Usually by this part of the Disputed Territories, Grinn would’ve been silent for days, riding along admiring the snowflake sand pearling the sunlight. The pretty wind patterns carried on the weather flows from over in Georgia, or even Vicksburg, leftover magick residue from Sherman’s Daedalus guns. Reminded Grinn of the lavender-gray sight she had when she was in wolf shape or what scent might look like as it sifted through everything, flowing and forming the world. With Buddy around, reeking her irritating peppercorn-and-camphor scent, the sand became just another reason for a sensitive werewolf nose to sneeze.
“Makes sense you’d call us a pack and not a ‘whack,’ but a bunch of bunnies ain’t called a bunch,” Buddy said, still fussing with her buckles. “Doc says they’re a ‘trip’, unless they’re hares, then it’s a ‘husk’, which seems like someone’s trying to be spooky, you ask me.”
Grinn stuffed escaping strands of hair into her braid, grumbling, “You would find a way to chase your tail even sitting on a horse.”
Then a distant howl sounded, raising Grinn’s hackles. All six horses pricked ears. Buddy cut off mid-ramble, eyes silvering with panic.
“Hush,” said Grinn. “We train ponies to deal with calm wolves, not wolves stinking with fear. I can’t keep four from running off, I only got one ass to sit on ‘em.”
“Doc said run from a strange howl,” said Buddy.
As if responding, the howl resounded. Even Grinn’s found family in Little Water had pack codes, signals; this howl asked no question, offering only regret.
“I know what Doc said,” said Grinn, aiming her palomino towards the howl. For good measure, she coaxed the rest of the horses to follow with a growl. “But that’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. Gotta see what the trouble is.”
They found him dangling from what was left of a tough old willow. Grinn’s nose couldn’t have missed the poor fucker, the clean den-smell of hidden wolf beneath the bitter futility billowing from him like wet-leaf smoke.
Waving Buddy back, she eased along the dry creek bed from behind. Her choices displeased the palomino, but she could take this other wolf if it came to claws. He was a long fellow, sure, broad-shouldered with shaggy brown hair, but Grinn’s height and heft near matched him.
Anyway, he wasn’t breathing.
Then his crushed windpipe healed; a sickly, out-of-season-ice crackle. He wheezed, trying to writhe up the rope despite his bound hands.
He panted, “I hadn’t done a goddamn thing.” Must’ve heard her approach. A fresh puff of futility, a stutterless heartbeat. Truth.
Grinn circled to face him. “Then what the hell happened?”
He blinked wide dark eyes; said, “They heard my neck snap, took me for dead. Rode off. Six to one. Figured, better let it go.”
That was a lie. “Sounds lazy to me,” Grinn said.
Those eyebrows made an impressive glare, but he didn’t flash his eyes. Sour, but not gonna beg or bite. Her kinda person, really, wolf or otherwise.
Decision made, she dismounted and hooked his knees on her shoulders, hugging his calves. As she stood, taking his weight, he gasped.
“Don’t squirm,” she said, reaching up awkwardly to saw a claw through the belt binding his wrists. He shook his arms, pried off the slipknot, and toppled over.
Grinn grabbed for him, but he’d curled in the dirt, already pulling his fallen boot on. Fairly dispassionate for a fellow straight out of a tree. Curiosity bit down on her and didn’t let go.
A frost of cheap stalwart-spells patched his soldier-issue boots, only one toe puncture from a claw; so, he’d volunteered early for Union service, done a lot of walking since the war, and usually chose when he shifted.
Fingertips caked in browned blood but a spotless shirtfront; someone had pulled his claws. They’d grow back. The point was pain, and power. Doc collected clippings for spellwork and such, but she’d rant for hours about ethical witchery, how prying live claws was bad dabblery.
Whoever’d strung him up knew what he was and hadn’t taken kindly. Cut him loose, sure, but invite him to share a fire, especially minding Buddy? Not much scent to trust, over the nostril-stinging, fear-soaked noose.
Meanwhile, the lone wolf cracked his neck, rubbed vanishing bruises, and walked off.
Hell. Could at least aim him right. “Fort Daedalus is thataway,” Grinn called.
He changed direction without looking back.
If he’d thanked her, she would’ve heard it.
It became real clear real quick that night would fall sooner than Buddy’s harangue on abandonment and common courtesy would reach a middle, so Grinn whistled their mounts and the ponies into a sprint. Buddy shut up to stay a-saddle. Served her right. Gods, Grinn hadn’t volunteered to play elder sister, nor missed being the younger, but Buddy could do her the courtesy of sticking to who was which.
Supposed to be well past Storm territory by now, over halfway to the whistle-stop kiss-and-greet with the only livery anyone in the Little Water pack trusted to sell their stock, but they’d lost too much ground at a pace little better than walking backward. Grinn didn’t miss lone-craze, either, but she longed to race until the night unspooled, leaving the fleetest creatures in the dust. Forced to fret over laming a horse—or Buddy—in the unfamiliar dark, Grinn gritted her teeth and chose a place to halt.
While the horses grazed nearby, Grinn and Buddy bedded down in a pile of bedrolls and blankets out in the open, which was generally Grinn’s favorite part. Buddy made a godsdamn pointy bedmate.
Though, to be honest, Grinn’s thoughts stuck her worse than Buddy’s shoulder blades. The fellow in the tree, his shirt still had all its buttons. Couldn’t tell someone’s morals by their laundry, of course—lucky for Grinn. Just the same, ending up lone hadn’t been Grinn’s fault, or Buddy’s, back when they’d each hit bottom woe.
Anyway, he hadn’t asked to come along, or for anything.
“I’m still cold,” Buddy said. She’d gotten the message about arguing but had resolved to sulk.
“You sure are a loud sleeper,” Grinn said. The desert air smelled green. Grinn glared at the hidden stars. Since the war, storms had gotten tricky. Something about gun magick and a lot of death. Grinn had seen just enough of what arose in the rains to practice strict avoidance, for all her wanderings. They’d better only get rained on.
Grinn startled. From miles away, that echoing sound could’ve been thunder, a scream, or a shot.
The horses shuffled. Buddy said, “You’re letting all the warm out.”
“Shift, then. Quit making noise,” Grinn hissed, nose to the wind.
Buddy scrunched her face to force fur out. New to the whole idea, she hadn’t yet caught the trick of a moonless, partial shift. She hummed, loud.
“I said quit,” said Grinn.
Buddy became a horse. As a filly, she perfectly matched the rest of their string. She neighed.
“What in blazes? Change back!” yelled Grinn, scrambling from the hooves. That irritating peppery scent popped like firecrackers going off. Grinn had always assumed Buddy’s particular smell-print was strong enough to cover up the familiar undercurrent of fellow-wolf—she’d never considered the smell wasn’t there and Buddy was something not quite the same. Hell, the first full moon after Buddy wandered into Little Water weeks ago, she turned into a gangly russet wolf with the rest of the pack, and there hadn’t been reason to ask if she had other shapes up her sleeve.
Buddy shivered into what Doc would call a centaur. “Agh! How did I do that? What do I do now?”
“I thought you said it was a wolf that bit you!”
“It was dark!”
The rustle in the brush closed in. No time for speculation. “Switch all-person,” Grinn said, calling claws.
Scrunching her face, Buddy ended up all-horse instead.
“Gods damn it,” Grinn hissed. The newest sorrel blinked apology.
A pistol shot split Grinn’s back.
Buddy shrieked, rearing, but the passel of assholes now roping off their ponies knew their business. Grinn scrabbled for her shoulder wound, grinding her face into the blankets.
“Thought I heard two of them,” said an unfamiliar, frayed male voice. “Who in their right mind runs horses solo?”
Grinn punched her chest, thumping the bullet out like the last sweet in the jar. Silver haze crept into her vision, and her eyes watered from the awful twist of her sealing wound, but she tracked a couple figures advancing.
She lashed out. Her fangs ached to rip soft throats—but she already knew how gullet tasted, the crunch of windpipe and the spray of a torn-open scream. Never again. Claws, though, she could apply without guilt, and did so.
She slashed open one thief’s shoulders with both hands—he fell prone, arms too weak to catch himself. The next stumbled to avoid stepping on him, and Grinn sank all claws into the flesh around her lifted knee, yanking that thief off her feet. A meaty arm wrapped around Grinn’s neck, but she bent, reached back, rent through leather, flannel, hamstrings. Her roar knocked somebody flat, and her hands tore scrub and muscle as she swung every whichway.
The tussle had barely begun when the mounted thief answered his own question, “A hubrit-ical Little Water wolf does, that’s who.” A revolver clicked. “You might not mind lead, but these bullets, friend, are ac-o-nite.”
Grinn came back to herself, kneeling on somebody’s neck. Sweat stung her eyes; two more figures lurking near the horses maybe, the long thin shine of a rifle? Couldn’t smell straight over the big-talker’s bootshine-blacked pistol and the rank sweat of improvisation. Hunters, they weren’t. And plain human to boot. With aconite, didn’t much matter.
“What, no silver?” Grinn growled.
“Shoot, digging up fancy weeds is one thing. Silver ain’t cheap. I consolidate my wealth.”
Another gunshot. Grinn’s body hitched, expecting pain and poison. A horse screamed, crashed to the dirt. Two voices cussed in harmony. A trip of rabbits or a husk of hares scattered.
“Bud!” Grinn cried, risking the frightened ponies’ stagger. She hit her knees, palming the gush of blood, getting kicked and not giving a damn. “Shh, you’re all right.”
“Dammit, Rissa,” yelled the rider. “What’d you cost us two hundred dollars for?”
“He bit me!” Rissa yelled back.
Grinn whined over the quivering horse’s neck, gentling the poor creature through its dying. Didn’t take long. Gods, what would she tell everyone? It was Salva all over again. No family—no pack—deserved a death-hounded stray like Grinn. Nighttime chilled her bent neck as the horses gave her a wide, superstitious berth.
“The hell he did,” the rider said, voice gone jealous-lover sooty. He dismounted and spat the blood off Rissa’s injured hand. “See? Ain’t even broke the skin.”
The stiff horseflesh under Grinn’s hands wasn’t shivering back into a human body.
Poor horse. She patted it stupidly. In fact, all she smelled was horse, no tickle-itch whiff of Buddy at all.
A rifle butted Grinn’s shoulder. “Out of the way,” Rissa said.
Grinn complied, sipping air for wherever Buddy was hiding. Hopefully she’d turned into something more useful than a naked thirteen-year-old. Having once been one herself, Grinn knew it could be worse, but Buddy was no scrapper, and—wolfsbane bullets.
Rissa, in order to baby her imaginary bite, dumped a trussed-up figure on the dirt alongside Grinn—the fellow from the tree. Tied up again, and even worse for wear. Grinn felt strangely proud that she’d judged his character right; if he’d bitten hard enough to draw blood, it would’ve either killed Rissa with the fever or turned her into a wolf against her will. Either way, he would’ve stolen a life. Last ditch, nigh unforgivable—but possibly a more effective escape technique.
Low, Grinn joked, “It’s like you’re not even trying, man.”
He reeked of rotten-apple sweet blood, and he didn’t respond. Through a mess of missing buttons, aconite poisoning white-veined his gut. That distant earlier noise had been the fellow’s pitiful luck running out.
“Shoot her, too, Lloyd?” Rissa asked. It figured that Rissa was a little short of fellow-feeling after this violence, but it stung Grinn to be on opposite sides from another brown girl.
In answer, Lloyd of the stage-villain gun dug a set of honest-to-gods shackles from his saddle bags. Rough ironwork lined with silver; smelled like a mean winter.
“You had silver lying around?” Rissa asked. “When we were starving back near Omaha?”
Grinn sagged. Doc said silver kept a wolf from changing form because silver’s inner moonlight made a cage instead of a key. No, Grinn said; silver hobbled you because it hurt like hell. And unlike a brand, it never cooled down.
“Your friends ain’t dead,” Grinn stalled. She heard their beating hearts behind her, even some pitiful groans. Skittering prey, clanking manacles, but no Buddy. “I can carry twice my weight, if you don’t use those.”
Clamped on, the chains wrenched Grinn’s arms, burst the tender shoulder scar. Silver-weakness crawled towards her neck, dulling her heart, searing muscle.
Lloyd bent close, pressing his cheek to hers, mocking. “A biddable hound’s a better investment than those idjits ever were. Comprendy, sennerita? Ghost storm’s coming,” he added, and everyone shut up.
Rough hands hauled Grinn standing. Her right wrist screamed; the left manacle, on the other hand...
Good thing she’d curled up in anticipatory cowardice. Otherwise, shitkicker Lloyd would have known his blacksmith had cheated him. One of her manacles was tin.
Ragged rain hissed by the time they reached what the locals called Hornet’s Warren. Rimequartz formations squeezed most of its abandoned caves down to coffin-small, but this hollow ran about twenty paces deep, pinched like an hourglass in the middle. Rissa tossed Grinn and the fellow from the tree into the rear bulb of the hollow, then set up camp for her and Lloyd on the other side of the notch between the wolves and the cave mouth—and the coming Storm. The blue rimequartz shards geode-riddling the cave walls buzzed like a tuning fork: sure sign that soon the rain wouldn’t be water anymore.
Sharp and sudden, Lloyd whistled at Rissa like an ill-behaved dog. “Don’t you set that fire near the storm,” he bellowed. Though where the hell else Rissa should set it besides the overhang of the cave mouth remained a mystery. “Quit taking initiative and get out here.”
Rissa chucked the flint in frustration, kneed the kindling further inside, and stomped to obey.
The fellow from the tree slumped against Grinn, resigned, and she whimpered in solidarity. Guilt bubbled chalk-bitter on her tongue. She did tenderness alright, but not without the use of her arms. She murmured, “How many wolves get stuck with pain that doesn’t heal in minutes? Got the worst kinda luck, ain’t you. Positively beset. Hangdog, that’s the word.”
With a handsome hitch of a half-asleep smile, he mumbled into her neck, “That’s rich. I feel fine.”
Intimate territory, a wolf’s throat—vulnerable to teeth, richest in scent. A spot to guard, or attack. Or nestle in, apparently. All at once, it felt like they’d woken up together. Grinn gave up catching her breath; held it instead.
Hardly the context for a dip in the butter, Buddy would’ve said, because Doc would’ve said; the melted-butter smell of surrender wafting from the lone wolf’s hair made Doc’s stupid saying suddenly make sense. He dragged his nose up Grinn’s bicep. The picture of a fretful Buddy wrestled with Grinn’s uncommon temptation to sink into this steady shared ember, twine together, and fall asleep for days.
“You, uh, really don’t feel fine,” Grinn told him. Fellow must’ve been born a wolf, to be unfamiliar with drunkenness. He didn’t have the teetotaler look.
“I don’t?” Hooded brown eyes blinked, and he swayed upright. “I don’t,” he agreed. He wet-hound-shook his head, saying, “Oh, it’s you. You’re tough.” Inexplicable smugness sloughed to woozy horror. “What the mouth is coming outta my hell?”
Grinn missed the last part, bristling from the echo of Salva’s long-ago last coherent words: You better toughen, girl. She tried to force her wolf past the silver, as if she could defend herself from a memory; pain dry-scraped from her eyes, her gums, every fingerbone, enfeebling her whole body for an awful moment.
“Oh, hurts,” Grinn said, panting, human. “I mean, that’s gonna hurt soon. You’re drunk, puppy. Congratulations.” As long as he could talk, as long as those white veins kept off his heart, and as long as that bullet got out, a little poisoning was painkiller. ‘Course, that was a lot of as-long-as’s.
Incredulous, he giggled at his lichen-white belly wound. “Figures. Fucking Lloyd, stuck to my shoe. Used to be pack. Montana.”
Grinn swallowed a flip remark about troublesome pack humans, considering the closest hers would ever resort to torture was saddling her with Buddy. Comparing Doc to Lloyd was hardly fair to anybody involved.
“Now you’re as alone as I am, Calamity,” the fellow said, misting up. Ah, he couldn’t get north without crossing the Storm belt. Even the rail barons had given up laying a successful path through the snarled energy; abandoned spurs littered these parts like shed fur. Grinn herself usually scraped along the belly of the weather. Once, she’d ridden past a puddle from the Storm’s wake and swore someone she’d thought never to see again had been reflected behind her. Impossible, she told herself, and had told herself over and over as she’d ridden away like Satan had her by the tail.
“Name’s Peregrina,” she said. Wincing, she corrected, “Grinn.” All this thinking about Salva, rattling her habits loose. Why bother with the whole mouthful when nobody said it right anyway, and rolling those soft Spanish R’s made loss ache from her throat to her belly? She closed her eyes to listen outside. “And even you ain’t as alone as you are.”
After a pause, he settled on, “Thanks.”
Past their heartbeats and breath, the fitful rain eased to sinister quiet; horses bickering for cover, repetitive zip of soaked rope, furtive fumbling through a saddlebag. Then an abrupt scuffle.
“If these horses scatter because your nose gets long, Rissa, and I’ll feed you to Jonah for his last goddamn supper,” said Lloyd.
So, her hangdog’s name was Jonah.
A prissy hiss inside the cave was Lloyd stepping into the smoking kindling while fussing with the saddlebag Rissa must’ve snooped in. The lowering sky further divided Lloyd’s attentions, threatening like a poor-pitched tent come to smother them in the night.
Rissa bitched outside, indistinct for human ears. “Solid silver. Fleecing us and riling wolves and I’d sure better kowtow. Wasn’t wolves left everybody to bleed out in the middle of nowhere.”
Sounded like an open window. Now, to figure out how to wriggle their sorry asses through it. Grinn’s chest panged; she was no dab hand at appeals to sisterhood, but—beggars, choosers.
Softness she almost couldn’t feel brushed her palms. A ginger rabbit twitched a determined nose at her, smelling of pepper and magick.
“Aw, hell,” Grinn said. “Naked thirteen-year-old is better than this. You couldn’t pull off a snake?”
First time she’d seen a rabbit shrug. Buddy bumped the silver, then squeaked, nursing her nose.
“Left one shouldn’t hurt to bite. Get it off.”
Buddy minced over to nibble the tin manacle’s pin.
“Friend of yours?” Jonah asked, staring.
“Jury’s out,” Grinn said. “See? Pack’s never too far.”
Jonah tipped his head, like an etching of Dejection. Whiteness licked his ribs, so Grinn kicked his knee, and his eyebrows had something to say about that, for sure.
Even a hint of fight, she could work with. “Jonah, right? Don’t sleep, it’ll spread. Why such hurry, anyway, if Lloyd’s what’s waiting? Shit, we’re not blood kin back home, but we’re solid ground. That fucker seems a slippery slope.”
Jonah cracked a smile, sighing, “I got twenty cousins, human and wolf. Lloyd’s one flake in a blizzard. Family keeps him in line. Usually.”
A different kind of lightning struck outside. For a blink, everything darkened tintype green, and the rain stopped. Buddy gnawed harder at the pin, trembling.
Lloyd jittered to the entrance, yelling, “What, are you hoping to spot Lincoln? Hurry up.”
The scene dulled again, and the two kinds of lightning shook out two kinds of thunder. Clotted smoke from his fool indoor fire made Lloyd shriek, “Ah shit, they’re comin’ for me.”
“Doesn’t weather the weather too well,” Grinn whispered. Jonah frowned.
“Hell’re you two barking about? Ain’t you dead yet, Jonah?” said Lloyd, hefting a petulant kick at Grinn as he passed. She accepted the bruise, sheltering Buddy.
Lloyd grabbed Jonah’s hair, stuck out his wrist, thought the better of his tender veins, and settled on presenting an elbow. Demanding to be made a wolf, like an impatient nursemaid with a spoonful of ipecac.
“Open up, now,” Lloyd said. “Really think you’ll make another year on your own?”
Gods, lone that long? No wonder Jonah’d rather leave his paws full of thorns than trust strangers. He’d forgotten how to expect better. A person could bond with all kinds of evil stuff just to keep sane—even pain, if there were no pack to provide focus. Grinn’s eyes flashed, and she braced him with a knee.
“One little bite, and it’s all over. Your suffering in this world’ll end, and my rights returned,” Lloyd said, slipping on brass knuckles wired with Jonah’s plucked claws. So that’s where they’d ended up. Doc would sure cluck her tongue.
“You don’t deserve the strength,” Jonah said, clenching his jaw. Despite the shitty circumstances of how she was bitten, Grinn had to admit that amongst her many desires, there lay not a single wish to be human again. Had to be killing Lloyd’s delusions of grandeur to be born into a big pack and come out normal.
Lloyd backhanded a slice through Jonah’s cheek, but Jonah didn’t give an inch.
“Like hell I don’t deserve it!” Lloyd fumed. “Ain’t I family?”
When he got no response, Lloyd eyed Grinn as a likelier mark. She leered the bloodthirstiest she could, drooling. “One little bite and it’s all over,” she echoed. His guts, that was, and all over the cave. She could be patient, though the silver kept her fangs as blunt as regular teeth. Good thing jackass didn’t infect like wolf could; she’d hate to catch it while chewing him to bits.
A leaden bolt of ghost lightning blasted between them, brambling through the rimequartz. It withered Grinn’s throat with the scent of hot coals and illuminated a small crowd behind Lloyd, all facing away.
Color returned, and everyone Lloyd had ever killed vanished.
Grinn understood it like she’d understood that figure behind her reflected in the stormwater, years ago, though she hadn’t wanted to admit it. She hunched, knowing Salva must have loomed behind her again in that same brief flash, poised to collect Grinn’s killing debt.
Buddy’s lungs pumped, tiny bellows in the crook of Grinn’s elbow, and Grinn wondered what, or who, she could’ve seen. The kid was no killer, even by accident.
“Jesus,” Lloyd gasped, staring past Jonah as though off a cliff or into a vista. Without the untoward light, Lloyd was boggling at nothing but rimequartz and the haze of electrical discharge. Seemed Jonah had his ghosts, too.
“Could’ve sworn that was Aunt Kay. And Bobby, and—” Jonah broke off, similarly stricken by the space between Lloyd and the storm. “You didn’t come with us in ’62. Were all those people from home? Is there anyone left?”
Snowflake in a blizzard. Jonah had recognized someone. Lots of someones. Guess nobody in Jonah’s pack would give Lloyd the power he wanted. Some of those figures had been children.
Lloyd gripped his pistol, a rope to sanity. “Got enough aconite candies left to shoot out that sanctimonious tongue. See if you snap then.”
Jonah knelt, poison marbling his chest. “Yeah, I’ll. Bite. Your fucking arm off. With Sanctimonious. Fangs.”
The first oily drops slapped the stone outside, blooming a hell-smell of creosote and sulfur. Lloyd, compensating for his shaking hand, cocked the pistol right in Jonah’s face.
Buddy tugged whole-bodied at the skeejawed pin, hind paws braced on Grinn’s ass.
Then, pitched for wolf ears, Rissa said, “Hey, Little Water.”
Grinn twitched, finally noticing the clatter of the ponies’ hooves headed for the distant edge of her hearing.
Rissa said, “You left Zeke and Clara alive. So. You wanna whup him, better do it now, ‘manita.”
Little Water horses were bred to weather magick’s threats and didn’t have any debts to the storm; Rissa was cutting an escape fine, but she could hang on and trust to the horses’ speed.
Grinn let slip a raw giggle. “She’s stealing the horses. Again.”
Lloyd skedaddled into the oily drizzle, shooting. Grinn puffed her cheeks. With any luck, Lloyd would forget his own debts until his ghosts caught him up and took him down.
Luckless Jonah collapsed.
“Shit,” said Grinn, wedging her tin-cuffed hand between her butt and her bootheel. “Buddy, get the bullet out of him.”
Buddy retracted her head, rattling her feet; HELL NO.
“Toughen up,” Grinn snapped.
Ears back, Buddy nibbled at Jonah’s wound. Milky blood slid between the glowing rimequartz crystals.
With a grunt, Grinn dislocated her thumb, freeing her left hand.
A bullet glanced her forearm; the brass knuckles hampered Lloyd’s shot. Grinn slapped away aconite sizzle and ricocheted crystal, accidentally snapping her thumb into place.
“You’re stray now, sucker,” Lloyd yelled, storm-oil spraying from his moustache. “That’s what they call a pyre-ick victory.”
The black revolver clicked, empty. Lloyd’s sneer crumbled. Used up his special bullets, shooting at his fair-weather friend.
“That’s what they call pissin’ into the wind,” Grinn said, lunging.
Without thinking, she called out fangs, and the manacle’s silver deadweighted her to the hips in response. Thanks to momentum, though, at least she made a passable battering ram. And she only needed human teeth to restrain Lloyd’s false-clawed hand. His fingers spasmed, skittering the pistol off to the side, but the claws stayed on, nicking Grinn’s lip.
Expecting the tussle to resume, Grinn gnawed harder, but to her surprise, Lloyd went limp, his free hand cradling her head. They landed flat and Lloyd gave a triumphant moan. Eugh, he thought she was giving him the bite.
Grinn spat out the taste of Lloyd’s grubby knuckles and swung her loose manacle into his jaw. A satisfying hit, though it used the last of her strength under the silver, and on the follow-through she toppled like a scarecrow.
Lloyd crawled after her, all set to skin a hide. “So help me, I’ll get mine if I have to take it piece by piece.”
Lightning cast a lengthy shadow. Leery of wronged spirits, Lloyd flinched.
At the cave’s mouth, a fire-eyed rabbit bounced in the air, spattering blood. With a bullet between her teeth.
“Get back here, you sonofabitching mitten!” Lloyd yelled, but Buddy did not oblige.
Before he could catch his chance for a reload, Grinn stomped on his arm. A few of his stolen claws pricked through her boot sole, sticking her and Lloyd together, so she rolled, dragging him with her into the embers. Storm-oil that had soaked into Lloyd’s trousers made a sudden success of the fire. While he hollered, Grinn kicked free, scrambling for the fallen pistol to whack open her silver cuff. Only took three tries.
Pins and needles flamed her flexing arm, but calling claws felt delicious. Fangs out, she snarled. The rimequartz rang like a giant bell. Thunder snapped the air to pieces.
Altogether, it was a hell of a ruckus.
Lloyd froze in fear, alright, but he stared over Grinn’s shoulder.
Like a fool, she looked back—at Jonah, swaying to his feet, coughing out the last of the bad blood...
Rank after rank waited behind him, backs turned, uniforms tattered, idle hands drifting at their sides. Biding time until a breeze showed them where the living stood.
She’d forgotten Jonah would have so many vengeful spirits to tear him apart in the Storm, unlike her. Another time, she might’ve felt fortunate. Instead, her innards cringed for him.
Then the lightning stuttered out, and Buddy leapt for Lloyd’s mustache, toppling them both into the bruise-yellow wind. Grinn swiped to catch Buddy midair, but past the safety of the cave-mouth, it was like grabbing a swarm of bees. When Buddy hit the muddy rock and skidded to a senseless stop, she was human again. The Storm fell still.
Lloyd’s panting echoed through the ragged fog. Then something yanked him out of sight.
In the same instant, Grinn windmilled her arms, reeling away from Salva’s hand hanging thumb-down in the silent fog. A nightmare playing hide and seek, no longer just behind but anywhere. Despite the stillness, Grinn’s head felt the wheeling of the weather turning them all to face the past.
Jonah steadied Grinn by the belt as she trembled, clawless.
“Buddy, honey, the Storm ain’t got a claim on you,” Grinn whispered. Her breath made Salva’s chalk-brittle fingertips flutter. “Get up.”
Like a beetle on a frying pan, Buddy hitchingly stood—and turned her back on Grinn. Just another figure in the fog.
Grinn snarled at Jonah for dragging her to safety, but anyway, the cave had vanished.
Instead, a long, long line of extended hands swept for him through the fog like a closing gate, with Jonah at the hinge.
The storm struck, deafening and drowning.
Grinn wheeled, fled, wheeled, fled. Always a slender hand reached, ash-covered, oil-pelted—either Salva’s revenant scrabbling for Grinn’s soul or Buddy struggling to escape to the living world. Maybe there was no difference, anymore, and Buddy had shifted shape for the last time, into a Salva, into the Storm.
According to Doc, full wolf shift was full moon business. Hell with that. She needed all of herself. She snarled out a quick and dirty deal with the moon. Pack, lost. Not again.
Ghost lightning cricked so slow she could tell it came from the ground and not from the sky, like proper. Everything slowed with it.
Butcher noise. Grinn’s boots busted. Bones twisted like new twigs, sending her to her toes and then to all fours. Her shoulders hitched, spine creaking from jawbone to assbone. Cartilage crackled; ears pinned, a tail shook itself to fur. Fingers fisted. Teeth burst sharp.
Sight slipped to violet twilight, and full-wolf Grinn sneezed the magick out. Wolf sight might be for shit, but scent made the world.
Unfortunately, the storm only smelled like one thing.
No time to cower. Use what you know: stuck in a room with a dead body, there was no keeping the stench out; you had to let it in. Grinn braced paws and opened her jaws.
Terror blistered her nostrils, curdled her tongue, and ate into her skull. Too strong, too fresh.
Woman peeled from wolf anchor on the edge of a memory that the storm pried loose; the cut of it was too familiar, the sourness of—
—white sheets, ripped. White foam from Salva’s mouth. White moonlight pouring, scouring away the girls, tide-swelling beasts to the surface. One, a wolf. The other lost, corner-crazed but human.
A crunch, a shriek. Salva’s raging panic weakening as her life fled, the scrabbling of crooked fingers softening until she almost tenderly cupped the wolf’s muzzle.
In a still room in a quiet house on a silent farm, Grinn killed her last sister.
This was her wolf’s first memory, so jarred by ugly circumstance as to feel like nonsense, half of a stranger’s story; an ill-braided aroma, overpowering with in-the-blood bad. Rabid. No hope, no denying. The wolf would rather person-Grinn stopped crying and smelled harder. Wasn’t a foreign tongue, wasn’t the same old pain of dreaming in Spanish, if the human would stop making herself difficult and let herself understand.
See, a single strand never made a rope. Salva dying hadn’t only shown the wolf death-smell and run-smell. The wolf—sensible, patient—wanted to teach Grinn the other things she was shying from; even in this awful room, there lingered the green-growth, kissed-cheek smell of sister. And... a hint of cool-water, licked-wound, sudden shelter. No denying that, either. The wolf—and, finally, Grinn—tasted Salva’s relief, made it her own.
She hadn’t been able to discern that, before—that Salva had been glad to go, to be released. The wolf stood stronger with Grinn; was Grinn, now.
Wait. How could one moment happen twice? How could it be Now, again? Hm. Nothing was as now as this broken place tried to be.
The Salva-smells were present, and true, but also done. Gone. Even though the breath in her nose gave it to her all at once, now that person-Grinn and wolf-Grinn had come back together, she could feel that the scents were a story—and stories had beginnings, ends, even futures. Well, what do you know; focus a little bit, and Grinn could smell time. Grinn sniffed out the trick, and kept sniffing, seeking escape, a window.
Her nose latched onto a bright, unburied thread. Twanging with need, that powdery hope-in-worry sister-smell—not sister by blood, but scents could change from the impressions left upon them; weren’t just what a thing itself exuded. They’d marked each other, Grinn and—
Chaos resolved into a current swirl. Two hands reached through the cackling lightning, but Grinn trusted her nose. She ducked, heaving Buddy astride her giant back. Then she loped into a run, licking the wind for a ragged trail of Jonah’s scent as she remembered it, already familiar: raw-lumber determination and mellow, mesmerizing spice.
Buddy clung to Grinn like a second pelt, her body humming like a guitar string under a finger seeking a note. But every word she babbled into Grinn’s ruff seemed to solidify her further. “You’d think it’s a gaggle, or maybe a scare, but guess it’s a gust of ghosts.”
Her nose, at least, said that arm-wrapped hulk clinging to a twisted railroad tie was Jonah. Waiting, or trying to, to share the abandoned rail line’s trail of escape. Face-first, Grinn burrowed through the tangle of ghost limbs surrounding him.
When her muzzle finally pressed to Jonah’s fur-streaked cheek, he rounded on her, foam flecking his fangs. Grinn whined. This from the fellow who hadn’t flashed eyes for anything. But then a dark droplet of storm oil leaked from his eye, and a few sooty fingers protruded from inside his mouth. He’d already let too many spirits in, either guilty or just plain tired, and they were getting a grip on his jaw to peel him apart from the inside.
Well, hush that. Grinn caught Jonah’s throat in her jaws, pressing just until she felt his heartbeat in her teeth. She whuffed, demanding submission: Master yourself. Are you ours, or the Storm’s? Who will you let in?
Moving far slower than the heaving snarl of Jonah’s ghosts, Salva’s fingers slid into view, close enough for Grinn’s wide silver eye to see the graphite-like sheen of the soot. If Grinn let Jonah go now, he’d be lost. If she didn’t run from Salva there wouldn’t be anything left of her to find when the sun came out again. If it ever did.
Against her neck, Buddy was rumbling a staunch encouraging growl, throwing her lot in with wolves regardless of what she might be. And while Grinn would run from death at every chance, she didn’t want to run from Salva any longer. Grinn stilled, tensed, all in.
With a bone-light gentleness that had been rare when she was alive, Salva petted Grinn’s cheek as though marveling at how big Grinn had gotten. Grinn wished she could turn and look at her.
A gale buffeted Jonah’s ghosts loose, more effective than the mightiest roar. Momentarily freed, he gagged out a bristleful of fitful fingers.
Buddy chose to be wolf enough to howl celebration, and Jonah kind of grunted in response, spitting a stream of oily Storm-guck for the wind to blow away.
Grinn hoped to feel Salva’s subtle weight settling onto her back behind Buddy, but the moon didn’t grant every wish.
Angry appendages of the past tumbleweeded towards them. No time for resting. Or fainting. Grinn nipped a slipping Jonah quick on the ass. Half-shifted, without his eyebrows, Jonah’s startled glare looked damn ridiculous.
Grinn hooted and whapped him with her tail. Let’s run, stupid.
And run they did; shaking rust from the rail, skirting the frostbite-stick of hungry fingers, threading a pounding path through the lightning’s cracks, prodding and tugging at each other.
Until the lightning was only bright again, the rain was only water, and Grinn passed out.
In the dawn, there stood the godsdamn cave, not five hundred feet away. She blinked, adjusting her canine field of vision to the flowers just beyond the tip of her muzzle, untrampled by the shod hoof prints that led well off to the south. Their petals gave no scent, but she sneezed, and the ghost flowers vanished. She bobbed, considered investigating further; toyed with the vague thought that the horse-trail involved something that belonged to her pack, too—but the body close to hers held more interest.
Careful of the angry star pocked in his stomach, she pinned Jonah’s chest with heavy paws, burying her cold nose in his neck. He chuckled on the inhale, ruffling her shoulder fur.
He said, “Don’t know how to thank you. Probably shouldn’t. Just saddle you with all my bad luck.”
He practically reeked of nutmeg gratitude, though. She snorted under his chin.
He patted her sides, sighing. “All this time fighting for one inch further north, and there’s nothing to go back to. Always thought if they were dead, I would be too, but here I am.” He swallowed, meeting her eyes. “As for the rest... Sad, wasn’t it? Don’t know what to make of it all.”
She whimpered, he nodded, and she shook out her fur-water.
He laughed, angling away. “You stuck that way?” he teased, admiring the size of her. Almost as tall as him, standing; damn right, she was a pretty pup.
Grinn blinked. Perhaps she had gotten a little lost in dog-mind. Well, she was tired! And she’d been on her best behavior. Half-best, anyway. What-all had she given away to someone who’d grown up around wolf expressions?
Grinn shifted right back to two legs, ten fingers, and all the rest.
Cracking her knuckles, she drawled, “How’s the ass doing?”
“My ass is just dandy,” Jonah retorted, though as he pulled the ruin of his shirt over his head, she noticed he favored the left cheek.
He dumped the collected ribbons of shirt flannel on her head, and while she didn’t much mind her own nudity, the morning promised a chilly day ahead. “Okay, but your nipples’ll chafe in this wind,” she said, attempting to find whatever right-way-up the shirt still had.
Jonah laughed silently, and boy, was she glad she didn’t have a tail to wag. Then he went and poked a sore spot, asking, “What were you so afraid of?”
“What were you?” she snapped, before his tone sank in. Gonna take work, to ease her heart off that old hook. “That’s a story for pack,” she revised, adding, “So I expect Buddy’ll spill it to you on the way home. Or to the fort. Or—or home.”
Jonah all but perked up his ears, and she decided maybe her red face would keep her warm enough. “Hey, Buddy,” she called, “Got a shirt for you if you—”
Pink sky, chill breeze, damp rocks, no Buddy. Just a copperhead the length of her leg.
“Shit!” screamed Grinn.
“Aaaaaaaaghhhh,” screamed the snake, shrill and hoarse. Oh, that noise was familiar—not a copperhead at all, just the only orange gopher snake Grinn had ever seen. It figured that Buddy couldn’t be venomous even if she tried. Snake-Buddy sidewindered off like a stone skipping a pond.
“Buddy, dammit, tune your string to Person,” Grinn called, hauling herself to her feet. “Those ponies get any further away, it’ll be bootless bumming all the way home.” To Jonah she added, “Should you feel like exerting yourself...” Then, pretending his eyebrows didn’t give him away worse than a wagging tail, she streaked after the tiny shriek.
She only had a few strides to worry whether he’d follow. Soon enough he jogged after her, sighing, “Stuck to my shoe.”
She could hear his smile.