Moon Sworn – Keri Arthur

How do you say good-bye to a friend? How do you say sorry I wasn’t there for you, that I wasn’t strong enough, that I should have shot the bastard when I ɹrst had the chance? How can you say those things when he’s no longer around to hear the words? And how can you get over the grief when his body is little more than memories on the wind and his soul long gone from this life? You couldn’t. I couldn’t. So I just stood there on the edge of the precipice, surrounded by the dark beauty of the Grampian Mountains and buffeted by a wind that seemed to echo with wild hoofbeats. These weren’t the mountains Kade had been born in, but they were the ones that he had chosen in death. His ashes had been scattered here three months ago, the funeral attended by his mares, his children, and his coworkers from the Directorate. By everyone except me. I’d been caught in a battle of my own, hovering between this world and the next, torn between the desire to die and the reluctance to simply give up. In the end I’d chosen life over death, but it wasn’t my twin who’d pulled me from the brink, nor was it the vampire who held my heart. My savior had come in the form of a blond-haired little girl with bright violet eyes that saw too much. But there’d been no savior for Kade. There should have been, but I’d failed him. I closed my eyes and ɻung my arms wide, letting the wind rock my body. Part of me was tempted to just let go, to fall forward into the chasm that stretched out below me. To smash my body on the rocks and let my spirit roam across this vast wildness. To be free, as my friend was now free.

Because with Kade dead, my soul mate—Kye—dead, and most of my dreams little more than ashes, death still sometimes seemed like a mighty enticing option. But there were people in my life who deserved better. And Kade would certainly want more from me than that. Tears tracked down my cheeks. I breathed deep, drawing in the freshness of the earlymorning air, tasting the ɻavors within it and half searching for the one scent that would never, ever, be there again. He was gone forever. I could accept that. But I could never escape the guilt of it. I bent and picked up the bottle of wine I’d brought with me. It was a Brown Brothers Riesling—one of his favorites, not mine.

After popping the cork, I took a drink, then raised the bottle to the dawn skies, the tears pouring down my face. “May I one day earn your forgiveness, my friend.” My voice was barely audible, but it seemed to echo across the mountains. “And may you ɹnd peace, happiness, and many willing mares in the fertile meadows of afterlife.” With that, I poured out the wine, letting it stream away on the wind. When the bottle was empty, I tossed it over the edge, watching it fall until the shadows claimed it. I never heard it smash against the rocks. Perhaps the ghostly ɹngers of a bay-colored man caught it long before it could. I took another deep, shuddering breath, then swiped at the tears on my cheeks and added, “Good-bye, Kade. I hope we can meet again on the other side.

And I hope I’m a smarter friend then than I am now.” The sun chose that moment to break over the top of the mountains, streaming golden ɹngers of light across the shadows and almost instantly warming the chill from the air and my skin. If it was a sign from Kade, then it was appreciated. I dried the last of my tears, blew a kiss to the sunrise, then turned and walked back down the path to my car. My phone—which I’d left sitting on the front seat along with my handbag—was ɻashing. Which meant there’d been a call for me while I was up at the cliff edge. I dropped into the driver’s seat and reached for the phone, then hesitated. I knew without looking that the call would be from Jack. He excelled at that sort of timing— always catching me when I least expected or wanted it. Besides, everyone else in my life knew that I was up here saying my good-byes, and they wouldn’t have interrupted me for anything less than a disaster.

And if it was a disaster, there were better ways to contact me than using a phone. Hell, Quinn could have just found me telepathically. The link between us had grown a lot stronger since Kye’s death. Kye. The thought of him had my stomach twisting. I closed my eyes and pushed away the guilt and the anger and the pain that always rose at the mere ɻicker of memory. I’d killed my soul mate. Willingly. And now I had to live with the consequences. Even if part of me still just wanted to curl up and die.

I glanced down at the phone again. It was tempting to ignore Jack’s call, but I couldn’t. I’d chosen to live—and whether I liked it or not, the Directorate was a part of my life. I ɻicked a switch on the phone and brought up the call data. It was deɹnitely Jack. I’d told him two days ago that I was ready to go back to work, but now that the time was here, I wasn’t so sure. Truth be told, I didn’t want to pick up a gun again. I didn’t want to have to shoot anybody again—especially after what had happened with Kade and Kye. I feared the hesitation that had led to Kade’s death. But most of all, I feared that I wouldn’t hesitate.

That I’d become the unthinking killer that Jack wanted me to be, simply because of the fear that I’d lose someone else if I didn’t. I’d spent a long time ɹghting Jack’s desire to make me a guardian. When I’d ɹnally become one, the ɹght had twisted, becoming a battle against his plans and my own nature. I didn’t want to be the killer my brother was. As much as I loved him—as much as I didn’t want to live without him—Rhoan’s occasional ruthlessness scared the hell out of me. Kade had once said that everyone hesitates, but he’d been wrong. My brother never did, and neither did the other guardians. Just me. And that hesitation had cost me Kade. I felt trapped, caged between the boulders of fate, my own nature, and fear.

As much as I wanted to walk away from the Directorate, I couldn’t. The drug given to me so long ago was still running rampant in my bloodstream, and the changes to my body were continuing. The scientists monitoring me were almost positive that, unlike the other recipients of the drug, I wouldn’t gain the ability to take on multiple shifter forms— meaning I was stuck with the alternate shape of a goddamn seagull—but my clairvoyant skills were still growing, still changing. No one was sure where it would stop, and until it all settled down, I was stuck with the choice of the Directorate or the military. And it was always better to stick to the devil you knew. I drew in a shuddering breath, then hit the phone’s call button. Jack answered second ring. “You wanted me, boss?” “Yeah, I did.” He hesitated. “Are you okay? You still sound tired.

” “I’m ɹne.” But I rubbed a hand across my eyes and half wished that I’d lied. He’d given me the perfect out, and we both knew it. But I really did have to get on with my life—even the bits of it I was no longer so sure about. “What’s happening?” “We’ve got what looks like a ritual killing. If you’re feeling up to it, I’d like you to go over there and see if there’s a soul hanging about.” “Sure. Send me the address and I’ll head straight there.” I hesitated. “It’ll take me at least an hour, though.

I’m up at the Grampians.” He didn’t ask me why. He knew it was Kade’s ɹnal resting place, and he also knew I’d missed his funeral. “That’s ɹne. Cole and his men are only just heading to the scene themselves. I’ll send the report and the address to your onboard.” “Thanks, boss.” He grunted and hung up. I threw the phone on the passenger seat, then started the car and swung out of the parking lot. The computer beeped as I turned onto the Grampians Road and headed for the Western Highway.

I pressed the screen, getting the address and transferring it across to the nav computer. I didn’t bother looking at the report—I preferred getting my impressions from Cole and my own observations. I’d read it later, once I’d seen the crime scene for myself. The body had been discovered in Melton, a suburb on the very outskirts of Melbourne. It had a reputation for being a rough area, but as I drove through the streets heading for Navan Park, it looked no worse than any other suburb. But maybe this section of Melton was the so-called better area. Every suburb had them. I drove along Coburns Road until I saw the Directorate van parked at the side. I stopped behind it but didn’t immediately get out. Because my hands were shaking.

I can do this, I thought. I just didn’t want to. There was a difference. A big difference. So why did it still feel like fear? I took a deep, calming breath, shoved aside the insane desire to drive away, and opened the door, climbing out. Dawn had given way to a crisp, cool morning, but the sky was almost cloudless and the promise of warmth rode the air, caressing my skin. The scent of blood was also rich in the air. I locked the car and made my way through the park gates, following the path up the slight incline until the blood smell pulled me onto the grass and toward the group of gum trees that dominated the skyline. The grass crunched under my feet, evidence of how little rain we’d had of late, and the sound carried across the silence. A ɹgure appeared on the hilltop above and gave me a brief wave before disappearing again.

The sharp glint of silvery hair told me it was Cole, and while I might not have missed coming to bloody crime scenes, I had missed Cole and his men. I crested the hill and paused to survey the scene below. The body lay to the left of the trees, half ringed by scrubby-looking bushes that would have oʃered the killer little in the way of protection. Several yards beyond the trees was a lake in which ducks and toy boats ɻoated. Kids ran around the edges of the water, oblivious to the cops stationed nearby. I watched one little girl laugh as she chased a red ball that was rolling along the ground. With her blond pigtails and pale skin, she reminded me of Risa, Dia’s daughter and the little girl who’d saved my life. She’d begun calling me Aunt Riley, and in my worst nightmares, I sometimes thought that this was as close as I was ever going to get to having a child of my own. Because of my own inability to carry children, and because my soul mate was dead. The picket fence dream was dead.

At least, the version of it that had carried me through childhood was. I blinked back the sting of tears and forced my gaze back to the body, trying to concentrate on the business of catching a killer. The victim was naked, his ɻesh sallow and sagging—the body of an old man, not a young one. There were no obvious wounds from what I could see, but Cole was kneeling beside him and obstructing my view of his upper body. I drew in the air, tasting death and blood and something else I couldn’t quite name. I frowned as I moved down the hill. Strong emotions could stain the air, and hate was one of one of the strongest, but this didn’t quite taste like that. It was edgier, darker. Harsher. If I had to guess, I’d say it tasted more like vengeance than hate.

And the killer had to be feeling it in spades for it to linger in the air like this. Cole glanced up as I approached, a smile crinkling the corners of his bright blue eyes. “Nice to see you back on the job, Riley.” “I’d love to say it’s nice to be back,” I said, shoving my hands into my pockets so he couldn’t see them shaking, “but that would be a lie.” I pointed with my chin to the body. “What have we got?” My gaze went past him as I asked the question, and the method of our victim’s demise became starkly obvious. Someone had strangled him—with barbed wire. His neck was a raw and bloody mess, the wire so deeply embedded that in places it simply couldn’t be seen. That took strength—more than most humans had. But why would a nonhuman want to strangle a human with wire? Hell, most nonhumans could achieve the same result one-handed.

Unless, of course, our killer didn’t only want death, but pain as well. Which would certainly account for the bitter taste of vengeance in the air. I knew about vengeance. Kye’s death had been an act of vengeance as much as it had been a requirement of my job. He’d been a killer—a ruthless, cold-blooded murderer. And yet he’d made my wolf soul sing, and she still ached for him. Would probably always ache for him. Cole oʃered me a box of gloves, forcing me to take a hand out of my pocket. If he noticed the shaking, he didn’t say anything. “As you can see, he’s been strangled,” he said.

“He’s probably been dead for about five hours, and there’s no sign of a struggle.” “Meaning he was probably drugged beforehand.” I couldn’t imagine anyone not ɹghting such a death. Which didn’t mean he wasn’t conscious or feeling every brutal bit of it. “Or,” Cole said grimly, “that he was killed somewhere else and dumped here. There’s very little blood on the ground.” I snapped on a pair of gloves then walked around to the opposite side of the body, squatting near the victim’s neck. The bits of wire that weren’t embedded or bloody shone brightly in the growing sunshine. “The wire looks new.” “Yeah.

And we’ve got very little chance of tracing it back to the source.” Not when barbed wire was still a staple fencing material for most farms—and Melton, despite being a suburb of Melbourne, was surrounded by farms of one kind or another. I touched the victim’s chin lightly, turning his head away from me so that I could see the back of his neck. The wire appeared just as deeply embedded at the back as it was the front. I wouldn’t mind betting it had severed vertebrae. “Who discovered the body?” “Anonymous phone call.” I raised my eyebrows at that, and he grinned. “Line trace said the call came from 12 Valley View Road. That’s the white brick house above the lake.” I twisted around and looked at the row of neatly kept houses that lined the park.

The curtains twitched in 12 Valley View, indicating we were being watched. “Have the police interviewed the owner?” “The police weren’t called first. We were.” I frowned. “That’s a little unusual, isn’t it?” He reached forward and plucked a bloody thread from one of the wires, putting it in a plastic bag before saying “Not when you’re reporting that the killer is a red-faced demon.” That raised my eyebrows. “Really?” “Seriously.” His gaze met mine. “My normal response would be to suggest the witness’s alcohol intake might have been a little high, but Dusty found cloven hoofprints. Which supports the whole demon thing.

” A laugh escaped, then I realized he was being serious. “But demons don’t have cloven hooves.” “That we know of. But there’s no saying there isn’t a branch out there that has.” “I guess that’s true.” I shifted, my gaze sweeping the park. Neither Dusty nor Dobbs was in sight, and the morning was ɹlled with the sound of children’s laughter. It was a happy noise that seemed so out of place given the brutality that lay at our feet— although we’d certainly seen far worse over the years. And done worse. Like shooting a soul mate.

I bit my lip for a moment, using one sort of pain to control another, then added, “Anything else worth knowing?” “Nothing obvious at the moment. I’ll send you the report as soon as it’s done.” “Thanks.” I rose and pulled off the gloves. And that’s when I felt it—the rush of power, the chill of death. There was a soul here. I scanned the park again, trying to pinpoint the soul’s location. There was nothing obvious—no wispy, insubstantial form, no obvious focal point for the energy that was washing across my skin. “Have we got an ID on the victim yet?” I asked softly. I felt rather than saw the sharpening of interest from Cole.

“His name is Wayne Johnson. He was released from prison a week ago.” “His crime?” “Murder. I requested the trial records, but they haven’t been sent through yet. He served twenty-five years.” Then it had to be a nasty crime, because the average sentence wasn’t usually that long —unless you were a nonhuman, and then the sentence was death. “I’m betting he strangled his victim.” It would certainly explain the method of his demise as well as the bitter taste in the air. “I agree,” Cole said, “and it would certainly be worth ɹnding out who he killed, and where the victim’s relatives were during the early hours of the morning. You never know; it might turn out to be an easily solved case for a change.

” I snorted at the improbability of that and turned, my gaze moving to the strand of trees behind us. There in the softening shadows drifted a fragile wisp no bigger than a handkerchief. The soul. I walked toward it. My ability to communicate with the dead was still growing, and most souls could now gain shape and talk quite coherently. Of course, it was my strength they were drawing on to materialize, and it had reached the point where the mere act of talking to the spirit world could leave me weak both in body and mind. But it was a weakness I was willing to endure if it meant catching a break and solving a crime. Not that this soul was drawing much energy at the moment. He might be here, but I had a feeling he was of two minds about speaking. The closer I got to him, the colder it got, until it felt like ɹngers of ice were creeping into my bones.

No one could really explain why these souls brought the chill of the underworld with them, but the general consensus was that it had something to do with them being in between—neither here nor in heaven or hell. Or wherever else it was that souls went to. As I stepped into the ring of trees, his soul retreated, and fear swirled through the ice of the afterworld. I stopped. “Why are you lingering here, Wayne Johnson, if not to speak?” The wispiness that was the soul seemed to pause and then the energy flowing from me surged, the suddenness of it making me gasp. Why? His voice was guttural, harsh, as it ɻowed through my mind. Why did this happen? I paid for my crime. They should have left me alone. It’s not fair that I should pay twice. I couldn’t argue the validity of that without knowing who and how he’d killed.

I’d learned over the years there were some crimes that deserved nothing less than death, but whether this man’s did wasn’t the point. “I’m here to ɹnd your killer, Mr. Johnson. But to do that, you need to talk to me.” For a moment he didn’t answer, but the chill continued to grow until my ɹngers and nose ached with the ɹerceness of it. Energy continued to ɻow out of me, building in the air, giving him the strength to speak. I didn’t really see him, he admitted after a moment. He was wearing a mask. “Are you sure it was a mask?” Yeah. I saw the elastic around his head, like.

He snorted, and the sound reverberated sharply inside my head. And he was wearing these weird things around his feet that made him run funny. Cloven-shaped heels for his shoes, perhaps? But why would someone adopt such a disguise when it was only more likely to catch the attention of anyone who might be watching? “Why didn’t you fight him, Mr. Johnson?” I couldn’t. He sprayed something into my face. The next thing I know, I’m up in these trees with a wire around my neck and the bastard is choking me. Weakness began to pull at my muscles, and that meant I’d better hurry before he drained me too far. That was the one big fear I had—that these souls would drag me into the shadowy depths with them if I wasn’t careful. And that dark part inside of me whispered that it might be easier, that eternal darkness was better than eternal pain. But I couldn’t do that to my brother or to Quinn.

No matter how tempting it might seem. Besides, Jack kept reassuring me that it wasn’t likely to happen, even if no one really knew how far this skill would develop, let alone what dangers might be involved. “So, Mr. Johnson, he approached you from the front rather than behind?” Yeah, how else would I see him? He was slender and small, like, but he obviously packed a hell of a lot of muscle. He killed me in minutes flat. Another clue that we were dealing with a nonhuman killer. “Is there anything else you can tell me, Mr. Johnson? Anything that would help us track him down quickly?” He didn’t answer immediately, but the energy ɻowing away from me seemed to sharpen. A tremor ran through my muscles and my knees suddenly felt weak. Well, there was the car— “Car? What type of car?” I interrupted quickly.

“Did you see the plate number?” The energy in the air sharpened yet again, making the small hairs along the nape of my neck and along my arms stand on end. The trembling in my muscles grew stronger, and I really didn’t know how much longer I could hold out. Or if I wanted to hold out. I pressed a hand against a nearby tree trunk and tried to stay upright. Tried to ɹght the growing urge to go with the flow and let oblivion take me. It was a Toyota Land Cruiser. Really battered, grayish in color. He paused. I only saw a little of the plate. The first three letters were BUK.

It was better than nothing, and would certainly narrow down the ɹeld. “Is there anything else you noticed?” No. His voice was softer, but that was more than likely a result of the fatigue gnawing at my body. I didn’t deserve to die like this. I thought it likely he did but didn’t voice the opinion, saying instead, “Go in peace, Mr. Johnson.” I don’t want— He might not want to, but I broke oʃ the contact and sank down to my knees, my breath wheezing out of my lungs and every muscle quivering. The chill of his presence still hung in the air, but I ignored it, concentrating on breathing, on getting some strength back. Footsteps approached from behind, and a familiar, spicy scent wrapped around me. “Here,” Cole said, shoving a thermos and a cup in front of me.

“We decided we needed to keep a supply of the strong stuff handy in case you needed it.” “I think I love you.” “Too late,” he replied, amusement in his voice. “My love is already taken.” “Overlooked again.” I tried to say it lightly, but tiredness got the better of me and it came out somewhat harshly. I grabbed the metal ɻask from him, unwinding the top and pouring the steaming liquid into the plastic cup. The aroma hit my nostrils and I sighed in pleasure. It wasn’t hazelnut, but it smelled just fine. “Did you get anything from our victim?” Cole asked.

I took a sip of coʃee and felt the warmth of it begin to chase away the chill of afterlife. “He said his killer was disguised as a demon.” “Well, none of us actually thought we were dealing with a real demon.” Cole’s voice was amused. “I wouldn’t imagine they’d need to use barbed wire, for a start.” Certainly the demons I’d met wouldn’t, that was for sure. “He also gave me a partial plate number and a description of the car the attacker was driving.” “Did he say where the murder occurred?” Cole squatted down beside me and handed over a Mintie. It wasn’t a burger or even chocolate, but a chewy mint was better than no food at all. “Here in these trees.

” I paused to unwrap the mint, popping it in my mouth before replying. “He said his attacker sprayed something in his face that froze him, so you’d better do a full toxicology.” “Like I don’t always.” He touched my shoulder lightly. “Are you sure you haven’t come back too soon? Because you’re not looking too good at the moment.”

.

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