At the other end of the Brotherhood's compound, about forty feet underground, John sat at the desk in the training center's office and stared at the computer in front of him. He felt like he should be doing something to earn his money, but with classes on hiatus inde finitely, there wasn't a lot of paper pushing to do.
He liked paperwork, so he liked his job. Usually he spent his time recording grades, updating files with training injury reports, and keeping track of the curriculum's progress. It was nice to make order out of chaos, to have everything where it needed to be.
He checked his watch. Blay and Qhuinn were working out in the weight room and they'd be in there for another half hour, minimum.
What to do... what to do...
On a random impulse, he went through the computer directory and found the folder marked, Incident Reports. Opening it, he called up the one Phury had filed about the attack on Lash's house.
Jesus... Christ. The dead bodies of the parents had been seated around the dining room table, moved there from the sitting room where they had been killed. Nothing else was touched in the house, except for a drawer up in Lash's room, and Phury had jotted down a side note: personal effect? but of what value as jewelry remained?
John called up the other reports from the houses that had been attacked. Qhuinn's. Blay's. Three other classmates'. Five other aristocrats'. Total death toll: twenty-nine, including doggen. And the looting had been extensive.
Evidently it had been the most successful series of raids since the sacking of Wrath's family's estate back in the Old Country.
John tried to imagine what Lash had been put through to have those addresses come out of his mouth. He'd been a shit, but he'd had no love for the lessers.
Tortured. He had to be dead.
For no particular reason, John went into the guy's computer file. Phury, or someone, had already filled out the death certificate. Name: Lash, son of Ibix, son of Ibixes, son of Thornsrae. DOB: March 3, 1983. Date of death: approx. August 2008. Age at time of death: 25. Cause of demise: Uncon firmed; assumption torture. Location of body: Unknown, assumption¡ªLessening Society disposed. Remains released to: N/A.
The rest of the file was extensive. Lash had had a lot of disciplinary issues, not just at the training program, but at glymera retreats. It was a surprise to see them in the record at all, given how secretive the aristocracy was with imperfections, but then again, the Brotherhood had required full disclosure of all trainees' histories before you could enter the program.
The guy's birth certificate had been scanned in as well. Name: Lash, son of Ibix, son of Ibixes, son of Thornsrae. DOB: March 3, 1983, 1:14 a.m. Mother: Rayelle, blooded daughter of the soldier Nellshon. Certification of live birth signed by: Havers, son of Havers, MD. Young released from clinic: March 3, 1983.
Too weird that the guy was gone.
The phone rang, making him jump. When John picked up the call, he whistled, and V's voice said, "Ten minutes, Wrath's study. We're meeting. You three be there."
The line went dead.
After a moment of holy shitting, John ran into the weight room and got Qhuinn and Blay. The two of them pulled the same kind of whoa pause, and then they all raced for Wrath's study, even though his buddies were still in their workout sweats.
Up in the king's pale blue digs, all the Brotherhood was there, filling out the room until everything dainty and proper about it was overpowered: Rhage was unwrapping a Tootsie Pop over by the mantel, a grape one going by the purple wrapper. Vishous and Butch were together on an antique couch, the spindly legs of which you had to worry about. Wrath was behind the desk. Z was in the far corner, arms crossed over his chest, eyes staring straight ahead into the middle of the room.
John shut the door and stayed put. Qhuinn and Blay followed his lead, the three of them barely in the room.
"Here's what we got," Wrath said, putting his shitkickers up on the paper-covered desk. "The heads of five of the founding families are dead. Most of what's left of the glymera is scattered around the eastern seaboard and in safe houses. Finally. Total losses of life are in the high twenties. Although there's been a massacre or two throughout our history, this is a hit of unprecedented gravity."
"They should have moved faster," V muttered. "Damn fools didn't listen."
"True, but did we really expect anything different? So here's where we are. We should expect some kind of negative response from the Princeps Council in the form of a proclamation against me. My guess is they're going to try to marshal up a civil war. Granted, as long as I'm breathing no one else can be king, but they could make it damn hard for me to rule properly and keep things together." As the Brothers muttered all kinds of nasty things, Wrath held up his hand to stop the chatter. "Good news is, they've got organizational problems, which will give us some time. The Princeps Council's charter says that it must be physically seated in Caldwell and convene its meetings here. They created the rule a couple of centuries ago to make sure the power base didn't go elsewhere. As none of them are in town, and¡ªhello¡ªconference calling didn't exist in 1790 when they drafted the current charter, they can't convene a meeting to change their bylaws or elect a new leahdyre until they drag their asses back here, at least for an evening. Given the deaths, that'll be a while, but we're talking weeks, not months."
Rhage bit down on his Tootsie Pop, the crack ricocheting around the room. "Do we have an idea of what hasn't been hit yet?"
Wrath pointed to the far edge of his desk. "I made copies for everyone."
Rhage went over, picked up the stack of papers, and handed them out... even to Qhuinn and John and Blay.
John looked at the columns. First was a name. Second was an address. Third was an estimate of the number of folks and doggen in the household. Fourth was an approximate value of what was in the place based on the tax roll. Final was whether or not the family had vacated the premises and how much looting had or had not occurred.
"I want you to divvy up the list of the ones we haven't heard from," Wrath said. "If there's anyone still in those houses, I want you to get them out, even if you have to drag them by the hair. John, you and Qhuinn go with Z. Blay, you're going with Rhage. Any questions?"
For no good reason John found himself looking over at the ugly-ass avocado green chair that was behind Wrath's desk. It was Tohr's.
Or had been.
He would have liked Tohr to see him with the list in his hand, ready to go out and defend the race.
"Good," Wrath said. "Now get the fuck out of here and do what I need you to do."
On the other side, in the Temple of the Sequestered Scribes, Cormia rolled up the parchment she had been sketching houses and buildings on and placed it on the floor next to her stool. She had no idea what to do with the thing. Maybe burn it? Wastepaper baskets didn't exist in the Sanctuary.
As she moved a crystal bowl that was full of water from the Scribe Virgin's fountain in front of her, she thought of the ones Fritz had brought her with her peas in them. She missed that hobby of hers already. Missed the butler. Missed...
Palming the bowl, she began to rub the crystal, creating ripples in the surface of the water that caught the light of the candles. The warmth of her hands and the subtle movement created a swirling effect, and from out of the gentle waves came the vision of exactly who she wanted to see. Once the image appeared, she stopped agitating the water and let the surface smooth out so she could watch and then describe what she saw.
It was the Primale, and he was dressed the way he'd been that night he'd met her at the top of the stairs and looked at her as if he hadn't seen her for a week. But he wasn't in the Brotherhood's mansion. He was racing down a corridor that was marked with streaks of blood and black heel prints. Bodies were crumpled on the floor on either side, the remains of vampires who had been living just moments before.
She watched as the Primale gathered a small group of terrified males and females and put them into a supply closet. She saw his face as he locked them in, saw the dread and the sadness and the anger in his features.
He'd scrambled to save them, to find a way to safety, to take care of them.
When the vision dimmed, she palmed the bowl once more. Now that she had seen what had transpired, she could call it up again, and she watched his actions once more. Then again.
It was as the movie had been back on the far side, only this was real; this was past that had transpired, not a constructed fictional present.
And then there were other things she saw, scenes tied to the Primale and the Brotherhood and the race. Oh, the horror of the killings, of those dead bodies in luxurious houses...the corpses too numerous for her to comprehend. One by one, she saw the faces of those who had been killed by the lessers. Then she saw the Brothers out fighting, their numbers so small that John and Blay and Qhuinn were being forced too early into the war.
If this continued, she thought, the lessers would win...
She frowned and bent down closer to the bowl.
On the surface of the water, she saw a blond lesser, which was not unusual... but it had fangs.
There was a knock, and as she jumped from being startled, the image disappeared.
A muffled voice came from the other side of the temple door. "My sister?"
It was Selena, the previous sequestered scribe.
"Greetings," Cormia called out.
"Your meal, my sister," the Chosen said. There was a scraping sound as a tray was slid through a trapdoor. "May it please you."
"Have you any inquiries of me?"
"No. Thank you."
"I shall come back for the tray." The excitement in the Chosen's voice lifted it nearly an octave. "After his arrival."
Cormia inclined her head, then remembered that her sister couldn't see her. "As you wish."
The Chosen left, no doubt to prepare herself for the Primale.
Cormia leaned back over the desk and looked at the bowl, instead of into it. Such a fragile thing, so thin, except at its base, where it was heavy and solid. The lip of the crystal was sharp as a knife.
She wasn't sure how long she stayed like that. But eventually she shook herself out of her numb trance and forced her palms back onto the bowl.
When the Primale came to the surface again, she wasn't surprised¡ª
She was horrified.
He lay sprawled out on a marble floor, unconscious by a toilet. Just as she was about to leap up to do only the Virgin knew what, the image changed. He was in a bed, a pale lavender bed.
Turning his head, he looked straight out of the water at her and said, "Cormia?"
Oh, dearest Virgin Scribe, the sound made her want to weep.
She shot to her feet. The Primale was standing in the temple's doorway, dressed in whites, the medallion of his station around his neck.
"Verily..." She could go no further. She wanted to rush forward and put her arms around him and hold on. She'd seen him dead. She'd seen him...
"Why are you here?" he asked, looking around the barren room. "All by yourself."
"I'm sequestered." She cleared her throat. "As I said I would be."
"So I'm not supposed to be here?"
"You're the Primale. You can be anywhere."
As he walked around the room, she had so many questions, none of which she had any right to ask.
He looked over at her. "No one else is allowed in here?"
"Not unless one of my sisters joins me as a sequestered scribe. Although the Directrix may come in if she is granted leave by me."
"Why is the sequestering necessary?"
"In addition to recording the races's general history, we... I see the things the Scribe Virgin wishes to keep... private." As the Primale's yellow eyes narrowed, she knew what he was thinking. "Yes, I've seen what you did. In that bathroom."
The curse he let out echoed up to the white ceiling.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
"Yeah. I'm fine." He crossed his arms over his chest. "Are you going to be okay here? All by yourself?"
"I'll be fine."
He stared at her. Long and hard. The sorrow was in his face, in its deep grooves of pain and regret.
"You didn't hurt me," she said. "When we were together, you didn't hurt me. I know you think you did, but you didn't."
"I wish... things were different."
Cormia laughed sadly, and on a whim murmured, "You're the Primale. Change them."
"Your grace?" the Directrix appeared in the open doorway, looking confused. "Whatever are you doing here?"
"Oh, but..." Amalya seemed to shake herself, as if remembering that the Primale could go wherever he chose and see whomever he wished, as sequestered was a term that restricted all but him. "But of course, your grace. Ah... the Chosen Layla is prepared for you and in your temple?"
Cormia looked down at the bowl in front of her. As Chosen had very short fertility cycles here on this side, it was very likely Layla was either fertile or about to become fertile. No doubt there would be words of the pregnancy to record very soon.
"Time for you to go," she said, glancing up at the Primale.
His eyes positively bored into hers. "Cormia¡ª"
"Your grace?" the Directrix cut in.
In a hard voice, he said over his shoulder, "I'll be there when I'm good and damned ready."
"Oh, please forgive me, your grace, I didn't mean to¡ª"
"That's all right," he said wearily. "Just tell her... I'll be there."
The Directrix quickly ducked out, and the door shut.
The Primale's eyes refocused on Cormia, locking in. And then he came across the room with a grave expression on his face.
As he sank down on his knees in front of her, she was shocked. "Your grace, you shouldn't¡ª"
"Phury. You call me Phury. Never ¡®your grace' or ¡®Primale. ' Starting now, I don't want to hear anything but my real name from you."
Cormia shook her head. "All right, except you shouldn't be on your knees. Ever."
"In front of you, I should only be on my knees." He put his hands lightly on her arms. "In front of you... I always should be bowed." He looked over her face and her hair. "Listen, Cormia, I need you to know something."
As she looked down at him, his eyes were the most amazing thing she'd ever seen, hypnotic, the color of citrines in firelight. "Yes?"
"I love you."
Her heart clenched. "What?"
"I love you." He shook his head and eased back so he was sitting cross-legged. "Oh, Christ... I've made such a mess out of everything. But I love you. I wanted you to know it because... well, shit, because it matters, and because it means I can't be with the other Chosen. I can't be with them, Cormia. It's you or it's nobody."
Her heart sang. For a split second, her heart was flying in her chest, soaring on gusts of joy. This was what she had wanted, this pledge, this reality¡ª
Her brilliant happiness dimmed as quickly as it flared.
She thought of the images of the fallen, of the tortured, of the cruelly killed. And the fact that there were now how many fighting Brothers left? Four. Just four.
Centuries ago their numbers had been in the twenties and thirties.
Cormia glanced at the bowl in front of her and then at the quill she'd used. There was a very real possibility that at some point in the not-too-distant future there would be no more history to write.
"You need to go to her, to Layla," she said in a voice that was flat as the parchment she was going to write on. "And you need to go to them."
"Didn't you hear what I said?"
"Yes. I did. But this is bigger than you and me." She stood up, because if she didn't move around she was going to go mad. "I'm not a Chosen anymore, not in my heart. But I've seen what's happening. The race is not going to survive like this."
The Primale rubbed his eyes with a grimace. "I want you."
"If I'm with the others, can you handle that? I'm not sure I can."
"I'm afraid... I can't. That's why I chose this." She swept her hand around the room. "Here I can have peace."
"I can come see you, though. Can't I?"
"You're the Primale. You can do anything." She paused by one of the candles. Staring into the flame, she asked, "Why did you do what you did?"
"About becoming the Primale? I¡ª"
"No. The drug. In the bathroom. You almost died." When there was no response, she looked over at him. "I want to know why."
There was a long silence. And then he said, "I'm an addict."
"Yeah. I'm proof positive you can come from the aristocracy and have money and position and you can still be a junkie." His yellow eyes were brutally clear. "And the truth is, I want to be a male of worth and tell you I can stop, but I just don't know. I've made promises to myself and to others before. My words... they don't hold water any longer with anyone, including myself."
She thought of Layla waiting, the Chosen waiting, the whole of the race waiting. Waiting for him.
"Phury... my dearest beloved Phury, live up to one of your promises now. Go and take Layla and bind yourself to us. Give us history to write and to live and to prosper in. Be the strength of the race, as you should be." As he opened his mouth, she held up her hand to stop him. "You know this is right. You know I am right."
After a tense moment, Phury got to his feet. He was pale and unsteady as he straightened his robe. "I want you to know... if I'm with anyone else, it's you in my heart."
She closed her eyes. She had been taught all her life to share, but letting him go to another female was like throwing something precious on the ground and stomping it to dust.
"Go in peace," she said softly. "And come back with the same. Even if I cannot be with you, I will never deny your company."
Phury walked up the knoll to the Primale's Temple with a foot that felt like it was wrapped in chains. Chains and barbed wire.
God, along with feeling weighed down, his real foot and ankle were burning like he'd stepped into a bucket of battery acid. He'd never thought he'd be glad he was missing half a leg, but at least he didn't have to feel that shit in stereo.
The double doors to the Primale Temple were closed, and as he opened one side, he caught the scent of herbs and flowers. Stepping inside, he stood in the vestibule, sensing Layla in the main room beyond. He knew she would be as Cormia had been: lying on the bed with bolts of white cloth falling from the ceiling and pooling at her throat so that only her body was visible.
He stared at the white marble steps that led up to the great swath of drapery he would push aside to get at Layla. There were three steps. Three steps up, and then he would be in the open room.
Phury turned around and sat down on the shallow stairs.
His head felt odd, probably because he hadn't had a blunt in like twelve hours. Odd... as in strangely clear. Christ, he was actually lucid. And the byproduct of the clarity was a new voice in his mind talking to him. A new and different one that wasn't the wizard's.
It was... his own voice. For the first time in so long, he almost didn't know what it was.
This is wrong.
He winced and rubbed the calf he still had. The burn seemed to be traveling upward from his ankle, but at least when he massaged his muscle it seemed a little better.
This is wrong.
It was hard to disagree with himself. All his life he had lived for others. His twin. The Brotherhood. The race. And the whole Primale thing was right out of that playbook. He'd spent his whole life trying to be a hero, and now not only was he sacrificing himself, he was sacrificing Cormia as well.
He thought of her in that room, alone with those bowls and the quills and all that the parchment. Then he saw her up against his body, warm and alive.
Nope, his inner voice said. I'm not doing this.
"I'm not going to do this," he said, rubbing at both his thighs.
"Your grace?" Layla's voice came from the other side of the drapery.
He was about to answer her, when in a rush, the burning sensation swept thoughout his body, taking him over, eating him alive, consuming every inch of him. With shaking arms, he reached out to keep himself from falling backward as his stomach knotted.
A strangled sound bubbled up his throat, and then he had to work to draw his breath in.
"Your grace?" Layla's voice was worried¡ªand closer.
But there was no replying to her. Abruptly, his whole body turned into a snow globe, the inside of him shaking and sparking with pain.
DTs, he thought. It was the fucking DTs, because for the first time in, like, two hundred years his system was without red smoke.
He knew he had two choices: Poof it back to the other side, find a dealer other than Rehvenge, and keep the addict cord plugged into its current socket. Or bite the fucking bullet.
The wizard blinked into his mind's eye, the wraith standing at the forefront of the wasteland. Ah, mate, you can't do it. You know you can't. Why even try?
Phury took a moment to retch. Shit, he felt like he was going to die. He truly did.
All you have to do is go back to the world and get what you need. You can feel better with the strike of a lighter. That's all. You can make this go away.
The shaking was so bad, Phury's teeth started to knock together like ice cubes in a glass.
You can stop this. All you need to do is light up.
"You lied to me once already. You said I could get rid of you, and you are so not gone."
Ah, mate, what's a wee fib between friends?
Phury thought about the bathroom of that lavender bedroom and what he'd done there. "It's everything."
As the wizard started to get pissed and Phury's body milk-shaked it something fierce, he stretched out his legs, lay down on the vestibule's cool marble floor, and got ready for a whole lot of going-nowhere.
"Shit," he said as he gave himself over to the withdrawal. "This is going to suck."