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|Thirteen(Women of the Otherworld #13) by Kelley Armstrong|
A WORD FROM
Some series begin with a grand, sweeping plan. Others with a single story. In my case, that single story was Bitten, which I wrote as a standalone novel, perhaps to be revisited in a few years with a sequel, but certainly not intended to launch a series. When the possibility was raised, I was thrilled by the opportunity to spend more time with those characters. But I couldn’t foresee a long-running series centered on my werewolves. Having my Pack face an annual threat would get very old, very fast.
The solution was to expand my fictional universe. Not only would I bring in other supernatural types, but I’d spin off to new narrators, weaving a world that widened with every book.
It sounded like a great idea. Little did I realize that by the time Stolen came out, my readers would be happily settled in, wanting to follow Elena Michaels and her Pack on countless more adventures. They didn’t want me changing narrators, especially not switching to Paige, the over-confident young witch they met in Stolen.
Dime Store Magic got off to a bumpy start, but I feel it was actually the book that truly launched the Otherworld as a series. It brought in a fresh crop of readers who were more comfortable with witches than werewolves. Most of the original readers stuck around, too, once they discovered that Paige wasn’t as bad as they feared.
By the time I returned to Elena in book six—Broken—I could see where I wanted the series to go. I could also see where I wanted it to end. So I began tipping in clues. It was another five books before I launched the end-game with Waking the Witch, continuing it into Spell Bound and, finally, wrapping it up now with 13.
While some would say it would have been fitting to return to Elena for this final story, I’ve always had another plan. Back in Stolen, I introduced twelve-year-old Savannah, and I dreamed that the series might run long enough for her to become an adult narrator. And so Savannah grew up in the series, wending her way through the lives of all the other characters, slowly maturing until, with Waking the Witch, she was ready to begin the journey that would, with 13, cement her place as a true “woman” of the Otherworld.
And yet I haven’t forgotten where it all began, and with whom. So before we begin the final journey, I’d like to take you for a quick trip into the past, back to Elena, to the prologue that launched the Otherworld series.
I have to.
I’ve been fighting it all night. I’m going to lose. My battle is as futile as a woman feeling the first pangs of labor and deciding it’s an inconvenient time to give birth. Nature wins out. It always does.
It’s nearly two a.m., too late for this foolishness and I need my sleep. Four nights spent cramming to meet a deadline have left me exhausted. It doesn’t matter. Patches of skin behind my knees and elbows have been tingling and now begin to burn. My heart beats so fast I have to gulp air. I clench my eyes shut, willing the sensations to stop but they don’t.
Philip is sleeping beside me. He’s another reason why I shouldn’t leave, sneaking out in the middle of the night again and returning with a torrent of lame excuses. He’s working late tomorrow. If I can just wait one more day. My temples begin to throb. The burning sensation in my skin spreads down my arms and legs. The rage forms a tight ball in my gut and threatens to explode.
I’ve got to get out of here—I don’t have a lot of time left.
Philip doesn’t stir when I slip from the bed. There’s a pile of clothing tucked underneath my dresser so I won’t risk the squeaks and groans of opening drawers and closets. I pick up my keys, clasping my fist around them so they don’t jangle, ease open the door, and creep into the hallway.
Everything’s quiet. The lights seem dimmed, as if overpowered by the emptiness. When I push the elevator button, it creaks out a complaint at being disturbed at so ungodly an hour. The first floor and lobby are equally empty. People who can afford the rent this close to downtown Toronto are comfortably asleep by this time.
My legs itch as well as hurt and I curl my toes to see if the itching stops. It doesn’t. I look down at the car keys in my hand. It’s too late to drive to a safe place—the itching has crystallized into a sharp burn. Keys in my pocket, I stride onto the streets, looking for a quiet place to Change. As I walk, I monitor the sensation in my legs, tracing its passage to my arms and the back of my neck. Soon. Soon. When my scalp starts to tingle, I know I have walked as far as I can so I search for an alley. The first one I find has been claimed by two men squeezed together inside a tattered big-screen TV box. The next alley is empty. I hurry to the end and undress quickly behind a barricade of trash bins, hide the clothes under an old newspaper. Then I start the Change.
My skin stretches. The sensation deepens and I try to block the pain. Pain. What a trivial word—agony is better. One doesn’t call the sensation of being flayed alive “painful.” I inhale deeply and focus my attention on the Change, dropping to the ground before I’m doubled over and forced down. It’s never easy—perhaps I’m still too human. In the struggle to keep my thoughts straight, I try to anticipate each phase and move my body into position—head down, on all fours, arms and legs straight, feet and hands flexed, and back arched. My leg muscles knot and convulse. I gasp and strain to relax. Sweat breaks out, pouring off me in streams, but the muscles finally relent and untwist themselves. Next comes the ten seconds of hell that used to make me swear I’d rather die than endure this again. Then it’s over.
I stretch and blink. When I look around, the world has mutated to an array of colors unknown to the human eye, blacks and browns and grays with subtle shadings that my brain still converts to blues and greens and reds. I lift my nose and inhale. With the Change, my already keen senses sharpen even more. I pick up scents of fresh asphalt and rotting tomatoes and window-pot mums and day-old sweat and a million other things, mixing together in an odor so overwhelming I cough and shake my head. As I turn, I catch distorted fragments of my reflection in a dented trash can. My eyes stare back at me. I curl my lips back and snarl at myself. White fangs flash in the metal.
I am a wolf, a 130-pound wolf with pale blond fur. The only part of me that remains are my eyes, sparking with a cold intelligence and a simmering ferocity that could never be mistaken for anything but human.
I look around, inhaling the scents of the city again. I’m nervous here. It’s too close, too confined; it reeks of human spoor. I must be careful. If I’m seen, I’ll be mistaken for a dog, a large mixed breed, perhaps a husky and yellow Labrador mix. But even a dog my size is cause for alarm when it’s running loose. I head for the back of the laneway and seek a path through the underbelly of the city.
My brain is dulled, disoriented not by my change of form but by the unnaturalness of my surroundings. I can’t get my bearings and the first alley I go down turns out to be the one I’d encountered in human form, the one with the two men in the faded Sony box. One of them is awake now. He’s tugging the remnants of a filth-encrusted blanket between his fingers as if he can stretch it large enough to cover himself against the cold October night. He looks up and sees me. His eyes widen. He starts to shrink back, then stops himself. He says something. His voice is crooning, the musical, exaggerated tones people use with infants and animals. If I concentrated, I could make out the words, but there’s no point. I know what he’s saying, some variation of “nice doggy,” repeated over and over in a variety of inflections. His hands are outstretched, palms out to ward me off, the physical language contradicting the vocal. Stay back—nice doggy—stay back. And people wonder why animals don’t understand them.
I can smell the neglect and waste rising from his body. It smells like weakness, like an aged deer driven to the fringe of the herd, prime pickings for predators. If I were hungry, he’d smell like dinner. Fortunately, I’m not hungry yet, so I don’t have to deal with the temptation, the conflict, the revulsion. I snort, condensation trumpeting from my nostrils, then turn and lope back up the alley.
Ahead is a Vietnamese restaurant. The smell of food is embedded in the very wood frame of the building. On a rear addition, an exhaust fan turns slowly, clicking with each revolution as one blade catches the metal screen casing. Below the fan a window is open. Faded sunflower-print curtains billow out in the night breeze. I can hear people inside, a room full of people, grunting and whistling in sleep. I want to see them. I want to stick my muzzle in the open window and look inside. A werewolf can have a lot of fun with a roomful of unprotected people.
I start to creep forward but a sudden crackle and hiss stops me. The hiss softens, then is drowned out by a man’s voice, sharp, his words snapped off like icicles. I turn my head each way, radar searching for the source. He’s farther down the street. I abandon the restaurant and go to him. We are curious by nature.
He’s standing in a three-car parking lot wedged at the end of a narrow passage between buildings. He holds a walkie-talkie to his ear and leans one elbow against a brick wall, casual but not resting. His shoulders are relaxed. His gaze goes nowhere. He is confident in his place, that he has a right to be here and little to fear from the night. The gun dangling from his belt probably helps. He stops talking, jabs a button, and slams the walkie-talkie into its holster. His eyes scan the parking lot once, taking inventory and seeing nothing requiring his attention. Then he heads deeper into the alley maze. This could be amusing. I follow.
My nails click against the pavement. He doesn’t notice. I pick up speed, darting around trash bags and empty boxes. Finally, I’m close enough. He hears the steady clicking behind him and stops. I duck behind a Dumpster, peer around the corner. He turns and squints into the darkness. After a second he starts forward. I let him get a few steps away, then resume the pursuit. This time when he stops, I wait one extra second before diving for cover. He lets out a muffled oath. He’s seen something—a flash of motion, a shadow flickering, something. His right hand slips to his gun, caressing the metal, then pulling back, as if the reassurance is enough. He hesitates, then looks up and down the alley, realizing he is alone and uncertain what to do about it. He mutters something, then continues walking, quicker this time.
As he walks, his eyes flick from side to side, wariness treading the border of alarm. I inhale deeply, picking up only wisps of fear, enough to make my heart pound, but not enough to send my brain spinning out of control. He’s safe quarry for a stalking game. He won’t run. I can suppress most of my instincts. I can stalk him without killing him. I can suffer the first pangs of hunger without killing him. I can watch him pull his gun without killing him. Yet if he runs, I won’t be able to stop myself. That’s a temptation I can’t fight. If he runs, I will chase. If I chase, either he’ll kill me or I’ll kill him.
As he turns the corner down a connecting alley, he relaxes. All has been silent behind him. I creep from my hiding place, shifting my weight to the back of my foot pads to muffle the sound of my nails. Soon I am only a few feet behind him. I can smell his aftershave, almost masking the natural scent of a long day’s work. I can see his white socks appearing and disappearing between his shoes and pant legs. I can hear his breathing, the slight elevation in tempo betraying the fact that he’s walking faster than usual. I ease forward, coming close enough that I could lunge if I want to and knock him to the ground before he even thought to reach for his gun. His head jerks up. He knows I’m there. He knows something is there. I wonder if he will turn. Does he dare to look, to face something he can’t see or hear, but can only sense? His hand slides to his gun, but he doesn’t turn. He walks faster. Then he swings back to the safety of the street.
I follow him to the end and observe from the darkness. He strides forward, keys in hand, to a parked cruiser, unlocks it, and hops inside. The car roars and squeals from the curb. I watch the receding taillights and sigh. Game over. I won.
That was nice but it wasn’t nearly enough to satisfy me. These city backstreets are too confining. My heart is thudding with unspent excitement. My legs are aching with built-up energy. I must run.
A wind gusts from the south, bringing the sharp tang of Lake Ontario with it. I think of heading to the beach, imagine running along the stretch of sand, feeling the icy water slapping against my paws, but it’s not safe. If I want to run, I must go to the ravine. It’s a long way, but I have little choice unless I plan to skulk around human-smelling alleyways for the rest of the night. I swing to the northwest and begin the journey.
Nearly a half hour later, I’m standing at the crest of a hill. My nose twitches, picking up the vestiges of an illegal leaf fire smoldering in a nearby yard. The wind bristles through my fur, chill, nearly cold, invigorating. Above me, traffic thunders across the overpass. Below is sanctuary, a perfect oasis in the middle of the city. I leap forward, throwing myself off. At last I’m running.
My legs pick up the rhythm before I’m halfway down the ravine. I close my eyes for a second and feel the wind slice across my muzzle. As my paws thump against the hard earth, tiny darts of pain shoot up my legs, but they make me feel alive, like jolting awake after an overlong sleep. The muscles contract and extend in perfect harmony. With each stretch comes an ache and a burst of physical joy. My body is thanking me for the exercise, rewarding me with jolts of near-narcotic adrenaline. The more I run, the lighter I feel, the pain falling free as if my paws are no longer striking the ground. Even as I race along the bottom of the ravine, I feel like I’m still running downhill, gaining energy instead of expending it. I want to run until all the tension in my body flies away, leaving nothing but the sensations of the moment. I couldn’t stop if I wanted to. And I don’t want to.