Sembene has heard of untamed predators forging bonds with men. He’s seen the layabouts in the park exchange trinkets with ravens. However, regardless of their size, ravens possess an intelligence Ethan’s savage, transformed eyes have never shown. And yet, when Sembene looks across the cold stairwell, he sees a flicker of recognition in those eyes.
The hound continues to pace in front of the locked door like a caged lion at the zoo. Despite the unforeseen mercy the creature has granted him, Sembene cannot forget he is trapped with a predator.
Even if the pacing intimidates him much less than the hound’s previous occupation: scratching wildly at the door, snuffling so fervently at the doorjamb that blood trickles from its nose.
With the beast so preoccupied with escaping, Sembene had assumed it had simply forgotten that he was there. He braced himself for the inevitable realization, but when the wolf abandoned its pursuit and turned to him, the snarling lunge to which Sembene has grown accustomed never came to pass.
Has something changed?
Perhaps, Sembene thinks eyeing the hound warily, it has grown accustomed to his presence, knows that Sembene will not attack it. He has to remind himself that this is no normal wolf. It does not fear humans. In fact, it seems to enjoy destroying them. Sembene supposes the creature has retained that aspect of human nature.
Of course, this is no normal wolf-man hybrid—if such a thing could be said to exist. As Sembene so recently protested, Ethan is special; he is the Hound of God. Maybe he is now acting on God’s orders?
Sembene chokes down a laugh. God has no reason to keep him alive. The devil might, but not God.
That leaves one remaining factor. If not the hound or its God, then the only being working to spare Sembene’s life must be…
“Ethan,” Sembene whispers, dispensing with the formalities since he is still technically addressing an animal rather than a white man. (Even in the most dire of circumstances, Sembene will take his joys where he finds them.) And besides, Sembene reasons, a man enmeshed in a beast is much more likely to respond to his given name—especially when that man operates under a false surname.
The hound stops its pacing.
“Ethan,” Sembene repeats.
It stares at him.
“Do you understand me?” Sembene asks, careful to keep his voice low. “If you can, raise your paw.”
The hound lifts its left paw slightly, affording Sembene a split second of hope before it begins to pace once more.
Whatever resides on the other side of that door concerns the beast far more than Sembene does at the moment.
However temporarily, the danger inside the stairwell has passed. Picking up the abandoned pistol, Sembene prepares himself to meet the danger lurking outside.
Ethan awakens naked in the cellar, his limbs free of chains. He blinks, his eyes adjusting to seeing the world in color once more.
Sembene looms over him. “I brought you clothes.”
Ethan takes the proffered garments with a scoff. “Which one are you?”
“Which of what?” Sembene asks impassive as ever.
“Now that, Mrs. Poole, is a mighty fine replication.” On shaking legs, Ethan draws up his pants. “Or is this Miss Poole? Now, personally—” He pulls on a dress shirt. “—and I’m no expert, this looks to me like the work of a very experienced witch. So I’ll put my money on Mrs. Poole.”
“Eth-Mr. Chandler,” Sembene begins, “if you believe I am some kind of phantom—”
“What am I supposed to believe?” Ethan hisses, charging towards the figure of Sembene. “That you’re alive? That I transformed into a goddamn hellhound last night and you somehow walked away without a scratch? If you haven’t noticed, that sort of happy ending penny novel horseshit doesn’t happen to people in this house.”
“Perhaps but I do not think of this as an ending.” Sembene presses a hand to Ethan’s chest. “But rather a beginning.”
Ethan lays a hand over Sembene’s, feels the warm flesh give way to his touch. He closes his eyes. “If you’re a phantom, you’re a damned good one.”
Sembene steps closer, wrapping his other arm around Ethan’s back. “I have been many things in this life but never a phantom.”
Ethan leans downward, his eyes squeezed shut, and rests his forehead against Sembene’s. “Let’s just stay like this for a minute, alright? We’ll figure out the witchcraft nonsense later.”
“Are you hungry?”
Ethan snickers. “Boy, you phantoms sure know the way to a man’s heart.”
“Are you hungry?” Sembene repeats.
“Now that you mention it…” Ethan’s eyes pop open as he pulls away—just enough to see Sembene’s face. “Oh my lord…”
“You missed supper last night.”
“And I didn’t eat—not while…”
Sembene shakes his head. “You seemed eager to eat Mrs. Poole but Miss Ives and I persuaded you otherwise. We were concerned about blood magic and the possibility of possession.”
“Miss Ives? Is she…?”
“Everyone is safe and accounted for.”
“Including you.” Ethan snakes his free arm around Sembene’s waist. “How is that even possible?”
“In serving this house, I have learned of forces stronger than the pull of the moon.”
Ethan swallows. “Did you know? Did Lyle translate something about this?”
“No,” Sembene says. “I only realized after you had transformed.”
Ethan tightens his embrace. “I could’ve killed you.” It’s as much an accusation as an admission of guilt.
“What would you have me do?” Sembene demands.
“Jesus, I’m not Sir Malcolm; I don’t expect you to die for me.”
“But you would expect me to kill for you?”
“To save your own life? Yes, every time.”
“I could not kill you. I could never kill you.”
“For the sake of some prophecy or…?” Always timid when it counts, Ethan isn’t forward enough to finish that thought.
“For the same reason neither you nor the hound could kill me last night.” Sembene’s fingers tighten around Ethan’s pectoral muscle—and the heart that beats beneath. “For the same reason we risk everything to stand together like this.”
It’s true. England may no longer hang men for buggery, but as things stand Ethan can’t afford even a misdemeanor. He can’t bear to imagine what they could do to Sembene; the man doesn’t exactly have a warm welcome waiting for him at home.
Chilled at the thought, Ethan wraps himself up in American bravado. “The way I see it, neither of us have a whole lot to lose. Except each other’s company.”
Sembene shakes his head. “You forget we are fighting a war.”
“We don’t have to. I’ve been to war. A real war. None of this hocus pocus la-dee-da. And there is always a way out. If you can charge into battle, you can sure as hell run away.”
Sembene’s hand caresses up Ethan’s chest. “You cannot outrun prophecy. And I…” He cups the back of Ethan’s neck, fingers pressing hard against skin. “Where could I go?”
A worldly fellow, Ethan keeps a mental list of far off places to where he could disappear should ever the need arise again. None of them, given the particulars of his and Sembene’s situation, would be suitable.
Hooking his arms behind Sembene’s back, Ethan squeezes tight, murmuring, “Jesus,” as he buries his face in Sembene’s neck.
Sembene stiffens in his arms and, after a moment, pats Ethan’s back twice as he would a child with a hacking cough. (And how childlike he must seem coming face to face with a facet of the world Sembene has stared at unflinchingly since boyhood.)
“All right.” Ethan presses a kiss to Sembene’s neck—their first—and composes himself. “We stay, we fight, we die.” His hands slide down Sembene’s spine with clear intention. “As foretold by whoever.”
“I have no place in prophecy,” Sembene counters even as he presses nearer, his fingers tickling Ethan’s scalp.
“Not directly.” Ethan ducks his head. “But here’s the thing, Mr. Sembene. No wolf has ever become a hound—of God or otherwise—without a little taming.”