Wait. Doolittle was loyal to Curran. He'd give her up in a minute. And then the Pack would test her to ensure she wasn't a loup and then she would have to confront Curran. You can't be loyal to Curran and the Order at the same time. The second her shapeshifter status was discovered, she'd be expelled from the Order. Andrea lived and breathed the Order. I might as well let her die.

But if I did nothing, she would die, as well.

Doolittle was out. So was Derek. Who could I take her to?

A tremor ran through Andrea's limbs. Her right foot stretched. Bones crept forward with agonizing slowness. She moaned, her voice charged with so much pain, it sent my heart hammering. Her stomach contracted, her buttocks tightened, and then the convulsion was over and she slumped back onto the floor.

A distinct acrid stench spread through the room. I've smelled it before. A hyena.

The Keep was shared by all shapeshifters, but each clan had its own gathering place, just as each clan had its own pair of alphas. The hyenas had to have their own spot. They weren't nearly as numerous as wolves or rats, but there were enough of them to form their own little pack. I've met their leader - an older woman called Aunt B. I'd rather fight a wolf pack than cross her. She had a bun on her head and a sweet smile, and I was sure she'd be smiling just as sweetly when she tickled my liver with her claws. Hyenas and lions didn't get along. Curran recognized this. They were still his to command, but he left them enough autonomy to solve their own problems.

I had to take her to Aunt B. She was a scary bitch, but I'd rather reason with her than with Curran.

I bent over Andrea. "I'm going to take you to the hyena pack."

Her eye widened. She shuddered, moaning. "No. Can't."

"Don't argue. We have no choice."

I slid my arms under her. Lymph wet my hands. I smelled the sharp odor of urine. She probably weighed close to a hundred and thirty pounds. I locked my teeth and heaved. Her deformed arms clutched at me.

God, she was heavy.

I headed for the vault door.

When I was a child, my father made me run grueling marathons with a loaded rucksack on my back. Back then the only thing that kept me going was knowledge that the pain would eventually end. And so I murmured it to myself now, as I slowly climbed the stairs. Pain was good. Pain would end. Every moment I delayed, Andrea edged a little closer to dying.

I unloaded her into the buggy. "Julie?" I whispered.

"Boy. Shaman boy. Took Julie." Her voice died in a gurgle.

Damn it, Red. At least, without the monisto, the reeves shouldn't be able to find her. "Hang on for me. Stay alive."

I ran back inside, taking the stairs two at a time. Derek was still out like a light. I shook him. "Wake up!"

He snapped at me, his fangs scratching my hand, and instantly was up on his feet, whining in embarrassment.

"Never mind. I need help."

He followed me down and froze midway on the stairs, his hackles up, his back humped, growling and snarling.

"Derek, please. I know it smells weird, but I need your nose. Now. Please."

I coaxed him down the stairs. He gave the buggy a wide berth and looked at me.

"Can you pick up Julie's scent?"

He put his nose to the ground and jerked back as if struck. He backed away, circled the buggy, circled wider, sniffed the ground, recoiled again, and whined.

Too much wolfsbane. Red covered his scent well.

A hushed moan emanated from the cart. Julie would have to wait, because Andrea couldn't. At least I still carried the necklace. If I were right, the reeves would chase me instead of Julie. They were welcome to it. As pissed off as I was, I'd welcome an assault with open arms.

"Change of plans. Take me to the hyenas. We don't have much time. Please hurry."

Derek trotted down the street. I hopped into the driver's seat and we were off. Slow enough to make me fight against the urge to grind my teeth, but we were off.

All was not well in Atlanta. Magic sang through my bones as I piloted the cart through the rubble-framed streets as fast as the draft horse would allow. Strange things flew through the night sky, dark shapes blotting out the stars, gliding without sound. Twice we had to stop - first, to avoid a vampire patrol, four bloodsuckers in a diamond formation, and second to let a phantom translucent bear pass before us. The bear's head was crowned with horns. It looked at the buggy with mournful eyes as rivulets of transparent fire cascaded down its back in a tangled waterfall, and ambled on its way, down the street.

A ghost river ran parallel to the road, its water inky - black and dense like liquid tar. I tried to stay away from it. The things that howled and cried in the night stayed silent. Listening. Waiting. If by some miracle, the pulse of the city could be captured and played back, a single phrase would echo: "A flare is coming, a flare is coming, a flare is coming..."

Andrea's convulsions came faster now, every fifteen minutes or so. I knew when one gripped her because she let out a small pain-choked cry that made me wince.

Finally we left the city behind, heading down the familiar road past the ruined industrial district and down the overgrown highway. The night expanded, the dark sky pierced with tiny lights of stars reaching impossibly high. The colors were muted; the shadows darkened; ordinary trees, so mundane and cheerful in the light of day, twisted into gnarled monsters lying in wait for their prey. This was the way to the Keep, the fortress where the Pack gathered in times of trouble.

We passed an abandoned gas station, dark, its door missing, its windows broken. Small, gaunt creatures crawled along the windowsills and slunk in the doorway. Sickening yellow, like pus from an infected wound, they stared at us with glowing eyes and stretched their gnarled clawed hands in our direction, as if trying to rake us from a distance.

Derek trotted down the road in that lazy wolf gait that ate up miles without effort. We reached the tree line. Massive oaks hugged the road, stretching to clasp at each other with their branches. Derek stopped, raised his head to the starry sky, and howled. His cry floated into the night, lingering, haunting, full of sorrow and chilling to the bone. Announcing us. He waited for a long moment, flickered his ears, and trotted down the overgrown road under the shroud of the trees. I followed.

The buggy creaked, the beat of horse hooves steady and measured.

An eerie cackle echoed through the night. A high-pitched, deranged sound, tight like a guitar string about to snap. Lithe shapes appeared, gliding through the brush on both sides. They ran upright, gray silhouettes in the gloom, too tall and too fast to be human.

A shape leaped into the buggy and landed next to me. Red eyes shone in the dark like two stray sparks. A werehyena in half-form was a terrible thing to behold.


Tags: Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels Vampires
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