I was in Unicorn Lane at night. A bad time to be in a bad place. Anything can happen there, but it's never something good.
No one was in charge of Unicorn Lane. None of Atlanta's many supernatural factions could claim dominion over it. It was populated by those once human and those who had never been, and they hid in the dark ruins, feeding on each other and making visitors unwelcome. Thus the Unicorn Lane is recognized by all as neutral territory, a no-man's land you entered at your own risk. The scared hovered at the edge the stupid died not far from it. I was here to meet someone, and if she made it far enough to find me, I would know she was neither.
I leaned back, feeling the cold stone of the abandoned building with my spine. Moonlight seeped through the holes in the roof, illuminating a gap in the wall. She would come through there. The night shadows hid me, so I'd have plenty of time to look her over.
The Unicorn lay quiet. The night is never truly silent, but right now the monsters minded their manners. None of them knew why I was here, but all of them recognized they didn't want to be the reason for my visit.
What I did know of the merc came from Jim, my chief of security. He'd worked with her in the Mercenary Guild. That gave me pause. Jim was a cat and preferred the solitary hunt. It was rare for him to let anyone outside the Pack watch his back. He said she was fast, for a human, and good with a blade. He also said she had a big mouth and fought when she should run. None of this endeared her to me. Mercs were bottom feeders. No honor, no integrity, no loyalty. They didn't stand for anything. I wasn't in the habit of personally meeting low life thugs who wanted to be tough guys. I had people for that.
However, I was willing to take a chance this time, since Jim had vouched for her. He'd seen her come out of situations that should have ended her. Jim didn't believe all of her cards were on that table. She was likely hiding strong magic, which meant she came with baggage. That was fine if it made her useful. Something was hunting my people, the Free People of Atlanta. We had the best trackers in the City, but we had yet to catch it.
Normally we solved our own problems. We kept it in the family. Humans saw us as freaks, and I saw no need to give them more ammunition. But the murders had been too numerous and some of the vampires were destroyed as well, no big loss, and the Order of Merciful Aid got involved. The only human I trusted in that organization of fanatics, a Knight Diviner of the Order, had been investigating the case and killed for it, presumably by the same creature. I have little love and less use for humans, but Greg Feldman had died helping us and that counted for something. Incredibly this merc was his estranged ward and had inherited the case along with a temporary position with the Order.
I would find this thing that murdered my people. I would stand over it and taste his blood as the light faded from its eyes. Nothing would change that. But with Order's help, I would find it faster. If Greg's ward was looking for revenge, all the better. It would mean she was willing to take risks that could help me get my teeth on this creature's throat.
I smelled her, before I heard her approach Jim outside. The night wind brought a mixture of scents to my tongue. Leather – old boots. A touch of sweat, clean and unmistakably feminine. A mix of rosemary, chamomile, lavender – shampoo, an herbal fragrance foreign to this dank and moldy place, nice. A very faint trace of cloves and steel – oil for the sword.
She was quiet, nearly soundless for a human. Interesting. What was she?
Finally the faint sound of a step. Come closer, little mouse, you're almost there.
The night shadows swallowed me. She would come in right across from me – it was the only way – and I would see her before she saw me, if I choose to let myself be seen. Perhaps if she looked as good as she smelled I would give her that privilege.
A slight scratch of a foot sliding on stone. I leaned forward to get a better look.
Moonlight from gaps in the ceiling illuminated the scene as she put first a foot through the gap. She came in sideways, slowly and carefully, carrying a sword. An odd looking blade, pale. She held it like she what she was doing, but her faith in its ability to protect her was misplaced. The tips of my claws itched the inside of my skin, wanting to come out. She had one sword, but I had ten claws.
She scanned the area, stopped to listen, then moved forward stealthily like a dancer, hiding in the nearest shadow before I caught a glimpse of her face. The draft brought another whiff of her scent. She paused and I knew she was peering into the gloom, vainly trying to find me. I liked the way she moved, balanced and light, neither tiptoeing nor stiff. Nice body. Come to me mouse, don't be scared.
She took a step forward and I saw her in profile. Exotic, strong features, not pretty, but I liked what I saw.
I drew my fingers through the dirt, scraping the floor a little.
She pivoted on one foot, turning her sword. Fast. Her head snapped toward me. Dark eyes stared straight at me. I detected no fear. Instead it was a look of challenge. So not a mouse after all, but something more. This could be interesting. I'd let her dance in the dirt a bit more. She was fun to watch.
She crouched with her hand out. What the hell was she doing…
"Here, kitty, kitty, kitty."
Oh my God, she was retarded and I was going to kill Jim.
She blinked and stared at me. She'd seen my eyes glow.
I let go, shifting in the dark into my true form in the dark. If you want a Kitty, little girl, I'll give you one you'll never forget.
I stepped into the moonlight. She froze.
That's right. No sudden moves. I padded toward her slowly and circled her allowing her take it all in. Do you like the kitty now? I could smell her surprise and fear. Our gazes met. Her eyes went wide and then she fell on her ass.
Heh. A bow would have been sufficient.
I retreated into the shadows of the corner. I was not sure what affect a laughing lion would have on her and I did not want her to faint. I reverted to human form and changed into sweats and a tee. Any other time, I might have walked out to her as is, but this was a business meeting. Best to keep it that way.
I gave her a few seconds to recover. She was dusting off her jeans.
She jumped a bit. Smart girl. Most shapeshifters can't switch back and forth like that. I'm not most shapeshifters. I am the Beast Lord.
"Yeah," she managed weakly. "You caught me by unprepared. Next time I'll bring cream and catnip toys."
Toys wouldn't be necessary. "There may not be a next time."
I stepped out and she turned toward me. She seemed almost relieved that I wasn't naked. Most women had the opposite reaction. Her loss.
I hit her with my hard stare. She met my gaze and did not look away or cringe. Points for her. She was tall for a woman, maybe two or three inches shorter than me. Young, maybe early or mid-twenties. She looked strong and lithe, like an athlete or martial artist.
"What kind of woman greets the Beast Lord with 'here, kitty kitty'?"
"One of a kind."
She continued to hold my stare. She may not have been as funny as she thought she was, but she wasn't a coward. Good. I could work with brave.
I took a step toward her. "I am the Lord of the Free People."
When I broke through Kate's front door, the first things I smelled were blood and poison. Then smoke and something else, salty, bitter. Like a fish tank. What the hell had happened here?
The little girl was hysterical, crying that Kate was dying. She was almost right. I expected it to be bad, but the sight of her stopped me cold. Kate lay on her stomach in her bathroom, her pale skin in stark contrast to the dark blood that seemed to be everywhere. Her back had been ripped open by something with savage strength. In that moment I realized I could lose her. I'd seen humans die from less.
The Keep was out of the question. Too far. That's why I'd ordered Doolittle to the South East Office before I went to rescue the idiot.
I scooped her up off the floor and ran. Her skin was on fire, and I ran as fast as I could. Her heartbeat was fading and I had this dumb idea that if I let her go of her, she would die. I had to get her to Doolittle
I burst into the office with Kate still in my arms, roaring for Doolitte. There was little need, he was standing by. I lowered her gently onto a waiting gurney and fixed him with a stare.
"Can you save her?"
He took in her condition with a glance. "My Lord, her wounds are extensive and her kind are.."
I cut him off, "Try."
He rushed off with her and all I could do was stand there and watch her go.
I found my way to the study, pulled a battered copy of White's Once and Future King off the shelf and ordered a beer to be brought to me. Ten pages in I knew it was useless. I closed my eyes, leaned back and waited for the call.
Sometime later phone rang and Doolittle informed me that she seemed to be stabilizing. He had purged her system of the poison, and her fever was coming down.
Somebody once said it's better to be lucky than good. He or she must have had Kate in mind. With the flare so strong, the good doctor's already considerable medmage powers had been augmented enough to heal the slashes on her back and neutralize the poison coursing through her body. I don't know why but when he told me that she would, in all likelihood, live, I let out a breath I hadn't known I was holding. I should have known she was too stubborn or stupid to die.
The real question was why had I been so worried. Why did I care so much if this idiot girl lived or died? She wasn't pack, not quite human but not one of us either. Whenever she blundered into my life waving that toothpick of hers around, I knew there would be trouble, the kind that usually ended with one or both of us badly wounded. She was arrogant, impulsive, and failed to recognize my authority or respect my position. She challenged me in front of my people. If anyone else ever….
But she was funny sometimes, and never boring. God, it would almost be worth it to see her face when she realized that I had saved her ass again.
Actually it was quite a nice ass, come to think of it. In fact, my memory of the ass and its owner seemed to be remarkably clear. I got up. That way lay dragons.