Under My Skin, page 1
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.
Under My Skin
COPYRIGHT © 2010 by Tracy A. Belsher
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author or Leap Books except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
Contact Information: firstname.lastname@example.org
Cover Art by Nicola Martinez
Interior Art by Val Cox
Leap Books, LLC
First Edition 2010
E-book Edition 2011
Published in the United States of America
There are many individuals who deserve a brand new, hybrid vehicle in their driveway for their support, advice, hacking, slashing, and handholding while I wrote this book. So here goes…
Thanks to: My father, a man of few words, and my mother who speaks volumes. Blaise and Brenda for the good times, the encouragement, and the sibling dysfunction that I so love. Grandpa Scott who wrote me into the story of his life. Early readers on Critique Circle and other online crit groups – you helped develop my thick, leathery writer’s hide. A howl out to Kitty and Tami for being my virtual sisters and the ultimate critique partners. To Tess for the political correctness cues along the way. Thanks, darling Bev, for all the proofing – and for teaching me how to drive at the ripe old age of 35. You saved my marriage! ;) Jo and Carol, Leeor, Elaine – my ever ready crew of readers. You’re fab and you know it! Many thanks to the staff at Holy Cross for cheering me along, and to all my friends and family who took the time to ask how the writing was going. To Val for bringing my characters to life is such a hip, paranormal way. My editor, Susan, gets hugs and chocolate for beating UMS into submission. Laurie – you’re a goddess for LEAPing into the unknown. Cheers and a beverage of her choosing to Rosemary Clement-Moore for her kickass books and willingness to read UMS. Finally, hugs and kisses to my crazy labs, Higgins and Willow. And an ex-rated embrace to my husband, Shawn, for being my roadie, my BBF, and the finest man I know. Okay, yes, he did come up with a few of the snappy one-liners in UMS. But I’m not telling you which ones. ;)
Praise for Under My Skin
"Under My Skin is a roller-coaster romp through a supernatural world filled with scary beasties, otherworldly magic, and characters you'll root for. Eryn is a tough but likable protagonist whose paranormal problems make a compelling story full of mystery, magic, action and romance. A fun and engaging read. I'm looking forward to the sequel."
~Rosemary Clement-Moore, award-winning author of Prom Dates from Hell, Hell Week, Highway to Hell, and The Splendor Falls
“Judith Graves sinks claws into you and doesn‘t let go. Her stories overflow with nail biting adventures, hot heroes, and equally tasty villains, not to mention wise cracking heroines you‘ll love.”
~Kitty Keswick, author of Freaksville and Furry and Freaked
“...fans of paranormal YA fiction will appreciate a protagonist with attitude and anticipate the next volume in the planned trilogy, Second Skin… Recommended”
~CM Magazine, The Manitoba Library Association
Chapter 1: A Little Van Hexing
I ran like my life depended on it.
Maybe it did.
Running kept me sane. The faster my feet hit the ground, the clearer my father’s voice and the more detailed my mother’s face became. My parents lived again in those brief moments when my instincts kicked in and the past hitched a ride on my cross trainers. But when I stopped, the memories faded and left an odd emptiness. Like now.
I laid on more speed. Wind roared past my ears and blasted my hair out behind me, proving why my trademark ponytails were both funky and functional. No matter how intense the run, the hunt, the kill, I never had to stress about a bad hair day. Hey, I was a sixteen-year-old hunter of paranormal creatures. Bad hair was as much of an issue as taking down big bad evil.
And I’d had my share of both. Lecture number 7201 or something—if flyaway hair obstructs your vision and means the difference between life and death, shave your head. Oh, my father was full of those hunter tidbits.
I thundered down the mulch-lined trail, crushing pinecones underfoot. Low-lying shrubs, their thinning leaves a patchwork of fall hues, closed in around me, narrowing the trail to shoulder width. Blocked out by thickening woods, the cheerful sunshine no longer glistened on the dew-covered grasses edging the trail. I forged ahead into the gloom. My arms pumped hard as branches sliced at any flesh unprotected by my T-shirt. Tension crept into my shoulders.
Something was up.
Something not so nice.
I did a quick 360, my legs wobbling. Nothing around. But still… I closed my mouth, inhaled through my nose, and trained my sharpened hearing on the woods that engulfed me. Except for fallen leaves rustling in the wind, scuttling across the earth like mice, the woods were quiet. Freaky quiet. The hush that settled over a hunter as his prey strode blithely into range.
Fighting my growing unease, I focused on the wild smells of the forest. Evergreens, sharp and pungent. Rotting leaves. A fox den nearby. I charged down a trail behind Redgrave High, the lead runner in a gym class race.
What was there to be scared of?
In my experience? Plenty.
The eerie quiet triggered my spidey sense. The hairs on the back of my neck stood at attention and saluted. Danger ahead, capt’n! I reached beyond my human limits, tapped into my heightened senses. I tilted my head, nostrils flared. I filtered through the earthy scents of the forest for anything out of the ordinary. Anything extraordinary. The breeze at my back brought him to me.
Werewolf. Four o’clock. Part wet dog, part I’ve-been-feasting-on-human-flesh-all-night foulness.
My pulse jolted in my throat. I kept running, eyes forward, scanning the forest, playing it cool for the creature shadowing me.
Why had I let my guard down? Given into my desire for speed and taken such a huge lead? I’d only made it easy for the werewolf to track me. My scent was pure, not mingled with sweat and deodorant and body spray as it would have been if I’d stayed with the group.
Now, the werewolf knew I wasn’t quite human. Nope, I was something much more interesting...and tasty. If the deep growl behind me was any indication, he thought I was definitely worth a closer look.
Careful what you wish for, furball, this is one meal that might bite back.
Launching into the air, I grabbed a thick branch arching about eight feet over the trail, pulled my knees to my chest, and swung my body high. The werewolf ran under me like I was a matador’s cape. He shook his shaggy head, letting out a burst of enraged huffs as he struggled to slow down. Werewolves were so uncoordinated. Half man, half beast, their scrambled brains and morphing bodies didn’t always work in unison.
I scampered up until I was perched among the branches. Slack-jawed, chest heaving, I sucked in gulps of air. Below me the beast paced back toward the tree, grunting and growling.
Thankfully werewolves weren’t climbers. The big bad would never get me up here. I hoped he wouldn’t try to ram the tree trunk to knock me out. I hated when that happened.
Safe for the moment, I peered down at the ghoulish, bulbous shapes outlined under his fur. This was no proper change from man to wolf, like with my species, the wolven. Wolven were born, not made. We were paranormal, sure, but still a part of na
His bones kept shifting, as if he were uncertain which form to assume, man or beast. Raw patches of leathery human skin appeared all over his body as he molted and then grew black fur over and over. Shapeshifters often took years to control their abilities—if they didn’t go stark raving mad first. This one was a newbie. Making stupid mistakes. No self-control. Sloppy.
Did my new buddy have any friends? I scanned the woods. Surprisingly, there was no hint of other weres. No dark shapes pacing in the shrubbery. Highly unusual. Werewolves worked in packs, serving under a more powerful paranorm, like a vamp or demon. According to the Council, Redgrave was paranorm free. So this werewolf must be a rogue. Whatever he was, his presence didn’t totally shock me. After all, if there weren’t any rogues in the paranorm world, my father and his hunters would have been out of jobs long ago.
How was I going to get myself out of this one? I was in gym class, for god’s sake. I couldn’t stay in this tree forever. And in my sweats and T-shirt, I was hardly prepared to duke it out with a werewolf. I didn’t have a bit of silver on me.
But he didn’t know that.
Like my dad always said, when you’ve got nothing, act like you could care less. I let go of the branch, dropped to the ground, and straightened to my full height, my feet firmly planted, my stance confident.
“Scouting for prey in the middle of the afternoon?” I asked as if amused by his folly.
He staggered toward me, tilting his massive head, apparently questioning my sanity. His grizzly snout trembled, a thick line of drool hung from his jowls. Clearly, he expected to make quick work of me.
I held my ground, chin high. “Let me guess, you’re one of those early-bird-gets-the-worm kind of werewolves, right? Too bad I always carry my trusty athame with me.” I patted the back of my sweats for effect. “The blade is solid silver.”
His ragged ears flattened back against his head, his steps faltered.
“Yup,” I breezed, “it’s an oldie but a goody, at least three hundred years old.”
The beast shuddered. Ahh…now I had him. With ritual daggers, the older, the better. All the more infused with magic. And a silver athame would be extremely deadly.
So deadly, even I wouldn’t be able to hold it if my father hadn’t forged a rosewood hilt to protect my hands. Silver was deadly to werewolves and wolven alike. For me it wasn’t so bad—being half human gave me some immunity, but the blade could do serious damage if I wasn’t careful. I’d had more than my share of nasty silver burns during my training in wielding the dagger.
The werewolf’s glowing, freaky red eyes narrowed as I moved my hand to my back again as if to grasp a dagger tucked into my sweat pants.
“Did I mention it was cursed?” I kept my tone light and conversational. We were getting to be good buds, me and the beast. “Yup, by a Dutch witch, and we all know how potent they are. Nothing like a little Van Hexing for good measure.”
The werewolf snorted. The scent radiating from him told me that, though he was new, he understood an athame’s power. Interesting. If he’d seen one before or had been warned about them, maybe this town had some witchy action going on. So much for Redgrave—the small, super-duper normal town Sebastian had sent me to live in—being off the paranorm map.
“Quit your huffing. It won’t do you any good.” I grinned as I brought my hand up as if to wield the dagger. “Hold still, this won’t hurt a bit.”
The werewolf’s molt-laden ears twitched, but he didn’t move.
Damn. I really wished I had brought the athame. The way it sliced and diced. Why had I tucked it under my mattress for safekeeping? I’m sorry, how could it keep me safe there when the danger was here? I wouldn’t leave home without it again, but seriously I never expected to need a weapon in Redgrave. Huh, I’d gone less than a week before the first paranormal disaster came stalking my heels.
The distant approach of my eleventh-grade gym class, all twenty or so students, broke the stillness of the forest. They were some thirty yards down the trail but to my were-friend and me, thanks to our heightened hearing, their cannoning steps sounded very close indeed. I picked up their laughter and groans as they ran.
The werewolf had missed his moment, and we both knew it. He couldn’t risk an attack in full daylight, close to so many humans. Even rogues weren’t totally insane. They might not follow every teeny little rule, which often brought them the attention of the Council and hunters like my dad, but rogues were all about self-preservation.
Lips pulled back, gleaming fangs bared as if to say, We’ll meet again, the werewolf bolted into the thicket and disappeared. My breath left me in a relieved rush. Dropping my daggerless hand, I bent over with my hands on my knees. Okay, rogue werewolf roaming the woods—that was a surprise. I straightened, sucking in air, taking in the werewolf’s lingering stench, imprinting him on my mind. If I needed to, I could track him on the memory of his scent alone. Judging from this foolish daylight excursion, he was one I’d have to track down before he gave someone all the proof they needed that, although Santa Claus was a myth, beasties like him really did exist.
And here I’d thought Redgrave had nothing much to offer a girl like me. Now this was more like it. Possible witch and/or magics flying around, and werewolves. Things were looking up. Being half wolven was kind of cool…sometimes. Thanks to my mom’s DNA, I had certain advantages. Advantages I’d never had the chance to explore while taking the drugs my father had created to keep my unpredictable wolven half subdued. Without those drugs I flip-flopped from sheer exhilaration, as I discovered my increasing wolven abilities, to sheer horror. Now, sprouting a nasty case of back hair, a tail, and fangs—some time before graduation—were serious possibilities.
Flying back and forth between treetops, a pair of crows cawed, nagging at me for letting the werewolf go. Although I didn’t speak crow, I was pretty sure they were slandering my good name. I glared up at them and called out, “Oh yeah? I know you are, but what am I?” My voice rose, mimicking their screeching, but when the guttural noises coming from my mouth ran a close second to a horror movie screamer. I stopped.
They sounded too much like the cries I’d heard in my nightmares lately. Since my parents’ disappearance, I’d been having vivid, gory dreams about losing control, my wolf completely taking over. Being off my father’s meds intensified the dreams threefold. But in every dream, right after I’d been stripped of all humanity, my mother appeared, and the disgust in her eyes, the horror on her face haunted me when I woke. I shoved the thought aside. No point in dwelling on the dreams. They’d be after me later anyway.
My sweat-soaked cotton T-shirt absorbed better than a jumbo-sized tampon and hung off me like deadweight. I fisted the drenched material, fanning it away from my skin, about to resume the race, when the crows fell silent.
A twig snapped in the thicket off the trail.
I spun around and gasped when a tall form veered to my left, running at full speed. Not a werewolf this time, but someone from gym class out to win the race. Low-hanging branches prevented me from seeing much, but my adversary was definitely male. He had a half a foot on me and a lean body. The rotter. Losing because of some local-yokel shortcut was NOT an option. So maybe I was being a bit too competitive. What else was there to do in this town?
Well, besides scare off the occasional werewolf?
I sprinted ahead, caught up, and soon took a slight lead. Staying off the trail, clinging to the shadows, the guy checked me out with a few sideways glances. I couldn’t quite contain the extra bounce in my stride or the flirtatious looks I darted back. Something about running with a guy in the woods set my pulse racing in more ways than one. His smooth pace and fluid form told me this was a worthy challenger. For once I actually doubted my chances of winning, b
Our pounding feet and rhythmic breathing echoed through the woods. A gap in the trees along the trail finally allowed me to get a good look. He was Native, with high cheekbones, warm tawny skin, a sharp, hawkish nose that looked as if it had been broken more than once. I guesstimated he was a year or two older than me. His dark, shoulder-length hair streamed behind him as he cut a swath through the brush. Clad in a stretchy black T-shirt, jeans taut around his muscular thighs, he was a modern-day warrior.
Then I spotted it—his jogging buddy. A sleek grey wolf loping at his side, its jaws open in a canine grin. I gaped at them, man and beast moving as one. Lanky and graceful, with shining grey fur and keen amber eyes, the wolf was a beautiful contrast to the werewolf monstrosity I’d seen.
But still, a wolf was a wolf. I hadn’t seen anyone at Redgrave High who looked as if they could inspire the loyalty of a wolf. Wolves shied away from human contact. Whatever bonds we’d had in the past, back in the caveman days, things had changed. Man had turned on wolf. Demonizing them in fairytales, slaughtering them, forcing wolves to seek out new territory.
That kind of betrayal wasn’t something any creature forgot. And it was all for nothing. The wolves were never the problem.
So maybe this guy with a wolf at his side wasn’t from gym class. Probably not a good thing.
Too absorbed in staring at my opponents, I failed to watch my footing on the uneven cedar chips. The path twisted. I didn’t. My sneaker snagged on a piece of deadwood. I staggered and lost my stride. My feet kicked dirt and leaves into the air as I crashed against the rough bark of a tree and struggled to stay upright. Hissing, I pushed off the tree and pitched forward.
My challenger whooped. An unrestrained battle cry at the advantage my fumble gave him. He leapt ahead, devouring the trail, leaving me in his dust. His wolf-dog barked in excitement.