I shook my head. “I’m trying very hard not to think anything. I’m just collecting data at this point. Did you see the way Fido fell?”
“Like he was on a leash and it ran out.” Raphael drummed a quick rhythm on the dashboard.
“It probably means he’s somehow bound to a specific area. I think we should go and look at it.”
“I’m game.” Raphael shivered. “I don’t suppose you have any spare clothes?”
“You should’ve thought of clothes before you decided to go human.”
The sinful smile was back. “I always dreamt of being naked with you. Couldn’t pass up the chance.”
I started the Jeep. “Could you get any more full of yourself?”
“I’m mostly interested in getting you full of me.”
The vision of being full of Raphael zinged through my brain, short-circuiting rational thought. “Come to think of it, there is something on your lips. Why don’t you use that side mirror over there to check it out?”
He glanced into the side mirror and stared, slack-jawed. His lips were solid black. A thick black line of guy liner outlined his deep-set eyes and a little black tear dripped down his left cheek-bone. He touched his cheek, stretching the skin to better examine the tear, his face a flat mask, glanced at me, and exploded with laughter.
I stood atop the Jeep’s hood and slowly swept the vast network of ravines with binoculars. The Jeep itself sat on the edge of a shallow gap, just beyond the spot where Cerberus almost took a bite out of our backseat. Raphael, still gloriously naked, sat in the passenger seat and plucked random Hades-related trivia from the book.
“A fun guy, this Hades. Apparently he bridenapped his wife.”
“Things were much simpler in ancient Greece if you were a god. I’m sure he got himself a harem of mistresses, too.” The wind swirled with Raphael’s scents: the light musk of his sweat, the delicious redolence of his skin . . . I was having trouble concentrating.
“No,” Raphael said, flipping a page. “Actually, Hades didn’t screw around. His wife was the daughter of Demeter, goddess of youth, fertility, and harvest. After Hades stole Persephone, Demeter refused to let the plants grow, starving everyone, and they had to reach a compromise: Persephone spends half of the year with him and half with her mother. The guy only had her for six months out of the year, and he still remained faithful. That must be some sweet sex right there.”
I took the binoculars down so I could roll my eyes. “Do you ever think of anything but sex?”
“Yes, I do. Sometimes I think of waking up next to you. Or making you laugh.”
I was beginning to regret this.
“Of course, I do occasionally get hungry . . .” he added. “And cold.”
A white speck caught my eye. I adjusted the binoculars. A house. A two-story colonial, seemingly intact, sitting in the bottom of a ravine. I could only see the roof and a small slice of the upper story.
“Kate was right: the Greeks lived in fear of this guy. Instead of speaking his name, they called him the Rich One, the Notorious One, the Ruler of Many, and so on. Despite his sour disposition, he was considered to be a just god. The one sure way to piss Hades off was to steal one of the shades—souls—from his realm or to somehow avoid death. This dude Sisyphus apparently finagled a way out of death a couple of times, and Hades had it and made him drag an enormous boulder up a mountain. Every time Sisyphus almost gets to the top, the boulder rolls down and he has to do it all over. Thus the term ‘Sisyphean task.’ Huh. I never knew that’s where it came from.”
He showed me a page. On it a man and a woman sat side by side on simple thrones. To one side of the pair stood Cerberus. To the other an angel with black wings and a flaming sword.
“Who is that?”
“Thanatos. Angel of death.”
“Didn’t know the Greeks had angels.” I turned back to watching the house. And just in time, too. Cerberus trotted out of the ravine to the left of the house. I could barely see his back. He passed by the building and began to circle it.
“I see a house,” I said.
Raphael landed next to me with inhuman agility. I passed the binoculars to him and he straightened, almost a foot taller than me. Standing next to him was a trial: his scents sang through me, the warmth of his body seeped through my clothes, and his skin practically glowed. Everything about him said “mate” to me. It wasn’t rational. It was the animal me, and I had to be better than that.
“I’ll be damned,” he said softly. “Here is Fido. Going round and round. I wonder what’s in that house?”
“I wonder why he doesn’t just go in and get whatever it is.”
“I think we should find out. Andrea?”
“Yes?” I wished he would stop saying my name.
“Why are your eyes closed?”
Because you’re standing next to me. “It helps me think.”
I felt the heat wash over me and knew he had leaned to me. His voice was a soft masculine rasp, entirely too intimate. “I thought you were trying not to think.”
I opened my eyes and found the deep smoldering blue of his irises right next to me. I lifted my index finger and pushed his chest. He slid on the Jeep’s hood, distorted by the charged-water engine underneath, and had to jump off, landing with the grace of a gymnast on the ground.
“Personal space,” I told him. “I protect mine.”
He simply smiled.
“How do we get to the house with the dog making shark circles around it?” I asked.
“Fido doesn’t see that well,” Raphael said. “It took him a while to find the crevice where I was hiding before, and he had to sniff me out. We fool his nose by masking our scent, we can probably get close enough.”
“And how do you propose to do that?”
“The old-fashioned way.”
I sighed. “Which would be?”
Raphael shook his head. “You really don’t know?”
“No, I don’t.”
He trotted off to the side and dived into a ravine. I waited for a couple of minutes, and he emerged, carrying two dark objects, and tossed one of them to me. Reflexively I caught it even as the reek lashed my nostrils. A dead, half-decomposed cat.
“Are you out of your mind?”
“Some people roll in it.” He grabbed the dog carcass and ripped it in a half. Maggots spilled. He shook them out. “I prefer to tear them and tie pieces on myself. But if you would prefer to rub it all over your skin, you can do that, too.”
All my fantasies of touching him evaporated into thin air with a small pop.
“Hunting one-oh-one,” he said. “Didn’t your pack ever do the hunts in Texas?”
“No. I wasn’t in that kind of pack.” And I had fought my way out of shapeshifter society before it was too late.
My face must’ve showed my memories, because he paused. “That bad?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
Raphael reached to the backseat and pulled a roll of cord we kept there. He uncoiled a foot-long piece and tore the tough hemp rope like it was a hair. “You don’t have to do it,” he said. “I keep forgetting you’re not—”
Not what? Not normal? Not like him?
“—properly trained. I’ll be back shortly.”
He wasn’t better than me. Whatever he could handle, I could deal with as well.
I picked up the roll of twine. If I had been straight bouda, like my mother, I would’ve enjoyed all of the enhancements Lyc-V brought, but even though I wasn’t as strong as a regular shapeshifter, I could handle the damn rope. I tore a piece, sighed, and pulled the cat apart.
“It’s a good thing I’m part hyena,” I murmured, moving along the bottom of the ravine. Bits of the cat corpse dangled from me, strategically positioned on my limbs and suspended from a cord off my neck. To a human nose, all decomposition odors were similar, but in reality each corpse gave off its own specific scent just as it did in life. And this particular carcass reeked of something nauseatingly sour. “If I were a cat, I’d probably die of the stink and the sheer indignity.”
“You know who can’t handle it?” Raphael scrambled up the slope like a gecko. “Doolittle.”
“The Pack’s doctor?” Even carrying my Weatherby, I made it out of the ravine faster than he did. What I couldn’t match in strength, I made up in agility and speed.
“Yeah. Badgers are very clean. In the wild, foxes sometimes steal badger burrows by sneaking into them and crapping all over the place. The badger is so prissy, he’d rather dig a new burrow than clean his old one up. Doolittle will do open-heart surgery if he has to, but hand him a chunk of a putrid cadaver and he’ll run for the hills.”
An echo of a growl washed over us. He clamped his mouth shut. We’d reached the dog’s hearing range.
A few minutes later we went aground on the edge. Several ravines converged here, forming a gap almost wide enough to enclose a football field. The house sat in the center of the gap. Two stories high, with a row of white columns supporting a triangular roof, it looked at us with twin rows of windows blocked by dark shutters. Its black front door stood closed and so did the doors of the cellar on the left side. A ten-foot-tall fence topped with coils of barbed wire guarded the house.
As we watched, Cerberus trotted out of the ravine. He whined softly, spit dripping in burning clumps of foam from between his fangs, and inched toward the fence. The left head stretched on his shaggy neck and sniffed at the mesh. A blue spark jumped from the metal to his nose. Cerberus yelped, clawed the ground in frustration, and trotted off.
Electrified fencing. Peculiar. No wires stretched to the house, so the power must have come from inside. I strained and heard the faint hum of a generator.
The doors to the cellar rose slowly. Something squirmed beneath them, something pale. The right half of the cellar door fell open and a creature leapt into the open. Its gaunt, vaguely humanoid body had lost every iota of its hair and fat long ego. Thick, bloodless skin sheathed the dry cords of its muscles, every rib distinct beneath its leathery hide. Its stomach was hard and ridged. Huge yellow claws tipped the fingers of its hands and its long toes.