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My sword arm is mighty.
I will not falter.
I will not fail.
My sword arm is mighty.
I will not falter.
I will not fail.
My . . . ass is fucked.
I knew it as sure as I knew my own name: Kit “My Ass Is Fucked” Colbana.
There was no way I was getting out of this, and I knew it. I hadn’t stood much of a chance anyway, but what in the hell was I supposed to do? Just walk away?
Actually . . .
“Stop,” I muttered. Yeah, walking away might have been the smart thing to do.
But it wasn’t really an option for me. I might not be a pureblood aneira, I might be a mongrel, and I might be a sorry excuse for one of those fabled warrior women—but so what if most of them looked down their pretty noses at me. I didn’t turn my back on people who’d asked me for help. If I died for it, then I died for it.
Mama would be so proud.
The tunnel was dark.
I hated the dark.
Memories of things best forgotten tried to scramble up from the depths of my mind and sink nasty, grimy claws into me, but I pushed them aside. Couldn’t think about that. Not right now, not if I wanted to reach the rat leader’s lair before sundown.
Well before sundown. I knew what was going to happen at sundown, and fear tried to wrap a sweaty, meaty fist around my throat. In a deliberate attempt to block it out, I summoned up one thing guaranteed to knock that fear into place—anger.
The memory of Colleen’s terrified face was just enough to do it.
“It’s Mandy, Kit. She’s with her boyfriend, and I couldn’t talk her out of it. She wants him to change her, buys into all the propaganda and thinks it will fix her.”
Fix her. Ha. You can’t fix a girl with leukemia by giving her a rat bite. Or a wolf bite. Or a cat bite. Most likely, the virus would either kill her or wouldn’t affect her at all. Only six percent of the bitten actually caught the virus. Sex was a more likely way to catch it, and man, I hope she wasn’t planning on getting laid—not with them. Not with the rats. Hell, catching the virus would probably kill her sooner than the leukemia.
If Mandy had been with the wolves or the cats, I wouldn’t worry so much—they were freaky enough, but they had a pretty strict set of rules they followed, and the girl wouldn’t get hurt. Actually, the alphas would probably have her cute little butt escorted right back to Colleen’s house, which was where a fifteen-year-old girl belonged at night.
But the rats—hell. The rat pack was a problem in Orlando. A very big problem. Drugs. Theft. Other unsavory things, but nothing that could be pinned on them. It was all just suspicion at this point. Most of us wanted them gone, but until they broke enough rules, the Assembly would ignore them. Which meant we didn’t have the justification to exterminate the entire pack.
Okay, personally? I thought there was plenty of justification.
Only I wasn’t exactly the best choice for the job. If there were a true aneira around, sure.
But for now, we’d have to wait for the other shapeshifters to get tired of cleaning up the messes the rats made. Either that or . . .
A whisper of ice danced along my spine.
I shivered and resisted the urge to glance around.
Resisted the urge to see if I was being followed. I’d already killed three lesser rat scouts, and man, oh man, did I hope I could get out of there before that was discovered. Technically I had no legal reason for being down here and no legal reason for killing them, although if this ended up in front of the Assembly, I’d have a good argument.
If I got out of this alive. And that entirely depended on whether I could make it to the lair before the dead bodies were discovered . . .
The rats liked to rest up before the full moon—and they liked to party hard with pharmaceutical help, so it was possible.
Up ahead, I saw just the faintest lessening of the gloom.
Gripping my sword, I swallowed.
Let them be sleeping . . . please . . .
If they weren’t sleeping, I was more than likely going to be dead in another couple of minutes. I’m sorry, Colleen. I tried.
The good news was . . . if I died, something would finally be done about the rat pack.
Too many people knew where I was going—I’d made damn sure of that, and if I disappeared, if something happened to Mandy . . . well, the rats were screwed.
I’d put in calls to the liaisons for the wolf and cat packs, as well as some others. My not-so-loving family, for one. They might not adore me, but they’d be madder than hell if I ended up dead and nobody had responded to my request for assistance. I’d also put in calls to others who had a voice in the Assembly.
Basically, I’d spoken to just about anybody who’d be able to rain hell on the rats if I ended up dead. And the alphas of the other packs, too, since by rights, they should have been here. Shifters were territorial bastards and always tried to handle their issues on their own. They damn well should have sent somebody.
Hell, I’d even been counting on it—had been hoping one of them would have the decency to handle it—after all, a human teenager in the rat pack on the night of the full moon was the very definition of not good. They should know this. But my calls had been either ignored or channeled over to voice mail. Why in the hell were alphas and witches and vamps using voice mail?
I reached the end of the tunnel and pressed my back against it.
It was silent, save for the low, soft sounds of people breathing and the occasional snore. Man, was I lucky enough that they were all asleep?
Only the alpha’s most trusted would be allowed in his lair, and Eddie didn’t trust many—didn’t like too many, either.
Ideally, he should have some of his people on guard. The skin between my shoulder blades itched, and this time, I let myself look back down the tunnel—nothing.
Gripping my sword, I eased just the barest bit into the lair. It stank of piss, blood, sex, and sweat.
I wasn’t part rat, and the smell was an assault on my senses—how could they stand it?
Just inside the doorway, with his back pressed against the way, I saw one of the guards. He hadn’t seen me . . . yet. He wouldn’t, either.
I wasn’t full-blooded aneira, but there was no denying I was at least part aneira. One of a legendary race of skilled assassins.
Why were they legendary? That mighty sword. That “I will not falter, I will not fail” mantra.
And the fact that they could will themselves completely invisible for short periods of time. Long enough to take my blade—an enchanted blade that had been passed from mother to daughter for centuries—and push it inside the rat-shifter’s heart. As I did, I covered his mouth with my hand, muffling his scream.
If anybody woke, they’d see the struggle—the shifter’s body arching up, the few drops of blood smoking.
But they wouldn’t see me.
And yes—because that is my luck—somebody woke, although the guard died very, very fast.
I heard the confused “What the fuck?” just as I pulled my smoking blade from the dead man’s chest.
Shifters really weren’t that easy to kill. Not without silver or an enchanted sword. Plus, his being stoned had helped. It also helped that everybody else in the room was sleeping the sleep of the equally stoned.
I couldn’t count on that luck holding, though. I pressed my back against the wall and eased my way around the room as somebody crawled out of the pile of bodies and made his way over to check on the fallen guard. He was tipsy, staggering back and forth, and as he passed by, I caught the pungent stink of Torque coming off him.
Hell, no wonder none of them were stirring, if they were all sleeping off the effects of partying with Torque.
It was a shifter-made drug, designed to keep up with their metabolism. It was like ecstasy and heroin combined—and an overdose of them at that. When humans got their hands on it, it did bad, bad things.
Hell, it did bad, bad things to shifters. They really couldn’t afford to lose control, not when they were so much stronger, so much faster than the humans. But the kind of people who liked to do drugs didn’t care about that.
And the kind of people who’d let a sick, scared fifteen-year-old into the lair of the rat king weren’t going to be all that concerned about what kind of condition her mind was in.
“Hey . . . bro . . . Mont, you okay, man? Told you it was a bad idea to do that third one.” The man snorted and giggled as he knelt down by the dead guard. “Eddie is gonna piss if he sees you sleeping. C’mon, you don’t wanna spend the moon in the cage. . . . Hey. Mont. Wake up. . . . Mont?”
I heard his voice break. Kind of like a little boy’s.
Guilt clawed at me, but I ignored it. I didn’t like killing, but a couple of dead rat shifters meant nothing compared to Mandy. In my gut, I suspected she would be dead if I didn’t get her out of here. Leukemia had weakened her system so much—the virus would kill her, I knew it.
Fuck you all for not having the decency to help one screwed-up kid, I thought, thinking about the others I’d called, those I’d reached out to for help. Rage started to burn away the fog of guilt and fear. They were so much better equipped to handle this, so much more prepared. They weren’t something barely more than human with a knack for turning invisible.
Fuck this. And fuck them. I’d find Mandy, and I’d get her out of here.
No sooner had that thought circled through my mind than I saw the pale, strawberry gold of her hair streaked with bright, cotton candy pink. She was snuggled up against the pale, skinny chest of some guy with a scraggly goatee and hair that needed to be washed. Even from here, I could smell the drugs in her.
That would be her Lothario, then. Man, I ought to kill that bastard, too. I reached up, touched my bow. There was enough light in here. I could see well enough to use my bow, and the arrows were silver-tipped, hollow-pointed. A family design, you could say—filled with something that would kill the weaker shifters and slow the stronger ones for days. Silver nitrate.
In the back of my head, I heard a mocking, chiding voice. You are such a poor, sad excuse of an aneira—why were you sent to us? In the days of old, one as weak as you would have been strangled with your own cord.
It was the voice of my Aunt Helene. My mother’s sister.
She would have stood there and killed every last one of the shifters, and hell, Mandy, too. A kindness—she is already dying, it would end her suffering.
I swallowed the bile churning up the back of my throat and moved to stand closer to Mandy, thanking whatever weird quirk of fate had her and her boyfriend lying off to the side instead of in the strange doggie—or rat—pile most of the others were in.
Now . . . how in the hell did I get her up and out of here?
That was when the drugged-up shifter finally figured out his sleeping buddy wasn’t sleeping.
He started to wail. That was all it took. In the moments it took for the other shifters to wake, the first one’s grief bled over to fury and he started to shift.
I backed away and sheathed my sword.
Okay, so maybe I couldn’t shoot a bunch of sleeping shifters. But if I had to, I could shoot them while they were awake.
My heart knocked against the wall of my chest, and I could see several pairs of beady eyes swinging my way.
I am aneira. My blood is noble. My heart is strong. My aim is true. I am aneira—
Five seconds into the stupid little mantra and my heart rate leveled out, but I couldn’t count on them not noticing me if I stayed on the other side of the room. They’d pick up on the strange, single heartbeat.
Then again, I didn’t want to get any closer, because my bow and arrows weren’t as useful at close range and we were already too close.
Once more, a whisper of cold wrapped around me—all around me, it seemed. Pressing tight, almost a physical touch. It was enough to make my heart slam once more against my ribs.
That cold, viselike pressure eased just a bit.
Oh, holy fuck what was this?
I felt a pressure against my mind.
It was a fucking voice.
In my head.
In my total and utter shock, I almost screwed up completely—almost let go of the magic that made me invisible. At the very last second, right as my hands and feet were wavering into focus, I snapped myself together. Shit.
*Be at ease, little warrior. . . . I mean you no harm. But do you want to live or not?*
Well, that wasn’t a hard question. Living was good, in general.
*Then stop panicking. For the love of all that’s holy, do not get any closer to the rats. And stay here.*
Then, just that easy, that cool touch was gone.
And so was the voice in my head.
Stop panicking—that was good advice.
Not getting closer to the rats—that sounded good, too.
But staying here? No. Especially not as there were two slinking close, too close, their bodies a strange mix of human and rat. I drew my bow, notched an arrow. Aimed, released. The first one was barely on the ground and convulsing before I did the same to the second rat.
Then I moved.
All hell broke loose about the same time.
None of the rats were sleeping now. Those who hadn’t changed were in the process, all save for the rat king.
Eddie Avila was standing in the middle of the lair, his arms hanging loose at his sides and an icy look of rage on his narrow, handsome face.
I knew Eddie.
We both hated each other’s guts.
If he suspected I was in here, he wouldn’t hesitate to kill Mandy.
I had to do something before that happened.
Planning—not my strong suit. I’d been taught sword fighting, hand-to-hand, and although I was nothing compared to the real aneira, I could fight. I just couldn’t form a plan of attack—they’d kicked me out before I’d gotten around to that part of my training.
Please don’t let Mandy pay for my screw-ups. That’s all I wanted, right then. If I died, fine. But not the kid. Her life had already been hard enough.
To focus their attention away from the girl, I started taking down rats at random.
In between the fourth and the fifth, I felt that cold wrap around me again. *What part of “stay” did you not understand?*
I didn’t know how to answer. If I just thought, would he hear me?
I had the strangest sense that he sighed. I didn’t hear it, but I felt it.
*Be grateful none of them can read minds, little warrior; otherwise, you would have died in the tunnel.*
Great. A mind reader. I sighted on another shifter. Aimed. Before I could loose the arrow, the cold tightened—wrapping around me until I couldn’t have moved to save my life. Or Mandy’s. *Stop killing them. You’ve already taken out ten of his men—I’m going to have my hands full keeping Avila from killing you over that.*
There’s a girl here. A human. If you know a damn thing about Avila, you know what will happen to her when the sun sets tonight. It’s a full moon.
*I know. I received your message. And if you would have just waited a few hours . . .*
He’d received my message?
Who the hell . . . ?
But before I could finish that question, Eddie bellowed out, “Enough!”
The power in his voice, the command, was enough to have every last one of his people cowering. They were bound to him, by blood, by oath. The madness and the fury I saw in his eyes might have been enough to make me cower if I hadn’t been so worried about Mandy.
As he started to prowl the lair, his eyes paused here and there to linger on the bodies of the dead.
That was when I realized the arrows were visible.
And he recognized them, too.
Eddie grabbed one and ripped it out of the chest of the dying man. The man screamed, but it was lost in the sound of Eddie’s roar. “You fucking cunt—where are you?”
A cold trickle of sweat rolled down my back. What in the hell did I do now?
The temperature in the lair bottomed out.
The rats didn’t notice, but I sure as hell did. Trying not to let my teeth chatter, I found myself staring hypnotized at the space right in front of Eddie. The space that had been empty just a few seconds ago . . . but wasn’t now.
Now it was filled with plumes of smoke.
No, not smoke . . . mist. It was mist, and that mist was rapidly becoming man-shaped.
A shape that now looked terribly, terribly familiar.
The trickle of sweat rolling down my spine might as well have been a flood.
If that was who I thought it was, I was so terribly fucked.
I’d met him before, and there was no mistaking him. He wore his pale blond hair pulled back into a short tail at the nape of his neck. His body was deceptively lean, and power hung around him like a cloak.
The vampire master did not like being pulled into the politics of petty, lesser creatures. And compared to them, all creatures were petty and lesser . . . at least in the eyes of vampires.
Yes, I’d put in a call to him, but it had been a last-ditch desperation sort of thing. . . .
Of course, I was desperate.
“Hello, Eddie,” Jude said, his voice polite, friendly.
Eddie, still holding one of my arrows in his fist, stared at Jude. Even from where I was standing, I could see how pissed he was. His eyes, normally brown, had gone black and beady—rat’s eyes. But when he spoke to Jude, his voice was almost as polite and cool as Jude’s.
“Jude. I wasn’t expecting you.”
Jude cocked a blond brow. “I’ve got to say, that surprises me. You should have been expecting me, or the alphas from the shifter packs, at the very least. You have a guest here who shouldn’t be here. Not today, of all days.”
If I were Eddie, I would have been shaking in my boots. But Eddie didn’t look worried. Didn’t even look disturbed. He gave Jude a toothy smile and said, “The girl came of her own free will. If she wants the bite, who am I to say no?”
“She told you she wanted the bite?”
“The bite. The fuck. We gave her that . . . and more . . .”
Fury erupted through me. Too late, I realized that was what Eddie had been hoping for. But I didn’t think about that until I’d dropped my invisibility. “You child-raping son of a bitch,” I snarled as I shimmered into view.
Eddie smiled in hot, feral satisfaction, but it only lasted a split second—the arrow I’d loosed right before I let myself be seen was now buried in his crotch.
Rats lunged for me, and I braced myself for the impact.
Two seconds later, hard arms came around me and I was airborne.
*You little fool—he hasn’t touched her. He said that just to anger you.*
“Well, it worked,” I snarled, struggling to free my hands.
“Be still,” Jude said.
“I need my hands,” I said. The rats were boiling too close to Mandy, and she was still sleeping in her drugged daze. Shit, what had she used?
Eddie was screaming—all but howling down below us. I glanced up and saw that Jude had somehow found a perch, of sorts. He was gripping something that jutted from the ceiling—an iron pipe? I couldn’t tell. He didn’t seem at all concerned with my weight, or with the fact that we were dangling twenty feet in the air above the wererats. The rats were all but foaming at the mouth now.
After tearing the arrow out of his crotch, Eddie dropped to the ground and curled into a ball. I have to say, the sight of it pleased me. A lot.
“I’m going to gut you, you little cunt. I’m going to gut you for this,” he panted, glaring at me.
I bared my teeth at him. “You’ve been saying that for years, sugar. Hasn’t happened yet.”
Jude murmured, “Well, precious, unless you’ve put an arrow in his crotch before, he probably has new resolve. Now, help me out here and be quiet.”
I felt the press of his mind again, and although it felt alien as hell, when he pushed inside my head, I let him. *How old is the girl?*
Fifteen. She’s fifteen years old, and she has leukemia. Her boyfriend knows it, too, because her mother made damn sure to tell him.
Suddenly, it was a whole lot colder in there.
And we were on the floor. I don’t even remember how it happened. We were on the floor, and the guy who’d been lying by Mandy was suddenly flying through the air. I heard a sickening thud as his head struck the concrete wall. As he slid down, I caught sight of blood and other wet things, but I didn’t look too closely. If his brain hadn’t been completely scrambled he’d live, but if Jude decided to go after him, he might not want to.
I wasn’t going to worry about the shifter, though. I was too busy worrying about the vampire in front of me.
Suddenly, I was wishing fervently that I hadn’t called Jude.
That pale, pale skin of his was glowing. So were his eyes. I don’t know what color his eyes normally were, but right now, they glowed red as hellfire and they were focused on Eddie. It seemed Eddie suddenly realized he had a much, much bigger problem than the arrow I’d put in his crotch. He would survive the poison, but he might not survive Jude.
“That girl,” Jude said, his voice a low, silken drawl. “How old is she?”
Eddie jerked a shoulder in a shrug. “What the fuck do I care? One of my rats wants to bring somebody to the party, they can. Pussy is pussy, right?”
Jude bent down and grabbed Eddie by the throat. Eddie tore at his hands and snarled. As Jude lifted him, he started to shift. Jude grabbed Eddie’s crotch. Still using that same silken voice, he warned, “If you go rat on me, I rip it off. And if it happens while you’re in human form, we know it won’t grow back, boy. So . . . how hurt are you? Can you shift fast enough?”
Eddie paled, and the black fur that had been creeping over his flesh started to recede. “Look, you got a problem with the girl being here, just take her. Take the girl, take the cunt, and go.”
I stroked a hand down my bow. I was getting very tired of him calling me a cunt. But at the moment, I was too scared of Jude to say anything.
I watched as Jude’s hand tightened around Eddie’s throat, tighter and tighter until his fingers actually penetrated the skin and Eddie’s blood flowed in red rivulets. “She’s fifteen, Eddie. Fifteen, and she has a disease.”
From where I stood, I could see both Jude’s face, and Eddie’s. I watched as Jude closed his eyes, watched as he breathed deep. When he opened his eyes, they were still glowing, but there was a sadness there under the anger. “If you had bothered to look, just once, you would have known she was ill. If I can smell it in this vile pit you call a lair, then you would have smelled it as well.”
Eddie gurgled out something, but the words were garbled, unintelligible. Disgusted, Jude dropped him to the ground.
Thanks to the poison I’d pumped into him with my arrow, he was slow to heal, taking almost five minutes before he could speak. When he did speak, his voice was rasping and harsh as he said, “If she’s sick, it doesn’t matter to me. If she wants the bite, she wants the bite.”
“Her being fifteen does matter, though.” Jude glanced at me, and then at the girl, who still slept. “I think I’m going to do the rest of us a favor and just challenge you. You’ve broken too many laws, and it’s time you were dealt with.”
Yes. Were we finally going to be done with this piece of shit?
The color leached out of Eddie’s face, but then he narrowed his eyes and looked at me. “Fine. But as the cunt killed ten of my men without provocation, she’s to face me first—her offense is more grievous than mine.”
I didn’t let that bastard see the fear curling through me. I put my bow away and drew my sword. The blade glinted in the dim light as I lazily spun it in the air. “Come on, rat-boy. Forget the challenge . . . we can dance here.”
“Oh, no, cunt. I want this done right and proper—and when you’re on your hands and knees, begging for your life, I might let you have it—after I’ve made you my little cunt,” Eddie sneered.
I barely saw Jude move. Then Eddie was peeling himself off the floor, staggering a bit. “We’ll renegotiate the terms.” Jude’s tone was bored, but his eyes were icy. He stared at me, all but daring me to say anything.
Oh, I wouldn’t dare. He scared the shit out of me.
Eddie, despite the blood pouring from a gash in his temple, smiled. “I’m not surprised, Jude. What are the new terms?”
The amount of blood a shifter’s throat could put out was amazing. It painted a red arc across the dingy room. I was still gaping as Eddie’s body toppled to the side. His head was still attached, barely.
But his eyes . . . they were lifeless.
“You die now.” Jude’s voice rang through the room with resounding finality. Blood splattered his face, but he didn’t seem to notice. “It seems easier, I think.”
Shit. Holy shit.
“I never did care for his attitude,” he murmured. At the sound of his voice, I tore my eyes away from the dead rat king and stared at the vampire.
He reached into his pocket and withdrew a snowy white handkerchief, then wiped the blood from his face.
Okay, so he had noticed the blood.
I heard something snarling, hissing, somewhere near my feet.
“Move over beside me, if you please,” Jude said, his voice still calm and level. Like we were talking about something trivial at afternoon tea.
Staring at the center of his chest, I moved toward him. I could feel the hot, panting breaths of angry rats at my back. Big angry rats. The moment I was next to him, he shoved me behind him and started backing toward Mandy. “You’re a lot of trouble; do you know that, little warrior?”
“I have a name,” I muttered.
I curled my lip at him. Hell, we’d met four different times. It had been mandatory that we meet at least once. Since I wasn’t entirely human, I’d been forced to “announce” myself to the other nonmortals when I moved to Orlando. As the oldest being in the city, and certainly one of the most powerful, Jude was one of the unofficial people in charge.
Yes, we’d met. And yes, he’d been told my name—I just wasn’t important enough for him to remember, I guess.
And it was easier to think about that sort of thing than the fact that we had about nine shifters heading right for us. He could handle them. Mandy and I couldn’t.
“So, little warrior, what is your name?”
I frowned at his broad back. “It’s Kit.”
“Can you lift the girl, Kit?”
I could. As I was crouched down, I caught sight of the furry tide of death rolling closer and closer. Black, angry eyes stared at me.
They all wanted me dead.
“Yes, they do. But that’s too bloody bad for them,” Jude murmured. “Get the girl now, Kit.”
His voice, so calm and cool, did something to ease my fear somehow, and I managed to brace Mandy’s body with mine and stand, staggering. I’m stronger than humans, but not by much. I wouldn’t be able to hold her and run.
“You won’t need to. Just give her to me; then be ready.”
I wasn’t ready. Nowhere near . . . but it didn’t matter. Seconds later, both Mandy and I were airborne.
Even while he was flying us through the tunnel, somehow cradling Mandy’s body in his arms, with me perched on his back, I still wasn’t ready.
The rats were chasing us, but they couldn’t keep up with a flying vampire.
“I cannot take you all the way home—I can travel in the light only in mist form, and I cannot fly you. But you have a car. I’ll make sure you’re not followed.”
When he landed, I was hard pressed not to kiss the ground, nasty sewer and all.
I glanced at the ladder leading out and then at Mandy. Hauling her up would be fun. Behind us, I heard snarling and hissing—the rats, already gaining on us.
Thanks to the wonders of adrenaline, I got Mandy in a modified fireman’s hold and managed to get up the ladder.
It wasn’t until I saw the brilliant orange glow of the setting sun that I realized I was going to live through this. And so was Mandy.
“Of course you’ll live through it.”
“Damn it,” I snapped, glancing down at him. “Would you stop that, already?” It was damned unnerving, being around somebody who could so easily peer inside your mind.
He chuckled. Then he shot me an unreadable look. “We’ll meet again, little warrior.”
Then he launched himself out of my line of sight, no doubt toward the oncoming furry tide.
As screams of pain filled the air, I half carried, half dragged Mandy to my car.
Somehow I’d lived through it. A stroke of dumb luck. But I was alive. Mandy was alive.
Then I glanced at the gaping pit in the ground. “Thank you, Jude.”
Copyright © 2010 Shiloh Walker
Illustration copyright © 2010 Jason Chan
Acquired and edited for Tor.com by Heather Osborn