My name is Mercedes Athena Thompson Hauptman, and I am a car mechanic.
And a coyote shapeshifter.
And the mate of the Alpha of the Columbia Basin werewolf pack.
Even so, none of that would have gotten me into trouble if, a few months ago, I hadn’t stood upon a bridge and taken responsibility for the safety of the citizens who lived in our territory. It seemed like the thing to do at the time. It should have only involved hunting down killer goblins, zombie goats, and an occasional troll. Instead, our home was viewed as neutral ground, a place where humans would feel safe to come and treat with the fae.
The reality is that nothing and no one is safe. As generals and politicians face off with the Gray Lords of the fae, a storm is coming and her name is Death.
But we are pack, and we have given our word.
We will die to keep it.
About the Author
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"So what did you do, Mary Jo?" called Ben in his crisp British accent.
Mary Jo shut her car door and started toward us and toward the mountainous metal barn that Ben and I waited beside. She gave Ben a quelling frown, and waited to speak until she had come up to us.
She asked, "What do you mean, what did I do?"
It was a little chilly, made more so by a brisk wind that blew a bit of hair I'd failed to secure in my braid into my eyes. The Tri-Cities don't cool off at night with quite the thoroughness that the Montana mountains I'd grown up with did, but night usually still kills the heat of day.
Ben bounced a little on his toesa sign that he was ready and eager for violence. I could sense that his attention, like mine, was mostly on the barn, even though his eyes were on Mary Jo. "I killed Mercy three times in a single session of Pirate's Booty the night before last. I think that's why she woke me up to come out hunting tonight." He glanced at me and raised an eyebrow in an open invitation to address the situation.
Okay, that's not exactly what he said. As usual he spiced his language with profanity, but unless he spouted something truly amazing I mostly edited it out.
"You passed up the opportunity to gain a hundred Spanish doubloons in order to kill me that last time," I told him, unable, even days later, to keep the indignation out of my voice. In the fierce high-seas computer-generated battles the werewolf pack delighted in, a hundred Spanish doubloons was a treasure trove of opportunity for more or better weapons, supplies, and ship repairs. Only a homicidal maniac would give up a hundred doubloons to kill someone.
Ben gave me a wicked grin, an expression mostly empty of the bitter edge all of his expressions had once contained. "I was merely staying in character. Sodding Bart enjoys killing more than money, love. That's why his kill score is third on the board, just behind Captain Wolf and Lady Mockingbird."
Captain Wolf Larsen, stolen from the titular character of Jack London's The Sea-Wolf, is the nom de guerre of my mate and the pack Alpha. Lady Mockingbird, who was up by fifteen kills on everybody, teaches high school chemistry in her alter ego as Auriele Zao. She is a scary, scary woman. I've been told her high school students think so, too.
Ben's gaze, swinging back to Mary Jo, paused on the dark maw that gaped in the front of the huge metal barn, the only building within a mile of where we stood.
It was either very late at night or very early in the morning, depending on which side of sleep you were on. Dawn wasn't yet a possibility, but the waxing moon was strong in the night sky. The entrance to the barn was big enough to drive a pair of school buses through at the same time, and at least some of the ambient light should have made its way into the interior of the barn.
Ben considered the barn for a second or two, then turned a sharp grin on Mary Jo. "Mercy just confirmed why I'm here. What did you do to win the crappy job lottery?"
"Hey," I said, "before you all feel too sorry for yourselves, remember I'm out here, too."
"That's because you're in charge," Mary Jo said, her voice distracted, her eyes on the barn. "Bosses need to jump in the outhouse with the grunts occasionally. It's good for morale."
Mary Jo wore a T-shirt that read Firefighters Like It HOT, the last word written in red and gold flames. The shirt was loose like the sleep pants she wore, but her clothes didn't disguise her muscular warrior's body.
She looked away from the barn, turning her attention to Ben. "Maybe I owe this . . . opportunity to the way I treated her before Adam put his foot down." She tilted her head toward me, a gesture that, like Ben's raised eyebrow, asked for my input. She didn't meet my eyes as she once would have.
I was growing resigned to the way the pack dealt with me since my mate had declared me off-limits to anything but the utmost of respect on pain of death. By consensus, they mostly deferred to me, as if I were a wolf dominant to them.
It felt wrong and awkward, and it made the back of my neck itch. What did it say about me, I wondered, that I was more comfortable with all the snide comments and personal attacks than with gracious subservience?
"Wrong," I told her.
I pointed at Ben. "Killing me instead of getting rich is bad. Consider yourself punished."
I looked back at Mary Jo. "Ben is a simple problem with a simple solution. You are a stickier mess and this is not punishment. Or not really punishment. This"-I waved around us at the early-morning landscape-"is so you quit apologizing about the past for something you meant wholeheartedly at the time. And would do again under the same circumstances. Your apology is suspect-and annoying."
Ben made an amused sound, sounding relaxed and happy-but he was bouncing on the balls of his feet again. "That sounds about right, Mary Jo. If she were really getting back at you for all the trouble you caused her-it might land you on the List of Mercy's Epic Revenge. Like the Blue Dye Solution or the Chocolate Easter Bunny Incident. Getting called out at the butt-crack of dawn doesn't make the grade."
"So all I have to do is quit apologizing and you'll stop calling me out at three in the morning to chase goblins or hunt down whatever that freak thing we killed last week was?" she asked skeptically.
"I can't promise that," I told her. Mary Jo was one of the few wolves I could count on not to increase the drama or violence of a situation. "But it will . . ." Must be truthful. I gave her a rueful shrug. "It might mean I stop calling you first."
"Epic," she said with a wry glance at Ben. "Epic it is. I think I will probably quit apologizing." Then she said, "I suppose I'll find some other way to irritate you."
Hah! I'd been right-her apologies had been suspect. I had always liked Mary Jo-even if the reverse was not true.
She looked at the barn again and sighed heavily. "Have you spotted the goblin in there?"
She didn't bother trying to be quiet-none of us had been. Our prey could hear at least as well as any of us. If he was in there, he'd have heard us drive up. I was still learning about the goblins and what they could do, but I did know that much.
"No," I said.
"Do you think he's still in there?" she asked.
"He's still in there," I said. I held out my arm so they could see the hair rise as I moved it closer to the barn. "If he weren't, there wouldn't be so much magic surrounding it."
Mary Jo grunted. "Is it my imagination, or is it too dark in the barn?"
"I think I remember this," said Ben thoughtfully, peering into the barn. His clear British accent had the weird effect of making everything he said sound a little more intelligent than it really was, an effect that he conscientiously-I was convinced-canceled by adding the kinds of words responsible for whole generations of people who knew what soap tasted like. "You know-the whole seeing-fuck-all-in-the-dark thing?"
"I never was human," I told him. "I've always been able to see pretty well in the dark." After I said it, I had a thought.
There was a faint chance that the goblin's magic was affecting our eyesight rather than just spreading an illusion of darkness over the interior of the barn. I looked away from the barn to make sure my eyes were functioning as they should.
There was nothing but open fields around us, a couple of old wooden posts set into the ground as if they had once been part of a fence, and in the distance, a few miles away, I could see the new neighborhood of McMansion farmettes that I'd passed driving here.
Mesa, where we all now stood, was a little town of about five hundred people that was in real danger of being swallowed in the outward creep of Pasco's ever-growing population. It is flatter than most of the area around the Tri-Cities, with an economy primarily based in growing dryland wheat, hay, and cattle.
The town name is pronounced Meesa, not Maysa-which, even after all the years I've lived in the Tri-Cities, still strikes me as wrong. With so many Hispanic people living here, you'd think we would be capable of pronouncing a Spanish word correctly instead of borrowing from the ridiculous dialogue of a Star Wars character, right? But Meesa it is.
"Cain's hairy titties," muttered Ben, joining me in my observation of the rural setting. "What hermit was so misguided in life that he was hanging around this peopleless landscape at the bell end of the night and happened to see a freaking goblin disappear into a hay barn? And for that matter, goblins are city denizens like me. What the shagging hell is it doing out here?"
"No one living was here when it came," I told him in a sinister voice.
He gave me a look.
In a confidential whisper I said, "I talk to dead people."