* * *
Vex’s search led her to a house, if it could be called such. The
slanting yellow midstorm light carved deep angles into the rundown exterior,
grainy shadows gave a sinister edge to the peeling paint and splintered wood.
Smashed windows were boarded up, bristling with nails, and several of the
concrete steps leading up to the patio had crumbled through.
This was the place. No doubt about it.
She cut the engine. What had started out as a simple hunt
had turned far more complex than she’d expected over the past few days. When she
took her obsidian-tipped wand from the glove box, she regarded the weapon with
a casual concern. The priority now would be to get Holly out of the house—if it
turned out she was in there looking for Augustus. The cat could prove to be just
as dangerous to her as it had been to the crook in the morgue.
Of course, if it was only the sphinx in the house. Vex
knew what she might have to do.
Vex never had the responsibility of owning her own pet, so
she wondered why she sympathized so much with Holly and her plight. Holly’d raised
the sphinx from a kitten, likely doted over it with the tender care of an older
sister, and watched him grow from a mewling kitten into… Well, hopefully she would
never need to know what Augustus had become.
Raindrops stung her hands and dampened her dress as she
made her way up the broken and battered walk. Water splashed under boot as she
strode through the yard and kept an eye out for movement.
The door opened without a sound, but the floor creaked
dreadfully when she set foot inside the dark threshold. Inside the murk mixed
with the smell of decay; mildew, moldering carpet, and the sharp tang of bleach
emanated from a puddle. The one-two cadence of numerous leaks in the roof
greeted her as she scanned the room, but even the brief bursts of lightning did
not penetrate far. The throaty roll of thunder from the last flash reminded her
too much of a low feline growl.
She held up her hand and softly said, “Lumen.” A nimbus of
fire breathed alive around her fingertips, casting a cold light onto
interior—in her other hand, she kept her wand raised as she scanned the room.
Nothing moved but for grimy white sheets draped over
furniture, caught by the draft from the open door. It might have been a family
room once. The house had been gutted by a fire, explaining why it had been
abandoned in its current condition. Plastic pinned up on the walls shimmered as
she swept her hand to bring light to the deeper corners.
She started to call out for Holly but caught herself. If Holly
was in the house, she would run into either Vex or the sphinx first. Right now
it was even odds. Vex didn’t know how the sphinx would react to Holly, but she
was certain it would react badly to her. It would probably not work out so
well if Vex started giving away her presence and the sphinx found her instead
The living room branched into several other rooms. On one
side, an empty study, studded forlornly with weeping shelves that once might
have held books. Another side, a hollow kitchen with a hole in the floor.
Neither room held any inhabitants, feline, little girl, or otherwise. Satisfied
the front of the house was clear, Vex moved into a long hallway that lead to
Then she noticed something small and blurry move in the
shifting shadows at the edge of her illumination.
It was the cat. He stood at the far end of the hall, tail
lashing wildly, hackles raised, but housecat sized. An acutely beautiful
specimen of the feline animal, short white fur, glossy and healthy. His eyes
shimmered like jewels in the fey light from her illumination spell. As if to
answer her previous questions, the cat growled low in his throat and squared
himself against her. The rumble gurgled deep in his throat, dropping to a low
“You don’t want to pick a fight with me, Augustus,” Vex
said. “I might have a solution to your problem…but it’s no good if you’re
already a killer.”
The cat didn’t quite know what to make of that and the
growl died in its throat.
“That’s a good kitty.” She took a few cautious steps down
the hall, wand leading the way. The sphinx seemed to have a keen idea as to the
use of the wand, its eyes flicked between it and Vex’s face as she walked
forward slowly. “I’d rather not hurt you.”
She started to lower the wand, offering a placating hand
The cat stood absolutely still, tail motionless.
“Everything is all right. Good kitty.”
That’s when what seemed to be going right, suddenly went
Augustus hissed and screeched a terrible caterwaul and
transformed. It was like watching a bad werewolf movie, with animatronic
effects. The tiny animal hulked out right in front of her eyes, going from
something that could fit into a breadbox to a monster that would have trouble
entering through the front door. Sleek and refined became primal and muscular;
the outlines of the smaller cat expanded, filling out with atavistic potence. The
eyes, at first cold and pitiless, clouded with a feral hunger and an unexpected
shadow of remorse.
And then he was leaping for her. Fangs bared, lethal claws