Blood Cross Chapter 15

Hedge of thorns

In one move, I pulled the shotgun and a vamp-killer, blade back for in-close street fighting, and advanced to the front door, planting my feet with care, balanced and ready.

My heart sped, my breath went deep and fast. Beast's claws tore into my belly, ready to fight. But the front door was closed. No one had broken through Molly's ward.

Barely heard over the howl of the alarm, the side door creaked. Where the wardwas broken. I whirled.

Leo stood inside, fully vamped out, eyes bled black in scarlet sclera, fingernails like talons. His shoulders were hunched, his clothes windblown, shirt open to the waist. Like most vamps, he was slender to the point of emaciation, his chest thinly haired, ribs stark and muscles like cords, no fat on him at all. He was staring at the place where Molly nearly died. His nostrils flared as he scented her blood.

I remembered Bruiser saying that he'd been at Immanuel's grave. He was probably deep in Dolore, on the edge of madness again. Bruiser had told me to keep crosses nearby. I had a moment to wonder which of my many sins Leo was here to kill me for. I adjusted my grip on the Benelli.

Leo sniffed, short, quick inhalations, animal-like. Cocked his head to the side, the motion not mammalian, but snakelike. It made my flesh crawl. My fingers tightened on the vamp-killer. He sniffed again and closed his eyes, holding the breath in. He let it out with a quick plosive breath and snarled. Beast reacted with a shot of adrenaline to my system and a soft growl from my own lips.

Leo's eyes flew to me, to the Benelli M4 Super 90 in my right hand. His gaze traveled from the shotgun, up my arm, and down my naked body. It wasn't the leisurely perusal of a lover, but the calculated evaluation of a predator. Of a killer studying prey.

I shouted over the wail of the alarm. "I'm assuming you're here to finish what you started when you came to burn me out."

The wail of the witch alarm went silent and I started, the thirty-second siren preset into the ward by Molly leaving a deaf hole in the fabric of the universe.If we don't have them immobilized or dead by then, it's too late , she'd said, with a sweet grin. My heart squeezed tight with pain. Someone had the children. Someone had stolen them. I flipped the vamp-killer, the silver catching the light.

"Someone has taken the children," I told him, though I couldn't say, for sure, why I bothered.

A hint of emotion flickered in the back of Leo's eyes, chased like leaves in a winter wind. He blinked slowly. Took a short, shallow breath. The corner of his mouth lifted, almost unwillingly. He chuckled.

With the sound, his eyes bled back to human, laughter always forcing a vamp back from the killing edge. They can't laugh and be vampy at the same time; it's two distinct parts of them, one part still human, one part predator. The red bled out of his sclera and he stood straight, instantly regaining a human aspect. He took a deep breath, the motions bizarre after the inhuman posturing.

"Why are you here?" I asked, my voice soft in the odd hush. "Is it because I co-opted Bethany to heal Molly?"

"I . . . I don't know. . . ."

"Is it the Dolore?"

Something faint crossed his face, so fast the flesh seemed to ripple, as if a fragile sanity was torn like rotten silk. Almost as quickly, reason and control reentered his eyes. I kept the Benelli trained on him, the vamp-killer ready. He blinked slowly; black eyes looked me over, this time with a cool perusal. He brushed a strand of silky black hair from his olive-skinned face, flesh paled from centuries away from the sun, and when he spoke his voice was coolly wry. "I can't be killed with shotguns."

"You can if they fire rounds hand-packed with silver flechettes."

Leo tilted his head and let his smile widen, looking me over now like an entirely different kind of predator, making me acutely aware that I wasn't dressed for company.

Wasn't, in fact, dressed at all. I flipped the knife so it was point forward. "And the knife is a silver-lined vamp-killer. Neither will kill you dead instantly, but you may not wake the morning after either."

Leo had a really good smile, charming, disarming, his lips mobile and full as he met my eyes. The hard, deep, full-on vamp power rolled over me. I could feel the desire to lower my weapons. Resisted. Hanging on to Beast-induced fight-or-flight response.

"I am master of this city. Silver will not kill me easily. You have had a Rousseau as guest?"

It took me a moment to realize he had changed the subject. "No."

"Rousseau scions who stink of witch blood attacked your home, in the company of two female witches, Rousseaus I do not recognize. One is a powerful master. Intriguing. I should know every Rousseau. I have been among them in their clan home. These do not live among the Rousseaus."

My heart raced. The Rousseau Clan. Recently allied with Mearkanis and St. Martin, I remembered. Against Leo. I knew Bettina Rousseau, the clan's blood-master. I would have recognized her scent.

He shook back his hair, which brushed his shoulders. "Bethany is fragile and such energy exchange is draining to her. You will accept that no one except me asks her for healing." He said it like a command. My brows went up. With complete disregard for the gun and knife - and me - Leo turned and went back through the dark kitchen.

Closed the outer door. I could see the glitter of his eyes through the shadows. "Unless you wish me to join you in your bed, get dressed. We have much to discuss. I'll make tea." And with that, Leo, the master of the city of New Orleans, turned his back on me and went to my stove.

Feeling idiotic and not sure why, worried about this new, less stable Leo and the effects of the Dolore, I closed the door to my bedroom and set the weapons on the bed. I pulled on undies, jeans, and a long-sleeved T. Fuzzy socks. I twisted my hair back and tied the long wet length of it into a knot, remembering something I hadn't recalled until now, a sharp clicking as I shifted into Beast. I'd had beads in my hair. Now they were lying in the dust and broken rocks of my garden. Inconsequential. The brain latching on to foolishness to avoid a horror.

Uncertain of the state of Leo's mental health, I slid four stakes against my scalp like my usual hair sticks, reloaded my derringer with silver shot, and tucked it into my waistband. It wasn't much against the speed and killing power of a master vamp, but it made me feel better.

I had no idea what to do next to find the children. So I was going to have tea with a possibly whacked-out vamp? Social calls while the kits were in danger? But Leo had already given me some good info: Rousseaus, or vamps of their bloodline, had the kits and they had never lived at the Rousseau clan home. And there were more than one, which was why I'd had so much trouble analyzing the braided, woven scent signature.

They all had to be related. Yeah. It all made sense.

Bettina was the Rousseau clan master. Her hands had smelled of the killers at the party.

She knew something. Part of me wanted to storm the Rousseau stronghold immediately, bare my teeth, break down the gates, and beat them all for info. But when dealing with kidnappings, you had to be careful. One wrong move and . . . I breathed deeply, trying to get my thoughts under control. Not succeeding much. Beast rumbled disgust deep in my mind. Flexed her claws and cut into me. Pain cleared my head.

When I reached the kitchen, the kettle was starting a breathy whistle and Leo was measuring out tea leaves, his shirt buttoned and tucked into the black trousers, long sleeves rolled neatly to the elbows. He looked earthy and harmless, or as harmless as a gorgeous, no-longer-human, clinically deceased man can look in his shirtsleeves. Drop-dead gorgeous. If I hadn't been so scared for Angelina and Evan and Bliss, I might have smiled at my whimsy.

His feet, like mine, were bare. There was something unnerving about Leo's bare feet, long and slender with a few black hairs on the upper knuckles of his big toes. He glanced up at me standing in the doorway and back, pouring steaming water over the leaves in the teapot. "I apologize for my bit of temper."

That what they're calling it? A bit of temper?But I didn't say it, settling on "Ooookay."

"Katie and I used this very pot for tea during the war." With a quick smile he added,

"That would be World War One." He set the kettle on the metal rack and covered the leaves. I put cold fingers on the derringer.

I itched to be hunting the kits but . . . where? I ground my molars and went for cups, choosing two aqua mugs. I put sugar on the counter and got Cool Whip and cream out of the fridge. "Yeah?"

Leo put a tea cozy over the pot for it to steep. Making tea. The normality of it all was creepy so soon after the vamped-out demonstration at the foot of the stairs. Had he called a truce? Or had he forgotten about going all vampy on me? The last time he was here, he'd been intent on burning down my house and me in it. It had to be the Dolore.

How close to the edge was Leo?

"A third cup would be nice." His tone was mild, backed by none of the power I knew he could put into his voice. "George is outside. I imagine he would like to come in."

Without comment, I got out another mug and went to the door. When I opened it, Bruiser was standing there, still wearing the casual open-neck shirt and jeans. He looked at my neck as if inspecting me for damage. I was pretty sure it was relief I saw before he blinked it away. "The ward is still in place here," I said. "If you come around to the side, you can get in without the alarm going off again."

He nodded once and turned for the gate. No wasted words. I went back to the kitchen and got out cookies. My hands trembled when I opened them. Angie Baby had eaten two after lunch today. Now she was in the hands of a witch-vamp, and I had a bad feeling he wasn't giving her cookies. I struggled with tears, the unfamiliar riptide of emotions pulling me under a swirl of fear and worry and grief. I sucked in a breath, fighting for control.

Bruiser entered just as I put cookies on the plate and Leo poured the tea. One hand on his hip, Bruiser looked at the domestic scene; his brows beetled down in worry. I accepted a warm mug from Leo. After a hesitation, Bruiser did the same, holding it as if the tea were nitro. Leo sat and indicated we were to do the same, master in my house.

No way. Not even if it kept him from whacking out. I leaned against the counter, one foot back in case I needed leverage to leap. George sat, sipping his tea, though I knew him for a coffee man. He added a teaspoon of sugar and stirred. Taking his cue, I added sugar and whipped cream to mine. When the spoons were set aside, Leo said.


Succinct, a soldier reporting in, George said, "The Executive Vampire Council has agreed to meet with a witch delegation under diplomatic protection." A shock zinged through me at his words. Vamps never had official dealings with witches. The last known discourse between the two races was over a hundred years ago. George slid a scrap of paper to me. "My master's contact with the witch clans has assured me they are willing to address the council."

My brows went way up. I leaned in and took the small paper, tucked it into my pocket.

Leo had arranged this? This took reason. I started to relax.

"My master also understands that another member of the Everheart family coven, Evangeline, will soon arrive in New Orleans, as will Evan Trueblood, an unregistered sorcerer. Their arrival constitutes a new full coven in his city. Mr. Pellissier expects them to act as any tourist and return home when their visit is done."

My heart stuttered. No one but Molly and her sisters knew about Evan.Crap . I sipped my tea, mind racing. Evangeline Everheart had been pulling strings, using her connections to set up talks. A full coven meant five, Evan, Molly, Evangeline, and the children. Mr. Pellissier expects. . . My first reaction was to tell Leo to stuff it where the sun didn't shine, but I figured with a vamp that was pretty much anywhere. His words were tantamount to a command, and probably had import in the vamp/witch chats planned. So maybe I'd better not stick my big, clawed feet into the mix. "Okay. I'll pass along his . . . request." Okay, so I couldn't let it go by without a small dig at his orders.

Leo watched, nothing in his dark eyes, or nothing human, anyway. He put down his mug with a soft tap of stoneware on wood. I felt George tighten, smelled a sudden chemical change on his skin. Not fear, not exactly, but it was close. I gathered myself, preparing for whatever was about to happen. "You have been asking about the devoveo.


Nerves that had been twined about me for hours tightened. I set my mug down to free my hands; Leo didn't look quite . . . right. "I had hoped the word might be important but it isn't. The sire of the young rogues is burying his progeny - their progeny." I shrugged. "Whatever - in secret graveyards, in the middle of a pentagram with crosses all around. And the graves stink of witch magic." Leo didn't react at all, his face unreadable.

"According to my sources he's been stealing witch children off and on for decades and killing them, I think at the graves, witch blood sacrifices. My gut's saying that it's all tied in with the vamp curse, but the only way that fits, even a little bit, is one note I found about drinking witch blood being a temporary cure for the devoveo.

"But it's only a temporary cure. Unless someone's trying to spell it permanen - " I stopped midword. It made sense. "They're trying to avoid devoveo - the curse -

altogether. The only ones I've heard about who did that were the Sons of Darkness.

What are they? Could they be in New Orleans?"

Leo went still, that weird shift from nearly human to dead immovability, a block of pale marble carved into human shape. Bruiser set down his mug, claiming my attention. He blinked slowly, his face going white, high spots of color on his cheeks; his eyes were full of warning and he gave an almost infinitesimal shake of his head. "Boss?" he said, his voice too gentle, too wary.

What did I say? It couldn't be a big secret about devoveo, or drinking witch blood.Crap!

What else did I say?

Everything, even the air, went still and silent, so sharp it was almost cutting, for one awful moment. "You dare speak of the Sons of Darkness," he said, his voice the barest whisper of breath. Then Leo vanished. Phased into a blur. In the visible echo of the movement he reappeared, right in front of me, in a burst of vamp-scented air. Icy dead hands like steel bars embraced me, claws cutting into me. There wasn't time to gasp.

His fangs tore into my throat. Pain ripped through me, lightning agony. I heard Bruiser shouting, "No! Leo, no!"

Beast screamed, trying to shift, shift,shift now! Leo shook me as a dog shakes prey, shredding my throat. Teeth buried so deep I felt tendons snap and tear. My blood spurted across the room. Adrenaline shocked through me too late; I heard something heavy fall nearby, vibrating through the house. Beast screamed again. Her strength in my veins, I somehow got my hands up. Pulled two hair sticks, my motions slow as my own death. And buried them in Leo's body. The angles were all wrong. Nowhere near his heart. He shook me so hard my teeth clacked together. I tasted blood, salty and sweet. The world tilted at an odd angle.

I was falling. My blood fountained again. Landed in a bouncing heap, my blood a cascade. Drenching over a body on the floor. Spattering two legs at eye level. My carotids were severed. Again. My heart pumping out.

Beast heaved a breath that coated my lungs with blood. Screamed and tried to shift. Got my legs up under me. Spurting blood, I/we ran toward the back of the house. Past a downed George. Crashed through the back window in a shower of antique glass and more modern storm window. Stumbled across the lawn. Beast in control.

Darkness gathered at the edges of my vision. The world telescoped into a tiny spot of color and life. My pulse was fading. Cold clutched at me.

I staggered toward the rocks. Something red and burning swooped up behind me.

I sought for the snake buried in the cells of all life. I sought for Beast. But I was too injured. There was only that new emptiness at the heart of me. I managed a breath, sucking in blood mixed with the vital air. Choking. Drowning even as I bled out. I tried to cough. I fell. Landed. The rocks caught me, a cold, hard bed.

I couldn't remember how . . . how to shift. My hand fell on something hollow.

The box, Beast thought at me.The box . My fingers sought inside. Touched bone. The world went dark, Beast's voice the only sound.Mass to mass, stone to stone . . . mass to mass, stone to stone , Beast called to me, old words. Words of power. Words she knew and understood. Words she loved.Mass to mass, stone to stone . . . mass to mass, stone to stone. Beast will be big. Beast will be big!

Gray lights dancing with black motes floated over me. Beneath me the stones cracked and spat brittle, sharp shards into the air. The red thing at my back grew, crackling with sparks. I sank deep into the snake of the jaw I clutched. Saw the pattern. X and Y. So different. So alien.Wrong, wrong, wrong. I can't do this.

Beast wrenched control away.

And Ishifted . Became Beast. Bones popped and muscles twanged with agony. Nerves tore, flames and ice burned along my limbs. My back arched. My throat healed. Pelt sprouted, bristling. Clothes ripped and slid into tangled, twisted bonds. Claws broke the flesh of my fingertips. I threw back my head and screamed.

Tired, so tired. Huffing air. Panting breath. Hot.Tired . I rolled from broken stone, pulled haunches beneath me. Sitting on rocks surrounded by red light.Danger . Red light spilled around me. Beast was big. Sabertooth big. Colors were often grayed in my Beast eyes, but something ofher had shifted with me.

Hedge of thorns has been sprung, Jane thought.

I looked at Molly's protecting magic. Saw Jane-blood-soaked dirt and circle of red witch light.Hedge of thorns sparkled with nothingness, motes black like moonless night.

They swarmed like moths, never lighting. Like the magics of the gray place for shifting.

I growled. Much power here.

Witch power is usually gray or blue. Why is Molly's newest magic red?

Placed paw on Jane like paw on kit.Silent. Predator is near. On the other side Leo howled like mad wolf, vamped out. Rogue. Screaming. Caged outsidehedge of thorns .

My stomach wrenched in hunger. Too many shifts. Not enough food. Worse than hunger times. Better too. I was Big Cat now. Very big.

What have you done?Jane whispered, prey-fear in her thoughts.

I opened mouth and long fangs parted. Sabertooth fangs.Good for killing. Big teeth . I roared. Lion roar, like African lion. Louder than Beast scream. Claiming territory.

Claiming self.I am Beast. I/we, together, are Beast.

Leo, chest heaving, stopped at challenge in roar. Big predator roar. I could see him. He could not see Beast. I huffed. Roared again.

Bethany walked around side of house. She was still in skirt and turban. But now she carried spear, bones and bits of stone hanging from it, tied with twine.Raffia , Jane thought.Used by a shaman . Silly Jane thoughts. Now thinking names, words her strength. Stupid words. Words unimportant. Jane nearly died. Words did not save Jane.

Only Beast saved Jane. I shoved her down, paw on her chest.Beast is alpha .

Bethany touched Leo. He stilled. Legs wobbled. Sat onto ground, hard. Bethany pulled hair-stick stakes out of his skin. Leo hissed. Moaned. Bethany dropped sticks. Neither was silver tipped, poison to vampires. Leo said silver would not kill him. Lie? Humans lie all the time. Big cats cannot lie, scent of lie is always known. Leo was lucky. I understood lucky. Sometimes Beast ate. Sometimes prey got free. Each was luck, good for one, bad for other.

Bethany looked athedge of thorns . "I heard the roar. It was much like the lions of Africa, but . . ." She shook her head. "Different." She put a hand out to touchhedge of thorns . And jerked away.

Huffed in laughter. Panted. Rose and padded two steps to fountain, kicking torn human clothing away. No water poured from fountain top, not withhedge of thorns glowing, but water in bowl was cool. Drank. Thirst gone, I sat. Watched. Predator eyes on shaman. She opened small bag and took out packets. Poured powder into leaves and put some onto Leo's wounds. She cut her skin. Gave Leo blood to eat. Smelled sweet. Belly rumbled. Hurting.

Leo panted like Beast, needing air. When he had breath, he stood. His eyes still vamped.

"She is a were. I felt the power of her change; the energies were familiar, exactly like the workings of the lupus clan." Tears leaked down his face, bloody with his pain.

Leo wiped his face, blood on his hand. But he stood straight. His eyes looked more human. "But by her roar, she is a werebeast like the one that killed my son and took his place."

The Dolore, Jane murmured to me.Grief .

"Not a were." Bethany scented air in short sniffs. "Taste her scent. Not a were, she. Her smell is different from them. Different from the cursed of Artemis, our enemy."

Bethany walked aroundhedge of thorns . Her feet balanced like cat, her skirt moving.

She shook spear with each step, shaman dance, small bones and stones and shells crackling, rattling, like tail of snake-enemy as Bethany circledhedge of thorns . "I do not know what she is, but she is not our adversary."

"She asked about the Sons, and about the curse. This outsider knows about the curse."

"I have read the runes." She stood beside Leo, arms wide, feet apart, toes pointing out.

Butt of spear was grounded, held at angle. "The runes warn us of change, change yet again in the world of man. Perhaps this is the change foretold."

"You would leave her alive?" Leo had human look on face. Shock.

Bruiser walked from house. I growled, though was safe behind hedge. Bruiser's feet made noises to alert his alpha. "What's that red light? What's behind it?"

Humans and vampires do not see beyond light. This is good.

Bethany sniffed air. "Jane is there. And with her may be a lion. It roared." She touched spear, face sad. "So like home."

"Or she may be an African lion were," Leo said, voice stubborn, like Jane.

"No." Bethany tone was firm. "Not a were."

Bruiser licked blood from his lips. A large bruise was purple, like flower, from temple to mouth, size of big-cat paw. Remembered Bruiser body on floor.Leo hit him?

Yes, Jane whispered. Yes . . .

"Boss, someone might call the police. The red light is enough to attract the attention of the neighbors. We need to go."

Bethany turned, walked away. Bruiser took her arm. Leo stared at glow ofhedge of thorns . "I do not know what you are," he whispered. "But you tread on dangerous ground. Leave the curse alone. Do not ask questions about the Sons of Darkness. Do not pry into the devoveo. Our curse cannot be lifted. It has been tried and the price of failure was death to our young. You have never been forced to kill your own child when she lingers, eternally mad. You cannot know the grief it brings. Stop your research. Fulfill your contract. Then go. Do you understand me?"

Beast hacked softly. Understand. But will not obey.

As if he knew Beast's thoughts, Leo sighed breath he did not need. Followed blood-servant Bruiser, and woman who might be mate to both of them, away. Car started in street. Drove away. Scents faded.

Padded to edge of ward. Placed paw on it. Magic swirled up, tasting of nuts and plants, things Jane would eat, but Beast would not. Red ward fell in shower of sparks and blackness. Smell of burned plants. Strong ward. Good protection. Too small to fit over entire den. Should have been over entire den: Jane house, garden, rocks-of-shift. Then kits would be safe. Anger rose at thought of kits and Bliss. Needed to find them. Kill stealer of kits. Rend flesh and spill blood. Duty of mother.

Hunger tore into belly like predator claws. Padded to house and leaped through broken back window. Went to kitchen and found meat cooked by Molly and Jane. Tore open packs. Clear plastic holding meat. Jerky. Hard and tough. But ate it. Ate it all. Hunger is angry predator.

Went back to rocks.Hunt for kits is Jane hunt. I will give strength. The I/we of Beast will help. But Jane will stalk . I/ we lay on rocks. Thought of Jane.Mass to mass, stone to stone . . . mass to mass, stone to stone. Jane. . . . Pain and gray light sparkling. Pain, pain,pain . Rock beneath groaned and cracked.Mass to mass, stone to stone . . . mass to mass, stone to stone.

I was stretched on the rocks, gasping. The pain was like being flayed alive. Ithurt to change so often, so close together. When I could, I levered myself upright and to my feet, feeling of my face and neck and running my hands over me. My throat had new scars, the flesh ridged, the skin tender and thin. It would take a lot of shifts to regain smooth skin, but at least I seemed to be my usual size.

Whenever I changed mass, I worried that I'd keep some or lose some. I didn't know enough about physics to guess how I changed mass, or to guess if retaining or permanently losing mass was even possible, and so I avoided mass change, usually sticking to creatures my own size. Beast, on the other hand, liked big, which meant stealing mass from stones. Rock had no genetic structure, was clean material to take mass from. But mass exchange resulted in the rock cracking, shattering, and often exploding.

Stone dust and sharp rock ground beneath my feet when I stood. There wasn't much left of the boulders placed here for me by Katie of Katie's Ladies. I looked into the dust and saw paw prints. Huge. Trite but true, they were dinner-plate huge. "You're crazy," I whispered to my other half. "Stark raving."

And worse, Beast had done the impossible. She had taken a male form. I could see in memory, the X and Y chromosomes in the sabertooth's genetic makeup. I had never done that. Didn't know how, even now, after the event. Deep inside, I heard Beast hack with amusement.

A heated, burned smell rode the air. The grass was seared wherehedge of thorns had burned through. If I dug down, I knew that I'd see burned soil as deep as six feet. My blood had triggered the ward; it had soaked into the grass and dirt all the way from the house to the boulders. I could smell it drying, already decaying. It was a lot of blood. I fingered my neck. The skin there was thin and raw, new flesh, not quite healed. The injury given me by Leo in his crazy Dolore state had been intended to kill me.

Nothing I said had been deserving of the attack, even accusing vamps of killing witch children. The Dolore had made him nutso.

He grieves his children, Beast thought at me. His son who was taken from him, and replaced by liver-eater. His daughter who he killed long ago.

"Oh," I said softly. "Oh . . ." I hadn't put his words together that way. "Okay. So it's what? Dolore times two and I'm a handy punching bag?" Beast didn't reply. I swallowed and the movement of muscles and tissues ached. I'd had difficulty shifting. It shouldn't have been so hard. My hand drifted down and found my necklace was gone.

The gold nugget necklace that tied me to the boulders here in the yard and to the boulders where I first remembered how to shift, back in the mountains, a white quartz boulder lined through with the same gold that made up my necklace. It was the gold that made my shift easier. Without it, I'd be able to shift only when I had extensive time to meditate my way into the change. Or force it, painfully.

I gathered up the beads that had come from my hair with the previous shift, holding them cupped in my hand, and inspected my clothes. My T was ruined but the jeans had somehow survived the shift and the weight gain, pushed off me as I changed. I tossed them across my shoulder. Undies were ruined. Fuzzy socks okay. I tucked them under my arm. No gold nugget.

Surely the necklace had just been ripped off and left in the kitchen. Surely Leo hadn't taken it. A shiver that had nothing to do with the warm air on my skin gripped me. My stomach growled with the need for food. Shifting used up a lot of calories. I needed to eat.

This time I went into the house through the door. Inside, I dumped my clothes and turned on the lights to study the mess. I had bled like a stuck pig. It was all over the floor, furniture, walls. Blood smeared by fighting, sprayed by arterial pressure. It was going to be a pain in the neck - pun intended - to clean it all up. And the window was ruined, all that old hand-blown glass shattered out. So much for my plans to keep this place pristine.

I spotted the necklace under the kitchen table, the double chain wrapped around a chair leg as if it had been slung and the force of the throw had snapped the chain around and around. I peeled it free and checked the clasp, which was only a little bent. I straightened it and washed the necklace at the sink, putting it back round my neck before I did anything else.

While oatmeal cooked and a strong pot of tea brewed, I cleaned up the mess. The blood was tacky, already partly dried, but it came off the floor with hot water and a scrub brush. The dirty, bloody water went down the toilet with all the other blood from today.

I sprayed the floor with Clorox cleanser and let it soak. I didn't want to leave any blood evidence should cops ever need to do a crime scene investigation in the house, but removing all traces was impossible without tearing up the floor.

While I ate, I debated shifting again, this time to a rap-tor so I could overfly the city, but I changed my mind. Instead, I dressed in my new vamp hunting clothes, wearing my second pair of new boots - lace-up butt stompers - and made sure I had all my weapons in place, especially my old chain-link collar to protect my neck. If I'd been wearing it, Leo wouldn't have injured me nearly so badly. I'd have had time to draw weapons on him. Leo might actually be dead. I touched the thin skin, like delicate silk, ridged where the flesh hadn't knit back smoothly. I wasn't going anywhere without full garb anytime soon.

I dialed the hospital, expecting the call to go to the nurses' desk, but it was put through to her room. Molly answered. Against all expectations, she was awake, though groggy.

My heart leaped, and my traitorous eyes teared up with her hello.


"Hey, Big Cat. You saved my life," Molly said, not sounding strong at all, but terribly weak and breathless. Tears thickened her voice as she broke down. "My babies . . ."

"I'll save your babies," I said, helplessness like a heavy weight pressing on my shoulders. "Evan and Evangelina are on the way. I called them. They can help you heal.

And then you all can help me with the search."

"Evangelina's gonna come in and take over." She laughed through the tears, the sound forlorn. "Don't let her bully you."

"I won't," I lied. Evangelina was a take-charge kinda woman. Even Beast was scared of her.

"Do . . . do you think they're still alive? Do you think someone is hurting them?"

Her voice broke on the question and my breath stopped. When I could speak I said,

"Yes. No. I mean, I think they're alive and being well cared for right now." I had to believe it. Had to.

Then Molly said, "Whatever they've been stolen for, the rite will probably take place on or near the full moon." She was trying to think like the kidnappers. God help her. But she was right. Any magic performed during a full moon would be highly amplified. And a full moon was soon. Very soon.

Molly choked back a sob. "It's not much time. Not much time at all."

"Plenty of time. I'll have them back before the full moon." I gripped my cell so hard the plastic gave. "I promise, Mol. I promise on all that I hold holy."

She sniffed. "That austere and ungiving God you worship?"

I touched the necklace I wore as if it were an amulet or icon - or a cross - the nugget warm from my skin. "Yeah. Him. I swear it. You should have gone home, Molly. You should have gone when I told you to. I'm so sorry I didn't make you leave."

"Angie said if we left, a bad man would take us on the road."

My throat closed up tight. What did it mean, take us on the road?

"I think it was a vision, Big Cat. And because of it I didn't leave town." Molly sobbed, her voice sounding broken and torn. "If you had made us leave, I'd have holed up in a hotel. And it would have been a lot worse without you close by. I'd have . . ." She took a breath, and I heard the sob in it. "I'd have died."

"Crap," I whispered.

"Yeah. Understatement of the year. And hey, you need to know. Those feelers you asked me to put out to the local covens about them helping with vamps? Not so much as a nibble. No one's talking. I tried. I really tried." And Molly was crying again, though her tears were for her missing babies, not my missing info.

When Molly had stopped crying and fallen asleep, I hung up and dialed Troll, to tell him about the damage to the house. And that I was closer to finding the maker of the young rogues and Bliss. Not exactly a lie, but not really the truth either. Not yet. But soon. I had promised. I'd given my word to Mol. I intended to keep it.

I inspected my map with the sites of young-rogue vamp attacks pinned on it, remembering the lightning strike in New Orleans City Park where I had witnessed the young-rogue rising. I pulled a scrap of paper to me and began listing what I knew and guessed. I was chasing Rousseaus, one a master-vamp who was violating the Vampira Carta and - by the closely related scent signatures - possibly his siblings. They were Rousseaus who never spent time at the clan home, which meant they could be anywhere in the city. I couldn't simply bust through the Rousseau clan-home door and stake them.

If I attacked before I knew exactly what was going on, I'd give them the opportunity to flee, or worse, put their plans in motion immediately. I was looking for vamps using witch magic and witch children's blood, maybe doing something to avoid the devoveo. I didn't have a clear picture of it yet, but it was here. It was right here in front of me.

Whatever the heckit was.

I stuffed my supplies in Bitsa's saddlebags and tore off on the Harley, moist, heated air touching me through the unzipped mesh pockets, otherwise deflected by the new leathers I sweated in. I needed to see what had happened to the newest grave site in Couturie Forest in the New Orleans City Park.

It took time to build the sites where humans were killed, buried, magic was done, and young rogues were raised. Time and magic and privacy. And so far as I knew, there were only three places where that had been done, and only two were still in use. I had to bet that the young-rogue maker would go back to one of them rather than start new elsewhere. I bent over Bitsa and urged her to more speed.

The park was closed this late, but I parked Bitsa a block out and jogged in, searching, following my nose along the paths. The ground wasn't rain saturated now, but had absorbed the moisture dropped by Ada, and the detritus of hurricane winds had been cleaned up. The smell of damaged trees and rain-beaten plants was still strong, but without the waterlogged, slightly salty reek from before. I left the path and quickly found the ten-foot-diameter circle. I remembered that a cleanup crew had been sent to dispose of the body, and they had obviously been here too. The crosses had been ripped from the trees and the pentagram of shells had been scattered. I could smell the humans who had cleaned the place up, two men and a woman, sweating in the heat of day, sunscreen and deodorant and soap and shampoo scents still on the air. And above the odors of the crew, the more recent scent of a solitary vampire. One who had stolen the children and Bliss. He had stood here, within the last two nights, right where I was standing, studying the scene. And he'd been angry.

I could taste his fury, building, hot and feral, but controlled for all that. Had he come to raise the young rogue? I remembered the smell of Hurricane Ada's lightning when I first came here, my curiosity what a lightning strike in the middle of a major working would cause. He'd walked off, angry and alone. His rogue had risen without him. Had risen early. . . .

So where would he go? Where would he start another circle? Someplace where he felt safe? Would he go back to the vamp graveyard, a place where he'd worked for a long time and never been discovered? Vamp-fast, I raced back to Bitsa and fired up my bike.

With a screech of wheels, I tore from the park and toward the river, the traffic lazy and slow this time of night.

I called Bruiser's cell on the way, alerting him that I'd be setting off alarms. He didn't volunteer to meet me there, didn't comment that I was alive. He sounded distracted. He promised to turn off the system and hung up. No British gallantry or etiquette in him tonight.

I reached the vamp cemetery and wove Bitsa off the old road and around the gateposts, cutting the engine when I was inside. Exhaust fumes rose around me, poisonous and rank. The silence of the dead filled the night. I unhelmeted and set the kickstand. Pulled the Benelli from its harness rig and checked the load. Again. I clipped a flex strap to it and slung it to my back, easier to pull from than the riding rig.

I set four silver crosses on chains against my chest as a twofer: they'd glow if a vamp was nearby, and they'd poison any vamp who touched them - well, except for Leo, if he was to be believed. I pulled two stakes, careful to make certain that they were both silver tipped, and held them in my right hand, one pointed out, one pointed in. My largest vamp-killer in my left hand, its eighteen-inch blade bright in the night, I stalked into the graveyard.

My night vision was better than most humans', I figured because of all the years I'd spent in Beast form, so I didn't need a flashlight. The white marble walls of the crypts were shining pristine beneath the nearly full moon. The white shell pathways glowed against the black ground. Dull reddish light flickered in the stained glass windows of the chapel, a single candle indicating that someone was present. Sabina Delgado y Aguilera, the priestess of the vamps, was home. I wondered if she was taking callers.

I checked the crypts, satisfied that they hadn't taken damage. Then I walked around the graveyard, taking in the night through nose, mouth, eyes, ears. As I walked, the skin on the back of my neck rose. A feeling of tiny claws skittered up my back. I had a feeling that I'd missed something when I was here last.

I wasn't prescient. But I was getting a bad feeling.

Prev Next
Romance | Vampires | Fantasy | Billionaire | Werewolves | Zombies