Well, I had intended to get Tooth & Claw up this weekend, but we had a small family emergency early this week, followed by the loss of a family pet, and I just could not even begin to care about deadlines. I know my readers understand. Next week is still a possibility, though, and by the end of the month definitely. In the meantime, I hope I can assuage your disappointment with this sneak peek:
Nakaroth returned to High Rock in the evening, as the sun was settling and the long night just beginning to gather. He flashed throat in greeting to his chief, then opened his hands and let two objects fall to the ground. Kruin leapt down from his place on the raised rock to better see them, and to force those few males who had been creeping steadily nearer to the humans’ place of rest to give ground before him. They did, and Kruin soon had an unobstructed view of Nakaroth’s troubling offerings. One was a fellcat tooth. The other, the killing tip of a broken metal knife.
Nona looked at this last and huffed laughter. She picked it up with her scarred hand and shook her head. “You went a long way to find this.”
Nakaroth caught that hand up and touched the scars. “Bites?” he guessed.
“Not exactly. I cut myself on its mouth.” She took her hand back.
“Then it was you who killed the fellcat.”
Nona did not answer, but Leila, resting with Heather by the fire, chuckled into her tea and said, “You should have seen her. She ran right at it. Ka-pow.”
Nakaroth’s ears tipped forward. “And you ate its flesh.”
“Tasted terrible, too.” Nona frowned at Nakaroth as other hunters came to stare at the tooth and the knife and the human who connected them. “Is it bad to eat them?”
“It is difficult to make them hold still for it,” Nakaroth replied, amused. “Fellcats have few weak points. You found a new one. Through the open mouth and into the brain,” he added, loudly enough for all to hear.
The wolves of High Pack murmured. Vru stood up and loped closer. Kruin scratched his brooding heart and said nothing.
“You are Earth-born,” Nakaroth said, returning his gaze to Nona, who nodded.
Kruin growled a warning. These questions had answers he did not wish all his pack to witness.
Nakaroth submitted with a smile, content to be silenced now that silence could only rot in the open air.
So be it.
Kruin rose, staring his unrepentant second down, and bluntly said, “How did you come to our world, human?”
“There were some guys,” she said after a moment. “I don’t know who they were. They said something about…a smoking banner? I don’t know what that means. We’re not one of them,” she added. “They took us. I don’t know how. They brought us here. From Earth, like you said.” She paused, then said, “Do you…Do you know if there’s a way back?”
“I know there are not,” Kruin told her. “Even the Great Dragon has forsworn the making of such roads, and I think there are none but he who could now.”
She took that in and finally said, “That you know of.”
He saw no point in pursuing further. She had already made up her mind not to be convinced. Instead, he said, “I know these Men you speak of, these Men of Earth.”
Wariness stiffened Nona’s thin body and hardened her eyes. “How well?”
“Well enough to know the taste of their blood,” he answered. He meant to allay her unquiet thought, but if anything, her guard rose even higher. He tried again, lowering his voice to a soothing growl. “But although I see you are of the enemy’s world, I see also you are not of their kind. Speak truth to me and you have nothing to fear.”
“I’m not afraid of you.”
“Good. I would not have you be. Now tell me, the enemy…what did they want with you?”
Nona threw the broken blade at the fire, and snapped, “Oh, what do you think?”
Warily, not at all certain he wished an honest answer, Kruin said, “To fight. And if so, I must know, human…What weapons or man-magic have you that Mab herself would tear you from your world to possess them?”
Nona and her two humans stared at him. It was not challenge.
“That isn’t why they took us,” Nona said slowly, now squinting. “They just took us because we were there. They didn’t care who. They didn’t know us at all. They just wanted someone to…cook and…stuff.”
Kruin nodded, acknowledging the things she said and the things she did not say, pushing it all behind him to make room for what mattered. “When these Men held you, was it before their judgment at Dis or after?”
“I don’t know what that means.”
It meant everything. Mab had fled Arcadia, giving her immortal oath never to return. The Great Dragon and his children had also sworn to forge no more Roads. As he had told Nona, the ways to Earth were shut, or should be. Yet Avalon’s wizards had produced many humans who could walk between the worlds and if one of their getting were loosed upon Arcadia, another army may be building even now. Yes, it was far more likely that Nona and her packmates had been stolen before the surrender at Dis, but likely was a fine, sharp edge. Kruin had to know.
“When were you taken?” he asked.
Her defiance faded to uncertainty. “I’m not sure. The days…just kind of blended together.”
“What shape was the moon when you came to this world?”
“I…” Nona tipped her head back to study the sky. The eyes of every wolf around her were fixed at once upon her throat. “Almost half,” she said. “Kind of like it is now. But I don’t know if it was waxing or waning and I know it’s been a while. But I don’t think there’s been more than one. I don’t know,” she finished, dropping her chin to look at him. “Yeah, you don’t like that answer, but you better get used to it, because you’re going to be hearing it a lot.”
She was tired, Kruin told himself. Words spoken in weariness were as rash as those spoken in anger, and she was angry also, because she was afraid. Beyond that, she was lost in this world and very much alone, for to be a chief is to be alone, no matter how many or how few one’s pack. And she was human, a stranger to his ways and deaf to the song of Endless. Kruin knew all these things and could forgive her words, knowing the dark place it came from. But that was what Kruin saw. His pack saw defiance of their chief and their lord, and that was a challenge that must be met.
Kruin advanced on her.
She did not give ground.
“This is my Land,” he told her, very quietly. “And I ask only what I must have answered to provide protections to my people.”
Nona, by the burning blood of the god-chief Quiabe, held his damned stare. “I can’t tell you what I don’t know. You want me to guess? More than thirty days, less than fifty. More than that, I do. Not. Know. I should have paid better attention. I didn’t.”
“How many were these soldiers who held you?” Kruin asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “The camp was huge. Hundreds. Thousands, maybe.”
Kruin accepted the number with a frustrated snort. Many, in other words. So it was for most of his kind: one, two, three, a thousand. “How did you escape?”
Nona shook her head. “I don’t know, I really don’t.”
“She killed them,” Leila said.
“All of them?” Kruin asked.
“No,” said Nona, quiet again. “Only ten.”
Every wolf in High Pack pricked their ears.
“Ten,” said Kruin.
Nona nodded, rubbing her eyes.
“Ten meaning ‘many’?”
She looked at him in that squinting way again. “Ten meaning ‘ten.’ The number between nine and eleven. This many.” She showed him her open hands, all her fingers waggling.
Kruin looked from her to Leila and Heather. “You fought them all together?”
Before Nona could answer, Leila said, “Just her. I couldn’t even move. I should have, I know. I wanted to. I thought of it so many times, but when the time came…it was just her. I’m sorry,” she said to Nona. “You shouldn’t have had to do it alone.”
A short silence followed.
“How?” one of the nearer wolves asked. Henkel, who had fought alongside the horsemen against Mab’s Earth-born army as one of Rhiannon-Ahm’s Aces. He had doubtless killed as many, but not alone and he had not come through unmarked. His scars had brought him much honor, a mate, the respect of ranking wolves and the envy of low ones.
“Any way I could. It got a lot easier when I got this.” Nona pulled her stump of a knife out, then looked at it and chuffed a laugh. “I mean, it had a blade then. I don’t think I could do it again with just this.”
“Would you try?” Nakaroth asked.
Her thin smile split in a human snarl as she looked at Kruin’s second. “Hell yeah I would.”
Nakaroth’s slowly began to wag.
“Anyway, I only killed the ones who were right there. As soon as there was an opening, we ran for it. There were more of us then,” Nona said, tucking her weapon away. Her eyes shone, with challenge and with shame. “I lost them. I couldn’t…I couldn’t keep them safe.”
“Mine is a dangerous Land,” Kruin said. “I can make you no promises of safety. I can only give you the protection of my pack, if you submit to me as lord over you.”
“Yeah, that’s not happening,” Nona said at once.
Kruin was not surprised. He stepped back, again forcing certain of his pack to grudging give back the distance they had steadily closed. He did not look at them, although he gave his claws a meaningful flex. “I know our ways are not the ways of Men. When you are fed and rested, I will escort you to those of your kind who dwell here if you wish it, though I cannot promise they will take you in. Indeed, if they know you come to them through us, they will surely cast you out.”
“My kind is on Earth,” said Nona. “Can you escort us there?”
“No. No one can do that. The roads are broken. The way is shut.” Kruin saw no disbelief in her, yet no slackening of resolve, either. He said, “But there are Earth-born in the Aerie Domain if think you would fare better with them. There, I could take you.”
“Would these be the same humans who kidnapped us?” Nona demanded, her eyes blazing.
“They would be the Men who followed Mab, yes.”
“And you’re going to give us back to them if we don’t fall down at your fucking feet and worship you?” Out came the broken knife. “Heather, get Leila on her feet. We’re leaving. And if any goddamn one of you comes after us—”
“Do not threaten me, human,” Kruin said, staring her down as wolves closed in, silent, on every side of her. “I do not threaten you.”
“That is just what you’re doing and if your people don’t back the fuck off in the next three seconds, someone’s going to bleed!”
“Yes,” he said simply. “And with blood ends our council and I think there are yet words you should hear. Put away your weapon. I am not your enemy.”
Her arm lowered, but her grip on the knife did not ease. “No,” she said, not quite sneering, but close enough to bring growls from many of the watching wolves. “No, you’re not the enemy, you just want to deliver us back to them!”
“Not to them. To the lord of the Aerie Domain, who has had their keeping since Mab’s army broke upon the stones of Dis.”
The humans did not react with gladness or with any emotion Kruin could read. They looked at him and at each other, and at last Leila said, “Are you sure?”
This was finally too much for Alorak, who leapt down from his high place on the council rock, hackles bristling. “You dare!”
Kruin silenced his son with a sharp blow to the muzzle, never taking his eyes from Nona. “Very sure. I saw it done. The wizard is slain, his mother exiled, and all their army undone. Those who took you, if they live at all, are now held under the watch of the Dragon’s Own.”
“As prisoners,” said Nona.
“As dangerous humans who have not hesitated to raise weapons against the people of this world.”
A little pink color bloomed, like frost flowers, high in the pale fields of Nona’s cheeks. She put her knife away.
“Well, it doesn’t matter, does it?” she said sullenly. “Whether it’s the soldiers or the dragon-people, it all ends in a cage for us.”
Kruin had no comfort to offer. When wolves were driven from their pack, they seldom went alone. Mates and cubs and siblings went also. Would he, Kruin, ever have welcomed back one of those females who had followed Ruaknar into exile? Or a cub sired by the traitor? No, he knew that he would not. Indeed, there were two of his own siring living in Sky Hunter Pack under the false names given them by the chief they would come to call father, if they ever learned to speak again, all because their mother had chosen to follow the Betrayer. He had grieved for them when he thought them lost and rejoiced to hear they had been found, but he had not, would never, send for them or even name them. Better the chief of Sky Hunter raise them as the orphan cubs of some roving bitch than know them for who they truly were. They were innocent, yet treachery stained the innocent as much as the guilty.
“The Great Dragon is lord,” he said. “His law is absolute in the Aerie Domain, as is the Cerosan’s law in the Valley…and mine, here.” He gave them a moment to swallow that and a moment more for the bitter taste to subside, then said, “But I will not cage you.”
“As long as I call you lord, you mean.”
Again, Alorak bristled. Again, Kruin cuffed him silent. “I am lord,” he said calmly, “whether I hear it from your mouth or not. And I tell you now for the third time that I will ask no oath from you this day. Neither will I call you my protected own. I merely offer you a place of rest and healing until winter sheathes its killing claws. If you wish to go, I will not hold you. If you wish to stay until spring, I make a place for your and your pack and share with you what comforts I can.”
“We’re not staying any longer than that.”
Kruin nodded, then deliberately laid his ears flat. “The call to High Pack is the greatest honor of my Land. I do not offer it for pity’s sake to wayward travelers. I give welcome to only the strongest wolves.”
“And their mates,” said Nakaroth.
Kruin looked at him.
“Look, I’m sorry,” said Nona through gritted teeth. “I’m not trying to be rude or ungrateful. I just…” She glared, not at Kruin as much as through him, to all the world a once. “I can’t stay here. I don’t—We don’t belong here. As soon as we have our strength back, we’re leaving.”
Kruin nodded, but Nakaroth said, “And where will you go?”
The human tossed her head, baring her throat briefly and making her dirty hair snap back over her shoulder. “Back to Earth!”
Nakaroth’s ears tipped forward. He laughed just once. “How?”
“I’ll find a way.”
“You don’t answer my question.”
“I don’t have to.” Nona bared her teeth again, her eyes burning without blinking into Nakaroth’s own. “It’s none of your business.”
Wolves shifted, eyeing one another, eyeing this human who dared to challenge High Pack’s second. Yes, memories of Taryn’s time among them were fresh in every mind, she who might have made any wolf chief and lord, if only she could have been taken. As this one might yet be taken.
But Nakaroth smiled, accepting this display of hostility in surprising good humor. He returned to the fire and picked up the fellcat tooth, holding it out to her. “Will you keep it?”
“A trophy. It is our way.” He indicated his own fellcat tooth, hanging bright around his neck. “A mark of a lone hunt.”
“I wasn’t hunting.”
“But you were alone.”
Nona looked at her humans. They looked away. “I don’t want it,” she said. She took Leila’s arm and brought her back to the fire, where she sat and ignored him.
Kruin watched his second closely in the aftermath of that insult. Nakaroth showed his teeth, but it was a smile, not a snarl.
“You may change your mind,” he called.
“Then I’ll kill another one!”
Nakaroth laughed in two short barks. He went to his own den. He kept the tooth.
‘There’s trouble,’ thought Kruin. He did not mean Nona’s insolence or even Nakaroth’s strange tolerance of it. He could not see the shape it made yet, but he could hear it in the song of Endless, like the thunder that sounds in a clear sky, before the coming of the storm.
Oh, and also, it’s Saturday! So another chapter of my FNAF fanfiction, Everything Is All Right, Part III: Children of Mammon, just went up on Archiveofourown.org and Fanfiction.net, so it you’re reading along with those, by all means, head over and get caught up! And hey, have another snippet! Excerpts are how I look like I’m blogging when really, I’m just cutting and pasting!
Ana sat up. It hurt her arms, her head, her ribs—her everything. She forced herself to take a deep breath and called, as loud as she could make herself speak, “Foxy?”
Nothing. No answer. No opening door, no thump of metal feet on wooden boards. He wasn’t there.
Or couldn’t answer.
She climbed to her feet, staggered to the wall and held up her watch to the faint silvery shine of an animatronic fish. Five o’clock. It was a testament to Ana’s state of mind that she had to stand there under the glowing fish, listening to the crows, knowing that the source of the dread knotting up her guts stemmed from the fact that Foxy was not putting on his scheduled show, and still had no way of knowing if that meant five in the afternoon or five in the morning.
She limped out into the West Hall, pulling the black plastic away from the windows as Tux complimented her ass on its intelligent and inquisitive demeanor. Sunlight, the pale, piercing sort of sunlight that only follows one hell of a storm. Afternoon, then. Slower to sink in but more important to take note of, the parking lot was empty.
She knew that didn’t necessarily mean that Mason and his boys were gone, but she believed it at once anyway. The building just felt empty.
…the building felt really empty.
She looked at Tux, but it wasn’t Tux she was thinking of.
Keeping one hand to her head to hold the headache in, Ana staggered down the East Hall, checking every door she passed along the way. All empty. Her stuff in the party room had once again been thrown around, but it all seemed to be there. Even her tablet was still on its charger and there was no way Mason would have left that behind. Although robbery might not have been his priority when he came here, he would have considered it his due reward for the thankless task of killing her. But it was still here, untouched, and the job of killing her, unfinished.
Not unfinished. Interrupted. And not by local law enforcement. Sheriff Zabrinsky didn’t like her, but he wouldn’t have left Ana lying on the floor in Pirate Cove after she’d taken a beating as bad as this one felt like. If nothing else, he would have arrested her, too. So that meant someone else had interrupted them…
“Freddy?” she called.
Ana continued on the last length to the dining room. The new doors in the lobby had been broken open and could not fully close again. So it was dim, but not dark. And not quiet. Through hidden speakers on the wall, happy music played at a background volume, accompanying the joke-segment of the scheduled act, but no one was onstage.
They had to be here. They had to be.
Something in the kitchen rattled. Then eyes, blessed eyes, glowing at her from the doorway. “IT SURE IS GREAT TO SEE YOU!” Chica said. “ARE YOU OKAY?”
“Oh wow, it’s great to see you, too!” Ana crashed across the empty room and finally fell against the animatronic, who in turn fell back against the wall. Chica grabbed her as much as Ana grabbed Chica; they steadied each other, neither one secure on their own feet. “Where is everyone? Where’s Bonnie?”
“DON’T WORRY, KIDS! BONNIE THE BUNNY WILL BE RIGHT BACK!”
“But where is he?” Ana pulled away in the faint hope that making eye contact would help Chica stay on target, only to lose the question herself. She did not exactly forget Bonnie, but the importance of finding him was hooked violently to one side as she got a good look at Chica’s bib.
Whatever those reddish-brown smears across the playful letters spelling LET’S EAT were, they were not pizza sauce.
“What is this?” she asked shakily. Her mind’s wheels, toothless and unoiled, tried to present options. She refused to look at them. “What…What have you been eating, Chica?”