"Seriously?" he asked.
"Yes, that's my name," she insisted, looking quite cross.
"But that is such a porn-star name," he laughed. "Rosetta Stone. You sound like the most literate stripper in history – maybe you should dance on a pole at Harvard."
"Fuck off," she growled. She sprang off his rooftop balcony, landing with a heavy thump in the well-tended landscaping three stories below. She didn't need this kind of grief from one of his kind, and she wasn't about to stand there and take shit from a vampire. She didn't need his help that badly.
"Oh, come on now," he called after her. "You came here for a reason, so don't storm off and leave me in suspense. Rosetta? Come back here… After all, I'm sure it was a matter of life and death to bring a werewolf to my door three days before the full moon."
Rosetta froze, cringing to hear her secret echoing through the silent night, bouncing off the stone facades of every house in this ritzy old neighborhood. Vampires were such spiteful bastards. Why had she ever expected anything more out of this belligerent little stripling?
She stood there, debating her next move until the heavy evening dew soaked the bottom hems of her jeans and chilled her feet, even through her thick leather boots. She hated to admit it, but the bloodsucker was right. Only a matter of the utmost importance could drag her out here to talk to him, and no matter how passionately she hated him, she really could use his help. With a bitter sigh and an almost pleading glance toward the not-quite-full moon, she turned and stomped back toward the vampire's house. She could only hope that the smug bastard wouldn't throw it in her face too badly, though she never expected his kind to behave in a civilized manner, at least not when werewolves were involved.
She paused on the walk and decided it would be faster to climb back up to the roof, rather than knock on the door and wander all the way back through his elaborate house, led by the eerily vacant human girl who had guided her earlier. It would be satisfying to grind mud into his expensive rugs, but she really just wanted to get this over with as quickly as possible and go home to wash off the stink.
She leapt with all of her grace and agility and rapidly scaled the exterior of the house. She tried to clear her mind as she climbed, focusing on the real threat that had brought her here in the first place, rather than on the scrawny, sad excuse for a monster that awaited her on his sissy little widow's walk.
By the hoary gods, Rosetta Stone hated vampires.
"So it must be a matter of life and death after all," the vampire needled in a disparaging tone. She stood slightly taller than he was, but he certainly seemed to think that he was superior. Rosetta tightened her jaw and folded her arms across her chest. With her chin stuck a little higher in the air than usual, she leaned back against the wrought iron railing behind her and leveled an icy glare toward her nemesis and potential ally.
No matter how hard she studied him, Rosetta couldn't find too many redeeming qualities in the creature standing opposite her, much less that fabled vampire glamour that was supposed to be so seductive and irresistible. Everything about him was cold. Cold and dead. Maybe he was technically beautiful on the surface in a fruity, Euro-trash sort of way, but once you peeled back that thin veneer, there was nothing underneath it but the cold, sucking emptiness of the grave. At least her kind was warm with living hearts pounding fiercely away within them. And to think that her pack had once served this vampire's maker. It was downright shameful.
"Perhaps we should start again," the vampire suggested with a demeaning shrug. "We've gotten off on the wrong foot. You are Rosetta Stone, a werewolf who has come to my house with some sort of trouble, and I am Clifton, from the line of Clement and the Great Mother, Edwina. Welcome to my home, humble though it may be," Clifton sniveled with a decidedly condescending half-bow.
Rosetta held her ground, refusing to even blink in acknowledgement. Like any of this claptrap impressed her. She didn't care about his wealth or his lineage. She didn't care about him, either, but they were alone in this town, and he was obviously too wrapped up in his wine cellar and socialite circles to notice what was really going on, leaving her little choice but to try to get through to him. She tried to stifle her snort of disgust at his thin-lipped smile and air of entitlement.
"So, as social niceties seem to be a bit beyond you, what brings you to my door on this dreary evening?" Clifton asked, still looking impossibly smug but perhaps ever so slightly uncomfortable.
"You don't have a clue, do you?" Rosetta snarled despite her intention to keep this conversation as civilized as was possible with a vampire involved. "I really didn't expect any better. You just sit here in your little castle, playing master of the universe with your human pawns, with no idea what's going on right underneath your upturned nose. I should probably just leave you here to die. We'd all be better off without you around."
"Brava!" Clifton sneered with mock applause. "How long have you been waiting to unload that bit of venom on me? I hope you feel better getting that off your chest, but I hate to inform you that it won't help a bit in swaying me to help you with whatever little spook has the pup shaking in her boots."
"At least I don't have my head in the sand. At least I'm going to stand and fight. What are you going to do? Run and hide behind Mommy's skirt and bustle?"
"My kind do not hide."
"Neither do mine, and we don't use other people as shields and cannon fodder, either," Rosetta spat, feeling a surge of preternatural strength pulse through her. She swallowed hard and clamped her jaws shut, hoping to keep the beast inside her at bay. She couldn't give him the satisfaction of watching her transform. Her pride could only tolerate so much humiliation.
"Just get to the point, lupus," Clifton hissed. "I have better ways to spend my night than standing out here in the cold and the damp with the likes of you."
"Right. I met your entrée on the way in. Does the pathetic little strumpet have any idea what you are, or are you just going to use her up and drink her dry without showing her what an empty little monster you really are?" Rosetta growled despite herself. She didn't truly feel sorry for the clueless human girl waiting inside, but even a vapid tramp deserved better than this.
"Honestly, I don't even know her name, but she'll serve her purpose soon enough," Clifton smirked.
"And then you'll plant her in your garden with the others?" Rosetta grimaced, wrinkling her nose. "I don't know how you live with the stench, and it's beyond stupid to bury your kills in your own backyard. If you get caught, it will be your head, and you should know that."
"Yes, yes…" Clifton dismissed. "But who is going to catch me? You? I would prefer not to get dirt under my nails at all, but since we turned you wolves loose, we don't have anyone left to clean up our table scraps, do we?"
"Smug little bastard!" Rosetta howled, lunging toward the disgusting buffoon. He stepped back just as quickly, but Rosetta was sure that for the briefest moment, he had looked frightened of her. She suddenly doubted that he would be useful as anything more than bait in a decent fight, and yet he had the nerve to treat her family as lowly pets. Maybe she should just kill him now and take her chances alone.
"Obviously, neither of us wants to be part of this conversation, so why don't you get to the point so that you can get out of my house and I can carry on with my evening's pursuits?" Clifton offered while keeping his safely increased distance.
"What's the point? I knew it was a mistake to come here, and I was right. I shouldn't have tried to talk reasonably to one of your kind. I'm better off alone in this fight," Rosetta grumbled, more to herself than to Clifton. She edged closer to the edge of the roof, eager to leap to freedom. The overwhelming despair of this vampire and his home was almost more than she could bear. Death was preferable to standing here for another moment, and at least she would die on her feet with her honor intact.
"Good luck, vampire. You might want to lay low for the next couple weeks. It's going to get scary out here when Balmalki shows up." Rosetta shrugged and pulled her collar tight to her neck, feeling a creeping, cloying cold gnawing at her at the mere mention of the demon's name. She wanted to be rid of this nightcrawling whelp and his rotting gardens. Let the demon have him – she certainly wouldn't mourn him. She poised herself to leap back to the ground, peeking over the edge to ensure she wasn't going to crush some oblivious human below.
Rosetta landed with a graceful, yet resounding thud in the soft, damp lawn below. Without a backward glance, she strode across the landscape until she reached the paved path that would take her back to the vampire's front gate and release her from this miserable place. She wanted to run, anything to break free from Clifton and the putrescence permeating his home, but she refused to give him the satisfaction of watching her flee with her tail between her legs, though she doubted that he would even bother enough to watch her leave.
Storming through the ornate gates, Rosetta burst onto the street, gasping for fresh air and almost plowing over several falsely elegant young humans on their way in. She thought about warning them about what truly awaited them in the depths of that stone mansion, but there was no point in exposing the vampire now. She expected that he would be dead soon enough, and she feared that she would be, too.
She dug her fists deep into the pockets of her leather jacket, hunched her shoulders, and quickened her pace. As much as she hated to admit it, that damned vampire had been her last resort, and she had no idea what to do now. She wished that she was still part of a pack because at least then she would be able to stand and face this looming menace with her own kind, but she was alone and all the wishes in the world wouldn't bring back her pack. They were dead or scattered to the wind, and that was that. She doubted that any of her remaining kin knew of her continued existence, and even if they did, they would never be able to find her in time to help.
Besides, what lunatic would willingly come here now? Any creature with an inkling of the supernatural in them had to know what was coming, and any such creature with a scrap of common sense would never choose to face Balmalki. Why bear the mark if you could escape it? She didn't want to be here right now, either, but this was her home, and there wasn't any realistic place for her to run. She might not know all that much about this demon, but at least she knew enough to know that merely running away wasn't going to solve the problem. She was marked. Clifton was marked. Balmalki was coming.
What the hell was Rosetta going to do about it?
She sighed heavily, watching the trail of exhaled steam rise into the chill night air and dissipate in the bare breeze. In hindsight, she wished she would have known about this whole demon thing a long time ago, so she would have had time to prepare for it, or perhaps even time to make her escape, but there wasn't anything that she could do about that now. All she could do was spend the next seven days racking her brains to figure something out. Knowing that the vampire was as useless as she expected him to be simplified her plans a bit, though it did leave her to stand alone. She wasn't quite willing to give up all together, but she was starting to feel the walls closing in around her, and the final outcome was starting to look inevitable.
How was she supposed to know about leylines and convergences and ancient badasses that slept beneath her feet? This town felt so normal on the surface, and it's not like the place had come with a user's manual. She was sure that there was nothing in the little historical society museum that mentioned that this spot was practically the gatehouse to hell. She snorted at the thought of the humans learning that their quaint little town was built over the tomb of a demon that even immortals feared, and that they were all marked as sacrificial tributes when it woke up next week. She had toyed with telling them on several occasions in the last couple weeks, but she had never managed to build up the nerve to reveal all of her secrets to the human world. Never mind that it was against generations of admonitions and vows taken under the pain of death to tell humans about all of the things that went bump in the night; Rosetta was far more worried that the humans would turn their armies against her for being a werewolf, rather than saving their firepower to use against Balmalki. After all, she expected even less understanding from humans than she did from vampires.
No matter how she looked at it, Rosetta was alone and pretty much screwed. She shook her head and exhaled another maudlin sigh. She slowed her pace and willed her mind to go blank because she just wanted to walk in silence for a little while. If this really was destined to be one of her last nights on earth, she thought she deserved a few minutes of peace and quiet.
She paid little attention as she strode past darkened storefronts, dimly lit bars, and the small park adjacent to the town's main square. She ignored the thumping music emanating from the passing cars and the idle, oblivious chatter of the humans milling on the sidewalks, huddled together to smoke their cigarettes in the chill evening. She barely noticed as she escaped the occupied parts of town, passing from the business district into residential neighborhoods and finally reaching the looming warehouses and vast parking lots that flanked the railyard on the outside edge of town. She absently thought about continuing through the fields littered with the untilled remnants of last year's corn until she reached the relative comfort of the wooded wilds further out, but that would leave her a long way from the security of home, and might even tempt her to run away from this place.
But Rosetta couldn't run. No matter how far she might flee, Balmalki would find her, and she would always know that her last act in this life was to lead a bloodthirsty demon to countless new victims and conquests. Maybe a vampire would do that to save his own neck, but Rosetta wouldn't. Her honor wouldn't allow such a depraved act of cowardice. No. Rosetta was trapped here. She was marked by the mere coincidence of her presence in this town, so she would face this ancient beastie, no matter how hopeless the odds or how dire the consequences. At least she would die an honorable death. She would be mangled, flayed, and devoured by an heir to hell, but she would be a noble nosh.
With a grim smile, Rosetta blinked and discovered that she had indeed turned away from the freedom of the forest beyond the outskirts of town, and instead had circled back into the oldest part of the original settlement, a tree-lined boulevard in a neighborhood very close to where Clifton and his ilk resided. At least the air was fresh and fragrant here with no corpses rotting underfoot to foul the clean breeze. She would miss places like this the most, cozy and inviting with evidence of so much life surrounding her.
Rosetta almost broke stride when she suddenly noticed that perhaps there was a bit too much life around her this evening. Nothing quite like dwelling on the end of the world to blind her to the human clumsily shadowing her every step. She covertly attuned her senses toward her stalker, not surprised to observe that he was young and nervous, based on the frantic pounding of his heart and the cloud of clammy sweat announcing his presence on the wind.
A meaningless roll in the hay with some over-stimulated mortal might be a nice distraction, though it really wouldn't be of any help in the grand scheme of what was coming. Of course, since nothing was going to be of any help against Balmalki, she might as well have a little bit of fun before everyone and everything around her was destroyed, right?
She slowed her pace a notch to ensure that he would be able to keep up with her, and she led him around a corner and down a gently winding drive to a small park full of old, gnarled shade trees covered in buds and fresh new leaves. Before she had the chance to wonder if he would follow her into the seclusion of the empty park, she heard him trip over a loose stone in the path and stagger into an overgrown hedge near the entrance, hissing obscenities under his breath. While he was distracted, she melted into the shadows to wait for him.
She watched the path before her with bright eyes, feeling her pulse quickening. Leave it to the impending full moon to bring out every animal instinct she had, despite whatever worldly concerns might be weighing on her mind. Eat, fuck, play, fight – her primal instincts were so clean and simple, and there was a natural joy in such a streamlined existence. That was one of her favorite things about being a werewolf, and she would probably miss this quirk the most, but that forlorn thought was pushed out of her mind as her hapless query walked obliviously into range.
She sprang from the shadows and swept him off the path, pinning him against the raspy bark of one of the largest trees in the middle of the park. She smiled at the soft little sound he made, something between a gasp and a whimper that only stirred her more. She hoped he would struggle a bit before yielding to her because that always got her juices flowing. Face to face, he was cute in a nerdy, innocent sort of way – not exactly the rough and tumble type who was usually willing to follow her into a dark and lonely place in the middle of the night, but he would do just fine. She pressed in tight against him, binding him with a fierce, predatory gaze that accented the feral beauty of her sharp features. It was enough to take most men's breath away and bend them to her will immediately, but Rosetta could only arch one eyebrow in confusion as she witnessed her newest conquest blink several times, clear his throat, and awkwardly extend his hand in the cramped space between them in an attempt to shake her hand.
Rosetta immediately decided that she truly and genuinely hated absolutely everything about the apocalypse.
She felt her shoulders roll forward in a crestfallen slump as she relaxed her grip on the young man's jacket and tipped her hips away from him. The Fates had a rotten sense of humor if they wouldn't even grant her this one little distraction amid all of her other troubles.
"Miss Stone, it's really an honor to meet you," the human offered in a dry croak. He cleared his throat again and continued, "I'm sorry to follow you out here and give you the wrong idea, but it was the only way for me to find you. I'm here to help."
Rosetta could only close her eyes and shake her head as she pushed away from the tree and let the young man go free. Help her? A lousy little human was here to help her?
"What the fuck…?" Rosetta grumbled under her breath as she folded her arms across her chest and opened her eyes to find the nervous, earnest look on the kid's face unchanged. She wasn't sure that she wanted to have the rest of this conversation, but a nagging little voice in her head convinced her that it couldn't hurt. As she seemed to have hit absolute rock bottom this evening, nothing less than a hail of silver bullets could make things all that much worse.
"How do you know my name?" Rosetta asked, keeping her arms folded across her chest until the human finally withdrew his proffered hand with a sheepish smile.
"I'm a fan," he replied with an enthusiasm that cleared any hint of trepidation from his voice.
"A fan?" Rosetta parroted skeptically. She could feel an incredulous, dead-eyed slack settling on her face, but she really didn't care.
"Oh, yes," he nodded eagerly. "The only reason I came back to Remington after college was because of you. I mean, this town doesn't really have much to offer, except for you and that arrogant prick of a vampire." He stopped short and eyed Rosetta nervously. "You're not friends with him, are you?"
"Hell no, and he is an arrogant prick," Rosetta snorted. "But never mind that. How do you know about us? You're just a human, right?"
"Just a human? Well, yeah, I suppose so. But that doesn't mean that I don't know stuff."
"What kind of stuff? And who are you, anyway?"
"Oh, sorry. I guess I should introduce myself… Noah Wycksham, at your service. And I like to think that I know all kinds of stuff – useful stuff." He offered his hand again.
"Because you're a fan, right?" Rosetta sighed as she gingerly reached out to shake hands with possibly the strangest humans she had ever met.
"Other way around – I'm a fan because I know stuff. It runs in my family."
"Sorry, I don't recognize the name."
"Not many do. We've been in Remington since the beginning, but we're not upper crust, so no one pays us much attention – or at least, they don't pay attention to us until old wicked things start to stir, and then everyone's interested in what 'Batty Wycks' has to say," Noah said with a mix of pride and scorn in his voice.
"You do know some things…" Rosetta said with genuine interest. "So what sort of human knowingly and willingly follows a werewolf into a dark and secluded place in the middle of the night to offer his help when a big, bad demon rises from the grave next week to devour us all?"
"The kind of human who has one of these," Noah replied with a crooked smile, fishing inside his battered olive drab trench coat until he retrieved a large pendant, which he dangled in front of Rosetta's widening eyes. At first glance, it was a sizeable but otherwise unremarkable smooth stone suspended precariously from a very old wire wrapping, muddled black and not the sort of necklace that anyone with taste would wear. But then a hint of moonlight filtered through the branches above them, setting the stone ablaze with a deep, inner fire in dangerous shades of scarlet and gold. Even though Rosetta had never laid eyes on such a stone in all of her many years, she knew immediately what Noah held in his mortal hands.
"Is that a Dragonite?" Rosetta breathed, unable to tear her eyes away from the unearthly flames dancing within the heart of the stone.
"It is, and a rather formidable one at that. You have a good eye, Miss Stone. That's why I want to help you," Noah replied.
"Where did you get it?" Rosetta whispered, fighting the urge to touch the arcane thing, her hand frozen close to her body as though afraid to be scorched if she reached for it.
"Family heirloom. The story goes that my great-great-great-great-grandfather collected it somewhere in the Carpathians."
"Your kin are dragonslayers?" Rosetta asked, finally able to rip her attention away from that mesmerizing stone. Noah looked a bit lanky to be a dragonslayer, but as Rosetta had never met one in the flesh, she really had nothing but her own preconceptions as a judge.
"That's the story, according to my grandfather, but there's no way to tell for sure," Noah replied with a shrug.
"So what are you, then?"
"We're collectors, occultists, historians, librarians – whatever. We do a little of this and a little of that and gather up interesting stuff along the way, though most people think we're crazy when we start talking about relics, demons, magic spells, and such."
"You're Keepers, aren't you?" Rosetta asked, peering at Noah with such keen interest that she backed him into the tree again.
"Yes, but most people think we're just kooks."
"This little town is full of surprises…" Rosetta mused, feeling her mood lift slightly for the first time in weeks. As the moonlight traced fiery arcs through the Dragonite before her eyes, she felt a genuine smile play across her lips. "Noah?"
"Yes, Miss Stone?" he replied.
"First, you have to stop calling me that. It's just Rosetta."
"Yes, Rosetta?" Noah corrected with a hopeful hint of a smile.
"How much do you know about Dragonite?"
"Probably just enough to be incredibly dangerous."
"Come on," Rosetta commanded, still not entirely able to stop staring at the marvelous treasure. "We should continue this conversation in privacy. And as much as I hate to say it, you should put the bauble away. It's too precious to wave around in a public place."
"As you wish, Rosetta," Noah nodded, a broad smile spreading across his face. "Wouldn't it be safer in your keeping? I am just a human, after all." He offered the pendant to her, swinging the stone very close to her slightly extended hand. Noah's smile instantly melted from his face as Rosetta felt a renewed surge of power pulse through her. Her vision swam for a moment, then sharpened into predatory clarity. Her blood pounded hot through her veins, and she jerked away from the Dragonite before it transformed her any further. Every cell in her body teetered between human and wolf, even as the swirling relic threatened to tip the balance.
"Your eyes…" Noah gasped, hurriedly recollecting the pendant and its chain and tucking his heirloom back into an inner pocket within his coat. "I saw it, didn't I? You were… changing, weren't you?"
"That's a powerful trinket you have there, Noah. Very powerful indeed. And I think it would be best if you hang on to it for now, don't you?" Rosetta murmured, relieved to feel the radiant heat of the thing fading away from her, even as her breathing returned to normal and the mortal film settled back over her senses. She was both encouraged and a little disconcerted to realize that the rumors of Dragonite's many powers and wonders might actually be true. She had so much to discuss with this human. "Where do you live?"
"Not far from here," Noah replied, vaguely gesturing toward the western edge of the park.
"Take me there. We need to talk," Rosetta declared simply, walking in the direction Noah indicated.
"So we're partners in this, then?" Noah asked as he scampered to keep pace with Rosetta.
"We'll see… Or I could just kill you when we get to your house and help myself to that Dragonite," Rosetta shrugged.
Noah paused and disappeared from Rosetta's side, then sighed loudly behind her and scurried to catch up again. "You don't really mean that, do you?"
"You're a very odd human," Rosetta offered as a non-answer.
Rosetta chuckled softly and smiled at the bright, waxing moon perched high in the sky above them. She and Noah walked in strangely comfortable silence the rest of the way through the old neighborhood, away from its stately, well-kept homes and into a more tumbledown part of the historical district. Rosetta couldn't remember ever exploring this particular street, which she found odd as she spent so many nights wandering this town that she felt sure that she had visited every possible inch of the place at one point or another. As they reached the end of the narrow lane, Noah made a quick gesture with his hand, unlatching a low gate without touching it, motioning for Rosetta to follow him. She paused for a moment at the threshold, feeling a strange tingling dance across her skin.
"I'm inviting you in, Miss Stone," Noah assured with a knowing nod. "There's an incantation around the property, but you may pass through it now. Welcome."
Rosetta couldn't explain it, but she trusted this human, despite her every instinct to the contrary. She supposed that it was merely necessity in these dire times, but there was something about the boy… She took a steadying breath and stepped through the gate, slipping through the unseen barrier and suddenly aware of the overwhelming presence of the Wycksham house. No wonder the place was protected by a magical shield. Without the spell, it would shine like an otherworldly beacon, calling every supernatural being within reach of it like moths to a flame.
"What all stuff do you have in there?" Rosetta asked as Noah led her down the winding walk, through the overgrown yard, and up the creaky steps onto the ramshackle porch.
"All kinds. We've been doing this for generations," Noah said with that twinkle of pride lighting his eyes again. "Come on in, and we'll figure out if any of it is useful against, well, whatever is coming back next week."
"Balmalki," Rosetta breathed as she followed Noah into the musty, dusty house.
"So that's his name…"
"Not really a 'he' so much as an 'it'. Demons that old don't have mush use for gender. Do you hear that?" Rosetta asked, scanning the shadows and cobwebbed corners for the source of the keening sound following them from the foyer, down the hallway, and into the parlor.
"No, but it's probably our ghost. She doesn't mind my family so much, but she's not very fond of outsiders. The last time a witch came here to help my dad translate something, she freaked out and the walls oozed for days."
"Yeah. At least you didn't have to clean it up. She probably won't follow us past the parlor, and she never goes upstairs. Do you want some tea or something?"
"Do I look like the tea drinking type?" Rosetta asked with a snort. "Do you have any beer in this place? Are you even old enough to drink?"
"I'm twenty-four," Noah replied indignantly, then he corrected, "almost." They turned a corner into the kitchen, and he retrieved two bottles of imported beer from the refrigerator. Handing one to Rosetta, he motioned for her to follow him up a narrow staircase snaking up the back wall. "The good stuff is up here."
Rosetta felt the hair on the back of her neck stand on end as she followed Noah up the stairs. The ghost's wailing faded behind them, though Rosetta all but forgot about the wandering spirit as she emerged into the great open space of the second floor, finding it packed with countless more arcane treasures than she could have wished for in her wildest dreams. She tried to mask her amazement, but Noah's stifled chuckle proved her failure.
The cavernous second story of the house had no walls to divide it into rooms, but instead massive shelves wedged from floor to ceiling where the walls had once been. Noah inched along in the dark, turning on small lamps and lighting a few candles and lanterns scattered among the shelves until the majority of the impressive storeroom was lit, though the heavy, dark wood all around them swallowed most of the light, leaving only a suitably dim glow.
"Most of what I've found out so far is on the table back there," Noah gestured, but Rosetta couldn't force her feet to move any faster than a lazy shuffle. Everywhere she looked, she discovered something fascinating. Orbs full of swirling clouds sat next to jeweled daggers and dusty wooden boxes filled with unknown relics beneath their ornate locks. Bones, rocks, scales, and shells were tucked in every available bit of space between helmets, icons dedicated to innumerable gods, and the mummified or pickled remains of creatures Rosetta had never seen before. Many of the shelves were stacked to buckling with books, their spines inscribed in every language ever spoken within magic circles and many of them bound in tanned demon skin. By the time she finally reached the reading area and sank into a leather armchair, Rosetta's mind was spinning.
"How has your family kept all of this a secret for so long? You have to be the most accomplished line of Keepers in centuries," Rosetta said, unable to suppress the wispy awe from her voice.
"Do you think so?" Noah asked. "I don't have any way to know the difference. This is just how things have always been. I think a lot of the stuff is useless now, since so many of the old gods are gone."
"Old gods have a nasty habit of coming back," Rosetta observed, twisting the cap off her beer.
"True enough," Noah grimaced. "And I guess that's why we keep this stuff. Based on what I've been able to find out about this Balmalki, I think the Dragonite is our best option."
"What do you know so far?" Rosetta asked, slouching back in her chair and propping her heavy boots up on the edge of the oaken library table in front of her.
"Dad told me about it a few years ago – before I left for college – but he didn't really know all that much, just that something really old and really bad slept under Remington, and that there was some sort of schedule for its return. Between the two of us, we pieced together the timeline, so we're sure that it will come back on the night after the end of the full moon, which should be next Tuesday." Noah indicated a complicated chart hanging on the wall behind him, covered in astrological diagrams and clippings of photocopied book pages.
"That's what it said in the letter," Rosetta confirmed with a grim nod.
"I'm sorry – you got a letter about this?" Noah asked incredulously. "From whom?"
"I was hoping it was from you, but I guess not. It's been about two, almost three months ago. I signed for a letter, and it was all about Balmalki rising to kill us all. I thought it was a prank at first, but I paid a visit to an oracle my pack used in the old days, and she confirmed it, but she wasn't a damn bit of help as far as what I could do to stop it. You're the first person who seems to have a clue about this."
"Do you happen to have that letter with you?"
"No. It's not signed, and there's not a word about how to stop Balmalki. Trust me. I've read it about a thousand times since it arrived."
"I'd still be interested to see it."
"I'll get it later. What else did you and your father find out?"
"We never found the true name of the demon, so I thank you for providing that information, but it's generally known as The Devourer or The Thane of Golden-vale, which gave us some basis to start looking…" Noah paused as he flipped three books open to marked pages and rifled through a battered notebook. "It seems that this Balmalki really doesn't do much of anything. It wakes up, eats, and goes back to sleep."
"What?" Rosetta asked flatly.
"See for yourself," Noah gestured toward the open books.
Rosetta leaned forward and glanced at the weathered pages, though she really had limited taste for scholarship. She skimmed through the text, gathering that Balmalki had quite a gruesome appetite, but even the carefully shaded and detailed etchings in the thickest of the three tomes gave no indication of a pending apocalypse.
"It's just hungry?" Rosetta muttered in disbelief. "No hell on earth, end of the world stuff – just an empty stomach?"
"You sound disappointed," Noah observed, giving Rosetta a quizzical look.
"No," Rosetta began, before reconsidering. "Well, yes. Yes, I am disappointed. That stupid fucking letter made it sound like the end of days, and the damnable Oracle played along with that, so I've been moping around, stewing about how to stop the end of the fucking world, and it turns out that we've just got a fat, lazy demon aristocrat with the goddamn munchies?" Rosetta's voice rose until she was almost shouting. "What the fuck? I'm marked for death for nothing more than bloody snack time? I even swallowed my pride and went to that fucking vampire's house to ask for his help, and for what? Stupid fucking Fates and their stupid fucking sense of humor…"
Rosetta clenched her fist and slammed her empty beer bottle down on the table hard enough to make the heavy books jump. The muscle along the side of her jaw worked frantically, and for the third time since sunset, she felt the wolf yearning to tear free. She relaxed her guard, eager to feel the rush of adrenaline and power coursing through her. If Balmalki dared to think that she would be an easy snack, the boorish old lump had another thing coming because not even Hell's own fury compared to the rage of a werewolf scorned.
"Um, Rosetta? Miss Stone?" Noah stammered, pushing his chair back from the table, his eyes wide. "Not to be disrespectful here, but would you mind not doing that right now? I mean, if you wouldn't mind staying in human form…"
Rosetta gazed at the young man, glad to see that he was finally showing a little bit of fear. It just wasn't natural for a human to be so comfortable around her, regardless of his family legacy.
"What's wrong, Noah? You said you were a fan," Rosetta purred, leaning across the corner of the table toward Noah and letting her human façade fade a bit more. "Aren't you just as eager to meet the real me?"
"Honestly, no," Noah admitted, stumbling to his feet and clutching a large book to his chest like a shield. "It's not the full moon yet, so I didn't think you would be able to... you know… Change."
"Surely I'm not the first werewolf you've met," Rosetta baited, slinking to her feet and edging closer.
"There was a professor at Oxford, but I left the country during the waxing moon. I don't think he was too pleased that I knew his secret, and I'm not sure what his intentions were…" Noah babbled, backing further away until he bumped into a bookshelf covering the window behind him.
"We don't much care for nosy humans meddling in our affairs. Our secret is only safe as long as it remains a secret," Rosetta continued, blocking Noah's escape route past her as she felt her cheekbones and jawline narrow and sharpen.
"We're Keepers, so keeping secrets is what we do best, so there's no worry about that. But that still doesn't explain how you're able to do that right now."
"Maybe you should have read a bit more about werewolves before you tracked me down, little Keeper. The full moon enhances my kind and brings out the full extent of our strength, but only a werewolf made by another relies on the full moon to change. I was born a wolf. I can change whenever it suits me. It's just letting the real me out to play, after all."
"I had no idea…"
"Or you would have thought twice about inviting me into your house?" Rosetta smiled, close enough to reach out and touch Noah's trembling body.
"Well, yes," Noah gulped.
"So you learned something tonight, something that you didn't pick up from your dusty old books," Rosetta concluded, tapping on the book pressed to Noah's chest. "Maybe you should be more careful to let your common sense curb your enthusiasm."
"Lesson learned," Noah breathed, wincing as though preparing for pain.
"Balmalki may not be the apocalyptic threat that I thought he was, but you still need to mind your step around the supernatural, Keeper or not. Be thankful I'm not a vampire, or you'd already be dead – or worse," Rosetta smiled again, blinking her eyes several times until the wolf dissolved back into her. "I need another beer – you?"
Noah silently nodded, eyes still wide, so Rosetta turned and retraced her steps back downstairs to the refrigerator. She didn't usually torment humans quite so badly, but she felt a little bit better now that it was out of her system. There was only so much of this rollercoaster that she could take before something like that was bound to happen. Besides, it really was a lesson that Noah needed to learn. He was far too eager to trust her, and if he crossed paths with almost anything else, his innocence could cost him dearly, not to mention what could happen if his family's stockpile of artifacts fell into the wrong hands. Maybe she had been too cruel, but she could always apologize to Noah later. At least he was still alive, and the Wycksham collection was safe. It's not like she truly intended to kill the boy.
Rosetta set seven clinking beer bottles down on the reading table as gingerly as she could, avoiding all the yellowed book pages. Noah was seated again, though Rosetta had to chuckle at the gleaming silver cross now dominating the table directly between them. She considering slapping it across the room, but silver really did burn, and there was no reason to torment the poor kid any further. It wasn't his fault that Balmalki was proving more growl than bite, and she still needed his help to figure out how to save herself.
"So are we still partners in this, or are you going to charge into battle with that Dragonite all by yourself?" Rosetta asked, leaning back in her chair again and twisting the cap off a fresh beer.
"That was mean," Noah grumped, reaching a still-trembling hand out for another beer. "You could have just told me that you can change at will."
"I decided to go for dramatic effect."
"Obviously," Noah mumbled.
They sat in silence, drinking. Rosetta gazed gently at Noah, smiling every time she caught him sneaking a glance at her. He finally sighed heavily and shook his head before offering her a half-hearted smile in return.
"Is there anything else that I should know about you?" Noah asked. "I'm not sure I can take any more surprises like that."
"I'm sure you have a book in here about werewolves and you'll tear through it as soon as I leave, so that should tell you everything else that you need to know."
"Do you eat people?" Noah asked.
"I could, but I don't. It draws too much attention and causes too many troubles. Besides, deer taste better, and they're harder to catch which makes the hunt more fun," Rosetta paused to drain the last dregs from her beer bottle. "I'm also partial to sausage pizza with extra onions from that Italian place next to the shoe store on Third Street."
"Antoli's?" Noah asked incredulously.
"I'm just as human as I am wolf, and they make a really good pie."
"So you can change any time you want to, but you spend most of your time in human form?"
"Pretty much. Disappointed?"
"Just surprised. Vampires are pretty much exactly what you expect them to be from all of the movies and books – fictional books, I mean – but werewolves aren't, are they?"
"What were you expecting?"
"You seem pretty happy with all of it, but I expected a werewolf to be more tormented, I guess."
"Shunned by society, enslaved by the moon, tormented by the animal inside – just an all-around miserable beast?" Rosetta prompted.
"Well, yeah. Pretty much."
"Don't believe everything you see in the movies. You're a Keeper."
"So I should know better, right? I'm beginning to think that I don't know nearly as much as I think I do… Maybe I should just give you the Dragonite and get out of your way," Noah sighed.
"Well, that's a quick turnaround."
"What do you mean by that?"
"You're the one who tracked me down and offered to help, but at the first hiccup, you're ready to throw in the towel and leave Balmalki to me? You haven't even told me what else you've found out about the fat bastard. I wasn't expecting you to give up so easily after showing no fear when I had you pinned against that tree."
"I didn't know that you could change and eat me then, did I? I can't believe I was so stupid."
"Impulsive more than stupid, I think," Rosetta corrected.
"Well, it runs in the family. I got home from that trip to Oxford to find out that Dad is missing, and it looks like he was dabbling with something that he didn't understand and managed to get trapped on the astral plane somewhere in the house, but no one can figure out how to bring him back to this reality, so I have to talk to him through a witch board. My grandfather periodically sends messages through a scrying bowl in the parlor. He died on an expedition into the Tibetan Himalayas, but he never really left. And I can introduce you to my Great-Uncle Owen. He's been trapped on page 1137 of that book since before I was born," Noah babbled, gesturing to the large book with the etchings that still lay open in front of Rosetta. "We're a bunch of bumbling flakes, and I guess I'm no better than the rest of them, except I might get myself into even more trouble, chasing werewolves and demons like I have some clue what I'm doing…"
Rosetta tried to contain her bemusement, but what started as a shielded snicker bloomed into full-blown laughter before she could stop herself. Noah snapped his mouth shut and glared at her for a moment, but his expression soon softened into that sheepish, little-boy grin that so often danced across his face, and he was soon laughing with her.
"I probably shouldn't be laughing at your family's misfortunes, but you have to admit – it is rather funny when you lay it all out like that," Rosetta explained when their laughter died down.
"I know," Noah agreed. "I have to laugh about it too, sometimes. We do have really bad luck, and that's not even the half of it. We've got a ghost in the parlor, and there's a djinn in the attic, but I leave him alone because I think he's evil. Growing up in this house, I though it was all perfectly normal until I realized that my friends didn't have talking mirrors, flaming swords, and magical trumpets in their houses."
"And yet you turned out okay."
"Impulsive, but okay, I guess."
"So your father just vanished?" Rosetta asked, changing the subject more abruptly than she intended.
"Yeah. I got home from England and he was just gone. He keeps a small study upstairs, and I'm pretty sure that's where it happened. I left everything exactly as I found it because I really don't know what he was trying to do. My dad's always been a little too interested in magic – not just an academic sort of interest but more a practical application sort of interest."
"He would rather be a sorcerer, not a Keeper."
"Exactly. And it looks like it got the better of him this time. I'll see what I can do to get him back later. This Balmalki thing is a little more pressing right now."
"And depending on how we do, your father might be better off where he is," Rosetta observed.
"So what do we do next… Wait a minute. You said 'we', didn't you?" Noah asked, arching an eyebrow at Rosetta.
"So we're in this together?"
"I can work with a human, if you can work with a werewolf," Rosetta nodded, raising her half-empty beer toward Noah.
"Do you promise not to eat me?"
"If we can stop Balmalki from eating me, I promise that I won't eat you, either."
"And you're not going to use me as bait?"
"If we need bait, we'll use the vampire."
"Partners, then," Noah declared, tapping his beer against Rosetta's. "So what do we do next?"
"I think I have an idea about that," Rosetta began, "but I'd like to hear the rest of your information first."
"Really?" Noah asked, and when Rosetta nodded, he continued with renewed enthusiasm. "So Dad told me about this demon sleeping under Remington, and that it's going to wake up and devour us all next Tuesday, right?" Rosetta nodded again, so Noah stood up and flipped a page of harried notes over the astrological charts on the wall. "We did quite a bit of research, and it turns out that this Balmalki," Noah paused to scrawl the demon's name at the top of the crowded sheet, "made a deal with the founding fathers of Remington. Balmalki promised to protect the town and all its occupants from flood, famine, epidemic, war – destruction in general – and ensure the prosperity of the town in exchange for refuge and a tribute to be paid later. Roughly 250 years later, though I'm sure you know that demonic time doesn't exactly mesh with the Julian calendar, so the debt is due next week.
"Technically, Balmalki kept its end of the bargain, as the town flourished and has never once been hit by any natural disaster. And the founders of Remington kept their side as well, as Balmalki has been undisturbed under our feet for all these years. Unfortunately for the current residents of Remington, the tribute turns out to be the sacrifice and consumption of everyone who lives here, though it's not entirely clear if the founders understood that when they made the deal. Demons are tricky like that."
"Demons are clever," Rosetta corrected, "and humans tend to hear only what they want to hear. So what do you know about the mark?"
"It's a seal, actually. In one of these etchings…" Noah flipped through his notebook until he found a photocopy tucked between the pages, which he unfolded and placed on the table in front of Rosetta. "Do you see that jagged, twisty triangle thing on Balmalki's chest – over where its heart should be?"
"So it is a physical mark…" Rosetta murmured.
"It sounds that way. Sort of like branding cattle, though that connotation makes me a little ill. Marks like this one usually appear at birth, and this one seems to act like a tether, keeping people tied here, which goes a long way toward explaining why so many kids never leave Remington. Did you know that Remington is one of the only small towns in the whole state that isn't shrinking? Kids graduate from high school and stay here, and even most of the ones who go away to college end up coming back, which usually isn't the case for small towns. I guess if you do break free and start thinking of someplace else as 'home', the mark might fade, but it's too late in the game for that."
"Blood ties are hard to break. It sounds like you've had many chances to leave, and you keep coming back."
"Well, Remington is my home. The Wyckshams have always lived here, and we always will. Unless we all get eaten. What do you think will happen to the town if everyone gets devoured next week?"
"We're not going to let that happen, are we?"
"I hope not."
"And if that does happen, we won't be around to see it, so it won't really make all that much difference to you and me, will it?"
"I guess not," Noah mumbled, staring at the floor.
"But as I said, we're not going to let that happen. I have an idea about this mark. Have you been able to see it on anyone yet?"
"No. But I've only looked at myself in the mirror."
"Do you have a Drurian Orb?"
Noah nodded slowly, then looked at Rosetta and grinned. He scurried off between the shelves, and Rosetta heard him slide something heavy out of the way, coughing twice from the stirred-up dust, but he produced a small, greenish glass sphere a moment later.
"A seeing sphere," Noah beamed. "Why didn't I think of this?"
"Because you need two people for this to work, and you've been alone until now. Take off your clothes."
"What?" Noah yelped.
"We need to be able to see the mark, and while werewolves have many talents, x-ray vision isn't one of them. So strip," Rosetta smirked.
"Because you're just a human, and I'm not, so I win," Rosetta explained, plucking the orb out of Noah's hand.
"But…" Noah stammered, blushing the deepest shade of scarlet that Rosetta had ever seen on a human.
"Relax, kid. The mark is probably on your chest or back, so there won't be any cavity searches. Surely you've been naked in front of a woman before…" Rosetta teased. The more time she spent with Noah, the more she liked him, and now that she was cultivating a plan of attack against Balmalki, her pent-up tension unwound within her, freeing her mischievous side to play with her new companion.
"Of course I have, but not like this," Noah groaned, eying Rosetta suspiciously. "I think I was more comfortable when I thought you were going to turn into a wolf and eat me."
"Just take off your shirt, and I'll try to keep my paws to myself," Rosetta laughed.
"Paws – cute. Is that some kind of werewolf humor now?" Noah grumbled, but he obliged, slipping off his battered overcoat and carefully folding it over the back of his chair before he wriggled his black t-shirt over his head and folded his arms across his bare chest.
"Now be still for a minute," Rosetta requested, rolling the Drurian Orb loosely in her hand. She closed her eyes and concentrated on Balmalki's mark until she had a clear image of the sharp angles and odd slant of the triangular design from the etching. She squeezed her hand tightly and felt a piercing coldness within her clenched fist. She opened her hand to find the Orb glowing a bright, yellowish-green and floating slightly above her palm. Extending her arm toward Noah, the Orb emitted a ghostly mist of light that drifted toward the shivering human and concentrated behind him.
"Noah, turn around," Rosetta murmured.
Noah nodded and turned, glancing over his shoulder at the ethereal fog gathering between his shoulder blades. The swirling wisps settled and organized into a perfect reproduction of the seal in Rosetta's mind.
"I see you," she whispered, glowering at the mark. For the first time in weeks, Rosetta felt her confidence surge because she could lay eyes on the enemy, and she knew exactly what to do. She brought the Drurian Orb to her lips and kissed the icy glass, murmuring an appreciative denouement that immediately doused the light and dropped the seeing sphere back into her hand.
"So it's really there?" Noah asked quietly, turning to face Rosetta again.
"In the middle of your back, and no doubt in the middle of my back, as well." Before Noah had the chance to say anything, Rosetta handed the dulled Drurian Orb back to him and motioned toward his coat. "We'll need that Orb again, and the Dragonite, when the time comes. Get your Sidargen's Dagger, too – I know you have one here somewhere. I can feel it in my bones."
"But isn't that…?" Noah trailed off.
"A damn good way to kill a werewolf? I'm well aware of that, and we're going to need it anyway."
"What's the plan?"
"Later. I need to check on something first. I'll be back on Saturday, before sunset."
"You're coming back just in time for the full moon?" Noah asked warily.
"No, I'm coming back just before the full moon," Rosetta corrected. "Trust me."
Noah looked somewhat exasperated, but a moment later, he shrugged and sighed. "Be here for dinner. I'll pick up a pizza from Antoli's."
"Sausage, with extra onions."
"I know. I remember."
"And more beer."
"But there is a plan, right?"
"Absolutely. Try to get some sleep, too. I need you to be sharp on Saturday, okay?"
"Got it. Dragonite, orb, werewolf-killing dagger, pizza, beer – I can handle that."
"It would also be very helpful if you wear that Dragonite between now and then."
"Around your neck – it's god-awful ugly, but it is a necklace."
"Can't I just keep it in my pocket?"
"It doesn't work that way. It needs to be against your skin – close to your heart."
"It won't do anything to me, will it?"
"Are you a werewolf or other supernatural beastie?"
"Then you'll be fine."
"Are you sure?" Noah asked, casting a doubtful glance toward the Dragonite's current hiding place in his battered old coat.
"You're supposed to know more about that thing than I do."
"So you're not sure."
"I'm sure enough."
"That's not comforting."
"What's the worst that could happen?" Rosetta shrugged with mischief dancing in her glacial eyes.
"Scales and horns and fiery torment…" Noah muttered under his breath. "Fine. I'll wear the damn thing, but my miserable, anguished death is on your head."
"That's the spirit. Do you mind if I borrow something on the way out?"
"You're not going to tell me what it is, are you?"
"And you're not going to take 'no' for an answer, are you?"
"You catch on quick, kid."
"Are you going to bring it back?"
"I said borrow, not steal."
"Then help yourself."
"Relax, Noah. I have a plan. Trust me," Rosetta repeated.
"If it means I get to live past Tuesday, I'm willing to play along with just about anything. But you'll tell me what's going on when you come back?"
"Of course. We're in this together," Rosetta smirked. "Cute navel ring, by the way – there's always more to you librarian-types than meets the eye, isn't there?"
Noah blushed furiously again, snatching his t-shirt off the table and clutching it over his bare torso.
"See you on Saturday," Rosetta called over her shoulder, sailing past the crowded bookshelves but pausing just long enough to collect the treasure she had noticed on the way in. She dashed downstairs, past the protesting spirit in the parlor, out the door, and through the invisible barrier protecting the Wycksham house.
As she strode up the street, Rosetta took a deep breath and smiled at the setting moon. She felt absolutely rejuvenated. She had a plan and a partner – and Balmalki was in for the fight of its miserable fucking life.