WitD3: Chapter 31

*The Watcher in the Darkness Series and all characters contained therein are the sole copyright of K.M. Spires. All rights reserved.*

The Watcher in the Darkness series contains adult situations, graphic violence, and lots and lots of bad language. Rated M for Mature, seriously.

<<<Start from the beginning

Chapter 31

 

Dawn came and went. Traffic grew congested and the buses began to vomit dead-eyed business drones. The morning rush hour passed and Kingdom Come’s double doors never opened. By ten-thirty, I’d passively collected thirty-seven dollars from people who’d mistaken me for a bum.

Karen wasn’t coming. I knew she wouldn’t have broken her promise to me, not if she could help it. Therefore, she couldn’t come. Khalid wouldn’t allow her to leave.

I screamed in frustration as I slammed my fist into a nearby tree. The trunk split, scaring a flock of small, white birds into flight. I had no reason to believe Khalid could hear me, but I jabbed a finger toward the cathedral. “This isn’t over. I’m coming back, and I’m going to leave with her.”

A calm voice on the wind said, “Tick-tock, bloodsucker.”

If I clenched my teeth any harder, they would grind down to sandpaper. Khalid knew about my trial getting moved up. That didn’t surprise me; I mean, it wasn’t a secret, or anything. I just wasn’t worried about it until that moment. Okay, yes, I’d planned to plead guilty when the time came. Unfortunately, Khalid had everything to gain if I got prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. In that instant, I knew Karen would die of old age before I saw daylight again.

The incredible pressure of time coiled around my chest as I sprinted back to the Sanctuary. Halfway there, it began to rain, because of course it did.

Thanks to Michael’s open invitation, I was able to burst into his house without knocking. Rainwater cascaded over the carpet as I shouted, “Michael! Michael, I need your help!”

Michael came out of the bedroom, his hair a mess but his skin color a thousand times better. The rash had faded to patches of pink. His scent still held traces of infection, but his fever was almost gone. “Is everything okay?” he said. “Did you find Karen?”

I stripped off my soaking wet hoodie and tee shirt. “I found her but I couldn’t get to her. That’s where you come in.”

Michael frowned in confusion. “Me? What’s going on?”

I grabbed a handful of paper towels to pat myself dry. The outer layer of my skin looked, and tore, like wet tissue paper. “Karen’s entered into a contract with a goddamn demon.” My left ear dropped from my skull like a petal from a flower. “Fuck!”

Michael couldn’t hide his disgust. “Dude, are you going to clean this up?”

No, I was not. “Michael, I am so over all these fucking…” I couldn’t think of a better word to describe Gwen, Khalid, the hellhound, or Aliese the Whore. Instead, I yelled at the top of my lungs as I drove my fist through the wall.

Michael held up his hands. “Deep breaths, Toby. I understand that you’re under a lot of pressure, but no good can come from getting sucked into a rage spiral. All right, Karen has entered into a contract with a demon. What’s the nature of that contract? Was it verbal, like yours?”

“I wish. She signed it in her own blood.”

Michael reacted as I expected him to. “Are you freaking kidding me? Who in the hell does that?”

“Someone desperate.” Try as I might, I couldn’t get mad at Karen. I saved all that blame and anger for myself. “I’ve got to go in there and get her, but there are these fucking wards I can’t get past. That’s why I need you.”

“Why me?”

“Because you’re good at wards, Michael. You made those wards for the Sanctuary that only activate when a vampire is about to lose their shit.”

“They react to negative energy that will turn violent, as you are well aware.” Yes, I was. I’d been taken down by those wards plenty of times. “Also, I didn’t create those wards. They were developed within the church by Pope Bartholomew the Eternal. With them in place, the Turned faithful can still attend midnight mass without endangering the rest of the congregation. It took me months to learn that ritual, and three full days to perform it.”

I was beyond pissed. “You went to school for like ten years to learn this shit. You have to have at least some understanding of how all this works. That Infernal cocksucker has wards that let a vampire enter his domain, but they can’t leave unless he allows it.”

“Well, then, if I were you, I wouldn’t go back in there.”

“Don’t you know of any way to undo that type of magic? What the fuck did they teach you in seminary?”

“Not how to craft wards from scratch, Toby. The church protects humanity from evil magic. We don’t dabble in it.”

“Then what the hell am I supposed to do now?”

Michael ran his hand through his hair. “We’ll have to make Karen come out on her own. Where is this place? I’ll go in there and get her myself.”

I shook my head with a sigh. “No way. There are more than just vampires in there. The grounds have been so defiled that Infernals can manifest outside of the Abyss. Even if you weren’t sick, you’d get eaten alive.”

“If that’s true, why hasn’t Karen picked up on that energy? At the very least, she should be a target for possession. How is she even remotely safe in a place like that?”

“Khalid must be protecting her. He is totally in control there. If he says they can’t, the other Infernals wouldn’t dare go near her, and the vampires are no match for her. As for why she stays, I think maybe he has her Enthralled, or…” There wasn’t a force in the universe that could make me finish that sentence.

Michael finished it for me. “She’s fallen in love with him.” It was like someone sliced open my stomach, pulled out my guts, then filled the cavity with sand. “If that’s the case, we might not be able to convince her to come back willingly.”

“So we don’t give her that choice. I won’t let Khalid have Karen. I can’t. I’ll free her, even if it’s the last thing I ever do.”

“Your trial starts the day after tomorrow, Toby. Have you given any thought as to what you’ll do if you’re convicted?”

I didn’t have to think about it. “They’ll have to catch me first, Michael. I’m not going anywhere until Karen is freed and Justine has been laid to rest.”

“Toby, if this entity is anything like you say, you won’t have that luxury. You can’t hide if this Khalid guy uses his powers to make sure you’re found. The very ground beneath your feet could open up and swallow you. If this demon wants Karen’s powers, then you’re a wild card he has to eliminate.”

“Karen isn’t the only one under contract. Gwen won’t let me go to prison, not as long as Justine is on the loose.” I realized I was still standing there, half-naked. “Dude, do you have some dry clothes I can borrow?”

Michael gestured for me to follow as he turned toward his bedroom. “Right this way.”

Dr. S. was unconscious on the bed, her skin like clay and her cheeks drawn. A half-empty cup of cold blood sat on Michael’s nightstand. A second vampire lay next to her, moaning as he hugged his stomach. I couldn’t remember his name or anything about him, but a bucket of puke sat on the floor next to him.

I caught the faded tee shirt Michael tossed over his shoulder. “Looks like I was right about blood-mugging.”

“It seems so, but I don’t like how much they’re suffering on my behalf.”

“They’ll live.” I was extra careful as I peeled off my wet jeans, but nothing could save my skin. “They just need to drink extra cold blood to flush the tainted blood from their system.” Michael winced at my legs as he handed me a pair of loose-fitting running pants. His shirt was tight across my shoulders, and the pant legs hovered an inch above my ankles. Also, I was going commando.

Michael raised his hand with a tight smile. “By all means, keep them.”

“Much obliged. As I was saying, Gwen isn’t about to let me out of my contract. She’s got enough power that she can stand up to Lord Ahriman, if it comes to that. So, I have time.” The truth of my words sank in, then my sense of urgency vanished. It was replaced by a tidal wave of exhaustion. “I’ve got time.”

Michael followed me back to the living room. “I don’t know, it seems too…wait, did you say Lord Ahriman?”

I dropped down hard on the couch then sank deep into the cushions. “Yeah, so?”

“That’s really what he calls himself?”

I closed my eyes. “That’s what Karen calls him. Gwen calls him Khalid.”

Michael laughed under his breath as he sat next to me. “He’s not even trying to be subtle, is he?”

I wasn’t in on Michael’s private joke, so I couldn’t pretend to care. “I guess?”

Too late. Michael was in lecture-mode. “Ahriman, more commonly known as Angra Mainyu, is very basically the Zoroastrian name for the devil. The embodiment of the spirit of destruction.”

“And why in the hell would I know that?” Being tired always made me an asshole. Well, a bigger asshole.

“Uh…sorry? Anyway, I don’t remember a lot about that section of my Middle Eastern Religious Studies course. We didn’t cover much beyond the basic philosophy and the myth about the Princess of the Mists.”

I made a vague sound, hoping Michael would get the hint.

He didn’t. “It’s not a well-known legend these days, but they made a big deal about it in seminary. It perfectly encapsulates the importance Immortals place on contracts and blood oaths.”

“Keep talking. I haven’t slept in days and your sermons always do the trick.”

“Funny. God forbid you actually learn something.”

“God forbid.” I was so tired that even the itchy tightening of my raw skin didn’t stop me from drifting off.

“So, apparently, once upon a time, there was this powerful entity. The church speculates that he was worshipped as some sort of fire deity, hundreds of years before the birth of Christ. Our records place his cult somewhere within the Mediterranean, but there’s no trace of him within the Greco-Roman pantheon. From that, we were able to infer that he was some sort of titan. His name doesn’t matter; the story isn’t about him.”

I let out a long exhale. “What is it about blood-mugging that affects mortals like fucking Adderall?”

“Don’t know. Anyway, this titan ruled the world with an army of his kind, which scholars associate with the ring of fire. The Great General married a highborn water nymph, and she birthed to him seven children. She was incredibly powerful in her own right, but he was so much stronger that every time she gave birth, she had to sacrifice a piece of herself.”

In my head, I pictured a torso surrounded by screaming freak babies, but said nothing.

“Her first son took her cleverness. Her first daughter took her beauty. Her second son took her intelligence, and so on and so forth. Her last child took her kind and loving nature, which was what made the Great General fall in love with her in the first place. His wife’s final breath was their daughter’s first. After one last explosion of temper, the Great General abdicated his title. Every Immortal in the world rose up to fill the power vacuum he left behind. The wars that followed lasted for hundreds of years.

“Eventually, a new power arose in Persia. Some say this entity was a djinn. Some say he was the ghost of a bloodthirsty and brutal warlord. Again, it doesn’t matter. He spread across the land like a wave of blood, conquering as he went. Soon, his army controlled a huge portion of Europe and Asia.

“Not wanting to be conquered and enslaved, the Immortals turned to the Great General for help. The General had given up his warlike ways, but his reputation was still fierce enough that the Warlord agreed to a sit-down. The General offered the young Warlord lands and influence, as well as a seat on the High Council. Rather, the Seelie Court, or whatever the ruling body of the fairykin call themselves these days.”

The Supreme Authority. Again, I said nothing.

“To seal the deal, the General offered an arranged marriage to his youngest and favorite child, the Princess of the Mists. There were many that advised against the match. She was said to be the kindest, most gentle soul in the entire world. What no one expected was that the Warlord and the Princess would fall in love at first sight.”

I hugged a plump, soft pillow to my chest. “Yeah, they sound like the perfect couple.”

“The heart wants what the heart wants, Toby. Anyway, arrangements were made, peace accords were drawn up, and the lovers began to meet in secret. On one such meeting, they agreed to exchange gifts on their wedding day. The Warlord carved an obsidian statue of the two of them. He wanted to prove to the Princess that beauty and artistry did exist within him. The Princess, on the other hand, wanted to prove that she could be as strong and brutal as her future husband. To do that, she decided to kidnap a human child.”

“How is it possible to be too tired to sleep?”

“Dunno. Anyway, fairy tales are eaten up with stories of fairies, trolls, and ogres kidnapping human children for one reason or another. Usually, it’s to eat them, but they keep them as pets, too. It’s a status thing. A human child is one of the greatest gifts one Immortal can bestow upon another, but that’s neither here nor there.

“The Princess of the Mists found a small child foraging in the forest, after having been abandoned by his parents. He was starving and sickly, so she whisked him back to her father’s fortress in secret. She kept the boy hidden and told no one of her plans as she nursed him back to health. The problem was—”

I could see where this was going. “She ended up falling in love with the kid herself.”

“Worse. She did what is considered unthinkable in Immortal circles. She told the child her true name.”

I laughed once in the back of my throat. “Dipshit.”

“Yeah. The kid was young and alone in the world, but clever. He used that information to compel her to become his servant. Long story short—”

“Yeah, that ship sailed, Michael.”

“See? Why do I bother? Anyway, her royal relatives, who were against the match to begin with, decided she had to suffer the consequences. This pissed her fiancée right the hell off, but the Princess of the Mists appealed to her siblings to keep the child safe. They agreed. The Warlord cursed the boy and his descendants with short life, but the marriage fell through. The known world has been doomed to endless war ever since.”

I stared at the ceiling, and wished that I was stupider. I set the pillow aside with a sigh then braced myself to go back out into the rain. I hoped against hope that Gwen was home.

<<<Chapter 30

Chapter 32>>>

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WitD3: Chapter 30

*The Watcher in the Darkness Series and all characters contained therein are the sole copyright of K.M. Spires. All rights reserved.*

The Watcher in the Darkness series contains adult situations, graphic violence, and lots and lots of bad language. Rated M for Mature, seriously.

<<<Start at the beginning

Chapter 30

 

The security gate wouldn’t budge no matter how hard I shook it. Everything about it appeared normal, like nothing I couldn’t handle. I’ve gotten through sturdier doors, but kicking the bars was like kicking solid rock. Stupid demons and their stupid demon magic.

Karen held her finger to her lips as I threw myself against the gate like a deranged gorilla. “Toby, you have to keep it down. They’re going to hear you.”

I ran my hands around the edges of the gate, looking for any defect. There were none. “Can you unlock this damn thing from the inside?”

“Yes, I can, but—”

“Then unlock it. Come on, let’s go.”

Karen shook her head. “I can’t.”

“Why?”

“You know why.”

Of course, I knew why. Because I would snatch her away and never look back. I gripped the thick, unbending bars as I said, “I know Khalid has you on lockdown, but don’t worry. I’ll figure something out.”

Karen put her hands over mine again. “No, it’s not like that. I can’t leave because I have to be here, in case he needs me.”

A revelation settled over me. In hindsight, I don’t know why it took me so long to arrive at the truth. I guess I just really didn’t want to see Karen in that light. There was only one reason a skinrider that pimped vampires would need a necromancer. The words sickened me as I said, “You’re Khalid’s enforcer.”

Karen frowned in confusion. “Khalid? Do you mean Lord Ahriman?”

I couldn’t look at her. “He uses you to make the vampires do what he says.”

Karen made a face. “You make it sound like I’m using my powers to hold them still while they get gang raped. It’s not like that at all. This is a business and these men and women are professionals. Some of them have been in this line of work for centuries. No one is here against their will.”

“That would be a lot more convincing if I didn’t know for a fact that they can’t leave.”

 “Yes, they can. They come and go all the time.”

“Not without Khalid’s permission.”

“Uh, yeah, because then they’d have no reason to give Lord Ahriman his cut. He gives them a safe, beautiful place to live and work, and all he asks in return is his fair share.” I closed my eyes as I shook my head, so Karen spoke louder. “I’m here to level the playing field. He gives them blood, money, and safe harbor, but you’d be surprised how many of them try to screw him out of what he’s owed.”

Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised at all. “Wow. If you can’t trust someone that’ll whore themselves out for a mouthful of blood, who can you trust?”

Karen’s eyes narrowed. “A mouthful of blood and thousands upon thousands of dollars per client. We’re not talking about your run-of-the-mill streetwalker here, Toby. People need referrals from their referrals to hire these escorts.”

“So the vampires here deserve whatever they get?”

Karen groaned as she leaned against the bars. “Dude, pick an argument. They can’t be villains and victims at the same time, Toby. Everyone that works here was recruited, not entrapped. Including me.”

I couldn’t help but feel betrayed. “Why? Why did you come here? Really, what do you get out of this?”

Karen seemed amazed that I had to ask. “Are you kidding? What don’t I get? For the first time in my life, I’m free, and I only have to worry about myself. I have a taste of what it’s like to not be dirt poor. I can go shopping at places besides thrift stores. I can go to restaurants that don’t have a freaking dollar menu.”

She’d lost me. “Money. You threw your life away and became a part of this for money. I thought you were better than that.”

“Really? Why? Because, I’m not. You of all people know what it’s like to be poor in this country, Toby. You know what it’s like to wear clothes someone else threw away and to wonder where your next meal is coming from.” Karen’s voice began to waver. “You don’t know what it’s like to watch your mother starve herself so her children can eat. You’ve never listened to her cry at night as she worries herself sick over how she’s going to make ends meet. You don’t know what it’s like to have nothing while your friends wave everything they take for granted in your face. Money equals the power to make your own decisions. For the first time in my life, I can do that.”

Karen was wrong. I understood poverty better than most. “There has to be a better way.”

“It’s not just about the money, Toby. I’m learning so much here. I’m developing powers I never knew I had. I’m safe while I learn how to protect myself.”

“I protect you.”

Karen’s face soured beneath the layers and layers of makeup. “You’ve been in prison for the last few months, Toby. You’d be there now if I hadn’t stopped you.”

I couldn’t argue with her. I was also two days away from going back for fifty years. “How long are you under contract with that fucking…Infernal?”

Karen hesitated, then her shoulders slumped. “Thirty years,” she said without looking at me.

My temper exploded like a powder keg. “Thirty years? Are you fucking kidding me?” Karen motioned for me to keep quiet, but that was impossible. “What was the plan here, Karen? You’re just going to leave your family alone with that demon in the meantime?” I felt a series of pops in my right shoe. Aside from a facial tic, I showed no reaction.

Karen made a disgusted sound. “You’re so racist.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m a dick. Everyone tells me so. I’m going to get exactly what I blah, blah, blah. Karen, your family isn’t safe with that doppelgänger.”

“Yes, they are. Hell, they’re better off. She holds my place in the house and at school, but she requires nothing. She doesn’t eat or drink or need new clothes. Mom only needs to provide for herself and Scotty. Plus, the doppelgänger filters the money I make into the house.”

“It’s not that simple, Karen. Your mom’s not stupid. She can tell something is off about Bad Karen.”

Karen arched an eyebrow with a laugh. “Bad Karen?”

“Yes. Your mom knows that’s not you, and so does your little brother. Scotty came to the Sanctuary and begged me to get rid of her.”

At last, I appeared to be getting through to her. Karen’s little brother was and always would be her kryptonite. “What do you mean?”

“Bad Karen might not need human food, but she still needs to feed. Scotty is terrified of her.”

Karen bit her bottom lip, a faraway look in her eyes. “Maybe Lord Ahriman was right,” she said, more to herself than to me. “I should let everyone think I died.”

“What? Karen, no. Are you crazy?”

“I can’t just walk away from Lord Ahriman, Toby. Even if I wanted to. I’ve signed a contract in my own blood.”

“Your contract is void if I kill that motherfucker.”

Panic flashed across her face. “No, Toby, don’t do anything stupid. I’ll let my family think I’ve had a relapse, or something. The doppelgänger won’t have an excuse to stay and Mom will be able to pay off her debts with my life insurance.”

I had about two seconds to steer her train of thought into the nearest ravine. “And she will never be happy again. Your mother’s heart will ache for you for the rest of her life. She’ll cry herself to sleep every night. Every year on your birthday, it will be all she can do to keep from eating a bullet.”

Karen’s eyes welled up then spilled over. “What choice do I have? I’m vulnerable when I’m alone. I’m not ready to face what I’m up against, as a witch and especially as a necromancer. Until I learn how to control this…,” she gestured toward herself, “I’m a danger to everyone around me.”

“You’re stronger than you give yourself credit for. Besides, you’re not alone. You have your family. You have me.”

Karen’s expression hardened. “For now, and for how long? I know you plan to change your plea to guilty the first chance you get. What am I supposed to do then? I can’t count on you, Toby. I won’t.”

I remembered the real, non-selfish reason I was supposed to find Karen in the first place. “I need your help. Justine isn’t just a ghoul anymore, Karen. She’s become something much worse.”

Karen’s eyes narrowed in distrust. “What are you saying to me?”

“Thanks to that voodoo bitch’s resurrection spell, Justine’s become something called a revenant. She’s like a bat-shit crazy ghost-ghoul-vampire. She’s attacking people, Karen. She’s eating them. I’ve seen the bodies. But, worse than that, people are getting sick.”

Karen’s brow drew into a tight knot. “Sick? Sick, like she made me sick?”

“Worse. According to lore, revenants cause plagues. Like, Black Death style plagues. A lot of people are going to start dying soon, and they’re all going to come back as ghouls.” Karen was white as snow, her eyes wide in horror. It was the perfect time to drop the A-bomb. “Michael is sick.”

Karen flinched as though I’d slapped her. “Father Cooper?”

A wave of guilt washed over me, so powerful that my throat closed. I could only nod as I bowed my head.

Karen put her hands on the sides of my face. “No. It’s not your fault that this happened. You can’t blame yourself.”

“It is my fault. I’m the one that turned Justine into a ghoul. The why of it makes no difference, because we still end up here. That’s why I’m the one that needs to stop her, but I can’t do it on my own. Karen, I need your help.”

Karen trembled as she wiped away tears. “I can’t. I can’t get that close to her again. I can’t feel that sort of pain, or get another peek inside of her head. Not if I want to stay sane. Look at what happened last time.” Karen turned then lifted her dark hair. Around the nape of her neck, the fine hairs had turned silvery-white.

“I know. I know it’s scary and that it’s hard. It’s scary and hard for me, too. But I can’t turn my back on this and I can’t do it without you. We only have to face her one last time, then her suffering ends forever. It’ll be the last thing I ever ask of you.”

I could feel her skepticism. “Oh, so you don’t need me to turn you into a Pure vampire anymore?”

Shit. I’d forgotten about that.

Karen took a step back. “I can’t. Fighting a revenant to stop the ghoul apocalypse is superhero shit, Toby. I’m just a witch in training.”

“You’re more than that. You can do this. I know you can.”

Karen closed her eyes, her lips pressed together. “Fine,” she said. “Meet me across the street after dawn. We’ll go look for Justine then.”

I resisted the urge to cheer. “Dawn is…” I checked the clock on my phone. “A little under three hours from now. Promise me that you’ll be there.”

“I promise,” Karen said with a sigh. “But after this, we’re done. I’ll help you stop Justine because it’s the right thing to do, but then you have to leave me alone. This is the life I’ve chosen and you have no right to mess with it. When Justine is laid to rest, you stay away from me.”

My resolve turned to granite as I glared into her eyes. “You got it.”

<<<Chapter 29

Chapter 31>>>

 

WitD3: Chapter 29

*The Watcher in the Darkness Series and all characters contained therein are the sole copyright of K.M. Spires. All rights reserved.*

The Watcher in the Darkness series contains adult situations, graphic violence, and lots and lots of bad language. Rated M for Mature, seriously.

<<<Start at the beginning

Chapter 29

Khalid’s wide desk stood between us as he leaned back in his chair and pretended I didn’t exist. His demon enforcers stood on either side of me, arms crossed but ready to attack. My pre-battle adrenaline rush faded, so I passed the time by taking in my surroundings.

Khalid’s office was a monument to all the nice stuff the sex industry can buy. The furniture was modern and high-end, but the artwork appeared to come from medieval times. Every painting depicted human beings entangled with demons; some sexually, while others were being tortured and eaten. The collection would be worth millions to the right psychopathic collector. I filed that tidbit of information away for later.

An obsidian statue loomed in the recess behind Khalid’s desk. It had to be at least eight feet tall, and polished to a mirror finish. I could make out every strand in the angelic female’s long, flowing hair. She loomed above a demonic male, their hands, bodies, and lips not quite touching. Close, but forever out of reach.

I sucked my front teeth in absolute boredom. “Nice place,” I said.

Khalid didn’t look up from his phone.

“You turned an old church into a whorehouse. That’s pretty funny. It must’ve been worth some irony points, at least.”

Khalid heaved an impatient sigh.

“So, are you going to keep playing Candy Crush for the rest of the night, or what?”

“If you would, kindly shut the fuck up.” Khalid’s tone was flat and disinterested.

I nodded, my arms crossed, then counted to ten in my head. “So, you’re a pimp?”

Khalid closed his eyes as he massaged his brow.

“Don’t get me wrong, that sounds like a pretty sweet gig. You keep the money while your whores do all the work. How do you talk these women into going along with something like that?”

Khalid looked at me at last. “You know, vampire tongue is a delicacy, half-breed.”

“Really? Cool. So, why haven’t I heard of this place?”

Khalid made a disgusted sound in the back of his throat. “I take offense at the notion that a homeless vermin such as yourself believes he would hear about my establishment. Our social circles do not overlap, Tobias. They orbit in completely different galaxies.”

I’m used to people talking down to me, and under normal circumstances I don’t care. “You know I’m royalty, right?” I’ve never played that particular card before, and I don’t think I ever will again. It felt…very wrong.

Khalid wasn’t impressed. “Perhaps, but you are also Disavowed.”

Prick. “So, are you going to kill me, or what?”

“Oh, yes,” Khalid said with a nod, which made his underlings smile with sadistic joy. “First, I must assess any damage your presence might have caused here tonight.”

Before I could respond, Khalid’s office door opened, then a blonde woman walked into the room. She looked and smelled human, but it was obvious she worked there. Her long hair hung loose on her shoulders, having just enough natural curl to be unmanageable. Her cheeks were round and her blue eyes were too small for her face. A corset cinched her boobs and waist into an hourglass shape, but did nothing for her flat ass. I could tell right away she was a skinrider, like Khalid. Unlike Khalid, her inner-demon was weak and inferior. The aura she threw off was repellant rather than intimidating. Translation: I hated the bitch at first sight.

A cat-sized shadow perched on the whore’s forearm. It flitted across the room the second it saw Khalid, the imp’s wings silent as it swooped past my head. The creature didn’t ruffle a single paper when it landed on Khalid’s desk.  It handed him a pearlescent black stone, then crouched down to wait.

“Thank you, Linus,” Khalid said as he crushed the rock between his bare hands. He gave a pinch of the fine black powder to the imp, then brushed the remainder onto his desktop.

“We’ve finished sweeping the building, Captain,” the whore said. “Your staff and their clients appear to be wholly unaware of the intruder’s presence. Your other…assets haven’t been interfered with.” Her gaze shifted to me and I felt my skin crawl. “May we have him, Captain?”

“Patience, Aliese,” Khalid said, in the same tone I’ve heard people use with their dogs.

I’m not a complete idiot. Aliese the Whore’s thick southern accent made her sound like a dipshit, but I could read between the lines. A vein of white-hot fury pulsed through my calm. “Then Karen is here,” I said. “You’re a dead man, skinrider.”

Khalid arranged the powder into thin lines. “She is, for the moment, though not in the capacity that you assume.” He took a moment to snort what I assumed was concentrated human suffering through a silver straw. “Your master has abandoned you, half-breed.”

“My what?” I knew who he was talking about.

“I believe he is referring to me, Tobias,” a soothing, patient female voice said behind me. I turned my head to look at the full-length mirror that hung on the wall. Instead, I found myself gazing into Gwen’s creepy picture room. She sat on the center bar stool, a tranquil smile on her face. “Khalid, my darling. Already, it feels like eternity since we’ve last spoken.”

A warm flash of excitement at the sound of her voice salted Khalid’s blood. It only lasted for a moment before his scent began to burn with resentment. He got to his feet then rounded the desk to approach the mirror. “I’m afraid I must dispense with the formal pleasantries, my Dearest Heart. Your minion was found trespassing in my domain. It is only out of respect for your line that I approach you now, to resolve this matter informally.”

Gwen didn’t waver as she said, “Your benevolence and generosity know no bounds, Your Grace.” There was no way to take her tone as anything but sarcastic.

Khalid’s voice sharpened as he said, “We searched him, of course, but found he didn’t carry the fee of which you owe me.”

Gwen tilted her head. “Fee?”

“You engaged the services of my necromancer under false pretenses.”

“I made myself quite plain when I informed you that I needed your necromancer’s help in exorcising a ghost from my servant. How is that false pretenses?”

“You didn’t tell me that your servant was someone with whom my necromancer shared such a bitter and painful history.”

I’d been enjoying the show until that point. “Excuse me?” I said.

Gwen waved her hand. “I didn’t see how that was relevant.”

“It was relevant because, had I known this filthy half-vampire was the recipient of your ritual, I wouldn’t have allowed my Karen to take part in it.”

“Then it was fortuitous for Toby that I never mentioned it.” Before Khalid could argue, Gwen said, “I can’t afford your fee a second time, Khalid. Well, not unless your necromancer pays what she owes me. If you take issue with that, I urge you to bring the matter before the Supreme Authority.”

Khalid clasped his hands in front of him as his entire being turned to stone. “Am I to understand then that you didn’t send your servant here?”

“I did not. He tracked you down all on his own.” Gwen’s smile lit up her face. “Well done, Toby.”

I made the sign of the devil horns. “Thanks, Mom.” They weren’t paying attention to me, anyway.

“Then it appears as though I have underestimated him,” Khalid said.

Gwen shrugged. “It’s an easy mistake to make.”

“A mistake I don’t intend to repeat.” Khalid nodded at his enforcers, who seized me. Aliese the Whore giggled, jumping up and down as she clapped her hands in delight.

Gwen stood, as cool as an autumn morning, then approached the mirror. She moved with such grace that she appeared to be floating. “It could be, Khalid, that you aren’t as clever as you believe yourself to be. Unhand him.”

I felt the demons’ grip on me loosen, but Khalid raised a hand to stay them. Interesting.

With a hint of outrage, Khalid said, “If he isn’t here as your agent, then he is an intruder and his life is forfeit. The Supreme Authority will agree, Your Highness. They will not side with you on the behalf of a bloodsucker.”

Gwen’s smile wilted then the mirror’s surface began to ripple. Khalid took a step as Gwen passed through the portal. Despite his outward appearance of calm, I heard his heart begin to race.

“My dearest Khalid,” Gwen said. “How I wish we could have settled this matter with civility. You know how distasteful I find this place to be, as well as the company you keep.” Gwen gave Aliese the Whore just a flicker of a glance. “As for my servant, it is common knowledge that Toby owes me unspecified boons for saving his life. Half-vampire or not, you have no right to interfere with my contracts.”

“Nor can I have him sneaking around Kingdom Come, threatening my livelihood.”

Gwen placed her hands on her hips as she looked past Khalid, at me. “Tobias, did you threaten his livelihood?”

“Hell no,” I said, offended. “I came here to get laid.” I jerked my arm out of the right demon’s grasp, then removed the wad of cash from my pocket.

Khalid sneered. “I assure you, vagrant, there is no service here that you can afford.”

“Really? I can’t even get one of the ugly ones to suck me off?” I jerked my chin toward Aliese the Whore. “Come on, you know you want it. It’s all you’re good for, right?”

Gwen turned in a full circle then nodded in approval. “I must say, Khalid, this is not what I’d expected. It’s much…classier than I would have pictured, given the circumstances.” She gazed at the statue of the lovers, her head tilted in consideration.

Khalid stepped behind her, and I saw him lift his hand to touch her hair. His fingers passed through the thick red waves as though Gwen was made of light and air. His jaw tightened and his hand balled into a fist as he let his arm drop to his side. “Your servant came here to interfere with my servant, despite what he claims,” he said.

“Is she not allowed to ‘interfere’ with anyone she likes?” Gwen ran her fingertips over the statue, then rubbed them together. “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen your work so closely. It’s beautiful. You should sell it.”

Khalid smirked. “Karen is at a critical juncture in her training. Tobias will only distract her with heartache. Upon returning from his exorcism, she couldn’t stop crying for hours.”

I hate to admit it, but Khalid’s remark landed like a mule kick to my gut.

Gwen made a neutral sound as she examined the gruesome paintings. “I’ll wager you and your inferiors truly enjoyed that, Khalid.” She tapped her left nostril with a wink. One of the demon enforcers growled as Gwen drifted by, a guttural combination of lust and loathing.

Khalid whirled on him, a ferocious look on his face. “Avert your eyes, wyrm!” His fellow demons, except for Gwen, dropped their gazes immediately. Hell, his tone carried so much authority that even I looked down for a second. Satisfied that everyone was properly cowered, Khalid said, “You should not be here, Your Highness.”

“No one should be here, Khalid, yet here we are. I demand that you release my servant from this place, so that he might continue his sacred quest unimpeded.” Gwen spoke like someone used to getting her way.

“Begging your forgiveness, Highness, but if I release him, he will only return to interfere with my business. I will be forced to relocate, which is… an extreme inconvenience. I’d prefer you permit me to feed him to my servants now and be done with it.”

“If I were to do that, Toby’s boons would transfer to them. And seeing as how the worthy ones can’t manifest outside of this unholy place, their boon will transfer to their master. You. It will become your duty to root out and destroy the source of this plague. If you think you can handle that, then by all means, kill him.”

“Hey!” I said, though I wasn’t really surprised or offended.

“I disagree with your assessment of the situation,” Khalid said.

The corner of Gwen’s mouth turned up. “Finvarra would not.”

I have no idea whose name Gwen dropped, but it had a strong effect on Khalid. His face and tone became icy as he said, “Because your uncle is renowned for his fairness and impartiality to those he deems Infernal. I’m surprised you would bring His Majesty into this, given the manner in which he wronged the two of us.”

“He decreed that I should answer for my mistakes and honor my commitments, nothing more.”

Khalid stared deep into her eyes. “Not the ones that mattered.”

Gwen met his gaze. “Release him,” she said in a way that made it clear she wouldn’t ask again.

“I will,” he said. “But only if he can fight his way free.”

Gwen’s face smoothed with displeasure as the demons forced me to my knees. “You’ll want to rethink that, Khalid. I’ve bound the Dagger of Danu to him.”

Just like that, Gwen’s dagger was in my hand. I summoned all of my strength then ripped my arm away from the demon on my right. I used the same momentum to ram the weapon into the other demon’s diaphragm. The creature howled as the blade slid under his ribcage to pierce his heart. Knowing to expect them, I didn’t let go of the hilt when white flames spewed out of the wound. The demon screamed as he dissolved into a puddle of bubbling black ash.

The other demon appeared to be caught off guard. I was supposed to have been an easy kill, an easy meal. That moment of uncertainty was all I needed. I turned the blade then buried it to the hilt in the other demon’s throat. The knife tip barked against his spine as it burst though the nape of his neck. This demon vanished in a puff of choking yellow mist.

Her eyes wide with terror, Aliese the Whore backed away. For a moment, I considered killing her next, if only to free the world of her presence. Luckily for her, I had bigger fish to fry.

Khalid and Gwen didn’t look at me as they lifted their hands in my direction. They made an identical finger motion, then I felt as though I’d been seized by an invisible hand. Their next gesture brought me to my knees. They stood face to face, neither affected by the violence that just happened. They stared at one another as though only the other person existed.

“I wish that you had come in the flesh,” Khalid said, his voice husky.

Gwen’s smile was coy. “No good has ever come of that.”

Khalid’s eyes smoldered as he said, “I disagree.” He turned toward me, all business as he said, “Bloodsucker, you are free to go.”

In the meantime, their telekinesis had worn off. Breathing hard, I looked around for the dagger, but it had vanished once again.

Khalid sat at his desk with a heavy sigh. “However, allow me to offer a friendly piece of advice before you take your leave. Remember that it was my kind that gave humanity the wards and spells they needed to protect themselves from your filthy race. We can tailor them to suit our needs. For example, we can reverse them. Your kind can enter this place freely, but they cannot leave without my permission. This will be the last time you receive it. Should you ever return, you will be put to work.”

I knew Khalid wasn’t making an empty threat. I looked at Gwen, who nodded at me once before she stepped back through the mirror.

Khalid’s tone dripped with bitterness as he said, “Get out.”  He waved his hand, then his office window opened by itself.

I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing as I jumped. I dropped two stories to the sidewalk below, then looked back up. Already, the window was closed, and impossible to tell apart from the dozens that surrounded it.

Fuck. Fuck, fuckity, double fuck. Karen was in that place. Or, at least she was, and might still be. They could be in the middle of moving her while I stood there with my thumb up my ass. Hell, they might’ve moved her while I was trapped in Khalid’s office. There was no way to know.

My brain scrambled to figure out what to do next. I couldn’t go back in, but maybe I could knock on some of the windows? Yeah right, then say what? “Hello. Yes, Miss Prostitute, if you could stop sucking that married guy’s cock for a second, I need to ask you something. I’m looking for a pretty girl, about seventeen? No, no, not like that. Her name is Karen, have you seen her? No? Oh, well, I’ll let you get back to your three-way.”

I rolled my eyes. I’m a fucking idiot. Maybe I could stakeout the exits? Shit, I didn’t know. Where’s a fucking hellhound when you need one?

I turned to walk toward the street, then discovered that my body was no longer under my control. My head ducked itself, then my hands pulled up my hood before they dove into my pockets. My body turned on my heels, then my legs propelled me toward the rear corner of the building. I drifted closer to the wall, where the second-story ledge would hide me from sight.

My heart was pounding by the time I reached a concrete stairwell that led down a basement entrance. My body vaulted over the railing, landing just outside an ornamental security gate. The twisted iron protected a heavy door no one could get through without a passcode or a battering ram. Luckily, I didn’t need either, because the door opened to reveal an unlit storage area.

Control returned to me as a female figure in a grey, hooded cloak stepped out of the shadows. The thick furs were so long and loose-fitting that her face and body were a mystery beneath them. Every rustle of movement sent a puff of thick, heady perfume wafting from the material. It was as though decaying poppy flowers had been sewn into the lining. My heart began to pound as she removed the veil that covered the lower half of her face. She was wearing so much makeup that only her closest friends would’ve recognize her. I recognized her. When she stripped off the golden wig to reveal her dark hair, I threw myself against the gate.

The bars were too close together to allow her to wrap her arms around me. Instead, Karen’s hands closed over mine, soft and warm as she said, “Toby, you shouldn’t have come here.”

<<<Chapter 28

Chapter 30>>>

 

WitD3: Chapter 28

*The Watcher in the Darkness Series and all characters contained therein are the sole copyright of K.M. Spires. All rights reserved.*

The Watcher in the Darkness series contains adult situations, graphic violence, and lots and lots of bad language. Rated M for Mature, seriously.

<<<Start at the beginning

Chapter 28

 

I stood outside the blood bar for over an hour, but it felt closer to three. My hatred for Hlin grew by the minute, because I knew she was to blame for my new court date. To pass the time, I fantasized about tossing every person in front of me over the velvet rope. I couldn’t risk more legal problems; otherwise, I might’ve at least shoved my way to the front.

To say Song felt stiff in my arms was an understatement. She stared straight ahead, unblinking, as the ocean breeze toyed with her hair. A person might’ve mistaken her for one of those Greek statues. You know, the ones with the missing limbs.

Wow, that wasn’t cool. I suck.

Song fisted her remaining hand in my hoodie, her arm tight around my neck. Every vampire that passed got an evil look, with flickers of disdain for any humans with them.

The club door opened behind the bouncers, and a heavy bassline thudded through the air. “I can’t do this,” Song said. It was the first time she’d spoken since our arrival. “Take me back to the Sanctuary.”

“Yeah, that’s not going to happen.” I stepped forward as a human couple two places in front of us entered the bar.

Song’s ivory brow furrowed. “Everyone is staring at me,” she said in a low voice.

“Uh-huh…” I wasn’t paying attention. A young woman with long dark hair had stepped out of the bar. Her back was to me as she spoke to the largest of the three bouncers, a barrel-chested black vampire. He was a giant of a man, dressed in a tailored suit and mirror sunglasses. I couldn’t smell the girl over the traffic exhaust, piss, and human stench, but the sight of her made my chest tighten. She turned to reenter the club, and I growled under my breath when I confirmed it wasn’t Karen.

Song had no idea how close she’d come to getting dropped on her ass. “I stand out like a sore thumb,” she said. “Not to mention…Of course, everyone is looking at me.”

“Why would anyone be looking at you? It’s not like you’re naked. With that long dress on, it’s not obvious you’re missing a limb.”

“Three limbs,” she said in a dark tone.

“Whatever. Who cares?”

Song shook her head as she whispered, “I can’t be here. This place goes against everything I’ve trained my entire life to be. We’re supposed to blend in.” By ‘we’, I assumed she meant the Watchers. She and I weren’t equals. “We keep our heads down. We observe, but we don’t interact unless it’s to protect someone. Once upon a time, a place like this would’ve been a target.” Song flinched when the lead bouncer’s gaze shifted to her. “They’re going to take one look at me and know what I am.”

“Yes. They’re going to take one look at you and know that you’re a hungry vampire. Because that’s all you are now.”

Song looked at me as though I’d just punted a newborn puppy into traffic. “Why did you bring me here?”

“Because you already know the situation and what Karen looks like.”

“So, you trust me?” Song sounded surprised.

I laughed without humor. “No. I brought you because it would take too long to explain everything to someone else.”

“Is that the only reason?”

“No.” There was no point in lying to her. Song would see right through me. “Remember the napkin Khalid used to dry his face? From it, I could tell that he lives on the north side of town.”

Song tilted her head with genuine curiosity. “How?”

I shrugged as I struggled to put it into words. “He smells healthy and clean, but the human scent is almost too strong. That means he eats well, even though he has a lot of neighbors. On the north side of town, the nightclubs and restaurants all use fresh ingredients. A diet without a bunch of processed foods and preservatives gives human blood a cleaner, healthier scent. Yuppies and their spawn live right on top of each other here, but the sanitation department is on top of their game.”

Song nodded as she understood. “Clean, healthy, strong human scent. Makes sense to me.”

I leaned my head back to take in our surroundings. “I can see why a de—fuck. I can see why a skinriding Infernal would live around here. The greed is so thick that it taints everything. Anyway, on the north side, there’s only one place that needs a necromancer on the payroll. That way, they’ll be able to control their vampire clients without killing them. I need you to get me in there.”

“Why me? I’ll just slow you down. Why not go by yourself?”

I felt my expression sour. “You’ll see.”

Song chose not to press the issue. “Okay. So, you expect to find Karen working at this blood bar. If she is in there, the demon’s in there, too. Things could get hairy. If that happens, I must reiterate, I’ll just be in your way.”

Interesting fact about me; false modesty pisses me off. “Save it. If there’s one thing you’ve shown everyone tonight, it’s that you’re anything but helpless.” A group of drunk humans stumbled out of the bar, accompanied by two vampires. This brought us to the front of the line. “Just follow my lead.”

The neon lights above the bar’s entrance gleamed off the huge bouncer’s bald head. He looked us over with a frown, checked something off a clipboard, then handed it to one of his minions. The vampire stepped forward to stand in front of me, his hands clasped in front of him. I could tell from his scent that he was Pure.

“Do you have a reservation?” he said. His voice was like a freight train rumbling through a stone tunnel.

“No,” I said as I jerked my head toward Song. “I’m here for her. She’s a first-timer.”

Green Mile bent at the waist to look Song in the eye. “A virgin, huh?” he said, and I saw his face soften behind his sunglasses. Luck was with us, in that this monster appeared to have a soft spot for Newborns. Song’s neck was stiff as he took her chin in his massive hand. “She’s lovely. Are you her progenitor?”

“Yes.”

“Liar,” he said without missing a beat. Green Mile rubbed his hand over Song’s stumps through her dress. This was so forward that Song’s mouth dropped open in disbelief. “You poor darling. How old are you?”

When Song didn’t reply, I said, “About seven months.”

“And you’re just now bringing her in for a decent meal? Shame on you.” Green Mile untangled Song’s reluctant hand from my hoodie. He removed her from my arms then turned toward the entrance. “You can’t come in.”

Shit. I’d been afraid of this. I took a step after Song but Green Mile’s underlings moved to block my path. “I’m just here to carry her,” I called after them. “I’ve got your cover charge.” I held up a crumpled wad of bills that represented all the money I had.

“Keep it,” Green Mile said. “This little lady is covered and you aren’t allowed in here.”

My teeth ground together. “Did the owner warn you about me?”

At the door, Green Mile looked back at me with contempt. “I own this establishment, and I know very well who you are. Shaving your head has got to be the most pathetic disguise I’ve ever seen. I have an obligation to protect my clientele, especially the humans. No one would come here if they knew you’d be allowed to bite them.” He looked down at Song, and his expression turned affectionate. “Come with me, sweetheart. You can trust me to take care of you.”

Song looked back at me like a deer caught in headlights. “Toby?”

I held up my hand in a weak gesture of reassurance. “It’s okay. You’ll be okay. This is a really nice place. He’s right, he’ll take good care of you.” Green Mile nodded once then pushed through the door to take Song inside. “Hey, if you see Karen, can you tell her that I said hello? Oh, and have her call me. I’ll wait for you right here.”

“Come back closer to sunrise,” Green Mile said as the door closed.

I was left standing there like an asshole. I had expected as much, but it still annoyed me. I’d have to find another way in.

Of course, the back entrance and both side entrances were guarded by the club’s vampire employees. I somehow made my way to the roof access door without getting noticed, only to find it barred and locked from the inside. I threw my shoulder into it a couple of times, but all I got was a bruise.

Before I could let loose a stream of curses that would burn out a thousand suns, I was interrupted by a deep growl.

The hellhound stood a few yards away. Its eyes gleamed in the moonlight, as did its teeth, and its hackles stood on end. I turned toward the creature, and it snapped at me once in warning.

I didn’t have time for demon bullshit. “What the fuck do you want?”

The hellhound darted to the opposite side of the roof then looked back at me. I took a step after it, then the wolf jumped onto the fire escape of the neighboring building. It waited until it was sure I was following, then it ran up to the roof.

Traveling by rooftop is the best way to get around this city, and I’ve been doing it since my arrival. Even at top speed, I could barely keep up with the hellhound. In less than a minute, we’d put several blocks between us and the blood bar. It became obvious that the creature was leading me toward a massive, old-world style church.

I had to stop a second to take it all in. Maybe its stone face was white once, but time and mold had stained it grey. The towers were so tall and thin that it was a miracle they’d survived the city’s annual hurricane season. Every pointed arch window had stained glass, and the metal roof was too steep to climb. The church was dwarfed on all sides by the skyscrapers that surrounded it. Its neighbors pressed in close, leaving no surrounding grounds. The wooden sign over the gateway proclaimed the building to be Kingdom Come Methodist Church.

The wolf led me around to the rear service way, then waited next to a dumpster until I caught up. Once I did, it performed a ten-foot vertical leap onto the fire escape. I sighed as I followed, hoping we were close to the final destination. The hellhound climbed to the fifth story landing, then nosed at a windowsill. I heard a dull click echo through the alley, the sound of the window latch disengaging.

The hellhound seemed to remember then that I was its enemy, and it whipped around with a snarl. I stopped, my hands raised in surrender, as the wolf leapt over the railing. Once again, the creature split into three large ravens before it squawked away into the night.

I tested the window and it swung open without hesitation. I was able to poke my head in without even the slightest resistance, which was a nice surprise. Not all public places had vampire wards, but most did.

I found myself in a long, dim hallway that was a lot fancier than I would’ve expected. Judging from the neighborhood, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by the thick red carpet, recessed lighting, or silk wallpaper. Or should I? I haven’t been in many churches. Oil paintings in gilded frames hung on the walls. Bouquets of fresh roses in crystal vases sat on polished wooden tables. There was a candelabra standing in each corner, as well as a hundred other expensive touches.

But there wasn’t a single crucifix. Interesting.

I crept toward the nearest room, where I could hear two voices behind the closed door. I began to press my ear against it, but then I noticed a small panel about eye level. Careful not to make a sound, I opened the peep hatch then looked into the room.

If I thought the hallway was extravagant, it was nothing compared to the chamber beyond. A starched businessman handed a gorgeous female vampire a stack of cash. She smiled, and I saw her fangs grow as she let her satin robe drop to the ground. Naked and glowing in the candlelight, her body was fucking ridiculous.

I understood at last where I was, and why there had been no vampire wards. I always thought I knew this city, especially the underbelly, but I’d had no idea this whorehouse existed. That meant it had to be crazy exclusive.

I made my way down the hall, and ecstatic noises filtered through every door I passed. Knowing I could be discovered any second, I picked up my pace. I prayed to whatever god or gods might be listening that I wouldn’t find Karen’s scent. She had to be there, though. Why else would the hellhound have brought me to this place?

I decided to find an empty room then hide until sunrise. Once I was sure the whores were asleep for the day, I’d begin my search. I’d tear this place apart brick by brick if I had to. The “church” was large enough that my search could take over a week, but there were plenty of married men to feed on.

It was a solid plan. I was proud of it, except I walked around the corner to find Khalid waiting for me. He was flanked by two tall, well-dressed men that radiated malice. They brought to mind 1930s-style gangsters. Their cheeks and foreheads were lumpy, like eons of scowling had swollen their facial muscles. One of the men snarled and I caught a glimpse of shark-like teeth. Their skin tone was a slight-bluish grey, because the blood that coursed through their veins was as black as crude oil. Their eyes were yellow, like mine, but their pupils burned like coalbeds. If I had been fully human, I wouldn’t have been able to see them at all.

“Tobias,” Khalid said in a neutral tone. “I should’ve guessed you would come.”

<<<Chapter 27

Chapter 29>>>

 

WitD3: Chapter 27

*The Watcher in the Darkness Series and all characters contained therein are the sole copyright of K.M. Spires. All rights reserved.*

The Watcher in the Darkness series contains adult situations, graphic violence, and lots and lots of bad language. Rated M for Mature, seriously.

<<<Start at the beginning

Chapter 27

 

I almost groaned when Song came into the Sanctuary’s communal bathroom. I couldn’t risk acknowledging her presence, though. I didn’t have the time—or the patience—to deal with her. I kept shaving my head in the sink as though I hadn’t noticed her roll her chair to a stop right behind me.

“Whoever painted that meadow scene over the mirror is going to be pissed when they see how much of it you’ve scraped off.”

 “Yeah, well, they can take it up with my dick,” I said as I pulled long strands of hair out of the electric razor. Cheap piece of shit. I would’ve been annoyed if I’d paid for it.

Song didn’t seem bothered as she readjusted herself in her seat. “I’ll never get used to not having a reflection,” she said with a sigh.

I rolled my eyes. I missed the days when she would do nothing but stare into space.

“I’m beginning to forget what I look like. Some days, I get scared that pieces of my face were blown off in the explosion, too, and everyone’s just too polite to tell me. I can’t stop touching my lips and nose to make sure they’re still there.”

I made a noncommittal sound.

“Don’t you ever sleep?” she said.

“Don’t you ever smile?” Truth be told, I was exhausted. My body ached and my eyes burned. I had forty-eight hours of freedom left, though, and too much that I had to do. I’d sleep when I went back to prison.

“Fair enough.” Song frowned as I brushed the stubble from my hairless scalp. “Bald is a weird look for you, but I guess it’s better than mange.” When I didn’t reply, she said, “How did your meeting with that demon go?”

I gave her an incredulous look. “How did you know about that?”

Song scoffed. “Everyone knows everything about everyone else around here. We’re all up in each other’s business, even me. Besides, there’s a pool going to see if you can find that necromancer before you get sent back to prison.”

“What pool?” I said as I flexed my bare fingers. My nail beds were hardening and they were no longer sore, but I would be down a natural weapon for a few days. “Wait, who else knows that Karen is a necromancer?”

Song shrugged. “Aside from you, me, and Father Cooper, I’m not sure. From what I’ve gathered, all the other bloodsuckers assume you guys are fuck buddies.” She made a face, as though something had just occurred to her. “Wait, aren’t you?”

“No.” My answer required no further explanation, but I said, “She’s engaged.”

Karen’s relationship status didn’t interest Song. “So, when is the priest going to show up with the cold blood? I’m starving.”

“You’re still on that crap?” Below my irritation, I felt a flutter of anxiety. I hadn’t seen Michael since before I’d left for Gwen’s place. If he hadn’t been to the Sanctuary in over twenty-four hours, something was very wrong.

“What choice do I have?” Song said as I turned her wheelchair then pushed it out of the bathroom. “My options are kind of limited, don’t you think?”

“No.” I rolled her down the hallway toward the dusty, unused kitchen. It was just after two in the morning, so the Sanctuary was pretty much deserted. “You’re a chick. Chicks don’t need to hunt, especially the hot ones.”

“Yeah, I’m super-hot right now.”

I opened the back door. “Look, if you’re fishing for compliments, fish elsewhere. I don’t have time for your bullshit.”

Song held out her arm to keep the door from closing. “Wait. You’re going to leave me here? Take me with you if you’re going to talk to the priest. He keeps all the cold blood at his place.”

I hesitated for a second, then sighed as I swept her up into my arms. It surprised me how light she was, like a child. “Fine. Don’t get your hopes up, though. Michael might not feel up for a blood run. The last time I saw him, he was…sick.” Fear and dismay settled in my stomach like a brick of ice.

Song looked at me out of the corner of her eye. “Does this have anything to do with the revenant?”

Damn. Bitch was intuitive. I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing as I made my way down the steep embankment to Michael’s cottage.

The porch light was off, and all the windows were dark. Yet, the Sanctuary’s battered grey Ford Explorer was parked in the car port. Song and I exchanged looks, and I could tell she shared my concern.

Because my hands were full, Song knocked on the front door for me. “Father Cooper?” I could hear the ghost of the authoritative Watcher she once was in her voice. “Are you okay?”

No one answered, and my anxiety blossomed into full-blown dread. “Michael? Michael, are you in there?”

The house was silent, which could mean anything. Michael might’ve gone to the hospital. Or, he could be lying in bed, too sick and weak to move. He could already be dead…but I didn’t hear a ghoul stumbling around the house. That was a relief. Well, sort of.

Wordless understanding passed between us as I placed Song on the ground. I admit, I set her down with more consideration than I needed to. It was hard to see her as anything but fragile, because I’m dumb like that. I leaned her against a wooden trellis covered in dried, brown ivy as I said, “Stay here.” In hindsight, that was kind of a dick move. Song didn’t seem offended, though, as she nodded in agreement.

Michael’s door was unlocked, which was nothing out of the ordinary. However, all the interior lights were off and there was a sour, ripened stench in the air. “Michael?” I said, and my voice seemed to resonate in the tiny house.

I took a deep breath then braced myself to force my way past the wards. Before I could take the plunge, Dr. S lurched into the entryway. The sight of her stopped me in my tracks. Her skin was ashen and her eyes had sunk deep into her face. She looked at me, made a nauseated sound, then rushed into the tiny kitchen. I winced when I heard her retching into the sink.

“Toby…” Michael’s voice was a rasp, and he leaned against the wall as though it was the only thing holding him up. He flipped on the light switch, then I immediately wished he hadn’t. Michael looked terrible. Sweat plastered his hair to his head. The red rash had spread across his chest, back and arms. The rest of him was fish belly-white, and heat radiated from him like a furnace. Worst of all, his blood had taken on an almost pickled scent.

Michael waved me inside. “Please, come in, Toby. You are always welcome here.” He noticed then that I wasn’t alone. “You can come in, too, Song,” he said, then coughed into his hand.

I tried to keep my expression neutral as I gathered Song into my arms. We followed Michael into the living room, where he dropped down hard on the couch. He breathed as though he’d just finished running a marathon.

“How are you feeling?” I said, because I’m fucking stupid.

“Like microwaved death, thanks for asking. This feels like the worst case of the flu I’ve ever had. My head is splitting, my body aches, and I haven’t been able to keep anything down.” Michael picked up a digital thermometer from the coffee table then stuck it under his tongue.

Dr. S stepped around the corner, hugging her midsection. “He’s getting dehydrated. I have to get some fluids into him.” She put her hand on my arm, then leaned on me for support. “Look, I remember that you have ways of…acquiring things.”

That was a polite way of putting it. If she hadn’t needed something from me, she would’ve called me a thief to my face. Whatever.

“If I give you a list, can you hit County General and bring me some supplies?”

I didn’t have time for this shit. Besides, there was nothing modern medicine could do for Michael. I closed my eyes, then let out a defeated breath as I said, “Sure. Just make it quick.”

The thermometer beeped. “One-oh-two, Tamryn,” Michael said before tossing the device back onto the table.

“Is that bad?” I said, afraid of the answer. I realized I was still carrying Song, which made it awkward. I placed her on the couch next to Michael.

Dr. S didn’t look up from her legal pad. “It’s not great, but I’d be more concerned if he was still running one-oh-four, or one-oh-five.” She handed me a list of what appeared to be gibberish. I could only hope that whatever nurse I ended up shaking down at the hospital was able to read it. “Please hurry,” she said as she sat on opposite side of Michael then placed her head on his shoulder.

“Have you found Karen?” Michael said.

“Not yet but I have a solid lead. Her master is a skinrider, and I managed to get this.” I pulled the plastic baggie containing the napkin out of my back pocket.

Michael and Dr. S gave me blank looks, but Song nodded in understanding. “You’re going to use his scent to track him,” she said.

This made Dr. S giggle. “Like a dog?”

I gave her a cold look. “Yes, I can use his scent to track him.” My tone dared her to say anything else about it.

“Were you not able to follow him back to wherever he came from?” Michael said.

I shook my head, because it hadn’t occurred to me to try. I played it off. “I didn’t need to. Besides, Khalid would’ve noticed if I’d tailed him, then moved Karen just to be safe. If he hasn’t already.” I shoved that thought out of my head, because I had enough to worry about. “It’s all good, though. I can tell a lot from a scent. I can tell what part of town he lives in, what restaurants he eats at, where he shops, all sorts of things. I know exactly where to go to start looking for him, which I’ll do the second I get this shit for Dr.…”

My voice trailed off. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a little slow on the uptake. Being tired and hungry didn’t help. At that moment, though, a realization struck me. It was like sunlight blazing through the cracks in a cement wall. I almost laughed, then I wanted to kick myself for not realizing it sooner.

I took off my hoodie so fast I heard a seam rip. I rolled up my right sleeve as I said, “Do you have one of those…” I made a slashing motion across my wrist. “Scalpel? Do you have a scalpel?”

Dr. S frowned at me. “Yeah. Why?”

I jerked my head toward Michael. “Open one of his veins.”

No one moved to obey me. “Again, why?” Michael said.

“Blood-mug me.” Before anyone could argue, I said, “It’s going to sting like fuck when my spit gets down into your cut, Michael. It would hurt a hell of a lot more if I bit you.”

“Why are we doing this?” Michael said as I kneeled in front of him.

“If I can save fucking Nicholai Santos’s worthless ass then I can knock out the flu, or whatever the hell is wrong with you.”

“We both know what’s wrong with me,” Michael said. “It’s hopeless.”

Pure defiance swelled up to wash away any doubts still clinging to my brain. “Bullshit. Nothing is hopeless. Dr. S blood-mugged you and you’re already doing better.”

 “This is doing better?” Michael said with a laugh that triggered another coughing fit.

“Yes,” I said when he finished. “Think about it. Dr. S blood-mugged you, and those white blisters you had last night are already gone. Also, she said that your fever has come down. Even if blood-mugging doesn’t help, what can it hurt?”

Michael pointed at Dr. S. “Look at her. Yes, Tamryn blood-mugged me, and she hasn’t been able to stop throwing up ever since.”

Dr. S made a pouty noise, her eyes closed. “It’s called organic hemorrhagic dialysis.”

“No one fucking cares,” Song said. Damn. I was sort of, a little bit, almost starting to like her.

“She’ll live,” I said. “She needs to get some cold blood into her before she goes feral, but she’ll live. Vampire livers can filter out fucking Ebola.”

Dr. S heaved a dramatic sigh. “It’s not so much ‘filtering it out’ as the vampire liver creates antibodies that—”

“Dr. S will recover,” I said, if only to shut her up. “More importantly, so will you.”

Michael shook his head. Before I could yell at him for being a martyr, he said, “No, Toby, you can’t do this. You only have two days to find Karen. We can’t risk you getting sick, too.”

“Let me do it,” Song said to everyone’s surprise. “Even if it doesn’t work, Toby is right. It’s worth the risk. I guess I owe you that much for letting me stay here.”

Michael stared at her, so moved he was speechless.

Michael’s kitten pranced into the room behind me. I heard the jingle of her collar as she headed toward the front door, which still stood open. No one noticed Justine lurking on the porch until we heard Snowball’s painful squeak. Michael’s eyes widen in alarm as he looked past me, and I began to turn my head.

Breathing hard and fast, her teeth bared, Justine crushed the baby cat’s spine with her bare hand. She threw the limp body against the wall, then unleashed a deafening scream. The inverted black crucifix was still branded into her cheek, a stark contrast to her white skin. The rest of her face twisted into a mask of hatred as she flew toward us.

Before I could react, I felt myself get shoved aside. Just above my head, but too quick for even my eyes to follow, what remained of Song’s fist cracked against Justine’s jaw. The impact sounded like a boulder falling off a high mountain to crash onto another boulder. The power behind the blow catapulted Justine into the wall. She hit hard enough to leave a dent, then fell to the floor. When she lifted her head, Justine’s bottom jaw dangled from the rest of her face. She growled like a wild animal and her eyes began to glow red. Her gaze didn’t waver as she reset her jaw with a stomach-turning crackle.

Adrenalin surged through me. “Get them out of here!” Dr. S, being useless, did nothing but scream as Justine and I collided in the center of the room.

Justine was fast and crazy strong, and she’d retained all her fighting skills in death. Once upon a time, I would’ve been no match for her. Luckily, in the few years before she died, I’d been Justine’s sparring partner. I’ve also tangled with more than my fair share of Pure vampires. I held my own against the revenant, in that I was able to keep her from killing me outright.

Justine’s fingers tore at me like talons, and her limbs were as unbending as iron. She planted her feet then hip tossed me into the coffee table. I braced for impact when I felt myself falling, but held tight to her burial dress. I used it to drag her down on top of me, then the two of us rolled into Michael’s bookshelves. The contents rained down on us as we grappled one another.

“Someone get me a gun!” I heard Song shout at the others.

“I don’t have one,” Michael said, because he’s a fucking moron.

Justine had me pressed against the floor, her forearm crushing my windpipe. I tried to break her hold, but it took every ounce of my strength to keep her snapping teeth away from my throat.

“He’s going to die!” Dr. S shrieked. Again, she made no move to help.

There was a thunk as something heavy bounced off the back of Justine’s skull. A cast iron figure of Jesus dragging his cross landed on the floor behind her. Justine’s eyes glazed for a second, and her grip loosened enough for me to free myself. I brought my arms up to shove her away, then realized I was holding the dagger Gwen had given me.

Time ground to a halt. I couldn’t do it. My heart and my mind refused to let me strike out against Justine, even to save my own life. When I looked at her, I saw past what she had become. I only saw the woman I’d loved. I saw Ellie’s mother. I saw the only person that ever made me feel normal. I saw the woman that gave me a place to stay when the rest of the world left me to rot. She was a monster, yes, but a monster I had created. She didn’t choose this fate. The real Justine—my Justine—had to be in there somewhere.

Luckily, my hand hadn’t gotten the memo, and it shot forward. The long blade jarred against bone as it sank deep into Justine’s chest. I’d missed her heart by a hair, but her flesh spewed white, hissing flames. The heat scorched my fingers, and I let go of Gwen’s knife on reflex. Justine screeched as she leapt away from me, landing on the opposite wall near the ceiling. She clung there like a spider, clutching her chest with an agonized moan that cut right through me.

Somehow, the weapon was back in my hand. Justine realized the same, and what could only be described as grief rippled across her face. She dropped to the ground then darted toward the open door.

“Toby, go after her!” Michael said when I continued to lay on the floor, frozen in place.

“Go!” Song commanded, and it was her voice that jarred me back to my senses.

Of course, by the time I made it outside, Justine was already gone. I spun around, trying to get a glimpse of her, but the Sanctuary grounds were empty. She must’ve taken flight. Besides, the magical blade had disappeared again. I guessed that meant we were safe, at least for the time being.

Thanks to Michael’s open invitation, I was able to reenter the house without triggering any wards. I crunched through broken glass and ceramic to find the living room empty. I found Michael and the girls in his bedroom. Song was perched on the corner of his bed, stoic, while Dr. S clung to him in hysterics.

“How did she get in without being invited?” Dr. S said between high-pitched sobs. Song gave her fellow vampire a look that made it clear she wanted to slap the shit out of her.

“Is everyone okay?” I said.

Michael nodded, even though he looked traumatized. “We’re fine. What about Justine?”

I shook my head, hoping they wouldn’t notice the shame in my eyes. “She’s gone. She’s just too fast. There’s no way I can keep up with her.”

Michael’s limbs shook as he got to his feet. “Then we have no choice. Take me to this demon. I will compel him to tell us where Karen is.”

I placed my hand in the center of his chest to shove him back onto the bed. “Sit down. You can’t compel a fly to land on a pile of cow shit right now.”

“I can’t sit back and do nothing, either,” Michael said, even though he was already out of breath.

“Michael, I have two days to find Karen, and no time to argue with you. You’re useless. Accept it. Dr. S…Hey! Pay attention. Suck it up, then go to the Sanctuary and get one of the other vampires to come here and blood-mug Michael.”

Michael shook his head. “Toby, I don’t want to turn.”

I rolled my eyes. “Fine. Dr. S can you try very hard to make sure that the vampire you choose isn’t Pure? ‘Kay-thanks-bye.” To Song, I said, “You’re with me.”

Song blinked in surprise. “What?”
“Hurry up and get some decent clothes on. Maybe run a comb through your fucking hair. We leave in twenty minutes.”

<<<Chapter 26

Chapter 28>>>