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|The Reckoning(Darkest Powers #3) by Kelley Armstrong|
I wasn’t horrified and disgusted. What I saw wasn’t some guy puking and grotesquely contorting. I saw Derek, in unbelievable agony and scared out of his mind.
It took only that first awful spasm to chase away the last of my anger. There would be time for that later. Instead, I knelt beside him, rubbing his shoulders, telling him he’d be okay, he was doing fine, just keep going.
Finally, the retching stopped and he crouched there, head down, hair hanging, hiding his face, his body covered in short, black hair, his shoulder muscles hunched, arms and legs straight, clawlike fingers half buried in the earth. He panted, drawing deep, ragged breaths.
“You’re getting there,” I said. “It’s coming faster this time.” True or not, it didn’t matter, only that he accepted it, nodding and relaxing a little.
Another spasm hit. His body convulsed in wave after wave. His legs and arms kept changing, thinning and shortening, his hands and feet doing the same. The hair on his head retracted as the hair on his body lengthened from stubble to thick fur. As for his face, I knew that was Changing too, but he’d averted it.
His body continued spasming until he had to stop again, heaving as he struggled for breath. I rubbed his back and he leaned against me. I could feel his muscles trembling, like he could barely hold himself up on all fours. I moved closer, letting him rest against me, my head on his shoulder, feeling his heart beating hard and fast as his shudders gradually slowed.
“You’re almost there. Keep going. You’re going to finish this time. Just-”
He tensed. Then his back flew up, knocking me aside. His body went rigid, head still down, back lifting higher and higher, like someone was pulling it up, head sinking lower still, black fur gleaming in the moonlight.
Bones crackled. Derek gave a deep moan that made me move closer again, rubbing his back, telling him it would be okay. Then, with a final shudder, it was. He lifted his head, turned to look at me, and he was a wolf.
THE LAST TIME DEREK had tried to Change, he’d made me promise to go someplace safe as soon as he seemed close to finishing. When I saw that wolf in front of me, a lead weight dropped in my gut telling me I should have taken his advice. But as soon as his eyes met mine, the dread evaporated. I might be looking at a massive black wolf, but in those green eyes, I still saw Derek.
He tried to take a step, but his legs slid out and he hit the ground with an earthshaking thud. I scrambled over to him as he lay there, eyes closed, flank heaving, tongue lolling.
“Are you okay?”
His eyes opened and he gave an awkward jerk of his muzzle, as if he was trying to nod, then his pupils rolled up and his eyes closed again.
He was fine, just exhausted, like the last time when he’d been too tired even to dress before he fell asleep. I stood and started for the path, wanting to leave him in peace. I made it two steps before he snorted. I turned to see him lying on his belly, ready to jump up. He jerked his muzzle, telling me to come back.
“I thought you’d want to be-”
He cut me off with a snort. It was hard for a wolf to scowl, but he managed a good glower.
I took the switchblade from my jacket pocket. “I’ll be fine. I’m armed.”
A snort. I don’t care. A head jerk. Get back here.
When I hesitated, he growled.
“Well, you’ve got the growling part down pat already. Must be all those years of practice.”
He began to rise, legs wobbly.
“All right, I’m coming back. I just didn’t want to be in your way.”
A grunt. You’re not. Or that’s what I hoped he meant.
“You can understand me, can’t you?” I said as I returned to sit on his discarded sweatshirt. “You know what I’m saying.”
He tried to nod, then snarled at the awkwardness of it.
“Not easy when you can’t talk, is it?” I grinned. “Well, not easy for you. I could get used to it.”
He grumbled, but I could see relief in his eyes, like he was glad to see me smile.
“So I was right, wasn’t I? It’s still you, even in wolf form.”
“No sudden uncontrollable urges to go kill something?”
He rolled his eyes.
“Hey, you’re the one who was worried.” I paused. “And I don’t smell like dinner, right?”
I got a real look for that one.
“Just covering all the bases.”
He gave a rumbling growl, like a chuckle, and settled in, lowering his head to his front paws, gaze on me. I tried to get comfortable, but the ground was ice-cold through his sweatshirt, and I was wearing only my new pajamas, a light jacket, and sneakers.
Seeing me shivering, he stretched a front leg toward the sweatshirt, pawing the edge and snarling when he realized he couldn’t grab it.
“The lack of opposable thumbs is going to take some getting used to, huh?”
He motioned me closer with his muzzle. When I pretended not to understand, he twisted and gingerly took the hem of the sweatshirt between his teeth, lips curled in disgust as he tugged it.
“Okay, okay, I’m just trying not to crowd you.”
That wasn’t the only reason I was uncomfortable getting too cozy with him now, but he just grunted, again seeming to say it was fine. I moved over beside him. He shifted, his torso making a partial wind block, the body heat from the Change still blasting like a furnace.
“Yes, that’s better. Thanks. Now get some rest.”
I had no idea what would happen now. I doubted Derek did either. He’d been focused on getting through the Change. What I did know was that this was only half the process. He had to Change back, and he’d need time and rest for that.
And how would it happen? Did he have to wait until his body was ready, like he did with the Change to wolf? How long would that be? Hours? Days?
Feeling his gaze on me, I forced a smile and pushed back my worries. It would be okay. He could Change. That was the important thing.
When I relaxed, he shifted closer, fur brushing my hand. I tentatively touched it, feeling the coarse top layer and soft undercoat. He leaned against my hand, as if to say it was okay, and I buried my fingers in his fur, his skin so hot from the Change it was like putting my numb hands on a radiator. My cool fingers must have felt just as good, because he closed his eyes and shifted until I was leaning on him. Within minutes, he was asleep.
I closed my eyes, meaning to rest for just a moment, but the next thing I knew, I was waking up, curled on my side, using Derek as a pillow. I jumped. He looked over at me.
“S-sorry, I didn’t mean-”
He cut me short with a growl, telling me off for apologizing, then bumped my leg, knocking me back onto his side. I lay there a moment, enjoying the warmth. He snarled a yawn, flashing canines as long as my thumb.
Finally, I sat up. “So, I suppose you should do something wolfie. Hunt, maybe?”
A grunt, the tone saying no.
“Run? Get some exercise?”
Another grunt, less decisive, more like a maybe.
He pushed to his feet, wobbly, still adjusting to his new center of gravity. He gingerly moved one forepaw, then the next, one rear paw, then the other. He picked up the pace, but still slow as he circled the clearing. A snort, like he’d figured it out, and he broke into a lope, stumbled and plowed muzzle-first into the undergrowth.
I stifled a laugh, but not very well, and he glowered at me. “Forget running. A nice, leisurely stroll might be more your speed.”
He snorted and turned fast. When I fell back, he gave a growling chuckle.
“Still can’t resist throwing your weight around, can you?”
He lunged again. This time I stood my ground and he checked his leap at the last second…and toppled sideways. I didn’t hide my laugh that time. He twisted fast, grabbed my pajama leg and wrenched, and down I went.
He growled a chuckle. I fingered an imaginary tear in my pant leg.
“Great. I finally get some pj’s and you rip them.”
He walked over for a better look. I tried to grab his foreleg, but he darted out of my reach and tore across the clearing. Then he stopped, looking over his shoulder as if to say how’d I do that? He turned and tried racing across it again, but his legs tangled and he fell in a heap beside me.
“You’re thinking too much, as usual,” I said.
A dismissive snort as he got to his feet. He tried running again, and didn’t fall, but did more lurching than loping, his legs threatening to tangle at every step.
“Apparently this could take a while, so how about you practice and I’ll head back to the house-”
He darted past me and veered to block my path.
I smiled. “I knew that’d work. So am I right? It’s better when you act, not think?”
A sigh whistled out of his nostrils, condensation hanging in the frigid air.
“You hate that, don’t you? We should keep a scorecard, see who’s right more often: me or you.”
He rolled his eyes.
“Not a chance, huh? You’d never live it down if I beat you. But I am right this time. Your body knows how to move as a wolf. You just need to shut your brain off and let your muscles do their thing.”
He dashed at me. When I didn’t move, he tore around me, circling wide, head lowered, picking up speed until he was a blur of black fur. And I laughed. I couldn’t help it. It looked so…amazing. To be in another form. To experience the world that way. I was happy for him. Finally, he threw on the brakes, skidding to a halt, each leg shooting out in a different direction.
“You’re going to need to work on that part,” I said.
He growled and gave a head shake that I couldn’t interpret until he got to his feet, muzzle lifting to catch the wind, ears swiveling forward.
“Someone’s coming?” I whispered.
He grunted. Shhh, I’m listening.
I listened with him, straining to hear what he did. Then came a sound I didn’t need werewolf hearing to pick up-a long, eerie howl. The fur on Derek’s back rose, adding inches to his already huge frame.
“Dog?” I whispered. But I’d heard enough dogs in my life to know that wasn’t what this was.
Derek dashed behind me and bumped the back of my legs. Run.
I raced to the path. Derek stayed behind, the thumping of his paws barely even betraying him, and I finally understood why he always moved so quietly. Predatory instinct. An instinct-and a skill-I lacked, and as we ran that became painfully obvious.
I might be half Derek’s size, but I was the one who sounded like a two-hundred-pound beast plowing through the woods. My breath chugged like a locomotive. My feet found every stick on the path, each snap as loud as gunfire. I tried to be quieter, but that meant slower. When my pace dropped, Derek bumped me from behind, telling me not to bother, to keep moving.
I could see the lights of the house ahead. Then, from somewhere between it and us came an earsplitting whistle. I stopped. Derek did, too, in a skid that knocked me to my knees.
He grunted an apology. As I rose, he’d already recovered and was in front of me now, muzzle raised to sample the wind. The breeze was coming from the side, though, and he paced, trying to catch a whiff of whoever had whistled. When he did, his body went rigid, ears back, growl bubbling up. Then he wheeled, almost slamming into me.
He answered with a snap of his jaws, catching the hem of my jacket. Just run. I did.
WHO WERE WE RUNNING from? I’d seen enough horror flicks to know that howl had come from a wolf, and there were no wild ones left in New York State. That meant werewolf.
Liam and Ramon, the two who’d tried to grab Derek the other day, had said all of the state was the territory of the Pack, who’d hunt and kill any trespassing werewolves. Obviously they weren’t that thorough-Derek had lived here all his life. But had they finally found him?
If it wasn’t the Pack, then who had whistled? Andrew said the Edison Group didn’t hire werewolves. Was he wrong? If they wanted someone to track their missing subjects, a werewolf would be the best supernatural bloodhound around.
Right now, it didn’t matter. Derek knew who’d whistled; and even if he couldn’t tell me, his actions said we were in trouble, and all we could do was hope to outrun it.
“There’s a creek over there,” I said, pointing. “If it’s a werewolf that we’re trying to lose, water will hide our trail, right?”
He answered by veering that way.
The creek wasn’t much more than a trickle, but it was enough to swallow our trail. As we ran, it cut deeper into the earth, banks rising to small cliffs on either side. If we kept going, we might find ourselves trapped.
Derek took the lead, scrambling up the creek bank with me following, soaked sneakers sliding in the dirt as I grabbed roots to pull myself up. I moved as quietly as I could, knowing any werewolf would share Derek’s keen hearing.
We ran along the embankment until we reached a thick patch of woods. Derek herded me into a clearing in the middle of it. He crouched in the center, his front legs stretched out, his head and tail down. Trying to Change back to human form. After a few minutes of straining and snarling, he gave up.
“We can’t stay here,” I said. “If it’s a werewolf-”
He grunted, confirming that.
“Then he’s eventually going to find our trail. These woods aren’t that big.”
Another grunt. I know.
“I think the house is that way.”
He shook his head and pointed his muzzle a little more to the left.
“Okay, good,” I said. “So we just need to-”
He went still again, nose rising, ears turning. I crouched beside him. He kept sniffing, grumbling deep in his throat, like he’d caught a scent he couldn’t seem to find again. Finally, he prodded me toward the mouth of the clearing with a noise that I thought meant run, but when I shot forward, he caught the back of my jacket between his teeth.