The six-inch gashes on her stomach begged to differ. Elise clutched her falchions to her chest, gasping for air. The leather-wrapped hilts and steel blades weren’t as soothing as usual.
Dad shoved her arms out of the way so that he could look at the injury. Her eyes were too blurry to make out his expression, but she could tell that the damage was bad by the way he clicked his tongue. If it had been anything less than fatal, he would have told her to walk it off.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” he said, closing her arms over her chest again. She hugged the falchions like teddy bears.
“Where are you going, Dad?” Elise asked, craning around to watch him stepping around the Dumpster. “Dad? Don’t leave me—it hurts!”
“Don’t whine,” he snapped.
He was right. She was whining.
Her mouth closed, fists clenched on the hilts of her swords, and she practiced the breathing exercises he had taught her to get through pain.
The fighting could have been miles away, as far as she could tell. The werewolf’s claws sounded like chisels digging into the pavement.
Men grunted. A beast growled.
Then she heard a gunshot—and everything went silent.
It was quiet for so long that Elise thought that her father must have been killed. She acknowledged that possibility with a calm sense of inevitability. He had warned her it was likely to happen sooner rather than later, and her instructions for that scenario were to stay calm and focus on escaping. She needed to make sure that Mom was safe.
Elise hurt too much to want to move, but Dad never accepted injury as an excuse for failure. She rolled onto her stomach and crawled out from behind the Dumpster, seeking confirmation of her father’s condition.
Dad wasn’t dead. He stood over the immobile body of the werewolf, Fidel’s gun in hand. A pool of blood spread underneath the furred beast.
She would always remember how he looked framed by the light of the full moon, the long muscles of his arm taut as he continued to aim. He was waiting to ensure the werewolf was dead. It didn’t move.
“Madre de Dios,” Fidel said. He sat beside the furred corpse with a hand pressed to his shoulder. “That was no chupacabra, Isaac. You were fucking lucky I had silver bullets with me, else I woulda gotten a lot more than bitten.”
“It bit you?”
“Yeah. Look at this.”
Dad bent to look at the other kopis’s wound. Fidel’s borrowed gun was a small cannon—a Desert Eagle. It glistened in the moonlight, as graceful and deadly as Elise’s swords. It was strange to see it in Dad’s hand. He said that guns were beneath them. Inelegant. He preferred to kill with his bare hands.
Elise’s vision blurred with pain. She grunted and pressed a hand to her stomach. So much blood.
When she looked up again, it was just in time to see Dad shoot Fidel in the head with his own gun.
Mom was waiting for them in the truck. It had been parked outside a 7-Eleven a safe distance away, where Dad’s quarry wouldn’t be able to hurt her. She cried when she saw Elise, drawing her into her lap like she was a much smaller child. “What happened to you?” she sobbed, pressing her lips to Elise’s cheek.
“Don’t coddle her,” Dad snapped. He was drenched in his daughter’s blood with Fidel’s gun at the small of his back. “Every kopis does this a few times. She’ll be fine if we’re fast enough. You know that, Ariane. I can’t believe I have to tell you again.”
He pushed Elise into the backseat, tossed a jacket over her, and gunned the engine.
Elise was embarrassed by her mother’s show of weakness, even as much as she longed to be in Mom’s arms. She tried not to make any noise.
“The hospital is that way,” Mom said.
“We can’t afford it. You know where we have to go.”
“Please, Isaac. We can’t take her there yet. She’s too young.”
If he replied, Elise didn’t hear it. She drifted in and out of consciousness, alone with the pain.
She replayed the fight against the werewolf in her dreams.
It had moved like lightning—a blur of fur that was impossible to focus on, much less attack. Elise had been shocked to stillness at the sight of it. None of her practice fights against Dad could have ever prepared her for a beast the size of a horse that moved with supernatural speed.
So she had failed. She tried to jump left too slowly; the werewolf’s claws had been waiting for her. Elise hadn’t gotten a single blow in before it knocked her down.
No wonder Dad was so disappointed.
It hurts so much.
“Ma fille,” Mom whispered, smoothing her hand over Elise’s forehead. She murmured words of comfort, separated from Elise by the seats of the truck and Dad’s will. None of Mom’s French made any sense to Elise in her dazed condition, but it was nice to be touched.
She slipped into unconsciousness again.
What if she had jumped right instead of left? What if she had brought up her falchion in time, the way that she had originally intended? The blades weren’t silver, but surely a werewolf couldn’t survive decapitation.
If only Elise had gone right, she wouldn’t be pouring blood all over Dad’s truck. He wouldn’t be so annoyed with her. Mom wouldn’t be crying.
“Je t’aime,” Mom said, her words punctuated by Isaac’s grunt of irritation.
Elise wished that Mom would stop babying her. Real kopides didn’t get babied by anyone.
She drifted. She bled.
Elise woke up fully healed with the sour aftertaste of magic lingering on her tongue. “There,” said the witch, sitting back on her heels. She was an elegant older woman with gray-streaked hair sleeked into a bun, and she wore a silk bathrobe, like she had just stepped out of a spa.
“Thank God for you, Pamela,” Mom said.
Pamela grimaced. “Well, don’t do that. You never know who’s listening these days.”
Elise peered at her mother through bleary eyes. Mom’s cheeks were wet and her nose was running, but she still managed a grateful smile for the witch named Pamela. “I would have taken her to the hospital. I know we should have. But Isaac thought that—”
“You did the right thing. We’re far too invested in Elise to allow her care to fall to mundane doctors.”
“Will she become a werewolf?”
“No. Claws don’t transfer the curse. Many kopides are immune anyway.” Pamela finally noticed that Elise had opened her eyes. She wiped the blood off of Elise’s stomach with a damp cloth, and the skin underneath was undamaged. “How do you feel, Elise?”
“Fine,” she said, because Dad would have hated it if she had complained about her sore back and the strange taste in her mouth.
Elise pushed her mother away and sat up on her own. She was surprised to find, as her senses returned to her, that she was outside in a forest. The only light came from a bonfire that Elise glimpsed through the trees. Silhouettes of dancers flitted around the flames to the slow beating of drums.
“It’s Litha,” Pamela explained at Elise’s confused expression. “Midsummer. My coven is celebrating the sabbat tonight. Would you like to see?”
“But the hunt,” Elise protested. “The werewolf’s body—I have to get back.”
“Your father has returned to take care of the dead,” Mom said, smoothing her hand down Elise’s hair. “We have nothing else to do there.”
Elise hung her head.
Isaac had left them rather than wait for his daughter to be healed. He must have been even more disappointed than she feared.
She nodded, resisting the urge to wallow. Dad wouldn’t have wallowed.
“I’m going to join the circle,” Mom said. She stood and—to Elise’s surprise—began to strip.
She abandoned her skirt and blouse on a tree, like the branch was a hanger. She fluffed out her curls, smiled at her daughter, and stepped into the clearing.
Pamela washed Elise’s blood off of her hands with the remaining water.
“Many rituals are performed skyclad,” the witch explained. Pamela sounded like what Elise imagined a teacher would sound like, though Elise had never been to school. “It helps witches feel connected to the elements. Young and old alike participate. Strange as it seems to the uninitiated, it’s not sexual.”
The idea hadn’t even occurred to Elise, but having Pamela mention it brought heat to her cheeks.
“I’m not getting naked,” she said, folding her arms tightly across her chest. She didn’t have any of her mother’s physical features yet—and, hopefully, never would—but she wasn’t prepared to advertise their absence, either.
Pamela rubbed her back. “You’re not a witch. Nobody would expect you to join the ritual. But you can’t stay in the trees unsupervised, and I’m not babysitting you. Come, you can sit on this log over here.”
Elise would have preferred to face another werewolf than enter that clearing. But Pamela drew her onward, guiding her to a fallen tree at the edge of the meadow, and sat her down on the tree.
Mom had jumped in with the other witches as if she belonged there, and they greeted her with cheers of joy. The coven already knew her.
The shouts and cheers of the coven sounded a lot like the yipping of the werewolf as they had hunted it through the Kansas strip mall. The witches were more animal than human. Beasts of the earth and trees. Mom’s magic had never been like that before—it was a sedate, passive thing, best for making potions and poultices. Elise wondered if it was her mother who was strange, or the coven itself.
That was Elise’s first real impression of witchcraft: naked bodies dancing around the fire to the beat of primal drums, with the taste of blood and magic at the back of her throat.
But not everyone around the circle was a joyful participant in the bacchanalia. A man stood on the opposite side of the bonfire, occasionally visible through the licking flames. He wore a button-down shirt. His hair was charcoal black, like Pamela’s must have been when she was younger. And he was deep in argument with a naked old man whose skin was like leather.
“Who’s that?” Elise asked, tugging Pamela’s sleeve.
Pamela turned to see whom Elise was referring to. The younger man was shaking his fist in the face of the older man, silently threatening, even though Elise couldn’t hear the words over the drumming.
“That’s my nephew, James,” Pamela said. There was a strange expression on her face. Somewhere between wistful and worried. “I think you’d like him. Would you like to be introduced?”
How could Pamela possibly know what kind of people Elise would like? They had never even met before.
As frightening as the coven’s weird ritual was, the contrast between their joyous shrieks and James’s anger was stark. Among all of them, this was the man with the real power—the only one of them that didn’t succumb to the crowd’s energy, and was unafraid to stand apart. Of all the witches she faced that night, he was the one she would least want to fight.
“No,” Elise said. “I’m staying here.”
Pamela looked relieved. “Probably best, for now. Plenty of time for that later.” She let the robe fall from her shoulders, then joined the circle again.
Power drifted into the sky, gathered from motion, dance, and drums. Elise sat on the log and tried not to show her fear.
The next time she looked through the flames, James was gone.
Dad came back for Elise the next morning. The Desert Eagle was gone. The blood had been scrubbed out of the truck. And the first thing he said to Elise was, “What did you learn last night?”
“Never underestimate,” she replied promptly.
She didn’t just mean the werewolf that they had failed to anticipate. She couldn’t shake the image of her mother with those pagans, or her father calmly shooting Fidel in the face. She understood now that there were many things she didn’t know about her parents and the world at large—and many of those things were likely to be bad.
“Good,” Dad said. “Very good.”