A Nice, Quiet Town
Babet stepped out of her yellow bungalow onto the back patio. Her werebear, Prosper, wouldn’t be home for another three hours. She had plenty of time to stretch out on a lawn chair, sip a tall Hurricane, and read a romance. The dog days of summer in River City were meant for easy living. Morgana slithered past her to coil beside the cool water fountain. Her familiar wouldn’t stir herself until the sun sank, then she’d circle the brick wall that offered them privacy, in search of supper.
Prosper had called earlier to say that he’d pick up something to eat on the way home. He’d been on time the last two weeks, not having to stay longer hours to work a case. Even supernatural criminals succumbed to lazy summer heat. Babet had read a chapter and started a new one before she heard scratching at the back gate. A dog? The gate led to their parking area. She frowned. The scratching sounded again. What the heck was that? A stray that needed a handout?
She padded, barefoot, to the gate and opened it. If an enemy crouched on the other side, he couldn’t get past her wards. A werewolf, huge and shaggy, hurried past her to the fountain and drank thirstily. Okay, not what she’d expected, but he couldn’t be a threat. She shut the gate and returned to her lounge chair. When he was ready to explain why he was here, he’d let her know.
He stopped drinking long enough to eye Morgana with a hungry gleam in his eye. Her boa lifted her head. Her tongue flicked in and out, smelling him.
“He’s no danger or my wards would have stopped him,” Babet assured her snake. She put a bookmark between her pages and put the book aside. So much for a quiet afternoon. “If you bother my familiar, you should know she has the magic of poison. One bite, and you’re down, a goner.”
The wolf returned to lapping water out of the fountain.
Morgana lowered her head, bored. A lucky thing for the werewolf. Babet took another sip of her drink. Alcohol didn’t affect witches all that much, but it helped relax her. She wasn’t known for her patience. The sooner she dealt with why the werewolf was here, the sooner she could get back to her novel.
She went to the kitchen and took out the deli meat she’d intended to use to make muffulettas. She returned to the patio and tossed it on the cement near the wolf. “It’s all I have thawed. It’s not much, but it might help.” She knew shape shifters needed a lot of protein to shift. This wolf looked like he’d traveled a decent distance to get here. He was probably ravenous.
He inhaled the stacks of meat, then in a shimmer of magic and bones crunching, a naked man stood before her. Six feet with sinewy muscles, he was good-looking, but she’d seen too many naked men since she’d been with Prosper. Her mate belonged to a large pack, and when she fought beside them, there was a lot of clothes ripping and bulging muscles. None of them could compare to Prosper though. This Were might make mortal women swoon, but Prowl—Prosper’s alpha—wouldn’t be impressed.
The man hesitated, unsure of his greeting. “I’m Fang Gnarl from Mississippi. I came to you to ask for help. The immortals there have heard about you and your fellow supernaturals, about how many enemies you’ve defeated. We might have long lives, but we can be killed, and we’re being picked off by an enemy unknown to us. I was chosen to come to you, to ask for your assistance.”
“Mississippi?” Not that far away, but River City had never interacted with supernaturals outside of their territories before. She glanced at the sun’s position in the sky. “My mate will be home soon. Let me call him and ask for his partner—a Druid—to join us, too. We’ll all listen to your problem and decide what to do from there.”
The wolf nodded. She went into the house and returned with a pair of sweats. They’d hang on Fang. Prosper—who turned into a huge brown bear—was bigger, bulkier, but it was the best she could do. Then she called her mate and explained about their visitor, adding, “He’s hungry. Bring extra food.”
Prosper listened carefully. “I’ll bring Hatchet with me and stop at the market. If the wolf’s been running that far to get here, he’s going to be hungry.”
Weres consumed a lot of energy to begin with. If this poor man had run from Mississippi to find them, he had to be nearly starved. No wonder he’d considered Morgana for a second. Not that it was good manners to eat a host’s pet…or familiar. She hung up and nodded for the wolf to take a chair at the patio table.
“Prosper will bring Hatchet, and they’ll be here soon. He’s stopping for food, but would you like bread or crackers to tide you over?”
Fang quickly shook his head. A wolf would have to be close to death to crave carbs. “I don’t want to bother you. I hunted along the way.”
She looked at his thin frame and went to the kitchen. She returned with blocks of cheese she had in her refrigerator drawer. She set it in front of him, said, “Help yourself,” and in minutes, the plate was empty. An appetizer. Ten minutes later, Prosper arrived with three raw steaks, a huge bag of oyster po’boys, and a shrimp po’boy for her.
Prosper and Hatchet each took a sandwich and tossed the rest of the food to their guest. The three of them talked among themselves while he ate. When he finally finished—because every crumb was gone—Hatchet went into detective mode. “You came to us with a problem. What is it?”
Fang took a deep breath. “Something came to our city a few months ago. We could smell it, but it was nothing we’d ever encountered. The scent is everywhere, no stronger in one place than another, so we can’t track it. And humans started to disappear. Then one of our own—a witch. Someone goes missing every two weeks.”
“What does it smell like?” Prosper asked.
A flush crept to Fang’s brown hairline. He really was an attractive man. “It’s going to sound odd, but it smells like evil. If evil had a scent, this would be it.”
Not one of them laughed. Old vampires left an aroma behind that could make you shiver.
Hatchet’s lips pressed into a grim line. The tattoos on his arms writhed, and Fang moved a little farther away from him. “Do you know how the people die? What happens to them? Can you tell from their corpses?”
Fang shook his head. “There are no corpses. They’re there one minute, gone the next. We followed the witch’s trail, and it just stopped. Nothing. No trace of her.”
“Was she powerful?” Babet asked.
“She belonged to our local coven.”
Not necessarily a sign of strength. In a small town, witches joined together because of their magic, but their level of power varied widely. A beginning witch was easy prey.
Babet couldn’t think of one thing she’d fought that sounded similar. She glanced at Prosper and Hatchet. They shook their heads. Damn it. Fighting an unknown enemy was always worse than facing something you knew.
Fang leaned forward in his chair. “The supernaturals work together in our town just like they do here. But none of us know what to do, how to fight our new enemy. We called a council meeting, and the alpha of our shifter pack suggested we ask you for help. He sent me here instead of calling so that you’d know how desperate we are.”
Prosper looked at Hatchet. “You’re older than most of us. You’ve seen more demons. Any ideas where to start?”
Hatchet turned to Fang. “How many victims have disappeared so far?”
“Five. Four humans and one witch.”
“When you followed the witch’s trail, was the ground disturbed where she disappeared?”
Fang narrowed his eyes at Hatchet. “How did you know that? We dug, but we didn’t find a hole or a tunnel.”
“But the ground was soft, wasn’t it?”
Prosper stared at his friend. “What underground supernatural snatches people?”
Hatchet’s tattoos whirled unhappily. “Probably a few, but I only know of one. Maw. I fought her when the Romans were conquering England, at war with the Druids.”
Babet frowned. “What is a Maw?”
Hatchet replied carefully. “She’s part dragon, part demon—a Yaoguai—a skeleton spirit.”
“Tell me in a way that makes sense to me.” Sparks bounced across her knuckles, and she tried to calm herself.
Hatchet took a deep breath, obviously trying to organize his thoughts. “Maw looks like a dragon with no wings, but she digs tunnels under the ground, and when she’s hungry, digs a hole and waits beneath it for a meal to drop through—sort of like a trapdoor spider.”
Babet shivered. They’d fought a spider-woman who’d come to River City to give birth to a myriad of baby spiders.
Hatchet went on. “When she feels vibrations overhead, she opens her mouth and waits.”
“Does sunlight harm her?” Prosper asked.
“No, the demon and spirit part of her make her strong.”
“How did you defeat her when you met her?” Babet wanted specifics. How could they kill the damn thing?
Hatchet let out a long breath. “I can’t claim a victory. I shot lightning down her hole and it bounced around in her tunnels.” One of his Druid talents. He could call for storms and and shoot lightning at an enemy. “I inconvenienced her, and there were potential victims all over the lands. She left us and went on to easier prey.”
A smart dragon. Fighting Hatchet could go either way. The Druid wielded a lot of power. Why not eat a few Romans and Celts a few towns away instead?
Fang looked at the three of them. “Can you defeat her?”
Could they? Babet wasn’t sure, but they could sure as hell make her leave Mississippi. She shrugged. “We won’t know till we try.”
Hatchet raised a dark blonde eyebrow. “My sky magic with your earth magic and Prosper’s muscles . . . “
Morgana slithered to curl at Babet’s feet.
He added, “And Morgana’s poison.” He knew better than to underestimate the boa. “We should be able to give Maw a run for her money.”
The stiff line of Fang’s shoulders softened in relief. “I hope you kill her. I’d hate it if anyone else had to suffer like our town has.”
Hatchet smiled—and it was scary to see. “She should have stayed wherever she came from. When she attacked us, she swallowed two of my fellow priests. All we had was Druid magic, and we still drove her off. River City has lots of magics. With only one, she might defeat us. Together, we can at least make her run. But I want to destroy her. Her evil’s endured long enough.”
Babet met his eyes and Prosper’s. Fang had come to the right place for help, but they’d never fought an unseen enemy before, one that hunted them underground.
Prosper stood. “Let’s do this.”
They called friends and family and filled them in on what they were doing and where they were going. People volunteered to come with them, but they turned down everyone but Dimitri.
“We’d rather you stayed here to guard River City while we’re gone,” Prosper told the rest.
But Dimitri? He was a demon himself. A fire demon. And if Maw thought she could shoot flames and save herself, she was in for a big surprise.