WILLIAM glided through the grove. The cypresses gave way to the Edge pines. Huge pine trunks surrounded him, black and soaring, like a sea of masts that belonged to ships sunken deep under the carpet of blue leaf moss.Dense thickets crowded the pines, punctuated by the patches of rust ferns. Stunted swamp willows with startling pale bark protruded through the brush like white wax candles. This wasn't his Wood. This was an old treacherous place, a garish decay and new life mixed into one, and William felt uneasy.The dog by his side didn't much care for the wood either. The sleepy-eyed, good-natured idiot had raised his ears, and his brown eyes scanned the woods with open suspicion.A breeze touched them. They both sniffed in unison and turned left, following Lark's trail.Where was that kid going? William leapt over a fallen branch. He hoped with all of him that Lark wasn't meeting some "nice" monster in the woods and telling him all of the secrets of her family.A large white oak loomed in the woods, a lone giant tinseled with maiden hair moss. The air currents slapped William with a dozen odors of carrion, some old, some new. What the hell?With all this carrion, he could smell nothing else.Cough barreled on ahead. Dogs. Stupid creatures.William jogged closer.A dozen small furry bodies hung from the oak's branches. Two squirrels, a rabbit, an odd thing that looked like a cross between a raccoon and an ermine - something the Edge had cooked up, no doubt - fish . . .A skinny shape scrambled through the branches above him. Lark's small face poked through the leaves."You shouldn't be here. This is the tree where the small monster lives," she said. "This is the small monster's food, and that's the small monster's house."He looked up to where she pointed. A haphazard shelter sat in the branches of the oak, just some old boards clumsily nailed and tied to make a little platform with an overhang. A small yellow something sat on the edge of the platform. William squinted. A stuffed teddy bear next to Peva's crossbow.Cerise was right. Lark thought she was a monster. A small one. Who the hell was the big monster?The teddy bear looked at him with small black eyes. Looking at it made him feel uneasy, as if he was sick or in serious danger and he wasn't sure when the next blow would be coming. He wanted to take Lark and her teddy bear away from the tree, just carry her off to the house, where there was warmth and light. His instincts told him she'd bolt if he tried.Human children didn't do this and she wasn't a changeling. If she was one, he would've recognized her by now and Cerise wouldn't be surprised by his eyes.William tapped the tree. "Can I come up?"Lark bit her lips thinking. "I can trust you?"He let the moonlight catch his eyes, setting them aglow. "Yes. I'm a monster, too."Lark's eyes went wide. She stared at him in silent shock for a long breath and nodded. "Okay."William took a couple of steps back and launched himself up the trunk, scrambling up like a lizard. It took him less than two seconds to crouch on the branch across from Lark."Wow," she said. "Where did you learn to climb that fast?""It's something I do," he said.Cough whined below.Lark scuttled down the branches, pulled out a small knife and cut the rope holding a water rat. The rat's body fell with a wet plop. Cough sniffed it and sat on his haunches, panting, long sticky drool stretching from his mouth."He never eats them." Lark frowned.That's because they're rotten. "Do you come here a lot?"She nodded. "If we don't find my mom, I might move here. I like it. Nobody bothers me here. Except for the big monster, but I usually run away when I hear him.""The big monster?"She nodded. "It moans and snarls when the moon is up."The Hand's agents were freaks, but he doubted they would howl at the moon. "Is it something that's always lived here?""I don't know. I only started this tree four weeks ago.""What does it look like?"She shrugged. "I don't know. It gives me the creeps, and I usually run straight to the house." Her face shut down."Do people bother you at the house?"Lark looked away."Monsters belong in the woods," she said. "They don't belong at the house. Were kids mean to you when you were a small monster?"William considered the question, trying to sort through the mess that was his childhood to find something a human girl would consider mean. "I grew up in a house with a bunch of kids who were monsters like me. We fought. A lot." And when they really went at it, only one changeling got up in the end.Lark scooted closer to him. "The adults didn't stop you? We aren't allowed to fight.""They did. They were strict. We got whipped a lot, and if you really screwed up, they would put you on a chain in a room by yourself. Nobody would talk to you for days."Lark blinked. "How did you get food?""They would slide it through a slot in the door.""And bathroom?""There was a hole in the floor."She pursed her lips. "No showers?""No.""That's nasty. How long did you stay in there?"He leaned back, lowering one leg down. "The longest was three weeks. I think. Time is odd when you're in that room.""Why did they put you in there?""I broke into the archives. I wanted to find out who my parents were.""Did you?"He shook his head. "No.""So you didn't ever have a dad? Or a mom?"William shook his head. This conversation had gotten deeper than planned."How can you not have a mom? What if you got sick? Who would bring you medicine?"Nobody. "What about your mom? Is she nice?"A small hint of a smile crossed Lark's lips and twisted into a pained frown. He guessed she was trying not to cry."My mom's very nice. She makes me brush my hair. And she holds me. Her hair smells like apples. She makes really good food. Sometimes, I come and sit by her in the kitchen when she cooks, and she sneaks me hot cocoa. It's hard to get, because Uncle Kaldar has to bring it from the Broken, and we only get it when something big happens. Like birthdays and Christmas, but I get it a lot ..." Lark clamped her mouth shut and looked at him. "Do you know when your birthday is?"He nodded. "Yes.""Did you ever get any presents?"William sucked the air in through his nose. She asked bad questions. "I'm a monster, remember? The birth of little monsters isn't something people celebrate."Lark looked away again.Great. Now he made the kid feel bad. Nice going, asshole.William reached over and touched one of the ropes holding a squirrel carcass. "Did you catch all these?""Yes. I'm good at it."Both rats bore bolt marks. She probably did shoot those. But the rabbit carcass was at least eight days old, and there weren't maggots on it. William picked up the rope, pulled the rabbit up, and looked at it. His nose told him not to eat - there was some sickness in it.Water rats were ugly, but the rabbit was cute. She wouldn't shoot one. She probably just found the corpse somewhere. A changeling child wouldn't have any problem killing a rabbit. It was good meat, slightly sweet.William let go of the rope. "You're planning to eat those?"She stuck her chin in the air. He'd touched a nerve. "Yep!""All right. First of all, squirrels aren't good to eat. The only thing you can make with them is stew, and even then, they're bony and they stink. Rats, same. Don't eat rats. They carry a sickness that will give you fever, cramps, and chills, and your skin and eyes will turn yellow. All these over there are too rotten to eat. That one over there has been picked on by birds, and that one's got maggots. Your fish over there is hanging too close to the trunk and there are spots on it - that's because the ants from that hill over there have been going up the tree and eating your kill."Lark's eyes turned as big as saucers.William pulled the rope, lifting the ermine thing. "Not sure what this is ...""It's a Mire weasel. He killed those squirrels over there and ate their babies."That explained things. The weasel raided a nest and was punished. "I wouldn't eat him either," William said. "Unless I was really hungry. But since he's fresh, he'll do."He cut the corpse from the rope and laid it on the tree. "The reason you hang things is to drain the blood, cool them down, and keep creatures like that dimwit under us from eating your food. If you take a creature's life to keep you going, you have to treat it with respect and not waste it." He split the carcass. "The first thing you do is pull the insides out. That's called dressing. Pay attention to the stomach and the guts, you don't want to cut them. This right here is the liver. This dark blob is full of bile. You cut that open and the whole thing is shot. It's too bitter to eat."He dumped the innards on the ground and shook the weasel to fling off any of the old blood."Now you skin it. Like this. If you leave a bit of fat on it, the meat won't dry out. Also, you have to keep flies off of it. Steal a can of black pepper and sprinkle that on the meat. Flies don't care for it." He finished skinning and held up the bare carcass. "Now, you can cook it, or you can store it. If you want to store it, you can - freeze it - but I don't see how you could here, so your choices are curing it or smoking the meat ..."The tiny hairs on the back of his neck rose. He felt the weight of a gaze on his back sharp as a dagger.William turned slowly.Two eyes glared at him from the darkness between the branches of a pine."What the hell is that?" he whispered.Lark's voice trembled. "The big monster."The eyes took his measure. William looked deep into them and found an almost human awareness, a cruel and malevolent intelligence that shot a wave of icy alarm down his spine. He tensed like a coiled spring.The diamond pupils shrank into slits, looking past William, at the girl in the branches behind him.William pulled the crossbow from his back and locked the weapon's arms.The eyes shifted, tracking Lark. Whatever it was in the pine was about to pounce."Run.""What?" Lark whispered."Run. Now."William raised the crossbow. Hello, asshole.The eyes fixed on him.That's right. Forget the kid. Pay attention to me. William gently squeezed the trigger. A poisoned bolt whistled through the air and bit below the eyes.A snarl of pure pain ripped through the night.Behind him Lark scrambled down the tree.The creature didn't go down. He hit it with a poisoned bolt, and it didn't go down.The eyes swung up, the bolt moving with them. He caught a glimpse of a nightmarish face, pale, hairless, with elongated jaws flashing a forest of teeth.The beast bunched its powerful back legs and launched its enormous bulk into the space between them. William fired a second time and leaped to intercept it.THE huge body hit William in midair. Like being hit by a truck. William slammed against the oak, the creature on top of him. The air burst from his lungs in a single sharp grunt. Pain blossomed between his ribs. Huge jaws gaped an inch from his face, releasing a cloud of fetid breath. Sonovabitch. William snarled and sliced across the beast's throat. Blood poured.A thick muscled paw smashed his head. The world teetered. Colored circles burst before his eyes.He sliced again, pinned down by the creature's weight. Two bolts, two cuts across the neck. It should've been dead.The next hit knocked him into a woozy, furious haze.Half-blind, William thrust the knife into the beast's flesh and locked his hand on it.A thick leg swiped him, clenching him in a steel-hard clamp. William shook his head, gripping the knife. The woods slid by him in a flurry of green stains - they were moving. The beast clutched at the trunk of the oak like a lizard and climbed up to the crown, dragging him with it.William twisted, spreading the fingers of his left hand, jammed the sleeper against a vein bulging underneath the creature's pale skin, and squeezed. The needle punched into the blood vessels, squirting the contents of the capsule into the bloodstream. Enough narcotic to drop a grown man where he stood.The creature snarled and shook him like a dog shakes a rat. William snarled back, punching the needles into the beast's neck in rapid succession: one, two, three. The sleeper clicked, out of ammo.The beast hissed and dropped him. William plummeted in a shower of broken branches. His fingers caught a tree limb. He grabbed it, nearly dislocating his shoulders, swung himself up and over like a gymnast, and dropped down to the forest floor.His vision cleared. He jerked his head up. Above him, the beast descended the tree, moving down the trunk upside down, headfirst.Bolts, poison, knife, enough narcotic to drop a twelve-hundred-pound bull in mid-charge, and it still moved. William backed away.The brute leaped to the ground. The moon tore through the clouds, flooding the beast in silvery light. Long and corded with hard muscle, it stood on four massive legs, equipped with five thick, clawed fingers. Coarse brown fur grew in patches on its powerful forequarters and along the sides, thickening to cover the pelvis but failing to completely hide the wrinkled flesh-colored skin. Flat cartilaginous ridges guarded the curve of its spine, flaring into bony plates to sheath the top of its narrow skull. The long serpentine tail lashed and flexed, coiling. Two deep bloody gashes split his neck.In his entire life, William had never seen anything like it.The creature dug the ground with a clawed paw, more simian than canine. The malevolent eyes glared at William. The flesh around the wounds on its neck shivered. The edges pulled together, the red muscle knitted, the skin stretched, and suddenly the cuts were gone. Nothing save the lines of two thin scars remained.Fuck.The beast's mouth opened wide, wider, like the unhinging jaws of a snake. Crooked fangs gleamed, wet with foamy drool."Nice." William raised his knife and motioned with the fingers of his left hand. "Come closer. I'll carve you up the old-fashioned way."A pale furry body shot from the bushes, baying like some hell dog. Cough danced around the beast, snapping and barking and foaming at the mouth. The beast shook its ugly head.William gathered himself for a charge.The beast recoiled, as if shocked by a live wire. A moment later William heard it, too, a low female voice singing, rising and falling, murmuring Gaulish words.The beast shuddered. Its maw gaped open. It howled, a low lingering wail full of regret and pain, whirled, and took off into the night."Come back here!" William snarled.The voice came closer. The tiny glow of a lantern swayed between dark pines.William dived into the thicket, leaving Cough alone in the mangled weeds.The bushes parted, and Grandmother Az emerged. She raised her lantern, the shaky light carving the age lines deeper into her face. Lark peered from behind her, dark eyes huge in her pale face.The dog trotted over and pushed against the old woman's legs, nearly knocking her off her feet."There you are, Cough." Grandmother Az reached over to pet Cough's foam-drenched head. "It's all right.""Is it gone?" Lark asked."Yes, he's gone now, child. He won't come back tonight. You have to stay out of the forest for a while. I wish you would've told me he had come around. Come. Let's go home."Grandmother Az took Lark's hand with a soothing smile and walked back into the woods. The dog followed them, growling quietly and talking shit under his breath.William sat up. His chest hurt, and his shoulder felt like it was a single continuous bruise. The thing had regenerated before his eyes. Not even the Hand's freaks healed that fast. What in the bloody hell was that?Slowly the reality of the situation sank in. He got his ass kicked, learned nothing, and got saved by a dumb dog and an old lady.If he lived long enough to make a report to Nancy back in Adrianglia, he would have to gloss over this part.