Marcus Pelegrimas

The Breaking

The fifth book in the Skinners series


Smoky Hill River, Kansas Fifteen miles west of Cedar Bluff State Park

It had been just over three weeks since the Nymar declared war on all Skinners. They’d targeted the hunters they knew, burnt them from their homes and coaxed them into open combat. Apart from thinning the Skinner ranks, they’d introduced the Shadow Spore into the modern world and blamed the Skinners for the deaths of dozens of police officers in a crossfire spanning most of the United States. Things settled down a bit after authorities stumbled upon a Skinner raid in Denver and arrested a man believed to be one of the main perpetrators in all of those cop killings. That man was Cole Warnecki, and ever since he was put behind bars, a spokesman for the police had shown up in several random interviews declaring the carnage over.

That spokesman’s narrow, smiling face had been broadcast on every major network, assuring the country that blood was no longer being spilled and the authorities had everything well in hand. Even the few humans who recognized Kawosa’s face were unable to resist being drawn in by the calming words spoken by one known as the First Deceiver. Some Skinners, however, couldn’t be pacified like the rest of the viewing public. For them, just keeping their heads above water was a struggle. Even if they knew Cole Warnecki had been framed by the Nymar, the hunt never stopped.

The stomping grounds of the Skinner known as Jessup were in the mountain ranges of Montana, but the territory he protected branched out to cover several states in each direction. The last year had been filled with commotion that put too many Skinners into the ground. Since then he’d done his part to pick up the slack by hitting the road and keeping his eyes open for anything that might need killing. Upon arriving in Ness City, Jessup only had to spark a conversation in a few local diners to hear stories about a pack of wolves that were known to fly, bark at the moon, run like the wind, and bite through solid steel. Even after making allowances for excited exaggeration, Jessup was confident he’d found something worth his time. At the very least, he could add a few Half Breed pelts and teeth to his collection. Most of the attacks supposedly happened north of town in the flatlands on either side of the Smoky Hill River, so the Skinner tipped his hat to the ones who’d told the stories, paid for his meat loaf, climbed into his Ford F150 and headed north.

The scars on his hands started to burn after less than an hour of driving. Three miles down the road, when the trail started to cool, Jessup pulled to a stop and climbed down from the driver’s seat before he lost it completely. Most werewolves didn’t bother with roads, and he knew that chasing after the things on four wheels didn’t do a lick of good anyway. A pack of werewolves could outrun, outmaneuver, and overturn any vehicle falling short of a tank. More than likely they’d already sniffed him out anyway, and were circling in close enough to take their first run at him.

As soon as his boots touched the ground, Jessup walked around the truck and pulled down the tailgate. His field kit was kept in a green canvas duffel bag covered in stenciled lettering and dirt picked up from opposite ends of the globe. Pockets were stitched into the inside walls to carry items he’d either need quickly or didn’t want to mix with the rest of his supplies. He pulled out an old mayonnaise jar filled with a thick black jelly that became even murkier when he shook it up. After filling his lungs with a generous portion of air that smelled of burnt leaves, he held his breath and twisted open the jar. Even after bracing himself for the stench, Jessup had to force back his gag reflex once the pungent aroma of blood, spoiled meat, and shapeshifter pheromones drifted into his nostrils.

Although the basic ingredients were the same, every Skinner had their own twist on the recipe for werewolf bait. Jessup’s included a few additions to hit the creatures’ sense of hunger as well as their instinctual attraction to certain substances. Not wasting time with cleanliness, he dipped his fingers into the jar and spattered the potent concoction on the tall grass around him while walking slowly away from the road and whistling to himself.

After all the bickering and haggling he’d been forced to endure with other Skinners who squabbled about how to fight the same battle, Jessup was now on his own, savoring the simple pleasures of the hunt. Old man Lancroft might have been crazy, but as far as Jessup was concerned, he did have a point when he’d written about Skinners losing their way. Nobody was sure who’d sent out the journals to everyone on MEG’s e-mail list, but Lancroft’s words made Jessup eager to strike out on his own and make whatever difference he could. On a more basic level, it just felt good to have the sun on his face, a weapon in his hands, and less bitching in his ears.

Before long a keening howl drifted through the air. He placed a hand on the brim of his beaten cowboy hat, shifted it toward the back of his head and waited.

The howl came again. This time it was joined by other animal voices that were just a bit too high-pitched to be the ones he was after. Another clearer, almost musical howl rolled in from the east. Once it made itself known, the others stopped quicker than steam choked off by a closed valve. Jessup remained still. His six-foot-four-inch frame blended in with its surroundings like another tree trunk that had been halved by a tornado from a rough summer. His eyes narrowed and a barely audible breath passed from between chapped lips. The only other sound he created came from the clatter of long, gnarled fangs fastened to thin cords dangling from his beaten leather vest. Slowly, he bent down to slip a hand into one of the pockets of his Army surplus fatigues. Digging out a tube of pepper spray from the pants pocket, he set it on the ground and marked the spot with a knife that he flung into the dirt.

The first set of howls had come from the northwest and weren’t made by Half Breeds. Whatever they were, more of the shaggy figures had circled around him to the south and southeast. The more musical howl was silent now, but he couldn’t worry about that one at the moment. The burning in his scars remained at a simmer as several animals stalked toward him. They were bigger than dogs or wolves, yet too narrow at the shoulders to be small bears or even wild pigs. In his years of hunting, Jessup had been fooled by both kinds of animals, and that wasn’t going to change now. The reaction in his scars hadn’t worsened, because they weren’t shapeshifters. That was the final piece to solve the identity of his mystery guests.

“Damn Shunkaws,” he muttered. “Ain’t seen these things for a good long time. Fits the bill from those stories, though. Should’ve guessed it.”

As he grumbled to himself, Jessup reached for the stainless steel .45 caliber pistol holstered beneath his vest. The handgun had been put together using pieces of other weapons he’d bought or confiscated throughout the years. “First the Chupes spring up near every damn lake I find, and now a pack of Shunkaws roaming the plains. What’s next? The lizard men gonna march on Tallahassee?”

Jessup spotted five of the creatures fanning out to flank him. Their arched backs were marked by a distinctive ridge of bone protruding from a patchy coat of hardened fur that moved like a single piece of armor. He patted his pockets, touching three extra magazines for the .45 and a holdout revolver loaded with five .48 caliber rounds that he’d packed himself. Each of those rounds could punch a hole through a car. Shunkaws weren’t that tough to put down, but he was more concerned with the beast that sent a wave of heat through his scars along with a wailing howl to stop the pack cold.

It took some mental gymnastics, but Jessup managed to think back to what might attract the Shunkaws even better than the mixture he carried for Half Breeds. Their noses picked up sweet scents more than anything else, which was partially why they were drawn to children or anyone else who frequently had ice cream, chocolate, or jelly smeared on them. Fortunately, he’d picked up some Peanut M&Ms along with a spicy beef stick at the last gas station. He tore open the bag of candy, emptied it into his mouth and chewed them. It took a great amount of restraint to keep from swallowing the glob of chocolaty goodness before spitting it out in smaller, marble-sized chunks into the grass.

A chorus of scratchy, panting breaths drifted through the air, followed by the crunching of large paws against dried earth. As the pack drew closer, Jessup backed away and prepared to meet it. Soon he would see the faces of the beasts at the front of the group. Squat, long heads were accented by wide brows that looked like shelves made of bark. Their eyes were disturbingly human, with uniformly dark green pupils on fields of white. But what set them apart from any other canine were their short snouts and peculiar teeth. Although there were several smaller molars set along the backs of their jaws, most of the damage was done by two large teeth: one on the upper jaw and

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