We circled the Keep and passed through the wide, open gates into the inner courtyard. A group of shapeshifters worked on one of the Pack's vehicles, a modified Jeep, its hood bloated and misshapen by the need to contain two engines, one for gasoline, another for enchanted water. They waved at us as we walked by. We waved back. The shapeshifters accepted me, partially because I fought for my position and gave them no choice, and partially because while Curran was fair, he also had a very low tolerance for bullshit. We didn't always agree on things, but if the appeal had been made to me directly, he wouldn't overrule me, and the Pack liked having the option of a second opinion.
The reinforced steel door stood wide open. Late May in Georgia was hot and the summer would get hotter. Trying to air-condition the Keep was a losing proposition, so every door and window was open in an effort to create a breeze. We went through into a narrow hallway and started up the enormous staircase that was the bane of my existence. I started hating it the first time I had to climb it, and a knee injury only made my hate stronger.
Third floor. Stupid stairs.
The urgency in the voice made me turn. An older woman ran toward me through the third-floor hallway, her eyes open wide, her mouth slack. Meredith Cole. Maddie's mother.
"They're killing them!" She grabbed onto me. "They're going to kill my girls!"
Every shapeshifter in the hallway froze. Putting hands on an alpha without permission counted as assault.
Tony, one of Doolittle's assistants, rounded the corner, running down the hallway toward us. "Meredith! Wait!"
Doolittle was the Pack's medmage. Dread washed over me. There was only one reason the Pack's medic would ever kill a child.
"Kate? What's happening? Where is Maddie?" Julie's voice spiked into high pitch.
"Help me!" Meredith clenched my arm. My bones groaned. "Don't let them kill my babies."
Tony halted, not sure what to do next.
I kept my voice calm. "Show me."
"This way. Doolittle has them." Meredith let go of me and pointed down the hallway.
"What's going on?" Julie squeaked.
I marched down the hall. "We'll find out in a minute."
Tony caught on and fell in behind us as we passed by him. The hallway brought us to the medical ward.
"He's in the back," Tony said. "I'll show you."
He took the lead and we followed him through the hospital wing to a round room. Six long, narrow hallways led from the room, concrete gray tunnels. Tony picked the one straight ahead. A steel door with a telltale silver sheen waited at the end. We walked to it, the sound of our steps bouncing off the walls. Three bars, each as thick as my wrist, guarded the door, for now unlocked. My heart sank. I didn't want to see what was behind it.
Tony grabbed the thick metal bracket that served as the door's handle, strained, and pulled it open, revealing a gloom-shrouded room. I stepped through. To my right, Doolittle stood next to some chairs, a black man in his early fifties, with dark skin and silver-salted hair. He turned to look at me, and his usually kind eyes told me everything I needed to know: my worst fear was true and there was no hope.
To my left two Plexiglas prison cells sat side by side, drenched in blue feylantern light. Steel and silver bars wrapped around each cell. I could see no doors. The only access to the cells was through a vending machine-style drop in the front.
Inside the cells two monsters waited. Misshapen, grotesque, their bodies twisted into a horrible nightmare of semihuman parts, oversized claws, and patches of dense fur, they cowered in the corner, separated by the Plexiglas and bars, but huddling together all the same. Their faces, with oversized jaws and oddly distorted teeth, wouldn't just stop you in your tracks, they'd give you a lifetime of flashbacks.
The monster on the left raised its head. Two human blue eyes looked at us, brimming with terror and pain.
"Maddie!" Julie dropped by the bars. "Maddie!"
The other monster stirred. I recognized the shock of brown hair. Maddie and Margo. Julie's best friend and her twin sister were going loup.
Every shapeshifter had to face a choice: to keep his or her humanity by imposing order and strict discipline and practicing constant restraint or to surrender to the violent cravings generated by the presence of Lyc-V, the shapeshifter virus, and become an insane loup. Loups murdered, tortured, and reveled in the pain of others. They could no longer maintain a pure human or animal form. Once a shapeshifter went loup, there was no turning back. The Pack put them down.
During times of extreme stress, Lyc-V exploded in huge numbers within the shapeshifter's body. Adolescence, with its hormone fluctuations and emotional roller coasters, was the most stressful time a shapeshifter faced. A quarter of the children didn't survive it.
"Tell him," Meredith pleaded. "Tell him not to kill my children."
Doolittle looked at me.
The Pack had a complicated way of figuring out the probability of loupism based on the amount of virus in the blood. "What's the Lycos number?"
"Two thousand six hundred for Maddie and two thousand four hundred for Margo," he said.
Over a thousand was pretty much a guarantee of loupism.
"How long have they been like this?" I asked.
"Since two o'clock last night," Doolittle said.
It was over. It was over fourteen hours ago. We were just trying to put off the inevitable. Damn it.
Julie held on to the bars. My heart constricted into a painful hard ball. A few months ago, she had looked just like that, a mess of human and animal, her body ravaged by the virus. I still had nightmares where I stood over her while she growled at me, strapped into a hospital bed, and when I woke up, I'd walk down to her room in the middle of the night to reassure myself she was alive and well.
"Please, Consort. Please," Meredith whispered. "You made Julie get better."
She had no idea what she was asking. The price was too high. Even if I would agree to it-which I wouldn't-purging the virus from Julie required the magic of a full coven, the power of several pagan priests, and my near death. It was a onetime thing, and I couldn't replicate it.
"Julie recovered because of her magic," I lied, keeping my voice gentle.
"I'm so sorry." The words tasted like crushed glass in my mouth. There was nothing I could do.
"You can't!" Julie turned to me. "You can't kill them. You don't know. They might still come out of it."
No, they wouldn't. I knew it, but I glanced at Doolittle anyway. He shook his head. If the girls had any chance of a recovery, they would've shown the signs by now.