Pride Before Fall
By Kelly Meding
No matter the care he took in his approach to the empty lot beneath the freeway overpass, Tybalt Monahan knew his arrival would be detected. He moved forward on soundless feet, keeping his breathing low and controlled, even though his stomach had twisted into a cold knot of trepidation. Three a.m. meetings in the dark underbelly of Mercy’s Lot were not unusual for him as a Triad Hunter, and Tybalt had been trained relentlessly in self-defense and attack techniques. He could handle himself against anything, human or otherwise, that chose to pop out of the shadows.
He wasn’t nervous about the location. He was nervous about meeting Marcus.
The lot was the size of a baseball diamond, surrounded on three sides by the rough brick surfaces of still-standing row houses. A few neighboring lights burned brightly, in sharp contrast to the pre-dawn darkness left by the heavy cloud cover and burned-out street lamps. Haphazard piles of rubble dotted the lot’s dirt-and-dried-grass landscape, offering little in the way of hiding places.
But Marcus didn’t need a hiding place to effectively sneak up on him.
The slight incline across the street put the front stoops of a dozen homes several feet from the sidewalk. Tybalt crouched next to one stoop, melting into the shadows, watching the lot. No one moved. Ten minutes passed, and he heard a single gunshot, distant and not his business. Marcus wouldn’t have contacted him if it wasn’t urgent, but Tybalt refused to show himself first. If Marcus was there, he’d know Tybalt had arrived by sense of smell alone.
The Felia had amazing senses of smell.
Several more minutes passed. The first gentle aches of stiffness began in his knees, reminders of the uncomfortable, half-crouched position he’d chosen. A slight breeze stirred the cool spring air and brought a familiar, musky scent from his right side.
He turned his head to look. Adrenaline spiked along his nerves, twisting his stomach impossibly tighter and filling his mouth with a sharp, metal flavor.
A fully-grown jaguar crouched on the stoop of the neighboring house, watching him with shimmering, golden brown eyes. It blinked and opened powerful jaws to display long rows of teeth as thick as Tybalt’s fingers. A fat, pink tongue lolled to one side of its mouth, as if the massive beast were smiling at him.
Or sizing him up for a snack.
Tybalt held the creature’s gaze until his knees screamed for release from the pressure and his neck ached from the awkward position. Finally, the large cat blinked and leapt to the sidewalk with one powerful push of its hind legs. Tybalt stood as gracefully as his stiff body allowed and held his ground as the jaguar approached.
“Hey, Marcus,” Tybalt said as breezily as he could manage with a dry mouth. Swallowing hard enough to properly moisten his tongue was a subtle display of weakness the were-cat would notice.
The jaguar sniffed his hand with a dry nose. Tybalt had been careful to wash his hands free of any scent of metal or gun oil. He’d been on patrol with his Triad teammates until midnight, and the linger odor of handling weapons could also be construed as a threat. Tybalt knew the subtle techniques necessary for a positive interaction with the Felia.
Marcus tilted his massive head and looked up. He blinked once, then turned and loped across the street toward the empty lot. Tybalt followed a beat later, sore joints aching and hoping like hell no one still awake chose to look out their window and see a tall, twenty-two year old chasing a black jaguar across the street.
In the farthest, most shadowed corner of the lot, partially obscured from the street by a pile of crumbled bricks and mortar bits, Marcus shifted. His long tail disappeared. He reared up on hind legs that thinned out and reshaped. The black fur disappeared, replaced by a golden tan and a smattering of midnight hair on his chest, belly and upper thighs, leaving him completely nude. A shoulder-length curtain of black hair framed his face, which shaped out into the familiar long-nosed and thick-browed visage Tybalt remembered so well from his childhood.
He’d aged, which both did and did not surprise Tybalt. Weres aged faster than humans, tumbling into physical puberty up to four times sooner than a human child. The aging slowed after they reached adulthood, but few weres lived longer than forty. Marcus had been alive for about ten years, and appeared to be in his mid-thirties. The last time Tybalt had seen him, he’d looked the sixteen years that Tybalt had been during his banishment from the Pride.
Familiar, long-buried feelings of betrayal and abandonment simmered to the surface, and Tybalt struggled hard to keep them tamped down. Losing his temper before Marcus told him why he was there would end the meeting on a sour–and potentially bloody–note.
“The Pride has ignored me for six years,” Tybalt said, working hard to keep his rising anger out of his voice. “What do you want, Marcus?”
“Seamus is dying,” Marcus replied. Grief crippled his words even as his expression remained stony and calm.
Tybalt jerked. His stomach ached like he’d been punched, and the careful control he’d managed to hold over his emotions fractured. He couldn’t stop the way his mouth opened and no sounds came out. His mind roared at the declaration about a man who’d been as close to a father to him as anyone in Tybalt’s life.
“Is he sick?” Tybalt asked when he found his voice.
“For a year now, yes. He has the Shadow.”
The Shadow was what weres referred to as any sort of cancer. Because of their unique anatomy and genetic abnormalities, they couldn’t seek treatment by traditional methods. Few were-scientists existed, and fewer still were able to do research into Dreg illnesses–not only for weres, but for any of the dozen or so species of creatures living in the city’s underbelly. No chemotherapy existed for Dregs with cancer–only pain management and death.
Tybalt cleared his throat. “How long does he have?”
“Not long. Days.”
The pang in his heart grew sharper. “Did he ask for me?” Why else had Marcus come, unless–?
“No, he didn’t.” In response to Tybalt’s startled look, Marcus’s expression softened into sympathy. “I’m sorry, brother. My uncle doesn’t know I’ve come to you for help. I don’t think he would have allowed it.”
“Then why are you here?” Possessing the knowledge and being unable to rectify past mistakes with it jangled his nerves and ignited his anger. As did Marcus’s “brother” endearment. They had been raised together, as close as brothers once–until a single mistake drove Tybalt from the first family he’d ever known. “I’d have found out he died after the fact, so why the hell are you here?” He clenched his right hand into a fist, aching to strike.
“He has been challenged as Alpha of the Pride.”
Tybalt blinked. When an Alpha showed weakness, any other dominant Pride male could challenge him to a death battle–as long as the Alpha did not have a son old enough to challenge in his stead. “Seamus doesn’t have to fight,” Tybalt said. “Keenan can fight. He’s your age, he’s the Alpha’s son and strong enough–” But Marcus’s expression stopped him cold.
“Keenan is missing,” Marcus said.