Downtown at screamer's, Lash was putting one of the private bathrooms to good use.

And not because he was taking a nice long piss.


He was buried to the balls in that blonde from the bar, nailing her from behind as she braced herself against the sink. Her black leather skirt was pushed up to her hips, her black thong shoved over, her black V-neck pulled wide and held that way by her breasts. She had a precious little pink butterfly tattooed on her hip, and a heart on a chain around her throat, and both were getting banged around to the beat of his thrusting.

It was fun, especially because, in spite of her tough slut clothes, he had a feeling she was out of her league with this kind of sex: no implants, lipstick wasn't smudge-proof, and she'd tried to get him to wear a condom.

Right before he came, he pulled out, spun her around, and forced her onto her knees. He roared as he orgasmed in her mouth, thinking that little shit Mr. D had been right: This was exactly what he'd needed. A sense of mastery, a reconnection with what had been normal for him.

And sex was still good.

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As soon as he was finished, he zipped up, not caring whether she spit or swallowed.

"What about me?" she asked, wiping her mouth.

"What about you?"

"I'm sorry?"

Lash cocked an eyebrow as he checked his hair in the mirror. Hmm... maybe he should grow it out again. He'd done the whole military shear after his transition, but he'd liked his ponytail. He had good hair.

God, King's dog collar looked hot on him¡ª

"Hello?" the girl demanded.

Annoyed, he glanced at her in the glass. "You don't honestly expect me to care whether you get off."

For a moment, she seemed confused, like the movie she'd rented at Blockbuster had had a different DVD inside the sleeve. "Excuse me?"

"What didn't you understand?"

Shock made her blink like a fish. "I don't... get it."

Yeah, evidently Debbie Does Dallas was showing on her screen, not Pretty Woman.

He looked around the bathroom. "You let me take you in here and push your skirt up and fuck you. And you're surprised I don't care? Exactly what did you think was going to happen?"

The last of the excited, I'm-a-good-girl-doing-a-bad-thing drained from her expression. "You don't have to be rude."

"Why is it bitches like you are always surprised?"

"Bitches?" Self-righteous anger distorted her face, taking her from pretty into gorgon territory¡ªand yet making her somewhat more intriguing. "You don't know me."

"Yeah, I do. You're a slut who lets a guy she's never met before come in her mouth in a bathroom. Please. I'd have more respect for a prostitute. At least they get paid in something other than spunk."

"You are such a bastard!"

"And you are boring me." He reached for the knob.

She grabbed his arm. "Watch it, asshole. I can make things bad for you in a heartbeat. Do you know who my father is?"

"Someone who didn't do his job of raising you properly? "

Her free palm hit him square in the face. "Fuck you."

Okay, the fighting definitely made her more interesting.

As his fangs punched out into his mouth, he was ready to bite through her throat like it was a Twizzler fresh out of the bag. Except someone pounded on the door and reminded him he was in public and she was human and cleanup was always a bitch.

"You're gonna be sorry," she spat at him.

"Oh, yeah?" He leaned in and was surprised when she held her ground. "You can't touch me, girlie."

"Watch me."

"You don't even know my name."

Her smile was icy, adding years to her age. "I know plenty¡ª"

The pounding on the door started up again.

Before she teed up for another slap and he couldn't stop himself from retaliating, Lash ducked out of the bathroom, his parting salvo a quick, "Pull your skirt down, why don't you."

The guy who'd been knock-knock-knockin' on the other side took one look at him and stepped way back. "Sorry, man."

"No problem," Lash said, rolling his eyes. "You probably saved that bitch's life."

The human laughed. "Stupid whores. Can't live with 'em, can't shoot 'em." The bathroom next door opened and the guy turned away, flashing a righteous eagle embossed on the back of his leather jacket.

"Nice bird you got there," Lash said.


Lash went over to the bar and nodded at Mr. D. "Time to go. I'm done."

He took his wallet from his back pocket¡ªand froze. The billfold wasn't his. It was his father's. He quickly slipped a fifty out, then buried the thing back where it had been.

He and Mr. D left the crowded, noisy club and when he stepped onto Trade Street's sidewalk, he took a long, deep breath. Alive. He felt totally alive.

On the way over to the Focus, Lash said, "Give me your phone. And the numbers of four straight-up killers."

Mr. D handed the Nokia over and recited some digits. As Lash called the first one and gave the slayer an address in a high-rent part of town, he could practically hear the bastard's suspicion¡ªespecially as the lesser asked who the fuck was calling him on Mr. D's phone.

They didn't know who he was. His men didn't know who he was.

Lash handed the fucking phone back to Mr. D and barked for the Fore-lesser to give confirmation. Man, he shouldn't have been surprised at the doubting thing, but that shit was so going to change. He was going to give his troops a few places to hit tonight to gain himself some cred, then the Lessening Society was going to have a come-to-Jesus meeting in the morning.

They would follow him or meet their maker. Period.

After he and Mr. D did the cell phone handoff three more times, Lash said, "Now take me to Twenty-one Fifteen Boone Lane."

"You want me to call more men in to hit it with us?"

"For our next house, yeah. But this first one is personal. "

His dear old cousin Qhuinn was about to eat his own ass for lunch.

After five months of being the Primale, Phury was used to not feeling comfortable. The whole goddamn thing had been one ill-fitting suit after another, a whole wardrobe of I-don't-want-to-do-this.

And yet interviewing Layla for the position of First Mate felt especially wrong.

Viciously wrong.

As he waited for her in the library, he prayed to God she didn't drop her robe like the others had.

"Your grace?"

He looked over his shoulder. The Chosen was standing in the open double doors of the room, her white robe falling to the floor in folds, her slender body held with regal grace.

She bowed deeply. "It is my wish for you to fare well this evening."

"Thank you. I hope the same for you."

As she straightened, her eyes met his. They were green. Like Cormia's.

Shit. He needed a blunt. "Would you mind if I light up?" "Of course not. Here, let me bring you the flame." Before he could tell her not to bother, she picked up a crystal lighter and came over to him.

Putting a hand-rolled between his lips, he stopped her as she flipped the lid free. Taking the heavyweight from her, he said, "Not to worry. I can do it."

"Of course, your grace."

The flint rasped and the flame popped up yellow and she stepped back, her eyes moving around the room. "This reminds me of home," she murmured.

"How so?"

"All of the books." She went across the way and touched some of the leather spines. "I love books. If I hadn't been trained as an ehros, I would have wanted to be a sequestered scribe."

She seemed so laid-back, he thought, and for some reason that made him anxious. Which was nuts. With the others, he'd felt like a lobster in the lobby of a seafood restaurant. With her, they were just two people talking.

"May I ask you something?" he said as he exhaled.

"Of course."

"Are you here freely?"


Her answer was so level, it seemed rote. "You sure about that?"

"I have long wanted to serve the Primale. I have been steadfast always in this desire."

She seemed totally sincere... but something was off. And then he figured out what it was. "You don't think I'm going to choose you, do you."


"And why is that?"

Now the emotion came out in her, her head dropping, her hands coming up, her fingers entwining. "I was brought here to see Master John Matthew through his transition. I did so, but he... denied me."


"After he'd been through the change, I washed him, but he denied me. I have been trained to serve sexually and was prepared to do so, and he denied me."

Whoa. Okay. TMI. "And you think that means I won't choose you?"

"The Directrix insisted that I come to you, but it was a measure of respect for you, to give you leave over all Chosen. Neither she nor I expect you to elevate me to First Mate."

"Did John Matthew say why he didn't...?" Because most males were horny as hell right after their changes.

"I left when I was asked to. That is all." Her eyes flipped up to Phury's. "Verily, the Master John Matthew is a male of worth. It is not in his nature to detail the faults of another."

"I'm sure it wasn't because of¡ª"

"Please. May we depart from this subject, your grace?"

Phury exhaled a stream of coffee-scented smoke. "Fritz said you were up in Cormia's room. What were you doing there?"

There was a long pause. "That would be between sisters. Of course, I would tell you... should you order me to do so."

He couldn't help but approve of the quiet reserve in her voice.

"No, that's okay." He was tempted to ask if Cormia was all right, but he knew the answer to that one. She wasn't. Any more than he was.

"Would you like me to go?" Layla asked. "I know the Directrix has two of my sisters prepared for you. They are eager to come over and greet you."

Just like the other two who'd been to see him the night before. Excited. Ready to please. Honored to meet him.

Phury brought the blunt to his lips again and inhaled long and slow. "You don't seem too thrilled with this."

"With my sisters coming to see you? Of course I¡ª"

"No, with meeting me."

"On the contrary, I am eager to be with a male. I have been trained for mating and I want to serve as more than a blood source. Rhage and Vishous do not require all my services, and it is a burden to be unused..." Her eyes went to the books. "Indeed, I feel as though I am shelved. That I have been given the words to the story of my life, but that I remain largely unread, as it were."

God, he so knew what that was like. He felt as though he had been waiting forever for things to settle down, for the drama to end, for him to be able to take a deep breath and start living. How ironic. It sounded as if Layla was feeling the way she was because nothing was happening in her life. He felt unread because too much had been going on for too long.

Either way, the end result was the same.

Neither of them was doing more than just getting through the day.

Well, cry me a river, mate, the wizard drawled.

Phury went over to an ashtray and stabbed out the blunt. "Tell the Directrix she doesn't need to send anyone else to me."

Layla's eyes shot to his. "I beg your pardon?"

"I choose you."

Qhuinn pulled the black Mercedes up in front of Blay's house and put the thing in park. They'd waited for hours at ZeroSum, with John texting Blay every now and again. When they kept hearing nothing back, John had pulled up stakes and here they were.

"You want me to open your door," Qhuinn said dryly as he cut the engine.

John looked over. If I say yes, would you do it?


Then by all means, open my door.

"Damn you." Qhuinn got out of the driver's seat. "Ruining my fun."

John shut his door and shook his head. I'm just glad you're so manipulate-able.

"That's not a word."

Since when have you been in bed with Daniel Webster? Hello? "Gigunda"?

Qhuinn glanced to the house. He could just hear Blay's voice filling in, That would be Merriam-Webster. "Whatever. "

The two of them went around to the back of the house, going up to the door that went into the kitchen. The place was a big brick colonial, real formal-looking in front, but it had a cozy rear side, with kitchen windows than ran from floor to ceiling, and a stoop with a friendly wrought-iron lantern that hung down.

For the first time in his life, Qhuinn knocked and waited for an answer.

Guess it was a humdinger of a fight, huh, John signed. Between you and Blay.

"Oh, I don't know. Sid Vicious behaved worse than I did, for example."

Blay's mom answered the door, looking exactly as she always did, all Marion Cunningham from Happy Days, from the red hair to the skirt. The female was everything that was round and lovely and warm about the fairer sex, and Qhuinn realized as he stared at her now that she, not his chilly swizzle stick of a mother, was the standard that he held females up to.

Yeah... it was fine and dandy to ball chicks and guys in bars, but he would mate someone like Blay's mother. A female of worth. And he would stay true to her until the end of his days.

Assuming he could find someone who would have him.

Blay's mother stepped back to let them in. "You know you don't have to knock¡ª" She looked at the platinum chain around Qhuinn's throat, then at the new tat on his cheek.

Glancing at John, she murmured, "So that's how the king fixed it."

Yes, ma'am, John signed.

She turned to Qhuinn, threw her arms around him, and hugged him so hard his spine shifted. Which was so what he needed. As he held on to her, he took his first deep breath in days.

In a whisper, she said, "We would have kept you here. You didn't have to go."

"Couldn't do that to you."

"We're a stronger lot than you think." She loosened her hold on him and nodded to the rear staircase. "Blay's upstairs."

Qhuinn frowned as he saw a stack of luggage next to the kitchen table. "Going somewhere?"

"We have to get out of the city. Most of the glymera are staying, but with... what's happened, it's too dangerous here."

"Wise idea." Qhuinn shut the kitchen door. "You going upstate?"

"Blay's father is looking for some vacation time, so the three of us are going to make the rounds of family down south¡ª"

Blay appeared at the bottom of the stairs. Crossing his arms, he nodded at John. "Wassup."

As John signed a greeting back, Qhuinn couldn't believe his buddy hadn't mentioned anything about leaving the city. Shit. Was he just going to take off and not say where he was going or when he was due back?

Well, duh. Wasn't that the pot calling the kettle black?

Blay's mom squeezed Qhuinn's arm and whispered, "I'm glad you came before we left." In a louder voice, she said, "Okay, I've cleaned out the fridge, and there's nothing perishable in the pantry. I think I'll go get my jewelry out of the safe."

Jesus, John signed as she took off. How long are you guys going to be gone?

"Don't know," Blay said. "A while."

In the long pause that followed, John looked back and forth between the two of them. Eventually he made a snorting noise and signed, Okay, this is stupid. What the fuck happened between you two?


"Nothing." Blay nodded over his shoulder. "Listen, I gotta go up and finish packing¡ª"

Qhuinn quickly jumped in. "Yeah, we hafta get go¡ª"

Oh, hell, no. John marched over to the stairs. We're going to your room and sorting this out. Right now.

As John put sole to step, Qhuinn had to follow the guy, thanks to his new job, and he figured Blay went along probably because his inner Emily Post couldn't handle not being a good host.

Upstairs, John shut the bedroom door behind them all and put his hands on his hips. As his stare went back and forth, he was like a parent standing over two recalcitrant children and a mess on the floor.

Blay went over to his closet, and as he opened it, the full-length mirror on the back side caught Qhuinn's reflection. Their eyes met for a moment.

"Nice new piece of jewelry there," Blay murmured, looking at the chain that marked Qhuinn's new station.

"Not jewelry."

"No, it isn't. And I'm happy for you two. I really am." He took out a parka... which meant the family was either going "down south" as in Antarctica, or the guy intended to be away a long time. Like, into winter.

John stamped his foot. We're running out of time here. Hello? Assholes?

"I'm sorry," Qhuinn murmured to Blay. "For what I said in the tunnel."

"You tell John about it all?"


Blay dropped his coat on his Prada duffel bag and looked at John. "He thinks I love him. As in... in love with him."

John's mouth slowly fell open.

Blay's laugh flared and stopped short, as if his throat got tight. "Yeah. Go fig. Me in love with Qhuinn... a guy who, when he's not moody, is a slut and smart-ass. Except you want to know what the most fucked-up thing is, though?"

Qhuinn tensed as John nodded.

Blay glanced down at his duffel. "He's right."

Well, didn't John look like he'd been nailed in the foot with a spike.

"Yup," Blay said. "That's why I could never get into the females all that much. None of them compared to him. No other guys do either, by the way. So I'm fucked royal, but then, that's my biz and not his or yours."

Christ, Qhuinn thought. Wasn't this the week for revelations.

"I'm sorry, Blay," he said, because he had no idea what else to do.

"Yeah, I bet you are. Makes things hella awkward, huh." Blay palmed the parka and slung the Prada bag up onto his shoulder. "But it's all good. I'm getting out of town for a while, and you two are solid. So cool. Now I gotta go. I'll text you in a couple of days."

Qhuinn was more than willing to bet that the you there was referring only to John.


Blay turned away. "Later."

As his best friend in all the world showed them his back and headed for the door, Qhuinn opened his useless lips and prayed that the right thing would come out. When nothing did, he prayed that something would jump free. Anything¡ª

The scream that came up from the first floor was high-pitched.

Blay's mother.

The three of them were out of that bedroom like a bomb had gone off in it, shooting down the hall, thundering down the stairs. In the kitchen, they found that the nightmare of the war had come home.

Lessers. Two of them. In Blay's motherfucking house.

And one of them had his mother up against his chest in a choke hold.

Blay let out a primal yell, but Qhuinn caught him before he surged forward. "There's a knife against her throat," Qhuinn hissed. "He'll slice her where she stands."

The lesser smiled as he dragged Blay's mom across the kitchen and out of the house, toward a minivan that was parked by the garage.

As John Matthew dematerialized out of sight, another slayer came in from the dining room.

Qhuinn let Blay go, and the two of them went on the attack, plowing first into that slayer and then engaging another as it walked in the back door.

While the hand-to-hand went wild and the kitchen got trashed, Qhuinn prayed like hell that John had taken form inside the open van and was rolling out one fuck of a two- fisted welcome.

Please let Blay's mom not get taken down in the cross fire.

As yet another slayer came through the door, Qhuinn head-butted the lesser he was trading punches with, palmed one of his brand-new spanking forty-fives, and rammed the muzzle under the bastard's chin.

The bullets decimated the fucker's head, blowing the top of it clear off¡ªwhich gave Qhuinn plenty of time to stab the thing in the heart with the knife he had at his hip.

Pop! Pop! Fizz-fizz! Oh, what a relief it is.

As the thing disappeared in a flash of light, Qhuinn didn't pause to enjoy his first lesser kill. He spun around to check on Blay and was shocked to his balls. The guy's father had come pounding into the room and the two were hauling ass. Which was kind of a surprise, as Blay's dad was an accountant.

Time to back up John.

Qhuinn beelined it out the back door, and just as his boots hit grass, a brilliant flash of light from the minivan told him that help wasn't going to be necessary.

In a smooth move, John jumped out of the Town & Country and slammed the door shut; he pounded on the quarter panel and the thing reversed at a dead run. Qhuinn caught a brief impression of Blay's mom white-knuckled behind the wheel as she shot backward down the driveway.

"You okay, J-man?" Qhuinn said, hoping like hell that John Matthew didn't get killed on Qhuinn's first night as his ahstrux nohtrum.

Just as John lifted his hands to sign, there was a crash of glass.

The two of them wheeled around to the house. Like something out of a movie, a pair of bodies flew out of the family room's picture window. Blay's was one of them, and he landed on top of the lesser he'd tossed out the house like a stained mattress. Before the slayer could recover from the impact, Blay grabbed on to its head and cracked the fucker's neck like a chicken.

"My father's still fighting in the house!" he yelled as Qhuinn tossed him the knife. "Down in the cellar!"

As John and Qhuinn shot back inside, a third flare of light went off, and then Blay caught up with them at the basement stairs. The three of them rushed to where new sounds of fighting came from.

When they got to the bottom of the stairwell, they stopped dead. Blay's father was facing off with a lesser, a Civil War sword in one hand, a dagger in the other.

Behind his Joe Friday glasses, his eyes were lit like torches, and they flicked over for a split second. "Stay out of this. This one's mine."

The shit was done faster than you could say, Ninja Dad.

Blay's father went Ginsu on the slayer, carving the thing up like a turkey, then stabbing it back to the Omega. As the glare from the extermination faded, the male looked up with frantic eyes.

"Your mother¡ª"

"Got away in their van," Qhuinn answered. "John got her free."

Both Blay and his father sagged at that news. Which was when Qhuinn noticed Blay was bleeding from a cut on the shoulder and one across his abdomen and another on his back and...

His father wiped his brow with his arm. "We've got to get ahold of her¡ª"

John held up his phone, a ringing coming out over the speaker.

When Blay's mother answered, her voice cracked, but not because the connection was bad. "John? John is¡ª"

"We're all here," Blay's father said. "Keep driving, darling¡ª"

John shook his head, handed the phone over, and signed, What if there's a tracking device in the van?

Blay's father muttered a curse. "Darling? Pull over. Pull over and get out of the van. Dematerialize up to the safe house, and call me when you're there."

"Are you sure¡ª"

"Now, dearest. Now."

There was the sound of an engine decelerating. The slam of a car door. Then silence.

"Darling?" Blay's father grabbed for the phone. "Darling? Oh, Jesus..."

"I'm here," came her voice. "Here at the safe house."

Everyone took a deep breath.

"I'll be right there."

Other words were said, but Qhuinn was busy listening for sounds of footsteps up the stairs. What if more lessers came? Blay was injured, and the guy's father looked wiped.

"We really gotta get out of here," he said to no one in particular.

They went upstairs, put the suitcases in Blay's father's Lexus, and before Qhuinn could count one, two, three, Blay and his father were off into the night.

It all went so fast. The attack, the fighting, the evac...the good-bye that was never spoken. Blay just got in the car with his father and took off with their luggage. But what else was going to happen? Now was hardly the time for a long, drawn-out thing, and not just because the lessers had come for a little house tour ten minutes ago.

"I guess we should take off," he said.

John shook his head. I want to stay here. More are going to come when the ones we killed don't check in.

Qhuinn looked at the family room, which was now a porch thanks to Blay's Hollywood-stuntman routine. There was a lot to loot in the house, and the idea that even a box of Kleenex from Blay's might fall into the Lessening Society 's hands pissed him off royally.

John started texting. I'm telling Wrath what happened and that we're hanging here. We trained for this. It's time we get into the action.

Qhuinn couldn't agree more, but he was pretty damn sure Wrath wasn't going to approve.

John's phone went off a moment later. He read what it was to himself, and then slowly smiled and turned the screen around.

The text was from Wrath. Agreed. Call if you need backup.

Holy shit... They'd joined the war.

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