Wednesday, November 27, 2013

PERSEPHONE ALCMEDI BOOK 7 CHAPTER 4

Book 7: UNTITLED
CHAPTER FOUR
TUESDAY / NOVEMBER 28 
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.”

“Huh?”

“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 chip 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.”


“Into?” 

“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 debatable nature 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 has deep connections 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.”





I hope you all have a blessed holiday with the people you love most near with you, enjoying good food, hugs, and laughter.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

PERSEPHONE ALCMEDI BOOK 7 CHAPTER 3

BOOK 7: UNTITLED
CHAPTER THREE
TUESDAY / NOVEMBER 28 
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 pack?

Why? 

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.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

PERSEPHONE ALCMEDI BOOK 7 CHAPTER 2

BOOK 7: UNTITLED
CHAPTER TWO
TUESDAY / NOVEMBER 28 
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.

Amenemhab.

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.”

“Why?”

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?”

“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.”





Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Persephone Alcmedi Book 7 Chapter One

BOOK 7: UNTITLED
CHAPTER ONE
TUESDAY / NOVEMBER 28
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?”

Pleasure? Hardly. “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 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. Additionally, 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 dig 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 together, and started filling it. He thought about the conversation he'd just had and tried to reason a few guesses together, but he couldn't keep his mind on the vamps, not when 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 had laid claim to this building, seizing it via Imminent Domain laws, and intended to demolish it and make way for their new I-90 project.

Johnny's 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 a threat. His son, however, was a wære who'd 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 and the result had been curious. The people involved, at their next cyclical change, retained their man-minds while transformed into wolves. She was in debt to Beau for a charm he'd loaned her, so 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.

Johnny didn't want to take any chances. "Is Beau bringing him?"

Kirk shrugged.

“Call him. William will change no matter what.”

“A catatonic wolf isn’t dangerous.”

“Call him. I want William here.”

“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. She 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 two 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. “You were just talking about nurturing the family aspect of this pack. 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. 

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. He faced Erik. "You're absolutely right."

“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.”

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, drank, 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?”