The traffic was light, almost nonexistent. Deserted streets, flooded with a yellow electric radiance, stretched before us. Few people owned cars that ran during tech. There was no need to invest in them, since it was plain that magic was gaining the upper hand.
An ancient blue Honda came to a stoplight in the left turn lane next to us. A man and a woman in the front seat were talking. I couldn't see the man except for his darkened profile, but the woman's face wore a blissful, slightly dreamy look as if she was remembering some happy moment. A small brown-haired boy sat in the backseat.
In a moment he would see the monster in my car. I braced myself for a scream.
The boy squinted and grinned. I glanced in the rearview window. The wolf-man was pretending to pant, black lips stretched in a happy canine smile. The gloom of the car hid most of his face and only the muzzle, illuminated by the outside light, and the glowing eyes were visible.
The boy mouthed something that might have been "Good dog." The light changed and the Honda drove on, vanishing into the night and carrying away the child and his parents, their reminiscing undisturbed.
We drove on, winding our way northeast toward Suwanee. It took us nearly an hour to reach the shapechanger compound and we had to leave the city behind to get there. All but invisible from the highway, the fortress sat in the middle of a clearing, defined by a dense wall of brush and oaks that looked decades older than they had any right to be. The only sign of its existence was a single-lane dirt road that veered so abruptly from the highway that I missed it despite my guide and had to double back.
The trail brought us to a small parking lot. I parked next to an old Chevy truck and held the door open for the wolf-man. He stepped out and paused in a kind of silent salute to the building. The compound loomed before us, a forbidding square building of gray stone nearly sixty feet high. Darkness pooled in the narrow arched windows, guarded by metal grates. The place looked like the keep of a castle rather than a modern fort.
The wolf-man raised his narrow muzzle and let out a long, wailing howl. Icy fingers of fear clawed their way up my spine and clutched my throat. The howl lingered, bouncing off the walls and filling the night with the promise of a long, bloody hunt. Another voice joined it from atop the keep, a third came from the side, then a fourth... All around us the sentries howled and I stood still in the whirlpool of their war cries. A bit dramatic, and yet it had the likely desired effect of turning a badass like me into just another frightened ape shivering in the darkness.
Satisfied, my guide strode toward the keep and I walked after him listening to the last echoes of the blood hymn flee into the night. The wolf-man stopped before a large metal door and knocked. The door swung open and we stepped inside, into a small chamber lighted with electric lamps.
A short woman with very curly blond hair waited for us. Some unspoken communication must have passed between her and my guide, and she looked at me. "This way, please."
I followed her through another door to a round room. A spiral staircase pierced the floor, stretching both up and down. I looked up and saw coils of stairs merging with darkness.
"This way, please," the woman repeated and led me down the stairs. We descended, making several loops, until my escort stepped into a dark side hallway. The hallway terminated in another heavy wooden door, and the woman pushed it open, motioning me inside. I stepped through.
A huge oval room lay before me, bathed in a comfortable glow of electric lights softened by opaque glass. The room sloped down gently, like a college auditorium, to culminate in a flat stage. On the left side of the stage, next to a door, fire burned brightly in a foot-wide metal brazier, its smoke sucked away into a vertical shoot. A smooth slanting path led from the doorway to the stage.
The rest of the sloping floor was terraced, segregated into five-foot-wide "steps," and on the steps, on uniform blue blankets, rested the shapechangers. Most were in a human form; some reclined by themselves; some sat together with their families, one family to a blanket, as if they had gathered for some sort of underground picnic. With a shock I realized there were more than three hundred of them. Many more.
And Curran was nowhere in sight.
The door closed behind me with a click. As one, the shapechangers turned and looked at me.
I wondered what they'd do if I asked to borrow a cup of sugar.
Behind me the door opened and two large males stepped inside, breathing down my neck. I got the message and started down the path to the stage. Ahead several males stood up from their blankets and barred the path midway down.
The welcoming committee. How nice.
I crashed to a halt before the men. "You're in my way," I said.
"Really?" The kid couldn't have been more than eighteen years old, with an open face and longish brown hair. His brown eyes laughed at me, and I knew this was a setup. And I knew who orchestrated it. They wouldn't blow their noses without Curran's say-so.
"Really," I said, knowing what was coming.
"From where I'm standing, you're in our way," an older, stocky male said. A corner of his mouth curved, trying to hide a smile. He enjoyed the game.
A tall male, shaggy with red hair, called out from his blanket, "Hey, Mik, don't you know to step aside for a lady?"
"I don't see a lady here." The stocky male leered at me.
A wave of catcalls and growling rolled through the room, so sudden it might have been choreographed. Mik kept sizing me up. Even his leer seemed rehearsed. There was no threat here, only a test of what I would do. I had to resolve it quickly and without direct violence or the Pack would never work with me. The sheer stupidity of the situation was staggering.
The males grew bolder. The kid grinned. "What do you say, baby, let's you and me go to the side and I'll show you a good time."
The group exploded with laughter - this one must have been an improvisation. The kid, pleased with himself, reached out and his fingers brushed my cheek. The moment his skin touched mine, I whispered a single word so quietly that even I couldn't hear my voice.
The word of power pulsed through my skin to his. The rush of so much magic leaving my body nearly brought me to my knees. The kid stiffened. The others did not notice, absorbed in making noise.
"That's a good one, Derek," Mik said. "I think she could take all of us on, unless you mind sharing."
I looked at the kid and said, "Protect me."
His body exploded into motion, the mist of body fluids drenching the floor. A sleek lupine shape hit the older male, knocking him off balance. Mik fell on his back, and the huge gray wolf was on top of him, fangs bared in a vicious feral snarl a hair away from his throat.