Flight from mayhem fly b.., p.16
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       Flight from Mayhem (Fly by Night #2), p.16

           Yasmine Galenorn

  “I have to get something off my chest.” He didn’t sound happy at all.

  I glanced over my shoulder. “What’s up?”

  “Remember my parents came to visit? Well, they’ve given me an ultimatum.” He shifted uncomfortably. “My brother ran off—he left his wife and kids for another woman. He turned against the Pack, and he’s shamed our family. My parents disowned him, but there’s only one thing that can be done to restore honor for the family.”

  Alex let out a low grunt. “If it’s what I think it is, then yes, you are in a pickle.”

  I frowned. “I know nothing of werewolf hierarchy or rules. What’s going on?”

  Ralph pursed his lips. “Alex knows. Since I’m not married, and I’m the oldest son, I’m expected to marry his wife and take responsibility for her and my nephews.”

  I blinked. For some reason, that possibility hadn’t crossed my mind. In the Dragon Reaches, divorce and abandonment happened, but the community rallied around the injured party if there was nothing to spur on the abandonment and made sure they were properly cared for.

  Tonya cleared her throat. “Do you want to marry the woman?”

  Ralph shot her an incredulous look. “I don’t even know if I want to get married, period. I mean, I like her—she’s always been a sweetheart, and yes, my brother was a cad. But me? A father? With a wife who I didn’t choose? I’m not sure I’m up to it.” He sounded miserable.

  “What happens if you refuse?” I asked.

  Ralph shrugged. “My parents will take her and the children in—that’s what they would do if she were widowed and there were no other sons. But I’d be seen as a disgrace and shunned by the Pack for not doing my duty. Essentially, like my brother, I’ll be considered pathetic and useless.” He let out a soft groan. “I don’t know what to do. I love my family, I love my Pack, but damn, what if I meet someone who I fall head over heels for? What if I’m stuck forever in an arranged marriage?”

  Tonya reached out and patted his arm. “I’m sorry, Ralph.”

  Alex stared at the road as the asphalt disappeared beneath our car. We were past Woodinville now, headed northeast toward Maltby. After a while we’d pass through the town of Monroe, then turn right onto Highway 2, leading toward Sultan on the way to Stevens Pass.

  “What does your heart tell you to do?” Alex asked after a brief silence.

  Ralph hesitated, then, “Marry her. There’s a reason we have rules in the Pack. And if we can’t abide by them, it’s out you go. The Pack looks after its members. We’re all responsible for doing so. And if I shirk this, then I shirk more than duty. I shirk my honor. My brother fucked up. He had no complaints against Shayla, but instead of divorcing her the proper way and making certain his children were supported, he just up and ran off, leaving her to file for divorce and scrounge to make ends meet. Hell, I’m ashamed of him. I never want anything to do with Freddy again.”

  The conflict was roiling in him—I could feel it like I could feel the turmoil of ocean waves. He wanted to do the right thing, but that meant sacrificing his freedom and hopes for the future.

  “You won’t resent her, though? I mean, how will she feel if she knows you’re taking her and the kids on just because the Pack says you have to? Just so you won’t be thrown out? I can’t imagine that’s going to help her self-esteem any more than it did when your brother left her high and dry. Alex got stuck with me but it was business. With you, we’re talking about marriage.” The thought of being saddled with someone like a ball and chain when they didn’t love me made me queasy.

  “No matter what, Ralph will do the right thing. He’s not going to punish Shayla for his brother’s stupidity.” Alex sounded so sure of himself that I wondered if he knew something I didn’t.

  Ralph straightened up and shrugged. “Alex is right. If I marry her, it will be my choice. Once a decision is made, it’s sealed and you move on. That’s the thing—if you belong to the Pack, once you make a promise you keep it. You throw yourself into the work. There’s no looking back, no wondering if you made the right decision. You commit to it.”

  He slowly let out a long breath. “I’m going to do it. I realize, talking to you, that I can’t disappoint my parents. My brother took care of that. And I can’t turn my back on Shayla and the kids—they didn’t ask for this. They’re good kids, she’s a good woman. I have more than enough to take care of her and my nephews. They’ll have to move here, of course, but this will give her a fresh start.”

  Surprised that he actually was going to take this on, I turned back to face the road. It was honorable, yes, but still—the level of commitment that he had for his Pack and family startled me. And it made me think . . . would I be able to do the same, if I were in his shoes?

  Alex eased into the turn lane at the juncture of Highway 522 and Highway 2. A moment later, we had turned right and were on the way to Sultan.

  Sultan was a small town—as in five thousand people small—located along the Skykomish River. We turned left onto Sultan Basin Road, a two-lane rural street that led out into the wilds. It was dark and winding and the trees overshadowed us on both sides.

  Tonya shifted in her seat. “There’s a lot of feral energy out here. Be cautious—I don’t care if you’re dragon or vampire, there are old spirits out this way. The closer we get to the Cascades, the more you’ll find the native energies are restless. And I’m not talking Native American. I’m talking earth energies.”

  “She’s right. These mountains have a life and essence of their own, and being volcanic, that makes them even more volatile.” Ralph pressed his face against the back window, staring into the darkness.

  I said nothing, but now that they mentioned it, I could feel the presences all around me. Oh, humans lived out here, and Fae, but the earth itself was the one who ruled.

  We eventually came to a fork in the road, and Alex idled the Range Rover as he consulted the GPS. “We turn right onto Kellogg Lake Road, and it will lead toward Kellogg Lake. Shortly after the lake, there’s a turnoff to the left onto a gravel road, and that’s where Stone Weaver lives.”

  I glanced at the clock. “It’s amazing he ever makes it into Seattle. This is quite a drive.”

  “Well, it says in his dossier that he’s very active in the Supe Community Action Council—he’s quite political, even if he lives like a hermit. And he’s also quite wealthy. He’s very attuned to his element, which is earth. Which means he has an affinity for gold and silver and gems.” Ralph was busy tapping away on his tablet. “The records say that he’s got a good-sized fortune accumulated, though most of it’s in land and metal. Apparently, he decided to beat the humans at their own game and start buying up land when he realized that the developers had their eyes on this area. He owns over two hundred acres here, and then another thousand up north of Bellingham. He set up several renewable resources—a Christmas tree farm, some actual farming as in berries during the summer, holly during the winter. He also funds a number of small eco-businesses.”

  “Smart man. But . . . lonely? Isolated and worth a lot of money? Perfect territory for the doppelgänger to move in. If it could impersonate him, then it could liquidate his holdings before anybody found out and probably have several million dollars at its disposal.” I frowned. “Are doppelgängers male or female?”

  “Nobody knows,” Tonya said. “I studied them, along with the other creatures in my bestiary. They’re mutable and gender neutral at birth, so hard to track.”

  “If they’re gender neutral, how do they breed?” Ralph sounded confused.

  Tonya laughed. “Well, it takes a little more thought than humans, that’s for sure. First, they must find a mate. Then they have a battle—of sorts. The winner shifts to female, the loser to male, and they mate. They don’t stay paired up, though. Doppelgängers work alone and are solitary by nature.”

  “Having you along is better than having an encyclopedia.” I flashed her a quick grin over my shoulder. “Somehow I doubt they reproduce at a rapid rate.

  “No, and they don’t usually hang out in the wilds. They’re a predatory species, and they congregate where humans are.” Tonya pressed against the window. “They shun each other’s company when they aren’t in breeding season. The female doppelgänger claims the young. The males just wander off after they’ve done their job at impregnating the females.”

  “Like my brother,” Ralph muttered.

  I repressed a laugh. Ralph didn’t need us making any sort of jabs at his situation. “At least we aren’t dealing with a colony of them.”

  Tonya shook her head. “You’ll never find them in those numbers.”

  “Okay, heads up.” Alex slowed the car. “Start looking for the road to the left. It will be gravel—we are nearing it according to the GPS.”

  Ralph shaded his eyes as he stared out the window behind Alex. After a moment, both he and Alex let out a shout and Alex slowly eased the Range Rover onto the gravel road.

  We were really into the wilds now. The trees closed in from either side, and the road was so narrow that we would have a hard time passing if another car came from the opposite direction. Also, it occurred to me that even though the Range Rover was geared toward this type of terrain, we could still end up sinking in mud along the way. And I couldn’t change into dragon form to help yank it out if it got stuck. But then, given the combined strengths of a vampire, a werewolf, and a dragonshifter, we could probably pry it loose if that happened.

  Up ahead, faint lights glimmered off to the right among the trees, and then we were suddenly at a driveway leading into the woods. Alex eased onto the graveled road. A few minutes later, we were at our destination. The house was beautiful. It was a log cabin by style but looked updated with solar panels lining the roof. It sat in the middle of a clearing. The lights we had seen were streetlights, also solar powered, I assumed, and they lined the walkway from the drive to the house. A windmill sat a ways behind the house, and a stream that trickled near had a waterwheel on it.

  “Stone Weaver is sure into renewable energy.” Tonya opened her door. I followed suit, joining her. Alex and Ralph also emerged from the car.

  Alex made certain the Range Rover was locked after we were all out. “I don’t want anything getting inside that doesn’t belong there.” He looked around, gauging the situation. “I think we’re alone. I don’t sense any movement or presence beyond what animals might be in the surrounding forest.”

  As he fell silent, I listened, closing my eyes. I assumed the others were doing the same.

  The first thing I noticed was the wind—steady and brisk, it turned the blades of the windmill. From where we were standing the sound was concussive, a rhythmic whoosh whoosh as the blades sailed around. I let the pattern lull me. It was loud, but the susurration reminded me of white noise.

  Then I cast out, searching for emotions. Ralph’s raw worries were on the surface, as was Tonya’s curiosity. Alex—I couldn’t read him. But beyond that . . . hunger and . . . concern told me there was something around. Maybe a bobcat or cougar nearby. If it was a big cat or a bear, it would stay away, though, because Ralph’s scent—that of werewolf—would be as good as a signature.

  “I don’t think . . . there’s anybody on two feet near here. Now, I don’t know whether doppelgängers have any sense of emotion, but as far as I can tell, we’re out here on our own.” I folded my arms and stared at the house. “Shall we go in?”

  A sprinkling of rain started up, and then the clouds opened and a steady downpour began. Thanks to the sudden drenching, we broke into a run and headed to the house.

  * * *

  Ralph quickly picked the lock and we were in. Another moment and he found the light switch. A pale, bluish-tinted light flooded the room. Energy-efficient bulbs, I thought. Of course Stone Weaver wouldn’t use incandescent lights. The house itself was built for function and form. Everything looked usable, but wherever you looked, there was art in the function. A large geode that had been split in half formed the kitchen sink. Holes had been drilled in the bottom to drain the water, and a clear coating filled the crystal hollows so that nothing would be damaged by putting it inside what were essentially crystal bowls. All the furniture was wood, smoothly carved and polished. And yet when I looked close, I realized the wood used had been tree trunks that were hollowed out for seats, or driftwood. Flotsam given new life.

  Stone Weaver had created bookcases out of old wooden pallets and while there were a few nods to modern technology—a laptop, TV, a range and refrigerator, to name a few—I had a feeling he had somehow managed to make them as eco-friendly as he could.

  We spread out, looking for any sign of the man.

  “I’ll check the bedroom,” I said, heading toward a door that was ajar enough for me to see the corner of a bed in it. As I entered the room, I thought I heard something swish, but shook my head. As far as we knew, we were alone in the house.

  The wardrobe was ajar and as I opened it, I saw a jumble of clothes, which conflicted totally with how neat the rest of his house was. I picked through them, but there was no way to tell what might be missing. And the bed hadn’t been slept in—it was still made up.

  Another sound—though I couldn’t make out what it was—alerted me and I cautiously reached for the dagger I kept strapped to my belt. Slowly, I edged back, glancing around the room. A large window looked out into the forest. Crossing to it, I stared out into the night. At first, it was all shadow and darkness, but then I saw a pair of pale yellow eyes gleaming in the forest. But as I watched them, I knew this wasn’t what I had heard. The feeling that something was in the room with me was growing stronger, and whatever it was, it wasn’t coming from whatever animal might be outside.

  Swallowing my nerves, I crossed to the bathroom and pushed the door open, going so far as to check behind the shower curtain. Nothing. The room was empty.

  I returned to the bed, where the feeling was strongest. Then I knew. Easing down on my hands and knees, I peeked under the bed. A suitcase rested to one side, and then—what the hell? A small clear box was sitting there, with a frog inside. The energy suddenly increased and I realized that—whatever it was—the sense of being watched came directly from the frog.

  Rather than pull the box out on my own, I inched away from the bed to call the others in. Whatever was down there knew I was here; there wasn’t any use in being sly about it.

  “Let me—if the bugger drains life energy it’s not going to get juiced from me. And if it has poison, then again—not going to hurt me.” Alex reached under the bed and pulled the box out.

  I stared at it. “That’s no ordinary frog.”

  “Obviously not. Tonya, you seem versed on creatures. Any idea of what we have here?” Alex carried the box over to the nightstand. “It feels about the right weight for a frog.”

  She hesitantly approached it, cocking her head. After a moment, she shrugged. “I have no idea. It’s not like any frog I’ve ever seen. See the crest and spines on its back?”

  I leaned closer and sure enough, she was right. For one thing, the frog almost glowed—it was neon green with gold leopard spots, each surrounded by a nimbus of black. Along its back were a row of spines. Rather than porcupine quills, they looked more like a horse’s mane cut into a Mohawk and slathered with setting gel. The spines were mottled, green and red. The frog’s eyes were a deep black, glistening, and I sensed a very strong intelligence behind them.

  “Should we try talking to it?” Ralph scratched his head, looking puzzled.

  “Hey, frog. Do you by chance speak English?” Tonya spoke directly to it. The frog stared back, and—with the slightest shift of its eyes—I could have sworn it understood her. But no response.

  “Should we open the box? It doesn’t look locked.” I wasn’t sure it was a good idea, but one of us had to ask it.

  “Are you insane? What if it’s dangerous? What if it’s . . . Well, now, what are we doing?” Alex spoke very softly and the rest of us looked back at the frog.

  The creat
ure was puffing up, very much like a blowfish. In fact, another inch and it would fill the box, which meant either it would have a hell of a lot of pressure bearing down on it or—

  The or, it was.

  As the sides of its skin touched the plastic cover, the lid blew off—like it had been on a spring, and the frog hopped past us, into the middle of the room, where it stopped. But it was still growing, though now it looked nothing like a frog. No, it was mutating. And then, before we could say a word, a young girl stood there, with eyes so dark you could fall into them, and hair the color of spring grass. She was odd looking—very Elfin in some regards, with a pointed chin and very sharp ears. But this was no elf.

  “What . . . who are you?” I asked out of habit, unable to take my eyes off her. There was something transfixing about her—almost mesmerizing.

  “Oh good gods, I think she’s one of the Elder Fae.” Alex was backing away. “Be very careful. They’re a tricky lot, even for dragons, Shimmer.”

  “Thanks, you just outed me.” I shot him a quick glare. Sometimes, keeping the truth of my identity was a good idea, especially when facing what could potentially be a dangerous foe.

  The girl—though I quickly realized I needed to stop referring to her as a girl . . . chances were she was as old as or older than I was—was barely four feet high, and her arms were thin and insubstantial, while her legs looked muscled and ready to run. She was stocky, with ruddy skin.

  “Who are you?” Tonya stayed where she was, focusing on the girl.

  The frogshifter cocked her head to one side, as though she were deciding whether to answer. After a moment, in a throaty voice, she said, “Who I am is none of your concern, human. But I owe you a favor for freeing me from my prison.”

  The word prison worried me. Who had locked her up, and why?

  Alex must have been thinking along the same lines because he asked, “Why were you in the box?”

  “An enemy locked me in to prevent me from helping my friend.” She frowned, looking around. “He’s gone, isn’t he?”

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