Magic Bites Chapter 5

BETSI WOULD NOT START. A WERERAT MECHANIC took one look under the hood, mumbled something about the alternator, and pointed me toward the stables.

Before we left, I popped Betsi's trunk, untied the strings holding the long oiled-leather roll and pulled it open, displaying swords and daggers secured in leather loops. The moonlight silvered the blades.

"Wow," Derek said.

Men and swords. My father said that if you put any able-bodied man, no matter how peaceful, into a room with a sword and a practice dummy and leave him alone, eventually the man would pick up the sword and try to stab the dummy. It is human nature. This young wolf was no different.

"Choose a weapon."

"Whatever I want?"

"Whatever you want."

He examined the row of cutlery, his face thoughtful. I thought he'd go for a leaf blade, but he ignored it and his fingers strayed toward Bor instead. It was a good sword, especially for a beginner, with a thirty-two-inch blade and an ash-sheathed hilt just under eight inches long. It had a straight steel guard with sharp tips pointing downward and a no-nonsense steel pommel. Like all weapons I owned, it had a superb balance.

Derek held it upright.

"It's light!" he said. "I went to a sword fair once, and the swords there were way heavier."

"There is a difference between a sword and a swordlike object," I said. "What you saw at the sword fair were mostly reasonable imitations. They are pretty and heavy and they make you slower than a slug on vacation. This one only weighs two pounds."

Derek swung the sword in a practice slash.

"It's a working sword," I said. "It won't break and it doesn't send a lot of vibration back to your hand when you strike a target."

"I like it," he said.

"It's yours."


I grabbed my utility bag and we were ready to go. Derek made some sniffing noises at the bag. "I smell gasoline."

"You smell right," I told him and left it at that. Explaining that I carried a large canteen filled with gasoline in my bag in case I spilled some of my blood and had to clean it up in a hurry would've been too complicated.

THE PACK LENT ME A MARE. HER NAME WAS FRAU. The stable master swore that while she wasn't the swiftest beast in the stables, she was obedient, strong, and steady as the rock of Gibraltar. So far, I had no reason to doubt him.

Derek's dun gelding was perfectly content to let Frau take the lead. The kid rode with the stiffness of a moderately trained rider who had never got quite comfortable with horses. Some shapechangers rode like they were centaurs. Derek wasn't one of them.

Neither of us had spoken since we left the shapechanger keep fifty minutes ago.

If I were to work with him, we had to at least be able to talk. I dropped back, drawing side by side with him. The sounds of hoofbeats echoed on the deserted street.

"Why the arm?" Derek asked.

He was looking at my burn. The custom called for a hand to be thrust into the flame.

"Because I don't heal as quickly as you do. I need my hand to hold my sword."

"Oh. That was a dumb question." He looked away toward the city. Atlanta sprawled, looking relieved to be free of magic and yet also apprehensive, knowing its reprieve would be short-lived.

The moon shone on the sable of the night sky, a pale sliver of a face behind a veil of shadows. Its delicate radiance, a tangle of light and darkness, was all but lost, held at bay by bright street lamps. Electric lights, like the sun, offer no compromises. There are no shadows mixed with their glow, no duality, no promise of hidden depth and mystery, nothing but light, pure and simple.

"Have you ever noticed how some things work during magic and some don't?" he asked.

"For instance?"

"For instance, phones. Sometimes they work during magic and sometimes they don't."

He wanted to talk. Probably looking for some common ground. I'd be an asshole if I didn't oblige. "There are a couple of theories on that. One says that the intensity of the magic wave determines to what extent technology will fail."

"And the other one?"

I grimaced. "Magic is a fluid thing. It's not a strict system set in stone. Every one of us filters it through ourselves and our thoughts and perceptions shape and change it. You've heard how powerful Pope is?"


"He derives his power solely from the faith of his congregation. Thousands and thousands of people believe he can heal the sick and so he can. Now let's take a car. How does it work?"

Derek frowned. "I'm not sure. There is an engine, which burns gasoline and turns it into gas. Gas expands and pushes something, a valve of some sort, which makes the wheels turn. Something like that."

I nodded. "Okay, now how does the phone work?"

He looked at me. "Ummm, your voice makes the wires vibrate?"

"Yes, but how does dialing a number translate into reaching the right person? And what if a bird sits on a wire? Does it still vibrate?"

Derek shrugged. "I have no idea."

"I don't either. And most other people don't. They never had to stop and think about how the phone works. It just does. Cars are a different matter. They require more maintenance and break down more often man a phone, and the repairs are a good deal more expensive, so any car owner will educate himself about his car's inner workings at least to some degree."

"To keep from being ripped off," Derek said.

"Yes. The theory is that since so many people are ignorant of the basic mechanical principles involved in making the phone work, to them it might just as well be magic. They believe blindly that it will work and it does. On the other hand, cars are viewed as the sum of mechanical parts which are prone to failure, therefore when magic hits, they fail."

"That's a cool theory," he said.

"Unfortunately, it makes my job that much harder."

The magic fluctuation crashed into us. The electric lamps went out and absolute darkness drenched the city. Just when my eyes adjusted to the lack of light, we turned the corner and were greeted by a row of feylanterns. One more turn and we'd reach Casino.

"Do you know where we're going?" I asked.

"To the People's shithole."

I shook my head, waving good-bye to any hopes of preserving my neutrality with him at my side. "I want this to be very clear. No matter what happens, I don't want you to change form unless you have no choice. They can't smell you, since you've showered. Unless you go furry, they have no way of knowing that you belong to the Pack and I'd like to keep it that way."


"One, I want to keep my cooperation with the Pack out of the spotlight. It creates an appearance of impropriety."

"The People wouldn't be thrilled to know you have a wolfman with you."

"Yeah." Ted wouldn't be thrilled either. "And two, once you turn and fight, you'll have to be fed and given a peaceful spot to sleep it off. I don't always have a peaceful spot handy."

"Got it."


The city, caught in the light and shadow web of the triumphant moon, lay empty and silent. Maybe the boy wonder would manage to keep his human skin on in the Casino. I certainly hoped so.

THE MAGIC HAD A SELECTIVE APPETITE. WHEN IT came to buildings, it gnawed on the sky scrapers first, from the top down and then it pounced on anything large, complex, and new. The Bank of America Plaza went down first, followed by the SunTrust skyscraper. One Atlantic Center, the Peachtree Plaza, even the new Coca-Cola building took a pe. The Georgia Dome crashed before the proverbial dust cleared, and the rest of the monuments to the engineering might of man raced to commit seppuku in the face of the magic onslaught. So when one day the Georgia World Congress Center rumbled, quaked like a milk tooth about to come out, and collapsed in a huge dust cloud, the locals didn't even bat an eye.

Few expected the People to purchase the lot. Nobody expected them to clear it and raise their own private Taj Mahal in the ruin's place within five years. And when the ornate doors of the magic palace opened and the public saw gleaming rows of slot machines within, well, the city that had seen everything had to stop and stare. The shock lasted only until the first fool realized he had a few bucks in his pocket. Now the Casino was just one of the seven wonders of Atlanta, sucking in the crowds eager to pay the stupid tax. Fortunately for Derek and I, it was late even by the standards of degenerate gamblers and we didn't have to fight the human currents as we closed in on Nataraja's little nest.

I've seen the Casino many times, and yet again, it caught me by surprise. Like an ethereal castle born from a mirage among the shifting desert sands, the People's HQ towered above the city. Alabaster-white in daytime, at night its walls glowed with gold and indigo, illuminated by powerful electric lamps or feylanterns.

The People had made some modifications. A total of eight slim minarets, instead of the original four, flanked the central domed building. High walls enclosed the complex, punctuated by blocky guard towers, equipped with howitzers and sorcerous ballistae. Solemn guards and occasional vampires patrolled the textured parapets. The place oozed necromantic magic.

We made our way between the brass statues of strange gods, poised above the waters of long, rectangular fountains. I recognized a few, but Hindu mythology was never my strong suit.

The largest of the statues stood in a circular fountain of its own just before the entrance. A strange figure, caught in the whirlwind of a fiery dance, balanced on one foot atop an ugly demon. Two pairs of arms protruded from its shoulders. One hand held a flame, the second beat a drum, the third pointed to the raised foot, and the fourth offered a blessing. A cosmic dancer, trampling the ignorance of the world, his body on fire, his face serene. Shiva as Nataraja, the Lord of the Dance.

Derek studied the statue, as I slowed before it, and scowled at the castle. "So he named himself after a god?"


In this age it took a particular kind of nerve to take the name of a deity for yourself. Nerve was something the owner of the Casino had in abundance, but if Shiva was what he aspired to, he had a long way to go.

Nataraja served as the local lord of the People. The People styled themselves to be a new breed of human or a really old one, depending on whom you talked to. Like the Order, they had domains throughout the country, but unlike the Order, they appeared concerned with accumulating wealth to fund their research into the "mysteries of life and death," as their brochures put it. They had proficiency in a variety of both technological and magical fields; most showed a slant toward necromancy and necronavigation - the raising, studying, and caring for the dead.

The People had power in abundance. Dangerous as hell, they had raised necromancy to the level of art, demonstrating a high degree of professionalism in everything they did, which I admired. It didn't keep me from despising them.

The entrance to the Casino was open to the public. We tied our horses to the rails outside and walked in past the twin sentries wearing black cloaks over chainmail and brandishing scimitars. The scimitars had a worn look about them, the kind that originates from repeated sharpening after being dulled on something hard.

We entered the main floor. I hated casinos. The lure of easy money brought out the worst in people. The air smelled of greed, disappointment, and desperation.

Derek and I marched past the slot machines reconditioned to be run manually. Lost to the world in their concentration to feed more money into the machines, the slot players looked undead, going through the motions with the monotony of automatons. A woman won, jumping frantically as a waterfall of coins spilled, filling the receptacle of her machine. Her face, illuminated by delight, looked berserk, almost mad.

We passed the card tables, turned to a small service entrance, strode through it and found ourselves in a small room opening into a staircase. A pair of lean guards, dressed in the same garb as the sentries outside, flanked the stairs. Almost immediately, as if on cue, a woman stepped into our view.

She stood a couple of inches above five feet, about half a foot shorter than me. Her emerald green dress left no aspect of her figure to the imagination. She was neither slender nor willowy. When writers of sappy romances ranted about "glorious curves tapering to a small waist" and "soft flesh that begged to be explored," they had her in mind. All in all, her body was a far cry from my own. I wasn't jealous. My body served me fine; it was strong, resilient, and equipped with quick reflexes, which let me kill things before they killed me.

I did envy her hair. Fiery red, it fell in curls and ringlets shining with red gold all the way to her hips. Derek's face split into a first-class leer. Rowena smiled as if he had just read her a poem.

"Kate! How pleasant to see you again." Her smile could launch a spaceship into orbit. Coupled with a contralto, tinted with a soft Polish accent, that smile made men lose the last remnants of their self-respect.

I glanced at Derek. The boy wonder didn't melt into a pile of goo, although his gaze was glued to Rowena's chest. Avoiding eye contact. Good strategy.

"Sorry we're late."

"Not a problem. Please follow me."

We did, climbing the staircase up the long hallway.

"You've been here before?" Derek asked, his gaze firmly fixed on Rowena's ass shifting under the shimmering green silk a few steps above us.

"Wiggles," I told him.

He blinked, then realized I wasn't referring to Rowena's backside. "Wiggles?"

"She's about fourteen feet long, triangular head, gray and blue scales..."

He was clearly drawing a blank. "Nataraja's pet snake," I explained. "It bolted a few weeks ago. I found it for him at the request of the Guild." Mentioning that I spent four solid days camped out in a swamp, covered in peat and muck, without a change of clothes, would have completely cramped my style.

An icy feeling came over me. The tiny hairs on the back of my neck rose. We rounded the bend and saw a vampire. It scuttled along the ceiling, heading in the opposite direction, ropy muscles working under the tightly stretched skin, probably dark during life, but now bluish purple. Rowena glanced at it and waved the way people in more technological times must've waved at the security cameras. I felt a particular magic flow from her in a sluggish wave. My stomach lurched and I swallowed, trying not to retch.

The undead sat unnaturally still. The urge to kill it almost overwhelmed me. My hand itched to touch Slayer, resting in its leather sheath on my back. I looked into the empty dead eyes and wondered what it would be like to slide my blade into one, scrambling the brain behind it. I would have liked to kill the man that piloted it even more.

The vampire shifted, springing into motion all at once, and moved on. "This way please," Rowena said, favoring us with another dazzling smile. And we had no choice but to follow while the vampire disappeared behind the turn of the corridor.

The hallway terminated in a huge arched door. It opened at our approach, splitting down the middle. Beyond, Nataraja's pentagonal throne room stretched like a hashish dream stolen from the mind of an ancient teller of The Arabian Nights. Graceful statues stood bathed in the glow of magic lamps that mixed with the gentle reflected radiance of Nataraja's gold throne. Velvet pillows dotted the Italian tile floor and priceless pieces of art struggled to add a touch of refinement to the shocking opulence. Nataraja himself reclined on his throne, like a sultan of legend.

The asshole wore white as he always did and his outfit looked to be worth my six months' salary. It's good to be the sultan.

His throne looked gold. It probably was gold, but my mind couldn't accept that such a concentration of wealth could be wasted on supporting someone's backside. Shaped like an egg set on its wide end and cut in half lengthwise, the throne reached the height of six feet. Stylized exotic animals, at one time considered mythical and now only extremely dangerous, covered the entire surface of the egg, both inside and out, and the precious gems that served as their eyes sparkled in the light of numerous lamps.

Nataraja rested on the throne, half-sitting, half-reclining on his elbow on a plush white cushion. His age was hard to determine. Judging by his features alone, he could not have been much older than forty but visual impressions didn't mean anything anymore. He felt old, much older than me. Two hundred years, maybe three, maybe more. A few years ago I would have said such longevity wasn't possible, since even a hundred years ago technology flowed full force, but my years as a merc had taught me to be very careful with words like "never" and "impossible."

Nataraja looked at me, slightly amused by my presence on his home turf. Olive-skinned and slight in build, he radiated power the way some men radiate strength. His hair, coal black and straight, framed an angular face, with a wide, high forehead, prominent cheekbones, and a weak chin, hidden by a carefully cut, ultra-short beard. His eyes, very dark and piercing, had a magnetic effect. When he stared, he appeared to look deep inside you, discovering the hidden thoughts and secreted ideas and taking them for his own. His gaze made it nearly impossible to lie to him. I still managed.

Wiggles hissed as I crossed the floor toward the throne. She fixed me with her empty hateful eyes and smelled the air, her long tongue shivering through the slit of the lipless mouth. Nice to see you too, sweetheart. Remember my cattle prod?

Rowena strode to the snake, her hand settling on the huge triangular head. Weighing nearly two hundred pounds, Wiggles could not be picked up and carried away, and snakes cannot be trained, since most of the time they assume that humans are warm walking trees. Wiggles, however, was a freak born of magic and genetic manipulation. She was still dumb by mammalian standards, but she knew that a hand on her head meant pain if she moved, so she settled into long languid coils at Rowena's feet.

Nataraja's voice came like a whisper of scales on rough stone. "Kate."


He grimaced. "I'm not in the mood to be disrespected."

"No wonder. It's quite late for a man of your age. Ever thought about retirement?" You know you will do it and I know you will do it. Let's get it over with. Test me, you sonovabitch, so I can fight you off once again and then we'll talk.

His power slammed into me, pressing, pushing me to the floor. His eyes grew into bottomless pits, commanding, all-powerful, sucking me into their awful depth, promising slavery and pain.

I clenched my teeth and held him, trying to shield Derek.

Nataraja pushed harder, his power welling like an avalanche, distorting the world, overwhelming it until nothing was left but his will and mine, locked against each other. A painful shudder pulsed through me. His face twisted and he bit his lip.

"Temper, temper," I said through my teeth.

"Aren't mood swings a sign of early senility?" Derek's strained voice said from beyond.

The awesome pressure ebbed for an instant and I gathered my magic, summoning every reserve I had. Strike against the kid, Nate. Strike so I can kill you.

The pressure fell abruptly and I was hurled back from a long black tunnel into the real world. Nataraja backed off, sensing the danger. Damn it.

I glanced at Derek. His face looked bloodless. His hands clenched into fists.

Nataraja was once again playing an amused host. "I see you brought a pet," he said. "He talks like you." One day, his face promised. One day we'll settle this.

"My bad habits rubbing off." Any time.

A whisper announced a new arrival. Ghastek came through the arched doors, carrying a briefcase and wearing khaki pants and a black T-neck sweater. He looked so absurd against the backdrop of Nataraja's vulgar throne room that I almost laughed.

Ghastek nodded to me and came to stand by his master's throne. Both men were of slight build, but where Nate was slender, Ghastek was thin. A diet of steaks and lots of hours in the weight room could make him lean and sinewy, but I doubted he ever looked at a dumbbell, let alone handled one. He was beginning to bald and the receding hairline added height to his forehead. His face was plain, saved from unremarkable only by dark eyes betraying his intellect and that slight touch of distance particular to people who spend their time immersed in thought.

"Ahh, Ghastek," Nataraja said as if greeting a favorite pet. "I was just pondering Kate's new amusement. He would be her..."

I indulged him. "Apprentice."

"Apprentice." Nataraja rolled the word in his mouth, tasting it. "How modest. Considering his age, it's actually appropriate, although out of character."

"I hate to disappoint you, but our relationship is strictly professional."

Nataraja's laugh polluted the air. "Of course," he said, as if humoring a small child. "How insensitive of me."

I smiled at him. "Indeed. Now that we've established that you have appallingly poor taste, would you like a chance to chat with me as a representative of the Order or shall I make my exit?"

"Suddenly you're all business. Very well." Nataraja leaned back. "I'm dissatisfied with the direction your investigation has taken you."

I bared my teeth at him. "I find that amusing. I don't answer to you."

He didn't say anything, so I elaborated. "I work for the Order and the last time I checked the Order didn't report to Roland."

It was amusing to see the effect of the name. Both men jerked, as if shocked with a live wire.

"As you can see, gentlemen, I have access to the Order's database." Which was a blatant lie but they had no way of knowing it. Roland's name short-circuited their logic. If they realized how I knew the name of their leader, they both would suffer an instant apoplexy.

"Here is what I know, and please, correct me if I'm wrong. Ghastek's shadow vampire was tailing Greg Feldman. It was killed suddenly and you haven't been able to extract an image of the killer from the mind of the journeyman who had been piloting it. You've made no effort to disclose this information to the Order, which is understandable since you'd have to explain why your vampire was following the knight-piner. What I don't understand is why you have been making so much noise over a single vamp."

A long pause stretched and then Nataraja jerked his wrist in a kind of "tell her" gesture and looked aside, seemingly losing all interest in our conversation. Rowena remained tranquil, her hand on the snake's head. I wondered what went through her mind.

"We've lost more than one vampire," Ghastek said.

"You have proof?"

Ghastek opened the briefcase and extracted a stack of photographs. Deja vu. He walked forward to give the stack to me. Derek stepped between us, wordlessly took the pictures from his hand, and delivered them to mine.

I looked at a black-and-white image of a deceased vampire. The bloodsucker lay in a crumpled heap, its wiry body pitifully broken. Thick dark blood stained its pallid hide. The vamp was coated in it, as if someone had dipped his hand into the blood and smeared it all over its taut skin the way one would rub oil over the skin of a chicken to prepare it for roasting. The bloodsucker's bald cranium had been neatly cracked and wet emptiness glared at me where the brain had been.

The second photograph. The same vampire, this time placed on its back to better display a long gash that split its torso from the genitals to midchest. Yellowish ribs protruded from the blackness of bloody tissue. Someone had used a very sharp knife to cleave the cartilage of several ribs on the left side, separating them from the sternum, not sawing but slicing in a single motion with awful force. The vamp must have been turned on its side to allow the stringy clot of its nearly atrophied intestines to fall out. There was no fat attached to the intestines, so the killer didn't have to bother with cutting it. Same with the bladder and colon; both organs had atrophied within weeks of undeath, so he didn't have to deal with the mess.

The diaphragm was neatly slit, both to remove the remaining intestines and to gain access to the esophagus. He must have peeled back the diaphragm and worked his hand up the chest cavity until he could grab the esophagus and cut it. Then he simply had to pull the esophagus out through the hole, and the blood-soaked, useless lungs and bulging heart would come out with it. I've seen this before. That's how you gutted a deer.

"He took the brain, the heart, the lungs, what was left of the liver and kidneys, but discarded the intestines," Ghastek said.

I raised an eyebrow, since I didn't see the intestines, and he murmured, "The next photograph."

I looked and saw the ugly wet clump of innards in a puddle of blood. Unused, they had shrunk until they resembled tough twine.

"Admirable skill," Ghastek said dryly. "The cuts were made with almost surgical precision. He has an excellent knowledge of the vampiric physiology."

"Any chance of it being an inside job?"

Ghastek looked at me as if I had accused him of devouring small children.

"We are not stupid," he said, meaning I'm not stupid. "All of our people with that degree of skill are accounted for."

"Besides this one and the shadow, how many did you lose?" I asked.


"Four? Four vampires?"

Ghastek shifted uncomfortably, looking as if he had tasted something slimy and sour. "We aren't happy about the situation."

"Where are the other photos?"

"We have none. The others were taken. We were not able to recover the bodies."

"What do you mean, taken?"

"Something killed them instantly, severing the link between their minds and the navigators who piloted them. Then their bodies were removed before our field team was able to recover them." He produced a piece of paper covered with neat typescript. "Here's the list of the locations, dates, and times."

Derek took the list from him and gave it to me. I glanced at it and put it in my pocket. Six vampires and seven shapechangers. Someone was trying to start a war between the Pack and the People and was doing a damn good job of it. Who would benefit from it?

"You're out six vampires and you can account for only two of the bodies. Are you positive that the other four aren't active?" The idea of four unpiloted vamps running around the city made me hurt with dread.

"They are deceased, Kate!" Nataraja snapped out of his reverie. "Why don't you ask Curran and his pet lympago what was done to our property?"

A lympago was an inaccurate term to use for Corwin but Nate seemed so happy to have found it that I let him wallow in his own ignorance.

"I spoke to the Pack," I said. "I've been able to clear Corwin to my satisfaction."

"That's not good enough for me," Nataraja said.

"It'll have to do." All of this verbal fencing strained my patience. "His m-scan didn't match."

"I saw the m-scan of the crime scene," Ghastek said, coming to life like a shark sensing blood in the water. "There was no power print except for our vampire and the piner."

Shit. Me and my big mouth. I should carry a banner with a big sign, "Confidential Information Given Away Free!" At least it would let people know upfront who they were dealing with.

"You must not have been looking at the right m-scan. The one I saw had a clear power record of the murderer."

I could almost feel that formidable brain working behind Ghastek's eyes. "Would you be willing to provide us with a copy of this other m-scan?"

"Would you be willing to tell me why the hell your shadow vampire was tailing Feldman?"

"Perhaps we merely wanted to keep an eye on the piner," Nataraja said.

I pretended to consider it. "No. I don't buy it. Keeping a vamp in the field is too expensive for casual surveillance."

"We have nothing further to discuss," Nataraja said.

"A pleasure seeing you, too," I said.

"Ghastek, escort the Order representative out of our territory." Nataraja grimaced. "We wouldn't want anything to happen to her. I simply couldn't bear it."

Ghastek gave me an odd look and walked out with us, leaving Rowena and Nataraja behind.

As soon as we were out of Nate's earshot, I stopped. "You don't really have to escort me."

"But I do."

"In that case I have a question."

Ghastek looked at me.

"If I were to taint a living animal with necromantic magic, how would I do it?"

"By taint you mean... ?"

There was no way out of this question without giving myself away. I was too stupid for this job.

"A sufficient amount of necromantic magic to produce a blended power print."

"What color?"

I strained to keep from gritting my teeth. "Pale orange."

He thought about it. "Well, the most obvious answer would be to feed an animal on necro-infused flesh. If a rat gorged itself on the flesh of a vampire, the necromantic magic would show up in its stomach contents. Some of it would make its way into the blood stream. But, since it's obvious, it's also wrong. I've scanned animals that fed on undead flesh before and the power print showed a pure necromantic arch."

"The magic of the undead flesh overwhelmed the magic of the animal?"

Ghastek nodded. "Yes. To produce a blended power print, the influence of the necromantic magic would have to be very subtle. In theory - and this is only in theory - it would have to involve reproduction."

"I don't understand."

"If you ask me nicely, I might explain," Ghastek said.

"Could you please explain this to me? It's important and I would very much appreciate it."

Ghastek allowed himself a smile. It touched his lips and vanished in a flicker, as if it was no more than a muscle twitch. I showed him my teeth.

"You're much more pleasant when you talk like a human being," Ghastek said. My smile failed to disturb him. "The bravado is amusing, but it becomes tiresome."

I sighed. "I'm a merc. I walk like a merc, I talk like a merc, I act like a merc."

"So you admit to being a walking stereotype?"

"It's safer that way," I said honestly.

For a moment I thought that he somehow understood the deeper meaning of my words. Then he said, "We were talking rats?"

"Yes. And I did ask nicely."

"In theory, if I take a female rat and feed it undead flesh, while allowing her to mate and carry offspring to term, then repeat the process with the offspring, somewhere down the line the descendants of the original rat may display permanent influence of necromantic magic, which will produce a blended power print. Something along light orange on the m-scan."

"Thank you."

"Thank you." He smiled.

THE WATER OF SHIVA'S FOUNTAIN WAS REFRESHING. I splashed it on my face, fighting an urge to lay down on the lovely cold concrete. Nataraja's little test had sapped my reserves, but I had once again prevented the show of power he was trying to provoke. I sat on the rim of the fountain. "I'm tired. I feel soiled and in need of a shower. How are you?"

Derek gripped the rim with his hands and dipped his head into the water. He shook, flinging droplets from his wet hair and washed his nostrils the way shapechangers did when they wanted to clear a strong smell from their noses.

"That place reeks of death," he said.

"Yeah. You know, it's not wise to mouth off to Nataraja."

"Look who's talking."

"He expects me to mouth off. Still, it was pretty funny. What did you think of Rowena?"

"You don't want to know," he said.

"You're right. I probably don't. She bothers me," I admitted.

"Why? Because she's prettier?"

I winced. "Derek, never ever tell a woman that someone is prettier than her. You'll make an enemy for life."

"You're funnier than she is. And you hit harder."

"Oh, thank you. Please, continue to reinforce the fact that she's more attractive. If you say that I have a better personality, you'll find out how hard I can hit."

He grinned. We walked to our horses.

"Be careful on the way back," I said.

He gave me a puzzled look. "I'm the one protecting you. You be careful."

I shook my head. I finally got my knight in shining armor. Too bad he was a teenage werewolf.

"You think the People are gonna try something?"

"Not the People." I slowed down. "The Pack and the People lost roughly equal numbers and the murders took place right on the border between them. This string of killings feels carefully managed."

"By Nataraja?"

"By someone who would benefit from a war between the Pack and the People."

"Like Nataraja?"

"Would you let go of Nataraja already?" I frowned at him. "Nate above all is a businessman. Yes, he would like to diminish the Pack. In an outright conflict the People might even win, but it would leave them so weakened, a baby burp would knock them down. The war isn't cost-effective for the People right now, that's why we got invited into the Casino. For all of their posturing, the People are worried. Not only are they out six vampires, which are expensive to replace, but they also sense a deeper threat. Why do you think Ghastek is walking us home?"

"What threat?" Derek shrugged.

I had forgotten how good it felt to talk a theory out. "Have you ever heard people say 'pulled a Gilbert'? You know where the saying comes from?"


"About nine years ago a rogue Master of the Dead named Gilbert Caillard tried to take over the People by framing Nataraja in a sex-slave ring. Which is richly ironic - I doubt that snake ever had sex, let alone brokered it. Anyhow Gilbert's reasoning was that if the People were shamed and Nataraja got arrested, he could waltz in and take over the operation. He had power in abundance and almost pulled it off."

"You think he's back?"

"No, Gilbert's dead. Nataraja killed him and had his heart burned. He still carries the ashes in a little satchel on his neck. But this feels very much like a Gilbert. The plan has a certain brilliance to it: get the Pack and the People to battle it out and then come in and wrestle control from Nate's weak and hopefully dying fingers."

"Dying is good," Derek said.

"One, we have Pack people being torn apart by animals with necro taint, probably fed on undead flesh. Two, we have vampires being taken out by someone with advanced knowledge of vampiric anatomy. And three, Nate is scared. Look at the battlements. He doubled their patrols. See, the People prize power most of all. They don't exactly encourage violent coups like this, but if the victor offers his obeisance to Roland and makes the appropriate noises, he'll most likely get away with it. I think we have a rogue Master of the Dead on our hands." That had to be it. It made perfect sense.

"Who's Roland?" Derek asked suddenly, intruding on my thoughts.

"Roland? He's the legendary leader of the People. It's rumored that he's been alive since magic last left the world, which was about four thousand years ago. He's supposed to have incredible power, almost godlike. Some say he's Merlin, some say he's Gilgamesh. He has some sort of agenda and uses the People to achieve it, although the majority of them have never seen him. There's no proof of his existence and lay people like you and I aren't suppose to know about him."

"Does he exist?"

"Oh yeah. He's real."

"How do you know about him?"

"It's my job to know." And trust me, boy wonder, I know entirely too much. I know his habits. I know what food he likes to eat, what women he likes to take to his bed, what books he prefers to read. I know everything my father had known about Roland. I even know his real name.

The flow of people to the white arch of the gates had ebbed. It was late or early, depending on the way you looked at it.

Skeletal claws of fear iced my spine. The small hairs on the back of my neck and arms stood on their ends. A vampire. Close.

Derek's gelding neighed, but Frau remained stoic. I loved this horse.

I turned slowly and watched the bloodsucker descend down the snow-white wall of the Casino. It crawled headfirst like a mutated gecko, long yellow talons digging into the mortar. The pallid body, taut with dry, stringy muscle, dripped necro magic.

The vamp crept down until its head was level with mine and raised its face. It used to be female during life. Undeath had sharpened already delicate features, making it look like a concentration camp victim. The bloodsucker stared at me with haunted eyes. It raised a thin hand clutching a small object. Slowly it opened its maw. Its face twitched, trying to twist into a different set of features.

"I believe this is yours." Ghastek's voice said from the vamp's throat. The vamp's fingers opened and the object fell. I caught it: my throwing dagger. How considerate. He had even cleaned the bloodsucker blood off of it.

"Tell me, Kate," Ghastek said. "Why do you paint your daggers black?"

"So they don't shine when I throw them."

"Ahh. Obvious, come to think of it." The vamp's throat stank of death.

"Shall we depart?"


"What's our destination?"

He knew perfectly well where Greg's apartment was. They probably kept the bloody place under surveillance.

"Just take me to the edge of your territory. Corner of White and Maple will do." Too late I remembered that Greg had died at that intersection. "This isn't necessary, you know."

"It is. If you died after a visit to the Casino, we would have to answer many unpleasant questions."

I petted Frau's neck, untied the reins, and mounted.

"A horse," Ghastek said with disgust. "I might have known."

"You have something against horses?"

"I'm allergic. Not that it matters under the circumstances."

He stabled the undead but good old horses made him sneeze.

"Go on ahead," I said. The vamp took off, running up-right in a clumsy, labored manner. Bloodsuckers aren't built for running on the ground. It requires coordination and breathing and the process no longer came naturally to one who does not have to breathe.

I gave Frau's sides a gentle squeeze and she took off, breaking into an easy trot, Derek on his gelding close behind. I had a feeling that if the bloodsucker got within striking distance, Frau would try to find out if it was good to walk on.

Ghastek pushed the vamp for about a block and took it to higher ground. It scrambled up the side of the building and leaped across to its neighbor, defying gravity. Its gaunt form sailed along the third row of windows, talons clutching the wall long enough to push away, soundless, undetectable, a new horror.

We took the backstreets, staying away from the main road. A horseman passed us, riding a snow-white gelding, graceful and mean-eyed, a one-in-a-hundred kind of a horse. The rider wore an expensive leather jacket, edged with wolf fur. He gave me and Derek an appraising look and hurried on his way, adjusting the crossbow that rested on his back. I looked after White's retreating backside, searching for a sign that proclaimed I'm wealthy, please rob me. I didn't see one. I guess he figured his horse made enough of a statement.

Ahead, several kids crowded around a fire burning bright in a metal drum. The orange flames licked the drum's edges, throwing yellow highlights on their grimy determined young faces. A scrawny boy in a dirty sweatshirt and with a tangle of feathers in his lanky hair chanted something dramatically and threw what looked like a dead rat into the fire. Everyone was a sorcerer these days.

The kids watched me as I passed them. One of them cursed with gusto, trying to get a reaction. I laughed softly and rode on.

If we did have a rogue Master of the Dead on our hands, then I had absolutely no idea how to ferret him out. Maybe if I had a big box leaning on a stake, and tied one of Ghastek's vampires under it...

We arrived at Rufus and turned north, heading toward the White Street. It was named for the snowfall of '14, when three inches of fine powder covered the street's ugly asphalt. Three inches of snow was not terribly unusual for Atlanta except that it had come in May and refused to melt in the following months despite the hundred-degree heat. Three and a half years later it finally gave in and thawed during an Indian summer.

I reached the corner and halted. The twisted form of Ghastek's vampire perched on top of a lamppost, wound about it like a snake around a tree limb. It looked at me, its eyes glowing with dim red, betraying an influx of magic. Ghastek was concentrating hard to hold it in place.

"Problems?" I asked softly.

"Interference." Ghastek's voice sounded like it came through clenched teeth. Someone was trying to wrestle away his control over the vamp.

I freed Slayer and laid it across Frau's back. The metal smoked. A thin sheen of moisture glistened on its surface. It could be reacting to Ghastek's vamp or to something else.

Behind me Derek's gelding neighed gently.

"Don't get off your horse," I said.

As long as Derek stayed in the saddle, he would remember to act human.

I dismounted and tied the horse to an iron fence. Ghastek's vamp uncoiled from the lamppost and slid soundlessly to the ground. It took a few unsure staggering steps into the intersection.

"Ghastek, where are you going?"

A cart drawn by a couple of horses thundered down the street at breakneck speed. The horses spied the vamp and shied, jerking the cart to the side, but not far enough. The cart's right wheel smashed into the vampire with a loud meaty thump, flinging it aside. The driver spat a curse and snapped the reins, forcing the horses into a frenzied gallop, rumbling down the street and vanishing in the space of a breath.

The vamp lay still in a pitiful crumpled heap.

How convenient.

Slayer in hand, I stepped into the street. "Ghastek?" I called softly.

I circled it, sword in hand. An ugly grimace froze the vampire's face. Its left foot twitched.


A faint hiss tugged on my attention. I turned. Nothing. A small drop of liquid luminescence slid off my blade and fell onto the asphalt.

A blast of icy terror hit me like a sledgehammer. I whirled, lashing out on instinct, and felt the saber graze flesh as a grotesque shape plummeted at me from above. The creature twisted away from the sword in midair and landed softly to the side.

Derek's horse screamed and galloped into the night, carrying him off.

I backed away toward Ghastek's fallen vamp. The thing followed me on all fours. It was a vampire, but one so ancient that no trace of it having walked upright remained. The bones of its spine and hips had permanently shifted to adapt to quadruped locomotion.

The creature advanced, lean and wiry like a greyhound. An inch-high bone crest shielded its spine, formed by outgrowth of the vertebrae through the leather-thick skin. It paused, hugged the ground for a moment, and rose again, ruby-red eyes fixed on me.

Its face no longer bore any resemblance to a human. The skull jutted back in a bony hornlike curve to balance the horribly massive protruding jaws. The creature had no nose, not even a hint of the nose bridge. It opened its mouth, splitting its head in a half. Rows of fangs gleamed against the blackness. It wouldn't just puncture and rip, it would shred me.

The creature's eyes focused on me. The owl-like pupils gleamed with red.

It leaped with inhuman speed. I aimed for the throat and missed, my blade sinking to the hilt into its shoulder. The thing swept me off my feet. I hit the ground hard. My head bounced off the pavement, and the world swam. Pressure ground into my chest, forcing the air from my lungs. I strained and sent a jolt of my power through Slayer's blade.

The saber's hilt was jerked from my hand and the pressure vanished. I sucked in a lungful of air and scrambled to my feet, the throwing knife in my hand.

The creature shivered a dozen feet away, dazed and uncertain. The thin blade of my saber protruded from its back. Two inches lower and to the left, and I would've hit its heart. The shoulder jerked, twisted by a powerful spasm as Slayer ground deep into the muscle seeking the heart. The flesh around the blade softened like melted wax.

The creature's head snapped, and it whipped around to face me. Two more inches. It would take Slayer at least three minutes to burrow that deep into the flesh. I had to survive for three minutes.

No problem.

I hurled my dagger. The tip of the blade bounced off the bony ridge just above the left orbit. Spectacular.

The creature leaped, sailing easily across the twelve feet separating us, and a furry shape smashed into it in mid-flight. They rolled, the vampire and the werewolf, one snarling, the other hissing. I chased them. For a moment Derek pinned the bloodsucker, his claws fastened into the vampire's gut, and then the vampire raked at the werewolf and shrugged him off.

I lunged. It didn't expect me to attack, and I delivered a clean kick to its shoulder. It was like kicking a marble column. I heard the bone crunch and hammered two quick thrusts to its neck. The creature swept at me, tearing at my clothes, in a whirlwind of teeth and claws. I parried the best I could. No sound issued from the monster's mouth. A claw raked at me. A hot whip of pain stung my ribs and my stomach. The fangs snapped an inch from my face. I jerked back, expecting the horrid maw to engulf me, but the vamp let go and took a step backward.

A set of new vampire arms was growing from its back. It spun, flailing, and I saw Ghastek's vampire clinging to its neck.

The bloodsucker rode the monster's back, clawing at the massive neck. The creature tore at the arms and reared. Derek clutched its hind legs. The vamp kicked, but Derek clung to him. I took a running start and hammered a kick into the vampire's ruined chest. Bone crunched. The vampire's flesh tore like an overfilled water sack, releasing a torrent of foul-smelling liquid.

The creature shrieked for the first time, an enraged, grating sound. The veins under its pallid hide bulged and its eyes smoldered deep blood-red, illuminating its face. It had sustained too much damage and was about to succumb to bloodlust, breaking from its master's control. It flung Ghastek's vampire away like a terrier flings a rat. Derek kept clawing at it, oblivious.

"Get away from it!" I kicked the werewolf. He snarled, furious, and I kicked him again. He let go and came at me, growling. I shoved him aside.

The creature screamed again and again, its body twisting, warping, as muscles knotted and snapped. Bony spikes pierced its shoulders, curving from its frame like horns. It reared and pawed at the ground, leaving cuts in the asphalt. I could see Slayer's blade through the hole in its chest.

The vampire charged me. It came with astonishing speed, impossible to stop. It smashed into me, and I grabbed Slayer's hilt and thrust with everything I had. We hit the asphalt and skidded until we crashed into a wall.

Good thing it was in our way. We might have kept going.

I lay very still. The creature's blood surged from its ruptured heart, drenching me. Colored circles blocked my view. Gradually I became aware of two eyes glowing gentle yellow above the vampire's shoulder. I blinked, bringing the furry nightmare of a face into focus.

"You okay?" My voice sounded hoarse.

With a short growling noise, Derek swiped the corpse off me and pulled me to my feet. "Thank you," I said.

Derek was bleeding. A long gash marred his right leg and jagged claw marks seared his shoulder. He saw me looking and snarled, swinging away, so I couldn't see his hip. I was bleeding, too. Fire bathed my waist, and it hurt to bend forward.

I put my foot onto the vamp and pulled out Slayer. It came away easily, the flesh enclosing the blade liquefied by its magic. Positioning myself, I swung the saber and sliced through the creature's neck. The deformed head rolled. I picked it up. The fire had gone out of its eyes. They looked empty. Dead.

Drenched in foul-smelling blood and hurting, I looked for Frau. Through all that, the mare stayed put. I couldn't believe it. I started toward her, stumbling a little. Walking, for some odd reason, proved to be troublesome. Halfway to Frau I changed my course and aimed for Ghastek's vamp instead.

The vamp lay on its stomach, its face toward me. I put the head down in front of it and tapped it with my finger.

"I guess that settles it. How old is it, Ghastek? Three hundred years? More?"

The vamp struggled to say something.

I shook my head. "Don't bother. I'll find out. Thanks for your help. You can tell Nataraja he can take his security and shove it."

The vamp moved its hand, clamping onto my foot. Gently I took the hand off my bloodstained shoe, stepped over it, and headed to the horse.

Derek stared at the bloodsucker with malice.

"Let him be. We need to get out, before the People's cleanup crew gets here."

I patted Frau and jammed the head into the saddlebag. The mare snorted, offended by the awful smell. "I'm sorry, sweetheart."

I took down a large army-issue waterproof bag. "Gasoline," I told Derek as if he couldn't smell it.

I splashed it over the spill, threw the bag aside, and reached for my matches. My fingers shook. I struck one match, another, on the fourth the gasoline flared. Ghastek's vamp screeched as his evidence and my blood went up in smoke.

I walked Frau into the night and my loyal wolf followed me, limping.

WHEN WE REACHED THE DEAD-RAT WIELDING kids, Derek collapsed. He fell forward, snout first into the asphalt. The kids stared, startled, but didn't bolt.

A soft shudder went through the werewolf, releasing a mist, and leaving the naked human body curled on the ground. The kids looked on.

The gash on his thigh was deeper than I had thought. The creature's claws had severed the thick muscle shield of the quadriceps and cut deep into the calf. I peered into the wound and saw the shredded femoral artery. The injured flesh quivered. Torn blood vessels crawled toward each other amidst the muscle starting to knit together. The Lyc-V had shut his consciousness down to save energy for repairs.

Pain lanced my waist, tearing up into my chest. Gritting my teeth, I turned Derek on his stomach, worked one arm under his hips and threaded the other across his chest under his arms. He was heavier than he looked, weighing in at one fifty, maybe one fifty-five. No matter.

"Hey, lady!" said the kid with feathers in his hair.

The children stood huddled together. We must have made quite a spectacle, Derek, nude and no longer furry, and I, drenched in blood, with my sword still smoking in its sheath.

"You need some help?" the kid said.

"Yeah," I said, my voice hoarse.

He came forward, picked up Derek's feet, and looked back at his pack. "Mike."

Mike spat to the side and tried to look mean.

The kid with the feathers glared at him. "Mike!"

Mike spat again, for show - there wasn't much spit left - came over, and awkwardly clutched Derek's shoulders.

"Hold him under the armpits," I said.

He glanced at me, fear dancing in his eyes, set his jaw, and shifted his grip.

"On three," I muttered. "Three."

We heaved. The world swayed in the whirlwind of pain and then Derek was draped across Frau's back. He would be fine. Lyc-V would repair him and tomorrow morning he'd be like new. I, on the other hand... A wet bloodstain was spreading from under my jacket at an alarming rate. If the blood started dripping, I'd be in a world of trouble. At least I still hurt.

"Thanks," I muttered to the children.

"My name's Red," the kid with feathers said.

I stuck my hand into the pocket of my pants. My fingers found a card. I handed it to him, careful to wipe the bloody smudge marring it on my sleeve. Not my blood. Derek's.

"If you ever need help," I said.

He took it solemnly and nodded.


I climbed, the steady pressure of Derek's body distributed over my back. If I bent over just right, the pain was bearable, and so I dragged Derek and the bag up the stairs one step at a time, trying to keep my angle steady and being careful where I put my feet. I wasn't certain if a werewolf could survive a broken neck. I knew I couldn't.

I paused on the landing to catch a breath and glanced up at my apartment's door.

A man sat on the stairs, his head leaning against the wall.

Gently I lowered Derek to the floor and went for my sword. The man's chest rose and fell in a smooth, even rhythm. I padded up the stairs, breathing through clenched teeth, until I could see his face. Crest. He didn't wake.

I tapped his head with the flat of Slayer's blade. When I awoke, I did so instantly and silently, my hand looking for my sword before my eyelids snapped open. Crest awoke like a man unused to danger, with luxurious slowness. He blinked and stifled a yawn, squinting at me.

I gave him a moment to recognize me.


"What are you doing here?"

"I came to pick you up for dinner. We had a date."

Shit. I had completely forgotten about the date.

"I got held up until ten," he went on. "I called you but you didn't answer. It was too late by then, but I figured I'd drop by with a peace offering." He held up a paper bag full of white cartons, decorated with a stylized Chinese symbol in red ink. "You weren't here. I thought I'd wait a couple of minutes, sat down here on the stairs..." His brain finally registered my bloodied clothes, the sword, and the smudges of dried blood marring my face. His eyes widened.

"Are you okay?"

"I'll live."

I unlocked the door to the apartment, opening the ward.

"There is a naked man on the landing," I said hoping to forestall any upcoming questions. "I'm going to carry him into this apartment."

Crest threw the Chinese food into the apartment hallway and went down the stairs to get Derek without saying a word. Together we brought him inside and put him on the hallway carpet. I shut the door in the world's face and let out a breath.

I kicked off my shoes and turned the lantern switch. My shoes were bloody again. Oh well, nothing a lot of bleach wouldn't fix.

The tiny flames of feylanterns surged up, bathing the apartment in a comforting soft glow. Crest knelt to examine Derek's leg.

"He needs emergency care," he said. His voice had the brisk, professional, slightly distant tone good physicians adopted under stress.

"No, he doesn't."

He glanced at me. "Kate, the cut's deep and dirty and the artery's probably severed. He'll bleed to death."

Dizziness came, and I swayed a little. I wanted to sit down, but couches and chairs were harder to bleach than shoes. "He isn't bleeding."

Crest opened his mouth and looked back at the wound. "Shit."

"The Lycos Virus in action," I told him and went to the kitchen. There was no ready ice and scraping the freezer walls wasn't in me right that minute, so I put the bag into the sink and pulled off my shredded jacket in a flash of pain. The top underneath was soaked with blood. I tried removing it but it was stuck. I rummaged through the everything drawer for scissors, found some, and tried to cut off the vest.

The scissors got caught in the soggy fabric. I cursed and then Crest was beside me, his hand over the scissors. "I remembered you didn't have the Lyc-V," he said and the vest fell to the floor in a sodden, heavy mass.

He knelt to examine the jagged claw marks on my stomach.

"How bad?" I asked.

"Mostly shallow. Two deep lacerations, here and here." His finger grazed the skin lightly and still I winced.


"I'd imagine. Would you like me to take you to the emergency room?"

"No. There is an r-kit on the table in the living room," I said. With magic this high, a regeneration-kit was almost as good as the spell doc. It cost an arm and a leg, but it was worth it. And its magic healed with very little scarring.

He looked at me. "Are you sure? We'd get it stitched in no time."

"I'm sure."

He went to get it. The trouble with regeneration-kits was that sometimes, like all things magic, they backfired and ate into the wound instead of healing it.

I shrugged off my pants, my panties, and my bra on the way to the bathroom and stepped into the shower. The water ran bloody. My stomach hurt. When blood no longer swirled around my feet, I shut off the shower and yelled for Crest to come in. He did, carrying the roll of brown paper.

"Do you know how to use one of those?" I asked.

"I am an M.D."

"Some M.D.s want nothing to do with the r-kits."

"You're not giving me a choice about it," he said. "Raise your arms."

I put my arms to my head and chanted the incantation. Crest untied the cord securing the paper and unrolled it. It contained a bandage and a long wide strip, smeared with brown ointment and covered with waxed paper. Crest peeled the paper off and held the strip by its edges. I chanted. The ointment on the strip obeyed, liquefying. A strong smell of nutmeg spread through the room.

Crest pressed the strip against my stomach. It adhered and a soothing coolness spread through my injured muscles, slowly transforming into warmth that suffused my stomach, drowning out pain.

"Better," I murmured. Crest bandaged my waist. After putting in a long day at work this seemingly normal guy would come all this way just to see me. Why? What would it be like to crawl home after a hard day and instead of licking my wounds in solitude in a dark and empty house, find him? On the couch, maybe. Reading a book. Maybe he would put it down and say, "I'm glad you've made it. Would you like some coffee?"

His hand grazed the tattoo on my shoulder. "Why a raven?"

"To honor my father."

The fingers continued to gently slide across my skin. "The writing under it, is that Cyrillic?"


"What does it say?"

"Dar Vorona. Gift of the Raven. I'm my father's gift."

"To whom?"

"That, my dear doctor, is a story for another time."

"The raven is holding a bloody sword," Crest said thoughtfully.

"I never said it was a nice gift."

He finished the bandage and was examining it critically. "You know those things are unreliable." His voice held just a touch of reproach.

"Eleven out of twelve work fine. I'd say that's better chances than getting an orgasm with a blind date and women still try."

He blinked and laughed softly. "I never know what you'll say next."

"I don't either."

He rose and put his arms around me. So warm. I resisted the impulse to lean back against him. "Are you hungry?"

"Ravenous," I murmured.

"The food's probably cold by now."

"I don't care."

He kissed my neck. The kiss sent tingling warmth down into my fingertips. I turned and he kissed me again, on the mouth. I was so tired... I wanted to melt against him and let him hold me. "You're trying to take advantage of an injured naked woman."

"I know," he whispered in my ear, drawing me closer. "How awful."

Please don't let go. What am I thinking? Am I this desperate? I took a deep breath and pushed away from him gently. "I have to finish my work. I don't think you want to watch me."

"Do it after," he whispered and kissed me again. Somehow instead of breaking free, I pressed against him. I wanted nothing more than to stay wrapped up in him like this, smelling his scent, feeling his lips on mine... And then the vampire's head would lose the last of its magic and Derek and I would've bled for nothing. Poor Derek. "No," I said, my face a grimace. "By then it'll be too late."

"Work first. I see."

"Tonight. Not always."

"I'll watch," he said.

"You don't want to, trust me."

"It's part of what you do. I want to know."

Why? I shrugged and went to the bedroom to find some clothes. He didn't follow me.

IN THE KITCHEN I SET A LARGE SILVER TRAY IN THE middle of the table. Supported by four legs, it rose above the surface of the table about three inches. Greg had kept an excellent supply of herbs in his apartment. Having combined them in the right proportions, I spread the aromatic mixture on the platter so it covered the metal completely. Crest sat on the chair in a corner and watched me.

I pulled the strings of the bag, took the head out, and placed the monstrosity onto the powder, balancing it on the stump of the neck.

"What the hell is that?"

"A vampire," I said.

"I've seen pictures. They don't look like that."

"It's very old. My guess is, at least a couple of centuries. Undeath brings certain anatomical changes. Some are immediate and some are slow. The older the undead, the more apparent those changes become. A vamp's never finished. It's an abomination in progress." The fact that vampires weren't suppose to have existed two hundred years ago when the tech was in full swing bothered me a great deal. My experience and education offered no explanation for this monster's existence, and so I put it aside, filing it for future reference.

I brought out a shallow glass pan, the kind used for baking lasagna, put it in front of the platter and slightly under, and dumped two quarts of glycerin into it. The clear viscous liquid filled the pan and settled.

I took one of my throwing daggers from my sheath. Crest grinned at the black blade.



This wasn't going to be pleasant and it wasn't the kind of magic I did often. Something in me rebelled at it, something born of my father's instruction and my own view of the world and where I stood in it.

The head rested on the herbs. In half an hour it would be useless.

I pricked my finger with the point of the dagger. A drop of bright blood swelled on the skin. Power pulsed in it and I touched the blood to the herbs. The bloodmagic inundated them, acting like a catalyst, fusing, shaping, molding the natural force of the dried plants. It surged upward, through the stump of the neck, spreading through the capillaries in the face, engulfing the brain, saturating the dead flesh. I guided it, helped it along, until the entire head sat suffused with magic. My finger touched the thick skin of the vamp's forehead, leaving a bloody smudge and sending a shock of power through the undead flesh.


The dead eyes snapped open. The horrid mouth opened and closed soundlessly, contorting with impossible elasticity.

Crest fell off his chair.

The vamp's eyes stared wide at me, unblinking.

"Where is your master? Show me your master."

Dark magic boiled from the head, drowning the room. It swelled, vicious and furious, like an enraged animal ready to strike. In the corner Crest drew a sharp, loud breath.

A tremor rippled through the head. The eyeballs bulged from their sockets. The black tongue, long and flat, hung from between the reptilian lips and the sickle teeth bit into it, drawing no blood. Impaled on the teeth, the tongue jerked obscenely. I pushed harder, bringing the weight of my power upon the resilient necromagic.

"Show me your master!"

Red drowned the whites of the vampire's eyes. Two thick streaks of dark blood poured from what had once been tear ducts. The streams carved their path down the face and into the herbs, mixing with a torrent of blood from the stump of the neck. The foul flood swept the dried herbs, falling into the glycerin and spreading in uneven angry stain upon its surface. The blood darkened until it was almost black, and in it I saw a distorted but unmistakable image of a gutted skyscraper with a round Coca-Cola logo half-buried in rubble.

Unicorn Lane. Always Unicorn Lane.

The head jerked. The bones of the skull cracked like a broken nutshell. The flesh peeled off the vamp's face, curving in long slabs to the herbs. The exposed jellied mass of the brain glared through the fractured skull. The stench of putrescence filled the kitchen. I threw a plastic trash bag over the head and inverted the tray, sending the head and the herbs into the bag. I tied the bag and set it into the corner. The blood in the glycerin had clotted into an ugly rotting mass. I dumped it down the drain.

Crest rubbed his face.

"I did warn you."

He nodded.

I washed my hands and my arms up to the elbow with fresh-smelling soap and went into the living room, pausing on the way to check on Derek. He was sleeping like a baby. I sat on the couch, leaned back, and closed my eyes. This was the point when most men ran for cover.

I sat and rested. The desire for intimacy had passed and my longing now appeared unreal, ethereal like a half-forgotten dream.

I heard Crest walk into the room. He sat next to me.

"So that's what you do?" he said.


We sat silent for a few breaths.

"I can live with it," he said.

I opened my eyes and looked at him. He shrugged. "I'm not going to watch again, but I can live with it." He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "Have you ever met someone and felt... I don't know how to describe it, felt a chance at having something that eluded you? I don't know... Forget I said anything."

I knew what he meant. He was describing that moment when you realize that you are lonely. For a time you can be alone and doing fine and never give a thought to living any other way and then you meet someone and suddenly you become lonely. It stabs at you, almost like a physical pain, and you feel both deprived and angry, deprived because you wish to be with that person and angry, because their absence brings you misery. It's a strange feeling, akin to desperation, a feeling that makes you wait by the phone even though you know that the call is an hour away. I was not going to lose my balance. Not yet.

I moved closer to him and leaned against his shoulder. We both knew that sex was out of the question.

"Do you mind if I stay anyway?" he asked.


I fell asleep leaning on him.

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