She would forgo a weapon in order to plead?
Will realized she still possessed her most powerful weapon: her guile. She looked fragile, defenseless, and so damned beautiful. Even now, the urge to protect her seized him.
"My love, I beg you! Do something!" Her eyes glowed green.
He was horrified to realize that he was stumbling over his mother's body to reach Ruelle. I've done wrong. Though he knew he was no match for his father, Will rose up in front of his female-
Da bared his fangs and backhanded him, connecting with his jaw. As Will reeled to the floor, Da raised his hand once more. With another slash of his claws, he decapitated Ruelle.
Vision swimming, Will watched as her head tumbled. But her body collapsed slowly. Even in this, she was graceful.
With her death, Will's bones instantly ceased to ache, the fever leaving him. His body was free. But his mind . . .
Sorrow, guilt, horror, hatred-all warred within him.
Da dropped to his knees beside their mother's covered body. Munro must've draped a blanket over her.
Will was numb, incapable of moving. Wrong. Everything's wrong. All my fault.
Somehow he found the strength to rise. Through watering eyes, Will gazed over his shattered family.
Munro knelt beside Da, squeezing his shoulder, crying openly. Da clumsily patted Mam's limp hand, his beast receding somewhat. In this half state, Da was awkward, his hands too big, his claws too long. Tears streamed down his wolven face. His blue eyes were blank.
He lifted Mam's hand to his face. When it did not lovingly stroke his cheek, as it had thousands of times before, Da roared once more, then whimpered with grief.
Mam had come to this cursed place for Will, to save her son. He didn't know what disgusted him more, his part in all this-or the fact that he grieved Ruelle's death nearly as much as Mam's.
At the thought, he bashed his fists against his head, face twisting. What is wrong with me? Sick, sick! His beast kept trying to rise, to shield Will from pain. But Will wanted the agony, needed it.
Because of him, all was lost. Their family broken.
Ah, no, the wee babe. Little Isla. He pulled at his hair, falling to his knees beside Munro. All my fault.
He wished to every god in the heavens that he could die bloody, die on the spot, could trade his life for his mother's.
Munro turned to him-but instead of the hatred Will expected, Munro's watering eyes flickered over his face with what looked like pity. I don't deserve pity! He wished his father had struck him harder, and more. He wished Munro would hit him.
As Will's own tears fell, he and Munro stared at each other. Hate me, brother! As I hate myself!
After what felt like hours, Da turned to his sons, emotion burning in his eyes. But it was not the grief Will had expected.
It was resolve.
And Will knew his father would be dead within a week. Where your mate goes, you follow. . . .
"Fire comes in all intensities. A hotter tongue of flame can devour another. Surely the hottest can sear a man clean."
-UILLEAM ANDRIU MACRIEVE, CHIEFTAIN OF THE NOVA SCOTIA SETTLEMENT OF CLAN MACRIEVE
"The right place at the right time never comes to people standing still."
-CHLOE TODD, A.K.A. BABY T-REX, OLYMPIC HOPEFUL, UNWITTING IMMORTAL
Starfire Stadium, Seattle, Women's Soccer League Finals
Yank my jersey again, Todd, and I'll shove my cleat up your vaj," number eleven said.
Wide-eyed, Chloe gasped. "Who told you I like that?" Chloe and her teammates on the Seattle Reign called this player Handbagger, because she hit like a little old lady. "Your cleat should be so lucky, Handbagger." For good measure, Chloe yanked on eleven's jersey again as she jockeyed for position against the much larger girl.
Trash-talking and rough play were all a part of professional soccer. Chloe had the scars-and foul mouth-to prove it.
On the other side of the field, the ball went out of bounds. She took a breather, pulling up the hem of her jersey to wipe her face, rolling her eyes when camera flashes multiplied. She gazed over the stands, saw the line of shirtless fanboys painted with the Reign's colors: royal blue and midnight black. At halftime, they'd sung "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" to her, and yelled, "Marry me, T-Rex," her soccer nickname.
Despite being the league's smallest center striker-traditionally a tall, burly player's position-Chloe was arguably the best and a crowd favorite. Fans liked that she was ferocious on the field, liked that she still had attitude off it.
She ran her fingers through her short hair, analyzing earlier plays. Tonight she'd been unstoppable, seeing openings and lanes as if other players were moving in slo-mo. She'd already scored a brace-two goals-against the Boston Breakers, tying the game. One more goal would earn Chloe a hat trick, not bad for the championships.
Somewhere in the stands, the assistant coach for the Olympic team watched this nail-biter keenly. Even Chloe's dad had carved out time from his constant work travel to be here. He stood off by himself in the corridor beside the VIP seats, giving her hand signals. Her part-time trainer and biggest fan.
Yes, she'd been on fire this game. But she was also seriously on edge. Over the last few days, she'd been going through some . . . changes, as if all her senses were becoming supercharged.
Or, she was going crazy.
She'd see tracers in her vision and hear sounds from much too far away. Even now she swore she could smell the roll of Tums in Coach's pocket.
And the cherry ChapStick one of the fanboys wore.
Each night, she'd been waking up drenched in sweat, fresh from bizarre dreams that left her shaken. . . .
The ref blew the whistle. Ball in play. Uneasiness forgotten. She and Handbagger jockeyed.
"Here comes the boom, bitch," Chloe said as she spun, evading her. She secured a flying pass, did an inside hook turn, and readied the ball for the launch-
Suddenly she stumbled. Above all the noise in the stadium, she'd heard a single cell phone ring, a pinging so loud she winced. Handbagger capitalized, almost snaring the ball, but Chloe passed it behind her with a heel kick; luckily a teammate was right there to collect. It would all look planned.
Only her team would know something was off. Whenever Chloe got the ball within this proximity to the goal, she was lethal-and selfish. As a finisher, she'd been trained to ball-hog in the strike zone.
As Dad liked to say, "You don't hand off to a weaker player, and they're all weaker players. They feed the ball to you."
So why had she botched her shot? Why had she heard one phone above all the rest of the sounds? She glanced at her dad, saw he'd taken a call, pacing the corridor. What the hell was more important than his only daughter's championship game? Sure, he often had work concerns, but if he managed to get to a game, he was here.
Across the field, the Breakers' right wing snagged the ball with a clean tackle. Chloe could only wait and hope as the player ran it down the field. The crowd was now deafening, the other team's momentum building.
Yet Chloe could somehow hear her father's voice as if he were just beside her.
"Is the Lykae capture complete?" he asked.
Lykae? Capture? Even weirder than hearing her father was that she could make out bits and pieces-from the caller. She detected tons of background noise, like you'd hear from a war zone on CNN, and a man's voice: "In progress, sir . . . not going down without a fight . . . tranqued him . . . matter of time now, Commander."
Had he just called Dad "Commander"? Of freaking what?
"How much damage?" Dad asked.
". . . threw our own tank at us, sir."
Dad scrubbed his hand over his salt-and-pepper buzz cut. "I warned you against targeting a wolf without Magister Chase present."
Magister. Wolf. Lykae. Tank-throwing. What the hell?
Her dad was ex-army, now sold computer systems to military installations. Dustin Todd was, in essence, a tech guy. The driest, most unfanciful man ever to live. He simply didn't talk about paranormal stuff, much less riff with some guy like they were Dungeons and Dragons fanatics.
She grew light-headed, the moment surreal. How could this be possible?
"I still don't understand the soothsayer's insistence with this one," Dad said. "What's the tactical value of one werewolf? Did she say?"
Dear God, her dad was talking about a mythological monster and a psychic.
"No, sir . . . left as soon as we'd laid the . . . wolf's going down at last. They're moving in . . . I'll confirm the capture."
Apparently, her dad was having some kind of psychotic break.
Maybe she was too. She couldn't actually be hearing him. She was losing her sanity and-equally important-this game.
Chloe jerked her head around. She had missed a pass, missed the entire tide of the game changing. And now Handbagger had the ball, charging across the midfield, about to pass to her own striker. . . .
Eyes narrowed, Chloe ran down the woman, giving her a two-foot slide, tackling the living hell out of her from behind.
"You twat!" Handbagger screeched, just as the ref blew the whistle.
Dirty tackle. Yellow-carded. Shit!
Coach went ballistic on the sidelines; Handbagger got a free kick in scoring range.
As the woman positioned the ball, Chloe told herself she couldn't fix her dad's breakdown right now-all she could do was finish the few minutes left of this future-making game.
Dad was the one who'd taught her to focus, to stand her ground and see things through when the going got tough.
The keeper snagged Handbagger's missile-aww, too bad-then punted it into Breaker territory.
One of her midfielders fed Chloe a hospital ball, a pass that would likely result in injury.
She charged for it anyway with Handbagger breathing down her neck. The bitch slid, knocking Chloe off the ball and onto her ass. Chloe's ankle twisted. Handbagger couldn't resist a late hit, a nice elbow to the throat.
No whistle? As Chloe scrambled up, she raised her hands in a WTF gesture. Tied game, two minutes left in regulation-she didn't have time for this shit. The crowd booed, but the ref gazed on stonily.
Trying to shake it off, Chloe trotted to position, wincing as her ankle began swelling up like a balloon.
She ignored the pain, repeating to herself, Rub some dirt on it.
For all of Chloe's life, coaches had been telling her that in response to everything from a skinned knee to a concussion. It was coach-speak for Grin and bear it, or I'll send in second string.
The saying had become her life view. Bad practice? Rub some dirt on it. Fender bender? Rub some dirt on it. It'd turned into an optimistic catchphrase that allowed her to grit her teeth at any obstacle, and muster an I'm just happy to be here, Coach smile. It made her hunt hard for an upside.
Her dad going loco was hovering outside the realm of dirt rubbing. There was no upside. He was all the family she had in the world.
Concentrate, Chlo. Focus.
But just as she finally settled in and got her head back in the game, from the other end of her dad's phone call came a . . . roar-the most terrifying animal roar she'd ever imagined. Chills breaking out on her sweating skin, she swung her head toward her father.
Then stood there, in the middle of the field with thousands of spectators, gaping in shock.
Because when Dad had heard that sound, he'd smiled-
A toe-kicked ball took her square in the face like a cannon shot. Her body was sent airborne. Pitched onto her back, she lay there dazed, watching the stadium lights swirl above her as the crowd grew quiet.
Rub some dirt on it. Upside? She now had her dad's full attention, his call disconnected, and the wolf's haunting roar was no more.
Orleans Parish, Louisiana
ONE HOUR EARLIER
Never let it be said that you doona drive like an ace," Will told the three-thousand-year-old mad Valkyrie in the driver's seat beside him, "but if we're in a hurry, perhaps driving in reverse is no' the best solution?"
Nix the Ever-Knowing was doing about twenty miles per hour in the left lane on the Lake Pontchartrain bridge section of I-10. Backward.
She was slinking along with the flow of traffic, somewhat, but the headlights of her abused Bentley were beaming the driver following them.
To navigate, she used the rear-view mirror-and bloody foresight, for all he knew.
Though vehicles were backed up for miles behind her, she seemed oblivious. Cars would pass, their bellowing drivers shooting her the bird-until they got a look-see at the hot mess that was Nucking-Futs Nix.
She was preternaturally beautiful but vacant-eyed, with a tangled mane of wild raven hair. She wore a neon pink T-shirt with big bold letters: S L U T
In smaller text below that: SEXUALLY LIBERATED UNINHIBITED TART.
Atop her shoulder? A live bat.
The soothsayer was fairly much crazed, losing track of time, of reality. Understandable, since she'd been seeing the future for millennia.
With a wrist slung over the wheel and Jay-Z on the radio, she said, "It's ridiculous that a car this expensive doesn't have cruise control for reverse."
"You want me to drive, then?"
She'd called his private number, divining the digits he supposed, wanting to meet alone. She'd made him vow to tell no one about their "rendezvous," not even Munro. Will had already asked why she'd wanted to meet him (answer: blank stare) and if he could do anything for her (answer: blanker stare).
"Mayhap I should call one of your sisters? You're looking a wee bit tired, Valkyrie."
"I'm fine," she said absently. "I have Bertil with me."
Oh. The bat. Will decided that if Nucking-Futs Nix wanted to drive backward and answer none of his questions, to hell with it.
He had nothing better to do than enjoy the ride, so he relaxed back in the plush seat, proud of his nonchalance. Though he didn't like surprises and loathed it when females pressured him to keep secrets, he was managing his unease tonight.
Mayhap he'd finally-finally-started to turn the corner.
Just then, Nix glanced at Will, blinking in surprise, her expression saying, Well, how'd you get in here, fellow?
Her face brightened. "Hot of the Hot and Hotter Twins!" she said in greeting. "Or are you Hotter? I can never tell you apart-both of you with those smoldering golden eyes and dreamy features. Perhaps one of you has slightly longer hair?"