“I am not going to wear that to a demon slaying.” Nero Bramson stood naked to the waist in the Wisconsin snow. He was surrounded by his werewolf team and they were headed into serious business. But apparently Pauly’s brain was still on last night’s Trivial Pursuit game.
“You lost, so you have to wear this,” he said as he held up a pink tee that read “Crazy Cat Lady” and was covered in stupidly cute kittens.
“We’re here to do a job—”
“Yeah, yeah,” his friend rolled his eyes as he waved toward the lake. “We’re here to kill a basic demon who’s been eating ice fishermen for who knows how long. Human body, big teeth. We can take care of one of those in our sleep.” He shifted the tee in the pre-dawn light just to show off the glitter on the kitten collars. “You lost, you have to wear this today.”
Nero bared his teeth, not surprised when it had no effect on his team. Pauly’s partner Mother actually snorted as she started to strip out of her clothing before shifting to wolf. “You shouldn’t bet on trivia when you suck at it.”
“I grew up in Florida. What do I care about big ten football?” He’d lost the game—and the bet—on some obscure Michigan vs. Ohio State statistic. “But I’m not going to wear something stupid and endanger this mission.” He looked to the other two members of his team for help, but Cream and Coffee had already shifted into their animal forms. They were timber wolves and were prancing about in the snow oblivious to Pauly’s attempt to humiliate their leader.
“The fabric’s so thin, it’ll rip in a stiff breeze,” Pauly said. “It’s not going to endanger anything.”
Just his pride. Bad enough to wear pink but the cat lady moniker was going to stick. And for a werewolf, that was adding insult to injury.
But Pauly was grinning as he tried to hide his cell phone, no doubt ready to snap pictures the moment Nero donned the garment. Mother was chuckling as she shucked the last of her clothing. And even Cream and Coffee had laid off rolling about in the snow to watch him with happy expressions.
It was what he’d wanted for his team. They’d been going full out for the last few months and everyone was starting to feel the strain. They’d taken out vamp nests, sewer demons, and his personal favorite: a wizard off his anti-psychotic meds. When Pauly had suggested a night of trivia and shots, Nero had thought it was the perfect stress relief. Who knew the guy had an encyclopedia of sports facts in his brain? Or that they’d finally get a location on the demon chomping on unwary Wisconsonites next to Lake Wacka Wacka? That wasn’t its real name, but it was all he could remember.
He fingered the garment. It really was paper thin, and though the pink would stand out against the snow, his team was the best. They could take out the demon even if it spotted them a few seconds early. Maybe he could manage to rip it on one of the evergreens.
“Come on,” Pauly wheedled. “A gentleman always honors his debts.”
“Now you’re just being rude.” He was not a gentleman by any stretch of the imagination, but damn it, he’d fake it if it meant keeping those smiles on his team’s faces. “Fine,” he said as he pulled the shirt over his head. “But you’re paying for breakfast.” It was his favorite part of every mission—the celebratory meal afterwards. He had the perfect pancake house in mind, and it would cost Pauly a pretty penny since they’d all be starving after demon killing and a glorious romp through the snow.
“Totally worth it,” Pauly said as he snapped pictures rapid fire.
“Get into position,” Nero grumbled, and then he stripped out of his pants.
Damn, it was cold. He waited until everyone had gone full furry to slam and lock the van door. He put the keys in a box hidden inside the driver’s side wheel well, then gratefully sprouted fur as he turned into the big, bad wolf of all those childhood fairy tales. Only this wolf was going to kill a demon before breakfast.
All in all, today would be a great day. Even if he was going to be staring at pictures of himself in a pink tee. It was stretched tight across his wolf chest and though he tried to rip it as he breathed deeply, the fabric strained but didn’t tear.
Pauly’s gray muzzle was pulled wide in a wolfish grin, and even Mother yipped quietly in laughter. He growled to silence them, but that only made Cream and Coffee snort. Nero then let out a stern bark and everyone settled. It was time to get down to business, and after five years of working together—three with him as alpha—they knew his moves as well as he did. His pack was the elite of the elite at Wulf, Inc. And though there were other shifter packs with other organizations, his was the acknowledged best mostly because they’d gone for three years without a casualty. And in the world of the weird, that was a miracle.
They peeled out in formation, ranging wide as they searched for the demon. Cream scented it first, but the stench soon enveloped them all. Brine badly covered by Axe body spray. Gah. Hell, even a human nose would pick that up. They picked up speed, and Nero quickly forgot the embarrassment of attire. They were all caught up in the chase.
They found the demon squatting behind some young evergreens near an iced-over lake. It looked to Nero like a maraschino cherry: all its colors were off. Sure, it was shaped like a normal human male, but the skin looked more pink than flesh, the hair had green undertones, and the eyes seemed flat and creepy. Like glass eyes because—according to the fairy who had put them onto this thing—the demon didn’t use its eyes to see. Those empty baby blues were for appearance only since its whole body pulsed with paranormal radar and its receptors were on its skin, not in the eyes. The only part of it that seemed normal was the mouth, though it was too wide and the teeth were sharp.
He went in first. It was his right as alpha. Plus, it was just plain fun to get in the first swipe.
The creature’s attention was on the lake, probably waiting for unwary ice fishers as there were some winter cabins nearby. It had been chomping on them plus cross-country skiers for at least a decade before it had caught the Paranormal Alliance’s attention. The silent munchers were always hard to find, but thanks to the internet and cell phone cameras, the task was getting easier. And now that it had been found, Nero’s strike team would end it forever.
Seeing that the others were in place, he bolted forward through the snow. God, he loved this part. The sheer joy of his body moving like black lightning through the white landscape. Something about his wolf body erased his human aches. Bum knee, stubbed toe, achy shoulder—it all disappeared when he was a wolf.
He took a wide arc around the creature’s hiding place, then dashed in to hamstring it. The thing was prepared. Whatever radar it had alerted it to the danger, but it was hemmed in by evergreens and too slow to leap away. It was fast for a human, but not a werewolf, and Nero dodged the swipe with ease. Better yet, he timed it just right, swerving around, then ducking under the swing such that he could get a bite of demon calf.
Score! He ripped out a solid chunk of the demon’s leg. He was grinning around demon flesh.
Then the taste hit. Gah. Brine. Tasted like shit, but he’d done his job. Blood spurted from the creature’s leg and like everything else about this thing, the color was off. Orangey-pink like shrimp. He darted away before he could get covered in the crap.
He spit the mouthful out as soon as he could, his momentum taking him well out of the reach of the demon’s hands. Mother and Pauly went in second. She’d go for the throat or crotch. She was vicious that way. Pauly would take out the other leg. Then it would be all over, and they could go for a real run in the woods.
He kept his tail high as a message that said, All good. He was spinning around when the first gunshot rang out. It was the demon. Clearly it had been in this world long enough to learn about firearms, and it was getting off rounds with a surprisingly steady hand given that Mother and Pauly had done their job. Both its legs were torn to hell and back. Some of his crotch, too.
That was the thing with demons. They could section off parts of their bodies like a starfish. Its entire lower half could be torn away, and the upper body would still work. Good thing they’d trained for just this possibility.
Cream and Coffee were already on it. Cream would take out the gun arm, Coffee would go for the throat. Some demons had to be dismembered and apparently this was one. Mother and Pauly were rounding the trees, cutting closer and obviously anxious to take the bastard down. Nero tensed, ready for his pass just as soon as Cream and Coffee delivered their strikes.
Bingo! Coffee got it across the neck and weird blood sprayed. Cream had the gun arm clamped between his teeth and was ripping it off the bastard’s body, but the thing was way more dexterous than they expected. The demon managed to toss the gun from one hand to the other—while being dismembered—and got off a shot.
Cream yelped in pain and dropped the arm. He still tried to run, but his back leg was fucked up and he tumbled nose over tail. Coffee’s momentum had already taken him past, but that’s was okay because Nero had already started his pass. He’d forgo the demon in favor of pulling Cream’s ass out of the way while Mother and Pauly followed up with the killing blows. But he couldn’t carry Cream as a wolf. Way easier to scoop up a canine with human arms, though the wolf weighed a freaking ton. He just needed to get the guy out of the line of fire long enough to dig out the bullet. It was much too dangerous to attempt a shift back to human with a bullet in the body. Too many bad places for the metal to lodge.
Not many shifters could make the change while moving, but fighters didn’t often have the luxury of a quiet place to shift. He was a year into training with Wulf, Inc. when he perfected the moving shift. It was one of the reasons he’d become a team alpha so young. The key was expanding his mental image of himself to include the environment. Any werewolf could change his body image from wolf to human, but it took practice to think of oneself as human, wolf, plus the ground and the snow over which he moved. Add in the trees and even the fucktard demon, and he was at one with all, slipping into an energy place before resolving into a human still on the run. He even knew how to time his balance so that he could keep running while scooping up Cream’s back end. The wolf would then run on his front legs while Nero managed the back.
That was the plan and he began it with flawless precision. He went from running on all fours to a dissolving flow of energy. His awareness took in the stupid T-shirt he wore, the ground and the air, the pulse of the demon’s radar, and something more. There was a build-up of power from the demon’s head. Coffee hadn’t fully de-capitated the thing, so there was growing magic centered at the spine right behind the jaw.
That couldn’t be good. And in this state, he didn’t have the ability to broadcast a warning. Plus, it happened so fast. He’d barely sensed the power when it detonated.
The bastard demon exploded in a fireball that could be seen from a satellite. Fortunately, Nero didn’t have a body to burn. He didn’t even feel pain, just a surge that tried to disrupt his energetic state. It was a mental scramble for him to ride the wave without disintegrating from it, but he managed and then he resolved himself into his human body. He needed to scream a warning to his team. He needed….
The smell hit first. Even in a human body, he relied on his sense of smell.
Burnt flesh and smoke.
His bare feet registered blistering heat next. It burned his soles even as he kept running.
Vision came next and he saw a landscape that was no longer winter wonderland. He was running through the center of a blast zone, and when he bent to scoop up Cream, all he got was charcoal remains.
He couldn’t breathe. Everything felt choked off even as it burned through to the bottom of his lungs. And what he heard was absolute silence.
He stumbled, falling to his knees but unable to release the charred bones of his friend. He looked down, his hands tightened, and the fragments slid between his fingers. He turned, frantically searching for his teammates, someone to share the shock with, but all he saw was burnt bodies and the melted ice of the water.
He saw the demon then, and shit, how could that thing be still alive? Sure, there were demons who could shoot fireballs, but he’d never heard of one who could create an explosion on such on a massive scale. But the evidence was clear, as was the pink blob of partially dismembered demon body. It was beside the lake, rolling to the edge before it fell in. It wasn’t going to drown. It would sink to the depths of the lake where it would reform into a smaller, simpler body. Nero wanted to chase it. He could dive into the water and tear it apart with his bare hands.
But he couldn’t leave Cream.
Or Pauly. Or….
He scanned the area, identifying the bodies, not from anything recognizable but from their locations on the blackened ground. Cream at his feet, Pauly just a few feet away. Mother beside her partner. And Coffee furthest away but facing toward him because he’d been running back to help.
Four bodies. And a half mile radius of scorched earth.
He started to shake, and his feet blistered. The heat from the ground was intense, and he was naked except for the tee. He stripped out of it and put it under his feet. He’d have to walk back to the van, thankfully out of the kill zone. His phone was there, too. For some reason, he thought he could call for help. Maybe someone could do… something.
It took another moment of staring before he realized he didn’t need his phone. He had someone to call on for help: a fairy prince who owed him a favor. He’d saved the guy’s life in a barfight, of all things. He’d been at the right place at the right time, and by fairy rules, that meant Bitterroot owed him a favor. The bastard also owed Nero an explanation as to why he’d sent them after this demon without telling them the thing could blast fire.
Clutching his hands into fists he called out Bitterroot’s full name three times. The condescending prick appeared instantly, almost as if he’d been waiting. He was a short guy or a tall elf, standing about two foot four with bright eyes and a collection of butterflies attached to his body. The fairy was a collector of sorts and always had some manner of creature hanging around him.
Bitterroot appeared with his usual smug expression on, but his eyes widened in shock as he took in the surroundings, incLadding the charred remains at their feet.
Nero didn’t let him get his bearings. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he demanded. “You didn’t say it could blast fire.”
“You didn’t ask,” Bitterroot rasped, his expression still shocked. “There are rules.”
Fucking asshole fairies, always with an excuse. But it didn’t matter. They needed to handle the problem now. “Can you fix this? Can you help me?”
Bitterroot shook his head slowly, his gaze landing with horror on the ash outline of Mother’s body. “I can’t—”
“You can.” Nero swallowed, the solution sitting heavy in his mind. The brass at Wulf, Inc didn’t have a lot of rules. The main precept was complete the mission and don’t die. But there was another: never negotiate with the fae. Wolves always lose. Nero did it anyway. “Give me a mulligan.”
The fairy’s gaze snapped back to Nero’s. “That’s not an easy thing.” He took a deep breath. “It’s an expensive thing.”
“You owe me. I saved your life.”
“Which gives you one wish.” The fae rubbed his hand over his face in a weirdly human gesture. “A mulligan is complicated.” Then he waved at the center of the blast zone. “What would you do different? How could they survive that?”
Nero didn’t have an answer. He’d been lucky to be in an energy state when the boom hit, and he’d barely survived it. The others might not be able to do that, and Coffee was a traditional werewolf. He never fully dissolved into energy but sprouted his snout and tail in an excruciating agony that took time. Coffee definitely wouldn’t survive, but Nero had faith in his team to figure it out.
“We wouldn’t attack at all,” he said. “We’d take time to plan—”
“Not possible. You still have to attack today.” Then before Nero could argue, Bitterroot held up his hand. “I don’t make the rules.”
Nero choked back his frustration. Much of his brain was still screaming in horror, but what focus he had pulled up a solution. “Can you hold onto the mulligan? Let me use it when I’m ready.”
Bitterroot frowned and a single brilliant red butterfly set off from his arm to flutter in front of their faces. He caught it gently, speaking quietly to it in a language Nero didn’t understand. The fairy waited a beat, then another, as if listening to an answer. In the end, he looked up at Nero. “I can hold it for seven times seven days, that’s all. And you’ll have to pay.”
Forty-nine days to find an answer to an explosion that had taken out a mile of Wisconsin. “Deal.” His team was worth whatever the cost. No question.
Bitterroot’s expression hardened. “You’ll serve me, Nero. A year of your life for every day that I hold the mulligan open.”
Nero’s breath caught. Fairyland was a place of nightmares. No mortal belonged there, and no one came back sane. “Deal,” he repeated, his voice strong though inside he shuddered at the magnitude of what he’d just promised.
“Standard rules apply. You can’t tell anyone about this, and you can’t go bargaining with another fairy to change this one.”
Nero nodded. That part he’d already known. “Agreed.”
“Agreed.” Then Bitterroot stuffed that bright red butterfly in his mouth and swallowed it whole. He grimaced at the taste as he glared daggers at Nero. “Don’t ever make me do that again.”
Then he disappeared.
It was done. When he was ready, he’d call on Bitterroot and be zipped back in time to fifteen minutes ago—before the blast, before they even attacked. He’d be able to redo everything, making sure everyone survived the blast.
He didn’t have time to figure it out now. Police sirens were wailing the distance, and he needed to come up with a cover story before they got here. The good news was that whatever he said wouldn’t ultimately matter. Eventually, he’d go back in time and fix the problem before it even started.
In fact, he realized, everything he did for the next forty-nine days didn’t matter. So long as he figured out how to defeat that fire blast, everything would reset once he used the mulligan. His team would survive, and life would go on as if this never happened.