The Evolution Index, Prologue
The moon was bright that evening. Her the reflection of her red, bright face was clear in the still water until a frog leaped somewhere in the reeds. Ripples disturbed the picture, distorting the edges, until she was no more than a haze of light in the murky depths.
Tom Conrad turned away.
Harvest moon, he thought. It was about the right time of year: the leaves were changing colours and falling. It had rained hours ago, so the ground was still wet, the leaves soaked through and made mushy. It would have been uncomfortable, sitting on the damp earth for hours on end, but Tom’s wolf form made the experience less unpleasant. He was a pillar of mottled brown and grey fur, solid and strong.
He huffed out a breath as a second wolf, grey like Tom but a bit more slender, ran by. This one’s fur was close to black on the top but a light brown underneath, like the beard Sean insisted on growing long past the coldest part of winter had blown past them. Sean was roving, walking around the park in circles, checking the scent markers they had put down earlier that evening for what seemed like the billionth time. Tom could hear him hitting every checkpoint: the lamppost, the bench, the wall. Monument, tall tree, berry bush.
There was a muffled crunch to Tom’s left: half a mile away, someone shifted on the ground, breaking a small twig.
Ryan, his nose told him. Keeping an eye on their backs. Max was close by, on Tom’s right, hiding inside a bush. He did not move, but huffed out a breath that be seen escaping from him like a cloud of smoke.
Sean padded back their way soon, apparently satisfied with his rounds enough to sit beside Tom and wait for a spell. They’d done this every night for a month, checking and double-checking every corner of their territory, keeping them safe.
Making sure the land was still theirs.
Tom’s tail thumped on the ground twice when Sean looked up. Nothing, the line of Sean’s body said as he sat there, shoulders tense.
This park was on the farthest edge of their territory. It was the thing they had fought the hardest to keep, with their teeth bared and their hackles raised. They’d had a talk with DeLeon and Cash at Bob’s bar afterwards and the boys had agreed that, since they had no major water sources within their grounds, Sean could take the park if the Alexes could continue to access the university and museum. It had been decided that the grounds would both be named as no-man’s, like the Starbucks, which was free ground, and Bryar’s club.
That had been a year before Cash had been killed, of course. He’d died when the fighting had begun six months ago. When the strangers had come in and had started picking people off. When everyone had started watching their territory much more closely.
Used to be, Tom could hear DeLeon howling to his Alexes on nights like this. He’d heard Antonoff and Reuss’ howls in the distance, before, too.
Now, everything was quiet.
Too quiet, he whuffed.
Sean was still tense, so Tom leaned over, nosed at the underside of Sean’s chin. Sean sneezed, but he looked better than he had a moment ago, like he’d remembered that Tom was there, that Tom had his back.
Sean’s ear twitched before Tom heard it. A twig snapping. The pad of feet on dirt. Sean’s hearing had always been better than Tom’s.
Sean stood, nostrils flaring, but the creature that stepped into the clearing before them was just a hedgehog. If Tom’s nose was at all accurate, it was Will Noon, the mousy drum tech who helped out at Bob’s bar. It scurried up to them, nose twitching crazily. It ran in a circular pattern three times, sneezed frantically, and ran off into the brush.
Sean stiffened beside him and Tom cast his gaze upwards to the circles the hedgehog had created with its scurrying. There were three of them in a clover pattern. The weres of Chicago had long ago decided that the shape meant danger.
Something he didn’t recognize howled in the distance, and five more strange howls answered it.
Sean growled and stood, his tail and hackles raised. Four against six. The numbers may not have been even, but that didn’t mean they were outmatched. Tom yipped for Ryan and Max to follow as Sean stalked off. Max hurried to his side, gold-green eyes bright. Flank, Tom said with a snap of his teeth. Max bowed his head and stepped back. Ryan copied him when he came close, his leaps and bounds more somber than usual. They didn’t know what was coming, but they were all prepared to face whatever it was.
Sean disappeared in front of them, ducking around a tree as he started to run and howling as he did. Tom threw back his head and answered Sean’s receding howl, hearing Max and Ryan chime in from wherever they’d gone so they could watch his back. He took off after Sean, feeling reckless and free with every step he took, feet hitting the dead leaves scattered on the ground as he ran. He was ready to fight whatever it was that was coming, be it wolf or cat or something darker.
If he died tonight, he was going to take at least three of the motherfuckers down to hell with him.
Bring it on.