THE first Moon Wolf discovered the first Life Drinker wandering aimlessly along the moon’s deserts during its magical ruby phase. The Wolf wanted her, desired her, so he took her as his mate and copulated with her. The following year, when the moon once again transformed into a ruby and the alternate world opened, the Life Drinker gave birth to two children, a Wolf and a Drinker. The first Moon Wolf saw Earth and wanted the male offspring to rule it, but his mate insisted the female child should govern Earth instead.
Violent arguments ensued between the lovers, but in the throes of their final verbal battle, the first Moon Wolf grabbed the Life Drinker, hugging her to his body, and claimed, “I cannot stand to be divided with you or from you, so let us be one.”
Through the power of the Ruby Moon, their bodies melded, and the Ruby Moon God was born. He/she placed the two children on Earth and watched them grow and multiply, but they had inherited their parents’ argumentative and violent traits, and soon battles raged between the two races.
Distraught with their children’s descendants, the Ruby Moon God smashed a chunk of the red moon into pieces and gave the gems to the Wolves and Drinkers so they would remember their roots and peace would reign. However, he/she neglected to warn the two peoples of the rubies’ phenomenal magic and that the union of a werewolf and a vampire would resolve their differences forever.
As the centuries passed, a unique era of strange inventions and mechanical contraptions launched new ways of thinking—as well as a breed of Wolves and Drinkers who could spell doom for Earth.
KYLE VANDERBELT scanned the horizon but saw nothing except tumbleweeds and moon-kissed sand. He couldn’t believe the Conclave had sent him here. “What the bloody hell is there in this wasteland?” Irritated with his mission into this dry hell, he didn’t understand why anyone would settle in such a region. “Beyond a few tiny, nondescript mining towns, this area looks uninhabitable! Why, in the name of the Ruby Moon God, would that man flee out here?”
All he wanted to do was return to Ruby City and go back to investigating and busting the slave traders. He took off his hat and looked up at the reddening moon. He had three days to find Scott Bashian, a fellow Conclave agent who had stolen and fled with the ancient rubies. If the Life Drinkers, Kyle’s clan, didn’t get them back, the Elders feared the Moon Wolves would announce a full-fledged war against the Life Drinkers. As it stood, the tentative peace between the two moon races could be destroyed by anything small—and the theft of the rubies was no little thing.
“Where the hell are you? I should be able to detect your vampire odor.”
Kyle had been looking for tracks, but so far he’d found nothing but smooth sand. Judging by the lunar orb’s position, he had six hours before he would need to seek shelter from the daylight. Kyle could search during the day hours, but he still preferred the night, its peacefulness, and the absence of the wasteland’s hellish heat.
A cougar padded across a sandy hillock as Kyle clicked to his horse and headed that way. A breeze blew toward him, and he wrinkled his nose at the offensive odor of unwashed, undead bodies and—he sniffed, drawing the aroma deep into his lungs—lizard and snake blood. Retching, Kyle held his bile down. Somewhere nearby there were Life Drinkers who had been sustaining themselves on whatever they could catch in the desert, primarily reptiles. It wasn’t Bashian. He’d never lower himself to drinking reptile blood. But if not him, then who?
Bawdy voices reached him. Kyle reined in Denizen, whose ears flicked in the direction of the raucous laughter.
“I hear it, too, girl.” He stroked the horse’s neck. “Let’s find a place to wait and watch.”
Denizen nickered softly as Kyle climbed down from the saddle. He led his steed to a large dune, dropped the reins, and clambered up the sandy hillock. A few feet from the top, Kyle lowered himself onto his belly and eased up to the mound’s summit. Peering over it, he picked out six Life Drinkers astride a fancy traveling contraption.
Although his vampire eyesight allowed him to see things humans couldn’t, the gang of Life Drinkers was out too far for him to see them clearly. He tugged a pair of brass tube spectacles from around his neck, held them up, and focused them across the dark desert floor. Tumbleweed and twisted scrub trees camouflaged the vamps, but he saw enough to know they sat upon a mechanical wagon. Steam puffed from the backside of it, and on the front seat, which rose higher than the rest, sat Jaburn the Drainer.
Unease slithered through Kyle. “What is that abomination doing out here?” he whispered. Memories of how he’d felt when he’d been told about the Silver Disaster train wreck shot pain through his chest. He closed his eyes for a moment, forcing the discomfort away, and then opened them again. “Maybe I’ll get some justice after all, you bastard.”
The wheeled apparatus belched an extra dense cloud of steam as Jaburn shifted it into a higher gear, and the group of Life Drinkers bounced and jostled out of sight.
Kyle slung the tube specs back over his shoulder and slid down the hill to where Denizen waited. He stood and brushed the sand and grit from his chaps and coarse-cloth pants. “Damnation! What the hell are Life Drinkers doing out here in a mechanical wagon?”
The horse nuzzled his chest in search of a sugar cube hidden in Kyle’s inside vest pocket.
“Well, Denizen”—he rubbed her velvety nose—“I guess we better backtrack their route, eh? If Jaburn the Drainer is leading that gang, they’ve been up to no good and probably left their mess back there in the desert.” He gathered the reins and swung up into the saddle, its leather creaking beneath his weight. “I have a horrible feeling he’s somehow tied to the missing rubies. Bear with me for a little longer tonight, and I’ll give you three sugar cubes instead of just one.”
Almost as if the equine understood him, Denizen nickered and set off at a trot. Kyle guided her around the hillock. Once he spotted the metal wagon’s tracks, he turned his steed onto the deep lines scored into the dirt and sand, and headed in the opposite direction.
With dread filling his heart, Kyle rode for nearly an hour. He passed ravines, thickets of tumbleweed, and rock outcroppings. Dust bombarded his nose every time the wind blew, and the faintly sweet odor of a night-blooming desert flower reached him.
Rounding a boulder, he reined in Denizen. A pack of startled coyotes regarded him astride the horse, their yellow eyes glowing eerily in the moonlight. Kyle sensed intense hunger emanating from the canines. Three began growling and took a few steps toward Denizen, their lips peeled back, teeth glistening, growls rumbling from starved throats.
He focused on the pack, insisting they turn and go into the neighboring ravine to hunt rabbits and rodents. The alpha of the coyotes possessed a strong will, but Kyle forced an image into the animal’s brain of what he could do to him and his minions. The leader’s instinct to kill and eat wilted. Slowly, the coyote turned. He yipped twice, and although reluctant to follow him, the rest of the pack hurried after their leader on silent paws.
Relieved, Kyle urged his steed onward until a cliff appeared ahead, rising silent and black in the night. The wagon’s tracks led to a wide fissure. He rode into it and continued through it for several minutes.
Another odor reached Kyle, one so strong it nearly knocked him from the saddle. Denizen detected it too. She bobbed her head vigorously and pawed at the ground, snorting.
“Blood of a Moon Wolf,” Kyle muttered and gulped. “Don’t tell me the Life Drinkers murdered a Moon Wolf.” The dread haunting his heart transformed into a leaden ball of fear. “Damnation!” He sighed. “Well, let’s go and get this over with, Denizen.”
She tossed her head harder, but continued into the crevice.
The fissure widened into a semicircular chamber. In the center, the remnants of a fire glowed, and translucent, white smoke twisted from it up to the sky. The coppery odor of primeval beast assaulted Kyle’s sense of smell. He scanned the area, looking for the source, but nothing except the dying fire seemed out of the ordinary.
A low moan came from above. Kyle focused on it, his hearing tuning in on a ledge halfway up the back wall.
“Aw, hell.” He jumped down from Denizen’s back. “I’ll return as soon as I can, girl.”
Kyle strode to the base of the cliff, crouched, and leapt straight up, the wind whistling through his ears, his hat tumbling from his head. He landed on a wide ledge that revealed another crevice. Pausing, Kyle listened, detecting a faint heartbeat somewhere from within the fissure. He pushed inside and found a small cave. There, against the far wall, on its side, its broad, furry back to him, lay a large canine-like figure.
Kyle approached it with caution. “You there. Are you awake? Do you need aid?”
A pitiful whine drifted out of the Moon Wolf.
Preparing himself for attack, Kyle nudged the werewolf with the toe of his boot. “Can you hear me?”
The force of his foot jostled the creature enough that it rolled onto its back, arms splayed out at its sides. Blood covered its chest, matting the ebony hair, but at least it didn’t have breasts. Females were especially vicious. A mass of black blood had formed over its left eye. Kyle guessed that someone had gouged it out. More blood covered the creature’s legs and arms.
Signs of a struggle resided on the cave’s surfaces. Boot prints and scuffed areas littered the dusty floor. Upon the walls, blood still dripped. Fanned patterns from the spray marked many areas.
“What the hell did you do to deserve such a beating, fella?” Kyle realized the Moon Wolf had succumbed to unconsciousness, and he knelt next to it. “Why beat you and leave you for dead? What were Jaburn and his bunch after?”
Whimpering, the lycanthrope opened its one good eye and gazed up at him. Kyle lurched backward, falling on his ass. With effort, the Moon Wolf turned its head toward him. Although the creature’s speech came out guttural, Kyle made out the words, “Please, help me,” before the werewolf closed its eye again and lay still once more.
For now, all Kyle could do was sit and wait until the moon set for the night. In the meantime, the creature’s extraordinary abilities would help it more than anything else. With only three days to find Scott Bashian, Kyle didn’t have time to waste several hours being a nursemaid to a Moon Wolf. He sighed and growled low in his throat. Regardless, he sensed he had to remain with this Wolf. Something pulled at Kyle, something strong that insisted he needed the Wolf.
“Damnation!” Kyle sat back on his heels.
As the transformation from Moon Wolf to human began, the change would probably heal most of the physical damage. If the Wolf survived that, he had a good chance of recovering from the rest of his injuries.
He left the Moon Wolf in the cave and leapt down to Denizen. The gray of the predawn sky took Kyle by surprise. He’d had no idea it had taken him so long to travel over the desert as he’d followed the mechanical wagon’s path. With a glance toward the sky, he had only one option, and that was to settle in the cave for the day.
He grumbled to himself. “Three days. Three lousy days to find Scott Bashian and bring him back to the Conclave. I’ll never find him in three days!”
He sighed and glanced up at the ledge. With the sun rising, the Moon Wolf’s natural lycanthrope cycle would be shifting him into human form any moment now.
Kyle found his hat and jammed it on his head. Taking Denizen by the reins, he led her around a big boulder and dropped the leads to the ground. “Stay here out of sight, girl. I don’t want to drag a Moon Wolf all the way back to the Ruby City should something happen to you.” From a saddlebag, he took out a canteen and a bowl. He poured water into it and held it to his steed’s muzzle. “Here, girl. Drink up.”
After the horse sucked up the water, she nuzzled his vest, leaving a wet smear across the leather.
Smiling, Kyle withdrew the sugar lumps and held them out on his upturned palm. Her thick, velvety lips skimmed his hand, and the treats disappeared. Before leaving Denizen, he untied his satchel and slipped the strap over his shoulder. It wouldn’t do to have someone steal not only his horse but all his tools too. As he walked away, the sound of crunching and slurping followed him back to the base of the cliff.
With a chuckle, Kyle jumped up to the cave’s ledge again.
Upon entering the small chamber, he discovered a naked man in place of the werewolf. The human looked well over six feet tall, his hair blue-black. Although covered with slashes, puncture wounds, and drying blood, the man possessed a well-built body and a nice, firm ass. Approaching him, Kyle knelt just as the human moaned and opened his good eye, an eye as blue as the sky on a cold, spring day.
Something clenched inside Kyle. Unable to tear his gaze away from the human’s, he set his kit on the cave floor and found the remnants of a shirt nearby. He ripped a piece off of it. Gently, he dabbed at the congealed fluids filling and surrounding the bad eye.
“Wh-who are you?” the man rasped.
“Kyle Vanderbelt.” Inwardly, he grimaced. The eye was a lost cause. “I’m a Resolution Agent with the Conclave in Ruby City. What might your name be, stranger?”
“Shades.” Trying to move, he sucked in a pain-filled breath. “Shades Hollowvale.”
“Well, Shades.” Kyle set the rag aside and made a mental note to fetch the canteens from the saddlebags. “What brings you out to the middle of this wasteland only to be left for dead?”
“I heard the moon rubies were stolen, and I think I know who might have them,” Shades wheezed, “but Jaburn the Drainer is involved somehow. I don’t think he knows for certain who has the gems, so he figured he’d beat the information out of me.” The Moon Wolf grimaced. “I didn’t tell him anything.”
“Jaburn earned the title of The Drainer for a reason. He’s the lowest vermin of the Life Drinkers, but even he won’t step over the boundaries and drain a Moon Wolf. If caught, it’s immediate beheading.” Flummoxed, Kyle pushed his hat farther back on his head. “But Jaburn’s not against slicing a lycanthrope’s throat to drain one that way, so why didn’t he finish you off?”
Shades moved his hand next to the wound in his chest. “He used a silver-tipped knife on me. He thought it killed me, but it didn’t pierce my heart.” His eyes rolled back in his head, and he gasped. “There’s a piece of silver still in there.”
“Let me see what I can do,” Kyle muttered.
If he didn’t get the silver out of the man, he’d be dead within a couple of hours.