“May I?” Grigori examined the silver bracelet with the simple medic alert logo. “I’ve seen these on TV. They advertise them to old people who’ve ‘fallen and can’t get up’. Is it a gift or a loan?”
“It’s a gift,” Kjetil said with a glint in his eye. “From the F&R, in appreciation for our yard. We figured we owed you for that.”
Juniper shifted uneasily. A personal gift from him would be problematic, hinting at an interest she wasn’t prepared to return. A gift from the department she could handle, but she would feel the need to repay it. Maybe she could rejuvenate their front yard, too. They could do with some flowering trees.
Grigori wiggled the bracelet temptingly. “How many times have you passed out in the last week? This will help, and Captain Romance here won’t have to come to your rescue.” It was clear he was used to negotiating with younger siblings.
Kjetil growled. His menacing stare pinned Grigori, warning him to back down. Whatever his motives, he wasn’t going to let the younger man challenge him.
Grigori bared his teeth, but he dropped his eyes.
Juniper held up a hand. She hated confrontations, and the wolf was making her nervous. She hated to admit it, but Grigori was right. Given time, she might be able to find her limits without help, but she was under pressure now and would push herself to the limit. She needed the bracelet. “I appreciate the gesture. I accept, on the condition that I improve your front yard when I go to your barbeque.”
Kjetil smiled. “Can you give us a magic oak tree? Your acorn oil is a big hit.”
She blinked. “Um, I’m not sure. I was thinking a nut tree, or some flowering stuff.”
Kjetil shrugged. “That’s fine, too.”
They didn’t talk much on the way to the oak. They approached her cherry trees (there were twelve of them now). There was a crack in the side of the road that hadn’t been there before, about six by two feet, and it was glowing pink.
Great. Had she stirred something with her cherry trees? That wasn’t good. She glanced at Kjetil to comment and flinched.
Kjetil had shifted. His face was a meld of wolf and man, his body covered in fur. He was unmistakably deadly, his new form mute, but much stronger and faster than a human, and armed with claws and teeth. Even the gangs would hesitate to take him on.
She looked away, uneasy. She’d known what he was, but there weren’t any weres where she was from. She reminded herself that he was the same person, but it didn’t help much. Her instincts screamed he was dangerous.
“It looks like a twa…er, lady bits,” Grigori said, looking suspiciously at the glowing crack. It was oozing pink fluid now, and the light pulsed ominously.
“Ew! Thanks, I needed that image,” she protested, and recoiled as things began to crawl from the slit. Pink, hairless and translucent, the things looked like a cross between a rat and a rabbit and were covered with slime. “Not good,” she protested, urging Twix back a step. His ears were twitching eagerly, and she was afraid he was thinking lunch. “Ick, Twix! You don’t any.”
One of the creatures looked at her with pink eyes and hissed. She backed up and it followed, and dropped as Kjetil shot it. The other rat things pounced and began to feast.
“I don’t like these,” Grigori said, machetes out. “Can you close the crack?”
“Let’s see.” She specialized in trees, not earth, but tree roots could move dirt. She gripped her staff and sent the roots through the soil, testing the size of the crack. It was deep, far deeper than the root system, but she didn’t think it appeared because of anything she’d done. Planting her trees might have been a bit of intuition, or maybe Bramble Burn was giving her a subconscious heads-up. She began to weave roots around the crack.
Rats poured out the slit, dying as Kjetil fired steady shots into the mass. Some of them tumbled back into the crack, others were cannibalized. There were so many.
“Now would be good,” Grigori said urgently, giving the restless Twix space. He couldn’t do anything unless the mass of rats reached them, and if they did, he would have to run before they overwhelmed him.
“Yes,” she murmured, her mind on the roots. The ground was hard, and whatever spawned the slit resisted, so she poured on the coals. Her staff pulsed, glowing with amber circuits. She snarled and heaved, pulling the roots tight, tumbling dirt into the crack. Rocks and broken concrete crushed rats as roots twisted and wove, filling the slit with wood and power.
Juniper raised her head and took a deep breath, aware that sweat soaked her shirt. She felt Twix tense and tightened her legs, barely keeping her seat as he swooped and grabbed a twitching rat, gobbling it down like a naughty dog caught slurping compost.
“Twix!” she shouted, but it was too late. “Stupid beast. That better not be poisonous.” There was no point in stopping him from grabbing another, but she forced him to walk toward the park as he chewed.
Grigori looked over his shoulder as he followed. “Do you think that will hold them?”
“Time will tell. I hope so,” she said, a bit tired. Good thing she planned to hang out in her tree today. She could set up the greenhouse and build up energy for tomorrow; she’d need it.