Betrayals, p.1Lili St. Crow
Strange Angels - 02
Lili St. Crow
For Gates. Keep holding the line.
Without Miriam, this book would not be. Without Jessica, this book would not be any good.
Without you, dear Reader, this book would be lost. Thank you all.
Love is whatever you can still betray.
John le Carre
A week later I was already in trouble. The thing with a school full of boys being taught to kill suckers is that sparring gets to be a group event. it’s like a fight in a regular school, only here the teachers don’t intervene, or at least, they hadn’t in any of the other four fights I’d seen since I arrived. You get a mob of onlookers, all shouting, and it can turn into a melee easily enough. Things don’t stop until someone’s bleeding. Or worse. Being able to heal just makes the boys more likely to hurt themselves.
I couldn’t heal like they could yet, because I hadn’t “bloomed.” So much for being special. Here I was just as fragile as a civilian. But when you’ve spent most of your spare time learning how to make the best of what you have against things that go bump in the night, you don’t give up easy.
I came up from the floor with a punch, getting my feet under me, and Irving grabbed my wrist. He used my momentum to whip me past him, but I’d expected that, hooked my other fingers, and got a handful of his face. That’s what Dad would have called “dirty fightin’,” something he approved of in a girl.
Hey, there are no rules in a fight. Thinking there are “rules” can get you killed. Dad drilled it into my head over and over again, you fight to win, to survive. Not to look good or give the other guy a chance.
Stop thinking about Dad, Dru. I had other problems.
Irving had bet he could best me in under two minutes. We were at ninety seconds and counting, and I was winning.
A bet like that doesn’t go unchallenged. Not when your former Marine dad’s been teaching you how to kick ass for years. Not when there’s a hot boiling bubble of acid right behind your breastbone all the time. Not when you’re practically alone in a school full of teenage boys.
Not just any teenage boys, either. Boys who can turn into fur rugs with bad attitudes at the drop of a hat. Djamphir boys who are born with the eerie stuttering speed of suckers, blurring through the slow stupid daytime world like a cheesy special effect at the drop of a hat. Boy djamphir don’t have to wait to “bloom,” oh no. They’re stronger and faster from the start, and they only get better once their voices break and they “hit the drift” in puberty. Some of them hit it later, in their mid-twenties.
But even before they hit the drift they’re more than a match for any human.
I twisted, my sneakers digging into the frayed mats, and kicked back. That caught him in the knee, and I heard bones popping and loud growling. I hit the dirt, the mats scraping against my elbow because I was only in a tank top and jeans.
I’m not stupid. When you hear the distinctive noise of werwulfen changing into the furry shape that makes them almost impossible to kill, that’s the reasonable thing to do.
Except Irving wasn’t wulf. He was djamphir, and he was already committed to his leap. So where was the sound coming from?
I rolled over just in time to see Irving hanging in the air over me, pale face alight, golden highlights slipping through his chestnut curls as the aspect took him. The world slowed down, moving through syrup just long enough for me to scramble, the clear heavy weight of physicality straining against every muscle in my body. The snap! like a rubber band popped off expert fingers rang through my head as time sped back up again and he rammed down into the mats a good three feet away from where I was now but exactly where I’d been. His knee hit too hard, without my face to cushion it, and he let out a short, sharp cry. The lines across his cheek from my fingernails flushed an angry red, and his hair stood up, writhing.
Now he wasn’t just a teenage boy needing to save face in front of the crowd. Now he was serious.
And we were at twenty seconds left.
I gained my feet in a rush and skipped back twice. The mass of onlookers exploded away, giving us enough room to move. Irving bounced up like he was full of helium, his curls moving just like in a shampoo commercial, and he threw himself across the intervening space with the weird blurring speed I wasn’t even close to getting accustomed to.
The speed I couldn’t use yet.
So instinct took over. It wasn’t precisely a bad instinct, brace yourself and punch the guy straight in the face. But Dad would have yelled at me for being stupid, since Irving was so ungodly fast, and straight-on force, like in karate, doesn’t work so much for me. I’m built too thin and rangy. I don’t even have moderately big breasticles. They just look like well, never mind what they look like. At least they stay strapped down when I worm into a sports bra.
It doesn’t quite suck being a girl, but sometimes it’s close.
I should have grabbed Irving’s arm, twisted, and slid him past me, using his own momentum to help him right into the stone wall across the room. Instead, I hit him. There was a crunch as my fist met his nose, and he collided with me like a freight train. We were heading for the wall, and the thought this is going to hurt flashed through me like electricity popping through a lightbulb filament.
And it would have, too, if something hadn’t hit us both from the side, roaring. I got an elbow in the face and went tumbling, slapping the frayed, stained mats and wrenching my back a good one. I just lay there for a second, bells ringing inside my skull and the entire world seeming very far away.
It took a long time for me to blink, looking up at the arched, ribbed vault of the ceiling. This part of the complex had been a chapel, but now it was the armory and a sparring space unfolding with mats that had seen better days and the smell of healthy young boysweat. Underneath was the ghost of incense, and if it were daytime, shafts of weak sunlight might slip between the bars and pierce dusty dimness.
During the day, though, the Schola sleeps. Right now it was just past midnight, and I was in deep shit.
“Dru?” Someone was bending over, shaking me. I tried to push them off, but my hands wouldn’t quite work right. A dreamy sort of panic slid through me then, and I heaved back into my body with another elastic snap!
I was doing a lot of that lately. The air was full of rumbling and muttering, and there was a lot of shouting going on.
Oh God. This might’ve been a bad idea. I grabbed at a waiting pair of hands and hauled myself up. My head was ringing and my back hurt something awful.
“What the bloody blue hell is going on here?” The words sliced through the hubbub, except for that deep thrumming growl. I shook my head, a sliver of warm wetness threading down from my nose, and pushed between two djamphir boys. Clarence, his straight black bowl-cut damp with sweat and excitement, and Tor, his aspect on and thick streaks of buttery yellow sliding through his hair. Both of them were taller than me, but I shouldered them aside and found myself in the front row.
Graves had Irving down, his long, tanned-looking fingers closed on the djamphir’s throat. His eyes were chips of green flame, and the growl was so thick it blurred the air around him, the sound of a very pissed-off skinchanger. He probably couldn’t talk, either, his jaw was subtly modified, accommodating fiercer, longer teeth. The crackle of bone had been him. He wouldn’t get furry he was loup-garou, not wulfen, only half-imprinted with the thing that made them able to shift but he was pretty motivated to do some serious harm, and angry enough not to care about hurting someone.
It had happened three or four times by now. Twice back in the Dakotas, each time when we were in danger, or when he thought we were in danger, since Christophe had turne
I didn’t think I’d gotten the whole story, but Graves wouldn’t talk about it. And now there was this.
“What the—” Dylan said again, elbowing his way through the throng.
I tuned him out and stepped forward. My right leg felt funny, and something dripped onto my upper lip. Three steps, four, my boots dragging a little against the mats. When I laid my hand on Graves’ shoulder, the buzzing going through him felt like I was resting my hand on a juiced-up power transformer.
He actually snarled, his dyed-black hair curling, all but standing up and snapping with vitality.
The sharp, strong bone structure of his face was subtly off-kilter now, nose less proud and cheekbones taking on the higher wolflike arc instead of the broadness of “human.” Rich color flooded through his skin, making his perpetual tan deeper.
“Calm down,” I managed. Only I sounded like Elmer Fudd, because I had a stuffed-up nose. My eyes were smarting and watering, too. “Jesus.” It came out like Jebus, and I could have laughed.
Except it wasn’t funny.
“Everyone shut up.” Dylan folded his arms, his leather jacket creaking. The noise went down.
Here at the Schola, when a teacher talks, you listen. “And back up. Back up!”
Graves growled again, and Irving choked. He was turning an awfully deep shade of crimson. His fingers plucked weakly at Graves’ hand, but with his arm twisted underneath him and an angry skinchanger on top of him, he couldn’t get any leverage.
I hauled back on Graves’ shoulder. A bolt of pain went down either side of my spine. “Come on, asshole. Calm down. This is getting ridiculous.”
“Why didn’t you wait for me?” Dylan addressed the air over my head. “I’m getting a little tired of — good God, girl, you’re bleeding.”
Graves let go of Irving and flowed to his feet, shaking me off. His lips were pulled back, teeth gleaming, his eyes awash with feral phosphorescence. I realized the wulfen had settled into a bloc behind him, and the tension running through them was palpable. A few of them had gotten a little hairier, too. The tension made the wulf boys bulk up as well, shoulders straining at shirt seams. They don’t take on werwulf form unless they really have to, but you can tell them from the djamphir. It’s in the way they move, like they’re shouldering fluidly through sunlit grass, instead of with the sharp hurtful grace of the half-nosferat.
The djamphir don’t change, but the aspect ran through all of them, their hair moving and rippling with color changes, eyes glowing, and one or two of them showing little dimples of fangs touching their lower lips.
Dad had always taught me that wulfen and suckers didn’t get along. I was beginning to think it was genetic. As far as I could figure, djamphir and wulfen were on the same side against the suckers. That was what the Order was about. But they sure as hell didn’t seem to like each other much.
I pulled Graves back, and we only had a bit of a problem when I stepped in front of him and he tried to shove past me. I grabbed him by his used-to-be-bony shoulders and shook him. My fingers sank into muscle, and I didn’t worry about hurting him. His head bobbled, but his gaze snapped down to mine and the snarl petered out.
I held his eyes for what seemed like a very long time. He blinked, and his shoulders relaxed a little. That’s when I turned and found Dylan, arms crossed, standing over Irving with one winged black eyebrow raised and the rest of the djamphir utterly still behind them both. The djamphir’s eyes gleamed and their fangs were out.
Oh, the testosterone. You could have cut it with a cafeteria spoon.
“We were sparring. I got stupid.” I took another two steps, my heels landing harder than they should have and pain jarring up through my entire spine. “You all right?” This was directed at Irving, who was coughing, a deep rasping sound. But he didn’t look almost purple now.
He glared at me, and I felt sorry. It had just been a little friendly workout, nothing big. I should have just rolled my eyes and let his posturing pass.
But instead, I’d gone off on him. And I was supposed to be so much more mature than boys at this age.
“Sorry, Irving.” My back seized up again, and I breathed out through my mouth. The muttering growl behind me receded a little, and I put my hand down to help him up. “I should have grabbed you and helped you into that wall instead of trying to punch you in the nose. Go figure.” It was really hard to sound conciliatory with something dripping and dribbling off my top lip. I was hoping it wasn’t snot. That would be gross.
I sniffed, and the rest of the nosebleed let loose in a pattering gush.
Irving froze, staring up at me. His pupils shrank. A spatter of bright-red blood hung in the air, then splashed right on his clothes, starring the mat next to him too.
“Shit,” Dylan said, and leapt on him. “Get her out of here!”
Hands grabbed me, hot against the bare skin of my upper arms. I was dragged backward, and the world threatened to turn over without me attached to it. The ringing inside my head got worse, the sound of owl wings brushing the inside of my skull in frantic bursts. The wulfen hauled me out, and I heard Irving screaming as Dylan held him down, the bloodhunger turning his voice into a harpy’s shriek.
Yeah. Just another night at the Schola. The fight doesn’t stop until there’s blood on the floor.
But when the blood is mine, it can send the boy djamphir a little crazy. it’s something about me being svetocha. Super-happy stuff in my blood even before I “bloom,” something that reaches down and wakes up the crazy in anyone with a touch of nosferat.
After the blooming hit, I’d have my own superhuman strength and speed. And that super-happy stuff in my blood would make me toxic to suckers just like Raid is toxic to insects.
But now it just made me vulnerable. I smelled like a really nice snack.
Dylan had been drilling it into my head for the whole week now, on and on, that I couldn’t spar with the djamphir students. They couldn’t control the bloodhunger very well, I could get seriously hurt, yadda yadda.
Christophe had never told me about that.
There were a lot of things he hadn’t told me.
The wulfen dragged me out into the hall, and the rushing noise inside my head got bigger. I think I probably passed out. At least, the world got really faraway and dim, and the only thing that mattered was hearing Graves. He could talk now that the rage had passed, and he was saying the same thing over and over again, a catch in his voice right before my name.
“It’s okay, Dru. I promise it’s okay.”
He didn’t sound like he believed it either.
The ice pack stung, but holding it against the bridge of my nose meant less swelling and bruising. I sighed, shifted uncomfortably, and blinked away the hot welling of reflex tears. Graves had thought to grab my jacket, too, so the goose bumps on my arms were covered.
“It was my fault,” I repeated stubbornly. “I should have pulled Irving past me instead of trying to paste him on the nose.”
“That’s not the point.” Dylan sighed. Some days he sighed more than others, and some days it seems like he did nothing but. He had a face that could have been on a Roman coin, and I’d heard his real name was something unpronounceable and Goth. Not like black-lipstick-and-angst, but actual barbarian.
Around here, you never knew. Even the teachers looked like teenagers. The really old ones look about twenty sometimes. But they’re late drifters, and they never get to looking thirty. My dad’s friend August, the one I’d called to confirm Christophe’s story, must’ve been one of them. I wondered about it, but it didn’t seem polite to ask.
Behind Dylan, shelves of dusty leather-bound books stood frowning down on me, cobwebs ghosting up near their tops. The place smelled like leather, dust, and the musky smell of teenage hormones, but it still felt like the principal’s office.
I’ve been in principals’ offices all over America. Before I figured out the best way to get by was to just keep my head down.
I’ve kind of been sucking at that lately.
Graves stood just behind me. Dylan didn’t offer him a chair. I didn’t like that, especially since Dylan had refused to talk or sit until I sat down. His office had windows, with the obligatory iron bars. I’d made some sort of joke when I first got here about whether the bars were to keep us in or the suckers out, and the dead silence and pained look on everyone’s face had told me to shut up.
Outside the barred windows, the lawns were painted with moonlight. Trees stood guard, silvered with threads of fog, a white wall sending spectral fingers up to touch naked black branches.
The ice pack crackled as I held it to the bridge of my nose, then peeked out at Dylan.
“Look.” He had that I’m-being-patient tone again. “Combat training for you is going to take a while, and it won’t really get started until after you bloom. If you must, you should be practicing with the teachers, not the students. And Graves… he can’t be interfering every time he thinks someone’s insulted you, or whatever it is. it’s not safe. For either of you.”
Dylan was magnanimously leaving out the part where I drove Irving into the hunger by bleeding all over him. Nice.
Betrayals by Lili St. Crow / Young Adult / Mystery & Detective / Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes