’t point it out to Meg. Something had come by to nibble on the seedlings and had ended up being someone’s dinner.

“You wanted to talk,” Meg said. “Is this about the sanctions? The Lakeside News has printed a lot of articles about the restrictions humans have to obey now.”

“A lot of howling for trouble they brought on themselves,” Simon growled.

“People are scared. They don’t know what the sanctions mean for their families.”

“Trust humans to try to build a beaver dam out of a couple of twigs. The sanctions are simple enough. Any human who belongs to the Humans First and Last movement is not allowed to travel on any right-of-way through the wild country. That means no roads, no trains.”

“Boat?”

Simon shook his head. “All the water in Thaisia belongs to the terra indigene. Ships on the lakes and rivers travel on sufferance. Always have.” And the Elementals known as the Five Sisters had already said that any ship that traveled the Great Lakes without their consent wouldn’t reach port. Well, the ship might, but the crew wouldn’t. After all, sinking the ship would soil the lake with all that fuel and debris. More likely, the ship would be set adrift after the easily transferred cargo had been removed. And the crew would become meals for the terra indigene doing the work of taking a human annoyance off the water.

“What about food?” Meg asked. “The newspapers and television reports said food can’t be transported from one region to another.”

“Either they’re lying to cause trouble or they were too busy yelling about it to listen.” As far as the Others were concerned, not listening was a big reason why humans, as a species, ended up needing harsh lessons: they refused to understand the warning nips. “Look, Meg, the buying and selling of foods and merchandise among the Simple Life folk, the Intuits, and the terra indigene isn’t going to change, and that includes all human settlements that are controlled by us. Any food coming from human-controlled farms has to be approved by Intuit and terra indigene inspectors before it’s allowed to cross from one region to another. We’re doing that to make sure humans can’t lie again about food shortages here while they’re selling that food to humans in another part of the world.” He huffed out a breath. “But that’s not what we need to talk about. This Courtyard—actually, a select group within this Courtyard—has been given a duty by the Elders, the earth natives who watch over the wild country. And that select group includes you because you’re the one who changed things.”

“Me?” Meg’s legs stuttered. “What did I do?”

Simon smiled. “You’re you.”

Meg Corbyn, Human Liaison for the Lakeside Courtyard, was a cassandra sangue, a blood prophet who saw visions when her skin was cut. She had stumbled into Howling Good Reads during a snowstorm, looking for work, on the run from the man who had owned her and had cut her for profit. As vulnerable and inexperienced as a puppy, she had worked hard to learn her job as Human Liaison and also worked just as hard to learn how to live. Some of the humans who worked for the Courtyard rallied around her, helping her, teaching her, even protecting her. And that changed the relationship those humans had with the Others.

Simon’s smiled faded. “How much human will the terra indigene keep? That’s what we have to figure out.”

Meg stopped walking. “What does that mean?”

“That’s the other thing we have to figure out.” He tugged on her hand to get her moving again, but she just stared at him, her gray eyes the same color as the morning sky.

“How much human will you keep? What are you supposed to decide? If the terra indigene in human form get to keep things like fingers and thumbs? Because fingers and thumbs are really useful. Henry is a sculptor. He wouldn’t want to do without them. Neither would you.”

Simon studied her. Maybe human brains really did take longer to wake up than terra indigene brains. When he woke up, he was awake. He yawned, he stretched, and he was ready to play or hunt or even deal with the human work generated by the Business Association and Howling Good Reads, the bookstore he ran with Vladimir Sanguinati. Even though Meg was a special breed of human, apparently her brain didn’t have a speedy wake-up button.

But he slept with her most nights, and he knew she wasn’t usually this slow. So maybe sparrows were a sufficient call to morning for the body but the brain needed the mechanical alarm clock? Or maybe it was a difference between human males and females? He’d have to ask Karl Kowalski, who was Ruthie Stuart’s mate as well as one of the police officers assigned to working with the Courtyard.

He started walking again and pulled Meg along for a couple of steps before she moved on her own.

“It’s not about the shell.” Simon thumped his chest with the fingers of one hand. Then, because this was Meg and they were learning together about a lot of things that involved humans, he told her more than he would have told another human—he told her his own fears. “In a way, it is about the shell. Namid shaped the earth natives to be her dominant predators, and we continue to be dominant because we learn from the other predators who walk in our world. We take their forms to blend in and watch them, learn how they hunt, how they live. We absorb a lot of their nature just by living in that form. Not everything. We are first, and always, earth natives. But because the animal forms have become a part of what is passed down to our young, a terra indigene Wolf isn’t the same anymore as a terra indigene Bear or Hawk or Crow. Those forms have been around for a long time—and forms like the Sharkgard have been around even longer.”

They walked in silence for a minute.

“Are you afraid of becoming too human?” Meg asked.

“Yes.”

“Well, you won’t,” she said fiercely, squeezing his fingers. “You’re a Wolf, and even when you’re not a wolfy-looking Wolf, you’re still a Wolf. You’ve said so. Looking human or running a bookstore won’t change that.”

Simon thought about what she was saying under what she was saying.

Meg didn’t want him to be more human. She needed him to remain a Wolf. Because Meg trusted the Wolf in ways she didn’t trust a human male.

He felt a lightness inside him that hadn’t been there a minute ago. Working in a Courtyard, especially for the terra indigene who had to spend so much time around humans, was a danger because there was always the risk of absorbing too much of the human form and no longer fitting in with your own kind. That had worried him, more so lately as his exposure to humans became personal. But Meg wouldn’t allow him to become too human because she needed him to retain the nature and heart of a Wolf.

He slanted a glance at her, with her clear gray eyes, and fair skin with those rose-tinted cheeks, and that thick black hair that was cropped so short it felt like puppy fuzz. Short and slim, and gaining some visible muscle beneath that fragile skin.

How much human would be too human for Meg?

Simon shook off the thought. He had enough challenges at the moment.

“You don’t have to be afraid of what you might absorb from our human friends,” Meg said quietly. “They’re good people.”

“How do you know?”

“I’ve known the bad kind of people.” A grim reminder of the place where she’d been raised and trained and cut for profit.

He nodded to let her know he’d heard her. “We should consider what we’d like to keep, what we would be willing to make for ourselves if humans weren’t around.”

She gave him a sharp look, and her voice trembled when she said, “Are humans going to go away?”

“Maybe.” He didn’t say extinct. Meg was smart enough to hear the word anyway. And he didn’t tell her that the Lakeside Courtyard was the reason the Elders hadn’t already made that decision about the humans living on the continent of Thaisia.

“Can I talk to Ruth and Merri Lee and Theral about this?”

“They’re human, Meg. They’re going to want to keep everything.”

“There are a lot of things humans need that I don’t know about. I spent twenty-four years living in a compound as property, living in a cell once I was old enough to be by myself, and I don’t remember how the girls lived before being old enough to begin training. And you know what the Courtyard needs, but surely that isn’t everything either.”

“By the agreements with humans, a Courtyard is supposed to have whatever the humans in that city have, so if it’s not in the Courtyard, humans don’t really need it.” That was a thin-ice kind of truth that wouldn’t hold any weight if put to the test, and they both knew it. “Besides, if you tell the female pack, Ruthie and Merri Lee will tell their mates, who are police.”

“Who are around a lot and are helpful,” Meg countered.

He couldn’t argue with that. Karl Kowalski and Michael Debany were making an effort to understand the terra indigene and were likeable males, even if they were human. And Lawrence MacDonald, another police officer and Theral’s cousin, had died recently when a group of humans and Others went to a stall market in Lakeside to give the Crowgard a chance to buy some shinies and little treasures. That field trip ended when their group was attacked by members of the Humans First and Last movement. Almost everyone except Vlad had been wounded during the fight, and MacDonald and Crystal Crowgard had died.

“You should also ask Steve Ferryman for his suggestions,” Meg said.

“Meg . . .”

“Those Elders didn’t tell you that you couldn’t ask humans, did they?”

He sighed. “No, they didn’t, but we have to be careful about how many humans know about this. The humans who belong to the HFL are our enemies. They’re burrowed in towns all across Thaisia, and they’re the reason the Elders are looking at all the humans on the continent rather than eliminating the badness in one town and reclaiming the land.”

Of course, he’d already told three humans what was now at stake. He believed Captain Burke and Lieutenant Montgomery could be trusted, but he hadn’t known the third man who had been at the meeting when he told them about the sanctions. Greg O’Sullivan worked for the governor of the Northeast Region, so it was possible that there were already enemies of the terra indigene who were plotting to cause the final bit of trouble that would tip the scales.

If that happened, it wouldn’t be the first time humans disappeared from a part of the world, and Simon doubted it would be the last.

And because that possibility was a rockslide waiting to come down on all of them, it became more imperative to figure out how much human the terra indigene should keep.

“All right,” he said. “Talk to the female pack. But make sure they know this is dangerous information.”

“I will.” Meg stopped suddenly and whispered, “Bunny.”

Bunny? Simon’s mouth watered. Not that he had a good chance of catching one in his human form. He looked around. Smelled the bunny but couldn’t see one. Then he realized Meg was staring at a brown lump in the grass a long step away from them. Could have been a rock or a bit of tree root poking out of the ground—but those things didn’t have ears.

He sighed, disappointed. Just a one-bite bunny.

Meg backed away, pulling him with her.

“Isn’t he cute?” she whispered, heading back toward the Green Complex.

“You won’t think he’s so cute if he eats all your broccoli,” Simon said.

“He wouldn’t do that. Would he?”

“Broccoli is green, and he’s a bunny.”

Meg huffed as she picked up the pace. “Well, he’s still cute.”

And probably would be allowed to grow since he wasn’t much of a meal for anyone right now.

Simon didn’t mention that since he suspected that Meg preferred to think of the bunny as cute rather than crunchy.



A scene from Chapter 2


Lieutenant Crispin James Montgomery paid the cab driver, then turned to study the duplex that belonged to Captain Douglas Burke. Nothing to distinguish it from its neighbors, which had neatly kept yards and other signs that the people living there were what his mother called house proud—a compliment when Twyla Montgomery said it.

He hadn’t been to his captain’s home in the six months he’d lived in Lakeside. What little he knew about Burke outside of the office made him think the man didn’t do much entertaining—and any entertaining he did do was handled in a public venue. This wasn’t a social gathering either, not when they were meeting before their shift at the Chestnut Street Police Station to discuss things Burke wanted kept outside the station.

As he reached the front door and rang the bell, a car pulled into the driveway. Officers Karl Kowalski and Michael Debany, two members of his team, got out and hurried to join him just as the door opened.

“Lieutenant,” Kowalski said, giving Monty a nod before looking at the man filling the doorway. “Captain.”

Douglas Burke was a big man, an imposing figure with blue eyes that usually held a fierce kind of friendliness. His clothes were always pressed, and the dark hair below his bald pate was always neatly trimmed. Never having seen him outside of the job, Monty couldn’t picture the man in anything but a suit, couldn’t see him wearing jeans and a ratty pullover to mow the lawn or dig in the flower beds. In fact, the lack of the suit coat and the rolled-up sleeves were as close to casual dress as Monty had ever seen.

“Come in, gentlemen.” Burke stepped aside, allowing them to enter. “We’re in the dining room. Help yourself to coffee and pastries.”

Monty glanced at the living room as he followed Burke. It looked masculine, comfortable, and minimal. He wouldn’t be surprised if the furniture, what there was of it, was high quality, maybe even antiques.

Not a room that welcomed children.

Not so odd a thought since Monty’s seven-year-old daughter, Lizzy, had arrived in Lakeside last month and was now living with him. All the secrets Lizzy had brought with her to Toland had been revealed, and she was safe from whoever had killed her mother. But that still put him in the position of having to figure out how to be a single parent and a police officer. For now, Eve Denby, the new property manager for the Lakeside Courtyard, was willing to look after Lizzy along with her own two children.

Monty walked into the dining room and hesitated when he spotted Louis Gresh and Pete Denby sitting at the dining room table, filling small plates with pastries and fresh strawberries. He wasn’t surprised that they had become part of Burke’s trusted circle.

The real surprise was the other man sitting at the table.

A toilet flushed, water ran, and then another man joined them. Shorter, leaner, and younger than Burke, the man had a full head of slightly curly, medium brown hair—but the fierce-friendly look in the blue eyes was similar enough to say family.

“Gentlemen, this is Shamus David Burke, a relative of mine who’s visiting from Brittania. He’s in law enforcement over there, so I thought his insights might be useful. Shady, this is Lieutenant Crispin James Montgomery and his officers, Karl Kowalski and Michael Debany. They handle most of the interaction with the Lakeside Courtyard. The man carefully inspecting that pastry is Commander Louis Gresh, who’s in charge of the bomb squad. The pastries are fresh, Commander. Nothing for you to worry about.”

“That you don’t check food for unwelcome surprises just proves you’ve never had children,” Louis replied. He bit into the pastry and chewed with care.

“The other man poking at his food is Pete Denby, an attorney who recently relocated from the Midwest Region.”

“Who also has children,” Pete said, smiling.

“And the only man unconnected to law enforcement is Dr. Dominic Lorenzo, who is currently working on the governor’s task force to assist the cassandra sangue in this part of the Northeast Region.” Burke waited until they were all seated. Then he folded his hands and rested them on the dining room table. “Lieutenant Montgomery already knows what’s at stake. Before we discuss anything, you all need to understand that you can’t share this information with anyone, for any reason. Not friends, not family, not colleagues. If you can’t agree to that, walk away now because . . .”

“Because everyone in Lakeside will be at risk,” Lorenzo said, sounding irritable. “Same song, different day.”

“Actually, every human on the continent of Thaisia will be at risk,” Burke said, the mild voice at odds with the bright fierceness in his eyes.

Silence. Then, matching Burke’s mild tone, Shady said, “Are we talking about extinction, Douglas?”

Burke nodded.

Lorenzo swallowed hard. Pete pushed aside the plate with the pastry.

Louis let out a shuddering breath. “Gods above and below, talk about a bomb. What are the odds that we’re going to lose control of this?”

“About even,” Burke replied. “Maybe less.”

Monty looked at his men. “This isn’t a surprise to you.”

“Not really,” Kowalski said. “We’ve noticed—”

Burke raised a hand. “Let’s be clear about who is staying before we get into this.” He looked at Lorenzo.

Lorenzo thought for a moment, then pushed his chair back and stood. “I’m carrying enough secrets. You need to keep what you know within a tight circle, and I’m no longer sure when someone asks me questions about the Lakeside Courtyard or about blood prophets if they’re asking out of curiosity, out of professional necessity, or because they’re a member of the Humans First and Last movement trying to ferret out information that can be used against the Others. When I have to travel for the task force, I’m traveling alone. It would be too easy to be waylaid and . . . interrogated.”

Monty wanted someone to make a joke, to say that Lorenzo was building a plot worthy of a thriller with talk of interrogations. But no one made a joke—mostly because Pete Denby had been run off the road, presumably by members of the HFL, when he’d packed up his family and bolted for Lakeside after helping Burke uncover information about a man called the Controller.

“Understood.” Burke hesitated. “Ask Simon Wolfgard for a free pass through the wild country. I think he’ll know what that means. Roads that you’ll find on a map are roads humans can use. But there are unmarked roads that lead to places humans should not go. If you think you’re being followed, turn down one of those unmarked roads, roll down a window and start shouting, honk the horn, do anything to gain the attention of the terra indigene before other humans catch up to you. Under those circumstances, you have a better chance of surviving an encounter with the Others than with humans.”

Lorenzo nodded. “Good luck.” He started to walk out of the room, then stopped. “If any of you should need discrete medical attention, you can count on me to not ask questions.”

“Appreciate that,” Burke said.

They waited until Lorenzo closed the front door. Waited a little longer, listening to the car start in the driveway attached to the other half of the duplex.

“Anyone else?” Burke asked. They all shook their heads. “Then let’s start local and work up to the end of the world as we know it. Lieutenant? You have anything to report?”

Monty poured coffee he didn’t want in order to give himself a little time. “The Courtyard took possession of the two-family house on Crowfield Avenue. The deal is done, the previous owner has been paid, and the Denbys will be moving in soon. So will Karl and Ruthie.”

Pete nodded. “Yesterday the owner of the stone apartment buildings on either side of the double accepted the Courtyard’s offer for those dwellings. Since the Business Association is planning to pay cash for those buildings, I expect we’ll be able to expedite the paperwork and take possession by the end of the month. The apartments in those buildings have two bedrooms, Lieutenant. Something to think about with Lizzy being here for good.”

Monty had considered whether he’d take one of the apartments if Simon Wolfgard offered it. Lots of practical reasons to accept—and reasons to keep some distance from the Others. For one thing, there wouldn’t be much division between work and home if he lived across the street from the Courtyard and had Kowalski and Denby—and probably Debany as well—for next-door neighbors.

But they would be good neighbors, he thought. And police living so close to the Courtyard might be a deterrent to trouble. But none of us are talking about where the children will go to school next year—assuming they’ll be safe going to a city-run school, or even a private one run by humans. After all, anyone living in a building owned by the Others will be considered a Wolf lover, and prejudice is mounting against anyone who supports working with the terra indigene in any way.

He and Lizzy needed a different place to live, and he would have to weigh the pros and cons carefully before making a decision. But that would have to wait.

“Next?” Burke asked.

“The Courtyard’s first guests are arriving next week,” Kowalski said. “Some Wolves from the Addirondak Mountains packs. No one mentioned other kinds of terra indigene coming in at the same time. Michael and I got the impression that we were expected to be visible in the stores and around the Market Square, at least for a little while each day.”

“They’re coming to interact with humans,” Monty said. “It makes sense Wolfgard would want to have you around.”

“Is this an invitation-only sort of thing?” Shady asked. “I’ve never seen a Courtyard or had a casual interaction with one of the terra indigene. I’d like the opportunity. The dealings I had with a few of the Others when some of the cassandra sangue were . . . channeled . . . to Brittania were tense experiences for all the humans who were helping with the rescue. Except for the people who live along the border or the coast, most of Brittania’s citizens have never come in contact with the Others. Considering what is going on in the world right now, I’d like some firsthand experience in a less life-and-death situation.”

Catching Burke’s look, Monty said, “I’ll ask Simon Wolfgard about allowing us to bring in guests.”

“Anything of concern about the folks on Great Island or information about the River Road Community?” Burke asked.

“No, sir,” Monty replied. Shady would be the only person at the table who didn’t notice the omission of Talulah Falls, a town that was no longer under human control after a bomb killed several Crows and a Sanguinati was killed while hunting for the humans responsible for the explosion.

“Then let’s talk about the main event since Shady gave away the punch line,” Burke said quietly.

“Extinction.” Pete looked grim. “The Others are serious about this?”

“Because of the recent troubles, the earth natives in the wild country are considering extinction as a way to rid Thaisia of a menace to the land and a threat to the rest of the beings that were here before our ancestors set foot on this continent.”

“But we’ve tried to help,” Louis protested. “Monty and his team have been sticking their necks out every day to interact with the Others in the Courtyard. Gods, one of our own was killed during that attack at the stall market. Doesn’t that count for something?”

“It counts,” Monty said. “The time we spend in the Courtyard, the help we’ve provided . . . We’re the reason the humans in Thaisia aren’t going to be erased from this continent.”

“Not yet anyway,” Burke added. “One Courtyard and some police officers and civilians to balance out whatever stupidity the HFL movement is planning next. And let’s be clear about who will be erased, as the lieutenant put it. I think Intuit villages will be spared. So will Simple Life farmers and craftsmen. As much as possible, they keep themselves separated from the humans living in human-controlled towns and cities, and they’ve been careful in their dealings with the terra indigene. And I think the Others will still need some humans—if nothing else, to provide labor for the products they want to have.”

“That leaves the rest of us,” Pete said.

“That leaves the rest of us,” Burke agreed.

“If you’ll pardon me for saying it, you’re all screwed,” Shady said. He poured cream into his cup and then filled it with coffee from the pot sitting on a thick cloth pad. “You should start laying in supplies while you can and start thinking about how to survive.”

“Is it definite?” Burke asked. “Is the Cel-Romano Alliance of Nations going to war?”

“They are. And not among themselves, which, frankly, is what the people of Brittania were hoping they would do. They’ve been stockpiling food and weapons and supplies for a while, but now the signs are out in the open, with troops being transported around the Mediterran. They don’t have enough land to grow the food they need to feed all their people. That’s the truth of it. So the question we’ve been asking is this: is Cel-Romano going to try to grab the human part of Brittania, since we’re the closest piece of human land to them, or are they going to try to annex some of the wild country, gambling that they have the kind of weaponry now that will eliminate the shifters who currently inhabit that land?”

“The shifters wouldn’t be the only earth natives living on that land,” Monty said.

Shady nodded. “I know that. Most people in Brittania may not have dealings with them, but we are taught the history of our land, so we know why very few humans go past the low stone wall that runs the width of the island and separates the land the world itself gifted to us from Wild Brittania. Just like we know that the tales told by the traders who do venture beyond that wall and return alive aren’t embellished.”

“If Cel-Romano is trying for a land grab, why cause trouble on this side of the Atlantik?” Kowalski asked. “Cel-Romano can’t bring an army across the ocean.”

“No, indeed,” Shady said. “Even a fishing boat is carefully watched. Troop ships would never be allowed to reach land.”

“Food was smuggled out of Thaisia,” Burke said. “Troops could be smuggled in. If offered enough money, ship captains will try to slip past whatever is watching.”

“None of this addresses the threat of extinction,” Monty said.

“There’s nothing we can do about that, Lieutenant,” Burke said gently. “We just keep the lines of communication open. We provide assistance where and when we can. And we hope that we continue to balance whatever foolishness other humans instigate.” He looked around the table. “Anything else?”

Michael Debany shifted in his chair. “Captain, you said the information shouldn’t leave this room. Does that mean not saying anything to the girls because . . .” He looked at Kowalski. “They’re meeting with Meg this morning, so they might know about this anyway.”

“I don’t think Wolfgard told Ms. Corbyn about the earth natives’ decision,” Monty said. “But he may have shared something else with her that he didn’t share with us.”

“Need to know, gentlemen,” Burke said. “For now, that excludes the girls. Next week, the Courtyard will have guests, and the girls don’t need to be wondering about every word or gesture, afraid that it will be the thing that tips the scales against us.”

“So business as usual,” Louis said.

“Yes.” Burke pushed away from the table. “If that’s all . . .”

A dismissal.

Monty caught a ride with Louis to the station, which allowed Kowalski and Debany to talk between themselves on the way back to the Courtyard, where Debany would put in a few hours helping Eve Denby and the girls before reporting to work.

“Have you talked to Officer Debany about a new partner?” Louis asked.

“Not yet,” Monty replied. “Even with the hazard pay that comes with working on this team, no one has made a request to be the fourth man.”

“Well, it’s not just dealing with humans who want to start trouble, is it? Anyone on your team is expected to interact and spend time in the Courtyard during off-duty hours. Even officers who won’t hesitate to back you up are going to think long and hard about that.”

“About being branded as Wolf lovers.”

“It’s not just the man who gets branded,” Louis said quietly. “And it’s not just people who interact with the Others on a daily basis. My wife and a neighbor—a woman she’s been friends with for years—went shopping the other day. Carpooled to save gas. They parked in the general area of the shops. Two butcher shops, two blocks apart. One was showing an HFL sign in the window; the other shop doesn’t support the movement. My wife’s friend went to the shop with the HFL sign—a place where you have to show your HFL membership in order to be served. My wife went to the other shop because we’ve agreed that we aren’t going to be a part of the HFL in any way.”

“What happened?” Monty asked.

“The friend didn’t say anything, but the car was gone when my wife finished her shopping and returned to where they’d parked. The woman, friend and neighbor, just left without her and hasn’t spoken to her since. Gods, they used to watch each other’s kids, used to have a night out once in a while—dinner and a movie that the husbands and kids didn’t want to see. And now . . .”

“The lines are being drawn.”

“Yes. I just hope there are enough of us standing on this side when the time comes to hold that line.”

Monty looked out the window and didn’t reply.


Excerpt (from chapter six)


Vlad leaned against the doorway of HGR’s upstairs office. “Could you stop waking up Meg so early in the morning? Some of us would like to sleep a bit longer.”
Simon bared his teeth. “I didn’t wake her up this morning. She woke me.” He turned on the computer. Everyone who lived in the Green Complex was getting an early start this morning—and everyone was so quick to blame him.
It wasn’t his fault. One moment he was happily asleep; the next, Meg screamed and threw herself on top of him, startling him enough that he yelped. Loudly. And since the windows were open, and since terra indigene all had excellent hearing, the scream and yelp had brought the rest of the Green Complex’s residents running to find out what was wrong.
Vlad approached the desk. “She just had a dream? You’re sure she wasn’t cut, even by accident?”
“No cuts. No broken skin.”
“You’re sure?”
Simon nodded. Before Henry Beargard pounded on Meg’s front door and Vlad, in the Sanguinati’s smoke form, flowed through the screened bedroom window, Simon had planted a paw on Meg’s back and given her a quick but thorough sniff to make sure there wasn’t any blood.
Not that he was going to mention that to anyone.
“You’re not starting the day that much earlier,” Simon growled. “And you were the one who said we needed to get our book orders in today to make sure the store was fully stocked when the Addirondak Wolves arrived next week.”
“Fine. I’ll start on those, and you can…”
The phone rang. Simon grabbed the receiver on the second ring. “Howling Good Reads.”
“Simon? It’s Jackson. We need to talk to Meg.”
Simon looked at Vlad. <Get Meg. Now.>
Vlad opened the office’s back window, shifted to smoke form, and flowed down the side of the building—the fastest way to reach the back of the Liaison’s Office.
“Vlad is fetching her,” Simon said. “Is the pack all right? Are you?”
“Yes. Look, we have the phone on the speaker thing. Grace and Hope are with me.” Since Jackson had finished the sentence with a snarl and needed to talk to Meg, it was easy to figure out who had caused trouble for the Sweetwater pack.
Footsteps on the stairs. Then Meg rushed into the office.
“Simon?” She sounded a little breathless. He was going to have to chase her more to build up her lungs. “Vlad said—”
Simon waved her toward the desk. When she hesitated, Vlad gently gripped her shoulders and steered her behind the desk.
“Jackson?” Simon said. “I’m going to put you on speaker now that Meg is here.”
“Meg?” A timid female voice.
Meg sat in the chair, so Simon leaned a hip on the desk while Vlad stood to one side.
“Yes, this is Meg.”
“Tell her why she was a bad puppy!”
Hearing anguish beneath Jackson’s anger, Simon’s canines lengthened in sympathy. He poked Meg’s shoulder. “Yeah, Meg. Tell her why she was a bad puppy.”
Vlad gave him a sharp look.
“I just needed the color!” A wail.
“I remember you,” Meg said, pretending she hadn’t heard his comment. “You were called cs821.”
“Yes.”
“Did you choose a name for yourself?”
“Hope.” A sniffle. “Hope Wolfsong.”
“That’s a wonderful name.”
<After being snarled at today, I wonder if that will be her name tomorrow,> Vlad said, sounding amused.
But not really amused, Simon decided after studying the Sanguinati. There was nothing amusing about a cassandra sangue using a razor.
“You liked colors, liked to draw,” Meg continued.
“Yes. I’m allowed to draw now. Or I was.”
Poor puppy, Simon thought. She sounded scared. But he would still take Jackson’s side because the Wolf was probably scared too.
“You drew a picture,” Meg prompted.
“Yes.”
“And then you cut yourself, using the razor?”
“Yes. No. I wasn’t trying to cut, I just needed that shade of red.”
Simon poked Meg’s shoulder again. “Tell her the rules.” He raised his voice, even though Jackson could hear him just fine. “There are rules.”
Meg stared at him and bared her teeth.
Vlad muffled a laugh.
Meg leaned toward the phone. “Hope? Is this the first time you’ve cut since you left the compound?”
“Not exactly.”
“The first time with the razor?”
“Yes.”
“Well, Simon is right; there are rules.”
“Told you,” he said quietly.
Meg huffed. “Hope, sooner or later, cutting will kill you. You know that, don’t you?”
A whispered, “Yes.”
“Cutting is about revealing prophecy, and the euphoria that we feel when we cut is our bodies’ way of protecting our minds from what we see. The only way we can remember the visions is to swallow prophecy—if we don’t speak, if we don’t describe what we see, we’ll remember it.”
“I can see my drawings,” Hope said.
Meg nodded even though Hope couldn’t see her. “It’s different for you. But your drawings also mean you don’t have to cut to release the visions of prophecy.”
“I made a drawing for you.”
Meg leaned back. “About me?”
“No. Yes.”


Quotes