Cold Moon Rising
Sweat rolled down my forehead, trailing ribbons of salty wetness through the layers of caked-on grime. I swatted at another black fly intent on sucking my blood.
There were a lot of bugs hovering just outside my reach, but only the extremely hungry ones dived in for a meal. They just donít seem to like the taste of magical blood.
The muscles in my right arm were starting to get tired from all the swinging. Although sharp and efficient, the machete did little to clear a path through the dense canopy of green surrounding me. I heard Will Kerchee having to cut his own path, even though he followed close behind. Shadows still enveloped us, but a reddish-gold glow on the horizon told me two things: it was going to be hot, and it was going to rain. Both of which meant it was going to be muggy as hell for the rest of the job.
"We apparently have different concepts of access, Kerchee. When you said we could get here easily, I presumed thereíd be a road." The jungle seemed to swallow my words so they were barely a murmur above the raucous noise overhead. I suppose I couldnít blame the various prey animals for screaming about our presence here. The alpha magic that enveloped me, tethered me to Will, did keep away the press of the moon that struggled to pull wolf fur from beneath my skin. But it also pressed against the animals, warned them of our journey through their home. The sheer weight of it was like being stuffed inside a dry suit in the heatóor a sausage casing. It was enough to make me want to scream too. As it was, I had to fight an urge to climb the trees and rip out their screeching, furry little throats.
Everything was too intense, a by-product of the supernatural power that made me a creature bound to the moonís whim. Every scent was like a knife through my brain for the three days surrounding the full moon. If people wonder whether animals feel joy or worry or frustration . . . yep, they do. I could smell their emotions drifting on the air. But the mere reality of emotions doesnít mean Iím not going to eat my next burger with all the enthusiasm of the wolf inside. Iím more of a carnivore now than I ever was. Raw meat smells like heaven now and blended with the hot and sour soup scent of terror around me, around us, the glands at the back of my jaw were drooling in time to the growl from my stomach.
"Geez, Giambrocco. Whine, whine, whine," Will replied with at least as much of a wheeze as Iíd hoped to hear. "I said I could get here easily. Why in the hell Lucas stuck me with a partner for this job who canít fly is beyond me."
It was beyond me, as well. Lucas Santiago is our boss and is usually pretty bright. But this time I was wondering. It was bad enough to deal with the reality of being a shapeshifter, when such things arenít supposed to exist. But Will could shift into a bird? No, that was still a bit too much for this former mobster brain to handle this early in the morning. Yeah, Iíve seen him shift and fly off as the massive bald eagle he is, but itís no less hard to deal with for the experience.
Another fly bit me, and I slapped my neck. My normally sensitive ears, made a dozen times worse by the sting of the moon, registered the clap of flesh on flesh and the slight squishing sound at the level of a jet take off. Iíd probably be deaf already if not for the healing powers us imaginary monsters have. I took my hand away from my neck to look at the smear of blood-covered insect legs on my palm. Got it! The scent was enticing enough to cause me to bring my hand up to mouth and lick the blood off. Yuck. I hate it when I do that. I spat onto the ground to clear out the taste.
A clearing appeared in front of me, and I took the opportunity to lift my canteen to my mouth and take a long swig. What I wouldn't give for a cold beer right now.
Will was still chopping away at the thick undergrowth several yards back, so I took the opportunity to take a long sniff of the slight breeze that finally stirred the leaves.
It wasnít far now. Oil, diesel, and unwashed humans with supernatural blood fought for dominance in my nose from the distance, yet we were still too far away for even my sensitive hearing. But there were no tell-tale outlines in the darkness. I can see colored auras around other Sazi, giving me warning when theyíre nearby. Will stood out like a beacon in the sunlight. But Iím told that nobody else but me and one or two others can see the lightsóthey call it Second Sight.
We could hope I wasnít missing anything.
A swishing sound next to my ear made my instincts take over. I moved sideways, fast, and reached out to stop the arm holding the long, curved machete in mid-stroke. The black leather glove Iíve started to wear on jobs squeaked from the sudden effort and slid against my sweaty palm. Then I pulled the body attached to the arm into the clearing beside me.
"Think you might be a little more careful with that thing?" I asked in a harsh whisper, because now I was starting to catch whispers of machinery in the distance.
Will took off his pith hat and mopped at his brow. I thought the pith hat was a little overkill. A green cotton headband served me just fine.
When he set the hat back on he replied, "Wuss. Youíd heal. Besides, I missed, didnít I?"
I shook my head and adjusted my backpack and rifle sling. "Not for lack of trying. And keep your voice down. Weíre close now."
Will began to remove his backpack. The khaki cotton shirt hung like a limp dishrag from his bronze skin, sopping wet with sweat. The smell was almost enough to make me retch. I glared at him with disgust. None of the other Native Americans Iíve met dripped sweat like this guy.
"What?" he asked with irritation, as he dropped into a squat on a moss covered rock.
"Have you ever heard of deodorant, Will?" I asked in the same whisper.
"Birds sweat in human form, Tony. We just do. I have antiperspirant and deodorant on," he replied in a normal voice with a withering look. "But I only put it under my arms, like everyone else in the world. I didn't coat my body with the shit. Wish we would have had enough time to get some of the Wolven cologne that would kill our scents. This job is going to be tough enough without the bad guys smelling us coming a mile away." He paused and shook his head in frustration. "Damn wolves and your touchy noses. Hope the snakes arenít as sensitive." He pulled a slightly less damp cloth from his pants pocket, then took off his helmet and set it on the ground beside him. I was a little surprised that he kept his hair high and tight, regardless of regulations. Once again, many I met around Nevada tended to fight for their tribal right. But he did strike me as the strict law and order type. He wiped his face again. "Itís hot, and weíre not exactly going to a fashion show. Besides, youíve been keeping a pace that would kill a draft horse. My calves are killing me. Donít you ever get tired?"
He opened his pack and removed a roll of beef jerky. Iíve always been fond of beef jerky. But after three days tramping through the jungle eating nothing but, I was starting to change my opinion.
I let the backpack slide from my shoulders and leaned my Kalesnikov against the nearest tree. My own shirt was wet enough to wring out, so I figured I might as well. "Hell, I didnít get tired back when I was a vanilla human. Plus, weíre on a tight schedule," I replied quietly, stripping the faded green ex-army jacket from my body. "I donít know about you, but I had other plans this week than wandering through the jungle hoping to find where a captured Wolven agent is being held. Itís just good luck that I stumbled on that guard last week in the restaurant bar and could use my hindsight to fix Raynaís location. Who knew that three-day snakes got drunk on tequila so easy?" I twisted the shirt diagonally and watched as wetness poured onto the green grass. A pretty easy way to mark my territory, I had to admit.
"Iím pretty sure my foresight might have had something to do with us being in that bar, so back off, wolf." I think he was annoyed that one of my Sazi magic abilities is hindsightóthe ability to see and experience someone elseís memories when I touch them, while his is foresightóthe gift of seeing the future. The hindsight is the reason for the gloves. Itís a skin on skin thing, and fortunately, although annoying and uncomfortable, gloves do help slow down accidental images. Hindsight is very matter-of-fact, and pretty damned useful. Youíre seeing what already happened, which lets me see details of an event that Kercheeís ever changing future visions canít provide. Itís not a gift that a three-day wolf should have, since weíre the lowest of the low in the supernatural world. I canít even control my own change, which was why Will was with me.
In all honesty, though, the hindsight part doesnít annoy him nearly as much as the fact that I even work for Wolven, the shapeshifter law enforcement agency. Will Kerchee is a state cop in Texas, and despite the fact that Iím slightly reformed, Iím still an accused gangster from the Midwest that would be pretty easily convicted if put in court. The new identity as J. Anthony Giambrocco doesnít negate the fact that Tony Giodoneówhile presumed deadóstill has an arrest warrant on the books in two states, and is guilty of a lot of things that would make a jury pale. So it bugs him that weíre partnered. Heíd much rather be slapping cuffs on me. I donít have to do much more than watch his fingers twitch to where his sidearm would be in uniform to know that. At first, I couldnít resist making sudden movements at the edge of his peripheral vision just to watch him react . . . and a birdís peripheral goes back nearly to his spine. But then came the moon, when we were all supposed to be out of here a week ago, and now heís expending energy to keep me from turning. Iím being nice, but itís not really in my nature. Thatís more Sueís natureómy wife. Weíre bonded with more of that Sazi magic. Sheís in my head right now, tethered to me just like I am to Will. But she doesnít really like watching when I go on jobs, so I keep the door between us locked off. Iím getting better at that. At first, I couldnít control her involvement at all and killing people really trips her trigger. Like Kerchee, sheíd much rather save a person than off Ďem.
Flies began to buzz around Willís head. His face lit up with a pleased expression when he discovered a fat, nondescript black beetle that had managed to crawl into the jerky roll. I shook my head as he popped it in his mouth and crunched down cheerfully. Birds and bugs. Ick.
I looked around the clearing as I put the now wrinkled, but drier, shirt back on. I looked like hell, and probably smelled as bad as Will, but he was right ó we weren't in a fashion show.
Life rose up around us in the growing sunshine like a wave. I saw flies and gnats hover around both of our sweaty heads, and heard larger insects and animals further out in the jungle. I could see them, smell them, taste them. A python in the grass had considered us prey, but stopped as it sensed that invisible magic that screamed Sazi . . . shapeshifter . . . predator. It slunk back, retreated, and now was giving us a wide berth. The monkeys and colorful birds in the trees continued to screech and call, and scold, their numbers growing as daylight made them bolder. And somewhere, deeper in the green sea of vegetation, a panther watched us. Sensed me sensing it. I turned my eyes toward the shadows and stared. I could feel a growl try to escape from deep inside of me. I didnít let it surface, but I sent a trickle of magical energy out toward the hidden eyes and felt it react. This was my territory now. For as long as I was here. It disappeared into the artificial darkness.
This seemed an odd place for a clearing. But no trees had been cut down for a homestead or anything. The canopy of trees and tall ferns just seemed to . . . stop. The undergrowth had no such problem, and the vines and grasses were almost knee high. Damn, it was already getting hot! But luckily, the humidityís only 100%.
"So," said Will through a mouthful of salted meat, "What now? Which way do we go, bwana?"
"Who put me in charge?" I asked irritably, "Youíre supposed to be leading me to the spot, remember?"
He shrugged gracefully, nearly a flapping of feathery wings. "That ended in the bar. Youíre the one with the hindsight. Lots more accurate than my vision. I could tell you where we were if I was flying above. But on the ground, Iím not much better than human. Iím pretty sure weíre going the right way, and you seem to be doing just fine."
Pretty sure? Great, just what I needed ó to be lost in a jungle in Central America. Actually, though, as soon as he said it I realized he was right. I was sure where we were. We should reach the spot in less than an hour, if the breeze wasnít playing games with my nose. I didn't understand how I knew, only that I did. Living out someoneís memories is always strange, like deja vu. Part of me doesnít like this weird Sazi shit. But the other part, the hunter part, finds it perfectly natural. Like itís the logical next step.
Maybe it is.
I took another drink out of the big canteen in my pack and carefully filled the smaller water bottle on my belt. Most of what was in our packs was water. But the load was getting lighter faster than Iíd planned. I hadnít counted on three days of blistering heat during the rainy season.
My elbow did the pointing toward the next thicket of green. "That way, another hour, give or take . . . if the bugs donít chew us down to bone by then." Another fly, another slap. I winced at the sound before the background settled into a monotonous, droning of a thousand different insects that I never used to notice.
Monotonous . . . regular.
My brow furrowed. That one whine, high pitched and steady, was a little too regular. No rise as it ventured closer, no fall as it darted away. Had it been there a minute ago? I couldnít remember. But whatever the expression on my face was made Will cock his head and lower his brows.
I shook my head again. "Donít know. Somethingís not right." I stepped a few feet in one direction and then the otheróin a pattern of ever expanding circles with Will as the center. Still the whine persisted, as though coming from everywhere. "Can you hear that hum? Itís really high pitched."
He crossed his arms over his chest and turned around slowly, face intense. But then he shook his head, and lowered his voice to a near whisper. "Nothing, and my hearingís pretty sharp. Tinnutis maybe?"
Could a Sazi get ringing in the ears without magic healing the nerve damage before it could register a sound? Well, I am as close to human as a werewolf can get, and donít heal for shit, so who knows? "Lower your shield on me for a second. Letís see if it gets better or worse."
I felt the release before I even registered the dip of his chinósudden enough to nearly drop me to my knees from the sheer weight of the moon that crashed down on me. Pinpricks slashed at my arms and legs, as the sharp tips of fur struggled to emerge from my skin. I stayed standing, but just barely, and had to clench my fists and jaw to keep from letting out a raging howl from the abrupt pain. He watched me, not so much in concern for my welfare, but to see if I could manage the strain.
Iíve had worse, so I could.
Once I could focus my head a little, I concentrated on the sounds around me, trying to filter out everything except that one whine. The thing was, I recognized the sound, but couldnít remember from where. Whatever it was seemed out of contextófamiliar, but in the wrong place.
"Ignore it," Will said while shouldering his rifle again. "Itíll go away soon enough."
"Nope. Canít do it. Iíve learned to trust my instincts . . . even the wolf ones. Weíll have to stay here until I figure it out." I tried to think of other high pitched sounds, but none of them matched in my brain. Electrical lines . . . no. Bats . . . huh-uh. Fluorescent light, compressor, computer . . . nope. But the word mechanical kept swimming up to the top of my brain over and over. This wasnít a natural noise.
Will let out a frustrated little chirp, like a strangled screechówhich it probably was. "Weíre already running late. We canít afford for you to figure it out." But I ignored him and kept trying to find a name for the sound, until finally he lowered his rifle and pack to the ground and started to strip off his shirt. "You keep watch on my stuff. Iíll fly ahead and find their camp and then come back here to let you know how far it is."
I couldnít help but snort even though I didnít bother to watch him strip. "Uh, right. And you donít think a bunch of other shapeshifters will notice a bald eagle floating a few thousand miles out of range over the jungle? Feeling a little suicidal today, are we?"
He let out his own rude noise that was accompanied by a weird combination of scentsóoranges and burnt coffee. He was apparently both amused and annoyed at my comment. Oranges is humor and laughing. Caramelized coffee tells me the person is pissed. "Give me a little credit, newbie. Iíve been doing this since before your granddaddy was a glimmer in his pappyís eye. My eyesight is exceptional. I probably wonít have to do much more than get above the treetops to spot the camp and even if I have to take a few flaps, Iíll never be close enough for them to spot me through the canopy.
The moon picked that precise moment to drop me to my knees with a strangled scream, and I had to bite my lip to keep more sound from coming out. The door between me and Sue flung wide open and I was abruptly in two places at once. She was grocery shopping, of all things, and the phantom image of shelves and produce overlaid on the ferns and vines. The squeak of the cart wheel was lower pitched than the sound in my head, but I suddenly realized I was hearing the same sound in two places.
What the hell?
Tony? I could hear Sueís voice drift over the whine and the animals in the trees, and could sense a feeling of panic take her over. Whatís happening? Are you okay? I see a jungle and hear lots of screaming.
I thought I shook my head, but I really couldnít tell if it was moving or if I was only imagining it. Something was wrong . . . very wrong. Hearing the sound in Sueís world only confirmed that and made my heart race faster. Animals, and theyíre just ticked off, not hurt. But I canít talk now. Bad things are about to happen.
Two things hit at once. First, Will shifted forms in a blur of motion that my eyes really couldnít follow, and spread his massive wings while bunching his legs to spring upward. Then, Sue moved her cart to near the automatic doors by the soda machines, out the way of other shoppers in case she couldnít pull herself out of the crisis. The whine got louder in that part of my mind and the realization of what the noise was suddenly crashed home. I spent a dozen years of my life as a security consultantóinstalling and repairing alarm systems and the like. It was the shoplifting sensor near the door I was hearing, a beam of light between two contacts that lets out a nearly imperceptible whine . . . until it gets interrupted by an activated item.
I turned and shouted at Will, no longer caring whether anyone heard. "No! Donít fly up!"
But it was too late. Heíd already let out a flap that took him soaring a dozen feet high. Another click told me I was right and all I could do was race for cover as gunfire from a dozen points in the trees shattered the morning air. I stood a better chance surviving as a smaller target and could run faster in wolf form, so I stopped fighting the pressure of the moon on me. I felt Sue partially collapse against the shopping cart as fur began to flow and every bone in my body broke and reformed at lightning speed. The pain that filled my mind wasnít from bullets . . . or at least, I hoped it wasnít from bullets. It was a little hard to tell.
When the automatic rifles had expended their clips a few seconds later, and acrid smoke and silence filled the air, I finally poked my head out from beneath the heavy log that had taken the brunt of the damage. No surprise that the animals had booked it for the border. I would too in their place.
It was hard not to be impressed by such a subtle trap. Now that I knew what I was looking for, I could see the bits of metal scattered among the tall trees around the open space. We must have somehow tripped a switch when we entered the clearing that activated the sensors. Then, with no cover, any intruder trying to leave the clearing would be eliminated. No fuss, no mussóand plenty of warning to the bad guys to close up shop in case they missed anyone.
Will was on the ground, still in bird form. One wing was covered in blood, but he smelled more angry and embarrassed than in pain. As I stepped closer, struggling to ignore the scent of bird blood while my stomach growled, he opened that yellow beak and ticked his tongue across the edge, making a sharp sound that was probably a curse word in bird language. "Note to self . . . listen to the villain standing next to you so the villain in the brush doesnít kill you."
One of my ears flicked forward, the wolf equivalent of a shrug. "Canít say I didnít tell you to stay put. Anything other than the wing . . . winged?"
He shook his feathery head. "No, but my forearmís busted clean in half. They were apparently expecting Sazi, because the bullets were silver. Thatís why I havenít turned back. I donít want it to heal wrong during the change. Mind setting the pieces back together so I can shift back? Now that the campís been warned by the gunfire, we donít have much time."
I looked at him and down at my wolf form and raised a paw. "Any clues how to accomplish that? Iím not an alpha, remember? I canít change back by choice, and as you can see . . . no opposable thumbs."
Those too-bright eyes stared at me before he blinked once, down to up, like my python-shifter buddy, Bobby, does. "Well, hell. Doesnít that just suck moss-covered swamp rocks? Yeah, I can change you and hold you, but Iím going to wind up healing damned slow."
"You going to be able to handle a rifle? Weíre going to need them to get out of here, Iím betting." I was starting to hear shouts in the distance. Either they were coming for us, or pulling up stakes where they were. I looked toward the sound and so did Will. It occurred to me that I wasnít seeing grocery items anymore, and couldnít seem to sense Sue in my mind. It wasnít uncommon that she would shut the door on her own when the crisis was done and there was blood on the ground. It turns her stomach and the fact that someone elseís pain excites me now isnít something she likes to think about much. But I had to admit that the desire to pounce on my partner just to hear him yelp, and then savor sweet, metallic blood, was strong.
Kerchee interrupted my thoughts. "Donít see why not. Just switch rifles with me. The auto has a shorter sling and my trigger finger is fine. Itís a room broom anyway, so aiming isnít much of an issue." He winced just then and his wing twitched. So did I, and that bothered me.
"Actually, weíre going to have to speed up the process. The boneís already trying to knit, and with it snapped like this, itís going to try to fill in the gaps with new bone."
"And that would be bad?" Iíve had more than one time since turning wolf that I considered it a really good thing that my body filled in missing gaps. Nothing like barely surviving a dragon feasting on you to appreciate healing abilities.
"Oh, that would be very bad. My arm would be crippled and I doubt my fingers would work right. And even if a healer re-broke it, it would try to remember the new form. It would takes months and months to get it back to normal and it would be impossible to explain to humans, so Iíd have to be off work until it was right again. Magicís sort of like quirky software. If you stay in the parameters, itís awesome. But press just one wrong keyó"
Ah. Got it. Yeah, Iíd noticed that myself. "So, you want to change me back and Iíll hold it steady?"
His wing twitched again and the feathers started to move. I didnít think he was doing it because he stumbled a little and wound up having to catch himself with his other wing. "No time. Just grab it with your teeth. Itís a clean break, so all you have to do is hold it steady while the magic does its thing."
I looked at him as askance as a wolf can. "You want me . . . the three-day wolf with barely enough magic to have human thoughts, to grab onto your bloody wing with my mouth? On the first day of the moon? Youíre either very brave or very stupid, because I havenít eaten since dinner last night and itís everything I can do right now not to have you for breakfast."
His lower jaw moved in what might be considered a laugh. "You forget Iím an alpha. Iím going to hold you motionless once youíve clamped on. You wonít be able to move your jaw enough to chew."
It was true that Iíve seen him do the magical freezing thing. He and Bobby, the third member of our crew, had a duel of sorts after weíd had a few rounds at the bar. Most Sazi canít get drunk, since our brain cells heal too quickly to be impaired. But just the ceremony of drinking relaxed the two tough-guy alphas enough to try stupid things. I was supposed to be the judge to determine who had the strongest magic, but I had to call it a draw since neither of them wound up completely unable to move and the overload of magic was making fights break out all over the bar. Still, I was betting he could hold me just fine.
There are some things that are against my better judgment that I wind up doing anyway. This was going to be one of them, just so we could finish this and get out of here. I stepped forward, trying not to think too much about the plan. It seemed simple enough, but Iíve learned that not everything is simple in the supernatural world.
"Letís go over to that tree," he said, and I struggled to listen. But the closer I got to him, the stronger the smell of blood was. It filled my nose, started my saliva dripping and tried to turn my brain to putty and put a red haze over my vision. "I can prop my wing tip on that broken branch so you can keep the bone straight." I could see the bone now, the two sharp ends poking up through the feathersóbright white against the dark brown background. He turned and hopped toward a tree and I followed, transfixed by the spots of red that marked his path. My nose dropped to the ground without my willing it to and more of my brain shut down as the sweet scent filled me.
"You still with me, Giambrocco? Is the moon getting to you too much?"
"No, Iím fine." Even as I said the words, I knew the wolf was taking over, lying to the bird so he could replace the fire in his belly with red, warm meat.
Cautious, slow. I moved toward the wounded bird carefully. I didnít want to startle it enough to fly. The part of my mind that was still human was rebelling. There was something about feeding on another human that it objected to. My heart started beating faster as I ran my nose slowly over the wounded wing. My mouth opened and I felt the sharp end of bone press against the roof of my mouth and feathery softness glide over my tongue. Clamping shut my jaw suddenly made the bird gasp and writhe and made my jaw convulse, tighten, until I could feel my teeth sink beneath the feathers into firm flesh. More warm, salty wetness slid down my throat and I swallowed it, but it only made me hungrier.
No more of this toying with the prey.
A growl escaped me and I started to twist and rip at the wing. Human words that I recognized as cursing filled my ears, and a second wing began to beat at my head. I laid my ears down, closed my eyes and continued to feed. Pressure then against me, forcing me to stop. I tried to open my jaw, but it was fixed tight. That wasnít acceptable. The prey doesnít control the hunter. I reached out to fight against whatever bound me, kept me from the food, and felt my mate in the background. She was eating meat too, and the taste of it drove me wild. I fought harder and touched a thin line in my mind that was my pack. I hadnít felt the other wolves for so long, but now they were with me. They could taste the prey too and wanted to share in the feast. I felt fur replace flesh and other teeth struggle to reach what I was tasting.
With renewed vigor, I snapped and ripped at feathers and flesh until it began to shrink in my mouth, change until it was an arm, not a wing. Then hands opened my mouth, threw me to the ground, forcing me to raise up again and pounce.
But the bird was gone, replaced by a man, who quickly climbed a tree and sat on the limb staring down at me with both anger and amazement. But it was the jaw-tightening scent of fear that made me jump against the tree, tearing bark off in my effort to get back to eating.
Then the moon eased against me, pushed away by an unseen force, until I was in a bubble of magic again, turning, changing until I was back in the accursed human shell once more.
"Whoa." I blinked and stared down at the blood staining my hands and bare chest. "Man, I hate it when that happens." I didnít even want to think about the revulsion I felt. Iíd killed a man before during another blind wolf moment, and I still have nightmares about it. Strange that a trained assassin would flinch at death, but thereís something thatís just . . . wrong with ripping out a throat with my teeth.
"Jesus f-ing Christ, Tony!" Will was staring at his arm, now whole again, but with more than a few teeth gouges that were slowly filling in as I watched. "How in the hell did you defeat my magic like that? I should be able to hold you like you were an insect."
I took a deep, shuddering breath and held it until I could think my own thoughts again. "Power of the pack. You werenít just holding me, you were trying to hold a dozen hungry wolves. I didnít think I was attached to the Chicago group anymore, but apparently I was wrong. Iíll bet Nikoli is having an interesting day just about now, turning wolves back human." I was betting I was still in Central time zone, meaning it was also morning in Illinois.
Kerchee climbed down out of the tree slowly, keeping a close eye on me. I should probably find it weird that we were two guys naked in the jungle, but Brokeback Mountain this wasnít. It was more locker room of the weird than any sort of turn-on. Will turned and started to put on his clothes and left me to find my spares from the pack that was now mostly ruined near the log where I first turned.
We quickly and silently picked up our weapons and returned to the task of tracking down the camp, which wasnít too hard anymore, as much noise as they were making. The hard part was keeping to the undergrowth and staying quiet so the roving bands of troops didnít spot us. I could smell them as snake a mile away, and they could likely smell us too, but the scent of Willís blood was too strong, and it led them to where weíd been . . . not where we were going.
By the time we passed through a small stream where we washed off the blood and got to the edge of a rock outcropping near the camp, Iíd returned fully to my mind. Iím glad that Kerchee didnít feel the need to "talk" about what happened. Iím not good at apologies, and saying I told you so didnít really seem appropriate either.
We couldnít ask for better timing, because a helicopter arrived just as we did, scattering our scent in every direction. It must have made us seem a much bigger force than two, because everybody started sticking out their tongues and getting panicked looks. Snakes shifters stick out their tongues a lot to scent the air when there arenít humans around. Even Bobby used to lick his lips so much he had to keep a tube of lip balm handy so they didnít crack.
"Keep an eye out for where they might be holding Rayna."
I glanced around at the canvas tents and corrugated metal shacks that wouldnít do much more than provide limited protection from the weather and shook my head. "Sheís a tiger, right? Well, unless sheís underground, or theyíve got a steel cage in one of the buildings, sheís not here. Nothing Iím seeing would hold me, much less an alpha cat."
But then what before my wondering eyes did appear but a Sazi woman, surrounded by a bevy of creosote-scented men of all nationalities, pushing her toward the copter. I have no idea why snakes smell like creosote, but they do. The woman, on the other hand, had a definite "cat" smell. Yeah, just like the small ones when you walk into someoneís house, only bigger.
The bevy of men werenít admirers, although the woman deserved a second look. I counted twenty, then thirty, armed soldiers. Thereís a vast difference between a "guard" and a soldier. A lot of it is how they carry themselves, and their weapons. These guys looked both ready for action, and eager for it, from the way they were searching the jungle . . . but keeping to their posts. One thing Iíve learned about snakes, thoughóonly a very few of the species are what they call day hunters. Those of the night hunting variety have really shitty eyesight and hardly any nose. If the soldiers were sticking to the formula Iíve encountered before, they would be tasting the air for our location and feeling for a heat source. Good thing we were still wet from the river and in a shady spot.
I was expecting one woman prisoner, but the second one who was dragged out of the nearby tent took me by surpriseónot only because she was there at all, but because of who she was.
"Um, wow. Thatís not who I expected to see."
"What in the hell is she doing here?" Willís quiet voice held the same surprise as mine. But when Angelique Calibria, the Łber-tough, bitchy-as-hell representative of the raptors on the Sazi council, was abruptly slapped to the ground by another woman who got off the helicopter . . . and stayed there looking scared, Kercheeís voice turned much more worried.
"I think weíre in some serious shit here."
Cold Moon Rising will be available for pre-order soon.
Publication is in August, 2009
Banner Photograph copyrighted to Timothy Klein and used with permission.