The final book in my Time Bites series has dropped into Patreon supporters’ libraries already and I’m including a sneak preview below. But there are definitely SPOILERS here. If you’re behind, please start with Wolf Trap before you read any further…
Yes, switching from world domination to survival mode took me down a notch. Then, right about the time I got the hang of caring for the needy meat suit I inhabited, the past decided to rear its ugly head.
Like most evenings, I was pushing my shopping cart full of belongings toward the bridge I considered home sweet home when the gaze first burned the back of my neck. That wasn’t out of the ordinary. I’d noted watching eyes before.
But in the past they’d always been creepy, not caressing. This non-physical touch, in contrast, wrapped me up in all the warmth my threadbare coat lacked.
Unfortunately, when I turned and stared across the busy city street to find the source of today’s gaze, the eyes barely hidden behind a car’s windshield turned out to belong to someone I recognized. Not just recognized—had been doing my level best to avoid for weeks.
Drake was a werewolf who had zero reason to wish me well and a dozen reasons to punish me for various episodes of murder and memory theft. His mate was even less likely to join my fan club, and she was currently making moves to exit the vehicle. Beside her, Drake clenched his chiseled jaw, dark brows lowering. His gaze became yet more intense.
And even though running was the obvious reaction, my wobbly muscles tried to tell me I should stay where I was and take in Drake more fully. He was intriguing, tantalizing…
Squashing the urge, I turned down an alley like a rat darting into the first shred of shadow, a stream of questions flowing through my head.
Where can I hide? How can I get there without being followed? Why did Drake’s eyes sear through my skin so pleasurably that I didn’t want to run away?
I failed to realize I’d left my shopping cart behind until I was already on the first step of a five-story fire escape. Bad news since, at the very bottom of the shopping cart, I’d also abandoned my sword. The mainstay of my existence. Without it, I might cease to exist.
Still, I couldn’t double back now. Not with Tru in the alley behind me, her silence more ominous than if she’d shouted imprecations.
Regret at what I’d done to her made me peer back over my shoulder even though doing so risked a stumble and fall down to pavement that this human body wouldn’t be able to handle. To my surprise, my pursuer was no longer pursuing. Instead, she was heading back the way she’d come.
She’d turned away, but a flicker of movement from the other end of the alley materialized into her mate, who must have gone the long way around to cut me off. Drake was tall, lithe, and darkly handsome…and his job involved execution and torture. No wonder his gray eyes bored into mine like coals that don’t look hot but, on contact, burned.
Strangely, though, the shot of emotion that burst through me at the moment wasn’t fear. My mouth filled with saliva; my heart pounded so hard it sounded like a snare drum. And this time I couldn’t force myself to turn away as my gaze roamed over my pursuer from head to foot.
Straight hair fell across his forehead, swaying slightly in the breeze. Muscles flexed beneath a suit perfectly tailored to show off his physique. And even though he wasn’t sprinting, his long legs ate up the distance far faster than I’d covered it.
Right. I’m being chased. No time to paint a mental picture.
Ignoring whatever weirdness was going on in my body, I finally managed to rip my gaze away so I could speed the rest of the way up the rickety fire escape. And at the rooftop, I didn’t pause to soak in the view or push wind-whipped hair out of my face. Instead, I forced a brain that wanted to skip around between ten thousand erratic thoughts to focus on the here and now.
Tru was tenacious, so I doubted she’d given up on catching me. Likely she’d thought of another way up to roof level and was planning to cut me off if I traveled in the obvious direction back toward my shopping cart. That way, buildings sat close together, the air space between them easy to hop over if you didn’t look down and did keep your nerve.
So I turned left instead of right. Took a running leap and surged across a gap I wasn’t so sure my human body could handle.
It almost couldn’t. I landed hard, knees banging into the sharp edge, feet dangling into space, hands scrabbling for purchase against smooth roof metal.
Meanwhile, the wind picked up, buffeting me and trying to knock loose my already precarious balance. Sweat slicked my fingers and my breath scraped raw in my throat. I was afraid to move for fear I’d fall.
And the world slammed into sharp focus. This body wanted to survive. My soul, such as it was, wanted to stay grounded in flesh even if that flesh was currently screaming pain from knees and elbows. I ached where muscles tensed into cramping, yet every gasping inhale felt like a gift.
One I might not hold onto for much longer. Because I was slipping, the weight of my lower body carrying me down across the slanted rooftop. Dislodged debris scattered beneath my desperate fingers, tiny pebbles plunking one by one onto hard ground far below.
I’d be down there joining that debris soon.
Then a voice carried across the gap. It had to be Tru’s mate, but his rumble was musical rather than raspy the way I remembered. The shivers quaking through me inexplicably lessened even though Drake was no less dangerous than the threat of gravity.
Meanwhile, his words made no sense when he had every reason to wish me ill. “Kami. Focus. There’s a vent three inches from your left hand. You don’t even need to turn your head. Just feel for it then grab hold.”
A trick. If I’d been fully kami, I would have believed that easier. But his gaze on my back was as warm as the dirty sleeping bag I’d left behind in my shopping cart. As soothing as the wandering cat who’d curled up against my belly two nights prior.
For one long moment, I wavered. Then I moved my hand.
The vent was cold and almost sharp enough to cut through my skin. But I didn’t care. It was solid, unlike the debris that had turned the rest of the roof slippery. The handhold provided enough leverage and stability so I could scramble away from the drop. Could find my feet and stand.
Not that there was any safe way off this building. My throbbing legs warned against trying to repeat the same leap I’d recently endured, even if a werewolf wasn’t currently blocking that exit. Meanwhile, the building opposite the one where Tru’s mate stood was higher up and even further away than the one where I’d started.
To make matters worse, the roof I’d made it onto wasn’t meant to be walked across. So there was no door down into the interior. No fire escape running up the outside.
Which left two other sides of the building as potential exit routes. One dropped straight down to the alley, the other to a main thoroughfare. There were no handy awnings to soften the fall.
My legs transitioned from throbbing to full-on shaking. Tru’s mate might have saved me. But he now had me quite thoroughly trapped.
“I know the outlook appears bleak,” my pursuer said, words just loud enough to hear over the wind. “Reminds me of the time I took the bet that I could stay on the back of a water buffalo for thirty seconds. Not a good idea, just in case you’re considering giving it a try.”
Despite the fact that escape should have been my top and only priority, my gaze was drawn to Drake without permission. His face was square, strong, and perfectly symmetrical except for a single dimple on his left cheek that wasn’t mirrored on his right. Somehow, that one small indentation managed to counteract the whole alpha-werewolf scariness factor, turning him irresistible instead of terrifying.
Warm squiggliness rebounded inside my belly and I finally realized what it equated to. Attraction. What a strange thing to succumb to at a time like this.
I frowned, trying to understand how I’d missed that dimple while throwing roadblock after roadblock between Drake and his mate a month ago. How had it failed to rope me in then the way it was doing now?
Because even though Drake’s words were clearly a ploy to keep me talking instead of fleeing, I was the one who kept the conversation going. “How long did you last?”
His gaze grew even warmer. The dimple deepened. “Believe me, I can last a good long while.” Then his smile softened. “Let me guess. I’m the only one with my mind in the gutter and you just want to hear about the water buffalo? I’ll tell you this much—I definitely didn’t win that bet.”
While barely scraping by in human skin this past month, I’d found it impossible to turn on the charm that had won me so many free passes as a disembodied kami. But now I could feel my own dimples—two of them, perfectly symmetrical—emerging despite cold, hunger, and the blood oozing from scraped skin on my knees. “So what you’re saying is, you’re no good at being on top?”
“Top, bottom, if you like it, I like it.” His shrug brought my attention to broad shoulders, made me imagine how good it might feel to press myself up against his solidity. To have him kiss away the pain in my knees and elbows. To pull me in close and…
Movement caught my attention behind Drake’s left shoulder. Tru was emerging on a rooftop several buildings down just like I’d expected she would. Back when I was thinking rationally, before flirting turned my head.
Adrenaline flooded me. Drake had made me forget he wasn’t my sole pursuer, or maybe my human body had done most of the work for him. Whatever the reason for my lapse, sharp reality now whipped away every ounce of pleasure. Slowly, hoping the motion wouldn’t be noticed, I began sidling along the edge of the building, no destination in mind other than away.
“Don’t.” Tru’s mate took a step in the same direction I was traveling and that clinched it. He’d been toying with me just like I used to toy with humans. Trying to distract me while he came up with a plan that would end with me in handcuffs.
So I let myself consider the other way off the building. The way I’d tried so hard to avoid even thinking about.
I was nearly at the edge overlooking the main street now. The edge that would at least add drama to upcoming sacrifice.
“Stop!” Drake’s eyes were no longer warm. Instead, they were ice, demanding obedience.
I didn’t. I stepped over the edge, falling backward and staring up into that handsome werewolf’s face as I plummeted.
Humanity shed off me like a snake’s skin. And in reaction, Drake’s face contorted in a way that somehow managed to look like fear for me rather than fury at me. His arms reached out even though he was nowhere near me, his long fingers clutched at thin air.
The same thin air I was disintegrating into. I didn’t strike the ground so much as disembody inches from it. My last glimpse of Drake faded into the gray emptiness of the spirit realm.
Which meant I’d have to steal memories to regain flesh and solidity. The worst part? Pure kami again, I didn’t really care.
Around me, the spirit realm stretched out as a still, featureless landscape. Faintly glowing wisps of fog drifted through an otherwise empty plane, each one a material manifestation of unclaimed energy. Long ago, when I was a starving kami with no sword to ground me, I’d followed wisps like these for hours before giving up on catching what could provide sustenance but wasn’t worth the chase.
Now, hunger was the least of my worries. Because travel here wasn’t bogged down by the laws of physics—well it was for me, but not for others. Spirits could materialize right beside me while my only escape was a slow, human plod.
The audible pop of someone arriving sent me skittering sideways. Human instinct prompted me to fling my arms up in front of my face even though that wouldn’t shield me from being maliciously punctured.
Punctured and turned into wisps like the ones I’d formerly hunted. If the rents were few and shallow, a spirit might simply lose some of her energy to such an attack. But those who lost too much too quickly disappeared into the void.
That danger didn’t appear to be facing me today, however. “You’re lucky,” the newcomer observed, poking at me with words instead of claws.
“Not right now, Tall Nose,” I answered, dropping my arms to my sides and starting back toward where I’d left my shopping cart. Because Tall Nose wasn’t precisely a friend but he wasn’t an enemy either. Instead, he was what I would have been if I’d made a different choice years ago.
As we traveled side by side, the repercussions of that choice were striking. I appeared entirely human all the way down to my plodding footsteps. Tall Nose, in contrast, floated along beside me with gentle flaps of his wings, featherless arms crossed while his beak turned up in disgust.
He’d pulled ahead while I was assessing our differences, and now he adjusted his pace to match mine even as he mocked me with a yawn followed by pointed words. “You don’t think you’re lucky? How many of us can cross to the human realm so easily?”
I might have been able to cross to the human realm, but I couldn’t zip toward my sword and get there before the garbage man sent my possessions through a trash compactor. Fear about that possibility made me engage with Tall Nose when I probably shouldn’t have. “Being human isn’t all shits and giggles,” I told him. “There are repercussions. I have to steal to solidify my body on the other side.”
Tall Nose didn’t need to breathe in the spirit realm any more than I did, but he still managed a snort that erupted loud as a bullhorn. Flinching, I spun in a complete circle to see if any other spirits had been attracted by the sound. In particular, there was a hag I’d been dodging for months now, one who wasn’t entirely pleased to have Japanese spirits on her turf.
Luckily, the foggy landscape around us was just as empty as it had been a moment earlier. And now Tall Nose found his words again. “Repercussions for humans maybe. None for you when you cross over, or for me if you take me with you.” He batted his eyelashes, a gesture that looked nowhere near as appealing as he thought since long hairs brushed his shiny upper mandible like spider legs dancing. “But you’re stressed about your sword. I can see that. How about I travel ahead and check on it for you? No charge.”
There was always a charge with a tengu like Tall Nose, so I gritted my teeth, shook my head, and kept wafting my immaterial feet no faster than a human could have jogged. It was maddening to be slowed down in kami form. Maddening enough to make me consider what Tall Nose had suggested.
Could I give him a solid body in the human realm the next time I transitioned? I’d have to steal more memories to make it possible, likely stronger memories that would impact the donor more badly. But Tall Nose would owe me if I gave him a leg up. An ally could mean a lot.
Right now, though, I had a more pressing issue to deal with. Because I rounded the corner, took a quick step sideways into the human realm, and found my shopping cart untouched. Tru and Drake were absent. A major relief.
Unfortunately, both cart and sword were bound to remain untouched until I found another memory to seize hold of and turned myself tangible again. In my current kami form, I could feign a physical appearance in the human realm, something even Tall Nose could manage on occasion. But I couldn’t lift the sword and take it with me. Nor could I push the shopping cart into an out-of-the-way corner to protect it from those with more physical abilities than I currently possessed.
Which meant anyone could come along and grab my sword. Being separated from the blade wasn’t a problem, but if it was damaged? I wasn’t precisely sure what would happen. Best guess—the result would be akin to being punctured and forced to watch all my energy seep out.
“If you’d given me a body,” Tall Nose observed, popping into the human realm beside me, “I could be moving that for you right now.”
His form was hazier than mine while benefiting from wings that let him rise up so high a mortal’s neck would have had to strain to look at him. Mine didn’t protest as I peered directly up above my head. “See anybody?”
Neither did I, no one on foot at least. Cars continued to rush past as day descended into twilight, but I didn’t trust Tall Nose enough to leave him guarding my sword while I leapt into a speeding vehicle and stole a memory. Not when I might wreck the car while re-embodying, that murder dogging my nightmares along with the others when I ended up back in flesh.
Luckily, time wasn’t so imperative in kami form. Cold and hunger didn’t touch me either. And now that I was physically beside my sword, I could likely talk my way out of danger if anyone tried to mess with the weapon.
Which gave me leeway to come up with a solid plan. “I’ll do things differently tonight,” I mused, speaking more to myself than to Tall Nose, who was starting to fade back into the spirit realm. “I’ll stash my sword somewhere safe—no, I don’t intend to let you watch and find out where. Then I’ll go back to full-on kami. See if stealing memories will give me other powers beyond humanity. Are you shivering?”
“You didn’t feel the chill before we crossed over?”
Sometimes I thought Tall Nose was more drama than he was worth. It was true that the moon was just past new, the time when spirits had the least power. Still—“You do realize there’s no temperature in the spirit realm?”
“Not for you maybe.” He was perching on the back of the shopping cart now, legs dangling like those of a grotesque and over-sized human child. His voice was anything but childlike though as he warned. “There’s a new darkness in the air too.”
“Yeah, night will do that.”
Tall Nose spoke over me, ignoring my attempt at levity. “It’s hungry, seeking. You haven’t felt it?”
I shook my ahead, although perhaps I had noticed a very subtle something while rushing back to my shopping cart through the spirit realm. A drag at my feet that slowed me even more than I’d expected. A weight on my shoulders pressing me down almost like gravity.
Then I forgot about vague maybe-dangers as a teenaged boy rounded the corner on the other side of the street. His clothes were high quality, his coat more than sufficient to ward off chilly weather. But his shoulders were hunched, his gaze glued to the pavement.
“Don’t distract me,” I told Tall Nose. “Looks like we’ve landed an easy mark.”
Feigning humanity wasn’t the same as inhabiting a tangible body. There were fewer rewards in my current state but also fewer limitations, at least for me. So while the teenager’s attention was still on the ground, I manipulated the illusionary form I’d wrapped around myself, clothing my not-quite-skin in a classy yet threadbare outfit.
People who wore expensive clothes, I’d noticed, were prone to judge others by their apparel. I wanted the young man to trust me and pity me as well.
“Excuse me!” I called, voice wavering just a little. That was the key to drawing him in. That, plus the way I angled my body to outline perfectly perky breasts.
“Nice move.” Tall Nose’s flute-like voice whispered into my ear even though I couldn’t see him any longer. He was almost entirely back in the spirit realm and I swatted at the air where his words had come from, hoping he’d take the hint and retreat the rest of the way. Meanwhile, I donned my most charming smile.
But Tall Nose must have knocked me off my game because the teenager seemed ready to run in the opposite direction. Rather than coming closer, he just peered across the partially illuminated street at me. “Hello?”
In response, I turned up the sugar quotient. “Is there any way you could do me a teeny, tiny favor?” Men, I’d found, responded well to a little-girl voice emerging from a grown woman’s body. Perhaps it made them think I’d be the one who was easily manipulated.
Didn’t work on this teenager, unfortunately. Maybe he was too young or too innocent. Whatever the reason, he didn’t shoot my curves the extended second glance they usually attracted. Didn’t smirk that tiniest bit as if he knew something I didn’t.
Still, he crossed the street. Ambled up with hands in his pockets. “Can I help you?”
I wafted my body two small steps away from the shopping cart while inviting him to take my place. “The wheel’s stuck. Could you possibly push it just a little…?”
I let my voice trail off, and that seemed more effective than outright provocativeness had been. Because the teenager nodded once as if accepting a challenge. Then he stepped up to the cart and gave it a heave.
The cart didn’t actually have wheel issues. No wonder his hard push made it jet forward so fast it nearly yanked him off his feet. His attempts to regain his balance and control the cart distracted him enough so he didn’t notice when I reached out to touch the bare skin of his wrist.
Memories flooded me like a shot of pure oxygen. For one split second, all I could focus on was the blood beginning to pump through my veins. The breath starting to heave my lungs in and out again. The solidity of a human body just barely beginning to reform around my kami interior.
Then I focused on the memory I was sucking out of the teenager and discovered why my little-girl voice hadn’t been as effective as I’d expected.
Shouting. Crying. A father tossing around slurs he never should have used on anyone, let alone on a son.
The mother, placating but also implacable. “Honey, you know we still love you. Hate the sin, love the sinner. There are camps that will help you overcome this phase you’re going through. We’ll call the pastor in the morning. All you have to do is promise…”
“Not to be who I am?”
“Not in my house.” This was the father, hand raised as if he thought he could beat the gay out of someone he’d taken fishing and taught to ride a bike and given his own name to.
“Then I’ll leave.”
The son’s hand shook as he grabbed his coat. He feigned anger as he slammed the door behind him, but inside something was breaking as he walked blindly into the night with no destination in mind.
The teenager’s pain was so profound I could feel it, even as almost-pure kami. It clenched what little bit of throat had begun solidifying out of the ether. It twisted my gut even more than lack of food had done.
If I took this memory, I could re-materialize a solid body. The teenager’s recollection was powerful. It would likely keep me strong for days even if I didn’t find traditional sources of sustenance to fill my belly.
But over the last month, I’d laid down personal rules for memory theft. Rules that never made sense when I was fully disembodied but, in this betwixt and between state, seemed almost important enough to pay attention to.
Rule number one was: Don’t take anything too recent or too formative, which doubly applied to this teenager’s awful showdown with his parents. I’d learned that lesson the hard way, watching a successful lawyer disintegrate over the course of one long week after I stole the memory of his child’s first breath. The rumpled and confused man who’d ended up living on the street not far from me had eventually been ushered into a car by two family members, their soft words suggesting he’d be taken care of. But I never saw him walk up the steps of the courthouse again with his briefcase in hand.
Regret tried to gnaw at me. But regret required a body and I didn’t have one at the present moment. Instead, I repeated the litany of memories that were missable, memories I’d told myself were kosher to take.
Long boring days of repetition. A painful yet long-ago event in a string of similar indignities, the specifics better off forgotten. Or, if I had to, I was allowed to seize something very small yet sweet.
My hand was still on the teenager’s wrist, only a millisecond having passed while he tried to control the shopping cart and I searched for something that might fit the bill better. There were many sweetnesses in his past. I could almost taste them, could feel how they’d fuel a human body through cold, hungry nights if I decided to stay in human form after stashing my sword somewhere secure.
But the teenager would need those memories more than I would. He’d need them if he wanted to survive young adulthood without letting bitterness twist his character. He’d need them to grow into the man he seemed poised to become, the man who’d cross the street to help a distressed stranger.
“You have needs too,” Tall Nose breathed into my ear. He was invisible beside me, but I could hear him as he whispered seduction. “We both have needs. Imagine how loyal I’d be if you gave me part of that tasty memory.”
The tiny hints of sensation that had entered my body while I surfed the teenager’s showdown with his parents were already fading. And with the loss of sensation came a loss of moral compass.
It would be so easy to take from this teenager. Perhaps Tall Nose was right…
I whipped my hand away before I could finish that thought. I couldn’t trust myself not to steal something large, something important. So I’d take nothing. Not from this innocent who was facing the first major trauma of his formerly sheltered life.
Instead, I’d help him. Because, while scanning his memories, I’d noted one adult in his life who seemed like a safe harbor, an adult I now lied to remind him of. “I think I’ve met you before. Isn’t Mrs. Sellings your theater teacher?”
The teenager’s brow furrowed as he struggled to figure out how I could have known that. I stayed silent, waiting for him to fill in the blanks. “Were you at the play she took us to last month?” he ventured finally.
Smiles were so easy in full-on kami form. So were lies. “I was. But, hey, I won’t keep you. I know you need to get going. Thanks for the help.”
He nodded, already pulling out his phone as he strode purposefully away from me. He’d likely remembered the same scene I’d snooped on—Mrs. Sellings drawing aside a student as everyone else filed out of her classroom. The teen I’d almost stolen from tonight had been the last one out so he’d overheard a fragment of a conversation meant to be private.
“Are you safe at home?” A head shake. The teacher’s hand settled on the other student’s shoulder. “Then we’ll figure something out.”
Mrs. Sellings’ phone number had been on her syllabus. She was young, earnest. “Text me if you have any questions,” she’d told everyone on their first day of class.
In another week, this teenager would be so beaten down by life that he wouldn’t even consider texting, let alone breaking the unspoken social rule of calling a teacher in the middle of the night. But, right now, he still had those warm memories suggesting his safety was worth a little rule-breaking.
“Mrs. Sellings?” he said into his phone just before he disappeared out of sight around the corner.
I didn’t remember until the sidewalk was once again empty that my sword was still sitting at the bottom of the shopping cart, right out in the open. I continued to lack a human form or any other way of moving my weapon under cover.
Even Tall Nose had disappeared, disgusted by my un-kami-like behavior. The hungry darkness was now all I noticed as I waited alone for the end of the night.
Tru’s mate showed up before the trash trucks started running. It was hours after the teenager left, hours since the last person had passed down the opposite sidewalk resolutely ignoring my attempts to hail her.
Running low on energy had prompted me to lose visibility in the human realm, coming as close as a kami ever gets to sleeping. Which explains how a werewolf so large he was impossible to miss managed to swipe my sword out of the shopping cart before I even realized he was present.
I felt the firmness of his grip as soon as he touched the hilt however. Felt the absence of those strong fingers as he stuffed the sword and its umbrella sheathe inside a cardboard poster tube then used a plastic cap to seal the odd choice of container up.
“I know you’re there,” Drake observed, poking one-fingered at what would have been my nose level had I been in my most recent human body. “Boink,” he added, his dimple indenting in a way that almost made my recent dilly-dallying up on the rooftop understandable.
Almost, but not quite. Yes, this shifter turned physical attractiveness into an art form. But I certainly wasn’t going to fall for the same trick now that I was disembodied and lacked human arousal hormones. So instead of materializing and responding verbally, I fought back in a more efficient way.
Because he’d taken my sword. He’d stuffed it inside a tube that I suspected was meant to keep me from accessing it. Even though he was wrong about my abilities on that count, he was now in possession of an object very important to me. I had every right to seize one of his memories in a counterattack.
I touched his neck with fingers he couldn’t see then rifled through his brain like it was one of those old-fashioned card catalogs. And what I found there surprised me so much I left the memory behind, released my hold, and used up energy so I could converse.
Visible and audible now, I observed. “You’re not Tru’s mate.”
Rather than leaping away from my sudden appearance, he pretended to sweep a hat off his head by way of greeting. “Nope. Jack De Luca at your service.”
“The more handsome twin, of course.”
Despite his words, there was no rivalry evident within his memories. Instead, I noted a deep loyalty to his brother. That plus some distressing news.
Turned out Jack, his brother, and Tru had decided I was the culprit in a recent murder. Which meant they’d been chasing me yesterday for a reason other than my actions a month ago. And Jack wasn’t here now for conversation either. He’d come to stop further depredations in a kind, gentle manner that was based on yet another very misplaced impression.
I winged my eyebrows upward. “You think I’m your mate.”
“I was hoping to save that bombshell for our third date. But, sure, poke around in my brain. Ruin all my surprises.”