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I wasn’t going to get involved.

I heard the drums start up at sundown. When the wind was right, I caught a hint of smoke. But there was more than that: a hum in the air, a tremor of power gathering. Well, that pissed me off. There’s no way I was going to allow someone to raise power in the territory I had marked out as mine, without at least finding out who it was, and what they were up to. And then do something about it.

A muddy haze on the horizon caught the last glint of sunset as I slipped past my landlady’s window. I’d made a point of not letting her see much of me since the day she rented me my place four months earlier, the day before the big earthquake. My I.D. says I’m nineteen, and that I stand five foot four. I’m five foot nothing, lean like a runner. I didn’t try to look taller, or older. I just looked her right in the face as I handed it over. My eyes are green with flecks of gold when I’m easy. When I’m angry, you’d almost think they were gold, if you dare look close. My landlady looked away. Maybe it was the smile. You don’t see my teeth when I smile like that. But you know they’re there.

The lights of Los Angeles were visible to the west, softened by the haze. Half of a waxing moon was high in the sky. Traffic was light on Greenleaf as I trotted up towards the hills to the north of Whittier. No one could see me. Why not make a night of it? I changed.

It felt so good to stretch out my full length, all four paws hitting the ground. I opened my jaws slightly to take in the wave of scents. My ears pricked forward, categorizing the new range of sounds. The night looked suddenly brighter, the edges sharper, and distracting distances blurred as my wolf mind focused on scent and sound to describe the world.

I went easily till I made Hellman Park and got off the pavement, then I opened up, streaking straight up the hillside. A small herd of deer bounded out of my way, gasping in terror. One let out an adorable shriek. My head skewed round, following them, the compelling scent calling me to the glorious chase, the promised victory. For a moment I lusted for that flying mortal leap, my jaws ached for that first gripping tear that brought up flesh and blood and life all at once… I let them go. I had other game afoot that night. In retrospect, it would have been better if I’d gone after the deer. Well, not for everyone.

They had set up wards in a dozen places along the trails of the park, little wispy spells like tiny suggestions appearing suddenly in your head: “There’s nothing here, go away, you’re not hearing anything.” They don’t work on me. At least, these didn’t. Maybe they weren’t expecting anything like me to show up at their party.

I found my intruders in a hollow beyond the crest of the hill. They’d laid out their circle out of sight of the fire station that’s up on the west end of the ridge. That was smart, because they’d built a bonfire. About two dozen women danced widdershins around the fire to the pounding of drums; a couple of djembes, and a big round buffalo drum. They all wore long dark robes that swung in heavy shadows in the firelight. There was purpose in the dance, the drumming, the chanting, the ceremonial clothes. And I was going to know what it was.

I laid up on the hillside overlooking their circle, invisible in the shadows and the brush. I could feel the charge in the air from the power they were raising, like the pressure of a coming storm. They sang, clapped, danced, and drummed, raising a charge of chaos and turning it on the spindle of their dance, the pattern almost printed on the air.

At the west edge of the circle they had built an altar of stone and wood, where candles burned among various crystals and pots and branches of herbs, pieces of fruit and flowers. The leader stood there with her back to the circle, holding a sword across outstretched hands. Her voice rose in a different song—a summoning? So this was not a random power raising. Not an experiment. These people knew what they were doing, and they had a purpose. And I was going to know what it was.

Her lone voice, high and strong, wove a counterpoint with the drums and the chanting, and the beat of the women’s feet on the broken grass and dirt. The leader raised the sword in the air, and the drumming changed, reverberating in the darkness. The hair rose all down my nape. I crouched uneasily. The circle chanted aversion, protection, deflection; the altar working summoned—what? Help?

The leader’s gaze rose my way, met my eyes briefly, and returned her concentration to the working. I bared my teeth for an instant. Frankly, I like a little more respect than that.

The drums hammered imperatively; the dancers wove among one another, their voices rising to a clamor. My head came up in wonder as I sensed a new flare of energy. I got up, turned about, tasting the air. There were other circles in other strong places tonight, near and far, raising power as well. The working here had just connected up with the others. What was going on? It wasn’t one of the eight holy nights; I knew that. The equinox was more than a week away. This was something else, something unusual. I settled down again, uneasily, to watch.

The chanting changed as the connection of their energy to the power of distant workings solidified. They wove it together quite nicely with their own; this bunch knew their stuff. The moon began to fall toward the west.

I sensed him as he topped the ridge and raised my head. He walked down the slope and straight to their fire, a young man, not tall, straight-backed and fair-haired, in an old leather jacket and worn jeans. I got up when I smelled his fear, trailing along behind him like blood from a wound. Not a new fear, but something he had carried with him for a long time. He made his way into their circle, breaking up their working and bringing it to a halt, as though he were under a compulsion. Curious. I wondered what he thought he was doing. The drums and voices stopped so sharply that silence opened up like a sound of its own. As the women turned on him, his fear bubbled up fresh and new. I could taste it where I stood. I moved closer down the slope, parting the brush like a shadow.

“It is not your business,” I heard one of the dancers tell him.

“It is,” he insisted. “I can help, if you’ll let me.”

“You?” she said scornfully.

The leader came forward, and the others made way for her as though their movements had been choreographed. She stood before him and looked him over, and he bent under her regard as though he stood in a strong wind.

“This is no place for you.” Her voice was grand and strong. She was middle-aged, heavy-set, and carried her years as she wore her power, with authority and grace.

He made an effort to stand his ground. “Listen, I just want to know what’s going on, what you’ve heard.”

She held out a hand toward him, as though feeling a fire for its warmth. “I know what you are, Dark One. I command you to depart.”

While the celebrant spoke, the women moved up to surround him, the fire burning at their backs. Some of them took hands, touched shoulders, reinforcing each others’ power. He swayed, and braced himself against them.

“I’m not what you think. Really.” His eyes seemed to burn in his narrow face, but that could just have been the intensity of his desire.

“No?” the celebrant asked.

“No, I mean yes, all right.” He looked down, “But it’s different than you think.”

She studied him for a long moment. “Can you prove it?”

He raised his head and met her gaze. “I’ll bear any trial you care to name.” He added, “If you command me.”

“If I command you?” the celebrant asked, surprised. “Can I command you?”

“Yes,” he said. He bent his head to her. Some of his fear and tension left him. That was strange. The women surrounding him shifted. Their force changed, no longer pressing him out, but something else, probably more dangerous. What was he thinking? I moved up a little closer.

The celebrant studied him, her hand again feeling the air between them. “You aren’t one thing or the other. Dark or light, where is your place? Have you come here to find out?”

He shook his head. He looked even younger than I’d thought, not even in his twenties. “I know what I am,” he said. “I’m willing to prove my good intentions.”

The celebrant did not seem impressed. “Are you?”

“To you, yes.”

“Even to your death?”

He smiled a little, and shrugged. “If that is your wish.”

A shock of excitement went through the group. I decided it was time to step in. I didn’t know what they thought was wrong with this guy, except maybe his gender, but I wasn’t going to stand by and see murder done.

When I stepped into the circle the group froze, electrified. I felt the trance of power and self-assurance lift right away from a lot of those women. I almost grinned. Now that’s respect.

The leader turned her head to me. She didn’t back up even a step. “Sister, welcome.” She nodded regally. “Do you have business here?”

I stood up. I may not be as impressive on two feet, with my short dark hair, jeans, and a black sweatshirt, but there’s nothing sillier than an animal dumb show when you’re trying to have a conversation. Besides, when I change, it’s impressive, whether you believe you saw what you thought you saw or not.

I folded my arms and nodded in return. “Lady.”

She asked, “Is this one under your protection?”

I looked over at the young man. He stared at me, wide-eyed. I could sense his shock, but he wasn’t feeling any more fear, like a lot of the women were. Funny—he smelled calmer now.

“I’m just here to see fair play done. Seems like you were ganging up.”

“He has agreed to the trial.” She looked over at him for confirmation and he nodded. But he was still staring at me.

“Very well.” I gave them permission to continue.

Someone brought her the sword from the altar. Very low, very sharp, very slow, the drumming began again.

They called on the powers of light. On purity, rightness, right action. When they called on the powers to give one straight answer, one right truth, I started to feel uncomfortable. What would one straight answer or one right truth make of me? I had a thousand of them. I thought of voicing a question, or an objection, but the circle, as I said, was strong and practiced, and this new working borrowed power from the pattern of energy already flowing across that hill. I was too much a part of it myself by then to break away. The celebrant raised the sword. She sang, and the women answered, and they collected all the power of their working and directed it into the blade of her sword. She turned to the young man she had called the Dark One, and raised it over him. He bowed his head, and she lowered the blade. When it touched his skull, he changed.

I leaped, huge with sudden rage, changing instantaneously, and had him on the ground, his head in my jaws, on instinct at the scent of it. He screamed then, and he was just a guy again, my forepaws on his shoulders. He writhed under me, the sword fallen feet away in the dirt. I got off and backed away, head still down. My flanks were heaving, and I snarled involuntarily. The taste of his blood and his scent were human, now. But what had that thing been as the sword touched his head?

It had been shapeless, but deep, like a writhing hole into nowhere, or some place from my nightmares, or beyond death, a dark mass of potent otherness. It had will, and consciousness, I’d felt it clearly, a will so powerful I could taste it. The memory of it kept my hackles on end. He lay on the ground, shivering. He smelled of blood where I’d broken his skin, and fear all over him.

The Wiccans re-gathered themselves. Their collective power, broken at the appearance of that thing, whirled and drew itself together again.

The celebrant stepped forward, bent with dignity, and recovered her sword. They stared at the young man on the ground uncertainly. I snarled again.

The celebrant turned to me. “You have claimed him, Sister. We recognize your claim. He is yours to dispose of.”

What? I shook off my other nature, something I almost never do so awkwardly, and asked again. “What? I didn’t claim him!”

She looked sideways to her sisters, a little smile on her lips. “Who are we to come between our lupine sister and her lawful prey? No, he is yours.”

“I don’t want him. You take him. Do what you want.” I backed off. I thought they could zap him to another somewhere, where we wouldn’t have to look at him again. The gods knew I wasn’t going to taste that thing. Not for anything.

The celebrant gathered her sisters’ assent with a glance. She stepped forward and put the point of her sword to his throat. He lay quite still, staring up at her.

“Do it,” said one of the women, shakily.

“It’ll break the raising,” another one cautioned.

“No,” someone answered. “It will seal it, make it stronger.”

There was a murmur of assent, and they closed in, supporting her action.

The celebrant looked at me again, as if to say, You can stop this if you want. I thought maybe she wanted me to stop it. After all, this isn’t the Middle Ages. She’d probably never taken a life in cold blood before. I folded my arms, waiting to see if she’d actually go through with it.

She spoke to the sword. “Gray Maiden, Daughter of Fire and Earth, taste this blood and release this creature into Hell, where it belongs.”

“So mote it be,” the others responded.

He still didn’t move, just lay there looking up at her.

All right, I can’t say I haven’t killed. I am what I am. Maybe the sword called me. Maybe the working would have been spoiled. Or maybe it’s just that I still had his blood on my lips, and that really did make him mine. I leaped. She drew back in a hurry. I stood on four feet between him and the sword and snarled, as much at myself and what I found myself doing as at them. It was all the same to them. They broke up and fell back.

The celebrant was obviously relieved. I didn’t think she could do it. She put up the sword, cradling the blade over one arm. She bowed to me regally. “Sister, he is yours, as I said before. Do with him what you think good. Gray Maiden will drink no blood tonight. Sisters, friends, the moon is down. Our work for tonight is finished.”

They thanked and dismissed the powers they had called. They put out the fire. They dismantled the altar. They kept a respectful distance from the young man on the ground, stepping cautiously when they got anywhere near him. He still lay there, his eyes closed, breathing long and hard. When they had undone the wards, they had a little conclave. They chanted briefly, and then they all turned in our direction with a shout and a gesture, setting up another ward, I realized, between whatever that thing had been, and themselves, wherever they were. They tied it up, and then they broke up and set off down the hill, dragging drums, robes draped over their shoulders, lugging props, as the moon turned red in the haze on the horizon and slipped into the sea. I followed them a few paces, listening to their footsteps, pricking my ears as the phones came out, and their voices sharpened to tell someone where they were, and that they were coming home. The conversations faded off down the hill.

He got up behind me. I turned, head down, and growled at him. He was a wiry, compact young man in black jeans, serviceable leather boots, a long-sleeved t-shirt under his leather jacket. None of the clothes he wore were new, and none of them had been his when they were new. A medley of previous owners wafted tiny traces in the air, only discernible if I paid attention.

He looked at me a long moment. I’m not yet full grown as a wolf. My shoulders came to his hips. But my wolf eyes are yellow, and not many dare to meet them. I was still in my winter coat—it must have looked all black to him now that the fire was gone, and there wasn’t enough light to pick out the highlights of amber, gray, and brown. My point is, he stood there ten feet from a wolf. Most people, this close to me, would have fear spiking off of them. But then, he wasn’t people, not entirely. I’d seen that.

He dropped his eyes, and then knelt down.

I stood up on two feet, sputtering, “What are you doing?” And then his tension rose. Now that was strange. He wasn’t big, but he was taller than me. And he was beautiful, despite his shabby clothes. His body was like a knife, as perfectly made. His jaw line was taut with tension. He would of course assume that he was stronger than me. It’s one of my favorite assumptions. But now, facing me in my human form, his fear was spiking. What was going on?

“I owe you my life,” he offered.

“Yeah, maybe.”

I tried to see, or sense in any way, the dark writhing form he’d been. It wasn’t there. But the memory made the hair on my neck stand up.

He glanced up at me from under his brows. He gestured down the hill, where shapes were still visible in the darkness. “She said…” He trailed off. He looked after the disappearing figures as though with regret, and then looked up at me. “What are you going to do with me?”

I could still smell his blood, though it wasn’t running anymore. He’d been human again by the time I’d knocked him flat. I’d taken his head in my jaws—all right, I’d wanted to kill that thing—just on instinct. But he was a man between my teeth, his scream had been a man’s, and I don’t kill men, unless I mean to. Was that thing in him? If I took him apart now, would I find it? Even more to the point, would I want to?

“What the hell on Earth are you?” I asked him.

He sat back on his heels. “Does it matter?”

“Yes, it matters!”

He turned his head away from my rage, and after a moment he shrugged.

“Are you human?”

He shrugged. “‘If you prick me, do I not bleed?’”

“I think you would bleed rather a lot, really.” I stepped forward, smiling my not-nice smile, just to make him lean back, which he did. I found my rage comforting and opened up to it. “And what the hell did you think you were doing, walking into their circle like that? You’re lucky they were reasonable people.”

“I know.”

“What were you doing up here in the first place?”

He shook his head, and I stepped forward again. Somehow he took that as a threat—well, so he should have. I like sensitive people. He answered, “I sensed the raising. I let the call guide me. I think I can be of help, if they let me.” He looked up at me, his eyes troubled. “If you let me.”

I shook my head. “This has nothing to do with me.”

“No?” He smiled, and something in me suddenly ached. “Then what brought you here tonight, Lady?”

I stepped forward into my wolf nature. I walked onto him, flattening him to the ground, put my two forepaws on his chest and sniffed him up and down, starting with his head, where I left smear trails across his face and in his ears, and where I could still smell his blood and my saliva. I snuffed him up one side and down the other, trying to scent his true nature. I smelled nothing but man. He lay still, though tense, not curling up or protecting himself. He lay flat on his back with his throat, his belly and his groin in my reach. And that pissed me off, that he thought he could trust me not to hurt him. He didn’t know me well enough to know that. I took hold of his leg at the thigh, hard, and I let one tooth pierce the skin on the inside of his leg where it would hurt, and how. He started to scramble up and pull away at that, but stopped himself. I could have bitten through to the artery in a second, and the taste of his blood in my mouth again all warm and sharp really made me want to do it. What the hell was he thinking? I changed back. “What the hell is the matter with you?”

His eyes widened. “What—?” he began.

“Why are you lying there? Why aren’t you running?”

He took a breath, the first full one in a long while. “You want me to run?”

I shook my head to clear the bloodlust from it, and stepped back. “I just don’t understand you. Why aren’t you trying to get away?”

He sat up, touched the notch I’d made in his leg gingerly, then pulled at his jeans and pressed the cloth to where the blood still leaked a little. “The sorceress said,” he explained slowly, “I was yours to dispose of. I thought… you were doing that.”

“And that’s all right with you?”

He shrugged. “That’s the way it works.”

“So, I could have you for breakfast, and that would be okay with you?”

He shifted again, onto his knees, and that pissed me off, too. I stepped up and knocked him flat again. He lay on his back and took two deep breaths, one after another. “I didn’t make the rules,” he said. “But I know them. All too well.”

Why is it that when someone cringes, it makes you want to kick them harder? There he was, lying flat… I shook my head again and let his words distract me. “What are you talking about? What rules? And what the hell happened when that woman touched you with the sword? What are you? Answer me!”

He lay still, looking up at the sky. It was not quite dark up here, though the moon was gone. It’s never quite dark in the city. I could see his pale, sharp face illuminated by the lights from below. He closed his eyes. “I’d rather not have my head bitten off, thank you very much.”

I thought about that. “You think if I know what you are, I’ll kill you?”

“Isn’t that what the sorceress wants?”

He was right; she had left it to me. She had shrugged off the fallout of her working onto me, and hoped I’d do the dirty work. Well, that pissed me off too. “It sure looks that way. All right. What if I promise you I won’t kill you? Tell me what you are.”

He closed his eyes for a moment as though he was awfully tired. “A lot of people don’t think they have to keep promises to… what I am. As though I don’t count.”

I was getting tired, too. Dawn was only a few hours away, and back in my apartment was an alarm clock already set to go off. “What if I promise that if you don’t start talking, I’ll go ahead and take your head off and find out what you are that way?”

He turned his head to me. “Damned if I do—”

“And if you don’t, that’s right. What did she call you? Dark One? What are you?”

He sat up on his elbows and looked up at me. “I’m a demon,” he said. “Summoned out of Hell. And now, by the rules, I belong to you.”

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