I crouched on the edge of the ravine and let the air currents tell me a story. A touch of sickeningly sweet rot of decomposing flesh and the odd, slightly oily stink of vultures eating it. Twin musk of two feral cats enjoying a bit of competitive spraying over each other’s marks. A harsh bitterness of a distant skunk. The scent of burning matches.
I paused. Sulfur dioxide. Quite a bit of it, too. It was the only scent that didn’t fit the usual odors of animal life. I returned to the Jeep and followed the matches north. There were times when my secret self came in handy.
The stench of burning sulfur grew stronger. A low growl rolled through the ravine below, dissolving into heavy wet panting, followed by a frustrated layered yelp, as if several dogs had whined in unison.
I guided the Jeep along the edge of the ravine and peered down. Nothing. No giant dogs, just a shallow twenty-five-foot gap with a bit of scarce shrubs and trash at the bottom. A broken rusted fridge. The remains of a couch. Multicolored dirt-stained rags. A house had apparently thrown up down the slope and now perched in a ruined heap on the edge, where the ravine veered left.
An excited snarl rumbled through the Scratches, the deep primeval sound of an enormous beast giving chase. The hairs on the back of my neck rose. I stood on the brakes, swiped the Weatherby from the seat, and jumped out, taking position on the edge.
A shaggy shape exploded from around the bend of the ravine. Saffron-colored with a sprinkling of dark spots on its sloped back, the animal flew over the refuse, the muscles of its powerful forequarters pumping hard. A bouda. Shit.
The werehyena saw me. A cackle of trilling terrified laughter exploded from its muzzle.
Please don’t be Raphael. Please don’t be Raphael. Please . . .
The bouda veered toward me, changing in midleap. Its body snapped, twisting like a broken doll. Bones thrust out of the flesh, muscles sliding up the new powerful limbs, a carved chest, and a humanoid torso. The beast’s jaws exploded, growing disproportionately large, its face flattened into a grotesque semblance of human, its forepaws stretched into hands that could enclose my entire head. A bouda in a warrior form, a monster halfway between hyena and man. For a shapeshifter, to assume this form was a victory, to make it proportional was an achievement, and to speak in one was an art.
The werehyena’s jaws gaped open, displaying three-inch fangs. A bloodcurdling scream ripped from him. “Drive away, Andrea! Drive!”
Raphael. Damn it.
“Don’t panic.” I sighted the bend through the scope. “I have it under control.” A thing that sent a bouda in warrior form running, especially one as crazy and lethal as Raphael, had to be treated with respect. Fortunately, the Weatherby delivered respect in a Magnum cartridge. It would stop a rhino at full gallop. It sure as hell would handle an oversized dog.
The ground shook as if from blows of a giant hammer. The refuse on the ravine’s floor jumped in place.
A colossal thing burst from around the bend, nearly level with the ravine’s wall. Blood-red and massive, it slid on the trash and crashed into the curve. The impact shook the slope. The remnants of a house quaked and slid down in a shower of bricks, bouncing from the creature’s three canine heads.
A twenty-foot-tall three-headed dog. Whoa. This was quite possibly the coolest thing I’d ever seen through the scope of a rifle.
The dog shook, flinging rubble from his fur. Thick, deep-chested, built like an Italian mastiff, it gripped the ground with four massive paws and charged after Raphael. Behind it a long whiplike tail lashed, the barb on its end shaped like a snake’s head. The mouths of its three heads hung open, displaying gleaming fangs longer than my forearm. Three forked serpentine tongues hung out as it thundered to us, flinging foam from between the horrid teeth. The drops of drool, each big enough to fill a bucket, ignited in midair.
It was built too thickly. The bullet might not penetrate.
However, I didn’t need to kill it. I just had to delay it long enough for the knucklehead to reach me. I sighted the muzzle of the center head. The nose shot would deliver maximum pain.
“Run, damn you!” Raphael howled, scrambling up the slope toward me.
“There’s no need to scream.” Excitement buoyed me, the ancient thrill of a hunter sighting his prey. The beast’s dark nose danced in my scope.
Steady. Aim. Breathe. You have time.
A triple snarl ripped from three huge maws.
Gently, slowly, I squeezed the trigger.
The Weatherby spat thunder. The recoil punched me in the shoulder.
The dog’s middle head jerked. The Weatherby’s magazine held two rounds and one in the chamber. I sighted and fired again. The middle head drooped. The beast yowled and spun in pain. Perfect. The Weatherby wins again.
In a desperate leap, Raphael launched himself up the slope toward me. I caught his arm and hauled him up. We dashed to the Jeep. I hopped into the driver’s seat, Raphael landed in the passenger’s, and I floored the gas pedal.
A howl of pure frustration shook the highway. In the rearview mirror the dog sailed out of the ravine as if it had wings and landed on the road behind us.
“Faster!” Raphael snarled.
I drove, squeezing every last drop out of the Jeep’s old engine. We hurtled down the highway at a breakneck speed. The dog gave chase with a triumphant howl that shook the ground beneath the car wheels. It closed the space between us in three great bounds and bent down over the car, its mouths opened wide. The foul, corrosive breath washed over me. Raphael jumped up and snarled back, his hackles up. Burning drool hit the backseat, singeing the upholstery in an acrid stench of melted synthetics.
I swerved, taking a sudden turn onto a wooden bridge and almost sending the Jeep off the edge into a gap. Monstrous teeth snapped a foot from the backseat.
The dog snarled. In the rearview mirror I saw its muscles bunch as it gathered itself for a leap. Before me, Buzzard’s Highway ran straight and narrow, ravines on both sides. Nowhere to go. That’s it, we’re done.
Inside me, an animal raked at my flesh, trying to spill out of my skin. I clenched my teeth and stayed human.
The dog jumped. Its huge body flew toward us and then jerked back, as if an invisible leash had snapped, reaching its full length. The giant canine fell, its paws waving clumsily in the air. In the rearview mirror I saw it rise. Its bark rang through the Scratches. The dog barked again, whined, and jumped back into the ravine.
I slowed to a speed that would let me make a turn without sending us to a fiery death in the gap below. “You! Explain!”
In the seat next to me Raphael shuddered. Fur melted into smooth human skin, stretched taut over a heartbreakingly beautiful body. Coal-black hair spilled from his head to his shoulders. He looked at me with smoldering blue eyes, smiled, and passed out.
Out cold. With magic down, changing shape took a lot of effort and combined with the strain of that run, Lyc-V, the shapeshifter virus, had shut him down for a rest.
I growled under my breath. Of course, he could’ve stayed conscious had he not changed into a human. But he knew that if he shifted shape, he would pass out on the seat next to me, nude, and I would be forced to stare at him until he slept it off. He had done it on purpose. The werehyena Casanova strikes again. I was getting really tired of his ridiculous pursuit.
Ten minutes later I pulled into an abandoned Shell station and parked under the concrete roof shielding the pumps.
I hugged my rifle and listened. No snarls. No growling. We were in the clear.
My heart hammered. I tasted a bitter patina on my tongue and squeezed my eyes shut. A delayed reaction to stress, nothing more.
Inside, my secret self danced and screamed in frustration. I chained it. Control. In the end it was all about control. I had learned to impose my will over my body in childhood—it was that or death—and years of mental conditioning in the Order’s Academy had reinforced my hold.
Breathe. Another breath.
Gradually the bestial part of me settled down. That’s it. Relax. Good.
All shapeshifters struggled with their inner beast. Unfortunately, I wasn’t an ordinary shapeshifter. My problems were a lot more complicated. And the presence of Raphael only aggravated them.
Raphael sprawled next to me, snoring slightly. Until he awoke, speculating on why a giant three-headed dog with burning drool had chased after him would be pointless.
Look at him. Napping without a care in the world, confident I would be watching him. And I was. I had met handsome men in my life, some born with classically perfect features and the physique of Michelangelo’s David. Raphael was not one of these men, and yet he left them all in the dust.
He had his good qualities: the bronze skin, the masculine jaw, the wide sensuous mouth. But his face was too narrow. His nose was too long. And yet when he looked at women with those dark blue eyes, they lost all common sense and threw themselves at him. His face was so interesting and so . . . carnal. There was no other word for it. Raphael was all tightly controlled, virile sensuality, heat simmering just beneath the surface of his dusky skin.
And his body took my breath away. He was built lean, with crisp definition, proportionate and perfect with wide chest, narrow hips, and long limbs. My gaze drifted down to between his legs. And hung like a horse.
He had been kind to me, more kind than I probably deserved. The first time, when my body betrayed me, he and his mother, Aunt B, saved my life by guiding me back into my shape. The second time, when my back was pierced by silver spikes, he held me and talked me through pushing them out of my body. When I thought back to those moments, I sensed tenderness in him and I wanted very badly to believe it was genuine.
Unfortunately, he was also a bouda. They had a saying about werehyenas: fourteen to eighty, blind, crippled, crazy. Boudas would screw anything. I had witnessed it firsthand. Monogamy wasn’t in their vocabulary.
Raphael had seen the true me and he’d never come across anyone similar. To him I was the TWT-IHFB. That Weird Thing I Haven’t Fucked Before.
The more I thought about it, the madder I got. He could speak in a warrior form just fine. Had he stayed awake, I would’ve gotten the whole explanation from him by now. Not to mention that if something attacked us, I’d be left to defend a limp man who outweighed me by about eighty pounds. What exactly was I supposed to do with him? Did he expect me to sigh heavily while admiring his naked body? Or perhaps I was supposed to take advantage of the situation?