Changeling


PAGE 01




CHAPTER 1

The moon was high overhead, rounded and full like one of those snow globes human children like to play with at Christmastime. I could barely see her up there watching over me as I slipped through the thick grass, padding lightly on the frost-shrouded ground. The night was clear but bitterly cold, and my breath formed little puffs of air as it spiraled out of my mouth.

I was freezing, but it was better than staying inside where Maggie could get hold of me and slobber her kisses all over my fur, or where Iris could trap me into that stupid cat bag and forcibly clip my claws. Her manicures always left me with stubby nails the next day. And nobody but nobody was going to ruin the French manicure that I'd just paid fifty bucks for down at the local salon.

As I rounded the gazebo near the path leading to Birchwater Pond, a movement from within the trees alerted me, and I paused midstep, listening. The noise repeated itself: a ruffling of leaves, the snapping of brittle twigs on the forest floor. Oh great Bast… please don't let it be Speedo, the neighbor's dog. That little pisser was the most tenacious basset hound I'd ever met. The only basset hound I'd ever met, to be honest. He delighted in chasing me whenever I showed up on all fours, baying like a drunken troglodyte. While I could easily outrun the mutt, I didn't trust him. Of course, to be fair, he wasn't a Were, just a regular old dog. Probably a good thing, now that I thought about it, considering that he was shy a few bolts in the bucket, but still… I glanced around, looking for the nearest tall tree. It never hurt to be prepared.

When Speedo didn't break through the undergrowth but the noises continued, I reconsidered. Possum, maybe. Or skunk. Skunk would be bad, but this time I'd fight my instincts and leave it alone. Skunk me once, shame on the skunk. Skunk me twice, and I'd be the butt of my sisters' jokes for weeks.

As I searched my gut, something told me that my stalker wasn't an animal. At least not your everyday furble running through the woods. I might not be a witch like my sister Camille, but I had my own set of instincts, and they were whispering loud and clear that somebody was out there. I raised my head and sniffed, inhaling deeply. There. The faint scent of big cat, but behind that, something stronger. And then I knew what it was that I sensed: cat magic.

Cautiously, I made my way to the gazebo and loped up the stairs. I didn't want to be caught in the grass unarmed. There wasn't much I could do in this state if a demon happened to pop out of the woods to attack me. Turn into a ball of fur and razor blades, maybe, but considering my size, fighting back promised a quick and painful end to my existence. Once I was in the gazebo, I'd be able to scramble up on the railing, which would give me a better vantage point from which to observe.

I lowered myself into a pouncing position and wiggled my butt, preparing for the pounce and leap, but as I sailed into the air toward the third step, my big old fluffy tail decided to play tease and tickle with a patch of spiny cockleburs that were growing near the edge of the gazebo. Oh shit! I thought as I went thudding to the ground, belly first, feet splayed out like some cartoon cat from Tweety and Sylvester.

I blinked as my dignity took a direct hit. As I shook my head and pushed myself to all four feet, I found-much to my dismay-that the tufts of my tail fur were knotted up in the prickly plants. I let out a little growl of frustration. Why did I have to have such long fur? Granted, I was the prettiest golden tabby around, but sometimes looks were overrated. I tugged, trying to free myself, but no luck. The fur was stuck and not coming loose.

An insect that hadn't bitten the dust during the cold snap buzzed around my head, and I twitched my ears, resisting the urge to bat at it. Nope, leave it alone, I thought. I've got bigger concerns than a flutterbug. Like getting loose from this fucking plant. When I was in cat form, it was always harder to control my urges. Beetles distracted me, and spiders… leaves flying in the wind, a dandelion going to seed… oh yeah, I was a sucker for anything that promised to offer a good chase.

I tugged again, but a sharp pain at the base of my tail told me that maybe that wasn't the best idea in the world. Now what? I couldn't transform back while the moon was full, not until morning. And with Camille off racing with the Hunt as it streaked through the night woods, and Menolly in town at a Vamps Anonymous meeting, my family sure wasn't going to come to my rescue.

With a little huff, I tried again and almost ripped out a wad of fur. Well, shit. Frustrated, I crouched, trying to avoid getting any more entangled than I already was. This night was just getting better and better.

First, I had to miss my late-night fix of trash TV, and a night without Jerry Springer was a night without a chance to force Menolly to sit and visit with me. We did our nails, I ate tons of popcorn, and we gossiped about Camille and her lovers until it was time for Menolly to go to work.

And then I'd been all set to take out a mouse that was gnawing at Camille's comfrey plant. I had the rodent down,, under my paw, when she began spieling out a sob story about a litter of munchkins at home. Camille always said I was too softhearted, and I guess she was right. I let the mouse go, albeit with a grumpy "Get out of here before you're toast."

My sisters didn't know that I could talk to animals when I was in my Were form. This was my own special world, one they couldn't enter. Camille had her connection with the Moon Mother, and Menolly had her bloodlusts… although that was a rather recent addition to her life-the Elwing Blood Clan had turned her into a vampire against her will. It wasn't like she'd asked to be turned into a bloodsucker. But all my life, I'd kept my ability a secret. It was all mine, and I didn't feel like sharing.

After the mouse ran off, I stopped to groom, and damned if I didn't find that I'd picked up a thriving patch of fleas. Now I'd need a flea dip or some Advantage, and both clashed with my tea rose perfume and left me with dry skin and a mild rash.

Which brought me to the present: host to a flea circus, stuck to a cocklebur plant, with an unknown intruder watching me from the woods who was packing a butt load of cat magic. We were having some big fun now! Big whoop. It pissed me off that a lot of people assumed that all of us Weres spent the nights of the full moon partying hearty and getting down with our bad selves. If this was party central, give me a good book and a mug of hot milk any day.

Another crackle from the woods caught my attention. Whatever I was going to do, I'd better get on with it. I gingerly tested the burrs again. Nope, the prickly heads were holding me prisoner. It would hurt like a son of a bitch, but I'd have to yank myself free. I couldn't risk hoping whoever was lurking in the woods was friendly. I closed my eyes, steeling myself for the rip, when a noise to my left startled me. Nerves jangled, I whipped around.

There, illuminated in the light of the moon, sat the mouse that I'd released. She rose up on her hindquarters, her nose and whiskers twitching as she stared at me. I swallowed every instinct in the world urging me to bat her a good one and tried to exert a pleasant, how-you-doin' smile.

"You need help?" she squeaked.

"What do you think? Do I look like I need help?" I said.

She gave me a pained look. "I don't have time for this. My children are hungry. Do you need help, or don't you?"

Oh Great Mother, the gods save me now. It was bad enough I'd been softhearted enough to let her go, but to be forced into accepting a favor from an entree? "Beggars can't be choosers, I guess," I muttered, ego shot to hell.

A twinkle raced through her eyes, and she tittered and puffed up her chest. "Say it, then."

"Say what?"

"Mice rule, cats drool."

I huffed. "What? You expect me to-wait!"

She turned tail at my outburst and was sauntering off.

"Come back. Please!"

"You going to say it?" she asked over her shoulder.

I squirmed. With no choice, I hung my head and hoped to hell nobody ever caught wind of this. "Mice rule, cats drool." That was it. Utter humiliation. My night was complete.

She sniffed, satisfied, then slowly examined my tail. A nibble here, a nibble there, and she broke through the twigs attached to the cockleburs entangled in my fur. I swished my tail back and forth. The weight of the burrs threw off my balance a little, but I was free, and that's all that mattered. I grudgingly thanked the mouse as she skittered away.

Another shuffle from the woods, and I made tracks, too. I had the suspicion there might be a Were hiding in the forest, but I also knew some demons had the ability to use cat magic, so I wasn't about to count on whatever was stalking me to be feline-friendly.
Taking a deep breath, I loped across the lawn toward the house.

The back door on the porch was locked, but I'd installed a cat door. Camille had warded it to match my aura, so the alarms would be set off by anybody who crept through except me.

Once inside the enclosed back porch, I scratched at the kitchen door until Iris opened it. She picked me up and chucked me under the chin, and I gave in without a fight. Iris loved cats and treated me like her personal puss. The Talonhaltija was short and stocky, milkmaid pretty, with a smile that would melt a glacier. She'd been bound to a family in Finland until they all died out, and then the house sprite joined the OIA-the Otherworld Intelligence Agency-for which my sisters and I worked. They assigned her to remain Earthside as our assistant.

At first, she just worked in Camille's store, but after a nasty encounter with the demon Bad Ass Luke, Iris moved in with us. She took care of the house and helped us out when we needed it.
It was kind of like having our favorite aunt around.

"Poor puss. You have a rough night?" she asked, examining my fur. "What do we have here? A tail full of stickers? And fleas?" She wrinkled her nose. "What have you been doing, girl? Come on, Delilah, we'd better get you cleaned up. I'll have to cut these burrs out before you shift back, but I think you'll still end up with one seriously sore ass."

I squirmed, wanting to tell her about the presence I'd felt, but she couldn't understand me. I could hear and understand both the Fae and humans while in Were form, but we hadn't been able to figure out a way to make the communication a two-way street.

As she carried me over to the counter and held up the scissors, I quieted down. As long as she didn't try to clip my claws, she could pamper me all she wanted. When Camille or Menolly returned, they might be able to pick up a bead on whatever it was I'd been sensing and do something about it before the magical signature faded away.