Aunt B rose, picked up the corpse, and strode outside. We followed her. She walked onto the lawn. They said something to each other, too quiet to hear, and then she lowered him into the grass and stepped away.
The trees rustled. A giant shape muscled through the trunks and trotted into the open, its three heads close to the ground. The center head sniffed Alex’s body and picked it up, clamping it in its great fangs.
“Take care of your mother, Raphael,” a ghostly voice called out.
The body burst into flames. The great dog howled and vanished.
Raphael’s eyes shone once, catching the moonlight. “Are you with me?”
“Who else will protect your furry butt?”
“I’m coming, too,” Aunt B said.
Raphael shook his head. “We’ve got this.”
Her eyes flashed with red, a precursor to an alpha stare.
“He didn’t want you involved,” Raphael said. “He asked me, not you. The clan needs you.”
“We’ve got it.” I nodded.
We turned our backs on her and headed to the Jeep. “Did we just defy your mother, who’s also your alpha?” I murmured.
“Yes, we did.”
I glanced over my shoulder and saw Aunt B standing there with a bewildered look on her face. “Let’s go faster before she realizes that.”
The magic was up and Boom Baby was useless. I took a crossbow and bolts from the Jeep and followed Raphael into the woods. He broke into a run, inhumanly fast in warrior form, and I struggled to keep up.
Half a mile later Raphael stopped. “The magic is up,” he said softly.
“You’re slower in this form.”
I had run as fast as I could. When we were both in human form, I was faster. But in warrior form, he beat me.
“You can’t keep up.”
I realized what he was saying. “No.”
“Andrea . . .”
“We’re short on time,” he said. “There’s a little boy out there with at least two vampires. We don’t even know if he’s alive.”
My heart hammered in my chest. “You don’t understand. I lose control when I’m her.”
“Andrea, please,” he said. “We’re losing time.”
I closed my eyes. He was right. We had to save the boy. We had to get the apples away from Lynn. I had to . . .
I stripped off my clothes and reached to the beast living inside me. She smiled and leapt out, flowing over my arms, my legs, my back, giving me her strength. My bones stretched, my muscles swelled, and there I stood, revealed and naked.
The shapeshifters got a choice: human, warrior form, or animal. I had only two: the human me and the secret me.
Raphael’s eyes shone with red. He ran.
I swiped up my crossbow and then dropped it. My claws were too long. I wouldn’t be able to work it. I’d have to fight with my claws and teeth. I grabbed the little toy car and hid it in my fist.
Raphael was a mere shadow in the distance. I burst into a run. It felt like flying, light and easy. My muscles welcomed the exertion and I sprinted, catching him with ease. Together we dashed through the woods, two humanoid nightmares, fast and slick, our voices faint whispers on the draft.
“I can’t see you.”
“I don’t want you to see me.” I purposely picked my way so he caught only the mere flashes of me.
“Don’t hide from me,” he asked.
I ignored him.
Suddenly he burst through the brush. I had no chance to hide. He saw all of me: my limbs, my face that was neither animal nor beast, my br**sts . . .
“You’re lovely,” he whispered as he passed me in a burst of speed.
“You’re sick,” I told him.
“You’ve a perfect union of human and animal: proportionate and elegant and strong. Your form is what we aspire to. How’s that sick?”
“I’m a human!”
“So am I. You don’t have to hide from me, Andrea. I think you are beautiful.”
Nobody, not human, not shapeshifter, not even my mother had ever told me that the beast form was beautiful. Inside me, the human me put her hands on her face and cried.
Miles flashed by. We passed a house in a blur of speed. Trees parted, underbrush snapped, and we burst into a clearing. A ward ignited with gold, barring our way in a translucent wall.
Inside the ward, a dark-haired boy crouched on the ground, hugging his knees. Past him a dead vampire lay broken on the grass, its skull shattered. To the left, an unnaturally large snake was dying on the grass, a second vampire caught in its coils. The vamp’s neck was broken, its vertebrae crushed. Blood drenched the snake’s coils. With each new squeeze, more blood washed the scales.
Past them, a ring of colonnades carved of pure white stone guarded a narrow apple sapling. Four yellow apples hung from the branches. The fifth apple, with a small piece bitten off, lay on the grass, by the hand of a dark-haired woman. She slumped on the grass. Her horribly distended stomach had ripped through her tailored slacks.
Oh no. She ate it. We were too late.
“Now look what you did.” A man walked up to us, his eyes fixed on Spider Lynn. “I done told you to leave the apples alone.”
Raphael snarled. The fur on his back rose.
The man was tall and broad-shouldered, built with strength in mind. Dark stubble peppered his face. He wore a white T-shirt, a pair of old jeans, and yellow work boots. A flannel shirt hung from his blocky shoulders. He looked like a good old boy in search of a porch with a rocking chair and a glass of iced tea. He turned to us and said, “Hi.”
This was surreal. “Who are you?” I asked.
“I’m Teddy Jo.”
“You’re the man who called me about Raphael running from Cerberus?”
“I called Kate,” he said. “You answered the phone. Do you have the bracelet?”
“Doulos’s bracelet. You have it?” He saw the bracelet on Raphael’s arm. “Oh good then. We’re in business.”
Lynn squirmed on the grass and began to cry. “What is happening to me?”
Teddy Jo glanced at her. “You’ve brought this on yourself.”
Raphael lunged at him. His clawed fingers closed about Teddy Jo’s throat, the bracelet glinting with steel on his forearm. “What are you doing here?”
“Well now, you might want to rethink that,” Teddy Jo said, raising his arm. His sleeve fell back, revealing an identical bracelet, but made of gold. “Given as we’re on the same side.”