John tracked cormia with his eyes as she raced and twirled over the grass, her white robing flowing behind her, part flag, part wing. He didn't know that ing behind her, part flag, part wing. He didn't know that Chosen were allowed to run around all willy-nilly in their bare feet, and had the feeling that she was breaking rules.
Well, good for her. And beautiful for him to watch. With her joy, she was in the night but not part of the darkness, a firefly, a brilliant dancing spot against the forest's dense horizon.
Phury should see this, John thought.
His phone went off with a beep and he took it out of his pocket. The text from Qhuinn read: can u gt fritz 2 t8 u 2 blays now? wr redy. He hit his buddy back: yup.
He put the BlackBerry away and wished like hell he could dematerialize. You were supposed to try it for the first time a couple weeks after your transition, and Blay and Qhuinn had had no problem with the up and disappearing. Him? It was like when he'd started training and was always slowest and weakest and worst. All you had to do was concentrate on where you wanted to go and will yourself there. At least in theory. Him? He'd just spent a lot of time with his eyes shut and his face twisted up like a shar-pei's, trying to force his molecules across his room, staying exactly where he was. He'd heard it could sometimes take up to a year after your transition before you could pull it off, but maybe it was something he'd never be able to do.
In which case, he needed to get a fricking driver's license. He felt twelve with all the can-you-take-me-theres. Fritz was a great chauffeur, but come on. John wanted to be a man, not doggen cargo.
Cormia circled around and came back toward the house. As she stopped in front of him, her robe looked as if it wanted to keep going, the folds swaying forward before settling on her body. She was breathing fast and her cheeks were cherry red and her smile was bigger than the full moon.
God, with her blond hair all loose and her pretty flush, she was the perfect summer girl. He could so picture her in a field on a gingham blanket, eating apple pie next to a dewy pitcher of lemonade... wearing a red-and-white bikini.
Okay, that felt wrong.
"I like it outside," she said.
The outside likes you, he wrote, then showed her.
"I wish I had come here sooner." She looked over the roses that were growing around the terrace. As her hand crept onto her neck, he had a feeling that she wanted to touch them, but her bridle of reserve was returning.
He cleared his throat so she would glance over. You can pick one if you like, he wrote.
"I... I believe I would."
She approached the roses like they were deer that might spook, her hands by her sides, her bare feet slow over the slate. She went right for the pale lavender ones, bypassing the bolder red and yellow buds.
He was writing, Be careful of thorns, when she reached forward, yelped, and yanked back her hand. A drop of blood formed on the tip of her finger, the dim glow of the night making it look black on her white skin.
Before he knew what he was doing, John leaned down and put his mouth to work. He sucked quick and licked quicker, stunned by what he was doing as well as how delicious it was.
In the back of his mind, he realized he needed to feed.
As he straightened, she stared at him wide-eyed and frozen. Double shit.
I'm sorry, he scribbled. I didn't want it to get on your robe.
Liar. He'd wanted to know what she tasted like.
Pick your rose, just be careful of the thorns.
She nodded and gave it another shot, partially, he suspected, because she wanted to get her flower and partially to fill the awkward silence he'd created.
The rose she chose was a perfect specimen, just on the verge of blooming, a silver-purple spear with the potential of being the size of a grapefruit.
"Thank you," she said. He was about to you're-welcome her when he realized she was talking to the mother plant, not him.
Cormia turned to him. "The other flowers were in glass houses with water."
Let's go get you a vase, he wrote. That's what they're called here.
She nodded and started for the French doors that led into the billiards room. Just as she stepped through, she looked back outside. Her eyes held on to the garden as if it were a lover she would never see again.
We can do more of this sometime, he wrote on his pad. If you'd like?
Her quick nod was a relief, considering what he'd just done. "I would like that."
Maybe we could watch a movie, too. Upstairs in the theater.
He shut the doors behind them. It's a room that's specially made for watching stuff.
"Can we see the movie now?"
The strong tone to her voice made him recalibrate his impression of her a little. The soft-spoken reserve might just be training, he decided, and not personality.
I have to go out. But we could tomorrow night?
"Good. We will do that after First Meal."
Okay, the meekness was definitely not personality. Which made him wonder how she handled the whole Chosen thing. I have class, but we could do it after that?
"Yes. And I should like to learn more about everything here." Her smile lit up the billiards room sure as a roaring fire, and as she pivoted around on one foot he thought of those pretty pop-up ballerinas in jewelry boxes.
Well, I'm up for teaching you, he wrote.
She came to a stop, her loosened hair swinging. "Thank you, John Matthew. You shall be a fine teacher."
As she looked up at him, he saw her colors more than her face or her body: that red in her cheeks and lips, the lavender of the flower in her hand, the brilliant pale green of her eyes, the buttercup yellow of her hair.
For no good reason, he thought of Xhex. Xhex was a thunderstorm, made up of hues of black and iron gray, power leashed but no less lethal for its control. Cormia was a sunny day cast in a rainbow of brightness, warmth realized.
He put his hand over his heart and bowed to her, then left. As he started up for his room, he wondered whether he liked the storm or the sunshine better.
Then realized neither was his for the taking, so what did it matter.
Standing in the alley with his nine pressed into the liver of a Brother, Mr. D was barn-cat alert. He would have much rather put the business end of his weapon to the vampire's temple, but that would have required a stepladder. Honest to heaven, the bastards were huge.
Made big ol' cousin Tommy seem no taller than a can of Bud. And just as crushable.
"You got hair like a girl," Mr. D said.
"And you smell like bubble bath. At least I can get a trim."
"I'm wearing Old Spice."
"Next time try something stronger. Like horse manure."
Mr. D pressed the muzzle in harder. "I want you on your knees. Hands behind your back, head down."
He stayed right where he was while the Brother complied, making no move to get out his steel cuffs. Sissy shit on his silo notwithstanding, this vampire was not the kind of thing you wanted getting away from you, and not just because a Brother captured was a feat for the history books. Mr. D had a rattler by the tail, and well he knew it.
Reaching into his belt to get his wristies, he¡ª
The tide turned quick as a twitch.
The Brother spun around on one knee and punched a palm up into the muzzle of the gun. Mr. D pulled the trigger on reflex and the bullet kicked out to the sky, flying uselessly to heaven.
Before the popping sound stopped echoing, Mr. D was on his back on the ground, doing the dazed and confused, his cowboy hat once again off his head as he was overcome.
The Brother's eyes were dead as he stared down, lifeless in a way that their bright yellow color couldn't change. But then it made sense. No one in his right mind would pull a spin deflection when he was on his knees like that. Unless he was already flat lined.
The Brother lifted his fist over his head.
Sure 'nuff, this was going to hurt.
Mr. D moved fast, slipping free of the hold on his shoulder and twisting to the side. In a quick jab, he kicked both feet into the right calve of the Brother.
There was a snapping sound and... holy shit, a part of a leg went flying. The Brother teetered, his leathers going loose from the knee down on that side, but there was no time to do a lot of what-the-fuck-ing. The big bastard fell over, crumbling like a building.
Mr. D scampered out of the way, then jumped on the wreckage, damn sure that if he didn't take control of the ground game he would be eating his own chitlins. He threw a leg over the Brother, grabbed a fist full of that sissy hair, and yanked back hard as he went for his knife.
Didn't make it. The Brother done went bronco on him, popping off the pavement and rearing up. Mr. D latched on with his legs and threw an arm around a neck thick as his thigh¡ª
In a flash, the earth tilted wildly and¡ªfuck¡ªthe Brother turtled 'round and fell backward, turning Mr. D into a mattress.
It was like having a granite slab fall on your chest.
Mr. D was knocked stupid for a split second, and the Brother grabbed the advantage, shifting to the side and using his elbow as a gut ram. As Mr. D grunted and started to heave, there was a flash of a black dagger being unsheathed, then the Brother rose up onto his knees.
Mr. D braced himself to get stabbed, thinking that he'd had less than three hours of being the Fore-lesser, and wasn't that a sorry showin'.
But instead of getting stuck in the heart, Mr. D felt his shirt get pulled out of the waistband of his pants. As his belly flashed white in the night, he looked up in horror.
This was the Brother who liked to slice before he killed. Which meant there was no simple death a-comin'. This was going to be a long, bloody process. Sure, it wasn't the Destroyer, but this bastard was going to make Mr. D work for his ride to the Pearly Gates.
And lessers might be dead, but they felt pain like everyone else did.
Phury should have been catching his breath and finding his lower leg, not getting ready to go Sweeney Todd on the pint-sized slayer. God, you'd think his near miss with that bullet with his name on it would have juiced him to close the deal and get the fuck out of the alley before more of the enemy showed.
Nope. As he exposed the lesser's stomach, he was both frozen to the core and animated by heat, buzzing as if he were walking into his room with a bag full of red smoke and nowhere to go for ten hours.
He was like the addict who'd run away, all I've-won-the-lottery high.
The wizard's voice cut into the anticipation, as if the excitment had drawn the wraith like spoiled meat. This butchering thing is one bloody way to distinguish yourself, but then, being a mere rank failure is a bit pedestrian, isn't it. And you were from a noble family until you ruined them. So bash on, mate.
Phury focused on the undulating skin he'd revealed and let the feel of the dagger in his hand and the paralytic, bracing terror of the lesser seep into him. As his mind calmed, Phury smiled. This time was his. He owned this. There would be, for however long it took him to do what he wanted to this evil, peace from the chaos of the wizard's voice.
In doing this damage, he healed himself. If only for a short while.
He brought the black dagger to the lesser's skin and¡ª
"Don't you fucking dare."
Phury looked over his shoulder. His twin was standing in the mouth of the alley, a big black shadow with a skull trim. Zsadist's face wasn't visible, but you didn't need to eyeball a furrowed brow to know the drill. The pissed-off came off him in waves.
Phury closed his eyes and fought a vicious anger. Goddamn it, he was being robbed. He was absolutely being robbed.
In a quick flash, he thought of the number of times Zsadist had demanded that he beat him, beat him until Z's face ran with blood. And the brother thought this shit with a lesser was wrong? What the fuck? The slayer had no doubt killed his fair share of innocent vampires. How was this worse than asking your blooded brother to pound you to a pulp, even though you knew it made him sick to his stomach and it scrambled his brains for days afterward?
"Get out of here," Phury said, tightening his hold on the lesser as it squirmed. "This is my biz. Not yours."
"The fuck it's not my biz. And you told me you would stop."
"Turn around and walk away, Z."
"So you can get cracked when backup comes?"
The slayer in Phury's grip heaved to get free, and he was so small and wiry it almost worked. Oh, hell no, Phury thought, he wasn't losing his prize. Before he knew what he was doing, he plowed the dagger into the thing's belly and dragged the blade through its intestinal playing field.
The lesser screamed louder than Zsadist cursed, and in that moment, Phury didn't feel bad about either noise. He was sick to fucking death of everything, including himself.
Attaboy, the wizard whispered. Just where I like you.
Zsadist was on him in the next breath, yanking the dagger out of his hand and throwing it across the alley. While the lesser passed out cold, Phury shot to his feet to confront his twin.
Problem was, he didn't have his lower leg.
As he fell hard against the bricks, he knew he must look like a drunk, and that pissed him off even more.
Z picked up his prosthesis and tossed it across the alley. "Put that the fuck back on."
Phury caught the thing with one hand and let himself slide down the cool, raspy exterior of the dry cleaner's building.
Shit. Busted. So fucking busted, he thought. And now he was going to have to deal with his brothers crawling all over him.
Why couldn't Z have just gone down another alley? Or this one at another time?
Damn it, he needed this, Phury thought. Because if he didn't let out some of his rage, he was going to go fucking mad, and if Z, after all his masochistic bullshit, couldn't understand that? Fuck. Him.
Zsadist unsheathed his dagger, stabbed the first lesser back to the Omega, and then just stood over the burn spot.
"Shit of ten horses," his twin said in the Old Language.
"The new aftershave of the lessers," Phury muttered, rubbing his eyes.
"I think y'all need to think 'bout this here," a strangled Texas twang pronounced.
As Z spun around, Phury lifted his head. The little lesser had his gun again and was pointing it at Phury while staring at Z.
Z's response was to level his SIG at the slayer.
"W'all are in some bind," the thing said as it bent down with a groan and picked up a cowboy hat. It arranged the Stetson on its head, then went back to holding its stomach in. "See, if you shoot me, my hand's gonna tighten on the trigger and I'm gonna pop your friend here. If I shoot him, you're gonna lead me up." The lesser took a deep breath and released it on another groan. "I do believe this is a standoff, and we don't have all night. One shot's already gone off, and who knows who heard it."
The Texas bastard was right. Downtown Caldwell after midnight was not Death Valley at high noon. There were folks around, and not all were of the drugged-out human variety. There were also cops. And civilian vampires. And other lessers. Sure, the alley was secluded, but it offered only relative privacy.
Way to go, mate, the wizard said.
"Shit," Phury cursed.
"Yes, suh," the slayer murmured. "I do believe that is where we be."
As if on cue, police sirens flared up and grew closer.
No one moved, even when the patrol car swung around the corner and came barreling down the alley. Yup, someone had heard the shot when Phury and John Wayne-ette had been going at it, and whoever it was had let his fingers do the walking.
The frozen tableau between the buildings was spotlit by the police car as the thing heaved to a stop with a screech.
Two doors were thrown open. "Drop your weapons!"
The lesser's drawl was soft as the summer night air. "Y'all can take care of this for us, can't you?"
"I'd rather cap your ass," Z shot back.
"Drop your weapons or we will shoot!"
Phury stepped up to the plate, willing the humans into a semi-dream state and making the one on the right duck into the car and turn off the headlights.
"Much obliged," the lesser said, as it started to shuffle down the alley. It kept its back to the building and its eyes on Zsadist and its gun on Phury. As the thing went past the cops, it took the gun from the officer it was closest to, peeling what was undoubtedly a nine-millimeter right out of the woman's unresisting hand.
The slayer leveled that gun at Z. With both arms busy, its black blood positively streamed out of its gut. "I would shoot y'all, but then your little mind-control games wouldn't work on this here matched set of Caldwell's finest. Guess I'm going to have to be good."
"Goddamn it." Z's weight shifted back and forth on his feet, like he wanted to haul ass.
"Please don't take the Lord's name in vain," the slayer said when it got to the corner the police had come around. "And have a good evenin', gentlemen."
The little guy was gone quick, not even his footsteps sounding out as he tore off.
Phury willed the cops back into their patrol car and made the female one call into the station and report that their investigation showed no altercations or public disturbances in the alley. But that missing gun... that was straight-up trouble. Goddamn slayer. No memory imprint could solve the fact that there was a nine missing.
"Give her your gun," he told Zsadist.
His twin popped the sleeve of bullets out as he went over. He didn't wipe the weapon before he dropped it in the woman's lap. No reason to. Vampires left no identifying fingerprints.
"She'll be lucky if she doesn't lose her mind over this," Z said.
Yup. It wasn't her gun and it was emptied. Phury did the best he could, giving her a memory of buying this new piece and trying it out and tossing the clip because the bullets were faulty. Not a great cover. Especially considering that all the Brotherhood's guns had the serial numbers removed.
Phury willed the officer who was behind the wheel to throw the squad car in reverse and back out of the alley. The destination? Station house for a coffee break.
When they were alone, Z cranked his head around and met Phury in the eye. "Do you want to wake up dead."
Phury checked over his prosthesis. It was undamaged, at least for regular use, just knocked free from where it plugged in under his knee. It was not safe to fight with, though.
Pushing up the pant leg of his leathers, he reattached it, then stood up. "I'm going home."
"Did you hear me?"
"Yeah. I did." He met his twin's eyes and thought it was a helluva question for the guy to ask. Z's death wish had been his operating principle up until he met Bella. Which was, comparably, like ten minutes ago.
Z's brows came down over a stare gone black. "Go straight home."
"Yeah. Right home. You got it."
As he turned away, Z said roughly, "Haven't you forgotten something?"
Phury thought about all the times he had chased after Zsadist, desperate to save the brother from killing himself or killing someone else. He thought about the days he couldn't sleep for wondering whether Z was going to make it because he refused to drink from female vampires and insisted on getting by on human blood. He thought of the aching sadness he had every time he looked at his twin's ruined face.
Then he thought of the night he'd faced off at his own mirror and cut off his hair and dragged a blade down his own forehead and his own cheek so he could look like Z... so he could take his twin's place and be at the mercy of a lesser's sadistic vengeance.
He thought of the leg he'd shot off to save them both.
Phury looked over his shoulder. "No. I remember everything. All of it."
With no remorse whatsoever, he dematerialized and re-assumed form on Trade Street.
Facing off at ZeroSum, his heart and his head screaming, he was called forth to cross the road like he'd been chosen for this mission of self-destruction, tapped on the shoulder, beckoned forward by the bony forefinger of his addiction.
He couldn't fight the invite. Worse, he didn't want to.
As he approached the club's front doors, his feet¡ªthe real one and the one made of titanium¡ªwere serving the wizard's mission. The pair of them took him right in the front door and past the VIP area's security guard and by the tables of highfliers to the back, to Rehvenge's office.
The Moors nodded and one of them talked into his watch. While waiting, Phury knew damn well he was stuck in an endless loop, going around and around like the head of a drill, digging further and further underground. With each new level that he sank to, he tapped into deeper and richer veins of poisonous ore, ones that spidered up through the bedrock of his life and enticed him down even farther. He was heading for the source, for the consummation with hell that was his ultimate destination, and each lower plateau was his malignant encouragement.
The Moor on the right, Trez, nodded and opened the door to the black cave. Here was where little bits of Hades were dealt out in cellophane Baggies, and Phury went in with twitchy impatience.
Rehvenge came out of a pocket door, his amethyst stare shrewd and slightly disappointed.
"Your usual gone already?" he asked quietly.
The sin-eater knew him so well, Phury thought.
"It's symphath, remmy?" Rehv slowly went to his desk, relying on his cane. "Sin-eater's such an ugly degradation. And I don't need my bad side to know where you're at. So how much is it going to be tonight?"
The male unbuttoned his flawless double-breasted black jacket and lowered himself into a black leather chair. His low-cut mohawk glistened as if he'd just gotten out of the shower, and he smelled good, a combination of Cartier for Men and some kind of spicy shampoo.
Phury thought of the other dealer, the one who had died back in that alley just now, the one who had bled out while reaching for help that never came. That Rehv was dressed like something off of Fifth Avenue didn't change what he was.
Phury looked down at himself. And realized that his clothes didn't alter what he was either.
Shit... one of his daggers was missing.
He'd left it back in the alley.
"The usual," he said, taking a thousand dollars out of his pocket. "Just the usual."