Hidden Moon (Chapter 38)
"I'm cursed to become a beast beneath the hidden moon," Mal said. "In over two hundred years, I've never been able to resist its pull."
I turned his face to mine. "You were never in love before."
"No." He kissed me. "Never."
"Sabina actually did us a favor by locking us in here."
His face darkened. "I'm going to kill her."
"I don't think you're going to find her."
The lights went on with a click, and we scrambled up, Malachi shielding me with his body.
I dived for my clothes, even as I glanced around his shoulders at the man and woman who approached.
The man was tall, far too thin, and older than anyone I'd seen standing. His hair had faded from blond to white, but his blue eyes were sharp and a little frightening. Or maybe it was just the arsenal he carried with him. Two pistols, one on each hip, a shotgun over his shoulder, a rifle cradled in his emaciated arms, bandoliers of bullets slung across his scrawny chest.
Who was this guy?
The woman was also tall, made even more so by black spike-heeled boots. She was both curvy and slim, blond and unbelievably gorgeous. Her jeans were designer, her cobalt blue blouse silk. When she reached up to shove her hair out of the way, I caught a glimpse of a pentagram tattooed on the palm of her hand.
"She's a werewolf," I blurted.
The woman's perfectly plucked eyebrows lifted. "Been doing your research."
"You aren't going to deny it?"
"No. But I'm also not an evil blood-drinking beast. This" – she lifted her hand, revealing a pentagram with one point ascendant – "cures them."
"Werewolves. Like him." She pointed at Mal, then frowned. "Why aren't you furry and why isn't she dead?"
"If you don't mind," Mal said, "I'll be puttin' on some clothes before you tell me just who in hell you are."
"Be our guest," the old man murmured, the German accent I hadn't noticed when he first spoke deepening so I couldn't help but notice it now.
Mal and I managed to cover ourselves with what was left of our clothes. My shirt was sliced, but I was able to tie it over my breasts so I wasn't flashing anyone. He made a kilt from his pants but gave up on the shirt.
"You think you could let us out?" I asked.
"Perhaps you, but not him. Not yet," the woman answered.
I crossed my arms over my chest. "I'll stay with Mal."
"Suit yourself. Now tell us what happened."
"And who might we be talkin' to?"
The two exchanged glances; the old man nodded, so the woman began. "This is Edward Mandenauer, leader of a group called the Jager-Suchers, or Hunter-Searchers. I'm Elise Hanover. We hunt monsters." She contemplated us both with an amused expression. "You don't seem surprised."
"After what I've seen lately," I said, "not much surprises me."
She dipped her chin. "In World War Two there was a project begun by the Nazis."
"Mengele, werewolf army." I waved my hand. "Fast-forward."
"You know about it?" She glanced at Mandenauer, who scowled at me so ferociously I got kind of scared.
"We have a doctor who served in the war; he saw things. And Mal's been around awhile."
"So we hear." Mandenauer eyed Malachi as if he wanted to take him apart and see how he worked.
"How did you hear?"
The old man's gaze switched to me. "I've been in town for more than one day."
A light went on in my brain. "You shot Balthazar."
He shrugged. "Someone had to."
"You couldn't tell us you were here? Clue us in on what was happening?"
"We do our best to complete our job and disappear. The less people know about monsters, the better."
"There'd be a panic," Elise explained.
"Oh, let's not have that," I muttered. "Much better for me to be locked in a cage with a werewolf."
"But you aren't," she said, "and I have to wonder why."
I opened my mouth, then shut it again as my face heated. How could I tell them that sex had saved me?
Well, not sex – I reached for Mal's hand and squeezed it tightly – love.
"He was cursed by a witch to become a beast," I said.
"Another curse," Elise muttered. "I hate those things."
"There've been others?"
"Several. Each one has to be broken differently, and no one's ever kind enough to leave instructions."
"Instructions on breaking a curse would kind of negate its being a curse, don't you think?"
Elise's lips curved. "You've got a point. So how did you break this one?"
"I was cursed because I could not love," Malachi said. "Claire showed me I loved her, and when I turned that love into…" – he searched for a word – "something tangible as I fought the call of the moon, the curse was broken."
"Tangible love," Elise repeated; then her brows lifted. "You did her during the eclipse?"
"If you want to be crude," I said.
"Sometimes I can't help myself." She paused, mouth pursing as she considered what we'd done. "Because he couldn't love, he became a beast, but loving made him human and able to resist the curse, and in resisting it was broken."
"That's the theory," I agreed.
"Pretty dangerous theory. What if it hadn't worked?"
"I knew it would work." I met Malachi's eyes, and in his I saw a reflection of the love in my own. "I never had a doubt."
"Which might be why it worked," Elise said slowly. "Faith is pretty powerful, too."
"Hmmph," Mandenauer muttered. "Touch him anyway, Elise."
"Touch him?" I repeated.
"Werewolves can… feel one another," Elise explained. "If my skin touches his in human form, I'll know."
She held up her tattooed palm like a crossing guard miming, Stop. "Your hand please?"
"You wanna get out of there in the next fifty years?"
He narrowed his eyes but moved forward. When they both reached out, they managed to brush fingertips between the space meant to separate man and beast.
Elise dropped her arm and moved back. "He's clean."
"Old man," she said impatiently, "have I ever been wrong?"
"Not yet," he grumbled. "What about her?"
"For all we know, he bit and infected you during one of your…" – his lip curled – "tangible love episodes."
"I wasn't like other werewolves," Mal said. "I didn't carry the virus. I never infected anyone, and I couldn't be killed with silver."
"How strange," Elise murmured. "Other curses have changed the makeup of the person, their very DNA, turning them into a true lycanthrope. I'd like to do some tests on you."
"What good would that do now, since he's cured?" I asked.
Elise shrugged. "I prefer to cover all my bases."
I could understand that.
Mandenauer was scowling at Malachi so ferociously I got worried he'd shoot him with silver just to see if he was telling the truth.
"What would kill you?" Mandenauer demanded.
"There is always something," Mandenauer said.
"I was cursed to immortal wandering, to become a beast beneath the hidden moon. If I could be killed with silver, I wasn't very immortal, was I?"
"I've never heard of a witch with such power."
"I doubt there's ever been one again."
"Her power didn't preclude your killing her," I pointed out.
"Cursing someone in a fit of anger often backfires on the one doing the cursing," Elise said.
"Over two hundred years ago, I never knew when an eclipse might occur." A shadow passed over Mal's face. "The not knowing was a curse, as well. I tried to kill myself, to have others kill me, but nothing worked."
I could imagine how it had been when he'd first been cursed, uncertain each time the sun fell if that night he might become a wolf and kill the innocent. No wonder he'd entertained the notion of killing me. Over two hundred years of that would make anyone desperate.
"I do not like this whisper of immortality," Mandenauer murmured. "If there are more monsters out there that are unkillable, the world as we know it will end."
"Cheer up," Elise said. "You always figure out a way to kill them. It's what you do."
"True." Mandenauer's morose countenance lightened. He waved a skeletal hand in my direction. "Touch her anyway."
Elise glanced at me. "You mind?"
I held out my hand; we brushed fingers and Elise stepped back. "Zip."
"Can we get out now?"
Mandenauer lowered his head in an imperial nod.
Before Elise could unlatch the enclosure, Grace came through the open doorway.
She stopped dead at the sight of Mal and me in the menagerie wagon. One glance at Mandenauer and his weapons, and she drew hers. "Put your hands up, slowly."
Mandenauer snorted and ignored her.
Elise slid in front of him, arms spread wide in surrender. "We come in peace."
Grace scowled. "Then peacefully put up your freaking hands."
She caught sight of the pentagram, and her fingers tightened on the gun. "Who are you, and why did you put them in a cage?"
"Grace, it wasn't them," I said. "They came to help."
Despite Mandenauer's ferocious scowls and muttered complaints of "need-to-know basis" and, my personal favorite, "if you tell them, eventually you have to kill them," I told Grace everything.
When I was done, she scowled at Elise. "Why did you come to Lake Bluff? Did we just get lucky on your 'help the hicks' tour?"
"You called the CDC about rabies, asked about mutations in the virus."
Grace blinked. "So?"
"Calls like that get routed to us."
"You're a little Big Brother, aren't you?"
"You have no idea," Elise murmured.
"I don't think I like that." Grace seemed to have taken an intense dislike to Elise, and I wasn't sure why.
"I don't think we care."
Elise didn't appear to have a lot of warm, fuzzy feelings for Grace, either. Stranger and stranger.
"My people," Mal said. "Are they – ?"
"Fine." Grace turned away from Elise with obvious relief. "They're at the lake, and every single one of them is human."
"They weren't human?" Edward said in a voice that made my skin prickle.
Oops. Guess I'd left out that little detail.
"It appears they were in on this whole kidnapping deal." Grace pointed at the menagerie wagon. "They wanted to be cured."
Mal's face went still, but I could see how much that hurt him. He was their leader; they'd been together for centuries, yet they'd gone against his orders.
I could understand why. They weren't in love with me. To them, I was the means to an end, the ancestress of the one who'd turned them into beasts. However, that didn't mean I'd forgive them for locking me in a cage with a soon-to-be werewolf.
"Tell us everything," Edward said. "Immediately."
As I filled them in, Elise's eyes became round with excitement. "I've never heard of a curse like this."
"You'll need to check them all," Mandenauer continued. "Make sure they're truly cured."
"You some kind of scientist or something?" Grace asked.
"Virologist," Elise said shortly. "Doctorate in viruses."
"Must be why you're such a laugh riot."
Elise's lips twitched, but she managed to control her amusement. "I'll head to the lake, sir."
She nodded to Malachi and me, then unlocked the cage and left.
We climbed out. I wanted a shower badly. Even though this menagerie wagon had been as clean as the others – suspiciously so now that I considered it; what kind of animals lived in immaculate cages? – I still felt kind of gamy.
"How many wolves do you think the woman made?" Mandenauer asked.
"I don't know." I glanced at Grace.
"Two that we know of – one's dead; one isn't."
"Probably more than two," Mal said. "There were nights I heard a whole chorus in the mountains."
"But won't they be human now, like the Gypsies?"
Mandenauer shook his head. "The curse is broken, but from what you told me, Sabina made others like her by biting them, so whatever magic she produced gave her the lycanthropy virus. They won't be cured so simply." He chambered a round in his shotgun and walked out the door.
"That's one scary old man," Grace commented.
Since I had to agree, I didn't answer.
"I need to get back to work." Grace put her hand on my arm. "You all right?"
I nodded and suddenly we were hugging, Grace holding on so tightly I couldn't breathe. "You scared the living hell out of me, Claire. When those idiots at the lake told me what they'd done…"
I understood. The Gypsies had been turned back into people, and they'd believed that had happened because Malachi had killed me and broken the curse.
Poor Grace. She'd had to drive all the way here thinking I was not only dead but horrifically so. Yet she'd come, as fast as she could, for me.
"I thought I'd never see you again," she said.
"Now you won't be able to get rid of me."
Leaning back, she peered into my face. "You're staying?"
"I think we might."
Her eyebrows lifted and she glanced at Mal, then back at me. "I'll talk to you tomorrow."
As soon as she disappeared out the door, Mal said, "We?"
My heart stuttered. "I thought that's what this was all about. We. If you don't want to stay, I'll go with you." Although that wouldn't be easy. I belonged in Lake Bluff, almost as much as I belonged with him. "Your people – "
Mal's hands landed on my shoulders, and he turned me around. "Not only is the curse broken, but so is my loyalty to them. They betrayed me." His fingers tightened, and he kissed my brow. "I think I've done enough wandering for several lifetimes."
"Probably because you've been wandering for several lifetimes."
"I never had a home." His hands slid down my arms, then rested at my waist. His thumbs stroked my stomach, and the skin danced at his touch. He froze, frowning.
He placed one palm flat against my belly, and heat pulsed.
"Mal?" I murmured as his eyes lifted to mine. His had gone wide with wonder. "What is it?"
"What?" I seemed to be stuck on that word.
"How can you know that?"
"I'm magic, remember?"
"Just because the curse is broken doesn't mean I'm any less a pure Rom."
"A baby," I said, stunned. "Can shape-shifters have children?"
"In two hundred and fifty years, none of my people ever have."
"Then – "
"I was cured before…" His voice trailed off, and I could have sworn he blushed.
I remembered what had happened and in what order. The moon went from red to silver; he'd said he loved me; and then he came. Talk about timing. There had to be more than a little magic in that.
"Is that all right with you then? A baby?"
So many things were changing; I wasn't sure what to think. After all I'd been through, I was lucky I could think.
"I thought I'd be cursed to wander forever," Mal said, "that I'd never have a wife, a child, a home. I never dared to dream of any of them until I met you."
Suddenly the future became clear.
"Marry me?" I asked.
"Isn't that supposed to be my line, as they say?"
"It's the twenty-first century."
"And in this century women ask men to marry them?"
His lips curved. "I think I'm going to like it here."
"Is that a yes?"
He placed his palm against my stomach again; I laid my hand over his. Beneath them, I could have sworn something fluttered.
"That's a yes."