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Lupus venefica

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Aranyani

GODDESS of wild and forest who seemest to vanish from the sight.
How is it that thou seekest not the village? Art thou not afraid?
...And, yonder, cattle seem to graze, what seems a dwelling-place appears:
Or else at eve the Lady of the Forest seems to free the wains.
Here one is calling to his cow, another there hath felled a tree:
At eve the dweller in the wood fancies that somebody hath screamed.
The Goddess never slays, unless some murderous enemy approach.
Man eats of savoury fruit and then takes, even as he wills, his rest.
Now have I praised the Forest Queen, sweet-scented, redolent of balm,
The mother of all sylvan things, who tills not but hath stores of food.

x.

 

            In his dream, he sees something in the distance. It’s dark all around him, but the thing he can see is somehow darker than the rest, like the deepest shadow in a dense forest. It lurks and darts preternaturally, with no grace and no awkwardness – it moves essentially and starkly. That’s all he can tell. He tries to follow it, but suddenly he is frozen.

            With a jolt, his body jerks awake, like he’d just lost his footing and almost fell, lying prone in bed; somehow deeply disturbed, although he can no longer remember why, he tries to draw a deep breath of air.

            Nothing comes. His lungs, the inside of his chest burn. Eyelids flutter open and through a gentle haze, his vision adjusts, and suddenly it strikes him that he is no longer asleep. He tries to breathe again; the best he can manage is small, shallow breaths.

            He breathes them slow, his body stiff and immobile, so as not to disturb the thing sitting on his chest.

----------------------------------------------

            “This is such a bad idea.”

            Derek didn’t quite glance over at his sister, one hand at the wheel, driving the car down a road in the misty autumn morning. “Getting a high school diploma is not a bad idea.”

            A grimace etched onto her face, Cora stared glumly out the window, watching the trees pass beside them as they drove. “Public school. In Beacon Hills.”

            With a little nod of his head, an acknowledgement of her real concerns, Derek replied: “It’s where I went.”

            “And look how well you turned out.”

            There may have been a hint of a smile on his face when he finally glanced towards her. “You’re not even eighteen yet. You’re legally obligated to go.”

            For a moment, Cora did not reply. She lay limply in the passenger’s seat, leaning her forehead on the cold window, creating a ring of condensation around where her skin touched the glass. Quietly, she said, “You couldn’t make me.” She paused, and Derek could not tell how much of it was hesitation. “If I really didn’t want to.”

            Derek said nothing. Cora hadn’t expected a reply to that; as much as Derek told her he would have sacrificed anything for her, the change in his eyes from red to blue was still a point of injured pride, she could tell. They had talked little about it. In the months it had been since her brush with death, they had rarely been around one another during the full moon. Whether it was because he had lost his status as Alpha, or because he didn’t like her looking into his eyes that should have been yellow, she could not exactly tell.

            When the school was in sight a few minutes later, he finally spoke: “Scott said he’d show you around.”

            “I don’t like Scott,” she replied, looking at the building before them with distaste.

            “Then Stiles will show you around.”

            “I don’t like Stiles either,” she said, then she turned to look at her brother. “I’m really not kidding when I say I don’t like anybody.”

            “Call me if you need anything,” he said patiently. “But just try one day. Please. For me.”

            She watched him for another moment, as he turned into the parking lot. Then, finally, with a slight roll of her eyes, she tore her gaze away. “Fine,” she said. “But you know I don’t play well with others.”

            He stopped the car, and she opened the door to get out. As she took her backpack from the seat and slung it over her shoulder, Derek leaned over the seat and said, “Cora.”

            With dark, angry eyes, she looked to him. “Yes?”

            “Stay away from Allison,” he said, without breaking eye contact.

            She stared at him. With a glance around, she said, “I thought you said they weren’t hunting us anymore.”

            “Yeah,” replied Derek. “But still.”

            Adjusting her backpack, she shook her head slightly. “You need a minivan, Derek, you’re turning into a soccer mom. You gonna come pick me up too?”

            “Unless you want to walk home with one of your friends.”

            If it were anyone else, they may not have picked up the dry humor in his voice. But Cora did, and where she might have appreciated it years ago, it had been too long and the moment was too tense and Derek hardly ever made her laugh anymore. She all but scowled, murmured, “I’ll see you later,” and slammed the door shut.

            Derek didn’t move for a minute, still hanging across the seat, his lips pressed tightly together.

            As her brother drove away, Cora turned and looked up at the school before her. It was hardly an impressive building, and any trace of fear she might have had at that point evaporated into pure distaste. Against her better judgment, she gritted her teeth and began to trudge towards the open doors, where teenagers congregated. There was nothing she wanted to do less than talk to one of them.

            At the exact moment this thought passed through her head, someone called her name. “Cora! Yo, Cora, over here!”

            Without looking around, she continued walking. He called her name again, and she heard him say to his friend, “She probably didn’t hear me.”

            Scott replied – and Cora could tell from the note of amusement in his voice that he was talking more to Cora than his friend, “I’m pretty sure she can hear you, man.”

            But a moment later, Cora let out a silent sigh and braced herself as a hand landed on her shoulder and, breathless because of running across the hall, Stiles said, “Hey! Cora!”

            She turned around to meet his gaze, a tight smile on her face. “Yes.”

            There was an awkward moment; suddenly Stiles didn’t know what to say. And then, just as easily, he said, “So do you need any help finding your classes? What are you taking?”

            For half a second, she thought about turning around and leaving Stiles and Scott, who had just caught up and was hovering just slightly behind his friend, a wary look on his face. But then, reluctantly, she dug a hand into a pocket on her backpack and pulled out a crumpled schedule, shoving it towards Stiles. Smoothing it out, he looked at all her classes. “Huh,” he said. “These are all junior classes.”

            “I am a junior,” she replied, snatching it away from him. “If you hadn’t figured it out already, it’s been a while since I was in school.”

            “I think we have a class together,” said Scott; she’d barely noticed he’d been glancing at her schedule over Stiles’s shoulder. “Pre-calc, fifth period?”

            “Dude,” said Stiles, looking over at Scott. “You’re in Pre-cal?”

            “What?” asked Scott, decidedly, Cora noticed, un-self-conscious. “I suck at math, man.”

            “You were in that class with me last year!”

            Scott shrugged. “So I know I can pass. And, you know, graduate.”

            “Well,” sighed Stiles, shaking his head with faux-disappointment and addressing Cora. “At least you’ll have a study buddy.”

            “Yeah,” said Scott, with a grin. There was no trace of insincerity in his smile, but Cora met his eyes without reciprocation.

            “OK,” said Cora. “I’m going to go find my locker now.”

            “You need any help?” asked Scott.

            “No,” she replied. “I’m pretty sure I can read numbers. Thanks.”

            Derek would’ve picked up the dryness in her voice, realized it was not as unfriendly as these boys took it. She saw the look in Scott’s eyes flicker slightly, and Stiles made no attempt to hide the odd look he shot towards his friend. At least they left her alone.

            She headed down the hall, glancing at the number on the piece of paper and the numbers imprinted on the metal lockers on the wall. It had been a long time since she’d been around so many people, and she didn’t like it: the sounds, the smells, bitter and intense and overwhelming. Maybe she had spent far too much time closer to a wolf than a human, but nothing seemed to make sense.

            At least, she thought, glowering at a group of teenagers parading by, there are always packs.

            Finally, she stopped at a locker that appeared to be hers. While she was spinning the dial, someone down the row glanced up and noticed her. His voice hardly raised – but he knew she’d be able to hear him – Isaac asked, “Having fun?”

            She looked up. He smiled at her, then closed his locker and sauntered over to her as she opened her own. “Not really,” she replied. “I’m one more slack-jawed guffawing jock away from either ditching, or slashing somebody’s throat.”

            Isaac let out a little whistle, leaning against the locker beside hers. “Just some general advice, try to avoid that last one.”

            She stared at the empty locker, its vacancy taunting her. “I am trying,” she muttered unhappily.

            “Besides,” he continued, “I kind of am a slack-jawed jock. I don’t know about the guffawing part, I guess, but think I take offense.”

            “You’re a stupid teenager,” she agreed, taking a book out of her backpack and placing it in the locker, then slamming it shut. “But you at least…I mean, you know.” When she looked at him, there was something like desperation on her face, but her voice was quiet. The small smile on Isaac’s face softened and disappeared.

            She looked away from him. Quietly, Isaac said, “Yeah. I know.”

            After another moment’s hesitation, she pulled out her schedule again. “Isaac,” she said, her voice mumbling and quiet, sounding almost tired, “do you know where room 128 is?”

            He nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “Let me walk you there.” He nodded down the hall, and she followed him. “So,” he began, as they waded through the crowd, “what’s Derek doing, now that you guys are all officially settling down here?”

            “I don’t know,” she replied, a slight grimace still on her face. “I think Peter has work for him.”

            “What kind of work?”

            “Hopefully the kind that doesn’t involve killing people.”

            Isaac nodded. “This is Peter we’re talking about, though.”

            “I know,” she sighed, “but Derek seemed pretty serious about staying here. I wouldn’t be here if he wasn’t.”

            Isaac gestured down another hallway, and they turned. Lowering his voice, he asked, “So – Derek never gave me a straight answer. If he’s not an Alpha anymore, then – what? Are you sticking around because of Scott?”

            “No,” said Cora firmly. “Believe me, neither Derek or I have any allegiance to that kid.”

            “Then what? Are you just, I don’t know, Omegas, or something?”

            Coolly, Cora said, “We have an Alpha.”

            “OK,” said Isaac. “Who? Peter?”

            They stopped before a door labeled 128. Cora looked up at Isaac simply, and didn’t say anything. The bell rang.

            “You have a pack now,” she said, her voice very quiet, “and it’s not ours. Remember that. And make sure your Alpha knows, as well.”

            She met his gaze for another second, then entered the classroom.

            In English class two halls away, Scott sat beside his best friend. “It worked out,” he whispered, eyes glued to the board so their teacher wouldn’t notice. “I mean, now at least we can keep an eye on her. And I don’t know. Maybe it would be good for her too. It’s not like she and Derek-” he broke off, glancing at Stiles. His eyes flickering in between the board and his friend beside him, he whispered, “Stiles,” and shook Stiles by the shoulder a little.

            Stiles jerked awake, blinking blearily. He mumbled something nonsensical, but Scott was sure he heard him mutter something in particular, and it made Scott vaguely uncomfortable.

            “Dude,” said Scott. “It’s the first day.”

            “Yeah, I know,” murmured Stiles, rubbing his eyes. “Senioritis.”

            Scott stared at him. “Stiles,” he said again, “it’s the first day.”

            “Don’t judge me.” He yawned. “I’m gonna go home in my free period. Catch up on sleep. Fifteen-hour nap.”

            “Yeah, I think they usually just call that a coma.”

            “Whatever. What are we talking about?”

            “Cora,” responded Scott. “I’m still not sure she-”

            “No, not you,” said Stiles. “The teacher.”

            “Oh,” said Scott, looking up. Their teacher, old and clearly not noticing that none of them were paying attention to him, was lecturing on about something. Turning back to Stiles, he said, “OK, but this is more important.”

            With a slight rolling of his eyes – although Scott detected something maybe like admiration in his friend’s face – Stiles said, “See, this is why you’re repeating Pre-cal.”

            Just after noon, Derek’s phone buzzed; swiping it open immediately with a sense of dread, Stiles’s name came up, not Cora’s. He opened the message. It was a picture of Stiles leaning in against Cora while she gave him a look that generally precipitated grievous bodily injury, with the caption: She’s almost as grumpy as you.

            Derek rolled his eyes, the anxiety in his gut unclenching. Another text. This time it was from Cora.

            There is literally nothing I hate more than teenagers.

            He replied. You are a teenager, Cora.

            Sitting at a lunch table surrounded by people she had no desire to interact with, Cora read her brother’s message, then looked up. Allison Argent sat across from her, between Scott and Lydia. “I repeated a year,” said Allison with a shrug, taking a bite out of an apple. “It’s not a big deal.”

            “Yeah,” said Stiles. “Besides, when was the last time you were even in school?”

            “A while ago,” answered Cora, without looking up from her lunch.

            “Where?” asked Isaac. She shot him a look, and he didn’t press her.

            “Things’ll be easy this year,” said Scott. “I mean, not like it can get much worse than it already was, right?” He laughed.

            “Dude,” said Stiles, “don’t say that. You’re gonna jinx it.”

            “Jinxes aren’t even real.”

            “Really?” asked Lydia dubiously, leaning in to look at Scott across Allison. “You’re a teen werewolf eating lunch with your pack, and you don’t believe in jinxes?”

            “I’m not part of his pack,” Cora pointed out. “I don’t even know why I’m here.”

            Stiles let out a little sound as if he were doubtful of her statement, then said, “Think about it this way. You could either be a werewolf, and run around in the dark occasionally biting people, or you could be a werewolf and a person, and have, y’know, a life.”

            “Stiles,” said Allison, a rebuke. Cora was staring down at her lunch before her, unmoving. Instantly Stiles realized his insensitivity, but before he could continue, Lydia said, “You need to come over to my house this weekend, Cora. We’ll get you some new clothes, and maybe – well, maybe fix your hair…”

            Allison replied to that, and they fell into easy conversation. Cora sat mostly in silence, staring down before her, never quite making eye contact with any of them.

            As lunch period ended, Cora unenthusiastically followed Scott’s lead, heading to the math class they had together. Leaving the cafeteria as well, Stiles caught up with them. “Hey!” he said, but there was a hint of uncertainty in his voice. “Uh, Cora, can I just…” he trailed off, but jerked his head to the side of the hall.

            She watched him for a second, unamused, then said to Scott, “Hold on,” and stepped aside with Stiles.

            “Look,” he said. “What I said. You know. About the, having a life and stuff. I was just kidding.”

            “I know you were kidding,” said Cora. “Do you really think I’m so stupid that I wouldn’t know you were making a joke?”

            “No,” said Stiles quickly. “That’s not – I just mean that, I don’t know, sometimes I come off as kind of a jerk. There. I said it. But I totally promise I’m not.”

            Shaking her head at him, she replied, “OK. Sure.”

            She turned to leave, but Stiles grabbed hold of her arm, saying, “Wait wait wait! Cora!”

            Very slowly, she turned around to look at him. Something glinted in her eyes, not quite color, but still threatening, dangerous. Instantly, he took his hand away from her arm. “All I’m trying to do is be nice to you,” he said. “If you would just let me-”

            “I don’t have to let you do anything,” she said blankly. “I’m not here because I want to be. You can think whatever you want about me, I don’t care.” She stared at him, so intensely that Stiles felt he had to look away. Slowly, quietly, she said, “But do. Not. Ever. Touch me again.”

            Without allowing him to respond, she joined Scott again, who, before heading off to class, glanced back at his friend as if to say, What did you do?

            Stiles stood there for a moment, somewhere in between frustration and genuine disappointment. When the bell rang, he headed out the doors of the school, back to his home on his free period.

            Scott didn’t try talking to Cora too much in math class. She propped her face up on one hand and mostly looked out of the window as the teacher talked. He sat directly behind her, and twice almost reached out and tapped her on the shoulder, but did not. If it had been Derek, he would have spoken to him; if it had been Peter, even, there would have been less uncertainty. Cora was his age, but was somehow far away. More than untouchable she was – unapproachable. He couldn’t even get near her.

            Suddenly, there was a high-pitched wailing; before him, Cora winced slightly, then turned around to glance at him. He took his phone out of his pocket, silencing his ringer, which was at a frequency high enough that only werewolves could hear it. He read Stiles’s text to him as Cora turned back around again, looking distractedly at the teacher. He leaned forward and said her name. “Cora.”

            “No,” she replied, quietly and without quite looking at him. “Whatever it is, no.”

            “OK,” said Scott. “Well. I gotta go. Stiles says there’s a house fire, people trapped, maybe I can help. But, I mean, it is the first day, Derek would probably want you to-”

            Before he had even finished his sentence, Cora picked up her backpack from beside her seat and got up and walked out of the room, without so much as acknowledging the teacher. With a sympathetic look towards the rest of the class and a mumbled, “Um, sorry,” when he passed the teacher, Scott followed her. “Hey, um,” he began, when he caught up with her, “I’m kind of being serious when I say maybe you should stay here…”

            “Where is it?” she asked, without looking at him.

            “It’s – not far from here. Stiles said-”

            They exited the school, and instantly both recoiled; Scott coughed slightly. An acrid stench stung the inside of their nostrils, although there was no visible smoke. “I’ve got the scent,” she said. “See you there.”

            She took off.

            When she arrived, she hung back at first, watching the house, the flames flickering. She heard the burning roar of the fire consuming everything, eating it away, and she could hear crying coming from inside. Something turned in her belly, and for a second she thought she’d be sick. With a deep breath, full of the black smoke billowing from the house, she stilled herself.

            She went in quickly through the back. Isolated the crying, made it so she couldn’t hear the crackling, popping sounds of destruction. She followed it better than the firemen could, getting through the house faster than they possibly could have. She stayed low, but half a minute in she realized she couldn’t breathe anymore, and so she didn’t. The heat was blazing and intense, and one miscalculated movement led it scorching across her side, the pain of it bringing a flash of white and then – and as much as she fought it, it snuck into her head, lodged there irremovably – a woman’s face, blackened and burned by the fire, an eerie echo of her mother’s beautiful countenance.

            She surged forward. Already she could feel the burn on her side healing. The crying was that of a girl, she could tell, and she – she remembered the feel of flames flickering across her skin and the smoke in her lungs and the power of the pain faded her vision slightly but then-

            One more door: she broke it with a kick, and didn’t have time to look at the girl, she only took her in her arms and carried her out of the house, through the back, lying her in the cool grass, where there were no firemen yet. Cora knelt beside the girl, and the sounds of the burning house filled her ears.

            Suddenly, there was a hand on her back. “Cora,” said Stiles, “oh my God, you need to get out of here-”

            “Is she OK?” she asked, her voice faint. “I can hear her breathing.”

            “Yeah,” said Stiles, “OK, yeah, she’s breathing, but unless you want to explain to a bunch of firemen why a seventeen-year-old could just run into a burning building – my dad’s trying to get you a second but come on, let’s go.”

            He took her arm, and this time Cora did not protest; he held onto her tightly as they ducked through some of the forest behind the house, and he brought her to his Jeep, opened the door, allowing her to climb in. Glancing around them, he got in the other side, then started the car.

            “Where are we going?” asked Cora, blinking slightly.

            “I dunno,” replied Stiles, his eyes darting along the road. “My house, I guess.”

            “Take me back to school.”

            “Uh, no.”

            “Derek asked for one day-”

            “Yeah, OK,” said Stiles, “but I’m pretty sure your brother would be even less cool with you going back in the state you’re in right now.”

            She shot a dangerous glare towards Stiles. “I’m fine.”

            With a little roll of his eyes and sarcastic shake of his head, he said, “I didn’t mean all your mental issues with people dying in fires, which I’m sure, by the way, before you bite my face off, are totally valid and, like, a serious thing, but I just mean-” he glanced at her, “you may be fireproof, but that don’t mean your clothes are.”

            For a second, she watched Stiles, something like confusion on her face, and then she glanced down at her body and said, “Oh.” Where she had been burned, down the length of her right side, her clothes were either charred and blackened, or burned off completely.

            There was a pause, an awkward silence filled only by the sounds of the Jeep driving on. “So,” said Stiles finally, “how was your first day?”

            It was not the first time that Cora had been in Stiles’s room, but, Stiles tried not to think about, it was the first time a girl even partially unclothed had been in his room. He kept his eyes either averted or focused on her face, opening his drawers.

            “We don’t really have any lady clothes,” he said, “but I have, like. You know. Shirts and stuff. That you can totally put on.”

            She didn’t look at him; she had moved to the window, looking out at the mid-afternoon. It was bright and unusually sunny, so far removed from the fire that still flickered around the edges of her memories.

            “Jeez,” muttered Stiles awkwardly, “what is with me and getting Hales into my clothes…?”

            Cora glanced back at that, an eyebrow raised.

            In lieu of an explanation, Stiles said, “Long story. Anyway.” He gestured to his drawers. “Clothes. It’s probably not much use to go back to class now either, you get out in like fifteen minutes anyway.” He paused, then asked, “Do you want to call Derek, or should I?”

            “Don’t,” she said, turning around to look at him. She watched him, her eyes dark. “Where’s Scott?”

            “He said he was gonna go to the hospital. See if the girl’s all right.”

            Cora nodded, as if considering this. “OK,” she said.

            There was a silence.

            Then, sounding utterly unimpressed, she asked, “Are you just going to stand there while I take off my clothes, or…?”

            “Oh, right,” said Stiles. “Um, yeah. OK. I’ll be right outside. Just. Let me know if you need anything.” He slipped out of his room, closed the door, and leaned against the wall, arms crossed.

            There were the sounds of fabric rustling from within. Stiles said nothing, staring down at the carpet in front of him. After a minute or so, he called through the door: “Sorry it was me. I mean, and not Allison or Lydia or something. Or Isaac. Or pretty much anyone. I know you don’t really like me. Which is fine! I didn’t like your brother when he first showed up. To be honest I didn’t really like you either. And you still don’t like me, so hey. Works out.” He glanced at the door. “Anyway. I have a habit of showing up at crime scenes, and I thought you’d be there.” He paused, and looked back to the floor before him. “I mean, I get it,” he said. “House fires. Kind of your thing. I’d be that way, I guess. I mean, I just said - I kind of am," he finished, lamely.

            There was a silence. Stiles didn’t say anything for a few moments, his eyes on the floor. And then he snapped out of thought, frowning slightly.

            “Cora?” he called through the door. “You OK?”

            There was no reply. He opened the door: his room was completely empty, a gentle breeze coming through the window, left wide open.

            He let out a long, defeated sigh, then fell onto his bed, too tired to care about where she was going.

            Not long after, in small hospital room, Scott stood over a girl’s body. Cora stood across from him, and he kept glancing in between her and the girl on the bed. Melissa McCall stood at the foot of the bed, holding a clipboard with a chart on it.

            Cora asked quietly, “What’s her name?”

            “Sam Lewis,” answered Melissa. “She’s sixteen. Sophomore in high school. Lived here with her parents for years now.” Melissa hesitated, looking at the girl pityingly. “I’ve seen her in here before, a couple of times."

            Scott looked up at his mother. “Her parents…”

            She bowed her head slightly. “They were killed in the fire. And - not to speak ill of the dead - but, really, she's probably better off without them."

           Cora asked, “Is she going to be OK?”

            “Yes,” answered Melissa, nodding. “Luckily you got her out of the place before any permanent damage. She’s in good shape.”

            Without saying anything, Cora nodded.

            Melissa looked at her son, then at the other girl in the room. She knew Cora was a Hale, and she’d lived in Beacon Hills for a long time. She could remember the night Peter Hale was rushed into the ER, the dull, dazed look in eyes that should have been electric with pain. She could remember Derek and Laura Hale sitting by their uncle’s bed, and she remembered going home and holding Scott tightly that night. She said, “I have to get back to work,” and Scott replied, “Thanks, Mom,” and she left.

            There was nothing for a moment, and then Scott asked, “You OK?”

            She nodded. “I’m fine,” she said, her voice very soft. “I’m…glad I got her out.”

            Scott said nothing, and the moment seemed to pass. Reaching up to rub his head, he glanced up at her, then asked, “Isn’t that Stiles’s shirt?”

            It was almost twenty minutes past the time school ended that Isaac came out of the building, spilling out onto the few steps in front of the school. When Derek called his name, he looked up, blinking his big, round eyes.

            “You know where Cora is?” asked Derek, and he wasn’t even trying to hide his concern anymore.

            “Um,” replied Isaac, “no. I saw her at lunch. She seems like she was doing OK. I guess.”

            “Is she still around?” pressed Derek. “Did she leave?”

            “I don’t know,” said Isaac, shrugging, adjusting the backpack on his shoulder. “I know she had class with Scott, but I haven’t seen him since lunch either.”

            Derek didn’t say anything, but looked up at the building.

            Isaac watched him for a moment, then took pity on the poor guy. “I don’t think she’s in trouble,” he said, leaning in slightly, lowering his voice. “But she definitely is a high school student now, and, so, you know. Maybe she’s not really a fan of you hanging out here to pick her up like you’re her dad or something.”

            Derek didn’t reply to this either. “OK,” he said. “Let me know if you hear from her.”

            “Right,” said Isaac, glancing away, at the other teenagers leaving the school. “Because that’s likely.”

            But Derek was already walking away. He took out his cell phone, dialed a number.

            Someone picked up. “Derek?”

            “Scott. Is Cora with you?”

            “She just left.”

            “Where are you?”

            “The hospital.”

            Derek got into the car, slamming the door shut behind him. “The hospital?

            “Oh, everybody’s fine! Cora saved a girl, actually. We were just checking up on her.”

            “Where is she now?”

            “Um, the girl’s here at the hospital probably until she wakes-”

            “I mean Cora.”

            There was a pause. “I don’t know,” he said. “I figured she’d go back to you?”

            Derek almost swore, then didn’t. “If you hear from her,” he began, but he didn’t even have to finish.

            “Yeah,” answered Scott. “I’ll call you.”

            Hanging up the phone, Derek threw it into the seat beside him. It was so like Cora to do this. Even before the fire, she’d always been prone to wandering off, being by herself. Maybe that was why she hadn’t been there, that night. He doubted she’d go so far as to run away, or even get out of town, but he didn’t like not knowing where she was. She was seventeen years old and, as always when he thought of this, there was a painful pang in his heart. She wasn’t even as old as he had been, at the time of the fire.

            The car was useless. He left it on the side of the road and headed out into the forest. Had he still been her Alpha, it would have been much easier to track her, but now that he was no longer, everything seemed slightly dimmer and duller. There was an odd, unfamiliar scent stinging the sharp air of the woods, even in the mid-afternoon. It led him, reliably, to the house, where the smell intensified, hanging like a miasma about the place.

            A mist was creeping in between the dense trees. Cora was not there, but he went up to the porch anyway, the stench inundating him, so heavy and full that he could barely breathe. He reached out to touch the wooden door, but then he closed his eyes, inhaled deeply; the scent was not coming from inside the house. He left the door, his fingers trailing across the burned-out frame, and slowly walked along the porch surrounding the house.

            There, in the soft, wet autumnal ground, was a patch of freshly-turned soil. Derek’s chest went very cold. Bright gray light filtered in from the cloud-covered sky above the house, and he did not move.

            After a moment, he hopped over the railing of the porch, landing on the ground covered with falling leaves. Behind him, a breeze carried a faint sound to him, stirring the leaves on the ground. The red door on the front of the house shook in its frame, as if someone were banging hard on the door, desperate to get in.

             Slowly, Derek made his way over to the rectangular patch of dirt. Kneeling, he ran a palm through the top of the soil, his stomach feeling empty and hollow. His fingers snagged on something and a surge of sour, heated sickness rose in his throat as he lifted the woven rope, the tiny lavender flowers wrapped around stinging his skin slightly where they touched him.

            He tugged, hard, on the rope, watching the ground around him. A spiral, the rope wrapped around and around, appeared. Jaw clenched, his insides burning, he placed the rope down onto the dirt again; he began to stand up but then stopped abruptly, with an odd sense of surprise. The terror did not hit him until he glanced down.

            Soil and blood caked underneath fingernails, knuckles and palms stained the brown organic color of earth and the ugly purple of coagulated blood after death, skin so white it was translucent but the veins no longer blue, a pale hand shot out of the overturned dirt and took vicious hold of Derek’s wrist. The nails lengthened into a werewolf’s claws, digging into his skin, drawing blood, and the stench was, he finally recognized, that of death and decay.

            By the time the sun fell, Derek was far away from the Hale home.

            A girl hovered before the shell of a house, leaning against a tree, watching it but not daring to approach. It had looked, she thought, much bigger, the last time she was here.

            She didn’t know how long she had been watching the house before she heard the footsteps, the extra heartbeat heading her way. They were too soft to be Derek or one of the boys, and too precise to be merely human.

            Without looking up, Cora said quietly, “I can hear you.”

            From out of the shadows of the woods, a woman stepped out. “I know,” she said. “I wanted you to.”

            Finally, Cora tore her eyes away from the house, and dragged them over to look at the girl. Cora observed her dispassionately. Then, at last, she asked, “What are you doing here?”

            The other woman cocked her head slightly, watching Cora. Her hair was a sleek, shiny black, long and braided down her back. She had a wide, angular face, Chinese features, and irises of pure, inky black. Along the line of her jaw were a smattering of scars, like tiny pockmarks. She glanced at the house, then slowly looked back at Cora. “I heard the Hale pack was coming back to Beacon Hills,” she said, her voice soft. “You know I tend to trail your family.”

            “Go away, Grace,” responded Cora. “You don’t have a place with us.”

            “There’s too few of you,” said the other woman; she slinked forward towards Cora smoothly, more like a fox than a wolf. “You’re not a real pack at all. You could use my help.”

            “No,” said Cora stonily. “We don’t pick up Omegas.”

            There was a silence. The woman – Grace – stared at Cora. Then she looked at the house and said, quietly, “Laura would’ve.”

            “Laura’s dead,” replied Cora, staring at the woman with steely eyes. “Didn’t you hear?”

            Grace watched Cora for a long time, locking gazes with her. She had once almost been in the Hale pack; this much Cora knew. If Laura had, as was her birthright, become the family Alpha in due time, Grace would have risen to second-in-command. From nothing. From Omega. But the fire had ended that life, and Laura had left a long time ago.

            Grace’s eyes, oily black drops surrounded by rings of white, were harder than Cora had ever known them to be. But Cora did not look away.

            “I did hear,” said Grace, very gently, so quiet that Cora had to focus to hear her. “I didn’t come just for you, Cora. And certainly not for your brother.”

            She went to stand beside Cora, not quite touching her, but following her gaze up at the old house. Night had fallen, and it was dark. Grace was not tall, and Cora should have been able to take her, if she needed to, but something seemed different. This was not the girl who had so desperately ached to be a part of the Hale pack for so long.

            Her voice high and faint as the wind, Grace breathed, “I heard your uncle Peter is alive.”

            Cora said nothing.

            “I heard he killed her,” she said.

            Cora’s eyes slid from the charred remains of the house to the other woman again, to the almost-smile on her face, the fanaticism in her expression. “So you’re going to kill him?” asked Cora, echoing the softness in Grace’s voice.

            “Kill him?” repeated the other woman mildly. She shook her head. “Oh, no. Cora. That would be much too kind.”

            Grace’s fingers trailed along Cora’s back; she could feel the gentle, pointed touch of Grace’s claws.

            “No,” she said, looking up benignly at the house, her voice full of venomous pleasure.

            She said: “I’m going to destroy Peter Hale.”