Nya was a long-limbed, athletic creature, sleek and agile, even more so than most of her kind. She didn’t have the brawny upper body strength of some wolves or the tightly-coiled, whipcord ferocity, a vicious asset in close-quartered fighting… but she could run. Like a rabbit, she could run, swift and nimble, skilled in sprinting and amazingly light on her feet.
Of course, wolves caught rabbits all the time. And what they did to the rabbits they caught was not something Nya liked to think about.
Especially not now.
Not when the local pack had caught scent of her and now chased her for her life.
This pack was hungry.
Nya bounded and tumbled through winding willow roots and low-hanging creepers, running at high alert for swampy packs of mud or moss or water obstacles that would slow her or trip her or leave a clear, unquestionable track, evidence of her passing. The hunting party behind her would not miss such a thing, not a chance. Her round, wide blue eyes searched the tree boughs overhead as she dashed through, looking for the giant white, fragrant magnolias that would help confuse the trail, if only a little, and as she flew past some of the lower-hanging flowers she reached out to snatch at them, crushing them against the dark skin of her bare neck and shoulders, mopping up the sour canine pheromones with their wide ivory petals and then flinging them away, far away from her trail. All the speed in the world wouldn’t save her from stalking werewolves who tracked by scent, but as the moon was in its crescent phase and all of them more human than lupine, some clever misdirection might throw them off her trail.
She hadn’t meant to be seen. She’d gone up to the marketplace to look for something special for Anoki, for his birthday. She hadn’t expected there would be other werewolves in the area, let alone one particularly keen-eyed bitch with a mean streak for four-fangs. Nya doubted the she-wolf who had spotted her was the pack’s alpha female, but when the pack had stalked Nya down to the riverfront she’d caught a strong whiff of the alpha male on the woman’s skin—they were fucking, certainly, and when a bitch was fucking her alpha it usually meant the alpha was more inclined to indulge her in impulsive desires. Such as setting the hunting party on a single kin-born bastard in broad daylight and demanding to know which pack she belonged to that did not put a proper collar on its gutworm pet.
Nya had never intended to find herself surrounded by strange werewolves. She had even less intention of explaining to them why she wasn’t collared. So now she had six or seven pure demon, kin-bitten werewolves chasing her through the swamps, trying to run her to the ground and seize her for their own pack—if they didn’t tear her throat out on principle of being an uncollared stray in their territory.
She should have filed down her bastard fangs. Kin-born were immediately recognizable if they didn’t take pains to hide the telltale second set of fangs, sharp, curving eyeteeth snug between canines. And stray kin-born werewolves were automatic prey for the true wolves, the ones sired into the pack by the lycanthropic bite.
She was panting hard as she ran. She shouldn’t have gone out during the day, alone, when Achak and Anoki were both in their daytime rest and couldn’t leave the shelter of the trio’s stolen lair. Very likely she was going to die, run down and savaged by these unknown wolves, and neither of her shadow-walkers would ever know what had happened to her.
That thought brought tears to her eyes and she nearly stumbled.
Achak. Anoki. Her boys.
She had to make it back home.
Behind her, the pursuing wolves gave up a collective howl, a taunting sound, though in their human shapes and little recourse to their lupine sides, it sounded closer to a volley of laughing hyenas. For all Nya wished she could assume her own savage shapeshift, stronger and even more agile than her usual human body, she had to be thankful for the timing that made full lycanthropic power out-of-reach for her pursuers.
The bayous were on fire in the slow descent of the evening sun. She was just thinking that if only she’d waited another hour to go out, she wouldn’t have had to go alone, when a whirling shape of black cloth and flashing green eyes whipped into existence before under the stark shadows of the willows. Nya wasn’t able to stop in time: she barreled into the tall figure with a short yip of surprise.
“Anoki!” she gasped. “No, you can’t! The sun!”
The shadow-walker gave a low feline yowl, full of pain, but that was all. He wrapped his big arms around her, heavy cloak enveloping them both, and spun to take her through the deeper shadows under the late afternoon light. Nya gasped at the brief sucking cold that swept down her limbs, breath stolen briefly from her lungs, and then they were moved, a hundred yards in the blink of an eye, slipped through the darkness on the shadiil’s demanding whim.
“No!” Nya protested again. Anoki slumped against her with a heavy sigh. She could feel the feverish heat crackling off of him, the vicious kiss of the sun on a night-bound demon’s flesh.
She glanced around wildly. “Under there!” she whispered, pointing to the massive tangle of upraised tree roots creating a small, dark shelter under the gnarl of their limbs.
“Not far enough,” Anoki panted. “They’ll catch the scent.”
“But you can’t—”
Before she could finish, however, the shadow-walker slipped them into darkness again, sliding through the long silhouettes of the trees, one to the other, each step carrying them farther from her pursuers.
Anoki made it back to the shuttered and abandoned old mansion where they had made their rest for some weeks. Slipping inside as Nya slammed the door behind them, he fell to his knees in the grand foyer. The smell of burning flesh curled up from under his hasty coverings: shadiil, like vampires, were bound to the darkness and the night, and they were even more vulnerable than their bloodsucking cousins to the heat and light of day.
“Achak!” Nya barked, dropping down beside Anoki and stripping away the heavy robe he’d donned. Underneath, the shadow-walker’s flesh was scorched, though—thankfully—the marks were not terribly deep.
The smaller of the shadiil pair coalesced, as though from the very motes of darkness under the house’s steep stairwell, his cat-slitted green eyes visible first and then the rest of him sliding out of the corner in a quick, fluid lunge.
“Anoki!” he exclaimed.
“It’ll be okay if we get him cooled down right away,” Nya assured him. “Go draw a bath. I think it’s more the exhaustion then then injury… the sun hasn’t even set yet. Go on!”
Achak nodded and hurried to obey. Nya very gently began to help Anoki out of his loose clothing, stripping away the simple white T-shirt and then the slightly more complicated denim jeans he’d worn when he and Achak had gone to ground at dawn. Also like vampires, shadiil rested during the day, and were hard-pressed to muster power or even consciousness before night fell.
“How did you know I was in danger?” she asked quietly, pulling the cotton shirt over Anoki’s head. Anoki had beautifully dusky skin, smooth and tan over lithe, powerful muscles. His chest and shoulders were banded with paler marks which most would mistake for long, savage scars, but they were only the marks of his race, subtle striping like the brindled coat of a black panther. Almost all demons of the Third Blood had such marks, or else an exotic speckling of leopard-like spots or dark, color-tipped extremities, like a cougar. Achak was lighter in complexion than Anoki, with his own pale gray markings resembling the pelt of a bobcat laid across his naked back.
“I saw you,” Anoki replied, his voice a little halting with fatigue. Nya didn’t have to ask what he meant: children of the Third Blood were famously shamans and seers, of varying levels of talent; Anoki had a very strong skill in that respect.
“You ridiculous alleycat, what were you thinking? Going out in the sun?”
“I couldn’t let you be taken.”
He took her hand in his and held it to his chest, bending his head to kiss her fingertips.”
“Silly puppy,” he murmured with equal scolding. “What do you think would become of Achak and me if the nations took you away from us?”
Both Achak and Anoki were four-fangs, too. They were all three of them the untouchables of the five demon bloods, the slaves and pets at the mercy of cruel, true demons.
Nya touched her head to his and closed her eyes.
“We need to start filing our fangs,” she whispered.
“If that’s what you wish, love.”
He was sounding a little better already, a little more recuperated. He’d fed recently, before going to ground for the day. That would make a difference.
“Come on,” Nya murmured, helping him to his feet. “Achak should have the bath ready by now.”
Something between a pleased, rumbling purr and a tired affirmative escaped him. Letting him lean on her shoulder, Nya led him towards the grand downstairs bathroom of their little stolen lair.
Like the rest of the house, the bathroom was shuttered completely against the daylight leaving it cool and dark, lit only by several dozen candles along the walls. The bathtub was a monstrous fixture, old-fashioned in design but modern in its luxurious size, something the last owners must have installed just before whatever had chased them on to other prospects had made itself apparent. It was a tub of marvelous, comfortable width and depth, big enough for all three strays to share if they’d wanted—and they had wanted, several times now—but this evening Nya and Achak deferred to Anoki and his injuries. Achak swept close to the other shadiil, worry creasing his youthful face as he wrapped arms gently around Anoki’s waist and kissed his handsome mouth.
“You should have woken me,” he chided, letting his hand drop to caress Anoki’s broad chest. Anoki nuzzled him.
“There wasn’t time. Nya was spotted by a were pack and they almost caught her.”
“Nya!” Achak exclaimed, turning his green eyes on her. “Are you hurt?”
“Just a little muddy is all.”
“You’d be worse if he hadn’t gone after you. Get in the tub with him and wash off.”
Nya nodded and began to strip off her own clothes as Anoki gingerly stepped into the giant tub.
“It’d be more pleasant if the water was warm,” he grumbled.
“Not with those burns,” Nya said. She tossed her shirt aside, baring her dark, slim breasts, pert in the cool evening air and with the lingering adrenal surge of the chase. A cautious part of her listened for the rising call of the hunting wolves in the distance; Anoki had brought them far, farther into the interior of the wilderness, slipping from shadow to shadow, but still, some wolves were good enough to track even a shadow-walker’s broken trail. She had to hope that if any of this pack were that gifted, it was at least limited to the full moon transformation.
She wriggled out of her own jeans and hopped into the water with Anoki. The shadow-walker immediately reached out to draw her closer to him, cradling her protectively—if a little gingerly—against his chest.
“Thank you,” she murmured. “For coming to get me.”
Achak remained outside the tub, leaning against the rim watching them with green eyes patient and thoughtful. He reached out a hand to comb his fingers through Nya’s long ebony hair, purring in a vaguely high pitch that gave away his concern. As he stroked her hair, Anoki reached out one hand to gently pet him, offering a measure of comfort.
Suddenly Nya remembered the reason she’d gone out to the city upriver in the first place.
“Oh,” she murmured unhappily. “I was going to bring you a present, Anoki. For your birthday.”
“That’s why you went out alone?” he exclaimed. “Oh, Nya… who celebrates the birthday of a bastard four-fangs?”
“I thought we could,” she said, and shivered. Werewolves were the only demon among the five nations that really felt the effects of cold: shadow-walkers were creatures of cool shadows and winter darkness, vampires little more than walking corpses, and incubi and witches beyond the reach of temperatures. Wolves, as a matter of fact, ran hotter than most demons or humans, so to her the cold water seemed especially chill.
Wolves were also, in fact, the only demons other than the coven-kin who also maintained a heartbeat and drew breath. She was aware that her own heartbeat was thumping a bit faster and that she was blushing a little as she said, “because, well…”
She sighed, squirming a bit closer to Anoki.
“Well, it doesn’t bother me that you’re kin-born, obviously. In fact, it makes me happier that you are. That we all are. You wouldn’t be the men you are if you were one of the kin-bitten. So… I wanted to do something special to show you how important that is to me.”
Anoki gave a pensive little murmur, drawing her closer to his chest and stroking the backs of his knuckles tenderly down her cheek.
“She makes a good point,” Achak murmured. Anoki grunted begrudging affirmative. It sounded like most of the pain was starting to ebb away; already the surface burns were fading as easily as though he’d just been a sunburned human. The few deeper spots would take more time, but he would certainly be okay. Nya let out another little sigh of relief.
“Leave it to you to get an idea like that into your head,” Anoki said. “I appreciate the thought, love, but you didn’t have to risk life and limb for some little trinket.”
“Oh, shut up,” Achak snapped at him. “She was being sweet.”
He wrinkled his nose a little—she always thought Achak had the more kittenish look than Anoki—and he leaned forward to kiss her on the mouth.
“Thank you, Nya,” Anoki said. “It was very thoughtful.”
“Besides,” Achak purred. “I can still think of something to do for the occasion…”