Soul Taken (A Mercy Thompson Novel)
He stood in Mercy’s bedroom, in the heart of the home of his enemy.
He frowned a little. No, she wasn’t his enemy anymore. His ally, then. She had asked for his aid—something even his Mistress seldom did, untrustworthy servant that he was.
He had helped Mercy—maybe—and then she had, she had . . . done something to him. He wasn’t sure what to call that, either, because it had felt as though she had saved him until the effects wore off and he understood that she might have destroyed him instead. Hope was the most deadly of emotions.
He didn’t think she was his enemy. But certainly not his friend.
He held the silk fabric of his treasure carefully. It was very old now, though not as old as he was, and he seldom got it out of its protective box for fear of damaging it. He brought it to his nose and pretended that he could still smell the rich jasmine perfume she had worn to cover the scents that healthy human bodies used to carry in a time before daily—or even weekly—baths. He missed those scents; everything smelled weak and pallid to him now.
This frail cloth, a gift to the person he had once been, was his touchstone, a reminder that once he had been whole. Once there had been joy. He was taking a chance leaving this here, this last scrap of his soul. Mercy was unpredictable, and she brought chaos in her wake.
He brought the embroidered silk belt closer to his body at the thought of releasing it into chaos. But only for a moment. Because Mercy, unlike himself, did not harm the innocent. She would keep this bright and pretty thing safe, he thought with sudden relief at the truth of that, understanding, at last, the impulse that had moved him to bring the belt here.
He lay down upon Mercy’s bed, put his head on her mate’s pillow, and held the loops of the silk girdle against his cheek. He closed his eyes.
He was not a Christian, had never been that he could remember. But the ironic words of the child’s prayer came to him.
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
And if I die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
He laughed silently as tears rose in his eyes. His mouth moved without sound against the old silk belt, mouthing the words “Ardeo. Ardeo. Ardeo.”
Adam peered down at me. His feral, golden eyes held my gaze. Only a few bits of darkness lingered in the bright depths, like bitter chocolate melting in butter. Icy rain dripped from his forehead onto my face, causing me to blink.
The gold was worrisome, I thought muzzily, wiping my cheek with a clumsy hand. I should pay attention to the dangerous gold in his eyes.
“Pretty,” I said.
Someone stifled a laugh, but it wasn’t Adam. His frown deepened.
I had just been . . . well, I couldn’t remember exactly, but it had definitely not been lying on the wet ground, icy rain—or possibly very wet snow—sluicing down on my face as I stared up into Adam’s wild eyes. I reached up with a hand that didn’t want to obey and closed my fist on the collar of his shirt.
Though my brain still wasn’t tracking quite right, it didn’t take much thought to make a connection between the splendid headache that seemed to be centered around my temple and my position on the ground. Something must have hit me hard. I figured I’d be—cold water dripped on my cheek—right as rain in just a minute, but judging by Adam’s expression, it might not be soon enough to prevent an explosion.
That could be bad. Worse than if Adam merely lost out to his wolf. His usual wolf. The flash memory of the twisted version of a David Cronenberg–inspired movie werewolf worrying at my throat with huge, already bloodstained teeth served to wake me more effectively than the cold water splashing my face from the skies above us had.
I sucked in a breath with a sudden surge of adrenaline that seemed to extinguish the last few dark bits of humanity in Adam’s eyes even as it left me thinking more clearly. Neither he nor I knew if the vicious monster the witch Elizaveta had cursed him to become when she died was gone or merely biding its time.
Adam had warned the pack about the possibility that he could turn into something more dangerous, a monster that he couldn’t always control. But in true werewolf fashion, they seemed to look upon it as a new superpower Adam had achieved rather than the terrifying threat it was. They hadn’t witnessed it firsthand.
After the full moon had come and only Adam’s usual wolf form had answered that call, Adam had been relieved. His temper, already easily roused, had continued to be on an even-shorter-than-usual fuse, but I thought that could be attributed to the unusual strain of the past few months. And yet . . .
I examined my mate’s face for a hint of the monster and saw . . . Adam. He carried the experiences of this past year, and despite the werewolf-bestowed youth, his eyes looked older. There was a tightness to his features due to the bite of Elizaveta’s curse and the various horrors of the past few months. He still had the confident air that was so much a part of him, but now it looked as though it was riding a war-weary soldier.
I tugged a little harder on the collar of his shirt.
He blinked and a ring of darkness solidified around the outside of his irises. Reassured, I tugged hard enough to choke him, ignoring the soreness this spawned in the newly healed muscle of my right arm where an assassin had shot me shortly before Adam’s monster had eaten her.
I couldn’t have pulled Adam down to me if he hadn’t wanted to come. He was a werewolf and I wasn’t. I could have levered myself to him, but I didn’t have to make the effort. He bent down and brushed my lips lightly, with a wry tilt of one eyebrow that told me he knew what I was up to but he was willing to play my game.
He sat all the way down on the ground, ignoring the slushy mud, and hauled me into his lap. It was like sitting on a furnace. My whole body softened into him, into his warmth and the rich smell of home. For a half second there was another scent, a more rank scent—or maybe that was just my imagination, because when I inhaled again, I smelled only Adam.
I leaned my head into his shoulder, which was as hard as stone. That wasn’t just because he was tense with anger; he was just in that kind of shape. What little softness there had been was worn away, leaving only muscle and bone behind. There was no give to him, but if I’d wanted soft, I would have had to look for someone who wasn’t the Alpha of a werewolf pack. Someone who wasn’t Adam.
When my temple touched his collarbone, I hissed, and he went rigid. I’d almost forgotten. This had all begun when something had hit me in the temple and dropped me.
“Was it Bonarata?” I asked. That didn’t seem right. The Lord of Night, vampire ruler of all he could survey, was in Italy. But we’d killed all the witches, hadn’t we? Even Elizaveta was dead. And the fae-ish smoke dragon was gone to wherever fae-ish smoke dragons go.
There were a few more smothered laughs. If there were enemies around, there wouldn’t have been people laughing—and Adam wouldn’t have sat down on the ground.
Someone said, in a whisper that was not quite quiet enough, “Dang, she’s going to have another black eye.” Honey, I thought. She usually had better sense.
Adam tightened his arms and growled, a sound that no completely human throat could have made. He was very and continually unhappy about the damage I took as his mate—a position more usually filled by a human, who would have been kept out of events whenever possible, or a werewolf, who could hold her own. I wasn’t either of those things; I was a coyote shapeshifter, a member of the pack in my own right, with all the privileges and the duties that entailed. I didn’t let them—or Adam—coddle me. It wouldn’t have been good for any of us, no matter how hard it was on him.
“Hey, boss,” said Warren’s casual voice, the one he used when he thought he wasn’t talking to a rational being.
I glanced over to see that the tall, lanky cowboy had taken a deliberately relaxed stance about ten feet away. It would have been more convincing if his eyes hadn’t been showing a hint of gold. A couple of yards behind him, the pack hovered in a mud-spattered, silent aggregate.
Adam looked, too.
Under the impact of Adam’s attention, the pack backed away. Warren turned his head so he wasn’t even looking in our direction.
But his voice was still calm and steady as he continued, “You sure you should be moving her around? Mary Jo should maybe see if she has a concussion.”
Mary Jo was a firefighter, and she had EMT training.
Again, Adam didn’t answer, and the tension grew. Which was exactly the opposite effect our outing to the pumpkin patch was supposed to engender.
Our pack, the Columbia Basin Pack, was unaffiliated with any other werewolves, the only one on the North or South American continent that did not belong to Bran Cornick, the Marrok. His goal was the survival of the werewolves, and he was ruthless in that pursuit—which was why we’d ended up on our own.
A wise pack, bereft of the Marrok’s protection, needed to keep its collective head down if it wanted to survive. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option for us.
It wouldn’t be vanity to say there wasn’t another pack as well-known as ours anywhere, at least in the eyes of the mundane world. Adam, our Alpha, my mate, was recognizable on any street corner in the US. That had begun as an accident of his contacts in the military, his willingness to talk to news agencies, and the good looks that had been the bane of his life long before he’d become a werewolf.
But it was my fault that the whole pack suffered along with him.
A few years ago, the worst thing most of the people (and other sentient beings) living in the Tri-Cities of Washington State had to worry about on an epic scale was the possibility of one of the Hanford nuclear waste tanks—filled with the caustic sludge by-products of the early, experimental years of nuclear science—leaking its goop into the Columbia River. Or possibly exploding.
There were nearly two hundred of the aging tanks, some holding as much as a million gallons. Each tank contained a unique mix of very bad radioactive soup, and worse, due to the secretive nature of nuclear weapons development, no one really knew exactly what was in any of them.
There really were scarier things than monsters.
The Tri-Cities, in addition to being right next to a Superfund cleanup site, were about an hour’s drive from the Ronald Wilson Reagan Fae Reservation, which the fae had turned into their own seat of power in their (mostly) cold war with the US government.
Because it suited them and because I claimed the Tri-Cities to be under our pack’s protection (it was a stupid heat-of-the-moment thing), the fae let it be known that they acknowledged and respected the Columbia Basin Pack’s right to protect our territory and the people, mundane and supernatural alike, who lived within it. We had signed a bargain with them that we would do that—and, more significantly, they would not harm anyone under our protection.
We hadn’t had a choice, and neither, I am pretty sure, had they. But bargains with the fae, even when both parties entered into the agreement with the best of intentions, tended to end badly, which was why the Marrok had cut us loose.
No one wanted a war between the fae and the werewolves. If our pack stood alone, whatever happened between us and the fae—or the vampires, other werewolf packs, ancient gods, or demons—werewolfkind would not be forced into that conflict. Our pack’s demise would not start a war between the supernatural world and the human, so long as we stood alone.
Or so everyone hoped.
The bargain with the fae made the Tri-Cities a neutral zone where humans could rub shoulder to shoulder with the magical world because they were protected. We had suddenly become a point of interest in national, international, and supernatural politics—and there were consequences.
Weaker supernatural beings flocked to a place of (perceived) safety, causing, among other things, a housing shortage. Hotels were booked solid and the Airbnb market went through the roof, because there was now a “safe” place to go see fae mingling with regular folks.
More quietly, predators came here, too, creatures who did not think they had to worry about a mere pack of werewolves interfering in their plundering of the rich hunting ground the Tri-Cities had become. We’d killed two of those predators in the past week alone.
Our pack was fierce. Adam was awe-inspiringly awesome. We had support from the fae—though admittedly that was nearly as dangerous as it was useful. The local vampire seethe helped us for their own reasons. Our pack, all twenty-six of us, bore the brunt of protecting our territory, and because we were not affiliated with the Marrok, we weren’t going to get any more wolves very easily.
Adam had responded to the situation by turning us into a finely tuned fighting unit. Some of that meant training in fighting techniques. Some of it meant becoming a more tightly knit pack.
Which was why Adam had rented a giant pumpkin patch and corn maze on a Tuesday night in October so that our pack could play together.
Who knew that a pumpkin patch could be dangerous?
October is a funny month in eastern Washington. Some days are eighty degrees and sunny, some days are thirty degrees and pouring rain or sleet. Our playdate had turned out to be the latter, with the addition of forty-mile-an-hour wind gusts.
Warm in Adam’s arms despite being wet through, I tipped my chin so I could see the ground and note the growing mush of mud and icy slush. The owners of the pumpkin patch had really made bank on us because only the most desperate parents would have paid money to come out here in this weather.
Over Adam’s shoulder, the flapping of paper drew my eye to the billboard near the exit of the corn maze. On one half of the board, sodden paper hung limply or flapped from pushpins and staples, revealing a rough plywood surface that needed a new coat of paint.
On the other half, plexiglass covered a movie poster showing a shadowy figure with a sickle and the title The Harvester in old-style horror lettering. A white sheet of laminated paper taped to the plexiglass announced special showings of the movie beginning this Saturday, with an opening event that included a guest appearance by the Pasco-born screenwriter.
As I watched, the combination of wind and rain tugged the announcement free. It fluttered to the ground and landed upon something small and suspiciously orange, about the size of a softball. I wiggled to get a better look.
Oh, dear Lord, I thought, staring at the orange perpetrator of my once and future doom with dismay. I am never going to live this down.
As far as I could see, all the pack members who weren’t actively hunting in the maze had spread out across the maze exit to avoid getting too close to Adam. They saw where I looked, and several of them flinched or ducked their heads.
“Tell me,” I said, in a voice that was not whiny, or at least not very whiny, “that I didn’t just get hit in the head by a pumpkin.”
“You might not have gotten hit in the head by a pumpkin,” said Honey, with added sweetness in her voice. She knew what kind of trouble I was in. “It was orange, but also small and hard, so we’re pretty sure it’s actually some kind of ornamental gourd rather than a variety of pumpkin. We were discussing the matter right before—”
“We were playing baseball, waiting for the last group to make it through the maze,” said Carlos, one of the other wolves, apologetically. “If we’d been using softballs, we wouldn’t have hit anywhere near you, but these things aren’t round. No predicting where it might go.”
“Makes it more interesting,” said Mary Jo soberly, with a wicked glint in her eye.
Mary Jo was nearly as muddy as I was, her short blondish hair plastered tightly to her head. She was the smallest in the group of werewolves. Not many of them could have taken her in a fight, though—as she’d proven.
She held a three-foot-long piece of two-by-four in her hand. Presumably it was a makeshift bat. I wondered if that bat had been the one that sent the pumpkin . . . the gourd bulleting my way. If so, I was pretty sure it wouldn’t have been on purpose. She and I weren’t buddies, but she didn’t hate my guts anymore.
I was pretty sure.
“Most of the gourds just smoosh when we hit them,” said George, tough and confident. He’d been a police officer a couple of different times in a couple of different places. He was currently working at the Pasco Police Department and had been with them for as long as the pack had been in the Tri-Cities. He was one of the wolves who had traveled with Adam when he’d moved his pack from New Mexico.
George had just a hint of apologetic laughter in his voice as he bent to pick up the assault projectile and give it a little toss, for all the world as though it were actually a baseball. “But the hard ones are almost as good as the real thing.”
I sighed and patted Adam. I’d been hit in the head with a gourd, knocked out, and dumped in a mud puddle. As a boost for my ego, it was pretty awful. As a boost for the pack’s team spirit, it might be the best thing that could have happened, as long as Adam didn’t decide to defend me.
A dollop of mud slid out of my hair and over my cheekbone. The story of how I’d been taken out by accident was going to be told and retold until it was a pack legend. At least it hadn’t been a proper pumpkin.
I bet it is going to be a pumpkin in retellings, I thought dismally. Stories like to grow as they are passed around, becoming more exciting and less likely. I could see it now, some distant future in which a pack sat around a campfire and told stories about the stupid coyote shapeshifter who thought she was a werewolf until someone bashed her head in with a pumpkin. Or something like that, anyway.
I might have writhed in humiliation for a few more minutes, but Adam’s thigh muscles flexing under mine reminded me that he, at least, was not amused by the Pumpkin Incident. The minute I got up, Adam was going to go after the baseball team, and the whole point of this production would be lost. But if I didn’t get up soon, he was going to think I was really hurt, and that wouldn’t make things better, either.
But he was really warm. And, I have to admit, I’m a little perverse. Adam is flat-out gorgeous. It’s not my favorite thing about him—and it was one of the reasons I’d held off dating him for such a long time. He is absolutely out of my league. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy his looks. What woman wouldn’t? But when he is angry . . . yum. Just yum.
He was very angry right now. It was distracting.
I pushed my face against his neck, tipping my lips until they touched his ear, and breathed, “You and I have a hot shower in our future. Could be fun.”
I could feel him go still. I realized, even if I hadn’t meant it, I’d done the best thing I could possibly have done to change his focus.
Another soft laugh from the peanut gallery reminded me that we had an audience. We were sitting in slush—or at least Adam was—and I wanted a hot shower. I intended to do something about both of those.
To that end, I sat up, and in a loud and (this time) deliberately whiny voice, I asked, “Did you guys have to knock me into the mud?”
“If you choose to stand next to the biggest puddle in the whole ten-acre playground, you don’t get to complain when nature takes its course,” said Warren mildly, though his wary eyes brushed past me and hesitated on Adam before he looked away again. “We didn’t do it on purpose”—all of them had been careful not to name the actual culprit; Mary Jo wasn’t the only one with a makeshift bat—“but if you’re going to provide us with that much temptation—”
The team of wolves inside the corn maze had been making a lot of noise for a while. Sometimes it sounded like it was coming from just over the wall of corn and sometimes from farther away—as was consistent with wolves playing tag in a maze. Everyone was looking at Adam and me, and Adam was looking at me—so I was the only one who saw Zack burst out of the exit.
He was running at top speed, his raised fist displaying a multitude of damp ribbons that proved he’d found the waypoints scattered throughout the maze. His face was turned to look behind him and held a sort of gleeful terror that told me Sherwood (our designated maze monster) was in hot pursuit.
I didn’t even have time to open my mouth to warn anyone.
Zack’s shoulder hit George at full speed, knocking the much bigger man into the mass of the gathered people. Zack himself tumbled all the way over George’s falling body and into Mary Jo, who dropped more from the unexpectedness of the impact than its force.
Just before Mary Jo hit the ground, a giant wolf leaped over the top of the cornstalks—which was a feat that not all the wolves in our pack would have managed, because the wall of the maze was not only nearly ten feet tall but at least that wide—and this wolf did it missing one rear leg. From my vantage point on Adam’s lap, I could see the instant in which Sherwood (the three-legged wolf) took in the whole scene.
I had no doubt that he could have landed safely. But with an expression of satisfaction in his eyes, he chose to belly flop in the deepest part of the puddle I’d already fallen into. I felt just the lightest touch of magic, then everyone, including Adam and me, was doused with icy mudwater.
Zack crawled off the top of the pile of people, wiped his face with his forearm, then showed Adam and me the fistful of ribbons, now even wetter than before. “I brought out all fifteen ribbons. My whole team gets steak dinner at Uncle Mike’s, right?”
The rest of Zack’s team, Joel in the lead, emerged from the maze at a much steadier pace. They looked, if anything, even more drenched than the rest of us—but they were laughing like lunatics. Zack’s team was the last through and the only one to make it out with all the ribbons.
Sherwood stood up and shook, splattering them (and Adam and me) with more water, his expression smug.
Adam had curled around me to protect me from the worst of it, so I could feel the exact moment at which he relaxed and laughed.
Adam took me home while the pack cleaned up.
“Privilege of rank” was all Adam said when I protested that we should help in the cleanup. But I knew that the reason we were leaving was because he was still worried about me.
I was fine. I’d had concussions before, and this was not one. But I wasn’t going to argue with Adam—I just rolled my eyes at Mary Jo behind his back.
She stuck her tongue out at me and crossed her eyes. We had been getting along better recently. Some of that had to do with the utterly charming deputy she was dating—so she wasn’t lusting after Adam. I thought about it for a second and decided that maybe all of it had to do with her new boyfriend. I liked that she was happy.
Adam caught her expression—she hadn’t been trying to hide it from him—and turned to look at me. But he was too late; I had my eyes front and center and my face innocent.
“I heard your eyeballs roll,” he told me, which was a phrase he used on his daughter, who had been the empress of eye rolls when she was thirteen.
“We’ll see you all in an hour at Uncle Mike’s,” Adam told them.
“We’ve got this, boss,” said Warren.
I got waylaid telling Adam’s daughter, Jesse, about my bruise and all the mud, so Adam had the shower running before I got up to our room. I started stripping out of my muddy clothes as soon as I closed the bedroom door. By the time I walked into the bathroom, I was already naked—and Adam had turned off the water and was reaching for a towel.
“Nope,” I told him, swiping the towel out of his hands and dropping it on the floor.
He narrowed his eyes at me—or at least I think he did. I wasn’t looking at his face.
“You’re hurt,” he said.
“Pish-posh,” I scoffed—an expression I’d stolen from Ben. Most of his British words were NSFW, but I liked “pish-posh.” “It’s a bruise. It’ll go away. And you promised me sex in the shower.”
“I think that was you promising me,” he told me.
“You, me, who cares?” I grabbed his hand and dragged him back to the shower. “Nudge.”
It was a big shower, plenty big enough for two.
“No fair deploying the WMDs,” he pretended to grump. “Nudge” was our code word, never to be resisted but also not for overuse. But I could tell he approved of my plans no matter what he said.
“When you are dealing with a big bad wolf, you have to deploy all the weapons you have,” I explained, turning on the water.
I did not wince when the water stung my cheekbone. He saw it anyway, putting one hand up to protect my face.
“I did not expect joy,” he told me, kissing the sensitive skin just behind my ear.
“What?” I asked, distracted.
He pulled back and met my eyes, his own dark chocolate, the pupils wide with passion. “You bring me joy,” he said clearly. “I never expected this. I don’t deserve it—but I am claiming you for my own.”
“Well, yes,” I told him. “I thought we’d established that when I claimed you for my mate and then my husband. I get you. You get me. No take-backs.”
He laughed. Kissed me.
I buried my face against him and just breathed in. He brought me joy, too. But he also brought with him this steady certainty that I had someone in my corner.
When I was a teenager, my home had been torn away with the deaths of my foster parents. My foster mother had died trying to become a werewolf. Unwilling to live without his mate, my foster father, Bryan, killed himself, leaving me alone at fourteen. I spent the next two years living on my own on the outskirts of the Marrok’s pack, under its aegis if not its certain protection. When I was sixteen, I lost even that.
I’d learned to stand on my own two feet by then, though. I’d lived a mostly solitary life for years and thought I was content. Then Adam showed up and turned my world upside down.
I wrapped my arms around him, taking in his solid presence, this man of duty and solid strength, this man who loved me when he could have had anyone. There were no words for how much I loved him. At least no words that I knew. But I did know how to show him.
That was joyous fun for both of us.
When he carried me out of the shower a limp, thoroughly loved mess, he whispered, with a growl in his voice, “No take-backs.”
|August 23, 2022
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