She rose out of the darkness of the laurels and made her way to the foot of the steps, fast and lithe, her bare feet silent. Her nakedness was terrible, her body lean and ropy with muscle, her limbs long and built for swiftness. Age had touched her little, and she rolled her powerful shoulders in something like ecstasy under the caress of the murky moonlight. She looked up at me with her leafshadow eyes, and the cognac rings around her irises burned golden.
“Well, pup. Come to take on the old wolf, eh? Don’t know as I think you’re ready for it. I’ve put down stronger ones than you.”
She slid her foot onto the first step, as slowly and gently as a feather floating to the ground. She looked at Nick, standing in shadow with the axe in his hands.
“And this one. He’s a handsome one. Brave, too. What do you think you’ll do with that wood chopper, handsome? You ever killed anything before?” She stared into Nick’s eyes, then chuckled. “Didn’t think so. Got my grandpappy’s ring on your finger. I feel it burning from here. But I don’t need that hand. The rest of you will be plenty.”
Her red tongue came out and swabbed her lips. In an instant, she was on the porch. I never saw her move. Her long, strong fingers grasped my throat, her claws lying cold and deadly against my skin. I choked in terror and surprise. Nick shouted and raised the axe, but Maudie turned toward him, dragging me in front of her. She held up a taloned finger and wagged it at him like a chiding schoolmarm.
“Uh-uh, handsome. Don’t be hasty.” She licked the side of my face and spoke in my ear, her breath stinking of old blood. “Maudie’s got a lesson for you, pup. Maybe you’ll even live to learn it.” She nodded at Nick. “I’m going to show you what his kind are for. Run. Hunt. Chase. Eat.”
With each word, Maudie’s voice grew rougher and more guttural. I felt her form changing against me, shrinking and shuddering.
“You run now,” she growled at Nick, “Run for Maudie.”
Nick stepped forward, holding the axe like a baseball bat.
“I don’t run from mangy dogs,” he said.
With a snarl, Maudie shoved me from her, sending me sprawling onto the porch. She sprang toward Nick. The axe parted the air with a whistle but found no target as she twisted and completed her change in mid-leap. The wolf came down on the broad pine planks, claws scrabbling and skittering, and turned its hot jaws toward Nick as he pulled the axe around for another swing. The creature’s flank turned toward me, close enough to touch. I rolled onto my belly and reached out, clamping my right hand onto the thick pelt. I spoke the word of binding, and great-great grandfather’s hair tangled about my fingers melded to the grizzled fur of the wolf, locking Maudie in animal form and denying her the supernatural strength of her transformative power.
She turned on me, slavering, an expression of human astonishment in her eyes. I saw the silver grin of the axe glinting as it sliced the misty air. Maudie had begun to swing her great shaggy head toward Nick when the axe caught her in the neck. Blood jetted over me in a hot wash. A sound, half enraged snarl and half choked howl, forced itself out on Maudie’s last breath. She crashed to the floor, the blade of the axe still buried in her flesh, thrashed her long legs once as though running, and was still. Nick fell to his knees in front of me and scooped me against him, the blood binding us together. The night bloomed and opened to receive me.
The morning dawned pale lemon and rose, shafts of sunlight dropping into the stormy blue of the restless lake. The cool air said autumn would arrive early. I stood at the edge of the water on the pebbled beach in my sports bra and shorts, the rusty stain of Maudie’s blood flaking from my skin where I hadn’t been able to mop it from me. Nick was asleep in the nest of gutted pillows and torn blankets we’d dragged together, so exhausted from the night’s horrors that we had fallen into dreamless oblivion still sticky with gore.
“Preston,” I whispered into the soft breeze that ruffled the lake. “Are you there? Can you hear me?”
I didn’t have much hope that the ghost would still be near. When it had fled the night before, I feared it had been compelled to return to the submerged corpse that held it like a prison cell. Silence met my question, and I cast a frustrated gaze up and down the shore. The breeze stirred the birch leaves to a confetti-like flutter, but when I’d nearly resigned myself to breaking my promise to find Preston’s bones, a faint voice joined the susurration of the leaves.
“Cousin,” it breathed.
“Where’s your body, Preston? I’ll bring it to shore.”
“Only bones,” the voice moaned, “Gnawed bones …”
I waited, but it said no more. “Maudie’s dead, Preston. She can’t hurt you anymore. If you want to leave this lake, you’ll have to tell me where to look.”
“Shallow water. Look under the fallen birch.” The voice had grown faint as an old memory but mustered a final time. “Picnic area.”
To the left of the boathouse, the lake had carved out a small inlet. It was ringed with a thick stand of swaying birches, their leaves already edged and spotted with autumnal gold. A grassy patch grew about their feet, home to three picnic tables gone grey and splintery with neglect. The birches strode to the edge of the lake, leaning out to admire their reflections in the calm mirror of the inlet. I saw where one, some time ago, had toppled in. Its pale trunk had turned black and slick, but the few broken limbs that rose above the water were white as bleached bones.
I walked to the strip of stones and fine silt, just big enough to beach a couple of kayaks, between the boathouse and the family of birches. The water was clear and no more than thigh deep until it reached the deadfall. There it spread in a murky penumbra about the fallen tree, indicating a deeper hole. I looked around at the sunlit picnic area, then back at the watery grave, thinking about gnawed bones and the black irony of the site of Preston’s slaughter. Sighing, I waded in.
The water was cold after the previous night’s storm, but it was icy by the dead tree. I took a gliding step forward, intending to lean on the old birch and fish one-handed beneath its branches. The hole opened under my foot and down into the tea dark water I went, a plume of dull scarlet unwinding from my hair as Maudie’s blood washed from it. Panicked, I flailed at the water to stop my descent and lifted my face toward the surface already several feet above me, watching columns of bubbles rise into the sun dapple. The birch, its roots tenacious even in death, clung to the bank. The tree formed a bridge to nowhere over an underwater cavern that yawned like a hell-pit beneath me. The cold that arrowed up from those depths gripped my bones and tried to squeeze the breath from my lungs.
I could see Preston’s skeleton, still partially clothed in ragged flesh, dangling from a precarious basket of slim branches. I pushed to the surface, filled my lungs, and sank down to stare at his half-face, his jaw almost unhinged in a tortured scream. His remaining eye stared at me, cloudy and beseeching. I thought about his role in Maudie’s hunts, and about the bloodthirsty lie he’d told me about resting in shallow water. He had been a murderous bastard in life. It didn’t seem that he’d changed his ways in death. Still, a promise is a promise, and I reached out and began to pull away the pliant whips that held him. He sagged deeper, sliding from the tree’s embrace like an awful birth.
My hands stretched out to catch him. The last clinging branches released him, and he swayed toward me as though he would put his ruined head on my shoulder. A mighty resonance rumbled through the still, icy water. My ears popped. An immense bubble wobbled upward from the black and broke around me, then another. In alarm, I pulled my hands back and looked down. Preston tumbled past me, drifting downward into the abyss. His skeletal hand rose, reaching for mine. Our fingertips brushed, flesh on bone, as another silent roar erupted from the cavern. I stroked back and up, propelling myself to the surface, and thrashed my way to the shore in a white haze of adrenaline, leaving Preston to whatever dwelled below.
I squelched across the grass in my wet sneakers, too shaky to run, tossing glances over my shoulder as I made for the lodge. Nick emerged to lean on the porch rail, his hair sticking up in stiff, bloody spikes. He slung a beach towel over the rail.
“I see you got cleaned up,” he said, then narrowed his eyes. “What happened? Are you okay?”
“Don’t go in the water… over there… the inlet,” I said, my teeth chattering. “There’s something in there, I don’t know what it is, and I don’t want to know… there’s a deep cavern… I had to let Preston drop into it.”
“Serves him right,” Nick muttered. He tossed me the towel. “You think there’s another monster here? Hot damn! We hit the jackpot this trip.”
I wrapped the towel around myself and climbed the stairs to the porch. My gaze went past Nick to the long, stiff mound hidden under the tarp we’d taken from the woodpile. In a brilliant stroke of foresight, we’d covered Maudie with it so we would not have to look at her lupine impossibility first thing in the morning. Nick’s gaze followed mine.
“Sorry. Too soon, huh?” He moved to stare down at the tarp, nudging it with his toe. “We’re going to have to document this. Photos. Write it up. Video interviews with locals if we can get them. We should get samples from the body. Claudia could do it, but she won’t be able to get here for a couple of days. I mean, what are we supposed to do with it?” He looked at me, eyes wide. “I never believed we would ever find anything. This thing we’ve been doing… the investigations… it was just a fun way to make a living, a gimmick. But this,” he nudged the tarp again, “changes everything. If this is possible, there are no impossibilities.”
Nick’s voice had risen as he spoke, and he ended with a strained laugh. He raked a hand through his hair, grimaced, and stared at the tacky residue that came away on his fingers. I put my hand on his arm.
“Steady, Nick. Are you okay?”
It was an inane question. He transferred his stare to me.
“Hell, no. We killed a werewolf last night! I saw a ghost.” He pointed at me. “And you! You called it. My writing partner is some kind of witch. I am definitely not okay. Now you tell me there’s a creature living in a cavern under the lake. I feel like I’ve fallen into one of our books.”
I nodded. I had expected this.
“I understand. Look, I’ll get us packed while you get cleaned up. You can drive back, and I’ll wait for Claudia. I’ll get the documentation, and then we can decide what, if anything, we want to do with it.” My lower lip trembled, and I bit it. “It has been fun, Nick. We’ve written some great stuff.”
The electric blue stare sharpened on me.
“What are you saying, Tess? I don’t want to dissolve the partnership.”
A slow, mischievous grin crept across his face.
“No way, baby. We’re onto something big. Can’t unsee it or unknow it. All I want now is more of it. Are you in?”
I answered him with a grin of my own and tossed the damp towel back to him.
“Stay away from the inlet,” I said, and headed inside to begin packing our gear.
...to be continued