Beast Saw Gorilla on TV

The Peristyle was a fancy neoclassical arena - not a building exactly, because it had no walls, only a roof with large Greek-style columns. One of City Park's oldest structures, it was built in 1907 as a dancing pavilion, and I had seen the place from a distance when roaming as Beast, but I had never been inside it.

Now, as the limo pulled up, the four concrete lions that guarded the open-air structure felt like an omen - that I might survive this coming bout - even if they were African lions and not Puma concolor. Real ducks, geese, and swans were nesting on the banks, sleeping, most with heads under their wings, and as the vamps and I emerged from our vehicles, some of the water birds stirred, wings shifted uneasily. Wind rustled the leaves overhead. A security guard bent to the limo's window and verified who we were before scampering away into safety. Not that there was any safety here tonight. The Naturaleza were here and they'd guzzle down the plump guard like a cheap beer if they wanted to.

I wandered to the edge of the bayou and looked out over the water. Beast saw an alligator resting near shore, nostrils the only part of it that was above the surface. Small gator. Big birds. Good hunting.

Big Vamp Guy is your prey tonight, I thought at her.

I will be hungry after shift. I will eat big vampire?

No. But you can have all the Canada geese you can catch.

Beast hacked with delight. Good hunt. Hunt and kill Big Prey. Eat flying birds.

Sabina called out, "Gather." An icy wind came out of nowhere and blasted through my clothes to chill my skin. Leaves swirled down in a dense cloud, sounding like the uneasy souls of the recently dead. The call to gather was as old as the Mithrans themselves, and among the most powerful of their obligations and rituals, and everyone knew that ritual was almost as powerful as magic itself. At that, a thought occurred to me, and I smiled. Yes. I had found my edge - if I could call it that. Edges were for pain and cutting, edges were blades for battle. What I was planning was more like sleight of hand - the art of the stage. If I could pull it off.

The vampire priestess' magic was cold, like the grave, heavy and cloying. It smelled of old, spoiled blood and despair and ancient pain. I'd felt it before and the weight of it made de Allyon's power feel minor, like the sting of static electricity when measured against being struck by a lightning bolt. Nothing by comparison. I rubbed my upper arms. I walked from the bayou bank to the covered area, seeing Bruiser and Rick standing close together talking. Seeing the drivers, all human, standing at the cars and trucks. The Tequila Boys, looking vigilant.

I found Wrassler's eyes on me and I lifted a hand, palm up, questioning. He shook his head. Nothing yet. Katie was still a prisoner; Alex and the Vodka Boys were still searching. He tossed me my go-bag from the car, and I caught it one handed.

"The contestants will remove their weapons," Sabina said. It was a command, and I felt the urge, the need, to comply. I'd gone to a lot of trouble to look like this; it was a shame to ruin it. But I stepped to a table at the far side of the pavilion and unstrapped the harness for the M4, laying it on the surface. Started to pull guns, ejecting the magazines and the rounds in the chambers, and laying them beside the shotgun. The long knives followed, while I thought about the gun in my hair. I could get it out, but I'd rather no one know it was ever there, so timing was important. When Jude pulled out a knife with a jewel-encrusted handle, attracting the attention of the vamps, I lifted the braid and eased the tiny gun out, setting it with the .38 from my boot. The short-bladed throwing knives followed, then the stakes. My protective collars. My crosses in the tiny lead-lined pouch that was sewn into my pants. Rather than causing an incident, I ripped the pouch out. Leo's designer would be livid, and if I survived, I'd suffer for this one.Across the way, the Big Guy was now weaponless - except for the muscles, teeth, talons, and his skills, which I expected were enough all on their own - and was wearing black jeans and a black T-shirt, boots, and a happy, fanged grin. I had the feeling that if he caught me first, he was going to play with me for a while before killing me. And that play wouldn't involve kiddie games and coloring books.

I unbuttoned the tight vest, placed it by the guns, and pulled the tee over my head, the boots off my feet. My skin pebbled in the icy air. I slid a pair of flip-flops onto my feet, leaving the go-bag on the table. When I was done, I was wearing only pants, undies, jogging bra, flip-flops, my necklace, and the contact lenses. The vamps were all looking at me now, taking in the bare skin, my coppery coloring bleached out by the night and the park lights, my scent whipped away by the wind. My edge, I thought. Time to see if I can do this.

I reached up and started to unbraid my hair, moving slowly, letting them look. I took measured steps, circling the Peristyle with slow precision. When I reached a stone lion, I let my hands flow across the mane, the stone cool and rough on my fingers. I bent my body across the lion and scraped with my gold nugget so I could find my way back to this spot, even if I lost myself in Beast.

I lifted my hands back to my hair, and it danced in the breeze like Medusa's snakes as I unbraided it, whirling and whipping in the wind. My black eyes stared the vamps down, calm and dispassionate. My half-bound hair whipped across the lion, and I could feel the power of the vamps' combined gazes, watching me. I had no magic of my own except to shift form, but if I survived, I wanted these vamps to remember me, maybe with something like fear. That was a magic all its own.

Sabina said, "Time?"

De Allyon's heir said, "Ten twenty-five."

Sabina looked back and forth between the contestants as I worked on my hair and watched the Big Guy Vamp I was going to have to kill. I didn't want to. I really had no desire to kill him. But I would have no choice. Literally, it was him or me. My hair whipped in the rising breeze, flowing like black snakes in a slow current. Big Guy was watching me, staring at the hair-handle I was providing him, confident to the point of stupidity, which I wanted to encourage. I grinned at him and shook out my hair, timing it perfectly. "Catch me, catch me, if you can," I sang out, "you big, bumbling buffoon."

"Begin," Sabina said.

Before the word was half-formed, Beast slammed her speed into me and I took off, racing like the anxious wind, into the night. Beast's sight took over, turning the world bright and silvery. I was into the shadows before anyone saw me move. I ripped off the bra, the pants and panties, running between trees, the concrete path bruising my soles through the flip-flops.

I couldn't hear the Big Guy behind me. Vamps are silent predators, even at full speed. I was betting everything on him wanting to play cat and mouse with me, hunt me slowly, thinking to wear me out physically and then drain me painfully, not attack and kill fast. I turned sharply left and raced along a rabbit path, moving hard crosswind now, hoping the cold breeze would carry my scent away from the pursuing vamp.

I reached up and wrapped one fist around the mountain lion tooth. I'm gonna need a fast shift, Beast.

Will hurt.

Yeah. It will. Do it anyway. As I ran, I let my mind drop into the gray place of the change, the place where skinwalker magics rested. The place of the snake that rests at the heart of all beings. I rounded into another narrow path and dove into the brush, dropped to my belly, and crawled deep into the scrub. Now, I thought.

Beast rushed up at me, fierce and furious, killing teeth bared. I will be big, she thought.

No! There's no stone to draw mass from! Pain took me, ripping down my spine like dozens of minuscule blades, like scalpels flaying my flesh from my body.

Stone lions, she thought back, victory in her tone.

No! I shouted at her. They're not stone! They're concrete! They may have organic matter in them!

I will be big!

In the distance I heard the sound of exploding concrete and the screams of vampires as shards of broken lion shattered over them. Then the gray place of the change took me.

* * *

I lay in the trees and small plants, panting. Painpainpain was in bones and flesh. Even pelt hurt with pain of change. But I was big. Not as big as I wanted, but as big as the snake at the heart of the stone tooth would allow. Maybe big enough. Maybe. I stood and looked back at my body, seeing mass and muscle. Yessss. Big. Maybe big as female African lion. Maybe big as rhino or bison. Did not know for sure.

Was less hungry than usual. Stomach was empty, but did not cramp. From taking mass from not-stone lion? Jane had not expected that. I huffed in pleasure. Beast was smart to hide many things from Jane. Jane was like kit, to be protected. Shook head and felt Jane necklace, tight on big-Beast neck. Was big!

I pushed Jane clothes into the dark and nudged the contact lenses she had worn. They all smelled of Jane - skinwalker smell. I listened. In the distance, I heard vampire-prey stumbling closer, taking narrow path, path too small for his body. Stupid prey, but big. Had wanted to hunt big prey for a long time. I stretched through spine and chest and down legs. I liked being big. I trotted into path, looking for place to hide. To hunt. Ambush hunt. Easy hunt, except for killing big prey. Killing big prey was hard, dangerous work.

Ear tabs flicking, Beast kept track of stupid big prey, while looking up and up, into trees. Was big now. Needed bigger branch to ambush from. Saw one. Low enough to ground to leap into, high enough from ground to drop down from. Lifted snout into air, feeling wind in pelt, thinking about scent in wind. Yesss. Good limb for ambush. Good limb of tree, hanging over narrow path Jane had taken.

I leaped up into tree, claws scratching and digging into bark, and settled on limb to wait. Flexed claws into bark, pulling, shredding, grooming claw sheathes. Bark fell onto path. If sun was high, it would be stupid kit mistake to groom claws here, but moon was two-horned and dying, and man lights were far away. Bark would not be seen.

Stupid big prey crashed louder, closer, took a breath like dying gorilla. Beast saw gorilla on TV one time. Would be good big prey to hunt. Jane said no to hunting gorilla. I hacked. I was hunting big prey now. Big vampire prey. Thought about Jane. Fast change and mass gain had sent Jane to back of Beast mind, had put her deep asleep. Beast is alpha. Beast is in control.

Big prey came closer. Closer. Beast opened mouth and pulled in air with soft screeee of sound. Prey stopped, had heard. But Beast sucked in air again, over scent sacs in mouth. Fleshmen behavior, used mostly for scenting mating pheromones, was good for scenting prey too, scenting to find, scenting to determine sickness or not-sickness. Big prey was not sick. Was not vampire who had fed upon sick humans like sick vampires in hot, dry place of Sedona. "I hear you, little girl," prey called. "If you come out, I'll kill you fast."

Beast could hear lie in the words. Only vampires and humans lied. Pumas would tease, but did not lie. Beast did not understand lies. Humans were confusing. I hacked. Vampire prey stepped along path, placing feet carefully now, but was still loud. Stupid hunter, stupid prey.

"Come on, little girl."

Beast made puling sound like sick kit, soft and fearful. Then thought about sick fearful sound. That was lie. Was not sick kit. Was Beast. I hissed. Lies were confusing.

"Where is she, where is she?" prey whispered. Big prey appeared, walking slow along path. Was carrying knife.

Beast narrowed eyes. Vampire had . . . cheated. Jane would call him cheat. Beast thought he was worthy prey to hide knife and carry it. Good hunt. I gathered paws close underneath belly. Felt muscles tighten. Vision narrowed to watching prey. Watching. Prey moved closer, step, step, step, beneath limb. Two steps past. Five steps more.

Beast leaped, dropped, fell, onto prey. Landed. All the weight of big lion on prey's back.

Prey stumbled, fell to path, Beast riding his back, claws sinking deep. Bit down on back of neck. Hard crunch through spine and muscle. Shook prey, growling, hissing. Heard spine snap. Big vampire prey fell to earth. Fell onto own knife. Big vampire screamed. Loud vampire screams of dying prey. Hurt ears. Lowered ear tabs to cover ear holes. Beast shook jaws and head, breaking spine more, crunchcrunchcrunch. Screams stopped. Vampire lay still, making sounds of dying prey.

Vampire prey was breathing, almost like human, breathing fast in fear. Lungs worked, but arms and legs were dead. Dead but would heal if Beast did not take his head. Beast pulled killing teeth from vampire-prey-flesh. Licked jaw. Tasty vampire blood. Lay on top of prey. Waiting. Smelling blood. Smelling fear. Heard sound from path ahead. Footsteps.

Beast thought. Waited. Thought more. Footsteps grew closer. I stood to feet and stepped from fallen prey. Walked around to look into eyes of prey. Saw fear. Fear was good. But saw cunning also. Footsteps came closer. Saw joy in prey's eyes. Prey had cheated and had brought pack to hunt. Hate pack hunters! Beast hacked. Prey's eyes grew large, looking hard but unable to turn head to see path and footsteps of approaching pack hunter.

Beast stepped into shadows. Crouched and waited.

Human man raced down path and made breathing sounds when he saw big vampire on ground. Fear-sweat-stink was wetting clothes. Man was carrying two knives, long knives like Jane-claw. He turned around and around, staring into shadows, looking for Jane. Finally he bent over vampire and whispered, "Are you still with us, man? Blink once for yes, two for no. Crap, what'd she do? Break your neck. Sorry, big guy, but you'll live. She still alive? Stop blinking so fast. I can't read your lips. I'll get her, don't you worry." Human man stood and held knives before him. He wore jewelry like Jane: rings and silver and steel through ear.

Beast drew paws close under body, watching new prey. Jane said to keep humans alive. Never kill humans. But I hate pack hunters, and Jane slept. When human pack hunter turned his back, I leaped. Landed on his back and screamed in human's ear. Human man tried to turn, tried to cut with steel claws. Beast sank killing teeth into his neck and tore flesh, shaking hard. Breaking spine high against skull. New prey fell, steel claws beneath him. Unable to breathe. Dying.

Beast stood over human hunter until life drained from him. Saw life spill from his eyes. And when human was dead, snuffled through his clothes, learning his scent. And smelled . . . magic! Tingly gray magic with blue spots of power, like magic of Molly-witch, Jane's friend.

Heart started to beat fast. Had smelled this magic before on amulet from hot, dry Sedona place, place where Beast had eaten goat and not told Jane. Witch amulet was important.

Snuffled and scented. Found amulet in clothes at human man's waist. Sank teeth into cloth and pulled, tearing cloth. Magic smelled good, smelled like meat! Tore into man shirt and man pants, ripping and tearing. Tasted blood and flesh and . . . stopped.

Was tearing dead human body. Was tearing human flesh. Spat flesh onto dirt. Tasted of magic and meat. Amulet magic was meat magic. Did not understand. Anger rose and Beast screamed. Turned to vampire on ground. He was breathing again. Was healing from broken spine. But when Beast's eyes met his, he squeaked like rabbit. Like rabbit with much fear. Beast smelled prey's death fear. Beast pawed big vampire prey over, pushing big prey with big lion mass. Prey rolled over, dead meat, slow heartbeat, but still alive. Must kill prey.

Lay across vampire, feeling heartbeat grow fast, fastfastfast. Hearing vampire breath. Bit down on throat, killing teeth piercing thin skin of vampire. Crushed windpipe of prey. Breath stopped. Held throat, watching prey eyes. Vampire eyes grew wide, vampire teeth folded back into vampire mouth with sharp snap like stone falling onto stone. Prey's heart raced now, too fast to follow beneath Beast paws. Beast bit down more, killing teeth cutting. Vampire blood flooded mouth. Tasty. Good blood. Strong blood.

Jane always said do not eat. Stopped cutting with teeth and lapped blood. Jane did not say do not drink. Good vampire blood. Strength flooded into Beast. Blood slowed and Beast bit down again. Lapped blood again. Watching vampire eyes. When blood stopped and healing began, Beast bit down. Lapped fresh blood. Did this many more than five times, watching prey eyes. Time passed. Blood slowed. Beast licked jaws and muzzle. Watching prey eyes. Stood on prey chest, staring down, thinking, Will kill now. Bit down hard and tore flesh away from throat. Spat vampire meat to path. Bit down and spat again. Did not eat. Tore through muscles and flesh until only broken bones of neck were left. Then twisted prey head to side and bit down hard on neck bones. Crunch. Spat bones to side.

Vampire heart slowed. Heartbeat stumbled like feet of injured prey in forest. Stumbled again. Prey died.

Beast butted head away with chin. Screamed in victory. Beast was big. Beast had killed big prey. This was Beast's territory. Screamed and screamed and screamed.

Hunger gripped stomach in claws. Had killed but could not eat dead prey. I padded to bayou. Birds were awake on banks, startled by Beast's territory victory scream. Two Canada geese were on bank close to Beast. I crouched, leaped. Up and across and down bank to bayou edge. Caught one goose in jaws. One goose with claws. Killed both and landed on edge of water. Small alligator hiding in reeds blinked. I dropped geese and stared at gator. I am Beast. I am big tonight. I will kill and eat gator. But small gator sank below water. Gator was afraid.

Either that or it's never seen a two-hundred-pound mountain lion with feathers sticking out all over her face, Jane thought, her words sleepy.

I/Beast hacked with displeasure and turned back to geese. I settled and ate.

* * *

I came to in the night, lying on dirt and leaves, covered by plants that blocked out the sky. My head was on my piled clothes, angled to look down the path. In the dim light I made out a heap of dark flesh and dark clothes, the Enforcer I was supposed to kill. Had killed.

Beside him lay a human. Crap. Beast had killed a human too? I put it together quickly, realizing that the vamp had cheated and sent a human into the park on a different tangent, so that if I did get the drop on him, the other guy could take me out.

I pushed up slowly and dragged myself to the bodies. I had killed two beings tonight, one human. From the looks of the body, Beast had gone a little bonkers over the kill. She had savaged the human's side. Not good. She knew not to eat, but killing two opponents must have led her to the brink. She had tasted human flesh.

I closed my eyes and held them shut for a long moment, not sure what my religion permitted about this. Not sure how to pray. For that matter, I wasn't certain what my tribal forefathers would pray in a time like this either. I settled on the truth. "I didn't want to kill," I murmured to God. "Forgive me that I am violent and cold and a killer. Forgive me that I tasted my enemy when he attacked." For a moment, I could taste human blood on my tongue and my stomach roiled. I remembered the words of my cruel grandmother. "We do not eat the bodies of our enemies. It is forbidden. It makes us sick." What it did was make us even less human and drive us closer to the threshold of U'tlun'ta. Now I understood.

I had no tears. I felt oddly empty, as if God hadn't heard. As if God would never hear me again. I had killed and tasted human meat. My stomach rebelled, twisting in pain. Something else to deal with someday. Maybe. For now, I stripped the jewelry from his clothes, leaving his weapons beneath him. I didn't want my fingerprints on them anywhere. While I searched, my fingers tingled with magic and I pulled a pocket watch amulet from his pocket, just like the amulet carried by the blood-servant I had taken down in Sedona, the one Rosanne Romanello drank from. Now I had two magic things that I had no idea what to do with, three if I counted the blood-diamond in the safe-deposit box. I was amassing a hoard of magic things I couldn't use but was honor-bound to protect. Ducky.

I dressed in the night, surprised that my clothes still fit. Beast had stolen mass from the concrete lion and given it back, seemingly perfectly, despite the possible presence of organic matter - shells, maybe. I shuddered at the thought of organic matter buried somewhere in my body. I had no idea what it might do to me later. Maybe nothing. Maybe . . .

I would look the same to the gathered vamps, all except for my eyes, which were yellow now, the contact lenses lost in the shift. I pulled my hair back into a coil and slid into the flip-flops, shivering in the cold breeze.

I walked down the path to Big Guy's head and stared down at him, his eyes looking up into the sky. Dead. By my hand. "I'd honor you, if you were honorable," I said. Instead, I lifted the head by his ears and walked down the path to the Peristyle, my hair blowing in the icy wind, my feet aching from the cold. Hungry, needing to eat.

The wind was at my back, blowing my scent and the scent of blood before me.

I was determined to end this night as I had started it, with moxie and magic. Holding the head by one ear, I pulled my hair around and let the wind carry it before me across my left shoulder. A long gray and white flight feather was caught, tangled in my hair, and I pulled it free, holding the feather out to the side with the head.

The Peristyle came into view, the vamps lined up in the center, staring upwind, toward me. When I was close enough I raised my voice and called out, "Pellissier wins. De Allyon's Enforcer is dead at my hands and teeth."

De Allyon stepped forward, his entire body vibrating with emotion, his fists clenched. "That is not possible!" he shouted into the wind.

"Why? Because you gave him a knife?" I called back. "Because you sent a human behind him to make sure I died? Your Enforcer fell on his knife and lost his head. And your human is dead with him." I threw the human man's jewelry into the Peristyle, and it clanked as it landed.

"Did de Allyon deceive us?" Sabina asked. "Was there deception in a gather?"

"The human woman lies!" the enraged vamp screamed. "It was her own knife!"

"Not mine." I called on Beast's speed, racing past the table holding my weapons and through the pavilion, palming what I needed in the hand, hiding one behind my lower arm and the extension of the twelve-inch feather, holding another along the length of my leg - more sleight of hand, dependent on the sight of the severed head and the feather to keep their eyes from the weapons I'd grabbed. "And I am not human." Beast glared at de Allyon through my eyes and I knew they glowed golden. I/we growled.

De Allyon drew back. "You cannot be. I drank down all of your kind."

"Wrong. I'm alive." I tossed the severed head at him. Beast shoved her strength and speed into me. The world went silvery gray. Everything around me dilated and slowed. I turned the stake in my left hand, its base against my palm. De Allyon caught the head, looking down into the face. He looked back up at me, disbelief in his eyes, his neck exposed.

We ambush, Beast whispered to me. I had all the time in the world. I dropped the white feather that had been caught in my hair. As it fell, I stepped back, twisted my body forward, stabbed with the stake I had hidden. The sharpened steel tip parted de Allyon's ribs, pushed through his cartilage, deep into his flesh. The heart muscle resisted, rubbery and moving. I could feel it beat once, up through the wood in my grip. The steel tip pierced the heart and slammed through, the four inches of silver plating and the ash wood poisoning him. The wing feather was still falling as my fist hit against his chest.

The wood and silver in his chest should have immobilized him, should have stopped his heart. But his heart kept beating.

I released the stake. Continuing the arc of my momentum. Bringing up the vamp-killer.

I cut once, a single hard slash across his throat, severing tendons, muscles, and blood vessels. His head fell back, his blood pulsed out. Human warm. In a gush over me. The silvered blade caught in his spine with a dull thud that jarred up my arm and through my frame. It changed my trajectory, shoving us both around in a twisting spiral. His blood pumped again, showering me, burning like acid. De Allyon dropped, pulling me with him.

Faster than my eyes could follow, the vamps facing me vamped out and attacked.

Leo screamed and charged past me. Bruiser pulled weapons and started firing.

I rode de Allyon down, my blade trapped in the crevices of his spine. I landed on top of him, one leg to either side. De Allyon was watching me, his eyes still open. The flesh around the blade began to reknit, the restorative powers of the Naturaleza healing him. I yanked up on the knife, jerking it back and forth until it released from the spine's bony processes, then pressed, cutting the healing tissues. Slicing deep. "You killed my people," I whispered as I cut. "You killed my people. I am the hand of God tonight, because you killed my people."

The battle raged around me as I cut. I smelled Leo's blood. Smelled Bruiser's, and felt the heat from his body on either side of me. He had straddled de Allyon and me, his weapons firing with steady precision. I smelled Rick nearby, injured. I scented human blood on the awful wind, and heard gunshots from near the cars, the drivers fighting. Heard other cars roaring up. More humans coming.

Sabina's power was a barbed icy meat hook pulling on my blood-chilled skin. I rose and cut down, putting my weight into the knife blade.

I had killed a Naturaleza before, and I knew how hard it was to bring one true death. I sawed at his spine, the bones catching and grinding on the silvered blade. De Allyon's blood pumped again, burning, pooling beneath us.

I severed his head. The blade hit the flooring beneath and rang like a bell, scoring deeply into the floor. Lucas de Allyon's head rolled to the side and swiveled, as if looking at me. The remainder of his blood gushed out. I grabbed the hair of his head and pulled my legs beneath me. Pushed against his chest, steadying myself on his body. Bruiser stepped aside from me, spinning the twin short swords I had given him. Both blades were bloodied. I chuckled, and he slid his eyes to me, seeing my blood-drenched state and the head in my hands. A grim smile hardened his features. I held the head aloft and shouted, "De Allyon's blood-feud is over!"

Sabina shouted, far louder than I had, "Enough!" Her power shot through the room like frozen lightning. Everything stopped. All the vamps, all the humans near the cars.

"This is finished," she said more quietly. "De Allyon's territory and hunting grounds are forfeit to Pellissier." De Allyon's heir and spare started forward, vamped out and bloody, but seemed to lose the ability to walk. Both settled slowly to the floor in ungainly heaps, the priestess' cool gaze following them down. All de Allyon's other vamps went still, immobilized by her power. They looked at the priestess with something akin to awe.

Sabina said, "Any practicing Naturaleza who is tainted with Sanguine pestis will be held captive until such time as a cure is found. Any Naturaleza not tainted with Sanguine pestis will put aside the evil and practice Fame Vexatum or suffer the penalty of the council and my wrath. All of de Allyon's scions and loyal subjects who still adhere to the ways of the BloodCross will be accepted into Pellissier's clans under his authority. So do I rule, and so shall I be obeyed."

The icy wind dropped and disappeared. I searched out Leo in the crowd. He was standing with Koun, his back against a pillar at the edge of the Peristyle. At his feet were three dead vamps, staked and bloody. He watched as I walked to him, holding the head of my enemy out in front of me, his blood dribbling from the severed stump. The words that came from my mouth were stilted and formal, and sounded nothing like me at all, yet they were perhaps more like me than any words I had ever uttered. "Lucas de Allyon killed my people. He killed the Tsalagiyi - the Cherokee." The people my kind had sworn to protect. "He enslaved us, killed us, and drank us down. He destroyed us. Despite the fact that you betrayed me and forced a binding, I am in your debt for the favor of his death at my hands."

Leo took the head by the hair, accepting the gift. "In recompense of your debt and in honor of your service, you may choose a gift from among mine. Choose wisely," he said.

I shrugged my acceptance. The Peristyle was a bloody battleground. Five vamps were lying dead, three of them Leo's - Kabisa and Karimu, sworn to Gregoire and Clan Arceneau, had died fighting back to back. Koun was kneeling over the body of Hildebert, a German vamp whose name meant "bright battle," and who had died fighting, still wielding a blade as his head hit the floor. Hildebert and Koun were the warriors of Clan Pellissier, and Koun bent his head low over Hildebert's chest, bloody tears dripping, to run across his friend's body.

In the far shadows, Rick walked out of the wood, along the path I had taken during my battle with the Enforcer and his human accomplice. I remembered the human Beast had savaged; her claws and killing teeth had marked his flesh. I had some explaining to do soon. I didn't think it would be a pretty discussion.

I looked down at my hands, the blood drying and cold. It seemed I'd always had blood on my hands, from the time my grandmother had given me my first blade. De Allyon's hair and blood were caught under my nails. The hair was coarse and black as the night sky. I took a breath at the sight of them, the action of my chest erratic, the muscles jerking and stabbing. Tears flooded my eyes. I curled my fingers under, the blood tacky on my skin. A sob rose in my chest, gathering a scream with it, tangling into some huge snarled pain, like roots twisting tight and choking. They were stuck, wedged in place, blocked by some organic dam that kept the agony of my soul from finding release. Tears gathered and settled inside, floating close to the surface, but obstructed, unable to find freedom. I clenched my hands, the blood sticky.

Ahead of me, Eli pointed a rifle at Sneak Cheek, the Tequila Boy we had suspected of being leak number two. During a debriefing, I'd have to ask what Eli had seen. Later. Much later. I nodded to two Vodka Boys and three Tequila Boys, talking quietly about getting good and drunk before dawn.

I passed El Diablo, standing by himself, and he gave me a small nod, touching his combat helmet, like some old-time Western cowboy. I lifted a finger at him, and though I didn't manage a smile, I did manage to keep my sobs in.

When I passed the last marine, I took a breath, painful and coarse sounding, dropped my hands, and walked to Bayou Metairie, sliding out of my flip-flops as I went. I waded into the water, feeling Beast looking out through my eyes. She spotted the gator in the distance, nostrils above the surface, but it wouldn't bother me, not with vamp blood on my skin. I looked up in the black sky and found the North Star, orienting myself to face east. There was no ritual for my kind of Christian who had faced battle and killed. Maybe the Roman Catholics had one. Absolution. Something. The Cherokee would have one, and Aggie One Feather would guide me through it some morning soon. But I needed something now, when the night and the blood of my enemies coated me, their deaths pressing on me.

In two steps, the water rose up my thighs. Without looking, I knew that Rick was standing on the bank, watching me, Leo and Bruiser and Eli behind him. Rick's wolf and his Soul stood beside him. Something like pain cut through me, a steel blade of misery and grief, sharp and burning cold. But nothing in life was set in stone and nothing in life is promised us. Not happiness, not joy, not love. Everything was variable and mutable and inconstant. Perhaps Rick and I still could be together. Someday. But I couldn't count on that. I couldn't count on anything except God, death, and myself, and sometimes not even myself.

I looked up into the eastern sky. "I call on the Almighty, the Elohim, who are eternal. Hear me. See me." I knelt, dropping slowly below the muddy surface, the cold water closing over my head, washing away the blood of my enemies. I stood just as slowly, letting the water run through my clothes and hair and over the drying blood on my skin.

The water trickled off me, into silence. Nothing moved now that Sabina's magics had died away, the trees of the park motionless. Even the vamps had stopped moving, standing, all of them, friends and enemies alike, watching me.

I turned to my right, facing north, and whispered, knowing that the vamps and weres would hear, and not caring. "I call upon my Tsalagiyi ancestors, and upon the grandmother and father of my kind. Hear me." I knelt and dropped below the surface of the water. When I rose, my skin felt cleaner, my soul less soiled. Cold prickles lifted my flesh and water ran from me, cleansing.

I blinked against it. When the water draining down my face cleared, I caught a glimpse of humans in night camo standing in the crowd of enemies over de Allyon's clan, guns at the ready. The Tequila Boys. One stood beside de Allyon's heir, now the clan leader. Another stood beside his secundo scion. Guarding. If we had enemies among our own, that was finished now. They were free of obligation and coercion. Leo was safe now.

I turned west. "I call upon my guardian angel, Hayyel. Hear me." I heard the wings of a night bird on the far bank, but resisted the urge to look behind me. My human and vamp watchers were not alone. Not anymore. I knelt, letting the water close over me, cleansing me. Purifying me. When I gained my feet, the water pulled through my hair and it lay on the surface like a veil.

I faced south. "I call upon the Great One, God who creates." A predawn breeze blew along the length of the bayou, growing harder, stronger, smelling of wet and leafless trees and water birds and the soil of the earth. I dropped once again below the surface, and as the water closed over me, it took the last of the blood with it, leaving me clean. Leaving me at peace. I stayed that way, kneeling in the mud, under the water, waiting, feeling the unaccustomed cleanliness of my unconventional baptism.

I stood, the water cascading from me, and turned right, facing east again. I felt the current swirl around me, and I knew the alligator was swimming close for a look, tasting the flavor of water and the strange blood in it. But I was still unafraid of the creature.

"I call upon the Trinity, the sacred number of three." Beast growled low in my mind, the sound a rumble as I dropped below the water. I rose and said softly, looking at the night sky, "I call upon the Redeemer, the blood sacrifice, for peace and for forgiveness. I seek wisdom and strength, purity of heart and mind and soul." In the distance an owl called, loud and long, the hooting echoing. Nearby another answered, three plaintive notes.

I had survived the vamp blood-feud, alive and unhurt. I had turned that feud on my enemy and taken his head. Though the vamps now had better confirmation that I wasn't human, they weren't much closer to knowing what I was than they had been. I smiled up at the nearly new moon.

Rick stepped into the water, approaching me slowly, and I looked away from the night sky to watch him come. His face was hard, his eyes dark. Suddenly I remembered his words, lightly spoken on the bank of the Mississippi. I remembered the human with his side torn open by killing teeth. And I remembered his words. "Don't make me have to kill you. Shoot you with silver."

I opened my mouth to speak, to tell him that I hadn't eaten the human. Rick's hand came up. The night exploded. Pain hit me in the chest, left side, up high. The world went dark. I fell back. Black water closed over my head, filled my mouth, my nose. But I wasn't breathing. I had no desire to. I could see under the water, Beast's vision taking over, but the world was telescoping down into darkness. Rick, the cop, had done his duty, thinking I had gone U'tlun'ta, had become the liver eater, the evil of my kind.

Beast shoved at me, hard, her pelt abrading my skin, her claws tearing at my fingertips.

My heart isn't beating.

Heart shot.

Shift! she screamed.

No time to shift.

I'm dead.

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