A vampire. And where there was a vampire, there had to be a navigator. I raised the binoculars to my eyes.
The vampire’s face was horrible, a death mask sculpted with human features devoid of emotion, intellect, and self-awareness. The creature paused, perched on the edge of the cellar entrance. It unhinged its maw, displaying twin sickles of yellow fangs, leapt straight up, and clutched on to the wall of the house like a fly. The vamp scuttled up the wall, ran along the dark roof to the white stub of the chimney, and hopped in like some nightmarish Santa.
We could possibly deal with the electric fence. But a vampire would prove problematic. We had no way of knowing how many of them were in that house. Two would present a challenge. Three would be suicide. Especially if magic hit.
“Andrea?” Raphael’s voice was a soft cloud of warmth in my ear.
I glanced at him. What?
“Did you like the thing I left for you?”
The thing? Oh. The thing. Shapeshifters had an odd way of courtship. Mostly it involved proving to your prospective mate what a stealthy and sleek operator you were by prancing in and out of her territory. Because all of the land belonged to the Pack overall, “territory” came to be defined as the potential mate’s house. Most shapeshifters broke in and left presents, but boudas had an odd sense of humor. They broke into the houses of their intended and played practical jokes.
Raphael’s father glued Aunt B’s furniture to the ceiling. Raphael’s uncle lock picked his way into Raphael’s aunt’s house, flipped all the doors around, and hung them back on their hinges so the handles were inside. In fine bouda tradition, Raphael somehow snuck away during the Midnight Games, broke into my apartment, and left me the thing.
“You want to know that now?” I hissed in a fierce whisper.
“Just tell me yes or no?”
“Do you really think this is the best time?”
His eyes flashed with red. “There might not be any other time left.”
I turned and saw Cerberus crouching in the ravine behind us. He stood there absolutely still, the three pairs of his eyes fixed on us with baleful fury.
I turned very slowly to Raphael.
“Did you like the thing?” he asked with quiet desperation.
“Yes. It was funny.”
He grinned, his face made unbearably handsome by the flash of his smile.
With a deafening growl, Cerberus charged us. Fur sheathed the monstrous bloom of Raphael’s jaws. I flipped on my back.
Cerberus’s center head dove at me, his black maw gaping, ready to swallow me whole.
The first shot punched the back of the dog’s mouth. It yelped and I sank two more in the same spot. Flesh exploded and I saw sky through the hole where the back of the beast’s throat used to be. The head drooped down. I rolled clear just as an enormous paw clawed the spot where I had dropped. The smallest claw grazed my side and leg, ripping the clothes in a hot flash of pain.
I leapt to my feet. The left head dove for me and missed as Raphael launched himself into the air, slicing Cerberus’s nose with his claws. Cerberus jerked back and Raphael clutched on to his muzzle. The dog shook, but Raphael clung to it, flinging bloody chunks of dog flesh to the ground.
I backed up, reloading. Raphael carved huge clumps out of Cerberus’s muzzle in a frenzied whirl of fur and claws. Blood spurted in dark streams.
The right head snapped at him, great fangs clamping together like a bear trap. Raphael hooked his claws into the dog’s nose, dropped out of the way, swung his legs like a gymnast on a pommel horse, and smashed his clawed feet into Cerberus’s right head.
I snapped the Weatherby up, anticipating Cerberus’s recoil.
The huge head swung back, as if in slow motion, the ruby eye clear and bright.
An ancient tie stretched between Cerberus and me, vibrating like a live wire. The bond between the hunter and her prey.
The head reared higher and higher.
I have time.
Blood burst from the back of Cerberus’s head. The head jerked straight up, its nose pointing to the sky. Fire leaked from its ruined orbit. The flames surged, engulfing the head. As it crashed down, bouncing once on the hard dirt, Raphael leapt to the ground. Behind him the last head shuddered and fell, catching the flames. Raphael straightened, a dark demonic figure silhouetted against the orange fire, his eyes two points of red light.
If I weren’t a trained professional, I’d have fainted from the sheer overload of his badassness.
I pointed my rifle straight up, resting the butt against my hip, and put on my Order face. Move along, nothing to see here, I do this every day. I thought of blowing imaginary smoke from the rifle barrel, but the Weatherby was long and I’m barely five feet four, so I’d look pretty stupid.
Raphael strode to me. His voice was a ragged growl torn to tatters by his fangs. “Are you alright?”
I nodded. “A bit scratched up. Nothing major.”
We walked away, slowly, trying to maintain our coolness. A greasy stench of charred flesh tainted the air currents.
“That was a hell of a shot,” Raphael said.
“Thank you. That was a stunning display of hand-to-hand.”
We killed a damn Cerberus. Kate would turn green with envy.
Then the magic wave drowned us, and we paused in unison as it penetrated our bodies, awakening the inner beasts.
A bright blue glow surged from the ground. It flashed and vanished—the ward, a strong magic barrier, going active. Approaching the house during magic would be problematic. We’d have to somehow break through the ward.
A ghostly white light ignited in the wall right in front of us. It struggled free of the house and approached us, moving in sharp jerks. Its fuzzy radiance halted just before reaching the boundary of the ward and solidified into a translucent older man with kind eyes and pale hair.
I jumped back and snapped my gun up on reflex. Not that it would do anything with magic up.
A grimace strained the ghost’s face, as if he were pulling a great weight. “Raphael,” he gasped. “Not safe . . .”
A spark of magic snapped from the house. It clutched the ghost and jerked him back into the wall. Raphael lunged at the ward. The defensive spell flashed with blue, twisting a snarl of pain from his lips. I grabbed him and pulled him back.
“Is that Doulos? Your mother’s mate?”
He nodded, fury boiling in his eyes. “We must get him out!”
An odd sucking sound rolled behind us. I looked over my shoulder. Inside the ball of flames, Cerberus’s skeleton rose upright. The fire flared once more and vanished, snuffed out like a candle. Flesh spiraled up the colossal bones. Oh shit.
“Run!” Raphael snarled. We dashed down the ravine.
We were halfway to the wall when the first growl announced the hellhound giving chase.
“And you’re sure Doulos was dead?” I drove like a maniac through Atlanta’s troubled streets. Next to me Raphael licked a burn on his arm.
“He was embalmed. Yeah, pretty sure.”
“Then what was that?”
“I don’t know. A shade? A soul on its way to Hades?”
“Is that even possible?”
“We’ve been almost eaten by a giant three-headed dog. There is not a hell of a lot that I consider not possible at this point. Watch out for that cart!”
I threw the wheel to the right and barely avoided a collision with a teamster, who flipped me off. “We need a bigger gun.”
“We need a shower,” Raphael said.
“Gun first. Shower later.”
Ten minutes later I walked into the Order’s office. A group of knights standing in the hallway turned at my approach: Mauro, the huge Samoan knight; Tobias, as usual dapper; and Gene, the seasoned former Georgia Bureau of Investigations detective. They looked at me. The conversation died.
My clothes were torn and bloody. Soot stained my skin. My hair stuck out in clumps caked with dirt and blood. The reek of a dead cat emanated from me in a foul cloud.
I walked past them into the armory, opened the glass case, took Boom Baby out, grabbed a box of Silver Hawk cartridges, and walked out.
Nobody said a thing.
Raphael waited for me in the Jeep, a spotted monster smeared with blood and dirt. A fly apparently had fallen in love with a spot on his round ear, and he kept twitching it. I put Boom Baby in the backseat and hopped into the driver’s seat. Raphael yawned, displaying a pink mouth bordered with thick conical fangs. “Big gun.”
“Where do you want me to drop you off?”
The hyena man licked his lips. “Your apartment.”
“Ha. Ha. Seriously, where?”
“Your face was exposed when we fought the dog and later when we spoke to Alex’s shade. The bloodsucker saw you, which means the navigator would’ve seen you through its eyes. It’s likely the navigator knows who you are. It’s equally likely he’s doing something he isn’t supposed to in that ravine. Last I checked, stealing corpses was illegal.”
Stealing corpses was very much illegal. With magic making new and interesting things possible, the lawmakers took theft of cadavers extremely seriously. In Texas, you got more time in a forced-labor camp for stealing a corpse than you got for armed robbery.
Considering the remote location and the electric fence, it was highly likely someone was up to no good. If it had been a legitimate operation of the People, we would’ve been approached by a human or vampiric sentry. Because of our law enforcement status, all navigators knew the knights of the Order by sight and recognized that we were an annoyingly persistent lot. The People would’ve made contact to convince me they weren’t involved in anything illegal and get me to go away.
Since they didn’t, either whatever was taking place in that house was too dirty for the People to admit their ownership of it, or it didn’t involve the People at all. The second possibility meant greater danger. For all of their nauseating qualities, the People were tightly regulated and mostly law-abiding. For now, anyway. They wouldn’t dare to attack a knight of the Order, knowing that the consequences would be public and painful. But a rogue navigator armed with a vampire had no such compunction.