Excerpt: Risk It All

Kipling tripped as a stair cracked wetly beneath him, done in by age, rain, and Kipling’s weight. Tears pricked his eyes as he picked himself up from where he’d slammed into the old porch; he grimaced at his scraped palms and picked out a couple of splinters. God, everything already hurt; he didn’t need more pain heaped on top. If his pack managed to find him again, he wouldn’t be walking away from the fight. He was lucky to be walking at all.

Grabbing hold of what remained of the stair railing, he pulled himself to his feet and limped through the open doorway into the derelict remains of the old cabin. Despite its rundown condition, it was the closest he’d had to a godsend in nearly a year. Certainly the best luck he’d had in the last month.

He looked around at the broken furniture, shattered windows, and decaying floor. Wasn’t home, but it wasn’t the worst place he’d been since he started running.

Limping over to the fireplace, he cleaned it out as best he could, grimacing at the moldy leaves and dead birds. When it was as clean as it was going to get, he trudged back outside and fetched his duffle bag and the two boxes of supplies he’d managed to pick up on his way. In the morning, he’d take stock of the cabin and fetch whatever else he needed.

Crouching in front of the fireplace again, Kipling opened one of the boxes and pulled out an easy-light firelog. Not his first choice, but they’d do until he could acquire real firewood. It was a blessing and a curse that it was late fall, coming on winter. He would be able to find everything he needed to survive a long, cold, miserable winter in the mountains… but he was going to have to survive a long, cold, miserable winter in the mountains. Miles from the only home he’d ever known, not a single friend he could call on for help, rapidly dwindling funds, and nothing but a long stretch of fear and loneliness in front of him.

He would manage. Kipling had known the cost when he and Peyton had decided to kill the Alpha and Candidates. If that and a lifetime in the pits hadn’t killed him, becoming a hermit in the mountains for a couple of years sure as hell wouldn’t.

When the sad, little log seemed to be burning steadily, he dug a couple of lanterns out of the second box, filled them with kerosene and set them out, then got a better look around the cabin: animal skeletons, a couple of squirrels still rotting; gross. Looked like there’d once been a couch, a table… no chairs of any sort left, but there was a bedframe he might be able to salvage. Kipling grabbed a flashlight and headed through the only other door, relieved when it proved to lead to a bathroom. It was probably going to be cold as hell to use, but at least it wasn’t an outhouse.

Hopefully, he could get the water running. He didn’t dare hope for electricity. That was going to suck so much that he didn’t want to think about it.

Leaving the bathroom, he returned to the fireplace and dug out a tarp, spreading it out on the floor before pulling out a brand-new sleeping bag and laying that on the tarp, following it with a plush pillow he hadn’t been able to resist. It all had a stale, store smell, but that couldn’t be helped. A couple of weeks, though, and it would all smell like him and decrepit cabin.

When his bed was set up, he pulled out the first aid kit and shucked his clothes, quickly treating the bruises on his arms and the minor cuts scattered everywhere else. Once those were attended, he unwrapped the nastier gash on his right thigh, where Joey’s teeth had gotten in deep and torn out nasty. He’d had to stitch the damned thing up himself, bleeding and close to passing out in a gas station bathroom. Almost a week later, it still looked pretty ugly.

Kipling treated the wounds with a special salve he’d bought off an alchemist. They were always good about not asking questions—or answering them, but Kipling hadn’t been in a hurry to ask anything more than the price. Tucking the salve back in his bag, he wrapped the wound in fresh bandages, then fished out dark blue fleece pants and a gray Henley that were nearly all he had left from what he’d packed when he’d fled Pack Blue. Everything else he’d packed had been abandoned or ruined along the way.

He pulled on fuzzy, wool socks and then settled down with his dinner: a fried chicken platter that he’d picked up on impulse. He should have gotten something more sensible, but it had looked tasty and wasn’t from a gas station or a drugstore, and was the closest he would ever get to home cooking until he figured out how to cook in a falling-down cabin high up in the middle of fuck-nowhere. At least a cabin, even the one he was in, was a step up from the cave or large tree to which he had resigned himself.

The chicken was only okay in the end: a little too close to burned and dry, but it was still better than he would have had otherwise, and the mashed potatoes and corn, even cold, were good. He finished dinner off with a bottle of water and a bag of M&M’s, then huddled down in his sleeping bag and tried to relax enough to sleep.

He’d nearly succeeded in getting away. They would never look for him on a mountain miles from real civilization, and he’d left such a weird, random path that they’d never sort out where he really went. He hoped. All he had to do was stay vanished for a couple of years, and they’d probably give up. After that, he could work on building a real life.

Ugh. The pillow and sleeping bag smelled like store, and the cabin smelled rotted and rank. The mountains beyond smelled like more trees than he could sort, fresh like there must be water nearby, musty like fall, but with the sharp, cold bite of winter. Permeating all of it was something weird. Like hot metal. The scent made Kipling nervous, though hell if he knew why, but he had absolutely nowhere else to go, and it was too late to pack up and leave, anyway.

He’d just figure out what it was later; he was probably overreacting to something completely stupid. It was the middle of nowhere; what could possibly live all the way on top of a formidable mountain that was a threat to a roughskin?

But after being hunted down by his own pack for nearly a year, after years of abuse and helping to commit four murders, he didn’t think it was possible to overreact. Whatever it took to live was not overreacting.

Even if doing what it took to live meant he was alone. He would probably always be alone: a pathetic rogue wolf hiding in the mountains to eventually be forgotten. He gave a low, soft whine, aching to howl, to call for a friend or ally. But he didn’t have any; all he’d do was draw unwanted attention.

Burrowing deeper into his bedding, he breathed in, out, in, out, counting one, two, one, two, until he finally fell asleep.

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