Jane Yellowrock is vampire-killer-for-hire, but her last battle with an ancient arcane enemy has brought her low. She seeks retreat in the Appalachian Mountains to grieve the loss of her friends, and to heal—or to die—from the disease brought on by her magic.
But malevolent elements in the paranormal community still seek to destroy Jane, and a terrifying foe stalks her, even into the safety of the hills. With nowhere to run and her body failing, the rogue-vampire hunter and her inner Beast must discover a way to defeat this new threat, and find a form that gives her a chance to fight another day.
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He Ate Her Body While She Was Still Alive, Piece by Piece
Beast pawpawpawed, slow, across ridge of rock over creek. Silent. Good predator. Moving back paw into front paw track, paw prints overlapping in fresh layer of snow. Beast lifted snout and sniffed, breath in two white clouds in icy air. Wind blew own scent back, along path. Wind filled nose with musk of three male deer, upwind. Bucks did not see or smell Beast. Beast is best hunter.
Biggest buck raised head. Sniffing. Pawing dirt. Eyes on tree bark where Beast had left mark before last pregnant moon. Where Beast had sharpened claws to mark territory. Old spoor. Beast had hunted along creek then. Was best hunter’s old spoor still strong with threat? Had Beast made stupid kit mistake?
No. Beast is good hunter. Want big deer. Has much meat. Will have good blood and good organs and good belly fat. Beast hungers. Big buck is strong and healthy.
Pawed closer. Crouched. Eyes on other creek bank and deer below. Watching.
Snow covered ground, deep as Beast paw. Wet rocks were black, sharp as knife blade in hands of human hunter. Sunlight was low, angled. Reflection in pool of water below did not show Beast. Did not show deer. Was good hunting spot. Water splashed from small falls, crisp, like breaking sticks. Would cover Beast sounds.
Smaller male in male deer herd finished drinking. Leaped up bank to flat ground beneath Beast’s perch. Beast waited. Finally, big deer dropped head. And drank.
Beast tightened crouch, pulling all body onto paws, shoulders high. Leaped. Shoved off with back legs. Stretched out front legs. Claws extending. Falling. Thick tail rotated for balance. Scent of buck rushed up. Heavy. Pungent.
Deer flinched. Hooves left ground. Buck leaped high. Away from other deer. Beast snarled. Not expecting jump. Whipped tail, swiveling body. Reaching.
Buck splashed into deep water. Beast missed.
Buck leaped again. Splashed hard. Hooves driving up far bank. White tail held high.
Landed half in water.
Front paws missed rock just under surface.
Paws, legs, shoulders, head, slapped into water. And under it. Nose flaps closed, but not before water went up nose.
Front feet hit bottom, back feet hit bank.
Wrenched body back. Rear paws and claws dug deep into half-frozen muddy bank. Body twisted. Out of water. Blew water out of nose in loud snort. Spat and shook. Loose coat slid around muscular body. Flinging water droplets into snow. Blowing.
Beast whirled, searching for two smaller deer. They had vanished. Beast snarled at world. Screamed. Big deer must have heard or smelled Beast.
I hunger! Screamed again, sound echoing in hills. Chuffed in anger. Pounced up and down, paws sinking into half-frozen mud.
Deer did not come back. Prey was smart.
Shook again. Water had not penetrated into deep coat. Had not washed into paw pads. Beast would not freeze.
Pulled in air over tongue and over scent sacs in roof of mouth. What Jane called flehmen response, but Beast called scenting. Stopped. Held muzzle into air and smelled again. Caught stink of cat on air. Sucked in air again, hard and long, showing fangs, smelling with nose and part of brain that Beast had stolen from ugly dog, good nose, what Jane called bloodhound.
Smelled cat. Was male. Did not smell like lynx or bobcat. Was not small feral cat humans used as mousers. Was different. Was . . . bigger. Scent was old and no tracks showed in snow. But cat had been on Beast’s territory. Back feet landing in prints of front feet, Beast stalked scent. Followed old cat smell many short steps, body in crouch, to tree on edge of hunting territory. Male cat had left spoor near tree. Old scat. Male cat was healthy. Strong. Bigger than lynx. Beast sucked in scent through nose and mouth. Cat was not lion from Africa. Cat was not leopard. Not puma. Was not werecat. Beast knew those smells. Did not know this cat. Beast pawed scat and saw bones of rabbit in scat. But. Cat was gone.
Beast clawed tree, shredding bark. Clawed and clawed, marking territory. This is Beast territory. This is Beast hunting ground. Snarled again. Shook more water out of pelt. Left spoor at ground under tree, on top of male cat scat. This said, Beast place. All who hunted here would know it was Beast place. Went back to pool of water and drank. Beast water. And when Beast sees deer again, Beast deer. Beast food.
Beast screamed, mountain lion cry bouncing up hills like human ball on walls. Beast shook, flinging more water, and shoved off with all four feet. Straight-up jump, what Jane would say was too high, but Puma concolorknew was good jump. Landed on top of rock ridge. Raced into trees and down top of hill toward house that was human home.
Snow began to fall. Ran through snowflakes, slinky and lithe and lissome. Good words for Beast. Each leap covered more than Beast body and tail, body and tail, and part of body again. Was long run steps.
Sun dipped behind western ridge. Dusk fell. Beast eyes saw world as green and silver and gray and many shades of black. Cold air and snow kept Beast cool. Felt good on strong body. But Beast still hungered. Was skinny.
Thought of humans and vampires and witches. Want to hunt bison in Edmund car. Edmund is gone. Want to sit on Leo and rub jaw on Leo to scent mark. But Leo is gone. Want to curl around Angie Baby and Little Evan and new kit and keep kits safe. But kits are gone. Beast is hungry. Beast is sad.
Thought about big-cat spoor. Beast is lonely.
Felt/saw/smelled change. Beast stopped. Crouched. Thought was another deer, but . . . vibration beneath Beast’s paws was too big for running deer. Was like stone on stone, not deer hooves. Beast quivered in reaction, sniffing, dropping belly to snow. Thinking. Vibration got stronger. Claws extruded and sank into leaves on ground beneath snow. Vibration got stronger again. Earth moves, Beast thought. Earth is alive.
Snow fell from quivering branches overhead. Large globs landed on snow with soft plops. Dollop of snow splatted onto Beast’s back. Beast hissed. Leaped high and to side, into trees, hissing, spitting, hissing, growling. Raced up tall tree into branches. Hunched tight. Smelling for enemy. But tree was shaking too.
Earth settled. Night fell darker beneath heavy clouds. Faint light came from place where sun set. Beast turned to stare at it. Sun was gone. Was too light there now. Had been darker there when sun set last time Beast hunted. More white man’s lights? Hate white man’s lights.
When Beast was satisfied that Earth was staying still, Beast dropped from limb, loped toward house. Smelled wood smoke on air. Smelled Brute spoor stink. Smelled Bruiser and Eli and stink of gunfire from new shooting range. Family. Saw snow fall, felt snow landing on coat. Trotted out of tree line, along row of grapevines, branches showing hints of green from warmer weather, now gone again. Bruiser said Mother Nature was fickle. Beast did not understand fickle. Trotted past unfinished cottages. Past finished cottages. Up to house that Jane called inn.
Beast did not need lights, but security lights were on. Alex and Eli trusted Beast to know if Beast was safe, but did not trust Jane to live, so littermates had come. They had put up cameras. Beast was on camera and motion sensors. Beast thought about spraying spoor on cameras and chuffed with laughter. But Bruiser was here. Eli and Alex. Family. Beast did not spray cameras.
Beast was nearing front steps when something in mind tore with harsh sound. Beast stopped. Stumbled. Fell to snow. In head, deep in mind, Edmund screamed, “My mistress! Dange—” The sound of his cry was cut off. Was sound of agony. Beast froze, lying in snow.
Edmund cry waked Jane.
Beast? Was that Ed?
Beast whirled body and spun to feet. Raced for door, sprinting, leaping, covering twenty feet in a bound.
Ed? Jane whispered in my/our mind.
Edmund screamed. Sound as if heart was being torn out with claws.
Oh no. Oh nonononono, Jane thought. He’s being . . . He’s being tortured.
Pain and vertigo and the scent of blood flooded through me. Beast’s paws overlapped and we stumbled, falling hard to our side. Rolled back to our feet. Ed? I screamed for him.
There was nothing. A blank dark hole where the connection to Ed used to reside. I hadn’t even noticed the bond was there, a real, tangible thing. Nor had I noticed the shield between us until it tore, that horrible ripping sound in Beast’s mind. But the absence of the bond, the absence of Ed, was glaring, screaming, like night terrors and drowning and being sucked into a deep, dark hole in an underground river.
I/we staggered, raced up the stairs and inside, through the huge rubber-flapped cat door Eli had installed to the side of the human one. The silver-bell chimes announced our arrival. We raced across the thick Oriental rug of the foyer. Dry heat, artificial light, and the sound of a game on the huge TV screen over the fireplace were like being smacked in the senses, and we skidded on snow-damp paws across the marble flooring as we raced into the noisy office/TV/living area.
Beast had hunter eyes on Alex, sitting at the antique two-sided desk that took up the entire far end of the room. We leaped to cross the space, cat eyes seeing what he was working on while in midair. On three of his screens were files and research about the Dark Queen, and on two others were e-mails from witches about methods to treat magically induced cancer. We landed, slipping again on the slick floor, banging into the splayed feet of Alex’s desk chair. Sending him rolling.
The Kid grunted, pulled himself back into place, and tried to wave us away. Beast reached up and took his hand in her teeth.
The game went silent.
The room went still. Sweat smell of surprise came from Alex. He slowly turned his head and looked at us, long curls sliding across his dark-skinned forehead and cheek. “Jane?”
Eli was standing behind us, weapon drawn.
They think I died and you went feral, I thought at Beast.
She snorted at that thought and let go of Alex’s hand. It tasted of sweat and soot and coffee and an odd chemical under-tang. Beast rose to her back feet, placing her right paw on the desk near the keyboard.
Alex said, “Oh.” He opened the file drawer to the side and pulled out the specially made, heavy-duty, oversized keyboard, placing it in front of us. Behind us, Eli relaxed and we heard the sound of a weapon click back into the Kydex holster.
Beast extruded her claws and turned over the use of the paw to me. Carefully, slowly, I typed. Letter by letter, the words appeared on the small designated screen to Alex’s far left. ‘ed n trouble. where ed?’
Eli grunted in worry, propped a hip on the large oak desk, and pulled out his phone, probably to text Bruiser to get back to the house. My honeybunch was out in the vineyard, checking the youngest vines and the new trellis and the stability of the terraces down the hill from the house. Beast had smelled him on the wind as we raced inside and located him reliably. Bruiser wasn’t alone. He was with Brute, the white werewolf, and Pea, the grindylow. Not things I had consciously noted until I needed to.
Alex slanted sharp eyes at us and went to work, minimizing two of his screens, searching through private vampire sites he was able to access because of my position in Mithran hierarchy, and other sites that were open to the public. Beast dropped to the floor as he worked and pulled the ceramic water bowl to her with a paw. There were water bowls placed strategically throughout the house, all ceramic, since she refused to drink out of metal bowls, preferring toilet water to the taste of steel. Which had been gack until I was able to explain to the humans what was wrong. She lapped water.
The house had been an inn and vineyard that I bought before I left New Orleans. I’d needed a place to lie low while either my human body died from magically induced cancer or I decided to stay in Beast’s form forever. I hadn’t known what I was buying, not exactly. I was just hunting for acreage and I bought a property that had gone into foreclosure after the original owners’ costly divorce. Now it was territory for Beast and a house big enough for my family and clan to live with me. If I survived.
Eli asked. “Did you hear Ed psychically through the binding?”
Beast stopped drinking and looked up at him. I/we nodded once. Deep inside, my thoughts plundered the empty place where Ed had been, a place that was now raw and bleeding and broken. He had been here, inside of us, all this time, bound to me as his mistress. Now he was gone. I needed to help him. I needed to help him now. And I couldn’t.
Beast will hunt for Ed, she thought.
Ed is far away, I thought back.
“You’re all wet,” Eli said. “What’d you do, fall in the creek?”
Eli’s face seemed permanently creased with mixed emotions, complex weavings of fury, despair, anger, grief. He seldom laughed these days, and I was the problem. If he could heal me by shooting something, I’d be healthy and happy, because he was going through ammo as if it grew on trees, in the outdoor shooting range he had set up. But he was helpless in the face of a magical disease that no one knew how to treat. A rare moment of amusement lit his face. “You did,” Eli said. “You fell in.”
Beast snarled at him and thought at me, Do not like water. Hate water. Hate cold water. Water helped deer get away. Water stole deer.
I let my thoughts riffle through Beast’s memory and saw her landing in the icy water, plunging beneath. Inside, I laughed but said nothing.
Beast is best hunter. Water stole deer, she insisted.
Okay, I thought.
I hunger. Want to hunt bison in Edmund car.
There were at least three bison ranches within driving distance of Asheville, and we had this conversation multiple times a week. I figured that this time it was to cheer me up, to put my fear for Edmund to the side, but it was more distraction than comfort. I mentally counted to ten.
Ten is more than five. Hunt in Ed’s car, Beast thought, observant and yet cat-adamant all at once.
Ed’s in trouble. Ed’s in danger. So no, that ain’t happening.
Beast hungers. Will Eli give dead cow?
I’m sure he will.
My cell chimed. Beast and I followed Eli to my gobag in the mudroom, the small bag hanging on the rack with other winter gear. He swiped the screen, tapped in my security code, and started back to the office, saying, “Molly, it’s Eli—”
Angie Baby screamed, “My Eddie is in trouble! My Eddie! No! No!”
Beast growled, showing killing teeth. My/our heart did a fearful, arrhythmic bump-and-pause, and then raced too fast. Again, I searched for the connection to Edmund. Gone. Severed. As if it had been cut out with a knife. It was a strange sensation, as if a part of my own body had been instantly amputated and I kept searching for it, feeling something but . . . not the missing part. Ed was mine. Ed was gone.
Molly’s voice came over the phone and my attention swept to the cell. “Sorry, Jane. Angie woke up screaming from a bad dream about Ed. We’ve been trying to calm her down, but she grabbed my cell and called.” In the background, we heard the sound of Angie Baby’s screams diminish in volume and the crooning of her father’s flute magic, soothing her.
“Eli here. Jane’s big-cat at the moment. Angie may not be having a dream.”
“What’s happening with Ed?” Molly asked, a trace of fear in her tone.
“We don’t know, except that Jane heard Ed through the vamp-binding. Alex is searching for him.”
In the background Angie’s screams crescendoed, the pitch so high it hurt Beast’s ears. She turned her ear tabs down against the noise and thought, Kits . . . Kits in trouble. Ed in trouble.
“Eli, I—This is . . . Has Ed been killed? He and Angie have a blood bond. I don’t know what to do if . . . ?” Molly’s voice trailed away, uncertainly.
I/we nodded Beast’s head up and down, then back and forth, an uncertain yes/no gesture. We stared at Eli, snarling and licking our jaw, hoping he would understand that this was really not right.
“Jane and Beast are upset too,” he said.
“I think we’ll come visit,” Molly said.
“We have the room,” Eli said.
“Yeah. I’ve seen the sales brochures,” she said wryly.
In the background, the screaming stopped. Evan said, “She’s asleep. Pack fast. More snow is coming.”
Into the cell, Molly said, “We’ll probably have to keep her in magically induced sleep, but expect us after nine tonight.”
“The county brined the street but the drive is frozen,” Eli said. “Call if you get stuck.”
“Will do.” The call ended.
From the office, I heard the Kid’s voice in quiet conversation with Grégoire, Blondie’s and Alex’s voices barely loud enough to pick out, even with Beast’s ears. Grégoire was in France with Edmund. Good. That meant up-to-date info. I/we trotted to him.
“Send me everything you have,” Alex said.
“Oui. My people do so now. Dieu vous garde en sécurité.”
“You too, dude.”
I heard a connection end and felt a smile tug at my puma lips. Only Alex would call a royal-born, centuries-old, powerful vamp dude.
“Do the Everhart-Truebloods know how sick you are?” Eli asked me as we reentered the office.
Beast snorted. Louder, Alex said, “Yeah. They know.” The younger Younger had been putting out the word, asking about magical treatments or cures for magical cancers. That meant talking to witches and revealing everything to Molly, my BFF, and her husband, air witch Big Evan. Witch boy children got magic-induced cancers often. Fighting the cancers meant a lot of study had gone into the magical and mundane cures. However, I wasn’t a witch. My cancer was different.
Molly had mostly given up on finding a cure for me. She wanted me to drink a lot of vampire blood and cross my fingers that the healing of vamps would work on me. The only problem with that cancer treatment was that Ed was my first choice, my only safe choice, and he was in Europe. Any other vamp would see how sick I am and might challenge me to a blood duel on the spot to get my lands. And besides. I knew in my heart, no amount of vamp blood was going to heal me. My DNA had doubled, folded, multiplied, shredded, and knotted itself when I bubbled time. Vamp blood wasn’t going to fix that.
My partners and I had been looking for a permanent cure. I wasn’t dead. Yet. We still had options. Sort of.
Eli placed my cell phone on the big desk. His face was intent, the expression he wore when he was strategizing, ideas coming, undergoing scrutiny, being filed or discarded. To Alex, he said, “Yeah. Okay. We can do this. A house full of magic-using kids.” He smiled slightly as if he was anticipating it. “This will be interesting.”
Alex tapped keys, scanned screens, grunted, and swiveled to us. “I got something,” he said.
Beast and I sat beside his chair and wrapped her long tail around our feet. The tail was warm with strong blood flow, thick, deeply furred, heavy, and cozy on our paws.
Alex leaned forward and propped his elbows on his knees. That made us eye-to-eye level and brought his scent strongly to our nose. He smelled of testosterone and garlic and coffee and aftershave and worry. Beast butted his hands, which were laced and hanging between his knees in a posture that was very Eli-like. Alex’s mouth twisted into a parody of a smile and he scratched Beast behind her ears. “I’ve been in FaceTime conversation with Grégoire. Things have been happening fast in France, and there’re things Grégoire hasn’t told us, not wanting to worry you.”
Beast snarled. So did I. Blondie knew I was sick. Blondie had been keeping secrets.
“Ed,” Alex said gently, scratching, smoothing our lips back over our teeth. He looked into our eyes as if he was about to break my heart, “Was stolen from his lair in France at midday, five days ago.”
My heart stuttered.
Ed? Beast asked.
Eli’s lips twitched. On another man it would have been a scowl like thunderclouds. “We weren’t notified,” Eli said. “Why?”
“There was a fight,” Alex said, even more gently, “in a farmhouse in the wine country of France. Four of Ed’s people were killed. The house where they were laired burned to the ground.”
Ed? Our lips moved but no sound came out. Our eyes burned. But Alex didn’t appear to be grieved or as if he was about to tell me—
“His surviving people thought Ed had burrowed under the hearth, into a small safe-room lair, with three others. His vamps had been sharing blood and so they knew he was alive, but that was all they knew until they got the safe room excavated.” Alex sounded so grown up. So adult. So much like Eli in his delivery, but with his own touch, that gentleness I would never have expected when I first met him. His fingers scratched deep and Beast closed our eyes in bliss. “Because of the heat of the fire and the presence of the local law,” he said, “that rescue took place only a few hours past. Ed wasn’t in the safe room. Grégoire now assumes that Ed was taken by the attackers the day of the assault.”
Ed in cage? Beast thought, opening our eyes.
“Once his people started looking, they discovered that Pellissier Clan’s Bombardier Learjet 85 flew out of Paris four days ago with Ed and four other vampires aboard—none of them Ed’s. The aircraft landed in the Bahamas and Ed’s passport was marked. Then he disappeared. They were getting ready to inform us when I called them first.”
Beast hissed deep inside me.
We pulled away from Alex and turned to face Eli when he took up the narrative. “What we haven’t discussed with you is that there’s been a vamp war in Europe and in other parts of the world between several Naturaleza and the Mithran factions. It’s been simmering for centuries and the emperor had controlled the violence with an iron hand, but with Titus gone and Ed not yet having a loyal base, things were getting dicey. With Ed gone, I’m sure they’ve gotten worse.”
Alex said, “According to Grégoire, the local fangheads are rising and fighting between themselves.” Alex captured my attention with his eyes.
Beast didn’t like the direct stare. I held her still, waiting.
Slowly, he said, “There is no emperor. No Dark Queen. And you aren’t in any shape to fight duels. Getting you well has been and still is the goal, not fighting duels or dealing with fanghead politics. So this is not your fault. In any way. You got that?”
The Kid knew I had a guilt complex a mile wide, but I’d been working on demolishing it. Since I got sick, I hadn’t felt guilty about anything at all. Except being sick. And that was totally my fault, even if I hadn’t known I was doing it to myself at the time. I snorted in disgust.
“What’s happened?” Bruiser called from the front door. He was taking off his peacoat and pulling off snow-covered boots. Eli filled him in as my honeybunch crossed the wide space, as succinct as the former ranger could be. Three sentences, max.
“Which faction burned the house where Ed was staying?” Bruiser asked, his eyes lighting up. The former primo would know all about the political problems in Europe, and if the gleam in his eyes was an indication, he was already engrossed.
Alex said, “Things are bad over there. From what Grégoire was saying there are five key European factions, major infighting, and some of the European Mithrans have begun looking for new land to conquer. Two factions headed west, including the one that stole Ed and the Bombardier. That means that things are about to get bad in this hemisphere.”
They’ve been hiding things from us, I thought to Beast.
Jane is sick. Jane cannot help. Why tell Jane?
I’m still interested. They should have told me.
Jane is Dark Queen still? No. Jane gave up alpha among vampires. Walked away to find new territory to hunt. Jane is silly kit who does not know what she wants. Does not even know if she wants to live or die.
It isn’t that I want to die. I just don’t think I can live. And I’m nosy.
Beast swiveled her ear tabs back in disgust. She was disgusted a lot these days.
Alex said, “Grégoire debriefed me. Most of it’s bad.” Alex made eye contact with each of us, one by one, staring through the ringlets across his forehead before continuing. “Shimon Bar-Ioudas’s faction is one that headed west. His passport shows he entered the British Virgin Islands two weeks ago, with an entourage, and then disappeared. But Grégoire thinks Shimon’s people may have spearheaded the attack on Ed. He thinks Ed is now in the hands of Bar-Ioudas.”
“Bar-Ioudas? Jane killed him and fed him to the werewolf,” Eli said, frowning.
“Shimon Bar-Ioudas,” Bruiser said, “Shimon Bar-Judas, if we use the modern vernacular, is the name of the younger Son of Darkness, and according to what I know from my time as Leo’s primo, he is far worse than his older brother.” His voice was toneless and yet somehow still full of dread. “He’s gone by many titles over the years. Flayer of Mithrans, Son of Shadows, Son of Night, Soul of Darkness, Son of Deception, among others. It’s said that he was the brother who personally sacrificed his younger sister on the wood of the crosses of Calvary in the act of black magic that brought their father back from the dead and created the first of the blood drinkers.” He hesitated. “The records suggest that he ate her body while she was still alive, piece by piece, while she screamed.”