Home > Smoke Bitten (Mercy Thompson #12)(11)

Smoke Bitten (Mercy Thompson #12)(11)
Author: Patricia Briggs

The trail eventually took us across a road and into Two Rivers Park, a swath of green space along the river where the Snake joined the Columbia. Two Rivers wasn’t all that far from our home, but we hadn’t taken anything like a direct route here. Some of the park is groomed for picnics and recreation, but a fair bit is left wild with trails shared by equestrians and hikers. That was the part that the rabbit led us to.

Aidan stopped by a big sagebrush. “Hey. Over here,” he said. “I think I’ve found your rabbit. Parts of him, anyway.”

We trotted over to him but we didn’t get quite there before we discovered something else. I froze, but Adam growled, the silvery ruff around his neck rising up, as did the hair along his spine.

I changed into human. I was taking a chance because we weren’t out of sight of the road, but it was dark. Humans would need more light than that to see that I was naked. Nonhumans probably wouldn’t care.

Aiden could see just fine in the dark. But we needed to communicate and it was a lot faster for me to change than for Adam to do it. He could, if the occasion warranted, pull on the pack for power to make the change more quickly, but then he’d be stuck walking home naked. A lovely sight, sure, but also illegal.

“Werewolves,” I told Aiden. “Strangers.” I glanced at Adam when I said this. I didn’t know the three wolves I’d scented, but he was older than I and had traveled more among the werewolves. He knew a lot more of them than I did.

Adam just looked at me.

“Strangers to me, but Adam knows them.” And he wasn’t happy about it.

“Invaders,” said Aiden.

“Yes,” I agreed.

“Is this your rabbit?” Aiden asked me, gesturing at the bits of dead cottontail he’d found. It wasn’t the jackrabbit, for sure. But we hadn’t been certain we were following the jackrabbit’s trail.

My nose isn’t as good in human shape. I glanced at Adam, who stuck his nose closer to the rabbit—and shook his head.

“No,” I told Aiden. “This isn’t our rabbit. They left this one as a challenge and a test. We’re too close to pack headquarters; they wouldn’t have killed something unless they were investigating how well we patrol our territory.” I looked at Adam for confirmation.

He growled, the sound rumbling deep in his chest. He bumped me with his shoulder, pushing me toward home.

“But what about the jackrabbit?” I asked him.

He gave me an impatient huff.

“Something made Dennis kill his wife,” I said. And, damn it all, I teared up again. “That rabbit is a clue.”

“How do you know that the rabbit we’ve been chasing is the jackrabbit you saw?” asked Aiden reasonably. “It could be any old rabbit. Do you smell magic? I don’t feel any.”

I shook my head. He was right.

“Even if it was that rabbit, Mercy … there is not, right now, any proof that the jackrabbit had anything to do with the killing of your friends. Though parts of Underhill are infested with jackrabbits—and the creatures that feed upon them—I don’t know of any killer bunnies.”

I gave him a narrow look. “Is that a reference to Monty Python?” He grinned. “I like Monty Python. I understand the jokes. So if there is danger out here that isn’t related to whatever it is that attacked your friends, maybe we should listen to Adam and go home to regroup.”

“Three wolves,” I muttered, though I knew better. “I’m not worried.”

Adam gave me a look and I threw up my hands. “Yes, all right. Okay. I know. Where there are three, there could be more. We could be looking at a pack. And yes, I don’t want to meet a hostile pack when it is just you, me, and the firebrand.” I glanced out toward the river in the direction that the rabbit we’d been trailing had run. “But the rabbit we’ve been following isn’t acting like a normal rabbit and I want to know why.”

Adam sneezed.

“Home,” I told Aiden, resigned.

Back in coyote form, I led the way home with Aiden in the middle and Adam following from behind. We took a more straightforward way home, but since we also went by road instead of through fields and backyards, I wasn’t sure it was any faster.

“Do you feel that?” asked Aiden almost soundlessly. “Someone is watching us.”

By the pricking of my thumbs, I thought, though in this form I didn’t really have thumbs. But Aiden was right, I could feel the hair on the back of my neck spark with the feeling that we were being observed. I glanced upward but didn’t see anything in the night sky except for stars.

Adam huffed agreement and pushed us into a jog. We weren’t running away, but the faster pace might force the person or people—or rabbits—following us to break cover. It was harder to stay hidden at speed.

We turned down the road that led to our house, and whatever or whoever was following us was still behind us. Adam waited until a small grove of big old trees hugged the road, and he disappeared into the shadows there without a sound. He must have pulled a little more pack magic out, because the ground around the trees was covered with crackling-dry leaves and even Adam wasn’t good enough to get through those without making some noise.

Aiden and I kept to our jogging pace as if nothing were wrong—and a jackrabbit leaped out of the bushes and bit me on the neck, really sinking its teeth in.

I snapped back at it and missed but gave chase as it bolted through the underbrush and into an alfalfa field. We both tunneled through the bushy stuff using the furrows where the alfalfa grew thinner. A werewolf—I could hear Adam crashing behind me—wouldn’t be able to run through this at the same rate.

Jackrabbits are built for speed. They can run as fast as an ordinary coyote. I was not an ordinary coyote—and I was determined this rabbit wasn’t going to get away from me. I felt, faintly, as though there were a pressure on my head—like an incipient headache—but the sensation was lost in the greater drive of the hunt.

I pounced and snapped my teeth on flesh and fur. I had it between my teeth, though it didn’t feel or taste quite right, not like a rabbit. And then it was gone. Not run away—gone. It turned from flesh into smoke in my mouth, an acrid-vinegary smoke that burned my lungs and tasted like the magic that had filled Dennis’s body.

I dropped to the ground gasping and choking. My eyes burned and my throat felt like I’d tried to swallow a hot coal, and I curled up into a ball with the force of my coughing. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t …

Cold arms picked me up and began running with me slung over a shoulder. I heard a wolf growl—and the vampire carrying me growled, too, and said words I was not able to pay attention to. I didn’t have a clue where the vampire had come from and I was too busy trying to breathe to care.

The next thing I knew I was flung through the air and cold water closed over my head. It should have made everything worse—water not being conducive to breathing, either—but as soon as it surrounded me, the burning went away.

Survival instincts kicked in and I started trying to swim—and a wolf shoved his head under me and tossed me out of the water. We must not have been too deep because although he didn’t get me all the way out of the river, I landed on solid ground with only a few inches of water rushing around my legs. And I could breathe.

I stood there for I don’t know how long—probably not as long as it felt—just letting the sweet cool air rush in and out of my lungs as water swirled around my paws and dripped off my fur. Adam stalked out of the river to stand beside me, his teeth bared in a snarl aimed at the vampire standing on dry ground.

“Don’t be dramatic,” said the vampire. “I was just saving her life. You should be thanking me.” He gave a sad sigh. “I am afraid that Marsilia is correct when she says that good manners are a casualty of this modern age.”

“Why the river?” asked Aiden in a mild tone. He was standing on the shore, but he was wet, so he must have jumped in after me, too. I hadn’t noticed.

“Everyone who ever read Washington Irving knows that running water can wash away magic,” said the vampire. “Or is that story the one that says evil can’t cross running water? I forget.”

“Huh,” said Aiden, keeping a wary eye on Wulfe. “How fortunate that you were here.”

Wulfe was the scariest vampire I had ever met—and I’d met Bonarata, he who ruled Europe. But Bonarata was predictable to a certain extent—which Wulfe was not. I’d known that Wulfe could work magic, too, that he was a wizard—able to manipulate nonliving things with magic. I had known he could do a little of other sorts of magic, but I’d always assumed that it was something to do with being a vampire, a very old vampire. And all that might be so, but I’d recently learned that he was also a witch.

I was afraid of witches. I was afraid of vampires. I was very, very afraid of Wulfe.

The night all the witches had died, I’d used my affinity with the dead to lay an army of zombies to rest. I’d gathered them up in my magic and told them, “Be at peace.” They’d all been released from the hold the witches had bound them with. As one, they had dropped to the ground and left their corpses behind. Wulfe had been touching me at the time—and he’d dropped to the ground, too.

I’d been worried that I’d killed him … destroyed him. I needed to figure out a word that encompassed what happened when a vampire ceased to exist. “Dead-dead,” maybe? An end to living death? But Wulfe had recovered, leaving me caught between relief (he had been there because he was helping me) and worry—Wulfe alive was a lot more of a problem than the guilt I’d have felt for inadvertently ending his vampiric existence.

Whatever it was I had done had interested him very much. Ever since the night of the witches, I’d been catching his scent around our yard when there was no reason for him to be there. I’d even caught a glimpse of him now and then, when he wanted me to know he was nearby.

I’d treated him as I preferred to treat ghosts. If I didn’t pay attention to him, maybe he’d go away.

   
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