I sat next to him.
“If I die, will you grieve for me?” he asked.
“Yes. But before I do that, I’ll fight to save you.”
I put my hand onto his furry forearm. “Because I feel good when you’re near me. It’s not just sex, and it isn’t loneliness, it’s more than that. It’s kind of frightening. I think that’s why I fought it for so long.”
The lawn before us seemed to go on forever, each grass blade slick with reflected moonlight. Soon Cerberus would come running, his paws mashing big ugly holes in the perfect grass.
“Do you think we’ll ever have what they had?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I think what they had grew over many years. We still have a lot of things to work out. But I’d like to try, Raphael. When I said you’re mine, I meant it. I don’t do things halfway. For better or worse.”
We heard light footsteps. The door opened. “He wants you,” Aunt B said.
Alex Doulos had a soft, kind voice. “My time’s short,” he said. “Do you know the myth of Hades and Persephone?”
“Yes,” Raphael answered.
“Good. That will make things simple then. I’m a priest of Hades. My family has served him for generations. One of our duties is to tend to secret shrines of Hades. They’re scattered all over the world and kept hidden. During the flares, one of the shrines randomly grows an apple tree, which bears fruit.”
“Hera’s Apples,” I said.
Alex motioned with his arm. “The Vikings call them Idun’s Apples, the Russians call them Apples of Youth, and we call them Persephone’s Apples. The name doesn’t matter. The apples are supposed to grant youth and long life span to gods. When eaten by normal humans, who don’t have Persephone’s gift or immunity to it, the apples produce horrible consequences. That’s why we guard the tree until the apples ripen and sacrifice the fruit to Hades. No part of the apples must remain in our world. It is my duty to make sure the apples are destroyed. It’s the purpose of my service. But I’ve failed.
“My body was kidnapped by a woman who calls herself Spider Lynn. She’s dying and she wants the apples for herself. She mustn’t eat them. It’s very, very important. She must not eat them.”
“Where is Lynn now?” I asked.
“I imagine she’s at the shrine. It’s in the woods behind my summer house. Raphael, you remember, we had a cookout at that house last year.”
I glanced at Raphael. “It’s across the wood, bordering our territory. Not too far,” he said. “How did she know the location of the shrine?”
Alex’s shade shuddered. “I told her. She realized that she couldn’t compel me to reveal it and she kidnapped my nephew. His parents are away and I was watching the boy. I couldn’t let the vampires hurt the child.”
I pulled the green toy car from my pocket. “The boy . . .”
“Yes,” Alex confirmed. “It’s his. Raphael, I know that you’re not my son and you owe me nothing. But I beg you, please, don’t let her get the apples. Save the boy. And whatever you do, don’t eat them.”
“I’ll do it,” Raphael said simply.
“The shrine’s guarded by a serpent, but it won’t last against Spider Lynn’s vampires for long. Take the bracelet off my arm. It’s keyed to the ward that’s guarding the shrine. Lynn has enough magic to force herself past the defensive spell, but it will leave her weakened. She’ll need time to recover. You won’t.”
A deafening roar shook the house. Cerberus had found us.
“He’s come for me.” Alex smiled. “It’s time to go. Take the bracelet. It will unlock the ward and let you pick up the apples.”
Raphael slipped the simple metal loop off the corpse’s right wrist and placed it over his own. The bracelet barely enclosed two thirds of his wrist. “Are you really going to Hades?”
“I don’t know,” Alex said. “But the last of my power is fading. My body is dead, Raphael. I can no longer hold on to it. Earth is the home of the living, not the dead. Don’t mourn me. My life was full and well lived. I was fortunate. Some might even say blessed. I only wish that I had lived a few days longer so I could destroy the apples myself instead of forcing this burden on you. That and your mother’s tears are my only regrets.”
Aunt B rose, picked up the corpse, and strode outside. We followed her. She walked onto the lawn. They said something to each other, too quiet to hear, and then she lowered him into the grass and stepped away.
The trees rustled. A giant shape muscled through the trunks and trotted into the open, its three heads close to the ground. The center head sniffed Alex’s body and picked it up, clamping it in its great fangs.
“Take care of your mother, Raphael,” a ghostly voice called out.
The body burst into flames. The great dog howled and vanished.
Raphael’s eyes shone once, catching the moonlight. “Are you with me?”
“Who else will protect your furry butt?”
“I’m coming, too,” Aunt B said.
Raphael shook his head. “We’ve got this.”
Her eyes flashed with red, a precursor to an alpha stare.
“He didn’t want you involved,” Raphael said. “He asked me, not you. The clan needs you.”
“We’ve got it.” I nodded.
We turned our backs on her and headed to the Jeep. “Did we just defy your mother, who’s also your alpha?” I murmured.
“Yes, we did.”
I glanced over my shoulder and saw Aunt B standing there with a bewildered look on her face. “Let’s go faster before she realizes that.”
The magic was up and Boom Baby was useless. I took a crossbow and bolts from the Jeep and followed Raphael into the woods. He broke into a run, inhumanly fast in warrior form, and I struggled to keep up.
Half a mile later Raphael stopped. “The magic is up,” he said softly.
“You’re slower in this form.”
I had run as fast as I could. When we were both in human form, I was faster. But in warrior form, he beat me.
“You can’t keep up.”
I realized what he was saying. “No.”
“Andrea . . .”
“We’re short on time,” he said. “There’s a little boy out there with at least two vampires. We don’t even know if he’s alive.”
My heart hammered in my chest. “You don’t understand. I lose control when I’m her.”
“Andrea, please,” he said. “We’re losing time.”
I closed my eyes. He was right. We had to save the boy. We had to get the apples away from Lynn. I had to . . .
I stripped off my clothes and reached to the beast living inside me. She smiled and leapt out, flowing over my arms, my legs, my back, giving me her strength. My bones stretched, my muscles swelled, and there I stood, revealed and naked.
The shapeshifters got a choice: human, warrior form, or animal. I had only two: the human me and the secret me.
Raphael’s eyes shone with red. He ran.
I swiped up my crossbow and then dropped it. My claws were too long. I wouldn’t be able to work it. I’d have to fight with my claws and teeth. I grabbed the little toy car and hid it in my fist.
Raphael was a mere shadow in the distance. I burst into a run. It felt like flying, light and easy. My muscles welcomed the exertion and I sprinted, catching him with ease. Together we dashed through the woods, two humanoid nightmares, fast and slick, our voices faint whispers on the draft.
“I can’t see you.”
“I don’t want you to see me.” I purposely picked my way so he caught only the mere flashes of me.
“Don’t hide from me,” he asked.
I ignored him.
Suddenly he burst through the brush. I had no chance to hide. He saw all of me: my limbs, my face that was neither animal nor beast, my breasts . . .
“You’re lovely,” he whispered as he passed me in a burst of speed.
“You’re sick,” I told him.
“You’ve a perfect union of human and animal: proportionate and elegant and strong. Your form is what we aspire to. How’s that sick?”
“I’m a human!”
“So am I. You don’t have to hide from me, Andrea. I think you are beautiful.”
Nobody, not human, not shapeshifter, not even my mother had ever told me that the beast form was beautiful. Inside me, the human me put her hands on her face and cried.
Miles flashed by. We passed a house in a blur of speed. Trees parted, underbrush snapped, and we burst into a clearing. A ward ignited with gold, barring our way in a translucent wall.
Inside the ward, a dark-haired boy crouched on the ground, hugging his knees. Past him a dead vampire lay broken on the grass, its skull shattered. To the left, an unnaturally large snake was dying on the grass, a second vampire caught in its coils. The vamp’s neck was broken, its vertebrae crushed. Blood drenched the snake’s coils. With each new squeeze, more blood washed the scales.
Past them, a ring of colonnades carved of pure white stone guarded a narrow apple sapling. Four yellow apples hung from the branches. The fifth apple, with a small piece bitten off, lay on the grass, by the hand of a dark-haired woman. She slumped on the grass. Her horribly distended stomach had ripped through her tailored slacks.
Oh no. She ate it. We were too late.
“Now look what you did.” A man walked up to us, his eyes fixed on Spider Lynn. “I done told you to leave the apples alone.”
Raphael snarled. The fur on his back rose.
The man was tall and broad-shouldered, built with strength in mind. Dark stubble peppered his face. He wore a white T-shirt, a pair of old jeans, and yellow work boots. A flannel shirt hung from his blocky shoulders. He looked like a good old boy in search of a porch with a rocking chair and a glass of iced tea. He turned to us and said, “Hi.”