Frost Burned (Mercy Thompson #7)

Chapter 3

chapter
Chapter

"Do we need lights?" asked Jesse.

"I'll get the big kit in the shop," Gabriel said, and ran for it. Night was dark to him, but he knew his way around, and the first-aid kit was on the wall just inside. He wouldn't be as fast as me, but I was attached to a werewolf at the moment.

I knew what Adam would say about turning on the lights when we were possibly hiding from some unknown group capable of taking on a pack of werewolves and coming out on top. But my night vision wasn't up to first aid in the dark.

"Flashlight," I said. "Under the counter. Also get the box cutter next to it in case I have to slice his clothes." I put my hands on either side of Ben's face and tried to make him look at me. "Ben. Ben."

"Yes?" It came out clear and crisp-upper-crust-British, as Ben, with his excellent four-letter-laced vocabulary seldom did. But he didn't let me pull his face up so I could see it.

"Where are you hit?"

"Tranq. Arse." That one wasn't as clear, but I could understand him and assumed the last word was a location and not an epithet, though with Ben it was a risky call.

"No. Not the tranq." A tranquillizer dart wouldn't have left him bleeding this much later. "Someone shot you, Ben. Where?"

Jesse aimed the flashlight. "Leg," she said. "Just above his right knee."

He wouldn't let me go, so Jesse sliced through the fabric of Ben's khakis with the box cutter. Gabriel took the flashlight and got a good look at the wound.

"In and out," he said, sounding calm, though his face paled and took on a greenish tinge.

It hadn't healed, so either whoever had shot him was using silver bullets – or the silver in the tranquilizer mixture was slowing his healing. Whichever way, we needed to get the bleeding stopped.

"Telfa pad," I told Jesse. "It's important not to use anything that might stick on the wounds." Ben's skin could grow over it if he started to heal as fast as he should be healing. "Then gauze, then vet wrap. We'll pack up, go to Samuel's, and hope that he's home."

Samuel Cornick, who was both a doctor and a werewolf, would know best what to do for Ben. He wasn't answering his phone, either, so he'd probably gotten the message from Bran. He also wasn't pack. There was a good chance that he'd been overlooked when they, whoever "they" were, had gathered up the rest of the wolves. I hoped desperately that he'd been overlooked.

I needed to get Ben to Samuel, then I needed to get help – which hopefully would also be accomplished at Samuel's. I needed to find Adam, the pack, check on the other wolves who hadn't been at Thanksgiving – and make sure that no one else had been taken or hurt, like Warren's boyfriend or Mary Jo's fellow firefighters.

If our enemies had known to find Mary Jo and Warren, then they knew more than they should about who was a werewolf and who was not. If they were humans – and Ben would have told me if he'd noticed that they were anything else – and they were willing to kidnap damn near thirty wolves, then they were either crazy, planning on killing everyone all at once, or at least armed and very, very dangerous. And they might be feds, despite Ben's recollection of Adam accusing them of lying.

"Can you stand?" I asked Ben, when Jesse had finished making a pretty good job of the bandage.

He grunted.

"We've got to get out of here. If they knew enough to get Warren and Mary Jo, we've got to assume they know about this place."

"Danger," he said, sounding bad again. "In danger. You." That thought seemed to inspire him because with a sound that was more wolfish than human, he stood up, then sort of sagged until he was draped over me.

"It's not the leg," he said, overenunciating a little. "It's the drug. Weak. Weak. Weak." He was tensing up, his eyes bright gold with the wolf's drive to protect itself. No predator likes to be weakened and vulnerable.

"It's all right," I told him firmly, because it was important that he believe me. If he didn't, he'd get aggressive, and we would have even more trouble. "You are among friends. Gabriel, grab the keys to the Mercedes parked in the garage and help me get Ben to the car."

Marsilia's dark blue Mercedes, an S 65 AMG, was parked inside my garage lest anyone walk by the parking lot and decide to key the paint or toss a rock. It was three months old, here to get its first oil change, and I could have bought a second shop for less than its sticker price.

"The AMG?" Gabriel said, though he retrieved the keys as he spoke. "You're going to let Ben bleed all over a Mercedes AMG?"

"He's already bleeding all over a Mercedes," Jesse said dryly. Then she turned to me. "Wait a minute. The AMG? That AMG? Mercedes Athena Thompson Hauptman, what are you thinking of? You can't let Ben bleed all over Marsilia's Mercedes."

"Marsilia the vampire queen?" Gabriel choked. "Mercy, that's just stupid. Take my car."

"She's not a queen, she's the Mistress of the seethe," I corrected him. "That car seats four and doesn't scream VW mechanic on the run with wounded werewolf." What I didn't say, because I didn't want to panic anyone, was that because the vampires were a lot like the CIA crossed with the Mob, the Mercedes also had bulletproof glass. More importantly, if we were really dealing with an attack by a government agency, this car was clean of tracking devices. Between me and Wulfe – the magic-using vampire who served Marsilia – all the tracking gadgets that were routinely attached to new cars all the way down to the RFID tags on the tires had been disabled.

And right now I had bigger things to worry about than offending Marsilia, scary though she was.

Get Ben to Samuel, who could treat what was wrong with him.

Take Jesse and Gabriel to someplace safe.

Find whoever had taken my mate and get him back.

Adam's pain was a roar in my heart, and I was going to make everyone who hurt him pay and pay.

It was like triage. Decision one – preserve those who were safe. Decision two – retrieve the rest. Decision three – make the ones who took them regret it.

On that thought, I ran back into the office. At Adam's request, I'd taken to keeping my 9mm Sig in the safe. Being married to the local pack Alpha gained me some notoriety, and it made Adam feel better knowing I was armed. I shoved two spare (loaded) magazines into my purse and grabbed the extra box of silver ammunition. If I'd had a nuclear bomb, I'd have grabbed it, too – but I would make do with what I had.

Jesse had settled in the back with Ben. Smart girl. Ben knew Gabriel well enough under normal circumstances, but Jesse smelled like Adam. Ben couldn't sit in the front with me because the combination of drug and wound made him too volatile, and he was too strong for me to wrestle with while I was driving. Jesse had also found an old blanket to cover the seat.

I backed the Mercedes out of the garage and waited for Gabriel to close the door and get in.

"Your eyes are gold, Mercy," said Gabriel as he slid into the front seat. "I didn't know they did that."

Neither had I.

Samuel lived about twenty minutes from my garage, but it felt like hours. The temptation to put my foot down on the accelerator was strong. Marsilia's car topped out at 250 mph – I had also, at her request, taken care of the electronic governor that limited the car to more human-reflex-safe speeds. But there were a lot of cops out even at this rarefied and still-dark hour because the shopping crowds were starting to increase again. I needed to avoid getting pulled over as long as I had a man with a gunshot wound in the back seat.

At sixty miles per hour, we purred slowly along the side of the river to Samuel's house in Richland.

Before I'd married Adam, Samuel had been my roommate. He still came by to visit a lot. A wolf, especially a lone wolf, needed the presence of others. Though Adam was Alpha and Samuel was very dominant, they had a cautious friendship.

Samuel had a condo in Richland right next to the river, where land prices were at a premium. He could care less what his home looked like – he had lived with me in my elderly fourteen-by-seventy trailer for two years, more or less, without much complaint – but he loves the water. What he paid for that condo could have bought a huge house anywhere else in town.

The complex was less than ten years old, built of stone and stucco and groomed to within an inch of its life. I parked the Mercedes in front of Samuel's garage, left my comrades in the car, and knocked at the door.

No one answered. I put my forehead against the cold surface of the fiberglass door and listened, but I could hear nothing.

"Please, please, Samuel. I need you." I knocked again.

When the door finally opened, it wasn't Samuel but Ariana, Samuel's mate. She wore a sweatshirt and fuzzy midnight blue pajama bottoms decorated with white kittens playing with pink balls of yarn.

Fae have glamour – that's what makes them fae. They can take any living shape they like, and mostly they like forms that blend in. I'd first met Ariana in the guise of someone's well-to-do grandmother. I've also seen what I think is her true face and form, which is spectacular and beautiful.

Ariana's current facade was neither beautiful nor ugly, more of a pleasant average. Pale gold hair, more often found in children than adults before the advent of hair dye, framed her face and set off her soft gray eyes. Her apparent age of somewhere between twenty-five and thirty was a match for Samuel's apparent age. There were traces of her fae-self in her face, just as my old mentor Zee's fae countenance shared similarities with the human one that I was more accustomed to seeing.

Thing was, she shouldn't have been there. She was fae. She should have been at the reservation with all the others. I'd called to check on Ariana as soon as I'd found out that the fae had retreated and had gotten Samuel. He'd told me – in what I now saw was a suspiciously relaxed manner – that Ariana was safe and would return when she could. Apparently, that was a lot sooner than any of the rest of the fae.

"Ariana," I said, "I thought …"

"That I had retreated to the reservation with my kin?" she asked. "My mate is here. I am no follower, and my allegiance is no longer to the Gray Lords, if it ever was. They chose to allow me to stay here under the condition I do nothing to draw attention to myself." She grinned mischievously at me. "They required us to bring any artifacts or magical items we hold. I brought the Silver Borne with me – they were surprisingly eager to let me leave with it."

The Silver Borne was an artifact that she'd created long before Christopher Columbus was a glint in his father's eye. It ate the magic of any fae that went near it. Too powerful to be left where humans could get it – and too damaging to be brought to the reservation.

Her face lost its humor. "But I am chatting, and you are hurt. Come in out of the cold."

"Not my blood," I told her. "Is Samuel here? I have a warning and a patient for him. Otherwise, we should probably go."

"He's not here," Ariana said. "His father called him away a few days ago. He said it was something to do with a meeting about 'disturbances in the Force.'"

I gave her a look, and she grinned, again. "I swear to you that was what he told me. Bring in your wounded, though. I have a fair amount of barbering experience, and Samuel keeps a very well-stocked first-aid kit."

I hesitated, and the expression on her face changed. Ariana was ancient – older than Bran, I think – but she had this softness about her, a vulnerability that allowed her to be rather easily hurt.

"I'm not doubting you," I told her. "But my wounded is a wolf. He is in human form for the moment, but he is clinging to it by his fingertips."

Ariana had a deep-seated and totally justified terror of canids, which she'd only overcome with people she knew well – meaning Samuel. Most of the rest of us did our best not to be too wolf- or coyote-like around her.

She took a breath. "I knew the patient was likely one of your werewolves. Who else would it be? Bring him in."

I gathered my people from the car, human and otherwise. I wasn't sure it was the right thing to do. I'd seen Ariana in the grip of panic once, and that was scary enough I didn't want to do it again. I'd warned her, and she thought she could handle it. Fair enough.

Jesse shoved, and Gabriel and I pulled to get Ben out of the car. As soon as Ben was up, Gabriel slipped under his shoulder and took most of his weight. I glanced around, but all the windows surrounding us were dark. If anyone was watching, I couldn't tell.

Jesse got the door. Gabriel paused in the entryway because, though the walls were painted bright colors, the carpet was white, and Ben was still bleeding.

Ariana rolled her eyes at us. "Bring him in, children; I assure you that I am more than capable of pulling a little blood from fabric and carpet."

Reassured, I waved Gabriel and Ben forward. The condo was one of those open floor plans, where kitchen, dining room, and living room shared the same space. Gabriel supported Ben through the entry hall, past the kitchen area, and into the living room, where we laid him down on the dark brown leather couch. He looked worse, if that were possible, than he had in my office. As if, now that someone else was in charge, he'd quit struggling to stay alert.

Ariana looked at all of us and frowned. "Tell me what happened."

So I did, telling the story from my point of view until we hit the garage, then dropping back to Ben's tale. When I'd finished, she put her hand against Ben's forehead.

He muttered something crude, and her eyebrows raised.

"Not fair to hold him responsible for something he says in this state," said Jesse defensively.

Ariana's lips turned up. "I've heard worse." She pulled up Ben's pant leg. The bandages we'd put on were bloody already. "Was this a silver bullet?"

"It's not healing like it should if silver wasn't involved somehow," I told her. "They definitely shot him with a tranquilizer dart that contained a mixture that included silver. Same stuff was used to kill a friend of mine a few years back. That's why we wanted Samuel to take a look."

Ariana stepped back and half closed her eyes, holding her hands about six inches over Ben. "I have an affinity for silver," she said. "I can sense it but not call it to me."

Ariana is Welsh for silver. Ironic in a woman mated to a werewolf.

"There's some silver in him," she said after a moment. "But none near his wound, so it must be the dart they hit him with. If it was a silver bullet, it didn't leave anything behind. He'll have to wait until the silver works its way out – but I can at least treat the wound."

I kept my hand on Ben's while Ariana stripped his bandages off and coated the wounds, front and back, with some herb-and-salve concoction she kept in an old pottery jar. Ben lay on his side to allow her access. He kept his eyes closed, but every muscle in his body was tense. Ariana was the next best thing to a stranger, and he was wounded. Every once in a while he would growl quietly, and Ariana would jump like a rabbit – which made Ben tense even more.

By the time she was done, both of them were shivering like a pair of thoroughbreds before the Kentucky Derby.

"That's as much as I can do for him," she said, stepping away with a sigh of relief. She headed for the kitchen sink, regaining her self-possession with every step she took away from Ben. She washed her hands with soap and dried them on a white cloth.

When she spoke again, her voice was brisk and confident. "I don't have Samuel's expertise, but barring the threat of infection, which isn't an issue for werewolves, his leg should be fine."

If there wasn't too much silver, I thought. I couldn't tell if Ben was following the conversation or not. His eyes weren't totally shut, but now that I was the only one touching him, his body was unnaturally relaxed.

"In any case, there's nothing more we can do for him without Adam" – his Alpha, who could pour pack strength into him – "or Samuel," I said. I could borrow some abilities from Adam, but I hadn't been able to manipulate the pack bonds enough to effect healing yet.

"Let me try to call Samuel," Ariana offered, picking up the phone on the end table next to the couch. She stiffened, the phone to her ear, then dialed. "Phin. I am so sorry to wake you, but I had a dream – "

Phin was Phineas Brewster, her mostly human descendant who sold used and collectible books. Why she had decided to call him instead of Samuel was the same reason she had stiffened. I wondered what she had heard or felt that had changed her mind.

"Ari?" a sleepy voice on the other end of the phone said – I try not to eavesdrop when I can avoid it, but, like the wolves, my ears are sharp. "No," he continued foggily. Then he cleared his throat and sounded much more awake. "I mean, not a problem. Are you all right? Do you want me to come over?"

"No," she said, sounding relieved. "It was really just a dream. But it left me worried about you." The fae couldn't lie. So she had dreamed and woke up worried about Phin – but it could have been tonight or ten years ago.

"I'm fine." His voice was easy, as if he was used to having her call him in the middle of the night because she was worried.

"Stay fine." She hung up, frowning at the phone. "There was someone listening."

"The phone is bugged?" Gabriel frowned.

She shrugged. "Someone was listening. I could feel their attention. Magic or technology, it doesn't matter. If I didn't call anyone, they'd have wondered why I picked up the phone."

"No phones," I said, pulling out my cell phone. "I forgot. Jeez how dumb can I be?" Bran had sent a message that they were using the phones to trace the pack, Ben had told me that, and we carried our phones with us here. I patted Ben's shoulder. "Cell phone, Ben?"

"Crushed it on the way to you," he said, slurring the consonants. "Bran said ditch the phones."

"Jesse? Gabriel? Do you have your cell phones?"

Jesse handed me hers, but Gabriel shook his head. "Mine's next to my bed, where it won't do us any harm."

I borrowed a hammer and the garage and disposed of both phones. I was pretty sure that I could have just pulled the batteries, but pretty sure wasn't good enough, so I used a hammer.

"Who is it?" Jesse asked me when I got back in the middle of a discussion of what happened at the house. "Is it the government? The fae?" She crossed her arms and hugged herself. "The vampires?"

"Samuel told me that his father has been waiting for the government to quit screwing around with the fae and turn its attention to the werewolves," Ariana said. "The Marrok is also in the middle of delicate negotiations with the fae – negotiations that are making the vampires extremely nervous because they fear what they will face if the fae and werewolves come to an agreement."

"The men who took the pack claimed to be government," I said. "But Adam seemed to think they were lying. But they were human – which makes me think government anyway."

"Are we safe here?" asked Gabriel. "Or do we need to find a better hiding place?"

"They could have traced our phones here," I told him. "We need to keep moving. I was hoping to take a minute and see if I can contact Adam and figure out what's going on."

"You can stay here to do that," Ariana said. "I can't make the apartment disappear into a hedge of blackberries, but I can make it difficult to find for a few hours."

"Mercy?" Jesse asked. "How much can you tell?"

"He's alive," I said. I decided to trust Ariana to know her own strengths. If she could keep us hidden until I talked to Adam, it would really help. "I need to find somewhere quiet to clear my head and see if I can pick up anything more." I wasn't going to taint Jesse with the mishmash of dark and violent emotions I'd been picking up from him off and on all night. It was the off and on that really worried me.

"Take a hot shower," suggested Ariana. "Meditation is easier when you're clean. I'll bring you something to wear – and keep your flock safe."

Ben growled, and she flinched.

I tried just sitting down on the floor of the spare bedroom – but I could smell Ben's blood. My scalp itched. My right pant leg smelled of antifreeze from my poor deceased Rabbit. My shoulder ached where the seat belt had caught me, and my cheekbone throbbed. So I followed Ariana's advice and showered.

I heard the bathroom door open while I was shampooing the blood out of my hair – how had it gotten in my hair? – and there were clean clothes folded neatly on the toilet seat when I got out.

I pulled the sweats up to my nose and shook my head. If someone had come to my house, even someone I liked, I'd have been damned before I gave them Adam's clothes to wear – especially if it was someone he used to live with.

I could have blessed Ariana's generosity, though, because when I sat on the floor of their spare bedroom wearing Samuel's oversized shirt and sweatpants, I felt safe and at home. That helped while I struggled to find my way through the strong but tangled weave that was my bond to Adam, but it still didn't seem to be enough.

Frustrated with my failure, I got up. Exhaustion, fury, and nagging pain that seemed generalized to my whole body rather than any one bruise fought with despair.

Despair won and left me muzzy and sick. I'd been so sure that I could contact Adam given just a little space and quiet. It should have been easy because his emotions were buzzing around me so strongly that it had been a strain to keep track of which were my feelings and which were his.

Only when I stood up did it become apparent that instead of plush carpet under my bare feet, there was hard-packed dirt beneath the boots I hadn't been wearing. They were a scuffed black, and the leather gave around my feet with the softness of long wearing. They weren't my boots, but I knew them.

What was I doing wearing Adam's boots? My bleary thoughts tried to figure out the logic while I became vaguely aware of my surroundings. The air smelled dry and still. It smelled like pack, my pack who were all sick and hurting. As soon as I let my awareness seek them, their pain, their sickness drifted over me.

"Mr. Hauptman," a stranger's voice said, shocking me out of my contemplation of Adam's boots on my feet.

I blinked and saw a man in dark clothes bare of any official insignia, though they had that sharpness that marked a military uniform. I narrowed my eyes and studied him more closely because something about the picture didn't match: his body was soft. Not the softness of a soldier who had retired from action and moved to deskwork. This man was soft in both mind and body – he'd never served in battle.

Paper-pusher. Gives orders for other men to die while sitting safe in home base. "We were told you'd probably be down for another hour or more. I do apologize about the restraints – rather medieval, don't you agree? But we didn't think you'd be feeling particularly happy with us when you woke up, and killing you after all the trouble that we've gone through to capture you would be unproductive. You may call me Mr. Jones."

He looked at us as he spoke. And I became aware that part of the heaviness that kept me from moving much was some sort of binding on my ankles and wrists. I couldn't really see them, something was off with my eyesight, but I could feel them, just as I could feel the bite of the silver – worse than the time I'd rushed between two trees and burst through a hornet's nest. Everything hurt.

The "Mr. Jones" made Adam think seriously about rolling his eyes like Jesse, but it would require too much energy. Jones? Did this man not know that Adam could hear every lie out of his lips? At least it hadn't been "Smith."

Adam also thought about shedding the restraints and killing the man behind the desk – but so far no one had been irreparably injured. The burn of the silver fought with the dampening effect of the tranquilizer and left his temper raw and vicious. But he had people to protect. So he held his temper and sarcastic comments and continued the parley that Mr. Jones had begun.

"You've gone to a lot of trouble to get us here." Adam's voice slurred a little, and he pulled energy from the pack bonds, aware that he was taking from them what they didn't have to give. But he needed to be strong and smart and able to fight for them. To do that, he could afford to show no weakness before the enemy. "What do you want?"

The power cleared his head a little – and cleared mine, too. Between my desperation and whatever they'd hit him with, I had merged myself too deeply inside him.

Experimentation had taught me that visualization worked better than almost anything for getting out of trouble when immersed in the oddity that is werewolf magic. I visualized myself stepping out of Adam's body. It tickled and made me a little nauseated.

Mercy?

Yes, I told him, and received a flood of questions that slid past me wordlessly, too fast for me to grab. He might be thinking more clearly, but he was nowhere near his usual alertness. I tried to send him power through our bond and felt him snatch it and pull. I staggered and grabbed his shoulders to steady myself. He felt solid under my fingers, but I couldn't see my own hands.

"Mr. Hauptman?"

Adam ignored him as he sent another burst of need toward me. This one was much more visceral than a simple need for strength. I couldn't tell what he wanted, but I could make a pretty good guess.

Ben found Gabriel, and they both found Jesse and me. We're all safe at Samuel's. Ben is hurt, but not seriously. I didn't tell him that Samuel was gone.

Adam straightened and took a deep breath. The pain was shivery and concentrated in his joints, making it difficult to move. He opened and closed his hands to make sure they worked. His vulnerability made it difficult to control his rage at the people who had done this to him.

I was picking up everything he felt.

I left my hand on his shoulder as I took another step back, hoping that it would give me more distance, so I could think. And then I tucked the other hand in the back of his waistband like a child in the dark – I was afraid that if I didn't anchor myself to him in some way, I'd go back to Samuel's house with no information at all.

It was better, though I could still only see what he saw, and his vision was oddly limited.

The silver, his wolf said. Too many things not working right. My eyes see, but Adam doesn't perceive.

I patted him on the shoulder, not knowing if he could tell what I was doing or not. Words were useless. Adam had to control the wolf, and I wasn't really there to help.

You always help, the wolf disagreed. He tugged on our bond and took just a little more strength from me. Always, Adam agreed, as his wolf settled around him again.

"Mr. Hauptman, am I boring you?"

Adam moved his full attention to our enemy, and Mr. Jones flinched. That flinch satisfied me and made me hungry at the same time – I liked his fear. I liked it very much.

"No, Mr. Smith," said Adam softly. "I find you very interesting at the moment."

"Jones," snapped the man behind the desk. The lie of his name smelled tainted. His angry reaction told Adam that he was weak-minded, easy prey. No less dangerous – in some ways more dangerous because he'd react with his emotions – but under real pressure, he'd break.

Someone moved to Adam's right and into his field of view. From my perspective, it was almost violently sudden. Like Jones, he wore black. His clothes weren't just a uniform, though; with Adam's perceptions I knew that he wore armor. He moved better, too. Someone had trained him for hand-to-hand combat.

I had the sense that there were other people in the room, more of the enemy, but for some reason this one held Adam's attention. He and Jones were the only ones I could see.

Soldier, Adam told me. He showed me the bulge of a second weapon inside the cuff of the man's pants – knife or gun, and another on the outside of the opposite leg.

Adam watched the body language between the soldier and Mr. Jones. Jones was nominally in charge, but the men (the ones I couldn't see but Adam was aware of) followed the second man – including Jones. Adam had seen it in the army, when the commanding officer was green and leaning a little too heavily upon the skills of the men of lower rank. The soldier demanded respect, while Jones smelled and acted like prey trying, unsuccessfully, to be a predator.

Whatever this kidnapping was, Adam was on his feet, and the pack was okay. Not good, but alive and breathing. I was aware, because Adam was, that our pack were lying in heaps behind us. All of them chained hand and foot as he was, sick from the silver and the tranquilizer but otherwise okay. Adam thought that meant that this wasn't an extermination order. They wanted something and thought that Adam and his pack could provide it. For the moment, they were safe.

"Well?" said Jones impatiently.

Adam held his silence. They weren't friends, and Adam wasn't going to start a conversation about the weather. They had done their best to leave Adam powerless. He wasn't going to expose himself further. They would – eventually – tell him what this was about; and then he would have some leverage to move them. Until then, silence was his best defense.

The politician who was not named Jones, whatever he said, leaned back in his chair and sighed. "I was told you might be difficult. We have a proposition for you, Mr. Hauptman. Our information indicated that this was the best way to ensure your cooperation."

Adam raised an eyebrow, and the soldier smiled where Not-Jones couldn't see him. As soon as he noticed Adam watching, the smile disappeared – but they both knew Adam had seen.

"We need you to kill someone," the politician said. "We both know you've killed for the government before, Sergeant." Adam had been an army ranger in the Vietnam War. Not many people outside the pack knew about it. "Don't worry. It's no one you'll feel bad about. US Senator Campbell, Republican from Minnesota." He smiled again. "I see you know who I'm talking about."

So did I. Campbell had been in office over twenty years and was one of the loudest anti-fae, anti-werewolf voices in Congress. Ever since a few werewolves killed – and mostly ate – a man in Minnesota, he had been arguing for giving law enforcement the power to kill rogue werewolves or fae with only a judge's warrant. He had a lot of bipartisan support because people were scared. He was a man with a plan, a centrist who didn't fall neatly into either the conservative or liberal camps, and so could be cheered on by both sides.

"You aren't the government," said Adam.

"I assure you, Mr. Hauptman, I work for the US government. You saw my ID."

I wrinkled my nose. He was lying with the truth – I recognized the smugness of his scent. Adam considered my conclusion.

"It will be an easy kill," Jones told Adam. "In and out, then you and yours will be free to leave."

"I have not killed for the government in a long time," Adam told him. He should have stopped there, but I could feel when the quivery I-am-prey feeling emanating from Jones and the burn of the silver that was sharpening his temper drove him further. He gave Jones a feral smile, leaned forward, and said, "Now I only kill people who deserve it, Mr. Smith."

Mr. Jones jerked back, and the smell of his fear made my nose wrinkle. Then he raised a Glock he'd hidden behind the desk.

Adam, slowed by silver and forgotten shackles, stumbled to his knees when he tried to move to respond. A shot rang out and the smell of gunpowder, blood, and death filled the air an instant before the earthquake in the pack bonds tried to throw me back to my own body.

I clung to Adam as tears and helpless anger wracked me, his and mine, while Honey's agonized cry rang in my ears. I didn't need to see it with my eyes because the pack bond and Adam told me who it was, told me it was fatal. By accident or design, Jones had killed Peter, with a clean bullet between his eyes, killed the heart of the pack, our sole submissive wolf, Honey's mate.

Adam's head was bowed as he absorbed the blow – Peter's death and Adam's failure to prevent it. All the other wolves in the pack were rivals, dominants who would move against the others should the wolf above them in the pack show weakness. But Peter was safe. Submissive wolves, rare, as precious as rubies, were not driven to be on top, so they could be trusted absolutely – cherished and protected from all harm.

Not your fault, I told Adam urgently. Not your fault they brought us here. Not your fault they shot Peter. Not his fault that he'd been hampered by the tranquilizer, the silver, and the shackles.

Adam didn't care what I thought. He was the Alpha, it was his duty to protect the pack, and Peter most of all had been his to keep safe. I could feel Adam's wild rage, Adam's desire to kill – balanced by the clear understanding that he had the rest of the pack to protect.

He swayed a little on his knees, as if his rage were a physical thing that tugged on his shoulders. I tightened my grip and felt his gratitude at my presence as he fought and bargained with his anger – and I felt his shame for the way he craved Jones's flesh between his teeth.

Jones is dead, I promised. He just doesn't know it yet. But we are patient, we can wait until the time is ripe.

Adam went still. He forgets sometimes, does Adam, that I am as much a predator as he is.

Adam looked up, and we saw that Jones looked smug, the gun still in his hand. He thought that Adam's bowed head and the way he'd not regained his feet meant that he was broken. The soldier who stood beside Jones's desk was blank-faced but more wary.

Adam sorted through possibilities before he decided that Jones needed to be a little more afraid because that fear would slow him down if he decided a second example might be needed. And if that fear made him try something, Adam would kill him sooner rather than later and deal with the soldier instead.

Adam stood slowly, which was a lot more difficult than he made it look since his hands were chained behind his back and his ankles shackled together. It required strength and balance, and he used the movement to center himself.

He let his wolf meet Mr. Jones's eyes, tensed his shoulders, and twisted the cuff on his left wrist. Metal screamed. I felt the burn as steel cut into his wrist before the joint of the cuff broke. He continued to watch Jones, daring him to do something, anything, as he repeated the procedure on his right wrist. He didn't bother moving quickly, even after the handcuffs fell to the ground. As he brought his freed hands forward, Jones jerked the gun up, but the soldier slammed it down on the desk, unfired.

"You want to shoot them all and try again, Mr. Jones?" he said. "You aren't going to be able to get another pack the same way – and Hauptman was specifically required."

Jones fought for the gun, but the other pulled it away with contemptuous ease.

"Shut up," the soldier gritted. "You've made a proper cluster of this. Just sit there and keep your mouth closed. I told him you were the wrong choice for this."

Adam turned his attention to the manacles at his ankles. His deliberate inattention was an insult, a power play – and it scared me. I wanted to watch Jones and company to make sure that they didn't shoot Adam.

They won't, he assured me as he pried the manacle off his right ankle with a sharp twist of his hands. They have gone to too much trouble to get me to kill me right now. They will wait until I kill their senator and prove that the werewolves need to be eliminated. Bran warned me that I was becoming too well-known, that someone would try to make some sort of play against me.

And when you don't kill Senator Campbell? I asked. Adam would not do their bidding, there was no question in my mind about that.

I will do anything to keep my pack safe, Adam corrected me gently as he pulled the second ankle restraint into two separate pieces before twisting them together. Even kill Campbell. Make sure Bran understands that when you tell him about this, so he's not taken by surprise.

That's what Bran failed to see when he'd been worried that Adam's temper meant that he should be kept out of the public's eye. Adam had a hot temper, but he was always, always in control because he needed to protect the ones he cared about – even if it destroyed him instead.

"Understand this," Adam said in a guttural voice, staring at the soldier, though I knew his attention was also on Jones. "If another of my pack is harmed, all bets are off. You might be able to kill me, but not before I have taken care of 'Jones,' you, and a fair swath of the rest of your men."

"Understood."

Mercy, get Samuel, get Bran. Find out where they have us. Get the pack free before I have to do what they want, Adam told me, then sent me away from him and back to my own body in Samuel's guest bedroom.

I opened my own eyes and realized that there was noise downstairs – a wolf growling and a woman's singsong voice. Magic, fae magic, shivered over my skin in a rising tide.

I bolted to my feet and down the stairs, taking them six or eight at a time. Ben would have felt Peter's death. Wounded and scared, that couldn't have been a good thing.

Ariana was curled up in a corner of the room crooning in a language that sounded vaguely like Welsh but wasn't because I couldn't understand a word. Ben, in the middle of his change, was crouched on the couch, all of his attention on the stranger in the room.

Jesse and Gabriel were both standing between Ben and Ariana. Gabriel was bleeding – neither of them would be a match for Ben, three-quarters changed and raging because of the drugs in his system, the mess of the pack, Adam's rage, and Peter's death.

All of this I saw as I took the last leap that would have taken me to the floor if I hadn't altered my trajectory. I twisted in the air and hit Ben instead, and we both hit the floor.

I pinned him like my mother had taught me to pin calves or goats when I was ten years old, and she decided that I should follow her footsteps as a rodeo queen. Her efforts were doomed – I didn't like horses, not like she did, and she only had two weeks to visit before she had to go back to her own life. But goat tying had been fun, and I'd practiced for most of a summer. I hadn't thought about it for a decade or two, but the motions came right back to me as soon as my hands were on the enraged werewolf. Desperation is a really good way to inspire muscle memory.

"Ben, stop," I said, holding his head twisted and pressing a knee on his shoulder. "Ariana is not an enemy." I glanced at her, and added, "Not unless you scare her into doing something horrible to one of us. We need to get Jesse and Gabriel safe, then find the pack. I need you, so suck it up." He was still struggling, and I put my mouth right next to his ear.

"They killed Peter, Ben." I whispered, but I let him hear my own grief.

Peter had once charged out with a sword and saved the pack from an enraged fae that I'd brought to their doorstep. He was a great big sweetie who loved his mate and played video games with a devastating intensity and a love of planning that led his team to victory more than once, despite his disinterest in winning or losing. He left a gaping hole in the pack that had us all reeling.

"They killed Peter," I told Ben. "And we need to make them pay."

Ben stilled beneath me and started to shake. I released my hold but stayed on top of him, burying my face in his fur so I could hide my tears. It wasn't only my grief that wracked me, but Ben's, Adam's, Honey's, and that of the whole pack. We had failed to protect our heart, and now he was dead.

It wasn't fair. Ben wasn't through his change yet, maybe halfway, and at that stage, I had been assured, his skin would hurt if someone breathed on it. But I clung to him and let the wave of emotion hit me and waited for it to ebb.

"Mercy?" asked Jesse. "Mercy, what happened? Is Dad okay? Mercy?"

There was controlled panic in her voice, and it pulled me back to myself. I had no time to wait for anything.

"Ben?" I asked. "Can I let you up?"

In answer, he stood up, on four paws, shedding me as he did so. So much for my mother's tactics. He avoided looking at Ariana – I could smell her panic, too – and stared at the blinds that blocked the darkness from the room. I rolled the rest of the way to my feet and rubbed my face to clear my eyes.

I'd forgotten about the damned wreck again and yelped when I put pressure on my cheekbone. The EMTs had sworn it was okay, but it sure felt as though it might be broken to me. Bruises shouldn't hurt so much.

My left shoulder ached, along with the opposite hip and knee, but worst of all was the ache in my heart. I glanced at Ariana, who wasn't looking at any of us. She was still muttering to herself, and the smell of fae magic was growing uncomfortably strong.

"Ariana?" I asked. "It's okay. Ben's sorry. He won't hurt you or anyone else." I remembered the fae's need for truth and clarified carefully. "He won't hurt anyone here."

She didn't respond. Samuel had lectured all of the wolves about what to do if Ariana checked out and started to get scary. The artifact she'd made, the Silver Borne, kept her power muted – but she had been the last of the powerful fae born after humans began to use iron. Even muted, she could wipe out a city block or rend all of us into painful shreds if that was the form her madness took.

If she really freaked out, Samuel was worried that the Silver Borne might give her back everything it had taken from every fae for as long as it had existed. That would be bad.

"Talk," I told Jesse and Gabriel, who had stayed where they were, between Ben and Ariana. "Talk in a normal voice, it doesn't matter about what. She's not listening to what we're saying right now, just the tone of our voices. If we can keep it calm, she might be able to recover. She doesn't want to hurt us. Ben, stay quiet, stay still. We can't help anyone, can't do anything if we get wiped out by one of our friends."

"Should we leave?" Gabriel absently wiped the blood off his arm. It wasn't anything deep, and he'd been my right hand in the garage for long enough to ignore the minor wounds: old cars are full of sharp edges.

"You don't run from predators," Jesse said. "Not until she calms down a little."

"Right," I agreed. "But if I tell you to run, I want you to go and don't look back. That means all of you – especially you, Ben."

Ben glanced at me. He knew what I meant. If I didn't make it out of here, it would be up to him to keep Jesse and Gabriel safe, to let Bran know what had happened.

"Did you get in contact with Dad?" Jesse asked at the same time Gabriel said, "Something set Ben off. But it wasn't anything in the room, I don't think."

"Calm topics," I told them. "Happy thoughts." But it was too late for that now. "I talked to your dad, Jesse. Adam is okay."

"Ben?" asked Jesse. "What set Ben off?"

"Peter's dead," I told them, keeping an eye on Ariana. Jesse went white.

"Who is Peter?" Gabriel knew some of the pack, but he hadn't met Peter.

"Peter is special," Jesse said. "Dad calls him the Heart of the Pack, with capital letters, like it's a title."

"That's right," I told them. "He kept everyone centered because he didn't have to be on top. He could say things that no one else could. And it was his right to be protected by the rest of the pack."

Ben moaned, a sad, very wolfish sound.

Ariana looked up, her gaze focused on me. I had to fight to keep my eyes on hers because her pupils and irises had vanished, and her eyes swallowed the light.

"I liked Peter," she said, and my heart started beating again. If she was tracking that well, we might be okay. "Samuel asked him to help us with my fear of werewolves. Peter was … kind."

She wasn't all back – the smell of magic wasn't fading, and her voice sounded wrong. And her eyes were really freaky.

I didn't know what else to do, so I kept talking. "Adam and the pack, all the pack except Ben, are being held by a group of human radicals – some of whom appeared military trained. They're trying to blackmail Adam into killing Senator Campbell of Minnesota. They're still claiming government ties, but they are lying."

"Republican," supplied Gabriel, trying not to stare at Ariana's eyes and mostly failing. It was a good thing for him that the fae don't see it as an act of aggression the way the wolves do. A lot of the fae liked being stared at. When she met his gaze, he gamely kept talking. "Campbell is anti-fae, anti-werewolf, and – oddly for a Republican – anti-gun. Good speaker and a likely presidential candidate in the next election."

"Gabriel's taking a class in current events," Jesse told me. She looked away from Ariana and took a step closer to me. She didn't see the fae start forward as if to pounce, then catch herself – but Gabriel and I did. Gabriel moved a half step sideways so that he was between Ariana and Jesse.

Oblivious to her near death, Jesse asked, "Who are they? The National Rifle Association?"

"No clue," I told her. "The NRA …" I gave her a weary smile. "It seems like a lot of trouble for them to go to since there are plenty of other anti-gun senators, and none of them have made much headway against private gun ownership since the assassination attempt on President Reagan before you were born."

"Then who?"

"If Campbell died and was killed by a werewolf, it would destroy the detente between those who want to kill the wolves and those who want to see them as good people with a terrible disease," Gabriel said. "After the fae killed that senator's son who got away with murder, the only reason everyone isn't running around killing anyone who is other is because the fae have withdrawn and haven't done anything to hurt anyone else. Public opinion – after the first few days of panic – is behind them, even if the government is throwing fits. Freeing a serial killer because he killed only fae and werewolves wasn't justice. That the guilty man had money and political ties just made the fae's cause more righteous."

"Campbell's death would give the humans-only side a martyr," said Ariana. Her voice, still laden with magic, was not her usual one, but she was looking at me as though she knew who I was, so I thought we were over the worst. "Campbell is well liked and an obstacle for those who are more extreme. He has been a voice for moderation in their leadership. Campbell has argued against several of the more radical suggestions for how to deal with non-humans."

"Moderate" was not a word I'd have applied to him. But there were more extreme voices, that was true.

"That answers 'why,' doesn't it," I murmured. "Ariana, are you back with us?"

"Not … not quite, sorry," she managed.

"Do you have a good way to reach Samuel or Bran?"

"No." She hesitated. "Yes. I know where they are – in Montana. I can drive."

"Okay," I said. "Take Phin's car, it'll be harder to trace." Phin drove an older Subaru, built before the days of GPS and electronic surveillance. Our enemy might not be the government, but they had access to government-level spy equipment.

"Is it safe for us to leave?" I asked. "Or do you need a few more minutes?"

Safe for us, not for her. I didn't want to do anything to provoke her – and Jesse had been right, never let predators think that you might be running away.

"I will go upstairs," she said. "Don't move until after I have closed the door."

Ben, who'd completed his change and stood in full-werewolf form, quivered when she walked behind him, but he didn't turn to look at her. It spoke of his willpower – it is hard to have someone who might harm you where you cannot see them. But he managed.

She stopped on the stairway. "Be careful, Mercedes. There are people who would mourn if you took hurt."

"Always am," I said, and she laughed. But she didn't look at us, just kept climbing.

When I heard the door close upstairs, I led the way out the door, with Ben taking rear guard. I eased the door open slowly, but there were no suspicious cars awaiting us.

Even so, I didn't breathe easily again until we were on the highway headed back toward Kennewick.

"Where are we going?" asked Gabriel.

"I need to stow you and Jesse somewhere safe," I told him. "There are too many big bad things out there that would love to get their hands on the two of you."

He shrugged. "Not me, Mercy. I'm just your hired hand. It's Jesse they want."

I glanced at him. "You planning on going back to the trailer and waiting to see what happens to her?"

He growled. Pretty good growl for a human.

"That's what I thought," I said. "So I need somewhere safe for you both."

"You have someplace in mind?" asked Jesse tightly. I heard the rebellion in her voice and didn't blame her – how often had I been told to take the sidelines because a coyote wasn't in the same weight class as a werewolf? It sucked. But if they took her, too – I think that Adam would sacrifice the world for his daughter.

"I have a place in mind," I said.

"Where?" asked Jesse, but Gabriel guessed.

"Oh hell, no," he said.


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