This comes from my Muddy River short read, UNDER SIEGE.  Once you read it, you might understand why I chose the cover I did for it.  It’s only 99 cents now.

I sent birds ahead of us to search for the hospital van. An hour later, a flock returned to us on the country road Strike knew they’d taken. Swooping and cawing, they led us to the vehicle. Both the driver’s and passenger’s doors were open. Deep grooves lined the soft dirt at the side of the road. It looked as though Tianne and Hans had been dragged into the tall grasses. We followed the trail and stopped short when we saw their bodies.

Tianne’s eyes and mouth gaped wide in horror. Flies walked across her eyeballs, flew in and out of her open lips. I couldn’t stand it. I sent a stiff breeze to blow them away. Her abdomen was ripped open, an empty cavity, the flesh torn off her limbs. Blood pooled on the grass and weeds beneath her. I pressed a hand to my stomach. I refused to retch. I didn’t want to sniff for magic, but there were no other marks on her that I could see, so I made myself. Disgusting. But I only smelled fear and blood. I had just as much trouble looking at Hans. His head had rolled a little away from his torso, leaving only a bloody stump for a neck. He’d been chewed on, but nothing like Tianne.

Strike’s face drained of all color, and he turned away. I couldn’t imagine what he must be feeling. It’s bad enough losing a sister, but to see her like this? I shivered and rubbed my arms. He could never UN-see it. It would stick in his memory forever. Amaris laid a hand on his arm, trying to soothe him. Brown and Raven’s hands were curled into fists. Meda had turned her face away.

Finally, Raven rasped, “Let’s spread out to look for evidence of who or what killed them. Maybe we can find out what we’re up against.”

Gratefully, we turned away from the remains and started our search. Claws stayed close to my side. If something or someone had surprised the other victims, they wouldn’t catch my ocelot off guard. He’d smell them before they were close. I passed a few scrub bushes and frowned at faint marks in the soft dirt. Stooping, I studied the ground more closely, then called, “I found paw prints.”

The others came to see.

“Not big enough for any Were I know,” Brown said. “I’ve never seen any shifter this small.”

“A coyote?” Meda asked.

“Maybe, but if it was this size, it couldn’t kill someone with any kind of magic. Was your sister powerful at all?” Brown asked Strike.

His voice unsteady, Strike said, “Powerful enough. She was half vampire.”

Claws bent his head to sniff the ground and started following the scent. We trailed behind him. I took the front so that if we came on something, I could throw up a fast, protective shield while the others got ready to fight.

Raven pointed to the trampled grass and weeds. “We’re dealing with a good-sized group. I’ve seen a few footprints. Someone’s traveling with whatever animals there are.”

Strike’s fangs had slipped past his lips, and his nails had grown and curved into vicious claws. He was too upset to control them. If we met his sister’s killers, he’d bulk up even more. It would be a blood bath.

I tugged the zipper on my heavy coat higher. The area was so open, the wind hit us full blast. I pulled my knit cap out of my pocket and yanked it over my ears. I wished I’d brought my gloves. Then Raven touched me and sent heat through my fingers and palms. My fingers could move again, less stiff. There were advantages to living with a fire demon.

We tramped up a small hill and then down it into a ravine. We followed that for a long time. Raven asked Strike, “Does someone have a vendetta against your family or the settlement you left?”

“Not that I know of. We lived in peace with the mortals we knew. I never expected the predator to follow us. I thought it was picking us off because we were convenient prey.” His gaze scanned the area, his muscles bunched, ready to spring into action.

Raven turned to me next. “If this was a monster, you’d smell some kind of magic, wouldn’t you?”

My nose started to drip, and I had to press a Kleenex to it. “I haven’t gotten one whiff of magic of any kind.”

We kept walking and finally came into a clearing. A fire pit surrounded by stones sat in its center. A large rectangle of grass and weeds was matted down.

“The size of a tent.” I sniffed again. This time because of the cold, but also to look for a scent. “No magic. I think we’re dealing with humans.”


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