My chest tightened as I watched the blue light dancing in grim reflections along the surface of the above-ground graves. Shadows of racing figures wove themselves around the marble monuments even as fiery projectiles flew over my head, crashing down onto random patches of grass and spreading eerie flame along the ground through low bushes and among the tangles of weeds.
My howl of warning had brought the party-goers in the Undercroft up to the cemetery’s surface, and now the throng of shifters and Valks was running for safety in every direction, dodging the flying, flaming bottles as they went. I’d summoned them straight into a danger zone, but there was no way to know how devastating the attack might get, and I couldn’t leave them down there to die, buried forever.
The Undercroft may have been a tomb at one time, but there was no way I was going to let it turn into one again.
Occasionally a pair of brightly glowing eyes reminded me that the shifters I’d summoned to the surface were fleeing against their deepest instincts. Their internal animals would be silently fighting their human sides, protesting violently as they struggled to burst out of the confines of their human forms. My own wolf was aching to turn and fight, to vanquish the bastards who were attacking us.
But I couldn’t, and neither could the other members of the scattering Southern Pack.
All because they weren’t allowed to shift in the presence of a human.
If Sierra hadn’t been in their midst, I could have given them permission. I could have told them to stand and fight. That was what an aspiring Alpha did, after all.
But I couldn’t risk it, and it was killing me inside.
This shit storm—the blue fire raining down from above, the mayhem that ensued, the crush of frightened, vulnerable bodies—it was all my fault. The Marquis had come for me, and it was my weakness for a woman that was forcing us to run like cowards.
In the frenzied madness, I’d all but forgotten for a moment that Sierra was still behind me, her fingers gripping my shirt, trembling with fear and confusion. As the explosions raged around us, she clawed at me like I was a safe haven she was desperate to crawl into. I wanted to grab her, to cover her eyes and tell her to wait until it was all over. If I shielded her from the sight, I could command my kind to unleash their full fury on the man who’d perpetrated this brazen attack.
“What the hell is happening?” she asked when another fireball came crashing to the ground mere feet from us. Her voice was parched with fear, her face white as a ghost. “I’ve been in war zones, but I’ve never seen anything like this…this weird fire…it’s…”
“It’s an attack on the party,” I said, trying to conceal the rage in my own voice. “They’re lobbing Molotov cocktails.”
“But the fire’s blue,” she protested, like the color of the flame would explain anything. “Is it some kind of chemical?” she asked in a quivering shout over the echoes of explosions around us.
“It’s a special…blend,” I growled. There was no time to explain the dark magic that was burning the small explosions in a way that shouldn’t have been physically possible. Nothing could explain it, short of revealing to Sierra what we really were, and that she was standing right in the midst of a secret shifter war that had raged for hundreds of years. She’d said she’d been in war zones, but it didn’t matter. What she was seeing now was way beyond any fight she might have witnessed in the past; this was unlike any battle that humans had ever waged.
“But why would they attack people in a fucking cemetery?” she asked, pressing into my body for comfort. “Who would do something like this?”
“That’s a very good question that would take a long time to answer. A lot longer than we have.” I twisted around and peered down into her big blue eyes. Her fear was clear as day. I could see that she thought her life might end tonight, and it killed me not to be able to stifle her terror. “Don’t worry,” I said. “They’re not trying to kill us. At least, I don’t think they are.”
“Oh, good. That’s reassuring.” I felt her hand tighten on my shirt again, her body pulling still closer as if she was using me as a protective wall. Good, I thought. Stay close. I want to look after you.
Assaults like the one that Marquis had initiated were nothing new. The use of fire to rattle enemies was an old tactic, meant to instill fear and cause confusion, but little more. The Cobalt Flame, we called it. Fire that burned so cold that it felt like searing heat, capable of eating through flesh in a split-second. Yet little evidence of its presence would remain in the cemetery come morning. It was the special concoction, an ancient weapon used centuries ago to fight off the dragons who sometimes assaulted towns and villages the world over…before most of the dragons were killed off.
But for all the Molotov cocktails that had gone soaring through the air, none had managed to hit any of the shifters and Valks who were darting for cover. The lack of actual casualties meant the Marquis wasn’t out for blood; he was just being a shit disturber. For all the chaos and conflagration, the fucker was actually holding back.
My old enemy just wanted to throw his weight around, to show me that he had dangerous friends who were more than willing to do his bidding. This was his way of sending me a warning: Don’t mess with my plan, Trick. Hand the reins to me, and I’ll leave you in peace. All I want is the title of Alpha, so that I can take charge and drive New Orleans into a new state of ruin.
“Over my dead body,” I muttered to myself.
“Trick!” Louis’ voice called from somewhere to my right. I searched through the bedlam of fire and running figures until I spotted him sprinting towards us, dodging the blasts of blue flame that splashed to the ground around him. “What the hell’s going on out here?” he asked, sliding to a stop right next to where I was standing with Sierra now tucked under my right arm.
“No time to go into detail,” I said, eyeing the woman I was protecting. Louis nodded, understanding that I didn’t want to give too much away in front of her. “Get everybody out of here,” I said, staring at the crush of fast-moving bodies now making their way out of the mausoleum where we’d all been holed up. “Just remind them of the most important rule.”
“No shifts.” He nodded, eyeing Sierra briefly again before he turned to herd the people who were scampering down the Undercroft’s front steps and racing to the other end of the graveyard.
“What did he mean, shifts?” Sierra asked. I reached for her arm, squeezing gently to tell her not to say anything more just now. “I don’t understand any of this…” she moaned.
“It’s okay,” I whispered. “You’re safe as long as you do as I say. I’ll make sure of it.”
She nodded, but her eyes were glazing over with something that was beginning to look like shock. I gave her full credit for not passing out completely.
Taking her gently by the shoulders, I pulled us both slowly towards the ground, seating her against one of the monuments.
“Look, you and I need to get out of this place right now. The guy who’s attacking—he’s doing it to get under my skin. If I leave he’ll stop. Understand?”
She nodded miserably.
“Stay here, behind this tomb,” I said. “Stay out of sight, and don’t move, okay?” When she nodded a second time I rose to my full height and stepped away, signaling her to remain still. “I need to put an end to this.”
“You’ll get killed,” she said.
“No, I won’t.”
I moved away from her, positioning myself on the long, narrow patch of dirt and grass that led directly to the front gate. After a moment, my eyes landed on the black-haired bastard who’d set off the attack.
“Enough, Marquis!” I shouted as I stepped out of the shadows. “You’ve made your damned point!”
He turned my way, grasping a torch tight in his left hand. The way it illuminated his features revealed a map of the wolf shifter’s history of cruelty. His very skin seemed to pulse with rage and hatred. The bastard thrived on destruction, drew strength from it. He always had.
“Have I really made my point?” he asked. “I’m not so sure.”
A low growl escaped my chest before I reminded myself that Sierra was close by, and it wasn’t a good idea to reveal my wolf just now. “It’s been a really pretty light show,” I shouted, “but you and yours can fuck right off now.”
“How kind of you to grant us permission,” the dark-haired man grumbled, stepping forward. When he reached a hand out, the shifter to his left handed him a bottle with a white rag protruding from its opening. With his torch, the Marquis ignited the cloth and lobbed the makeshift bomb in my direction.
The wobbling projectile spun directly towards my head like an intoxicated drone with a flame thrower attachment. I managed to dodge it, but to my horror I turned to see that Sierra had pushed herself up to her feet and followed me out into the open. The bottle came crashing down inches from her feet, and she cried out in pain as an explosion of blue flame shot up one side of her long dress.
Holding back a feral snarl, I lunged forward and grabbed her, hugging her body to me and throwing us both to the ground. I rolled us around, smothering her body with mine, until the flames had disappeared. “You okay?” I asked, my hands pressed to the ground on either side of her head. She stared up at me and nodded.
“I think so…” she began, but a second later she cried out again as her body alerted her to the agonizing burn that had assaulted her right leg.
“It hurts,” she whimpered.
I rose to my feet and slipped a hand under her, picking her up to cradle her in my arms. “Close your eyes,” I commanded as I stepped forward. “Press your face into my shoulder. I’m going to get you out of here. Just make sure your eyes stay closed.”
“Why?” she moaned, but I got the impression that she didn’t have the energy to argue.
“Just do it for me.”
She clamped her eyes shut and burrowed her face into my shoulder as I’d asked. Her arms clung tightly around my neck, her body pressed into mine as she hung on for dear life. I knew the pain in her leg would be dominating her mind, destroying any capacity to think straight. All I wanted was to make it go away.
My eyes searched out Louis, who was escorting some of the Valks away while commanding them in hushed tones to stay calm and resist the urge to fight.
“Lou!” I yelled. When he shot a look my way, I continued. “You have my permission to do whatever you need to do! I have to get Sierra out of here.”
Louis nodded, said a few words to the Valks, then shifted into his massive red-brown wolf. It was a tall beast, broad-chested and savage. With muscles rippling and teeth bared, he lunged in a blur at the Marquis, who was still standing between his shifter minions, taking in the destruction he’d unleashed on the cemetery.
The shock of Louis’ counter-attack caused the Marquis’ men to stumble back and stop their assault. I took advantage of the distraction and darted towards the gate.
Sierra’s face remained obediently pressed into my shoulder despite the snarls, yelps and shouts that rose up behind us. I charged towards the exit, assessing the most direct route to my car, which was parked a hundred feet or so down the road.
Up ahead I could see the familiar red scarf on Madame Lola’s head waving in the wind as she sprinted like an Olympian. Under other circumstances, I might have laughed at the sight. No human who met the woman would ever believe that someone who looked like her could possibly be capable of so much speed. But then, no human knew what she truly was.
“Where are you taking me?” Sierra asked in a muffled voice as we made our way through the open gate. I didn’t get the impression that she cared much. By now, her body had all but gone limp. She had to be in agony, and I wished more than anything that I could pull it away from her body and inflict it on myself.
“We’re heading to my place,” I told her. “I need to see to that burn of yours.”
“Won’t they follow us there?” she asked, her voice sounding like it belonged to a groggy woman just waking up from a bad dream.
“No, not tonight. Like I said, the bastards don’t actually want to kill us. At least, not this second.”
“Could’ve fooled me.” Another moan slipped out from between her lips.
In that moment, I hated the Marquis more than I ever had before. I wanted to finish the bastard. All of a sudden, I couldn’t wait for my chance to tear his throat out at the Alpha Trials.
Seconds later, I managed to slide Sierra into the passenger seat of my beat-up Chevy pickup. As I leapt into the driver’s seat, I could still hear shouts behind us, as well as the wild wails of wolves and Valks driving the Marquis’ shifter servants back. As much as I wished I could join in the battle, I knew I’d have my chance soon. And when it came, I’d be ready.
As I hit the gas and urged the truck down the road away from the cemetery, I looked in the rearview mirror to see a blue glow rising up behind us. Darting out onto the road were two giant wolves, their backs arched, teeth bared.
“If he hurts you, Lou…” I muttered.
“Why were they firebombing us?” Sierra muttered, her eyes staring blankly into the distance. “It was insane.”
“That bastard is an old enemy of mine,” I said.
“Old enemy…” she repeated softly. “Ancient enemy….I’ve heard that somewhere before…”
“Look,” I said, turning briefly to look at her. She seemed to be snapping out of her haze, and I couldn’t help but marvel at her tenacity. “Thing is, he’s an old enemy of a lot of ours. I’m not sure I can really explain it. It’s complicated.”
“Complicated?” Sierra spat, her voice suddenly taking on a renewed focus. It seemed that I’d pissed her off enough to snap her out of her shock. What had been her abject fear just a couple minutes ago had morphed into a perfect storm of annoyance, indignation, and downright fury. “Are you kidding me right now, Trick?” she all but shouted. “Math is complicated. What we just saw was someone hurling blue fucking fire at a bunch of innocent people. Who does that? Plus, they had dogs. Like, really big dogs, with glowing eyes. That’s…not even remotely normal.”
“Trust me, blondie, you don’t really want to know what normal is around here.” As I navigated the dark, empty roads, I chuckled and wiped my brow with the back of my hand, relieved to have the feisty woman I’d met earlier back with me.
“Oh, wow, you’re laughing,” she said, her arms folding tight across her chest, her face contorting in an angry pout. “So this is funny to you, is it?”
“Sure it is. It has to be,” I said, “because if I can’t find it hilarious, I have no choice but to find it terrifying.”