I shall be until the day of doom on the face of the earth.
From The Maginogion
Lady Charlotte Guest Translation
RHUDDIN VILLIAGE, MAINE, U.S.A.
Described in a recent travel guide as, “A quiet town tucked into the
base of Mount Katahdin at the end of the Appalachian Trail.”
ANOTHER WAR WAS INEVITABLE.
Dylan felt this with utter certainty. The Katahdin territory, his territory, had remained unspoiled over the years by human progress—due to his calculated precautions. Nature thrived in untouched glory, raw and powerful, a precious achievement during these modern times.
An achievement his enemies coveted.
“It’s a message,” Dylan said with deliberate calm as he watched his brother stalk across the kitchen.
“No shit,” Luc snapped, throwing a crumpled ball of linen in Dylan’s direction. Dressed only in a pair of faded jeans, with wild black hair tangled about bare shoulders, Luc looked just as much a predator now as he did in wolf form. His skin was absent of tattoos, indicating that he had shifted in haste, a warning to those who knew him well to tread lightly.
Dylan snatched the offending item in midair and smoothed it out on the wooden island. It was blue linen with a gold stag embroidered across the top, circled by a horned snake. The royal banner of the Gwarchodwyr Unfed, the Originals of their kind. The Guardians. Vicious, powerful, and without conscience. Self-appointed protectors of their race.
Inbred assholes, the lot of them.
He traced the hand-hewn embroidery of the banner. “Where was it found.”
“On the north ridge.” A dangerous light sparked in Luc’s silver eyes, promising vengeance. “Tied to the Great Oak.”
The tree stood a short distance from the north entrance to their territory. Not a direct challenge. Not yet. But the message was clear: We are watching you.
“It seems”—Dylan brushed the banner to the side, his inner battle carefully masked by a calm exterior—“that the Guardians are restless.”
“We must respond.”
“I know,” Dylan growled. The walls of his control began to fracture. His wolf didn’t understand politics or passivity. It wanted the blood of the idiot who dared challenge his dominance.
He walked over to the sink, shoved open the window, and breathed in the fresh spring air. The scent of his forest, pine and wet earth, soothed the animal within.
Luc stilled, watching, waiting, utterly quiet—a pose unnatural to a wolf just as dominant, just as powerful as Dylan.
“We will respond,” Dylan continued after a few moments, arriving at a dangerous decision. “But not in the expected way. I’m going forward with the plan as discussed. It’s time to gather with other leaders who have valued territories.”
Leaders without loyalties to the Guardians.
Luc stayed silent for several moments, and then gave a sharp nod. “I just wonder who’ll have the balls to come.”
“All of them,” Dylan surmised. “Either out of curiosity or need.”
“But they are Celts.” Luc sounded more persuaded by that simple fact.
Celts protected their people.
They were also suspicious, stubborn bastards, unwilling to follow any form of leadership other than their own. Add a little wolf blood to the mix and any gathering had the potential to be downright volatile, as history had proven countless times.
“So be it.” A malicious smile of anticipation spread across Luc’s face. “The time is ripe for a gathering.”
Dylan ignored his brother’s comment as he looked out the kitchen window. Spring was quite possibly the worst time of year for a gathering of their kind.
Orange hues from the setting sun filtered through bare branches, forming dark silhouettes against the horizon. His forest looked dormant, with brown fields and patches of snow lingering in sunless areas. However, Dylan knew the truth, as did his brother, as would anyone with wolf blood running through his or her veins. Underneath the shroud of a waning winter, plants grew, buds formed, animals ended their hibernation. Life awakened. Its energy hummed along his skin like a thousand fingers, whispering promises of power. “We must watch our sister closely.”
“Elen can take care of herself.”
Dylan braced his arms on the counter, letting his head fall forward. “That’s what concerns me.”
Luc chuckled, a sound more sardonic than amused. “It may be time we revealed our strength.”
“If our enemies push us,” Dylan said, looking over his shoulder to meet his brother’s gaze, “they will learn soon enough.”
Luc crossed his arms and leaned against the center island, his relaxed stance a controlled deception. “I suggest we call everyone in from the cities.”
“Agreed.” A few of their people lived amongst pure humans, secret ambassadors of sorts, as was necessary to influence the laws of an accelerating world. “Let’s bring all our people home.”
SOPHIE THIBODEAU STOOD OUTSIDE the Providence Public Library trying to decide who was more insane, the homeless man practicing a colorful sermon on a milk crate, or her as she punched in Dylan’s number on her shiny new disposable prepaid phone.
There was a strong possibility that she may have won the crazy contest, considering the man she was about to call had been hunting her for over fifteen years.
Sophie hugged her jacket closed as a chill shuddered down her spine. She had traveled into the city specifically to activate the phone using a public computer at the library. Her location needed to be as untraceable as possible. Was she being a tad paranoid? Hell, yes. Hiding from a man who wasn’t exactly human had taught her a few lessons.
Her heart pounded as she stared down at the phone. Questions flooded her thoughts, weakening her resolve. What if Dylan wasn’t there? What if the number had been changed? What if he refused to accept the call, deciding instead to contact her on his terms? To hunt her down and trap her.
Calm down, she coached herself, taking a deep breath. And just push the little green button.
The transient paused in his sermon, adjusting a rainbow-colored beret over matted brown and gray hair. A cool breeze carried his stench: mildew, unwashed skin, and alcohol. Sophie thought he had paused for dramatic effect, but then large brown eyes met hers.
“Are you okay, child?”
Child? For the love of God, she was thirty-six years old. And pathetic, if a drunken homeless man was asking her if she needed help.
“I’m fine,” she answered back with a tight smile, simply because her mother had taught her never to be rude. Her mother had also taught her not to be a coward. The man didn’t look too convinced. No surprise there; neither was she.
Sophie turned her back on him and walked a short distance down the sidewalk. The streetlights flickered on, mingling with headlights from passing traffic. Either she was going to make the call or brave Providencetraffic during rush hour.
She pushed the button and held the receiver to her ear.
Six rings, then a terse, “Hello.”
Male, but not Dylan.
Her breath whooshed out. But the rush of relief lasted only moments until reality forced her to form coherent words. “Is Dylan available?”
“No.” The tone was dismissive. “Are you wanting to leave a message?”
Porter, she guessed. One of Dylan’s guard dogs—a tattooed skinhead on steroids. The prick had locked her in Dylan’s room once. She had escaped under his watch. That thought gave her some satisfaction. She cleared her throat, gaining courage. “This is Sophie.”
Is it a sin to gain pleasure at someone else’s discomfort? Probably. A small part of her enjoyed it anyway. “I will be at this number for another hour. If Dylan wants to talk to me, have him return my call.” Three heartbeats later she added, “It concerns his son.”
“Are you still there?” she asked.
“Yes.” The single clipped word screamed, Bitch.
She gave Porter the number and hung up, tucking the phone into her coat pocket. To keep busy, she grabbed her purse, found twenty dollars, and walked over to the homeless man.
He reached out a gloved hand but paused when a passerby snapped, “He’ll only drink it away.”
Sophie turned to the middle-aged woman, dressed in a casual coat and jeans. “Maybe that’s what he needs to survive this world.”
The woman shrugged and kept walking.
“God bless you, child.” The transient snatched the money. “I’ll pray for you.”
“Thank you, sir.” Sophie fingered the phone in her pocket. “I need all the prayers I can get.”
She searched the area for a secluded place to wait and headed toward a vacant park across the street. There was no grass in this section of the city, just brick and pavement, marble-colored benches, and tall slabs of granite.
As she dashed across the busy street, her left thigh began to ache, a tingling numbness rather than true pain, where nerve endings had been severed in a long slash from hip to calf by a red wolf with golden eyes. A female wolf.
The scars bothered Sophie most when it rained, an annoying reminder of the night she ran away from her son’s father, the night she learned that the monsters in legends did indeed exist.