I’m so happy to share this opening from my current work in progress, called Cancer’s Moon. I’m looking at a release at the end of April. I hope you enjoy this glimpse…
Cancer shifted his sore-to-the-bone body, trying to roll onto his side, but his face pressed against a huge, hairy, furnace. Eyes still closed, he slipped a hand out from under his blankets. His palm landed on a thick-furred flank; a long, heavy tail started thumping the bed, the beast’s butt a scant inch from his nose.
“For goddess’s sake, why must you sleep right up against me, you overgrown dog,” he groused when the Fenrir wolf wriggled even closer to him.
The wolf snorted and bestirred itself just long enough to cut a fart in Cancer’s face.
“Ah!” Cancer opened his eyes, and regretted it immediately.
The cavern’s light was low. Only the vialled souls of dead fallen angels hanging on the rough rock walls provided light enough to move around without tripping over the uneven ground, or over the dozens of wild and domesticated cats, Fenrir wolves, and paranorms sleeping, well, everywhere.
He grabbed the edge of the blanket and fanned for a moment before turning away from the flatulent wolf and straight into the face of the black jaguar. Pale gold eyes stared at him, his long whiskers almost touched Cancer’s face. The huge cat’s lips curled, exposing his very long, very sharp teeth. A growl rumbled low, vibrating the mattress.
Cancer froze, afraid to blink. Moving away was out of the question. He could slither down the bed, but the sheets were tucked in tight and he would be stuck. If he scooted up, he’d hit the headboard he just had to bring down to this lower cavern. Going over the top of the wolf was a seriously bad idea. You wouldn’t think such a huge beast would get touchy about being crawled over, but the Fenrir wolves took umbrage at the littlest things.
He was trapped.
“Outbreeder,” he whispered, his voice getting drowned out by the distant roar of the cavern’s twin waterfalls.
Cancer closed his eyes and took another breath. Here goes nothing.
“Outbreeder,” he said in a loud voice.
Bodies shifted, snoring paused, a grunt or two sounded, but no reply.
The jaguar growled louder, his body tensing.
Something touched Cancer’s hair and he jumped. The cat rolled onto its belly and hunched its spine as if preparing to attack.
“Be very still, Zodiac,” the Kellas Cat Outbreeder said.
“Can you make your shell appear in case I can’t stop him?”
Cancer closed his eyes and willed his newly-discovered power to create a defensive carapace into existence. “Done,” he whispered, relieved his voice didn’t crack like a stripling boy’s under the tension.
She removed her hand from his head and backed away a few steps. “I’ll be right back.”
“And my name is Nokomis, by the way, Outbreeder is my title,” came her hissed response.
“You’re worried about nomenclature? Now?”
“I don’t know what that means,” came her reply.
“Nomenclature is a system or set of terms or symbols used especially in science, discipline, or art. Not people,” Georgie called out.
More groans and snorts and rustling of bedding followed her pronouncement, but no one bothered to come to his rescue.
“Suijin, save me.” Cancer pressed the back of the wolf and gave the jaguar a glance. “Deciding which body part you’ll eat first, aren’t you?” Cancer whispered.
The cat grunted and continued to stare.
The Outbreeder Nokomis reappeared, a slab of red, raw meat in her hands. “Take this and toss it. If you’re lucky, he’ll settle for it.”
“Settle for it? What do you mean settle for it?”
“Instead of you.”
“But eating me would be so much work and there’d be lots of screaming, I can guarantee it.”
“Yet, so much more meat to be had. Let’s hope he’s not hungry enough to want crab on his menu.”
“I’m all kinds of help. Like, see how his eyes have widened?”
“He’s seconds away from jumping on you, so I suggest you throw the meat instead of continuing to argue with me.” She grinned and spread her hands. “See? Helping.”
Cancer closed his eyes and threw the meat to his right. The jaguar blinked and tensed further until the meat hit the ground with a dull splat. The wild cat sniffed and turned his head in the direction of the free meal before leaping from the bed and into the darkness.
Cancer exhaled and sagged. “Why does he want to eat me?”
“I suspect he sees you as a threat.”
“Me? I’m nothing of the kind.”
“That’s for him to decide.”
“So he ends up on my bed?”
“Perhaps once he decides, he wants to be close enough to kill you.”
“Why the hell did you bring such a dangerous cat?”
Instead of answering his question, Nokomis watched the big male inhale the meat then slink off, getting as far away from anything living as was possible. “No other Outbreeder can get him to eat. I had no choice.”
“So you’re planning on bringing him with us to find the children?”
“Look at him.”
“He was inches away. I couldn’t help but.”
“As large as his frame is, he should be three hundred pounds, instead he weighs two hundred and continues to lose weight. If I hadn’t brought him, he would have starved to death. As it is, if he doesn’t choose to live, he won’t.”
“Well, keep him away from me, or convince him I’m no threat. I literally can’t keep my carapace up all the time.”
She cocked her head and studied him, a frown slowly forming. “I don’t own the cats, nor do I control them, so work it out yourself. In truth, why he chose to get in the bed with you is beyond my understanding. You are the only person he’s gotten close to, including me. Rather insulting that.”
Nokomis left without giving Cancer a chance to respond, her focus on walking around and stepping over the bodies between his bed and hers.
Cancer sat up and rubbed his skin, willing his carapace to disappear, breathing slowly through the nausea-inducing adrenaline. Goddess almighty, how am I supposed to sleep now?
Soft cries pulled him out of bed. He stood, but remained still until his eyes adjusted enough so he could navigate the cavern. He crossed the space until he reached a wall and the four female Fenrir wolves and their newly whelped pups lying in individual nests of moss covered by thick comforters.
He folded his legs under him and watched one female nudge each of her babies until they found a teat and began to nurse.
“It’s a miracle to have one litter whelp, but four at one time,” Lyon said softly, sitting next to Cancer.
“Freedom was what they needed. You gave that to them,” Cancer said.
“We gave that to them, especially you, C. I’ve barely been around the past weeks.”
Cancer nodded. “I did learn that they needed more than just the meat they’ve been fed for decades. They’re omnivores and needed a far more varied diet. Between that and their cruel treatment by the Twelve, I’m amazed they survived at all.”
Lyon slapped him on the back. “Like I said.”
They sat in silence watching the pups knead as they suckled, their grunts turning to growls when a littermate tried to encroach on their space.
“Think you’ll hear from Abella soon?” Cancer finally whispered.
“I hope so. I don’t think I’ll be able to keep Persephone here much longer.”
“She has…changed since giving birth,” Cancer said, hoping Lyon wouldn’t take offense.
Lyon stared at the female wolf. “I’ve heard hormones are strong in a new mother, but I don’t dare say that to her face.”
“She killed an angel with her mind. I think that’s more than just hormones.”
“I was there, remember?”
“Yes, but has she told you how she did it? I’ve never seen anything like it, and no doubt the Powers haven’t either. Doesn’t that make her a target?”
“We’ve all been targets since Circe, Asmodeus, and my father blew a hole in the InBetween and released a demon army. We will be in many more crosshairs before this is over.”
“But angels and archangels.”
“I know, my brother, I know.” Lyon stood and offered Cancer a hand, pulling the Zodiac to his feet. “It’ll be dawn soon. I think I’ll make my way to the surface and see if I have a message from Abella.”
“Mind some company?”
“Not at all.”
The two Zodiacs crossed the cavern again to access the path that rose along the wall, up to a small exit. They learned of this deep, isolated haven because the reclusive Pestilence Fairies—recently revealed to be fallen angels—had shared its location with the trapped paranorms who once lived in in the main cavern of the subterranean world called the InBetween.
The moment the passage to Hell had been opened, the Great Cavern of the InBetween had become a nexus for Hell and Hades and the human world. No matter how strong the Zodiacs were, they had to leave it behind, give up the only home they’d known for safety deeper within the network of tunnels and caves that comprised the subterranean world the goddess Hecate had created for them. With Libra and Taryn somewhere out west still searching for kidnapped paranorm children, Pisces only the goddess knew where—if he was still alive—and Gemma, Gem, and Sagittarius on a trip to Hell, their numbers were too few.
Circumstances had torn them apart, and now—after humans had taken Lyon’s and Persephone’s children—the Zodiacs would be divided further. As soon as Abella got the location of the children, Lyon, Persephone, Cancer, and the Outbreeder with her cats would be setting out to find and free them.
Cancer scrambled along the steep path, his legs complaining after days of navigating the trail. Finally they reached the top and walked their way down the widening tunnel that eventually got them to the Great Cavern.
Lyon paused, Cancer by his side, the pair listening and smelling before stepping inside the huge space.
“Your Spidey senses catch any scent, C?”
“Crabs and spiders are not related.”
“Spidey sounds better than crabby. Just be glad your eyes aren’t sticking out of your head on posts,” Lyon added, the back of his hands against his temples, his forefingers pointing out and moving in circles.
Cancer snorted once at the ridiculous sight. “You got me there.”
He took a step inside the cavern and drew a long and slow breath through his nose. Individual scents danced along his tongue, most from the huge space around him, but others, too, that had drifted down from the huge hole in the roof leading to the human world.
“I smell humans, woodland creatures, water and woods, even a little angel stench, but nothing fresh.”
“Good, let’s move. I don’t want Persephone to wake and find me gone.”
Lyon passed Cancer and strode fast to the double door main entrance. He opened the right door and eased outside, remaining just inside the doorway as he scanned the small glade directly in front of him and the woods on all sides. The grass in the glade had been trampled, divots had been torn out during the battle with the angels, and large scorch marks had been created by the dragons who had joined the fight on the side of the paranorms.
Yet, even though it had only been days since the damage had been wrought, signs of life were already interspersed within the destruction: tiny mushrooms in the shade, small blades of green grass dotted among the black blades and gouged earth. Gaia was already tending to her wounds, ever vigilant in her fight against the damage done by those who should have been her stewards.
Cancer sighed. With what was coming, Gaia would soon find herself fighting to hold herself together. They all would; human and paranorm alike.
Lyon walked to the middle of the glade and pulled out his phone. He turned it on and waited for a connection.
“I’m still amazed you can get a signal out here,” Cancer said, joining him.
“I get one, but it’s crap,” Lyon said, scrolling through his messages. He scowled and gripped the phone tight. “Damn it.” He shut the phone down and pocketed it. Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes.
“Nothing from Abella?”
“Nothing. Let’s go back.”
They worked their way back down to the new cavern and parted without a word.
Cancer returned to his bed and slipped under the covers. It hadn’t been long since Abella left for Las Vegas to play a poker game; just a few days, but the waiting seemed much longer. If anyone could win and get the location of the children, it was Abella. She was their best bet.
Cancer closed his eyes and forced his heart to slow. He needed rest for the coming mission, one that he had serious second thoughts about going on. Of all the Zodiacs, he was the only one with no offensive power, only a defensive carapace, and he’d only just learned about that. Why the hell he had volunteered was still beyond him, but he had. Maybe it was because the humans had his friend, the Kellas Cat Arrona, the one for whom he’d called the Outbreeder. Or maybe it was because he couldn’t stand to be left behind again, relegated to the job of keeper for Candace, no matter how much he adored the baby Portend.
He pulled the thick blanket up and scooted over until he was against the wolf’s body, relishing the waves of body heat that combated the chill. The sound of the double waterfall nearly drowned out the quiet burble of the water flowing through one section of the cavern, but both lulled him, pulling him down into a drowse as only water could.
Just before he drifted off, a huge body jumped on the bed and filled the space on his right. Cancer opened one eye.
The jaguar stood over him like a vulture contemplating roadkill, his huge head only inches away, his eyes glowing gold. He sniffed Cancer’s face from chin to brow before plopping down against Cancer’s side, the exposed bones of the cat’s emaciated body digging into Cancer’s flesh. The cat groomed his paws and face, cleaning away the blood from the raw meat, purring hard enough to vibrate the bed.
Son of a bitch.
May your words flow freely,
The Zodiac Assassins series
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