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An Elf, a werewolf, and an angel walk into a bar...

“What’s that picture from?” she asked me, turning to stare at me with eyes like a pool of still water in the heart of an ancient forest.


I picked up the photograph of three idiots who had escaped by the skin of their teeth from the grasp of a horrible monster.


How many years had it been? Not long enough to forget how it had been to work with the best people I knew. 

“Because they’ll say, ‘what’s an elf doing in a club like this,” Libby said, elbowing Harold. “That’s why you always have to be the human who walks into a bar. Because you’re the only one who’ll pass as human.”


“You pass as human,” he frowned at her.


I snorted as I studied my oldest friend, Elizabeth Montaine, who certainly had some human blood, but it was mixed with a lot of angel and something else much darker than she’d ever admit. “But she doesn’t pass as male, and this time, we’re hunting a female. Come on, Harold. It’ll be fun.”


He narrowed his eyes at me. “That’s what you said the last time I was stabbed through my thigh, stuck to that rotting dock while the two of you were too distracted to help me.”


Libby snickered before she caught herself. “Sorry, I was just remembering how Cross looked in the dress as he ran away from the swashbuckling pirate who was going to teach him the ways of the world.”


Harold gave me a malicious grin. “You do pull off a dress very well.”


“Thank you. And you do bleeding and stuck to a dock magnificently.”


His smile changed to a sigh. “Fine. I’ll go in there and try to be charming enough to be taken to the person in charge of this demonic-summoning circle, but if I’m stabbed again to a dock, I’m going to just let myself bleed out.”


“Aw, Harold,” Libby said, nudging him. “Don’t be like that. You’re precious. You’re worth a million of me and Cross.”


“A million and one,” I added with a firm nod.


Harold sighed heavily. “Fine, Cross. I guess you have to make me look like a lady’s man.”


“Actually, we just have to make you look like your blood is good for a nice demon-summoning circle,” Libby said brightly. “The goal is not seduction, although I’m sure you’d be very good at it, but just looking like an idiot who is overconfident and unaware of the dangers is enough.”


“I’m going to end up pinned to something, aren’t I?” He raised a hand. “Forget I asked. Let’s get it over with.”


He went down the stairs and walked across the street, and Libby headed up the stairs to the roof while I stayed in the top floor of the crappy motel. Our room had one window busted out, but it was covered with cardboard, so I could feel the bite of the cold air.


I watched the scene as it was recorded on Harold’s button camera. Libby landed onto the roof of the club then disappeared as she blended with the shadows. She’d cover him from above while I stayed out front. The most dangerous thing about this situation was that the club led down into tunnels, diverging into different branches that led to several locations. If Harold was taken, it would be difficult to follow him if we hadn’t wrapped him in a dozen different trackers, magical and science-based.


“Hi there,” a woman behind the bar said, flashing her teeth while her eyes gleamed gold. “What can I get for you?”


Harold sat at the bar and leaned his arms on the smooth wood while he pondered his drinks selection. “The weather’s cold, but not cold enough for a mulled wine or hot cocoa. Cold rootbeer would chill me too much.”


The female stared at Harold like she’d never seen a human before. “Sorry, but we don’t have any of those things. We’re a bar. You come here to get drunk, not match the season with the perfect drink.”


Another woman came in from the back swinging doors, looked between Harold and the frizzy-haired bartender who was also definitely a werewolf, and probably not a very stable one at that.


“Mina, take a break. I’ll help our friend find the perfect match between weather and flavor. How about butterscotch rum?” the new girl asked with a smile on her swarthy features. She was much taller than the first woman, and also had that toothy gleam of a werewolf, but her posture was more confident, steady, safe.


“Butterscotch rum? Maybe.” Harold rubbed his chin, like he did when he was thinking, but he didn’t block the shot of the woman as she leaned on the counter and studied him. She was giving him an appraising glance that he wouldn’t notice. Neither would Libby. I was supposed to be the most out-of-touch with the dance of courtship as an elf, but both of them were really dense about such things, so it fell to me to read interactions, human, goblin, angelic, or werewolf.


She was interested. She turned and started making butterscotch on a little heating coil in a pan with brown sugar and butter. “You’re new to Slummington. What brings you to town?”


“Just passing through. My cousin needed me to drive a trailer up to Falloway, so I stopped for the night. Bad winds down on the prairie. Thought I might lose the whole rig a few times.” He chuckled lightly.


Her eyes gleamed at his laugh. His laugh was good enough, I suppose, but nothing to write home about. It was quite possible that she was buying the story, and that’s what piqued her interest, because what was better than someone just passing through whose disappearance couldn’t be tied to any one exact location?


“You’re staying at the Motel? Hope you like fleas.”


“You have another place you could recommend?” he asked her.


I smiled slightly. Now we were getting somewhere.


She studied him thoughtfully. “Actually, I do. Two towns past here has a good chain motel that my cousin used to work at. They actually disinfect the bathrooms, and they make sure no bedbugs or fleas catch a ride home with you. It’s not too late to get there, and the winds aren’t bad between here and there.” She glanced at the door and then back at him, smiling a little more. “Traffic looks good too. Why don’t you go ahead now? You really don’t want to get fleas.” Her eyes were so warm, her tone so strongly suggestive, that I legitimately felt in my gut that I should go to the good motel so I wouldn’t get all covered in revolting creatures, but Harold only shrugged.


“I’m already parked for the night. I’ll shower in the morning if I see any sign. How’s that butterscotch rum coming?”


She’d been stirring constantly, and with the way Harold was sniffing, it smelled pretty wonderful. “It’s about there. Wait just a minute.” She picked up the pan and turned to pour it into a solid glass of rum. She stirred it in while Harold watched, leaning forward to see the process.


A crash of breaking glass came through the speaker and then Harold slumped down on the counter, one arm blocking draped over it while the cam picked up the woman’s furious face as she looked past Harold.


“Do we go in?” Libby asked in my other ear.


“First we need to make sure it’s not just some drunk,” I replied.


The woman thumped the glass of butterscotch rum on the counter and glared hard, werewolf eyes burning. “Now you don’t even wait for trouble to start before you step in?”


The answering rumble was very male. “Little sister, you should know how dangerous a man can be when his instincts get the better of him.”


Harold was dragged upright as the camera panned the bar, then turned so I got to see the face of the werewolf with his hand and claws extended, ready to rip out the unconscious man’s throat. His swipe was blocked by a copper kettle, then it moved to bash into the side of his face, sending him and Harold sprawling.


“If you don’t get out of my bar this minute, I’m going to rip out your spine,” the woman said.


At that point I could only see boots.


“Should we go in?” Libby asked.


“I don’t think we’re dealing with demons,” I said.


“You think? That werewolf is feral. Maybe even mad. His eyes didn’t look good, kind of like he’s been feeding on human flesh. Harold’s in danger.”


“Of course he’s in danger. That’s why he’s there.”


Harold sat up and lunged for the male werewolf’s ankle, snagging him back before he could grab the woman. Harold hadn’t actually been unconscious, not with the number of protective magical spells he had on, but he wasn’t going to just lie there and let someone kill a woman in front of him, even if it was werewolf business that we weren’t really supposed to get involved in. What we should do was withdraw and notify the Alta so he could send enforcers to this little village and take down the threat.


But they were far away, and the werewolves in this community, Mina and the butterscotch lady, might not get out alive if it were that kind of conflict.


“Let’s go in,” I suggested as I opened the window, and backed up to get a running start.


“Harold can take him,” Libby said.


I started running. I hit the sill and shoved off, sailing through the air. I shot out the window before I hit it so I entered in a spray of glass. Libby came through the window on the opposite side a second later, so we had the large wolf pinned on three sides.


In spite of the noise, the werewolf didn't take his attention off Harold, who had succeeded in irritating him enough to forget about the girl with the pan, even though she’d started throwing things at him.


The wolf was shifted into its beast, an enormous, hunched monster with rheumy eyes and a scaly patches between its tufts of fur. It was positively mangy.


Harold dodged another massive swipe and came up into the monster’s stomach with his favorite weapon, a dagger that split into four blades going in different directions once it was stuck inside something.


The monster screamed in outrage and struck out wildly, sending Harold flying into a cabinet filled with bottles that smashed on impact.


Libby raised her hand with its small pole, and with a twist of her wrist, it extended to three feet long. I nodded and raised my weapon as well. I leapt, blocking Harold from the monster’s leap, and taking it in the chest, but the thing was too insane to die that easily, and I came a breath away from losing the tip of my nose. It was an extremely unpleasant breath, rancid, garlic, and rot. He’d definitely been eating humans.


The woman had shifted into a beast, not as massive as her brother, but big enough that she’d dragged his face back so I didn’t need reconstructive surgery.


Libby slammed it from the side, and it fell into a table, smashing it, taking his sister with him in a pile of twisted limbs and splintered wood.


Harold jumped into the mess, struggling to get the massive monster off the female, who was also massive compared to him. 


The beast twisted around and snapped at Harold three times, three snaps, three channels of blood running down his face, and then Libby had enough.


She swung once and cut off the monster’s head with her file, which made an incredibly horrible mess, but the beast wouldn’t be biting anyone else.


The women in her beast form howled and grabbed Harold, wrapping his arms tight so he couldn’t escape while she raised him closer to her massive maw.


Libby swung her file around, but I grabbed her arm to block its trajectory.


The beast licked Harold, a long line of slobbery drool that made me shudder and made Libby gag.


Harold’s bloody face cleared up for a moment before the open wound started pouring again.


“Werewolf saliva actually speeds healing,” I told Libby.


She gave me a look of disbelief then at Harold and the beast where he was held immobile while she bathed his wounds in her healing saliva.


“I’d rather die,” Libby said matter-of-factly.


“Only because you’re already suicidal.”


She shot me a squinty look. “I take calculated risks.”


“The only calculation you made when you stole that file was—”


She hushed me as she frowned at the blood-soaked thing and then started cleaning it off while she whispered to it that it shouldn’t mind the grumpy elf because they didn’t understand the bond between a weapon and a noble warrior of the House of Mercy.


We cleaned up the mess while Harold and the butterscotch beast cuddled in a puddle of gore and alcohol on the floor.


“Do you have somewhere we can burn the body?” Libby asked the beast girl.


She paused in her licking Harold to glare at us. 


“Out back,” I said, grabbing the body under the arms, careful so the beast’s blood wouldn’t get all over me. Libby grabbed its legs and muttered as we hauled it out the back, through a storage room stacked with boxes and bottles and out into the alley behind.


“Here,” I said before I dropped him in the middle. I pulled out a small vial of flame accelerator and started dousing the body.


“So, now that we’ve stepped into the middle of a werewolf inner clan mess, how do we extricate ourselves?” Libby asked.


“She fought her brother for Harold. How many men have gone missing that she didn’t fight for?”


“Six that we know of. You think she’ll make things easy for us since she thinks Harold’s so pretty?” She squinted at me. “She’s not going to try anything with him, will she? Harold’s a big guy, but I’m pretty sure that beast would break him.”


“I think that she’s found her mate.”


She stiffened up and turned to rush back inside, but I grabbed her shoulder, pulling her back. “Easy, Libby. Did you see the way she was watching you while she was licking him? She’s calculating whether or not you’re a threat. You could be the other woman.”


“She’s a beast, not a woman. I’m also not a woman, at least not as far as Harold’s concerned. I’m as feminine as you, no, you probably look better in a dress than I do.” She settled into a crouch while I blew on my palm, spreading magic and spells into the potion that would burn hot, low, and very thorough.


“She’ll want to come with him, and if we refuse, she’ll follow. When we lose her, she’ll become distraught, probably stop eating, and eventually die. Harold’s too soft to let her die, so he’ll probably take her with us.”


She wrinkled her nose and nodded. “That’s why he hates luring the ladies, because he’s too soft. They get in his head. You should have been the one to go in.”


“There weren’t supposed to be werewolves. Our intel was way off.”


She sighed heavily. “And now you’re going to go and personally put someone you can trust in Elias’s flaky, no-good, gambling place, and leave me to scout that .”


“I’ve gotten good at gambling.”


She snorted and pushed me, sending me rocking. “Oh, I’d like to see that.”


We stayed there for a few more minutes with the burning body until it was nothing but ashes and a few lingering specks of blue magic, then we went in together, Libby letting me lead the way because she didn’t want to deal with a besotted werewolf.


When we went in, the girl was wearing Harold’s ripped shirt, once more in her human form, and he was drinking the butterscotch rum.


Libby grabbed the back of my shirt. “Why is he drinking that?” she whispered.


“Because it’s polite,” Harold grumbled, sounding rough. “Also, this one wound’s not closing up.” He raised his left arm, and there was a wound from teeth that was still festering, looking absolutely horrifying.


I immediately pulled my knife and grabbed his arm. Libby held it steady while I cut out the infected flesh. Harold grunted and kept drinking while the woman looked from me to him with darting, panicked eyes.


“He’ll be fine,” Libby said with a bright smile, like she hadn’t just decapitated her brother.


I focused on the injury, on the flesh, following those traces of gray down to bone and then I stopped, staring at that piece of white that was turning gray. “He’s infected.”


Harold grunted. “I can’t be infected. I got my shots this month.”


“Did you use up the expired one?” Libby demanded. “Of course you did. You always do. They’re expired for a reason.”




The door to the bar swung open and Mina poked her head in, looking nervous. She saw us all on the floor next to the beast’s head.

She stared at it for a long, long time, then finally looked at the other woman.


“Amari, you let them kill our alpha. Your brother. You betrayed our kind for an outsider.”


Butterscotch shook her head. “I’m not letting pack come before my conscience. Not anymore.”


“Then you’ll face trial. Death.” Mina sounded so blank.


Harold put a hand on Butterscotch’s shoulder. “No, she’s coming with me. Cross, help Mina understand.”


I sighed as I swept the door closed behind Mina with an elemental rush of wind and spread a wave of lethargy over her. She fainted, and Libby caught her, carrying the small werewolf to a table, where she arranged her like she was sleeping, and I finished cleaning up the floor, the bottles, returning everything as it had been, including the glass in the windows. It took me a great deal of concentration, but it would be better if no one knew we ever came.


“I’ve got the head,” Libby said, raising the black bag that wouldn’t leak no matter what was in it. “Proof for Mother Mercy that we bagged our man.”


“Who was supposed to be a woman.”


She shrugged and glanced at Harold who was moving kind of delicately. “Can we reverse it if we get back to the House in time?”


“I doubt it.”


She made a face at me. “Hope, Cross. You’re supposed to give people hope in moments of despair.”


“Are we despairing? I was unaware. Amari has a mate. Harold will have super strength and speed to go with his devastating good looks, and you have a head. I have a headache, but that’s hardly reason to give in to misery. I’ll give you hope when you’ve lost both your legs.”


She laughed, I smiled, and Harold shook his head at us and the world in general. There was a flash, and Amari straightened, holding a polaroid camera with a picture of the three of us together.


She held the photo out to me. We were absolutely forbidden to leave any traces of ourselves behind, thus all the elaborate spellwork to bring her bar back to its former glory.


I hesitated, knowing I should destroy it, but it was her offering. She knew that Harold might not make it through the turning process. If he did, since he was infected by a mad beast, he might have the same disposition and have to be put down. By me, his associate, his friend, because it was my responsibility, and I always did what needed to be done. That was the legacy I’d been given by my father. No matter how disagreeable, how much it ripped into my soul, I would do what was necessary.


I smiled at her and tucked it into my pocket. Some rules, weren’t necessary.

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