"So, you people are, like, werewolves?"
Mom, Stark, and I all sat bunched together on one side of the kitchen table, with the blonde young woman sitting by herself at the other end. Her hands were wrapped around a mug of hot tea my mom had been gracious enough to offer her, and a bowl of soup sat steaming just to her left. Judging by the looks Mom and Stark were giving her, I figured that was as far as their good graces went.
Stark turned to me. "She's your guest, Amber." There was an ominous darkness in his voice when he said guest. "You'd better start explaining yourself."
I could tell neither he nor my mom were happy about this turn of events. I didn't blame them. Mom was, understandably, on the verge of having a stroke after I'd nearly gotten myself kidnapped by Hendricks again, but Stark seemed more upset by the fact that I'd opened up the packhouse to a human in the process. He sat still as a statue, his eyes hard as steel as he stared at the ratty young woman sipping tea at his table. This was the second time I'd done this to him in a week, I realized. Bringing strangers into a territorial werewolf's house without so much as asking permission was a recipe for disaster— which, naturally, meant I never thought about the risk until after I'd done it.
I swallowed nervously. "Uh, yeah, that just about sums it up," I said. "Well, we're werewolves," I pointed to Stark and myself, "my mom's human."
I decided not to mention Kimberly, who was still locked in her room, hopefully asleep.
"Huuuh," she hummed in her throat, looking at each of us in turn. "You sure I'm not just high right now?"
I blinked in surprise, and my mom let out a startled, "I beg your pardon?"
The young lady shrugged. "I mean, no offense or anything, but this all feels like the worst friggin' acid trip ever."
She raised the mug again, and this time I noticed the way her hands shook. Either she was still freezing, which I doubted, seeing as how Stark wasn't stingy about running the heater in his cabin, or...
"That's why you were in town this late at night," I exclaimed. "You were buying..."
My voice trailed off when I realized midsentence what an idiot I was.
The girl's hands tightened around her mug, and she glared defiantly down at the table for a few seconds. "Don't judge me, you..." her voice trailed off too. "Guess I probably shouldn't call you that, since you just saved me and all, but whatever. Don't judge me."
I sat back in my chair. That definitely put a new spin on things. Honestly, I wasn't sure how to react to this. It was kinda funny, when I thought about it. I'd gotten used to being around werewolves, wizards, demons, and things I had no idea what to call, but put a girl with a drug addiction in front of me and suddenly I was lost for words. I looked to Mom and Stark for help. Mom shook her head and shrugged, and Stark just folded his arms and stubbornly kept his mouth shut.
"So, um..." I said, choosing my words as carefully as I would step across a minefield, "what's your name?"
She scowled at me, and for a second I didn't think she was going to answer. Then, through pursed lips, she said, "Rebecca."
I nodded. "Nice to meet you, Rebecca." Wow, lame. "Um, well, first of all, we're not hallucinations."
Rebecca looked me over skeptically, and then sighed. "Yeah, I guess so. I don't feel all that high right now, so you must be real."
Gee, thanks, I wanted to snap, but I kept the smart remarks to myself. Would I act any differently if I were in her shoes? I probably wouldn't be going on about drugs, but everything else was to be expected, I guess.
Rebecca's hands started to shake again, harder this time. At first I thought she was just going through withdrawals or something, but then I saw the look on her face. Lips pinched tight, eyes wide, skin as white as paper.
"You're safe now," I told her leaning forward over the table. I wanted to put my hand over hers, but would she take that as comforting? She'd just seen me turn into a wolf and blow a demon away into the woods. She might just as easily think I was going to bite her hand off, or suck out her soul.
Crap, crap, crap, I thought, squirming with indecision in my chair. Mom would know what to do. Comforting people was her specialty. She'd be able to calm Rebecca down no problem, but she still didn't say a single word.
"He just came out of nowhere," Rebecca said, her voice shaking just as much as her hands. "Like, the shadows all came together and turned into him. What the
–eff– is up with that?"
"He's a demon," I answered, and Rebecca's head shot up to look at me. Yeah, probably not the best way to break it to her, but at least it was out there now.
"You're BS-ing me," she replied in a low voice.
"You already know we're werewolves," I said as gently as I could. "And you saw what he did. Is it really such a stretch to think he's a demon?"
Rebecca considered this a minute, and then shook her head. "I guess not. Man, this day has been all kinds of screwed up. First my old man finds my stash and throws it away, says he's gonna call the cops on me. I got outta there. Took me hours to find my dealer, and he's only got a couple'a shots for me. Then that... thing shows up and brings me here."
Dang, could she make this conversation any more awkward?
"Well, you're safe now," I told her. "He's gone, and I don't think he's coming back anytime soon."
Rebecca nodded, still staring blankly into her tea. "Are you sure you're real?"
"Okay, just checking."
We sat in silence for a minute, and Rebecca finally pulled her soup over to her, like she hadn't noticed it before, and took a couple of bites.
"This is good," she said quietly.
"Thank you," Mom said, speaking up for the first time since I'd brought her in with me.
Rebecca idly stirred the soup with her spoon. "You're a good cook."
I looked at Mom, and saw her expression soften just a little.
"So, you're all werewolves, and that dude was a demon," Rebecca said a minute later. "Anything else I need to know about?"
I was about to answer when Stark cut me off. "You don't need to know any of this, young lady.”
Everyone turned to look at Stark in surprise. Rebecca dropped her spoon into her bowl.
"I'm sorry that you ended up getting involved," he went on, "but, frankly, none of this concerns you. I'm not even happy that Amber brought you inside."
He scowled at me, and I cringed. Bringing her inside to recover and get warmed up hadn't been that bad, had it?
"Well, sorry to get your panties in a bunch, old man," Rebecca said, fishing around in her soup until she found the spoon. Pulling it out, she licked her fingers clean. "It's not like I asked to be invited to this party."
Stark bristled at her smart remark, and I fought the urge to inch away from him. Holy crap, even when I was pissed off beyond belief at Stark, I would never, ever say something like that to him! Was this girl really that stupid, or did she still not understand how much danger she was in?
"Regardless," Stark said a few seconds later, his voice tight, "you won't remember this for much longer."
"Wait, what?" I asked, sitting up straight and turning to face him.
"Majestic will be here any minute," he said, giving me the same dark look as before. "And you know what they'll do to Rebecca when they find out how much she knows."
My eyes widened in surprise. Oh, crap. How could I have forgotten that...
"What, they're gonna kill me?" Rebecca demanded, rising tentatively from her chair. "Is that how it works? Find out you freaks exist, and then get turned into a pile of pixie dust? Because screw that!"
"Calm down," Stark said, waving for her to sit back down. "They're not going to hurt you. They'll just wipe your memory and send you home."
Rebecca hesitated, and then shook her head. "Yeah, 'cuz that's so much better, huh? Screw that too! Nobody messes with my head except me!"
Before we could argue more, a bright yellow flash came from the living room.
"Speak of the devils," Stark muttered, rising from his seat.
I turned to look just as three people made their way into the kitchen with us. Victor and Dex came first, glowing scepters in hand. Dex gave me a wink, and I scowled back at him. Next, to my surprise, came a guy dressed in a fine black suit that contrasted perfectly against his paper-white skin. Long golden chains clung to his head, falling down past his shoulders like hair. They clinked together as he walked, carrying himself self-importantly through the room before sitting down at the table without being invited.
"I expected Wrogan to come," Stark said, looking at the ghoul with undisguised contempt.
"Mr. Wrogan is indisposed," Mr. Vaazkima said dryly, examining one of his clawlike fingernails. "Besides, we're not here to discuss the Silverblood project. I want to talk about Hendricks."
Stark's face turned red. "So do I. What kind of protection are you idiots supposed to be giving us if Hendricks can just waltz right up to my house?"
"I've been saying that for months," I quipped.
I expected Stark to rebuke me and tell me to let the grownups talk, but instead he just gestured at me as if my word was all the evidence he needed.
"He's a slippery little eel," Vaazkima said. "If we knew where and when he would show up, he wouldn't still be on the loose, would he?"
"There's a difference between not knowing where he is, and letting him—"
"Waltz right up to the house we're supposed to be protecting, I know." Vaazkima picked a speck of dirt out from under his claw. "And yet here we are, and there he was. Let's not worry ourselves with such trite things."
"Trite things?" Mom exclaimed, and I had to put my hand on her shoulder to keep her from getting up. "My daughter almost died tonight because of you!"
Vaazkima gave her an irritated glance. "Actually, she almost died because of Hendricks. Don't blame me for what other people do."
Mom's face darkened, and I tightened my grip on her shoulder. Not for her protection, though. For Vaazkima's. Rich and powerful business tycoon or not, I knew that if I were to lose my grip he would get a thrashing like nothing he'd ever experienced.
"The point is," Stark growled, leaning across the table at him, "that you're not keeping your end of the bargain. I expect that to stop."
Vaazkima's eyes opened a little wider in surprise. Then a smile spread across his face. "I don't think you fully grasp the situation you're in, Stark. You are not entitled to our protection. You're not even entitled to your freedom!"
"Sir," Victor muttered, standing with his back to the wall, "Mr. Wrogan—
"I don't care what that tub of lard says," Vaazkima waved him off. "You," he pointed at Stark, "and you," he pointed at me, "are my property. Protecting your little cottage, and even letting you live in it rather than in a cage at Majestic's headquarters, has been an act of charity."
His eyes flashed dangerously as he swept them over us. He didn't give Mom or Rebecca a second glance, but his gaze lingered greedily on me and Stark.
"One does not say thank you for charity by demanding even more charity," he went on. "And to teach you a lesson, I have half a mind to bring one of you back with me tonight."
Stark shot out of his seat again and slammed his fist down on the table so hard that I almost thought he was going to break it in half, and Victor and Dex both raised their scepters. If that was scary, though, it had nothing on the look in his eyes.
"I will not be threatened in my own house," he growled through gritted teeth. "And I won't tolerate threats against my pack either." He raised his finger and jabbed it at the ghoul's face. "You will keep your end of the bargain, and that's all that needs to be said. Now get out of my house!"
My heart started to beat faster as Vaazkima sneered at Stark's outstretched finger. Delicately, like he was touching some disgusting insect, he took it between two of his claws and lowered it.
"How many times do I have to tell you?" he asked. "You're not in any position to make demands. It's only because of Wrogan's soft heart that you have what freedom you do, and that will only last until I run out of patience."
Stark snarled at him, a wolflike noise rippling from his throat. "Wrogan won't let that happen. He'll keep his word!"
The two supernatural beings faced off against each other, and I felt a tingle run through the air. Had that just been my imagination? I didn't want to bet on it. I'd seen Stark go midform twice, but I still got the feeling I didn't know half of what he was capable of. Vaazkima was a complete mystery, but he couldn't have risen to the top of Majestic if he didn't have some tricks up his sleeve. Taking Mom by the shoulder again, I inched away from the table. Not that that would help us much. If those two decided they wanted to fight, they'd probably bring the whole house down.
"Wrogan is quickly losing patience as well," Vaazkima mocked him. "The Silverblood project is our biggest investment. We can't allow it to go to waste. If that means ruining a couple of little girls' lives, then so be it." His beady little eyes wandered over to me. "The only question is, which one was it?"
A chill ran down my spine when I looked into those eyes.
"Which one went through the full transformation?" His voice was soft now, almost reverent. "Which of them is my true Silverblood?"
Almost faster than my eye could see, Stark's hand dipped into the breast pocket of his shirt, and then he flicked his fingers at Vaazkima. I heard a high pitched hiss, like water falling on a hot stove, and the ghoul flinched a little and spun around to glare at Stark. I saw red spots begin to blemish his pale skin.
"Put your hands on the table!" Victor demanded, pointing his scepter at my alpha again.
"Do it now!" Dex added, taking aim as well.
I looked at the shaggy blonde wizard in surprise. Dex was the laid back, easygoing one. Hearing him speak that forcefully and move that quickly was like, I dunno, watching a dandelion pull a gun on someone.
Stark looked at both of them out of the corner of his eyes, and then did as they said, putting his palms flat on the table.
"Holy water?" Vaazkima asked, scratching at one of the welts growing on his face. "Not a bad ploy, but I hope you didn't really think sprinkling it on my face would be enough to stop me?"
"I did it to get your attention," Stark said. His voice was low and he spoke slowly, menacingly. "Neither I nor my pack are as helpless as you think, Vaazkima. I don't care how rich and powerful you are, I will not sit here and be threatened in my own house. Now take your goombas and get the hell out."
All at once, the humor faded from Vaazkima's face, and he scowled at Stark. I held my breath. I could practically see the wheels spinning inside his head. Was it worth trying to grab me or Kimberly? What would he be risking? Stark was talking big right now. Real big. Even I didn't know if he was bluffing or not. And if he was to be believed, Vaazkima didn't even know which of us had gone through the transformation. The tension was as thick as peanut butter, an analogy that would have made me hungry if my stomach wasn't busy doing gymnastics as I watched the werewolf and the ghoul stare each other down.
Finally, Vaazkima shrugged. "Very well, Stark. I suppose I can maintain my patience for a little while longer. After all, there are still some experiments I have left to run on our current Silverblood."
He turned to give me a smug look, though I couldn't figure out why, and Stark's face turned so red that I almost thought he was going to flip the table and tear Vaazkima apart, Victor and Dex or no Victor and Dex.
"Come," Vaazkima drawled, turning away and snapping his fingers. "We're going."
Dex and Victor followed him out, Victor wearing his customary scowl and Dex giving me another conspiratorial wink.
"Wait!" Stark called after them.
"Make up your mind, old man," Vaazkima's voice came from the living room.
Stark ignored the jab and pointed at Rebecca, who was sipping her tea and watching the argument with keen interest. I'd almost forgotten she was there. "Hendricks dragged a civilian into this. She needs her memory wiped."
"Screw you, fuzzboy," Rebecca muttered.
From the living room, I head Vaazkima chuckled. "Fuzzboy, I like that! I thought you were tired of me interfering in your business, Stark."
Stark pounded on the table. "Majestic's code of conduct says that—"
"Consider it another act of charity. She's your problem. You're welcome!"
Before Stark could say anything else, there was another yellow flash, and the three of them were gone. Stark let out a slow, hissing breath through his teeth and sat down, looking utterly defeated. Mom stepped forward, I let my hand slide off her shoulder, and she sat down next to him.
I should go check on Kimberly, I thought, getting up. There was no way she slept through all that.
"Amber, wait," Stark said just as I was about to leave. "Show our guest to her room."
I paused and looked at him quizzically. "What do you mean our..." My head swiveled to look at the blonde young woman turning her mug upside down to drain the last drop of tea. "Wait, Rebecca's staying?"
The look Stark gave me was almost enough to make me turn to stone.
"Rebecca's seen too much," he said, and then glanced at my mom. "Don't look at me like that, woman! I'm not going to kill her. But we can't just let her walk away either, now that she knows about us." His eyes settled on her now. "Not until we can be sure she won't run around telling everyone."
Rebecca stood up, giving Stark the finger. "Screw you, fuzzboy!" she spat again. "I'm not staying anywhere I don't want to be." She marched toward the door, and stopped when she passed me. "Thanks for saving me from Batman. You're pretty cool, I guess."
With that, she brushed past me, into the living room.
"Speaking of Batman," Stark called after her. She froze. "He's still out there somewhere. I don't know if he'll try coming back here, but I wouldn't put it past him to come after you, instead."
Rebecca didn't move or say anything, but I didn't miss the way her hands started to tremble when he said that.
"Obviously, my cabin isn't as safe as I'd thought," he went on, "but at least now we know that the wards I put up against Becky are effective against him too. You'll definitely be safer here than out on the streets."
Rebecca hesitated, but then turned to face us again.
"Okay, fine," she grumbled. "May as well see this party through to the end, huh?"
Stark nodded his approval.
"Where's she sleeping?" I asked.
Stark turned those cold eyes on me again. "Get the sleeping bag and spare pillow from the hall closet and put them in your room."
"All right," I agreed, and turned to do what he said.
"Amber," he called, stopping me again. "The sleeping bag is for you. Rebecca will be sleeping in your bed."
NEXT TIME: Yay, another sleepover! What role will Rebecca be playing in upcoming events? Will she become part of the Silverpack? Or will she be something more?