Rough hardwood floors, the finish all but ground away by time, stretched across the old study. His father’s study…now his own, whether he wanted it or not. Lord Isaiah stared into the fireplace, watched sparks flutter up, follow the drafts. In spite of all the work done to the walls, there were still holes to be patched, somehow. The old manor had fallen into deep disrepair, but at least it was still standing. More than could be said for most of the surrounding buildings. Isaiah pulled the long, black coat tighter over his torso. It couldn’t stay this cold forever. He knew summer would eventually come, but it seemed to be taking its damn time. So much longer than usual. Or it was this damned fight making it feel longer.
A snarky, all too familiar voice played through his head. Well, no one made you fight this battle.
Isaiah couldn’t see Hunger, but he imagined the damned coyote was up on some rock in the spirit world, lazing and…fucking with him.
“You chose me because I would
fight this battle.” And the war had occupied Isaiah’s thoughts fully for years on end now. All he wanted was peace. An end to this fighting, once and for all.
Lord Davis didn’t care about that. He cared about nothing but the war itself. The strife and conflict and unending chaos fulfilled his contract with the spirit world. The longer it went, the happier his spirit would become. Stupid Pestilence.
The great lizard queen saw herself as some agent of change. Isaiah could have gone without any of the changes she and Lord Davis brought down on Sorngard.
No one had expected an attack from within. For all the grievances between them, the lords of Sorngard had always held strong for the sake of their own city. Until Lord Davis turned traitor. His attack on the barracks four years previous left a gaping hole in the center of every heart in Sorngard. Isaiah could still see the mangled rebar and shattered brick from that first explosion. It only took one attack for Sorngard’s active fighters to be incapacitated, and with them out of the picture, Davis’s people settled in within hours. Even if they were driven out quickly, it was the beginning of the fighting and the mess and the collapse of society. The damage couldn’t be undone, and Davis had proven his power to the other lords. Those who weren’t happy with the status quo. Those who thought they could profit. The others chosen by Pestilence, flocking to the chance for upset and disorder Davis had provided. A feast for their spirit unlike anything that had been seen in recent memory. The thought of it all twisted like a gnarled claw in Isaiah’s stomach.
But begrudgingly, he had to give Davis his due credit. The move was tactically brilliant—a single bomb proved to everyone exactly what he could do—and bitterly effective. Isaiah took a few breaths to calm himself, pull back to the present before speaking again. “You wanted me. You chose
me.” He glanced to the old knickknacks on the shelf in the corner. Things his mother and father had gathered during their trips outside Sorngard. But he looked away just as quickly. “You picked me because I’m exactly the kind of person who couldn’t step down from this.” Even if I didn’t know it at the time.
Of course I did. But I didn’t make you do anything. That’s the wonderful thing about free will, isn’t it? Even if you wanted to do something like stop fighting and break the contract and be a social pariah, you’d be allowed.
“Could you be a little less helpful?”
Of course I could. I’ve got a secret. Now I’m not telling.
Precise footsteps clipped against the tiles, approaching from behind. “You’re lucky someone interrupted you.”
What would you do to me, anyway? I’m not even corporeal. Secret, secret, secret. All mine.
Isaiah rolled his eyes and turned around. A severe, hawkish woman stood there, heels and toes together, hair pulled back into a tight bun. Lana, who took herself far too seriously, in Isaiah’s opinion. She’d been an unofficial part of the family since well before the war. She’d watched him as he grew, but still stuck to official titles and pomp. He smirked at her. “You’re here with a mission.”
“What have I told you about that?”
She pursed her lips but gave no other signs of annoyance. “Isaiah. The Swarm is here.”
Damn. She spoiled my secret.
The words cut far deeper than any wind. “The Swarm? Are you sure? Without a doubt?” It couldn’t be. “A rumor? A mistake?” They hadn’t chosen a human in two centuries, had been in hibernation, feeding off old kills from old wars. The great death machine itself…the Swarm.
No mistake. They’re here. I would have told you eventually, but she ruined my fun.
“It came down the line from one of the soldiers. He wished to remain anonymous.” She snorted. “Probably didn’t want to be caught betting on illegal fights.”
Isaiah’s skin crawled, somewhere between terror and excitement. “As though that would matter in a situation like this.” Someone had found the Swarm, and had found them close by. “Give me information.”
“The chosen’s young. Got off a boat from somewhere overseas. And he’s already taken down a dozen of his opponents in the ring. Probably more by now.”
“Why would anyone fight the Swarm?”
“I don’t know. But people are.”
The Swarm, stuck in some illegal combat ring, scrapping it out for personal gain. And not much personal gain. Those places paid a pittance to the victors. “How do I get there?”
“It’s the ring they set up in the old casino. You know the way?”
“Yes. Thank you, Lana. I need you to prepare for him.” The Swarm. The spirits had dropped a treasure in his lap. They may very well have dropped the end to this whole damned war
in his lap if he could convince the chosen to side with them. “The best we can manage. Food, drink, lodging. Anything to make him stay.”
“Yes, sir.” She took a few steps back from him. “Yes, Isaiah
He shrugged his shoulders back. His skin tingled and his belly roiled. No more cold. Heat flooded his body, burned into his very bones. On the edges of his vision, he saw the other world. The land of the spirits. And there, staring at him, stood Hunger.
Isaiah let go of all his human bonds. His body twisted down, flowed like water into the old, familiar shape. As his coat molded against him, softened to fur, the bright, ephemeral colors intensified and thickened, filled more of his vision until that shade of the spirit world lay over the mortal. Hunger tilted his head to the side, still staring. His brownish-gray fur gleamed and sparkled over the long snout. He was far sleeker and better kempt than any normal coyote had any right to be. Certainly better than Isaiah looked, standing there in his shaggy coyote body.
“You going somewhere?”
Isaiah turned to see a large, dark-skinned man approach. Samson. I need to leave.
The Swarm could leave or be grabbed up by someone else.
But Isaiah padded over, jumped onto his hind legs, and swatted Samson on the shoulders. As much shoulder as he could reach on the behemoth of a man.
Samson rolled his eyes. “Too busy to even change back. I see how it is. And I thought we had something.” He winked and led Isaiah’s front paws back to the ground. “I’m off too. Was coming to see Lord
Isaiah before I went. But I’ll catch you when I come back around.”
Isaiah stepped aside to give Samson room. His old friend molded taller. High, many-pointed antlers, doleful eyes, steel-hard hooves. His animal body still bore faint battle scars. The crescent on his rump, where he’d taken wolf fangs for Isaiah. Long trenches, barely visible beneath all the fur, where knives had slashed into his human form. To protect Isaiah.
Be careful, you dumb bastard.
Isaiah watched as Samson leaped over the steps and headed farther into the city. Back to the front lines. He always returned safely, but it was always tough to watch him go.
Swarm? Weapon? Win the war? Ring any bells?
Isaiah nodded to Hunger. I’m coming.
Then they ran. The guards kept the front doors wide as he burst through. The chill of the wet spring night couldn’t penetrate his thick fur. He whipped around the corpses of skyscrapers and craters in the streets, left over from explosives, darted the lean, lithe body through the crowds. They parted for him, some bowing. Isaiah the Hungry. It’s still a stupid name. And I don’t want them bowing.
They like you.
Hunger himself ran alongside, coursing through the streets next to Isaiah. And if you don’t like the name, that would mean you don’t like my name either. That would crush me.
Isaiah snuffled his discontent. I doubt that.
You don’t know. Maybe I’m a delicate little flower. People can change.
But you’re still the same smarmy, sarcastic coyote you’ve always been.
Can’t blame me for trying.
Hunger ran ahead and out of sight.
Isaiah poured on more speed. He wouldn’t catch up, but it felt good to run. Right to run. He always used to run, taking to the streets nightly before the war. Now, he had so much to do inside, in his human body. So much stress and nowhere near enough time to handle it.
Isaiah whipped around the last corner into a dead end lined with rubble. He slowed to a lope and locked eyes with Hunger. Golden amber, lit from within. Something sparked there. More than human intelligence. The spirits knew
things. They were older than old, the sculptors behind all human society. Sorngard, Eurantia, every single nation. All of human development led back to the spirit world.
In the moment, and in a much smaller way, Hunger’s intelligence could be useful again. If he cooperated. Isaiah tipped his head to the side, raised a fuzzy canine eyebrow. Are the Swarm in there?
Hunger nodded, a slow, methodical head tilt.
Isaiah sighed and let the spirit world slip away, let his body slide back to vertical. The hem of his coat fell past his knees, waved in the blue, frozen wind. Without the heavy fur, the real world was even colder. Colder and grayer and all around worse.
He reached down to where Hunger had stood, moved his fingers through the space.
Your hand is literally inside my ass.
Isaiah rolled his eyes. “Don’t act like you don’t like it.” He stuffed both hands inside his pockets and marched across the shattered pavement, up to the door. It had been reattached to the hinges with lengths of leather. Metal grating and barbed wire patched over the holes in the walls.
A single woman stood outside. A round belly, an even rounder face, old, yellow bruises scattered on every bit of exposed skin. She bowed to him. “Evening, sir.” Her face twitched into a grimace for a brief flash. “I’m afraid I can’t let you in.”
Raven de Hart