Cat ran towards the house. She scarcely felt the tree branches claw her as she tore through the woods. A cold hand gripped hers, and her pace quickened as she was almost dragged the rest of the way. Cat reached the protective circle and nearly fell over. Twigs and grass were jammed into her shoes, and she could see two clear lines carving her path from the woods.
“Sorry,” Anne said, glancing at her. “I thought you wanted to get here quickly.”
Cat nodded, trying to catch her breath. Bree let go of Anne’s other hand and wiped a line of sweat from her brow.
The small rocks surrounding the house were unmoved. The circle looked like it hadn’t been touched. Maybe there was nothing to worry about, she hoped.
Bree’s eyes fell on the house, and Cat could tell that she still saw the cloud. Cat shakily walked towards the back door.
“Um,” Anne said slowly.
Cat turned around. Both girls were giving Cat an expectant look.
“We can’t cross without permission,” Anne reminded Cat.
Cat breathed a sigh of relief. That must mean Gran’s charms were still working. She nodded.
“You can both come in,” she said.
They stepped over the pebbled border as Cat dug the keys from her pocket and unlocked the back door. The fact that the house was still locked made her feel a little better. Maybe Bree’s powers weren’t that strong, she thought. Or maybe it was some other kind of cloud, like a dead roach that Mom had killed.
“Mom!” she called out, looking around.
Everything was in its place. In its place meaning knickknacks scattered around in Gran’s chaotic setup. All of the lights were off. The house was slowly darkening as the sun sank, but Cat could still see fine. She wandered into the living room.
“Mom?” she called again.
“I’m in bed!” Mom’s voice came groggily down the hall.
Cat rushed towards the bedroom, Anne and Bree close behind her. Cat hesitated at the door. How was she going to explain the company? Or the blood on her clothes? Or the lack of Gran?
She put a finger to her lips and motioned for the others to stay in the hall. Then she gently knocked on the door.
“Hi, Mom,” she said softly.
She slipped into the room and left the door barely cracked behind her, so Mom hopefully wouldn’t see the others.
Gran said Cat would know if they were ever in danger because she had enchanted the mural. Cat wasn’t sure exactly what that meant until now. It looked like the entire wall was on fire. Her heart jumped into her throat.
“Mom,” she said, her voice coming out in a whimper.
Mom was tucked into the fluffy green blanket, but she wasn’t moving. Cat rushed over to the bed. She shook Mom gently and patted her cheeks. Mom didn’t stir.
Cat heard the door click shut behind her. She spun around.
“She’s not dead,” Mom’s voice said.
Only it wasn’t Mom talking. It was Rosaria’s assistant. Or assistant campaign manager. Cat couldn’t remember his name, but she knew him in a moment. His shaggy brown hair wasn’t gelled back, but he was still wearing the same white button-up shirt and clip on tie. His polite smile was replaced by a hungry look, and the body spray he wore last time smelled more like wet dog this time than the aerosol fir tree scent she remembered from before.
“H-how?” Cat began, looking from him to Mom.
“One of my many talents,” he said, now in his own voice.
Cat placed herself in between him and the bed. She wasn’t sure if it was better Mom was out cold for this or not.
“She’s still alive,” the man continued, taking a few steps towards Cat. “For now. Really, there’s no point in killing her until Betty comes along. Where is that Guardian anyway?”
Cat held her dagger in front of her.
“Stay where you are,” she warned. “Take another step, and it’ll be your last.”
He reached for her, and Cat slashed. He was quicker than her blade, and she didn’t even graze him. His hand wrapped around her wrist with surprising strength. She cried in pain as he squeezed, and her dagger fell to the floor. The door flew open. In one swift motion, she was pinned against him, her neck trapped in the crook of his elbow. She tried to remember Gran’s training, but her body felt frozen and unable to resist.
“I’d stay right there if I were you,” he told Anne and Bree.
“Let her go,” Anne said slowly, her upper lip curling into a snarl.
“I think you’ll find I’m faster than even you, vampire,” he continued.
“Ross,” Cat said aloud, finally remembering his name. “Ross Jenkins.”
“I guess… that’s not your real name though,” Cat continued, feeling a flush rise to her cheeks.
He didn’t respond, which told Cat the answer was obvious.
“Where’s the Guardian?” he asked.
“Not here,” Bree replied. “Obviously.”
“But we can pass along any message you have,” Anne added. “There’s no reason to stand around waiting for her.”
“I’ve waited this long, haven’t I?” not-Ross replied. “No, you’d better tell her Vosseler is here and waiting. She has about thirty minutes to get here before I leave my message. I guarantee she won’t like it.”
Cat felt his arm flex, and her air was cut off. She gasped, feeling the oxygen in her lungs sour. Anne shot a worried look at her and gave a short nod. She turned and disappeared from sight.
“Who are you?” Cat croaked, trying to catch her breath.
“I’m surprised you don’t know,” he crooned, putting his other hand on her head. “Our histories are connected.”
Cat saw Bree studying him. Or rather something just above him.
“You have a distinct aura,” she noted, speaking casually, like they were discussing the weather.
“Ah, you must be a banshee,” he said. “I heard she kept a couple of you around to ward off death.”
“We can’t ward off anything,” Bree said. “A common misconception. We just see death first… and sometimes can recognize strangers based on the clouds that follow them.”
“Is my cloud that unique?”
“You know, she calls you Silverfur,” Bree said with a tilt of her head.
He laughed at that. Cat felt her heart thump in her chest. Silverfur was here in her house. In her room.
“Is she afraid of saying my name now?” he asked.
“More like you’ve lost your name when you became a murderer,” Bree replied. “Now all you get is a descriptor. And a warrant for your death.”
“I’m still me, though,” he said. “Trying to take away my identity isn’t justifiable. I only had a few… incidents.”
The way he said the last word sent shivers down Cat’s spine. She hoped they weren’t about to be one of those incidents.
“Do you feel hurt?” Bree asked, the corners of her mouth twitching. “I didn’t think you’d care about names.”
Cat felt her head grow light. She blinked a few times, trying to clear her head, but it was hard to focus on anything with his arm cutting off her airway.
“Do you think history remembers descriptors?” he retorted.
Cat felt his grip on her loosen.
“I suppose it’s fair enough,” he said slowly, his composed tone returning. “I took something from her. She takes something from me.”
Cat let her body fall forward. She slipped out of his arm and immediately threw herself towards Bree. She felt soft hands grab her arms and pull her. Bree stepped in front of Cat, her hands still resting on her arms. Cat coughed a few times, her lungs desperate for air. Silverfur looked at them with a bemused expression.
“It’s all well enough,” he said. “I don’t need my arm around you to keep you in my grasp.”
Cat had a sinking feeling he was right. Her dagger was still on the floor, next to his feet. She doubted she could sneak into another room for a weapon too.
“Thinking of putting up a fight?” Silverfur guessed. “Well, you’ve got fighter’s blood in you, so I’m not surprised. It won’t work out well for you if you try, though.”
She knew he was right. Her eyes still saw specks of light in the corners, and her lungs were still gasping for oxygen. He wouldn’t even break a sweat taking her down.
Cat glanced at her mom. Silverfur was in between them, but Mom was still not moving. She could see her chest rise and fall gently, the only indicator that she was still alive.
“What did you do to her?” Cat asked.
He didn’t even glance at Mom.
“She must’ve had the wrong tea,” he replied with a shrug. “Betty’s house really is too dangerous for mortals.”
Cat’s fist clenched. She didn’t know what she hated more: the fact that Silverfur seemed to know his way around Gran’s concoctions, or the fact that he used this knowledge against Mom.
“Speaking of tea,” Silverfur continued. “I’d love a cup while we wait for Betty. If your friend would be so kind…” he trailed off, raising a brow at Bree.
Bree steered Cat towards the door, but Cat’s legs seemed stuck to the floor. She couldn’t turn her back on Mom. Silverfur’s lips curled into a smile.
“You can set the table, dear,” he said. “And… I’d be on your best behavior if I were you.”
His focus seemed to not be on Mom, though, Cat thought. Maybe leading him away from her would be smarter. Maybe he’d forget all about the mortal sleeping in bed with the right distractions.
Cat let herself be pulled from the room. Silverfur followed her and Bree into the kitchen. Too bad, Cat thought. She remembered where Gran kept the poisons. It’d be impossible to get them with Silverfur watching.
“She’s ok,” Bree whispered, putting the tea kettle into Cat’s hand. “Your mother. I don’t see the cloud of death on her.”
Cat breathed a sigh of relief. She gave Bree a small smile. She filled the kettle as Bree sniffed a few bags of tea. Silverfur plopped down on the couch in the living room. His back was to the pair, but Cat felt like he would be able to sense every movement she made. She sighed and waited for the water to boil.
Cat didn’t know how many mugs to get, so she settled for two, setting them on a small tray with some sugar and milk. She glanced at the cabinet under the sink. Gran had a small collection of poisons under there. Unfortunately, they were under lock and key. And Cat didn’t have the key.
Bree gently moved her aside as she began straightening up the kitchen. The oven mitt was removed from the coffee pot. The empty cereal boxes were moved to the trash can. Cat wondered why Bree was so intent on a clean kitchen. They had more pressing concerns. She wondered if she could pick the lock to the poisons cabinet while Bree was tidying up.
“Anything you set in front of me will be tasted by your friend first,” Silverfur called out, as if sensing her thoughts.
Cat heard the front door slam against the wall with a crash. Maybe poison wasn’t necessary. Gran was home.