Stress in a person was like air in a balloon. Too much pressure, too much shit, too much bad news ... and the birthday party gets messy.

Phury ripped open his bedside table drawer even though he'd just looked in it. "Shit."

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Where the fuck was all his red smoke?

He took his near-empty Baggie out of his breast pocket. Barely enough for a thin one. Which meant he'd better hightail it down to ZeroSum before the Reverend closed for the night.

He pulled on his light jacket so that he'd have someplace to hide the full bag when he came back, then jogged down the grand staircase. As he hit the foyer, his head was alive and writhing, swelling up with the wizard's Top Ten Reasons Phury, Son of Ahgony, Is a Shithead.

Number ten: Manages to get self kicked out of Brotherhood. Number nine: Drug addict. Number eight: Fights with twin when twin's pregnant shellan is in a bad way. Number seven: Drug addict. Number six: Shits on female he wants to be with, driving her away. Number five: Tells lies to protect addictive behavior.

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Or did that fall under nine and seven?

Number four: Lets down parents. Number three: Drug addict. Number two: Falls in love with aforementioned driven-away female¡ª

Shit.

Shit.

Shit.

Had he fallen in love with Cormia? How? When?

The wizard popped into his head. To hell with that, mate. Finish the list. C'mon. Fine ... I think we'll put "Drug Addict " as number one, shall we?

"Where are you going?" Wrath's voice came down from above like some kind of conscience, and Phury froze with his hand on the vestibule's door.

"Where?" the king demanded.

Nowhere special, Phury thought without turning around. Just fucking insane.

"Out for a drive," he said, and held his car keys up over his head.

At this point, the lie didn't bother him in the slightest. He just wanted everyone to get out of his way. When he had his red smoke, when he was calm and his head was no longer a pipe bomb waiting to go off, he could go back to interacting.

Wrath's boots hit the stairs, the beat of his stride a countdown to one fuck of a bitch-slapping. Phury turned to face the king, a low-boil anger lighting off in his chest.

And what do you know, Wrath wasn't in a Hallmark mood either. His brows were behind his wraparounds, his fangs long, his body tense as hell.

Clearly there had been more bad news.

"What's happened now?" Phury bit out, wondering when in the hell the current shit storm was going to move on to another group of people's lives.

"Four families from the glymera got hit tonight, and there were no survivors. I've got something awful to tell Qhuinn, but can't get hold of him or John Matthew at their stakeout at Blaylock's."

"You want me to go over there?"

"No, I want you to get your ass to the Sanctuary and do your fucking duty," Wrath snapped. "We need more Brothers, and you agreed to be the Primale, so stop putting the shit off."

Phury was itching to bare his fangs, but he stayed tight. "I've chosen another First Mate. She's being prepared, and I'm going there at nightfall tomorrow."

Wrath's brows flicked up. Then he nodded once. "Okay. Good. Now, what's Blaylock's number? I'm going to send the kid back over to his house. All the Brothers are busy, and I don't want Qhuinn hearing this over the phone."

"I can go¡ª"

"The hell you can," the king shot back. "Even if you were still part of the Brotherhood, with the shit that's going down right now, I'm not losing the race's Primale, fuck you very much. Now what the good goddamn is Blaylock's number?"

Phury gave Wrath the digits, nodded a good-bye, and walked out through the vestibule. He didn't give a shit that he'd told Wrath he was going for a drive; he left his BMW where it was parked in the courtyard and dematerialized downtown.

Wrath knew he'd been lying anyway. And there was no reason to delay the trip to ZeroSum by taking his car just to live up to a falsity they were both well aware of.

When he came up to the club's entrance, Phury bypassed the wait line by simply walking up and having the bouncer get out of his way.

In the VIP section, iAm was standing at the door to Rehvenge 's office. The Moor didn't seem to be surprised to see him, but, then, it was hard to surprise either one of Rehv's private guards.

"Boss isn't here; you want to make a buy?" the guy asked.

Phury nodded, and iAm showed him the way in. Rally, the scale minion, scampered off after Phury flashed his open palm twice.

iAm leaned his hip against Rehvenge's desk and simply stared across the office, his black eyes impassive, calm. His brother, Trez, was the hothead of the two of them, so Phury had always thought that iAm was the one you needed to watch out for.

Although he supposed it was kind of like choosing between two different guns: a matter of degree.

"Word of advice," the Moor said.

"I'll pass."

"Tough. Don't jump to the harder stuff, my friend."

"I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Bullshit."

Rally came out from the hidden door in the corner, and as Phury looked at all those leaves in that clear plastic bag, his blood pressure dropped and his heartbeat eased up. He gave his thousand dollars over and got out of that office as fast as he could, ready for business back in his bedroom.

Just as he headed for the side exit, he saw Xhex standing by the VIP bar. Her eyes dropped to his arm, which was buried in his coat, and then she frowned and mouthed, Fuck.

As she came striding toward him, he had the bizarre impression she was going to try to snatch back his stash, and that was a no-go. He'd paid in good cash and bought what he had at a fair price. There was no reason for management to have beef with him.

He quickly ducked out the door and dematerialized. He had no fucking clue what the problem was, and he didn't care. He had what he needed and was going home.

As he traveled in a scramble of molecules back to the mansion, he thought about that druggie in the alley, the one who'd sliced up his dealer and then picked through the man's pockets while blood went everywhere.

Phury tried to believe that wasn't him. Tried not to see the desperation of the last twenty minutes as the stepping-stone to what that druggie had done with that switchblade.

The reality was, though, that nothing and no one was safe if they were between an addict and what he craved.

As John looked around Blay's backyard, he felt like he'd done this a thousand times. This waiting, this watching... this predatory pause, it all seemed second nature to him. Which was nuts.

Nah, something told him. This is really just business as usual. You're only figuring that out now, though.

Next to him in the shadows, Qhuinn was surprisingly still. Usually the guy was always moving, tapping his feet and hands, walking around, chattering. Not tonight, not in this stand of honeysuckle bushes.

Yeah, okay, they were hiding in honeysuckle. Not exactly as manly as standing behind a bunch of oaks, but the coverage was better, and besides, that was all they had for camou flage next to Blay's back door.

John checked his watch. They'd been waiting here for a good hour or two. Eventually they were going to have to get back to avoid the dawn, and didn't that suck. He was here to fight. He was prepared to fight.

If he didn't get a crack at another lesser, his inner ass-kicker was going to have a serious case of the blue balls.

Unfortunately all they had was an occasional late summer breeze to balance out the drone of crickets.

I didn't know about Blay, John signed for no particular reason. How long have you known about...you know, how he felt?

Now Qhuinn's fingers drummed on his thigh. "Pretty much since it started... which was a long time ago."

Wow, John thought. With all these secrets coming out, it was almost like they were going through their transitions again.

And like the changes that had taken over their bodies, the three of them would never be as they once were.

"Blay hid what he felt," Qhuinn murmured. "Although not because of the sex stuff. I mean, I don't have a problem being with guys, especially if there's chicks involved." Qhuinn laughed. "You look so shocked. You didn't know I went like that?"

Well... I... I mean...

Holy shit, if he'd ever felt like a virgin before, in the face of all of Qhuinn's... whatever it was... he realized now he was more like a VIRGIN.

"Look, if I make you uncomfortable¡ª"

No, it's not that. Hell, I'm really not that surprised. I mean, you've gone into bathrooms with a lot of different...

"Yeah. I kind of just let what happens happen, you know. S'all good." Qhuinn rubbed his forehead. "I don't plan on being like this forever, though."

No?

"Someday I want a shellan of my own. In the meantime, though, I'm going to do anything and everything. That's how I know I'm living."

John thought about it. I want a female, too. But it's hard because...

Qhuinn didn't look at him, but the guy nodded in understanding¡ªwhich was good. Funny, it was easier to talk about stuff, in a way, now that his friend knew exactly why certain shit would be difficult for him.

"You know, I see the way you look at Xhex."

John turned beet red. Um...

"It's cool. I mean, fuck... she's like off-the-chain hot. Partially because she's so damn scary. I think that one could make you eat your own teeth if you got out of line." Qhuinn shrugged. "But don't you suppose you might want to start off with someone who's a little... I don't know, softer?"

You don't get to pick who you're attracted to.

"Amen."

They heard the sound of someone coming around from the front of the house, and they both came to attention, upping the muzzles of their guns and swinging them to the east.

"It's me," Blay called out. "Don't shoot."

John stepped free of the honeysuckle. I thought you were going with your parents?

Blay stared at Qhuinn. "The Brothers have been trying to reach you."

"Why are you looking at me like that?" Qhuinn said, gun going down to his side.

"They want you to come back to the mansion."

Why, John signed even though Blay still had his eyes clamped on Qhuinn. Wrath said it was okay for us to stay¡ª

"What's the news," Qhuinn said tightly. "You have news, don't you."

"Wrath wants you¡ª"

"My family was hit, weren't they." Qhuinn's jaw tightened. "Weren't they."

"Wrath wants you¡ª"

"Fuck Wrath. Talk!"

Blay's eyes flicked to John before returning to their friend. "Your mother, father, and sister are dead. Your brother is missing."

Qhuinn's breath left him on a wheeze, like someone had kicked him in the gut. John and Blay both reached out for him, but he shrugged them off and stepped away.

Blay shook his head. "I'm so sorry."

Qhuinn said nothing. It was as if he had forgotten English.

Blay tried to reach out again, and when Qhuinn only took another step back, he said, "Look, Wrath called me when he couldn't reach either one of you, and asked me to bring you both back to the mansion. The glymera is going into seclusion."

Let's get to the car, John signed to Qhuinn.

"I'm not going."

"Qhuinn¡ª"

Qhuinn¡ª

Qhuinn's voice was full of the emotion his face refused to show. "Fuck all of this. Fuck¡ª"

A light went on inside of Blay's house, and Qhuinn's head whipped around. Through the glass of the kitchen's windows, they all saw a lesser walk into the room in plain sight.

There was no stopping Qhuinn. He was supersonic as he shot into the house through the back door with his gun up. And he didn't blow slow mo once he was inside, either. He leveled his H & K at the slayer and popped the trig over and over and over again, driving the pale bastard back against the wall.

Even as the lesser slumped and bled black, Qhuinn kept shooting, the wallpaper behind the thing going Jackson Pollock.

Blay and John rushed over and John threw an arm around his friend's neck. As he started hauling Qhuinn back, he grabbed the guy's gun hand in case he tried to swing around and shoot.

Another lesser came barreling into the kitchen, and Blay manned up, grabbing a carving knife from a butcher-block stand of Henckels. As he faced off at the pale bastard, the slayer palmed a switchblade from out of nowhere and the two circled each other. Blay was twitchy, his big body ready to engage, his eyes sharp. Trouble was, he was still bleeding from injuries he'd sustained before he left, his face white and drawn from everything that had gone down.

Qhuinn lifted up his gun muzzle in spite of John's lock hold on his arm.

As John shook his head, Qhuinn hissed, "Let me go. Right now."

The voice was so dead calm, John obeyed.

Qhuinn put one perfect bullet right between the lesser's eyes, dropping the thing like a doll.

"What the fuck?" Blay snapped. "He was mine."

"Not going to watch you get sliced. Not going to happen. "

Blay pointed a shaking finger at Qhuinn. "Don't ever do that again."

"I lost people I can't stand tonight. Not losing someone I actually give a shit about."

"I don't need you to be my hero¡ª"

John stepped in between the two of them. Home, he signed. Now.

"There could be more¡ª"

"There's probably more¡ª"

All three of them went still as Blay's phone went off.

"It's Wrath." Blay's fingers flew over the keys. "He really wants us home. And John, check your phone, I think it's not working."

John took the thing out of his pocket. It was dead as a doornail, but now was not the time to figure out why. Maybe from the fighting?

Let's go, he signed.

Qhuinn went over to the stand of knives, pulled out a carver, and stabbed both the lesser he'd turned into a sieve and the one he'd bull's-eyed back to the Omega.

Moving quickly, they sealed up the house as best they could, triggered the alarm, and piled into Fritz's Mercedes, with Qhuinn behind the wheel and Blay and John in the backseat.

As they headed over to Route 22, Qhuinn started to put up the partition. "If we're going to go back to the mansion, you can't know where it is, Blay."

Which was, of course, only part of the reason that shield was going up. Qhuinn wanted to be alone. It was what he needed whenever he had a headfuck going on and why John had volunteered to Miss Daisy it.

In the dense darkness of the backseat, John glanced over at Blay. The guy was lying back in the leather seat as if his head weighed as much as an engine block and his eyes seemed to have sunk into his skull. He looked about a hundred years old.

In human terms.

John thought of the guy just nights ago, back at Abercrombie, going through racks of shirts, holding one or another up for assessment. Staring at Blay now, it was as if that red-haired guy in the store were a distant, younger cousin of this person in the Mercedes, someone with the same coloring and height, but having nothing else in common.

John tapped his friend on the forearm. We need to get Doc Jane to look you over.

Blay glanced down at his white shirt and seemed surprised to find blood on it. "Guess this was what my mom was going on about. It doesn't hurt."

Good.

Blay turned and stared out of his window even though they were impossible to see through. "My dad said I could stay. To fight."

John whistled softly to bring the guy's head around again. I didn't know your dad could throw the sword like that.

"He was a soldier before he was mated to my mother. She made him stop." Blay brushed at his shirt even though the blood had sunk into the fibers and stained them. "They had a big argument when Wrath called me and asked that I find you two. My mom worries that I'll turn up dead. My dad wants me to be a male of worth when the race needs them. So there you go."

What do you want?

The guy's eyes flipped up to the partition and then scattered all around the backseat. "I want to fight."

John eased back against the seat. Good.

After a long silence, Blay said, "John?"

John turned his head to the side slowly, feeling as exhausted as Blay looked.

What, he mouthed, because he didn't have the strength to sign.

"Do you still want to be friends with me? Even though I'm gay."

John frowned. Then he sat up, made a fist, and nailed his buddy in the shoulder with a full-on punch.

"Ow! What the fuck¡ª"

Why wouldn't I want to be friends with you? Other than the fact that you're a fucking idiot for asking that?

Blay rubbed where he'd been hit. "Sorry. Didn't know if it changed things or¡ª Don't do it again! I've got a cut there!"

John settled back into the seat. He was about to sign another, Stupid idiot, at the guy, when he realized he kind of wondered the same thing after what had happened in the locker room.

He looked at his friend. You're just the same to me.

Blay took a deep breath. "I haven't told my parents. You and Qhuinn are the only ones who know."

Well, when you tell them or whoever, he and I will be right beside you. All the way.

The question John didn't have the balls to ask must have been in his eyes, because Blay reached over and touched his shoulder.

"No. Not at all. I don't believe there's anything that could make me think less of you."

The two of them let out identical sighs and closed their eyes at the same time. Neither said another word for the rest of the trip home.

Lash sat in the passenger seat of the Focus and had the frustrating sense that even with the hits he'd initiated on the aristocracy's houses, the Society was not getting the picture. The lessers were taking orders from Mr. D, not him.

Hell, they didn't even know he existed.

He glanced over at Mr. D, whose hands were at ten and two on the steering wheel. Part of him wanted to kill the guy just for spite, but his logical side knew he had to keep the bastard alive to be a mouthpiece¡ªat least until he could prove who he was to the rest of his troops.

Troops. He loved that word.

It was second only to his.

Maybe he could cook himself up a uniform. Like a general 's or something.

He sure as hell deserved it, given how tight his military strategy was. He was a straight-up genius¡ªand the fact that he was using what the Brotherhood had taught him in training against them was goddamn glorious.

For the past however many centuries, the Lessening Society had been just picking away at the vampire population. With little intelligence to go on, and an uncoordinated soldier force, it was a hunt-and-peck strategy that had yielded minor successes.

He, however, was thinking big, and had the knowledge to rock his plans.

The way to eliminate vampires was to break the collective will of the society, and the first step was destabilization. The heads of four of the six founding families of the glymera had been wiped out. There were another two to go, and once they were hit, the lessers could start in on the rest of the aristocracy. With the glymera attacked and decimated, what was left of the Princeps Council would turn on Wrath as king. Competing factions would form. Power struggles would ensue. And Wrath, as a leader forced to deal with civil unrest, challenges to his authority, and an active war, would make compounding errors in judgment. Which would exacerbate the instability.

The fallout wouldn't just be political. More looting of homes meant fewer tithes to the Brotherhood due to erosions in the tax base. Fewer aristocrats meant fewer jobs for civilians, which would cause financial distress in the lower classes and an erosion of their support for the king. The whole thing would be a vicious circle that would inevitably lead to Wrath being deposed, killed, or relegated to a castrated figurehead¡ªand to the vampire social structure going even further into the shitter. With everything in total shambles, that was when Lash would go in and broom up what was left.

Only thing better would be a vampire plague.

His plan was working so far, with this first night having been largely successful. He'd been pissed that that fucker Qhuinn hadn't been home when they'd raided his house, as he would have liked killing his cousin, but he'd learned something interesting. On his uncle's desk had been renunciation papers kicking Qhuinn out of the family. Which meant that poor wittle mismatched fuckup Qhuinn was out on the loose somewhere¡ªalthough evidently not at Blay's as that home had been hit as well.

Yeah, it sucked that Qhuinn hadn't been home. But at least they'd taken his brother alive. That was going to be fun.

There had been a number of Society losses, mostly at Blay's house and Lash's own, but on the whole the tide was strongly in Lash's favor.

Momentum, however, was critical. The glymera would be running for their safe houses, and though he knew some of the areas those places were in, most of them were upstate, which meant travel time for his men. To expedite the killings, they had to hit as many addresses as possible here in town.

Maps. They needed maps.

As the thought occurred to him, Lash's stomach let out a whine.

They needed maps and food.

"Pull into that Citgo," he barked.

Mr. D didn't catch the left in time, so he swung a louie and backtracked.

"I need chow," Lash said. "And maps for¡ª"

Across the street, the blue lights of a Caldwell Police Department squad car went off, and Lash cursed.

If the cop had tweaked to their moving violation, they were in deep shit. The Focus had guns and weapons in the trunk. Bloody clothes. Wallets, watches, and rings from dead vampires.

Great. Fucking great. The officer had evidently not been taking an emergency doughnut break, because he was gunning right for them.

"Fuck. Me." Lash looked at Mr. D as the guy pulled over. "Tell me you have a valid driver's license on you."

"Sure do." Mr. D put the car in park and rolled down the window as one of Caldie's protect-and-serves came up to them. "Hey, Officer. I gots my driver's license right chere."

"I need your registration as well." The cop leaned into the car and then grimaced as though he didn't like the smell of them.

God, that's right. The baby powder.

Lash eased back as Mr. D went for the glove compartment, cool as he could be. As he took out a piece of white paper the size of an index card, Lash quickly checked the registration out. Sure looked like it was official. Damn thing had the New York State crest on it, the name of Richard Delano, and an address of 1583 Tenth Street, apartment 4F.

Mr. D handed everything out the window. "I know I wasn't supposed to do that turn back there, sir. We just wanted something to eat and I missed the parking lot."

Lash stared at Mr. D, awed by the remarkable display of acting talent. D was just the right combo of rueful shame, earnest apology, and regular Joe as he stared up at the cop. Shit, he looked like his puss should be on the front of a cereal box as he flapped his gums and threw the word sir around like it was amen at a church. He was everything that was wholesome. Full of vitamins and fiber. Packed with vital, good old American nutrition.

The officer looked at the documentation and handed it back. As he flashed his light inside the car, he said, "Just don't do it¡ª"

He frowned as he looked at Lash.

The cop's whatever-this-is-a-waste-of-my-time attitude was gone in a split second. Tilting the radio piece on his lapel toward his mouth, he called for backup, then said, "I'm going to have to ask you to get out of the car, sir."

"Who, me?" Lash said. Fuck, he had no ID on him. "Why?"

"Please get out of the car, sir."

"Not unless you tell me why."

The flashlight dipped to the dog chain around Lash's neck. "We received a complaint about an hour ago from a female at Screamer's concerning a white male, six-foot-six, blond crew cut, wearing a dog collar. So I need you to get out of the car."

"What was the complaint?"

"Sexual assault." Another cop car pulled up in front, then backed in tight to the Focus's headlights. "Please get out of the vehicle, sir."

That bitch back at the bar had gone to the police? She'd begged him for it! "No."

"If you do not get out of the car, I will take you out of it."

"Get out of the car," Mr. D said under his breath.

The second officer walked around the Focus and popped open Lash's door. "Get out of the car, sir."

This was so not happening. These fucking idiot humans? He was the Omega's son, for Christ's sake. He didn't follow vampire rules, much less ones that governed Homo sapiens.

"Sir?" the cop said.

"How about you fuck yourself with your Taser."

The officer leaned down and grabbed his arm. "You are under arrest for sexual assault. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. If you cannot afford an attorney¡ª"

"You can't fucking be serious¡ª"

"¡ªone will be provided for you. Do you understand these rights¡ª"

"Let go of me¡ª"

"¡ªas I've read them to you?"

It took both officers to drag Lash out of the car, and what do you know, a crowd gathered. Shit. Even though he could easily tear these men's arms off and feed them to both their asses, he couldn't make a scene. Too many witnesses.

"Sir, do you understand these rights?" This was said while Lash was pirouetted around, pushed face-first into the car's hood, and cuffed.

Lash looked through the windshield at Mr. D, whose face was no longer apple-pie innocent. The guy's eyes were narrowed, and one could only hope he was racking his brain for a way out of this.

"Sir? Do you understand these rights?"

"Yeah," Lash spat. "Fucking perfectly."

The cop on the left leaned in. "By the way, we're going to tack on a charge of resisting arrest. And that blonde? She was seventeen."

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