Monday, January 13, 2014

BOOK 7 Prologue through Chapter 6



     As the elevator began to rise, Meroveus Franciscus prepared to meet with the Excelsior. He smoothed his lapels first, grinding molars as the ache in his arm began to throb like it was being hammered. Next, a toss of his head resettled dark, waist-length curls behind his shoulders, but triggered a second shot of pain, this one barreling up his neck. Each sore twinge was ammunition for a memory of clawed fists, striking him again and again and again.
     Mero had met with the Excelsior a week ago about the Northeastern Quarterlord, Menessos, whose recent actions had cast doubts upon his allegiance. The result was the release of the shabbubitum—a trio of deadly truth-seeking sisters who had been bound in stone for over a thousand years. Mero was commanded to manage and control them.
     Now, one of the sisters was dead, one was eternally bound to Menessos, and the other, the most dangerous of them all, was disfigured and angry. Her whereabouts was unknown.
     Mero had also been charged with the task of bringing the Lustrata here to the Excelsior…or eliminating her.
     He had arrived alone.
     His ascent slowed approaching the twelfth floor. After a soft chime, the doors recoiled and the smell of smoke and roses filled his nostrils.
     Before him sprawled the building’s summit reception area, one worthy of an elite politician. But the electric lights remained dark, and the mob of modern furniture sat eclipsed by crowded clusters of white candles.
     Though designed to accommodate a large party, the reception area was occupied by a single figure, seated on a box-style, wide-armed chair midway of the room: Deric Allier, the Excelsior and Supreme Vampire. Vases of white roses encircled him, and candles in mirrored holders ringed the blossoms. The wick-light cast prisms of light off the vases and into the air like fireflies.
     Despite the distance and low light, Deric came to his feet as Mero stepped from the elevator.
“Father, what in Hell happened to you?”
     Mero met his son’s scrutiny with a grimace. If not for the vampiric ability to heal, his injuries would have meant death. Only three days had passed, yet his broken bones had mended. The broad splashes of purple bruising across his face had faded to dark rings around still swollen eyes. That he could walk, talk, and had traveled nearly five hundred miles to be here demonstrated a miracle, even for a vampire.
     Deric crossed the distance quickly and stopped four paces away. “Is she dead?”
Chin dropping, eyes falling downcast, Mero’s answer was gruff. “No.”
“Is she not what she claims?”
Mero believed with all of his being that Persephone Alcmedi was in fact the Lustrata. He also believed that if allied together, she, Menessos, and the Domn Lup would seek to achieve the prophesy that entwined the paramount leaders of witches, vampires, and wærewolves…a fate for which each group claimed a differing interpretation.
     “She is the Lustrata.”
     Deric’s jaw clenched and unclenched repeatedly. His shoulders squared. Each inhalation came sharper and quicker than the last. Mero recognized the slow burn of his son’s temper. “News that Menessos had selected an Erus Veneficus made me take notice of Miss Alcmedi. With him being one of only three vampire sorcerers, he had no need of a court witch.” His low-toned words were daggers, each sound a swift strike, stabbing the emptiness between them. “So the question begged asking. Why?” His hands curled into fists as the staccato harangue continued. “When I was informed that she was the lover of the local pack leader, it made sense. A power play. Mark her, use her for tactical advantage. Then he was revealed as the next Domn Lup. I knew the wærewolves wouldn’t tolerate a witch-loving king. So I reasoned that their Heir Apparent had the upper hand on her. Maybe he had sought a tactical advantage and planted her to spy on our Quarterlord.” Deric turned away. “Subsequently, Miss Alcmedi claimed to be the fated Lustrata, and I knew she was spying for the wizened eyes of the Witch Elders Council. The witches would never allow their Messiah to be Marked by a vampire, nor to feel any kind compulsion for the Domn Lup.”
     He then softly quoted the old words:
“Lustrata walks,
        unspoiled into the light.
Sickle in hand,
  she stalks through the night
Wearing naught but her mark and silver blade.
The moonchild of ruin, she becomes Wolfsbane.”
     The hush in the candlelit room grew palpable. Mero felt menace in the energy flowing off of Deric, flowing unlike anything he had ever felt from his son—who had never developed a skill for sorcery. The sensation twisted into an icy thread in his spine.
     “She becomes Wolfsbane, father. I must possess her. When I do, the witches will fear me. The wolves will fear me. Mankind will fear me.” Deric spun and closed the distance between them to grip his father’s arms. “We will rule. We will be ultimately supreme.” Deric’s tone dropped lower. “And Persephone Alcmedi will pay for what she has done to you.”
     Mero heard the statement with the royal ‘we’ which was interchangeable with ‘I.’ Had his son used this situation to springboard from mistrusting his Maker to justify his seeking supremacy over the world?
     Shaken to his core, Mero fought to calm himself, to think through the situation, and the vehemence Deric was exhibiting. He needed time. He called on his long years as Advisor, and spoke evenly. “It was not the witch who did this to me.”
     The Excelsior’s question showed on his face.
     Mero answered it. “I witnessed the yet-to-be-crowned Domn Lup’s ability to partially transform.”
     “He beat you?” His trembling hands lifted and gently grasped Mero’s face. “He will pay with his life.”
     Mero put his hands on Deric’s wrists. Partially because it acknowledged the affection of his son’s gesture, and partially because the vibration of the energy surrounding Deric resonated over his own aura with such force it felt his own shields were cracking, buckling under pressure. “My son, I pulled straight from a ley line to attack him. He would not be stopped.”
     “I will stop him, father. If I must send an army to his front door, I am prepared to do so.”
     War? He would wage open war? What’s happened to him? Mero’s stomach knotted as his mind raced over myriad implications of such an action, but his thoughts swiftly returned to the madness glinting in the eyes of his progeny. He had long ago witnessed the atrocity of power-crazed men slaughtering anyone who opposed them…even their own family. “Deric.” He squeezed his son’s wrists gently, reassuringly, and managed a small smile. “We must be cautious. We need a plan.”
     Deric’s fingers curled around Mero’s ears, painfully. His fangs showed as he sneered, saying, “Caution is for the weak and fearful, father. I am neither.”

Cleveland, Ohio

     “Sire, there’s an Offerling on line one.”
     Johnny Newman jerked the tape-gun across the top of the moving box, sealed it, and sat it with the others along the wall.  
     The calls made to the main office of a wærewolf den were rarely from vampires, let alone from their minions. However, tonight would be the full moon, with the moonrise following the sunset by only a few minutes, so clearly whatever the vamps wanted—and they wanted something if making a call—it needed to be addressed before the whole den was furry.
     Johnny picked up the receiver and hit the button for line one. “This is John.”
     “Hello Mr. Newman,” a sultry voice purred. “I’m Silhouette. I’m calling on behalf of the new Haven Master, Goliath, whose acquaintance I’m told you have already had the pleasure of making?”
     PleasureHardly. “I’ve met Goliath.”
     “He would like to hire you.”
     “Hire me?” The sound was more growl than words. The plastic of the receiver cracked in his tightening grip. The Domn Lup of the wærewolves was not up for hire. That the damn vamp would even think—
     “Well, your band, to be exact. Lycanthropia.”
     “We aren’t booking any dates at this time.” His arm straightened as he moved to hang up.
     Before he could complete the action, his better-than-average ears heard her add, “He wants you to perform at the Grand Opening of the new Haven. This Friday.”
     He brought the phone back up. “You’re opening in three days? Don’t you guys have to hype this shit for a few weeks first?”
     “We thought that considering your current circumstances it was unlikely you were playing anywhere, and that you would find our opening a suitable event.”
     He noticed she hadn’t answered his questions. “A suitable event?”
     “We pay top dollar, Mr. Newman.”
     “For a last minute gig, you bet your ass you do.”
     “There will be numerous high profile faces in every corner of our establishment that night. I assure you, you will find the undercurrents of unspoken politics here…intriguing. This show of solidarity between your kind and ours would benefit both sides.”
      She had a point. But. “What kind of performance will Goliath give in return? My coronation is coming up. I’m sure I’ll want to throw a party to celebrate that.”
     Silhouette gave a warm, alto laugh. “I’m not negotiating for the Haven Master, only booking for the event. If you want reciprocity, you’ll have to take that up with Goliath personally. That said, I’m sure some satisfying agreement can be reached. May I proceed and announce the band?”
     He hesitated a moment. “What’s happened to bring on the rush to open?”
     “There is no rush.” The note of her voice had risen. “We are ready. So there’s no reason to wait.”
     The pitch change could be a product of defensiveness, or indication of a lie. He snorted into the receiver. “Riiiight.”
     “May I announce the band?” she pressed.
     His gut warned him to say no. His head argued that the political exposure, and having the local vamp master owing him a favor, would be more valuable than the risk of being seen as ‘working’ for vamps. Once there, he could make certain to play the situation to his advantage. “Sure. I’ll tell my band mates they now have the Haven Master in their debt. They’ll like that.”
     “Touché, wolf king. For what it’s worth, though, we’d love to host your coronation party at the Haven. Friday is going to secure us as the hot spot downtown.” She hung up.
     Johnny taped another box, and started filling it. Tonight would be the last time the pack would kennel at this den.
     Known historically as the Cleveland Cold Storage building, the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) had laid claim to this building. They intended to demolish it to make way for their new I-90 project.
     His very first change, or the first one he remembered anyway, had been here in a kennel beside the former pack leader. It was more than sentimentality over a building that left him angry about the situation. He had intended to fight to keep it.
     But three days ago, due to intervention—and some not-quite-veiled threats—made by the high-ranking wærewolf mediator, the negotiations ended with that mediator forcing ODOT to give them another historic downtown site, Gray’s Armory. The transfer had been accomplished in quick time and without media coverage. The pack had begun moving and modifications were already being made to the formidable castle-like structure. The office was set to be transferred tomorrow.
     He opened a deep desk drawer and removed a bottle of Laphroaig. He hadn’t opened it yet. He laid it in the box, then lifted it again, having had a better idea.
     “It’s five o’clock, boss,” Kirk called from the outer office.
     The full moon would rise in fourteen minutes, according to the almanac. Gripping the neck of the bottle, he strode from the office. “Everyone upstairs?”
     “Almost. A few stragglers are running late.”
     “Are the gates secure?” Each floor had reinforced metal gates as a secondary security measure. During transformations the only way in or out was the elevator.
     “Gregor got level seven and up. I’m going to get ground level through six now.”
     “Wait. Just get up to three. Beau will get four through six after we’re all in.”
     “Beau’s not here.”
     Johnny stopped. “Not here? What about William?” Beau was a Bindspoken witch, meaning his power had been cut off from him. He could do no magic, so he was not threat to the wæres. His son, a wære, had gotten stuck half-formed. For two decades, they had housed him on the upper floor of the den, with a few others caught mid-transformation.
     Eleven days ago, Persephone Alcmedi had performed a forced-change spell on certain members of the pack. It was a spell she had used once before, resulting in the people involved thereafter retained their man-minds while transformed into wolves. Being in the debt of Beau, when he asked her to include his son in hopes of getting him back to normal, she hadn’t refused.
     William had regained his human form, but his mind was gone. He’d been catatonic ever since.
Kirk shrugged.
     “Call him. William will change no matter what.”
     “A catatonic wolf isn’t dangerous.”
     “Call him. I want William here. I’m not taking any chances.”
     “You got it boss.” He reached for the phone.
     “Kirk.” When he looked up, Johnny wagged the bottle in the air. “Don’t be late.” Kirk smiled and started punching numbers on the phone base.
     Taking the stairs, Johnny arrived on the fifth floor barely winded. The men, women and few children of his pack had gathered in the open area near the elevator and the chatter amongst them was loud.
     He paused atop the steps and observed his pack. People from every walk of life, some he knew well and some he had only recently met. He saw a group of women surrounding a scared-looking young girl, about fourteen. One of the women had her arm around the girl’s shoulders. He could tell by the nodding that they were comforting the girl; it was to be her first transformation.
     He remembered the dossier about her. She’d gotten lost from her scout troop in Yosemite. Had been attacked, then left for dead after most of her upper arm had been eaten. In the month since, the muscle had completely regenerated and her family, fearful, had abandoned her. A Cleveland couple, both wæres and distant cousins of the girl’s mother, had gotten custody of her.
     There was also a trio of younger kids, preteens, playing tag around the edges of the area. A boy raced around a group of men and nearly slammed into Johnny. He would have, if one of the men he’d just passed hadn’t been Gregor Radulescu. A Captain in the Omori—wærewolf equivalent of secret service—and Chief of Security for this pack, Gregor had been part of elite forces long enough that quick, aggressive action was second nature to him. His long arm snatched the boy’s shirt collar and jerked him back with enough force to startle him, and enough strength to keep him on his own feet.
     Eyes wide, the boy swallowed hard and sheepishly turned to face Gregor.
     “Careful there, Alan,” he said to the boy. “Can’t have you crashing into the king.”
     Alan’s head snapped around to Johnny, whom he looked up and down. The boy paled. “S-sorry, Sire.”
     Seeing him reminded Johnny of his own son, Evan, who, with his grandmother, Toni, had been taken to secret lodgings for the night. He gave Alan a single nod.
     Gregor released the boy who slipped into the crowd. He reached for the bottle. “What’s this?”
     “It’s our last shift here. Thought we should each have a swallow.”
Gregor turned and shouted, “All hail the king!” The words were repeated three times in a chant by the assemblage.
     Johnny was about to speak when he was smoothly hefted onto the shoulders of two Omori so everyone could see and hear him.
     “Tonight,” he said, “is the last time we will shift in the CCS building, the last time these walls house us while we are wolves. This was Ig’s fortress.” He felt a lump swell in his throat at the mention of his father-figure’s name. “Everything good about what we have here in the building, and I mean more than the security measures…I mean the sense of family we have here…Ig created that. He protected it. I pledge to you, as we move, that it will be a move forward, a move that remembers and honors the past, a move that nurtures the bonds that have made us powerful. Though we reach for a new future, we will not forget what made us a pack.”
     Cheers filled the room. When it subsided, Gregor raised the bottle and his voice. “Drink, brothers and sisters! Let us toast to honor this fortress we leave behind, and to celebrate the castle we have claimed. The castle of our King!” The cheering renewed, he removed the lid of the bottle and handed it to Johnny. He upended it for the first drink, then passed it to Gregor.
     The Omori sat him down and the bottle was passed around the crowd. The noisy chatter resumed. It was only a few seconds, though, before a tall, lean man slipped from the crowd. Erik Randolph was Johnny’s best friend and the drummer for his band. Currently, his mouth was a firm, straight line. “What’s this about us playing for vamps?”
      Johnny steered him towards the corner with a friendly hand on the shoulder. “Word’s out already?”
     Erik shrugged away from the touch and kept his voice low. “Look John, king or no king, you taking a gig without clearing it through me and Phil is a douche move. Taking one on short notice without clearing it is worse. This is the second time. We played the Witches Ball for you and now we’re playing for vamps…being their fucking ‘entertainment’ is bullshit. What the fuck man?”
     “Short notice pays better.”
     “So the fuck what?”
     Johnny noted that though Gregor kept his distance, he had a displeased look on his face as he eyed Erik, whose back was to him. “Coming to the rescue of a local Haven Master means he owes you a favor.”
     “You mean he owes you a favor. What’s a vamp gonna do for me?” He didn’t give Johnny time to answer. “In a regular venue, the worst we can expect is a fight in the crowd. First you had us play the Witches Ball—and the fey used it to attack Seph. Now you have us playing for the vamps. What if they’ve got something against you being king? We’re out numbered on their turf! Did you think of that? Did your Omori? You keep raising the stakes with no thought for whether or not me and Phil want to be a part of it. Are your Omori able to save us from the danger your ego won’t see?”
     “In a regular venue the normal humans outnumber us. You never complained about that.”
     “I ain’t scared of the mundanes. Not even outnumbered by hundreds to one.”
     “Now who’s got the big ego?” Regardless of the dispute, Johnny understood Erik’s resistance.        He himself had spent many years resenting and avoiding vampires. He shook his head. In the past, he could win his band mates over by citing the perks of a short-notice gig. But things weren’t like they used to be. He wasn’t a random private citizen anymore.
     At this gig, the world would be watching.
     He hadn’t considered the added pressure his friends might feel. He conceded. “You want me to cancel?”
     “I want you to admit you did this because you need it. Politically. I want you to admit you didn’t consider me and Phil.”
     Johnny’s chin lowered. “Yeah.” He sighed. “I have more to gain here than band exposure and some cash in my pocket.”
     “Dude,” Erik said. “Me and Phil are your band, and you’re ours. We’re your brothers, and you’re ours. I don’t care what power you’re ‘vested’ with, we’re not your fucking minions.” He gripped Johnny’s arm just above the elbow. “You were my friend for a long-ass time before this king shit came to be. A douche-bag move is still a douche-bag move and I will always call you on it.”
     Johnny saw Gregor’s expression blank. He began easing closer. He knew the Omori had seen Erik take hold and was coming to remove him. Considering his drummer’s words, however, Johnny found himself smiling. “That’s what friends, what brothers, do.” He pulled Erik close and gave him a single slap on the back. It was a heartfelt gesture as well as a signal to Gregor that all was well. When he pulled away he again asked, “You want me to cancel?”
     Erik’s mouth remained a firm line for a long moment, then it cracked. “Hell no! They announced it already. We’ll look like punks if we don’t play.”
     Gregor arrived beside them and had the Laphroaig in hand. “Did you get to toast, Mr. Randolph?”
     Erik accepted the bottle, took his drink and handed it back with an appreciative nod. To Johnny he said, “Besides, our Facebook page is blowin’ up with hits and new page ‘likes’.” He paused. “And I’ve been wanting to bang on my drums.”
     Near the elevator, Kirk’s voice lifted. “Five minutes, people. To your kennels!” He ended with a look at Johnny who mouthed the word, ‘Beau?’ Kirk gave him the thumps up and patted the elevator doors.
     Johnny watched everyone shuffle toward their respective cages, either on this floor or the one just above or below when he noticed the elevator’s arrival indicator light up. The doors rolled open and through the crowd he saw Beau’s head and shoulders emerge as he hobbled forward. His eyes were wide with concern. His gaze found Johnny.
     “Help me,” Beau called.
     Johnny moved and the crowd parted to make a way for him.
     “I don’t know where you want him,” Beau said. “Upstairs in his usual kennel or here?”
     “We don’t have time to take him up.” Johnny pointed down the main aisle. “He can have my kennel.”
     “No, Sire,” Gregor said. “Give him mine. I will kennel with my men.”
     Kirk grabbed Beau’s cane from where it dangled on the wheelchair handle and offered it to the old man. Then he pushed the wheelchair forward. In the seconds that their verbal exchange took, the area had cleared, and the clang of closing kennel doors echoed concussively. The five of them moved into the kennel area at a fast pace.
     Abruptly, William twitched in his seat. His arms stiffened and began to sprout white fur.
     “Shit!” Kirk started running.
     Johnny and Gregor raced behind him.
     Beau couldn’t keep up. “What’s happening?”

Cleveland, Ohio

     The setting sun yielded warmth as weak as its light, and a meager snow was falling. Persephone Alcmedi sat on the stone bench where she and Menessos and Xerxadrea had buried the mermaid fairy Aquula. She had thought that this place would be quiet and feel peaceful and safe.
     On all counts, she had been wrong.
     The barren branches of the trees at the Cleveland Botanical Garden offered no protection. She felt exposed and watched. Gone was the soft whisper of their shifting leaves; the only voice they had now was the taunting clatter of wind gusted limbs smacking together.
     Tight muscles lifted her shoulders a defensive fraction. Clenched hands lay in her lap. Three and a half weeks ago, here, after Aquula’s secret midnight burial, they had been attacked by fey. Xerxadrea had saved her life, diving in front of a fire bolt meant for Seph.
     Her gaze rose to the glass house. Within those panes and beside the waterfall, Xerxadrea had died.
     Better me than you, she had said.
     Seph had come here tonight intending to meditate, but instead these lonely grounds once again bore witness to her tears. When she thought of Xerxadrea those drops always threatened, but this time she could not help setting them free. She mourned her friend.
     As the tears fell, she realized she was weeping for more than the Eldrenne. She also wept because being the Lustrata was not something she wanted to be, but she had no choice. She wept because she was afraid, and was so tired of being afraid. And she wept because everything about her life had changed in the last seven weeks…and because danger and death was becoming commonplace.
     When the crying waned, her burden weighed a little less. The wind’s icy fingers curled around her neck. Involuntarily, Seph shivered, thinking about how the world was racing toward its winter slumber. In Greek myth, this season existed because the goddess Demeter mourned the absence of her daughter, Persephone’s namesake, who spent this part of the year in the underworld surrounded by the dead as wife of Hades.
     Seven days ago, in the wee hours of November twenty-first, that had nearly become Seph’s fate.
     Trapped inside her meditation, she had escaped only because of a risky group effort including Nana, Johnny, and a trio high ranking women from the local Covenstead—not all of whom even liked her. In the wake of the affair, the questions still outnumbered the answers. And she wanted answers.
     Meditation, to her, meant visiting her totem animal, the jackal named Amenemhab. This may not give her direct answers, but it usually provided clarity that would in turn determine a course of action.
     But being hi-jacked by the god Hades had had a detrimental effect on her daily routine. In the week since the incident, she had not been able to meditate.
      She’d waited a few days before attempting it. She’d counseled herself that fear was to be expected. But then she’d seized up in her mind, unable to flip that switch that took her to an alpha state. The first time she passed it off as a fluke. In the days since, each failure compounded the problem.
     I have overcome the odds a statistically impossible amount of times. I am the Lustrata and I will not leave this seat until I have done what I came here to do. 
     Still, the words to initiate the relaxing process stuck in her throat.
     This is not my home, where I was…taken. This is a peaceful garden. 
     In her mind, she worked to change the howling wind and colliding branches into something positive, like distant applause. She forced her hands to relax. Cleansing breath in and out.
     This is the day of the full moon. I placed a circle of silver-string around me. On it are silver beads and protective quartz crystals. I poured a circle of blessed thunder water. I have sapphires—known for protecting their owners from captivity—at each compass point. I am wearing rubies, known to protect wearers against all foes. 
     I am well protected. 
     She repeated the last nine times, but it remained difficult to relax her body. After several more cleansing breaths and visualizing a white light shining slowly from her head down to her toes, and using that light as a trigger to relax the muscles on which it shone, she finally achieved a measure of calm. She whispered the words,

“Mother, seal my circle
and give me a safe and sacred space.
I need to think clearly
to solve the new troubles I face.”

     With that, she touched that mental switch. She pushed at it. She shoved with all her mental might.
      Instead of a bench in the cold garden, she sat on a rock at the shore of a great lake. The sun was high in the sky, and the breath of the world blew across her cheek like a warm kiss.
     A deep sigh emitted from her left.
     The jackal had his head cocked. His brown eyes were soft with relief. He stood, and she noticed that he seemed thick, not lean like a jackal should be. Stepping slowly, his paws made deep prints in the soft sandy dirt. He gathered his hind legs like he would leap, but instead laboriously lifted one paw onto the rock then the other. He hefted himself up until he was almost standing straight up on his hind legs. He slipped a paw onto her thigh.
     Leaning in, he ran his muzzle along her cheek and pressed his chest to her shoulder. “It is good to see you.”
     She wrapped her arms around his neck and hugged him back. “Likewise.”
     They held the pose for a moment, then he backed away to stand on all fours beside the rock. He panted hard as if the activity had taxed him. “I am worried, Persephone.”
      Instead of answering, he looked down the shoreline. A hundred yards away stood a wooly black ram, head lifted, watching them. Beyond him, more inland, was another. As Seph scanned the distance, she saw dozens of dark rams with curled horns. All were watching her.
     The pit of her stomach turned cold. Such rams were the preferred sacrifice to Hades, in ancient times. Even if he couldn’t steal her from this meditation, he could generate eyes that would report back to him.
     “Spies,” the jackal whispered, confirming her suspicion.
     A howl brought her attention around the opposite way.
     In this direction the land sloped sharply upward and there were large sections of rock jutting up from under the soil. Only thirty feet away, atop one of the great slabs of stone a black wolfhound posed like he was a dog show champion. Dangling from a cord around his neck was a silver disc. Even at the distance she identified it: the Stropholos of Hecate, or Hecate’s Wheel.
     From his elevated perch he could see all the rams.
     So Hecate was also watchful. But one black hound against dozens of rams?
     “You are well protected,” Amenemhab said, “but watched.”
     His choice of words being the same as her mantra sent a chill fluttering up her spine.“What am I supposed to do?” That one question and the despair in her tone summed up all that she felt.
Amenemhab spun toward the rock. “Fight!” he growled.
     “Here? In this place?”
     “Everywhere.” His voice was little more than a rasp around his panting.
     She noticed that his head was even with his shoulders instead of held high. “I’ve not seen you like this before. You’re always the calm voice of reason. My conscience.”
     His tail wagged once, but stayed low. “There are things you must discover. Things that others have hidden from you. Hidden from everyone.”
     “Tell me.”
     “I cannot reveal to you what I do not know. You must seek the knowledge.”
     “Where ever it can be found.”
     Cryptic conversations were standard here, but she had never learned to like it. “Okay…who can tell me where to start?”
     “You already know where to start.”
     She searched her thoughts and came up blank. “If you don’t have the information, how do you know about it?”
     “As you have said, I am your conscience. I know only what you know, Persephone, including the things you do not want to know but nonetheless do. I carry what falls through the cracks, the hints you do not pick up, the data you willingly hide from yourself, and all the truths you do not wish to face. I bear those curiosities that prick at your mind, inquiries unformed, and those questions you dare not ask.” He paused and staggered a step. “Ask them!” his whisper quavered intensely. His legs trembled and gave. Though he tried to make it look like he had simply lain down in a rough manner, he couldn’t keep his head up. Chin dropping onto his front paws, ears pricked forward, his eyes slid shut like he was slipping into a nap.
     Leaping off the rock she landed on her knees at his side. “Amenemhab!” She slid her hands under his chin and tried to lift his head. It must’ve weighed fifty pounds. She called his name again and repositioned herself to have better leverage. She lifted his head a few inches.
     His eyelids parted slightly. “You always see a silver lining,” he whispered.“But there’s one you missed. Find it. Ask. And unburden me.”
     “Attention guests!” The authoritative voice emitted from the garden speakers, throwing her from the meditation and into regular consciousness. “It is now four-fifty-five. The Cleveland Botanical Garden will be closing in five minutes. Thank you for coming. We hope to see you again soon, but ask that at this time you please exit the garden and the greenhouses. Have a safe journey home and a wonderful evening.”


     Persephone couldn’t come all the way to Cleveland and not stop and see Beverley. Not even if her last trip to the haven had gone badly. Besides, Menessos might be able to help her understand what had happened with Amenemhab.
     Civil twilight was gone when Seph stopped the Toyota Avalon in front of the building with the white terra cotta tiles. A piece of Public Square history, the old May Company’s underground theater was likely the only subterranean real estate in Cleveland. That was precisely why it was home to the local vampire haven.
     The ground floors above were under interior construction to become the Haven—with a capital H—a night club that would be a major moneymaker for the group as well as a tourist draw for the city.
     She reached for the door handle and scanned around at the traffic, noting a limousine heading south on Ontario. Three other limos followed it. She wondered what fancy event was going on south of town.
     A trio of familiar faces exited the haven: two male vampires and one Beholder woman. Of the men, one was white and very Viking with his facial hair, the other black and very Zulu with his lean figure. Climbing out of the driver’s seat, she nodded at each in turn. “Bjorn. Zenzele. Ivanka.” All were wearing surly expressions, which was normal for the men. Not so much for Ivanka, but then Persephone’s last departure from the haven had actually been an escape from Ivanka.
     “Come vith me.”
     “Of course.” Seph flashed a confident smile.
     The Russian woman led her toward the doors. She glanced up at the Chicago style tripartite windows then scanned over her shoulder to see which vampire was bringing up the rear. It was Zenzele. Bjorn was taking her car to their private garage.
     The Haven had frosted windows so no one could see inside, but as they approached, Beholders came out the main doors with signs that read GRAND OPENING THIS FRIDAY.
     Ivanka and Zenzele escorted her to Goliath’s office, let her in, and told her to wait. Decorated to mimic a gentleman’s library, there was cherry paneling and shelves with aged books. Lighted glass cases held relics and weaponry of ages past. She plopped down into one of the leather covered guest chairs opposite the desk.
     Seconds ticked by on the grandfather clock and she noted the blotter on the desk was unmarked. She recognized the closed laptop as the one Menessos had used when he was Haven Master. Everything was as it had been, except the small case that had held a wickedly curved dagger was no longer on the desk. She glanced around, checking shelves for it. It was not here.
Minutes later, Goliath entered and shut the door behind him.
     “Erus Veneficus.”
     She sat straighter. “Haven Master.”
     His suit style was decidedly Asian, tailored for his lean body. The fabric was flat black, instead of his typical shiny pleather. The high collar and thick cuffs flaunted silver embroidery, a motif that incorporated small skulls and bony hands. Skeletal pattern aside, the ensemble embraced the Goth style that was his custom, but with enough sophisticated elegance that it easily passed for professional VIP.
      She hadn’t felt before that her attire was less appropriate that his.
      Her sweatshirt was topped by a hoodie and blazer, layered for warmth. Paired with jeans and hiking boots, she was markedly casual for the formal greeting in his office.
     He took the seat behind the desk, posture rigid enough to make the pickiest schoolmarm proud. His straight and longish hair poured from the collar like a white-blond waterfall. Nordic features made handsome angles of his face, but his forget-me-not eyes were like blue daggers set in alabaster.
     A powerful vampire’s gaze could be as deadly as his fangs, so Seph gave him just a glance and avoided eye contact with him. Though he had been Menessos’s right hand, and assassination was among his specialties, he was young compared to most of the undead in leadership positions. Remembering that, and the fact that he had been Made by Menessos, and that she had power over him because she had Marked Menessos, her gaze returned to his and lingered boldly.
     “You left this haven in spite of being ordered to remain within it.”
     “I had an appointment.”
     “It was not cleared with me.”
     “I do not and will not accept the notion that I have to clear my schedule through you.”
     “It is customary for the Erus Veneficus to do her Haven Master’s bidding, and to prioritize his requests before any other appointments. My predecessor did not clarify the responsibilities and expectations that came with the position he granted you?”
     Her jaw offset for a heartbeat. “Goliath.”
     “Oh, that’s right. You didn’t obey him because you ruled him. And through him…me.” He glowered.
     She had used her power over Menessos, once and only once, to put them both on their knees. She’d done it to force Goliath to release her arm when his actions and words were scaring her. With his new position of power, that she could do this must be very disconcerting for him, as well as a concern for his higher-ups. That’s what this is about. “It is not customary that a court witch also happens to be the foretold Lustrata.”
     His lips crooked to one side. “You are too special for this haven now?”
     “I didn’t say that. You can’t deny that’s true, either.”
     “I did not.”
     “I suggest that from here on out, you refrain from giving me orders—”
     “That would be terribly considerate of me, wouldn’t it?”
      She ignored his mocking. “—and I will refrain from making you look like you aren’t in control.”
     He stood. “Your words imply that you would allow a ruse, making it seem that I am in control when in fact you are.”
     “I have no such intentions. You know that. You know me.”
     His chin leveled up. “I know that humans make poor choices when they are pushed into desperation. As Lustrata, you will be pushed there.”
     She stood, too, and defiantly kept focus on his eyes. “You could remove me as court witch.” She paused. “But then you’d lose the prestige of being the haven with the Lustrata serving as its Erus Veneficus.”
     “Serving?” He laughed a cruel little sound and came slowly around the desk.“Defiance is not service, witch. Besides, you’d lose face as well if ousted from this haven. Your Witch Elders would think you weak if you cannot maintain your ties to the vampires. Of course it is mostly the sex that keeps your bindings to the wolves, isn’t it?” He grabbed her by the arm just as he had done before. He whispered, “Where’s my sweet physical bribe, Persephone?”
     “Let go,” she said through clenched teeth.
     His eyes glowed like an ice-blue neon sign. “Make me.”
     Persephone reached deep within, into that place deeper than her core, where souls bonded. She touched that piece of Menessos she carried, and invoked it, reached through it into Menessos, searching for that piece of Goliath he carried. She felt so many others…. Beverley. Risqué. Talto.
But Goliath wasn’t there.
     “Menessos released me.” His lips touched her ear. His breath was warm and his fangs frighteningly close. “It is expected that the Haven Master has tasted the blood of his Erus Veneficus.”

Cleveland, Ohio

     Johnny watched as William’s legs suddenly stiffened like his arms, and he rose up in the wheelchair. It happened so fast that though Kirk slowed his momentum and reached for William to pull him back into the seat, William was already standing and the decrease in speed caused him to pitch forward.
     Beau cried, “No!” even as Kirk dived over the chair’s back grabbing at the falling man. No one could get to William fast enough to stop him from toppling over.
     Half-formed, the impact combined with the transformation roused some part of him from the catatonia. He howled and writhed wildly on the floor, thrashing limbs keeping at bay the men who would have aided him.
     Beau retreated. “No, no, no…not again….”
     Many had stopped short of their kennels to watch or make way for them.  Some came forward as if to help, but everyone halted as that fluttering surged within them. The great room erupted with the grunts and groans of pain as men, women and children began to transform.
     “To your kennels!” Johnny shouted.
     Most ran to their assigned places. “Sire,” Gregor wheezed, holding his side with a contorting hand. “I will help you.”
     “Go. Now!”Johnny tore off his shirt. His skin began to blacken and ebony fur sprouted across his chest and shoulders. His view skewed as his eye sockets grew hot then cold and color drained from his sight. He knew his irises had enlarged and changed from human blue to wolf yellow. “I’ll handle this.”
     Gregor hastened to his kennel. Beau was speeding in the opposite direction, toward the edge of the room where a high-tech device was attached to the wall. With the proper code, it would shut and lock any of the yet open kennel doors. “Get William in a kennel!”
     Johnny fought against the change that would make him a wolf. He tried to exert will over his shape, to become that two-legged walker with clawed hands, the beast that had nearly destroyed Mero. As useful as hands would have been in moving William, it was not to be. The will of the moon proved the stronger.
     The white wolf continued thrashing, snarling and snapping, rolling as it strained to achieve a transformation. The restrictions of human clothing weren’t helping.
     Johnny moved in, thinking to use his teeth to drag poor William into a kennel, but the white wolf turned on him, growling. Johnny leapt away, then crept toward the jeans caught about the creature’s waist. It bellowed a half-man scream as its chest-shape altered from broad and shallow human to narrow and deep wolf. With eyes ringed in white, the misshapen wolf looked mad with pain. The deformed maw snapped at him, molars clacking like a steel vise.
     Throughout the den, the others were changing, too. Most had made it to their kennels, but the doors remained open as they urgently removed clothing. They would be full-formed wolves in moments, and not all of them would retain their man-minds.
     “Hurry!” Beau shouted as he arrived beside the controller, panting.
     Johnny tried again to get a toothy hold of the white wolf’s denim, with the same vicious result. He decided he’d rather watch over one abnormal wærewolf than dozens of regular ones roaming free. He gave a short bark and stared at Beau, whose signature plaid flannel made him easy to spot. When the old man met his gaze, Johnny nodded once and jabbed his right forepaw at the floor.
     Beau punched in the code: 7488, or S-H-U-T.
     Any kennel door yet open, swung closed. The whir of mechanisms secured the locks. In seconds, the den resonated with a chorus of howling wolves. They’d had a dramatic start, but all was well and Johnny wanted to convey that to them. He paced down the aisle, tail wagging and lending his voice to their song.
     Then he turned up the aisle and saw a fully formed white wolf standing atop a pile of torn clothing. He stopped. This wolf was every bit as big as him. The rumble of its growl was like a steady bass-line under their melodious song.
     Johnny knew the sound of a challenge when he heard it.


     Loading William and getting him to the den, then unloading him and getting him to the fifth floor had taxed Beau’s energy. The last few minutes—and his race to the locking mechanism—had drained what little he had left.
     When he turned and saw his son had fully transformed, however, he nearly wept. William had not been a white wolf before, but an average gray with black and tan and white mixed throughout his coat. The white was beautiful, crisp and pristine.
     The posturing of the two wæres kept his tears from forming. Hackles up. Ears laid flat against their necks and lips curled back to expose long gleaming fangs. His every muscle had tensed again, but he trusted John to handle it.
     Until the white wolf leapt forward a single pace, taunting.
     “William,” he said. Louder, “No!”
     Half-rearing, the white shook his head and snapped his jaws, daring the black to react.
     Beau’s focus bounced back and forth between them and he prayed that John could diffuse the situation. But as the seconds slipped past, the white’s aggression multiplied. It lunged repeatedly without taking or giving ground.
     The black wolf closed the distance between them, one step at a time, head high, ears flat. His growl grew in volume.
     The wolves in the cages howled in support of their king.
     The white wolf shied to the left as the black came close, a move that left them circling in the middle of the aisle.
     Beau stepped into the aisle. “Stop this! William! I said stop this!”
     But the white wolf showed no sign of submission to either his father or the black. If William possessed the man-mind the others had claimed to achieve after such a transformation as the one Persephone Alcmedi had magically provided—and that was a big if in Beau’s mind—he reasoned that his son, who’d lost many years of his life to a half-formed daze, acted only out of deep confusion.
     Leaning heavily on his cane, Beau hobbled forward and tried again. “William! Back off, boy! That is your king. Your Domn Lup.”
     The words didn’t get through. The white lunged at the other wolf’s flanks. The black didn’t retreat to avoid the attack. Instead, a black blur spun to put his teeth where his hindquarters had been. He nipped the white’s ear, a warning that drew a yelp.
     The white didn’t withdraw; he pounced again.
     The black matched the move, letting the white’s fangs find purchase in the flesh and fur of his shoulder but charging onward. The white’s head was yanked to the side as the black passed. Johnny snarled as his skin ripped and dark hair was torn free, but he threw his weight against the white, forcing William to backpedal until his flanks rammed against a kennel. The occupant of the kennel wasted no time sinking fangs into the exposed hindquarters.
     The white wolf yelped, releasing the black’s shoulder.
     Johnny seized William around the soft part of his throat and in seconds had the white on its back. It kicked out its hind legs to twist, but the black wolf’s weight pinned the other down.
     “No!” Beau rushed forward.
     The white writhed and tried to wriggle free.
     Beau’s prosthetic didn’t move as fast or as easily as he needed it to just then. He tripped. His knee took the brunt, then his palms smacked the floor and his cane skittered across the floor. Pain shot into his shoulders. Head hanging, hoping the ache didn’t make a cramp of his already stiff neck, Beau waited, motionless, for a few deep breaths, to see if anything else began to hurt or indicate serious injury.
     When he lifted his head, he saw the black wolf was still holding the white down. The white gave a final effort to resist, then laid still. For a heartbeat Beau feared the worst—then the white whimpered.
     Still, the black didn’t let go.
     The white whined piteously, and its tail flopped.
     The black slowly released its neck and stood over it, growling angrily. Beneath it, the white shifted belly up, indicating submission.
     Only then did the black step away, turning its back on the white to walk to Beau. Johnny took the cane into his teeth and brought it to Beau, and placed it by before him, then moved beside him and offered his back as leverage.
      Beau sighed heavily. “It’s no good giving an old man a fright like that.” He grasped the cane, then put his other hand on the black wolf and, gritting his teeth, heaved himself up.
     The black wolf voiced a decidedly chiding sound and steered him toward the elevator.
     “You think it’ll be okay if I don’t lock up the stairwells from four to six?”
     The black wolf gave a single happy bark and stayed beside him as he ambled away from the kennels. Johnny even reared up and pushed a big paw onto the button to call the elevator for him. When the doors opened, the wolf used his head to gesture Beau into the car.
     “I’ll keep an eye on the monitors.”
     The wolf nodded.
     Beau hit the button for the third floor and the doors rolled shut. He leaned in the back for the momentary descent, wishing he’d brought something more than peach flavored tobacco for his pipe. He was going to be one achy old man by morning.
     He made it to the office area, and lowered himself gently into Kirk’s desk chair, grateful that it was padded. The monitor was set to a six squares split-screen view. Across the top were the aisles of the three kenneling floors. The bottom row was the aisle of the top floor where the other half-formed wæres were housed, the entry to the garage level, and the garage elevator.
     He had just hooked his cane on the edge of the desk when four sleek limousines raced into the garage.


     Johnny laid halfway up the aisle, midway between the kennels. His head rested on his paws and his nose pointed toward the elevators. The white wolf was behind him, curled against the rear wall. He let his eyes shut while he listened. Most of the pack played rough-and-tumble with their kennel mates. Some paced. Some mated. A few, like him, were silent.
     They were the ones who had been magically transformed atop this kennel. Tonight, for them, was their first experience as wolf with their human minds still conscious.
     Johnny had known he kept his since his first transformation. Discussing it with Ignatius had brought the realization that he was unique in this aspect.
     Then Persephone came along.
     After saving a terribly injured friend with a forced-change spell, on the next full moon, when the same wæres involved all naturally changed their forms…they all retained their human minds. It was an unexpected bonus.
     That led to her redoing the spell.
     He lifted his head and looked around, pausing to make eye contact with the wolves that were being silent and watchful. He had given the opportunity to be included in the spell to the men who had stood with him when they battled the fey on the shore of Lake Erie. Some were on the floor above, or the one below, but most were here. They were all brave and loyal men. Each dipped their chins and looked respectfully downward as he gave them his attention—lastly the white wolf.
      Johnny wondered about William’s odd situation. Would he live as a man in a wolf’s body, and be a stunned and silent wolf incapable of interacting while in a man’s body? Was that what had happened to him? Or would he be all right after this?
      Whatever the case with William, he wanted to acknowledge to those man-minded ones that he understood their silence, their wonder as their reasoning mind acclimated to a new body and assimilated the input of infinitely more delicate sensory organs. He wagged his tail and lifted his muzzle to howl. The man-minded ones joined in first, then the others. Feeling happy and proud he stood and howled louder.
     Then a new scent wave hit his own nostrils…the stink of terror.
     His howl faded. Sniffing, he located the direction from which it was emanating: the stairwell.
     Beau stumbled into view. Due to his panicked expression, Johnny thought the howling had alarmed the old man. He loped forward to reassure him. But Beau didn’t even glance toward the kennels; he was focused on something else off to the side.
     Johnny’s pace slowed. He gave a soft bark trying to gain the old man’s notice, but Beau ignored the oncoming wolf. His movements were jerky and he struggled to keep his balance, both leaning against the wall with fingers scrabbling for a grip, and using his cane for balance.
     The white wolf trotted alongside him, then passed him.
     Something was wrong. He stopped to watch Beau, trying to figure it out. The old man reached for the kennel controls.
     He’s freeing the wolves?
     Even as he thought the question he knew the answer was going to be bad. His haunches bunched and he raced forward.
     Vampires burst from the stairwell like a flood—and they were not vampires that Johnny recognized. They were Beholder-sized men with the benefits of fang. The first trio through zeroed in on Beau and angled toward him at top speed.
     The white wolf may have been ahead of Johnny, but he was a moment behind in reacting. They were side by side as they rushed in. Still, the vampires were closer.
     Fortunately, the wolf pair bearing down on them took precedence for two of the vamps. They altered their path to intercept the wolves, while the third continued towards Beau.
     Johnny leapt, wide jaws aimed for the nearest vamp’s face.

Cleveland, OH

     “What will you do now, witch?”
     Goliath’s grip was a vise; Persephone’s arm was going numb.
     It seemed true that Menessos had released him from the Maker’s bond between them. Without it, she could not tap into the soul-pieces shared between her, Menessos, and Johnny to coerce Goliath to release her. She had the option to strike him with the power of a ley line—but such action would cost her.
     Not only in a physical sense, either. Sure, she would be ousted as court witch, banned from the haven, and relived of the protective perks that came with membership. She could live without those. But this was where Beverley had to live for now. She wasn’t going to lose her access to Beverley.
     “What would you have me do, Haven Master?” As the words crossed her lips, there was a mostly unintentional note of sarcasm in her tone as she said his title. Hearing it, she knew that mocking cadence was going to bite her in the ass.
     He reached slowly to her face, caressed her cheek, and whispered, “Bleed for me.”
     With the last word, Goliath struck. A flick of his wrist he sliced her—a small wound—with a sharp nail. She spun away, neck stinging, but Goliath yanked her into an intimate embrace.
     Recognizing that he was doing everything she would loathe him for, she considered that he might be trying to force a specifically–bad-for-her-situation in order to gain her resignation as court witch.
     His lips touched her ear. He breathed deep and mmmm-ed. “Your lavender-scented shampoo lingers…but your blood, Lustrata, is more fragrant.” When he spoke, the vibration of his voice incited an erotic sensation that pulsed downward through her body.
     This close, she couldn’t avoid smelling his scent, like gun oil with a hint of that sickly-sweet odor of rot. He was a dangerous, cocky vampire who had no fondness for her and even less appreciation for the attention his Maker had showered upon her. Their minimal interactions had done little to foster goodwill between them, let alone trust.
     So why do I  want him to taste me?
     It wasn’t all about the need to resolve this situation, either. Wondering at the root of this odd yearning, she mentally replayed the last few moments. His confidence. His quiet authority. The untamed threat of his unpredictability.
     All were qualities she found desirable.
     Menessos had them. Johnny had them. Hades had them—well, his authority wasn’t so quiet. Each of these men were all uniquely themselves, but carried these common threads. Even her old college boyfriend, Michael LaCroix had those traits. For it, she had been, or was, attracted to them.
     She stood in Goliath’s arms, scarcely breathing, anticipating the tip of his tongue seizing the red offering he had drawn forth.
     “Take it,” she whispered.
     The heavy drop crawled down her neck like a dawdling insect. Heartbeats later, it remained unclaimed.
     Frustrated, she repeated, “Take it!”
     “Are you my witch?”
     He won’t make me resign. I won’t give up my right to this haven.“I am.”
     “And what am I to you?” His whisper trembled with all the restraint of a predator at war with his savage instinct. “Tell me.”
     Those two words resonated inside her head. Gooseflesh rose on her arms. “My Haven Master…and an ally I hope to keep.”
     “Ally? You would use me to service your own goals!” He shifted, hands gripping her arms tight.
     A pained squeal escaped her lips. One arm was already bruised from this abuse; the ache provoked anger. She knew he was working toward this goal, so she let it through just a little. Bitter words tumbled from her mouth. “Can you claim you wouldn’t use me? At its core, my position is one meant to service your every whim, Haven Master, yet you act as if my having an expectation of reciprocation is insulting.”
     “It is!”
     “Whatever typical behavior is for a court witch, it won’t be typical of me.”
     “That is precisely the problem. You feel that my authority doesn’t apply because you’re the Lustrata! You say you will honor the requirements of membership for my court in one breath, yet you demand your autonomy in the next. I don’t believe you can be loyal to two masters and every second you remain in that role, I take the chance that my haven bears the brunt of being the second choice in my witch’s order of allegiance.”
     She smiled a nasty little smile at him. Finally. The true issue. “But it’s nice being the one Haven Master in the world with the Lustrata on your roster, isn’t it?”
     He shook his head and his grip tightened even more. “Your recusant actions are insupportable.”
     The fingers of Seph’s right hand were deadened, the left were getting close to the same. Holding his gaze steadily she said, “I’m not a Beholder. I’m breakable and you’re hurting me.”
     He glowered for a long moment then his grip loosened. Though his hands vanished from her arms, he did not retreat.
     She paused, opening and closing her hands until some sensation returned. “The duality of my role is, for you, an issue of diplomatic skill. Like I pointed out earlier, if you don’t give me commands that interfere with the greater scope of what I must do, I won’t make you look bad.”
     Goliath sneered, showing fang. “I already understand your position. You do not yet understand mine.”
     “Yes I do. Look, I’m sure you’re ready to be a haven master and the seriousness and…possessiveness…which you’re showing is a testament to your leadership drive, but you’re no Menessos.” Seeing his expression grow colder, she added, “That’s not an insult, so don’t take it as one. He’s been honing his finesse for centuries.”
     “This isn’t about finesse,” he said through clenched teeth.“It’s about command. Allowing your openly insubordinate actions to go unpunished undermines the respect other haven members have for my authority. If you disobey without repercussions, why would they think they’re any different?”
     She crossed her arms. “They aren’t the Lustrata.”
     He crossed his. “Are you my court witch or are you the Lustrata?”
     Firmly, she said, “Both.”
     “Prove it.” It was his turn to flash a nasty little smile. “As my court witch, you must accept that in the capacity as my witch, I have the authority to dole out discipline as I see fit.”
     Feeling the trap, Seph arched a brow. “What discipline?”
     “I will not be responsible for your safety.”
     “I’ve called Zhan Hong and Mountain back to the haven. Let the witches or the wolves guard you, if they will. Let them tend your menagerie. Or, better still, do it yourself, Lustrata. I see no reason why She Who Walks Between Worlds can’t shovel the dung of her own pets.”
     It didn’t seem like a big deal at first. As the seconds ticked by, though, this hurt, but not for herself. “Mountain grew up on a farm. He felt displaced in the world, and he felt displaced in this haven. His tending the animals had less to do with what was convenient for me and more to do with what was actively good for him.”
     “I know this. But his services carry a different perception. Just now, it seems that, diplomatically, it must look like you are being punished. Is that enough finesse for you?”
     She wouldn’t lose access to Beverley. She wouldn’t lose the right to seek sanctuary within these walls. And Goliath retained the Lustrata as his witch, a fact that would bear weight with any older vampires that might think to challenge him for his rule.
     Seph nodded.
     Goliath looked down his long nose at her with slitted eyes. “I hope you never have to decide which of your two masters’ distress calls to answer first, Lustrata.”
     Her chin lifted. “I hope you’re never in distress, Haven Master.”
     There came a knock at the door. He immediately rounded the desk to take his seat. “Come.”
     Silhouette entered. “Master.” She acknowledged Seph. “Erus Veneficus.”
     As she approached, Seph said to Goliath, “If we’re done, I’d like to see Beverley.”
     He did not respond, but was all eyes for Sil. “What news?”
     “I spent two hours at the radio station recording fifteen- and thirty-second ads for the grand opening. The exterior spotlights will be delivered tomorrow for installation. And, I managed to secure Lycanthropia to play. I offered him a handsome figure, but the Domn Lup seems to think you owe him a favor on top of that, though I told him such negotiations were between you and he.”
     “Well done.”
     Seph waited, impatient but thinking, Do not tap your foot. As court witch, she could take her leave only when dismissed.
     “Also, Risqué has asked to see you.”
     When Sil told Goliath that, he faced Seph. “Let’s all go see her.”


     Persephone was relieved that she was not led to the infirmary. She’d heard that Risqué sustained a deep stab wound, along with several cuts and bruises, while defending Beverley from the shabbubitu, Ailo.
     The half-demon’s quarters were not far from the haven office, but back a few turns in the twisting hall. Sil walked at the lead, and knocked politely before opening the door. The aroma of burning coal was strong and entering was like walking into a summer heat wave.
     Sil gestured Goliath inside. After giving Seph a scathing expression, she stepped in behind him and, in the room, blocked Seph by standing at Goliath’s right hand. It was the place where the court witch was expected to be. Assuming this was part of her punishment as well, Seph took her place at his left.
     The decadently dark décor was no surprise. The walls were copper tiles, broken by two rows of heavily lacquered black shelves. The top shelf held uniform lines of small black candles. The lower shelf held geodes, dragons, and snake figurines placed amid a variety of studded leather collars, chains and whips.
     Red-hot coals flickered in eight iron cauldrons that sat in each corner of the octagonal room. The ventilation system reminded Seph of a giant spider, eight black legs rising, bending to join a large spherical unit centered on the ceiling. More of the black candles graced the copper chandelier laced with strings of hematite and rubies in round beads and larger teardrops that hung from that sphere and directly over the circular bed positioned in the middle of the room.
     Risqué laid under layers of thick covers, the uppermost a deep purple color. She sat up stiffly and sucked air through her teeth as she attained a sitting position. True to her usual custom, she was barely clothed—if at all. The blankets dropped low to reveal her red-tipped breasts and the taped bandage on her lower front-left ribs.
     Because Risqué always sported a healthy tan, Seph was stunned to see her so ashen. Her pouty lips were colorless and her blonde ringlets were nearly straight, and it looked as if someone had snuck in with scissors and chopped off a handful at chin level on the left. Menessos and Beverley both had enchanted necklaces made with strands of Risqué’s hair, but taking hair for such a purpose wouldn’t usually be done in a manner that compromised her style. However, it was her eyes that were most startling. Normally red, they now had a too-wide ring of black around the outside of her irises.
     “You look like Hell,” Goliath said cheerily.
     “No I don’t,” Risqué countered, but her usual feisty tone was absent from the words. “If I did, it would be a good thing. The bitch poisoned me.”
     “I was told she stabbed you.”
     “She did.”
     “There was poison on the blade?”
     “I had hoped to discuss this with you privately.”
     Silent for a long moment, Goliath turned to Sil. “Will you excuse us?”
     Seph leaned forward, saw Sil’s eyes widen a fraction in irritation before she turned on her heel and left. Looking to Goliath’s face, she waited to be dismissed as well.
     The door opened, shut. Sil’s high heels clicked down the hallway. Goliath remained silent.
     Risqué glanced at Seph. “Perhaps I should have used the word ‘alone’ instead of ‘privately’.”
     “My Erus Veneficus is well versed in herbology, therefore I believe she may be able to offer something of value in this situation. She will stay.”
     “If herbs could cure me, I’d have asked the doctor for them.”
     “What may I offer you that the doctor could not?”
     “I need brimstone.”
     “Hydrogen sulfide or sulfur dioxide?”
     “Gases? Neither. I need pure sulfur. The odorless crumbly yellow kind.”
     “That shouldn’t be too difficult to obtain. There are scientific suppliers in the area. I’ll have Sil find some immediately. How much do you need?”
     “A lot.” Risqué considered. “A pound. Or two.”
     “Done. Delivered tonight?”
     “That would be fantastic,” she said mirthlessly. “But there’s more.” She licked her lips. “I need to heat it to eight-hundred-thirty-one-point-two degrees. Fahrenheit. And it’ll take a while. It doesn’t conduct heat well.”
     “You’ll need a Bunsen burner, a beaker or something that can handle the heat, tongs…anything else?”
     “I’ll have to take it in doses, so I need someone to handle it for me, too. I’m not exactly up to playing science lab for the next twenty-four hours.”
     “Done. Anyone you’d like to request?”
     Persephone got the feeling he was giving Risqué facial cues to indicate she should ask for Seph’s assistance.
     “The doctor is the only one who’s had enough chemistry to have my trust.”
     “Fine. Why that temperature?”
     “That’s when it’ll turn black and viscous. That’s when it’ll be ready.”
     “Ready for what?”
     “To be put into my wound.”
     “Sulfur is normal in both the environment and the body cells of demons, as plentiful as hydrogen atoms are for humans. I’m burning through my own natural supply to maintain temperature, fight the poison, and stay alive. I need more.”
     “I wasn’t questioning your need, Risqué, only the temperature.”
     Persephone had known that Risqué was a half-demon. The red eyes gave that away, though most people thought she wore contacts for effect. But that last detail revealed a most disturbing fact.
     She’s a Daughter of Hell. That meant her mother was a witch, her father a Phlegethonian demon—one from the flaming fluid of the Underworld. Regardless of the debatability of it as a ‘lake of fire’ or a ‘river of flames’ depending on the religious point of view, it was a sinister place. That river was the only thing that flowed in and out of Tartarus, the region of trapped Titans, as far from the land of Hades as the land of Hades was from the mortal realms of Earth.
     Risqué is connected to Hades. 
     Seph wanted to anywhere but here right now…and she wanted to rush Beverley far, far away.
But she could not leave Goliath’s side without being dismissed. And it was unlikely that he would go against Menessos’s wish and allow Beverley to be moved.
     Tuning out the pair before her as they discussed the finer points of where to cook the sulfur, Seph began making plans. Then she heard Risqué say, “I am well protected.”
     It jolted Seph’s focus back to their conversation. Her chin snapped up and she locked eyes on the half-demon who blinked and met that look with a crooked half-smile.
     Before she could react, however, the door thrust open and Menessos raced the room. Seph rarely saw him in a hurry, let alone breathless from running.
     “I’ve been looking everywhere for you,” he said, focused on Persephone. His gaze shifted to Goliath. “Haven Master, I beg your indulgence. We must go.”
     “We who? And where?”
     “You, me, Persephone…and every vampire you can spare.” He panted. “The wærewolves den is under attack.”

Cleveland, OH

     Mid-air, the vampire’s fist rammed against Johnny’s wolf-form breastbone, knocking him back enough that his jaws closed on empty air.
     The vampire followed through with a round-house kick that caught Johnny on the nose before his paws had touched down.
     His nails scraped the floor, gouging the wooden planks not only to stop his rearward slide, but to give him a grip to rocket forward. He lunged again, and again the vampire eluded his teeth.
     When he’d fought Mero, he was half-man, half-wolf. He’d stood on two legs, taller than his enemy. He’d had long arms and clawed hands. He’d had many ways to hurt his opponent and he knew how to fight…as a man.
     Now, the full moon ruled his form and he had only his mouth.
     A scream erupted nearby. Beau.
     He twisted his neck to see.
     Beau lay on the floor. A vamp was bloodying Beau’s face with his fist.
     The old man could not take such violence. Looking to the white wolf, he saw William was engaging another vamp, with even less success than himself.
     He started forward, wanting to help Beau—a vamp landed on Johnny’s back. Nails burrowed under fur and pierced skin. Bending leftward to face this foe, he snapped at the vamp’s left arm just as it was yanked away while the nails on the right side tore into him deeper. He bent to the right to snap at that arm, and the vamp released him and sank its nails on his left again.
     Directly ahead, Beau tried to defend himself. The vampire snapped the old man’s arm. Beau screamed again, voice hoarse and weaker.
     Putting aside the pain, he moved toward Beau, dragging the vamp with him. But the vamp entwined his legs with Johnny’s rear legs, forcing them backward until his entire rear half was lying on the floor. His spine could not take the angle. He flopped down. Still, Johnny’s front paws strained for purchase trying to worm his way to help Beau.
     But he couldn’t even help himself.
     Let me.
     The words came, but they were not voiced. They weren’t even words, not inasmuch as language is words. It was more primal. It was his beast, begging.
     The beast coveted this moment. There was desperation in the beast’s need to sate its ravenous hunger in this moment. And, with a surge of aggression that matched the hostility of these invaders, the beast demanded ownership of this moment.
     Johnny let the wolf ascend.
     It was like dark syrup closed over his head. His lungs did not want for air, but his man-mind sank, down and down and down.
     He’d asked others what they sensed while changed; they claimed to be unaware, sleeping dreamlessly.
     This is the darkness where the mind waits while the beast is in charge. But I am conscious of it.
     It was quiet. It was a sanctuary. It was peaceful.
     This was the dark corner of his soul.
     And it was sore.
     Like phantom pains from a missing limb, he felt two aches like thorns lodged in an already open wound—but this wound was metaphysical. Here, somewhere, was that place where two chunks of his soul had been ripped away and replaced with pieces of Menessos and Persephone.
     The first piece had the texture of chainmail and sunlight, but gave way to leather and lace.
     He jerked away from it.
     She shouldn’t come here. It was too dangerous.
     He plunged onward, to the next.
     It had the roughness of uneven pages, like an old, old book, but he couldn’t open the pages.
He didn’t exactly know how to access these soul pieces—We never discussed that. Why didn’t we discuss that?
     Shoving his hand into it, carelessly shredding pages, viscous cords slid around his hand and between his fingers, like veins with briars. Closing his hand into a fist, he squeezed and projected the word: Help!
     It occurred to him that he was asking a vampire for aid…against vampires. For an instant, he wondered if Menessos knew, if he’d been a part of it.
     Then he squeezed his fist tighter and projected: My den is being attacked…by vampires! With that, he extracted his hand and his gaze lifted. The darkness went on and on. It reminded him of lyrics to a song he wrote:

          How deep my soul…to ache like this?
          How wide this ocean, my abyss?
How far to travel with such a load?
How high the climb, on forsaken roads?

     There was nothing to cling to, nothing to climb. He had to rise. He could not wait for the dawn to realign him.
     Clawing at the obscurity, struggling to climb, he knew he wasn’t ascending at all. Anxiety taunted him. His strength availed nothing. His muscles—
     I am not physical in this place.
     Consciousness only, the body he perceived himself to have was only that: a perception. That representation of the man-form attached to this mind had gravitated inward, here, to his soul.
Willing this body to shift and become wolf brought all the ache of a true change of form. He closed his eyes to this murkiness and stretched and pulled this form through all the process of a transformation—to be half-man, half-wolf.
     When his eyes opened, gravity pulled him in the other direction.
     Consciousness came in bits. One sense at a time. Sightless, in darkness still, he felt his paws standing squarely on the cold bare floor, felt the change in leverage as he pulled on something. His ears vibrated, surrounded by the cacophony created by hundreds of growling, snarling wolves and the sodden rending of flesh. His whole muzzle was slick; he could smell fur and death and blood. Hot fluid dripped from his mouth, his tongue knew only the taste of blood and raw meat.
     Whatever he was pulling on came free. He backpedaled to maintain balance. Overwhelming satisfaction swelled within him and he relished the complete joy—until his vision focused from darkness to dark blurs and into sharp images. Wolves swarmed ahead of him—dozens of them. Their bodies blocked him for a moment, but they each took tooth-holds and yanked.
     The wolves before him were feasting on a body…and it was the head of a vampire that dangled from his jaws.
     Elation ebbed as he stared at the carnage around him. The white wolf was luminous red, bathed in blood. Everywhere, he saw teeth. His pack was savagery incarnate.
     This was why they kenneled. This was the terrible truth that haunted their cursed existence. This was what wærewolves did. They slaughtered.

Cleveland, OH

     Persephone sat in the back seat of an Audi. She was behind Zenzele who was driving. Beside her, Menessos was on the edge of his seat, more in the middle than on his side, gripping the shoulders of the front seats and generally being a terrible back-seat driver. “You should have turned there!”
     “This is faster.”
     “There are more lights to contend with this way!”
     “There are more cars to contend with that way.”
     She had to give Zenzele credit, he maintained a calm tone while he was questioned by his former master and driving very fast. Also, his route selection had given Menessos something else to be dissatisfied about; he had been contending that she should have remained at the haven and as that argument went nowhere it had evolved into him insisting that she stay in the car when they arrived at the wærewolves’ den. She was glad Zenzele had his attention.
     “You can maneuver around cars.”
     “There are fewer to have to maneuver around this way.”
     “But the lights—”
     “I do not intend to obey the traffic lights.”
     That shut Menessos up. He sat back and crossed his arms like a spoiled child not getting his way. Hearing Zenzele’s statement, however, Persephone nonchalantly slid the seatbelt around her waist. When the mechanism clicked into place, Bjorn, who sat in the front passenger seat, gave her a sidelong glance. Even from that angle his derisive expression was obvious.
     “Immortality must be grand,” she muttered.
     The tires squealed as Zenzele weaved around vehicles. Seph caught her breath and, trying to cover it, twisted to see out the back window. The lights of another car made the same move, and behind it, a van followed. The next car held Goliath and four others. The van held nine. All were vampires. No Beholders were brought. No mortal muscle. Just fang.
     That—and Menessos’s frantically urgent behavior—worried her more than the lack of safety in their travel plans. She touched Menessos’s arm. “How do you know the den is being attacked?” She’d asked the question three times already. No one else had questioned him, but his statement had set off a flurry of activity that impeded getting answers. He could not ignore her now, though.
     “He told me.”
     “He called you?”
     “In a manner of speaking.”
     She gave him a look.
     “He used the pieces we shared.”
     A ha. She understood he meant the soul-sharing. “Who is attacking them?”
     “Does it matter?”
     Whenever he answered her inquiry with a question, she’d learned, he was hiding something. “Doesn’t it?”
     “He did not say.”
     If he sent a message via the soul, there would be much more than words conveyed. “He didn’t have to.”
     He met her gaze, but his eyes revealed nothing. “Just stay in the car.”
     There was little that Menessos feared, but this attacker had summoned his dread. She squeezed his arm.
     He took her hand into his. “Our trio is in danger. I will not let it fail.”
     Ever one to measure and guard his words before they found utterance, those two sentences told her a lot. He was trying to reassure her, but mentioning failure meant he was acknowledging there was a possibility that it could.
     And that was why she had no intention of waiting in the car.
     “Holy shit.” Zenzele pointed directly ahead.
     They were closing in on the den. A limousine sped from the parking garage below the building. Another limo trailed it, and a third. Then a fourth.
     Persephone jerked free of Menessos’s hand, unfastened her seatbelt, and scooted forward. Her mouth dropped open as she recognized the vehicles as the four she had seen earlier, when she arrived in the city.
     “Do I pursue them?” Zenzele asked.
     “No!” Menessos answered.
     “What if they have taken hostages?”
     Persephone’s stomach did a flip at the word.
     “They haven’t.”
     “How do you know?” Zenzele demanded.
     “I know. Just get to the den.”
     The tires squealed again as the Audi braked to make the tight turn into the den parking garage. The rear fishtailed, then straightened as the sedan accelerated forward, and screeched to a halt near the elevator.
     Seph had her door open before the vehicle had completely stopped.
     “Persephone, no!”
     Menessos’s cry was too late. She hit the stairwell at a run and had barely made it to the first turn before she heard them charging after her. After the second turn, as she started past the first floor, she heard the howling above.
     Not joyous howling, but cries of pain and sadness.
     Her rapid footfalls carried her swiftly, but when she saw the thick smears of blood in the stairwell she faltered.
     Menessos caught her, strength pulling her upright before she could take a nose-dive across the landing. He shoved her into the unbloodied corner of the second floor alcove and let Zenzele and Bjorn pass. “Go back to the car!” He fixed her with as stern a stare as she’d ever seen, then followed them up.
     Brows low, panting, she pushed off the wall and followed Menessos.
     The other vampires were in the stairwell below. She heard Goliath giving orders. She knew the fourth floor was the first of the kenneling levels. She was trailing them, but their footfalls stopped suddenly and a guttural growl filtered down the stairwell.
     Making the turn midway of the third floor and approaching the landing of the fourth, she nearly ran into Menessos. He was stopped behind a wall of muscle as the two vampires blocked the way. But she knew why they had stopped. She recognized that low-pitch growl. Johnny’s human voice was unmistakable to her ears, and so was his wolf voice…and this wolf had attacked her the last time they met. She’d never forget the sound of his snarl.
     Regardless, she shoved Menessos aside. He didn’t react, but she felt a slight arc in energy as she touched him. That told her he was trying to contact Johnny via the soul pieces. She didn’t intend to wait and hope. She clawed at the vampires before her and squeezed between them. “Let me through!”
     Pushing free of their bodies, she darted up two steps to stop short, nose-to-nose with the black wolf that had tried to kill her.
     His yellow eyes were slits glowing through black lids. His ears lay flat. His muzzle was all curled lips and gleaming fangs and dripping saliva.
     The guttural growl abated. The yellow eyes opened wider and the attack posture relaxed. Then, he lunged forward. His teeth clamped the sleeve of her coat as he pulled her upward. He dragged her into the fourth floor room.
     She saw hundreds of wæres. Some stood. Some lay still—too still. Some writhed in agony. Blood smeared and speckled the walls. The doors to the kennels behind them stood open.
Johnny pulled her along the wall, but she couldn’t rip her eyes from the horrific scene.
     Seeing her, many of the wolves reacted; heads lowered and lips curled. Other wolves trotted to the forefront, blocking these growlers. She recognized Erik and Celia, Theo, Kirk and Gregor…others who had gone through the forced-change spell. They came to the head of the room and kept the others back as Johnny led her—
     Seph finally scanned the direction he was taking her.
     When she’d thought about the den being attacked, she’d thought only of the wolves. She hadn’t remembered that he was their kenneling watchman.
     The old man lay, bloodied, below the keypad that controlled the kennel doors. He set them free. He gave them the chance to act as a pack to protect themselves.
     A scarlet wolf, once white but now soaked in blood, lay beside Beau. It rose as she was brought near. It stood over Beau and emitted a guttural warning.
     Johnny released her to bark at the white wolf.
     It snarled at him too.
     He snarled back, hackles rising.
     The white wolf relented. It stepped aside so as to not be straddling the man, but it kept close to him. She walked around Johnny to crouch beside Beau. The white wolf gave a low growl.
     “I’m trying to help him.” Her voice cracked as she saw him up close. She didn’t know what to do, or where to start. His nose was broken. Blood dripped from his nostrils like a faulty faucet. His eyes were bruised and swollen. His lip was split in three places. His arm—her stomach flipped again seeing the bend in it where no bend should ever be. The other shoulder must have been out of socket it was so low.
     “Oh Beau,” she whispered as she moved closer and tried to assess him. Tears welled in her eyes until she couldn’t see. She blinked them away but more followed.
     A fresh round of growls filled the room.
     Her vision was too blurry to discern why, but Johnny’s barks and growls silenced the others and a heartbeat later Menessos came to his knees beside her. She wanted to shout, Call 9-1-1. But no emergency crew would come to the wærewolf den.
     “Do something,” she begged.
     Gently, he felt the old man over, frowning. “He has many broken bones. Arm, ribs, jaw. I can sense the blood moving through him. He is bleeding internally.”
     “Help him!”
     He touched her hand. “I can’t.”
     “I’ll call the ley—”    
     “He’s been Bindspoken, Persephone. Magic can’t touch him even to aid him. Moreover, any magic attempted here would affect the wærewolves.”
     “Where’s Doc Lincoln?”
     “On his way, but…Persephone.” He smoothed her hair back. “Keep him comfortable.”
     Her throat tightened. A sob wrenched its way painfully out. She covered her mouth with her hand and let the ache come, knowing it would not be denied.
     She slipped her hand into Beau’s. “Beauregard…” She wiped her free hand across his head. He’d given her an amulet. One precious to him. It had saved her life. Saved it so I could sit here beside him like this.
     There was some small blessing in his lack of consciousness.
     Menessos got up and left, giving his attention to the wærewolves. She heard Goliath’s voice across the room. He and the others were doing what they could for the wolves. But she couldn’t take her eyes off of Beau.
     His breathing was so shallow, labored, raspy.
     How could anyone beat an old man like this?
     The white wolf licked her fingers, where she held Beau’s hand.
     Blinking away tears she looked at this wolf. He came around to this side of the old man and stood at her shoulder. He laid down, pushing his head under Beau’s and hers. He gave a great, sad whimper.
     Keeping one hand on Beau, and ignoring the fact that this wolf’s coat was slick blood, she bent down to embrace him. Dear goddess. This must be Beau’s son, William.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013



“You were a warrior?”

Giovanni Guistini heard the note of interest in this redhead’s tone and saw the unconscious flex of her fingers.

Her name was Jessica, and she was gorgeous. Cosmetics were wasted on her already-angelic face. Her curly hair was long and thick and partially pinned up. A trendy faux suede short skirt and nearly-sheer white blouse accentuated her curves in an upper-class chic style. The matching stiletto pumps perfected the look.

But he couldn’t have cared less about her attire. His attention was fixed on the spark in her eyes that screamed, ‘I’m a naughty-girl.’

He liked naughty girls.

“Indeed I was.” His voice was little more than gravel in a blender. He was lucky to speak at all, evidenced by the scars that swathed his neck. He wore the knotted ribbons of flesh like a badge, clothing himself always in V-necks so no one would miss seeing what had been done to him.

Jessica had tried to keep her focus politely on his face and failed. Two minutes after he walked into the meeting room, dropped a file onto the table between them and sat, she gave up that futile task and simply stared, scrutinizing the grooves and pits of his skin.

Most importantly to him, her expression hadn’t fallen into one of disgust as she studied him.

He had reviewed her file. Her former years as a lobbyist intern had brought her—unwillingly, so the file claimed—to this bloody version of existence. An ambitious but unwise vampire named Luis had turned her, used her, and challenged the wrong elder. Luis was dead within days. She, having been Made without any of the required preparations, was delivered here to the Excelsior’s D.C. headquarters by the elder for assessment.

The Excelsior’s personal advisors had the task of determining if she would be able to transition to this existence, or if it was best that she be discreetly destroyed. Being the only advisor available, the assignment had fallen solely to Giovanni.

He checked the file notes again.

She was an essentially an infant—only a few months among the living dead—and utterly unprepared for it. Such telltale habits as the flex of her fingers indicating her excitement and desire to touch him needed to vanish. Bloodlust was a bitch to control, and therefore Offerlings weren’t Made until they had mastered themselves mentally and physically, severed ties with their mortal family, and accepted their haven as their only family. She, however, had gotten teary eyed as she babbled about the upcoming holidays; her mother, as was typical, had soundly rejected her.

Wiping her tears, Jessica had asked him to talk about himself for a moment while she regained her composure. After a glance at the two-way mirror, he shrugged, tossed the file back to the table and told her a short war-story.

She had forgotten her sadness instantly when he mentioned his battle expertise and rank. Talking about himself, he realized, had been a bad idea. This evaluation game was clearly going both ways and her method gathered more useful information for her than his straightforward approach did for him.

“How old are you?”

He looked up from her chest. “Honey, that isn’t polite.”

“Neither is staring at my tits, honey.”

He arched a brow. She looked much too classy to use a word like tits. “Some appetites don’t diminish with the loss of the day.”

She arched a brow back. Her lips crooked up on one end and she leaned forward, exposing more of her tempting cleavage to him. “Some grow stronger.”

It seemed she understood, somehow, that this interview meant her survival was on the line. It also seemed she had reasoned that fucking him would buy her some favor. Giovanni wasn’t above taking the merits of her talent into consideration. “Tell me honey. Which ones grew stronger for you?”

Jessica stood and came around the table. Straddling his legs caused her skirt to rise. The lace tops of her thigh high hosiery caught his attention, but she brought his focus up, whispering, “Guess,” as she unfastened the top buttons of her blouse. Sliding onto his lap, she unhooked the clasp on the front of her bra.

Giovanni’s breathing sped up.

“You believe Luis Made me because I know how lobbyists think and how they make deals. But he didn’t.” She gripped his forearms and wiggled her hips as if riding him. The movement caused the elastic on her bra to pull the cup fabric slowly to either side. Her hard nipples poked against the nearly sheer white fabric of her blouse. “That was just an extra perk.” She lifted Giovanni’s hands to make him touch her. “I know what I’m really good at.”

He felt himself swelling, hardening as he squeezed her, gently, thumbs rubbing over the erect nipples. Despite the fabric being in the way, his mouth opened and he bowed his head to take her between his teeth. Jessica exhaled a heavy sigh and ground herself against him.

Her hands found his belt. “Bite. Bite hard. Make me bleed.”

He did.

She sucked air through her teeth as his belt slipped free. She loosed his zipper and reached in to fondle him. “Give me this,” she whispered, squeezing.

“Take it,” he said hurriedly, hating to take his lips off her. He’d broken her skin and the sweet drops of blood were smeared into the cloth where he had sucked. He rose slightly from his seat, enough for her to push his trousers down and free him from the cloth, then she was upon him. She was tight and she smelled so good. Giovanni switched to the right breast, biting again as she requested.

Jessica gave a little squeal and pushed against his chest. “Sit up.” She lifted one leg toward his shoulder—he shifted his arm to the outside—then she repeated the move on the other side. The stubble on his cheeks scoured her smooth calves, tearing the fine hosiery. His hands ran up her legs then down and under as she leaned back and placed her palms on his thighs. With her legs straight up, using his shoulders as leverage, she fucked him as he’d never been fucked before.

He watched her body, watched her shoulders roll as she moved up and down, watched her abdominals clench as her hips rose, watched her arch her back and push down on him again, watched her tits shake as she found her rhythm. It was part acrobatics. Part exotic dance.

He was enthralled.

Her arms shook with this exertion. Her legs trembled, too. His fingers were drawn to her breasts again, and he ripped the blouse open to see her pink nipples, dancing mesmerizingly before him, smeared with blood.

He had to touch them, pinch them. When he did, she cried out and began clenching around him.
Swiftly, Giovanni reached behind her, lifted her, and slammed her backside onto the table, pinning her with his body. He bit her and suckled her, thrusting furiously. “On my word, you either live,” he growled into her ear, “or,” he gasped as he began filling her, then finished “you die.”

When he stopped moving, her fingers slid under his jaw and forced his head up roughly. “I’ll do anything you want, warrior.”

He jerked her hands off him and straightened his spine so he could glower hatefully down at her. “Really, honey? I’ve never heard that line before.” He disengaged himself; she grabbed at his arms to keep him close.

“Did you hear that word ‘anything’, warrior? I meant it. I’ll do anyone you tell me to, any way you want me to.”

“Sluts are a dime a dozen, honey.” He pushed her backward onto the tabletop, then turned away to refasten his trousers.

“How many sluts know exactly which politicians sympathize with vampires? Which ones trade political favors for kinky favors?”

Giovanni spun toward her slowly.

She rose up on her elbows, keeping her legs bent and her knees open so he wouldn’t miss seeing her sex. “How many sluts do you know that can connect you with the politicians who can be bought? How many sluts do you know that can name the politicians who want to become one of us—and will make deals to that end? How many sluts do you know, honey, that can make you more powerful?”

“You were an intern. Not upper echelon.”

She sighed and let her head fall back. The pose made his breath catch in his chest. “Nobody ever asked me who my daddy is.” She lifted her head and fixed him with a serious look. “I mean my real daddy.”

Face smeared with her blood, he stepped between her legs again, leaned forward, took her by the hair, and brought her lips close to his. “Will you kill when I tell you to kill?”

Jessica wiped her face against his until she was wearing the same red mask. “Don’t doubt me.”
She moved in for a kiss.

Giovanni’s grip on her hair kept her a fraction away. She slipped her tongue against his lips. With a yank he thrust her downward again, then walked to the door, opened it and nodded to the guards. “I think she’s ready for another round, boys.” He gave her one last look before leaving the room.

Jessica grinned and blew him a kiss.

Near the end of the hall he heard a voice inside the Advisory Room where he and Mero typically held meetings with the Excelsior. He paused at the open door.

“…how many are dead?” It was the Excelsior’s voice. “No, you idiot, how many wærewolves are dead?” Pause. “Did we get the Domn Lup?”

Giovanni’s eyes widened. We? 

Since Giovanni had returned from his excursion to Cleveland, the Excelsior had barely given him notice. He knew that due to his actions in Ohio he’d lost favor with Deric, but, had he not heard this himself, he would not have believed the Excelsior made a strike without consulting him.

The Excelsior hit a button on his smart phone and threw it across the room. When he noticed Giovanni leaning in the doorway, he said, “Get in here. Shut the door.”

“I wanted to inquire about Mero. I haven’t seen him lately.”

“He is recuperating.”

“Recuperating?” What else is Deric keeping from me?

“While in Cleveland with the shabbubitum he was brutalized by the Domn Lup.” His eyes scoured Giovanni. “You heard what I said?”

He nodded. “A little. You’ve retaliated?”

“Of course.”

Would you have retaliated so severely if I were the one who had been ‘brutalized’? He did not think it would be so. Mero had long held more favor with the Excelsior. But then he wasn’t scarred. Neither was he violently aggressive. I am the devil on Deric’s shoulder while Mero is the angel.

Maintaining a blank expression to hide his true thoughts, Giovanni nodded, but offered no opinion. It hadn’t been requested. He ached to ask about the strike, but unless the Excelsior offered to discuss it, he dared not ask anything. “How long will Mero need?”

“Another night, maybe two.”

Must be pretty bad. Poor, poor bastard. 

“He lost one of the shabbubitu to Menessos—the one named Talto. Ailo was slain. Liyliy is still missing.”

He failed you and still you risked war to defend his honor. I know damn well you wouldn’t have done the same for me. So why would you for him?

Though he knew more about Liyliy’s disappearance than he would admit to the Excelsior, Giovanni acted surprised. He needed to find the missing shabbubitu. She was a powerful ally, ruthless and violent. Combining Jessica’s sweet sexual coercion with Liyliy’s savage hostility…he could trap and manipulate his way into real power.

He assessed Deric again. He’d long thought the Excelsior was little more than a corporate stiff, playing the politician’s paper games—signing bills and debating for rights—when he should just reveal the monster underneath and make them all cower at his feet.

What’s changed?

After a silent moment passed, Giovanni asked, “What can I do to best serve you, Excelsior?”

Deric considered. “I want to send another team to Cleveland. Let’s talk strategy.”