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The Mammoth Book of Paranormal Romance 2

Jackie Kessler

Another fabulous collection of Paranormal Romance stories in the bestselling Mammoth series. If love transcends all boundaries, paranormal romance is its natural conclusion. Over twenty tales from some of the hottest names in romantic fiction to transport you to fantastical worlds in which mythical beasts, magical creatures of all shapes and sizes, heart-stoppingly handsome ghosts, angels and mortals with extra-sensory powers live out extraordinary desires. Includes stories from Lara Adrian, Ava Gray, Sharon Shinn, Robin D. Owens, Karen Chance and many more.

The Mammoth Book of Paranormal Romance 2

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

“To Hell With Love” © Jacqueline H. Kessler. First publication, original to this anthology. Printed by permission of the author.

“Princes of Dominion” © Ann Aguirre. First publication, original to this anthology. Printed by permission of the author.

“Spirit of the Prairie” © Shirley Damsgaard. First publication, original to this anthology. Printed by permission of the author.

“The Demon’s Secret” © Nathalie Gray. First publication, original to this anthology. Printed by permission of the author.

“Marine Biology” © by Gail Carriger. First publication, original to this anthology. Printed by permission of the author.

“Zola’s Pride” © Moira Rogers. First publication, original to this anthology. Printed by permission of the author.

“In Dreams” © by Elissa Wilds. First publication, original to this anthology. Printed by permission of the author.

“The Gauntlet” © Karen Chance. First publication, original to this anthology. Printed by permission of the author.

“The Getaway” © Sonya Bateman. First publication, original to this anthology. Printed by permission of the author.

“Mr Sandman” © Sherri Browning Erwin. First publication, original to this anthology. Printed by permission of the author.

“The Sin-Eater’s Promise” © Michele Hauf. First publication, original to this anthology. Printed by permission of the author.

“Fragile Magic” © Naomi Lester. First publication, original to this anthology. Printed by permission of the author.

“NightDrake” © Lara Adrian, LLC. First publication, original to this anthology. Printed by permission of the author.

“The Sons of Ra” © Helen Scott Taylor. First publication, original to this anthology. Printed by permission of the author.

“Eve of Warfare” © Sylvia Day. First publication, original to this anthology. Printed by permission of the author.

“The Majestic” © Seressia Glass. First publication, original to this anthology. Printed by permission of the author.

“Answer the Wicked” © Kim Lenox. First publication, original to this anthology. Printed by permission of the author.

INTRODUCTION

Welcome to the most mammoth Mammoth ever!

Well, it was.

OK, OK, I got a little carried away. You see I am a huge fan of contracting great writers and letting them do whatever they want, write the story that their heart desires, that they haven’t had the chance to write yet, that’s always been in the back of their mind, looking for a home, a chance to be written. I feel that’s when you often get the greatest stories. I think that if you burden writers with too many rules and guidelines, you can end up with a story that is just a little. flat. OK, so those are my ideas. This freedom-loving, write-what-you-want, to-hell-with-rules attitude also extends to word count and sometimes (now, for instance) I forget to keep an eye on just how mammoth my Mammoth is getting. And, oh, they can really grow, and very quickly. And, suddenly, instead of having a brick-like doorstop of a book (like any other garden-variety Mammoth), you have a book that needs to be published in three (or four) separate volumes. And that’s what happened to me with this book.

It was 100,000 words over. Yes, you read that right. How did I allow that to happen? What kind of editor am I? Well, I think I just got a little excited and overwhelmed: so many wonderful writers, so many neat stories. You’d have trouble too (you really would). There were originally 25 stories in this collection, see, and to hit the word count I had to cut (wait, not cut, but move in a cunning fashion) eight fantastic stories by phenomenal writers. Here is a list of authors, along with their story titles, who were originally supposed to be in this book:

Sharon Shinn Can You Hear Me Now?

Robin D. Owens Heart Story

Laura Ann Gilman The Rat King

Dru Pagliassotti Ghost in the Machine

Maria Lima The Song Remains the Same

Catherine Asaro The Pyre of New Day

Toni Andrews Nativitas

Elle Jasper Curse Me Wicked

See my dilemma?

Now, obviously, these stories are not disappearing. I just had to do a little creative shuffling (talking to authors, begging for their consent, trying to find new books to put them in) and they will all be appearing in upcoming Mammoths (so watch for them!). The Shinn and Pagliassotti stories will be in the upcoming The Mammoth Book of Ghost Romance because they are fabulous and romantic ghost stories and are just the perfect fit. The Andrews story is set in a future world so it is just right for the new anthology of futuristic romance (can’t wait to do this one!) that I’m putting together soon. The Lima story is a wonderful paranormal romance set in a hospital emergency room — lots of those bleeping cardio-respiratory machines, creepy life support systems, kick-ass nurses from hell and gorgeous paranormal males in those hospital gowns that just don’t tie up properly at the back. Anyhow, all the stories have a home, you will be pleased to know. Whew!

So, I thought it might be fun in this introduction to confess my sins and reveal to you how much trouble you can actually get into when putting together a Mammoth if you don’t keep your eye on the ball. In my exuberance, I took my eye off it for a moment, and look what happened. Chaos! Mayhem! I must admit that I am susceptible, as are most chronic readers, to getting carried away by a good story and losing hours, days, weeks in a great tale. That’s just the way it goes. It’s a book-lover’s curse, I’m afraid.

But the seventeen stories that are in this book are going to knock your socks off. As well as a novella prequel from the amazing Karen Chance (with a word count that almost killed me — but how in tarnation could I say no? Oh, I am weak. so weak.), you’ll get to grips with some great, gritty, sexy urban fantasy, some fast-and-furious paranormals, some hilariously fun magic and, of course, endless other-worldly beautiful men stretching as far as the eye can see!

Trisha Telep

Jackie Kessler

To Hell with Love

People have the oddest ideas about witches. They should be green-skinned. They should fly on broomsticks. They should have black cats as constant companions. Caitlin Harris blamed Hollywood for all the misconceptions. When it came to Caitlin, the truth was that her skin was pale, she flew only in airplanes and she was allergic to cats.

She could also throw magic like snowballs, reshape specific portions of universal memory, and brew a potion to transform demons into humans. But just because she could nudge probability on its backside and magic up her favourite movie on television whenever she wanted didn’t mean she should. Magic had a price. And DVDs had been invented for a reason. Caitlin used to hear that all the time from a man who had once meant everything to her: magic was too important to be used for frivolous things.

Of course, without the remote control, the DVD was just a big dust collector. She used to tell that to the man in return — even as he’d pluck the remote out of whatever crevice it had fallen into. But his lesson still stuck, even two years after she’d told the man goodbye. So there Caitlin was, in the middle of tossing her sofa cushions around for the umpteenth time to find the wayward remote, when her phone rang.

Growling, she stomped into the kitchen to pick up the receiver. After the call, she’d give into the inevitable and use magic to locate the clicker. What she really needed, she thought as she answered the phone, was a GPS for her remote control. Maybe she could magic one up.

“Caitlin? It’s Paul Hamilton.”

Her eyebrow arched. Paul was her twin sister’s boyfriend. Nice enough guy, from what Caitlin knew, although he was a little too Captain America for her taste. Still, he was good for her sister — and Goddess knew that Jesse Harris needed good influences in her life.

“Hey, Paul,” Caitlin said, trying not to sound too weird. She and Paul had never actually spoken before. Everything she knew about him had come from Jesse. and from Caitlin’s under-the-radar scrying. It wasn’t being nosy. Really. She just had to keep tabs on her sister. “How are you?”

“I need your help.”

Caitlin rather admired that Paul didn’t waste time with social niceties. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s Jesse. She’s in trouble.”

Of course she was. Caitlin’s twin had a penchant for trouble. “Could you be a little more specific?”

“She’s unconscious and glowing.”

Yes, that would be trouble. “Tell me everything.”

He did so, calmly and coherently, even though tension laced his words. He’d come home at six-thirty, right after work. He’d been surprised to see Jesse’s bag on the kitchen table; she should have been at her job since four. He’d called out hello, but there’d been no answer. At first, he hadn’t seen her sprawled on the living room floor because the coffee table had partially blocked his view. When he found her lying prone, he’d rushed over to her. She was breathing; that much he could see. But she was also glowing with a pale blue light, so as much as he’d wanted to touch her, he’d held back.

“That was the right decision,” Caitlin murmured. When mundanes fooled around with magic, the results were unpredictable at best.

“I can’t tell if she’s hurt,” Paul said, the anger all too clear in his voice.

“Touching her might have triggered something even worse. Tell me what else you see. Any marks? Anything out of place?”

“There’s a small box in her right hand. Looks like a jewellery box, made of wood. It’s open.”

“Don’t touch that, either,” Caitlin said, frowning. “Just in case it has something to do with her condition.”

“Figured that part out all by myself.” He paused, but Caitlin heard the wordless snarl of him blowing out an exasperated breath. “Sorry. I’m just. ”

“It’s okay,” she said. “Anything else you see?”

He cleared his throat. “There’s a padded envelope. Torn. It’s on the floor near the sofa. Jesse’s name is on the envelope, written in black marker. But there’s no address, no postage. And no return address.”

“Don’t—”

“Touch it. Yeah. I didn’t.” He took another breath. “I don’t know what to do, Caitlin. I can’t call 911. I can’t touch her. She’s not waking up, no matter how loud I yell her name. Tell me,” he said, a plaintive note creeping into his voice. “Tell me what to do to wake her up.”

Well, she wouldn’t be magicking up the remote control after all.

“Sit tight,” Caitlin said. “I’ll be right there.”

A pause, and then Paul stammered, “You’re in Boston. We’re in New York City.”

Actually, she was in Salem, but she didn’t bother correcting him. “For family, I break out the big guns. I just have to lock up. Be there in a few minutes.”

“Um. Okay. You have the address?”

“Don’t need it.”

“Right. Of course not. Um. See you soon.”

Caitlin hung up, thinking that all things considered, Paul had sounded all right. That was something. Usually, mundanes didn’t take too well to anything extraordinary that interrupted their lives.

But then, her sister wasn’t a mundane human, so Paul had some experience under his belt.

Caitlin pulled together her travel bag, complete with basic spell ingredients, a small version of her Book of Shadows with its various magic recipes, and a portable ritual box. Then she slipped on her shoes and a jacket, grabbed her purse and locked the door. With a whispered word of power, her magical security system clicked on — enough to scare away the casual burglar as well as discourage any other practitioners or supernatural critters from entering her territory without permission. One experience of coming home to a houseful of fairies was enough for her, thank you very much.

Purse strap on her shoulder and travel bag in hand, she raised one arm and closed her eyes. She thought of her twin, and she felt the bond between them, the one that linked their souls together. Grasping that bond, she cast a silent prayer to the Goddess, asking Her to deliver her to Jesse’s side.

The Hecate responded: power danced through Caitlin, pulling her skin taut until she was crackling with magical energy. She inhaled deeply, and then she stepped.

Caitlin always equated stepping through reality to swimming under water — space thickened around her, slowing her down. She could see when she stepped, but everything was distorted, and looking too long stung her eyes. She couldn’t breathe when in Between places, and even with a lungful of air before stepping, she always felt like she was smothering. After, Caitlin would desperately want to shower, to wash away the remnants of Between from her skin. It didn’t itch, exactly, but it felt wrong, and reminded her of just how precarious existence really was. Caitlin would be the first one to say that it was far more enjoyable to take a plane first class — and that the plane ride would be significantly cheaper than the cost of stepping.

But as she had said to Paul, when it came to family, Caitlin pulled out all stops. And Jesse, for whatever else she was, was family.

Well. Sort of.

She stepped; she arrived. The world rippled around her for one dizzying moment. Then air became less oppressive, and she released the breath she had been holding. Caitlin blinked until the world settled back into its normal pattern of existence. Shapes sharpened. Colours brightened and sank within their lines. She found herself staring at an entertainment centre overstuffed with DVDs and CDs. A television roughly the size of an elephant took up most of the unit. A few framed Nagels decorated the walls. A battered coffee table stood in front of Caitlin, littered with magazines. To her right sat a plush sofa that promised to be comfortable.

It was easy to see that this was a room that enjoyed being used. She could easily picture Paul and Jesse spending many an evening cuddling on the sofa, watching a movie, their fingers brushing as they both reached for the popcorn.

But then, knowing her sister, Caitlin thought the sofa was probably used for other, less passive, activities.

“Wow,” a man’s voice said behind her. “I believed you. But still. Wow.”

Caitlin turned — slowly, because she was still a little dizzy — to face Paul Hamilton, the man her sister had sacrificed so much to be with. Light brown hair that was a little too long; small hazel eyes that had seen too much. Broken nose. Good smile. Had Caitlin been into big and brawny, she probably would have thought Paul had a great body.

“Hey, Paul,” she said, dropping her travel bag and handbag to the floor. “Nice to finally meet you.”

“Same here.” He flicked her a polite smile. “She’s over there.”

He walked past Caitlin to the other end of the coffee table. She followed him, and there her sister was, sprawled prone on the floor. Most of her face was hidden by the unruly black curls of her hair, but Caitlin still knew that face intimately. Jesse’s eyes were closed, but Caitlin knew they were bright green and sparkled with mischief; Jesse’s mouth was slack, but Caitlin was well aware that when Jesse grinned, she had a slight overbite. Caitlin knew everything about how Jesse looked, down to her birthmarks.

She had been there two months ago when Jesse had first stolen Caitlin’s looks. And her credit cards.

Caitlin stared at her sister in flesh: Jesse Harris, the former demon Jezebel.

For a long moment, Caitlin fought the urge to kick Jesse. Hard. But no matter how she felt about her twin, she had to protect her. All witches did, by the decree of the Hecate. That was why Caitlin had given the one-time succubus her name after turning her into a mortal two months ago: names had power, especially when offered freely.

She hadn’t told Jesse why the Hecate was so invested in her. Caitlin wanted to give her sister more time as a normal human first — a couple of years, maybe, for her to be together with Paul, to learn how to truly love. Then she would tell Jesse about her destiny.

But first, Caitlin had to figure out why Jesse was unconscious and glowing.

She squatted next to Jesse and created a magical probe, one that would tell Caitlin more about the magic in play. It shimmered, lit up like a miniature nova, and incinerated. She murmured, “The spell that did this is still active.”

“The glowing sort of tipped me off,” said Paul.

She ignored the sarcasm. “Between the faintness of the glow and the colour, it looks like this has to do with dreams.”

Paul hunkered down next to her. “You’re saying she’s sleeping?” He squinted at Jesse’s face as if he could will her awake.

“No.” Caitlin peered at the small open box in Jesse’s hand. The patterns in the wood were intricate and beautiful, etched by someone with skill. Staring at those symbols, Caitlin remembered the last time she had seen anything like them before.

She felt the blood drain from her face.

Stop, she told herself. Don’t jump to conclusions.

The torn envelope was on the floor next to Jesse. As Paul had said before on the phone, the package was padded and white, with only MS HARRIS on the front. No address. No information about the sender.

Ms Harris. Not Jesse Harris. Ms Harris. Written in black marker — by a hand that Caitlin recognized.

“Caitlin? What is it?”

Grimacing, Caitlin said, “This package wasn’t intended for her.” She turned to face Paul. “It was supposed to go to me.”

He stiffened.

“That’s a memory box she’s holding,” Caitlin said, pointing at the open box in Jesse’s hand. “When the proper recipient opens a memory box, that person gets to experience a particular memory like it was happening now. It shouldn’t open for the wrong person. Technically, it can’t. It’s made specifically for a particular recipient.”

“But Jesse opened it,” Paul said slowly.

“Maybe it’s because she’s my twin.” More likely, it was because Jesse had been made Caitlin’s twin by magic. “The spell wasn’t meant for her, so what should have been passive instead became aggressive.”

Paul’s mouth pressed into a hard line. “Once more, this time in words I can understand.”

“She’s trapped in a memory.” Caitlin gritted her teeth. “The spell within the box became corrupted when she opened it. If you’d touched her, you would have been sucked into the memory too.”

“Can you help her?”

“Not without also getting pulled into the spell.”

Something dangerous flashed in Paul’s eyes. “We have to do something. We can’t just leave her like this.”

“We won’t,” Caitlin said, dreading her next words. “There’s someone I can call. He’s proficient in memory magic.” Goddess knew, he’d said that very thing too many times to count. “If anyone can free Jesse, it’s him.”

“Who is he?”

Caitlin sighed and closed her eyes. “My ex-husband.”

Aaron Lighter had intended to spend a quiet night at home — just him, a couple slices of pepperoni pizza, a few beers, and both volumes of Kill Bill. Nothing like artful slaughter to cheer him up. He’d been in a funk ever since that afternoon, when he’d finally made the decision to send Caitlin the memory box. He’d crafted it months ago, from selecting the proper solid cedar board and making the initial cuts to bend the corners all the way to etching the outer designs with complex wards.

Every cut he’d made, Aaron had thought of Caitlin Harris.

Adding the memory had been the easy part; he was no master woodworker, but his subtle magicks were his strong suit. And memory was extremely subtle. Malleable.

Maddening.

He laughed bitterly as he popped open the beer bottle. Sending the memory box was supposed to be cathartic for him. Cleansing. Instead, it had left him feeling oddly hollow, and painfully lonely.

Which, when he thought about it, was no different from how he’d felt when he’d been married to Caitlin.

No, that was unfair. She’d been the one to leave him, after all. One too many fights, and both of them too proud to admit their egos had smothered their affection. She’d left him, and he’d thought at the time it was good riddance. Two years later, she had still infected his heart.

When you compared love to a disease, it was time to take drastic measures. And so, he’d crafted the memory box.

He was on his second bottle and his second slice when his cellphone rang. He checked the number and took a healthy swig of beer before he answered. Of course she’d be calling. Probably to thank him, and then make some small talk, ask how his rituals were going, that sort of thing. That’s all she was to him now: small talk. If he told himself that enough, he might actually believe it.

Swallowing his beer, he took the call. “Caitlin,” he said by way of hello.

“Aaron.” She said his name like she was spitting nails. “I know you sent the memory box.”

He wasn’t the sort of man to think Well, duh. But in this case, it was damn close. “Given the memory that was inside, I’d certainly hope so.” He’d chosen it specially, out of all the time they’d had together. Goddess knew that after twelve years, there had been quite a few choice memories.

She let out an exasperated sigh. “Aaron. ”

“Listen, you caught me right in the middle of something, so enjoy the present.” He really wanted to watch some righteous murder right about now. Uma Thurman in a tracksuit was a bonus. Not that he was into tall, blond women with a thing for swords; he was much more about small brunettes with untamable curly hair.

He wondered if Caitlin still kept her hair pulled back in a ponytail, or if she let it go loose around her shoulders.

“Don’t hang up,” Caitlin snapped. “You messed up, Aaron. The box didn’t go to me.”

Aaron rolled his eyes. He didn’t mess up, not when it came to memory boxes. While he enjoyed working various subtle craftings, the one area he truly excelled in was memory. Current actions defined a person only for the moment; memories defined them forever. “Of course it went to you,” he said. “I was very specific when I crafted the package. I infused it with the essence of your dazzling smile and sharp tongue, dearest.”

She sighed, clearly exasperated. “Aaron—”

“It couldn’t not go to you. Besides,” he added with a smile, “I felt it when you opened it.”

Oh, he’d felt it, all right: the initial surprise, then a flood of lust so powerful it had given him a raging hard-on. He hadn’t known Caitlin could feel any emotion that strongly. Maybe he wasn’t the only one doing without sex.

“That wasn’t me,” Caitlin growled. “Jesse got the envelope. Jesse opened the box.”

Her words hit him like ice water in the face. His mouth worked silently for a moment, until he finally spluttered, “You’re joking.”

“I wish I were. But I’m looking at Jesse right now.” Caitlin paused, and Aaron could hear her grind her teeth. “She’s trapped. Something went wrong, and she opened the box, and now she’s trapped.”

Aaron ran his fingers through his hair. Of all the possible ramifications he’d thought of when he had first crafted Caitlin’s memory box — and he’d thought of just about everything, from Caitlin despising him to Caitlin throwing herself at his feet and begging for another chance — this scenario hadn’t come up. Hell, this scenario should be impossible. But then, he admitted to himself, when it came to Caitlin’s pseudo-sister Jesse, “impossible” didn’t really exist.

He said, “Tell me everything.”

She did.

By the time she finished, Aaron was sweating and his heartbeat was erratic. Caitlin had been wrong — he hadn’t merely messed up. He’d fucked up, hugely. What was supposed to be a gift for his former wife had turned into a potentially lethal weapon against the one person the Hecate’s followers had sworn to protect. The old saying was true: no good deed went unpunished.

“I need your help,” Caitlin said.

Well, that had to kill her to admit. The thought made him smile. “I’ll be there in twenty minutes,” he said.

“It doesn’t take that long to step.”

“No, dearest. But it does take that long to get a cab.” He paused. “I’m right here in New York, Caitlin. I left Salem after you walked out on me.”

“Don’t,” she said, her voice sharp.

Caitlin never had liked hearing the ugly truth when it came to their relationship. Some things would never change. “Fine,” Aaron said. “I’ll get there shortly. Just don’t touch her.”

She snorted. “Tell me something I don’t know.”

“The address would be nice.”

After Caitlin gave him the address, she said, “You could just step here and be done with it.”

“Unlike some,” Aaron said pointedly, “I don’t like throwing around power when something more mundane does just as nicely.”

“Aaron—”

“And taking a cab,” he added quietly, “doesn’t cost me a year of my life.”

There was a long pause before Caitlin said, “Just get over here, Aaron.” With that, she hung up.

Aaron dumped the leftover pizza and beer and turned off his television and DVR. He wasn’t surprised that she had stepped all the way from Salem, even with such a high price to pay. Of course she’d come running to her sister’s side. It’s what Caitlin had been handpicked to do. Jesse was part of her life now — and Aaron was not.

The thought was distressingly bitter.

Steeling himself to work with his ex-wife, Aaron went to flag down a cab.

“I was starting to think that witches didn’t travel like regular people,” Paul said as Aaron took off his jacket.

“Female witches might not,” Aaron confided. “But male witches tend to be more practical. We even ask for directions.”

Caitlin bristled. She hated that Aaron looked so damn good, from his hazel eyes to his mop of sandy hair to the dimple in his left cheek. He wore all black, of course, from his button-up shirt to his slacks to his socks and shoes. His underwear — if he were even bothering with any — would also be black. She remembered that far too well.

Damn it. Stop thinking about him in his underwear. Or not in his underwear.

She did not find him attractive any more. Absolutely not. They were exes, formers, already-done-thats. She wasn’t sorry that she was wearing her comfortable, baggy sweater with its shredded collar, or her well-worn sweatpants. No, not sorry at all.

He was by her side now, flashing his teeth. “Dearest,” he said, offering his hand.

She wanted to wipe that smug grin off his face, but she forced herself to remain calm. Calm, calm, calm. She took a cleansing breath and blew it out slowly.

Yes. She was perfectly calm.

“Call me ‘dearest’ again,” she said sweetly, “and I’ll curse your hair to fall from your scalp and grow on your back.”

Aaron threw back his head and laughed. “Still the charmer, Caitlin.”

“Still a pompous ass, Aaron.”

“Hey.”

Caitlin tore her gaze from Aaron to look at Paul, who was glowering at the both of them.

“Fight later,” he said, his voice dangerously soft. “You’re here to help Jesse. So make with the helping. Now.”

Caitlin felt her cheeks flush, but she ignored it. Paul was right. “Take a look at her, Aaron.”

Her ex-husband walked over to where Jesse lay on the floor, and he squatted next to her. His lips moved as he cast a silent spell — Caitlin used to joke that if he were ever gagged, he’d never be able to work magic — and then white sparks flew from his outstretched hands and covered Jesse’s form. After a few moments, the lights faded. The glow around Jesse’s body remained a steady, soft blue.

“It’s as you said. She’s trapped in a memory. But it’s not yours, as I would have thought.” He glanced at Caitlin. “It’s hers.”

Oh. crap. Caitlin sank down on to the sofa and held her head in her hands.

“What?” That was Paul, sounding worried and angry. “What does that mean?”

“Jesse was a succubus for 4,000 years,” Caitlin said grimly. “Three guesses what sort of memory she’s stuck in.”

“And the first two don’t count.” Aaron let out a strained laugh. “Sex and demons. This is going to be fun.”

“Don’t forget that she’s an exotic dancer now,” Caitlin added with a groan. “So that could be in there too.”

“Sex, strippers and demons,” Aaron corrected. “What’s not to like?”

Oh, Goddess. There was no way Caitlin was going to survive this with her dignity intact.

“So,” Paul said slowly, “what are you going to do? How can you help her?”

“We have to enter her memory and pull her out,” said Aaron.

“You’re making it sound simple.”

“Hopefully, it will be.” Aaron paused, and Caitlin felt his gaze on her. “She knows you, so I suggest that I anchor you.”

Caitlin looked up at him. He was still smiling, but it looked forced. And what she had first taken as haughtiness sparkling in his eyes now looked more like worry. Not that she blamed him. The worst that could happen to her if she failed to find or free Jesse would be getting stuck in Jesse’s memory. But the worst thing for an anchor, should the rescue go awry, would be death. Caitlin was a strong anchor, though. Chances were, she wouldn’t die, even if things went terribly wrong.

“You’re better at navigating memories than I am,” she said. “Maybe it should be the other way around.”

“Won’t work. Jesse doesn’t know me, so she won’t trust me enough to shake her loose from the memory.”

Caitlin couldn’t help it; she barked out a laugh. “You think she’ll trust me? She hates me, Aaron.”

His smile slipped into something warmer. “That doesn’t mean she won’t trust you.”

He had a point. Sort of.

“She’s your sister,” Paul said to her. “She’ll listen to you.”

Caitlin’s lips twitched. For all that Paul was a good man, sometimes he was horribly naive. Even though he knew about Jesse’s sordid history, he still believed she was a good person. He loved her, despite her faults. Paul and Jesse made it work, even though it shouldn’t. A former succubus, in love with a mortal man bound for Heaven? Impossible. And yet, there they were, Paul and Jesse. Together.

“Together,” she said to Aaron. “We can go in together.”

He frowned at her. “That’s not how it’s done. One to enter, one to anchor. It can’t be any other way.”

“Just because it’s not done that way doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Think about it,” she said, imploring. “You’re a strong navigator; I’m a powerful anchor. If we join, we can be both navigator and anchor, with all our strength combined. If we do it together, we have a better chance of getting to her quickly and pulling her free.”

Aaron asked softly, “And how do you suggest we join, Caitlin?”

She blushed again, but she refused to look away. “I brought my ritual bag. We can call upon the Hecate to bless us and join us.”

“Or we could do it the old-fashioned way.”

Her eyes narrowed. “In your dreams.”

“You mean, in her dreams.” Aaron motioned to where Jesse lay.

“It doesn’t have to come to that,” Caitlin said tightly. “We’re strong. We can fight it.”

“Fight what?” Paul asked. “What are you talking about?”

“Sex,” said Aaron, sounding horribly chipper. “Sex magic is the ultimate way to join essences. And sex is the only thing to expect when we enter the memory of a succubus.”

“If I didn’t know better,” Caitlin said, “I’d think you were looking for a quickie.”

“Strictly here for a rescue mission,” he said, throwing his hands up in a universal Don’t Hurt Me move.

Get a grip, Caitlin scolded herself. Maybe Aaron was her ex-husband, but he was also the best person to help her rescue Jesse. And that’s what mattered right now: freeing her sister. She could deal — or not deal — with Aaron after.

“We’re calling on the Hecate,” Caitlin said, rising to her feet. As for what would happen once they were in Jesse’s memory, well, they’d tackle that then. She moved to get her travel bag, and she pointedly did not think of having sex with her former husband, or how long it had been since she’d last had a lover.

Or how she still missed Aaron’s touch.

“Terrifi c,” said Aaron. “Nothing like getting a little Goddess-inspired bliss to really kick off an evening.”

“Paul, you might want to go out,” Caitlin said as she rummaged for her ritual kit. “There’s no way to tell how long this is going to take.”

“I’m staying right here,” he insisted.

“I like a man who’s into voyeurism,” Aaron said with a grin.

Caitlin ignored him. “Then I’d appreciate it if you could please take your phone off the hook.”

“Done,” said Paul, marching into the kitchen to take care of it.

Caitlin glanced at Aaron. “Well then,” she said. “Let’s make some magic.”

Aaron offered to help Caitlin set up the altar, but she was persnickety about anyone other than her touching her ritual items. Gosh, what a shock. He grinned as a memory flashed: the first time they were participating in their coven’s circle, sky-clad by the light of the moon, the sound of a crack as an eighteen-year-old Caitlin Harris slapped his hand away from the ritual chalice. “For the Goddess,” she’d said tartly. “No shit,” he’d replied, chuckling even as he rubbed his hand. She’d glared at him, and he’d winked at her.

Three months later, they were dating. Two months after that, they were lovers.

She hadn’t been his first. But by the Goddess, she’d been the best.

As Caitlin set up the items on the portable altar, Aaron worked on his breathing to help him prepare. Pure thoughts, he told himself. It would have been easier — and more fun — if instead of a formal ritual, Caitlin had agreed to have sex with him. She’d always been the perfect match for him, the high priestess to his high priest. When their bodies moved in concert, all in celebration of the Goddess, there was nothing they couldn’t do.

But that had been back when she’d loved him. Anything that happened between them now would be strictly for the purpose of making magic. And that meant no sex. Caitlin wasn’t into casual sex. Never had been, not even when the other coven members had taken advantage of sky-clad rituals and joined beneath the stars.

No, for Caitlin, making love had never been casual.

Feeling sad and bittersweet, Aaron breathed.

Next to her sister, Jesse lay prone, the memory box yawning open in her outstretched hand. So much trouble, Aaron thought, for something that was supposed to be a gift. Seated on the couch behind Jesse, Paul watched everything with curious, haunted eyes. Aaron didn’t envy the man. Being in love with any woman was heartache enough. But in love with a former demon? That had to be a nightmare.

But then, given that Jesse had been a succubus, Aaron guessed the sex was damn terrific. That had him thinking about Caitlin again. Biting back a frustrated growl, he worked on his breathing.

Soon, everything was ready. Set on the altar were a silver chalice, pewter bell, a small metal cauldron, a bronze pentacle, a besom, a wooden wand, a black-handled athame, candles, a censer filled with incense, and a bowl of salt. Aaron usually didn’t bother with such trappings, but given that they had to beg a blessing from the Hecate, he admitted it couldn’t hurt to follow at least some of the protocol.

“Paul,” Caitlin said, “some of what you hear and see may sound strange.”

Paul grunted. “Lady, you stepped here out of thin air. My girlfriend is glowing blue. My definition of ‘strange’ is being rewritten even as we speak.”

Aaron chuckled. He liked this guy. “Let’s get on with it, dearest, so the intrepid boyfriend can get back to his regular life with his not-so-regular girlfriend.”

Caitlin glowered at him. “Follow my lead.”

“Ladies first,” he said with a wink.

They began by casting the circle of protection, with Caitlin using the athame to draw four pentacles in the air, north and east and south and west. Aaron scattered salt in a large circle as Caitlin placed the candles in the directional points. She lit them from east to south to west to north, and Aaron felt it as she grounded the energy in the centre of the circle — a tickle of sensation dancing along his flesh.

He was very glad they weren’t sky-clad now. Nothing like a boner to undermine the seriousness of the ritual.

Shaking away such thoughts, he invoked the directions and the elements, and Caitlin followed with an invocation of the Goddess herself as she cradled the cauldron in her hands. Then the two of them raised their voices in song, praising the Hecate and asking to receive her gift of union.

What had started as a tickle soon became stronger, a gentle stroking, back and forth, like waves undulating over his skin. He was hyperaware of the sounds of his breathing, of his heartbeat, of the smells of burning candles and the scent of anticipation. He and Caitlin sang, their voices intertwined.

And then he felt Her presence — between them, around them. Inside them. The Hecate filled Aaron, infusing him with Her blessing. He threw back his head as his body reacted to his Goddess’s seductive touch — his breath caught in his throat, even as his erection strained against his pants. Awash in pleasure, Aaron’s senses stretched until he felt Caitlin’s presence as well, from the fine trembling in her upraised arms to the sweat dotting her brow to the building desire that pearled her nipples and licked between her legs.

Blessed be, whispered the Hecate. And then She vanished.

Shaking, Aaron commanded himself to breathe. Goddess, he was ready to blow! The twin sensations of his and Caitlin’s arousal made it impossible to think. He gritted his teeth, and he breathed.

“Now,” Caitlin said, her voice thick.

Aaron and Caitlin clasped hands, his left and her right, and then together they reached over to brush their fingers over Jesse’s head.

The shock was immediate — a surge of energy like none Aaron had ever felt before, a torrent of emotion and intention flooding him. Overwhelmed, he felt himself dragged under. He opened his mouth to shout, but he was drowning in magic, burning in Hellfire, lost in the power of the Hecate and the Underworld and sucked into a former demon’s dream.

And then Caitlin yanked him back up, anchoring him in the here and now.

But it wasn’t as simple as that. Yes, they were in Paul and Jesse’s apartment, seated on the ground, their hands touching. but they were also floating in a world of grey, the colour somewhere between a soft dove and a winter sky, surrounded by thousands upon thousands of mirrors. They were both in the Real and on the cusp of the Surreal, the place where memories and dreams mixed like cocktails. He blinked, and the real world was an after-image behind his eyelids.

Aaron, with his expertise in memory magic, was used to the Surreal. But he wasn’t used to navigating the Surreal while still being anchored in the Real. It was damn disconcerting.

As was the sight of Caitlin’s naked body.

Because they weren’t grounded in reality while in the Surreal, her form was more of a sketch of Caitlin nude, all bold outlines and pale skin and black hair, with no contours to give her depth. Her eyes flashed emerald; her lips were a splash of cherry red. She reminded him of the Nagels in Paul’s apartment, and Aaron wondered if Caitlin had been influenced by the art.

If so, he must have been as well. From the little he saw of himself, his flesh was just as white as hers. And as nude as hers.

Then again, it was possible he just had sex on the brain.

He shook his head to clear it. “That,” he said hoarsely, “was not at all fun.”

“I’ve been through worse.” Caitlin sounded nonchalant, her expression giving nothing away. But Aaron was joined with her, so he didn’t need his eyes or ears to tell him that she had been caught off-guard by the rush of magic and that even now, she was floundering. He read her emotions as easily as a scrying bowl: Caitlin was discovering that being both a navigator and an anchor was slightly overwhelming.

What was more unsettling to her, though, was how she was still sensitive to Aaron’s touch, how just a nudge right now would send her over the edge and leaping into rapture.

Aaron, never the fool, pretended he didn’t know. And he pretended he didn’t care. “I’m sure you have, dearest. After all, you were married to me.”

That got sliver of a smile out of her. “You read my mind.”

No, not that. But he had her emotions down cold. And since she was joined with him, she had to know how he was feeling. What he was feeling.

How he wanted to touch her, hold her, kiss her.

“Well then,” he said abruptly. “Let’s get this rescue started, shall we?”

Caitlin had been in the Surreal before, many times. But she much preferred to be the anchor: firmly entrenched in the Real with only a cursory awareness of the miasma of winking mirrors that made up the Surreal. Those polished surfaces flashed hypnotically, beckoning to her.

Caitlin felt Aaron’s impatience before he spoke — a benefit (or not) of being joined. “Don’t look at the mirrors. Walk only where I walk.”

She sniffed. “You just want me to watch your ass.”

“It’s a great ass, you have to admit.”

Caitlin gave him her best Wicked Witch stare, and she firmly did not think about how great his ass really was.

His grin slipped. “I’m serious, Caitlin. Don’t look at the mirrors. With the spell on the memory box distorted by Jesse opening it, the mirrors may not be passive.”

Reluctantly, she nodded. If things had been normal — as normal as they could be in the Surreal — she could have gazed within any of the mirrors for as long as she liked, and she would have been treated to a view of a particular memory. But given how Jesse herself had been sucked into a memory, neither Caitlin nor Aaron could assume that they could look within and be unharmed. “You can find which mirror she’s in?”

“Yes. Just let me concentrate, and then follow me.” He frowned, then turned to the right. “This way.”

They walked for what felt like forever, their footsteps whispering along the grey nothingness. To either side, and above and below them, mirrors glittered like diamonds. Aaron strode confidently, taking turns without hesitation, as he sussed out which memory had captured her sister.

She had to admit, he did have a great ass.

Caitlin turned her head away so that she’d stop looking at how his buttocks moved as he walked and stop thinking about how she had enjoyed caressing him, letting her fingers trail across his bottom and slowly make their way to his front. She had to stop thinking about him, damn it. She had to stop remembering how good he had made her feel, how easy it would be to just touch him, kiss him.

No. Stop, stop, stop.

Glancing over her shoulder — nowhere in sight of Aaron’s terrific ass — she gasped as a mirror sparkled in front of her. And within, she caught a glimpse of her own face.

Not Jesse’s copy of her face, no, but her own face — hers, Caitlin Harris, smiling. Not a reflection, but a memory. And Caitlin watched herself open her mouth and.

. she says, “If you want another favour, Jesse, then you need to give me something in addition.”

The demon Jezebel stands before her, wearing a copy of her form, and she gives Caitlin a tiny, helpless smile. “You’re right,” she says. “I’ll give you something.”

And Caitlin feels that something settle over her, a subtle tickle of desire. She sneezes once, and then she looks into Jezebel’s face, her amazing face, and Caitlin feels her lids become heavy and her breathing quicken. Jezebel licks her lips slowly, suggestively, and Caitlin’s lips part in return. She feels invisible fingers skimming over her body, and a sound escapes her mouth — the softest of ohhhs. Heat kindles in her belly and lower, blooms over her chest until her nipples are hard, ready to be suckled.

Caitlin slowly unfastens one button of her flannel nightshirt. And then the next.

Jezebel’s voice is soft as silk. She purrs, “Say my name.”

Caitlin’s fingers fumble the third button open, and her right breast pokes out from the gap in her nightshirt. In a breathy whisper, she says, “Jezebel.”

And now she’s lost in Jezebel’s touch.

Until pain shattered the memory.

Gritting her teeth to keep from shouting, she stared daggers at Aaron. She pulled her arm out of his grip. The man had nearly dislocated her shoulder! How dare he.!

And then she realized what had happened.

She blushed fiercely. One slip. One small slip, all because she hadn’t wanted to stare at Aaron’s backside any longer. She could still feel the ghost of Jezebel’s fingers travelling along her body, tracing her curves, heating her blood. The memory had been from two months ago, right after she’d brewed the potion that would transform the demon Jezebel into the mortal Jesse. Jezebel had tricked her, bespelled her.

Seduced her.

Caitlin gingerly rubbed her shoulder as Aaron glared at her. Rage was stamped on his features — but through their joining, she felt the fear that gnawed at his gut. He was furious with her, but also terrified by what had nearly happened. “When I say ‘Don’t look in the mirrors’,” he snarled, “that damn well means don’t look in the mirrors!”

“It was an accident,” she said, hating how lame her words sounded.

“Penicillin was an accident! This was intentional!”

Her eyes narrowed. Yes, he was right to be angry with her; even so, she wouldn’t be his whipping post. “Stop yelling at me.”

She felt his emotions dance in quick succession: fury, frustration, relief, and something else, something she couldn’t — or wouldn’t — name. “Fine,” he said quietly. “Keep your head in the game, dearest, or a memory will try to eat you again.” He whirled around and stomped off, leaving Caitlin to hurry after him.

Stupid, stupid, stupid! She mentally slapped herself for being careless, and she slapped herself again for having to be rescued by Aaron. He’d never let her live that down. Damn it.

Well, at least he had rescued her. And now she was too mad to think about his ass. So that was all right.

Aaron came to a halt in front of a mirror. He was careful to keep his gaze on his feet as he reached out with his magic to confirm that this was it. And. yes, there. Jesse’s spirit was somewhere within. He was amazed by how similar her soul felt to Caitlin’s, and he wondered, not for the first time, if Caitlin had given Jesse more than mortality and a shared name two months ago.

Did they share a soul? If so, no wonder the memory box had gone awry.

But as he recognized Jesse’s spirit, he also noted that it was too solid, too present within the memory. He frowned. Whatever she was reliving, it would be real to her. And it would loop continuously, keeping her sealed within while her body starved. Soon enough, she would die in the Real. Her soul would either fade or be locked within the Surreal — all because she had opened a memory box not intended for her.

It was an insidious trap. If he had done it on purpose, he would have been terribly impressed with himself.

“Got her,” he said, turning to face Caitlin. Like him, she was purposely not looking at the mirror. “Remember: we go in, you go up to Jesse and wake her up. Do it fast, before the memory overwhelms you.”

She nodded curtly.

“As soon as she wakes up, the memory will shatter. We’ll launch ourselves out before everything winks out. Be ready for a hasty exit.”

Again, she nodded. And then she did something that nearly dropped him on his ass: she kissed him. It was sudden, and passionate, and over far too quickly. A moment of heat and promise, and then she pulled away, leaving him rather dazed. “For luck,” she said softly.

“Luck,” he agreed, his head spinning. He steadied himself, then said, “Ready?”

Face pale, she nodded.

Then they stepped into the mirror.

. and Aaron flinches from the intense heat baking his skin. The ground is flat and hot beneath his feet; he takes in a startled breath and he feels his throat char. And he knows in his soul that he’s in Hell.

Not me, he tells himself. This isn’t happening to me.

Ahead of him is the biggest wall he’s ever seen, and a pair of wrought-iron gates. Muffled sounds echo beyond the wall — screeches and moans and laughter and snorts and more, so much more, a cacophony of exclamations that make him want to clasp his hands to his ears. But this isn’t real.

Not real.

In front of the gates, two demons are groping each other. Satyrs, both of them — the woman bald with cherry red skin and a curly black pelt, the man a bright turquoise and blond. Fire-red horns jut out from beneath his golden hair, and his eyes flash amber as he grins at the woman — the succubus. “Patience,” the incubus says as he wraps his arm around her waist and crushes her against his chest. “Just a little taste first.”

Not real.

He kisses her, hard, and Aaron sees, feels, their passion as she kisses him in return. Now the incubus is licking his way down her chin, tracing the lines of her jaw, teasing her collarbone with his mouth. She arches back, exposing her breasts, telling him with her body exactly what she wants him to do.

Not.

Aaron wants to pull his gaze away. But he can’t. He watches as the demon sucks one of her nipples until she is writhing in his arms, her delighted groans like music. Now the incubus attends her other nipple, working on it with his lips and tongue, blowing on it.

Aaron is groaning, too, as the demons play. He feels their arousal, their need, and it sinks into his skin, setting him on fire. Panting, he watches the demons and slowly loses himself to lust, thinking of Caitlin as he wraps one hand over his shaft and begins to pump.

Hurry, he thinks, but whether it’s for Caitlin to hurry over to Jezebel or for himself to come, he couldn’t say.

The succubus’ hands tangle in the demon’s hair, and her hips roll as he sucks her, back and forth, first one nipple and then the other. His hand reaches down, snaking over the curve of her belly. Down more, trailing his fingers over her mound. Stroking her sex. She lets out a throaty growl — insistent, demanding, hungry.

Aaron growls, thinking of Caitlin, wanting her like never before. He wants to pin her to the ground and fuck her senseless. He wants to hear her squeal as he pounds her again and again.

Caitlin.

And now Caitlin is rushing past him, dashing over to where the incubus is prodding the succubus to orgasm. She throws her arm back and cracks her palm against the female’s cheek. “Wake up, you stupid succubus!”

The incubus keeps fingering the female demon, who is looking at Caitlin with heavily lidded eyes and a lazy grin. “Heya, Sis,” she says thickly. “Come here often?”

“Jesse Harris,” Caitlin says in the way that siblings have mastered over the millennia, “you stop this right now!” She slaps the succubus again. “Come on, Jesse — it’s time to wake up!”

No longer grinning, the succubus blinks. “What?”

“You heard me,” Caitlin says, preparing to strike her again. “This isn’t real.”

This time, the succubus catches Caitlin’s arm. For a moment, it looks like she might rip the limb from Caitlin’s body. But then she cocks her head and looks at Caitlin, and then at Aaron, and then she considers the incubus, who’s still playing her body like a fiddle.

“You’re right,” she finally says to Caitlin. “If this were real, Daun would be at least four inches bigger.”

And like that, the succubus disappears in a puff of brimstone.

Aaron feels the lust recede just as everything around him fades out. Caitlin launches herself at him, tackling him to the ground.

and Aaron opened his eyes. He was in Paul’s living room, seated on the floor, Caitlin’s hand in his. He stared at Caitlin, and he shivered from the vestiges of lust that danced along his body. He wanted to pin her to the ground and fuck her senseless.

No. That hadn’t been real.

Yes. Yes it had.

Embarrassed and flustered and horny, he opened his mouth to say something, anything. But that’s when Jesse propped herself up and said, “Sweetie, you look much better with your clothes off.”

The coffee shop was fairly empty, which, for Manhattan, was a small miracle. Caitlin murmured her thanks as Aaron handed her an environmentally-friendly cup filled with steaming liquid caffeine. He sank into the chair opposite her, and for a few minutes neither of them said anything as they drank their coffee. No longer joined, Caitlin couldn’t feel Aaron’s emotions. There was no need; the damage, if that’s what it was, had already been done.

She still wanted him. And she knew that he wanted her just as much.

But lust wasn’t love. And love with Aaron hadn’t worked.

Maybe it could work again.

No. And no.

With a sigh, Caitlin drank her coffee.

“So,” Aaron said, “when are you heading back to Salem?”

She shrugged. “After this, I guess.”

He gazed at her, drinking in her features. “You’re drained, Caitlin. Stepping now isn’t just a frivolous waste of a year of your life. It’s potential suicide.”

“I could do it,” she insisted.

His mouth quirked a smile. “Of course. The great and powerful witch Caitlin Harris would never risk casting a spell strong enough to bend the Universe’s rules when she was falling-on-her-face exhausted.”

“So dramatic,” she said with a sniff. And never mind that he was right.

He reached over and touched her hand — hesitantly, even shyly. “Stay the night,” he said, his voice soft. “I’ll give you the bed, and I’ll take the couch. But stay. Rest. And tomorrow, travel the old-fashioned way. I’ll even drive you to the airport.”

Her head swam. Aaron had no business being chivalrous, not when she was already on the precipice. He needed to be a jackass, a pompous jerk who thought the world revolved around himself. “You don’t have a car,” she said.

“Well, I’ll put you in a cab.” He squeezed her hand, once, then snatched his hand away. “If you don’t want to stay with me, can you go back to Paul and Jesse’s and stay there overnight?”

She shuddered. “Ugh, no. Jesse didn’t even wait for us to leave before she started attacking Paul.”

Aaron’s eyes sparkled with mirth. “They were still dressed when we snuck out of there.”

“A temporary condition, I promise you.”

They shared a laugh.

“Stay,” Aaron said. And Caitlin agreed — but only for the night. And as long as Aaron took the bed; she’d take the couch.

As Caitlin finished her coffee, Aaron put the memory box on the table. He’d grabbed it before they had made their unobtrusive exit — carefully ignoring how Jesse was eating Paul’s face — and he’d carried it tucked under his arm as he and Caitlin walked to the coffee shop. Caitlin had noticed Aaron’s fingers brushing it as she worked on her latte, saw his lips move silently. Now she stared at the ornately carved wooden box, and she marvelled how something so small and so beautiful could be so dangerous.

Aaron slid the box over to her.

“I fixed it,” he said quietly. “It got all messed up when Jesse opened it, but it was easy enough to nudge everything back into its proper place.”

Caitlin arched a brow and said nothing.

“It’s just a memory box,” he said. “Nothing nasty inside. No wicked surprises. It’s for you.”

She looked at Aaron, scanned his face for any hint of deception. What she saw made her feel horribly sad and tired and, damn it all, hopeful. She saw not the arrogant man but the young warlock she’d married, the man she’d once thought she’d love forever.

“Caitlin,” he said. “Trust me.”

And she did. With trembling fingers, she opened the box.

It’s a summer night in the park, and grass is tickling Caitlin’s bare feet as the tree leaves make music with the wind. She is eighteen and immortal, and she’s intoxicated with the power of participating in the coven’s circle. Thirteen witches, sky-clad in the moonlight and linked hand in hand, sing their praises to the Hecate, thanking Her for the gift of magic. Aaron’s hand is so large, it swallows Caitlin’s completely.

After, as the coven members dress or pair off to make their own sort of magic, Aaron and Caitlin linger in the clearing. His hand is still in hers, and he presses her knuckles against his lips, his tongue darting between her fingers. She blushes, both from the attention and from the way heat blooms in her breasts and belly. It’s been two months since she and Aaron have started dating — two months of sweet kisses and curious hands, of a slow awakening of her body. She’s not a virgin, but the boy who had taken that piece of her had been rough and uncaring. That boy had dumped her a week later to move on to the next girl, leaving Caitlin to wonder what she had done wrong.

Aaron is far from uncaring. In the eight weeks they’d been together, he’d made her laugh and made her furious. He is as passionate as she about magic, and he is funny and smart and sexy. But he is also cocky and arrogant, completely sure of himself even when he has no idea what he’s talking about. Caitlin had been stunned to discover that she liked that about him. and even more stunned when she realized that he liked her as well.

Their first kiss still makes her lips tingle even after two months.

They had gone slow, with him letting her set the pace. Trust built, and attraction deepened, bringing them to tonight, to this moment — to Aaron, naked in the moonlight, kissing her hand and flicking his tongue against her knuckles.

Nervous, eager, she smiles at him and leads him across the clearing to a more secluded section of the park. She finds a spot near a cluster of trees, private and yet inviting, and she wraps her arms around his shoulders and stands on her tiptoes as she pulls his head down to hers.

The kiss begins softly, tenderly, as Aaron embraces her. His mouth is warm against hers, and she slowly melts in his arms. Now his tongue is nudging between her lips. She opens her mouth to him and his tongue rolls against hers.

His hands leave her waist to travel up her back, caressing, stroking. Warmth turns to heat as she feels those touches in other places, small sparks along her arms and chest and lower.

Caitlin moans, but the sound is eaten by Aaron’s kiss.

Now his mouth is moving down her jaw, her neck, along the curve of her shoulder, his kisses damp on her skin. Back up along her throat, and now the shell of her ear, licking and teasing, kissing and nibbling, making her pant.

She wants this — just her and him, together, tonight. She wants him to touch her all over. She wants to explore his body and discover what he likes — what he loves.

She wants him.

Caitlin lowers her arms until they’re circling his waist. As he’s kissing along her jaw and her other ear, her hands move lower until they’re skimming along his bottom. Lower still, until her fingernails graze the backs of his thighs.

His erection pokes her belly.

“Caitlin,” he whispers in her ear, his voice husky. “Tell me. Tell me when to stop.”

One hand still playing along his backside, she reaches up with her other hand to cup his chin. Her gaze locked on his, she says, “Don’t stop.”

He licks his lips before he asks, “You sure?”

“I trust you.”

Something dances behind Aaron’s eyes — excitement or arousal or maybe something else completely, and he says, “I trust you too, Caitlin.” And then his mouth is on hers again, pressing hard now, bruising her lips with his own. Lower now, down her neck again until he’s licking between the swells of her breasts.

Caitlin is breathing heavily, her chest thrust out, feeling her body flush. Aaron’s mouth latches on to her nipple, and her knees buckle. He catches her, supports her back as his tongue licks that sensitive nub. Now the other nipple, coaxing it until it’s as hard as its twin.

Deep inside her, something begins to coil, a delicious ache that quickens her breathing and makes her say his name.

His hand leaves her back, glides its way along her hip until it’s resting on her belly. And he’s sucking her nipples, first one and then the other, now kissing the swells of her breasts, mouth and tongue working against her skin. His fingers stretch down, whisper over her pubic hair.

She’s rocking against him, panting, telling him with her body to do more. The ache within her increases to an insistent pressure, building as his hand moves farther down — slowly, so very slowly. Too slowly.

“Aaron,” she breathes. “Don’t stop.”

His fingers slide between her legs, and she gasps. He’s inside her now, probing, stroking, and she’s bucking against him, her head thrown back and her eyes closed. And then he hits a spot that makes her blood catch fire. The coil winds tight tight tight. and she cries his name as the orgasm takes her.

Aaron slides his hand out, and now he’s lowering her to the ground, and she barely feels the grass along her shoulders and back and bottom because she’s still floating in bliss so sweet she never wants it to end. She hears something tear, like foil, and she looks up to see Aaron fumbling a condom over his erection. She tries to imagine which spell he’d used to make it appear out of nowhere but her mind is foggy and her body is pulsing with aftershocks, and Caitlin can’t really think at all.

He pauses for a moment, standing over her as he drinks in her form, and the way he’s looking at her makes her feel like the most beautiful woman in the world. “You sure?” he asks, his voice raspy.

She smiles up at him. “Yes.”

Triumph shines in his eyes as Aaron climbs on top of her, and now he’s kissing her and kissing her and kissing her as he moves on top of her, slides inside her, nudging that spot that makes sparks shoot behind Caitlin’s eyes. Aaron is pumping inside her and she’s moving with him, hips together, bodies fluid, up and down and up and faster and faster now as he’s thrusting and she feels that amazing pressure build again, yawning up like a tidal wave inside her, up and up and up and just as she thinks she can’t take it anymore, Aaron shouts her name and thrusts one final time and as he shudders against her, the wave crashes over Caitlin and she spirals down in rapture.

He sags against her, spent, grinning like a fool and laughing. “Caitlin,” he says like a song. “Caitlin. Oh my Caitlin.”

“My Aaron,” she says, her voice thick and sleepy.

They lie there for a time, limbs entwined like pretzels, as their sweat cools beneath the glow of the moon. Caitlin has never been more at peace. She wants to thank him, but what she actually says is, “I love you.”

And by the Goddess, Aaron replies, “I love you too.”

It’s the first day of what assuredly will be the rest of their lives together.

Caitlin blinked away tears as the memory ended. Closing the lid, she looked at Aaron, and the man she had once loved so very much, and she asked, “Why? Why this memory?”

A long pause as Aaron gazed at her, his eyes sad, the lines on his face suddenly prominent. And he said, “Because it hurt me too much to keep it any longer.”

This time, Caitlin can’t stop the tears.

“I still love you,” Aaron says softly. “I wish I could just turn it off, or that it would have faded away. I wish I could say I’m not the same man I was when you left me, that I’ve changed. But I am who I am, Caitlin. And all the magic in the world won’t change that.”

She closed her eyes and remembered the boy she had loved.

She opened her eyes and saw the man who loved her still.

The man she still cared for, still wanted.

Still loved?

She bit her lip and reached over to take his hand. “We travelled to Hell to save my sister. Why is this the hard part?”

Aaron’s lips twitched in acknowledgment, but he said nothing as he waited for her to pass judgment.

With her free hand, she brushed away her tears. “I don’t want you to change, Aaron. I don’t know what I want. But. ”

When her voice faded, he prompted, “But?”

Caitlin took a deep breath. “But maybe we can both sleep in the bed tonight, and then take it from there.”

Aaron’s eyes shone, and he lifted her hand to kiss her knuckles. “ ‘Maybe’ has never sounded so good.”

Caitlin, smiling through new tears, had to agree.

They left the coffee shop, hand in hand. And soon they were making new memories together.

Ava Gray

Princes of Dominion

One

Just one glimpse. Camael knew it was unwise. He had been warned more than once and yet he found himself helpless to resist. Her beauty struck him on a level deeper than pleasure, deeper than pain. And so he stood on the other side of the Veil, hidden from her sight, and watched her brush out her long hair beside the river.

Most women bathed in company. Soft laughter and splashing would accompany their ablutions, but not hers. She was quiet, almost sombre; it did nothing to lessen her loveliness. Her hair shone like polished onyx, streaming down her shapely back in a swathe of dark silk. Sometimes she sang, and he closed his eyes, buoyed up by the melody. But not today.

For the first time, she spoke. “I feel you.”

She could not possibly mean him. Camael held his silence.

“I know whenever you are here,” she went on. “At first I took you for one of the river spirits, and I left gifts. But they went untouched.”

Should he have accepted her tokens, then? She had left him seashells and beads, prettily strung. But he had no use for such things. He stilled, uncertain.

“Show yourself,” she commanded.

His brethren would do worse than talk of folly if they witnessed what he did next. But he could not resist the urge to speak with her. It went against every edict. Passing the Veil, he shimmered into her world and donned a human body. She rose in a silver ripple of water and turned to face him, clad only in her hair.

“What are you, river spirit or demon?”

“Neither,” he said.

“Why do you watch me?”

“Because you are beautiful.”

Such a simple answer — and yet it appeared to please her. He could not have expected that, given how exotic she seemed and how little he knew of mortals. Camael only knew that he enjoyed watching them; they always seemed so much freer than he, unconstrained by the rules of heaven.

“My father would cut off the head of any man caught dishonouring me so.” She tilted her head, speculative. “But you. you are not a man.”

“No.”

“What then? You wear a man’s form. Are you a devil come to seduce me?”

Again, he said, “No.”

But a flicker of interest stirred in him for the first time. It was impossible to look on her silken skin without curiosity — to wonder how it would feel to smooth his hands over her body. And she sensed it; a smile curved her lush mouth.

“Pity,” she said softly. “I do not think I’d mind. I am Rei.”

“Camael.” He found speech strange.

In the divine sanctum, they shared thoughts as a matter of course. There were no secrets. But now, of course, he had one. And that troubled him. Not enough to make him step away, however. Not enough to send him fleeing through the Veil and to find his archangel and beg for forgiveness. He was only a foot soldier, he reasoned, one who followed orders. Nobody would notice this breach. Nobody would care.

The woman pulled her long hair forward, so it cloaked her breasts. He wished he were those tresses, teasing her nipples with each breath she took. The force of the longing astonished him; this must be the reason they proscribed wearing flesh. With it came such shocking need. This was the first time he had broken the taboo, and he reeled with inundation from all his senses.

Warmth blew across his skin. With some shock, he realized he’d not clothed his form, perhaps because she wore nothing. In the realm from whence he came, such things were not needed. Everything was light and shadow and complete intimacy with every other scion. And somehow that still felt impersonal compared to the heat of the sun overhead, the chirp and buzz of insects and the soft whistle of wind in the reeds.

It was too much, and he stumbled, dropping to his knees. Beauty stepped towards him, concern overcoming her amused caution. “Are you ill?”

“Merely. overwhelmed.”

“You truly do not spring from our world. Are you a god?” She seemed untroubled by that possibility.

Perhaps in her mythology, the gods regularly walked among humankind. Camael knew people entertained myriad theories about what beings populated the spirit world and the afterlife. None of them was correct, but it did not stop them from building complex theologies and rituals. Such practices offered comfort.

“No.”

“A messenger, then, for one of them.”

Near enough. Explanations would require more concentration than he could muster at the moment. He nodded.

“Is that why you’ve watched me? Need you to deliver me a message?”

“That I did for pleasure alone.”

“You would have me believe I own a beauty so great it distracted you from divine endeavours?”

“Yes.” And it was true.

Even now he longed to touch her, with a need so great it burned like an endless fire in his veins. His fingers curled. He had no experience with self-denial. In the sanctum there were no such desires. In comparison, sanctum existence was pure and sterile, all ideas with no passion to fuel them. He had never noticed the lack before.

He must pass the Veil again before he changed irrevocably. It would be uncivil to vanish without a word, but better than the alternative. Better than—

Oh.

Rei touched him. Her soft hand on his bare shoulder drove all thoughts from his mind. Longing surged through him in a maelstrom of bewildering heat. He had never been touched before. It did not matter that his physical body was only energy held together by his will. He still felt it, and that caress altered him forever.

“If that is so,” she murmured, “then surely I must reward you.”

His head spun, and all thought of escape fled his mind. “How?”

She pushed him back gently; it did not occur to him to resist. The bank beside the river cushioned him with soft grasses and moss. The tall reeds hid them from sight. Overhead, the sun shone gold, sweet and hot on his skin, and the sky blazed with a blue so fierce it filled him with wonder. He had watched her in innocent fascination, and she had caught him, against all expectation.

She gazed down at him, eyes dark and hooded. “You are quite pleasing too.”

Her hands travelled his body, stroking him with sweet surety. He gasped in shocked pleasure as she bent her head and set her lips on his skin. Camael had no words for how it made him feel. A soft sound escaped him, part arousal, part encouragement. He wanted — he did not know what he wanted.

But she did. She eased on top of him, slim and graceful in the sunlight. “You are passive for a godling. By rights you might have taken me as soon as I caught your fancy. Why do you hold back?”

Whatever he might have said, it was lost as her mouth claimed his. She was the goddess in this encounter, so sure of herself, so expert as her lips toyed with his. He did not even know how to respond, but she taught him with inexorable, rising excitement. When they broke away, she was breathless, her face flushed.

“I know,” she whispered. “Now I know. I am your first.”

“Yes.”

“Give me a son. With your blood in his veins, he will conquer all he surveys.”

Camael meant to tell her that was not possible, but she curled her hand around his shaft. The throb of pleasure nearly undid him. And this was only a close facsimile; how much more intense might he feel if he were, in truth, flesh and blood? He lifted up, pushing into her fingers.

She raised her hips and then sank down, claiming him with her fierce heat. The world broke apart and then reshaped itself. Like a force of nature, she rose and fell on him, head thrown back. He gazed up into her face, memorizing her features. Surely no creature had ever been so lovely.

“Rei,” he gasped.

“Touch me too.” She raised his hands and showed him how.

It was like being given a key to a secret kingdom. He belonged to her now as surely as if she had created him. She took him to a place where only her touch had any meaning, and by the time they both stilled, he knew he would never be the same.

She lay down on him, trembling, and he wrapped his arms around her back. Her hair felt cool in contrast to her heated skin. He closed his eyes and drank in her clean river scent and her womanly musk. He would remember this moment as only one of the host could — forever indelible.

“I must go,” he whispered. “They will be looking for me.”

“Camael. Come to me again.” It was a plea, but it settled into his spirit as a command.

“Yes. As soon as I may.”

Leaving her felt as though he had ripped himself in twain and left the other part, perhaps even the greater part, in her keeping. Yet he rose because he must — and duty drew him back to the divine sanctum. For the first time in Camael’s memory, he did not wish to return. It was no homecoming; it was a burden.

Two

“You are late,” Kenzo said.

Rei had never liked him, though he professed to want peace. His sire had killed her mother in the last raid, not that her father seemed to mind. Isuke was already looking at village girls for a replacement, some younger than Rei herself. It was disgusting, but it was also the way of the world. He needed to sire a son instead of a worthless daughter. Now Kenzo was here on diplomatic terms, talking to her father, who was village chief, about a permanent solution.

She had only been a widow for four months. It was too soon to turn herself over to another man’s keeping, but she lowered her head as he fell into step with her, knowing she had little say in the matter. Rei led the way toward the wooden huts, the largest of which she shared with her father.

“Answer when I speak to you,” he persisted.

“I lost track of time at the river.”

“Have you taken a lover, Reika?”

How she hated for him to call her that. It was an endearment, and yet he dirtied it. Rei meant lovely and ka meant flower, but he meant it as a possessive, not a compliment to beauty. Her left hand curled into a fist and her nails bit into her palm.

“Would you not smell another man on me?” she asked in mock-humble tones. “Are you not the greatest warrior the Tanaka village has to offer? Surely your senses are superior to those of other men.”

“You would do well to remember it. One day, you will belong to me, Reika. Your father will not listen to your sighs and your tears forever.”

She smiled. “But today is not that day.”

It angered him when she gave him her slim back and went into the house, where her father waited for his dinner. Courtesy dictated that she should have invited him in, but he was not her guest. Isuke could fetch him, if he wanted Kenzo’s company.

“Have you given the marriage any thought?” her father asked, later. “Kenzo will rule Tanaka someday, and it would be good for our village, too. No more raids. No more death.”

“Perhaps not from Tanaka,” she said, stirring the pot. “But there is always death.”

Three

The others had already assembled. Camael found Raziel waiting for him, impatient as always. His kinsman wore a frown. In the divine sanctum one could shape the energy however he wanted, and today Raz was tall and thin, the better to loom over one he perceived as derelict in duty.

Where have you been? he demanded. Seraphiel has been looking for you. We have a new assignment, given by the Most High.

But the moment Raziel’s thoughts touched his own, they stilled. Incredulity radiated between them. He did not even try to hide his actions. There was no point. The host kept no secrets between them.

Cam. what have you done? You are—

Different, he supplied.

They will cast you out for this. It is not done. Not since Gabriel. All knew how that had ended. After the Morning Lord, Gabriel had been the first to fall in eons. He had done so, not out of hubris or ambition, but for a reason they found baser and more inexplicable — for love, for a human woman who would crumble to dust. So pointless, such a waste. Yet Gabriel’s half-breed children had risen up to challenge mankind. The nephilim wars had required the host itself to intervene; such a march had never been seen on earth.

In light of that history, it rendered Camael’s behaviour even more incomprehensible to his kinsman; this, he knew. He wished he could blame the woman — call her a sorceress — but what magic she owned came from her skin and her hair and her wiles, not some nebulous force. He understood now why Gabriel had given it all up. Here, one could shape the world to suit him. If he wished, he could recreate the river where he had lain with her, or he could stand in the hanging gardens of Babylon. Anything he could conceive, he could create. Despite that majesty, part of him — the half he’d left with Rei — still yearned towards Gabriel’s path, even knowing it heralded disaster.

Raziel paced. You cannot face Seraphiel like this. He will sense the stain on you immediately.

Nor can I conceal it.

His kinsman acknowledged the truth of his statement. That is why I am calling Nathaniel and Ezekiel.

The other two who comprised their host arrived almost immediately. One could always recognize Ezekiel because he always painted a black circlet about his arm, still mourning Gabriel’s loss. Everyone else preferred to forget, but Ezekiel had loved him. Once he had called Gabriel the best and brightest. Now Ezekiel refused to speak the Fallen’s name, but he eternally wore the black band, not as an accessory but as an integral part of him.

Nathaniel favoured red, and so his hair glowed like a sunset. Though they could resemble anything they wished here, most often they kept to recognizable forms. Not that such meetings were necessary, but Seraphiel preferred them as a means of guaranteeing he had his audience’s full attention.

As Raziel had done, the others saw the stain immediately. Nathaniel explored his memory, and Camael wished he had a way to prevent it. For the first time, he owned a thing he wanted to keep private. Then shame marked him at the impulse. They both drew back, shocked stillness in their thoughts.

And then from Ezekiel: So I am to lose another brother.

Not necessarily, Raziel countered. We must teach him to shield.

Nathaniel drew back, appalled. That is not permitted to our host. Only the Thrones may—

It is that, or lose him, Ezekiel interrupted.

Raziel faced their superior, as did Camael. As Ezekiel had the charge of them, it would be his choice, whether they attempted this forbidden thing. He would have faced his punishment alone, gladly, but joy suffused him that he did not have to. His host would not forsake him, no matter his transgression.

Can it be done so swiftly? Raziel asked.

By his expression, Nathaniel wondered the same thing. If Seraphiel grew impatient enough, he would touch their thoughts and summon them directly. Distance was nothing in a realm shaped by mind alone. The leader of the Seraphim, which took its name from him, could port them, should he so desire, and their wills would be unable to stand against him, for he was Seraphim, and they were mere foot soldiers.

Yes, their leader replied. I once had occasion to commune with one of the Thrones. Because they mediate between the Most High and the rest of us, they must know how to shield, so they do not yield more knowledge than we are permitted to possess. I took that knowledge when I broke the bond.

Why? Raziel asked.

Camael knew the answer even before Ezekiel gave it. To save Gabriel. But he would not even try. He was proud of his sin. He wished not to hide his love.

That boldness made Camael feel small. Was he so much less than Gabriel? Apparently he was, for he did not feel ready to confront Seraphiel and confess.

Let us have this thing done, Nathaniel said, some of his bright spark dimmed. We must needs all learn to shield, for we all share Camael’s secret now.

Perhaps Nathaniel wished that were not so. It was too late for regrets; his host had made their choice. He felt the warmth of their acceptance, though it came without understanding. None of them could fathom his choice. And yet he regretted nothing.

In the end, it was simple: a shift, a twist, and the mind divided in two. This, one showed the divine sanctum. That hidden thing remained crouched like a beast, behind the brighter part. The ease made Camael question what the Thrones might be hiding. What if the Most High were not made of perfect goodness and boundless justice? What awful darkness might his most trusted servants conceal from the rest? Once tasted, doubt burrowed into his spirit, leaving hollows.

Let us go to Seraphiel, Ezekiel said.

And, as they had always done, they followed him.

Four

Time wore on.

Though Rei often went to the river alone, she did not see her golden god again. Her excuses about why she could not accept Kenzo and cement peace between the Tanaka and Nakamura wore thin. In her heart, she hoped their enemy’s son would lose interest, or find someone younger. These days, she could no longer be considered in the flush of youth. She no longer danced in the cherry blossoms with the young virgins. Instead she sat silently weaving with the old women.

At length, Isuke married his bride of choice. The girl had sixteen summers. and she was silly. Hana did not know how to cook rice or clean a home, or how often the straw needed to be changed for use in bedding. She only knew how to smile prettily.

That would not be enough. If she did not give him a son, then she would go as Rei’s mother had done. In the dark of night, she sometimes wondered whether her father had asked his enemy to rid him of the wife who bred nothing but girls and dead babies. None of Rei’s sisters had survived to adulthood.

Still, it was too beautiful a day for such dark thoughts. Rei watched the dancers and listened to the trilling flutes. The smell of roast meat wafted on the summer wind, carrying the scent of hydrangeas. By this time, the azaleas were in bloom as well, like a stormy twilight. Rei strolled away from the festivities, avoiding the pantomime and the boy begging for sweets with tugs at his mother’s robe. It was good to see everyone in the village happy, even if such carefree days were coming to an end for her. With an inaudible sigh, she curled up beneath the purple fringe of the wisteria tree.

Kenzo found her, as he always did. There had been no attacks from Tanaka since he had been paying court — with her father’s approval. Now that Isuke had wed Hana, he would want her out of his house, and their old enemies would take it badly, should she give her favours elsewhere. No, there had long been an understanding. Rei only needed to make peace with her fate, and say farewell to what had been nothing more than a girl’s foolishness, lost in dreams by the river. Only in sleep could she have found such perfection.

The real world offered pots to scour and fields to tend and oxen to track down when they went astray. And Kenzo. The world offered her Kenzo as a husband. In truth, there were no other suitors. Too long had passed.

He sat down beside her, darkly pleased with himself, and set his hand on her arm. His touch filled her with revulsion, but soon he would have the right to do with her as he chose — beat or kill her — at his pleasure. Rei had no doubt he would brook no repudiation of his will. Kenzo would offer no choices. Most likely, he would also make her suffer for keeping him waiting so long. As the Tanaka’s firstborn son, he loathed being denied what he believed to be his due.

“When?” he asked softly.

She did not pretend to misunderstand. “It will be an autumn wedding, when all the leaves turn red.”

Kenzo offered a sharp look, for red was a dual color. But he did not demur. “So it shall be, Reika.”

Five

To convey his displeasure, Seraphiel greeted them in a huge cavern with a ceiling so high it appeared to be made of darkness. Jagged streaks of lightning crashed overhead, highlighting the stark rock. Other times, this place might appear to be all white, formed of nothing but marble pillars. The leader of the Seraphim was not to be crossed lightly.

First he kept them waiting, and then he manifested in a font of golden light. When I call, I expect obedience.

Apologies, Ezekiel offered.

It took considerably longer to appease Seraphiel, and for every moment, Camael expected him to know, but the shields held. And Ezekiel intended for them to maintain this deception for eternity? Impossible. He already felt sick and shaken, not by his actions, but the subsequent efforts to conceal them. No matter the regulations, touching Rei did not feel like sin.

At length, they took their orders and went from the divine sanctum. They shook the mountains and painted the sky red, as instructed. It seemed like a great deal of effort in order to change one man’s mind, but they did not question instructions handed down through the hierarchy. Even Seraphiel did not know the reasons behind the commands he gave.

Afterwards, he followed the rest of the host. Once — not long ago — privacy mattered not at all. Now it was crucial. As he watched, Ezekiel shaped the wards that would keep others away. Let them think they discussed some secret orders given by Seraphiel, handed down by the Thrones.

Despite their success, Ezekiel wasn’t pleased. We must live this way forevermore. You all accept this?

The alternative is losing him, Nathaniel responded.

Raziel kept even his thoughts to himself, but of them all, he had been closest to Camael, and he could read his kinsman’s brooding silence. He was blisteringly angry. I never asked for help, Camael thought. I would have taken my punishment and left you out of it.

And you truly think I could allow that? Raziel demanded. Of us all, you would be destroyed down there. Did you know people call you Camael the Innocent, even here, where all are pure?

He hadn’t known that, and it angered him. Innocent I may have been, but I am not helpless.

No, Raziel responded. Just stupid.

Enough. The force of Ezekiel’s thought silenced them both. We acted to preserve your secret. You must go now to this human woman. Tell her whatever you must, but there will be an end to it.

He had watched the Morning Lord’s fall, once the most beloved and beautiful. Later, he had seen Gabriel willfully turn his back on his host. Neither hurt so much as the prospect of this — and he did not know why. Only that an ache throbbed deep in the core of him at the prospect of bidding farewell to a beauty he had hardly known.

I will attend to it now.

With a twist of his will, he left them. It was too much to hope he would find her where he had before, and yet that was the first place he looked. Camael matched his appearance to what she had seen before; otherwise, how would she know him? The river had risen since his last visit, which signified rain. How much time had passed? He stood quietly, listening to the water tumbling over the rocks. The trees were a little thinner, somewhat less green, and the air carried a chill. This was the dying season, when the leaves fell, and the world spun toward winter.

It was too cold for bare skin and he thought clothing into existence to cover himself. Not because he felt discomfort on any crucial level, but if another traveller came upon him here, they would call him demon or worse, finding him tarrying so. For the first time, it occurred to him he did not know how to find her. While he could focus on her essence and port to her, it might prove awkward if she were in company. He did not want to cause problems for Rei, or offer trouble she could not explain away.

And so he sought shelter in a cave not far from the river, where he built a fire. It was easy work, a matter of laying wood and willing it to kindle. He could have had fire without fuel, but that too would alarm human travellers. Camael wanted to blend in as best he could. Once he had created a tolerably comfortable space, he sat and sent the call. If Rei felt anything for him, she would be compelled to seek him out. The delay gave him time to accustom himself to her world. This time, he would not be helpless and overwhelmed by so many physical sensations.

On the third day, she found him. She looked different, less girlish. He had no way to gauge the passage of time here.

“It’s you,” she breathed. “And you have aged not even a day.”

He’d wondered if she remembered. He had wondered if he ought to come and tell her there could be nothing more. Perhaps she already knew. But his conscience would not permit him to share such intimacy and then offer only silence thereafter.

The right words — words of farewell — trembled on his tongue and yet he did not speak them. “Did you miss me?”

“Yes,” she said softly. “But when I did not quicken, I thought I dreamed you.”

Would that were so — then he would not feel the awful sensation of being torn in two. He carried Ezekiel’s orders like a weight in his heart, but for the first time, he struggled against them. Camael did not want to obey. He craved a few more moments with her.

“I cannot get you with child,” he said, instead of good-bye.

“Because you are truly not of my world.”

He inclined his head.

“Then it is safe for us to be together.” Before the fire, she began to disrobe. “I relived that afternoon so many times. Nothing ever felt so good or so right.”

This was where he must tell her. But instead, he admired the curves of her body, no longer sylph slim, but rounded and succulent. “Rei. ”

“You make my name sound like singing. No one ever did before.”

When she threw herself into his arms, he was lost, oh, so lost. Camael wrapped his arms about her. He had not touched her thoughts as he did with the host, and it mattered not at all. He knew her. The ache he hadn’t been able to explain before intensified into longing, and then he recognized it.

“I missed you.” Such longing for an absent person; it was wholly new to him.

Six

“And I, you.”

It had been almost five years since she’d first felt him watching her, nearly three since she had lain in his arms. Yet she had never been able to forget him. Rei wondered now whether she was mad. Her father had at last broken down her will to refuse the marriage, and in two weeks’ time, she would become Kenzo’s bride. An alliance between the two villages would improve life for all concerned.

No more raids. No more burning houses or dead livestock. Thus she had been told, over and over again.

So what was she doing here, breaking her vows for a golden dream that had come to seem no more real than the touch of the breeze upon her skin? The answer was simple: she could not deny him. He lived in her blood, like a fever. Yet she could not blame him for what had passed between them. She had seduced him, and if she were honest, that sense of power offered great allure. In her village, she had little, even as chieftain’s daughter. But she had bewitched this impossibly powerful male — and that certainty was heady.

Just once more, she told herself. Kenzo will never know. He had not been promised a virgin bride, after all. Rei had married young, and her husband perished of fever. She had been a widow for some months before she encountered Camael by the river, else she would not have known how to seduce him.

But this time, it was different. She sensed it even before he put his arms around her. He was more centred, more sure of himself. Rei did not yet know what that change signified.

He kissed his brow to hers. “I want to know you.”

Rei thought it a poetic way of asking to make love to her again, so she nodded. Suddenly her mind filled with him, every small shame and unworthy secret — he possessed them all. The moment she tried to resist, he went away again, leaving her alone, and that might be worse.

“What—”

“I thought you gave permission.”

“For that?” It seemed wholly more intimate than sharing her body.

“I wanted to know you this time, before. ”

Before they made love. She understood the impulse, though in her experience, such knowledge came in small trickles, not in a single brush of their minds. But she knew him now, too, and he was unquestionably alien. He had touched no women in this world or any other. Rei could not have explained why that excited her; only that it did. It lit a fire unlike any she’d ever known.

But even so, she wasn’t the aggressor. This time, she could tell he knew what he wanted. His mouth claimed hers, tender but implacable as well, as if his kiss branded her. Madness. Though she had been free three years ago, she was no longer. And yet she could not refuse him. Did not desire to, no matter the cost later. She had been like a shade, echoing the memory of life after vitality had fled. Only in his arms did she kindle beyond that pale shadow.

As he kissed her throat, she shivered. When he stroked her inner thigh, her legs fell open in welcome. There was nothing so divine as a godling slaking his desire. Her breath hitched as he traced the curve of her hip and nibbled behind her ear. Then he slipped his hand around her body, playing with her right breast.

But he wasn’t as sure as he pretended. In the firelight, his oddly innocent eyes asked reassurance. “You like that?”

Mutely, she nodded, not sure if she could speak. Rei’s husband had never taken such care with her. Sometimes she wanted the mating, and sometimes she didn’t; it had all been the same to him. In her world, men most oft felt so. They held all the authority. Despite his otherworldly power, the same did not hold true with Camael. She marvelled at that, even as he caressed her. It seemed to her she had never truly known free will before.

He paused, holding her arms to the light. “Who did this?”

“Kenzo.”

The Tanaka’s firstborn saw no reason to be gentle with a woman. He used his strength instead. Camael bent his head and pressed his lips to the marks. As she watched, they faded with a god’s power to heal. Rei wanted to weep, but instead she answered with a kiss to his throat.

The firelight permitted her to see his response — awe gilded his beautiful face, even as much as the fire did. He revelled in her pleasure and his own ability to invoke those feelings. His lips followed his fingers: full of delicacy, demand, and burgeoning confidence. The heat against her skin was delicious and unexpected; his mouth sliding along her curves made her scrape the soles of her feet against the rock. Groaning in response, he licked until her nipple stood erect, begging for his attention. She cried out when he sucked it into his mouth and teased her with his teeth.

“Tell me what you want now,” he murmured, sounding odd and hoarse.

Unbearable tension rose within her as his golden head surged between her breasts. She did not notice when he slid the robe completely away, baring her body. Aware of a momentary lapse in contact, her senses swam as she tried to focus and received only the sweet shock of his hot skin against hers.

Dipping his fingers into the slick, swollen folds of her femininity, he stroked her, making her hips lurch up to meet him. He found a place that felt to her as if he held lightning against her flesh. Rei tested him in turn, fingers stealing down his abdomen and curling around his man’s flesh. He bucked, strain evident in his face. For long moments, he worked against her cupped palm, moaning with each push.

Oh, now, my love. Now.

She was ready, so ready. But to her surprise, he did not cover her. Instead he slid lower. Since he was innocent, he must have taken this from her darkest and most secret fantasies. No man would stoop to perform this intimacy for a woman. But a god would. Only such a one could possess the self-assurance to humble himself so.

“Camael!” she cried as his mouth found her.

Rei clutched his head, fingers tangled in his gilded hair, and rocked against his mouth. He licked her, just so. Climax shook her, head to toe. Giving her no chance to recover, he slid up and pushed inside. Once, twice, thrice, he thrust, making her moan. He wrapped his arms about her hips, dragging her up to meet each push and she locked her legs about him. His fierce beauty almost hurt her eyes, seeing his intensity so focused on her body.

Her second peak crashed almost as hard as the first, coming in relentless spasms, and it drove him over the edge. Though her own satisfaction had been staggering, she still knew when he shook in the familiar response. But she had never been so fiercely glad of it before. Her husband had used her body, but only Camael made her feel this way, and she took visceral pleasure in maddening him in the same fashion. He offered no accompanying gush of seed, however, and she regretted the lack. It was the only imperfect part of their union.

She did not protest when he rolled to the side and wrapped himself about her for warmth. With him at her back and the fire at her front, she felt the cold beyond their private haven not at all. But the world would intrude soon enough.

“I heeded your summons this last time,” she said softly. “But I can come to you no more. I have made promises to others, now.”

“Yes. I saw that in you.”

Of course he would have. How could he permit it? Why wouldn’t he take her away, back to his godly palace, and keep her there for himself? Yet those were not questions she could ask, and so she swallowed the pain like a shard of broken pottery.

“Rei. according to the rules of heaven, this is wrong. I am not to have you. Not to do what I have done. Twice now. Twice the sin.” He did not sound as though he felt guilty, though, merely sad beyond bearing.

“So you will not call to me again, either.”

“No.” He laid his head on her breast, ear to her heart, as if listening to what she could not say. “But if I did, if I found a way, would you give up everything for me, Rei of the River?”

“Yes.” There was no hesitation in her, only a broken kind of longing, because the fierce desperation of his arms about her in this moment did not speak of hope. Instead it betokened an impossible love and inevitable ending.

Seven

Did you end it? Ezekiel asked.

They awaited his return together, converging as soon as they felt him. Camael did not need to answer. As soon as he let them touch his mind, they knew. Nathaniel filled with sorrow while Raziel boiled with anger. From Ezekiel, he sensed nothing, not even surprise. Doubtless he saw only history repeating itself. He had walked this road with Gabriel.

You endanger all of us with this madness, Raziel accused.

Nathaniel stared at him, sombre as he rarely was. He is right, brother. Do you think Seraphiel will forgive our involvement?

I shall not, the Seraphim intoned, manifesting.

The time had come, then. For himself, he cared remarkably little. Camael only wanted to return to Rei before she married the man who had put the bruises on her arms. He cared nothing for the dramas of heaven any longer. Still, he could not let his host suffer for his sins. He had to try.

I acted alone, he told Seraphiel. They knew nothing. Only I must Fall.

The leader of the Seraphim sent angry amusement arcing into his thoughts like a lightning bolt. It stung, as intended. Do you take me for a fool? I saw through your shields immediately. I only wanted to see how complete the conspiracy. And so I have. Your whole host is corrupted. They will pay.

A flaming blade appeared in Seraphiel’s hand, rippling with awful blue fire that gave no heat: the Sword of Judgment. With it, he tapped Ezekiel on the shoulder. Ezekiel, your loyalty to your host proved greater than your love for the Most High. I know you yet mourn Gabriel’s loss, so I bear good tidings. The grim glee that accompanied the thought sent a wave of horror through Camael. You may now join him, as the leader of these Fallen. If you can find him. If he yet survives. I know you, Ezekiel. You feared the Fall as nothing else. For our kind, it is the closest thing to death. And so I give you dominion over it. I give to you power over death and transformation. They will beg you for clemency, those dying and doomed, and you will offer none. May it bring you nothing but pain to be known as the Merciless Archangel when your secret heart is so tender.

Camael thought he would run Ezekiel through then, but no. They had conspired together; thus they would die together. And the Seraphim had not finished sentencing them for their crimes.

Seraphiel spun to face Nathaniel. To you, Fallen, I give responsibility for fire. This force can be used for cleansing or destruction. You will spend eternity weighing the difference, judging what must burn, what should rightly burn. Since you were the gentlest of us all, it will be a just punishment, and for each wrong judgment, you shall receive a scar. You will know agony beyond imagining, Nathaniel.

And you, Raziel. The Seraphim pointed the Sword of Judgment. Who first plotted to hide this transgression from me. I find it fitting to give to you the mantle of mysteries. From this day hence, you will be charged with keeping divine knowledge from the mortal world. They must not know of us, see us, or hear of us. You do so love your secrets, do you not? And this responsibility will give you the most contact with humans — and I do know how you love them. You will clean up for them forevermore.

Finally Seraphiel came to a stop before Camael. He stood straight and steady against the terrible threat of the sword. You had carnal knowledge of a human woman and sought to hide it. You put base pleasure before your vows to the Most High. So then, Camael, I charge you with joy. That did not sound terrible, but then the Seraphim continued. You will be responsible for making sure the world stays in balance — that those who ought to be happy, are, even when you are not. In time, it will become. excruciating. I only wish I could be there to see the moment when you realize I have placed upon you the heaviest burden of all. You craved the pleasures of earth, and so I bestow them upon you. You were once princes of heaven; now you are only princes of dust, princes of your small dominions. You are exiles, henceforth, never again to know divine peace. Go forth, Fallen. I cast you out!

Seraphiel swung the Sword of Judgment in a wide arc, and the fire cut them wide open. Beneath their feet, a chasm opened, and then they fell. Pain became Camael’s only awareness. The world washed red.

Eight

As Hana plaited her hair, Rei faced the truth. He was not coming. She had been a fool to place her hopes in a god’s hands. Surely she should have learned by now that they did not care. If anything, they saw this world as a place to come and play, where pleasures might be shared and then forgotten.

He had not promised; he’d only said if I find a way. It seemed impossible that there existed a force that could hinder the will of a god, but then, he had also said he was only a messenger. So perhaps he was not important enough to break free whenever he chose. Perhaps he too had responsibilities.

She bore fresh bruises on her back, but her wedding clothes hid them. Kenzo had tried to take his rights as a husband the night before, and she’d fought him. Not before tonight. And so he’d taken his satisfaction of her in another way — with his fists. He truly might have killed her if Hana had not heard her cries and tiptoed to see. Though she was a silly girl, she was not heartless and she had run to fetch Isuke.

“She is not your bride yet,” her father had said. “While she remains in my house, you will treat her with respect.”

For a long moment, she’d dared to hope her father would call off the ceremony. But no. He needed the Tanaka alliance, so he must abide by the agreement. This was no more than a temporary respite, as Kenzo stormed out. They both knew she would pay dearly for her final night of peace.

“I am sorry for you,” Hana said then. “I wish he was a kind man, like Isuke.”

“It will help the village. I am only one woman, after all. And if I die in Kenzo’s care, Father will have a legitimate grievance. The Tanaka will owe him blood money, so my death may serve better than my life.”

“All the same,” her stepmother said. “It is not my wish for you.”

“Nor mine. But we cannot have our dreams come true.”

If she could, a golden-haired godling would come to smite her enemies and carry her away to his palace in the sky. Instead she sat still while Hana finished her hair and pronounced her ready. “There has never been a prettier bride.”

Untrue. But she forced a smile; she would not wear her misery openly. She was the only living daughter of Isuke of Nakamura, and she would honour him by going to her fate with courage. As Kenzo’s wife, she would not live long. She had antagonized him and shown she had too much spirit, too much of her own mind.

It was hard to contemplate her own death. Rei stood, raised her chin, and followed Hana out of the hut. But as she trod the petal-strewn ground, she heard the call for the second time, like a flute inside her head and trilling in her veins.

He had come. Against all odds, he had come. If she fled with him, the village would suffer. They needed her to seal the peace with Tanaka. Rei shook her head; she had never craved the role of martyr. Then she lifted the hem of her wedding robe and began to run.

Nine

Death. In an agonizing eternity, Camael felt all he was cease to be. The cessation of his divine self hurt more than he could have imagined; as though Seraphiel had rammed the Sword of Judgment through the middle of his soul and he’d come away lesser and smaller. That might be an apt comparison.

Covered in blood, he pushed shakily to his feet. As before, he was naked, and it was cold. But this time, he felt it. The flesh he wore felt heavy and awkward, a meat cage that housed his spirit. Camael took stock of his surroundings, and with some amazement, he realized he’d Fallen beside the river, where he first saw beauty. Of the others, he found no sign. Were they to be punished then by spending an eternity of exile alone with their sins? He longed to see the rest of his host and beg their forgiveness for what his desire had cost them.

He had no way of knowing how long it had been, how long he had suffered in earthly terms. It might have been years, again. She might have forgotten him. He knelt beside the water and washed as best he could. That done, he knew he could not leave this place without learning the truth. Rei was the reason he was here. It was unthinkable to go into exile without knowing.

Now, he needed a fire for warmth instead of comfort, but time might be short. Closing his eyes, he sent the call. While he waited, the chill sank in, raising bumps on his flesh. How he wished he had something to cover himself. He had once thought humans did it to hide their shame, but now he saw there was a more practical reason.

The waiting seemed endless.

And then he heard the soft crackle of dry plants crushed beneath running footfalls. Camael was in no condition to fight, but he recognized her movements even before she burst into sight around the bend in the river. Rei wore a complex robe, layered in sashes, and her hair had been intricately arranged.

“We must go quickly,” she said, breathless. “I will be missed soon.”

Go where? She knew more about this world than he did. Camael had no idea where they might be safe from her pursuers. The only place he could find readily would be the cave where they had sheltered together and made love. Though he was vague on the concept of distance, that would not be far enough away. His whole body burned with cold, and he could not think.

She drew up, staring at him with furrowed brow. Her dark eyes raked him head to toe, taking in the differences. “You’re real this time.”

“Yes,” he said. “I will not be leaving you again.”

Rei froze, terror dawning on her lovely face. “I need you to take me away from here. They will kill you. And me.” But it was clear from her expression, she feared more for him.

Camael went to her then, his uncertainty easing. He took her in his arms. “Fear not. Though I have Fallen, I am not powerless.”

In his heart, he sensed the scales Seraphiel had inflicted on him, weighing the generosity of her spirit against the circumstances surrounding her. The verdict was clear; Rei deserved to be happy — and she was not. Camael sensed the bruises on her back, more serious than the ones he’d healed on her arms. Someone had hurt her and would do worse, if he permitted it.

But he could make her happy. Perhaps he twisted the spirit of the intent, but the Seraphim had given him room to make his own judgments. And so he would.

But before he could make any plans, he heard the sounds of pursuit. These footfalls were unfamiliar to him, but Rei stilled in his arms. Her upturned face reflected pure dread; she thought him helpless.

“Run,” she begged.

The man who burst into sight carried a curved blade. Like Rei, he was dressed in formal regalia, his long black hair upswept. And Camael knew he was also the monster who hurt her. Guilt and fury bled from him in red-black rays, surrounding him like a tainted sun. This one did not deserve joy — and Camael had the power to sever him from all possibility of attaining it.

“I knew you had taken a lover,” the angry beast spat. “And he is not even of our people. You shame your father, Reika.”

She glared at him. “Do not call me that, Kenzo! You have no right.”

“How will you stop me? I have all the power. I am the Tanaka’s firstborn, and I have been wronged. No one will speak a word in protest when I order the two of you executed. See how your beloved cowers.”

Camael stepped away and gently set her from him. He spoke to Kenzo. “You have brought nothing but misery, even to your father. Your mother died bearing you. You are the very soul of grief.”

For the first time, the other appeared shaken. But he rallied, raising his sword. “Words. You have only words.” And Kenzo charged.

Camaek raised his arm and plucked the air with his fingers, latching on to the immortal part of the man who hurt Rei and took pleasure in it. Instead of silver or gold, his life-thread unravelled black and red like the aura blazing around him. This was the right thing; the scales in his heart agreed. It was a fair judgment. With one final tug, he drew the soul out and set it wafting in the air. Its weight would decide its final destination. As with all mortal spirits, it tried to soar, but sin weighted it down, and Kenzo’s soul drifted down into the earth and beyond his knowledge. His body fell, empty and lifeless. The sword clattered to the ground.

“There will be war.” Rei sounded numb. Not with grief, but shock. “What magic have you that you can slay a man with a turn of your wrist?”

“Only that of judgment. He stood in the way of your happiness.”

“And you think his murder will bring me contentment? What manner of monster are you?” She backed away, her slippers sliding on the damp grass.

“Did you love me better when I was not real?”

“I think I did not know you at all.”

“Yet I Fell for you. I gave up everything. You said you would do the same. Did you lie, Rei?”

A sob broke from her. “I — no. No matter what you have done, no matter what it costs me, I love you still. My heart beats for you, whatever dark thing you are.”

Camael smiled, aching for her. She was still — and always would be — the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. “It will cost you nothing. Watch.”

He knelt beside the dead man and touched his fingers to his face. It was a simple task, hardly more than a flicker of energy. When he stood, he was Kenzo. He stripped the robes, dressed, and took the man’s sword, and then he nudged the body into the river. The water claimed it.

“You will take his place,” she breathed. “There will be peace.”

“None will ever know but you. Does this bring you joy?”

“Yes. I never imagined I could keep my home and be with you. I thought there would be a terrible choice.”

There was, Camael thought. And I made it for you.

She kissed him with all the passion she had given him before. Now he could have it for a lifetime. Her lifetime. He would accept the consequences later; he knew now what punishment Seraphiel intended for him. His damnation would be deferred. In centuries to come, he must find the rest of his host — and possibly Gabriel as well — but he would make her happy while he could. Such a short time. How diabolical the leader of the Seraphim — and how clever. But today was not for suffering. Not today.

“Let us marry,” he said aloud to Rei. “I think that is why we are dressed so.”

Her smile nearly blinded him with its delight. Taking his hand, she led him towards the village and their life.

Shirley Damsgaard

Spirit of the Prairie

R.J. Baxter stood on the bluff overlooking the waving prairie grass and cursed fate. A reporter for The News Courier in Michael’s Creek, South Dakota, her editor had sent her out to do yet another “fluff” story. The opening of a cultural center on the Talltree Reservation stretching out before her.

She’d done her research. She knew all about the “lost generation” of Native American children — children who had been rounded up back in the 1940s and carted off to schools run by white missionaries. It had been an attempt at forced assimilation into the white culture and had failed. Its victims were left with feelings of not belonging to either society. When they were finally allowed to return to their people, they knew nothing of their heritage or language. Alcoholism ran rampant. Now their grandchildren were trying to change all that by instilling pride in the next generation, and the new cultural center was the means.

R.J. didn’t need another human-interest story. She needed a juicy murder, a natural disaster, a political scandal — anything to get her out of the bush leagues and bring her work to the attention of a major newspaper. She had talent, but it was wasted writing endless stories about church bazaars and one-candidate elections whose outcome was long decided before the first vote was ever cast.

Ambition sizzled through her as she looked to the heavens and raised her fist. “Give me something, anything,” she cried to the endless stretch of sky.

A crack of thunder drew her attention to the far horizon. Boiling clouds rolled across the prairie as lightning flashed sideways. If she didn’t get back to town and the motel that she’d spotted nestled amid the pawnshops, the bars and the convenience stores, she’d be caught in the rain storm.

With a hurried step, she turned then paused. Her scalp tingled. Someone watched her. Whirling, she searched the landscape. Nothing. Empty except for a lone pine tree to the right of the bluff.

Suddenly its branches trembled, and a huge white owl emerged from behind the thick needles. Unblinking yellow eyes glowed across the distance. Seconds ticked by as it stared at R.J., then with a screech, it lifted its massive wings and launched itself skyward. The storm forgotten, R.J. watched while it soared higher and higher, becoming smaller and smaller, until it disappeared completely into the dark clouds. Shaking herself out of it, she rushed to her Jeep and sped off down the road while the clouds chased after her.

When she reached the town sitting at the edge of the reservation, she whipped into the only motel in sight, bouncing across its empty parking lot. Not the best place she’d ever stayed. The neon sign flickered hypnotically — on and off, on and off, on and off. The doors to each unit looked like they’d recently received a coat of new red paint, but the rest of the building was faded and peeling. With a shrug, R.J. grabbed her purse and ran into the motel office.

A young man sat at an old desk located behind the counter. Holding some kind of computer game in his hand, at first he was oblivious to R.J. When he did notice her, a flare of expectation lit his face only to die instantly.

“What do you want?” he asked in a surly voice, taking in her dark brown hair and brown eyes.

“A room, please,” she replied, approaching the counter.

With a frown, he returned his attention to his game. “We’re full,” he said while his thumbs moved quickly over the keyboard.

Smacking her purse on the counter, R.J. leaned forward. “Then where are all the cars?”

“Sorry.”

Great, the storm was almost upon them — the kid wasn’t going to rent her a room. What did she do now?

She hadn’t reached a decision yet when a door at the back of the tiny office opened. An older man strode out. He took one look at the kid, one at R.J., then noticed her Jeep visible through the office windows. His hand shot out and he gave the kid a whap on the back of his head.

“Put that thing away,” he said, glaring down at the young man. “Can’t you see we have a customer?”

“But Gramps, you said not to rent rooms to—”

Another whomp to the kid’s head silenced him. “You idiot. They don’t drive Jeeps with out-of-county plates.” The man looked at R.J. and gave her a toothy grin. “Sorry about my grandson,” he said, sidling up to the counter. “He’d rather be playing that damn game than doin’ what he’s paid for. Go fold those towels in the back room,” he called sharply over his shoulder.

Without a word, the teen stood and shambled out the back door.

“Need a room, Missy?” the older man asked hopefully.

R.J. thought about telling him he could take his rude grandson and his seedy motel and shove it, but another crack of thunder changed her mind. The idea of searching for another motel during a deluge was less appealing than staying here.

“Yes,” she replied, pulling out her driver’s license and credit card.

The man studied it, comparing the picture to R.J. “Ruth Baxter from Michael’s Creek, hey?”

“Actually, I go by R.J.” She picked up a pen and read the form. “I’ll need it for at least three nights, maybe more.”

Avarice shone in the man’s eyes. “Three nights?” He swiftly ran her card and handed it back to her. “What are you doin’ in this neck of the woods for three nights?”

“I’m a reporter for The News Courier,” she said quickly, filling out the form.

“A reporter, huh? What’s around these parts worth reportin’ on?”

Man, this guy was chatty. But what could it hurt letting him know why she was here?

With a sigh, she handed him her registration. “The new cultural center.”

A frown crossed his face. “Yeah? Would’ve been better for everyone if old Jon Swifthawk and that grandson of his would’ve left well enough alone and let them build a casino.”

Her reporter’s curiosity perked. “A casino?”

“Yup. A casino would’ve brought a lot more tourists than some ratty cultural center. But oh no, Swifthawk had to convince the Council that gambling would only corrupt the young.” He gave a mean snort. “Like they need any—” He suddenly broke off and handed her a key. “Number nine, the one clear at the end.” His eye twitched in a wink. “That way you won’t be bothered by all the comin’ and goin’ next door.”

She wasn’t interested in the bar in the next building, whose parking lot, unlike that of the motel, was full. No, she wanted to hear more about Jon Swifthawk. Taking the key, she glanced down at it, before giving the man a speculative look. “Tell me more about this Jon Swifthawk? Is he someone important?”

“Humph, thinks he is,” he exclaimed, “And his grandson. If you ask me. ” He paused and a look akin to fear crossed his face. “Hey wait a second — you’re not goin’ ta quote me are you?”

“Not if you don’t want me to,” R.J. assured him. “You were saying — Jon Swifthawk’s grandson?”

He turned away from the counter and crossed back to the rickety desk. “Never mind. None of my business about what goes on out there,” he said firmly. “Enjoy your stay.”

Giving up on quizzing him further, she hurried out the door and to her Jeep. She had just parked in front of her room when the first raindrops hit. She reached in the back seat, jerked out her laptop and ran to the door. Once inside, she placed the laptop on the small desk and flipped on the light. Her heart dropped. This was worse than she’d expected.

The room smelled musty and unused, and the floor was carpeted wall to wall in avocado green. Several suspicious dark stains stood out against the putrid color. R.J. refused to let her mind contemplate what might have caused them. A mismatched bedspread was flung across what looked like a very uncomfortable mattress. Above it hung a reproduction of some Frederick Remington print. If the picture had been meant to give the room a touch of class, it had failed miserably. Cheapened by the rest of the décor, it only looked sad.

With a shudder, R.J. crossed the room to take a look at the bathroom. A stool, a shower, a sink in a vanity scarred by cigarette burns met her gaze.

“Won’t be any chocolate mints on the pillow in this dive,” she muttered to herself.

The sudden ring of her cellphone startled her. Crossing to the bed, she pulled it out of her bag. Her lips twisted in a frown. Mom. With a sigh, she flipped it open.

“Hi.”

“Where are you?” her mother asked without preamble.

“I explained last week,” she answered, trying to hide her exasperation. “I’ve been assigned to write a story about—”

Her mother broke in. “You’re going to be home in time for your sister’s baby shower, aren’t you?”

“I’ll try.”

“Trying isn’t good enough. You know how important this is to Dee.” Her voice took on a distinctive whine. “Do you realize how disappointed she’ll be if you’re not there? And the neighbors? What will they think if—” She stopped. “What did you say?”

“Nothing,” R.J. mumbled into the phone. The truth was Dee could not care less if she attended her shower, and R.J. had inadvertently said as much, but thankfully her mother had been too busy with her rant to catch it.

Her mother sniffed. “Well, I expect you to be there. Your aunts have gone to a lot of trouble organizing this. You should’ve helped, but you were too busy.”

R.J. rolled her eyes. “Look, Mom, I have a life and a job. I can’t drop everything just because Dee’s—”

Her mother didn’t let her finish. “We’ll expect you at two on Saturday.”

“Mom,” she began, but her mother had disconnected.

She looked at the silent phone in her hand. “Nice talking to you, too, Mom,” she said, tossing it on the bed.

One of these days, when she finally had the chance to show what she could do, maybe it wouldn’t be “Dee, Dee, Dee” all the time. Her mother would be proud of her, too.

A loud boom reminded her of her suitcase, still out in the Jeep. Crossing to the door, R.J. flung it open and was immediately hit in the face by raindrops, sharp as needles. She winced as she darted into the storm. By the time she’d retrieved her suitcase and hauled it through the door, she was soaked. Wiping the water out of her eyes, she turned to shut the door.

It was half-closed when she heard the noise.

Somewhere, above the sound of the pounding rain, an owl hooted in the night.

The old man stood in the protection of the lean-to while his eyes roamed the storm-tossed sky. Wind whipped at his braids and water poured down in a curtain from the sloped tin roof. Finally he sensed what he’d sought. Stepping out of his shelter into the rain, he extended a leather covered arm and braced himself. The weight of the bird landing made him stumble as sharp talons clung to his arm. With a quick movement that belied his age, he swung around and ducked back under the cover of the roof.

The bird, spotting his perch, leapt with a flutter from the old man’s arm and settled himself. Spreading his immense wings, he ruffled his feathers and shook. Droplets of water flew while his yellow eyes focused on the old man.

Tsking, the old man picked up a towel and gently dried the bird’s white feathers. “I worried for you,” he mumbled softly, dropping the towel.

The owl, his eyes never leaving the old man’s face, bobbed his head twice in response.

With perfect understanding, the old man sighed and glanced back into the storm.

“Ah, it is as I feared,” he whispered.

A chant to welcome the morning sun rang through the meadow. Two voices — one young; one old — melded together in an ancient rhythm while the sky lightened first to grey, to rose, to pink shot with gold. A breeze, sweet from last night’s rain, blew around them and made the cottonwoods shiver.

The younger man’s heart filled with peace. Tipping his head back, he closed his eyes and lifted his arms high. His voice rose, almost drowning out that of his grandfather. Then as the warmth of the first rays touched his face, he let his voice slowly fade. Opening his eyes, he saw Jon Swifthawk watching him. With a smile, his grandfather placed a hand, almost in a benediction, on his grandson’s auburn hair. Pride shone in the old man’s eyes.

“Come, Akecheta,” his grandfather said, calling him by the name he preferred.

With an arm around the old man’s shoulders, Akecheta and his grandfather walked together towards the lean-to.

Jon went directly to his workbench and, removing the cover, looked lovingly at his tools in their neat, straight line. Picking up a twist of sage, he lit it and one by one smudged each tool and a long piece of cedar before sitting on the battered work stool. Taking up a whittling knife, he slowly stroked it down the wood that would become the stem of a sacred pipe.

Akecheta leaned against a post and found comfort in watching his grandfather’s still strong hands slice away slivers of cedar. He’d been only fourteen and suddenly alone when this man had given him a home.

A cold spot formed in the pit of his stomach as he remembered those days and the terror he’d felt on the bus ride from Las Vegas to South Dakota. Just a kid, he’d stepped into a culture he knew little about and into the arms of a man he’d never met.

“Disturbing thoughts serve no purpose, grandson,” his grandfather said without lifting his head.

Pushing away from the post, he shoved his hands in the pockets of his jeans. “I was just thinking about Mom and—”

“We don’t speak of them,” his grandfather said, cutting him off.

His grandfather’s insistence on not mentioning the dead irritated him. He could never share the good memories of his childhood — his mother’s shy smile so different from his father’s boisterous ways. He didn’t know if his grandfather clung to the old custom out of belief, or because his grandfather had hated the man who’d lured his beloved daughter, Dawn, away from her people and into the white world. Either way, it left him feeling that a large part of his life was locked away. A life his grandfather wanted to pretend never existed.

Turning from his grandfather, he stepped out of the lean-to and walked a short distance into the clearing. Over the past twenty years, he’d grown to love his grandfather and this land. As his eyes roamed the clearing, he thought of another land, another clearing eleven years ago. Not dappled with early morning sunlight like it was now. No, it had been scarred with freshly overturned dirt. His heart lurched at the memory of that mass grave and its victims. Dozens of bodies dumped without ceremony. Clenching his jaws, a feral smile twisted his lips. The men responsible had paid. He’d used his talent to hunt them down and — suddenly his grandfather’s voice broke into his thoughts.

“Excuse me?” he said, returning to the lean-to.

His grandfather had placed his tools back on the bench and sat watching him intently. “It’s not good. The reporter — the white woman,” he said, almost choking on the word white.

Akecheta tugged the thin streak of white hair at his temple in frustration. “We’ve been over this, grandfather. I know you don’t want her here, or the tourists her story will bring, but we need them if the Center’s going to pay its own way.”

A grunt answered him.

Grabbing a broom, Akecheta carefully swept up the wood shavings to be used later as kindling for the fire. “The gift shop will bring revenue to the tribe,” he said, making the same argument he’d made a hundred times. “Our people can sell their crafts there instead of peddling them along the road, or worse, in town next to the bars.”

His grandfather’s mouth tightened in a stubborn line. “Nothing good has ever come from the whites.”

The words “what about me?” almost popped out of his mouth, but respect for his grandfather stopped them. Placing the broom against the wall, he knelt before him. “Would a casino have been better? At least the Center will educate our young. Give them a place to go and celebrate our culture.”

His grandfather shook his head sadly. “She brings trouble.”

“We’ve trouble already.” His gaze drifted toward the empty perch above his grandfather’s head. “But we’ll be warned in time.”

“They’ll use her against you.”

“I won’t let them,” he answered.

Cupping Akecheta’s face, the old man stared into his amber eyes. “I don’t know if you can stop them.”

R.J.’s tyres spun as she hit the gravel in the Center’s parking lot. Man, she was late. If some jerk hadn’t let the air out of her back tyres, she’d have been on time. Coming to a sliding halt in a cloud of dust, she noticed a man pacing back and forth in front of the new building.

Tall with auburn hair, his light blue chambray shirt clung to wide shoulders and his jeans fit his legs like a second skin. He looked like he’d be more at home on a horse than a place dedicated to Native Americans.

Spotting the Jeep, the man scowled and started down the stone path toward her. Had he been waiting for her?

R.J.’s interest kicked up a notch. With an attractive man like him hanging around, being stuck out here in the boonies for the next few days wouldn’t be so bad after all. She quickly glanced in the mirror and fluffed her hair. She needed a little more lip gloss, but swiping some on would be too obvious. Grabbing her backpack, she slung her camera around her neck, but before she could open her door, the cowboy beat her to it.

“Hey, cowboy, are you waiting for me?” she said flirtatiously, giving him a wide-eyed look and a flash of her dimples.

The dimples didn’t work. The cowboy’s scowl deepened.

“R.J. Baxter?” the man asked in a brusque voice, “you’re late.”

“Sorry.” Defeated, her smile faded as she jumped out of the Jeep and the man turned, and with long strides, headed back up the path. She ran to catch up with him. “Somebody let the air—”

“Here.” He stopped and shoved four pouches in her hand.

“What—”

“Tobacco.” Taking her arm, he hustled her forward. “When I introduce you, give one to each of the elders.”

Perplexed, she glanced down at the pouches. “Why?”

“It’s a sign of respect,” he replied with a disgruntled look, “but in your case, it’s an apology for keeping them waiting.”

R.J. skidded to a stop and jerked away. She’d had enough of being yanked around. Holding the tobacco in one hand, she placed the other on her hip and glared up at him, towering over her. “Look, I’m sorry I was late, but just who the hell are you?”

“Sean O’Brien. I’m the tribe’s liaison. Any questions, ask me.”

Smart — hiring a white to interact with the press. Too bad he was so abrasive.

Eyeing her camera, he frowned. “No pictures without permission. Don’t touch any of the displays. And remember you’re a guest here. Act accordingly.”

She didn’t appreciate the lecture.

“Any other rules?” she asked, not keeping the sarcasm out of her voice.

He spun and walked away, his boot heels clicking on the polished wood floor. “Not at the moment.”

Wait a minute — she wasn’t following two steps behind. After catching up with him, she matched her strides with his. Noticing her huge steps, a small smirk played across his face. When they reached a doorway at the back of the Center, he motioned her inside.

The room was large. Long windows stretched across the far wall, and above each window hung brightly painted shields. The opposite wall was decorated with paintings depicting the Native American way of life two hundred years ago. Four men, with their hands clasped in the front of them, stood looking very solemn. Long braids hung over their shoulders, and their weathered faces reminded R.J. of old sepia photographs. A feathered staff hung on the wall behind them.

Sean stopped and drew R.J. forward. “George Eagle Feather, Art Walker, Grady Crow Wing, and Jake Swift,” he said with a slight bow to each man. “R.J. Baxter from The News Courier.”

R.J. stepped up to the first man, and handing him the pouch of tobacco, smiled. “Thank you for inviting me.”

The man’s features softened as he took the gift. “Welcome.”

She repeated the process with the remaining three. Once introductions were complete, her eyes were drawn back to the staff. It was wrapped in strips of white, black, yellow and red cloth. Eagle feathers, attached to the cloth by beadwork, gracefully draped down its length. Intricate carving adorned the top.

She moved past the Elders to get a better look. Pausing, her breath hitched while her fingers longed to stroke the soft feathers. She took another step, pulled closer by its beauty. Of its own accord, her hand lifted toward the staff.

Suddenly Sean was beside her.

“This is sacred,” he said softly with a slight shake of his head. “Only warriors may touch it.”

The spell broken, her hand dropped. “May I take a photo?” she asked in a voice that sounded distant to her ears.

Sean cast a glance over his shoulder and the four Elders nodded in unison.

After rapidly shooting several photos, R.J. turned back to the group of men. “Would you mind answering some questions?”

The men exchanged looks before motioning to one of the long tables lining the far wall. When all were seated, the Elders on one side with Sean and R.J. on the other, R.J. removed her pen, notebook and tape recorder from her backpack, placing them on the table.

The recorder caught their attention and they stared at it as if it were a coiled snake. Four pairs of eyes turned to Sean and seconds ticked by as unspoken words seemed to pass between them. Finally, George Eagle Feather spoke, pointing to the recorder. “Yes, we will answer your questions, but you may not tape our voices.”

“Okay.” With a shrug, R.J. tucked the recorder back into her bag and picked up her pen. She’d start out with a few warm-up questions to put them at ease. “Who designed the Cultural Center?” she asked, directing the question to George Eagle Feather.

“A young architect in Minneapolis — Edward Little Bear,” Sean replied.

“A Native American?” R.J. asked, scribbling the name in her notebook.

“Yes, we wanted a designer who understood the culture,” he answered.

She ignored Sean and focused on George Eagle Feather. “How long did it take to complete the project?”

“We broke ground ten months ago,” Sean replied, launching into an explanation. “All the materials are from the reservation and from renewable resources. During the construction, the entire tribe participated in some way.” He pointed to the shields and the paintings, hanging on the walls. “These were all made by people here on the reservation, as were many of the displays that I’ll show you later.”

R.J.’s pen paused while irritation shot through her. This — some carefully crafted script that anyone could write — wasn’t the story she wanted. Not if she wanted a major newspaper to notice her. It was time to hit him with something from left field.

Cocking her head, she studied him. “Why a cultural center instead of the casino that some of members of the tribe wanted?”

Her question hit its mark. Without glancing their way, she heard the Elders shift in their seats while Sean’s amber eyes flared.

He recovered quickly and gave her a tight smile. “There’s always two sides to every question, but the important thing is, in the end, the tribe came together to build this.” Rising, he motioned to the door. “Come, I’ll show you the rest of the building.”

Reluctantly, R.J. stood. She would love to get one of the Elders aside and grill him about any dissention that might have existed, but Sean wasn’t going to give her the opportunity. Maybe she’d have her chance later.

After voicing her thanks to the Elders, she followed Sean into the display area. While they strolled along, he gave a running monologue, describing each display and its significance. They paused in front of photos showing families standing in front of tar paper shanties; dancer displays with elaborate costumes and beautifully beaded moccasins; tribal implements used hundreds of years ago when the people still roamed the plains following the buffalo.

Interesting, but R.J. had finally had enough. She stopped short in front of a large stone plague. “I appreciate the tour, but if you really want to draw tourists, you’ve got to give me a better angle than this.”

“What do you mean?”

“What makes this place different than every other Native American museum in the country?”

“I told you — it’s made of material from the reservation; the entire tribe worked—”

R.J. cut him off with a wave of her hand. “So? You think anyone really cares about that stuff? Readers want to know more than just facts and figures. They want the human story.”

“Such as?”

“Well, one question that springs to mind — why did the Elders hire a white to represent the Center?”

He stiffened. “I’m not white.”

“But with a name like O’Brien, I assumed—”

“You assumed wrong,” he said, cutting her off. “My father was white, but I was raised here.”

“Don’t you know who this is?” a voice from behind her called out.

R.J. turned to see a man standing a few feet away. Shorter than Sean and barrel-chested, he wore a dark shirt and jeans. A pair of sunglasses dangled from a pocket embroidered with the words “Tribal Police”.

He crossed the short distance and held out his hand. “You must be the reporter. I’m Charlie Two Horses. Welcome to the rez.”

Shaking his hand, R.J. stole a look at Sean who’d taken a step back. “Thanks.”

Charlie turned toward Sean and smiled. “So our boy here didn’t tell you about himself, huh?”

Sean shuffled uncomfortably. “This isn’t necessary, Charlie.”

“Of course it is,” he replied turning back to R.J. “This here’s Sean Swifthawk O’Brien, grandson of Jon Swifthawk. Raised you didn’t he, Sean, after your parents were killed?”

“We don’t need to go into that, Charlie.”

Charlie’s face took on an expression of innocence. “But I heard her say she wanted a ‘human’ story, and just think how yours would tug on the heart strings. the son of murdered parents; a poor half-breed kid shipped off to the rez to be raised by one of the most important men in the tribe?”

“My family background doesn’t have anything to do with the Center,” Sean said in a clipped voice.

“Sure, it does, Sean. You and your grandfather were the ones who talked the tribe into building it—” He stopped and looked at R.J. “Sean was also the one who got white investors to put up the money.”

“I organized a few fundraisers.”

Charlie snorted “A few fundraisers? How much did you get? A cool—”

“That’s enough, Charlie,” Sean said, his hands clenched at his side.

Charlie took a step forward. “What’s wrong, Swifthawk,” he spat out the word. “Don’t want to give her too—”

“Not now,” Sean began, his chin rising. “She doesn’t—”

“Doesn’t what?” Charlie interrupted, moving closer.

R.J. squirmed. A fight breaking out in the Cultural Center would make a better story, but she really didn’t want to see them come to blows. “What’s this?” she asked quickly, trying to diffuse the rising tension.

“Ah that,” Charlie said, suddenly forgetting Sean and stepping up to the plaque. He ran his finger down the carved names, stopping on one near the bottom. “It’s in honor of our warriors. All who’ve proudly served in the Armed Forces.” He tapped the plaque. “Here’s my name,” he finished proudly.

R.J. read down through the names. “Where’s yours, Sean.”

Charlie gave a bark of laughter. “He didn’t serve, did you, Sean?”

“Not in the Army,” he replied curtly.

Charlie shrugged. “That’s right — you went off to college instead.” He shrugged again. “Not everyone’s cut out to be a warrior.” Taking his sunglasses out of his pocket, he settled them on his face. “Nice meeting you, R.J.” With a slight sneer, he glanced at Sean before returning his attention back to her. “If there’s anything I can do, be sure and let me know.”

R.J. watched Charlie march down the hall before turning back to Sean. “Ah,” she began, but the words caught in her throat.

His eyes — for a split second, she could’ve sworn they changed from amber to yellow.

It was late afternoon by the time R.J. returned to the motel. After Charlie had left, Sean had continued his tour of the Center. He’d been articulate and at times even charming. She would’ve needed ice flowing through her veins in order not to have felt the tug of attraction, especially when he smiled. Man, he had a great smile. And the pride he felt in the Center would’ve been kind of cool had she not known he was only using her as a means to an end. She had cooperated. She’d taken a ton of photos, learned all about life on the prairie, and could quote exactly how many stones they’d used in constructing the Center.

No doubt about it — this story was going to be just another piece of fluff, she thought, slapping her hand on the steering wheel in frustration. The only thing that had been remotely interesting, other than staring at Sean, was the animosity between him and Charlie Two Horses. But was that a lead she wanted to pursue? She remembered the look on Sean’s face as he watched Charlie walk away. She wasn’t a coward, but the idea of coming up against Sean Swifthawk O’Brien made her shiver. And not in a good way.

She’d almost made it past the bar, when suddenly someone stepped out between two parked cars and waved her down.

Charlie Two Horses.

Rolling to a stop, she cranked down the driver’s window.

“Hey, good to see you again,” Charlie said, approaching her door then motioning toward the bar. “How about a beer?”

She debated with herself for a moment. She wasn’t an idiot — this guy had an agenda and he wanted to use her to achieve it. But on the other hand, she had her own agenda — a better story than the one she was being forcefed. What could it hurt to at least talk to him?

With a nod, she pulled into an empty parking space.

From inside the bar, the jukebox whined with the sound of steel guitars and a singer lamenting how “she’d done him wrong”. Above the bar itself, hung an old TV with the volume shut off. Some sporting event flickered across the screen. Taking her arm, Charlie held up two fingers to the bartender then guided her past the pool tables to a booth in the back. They’d barely settled when a waitress with the biggest beehive R.J. had ever seen slapped two bottles of beer in front of them. Without a word she turned and sauntered back to the bar.

Charlie lifted his bottle, saluted R.J., then took a long pull. Scooting back, he stretched an arm across the back of the bench. “So? What did you think of the Center?”

She thought for a moment before answering him. The best way to play this was close to the vest, sound non-committal, let Charlie do all the talking.

“It’s nice,” she replied, in a neutral voice.

“But not much of a story, huh?”

She lifted a shoulder in a shrug.

Dropping his arm, he shifted forward. “I could give you a better angle than the one Swifthawk shoved on you.”

This guy really did want to dish the dirt. Regardless of her trepidation about Sean O’Brien, R.J. felt a tickle of excitement. “Like what?” she asked, keeping her face calm.

He downed his beer and motioned to the waitress for another. Sliding the empty bottle to the side, he crossed his arms on the table. “See here’s the deal — the rez needs money. I could show you homes that are no better than squatter shacks and the Center isn’t going to change that.” He stopped as the waitress smacked another beer in front of him. He waited until she was out of earshot before continuing. “A casino would.”

“A little late for that, isn’t it,” R.J. replied. “The tribe chose to build the Center, not a casino.”

“They were misled.” His eyes darted to the side before returning to R.J. Leaning forward, his voice dropped. “Swifthawk and his grandfather didn’t want a casino and persuaded them it would be easier to finance the Center.”

“And Sean raised the money?”

“Yeah.” He sipped on his beer. “Him and his white buddies.”

“Then convince him to raise the money for a casino.”

His mouth twisted in a bitter line. “Swifthawk won’t do it. Him and his grandfather want to cling to the old ways. They want our people to live as they did 200 years ago. It can’t be done.” His expression lightened. “But here’s the beauty of it — now we don’t need him. The Center’s paid off and it could be used as collateral to finance a casino.”

R.J. threw a hand in the air. “There’s your solution.”

“No,” he said with a shake of his head. “Like I told you — they don’t want a casino and they’ll do everything they can to stop it.”

“I don’t see how I can help you.”

His eyes narrowed and he gave her a smug grim. “If you dig below the surface, you’re going to find Swifthawk’s motives aren’t as pure as he’d like the tribe to believe.”

“You want me to discredit him.”

“No, I want you to write the truth.”

“Which is?”

“How Sean’s sold out to white investors.” He moved even closer. “I can give you names — people who’ll tell you the truth about Swifthawk.”

A million ideas bounced through her mind and she longed to whip out her notebook and begin taking notes. But that would seem too anxious. Much better to let Charlie think he needed to convince her.

“How do you know they’ll talk to me?”

“Oh, they’ll talk, if you ask the right questions,” he answered cryptically.

“How can I? I don’t know anything about Sean and his grandfather.”

Charlie’s lips pursed. “You won’t get much on the old man. Going back as far as I can remember, people on the rez have always been reluctant to talk about him.” He shook his head. “Even my own grandfather — I did hear him say something once, but my grandmother shushed him.”

“What was it?”

“I can’t recall his exact words,” he replied, scratching his chin. “But it wasn’t about Jon Swifthawk. It was about his father.”

“Sean’s great-grandfather?”

“Yeah. ” he paused, trying to remember. “He said something about animal totems.”

“What are they?”

“Never mind — we’re talking forty years ago.” He picked up his beer, drank it in one long gulp then stood. Throwing a piece of paper on the table, he stared down at her. “I’m telling you — if you want a ‘real’ story, take a closer look at Sean.”

The dying sun cast long shadows in the clearing. In its centre, Sean stood before the fire, watching the rocks glow red. He removed a pinch of tobacco from the pouch dangling at his waist. Holding it high, he turned to the north and let it fall from his fingertips. He shifted to the east, to the south, to the west, repeating the process as he offered the sacred herb to Mother Earth. Finished, he turned back to the fire and grabbed a pitchfork. Using it, he carried the hot rocks one by one into the canvas-covered sweat lodge and placed them in the fire pit.

Satisfied the stones were aligned, he exited the lodge and quickly pulled off his boots, his socks, his jeans, until finally he stood naked in the gathering twilight. Turning he entered the lodge.

It was like walking into an oven. Instantly sweat popped from his pores and snaked down his face, chest and arms in tiny rivulets. Moving to the blanket woven by his grandmother, he sat cross-legged and reached for a ladle of water from the nearby bucket. He cast water on the shimmering rocks, making the air hiss with steam.

Hot, so hot. It felt like the spit inside his mouth was ready to boil. With a sharp intake of breath, he picked up the drum at his side. He shut his eyes and began beating a slow rhythm on the taut deer hide while he focused on the spot deep inside where his heritage lay.

He needed guidance. The confidence he’d shown his grandfather had been false and, at times, the special burden he bore threatened to crush him. He knew his power and the temptation to control it was a constant fight. How could he help his people win their battles if he couldn’t even win his own?

He beat the drum harder.

The brush of wings seemed to graze his cheek while, softly, the distant whisper of his ancestors began to echo in his ears. Images flickered in the recess of his mind. A buffalo thundering across the plains, a lone wolf darting through the cotton-woods and, finally, a white owl soaring into the heavens. He felt connected to all that had gone before him and the heaviness in his heart eased with each beat of the drum.

He would help his people towards a better life. He would win against those who plotted his downfall. He would stop them from using the woman.

The woman. His hand faltered and he felt his connection slip. She had tried to charm him, slip under his defences. She’d almost succeeded, but it wasn’t her dimples that had drawn him, but her refusal to be intimidated.

It was a new experience for him. Most of the people on the reservation had always steered clear of him — either due to the rumours that had circulated about his family, or because they didn’t trust him. Whatever the reason, it no longer mattered to him. His only concern was saving their culture.

He needed to remember that. He needed to remind himself even though she might look like a Native with her dark hair and dark eyes, the heart that beat beneath the pretty exterior was white. He’d sensed her ambition, her self-serving attitude. He knew she wanted more than he was willing to give.

What of her reaction to the sacred staff? He knew she wanted to touch it and would’ve had he not stopped her. Why? Was it just the need to handle something “unique”, or had the staff called to her?

Her face took over his mind, chasing away the buffalo, the wolf, the snow owl. The whispers died. No! His questions hadn’t been answered.

He pounded the drum harder; pounded until his fingers ached, trying to banish thoughts of the woman and to regain his link with his ancestors. No good. All he saw in his mind’s eye was her face smiling at him, and all he felt was the pull of a culture he’d left long ago.

Laying the drum aside in frustration, he rose and left the lodge.

The sun had set and the evening star shone in the night sky above the cottonwoods. Gleaming with perspiration, he paused and glanced toward the trees while steam rolled off his naked body. His eyes were sharp and he saw what the darkness hid. Night creatures — like him — hunting their prey. A longing to join them came over him. To run free and wild. To forget the woman, forget his questions. He tamped it down. He’d bent to bundle his clothes when he felt the air stir. He looked up. Above him white wings glistened in the starlight.

“Little Brother,” he murmured acknowledging the owl, then with heavy steps walked away from the lodge.

Like a disembodied spirit, the white bird hovered over him, guarding his back.

The thin drapes did little to block the wavering light of the motel sign outside R.J.’s window. It flashed like a strobe light across the yellowed ceiling. She lay on her back and watched while thoughts of half-remembered dreams lingered in her mind. She’d been on the prairie, walking through tall grasses blooming with yellow, purple and white flowers. In the distance, from a branch in a tall cottonwood, a white owl seemed to beckon her. Her steps had quickened. Then. nothing. Whatever had happened next in the dream eluded her. Baffled, she flipped over on to her stomach and buried her face in her pillow. “Forget it, go to sleep,” she mumbled. But she couldn’t. Not when her pillow smelled like a hunk of month-old bread. She rolled back over and stared at the lights once again.

She had to reach a decision. Did she pursue the information that Charlie Two Horses had given her, or did she write the story Sean O’Brien expected of her? If the first story was as juicy as Charlie hinted, it could be THE ONE. Her toes curled at the thought of what such a story could bring into her life. Recognition, respect, money.

But what would an exposé do to Sean O’Brien’s life? If what Charlie said was true, and he had sold out, then he had it coming. So what if he was one of the best-looking men she’d ever seen? Hormones had no place in journalism. She was a pro, not some simpering female blinded by a guy’s smile.

A prickle of conscience hit her. Even the truth could come in shades of grey and, as a pro, she knew she could spin the story any way she wanted. She had the power to make Sean O’Brien either the hero or the villain of the piece. Which would it be?

Tossing the covers to the side, she swung her legs off the bed and pulled jeans over her gym shorts. She grabbed her sweatshirt and threw it on, too. She couldn’t think straight in this musty, smelly room. She needed fresh air. A drive would clear her mind.

Moments later she was flying down a black ribbon of highway, while the moonlit prairie whizzed by her open window. Without knowing why, she found herself back at the same spot where she’d stood and watched the storm roll in. She shut off the ignition and scanned the landscape. Yesterday, she’d felt eyes upon her. If she got out of the car, would she feel it again? It was the middle of the night and she was alone. How did she know what might be lurking in the tall grass?

“You’re nuts, R.J.,” she muttered, her hands gripping the wheel. “Go back to the motel.”

She remembered the haunting dreams, the stale room, the flickering lights. A tightness squeezed her chest and she took a deep breath to ease it. The scent of sweet grass and wild clover seemed to fill the Jeep and she looked longingly across the plains. So fresh and clean.

“Quit being a ninny.” She pushed the door open and climbed out. “It was only a stupid owl,” she whispered with a glance at the lone pine tree.

High grass brushed against her pant legs as she tromped up the hill and, in the stillness, it sounded as loud as a troop of soldiers marching. At the top of the rise, she stopped and took a deep breath. Nothing but miles and miles of heaven and earth. No houses, no lights, no fences. A strange feeling of aloneness came over her and with it a sense of freedom. Is this how the Native Americans once felt, wandering a land with no boundaries?

A sudden whoosh followed by the soft rustling of grass made her spin round. Her eyes scanned the ground between her and the Jeep. As empty as the space behind her.

She turned back to the endless landscape. Quit dithering she told herself, thinking of the paper Charlie had given her. It wouldn’t hurt to meet a few people, ask a few questions. She wouldn’t let Charlie use her any more than she intended to let Sean O’Brien. She could—

“What are you doing here?” a voice behind her whispered.

She twirled so fast she almost lost her balance while her heart seemed to stutter in her chest. In the moonlight, she recognized Sean, climbing the hill towards her. Her temper flamed.

“What am I doing?” she asked, her eyes narrowing. “What are you doing, sneaking up on me?”

A small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth as if he were pleased that he’d startled her. It vanished. “It’s not smart to be out here alone. People have been known to disappear.”

She lifted her chin a notch. “I’m not afraid.”

“Maybe you should be.”

“Are you threatening me?” she shot back.

“Of course not. I’m well aware of the power of the press.” A real smile flashed in the dark. “I wouldn’t dream of threatening a woman who buys ink by the gallon.”

Damn, he could turn on the charm when he wanted and she felt her anger soften. “You didn’t answer my question.”

“What am I doing here?” He lifted a shoulder. “Like you, I couldn’t sleep.”

“How did you—”

His low voice cut her off. “Look over there.” He pointed to a spot on the left. “Do you see them? A mother coyote with half-grown pups.”

R.J.’s eyes searched the prairie, trying to see what he did, but she only saw waving grass. “I can’t.”

He stepped away from her. “Ah, well, I come out here a lot at night.” He hesitated. “I guess my eyes are accustomed to the dark.”

“I’ll say,” R.J. said, still trying to pick out the coyote. “I can’t see a—”

“I love it out here,” he said, suddenly changing the subject. “At night, I can imagine how it must’ve been two hundred years ago.”

“The freedom.”

He glanced at her, surprised. “You felt it too. I didn’t realize you were so perceptive.”

She recalled Charlie’s words about their way of life. “You can’t go back, you know.”

Moving a few paces away, he bowed his head for a moment before squaring his shoulders and facing her. “I know. We have to go forward if our culture is going to survive.”

“The Center.”

“Yes. ” his voice trailed away. “Charlie talked to you, didn’t he?”

It was her turn to be surprised. “How did you know?”

He gave a soft snort. “I’ve known Charlie a long time. He’s using you.”

R.J. crossed the distance between them. “Please. Don’t insult my intelligence by stating the obvious. I know he has an agenda.” She stopped and looked up at him. “But then again, so do you.”

“My only goal is to help the tribe have a better life.”

“Not according to Charlie.”

“What did he say?”

“Oh, that’s not the way this works,” she said, cocking a hip and shaking her head. “If you want information from me, you have to reciprocate.”

He lifted an eyebrow. “Seems Charlie and I aren’t the only ones with agendas.”

“Damn straight!” she exclaimed. “I’m tired of writing stories that any eighth-grader could write.”

“Regardless of the truth?”

“Of course not,” she replied with heat in her voice. “I don’t want lies — I want the real story.”

“No one would believe it,” he murmured more to himself than her.

Her breath quickened. This guy was weakening. If she played it right, if she could convince him to be honest with her. She took a step closer. “Sure they would. I’m good, really good,” she insisted. “Give it to me straight and that’s the way I’ll write it. Cross my heart.”

He startled her by placing a hand on her cheek. “I can’t,” he said sadly. “There are some things that can never be revealed. Forget about the story, Ruth Baxter, and go home. We’ll find another reporter.”

Looking into his eyes, she felt the full force of his magnetism and, without thinking, moved in until they were almost touching.

She heard his sharp intake of breath and time seemed to slow. His eyes glowed in the night with desire and with something else. A wildness that she’d never seen before. His face lowered to hers.

When his mouth touched hers, she felt the thing that had been coiled inside of her for so long smooth. Her driving ambition faded and her entire focus was on the mouth pressing against hers. Stealing her hands up his arms, they settled on his shoulders and pulled him closer. Her lips parted and she felt, more than heard, his groan. She tasted him while his scent surrounded her. The strangest feeling came over her. It was if she were gliding toward the heavens, no longer tied to the earth. Suddenly his mouth left hers and began a trail across her cheek, down her neck, to a place right below her ear. Heat shot through her as his tongue began to trace lazy circles on her sensitive skin. She tipped her head to the side and gripped his broad shoulders. His hand stole down her back, cupping her bottom and bringing her closer.

This is crazy registered somewhere in the corner of her mind. She’d known him less than twenty-four hours and she wasn’t even sure she liked him. Yet all he had to do was kiss her and she turned into a wild thing.

Abruptly he released her and jerked away.

Dazed, R.J. tottered while a cool breeze chased away the heat.

“Wh-wh—” she stuttered.

Grabbing her arm, he began to drag her down the hill toward the Jeep. “We have to leave.”

She stumbled. Sean righted her. When they’d reached the vehicle, he opened the door and tried to bundle her in. The rush down the hill had cleared her thinking and she dug in her heels, refusing to budge.

“Wait a second. What’s going on? One minute you’re all over me like a rash, then—”

“I don’t have time to explain. I’m needed at the Center.”

The expression on his face told her not to argue. She shoved the keys into the ignition and jerked her head at the passenger side. “Let’s go.”

“No, you go back to the motel—”

“No you don’t,” she interrupted, “you’re not ditching me. Get in.”

“But,” he said with a glance over his shoulder, “I can travel faster if I—” His hand hit the side of the Jeep. “Damn!” Slamming the door shut, he ran to the other side and jumped in. He barely had his seatbelt fastened when she hit the gas and sped off down the road. Minutes later, they were at the Center. They opened their doors at the same time, but before she could leap out, his hand restrained her.

“You stay,” he hissed, jabbing a finger at her. Without giving her a chance to answer, he was out of the Jeep and running into the Center in loping strides. He disappeared inside.

Fuming, R.J. gripped the steering wheel. Every instinct told her she was missing out on the action, but what? Only one way to find out. Leaning over, she grabbed her can of mace out of the glove compartment then, exiting the Jeep, quietly stole up the walkway. Inside, she paused and let her eyes adjust to the shadows. Slowly she crept down the hallway, one finger on the trigger of the mace while her other hand trailed the wall, guiding her.

She stopped halfway and listened. Silence. She began to feel foolish. What was she doing sneaking around in the middle of the night, hanging on to a can of mace like her life depended on it? That Sean O’Brien was playing her. He ran hot then cold. Next he scares her into thinking that something big is happening. Nothing was happening. And he was just plain weird.

Turning on her heel, she started back the way she came. She’d leave him here, go back to the motel, write the stupid story, then blow this place. Her mother would be happy. She’d be home in time for the baby shower. So what if this story didn’t pan out as she’d hoped. One of these days—

A loud crash followed by a shriek startled her. Spinning, she ran down the hall to the Council room and skidded to a stop inside the door.

Moonlight streaming through the windows lit the scene playing out before her. Two men crouched in the middle of the room with arms stretched over their heads, weaving and bobbing, while a white owl circled above them. With a screech, the owl extended its talons and dive-bombed the men. The bird sliced at their faces. One man cried out. Wheeling, it soared back towards the ceiling, getting ready to make another run.

R.J. turned to race away but an arm, shooting around her neck, jerked her backwards. She slammed into a body and her adrenaline surged. Without thinking, she lifted her heel and brought it down full force on the foot next to hers. His grip loosened while his yelp joined the cries of his buddies. Pivoting, she sprayed him in the eyes with the mace and fled. She had to get out of there. She didn’t know what was going on, but she didn’t want any part of it. Some reporter!

She was almost to the door when she heard the beating of wings behind her.

Shit, the damn owl was after her now.

Hearing a thump, she whirled, ready to give the owl a shot of mace.

Up close, it was huge. Staring at her with yellow eyes, it expanded its wings until they stretched wider than a man’s body. R.J. gasped and in the blink of an eye, the shape in front of her changed.

The owl disappeared and Sean O’Brien stood in its place.

Staggering back, she hit the wall and felt her face turn white. The can of mace slipped from her nerveless fingers and rolled down the hall. Her eyes, never leaving Sean, watched him bend and snag it.

He took one step.

Knees buckling, her last thought before hitting the floor. what a story!

The not-so-soft tapping on the side of her cheek was the first thing she felt. She opened her eyes to find herself sprawled on the floor with Sean kneeling beside her. Sitting up, she scooted until her back hit the wall. “What hap—”

“You tripped and hit your head,” Sean said quickly, cutting her off. Standing, he offered her his hand.

She brushed it away and scrambled to her feet. A wave of nausea hit her. She clutched her stomach and took a deep breath. “No, I didn’t.” Straightening, she looked him square in the eye. “An owl was chasing me — only it wasn’t an owl — it was—”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” He gave a quick glance over his shoulder. “You need to leave.”

She crossed her arms over her chest and held her ground. “No way. Not until I get some answers.”

“There are no answers,” he spat out and marched to the door. Flinging it open, he waited for her. “The Center’s been vandalized and the men escaped. You have to leave before Charlie and his goons show up.” Reaching out, he grabbed her arm and pulled her forwards.

Yanking away, she glared at him. “Why? We can explain what happened.”

“And what are you going to say?” he asked, his eyes drilling into hers. “How are you going to explain what you, a white woman, were doing at the Center in the middle of the night?” He pointed toward her Jeep. “Go.”

Giving up, she followed him down the path. Her mind felt muddled. Did she see the owl change into Sean? Like he said, it was ridiculous. Things like that just didn’t happen in the real world. Sean had been in the shadows. She’d been scared. Her eyes had played tricks on her. When he stepped out, it only appeared that the owl transformed.

But what had happened to the owl? She opened her mouth to ask, but before she could speak, Sean opened the Jeep’s door and hustled her into the driver’s seat. Slamming it shut, he turned back toward the Center.

“Wait,” she called out. “Aren’t you coming with me?” With a deep sigh, he shook his head. “No, I’ll be needed here.” He faced her. “It would be better for both of us if you left and forgot this place.”

Sean stood before the Council and tried not to look at Charlie Two Horses, sitting at the end of the table. He longed to shred the smug grin from Charlie’s face as he spun his lies to the Elders. With a will of their own, Sean’s fingers curled talon-like at his side, but he remained still. Next to him, his grandfather, rigid with indignation, glared at the tribal leaders.

“Akecheta stopped the vandals,” his grandfather insisted.

“Did he stop them, or did I stop him?” Charlie asked before any of the Elders could speak. “When I arrived, the place was a shambles and he was alone.”

As his grandfather focused the full weight of his stare on Charlie, Sean felt a small wave of pleasure when Charlie squirmed, but he kept his face blank.

“That makes no sense,” his grandfather said with a wave of his hand. “Akecheta worked hard to build this place. Why would he want to destroy it?”

“Insurance,” Charlie replied.

His grandfather shifted his attention from Charlie to George Eagle Feathers as if Charlie’s words had no importance. “Only a foolish man says foolish things.”

Rebuffed, Charlie’s face lost some of its smugness while he leaned forwards and addressed George. “I checked. There was no sign of a break-in and, other than the Council, Sean is the only one who has keys. If there were three men as he claims, how did they get in?”

Moving past Sean, his grandfather stood directly in front of Charlie and, placing his hands on the table, leaned in. “I know what you’re trying to do—”

A sudden commotion at the door interrupted him. All eyes turned toward the sound and watched R.J. blunder into the room.

Sean suppressed a groan. Ah hell, what’s she doing here? Steeling himself, he didn’t look her way when she came to stand beside him.

“I apologize,” she began, focusing on the Elders and ignoring Charlie, “I don’t mean to intrude in private matters, but when I heard Sean had been accused, I felt I needed to help.”

“Why?” Charlie barked. “You barely know him.”

Shifting her attention to Charlie, she gave him a stiff smile. “True, but I know for a fact he isn’t responsible.”

“How?” Charlie scoffed.

Turning back to the Elders, she showed her dimples. “I was here, too.”

From behind him, Sean heard his grandfather’s gasp.

Charlie shifted forward. “Really? Why?”

“I recently received some information,” she replied, giving Charlie a pointed look, “and I wanted to give Sean a chance to respond.” She turned her attention to George. “When we arrived, there were three men. at least I think it was three. it was dark.” She glanced at him as if she expected him to confirm her story. When he didn’t, she gave a shrug and glossed over what really happened. “They saw us and ran off.”

George’s eyes shifted from R.J. to Sean. “Is this true? Why didn’t you speak of her?”

Sean’s jaw clenched and unclenched. He appreciated R.J. coming to his defence, but in reality she’d only made the situation worse. He’d kept an eye on Charlie during R.J.’s explanation. Speculation had played across Charlie’s face the whole time. Not good. By aligning herself with him, she’d just made an enemy. He had to get this inquisition over quickly and get her out of town.

“I didn’t think it right to involve her in tribal business.” He finally allowed himself to look at her. “She has her story and will be leaving town today,” he said, with emphasis on ‘today’.

R.J. refused to meet his eyes.

George placed his hands on the table and stood. “Thank you for stepping forward. If you’ll excuse us?”

She took the hint. And after casting a triumphant look first at Charlie then at George, she left the room.

It didn’t take long for the Council to dismiss Charlie’s allegations. Relieved, Sean and his grandfather quietly walked to the door. Sean could feel the disapproval rolling off his grandfather in waves and he wasn’t looking forward to the explanations he’d have to make. He’d acted foolishly last night, letting the woman distract him. Only by luck had he won this battle. If he were to continue to win, he had to forget her and step up his guard.

His grandfather didn’t wait long to jump him. They stepped into the hallway and he pulled him to the side.

“What were you thinking,” his grandfather hissed. “Why did you bring the woman here? Did she see—”

Sean held up his hand, stopping him. “Yes, but I think I convinced her that she imagined it.”

His grandfather exploded. “You think? For god’s sake, she’s a reporter — a white reporter.”

“Grandfather, I mean no disrespect, but who would believe her if she wrote the truth? A story like that would destroy her reputation as a reporter. And trust me, she’d never risk her career.”

Slightly mollified, his grandfather continued down the hallway. “Maybe, but stay away from her,” he cautioned.

“Don’t worry, I w—”

The words died as he stepped outside and saw R.J. waiting by her Jeep.

Shit.

When she came running up to them, he had no choice but to introduce her to his grandfather. “R.J. Baxter,” he said, indicating her. “R.J., this is my grandfather, Jon Swifthawk.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she replied, rummaging around in her bag. A second later, she withdrew a pouch of tobacco and handed it to his grandfather. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

Reluctantly, he accepted her gift, while Sean felt a glimmer of pride that she’d remembered their custom.

“Miss Baxter,” his grandfather said gruffly. “Thank you for defending my grandson.”

With a shy smile, she nodded. “I appreciate the time he’s given me.”

“Hmm,” his grandfather said with a steely look his way. “I must get home — Sean?”

“I’ll be there in a minute,” he said, “I need to discuss something with R.J.”

She waited until his grandfather had reached his pickup then leaned in.

“He doesn’t approve of me,” she whispered.

“It’s not personal, it’s—” his voice faltered. “Look, I don’t have much time. I want you to leave today. You’ll no longer be welcome here.” He made a move to join his grandfather, but she shifted to the side, blocking him.

“Wait, I need to talk to you.”

He made a move around her. “No you don’t. You have your story.”

“Do I?” Her eyes narrowed. “You want me to write about what happened last night?”

“Go ahead,” he answered with a shrug. “We stopped a break-in. That’s it.”

She cocked her hip and gave him a long stare. “Yeah? Well call me crazy, but I think there was a little more to it than that.”

“Such as?”

“Such as. who were they? How did they get in? What was their motive?” she replied, ticking off her questions. Her voice dropped and she stepped closer. “And, last but not least — how in the hell does an owl change into a man?”

“That’s impossible. The blow to your head must’ve addled your brain,” he scoffed.

“Really?” She touched the back of her scalp. “If I hit my head, why don’t I have a bump? Now what about that owl?”

“There wasn’t an owl,” he insisted.

Her eyebrows lifted. “Tell that to the grandson of the guy who owns the motel.” She whistled through her teeth. “Man, you should see the gouges on the side of that kid’s face—”

“A white boy? I thought—” He stopped and, taking her arm, pulled her around the side of the building. “You recognized him from last night?”

“No, but I can recognize claw marks when I see them.”

He plucked on the white streak at his temple. Great, what did he do now? This woman was too clever for her own good — for his own good. He gave her arm a shake.

“Thanks to your butting in today, they now know you were with me,” he said through clenched teeth. “It’s not safe. You have to leave today. Go back to Michael’s Creek. Forget about the story. I’ll square it with your editor.”

Her face took on a mutinous look. “I don’t want to forget.”

“I told you,” he hissed, “people have disappeared on the prairie. You could be next.”

“I’m not afraid,” she blustered.

“You should be. There are ravines deep enough to hide a body until next spring. Do you want to wind up a pile of bleached bones?”

She gulped. “Not really.”

“Then leave.” He spun on his heel, but her hand on his arm stopped him.

“Listen. I’ll leave. Tomorrow. Meet me tonight,” she pleaded, “I can’t walk away without answers. I promise I’ll keep my mouth shut. ” she hesitated. “I just need to know I’m not nuts.”

His mouth formed in a grim line. “You’re not, but I am. Meet me at eleven.”

Leaning her head against the driver’s window, R.J. waited for Sean. She glanced at the dashboard clock. He was late. Was he standing her up? He’d better not. If he tried, she’d hunt him down like a dog. She wasn’t leaving town without answers.

Regardless of what he’d said, R.J. still had a problem wrapping her mind around what she’d seen. Lying awake last night and staring at the ever-blinking lights, she’d gone over and over the scene in her mind. It had happened so fast. First there was the owl then there was Sean. Being a reporter, her life had brushed up against a lot of odd things and she’d become convinced a long time ago that life really was stranger than fiction. But this?

Only when the first rays of morning lightened the sky had she decided it hadn’t been her imagination. Old legends were true. Sean Swifthawk O’Brien was a shapeshifter. And she wanted him to confirm it.

But first she needed more information. Before she confronted him, she had to learn all she could about shapeshifting and Native American lore. She’d tried going online but she couldn’t find a connection from her crappy motel room. It was when she’d gone to the motel’s office to ask where the nearest Internet connection might be that she’d seen the kid. And overheard him and his grandfather discussing the accusations against Sean. The discussion ended the instant they’d seen her and the kid had hot-footed it out the back door, but not before she’d seen the marks on his face.

How they’d known about Sean so early in the morning was anyone’s guess. She had her suspicions. No proof, but plenty of suspicion. She longed to dig deeper and find the truth, but Sean’s remark about bleached bones gave her pause. Nope, the best she could hope for was an explanation from Sean about his peculiar abilities. After he gave her one, she’d cut her losses and get out of town.

The irony of it all? She’d be walking away from a story bigger than she could’ve imagined. Only no one would believe it and if she tried to convince them, her credibility would be ruined. She’d be laughed out of the newspaper business. She’d find herself working for some rag, writing about alien abductions and crop circles.

Sean was right. She should go back to her life in Michael’s Creek and forget everything. Well, maybe not everything. She doubted she could ever lose the memory of his kiss. Thinking about it now made her feel all soft and gooey inside. She shoved the feelings away. He wasn’t for her. Even if they hadn’t come from two different cultures, she’d seen his type before — a selfless do-gooder out to change the world.

Good luck with that one.

She’d go back to Michael’s Creek and focus her energy on landing a story that everyone would believe. Sooner or later one had to come along.

Sitting up, she stared out the window. My god, it was spooky out here tonight. Last night, moonlight had lit the landscape but now clouds chased across the moon, dimming its light. The Center sat like a hulking beast and even the air felt heavy. Her hand stole over to the passenger’s seat and the jack-handle lying there. She wasn’t a fool. She’d lost her mace last night, but she wasn’t going to go traipsing around in the middle of the night without some kind of weapon. Just in case. The jack-handle seemed like a good choice. Settling her head against the window again, she placed the handle on her lap as the lack of sleep overtook her.

What seemed like only moments later, a sharp rap on the window made her jump. Sean. Her eyes flew to the clock. My god, it was four o’clock in the morning.

She pushed the door open, still hanging on to her weapon. “I thought you said eleven? Where have you been?”

“Something came up.” He eyed the jack-handle. “Planning on using that?”

She snorted. “You were the one who said it wasn’t safe.”

Without commenting, he turned and headed towards the hill beyond the Center. R.J. ran after him. At the top of the rise, he suddenly whirled on her.

“What do you want to know?”

Caught off-guard, the words stumbled out, sounding silly even to her. “Are you a shapeshifter?”

“Yes.”

Shocked at his honesty, R.J.’s jaw dropped and she waited for him to continue. He didn’t.

“That’s it? ‘Yes’?”

A wry grin twisted the corners of his mouth. “I think that word covers it.”

Frustrated, she kicked a clod of dirt. “Not bloody likely, mister.”

“I suppose you want to know the ‘who, what, when, and where’?”

“Damn straight I do,” she exclaimed.

Sean sighed deeply. “My gift, talent, whatever the whites would call it, runs in my family.”

“Your grandfather, too?” R.J.’s eyes widened.

“No, not him, but his father.” He stopped and looked up at the sky as if trying to decide what to say. “This is hard,” he said finally. “Not even our people are aware. They know that my family has powerful medicine, but they’ve never questioned what it might be.”

“Have you always been able to shift?”

“No. It started shortly after I came to live with my grandfather. I was lucky in a way that I’d come here. Because of what he’d learned from his father, he recognized what was happening to me and was there to guide me through it.”

“Does it happen. um. well. you know. whenever the moon—” she broke off, feeling foolish.

“Are you trying to ask me if I only change during a full moon?” he inquired, not hiding the humour in his voice.

Irritated, her chin hiked. “According to movies and literature—”

“In case you haven’t noticed,” he cut in, his humour gone. “We’re not in a movie — this is my life we’re discussing. No, it’s not only during a full moon, I can change at will. At first, when I was a teenager, it’d happen whenever I experienced high emotion.”

“Must’ve happened a lot.”

“It did. After the first change, my grandfather took me out of school for about a year and taught me at home. During that time, he showed me how to manage the changes.”

“Are you like—” she paused, trying to think of the right word, “well, invulnerable?”

“We’re back to the movies, huh?” He shook his head. “No, I can be killed just like any other animal. It wouldn’t take a silver bullet.” Tugging on his bottom lip, he studied her. “I’ve never had to explain this to anyone and I don’t really know if I can. When I’m in animal form, there is still a part of me that’s human but I feel the freedom of being a wild thing.”

“Last night, when you were fighting those men, why didn’t you become something other than an owl? Something a little bigger with a few more teeth?” she asked, playing with the jack-handle still in her hand

He gave a rough bark of laughter. “You really don’t know anything about the legends, do you?”

She pulled herself up and glared at him. “Nope, sorry, never saw the need to do research on shapeshifters,” she replied sarcastically. “If I’m not asking the right questions, you’ll just have to forgive me.”

“I can only become an owl — it’s my totem. I told you that, as an owl, part of me is still human?”

She nodded.

“As a human, the owl is always with me, too.”

“I don’t get it.”

“I can move silently whenever I need to, I can see things in the dark that are invisible to others, and my hearing? Unbelievably sharp.” He came close, looming over her. “And I will do everything I can to defend and protect my family and my territory.”

She swallowed. “I’m not going to write about this,” she insisted.

“I believe you. It wouldn’t be in your best interests.”

“You think I’m selfish, don’t you?” she asked defensively.

He stepped back. “I think you’re so driven by ambition that you’d do anything to succeed.”

“What’s wrong with that?” she huffed.

“Nothing. in your world. In mine, we’re worried about surviving.”

“And you’re using, what did you call it? Medicine?”

“Trying to.” His eyes roamed the landscape. “There are those who’ve been seduced, lost interest in the good of the people. They see only their own desires.”

“Charlie Two Horses.”

“He’s one. There are others.”

“Why do they want to ruin the Center?”

“There are several reasons. People with little else have donated possessions that have been in their families for years. To see them destroyed would be destroying the heart of our people.” He focused on R.J. “People without heart, who’ve been beaten down, are easier to manipulate,” he said sadly. “Then there’s the money. The Center is heavily insured, so if something happened to it, a large sum of money would be paid to the tribe. That money could be used for other things.”

“Like a casino?”

“Exactly. Some people lose enough of their money in town; they don’t need easy access to gambling here.”

“Have you made this argument to the Elders?”

“Of course but it’s not that simple. My grandfather has a lot of honour in the eyes of the tribe, but I’m still a half-breed.”

She saw lines of weariness tighten his face. “They don’t trust you?”

“Not completely.”

Moving close, she dropped the jack-handle and laid a hand on his arm. His muscles quivered at her touch. “Then why are you fighting for them? Why not leave this place and start a new life away from all of this?”

A look of regret crossed his face and he opened his mouth to speak. Abruptly, his features hardened. His lips closed and he shook his head. “I can’t. My place is here.”

The sadness in him reached out and swamped her. Putting her arms around him, she laid her head on his chest and felt him shudder. His hand stole up to her face and he tilted her chin, looking deeply into her eyes. Her breath caught in her throat when she saw the fire burning inside of him. Unblinking, he began to lower his face to hers. Suddenly in the depths of his eyes, a yellow spark flamed.

“Down!” he whispered harshly, pulling her off her feet.

“Wha—”

He clamped a hand over her mouth. “Quiet,” he hissed, crouching beside her. “You’ll give away our position to the men down there.”

Her eyes strained against the darkness, trying to see what he saw, but all she could make out was the dark shape of the Center.

He released her arm and began to steal away. “Stay here.”

“Oh no you don’t, Bird Man,” she said softly, picking up the jack-handle. “You’re not leaving me behind this time.”

“Bird Man?” he sputtered. “You make light of my medicine?”

“Hey, I’m just going with the flow,” she murmured, “and happy I’m not insane after all.”

She felt him tense and saw the conflicting emotions race across his face. She almost sensed what he was thinking: how many were there? Should he leave her here unprotected? What if he lost the fight?

Finally, he made his decision and motioned her to follow. “Quietly,” he cautioned as he crept ahead.

R.J. tried to mimic Sean’s stealth. He hadn’t been kidding when he said he could move silently — the tall grass barely stirred as he edged forward. He led her to the side of the building and moved her into the shadows. Laying a finger on his lips, he pointed to the ground with his other hand, indicating she should stay put. Then without a word, he disappeared around the side of the building.

Flattened against the side of the Center, her heart hammered in her chest and sweat beaded in her armpits. Visions of bones scattered across the prairie danced in her mind. Could she make it to the Jeep without giving Sean away? She could go for help — but where? And who could she trust? No, she thought with a shake of her head, for once she’d obey and pray that the owl wasn’t outmatched.

Suddenly she heard the sound of voices. Shrinking back into the shadows, she strained to listen.

“Shut up,” one voice rasped.

“I’m telling you — that’s her Jeep sitting there,” A second voice whispered. “What if she comes back and catches us?”

“Do what I tell you and she won’t.”

“What if she’s inside?”

“That’s her problem, not ours.”

“But—”

“Just do it.”

A shift in the breeze lifted a strand of R.J.’s hair and with the breeze came a strange odour. Her nose twitched and she felt a sneeze building. Grabbing the tip, she pinched until the feeling passed. Letting go of the breath she’d been holding, she inhaled deeply. Oh my god, she smelled gasoline — they were going to torch the place. Where in the hell was Sean?

She slunk around the corner of the building and saw three shapes huddled on the ground by the long windows of the Council room. Close enough to make out what they held in their hands, she saw a glass bottle with a rag trailing down its side. Great, a molotov cocktail. She smelled the sulphur as the match struck and watched in horror as the flame drew near the rag. She had to do something.

But then, the flame abruptly died and the man holding the spent match flew into the air as if yanked by an invisible rope. A foot shot out and knocked the bottle from the next man’s hand. A second hit to his jaw had him sprawling backwards. He didn’t move. The third man scrambled to his feet and took off at a run towards a stand of cottonwood. A screech rent the air, and a white owl soared above the running man’s head, outdistancing him.

At least now she knew where Sean was. Relieved, she fell back against the building, until a quick movement on her left had her standing at attention.

A fourth man. With a gun. As if in slow motion, he raised it, training it on the white shape headed for the cottonwoods.

“Hey!” She pushed away from the building and, raising the jack-handle high, rushed him.

Surprised, his gun wavered, giving R.J. time to bring the jack-handle down with full force on his wrists. Bones snapped and dirt flew when the shot went wide. Holding his arms tightly against his stomach, the man wheeled and ran.

R.J. thought about giving chase, but a noise from the stand of trees caught her attention. She turned just in time to see the man make it to the trees. but the owl had made it first. It waited on a low branch, and as the man ducked under the limb, the owl disappeared. Sean swung down and planted both feet on the man’s chest. He staggered back, trying to gain his balance, but Sean was on him in a flash. The thud of fists hitting flesh lasted only a few moments.

The man went down for the last time.

Sean watched Charlie Two Horses bundle three of the vandals in the back of the tribal police car.

“They’ll be set free,” his grandfather said softly from where he stood beside him.

“I know.” Sean’s mouth tightened in a grim line. “They’re white and they’re barely eighteen. I imagine if they’re tried at all, it will be as juveniles and the charge will be malicious mischief. Not much of a penalty for that.”

“Did you recognize them?”

“One is the grandson of the man who owns the motel. He was also involved in the vandalism last night, but we can’t prove it.”

“You came close to losing this time, Akecheta.”

He gave his grandfather a nudge. “But we didn’t.” His eyes travelled to R.J., leaning against the side of her Jeep. “She helped.”

His grandfather stiffened. “What if she tells her story?”

“She won’t. She gave me her word.”

“Ha! The word of a white woman.”

“She saved my life, grandfather,” he replied in a quiet voice.

The tension in his grandfather’s stance eased. “Hmm, we’ll see.”

“I’m going to go say goodbye.”

R.J. pushed away from the Jeep as he approached. A soft smile twitched at the corner of her mouth. One dimple showed.

“Got to say this for you, Swifthawk,” she said, shoving her hands in her pockets. “You sure know how to show a girl a good time.”

“And you, R.J. Baxter,” he answered with a smile and a tap to the end of her nose, “don’t know how to follow instructions.” He sobered. “And I’m glad you don’t. Thanks for saving my life.”

Her face tinged with pink. “No problem.” Shifting her attention to the patrol car slowly leaving the parking lot, she gave her head a shake. “What will happen now?”

“Nothing.”

“What do you mean ‘nothing’?” she asked, indignant. “They tried to burn down the Center.”

“They’re white. Charlie will turn them over to the sheriff and at most, they’ll get a slap on the wrist.”

“That’s not fair.”

He lifted his shoulder in a shrug.

She watched the patrol with a speculative look. “I could do a story about the injustice of it all?”

“Don’t,” he replied, placing a hand on her shoulder to draw her attention away from the departing vandals. “It won’t do any good. We know them now — they’ll be watched.”

R.J. crossed her arms over her chest and arched an eyebrow at him. “I’ll agree you have some pretty unusual talents, Bird Man,” she said in a low voice, “but you and your grandfather can’t be everywhere.”

“There are others.”

Her eyes flew wide. “What?” she hissed, “Some secret society of shapeshifters?”

Sean allowed a smirk. “Let’s just say we have ‘friends’.”

“But—”

The hand on her shoulder squeezed lightly, cutting her off. “Let it go, R.J.”

She glanced towards the Center with a light glinting in her eye. “Okay, I won’t write about the plot to destroy the Center,” she said, slapping him on the arm, “but I’ll tell you what I am going to do — I’m going to write a story that’ll make this place sound better than Disneyland.” She chuckled and gave a quick nod. “And I can do it. You’re going to have so many tourists to fleece, the tribe won’t know what to do with all the money.”

“I hope you’re right.”

“Yup,” she said with a broad smile, “this place is going to be so popular that whoever’s behind this attack won’t dare try and destroy it again.” Her smile fell away. “You really can’t leave, can you?”

He shook his head, almost with remorse.

“Well,” she said, and shot a glance towards his grandfather.

Then, before he could react, she grabbed the front of his shirt and, standing on tiptoes, planted a kiss that shook him to his core. With a satisfied smile, she turned and hopped in her Jeep. Starting the engine, she winked. “See you around, Bird Man.”

He watched as she slowly pulled away and turned on to the highway.

“Did she call you Bird Man?” his grandfather asked in shocked tones.

“Yes,” Sean answered with a low chuckle.

His grandfather scratched his head, his attention on the retreating Jeep. “Even for a white, she’s a strange woman. It’s good we’ve seen the last of her.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Sean replied, more to himself than his grandfather. With a jerk of his head, he motioned towards the rise. “Come on, let’s go home.”

Together, they walked across the prairie as the sun brightened the horizon. At the top of the rise, they looked down at the highway winding its way out of the reservation and the Jeep speeding away.

Above it, in a golden sky, a white owl circled.

Nathalie Gray

The Demon’s Secret

One

Demons usually didn’t take so many bullets to die.

“Damn. I don’t have all night,” Cain muttered.

He emptied his magazine into the flying monstrosity as it swooped past, and scowled at the horrid smell that hit him like a slap of hot wind. Pausing only to slam in place a spare drum magazine, he leaped from one building to the next. The boom-boom-boom of his shotgun thundered in the winter night. Nickel-plated, custom-fitted, this combat shotgun was nicknamed “the jackhammer”. Who the hell named guns?

Around him, snow-covered east end Montreal rooftops resembled clouds. Like running in heaven. Except he’d never be allowed in heaven. There were books written about him, even the Book mentioned him.

If Cain didn’t kill the spawn, that’d make him look bad. And weak. In his line of work, looking weak invited all kinds of bad press and the attention of some beings even worse than he was. His own master would love nothing better than to punish him.

“Come on,” he hollered. “I’m freezing my nuts off!”

The demonic spawn came back for another dive, hoping perhaps Cain was too busy trying not to fall off the building. Cain straightened his arm, took aim and didn’t let his finger off the trigger until a sizable chunk of the creature had been blown off. The monster crashed on to a tin roof, tumbled several times and sent a geyser of snow ten feet high before stopping in a flailing, writhing heap. Cain skidded to a halt, pinned one of the demon’s ruined, leathery wings beneath his Italian shoe. The magazine was empty, so he methodically hand-loaded one of the special shells.

He called these rosaries.

“Next time you come after me, you piece of hell-shit, bring a few buddies along, okay?” Cain aimed at the creature’s neck and fired.

The shot dispersed in a stainless steel wire, dotted with silver-plated ball bearings. Like a flying garrote, it hit the creature across the neck, severing it. Black blood sprayed outwards and melted snow over a foot-wide radius. Like an overripe melon bursting. The smell of sulphur and smoke stung Cain’s nose. The black creature’s glistening body caved in on itself and then broke in several smouldering embers that blew away in the wind. No traces of it remained except for despoiled snow.

Not much could hurt those demonic creatures. Holy water, silver, gold, direct sunlight and a couple of other things he never would’ve guessed before becoming. Whatever he was now.

Cain checked his watch. Maybe he wouldn’t be too late for the harvest.

After retracing his steps to the private clinic’s roof, he opened the door leading into the service stairwell, knocked his feet, one by one, against the jamb to dislodge what he could of snow — and black, viscous blood. Heat like a wave greeted him when he climbed down the stairs to the second floor. He hadn’t realized how cold he was. His fingertips tingled, as did his toes. Cain smoothed down his felt coat, pushed the door leading to the second floor and, staring straight ahead amidst the oblivious staff, returned to the room where he’d first spotted the spawn as it tried to get in through the window. The door was still ajar. Cain slipped in and just by smell he knew he wasn’t too late. The man still lived. Barely.

“Am I going up or down?”

Cain snapped his gaze to the man’s face, where a pair of old but vibrant blue eyes stared at him. Directly at him. Cain had forgotten what it felt like to have someone look at him this way. The only ones who could see him were demons, their spawns — like the one on the rooftop — the angels that still gave a damn, and the lunatics. And of course, the dying. But they were rarely happy to see him.

“Up.”

A look of relief passed over the weathered face. He nodded imperceptibly, except to Cain — because he knew what to look for and already waited for the sign.

“You? You from above or below?”

“Above,” Cain lied. He approached the bed, placed a hand on the man’s wrist. A weak, arrhythmic pulse throbbed against his cold fingers. Not long now. The machine agreed with him and began to bleep.

The man closed his eyes for the last time, Cain knew. He went to work quickly, efficiently. He’d done this thousands of times throughout the centuries. He pulled a gold pillbox from his coat pocket, clicked it open and placed it near the man’s mouth. The last breath created fog on the metal surface. Cain narrowed his eyes when the soul emerged, a manifestation that resembled a thin tendril of silver smoke coiling upward. Within the thin mist glittered tiny white flakes like snow. Cain could never get over how many secrets people kept. This man had dozens. Big ones, little ones, some darker and heavier and others that floated like tiny feathers.

Before the soul could rise further — the lucky man indeed was going “up” — Cain passed the pillbox through the soul several times. He shivered every time his skin came in contact with the gossamer stuff. He tucked his hand against his chest and clipped the box shut. Several of the dead man’s secrets were now stored safely inside. Berith, Great Duke of Hell and almighty asshole, would be happy. And when Master Berith was happy, it meant one more day on the mortal plane, harvesting secrets from the dying, instead of roasting back home down on the seventh level of hell. The special place of those who’d done violence against others. Or themselves. Plus, the more he collected secrets, the more souls Berith could buy, and someday, if he brought enough, Cain would be set free. That was the deal.

Cain was out of the clinic by the time the staff came rushing into the dead man’s room. His car waited on the corner, looking forlorn and broody with its black body and tinted windows. Sunlight didn’t agree with Cain — neither did water and a whole slew of things that never bothered him back when he was.

When he was a human. So long ago.

He gunned the engine and tore up the street. His breath rose in front of him. Without bothering to warm up the car, he just drove it to his temporary home at the foot of the Jacques-Cartier bridge. Graffiti and detritus covered the brick walls and uneven streets. Montreal was like a bipolar city — elegance and beauty on one side, pestilence and corruption on the other. He parked the car near an abandoned foundry, slipped between the chain link fence doors and then cursed when he splashed cold mud into his shoes. The many locks and chains barring his door meant he had to stand outside as it began to snow. It seeped into his hair, down his collar. Cain was shivering when he pushed the door closed behind him, and repeated the process in reverse order. But at least, he was indoors.

Neon light flickered to life when the motion sensors caught him. Part armory, part gym, part derelict industrial kitchen — the only place in the building that still had running hot water — his home shared nothing with the one he’d left behind all those years ago.

“Forget it. That life is over.”

“Life? Barely,” came a voice behind him. “Existence would be the correct term.”

Cain twitched. “I hate it when you sneak up on me.”

“Life entails a soul,” the voice went on, as if he hadn’t spoken. “So ‘existence’ is definitely a better word for you, Damaged One. One can still be damned and exist.”

His demon master had chosen the body of a young woman to possess that night, all slender limbs in the pale grey suit, and shiny black hair. Maybe Berith had developed good taste after all. “You almost look good tonight, Berith.”

The woman’s smile accentuated. “If you were not my favourite secret keeper, I would personally escort you to the eighth level.”

“Maybe I’d be better off with liars and thieves.”

Berith approached him, leisurely caressed the lapel of his suit. Cain curled his upper lip and stared hard.

“Did you do good work tonight?”

“That’s what you call it?” Cain snarled.

The demon rolled her eyes. “Don’t be so damn melodramatic. You work for hell. Get over it.”

“And some day I’m going to take your damn job and shove it.”

A dangerous glint shone in Berith’s eyes. “But in the meantime, you belong to me.” She stuck her hand out, palm up.

“Fuck you.” Cain fished the pillbox out of his pocket and slammed it into the small hand so incongruous to the demon’s true form.

“You should not toy with me so, Brother Cain.”

“Don’t call me that.” No one had called him that since.

“Ashamed of your past? You should not be. It was what drew me to your soul. So grey, so close to turning. But it was his fault, he took credit for something you did. As always.”

The hurt and confusion in his brother’s eyes. Cain would never forget it.

He gritted his teeth hard enough to hurt his jaw. “You didn’t hear me the first time, demon? Fuck. You.”

Maybe if he pushed the creature far enough, he’d kill Cain once and for all. Oblivion. He could taste it.

Berith whispered a word that caused Cain to drop to his knees in searing agony. His chest constricted, his head throbbed so intensely he feared the skull wouldn’t take the pressure, every nerve ending felt on fire, bile rose up his throat and, in the blink of an eye, he was no longer in his temporary home in the slums of Montreal.

He was back in hell.

Ashes and glowing embers flew in twisters around him as the voices of the damned rose in complaints and cries. Everything was dead or dying. People, animals, things. Falling apart, collapsing, burning up in black smoke that choked the crimson sky and created heat vortices darker than night. Black holes in the blood-red sky. Spawns like the one he’d killed earlier that night swooped down on him, lashed his naked back with their talons, cawed in parody of his roars of pain.

In all his squalid grandeur, Berith towered before him, wisps of hair flying in the burning wind, shreds of skin falling off the massive skeleton. But the eyes were intact, always remained intact no matter the body’s decay. They stared at Cain, right into his core. Rage and terror and pain closed in on him.

“What was it about my ‘job’?” Berith asked, leaned over. He smiled as he delicately pressed a rotten finger through Cain’s shoulder.

His world vacillated. And Cain screamed.

They said if a man hurt enough, his body would shut down. In hell, that theory didn’t apply.

Cain flopped to the concrete floor back in Montreal when Berith summarily dismissed him in the middle of a quartering. Lucky someone had interrupted the demon because the last time Cain had pissed Berith off, he’d paid for it dearly. Even by hell standards.

“I need—” He coughed, cleared his raw throat. He really needed a drink.

His clothes hung in tatters and one of his shoes was gone. He shivered, raked a hand through his sweaty hair. Ashes still clung to his eyelashes and lips. Any moist part of him was likewise covered in the stuff. A dull, familiar pain radiated from the inside of his left forearm. Rolling on to his back to cool that side against the concrete, Cain raised his arm in front of his watery eyes. As with any other job, the name of his next “client” was carved in his flesh. It’d disappear. Not because the skin would heal, but because after he’d deliver the secrets, Berith would erase the name. Only to carve another. Then another.

But this one gave him pause. The name of a well-known politician.

“Shit.”

Other demons would want that woman’s secrets, like gold coins to the denizens of hell. Everyone wanted someone else’s secrets, demons included. They could buy souls with the stuff. And nothing was more important to a demon than the number of souls under his or her command. Maybe if Cain harvested a good number, Berith wouldn’t continue where he’d left off.

He showered to get the stench of Berith off him and, once again in a dark suit and Italian shoes — his armour — fired up the laptop to access tax records made available by another of his boss’s many “employees”. The demon had in his charge accountants and artists, politicians and activists, men, women, young and old, of every nation that existed and some that no longer did. Every demon had at least as many as Berith, some more, others less. He’d had to fight through hordes of rival demons’ spawns and secret keepers to get the jobs done. One in particular, Belial, employed only the most vicious and degenerate and commanded legions of lesser demons, spawns, humans and even a couple of renegade angels. No one wanted to mess with him, except Cain. He just didn’t care anymore.

With a triumphant ping, the search yielded a full legal name, an address and more information than Cain could ever use. He noted the address on a piece of paper — since the name was carved in his flesh — and tucked it into his coat pocket. Because he’d never been the positive type and suspected shit would hit the fan again, he loaded up on ammo and weapons, slipped a pair of throwing knives in their sheaths strapped to his calves. He might look like a banker but he hid an arsenal worthy of any specops operative, complete with little sachets of holy water and bullets made of gold and silver.

As he walked out, he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. From tall, dark and handsome, he’d turned into tall, dark and haunted.

But first, a drink. He knew just the place and, if he was lucky, he might even meet the closest person he had to a friend.

Half an hour later, Cain pulled the dirty door to a hole-in-the-wall tavern named after the dead proprietor’s wife. It’d changed hands three times in the last fifty years. Cain could name each bartender since the place’s opening.

An older woman in a corner booth caught his attention. So he wouldn’t drink alone that night.

Cain slipped into the booth. “Sister.”

“You look like shit,” she said in rapid-fire sign language. The gold cross resting on her mint-green cardigan gleamed when she raised her hand, three fingers extended. “Eat something.”

The bartender came over and set down an open bottle of Canadian rye whisky and a pair of thick-bottomed tumblers. With a dip of his chin to the woman, the bartender returned to his bar.

The first swallow scorched Cain’s already raw throat all the way down then spread in a nice warm wave in his belly. He inhaled deeply, was about to take another swallow when the bartender returned, this time with a plate of smoked meat sandwich and fries.

Out of habit, Cain thanked the man, remembering too late, as always, that not many would remember him two seconds after talking to him. It’d taken him centuries to get used to it — of people looking through him as if he wasn’t right there in front of them. But the in-between state had its pluses — especially when it came to gunfights. Ha. Yet the solitude had been crushing at first. Then he’d become accustomed to the shroud that seemed to cover him, used it to his advantage. Those like him who didn’t belong on the mortal plane, who’d had their turn and left, were no longer part of the equation. Like ghosts.

He wondered why the Sister could see him though. She’d accosted him a few years ago as he walked across a park. It’d been so long since he’d spoken to someone that he’d temporarily forgotten what it felt like for a person to look straight at him. A real, living person. The dying could see him all right. But she hadn’t been dying — and still wasn’t — neither was she a demon, spawn or angel, that he could tell, anyway (angels had always been sneaky). She must have been a lunatic then. Not that he’d ever tell Sister Evangeline to her face. The woman ran a men’s mission near the old port and no one willingly messed with her, not even the mayor. The thought made him smile.

“I didn’t even know you had them,” Sister Evangeline said. A mocking lift to her mouth rounded her ample cheek.

“Had what?” Cain bit into the sandwich. Juices triggered by the meat and hot mustard forced him to focus on the meal and not the conversation. He wolfed the thing down in four bites.

“Teeth. I didn’t know you had teeth. Never saw them.” She stole a fry from his plate.

“It doesn’t bother you he thinks you’re talking to yourself?” Cain nodded in the bartender’s direction. The man seemed oblivious to Evangline’s gestures as he watched a snowy little TV screen set on a soccer game.

“He can think whatever he wants.” Still holding the fry, she managed to sign at the same time. “It’s you I worry about. I swear to God, you look worse every time I see you. Are you sick?”

Cain pushed the plate away. He wasn’t hungry anymore. But he was still thirsty, so he poured them both a second glass.

She grimaced. “Fine, be the mysterious jerk. If you think it makes you look cool, think again, mon garçon.” Only Evangeline would ever call him a boy. He was older than she was, by a few millennia, too. He’d lived through the Great Flood and listened live on the radio as the Hindenburg burned.

He caught her looking down at his chest and realized the butt of his Luger stuck out of his coat. With his elbow, he surreptitiously slipped the holster back a bit. His forearm throbbed like a neglected wound quickly infecting. He had to get to work.

“Remind me again what you do for a living?” Her eyebrows moved as much as her hands when she talked.

He stood, slipped money from his pants pocket and placed it on the table, drained another glass that didn’t burn half as much as the first two. “I never told you what I do for a living, Sister.”

“Do you know your scripture?”

“What makes you think I’m Catholic?”

She smiled. “You wear guilt and shame like a pair of well worn gloves. So, do you?”

“You know what they say about curiosity. ‘But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt’.”

Sister Evangeline’s French-Irish temper came out in explosive hand signals almost too fast to follow. Cain had always thought the sign word for “asshole” was funny as hell. A reversed version of the symbol for “OK”.

Grinning, he left the seething woman to finish the fries.

Two

Cain felt trouble long before he caught the first whiff. Spawns, a lot of them. The night sky took on a more sombre quality, as if it was thick with activity he couldn’t see. But hear it he could. Hissing, growling, sucking sounds, the flap of wings and scrape of talons against concrete.

Snow fell slowly, in small flakes that didn’t melt when they landed on Cain’s shoulders and coat sleeves. A twister of debris roiled along the sidewalk a few feet away. In front of him like a gargantuan sentinel, stood a tall and thick stone mansion surrounded with a high wrought-iron fence. He checked behind him, noted nothing above the rooftops except for the faraway silhouette of the Olympic Stadium, Montreal’s white elephant, and its inclined tower.

Yet he could feel them. Growing closer. It hadn’t taken them long to sniff him out. Sometimes, he suspected spawns had nothing else to do than wait for a gate to open so they could swoop down on whatever came out.

Movement exploded left, right, above. Snow flew in thick ribbons that lashed and whipped him like tiny grains of salt.

“Here we go,” he snarled.

Cain cocked his shotgun a second before the first spawn swooped down to his left, missed and hit the pavement a couple of inches in front of him, creating a tiny but messy crater. This surprised him. They rarely missed their aerial attacks. They were being careless, therefore desperate. They’d make mistakes. Bad news for them. Very good news for him.

He pumped a quick pair of specialized maximum shredding rounds into the fiend. Each minced a wing and part of its torso and, on a long and angry hiss, the thing lay still. Others replaced it. They always did in his world of in-between — not on Earth, not in hell. Both at once, yet in neither place.

One landed right on top of him, sent him to his knees, dug talons and claws into his back and shoulders. It wailed in his ear a split-second before he aimed the AA-12 straight up and fired. A shower of gooey bits fell around him and burned like acid wherever the stuff touched. The burn of its claws spread to his body. Hellish fever. Cain ran across the deserted street, fired as he went, rounds hitting targets and downing them, others ricocheting on bony ridges and creating scuffs against the stone fence. To mortal eyes, nothing would show, no sound would be heard.

On a run, he leaped on top of the hood of his car, then on to the roof, where he whirled on himself and dispensed death at five rounds a second. One spawn thudded against the trunk, trashing and flailing. One of the wings caught Cain on the arm. His shotgun went sailing ten feet high and landed in the snow bank.

“Shit,” he snarled. His breath was ripped out of his lungs when a spawn struck him with its wing. The talon lacerated his coat across the chest. Despite the adrenaline, he heard a button land on the frozen sidewalk.

Cackling in delight, the spawn raised its misshapen, clawed hand. The final hit. This one would hurt. Cain only had time to pull his Luger out of its holster at his chest. Gold bullets with silver cores dipped in holy water. His best ones, usually reserved for full-fledged demons. Such a waste.

He levelled it at the thing’s chest, fired just as both its wings spread for the coming attack. The shock sent it flying back in a geyser of embers and ashes, sent it colliding against a hydro pole. It bent with the violent collision. Sparks coursed along the wires.

Burning pain exploded in his lower back.

Cain looked down, more shocked than hurt, and spotted a long, glistening claw coming out of his belly.

“Damn.”

Dying meant a split second of suspension where he’d be catapulted back to hell, where no wound was too great to “heal”, then another split second to be sent right back up to the mortal plane as if nothing had happened. Where half a dozen spawns waited for him. The circus would never end. Not until he’d accumulated enough secrets for Berith’s taste. The demon had told him that some day, when Cain had brought enough secrets to sell for souls, he’d be sent up to the purgatory. Still in hell, but a world better than the seventh level.

He aimed back and fired a bullet into the spawn that had backstabbed him. And then he died. Again.

Ashes and smoke, the smell of sulphur and charred flesh, cries and lamentations, crimson sky, black sun, and abruptly, snow replaced it all. It grated against his face as Cain realized he’d come back facedown into the street, where a spawn stood over him, no doubt ready — and delighted — to send him back for another spin downstairs.

“Oh, for Christ’s—”

BOOM.

The explosion drowned the spawn’s shriek just as a wave of energy traversed the air a couple inches above Cain’s head. Gunshot followed the detonation. A lot of gunshot. Someone had their finger on the trigger and wasn’t letting up. He floundered to his hands and knees, ashes choking him, still reeling from his short trip to hell, and turned in time to catch a scene that tore a curse from him.

A lone woman stood in the middle of the street, blond hair in a punk cut, dressed in white vinyl from head to toe except for black military boots that reached up to her knees and an assortment of belts that crisscrossed her muscular frame. Bethany Simard, infamous keeper for one of the most powerful demons, Asmodeus, pain in the butt extraordinaire and probably Cain’s one and only weak spot.

Great timing.

He couldn’t help giving her a good, long look. Hot and dangerous.

“I’m easy on the eyes, huh?” She cracked an irreverent grin. “Behind you, handsome.”

Cain whirled around, thanked his lucky star he still had his gun. A gold and silver bullet took off half of the fiend’s head. The rest hit the fence, dissipated in glowing coals and ash.

Movement registered in the corner of his eye. He turned back to the street. Bethany was gone. Mocking laughter, rapidly diminishing, floated to him from the other side of the fence.

“Shit.”

He took a moment to fish his silvery shotgun from the snow bank before chasing the woman over the fence. He knew exactly where she was going, and he intended to prevent it. Velvety silence greeted him once he landed on the other side of the fence. Cain circumvented the mansion, his heart thumping. Ahead into the gloom, he spotted a figure darting left and right amongst the skeletal bushes separating the mansion from its neighbour. He lengthened his paces, pumped his gun-free arm hard and fast. Cold air burned his lungs. From a tiny darting figure, the woman’s silhouette grew clearer. She’d reached the back porch. Bethany had always been fast. Thankfully, he was a tiny bit faster. Cain caught up to her just as she flipped back a sling strapped across her shoulder like a postman bag. A matte black MP5 submachine gun hung from the sling.

He gripped it, yanked sideways and sent the woman crashing against the stone wall. With a yelp, she extended a hand, caught herself against the balustrade. Cain used his long arms to seize her by an arm, whirled her around and pinned her there with the barrel of his shotgun pressed against her wrist.

“Hey!” She cocked her free arm to punch him, he caught that wrist, too. He knew her too well to let her have a free arm around him.

They stood face to face, their breaths mixing in puffs of steam. He’d neutralized both her arms, but that meant he didn’t have one left either. Cain angled one foot back so she wouldn’t get any ideas to kick him.

“That’s how you thank me?” Bethany twisted one arm then the other. “I thought you were one of the good ones.”

Cain squeezed harder. Her neck tendons corded like violin strings as she struggled to free herself. He wouldn’t hold the diminutive Valkyrie in place for much longer. “Why are you here?”

“Why are you here?” she snapped.

He glared at her. “Don’t make me send you back, Bethany.”

Black eyes heavily rimmed in kohl flared in fear a brief instant, then bravado replaced it. “You’re not like that.”

“You’d be surprised. Your master sends you, or are you on one of your ‘goodwill’ hunts?” He’d had to answer to a very displeased Berith once because of her. Demons didn’t like the idea that lowly keepers would do freelance hunts for others. Or that other keepers didn’t turn the renegades in.

“It’s one of his.”

“Well, you can go back, because this one is mine.”

Bethany smiled, batted her eyelids dramatically. “Maybe we can share?”

“And have Berith after my ass like the last time I ‘shared’ something with you? I don’t think so.”

“Aw, come on, it wasn’t all bad.”

It hadn’t been all bad. In fact, he’d enjoyed working with the cheeky woman. Even damned as she was, she still had a verve for life that he found very intriguing. And appealing. Plus, no one ever talked to him, not with his reputation and “charming” personality. Evangeline and Bethany were basically his entire social circle.

“It was bad. You’re a pain in the ass.” The smudged mascara, crazy hair and attitude didn’t deter him at all. He suspected he found her attractive because of it and not in spite of it.

“But oh-so-irresistible and brilliant. Come on, Cain, we got another kick at the can, we should make the most of it.” She gave him a pronounced once-over, actually winked in a very suggestive way. Simply unflappable.

“I wouldn’t turn my back on you for a second, never mind taking my guns off.” A smile escaped him. “Plus, you’re not my type.”

Liar.

Bethany grinned. “I bet you’ve always been a heartbreaker, even before. ”

“Before I was damned?”

She shrugged. “Call it what you want. I call it a second shot at life.”

“It’s not life, Bethany. Not even close. We’re on borrowed time, with our own personal demons yanking on the leash.”

She lost her smile. “Party-pooper.”

“Look,” he began, regretting the words as they came out. She was his weak spot. Dammit. “Some day, maybe. ”

A sparkle made her dark eyes look like coffee beans. Smile lines appeared at the corners of her eyes and mouth. She arched her hips off the wall and pressed herself against him. Her heat seeped into his clothes. “Maybe what, hm? You’d like to see more of me?”

“Yeah, I’d like to see ‘more’ of you.”

Bethany’s eyes sparkled.

Damn, he couldn’t think when she pulled that shit. “Look. ”

He must have relaxed his hold on her arm and saw his slip too late. The top of her head struck him on the chin. Pain exploded in his brain. His grip failed as he bent over.

And she was gone again, her boots thumping madly.

Cain stumbled into the house through the back door she’d left open. Careless, loud, obnoxious. He could’ve followed her progress from outside the house. Good old Bethany. Two by two, he took the stairs, followed her by the smell he’d come to associate with her — vinyl and body lotion. Up to the third floor, down a carpeted hallway lined with thick frames of dead people. Someone walked by — oblivious to the two gun-toting bounty hunters racing down the hall — as if moved by unseen hands into the place Cain had just occupied a split-second before. He’d always wondered what would happen if a mortal occupied the same space he did? Would they feel him?

There, at the end of the hallway. Light filtered out from underneath a door. Cain gripped his shotgun tighter as he silently pushed against the panel. There she was, his “saviour”, bending over the dying politician, a wizened Asian woman. In the golden glow of a baroque lamp on the dresser, his competitor resembled an elf. But armed to the teeth. Bethany was too busy fishing around in a tiny leather purse strapped to her belt to pay much attention to him.

Cain sneaked up just close enough to press the barrel against her nape. “Don’t make me send you back.”

She froze.

“Start running, Bethany. I’ll give you ten seconds head start.”

“I need this,” she whispered, turned her head slightly so she could look up at him. Tears welled in her eyes. Her chin trembled. He’d never seen her that way, so vulnerable, so afraid. He’d never seen her afraid despite some pretty serious fighting and crappy odds. He could only imagine what a woman went through at the hands of a demon. “Okay? I need this, Cain. Please, I’m not yanking your chain.”

Staring into those pleading eyes wasn’t as easy as he would’ve thought.

“Asmodeus. ” She stopped, swallowed. “He’s going to send me down another level if I don’t bring him this one. You know what that means. ”

Cain twitched in spite of himself. If Berith’s reputation for viciousness was well known in all levels of hell, another demon beat him by miles and bounds. Asmodeus, king of demons, with untold legions at his command. Cain wouldn’t want to be anywhere near the Tormenter if he’d failed to do his bidding. And being sent down another level was dying all over again. She’d have to start over. He could only imagine the horror. No wonder Bethany looked desperate.

But it wasn’t any of his business. Or his problem.

The woman straightened, slowly, turned to face him with her hands at shoulder level on either side of her. “What level are you on, Cain?”

“Seventh.”

She nodded. “So you have a temper, huh?”

“You have no idea.”

“Look, I’ll help you with something else. Anytime, anywhere. But please, let me have this one here.” She turned toward the older woman on the bed who lay with her eyes closed and a rosary tucked in her joined hands. Except for the ones his ammunitions contact made for him, he hadn’t seen a real rosary in over thirty years. Traditions were dying at an alarming rate.

Cain shook his head. “And you think Berith will be happy to see me when I go back empty-handed?”

“I have connections, you know I do. I’ll help you. I swear, okay? Name it.” She grinned wide. “Anything for you my cutie patootie.”

“Don’t push it.” Cain cursed under his breath. “Anything?”

Her gaze hardened. She lifted her chin defiantly. “Yeah, anything, even that.”

He wasn’t thinking about that, but preferred to keep the dangerous woman on her toes. “You owe me.”

Since when did he give breaks to people? Was he losing his edge? Would Berith keep him in hell instead of sending him back to the mortal plane for another job? Damn that woman!

Bethany blew him a kiss, turned to the dying woman and pulled out a tiny black lacquered box when she noticed the telltale sign of the woman’s passing. She collected the secrets — a whole cluster of them, he was so in shit over this — slipped the box back into its home at her belt and backed to the door.

“Would you have helped if it hadn’t been me?” she asked.

“Why do you care?”

“Is that a no?”

“Just get the hell out. You owe me, Bethany. Big time.”

She agreed with a nod. “In all the years we’ve known each other, you never once asked what level I’m on.”

Cain sighed long and hard. This was turning out to be a very bad day. He hated bad days. They invariably ended with his butt in hell, being tortured and taunted then tossed back up. “I don’t give a shit.”

“Yes you do. You’re just too proud to admit you care.” She winked. “I’m on the eighth.”

Before Cain could process the implications, she was gone.

The eighth level of hell was reserved for usurpers and swindlers. And liars.

The one time he gave someone a break and this was what happened. That woman would be the end of him.

“Bethany, you trouble-making little shit.”

He took off after her. She was easy to follow if only because of the racket she caused. As if she didn’t care if he followed. Or maybe she didn’t mind.

Winter air blasted him across the face when he burst out on to the back porch, ran along the fence and cleared the mansion corner just in time to catch Bethany leaping over the fence. While running, he aimed more or less in her direction and fired once. The shot clanged against the iron fence, busted the closing mechanism, and Cain only had to dip his shoulder as he ran into the opening.

As Cain chased the little liar down Avenue Pierre de Coubertin, the air filled with the flap of wings. A leathery fap-fap-fap that presaged nothing good for either of them.

“Give me the box!”

He was out of time. She could disappear down below whenever she wanted. She just ignored him and kept on running.

A city bus on its lonely night run temporarily obscured her when she crossed the wind-swept street. The stadium loomed in front. If she lost him in the maze of concrete ramps and walkways, he’d never find her again.

Three silhouettes suddenly rose near the underground parking entrance. Cain only had time to mutter a curse when Bethany ran right past them. In her haste, she must not have spotted them. Bright muzzle flashes preceded the thunder of several firearms. With a yelp, the woman stumbled, managed to fire a shot before she crashed against the concrete ramp. Like vultures, the three attackers jumped from their perch to finish the job. By that time, Cain had silently caught up to them. Wind drowned what little noise he made as he crept up behind the trio of men.

“Do not kill her yet,” said the man to the right, a tall fellow with a dark coat that reached the ground. His courtly speech pattern tickled Cain’s memory. “There is no reason to be hasty, is there?”

Bethany used the ramp for support as she gingerly climbed back to her feet. “Guys, guys, it’s just a misunderstanding. We can work through this, right. Just hear me out.”

Cain levelled his shotgun at their backs. He could have given them fair warning, a chance to step away and get lost. He might have felt a bit more lenient toward them if Bethany hadn’t already wasted what little goodwill he possessed. As it were, he’d already lost too much time. Plus, the kind of men who ganged up on a woman wouldn’t be missed if they suddenly exited the gene pool.

He opened fire.

Two collapsed right away, the air instantly filling with the smell of sulphur and the acrid taste of ash. He should’ve known. Keepers. They’d be back within seconds, “resurrected” by their demon masters, just like Berith had done for him earlier that night. Bethany nimbly jumped on the other side of the ramp.

It figures.

The third man, however, growled in pain but seemed otherwise unaffected by the silver slugs dipped in holy water. So, not a keeper then. And not a human either.

Cain understood why when the man whirled around. Massive wings shredded the long coat, spread high and wide. Contrary to popular belief, angel wings weren’t feathered but made of tough hide like those of demons. In fact, the only distinguishing factor between the two — other than their disposition — was the smell. Cain swore under his breath. He didn’t have time for this.

“Thanks for the hand,” he growled for Bethany’s benefit. No doubt she was already long gone.

Grinning, the angel began to pull a sword from within what remained of his coat. Cain didn’t wait to see the tip before he emptied his magazine. Each slug propelled the snarling angel back a step. Barely. When Cain knew he’d just chambered the last shell, he slipped his Luger out. A gold bullet ought to do the trick.

With a smile, the angel bowed slightly. “Wait.”

“Oh? Okay.”

Cain fired twice. Both times, the angel used his blade to smack the bullets away. Deafening metal-against-metal clangs made Cain’s teeth hurt.

“I can help you, monkey-man,” the angel said.

“Shutting up would help.”

The angel smiled. A bit too wide, a bit too forced. Mimicking humans. They could never get it right and could never understand it wasn’t about the mouth. It was all in the eyes. And theirs never smiled.

“I can help you get back.”

Cain aimed straight between the thing’s eyes. Maybe he’d get lucky and blind it long enough to slip his last rosary shell in his shotgun. “Get back where?”

“Here.” The angel’s grin widened, as did his wings. Like a hawk trapping its prey. “You could have another chance at life. If you give me what she stole.”

“Life? I tried it once, it wasn’t all that.” Liar. He’d do anything for another shot. “Plus, why don’t you take the soul yourself? Oh, that’s right, you can’t, it has to be freely given.”

“You wasted yours away,” the angel snarled. Greed and anger blasted out in a furious wave that hit Cain in the chest. “You took His gift, and threw it back at Him. But I can help you get back in His good graces, monkey-man. He is forgiving.”

The wall of rage dissipated and Cain shook his head. “You’re no more in his good graces than I am, so quit flapping your wings.”

“Hey.” Bethany slowly walked around the concrete ramp, hands well in view. A little black pouch dangled from one. “Here, take it.”

Cain couldn’t believe she’d returned. Maybe she wasn’t all bad. Just mostly bad. “Bethany, don’t—”

“Freely given?” The angel cut Cain off and turned slightly in Bethany’s direction. Avarice narrowed his eyes. His fingers twitched by his side. The sword tip wavered just the slightest bit. For an angel to get his hands on a bit of human soul was like an addict finding half a pound of cocaine. Jackpot.

“Yeah.” She flicked a quick glance at Cain. “I don’t want to go back to the eighth. Please, okay, please give me another chance. Here, that soul is yours.”

The pouch dangled invitingly at the end of its cord. Bethany’s hand trembled.

His nostrils and eyes flared, the angel bent over to take the little pouch from the much smaller woman.

Cain wouldn’t get another chance like this.

Years of practice kicked in. Within a second, a rosary shell was loaded into the shotgun. Thunder reverberated when he shot the renegade angel. For a split second, he thought he’d missed as the thing straightened, rage and hatred disfiguring the handsome face and making him even more imposing. Everything slowed, time itself ticked away one grain at a time. The silvery wire spread, each dot like a silver teardrop, flew at the angel’s neck, where it bit into the flesh, sliced right through and embedded itself into the concrete wall behind. The wings shook with a spasm. Bethany cursed. Cain barely had time to protect his face with his arm when ashes and embers swirled like a mini twister, higher, wider, peppered him with burning bits, disintegrated into black smoke until only a scuff marked the angel’s spot. Through the smoke, Bethany’s face was like a tiny white moon, eyes huge.

Cain slipped his Luger into its holster. “You’re a good liar. You had me going with that pouch. That a decoy?”

She beamed. “Smart and beautiful. I have it all.”

He aimed the shotgun at her. “No more tricks, Bethany. Give me the secrets.”

In the distance, the flap of wings heralded the spawns’ return, their cackling and shrieking growing louder. Shit.

A blast of wind fretted her hair. She backed against the ramp. “I wasn’t lying to you. I need this.”

“Argh, come on! You think I’m—”

Cain froze and looked up into the sky. He felt them clearly now. Close. Very close. By the sound, he knew there were hundreds of them. Carrions. He wouldn’t have time to make it to his car.

She approached despite the barrel of the gun digging in her chest. “We need to work together. If we make it to dawn, we’ll be okay.”

He checked his watch. 04:33 glowed aqua-green. “Shut up. Let me think.”

Unfortunately, Bethany was right. No time to reach his car and lose them in narrow alleys. Even less time to find the temporary sanctuary of a church and wait for daylight. They’d have to fight them out here in the open, in the dark. If he died before getting the secrets, he’d go back to Berith empty-handed. He should’ve stayed in bed.

“If you stab me in the back again. ”

To his astonishment, she winked. “I may not be a good woman, Cain, but I’m a smart one.”

“What do you have left?” He had one magazine left for his shotgun, some incendiary magnesium shells, the four gold bullets that remained in his Luger, and his knives. Not that these would help much against spawns, only against fellow keepers. He threw her a dark look. Maybe he should get rid of her now and hope to get lucky with the demonic hordes. Yeah, his luck had been so good so far.

She checked her various straps, winced. “I don’t have enough.”

The first spawn landed not ten feet away, spread its wings wide and let out an ear-piercing shriek of triumph.

A very bad day, indeed.

Three

Other shrieks echoed around them, a dozen, a hundred, more. Countless demonic wings flapped in the night sky, creating snow twisters that temporarily blinded Cain and sent icy pellets into his eyes and mouth. They abraded his skin when they sliced into his ruined coat and exposed hands. Growling, he charged into the underground parking, Bethany on his heels. Booms reverberated as she peppered their escape with bullets.

“Don’t waste your ammo!”

Fluorescent tubes fluttered to life when they triggered the motion sensors, but immediately blinked out as the demonic hordes followed them underground. They couldn’t do anything against daylight, but artificial light and fragile conductors were no match against the vile presence. Yellow placards flashed by, parsing the Olympic grounds into sectors and levels. A maze of concrete. Cain tried to read as best he could as he sprinted down the gentle incline, gripped the corner of a metal handrail and leaped over it so he could open the door leading to the stairs. The concrete well leading upwards smelled of urine and humidity. Behind him, Bethany cursed under her breath. Two by two, they climbed up to the first level. He was about to get out that way when she grabbed his coat and yanked him back.

“Wait!” she panted. “Dawn. It’s close. Let’s fight. Outside.”

“Too late!” He yanked his coat out of her hand and would have kept on going when a faint sound stopped him cold, all but froze the blood in his veins. It came from inside the stairwell, below them. Close.

“Brother Cain,” called a man. The whisper grew to chuckles. “I know you are here.”

Berith had found a human to possess.

Bethany pointed her submachine gun into the space between the handrail and arched to get a better shot. “I can see him,” she mouthed silently.

The urge to take the secrets from her almost overtook him. It’d be easy. The pouch was right there at her belt, not four feet away, and contained the little black box. He was stronger, he could take it by force and push her into the void. By the time Asmodeus brought her back, Berith would have the bit of soul he wanted. Maybe their deal wouldn’t be over.

But it wouldn’t change a damn thing, would it? Berith would find some other reason to torture him. He never lacked imagination that one. Fuck him. If he wanted to get the secrets, he could move his demonic ass and come get them.

Cain shook his head no at Bethany — this was an innocent man possessed by the demon — and resumed climbing the stairs. Bethany followed but clearly would have preferred putting a few bullets in their pursuer.

“There.” He pointed to the third line of text on a nearby placard. Tour de Montréal.

He opened the door, let it clatter against the wall then soundlessly began to climb to the next level. Grinning, his impromptu ally followed, passed and afforded him a very nice view of her body clad in white vinyl and black straps. He’d always wondered what she’d done to end up in hell.

Their ploy must have worked because the door opened and closed below them, noisily, the sound like gunshot. While Berith searched that level, Cain would be on his way to his true destination — the Tower of Montreal. It’d give them a couple minutes tops before Berith sensed, even in his diminished form, he’d been duped. If Cain was going to piss off his demon master, he might as well go all the way. Plus, Bethany was right. Dawn wasn’t that far off, so if they could make sure to be outdoors when the sun crested the horizon, the spawns wouldn’t be able to tolerate the light. Neither would Berith. Cain could buy a few precious hours of peace before.

For the first time in his second life — his existence, Berith had called it — he was sick of it all. Sick of always running, always fighting, always dying. Again and again and again. He’d love to just stay dead one time. Life just wasn’t worth it. Not when he ended up in hell every time.

But then again, after what he’d done, he deserved to fry.

She must have guessed their destination because Bethany planted an index finger on the placard. Dark eyes stared back at him to wait for confirmation. Like a team player. He hadn’t been on any “team” in ages, if ever. When he’d been a living, breathing man with a soul, a lot of people had looked at him for guidance, for instructions and directives. He’d been the older brother, the firstborn son. Until that day he’d found out his brother had betrayed him — or so Cain had thought. The rage had been too much to contain.

Cain pushed the memories down and nodded to Bethany.

A tic pulled at her cheek. Maybe she was trying to work the situation to her advantage. He wouldn’t put it past her to try to double-cross him, even with untold spawns on their heels and a demon in corporeal form within shouting distance. Cain gripped his shotgun a bit tighter. He didn’t want to hurt her, for some strange reason didn’t want to be the one to send her for another trip downstairs. Not Bethany. She might be a pain in the butt, but for a keeper, she wasn’t all that bad.

She flashed him a smile and rolled her finger by her temple. “As cute as you’re crazy,” she whispered.

Yeah, crazy, damned, and soon, back in hell.

When they arrived on the main level, Cain pressed his open hand on the door, pushed just enough to get a glimpse of what waited for them on the terrace. He couldn’t see anything, couldn’t smell anything either. But across the large concrete expense, reflections in the mammoth glass walls flitted back and forth, like vultures circling a dying beast. The spawns must have flown up to a safer height — for them — to get a better look.

A warm body pressed against his side as Bethany squeezed into the embrasure so she could get a look, too. His breath caught. It’d been so long.

“We have half a chance.” Bethany pulled back. Cold replaced warmth and made him shiver. “If that.”

“It’s better than sitting on our hands and waiting for it.” He checked his pockets to make sure he’d counted the shells right the first time. Not enough. Not nearly. This whole thing wasn’t going to end nicely for either of them. Berith already knew Cain was fucking with him, so there’d be no break that way even if he managed to take the secrets from the other keeper. But Asmodeus didn’t know anything yet. Bethany still had a chance to bring the secrets back to her master. It was only logical. Unless he was going soft for her again, thinking with his dick instead of his brain.

Cain leaned back against the wall as he checked and rechecked his ammo supply and the silvery shotgun’s functionality. “Go. I’ll keep them busy.”

“What?”

“Don’t make me repeat something so stupid, okay?”

Bethany planted herself in front of him, close enough for Cain to feel her warmth again. But it was more than warmth he saw in her expressive face. White-hot anger. “You think I’m that kind of woman?”

“Says the girl who lied to my face about ten times in the past two hours.”

“I won’t let you take the hit for me.”

“I would if it were me.”

“Bullshit. You’re a decent guy, even if you work very hard at playing the asshole.”

Cain peeled his back from the concrete wall. As much as arguing with the pain in the butt made him feel more alive than he’d felt in years, they didn’t have time for this. “Fine. Stay here and get a faceful of spawn. Just don’t call me asshole again. Ever.”

She cracked an irreverent grin. “Then stop acting like one.”

“Ready?”

Bethany lost her smile. She shortened the sling on her submachine gun so it rested directly on her chest, pulled a fresh magazine — her last that Cain could see — from her belt and clipped it on her harness. To Cain’s shock, she fished a gold-coloured grenade from her jacket pocket.

“What?” she asked. “You don’t use these?”

He would’ve loved having a bit of time to ask where she got her gear. In fact, he would’ve loved just spending some time with her without having half of hell trying to make ribbons of them. “The glass wall across the terrace, the funicular to the tower is there. I’ll make us a door as we run for it.”

Before he could react, Bethany fisted the front of his ruined coat, hoisted herself up to him and kissed him square on the mouth. “I don’t care what they say, I like you.”

It took him a good five seconds to get his wits about him once more. The timing couldn’t possibly have been worse. He took a long breath, nodded.

“Here we go.”

Cain kicked the door wide and ran out.

They barely made it ten feet when the first few spawns to catch a whiff of them wailed and screeched a warning to the rest of the horde. Like fingernails on blackboard. The sky became alive with black wings as the air filled with the smell of ash and sulphur. Concrete chunks rained down around them, broken loose by talons and claws, or ridged wings hitting walls as the spawns spiralled downwards to catch their prey. Cain fired ten shots out of his thirty-two magazine before he’d taken ten steps. The glass wall was still at least 300 feet away. By his side, Bethany’s small black MP5 tack-tack-tacked death at eleven bullets a second. He hoped the trigger-happy woman would keep a few for later because something told him they were in for more “fun”.

As if the power of his thought alone had made the real thing manifest itself, gunshot that was neither hers nor his echoed around them. Muzzle flashes to the right registered in the corner of his eye. More keepers. Dammit.

“Cain!” Bethany yelled. “Door!”

Just as Cain aimed his shotgun in front of him and fired, a giant spawn landed ahead of them, blocking their access to the tower base. Cain fired half a dozen slugs into the spawn. He’d never seen one so big. Leathery wings made miniature tornadoes of snow when it raised itself to its fullest. The thing must have been twenty feet tall!

A small golden item arced ahead of them.

Bethany skidded to a halt, gripped his coat tails, which barely slowed Cain. He understood a split second before thunder temporarily deafened him. He only had time to turn his face away. The detonation happened right between the spawn’s legs. It blew up in a giant geyser of gooey chunks and thick, dark liquid that splattered in a wide radius. Bethany and he were pelted with debris both hard and soft, liquid and solid. More spawns landed around them. Some seemed more interested in feeding off their brethren’s remains than in attacking the two humans, but others came for them. One in particular made a beeline for Bethany. She turned her MP5 to it, let fly bullets that slowed the beast. But didn’t stop it.

Cain could do nothing but watch from the corner of his eye as half a dozen smaller spawns came at him, wings spread and talons out. His shotgun recoiled with each shot. His wrist throbbed but he kept going.

When Bethany screamed — pain had a universal sound, no matter the victim’s location, age or culture — Cain whipped around, thinking he could pump a few into the spawns after her. Too late.

Like in a slow-motion movie, the demonic fiend struck in an arc. Bethany caught the taloned appendage in the side, bent over the limb before being projected sideways. More gunshot from the other keepers erupted in tiny concrete volcanoes around him. They had seconds before the enemy closed in enough to place their bullets with more accuracy.

While Bethany tumbled to a stop, Cain pumped one, two, three, four shots into the advancing spawn. Finally, he hit its head. He didn’t wait for it to hit the ground before he ran to Bethany, who struggled to stand.

“I–I’m good.” She slung her submachine gun in front, stumbled forward. “I’m good.”

Together, they ran at the wall of glass panels. As he’d said he would, Cain fired a single shot at the connection between two panels. For a second, the wall turned milky-white. Just when Cain was considering wasting another round on his “door”, the wall disintegrated into a cascade of cubic diamonds. Broken tempered glass crunched like gravel when Bethany and Cain rushed into the base of the tower. A counter curved away from the wall and would provide temporary shelter as they waited for the funicular elevator. Bullets hit the marble wall on either side of the steel doors. Cain crawled amidst the raining debris, mashed the button on the access panel.

Through the window, the sky was taking on brown and orange hues. Dawn couldn’t be far off. He checked his watch again. Half past five or so.

“It’s here.” Bethany’s voice sounded higher-pitched than usual. She popped up above the counter, emptied her magazine through the broken wall then crouched back. A riposte several seconds long made ribbons of decorative banners, swiss cheese of partitions and clanged against the waiting area’s aluminium poles. Cain pulled the empty magazine, dropped it, loaded the last three shells he had. The incendiaries.

The doors slid apart. He didn’t need to urge her to be quick about it when she passed him at full sprint. He backpedalled into the giant funicular made of bay windows and steel beams. Spawns had begun to land around the broken glass and scrambled inside the tight opening. Like vultures trying to squeeze in through a doggy door. Gunshot accompanied them. The keepers were close, too.

Cain fired the first of the incendiary shells. Magnesium and flint cores, they’d been meant to penetrate the target and blow it up from the inside. The closest spawn caught it in the belly. Its bony ridges and skeleton triggered the charge. As the elevator pinged its arrival, the spawn exploded. A firestorm that reached the cathedral ceiling. Flames leaped out in all directions. Because he wouldn’t be able to use the incendiary shell up in the tower, he fired a second one into the lobby. The conflagration turned the air desert-dry and oven-hot. Gunshot stopped. Wails and shrieks drowned even the swoosh of blood flow in his ears. As the doors closed, a wave of heat buffeted the cabin.

At the rate of seven feet a second, the funicular took them up towards the tower’s apex. Around them, Montreal had begun to wake. Deep orange slashes crisscrossed the sky. Dawn was less than an hour away.

“We need a plan.” Cain turned to her, caught the look of pain she quickly masked beneath her usual bravado. “Ideas?”

“Lemme think, okay.” Bethany leaned against the wall, closed her eyes. Cain wasn’t fast enough to keep her from sinking to her butt. Her rictus of agony cut through his temporary shell shock.

“Where are you hurt?” He leaned over so he could take a look.

“I’m good,” she replied through her teeth. “Nothing to it.”

Bright red blood seeped through her fingers as she pressed a hand to her hip. Cain knelt by her side. “You’re not good, a spawn got you.”

“Not for the first time.” She grinned, grimaced. “We should start our own biz, you and me. It’d be fun.”

“Fun like tonight? No, thanks.”

Cain peeled her fingers off the messy wound. An injury from a spawn’s demonic touch wouldn’t heal unless cleansed with holy water. Fever would set in, infection, hallucinations. For this woman, a long and agonizing death that could take years before another trip downstairs. At least she had a run of secrets to show for it. Asmodeus might leave her alone and send her back up right away. If she were very lucky.

“You know how it goes, Bethany. You know how it always ends for those like us.”

“I know. I just. ” She cleared her throat. “I wanted it to be different.”

As soon as they reached the top, Cain slipped his arms under Bethany and carried her just outside the door. She winced when he deposited her back on to the carpeted floor. He then dragged a metal garbage can from the landing, dropped it in the funicular doorway so none of the keepers or Berith’s unfortunate host could call it down to them. The doors closed with a ping, hit the garbage can and slid back out again. And again. The funicular would stay at the top. Plus, if all went well — and his luck suddenly turned for the better — they’d need a ride down.

The sky was turning orange and mauve, with bands of brown and amber across the horizons. Daylight was minutes away. Not fast enough.

“Hold still.” Cain pulled out of his coat pocket a handful of the little bags of holy water. They looked like fast food packets of ketchup. He tore one open, dribbled some between her fingers, then more right into the wound while she held the torn vinyl wide. Blood and holy water turned her white outfit pink.

The spawn’s talon must have dug deeper than he’d thought. There was so much blood. Too much. He used all his holy water to make sure the wound was clean. Working on the gash also meant he didn’t have to meet her gaze, which she kept on his face the entire time. Neither stated the obvious futility of cleaning a mortal wound.

“Would you stay?” Bethany asked.

He knew what she meant.

“Yeah.” He sat by her side, knees drawn up. She’d pulled herself to a sitting position along the wall. A more dignified way to go.

Fresh blood continued seeping through her fingers. “It’s too bad.”

“What is?”

“Timing,” she grunted. “I–I would’ve. asked you out. like on a real date. Been meaning to for years.” She smiled despite what must have been terrible pain. “You won’t. b— believe this, but I’m kind of shy.”

Cain laughed. Couldn’t help it. “Yeah, shy. We can always plan for next time.” He didn’t know if either of them would be sent back to the mortal plane after such a huge fuck-up. He knew for a fact Berith would want some time to play with him before he shot him back up to earth. If he did.

“I just wish. I–I just wish things were different.”

He patted her knee. Heat seeped into his cold hand and he found taking it off her was much harder than it should have been. So he left it on her leg. She pressed her own hand over his. Blood coated their skin. A bond made of pain.

“Take them, okay.”

Cain shook his head. “It’s your only bargaining chip, without them, Asmodeus—”

“He would anyway. And I d — don’t give a shit.” She grimaced as she reached into her belt. “Take them.”

Earlier that night, he would’ve done anything to get his hand on the little black box Bethany presently proffered. But as he looked at it now, he didn’t have the heart to take it from a dying woman’s hands. Especially Bethany’s hands. “It won’t make a difference for me. I pissed him off too many times.”

Bethany rested her head on his shoulder. “Lied to the cops. Wrapped my car. around a telephone pole.” She pulled her hand away from the wound, rubbed her crimson fingers together. “Killed t-two others. was drunk.”

Cain understood then why she’d been sent directly to the eighth level. He’d always wondered about that, because if the woman was a major pain in the butt, she didn’t look like a hardened criminal. But liars, cheaters and usurpers populated the eighth. And drunk drivers who pretended to be sober.

“You?”

Cain swallowed hard. “I killed two people, too. My brother Abel, then later, myself.”

“I knew. y-you were the Cain.”

What was there to say? He acquiesced with a nod.

She pressed the little box in his hand. “D-don’t be a hero.” Her voice grew weak, her eyes closed. “I hope. see you. ” Her head lolled on her chest.

He knew she still lived because her body hadn’t yet burst out in ashes and glowing embers. But he checked for a pulse at her neck, wanting it to be steady and strong. Weak, shallow. Barely there. She wouldn’t be waking again.

Cain took the little black box, slippery with Bethany’s blood, and turned it around in his hand. He’d watched Berith gorge on secrets, all at once like a glutton, or savour them one at a time, placing the fragile gold paillettes on his tongue. He’d seen demons sell them for more damned souls like Bethany and him. Like cards on a poker table.

He was done being played.

Around him, the Montreal skyline turned brighter. Almost dawn.

Four

Don’t be a hero.

He hated them right now, demons and spawns, angels, too, even the good kind. They couldn’t stop meddling with people’s lives, trying to pull the blanket on to their side. Jealous freaks, the lot of them. They didn’t have souls, and it burned them to think monkey-men had them, when clearly, they were inferior. Like animals.

Cain couldn’t have been less hero material. But that didn’t mean he intended to make it easy for hell to get its claws back into him. They wanted the secrets, they could come pry them out of his dead fingers. Fuck them. Fuck Berith.

“Wait here, okay,” he murmured, even though he knew Bethany couldn’t hear him any longer. “After it’s all done, I’ll come find you.”

He gently laid her down on her side and stood. After he gathered what ammo Bethany still had strapped to her, he straightened and caught movement in the reflective glass to his left. Cain only had time to whirl around. A split second later, something resembling a giant bat crashed against one of the glass walls. A spawn. Shudders traversed the floor. Ominous cracking sounds reverberated along the ceiling and down the concrete half walls. Dust floated around him like tiny snowflakes.

Through the windows, more spawns circled the leaning tower. The sky filled with them. Another hit the glass walls, then another. Like birds hitting a windshield. Wails and shrieks made Cain’s ears hiss.

He had to put as much distance as he could between Bethany and him, if only to spare her the sordid violations those keepers had in mind for her. He wouldn’t let them get their hands on her, even dead.

He couldn’t.

Time slowed. Noise came to him dimmed and dulled like standing across the street from a pounding discotheque. The smell of sulphur choked the air. There were two ways down from here. He couldn’t go back the way he’d come for fear of the other keepers getting their hands on Bethany. His sacrifice wouldn’t make that much of a difference in where she’d wake up, but at least they wouldn’t go after the defenceless woman. It’d at least buy her a serene death.

Cain jumped on to the glass ledge. Two feet wide, he stood directly on it, well away from Bethany.

“Come get me,” he growled through his teeth. “You fuckers.”

Cain aimed his Luger down between his feet and fired his second to last bullet. The shot went through the tempered glass and widened the spider web already there. Lines crackled outward, turned milky white like a small frozen puddle. But instead of hitting the frozen ground, when this “puddle” shattered nothing but air caught him. With a growl, he fell through the hole.

Spawns converged on him. They hit and slashed him with their serrated claws and scalpel-sharp fangs. Something gave in his shoulder. In his descent, he managed to twist face-up. Such a pretty sky. A spawn dived for him and grabbed Cain by the torso. He felt his skin perforating. Wet warmth spread. Blood everywhere, falling up from him in a reversed crimson rain. Wind howled but couldn’t drown his laugh. Cain was dying. He shot his last bullet right into the monster’s face. It wailed and dropped him.

What a fucking way to go.

Out of nowhere a bright white glow sliced the air.

What the—?

Spawns screeched. The light reached him with the speed of a bullet. Something caught him, and Cain humphed with the sudden deceleration that squished his innards back along his spine. Whatever — whoever — had caught him couldn’t be seen for the brilliant glow that enveloped the stout form. All he knew was that as soon as the being caught him, spawns had flown away in a flurry of leathery wings and frustrating shrieks. Wind abated, the angle changed, and Cain was gently deposited to the ground where he collapsed to his knees, forehead against the concrete and hands splayed on either side. Too weak to stand, barely strong enough to lift his head to look at his saviour.

The being straightened up. A pair of feathered wings like golden horns thrust heavenward on either side. Cain understood. Of all the weird things he’d witnessed, this took the prize. What the fuck was going on?

The glow abated, the wings folded behind a pair of stooped shoulders and a head clad in a hand-knitted cap he would’ve recognized anywhere. He couldn’t believe his eyes.

“You’re heavier than you look,” Sister Evangeline said. Her hands moved rapid-fire.

Cain struggled up to his knees, panting and gagging. He patted his side where the spawn had sliced him. Nothing. Not even blood. Jesus on a cross.

“What have you done?” he panted. “You’re an angel? Why didn’t I see you as you really are?”

She sucked her teeth. “You’re welcome, mon garçon.”

Cain sat on his heels because he couldn’t stand. Not because of his injuries, as he couldn’t seem to find a single one, despite being cut and shredded and sliced in many places during the two-second fall from the funicular. He took a few deep breaths, closed his eyes. When he thought he wouldn’t stumble around like a drunk, he stood slowly, cautiously, as if trying on a brand new pair of legs. Everything felt different somehow and he couldn’t place why. Even the cold against his exposed skin felt sharper. He shivered.

Reality pressed back on him. He was only delaying the inevitable. Berith was waiting for him. “It won’t change anything.”

“It will,” she retorted. “Plus, you wouldn’t have survived the fall.”

“It doesn’t matter. He would’ve sent me back. After playing a bit with me first, of course. I pissed him off really good this time. Those secrets were worth a fortune in souls.” Fucking with Berith was worth the pain, though.

Sister Evangeline shook her head. “Not this time. You would have died. You would have squandered that life, too, just like you did the first.”

Cain took a moment to process the last part. “What—?”

She smiled and his theory was busted — because her eyes reflected the joy, unlike the other angels he’d met (not that they’d been the good kind, only fallen ones or hybrids).

A shiver tickled up his spine. “Do you mean.?” He couldn’t even force the words out. It couldn’t be. He’d never heard of it. He was seeing things, or Berith was playing a cruel joke on him.

She nodded. “He’s all about second chances, you know. Even if people whine all the time and waste the years away.”

He couldn’t believe what was happening. “How? I. I killed my own brother! How can he forgive me? What did I do?”

“Abel forgave you a long time ago, Cain. Live here and now. You could have left with the secrets, or you could have let the demons take her when they first caught up. Instead, you put the bull’s eye right between your own. You jumped to save her.”

Cain could hardly process the chain of thought. It was all a blur in his mind. It couldn’t be. He’d never have to go back there again? He’d never have to look into Berith’s ugly face? He was free from hell?

His elation quickly crystallized. “What about her? She belongs to Asmodeus.”

The older woman’s kindly eyes glowed white-hot for a moment and terrible, godly anger once more swelled her wings with glacial wind. Her hair stood on end, crackles of electricity joined her splayed fingers. Cain took a step back. “Do not speak their name!” Then the smile was back again as she seemed to deflate to her normal appearance. As if nothing had happened.

Sneaky angels.

Cain looked up at where the funicular light gradually descended to ground level. His heart leaped. What the hell was going on? Had one of the keepers snuck up there? Was Bethany still alive, in the hands of some hell-bought thug?

“Why do you worry about her?” The Sister’s hands flashed rapidly. “You like her?”

His first reaction was to snort a denial. Instead, what came out was a strangled, “Yeah, so?”

Sister Evangeline winked. “You think He’d bring you back to true life, only to make it miserable? She was going to get a second chance, eventually. But you.” She dropped her hands before starting to sign again. “You’re the one who surprised us all. Even Him.”

The Sister’s wings gradually receded, until nothing showed. She was once again an older woman with a messenger bag slung across her shoulders and a hand-knitted wool hat screwed on low. “Keep her out of trouble. I’m not going to pull you out of the roaster again. Already lost a few feathers for you two.”

“Yeah, I thought you guys didn’t have feathers.”

“Are you comparing me to the scum who turned their backs on Him? Merci beaucoup. That’s because you’d never seen a real angel. Until now.”

She turned and walked away before he could reply. Not that he had anything to say.

A faint sound caught his ear. He instinctively reached for his shotgun, which wasn’t there but somewhere between the base of the tower and the stadium itself. Shit. Wouldn’t that be grand to lose it minutes after being granted a new chance at life? Adrenaline shifted when he spotted the source of the noise. Boot heels clacking on concrete.

Bethany was coming at him. Not stumbling or floundering or even walking, despite the injuries she’d just suffered. The blond was running for him like a sprinter after the shot went off. And she didn’t seem to have any intention of slowing down either. Such spirit. How the hell had she managed that?

He squared his stance a second before she reached him, grabbed the front of his ruined jacket and planted a kiss that landed like knuckles. He had his arms around her before the thought registered he was killing his reputation. He didn’t give a damn. Not any more. Not around her.

Bethany pulled away, panting, tears in her eyes. She smiled, shook her head. “What the hell is going on?”

“We got another chance.”

He’d never been one for theatrics and big declarations. Get to the point. Life was too short for bullshit.

Her megawatt smile warmed him right down to his gut. “I’m hungry.”

“Yeah. A steak would be nice. Lots of blood and gravy.”

“Who said anything about food?” Bethany chuckled.

Cain could get used to that sound. In fact, he intended to do just that.

Gail Carriger

Marine Biology

The problem, Alec thought, swishing a test-tube full of sea-water about gloomily, is that I’m unexpectedly alive. To be unexpectedly dead would be simplicity itself. After all, he made up the statistic on the spot so that he would sound more learned in his own head, half of all deaths are unexpected. One is, to a certain degree, prepared to die unexpectedly. But when one expects to die at eighteen and instead finds oneself unexpectedly alive at twenty-four, there’s nothing for it but to be confused about everything.

He sighed, put the test-tube into its cradle and dragged his thoughts forcibly back to the sample’s acidic content. Which was unexpectedly high. There’s global warming for you.

His phone rang. After a brief flurry of scrabbling about, he fished it out from underneath a massive book on nudibranchs — how had it migrated there? — and glanced at the caller’s name before flipping it open. His stomach twisted. Great, what’s Dad doing calling me at the lab?

“Yes?”

“Your problem is that you never got used to being alive.”

“I hate it when you do that. Hold on.” Alec pushed his protective goggles up into his spiky hair and rolled his eyes at his boss on the other side of the lab table. “Family emergency,” he mouthed.

Janet, who was the best kind of boss — a relaxed one — merely waved him off to the fire escape.

Alec trotted over and pushed out into the cold grey day. The lab coat was little protection against the biting wind but he didn’t notice. He didn’t really get cold, not since his eighteenth birthday.

“How are you calling me, Jack? You’re non-corporeal.”

The ghost’s tone became petulant. He did not like being reminded of his disability. “Voice dial, of course.”

“Of course. Do you know what kind of heart attack that gave me, seeing Dad’s number?”

“You’ve got to get over this thing with your father.”

“He’s a dick, I’m passive aggressive and you’re the one who’s haunting because of it.”

“We were talking about your problems, remember? You can’t take being alive.”

“So you call me at work to tell me something I already know?”

“No, but I thought if I started out reminding you how well I know you, you might refrain from arguing with me for the next twenty minutes over the thing I actually need to ask you. I always win these arguments, in the end.”

“Jack, you’re making me nervous.” Alec could feel his canines starting to emerge. “You know what happens when I get nervous.”

“Yoga breaths, darling, yoga breaths.”

Alec breathed in deeply through his nose and then out. The telltale teeth retracted slightly. And the rest of the pack wondered how he functioned so smoothly in laboratory-land. He tried to imagine them doing yoga, and that made the teeth entirely vanish. Alec’s fellow pack members were mostly large and hairy and took to being both with enthusiasm. It was as though they were trying to be as stereotypical as possible, working in construction, riding motorcycles, barbequing a lot. Not the yoga types. Unless the yoga somehow involved leather chaps and brisket.

“Fine, yes, so, what’s going on?”

“Party, darling, tonight. My place.”

“Oh, really, must I?” Alec ran a finger under the collar of his polo shirt.

“’Fraid so. Fifi’s calling in and Biff’s bringing the beer. You know what that means.”

“Pack meeting?”

Alec looked nervously up at the gloomy sky, as if it were nighttime already. “Is it full moon? Did I forget it was full moon? I hacked one of those female cycle programs for my computer, it’s supposed to remind me when I’m due.”

Jack interrupted his panic. “No, something else is going on.”

“Crap, what?”

“Can’t tell, darling, can’t tell. But it was made clear that your presence, specifically, is required.”

Alec swore. “Jack? Jack, you’re supposed to be my friend.”

“Dead men tell no tales.”

“Tales or tails?”

Silence met that pun.

Alec’s canines were back. “You know, if you weren’t dead, I’d kill you.”

“But you’ll be there?”

“Clearly, I have to be there. If my brother’s bringing the beer, I’ll bring the salad.”

“No one will eat it.”

“It’s either that or seafood, and I’d rather not remind them how far I’ve strayed away from the family business.”

“Well, that was easier than I thought. I guess you didn’t have a date for tonight?”

“Jack, I never have a date.”

“Pathetic. Even I have a date and I’m dead.”

“You’re telling me.”

“It won’t be me doing the telling.”

“Oh, shit. That’s not what this meeting is about, is it?”

“Just show up, Alec, and bring your damn salad.”

Then the phone went dead. Alec looked at it with an expression of profound disgust, as though the cell were what was wrong with his life. How had Jack managed to hang up without hands?

Alec sighed, flipped the phone shut and slouched back into the lab.

Janet took in his hangdog expression and immediately knew what was required of her as friend and confidante. “Oh no, what happened?”

“Family thing tonight that I didn’t know about.”

“Need me to be your date?”

“Not this time, but thanks.”

“You know, I’ve never met your family. I find it odd to think you came from somewhere.”

“Well, if you met them, you’d find it odder.”

“That bad, huh?”

“The worst. I think they might be staging an intervention.”

“But Alec, you’re perfectly sober. A fine upstanding citizen. I don’t think I’ve seen you drink even a glass of wine. Unless, of course, it’s your addiction to the whole Atkins diet they’re worried about.”

Thank goodness for Dr Atkins — the perfect excuse for a cultured werewolf to eat nothing but meat. Before the good doctor came along, Alec had been forced to hide his shameful rare burger habit.

“With my luck, they’re pulling me out of the closet.”

No one — really, no one — especially not Alec, had expected him to survive the Bite. The only person in existence less qualified to become a werewolf was Richard Simmons. Not that people wandered around calling Alec effeminate, not to his face anyway, but under no circumstances could he be described as either large or hairy.

His Dad was beta to the local pack, with four strapping, football playing, monosyllabic, Playboy-touting sons — and Alec. Alec was the middle child and there’d been some talk about “looking like the neighbour” when he came along. Skinny, even after the whole big feet, eat everything, smelling-like-a-goat, phase. He also read books — not the backs of cereal boxes — and he preferred post-modern literature of all horrible things. He joined the swim team, not the football team, and that only because his father insisted he undertake some kind of sport. High school saw him wallow in typical teenage depression, except that he knew he was going to die. He didn’t have to don eye make-up and write bad poetry. The local werewolf alpha was set to try and change him into a supernatural creature on his eighteenth birthday and there was simply no way he’d survive the transition.

Until he did.

And spent the next six years trying to figure out why, and what to do with his life, and how to reconcile the monthly slavering beast he would become with his still skinny, still post-modern-reading self.

The yoga helped.

Alec’s Dad, the aptly named Butch, owned the house that Jack haunted. That was, in fact, the reason Jack haunted it. It was a popular misconception that a ghost haunted the man who killed him. In actual fact, they tended to go for the person who pissed them off the most in life. Jack, their former next-door neighbour, had hated Butch. There’d been an argument over the sprinkler system and the next thing they knew Jack was stuck forever haunting his neighbour. In a classic ironic twist, the pack now called Butch’s house Jack’s Place. This made Butch livid. Which was one of the reasons the pack did it. The other reason was that Jack wasn’t the kind of ghost who wafted around mistlike in the background. Oh no, he was the kind of ghost who organized parties and criticized your shoe choices. Which is why the parties were always at Butch’s place — Jack liked to get up in everyone’s business. The werewolves thought this was a great joke, that the pack had a pet ghost. Jack could get away with insulting them, because he was already dead and large hairy men didn’t scare him anymore. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Alec marched in, head high, still wearing his lab coat defiantly, and slammed his store-bought salad down on the rickety kitchen table.

“Hi, Ma.”

“Hi, baby. Salad? I was hoping you’d bring sushi. Still, very thoughtful dear. At least you brought something, which is more than I can say for your brothers.” His mother tossed peroxide blond hair out of her eyes.

Alec leaned his hip against the refrigerator. “Well, be fair, they brought their wives. Pam, at least, is useful.”

“Not tonight they didn’t. Pack only.” Both mother and son paused to look out the window at the backyard where a large collection of beefy men milled about drinking beer.

“Where you going, Ma?” Alec snagged a wedge of raw beef before his mother could stick it on the skewer.

“It’s lady’s poker night over at Sharon’s.”

Out in the back yard a couple of the men roared their approval as a great gout of fire flared up off the grill.

“Ugh. Why do they bother? Everyone eats it rare anyway.” Proving his point, Alec nibbled on the cube of meat he was holding.

“Oh, sweetie, men and fire, you know how they get. Doesn’t matter if they’re werewolves or not.”

“Any idea what’s going on?”

“Sorry, baby. Can’t say.”

She hefted the platter of kebabs and carried them out into the backyard. Alec trailed after her.

His mom placed the meat down on a dilapidated picnic table. “Right boys, there you go. Cook it or eat it fresh, it’s not my problem. Just do it out here and don’t mess up my kitchen. You know I hate coming home to find blood all over the floor; it’s hell on the linoleum. I’m off. You know where the beer is kept.”

A chorus of polite “yes, ma’ams” met that remark.

Alec watched her disappear back into the house.

Jack wafted up next to him like a mercurial little genie. “Not a bad sort, your mother.”

“’Cept she’s throwing me to the wolves.”

They stood at the fringes of the gathering, Alec tense and nervous, Jack bobbing up and down softly.

“So,” Jack had that tone in his voice, the tone that said gossip was imminent. “Did you hear Biff’s wife left him?”

“I can’t imagine why. All that lively conversation.”

“Hey now, a man can say a lot using only monosyllabic grunts. Did you bring sushi?”

“No, salad, I told you I would. Don’t you remember? Everyone mocks me when I bring sushi, so I thought I might as well give them a real reason.”

“That’s your problem Alec—”

“Oh, another one?”

“—you’re just obtuse enough not to play their very simple game with any skill. You could. You just have a death wish.”

“Oh, thank you for the psychoanalysis, fly boy.”

“Speaking of sushi, how’s the sea life?”

“Still not grunting.”

“You’re no fun.”

“I don’t like surprises Jack, what the hell is going on?”

“Oh, you’re gonna like this one, I think.”

One of the Neanderthals in front of them tore himself away from a scintillating conversation and lumbered in their direction. He had a massive scar on one cheek, a skull bandana around his head, and the exact expression a pit-bull wears when he catches some other dog peeing in his yard.

“My father could give lessons on stereotypical biker behaviour.”

“Butch is a man of culture and sophistication,” was Jack’s helpful comment before he drifted away. He couldn’t get too near to Alec’s father — classic case of ghostly Tourette’s. Jack would start lunging and swearing at the man who kept him tied to the world. It made for an interesting living environment.

Alec stood his ground.

“Son,” Butch spat the word out like it tasted bad in his mouth. “Did you bring your usual sushi?”

Alec gave his father a funny look. “That’s the third time I’ve been asked that since I arrived. Why? You hate sushi, no one ever eats it when I bring it, and you all make stupid jokes about ‘the other white meat’. Despite the fact that the new place by Bruno’s is really good.” Butch made Alec nervous and when Alec got nervous he babbled. “I don’t think the owner is actually Japanese, but that doesn’t seem to matter.”

Disappointment, a common emotion when talking with his middle child, crossed Butch’s face. “You would fuck it up this time.”

“Christ, Dad, if you wanted sushi why didn’t you email me? Or I could just go out and get the darn stuff right now. It’ll only take five minutes.” He turned towards the house, any excuse to leave.

“Oh, no, really, don’t bother.” That was a new voice. And a new smell. A briny, salty, fishy smell. Not unpleasant to the nose of a marine biologist, even if it was an extra sensitive werewolf nose.

Alec turned back.

To be confronted by one of the world’s most beautiful people — slender, high cheekbones, big blue eyes, straight white teeth, webbed fingers. Wait! Webbed fingers?

“Whoa, you’re not a werewolf.”

“I should certainly hope not.” The woman smiled at him. Really, very beautiful. Bummer about the gender.

Butch was watching Alec’s reaction carefully, so Alec slid in slightly and took the beautiful woman’s hand in one of his. Trying to pretend attraction. Right, webbed fingers.

“You’re a mermaid?”

The woman gave him that look. “Merwoman, please!”

“Sorry, we don’t get many of your kind in these parts.”

“You do, you just don’t realize it,” that was another new voice — mellow, masculine.

Alec turned. Ooo. Still blond, only taller and definitely male. Merman. Alec suddenly lost access to the part of his brain that housed the English language.

The man gave him a slow smile. “Nice to see you again, Alecanter.”

At a loss, Alec stuck his hand out.

The merman’s skin was cool to the touch, the webbing between his fingers soft and rubbery.

Alec could feel himself start to blush. Crap, why’d I end up the only fair-skinned one in the family? “Do I know you?” Face like that — hell, body like that — I’m not likely to have forgotten.

That smile didn’t waver. “Picture me with dyed black hair and lots of eye make-up.”

Alec nearly swallowed his tongue. Could the man get any sexier? Oh wait. He mentally took off about fifty pounds, all muscle, from the merman and dressed him in a torn black T-shirt emblazoned with the name of some obscure band. “Marvin?” Weirdo goth-boy from high school? No way! “But you wouldn’t even join the swim team.” There’d been some teasing about that, because Marvin used to come and sit and smoke in the bleachers pretty regularly, watching the swim practice. He’d always taken some secret amusement from it.

“Home surf advantage. We merpeeps aren’t allowed. Can’t have the monkeys getting suspicious.”

“That explains why you always wore gloves. I thought it was some weird Goth thing.”

They were still shaking hands, well, still holding hands. Alec let go.

Marvin lowered his own hand slowly and sidled almost imperceptibly closer. “You noticed what I was wearing?”

Alec’s danger warning system went off and he glanced around at the pack. His father was paying awfully close attention to their conversation and frowning. So was the mermaid. Sorry, merwoman.

Alec backpedalled. “You used to watch me, at swim practice. Never thought you’d see a wolf in water?”

The merman wasn’t going to let it go. “You weren’t a wolf yet. But, yeah, that was one of the reasons.”

Alec’s tongue came out to wet suddenly dry lips. He angled towards the merwoman. That’s what straight men did, right? Pay attention to the hot female. “So, what’s your name?”

“Giselle. And before you ask, we’re siblings.”

Alec wasn’t gonna but, “Oh, good,” slipped out anyway.

Marvin’s grin widened.

“So, you two are the reason for the pack meeting, huh? And the sushi obsession.” Alec grappled for civilized thought.

“You could say that.”

“And don’t worry about the sushi. You can totally take me out for some later.” Marvin wasn’t particularly subtle. Alec glared at him, Don’t you dare out me, that’s the last flipping thing I need right now.

The merwoman glanced around, taking in Alec’s sudden tension and Butch’s avid interest in their conversation. “You can take us out later,” she qualified her brother’s statement.

Alec gave her a grateful look. “So, what’s the meeting for then?”

“Pack protocol,” growled his father, “think we better let Fifi tell us.”

Hearing his name, the alpha looked up from the tri-tip he was tearing into and wiped the blood off his massive beard with his sleeve. “Yeah, let’s get this over with so we can really eat.” The alpha was big and furry even in human form, with a ruddy pockmarked complexion. If he wasn’t a werewolf Alec would have described him as yak-like.

The pack pulled into a loose circle with Fifi, the two merfolk, Alec, and Butch at its centre. This made Alec nervous. He usually tried to stay, as much as possible, out of pack focus. Half the pack seemed centred on Fifi but most of the younger members were looking at Alec. This made Alec even more nervous. It had been happening more and more recently, and he was beginning to wonder if they knew something. If perhaps Jack had told someone something he shouldn’t have.

Fifi gesticulated with what was left of the hunk of meat. “This here’s Marv and Grissy.”

“Giselle, please!”

“Grissy,” said Fifi firmly, “they’s in town on official business. Been ordered to meet with us so as we can provide back-up if needed. We gotta assign them a pack liaison, make sure they don’t fuck-up. Alec here’s closest thing we have to a fish guy, so he’s taking the job.”

A chorus of groans met that statement. Giselle was a tempting liaison prospect.

I am? Okay. Well, there’s that explained. Alec couldn’t suppress a little thrill of his own.

“We,” stated Giselle very firmly, “are not fish!”

“And I specialize in micro-organisms anyway. But I wouldn’t try to explain the difference if I were you,” advised Alec.

Butch casually, and without much attention to detail, backhanded Alec across the face. “Don’t be a smart-ass,” he barked at his son.

Pain blossomed in one cheek. Alec had to clamp down on the visceral response to launch himself at his father. It would be so easy just to morph into his wolf head and tear out his dad’s throat. Butch was stronger but it’d be worth it for that first bite.

Marvin lurched forward, expression shocked.

This snapped Alec out of his violent fantasies. He made an almost-imperceptible stopping motion at the merman with one hand. Then he shook his head to clear it and spat blood. Good thing he’d heal quickly. So much for trying to impress the cute boy with clever talk.

Fifi brought everything back into line. “Now Marv, you tell us what’s going on.”

Marvin crossed his arms and arched an eyebrow. “Think I’ll let my sister do that.”

“What are ya, pussy-whipped?” asked Butch.

That’s my father for you, so fucking classy.

Marvin didn’t miss a beat. He smiled an ironic little twist of a smile. “Nope, fin-whipped. We’re a matriarchal society, four-legs. No point in fluffing your ruff at me.”

Giselle said, “Would you two like to go piss in a corner somewhere?”

Alec hid his own grin at that. This was kind of fun to watch.

His father actually growled. At that, Fifi grabbed Butch by the ponytail and tossed him back towards the circle of other pack members. Butch was a big tough guy, but Fifi was bigger and tougher and everyone knew it. Pack dynamics had some benefit. Butch left, still growling low in his throat.

“So we’re here to follow up a lead from a West Coast investigation,” said Giselle, getting right to the point. “Seems the Irish mafia are in town.”

Alec couldn’t help himself, “There’s an Irish mafia?”

Giselle gave him the same kind of look his father gave him. Apparently she wasn’t used to being interrupted. “Well, yeah. We got a couple of selkie to bark to our song, over in San Francisco. Said there’s some kind of money-laundering scheme going on round this coast. You know, offshore accounts.”

“Selkie! What are they doing mixed up with the Irish mafia?”

Giselle, patted him on the arm condescendingly. “Darling, the selkie are the Irish mafia.”

Alec looked around at the pack. “Great, what are we? A sleeper cell for the KGB?” There goes my smart mouth again.

Luckily, unlike Butch, Fifididn’t seem to mind it much when Alec went off. The alpha grinned. “CIA, pup. Canines In Action.”

Very funny.

The pack laughed obligingly.

“Right, so, Alec, you stick with these two. I trust you’ll tell me anything I need to know.” Fifi seemed to think that was settled.

“Yes, sir.”

“Good, let’s eat.”

Fifi wandered off and the pack went back to milling about the barbecues, gulping down booze and meat in equal measure.

Alec turned to their two guests. “So, sushi and further details?”

Marvin smiled brightly. “Perfect.”

Giselle wrinkled her nose. A number of the pack members were ambling in her direction with leers and puffed-up chests. “Definitely.”

Alec and the two merfolk made their way towards the house.

Alec’s oldest brother, Biff, grabbed his arm and pulled him aside before he’d gotten very far.

Alec tensed automatically. He couldn’t be sure but he thought he saw Marvin start back towards him. Giselle put a hand on her brother’s arm.

“So, Bro.”

“Yeah, Biff?” Biff wasn’t so bad, as brothers went. Almost as big as their father and just as tough but a lot less mean. Didn’t say all that much as a general rule, but he had spent some time as a kid pulling the other three brothers off of Alec’s scrawny ass. Alec always felt he owed him for it.

“I recommended you’d do for these two, seeing as your job’s, you know, with the ocean and all. Thought maybe you’d heard something.”

Alec tried to look flattered. I didn’t know Biff had so much sway with the pack these days. “Supernatural? I’m afraid not. I’m a marine biologist, not a wave psychoanalyst. I look at tiny creatures in a laboratory. Even if I did do mammals, selkies are well outside my expertise.”

His brother shrugged massive shoulders. “Yeah, well, I thought maybe something fishy would be right up your alley. Hot, huh? And you like that sea stuff.”

“I study micro-organisms.”

Biff was looking at Giselle’s fine ass climbing the steps into the house. “I wouldn’t say no to getting hold of her micro-organisms.”

“Uh, Biff. Everything okay with you and Pam?”

“Just saying, Bro. You seem to have a little chemistry going on with them fishes there. I’d tap that, if I were you.”

Alec swallowed down on some bile. He’d rather have his dad yelling at him than his brother giving him sex advice. “Biff, did Mom put you up to this?”

Biff gave him a very serious look out of his craggy Neanderthal face. “Pack’s talking, Bro. Why you not doing your duty by us? How long you gonna hold out? You need to settle.”

“You think a werewolf and a mermaid can breed? What, some kind of sea-wolf?”

“Hey now, what’s so bad about being half-fish off dry land? It’s not like you’re showing interest in any other kind of tail.”

“Cute Biff, real cute. Didn’t know you could be witty and all.”

Biff frowned. “Alec, all I’m saying is I recommended you for this job. Don’t fuck it up, unless it’s to fuck. We clear?”

“As a Dutch hooker. Ah shit, Biff, I gotta go, our guests are talking to Jack.”

“They are? Fuck.”

Jack was doing his worst. “Alec, this here is Marvin.”

“Yes, we’ve met. And Jack, we really gotta go.”

“Marvin thinks you’re cute.”

Giselle started to laugh. Marvin didn’t look at all embarrassed. Alec could feel his ears starting to burn.

“Jack,” Alec hissed, “not here!”

The ghost swivelled toward the merman. “Alec thinks you’re cute, too.”

“Jesus Jack, what are you, twelve?”

Marvin laughed and then added, “He’s right, you know, I do.”

Aw shit. Alec lost track of things for a moment. You do?

“And Biff did kind of set this whole thing up,” cheeped Jack, helpfully. “Could be he approves.”

Alec glared at the ghost. “I don’t think Marvin was the one my brother intended me to get to know.”

Giselle nodded her agreement. “I’m thinking the fuzzy one is right, brother dear.”

Marvin sidled in close to Alec. “Ah, you’re not out, are you?”

When did briny get to be such a sexy smell? Alec looked between brother and sister. “And you are?”

In this Giselle seemed content to let her brother do the talking, merely watching their interaction with amusement.

Marvin shrugged. “Hey, I live in a world run by women. I was outed by household gossip before I’d even acknowledged I was gay to myself.”

“Nice life, but we really should be having this conversation somewhere other than my incredibly homophobic father’s kitchen.” Alec glanced nervously around the empty room.

“Werewolves not so down with it, huh?”

“Well, just look at them.”

A tussle had started in the back yard, Biff and one of the other youngsters. Punches were being thrown. Any second now the combatants would be ripping off their clothing and fighting, teeth and claw. Alec turned to watch, interested despite himself.

Jack said, “When you gonna just fight Butch?”

Alec shrugged.

“What, afraid you might win?”

“Shut up, Jack.”

Marvin came up and pressed partly against Alec’s back. Alec felt suddenly very warm.

“It seems like a pretty cool situation, if you like ’em big and hairy. You get like that, pretty boy? With the whole growling and tearing off of your clothes? Not that that’s really my thing. I’m kind of liking this lab coat look. I mean, how hot is it that you’re actually a marine biologist?”

Well that is a new one. Usually, guys get off on my being a werewolf, not a scientist.

Marvin petted Alec’s arm as though Alec were some skittish animal.

“So here I am, a marine mammal, and I got biology. I was thinking I might work my way on to your sample chart.”

Alec laughed and turned to look down at the man next to him. This is really a bad idea, with the pack right out there. Nevertheless he couldn’t help but lean into the petting. “Didn’t you just hear me telling Biff? I specialize in micro-organisms.”

Marvin shrugged. “Probably got a few of those too.”

“Ew, not sexy.”

“So, date sometime?”

Who knew sea mammals could be so aggressive. “Aren’t we supposed to be heading out to sushi?”

“I’m thinking a date without my sister along.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Pack.”

“So?”

“Don’t you have, oh I don’t know, a school or something you have to keep happy?”

Giselle interrupted them at that. “My pearl, we’d be happy to see him dating anyone. It ain’t healthy for our kind to go on for such a long dry spell.”

Now it was Marvin’s turn to look embarrassed.

Alec was intrigued. A man as hot as Marvin? “Really?”

“Oh yeah, been carrying a torch for some young stud since high school.”

Wow, blonds sure can blush.

“Awe, Giselle! Must you.” Suddenly the two merfolk were acting like true siblings.

Alec arched his eyebrows at the merman. “High school, huh?”

Marvin’s blush got, if possible, deeper. “Hey, you were this hot jock.”

“Wait, me?” Alec practically squeaked.

“I had to grow out of being that weird skinny Goth kid.”

Alec was incredibly flattered. “Well, allow me to say, you did it beautifully.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.” My god he has gorgeous eyes.

Jack’s voice interrupted what was looking to be a very interesting progression to the conversation. “Boys! Not that I ain’t enjoying the show, but we got company.”

Alec practically leaped all the way across the kitchen. His teeth sprang out, and he felt his eyes start to shift.

Marvin watched this action with interest. “I don’t know whether to be insulted or turned on.”

Alec growled at him. Instinctive response.

“Ooo, definitely turned on.”

“Oh, shut up, Marvin,” said his sister. “You got no idea what kind of pack dynamics you’re messing with.”

“Yeah? Well I know which ones I’d like to be messing with.”

The kitchen door swung open and Fifi marched in.

“Still here? Thought you guys were off to catch a meal.”

“We got a little distracted by the architecture,” Giselle jumped into the breach. “House designs always intrigue me. As a sea person, you know?”

Nothing could be calculated to turn Fifi off the scent quicker. The alpha’s eyes glazed over. “Yeah, well, whatever floats your boat.” He gave Alec’s ruffled appearance a curious look. “You’re always so tense youngling. Think perhaps your brother’s right. You need to get laid.”

Alec sputtered.

Marvin muffled a snort of laughter.

“Uh, yes sir.” Alec started inching towards the hallway. “’K, we’ll be off now, sir.”

“Carry on.”

Alec shepherded the two merfolk out of the house.

Jack’s voice whispered in his ear just before the door slammed shut behind them, “Now you’re under orders from your alpha.”

“Fuck off, Jack.”

“Not before you.”

Alec’s favourite sushi place was pretty crowded for so early in the evening. But Giselle’s looks and charisma got them a table pretty darn fast, and Alec was a regular — popular with the staff.

“Where’s your girlfriend?” asked the waitress, twinkling down at them all. She was a pretty dark-haired girl with big brown eyes who’d always had more than just a nice smile for Alec. Alec, had, of course, never noticed.

“Oh, Janet? Uh, not with me this evening.”

Marvin gave him an accusing look as soon as the woman had taken their orders.

“Girlfriend?”

“Naw. Janet is just my boss down at the lab. It’s easier to just—”

Giselle interrupted, “Of course, avoidance is the hallmark of all gamma werewolves.”

“Who said I was a gamma?” But Alec muttered it so softly the other two didn’t seem to hear. Merpeople, Alec figured, probably aren’t all over the supernatural hearing. Not something particularly called for under water.

Marvin cocked his golden head to one side, thoughtfully. “So, how deep in the closet are you?”

Alec gave him an expressive look. “Honey, I shit mothballs.”

They paused while the waitress put down their tea.

“Your pack is really that bad?” Giselle asked politely.

“It’s big and restless. Not the type of environment for a sudden revelation as to my sexual orientation.”

“You sure? They don’t seem all that bad. Well, except your father. He’s a piece of work.”

Alec didn’t take that bait. “Hmm. Pack should have splintered before we got to such numbers. But no one from my generation has claimed alpha. Biff’s got promise, and I know he’s courting a few of the youngsters, but I’m not sure he’s got it.”

“Got what?” Marvin leaned forward, interested.

“You know, it. That thing that alphas have.”

“I have no idea what you are talking about.”

Alec shrugged. “That’s because I’m trying to teach a fish to ride a motorcycle here.”

“Hey, I’m pretty good on two wheels.” Marvin smiled at him.

“And still — not fish,” added Giselle.

Alec decided to try a new line of conversation. “So the West Coast, huh? Is that where you went after high school?”

Marvin nodded. “Oh, yeah, you know, pod migration. Being a merman is almost as bad as being an army brat, we move around.”

“And this investigation of yours?”

Giselle jumped in. “We’ve been tracking this racket for a while. Ocean’s our jurisdiction, as I’m sure you know. But there seems to be some kind of land connection with this one. Selkies can be a problem. Slough off their skins and suddenly the trail dries right up.”

“What’s this one done? Murder? Kidnapping?”

“Nothing violent like that. Pure white-collar action. Some funding collected by one of our nonprofits disappeared. We have this ocean reclamation and coral rescue operation, suddenly half the bank account vanished along with this fellow and his family.”

“Mmm,” Alec nodded. “How much are we talking here?”

“Three point two million dollars.”

Alec coughed into his green tea. “All that for coral?”

Giselle shrugged. “The non-profit fronts a dummy account for our pod to run day-to-day integration operations. You know how it gets for us supernatural types. Trying to keep everything hidden from the monkeys. We contracted out a few delicate bits of business to a reputable selkie agent and the next thing we know. ”

“Tough break. What makes you think it ended up here?”

The waitress reappeared with their sushi and a very wide-eyed look. Alec wondered if she had overheard any of their conversation.

“Those informants we told you about.”

“Oh, yeah, I remember.” Alec bit into a piece of tuna happily. It wasn’t quite as good as fresh red meat, but there was something appealing about fish. He was a little sorry the rest of the pack were so down on it all the time. They were really missing out. “So, where should we start?”

“How about when? Tomorrow morning, your place?”

Alec agreed and gave them his address. They enjoyed the rest of the meal accompanied by pleasant inanities and mild flirting. Alec returned home feeling, for the first time in a long while, as though it was okay to be unexpectedly alive.

They met the next morning at Alec’s tiny apartment.

Marvin brought Alec a tin of sardines as a courting gift.

“How do you know I’m not the kind of guy who likes whole salmon?”

The merman gave him a look, and then, despite the amused presence of his sister, leaned in and kissed Alec full on the lips.

Alec was startled but not unwilling. It was early for such shenanigans but the way his love life had been lately he’d take what he could get. Marvin tasted amazing, far better than the sushi of the night before. And that had been really good sushi. Salt and sea and something else. Something chemically addictive and sexual. It rather derailed Alec’s thoughts. Especially as Alec wasn’t much of a morning person anyway.

Marvin pulled away first, licking his lips. “You know I’ve been waiting about ten years to do that?”

Alec rediscovered his attitude. “Self-control not one of your strong points?”

“Oh, someone is snarky today. You always like this in the morning?”

“Wouldn’t you like to find out?”

“Absolutely.”

Giselle brushed past the two men in the doorway and took in Alec’s small apartment at one glance. It was neat and tidy and masculine without any further pretensions towards style or fashion.

“Well, this is certainly no indication of your sexual orientation.”

Alec arched his eyebrows. “What were you expecting, pink leopard print couch covers and a gilded floor lamp?”

Marvin grinned. “She has weird ideas about you land people. You’ll have to excuse her assumptions on the grounds of ignorance. It’s only us mermen who get sent in to attend dry schools. Our females cause too many problems. Especially with teenagers.”

Alec watched Giselle sway about his living room, long thick blond hair just touching her undulating hips. “I can’t imagine why.”

“Hey!” A pair of cool fingers pulled Alec’s chin around to look into Marvin’s face.

Alec smiled, swooped in and gave Marvin a full-on kiss. There it was again, that addictive taste, delicious. It would have been all too easy to continue, so Alec pulled back. The merman was left looking agreeably speechless. “Purely an aesthetic observation I assure you. So, where are you two staying?”

Giselle returned from her perusal. “Little place down by the docks, of course.”

Ask a silly question, reflected Alec. He went to pour himself some coffee. Caffeine didn’t do much for the werewolf constitution but he enjoyed the ritual of it and the lab insisted on a near constant supply. He waggled the pot at his guests but both shook their heads.

“Got any clam juice?” Marvin asked.

“Should I open these sardines?”

Marvin looked hurt. “Those are a gift, special just for you, don’t be crass.”

Alec smiled, and put the sardines carefully on to the counter near his toaster. “Very thoughtful.”

Giselle seemed to think it was time to stop the flirting and get on to business. “So we’re thinking the best way to hide the money would be to feed it into some kind of local business.” Giselle pulled out a sheet of paper. “Here’s a list of businesses started over the last few months. I’ll try all the clothing stores. You two try the restaurants.”

“You sure you’ll be okay on your own?”

The merwoman gave Alec a look that should have turned him to stone on the spot.

In fact it did.

Alec felt his body involuntarily seize-up. His feet felt like they’d been super-glued to the floor. The merwoman continued to stare at him, something deadly in her big turquoise eyes, and Alec couldn’t for the life of him move a single muscle.

Finally she turned that aquamarine gaze away and Alec felt his body come once more under his control.

“Wow, impressive.”

Marvin looked mildly amused. “Natural defensive mechanism,” he explained. “Ever heard the myth of Medusa, turning people to stone? That’s where it comes from.”

“Can you do it too?” That’d make for an interesting relationship.

“Nope.”

“What about the whole siren song thing?”

Giselle grinned. “Oh, we can both do that.”

Marvin added, “But not around werewolves. What’s alluring to monkeys causes you guys to bleed out of the ears.”

“Sensitive supernatural hearing?”

“Exactly.”

“Okay then.”

They left Alec’s apartment and set off on a strange kind of tour of new businesses about the city. Alec found Marvin an amiable companion. The merman was a horrible flirt, but mostly harmless about it. They made an effective pairing, what with Marvin’s open and engaging ways and Alec’s natural reticence. But they had no success, and met with a sulky Giselle later that night to find that she too had had no luck. She waved them off to the sushi restaurant without her, insisting that all she needed was a long bath and a can of clam chowder.

Back at Alec’s favourite sushi place, the dark-eyed waitress took their orders and then vanished, wearing a skeptical look.

“She doesn’t like me,” commented Marvin, idly watching the girl’s retreating back.

“And why should she have an opinion?” Alec hadn’t really noticed.

“’Cause she likes you.”

Alec was genuinely surprised. “She does? That was unintentional.”

“It’s one of your more endearing qualities.”

“Unintentionality?”

“Mmm. I remember you in high school, cutting a swathe through all those cheerleaders — no idea how much arguing there was over the presence or absence of your interest.”

“Oh yes, of course. Scrawny old me. The ladykiller.”

Marvin brushed aside Alec’s sarcasm. “You had this incredible attractiveness and you never even realized it.”

“I did?”

“You do.”

“Flatterer.” Alec could feel himself blushing. He sipped tea to hide his self-consciousness.

“Not at all. So, why are we dodging around this thing between us?” Marvin slid his hand under the table and rested it casually on Alec’s knee.

“You’re a merman who’s out and lives on the other side of the country?” Alec didn’t react to the hand on his knee, but he didn’t remove it either.

“Pah, insignificant details.” The hand squeezed and then began a gentle exploration.

“Because I have this feeling you’re just trying to satisfy some left-over adolescent curiosity?” The hand stilled its wandering and was removed.

Marvin pouted. “Why must you be so serious? Okay, fine. And what? You’re looking for a lifelong commitment, when you can’t even tell your family you’re gay?”

“Touché.”

The hand returned. “So our relationship has a few minor difficulties. What true love experiences smooth swimming from the start?”

Alec couldn’t help but smile at that.

The waitress and her frown returned with their order.

“I hardly see that she should feel so strongly,” said Alec, this time noticing the girl’s gloomy expression. “It’s not like I’m a regular or anything. This place hasn’t really been open long enough to have regulars.”

Marvin blinked at that. “New business? How new?”

Alec bit into a piece of sashimi. “Couple of months ago. And you know I wasn’t going to try it, because I heard the owner wasn’t even Japanese, but then. ” Alec trailed off, following where Marvin’s question had led. “Right time frame?”

The merman nodded. “And that waitress does have very large and dark eyes.”

Alec really looked at the woman for the first time. “Fetching girl.”

“What does she smell like?”

Alec shrugged. “Fish, but then, Marvin, this is a sushi restaurant. Everyone smells like fish.”

“Let’s finish up, shall we? I have a sudden need to investigate the kitchen of this establishment.”

The waitress returned, looking hard and determined. “How’s your meal, boys?”

“Delicious. But I’m afraid I must ask to see your kitchen.” Marvin pulled out his wallet and flashed some sort of badge at the young woman. “Health inspectors.”

The dark eyes widened and then narrowed. “Of course, sir. Right this way.”

Marvin stood, grabbed his jacket, and followed. Alec, rather clumsily, glommed on to the merman’s scheme and trailed after.

The kitchen was everything that a health inspector might wish, very clean and very modern, all the appliances shiny and new. It was also equipped with some very large and solid frying pans, which Alec’s head discovered much to his surprise. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Marvin receive the same frying pan treatment, then there was nothing but blackness.

Alec was the first to awaken. Werewolf healing apparently beat out merman abilities in that arena. It didn’t stop his head from hurting like the devil. There was a throbbing pain coming from the back of his skull. What the hell?

His sensitive werewolf hearing went into immediate overdrive. Not that he needed it — whoever was speaking was mighty close.

“Health inspectors, health inspectors indeed. I think not!” That was an unknown voice, deep and masculine and heavily tinged with Irish.

The sushi restaurant owner, I presume.

“Now, Da,” that was the voice of the pretty dark-eyed waitress. “How can you be certain? Pure certain they aren’t health inspectors?”

“Well, that one there’s a web-handed tail-ended nark. Can’t you tell from the hair and the cheekbones? Humans just don’t grow that beautiful. Not outside of Denmark, anyway. Can’t rightly place the pretty boy, but you can bet he’s something we don’t want reporting on our whereabouts.”

“Shame really, he’s been coming in to my section for weeks now. I kinda thought, you know. ”

A snort met that comment. “Just goes to show where thinking will get you.”

“He’s also awake,” said Alec, sitting up and testing the strength of the rope that bound his hands tight behind his back. The rope eased against his flesh. Not strong enough for a were of any breed, let alone a wolf. He cocked his head at his two captors. They really didn’t know what he was. Silly selkies. Alec supposed he couldn’t really blame them all that much, after all, he didn’t look like a werewolf, not even slightly. For once his appearance was standing him in good stead.

Alec let them think they had the upper hand — or was it flipper? — at least while Marvin was still out of it. He looked sideways, down at his companion. The beautiful blond lay flopped, eyes closed, face abnormally pale. Alec frowned in concern. What if they really have damaged him? Perhaps mermen can’t recover from frying pans to the head. Alec could feel his canines beginning to show in anger and agitation. What the hell? He wasn’t in any immediate danger. Usually, his wolf side didn’t take any kind of protective interest in others, not even in his friends, only in his own worthless skin. Alec heard Jack’s voice in his head, Yoga breaths, darling.

Alec took several deep breaths while Marvin lay there, quiet and still. Alec’s inner wolf remained unhappy about this and felt very protective despite the yoga. Well, crap, thought Alec, finally understanding his own feelings, this is mating behaviour. Fantastic. I always knew I had this abnormal affection for fish, but really, Body, this is a ridiculous. Stop it.

The teeth retracted slightly and Alec decided it would be best to look away from Marvin’s comatose form.

So he glanced about his surroundings, to find that they were in some kind of storage room, possibly a cellar. The waitress sat over to one side, on top of an overturned plastic tub, and next to her stood a very fat, very fierce-looking man, with the most impressive moustache Alec had ever clapped eyes on. And Alec had hung out with the Hell’s Angels on more than one occasion, so he was tough to impress.

“You didn’t hit him hard enough, pup,” said the man with the moustache to the waitress.

“Sure I did, Da!”

“Then why’s he up and talking so soon?”

“Don’t know, Da.”

Alec saw Marvin twitch slightly out of the corner of his eye. Awake and playing possum? He had a moment of profound relief.

“So,” said Alec casually, “Used the money to set up a Sushi restaurant, did you? I commend you, you have really good sushi.”

“Well, what else were we to do?”

“Still, setting up this place can’t have taken all of it.”

“No, it didn’t.”

“So,” Alec gave the moustache an opening.

“So?” The fat man was not so much of an evil Bond villain to fall for that trap.

“So where’s the rest?”

The massive moustache twisted in annoyance. “Wouldn’t you just love to know?”

Alec sighed. Marvin twitched again. The merman was shamming. Hoping Marvin would follow his lead, Alec decided to take a chance.

He shifted forms, the rope bonds dropping easily off of his now reconfigured body. His pants also fell away. Sadly, his shirt was not so accommodating. It got all tangled about his neck and forelegs and he ended up having to rip it off with an undignified wiggle. Darn it, that was Armani. Of course, Alec could have simply broken the rope bonds but he didn’t feel the need to prove himself with any of that masculine tripe — that was more his father’s speed. Shifting out of them was easy enough, and it put him in wolf form, which was far more practical for fighting.

He charged at the man with the moustache.

The man let out the most remarkable barking bellow but didn’t run, instead moving forward to meet Alec’s flying furry leap with a crash.

The man was a hell of a lot stronger and more nimble then he looked, and he seemed to know a thing or two about fighting against a wolf. He went for the muzzle, wrapping one beefy arm about Alec’s nose, clamping Alec’s jaw shut, and jabbing at Alec’s eyes with his other hand. Meanwhile the waitress leaped for Alec as well, grappling with his legs. She, too, was unexpectedly strong. Crap, no one warned me selkies had superhuman strength.

Alec scrabbled, sharp and fast, his back legs raking down the woman’s face and neck. She let go with a cry of pain. Then he turned his attention towards the man. Alec scraped forward with his front legs, claws out and wickedly sharp, and at the same time he twisted and jerked back, managing to free his head. He whipped it around and clamped down with big sharp white teeth on the man’s upper arm. He then put a concerted effort into tearing that arm right off. Alec didn’t normally consider himself a violent man, but sometimes, arms simply needed to be removed.

While he was busy gnawing, he noticed two things. First, that Marvin was up and running frantically around the cellar, clearly looking for something. Second, that the moustached man’s arm tasted rather odd. The normal bloody red meat taste of human flesh was absent. Instead the man tasted like salt-cream mixed with hazelnuts. It was quite pleasant, actually. Alec bit down harder. However, he didn’t seem to be getting anywhere with the amputation agenda.

Marvin reappeared in his line of vision, carrying what looked like two scruffy fur coats. The waitress screamed in horror upon seeing them, and this diverted the moustached man’s attention away from Alec.

“No!” he cried, as though that would stop the merman.

“Oh, yes,” replied Marvin. And then he threw one of the ratty fur coats over the man’s head and the other over the waitress’s.

Alec had seen many shape changes in his day. Werewolves, after all, were all over that shit. But he’d never seen any quite so fast, involuntary, and undignified as the two that resulted from Marvin chucking those fur coats.

The arm he’d been chewing away at vanished as the fat man collapsed back on to the floor in a yelling, shivering, convulsing blob. This quickly resolved itself into a barking shivering convulsing brown blob with outrageously long tusks. It still sported a large and impressive moustache. A walrus selkie? Huh, who knew.

While Alec’s animal form served him well on land, the selkie were handicapped by their alternative duds. The waitress (who seemed to be some kind of harbour seal) and the walrus could do nothing more effectual than a sort of awkward worming in Alec’s direction, which was more ridiculous than threatening.

Alec converted back into his human shape. Being wolf seemed a little much given the enemy’s current state. He poked about, looking for his discarded jeans. Despite the fact that most of Marvin’s attention was on their undulating opponents, the merman still seemed to have plenty to spare for Alec’s naked form. Unfortunately, the walrus flopped over and tried to tusk at Alec’s ankle before he could get hold of his jeans, so Alec took refuge up a little stepladder. Marvin, with a decided twinkle in his eye, joined him. The diminutive nature of the stepladder made for an agreeably intimate relationship. Marvin was quite as thrilled by the lack of jeans as Alec was troubled.

“Their skins?” Alec asked, over the barking sounds as the two blubbery beasts wiggled viciously against the base of the stepladder.

“Yes.”

“How long do they have to stay — uh — floppy?”

“Once they are in seal form they must visit the ocean, only then can they remove their skins and return to dry land as humans.”

“Bummer.”

“And you thought you werewolves had it tough.”

Alec shrugged.

“You make a very handsome wolf, by the way. Though I’m thinking I like this form best of all.” One of the merman’s webbed hands formed a newly intimate relationship with Alec’s posterior.

Alec blushed. He’d always thought his wolf form a little bony. Speed was his best trait, not brawn. “Thanks.”

“Beautiful, even.” Marvin shifted against him and tilted in, going for a kiss.

Alec obliged him, though it was not the most romantic of moments — atop an unstable stepladder with two angry seal-type creatures barking up at them.

Marvin seemed interested in pressing matters further, and a tentative tongue tip touched Alec’s lip.

Well, fuck it, I might as well show him everything. Which was when a different part of Alec’s wolf side came to the fore, and Marvin learned a thing or two about what kind of wolf he was attempting to court.

Alec modified the kiss, rising up on his toes and pressing bodily downwards against the merman, slanting his head and diving his tongue aggressively into the other man’s mouth.

Marvin gave a little squeak of surprise, but acquiesced willingly enough, melting easily against Alec’s aggression. Alec gave a little growl of approval and grabbed that tempting long blond hair with one hand, and yanked the merman’s head around to exactly the right angle. Now, that’s a kiss.

Then he stopped.

Marvin, for once, seemed to have nothing to say. His mouth went open and then closed for a little while in shock. He looked like — well — like a fish. Finally he said, eyes wide, “So that’s how it is?”

Alec, blushing a little at his own temerity, pretended a casual shrug. “You thought I was submissive?”

Marvin nodded, but recovered from his surprise enough to snuggle up against him.

Alec explained. “You thought I was in the closet just because I was gay? Not me, I got far more problems. I’m a closet alpha too. I just act the gamma around the pack, makes things easier. I’m a non-confrontational kinda guy.” The stepladder tilted dangerously at a particularly hard whack from the walrus. They would have to deal with the selkie situation soon.

But Marvin was more interested in the implication of Alec’s kiss. “You telling me you’re an alpha in everything?”

“Do you even know what that means?”

“Apparently not.”

“Well, for one thing people are always trying to follow me places without my actually doing anything. Can get pretty hairy in a gay bar, let me just say. And I am so not into bears.”

Marvin blinked at him.

“I was trying to be funny.” Alec sighed. “So, technically, yes. I’m alpha. That’s kind of what started all my problems. I always knew, you see? Since right after they changed me. You just kind of do know, once you’re a werewolf. Know where you sit in a pack, I mean. But, can you imagine the hell I’d have to pay if it became known by anyone else? My dad already suspects, and I think Biff might too.”

“I thought they suspected you were gay.”

“Possibly. But that’d just be the excuse to fight me. I might be able to take a couple hits now and again, but a real fight? It’s in my nature to have to prove things. That’d just be bad. So I avoid it.”

Marvin looked at him. “You just don’t want the responsibility of your own pack?”

Alec shrugged. “Maybe.”

Marvin blinked long blond lashes at him in a parody of a fifties housewife. “Honey, are you telling me I’m in love with a single dad?”

“If you count about seven grown-up bikers. Yup.”

“That’s how many you think would follow you?”

“If I won alpha, sure.”

“I always wanted a big family.” Marvin didn’t seem to mind this possibility.

“You’re a loon, you know that?”

The most remarkable high-pitched yet melodic keening wail cut through both their conversation and the seal barking. Alec flinched. The sound was so sharp it almost tore through the delicate drum of his hypersensitive ears.

“What the hell?”

Marvin grinned. “I believe my sister has arrived. Cover your ears.”

Alec did so. Marvin threw back his head and let out a correspondingly painful yet lovely sound.

A few moments later a loud banging commenced and then the door at the top of the cellar steps crashed open, breaking the bolt. Giselle appeared. She was shadowed by three large and bulky figures who seemed to have done the brunt of the damage to the door.

Alec sniffed suspiciously. Eau de Dad, brother, and alpha. Just wonderful.

Giselle and the werewolves crashed down the stairs and then paused, confused, at the bottom. For there were Marvin and Alec, clutching each other on the top of a rickety stepladder while at their feet two large furry sausages writhed about in an entirely unthreatening manner.

“Uh,” said Giselle.

“Marvin found their skins and incapacitated them.”

“Makes them mighty difficult to interrogate though.”

“But not so much of a threat,” Alec defended.

Marvin shrugged. “Bundle them up in a couple of tarps, take them back to Alec’s place and dump them in the bathtub with a bit of salt. Should do the trick.”

“Oh, now really. Must it be my apartment? My tub isn’t nearly big enough for a walrus.” Alec protested.

“We’ll be careful. It’s the only way to get a confession out of them. Need to trace the rest of that money.”

“What the hell are you doing on a stepladder with a merman? Naked!” Butch asked in that tone of voice. Apparently, he had finally taken stock of the situation.

Alec sighed. Suddenly he was very tired of hiding everything all the time. His mouth tasted like seal blubber, the man of his dreams was in his arms, and the future just didn’t seem all that bad anymore.

“Kissing him, if you really must know.”

Butch sputtered.

Giselle grinned.

“Would you like a demonstration?” Alec offered. Might as well go for broke.

“No need to press the matter, pup,” warned Fifi in his alpha tone of voice.

Butch, ignoring the walrus, the seal, and the merman, charged down the steep wooden stairs into the basement and leaped at his son, changing form midair in a spectacular display of werewolf prowess. His clothing fell to the floor with a sad little fump.

“Oh, well, that’s just great,” said Alec, falling off the stepladder with his father’s jaw wrapped around his shoulder.

Then he too changed.

Alec had never actually fought his father before. After he became a werewolf he’d fought his brothers, one at a time, and several at once. None of them talked about it, but Alec had kicked their proverbial furry butts. But his Dad was pack beta. And very very big.

He was also, Alec soon found, a tad out of shape and beginning to feel his age.

Alec never understood how any werewolf could lose his human sense along with his human form. It seemed silly simply to let the slavering beast take over. So Alec fought smart, using his intelligence as well as his wolf body. With his father mindlessly attacking, tearing for the throat and scrabbling at his jaw, Alec — quick and nimble — fended off his attack and steered him in a furry, slathering, growing tumble around the basement towards a promising-looking fish tank.

His dad took a particularly nasty nip to the side of the face, under one eye, and backed away, circling his son warily for a moment.

Alec seized the opportunity to dart in at exactly the right moment, and instead of going for a ruff-grabbing bite as one might expect, he nosed under his father’s belly, and heaved upwards, using leverage and supernatural strength to simply flip the wolf over and into the fish tank. There was a tremendous splash and then the glass shattered under Butch’s weight.

Butch took a moment to recover, shaking the glass and water from his coat. He was just about to charge his son again, and Alec was beginning to wonder how he could end this without actually killing Butch, when both Fifi and Biff stepped in.

“Enough, Butch,” said the alpha. “The fight is done. Consider yourself rousted. He’s fighting smart, and we both know what that means.”

Butch crouched down among the remnants of the fish tank and glared at his alpha.

“He’s always fought smart, you just never bothered to ask any of us why we stopped picking on him after he changed. You thought we didn’t test him?”

Marvin and Giselle were occupied trussing up the two barking sea mammals in a couple of tablecloths they’d unearthed from the kitchen stores. But, drawn by the conversation, Marvin wandered over.

Giselle, apparently tired of all the barking, glared the walrus into silent stone stillness. Without him, the harbour seal seemed far more amiable.

“What’s it mean, fighting smart?” Marvin bent down and began scratching Alec’s ears. Alec leaned into the caresses. It was a little lap-dog degrading but it felt wonderful.

“It’s an alpha trait, keeping the brain with the change, as it were.”

“Oh, I thought “alpha” had to do with dominance and size.”

“Size, sometimes. Dominance, definitely. But that has to do with smarts and how you use them.”

Fifi looked down at Alec. “Enough playing, pup.”

Alec sighed and shifted back to human. He found and pulled on his jeans before Marvin could say or do anything rash.

Marvin gave him a very significant look.

Alec looked to Fifi. “So, now that it’s out, what are you going to do about me?”

Fifi shrugged. “I’ve been waiting for you to get your crap together and take on responsibility for your half of the pack for a couple years now. Couldn’t understand what was holding you back.”

Alec winced.

Biff looked at his brother, head cocked to one side thoughtfully. “I can.”

“What’s your interest in this matter?” Alec wanted to know.

“Didn’t you realize it? I’m your beta.”

Alec took a closer look at his brother. It would explain his protective behaviour over the years. “Oh.” I guess he always knew he was a beta, just like I always knew I was an alpha.

“So?” Fifi demanded, one heavy foot resting casually on Butch’s still lupine back, as if he were afraid Alec’s dad would leap up and begin attacking once more.

Biff shrugged, looking significantly at Alec and then Marvin, who’d sidled up behind him and wormed one hand into his.

Alec puffed out his cheeks. “So, I’m gay.”

Butch twitched and growled under Fifi’s foot but did nothing further.

Fifi shrugged. “So?”

“You’re not mad?”

“You’re not making a pass at me, are you? Why should I be?”

Biff said, “We all, well, kinda already knew.”

Alec turned to his brother, voice rising, “Oh really? How long?”

Biff raised both eyebrows. “Well, there was that thing when you were six. I was gnawing on one of Ma’s shoes but you took if away from me because it was Italian.”

Alec’s jaw dropped. “You don’t care?”

Biff shrugged. “Why should I?”

“You aren’t worried about your alpha being, well, you know. ”

“Alec, I just think it’s time you settled down, came out as an alpha, took your piece of the pack, and relocated us. We’ve waited long enough, we’re restless.”

“None of the others care?” Alec was thinking of his brothers and the rest of the younger pack members.

“The ones that do will stay with Fifi. The rest of us don’t give a damn. New generation, Alec, it’s just not an issue anymore. We’re, you know, modern. Though, I don’t know how they’ll feel about the in-laws smelling like fish.”

Marvin grinned at him.

Alec turned to look down at the merman. “So, I come with a bit of baggage.”

Marvin grinned. “Every relationship has its little hurdles.”

“Little? Who you calling little?” Biff glared.

Marvin ignored Biff, nuzzled up against Alec’s neck and gave it a little lick.

Alec jumped slightly. “Behave.” He turned back to Fifi and Biff. “So what do we know about the Bay Area, any packs roaming there?”

Fifi grinned. “Not that I know of. The general feeling on San Francisco, amongst the older pack leaders, is that there are too many, well, you know. ” He trailed off.

Alec shrugged. “Guess I’m the right kind of alpha for the area then.”

Biff grinned. “So you’re in? You’ll do it?”

“Do I have a choice? At least there are still marine biology labs over there.”

Marvin slid an arm around his waist. “Plenty. I may even have influence with one or two of them.”

Alec smiled and looked down at the merman’s blond head. “I suppose to be unexpectedly in love is a nice change from being unexpectedly alive.”

The merman stood up on his toes and kissed him.

Alec wondered what Marvin looked like with a tail. “Man, this is going to be one weird relationship.”

“All the best ones are,” replied his merman boyfriend.

Moira Rogers

Zola’s Pride

A Southern Arcana Short Story

One

He was going to get the cops called on him if he wasn’t careful.

Walker Gravois dropped his second cigarette, crushed it under his boot and turned his attention back to the wide window across the way. Fluorescent light streamed through the glass, doing more to illuminate the narrow street than the lamp over his head. Inside the dojo, a woman with chocolate skin blocked a punch, then paused to correct her assailant’s form.

She didn’t have to be facing him for Walker to recognize her. Zola. Every line of her body tugged at memories he thought he’d banished years ago, and he couldn’t help but compare the woman before him with the one he remembered.

She’d been thinner then, just as strong but not as curvy. The wicked flare of her hips drew his gaze, and he licked his lower lip to ease the tingle of curiosity.

Walker checked his watch with a quiet curse — half past ten. He’d been standing there for close to an hour. In this part of the Quarter, it wouldn’t take long for someone to phone the police about the pervert loitering outside the dojo, watching the students kick and lunge in their tiny T-shirts and Lycra sports bras. Unfortunately, the neat letters etched into the glass window that listed closing time as nine o’clock seemed like more of a guideline than a rule.

And he desperately needed to talk to her.

He’d just begun to entertain the notion of simply walking in when Zola stepped to the front of the room and turned to address her gathered students. Clearly, she was preparing to dismiss them, so he shoved his unlit third cigarette back into the pack and crossed the street.

Man up, Gravois, he told himself. She‘ll either hear what you have to say. or she‘ll kick your ass clear across the river. The hell of it was that he had no idea which she’d choose. Normally, he wouldn’t worry — he could handle whatever fury Zola unleashed on him — but he had more to think about now than himself.

So he’d let her scream at him, get out whatever lingering old hurts plagued her, and then he’d make sure she heard him.

He could do this.

He had to.

The evening class had run long again.

Zola never minded. Friday night was reserved for her private class, the class made up of girls and women who walked among the supernatural denizens of New Orleans as daughters, sisters and wives. Some had powers of their own, like Sheila, a gangly, sweet-faced wolf on the cusp of womanhood, all arms and legs and uncertain strength. Some were psychics and some were spell casters, witches and priestesses who twisted magic and read minds.

Some were human, and they were the most vulnerable of all.

The soft murmur of feminine voices drifted through the dojo as the last few students lingered in the warmth of the building, catching up on the latest gossip or making plans to meet later in the week. February had brought an unseasonable cold snap, the kind of chill that settled in Zola’s bones and made her long for the unforgiving deserts of her childhood.

The floor creaked behind her, and Zola looked up from rearranging a stack of punching targets to catch sight of Sheila’s reflection. The teenager had a jacket zipped up to her chin and a knitted hat pulled low over wild corkscrew curls, leaving just her pale face uncovered. “Zola?”

She looked worried, and Zola tensed. “Yes, Sheila? There is a problem?” Even after all these years, English didn’t come naturally. The words tumbled out in an order that always made others laugh, but she’d spoken too many languages in too many countries to worry now.

Sheila was so accustomed to Zola’s linguistic oddities that she didn’t blink. She did, however, speak in her own nearly indecipherable dialect. “There’s a guy lurking outside. I mean, he’s hot and all, but the lurking is pretty creeptastic and a little pervy.”

Zola didn’t need to understand the words to decipher their meaning. She turned and squinted through the broad windows, her vision hampered by the darkness outside and the glare of the dojo’s lights. Even a shapeshifter’s enhanced senses had their limits.

“Stay,” she murmured, already crossing the room. The hardwood floor was cool beneath her bare feet, but she ignored it, just as she ignored the bite of freezing air against her uncovered arms as she pushed open the door.

The scent of the French Quarter hit her in a rush, a hundred smells that would take hours to untangle. Strongest was the coffee from the shop next door, rich and bitter, undercut with the sweetness of freshly baked cookies.

Then the wind shifted, and she smelled him.

Shock held her frozen in place, a statue of ice that might shatter at any moment. Cigarettes. Leather. Lion. Male. His musky cologne should have changed in ten years. The way it heated the blood in her frozen heart should have changed.

Zola turned to face the women who had fallen silent and watched her now, wary and uncertain. She opened her mouth to reassure them and French came to her tongue, so easily she almost bit the tip to keep the words from rolling out.

He’d whispered his words of love in French, under a full moon and ten thousand stars.

She fought for English and it came out choppy and abrupt. “Time for leaving. To leave. Time to leave. Next week, I will be seeing you all?”

They flashed her confused looks but left, filing out into the dark night. Zola watched little Sheila until she met her older brother, who lifted a hand in silent greeting. Zola acknowledged him with a nod, then turned abruptly and strode back inside.

Her visitor would follow.

Follow he did, but not so quickly or so brashly as he would have in her youth. Zola had time to slip her feet into her soft house shoes and don a sweatshirt over her tight tank top before Walker Gravois walked back into her life.

His scent hadn’t changed, but he had. Hazy memory had declared him beautiful, with full lips and cheekbones sharp enough to cut, a youthful warrior painted with all the colours of a clear day on the savanna, golden skin and eyes like the sky. But time had left its mark, put sorrow in his eyes and lines on his face.

Jeans and a leather jacket couldn’t hide the strength of him, and instinct twisted inside her, turned a visit from an old acquaintance into something darker. Lion shapeshifters were rare in the States, so rare that she’d carved out her own territory that spanned most of Louisiana. Walker Gravois was an interloper — and maybe lethal enough to drive her from her home.

Sometimes history did repeat itself.

He didn’t greet her, just dropped his bag and leaned against the small counter near the door where she took care of the trappings of business. “You look good, Zola.”

English. She’d rarely heard English from him, though it was his native tongue. Responding in kind would reveal her difficulty with the language, a weakness she felt too unsteady to reveal. So she replied in French, short and to the point. “Why are you here?”

He followed her lead. “I came to see you. I have some news.”

She’d been so recklessly distracted by his presence that she hadn’t considered what it must mean. Walker had been the youngest of her mother’s bodyguards, sworn to her inner-circle with more than the bonds of loyalty holding him. If he was here, alone. “She is dead.”

Walker shoved his hands into his pockets. “She was killed last week. I’m very sorry.”

Maybe she truly was a woman of ice, with a heart long since frozen beyond melting, for the words stirred nothing but gentle regret and guilty relief. Perhaps surprise that it had taken so long — the madness that claimed most Seers had started its work on Tatienne’s mind a decade earlier, when she’d looked on her only daughter and had seen nothing but a rival.

Walker’s face mirrored her guilt, but there was nothing relieved about it. “That’s not the only reason I came.”

Of course not. Seers were the most powerful creatures to walk the earth — when had the death of one ever come without pain and trouble for those left in the rubble of their broken lives? “Tell me.”

He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Is there someplace we can talk?”

She could take him next door, to the coffee shop, but she imagined nothing he had to say could be said in the presence of humans. Bringing him to her home was too trusting, too intimate — but denying him felt like cowardice.

Pride had always been her folly. “Come upstairs. I’ll make you some coffee.”

Walker had thought that nothing about Zola’s present life could shock him. She’d always been a free spirit, and he’d had to acknowledge at the outset of his search that he had no idea where or how he’d find her, which was predictable in its own way. But the one thing he hadn’t seen coming was that she might have run back to New Orleans. “I didn’t expect you to be in Louisiana.”

No one who didn’t know her would have noticed the tiny flinch, the way her shoulders tensed up and squared, a telling defensive gesture. “New Orleans is a good place for a cat. The wolves ignore me.”

“I know.” He’d grown up in the bayou, south of the city. “I guess all the stories about my old stomping ground made it sound irresistible.”

The coffee cup she’d pulled from the cupboard smashed into the counter hard enough to fracture, and she hissed her frustration. “I didn’t come here because of you,” she said stiffly as she shoved the cup aside and reached for another. “And why I am here is irrelevant. Why are you here?”

Easy enough to answer, and it still might get him kicked out of her apartment. “I need your help.”

Zola didn’t seem surprised. “Yes, Seers rarely die quiet deaths. I suppose she left a mess behind?”

That was one way to put it. “Tatienne ran into some trouble with a mercenary group in Portugal. It was bad.”

“How bad?”

“Bad enough for them to follow us.” Bad enough for them to kill most of the pride.

She turned slowly, eyes narrowed, face tight. “Why me? Why throw yourself on my mercy when not one of you had a sliver of compassion in your hearts when she drove me out? I am not a martyr, not for any man. Not even for you.”

Yes, she would assume no one had cared, because the truth was an unthinkable horror, one he would never reveal to her if he could help it. “I cared, Zola. You have to know I did.”

“Maybe.” She turned again, gave him her back — this time in a clear show of disrespect. “Maybe not enough.”

There was nothing to say, no soothing words to offer. “The pride is mine — what’s left of it, anyway — and all I want to do is keep them alive. Keep them safe.”

“You want to move them here?” Disbelief painted the words. She spun to face him, and her fingers twitched toward her palm, a warning sign that her temper burned hot. Ten years ago she would have followed through, formed a fist and struck him. Her passions had always ridden close to the surface, but maturity had clearly tempered them with restraint.

“New Orleans is the safest place,” he told her calmly. “Surely a half-dozen lions who only want to keep to themselves won’t get in your way.”

“Oh, are we civilized now? Are we human?” She abandoned the coffee she’d poured for him and stalked across the hardwood floor to slam a hand on the table next to him. Then she leaned into his space, filling the air with the angry sizzle of a shapeshifter challenge. “I will not be forced from my home again.”

Keeping a leash on his own reaction cost him dearly. There were few ways to react to such a challenge, and they all ended in violence or sex — neither of which was an option, not if they both wanted to keep their heads on straight. “I’m the only one left, Zola. The only one who stood by while Tatienne drove you out. And I’ll — I’ll leave as soon as the rest of the pride is settled.”

She recoiled, leaving only the lingering scent of her skin. “You’re asking me to lead.”

A frisson of irritation made him grit his teeth. “Those are your options, Zola. Lead or follow. You can’t stay alone in your territory forever.”

“I don’t—” She bit off the words and paced away from him, leashed energy vibrating with every step. “You haven’t told me enough. Why do you need to come here? Why are there only a half-dozen of you left? My mother had more followers than all of the lions in this country combined.”

The truth was uncomfortable because, willing or not, he’d been a party to it. “She did, and now they’re all dead.”

She reached the far wall and pivoted, meeting his gaze across the space that separated them. “Are you still being hunted?”

“Yes.” Walker waved to the other end of the sofa. “Sit down, and I’ll explain everything.”

Two

Zola did the only thing she could. She sat.

A half-dozen lions. At its height, her mother’s pride had numbered in the forties, lions from every continent flocking to kneel at the feet of the generation’s only lion Seer. To imagine that strength reduced to just a handful — and all strangers. No one would look at her and see a vulnerable girl.

Perhaps she could lead them after all. If she had to. “Was it my mother’s madness?”

“I don’t think so, not at first.” Walker sipped his coffee. “There were a lot of mouths to feed, and the pride needed money. Tatienne said lions made the best warriors, the fiercest, so she started looking for underground fights.”

Bloodsport. Not the same as a clean challenge, not when magical cheats were common and death was all but guaranteed to anyone who fought long enough. It was madness, no matter what Walker claimed.

Worse was knowing whose fighting skills she would have bartered first. “You fought?”

“Yeah. Mixed martial arts stuff, but only the invitationals for supernaturals. I’m not a cheat. Some of the others weren’t so picky.”

So they’d died. But surely not so many, so quickly. “And after the fights?”

“Your mother found other kinds of work, mercenary stuff.” Walker glanced at her, his eyes tight with shame. “Mostly body-guarding or lift jobs, sometimes intimidation. She sent a couple of the newer guys out once for what I was pretty sure was a hit, but she knew better than to tell me so.”

Morality had slipped from her mother’s grasp along with her sanity. Zola’s stomach knotted at the sheer disgrace of it. Unfair, perhaps — she could hardly be held responsible for the actions of the mother who’d driven her away — but she’d always cherished her memories of an earlier time. Of the woman whose mind hadn’t been consumed by magic, who had soothed a daughter’s childish hurts and taught her to be strong and fierce.

But the Tatienne she’d known had died many years ago. “Why did you stay with her?”

He didn’t deny that he’d wanted to leave. “By the time I realized how far gone she was, I couldn’t abandon the others.”

“How far did it go?”

“Too far.” He set his cup on the table with a clatter. “She was already dancing close to the edge, and Portugal was the last straw. She’d managed to move in on another group’s territory, was stealing their commissions. That got their attention, but what held it was Tatienne.”

Walker hurt. His pain dug hooks into her heart, tore at the scabs of wounds she’d thought long since healed. Words of love hadn’t been the only kind they’d whispered on long nights in the desert. She could remember all too easily the way her chest had ached as her mother turned cold, how Walker had taken her in his arms and comforted her after each argument, each fight.

Every one but the last, and that stood between them, a wall she couldn’t knock down. It wasn’t her place to touch his cheek or his hair, to give him that gift, that knowledge of belonging. All she could do was coax him to finish the story, though she could guess the end. “They targeted her because she was a Seer?”

“They call themselves the Scions of Ma’at,” he answered. “They’re mercenaries who work in basic pair groups — a shifter and a spell caster. They train together, live together, you name it. Each pair is considered one entity. One fighter. They’re all about balance and order, and Tatienne’s nature offended that.”

The name tugged at a memory, but it slipped away before she could grasp it. “But they’ve killed her. They’ve killed so many. Why are they still hunting you?”

“Because they haven’t settled the score yet. We—” Walker rose and paced to the other side of the room. “We killed even more of them.”

“And they seek vengeance?”

“An eye for an eye,” he muttered grimly. “That’s their idea of balance. Of justice. Maybe they’re not wrong in theory, but the people I brought over had nothing to do with what happened.”

And only six yet lived. “How many lives do they demand?”

He turned and met her gaze. “All of them. All of us.”

Her lips parted to give voice to the protest growing inside her, one born of instinct and ancient feelings, not logic. Years might have passed, but she remembered what it was like to feel the familiar press of his power and know he was hers.

She shielded herself with logic. “Surely they’ll be cautious about chasing you into this country. The wolves’ Conclave might not always be efficient, but they can be ruthless against outsiders.”

“I’d hoped as much,” he admitted, “but I can’t rely on the Scions’ willingness to shy away from enraging the wolves. For all I know, they don’t give a damn.”

There was one way to find out, and it was probably the reason he’d come to her in the first place. “You want me to call Alec Jacobson.”

“I hear he’s the one in charge around here.”

“He’s the one in charge of the wolves.” A distinction Alec didn’t always understand, but one she had no intention of letting anyone forget.

Walker scratched the back of his head in a familiar gesture. “Then he’s in charge, Zola. The wolves run the States, or have you forgotten?”

He’d been gone a long time, long enough that he might not know how petty the leaders of the wolves had become. “The Conclave might unite against an outside enemy, but they’re weakened. Not what they were. As long as I don’t confront them, they do not try to rule me.”

He shrugged. “Then I’ll leave it up to you. All I care about is getting the ball rolling. I need to make sure my people are safe.”

“I’ll call Alec Jacobson.” A concession, but not as big as the one she was about to make. “You should stay here tonight.”

Walker tilted his head to one side. “You don’t have to do that, Zola. I know it isn’t — I have a place to go. I’ll be fine.”

She wouldn’t be. She couldn’t close her eyes to sleep, knowing he roamed the city and might disappear before she’d pried the truth from him. Before he’d given her the closure she deserved, the final balm to the heart he’d broken so long ago. “Stay. We have things to discuss. You owe me this, in exchange for my help.”

Some of the tension faded from his stance. “Are you sure?”

Zola couldn’t help but smile. “Sure that you owe me? Yes.”

“Sure that you really want me to stay.”

Yes. “You’re sleeping on the couch.”

A slow smile curved his lips. “I expected nothing less.”

The smile spoke of wicked confidence and lingering heat, evoking a strong enough reaction to drive her from the couch in search of her phone. Calling Alec would give her time to catch her breath, to find her balance. Perhaps time to fool herself into believing that she’d invited Walker to stay in search of closure, when the truth seemed so much more damning.

Her rebellious heart wasn’t trying to close the chapter of her life dominated by Walker Gravois. It was trying to start a new one.

Walker sat behind the dojo’s small front desk and fielded another inquiry about class schedules and rates. The phone had been ringing nonstop all morning, making it clear just how successful a business Zola had built for herself.

But she needed help. There was a whole level between the ground studio and her apartment on the third floor, a single cavernous room where clients worked out or sparred between private lessons. Right now, it sat empty. Someone could be up there teaching a second class. And if she had someone working the desk—

Knock it off, Gravois, he told himself firmly. It’s her business, not yours.

A particularly enthusiastic kiai drew his attention back to the floor, where Zola ran herd over a dozen supernatural children. Most knelt in a ragged circle, fidgeting with the abundant energy of youth, while one tiny wolf with bouncing pigtails barrelled through taikyoku shodan so fast it looked like a blur instead of a kata.

Separate classes for humans and supernaturals, another thing that had to complicate her scheduling. She definitely needed help, and he had to remember that he was the last person who should offer it.

Zola murmured encouragement to the girl as she corrected the position of her arms, then watched her execute a few vigorous punches. “Better,” Zola said, raising her voice. Her gaze caught Walker’s across the room, and she smiled a little. “Up, all of you. Along the far wall.”

One or two of the children groaned, but they still formed a staggered line against the mirrors. Zola moved to stand beside the desk and nodded. “Sprints. Thirty. Boys, then girls, then boys, then girls. Go!“

The seven boys took off toward the far wall, the shapeshifters outdistancing the one child who sparked with magic instead of feral power. Zola turned her back on the spectacle and switched to French. “I cancelled my afternoon classes. When the little ones are gone, we’ll be able to concentrate.”

“It’s a nice place, Zola.”

Pride shone in her eyes. “Yes. My place. My home.”

And he’d stumbled back into it. Guilt raked at him, and he had to force a smile. What if her involvement went beyond allowing him to use her contacts? If he’d brought his fight to her.

He’d never survive if his mistakes hurt her.

She read his turmoil in the fake smile. “I wasn’t helpless, even as a girl. Whatever comes, I’ll handle it.”

He should have known he wouldn’t be able to fool her. “You shouldn’t have to. That part’s on me.”

One dark eyebrow swept upwards. “You think I need your protection?”

Careful, Walker. “I think it’s my responsibility if I bring my trouble to you.”

“Only if you’re better at handling that trouble than I am.” She smiled in teasing challenge as the doorbell jingled, announcing the arrival of the first of the parents returning to retrieve their children. “Perhaps we’ll see later.”

Definitely a challenge. “You looking to fight me?”

“Just a friendly sparring. I’m sure we’ve both learned new tricks since the last time.”

So many layers of meaning, even if Walker was fairly certain she’d meant the words innocently. “Can’t wait,” he murmured, lowering his gaze so she wouldn’t see the awareness there.

Zola slipped away to resume watch over her charges, running them back and forth as more parents and guardians arrived, until the front of the dojo was crowded. More than one of the wolves cast curious glances his way, but no one approached him, not even when Zola sent the last of her students stampeding toward the exit.

She closed the door and threw the deadbolt. “The children are my favourites. They haven’t learned to be afraid yet.”

“But they’re aware.” They’d recognized him as out of place.

“New Orleans is safer. Not safe.”

Another thing that hadn’t changed in the years he’d been gone. “My half-brother still lives here.” Better to get that out there, to let her think it had influenced his decision to come back, even if it wasn’t true. After all, he hadn’t dragged his ass into John’s restaurant past closing time, asking for help.

No. He had come to her.

She brushed her fingers over the light switch, leaving the dojo lit only from the broken light slanting through the blinds on the front window. “Yes, I remember.” Her footsteps took her towards the stairs, as if she expected him to follow. “I enjoy his cooking.”

Surely John would have said something if Zola had taken pains to introduce herself. “Have you met him?”

“Of course.” She hesitated, then turned while balanced on the first step, putting her eyes level with his. “I told him only that I’d met you during my travels, and that I’d considered you a friend. He never indicated he knew otherwise.”

Because his brother had never been a meddling bastard, and it was a dozen kinds of wrong for Walker to regret it now. “John’s the quiet type.”

“Mmm. Some say the same of me.” A smile played at the corners of her lips. “So. Do we spar?”

So that was what had her in such an all-fired hurry to get upstairs. Walker acquiesced with a shrug and one raised eyebrow. “If you think you can handle me.”

Laughter was her only answer as she spun and launched herself up the stairs. He had to follow at a run, and barely ducked a swing when he made it into the open room above.

He circled out of reach, keeping a sharp gaze on her centre of gravity. “That wasn’t quite fair, honey. Cheap shots are beneath you.”

“No such thing.” Her weight rested nimbly on the balls of her feet, and she swayed a little, smiling. “Never start a fight you don’t intend to finish, no?”

“The cardinal rule,” he agreed. “But you know dirty fighting exposes weakness.”

“So does friendly banter.” She darted forward, a feint obvious enough to be easily avoided. “Play with me, Walker.”

He kicked off his shoes and rushed her once. Instead of meeting her straight on, he pushed off on her shoulder, using the momentum to spin them both around. She went with it, flowing into the turn so fast she whipped around in a tight circle and nearly struck his back.

He broke away and let her come at him, ready to pin down her technique. She didn’t have one; she had at least a dozen, drawing on elements from various martial arts so quickly, so fluidly, he could barely catalogue them.

There was more than a little capoeira influence in the way she moved, especially when she crouched to avoid a blow and immediately retaliated by bracing her weight on one arm and launching into a meia lua pulada. Her legs kicked through the air, spinning so fast they almost blurred, and he barely dodged.

Walker managed to get her on the mat, but she hooked her feet under his legs and threw him off immediately. He landed with a thump on the mat, and she sprang up in another flurry of kicks.

Walker rolled and swept her feet from under her. She went down again — barely — and he threw one leg over her and wrestled her wrists to the mat above her head. “Should we count it off?” he panted.

“I don’t submit,” she snarled, but something other than anger laced the words. Desire. Heat. A heat reflected in her eyes, in the way her body twisted beneath him, not so much testing as teasing. “It has been too long since I fought for survival. I am becoming soft.”

He only wished that were true, that she’d reached a point — found a place — where she could afford to let go a little. “You’re tough as nails and you know it, Zola. I’m just stronger, that’s all.” Stronger but stupid, because he couldn’t help responding to the soft press of her body.

“I’m faster. Speed should balance strength.” Her voice dropped to a husky whisper that invited him to test more than her strength. “It would have, too, if the lion didn’t wish to be caught. She does not have my pride.”

Blood thundered in his ears as sense memory overtook him. He’d had her under him like this before, a mostly innocent situation that had turned to painful awareness in a heartbeat. She had kissed him that time, the awkwardness of the advance eclipsed by her eagerness — and by his own desire.

Memory clashed with adrenaline and the feel of her body against his, and Walker’s dick hardened. He would have rolled away, but that hot invitation in her eyes kept him motionless. Riveted.

The world upended in a surge of sleek muscle. She moved fast, rolling them in a tangle of limbs that ended with her straddling his hips, hands planted on either side of his head. Echoes of that same memory were reflected in her eyes, along with wariness. “If you want that innocent girl, you won’t find her here. I’m a grown woman.”

He hadn’t wanted to want that innocent girl any more than he wished to complicate Zola’s life by desiring her now. “I know who you are.”

“No, you don’t.” She nuzzled the line of his jaw and back toward his ear, her cheek smooth against his face. Her breath blew warm over his earlobe just before her lips brushed his skin, an electric contact. “If you stayed, you could learn. All the things you used to know, and the things you never discovered.”

The most dangerous issue of all was how Walker wanted to respond to the sweet temptation of her offer. He could stay. He had—

No idea what the fuck is going to happen, he reminded himself coldly. He’d be risking her heart again if he promised something he couldn’t deliver, though his body didn’t care. It yearned towards her, desperate to augment his memories with a thousand things he’d never felt. “Zola.”

She closed her teeth on his throat with a purring growl.

Heat streaked through him, and Walker flipped her without thinking. He pinned her hips with his and almost returned the sharp, instinctive caress. Instead, his mouth descended on hers.

He hadn’t known he was going to kiss her until he did, his tongue parting her lips before slipping into her mouth. He’d missed this the most, but instead of trembling under him like she had all those years ago, she bit the tip of his tongue with a needy little snarl and kissed him like she’d forgotten how to do anything else, teeth and tongue and desperate gripping hands, pulling him closer.

They didn’t know each other anymore, but that could change in a moment. A heartbeat. And it would be all too easy to lose himself in her.

Walker tore his mouth from hers and struggled for control as he panted against her bare shoulder. “We have to stop this.”

“Alec will be here soon,” she said, and it might have sounded more like agreement if her body wasn’t still hot and pliant under his.

He rocked back to his knees, scrubbing both hands over his face. “Are you hungry?”

A rough knock sounded from below before she could answer, and Zola sighed and rolled away. “That will be him.”

Resenting the other man’s intrusion was ridiculous, especially since he’d only come to help. Walker rose, his body still painfully tight. “Later, we need to talk about this.”

“We’ll see.” She came to her feet in one graceful movement, hands already smoothing her dishevelled clothing. Trying to erase any visible sign that he’d touched her, though it would take days for his scent to fade from her skin.

It pleased him more than it should have.

Another impatient knock rattled the front door. Walker bounded down the stairs two at a time and dragged it open to find a tall, imposing wolf with dark hair, dark eyes and a dark scowl that faltered when he dragged in a deep breath.

Confusion flickered through his eyes, then he tilted his head, eyeing Walker with obvious appraisal. “So. I hear you’re John’s half-brother. Didn’t realize you were so friendly with Zola, too.”

He held out his hand. “We go way back. I’m Walker Gravois.”

“Alec Jacobson.” The wolf had a firm handshake, strong, but not overly aggressive. “Zola here?”

“Upstairs. She’ll be down in a second.”

“Ah.” A knowing little smile. “Can I at least come in? You and I can talk.”

“Yeah, sure.” Walker locked the door behind him and pulled the shade tighter. “Did you manage to reach the Southeast council?”

“Skipped them.” Alec leaned against the desk. “Got some hush-hush info from the Conclave instead. Your group — the Scions? They’ve already petitioned the Conclave for permission to extradite you.”

“I’m not surprised.” If he’d gone straight to Conclave sources, he had to be more connected than Walker had realized. “What about the rest of the pride?”

“They seem focused on you, for now. The Conclave. ” Derision filled Alec’s voice. “Well, off the record? They’re spinning their wheels. Some of them want to hand you right over, and the rest don’t want to get involved at all, because it’s not a wolf matter. Right now, they’re looking for an excuse to say it isn’t their business.”

He’d already thought of it. “Like if the pride belonged to someone else. Someone who’d never crossed the Scions.”

“Like if the pride belonged to Zola.” Alec nodded shortly. “Here’s the deal, Gravois. The Conclave might order that we give you up, but they know we won’t. Not if Zola doesn’t want us to. New Orleans is pretty much off the grid right now, and the Conclave isn’t ready to force a confrontation. But they can’t exactly admit to your Scions that they’re so powerless that they can’t hand you over. So if they’ve got a reason to stay out of it — like Zola being in charge and you being one of her people now. ”

“Then they’ll stay out of it.” Walker’s gaze drifted to the stairs. “The Scions will come anyway. For me, at least.”

“Does she know?”

“I told her they’re not going to give up.” Walker squared his shoulders and turned to face Alec. “I protected Tatienne when they came for her. She may have been nuts, but she was one of us. I killed a few of them, and now the Scions have a personal score to settle with me.”

The stairs creaked behind him, and he marked Zola’s passage easily by the whisper of bare feet on hardwood. “I am hearing you both quite clearly,” she said when she reached the ground level.

Alec responded to her irritated tone with a lazy grin. “Never figured you couldn’t. Just catching your friend up on the lay of the land, darling.”

He addressed her with irritating familiarity, but it was the way Zola reacted to the endearment that made Walker grit his teeth. She stared at Alec, flat and hard. “Behave.”

The wolf raised both eyebrows in a clear What did I do? expression. Zola snorted and turned to Walker, speaking in French. “He’s testing you. He tests everyone. He seems to think it makes him very clever.” She looked to Alec and switched back to her deeply accented English. “We do not have time to play your wolf games, Alexander Jacobson.”

“You’re the one who’s always telling me that cats play better than wolves.”

“Yes, because cats know when play is appropriate.”

Alec held up both hands. “I told your man how things stand with the Conclave. If you take over the pride, the Conclave’ll tell the Scions to fuck off, and hell, they might even listen. The wolves have managed to keep it under wraps that they don’t quite have control of their pet Seer anymore, so most of the supernatural world’s still trembling in their boots.”

Walker had heard about Michelle Peyton, just like everyone else. The fact that she was the wolf alpha’s daughter had kept her alive when other Seers had been killed. “They’d better hope it stays that way, or she’ll become a target. The Scions think Seers are an abomination, and they’ll only stomach their existence as long as they’re under control.”

Alec pushed off the desk. “There’s not much else to tell. You two need to talk. If Zola wants to declare herself the leader, all she needs to do is call me. I’ll pass it on to the Conclave.”

“Thank you.” The words didn’t come easily. Having so little control over his eventual fate scared the hell out of Walker, and it made him unfairly pissy. “Thanks, I mean it.”

“Thank me by not stirring up too much trouble. We’re between crises.” He prowled towards the door with an easy arrogance that made Zola’s fingers tighten on Walker’s arm. “You two have a good afternoon.”

When he was gone, Zola blew out a breath. “I do not always care for him. He’s useful when there’s trouble, but the same traits that make him useful make him aggravating.”

She’d slipped into French again, and this time Walker followed her. “As long as he gets things done, right?”

“Perhaps.” She moved away from him and locked the door, then closed all the blinds, blocking out the early afternoon sun. “It is always about power with the wolves. Accepting their help is acknowledging their dominance. He knows I will do no such thing. So he plays his games, and I must play too. Tiring.”

“Seems like it might not be the only game he wants you to play.”

Zola’s lips curled into a tight, amused smile. “Yes, a fact that might be flattering if Alexander Jacobson were capable of keeping his pants on. I’m not interested in a man who falls into bed with a different woman every night.”

Her declaration would have been reassuring — if he’d been jealous. But Walker wasn’t stupid, and blind jealousy wasn’t an option when the scent of her skin lingered on him, and the memory of her body against his stirred arousal even now. “He’s not a lion — which helps me not want to punch him in the head.”

She laughed, warm and delighted. “Believe me. Prolonged exposure will make anyone want to hit him. Unless they want to sleep with him.” One dark eyebrow arched. “Do you?”

He pretended to consider it. “Tempting, but I’ll pass.”

Amusement glinted in her eyes as she tilted her head toward the stairs. “I can’t cook as well as your brother, but I’ll make do. Let’s have lunch. and talk.”

He folded his hand around hers. “That sounds good.”

Three

Lunch turned into a mess. Zola tried to remain casual while lion and woman fought a fierce battle inside her. Walker seemed willing to stick to safe topics, telling her about those who remained in the pride as she crashed about in the kitchen. She tried to listen, but her gaze caught too often on the strong line of his shoulders or the firm curve of his full lips. Desire had settled to a low simmer, one that flared at the most inopportune moments.

She burned their meal while imagining his hands on her skin, his mouth on her throat, his hard body between her legs. Even abandoning the meal and dragging him out to a local cafe didn’t help. With their future so uncertain, the lion judged every woman who smiled at him to be a threat, and Walker’s beautiful eyes and sharp cheekbones attracted a good deal of feminine appreciation.

Mate. Such a foolish word, one with which the wolves were endlessly obsessed. Her mother had not allowed formalized matings amongst the pride, too concerned that loyalty to a mate would supersede the loyalty she thought her due.

Mate. A foolish word, but one that plagued her, tickled her mind and wiggled under skin until tension had her strung tighter than the finest bow.

If she didn’t take Walker to bed soon, it might be the death of her sanity.

Assuming he’d accept such an invitation. That he wanted her was not in question. She’d felt proof of that fact hard and hot between her thighs on the practice room floor, so good she could have rocked up against him and driven herself to bliss without his assistance. But oh, how good his assistance would be.

Unfortunately, business could only wait so long. Zola showered while Walker made calls to wherever he’d stashed his people, some place in Mexico where a witch enhanced the spells woven into a charm Zola’s mother had given them. The last gift of her fractured mind, magic that hid their presence from the Scions.

Magic that wouldn’t last forever. Zola braided her hair and gathered her willpower. They’d spent precious hours circling. Stalking. Neither was ready to commit to the one conversation they needed to have.

It was time to stop playing.

Zola stepped from her bedroom and found Walker in the living room studying the framed photos on her walls. “You studied with DeSilva?”

“Four months.” Her gaze drifted over the rest of the wall, over a dozen framed photographs of her with her many teachers, some of her most prized possessions. She’d honed her craft under the greatest masters who would teach her, flitting from country to country for six years after her mother had driven her from her pride.

She stepped forwards and lifted her hand to brush the frame of a photograph of her standing next to a man who barely came to her shoulder. “I stayed longest in Okinawa. With Nakamura. He’s a psychic. Precognitive. Just a few seconds, but that’s all he needs. I’ve seen him take down shifters twice his size.”

Walker laughed. “You don’t need bulk when you know what the tank coming at you plans to do.”

Her preternatural speed had been of no use against Nakamura, who had left her with her fair share of humility — and a healthy respect for psychics and spell casters. “I’ve only been in New Orleans for a few years. It didn’t feel safe to settle in one place at first. I didn’t know if my mother might change her mind and come after me. Or if her enemies might.”

He didn’t argue with that. “Did you enjoy your travels?”

She gave him the truth, because she’d be demanding plenty of it from him soon enough. “Not at first. I was young. Scared. But my teachers gave me confidence, and I grew.”

His voice roughened. “You did all right.”

“Yes. I did.” No turning back now. She pivoted to face him, and worked to keep her voice even. “I will take your people under my protection. I will reform the pride. But, in return, you will tell me the truth.”

Walker stepped back, such a small movement that she wondered if he realized he’d done it. Retreat had never been in his nature, any more than it was in her own. Nor was the wariness in his voice. “The truth about what?”

Zola braced herself. “Why did you let her drive me away? Why didn’t you follow me?”

She saw the moment he decided to tell her, and she knew it would be the truth. His eyes shadowed, and he sighed. “I couldn’t stop you, and I couldn’t follow you. Not without putting you in danger.”

“Because of my mother?”

“Because of your mother’s orders.”

She hadn’t realized hope still lived until it fluttered weakly in her chest. “What would she have done to you if you’d followed me?”

“Tatienne said that if any of us went with you, she’d have to assume we meant to start our own pride. A rival pride.” He met her gaze. “She would have killed you, Zola.”

Zola closed her eyes as pain rose, bringing the sharpness of memory with it. Tatienne as a younger woman, pale skin bronzed by the relentless sun, her auburn hair streaked with gold. Zola had inherited her colouring from her father, chocolate and twilight, but her mother had been all the colours of a desert sunset. Power had sung in her mother’s veins, but so had love. Love for her daughter, for her pride.

The Conclave’s Seer was heavily pregnant. Would sweet little Michelle Peyton lose the gentleness in her nature? Would the son she carried beneath her heart turn some day to find his mother had vanished, lost to the ravages of a power too great for one body to contain?

“Hey.” Walker urged her face up with gentle fingers under her chin. “I know it’s horrible. That’s why I promised myself I wouldn’t do this to you.”

Too late, she scented salt. Her cheeks were wet with traitorous tears, revealing the depth of her helpless vulnerability to the one man who’d always had the power to lay her heart bare.

She recoiled, stumbling back two steps before turning and scrubbing away all evidence of her lapse from her cheeks with two shaking hands. “She loved me once. She loved all of us. Whatever monster she became, whatever she did to the people she had sworn to protect — it is not our fault. It is no judgment on us. A Seer’s power consumes them.”

“That’s all true.” He cupped her shoulders, rubbed his cheek comfortingly against the top of her head. “Doesn’t mean it can’t hurt.”

Tatienne had betrayed him too. Zola leaned back and let his warmth and strength curl around her, along with the wonderful belonging that came from being with one of her own kind. “If it had been your choice? Would you have followed me?”

He released a long, slow breath that stirred her hair and tickled her cheek. “In a heartbeat. Nothing else could have kept me away.”

Truth had a scent. A feel. Bitter, sometimes, but always solid and implacable. Tension that had lived inside her for a decade slowly unknotted itself. “Then it’s behind us. I like who I’ve become. I have my freedom.”

He stiffened, just a little. “I wish I could say the same.”

Zola slid her hands up to cover his. “The past is the past. You’re fighting to protect your people. I like who you’ve become.”

“You won’t if I have to go.” His hands slipped down and tightened around her waist. “I’d do it to protect you.”

He expected her to be shocked. Perhaps she should have been, or outraged, or even angry. Some male shifters smothered their mates with a blind protectiveness that carried an unpleasant aura of chauvinism. But if Walker had such unsavoury prejudices against women, he wouldn’t have willingly followed Zola’s mother.

Zola smoothed one hand up his arm and shoulder, curling her fingers around the back of his neck. “I would do the same to you. We protect the ones we—” Love. “—care about. Which is why I’ll take your people under my care. I’ll call the Conclave tonight and declare them my pride, and the people in New Orleans will help me keep them safe.”

A beat. “Where do I fit in?”

The warmth of his body made it so easy to move closer — and hard not to rub against him like a cat in heat. “You can lead with me, or you can leave. I won’t blackmail you into my bed by holding their safety over your head.”

His laugh vibrated against her skin, less amused than wondering. “That’s the last thing you’d have to do to get me in your bed.”

Instinct whispered that he wouldn’t make the first advance, so she did, rocking up on her toes to close the distance between them. His lips were warm and firm and tasted like bitter coffee mixed with cinnamon from the pastry he’d had for dessert, and underneath it all Walker. Lion. Male.

Mine.

Her back hit the wall and Walker pressed closer, lifting her a little as he eased between her thighs and ground against her. “I won’t stop this time. Not until I’m inside you.”

She’d had plenty of men in her bed, in her body. But never another lion. Nothing could have prepared her for the satisfaction that roared up from the deepest place inside, washing away reason in a wave of primal hunger. She got both legs up around his hips, trusting him to hold her as she pulled at his shirt.

With his hips bracing her weight, he leaned back and yanked his T-shirt over his head. “You’re positive?”

Such a foolish question. She answered by working a hand down until her fingers cupped the hard weight of his cock. “I told you. I’m not an innocent girl anymore. Can you keep up with me now?”

Walker hissed in a breath and nibbled her, the sharp press of his teeth on her jaw just short of savage. “Ask me again later, if you can still think.”

Thought was already fighting a hopeless battle. She got her fingers around the button on his jeans and ripped it off in her haste. “Hurry.”

“No.” He slid his hands under her ass and hoisted her up. “First door, yeah?”

She’d take him into her now and glory in every thrust as he fucked her against the wall. Some dangerous alchemy of lust and instinct turned her wild, and only the promise of seeing him twisted in her sheets made it possible to find her voice. “Yes.”

It took him only a few quick steps to reach the bedroom — and the bed. He dropped her on it and slipped his hand under her shirt, his eyes blazing. “I missed you.”

Warm, callused fingers stroked over her stomach. She arched into the touch, eyes falling shut. “You don’t need to miss me any more.”

“No, I don’t.” He palmed her breast through her sports bra. “Take off your clothes.”

Easier said than done. Her T-shirt tore under her frantic fingers. She let the cotton slip to the floor and wiggled her way out of her pants more carefully.

By the time she lay in her bra and underwear, Walker was watching her, his hands clenched by his sides. “This is the first time,” he whispered. “You’ve been mine for so long that it seems surreal, but this is the first time.”

Their first time, and relief rose that it wasn’t her first time. At fifteen, she’d fallen in girlish love with a youth of twenty-one. At nineteen, she’d trembled beneath the careful kisses of a man who’d held himself back, too aware of her innocence.

At thirty, she was a woman who knew what she wanted, and she took it, rising to her knees and sliding her palms against the incredible heat of his strong chest. “The first time. Not the last.”

“No.” He slid his fingers into her hair and tilted her head back. “What do you like?”

Zola laughed and scraped her nails down his arms, letting power rise in her, the best kind of challenge. “Figure it out.”

“Uh-huh.” He arched an eyebrow. “You’re not naked yet.”

With the button from his jeans gone, it was easy to slide the zipper down. “I’m distracted. If it’s important to you, maybe you should help.”

He caught her wrists in an iron grip, and it was only then that she realized how tenuous his control was. “If you want me to take my time,” he rasped, “then you’re going to have to let me.”

Wildness seethed just under the surface, and she wanted it. Needed it. With her wrists pinned she used her teeth to drive home her point, biting his shoulder with a low growl. “Take your time later. Now, we fuck.”

Walker surged over her with a growl, as if some leash holding him back had snapped. “Should have just said so.” The stretchy fabric of her bra yielded under his hands.

It was too fast to savour, but she wouldn’t have been able to appreciate finesse with blood pounding in her ears and hunger narrowing the room to his touch. Callused fingers, fast and frantic until she revealed a weakness with an arch or gasp, then so intense he had her panting as he toyed with her breasts. She moaned when he added his mouth, his rough tongue and sharp nips of his teeth.

He teased his thumb under the edge of her panties. One gentle tug and then he ripped those off, as well, baring her to his touch. He didn’t hesitate, just rocked the heel of his hand against her and groaned when pleasure shattered through her so hot that she cried out.

If he worked his fingers inside her body, she’d come and he’d take her and it would be good, but it wouldn’t be what she needed. Using all the strength in her trembling limbs, she broke free and rolled to her stomach, then came to her knees. “Now.”

Walker growled his pleasure, but he didn’t touch her again until his bare skin brushed her ass and the backs of her thighs. He leaned over her, strong arms braced beside hers, and kissed the back of her shoulder. “Now.”

He drove into her, and the world tumbled end over end in a dizzy spiral that tightened along with her body. In ten years of running she’d never belonged anywhere as much as she belonged here, beneath him, around him.

Part of him, as she’d been since the first day she’d loved him.

Her fingers fisted in the blankets as she rocked back, taking him deeper until pleasure gained a sharp edge that sliced through her, laying everything bare. That edge cut deeper as he nudged her hair off the back of her neck and bit her, then began to move, slow and strong.

Perfect.

She wanted it to last forever, but of course it couldn’t. Zola closed her eyes and revelled in the slick thrust of his cock, the heat of his skin, the flex of his muscles. Too soon, she was trembling.

He whispered one dark, quiet entreaty. “Come.”

She did, with a helpless moan that didn’t drown out the sweet sound of their bodies slamming together as she tumbled into bliss. He bit her again, arms shaking as his thrusts sped until he went rigid and followed her over the edge with a choked sigh.

Her name.

I love you. The words echoed in her mind, but she collapsed in a sweaty, trembling tangle of limbs without giving them voice. Too fragile. Too old and too new. So she pushed them down and ignored the lion’s unhappy rumble.

Walker would be theirs soon enough. She wouldn’t let him go a second time.

Four

Walker woke with Zola draped over him, a living dream that had haunted him for years. His third time of waking and reaching for her, and she came to him as readily as the first, wrapping her legs around his hips.

“Slow.” More than a whispered promise to her, it was a pledge to himself. They’d both waited so long, and they deserved to have each other in every way imaginable.

He kept his pledge until she bit his ear and whispered, “Mine.”

He lost himself then, surging deep. Mine. More than a word — a claim, one that matched the way her body welcomed his. Pleasure overwhelmed him, pure instinctive satisfaction.

Completion.

He belonged here, exactly where he was.

Afterwards, he licked the sweat from the hollow of her throat and smoothed her hair back. “Do you have classes tomorrow?”

A sleepy shake of her head as she stroked his back. “Never on Sundays.”

One of a hundred tiny little details he didn’t know, and he relished the opportunity to learn everything about her. “Just us, then?”

“Unless we want to start making arrangements to bring the pride to New Orleans.” Her fingers slid up to tease the back of his scalp. “I have money. We can find them a place to live.”

Money was the least of it. “So do I. The problem is how much red tape is involved with a move like this. That’s part of why I wanted the wolf council’s help.”

She chuckled. “I did not immigrate. naturally. There is a thriving business in New Orleans that focuses on nothing but making red tape disappear.”

“And if they’re like all the other thriving businesses like that all over the world, you don’t just walk up to them with an envelope of cash.”

“No,” she agreed, laughter still bubbling in her voice. “You send Alexander Jacobson. He will do it, because I’ve recently taken on a young woman of his acquaintance as a private student, and he’s feeling very grateful.”

He joined in her laughter. “I see how it is.”

“Mmm.” Her hand stilled as she yawned, then nuzzled his chin with sleepy affection. “Rest. You’ll need it if we’re to do this again in a few hours.”

“I need you more than I need sleep.” He kissed her temple and slid out from under the covers. “I’ll be right back.”

Walker made his way down the hall towards the bathroom in the dark. As he approached the half-open door, his skin prickled, the hair on the back of his neck rising.

Something was wrong.

Though he could see well enough, he wasn’t that familiar with Zola’s apartment to notice anything visibly out of place, and he heard nothing. Not a damn thing to fuel his indefinable sense of wrong.

Still, it remained.

He flipped on the bathroom light, and his blood chilled. A bag of dirty black cloth dangled from the mirror by a length of coarse twine. A gris-gris, maybe, one that Zola definitely hadn’t placed.

The bag clinked as he yanked it free. He smelled flowers and copper, two scents that exploded in his nose as he upended the bag on the counter. Rose petals and pennies tumbled out, along with a small bottle of whiskey and a slim dime that seemed to spin in time with his pounding heart before finally settling on the slick tile.

Just like that, he was back in the bayou, watching his mother bury another wax doll baby under the raised edge of their ramshackle porch. She’d always whispered words, low, mellifluous entreaties that faded in the heavy air, rising to blend with the rustle of Spanish moss in the trees.

Not a gris-gris. Flowers, nine pennies, whiskey and a Mercury dime. Everything a rootworker would need to buy graveyard dirt from the departed.

It was a message and a warning, all wrapped up in bits and pieces of his past. The Scions had come in while they slept, or even while they made love. Under cover of magic, they’d violated the safety and sanctity of Zola’s home.

And yet, no blood had been shed.

Walker swept the contents of the black bag into the small wastebasket beside the vanity. The Scions wanted nothing to do with Zola, either because of her connections or because she’d been blameless in Tatienne’s affairs — but they’d hurt her if they had to. To get to him, they’d mow down anyone and anything in their way, and damn what the Conclave had to say about it.

He made a cursory check of the apartment, but found nothing. He hadn’t expected to. No one remained stealing about the rooms under cover of magic. They had no need for it.

The Scions had accomplished their mission and left their message. They knew Walker, knew what lived at the very heart of him — and the lengths he would go to in order to keep Zola safe.

And he knew where they’d be waiting.

Walker parked his borrowed bike at the end of the long driveway. Someone had taken a swing at the rusted out mailbox, and it dangled precariously from its wooden post. He righted it before he set out for the house on foot, though he had no idea why.

No one lived here and, unless his half-brother tired of city life, no one would.

It had been years since he’d walked the mostly-dirt path. Grass had grown up in the middle of the road, between the packed ruts, and the heavy canopy of live oaks and cypress overhead blocked out the light of the moon.

The path lightened, and he could see the house at the end of it. Walker had barely cleared the thick cover of the trees when a voice spoke from the sagging porch. “So. You come alone.”

Walker studied the simply dressed man and shrugged. “I assumed that was what you wanted.”

A soft footstep made the porch creak, and a woman appeared at the man’s shoulder. “It is easier not to have to contend with the Seer’s get, but we were not sure you would abandon her.”

Abandon. The word rankled, shamed him. “She has nothing to do with this.”

The man laughed, rusty and flat. “No, I suppose not. Taking her from you might right the scales, but she’s more trouble than she’s worth. as long as you come with us quietly.”

“Just me.” Walker shifted his weight, instinct demanding a fight — though there would not be one. “The rest of the pride is hers now, and my life is yours.”

Gravel crunched behind Walker, and the two Scions on the porch stiffened. The woman tilted her head and gazed past him. “Does she know that?”

Damn it. Walker turned to find Zola standing there, eyes narrowed. “I thought I might have gotten away with it.”

She raised both eyebrows, silently asking if he’d really thought he could, then looked past him toward their enemies. “I know what’s mine. The pride is mine, as is Walker Gravois. Are you here to challenge me for them?”

The woman paused at the top of the porch steps. “Gravois is coming with us. He must answer for what he has done.”

Zola strode forwards until she stood at his shoulder, then reached down deliberately and curled her hand around his. “He stays. You leave.”

She was strong, beautiful. Defiant.

His.

Walker gripped her hand and looked down at her, his chest aching. “They fight as one,” he whispered, “but so do we.”

“Always.” Her fingers tightened until her grip bordered on painful. “Do you challenge us, Scions?”

In response the man pulled a gun and levelled it at Walker’s head, finger already squeezing down on the trigger.

Walker released Zola’s hand and ducked into a roll as magic surged through the night. One kick to half-rotted wood brought down the corner of the porch, and the Scion stumbled and dropped his gun.

He dived for it, but Zola was faster. Her first kick sent the gun skittering under the groaning porch, and her second swiped the man’s legs out from under him, spilling him into the too-tall grass. A second later the woman — the shapeshifter — leapt from the crumbling steps and tackled Zola.

Zola bucked and rolled, using the Scion’s own momentum to throw her aside. Walker caught the woman off-guard, drawing her attention away from Zola. As the child of a Seer, Zola’s natural resistance to magic made her a better adversary for the spell caster.

And she pressed that advantage, coming to her feet just as the man fisted both hands and raised them. Magic cut through the cool air, prickling along Walker’s skin, but the brunt of the power rolled off Zola as she spun again, lightning fast, and clipped the wizard’s jaw with her heel.

His grunt of pain made his partner turn for a split-second, and Walker slammed his elbow into her temple. She staggered, and he caught her around the throat. “Will you go?” he demanded. “Leave and never come back to New Orleans?”

She replied with a snarl and a knee driving into his groin as magic snapped again, this time slamming into him. His vision blurred as pain and magic mingled, and he lashed out, instinct driving him.

He struck her in the throat with the blade of his hand. The delicate bone protecting her airway snapped and she fell back, choking for air in loud, heaving gasps.

It wouldn’t take her long to recover. Walker struggled to focus, to shake off the spell so Zola wasn’t left to fight alone.

The sharp crack of gunfire echoed around him, a second before a warm body crashed into him. Zola’s, by the scent and feel. She bore him to the ground and rolled them until his hip bumped into the collapsed end of the porch.

“He’s got the gun,” she whispered, a breath of sound against his ear. “Firing from under what’s left of the stairs.”

“The other support beam.” The porch had been rickety even in his youth. One more well-placed blow might bring the entire thing down on the hidden Scion.

“Can you get to it if I distract them?”

He was still seeing double, but he nodded. “Get the shifter. I’ll handle this guy.”

Her lips brushed his cheek in a whisper-soft caress, and then she was gone in a swirl of near-silent footsteps across the untamed grass.

One shot fired into the night, but a second later he heard the Scion shifter’s grunt of pain as Zola pounced on her, tangling them up so the wizard wouldn’t get a clear shot at her.

As Zola grappled with the shifter, Walker eased around to the edge of the porch. A shot whistled past, and he cursed. Without rounding the house, there was no way to sneak past the spell caster under the porch.

Screw this. He scrambled up the collapsed side of the porch, the wood creaking under his weight. Another loud report, this one accompanied by a blaze of pain in Walker’s arm.

He’d been shot, and he didn’t give a damn. He roared his anger and punched down through the boards to close his hand in the man’s hair. He managed to slam his adversary up against the wood three times before the listing porch collapsed.

“Walker?” Zola’s voice, edged with worry. “Are you all right?”

He closed his fingers around the gun and groaned as he rolled on to his back. “Peachy. You?”

An uncertain pause, and she echoed the word back to him in her accented English. “I am hoping that means good.”

“It means I’ll make it.”

The sound of flesh on flesh followed, a muffled grunt and then silence. “She is alive. Unconscious, but alive. I will call the Conclave. The Scions. Offer her for your pardon. A life for a life, yes?”

A life for a life. How could the Scions refuse, when the woman’s defeat rendered her life forfeit? “I think that’ll work out just fine.” Underneath him, the shattered boards shifted, and the spell caster groaned. “Maybe even twice over.”

Zola rose and crossed the yard, the moonlight glinting off her features. “Are you injured?”

“Just a scratch.” Walker rolled off the flattened porch and landed on his knees. “My jacket’s ruined, though.”

“Fool.” Her fingers slid into his hair and down, cupping his neck. Her words drifted to French, low and intimate. “I love you too much to lose you to stubborn pride. But if you walk into another trap without me at your side, I will kill you myself.”

“I screwed up, but never again.” Leaving her was, without a doubt, the most idiotic thing he’d ever done. Zola didn’t need his protection. She just needed him, and he knew the feeling. “We fight together?”

“As one. Always.” Her lips seized his in a breathless, desperate kiss, over almost before it began. “And now we call Alec Jacobson. He has a cage in his basement for situations like this. I’m afraid you will find they happen more often than not, if you stay here.”

He couldn’t help but laugh. “I grew up around here. I know the lie of the land.”

“Then you know it will never be boring.”

Living in a plastic bubble wouldn’t be boring as long as Zola was with him. “Are you sure you can forgive me for sneaking out on you?”

A hint of laughter bubbled up as she reached into her pocket for a phone. “This time. But only if you take over my class full of adolescent male shifters. Perhaps a weekly reminder of the crippling effects of male ego will teach you a valuable lesson.”

It was far more than he deserved, but there was no way he’d squander a chance to make up for the hurts he’d visited on her in the past — the distant and the not so distant. “Make your call, Zola. The faster we get these two out of here, the faster we can be alone.”

The faster he could convince her she’d made the right choice.

Epilogue

“. so after the Scion representatives struck their deal with you, the Alpha escorted the whole mess of them back to New York on his jet. Got a call from him last night to let me know they’d left the country.”

Zola made a non-committal noise, only half of her attention on Alec’s voice as it spilled out of her phone. There were only six students in her adolescent shifter group — only males, because she refused to teach them in a mixed class when their hormones would be driving them to posture and preen for their classmates’ feminine attention. Any urge they might have had to fight for her attention had been knocked out of them within their first week, leaving a moderately serious group of youths on the cusp of manhood.

Manageable enough, until confronted with a shapeshifter male in his prime. Zola hid a smile behind her hand as Walker deftly handled another borderline challenge, patiently but firmly, setting the boy in his place without damaging more than his ego.

Alec was still talking, and Zola made a conscious effort to drag her attention back to the conversation in time to hear, “. all taken care of, then. Paperwork for the pride should be ready in a few days. If you need help getting them across the border—”

“We will be fine.” Considering all the trouble Alec Jacobson got himself into, owing him too many favours could prove to be an uncomfortable situation. “Thank you.”

She ended the conversation just as Walker ended the class, sending the boys out into the cool New Orleans evening. When the door swung shut behind the last one, she lifted an eyebrow. “Well?”

He flashed her a hint of a smile as he cracked open a bottle of water. “Well what?”

“Nothing.” Impossible not to admire the beauty of him, sweat-sheened golden skin and hard muscles and those eyes she’d now seen glazed with passion. Making love to him was new, but loving him was like remembering a move so ingrained it was instinct. Muscle memory, an amused part of her noted as she crossed the room to slip her arms around him. The heart is just another muscle.

Walker wove his fingers through her ponytail and pulled her closer, tilting her head up for a slow kiss, his open mouth teasing over hers. Hot, perfect, even before she parted her lips on a moan and realized he was determined to kiss her within an inch of her life.

Which made it even easier to catch his leg with her foot and spill them both to the ground. A breathless moment later she was straddling his waist with her hands on either side of his head. And because English was his native language, she ignored her self-consciousness and her odd accent and spoke from her heart. The words, in any case, were simple enough. “I love you.”

“Love you too.” He slid one hand to her hip, the other around to her back, cradling her close. “That’s why we’re stronger together.”

“And you should never forget it,” she whispered, before leaning in to kiss him again. Soft and slow, like she had all the time in the world.

Because she did.

Elissa Wilds

In Dreams

Time didn’t exist here. Not in this place. Not in these moments. Here, the air held an electric charge that swept through Anna when her feet touched the soft-as-silk sand and made her limbs shiver with excitement. Here, she breathed in the salty ocean air instead of city smog and the exhaust fumes of rush-hour traffic. No worries touched her mind. Nothing of the two-dimensional world she called reality could penetrate to this realm.

Which was a good thing.

The whole reason she’d decided to attempt astral travel was to escape from an unbearable reality. From a world where her husband was dead and she was alone. Two years had passed since Richard’s death, but it seemed to her a lifetime.

In the astral realm, a quiet peace filled her being and made the world she called home seem but a dream. A sad, unnecessary dream.

Anna glanced around with a quiet calm she had only recently developed. The first few times she’d attempted to astral travel, she’d been nervous and uncertain. She’d read books on the subject, but as much as the authors of those books reassured that nothing could hurt her here, it had taken a few successful trips for her to believe them. She’d learned quickly. With the slightest focus Anna could create what she wanted to see and experience. So of course, she came back here. To her dreamtime beach.

She loved the beach, but hadn’t seen much of it since she’d accepted the job in D.C. She’d been anxious to get out of Santa Barbara. To go anywhere as long as it was far away from her life in California and the life she’d shared with Richard.

But running had proved pointless. Wherever you go, there you are.

Anna dug her feet farther into the sand and stared at the water rippling along the shore. Light flickered off the tourmaline blue waves. She wandered closer to the shore and knelt, catching her reflection in the water. Her dirty blond hair sparkled gold and her face was worry-crease free. She smiled with the realization once again that in the astral realm she was her brightest, most radiant self. The few extra pounds she’d gained over the holidays were irrelevant. Here, her slightly rounded hips and shorter than average frame was exotic, beautiful.

A slight breeze brushed over her skin, not too cool, not too hot.

“Perfect,” she murmured.

“Of course,” a deep voice spoke at her side. “All is perfect in the astral realm.”

Anna started, but before the sensation of fear could creep into her gut and send her hurtling back to her body — a lesson she’d learned the hard way the first few times she’d encountered another being during one of her astral trips — she forced herself to calmly turn and face the individual who’d spoken.

Her breath caught. He was tall and lean. Dark hair curled over the nape of his neck. He wore white pants and nothing else. The material hugged him in all the right places and shimmered as though the cloth were threaded with tiny diamonds.

The man stared, his emerald gaze studying her, his lips curved into a half smile.

“I know you,” he said.

She shook her head. This was not a man she’d soon forget. “No, I don’t think so.”

He circled her, his limbs moving in that soft, unfocused way in which everything moved in the astral realm. Images, places, things, seemed to shift on a sigh. Anna still found the process disorienting. He was disorienting.

He was behind her. She shivered as his hand touched her hair and he fingered the strands lightly. “Your hair shines like gold.”

He trailed his fingers over her shoulder and arm, then her back. His touch was soft, fleeting, yet it seemed to Anna that there was fire beneath his fingertips. A heat that made her insides quiver and dance in a way they hadn’t in a long time. Another time, another place, she would have yanked herself away from this man, this stranger who approached her with such strange familiarity. But she didn’t have to follow normal convention here. She didn’t have to behave with propriety. In this hazy place of no time, she could do exactly as she wished. without concern for consequence.

And it had been so very long since she’d been touched by a man.

He stood in front of her again, hands at his sides. Anna frowned, wanting those large, elegant hands on her body again, caressing her. The stranger tilted his head to the side and studied her, his expression curious and confused. Then he leaned in close. His face nuzzled her neck as he breathed in deeply.

“Ah,” he murmured. “You smell so good. Like fresh honeysuckle. So sweet. ”

His breath danced over her skin, tickling her flesh. “I–I love the smell of honeysuckle,” she managed to gasp out, struck by the inanity of her words. How she smelled of this, she didn’t know, but anything was possible in this place. It delighted her to know that her scent pleased him.

Hot lips touched her neck with the slightest of caresses. Desire arched through her body and dipped between her thighs. “Oh!” Her breath hitched. She certainly hadn’t experienced a reaction like this to anyone in a long time.

His face hovered in front of hers, his eyes filled with a certain knowing, a confirmation of sorts. Of what? She wished she knew.

“You enchant me. You must be a witch. Or an angel? Who are you?”

She opened her mouth to tell him her name, but he halted her words with one finger to her lips. “No, don’t tell me. I will call you Angel. Your beauty rivals a being from the heavenly realms, and I’m told that any number of various and sundry creatures travel through these planes.” He smiled, his full lips pulling across straight, white teeth. His finger traced her mouth. It took all of her self-control not to let her tongue snake out, not to nip at his finger playfully.

Odd, she thought. I don’t even know this man, yet I want to do something so intimate with him? The internal thought was both question and statement. An image flashed through Anna’s mind. The stranger’s finger in her mouth. His other hand between her thighs. Her lips clutching his finger, mouth suckling the digit in rhythm with the hand that touched her sex.

Oh! Intimate, indeed!

“Yes,” the man continued as though oblivious to her sensual thoughts, “I’ll call you Angel. My Angel. And although I’ve never before seen your lovely face, my body knows yours. I think, perhaps, we have kissed before.” He removed his finger, and leaned in, his lips hovering over hers. “And I ache to do so again.”

He was so close she could taste his breath, could inhale his scent. He smelled like chocolate and burgundy wine and everything decadent.

Her flesh hummed from his nearness. Her stomach muscles quivered, taut with anticipation, waiting. He cupped her arms, his hands hot, searing her skin through the thin cotton shift she wore. Anna’s lips parted in invitation, and her eyelids fluttered shut.

And yet, the stranger hesitated. “The anticipation is so very sweet. isn’t it?” he murmured. He tilted his head to the side, allowed his cheek to brush hers ever so slightly, then dipped to her neck, nuzzling, inhaling sharply, breathing her in. Then, before she could fully register the gamut of emotions trilling through her, his gaze met hers once again, and his lips parted into a half smile.

She couldn’t take this. She had to touch him. She had to kiss him. Taste him. She had to—

His mouth pressed hers, stealing her thoughts. His lips teased her with slow, sensual movements that whispered of a deeper, more intimate joining. His fingers left her arms and caressed her neck, twined through her hair, and left her own hands free to roam.

And roam they did. To his lean waist, over his bare, flat stomach and his hard chest. He touched his tongue to her lips with a quick, tentative exploration. Just enough to stoke the fire burning in her belly and send licks of flame between her thighs. Anna gulped air, her head swirling. The kiss deepened and became more aggressive. She suddenly couldn’t feel the sand beneath her toes, couldn’t hear the water lapping at the shoreline. The stranger’s heartbeat beneath her fingertips accelerated. She could feel his heart beating, frantic and erratic. So was her own. The two beats grew louder, filling her head, making her dizzy with want and need.

Anna’s body seemed to melt into the stranger’s. They were as one being. The sensation was erotic and exciting.

And then suddenly, the man was gone. Cool air brushed her lips and wove around her empty arms. Anna’s heart plummeted as disappointment washed through her. No! A white void surrounded her. And she was falling, falling.

Anna gasped as she slammed into her body. The return was so fast and unexpected this time that she couldn’t move for several long moments. She struggled to reorient herself. Then she felt it. The hot tongue licking her face. The loud, persistent purring in her ear. The ten pounds of fur perched on her chest.

She groaned and rolled over in her bed, sending the cat tumbling to the pillow next to her. She blinked one eye open to stare at the orange tabby and the bedroom door he’d obviously found his way through.

“Emerson, how do you do it? You don’t even have opposable thumbs.”

The cat scooted closer to her and licked her cheek. “Meow,” came his reply.

She scratched him behind his ears, eliciting more purrs, and sighed. She’d started locking Emerson out of the bedroom at night because he had a habit of affectionately attacking her in her sleep and disrupting her nocturnal travels. Tonight was one night Anna really wished Emerson wasn’t such a clever little feline.

Anna immediately fell back into a deep, dreamless sleep. Sometime in the middle of the night, she awoke for no reason and could not fall back asleep. After glaring at Emerson who was snoring beside her, oblivious to her insomnia, she rose and went to the bathroom to dig out some melatonin from the medicine cabinet.

A half-hour later, still wide awake, she decided a hot shower might help her plight. She took her time with her shower, enjoying the sting of the hot water and the delicious aroma of her goji berry and chocolate scented body wash.

Anna stepped from the shower into a thoroughly steamed up bathroom and wrapped herself in a fluffy towel. After opening the door to let out some of the steam, she turned to the sink to find her comb.

Her eyes went wide and her breath caught. The comb hit the tile floor with a clickety-clack. Tears spiked and trickled over her cheeks. There, on the mirror, written as though a ghostly finger had reached out from beyond the grave to scribble the words on the steamed-up glass, was a message.

I am sending you love. Love is in the air. R

The next day was Saturday. Anna had not slept more than an hour after finding Richard’s message. They’d joked once that whoever of them died first would find a way to get a message to the other and let them know they were okay. But it had been two years since Richard’s death, and as much as she’d wanted to feel him near, to know he was alive and well somewhere beyond the veil, she hadn’t had the slightest paranormal experience to breathe life into that hope.

Why? Why now? Was he concerned that it had been so long since his death and she’d yet to start dating again? Possibly. Maybe he wanted her to know he was all right so that she’d have an easier time letting him go.

Was it a coincidence that his message came the very same night she’d met the handsome stranger in the astral realm? Anna frowned. What if Richard’s motivation was just the opposite? What if he was angry she was moving on, even in this small way? She immediately pushed that thought away. No, that didn’t sound like Richard. Richard had always been more concerned about Anna’s well-being than his own.

And what exactly had happened tonight? Who was the stranger? Why was she so drawn to him? She couldn’t stop thinking about him, about his mesmerizing eyes, his titillating touch.

She spent most of the afternoon pouring through her dense library. Always an avid reader, after her husband’s death, Anna’s fascination with the afterlife and all related phenomenon had filled her spare bedroom with books, books and more books.

“One of these days, I’ll organize everything,” she muttered to herself while scanning the jam-packed shelves. It was a familiar vow. And one she’d yet to find the time to honour. She didn’t know exactly what she looked for, but something told her that during one of her recent impulse book buying sprees, she’d picked up a book that would be useful; that might explain her experience last night and the man with whom she’d shared that experience.

Whoosh! A white paperback with purple lettering literally flew off the second shelf and landed on her foot, spine first, sending a sharp zing of pain through her big toe.

“What the hell?” She bent and scooped up the book. The title was Astral Love. Anna frowned. She didn’t remember buying this particular book, but she could hardly overlook the fact that it had catapulted itself from the bookshelf.

She flipped through the pages, overcome with curiosity. She sank into the beanbag chair tucked into one corner of the room and immersed herself in the book. Hours later, the sun dipped low, casting shadows across her small office. She blinked and glanced at the clock on her desk. Had she really been reading that long? The crick in her neck and the grumble in her stomach confirmed she had. She set the book aside, having read most of it, and made her way to the kitchen to fix a sandwich.

She’d read a couple books on astral travel before attempting the procedure herself. She had not come across anything like the information in Astral Love. Apparently, one could actually meet others on the astral plane and connect with them for love-making. There were many tips and tricks relayed by the author on how to go about attracting the right type of astral lover and how to avoid unpleasant characters. Just as on the Earth plane, not all beings travelling the hidden realms were kind and scrupulous.

Anna spread mayo on her wholewheat bread and thought about her interlude with the sexy stranger. Had he gone looking for a lover and discovered her? Did he intend to make love to her? She wondered what that would feel like. Just the thought of him touching her intimate places, of his hands and mouth on her bare skin, created a tingle of desire between her legs. It had been so long. her heartbeat accelerated as her mind wondered about what the stranger might do to her.

Her cell phone emitted her 1970s dance tune ringtone and Anna jumped, startled. She hurried to the coffee table where she’d left the phone. She glanced at the number. Her best friend, Tina. Tina was fifteen years older than Anna, a die-hard hippy who studied all things metaphysical. It was Tina who’d introduced Anna to astral travel.

“Hey,” Anna said into the phone. “What’s up?”

“What’s up? I’ve been calling you all day. You didn’t get my messages?”

Anna glanced at her phone. Three missed calls and two text messages. Whoops. “I’m sorry, I was reading and I got so caught up in my book I didn’t hear the phone.”

“Yeah, I know how that is.” Tina did understand. She was more of a bookworm than Anna. “There’s an independent film festival going on this weekend at that theatre I was telling you about. The old one with all the cool architecture that they just renovated? Thought you might want to go see the movie playing tonight.”

Anna frowned. While she did want to see Tina, if she went to the movie she knew she’d get back too late to attempt any travelling. She’d be so tired she’d just want to sleep. And suddenly, she was very, very eager to get back to her possible lover.

“Um, not tonight Tina. I’m already having my dinner, and I’m sort of tired.” She didn’t bother to tell Tina why she was tired. She wasn’t ready yet to share the details of her nocturnal liaison or Richard’s message.

“Are you sure? You know if you’re not there, I’ll be forced to keep any attractive guy I meet for myself.” Lately, Tina’s mission had been to help Anna find a man. She’d decided Anna had been depressed and dateless for long enough. Anna knew that Tina was right, of course, but she just didn’t have it in her to make menial small talk with strangers while wondering whether her lipstick was on her teeth or the jeans she’d chosen made her butt look big. The few times Tina had dragged her to spots where she thought Anna might meet a guy, the men Anna had met were anything but interesting. She wanted someone who shared her interests. Unfortunately, her interests of late were slightly outside the norm. So far, no luck.

“I’m sure. Try to go easy on the boys. Next time, okay?”

Tina sighed. “Alright, but I’m holding you to that!”

“Deal. Have fun. Bye.”

Anna closed her phone and returned to the kitchen to finish making her sandwich, the phone call quickly forgotten as she planned her evening.

This time, Anna took precautions. She set a very put-upon looking Emerson out of her bedroom and shut — and locked — her door. Following the advice in Astral Love, she had already showered, brushed her teeth, applied a bit of ruby red lipstick, and dressed in her favourite silky number. The book admonished those who sought an astral lover to be sure to treat their pursuit seriously. You wouldn’t go out on a date with poor hygiene or messy hair, the author had insisted.

Although she’d felt a bit foolish getting all glammed up to lie on her bed alone, Anna had followed the directions anyway. She didn’t want to take any chances that she wouldn’t find the stranger again tonight on the astral plane.

Anna let the soothing, New Age feel-good tunes she’d chosen to listen to drift over her and lull her into that calm, relaxed state of semi-consciousness where you hovered just on the edge of sleep, but had not yet stepped off the ledge into unconsciousness.

She focused on sensing her energy body, the part of herself squatting inside her physical form and, after a few moments, she could feel her spirit body moving and vibrating. Her whole body was starting to shake and twitch and a rushing sound filled her ears, like a jet engine revving for take-off.

Out, she thought. Out and up. With one swift jerking motion she lifted off and out of her body. Immediately, the roaring sound stopped, and she envisioned herself on her favourite beach. The place where the sexy stranger had first contacted her.

She had been standing on the beach for what seemed like mere moments when he appeared beside her. Just as Anna, he was clad in the same attire as the last time they’d met. Which was a good thing, because the man’s chest and abdomen were just too beautiful to hide. She ached to bury her face there and run her lips over his skin.

She blinked and tried to focus her thoughts on talking to him. All she could think of was touching that delicious golden skin of his again.

“Angel,” he murmured, brushing her face with his fingertips. “I’m glad you came back.”

“Of course I came. I’ve been travelling these realms for some time now.”

He flashed a rakish smile. “Ah, I see. So you would come here regardless of my presence?”

She nodded.

The stranger leaned close and nuzzled her neck, causing a riot of goose bumps to break out over her arms. “But you did hope to see me, didn’t you? At least a little bit?” He trailed his fingers over her arms, feeling the telltale bumps. Her nipples hardened in response.

“Your body is happy to see me,” he said.

His lips trailed her neck feather-light; for a moment she thought she imagined the touch. Then he leaned back so their eyes met. “Angel, there can be no pretence between us. Not here.”

Anna sighed, suddenly wondering why she’d felt the need to be coy. “I did hope to see you here.”

His eyes twinkled with delight. “And you have thought of me since we last met?”

She nodded. “I daydreamed. ” That was an understatement.

“What did you think of. exactly.”

Anna swallowed. There was no way she could be less than truthful. Not with those mesmerizing green eyes of his staring into her own as though he could read her every thought and divine her deepest, most sensual desires.

“I thought of you kissing me.”

He pressed his lips to hers. The kiss was sweet and tender, and it wasn’t nearly enough.

“What else?” he prodded.

“I imagined you touching me,” she managed to get out on a breathy murmur.

He ran his hands over her shoulders. “Here?”

She nodded.

His fingers stroked her inner arms. “Here?”

“Yes.”

His hands circled her waist briefly before he moved upward and his palms closed over her breasts. “How about here?” He rubbed his palms against her sensitive peaks.

“Oh, yes, there.” She sucked in a deep breath, assaulted by an onslaught of desire. Heat writhed beneath her skin and shot from her breasts to her sex.

His mouth lifted and his gaze darkened with mischievous intent. “I’d imagine that this came up in your daydreams?” One of his arms snaked around her waist and with his free hand he lifted her dress ever so slowly. The material slid up her thigh, silky cool against her heated skin. Her pulse beat erratically. She was eager for his hand to reach its intended destination.

Finally, his fingers brushed her naked sex. The stranger’s fingers teased her already swollen flesh. With a start, she realized she wore no panties. Panties are unnecessary in the astral realm. The silly, errant thought made her giggle.

“This is amusing?” His movements halted.

“No, no it’s not.” She desperately wanted him to stimulate her again. “Please, don’t stop what you’re doing.”

He resumed his ministrations. His touch was making her crazy with need. She wanted much more than this. But some part of her held back and wouldn’t let her ask him for more. Not yet. She didn’t even know this man. And then, there was the issue of Richard.

“I don’t even know your name,” she gasped in between waves of pleasure.

“What do you wish to call me, Angel?”

What should she call him? She could hardly think straight. How was she supposed to produce a fitting name for such a beautiful, mouth-watering creature? He looked like something straight out of mythology, a god. He reminded her of a painting she’d once seen while on an art walk in Santa Barbara of the Greek god Aether, god of the upper sky, space and heaven — right down to the piercing emerald eyes.

“Aether,” she murmured.

He smiled. “I like that.” His mouth captured hers, kissing her with such intensity she became dizzy with her desire. First one, then two fingers entered her. Her inner muscles spasmed in ecstasy. They were no longer strangers, she told herself. It was acceptable to make love with him. Besides, it wasn’t as though she were loving him with her actual physical body.

With that thought, any further concerns about Richard fled, and Anna gave herself over to Aether. Aether, sensing her surrender, waved away their clothing and lowered her to the sand. His hands, lips and tongue left no part of her body untouched. He seemed to be everywhere at once, his hard, lean form one minute hugging her own, the next hovering over her, just his mouth caressing her. She allowed her hands to roam over him, to feel his smooth skin and the muscles rippling beneath.

Her entire body tingled with anticipation as he spread her legs and entered her in one smooth stroke. She cried out her pleasure. Waves of heat and longing washed through her. The sensations were all so real, so vivid. She momentarily forgot she was in the astral plane.

Anna clutched Aether to her body, tilting her hips to meet his every thrust. Something was building inside of her, a fierce ache, a spiral of energy that started at her toes and travelled to the top of her head.

“Oh, Angel,” he groaned, “you are heaven.”

A moment later her entire body arched and rocked in Aether’s arms and she was spinning, twirling, overcome with pleasure so intense, so rapturous, it bordered on pain. Aether shuddered his release, calling her name and then, his voice sounded very far away, fading as she spiralled away from him and crashed into her body.

The next two weeks passed in a blur. Anna went through the motions of going to work and performing her duties but no matter how she tried to push him from her mind, Aether occupied the majority of her thoughts. And each day, she hurried home from work, eager to have dinner, feed and pet Emerson, then resolutely lock the cat out of the bedroom so that she could travel back to that place between worlds where Aether waited for her. And he was always waiting for her. He made love to her each and every night, and the bliss she experienced in his arms was like nothing she’d ever known.

Tina called a number of times, inviting Anna to go out but Anna always had an excuse for why she needed to remain at home. When she began to run out of excuses, she just stopped answering Tina’s phone calls.

During the beginning of the third week, Anna had just finished eating a modest meal of canned soup and grilled cheese, when Tina appeared at her front door, hands on hips, worry creasing her pretty face.

“Where have you been?” Tina demanded, brushing past Anna into the house. Tina’s broomstick skirt made a swooshing sound as she paced the floor.

“I’ve been here, and working,” Anna responded lamely.

Tina huffed and crossed her arms. “Don’t you think for a minute I’m letting you off that easy. I’ve been calling you for weeks. Why are you avoiding me?”

Anna sighed. “I’m not avoiding you, Tina. I just haven’t felt like going out, and I knew if I told you that you’d show up here and drag me out anyway.”

“Damn right, I would. No more moping around the house depressed. I’m going to drag you into your healing if I have to do it with you kicking and screaming.”

Suddenly, Tina stopped short, and her eyes narrowed as they washed over Anna and her red silk robe and the matching negligee that peeked out from underneath. Anna’s stomach dropped, and she willed Tina not to go into her bedroom. She cringed at what she knew Tina would find there.

But Tina was way too intuitive by far, and she craned her neck toward the bedroom, and seeing Anna’s nervous expression, promptly marched down the hall. Tina flung the bedroom door open. Anna bit her lip, taking in the scene as Tina must be seeing it, knowing she was going to have some serious explaining to do. Incense curled from a Buddha-shaped burner on the bedside table, candles flickered from various surfaces in the room, and soft, sensual music filled the silence.

Tina spun around to face Anna, eyebrows raised. “Well hell, girl, when were you going to tell me you’d found a man? Is he hiding in the closet? Or hasn’t he made it here yet?”

Anna’s face grew red and heated. She hoped Tina wouldn’t notice her flush in the dim lighting. Her embarrassment gave way to annoyance. So what. So, she’d taken the advice in Astral Love to heart. And it had seemed to ensure that she met Aether each and every time she returned to the astral realm. Maybe it was all in her mind, but there were worse things than preparing yourself and your surroundings as though you were meeting your astral lover in the flesh. Weren’t there?

“It’s not what you think,” Anna said.

Tina frowned. “Why don’t you explain it to me?”

“Let’s go sit down, and I’ll tell you everything.”

The two returned to the living room and an hour later, Tina knew the whole story. And regarded Anna with even more concern in her eyes than when she’d first arrived.

“I know that look,” Anna said.

Tina’s brow crinkled. “This is not good, Anna.”

Anna’s spine stiffened. “How can it be bad? I’m having the time of my life!”

“That’s just it. The time of your life is being had with a phantom in your dreams.”

Anna shook her head. “He’s not a phantom.”

“He’s not a real, flesh-and-blood human male,” Tina pointed out.

“Maybe he is. I mean, the books said that although all sorts of beings pass through the astral realm, so do plenty of humans just like me.”

Tina sighed. “Let’s say he is a real person, like you, exploring astral travel. You can’t have a relationship, not a real one, with someone you meet in your sleep.”

Anna crossed her arms and bristled at Tina’s words. She didn’t want to hear this. She didn’t want to listen to what she knew, deep down, was the truth.

Tina gestured to the living room. “Look around you. You haven’t cleaned your house in weeks, have you?”

Anna blinked, taking in the discarded clothing, newspapers and take-out food containers. The room was littered with trash and clutter. And she hadn’t noticed.

“And what about Emerson? This cat hates me normally. What the heck is he doing to my leg? Are you spending any time with him at all anymore?” As if to lend emphasis to Tina’s words, the tabby cat was rubbing himself all over Tina’s legs and feet, purring, then stood on his hind legs and batted at her knees, begging for attention. His eyes rolled back into his head with pure pleasure as Tina rubbed him behind his ears.

A pang of guilt swept over Anna.

“And beyond all that,” Tina continued. “From what I gather, you haven’t left your house except to go to work since this whole thing started. And I’ll bet your work progress is less than stellar right now.”

Anna frowned. Tina was right.

Tina scooted closer to Anna and wrapped one arm around her shoulders. “Sweetie, I am really worried about you. You’re obsessed. You’re never going to find love again this way. And this is not healthy. You yourself know that it’s not good for you, don’t you?”

Resigned, Anna nodded. “I need to end it.”

“Yes.”

“I’ll go back to see him tonight and tell him it’s over and then—”

“No,” Tina interrupted. “You should not see him again. You need to quit. An alcoholic does not allow himself just a little drink to remind himself not to drink.”

Disappointment rained over Anna. Tina was right. She was completely right. And Anna hated that her friend was right. She already felt a pang of despair at the knowledge she’d never see Aether again.

“Okay,” Anna agreed.

“Okay, what?”

“I’m done. No more astral travelling. No more sexy dream guy.”

Tina hugged her. “Good. And this weekend, we are going out and you are going to meet a real, live hot-as-hell man, and you’ll allow him to sweep you off your feet and live happily ever after, right?”

Anna allowed herself a small smile. “If I must.”

After giving Emerson one more quick scratch behind the ears, Tina rose and headed toward the door.

“Tina, what do you think Richard meant?”

Tina paused with her hand on the front door handle and thought about the question. “I think he was trying to lend you strength so you could move on, that’s what I think.”

“And the whole ‘love is in the air’, thing?”

Tina shrugged. “Wasn’t he always writing you bad poetry? Perhaps his talent hasn’t improved much in the afterlife.” Tina’s grin was infectious.

Anna returned the smile. “See you later.”

“See you this weekend,” Tina insisted.

“I agreed, didn’t I?”

Tina lifted her eyebrows as if to say she wasn’t sure Anna’s word could be trusted. Then, she gestured toward Emerson who had followed her to the door. “And pay attention to that cat, will you? I’m no good as a stand-in. I can feel my allergies acting up already.”

To show his gratitude for Tina’s concern with his plight, Emerson promptly coughed up a fur ball on to her foot.

True to her word, Anna did not attempt another meeting with Aether. She forced herself to accompany Tina on at least one night out on the town per week. They frequented places Tina strategically chose for man-hunting potential. Anna actually found herself having fun during these outings. She flirted, got flirted with and gave out her phone number a time or two. She even entertained the idea of returning the phone call of a handsome lawyer who’d called.

Her house was clean, her work was caught up and Emerson was happy to have regained his side of the bed. But late at night, when she was supposed to be sleeping, Aether filled her thoughts. And a fierce, aching need swept through her.

Then, one Friday evening after a long, gruelling day at the office — an evening when Anna really would have rather backed out of Date Night with Tina — something truly magical happened.

Anna stood next to the bar in the latest, hippest club, watching people in various modes of attire get their groove on atop the strobe-lit laden dance floor. She sipped a glass of Pinot Grigio and waited for Tina to return from the restroom. Just as she was finishing her last swallow of the wine, a very broad shoulder bumped her arm. She glanced up into familiar green eyes — and choked.

“Are you okay?”

The man who’d bumped her patted her lightly on the back. When she’d calmed down and gathered herself, Anna wiped the wine from her chin and nodded.

Same wavy, jet hair, same chiselled features, definitely the same arresting gaze. How could this be? Was she losing her mind?

Say something, she told herself. Say something, anything. But she could barely breathe, let alone speak. The man didn’t seem to notice. He was studying her, too.

“You seem familiar,” he said. “Do I know you?”

She opened her mouth to answer but then his hand touched her arm and shivers of delight burst over her skin. She stifled a moan of pleasure.

“I’m so sorry about bumping you. This place is really crowded tonight.”

Anna swallowed and finally found her voice. “It’s okay.”

If he only knew just how okay it was.

“I haven’t seen you here before. Are you local?”

“I live just a few blocks from here,” she told him.

“Really? Me too.” He tilted his head to the side. “Man, I could swear we’ve met before. What’s your name?”

“Anna,” she said. “And yours?”

He stuck his hand out. “Aether. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Anna.”

Anna’s pulse sped and her legs grew weak. It was him. She wasn’t crazy. It was really him. “Aether?” she repeated, incredulous.

He gave her a shy smile. “What can I say? My dad is a professor who specializes in Greek mythology and my mom is an artist. She even painted me once as the Greek god, Aether.”

“Greek god?” Anna repeated, realizing she was starting to sound like a broken record but unable to stop herself.

“Yeah, you know, the god of Air?”

And suddenly everything made perfect, beautiful, crystal clear sense. Her sudden interest in astral travel, meeting Aether and their intense connection. And especially, Richard’s message on the bathroom mirror.

I’m sending you love. Love is in the air.

Moisture welled in Anna’s eyes. Her heart swelled with elation. Richard, you truly are the most wonderful man. I will never forget you. Thank you for loving me. Thank you for looking out for me. The words whispered through her mind, unspoken. Somehow she knew that wherever Richard was, he heard her.

“Let’s go get you a new glass of wine, shall we?”

Anna smiled. “Thank you.”

“It’s the least I can do.”

He took her hand and led her toward the bar. Anna happily followed him, suddenly aware only of the tall man in front of her, of the feel of his large hand covering hers, of the scent of his woodsy cologne. She tuned out the other people pushing in around them and the loud music blaring through the space.

When they reached the bar, Aether quickly made his order, then placed a fresh glass of wine into Anna’s free hand. Tingles spread from the hand Aether held and travelled up her arm. A current of delicious, sensual heat followed.

Aether sucked in his breath and glanced down at their joined hands. Then he smiled at her, flashing straight white teeth and a set of dimples she hadn’t noticed during their nocturnal meetings.

“Let’s go sit outside where we can talk. It’s too noisy in here.”

“Yes,” she agreed, “Let’s.”

They wound their way to the exit. The tables scattered around the outside eating area of the restaurant-turned-nightclub were full. Anna’s heart sank. Then a couple to their right vacated their table, and Anna and Aether quickly snatched it up.

Once they were seated, Anna expected Aether to release her hand but he did not. Instead, he turned his hand palm up and traced a lazy pattern over her fingers. His gaze sparkled with mischief.

“Anna, I’m almost positive we’ve met before.”

She smiled a mysterious smile. “Perhaps.”

He chuckled. “Well, I want you tell me everything about yourself. I want to know all there is to know about you, Mystery Lady.”

Anna’s brows rose. “That could take awhile.”

Aether pressed a soft kiss on her hand. A jolt of desire shot through her.

“I’ve got a lifetime.”

Karen Chance

The Gauntlet

Chapter One

The sound of a key turning in the rusty old lock had everyone scurrying forward with hands outstretched, begging for food, for water, for life. Gillian didn’t go with them. Trussed up as she was, she could barely move. And there was no life that way.

The burly jailer came in carrying a lantern, with two more dark shapes behind him. To her surprise, he didn’t immediately kick the women aside with brutal indifference. Instead he let them crowd around, even the ones who had been there a while, whose skeletal hands silently begged with the others.

“This is the lot, my lord,” he said. “And a sorry one it is, too.”

“Why are some of them gagged?” The low, pleasant tenor came from one of the shapes she had assumed to be a guard. The speaker came forwards, but she couldn’t see much of him. The hood on his cape was pulled down and a gloved hand covered his face, probably in an attempt to block the stench.

She smiled grimly and let her head fall back into her arms. It wouldn’t work. Even after two days, she hadn’t become inured to it: the thick, sickly-sweet odour of flesh, unwashed and unhealed.

“Some are strong enough to curse a man to hell otherwise,” the jailer informed him, spitting on the ground.

“Show me the strongest,” the stranger said, and Gillian’s head jerked back up.

The jailor grumbled, but he ordered his men to drag the bound bodies that had been shoved to the back of the room to the forefront. The stranger bent over each one, pushing matted, filthy hair out of their eyes, as if looking for someone. Gillian didn’t watch. She concentrated everything she had on biting through the remaining mass of cloth in her mouth, her eyes on the open door behind men.

The guards came only once a day, doling out water and a thin gruel, and she didn’t know what kind of shape she would be in by tomorrow. Even worse, she didn’t know how Elinor would be. She glanced over at the child’s huddled form, but she hadn’t moved. Not for hours now, a fact that had Gillian’s heart clenching, part in fear, part in black rage.

If those whoresons let her daughter die in here, she’d rip this place apart stone by stone. Her arms jerked convulsively against the shackles, but they were iron, not rope. If she couldn’t speak, she had no chance of breaking them.

It didn’t help that she hadn’t had water in more than a day. The guard assigned to that detail last night had been one of those she’d attacked on arrival, in an aborted escape attempt. He’d kicked her in the ribs as he passed and waved the ladle under her nose, but not allowed her so much as a drop. If he’d followed orders, he might have noticed what she was doing, might have replaced the worn woollen gag with something sturdier.

But he hadn’t.

“That one’s dead,” the jailor said, kicking a limp body aside. He quickly checked the others, pulling out one more before lining up the remaining women at the stranger’s feet. Most were silent, watching with hollow, desperate eyes above their gags. A few struggled weakly, either smart enough to realize that this might be a way out, or too far gone to understand what was happening.

“What about this one?” A hand with a square cut ruby ring caught Gillian’s chin, turning her face up to the light.

“You don’t want her!” the jailer said, aiming another kick at her abused ribs.

“The agreement was, ‘in good condition’,” the stranger said, blocking the booted foot with his own.

Gillian barely noticed. Up close, it was obvious that she was in even more trouble than she’d thought. The fact that the stranger was dead wasn’t a good sign. That he was still walking around was worse.

Vampire.

They stared at each other and he smiled slightly at her start of recognition. He had a nice face — young, as if that meant anything — with clear, unmarked skin, a head of dark brown curls and a small goatee. The last would have been amusing under other circumstances, as if he was trying to make his pleasant face appear more sinister.

She wondered why he didn’t just bare his fangs.

“I don’t see as it makes a difference, if you’re aiming to feed off her,” the guard said, angry, but smart enough not to show it.

Those liquid dark eyes swept over her. “What I do with the woman is my affair.”

“Ahh. Some sport beforehand, then. I’d not risk it, meself. One of my men tried the night she was brought in and the bitch cursed him. He’s in a bad way, still.”

“How tragic,” the vampire sounded amused.

The guard must have thought so, too, because his already florid features flushed even darker. “See if you’re laughing with a pillicock the size of a pin!” he spat.

The vampire ignored him and put a hand beneath Gillian’s arm, helping her to stand. “I’d let you out of those, but I’m afraid you’d hex me,” he said cheerfully, nodding at her cuffs. “And I like my privities the way they are.” He glanced at the guard. “Tell me about her.”

“One of them that’s been operating out of the thicket,” the man said resentfully, referring to Maidenhead thicket on the road between London and Bristol, where Gillian’s group had had some success relieving travellers of their excess wealth.

“Ah, yes. I met a robber there myself, not long ago.” The vampire smiled at her. “He was delicious.”

Gillian just stared. Did he always talk to his food this much before eating it?

“But I must say,” he commented, his eyes on her worn gown, greasy red hair and dirty face. “For a member of one of the most notorious gangs of thieves in England, you do not look very prosperous.”

Maybe I would, she thought furiously, if I didn’t have to spend most of my time avoiding people like you.

Once, she’d had protection from his kind. She’d been a member of one of the Druid covens that had ruled the supernatural part of the British Isles for time out of mind. But that had been before the arrival of the so-called “Silver Circle”, an ancient society of light magic users who had brought nothing but darkness to England.

They had arrived in force ten years ago, as refugees of a vicious war on the continent. The religious tensions that culminated with Spain launching the Armada had offered an opportunity to one of the Circle’s oldest enemies. A group of dark mages known as the Black Circle had joined forces with the Inquisition under the pretence of helping to stamp out heresy. And by all accounts, they had been brutally efficient at hunting down their light counterparts.

But their suffering hadn’t made the Silver Circle noticeably gentler on anyone else. They had but one goal in mind — to rebuild their forces and retake control of magical Europe. And they intended to start with England.

Gillian’s coven was one of those who had refused their kind offers of “protection”, and preferred to continue determining their own destiny. In return, they had been subjected to a witch hunt mightier and more successful than anything the Inquisition had ever managed. By the time they realized just how far their fellow mages would go to support the idea of a unified magical community, the covens had been decimated through deceit, betrayal and murder.

But they haven’t killed all of us, Gillian thought viciously. Not yet. It was a fact that would some day cost them dear.

The vampire had been watching her with interest. She didn’t know how he could tell anything past the folds of the gag, but apparently he saw something that amused him. His smile became almost genuine.

“See my man about payment,” he told the guard, his eyes never leaving her face. “I’ll take this one with me.”

“Take her?” The guard’s scowl became more pronounced. “Take her where?”

“That is my affair,” the vampire repeated.

“Not if ye’re planning to make off wi’ her, it damn well isn’t! No one will much care if she doesn’t last long enough for the rope, but it’s as much as my life is worth to let her go beyond these walls. She’s dangerous!”

“I do truly hope so,” the vampire said oddly.

A beefy hand fell on his shoulder. “If ye want to make a meal off her, that’s one thing. But all the gold in yer purse won’t save me once they discover—”

In an eye blink, the guard was slammed against the wall, held several feet off the floor by the slim hand around his throat. “Perhaps you should be more concerned about your immediate future,” the vampire said softly.

Gillian didn’t wait to see who would win the argument over which one would be allowed to kill her. The soggy threads finally came apart in her mouth and she spat them out. But with no saliva left, and a throat still throbbing from the elbow blow it had taken days ago, she couldn’t speak. She swallowed convulsively and concentrated everything on making some kind of sound — anything.

An incantation rolled off her tongue. It was a dry whisper, but it was enough. With a rusty creak, the shackles parted around her wrists and ankles, and she was free.

Her limbs were stiff and uncoordinated and her head was spinning from the power loss. But then she caught sight of Elinor and nothing else mattered. She lurched forward in a scrambling crawl, making it a few yards before rough hosed legs blocked the way.

“Where d’ye think you’re going?” the other guard demanded, grabbing her by the back of the collar. She slung a spell at him, but the angle was off and it missed, exploding against the low ceiling of the room.

Had the roof been in proper repair, the spell would have either dissipated or ricocheted back, depending on how much power she had been able to muster. But whoever owned this heap of stones before the Circle had skimped on repairs and the once stout wood had seen one too many winters. What felt like half the roof suddenly rained down on their heads, sending her stumbling back and burying the guard under a pile of weathered beams.

Gillian clutched the wall, blinking in the wash of brilliant sunlight that streamed through the ruined roof. It was blinding after two days of almost complete darkness and the struggle with the guard had disoriented her. She was no longer sure where Elinor was, and when she tried to move, she was battered by screaming, panicked women, on all sides.

“Elinor!” she yelled as loudly as her parched throat would allow, but there was no answer.

Her eyes finally adjusted and she caught a glimpse of her daughter’s slight form huddled against one wall. She was rocking slightly, staring at nothing, her hands bound to an iron ring. Gillian crawled over and started to work the leather bindings on her wrists off. They were so tight that the circulation to her hands had been partially cut off and her small fingers were swollen like sausages.

Elinor didn’t fight her, although she couldn’t have seen much through the glare or heard her mother’s whispered assurances over the din. She was trembling from a combination of exhaustion, shock and fear. Dark blue rings stained her eyes and her beautiful blond hair hung limp and lifeless, like her expression.

The last stubborn strap came loose and Gillian pulled her daughter into her arms. She started to rise when one of the bound figures on the floor rolled into her, struggling in vain to throw off her bonds. The old woman was in irons and gagged, as Gillian had been, with no chance to escape if she couldn’t speak.

Gillian pulled a disgusting scrap of cloth out of her mouth, to give her a fighting chance, while scanning the room for any way out besides the door. “Release me,” the woman gasped, on a rattling breath.

“Release yourself, old mother,” Gillian told her distractedly. “I need what strength I have left.”

She could already hear soldiers on the run, thudding their way up the tower’s wooden steps. There was only one way down — and it was the same path the guards were taking up. She might make it alone; she had that much pent up rage. But not with Elinor.

“Mind your manners, girl!” she was told, right before wrinkled, age-spotted fingers reached out and gave her a pinch. Gillian grasped the woman’s hand, intending to pry it off her flesh. But then she looked down — and stopped cold.

Crisscrossed by delicate veins and almost buried under a layer of grime were faint blue lines, etched on to the woman’s inner wrist. Gillian stared at the curling, elegant pattern, one older than the walls that imprisoned them, older than almost anything else in these isles, and felt her skin go cold. The three-pointed triskelion was worn only by the leaders of the great covens.

A cannon ball had landed a dozen yards from her once, and it had felt like this, like being knocked flat even though she hadn’t moved. She had never really believed that it might work, this plan of extermination. The covens could be hurt, but they would come back, as they’d always come back, through every war, invasion and black time that littered their past. But if the Circle could reach even to the heart of them, could reduce one of the Great Mothers to this.

They could destroy us, she thought blankly. They could destroy all of us.

Chapter Two

Another pinch interrupted Gillian’s thoughts, this time feeling like it took a hunk of her arm along with it. “Stop daydreaming,” she was told tetchily. “And do as you’re told!”

It wasn’t a request, and obedience to the elders was ingrained from birth. The requisite spell all but leaped to her lips. But the iron was corroded, or perhaps her power was fading, because it took a second application before the old hinges finally gave way. And by then, reinforcements had arrived.

Gillian could hear them in the corridor, being hit with spells from the few witches still capable of throwing any. Someone screamed and a body crashed into the heavy wooden door, slamming it shut and momentarily interrupting the attack. But it would be a moment’s reprieve at best. And when the guards broke through, she didn’t think recapture would be their main concern.

The Great Mother latched on to her arm with a strength she hadn’t thought the woman had. “There.” She pointed to a corner of the room that had emptied of prisoners. A splash of sunshine, mid-afternoon and richly golden, highlighted a patch of bare worn boards. They were old and slimy, scattered with rat bones and smeared with human waste. But unlike the roof, they were solid.

“I can’t,” Gillian confessed. She knew without trying that she didn’t have the strength to destroy the floorboards. They were good English oak, as hard as the stones that made up the tower’s walls, and just as immovable. “We have to find another—”

“Stop arguing,” the eldest snapped, cutting her off. “And take me.”

Gillian took her. She didn’t know what else to do. They were trapped.

Even worse, the vampire was standing off to the side, casually observing the chaos. She scowled; she should have known that sunlight wouldn’t kill him. If he was that weak, he’d have come at night. He’d retreated further into the hood of his cape, leaving him a long column of black wool, but otherwise appeared unconcerned.

He didn’t move, but Gillian carefully kept the sunlight between them nonetheless. She pulled Elinor and the eldest along the wall, hoping the glistening beams would provide some kind of protection. His head turned, keeping them in view, but he said nothing.

“In the middle. There!” the Great Mother gasped, and again Gillian followed orders, only to have her arm gripped in a steellike vise. Cloudy blue eyes met hers, almost sightless, but somehow penetrating all the same. “In times like these, we do what is needful — what we must to survive, for us and our folk. Do you understand, girl?”

No, Gillian thought frantically. What she understood was that the door was about to open and they were all going to die. That was pretty damn clear. “I do not think they mean for any of us to survive,” she said, her throat raw.

The Great Mother’s grip became positively painful, arthritic fingers digging into the flesh of Gillian’s arm. “It matters not what they mean! Will you fight, girl, for what is yours?”

“Yes,” she said, confused. What did she think? That Gillian planned to simply lie down and die? “But it is not likely to be a long one. I have little power left, and the Circle—”

“You will find that you have all the power you need.”

Gillian didn’t understand what she meant and there was no time to ask. The door burst open, but she barely noticed, because the frail body on the dirty boards had begun to glow. Power radiated outward, shimmering beneath translucent skin like sunlight through moth wings. It flooded the ugly room, gilding the old bricks and causing even the guards to shield their eyes.

Elinor made a soft sound and hid her face, but Gillian couldn’t seem to look away. For one brief moment, the Old Mother looked like an exquisitely delicate statue, a fire-lit radiance flowing under the pale crepe of her skin. And then Gillian’s own skin began to heat, the flesh of her arm reddening and then burning where the thin fingers gripped her.

She cried out and tried to jerk away, but the Old Mother stubbornly held on. Her skin was shining through Gillian’s hand now, so bright that the edges of her flesh were limned with it. But she couldn’t feel her anymore. She couldn’t feel anything but the great and terrible power gathering in the air, power that whispered to her, wordless and uncontrollable.

It exploded the next moment in flash of brilliant fire. Gillian threw her body over Elinor’s, trying to shield her from the searing heat and deadly flames she expected. But they didn’t come. And when she dared to look again, the old woman’s body was gone — and so was half the floor.

The thick oak boards had dissolved, crumbling into nothingness like charred firewood, leaving a burnt, smoking hole looking down into the room below. Gillian crouched beside it for a moment, her heart pounding, knife-edged colours tearing at her vision, until a glance showed that the guards had fled in fear of magic they didn’t understand.

She didn’t either, but she recognized an opportunity when she saw one.

Elinor was clinging to her neck, hard enough to strangle. It was far from comfortable, but at least it meant she didn’t have to try to hold her as she lowered them on to one of the remaining rafters of the room below. It was the gatehouse, where a contingent of mages usually stayed to watch the front of the castle and to guard any prisoners in the room above. No one was there now, everyone having run up the stairs to secure the door or having scattered after the escapees.

For a brief moment, they were alone.

Gillian’s arm throbbed under the burnt edges of her sleeve, but she ignored it and started making her way along the beam to clear the pile of smoking shards below. Yellow sunlight struggled through the haze, enough to let her see stone walls spotted in a few places by narrow, arrow slit windows, a few stools and a flat-topped storage trunk that was being used as a table. The remains of someone’s lunch was still spread out over the top.

There were no obvious ways out. The only door let out on to the ramparts, which were heavily guarded. And even if they had been able to fit through the tiny windows, the main gate was protected by two towers filled with archers. Anyone trying to leave that way would have to traverse a quarter mile of open fields, the local forest having been cut back to give the archers a clear shot.

Gillian thought that she could just about manage a weak shield, but not to cover two, and not to last the whole way. And Elinor couldn’t help or even protect herself; she was barely seven and her magic had yet to manifest. The eldest should have saved her sacrifice, she thought grimly. They weren’t going to get out of this.

“Could I be of assistance, at all?”

Her head whipped up to see the vampire’s curly mop poking through the charred edges of the hole. She threw up a shield, silently cursing him for forcing her to use the power, and jumped to the floor. Shards of wood and a few old iron nails dug into her bare feet, but the pain was almost welcome. It helped to push away the gut-wrenching panic and let her think.

A guard was sprawled on the floor nearby, half hidden by the fall of wood and debris. He wasn’t moving, and one hand was a bloody mess — he must have used it to try to shield himself. The other gripped a long piece of wood that was partially concealed by his body. She crouched beside him and started tugging on it, while keeping a wary eye on the creature above.

“My earlier jest may have been. ill-timed,” the vampire offered. “I do not, in fact, intend to dine upon you. Or your lovely. daughter, is it?”

Gillian’s head jerked up. “Touch her and they will never find all the pieces,” she snarled, pulling Elinor behind her.

But the creature made no move toward them, other than to spread his hands, showing that he held no weapons. As if he needed any. “I assure you, I pose no threat.”

“A harmless vampire.” She didn’t bother to keep the mockery out of her voice.

“To you.” A smile came easily to that handsome face. “In fact, I work with a party in government charged with maintaining the security of these lands.”

“You lie. Vampires work for their makers.”

“Yes, but in this case, my mistresses’ interests align.”

“And what would those interests be?” Gillian asked, not because she cared, but to buy her time to find out if the item in the guard’s hand was what she thought it was.

“The queen’s enemies are not composed of humans alone,” he told her, as easily as if he carried on conversations upside down every day. Which maybe he did, she thought darkly, images of bats and other unsavoury creatures coming to mind. “Ever since England became a refuge for the Silver Circle, she has been a target for the dark. And the assassination attempts grow with each passing day.”

“And why should a vampire care about such things?”

“We must live in this world, too, Mistress—”

“Urswick,” she panted. Curse it — the guard weighed a ton!

“I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Mistress Urswick,” he said wryly. “I am Chris Marlowe, although my friends call me Kit.”

“You have friends?”

“Strangely enough, yes. I would like to number you among them, if I could.”

Gillian was sure he would. But while she might be a penniless thief, her coven ruined, her friends scattered or dead, neither she nor her daughter would be feeding him this day. “Don’t count on it,” she snarled, and jerked the slender column of wood free.

It was a staff as she’d hoped, but not of the Circle’s make. The surface was satiny to the touch, worn smooth as stone from centuries of handling. The oil from all those hands had cured it to a dark mahogany, blending the black glyphs carved along its length into the surface. She traced one of the ridges with a fingertip and didn’t believe it, even when a frisson of power passed through her shields to jump along her nerves.

Her fingers began to prickle, black fury rising in front of her eyes, as she stood there with a Druid staff in her hands. It wasn’t enough that they were persecuted, imprisoned and murdered. The Circle had to steal what little of their heritage they had been able to preserve as well.

“At the risk of sounding discourteous, may I point out that you are in no position to be choosy?” the vampire said, right before the door to the room slammed open and half a dozen guards rushed into the room. And then blew back out as the staff turned the door and half the wall into rubble.

“Perhaps I spoke too soon,” he murmured, as she pulled a white-faced Elinor through the red bite of heat and the smell of smoke to the now missing door.

Outside, the castle’s walls hemmed them in on all sides, grey stone against a pewter sky. A battle was going on to the left, with the prisoners trying to get down the stairs. They looked to be holding their own, with one witch’s spell sending a guard flying off the battlements into the open courtyard. But that was about to change.

Reinforcements were already running toward the battle from either side. And they were the Circle’s elite corps — war mages, they called them — instead of the talentless scum employed as jailers. The witches from most of the covens were well trained in self-defence, but their weapons had been confiscated when they were taken. Without them, they wouldn’t last long.

Of course, that could prove true of them as well. A group of the Circle’s dark robed mages broke off from the main group and started their way. And in front of them was a lethal cloud of weapons, iron dark against the pale sky.

Gillian didn’t try to run; there was no time and nowhere to go. Against the Circle’s harsh alchemy of steel and iron, she called Wind, and it answered far more quickly than usual. She was only dimly aware of a blizzard of debris behind her back and the mages’ squawks of alarm as their weapons went tumbling back at them.

For a long moment, the roar of her element filled her senses in a heady rush, billowing out her tattered gown, matting her hair and blowing into her eyes. She didn’t bother to brush it away. It felt good. It felt like power.

But it didn’t last. Within seconds, the wind was already dying. The staff was magnifying her strength, but she had so little left. And when it gave out—

“My offer of assistance remains open,” the vampire said casually. He’d jumped down from the second floor and was leaning against the shattered wall, watching the chaos with the mildly interested glance of someone at a bear baiting with no money on the outcome.

“It’s well known that your kind helps no one but themselves!”

“Which is better than attacking and imprisoning our own, would you not say?” She didn’t see him move, but he was suddenly beside her, the wind whipping his curls wildly around his face.

“Why should you want to help me?” she demanded harshly.

“Because I need yours in return.”

Despite everything, Gillian almost laughed. He stood there in his fine clothes, smelling of spices and sporting a jewel worth the price of a house. And she was supposed to believe that he needed anything from the likes of her?

“’Pon my honor,” he said, seeing her expression.

“You may as well swear on your life! Everyone knows that vampires are selfish, base, cruel creatures who only want one thing!”

“And everyone knows that coven witches are weak, treacherous and easily corrupted,” he shot back. “Everyone is often wrong.”

Gillian started to answer, but a harsh clanging echoed across the keep, cutting her off. A small group of witches had cleared the stairs and made a break for the gates. But the heavy iron portcullis guarding the entrance had slammed down before they could reach it, trapping them in the middle of a sea of enemy mages. Her hands clenched at their desperate cries for help, but there was nothing she could do but die with them.

And she had Elinor to think about.

She spun on her heel, brushing past the vampire and racing back inside the small gatehouse. The trunk was still there, with its bit of stale loaf. She brushed it aside and threw up the heavy lid, hoping for weapons — charms, potions, protection wards — anything designed to hold a reservoir of magic for use in times like these. But there was nothing, aside from a few rat droppings.

She slammed the trunk shut in frustration, wishing she had the strength to throw it at the wall. The guard must have taken the staff as a trophy. Because wherever the Circle was storing their weapons, it wasn’t here.

“The other gate is still open,” the vampire said, from the doorway. “And I am skilled at glamourie. Let me inside your shields and I can hide you and the girl. We can walk out of here while the fight distracts the guards.”

“Why should I trust you?” she demanded harshly, desperate for a reason, any reason.

“What choice have you?”

Gillian didn’t see that they had much either way. Getting outside the walls would do them little good if it left her drained and defenceless, and at the mercy of a creature whose kind were well-known to have none. But with no weapons and her magic all but exhausted, staying here would mean certain death at the hands of the Circle.

The vampire’s head suddenly came up, reacting to something beyond the reach of her senses. “Help me and I’ll help you,” he said urgently, holding out his hand.

Gillian hugged Elinor against her, every instinct she had screaming that she was mad to put their lives in the hands of a creature who saw them merely as prey. But if her only choice was between dying now and dying later, she would take later. “If you betray me, I will use my last breath to curse you!”

“I would expect nothing less.”

Gillian licked dry lips. She didn’t believe him, didn’t think for a moment that he really wanted to help. But the wind had died and booted feet were pounding up the stairs, and she was out of options. She readied a curse, hoping it wouldn’t be her last. And dropped the tattered remnants of her shield.

Chapter Three

This was typical, Kit thought sourly, slamming them back against the wall as a mob of mages rushed in. Find the perfect candidate and, naturally, everything went to hell before he could get away with her. Unfortunately, his lady was not one to understand unforeseen difficulties. He really did not want to think of the reception he was likely to get if he returned empty-handed.

Of course, at the moment, he would rather settle for returning at all.

“Search every inch,” his dark-haired leader snapped, and Kit silently cursed.

He’d been hoping for a group of slow-witted guards who might have assumed that the witch had somehow slipped past them in the confusion. But judging from their windblown hair and murderous expressions, these were the men she’d attacked outside. And he couldn’t take a half-dozen war mages on his own.

At least, he didn’t think he could, having never before tried. And he discovered that he wasn’t all that keen on finding out. He decided some subtlety was in order and started shuffling his little party towards the ruined door.

He thought their chances of making it out undetected were reasonably good. He’d used one of the talents he’d manifested since becoming a master and gone dim as soon as he heard the men approaching. Dim wasn’t invisible — he could still be seen if someone was looking right at him. But even then he’d be only a faint, indistinct outline, like a haze of black smoke. And with all the real smoke choking the air, who was going to notice?

A war mage, apparently. He’d almost reached the door, where only a single mage stood guard, when one of the nearby searchers suddenly changed direction and grabbed a fold of his cloak. “Sir! They’re—”

So much for subtlety. Kit seized the man’s arm and slung him into the mage guarding the door, hard enough to send them both staggering backwards off the ramparts. Then he snatched the child into his arms, grabbed the witch by the waist and bolted.

It wasn’t the most elegant escape he’d ever made, but a lifetime of close scrapes had taught him not to be picky. He dodged a spell that came blistering through the air after him, sidestepped a small battle, and headed for the stairs. And then pulled up abruptly and spun them back against the wall.

“What is it?” the witch demanded. “Why are we—” She stopped, catching sight of the same thing he had.

The stairs were choked with guards and the courtyard of the castle had turned into a particularly colourful hell. The flimsy wooden shacks that housed the kitchen, stables and blacksmith had caught alight and were burning merrily, with spell-fire tinting the billowing smoke in glowing colours. Horses were neighing, people were screaming, and spells were exploding on all sides.

In other words, it was the usual battlefield chaos, which was what gave him pause. On any given battlefield on any given day, there were about a hundred ways to die — and that multiplied tenfold if it was a magical battle. He was going to have to—

A spell he hadn’t seen coming hit them broadside before he could finish the thought, sizzling against the shield the witch had managed to raise before flaming out in a burst of acid green sparks. And while no one might have been able to see them, that spectacle had been all too visible. Even worse, the effects didn’t dissipate; instead, a glowing nimbus pulsed in the air around them, like the corona of the sun on a foggy day.

“Marker,” the witch gasped, before he could ask. “They used it to hunt us in the forests, to make it impossible for us to hide. You can’t conceal us now and I cannot protect all three of us!”

She started struggling, probably deciding to use her remaining strength to save herself and the girl. But it wouldn’t be enough and Kit knew it. They had to stay together, and they had to get out that gate, but the stairs were impossible. He could probably survive the assault of the guards but not the witches.

That left only one option.

“Hold on,” he said grimly, renewing his grip on them.

The witch was quick; he’d give her that. “Are you mad?” she stared from him to the chaos below and back again. “We can’t go down there!”

“And we cannot stay here! We’re sitting ducks. The smoke should hide us.”

“Hide our bodies, mayhap,” she snarled, struggling to get away.

Kit held on and dragged her to the edge of the rampart, trying to spot the least lethal landing place. But mages were converging on them from all sides, and there was no more time. He jumped, right before a bolt of pure power tore through the air he’d just vacated.

It hit the side of the stairs behind them, blowing a hole in the stone and sending sharp shards raining down on to the crowd below. The screaming and cursing and spell-throwing from the surrounding witches increased four-fold, but Kit barely noticed because at that moment, something hit him full in the face.

It wasn’t a spell, unless the mages had invented one that smelled like burnt feathers and tried to peck your eyes out. He cursed, but couldn’t do much more with his arms full of witches. But whatever-it-was went into a frenzy anyway, squawking and flapping its wings wildly, as if he was attempting to murder it.

And then the ground tilted under his feet and he landed on his arse.

It took him a few seconds to realize that he hadn’t hit the ground at all, but the edge of a cart full of woven cages of chickens. Half of them had been broken open in the battle and the contents were floundering around in the mud or getting roasted mid-flight by the spells crisscrossing the air. Except for the one that had somehow gotten its claws trapped in the wool of his doublet.

The witch had righted herself and her daughter and was hunkered down beside the cart, watching in disbelief as he did battle with the guards’ dinner. Kit had the distinct impression that his credibility might have just taken a knock, especially since he seemed to be losing. And then wounded dignity was the least of his problems when a dark-haired mage jumped off the stairs and landed on the cart’s other end.

Kit went flying into him, bird and all, and the three of them tumbled off the back of the cart. The mage was cursing and trying to raise a shield, while Kit attempted to drain him before he could manage it. They were both half successful. The mage snapped his shields shut, but they didn’t completely stop the flow of blood Kit was leeching out of him through the air.

In a panic, the man sent out a cluster of magical weapons. Half of them collided with crazed birds while the rest attempted to bury themselves into Kit’s flesh. He swatted at them, but like a storm of angry bees, they kept buzzing around, rushing in to stab at him whenever they got the chance.

“You’re losing as much blood as you steal, vampire!” the mage crowed, attempting to gut him with a sword.

“But I can replace mine,” Kit said sweetly, sending the sword spinning across the fight with a well-aimed kick. “How about you?”

“Well said,” the man replied, and kicked him square in the groin.

Kit stumbled back, fervently wishing that padded codpieces hadn’t gone out of style, and landed in the cages of squawking fowl. His impact burst most of the ones left intact and sent up a whirlwind of flapping wings and clawing feet. He fought his way free, finally tearing his own damned passenger loose and tossing it aside. But by the time he got back to his feet, the mage was gone.

And so was the witch.

“God’s Bones!” he hissed, staring around wildly. But she and the girl were nowhere in sight. That could mean that a mage had her, but he doubted it. The spells the Circle’s men had been casting weren’t the kind they used when they wanted to take prisoners, and he didn’t see her body.

No, it was a safe bet that she’d run off somewhere while he was distracted. The question was, where?

He glanced at the secondary gate, or what he could see of it through drifting clouds of smoke. It was temptingly close, and the mages hadn’t yet managed to lower the portcullis. It looked like they’d tried, but the witches had hit it with something that caused the metal to run like honey. And enough had dripped into the crevices of the track to cause the gate to stick partway down.

There looked to be room to squeeze out underneath, but that required getting to it first. And that didn’t look likely. The Circle had placed a double line of guards across the opening to act as a human buffer, leaving their own men free to slowly decimate the witches who were gathering in force nearby. In between the two groups was a hell pit of smoke, spells and running, screaming people.

If she’d headed that way, she wouldn’t last long.

It had seemed such an easy task, Kit thought grimly, as he ducked and dodged his way through the melee. Interrogate Lady Isabel Tapley, a coven witch lately apprehended by the mages who was suspected of being in league with the Black Circle. There were rumours that another plot was brewing against the queen, whom the dark blamed for sheltering their enemies, and Kit had been sent to find out if there was any truth to them.

But nothing had gone right from the beginning — Lady Isabel had poisoned herself before he arrived, leaving him to question a corpse, and not the animated kind. The fact that she’d resorted to such extreme measures made him that much more convinced that the plot was genuine, but she’d left no papers behind and her servants knew frustratingly little about their mistress’ plans. The only thing he had been able to glean was that she had a meeting in three days’ time with several men newly arrived from Spain.

And that one of them shared the name of a noted Black Circle member.

Kit needed to be at that meeting. And for that, he needed a credible Lady Isabel. But young, redheaded coven witches were a little thin on the ground these days, thanks to the Circle. And his request to be allowed to borrow one had been flatly refused. He had therefore gone to the source and bribed the guards, only to land in this mess.

The more sensible side of his brain offered the observation that, really, there had to be other witches who fit Lady Isobel’s description. And some of them might be found in somewhat less trying circumstances. The other part of his brain, however, the one that was always getting him in trouble, was dead set on this woman. He’d bled for her; he would have her. And the Circle would not.

Assuming he could find her before they did.

Chapter Four

So much for my knight errant, Gillian thought, watching her rescuer getting beaten up by a half-roasted bird. She was about to rescue the creature when one of the war mages dived off the side of the ramparts, flinging a curse in front of him. She acted on instinct, dropping her all-but-useless shields and throwing up a declive instead. It took most of her remaining strength, but it worked; the protection spell acted like a mirror, reflecting the caster’s magic right back at him.

It caught him in the middle of his leap, popping his shields and sending him crashing headfirst into the cart. The vampire had landed on the other end, and the 200-pound mage crashing down at the edge of the cart caused him to go flying, chicken and all. And then she didn’t see any more, because strong arms clapped around both of hers from behind, lifting her completely off the ground.

She tried to mutter a curse, but found she couldn’t draw a breath. The guard — and it had to be a guard, because she was still alive — was doing his best to squeeze her in two. She couldn’t aim the staff with him behind her, so she brought it down on his foot instead, as hard as she could. The man bellowed and dropped her and Gillian scrambled away, only to be dragged back by the ankle.

She rolled over to try to free herself and then had to roll again as a knife flashed down, ripping through her gown and missing her by inches. As he wrenched it out of the ground, she caught a glimpse of Elinor behind him, her face pale and her eyes huge. And then the guard dropped his knife and started screaming.

Gillian scrambled to her feet, ready to grab her daughter and bolt, assuming he’d been hit by a stray spell. And then she realized — it was a spell, but it hadn’t gone astray. A coiling ribbon of reddish gold flame had snaked out of a burning hut and hit the man square in the back.

At first she thought Elinor must have done it, despite the fact that it was years too early for that. But a searing pain in her arm caused her to look down, and she saw the fire glyph on the staff glowing bright red. She stared at it in disbelief, because she couldn’t call Fire.

All coven witches had to specialize in one of the three great elements — Wind, Fire or Earth — when they came of age, and hers was Wind. She’d never been able to summon more than one; no one could except the coven Mothers, who could harness the collective power of all the witches under their control. But she could feel the drain as her magic pulled the element through the air, as she called it to her.

She just didn’t know how she was doing it.

And she didn’t have time to figure it out. The guard had made the same assumption she had and spun, snarling, on Elinor. Gillian had a second to see him start for her daughter, to see his fist lash out—

And then she was looking at the hilt of a knife protruding from the burnt material of his shirt.

The smell of the charnel houses curled out into the air, mixing with the tang of gunpowder and the raw-lightning scent of spent magic. The guard fell to his knees, the blood gushing hot and sticky from a wound in his side, wetting her hand on the hilt of his blade. She let go and he collapsed, a surprised look on his face and blood on his lips. And then Elinor was tugging her away, shock and pride warring on her small face.

Gillian didn’t feel pride; she felt sick. She wiped her sticky hand on her skirts, feeling it tremble, like the breath in her lungs, like her roiling gut. But the guard’s death wasn’t the cause. She pulled her daughter into her arms and hugged the precious body against her, her heart beating frantically in her chest. She’d almost lost Elinor.

She crouched down beside a nearby well, the only cover she could find that wasn’t burning, and stared around desperately for some opening in the crowd. Panic was making it hard to think, but she shoved it away angrily. She couldn’t afford weakness now. Weakness would get them killed.

A group of nearby witches was attacking the stables, but Gillian couldn’t see the point. The horses’ faster pace might get them beyond range of the archers before their shields gave out, but that was assuming they made it out at all. And while the portcullis wasn’t completely down, a mob of guards and who-knew-how-many protection spells stood in their way.

No. No one was getting through that.

But they might cause a great deal of commotion trying.

She blinked, her heart drumming with sudden hope. She stared from the battlefield to the high, grey walls surrounding it. And then she scooped up Elinor and took off, weaving through the remaining sheds and outbuildings that hugged the castle walls.

She stopped when they reached the far side of the castle, squatting beside a wagon piled with empty barrels, and breathing hard. She didn’t think they’d been seen, but she couldn’t be sure. There were guards here, too, although not as many. Most had joined the fight and the rest were staring at it, as if watching her people being slaughtered was great entertainment.

She probably had a few minutes, at least.

She tugged Elinor behind the wagon and started working on the ropes holding the barrels, tearing her nails on the tight knots.

“What are you doing?” Elinor was looking at her strangely.

“Getting us out of this place!”

“There’s no door here,” Elinor said, staring past her at the carnage.

“Don’t look at it,” Gillian told her harshly. “And no door doesn’t mean no exit.”

But not getting one of these barrels loose might. The knots must have been tied before the previous night’s rain and they’d shrunk. Try as she might, she couldn’t get them loose, and while it would be easy with magic, she didn’t have it to spare. She was ready to scream from frustration when she spied a little barrel on one edge of the cart that no one had bothered to strap down.

She rolled it on to the ground and stood it on its end, glancing about. She didn’t know if she could do this once, but she certainly couldn’t manage it twice. The moment had to be perfect.

It came an instant later, when the guards on the ramparts above them reached the farthest end of their patrol. It left a brief window with no one on the walls directly overhead. Gillian stepped back, pointed the staff at the barrel and cast the strongest levitation spell she could manage.

For a long moment, nothing happened, the small container merely sat there like a stone. But then, as she watched with her heart in her throat, it quivered, wobbled slightly and sluggishly lifted off the ground. She breathed a brief sigh of relief and jerked the staff towards her. The barrel followed the movement, but slowly, as though it weighed much more than empty wood should. But she didn’t start to worry until it began to shake as if caught in a high gale.

And then it started cursing.

A stumpy little leg suddenly poked out the bottom, with a big toe sticking out of a pair of dirty, torn hose. Then a plump arm pushed through the side and a head topped by wild red curls appeared where, a moment before, the round wooden lid had been. The head was facing away from her, but the barrel was slowly rotating, so it wasn’t but a second before a small, furious face came into view.

It had so many freckles that it was almost impossible to see skin, but the militant glint in the hard green eyes was clear enough. “Goddess’ teeth! I’ll curse you into oblivion, I’ll gouge out yer eyes, I’ll cut off that bald-headed hermit twixt yer laigs and feed him to—” She paused, getting a good look at the woman standing in front of her. “Gillian?” Her gaze narrowed and her head tilted. “Wot’s this, then?”

“Winnie,” Gillian said hoarsely, her brief moment of hope collapsing as the barrel resolved itself into a stout, four-foot-tall woman in a green Irish kirtle. “I didn’t recognize—”

“I should demmed well hope not,” Winnie said, flexing her small limbs. She gently floated to the ground while rooting around in her voluminous skirts. “’Ere. You sound like you need this mor’n I do.”

Gillian took the small bottle her friend proffered and downed a sizeable swallow before realizing it wasn’t water. Now she couldn’t talk and she couldn’t breathe. “What?” she gasped.

“Me special brew.”

“Didn’t they take it from you, when you came in?” Elinor asked suddenly. Seeing a familiar face seemed to have done her good, and she had always liked Winnie.

“Naw. Made it look like a growth on my thigh, I did. Hairy.” She nodded archly. “Lots o’ moles. The guards din’ want ter get too close.”

Elinor looked suitably impressed.

Gillian gave Winnie back her “brew” — her wits were addled enough as it was — and she tucked the possibly lethal concoction away. “Right, then. Wot’s the plan?”

“The plan was to levitate one of these and ride it out of here!” Gillian croaked. “There’s about to be an assault on the front gate. If it draws enough attention, we might be able to slip away while the guards are—”

“Don’t matter,” Winnie broke in, shaking her head. “The Circle’s got charms on the walls, don’t they? Try ter go over and poof,” she gestured expressively. “The spell breaks and ye fall to yer death. Saw a witch try it a minute ago.”

So much for that idea, Gillian thought, swallowing. But Winnie’s plan wouldn’t work, either. “They’ll check for those in hiding,” she said, trying to keep the panic out of her voice. “As soon as they’ve rounded up those who chose to fight!”

“Aye,” Winnie said, imperturbably. “And mebbe they’ll find me and mebbe they won’t. But fightin’ war mages is nothin’ but a quick death — if yer lucky.”

“If we had our weapons, they wouldn’t kill us so easily!” Gillian said passionately.

“But we don’t. They’re up there,” Winnie pointed at a nearby tower. “And ain’t no reaching ’em.”

“What?” It took a moment for her friend’s words to sink in. And then Gillian turned her face upwards, staring at the massive cylinder of stone that loomed above them, blocking the sun. “They’re right there?”

“Don’t go getting any ideas,” Winnie told her, watching her face. “I know how ye are about a challenge, but this one’s a beggar’s chance. There’s a mass o’ guards on the door and probably more inside. I heard a couple talkin’ about bein’ kept on duty to help secure the place.”

“That’s never stopped us before,” Gillian murmured, feeling a little dizzy at the sudden return of hope.

“This ain’t a job, Gil,” Winnie said, starting to look nervous.

Gillian rounded on her, eyes flashing and colour high. “No, it’s not a job, Winnie. It’s the job. Our last, if we don’t do this!”

“But we can’t—”

“It’s just another robbery! Only we need this one more than any gold we ever took.”

Winnie put a small hand on her arm. “Gil, stop for a minute. Stop. Yer’re not gettin’ through that door.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Gillian told her, staring upwards. “I’m not planning on it.”

Chapter Five

Kit reached the hell pit only to have to jump aside to avoid a group of stampeding horses, which some enterprising witches were using to try to storm the gate. And then a rogue spell blistered past, caught the edge of his woollen cape and set it on fire. He flung off the now deadly garment and started to stamp out the flames, when he caught sight of a nearby guard.

The man had taken a break from combat in order to besport himself with a pretty blond. He had the struggling girl on her back, her dress over her head and his knee between her thighs — until Kit tossed the length of burning wool over his head. It was rather more pleasurable, he decided, stamping out the flames this way, although the guard didn’t seem to agree.

The girl did, though. She scrambled to her feet and kicked the man viciously before sprinting off. But after only a few yards, she turned around, came back and kicked him again. Then she looked at Kit, dropped a small curtsy and fled.

He stared after her, shaking his head. Witches. He was starting to think they were all a bit addled.

And then he was sure of it, as he caught sight of his own particular lunatic attempting to ride a levitating barrel over the walls.

For a moment, he just stared, sure his eyes were playing tricks on him. Until he spied no fewer than five mages heading for the cask and its glowing cargo. Devil take the woman! He sprinted across the battle, cursing, as his witch floated gently to the top of the East Tower.

About halfway across the courtyard, he realized what she was doing. That tower was used as the armoury, and it was a safe bet she was trying for the weapons. But he didn’t give much for her chances. The Circle surely had a ward on them, if not on the—

It was on the window. He watched her reach the only one on this side, an elongated type barely wider than the average arrow slit, and cry out. Then a burst of power flared and the barrel shot away from the tower like a ball out of a cannon.

It went sailing off through the air with the witch’s slumped form miraculously still attached. Not that that was in any way positive. She’d have been better served had she fallen off; she might have only broken a bone or two that way. As it was, she was headed straight for the heart of the battle.

Kit’s eyes flicked around, even as his brain told him that it was over, that there was nothing to be done, that this was not going to happen

And then he was running and leaping and grabbing for her as she shot past. Because he’d obviously gone mad at some point and hadn’t noticed. But at least it couldn’t get any worse, he thought, as he hit the side of the cask and held on for dear life.

And it rolled over and he ended up dangling upside down.

The only reason they weren’t spotted immediately was the thick smoke cover, but there were alarming gaps in it and a hovering cask with two glowing riders was a bit hard to miss. But, on the positive side, his impact had caused their mad conveyance to change course slightly, allowing them to miss the thick of the fight. On the negative, they were now careening for the west wall of the castle at an alarming rate.

He tried to grab the witch and jump off, but she wouldn’t budge. It took him a vital few seconds to realize that she’d lashed herself in place with rope, and by then, it was too late. A huge grey expanse filled his vision and, even with vampire reflexes, they were out of time. He threw his body to the side, causing the barrel to spin — right into the wall.

The impact didn’t break the wood, because it never hit the cold, unforgiving stone. Kit did, at a rate of speed not recommended for vampire-kind. For a moment, it felt like his body had actually merged with the rock, and he wasn’t sure it hadn’t. Because when the barrel suddenly jerked and pulled away from the wall, he was sure some of his hide stayed behind. There was no time to check, because they weren’t slowing down. The impact should have absorbed most of the forward momentum, but they hadn’t simply wobbled off a few yards and stopped. Instead, the barrel seemed to have a mind of its own, and it was quite obviously demented.

Kit held on, fingers clenched white against the wood, as they swooped around the edge of the ramparts, causing several of the guards who had remained at their posts to have to hit the ground face-first. But others retained their dignity — and their ability to fire. The barrel rolled and plunged, weaving in and out of the cover of smoke, as a rain of arrows shot by. One of them grazed Kit’s arm, leaving a stinging track across his skin, while another buried itself in the wood between his spread legs.

He stared at it wildly — there were certain things he was not willing to sacrifice for queen and country — only to have the witch start kicking at him. It looked like she wasn’t dead, after all, he thought, as a dirty heel smashed into his nose. He grabbed it, trying to see past the blood flying in his face, and caught sight of wild red hair and glaring grey eyes.

“Let go!”

“Do you promise not to kick me again?” he demanded thickly.

“Yes!”

He released her and she jerked her foot back, only to bury it in his throat a moment later. Kit would have cursed, but he thought there was an outside chance he might never talk again. And then a mage jumped him.

Their manic ride immediately took them into the open air once more, the mage holding on to one of Kit’s boots as the vampire tried to kick him off. He finally succeeded, losing a fine piece of footwear in the process, only to have another mage jump at them from the ramparts. Kit tensed, ready for a fight, but the barrel suddenly stopped dead and the man sailed on by, more than four feet off-course.

Kit turned his head to grin at the mage and received another kick upside the jaw.

“I’m trying to help you!” he told the witch indistinctly.

“It’s a weak charm! You’re going to wear it out!”

Kit personally thought that would be a vast improvement, particularly when the crazed cask suddenly went into convulsions. He held on, feeling rather like he was trying to break a particularly cantankerous horse, as it bucked and shuddered and shook. And then it suddenly flipped and dived straight for the ground — with him underneath.

He cursed as he was dragged across the battle, though the sides of burning sheds and over piles of debris. The fire worried him most — he’d lost his cloak and his doublet was quickly being shredded, leaving little barrier between the deadly embers and his skin. Thankfully, the barrel didn’t seem to be the patient sort, and a moment later they were back in the air.

Kit decided that enough was enough and snapped the rope holding the witch, preparing to leap off with her, only to be smashed in the face by something huge and heavy. It took him a moment to realize that it was the side of the tower. They had circled back to where this whole crazy ride had started.

And then the equally crazy witch lunged for the spelled window ledge again. “Are you mad?” he asked, grabbing her.

“Let me go!” Her elbow caught him in the stomach, but he grimly held on.

“You’ll get yourself killed! The ward—”

“Is down,” she gasped, struggling. “It expended its energy last time — I can get through now!”

“You can get trapped now,” he shot back. He didn’t understand enough about magic to fully follow what was going on, but the guards running for the base of the tower were all too familiar. As was the spell that hit him in the back a moment later.

For an instant, he thought the witch had thrown it, but she wasn’t even facing his way. As soon as the stun loosened his hold, she grabbed the window ledge and, with a wriggle and a twist, squeezed through. Kit slumped over the barrel, staring blearily down at a red-headed dwarf at the bottom of the tower, who was pointing the witch’s staff and glaring menacingly up at him.

There was little he could do if she chose to hit him again, but instead she glanced behind her at the approaching guards, grabbed the little girl’s hand and towed her away. Kit concentrated on not falling off the barrel, which he might survive, into the forest of guards, which he probably wouldn’t. His head was numb and his fingers clumsy, but he managed to grab the window ledge on the third try and somehow slithered through the opening.

“You complete ass!” The woman looked at him as he collapsed to the floor. “Did you push it away?”

“Push what away?” he asked thickly, trying to figure out which way was up. The stunner had been a strong one, and while he could throw it off, it would be a few minutes. And he wasn’t sure they had that long.

“The barrel!”

She leaned dangerously far out the window, and cursed. A moment later, he managed to sit up, only to have the blunt end of a pike hit him upside the temple. It was a glancing blow, but it slammed his head back into the wall. He sat there, watching the room spin, as several witches fished out the window with the sharp end of the pike.

They resolved themselves into one madwoman a moment later, about the time he heard the approach of far too many mages on the stairs. Of course, in his condition, one might be enough to finish him. Kit staggered to his feet and started towards the door, only to have the witch flap a hand at him. “I warded the room!”

“It won’t hold them for long.”

“It won’t have to.” She’d hooked the barrel — Kit could see it bobbing outside the window — and was in the process of loading it with the contents of a large trunk. “Well, don’t just stand there!” she said frantically. “Help me!”

“Help you do what?”

For an answer she shoved a double handful of wands, charms and bottles of odd, sludgy substances into his hands. He didn’t know what half the things were, but although some of them buzzed, chimed and rang like a struck tuning fork against his skin, nothing appeared to be attacking him. For a change.

“Put them in,” she said impatiently.

“Put them in the barrel?” he asked slowly, wondering if he was following this at all.

“Yes! By the Goddess, are you always this slow?”

Kit thought that was a trifle unfair, all things considered. But then the door shuddered and he decided to worry about it later. He threw the weapons into the cask, turned and almost bumped into the witch, who was right behind him with another load.

He sidestepped and dragged the heavy trunk over to the window, earning him a brief glance of approval. “I don’t see what good this is going to do,” he pointed out, as they finished cramming the barrel full of the trunk’s contents. “The fight is halfway across the courtyard—”

“As this is about to be.” The witch started to climb out of the window, on to the overstuffed cask, when a spell came sizzling through the air. Kit jerked her back and it exploded against the stone, leaving a blackened scar on the tower’s side.

“God’s Bones, woman!” he cursed, fighting an urge to shake her.

“It wasn’t meant to happen this way,” she said, staring blankly at the window. “I planned to have the weapons out before anyone noticed.”

“They appear to have noticed,” Kit said grimly, looking for other options. Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be any. The room was small and wedge-shaped, with but one door and window, both of which the Circle was now guarding.

She rounded on him. “You should have stayed out of it! If you hadn’t jumped on board they might not have spotted me!”

“If I had stayed out of it, madam, you would be dead,” he snapped. “And I was not the one sending us careening about like a drunken hummingbird.”

“Neither was I!” Grey eyes flashed like lightning. “Winnie thought you were attacking me. She was trying to shake you off.”

“Winnie would be the demented dwarf?”

“She isn’t either,” the witch said heatedly. “And say that sometime in her hearing!”

“I will, should I live so long,” he replied, as the door shuddered again.

The witch stared at it, and then back at the barrel. And then she snatched a wand from the chest and aimed it at the fully-loaded cask.

“What are you doing?” he demanded, grabbing for her arm. But the stun had made him clumsy and before he could knock it aside, their only way out of this death trap went flying off like a bullet.

“Giving us a fighting chance.”

“That was our chance!”

The witch shook her head violently. “None of us has a prayer if they don’t get that gate open!”

“And now what?”

“Now this.” She rotated her wrist and far away the barrel followed the motion, spewing its contents across the smoke-blackened scene.

“That wasn’t what I meant!” Kit said, giving into temptation and shaking her. “How do you plan to get out of here?”

She licked her lips. “We fight.”

“With what? You’ve just sent our only weapons to the other side of the castle!”

“Not all of them,” she protested, glancing at the pieces that lay scattered across a nearby table. “As long as it’s only guards, we should be—”

The sound of a heavy fist, pounding on the door, cut her off. “Open in the name of the queen!”

“She isn’t my queen!” the witch yelled.

There was a pause, and then another voice spoke. “Then open in the name of the Circle.”

Chapter Six

Gillian stared at the vampire, who looked blankly back. She didn’t have to ask if he had any ideas. His face was as pale and tight as hers felt.

Outside, someone’s spell smashed the barrel into a thousand pieces, but too late. There was a huge shout from the crowd as the witches realized what had just rained down on them like manna from Heaven. And then the fighting resumed, far more viciously than before.

It was what she’d wanted, what she’d worked for. There was no way of getting Elinor out of here if the gate stayed closed, and no chance to break through without weapons. But the plan had been to ride the barrel back down before sending it off into the fray. Not to get trapped five storeys off the ground with the Circle on either exit.

“Master Marlowe,” the mage’s voice came again. “We know you are in there with the witch. Send her out and you may leave peacefully.”

“Peacefully?” The vampire snorted. “Your men attacked me!”

“Because you were protecting the woman. Cease to do so and we will have no quarrel with you. We promised your lady safe passage and we will honour that agreement.”

Gillian braced herself, sure he would take them up on the offer. She had friends who would have abandoned her in such a situation, and she wouldn’t have blamed them. And this man owed her nothing.

But he surprised her. “I have need of the witch,” he said, gripping her arm possessively.

“Then you can petition the council.”

“Would that be the same council that sentenced her to death?” he asked cynically.

“Send her out, or we shall come in and take her.”

The menace in the man’s voice made Gillian shiver, but the vampire just looked puzzled. “Why?” he demanded. “Why risk anything for a common cutpurse? She is of no value to you, while my lady would reward you handsomely—”

The mage laughed. “I am sure she would! Do not think to deceive us. A common cutpurse she may have been, but the guards saw what the old woman did. We know what she is!”

The vampire looked at her, a frown creasing his forehead. “What are you?” he asked softly.

Gillian shook her head, equally bewildered. “Nobody. I. nobody.”

“They appear to feel otherwise,” he said dryly. Sharp dark eyes moved to the table. “I don’t suppose any of those weapons—”

“Magical weapons are like any other kind,” Gillian told him, swallowing. “Someone has to use them.”

“And I’m not a mage.”

“It wouldn’t matter. Two of us against how many of them? No weapon would be enough to even the odds, much less—”

A heavy fist hit the door. Gillian jumped and the vampire’s hand tightened reflexively on her arm. It shouldn’t have been painful, but his fingers closed right over the burn the Eldest had given her. She cried out and he abruptly let go, as the mage spoke once more.

“Master Marlowe! I will not ask again!”

“Promises, promises,” the vampire muttered.

Gillian didn’t say anything. She’d pushed up her sleeve to get the fabric off the burn, but no raw, red flesh met her gaze. Instead, she found herself staring in confusion at an ancient, graceful design etched on to her inner wrist.

Her fingers traced the pattern slowly, reverently. It wasn’t finished, with only two of the three spirals showing dark blue against her skin. But there was no doubt what it was. “The triskelion,” she whispered.

“The what?” the vampire asked.

She looked in the direction of his voice, and found him sprawled on the floor, his curly head pressed against the dusty boards. Her own head was spinning too much to even wonder why.

His eyes narrowed. “A moment ago, you claimed to be of no importance, and now you tell me you’re a coven leader?”

“But that’s just it, I’m not! At least. ” Gillian had a sudden flash of memory, of the Great Mother’s hand gripping her arm, of how she had refused to let go even in death — and of the ease with which the elements had come to her aid thereafter. She had put it down to the staff magnifying her magic. But no amount of power should have allowed her to call an element that was not hers.

“At least what?” he asked, getting up with a frustrated look on his face.

“I think there’s a chance that the Great Mother. that she may have—” she stopped, because it sounded absurd to say it out loud — to even think it. But what other explanation was there? “I think she may have passed her position on to me.”

She expected shock, awe, disbelief, all the things she was feeling. But the vampire’s expression didn’t change, except to look slightly confused. And then his head tilted at the sound of some muttering outside. It was too low for her ears to make out, but he didn’t appear to have that problem.

“They’ve sent for a wardsmith,” he said grimly. “Before he arrives and they rush the room and kill us both, would you kindly explain what that means?”

“They offered you safe passage,” Gillian reminded him.

“And I know exactly how much faith to put in that,” he said mockingly, hopping up on to the table. “Now tell me.”

She took a deep breath. “Every coven has a leader, called the Great Mother or the Eldest. In time of peace, she judges disputes, allocates resources and participates in the assembly of elders at yearly meetings. In time of war, she leads the coven in battle.”

He’d been trying to press an ear against the ceiling, but at that he looked down. “And you agreed?” he asked incredulously.

“She asked if I was willing to fight for my own,” Gillian said defensively. “I thought she meant Elinor, to get her out of this. ”

“So of course you said yes!”

“I didn’t know she was putting me in charge!”

“That is why the mages marked us,” he said, as if something had finally made sense. “I wondered why they were focused on you when there were dozens of prisoners closer to the gates.”

Gillian shook her head. “They don’t want me, they want this.” She held out the arm with the ward.

“For what purpose?”

“The triskelion gives the Great Mother the ability, in times of danger, to. to borrow. part of the magic of everyone under her control,” she said, struggling for words he would understand. “It’s meant to unite the coven in a time of crisis, allowing its leader to wield an awesome amount of power, all directed toward a single purpose. It’s why the Circle fears them so much, why they’ve hunted them so—”

She broke off as her voice suddenly gave out. The vampire frowned and pulled a flask from under his doublet, bending down to hand it to her. She eyed it warily, thinking of Winnie and her brew, but it turned out to be ale. It was body-warm and completely flat, and easily the best thing she’d ever tasted.

He balanced on the edge of the table in a perilous-looking crouch, regarding her narrowly. “If the ward is that powerful, why did the jailers not take it off the witch once they had her in their grasp?”

“They didn’t know who she was,” Gillian gasped, forcing herself to slow down before she spilled any of the precious liquid. “I didn’t even know. She was dressed in rags, her hair was dirty, her face was haggard — she must have been in disguise and was picked up in a raid.”

“But do not magical objects give off a residue your people can feel?”

“Yes, but the ward isn’t like a charm — it holds no magic itself when not active. And non-magical items can occasionally be missed in searches.”

“But if it’s so powerful, why didn’t the witch use it herself?”

“She was gagged,” Gillian said, thinking of the disgusting scrap of cloth she’d pulled from the Eldest’s mouth. “And by the time I freed her, she was too weak to fight. Goddess knows how long she was in there.”

“So in return for your help, she saddles you with the very thing most likely to get you killed,” he said in disgust.

“She wanted to save her people, and she needed someone strong enough to use the ward!”

“Then I suggest you do so. There are four guards in the chamber below and at least five in the corridor outside — and that is assuming no one is hiding under a silence shield. Above us is the roof of the keep, guarded by four more men who can be called down if needed. And then there’s the two below the window, who are doubtless hoping we’ll poke our heads out again and get them blown off!”

“Fifteen men?” Gillian repeated, appalled. That was three times as many as she’d expected, especially with an escape in progress. What were they all doing here?

“Fifteen war mages.” He smiled grimly. “There is a price to be paid for breaking into the most secure part of the prison.”

“But. but how do we get past so many?”

“We don’t. I can take three, possibly four with your help. No more. We need a diversion to draw the rest away to have any chance at all.”

Gillian licked her lips, staring at the blank space on her arm where the third spiral of the triskelion should have been. The ward looked oddly lopsided without it, the pattern disjointed and incomplete. Like the connection it was meant to make.

“I. don’t think I can,” she confessed.

“I beg your pardon?” the vampire asked politely.

“This isn’t a complete ward,” she explained. “The triskelion should have three arms, one for each of the three great elements. And this has but two. The other hasn’t manifested, and until it does, the ward won’t function.”

The vampire jumped off the table and grabbed her arm. “You’re sure it had three, when you saw it on the old woman’s wrist?”

“Her title was Eldest and yes! They all do.”

“Then where is the other one?” he demanded suspiciously.

“Well, I don’t have it hidden in my shift!” she said, snatching her arm back. It throbbed with every beat of her heart, a pounding, staccato rhythm that was getting faster by the minute. But she couldn’t afford to panic. Not here, not now. She had to figure this out, and there was an answer — she knew it. Magic had rules and it followed them strictly. She just had to find the ones that applied here.

The vampire must have thought the same, because he straightened his shoulders and took a breath. “How is the sigil usually passed from person to person?”

“There’s a ritual,” she said, trying to concentrate. “The last time it happened in my coven, I was a child. My mother wouldn’t allow me to attend — she thought it too gruesome—”

“Gruesome?”

Gillian hugged her arms around herself. “The new Mother has to run a gauntlet, to prove her fitness to lead. She must summon each of the three elements to her aid, and each time she calls one successfully, that element becomes active on the sigil.”

“What is shocking about that?”

“If she fails, she dies,” Gillian said simply, her chin lifting. Her tone challenged him to denigrate the covens’ traditions as the Circle constantly did. Barbaric, they called them, and backward and crude. But it was for instances like this one that the ritual had been instituted. Only someone with a firm belief in her abilities and an utter devotion to the coven could pass the gauntlet, because only someone with that level of commitment could lead in times like these.

That was the kind of woman the Eldest had been, capable and strong, in spirit if no longer in body. But Gillian wasn’t that person. She wasn’t anything anymore.

“And then what?” the vampire demanded.

“Nothing, I. that’s all I can remember. Call the elements and the sigil activates.”

“Well, you must have called two already,” he said, pointing to the two arms of the triskelion. “Which ones?”

“I remember calling Fire,” Gillian told him. “It was in battle. I looked down because my arm hurt and saw the glyph glowing on the staff. I wondered why I was able to summon it when I never could before.”

“And the other?”

“That has to be Wind — my own element. It didn’t hurt, so I can’t be sure, but I think it came in when the Circle’s men attacked us the first time.”

“When you blew their weapons back at them.”

“Yes.”

“Then which one is missing?”

“Earth,” she whispered, her eyes going to the window as the full implication hit.

His eyes narrowed at her tone. “Why is that a problem?”

“Because Wind comes from air and I was standing right by a burning hut when I called Fire!”

“And?”

“And I need to be near an element to summon it.”

His own eyes widened as comprehension dawned. “And we’re five storeys up.”

Chapter Seven

Gillian didn’t have a reply, but she couldn’t have made one anyway. Because the next moment, the assault on the door resumed. Only this time, it sounded like a battering ram had been brought up. The door shuddered under massive blows, the ward around it sparking and spitting.

The vampire swore. “I didn’t think they would find a ward-smith so quickly.”

“They didn’t, or they wouldn’t be trying to batter their way in! They were probably lying before, hoping you’d hear.”

“Then we’re safe for the moment?”

“No,” she admitted. “Wards like this are tied to the integrity of an item. Just as a shattered charm loses its magic, the ward will fail as soon as the door suffers enough damage.”

“And when will that be?”

She stared at the tiny fractures already visible in the wood and swallowed. “Not long.”

“It doesn’t make sense,” he said angrily. “If you were going to use the sigil, you would have done so before now. They must know that you can’t. Yet half the war mages in the prison are here, instead of at the gates!”

Gillian shook her head. She’d had the same question, and he was right, it didn’t make sense. She couldn’t direct the fight from here, not that anyone was likely to listen to her anyway. The witches had fled before the Eldest died; they hadn’t seen what had happened.

She was, she realized with sudden clarity, about to die for a position nobody even knew she had.

“You’ve already sent most of the weapons that were here to the battle and the Circle has men watching the window in any case,” the vampire fretted. “They can’t be concerned about you sending more. Why waste this many men on a single woman who isn’t even a threat?”

Gillian started to shake her head again, but then she stopped, staring down at her wrist. And just like that, she understood. “They’re not,” she said blankly.

“They’re not what?”

Her hand closed over the ward, but she could still feel it, carved into her flesh like a brand. “They’re not aiming for one witch,” she said, looking up at him as it all came together in a rush, like a riddle that had needed but one final clue. “This is about destroying all of us!”

“I don’t understand.”

“There is no such thing as a one-way street in magic. Anything that can give power can also be used to take it!”

“You’re talking about the triskelion.”

She nodded frantically. “It links all the witches under the Eldest’s control. If the Circle gets their hands on it, they can use it to bleed each and every one of them dry! It doesn’t matter if they run, if they hide—” she broke off abruptly, thinking of Winnie. Gillian had given her the staff, hoping its power would allow her to hide herself and Elinor. But if the Circle obtained the ward, it wouldn’t matter how well they were hidden.

They could be killed just the same.

Gillian felt her blood run cold.

“But the ward isn’t complete,” the vampire protested. “If you cannot use it, how can they?”

“By putting me under a compulsion, by forcing me to call the last sigil — and then using me to drain every last person here!”

“But surely, not everyone here was a member of the same coven.”

“It doesn’t matter! Magical objects follow simpler rules than humans do. And a coven, in the loosest sense, is a group of magic workers under the leadership of an elder. And she was the most senior witch here.”

“You’re saying that the ward thinks the whole prison was her coven?” he asked doubtfully.

“Which she passed on to me,” Gillian said numbly, staring at the window. The setting sun was shining through drifting clouds of smoke, casting a reddish light into the room. She couldn’t see the battlefield from where she stood, but it didn’t matter. The real battle wasn’t going to be fought down there.

It seemed hopeless. The Circle held all the cards; they had from the start. There were too many of them and too few coven witches, and unlike the Great Mothers, the Circle had no sense of community, no reverence for ancient ways, no respect for a magic so different from their own. They had never meant to work with anyone. From the beginning, their strategy had been subjugation or destruction.

It was their game, and they had already won.

But they wouldn’t win completely.

“Kill me,” Gillian said harshly, as the pounding on the door took on a strange kind of rhythm, like the furious drumming in her chest.

“What?” The vampire had been staring at the window, too, as if in thought. But at that, his eyes swivelled back to her.

“I won’t let them do it,” she told him flatly. “I won’t let them use me to destroy everyone else. I can’t save myself, but I’ll die on my own terms, as the old Mother did. A free coven witch and damn them all!”

“And yet you’ll still be dead,” he said sharply.

“Nothing can stop that now.”

“Perhaps, perhaps not. If you will give me but a moment to think—”

“We don’t have a moment,” she said, grabbing his arms. “Do as I ask or it will be too late!”

“You don’t understand,” he told her, and for the first time since they’d met, he looked unsure of himself. “The thought occurred to me, as well, but it isn’t that simple.”

“Your kind does it all the time!”

“We do no such thing!” His dark eyes flashed. “Those who join us are chosen very carefully. Not everyone is fit for this life, and it does little good to go to the trouble of Changing someone merely to have them—”

“Changing?” It took her a moment to realize what he meant, and then her fingers dug into his arms. “You’re saying that — you mean you can—” she broke off, the implications staggering her.

He was talking about making her into one of them, about turning her into a monster. She shuddered in instinctive revulsion, her skin going clammy at the very thought. Walking undead, drinkers of blood, merciless killers — every horror story about the breed she’d ever heard rang in her mind like the clanging of a bell. She couldn’t

But it would work. Coven magic was living magic, based on the deep old secrets of the earth. And its creations were living things, tied to the life of the one who bore them. If she died, the ward died with her. It was why they had to be passed from Elder to Elder before death, or new ones had to be created.

And it didn’t get much deader than a vampire.

It was the only way to survive this. The only way to see Elinor again, to be there as she grew up, to protect her. It wouldn’t be anything like the life she’d hoped to have, the one she’d dreamed of for them. But it would be something.

And that was more than her own kind were willing to offer.

“Do it,” she told him. “Make me one of you.”

The vampire scowled. “As I informed you, it is not that easy. And there is a chance that it could make things even worse.”

Gillian severely doubted that. “The Circle promised you safe passage if you ceased to protect me,” she reminded him. “If they find me dead, there’s a good chance they’ll leave you alone rather than risk making an enemy of your mistress. They have enough of those as it is!”

“That isn’t the point—”

“Then what is?” she demanded desperately. The wood of the door was starting to splinter. They had minutes, maybe less, and she wasn’t sure how long the process took.

“The point is that I am not sure how,” he admitted, with faint spots of colour blooming high on his cheeks.

“But. but you’re a master,” she said, bewildered. “You have to be! You’ve been running about in broad daylight for the last hour!”

“Yes, but. ” he sighed and ran a hand through his curls. “It is too complex to explain fully, but essentially. my Lady pushed me.”

“Pushed? Wha—”

“It is done when a master wishes to elevate a servant’s rank quickly. A great deal of power is. is shoved through a subject all at once,” he told her, swallowing. “It is rarely done, because many times, the subject involved does not survive. But the threats against her Majesty were grave enough to make my Lady decide that she needed someone on the inside, and no one in her stable was qualified. But a newly-made vampire has many weaknesses that—”

“Newly-made?” Gillian grasped onto the one thing in all that which made sense. “How new?”

He licked his lips. “A few years.”

“A few years?”

“If you round up.”

Gillian felt her stomach plummeting. “You’re telling me you’ve never Changed anyone before?”

“I never had cause,” he said, looking defensive.

“Didn’t they train you?” she demanded, suddenly furious. She had found a way out of this, against all the odds, she had found a way. And he didn’t know how?

“It is rather like sex,” he snapped. “The theory and the practice being somewhat different!”

“You have to try!”

“You don’t understand. It is a little-known fact that newly-minted masters, even those who took centuries to reach that mark, often have. mishaps. before they succeed in making their first Child. If I do this incorrectly—”

“Then I’ll be dead,” she said harshly. “Which is what I will be when the Circle finishes with me in any case.” She took off her kerchief, baring her neck before she could talk herself out of this. “Do it.”

For a moment, she was certain he would refuse. And why shouldn’t he, she thought bitterly. It sounded like masters changed only those who could be helpful to them in some way, and she’d been little enough use to anyone alive. Why should being dead be any different?

But then he swallowed and stepped closer, his hands coming up to rest on her shoulders. There was fear in his eyes, and it looked odd on that previously self-assured face. Like the bruises purpling along his jaw and cheek, wounds his kind weren’t supposed to get. Her hand instinctively lifted to touch them, and found his skin smooth and blood warm, nothing like the stories said.

She stared at him, wondering if his kind felt pain, if they felt love, if they felt. She didn’t know. She didn’t know anything about them but rumours and stories, most of which, she was beginning to realize, had likely been fabricated by people who knew even less than she.

“Try to relax,” he murmured, and she wasn’t sure whether he was talking to her or himself. But then his eyes lightened to a rich, honey-gold, as if a candle had been lit behind them. The pounding on the door receded, fading into nothingness, and the cool breeze flowing through the window turned warm. Incredibly, she felt some of the stiffness leave her shoulders.

For a moment — until his lips found her neck and she faltered in cold panic, the soft touch causing her heart to kick violently against her ribs. Her hands tightened on his sleeves, instinct warring with instinct — to push him away, to pull him closer, the will to live fighting with the need to die.

“I’m not doing this correctly,” he said, feeling her tremble. “You should not feel fear.”

“Everyone fears death, unless they have nothing to live for.”

“And you have much.”

She nodded, mutely. She hadn’t realized until that moment how focused she’d been on all that she’d lost, instead of on what remained. She didn’t want to die. She wasn’t supposed to die, not here, not now. She knew it with a certainty that was at war with all reason.

“I cannot do this if you fight me,” he told her simply. “Humans tell stories of us forcibly Changing them against their will, but that rarely happens. It is difficult enough when the subjects are willing, when they want what we have to offer.”

“And what is that?” she asked, trying for calm despite the panic ringing in her bones.

“For most? Power, or the possibility of it. Wealth — few masters are poor, and their servants want for nothing. And, of course, the chance to cheat death. Quite a few transition in middle age, when their bodies begin to show wear, when they realize how short a mortal life really is.”

Gillian shook her head in amazement, that anyone would throw away something so precious for such scant reward. “But few become masters, isn’t that right?” He nodded. “So the power is in another’s hands, as is the wealth, to give or withhold as he chooses. And as for death—” This didn’t feel like a cheat to her. It felt like giving up. It felt like the end.

The vampire smiled, softly, sadly. “You are a poor subject, Mistress Urswick. You are not grasping enough. What you want, you already have; you merely wish to keep it.”

“But I’m not going to keep it, am I?” The terror faded as that certainty settled into her bones. She had one chance, here and now, and it would never come again. She could let fear rob her of it and die, or she could master herself and live. A strange life, to be sure, but a life, nonetheless.

“Do you wish to proceed?” he asked her, watching her face.

Gillian took a deep breath, and then she nodded.

Chapter Eight

He didn’t tell her again that this might not work. He didn’t tell her anything at all. But golden threads of a magic she didn’t know suddenly curled around her hands where they rested on his arms. She had always thought vampires were creatures of the dark, but the same bright magic shone around him as his hands came up to bracket her face.

“I don’t know your first name,” he whispered, against her lips.

“Gillian,” she told him, hearing her voice tremble.

“Gillian,” he repeated, and her name in his voice was full of so much longing that it coiled in her belly, dark and liquid, like her own emotion. And perhaps it was. Because when he suddenly bit down on her lower lip, the sensation left her trembling, but not with fear.

He made a low noise in his throat and pulled her close. The same strange magic that twisted around them sparked off his fingers wherever they touched her, like rubbed wool in winter. The tiny flashes of sensation had her arching helplessly against him, one hand clenched on his shoulder, the other buried in the heavy silk of his hair.

She could taste her own blood, hot and coppery, on his tongue as he drove the kiss deep, and it drew a sound from her, something animal and desperate. She gulped for air when he pulled back, almost a sob. She wanted — she wanted more than this; his hands on her body, his skin against hers, his tongue tracing the tiny wound he’d made—

But when he returned, it wasn’t to her lips.

A brilliant flash of pain went through her, like a shock of cold water, as his fangs slid into the flesh of her neck. She drew in a stuttering breath, but before she could cry out, a rush of rich, strong magic flooded her senses, spreading heat through every fibre of her body. She’d always thought of vampires as taking, but this was giving, too, an impossibly intimate sharing that she’d never even dreamed was—

He didn’t move, but it suddenly felt like he was inside her, thrusting all that power into her very core. She shuddered and opened to him, helpless to resist, the vampire shining on her and in her, elemental and blazing and gone past human. The pain was gone, the magic driving that and everything else away, crashing over her like ocean waves, an unrelenting and unending tide. She screamed beneath it, because it couldn’t be borne and had to be; because there was no bracing to meet it and no escape; and because it would end, and that would be even harder to bear.

“Gillian.” It took her a moment to realize he had drawn back, with the tide of magic still surging through her veins. It felt like the sea, ebbing and flowing in pounding waves that shook the very foundations of—