The Jaguar Hunts Alone
It can never get properly dark in a city the size of Guessing, but that night it was darker than usual. Another power station must have gone out. It always happened during storm season. The wind was up, a welcome rest from the sticky heat of the day. I expected it to rain any minute. I was looking forward to a good downpour, so long as I was not still standing on that window ledge when it hit.
I was in the part of town they call The Remnants. It was where all the trash that was too bad for Chinatown and not dead enough for hell went to stagnate. Most people didn’t go there unless they had to. What kind of girl am I that I seemed to find myself there at least on a weekly basis? Just a lucky one I guess. Jones had messaged that afternoon saying she got a lead a den of dogs in an old club from some spell or other that she was working on. She said that they might have been connected to the recent disappearances of kids at the primary school. Ultimately, I didn’t really care what they were connected too. They were dogs. Werewolves. And it was my job to kill them.
Perched two floors above the street, I got a clear whiff of their sweat and greasy hair and I knew I had the right place. I couldn’t see too well through the grimy window, but I could make out three large figures moving below. My tail twitched. I edged my feet along the ledge, trying to get a better view. The ledge was narrow and would have been hard to get a good footing even if there hadn’t been a wind. My claws extended. It was nerves, but it helped my grip. I heard laughter, a deep, growling chuckle from the room below. Something told me I was not going to find whatever it was they were laughing at all that amusing.
Some folk will say that you need silver to kill a werewolf. They were usually the same folk who might suggest that werewolves will only change on a full moon. I have never owned a real silver anything and I’ve killed werewolves all nights, and sometimes days, of the month. That’s folklore for you. There had been something strange about the dogs in Guessing lately. Not only did there seem to be more of the things, they all seemed to be agitated, almost scared. I would have liked to have thought that it was me, that word of Fil: Mysterious Feline Warrior of the Night had them quivering in their paws. For the record, I don’t actually going around referring to myself as “Mysterious Feline Warrior of the Night.” Just Fil.
I checked my knives, two in my boots, the Good Hunter sheathed at my side, a switch down each sleeve, and I took a deep breath, ready for the pounce.
I crashed through the window and landed lightly on my feet in a litter of broken glass below. It was a long room, with a narrow stage that had probably once been used for strip shows, running down the middle. Three werewolves froze and I knew surprise was on my side. The biggest one rushed and I downed it in a flash, sliding the Hunter right through its hairy neck. Hot blood spluttered up the side of my leg as it fell. Damn. Another good pair of custom jeans ruined.
The other two were circling me, their wary growls sounding like gravel in their throats. The second one sprang. I jumped but not quite fast enough to stop its dirty great claw clipping the tip of my tail. It stung like hell.
There was a dark pile of something against the opposite wall and I wondered if it was a body. The dog, taking advantage of my momentary distraction, leaped and knocked me flat to the floor. My Hunter skidded along the dusty floorboards. So much for feline grace. I scrambled to my feet and edged to the wall to regroup, ready myself for the change.
Sometimes it came easier than other times, but it always took a lot of concentration. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. When I opened them again, the colours in the room were dulled yet everything appeared infinitely more detailed. The second wolf faltered, just for a second as it noticed the difference in my eyes. It was enough time for me to spring. With the cat’s eyes I could see every movement, every muscle twitch, every breath and react to motion almost before it was made. In no time I had its neck locked under my boot and my Hunter back in hand, running smoothly through its belly. Two down.
There is never anything attractive about a werewolf, but this last brute was particularly horrid. It had a look in its small eyes like it knew that I was about to slice it through, but the slathering, grinning snarl across its stumpy snout suggested that it did not care. Or at least that it wasn’t going down without a fight.
“C’mon then puppy,” I teased.
It lunged with terrifying speed and I was pinned against the wall by its hulking hairy frame. I felt my skin pop as its teeth sank into my shoulder, my t-shirt offering about as much protection against the monster as a snowflake against a brushfire. I screamed in its ear, hoping the shrillness will put it off its game but the sound only seemed to drive its bloodlust. Time to fight dirty.
I lifted my leg and crunched my boot deep into its nads. It tumbled backwards, yelping in that way that all dogs do. I threw my knife. It could have been a bad throw, or maybe the dog was just lucky. The knife hurtled across the room and stuck into the wall opposite. The wolf looked back and forth between me and the knife wobbling in the wall. It might have been almost comical if it wasn’t for the whole fighting to the death thing we were doing. Blood from the mess it had made of my shoulder was still wet on its hairy chin. It turned and bolted out of the club.
Something was wrong. Werewolves don’t run unless it was from something much bigger than them, especially when they had just had a mouth full of tasty human flesh. Well, part human at least.
I didn’t want to know what I was going to find in that shadowy mass on the other side of the room. In some ways what I found was worse than the bodies I was expecting. A couple of school bags, a pile of clothes and shoes, boy’s and girl’s school uniforms, shredded, the little bodies once in them long since devoured.
Outside, thunder rolled across the city and I made for home just as the rain started.
Home was near the river, a tiny flat on the top floor of a building that should probably have been condemned decades ago. So long as the breeze was going the other way and taking the toxic, briny stagnant stench of the river with it, it was a good spot to see the night lights of the city. That was about all it had going for it. I shared the place with Jones.
Jones was slothing on the couch with a giant bag of corn chips, watching some trashy cop show on TV.
“That looks wholesome,” I said, referring to both the show and the food.
“I was going to make nachos, but this is as far as I got.”
“You were right about the kids,” I said, remembering the ghoulish sight of the tiny shredded uniforms. “There was school stuff in their den.”
She asked me if I was going to call the police or try to inform the parents. I told her that she could do what she liked.
Jones was friends with a cop, Lori, who worked on these kind of things where most Guessing cops looked the other way, their vision obscured by cash, fear or simple disbelief. Sometimes all three. I liked Lori, and I worked with her sometimes when dogs were involved. I suspected she and Jones were a little more than just friends, but that had nothing to do with me.
I didn’t feel like getting involved with the bureaucracy that night. My part of the job was over and all I wanted to do then was wash that damn dog blood off me and sleep. I turned to leave Jones to her so called dinner, but she stopped me.
“What happened to your shoulder?”
“It’s nothing,” I lied. It was still killing me and I was starting to find it hard to move my arm.
“It might be nothing in the you’re-gonna-turn-into-a-werewolf kind of way,” she said. “But it can still go septic.”
I might have been immune to the transformative powers of a werewolf bite, but infections could still have their nasty way with me so I let Jones play nurse and dress my shoulder.
“OK, but just iodine or whatever. No magic.”
“No magic,” she agreed.
Jones and I had been friends for about five years. She was new in town, down on her luck as so many Guessing newcomers are, hoping to find a place for themselves in a city where everyone else’s problems might be able to distract you from your own.
I was on a prowl one night, following the scent of a dog. I tracked it to a pus box motel. It had a girl, Jones, pinned down on the bug ridden mattress. She was terrified, screaming and it seemed to be getting off on it. I tore it off her. It was young and easy to kill.
“Shit. Thanks,” she said. “I didn’t know it was gonna turn like that.”
“Just be more careful.”
I started to leave, but she kept on talking, pulling herself off the bed and straightening her outfit. I looked her up and down. She was poured into clothes that were just begging for trouble. She had an unruly tumble of black hair piled loosely on top of her head and a look in her eye that suggested she was prepared to take on anything.
“Usually I can tell,” she said. “They’ve got that yellow look to their eye, before they turn”
“I could’ve zapped it down if I was ready, but things got out of hand.”
“You’re a witch?” I didn’t really care and wasn’t sure why I was making conversation with her.
“Warlock,” she said.
“Well, whatever you’re into, you’d best find a safer way of supplementing your income.”
“I’m not a whore, if that’s what you mean.” She looked hurt and I was surprised to find I cared.
She told me her deal of luring a guy in, posing as a prostitute, putting the magic on him, ripping off his wallet and then running. When the guy came to hours later he would remember a whore, see that he had lost a lot of money and put it all together in his magic befuddled mind. She thought it was a thing of beauty, and said any guy low enough to hire a prostitute deserved to get ripped off.
I started to like Jones as she was telling me this story, not for her wiles or moral stance on prostitution, but for the fact that she had obviously noticed that I was half cat, and it did not bother her in the slightest.
A bit later, she started working at Thel’s, a magic shop posing as a green grocers in the Downtown. Beneath all the lettuces and melons, Thel sold all sorts of occult bits and pieces—all cheap neon signs and crystal balls promising fortunes for anyone who would pay enough for a hazy glimpse into a possible future. That was another front, of a kind. Behind that, there was something darker, some real power going on underneath. Something I really did not want to get involved with. For Jones, reading fortunes and selling charms offered a different type of paid chicanery but one that was a lot less likely to get her raped and ripped apart by a werewolf.
“You staying in for the rest of the night, or you gonna go find the one that got away?” Jones asked, returning to her bag of chips. I did not want to tell her that my arm was still burning after she’d fixed it up. Knowing that dog had got away was killing me too, but the arm was winning.
“Just going to turn in,” I said. “‘Night.”
Call it instinct, but there were things that just weren’t right. The dogs were rattled and running away. Something was stirring and every corner of Guessing seemed to be on edge. Could Jones feel it too or was it just me being skittish and paranoid, too long in the job maybe? Whatever had the city jittering would have to wait until morning. I curled into bed and listened to the summer storm rattling the city.
The next morning, Jones had gone into work early and I was glad to have the place to myself. I fried up a steak for breakfast, something I didn’t tend to do when Jones was home thanks to her loudly voiced moral vegetarianism. I’d tried to explain to her that this new, cheap meat they were stocking the shelves with probably hadn’t even seen a real animal let alone ever been one, but a girl had to have her principles. A vicious cycle of fractured and frenzied dreams the night before had left me missing sleep and edgy. I was looking forward to spending the day napping on the sofa.
Come dark, I headed back into the streets. I was hoping to find that dog that got away, but any fight would have done. My shoulder was still raw, but I was not about to let it keep me from a hunt.
It was another sticky night and I sweltered in a heavy raincoat. The storms were still lingering and the threat of rain remained, but the coat was more to keep my tail out of sight than to protect from the weather. Maybe it was to keep a low profile. Maybe it was to keep from being stared at, whispered about – look at the freaky girl with a cat’s tail! Of all the monstrous shit going on under the night in Guessing, I was sure I was the least of it. Not everyone thought that way though.
I was walking, head down, eyes forward, through the neon strips of Downtown, headed to The Remnants when I heard a woman scream. Instinctively I sniffed the air for dogs, but in Guessing not all the nasties are monsters. A young guy, maybe nineteen was bolting towards me. He wore a black tracksuit and a baseball cap, a handbag was tucked tightly under his arm. A middle-aged woman screeched for someone to stop him. People in the street stepped aside and let him go. As he passed me, I pounced, landing heavily on his back and knocking the wind out of him. My knee was pressed between his shoulder blades and my hand in an iron grip on the back of his neck, pushing his face into the gum and slag spotted concrete. My claws punctured his skin just enough to sting without any real damage.
“Doesn’t go with your outfit,” I said, pulling the woman’s bag from his arm.
He thrashed about, hurling profanities at me. I let him up and he ran without looking back. The woman was standing behind me. I held the bag out towards her and waited for gratitude. But she was just staring at me, horrified. In the scuffle, my coat had ridden up above my tail. Clearly, it was too much for some folk to cope with. Snatching the bag from my clawed hand, she left without so much of a thank you.
“You’re welcome,” I yelled after her.
There were hardly any people out in The Remnants after dark, with good reason. The old club was empty, but I picked up on a scent of dog in the street. I followed it to the wharves at the end of the block. It was quiet, only the sound of a few boats and ferries out on the harbour and the water lapping against the pylons. I tracked the smell through a labyrinth of shipping containers.
What is it about wharves and shipping yards that always seem to attract the nastiest nasties? Is it a sailor thing? Whatever it was, I’d spent so many nights tracking bad things down to the dark water’s edge it was long past the point of cliché but the bad guys didn’t seem to care.
Footsteps. I stopped. No one or nothing was about as far as I could see, although in this maze it was impossible to tell. I moved on and heard nothing else.
The wolf scent took me to a dilapidated crate, well away from the others. I swung open the door. A den alright. It smelled like blood and piss. Broken whiskey bottles and old bones that I unrealistically hoped were not human, littered the floor. There was an old yellow bit of foam that might have served as a bed. The walls were smeared with what looked like shit. Classic werewolf chic. The dog was not home.
I prowled along the wharf. The footsteps were gone, but something lingered. A feeling. I knew I was being watched. Stalking was not altogether unnatural for werewolves, but they usually opted for the fast, graceless onslaught. This was a new thing entirely.
The wind picked up and I caught a fleeting whiff. It was not human, but not dog either. An organic smell, like rich earth, almost sweet. I shifted into my cat’s eyes and peered into the darkness. Nothing moved. I was not usually so edgy but something about that scene was all kinds of wrong and I wanted to get away from there fast. Trust your instincts. It’s the first step of staying alive, especially in a place like Guessing. Without a kill, I headed for home knowing I was followed.
I had a recurring dream that may have also been a memory and it was only after I woke that I thought of it as a nightmare.
I am with my mother and she is telling me a story. We are beside a lake and I am throwing stones into the water, watching the glass-like surface erupt before settling back into calm rings, and then smoothing again. I throw another stone. I am about five years old. My mother wears a heavy amulet around her neck, a piece of twisted grey rock, carved and polished and inset with a small shining black circle. I put my hand up to touch it and it feels cold.
“In the darkest part of the night,” she says. “The jaguars called the names of chosen warriors. The warriors would walk into the jungle to meet the jaguar and then beast and man became one, fusing flesh with flesh. Only the deadliest of fighters were chosen, and in their jaguar form, none could survive them.
“One night, a jaguar chose a man and then she refused to let him return. The man lived the rest of his days in the form of both. He was the mightiest of warriors and he came to be revered as a god.”
She tells me this story over and over again like a loop and I just keep on throwing rocks. In waking, I don’t know anything about my past. Before I started having the dream a few months before, I didn’t know anything about any jaguar legends or god like warriors. I didn’t even know if it was an actual legend, or just something my brain had dredged up. I have no recollection of any mother besides these eerie fragments of a menacing dream.
The next morning, I told Jones what I had sensed at the wharves.
“I read you,” she said after a long silence. “In the runes.”
I have no patience for fortunes and all the hocus pocus that goes with it. The then and the now of life is hard enough to deal with without looking around corners hoping for a cheat. What if you didn’t like what you saw? Is there any way to avoid it? Or what if it was wrong and you spent your days trying to avoid something that didn’t exist. I never liked it when Jones started poking around my life with charms and those runes she always had jingling around in her bag. It meant she was looking for trouble, and so far in my life I had no difficulty finding my own trouble without going looking for more in the future. Still, with all this stuff about dreams and the weird sensations tickling at my instincts, I indulged her.
“Something is off.”
“I already knew that,” I said
“No,” she said, frustrated. “There’s something else, around you. Like a shroud of chains. It feels old but kind of fresh.”
“Shroud of chains? That’s your metaphor?”
“It paints a picture doesn’t it?” Jones said. Her brow lowered and wrinkled. It was an expression that I only saw when she was really worried about something.
“Look, you don’t know anything. You don’t know where you came from, or even what you are. I’m not trying to be offensive, Fil. I just want you to be careful. Something has targeted you, and in Guessing that could mean just about anything and likely nothing good.”
“I can look after myself, Jones. I’ve been doing it for a long time and I plan on doing it for a lot longer still. This isn’t the first time a big bad has come to take me down. Remember that pack leader last year and his army of mechanised dogs? What the hell, right? But I put each of them in a grave. Well, left their bodies to rot where I killed them, but you know what I mean.”
“This is different,” Jones said. There was an almost plea in her voice. “Can you please just let me take you to Thel? She can look into your auras more deeply and knows pretty much everything about everything. She’ll tell you what’s happening.”
That was exactly why I didn’t want to go anywhere near the old witch, but to make Jones feel better, and because I did not have anything better to do that morning, I agreed to go with her to Thel’s.
The smog levels were up and grime clung to my skin as Jones and I made our way through the daytime streets of Downtown towards Thel’s. The heat was irritating me. The prospect of magic was making me nervous. It wasn’t a good combo.
The top level of Thel’s smelled like coconut and bananas. A little bell chimed as we entered. Thel sat behind the glass top counter. She wore a pale blue blouse with great swathes of billowy fabric that suited both the witch and the hippy look. Her long dark hair was pulled behind her head with a silver pin. She sipped on a verdant drink that looked like it was made of algae and, knowing Thel’s penchant for weird concoctions and tonics—and I’m not talking about the magical kind—it probably was. She had a spread of tarot cards before her. A thin red painted smile stretched across her lined face. It was not a smile I trusted, but I tried to be polite and forced myself to smile back.
“Filomena,” she greeted me. Her accent was thick, something European that I’m sure she put on for effect. “Guessing’s very own feline fighter. Now this is an auspicious event. Can I offer you a kale and seaweed smoothie?”
I would have preferred to drink paint. I tossed her a quick hello and politely declined her offer. I let Jones tell her about the reading.
“Come,” she beckoned, and I followed her and Jones down the stairs at the back of the shop and into the Magic Room that was the other side of Thel’s business.
The Magic Room smelled like cloves and incense. Every time I went in there, which was something I avoided if I could, my skin prickled and the incessant involuntary flicking of my tail betrayed my discomfort.
Thel took both of my hands in hers. Her syrupy perfume made my nose itch as she stared at me with an unsettling intensity.
“Yours is a history that I should be very interested to learn,” she said.
Her and me both, I thought, but I didn’t say anything.
“You are scared,” she continued. “And not just of me.”
I started to object, but she hushed me to remain silent.
“There is something else, something surrounds you, something that has been placed there.”
“Would that be your shroud of chains?” I asked Jones, it was meant to be a bit of a joke but no one else was smiling. Thel kept talking, staring at me harder, gripping my hands tighter.
“Your aura is split but not both sides of this dualism belong to you.”
“And what does all of this mean, exactly?” I said, getting impatient.
“Filomena, you are under a curse.”
“What do you mean, cursed?” I said.
“As you think it means,” she said. “Cursed. Hexed. Enchantment. As to what it means for you exactly, I cannot tell you.”
“That’s it?” I was almost yelling.
“There are few specifics in this line of craft. I have told you all I can know with the knowledge I have. Perhaps you will submit to a trance state?”
“A what now?”
“I can put you in a trance, much like hypnosis. It will be as if you will take a walk through your spirit life, and you may be able to learn the true nature of what is binding you.”
“Not on your life,” I said leaving no room for further questions.
“It could save your life,” Jones threw in. “You can see who, or what, is putting the attack on you, it’s not like reading the future, Fil. It’s reading the present.”
“You might also be able to learn your past,” Thel added.
Curses. Trances. Did I mention how much I did not like witches?
“Fine.” I said. But I was anything but.
“Are you sure you’re not just doing this for your benefit?” I asked.
Thel smiled in a way that told me I was at least half right. “Call it a professional curiosity,” she said.
We were in a small room off the side of the Magic Room. There wasn’t anything else in there besides a narrow folding cot, the kind someone might use for camping, and a dusty lamp covered in cobwebs and bug corpses sitting on a milk crate. It was the complete antithesis to the austere cleanliness of the rest of her place. I wondered what she used this grimy little room for, besides putting cat people into trances. I lay back on the cot, nervous as hell.
Jones was putting on a brave face and she had assured me at least eight dozen times that it was going to be OK. Whenever something needs that much reassurance, there’s a good chance that it’s going to end up being something quite removed from OK.
I lay back on the little cot and it squeaked as if in protest.
“Just try to relax,” Thel said.
Thel moved her hands in front of my eyes like she was weaving the air through her fingers. Her collection of rings caught the light from the little side lamp. So many colours in those stones. Little coloured lines formed in their wake like thread-thin webs of rainbow vapour trails.
“You are walking in the place of your aura,” Thel said, her words like a voice in my own head. “Tell me what you see.”
I am confronted with an image, a memory I have not thought of in a long time. Outside of the Guessing city, The Sprawl. Rows and rows of tall concrete blocks, uniform, like soldiers, with families piled on top of one another, crammed into the tiny identical apartments. It was not even close to being unusual for anyone in Guessing to have grown up in The Sprawl but I’ve never mentioned it to anyone, not even Jones that this was where I started out.
Or at least, that’s where my memories start. I was about ten, a scrappy wiry kid, just like most children running those streets, except for the whole cat thing. The neighbourhood kids had all stopped trying to pick fights with me, partly because they know they can’t win, and partly because I took to hiding in the basements and other deep places during the daylight when they were about.
At night, they all have families to go home to and I just wander the streets, foraging for food in trash cans and occasionally finding a forgotten plaything—a book, a toy, once a bicycle—to amuse me. I don’t know how I came to The Sprawl. I don’t know why no one else had a tail.
These memories aren’t anything I don’t already know.
“Go deeper,” Thel says to me from the present. Her voice echoes off the concrete walls in the basement where my child self is hiding. “Look behind you.”
The vision of the grey Sprawl start to flicker, like ripples on a lake and everything blurs. I can see images moving but they all look like they’re underwater and nothing is clear.
I can feel myself start to panic. My chest grows tight and it’s suddenly hard to breathe, like I’m slipping under the water too.
“Come out, Filomena,” Thel coos. And I follow the sound of her voice away from the water’s edge.
I’m back in The Sprawl and I see the first werewolf I killed. It was a young thing, a teenager from one of the Sprawl families probably, tracking some kids and their Dad. I was about eleven and I leapt on the thing from behind from on top of a skip bin, digging an old bent steak knife I’d found into its neck. No one thanked me or seemed to even care I’d saved their life. They just went from being scared of the dog to being scared of me. A few nights later, I took my old steak knife and left for Guessing city to find more things to kill.
I saw my first boss, Mack. Mack’s weapons and army surplus store where I’d worked night security and helped Mack out with a dog problem when I was about seventeen. It was the place I’d gotten my Good Hunter. I saw that place burn down and, for the second time, I saw Mack die.
After that, I’m back living on the streets on whatever I can find. There’s plenty of food in a city if you’re willing to dig for it. I’m not above stealing, and actually quite good at it, but I save petty crime for those times when things get really tricky.
And then there’s Jones. She’s bright and gorgeous and makes me happy. She says she’ll take care of me and she’s the only family I’ve known. I’ve got a home with a fridge and a pantry. I don’t need to steal and I sleep in a bed and everything is perfect.
Then something starts clawing at a perfect present and the edges of my vision start melting. Someone else is in my head and it hurts like all unholy mother hell.
I sit up like I’ve just been electrocuted. Jones is there beside me, her arm around my back, passing me a glass of water I can barely hold for shaking hands.
“It worked, right?” I asked. “You saw what you needed to see?”
“I saw the pattern of the curse,” Thel said. “It’s what pulled you out of the trance at the end.” Her usually calm and confident expression had slipped into one of confusion and worry.
“And?” I said. I really wasn’t in the mood for any more of her witchy double talk and metaphors.
“I saw you,” she said. “You’ve placed this curse on yourself.”
It was almost one in the morning and I was skulking down the shadowy streets behind Chinatown looking for a werewolf to vent on and not having any luck. Thel had said I wouldn’t remember a thing about what I saw in the trance, but every detail of my past was now on constant play back in my head. And for what? I still didn’t know where I came from and Thel hadn’t been able to see anything more about this so called curse I was apparently under.
My shoulder was killing me and I was considering going home empty handed before I picked up the scent. My spirits lifted instantly. The foul stench of dog led me into an alley behind a restaurant where the werewolf wasn’t the only thing that stank.
The hairy mutt was crouched, gorging itself on some sloppy muck. I slid a blade out of my jacket sleeve and let out a shrill whistle. The dog leaped up and hurtled towards me, jaws dripping with whatever filth it had just been eating.
My shoulder shrieked with every blow, but it was an easy fight and I had it down in less than ten minutes. I wiped the blade clean on my already filthy jeans, feeling a little better from the release of the action.
I set to leave the alley but was stopped by a familiar scent. That same organic smell that I had picked up at the wharf. I froze, sniffed and listened. There was no sound besides the usual hums of a city in the small morning hours, but I knew that something was there, watching me.
“Show yourself!” I yelled. Nothing.
A tile fell from a nearby roof and shattered on the concrete. My gaze snapped upwards. A figure. In the dark light, I could only make out a silhouette. A man. Tall and broad. He stood motionless on the rooftop, looking down at me.
“Fuck off!” I yelled. He turned and in the dim light I saw it—the distinct outline of a cat’s tail.
“Wait!” I called. It was too late. He was gone.
“You have got to be kidding me!” Jones said.
I assured her that I was not.
“Another cat? Like you? Do you have any idea what this means?”
That was just the thing, I had no idea what this meant. I had always been alone. No parents, no brothers or sisters, no family. I had accepted that I was the only one of my kind, and what that kind was exactly, I could never be sure. That was why I had moved to Guessing city, where whatever doesn’t fit, finds a place. In a city of 20 million people, with countless werewolves, warlocks, witches, faeries, demons, spirits, and if you believe the rumours, vampires, I was the only real cat-woman. And now, what was this? A cat-man? This was starting to sound more and more like some ridiculous comic book scenario.
It was still dark and in the few hours before dawn I tried to get some sleep. My head spun with a hundred half formed possibilities and a thousand fully formed fears. I wondered if it may have had something to do with the curse. Or perhaps it was just coincidence. He had been following me for at least two nights. He knew about me, he knew that there were others of his kind. Why didn’t I know? It bothered me that I was already thinking of him as ‘my kind’, ‘our kind’. Kin. I fell into a restless sleep and dreamed again of my mother.
I kept telling myself that I was on the prowl for wolves, but really, I knew I was looking for him. He had found and followed me for two nights and I was betting he would do the same on the third. I headed down to the wharves where I had first encountered him. I caught a whiff of dog along the way and ignored it. I was not looking for a fight that night.
There was a ship in dock so the harbour side was unusually busy with rousties and dockers. I kept to the shadows near the buildings and waited for a sign of him. I did not need to wait long.
“I wanted to find you.”
His voice came from behind me, though I knew he was there before he spoke. He sounded like he smelled; dark and intense. He was close. I turned around. He stood a good head height taller than me, his shoulders were wide and his chest like it was carved out of rock. His face was entirely human, a slender jaw, a long crooked nose and eyes that looked almost black. His tail was like mine. I wasn’t going in for a good look, but it looked like he did the same as I did, cutting a custom slit for his in the back of his jeans. It was a weird trivial detail to focus on, I guess. But I wanted to know everything.
“I have been looking for you,” he said.
“You have been looking at me,” I replied. “Following me. It’s more than a little bit creepy.”
“I needed to make sure that you were real,” he said. “I had to make sure that it was true, that you were like me.”
My mouth felt like sand. I did not know what to say or what to do. A cat’s tail never lies and I saw he was just as nervous.
“What are you?” I asked him.
“Same as you.”
“Fine. What am I?”
He laughed. It was not the reaction I was expecting.
“My name is Vele.”
I started to tell him my name, but he said he already knew. Again with the creepy.
“I know you,” he said. “I know your longing, I know your loneliness. I know you are caught in between the human and the animal, craving the solitude of the cat and the community of the human.”
Presumptuous much? I asked him where he came from.
“I travelled a long time, through dreams and storms to get to you,” he said.
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes.
“We have enemies, you and I,” he continued.
“The werewolves are nothing—mindless foot soldiers in a war bigger than any of us. A war that promises terror more frightening than anything you could have possibly realised. You have to trust me, Filomena. Trust that I can help you.”
The first one of my kind I meet and he’s a harbinger of doom talking in infuriating half riddles with a lot of words and not a single answer. I started to ask him more but he had already turned and started to move away, slinking into the shadows like an alley cat.
I didn’t tell Jones anything about meeting with Vele again. She knew I’d been out looking for him, even though I hadn’t told her that either. I didn’t like lying to Jones, and it wasn’t planned, but when she asked I said there hadn’t been a sign of him.
I was going to tell her. I wasn’t keeping him from her. I just needed to know more about him, to work out what I really felt and thought before I let anyone else in there. Even Jones. This was mine. It was me. It was the first time in my whole life I’d had anything so personal, it felt almost sacred.
The instant Vele had turned away the night before and left me standing there, blinking as if I’d just seen a spirit, I knew I’d be out looking for him the next day. And that’ what I was doing.
It wasn’t even fully dark yet. Most cats are more or less nocturnal, even me though it was mainly by choice and convenience. Or was it? That was the kind of thing I was determined to find out from Vele.
I found him close to where we’d last night. He was leaning up against a pylon, watching the last of the rousties bustle around the docked ship. He wasn’t hiding like I might’ve done being in such a conspicuously human place. I expected he was waiting for me.
I didn’t say anything, just leaned against the other side of the post and joined him in his silent observation. The dockers worked like worker ants, unloading cargo and whizzing it off efficiently on the backs of forklifts. It was a smooth operation, almost hypnotising in its efficiency. Another cog oiled by its own necessity, churning away smoothly in the machine that was Guessing. Each of those men, and the few women among them had their job to do, each of them was critical to Guessing and I’d bet not one of them had ever considered their own importance in that. What was I doing? How would Guessing get along without me? There might be a few more dogs on the streets but someone, something else would likely pick up that slack. That special task force Lori had always been asking me to run. Yeah, imagine me a paid member of Guessing’s Thin Blue Line.
“It would be nice to have a job like that,” Vele said. OK, so he could apparently now read my mind too.
“I guess,” I said. “Do you have a job?”
He laughed, a sound I was starting to like. “I’m hardly nine to five material. Though I do the occasional contracting work here and there.”
“Security?” I guessed. It was the same line of work I’d started in when I came to Guessing and I was surprised to find something in me wanted for us to share that.
“Courier, mostly. I travel a lot, I deliver things for people that aren’t really suited for the postal service.”
“Sometimes. Does that bother you?”
It didn’t. I asked him about his travels.
“Around and about,” he said. “I think I’ve been pretty much everywhere by now. What about you? Have you travelled?”
“I’ve travelled from The Sprawl to Guessing on a bus one night and that’s it. I lived my entire travel experience in a little more than an hour.”
“That’s where you came from, The Sprawl.” It wasn’t a question. Did he already know that about me, or just inferred from what I’d just said.
“As far as I know. Your turn. Where did you come from?”
“Imagine the places the ships in this harbour have seen. Do you want to travel? See more of the world?”
“Not really. But we’re talking about you now. Answer my question.”
“Before Guessing, I was in Sydney.”
“Australia? Is that where you were born?”
“I think I’ve been born a few times,” he said. Great, we were back to riddles part of the conversation. He must have sensed my irritation.
“Let’s take a walk.”
I agreed without a word.
We walked along the river, headed away from the city towards Amberley. The sun was had set and the Guessing sky was stained a weird dark orange. The wind was up giving the riverside the illusion of fresh air. Once we’d moved away from the bustle of the docks, there wasn’t another living soul (a phrase you don’t want to think too literally about when you’re walking through Guessing) around. It was getting dangerously close to being a nice, pleasant night.
Neither of us had spoken for a long time, both just staring ahead and down as we walked, though I suspected he was stealing the same quick glances at me when he thought I wasn’t looking as I was doing to him. Our feet fell into matching steps.
We went to speak both at the same time.
“So how…” I started
“I’m sorry…” he said.
We both laughed awkwardly. My God, I thought. Was this what it was like to be on a date? Is that what this was anyway? I mean, as close as someone like me can get to a date. And I supposed then someone like him too.
“You go,” I said.
“I was just going to say that I am sorry if I scared you, the way I found you, watching you secretly like that for such a long time. I had to make sure…”
“I get it,” I said. And it was almost true. I probably would’ve done the same thing if I was him.
“You were going to say something?” he said.
“I was just going to ask how you found me. Did you know already and come looking, or was it just a chance?”
“I’d always thought I was the only one like me, like us, as I’m sure you suspected of your own situation. I was on my way to Guessing and I heard a rumour, a girl with a cat’s tail. At first I thought it was just another one of those bizarre surgeries, but then I heard about the wolves, the fighting. Your warrior reputation extends a long way, Fil. And deservedly so.”
He slowed to a stop, lifting my hand in his. My heart fluttered. It was not that different to the surge of energy I got just before getting into a scrap, that same intensity but softer, a feeling I could have ridden around on all day.
“I’ve seen you work, you’re simply remarkable, with a beauty to match your strength.”
I had no idea what to say. I’d never felt more conspicuous in my entire life. I wanted the moment to end, but at the same time, I felt I could go on forever like that, looking up into his dark eyes, the first eyes that had really seen me.
If it was a movie, or one of those crappy novels Jones was always reading, this would’ve been the moment that we leaned closer, the moment our lips would touch, tenderly in the first kiss. But it wasn’t a movie or romance novel, it was my life, so of course this was the moment I got a whiff of dog, more than one, too close for comfort.
They came out of nowhere, six of them, like they’d just grown out of the shadows. They’d probably been tracking us and I was too caught up in Vele to have even noticed. Stupid, Fil.
“Get ready to run when I say,” I said. I wanted Vele out of there. There was no way I could look out for him and take on six dogs at once, especially when I was starting with my guard down.
But I needn’t have worried. Vele had the first dog down in a flash, no weapons, just a swift flying kick to the head and those strong hands around the beast’s neck, twisting to a sharp snap. He smiled at me over the wolf’s corpse, just a shaved edge of a second. We were going to do this together.
The second dog came at me and I had to only trust that Vele was doing what he had to do to keep the rest at bay and stay alive. It was weird; they came at us one by one, like they were taking turns to die. Every mass dog attack I’d dealt with before was a free for all of fur and teeth and my cutting blades. These dogs were obviously young. Inexperienced. Maybe it was a new pack, all bristled up to take me on like some kind of initiation. It wouldn’t be the first time something like that had happened. I wasn’t really complaining, it made for a quick and graceful fight.
I ripped the Good Hunter upwards and the last dog fell. Breathless and exhilarated, I looked at Vele. He was smiling, the thrill of the triumph I knew all too well. His eyes had yellowed, something I hadn’t seen during the fight, and we looked at each other with cat’s eyes. It was like looking into my own soul. Except better.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
“More than OK,” he said. He was breathing hard. He stepped over the dead dog and put his hands on my waist, pulling me close into a kiss that was a world better than anything from a movie.
I sunk into him. His lips, his arms, his hands, any place our bodies touched felt like fire. And it felt like home.
“What’s gotten into you?” Jones said. She has assumed her standard nightly position in front of the TV as I was getting ready to go out for another, as far as she knew, dog patrol. “You seem so weirdly up, I might even say happy, and…” she stopped and sniffed the air. “Oh my god! Are you using my hair spray?”
“Yeah, sorry. Do you mind?”
I felt silly. I don’t know why I had bothered with the stuff, or even really didn’t know how to use it. It wasn’t like I’d done anything different to my hair besides pull it back into its usual bun at the back of my head. It just seemed like the thing to do as I was going out to meet with Vele again. And yes, I had thought about make up too, but a girl has to retain some self-respect.
“Of course I don’t mind,” she said. “It’s just unusual. You’re strictly wash and wear only and now you’re using hair product?”
“It’s a tactic,” I said, scrambling for an excuse. “I thought it might help to mask my scent, catch the dogs off guard if I run into any tonight.”
“Decent idea,” Jones said. She seemed to buy it. And then I thought, it was a decent idea and made a note to see if it actually worked sometime.
“You find anything else about this whole curse thing?” she asked.
I had honestly barely given the thing a second thought since Vele had arrived on the scene. If I was cursed, I was cursed. By myself or whoever else it didn’t matter. Thel said there was nothing she could do about it, so what luck did I have? It was just something I was going to have to wait and see play out. There was nothing obviously wrong with me, and I wouldn’t have even noticed anything in the first place if Jones hadn’t been poking about my aura with magic.
Vele was waiting for me outside my building.
“Thought I’d come and pick you up,” he said smiling. “Like a real date.”
I didn’t know whether to kiss him hello. That was what normal people did, right? His tail was underneath a coat almost the same as mine, but by the awkward shuffle of his feet, I saw that he was just as nervous as I was. Neither of us made a move to touch the other and I kept my hands in my pockets.
“Is that what this is?” I said. “A real date?”
A real date would’ve been a restaurant, a movie or something. But I wasn’t sure Guessing was ready to see the cat couple parading about, even though we were both wearing long coats despite the warm evening. It was the first time I had seen him hiding his tail from the public.
“If real date means me following you along hoping to kill more dogs tonight, then yes, that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
“Sounds perfect,” I said. Except scrapping with werewolves was the last thing I wanted to be doing with Vele that night.
We walked to Beasley Park. I lead him there on purpose. You rarely see a dog in the park which I’ve never really understood. They prefer to keep to the streets and the buildings. Still, it wasn’t like Beasley park was a place you wanted to linger in after dark—it hadn’t earned the nickname “Beastly Park” for nothing.
His hand slipped over mine as we walked. From the outside we might look like any normal couple getting to know each other. From the inside I felt anything but normal. I was scared that the nervous energy would send my claws out and was glad I could hide any betraying twitches of my tail. Was that why he was wearing a coat too?
I held his hand in a really uncomfortable grip, but I didn’t know if it was OK to do anything about it. What if he thought I thought he was doing it wrong (which I thought he was) and was offended? Gee, if we couldn’t get hand holding right, what chance did we have for anything further?
I put up with walking with a cocked wrist and a cramp in my hand. The whole messy position was sending ripples of pain through my still sore shoulder. This wasn’t the night for pain so I did my best to ignore it. Vele picked up on it anyway.
“You’re injured,” he said, sounding concerned and perfect.
“It’s nothing,” I lied.
“I don’t like that you’re out every night, risking your life.”
“It’s what I do.”
“It doesn’t have to be. I manage to get by perfectly well without fighting to the death every night with monsters. Not that I’m saying it isn’t fun once in a while, but every night? How long do you expect to keep this lifestyle up?”
Woah. We were about one hour into our first official date, the first official date I’ve had in my whole life and the guy is trying to tell me what to do with my life? Was it an overreaction to be this annoyed? This offended?
“Tell me more about where you came from,” I said. I wanted to change the subject, fast. “Where did you grow up? Do you have any family?”
“I was hoping to talk more about you,” he said. “Where you came, your family.”
“I told you everything last night, though since there’s not so much to tell, you might have blinked and missed it. I’ve got absolutely no memories of anything before being on the streets in the Sprawl. My only family is the one I’ve made, just Jones and me. The end. Now, back to you.”
“I have travelled all over the world,” he said.
“Yeah, you said that already. That’s not what I’m asking. Do you have parents?”
“Doesn’t everyone have parents?”
“Not me apparently,” I said. I thought then of the dream of my mother. Even if I ever decided to tell Vele about it, it was hardly first date material. “Brothers? Sisters? Kindly mentors? Anyone in your life?”
I waited for him to answer. The enormous ash trees lining the promenade seemed like ancient guardians watching us as we walked, wind whispering through their leaves. How many first date conversations had they witnessed? I bet few so irritating as this one. Was it just that I was out of practice and was really bad at actually talking with new people?
“I have you,” he said eventually. “Isn’t that enough?”
He wasn’t having anything of me until I got a few more answers out of him, and his constant dodging was beyond getting to me. I get he was nervous, I get he was guarded, but why couldn’t he just answer a simple question?
“So you didn’t come from Guessing originally,” I said. I was going to keep pushing. “So I can rule that out as the place you’re from. There are how many cities in the world? Like 2 million or something? That narrows it a bit. Assuming it is a city any way.”
“You always such a smart ass?” he said. I could not tell if he was joking.
“Vele, I’ve gone near thirty years thinking I was one alone in the world and then you just show up randomly and refuse to give me any more information about where you’ve come from. How can you expect me to be OK with that?”
He dropped my hand from his and shoved his hands into his coat pockets. I did the same, glad of the excuse to let go. I was getting less and less in a hand holding frame of mind.
We passed a couple on a park bench making out, going at it like teenagers when they were obviously well past that. I assumed at least one of them was not meant to be kissing the other. My respect for romance was fading fast. Vele’s jaw was set, his lips pressed together in a hard line.
“Now you’re not going to say anything?” I said. I sounded peeved and I didn’t care. I was peeved. Downright pissed off, actually. And I didn’t like that it was me, having these silly, hackneyed feelings.
He stopped walking. “Look, I thought this was a date, not an interview.”
“That’s what dates are, getting to know a person.”
“Maybe I’m not ready to share each and every detail of my life with you straight away, Fil. Maybe there’s some stuff about where I’ve come from that I’m not ready to talk about yet. Did you ever think of that?”
I admit I didn’t, but I wasn’t about to openly admit that.
“I’m going home,” he said. He sounded like a sulking little kid. “Maybe we can do this some other time.”
There was no goodnight kiss. No I’ll-call-you-tomorrow. Nothing but Vele walking away. And I was glad to see him go.
The following night Jones and I were sitting in the lounge room in the middle of another power failure. Lightning flickered like a strobe. I’d come home early from a fruitless hunt and told her everything about Vele.
“I can’t believe you went on two dates with this guy and this is the first I’m hearing about it,” she said. “Well, at least that explains the hair spray.”
“Yes, I’m a terrible friend and I’ve betrayed you and all the rest of it. But they weren’t dates, not really. Now, can we please just get back to the point? Am I stupid to want anything to do with this guy?”
“Ordinarily, I’d say yes. But, as usual, there’s hardly anything ordinary about your situation. First thing though, you’re just jumping into bed with this dude? How can you be sure you’re not related?”
I admit, the thought hadn’t occurred to me before then, and it probably should have.
“Because he’s got dark olive skin,” I said, though it felt more like a question. “Besides, no one is jumping into bed with anyone.”
“I don’t trust him,” she said. “I get someone might get a little annoyed at getting the third degree, and you can get pretty intense, Fil. But leaving like that seems a bit over the top”
I was surprised to find myself start arguing his defence in my head. How could she make judgements on someone she had not met? She said that he just sounded too good to be true. Had I been listening to her with any rational thought, I might have agreed. But rationality had nothing to do with what I was feeling then.
“I’m going to look into this further,” Jones said. Before I could say anything she had grabbed one of the candles we were using for light, and her bag—one of those old, black leather types of bags that doctors used, and told me to follow her into her bedroom.
I sat crossed legged on the bed across from her, the lit candle flickered between us. She closed her eyes and she told me to do the same.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“It’s nothing big, something Thel was teaching me last week. It’s a way of seeing the paths people have left behind them, if they’re good or bad. Bring up a picture of him in your mind.”
I tried to do as she said but I could not help but sigh heavily in protest.
“You’re not taking this seriously,” she snapped.
“I am trying!”
I closed my eyes again. Jones was holding my hands above the flame just out of burning.
“Try to remember everything he said to you, everything about the way he looked, the way he sounded, the way he smelled.” I had run through every detail of my encounter with Vele so many times, remembering him was easy. The flame flickered. The memory was so strong I could almost smell him in the room. I inhaled deeply. My eyes shot open.
“Dogs.” I said.
“What?” Jones said. “Where?”
I was back in the lounge room when the first one broke through the door with a single kick. Four others followed behind it.
“Stay where you are!” I yelled to Jones.
The dogs moved into my home, grinning madly, black eyes flashing, ready for the fight. How had I not sensed they were coming? Or at least caught a whiff of them before they were breaking down my front door. With lights out in the whole block, the lounge room was dark, the only light coming from the headlights of passing cars below.
I willed my eyes to change so I could see better and just as they did, a massive werewolf paw hooked me across the head and I came down onto my bad shoulder. No fair, I wasn’t ready. I took a centring breath and forced myself to ignore the agony spreading down my side from the old bite. I sprung back onto my feet and faced the dog.
“I know you,” I said. It was the same ugly bastard who had ripped into my arm in the club. Its fangs were bared into a snarl or a grin, maybe both. Thick grey saliva dripped from its lips. It moved towards me and I swung my leg to kick its face. I didn’t land the blow right but it was enough to send it backwards for a minute while I scrambled towards my room with only knives on my mind.
Before I had even made it three feet, another dog, or it could have been the same one, leapt on me, its claws grating down my back. I thrashed around trying to get the thing off.
“Knife!” I yelled out to Jones. “Get me a knife! Get me anything!”
My claws were out but from all of the disorientation of the unprepared fight not to mention my existing wounds and the bad light, I couldn’t place a decent blow. I flailed in blind fury. How could I be so off my game? Where the hell was Jones with that knife? I swiped at another one, catching a lucky claw through the side of its nose but doing little to slow it.
It flew at me and I pounced sideways, smashing a fist into its jaw. The ugly wolf dove for my feet and I crashed to the ground, landing heavily on my tail. I felt a dull snap, followed by searing pain. My vision went dark and I lay on the carpet in agony, screaming for Jones to help me, but at the same time, hoping that she was as far away from the danger as she could be. The dogs were circling me closely. I could feel their heat, smell their stench. Half blind, badly injured, totally outnumbered, it was the closest I have ever felt to death. And then there was black.
I woke in my own room. The curtains were drawn. A single small candle flickered on my nightstand. In the gloom I could see someone sitting beside my bed.
“Vele?” My mouth was dry and my throat scratchy. He reached out his hand and laid it on mine. “What happened?” I croaked
“Shhh,” he said. “Just sleep.”
My eyes felt like they were weighed down with lead, but my thoughts were spinning out of control. What happened? When did he get there? How did I get there? What happened to the werewolves? Was Jones OK? I tried to push myself up on my elbows but the pain at the base of my tail was outrageous.
“You’ve been badly hurt,” he said. “Rest.”
The door opened little more than a slit and Jones peeked through.
“Is she awake?” she whispered.
Vele nodded. “Only just.”
Jones came into my room.
“What happened?” I asked her.
“There was a fight, you lost. Vele got here just in the nick of time,” she said.
“You rescued me?”
He nodded again. I was by no means a damsel in distress kind of girl, and if I was in any better state I might have told him thanks, but I can fight my own fights. As much as I wanted to hold onto that, I knew that if he hadn’t come I was dead.
“You should have seen him,” Jones said with what sounded like admiration. “I was trying to get out of my room but there was a hulking great dog in the way. I couldn’t see you, but I knew it was bad and I was trying to get my head around some kind of spell to throw when Vele comes in, dog hair flew and they ran, quick as anything.”
“Like terrified puppies, all the way home with their tails between their legs,” she said. Vele remained silent.
“You didn’t kill them?” I asked. I was feeling more awake now, trying to get my head around the situation and piece together what had happened.
“I was only interested in keeping you safe,” he said. He turned to Jones and smiled. “Can you leave us for a minute please, Jones?”
Jones grinned. “Sure thing, yeah I know, want to be alone, I get it. Just be gentle. She’s hurt.”
“It is nothing like that I assure you,” he said. I was surprised that I was almost a little bit disappointed.
Jones closed the door and we were alone again.
“What do you remember?” he asked.
I recalled the fight. I remember yelling for Jones and I remember falling backwards, coming down hard on my back and snapping my tail. I remembered thinking I was going to die.
“Do you remember losing your sight?”
A vague recollection crept across my mind. I had had cat’s eyes and then, when I fell, there was a feeling like they were slipping away, but my human eyes didn’t work in their place.
“And you can see now?” he asked.
My actual vision may have been restored but there were things that itched in my head that I still couldn’t see properly.
“I still don’t understand how you got away without killing any of them,” I said.
“I told you, I wasn’t looking for a kill.”
“How did you know I was in trouble?” I asked him.
“I was close by, I heard the fight.”
I saw a flash of something cross his eyes, even in the half darkness it was clear.
“I was just coming to see you. I wanted to apologise for last night. I got here just in time. Pure luck, I guess.”
It made sense. I was about to ask him again what had happened to the dogs, why they weren’t dead but running but his closeness was calming and all rational thought fell from my head. Who cares if I didn’t know where he’d come from. I knew where he was now, and that was right beside me, where he belonged. He leaned over and kissed me and I kissed him back.
“Sleep now,” he whispered.
And I slept with him beside me and I felt safer than I had felt in all too long.
Three days after the attack, my tail was still in bad shape but starting to heal. It was the still festering shoulder wound that had me really worried. Jones had suggested that it might have something to do with the curse that Thel had spoken about, and I was beginning to think that she was right.
It was another hot night, the only kind there seemed to be in Guessing month in, month out. I was headed down to Chinatown to see an old friend.
Gai ran a herb shop on Dragon Street with his wife out of the front room of their house. I met him one night years ago after I had fought off a pack of dogs that were ransacking his place. What werewolves would want with healing herbs, I could not imagine. He thanked me and offered me his healing services anytime I needed. I think he was actually coming onto me, but I decided to take his offer at face value. He helped me out a couple of times in a pinch, or rather a stitch or two. General hospitals don’t seem to take well to cats, even the half human kind and I was damned if I was ever going to a vet.
I called out to Gai as I entered his place. Wall to wall shelves of jars, bottles and bowls of all sorts of leaves, powders and tinctures. I picked up a jar of some brown powdery stuff and read the small typed label. Dried baboon penis, ground. Lovely. I placed the jar quickly back on the shelf. Gai came through from some mysterious back room and smiled warmly.
“It’s Fil!” he said. “My very own Nekomimi. How many months has it been since you have come to see me? Too Many!”
“I keep telling you Gai, I’m no Nekomimi. These ears, they’re entirely human.” He laughed as though I had told the greatest joke.
I showed him my shoulder. He frowned and clicked his false teeth together in his mouth as he looked at the wound under a torchlight.
“Poison,” he said after a long time.
I was surprised. How did a werewolf poison me with its teeth? Did that explain why I had been so off my game, losing all of those fights? Was someone, or thing fighting dirty with me? Gai rummaged around on his shelves, adding bits of this and that to his mortar and mixing up a pungent paste.
“Easy on the dried baboon penis,” I said.
He chuckled. “Unless it’s aphrodisiac you want, think I’ll leave it out altogether. But if it’s sexy things you are looking for, old Gai doesn’t need any monkey fuel in his rocket ship, you know what I mean?”
I knew all too well what the old cretin meant, but I let him get away with it.
He dabbed the stinking greasy brown salve onto my shoulder and covered it with a gauze bandage. I felt instant relief.
“Good as new,” he said.
“That’s it? Just a few herbs and stuff and it will fix itself?”
“Some herbs kill the poison. Others make it not hurt anymore. Together, they’ll fix you right up.”
“Thanks Gai, I should have come to you days ago.”
“You should’ve come to me years ago little pussy cat,” he winked.
“Want me to have a look at that tail?” he said. It was still tender where I had landed on it so heavily, but besides a small bend that wasn’t there before, it was on the mend.
“It’s nothing,” I said to him.
He shook his head. “I’ll give you a freebie.” He wrapped his small, rough hands around my tail and closed his eyes. In seconds all soreness had gone, and it was sitting straight again. “Good as new,” he said.
I thanked him and gave him an awkward hug that he held on to for too long.
I left Gai’s feeling refreshed and more centred than I had felt in weeks. He may have been creepy, but he was a good man and was good at his job. It was strange that his brand of magic didn’t bother me even in the slightest whereas the witch and warlock stuff that Jones and Thel dealt in just felt all too sinister. Maybe because Gai only worked in healing spells, and maybe because a girl in my line of work needs to get on the mend fast sometimes and that make it easier to accept the occasional magic potion if it means getting back to normal quickly. Jones had argued with me about it more than a few times and when I went home and she saw I was all fixed up, I was sure there was going another time. Oh well, I was feeling too good to care much and I was thinking about going looking for Vele.
It was a good feeling short lived. I rounded a corner and came face to face with a werewolf. I knew I’d smelled one before, but I’d decided to ignore it and stay out of trouble until I knew for sure this poison thing was finished with. I stopped dead.
The dog growled, low and menacing but did not move. Three others came out of the shadows and stood behind it. I stood my ground and waited for one of them to make the first move. Then I recognised them. These were the same brutes who had ambushed my place.
I only had one small knife on me and I slid it carefully out of the sheath in my jacket sleeve. The dogs stood, bristling, like tightly coiled springs. While I was feeling better from Gai’s charms, I did not want to push it. Easy Fil, I said to myself, keep the defence and you might not get the snot beaten out of you this time.
“Stand down.” A deep voice spoke from the shadows. The dogs stood down. I gripped the knife tight. The wolves still bristled, but it was a different kind of nervousness than I was used to. A massive figure moved in the darkness. Square shouldered, he towered over the werewolves in front of him.
“Step back,” he told the dogs. They stepped back and the figure stepped forward into the light. He had a square jaw, like a man, and a man’s features, but covered in wolf hair. He wore human clothes; a long oiled raincoat, jeans and heavy military style boots. His enormous chest was bare, except for the thick layer of coarse black dog hair. The teeth of a dog flashed as he leered at me. His eyes were like obsidian, not human, not animal. Human and wolf in a simultaneity so grotesque it made me shiver. He held me to the spot with his stare.
“Filomena, Jaguar Warrior of Guessing,” he spoke. His voice was dangerous. “I have come a long way to meet you.”
Standing before this monster my legs felt as though they were made of lead. His eyes did not move from me.
“I am Nahual,” he said.
“I don’t care. What do you want with me?” I tried to hide the quiver in my voice.
“I would assume you would have known.”
“You want to kill me?”
Nahual made an odd sound somewhere between a cackle and a snigger. It made me angry.
“No, not tonight,” he said. “Tonight we just meet.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I still don’t get it.”
He was close to me now. I could feel the heat radiating out of his body, a thick smell of wolf was so heavy on him it made my eyes water. He slowly raised his arm. His hands were human though covered in fur with a long, grey claw extending from each finger. He ran a nail down my cheek.
“You are a different creature,” he said. “Like me.”
My jaw hardened against his touch and his words. “I don’t know what you are, but I’m telling you now, I am nothing like you.”
He withdrew his hand and smiled. “Well, I guess in many ways were are as different as cat and dog,” he paused while he smirked at his own joke. “But from the same dream we were born.”
“Look,” I said. “I appreciate that you’ve come a long way to meet me or whatever. Hell, I’m even a little bit flattered, but I really don’t have time for another monster in my life these days. So, if you can just go back to that dream or whatever you came from.”
I turned to leave and had not made it three steps away when Nahual’s arm shot out and his hairy hand locked around my throat.
“Should I kill you now?” he growled.
I tried to say something obscene but the terrifying pressure on my neck made saying anything an impossibility. I scratched at his hand with my now clawed fingers, but his grip was relentless. I felt myself lifted until my feet dangled above the concrete.
I hated it that my only thought then were of Vele. I wanted him to dash in, like he had done before, and save me from this creature. Since when did I need so much rescuing? Rescue your damned self, I thought, but I was paralysed. Little blue pin pricks of light flashed around before my eyes and for the second time in less than a week, I thought I was at my end.
Nahual released his hand and I fell to the ground gasping great gulps of precious air. I scrambled to my feet, rubbing the burning skin around my neck.
“You will do well to fear me,” Nahual said. “We will meet again before long.” He turned back into the shadows like some action movie cliché. And he was gone, his band of obedient dogs following him into the night.
Throw your damned knife, I cursed myself. Who was this warrior who stood motionless while the bad guy walked away? Who was this warrior who had lost, how many fights to how many damned werewolves in the last couple of weeks? What happened to the Fil before? The Fil who never missed a target? Whose clothes were stained with the blood of her enemies night after night? Who was this girl now, her brain locked into a permanent distraction from a boy? A boy who she was now waiting to be rescued by? A girl who was afraid and beaten by a freaky stranger in a bad coat? I cried out a strangled scream and bashed my shaking fists hard against the bricks of the wall beside me. I refused to let tears fall.
Nahual’s face would not leave my thoughts. The pressure of his hand on my neck lingered like a ghost. I had gone straight home, still furious at my own fear, and climbed into bed, barely saying a word to Jones.
At dawn, I finally slept and dreamed again of my mother. I threw stones into the lake and listened to tales of the jaguar. I reached out to touch the smooth amulet around my mother’s neck, as I always did in this dream, but this time my hand stuck to it as though my skin had fused to the stone. She sat, her face serene and staring out across the lake, and continued to talk about the jaguar warriors. I panicked trying to free myself from the stone and I began to cry. Her hand lifted and closed around mine. It was cold. I looked up into her face, begging for her to help me. She looked down on me, her eyes were black like obsidian and I knew I looked into the eyes of Nahual.
Jones was at work, but I needed her help with something far beyond my capabilities.
“I need you to look something up on the internet for me,” I said, coming into Thel’s shop without a greeting.
“Don’t you think it’s about time you learned how to use a computer?” she asked.
She took me to one of Thel’s seemingly countless back rooms, a room not unlike Gai’s place filled with all sorts of jars of potions and mystical do-dads, and a massive bookshelf lined with what had to be close to a hundred of old books taking up an entire wall. A laptop computer, shining bright silver plastic, hummed incongruously on the table in the middle of the room.
“Type in Nahual,” I told Jones. “That’s what that thing said its name was.”
Thel was busying herself among the jars and froze when she heard. “What did you say?”
I repeated the name.
Thel went to her bookshelf, straight to a particular volume and thumbed through the yellowed pages. She held up the book for me to see. A black and white sketch of the same creature who had almost strangled me the night before.
“That’s him!” I said.
“How did you do that?” Jones asked, looking at Thel.
“We researched in books before that machine came to take over our lives,” she said. “Poor are the people who have forgotten how to do so.”
Thel handed me the book.
“Nahual,” I read aloud. “The shapeshifter. A name given in Mesoamerican folklore to a human, typically a shaman, who has the ability to turn him or herself into the form of an animal.”
“And this is what you met with?” Thel asked. Her face was dark.
“That’s what he said his name was,” I said.
“Then I may know what you are up against, Filomena,” The said. “And if so, you are in terrible danger.”
Just once I would like a day that did not involve me being in terrible danger.
“You know this guy?”
“Many do,” she said. She turned the page and pointed to a twisted design. “Have you seen this?”
My heart stopped. It was the design of the stone amulet my mother wore in my dream. “I dream about this,” I said.
“Then the shaman has marked you,” Thel said. “This is your curse. He will not stop pursuing you until one of you is dead and it is unlikely to be him.”
For the first night in longer than I could remember, I decided not to go into the city. I had been pacing around the living room, which is no easy task in a flat the size of a postage stamp and had now settled onto the window seat, peering out the window to the world that was Guessing.
I’d lived in Guessing for a decade and a half, give or take, and I’ve seen every one of those streets. I’ve slunk down alleys and I’ve run through thoroughfares. I’ve scaled buildings and descended into the sewers. I’ve wandered the avenues on Amberley wondering who the people were inside those multi-million dollar terrace houses and fish tank apartments, what went on behind those decorator designed curtains. I’ve tried not to think about what went on in the rat holes in the corners of The Remnants. I’ve driven down the freeways at a million miles an hour and I’ve crawled home inch by inch. I’ve seen the seasons, all of them warm, some of them wet. I’ve seen the sun and the moon. I’ve seen Guessing. I know Guessing. I am Guessing. And still, I can look down on her on a night like this and marvel. There is nothing more beautifully human than a city. A completely organic construction made of human hands, of human ideas and human dreams, sprouting up like a termite mound, bigger and bigger and wider and further and deeper, better and worse and always something more. Always something to keep you Guessing. That’s just what this Nahual was, another of Guessing’s riddles.
Jones was still at Thel’s working out some mojo that they might be able to use against the shaman. I issued my standard anti-magic protest, but at this point, they were my only ammunition against this new enemy that I knew nothing about, least of all what he wanted from me.
A knock sounded softly on the door just after midnight. I knew who it was before I opened it. Maybe I was expecting him? It’s not the same thing as hoping that he would come, I told myself. I tried not to be glad to see him.
“What’s wrong?” Vele asked me. He sat on the couch, and I stayed perched on the window seat. I didn’t say anything. “Is it something I have done? Again?” He sounded sad.
I didn’t know where I could possibly begin to explain to him how I felt about everything. Sometimes you cruise along through your days and nights, just doing your thing and not thinking anymore of it. And then, bang, everything falls apart and nothing works and there isn’t anyone who can tell you why. Plus too many people, or things seem to be getting the better of you and want you dead. Add to that, I seemed to be having boyfriend troubles. I never really believed in existential crises, but I wondered if that’s what it was.
“Where did you come from?” I said eventually. “Tell me, honestly, tell me straight. Tell me now. It’s important and I need to know. If you still want to have anything to do with me, you’ll tell me now.”
He sat next to me on the window seat. His closeness was agonising, and all I wanted to do was curl up in his arms and sleep forever. “Is that what’s upsetting you?” He asked. “Where I came from?”
“Not really,” I lied. “I met this guy last night. A shaman shapeshifter, called himself Nahual. He said he came to kill me. I guess he should get in line.”
I looked up at Vele. His eyes were wide and his teeth clenched.
“Nahual, did you say?”
“No.” He stood up and his hands went to the top of his head as he started to pace. “This is bad, this is really, really bad.”
“You know this guy?”
“Know him? I’ve fought that monster so many times, and lost! He’s here? In Guessing? This is bad, you have to get out of the city. Just go, pack a bag and get on the next plane, or train, or damned tricycle. Just get gone fast.”
“Hold up a second,” I said. “I’m not going anywhere. Who is this guy? And what does he want with me?”
Vele stopped. “He’s an enemy of our kind and has been for centuries. As deadly as he is ancient. He will kill you, and he will enjoy it.”
“Our kind? So you do know something about our kind?”
“Our ancestors, the jaguar warriors.”
A hard lump formed in my throat. He kept talking.
“Ancient tribesmen, warriors fused with the jaguars and took on their power. They did so to fight the Nahual, the shamans.”
“How do you know all of this?” I said. I did not mention anything to him about what my mother, if that’s who she really was, had told me in my dreams. He moved to stand in front of me. He was close, and I could feel his heat and that smell I could have melted into. He placed his arms on my shoulders and our eyes met.
“I said that you have to trust me that I can help you, I was talking about Nahual, but I did not know he was so close behind. When he comes, and he will come, we have to be together. Do you understand?”
“No, that’s the problem. All I have is half answers, vague references, spells and curses. How can I trust you when you’re just as impossible as anything else?”
“The only way you can know if you can trust something is to trust it,” he said.
“Your boyfriend still here?” Jones asked me in the morning.
Vele had left hours before dawn. He was hurt, I could tell, but at that point I couldn’t let myself care anymore. He was a distraction. I’d been watching my back too long to just let my guard down for the first guy who came along, even if we were two of a kind. I hated myself for expending so much thought on him, but I hated the look on his face when I said that I could not trust him even more.
“He’s not my boyfriend,” I said, and poured myself a glass of milk. Jones sat opposite me at the breakfast table and leaned forward on her elbows, holding up her head with her palms. She was grinning like a school girl.
“Ahh, I love this part when it’s all so new. And I can’t imagine what it must be like for you, with the cat stuff and all. I can’t think that romance might have been easy for you, but now here he is and…” She stopped when she saw the death stares I was bearing down on her across the table.
“It’s not like that,” I said. “Anything happen at Thel’s last night?” I asked her, changing the subject.
“Not much. Your symbol, it’s some ancient squiggle, the Sign of the Shifter or something. We kind of ran out of time and couldn’t finish much, but I brought some bits and pieces home to do some more work on it if you like.”
Great, I thought. More magic.
It wasn’t long before Jones had sent up her works in the kitchen. She spread a black velvet table cloth over the table and placed a large, shallow silver bowl in the centre and filled it with water. I sat at the table watching. Jones took out a small wax object, the same symbol from my dream, and floated it in the bowl. My skin prickled at the sight of it. The twisted shape of wax moved across the surface of the water. I thought of the child me throwing rocking into the pond. She stretched out her hands above the bowl and closed her eyes, mumbling words I could not make out. Her brow creased in fierce concentration. The wax shape began to move faster across the water and I saw that the water itself had started to swirl in the bowl and turn a milky colour.
“Watch,” Jones said. She opened her eyes. I peered into the bowl and saw the milky streaks shifting and taking form. It was a face. Cloudy, translucent and formless. I could not tell if it was human.
“Who is that meant to be?” I asked. She hushed me and told me to keep watching.
The face in the water moved to the surface, still swirling. The wax shape swam about on top of it. The face shape began to take on other colours as it grew clearer. I saw that it was human, but as it continued to clarify I saw that I wasn’t quite right. Vele.
His face stared back at me from the bowl of water. Jones looked from me to it.
“What does this mean?”
She stumbled over her words. “Um, well, I asked it to show how that sign affected you… about the curse that Thel saw. I asked it to reveal the face of the shaman.”
“Vele is the shaman?” I said. I didn’t believe her.
“Not necessarily. These things, they’re… well, interpretive. Nothing here can be taken at face value.”
“Then what the hell is the point of all of this then?” I stood up fast and my chair fell backwards. “All this magic and cursing and all the rest of it. It’s useless, Jones. Useless!”
“I know you’re upset,” she began. I cut her off.
“Damn right I’m upset! How would you like it if you just saw the face of a friend when you were looking for your enemy?”
“Are you sure he’s your friend?”
Jones was right. I couldn’t be certain that Vele was my friend. I’d even said that much to him myself, in a way. After Jones had done the spell, I sat in my bedroom staring at a blank wall. I had a right to answers, I kept telling myself. I had a right to know what he did. If I was to ever trust him, I needed to know where he came from, to know where I came from. My arguments to no one circled around in my head like winds that would never break into a storm.
“Fil?” Jones said quietly through the door. “Fil, are you alright?”
“Fine,” I said. I lay back on the bed and closed my eyes. The door opened. “Go away.” I said “I’m thinking.”
“Vele’s here,” Jones said.
How did I let this turn into some adolescent romance saga? I hadn’t moved from my place on the bed when Vele came in looking drawn and tired. I heard the front door close and knew that we were alone in the flat.
“You’re always just turning up,” I said. I tried to sound as cold as I could.
“I came to apologise,” he said. “I seem to be doing that a lot too these days.”
“Always turning up. And never saying a damn thing.”
“What?” he said. “I’ve told you everything I know.”
“Then tell me again. From the top. Answer every question that I ask you. Then, only then can I start to trust you.”
He sighed and slumped into the armchair in the corner. His tail twitched irritably. There are some things about a cat that just don’t lie.
“Ok,” he said. “Ask away.”
I told him about the spell Jones had done, about the symbol. “Why was it your face?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s magic. You can never tell with that stuff what you’re going to get or how you should interpret it. You’ve said that yourself.”
“Then interpret,” I said.
“Fine. Say you were looking for something on Nahual. You know the symbol he works with. That sign is so damned old, it’s been applied to all sorts of things. An ancient sign of shapeshifters you said, then think about our ancestry, what was that? Shapeshifters. That’s essentially what we are, where we came from. Perhaps that’s what the sign was picking up on because I was in the same room hours before.”
“By that logic, then why not my face? I was sitting right next to the thing!”
“I don’t know! Maybe because I know Nahual, maybe because he knows me. He obviously knows you now, so he probably knows that we know each other and that he’s now up against the both of us. Maybe that worries him.”
I didn’t want to admit that he could have a good point.
“Then what about this curse then,” I asked him. “I was poisoned by a goddamn werewolf. Since when do werewolves go about poisoning people?”
Vele had his eyes squeezed shut and he massaged his forehead with his fingers. “How should I know? Obviously Nahual’s got local dogs working for him. Maybe the bite was a set up, his first play.”
There was a long silence.
“Fil, you have to stop asking so many questions. You have to stop needing to know the answers before you choose your actions. There are no answers, not really. You have to take some faith in yourself. Trust your animal sometimes.”
“Trust Fil the jaguar. She might know more than Fil the human.”
“I do trust the animal,” I said. “The animal is what gives me strength.”
“Then what does the human give you? Questions to fight against that the animal has no need of?”
“Reason,” I said. “Compassion.”
“Neither of which are any good when war is at stake. Fighting werewolves one after the other, night after night, maybe then. But this is bigger than that. There is no room for the human here. Go out, find Nahual. He has only seen you as human, because that’s all you try to be. Show him the jaguar. Show him you are to be feared.”
I felt something like a surge of power. Was he right? All of this confusion, interpretation, questions answered with more questions, it got me nowhere. Action is what I needed, raw action. Track. Hunt. Kill. The way of the jaguar.
“I think you could be right,” I said. Usually those words would never be heard coming out of my mouth.
“Of course I’m right,” he said. He smiled. “Maybe that’s what the problem has been all along. Perhaps if you embrace the jaguar in its fullest form, maybe you’ll be less confused about who the real you is, and perhaps stop having those dreams about your mother.”
Everything stopped. It was like someone had pressed a great big pause button and all I could feel was my heart racing. Every thought, every unanswered question fell into place with perfect clarity. Vele was still smiling. His tail was still twitching. I spoke slowly.
“I have never said one word to you or anyone about dreaming of my mother.”
The smile fell from his face. Our eyes locked.
I inched myself from the bed and faced him. Our eyes fixed in wary anticipation. The hunter was in the top draw of the bedside table. If I couldn’t reach it in time, I supposed I could smash him with the lamp.
“Who are you?” I said.
He still smiled. He was still sitting down. His eyes did not move.
“I wish we had more time,” he said. “I don’t like it when things don’t go exactly as they were planned.”
“You’re working together,” I said. “You and Nahual.”
“You’re very close. But not quite on the button.”
I edged towards the draw where the hunter lay. Vele slowly pushed himself out of the chair.
“It’s the damn magic,” he said. “Whenever someone else starts using it things never work out for me. It starts people asking questions, and as we have just been discussing, questions get people into all sorts of tangles. I tried to mask my tracks in your head. The curse was meant to befuddle you, it was supposed to be invisible. But that Thel, she’s damn good, almost as powerful as me, maybe. Your Jones has some promise too.”
He stared at me and his eyes began to change, growing wide and round. And black, like polished obsidian. Nahual. My hand grabbed for the knife. His tail shimmered in a white light and then disappeared as though it evaporated. Black hair sprouted all over his body. His teeth grew long and sharp.
“You’re him. All along, you’re on and the same.”
He flew at me, knocking me hard against the bed; the knife fell from my grip. I slammed my fist into the side of his head. He did not flinch. His hands wrapped tightly around my throat, strangling me for the second time. I jammed my knee hard into his crotch. He flinched enough for me to pry his hands off. I forced my head up, cracking my forehead against the bridge of his hairy nose. I was up, scrambling across the carpet for the knife. I gripped it tight and swung backwards, slicing through his calf. He lifted his huge foot, his leg now dripping with his own black blood and slammed his boot into my face. I coughed and spluttered as blood filled my nose and throat. It was the shot that he needed. He brought his knee down on my chest. I felt something crack. He was holding my hunter, its shining cold tip pressed to my neck.
“I am not going to kill you yet,” he said. “I’d really like to get to know you better; really explore the potential of our relationship.”
Torrents of hot blood flowed from my broken nose and split lip. Seething fury and white hot rage pumped through my veins. Never had I needed to kill someone so badly. I spat a bloody gob into his cursed black eyes. He wiped it slowly with the sleeve of his jacket.
“That was really disgusting,” he said, and slammed his fist clean between my eyes. Then there was black silence.
I didn’t know how long I had been unconscious for. When I came to, my face was a blue and black mess of dried blood and fat bruises. My cheeks felt hot and tight and nothing on my face seemed to fit where it should. I pushed myself into an awkward sitting position. A broken rib, maybe a collar bone too. Pulling myself to my feet, ignoring the tsunami of pain that tore into every part of me, my head spun. I fell back to my knees and vomited blood and bile onto the carpet.
I needed Jones. I probably needed a hospital more, but I couldn’t think like that then. It was early afternoon and I stumbled through the crowded street of Downtown ignoring the stares, the points, the hushed shock. I did nothing to hide my tail or the fact that I had been beaten inside out. Let them point and whisper.
I fell against Thel’s the door and heard the little bell chime before I collapsed on the cold tiles.
I woke in the dark. The same little room where Thel had put me under a trance what seemed like years before. Jones dabbed at my cheek with a cloth soaked in something that smelled vaguely antiseptic.
“What the hell happened to you?” she said when my eyes flickered open. I had to think hard for a couple of seconds to try to remember. The entire ugly scene came crashing down on me. Hot tears slithered down my face.
“Nahual,” I said. My throat burned like acid.
“He found you?”
I tried as best I could to shake my head. “Vele,” I said. “Is Nahual.”
Jones stopped and stared at me without saying anything. Again, I slipped into the black depths of unconsciousness.
When I woke again, Jones was still next to the low cot I was lying on and with a painful jab I remembered waking up like that not that long ago and seeing Vele tending my bedside. That was the second and last time that we had kissed. Thel was standing behind her, her arms folded, her face stone.
“I told Thel what happened,” Jones said. “She’s given you a couple of healing charms, but your wounds are pretty bad. We don’t know how well they’ll work. She’s found out more about Nahual though, if you’re up to hearing it.”
I tried as best I could to nod and look wide awake. I felt like minced meat put through a blender and then run over by a truck, but I needed to know.
“I’ve been talking to some of my associates,” Thel said. “His name was Veleqan, the shaman who’s now Nahual. He’s been in Guessing for a few months, some say he’s been in an out of the place for much longer. Most don’t like him and absolutely no one trusts him. When I say bad magic, think of the worst you can.
“I’m told he’s been rallying werewolves, there’s some notion of using them as some kind of key to power. Power for what I have no idea; probably something a lot bigger than he is. Either way, it explains why he wanted to get their most threatening nemesis out of the way. It also explains your observations about the changes in the packs—their increasing skittishness and strange behaviours. I don’t know why he didn’t kill you though, why he went to all of this trouble to torture you.
“Nahual, or Veleqan, has a great many enemies in this town, but from what they say, his only allies are the dogs. We can help you take him down.”
I tried to sit up but it all hurt too much. A violent cough racked my body with pain so great I almost wished that he had killed me. But there was no time for convalescence, not when I had a war to win.
“Get Gai,” I gasped.
Jones and Thel exchanged puzzled looks.
“The healer,” I explained. “On Dragon Street.”
“That old quack?” Thel said. “I’m not bringing him anywhere near my shop. That little man has very sticky fingers, and who knows what else he gets up to in that opium den of his.”
“Just get him!”
It was well after midnight but hours before dawn, and I was sitting up in the cot at the back of Thel’s shop. Thel was out of sorts after Gai’s visit—either she just didn’t like the old man, or she was dirty that he’s a better healer than her, or both. Either way, I wasn’t caring about any of it at that point. I had a shaman to kill. A shaman who had repeatedly proven he was far deadlier than I. A shaman who up until yesterday, I was kind of in love with a little bit.
Jones and Thel insisted on some kind of spell, but I wasn’t having any of it.
“We’ll fight,” I said. “With intelligence and cunning. Ferocity for ferocity.”
“With you, the only one of us who can actually fight, barely held together?” Jones said.
“No magic. Magic can be warped, interfered with and not even you pair can predict the way it will fall most of the time. It has to be strength. Real strength.”
Jones didn’t argue.
Vele, when he was Vele, had said that this was a war, so that’s how I was going to play it. But in truth, the ‘no magic’ rule was my only game plan. I was exhausted and before anything else could be figured out, I desperately needed proper sleep. I lay awake for the rest of the night.
It was day and I knew that Nahual, wherever he was, wouldn’t do anything while the sun was up. I washed my face in the small bathroom at the back of the shop. The split in my lip from Nahual’s boot made me look more like a cat. I hung a towel over the mirror.
My head was a mess, inside and out. I lay back on the bed and skimmed the surface of sleep. I dreamed. Again, I am a child throwing rocks into the lake with my mother beside me. The water erupts with the splash of the stone, but instead of settling back into smooth ripples, it keeps boiling like a geyser. Out of the eruption Nahual rises. His black eyes go right through me.
“Yours is a darkness,” he says. “You seek the light before that dark but you need the darkness at the end. You are a monster and that’s what you should be, that is how you will win. Embrace your animal, that is who you are. The shaman lay with the cat and the child that came and so it continued until you. You seek yourself and in the jaguar you will find her. Give over the human, the frail, the meek. Become The Jaguar.”
I woke with a startled cry. I had only been asleep for a couple of hours, but I felt rested. I peeled myself off the cot, still stiff, but generally better. Jones was in the next room, working at her computer. I pulled up the chair beside her and looked over her shoulder at the screen. She was looking up stuff on shapeshifters.
“Did you know that some people reckon that the first shapeshifters came from people having sex with animals?”
“I’ve heard that before,” I say and I don’t tell her anything about the dream I just woke from.
“How gross and messed up is that!”
“I get it Jones. I don’t want to hear it.”
She looked hurt and I apologised for snapping at her.
“You’re not like them, you know. The werewolves, or even shapeshifters.”
“You’re more human,” she said. She smiled and I felt like crying.
I left Jones alone with the tales of ancient bestiality and went back to the makeshift bedroom. More human, she said. More human than what? Than werewolves? More human than Nahual? More human than jaguar? Rage curdled my insides and all I wanted to do is kill. Kill Nahual, kill werewolves, kill whoever, whatever it was that gave birth to me, left me alone to fend for myself with not one scrap of knowledge where I came from. I want to hear the sound of tearing flesh. I want to feel hot blood gush from a wound made by my knife and I want that blood to be Nahual’s. If Nahual wants to see the animal in me, then I would show it to him.
I was sharpening knives in Thel’s kitchen. These weren’t my usual weapons, just an array of mismatched kitchen blades, but they would do. I didn’t have time to go back to our flat, and for all I knew, he would be there waiting for me. I wanted to hunt him, and I refused to fall into his trap. Again.
“This doesn’t look good,” Jones said when she saw my cache spread over the table.
“I know,” I said. “I really wish I had the hunter.”
“That’s not what I mean,” she said.
“I know.” I continued to sharpen a chef’s knife, pulling its shining blade slowly across the stone and relishing that sharp pinging sound it made.
“Let me come with you,” Jones said.
I shook my head and didn’t look at her. “I hunt alone,” I said. “It’s the way of the jaguar.”
I figured that if Nahual was building some kind of army of werewolves, all I had to do was find a werewolf and hope that it would lead me straight to him. Finding werewolves was what I did. This was going to be easy.
The wolf stink took me straight to the docks. I knew it was going to be simple, but I didn’t except it to be quite that painless. There was an old rail building where they used to load stuff from the boats onto trains. It was long and dusty, with brick walls and a tin roof. All of the windows were boarded up and it looked like it has been that way for years. The place reeked of dog and I knew it was the right place.
I snuck up to one of the windows that had a board missing and peered through. Some fifty werewolves, or maybe more, were lounging around inside as though they were waiting for something. The room was lit by a row of high powered lamps hanging on long wires. At the front there was a raised platform, kind of like a stage. Nahual sat up there on an old milk crate like some hobo monarch. He was in the half wolf form that I had first met him in, or at least when I had first met him as Nahual. I briefly wondered what the shaman underneath all of these animal disguises looked like and then decided that I didn’t care. I just wanted him dead.
Although I was armed with half of Thel’s cutlery drawer, I was in a holding pattern that night. Strictly recon. I was there to suss him out, see what his operation was, and figure out how I was going to get in and tear him apart. Or at least that’s what I had planned, and had I not been grabbed by a guard dog, that’s how it might have played out.
The hairy brute seized me from behind and lifted me clean off the ground. Damn it. With the stink of so many dogs around, and the fantasy of watching Nahual’s insides spill onto the floor, I hadn’t noticed him. Sloppy. I broke him fast, and hoped the scuffle would escape attention. No such luck. The pack was stirred up, and I heard Nahual bellowing for someone to see what the commotion was. A door opened not far from me and three dogs came out, sniffing the air. I thought about running but then wondered if this might have been my chance.
“Is this a private party, or can anyone join in?” I walked towards to wolves, inching my hand towards the chef’s knife held in my belt.
“It’s that cat chick,” one of them said.
“The boss is gonna love this,” said another. “Get her!”
I was damned if I was going to be dragged before Nahual by these mutts. I put them down quickly, barely having to think about it. I stepped calmly over the top of the one laying across the doorway, and entered Nahual’s den.
The sea of werewolves parted before me as I walked slowly and deliberately towards Nahual.
“I’ve come to kill you,” I said to him and hoped I sounded threatening. He laughed. I heard Vele in him and steeled my gaze, thinking only of spilling his blood.
“No you haven’t.” he said. He stood up from his milk crate and jumped down from the dais to stand before me. That smell. How had he change it when he went from Vele to Nahual so that I wouldn’t notice they were the same? It was only days before that the very scent of him had made me want to curl up in his arms and love him forever. Now it just made me want to wretch.
“You’ve come here because this is who you are. This is where you belong.”
“Before you die, I just need to know why. Why are you here, in Guessing? Why now? Why me?”
“I actually tried to do this nicely, if you can believe it,” he said. “Get rid of the cat, they told me. I tried to get you to leave Guessing. I tried to get you to give up beating on dogs all night long. And when neither worked, well, now I’m trying to bring you to me. You’re an animal, Fil. A very special animal. We need soldiers just like you.”
“Who’s we? Who are they?”
“This isn’t a movie, Fil. I’m not about to just blurt out what my plan was all along. But I will tell you that there are powers in Guessing with their eyes set squarely on you. You’re a threat to them. You can be eliminated or you can be enlisted.”
He was speaking loudly, at me, but not too me as though he spoke for the benefit of his minions. It was little bit pathetic.
“Show yourself to me,” I tell him. “The real you. I want to see The Shaman”
His eyes flicked with uncertainty and there was a long pause. The air about him shivered and the hair on his body receded like it was being sucked back into his skin. His wolf teeth shrank and his eyes went from yellow to brown, Vele’s eyes. I was half expecting him to look just like Vele all over, and maybe some part of me wanted to see that. Instead, he stood before me in human form, a man of about sixty with grey skin, thinning hair and a paunch bloating his middle. He looked so weak, so normal, I almost laughed.
“Why do you wear human clothes when you change?” I asked him.
“I can’t very well go around all hairy and naked like these dogs, can I?” he says. “Now you change.”
I was confused, not sure what he was asking me to do.
“Oh wait, I forgot,” he continued “You’re not fully human. Nor fully animal either, are you? You’re neither. You’re a freak.”
“I wouldn’t want to be any more human,” I said. “My human self almost let me trust you. And I hate it for that.”
The werewolves were getting restless, like they could feel the tension in the air. Some of them were getting closer to me, sniffing around. I tried to ignore them and focus on hating Nahual. I knew none of them would strike without his word.
“You hate your human self?” he laughed again. “Perhaps then you would like to be more animal.” His hand flashes out towards me like he is grabbing at the air between us. A cold, sharp feeling filled my mouth. I lifted my hand slowly and felt my teeth. They were long and sharp. Jaguar’s teeth.
“Just another weapon,” I said to him. To prove my point, I pounced on the dog closest to me and ripped out his throat with my new found fangs. It was beyond disgusting and I had to stop myself retching from the foul taste and the stomach churning warmth of the blood filling my mouth.
Nahual’s hand was held high, stopping the other dogs from reacting. I let the werewolf’s body fall limp to the concrete floor and wiped its gore from my face onto my jacket sleeve.
“Any more parlour tricks?” I asked.
He grinned impishly. “I really didn’t think you had that kind of fight it in you, Fil.” He laughed.
“And I was holding back.” I said.
“You’re going to come with me,” he said. “I will bring out your animal, and then I will tame it.”
The air shimmered around him again and I expected him to change into his dog form. Instead he sprouted feathers and turned into a large, brown hawk. In seconds he was flying through a broken skylight in the ceiling. And I was alone with the hall full of werewolves. Cheat.
I was used to being outnumbered in a dog fight, and it usually didn’t bother me. But fifty to one were not odds that I wanted to play that night, even with that new weapon. The wolves moved together, closing in on me slowly. They were growling, low and threatening. I did the same and moved towards the door. No wolf moved to attack. They had been given their orders.
When I got back to Thel’s, Jones wasn’t there.
“She went out a few hours ago,” Thel said. She seemed weird – more spaced out than usual and it seemed she couldn’t stop her fingers fidgeting. She said something about Jones needing to get something from home before she stopped short and her hand drifted slowly to my cheek.
“What is this?” she asked.
“Nahual’s idea of a joke, or something,” I said. It was hard to talk with those things in my mouth. I had bitten my tongue so often and was feeling queasy from the taste of my own blood mixing with the lingering taste of the wolf’s flesh. I didn’t have time to think of what it meant, or maybe I just couldn’t bring myself to think about it. “It’s no big deal.”
I could tell by the way she glared at me, half angry, half disappointed that she didn’t believe me. “I can try to undo this for you.”
I sat down on a stool in front of her while she worked her magic. But it was hopeless as I thought it would be.
“This is not my spell,” she said after numerous failed attempts. “Only the magician who cast this can take it off.” I thanked her for her efforts and went into the back room where I’d been sleeping.
I collapsed exhausted onto the cot and dialled Jones’ number and listened while it rang out. Maybe her battery had gone flat. I dialled our apartment phone. No answer there either. Ordinarily, I might not have thought much of it but those were hardly ordinary times. I changed into a fresh pair of jeans, pulled a coat on, and went out looking for Jones.
I went first to the flat. After the earlier confrontation with Nahual, I didn’t expect him to be there, but there were other enemies I needed to be wary of. The front lock had been prised open. I pushed the door with my shoe and it swung clear. There was the faint trace of dog, but the place was empty. I looked around for a bit, searching for any sign that Jones had been there recently. Everything was as I’d remembered it had been the night I discovered the truth about Vele. I went into my bedroom. May as well pick up some supplies while I was there. A dark patch of my own blood had dried on the carpet and I shuddered at the memory of having my face bashed against the floor. I shook my head to get myself out of it. I had to stop thinking of him as Vele. He was Nahual. Nothing but a monster. I picked up my good hunter. It felt good just to hold it again.
It was clear that I wasn’t going to find anything in the flat. I tried Jones’ number one last time. I heard it ring. A quiet chirping. I followed the source of the sound and found her phone had slid under the edge of the couch. This was not a good sign.
She wasn’t home; she wasn’t at Thel’s. Where else could she have gone? I wandered the streets for a few hours, trying to catch a sniff of her. It’s hard to sniff out humans, they cover themselves with so much soap and perfume, deodorants, creams. Plus, there’s just so damn many of them. They… I meant ‘we’. It was a futile effort and with worry weighing heavily on my shoulders, I headed back to Thel’s.
I rounded the corner of the street where Thel’s shop and house were and knew something was wrong. Throngs of people crowded in the street outside her place. Two police cars parked in front with their lights flashing silently. Two fat cops were rolling out strips of black and yellow police tape, cordoning off what could only be a new crime scene. My stomach dropped. Jones.
“What’s going on?” I asked the cop rolling out the tape. I held my hand in front of my mouth so he wouldn’t see my fangs so easily.
“Just get back, Miss. Let people do their jobs,” he said without looking at me. I could have had horns and he probably wouldn’t have noticed.
“You don’t understand,” I said to him. “This is my friend’s place. I’m staying here.”
The fat cop sighed heavily and wiped the sweat of his shiny pink brow. “Please just stand over there. Someone will talk to you soon.”
I moved towards the door and strained to see what was happening inside the shop, trying to look as human as possible amid this throng of gawkers. There was a tall woman inside, with her hair pulled back into a bun so tight it looked like her face was stretching. She was making notes in a little flip top note pad. She moved to the counter and I saw Thel, lying face down on the floor of her shop in a dark, sticky pool of red.
I could feel the whispers of the other onlookers as more and more of them saw through my attempt to blend in. The fat cop was inside now, talking to the tall woman. He pointed in my direction. They both looked over and the she wrote something in her notebook before striding out of the shop, and headed straight for me.
“You knew the deceased?” Her tone was all business and her pen never stopped moving across her page, even when she looked directly at me. If she reacted to my fangs, it didn’t show on her face.
“She is, was a friend of a friend. We were both staying here with her for the last week or so.”
“And who is this friend?”
I told her Jones’ name.
“And how can I contact this Jones?” she asked. I wish I knew. I gave her the number of our flat up the street and she wrote it all down. “If you can just wait here for a few minutes,” she said. Her eyes travel from my head to my shoes and then up again. “We will need to ask you more questions.”
I know the way she was looking at me. It was the same expression as half of the people on the block. Loathing, not quite fear. Contempt. Suspicion. Of course the girl with the fangs and the tail, covered in cuts and bruises is going to be somehow involved in the murder of the witch grocer! She’s different, therefore guilty. I didn’t have time for any of it. The tall woman disappeared back into the shop and I ran.
I didn’t really have a plan at that point. Just running. Thel was dead. Jones was missing. Nahual was behind all of this. As I ran, I could feel the solid weight of the hunter in the inside pocket of my coat that I had adapted specifically to hold it. It jolted against me reassuringly, telling me exactly what I needed to do and where I needed to do it. If Nahual had not yet returned to his hold at the docks, then I’d just find a dog who could take me to him. Most animals have a breaking point. Especially dumb ones.
Nahual was predictable, but not half as predictable as I apparently was. Nahual was back in the dock, still surrounded by his werewolf cronies, though there were only about half as many as there had been some twelve hours before. He had other company though.
“It’s about time you came back,” he said to me as I burst through the door. “We were almost about to get bored.”
Jones and an old woman that I did not recognise were bound and gagged, tied to chairs on the stage. Nahual sat between them on his milk crate throne. A wolf stood behind each of the prisoners, a hairy hand on their throats, ready to strike. Both Jones and the stranger had been beaten, their faces messy with cuts and bruises, their eyes wide with terror.
“What is this?” I asked him.
“A test of your humanity.”
I repeated my question with venom.
“What is this?”
Nahual grinned at me, rising slowly from his seat. He circled his captives with slow, deliberate steps. “I’m curious,” he said after a long silence. “So I am conducting a type of anthropological experiment. And you’re the test subject.” He pointed his hairy finger at me.
“What we have here are two people,” he continued. “One is your best friend—actually your only friend, I think—in all the world. The other is a total stranger to you. The friend has a marginal defence of her own, her being of the warlock persuasion, the other, well she’s just as helpless as a kitten. No pun intended.”
“Get to the point, Nahual. I don’t have all night to kill you.”
He grinned again. I was getting sick of the sight of it.
“Short and sweet then. Knowing that one of them has a remarkably high chance of dying, say every chance in a million, which one will you save? The beloved friend with powers or the helpless stranger?”
“This is disgusting,” I said. “Even for you. Your gripe is with me, for whatever reason. Not with Jones, not with this lady, not with Thel.”
Nahual looked at me with curiosity. “Thel? This has nothing to do with the witch.”
“Then why did you kill her?”
“She’s dead?” He clapped his hands and laughed uproariously. “Oh that’s sweet! Sometimes, just sometimes, good things come to you without you even trying.”
“You didn’t kill Thel?”
“Nope, but I’ll shake the hand of whatever did. Now, can we get back to our business at hand please?”
I was tired of playing games with this bastard. I reached into the pocket of my jacket and took out the hunter. I leaped forward, my feet landing lightly on the stage. The hunter flashed and the dogs at the captive’s necks were down before they knew what was happening. Nahual clapped a slow, mocking, all too clichéd applause.
Twenty dogs rushed the stage. A wolf leaped and I knifed it, slashing the blade out in the same movement to take out another one’s throat. Nahual stood at the foot of the dais, his arms folded and grinning his stupid grin from ear to ear as he watched me gut one werewolf after another. All the while I was imagining it was his blood that was spilling, and I knew it won’t be long before it was.
The tide of dogs slowed and I slashed the ties around Jones and the woman. I told them both to stay where they were, said I would protect them. Jones nodded, she understood my work but her eyes were still filled with fear. The old woman did not so understand and as soon as her ropes were cut, she ran. Whether it was the smell of fear dripping from her, of whether it was the sure thing of the kill that they could not resist, the dogs were on her in a second and tore her almost in half. Nahual cackled like a manic hyena.
“Enough!” I yell. “This is small, Nahual. It’s me and you you’re interested in. So let’s do it.”
He brought himself under control and ordered his mutts to stand down.
“Your compassion warms me,” he said. “I know you wanted to help that poor woman, I really know you tried. And your friend there, you must feel good that she’s safe. Imagine how lonely you would be without her. Although, I imagine that you are already quite lonely, I mean why else would you fall so hard and so fast for a man, cat, whatever, you just meet simply on the grounds that you think you are the same. It’s a bit sad really, you spending all of your days with witches and warlocks and all of your nights with shifters and weres. And yet you never quite fit in with any of them. Perhaps there’s a way though, that I can make things a little easier on you, ease the burden.”
Something was coming. I knew it, but even the spine tingling sense that crept from my neck to the tip of my tail could not prepare me for what happened next. Nahual leapt onto the stage, his eyes were shining wide and black, his hand outstretched into a twisted hairy claw. He called a curse in words that sounded like gibberish and a smoky red gust shot from his hand to envelop Jones. Her scream muffled through the bloody haze around her. Nahual spoke again and the smoke came down. My stomach knotted and I fought the urge to vomit.
“What have you done?” I said, but was not sure that the words came out at all.
Jones, or what used to be Jones, looked back at me with imploring, pitiful black eyes. She was naked, apart from some tufts of grey fur. Parts of her were even skinless and I could see the muscle fibres and sinews writhing like pink snakes. He face was long and stretched, almost like a dog, but the rest of her head was rounded and cat like. A stump, like a bit of tail grew out of her back. She held out emaciated arms before her, horrified by her own body. The backs of her hands were scaled like a reptile. She cried out a wet, hideous howl. I choked back a flood of tears.
“Now you have a freaky friend to play with. See? I made her just you—not quite anything.”
It was too much. I turned from the thing that was Jones, unable to look at it. I hated myself. Nahual’s eyes burned through me. He smiled.
“This should be interesting,” he said.
With only a distant awareness of what my body was doing, I rushed him. Murder was my only intent.
“Form!” he called to his dogs. In seconds a dozen werewolves were on me. I barely noticed. One after the other I sliced them through, bit through their flesh like steak, snapped their necks, mowing them down as they got in my way as if I were swatting away gnats, moving closer to the only enemy I have ever truly wanted to make suffer. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t feel. I just moved and I just killed. By the time I reached Nahual through the sea of his protectors I realised I’d lost my knife. I didn’t even remember dropping it. I faced him.
“No tricks,” I said.
“None needed,” he said.
My fist flew and I smashed his jaw. His punch came swiftly but I felt nothing but a dull heat. I could hear Jones, an incessant, mournful howling and I tried to block her out, trying to concentrate on the sound of my own blood pulsing in my ears. Blow for blow we moved across the floor, weaving in and out of the litter of wolf corpses. I knew Nahual could uses magic on me or himself at any minute, but I also knew somehow that he wouldn’t. I could smell anger in him, a determination to finish what he started. And there was something else too. Fear.
Claws flew. Blood spattered. My eyes came through without my even trying. We jumped and twisted against one another like some macabre and violent dance, all the while Jones howled on the stage. Nahual struck a lucky blow, right in my guts, and I was winded. He kicked me to the ground and all I could do was fall. I rolled onto my back in seconds and he was in the air. Time slowed in that way that time does where seconds take minutes and every detail is crystallised. His eyes flashed and his teeth snarled. He knew he was coming in for a death blow. And so did I. I reached up and swung wide towards his face. My claw clipped his eye, just enough to put him off balance and let me roll out of the way of his fall. In seconds I was kneeling on his chest, the teeth that he had given me locked into his neck, tearing apart his flesh. I spat a chunk of bloodied skin onto his face. He laughed, blood spluttering out of the gaping wound in his neck.
“There you are Filomena, like I always knew you were. Doesn’t that feel better?”
“What are you talking about?” I seethed.
“You are Jaguar.”
I knew he was right and I was disgusted with myself, disgusted with the taste of his blood in my mouth, disgusted with the way my body has relished it. I spat on him again and my human vision returned.
“The valiant are rewarded,” he said. “And so are the honest. Here is your gift.”
His eyes closed and he muttered a word I didn’t understand. My entire form tingled as though my skin was contracting. My teeth returned to normal and my claws disappeared. But there was something else. I reached behind me. My tail was gone and so was the jaguar.
“What have you done?” I whispered.
His head fell limp. Nahual was dead.
Jones’ howling steeled into a doleful sob. We were the only living bodies in the room. I moved towards her and her whimpers silenced. Her hideous paw stretched out to me and she placed it where my tail used to be. Tears trickled through the blood on my face and I knelt beside her, my arms wrapped around her waist. She lifted my face and smiled, her thick blue lips stretching back against sharp mouthful of crooked yellow fangs.
“Please” she croaked.
She nodded towards my hunter on the floor close by. I knew what she wanted and I knew I owed it to her.
“I’m sorry,” My words felt empty. Sorry was the wrong word but there could not have been a right one.
I slit her throat.
It was instant.
It was over.
It was early morning. White cotton wool clouds sat high in a blue sky. The sun was shining. On a train headed North, I leaned back into the headrest and watched the countryside hurtle by. There was nothing left in Guessing. No friends. No Jaguar. I was choking in that smoggy cess pit and I needed air. I needed something else. Besides, if he was telling the truth, if he was working for some higher order who wanted me either dead or conscripted, then I just wanted to lie low for a while, regroup and take a breath.
Nahual had been right – I had denied the animal in me and I think now it was because I didn’t know where it came from so I couldn’t think of it as part of myself. Who knew if all that stuff he said, all that stuff he put in my dreams about jaguar warriors was true or not. It didn’t matter. All I knew now is that I had to get a way to get it back. I still don’t know why he had made me human. A gift, he said. Was it?
Sure, it was nice to be able to blend into a crowd. Sure it was nice to have people speak to me without betraying some kind of disgusted fear. But really, what’s the point if they’re not really speaking to the real you?
A guy across the aisle kept looking at me. I might not have had anything in the way of animal instincts left, but human intuition goes a long way. I looked over at him and couldn’t help but smile.
“I’m Travis,” he says.
He comments on the scratches and bruises on my face.
“Angry kitten” I say. He nodded in a way that he knew not to press it.
“Where you heading?” he asks.
I shrug. “Away. Just need to get out of that city for a while.”
I smile and say nothing. Who does this guy think he is?
“Me too.” he says.
“What are you running from?” I ask him, almost interested despite myself.
I smile and turn to look out the window again, imagining all of the possible answers I could have for that question.
Kate Krake has been in love with dark urban fantasy since before the genre existed. With a long established passion for the odd, the scary and the whimsical, Kate created Guessing as a place where she could explore lots of different weird avenues, strange streets and curious corners in a variety of fiction formats.
When she’s not wandering the streets of Guessing, Kate lives in Brisbane, Australia with her husband, daughter, and two beagles.
Kate blogs about writing on and also writes about health and wellness for writers on .
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How do you embrace a side of yourself that you know nothing about? What does it mean to be human when your animal self is so much a part of who you are? Fil is almost used to the world shutting her down, calling her a freak. Alone in the dark streets of Guessing, she fights the good fight against creatures of the night, half belonging to their world and not knowing where the other half fits at all. When Fil’s deepest desires for connection are met at the same time as her most deadly enemy surfaces, the very nature of the self she has fought so long to discover is brought to the brink. Fil risks losing everything in order to find that one thing she’s always missed.