There was something weird about crossing the city lines into New Orleans. Not just that the Big Easy was by anybody’s standards–in fiction, anyway–the center of all things supernatural in the States. It was bigger than that, a nasty jolt that wrenched everything a couple steps to the left. Even the city’s aura looked different from inside than it had from a few miles out, and I had absolutely no clue why.
The exciting thing about my life was that I’d probably find out.
For all my traveling around as a kid, I’d never gone through New Orleans. N’awlins, the way the natives said it. I loved that sound, like it was a word to be rolled around in and licked off the skin. So I did what any tourist would do upon arriving in the heartland of American Weird.
I hit the French Quarter.
Three days before Mardi Gras, the Quarter was hopping. It was probably the worst time of year to visit if I actually wanted to see New Orleans, but it was the best time if I wanted to throw myself eyeball-deep into beads, streamers, costumes, half-naked girls–Gary was going to deeply regret not having come along–parades, parties, obscene amounts of incredibly good food, and bourbon. I’d never actually tried bourbon and was kind of looking forward to it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t indulge right away, because the fish-hook sensation in my belly, the one that had been hauling me around ever since my shamanic powers had awakened, was getting tighter and more uncomfortable the deeper I got into the Quarter. I didn’t think my magic would give me an even break–let me heal up from a hangover, in other words–if I ignored it in favor of tying one on.
The city was a veritable teeming mass of humanity. Scent bombarded me from every direction: booze, perfume, pot, food, oh, God, the food, and the pervasive stink of sweat that no amount of deodorant or cologne was going to drown. Voices rose and fell in shrieks of laughter, joy, dismay; shouting was the only way to be heard, even if you were talking to the guy standing next to you. Everyone was beautiful in that flush-of-life way, though here in the heart of the city, so close to Mardi Gras, there were an unnatural number of genuinely beautiful people. They ran the color spectrum from rich blue-black all the way through to translucent white, with me thrown in on the whiter end, though when one of those really white girls stumbled into my arms, the skin tone comparison made me look rich and gold beside her. It was only back in Qualla Boundary, surrounded by others of Cherokee descent, that I felt stand-out pale. I pushed the girl to her feet and watched her trotter drunkenly away.
Maybe it was thinking about North Carolina and the life I’d left behind there that made me notice her. There were too many people to explain it otherwise, though the fish-hooks in my gut pulled so hard and sharp that they might’ve been an explanation on their own. It didn’t matter: she was half a block away and visible for about five seconds through a break in the crowd. She wore black leather damned near head to toe, all of it so snug against her body it had to be custom-made. Silver sparkled all over it, zippers and guns and blades and silver stakes in her hair like an Oriental fan of death. She looked hot, both literally and figuratively, and I thought the reason I’d glimpsed her at all was everybody else thought so too, and was backing up to get a better look at her.
She had to be at least my height, just a hair under six feet tall, even without the shit-stomping motorcycle boots she wore. And speaking of hair, if you took my crop cut and her four foot braid and divvied them out, we would both end up with what society considered a normal amount of hair for a woman. She was even built a lot like I was, rangy long limbs, though I thought I carried more muscle across the chest and shoulder from years of working on my car. Her skin tones were darker than mine, more pure Indian, but if somebody’d told me we were sisters, I’d have been inclined to believe them.
Particularly when she glanced my way and a flash of light caught the color of her amber eyes.
In my world, yellow eyes meant magic user. I should know: my own eyes were probably gold as sunrise just then, as the Sight kicked in to study one of the most complex, gorgeous auras I’d ever seen. Earthy colors tangled with something absolutely inhuman: dark, sleek, sentient and dangerous. A hunter, sharing body and soul with a human, and just ever so slightly bubbling with resentment over it.
I sure as hell knew what had brought me to New Orleans, now.
Something was wrong with the city. It wasn’t all the extra people in town for Mardi Gras. It wasn’t the reek of body odor—though my Beast was rising close to the surface, taking that in, her pelt abrading the inside of my skin like sandpaper, her claws kneading my mind painfully. It wasn’t even the wild energies I felt on the air with so many magic users in town to play. New Orleans smelled different. It felt different. Something had happened.
I had felt it an hour ago, while on the edge of the forest in the New Orleans City Park, my Beast’s fangs buried in a rabbit’s throat. A ripple in … it felt stupid even remembering what I’d thought I’d felt. A ripple in reality. A shift in the way light worked. In the pull of the moon. Followed by Beast’s awareness that the smells were subtly different. I had wanted to shift back to human from my puma concolor form, but Beast had held on until she finished the freaking rabbit before she allowed me to take back over. Then I’d shifted back to human, pulled on my loose cotton clothes and raced my bastard Harley back to the French Quarter to eat a fast meal and pull on my fighting clothes. Whatever had happened, I wanted to be weaponed up.
Now, walking the city, I was carrying more weapons than a Special Forces soldier, my Benelli M4 across my back and four holstered handguns under my leathers, a half dozen silver-plated vamp-killer blades sheathed in my clothes, and a dozen wood and silver stakes in my hair. But the weapons weren’t enough. I was still on edge, smelling and feeling a weird energy dance along my skin. Something was wrong. Really wrong.
I reached the Royal Mojo Blues Company, a blues and rock and roll club I frequented when I needed to let off steam and dance. And the name of the bar was different.
I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise, a low growl caught in my throat. I knew my eyes were glowing yellow with Beast and I couldn’t force her back down, couldn’t hang on totally to humanity. I had been here last week, danced here last week. It had still been the RMBC.
Businesses changed hands, closed and reopened under new management so often in this town that it wasn’t impossible the bar had been sold. But the sign was old and faded. Now it was the Vamp Mojo. And it smelled—no it reeked—of vamp and human blood. In four days—four short, totally impossible days—it had become a vamp-blood bar. Crap. I stood in the shadows, pulling scents in over my tongue and through my nose in a soft scree of sound.
Leo was inside. But a drunk and well fed Leo. A … a passive Leo. One without the energies I’d come to associate with the Master of the City. I smelled Katie, of Katie’s Ladies, and some vamp who scented of power like I had never known in a vamp before. And sex. Lots of sex.
I almost went in, when something else caught my attention. A woman. Just ahead. She was the reason things were different, though how I knew that, I wasn’t certain. But I did. I turned and walked away from the bar. Toward her.
She was tall like me, but with more muscle. Hair cut short, skin paler than my Cherokee, but dang. We might have been sisters. Beast stood in the forefront of my mind and studied her. I could see the energies in her, not pouring off her, but contained, restrained, like high water behind a dam.
Magic. Smell magic. Smell little brother of wolf.
I didn’t have time to ask my Beast what she meant. The woman’s eyes were glowing like mine. Yellow. I stopped in front of her, breathing in short puffs and screes of sound. Oddly, she didn’t take offence, even when I leaned in sniffed close to her face, although her eyebrows did go up. She wasn’t a skinwalker, like me. But she was something. “I’m Jane Yellowrock.”
The woman nodded once, and when she spoke I could feel her magic questing out at me. “And I hope that sniffing routine wasn’t commentary. My car doesn’t have air conditioning.” She hesitated before adding, “Joanne Walker. Shaman for hire. Only, you know, not for hire, because it doesn’t work that way. Whatever. Anyway.” She pulled a hand over her face, then looked at me. Waiting.
The way she said it, I knew she didn’t introduce herself that way often. We had just met and she had given me something personal. Which meant I had to give back a gift of equal measure. The words nearly choked me. “I’m a Skinwalker.”
She didn’t even blink, as if she heard people claiming weird crap, like being a mythical supernat, all the time. “Skinwalker, not shapechanger? You’re Native, like me.” Not a question. Not not-a-question, either, though.
“Cherokee. But not a U’tlun’ta.” It was pronounced hut luna, and was The People’s word for one of my species who had gone insane and started eating humans. And Joanne Walker seemed to know what I meant because she nodded, believing me, as if maybe she could see my energies and tell I was telling the truth. Most shamans could truth-tell, and Joanne clearly had that gift to some extent. I said, “Something hinky is happening. Did you do it?”
“No. But I felt something when I crossed the city lines. My magic’s pushy,” she said almost like that was a normal thing to say. “It pulled me here. Wanted me here. Wanted me to see you. And the whole city feels…not like home.”
I looked around at the world. “Well, you get to be Dorothy. I’m the lion—after he got his courage back. And I have a feeling that that,” I pointed to a yellow-orange light blasting up between the buildings several streets over “is why we’re here. There’s supposed to be nothing there but partygoers.”
“That.” Joanne glanced that way, then bared her teeth. “Crap. I saw it earlier, but not with the Sight. I thought it was spotlights, not magic. Lots of magic….”
I shook myself as Beast’s pelt quivered and lifted. “It looks nasty.” I sniffed. “And I smell something hot and dry.”
“Like in hell-fire?” She nodded. I sighed out the words, “Well, crap.” Louder, I said, “You need a weapon? Bare hands aren’t going to be much help against something from hell.”
Joanne smiled, never taking her eyes from the orange yellow glow. “I have what I need.”
I looked her over again, wondering what hidden weaponry I’d missed. As far as I could see, I hadn’t. “Yeah. Okay. Whatever. I have a bike, but it’s useless in this crowd. We’ll have to walk.” She nodded, and we turned, me taking point, Joanne at my side, as if we had practiced the movement all our lives.
We got a good six feet or so before I noticed the crowd was parting before us. Not that I blamed them. I would part before us too, because my newfound buddy looked like a badass, which gave automatic street cred to anybody hanging with her. Skinwalker. I hadn’t encountered that one before. I hadn’t encountered much with the kind of confidence she exuded, either. I’d fallen in beside her like we’d been practicing our whole lives. I wasn’t often enthusiastic about going to see what was causing obvious magical awfulness, but Ms. Tall Dark and Yellowrock looked so obviously prepared for anything, the whole idea sort of sounded like fun.
We got about six more feet before I saw the name of the bar we were passing by and let out an amused snort. “Vamp Mojo, huh? I kind of thought New Orleans would shy away from embracing the whole Anne Rice motif.”
Jane slid a look at me. Yellow-eyed look that sent creepies crawling down my spine. No wonder the guys back at my garage in Seattle had stopped talking to me once I went all magic and woo-woo. The golden gaze was just plain unnatural. I was relieved when she answered, because it gave me an excuse to stop meeting her eyes.
Well, it did for half a second anyway, because she said, “In my world it used to be dance club owned by a vampire. Now it’s a vampire bar.” She sniffed indelicately. “A blood bordello.”
I laughed. She didn’t. All the rich delicious smells in the air suddenly turned my stomach, and I swallowed bile. “There’s no such thing as vampires.”
This time Jane did laugh, but it wasn’t a particularly delightful sound. “I think I’d like to come from wherever you did. Vamps are at the top of the food chain, here. Literally.”
My feet lost their enthusiasm for heading toward the magical block party. Jane surged on a few steps ahead of me, only turning back when the crowd started closing in again. They didn’t matter; we could still see each other easily, what with the height advantage over two-thirds of the population. I swallowed. “There are really vampires here?”
Jane came back, planted herself in front of me, and nodded. The whole action was an emphatic statement. I, much less emphatic, pinched the bridge of my nose. “Okay. Look, before we go rushing in where angels fear to tread, maybe we should try to get some tiny idea of what we could possibly be facing. I don’t have vampires,” I said. “Werewolves?”
“And werecats. Of the African variety. Lions in prides, Leopards in small groups, though they tend to be solitary hunters. Wolves. All predators. No were-gazelles or were-bovines. Witches. Shamans. You?”
My eyes bugged. I felt them. Another quarter inch and they’d pop right out of my head. “You’re joking. Werecats? Isn’t that, I don’t know, very teenage girl wish fulfillment?”
Jane grunted. The sound was weirdly cat-like, and I got the nervous feeling I probably should have shut up about fifteen words earlier. Instead, I rushed on, answering her question. “Witches, yeah. Shamans, obviously. Sorcerers. The occasional demon. Gods of various sizes.”
I wet my lips. “I take it you don’t truck with them. That’s probably just as well. Probably that means whatever’s down there,” I said with a nod toward the frothing light of doom, “is coming from something that meets us in the middle. Witches. Shamans.” Except I didn’t have vampires, which probably meant we were already in over my head. I didn’t see the need to mention that just yet.
Jane jerked her head in a way that might have meant “Probably” or it might have meant “Stop wasting time, let’s get a move on.” The latter interpretation was buoyed by her turning on her heel and leading the way forward again. “Come on, Dorothy. Let’s see what Big Bad Uglies this world has to offer us.”
I let her take point again. This was her city more than mine, assuming it was anybody’s city at all, tonight. She did the head-jerk thing again, pointing left. “That used to be a jewelry store. Yesterday. And that was an art gallery, not a restaurant. Not my world, not anymore.”
Her words sent more creepies down my spine. Around us, partygoers, some in feathered masks, danced, screamed, showed their breasts in return for a twenty-five-cent strand of beads, drank, vomited on the sidewalks, and swayed into and out of danger of collision like zombies. I took a moment to make sure they weren’t zombies, and came away satisfied they were just stoned. The smell of marijuana was ripe on the air, and mixed with the other scents it was both heady and rank.
Not as rank, though, as a rotted-meat stench that didn’t so much waft as thunder down the street. I automatically held my breath, and somehow the smell got worse, burning my eyes with its power. I coughed, wiped my eyes, and glanced over peoples’ heads in search of the smell’s source.
Sadly, it wasn’t all that hard to find. Something taller than we were was coming up on our right, and I say something, not someone, because it had horns. I knew at least one guy with horns, and he was a someone, but this fellow also had gills. And scales. And a spreading hood, like velociraptors had. A demon velociraptor. Great. I’d gotten yanked into another world where vampires were real and demon velociraptors stalked the streets. Not just demon velociraptors, but demon velociraptors who hadn’t had a fashion update since the 1980s, because the thing’s flared hood was streaked in vibrant neon shades of red, green, blue, and yellow.
It saw us at the same time we saw it.