Like I told my reader’s group, shit’s going down in supernatural town. Are you ready to dive inside Jinx’s past?
“As in tail? Scales? What are we talking here?” Rex asks, his body stiff. He’s the first one to break the silence as we stare at a flustered Chloe. She began pacing the moment the words left her lips.
Chloe runs a hand through her hair and yanks on the ends. It’s moments like this where I’m glad I don’t have hair to yank. It looks painful. I learned a long time ago when it’s appropriate to panic, and when it’s not. Until we know for certain, I plan to keep a level head.
Chloe scuffs the wood floor. “I don’t know. I mean, you should have seen her with Pinky. It’s hard to catch her scent in the barn, but I managed to get a good whiff, you know?” She pauses mid-stride and rubs the back of her neck.
“Pinky?” Cinder chirps. “What happened with Pinky?”
“She almost touched him.”
A beat of silence, and Cinder’s tone lowers to a dangerous hush that slithers between clenched teeth. “And he let her?”
She turns, sucks in her top lip, and nods. “You should have seen it Cinder. I would have never guessed that horse had it in him. It’s like they bonded upon look. A silent communication.” She pauses and throws a hand in the air. “Have you noticed anything about her?”
Cinder’s face scrunches and my neck begins to ache, swiveling back and forth between the two. “No.”
“Nothing?” she asks, thick with skepticism. “Scent, abilities? Nothing?”
He mirrors the tugging of Chloe’s hair and yanks on his own short strands. “No. I’m mostly behind the bar and all I smell back here is the bite of a hundred liquors.”
I slightly recoil. Wolf shifters have extremely sensitive senses. I can’t imagine this job is the dream, but it does help the pack’s budget. Cinder was bold enough to say he’d run it, so the bar was put under his name. To this day, I’m shocked the place hasn’t burned down due to flaming belly shots. Is that even a thing?
Rex leans forward, catching Cinder’s eyes. “Is she here? Now?”
I answer for Cinder who’s searching his brain for anything off about the woman. “She just went upstairs. I saw her myself.”
Something about the darkening of Rex’s face sets my wolf on edge. He chomps inside me, a warning, and I frown.
“Her scent. . .” Rex begins.
“We’ve established she has an off scent, Rex,” I growl, pleasing my wolf even though my irritation is for different reasonings than his.
He looks at me before averting his gaze. Dominance is power, and he and his wolf recognize mine. He lowers his tone. “It’s the same scent that we picked up at the scene. It was faint there, but here it’s stronger. She’s the one.”
Cinder laughs. “Have you met her, Rex? She’s a tiny thing. I’d wager she couldn’t flick a fly across the room let alone blow someone’s head off. What do you think? That she walks around with a bazooka tucked in her underwear?”
Aaron ignores Cinder defensive attitude and searches for reason and logic. “So let me get this straight.” We turn to him and his gesturing hands, ticking off his fingers. “We have one non-human woman who can blow heads off shoulders, and we have one headless man who also isn’t human, with a freakish ability to not feel pain. A hunter, is that what you said, Jacob?”
I nod once and cross my arms, nestling them below my pecks. “I can’t pronounce their real name.” Nothing could be more true or embarrassing.
“Right.” Aaron wipes invisible crumbs from the bar top, to the floor. “So an ancient hunter that seeks supernatural spirits and beings.”
When he puts his own version of perspective on it, it makes it less terrifying, knowing that the puzzle fits together so perfectly. Aaron would have made a good beta – he’s levelheaded and smart, but Rex beat him to the challenge years ago.
Rex arches his back, stretching. “You think the Onmyoji was hunting her?” I humph at his perfect pronunciation. His eyes cast a faraway look, like he’s stepping into the crime scene miles from here with just a flick of imagination. “Would make sense.”
“The question is, what is she?” I mumble, more to myself than to the pack. “And do we need to neutralize her?”
Erin huffs and crosses his arms. “How do you take out someone who blows people up in their spare time?”
Cinder runs a hand over his scalp and the towel, which drapes over his shoulder, falls to the ground. “You guys don’t know her like I do. She’s not a threat.”
“I don’t think Jinx walks around blowing people up,” Chloe chimes in, sliding into a stool. She seems more calm and collected now that we believe her. “It has to be what Rex said. Self defense.”
“She’s quiet and guarded, but she’s not a murderer.” Cinder glares at me, willing me to believe him. I resist the urge to lean over the counter and smack the back of his head. No one glares at me.
Instead, I search his eyes for the meaning of such protectiveness. “Are you sleeping with her?” The thought disgusts me, and my wolf’s hackles raise, peppering my own skin in gooseflesh. It’s not that I find Jinx repulsive. It’s quite the opposite, even with my wolf. Cinder’s not the only one feeling protective this evening. If I had to guess, I’d say my wolf has a thing for this dangerous woman he’s never met. “It’s against the rules for you to be having a relationship outside of the packs.”
“Woah, woah, woah.” Cinder holds up his hands, palms out. “I may flirt with her,” my wolf’s growl lowers. “But I’ve never laid a hand on her.” He scowls. “Is that what you all think of me? That I keep women around to get laid?”
The pack exchanges looks and a chorus of “yeah,” fills the room.
“Assholes,” Cinder mumbles. He snatches Aaron’s half-full mug from his grasp. Aaron chuckles instead of protests, and Cinder slowly dumps it down the drain, daring him to challenge it.
“Let’s get back to the point here.” I turn to Chloe. “What else do you know? Did you witness anything else?”
Her eyebrows pull together. “Not anything inhuman, but she isn’t legal. She had no documents to apply for the job, and when I brought it up, she got scared.”
I swivel to Cinder. “And you?”
Puffing his cheeks, Cinder blows out a breath. “No. Guarded maybe. A drinking problem, maybe. She seems to lose track of time.” He raises a hand and scratches his chin. “I still can’t wrap my mind around this. Any ideas on what she is?”
I adjust the crossing of my arms, my dark skin shining in the bar’s dim lighting, and my biceps strain against the hems of my sleeves. “It’ll require research.”
Silent this entire time, Reese leans forward. “If they’re connected – the dead man and Jinx – I can research both. They have to be connected more than we think they are. How long has she been here?”
“Not long.” Cinder bends to the floor and snatches the towel. “She stumbled in here and basically took over my apartment. She has a way about her.”
Chloe snorts, loud and obnoxious. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen this side of Chloe. “You got that right. There’s no way I could have ignored her. It’d be like turning a puppy away from the doorsteps of my rescue. I reluctantly warmed to her. Even my wolf did.”
Cinder nods, confirming the same feelings.
“Not only does she blow people up,” Erin says with a sarcastic tone. “But our wolves are puddles in her hand.”
“So, she has a way with animals, then?” Reese ask rhetorically. I can practically see the wheels turning in her head. “Interesting. That’ll help narrow it down.”
“Irene has that witch friend,” Cinder says and re-drapes the towel. “Maybe she can do some research, too. That shop of hers, Lunaire, has to have something in it.”
I bite my bottom lip, briefly. My wolf nudges me, urging me to voice my thoughts. He thinks we’re on the right track, as long as we don’t plan to kill Jinx. Dumb animal. Seconds with the woman and he’s melted into a puppy. She definitely has a way about her if she can get to my wolf without even trying. “Irene took over the shop. Katriane has other matters to attend to.”
“Like what?” Chloe asks, curling her top lip. She’s not a fan of witches. I pucker my lips. Now that I think about it, I don’t know why she doesn’t like them. Someday I’ll have to sit down and ask about this strange phobia of hers.
I shrug. “I didn’t ask.” I look to Reese. “Connect with Irene and pour over the books.”
She nods and clutches her book a little tighter, eager to get started. I’m not shocked she brought literature into a bar. Not at all.
“In the meantime,” I raise my voice to the whole group, placing an Alpha order. “No one tip her off. It may be best to trail her, but don’t get too close. I get the feeling she’s no match for an individual shifter.”
Rex raises a hand slightly. “I can do it.”
“No.” The word was automatic and not open for discussion. “I’ll do it.” My wolf rumbles in agreement. I doubt he would let me rest easy if this mission were placed in someone else’s hand.
The group quiets enough so that I can clearly hear the buzzing of gnats. Cinder’s face spreads in a slow smile. “Does Alpha Man have a crush?” I growl, and he holds up his hands again and attempts to take a step back but knocks into the counter instead. Several bottles teeter and clink against each other. “Hey – it was just an observation. Satan himself could have seen your far-away ogling eyes, perched on his throne next to the flaming pits of hell.”
“There is no Satan,” Reese blurts.
I sigh. Here we go…
Months ago, after the battle of rogues, Irene relayed information from her witch friend about the Fee. Since then, Reese has been obsessed with the realms and beyond. She spends her free time finding what little research she can about it.
“His name is Kheelan, and he’s an asshole.” She nods, curt.
I lick my bottom lip, ready for a retort, but Rex beats me to it. “No Haedes? That’s disappointing.”
Her arm quickly thrusts out and she smack’s Rex with the book that she had placed in her lap moments ago. His oof is muffled by his laughter. Even in the face of the danger sleeping just upstairs, my pack manages to make jokes. I’ll never understand it, but clearly they’re comfortable with the idea that she may not be a threat.
My wolf nods his agreement. I’d be lying to myself if I didn’t acknowledge the brief moment of attraction I had with Jinx, but I don’t do crushes. I never have, and I don’t plan to any time in the future. My mate is out there, and when she comes, I’ll worry about crushes then.
I tense when my wolf growls at my thoughts of finding a mate instead of claiming the woman on the floor above our heads. His infatuation with Jinx is concerning.
She’s not a wolf, I chide him. She’s not your mate. She’s not your claim. Back off.
I crack my neck and roll my shoulders. “Reese, I expect a report by tomorrow night.”
Shoveling Pinky’s stall, I throw the manure a bit too hard and it thuds into the wheelbarrow parked outside the stall door. Upon my arrival to the rescue, Mrs. Seiman’s was already sitting in the small waiting room with Poe at her ankles. She proceeded to glare and watch me until I disappeared down the hallway. She wasn’t even hiding her unwarranted hatred – her curled top lip still haunts me. As if I didn’t have enough going on to deal with her unwarranted scrutiny.
Pinky, who I managed to get into the next stall without touching him, watches me clean his shit box. That’s what I’ve dubbed it anyway. To be fair, he was all too willing to move stalls, and to be even more fair, if I were a horse I’d do the same.
Actually, he was all too willing to obey. I don’t know if that’s normal for him, but he seems to be doing alright under my command. At least someone’s happy to see me this morning.
Scooping the last bit, I swat at a fly and grab the handles of the wheelbarrow with sweaty palms. The contraption moves with ease and I make my way out of the barn to the small designated pile outside. With a bit of muscle, I dump the barrel and lean back, arching my spine to relieve the ache settling there.
I was right last night – I am sore this morning. Maybe I should be doing more than the physical labor of caring for equines. Jogging perhaps. The smell of the trees outside Cinder’s bar has its appeal. A mystical quality almost. To smell the pine, wet soil, fresh air . . . to see the critters that live within scurry at my pounding feet. Just thinking about it calms me. Perhaps I’ll try that this evening. Maybe then I could stop thinking about last nights news. After the anchor dropped that bomb on me, I had barely been able to sleep, and I’ve spent much of my day desperately trying to keep it from my thoughts. I’d ponder about it tonight, instead.
I lean the barrel against the side of the building and walk back in. Dot whinnies to me, knowing what’s coming next. I head to the grain bins, grab the large blue scoop within, and dip out her portion. As I approach her stall, she lowers her head inside her bucket before the grain can be poured, forcing me to grip her jaw and pull her head out. I drop the grain inside and Buck nickers his impatience. I cluck to him and fill his bucket next.
Scooping another portion, I turn to Pinky and freeze. His gaze is set on me, content to watch my every move. His muzzle twitches and he blinks slow, waiting for what I’ll do next.
With slow steps, and a deep breath, I shuffle to him, curious, yet again, about the connection this horse has with me.
Absentmindedly, I pinch the grain, palm it, and stop in front of the gate to his borrowed stall. He reaches forward, carefully measured movements, as though he’s trying not to scare me off. I flatten my palm, the pinch of grain forming to my hand, and meet his muzzle half-way.
Our eyes lock, the depths of the glass blue galaxy within once again hypnotizing me. I feel my mind being sucked in, honed, captivated. A mental bridge presents itself, like self-building electric wires, casting his emotions into mine until they’re blended and mingled.
Eat, I think to him, knowing he has no untoward feelings about me.
The mental wires pulsate with my command and he closes the small distance between us. His soft pink muzzle brushes my palm with a feather touch and a shock wave jolts through the connection. A snapping into place. An internal bondage.
The grain trickles to the ground like heavy rain drops as a memory floods my vision. It takes a moment or two for the vision to sharpen enough to focus on what I’m seeing.
Otherworldly trees where the leaf veins sparkle a deep purple under a pale light. Large grassy hills and scooped slopes. Ancient structures built of a pale salmon-colored stone, the color not existing in this world. Despite its age, and the red vines that overrun the village like unmoving snakes, the stone stands strong.
Home is what I feel, a belonging, like I recognize the area. It’s as though I’m hovering in the air, taking in the landscape by flight.
The memory changes to a cave wall with etchings marked along the dark rock – a five-point star with a triangle tucked between the top point and the left point. The color of the lines are a deep purple and only visible by the flecks of sparkles.
A voice echoes within the memory, the owner of the deep voice standing right behind me.
He speaks with an accent, deep and devilish, yet I feel comforted by it. “It’s the five elements, young Wisp. Metals, soils, water, fire, wood, and the last floating triangle is life, often forgotten by those who have one.”
“Life?” My own voice asks in the memory, a rhetorical question.
“Indeed. It is your fate, my daughter’s fate, to do great things with life.”
I grin. “Just like you?”
“Just like me.”
Memory me turns at the sound of hooves against hard stone. Pinky leisurely walks in to the cave’s entrance.
Beyond him is a thick patch of woods where no light enters through the branch canopies. At the tree line, a short human-shaped woman tucks herself against a tree trunk, her hands fumbling along the bark while her knees remain bent and ready to flee. Her hair is white as snow, feather-like, while her skin is the darkest of blacks and coated with multi-colored, tiny stars. She blends well with the dark green leaves and their sparkling purple veins. A slight breeze blows her hair from her shoulder, and I watch as she leans forward, scenting the air.
“See?” the voice whispers over my shoulder and I have a sudden urge to turn and look at him. “Life clings to you. Even the Shadow people dare to get close enough and observe you. A moment of rare rational curiosity, indeed.”
I tilt my head. “And the Whisperers? Won’t they hurt her if she remains manifested?”
A beat of silence. I nod, remembering that he doesn’t like it when I call them by what they are – murderers at the hand of Choice. Originated from here, the Divine Realm, they can, and do, cross the realms and whisper doubts, steering subjects and creatures from their destined fate mapped by Fate himself, my father. They start wars and steal peace like thieves in the night, directed by Choice.
The Shadow people are their opposites, yet rightful enemy. A touch of a Shadow quiets the Whisper, but steals the life of the Shadow while doing so.
Choice is strong, yet Fate’s opposite.
The voice, Fate, continues. “They travel by strong winds, my daughter. Do not fear them more than you should. Fear gives the enemy power.”
My head bobbles, reciting what he’s told me over and over again. “Where there is a friend, there is a foe.”
He chuckles. “Correct. For Fate to have any meaning, there must be Choice.”
I wrinkle my nose. “Choice can go to hell.”
He makes a clicking noise, quiet to not frighten the shadow woman. “One cannot exist without the other. Where there is something good, there will always be something bad. It is the way of the Realms. We may not agree with Choice, but he is necessary. A hierarchy is needed. He is needed.”
“I know,” I say, my voice weak and cracking.
The star-riddled woman’s head turns, quick like a bird, and she fades to nothing but a transparent silhouette of what she once was – a shadow who disappears into the dark trees.
“Quick,” he urges. “Your soul! Hide it! Hide your Qilin!”
Memory me lowers my eyes to my wrist, seeing the same star and floating triangle that’s on the wall tattooed to my skin. My index finger presses the space in the middle of the star and I lift my eyes back to Pinky just in time to see the rest of his body fade to tiny specks. The specks gather and roll like it’s its own energy. The specks float my direction, aiming for my wrist and disappear under the skin of my star’s tattoo. When each speck is gone, the black ink glows gold.
A large gust of wind blows in the cave, voices of a thousand screams, and I yank back from the memory.
My inner wrist burns like a hot coal stuck to skin. I pull back my hand, grasping my wrist with firm fingers. A hiss escapes me and I groan in pain. Turning my arm, I glimpse at the reasoning, catching the last etch of a tattoo forming. If it was there in the past – in my memories – why is it only now showing?
I lift my gaze to Pinky and as soon as my eyes meet his, all of my memories return in a rush of consuming waves. My body turning to mist. Pinky, my Qilin, is my soul. Choice, and his vengeful voices sending me here in a storm of dust.
“Fate is my father,” I say, airy. Pinky blinks. I gasp. “I know what I am.”
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