Raphael laughed softly, like a bemused wolf. “You ruined a spectacular alpha snarl.”
I had seen Raphael fight. He was devastatingly lethal. The way he tore up Cerberus’s head took both skill and the berserk frenzy that made boudas feared in any fight. Physically he could overpower me. I was barely five feet four; he was six feet and change. He outweighed me by about eighty pounds of hard muscle, toughened by constant exercise. He was without a doubt the best fighter of the bouda clan. But he was also a male, and bouda males preferred the beta role. I had snapped into an alpha mode without even realizing it.
“I didn’t mean . . .”
“I trust you to take the lead most of the time,” he said. “With the understanding that when I really insist, you will listen.”
I exhaled. “Agreed.”
The Casino, the People’s HQ in Atlanta, occupied the enormous lot that had once housed the Georgia Dome. The People’s architect had taken the Taj Mahal as a model and expanded the blueprint to twice its original size. Pure white in daylight, the Casino seemed to float above the asphalt, buoyed by the glittering streams of many fountains surrounding its walls. Its slender towers reached to a dizzying height, flanking the ornate central cupola. Elegant passageways united the towers, ethereal as if woven of spider’s web or carved from a chunk of ivory by a patient sculptor. Its elaborate central gates always stood open, just as the guardhouses and engines of war on its thick walls were always manned.
I parked in a side lot and nudged Raphael to put Kate’s book down.
A hundred yards from the gates, both of us paused in unison. The stench of undeath spread through the lot like a sickening miasma. No words could adequately describe it, but once you smelled it, you never forgot it. It was a sharp, leathery, dry stench, unmistakably of death but not of rot, the scent of sinew and bone wrapped in a foul, foul magic. I nearly gagged. Raphael slowed and I followed his example.
I’ve had the acclimatization training to accustom me to vampiric scent and presence, but it was one thing to watch a single vamp held tightly in check twenty yards away and completely another to be walking into the den of more than three hundred of them.
We made it through the doors past twin sentries dressed in black and armed with wickedly curved scimitars and stepped into the sea of slot machines. The air rang with a discordant cacophony of bells and chimes. Lights flashed. People screamed in manic glee, cursed, and laughed. More than half of the slots had been reworked to be completely independent of electricity. Even when the magic hit, the one-armed bandits would continue to quickly and mercilessly siphon cash out of the public’s pockets and into the coffers of the People. Necromantic research wasn’t cheap.
We halted before a service desk and I told a young man in a business suit who I was, flashed my Order ID, and explained I was here to see Ghastek. The young man, having introduced himself as Thomas, promptly affixed a smile on his face. “I’m sorry, ma’am, he’s incredibly busy.”
“Tell him I’m here on behalf of Kate Daniels.”
Thomas’s eyes went wide. He tapped the intercom, whispered into it, and nodded at us. “Unfortunately, he’s in the stables and can’t leave at the moment. He’s most eager to see you, and someone will be here to guide you to him very shortly.”
We walked over to the waiting area by the wall. A row of chairs waited for us, but I didn’t feel like sitting down. I felt like someone had painted a giant bull’s-eye on my chest and a dozen hidden snipers were ready to take a shot.
Raphael’s lips bent in an odd little smile. If you didn’t know him, you could mistake it for the dreamy absentminded grin of a man quietly enjoying his private thoughts. This little smile meant Raphael was a single infraction away from whipping out his knives and slicing everything around him to pieces. He wouldn’t do anything unless provoked, but once provoked, nobody could hold him back. The Pack and the People represented two sides of the same power coin: among all civilian factions in Atlanta, they were the most powerful. They had divided the city between them and stayed out of each other’s territory, knowing that if open conflict broke out between the two of them, the fight would be long, bloody, and costly, and the victor would be so weakened, he wouldn’t survive for long.
But as much as they avoided provoking each other, both found it prudent to show their opponent their teeth—and Raphael was all about proper etiquette.
A vampire dropped into the doorway. Female and probably black during life, now it had gained an odd purple tint. Hairless and emaciated, as if knitted together from twine and tough jerky, it stared at us with hungry eyes. Its mouth unhinged with mechanical precision, and the voice of a female navigator issued forth. “Good morning. My name is Jessica. Welcome to the Casino. Master Ghastek sends his deepest apologies. He’s engaged in something he cannot postpone, but he instructed me to take you to him. With my sincere regrets for your inconvenience, I must ask you to please leave your firearms at the desk.”
They wanted my guns. “Why?”
“The inner facilities house a lot of delicate and in some cases irreplaceable equipment. Occasionally our guests experience a heightened sense of anxiety and discomfort due to the presence of vampires, particularly when they visit the stables.”
“I wonder why,” Raphael said.
“We’ve had incidents of accidental discharge of firearms by our guests. We don’t request that you surrender your bladed weapons, only your firearms. I’m afraid this rule can’t be bent. My deepest apologies.”
“That will be fine,” I said, and deposited my P226s on the desk. Without my weapons, I felt naked.
“Thank you. Follow me, please.”
We followed the creature down an opulent hallway to a stairway and then down, and down, and down, beyond the daylight to the artificial illumination of electric lamps. The vampire crept lower and lower, moving on all fours, making so little noise, it was uncanny. We wove our way through a maze of dim tunnels, interrupted only by the occasional bulb of electric light and dark, foot-wide gaps in the ceiling.
“Is there going to be a minotaur in this labyrinth?” Raphael growled.
“The maze is a security measure, necessary for proper containment,” the navigator’s voice answered through the vamp’s mouth. “Unguided vampires are ruled by instinct. They don’t possess the cognitive capacity to navigate the tunnels. In the event of a massive breakout, the tunnels will act as a buffer zone. The ceiling contains a number of heavy-duty metal grilles that will drop down, separating the vampires into easily manageable groups and minimizing damage resulting from bloodlust-induced infighting.”
“How often do breakouts occur?” I asked. The stench of undeath had grown to a nearly unbearable level.
“Never. This way, please.” The vampire scuttled to a brightly lit doorway. “Watch your step.”
We entered a huge chamber and descended a dozen stairs to the floor. Harsh white light streamed from the high ceilings, illuminating every inch. A narrow hallway stretched to the center of the chamber, its walls formed by prison cells. Each six-by-six-foot cell housed a single vampire, chained by the neck to the wall. The chains were thicker than my thigh. The vampires’ eyes burned with insatiable bloodlust. They didn’t vocalize, didn’t make any noise; they just stared at us, straining on the chains as we passed by them. Every hair rose on the back of my neck. Deep inside, my secret self gathered into a tight clump, watching them back, ready to leap out at the slightest opportunity.
The hallway terminated in a round platform, from which more corridors radiated like spokes from a wheel. On the platform stood Ghastek. He was a man of average height and thin build. His light brown hair receded from his forehead, focusing attention on his eyes: dark and sharp enough to draw blood. His attire was black, from tailored slacks to the long-sleeved shirt, collar unbuttoned and sleeves very carefully and precisely rolled up, but where Raphael’s black was an aggressive, kick-ass darkness, Ghastek’s black was the laid-back, business-casual shade, an absence of color rather than a statement of attitude.
He glanced at us, nodded briskly, and turned his attention to three young people standing to the side next to a console. They wore identical black slacks, gray dress shirts, and dark violet vests. Journeymen, the Masters of the Dead in training. One of the three, a tall young male with red hair, stood very rigid. His hands curled into fists. He stared straight ahead, at the cell where a single vampire sat at the end of its chain.
Ghastek nodded. “Are you ready, Danton?”
“Yes, Master,” the redhead said through clenched teeth.
“Very well. Proceed.”
The vampire jerked as if shocked with live wire.
“Easy,” Ghastek said. “Remember: no fear.”
Slowly the bloodsucker took two steps back. The hunger in its ruby eyes dimmed slightly. The chain sagged and clanged to the floor.
“Good,” Ghastek said. “Maria, you may release the gate.”
A female journeywoman with long dark hair tapped the console. The gate of the cell crept up. The vampire stood still.
“Disengage the collar,” Ghastek ordered.
The vampire snapped the collar open.
“Bring him forward.”
The vampire took a tentative step forward. Another . . .
Its eyes flared with bloodlust like two glowing coals. Danton screamed. The bloodsucker charged us, eyes shining, jaws unhinging, huge claws scratching the platform.
I dashed forward, pulling a field knife, but Raphael beat me to it. He swung, slashing in a precise arc, and checked himself in midmove.
The vamp froze. It simply stopped, petrified, one clawed foot on the ground and the rest in the air. Raphael had stopped his knife blade a mere half an inch from the undead throat.
“You have excellent reflexes,” Ghastek said. “A shapeshifter?”
Raphael simply nodded.
“I sincerely apologize,” Ghastek said. “I’m piloting him at the moment, so he won’t cause us any further concern.”