A wolf howling over a prairie at sunset, with a full moon, and the words WELCOME TO SALTBUSH in clumsy font

Welcome to Saltbush

Author’s note: we’re stretching our creative muscles this year. We have a planned quartet, with each of us writing two stories. Together they spin an on-going tale of magic gone awry in a small Texas town. Look for a new story on each equinox and solstice.

CHAPTER ONE

This time, the strange child’s insistent screech was so loud that Regi had to physically steady himself. He took off his glasses and rubbed his temples, grateful for the handful of locals shushing the child and shooting him concerned looks. A headache this bad hadn’t come on since he’d moved to Saltbush from Chicago.

On a typical late-winter Tuesday afternoon at the Saltbush Public Library, there would be five or six patrons milling around the Computer For Public Use or their favorite sections. Perhaps, if she’d finished with her lessons for the day, Mrs. Harris would be in to skim once again for any new piano books.

Today, there were no fewer than eighteen warm bodies careening around the shelves, which was giving Regi the nervous sweats. He put his glasses back on and stared hard at his keyboard, sensing an impending presence.

He was right. A pair of light blue Skechers shoes appeared where he could see them, between his monitor and the desk. Regi stoically continued typing in new arrivals. If the shoes wanted something, they would read his nameplate.

“Excuse me, Regi,” said a voice with an accent so musical and unusual that Regi almost looked up, despite himself. The way she said his name… “I am looking for information on Cara Boss?”

Regi’s fingers froze mid-decimal point. His mind raced like a tumbleweed on the plain, and though he knew his pause was probably only seconds long on the outside, he was screaming internally.

If she was asking about Cara Boss, this was no human patron.

Finally, begrudgingly, he raised his gaze. It fell on a startlingly gorgeous face, a youthful woman locked somewhere between her late teens and her late thirties. She’d subtly made up her face to evoke a cat’s, with wings at the corners of her eyes and the slightest hint of freckles or whiskers on her cheeks.

She blinked her brown eyes once, as if refocusing on Regi in the present dimension.

“Hello, are you quite alright?” She rolled her Rs slightly, and her tone rose and fell on unexpected syllables. “It seems you were somewhere else for a moment.”

“I’m here,” Regi said in a flat voice that belied the panic welling in his throat. “My apologies. This Cara Boss you’re looking for is…?” He let the lack of answer dangle in midair, hovering his fingers over the keys, praying to every local legend he could think of that she would change her mind and go google it herself.

The woman laughed and clasped her hands together at her navel in a tight S-shape. “She is a fairy godmother. Somewhat of a celebrity, in fact.”

“A celeb—my apologies again, ma’am, I’m not sure what you’re referencing.” Regi made eye contact with the woman, hoping to hold her gaze away from the buckle of the emergency collar he kept next to his lunch box.

She shot him a slight, questioning smile, then tipped her head and looked straight at the collar.

“Silver buckle on a leather collar. Is that not how you remain safely amongst this human community?” she asked.

That child screamed again.

Regi winced at the lance of pain that drove into his skull behind his eye. It was no use pretending to this woman. Why, why did she have to be so observant? “I’m just your friendly local librarian, ma’am.”

That got her to flutter her eyelashes. “Oooh. A werewolf librarian. I did not expect to encounter such a powerful creature of knowledge and the night in such a tiny town. Then again…” She leaned in, bringing her whispered words and a hint of tropical perfume with her. “…this is a crossroads.”

As if he didn’t know that. As if Regis Nardelle was not keenly aware that he had moved his ass all the way from the other side of the country to deal with his father’s estate in a crossroads, a town where minor ley lines ran perpendicular and formed a powerful portal to the other dimensions. But he couldn’t keep his eyes from lighting up with recognition of the term, and he saw the light of recognition in her eyes too, and he knew that she knew: he really was no ordinary human. He was a werewolf.

He was seen.

A flurry of fear whipped up in Regi’s gut. He blew out his breath carefully and avoided the woman’s eyes, terrified of the strength of his desire to look into them. “Ah, it seems you know plenty about this area, ma’am. Why are you askin’ me?” There it was—the slight lilt of the Texan accent he’d reluctantly acquired in the past few months.

She eyed him levelly. “Because you are the expert here, not I. Cara Boss does not live in Saltbush, I know this much at least. I expect you know where I can find her.” Extending a well-manicured hand, she added, “By the way, I am Astira. You can call me Tira. I have come all the way from China by way of Nigeria to set foot here.”

“Astira, I don’t want to get your hopes up,” Regi said, looking at her hand instead of taking it. He was sure that if he did, he would not let go. Her fingers looked so soft. “I know vaguely where Miss Boss lives, but I can’t take you there. Nor do I know anyone,” he added with an upraised hand, because Astira looked like she had words fluttering behind her lips, “who will take you there. If you wish to see Miss Boss, you’ll have to catch her at her office next to Past Times. That’s the antique shop.”

Astira tossed her head back and stared at one of the sagging motivational posters over Regi’s head. She breathed deeply, then said, “I have attempted to make an appointment with Cara Boss, but she has not responded to me. I need information, now. It is as simple as that. If you do not know where Cara Boss lives, then perhaps you can at least tell me more about the woman herself.”

Now she brought her dark eyes down to bore into Regi. His hands were sweating, but he lowered them over the keyboard, then lowered his gaze.

“If I help you, within the bounds of my job as a librarian, will you leave me alone?”

Astira looked over one shoulder, then the other. “If I am not bothering you, then someone else will,” she said pointedly.

He chuckled, despite himself. “You’re right about that. Alright, well. Cara Boss. This search could take a sec. What’s with the keen interest in the old woman, anyway?”

Two dark paws appeared on the edge of the desk.

Regi’s basest instincts kicked in, and he threw his rolling chair backwards and hunched forward, curling his hands into claws. Only they weren’t claws, they were his fingers; it wasn’t a full moon, and he wasn’t going to transform here in the middle of the Saltbush Public Library.

Astira raised an eyebrow at him, and Regi blushed.

He simply looked a fool.

The paws were followed by two bright button eyes, a big black nose, and a broad pair of white-tipped ears.

“You know that kid who just got cursed?” said the fox in a high, nasally voice. “That’s Tira’s little nephew.”

Regi straightened, dropping his hammed-up werewolf pose. The kid who just got cursed. He immediately knew what the fox meant: Cara Boss, Saltbush’s resident fairy godmother extraordinaire, was known for giving parents a 50-50 chance at an incredible blessing for their newborn. The risk was a relatively mild curse, something inconvenient like never having the right amount of change or being unable to find gum on a garlicky first date. However, last week, she had cursed a little boy named Taiyang Kong so badly that the supernatural community couldn’t stop talking about it. Retweeting it. Broadcasting it on their astral airwaves. A curse so severe, even most self-professed wicked godmothers wouldn’t dare place it on a fellow fae.

Turns out, Taiyang Kong was Astira’s nephew.

Regi’s surprise at the revelation had no effect on his inner wolf, who gnashed to be freed at the sight of another canid. “What the hell are you?” were the words out of his mouth, as he balled his claw-fingers into fists at his sides.

“This is Hwan,” Astira said quickly. “He is my familiar.”

“We’re bonded!” Hwan barked, wagging all nine tails.

Several patrons turned to shush him and stared.

Regi’s sweats redoubled. He swallowed hard and motioned Astira around the other side of the reference desk. “Over here. Keep it down, please,” he said, shooting Hwan a glare. “No sense in the other patrons tryin’ to figure out what you are.”

“Oh, at least eighty percent of the people here are not human,” Astira said with a flip of her wrist. “No one will notice a familiar.” She leaned in close, bringing her tantalizing scent with her.

Regi closed his eyes and willed away the wave of anxiety washing over him. “Alright. Let’s start with the local newspaper archives.”

***

Regi slid the key out of the lock and raised his head to test the lung-searing air. It was unusually cold this late in the year, with frost glittering on the windshield of his Camry and all over the sidewalk behind the library. This early in the year, it was long after sunset, and he could already see the nearly-full moon over smokestacks in the distance.

Most winter nights, this was a moment of solitude that Regi reveled in, and he would tip his head back for deep foggy breaths as he crunched across the frosty ground to his grumpy old car. But tonight, as he picked his way through the icy rocks, he breathed deeply near the fabric on his shoulder, where Tira—Astira—had leaned close enough to brush against him.

“The hell, Nardelle,” Regi grumbled, catching himself. He squeezed the fob in his coat pocket and the Camry beeped, lighting up all of the familiar worn components inside. It brought him back to reality: he lived a quiet, peaceful life, working in the same field as he’d gotten a degree, a content bachelor werewolf who could peacefully transform at his little house on the edge of a tiny town and not hurt anyone.

Well, except… those sheep.

Regi thumbed drool out of the corner of his mouth and climbed into the car. The stereo sputtered, as it did, and then started blasting The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black.” He smiled, the way he always did at this song, and cruised through all three of Saltbush’s Main Street stoplights by the time the guitar faded away.

Then he was out on the open road: Highway 95 jostling him like a tiny roller coaster, guard rails rushing by in his peripheral as he passed over a couple of creeks, his hand out the window even though the air nipped his fingers. Regi sang at the top of his lungs to Papa Roach’s “Last Resort” and “Wasteland” by 10 Years, and then it was time to turn onto the gravel road.

He turned the volume dial down to appreciate the crunch of his tires on the gravel. Instead, his ears pricked up at the sound of a child crying.

But not just any child.

The child from the library.

Regi gulped and withdrew fully into the car. He turned it off, tried to steady his breathing. Then, gathering his nerves, he turned his senses outward.

And the child wailed again.

The kid from the library was here, far too close for Regi’s comfort. In fact, if his ears—keener since his transformation—didn’t deceive him, the child was… at his house.

“Of all the—” But he cut himself off and cranked the key, revving the engine and eating the rest of the driveway to the little shack his father had deeded to him upon his recent death.

His headlights cast an attempt at illumination across his modest, snow-covered front yard. Eyes of every shape, size, variety, and number swiveled towards him, glowing like yellow coals. Regi’s throat tightened.

There were at least eight of them. That child and his mother. A couple, or perhaps a single entity separated into two physical halves, curled around each other on his front porch. A handful of half-beasts. Some sort of bogie. And, if Regi wasn’t mistaken, a haunt, crouching behind the posts holding up the porch railing.

He turned off the headlights and rested his head on the steering wheel.

The chatter of the beings gathered on his lawn was audible outside the car’s thin shell. Regi stared at the dark nothingness of the dash, feeling the shadows creeping in behind his eyes, a headache in the making. “Why,” he whispered, “are you here?”

Again, louder, as he raised his head: “Why are you here?”

Once more, at a full shout, as he flung open the car door: “WHY ARE YOU HERE?!”

The chatter stopped. The haunt shriveled into itself. The mother clutched the child, whose scream was stifled in her heavy coat. Light spilled from the Camry’s dome light.

One of the half-beasts, a naga, slithered forward. “We—we didn’t think anyone lived here.” Its voice was raspy, like its scaly hide.

Regi usually prided himself on blanket civility, but he couldn’t help curling his lip. “Well, you thought wrong. Get off my land.”

“Please, please,” the woman called, holding her son tighter—not for protection, Regi thought, but to keep him silent. “We don’t have anywhere else to go!”

“You’ve got plenty of places to go,” Regi said. He gestured broadly away from his house. “North, for instance.”

“No, no, we’ve got to stay in Saltbush. We’ve got to learn about the curses!” This from the naga. “She’s messing with fundamental forces. I’ve got to know why.”

Regi glowered at the creature. “Cara Boss? Y’all are seriously trespassin’ on a Texan’s land to chase down an old woman who canceled some appointments? Do y’all not understand what kind of foolishness that is?”

A wispy voice cut in, “She cursed a boy to witness the death of everyone he loves. Neither living nor dead should see that happen again.”

The haunt rose up over the railing, its mournful eye sockets staring pleadingly at Regi.

He folded his arms. “Fair enough quest, but not on my property.”

At this, several of the half-beasts flared nostrils and frills. Regi tensed up, his hands forming fists at his sides. His fighting abilities hadn’t improved much when he’d turned, but what choice did he have? He was severely regretting declining Randy’s offer of a puppy last summer.

He took in the congregation and made a snap decision. His arm snapped out to his side, pointing up the road again. “Get out. All of you. Call the Holiday Inn—”

“It’s full,” someone whined.

“I don’t care. Try Sunset Lodge. See what AirBnB has.”

“My phone is dead!” the mother wailed, as shrill as her offspring.

Regi rolled his shoulders. “I’m not foolin’ around.”

“Neither am I,” said the naga. “We’re not going anywhere.”

Tension crackled in the air. Regi wistfully remembered when this was just another night to lock up the library and go home to crash. He balled up his fists and dropped into a ready stance with a heavy sigh.

A smartphone light bobbled and rose on the other side of the porch and, with a start, Regi recognized the face illuminated by it.

“I have an idea,” Astira Kong said.

“You!” Regi’s lips said, betraying him.

She threw up one hand, a half-hearted gesture of surrender. “You got me. I had no idea this—place was yours.” The way she said “place” brought an image to mind of her flipping through the thesaurus’s entry for “trash heap.” “But now that I do,” she went on, crossing the distance to Regi’s car and resting the same hand on the Camry’s hood, “I think we can make an arrangement. You help me, and everyone leaves.”

There was an instant uproar. Regi’s mouth worked as he spluttered his disbelief while the uninvited guests all clamored for their rights, what about their needs, where were they going to stay.

Astira raised her hand again and, somehow, they all miraculously quieted.

“I am self-funding my trip here and, as such, I have an amount of money set aside to employ assistance in my search. If Regi here will lend his assistance, as I requested earlier today, I will happily put that money towards accommodations for these people here.” In the dome light’s glow, she held Regi’s gaze steadily. He searched her face, looking for signs of manipulation, but if she had arranged these circumstances, her expression gave nothing away. “Somewhere besides here.”

He shook his head, sighing even as the words left his mouth. “The Red Roof, out near Austin. Yes. Okay. Fine. I’ll help you find Cara Boss. Just—I need a good night’s rest.”

Regi stepped away from the Camry and closed the door. The only source of light now was Astira’s phone.

“Thank you, Regi,” she said, and he hated how the way she said his name made him feel.

He shrugged the vulnerability away and strode towards his house, not allowing himself to glare daggers at anyone or drop the unkind remarks on the top of his tongue.

***

When morning came, tantalizing yet deceptive sunlight peering through the curtains, Regi threw his pillow over his head and groaned, because with consciousness all of the memories of the previous night came rushing back. Not only was tonight the full moon, he was also now bound to Astira by his word, or at least by her willingness to follow through on getting rid of his unwanted guests.

He’d not heard them much the night before, but now that morning had arrived, he could hear them shuffling on and around his porch, trying in vain not to disturb him. All their attempts went to waste—Saltbush, Texas, wasn’t exactly known for its noise pollution, especially not this far away from Main Street. Every whisper, every footfall, was like  orchestral thunder.

Regi chewed his bottom lip and growled softly to himself under the pillow. The last thing he wanted to do was crawl out of bed on his day off and go hunting for a grumpy old fairy godmother.

“I could just… not,” he said to himself, the words muffled by the pillow.

But as if the wretched creature had heard him, the child began crying outside. The shrill noise rattled around the shaky timbers of Regi’s shack. He closed his eyes and sobbed once.

When he was done with his pity party, he got up, dressed, brushed his teeth with extra care to his canines, and threw open the door.

Everyone turned with a look of mild surprise and anticipation.

They were loading up into a small bus, the old church variety, clearly purchased as a decommission from some other company and painstakingly scratched down to stained, off-white paint. Standing beside the door, Astira raised a manicured eyebrow at Regi.

“Good morning, sleeping beauty.”

Regi’s brain worked quickly to shove away the image of her saying that to him as he rolled over, both of them tangled in sun-dappled sheets. “Morning. What’s—” He gestured at the bus parked in his driveway, unable to find a suitable description for the spectacle.

“My half of the bargain,” Astira said, offering the bogie a hand so they could step up on the lowest stair, “as I expect you came out here to fulfill yours.”

Regi sighed and ran his hand over his close-cropped hair. “I—I did.”

“Just to supplement whatever you may be thinking…” Astira waved the mother and child onto the bus and floated to Regi across the gravel, lowering her voice as she neared him. “I intend for my interactions with Cara Boss to spell the end of the tourism phenomenon Saltbush is experiencing, so I do not expect that I will have to put up these or any other visitors for more than a few days. Should you decline to make good on your word, I will find my reservations at the Red Roof Inn in East Austin in need of cancellation.” Now she was close enough that he smelled that heady tropical sweetness, as powerful as she was. “Am I clear?”

“Exceedingly,” Regi said.

She turned around and tipped her head back, sniffed the chilly air with righteous satisfaction, and nodded. “Then let’s go find her.”

The bus door closed and Astira waved to the driver. With a lurch, the bus lumbered away down the gravel road, leaving Astira and Regi and a cloud of dust.

She spun back to him. “So? Are you driving?”

He narrowed his eyes at her. “How did you get here, anyway?”

A carefree shrug. “Oh, you know, I have my ways of getting around.”

“See here,” Regi said, ire building like stoked coals in his belly, “I don’t like how you’re treatin’ me. You show up to my house, threaten me with unwanted guests—”

“Ah-ah, no, that is not accurate. I—”

“—am not done talkin’,” Regi cut over her. “Stop interruptin’ or we’re never leavin’. You show up on my doorstep, blackmail me with a bunch of trespassers, and now you’re tryin’ to make me drive, too? I don’t think this is an equal trade, somehow. Y’know, if I wasn’t such a decent guy, I’d call the sheriff on you. Let him know exactly how uninvited you are.”

For the first time since they’d met, Astira looked shaken. “You… you wouldn’t.”

“I would. If you give me reason to.” The balance of power had shifted; Regi no longer felt like he was on his back foot. Now he could be his usual courteous self. “The Camry’s got a full tank. We can take it where we need to go. You’re buying coffee, right? I reserve the right to order a scone.”

In the face of this sudden turnaround, Astira looked as young as she was—a bit lost, perhaps, and certainly vulnerable. She picked her way around the car and stood on tiptoes to look over the top at Regi.

“Where to first?”

“Where else? The library.” Regi started to climb in, then hesitated. “Wait. Where’s your —pet?”

Now Astira broke into a grin. “He took a little shortcut. He is waiting for us there.”

***

“Here.” Regi hoisted several more rolled maps into the stack braced on Astira’s arms. “Nobody’s ever thought it a wise idea to create one map with all the ley lines, so we’ll have to piece it together.”

Behind the crispy parchment, Astira looked bewildered. “There are singular maps of all the ley lines in the fae dimension. Why would it be so dangerous here?”

Now that Astira’s tantalizing scent had been overtaken by the musty, familiar smell of his stacks, Regi’s head had cleared somewhat. He tipped a skeptical eyebrow at her. “Should have started with a fae library, sounds like.”

Astira pulled a face. “Please. You know how difficult it is to get a fae librarian to do anything they do not wish to.”

From the children’s section came a horrible clattering, one Regi knew all too well: the sound of a shelf collapsing and taking others with it. He groaned and shoved the last of the maps he was holding into Astira’s arms, rounding the YA display to glare at the pile of books and fox tails. “HWAN. Get out. I told you, stop climbin’ the shelves.”

Slowly, Hwan raised his head, his button eyes dazed. “Wassat? Mmm. Yes. Mebbe not s’good.”

“I pity you exactly none,” Regi hissed. “Stay off my shelves.”

Hwan clambered out of the books and shook out his coat, seeming to regain his sense of balance. “Hmph! Rude. Very rude.”

Regi lingered to level his glare at Hwan for a little while longer, but then a title in the fallen pile caught his eye. He leaned down to scoop it up, grunting with interest.

A wet nose pressed against his hand and Regi yelped. Hwan flicked his ears and opened his mouth in a laugh. “What’s that? Did I inspire you?”

Regi pulled the book away and picked his way across the fallen books to the table he and Astira had set up on. “No,” he called back at Hwan, “you messed up, and I got somethin’ out of it. Hey, Tira!”

She whirled so fast he thought something was wrong. “Are you alright?” she asked breathlessly.

Regi frowned. “I’m fine. I might turn Hwan into a cap, but otherwise—why?”

“You called me Tira.” She’d set the maps down on the table and stood frozen, one hand alighting gently on the rolled parchment. “You have refused to call me Tira until just now.”

Regi’s cheeks burned. He brought the title he’d spotted in Hwan’s pile down hard on the table, making Astira jump. “Just a little excited, that’s all. Look—this is by a local author.”

She read the title aloud. “ ‘Days in Saltbush,’ by Hattie Robertson. Is this relevant?”

“It absolutely is relevant. Here.” Regi opened Days in Saltbush, thumbed through the pages. “Here! Here. And here… four mentions of ‘the little old woman who lives in a shoebox.’ Robertson even calls her, ‘older than dirt yet ageless as the bedrock’ and says she’s been a part of Saltbush ‘as long as Gran has been alive, and she’s been the same age all that time.’ That sounds like Cara Boss to me.”

“Did a human write this?” Astira picked up the book and turned it over in her hands. “Ah, yes. Personal essays. The title makes sense. Not very imaginative, is it?”

“Miss Robertson did this town justice, thank you very much.” Regi plucked the book from Astira’s reluctant fingers, getting very close to her in the process. The blood thundered in his ears and his heart raced. “There’s nothin’ about a person in a small town that makes them less interestin’ or less intelligent than someone who’s lived in a city.”

“I did not say—” Astira drew herself up, then seemed to register how close their faces were. She turned her face away, suddenly demure. “I apologize. I did not intend to imply such a thing. I agree with you.”

Neither of them could think of something to say after that for a very long time.

So when Hwan spoke, they both jumped. “Uhhhh… should I go somewhere else?”

Regi whirled on the nine-tailed fox, embarrassment catching at his tongue. “Why, did you, uh, break another shelf or somethin’?”

Regi wasn’t sure if foxes could be smug, but Hwan’s open-mouthed grin was certainly akin to that human expression. “Uh-huh. Nothing to see here, I’m sure.”

Astira cleared her throat, then spoke in a careful voice. “Hwan, what did you find when you went Between?”

“Between?” Hwan and Regi repeated in unison, then looked at each other.

Regi leaned against the desk, rubbing the back of his head. “That’s what you meant by a shortcut. I hadn’t realized you were able to—wait, but if you can go Between, what in the circles of Dante’s Hell do you need me for?”

“Oh, she needs you for plenty,” Hwan guffawed, but Astira cut him off.

“Hwan, please. Did you see anything?”

The fox shook his head until his big ears wobbled. “Nah. Nothing of interest. No sign of Cara, but this place is practically magnetic as far as supernatural forces are concerned. I ran into six, maybe seven heavy-energy , seven different kinds beings just on my sprint over.”

Squeezing his eyes shut, Regi groaned. “I hate it. That’s at least twice as much traffic as we normally have.”

“Oh? You have been Between?” Astira injected a lot of casual indifference into her voice, but she was concentrating so hard on Regi’s answer that she leaned too hard on the reference desk and slipped with a squeak that Regi found far too endearing.

“I haven’t,” he said mildly, giving her space to find her dignity again, “but, again, reference librarian. Got a whole host of knowledge up here.” He tapped his forehead.

Tossing her hair out of her eyes, Astira looked him up and down with a satisfied smile. “Your brain must be a fascinating place.”

The blood rushed to Regi’s cheeks. “Ah, I dunno about that. Anyways. If y’all—” Wince. “—can go Between, you really don’t need more than a map of the ley lines that keeps you out of harm’s way.”

“Yes, yes, exactly,” Astira said, tapping the back of her hand into her other palm. “A map, perhaps a sense of the flavor of local spells and curses.”

Regi grinned. “Well, for that, you’re gonna have to turn to Robertson and her ‘Days in Saltbush,’ my friend.”

Now it was Astira’s turn to blush. “Oh, that book. Yes. I suppose I should give it a chance.”

“Yes, I suppose you should,” Regi said, brushing his chin. An odd warmth wound up through his gut and all the way out to his fingers. To distract himself, he asked quickly, “So, what do you plan to do when you find Miss Boss, anyway?”

“Take her down,” Hwan said, at the same time as Astira stammered, “A-ask her to un-curse Taiyang.”

The fox and woman whirled on each other, glowering.

Regi blinked dramatically at them in turn. “Take her down?” he repeated. “Let’s dig into that one, Hwan. Un-cursing is all well and good,” he added in Astira’s direction.

“Tira wants to make sure Cara can never curse anyone again,” Hwan said in a rush. “There. Now he knows. Sorry, Tir.”

Astira made a sound of frustration in the back of her throat. Regi shook his head. “All this time, I thought you were here to petition the lady.”

“Petition, threaten, bargain, whatever I have to do.” Astira folded her arms and set her chin. “I will accept nothing less than the undoing of the curse, and I am fae enough to know that the curse has not fully rooted. If I kill the source of the curse, I may yet save Taiyang.”

It was then that the ever-untimely shiver ran through Regi’s every nerve.

The shifting. The stirring. The beginnings of his transformation.

The full moon was tonight.

He shook it off bodily, turning the motion into a firm shake of his head. “No. You can’t kill her. I’m not helpin’ you if that’s your goal.”

“It does not have to be my goal.” Astira tipped her chin even higher. “I would be content with an un-cursing alone. But the curse will be broken. I have given Taiyang and my sister my word, and I am bound to it.”

Her last words sent an unexpected jolt of concern through Regi. To be bound to one’s word, as a fae, meant severe consequences if things went awry. Astira’s life was on the line, and he hated to think of her in eternal torment.

But a dread crept through his nerves too—the terror of attachment. The knowledge that as soon as he told her how he felt about her, as soon as he expressed any of this strange, awkward, fumbling desire, she would turn and walk away with her head held high because he was too this or not enough that.

His brain furiously searched for books he’d read on related subjects, but Regi came up empty. After all, he’d hardly read anything with a happily ever after.

So he turned to what he could control—his own supernatural power.

“Look, Tira.” Regi’s beard suddenly itched with the fire of a thousand ants. He swore inwardly, restraining his fingers from scratching. “Ah, you have to promise me you won’t kill Miss Boss. No murderin’, and no banishin’. If you swear you won’t do either of those things, then… I’ll take you wherever you need to go.”

“Really?” Astira and Hwan said together.

“Really really,” Regi said. Then, gulping down his nerves, he added, “Just—on one condition.”

Astira froze in the middle of sweeping her hair up and back.

Now Regi did scratch at his beard, as little as he could manage. “I’m gonna be a wolf all day tomorrow. We’re gonna go then, while nobody will recognize me.”

Hwan guffawed, then clapped a paw over his mouth. “Ooooh,” he said around his pad, “I can’t wait for wolf-Regi.”

Astira began to walk—stalk was perhaps a more appropriate verb—around Regi. He pivoted with her, raising his hands and feigning sniffing his armpits. “What, somethin’ stink?”

She folded her arms, frowning. “No, I—I must admit something.”

It was Regi’s turn to freeze. “Ahh-h? What?”

“I have never actually met a werewolf in person.” Astira stopped, spun on her heel to face him, and blinked; he registered that her scent was nervous, but not afraid. “What will your wolf form be like? Will you be—like a pet? Or will you act as a wild animal?”

Her voice grew low, a bit hushed, and her cheeks darkened as she said this.

Regi made a strangled sound in the back of his throat. “Ahh. I doubt I’ll bite you, if that’s what you mean.”

“It is not only the full moon,” Astira continued in the same low voice, quietly enough that Regi had to lean forward and strain to hear her, “but it is the spring equinox as well.”

The spell of the moment, which had been magnetically drawing Regi towards Astira again, was broken by his confusion. “What does that mean?”

“The power of the ley lines intensifies.” Astira gestured at Hwan. “That is why he can go Between without cost today, and could yesterday, and tomorrow and the day after. But then we will be trapped once again by the same costs as you or anyone else would be. You are our best hope for breaking Taiyang’s curse, Regi. But you will be in your most powerful and unpredictable form.” Her eyes held him in place. “Can I trust you?”

On this subject, Regi had read many texts. Being a werewolf meant that, without a bond of undisputable love, he could not be fully trusted around any living thing in his wolf form. Being a werewolf meant living far away from everyone and everything, in the kind of solitude he craved anyway, for those monthly lifetimes of blood and fang. Being a werewolf meant telling anyone you really cared about hard truths.

“No,” he said. “Not when I’m a wolf. I’ll do my best. But I’m still a beast.”

In his mind’s eye, he saw the sheep rolling down the riverbed, felt his fangs sink into its haunch, tasted the blood rushing across his tongue.

Shaking his head to bring himself back to the future, he said, “Maybe you can reason with me if I reach my third form.”

Astira must have seen the wildness dance in his eyes, because she brought her head up sharply. But then she nodded, and he could see her resolution was genuine. “Aye. I can work with that. And I have a beast of my own.”

“A fearsome one,” Hwan said, baring his fangs, and Regi threw his head back and surprised himself with a genuine belly laugh.

When he had recovered, he rapped the table with his knuckles. “Let’s find your godmother. Hand me that map of Mount Moriah.”

***

CHAPTER TWO

Regi came awake sharply, sucking in his breath. The cool wood under his head smelled like mouse musk and horse urine. There was a bit of hay in his nose. He sneezed.

His whole body rocked with the impact and he came upright on all four paws. He raised his head, taking in great nosefuls of the cold air. Light poured in through the open top half of the barn door: the moon was overhead. The transformation was complete.

He ran to the door and pushed it open with the top of his head, looking around outside for the white pickup truck. He knew how menacing he looked in this form, so he waited until he was sure Astira had seen him before he slunk out and trotted towards them.

Even though he had prepared her as best as he could, he still saw her jaw drop and her body freeze. She was prey in the face of predator.

“R-Regi?” she called. He responded to his name on her lips at a primal level rarely experienced in his human body.

He tossed his head back and howled softly, a stubborn dog’s groan rather than his full lungpower. Still, Astira shrank back into the truck. Her knuckles whitened on the wheel.

“Get in,” she said, staring him down.

He flicked his ears at her. He curled his lip slightly. Then he caught something on the wind, and his attention snagged and he drifted away, sniffing.

Again, she called, “Get in, Regi!”

Again, he responded bodily to his name, twisting around and bolting to the back of the Nissan Titan. His mind raced, full of sharp smells and sensations of clawing and biting; but he jumped into the open bed. The truck lurched. They took off down the gravel, churning dust. He scrabbled to stay upright, but the grooves were roughly the size of his paws. Finally he lay down, chin in a groove, seasick.

Dusty road rolled out behind the truck. Hours of it. Finally, the truck really began to shake, and he got to his feet and rapped his skull against the truck’s back window. After a long moment, it rolled down.

“What?” Hwan said from the back seat, leaving a gap between him and the window.

But Regi had no intention on attacking the fox. He dove out of the truck and shook out his coat. Then he came alongside the driver’s side door.

Astira rolled down the window. “It is still another few miles until we get there. Will you be alright to run alongside—”

He threw back his head and howled. It echoed across the open land, ringing like a bell. Then he broke into a long-legged lope. Soft sand flashed past. Pebbles, too, sometimes, and cacti. His paws were immune as he ran. He changed direction only for boulders larger than he could leap over.

The truck rattled along behind, never overtaking him. His ears flicked back. Music, something driving and full of bass, pumped out of the vehicle. Wildness clawed at his chest. He doubled his speed and howled again. Astira whooped through the open window. His head filled with full moons and satisfaction.

The miles passed. He felt the tug of the ley lines, as if the earth throbbed underpaw with power. They were close. The lines would cross soon.

The moon pulled, the ley lines pulled, the alignment of the stars and planets pulled, and Regi might have been ripped apart by the forces of the universe but for his sheer will to exist.

He came back to the present when the truck honked. “Straight ahead,” Astira yelled, then powered off the Titan and jumped out. Her words were filtered through his ancient canine wits, but he understood her intentions well enough. He waited until she was on the ground before streaking towards the shack poking out from the top of the hill.

The aroma of fresh stew filled his head and he ran doggedly to it. Then another smell assaulted him: sheep. He pulled up sharp, whipping his head around to seek the animals out. No, cried a tiny voice in his head, now is not the time.

NOW IS THE TIME, roared the inner beast.

He plunged into the long grass on the side of the tiny house, letting his snout guide him. The sheep began to mill nervously. He took note of the wind and shifted. They would never smell him coming.

He ducked under the fence, and that tiny part of his brain registered that he was so locked on that he didn’t wince at the splinters digging into his ruff. His paws squelched in unexpected mud and the herd bleated, alerted, unnerved. He charged.

His teeth flashed. A sheep cried, then fell limp and heavy in his jaws. Blood flowed down his throat. There was no one to see as he murdered the creature and worried at its hide to separate skin from flesh. He bent over the still-warm body and feasted.

With the rush of nutrients, his body shivered and changed. He pushed up and back so his hind legs took most of his weight. He threw back his shoulders and rolled his thickening neck. He raised his muzzle to the wind, testing it with his now-heightened sense of smell. He caught the scent of an old woman, decidedly not human, and a few companion animals—all smaller predators or preybeasts. Nothing a flash of his jaws wouldn’t handle.

This was his final form. The wolfman. No longer was the wolf or the man fully in control. He was a perfect blend of both, of instinct and knowledge and fang and claw and brain.

Stuffing a few last bites of mutton down his gullet, Regi growled and spun away from the dead sheep and the herd huddled in the other corner of the pen. It only took a few bounds and a single leap over the fence to sidle up to the truck and stand on his back legs, hunched over, panting.

Astira leaned on the sill, looking him up and down. Something in her face had changed. She was no longer eyeing him with the nerves of a prey spotting a predator. Her look was hungry, as likely to consume him as he was her.

“What happened over there? Did you eat a special mushroom or something?” she asked.

With this third stage of transformation, Regi found his guttural voice. “I drink blood and I grow strong.”

“You do not say.” Astira cleared her throat. “Well. I suppose I should approach Cara Boss’s threshold.”

She didn’t get out of the truck.

Regi dropped onto his knuckles and grunted. “If you’re too afraid, I’ll go.”

“I am not afraid,” Astira insisted. “I am wary of a woman who could make my nephew’s life a living hell. I think that is a healthy concern.”

Regi grunted again, non-committal.

The truck door opened and Astira stepped out. Without thinking, Regi turned and sniffed at her boot. She made a strangled—though not fearful—noise in her throat. “Excuse you?!”

“I’m settin’ your scent in my mind,” he insisted. “If I have to hunt for you, I’d like to know what I’m sniffin’ for.”

Astira snorted. “If you say so.”

She strode towards the ramshackle building. Regi fell in behind her, slinking back and forth across the path she took. He paused to take in the sounds and smells. Nothing dangerous moved, and that seemed strange to him.

Hwan came sailing out of the open window of the truck, landing lightly on his front paws. His tails swept out furiously behind him, but he kept his balance. He sauntered towards the shack as well.

Regi curled his lip. The fox annoyed him, but Hwan was important to Astira. No churning the waters.

Astira stepped up onto the porch and froze, one of her hands upraised with her palm forward. But nothing changed, shifted, moved, or flickered out of phase. She looked over her shoulder and Regi rose up on his hind legs.

He nodded towards the door. “I’ve got your back.”

Astira flashed an unexpectedly smug smile and stepped forward to rap on the door.

“Who the hell?!” The voice inside was muffled but distinct. Regi had heard it on the ads on local TV when he was very small, before the divorce: Cara Boss, legendary fairy godmother. Well, godparent, that’s what she preferred these days. “At this hour? Get out!”

“Miss Boss,” Astira called, her voice hardly wavering, “I would like to speak to you.”

“You can speak to me when it’s daylight, young lady. Get the hell outta here!”

There came the distinct sound of a shotgun racking.

Astira spun so her back was against the wall to one side of the door. She projected her voice as if she were still standing in front of it. “I will not leave until you speak to me, Miss Boss. I am not alone. I do not intend to choose violence, but if I must, I will.”

Silence. Regi crouched beside the stair. The air smelled of tension and fear; he wondered how much of her property Cara Boss could see, in a physical or astral form.

After what felt like an eternity, the old woman called, “What could you possibly wanna talk about that’s more important than my supper?”

Astira looked visibly relieved. “Last week, you cursed my nephew.”

Silence again for a while.

The woman’s voice was smaller now. “Yes, I remember. Taiyang. Cute kid. Shame his appointment was that day.”

Regi’s ears flicked forward. He caught Astira’s eye, feigned speaking and shrugged. She nodded, swallowing hard.

Regi closed his eyes. Words were harder in this form, so he had to compose them carefully.

“What else happened that day, ma’am?”

He heard the shotgun rise up on the woman’s shoulder again and the edge returned to her voice. “Who the hell are you?”

“A friend,” Astira said quickly. “He was helping me to find you. I needed his nose.”

“Lycan?” Cara Boss demanded. “Is that what you are?”

“Yes,” Regi barked back. “A local one. Been here a few months now. Please. Tell us what happened that day.” He saw Astira’s panic level rising, and with it, her anger. Her hands clenched into fists, going for whatever weapon she kept on that strange belt of hers.

“Why should I? I don’t know that she’s the boy’s aunt, or that you’re really from around here. Prove it! Besides, you ate my sheep!”

Now it was Regi and Astira’s turn to be silent.

“Ma’am, maybe you’d be able to hear it from a real animal,” Hwan said in a convincing Texas accent, sidling up beside Regi. Somehow, the fox’s voice was equal parts powerful and adorable.

“Who’s that?” Cara Boss demanded again, but Regi heard the shotgun lower slightly.

Hwan threw a wink over his shoulder and trotted up the stairs, making sure his pawsteps fell heavily on the porch. “I’m Hwan, a nine-tailed fox. Perhaps you’ve heard of me as a jiuweihu. I’m bonded to the little boy’s fine aunt here.”

“Hmph,” came Cara Boss’s unconvincing dismissal. “You ain’t a lady spirit.”

“Aw, ma’am, you don’t have to believe me, I s’pose, but… well, take a good look at me and tell me I look like a liar.” With that, Hwan struck his most adorable pose, rivaling the pleading face emoji’s eyes for heart-rending champion.

The door clicked four times, then groaned as it opened a few inches. A bright eye peered out, fixing on Hwan far below. Then the door moaned open further and a tall old woman ducked through the doorway. She towered over Hwan as she folded her arms and tipped her chin at him.

“That’s more than enough sugar, pup. I’m starting to get a little sweet-sick.” Cara Boss peered around the doorway and raised an eyebrow at Astira. “You comin’ in for a coffee or what?”

Cara Boss’s silver hair fluttered in the warm light pouring out of her home. Regi looked past her to see a surprisingly large den inside, with a shag rug in front of the fire that was so massive he longed to curl up and sleep on it. For a godparent, she didn’t seem so bad.

But she had decidedly made her home at the crossroads, and the house showed the damage of that life choice. No wonder it looked like a ransacked pile of sticks. Only a fool would taunt such a source of power by trying to stake her claim to the land above it.

Astira pushed off the wall and stood up, shaking. “I—I will not accept your hospitality unless you tell me you will remove Taiyang’s curse.”

The two women stood looking levelly at one another. Regi’s nostrils flared as a strange, pungent odor floated to him on the chilly night air. “Somethin’s here.”

Cara Boss offered Astira her hand. “Please. Come inside. I insist. The shadowborne lock on to body heat.”

***

Treating them to what might have been fine hospitality on any other day, between the decaf coffee and lemon pound cake and some smoked pork shoulder for Regi, Cara Boss related the story of that foul day to her guests. Her shotgun leaned against her chair, RETRIBUTION engraved into the stock.

“Has it really only been three damn days? Well. I’m sorry to little Taiyang, he didn’t deserve it. I shoulda taken a mental health day.” The woman clutched a vast mug of tea in her hands, which were old but not frail. “I tried to work through it, and then—well. I couldn’t control myself, not after the second foreshock… I regret it. I didn’t know myself well enough to know I needed a break.”

Cara trailed off, hanging her head. Her hair fell around her mug, a silver veil.

“Ma’am…” Regi was struggling to stay awake—the shag rug was as comfortable as he’d feared, and he’d curled up into half a ball. But he had to remain conscious, for Tira’s sake. “A foreshock of what?”

Cara looked up sharply, her eyes locking with his. Gone was the old woman whose sheep he’d slaughtered and whose porch he’d trespassed upon; in her place was a witch of ancient, primordial power. When she answered him, it was with a thousand voices. “Of the end of all things.”

Astira straightened. Hwan shot up onto his feet, his fur puffed out. Regi growled low in his chest.

Still in an endless shrilling of voices, Cara continued, “I have guarded this place against all comers for thousands of years. I am no stranger to mortal danger and impossible odds. But I fear what has come.”

Some dark anti-light, the absence of any kind of illumination, dimmed in the room and Cara seemed to shrink into herself. She took a loud sip of her coffee before speaking in her normal voice. “And the other guardians, they’re all a-fluster too.”

“There are other guardians?” Regi asked, looking around as if they might appear out of the woodwork at any moment.

She steadied the tea in her lap with one hand and waved the other. “Not here. Far away. Scotland, China, Egypt. There are other portals, but none where it’s as cheap to get through to this realm as it is in those three and Saltbush. Since ancient times, even the least skilled in magic, even the poorest in gaians could come to the human realm through the crossroads towns.”

“Free trade,” Regi whistled.

“Precisely.” Cara winked at him so convincingly that he laid his chin on the rug. “You catch on fast, pup.”

“I’m a librarian,” he said into the shag.

“I still do not understand.” Astira set her tea down and looked at her hands. “This was something so bad that you could not keep yourself from cursing an innocent child?”

Cara Boss closed her eyes, wincing. “Yeah. When you put it that way, it sounds pretty bad, eh? But it’s true. This shit was… so intense. You know that old Star Wars movie, where that old Ben guy says, ‘as if millions of voices cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced’? Just like that. And… the worst is yet to come.” She rolled her head back and forth like a distressed cow. “The worst is yet to come.”

Regi’s blood chilled. He had never met Cara Boss face to face, but she was practically a celebrity in Saltbush and beyond, so he certainly knew of her. This was not how he had expected her to act, especially not in front of three strangers whose motivations were certainly questionable. Her reputation preceded her. She should have been strong, cool, aloof.

Instead, her eyes were sunken as she caught Regi staring and stared back. “Will you help me hold back the darkness?” she asked, and it was as if the words were for his ears only. As if she had sidled up and whispered right up against his delicate ears.

“Ma’am, I hardly know how to get back to my own house from here,” he started, but Cara let out a bitter laugh that cut him off.

“This ain’t time for false modesty,” she said, pounding her fist into her palm as she addressed the whole room. Hwan startled, coming awake from his fuzzy ball in front of the fire. “I can’t just tell anyone what’s goin’ on out here. You’re here, and you’re willin’ to help me—”

“…are we?” Regi asked, but Cara rushed on.

“—and so you’re what I’ve got to work with. Will you help me hold back the darkness?” This time, Cara addressed the question to all of them.

Astira folded her arms across her chest. “I told you. Your hospitality, your requests, they mean nothing to me without your promise that you will reverse Taiyang’s curse.”

Cara seemed to see Astira for the first time. Something in the old woman’s face relaxed, grew more understanding. “I can do my best, hon. But there’s no promise when it comes to curses. They get all twisted up if you push ‘em too hard.”

Regi raised his head and a whine rose to his throat as he watched Tira’s face fall hard.

“You mean—he will have to see everyone he loves die in front of his eyes? No. No! That is so cruel, that is so unkind and unfair.” She bunched her hands into fists. “He is such a kind little boy, and you would inflict him with this.”

Cara Boss met Astira’s accusing stare levelly. “Yes, because I made a mistake, and now it is my burden to bear.”

“It is his! You can say you are sorry all that you want, and it will do nothing, you old hag. You do not suffer from this with every day of your life that passes. Taiyang does.”

Despite his best instincts, Regi pushed to all four paws and came over to rest his chin on Astira’s leg. She scratched him absently between his ears and he shivered with pleasure at her touch.

The sensation stirred something in him, made an idea rumble up in his chest. “If I help you—”

“Both of you. All three of you,” Cara insisted.

Regi’s nostrils flared and he lifted his head off Astira’s leg to glare at the fairy godmother. “If we help you, what will you do for us?”

“Anything I can,” Cara said with a stiff smile. “If there’s anything left after tonight.”

“Elaborate,” Regi growled.

Hwan stretched and lashed all nine tails through the air.

Cara set her tea down on a nightstand nearby and raised one hand in front of her face. She brought the other up to flutter her fingertips together. Between her hands, a pale blue light began to dance, until it was so distinct that Cara could draw with it.

She swooped her hands up and sideways, casting the shape of a massive arched gateway. “There are four crossroads towns, each with an ancient guardian. We’re tasked with keepin’ things safe and quiet while all of Fae tramps on our soil.” Regi growled softly, and Cara cleared her throat. “Anyway.”

Next, her hands cleared the gate and formed a familiar shape: a broken-down bus station, one that lay suspiciously outside of Saltbush—the physical location of the crossing of the two ley lines. The physical manifestation that grounded the portal in the human realm enough to allow nearly free passage between the worlds.

“Tonight, the collidin’ powers are undeniable,” Cara said, and then the thousands of voices began to rise up in volume and spoke with her. “The moon is full and the equinox is nigh. Every magnification of magic possible is happening at once. The foreshock I experienced was a portent of things to come—tonight. I must go to the gate and pour into it the additional life force I have saved up all these years. The gate must grow to hold. I will hold back the darkness.”

Regi lunged forward, putting his body between Cara and Astira. “Why do you need our help?”

The thousand voices laughed like a brick across a cheese grater. “Have you ever seen a sinking ship? The rats flee to the highest point. As I reinforce the gate, the atomic mass of the magic I add will squeeze out some of the shadowborne. They will arrive angry and swarming.”

Regi’s stomach dropped as he realized the implication of Cara’s words. “And we’ll have to hold them off while you pour your—life forces into the gate.” He said the words delicately, as if he were holding them on a fork far away from his nose.

“In exchange,” Cara’s multi-voice plowed on as if he hadn’t spoken, “I will pick at the threads that tie Taiyang to his curse.”

“And if we do not help you?” Astira asked, setting her jaw.

“I may be able to strengthen the gate. I may not. And we may all see the end of the world. Taiyang’s curse may come true tonight.”

A shudder passed like a chill wind through Regi’s whole body. The library, the out-of-order stacks, the intrusive patrons—it all seemed so far away. And yet, when he raised his muzzle, he could smell spring on the air. His chest swelled with purpose.

“I’ll go with you,” he told Cara, but he was looking at Tira.

She searched his face, then something relaxed in her eyes. “Yes. So will I.”

“I don’t have to say it, right? We all know the bonded fox has to go where his mistress goes, right?”

***

CHAPTER THREE

Cara Boss needed a few more hours to get ready, however, and so Regi found himself sitting in his upright-wolf form in the moon-soaked barn, trying to ignore the taunting scent of sheep mingled with the tantalizing scent of Tira. She sat beside him, her arms wrapped around her legs, staring at her shoes.

She looked so forlorn, nothing like the cocky firebrand who’d strode into his library and demanded he help her on her quest. Regi took the hint and inched closer, offering his arm without putting it around her preemptively.

With a muffled sob, she threw herself against him, wrapping her arms a little too tightly around his chest. Regi grunted as the air left his lungs, but he couldn’t complain. She was so close he could feel her heart beating against his fur. She shook with sobs, letting them rack her entire body for a while. He felt he didn’t have to say anything, just draped his arm over her and held the space for her.

Finally, she raised her head, sniffling and mumbling apologies for the snot, the tears, the hug. But she didn’t let go.

“What if Taiyang is never free of this? Even if I sacrifice everything and Cara Boss is to be trusted… it may not matter.” She pressed her forehead against his ribs. “My sister sent me a text. Poor baby. She Taiyang to see his great aunt, and she drew her last breath while my sister was holding him over the hospice bed.”

Regi’s growl came from deep in his chest. “That’s terrible.”

“The kid could have done worse than a great aunt,” Hwan said. Regi and Astira both whirled on him, and the fox flattened against the ground. “What?! She was probably a thousand years old anyway, and he doesn’t even know when the titty’s by his cheek! At least it wasn’t—”

Astira reached over and clamped Hwan’s jaws together in one neat snap of her hand, leaning far forward. “No. You will not say whatever words you are about to say. I will not let you risk a jinx.”

Hwan’s eyes said exactly what words she was stifling.

After she was sure Hwan would be quiet, Astira released him, rolling slightly sideways. The fox made a show of working his jaw as if it were cramping. “Ow-www. Wow. That was rude.”

But neither Regi nor Astira was paying attention to the fox anymore. To catch herself, Astira had dropped her hand so that her fingers rested over Regi’s long, furry ones. Her motion had brought her shoulder up against his. In this cold barn, the mingling of their body heat was impossible to miss.

Regi’s nostrils flared, but he kept very still. He could hear his heartbeat thudding in his big, upright ears, and strange thought fragments flitted through his mind. A flash of a question: Am I easier to love because I’m a big dog now? A joke: My home got bitten, and now my warehouse howls at full moons. A half-formed memory: His mother running her hand over the tall poof of his hair, cradling him to dry her own tears. “I could have been happy if it hadn’t been for your father.”

He wanted to close the gap, to nuzzle Astira, but fear locked his limbs and held him in a vise.

She craned forward, but seemed to sense something was wrong. “Regi?”

Icy lightning struck in his extremities. He couldn’t pull away or move towards her; only his mouth deigned to work, and not to say anything he really wanted to. “It’s cold.”

Astira didn’t move. “It is.”

He didn’t move either. Couldn’t.

What if she pulls away? What if she takes me into her arms and I find out who she really is? What if she moves in with me and I forget what it’s like to hear my own thoughts and I hate myself so much that I walk into the prairie and never come back?

It was as if the massive full moon was magnifying the sound of his thoughts, turning them into a tornado across his mind. He raised one handful of claws and gripped the side of his head, wincing.

Astira sighed audibly and turned away. “I am going to see if Cara has a coat to spare.” She pushed upright but stood still for a moment, as if waiting one last time for Regi to say something. Anything.

He looked up at her with mournful eyes, but nothing came to mind.

She left the barn like a ghost, silent and fading.

“Geeeeez,” Hwan said into the silence. “You really missed the green light on that one, man.”

“Shut up, Hwan,” Regi snarled, but even his growl was half-hearted. “What do you know, anyway?”

Hwan flattened his ears and slapped the barn floor with several tails, sending up a cloud of hay dust. “Hey, now, you think maybe I know a thing or two about our girl out there? Yeah, being by someone’s side their entire life, you come to understand what she might mean when she does this or that, or what might really get her to fall for someone.”

“Fall for—? Come on, that’s not what’s happenin’ here, foxy.” But Regi dug his nails into his pads until he thought he might puncture them.

Hwan pointed four tailtips at Regi at once, punctuating his words. “Take heed, you dunce, she’s got eyes for you. If you break her heart I’ll claw your eyes out and feed them to Daji.”

“You’re really makin’ me wanna go after this girl,” Regi growled, then tossed his head. “What am I even sayin’. Regis Nardelle is a loner. No two ways about it. Never happier than in my own company, that’s what I always say.”

“Oh, is it? Wow, Regi. That’s wise AF. Y’know, you should put it on Instagram, over an inspirationally over-saturated photo of a tree.”

Regi summoned a rumble in his chest, but all tension between the two canids was dispersed as Cara Boss’s voice cut through their noise. “It’s time.”

Regi and Hwan came out of the barn together to find Cara and Astira standing close together. Cara beckoned them towards her, offering them small cups of some dark liquid. She set Hwan’s on the ground in front of him and tucked a phial in the bag slug over her shoulder.

The fox sniffed it and recoiled. “What the hell, woman?”

Regi swirled the cup, took a sniff. “Oof. That’s some powerful maté.”

“Laced with good Texas bourbon. Drink up.” Cara gestured with her own cup. “You’ll need to be attuned to a few different wavelengths on our little joyride.” Then she threw her head back and drank the whole thing in one gulp.

Steeling himself, shooting Astira a hopeful glance to see if she was watching, Regi clutched the cup delicately in his claws and quaffed its contents. The dark liquid burned as it passed right over his tongue and down his throat, and he was grateful he hadn’t tried to sip it. It was bitter and wild and fiery, setting his esophagus and stomach aflame. He felt warm and heady and ready for anything; he threw back his head and howled—

The sound never escaped him, because as surely as she had silenced Hwan, Astira leapt and locked her hands around his muzzle. It took both of her hands, because his muzzle was decidedly larger than the fox’s. But her method was just as effective.

Regi blushed and burned. He was ashamed to be caught endangering them all in the fog of instinct, ashamed at how much he liked her touch and didn’t mind her cool restraint of him at all. He dropped his head and let the howl out in a hiss of air. At last, Astira released him, absently patting the bridge of his nose as she let go.

“We go quietly,” Cara Boss said sternly, folding her arms so that her windbreaker rustled menacingly. “We keep our voices down, we increase the element of surprise. Getting’ ready took me a damn sight longer than I’d hoped. The shadowborne will have gathered in numbers by now. We’ll need to take out as many as we can before they realize what’s happenin’.”

The full moon gave them plenty of light to pick their way across the prairie. Cara led them through softly hissing bluestem grass, past a large lone oak, around the edge of a recently-tilled field. Hwan snapped at a lightning bug and then, when the insect fluttered out of his reach, flicked a casual beam of light at the bug. It instantly stopped moving and hit the grass with a soft thwup.

Astira kept close to Regi, but never close enough for them to touch. After a while of this strange, strained silence, Regi dropped to all fours and loped ahead, pausing only to glance back now and then for Cara’s wordless, pointed directions.

Regi sorted the scents of the night with half of his mind and ruminated on Tira with the more eager half. She was somethin’. Smarter than he was, and effortlessly, one of those children of the internet whose reach was worldwide before she was eleven. Meanwhile, him, pointing at his meticulously organized collection of obscure high fantasy paperbacks and moving his mouth like a drowning fish.

Someone so headstrong, so quick to action, still naïve in her emotional capacity… his coat rippled with a shiver. She could so easily take over his life, trash it, break his heart and run off having trampled it in her wake. He himself, the product of a failed marriage whose components wished they could have really started over, never wanted to inflict such a fate on an innocent kid.

The risks were too high. He felt himself slipping, head over tail, down the rocky ravine that was infatuation. Her scent, her eyes, her hypnotic way of speaking… her hands on his muzzle. It was so much. He tossed his head to clear it. If he felt this way about her now, what would his resolve look like after he really fell for her?

Spikes pricked his paws and he snapped back to the present, snapping his jaws at the cactus spines embedded in his pad. He slowed up in a cloud of dust and soon Cara Boss caught up with him. Her grass-colored dress, fluttering in the wind like the bluestem, made her simply a pale face with silver hair floating in the night sky.

“There,” she said, pointing.

What Regi’s admittedly fuzzy half-canine vision had translated as a wide, flat boulder resolved with Cara’s coaxing into something else entirely: a low, flat bus station, modeled after—or perhaps taking over—an Old West-era train station. As if it was lit with the clear light of day, Regi could make out the rolling doors and the double doors, in the same forced-cheery green; in between were patches of wall meticulously painted to look like two shades of wood.

There might have once been train tracks running in front of the station, but now there was just a bunch of gravel raked heavily in a north-south line and two rusted-out busses sagging there. A few boxes and barrels sat like props in a Western video game. One corner of the lower crate was broken, as was appropriate to such a set dressing.

“I’ve never been to Olde Saltbush Station,” Regi admitted softly.

“Three months ain’t long enough to build up the nerve.” Cara Boss patted Regi’s shoulder with only a hint of condescension. “You would’ve gotten real curious eventually. And, here you are. Check this one off your bucket list.”

“Not exactly,” Regi said, but it was under his breath, and only because Cara Boss had already glided away towards the station and vanished through the double doors, in the same staged way a secondary video game character would.

“I suppose the gate is inside,” Astira said, putting her hands on her hips. “This is all very strange.” But she kept her voice low and reached down to tape her calf so that Hwan came scuttling to her. She ran her hand over the fox’s head, both of them clearly relieved of some of their pre-battle jitters.

“I’ve  only been here three months,” Regi said. It was a strain to say so much, in this half-wolf form, but at least the sheep’s blood in his stomach still let him form words at all. “But I watch things, learn a lot from what people say and don’t say. I index it all like my own personal gossip library. I think… we should trust Cara Boss.”

Astira looked at him, both their faces lit by harsh moonlight. Regi felt the same magnetic draw between them, but this time, the way Tira was studying him felt deeply curious—the way one becomes when one learns something foundational and embarrassing about a very old friend.

“I trust you, Regi,” she said.

Music to his ears. In his excitement, wolf-Regi barely contained himself from licking her on the lips and managed to convert the motion just in time to a brief brush of her neck with his cold nose. He winced as he let his momentum carry him further away from her, but then he glanced back in time to see her shiver and bring her fingers up to brush where he’d nosed her.

A similar shiver ran through Regi—specifically, somewhere between his stomach and his tail.

“Let’s go,” he said, and bounded on all fours past the trains, up the three short steps to the double doors.

Now he stood and more cautiously pushed one door open with his claws. “Cara?” he called in a whisper.

“Here,” she whispered back.

Regi poked his head inside and looked around. He wasn’t sure if Cara had glamoured his eyes again, or if this was some werewolfian power he hadn’t previously activated, but he could see. Heat signatures, perhaps, or magic signatures… He admitted to himself that there was more he’d like to learn about supernatural beings such as himself.

He stored this piece of information very consciously, because he was trying hard not to panic.

To Regi’s enhanced vision, the brick and glass room was alive. The walls squirmed. Black, shadowy masses, shapeless and nameless, crawled on every surface. Over and under and around each other, they writhed. Then Regi blinked furiously and his vision changed back to his poorer night vision and he saw that the room seemed empty except for a few vines and a bench.

Cara Boss stood in the center of it, her arms upraised. She was holding a large bubble of green and blue energy around herself.

“C’mere,” she called.

Regi bounded over to Cara’s side and craned his head back. He was so tall that his muzzle poked out of the bubble she’d formed.

“Do—” he started to say, but Cara shushed him.

“Wait! Don’t.” She spoke in half-syllables, hardly forming the full words. Regi squeezed his eyes shut, turning the enhanced vision back on, and he saw that the shapes’ writhing had become more agitated.

Cara closed her eyes, straining upwards through her hands until the bubble had stretched far enough to cover Regi even if he stood fully upright and howled. One of the formless beings—the shadowborne, he guessed—touched the shield and sizzled, withdrawing so quickly that it disappeared amongst its brethren.

He turned to Cara and she nodded.

“Do you see them too?” he asked.

“No, but I can feel ‘em. Nasty leeches. Got no respect for how a toll’s supposed to work, just live right between the realms and suck the nutrients out of both of ‘em.” Cara kept her arms upraised; clearly maintaining the shield was taking a toll on her. “By the way, if they hear you speak, they’ll assume you’re the enemy. Hence the shield.”

Suck the nutrients out of— “Tira,” he said breathlessly, and he and Cara both turned to see Astira walking towards them slowly, looking around her with an expression that told Regi she, at least, probably didn’t see any strange formless worms.

Hwan, for his part, was puffed up like a freshly-washed Pomeranian, whipping his head back and forth as he snarled at unseen enemies. Astira kept dropping down to pet Hwan between his pasted-back ears, to no avail.

Cara motioned both of them quickly and they double-timed into the magical barrier.

“This place is very creepy,” Astira said. Then she caught sight of Regi. “Oh, gods, Regi, you look terrible. Did you see a ghost?”

“Something like that,” he said. “Please stay in here until you can see what’s out there.”

“What is out there—there was something out there?” Now it was Astira’s turn to recoil from an unseen enemy. “Please do not tell me it is spiders.”

“It isn’t spiders, Tira,” Hwan said quickly, silencing whatever Regi might have contributed with a sharp glare.

“Once I’m no longer tryin’ to hold all of us in a bubble of silence, I’ll cast a visual spell on this room so you can see it for what it really is. But that’ll mean pure chaos, and y’all gotta be ready to start swingin’. ‘Cause it won’t just be the shadowborne at that point.”

“Not just the—Cara, what are you talkin’ about?” Regi turned on the fairy godmother, his brow furrowing deeply as he realized what she had just said.

“Hang in there, for the sake of all of us,” Cara said with a grim smile, then clashed her palms together.

Light exploded from her fingertips, flashing so brightly that everything became visible for a split second. The atoms. The space between. The formless void-worms that were the shadowborne. The brick walls and concrete floor, a flimsy disguise—and the true shape of the room, a magnificent if grimy underground station as wide as any found in New York’s subway system, the great mouth of a magnificent port that stretched back, back, deep into a Down Below city called Fourwing.

And all of the people. Beings of every shape, persuasion, and era, jostling one another to come through Saltbush’s mighty ley line gate.

Astira opened her mouth but Regi beat her to it. “Miss Boss, what is this?”

The information hit him, straight from Cara Boss’s finger like a lightning bolt of knowledge.

Like a fae New York Harbor, Saltbush was one of four cities around the world where the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses could cross through to the human realm for a chance at a better life in a different world. They came through in mind-boggling numbers every day, walking immediately onto a land bridge built through the Between, dropping them off a ways west in Austin where a real human center of commerce and opportunity could be found. Most of that traffic never ended up in Saltbush, nor did the kind of supernatural being who chose to settle in dusty Saltbush’s limits often seek to return to the other side.

No one said much about Olde Saltbush Station in town, but what it was and where it was and why it was suddenly made much more sense to Regi.

With this realization fomenting in his mind, he stood upright unsteadily and caught sight of another werewolf—a taller, broader specimen in the same wolfman form as Regi was now, escorting a fae creature on his arm. Regi’s heart soared and twinged at the same time. He wasn’t alone. He was considering plunging through whatever barrier lay between him and the stranger who looked a bit like him when the illumination spell settled and the activity beyond the abandoned bus station vanished.

Regi could still see the shadowborne. One of them had morphed to form a fangy mouth and was lunging towards Astira.

He threw himself between her and the creature, claws first. There was a terrible rending sound, like someone was ripping God’s nicest tuxedo.

The shadowborne rippled and fell apart, a greasy mess of dripping, blobby flesh. The formless worms around the spot where it had been withdrew and crowded in to cover the bare concrete.

“Welcome to Saltbush,” he snarled at what was left of the corpse.

“That, yes!” Cara hollered. “More of that! Don’t worry about bein’ proactive, you just have to go after the ones that go after you!”

She swung her arms back impressively far, like wings, then brought her hands and crossed them to press overlaid lines of blue and orange fire into one powerful beam. This, she brought up until it was pulsing into the top right corner of a modest closed-off concrete doorway in the brick wall.

Regi’s mind’s eye overlaid the vision of Fourwings. “The gate,” he breathed.

Cara threw a saucy grin over her shoulder. “Clever, ain’t it? A glamour of my own recipe. Nobody’d ever guess, except those who needed to.”

Then the old fairy godmother focused her full attention on wedging more magic into the space between the atoms in the physical mass of the gate.

“Regi, duck!” came Astira’s voice, a distance away but then remarkably close. Regi dropped his head nearly between his legs just in time to hear a blade sing over his head, lopping off the wriggling end of an enterprising shadowborne. Once again, it turned into sad barbecue and sizzled on the floor.

Astira dropped lightly onto three limbs, holding her sword out beside her safely. She threw a sly look over her shoulder. “This is something halfway between Dambe and the Wudang Sword. A fighting style of my own recipe.”

Awe widened Regi’s eyes and he grinned open-mouthed at her. “That was amazin’.”

“Incoming!” Hwan roared, and Regi felt a light pressure on his right shoulder, then another as the fox leapt, landed, and leapt again. Then he whipped his nine tails around to twist in midair, bringing him around so he could sink his teeth into one of three lithe shadowborne limbs reaching for Astira.

“Keep going!” Cara called. Regi glanced over to see her pouring new colors of magic in through the opening she’d made.

“She’s really good,” he said.

“Duck,” Astira said. Whssk, whssk. The sword flashed, the shadowborne fell.

Regi spun up and around, bringing his arms down hard with his claws outstretched. More downed shadowborne. Cara Boss shored up the gate, and her helpers held off the ever-agitated shadowborne. Regi could see that every time Cara pushed magic into the gate’s mass, there was less room for the shadowborne, and so they squeezed out in greater numbers. In some places, they had gotten so thick that the wall was invisible, so the room had seemed to shrink.

Then it happened: Hwan yelped in pain and Regi spun around in time to see the fox, limp in a shadowborne’s excreted mouth. The creature tried to pull Hwan away, deeper into its mass, but Regi bunched up and leapt and lashed and scooped Hwan away as the worm disintegrated. He brought Hwan back to Astira, who was clearly struggling between her desire to tear herself away from the battle and go to his side, and her terror that if she did, they would be overwhelmed.

Regi gathered all of the strength he had left and threw his limbs as wide as he could manage, creating a barrier between Astira and Hwan and the enemy. “Go,” he said in a guttural growl.

Tira turned to him with grateful tears in her eyes. She brought her finger up and barely brushed it under Regi’s chin so quickly and yet so softly that he could hardly be sure it had happened. “Thank you,” she said.

He was all claws and fangs, thrashing and kicking and biting and tearing at the oncoming mass. The shapeless worms swarmed in, seeking his neck and ears and eyes, but his whirlwind of canine strength kept them off him for a long time. Sharp teeth caught at his fur, but couldn’t break the skin. A tentacled arm tried to pluck him off his feet.

“Is he alright?” he roared when he could spare the breath.

“He is still breathing,” Astira said in a choked voice. “Barely.”

“Cara! Hwan is down!”

Cara looked over, shook her head. “Check my bag. Might be—somethin’ in there.” But her movements were clear: she couldn’t afford to break her concentration.

Regi snarled in frustration and toyed with a thought. Sometimes, when he overthought something, the real path forward lay in letting instinct take over.

And right now, his instincts were the wolf’s.

He handed the reins of his thought process over to his inner animal. Immediately, he threw his head back and howled—the belly-deep, moon-tugging, spine-tingling howl he had locked inside this entire full moon cycle.

The shadowborne shrank back from the sound as if he’d burned them, clearing space around Regi as surely as Cara’s shield. Satisfied, he bounded over to perch beside Hwan and howl again, giving Astira space to stand up with the fox cradled in her arms. She pressed her side fully against Regi’s.

“Let us go,” she said close to his ear.

He nudged her with his head and then walked beside her on all fours to Cara Boss’s beaded bag. Regi kept an eye and a light hand on Hwan and kept the shadowborne at bay with his howls until Tira fished out a prepared poultice from the depths of the bag.

After she had tended Hwan’s wounds, she ran the fox over to lay him beside Cara.

“As close as he will get to protection,” she said. “Shall we return to the fray?”

She looked so strong and beautiful and determined, sweaty and muddy and bloody as she was from the fight. Regi’s heartthudded in his ears again.

“Never thought I’d get to save the world with someone like you,” he said, and then he threw back his head and let out his most ferocious howl yet.

All of the shadowborne in the room retreated into themselves, the room taking shape again. The void worms immediately began to emerge again, but Regi knew he had a few moments before the disoriented creatures could hurt him again. He also knew he maybe onlyhad a few moments left at all.

So he did what he should have done a long time ago—on the hillock overlooking the station, in that moonlit barn, all the way back to the damn library table.

He wrapped one hand around Tira’s waist, gently cupped her head in the other, and pulled her close. He went most of the way, but not all the way, because he wanted to let her push him away if he had really misread the situation.

He hadn’t.

She kissed him back, fully and deeply. He was part wolf and part man and his muzzle made no real sense to him, but the kiss did. It warmed him all the way down to his toe-claws and the brushy tip of his tail. It made him want to beat his chest and then beat every enemy in the damn room. It made him feel like he wouldn’t mind a rocking chair and a suburban porch so much, as long as she’d kiss him like that.

Regi broke away first, because he had found the words and he couldn’t let them sit too long or he’d overthink them.

“I could be happy because of you.”

Tira beamed at him, cupping either side of his jaw. “You are very bad at flirting, but sometimes you say very nice things.”

“Lovebirds! Get your asses back into battle, please and thank you!” Cara Boss boomed at them, magic artificially amplifying her voice.

Regi jumped, but he didn’t let go of Tira’s waist. “Are you ready to go back?”

Tira leaned suggestively against him, but her expression was anything but seductive. “Ahhh—well, there is a worm right behind you.”

And so they dove back to it: Regi with his claws and his howl, and Astira with her blade. Cara Boss bulked up the gate. The shadowborne squeezed forth and retreated from the force of Regi’s howls, but he was fatiguing. The numbers hadn’t slowed. And he could tell that Astira was flagging too.

Then it happened, like a clap of deafening thunder and shattering boulders.

If the effect of the reinforcing magic squeezing out the shadowborne had been like toothpaste or sludge through a straw, this was like a dam opening. The room was suddenly awash in shadowborne mass, thick and gooey. Regi struggled to stay upright, leaning forward to try and regain a center of gravity. He reached for Astira, who had planted her feet well, and her grip was stronger than his. They rode out the undulation of the massive, hulking shadowborne creature hand in hand.

The creature amassed on the other side of the bus station, and when there was enough of it, the wall simply fell away, the opposite of a barn raising video. The shadowborne mass began to squirm towards Saltbush. Regi and Astira unstuck their feet from the floor and charged after it.

Regi glanced at her and his heart swelled. She had her sword level in front of her, braced to drive it into the mass threatening a tiny town she’d hardly visited, whatever the cost. She was a brave, kind, selfless person, someone he’d be glad to run beside—even if it was only for this one battle.

He threw himself against the shadowborne with the full, renewed force of his teeth and claws, ripping at its rubbery hide. Though steaming, hissing goo oozed out of the wounds, the worm seemed unfazed. Regi dropped off and bolted towards the end of the beast that was pointed toward Saltbush.

“I’ll drive it into your blade!” he called back. He knew Astira had heard him because she took a flying leap onto the monster’s tail end and began to run up its back with her blade buried as deep as she could manage.

If they pulled this off…

Regi put on a last, desperate burst of speed and pushed out ahead of the bulky monster. He dug his front claws in and let his back end keep going, bringing him hard around to face the shadowborne. It was all shimmering rainbow slime and sucking half-mouths, and somehow Regi didn’t feel a lick of fear as he planted himself in front of it and drew in as much breath as his lungs could hold.

Then he howled.

It was enough.

The shadowborne reared back, recoiling skyward. In doing so, it lent Astira its weight against her blade, severing the last of its body wide open.

It exploded. Viscous black flesh rained down in massive, dripping chunks and sizzled on the bluestem grass. Regi clawed his way through the carnage, calling Astira’s name.

“I am here,” she called weakly, and he found her under what was left of the base of the shadowborne mass. His claws made short work of it and he pulled her free. She winced and sucked in her breath hard when he jostled her left leg.

“Oh, gods. All that is holy. Take away that which pains me—OWWW. It is definitely broken.” She leaned over the leg and winced. “But… I am alive. And so are you.”

Again she cupped his muzzle in her hands, and this time, it was a different kind of warmth that ran through Regi’s body.

There was a sharp sound and they whirled around to see the double doors banged open and a wild-haired, wild-eyed Cara Boss standing in the doorway, looking drained of her life force. Behind her limped an uncertain Hwan.

Regi helped Tira limp over to Cara, who put her hand on the younger woman’s shoulder. “Thank you, young one. I will do my best to undo Taiyang’s curse.”

Astira burst into tears, throwing her arms gently around Cara’s neck. “Oh, Miss Boss, I thank you, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Regi studied Cara Boss and his heart sank. She was not smiling, nor was there any sense of victory in her stance. “What happened?” he asked.

Cara met his eyes, and he was haunted by what he saw there. A thousand voices whispered, “One of the crossroads gates was closed.”

***

Tune in at the summer solstice to find out what happens next to Regi, Astira, Hwan, and the little town of Saltbush, Texas!

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