The beginning of Kate 6. This is literally just written. Read at your own risk.
I spun the spear. “One more argument and I’ll ground you.”
Julie rolled her eyes with all of the scorn a fourteen year old could muster. “Kate, like when will I ever use this in real life?”
“You’ll use it in the next five seconds to keep me from impaling you.”
I struck at her midsection, slowly. Julie rotated her spear like an oar and slapped mine, knocking it down.
She gave me a completely blank look. Most of the time she took practice seriously, but on days like this some switch malfunctioned in her head, disconnecting her brain from her body.
Around us the Pack woods teemed with life. The sun shone bright. Leaves rustled in the breeze. Squirrels dashed to and fro on the branches, completely undeterred by several hundreds were-carnivores living next door. In the distance a faint sound of chain saws rumbled – the narrow road leading to the Keep was in danger of becoming impassable and a team of shapeshifters had been dispatched this morning to cut down some of the trees.
A yellow butterfly floated up. Julie watched it.
I pulled my spear back, reversed it, and stabbed her in the left shoulder with the butt.
“My arm hurts.”
“Then you better block me, so I don’t make something else hurt.”
“This is child abuse.”
“Stop whining. Oar block.”
I spun the spear business end forward and stabbed at her again, in slow motion. Julie pinned my spear with hers and stayed there.
“Don’t just sit there with your spear. You have an opening, do something about it.”
She raised her spear and made a half-hearted attempt to stab me in the chest. I gave her a second to recover, but she didn’t move. That’s it. I’ve had it.
I turned the spear and swept her legs from under her. She fell on her back and I drove the spear in the ground a couple of inches from her neck. She blinked, pale blond hair fanned out wide from her head.
“What is your deal today?”
“Kevin asked Maddie to the Moon Dance.”
Maddie, a werebear, was Julie’s best friend and the Moon Dance was the Pack’s way of letting the teenagers blow off steam – every other Friday evening, provided magic was down, the shapeshifters hauled the speakers out and blasted dance music from the Keep’s battlements. Being invited to the Moon Dance was understandably a big deal. It still didn’t explain why two months of lessons and spear practice vanished from my ward’s head.
“I’m supposed to help pick the outfit,” Julie said, laying there like a slug.
“And this is more important than practice?”
I pulled my spear out. “Fine. Go do your thing. You’ll owe me an hour on Saturday.” No force on the planet could make her concentrate when she got like this, so making her practice was a waste of time anyway.
The slug-child turned into a nimble gazelle and sprung to her feet. “Thank you!”
We headed out of the woods. The world blinked for a second and a tide of magic splashed us, drowning the woods. The chain saws sputtered and died, followed by loud cursing.
The official name for a phenomenon was Post-Shift resonance, but everyone referred to it as magic waves. They’d come out of nowhere and roll across the world, snuffing out electricity, killing internal combustion engines, strangling guns, and spitting monsters. Nobody could predict how long they would last and then they’d vanish without a warning.
The trees parted, revealing a vast grassy field. In the middle of it the Keep rose like a grey man-made mountain, an example of what happened if several hundred deeply paranoid and superhumanly strong people got together and decided they needed a safe place to crash. From one angle, the Keep resembled a modern fortress, from another, a medieval castle. We approached from the north, which gave us a view of the main tower, and from this point, the place looked like a grim, foreboding high rise, complete with a penthouse, where Curran and I made our lair.
It wasn’t always this way. We didn’t start out by looking at each other and instantly deciding we were soul mates. When we met, I thought his attitude needed a serious adjustment, preferably by means of a boot to the head, and he entertained ideas of throwing me out of the nearest window to relieve his frustration. But now we were together. He was a Beast Lord and I was his Consort, which out me in position of authority over fifteen hundred people. I didn’t want it and given the choice, I would walk away from it, but it was the price I had to pay to stay with Curran. I loved him and he was worth it.
We circled the Keep and passed through the wide open gates into the inner courtyard. A group of shapeshifters worked on one of 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, partially because while Curran was fair, he also had a 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 an 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.
Third floor. Stupid stairs.
The urgency in the female voice made me spin around. An older woman ran toward me through the third floor hallway, her eyes opened wide, her mouth slack. Meredith. 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 counted as assault. Ahead Tony, one of Doolittle’s assistants, rounded the corner, running. “Meredith! Wait!”
Dolittle 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. “Take me to your children.”
“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 after we passed. 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 grey tunnels. Tony picked the one straight ahead. A steel door with tell-tale 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 a 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 were two plexiglass prison cells, drenched in 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 semi-human parts, oversized claws, and patches of dense fur, they cowered in the corner, separated by the plexiglass 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 humanity by imposing order and strict discipline and practicing constant restraint or to surrender to the violent cravings generated by presence of Lyc-V, the shapeshifter virus, and become an insane loup. Loups murdered, tortured, and reveled in 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 the times of extreme stress the Lyc-V bloomed, exploding in huge numbers within the shapeshifter’s body. Adolescence, with its hormone fluctuation 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 girls were his grandnieces.
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.
I felt cold all over. It was over. It was over hours ago.
Julie held on to the bars. My heart constricted into a painful hard ball. A few months ago, she 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 just to reassure myself she was alive and well.
“Please, Consort. Please.” Meredith whispered. “You made Julie recover.”
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 magic of a full coven, power of several priests, and my near death. It was a one time 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 Maddie. You don’t know. She might still come out of it.”
No, they wouldn’t. I knew it but I glanced at Doolittle anyway. He shook his head. If there was a chance of recovery, the girls would’ve shown the signs by now. Looking at them hurt.
“They just need more time.” Meredith grasped onto Julie’s words like a drowning man grabbed at a straw. “Just more time.”
“We will wait,” I said.
“We would be only prolonging it,” Doolittle said quietly.
“We will wait,” I repeated. It was the least we could do for her. “Sit with me, Meredith.”
We sat together in the neighboring chairs.
“How long?” Doolittle asked quietly.
I looked at Meredith. She was staring at her daughters. Tears ran down her face.
“As long as it takes.”
I checked the clock on the wall. We had been in the room for over three hours. The girls showed no change. Occasionally one, then the other, would rage, pounding on plexiglass, snarling in mindless rage, then they would drop to the floor, exhausted.
Doolittle had left for the a couple of hours, but now he was back, sitting off by himself near the other wall. He hadn’t said a word.
Meredith slipped off her chair. She sat on the floor by the plexiglass and began to sing. Her voice shook.
“Hush, little baby, don’t say a word…”
Margo stirred and crawled to her mother, dragging one twisted leg behind her. Maddie followed. They huddled together, the three of them, pressed against the plexiglass. There was so much desperation in Meredith’s song. It was woven from years of love and hope.
Julie rose and slipped out of the room.
I listened to Meredith sing and wished I had more magic. Different magic. I wished I could make this go away, just wave my arms, pay whatever price I had to pay, and make everything be okay. I wanted so desperately to make everything okay. But all I could do was kill.
Meredith had fallen silent.
Julie returned, carrying a snicker bar. She unwrapped it, broke the candy in a half, and dropped each piece through the slits.
Maddie reached out. Her hand with four stubby nubs of fingers and a single four inch claw speared the candy. She pulled it to her. Her jaws unhinged and she took one tiny bite of chocolate with crooked teeth.
Margo lunged at the glass, snarling and crying. The half a foot thick plexiglass didn’t even shudder. She hurled herself against it again, and again, wailing. Each time her body hit the wall, Meredith’s shoulders jerked.
The door opened and Curran walked in. His face was grim. He walked past me to Doolittle and handed him a small plastic bag filled with olive paste.
Doolittle opened the bag and sniffed the contents. His eyes widened. “Where…”
Curran shook his head.
“Is that the salve?” Meredith stared at the bag.
The salve was produced by European shapeshifters and guarded like gold. The Pack had been trying to reverse-engineer it for years and got nowhere. The herbal mixture reduced chances of loupism at birth by seventy five percent and reversed mid-transformation in one third of teenagers. There used to be a man in Atlanta who somehow managed to smuggle it in small batches and sold it to the Pack at exorbitant prices, but a few weeks ago the shapeshifters had found him floating in a pond with his throat cut. Jim’s security crew tracked the killers to coast. They had sailed out of our jurisdiction. Where did he get it?
“There is only enough for a single dose,” Doolittle said, his voice hollow.
“You must choose,” Doolittle said.
“I can’t.” Meredith shrunk back.
How the hell could you choose one child over the other?
“Split it,” Curran said.
“My lord, we have a chance to save one of them…”
“I said split it.” Curran growled. His eyes flashed gold. Something was seriously wrong and it wasn’t just Maddie and Margo.
Doolittle clamped his mouth shut.
Curran moved back and leaned against the wall, his arms crossed.
The paste was split in two equal portions. Tony mixed each into a pound of ground beef and dropped it into the cells. Seconds crawled by, towing minutes in their wake.
Margo jerked. The fur on her body melted. Her bones folded on themselves, shrank, realigned… She cried out and a human girl, naked and bloody, fell to the floor.
“Margo!” Meredith called. “Margo, honey, answer me. Answer me, baby.”
“Mom?” Margo whispered.
Maddie’s body shuddered. Her limbs twisted. The distortion in her body shrunk, but the signs of animal remained.
“She’s down to two,” Doolittle said.
The shift coefficient, the measure of how much a body had shifted from one form to the other. “What does that mean?”
“It’s progress,” he said. “If we had more of the salve.”
But we didn’t. Tony hadn’t just emptied the bag, he had cut it and rubbed the inside of the plastic on the meat and then scraped it clean with the back of the knife.
“How long can you keep her under?” Curran asked.
“How long is necessary?” Doolittle asked.
“Three months,” Curran said.
“You’re asking me to induce a coma.”
“Can you do it?”
“Yes,” Doolittle said. “The alternative is termination.”
Curran’s voice was clipped. “Effective immediately, all loupism-related terminations of children are suspended. Sedate them instead.”
He turned and walked out.
I paused for half a second to tell Julie that it will be okay and chased after him.
The hallway was empty. The Beast Lord was gone.