My Jeep slid onto an old bridge over the Chattahoochee River. The old maps claimed that heading north would bring me into Smyrna and turning southwest would deliver me to Mableton, but neither any longer existed.
I crossed the bridge and pulled over to the side of the road. A vast network of ravines lay before me. Narrow, twisted, some a hundred yards deep, although most were shallow, they tangled together and veered apart, like tunnels of a giant dirt-eating termite. Here and there remnants of the old buildings perched, halfway down the slopes, flanked by sickly brush. A highway cut through the ravines, running atop the cliff tops, interrupted with wooden patches of bridges. Above it all, black-winged vultures glided on the aerial currents.
The locals called it the Scratches, because from above the place looked like a giant buzzard had scratched in the dirt. The Scratches came into being after the very first flare, when the magic returned to the world in a three-day wave of disasters and death. With every magic wave, the ravines grew a little deeper.
Far to the south, the Scratches united into a gorge that eventually became Honeycomb Gap, another hellish magic spot. The highway itself served as the favorite drag-racing spot for idiot juvenile delinquents. Somewhere in this mess of soil and air was my green five, the shapeshifter in distress. Hopefully still alive and nursing a singed tail.
Atlanta housed one of the largest shapeshifter societies in the country. The Pack, as it was known, counted over fifteen hundred members, subdivided into seven clans according to their animal forms. An alpha couple ruled each clan. The fourteen alphas made Pack Council, presided over by Curran, the Beast Lord of Atlanta. Curran wielded unbelievable power and ultimate authority. He was the Alpha.
To understand the Pack, one had to understand the shapeshifters. Caught on the crossroads between animal and human, they could give in to either one. Those who surrendered to the animal side began the catastrophic descent into delirium. They reveled in perversion and cruelty and gorged themselves on human flesh, raping and murdering until people like me put them down like rabid dogs. They were called loups, and they were killed as soon as they were discovered.
To remain human, a shapeshifter had to live his life according to a very strict mental regimen detailed in the Code, a book of rules, which praised discipline, loyalty, obedience, and restraint. A shapeshifter knew no higher calling than to serve the Pack, and Curran and his Council took the idea of service a step further. All shapeshifters underwent martial arts training, both as individuals and in squads. All learned to channel their aggression, to handle being shot with silver bullets, to use weapons and firearms. Coupled with their numbers, their strict discipline, and their high degree of organization, having the Pack in the city was like living next to a thousand and a half highly skilled professional killers with enhanced senses, preternatural strength, and power of regeneration.
The Order found the Pack’s presence very troubling. The shapeshifters didn’t trust the Order, and rightfully so—the knights viewed each shapeshifter as a monster waiting to happen. So far Kate was the only agent of the Order who had managed to earn their trust, and they preferred to deal exclusively through her. Getting a shapeshifter out of a bind would go a long way toward improving my standing with both organizations. At least on paper.
I put the parking brake on and walked upwind from the Jeep. Hard to smell anything with the exhaust fumes searing the inside of my nose. Teddy Jo had probably exaggerated the dog’s size—eyewitnesses usually did—but even if it was as large as a “regular-person house,” finding it in the labyrinth of the ravines would prove tricky. The highway didn’t just run straight. It veered and split into smaller roads, half of which led nowhere; the other half ended up rejoining Buzzard.
I crouched on the edge of the ravine and let the air currents tell me a story. A touch of sickeningly sweet rot of decomposing flesh and the odd, slightly oily stink of vultures eating it. Twin musk of two feral cats enjoying a bit of competitive spraying over each other’s marks. A harsh bitterness of a distant skunk. The scent of burning matches.
I paused. Sulfur dioxide. Quite a bit of it, too. It was the only scent that didn’t fit the usual odors of animal life. I returned to the Jeep and followed the matches north. There were times when my secret self came in handy.
The stench of burning sulfur grew stronger. A low growl rolled through the ravine below, dissolving into heavy wet panting, followed by a frustrated layered yelp, as if several dogs had whined in unison.
I guided the Jeep along the edge of the ravine and peered down. Nothing. No giant dogs, just a shallow twenty-five-foot gap with a bit of scarce shrubs and trash at the bottom. A broken rusted fridge. The remains of a couch. Multicolored dirt-stained rags. A house had apparently thrown up down the slope and now perched in a ruined heap on the edge, where the ravine veered left.
An excited snarl rumbled through the Scratches, the deep primeval sound of an enormous beast giving chase. The hairs on the back of my neck rose. I stood on the brakes, swiped the Weatherby from the seat, and jumped out, taking position on the edge.
A shaggy shape exploded from around the bend of the ravine. Saffron-colored with a sprinkling of dark spots on its sloped back, the animal flew over the refuse, the muscles of its powerful forequarters pumping hard. A bouda. Shit.
The werehyena saw me. A cackle of trilling terrified laughter exploded from its muzzle.
Please don’t be Raphael. Please don’t be Raphael. Please . . .
The bouda veered toward me, changing in midleap. Its body snapped, twisting like a broken doll. Bones thrust out of the flesh, muscles sliding up the new powerful limbs, a carved chest, and a humanoid torso. The beast’s jaws exploded, growing disproportionately large, its face flattened into a grotesque semblance of human, its forepaws stretched into hands that could enclose my entire head. A bouda in a warrior form, a monster halfway between hyena and man. For a shapeshifter, to assume this form was a victory, to make it proportional was an achievement, and to speak in one was an art.
The werehyena’s jaws gaped open, displaying three-inch fangs. A bloodcurdling scream ripped from him. “Drive away, Andrea! Drive!”
Raphael. Damn it.
“Don’t panic.” I sighted the bend through the scope. “I have it under control.” A thing that sent a bouda in warrior form running, especially one as crazy and lethal as Raphael, had to be treated with respect. Fortunately, the Weatherby delivered respect in a Magnum cartridge. It would stop a rhino at full gallop. It sure as hell would handle an oversized dog.