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Jack wasn't going to let me walk out on Jin for very long, that much was obvious. Not when the club he worked at had finally provided a link between all the murdered women. Jin was a source of information not yet fully explored.
None of which changed my determination to walk out now. I glanced around to ensure no one was paying us any particular attention, then got the woman to download onto a disk all the membership files and employee details possible. The gold pass membership files were restricted, and I wasn't about to push my luck by getting her to try and load those. Jack could order one of his tech plebs to do that. Although I'm sure the caramel cow would just wet herself at the thought of showing off her technical skills. She certainly had them. I'd caught her hacking into my files once.
I slipped the disk into my pocket, then erased my tracks in the woman's mind and headed out the door. Once I'd returned my pass to the guard and was safely ensconced in my car, I grabbed my phone and dialed jack.
"She reports twice in a twenty-four-hour period," he said, by way of hello. "This is indeed a time for miracles."
"You've been hanging around the cow too much. You've picked up her smart mouth."
"The only woman in my employ who has the sass to backchat her boss is the one I'm talking to. And it's not nice to call someone a cow."
"It is when they have tits the size of hers. And don't tell me you haven't noticed."
"Are you ringing for a reason? Or do you just want to piss me off?"
Both, usually, but I didn't think it would be wise to admit that. "I think I've found the link between all our victims."
"All five were members of the gold pass section of the Hunter's Club, the upmarket health and fitness club Jin part-times at. From what I've seen, the gold-pass club is a word-only membership for people with special requirements."
"What sort of special requirements?"
"They need extreme pain to get their rocks off."
"All of our victims had healed scars on their backs and arms."
"They should have massive scars if what I've just seen is any indication of what they go through." I hesitated.
"It's quite possible I've met the woman lined up to be the next victim. Her name is Jan Tait."
"You got all her details?"
"I grabbed everything off their computer that I could. The gold-pass membership files will require hacking skills to get into."
"We'll handle that end. You stay on Jin."
Yeah, right. "Um... there's been bit of a development in that area. I'm afraid I just walked out on him."
His sigh was a sound of frustration. "Can you do nothing the easy way?"
"Trust me, I had no option. But I'll follow him for the rest of the night, see where he goes and who he talks to."
"Good. In the meantime, I'll get Salliane to dig up the dirt on the Hunter's Club and its owner."
"According to Jan, the owner of the Hunter's Club just happens to be the brother of the woman Quinn is following."
"Because we've been cross-checking the Cattle Club's security tapes, and have discovered Jin talking to a man named John Kingsley on more than a few occasions."
"So, he's a very nasty piece of work who's been suspected of several murders. There's never been enough evidence found to convict him."
"That still doesn't explain why he's raised your bad-guy antennae."
"Ah, but see, he also happens to have a half sister by the name of Maisie Foster, who owns a punishment club by the name of - "
"The Hellion Club," I finished for him. "So Rhoan's already checking this Kingsley person out?"
"Yeah." Amusement crept into his voice as he added, "Apparently he ran into Quinn there."
My eyebrows raised. "Don't you think it's a little bit coincidental that Quinn is following the woman who owns the club that is recommending people to the special services of the Hunter's Club? He obviously knows something he's not telling us."
"Which means you need to find out what you can from him."
Yeah, like he was going to tell me anything. He'd more than likely try locking me in a closet somewhere. For my own protection, of course. "You think this woman could be the one raising the demons?"
"I have no idea. Though I doubt Quinn would simply follow her if that were the case."
"He would if he had motives other than finding the person who was raising the demons." And I very much suspected that was the case. After all, the spooky guy in the alley had basically implied there was more to this than just a couple of demons.
"As I said, question him." He paused. "I did a search for that name the souls gave you."
"Azhi Dahaki is part of an ancient Persian legend. It's said that he's the servant of Angra Mainyu, who's supposedly the god of darkness, the eternal destroyer of good, the personification and creator of evil, and bringer of death and disease."
"A real charmer in other words." I paused. "That ring I found had Persian hieroglyphic thingies on the back of it."
"Cuneiform inscriptions, actually."
"So you've translated them?"
His voice was grim, and chills skated across my skin. "What does it say so far?"
"Something about entrusting their souls to the god of darkness."
I rubbed my arms. "But it's just a legend, isn't it? I mean, a god of darkness and lies can't really exist, can it?"
"Humans once believed werewolves and vampires didn't exist."
"That's because we were covering our asses like crazy. And it's also totally different to this sort of situation."
"No, it's not. And there is no reason to believe there aren't things in this world that have chosen to remain hidden while the bolder of our races have stepped out of the shadows."
"Jack, we're talking about an ancient god here."
"Are we? Or are we merely talking about an entity that has bided his time for right moment to come out of hiding?"
"Is there a third option? I mean, those two really suck."
He chuckled softly. "We're still researching the legend. But it's not looking good." He hesitated. "Be wary around Jin. If he is part of this legend, he may have powers we can't even begin to guess at."
That was something I didn't want to think about. "Anything else I need to know about Azhi Dahaki?"
"Well, he's supposedly a three-headed dragon who represented pain, despair, and death."
"Hate to break this to you, but no one I've met is a dragon, let alone one with three heads."
"It could be a figure of speech, remember that. And you're the one who mentioned Jin seems to enjoy pain."
"He seems to feed on it," I said, as I recalled the ring I'd found at Dunleavy's and the ring Jin had been wearing. Remembered the dark room and the two men. One sucking in the sound of pain, the other despair.
Legends could come to life.
"Jin and Marcus," I added. "Pain and despair. Two of the heads."
"One of club's employees, and the man working Jan Tait over."
"So, that leaves one more - death."
I hesitated. "Gautier's working for these people. Could he be the death head?"
"It's possible, but Gautier's not sexual, and that seems to be a requirement of the dragons."
"Gautier's been off the Directorate leash for a while. It's possible he's changed or evolved."
"But he would have to change his very nature to become sexual. Activate your tracker, Riley, and keep in contact."
"Will do." I hung up, then pressed the comlink in my ear to activate the tracking. I know Jack's new rules said all guardians had to be traceable twenty-four hours a day, but I'd be damned if I'd follow that particular order unless absolutely necessary. A girl needed some privacy. Especially with the full moon rising.
I started the car and drove around the building until I found the parking lot exit. I parked several spaces down, then hunkered down in the seat to wait.
The phone rang after half an hour. I glanced at the number ID and smiled. Jin had obviously discovered I'd skipped.
I pressed the receive button and said, "Hello?"
"Riley? Where the hell are you?"
"I'm on my way home. Where else would I be after your charming little display of machismo?"
"You liked it. You can't deny that."
"Just because I like it rough in bed doesn't mean I like it rough out of it. If that's what you like, then go find another playmate." And with that, I hung up.
The grass was always greener on the other side of the fence, and I was betting on the fact that Jin would be desperate to have what was now out of his reach. I wasn't the only one who hungered this night. I'd seen Jin in action, and his needs were every bit as fierce as a wolf in moon heat.
He'd ring me, and keep on ringing me, until he got me again. Because if nothing else, I was a wolf and I gave good sex.
He did ring, several more times. I studiously ignored all calls and after an hour or so, saw him pull out of the car park in a white BMW. Not the sort of car I would have imagined him in - something black, sporty, and dangerous would have been more appropriate, surely.
Once he'd passed, I pushed upright and pulled out after him. Following him wasn't hard, despite the speed he was doing. Rush hour had well and truly passed and the streets were relatively clear of traffic. In fact, the hardest thing about the whole exercise was trying to remain far enough behind that he didn't notice me without me losing him.
I wasn't entirely surprised that we ended up in Toorak. That's where Quinn was, and he sure as hell seemed to know more about this whole situation than the rest of us. And he was going to let me in on the secret, or I was going to get really angry. Just how much good that would do was anyone's guess.
Though zilch was an odds-on bet.
Jin pulled into the driveway of a gated residence. I stopped well up the street, and got out once the gates had opened and he'd driven in.
The cool breezed swirled around me, carrying with it a familiar scent. But not the one I was expecting.
I shoved my hands in my pockets and scanned the night behind me. "Gautier, one of these days you'll actually bathe and I'll be in deep shit."
His soft chuckle slid across the darkness as uneasily as oil across water. Chills skittered across my skin. There'd always been something particularly nasty about Gautier's laugh, but tonight it seemed ten times worse.
"And one of these days, I'm going to enjoy smacking that smart mouth from your face." He shook free of the shadows and strolled toward me. "Interesting that we both turn up at this place."
Tension rippled through my limbs. I shifted my stance a little but still felt like a sprinter at the starting block. All edgy and ready to run. "The only thing interesting about it is the fact I doubt it's coincidental."
He stopped well short of laser range. Not that I actually had a laser to use, but I wasn't about to let him in on that little secret.
"Coincidence doesn't play a huge role in my actions," he admitted, "but I am curious as to what you're doing here."
I raised an eyebrow. "You don't know? I thought you knew everything."
"Oh, I know more than you could ever guess."
His smile was all teeth. Too much teeth, in fact. But it was his gaze that sent another chill down my spine.
There was something not quite right about his eyes.
Something almost inhuman.
Not vampire inhuman, but something more. Something alien and old.
And it reminded me of the coldness I'd seen lurking in Jin's eyes.
Gautier was the death head of the dragon.
Sexual or not, he was definitely one of them.
I flared my nostrils, drawing in his scents, tasting the nuances and differences. It had changed - the differences were slight, but nevertheless there. But I couldn't say for sure that it was scent I'd smelled emanating from room two at the health club. Maybe the night, the cold, and my fear was somehow distorting sensory information.
Or maybe something else was. Someone else.
I resisted the urge to retreat and shifted one pocketed hand, as if clenching a nonexistent weapon tighter. His gaze flickered down and his toothy smile grew. I had a bad feeling he wasn't fooled by the ruse.
Either that, or he wasn't worried about being shot by a laser. Which was probably more likely. He was the type to think getting shot might be a good price to pay for the fruition of his aims. And it's what those aims were when it came to the immediate future and me that had me worried.
And he knew it, damn him. The quick glimmer of amusement firing his cold eyes was easy to see, even at night.
"Riley, keep him talking," Rhoan said into my ear, through my still-open link. "I'm armed and on my way."
Good, I wanted to say. Hurry.
But Rhoan was mind-blind, and I dared not use the com-link because it would only warn Gautier. I forced a smile and said, "So if you know it all, tell me why you killed Dunleavy and his girlfriend."
He raised a mocking eyebrow. "What makes you think I did that?"
"It's that smell thing I keep warning you about. It lingers, you know?"
"They died during daylight. You know I can't move around in daylight."
"I know you never used to be able to, but you've been off the leash for a while, and who knows what nasty sort of company you've been keeping? Or what talents they have that could help a foul piece of work like yourself?"
He raised a mocking eyebrow. "Nasty doesn't even begin to cover my current company, dear Riley. And you should watch yourself. He has his eye on you."
I forced a grin. "Is that concern I hear in your voice, Gautier? I'm so touched."
"You will be, if he gets his hands on you."
"So why the warning, Gautier? If you're working for these people, why warn me?"
"Because you are mine to destroy." He took a step forward. I took one back. He grinned, and it was a cold, ferocious thing. "I intend to destroy all you hold dear, and then I intend to destroy you. Slowly, and sweetly. And no one - no matter who or what they are - will stop me. Not when I get all that I am promised."
A shiver ran through my soul. There would be nothing sweet about his sort of destruction, of that I was sure. Especially not now he'd become the death head of an ancient legend. "And just what were you promised, Gautier? Or should I guess? Let's see, what do all good little psychos want? Power?"
"You will discover soon enough."
And with that, he attacked.
It was like fighting a cyclone - he was all power, speed, and bloody force, and stopping him was next to useless. He'd been bred for fighting and killing, and I was only a new inductee. And a reluctant one at that.
I twisted away from his blows, then backed away as fast as I could. I didn't want to fight Gautier - not now, and not in the future. And especially not when Rhoan was on his way armed with weaponry that would kill the bastard once and for all.
But Gautier didn't follow my retreat. Just stopped and shook the shadows from his form again. He gave me a grin, and sucked in a deep breath.
"Ah, fear. Such a sweet, sweet thing."
A familiar tingle ran across my skin, telling me Rhoan was near. I didn't react, not even when the red light of a laser cut across the night, arcing toward Gautier.
But he must have sensed Rhoan's presence at the last moment, because he twisted away suddenly. The laser aimed at his head cut into his shoulder instead, and the smell of burned flesh spun through the air.
Gautier laughed. Laughed.
The man was terminally insane, there was no doubt about it.
But while he might be insane, he wasn't stupid. He gave us a respectful bow, then faded into the night and ran away.
"Never attack Riley without looking over your shoulder for me," Rhoan shouted to his fleeing form. Then he gave me a grin and casually Bung the laser rifle over his shoulder. "Want to give chase?"
"As much as I enjoy a good hunt, that bastard probably has a trap ready and waiting."
"Probably. But it's all part of the fun."
"You're as mad as he is."
"Not really." He leaned forward and gave me a kiss on the check. "I'm not insane enough to tackle you alone."
I grinned. "Only because I'm armed with saucy secrets your lover would just adore to hear, and you know I'm not afraid to use them. I don't have that advantage over Gautier."
"The only advantage we'll ever have over him is if we tackle him together." He slipped an arm through mine and began guiding me down the street. "Next time you scent him, don't stand there waiting. Just run."
"And give him the satisfaction of my fear? No way in hell."
He looked at me, eyebrow raised. "And you call me mad?"
"Well, it does run in the family, you know."
He chuckled softly, then said, "So, give me an update on your date."
I did, including what Jack had said about the old Persian legends and my thoughts on who the dragons might be - including the fact that Gautier was one of them. And then I told him everything Gautier had said.
"And you believe him?" Rhoan asked.
"I believe that he's playing his own game, whatever else he might be doing or might have become." I shrugged. "Gautier's a killer, but he's not exactly the world's greatest thinker. It makes sense that if there was someone who was stronger and darker in town, he'd align himself with them. Even if it is just a means to an end."
"I don't understand what Gautier would get out of such a deal, though."
"Well, being the death head for a dark god would surely come with benefits. Like the ability to face sunlight. If he did kill Dunleavy and his girlfriend - and he certainly didn't deny it - then he can now move around in the day. And that shouldn't be possible for a vamp his age."
"Is there magic that can give such protection?"
"Who knows? But if magic can raise demons and a dark god, why shouldn't it be able to protect a vampire from the sun?"
He frowned as he slid open the van's door. "So now all we have to figure out is what Gautier and his cohorts actually are - and then a way to stop them."
"Well, Jin reads as human and Gautier still reads as a vampire, but maybe that's because their shells still are. Maybe their beings have become something else entirely."
He raised an eyebrow as he helped me into the back of the van. "Spirits of some kind?"
"If I can see souls rising from the dead, and Quinn can be hunted by demons, there's really no saying that an ancient spirit can't be recalled to claim a new body, is there?"
He slid the door shut then waved a hand at the thermos of coffee sitting on a small bench filled with weapons as he moved toward the seat in front of the bank of monitors, "You know, that's an awfully scary thought."
"Yeah, I can see you're shaking in your boots."
"On the inside, I am." His smile belayed any attempt of seriousness. "The Directorate as a whole has no experience in dealing with things non-substantial. I mean, how do you kill a spirit?"
"I don't know." I poured myself a cup of coffee and briefly breathed in the smell. Bliss in a cup. even if it looked like mud and probably tasted just as bad. "But I know someone who might."
He raised an eyebrow. "Who?"
He glanced at the screens. "He's parked in the right corner of the back garden if you want to talk to him."
I grinned. "That's a might worse than having fairies in the bottom of a garden."
"Trust me, I'm the only fairy around this neighborhood at the moment."
"A good thing with the moon on the rise." I drained the coffee in several gulps, and winced a little at its bitter taste.
"True." He pointed a finger at the screen. "Check out the security lines before you go. Don't want you tripping over any alarms and tipping them off."
"Hey, I'm not a complete novice at this."
He merely grinned and pointed at the screen. So I checked it out and memorized all the hot spots. "That's a whole lot of security happening."
"Makes you wonder what, exactly, they're protecting, doesn't it?"
I looked at the other screens. There were cameras on every angle of the house, but none on the inside. "You able to hear their conversations yet?"
"Some. They've got some sort of shielding around the place. We only pick up things when they're near the windows."
"Very. But Jack's working on subverting their internal security system and fast-tracking it into ours."
"Could be handy. We need to know what those bastards are discussing." Because it would be nasty, of that I had no doubt. Whether or not it related to our investigation was the question we had to answer.
But all the indications we'd had so far certainly suggested they would.
I pushed away from the monitors. "I'm off to find Quinn. If you hear anything odd happening, give me a call." I slid the door open, then paused and looked back at my brother. "And lock this door. Gautier may have run, but he could come back. I don't trust him one iota."
"I can take care of myself, Riley."
"But that bastard is out to hurt me, and the best way to hurt me is to hurt you."
"If he wanted to take me out, he could do so without coming anywhere near the van."
Well, yeah, but Gautier was a man who liked to taste his victory. Liked to breathe it deep, and get his jollies off it. He could hardly do that if he just blew the van to pieces.
"Is it going to hurt you to lock the door?"
He rose. "If it stops you nagging, I'll lock the door. Go find your vampire, woman, and ease some of that tension I can smell."
"I have a feeling my vampire isn't going to be too compliant in that regard."
"Well, work for it, girl. It's about time you had to."
"Right back at ya, babe. And don't switch the com-link off - unless you're going to get frisky with Quinn. That I don't need to hear."
I grinned and headed out. Behind me, the van door closed and locks tumbled into place. A little bit of tension ran from my limbs. While I didn't think Gautier would attack again, you just never knew. If there was one person in this world who'd could be trusted to do the unexpected, it was that slimy bastard.
I shifted shape in the shadows, then leapt into the nearest yard. I had no idea what sort of security any of the neighboring houses had, but at least if I tripped an alarm, all the occupants would see was a wolfy-looking dog.
I scrambled over the gate, scraping my belly on the tops of the pickets in the process, then made my way around to the back garden. Several more fences later, I was in Kingsley's backyard.
Quinn's delicious scent filled the air. I sniffed it happily, drawing it deeply into my lungs, letting the delicious aroma fill me the way I wished his body could fill me, then trotted across to him, carefully avoiding the two spots containing infrared sensors.
"Some people need to be tied up, obviously," he said, amusement warring with frustration in his soft tones.
I shifted shape, then reached under my torn sweater and shook my bra free. Lacy items just didn't handle the change as well as stretchy ones. My sweatpants were still serviceable, and while my sweater was torn, it could be tied at the front and still worn. But the bra - useless.
"Jin did enough of that the other night," I said, tossing the bra over the neighboring fence. Let them have fun trying to figure out where it'd come from. "I've discovered it isn't on my list of favorite things."
"Ah," he said, his gaze on mine and filled with a flame that was all sexual awareness, all desires. "Is that why you're here?"
"Partly. Jin tried getting rough out of bed, and I decided he needed a lesson in manners. I left, and he lost his temper and came here."
"So the whole gang is here?"
"Including Rhoan and Gautier." I studied him as I lashed the ends of my sweater over my breasts. "Have you been back home yet?"
He raised an eyebrow. "Do I need to?"
"Well, I smashed a few things, but other than that, it's in reasonable order."
"All." He paused. "There were some figurines amongst the casualties, I suppose?"
"One or two."
"They were worth a fortune, you know."
"That's not very adult behavior."
"And drugging me, taking away my clothes and car, and locking me up, was?"
"I was only trying to - "
"Next time," I interrupted, "try treating me like an adult. Let me make my own decisions and mistakes."
"A mistake on this case could get you killed."
"I'm we!! aware of that fact. But it's my decision, and my decision alone. You have no rights, and no say, in my life, Quinn. You never will."
Frustration swirled through me. I wondered - and not for the first time - if continuing a relationship with Quinn was worth all the angst. Then I remembered the sex, and thought, Hell, yeah, it most certainly was. Still, I couldn't help asking, "Why won't you give this fantasy up? Why not settle for what you can have - you and me in an ongoing but not mutually exclusive arrangement?"
He raised the eyebrow again. "Are you willing to give up your white picket fences and two-point-five kids dream?"
"No - "
"Then do not tell me to give up what I desire."
"The difference is, I'm not trying to force my dreams on anyone. You are."
He didn't answer, his gaze going to the house instead. Part of me figured it was little more than a ruse to avoid answering a difficult accusation, but I lowered a shield and stretched out telepathically anyway. Not toward him, which would be a stupid thing to do considering his telepathic skills could sweep mine under the nearby daisies and stomp all over them, but toward the house. Only my telepathic "beam" somehow mingled with Quinn's, and while I couldn't actually hear his thoughts because of his shields, the resulting mix triggered some sort of weird amplification between us and those within the house.
Voices sprang into focus - not just one person, but everyone in the house - in some strange sort of "conference call." I was hearing their thoughts as conversations, in real-time. Weird, totally weird.
And yet another sign the drugs I'd been injected with were continuing to affect my body and my psi-skills in unexpected ways.
"We can't afford to have this O'Conor person sniffing around much longer," Jin's mental tones were filled with simmering tension - tension that was both sexual and physical. "He's getting too close."
"We're trying our best to get rid of him," another voice said, the mental tone mild and yet filled with an underlying iciness. Only it was more an inhumanity than any mere coldness, and it had my soul shivering.
"Obviously, you're not trying hard enough." The words were practically spat. Jin was a very unhappy boy indeed. The thought cheered me no end.
"The demons are having trouble tracking his life force. It's intermittent." The voice was female, and presumably Maisie Foster. Something in the way she spoke was oddly familiar - though why, I had no idea.
"He's a fucking vampire - how could his life force be intermittent?"
"Because before he was a vampire he was something else. He almost destroyed me once. I do not wish to risk it again."
The annoyance I'd felt earlier increased tenfold. Quinn had already told me that before he'd become a vampire, he'd been something more than human, so that in itself was no surprise. But he'd conveniently forgotten to add that that something had already met this evil.
"I have my reasons for keeping secrets," he said softly, without even looking at me.
"And I've just about had enough of your secrets and lies. You could have saved the Directorate so much time and energy if you'd just told us what you knew from the beginning."
Not to mention the fact that his admission might have prevented my needing to fuck the creep. I didn't want to sleep with bad guys just to get information - and Quinn was well aware of that fact. Hell, he hated the fact that I was doing it, so why not come forth with information if it could have prevented it?
"Because I did not know that your case and mine were one and the same."
Mainly because he didn't bother to check. But I resisted the urge to say the words out loud. Those inside the house were still talking, and right now, getting information that might end this case was far more important than sorting out a vampire determined to get his own way - whether it be on the case or in our relationship.
"He could destroy us again if we do not proceed cautiously," the deep voice said. "He is one of the few on this earth who even remembers us as anything more than legend."
"So, we sit around and twiddle our thumbs until his life force becomes strong enough for the demons to track?"
"No," Maisie said. "I intend to conjure a stronger class of demon, but it takes time to summon them. I've had to send the sub-demons back to hell so I have the energy reserves required."
I glanced at Quinn as Jin began questioning Maisie further. "Sounds to me like we need to contain Maisie Foster."
"If we take her out of the picture, we warn the others."
"They already know you're after them."
"But they do not know the Directorate is after them."
I snorted. "If these are the people responsible for the sacrifices, then they know we're after them."
"But they are not yet aware how close you are to them."
"I wouldn't bet on that - we think Gautier's one of them. The death head, in fact."
He glanced at me sharply.
"Yeah," I added. "We figured out some of the history. But it'd be nice if you took some time out of your busy schedule to fill in the blanks."
"If Gautier is the death head, then Jin knows you're a guardian. That makes it even more important that you stay away from him."
"He doesn't know."
"You cannot be sure - "
"I can, because the one thing Gautier wants, besides power, is my destruction at his hands. He'll give up his soul, he'll give up control of his body, but he won't give up that."
"You'd trust your life on that fact?"
"Yes." I glanced back at the house. "If we snatch Maisie, they'll just think that you took her out."
He studied me, his features carefully neutral. It was a look I'd seen many times before - usually right before he told me some lie.
"Maisie Foster is an extremely powerful sorcerer. It will not be easy to take her out."
"Even so, it'd be a hell of a lot easier to remove her from the scene than one of the dragons, wouldn't it?" It was a question aimed more at Rhoan than Quinn. I had no doubt that, between me and Quinn, we could handle Maisie, but I didn't want to do anything without official approval.
"Capture her, you mean?" Quinn asked.
I nodded. "I'm sure Jack will want to chat with her."
"She will never 'chat,' nor could Jack or the Directorate contain her."
I raised my eyebrows. "Why?"
"Because, as I said, she is an extremely powerful sorcerer. Magic cannot be contained by psychic powers or technical devices."
"But it can be contained via other means?"
"Yes." He hesitated. "To be honest, I do not think the effort worth it. She will die before she tells us anything about her master."
"John Kingsley is her half brother, not her master."
"John Kingsley no longer exists. Nor do any of the other men inside that house. They are merely living breathing receptacles for the spirits of evil."
Jin and that blond man I'd seen in the fitness club might be just shells, but the creepy spirit I knew as Gautier was still well and truly present. I shivered, and tried to ignore the fact that I'd been fucking something that didn't even belong on this plane of existence.
"But how can spirits march in and take over someone's body like that?"
"Magic. Blood magic." He looked at me. "And they need regular, willing sacrifices to maintain their existence."
"Hence the bodies we're finding." And the reason they were going after those with extreme sexual tastes. "Why willing victims? A sacrifice is a sacrifice, isn't it?"
"The dragons may need the taste of pain, despair, and the fear of death to feed, but the god of darkness himself grows strong on the acquiesence to evil."
"That doesn't entirely make sense considering his dragons feed on pain, despair, and death."
"But Angra Mainyu is the god of darkness, the eternal destroyer of good. He feeds on the enjoyment of darkness and death."
This was all getting a little weird for me. "However much these people enjoy pain, I can't see how they'd willingly go to their death. Have you seen what he does to these people?"
He hesitated. "Yes. But the desire for pain is often a growing one, and these people are carefully pushed to crave more and more, until only death will bring them the ultimate satisfaction."
Visions of Jan rose. The mess of her back, the way she needed - begged - for me to finish it. How long had Jin and his cronies been working her up to that point? How long would it be before she became the next victim found neatly sliced and diced on some warehouse floor?
"Trouble is," I said, repressing a shudder, "he doesn't just feed on the joy of killing them."
"No. The flesh of heart and liver and kidney are sweet on the tongue."
"I do not even want to contemplate how you know that."
The smile that touched his lips was gentle, and yet somehow sad. "I have been a vampire a very long time, Riley. And all vampires, whether they admit it or not, have their dark times."
"Doesn't mean I have to know about them."
"You should, because they are a part of what I am."
"And a werewolf is part of what I am, but that doesn't stop you trying to circumnavigate the fact."
He didn't answer, just looked back at the house. When you didn't want to answer a question, ignore it. That was Quinn's usual mode of operation, and it was getting more and more annoying.
And yet, I had to admit it was contradictory to want to know about his past, and yet not know about his dark times. I surely couldn't have one without the other. Not if I truly wanted to understand this vampire.
"And fan?" said, as I returned my attention to the house. "When will she be recovered enough to move?"
"Perhaps tomorrow," a fresh voice said. It took me a moment to realize it was Marcus, the whip-happy blond from the club. "We applied Jin's salve, and the healing is progressing satisfactorily."
"Then tomorrow night. We shall meet and see how suitable she is." He paused. "Jin, bring an appropriate partner."
"A testing may not be a wise move with O'Conor and the Directorate on our tail," Maisie commented.
"It cannot be helped," Kingsley said, voice a lash of anger. "Unless you wish to contribute your own flesh again so soon?"
Maisie's shudder ran down the mental lines, becoming my own, even though I had no idea what Kingsley actually meant - and no desire to find out. "I'm only looking out for your safety, John."
"I know. But I need a full blooding. If you raise another demon before then and kill Quinn, it should not be a problem."
"I have only so much blood in my body, John. I cannot - "
"You can, and will. I need six more victims to sustain my existence on this earth. After that, we are less vulnerable."
I glanced at Quinn. "Did you know this?"
"Then why have you not gone after them?"
"Because I am a vampire above everything else, and vampires have restrictions." He motioned toward the house. "If they do not move from their lair, I cannot kill them."
"Maisie was my one and only connection to the others. I could not kill her until I had found all the tendrils of this evil."
"Then why won't you take Maisie out of the picture now that we've found all the players?"
"Because, as I've said, it would warn the others and perhaps send them undercover again."
Inside the house, Maisie said, "We cannot risk raising too much magic at the moment."
"The house is secure enough. As is the altar."
"Yes." But there was doubt in Maisie's voice.
"Just got word from Jack," Rhoan said into my ear. "If Maisie's the one raising demons, get rid of her as soon as you can."
"He doesn't want to talk to her?" I had a job to do, I knew that, just as I knew taking Maisie out would save others from suffering. But I couldn't help the reluctance to take that final step and kill on command.
Quinn gave me an odd look, then glanced at my ear and smiled grimly. Obviously, he'd forgotten I'd been permanently bugged.
"He says it's too much of a risk if she's the blood sorcerer." Rhoan paused. "We can swap if you like. I'll take her out, and you take over monitoring."
"No, it's okay." It wasn't, but I wasn't about to let Rhoan step into dangerous situations just because I had issues. Hell, it wasn't as if I hadn't killed before, and Maisie was every bit as bad as the men whose lives I'd taken in the past.
But it was just one more step. One more slash at my futile determination not to walk that path.
I blew out a breath and looked at Quinn. "Any idea how to take out a sorcerer?"
"I do not think this a wise course just yet."
"She's already raised one lot of demons to hunt you down, and she's been ordered to raise another. There's no saying she won't also send them after me or Rhoan or Jack. And unlike you, our life forces can't just conveniently fade. Nor do any of us have a clue on how to deal with a demon."
"I'm not saying we can't kill her, just saying it would be better if we delay until we find the gate through which she is bringing the demons."
I blinked. "A gate? Demons have a gate?"
His all-too-brief smile had my hormones sitting up and taking notice. Not that they ever needed much encouragement. "Spirits and demons can't tear their way into our world willy-nilly, you know."
"Well, that's good to hear." I guess. "But what about souls, ghosts, and the like?"
"Souls are the essence of people who live and die in this world. They do not hang around, but move quickly into the next life. Ghosts are souls who are pinned to this plane of existence for some reason."
Some of that I actually knew, but it was nice to have confirmation that there wasn't some permanently opened gate into the netherworld through which these apparitions could come through and taunt me. Especially given the recent developments in my clairvoyant talents. Ghosts and souls popping in for a quick chat at all hours of the night was not something I particularly wanted.
"So what does a demon gate look like?"
"It's not actually a gate, as such. It'll be a specially cleansed area that contains a magic circle and most probably a pentagram. In this case, an upside-down one."
I rubbed my head. This stuff was certainly a lust killer - as he had probably intended. After all, he might want me, but he'd never been one to give in to desire when on a hunt. "So a magic circle contains the demons?"
"No. It's a sacred and purified space where magic - in this case a summoning - can be safely performed. It serves as a boundary for the power and is the doorway from this world to the spirits."
"And the pentagram?"
"An upside-down pentagram is said to be the sign of evil."
"Said to be?"
He shrugged. "A pentagram facing north can cause great problems, as north is associated with darkness and the unknown from pagan times."
"How do you know all this crap?"
His smile was almost bitter. "I am a very old vampire, and sometimes easily bored."
"Uh-huh." I had a feeling the thing I'd met in the alleyway - the thing who'd called himself a high priest of the Aedh - might also have a whole lot to do with his knowledge.
"So where might we find this circle?"
"Somewhere she feels safe. Somewhere secure."
"Possibly. But I cannot enter that place to check."
"I can." And I had a somewhat legitimate excuse for being there if caught - Jin. "We can use our telepathic link. I'll describe what I'm seeing, and you can tell me how to destroy it."
He glanced at the house, then at me. "The minute we destroy the circle, she'll feel it."
"She might get a tad angry."
I grinned. "I handle 'tad angry' with ease, vamp boy."
He didn't say anything, just looked at me, and my grin slowly faded. "Look, let's just do this, before someone else dies."
He took a moment to nod, then glanced at the house again. "Rhoan has this house tapped?"
"Yes." I didn't mention he couldn't actually hear a whole lot. I had a feeling if I did, Quinn wouldn't be going anywhere.
"Has he infrared of the rooms?"
"Not yet," Rhoan said into my ear. "Maybe in an hour or so, once lack's team finishes hacking their security."
I repeated his words, and Quinn nodded. "Somewhere in that house, probably at a subterranean level, there will be some sort of tunnel leading into a deep chamber. We need to find it."
"Because that is where his power rests. That is where he sacrifices and feeds. To destroy him, we must first destroy the altar."
"I'd imagine that would piss him off more than a little bit."
"Yes, it will." There was something in his eyes - a darkness that was part memory, part ferocity - that sent a shiver down my spine. "And that is when you will understand the true meaning of the god of darkness."
"A lesson I have no desire to undertake."
"A wise decision."
That was me - wise all the way. Not.
"You got a car nearby?"
"Then I'll follow you to Jin's, if you like."
He nodded and pressed a hand to my back, gently guiding me toward the rear of the yard. Warmth shivered across my skin, and moon-spun desires sprung to fierce life. "I don't suppose - "
"No," he said, "Not here. Not now."
I scowled at him. "You're just no fun."
"If the moon heat is so bad, you should not be here."
Yeah, well, there was that. "It's just an itch that needs to be scratched. Nothing urgent." Not yet.
He didn't say anything, but then, he didn't need to. He might not be able to actually smell my desire, but he was a vampire and an empath. He'd feel the heat of it in my emotions. Would hear the elevated rate of my heart.
I headed back to my car then followed his - a divine black Porsche Coupe - across to Jin's. I couldn't get parking anywhere close and was forced to park in the next street then lope back. Quinn, lucky bastard that he was, somehow managed to grab a prime parking spot five doors down from Jin's.
My gaze went to his house, and a tremor ran clown my spine. There was something almost watchful about its facade.
I rubbed my arms and glanced at Quinn. "Doesn't look as if there's anyone inside."
His gaze was on the building. "There's nothing visible on infrared, but that doesn't mean the place is empty."
I raised an eyebrow. "It doesn't?"
"Demons don't show up on infrared."
"That's a comforting thought." I paused. "So how do I combat a demon?"
"Demons can be killed when they materialize." He walked to the trunk of his car and opened it up. "All you need to do is chop off their head."
"Which will be positively easy, no doubt."
It was dryly said, and he smiled. "About as easy as chopping off a vamp's head."
I waved a hand. "A walk in the park, then."
"Yeah." He handed me a long silver knife, waited until I'd strapped it on, then gave me two bottles of water and a box of salt.
"What am I supposed to do with these?" I asked, a little bemusedly.
"Holy water and salt are both weapons and purifiers." He slammed the trunk lid shut. "They can either keep the demon off you long enough to use the knife, or contain the circle so that it cannot be used for summoning again."
"We're not going to destroy it?"
He shook his head. "By making it unusable we force her to make a second, and therefore drain her of a little more power. We need every advantage we can get."
"Can I just point out it's two against one?"
"No, it's two against five. She will call the others if attacked and they can respond quicker than you could ever imagine."
He touched my back again, sending little shivers of delight lapping across my skin as he guided me toward the house. "How? They're in human form, and therefore restrained by human limitations."
"They can shed their human forms if they wish. It just means they have to find new bodies to take over."
"And would that be easy?"
He glanced at me, obsidian eyes giving little away. "No human can withstand them."
"In which case, there'd be no need for a willing victim acquiescing to evil then, would there? They could just take whatever they wanted."
"There is a difference between feeding to maintain existence and taking over the body. One has to be willing, the other does not."
"Could a nonhuman resist them?"
"Not if we're talking about a usurping of body ownership."
A tremor ran through me. I hadn't really wanted an answer to that particular question. Not when I probably had to face the bastards sooner rather than later.
I opened the gate and ran up the steps to the front door. It was locked, naturally, and a quick hunt around the nearby potted shrubbery didn't produce any handily-hidden key. "Don't suppose you were a cat burglar in one of your bad periods, were you?"
"I'm a vampire, remember?"
"Oh, yeah." Thresholds and all that. "Oh well."
I hit the door hard, in the sweet spot just above the lock, and it sprung open. Quinn raised his eyebrows. "That's a neat little trick."
"Courtesy of an apartment where the locks never work and the landlord refuses to replace them. It's the same sort of lock." I opened the salt and one of the bottles and held them at the ready. And felt stupid doing it.
I mean, water and salt had never been on my must-grab list when it came to weapons. When it came to unconventional weapons, give me a wooden spiked heel any day.
I took a long look at the shadow-bound hallway, then glanced at Quinn. "What am I looking for?"
"A cellar or room below ground level."
"Why below ground level?"
"Earth acts as a barrier to those sensitive to magic."
"The same way as it acts as a barrier to infrared?"
He nodded. "The door will probably be locked. Make sure it hasn't got any symbols carved or drawn onto it before you touch it."
"Symbols are bad?"
"They could be very bad." He touched my cheek, his fingers so warm against my skin. "Be careful in there."
"I will." I leaned forward and kissed him - just a brush of lips, a promise of heat, but even so, it had my hormones dancing with glee. I pulled back before the temptation to taste him more fully became too much, and stepped over the threshold.
The silence of the house descended like a blanket, and there was something almost surreal about it. It wasn't just the silence of a house without people. It was too watchful, too tense, for that.
Goose bumps ran across my skin. I gripped the salt box a little tighter and opened the telepathic link between us.
Heat swirled through my mind, desire as thick as anything I was feeling. My, my, my, I said, with a mental grin. The vampire hungers for more than just blood, I think.
I'm standing three feet away from a bitch in heat. His mental tones were dry. Is it any wonder I'm feeling a little horny myself?
Well, the bitch did offer a little relief.
Not when we're working.
I sighed dramatically. You are such an old man.
I prefer to call it cautious. And you and I can sometimes get loud.
Yeah, but isn't it fun?
Not when we're breaking into a suspect's house, it's not.
I smiled, and took several steps into the hall. A clock ticked silently in the room to my right, and still the air was cold. Almost abnormally so. Amusement fled, and I licked my lips. I suppose the kitchen is the most likely place for a cellar door?
I hadn't noticed one when I'd been here earlier, but then, I'd been more worried about getting some sustenance into my body before I passed out with fatigue. I padded down the hallway, my footsteps echoing lightly across the silence, every sense alert for the slightest twitch or abnormality. Nothing had changed, nothing had moved, since I was last there. Dust still layered the phone table, bills still covered the corkboard near the kitchen door, and plates bearing the remains of chocolate cake still littered the sink.
The only thing that was different was the atmosphere. The odd feeling that I was not alone in the house, despite the fact I couldn't scent or see anyone.
I stopped near the kitchen table and had a look around. There was a half-glass door to my left, through which I could see the backyard. Beyond that, the only other doorway was the pantry.
I've seen it open. It's a real pantry.
His frustration swirled through me. Can you just do something I ask without arguing about it?
Don't think it's possible. I grinned as I walked across the kitchen. The pantry door squeaked as I opened it, and the sound crawled across my nerves. I see shelves covered with tins and stuff.
All of them?
My gaze slid down. There's three spare shelves on the right.
I obeyed. And?
Is there a button or lever on or under any of the shelves?
I shifted slightly, moving closer to the shelves. Dust stirred, catching my nose and making me sneeze. The force of the sneeze stirred several sheets of loose paper sitting on one of the half-empty back shelves, revealing a small dark handle.
No odd symbols on or around it?
A couple of dead bugs and some sheets of paper containing recipes is about as odd as we get.
Use the lever, then. But be careful.
Tension crawled through my limbs. I rolled my shoulders, then placed the bottles of holy water in front of me and grabbed the handle. It didn't take much strength to move the lever down, and as I did, there was a harsh grating sound. The three shelves slid aside to reveal the darkness of a tunnel.
I peered inside. The tunnel was big enough to crawl into on all fours and shored up with wood, but the smell of dirt and mustiness hung heavily in the air. It was also long, dark, and scary looking. I switched to infrared, but it didn't help any. The tunnel curled to the left as it headed downward, and while infrared could see past walls, it couldn't pierce earth.
What do you smell?
The sudden question made me jump a little.
Dampness. I hesitated, sorting through the more tenuous scents coming up from the tunnel. Blood. Sulfur.
Sulfur is demon scent. How strong is it?
If it's an old scent, it's probably from past summonings. He hesitated. Still, proceed with caution, and keep the salt and water handy.
just what the hell am I supposed to do with them?
Holy water burns when it hits them. The salt can act as a barrier they can't cross if you use it to create a circle around yourself.
If I have time.
If you have the time.
I blew out a breath, grabbed the bottles of holy water, doing up the loose top so it didn't spill before climbing into the tunnel.
Though there was plenty of room, progress was slow. Between tasting the air, sliding the water ahead of me, and trying to see where the tunnel was actually going, speed wasn't going to happen.
The gentle slope curved around to the left, then right, and the smell of dampness, blood, and sulfur increased. And with it came something else. Muskiness.
Something else was down here. I stopped, drawing in a deep breath, trying to place the aroma. It was sharp and distinct, and felt old in a way I couldn't even begin to explain. And it wasn't anything I'd ever come across.
There's something here.
I don't know. It smells animal, but different, if that makes sense.
Could be any manner of demon.
Well, gee, that's comforting.
Amusement drifted down the telepathic line. There's only one way you're going to know what it is.
Says the man who's safe on the other side of the door.
The amusement died. If I could swap places, I would.
I know. I shuffled on. The slope continued its gentle downward arc, and the odd assortment of smells neither increased nor decreased. After a minute or so, the tunnel began to widen, and I was able to stand.
I dusted the dirt from my hands and knees, then looked around. The room was small and on the square side of round, and, like the tunnel, shored up by wood. There didn't appear to be anything hiding in corner shadows, despite the animallike odors haunting the air.
Talk to me, Riley.
I've reached the cellar. I took a step, and the sound echoed on the wooden floor. A chill scampered across my skin, though I wasn't entirely sure why. My gaze caught a white candle sitting in an alcove to my left, and beside it sat a box of matches. I mentioned them to Quinn, and added, Is it safe to light?
Riley, you're a dhampire with infrared sight. You don't need candlelight.
It's a psychological thing. I thinly this place would feel better with a little regular light.
Do it, then.
I placed one of the bottles near the wall, out of the way, then tucked the other under my arm and grabbed the handily placed box of matches to light the wick. Yellow light flared softly across the darkness, lending weight to the corner shadows but somehow offsetting the odd chill.
There doesn't appear to be anything here.
Check the floor.
I glanced down. Up until now, part of me had been hoping that Quinn was wrong, that magic wouldn't play a part of this whole setup. But, as usual, my hopes were dashed.
There's wax remains of five blacky candles standing at each of the points of a pentagram that appears drawn onto the floorboards by ash of something like that. Around this, we have fist-sized blacky stones forming a circle.
The black stones are warding stones. They're stronger than regular protection circles, but perform the same basic functions.
I studied the nearest stones for a minute, noting the way the black surface seemed to swallow rather than reflect the candlelight. Will the holy water or salt have any effect on them?
On them? No. And depending on the type of spell used, they may even prevent you from putrefying the pentagram and making it unusable.
They form a physical barrier. Place your hand near the stones to see what I mean - but be careful.
I stepped closer to the nearest two stones and raised a hand. Electricity buzzed across my fingertips like little angry flies. As I got closer, mini flickers of red lashed the air, like lightning about to strike. I stopped my hand a whisker away from the barrier, watching the almost angry light show, letting the energy of it flow across my skin. It felt foul. Evil, even.
Not surprising given the pentagram it protected was being used to call creatures from the dimension of hell itself.
I dropped my hand, shaking it a little to get some warmth back into my fingers and to lose the feel of the power. As I stepped back, something stirred in the shadow-filled corner to my right and the odd mustiness sharpened abruptly.
A low rumble ran across the silence, making the small hairs on my neck stand on end. I reached for the knife, but my fingers had barely closed around the hilt when the shadows found shape.
And what a shape.
It was big and black, with yellow eyes that gleamed with unnatural fire in the pale candlelight and teeth as long as my forearm.
It wasn't a demon.
It was a hellhound.