UNMAKE (Spellhounds Book 2), page 9
Then, just as suddenly as he’d grabbed her, he let go. Buddy hurled himself against the back of the cage, snarling and whining.
It took me a moment to understand why.
A wolf stood at Sanadzi’s back. It was huge, bigger than any real wolf had the right to be, and his vaguely translucent form glowed brilliantly crimson.
There was no time for relief. The door upstairs crashed open and Krista came pelting down the stairs, even as Sanadzi scrambled backwards through Jaesung’s glaring spirit-form.
I grabbed her by the good arm and hauled her up. Krista dove for the first aid kit, slipping a bit on the long cuffs of her unicorn pajama bottoms. A moment later, her arm was stretched out beneath a faucet.
My mom had been a biologist and the pack’s de facto nurse. She would have known exactly what to do in this sort of situation. I had only the vaguest of ideas.
Krista was working at light speed, snapping on gloves and and swabbing Sanadzi’s arm generously with iodine. By then, Jaesung was clattering down the stairs.
Sanadzi’s eyes welled over, but I didn’t think the tears had anything to do with physical pain. She’d been bit before as a veterinarian, but she’d always said it was harder from the rescue dogs. She spent more time with them, knew them better, loved them more.
“We can’t keep doing this to him,” she moaned. “We can’t. He was abused. It’s not-” Krista grabbed her hand, and the two met eyes, both of them looking miserable. “It’s not his fault he’s angry.”
Jaesung slipped an arm around Sanadzi’s back. “Come on,” he said. “We need to get you to the urgent care.”
“Should I…call animal control, or—” Krista sounded uncertain.
“No,” Sanadzi said. “No, I’m not going to kick him out. But we can’t—he’s never going to be adoptable. I hate it, but he’s just too dangerous. Poor thing. God, that poor thing.”
Krista closed her eyes, and it was hard to tell if it was in relief that the dog wouldn’t be euthanized or pain at the thought of him being stuck in a kennel for the rest of his life.
My heart had dropped into my shoes. I stood there, gripping the medical scissors we’d used to cut gauze and tape, and tried not to think too hard about what Sanadzi had said.
Abused. Angry. Dangerous, even to those who were trying to help. What if the Chow wasn’t the only one who wouldn’t ever find a home?
De Vries’s blue eyes flashed into my memory.
“Can you hold the fort?” Krista was asking me.
I nodded, numb and shaken. In the silence that followed Krista, Jaesung, and Sanadzi’s departure, the dread crept in.
Dread, and certainty.
There would be no happily-ever-after for this dog. And there would be no happily-ever-after for me. We were too alike—both too much of a risk to keep around, no matter how badly the people who cared for us wanted to help.
Some of us were beyond rehabilitation. Some of us had simply been twisted too hard by experience to ever be really trustworthy.
I climbed the stairs to the main floor, then up another flight to the room I shared with Jaesung. He’d packed a little duffel bag already. My chest heaved.
Maybe he wouldn’t have to leave forever. Maybe he could come back, and pick up what threads of his life I hadn’t already destroyed.
I slid my cell phone from the bedside table where it had been charging. The number was easy to recall—I could still see it perfectly in my mind’s eye, beneath those restrained black letters that read ‘D.S. De Vries’. With shaking hands, I typed out a short message and hoped Eric and Deepti and Jaesung would understand.
I should have seen this coming.
A sketchbook, open to a beautiful rendering of two clasped hands—mine and Helena’s—sat on my comforter next to a familiar cell phone and a key. Staring down at the neat line of objects on my bed, I almost wanted to laugh, because I really should have known Helena well enough by now.
Of course she was going to run.
Of course she wouldn’t risk my life by taking me with her. I don’t know why I let myself believe she would. No matter how much she loved me, she would always prioritize keeping me safe over keeping me near. And I guess, were our roles reversed, I would do the same thing.
I couldn’t even be mad. But there was no way in any level of hell I would just stand here and let her go. And if she expected me to, she didn’t know me at all.
Krista and I had dropped Sanadzi off at home to recover from the trauma. When we’d gotten back to the rescue, it was to find a distraught Poo-stank and no sign of Helena. Which was weird. We’d left Ruff Patch in her care, and it seemed unlike her to leave it unguarded. Krista had tried calling her, convinced she’d made a quick trip somewhere. But she didn’t pick up.
That was when the worry had started. That was when the nausea had kicked in and a cold sweat had bloomed on my back, and I climbed the stairs to our room.
I picked up her phone and tapped in the security key. No message greeted me, but a quick look at the last set of texts told me everything I needed to know.
I jogged downstairs and found Krista sitting on one of the bar stools, still trying to call her.
“She’s gone,” I said, showing her the phone as it vibrated to life in my hand.
Krista sighed, putting a fist against her lips. “I have no idea why she would go anywhere. We weren’t even gone that long. If she’d texted we could have-”
“No. Kris,” I said, holding up Helena’s key to Ruff Patch. “She’s gone.”
Krista’s face went white and it definitely looked like she was about to pass out. I grabbed her arm. She wobbled a bit on her barstool and grabbed back at me to keep her balance.
To be fair, she didn’t have the kind of warning I had. To her, this disappearance would look nearly unprompted.
“Shit,” she wheezed, eyes on the ground. Then she looked up at me, big blue eyes already sparkling with tears. “But…She was fine! Last night, she was fine! Why would she—you don’t think WITSEC moved her, do you? Do you think she’s in trouble?”
The questions stirred up a tangle of guilt in my chest. I knew exactly why she was gone, but I couldn’t tell Krista any of it. I hugged her instead.
“She might just need some time. I was kind of a dick to her about my knee, and…I don’t know. We made up, but I know she still feels bad. And you know she’s probably blaming herself for Sanadzi getting bit. I’m sure it’s just-”
Krista pushed away from me and stood up, wiping at her eyes. She sniffed, then did a 360 spin, searching the room, and made a beeline for her bag. “I’m going to look for her. She’s on foot. She can’t have gone far.”
“Stay here!” Krista said. “In case she comes home! And check on the dogs! And don’t leave!”
I still had my hand raised in suggestion-making pose when Krista slammed the door and I heard her thundering down the stairs.
“I’ll stay here,” I finished. Poo-stank whined from near my knees and I reached down and petted him.
Eric needed to know. So did Deepti. Actually, she should probably get the news first, but I didn’t know her as well as I knew Eric. And she still had that mom-factor that made me hesitant to contact her in case she decided to ground me for the next twelve years.
I hunted down Eric’s number in the recent calls and dialed it, trying to keep the panic from invading my brain. It rang for almost thirty seconds before the answering message kicked in.
No way in hell was I leaving a message for Detective Lumberjack. The instant I hung up, however, the phone started ringing again in my hand.
Detective Lumberjack! Yes!
I answered. “Hey!” I said, and into the slightly startled silence that followed, “Hel took off.”
A beat, then Eric’s gravelly voice said. “Oh, fuck.”
I nodded, not that he could tell.
“All things noble and self-sacrificing, I’m sure,” I said. “But I don’t think she’s been gone long. Krista and I took Sanadzi to urgent care for a dog bite at, like, ten. She sent a message to some phone number a little after that, and the person called her. She left her sketchbook, phone, and keys on my bed. It looked like…” I swallowed, my throat gone dry. “It looked like goodbye.”
Eric made a wordless growl of frustration, and I heard a door shut. The sound of a passing car made me think he’d just gone outside. “Fucking De Vries. I know how to get his fucking number.”
“Uhh, if that’s the phone dude, I have his fucking number,” I said.
“Give it to me,” he said. “Text it. Damn that girl’s photographic memory! She saw his card for maybe half a second.”
I gave a somewhat hysterical laugh. “Yeah, that sounds like Helena! Always memorizing shady dudes’ phone numbers. Look, can you get over here? I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking we shouldn’t let Febreeze take her anywhere.”
“I’m already on my way,” he said, proving it with the rumble of his car starting up.
Ten minutes later, he stalked in through the Ruff Patch door downstairs, setting off a cascade of barks. I met him in the doorway between the front office and the kennel and waved him back. Eric glanced around, gaze sweeping over the place, though he’d been here a dozen times.
Casing it, I guess, for new information or other people.
“Everyone else is out,” I said. “Krista thinks Helena might have run off because she feels bad about my knee, but I think she’s honestly still worried WITSEC might have come in and grabbed her.”
Eric’s face went dark. “That’s not a terrible cover.”
I took a slow breath and blew it back out, trying to calm the nausea at the idea of Krista having to endure losing Hel that way. “It would break her heart.”
“More or less than the thought of her running away because she wanted to?” Eric said. “At least she wouldn’t imagine Helena didn’t care enough to stay.”
“You know that’s not why,” he said.
“I know. I get her reasoning,” I said. “I’d do the same thing.”
Eric sighed. “Ugh, yeah. That’s the shit part. We all would. But I know the Guild. I work for it. It’s important to have rules, and to enforce them—especially when there are so many millions of people around who have no idea what’s going on.”
“But?” I said.
“But the Guild is really big and really old, and really slow to change. Amendments to the rules come slow.” He sighed, leaned against one of the brick pillars original to Ruff Patch’s previous life as a firehouse. “Probably too slow to save Helena. Particularly if she loses her trial here and goes to the Tribunal. Lot of those Old Magic families are entrenched in rules.”
I fiddled with Helena’s phone, racking my brain.
“I want to help,” I said. “We both know why she really left. Her wanting to keep me safe had a huge part in that, but I can’t…” I struggled to explain, aware of Eric’s stony silence. I slapped my hand over my chest, where the Spellhound tattoo was. “I’m part of this world now, right?”
“Fine, then. Let me in. Let me help you find her.”
Eric watched me for a minute, tracking his gaze from my eyes, to the phone in my hand, then down to my knee. He crossed his arms.
I felt my hands clenching, and suddenly my heart was hammering. Hammering like I was about to go on stage for the first night of a performance, or like my foot had slipped off a cell-tower rung, leaving me dangling at the mercy of carabiners and a nylon cord.
Nerves and nausea and determination looped around in my body. I could fight. I was willing to fight. I just needed someone to show me how.
“Fine,” Eric said. “You’ll ride along. First thing’s first, though.” He pointed at my shoulder. “How are you with that?”
I blinked at him, not sure I understood. “My…shoulder?”
“Jesus, she told me you were smart,” Eric said. “I mean, how are you on four legs?”
Of course, Hel’s tattoo was on her shoulder. “Ohh, got it,” I said. I pointed at my chest, right over my heart. “My tattoo’s here.”
“Whatever. Can you shift?”
I started to nod, then hesitated.
“What?” Eric asked. “Can’t do it?”
“No, I can,” I said. “It’s just…I’m so not used to being a wolf. The second I have to react to anything, I want to react as a human and things get...unstable.”
Eric grimaced. “Sounds like nothing I want to see.”
“I’m sure I’ve been sexier.”
He snorted. “Well, I can think of one way to get started. If she left, she’d have gone on foot, right? She doesn’t have a bike or-”
I shook my head. “On foot,” I agreed.
“Good. Then do your unstable-wolf thing and sniff her out, kid.”
I grimaced. “Okay,” I breathed. “Okay, but I warn you. It’s not fun to watch.”
“I’ll avert my gaze.”
I dragged my shirt over my head and shucked off my jeans, then kicked both under the exam table. As I went for the boxers, a small part of me wondered when exactly Eric planned to start that gaze-averting. But one thing ballet does for you is erase all sense of modesty. Or, really, between dance belts and tights and quick changes, it gets a guy used to being stared at. I’m pretty much certain every member of the company has seen me naked at some point.
I pulled off my boxers and there was the gaze-aversion. For a second there, I’d been about to question Helena’s insistence that Eric was married.
I took a knee, and put one hand on the floor, the other resting on my thigh. Helena could change into a hound standing up, and it was swift and unbroken, even as she fell forward onto her front paws. I needed a bit more mindset.
I closed my eyes, thinking dog thoughts. Thinking how it would feel to run on four legs, to have powerful teeth and jaws, to smell all the crazy scents of the world we missed as humans. I thought of Helena, her hands deep in my fur, grinning stupidly at me the first time I’d managed to fully change.
Warmth flickered in my head, a tiny red spark. The tattoo on my chest heated up, and I felt my skin begin to itch.
I heard the sound of doggie toenails trotting toward me. I thought this was just the dog-thoughts getting really realistic until hot, huffing dog breath hit my face. An instant later, the slimy warmth of a canine tongue slapped my cheek and started bathing.
“Pthhhtt, Poo-stank!” I said, pushing at my dog’s neck. He gave me a lolling dog grin and wagged his tail, clearly excited to see me down on his level. Well, that and I think he recognized what I was doing. Poo-stank loved playing with me in wolf-form. Apparently, I made a great toy.
I shoved him toward Eric. “God, Stanky. I was just getting it to work.”
Eric snagged Poo-stank’s collar, frowning at me. “Would it help if you put a collar on?”
I had to look up to make sure he was joking.
“Shockingly, no,” I said. “This isn’t as easy as Hel makes it look.”
I closed my eyes again, remembering the last time I’d been in this form. My knee had been feeling better. Helena, Poo-stank, and I had snuck to the park across the street and run around for several hours, dashing into ponds and chasing after squirrels and bugs and each other. I’d seen my reflection in one of those ponds: a big, black wolf with golden eyes.
It had been the most extraordinary feeling. Primal. Real. I’d felt a howl building in my chest, the compulsion to sing my out existence, continuing the song of several million years.
I was changing, slowly and methodically, and I kept myself in that memory until I was sure my body was completely done.
When I opened my eyes, Poo-stank was straining against Eric’s hold, yipping happily at the sight of me. I wasn’t actually su
Eric was grimacing. “That was weird as fuck,” he said. “Hel does it so fast, I don’t even have time to process how weird it is.”
I wondered if that meant Helena took her clothes off in front of him too. He’d sure as hell better have averted his eyes a lot quicker. Not that she’d care. But it would make Eric seem a hell of a lot creepier.
Her scent distracted me from the thought. It swirled into my nose, all salt and summer and distress. She’d been walking around the kennel all morning. My brain was sorting through the trails, trying to pick the freshest one.
The office door jangled. I lifted my head, startled, to find Krista barreling through the door. She came up short at the sight of Eric.
“Did Jae call y-” she cut herself off at the sight of me. “Holy shit,” she said. “That’s a wolf.”
Eric extended a hand. “It’s okay, he’s-”
“It’s not okay!” Krista said, snatching up a rabies pole. “Just keep back, I’ve got him. Oh my God.”
My form rippled. I felt tingles slide up and down my spine.
Shit. Shit shit shit. I backed away, glancing left and right for an escape route. I could not lose my shit in front of Krista.
I dove beneath the sink, knocking over about a thousand bottles of shampoo and flea treatment. Most of the dogs were outside in the pens, but the few who were still inside lost their minds, howling and barking and growling.
It had been a while since my last shift. I wasn’t used to the body anymore—four legs didn’t feel natural yet. But I didn’t have time to get my groove back.
Krista lunged. The loop close around my neck, dragging me to a halt.
“Jaesung, where the fuck are you!” She screamed toward the stairs. “Jae!”
I wanted to answer her, wanted to calm her down…and that want was all it took.
The change into a wolf is like setting up dominos—slow, methodical, and careful. The change back is like knocking them down. All it needed was a tiny flick.
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