Chapter 1. A Favor
At the crack of 7 a.m. on an Saturday in late July, the house phone shrilled on the bedside table. Lying in bed between Kerry and Ian, Alex pretended he wasn’t there, since the phone sat closest to Ian, on his right. The band Alex played with, Segue, had gotten back from a gig in Greensboro about 4 a.m., and everyone in the house gone, too. Three hours of sleep. Ugh. And with a certain amount of glee: Poor callers…Grumpy Ian is grumpy.
Alex kept his eyes closed. Kerry continued to snore and snuffle peacefully at his left. The mattress moved as Ian groped for the handset. Click. Sheets slid and whispered.
Ian rasped, “What. This had better be good.”
From the earpiece, Alex overheard the faint quaver of an old man’s voice. “Mister Alex? Is Mister Alex there, please?”
“No, this is not him. Why should you speak to him? Make it quick.” Alex felt a smile tickling his lips. He loved listening to Ian being rude. This was relatively polite, as “fuck” had not yet passed his shortest soldiers lips yet. Wouldn’t be long, though.
“This is a private matter, sir,” the old man huffed.
Before Ian could render his opinion of that issue and deliver the f-bomb, Alex stuck his hand out. Ian pressed the handset into Alex’s palm. Still not opening his eyes, Alex cleared his throat and said, “Yes? This is Alex.” Who is this old coot? “To whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?”
“This is Jerry Stafford, your neighbor, up near the Estate. You should speak to that young man working for you about his manners, you know.”
Alex opened one eye and peered to his right. Ian had curled up warmly against Alex’s side. He could hear a steady grumble coming from under Ian’s spill of long blonde hair.
“I’ll take that under advisement, Mister Stafford. My, it’s been a long time since I saw you last. How are you doing, sir?” Alex let his polite upbringing run along on automatic while his brain caught up to being awake.
Beside him, Ian growled, “Advisement my shiny metal ass.”
Alex tried not to laugh, and coughed instead. Schooling his face, he listened as Mr. Stafford said, “Been better. I’m sorry to bring this little matter to you, but I have a small problem. My dog, Primo has gotten loose.”
Alex frowned, wondering why this had become his problem. Primo, an enormous Newfoundland, got loose regularly, but never caused any real problems, aside from the usual dog stuff: upending garbage cans and chasing felines. He recalled this happening every few months or so for as long as he could remember. That in itself struck him as odd in that moment, as he suddenly recollected that large dogs shouldn’t live all that long. When he was growing up, Primo had often met up with him on the way home from private school, letting Alex hug and wrestle him. The huge furry black beast had seemed to feel it was his job to get Alex safely to the front gate of Gotth Hill, their estate, from St. Anselm’s, which Alex had attended through high school. When he and Kerry were about twelve, they had even tried to hitch Primo to a dog cart, with mixed success. That had been ten years ago, and Primo had been an adult then. Hmm, something’s not right, Alex thought, but shoved that to back of his mind.
“Mister Stafford? Not to belittle your troubles, sir, but Primo usually gets home by breakfast.”
“That’s just it. He’s not here. This is very irregular.” The old guy made the last word into at least its own sentence. Ear. REG. Yu. Lar.
“And sir, what should I be doing about this? I assure you we have not taken your dog,” Alex replied. Beside him, Kerry stopped pretending he was asleep and cackled softly. The bed shook with Kerry’s mirth.
Mr. Stafford sighed. Alex could feel an itch somewhere in his subconscious, which told him that he was going to be called upon not as Alex, but as Master of Sorrows. As soon as he thought that, he heard the soft susurration of water over stones that was Sorrows-within, that god-presence that had been part of him since June. She was listening, too, now. What? he asked Her.
Listen, she said.
Sorrows-the-sword was about as human as the meteorite from which she had been fashioned, but as a god, she had a deep understanding of people. He generally took her advice, being as she was over five thousand years old, and he only twenty-two.
“I’m afraid I must beg a favor of You,” the farmer said, and Alex heard that Capital Y. He could hear the old guy wetting his dry lips. “Primo is very special to me. I have a contract that’s got to be fulfilled, and I need that hairy bastard to do it.”
Another prickle came at the base of Alex’s nose. He felt the opening into his larger self that heralded his consciousness merging into Master of Sorrows. That third part of the Trinity, who was the aggregated consciousness of all of the previous sword-bearers and himself, now, opened a metaphysical eye and said, Hmm. Neither Sorrows-the-sword nor Master of Sorrows seemed surprised at this request, and that in itself intrigued Alex.
“And I’m supposed to find him, how?” Really, there was the rub. Alex’s tired mind couldn’t grapple with this so soon after waking.
“Um.” The good farmer hesitated. “Don’t one of your soldiers track?”
“No, I don’t think so. I’m not sure where I’ll turn. I’m not a bloodhound, sir.”
“Oh. Durn. You don’t got anyone else?”
“Noo-ooo.” It was Alex’s turn to sigh. “Can you give me some idea of where I should be looking?”
The farmer put the phone receiver to his chest, by the suddenly muffled conversation with another male voice. A very angry male voice. Uh oh, Alex thought.
“Perhaps you have other favors you can call in?” The farmer suggested rather lamely. He seemed to be afraid of that other man.
“Possibly.” Alex let displeasure frost his voice.
“Well, the local P.D. should be calling you. Please don’t hurt Primo!” The old man begged. Now, that was genuine regret, Alex could tell.
“I wouldn’t hurt Primo for the world, but if he doesn’t want to be found, he won’t be.”
“I wouldn’t call if it weren’t serious,” Stafford said, deflating. “Miss Dolores knows You owe us a little favor.”
“All right, then. I’ll do what I can.”
“Thank you, sir,” the old guy said gratefully, and hung up.
Alex put the handset down on Ian’s pillow. Ian tossed it on the floor.
“He’s lost his dog?” Kerry rumbled. His deep, velvety voice held amusement. “What on earth can’t wait until a decent hour? Or day? Like, Monday.”
“Dunno,” Alex said, and rolled over to face Kerry. Alex offered a kiss to Kerry, his First. Kerry hummed deep in his chest, a pleased sound, accepting it. “Good morning?”
The three of them took a while getting down to the kitchen, mostly because they all started rather slowly in the morning. When they got there, they found Dolores, the immortal feminine third of the Trinity and his great-great grandmother, sitting at their dining room table with Jimmy and Trent.
The scent of coffee wafted from the kitchen, drawing Alex closer. Ian and Kerry followed hard on his heels. They found Adele and Brooke in the kitchen, making tea for themselves. Alex had to stop and greet the women with kisses, of course, to be rewarded with breakfast. Once they had gotten coffee as well as a plate full of scrambled eggs and toast each, they took seats at the dining room table.
“Good morning, dear grandmother,” Alex said. “To what do I owe this visit so early on a Saturday?”
Dolores raised an eyebrow at his polite sarcasm, but said, “I thought you would have questions. Mister Stafford called me first. He didn’t know that you weren’t living at the mansion.”
Not yet, Alex thought. “Favor?” he asked.
She sat at the head of the table, as always, her dark hair piled on her head, looking cool in a sleeveless linen blouse, and much younger than her years—which, as close as Alex could figure, was well above 5,000. Looking up from the latest edition of The Economist she said, “Yes. Nothing much, but he’s helped me a time or two. I’m surprised he called it in.”
“With what?” Ian said from inside the rim of his cup. His fire-blue eyes studied Dolores, curious.
“Most recently, boggarts had settled in the stables. His dog is good with that sort of thing.”
“We haven’t ever used the stables in my lifetime,” Alex said. “Why not let them live there…whatever they are.”
“They wouldn’t be satisfied until they infested the entire property. You don’t fuss about with boggarts.”
“I thought the Blood Line kept them out?” Jimmy wondered.
Dolores sighed. “They came with a visitor, apparently. But never mind, that a long time ago. That was back when you were, oh, about six. Before you met Kerry.”
Kerry fingered his mug, turning it around in his hands. “Who on earth can we get to track Primo?”
“More to the point,” Alex said, having swallowed a large mouthful of eggs, “Why can’t the police handle this? Does the town have a dog-catcher?”
Jimmy raised one hand timidly. “Tamara maybe could help. She’s got an excellent nose and she’s a daywalker. She might do this for us.”
“Mmm. Let’s give the cops a call first. Or let them call us.” Alex rubbed his eyes and wondered if he had time to take a morning nap. Maybe the cops would take their time about a lost dog. Surely.
Of course, as soon as he thought that, the phone rang.
Chapter 2. Varmints
“For you,” Adele called out after picking up the phone in the kitchen. She trotted over and held it out to Alex. He sighed as he took it, but smiled his thanks at Adele. No nap, then.
“Alex Gotth,” he said into the phone.
“Hey, cousin Alex. This is Brenda Morris.”
“Cousin Sergeant Morris, as I live and breathe.” Alex winced at his own sarcasm. He liked Sergeant Morris, who shared his great-grandfather Augustus, but not at 9 on Saturday morning.
“Yeah, you were expecting this, weren’t you.”
“Let me put you on speaker,” Alex said. He pressed the button on the phone and lay the handset on the table. “Alrighty. Are you calling in an official capacity?”
“’Fraid so. We got a couple of weird callouts last night. Had your name written all over them.”
“Um,” Alex said. “As I recall, the police aren’t supposed to call me out unless people are dying from monsters eating them.”
“Well…” Brenda hesitated. “People didn’t die, but cats and chickens did.”
“This makes even less sense.” Next to him, Ian and Kerry traded quizzical looks with Jimmy and Trent. Dolores just watched Alex intently, giving Alex the feeling that he was being tested. He frowned back at her.
“Why don’t you just come on out. Meet me at 188 Persimmon Lane in ten?”
“Make it twenty, and we’ll be there.”
Brenda said goodbye and hung up. Alex looked around the table, blinking.
Ian said, “Looks like the dog ate the cats and chickens. Must have been hungry.”
“Guess so. Better go get our shoes, then.”
“With another cup of coffee,” Kerry sighed gustily, “And a handful of Advil.”
Alex, Ian, and Kerry emerged from Alex’s elderly Rolls Phantom (a graduation present from Dolores) in front of a modest brick rambler that fronted on the sparsely-settled Persimmon Lane. On this west side of town, the development overgrowth hadn’t yet spread from Cary, and stands of tall pines and hardwoods bracketed the property. A map had informed them that Stafford’s farm lay not very far to the west of them, so Alex expected some dog-induced carnage.
None of them had expected the slimy, sticky, furry horror piled on these people’s front lawn. Which stank, with the oncoming heat of the day, enough to make Alex regret breakfast.
Brenda and her partner, Haley, waited for them, leaning on their Palmers Rest PD police cruiser next to the lawn, the husband and wife who owned the property fidgeting next to them. Kerry and Ian had agreed to let Alex lead, so he went ahead of them. None of them expected trouble, so Ian had only brought one of his kukris, which hung from his belt. Kerry’s 12-gauge tactical shotgun remained in the Rolls’ back seat. If Alex needed Sorrows, she would come to his hand with only a thought.
They coasted to a stop next to the other people and turned to look at the horribly foul-smelling heap of…whatever.
“So…?” Alex said with a nod to Brenda.
The uniformed police sergeant nodded to him, giving Pleasant Cop Face. “Ma’am, you want to tell Mister Gotth what happened? I’m sorry to make you repeat it.”
The wife, a plump lady who looked like she had not slept that night, said, with some agitation, “My cats—I heard—you know how it is—what a terrible sound! Then the smell!” She went on like that for a minute, getting it off her chest. Alex waited patiently. He thought Ian was doing well not to roll his eyes. Kerry, being an actor, had assumed his best Helpful Person persona, hands clasped behind his back, bending solicitously toward the wife. She took the cue and told Kerry everything.
The husband eventually put a restraining arm on his wife. “Honey. My wife, she went out to put food for the cats, you know? And just after, we all heard a terrible sound, like a cat fight and a half, with a roaring noise, and then more cat-wailing and there was this wet crunching noise About ten minutes later, we hear another horrid sound. Something puked up there. We can tell it’s our cats.”
“So…Mr. Townsend, you heard something vomit on your front lawn. You recognize the, um, remains?” Brenda encouraged the husband gently.
“Five cats,” Haley added.
“Yes,” the woman sobbed. “My kitties! All of them!” She covered her face with both hands. Alex felt bad for her, losing her kitty-brood.
“Jesus wept,” Kerry muttered. Kerry’s cat, a huge Maine Coon named Mister, lived with Kerry’s mother instead of at their house. Alex knew Kerry had a soft spot for cats. “I’m so sorry, ma’am. That’s terrible.”
“What are you going to do about it?” Mister Townsend stuck out his chin and fastened his eyes on Alex.
“Did you see what did this?”
“Nup, sorry. Too dark,” Townsend said, shaking his grizzled head. Alex noted, absurdly, that the old guy had as much hair sticking out of his ears as he had on his head—which was a fair amount. Would monsters run away from so much ear hair? he wondered, then scolded himself for that thought. That was unworthy.
“Hmm,” Alex temporized.
“Thought you was supposed to keep up with wicked critters like this,” Townsend grumbled.
Ah, Alex thought. He held out his left hand, called Sorrows with a thought, and the sheathed long-sword blinked into existence in his grip. Without further fanfare, he slipped her simple leather baldric strap over his head, since one wore it about the same way he wore his guitar strap. Sorrows’ comforting weight settled against his back and she let out a soft ping of hello. The Townsends seemed pleased at this proof of his office, knowing that the local god was indeed on the case.
“I just need to find it,” Alex said mildly, “And then it’s all done but the yelling.”
“Good,” Townsend said crisply. “Can I clean up this mess now?”
“Of course,” Brenda said, and the Townsends made their way back into their house. She watched them go, and when they were out of earshot, said, “The other scene is two blocks east of here. Chicken coop got taken apart. Woman managed to get a photo of what did it from her phone. Here.”
She pulled her phone out of a cargo pocket on her uniform pants and brought up a terrible night-time photo taken with the phone’s flash. The damage to the coop had indeed been substantial. More worrying was the pair of large red eyes about eight feet off the ground, attached to the huge black blur doing the dismantling. Bits of bloody brown and white feathers appeared to be sticking out of its mouth. A picture taken that morning, with a woman in jeans standing next to the wreckage and chunks of dead chicken, gave some perspective on just how large the creature had been.
“Great googly-moogly,” Kerry muttered, running a hand through his hair.
“Fuck me,” Ian agreed.
“Yeah, that’s big,” Alex nodded. “I wonder no humans have been hurt.”
“Me, too. Their neighbors’ dogs were going wild, too, they said, but they were let alone for some reason.”
“Full moon last night,” Ian observed. “We better call Tamara or Cyrus or someone. Maybe the vamps can lend us someone tonight to help track?”
Down the block, a black Honda that Alex had seen parked in front of another house gunned its engine, disturbing the quiet. Alex squinted at it for a moment, wondering what that was about.
He nodded to Brenda. “Alright, we’ll ask the vamps to help us, but they might not get back to us until tonight.”
“Sure. Whatever you can do.”
“Let me know if more happens.”
Brenda smiled carefully. “You can be sure of it.”
As Alex walked back to Havanah the Rolls, the Honda came swerving by and very nearly clipped him. Alex turned and saw a male-like shape in the driver’s seat shaking a fist angrily at him.
“Holy fuck,” he yelped as it swung past. “What was that about?” Alex’s dark waist-length hair whipped about him in the wind of its passing.
Ian sucked in a breath and said, “Not a fan, I guess.” He shook his head, setting his long ponytail swinging.
Chapter 3. Hairy Bastard
Around 7 p.m., as the sun settled toward the horizon of the not-as-blisteringly-hot-as-usual summer day, Alex and the rest of his Coven, his mates, broke out the beer in their kitchen. Alex went across the entry hall to the living room and dropped onto the couch, careful not to spill his beer. Little Adele decided to join him, and stole a sip from his beer as she sat down next to him.
“No fair, you have your own!”
“Stolen tastes better,” she grinned, sapphire blue eyes shining in her heart-shaped brown face.
“Then there’s a kissy tax,” Alex said. Adele cheerfully leaned over and slid her soft lips over his so he could sup at her mouth. Alex sighed happily; kissing was one of his very favorite things.
“Enough of that,” Kerry said, claiming one of the armchairs across from the couch and settling his six-foot-four frame into it. He fluttered a hand. “Jimster, get your phone. We need to try Tamara again.” The ancient vampire, although able to daywalk, had not answered her phone earlier. They had left one message already.
Jimmy pulled out his phone as he crossed the living room, and took a seat on top of Kerry. Being the smallest of the men in the Coven, he fit neatly onto Kerry’s lap. He brought up a favorites list and dialed one of the numbers, leaning back onto Kerry’s broad chest. Kerry ran his arms around him.
Putting the phone on speaker, he let it ring while he held it out. Just before it went to voice mail again, someone picked up, but a male voice that was definitely not Tamara’s papery whisper answered.
“Hello?” Jimmy said hesitantly. “I’m trying to reach Tamara. Do I have a wrong number?”
The voice, with a faintly Eastern European accent, said, “No, no. I am answering for her. She is at the Wells tonight, talking with staff and new nest-mates. She told me to take your call. This is Jimmy, yes?”
“And you are?” Jimmy wondered.
“Tadej,” both the voice on the phone and Ian said at the same time.
“Yeah, I know him,” Ian said. “He’s the science experiment we left in the shed, that Tamara adopted. Turned out to be a good guy after all. For a vamp.”
“Ohhhh,” Jimmy said. “Well, pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“Yes, yes. Stewart, is that you?”
“Hey, bud,” Ian called out. “How they hangin’?”
“Same as before,” Tadej said. “If not a bit better. You are well? What is the problem?”
Jimmy answered, “We have a little favor to ask. We need a tracker to help us find something that’s been chewing up pets and animals the last night or so. It’s not normal. Like, it might be an eight-foot coyote or something.”
“Hmm! Tracking large monster. So you call because we vampyr have better noses, yes?”
“That would be correct,” Alex said. “Hey. Glad to hear you recovered and all.”
“It is forgiven. Old news. Tamara, she cannot help you tonight, but I could. Where shall I meet you?”
Alex blew out a gallon of air before he said, “Better come to the house, here on West Oak. That okay? I promise not to lock you in the shed this time.”
Tadej laughed out loud, a pleasant sound. “Alright then. I see you in half hour.”
Dolores answered the Estate’s house phone on the second ring. Alex never knew if she was waiting for a call—surely not? Or if she just knew when he was thinking about her. Given the connection between them, now that he had become the sword-bearer, the latter seemed likely.
“Hello, dear,” she said. “So. What is your question?”
“Oh, Grandmum.” Alex tried not to whine, not quite succeeding. “Is dogcatcher really in my job description? When did you develop this relationship with Mr. Stafford?” He sincerely hoped he could find a way to wiggle out of this obligation, because he suspected that now that Sorrows was back under the Bureau for Paranomal Affairs’ aegis, that they would might be calling upon him at any moment. Be a hell of a thing to be out chasing a dog when the client called, he thought
“Darling, we’ve known him since Gottfried’s day. He’s had our backs for a very long time. Yes, you are responsible for alliances other sword-bearers have made. That I have made.”
Oh, not good. That just opened a whole new pantry full of canned worms. He drew a long breath and let it out before saying, “You and I need to have a talk about this.”
“We do. But first, go find the gentleman’s dog.”
“He’s not human.”
“No. But he’s still a gentleman, and far more of one than some.”
He figured he might as well throw the BPA card. “Suppose Julian calls with a task?”
“I will take care of Mr. Machliec and his masters, never fear. Surely this won’t take all that long?”
Alex heard the shouting from the street about ten minutes later. He opened the front door to find a tall, lanky figure at the end of the front walk, waving his arms.
“Tadej?” he called.
“Cannot get past your ward!” the vampire called back.
“Oh, shit. Hold on. I keep forgetting it’s there.” He thumped down the front steps and strode to the edge of the property, where he had put a blood ward in June. “I’m so sorry,” he said as he approached. “So sorry. Doesn’t stop ordinary humans, you know. Bad ward! No biscuit! Let the nice vampire in.”
Tadej blew out air noisily, his breathing loudly showing how much the ward had disturbed him. “Stung me when I tried to come up the walk.” He followed Alex back up the walk, stepping gingerly over the invisible line.
“Didn’t know what I was doing when I set it,” Alex told him. “Doesn’t keep Tamara out.”
“No, she already had permission to be on your land.” The tall dark-haired vampire shook his head, whether at his master’s choice of lovers—Jimmy—or at hanging around with the sword-bearer and Coven, Alex couldn’t tell.
Once in the lighted entry hall, Alex got a chance to look over Tadej’ lanky form, clothed in black jeans and tee shirt under a battered punk leather jacket, decorated generously with steel spikes. The dark-haired vampire thumbed his jacket’s lapel. “Is old-fashioned, but I still like it.” A human would have been pouring sweat in the humid heat, but vampires never seemed to care about such things.
Ian came around Alex and stared up at Tadej with catlike curiosity. “You look a lot better than even three weeks ago,” he said.
Tadej nodded, his long black bangs falling across his eyes. “Scars nearly gone.” Indeed, only a faint tracery that reminded Alex of mended porcelain criss-crossed Tadej’s long, narrow face and crawled down into his collar.
“Good to see.”
“So, you have a large creature you need to find. Let us start at the last known place.”
“That would be the chicken-destruction, unless Brenda calls with something new.”
Kerry emerged from the living room and waved them into the dining room. He pulled out his phone and poked it until a map application came up. “Figured we’d better do a little homework.” He scrolled the map around until it focused on the area around Stafford’s farm, next door to the Gotth Estate. “Here’s Stafford’s place. Here’s the barfed-up cats—“
“I’d barf, too, if I’d eaten five cats,” Ian interrupted. “Shit, let it eat cats. Maybe it’ll go home when it gets tired of fur between its teeth.”
“Shame on you, Stewart,” Kerry reproved, drawing himself up. Ian shrugged, unrepentant.
Tadej made a snorting noise that was probably a laugh, covering his mouth with one long hand.
“Anyhow,” Kerry continued as Alex peered around his shoulder, “There’s the chicken place. Damn, that’s in a straight line heading toward my Mater’s house!”
“Better go rescue Mister and Binky,” Alex said resignedly. Yeah, this was shaping up to be a fun night running through back yards and bramble patches and brushy woodlands.
“Hell, yes. Gear up, guys.” Kerry whirled and zipped upstairs, Ian and Alex following at a more moderate pace.
Tadej waited patiently in the entry hall while they went upstairs and pulled on their long rip-stop tactical pants and heavy boots. Ian brought them their ballistic vests as Alex fastened on his vambraces.
“I don’t think it shoots,” Kerry said, eyeing the heavy vests, knowing just how hot they would be on a humid July night.
“Yes, but with the plates in, they make reasonable armor. We might need that,” Ian said, and thrust Kerry’s into his hands.
When they arrived back downstairs, they found Tadej doodling a pleasant tune on the upright piano in the foyer. Alex stopped beside him.
“I didn’t know you played!”
“You live long enough, you learn a few things,” Tadej tossed off. He finished the run on the keyboard and swung around and to his feet in one smooth motion.
After promising Adele, Jimmy, Trent, and Brooke that they would be safe, the four of them piled into Havanah the Rolls and Alex pointed them south toward the site of the chicken carnage, consulting Kerry’s map app. They pulled up in front of that house, and while the others went around back, Alex plucked Sorrows out of the air, slung her on his back, and rapped on the front door. The lady of the house answered, and he introduced himself, letting her know they would be in the back yard, nosing around. Then he clomped down the steps and trotted around to join the others.
Alex found them standing back while Tadej crouched, inspecting the ground, then moving crabwise, here and there. He would stop, utterly still, then move abruptly, not even bothering to act human, which spoke to his comfort level in their company.
Tadej looked up, his eyes wells of darkness in the dim light. “This will be pretty easy,” he said. “Thing stinks like a wet dog.”
“Huh. No, they’re different. Something fae, possibly.”
“Oh, yay,” Ian muttered. Their experience with fae so far had shown that fae were tough opponents. “Fae with claws and fangs, even better.”
“I don’t recall Primo doing anything this extreme,” Alex pondered. “But who knows? Nothing is what it seems these days.” He pulled out a small tac light, clicked on the bright LED and swung it around. Large paw-prints had been caught in the softer earth. He pulled a big tuft of fluffy black fur from the mangled chicken wire and rolled it between his fingers and thumb. “Damn. This could be Primo’s fur. What the hell?”
Tadej circle the wreckage twice and then pointed off to the north-east. “That way.”
“Across country. Wonderful.” Kerry shook his head.
They set off behind the lanky vampire, who loped off into the underbrush and trees surrounding the lawn. The vampire seemed to melt between the trees, and Alex trotted after as best he could, Kerry and Ian crashing along behind him. After a few minutes, Tadej jogged north into another yard and paused.
“You sound like elephants.”
“You want stealthy, you need Mike,” Ian said. “Get on with it.”
Fifteen more minutes of zig-zagging through yards and woods brought them out onto another country road, and they jogged in a line toward town, aided by a clear night and bright moon. As they reached a corner that would take them toward Kerry’s childhood home, they heard a car coming up behind them and stopped as it headlights painted them. The black Honda roared past them, and in the streetlight, Alex thought he recognized that fist-shaking man.
Kerry waved his hand past his face in the blast of exhaust as it passed far too close. “Phew. That guy needs his valve seals looked at. What is his damage?”
“Come on,” Tadej urged. “I hear something.”
“Aside from being crap at engine maintenance?” Ian replied to Kerry, “Dunno. Say, maybe we should put Mister in a box and wait for the hairy bastard to show up tonight? Kind of a stalking horse thing.”
“You want to tell that idea to my Mom? Are you crazy?”
“Okay, maybe not.”
They caught up to Tadej, who said, “Maybe we should find a female dog in heat? Maybe he like that, too.”
Ian shook his head. “That hairy bastard might like it, but I wouldn’t want to wrangle an angry cat and a bitch in heat along with a critter that size.”
“You’re probably right,” Alex admitted. “Kerry, let me talk to your Mom. She might do it for me, lend us Mister and his vet crate.”
“You’re gonna owe her big time,” Kerry warned. “If anything happens to that cat, she’ll have your balls on a stick.”
Alex gulped. “It’s my cross, and I must bear it. We have to try to catch it tonight, that’s all I know. Somehow.”
Chapter 4. Slippers, Anyone?
“Alex?” Miriam Jeanette Jourdain, Kerry’s mother, opened the door and leaned out, peering at Alex as he stood on her porch. Ian, Kerry, and Tadej formed a restless backdrop behind him. The tall woman frowned at him, then at her son and the other two men. “What on earth are you boys up to?”
“Mom—? Kerry began.
“No, let me,” Alex cut in. “Miz Jourdain—?
“You’re old enough to call me Mimi-Jay, Alex.” Amusement crooked her full lips. “Come in?”
“Mm, alright.” Alex bent his head, scrubbed the soles of his boots on the mat, and followed Kerry’s mother inside to the front parlor. Like her son, she wore her dark, coppery hair messy and almost shoulder-length. Suggestively tight jeans and a tank top showed that Mimi-Jay still had it going on, even with a grown son. She held out for kisses from Alex and Kerry, and just winked at Ian with a sort of “look at what you’re missing” twinkle in her eye. Tadej blinked at all this and stayed in the background.
“Who’s your friend? And why do you look like you’ve been running through the woods? Guns, guys? And Sorrows? Kerry, I’m still not sure about that beard of yours.”
As Kerry huffed, “Mom!” Alex tried valiantly to head her off at the pass.
“Mimi-Jay, this is Tadej, one of Tamrara’s nest. Please, this is time sensitive.”
“Hmf. Well, then.” She cocked a hip and looked up at him inquisitively.
“We’re trying to trap a…well, we don’t know what it is, but it eats pets.” Out of the corner of his eye, Alex noticed Kerry fading into the kitchen after the enormous Maine Coon that had come downstairs to greet them. Binky, the Siamese belonging to Terri Draper, appeared to be hiding tonight, with all the strange people in the house.
“Goodness! That’s terrible. What is it? Why are you after it?”
“It’s about seven feet tall,” Ian put in. “Hairy. Mean. Hungry. Don’t go outside tonight. We’re trying to catch it.”
A rattling and a meow in the kitchen clued Alex in. Ah, better to ask forgiveness than permission. “Mister and Binky shouldn’t go outside until it’s caught, please.”
“That’s not good. Not that Binky goes outside. Terri wouldn’t have it. I think I could keep Mister inside for a bit.” She rested one elbow in the other palm and tapped her lips. “With adequate bribes.”
Alex heard the soft whush of the back door opening.
His mother heard it, too. “Kerry, what are you doing?”
“Refusing to let Mister out,” Alex’s First called back. “And kitty snacks.”
Mimi-Jay raised her eyebrows. “Figures. Well, consider me warned. Stay for a drink?”
“No thanks, ma’am,” Alex said, hoping Stewart wouldn’t overrule him. “Best we be on our way.”
They clattered back down the front steps as Kerry’s mother closed the front door, and then Alex zipped around the house toward the back, and nearly ran over Kerry—and Mister, in his vet box—by the garage.
“How’d you keep him from meowing?” Alex stooped to peer into the cage, and saw Mister vacuuming up a number of kitty treats, ignoring his captivity.
Ian bent over beside him. “That’s one big fucking cat.”
“Yup.” Kerry hoisted the cage. “Where to now?”
“Back yard here,” Tadej suggested. “It was heading this way.”
They made their way further into the very deep Jourdain back yard and put Mister down on the picnic table toward the rear of the property.
“He’s going to smell us,” Ian said, resting his rump on the edge of the table.
“He knows Kerry and me. Maybe he’ll come to us.”
Ian slanted a look at the cat carrier. Mister turned large round green eyes back on Ian. “Lotta cat snacks, too.”
Then, Mister turned and suddenly fluffed up to twice his size, visible even in the dim light, through the woven bars of the cage, and hissed in the direction of the forested rear edge of the property.
Alex straightened up and started forward. “Primo? Primo? Is that you? Come on, boy.”
A massive form hulked in the shadows fifteen feet away, moving with surprising silence. Round red eyes opened and blinked at Alex and the others from about seven feet up. Alex moved forward, hand held out, palm down, making kissy-noises at the giant shadow, hoping he wasn’t about to get eaten.
Something very large snuffled. Bit by bit, it emerged, as if the shadows themselves, from the back porch’s dim yellow light, were coagulating into a strangely upright silhouette.
“Come on, puppy, that’s it.” Alex didn’t feel at all like coaxing it out. He sincerely hoped it wouldn’t be faster than he could call and swing Sorrows.
The tall thing resolved into an upright figure, walking, bent over on its hind legs. On its left arm, something silver jingled: Primo’s red leather collar with its tags, slid on its thick arm like an arm band.
“Holy cats,” Ian murmured. Mister, meanwhile, let his intense displeasure be known by hisses and banging around the cage. The thing’s fiery eyes tracked to the cat carrier.
“Primo, is that you?” Alex took another step forward. The hulking creature dropped to one knuckled, clawed partial hand, keeping the other one tucked near its body. Another step, and he saw that the creature looked like some kind of nightmarish humanoid loup-garou thing. Its long tail swept back and forth as it caught Alex’s scent.
“Mis-tah Al-esh,” the creature said through jaws not really meant for speaking. It hopped forward—and collapsed into a large, dirty, Newfoundland with glowing red eyes. The Newfy took up slobbering all over Alex’s hands, panting and smiling.
“Good god, Primo, you talk?” Kerry said. When Kerry spoke, the dog turned eerily sapient eyes toward him.
“Sweetie pup, why’d you run away?” Alex thumped the huge dog’s sides and fondled his floppy ears. “Mister Stafford is worried sick about you.”
Ian said, “That ain’t no Newfy.” He slipped to the side and picked up Primo’s collar from where it had fallen in the grass.
Kerry pushed Mister’s cage behind him. “You should not have eaten those cats. BAD DOG.”
Right under Alex’s hands, Primo expanded back into his larger form, still drooling, his fur becoming coarser and longer. “Not ba’ dog. Not ba’ dog!” Then he turned his over-sized wolf-like head, saw Tadej creeping up behind him in a flanking maneuver and yelped, “Not go home! NOT GO HOME!”
Turning and gathering himself, Primo knocked Alex off balance as he leaped. Alex scrambled in the air, feeling like a live Tex Avery cartoon, and lunged for Primo. Fast as the dog-monster moved, he moved faster and managed to get his arms around Primos’ neck. From the other side, Ian launched himself to land on the dog-monster’s wide back and hung on.
Primo bucked, yipping, and bounded in a nauseatingly zig-zag path toward Mimi-Jay’s favorite large blackberry bushes in the side yard. Hard as Ian tried to hold on, his tenuous grip on Primo’s fur released, Primo shaking him off. As Ian went tumbling, Alex wondered who was yelling, and realized he was, as he slid between Primo’s enormous clawed forefeet. Those claws dug into the earth for traction far to close to Alex’s head for comfort.
Kerry pounded across the yard on a collision course, trying to get in Primo’s way, hoping to waylay him as he dragged Alex through the blackberry bushes. Primo just put his head down and shouldered Kerry aside with a huge thump, leaving Alex tumbling across the yard. The terrified creature bounded through the bushes of the side yard and across the road into further woods.
“Shit!” Kerry yelped, seeing not only his sword-bearer go flying, but his mother’s favorite bushes trampled and broken.
As the three of them picked themselves up and dusted off the grass and dirt, Kerry added, “What the fuck? Now how are we going to catch the hairy bastard?”
Ian shrugged, brushing grass off himself. “Anyone want a pair of hairy slippers? I got guns.”
“STINKY fuzzy slippers. Ugh. No thanks.”
They made their way back to the street in silence, Alex picking blackberry leaves and stickers out of his hair. Kerry brought up the rear behind Ian and Tadej, lugging a much quieter Mister.
At the curb, they heard a familiar poorly-tuned engine rev and the black Honda whipped past once more with an angry barrage of honks and blast of oily smoke. They followed its passage with their eyes. “I don’t get that,” Alex muttered. “If you hate me, at least tell me why.” He shook himself and more leaves escaped down the neck of his shirt. He squirmed, loosened his ballistic vest, and yanked his shirt out of his pants to get the itchy things and whatever bugs lived on them away from him.
Tadej shrugged. “Sorry, sorry. What now?”
“We need a tiger trap,” Ian said. “But what’s going to hold something that big? That can shape-change. I mean, it even knocked over Kerry. Kerry’s damn hard to knock over.”
“Which is why my uncle thought I should play football instead of twinking out in drama class,” Kerry muttered.
“Go figure,” Ian said.
Alex broke in: “I think I might have an idea. I wonder if we can pull this off.”
Mister meowed his irritation from inside cage as it swung from Kerry’s fist.
“I feel ya, kitty,” Ian muttered, twirling Primo’s collar around his index finger.
Chapter 5. Take One for the Team
As all four of them trudged down the road toward the Rolls, Alex pulled his phone out of his back pocket. Miraculously, it had escaped any damage and even had three bars of service. Surely that’s a good omen, Alex hoped.
He dialed Stafford’s number. The farmer picked up just before it went to messages.
“Mister Alex,” the old man said, sounding rather dejected.
“Mister Stafford, we found him.”
“You did? That’s marvelous, where can I—?
“Not so fast. Sorry, but he got away. I mean, what are you trying to do to Primo? We found him and he says he absolutely will not go home. He was happy to see me until we mentioned going home, and then he totally freaked out.”
Silence greeted that pronouncement. Somehow, Stafford not being surprised that Alex referred to his dog as speaking did not surprise Alex, either. Time to take the gloves off.
But before Alex could get further, Stafford blurted, “I knew it. It’s the scaled legs. Or maybe the spines on her back, or the dentata.”
“Wait, what? On whose back? Dentata? If you don’t mind my asking, what the heck is Primo, anyway? Come on, Mister Stafford. I have vampire friends, and I’ve fought Witches, mages and redcaps. I think I can handle it, whatever it is.”
Stafford sighed gustily. “He’s a barghest, and I have a contract to breed him, which can only be done at the full moon while the bitch is in season.” He paused, then added, “My client is mighty upset about this.”
“Stay where you are. We’re coming to you,” Alex growled.
Behind them, up the block, they could hear Kerry’s mother yelling out the back door, calling for Mister.
“Better hustle,” Kerry muttered, and they broke into a trot. Mister’s grumbling meow bounced in time with their boots as they thumped the half-mile toward the Rolls.
As Kerry set Mister’s cage down in Stafford’s entry hallway, the cat let out a low, ominous growl, no doubt sensing more dog-monster. Stafford’s house, however, looked neat as a pin. Alex himself, even with his sensitive nose, didn’t smell dog.
“Oh, shush,” Kerry said tiredly. He bent down and stuck his fingers through the hatched bars on the front of the otherwise solid plastic cage. Mister stopped complaining and pushed his large head against his human’s hand, as he mumbled soft nonsense to his annoyed feline master.
Alex, Ian, and Tadej, somewhat the worse for the wear, stood in a tight group next to Kerry and cat as the old man went to get his client. To their dismay, they had found the black Honda parked in front of Stafford’s Victorian farmhouse.
“Well,” Ian said softly, “Now we know why that guy was so pissed off.”
Stafford, a tall man a bit stooped with age, silver hair afluff, trod back to them, followed by a rather nondescript middle-aged man. Alex suspected that the client’s expression of annoyance never varied much, as it had engraved his face into hard lines. Behind the client guy, a huge female Newfoundland paced. She sat on her haunches as her master coasted to a stop—until she saw Mister. Then she stood up again, and shook herself, growing larger by half. Spines better suited to a giant porcupine rattled and stood up on her back, and yes, her forepaws were both scaly and furry and generously clawed. With the red, burning-coal eyes, of course.
Mister hissed, and the she-barghest whimpered, backing up a few steps. Her scaly forefeet scratched on the wooden floor nervously.
Alex watched this and wondered just how fierce this female might be, that Primo was afraid of her. But then, he wouldn’t want to get in Mister’s way, either, when that cat had his dander up.
“Melia, stop,” the client guy barked out, and she stopped in place, although a tiny whisper of a growl slipped from her chops.
“Mister Alex, this is Mister Lowry and his barghest, Melia. Mister Lowry, this is Alex Gotth, Sorrows’ sword-bearer.”
Alex, who had Sorrows on his back again, stepped forward and offered his hand to shake. Lowry took it grudgingly. Sorrows pinged as Alex sent a tendril of his power toward Lowry, whose head went up as he sensed it. In return, Alex got a generous waft of incense from him, identifying Stafford’s client as a mage. He wondered what kind of deal had poor old Stafford in a bind with this bad-tempered magician.
“My pleasure, Mister Lowry. I’m sorry, Primo’s been uncommon hard to catch. I wish we had known what we were dealing with to begin with.” Alex slanted a look at Stafford, who had the grace to look a bit abashed. “I’ll get right to the point. We need you to help us catch Primo. Mister—er, Magister Lowry, yes? You seem to know where Primo is most of the time. Right?”
Lowry nodded, still eyeing Alex and Sorrows.
“Could you not drive him back here?”
“Tried that. He came back and then broke through right my spell at the last minute. We can’t hold him.”
“It’s something that makes barghests much sought after,” Stafford said with little enthusiasm. Alex suspected he was as tired of Lowry as they were.
“I think I know what can hold him,” Alex said. “If you’ll bear with me.”
An hour later, Alex, Kerry, Ian, and Tadej stood waiting at the bottom of the drive up to the Estate house, just inside the open gates. Kerry stood protectively behind Mister’s cage, which rested at his feet, well within grabbing distance. Alex stood beside him, jiggling from one foot to the other. They had driven Havanah the Rolls back to the Gotth Estate and then hiked down the drive and opened the gates wide.
Alex, as sword-bearer and Gotth family member, had instructed the Blood Line to withdraw generously from the entrance, leaving a wide path up to them. Hopefully a non-threatening path, with a huge tasty cat at the end—not that Kerry would have let any creature harm a whisker on Mister’s large furry head. As they waited, Alex felt the Blood Line, the family’s enormous ward around the Estate, mutter sleepily and continue its slow but unending movement.
The Blood Line ward, made from the previous sword-bearer’s sacrificed life-blood, creaked softly as it faded in and out of visibility, its thigh-thick canes and vines moving slowly. Nearly black, the thing still melted into the night when it became visible, its huge leaves the color of dried blood, its foot-long black thorns ready to skewer and consume invading preternatural creatures.
“At worst,” Tadej said, “He gets in and you slam the gate. Then we find him on the Estate later.”
“It is a containment,” Ian agreed. “If you consider a few hundred acres a containment. Kinda hard to cover all that in one night.”
“Still,” the vampire persisted, trying to look on the brighter side. This discussion had been going on for the last fifteen minutes, while they waited.
Kerry and Alex sighed almost simultaneously. Alex thought he yet had some itchy blackberry leaves stuck in his shirt and down his pants. He hoped it wasn’t itchy poison ivy leaves. Bugs, too, maybe. Perhaps Sorrows is poison ivy proof? he hoped. Please please please.
In the soft susurration of Her voice, always present in the substrate of his thoughts, Alex thought he detected a bit of a chuckle.
Then, in the distance, over the quiet of the humid summer night, with its singing crickets and frogs, they heard the rumble and rattle of Stafford’s truck. Before the truck, like a pressure wave, Alex could feel the mage’s spell coming toward them like an approaching storm.
Ian grunted. “Damn, he’s strong. Even I can feel that one.”
“I would run, too,” Tadej agreed.
The four of them shifted on their feet, getting ready—hands empty. They wanted to be the carrot to Lowry’s stick.
They heard the scrambling thud of Primo’s feet drawing near as he galloped in his half-human dog-monster form, running on all-fours. Then he turned the corner and skidded, claws sparking on the pavement.
Ian stuck his fingers in his mouth and whistled. Primo’s nose lifted, scenting them.
“Here, boy! Come on, sweetie,” Alex called, clapping his hands. “Come on!”
“Nice tasty kitty for you, oh so yummy!” Ian called. Kerry cuffed the back of Ian’s head; Ian just laughed.
Primo, panting, a massive tank-like bulk in the night, dark on dark, swiveled its head, listening to the approaching truck, weighing his options. Glowing coal eyes blinked thoughtfully.
“Come on, baby, come to Alex. You’re safe here,” Alex cooed. He felt terrible about lying to Primo, who clearly trusted him as he turned and padded toward them, shrinking into his merely large Newfoundland form.
As he passed the gates, Alex gave the command to the Blood Line. “I’m so sorry, Primo. You won’t be harmed, I promise.”
In an instant, the massive wall of living rose canes roared to life and snapped around Primo—fencing him in on all sides. Primo howled disconsolately, thrashing, causing Alex to wince. However, he knew the Blood Line—surely the template for the briar forest over Sleeping Beauty’s castle—would only cage Primo, not drive its massive thorns through him—because he, Alex, so commanded it.
“Shh, baby, it’s okay. We got ya. Calm down, it’s okay.” Alex approached the massive wall of thorns which had become fully visible and solid. He waited until he heard the truck pull up, the men jump out, and the cage in the bed of the truck rattling open.
Ian handed him Primo’s sturdy red leather collar, jingling with its tags, and Alex held out his other hand, pushing slowly forward into the thorn wall. The vines loosened and pulled away for him, letting him get within a hand’s breadth of the barghest, who stood whimpering, unable to move without impaling himself. Alex reached in and fastened the collar around Primo’s thick neck. The barghest turned his red, glowing eyes upon Alex accusingly.
“I’m so sorry to do this,” Alex explained. “We owed Stafford a favor or three, and he asked me to catch you. I hope Melia isn’t as awful as all that, pup. Surely you’d want to get it on with a nice lady dog?”
“Now you behave, alright?”
“Take one for the team, Primo,” Ian called. “You got this.”
“He’ll stay in that form when I get near him,” Stafford called. “Let me reach through.”
Alex pictured how he wanted the thorns to move, and they obliged, letting Stafford come in from the other side to get his fingers around Primo’s collar. Alex sighed, and let the Blood Line fall away into invisibility again.
“That thing sure is handy,” Ian said, coming up behind him.
“Seems so,” Alex agreed, watching Stafford scolding Primo, who crouched submissively under the hands of his angry master. Yet, Stafford’s hands remained gentle on the creature, even if he was shaking his finger at the dog. Clearly, Alex thought, he loves that beast. Impulsively, Alex dashed over to bend down and throw his arms around Primo’s neck.
“I’m so glad you’re okay, Primo,” Alex said, burying his face in soft, stinky black dog fur.
Primo muttered, but his tail thumped the ground. Alex felt forgiven, and his heart eased.
As he straightened, he saw Stafford’s form waver, and he glimpsed what he realized must be the farmer’s true visage through the glamour. The old man stood straighter and stronger, and while his face remained weathered and brown, years fell away. Alex saw long, silvered black hair, with many braids strung with beads at his temples, framing knowing pale green eyes, and yes, ears with definite points. Stafford looked like a retired Elven warrior, scarred and worn, to Alex’s eye.
Stafford held his eyes for a moment. Alex felt the inner door to Master of Sorrows open within his consciousness as his aura flared into vast tissues of golden light around them, brightening the darkness.
“I am most grateful,” the fae in front of him said, his voice no longer quavering with age, nodding to Alex.
“You are most welcome, old friend,” Master of Sorrows replied with a smile.
Behind Stafford, Lowry cleared his throat impatiently, and the glamour resumed. Stafford smiled at Alex, whose aura folded back into invisibility, and the moment passed as quickly as it had come.
Chapter 6. Epilogue
Only a week past New Years, Alex opened the front doors to the mansion upon a brisk afternoon. The chime from the gate had gone off, and Dolores told someone to come up. Behind Alex, his Coven crowded around to see who or what had come up the drive unannounced.
On the steps, under the port cochere, he found Mister Stafford, wearing a nice suit and overcoat, his silver hair properly combed, and holding a wiggling black furry bundle in his arms. The puppy squirmed and yipped at Alex, who gasped. He held out his hands.
“Oh my! Is this what I think it is?”
Stafford nodded, putting the female pup on the ground. She already had a pretty red collar and leash. “Sure enough. One purebred barghest bitch.”
“Ohmygod, she’s beautiful!” Alex lunged and hugged the startled farmer. “I’m so happy for you! Are you bringing her by to visit? That’s so nice of you.”
Alex squatted in front of the puppy and held out the back of his hand. She took a tentative step toward him, then whuffed, her eyes glowing red for a moment. Tiny spines down the center of her back rattled, and little gryphon-like claws sparked on the marble of the entry hall floor. Then she calmed, wagged her tail so hard her whole butt wiggled, and leaped up to lick at Alex’s face. Alex laughed with delight and picked her up as she washed his face with a sloppy bright pink tongue.
“Oh no,” Stafford grinned. “She’s all yours.”
Behind Alex, Kerry groaned, and Dolores laughed.