Rosetta adjusted her dark sunglasses as she paced at the gate to the Wycksham house. The incantation shielding the house made her skin tingle, and it was against her most deeply ingrained instincts to try to pass through it, despite knowing that she was a safely invited guest. With the ascension of the full moon only a few hours away, the wolf inside her was almost too strong to ignore, and her rational, human mind struggled to gain the upper hand over the primal animal within. In the meantime, she was left feeling like a beast in a zoo, pacing the length of its cage in an endless loop.
"Goddamn, Rosetta, get a grip," she muttered to herself, forcing her feet to stop. She took a deep breath and hurriedly unlatched the gate, bolting through the magical barrier and only stopping to breathe again when she reached the comfortably confined front porch. She hoped that Noah wasn't looking out the window to witness her little display. Sometimes, being more animal than human was more inconvenient, and embarrassing, than she was willing to admit. People always thought of wolves as predators without giving much notice to their fundamentally skittish nature, and Rosetta dearly hated when she manifested that caution and nervousness. There was nothing for it though – Balmalki was more than enough to rattle anyone's nerves.
With one last glance at the lengthening afternoon shadows staining the street behind her, she knocked firmly on the door, wondering if Noah would still be so eager to accommodate her plan against the slumbering demon, while silently praying that the young human wasn't particularly squeamish.
A moment later, she caught a glimpse of Noah peeking through the narrow window alongside the door; then she heard the grinding of the locks and the door swung open.
"Miss Stone!" Noah beamed, gesturing for her to come inside. "I mean, Rosetta. You did come back – I was so nervous that you wouldn't show up tonight…"
"You're not going to hug me, are you?" Rosetta scowled, removing her sunglasses and tapping her toe at the threshold but refusing to step through the door.
"Well, no, then," Noah shrugged. "Please, come in. I've already got dinner in the kitchen – cold beer and Antoli's pizza. Sausage with extra onions, just like you wanted." He paused and scrunched his brow at her. "What's wrong?"
"Moldering old demon rising in three days to devour us all," Rosetta flippantly replied, brushing past Noah and stepping into his house. On cue, the Wycksham's ghost wailed in disapproval, loudly enough this time that even Noah heard her.
"Give it a rest, Hattie – please?" Noah pleaded into thin air. He shut and locked the door behind them, rolling his eyes. "Rosetta and I have work to do, so be a good girl, will you?" He paused and cocked his head to the side, listening intently. "Did she stop?" he whispered to Rosetta.
"Mostly," she nodded. "And you know that she can hear you, even when you whisper."
"How do ghosts hear, anyway? Technically, they don't have ears anymore."
"They don't have vocal cords either."
"True. So, are you going to tell me what has you so jumpy tonight, or do I have to guess?" Noah asked as they walked toward the kitchen together. "And don't make it sound like it's all Balmalki, because I'm not buying that. Human doesn't mean gullible."
"Sure it does," Rosetta countered, raising an eyebrow at the quartet of enormous pizza boxes covering the entirety of the kitchen table. "Are you expecting an army?"
"No, but with the moon tonight…" Noah began, his furrowed brow evidencing his search for the right way to express himself before giving up with another shrug. "I don't know how hungry a werewolf gets during the full moon, so I wanted to make sure we have more than enough. If you need a snack later, there will still be plenty of pizza – so there's no need to eat me, right?"
Rosetta arched an eyebrow at Noah, before smiling and shaking her head. The mountain of food was a strangely thoughtful gesture, though she had no doubt that Noah was still anxious about hosting a werewolf during the full moon. As she sat down and flipped open the nearest pizza box, Rosetta had to admit that she was growing quite fond of Noah's naïve enthusiasm, and in her own way, she was glad that the Fates had drawn them together. It still sucked that they had to face a deathmatch with a demon, but at least she wasn't alone anymore. Wolves were never intended to be solitary, and in the decades since she lost her pack, Rosetta had tried to forge new bonds and connections, but none of them ever stuck. It was too hard to keep her secret from human companions, and other preternatural creatures were entirely too unpredictable, self-obsessed, and flat-out annoying.
But Noah was different. She had never met a human quite like him.
"So, Rosetta?" Noah quietly interrupted her thoughts. "Not to be rude, but tempus fugit… What's the plan?"
"Short version? You're going to skin that seal off my back, which should drop me off the beastie's radar, and then we're taking your Dragonite to Balmalki's tomb, which I found yesterday, to kill it before it has the chance to stir." Rosetta paused briefly. "The pizza's especially good tonight," she observed, reaching for another slice.
Noah froze and stared dumbstruck at Rosetta. His mouth shaped several stammering replies without making any sound, and he blanched a remarkably morbid shade of greyish-green. Rosetta paused in mid-chew to ensure that the boy wasn't about to fall over, and when he stayed vertically rooted in his chair, she returned to her dinner, which truly did rank among the best pizza she had ever tasted, though perhaps that was just the possibility that this could be her last meal on earth.
"It's a good plan," Rosetta assured with her mouth full. "Simple. Effective. You can't ask for anything better."
Noah shook his head and sputtered a bit, but still seemed unable to find his voice. A hint of red tinged his ashen cheeks while a branching vein pulsed above his right eye.
"Take a breath and spit it out, kid. You look like you're about to have a stroke."
"A stroke…" Noah croaked. "Who would blame me if I did? You walk back in here and blammo – you just drop a bombshell like that on me? Holy shit! I don't even know what to do with that…"
"I told you that I would be back with a plan, and here I am. Simple as that."
"Simple? There's nothing simple… I don't… How…?" Noah trailed off, slumping in his chair and shaking his head in wide-eyed disbelief.
"Okay, maybe we should try the long version. But first, did you find that dagger for me?" Rosetta asked gently. Noah nodded. "And have you been wearing the Dragonite?" Noah nodded again. "Good boy. Now, I'll try not to talk with my mouth full." Rosetta chased her fifth slice of pizza with a long swig of beer.
"If you haven't already figured it out, I borrowed a Mantithica on my way out last time. This close to the moon, I was pretty sure that I could get it to work, and I was right. A little blood and two questions later, I was standing right on top of Balmalki's tomb. You'll never believe where it is. Your forebears in this town were overly generous with demons. Not only did they offer up all of their eventual progeny on a silver platter, but they were even kind enough to give the Devourer refuge right in the middle of their quiet little town. You know that hideous, half-dead old tree that stands right next to the courthouse in the square?"
"You've got to be kidding," Noah muttered.
"Nope. Balmalki's underneath that tree, which explains why the grass won't grow and there are never any birds around the courthouse. Nature knows evil and avoids it. Shame that humans aren't so observant, though. And I've always thought that I avoid the courthouse because of some inborn fear of being discovered by human lawmen – turns out that it was the demon's tomb the whole time. I feel sort of stupid for not catching on sooner, to tell you the truth.
"But I'm sure that's where the beastie lies. Standing there, this close to the moon, so close to its awakening – I could feel it, even without the Mantithica, so I didn't risk using it to open the tomb. We'll do that tonight, but I know it's there. There's a stone among the roots on the west side of the tree. That's the entrance. I guarantee that's the tomb," Rosetta nodded, absently pulling a string of cheese off another slice of pizza.
"How are you going to open it with that thing you borrowed?"
"Mantithica," Rosetta repeated, retrieving a very well worn, but otherwise ordinary looking knuckle of tree branch from her pocket and placing it on the table between them. "I was surprised to see it upstairs. They don't work for humans, so usually people don't hang on to them, not even Keepers. Nothing but a useless stick to a human – it won't even burn if you try to use it for firewood."
"I've never really known what this was," Noah admitted, poking gingerly at the gnarled thing, but retreating when it rolled closer to him. "We Wyckshams keep everything, though. No doubt someone in the family came across it and decided that it might be important someday, so we added it to the collection. So how does it work? What does it do?"
"It's like a bloodhound for unnatural things, but only if you're willing to shed a little blood in the process. Non-human blood. Mantithica are old magic. Really old. Almost Balmalki old. They were harvested from trees so old that they had names and memories, and I don't know how long ago that was. Millennia, at least."
"So is it Druid magic?"
"More like whatever the Druids prayed to. Mantithica were made by the forest folk, and that was before most humans, as far as I know. Mantithica answer to other supernatural creatures, and they'll show you what you want to see, take you where you want to go, open places that are closed, and seal doors that are open – if you're willing to pay the price."
"Pay the price? I thought elves and nymphs were supposed to be kindly little creatures…"
"Who said anything about elves and nymphs? This isn't a storybook, kid. Forest folk sound innocent enough, but anything that survived and flourished when demons and dragons reigned was a force to be reckoned with, not some cute little fluttering thing. Think bridge trolls and giants who want to grind your bones to make their bread, not pixie dust and silly little sprites."
"Like the nursery rhymes?"
"There's more truth in nursery rhymes and fairy tales than most people realize. The stories get passed down for good reason – preservation of the species."
"Grandpa used to tell me that, but I was little, so I thought he was just trying to scare me."
"It sounds like he was trying to protect you."
"Yeah, he still does…" Noah sighed, pausing to chew on his bottom lip before quietly continuing. "Okay. So you found Balmalki. It's real and right in the middle of Remington. This is really going to happen, isn't it?"
"Unfortunately. But I think we can pull this off. The Mantithica will get us in the door, and I don't think that one marked human will be enough to wake Balmalki early, so we should be able to sneak in, kill it, and be back here in time for breakfast."
"So what about the part where I have to skin you?" Noah grimaced. "If Balmalki's not going to wake up, why do I have to do that?"
"A marked human won't be enough to disturb the beastie. A marked werewolf barging in would be a different story, especially on the full moon."
"So why didn't we do this yesterday?"
"Because I need the moon's strength. Sleeping or not, Balmalki probably won't be an easy kill. And I don't fancy having a huge, gaping scar on my back forever, either, so we're going to time this so I'll heal up nice and pretty again."
"How is that going to happen? And before you ask, the book about werewolves that I have upstairs is written in Old German, and I couldn't concentrate well enough to muddle through very much of it. Latin and Hebrew I can handle, but Old German is hard."
"Black Forest werewolves are formidable, too. My pack is descended from the Black Forest, so my ancestors are probably in that book," Rosetta mused. "But that can wait. You understand why you need to get Balmalki's seal off my back, right?"
"It makes sense. We'll have a better chance if Balmalki can't see you coming," Noah quietly agreed.
"And that's why you'll need a Sidargen's Dagger. The silver will keep the wound open long enough to prevent the mark from growing back before we get this done."
"That's ghastly – you know that, don't you?"
"It's not pretty, and I'm sure as hell not looking forward to it, but it's the best plan. You'll use that Drurian Orb to highlight the seal, and then peel it off – quick and neat, like skinning a goat."
"I think I'm going to be sick."
"We really don't have time for that, Noah. The mark needs to come off before the moonrise. As you told me earlier… Tempus fugit, remember?"
"You're going to want to kill me. Maybe not you you, but the wolf you is going to want me dead for hurting you, and I'll be standing right there, holding the knife with a big slice of you in my hand. This is really bad."
"I'm still me inside, regardless of my physical form. I don't lose myself during the change. I'm asking you to do this because I can't reach the mark myself, and I can't touch that dagger. You're the only one who can do this for me, and I trust you, Noah," Rosetta paused, locking her icy blue eyes on her agitated human comrade. "Do you get that? I trust you to do this. That's a really big deal for me. I don't trust easily, and especially not a human wielding a silver knife behind my back. You can do this, Noah. You have to. There's no one else."
"Why do you trust me?" Noah asked quietly. "You just met me, and all you know about me is that I'm the latest in a long line of hopeless Wycksham fools living in a house full of really cool stuff. In your position, I don't think that I would trust me."
"My instincts are telling me to trust you, and they never lead me astray," Rosetta replied in a tone as serious as the grave.
"This is crazy…"
"This is reality, kid. We have a demon to kill, and all things considered, it's a small price to pay. I'll be fine by moonrise tomorrow…"
"Or we'll both be dead!" Noah interrupted.
"Did you think you'd be able to strike down Balmalki without getting your hands dirty?" Rosetta countered with more venom and frustration than she intended. "We're talking about a demon – flesh and bone – not some picture in a goddamn book!"
"Maybe I should just stick with my books and leave the rest of it to people who know what they're doing…"
"Then carve this mark off of me, hand over the Dragonite, and stay the fuck out of my way." Rosetta shoved away from the table and stood up, glowering down at Noah. She had such high hopes for the boy – surely she hadn't misjudged him so badly. Her gut was telling her that she was right to place her trust in Noah, and in all her years on this earth, her gut had never once been wrong – this was a lousy time to break that streak. She slowed her breathing to try to settle her temper, waiting to see how the battle raging silently within Noah's head would turn out.
She sighed quietly before settling stiffly into her chair, focusing her intense gaze on the mortal huddled at the table next to her. Her scowl softened as she watched Noah chew on his lip, alternately grimacing, then tearing up a bit, then setting his jaw to stop it from trembling. She twisted open another beer, feeling the moonrise creep ever closer and silently willing the boy to make his choice sooner rather than later.
Every moment felt like an eternity as they sat there in silence, and just as Rosetta reached the end of her patience, Noah finally looked up at her, his hazel eyes red and watery, but clear as a cloudless sky and smoldering with an internal fire.
"Okay, fine. You want me to do this – you trust me to do this – so I guess that means that I can do this," Noah whispered hoarsely between clenched teeth before tremulously adding, "You are sure about that, right?"
"I knew you'd come around," Rosetta smiled. "I think you'll be fine, and that Dragonite seems to suit you."
"What?" Noah asked, wrinkling his brow and automatically clutching at the heavy pendant hidden beneath his shirt.
"I'm not sure if you've empowered it, or if it's empowered you," Rosetta murmured, admiring the spark within Noah's eyes.
"What do you mean? Is this thing doing something to me?" Noah sputtered, though he made no attempt to remove the mystical object from around his neck.
"Nothing bad, at least not that I can tell," Rosetta observed. "I'm glad to see that you took my advice and you've been wearing it, though. That helps us quite a lot."
"Dragonite is temperamental and powerful – fitting for a dragon-forged thing, don't you think?"
"To be honest, I don't know much about it. Grandpa told me what it was, and where it came from, but not much else. The books are vague on the subject, at best."
"That's not surprising. Dragonite is rare and incredibly hard to come by. We don't have time for all of this right now, so let's just say that every supernatural creature walking the earth knows just enough about Dragonite to covet it and desperately want one, but thankfully, they tend not to fall into the wrong hands – and any supernatural hands are probably going to be the wrong sort of hands. Dragonite used to be called 'dragon glass' – forged by the fire of the strongest dragon lords and imbued with a fair amount of their strength and magic, as well. Those stones are known to be just as cunning as the beasts that breathed life into them, and they tend to choose their masters, not the other way around."
"So, you're saying that this thing chose to be with my family?" Noah asked, wide-eyed.
"Possibly. Or it chose to be with your family rather than stay where it was at the time. I understand that dragons were self-serving creatures, so it makes sense that their greatest treasure would have the same inclination." Rosetta paused to consider the current situation before continuing with an encouraging nod, "Whether it chose your ancestor or not, it seems to have taken a shine to you, and that's good enough for me."
"You talk about it as though this thing was sentient…"
"You know more than enough about magical objects to know that they are, in a way."
Noah blanched again, so Rosetta seized the chance to steer their conversation back to more pressing matters, though she hoped that all of this wasn't pushing her human companion farther than he cared to venture. Not only did Rosetta want them both to survive the night, but she found herself wanting their newfound alliance to flourish, too.
"I think it's about time we get started, don't you, Noah?" Rosetta asked quietly, her gentle tone contrasting the nervous energy stirring within her.
Noah gulped, then sighed, then nodded.
"Where is everything? Upstairs?" Rosetta answered her own question, motioning toward the narrow staircase with her almost-empty beer bottle.
"On that back table where we talked the other night," Noah affirmed, clearing his throat at the end to strengthen his voice. "And you're sure this is the best way?"
"I'm sure enough. After you." Rosetta rose from her seat at the table, pausing to flip closed the nearest pizza box lid before herding Noah up the stairs and back into the dark confines of the mystical storeroom on the second floor.
As promised, Noah had collected all the necessary items, and Rosetta flinched when she drew close to the Sidargen's Dagger. The very sight of it was chilling to her, and it was all she could do to wipe the panicked expression from her face before Noah could notice her hesitation. She'd been telling herself for days that she just had to suck it up and endure this part, and the rest of the night shouldn't be quite so bad, but now faced with a silver dagger in unsteady mortal hands, Rosetta felt a bit of a cold sweat despite herself. But there was nothing for it. She just had to take a breath and do it.
"Is there a bathroom up here?" Rosetta asked quietly as she slid out of her leather jacket and tossed it over the back of a chair. She clenched and released her fists at her sides, as Noah blinked at her several times, and then blushed.
"I'd never thought about werewolves needing to do… that," Noah cleared his throat to stifle a giggle. "Go to the end of those shelves, and look for the door on the left, just past the suit of armor. He might talk to you, though I'm not sure how he feels about werewolves…"
"I don't need to pee, you dolt. It's just going to be easier for you to clean my blood off a tile floor than to soak it out of hardwood, you know?" Rosetta half-heartedly scolded, feeling a slight smile light her face. Stupid human boy – endearing, but stupid.
"Oh…" Noah began. "Oh. Oh, yuck. I'm really sort of hating this right now. A lot."
"I know. Orb and dagger. Let's do this," Rosetta insisted. She didn't wait for him to respond and walked past the shelves and along the wall until she saw the armor ahead of her. She slowed down so Noah could catch up to her, then edged closer to the tarnished silver warrior. "So who is he?"
"Sir Lionel Edward Wycksham," Noah said proudly. "Knight of the Realm and Lord of Glensbury-upon-something. It doesn't sound like he's in there tonight, though."
"You have a weird family, kid."
Rosetta opened the door next to Sir Lionel and reached inside to turn on the light. She walked in, paused, and then stepped up into the clawed tub. Keeping her back to Noah, she slipped her black tank top over her head, pulled her auburn hair over her shoulder, and crossed her arms across her chest. "I'm ready."
Noah exhaled heavily behind her, but didn't say anything. She heard the clank of silver on porcelain, and then felt a chill dance across her skin, no doubt caused by the green mist emitted from the Drurian Orb as it sought out Balmalki's seal on her back.
"Okay, Rosetta, I can see it. Now what?" Noah asked quietly. Rosetta heard the metallic clink against the sink again, so she knew that he had that damnable silver dagger in his hand, right behind her. She clenched her jaw so tight that her teeth ground against each other and small stars dotted her vision as something popped within her jaw hinge.
"Quick and clean, Noah. The silver will do most of the work. Cut around the edge of the cursed thing, and then peel it off. Make sure you get it all. Quick and clean," Rosetta repeated, trying to keep her voice calm and even, but knowing that she sounded strained. She kept one arm squeezed across her chest and leaned slightly forward, bracing the other arm against the wall behind the bathtub. She rolled her shoulders forward, hoping to smooth the skin on her upper back as much as possible, to make this easier.
Noah exhaled heavily behind her, his breath raising gooseflesh up and down her spine, and then she felt the searing, icy bite of the Sidargen's Dagger. Her instincts screamed for her to turn and take a gash out of the human who dared to hurt her, but she froze in place, breathing fast and shallow and repeating over and over in her head that this was necessary, and that it would be over soon.
Noah followed her instructions, drawing the dagger in a circle between her shoulder blades, around the edge of the infernal seal on her flesh. He started at the top, pulling the tip of the blade counterclockwise until it reached the top again. Rosetta hoped the cut was shallow, but it felt like the silver was boring into the core of her body, burning her as it went and leaving an empty, deathly cold in its wake. Noah made an odd choking sound behind her, then panted a trio of quick breaths and she almost jerked away from him when he placed his hot, trembling hand on her back. She felt the edge of the blade again, slipping underneath her skin, and she pressed her eyes shut, reminding herself to breath as the pain and panic re-intensified. Noah braced his hand against her back, pulling away with the dagger, and she heard a wet, sucking sound mingled with his strangled groan. Everything and everywhere was pain, until Rosetta felt that she was drowning in agony.
But almost as quickly as this suffering began, it was over. The smell of her own blood hung heavily in the air, and the dagger broke the tense silence with a frantic clatter as it hit the tiled floor. Rosetta heard a wild scream, and it was another moment before she realized that the enraged, forlorn cry was coming from her. She opened her eyes and panted rapidly, spreading her fingers against the wall and digging her fist into her ribcage. Her vision swam briefly, then cleared into the amazing clarity that could only signal the full moon mere minutes away from breaking through the horizon. She thought that the pain would last longer, but to her surprise, the burning faded rapidly, leaving behind a cool dampness over the top of her spine, even as rivulets of hot blood ran down her back and past her waistband into her jeans.
She was sure that Noah had successfully removed the entire seal, because she felt such strength and freedom coursing through her veins. She was absolutely confident that this plan, while hellishly unpleasant, was the correct course of action, and more important, that it was going to work. She was ready, eager to storm the demon's tomb and give Balmalki what it had coming. She remembered to put her shirt back on before she turned to congratulate Noah for his steady hand, only to find him pooled on the bathroom floor, quietly retching into the toilet.
Rosetta opened her mouth, only to snap it shut again before the pointed jab she felt poised on her tongue could slip out and further distress the boy. After all, he had done exactly as she asked, and without inflicting any unnecessary damage, despite his fears and obvious distaste for the sight of werewolf blood. And even more important to Rosetta, Noah had proven beyond any doubt that he could be trusted, which made this human quite precious in her eyes.
She knelt beside him, positioning herself between the shivering human and the surprisingly minimal gore from her skinning. She smiled softly to herself before reaching out to smooth his hair and settle her hand on his back, grazing her fingers back and forth in what she hoped was a comforting motion. He tensed beneath her touch for a moment, and then relaxed, sighing as he reached up to flush.
Noah lifted his head and looked sheepishly at Rosetta, his face very pale, and contorted his mouth into a chagrined pucker. "I expect that you'll want me to stay behind and hold down the fort this evening," he mumbled, diverting his eyes to the floor as he spoke.
"We're in this together, and I can't believe you're willing to pass up the opportunity to slay a demon. Where's that sense of adventure that's gotten so many of your relatives into so much trouble?" Rosetta kidded gently with a genuine smile on her face.
Noah looked back up at her, slack jawed and silent. A hint of color flushed back across his cheeks, and he swallowed hard, then grimaced and choked a bit, turning to spit into the toilet again.
"You did well, Noah," Rosetta reassured, patting him on the back rather awkwardly before she rose and stepped around him, aiming for the door. "We need to get moving soon, but you have a few minutes to get cleaned up and calmed down before we go."
"Thanks, Rosetta," Noah said softly as she left, pulling the door ajar behind her. She took a deep breath despite the inherent dustiness of the air amidst the Wycksham's collection. She crept through the shelves, inspecting every weapon she passed, though she already knew which one she wanted. She had seen it on her first visit, and even before she had any sort of plan against Balmalki, she knew that she wanted to use it against something at some point. It was just the sort of weapon that cried out to rend flesh and shatter bone, and Rosetta was eager to oblige the thing.
Turning the corner and crossing the main walkway, she found it again, exactly where she expected it, resting innocently across the tops of a matched set of leather-bound books detailing the entire history of some Russian school for black magic. She reached out for it, convinced that it was reaching back in its own way. It was a vicious halberd with an unusually large axe blade, mounted on a thick ash staff. Picking it up for the first time, Rosetta was impressed by the sheer weight of the polearm. She was sure that it was never meant to be wielded by humans, but rather, had been forged and crafted to serve a sturdier master. A werewolf under the full moon aiming to slay an ancient demon was exactly the sort of master this halberd required.
She rested the hefty weapon across her shoulders and walked back to the reading table to retrieve her jacket. The scent of her blood still hung around her like a dense fog, and she hoped that a thick layer of leather would cover some of that telltale odor. She hadn't seen any hint of the dandy little vampire coward all week, but it wouldn't surprise her if a trail of werewolf blood might be enough to drag him out of his house to find her. Of course, given the massive axe blade hovering over her left shoulder, she could easily take his head, so maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing…
She set the halberd down on the table and pulled her jacket on, flinching a bit as the heavy road leather drug across the raw flesh on her back. Tendrils of pain wove down her spine, but a deep breath erased her discomfort and steeled her nerves. The next time she raised the halberd to her shoulders, it felt so much lighter and natural – like an extension of her arm.
Moonrise. It was time.
Rosetta closed her eyes and reveled in the renewed strength flowing through her body. It was hard to believe that she had been depressed and frantic just a week ago, preparing to make a final stand before surrendering to death at the end of the full moon. Now here she was, still making ready to take that stand, but with a confidence and vigor that defied any doubts still lingering in her mind. She smiled to herself, letting just a bit of the wolf emerge, feeling her senses sharpen and her strength swell. Facing death always made her feel so damn alive.
Noah walked up behind her, and Rosetta turned to face him with an odd, cocky smile on her increasingly feral face. Noah froze where he stood, his eyes widening and his mouth open, but dumbstruck before any words could escape.
"Relax, kid. I'm still me, just better," Rosetta winked. "Come on. Let's do this. I'm ready."
Noah nodded, still mute, and obediently fell into step behind Rosetta. They stopped briefly in the kitchen so Rosetta could collect the Mantithica from the table, and then they marched out of the house and into the chill and eerily quiet night. Noah jogged to keep up with Rosetta, and she knew that he was on the verge of saying something several times before he was finally able to choke some words past the lump in his throat.
"Is it all right for you to just walk down the street with that huge axe out in open like that?" Noah asked, keeping a respectfully wide distance between them as they walked.
"There's no one out, and I don't think that anyone would dare to say anything to me, do you?" Rosetta replied, turning in a circle to demonstrate that indeed, Remington was dark and quiet all around them, which was very unusual for this early in the evening, especially on a Saturday night.
Noah followed Rosetta's surveying glance with one of his own, and grimaced with understanding. "So I guess this means that everyone can tell that something bad is about to happen…"
"Or that something is about to happen to something bad," Rosetta corrected, chuckling at her own cleverly bad pun.
"You're enjoying this. Why are you enjoying this all of a sudden?"
"It's been forever since I've had the opportunity to really tangle with something, you know?"
"No. Not at all, actually."
"Humans enjoy their wars as much as my kind do – probably even more, since humans seem willing to fight over every little thing."
"Not all of us. I really prefer the peace and quiet."
"But doesn't this get your blood flowing – even just a little bit?"
"My heart's pounding, but that's not quite the same thing. And I feel a little bit sick again."
"Give it a chance. There's nothing quite like the satisfaction of a successful hunt," Rosetta pronounced, freeing a bit more of the wolf within her.
"I just want to survive this, so I'll leave the fun to you, if you don't mind."
"I wouldn't call it fun. It just makes me feel so alive," Rosetta stressed.
"The moon really does bring something out in you…" Noah mumbled.
"Of course it does," Rosetta stopped in her tracks and closed her eyes, cocking her head to the side. They stood at the edge of the city park a block from the courthouse square. "Do you feel that?"
"I just feel like my head is going to explode, and I don't think that's what you mean."
"I can sense it now, even without using the Mantithica."
"It? You mean Balmalki? You can already sense something from it?" Noah hissed with growing alarm in his voice. "You don't think that means that it knows we're coming, do you? Tell me that doesn't mean that it woke up early to face you."
"No, I don't think so. My seal is gone, so I'm not on its radar anymore. Come closer," Rosetta said, motioning for Noah with her free hand. "Relax, Noah. Think of it as an experiment – you like those, don't you?"
"Actually, I was suddenly reminded of Little Red Riding Hood…" Noah croaked, staying rooted where he stood.
"Ahh… The better to eat you with, my dear…" Rosetta mused, nodding. "Are you really going to make me come to you right now?"
"Just remember that you promised not to eat me," Noah insisted, wagging his finger at Rosetta, who laughed softly as he sighed and walked to her side with his shoulders slumped in defeat.
"Now I can hear it breathing," Rosetta observed quietly. "I can smell the stink of the rotten old beastie."
"That's a werewolf thing, isn't it?"
"Yes, but not like this. This is a Dragonite thing," Rosetta leaned in toward the human and motioned at the pendant hidden under Noah's shirt. "Even with that stone around your neck, you can't feel anything from the demon? Not at all?"
"I'm so scared right now that I can't really tell all the different fears apart."
"Nothing wrong with a little fear, but you're not as scared as you think," Rosetta grinned. She pulled herself back up to her full height, noticing that she was markedly taller than Noah now, and broad enough to hide the boy in her shadow. He seemed to notice, too, but Rosetta was still convinced that Noah wasn't nearly as afraid as he claimed to be. He just didn't smell like fear to her, and there was no aroma in the world that could compare to mortal fear. She couldn't put her finger on it, but she knew that it wasn't fear.
She just hoped that it wasn't dragon that she could smell on her human companion because she really didn't have the time or the energy for that complication right now, not to mention that Noah would have some sort of fit if she even mentioned that possibility, so she kept it to herself. Besides, what were the odds that all of the old rumors about Dragonite were true, anyway?
"Are you sweating from trying to keep up with me, or from something else?" Rosetta asked, squinting her eyes at Noah.
"I may not look it, but I run almost every day," Noah replied indignantly. "I think it's the Dragonite. I think it knows that it's time, because it's been getting warmer ever since you got to the house this evening. It's really very warm right now – hot, even. Like I think it should be burning me by now, but it isn't. I really don't want a dragon-forged gem around my neck when it bursts into flames and comes alive again, but I can't seem to convince myself to take it off, either. Should I be worried about that?"
"Probably not right now. The way I understand it, the heat shows that the stone is awake, and the fact that you're not burning to ash means that the Dragonite recognizes you as its rightful master right now," Rosetta said. She leaned the halberd against a nearby tree and slid out of her leather jacket, noticing that her back didn't really sting any more. She hoped it was just the moon and not a sign that her skin was regenerating more quickly than she had anticipated. They needed to move faster and get this over with. She retrieved the Mantithica from her jacket pocket, then hung the weathered leather over the lowest tree branch before wrapping her fingers around the halberd's staff again.
"It's showtime, Noah Wycksham, Dragonite master," Rosetta grinned, transforming almost completely before Noah's terrified stare. She wasn't entirely sure why Noah looked so alarmed – after all, he knew full well that she was a werewolf, and compared to a lot of her kin, she was still pretty attractive in werewolf form. A little hairy, but still hot.
"What do you need me to do?" Noah croaked after another moment's hesitation.
"Bond your Dragonite to this halberd's blade. I think that should do the trick."
"And exactly how do I do that?" Noah asked, looking puzzled as he pulled the pendant free from within his shirt, lifting the chain over his head and dangling the swirling, glowing stone in front of him. His eyes picked up glints of red and gold flame from within the stone, and he blinked rapidly, before the confusion melted from his expression, usurped by a calm, satisfied understanding. "I just have to ask it, and it will do what I want it to…" he murmured. "Wow – that's pretty cool, isn't it?"
"Just don't let it go to your head, or you'll probably regret it," Rosetta advised in a thick, raspy voice that she barely recognized as her own. It was the throaty intonation of an animal, and she rarely had reason to speak when she was in this form, or more to the point, she rarely had anyone around to talk to when she was a full-blown werewolf.
"Remind me to ask you to explain that comment when this is all over with," Noah grumbled. "Hold that axe out here, please."
Rosetta obliged, easily wielding the sturdy halberd now. Surely it had once belonged to a werewolf. It was such a perfect fit for her in this guise – well balanced, hefty, and exactly the right length. She extended her arm and held the formidable axe head steady, parallel to the ground, watching Noah inch the glowing Dragonite closer to the flat, grey steel. He focused his gaze and let the chain slip free from his fingers. The Dragonite hovered momentarily, and then floated down toward the halberd. Instead of landing on the flat surface of the side of the axe, the dragon glass shimmered and melted, spreading across the entire area of the blade like a molten gauze. The weapon shuddered in Rosetta's fist, then pulsed slightly. The steel glowed evenly, darkly crimson, and Rosetta swung the halberd in a broad circle above her head. It was still a stout weapon, but it was somehow fast and maneuverable now, too, leaving a glittering trail of red and gold sparks in its wake.
"That actually worked, didn't it?" Noah whispered in awe, watching the arc of tiny embers fade.
"Even better than I hoped. Thank you, human," Rosetta acknowledged with a slight bow, shouldering the halberd. "Now let's see if it will kill a fat, layabout old demon."
She turned on her heel and strode quickly through the park, across the darkened street, and into the courthouse square until she stood before the wretched, gnarled tree marking the demon's hidden tomb. The heavy stench emanating from the slumbering beastie fouled the air, and Rosetta paced back and forth along the edge of the broken ground at the edge of the tree's roots, feeling a mix of anxiety and ferocity welling up within her.
She took a deep breath and prepared to slide the palm of her hand along the cutting edge of the halberd, but the dangerous red tint of the steel gave her pause. She wasn't sure what effect a Dragonite infused blade might have on a werewolf, and this wasn't a good time to find out, so she brought her hand to her mouth and bit into her own flesh, only so deep as to draw enough blood to satisfy the Mantithica. She grasped her bloody hand around the weathered wood, focusing her mind on gaining entrance to Balmalki's tomb. Without saying a single word aloud, the ground beneath her feet groaned and shuddered before falling away into nothingness, revealing the mouth of a stone staircase descending steeply into the darkness beneath the dying tree.
"Oh shit…" Noah whispered from somewhere behind her. Rosetta glanced over her shoulder to find the human peering around her into the pit while covering his mouth and nose with the neck of his shirt. "What now?"
"You're welcome to follow me, or you can stay here, whatever suits you. Just keep quiet and stay behind me," Rosetta instructed. She turned her back on Noah before he had the chance to reply. She just wanted to get this over with now, and the little Keeper could make his own decision.
She tucked the Mantithica back under her belt and tightened both hands around the ash staff of the halberd, brandishing the polearm in front of her. She gritted her teeth to try to ignore the stench and padded slowly, silently down the rough-hewn steps until the sky vanished, replaced by rent earth lashed together by trailing tree roots. The halberd blade before her cast a dim, ruddy light that gradually revealed the bottom of the staircase only a few more steps below her. She kept a steady pace, in time with her breathing, training her enhanced sight past the glow of the halberd and deeper into the darkness.
She paused at the bottom of the stairs, crouching to peer through the open portal in front of her. The doorframe was smaller than she had expected, and lacked the proper grandeur that should mark the tomb of a true demon lord. The more she learned about this Balmalki, the more she questioned its true strength. For the fat bastard to fit through this entrance, it had to be shorter than she was, or it preferred to crawl on its belly. She listened for another moment, and hearing nothing from within the stone chamber, she lowered her head and crossed the threshold into the tomb itself.
She stepped immediately to one side after entering the main chamber of the tomb, keeping her back to the wall and rapidly examining the rest of the space before her. It was a simple, square room with no ornamentation or contents to speak of. The walls were unfinished stone, looking more like a cave than a manmade structure, and bore no inscriptions speaking to the glory or savagery of the demon who lay within. There were no signs of previous sacrifices or offerings, no artifacts, nothing at all. Just a barren room cloaked in an overpowering stench.
Noah appeared at her side, both of his hands clamped over the lower half of his face, but he still made a muffled choking sound as he leaned against the wall on the other side of the doorway. Rosetta paid no attention to him, focusing instead on her intense examination of the seemingly empty chamber. She peered through the dim, able to discern the edge of a deep recess in the center of the tomb, but unable to see what might rest within from where she stood. Before she took another step closer to the unseen abyss, she wanted to make sure that she hadn't missed anything and that there was nothing lurking, silent and unseen, in the far corners. Fat and lazy demon or not, she couldn't believe that Balmalki was so stupid and cocky as to make it this easy for a marauder to invade his resting place and take his head.
As she continued her inspection, a nearly blinding light interrupted Rosetta. She snarled and drew in a sharp breath, snapping her head to the side to find Noah, blinking rapidly and holding a small, uncorked bottle in his outstretched hand. She fought the urge to turn the halberd against the human, but paused, waiting to see if the unnatural light would draw anything out of the pit in the middle of the room. This wasn't the stealthiest of plans, but it would serve the same purpose.
After a long, breathless moment, Rosetta cautiously stepped forward, surprised that nothing stirred within the tomb, despite Noah and his bottle of light. The corners were empty, and nothing emerged from the shadows to defend the demon. Rosetta struggled to quiet her nerves, finding the silence even more troubling than the prospect of facing an army of minions within the confined space. But Balmalki didn't seem to have any minions, which probably shouldn't have been so surprising to a werewolf without a pack, but Rosetta still found the situation very odd.
She crept to the edge of the central pit, and crouched low, peering into the shadows still beyond the reach of Noah's bottled light. The stench here was all but unbearable, but Rosetta was able to ignore the rancidity when she finally laid eyes on her adversary and found that Balmalki was still deeply asleep and evidently completely unaware of her proximity. Noah had indeed done well in removing the beastie's seal from her flesh.
It was curled up in the stone pit beneath her, a mass of blotchy flesh and wrinkled skin. The etchings in the Wyckshams' books were overly generous to the demon, who was much smaller and far less muscled than Rosetta had been led to believe. Laying eyes on the slumbering lump, Rosetta wondered if she even needed the Dragonite to slay Balmalki – she reckoned that her strength alone would probably have been enough to dispatch the foul creature.
The shadows dispelled from the inner chamber of the tomb as Noah inched closer to the edge, brandishing his light before him. He audibly gagged at Rosetta's side, before shaking his head at her and scampering back to the mouth of the tomb. His curiosity might not be completely satisfied with a mere peek over the edge, but the stench really was too much to bear, and no doubt, it was about to get much worse.
Rosetta tightened her stranglehold on the halberd, then took as deep a breath as she dared and let her shoulders relax. She trained her gaze on the back of Balmalki's neck, honing in on her target. She focused her strength, drawing all of her power from the padded balls of her feet to the clawed tips of her fingers, and lunged forward and down upon the demon below the floor.
The Dragonite-tinged blade swung true in a heavy downward arc, landing a vicious blow precisely where Balmalki's head attached to its corpulent neck. The axe felt as though it met no resistance at all, slicing without hesitation through the demon's neck and continuing unabated through part of its upper arm before burying deeply in the dimpled mass of its upper thigh, just below the hip. Rosetta ripped the blade free, splattering the chamber wall with cast-off blood and meat, raising the weapon above her head to cast another blow as her feet sunk into the demon's fleshy ribcage. She paused, holding her breath as Balmalki's head rolled free from its body and fell to the floor by its knees, staring up at her with glazed, unseeing eyes.
With one blow, she had slain Balmalki. The Devourer had proven quite a let-down after all, but deep in her gut, Rosetta had a bad feeling that it was all too easy – and there was something more going on that she couldn't see yet.
Before she could grapple further with that dismal notion, Rosetta felt her feet sinking into Balmalki's fresh corpse, and heard an escalating rumble rising up from the depths of the earth. She shook her feet free and shouldered the gory halberd, grasping at the craggy wall for a handhold. She hauled herself out of the pit and found Noah pacing at the doorway where she had left him. He raised his eyebrows as she approached, but she shook her head and grabbed his shoulder, dragging him through the low portal and rapidly scaling the stairs as the rumble grew more immediate and the ground quaked beneath her scrambling feet.
They burst free from the steep stairs into the courthouse square. Rosetta adjusted her grip on Noah's upper arm and continued striding away from the tomb, dragging the human behind her. She didn't stop or look back until they had crossed the street and stood again under the cover of the trees in the silent park. She shoved Noah behind her and watched as small clouds of dust belched from the roots of the gnarled old tree, then the entire patch of dead ground bulged upward, froze for a moment, and collapsed on itself, swallowing any trace that the tomb or tree had ever been there. The deep rumbling faded and slowly disappeared, and the reawakened breeze cleansed the air of the last traces of Balmalki's stench, save for the disgusting cloud that lingered around Rosetta and her blood-crusted halberd.
Rosetta breathed a long, slow sigh, still convinced that this wasn't over and that it could not possibly be as easy as it had seemed. She tipped her head back and gazed at the pale beauty of the full moon hanging overhead. What was she missing? What was the nagging doubt in the back of her head and the pit of her gut that refused to allow her to enjoy this moment? After all, she had just saved herself, and the entire town, from the curse of a ravenous demon, and even if Balmalki wasn't as fierce as advertised, a demon was a demon and she had struck it down. She shook her head, letting most of the wolf fade away.
"Rosetta, you did it," Noah said in a shaky voice behind her. He cleared his throat and clamped both hands around her arm, drawing close to her side. "You opened the tomb and killed that horrible thing, just like that. You saved us all…" Noah's voice shuddered again and he choked up a bit. "You were magnificent!"
"Thanks, kid, but that was way too easy. Either we were lied to, or something else is pulling the strings behind the curtain."
"What do you mean?" Noah croaked, further tightening his grip on Rosetta's arm until his fingers bit into her flesh.
"I mean just that. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad that this worked and that Balmalki is out of the picture and we'll live to see Wednesday, but something's not right. I can feel it. Take your Dragonite back – we need to get back to the house."
Noah meekly nodded, keeping his worried eyes on Rosetta. She heaved the halberd off her shoulder and extended it toward Noah again. He reached out and drug his fingers across the blade, skimming ripples in their wake as though on the surface of a crimson pond. The halberd shuddered again, and the supernatural film gathered in the center of the steel before rising to meet Noah's hand and congealing back into the murky pendant it had been when the evening began. Noah pulled the Dragonite back to him, and looped the chain over his head, letting the stone fall beneath his shirt collar and hang around his neck again.
"In case we need it again later," he explained, looking past Rosetta toward the depressed earth in the courthouse square marking the spot where the demon fell.
"Let's go," Rosetta urged, taking the lead back to the Wycksham house, barely breaking stride to grab her jacket from the low-hanging tree limb on the other side of the park on their way past. The walk home was brisk and quiet, a strange nervous tension settling between the human and the werewolf. All around them, Remington remained still, as though the entire town continued holding its breath to make sure that Rosetta had indeed been successful against their resident demon.
The farther they walked, the more Rosetta slipped back into fully human form. She needed her wits about her, and as much as she loved her true self, it wasn't the best option when a clear head was important. Wolves acted on instinct, not logic, and she was fairly sure that all the natural cunning in the world wasn't going to be of much help to her now.
Noah unlocked the door and walked back into his house, heading straight for the kitchen. Rosetta followed, leaning the bloody halberd against the table and watching as Noah placed a cold beer in front of her and joined her at the kitchen table with a grim expression on his young face.
"If we made it back here alive tonight, I expected that we would be celebrating," he shrugged, glancing up only briefly to meet Rosetta's eyes.
"Yeah, and maybe we will, but something just doesn't feel right to me," Rosetta mused, flipping open a pizza box and absently helping herself to the leftovers.
"Maybe it's just the letdown from building everything up to this moment and then finding out that Balmalki was less a threat than you expected it to be," Noah suggested hopefully.
"Maybe…" Rosetta began, shaking her head slowly. "But there's more to it. We're missing a piece… Here – take a look at this." Rosetta pulled a carefully folded piece of paper from her jacket pocket and handed it to Noah.
He glanced from the paper in his hand to Rosetta and back again several times before setting down his beer and cautiously unfolding the paper. He squinted at it, flipped it over, examined the other side, and turned it back over before he said anything. "What is this supposed to be, exactly?"
"You don't remember? That first night, I told you that I'd gotten a letter about Balmalki, and I said I would bring it to you because you wanted to see it so badly."
"This is just a blank piece of paper."
"That can't be. It's not like I get a lot of mail, and there's a big difference between the water bill and a letter proclaiming that the end is nigh."
"Rosetta, there is nothing written on this paper. See?" Noah insisted, holding the paper at arm's length, directly in front of Rosetta's face.
"What the fuck?" Rosetta whispered, dropping her pizza back into the box and snatching the letter from Noah. She stared at it, front and back, but the human was right – all traces of the bold, flowing black handwriting that had been on the face of this paper when she left home that afternoon was gone now, leaving no trace. Rosetta would have felt embarrassed or even slightly crazy if not for the anxious chill raising the hair on the back of her neck.
"You're not kidding, are you?" Noah asked quietly, observing Rosetta's reaction to the blank paper.
"I don't think it's funny."
"How much do you remember about what was written there, before it vanished?" Noah prompted, tipping back in his chair to retrieve a notebook and pen from a drawer by the stove.
"What does it matter now? Balmalki's dead."
"Yes, but if you're right and there's someone manipulating us, that letter was surely part of their plan."
"What do you know about this?" Rosetta asked abruptly, turning her full attention to Noah and slapping the letter down on the table between them.
"Nothing about this in particular, but I've read about similar circumstances. There was a priestess who wrote letters to young men, pretending to be their fiancées, to lure them to her house where she sacrificed them to whatever demon she worshipped. A seer wrote letters to warn people about what she had seen in their futures, but her letters were garbled madness, so she was committed to a sanitarium and every bad thing came to pass anyway. There are even accounts of gods writing messages to people if it served their purposes – just look at the Ten Commandments."
"But none of them wrote letters that disappeared later, did they?"
"Not that I know of, but I wouldn't be surprised. I'm sure it's an incantation of some sort, to make sure that nothing can be traced back to them, that no evidence is left behind. Ingenious, if you really think about it."
"A cheap parlor trick," Rosetta snarled.
"But if someone wrote to you to help you slay Balmalki, why assume that they're up to no good?" Noah asked, peering at the blank paper again. "Maybe someone really was trying to help you – help the whole town – and they just wanted to stay anonymous. Slaying a demon and saving about fourteen thousand people in the process is a good thing at the end of the day, you know."
"Unless slaying the demon serves another purpose and saving everyone was just a side effect," Rosetta countered.
"Well, we could sit and argue this back and forth all night, but it won't do us much good until we find out more about whoever wrote this note," Noah concluded. "Was it handwritten or typed?"
"Handwritten. Black ink. Old-fashioned type writing, or at least someone trying to make it look old-fashioned."
"And there was no name or return address?"
"The envelope was from here in Remington, but I threw it away. My address was listed on both the 'to' and 'from' lines. It was just one of those computer printed labels from a shipping website, anyway."
"You know about websites?" Noah asked.
"Of course. Why? Do you just assume that werewolves are such stupid beasts that we can't figure out a computer?" Rosetta snapped, glaring at Noah.
"No, no – nothing like that," Noah quickly assured, waving his hands submissively in front of his chest. "I've just never thought about werewolves doing mundane sorts of things – Internet, pizza, laundry… You never read about supernatural creatures doing the boring, daily routine stuff; you only read about them doing supernatural stuff."
"Because it's safe to assume that we can handle the boring, daily routine stuff or we wouldn't be around long enough to face the demon slaying and human eating," Rosetta paused to consider, relaxing her shoulders and managing a half-smile for Noah's benefit. "Except for vampires. I doubt that a bloodsucker could manage to survive without enthralled lackeys to handle the day to day for them. They're a fucking useless lot when it comes to common sense and practical matters. Lazy, too."
"Then it's a good thing that he didn't get in your way tonight, isn't it?" Noah played along, smiling that sheepish, little boy grin that melted away Rosetta's ire. Her temper was always too short during the full moon, and the potential of an unseen, unknown threat was making her all but paranoid, but there was no need for her to take it out on Noah. After all, he was only trying to help.
"There's no reason to even consider the vampire as part of this. He's not even clever enough to dispose of his kills, so I'm sure that invisible ink is way out of his league," Rosetta dismissed, returning to the pizza in front of her, glad that Noah thought ahead to order so much extra. Her appetite was bottomless tonight, but maybe demon-slaying was just hungry work.
"Invisible ink…" Noah muttered. "Now there's a thought…"
"What's that?" Rosetta asked through a mouthful of cheese.
"The words might still be there, but we just can't see them anymore," Noah mused. "But I think I know someone who can."
"So the demon's dead, but you're still on the case?"
"I'm in if you are – I mean, if you're still willing to partner with a human," Noah suggesting, trying to sound casual but failing to hide the delighted gleam in his eyes.
"Has curiosity ever killed a Keeper?" Rosetta teased.
"Lots of us, I'm afraid. But none of them had a demon-slaying, town-saving werewolf looking out for them."
"Flattery works on vampires, but my kind isn't so vain and simple."
"I'll remember that," Noah grinned. "So, do you want to go talk to my crone later this week?"
"Your crone? Does she know that you call her that?" Rosetta rolled her eyes. "And why wait? Wouldn't it be best to talk to her before the letter has the chance to fade any further?"
"I doubt if she would be too happy with me if I brought a werewolf calling during the full moon, and I would imagine that a couple more days shouldn't make this too much more difficult. I mean, it's not like the words are going to get more invisible."
"If you say so, Keeper."
"We make a pretty good team, don't you think?" Noah asked quietly.
Rosetta glanced up from her pizza box and offered him a half-smile. "Beer me, kid."
Noah grinned widely and eagerly nodded before raiding the refrigerator for a fresh round of cold brews.