Authors: Hilary Wagner
It was time. Juniper, Vincent, and Carn sat in a cypress tree with Dresden and his children, looking down at the plantation.
Cotton and Telula had been keeping their eyes on the swamp rats’ comings and goings for months now, tracking them throughout the grounds of the plantation, watching their every move.
Cotton extended a wing, pointing it at Stono. “That one,” he
said, “he’s a real bruiser, always at the center of things, him and that female.” He motioned to Thicket. “Nasty little thing, she is. I’ve seen her maul her own siblings, grinning as she knocks them out cold.”
Spying a milkweed leaf beetle, Telula jutted forward, quickly snatching it up in her teeth, crunching sharply as she crushed its red-and-black shell. Vincent and Carn winced in disgust. “Billycan always has the two gray fellows in tow,” she said, swallowing the beetle, “his seconds-in-command, Cobweb and Montague. They talk like him—like us—not at all like the horde. They’re different, cinder from head to toe, not brown like the others.”
The screen door leading to the backyard slammed shut. Dresden nudged Juniper. “There he is—there’s your Billycan.”
Juniper’s neck bristled as he watched the white rat stroll out from the manor and leap nimbly atop his throne. Billycan looked younger, the warm climate apparently treating him well. He seemed heartier—bigger.
Closing his eyes for a moment, Juniper let out a heavy sigh. The stakes were higher than ever—more than anyone knew. “So there’s the White Assassin,
of the swamp rats. I thought the sight of him would make me seethe with rage, but I don’t quite know how I feel.”
Vincent sneered, suddenly angry. “I still don’t understand why you insist on doing this, Juniper. Just eliminate him.”
“Vincent, I’m aware of your stance on the matter,” said Juniper calmly. “You clearly have your reasons—”
“I have seven
!” he shouted back at Juniper. “He murdered my parents, my brothers, my sisters. Get rid of him once and for all. Why must we capture him and run the risk he’ll only manage to escape
“Keep your voice down!” barked Juniper. “Are you trying to get us all killed? Upon founding Nightshade we all took an oath, and it’s
a selective one. As a member of the Council, you must set an example. We don’t kill—not even our enemies, no matter how deadly they are. We have the serum. We can find out the truth and be sure there are no others waiting in the wings, ready to pounce should his life end.” He motioned to the horde. “He is going to set those wild fiends upon us like rabid wolves. He could have operatives all over Trillium, just waiting for their chance to take power. Do you really want to risk that? This is our only answer. We can find out
After that, he can rot alongside his high majors in Nightshade’s prison corridor.”
Vincent glowered at Billycan as he stretched leisurely in his throne. “I still don’t agree with your decision—and for the record, much of the Council does not agree.” Slowly he exhaled. “You have done a great deal for me and Victor. You have given us a future and have become our family. My father’s dream—Nightshade—was realized because of you. So I do this for you, and for young Julius. He’s the only good thing to come from that fiend who dares call himself a rat. No matter who gave him life, Julius is
boy through and through—a true Belancort.”
Juniper set a paw on Vincent’s shoulder. “Fair enough,” he said.
Carn sat on the branch, his brown feet dangling in the air as he watched the swamp rats swoon and slobber over Billycan. Billycan had killed Carn’s family, too, then forced the orphaned rat to serve as his Kill Army aide. He, too, was uneasy with Juniper’s decision to leave Billycan unharmed, but he would abide by it. Working eleven years under Billycan, constantly surrounded by him, Killdeer, and the high majors, Carn had seen enough carnage for a lifetime.
He inspected his dirtied coat. He hadn’t groomed himself since he made his decision to infiltrate the horde. A clean rat would surely stick out among the grubby swamp rats, but his filthy brown fur would help him fit in seamlessly. “It’s time,” he said. Carn was edgy but
self-assured. This was his moment. He could not fail Juniper, who would surely blame himself should things end badly.
“I suppose the front yard, then,” said Carn, referring to a drop-off point.
“Agreed,” said Juniper. He sighed heavily. “Carn, are you absolutely sure you want—”
“Yes,” said Carn, with a reassuring grin. “I want to do this. I
do this. No one will notice me in that sea of dirty brown rats. Besides, I’ve been around long enough to learn a thing or two.” He winked. “Maybe even from old Billycan himself.” He looked down at the horde. “With any luck, I’ll get reliable information from someone. Being one of the horde, talking with them, maybe I’ll get details the bats haven’t learned just eavesdropping. I want Billycan captured just as much as you do, and I’ll do anything to finally bring him to justice.” He scanned the area surrounding the manor. “Telula, that rotting pile of firewood at the side of the manor—that can be our rendezvous point. We’ll meet up every day, just after sunset, so I can report what I’ve learned.”
“I’ll be there without fail,” said Telula. She pointed a wing toward Stono and Thicket, who were now wrestling in the grass. “You’ll want to get near them, but be wary. They meet with Billycan often, so listen for information, but for Saints’ sake stay on the fringes of things. I can’t stress it enough. Remain unremarkable.”
“Telula is right,” said Vincent. “The moment Billycan catches a hint of your scent or a glimpse of your face, he’ll—”
“I know,” said Carn, smiling at Vincent reassuringly. “I know what he’ll do to me.”
Grabbing Carn by the shoulders, Juniper stared at him intently. “Never let your guard down, not even for a moment. Nightshade would never be the same if something happened to you—nor would I.”
“You better return,” said Vincent, a bleak expression on his face.
“Both of you, quit worrying,” said Carn. “I’ll be fine.” He watched as Billycan walked back into the manor. He nodded at Telula. “Let’s go.”
Telula rose from the branch. She swiftly grabbed Carn by the scruff of his neck. With a broad swoop, she made her way around to the back of the mansion, smoothly setting Carn down in the boggy grass just inside the plantation borders. “Remember,” Telula said as she flew back into the trees, “stay on the fringes of things—
Juniper watched as Carn faded into the horde. No one seemed to notice his arrival, but Juniper worried. What would become of Carn?
IGHT HAD FALLEN
. Carn crept under a rusted-out jalopy in the front yard and tried to get some sleep. It was an intermittent slumber, filled with half-conscious dreams, intensified by strange scents, garbled voices, and faint snarls all around him. The swamp rats had gathered just outside the car, sleeping peacefully in a tangled heap on the grass.
Carn awoke suddenly. He swallowed, his mouth dry, his paws trembling. What was he
It had all seemed so different when they’d hatched the plan. Why did he offer himself up like that?
Maybe the swamp rats weren’t so slow-witted after all. Maybe they were just callous fiends who preferred to live in squalor, too keen on killing to care about cleanliness. If they found him out, would he be torn to ribbons? Would they bring him screaming in terror to Billycan?
Carn cautiously poked his head out from under the car, trying to muster up courage—the same courage he’d mustered when he stood
beside Juniper and denounced Billycan to the entire Kill Army. Be that rat, he thought. Be
He peered out from behind a tire. “Summon your mettle,” he whispered to himself, struggling not to panic. Dense or not,
rats could smell fear. He clenched his teeth and rambled casually to the outskirts of the horde. His eyes wandered to Stono and Thicket, already awake, shaking themselves from their sluggishness.
Right away the pair spotted Carn eyeing them.
Bouncing up from the grass, Thicket bounded over to him. “Who you be?” she shouted, forcing her snout into his face, growling. She shoved Carn aggressively, knocking him on his back.
Carn stared up at Thicket in amazement. He’d never been hit by a female—and with such force! She was as powerful as any male he’d been in scrapes with back in the Catacombs.
“Who you be?” she demanded again, baring her teeth.
Carn had not thought about a name. He certainly couldn’t use his own … and what about the horde’s dialect? His refined speech would be a dead giveaway that he did not belong. He thought quickly, jumping to his feet. “Corn!” he blurted loudly. He growled forcefully, shoving Thicket backward.
Thicket hissed at him. The larger rat, Stono, was standing just behind her now.
“Corn!” he yelled again, thrusting his face into hers. It was a risky move, but if anything it would show he wasn’t to be pushed around. “That who I be!”
Thicket took a step back. She crossed her arms and nibbled on the tip of her tail, looking the foreigner up and down. She was actually quite striking, with a bright and determined face and angular features. She pursed her mouth as she inspected him, looking almost demure. Carn thought perhaps she was toying with him, about to
attack. Stono hung behind her like an overgrown child, ready to follow her lead. She was unquestionably in control.
Her tone became less confrontational. “Why I never seen you before?” she asked.
Carn searched his brain. Use as few words as possible, he thought. “I been out,” he said indifferently, “hunting the woods for snakes and such.”
Thicket looked surprised. Hunting snakes was dangerous, unheard of among the horde. Only Billycan was capable of killing them. “We don’t kill snakes! They kill us!” she snapped indignantly, as if Carn had carried out some grave offense. “Ain’t you scared of them?”
Telula had told him to stay on the fringes, and here he was talking to Thicket, the obvious ringleader of the horde, which had slowly wrapped around them in a circle as though a schoolyard tussle were about to break out.
Telula had told him. At this rate, he’d be dead before lunch.
Despite the growing number of spectators, Carn stayed in character. “Corn ain’t scared a nothing,” he sneered. “Not snakes, not nobody.”
Thicket marched around him in a circle. “How many snakes you kill out there?”
“Don’t know,” he replied. “Lots, I guess. I break their bones and eat ’em up.”
Thicket looked impressed. The swamp rats never lied, so they were unable to grasp the concept of deception. Thicket had no reason not to believe him. She stuck out her snout, sniffing his face and neck again. “How long you been hunting out there?”
“Real long time—years, I reason.”
Thicket looked satisfied with his answer. That would explain
a new face. Rats were easily forgotten in the horde. A few years away might as well have been an eternity.
“Corn,” she said, turning to her male counterpart, “this be Stono.”
Carn nodded. Stono grunted in response, not sure if he wanted another male sniffing around Thicket.
Thicket turned to Stono and glared at him. “What you rumbling ’bout back there?” she asked brusquely.
Stono grumbled something unintelligible and kicked the ground. Thicket’s voice suddenly grew mild, almost sweet. “Aw, don’t go fussing now. Corn just another rat. He ain’t
Stono. Nobody’s you.” Thicket punched Stono’s arm, her crude way of showing affection. Stono stopped pouting and gave her a shy smile, which looked odd coming from such a brute of a rat.
Carn wouldn’t have believed it had he not seen it with his own eyes, not after what he’d heard from the bats. The swamp rats clearly felt genuine emotion, not just the base instincts to kill and mate—even Thicket, who by all accounts was an utter menace. Carn watched as Thicket tugged playfully at Stono’s ear. He plucked her off her feet, throwing her to the ground. The two starting wrestling in the grass. They didn’t play nice or even fair, but it was obvious they cared for each other.