Koda’s first night as a trainee: Ghoul hunting
There was a ghoul on the loose, and Luella had lost it. How did someone lose track of a ghoul? Yes, they were fast, but not when they were trying to blend in as a human. That naiad needed to have a better excuse than a heavy makeout session for why that ghoul disappeared and why I was riding shotgun on our way to track the stupid creature down before it killed anyone else.
“Pull in here,” I directed Koda, my new trainee, who was driving, per my orders.
My trainers had done it to me when I was first learning, and looking back, it had been a good way to acclimate me to my position. Plus, being the passenger meant that I could look my fill at the driver…and the rest of the vehicle’s occupants as I’d questioned Lee and Koda the whole way to gauge their knowledge. Well, mostly Lee. Koda was an encyclopedia and then some.
“How’re we doing this, then?” Shannon asked from the back seat, Jackson sitting with her, drawing my attention away from Koda and the gas station I’d had her pull into to park.
Unbuckling the seatbelt, which I still found too restraining most days, I faced the back of the vehicle. “Luella spotted the ghoul in an alley on her way to that club she likes, the Pearl Palace. We’re a few blocks from the club. If the ghoul’s still in the area, it’ll be close. Avery and I will head to the west. Shannon and Jackson will go east. Luella is already circling the area searching for its kills or dead meals. She’s also texted me a picture of its last victim, which I’ve sent to you so you can recognize it if you see the man.”
“What about us?” Koda’s question was expected, but I was surprised that she’d asked it. The answer should’ve been obvious. I pushed the thought aside, blaming it on her lack of sleep and training, so I arched a brow, preparing for the obvious answer.
“This is your first night as a trainee. You’ll stay in the car. If we need you, we’ll call you. You have your cell phones, correct?”
Both proved they had their phones while I tapped a note in my calendar that I needed to make sure at least Koda had uniforms and credentials soon. They added everyone on the team to their contacts while I explained the reason why we weren’t taking them. Beyond the obvious, I didn’t yet want Koda anywhere near a ghoul. Not yet. My first experience with the species had not gone well, and I didn’t want that for her, and I’d been better prepared to kill them than she was now. It would probably kill her. That death would be on my head, so I wouldn’t risk it. There was plenty of time to test her against ghouls in the future.
Unsure about her penchant for trouble—or Lee’s since he was staying with Koda—I locked eyes with her and held the stare, voice hard so she would be certain to know this was no light matter. “If you see something out of the ordinary, do not engage. Call or text me. If the ghoul leaves the area, do not follow it. Watch where it goes and contact me. And above all, do not leave this car. Do you understand me?”
Disappointment coated her tone, but I wasn’t changing my mind. Soon she’d understand this was for her benefit. Plus, I had no idea what we were walking into. As the rest of the team piled from the SUV, Jackson’s nose was already sniffing the air. He’d keep Shannon safe, though that witch was impressive in her own right, and I’d be the first to admit she could beat me if she really had the inclination to do it.
Crossbow in hand, Avery joined me as the witch and wolf headed in the opposite direction from the way we strode. My snow leopard partner was unusually quiet, eyeing me from his peripheral vision. There was a question on the tip of his tongue that he was desperately trying to hold back, and given time, he’d fail and spill. I didn’t have that sort of time.
“Let’s have it. What do you want to say?” I asked my best friend as we slipped into a back alley between two buildings.
“She’s a vamlure, huh? Is that why you chose her? What about your ‘no dating within the team’ rule?”
And here I’d thought he would ask me something about the ghoul, and maybe Luella’s lack of responsibility. No, he had to go right to the heart of the issue that I didn’t want to discuss with him or anyone. It was coming. I’d known it the second he’d laid eyes on the two of us, but didn’t Avery realize that this was not the time?
Then again, we were walking around looking for a ghoul, and we’d both smell it before we saw it, or before it saw us. So far, as we strode down the next street, we hadn’t picked up on a single scent.
“She’s my trainee,” I argued, attempting to push the topic away. It was less than a successful attempt.
Avery caught my arm and pulled us both to a stop. “Raven, I don’t know what’s going on inside that head of yours, but there’s an extremely attractive young woman back in that truck. You can’t tell me that you aren’t at all attracted to her, especially with her being one of your kind. Isn’t that why you didn’t date Jezzi? Because you weren’t attracted to her because she wasn’t a vamlure?”
A headache was forming at my temples, and it had little to do with the bright lamp we’d halted underneath. “Yes, I find her attractive, but you know my history better than anyone.”
“History is history. You’re in charge of your future, you idiot. Please tell me you’ve had a minimum of one time where the thought of kissing her lips has passed through your mind. Please tell me you’ve at least noticed them.”
Groaning as I ran a hand through my hair, I stilled when Avery’s phone started to ring and Lee’s name appeared on the display. We shared a look as Avery answered. Unfortunately for me, Avery always had the volume turned down on his phone these days so even I couldn’t hear, but from the tone of the conversation, something was wrong.
“We’ll be right there,” Avery stated in a hurry and ended the call, meeting my gaze. Fear lingered there as words spilled from his mouth. “The ghoul’s at the gas station and Koda’s trapped inside with it.”
I bolted past him, shoving him aside, legs pumping as fast as they could go. Bringing my phone to my ear, I waited as it rang, heart hammering in my chest, and not from the effort of running back to the station. What had she done?
“Shut up, Shan. Get to the gas station right now. As fast as you can.”
I’d hear later about my telling her to shut up, but the panic bubbling inside of me didn’t care. I pushed my body harder, but I was already running at my max speed. How far had we walked in the few minutes since we’d left the truck? It was more than a few minutes by the distance we’d covered.
If Koda survived, I was going to kill her.
We rounded the last corner and the gas station came into view. Lee stood at the front doors, hands gripping his hair, horror written over every feature of his face. I didn’t want to know what he was seeing, but I had to know what was happening inside all the same. Where was Shannon?
I slid to a halt on the gravelly cement outside the door, almost barrelling into Lee, and my eyes widened at the view within. The ghoul and Koda were locked in battle, and the ghoul had just landed on her. They struggled for control over the other, leaving my heart in my throat. Instinct kicked in, and with every bit of strength I had, I swung my fist at the door where the glass was already broken and webbing. It was my luck that this glass was made to withstand shifters.
It didn’t budge. Not even more cracks sprinkled the glass. Another strike had the same results, and I’d split open my knuckles, but that didn’t stop a third hit against the glass.
“Shannon!” I bellowed into the night, needing that witch to hurry up and reach us already so she could take out this door.
I couldn’t take my eyes away from the fight. My heartbeat thudded in my ears and horror gripped me. Any second that ghoul would let go of its throat where Koda had slashed it open and latch onto hers. She wasn’t fast enough. She wasn’t skilled enough. The only thing that would save her now was luck, not me.
My eyes widened as Koda pulled a knife from her boot and planted it in the top of the ghoul’s head. The creature cried out and lunged for the object that was hurting it. While the blade would never kill the ghoul, it was the distraction that Koda had been waiting for as she lunged at its throat with her other knife. Over and over she hacked away at the flesh and bone, the ghoul fighting to stop her, but the pain in its head was driving it mad as well.
“We’re here,” Shannon called as her tiny legs carried her across the parking lot, Jackson at her side. The witch was breathless, but even so, she reached the door and pressed her hands on both glass panes.
The glass exploded inward as the ghoul’s head fell to the floor. With the barrier in confetti pieces all over the immaculate tile, I growled in frustration as I pushed Shannon aside and rushed into the room. Koda still sat among the blood and water, her clothes soaked in both, and her expression dazed.
Had the creature hurt her? I hadn’t seen it bite Koda, but I’d missed most of the fight. She was far too pale. What had she been thinkinging? Stupid, stupid girl.
Grabbing Koda up in my arms, I lifted her and set us both down on our knees several feet away from the ghoul and the bloodshed. The feel of her in my arms, alive and breathing, threatened to unglue me. My gaze landed on her face, her beautiful face, those lush lips. I’d almost lost her.
“Koda, can you hear me?”
Her eyes didn’t register that she’d heard my words. I gave her shoulders a sharp shake as Avery’s voice reached me, talking to the others. “It’s a young one. Any older and it would’ve killed her before we even reached the gas station.”
My blood boiled. I’d been useless. I should never have left her alone. Anything could’ve happened, even if she’d stayed in the car like I’d told her to. This was my fault. Mine. I could yell and throw the blame at anyone, but the reality was, it came down to me. This was my team, and she was a member of that team. She should never have had to face this alone. If she’d been with me, I could’ve ended this. What was she even doing alone?
With rage spilling through my veins, I stared down at Koda as she started to blink, her eyes becoming focused. “Koda, can you hear me? Are you okay?” No answer, so I shook her shoulders again. “Did it hurt you?”
Ignoring me, or completely oblivious again, Koda’s gaze drifted to the side. Grabbing her chin, I forced her to look at me again…just in time for her pale skin to go a sickening green as she threw up over both of us. I blinked, the smell rivaling that of the dead ghoul. This night was growing worse by the second.
Lifting Koda into my arms, as she continued to empty the contents of her stomach along the way, I rushed us both to the bathroom, calling over my shoulder for Avery to call Luella. I was going to need that water witch. She’d deserve whatever it was I needed her to do to clean us up once Koda quit throwing up.
I set Koda down in front of the toilet where she proceeded to continue to puke. Was this from the bite or was she even bitten? Had she even understood that’s what I’d been asking her? At this point, I was questioning her responses. She’d seen the ghoul’s body. That had to be what caused the throwing up.
After what felt like forever, but could’ve only been minutes, Koda wiped her mouth and attempted to stand. She didn’t even make it off her knees as Luella’s voice echoed to me from the front of the station. Had she missed the message that I needed her now, like right this second? Burning up inside at Luella’s lack of haste, I missed what Koda said as I bellowed for Luella.
The naiad wasted no time rushing to me, her heels clicking on the tile. She opened the door and before she could get to work, she caught a whiff of the stench filling the room. I had to fight not to snicker as she turned a brilliant shade of green and was forced to step back out into the hallway. Served her right. Maybe next time she wouldn’t lose track of our target.
In short order, Luella had us cleaned off, the water from the tap running over our clothes and taking the gunk and grit with it. Even the ghoul’s blood was gone from Koda’s clothes. Her dark eyelashes fluttered and heat hit me straight in the gut. Those beautiful green eyes were a shade I’d never seen before, but soon, very soon, they’d be a bright magenta, and it would take every ounce of willpower I had not to fall for them.
“Raven, it bit her.”
The stupid thing had actually bitten her. Why hadn’t she told me? Did she want it to become infected? Ghoul’s mouths were disgusting pits of bacteria and decay.
I opened my mouth, but caught sight of Luella over Koda’s shoulder as she mouthed, “Be gentle.”
Luella wasn’t finished, but her next words were verbal. “There’s some bandages in the SUV. Let’s get her home. I think Koda has had enough attacks for the night, and that includes you, Captain. I’ll stay here with Shannon and Jackson. You and Avery take the youngsters home and calm them.”
I was ready to argue, but a peek at Koda convinced me that for once, Luella was right. Koda needed me to take her home. This was her first mission, and it had gone terribly wrong. Whatever comfort she needed, it wasn’t coming from a gas station bathroom.
For a brief moment, I let the idea run wild in my head that when we returned home, she’d let me comfort her. I’d hold her on the couch, rubbing her back, and she’d fall asleep in my arms. Then, I’d carry her to her bed, where she’d unconsciously reach for me and not let me go, and I’d be forced to spend the night in bed with her cuddled in my arms. We’d wake up together, and she’d see the man beyond the captain, the man I wanted to be, the one desperate to earn the love of a vamlure woman. Maybe then, I’d feel worthy.
Koda winced, and the dream evaporated. So did any hope I had of this beautiful woman ever wanting me. She’d learn the truth soon enough, and then she’d fall for another.
My only mission was to keep her alive long enough.