Copper Kiss

Tempered Souls: Book One

Aislinn Kerry

 

Chapter One

The first day of the quarter was going exactly as Reina Campbell had expected—which meant it was filled with paperwork, curricula, and dry introductions—until a student stood up in the middle of her Werewolf Society in the Modern Age class and declared, "I don't see how any of this matters. They're all just monsters, anyway."

A hush fell over the hall. At Reina's side, her roommate and best friend stiffened with rage.

The professor gaped at the interruption. "That is an ignorant, intolerant point of view, and it will not be allowed within my classroom."

"Ignorant?" The student snorted. He turned to face the class. "I know as much as I need to! These monsters walk amongst us, like they're one of us, when they're really no better than the dogs we keep chained up in our backyards." His voice rose steadily. Soon enough he would be shouting, and everyone in the building would be able to hear his tirade. "I know I can't go a week without seeing a news report about another werewolf or vampire attack! These monsters are killing us, and you're standing there preaching tolerance? I refuse to be tolerant about the murder of my fellow human beings!"

"No one's keeping you here," Reina snapped. "And you knew the course's subject matter when you signed up."

He rounded on her, his eyes bright with fervor. "I've a right to protest, haven't I? I couldn't just do nothing, not when people are being slaughtered while courses like this show up quarter after quarter preaching tolerance." He spat the last word as though it were vile.

"So you're just here to stir up trouble for those of us who intended to come learn something. That's wonderful." Reina shoved her books in her bag and grabbed Adri's arm. "Come on, let's go—"

"No." Adri's voice was as hard as Reina had ever heard it, but mercifully, she kept her voice pitched too low for anyone else to hear. "If I go anywhere, it's only going to be to rip that boy's intestines out through his throat and teach him a thing or two about just how monstrous we can be."

Reina sank back down into her seat. "That's nice." She rolled her eyes. "Become a walking stereotype. That'll be a real help."

"Reina, he said—"

"Shut up."

Adri stared at her, wide-eyed.

"If he hears you, he'll put two and two together, and then you'll be screwed royally, won't you?"

"He can't do anything," she said, but her expression didn't seem so certain. "We've been legalized for years. He so much as spits in my direction and it's a hate crime." She drew a steadying breath. "Anyway, he's not going to hear me."

Reina glanced around the room and admitted that her friend was probably right. The student was shouting louder than ever, and now the professor had added her voice to the commotion, yelling over the phone at campus security.

Abruptly, the boy announced, "I won't stay here and be lectured to by some idiot who thinks these monsters are human. I'm leaving! And you can be damn sure I'm letting the dean know how I feel about this, too!"

Half of the class left with him, leaving only a handful of students sitting around looking shell-shocked. "Well," Reina said at last, getting to her feet and slinging her backpack over her shoulder. "I think that's about all the excitement I can handle for one day." She gave the professor a sarcastic salute. "Fabulous job, really. I can't wait to see how you're going top this one tomorrow."

* * * *

Two days later, Reina walked the gravel path along the perimeter of Madsen Green, the large patch of trees and grassy hills that sat at the center of Bryson University. She carried a textbook in her hands that she read without seeing. Adri had already taught her more about werewolf funeral rites than any book could have. She'd brought Reina to a pack funeral once, in the early years of their friendship when Reina had been voracious for understanding about her new friend's customs and culture.

The very first lesson she'd learned when her empathy manifested had been to keep herself shielded, always. People left residual traces of their emotions wherever they went, and it was too easy to lose one's self in the hopes and fears of others when unprotected. But the Green was empty and quiet, so she let her shields drop and allowed the peace to wash over her. She knew it was a risk, and she took it anyway.

Even knowing it, she was completely unprepared when she crossed paths with a residual of such terror and violence that it stopped the breath in her throat.

The oaks around her melted and stretched, growing into bare, twisted monstrosities. The sky darkened as though a blanket had been thrown across the sun, and the gravel before her became dagger-sharp, cutting her feet as she ran.

She couldn't remember how or when she'd lost her shoes, or when she'd started running. But she ran, with her heart stuttering in her throat and the knowledge that something terrible followed her. She poured everything she had into her flight, blindly traveling the path beneath her feet as she watched over her shoulder for a sign of her pursuer.

She saw nothing, only a nightmarish parody of the Green, gone cold and black and harsh.

And then the thing was upon her. It's not real, she reminded herself. It's not real. It's not you. But the scent of blood and death choked her all the same. She fell to her knees, screaming in rage and pain as it tore into her with phantom claws as sharp as knives. Blood spattered across her skin, a stark contrast of black-on-white in the moonlight.

The nightmare dragged her to the ground and pinned her with its weight. Gasping for breath, she groped wildly overhead, and her hand closed around a rock.

She swung it out before her as a crude weapon. Her stomach lurched at the sickening crack of impact and the feel of flesh and bone giving way. She dug her fingers into the dirt beneath her and pulled herself along the path, but only managed to drag herself a few feet away before it pounced on her again with a snarl.

Hot, fetid breath brushed against her cheek. "It needn't be like this." The whisper drifted across the still night air like a half-forgotten memory, soft and oddly sibilant. "Just say the words."

Yes! she thought with a rush of desperation. Anything to end this.

But when she spoke, it was only to growl, "Go to hell."

The thing sighed, almost sadly, and sank fangs into her throat. She screamed. It tore her throat from her, ripped her open and feasted on her flesh, and even when she died, she could still hear the shrill echo of her cries.

They rang in her ears, slowly fading to the white noise of wind sighing through the trees. Bright light shone against her eyelids. Slowly, she pried her eyes open and found herself back in the Green, halfway across campus from where the vision had gripped her. Gasping from a strange cocktail of exertion, fear, and relief, she ran her hands over her throat and stomach, reassuring herself that she was whole.

"Oh, Christ." Reina lowered herself to the grass. She leaned back against the reassuring solidity of a tree trunk and fought to catch her breath.

She had nearly calmed when a deep breath brought her the faint traces of copper and salt. Her stomach churned. She snapped her mental shields up around herself, pulled them tight, and held herself motionless until certain that she'd left no vulnerable chinks in her armor.

She rolled up onto her knees and cautiously pushed herself to her feet while she cast about for the source of the blood she smelled on the air.

It wasn't until she turned that she saw Adri. Her friend lay sprawled at the base of a bush, half-concealed by its low-hanging branches and so close she could have touched Reina, if she'd been alive. Shreds of clothes barely concealed her body, and scratches etched deep, crimson lines across her face. Her torso was a torn mess, and everything was soaked with blood.

"Oh God." Reina staggered across the few feet between them and dropped to her knees. "Oh Adri. Not you." It had never occurred to her that the vision might have been about someone she knew. Reina reached for her and stroked a lock of black hair that had fallen over Adri's shoulder. Her fingers came away sticky with blood, and acrid with the smell of it.

She jerked back and hastily wiped her hand clean on the grass. She fumbled for her cell phone, dialed 911 with shaking hands. The phone rang for eons before a dispatcher connected.

Reina's fingers clenched tightly around the phone as she held it to her ear. She couldn't stand to look at Adri, yet couldn't bear to turn her back on her. "I'm at Bryson University," she told the dispatcher with a strained voice. "In Madsen Green. There's a body here. No, she—she's dead." A wave of grief crashed over Reina, closing her throat. She pulled her thighs to her chest and pressed her forehead to her knees. Tears burned against the backs of her eyes. The dispatcher kept talking; Reina answered her dully, only half listening. She drew inward on herself, blocking her senses one by one, but the pain refused to fade.

The dispatcher reassured her that the police were on the way and kept up an endless barrage of questions until they arrived. Sirens wailed in the distance, heralding their arrival. A few minutes later, a pair of uniformed cops approached her from across the park. Reina hung up the phone and lifted her head, watching them from where she sat. The man in the lead smiled at her as he drew close. "Are you Reina?"

She nodded and got to her feet. "She—she's over there." She pointed over her shoulder, then wrapped her arms tightly around her chest. The morning sun warmed her shoulders, but she couldn't stop shivering.

The officer nodded and motioned his to his partner. "I'm Officer Thompson, Reina. Are you all right?"

She frowned and pressed her lips together. "I just found my best friend's body. Do you think I'm all right?"

He had the decency to look chagrined. "Are you injured?"

"No, I'm fine. I wasn't here when she—when it happened." She unfolded her arms and rubbed her palms against her hips, scrubbing off the dirt and blood. The sharp physical irritation of the denim against her raw skin was a welcome relief from the heavy ache in her chest.

Thompson gave no indication that he'd noticed her discomfort, but his eyes were sympathetic. "Reina, we're going to need to ask you some questions."

She nodded. Of course they did. "What do you want to know?"

He asked her about Adri, about her habits and schedule, and the last time Reina had seen her. When he asked if she had any enemies, Reina shook her head. "No. You couldn't help but like her, once you got to know her. She was everybody's friend."

He nodded, made a note, and asked her for her address and phone number. When she'd given it to him, he flipped his notebook closed and looked up at her. "We'd appreciate it if you stayed in town, Miss Campbell. We may need to get in touch with you, if any more questions come up during our investigation."

"Of course. Is that all you need?"

At his nod, she hefted her bag onto her shoulder and turned for home. She took the long way back, along the paved brick road; she'd had enough adventure in the Green to last her for a long time to come.

* * * *

Detective Patrick Keachan’s day promised to be full of the usual tedium and paperwork until a thick manila envelope fell onto his keyboard, sending the computer into a chorus of angry tones. He looked up, blinking tired eyes at the officer standing over him.

“The M.E. sent this over,” Lyle said. “He wants your opinion on it.”

Keachan flipped the file open, frowning. “Why on earth would he need my—" The words died on his lips, silenced by the Polaroid of a young woman’s mutilated body. Her throat had been torn from her, leaving a raw, gaping wound, and she had been eviscerated, her organs ripped from her by sheer brute force. A wave of dread washed through Keachan as he flipped the first image aside and examined the detailed shots. A line of gaping claw marks, a spider’s web of fractures across bones and a single clear bite mark, photographed with a ruler to show scale and size. The deep punctures of the assailant’s fangs were thirty-two millimeters apart.

The distance between the teeth was perfectly average for an adult man. But no man—no human man—had canines that sharp, or designed to pierce that deep.

Keachan snapped the file shut and looked up at Lyle. “Tell Dr. Cohen it was an animal attack. Probably a cougar that wandered out of his territory. I’ll see to the paperwork and contact Animal Control.”

Lyle nodded, his brow furrowed. He reached for the file. Keachan threw it on his desk and set his coffee on it, giving the man a level look. “I’ll handle it, Lyle. The last thing Cohen needs is to waste his time on something this inconsequential. Please inform him of my opinion on the case.”

Lyle started to speak, then snapped his mouth shut, looking like he’d just bit into something rotten. “Yes, sir.” He stalked stiffly out the door.

Reaching out with a foot to push the door closed behind him, Keachan let the façade of indifference drop and released a heavy sigh. He snatched up the phone, pinned it between his shoulder and ear, and dialed from memory.

A smooth voice answered on the first ring. “Professor MacGregor.”

“Mac, you’ve got trouble.”

“Patrick?” The voice warmed with an audible smile. “This is an unexpected surprise.”

“It certainly is that.” Keachan scowled and flipped the Cardeñas file open again. “I’m serious, Mac. You’ve got trouble.”

Fabric rustled over the connection as the other man shifted. “What kind of trouble?”

“The rogue kind.”

Silence fell between them, heavy and oppressive. The other man broke it first. “You’re sure?” His voice was quiet now, tense.

"As much as I can be. I'll bring the file over tonight."

He sighed, a bone-weary sound. "Thank you. The brood will see to you if you arrive before I do."

"Tonight, then."

Keachan disconnected, then settled the phone back in its cradle and simply stared at it.

A rogue. Dear God.

He jumped when someone knocked on his office door. Swearing at himself beneath his breath, he slid the file off of his desk and into his briefcase. There was no point in fretting on it until nightfall. Until then, he had other monstrosities to investigate.


 

 

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