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The pack complex had not been rebuilt after the fire. The pack principal, Remy Caufield, had created a sort of family home in an eighteenth-century town house at the edge of the sixteenth arrondissement, close to the forested Bois de Boulogne.
Or so Lark had been briefed an hour earlier by her supervisor.
The Order of the Stake tendered a fragile relationship with werewolves. Knights in the Order exclusively slayed vampires, but there was nothing to keep them from tracking and killing a werewolf should it prove a threat to mortals. The Order, populated exclusively by mortals, allied with none from the paranormal nations.
"Ah?" The principal of the Levallois pack looked up from his desk as she approached to stand quietly before him. His dark eyebrows furrowed curiously. "I hadn't expected a woman. I thought the Order was strictly men."
"You thought wrong," she answered curtly. "You have a job for me?"
"No introductions? I'm Principal Caufield." He offered his hand to shake across the desk.
Lark did not accept the offer but instead returned an acknowledging nod. Best to keep him appeased. She didn't like paranormals of any kind, but her training had taught her diplomacy.
"You can call me Lark."
"Lark. Pretty, in a " His pale eyes took in the sleek black cleric's coat she wore, tight black leather leggings reinforced with Kevlar on the thighs and high leather jackboots. At the collar of her coat gleamed the bladed edging designed to keep away vamps looking for a thick, juicy vein. "Well, you seem to fit the bill, Miss, er Lark. You've been knighted?"
"As are all who serve the Order. If you need reassurance that I can do the job, Principal Caufield, you've only to check with Rook, as I'm sure you have. But I am here now, and I assume you wish little time wasted. A third of your pack has been slain?"
He nodded and exhaled as he settled back in the office chair. "Yes, a third. Utter insanity. Eight of my pack slain in a month's time. The culprit is the vampire Domingos LaRoque. He is mad."
"Truly?" Lark hated to think of madness overtaking any man, yet while her tone professed lacking belief, her heart believed. Too deeply. "Or is he merely angry over crimes the Levallois pack perpetrated against him?"
The principal leaned forward, eyeing her with some concern. "You show pity toward a vampire?"
"Not at all. I simply want to deal with the facts. Lies complicate things. So tell me the truth."
"Very well. To cut through the bullshit, it is no secret the pack engages in the blood sport."
Illegal fights that pitted captured vampires against one another to the death, but those fights only occurred after months of starvation and forcibly induced UV sickness. Such callous disregard for the sanity and welfare of those not their breed was a good reason for Lark to not let down her guard around werewolves.
"Domingos was an odd one," the principal continued, thumbing his chin in thought. "Normally the vampires we engage in the sport last a round or two before expiring. But LaRoque lasted six months. That vampire possessed a twisted will to live. Even the UV sickness could not defeat him. Although I believe it made him madliterally. He's a dangerous opponent. Can you take him out before he murders the remainder of my family?"
"Of course." Lark nodded once and then, before turning to leave, said, "The first time I lay eyes on Domingos LaRoque will be the last time he takes a breath."
The pack had spread out as he'd thinned the herd. Heh. He'd stood good to his word upon breaking out of that hellacious complex. But no time to celebrate. He had a werewolf to trackif he could just keep the music in his head from distracting him. It wasn't even a song. More like a gathering of distorted violin chords, like a cat in heat yowling for attention. That, and the slithery whispers that never left him alone. He never understood any of the words, if they were words; it was just an eerie constant murmuring. It was enough to drive a man mad.
"Been there, done that. Still doing it," Domingos muttered.
He banged the side of his head against the brick wall where he hid in a dark alley. That helped. Joggled his brain. Focused him. Until the cacophony resumed.
Clenching his teeth, he smacked a fist to the side of his skull. Ah, silence.
"Finally," he muttered, and snuck forward through the night.
Cool shadows calmed him and relaxed his muscles. Always tense lately. Ever on guard. A man couldn't find peace with so much to tend, both mentally and externally.
Didn't matter. So he was mad. He dealt with it as best he could. Besides, the madness proved an advantage when he leaped for his prey and ripped out its heart. Yet that wasn't Domingos LaRoque who stood holding the pulsing heart. That was the phoenix inside him.
That other vampire. The one you drank dry in order to survive.
A clatter focused him on a mangy scent on the dark Paris streets. The werewolf was not using stealth. The dogs were not known for grace or silence.
Feeling his veins tighten in anticipation of the deed, Domingos crept forward. He would have his revenge. Again.
The wolf spoke with someone. Female, and mortal. He scented her blood, sweet and tainted with floral perfume. Good thing he'd fed an hour earlier. But damn, the last thing he needed was a mortal witness.
Domingos turned and looked down the alleyway he'd come from. He clasped his fingers over the brass-framed goggles that hung from around his neck. He wore them always; be it day or night, he never ventured outside without them. If he so much as looked toward UV light, his vision went completely white.
What was that? A shadow moved not half a block away. Had he passed someone without realizing? Did another wolf follow him?
Never let down your guard. Stay alert. They are everywhere. Snap out from nowhere to grab you and take you back. Don't go back!
Disregarding the werewolf putting the moves on the mortal, for he hadn't yet verified if it was from pack Levallois, Domingos slunk back the way he had come. Inner whispers forced him to snap his head back and forth, as if he were a headbanger with Tourette's. The move was not successful. Yet in between the clamor of distorted musical notes and hideous whispers taunting his brain, he managed to pick up a heartbeat. Calm, yet aware.
Casting his gaze across the rooftopstwo stories uphe ran a short distance and made a leap, landing on the slate tiles with ease, for his bare feet gripped the smooth tiles and held him there. Squatting, he clasped an arm about his tattered leather pants and leaned over, much like a gargoyle, seeking the mysterious shadows below. Yet unlike the gargoyle, he was not positionedand had no intentionto protect.
Down the alley, the werewolf laughed counter tempo to the click of the mortal woman's heels. His prey had hooked up. Lucky bastard.
You don't need a woman. You seek only the blood from those who tortured you.
He wasn't sure the wolf had been Levallois, and he wasn't about to take out the wrong wolf.
The violin scratched at the inside of his skull. Domingos made to slap his head but paused. A curious shadow moved below. And he wanted a closer look.
He could do this to a sound trackeven one that screamed like a burning cat.
Leaping, Domingos descended with a grace that loosened up a chuckle. He sometimes forgot that his inner madness manifested in voice. The shadow, alerted by his laughter, dashed between buildings as he landed on the cobbled street crouched, fists to the ground.
Another chuckle echoed into the night. Domingos laughed at himself from the grandstand. His other selfthat sane selfcould never quite manage belief in the antics perpetrated by the phoenix, the true darkness within him.
But he'd given himself away.
Quickly, he slipped into the shadows, becoming but a heartbeat. He listened, straining to hear the mysterious other over the insistent skull clatter. Cars rolled by, exhaust fumes billowing into the night. The werewolf's scent lingered, yet he knew that ship had sailed. Pity the mortal woman should she not expect an animal in her bed tonight. The moon was half crescent, so the wolf needn't shift, unless that was his thing.
Forget the wolf, Domingos thought. I want to play with the mystery shadow. He scented her now. Yes, female. And close by. As if it was her intent to remain. Could she have been tracking him?
He hadn't gone to Club Noir tonight. The erratic thrash-metal bands they featured provided an escape from the noise in his brain. When he was there, females hung on him, attempting to get his attention, to entice him into learning their salacious secrets. He hadn't the interest.
They all need to die.
So what was he doing now?
Playing with the shadows.
Slipping past the open doorway of an abandoned building, Domingos moved swiftly. He made out the shape of her now. Her back to an old iron street pole, she stood tall and slender. Alert.
He moved like the wind, and just at the moment he sensed she knew he was behind her, he grasped her around the neck and pulled her spine against the pole. One hand pressed across her throat, choking her, while the other moved to the hand she slashed back toward him.
His fingers grazed cold metal. He clamped his hand about hers, sliding his fingers up along the metal cylinder. He recognized the shape of the weapon only from a close encounter years earlier. Fuck. She held a She couldn't be!
Her free hand gripped the pole and while her body moved slightly forward as she kicked back with one foot. Something sharp on the back of her heel tore through his pants and thigh. Domingos cried out at the pain of it, but he didn't release her.
No, he wanted to play with this prize.
Blood scent blossomed as he squeezed his fingers about her trachea. Blades? He wasn't about to let go, despite the icy sharpness cutting into his palm.
He felt her grip on the cylinder loosen and snatched it from her. Slamming the blunt end of it against the back of her shoulder, he growled, "You want to die, hunter?"
"You first! "
This time he avoided her kick but released her as he backed away. Chuckling, and wielding what he knew was a deadly titanium stake, he lunged and wrapped himself about her back. The force of their collision knocked her to the ground, facedown with her palms to the tarmac.
Straddling her, Domingos shoved the stake against the base of her skull, execution style. He'd never slain a mortal, but he'd make an exception this night.
"Why are you following me?" Stupid question. If she was a hunter, the answer was obvious. "Where'd you get this fancy stake, eh? The Order doesn't hand these out as Halloween treats."
"It's mine!" Her hand slashed backward, cutting across his forearm.
The blade she held cut deep, and Domingos jerked his fist away from her skull. Forcing up a hip, she managed to twist onto her back beneath him, and slashed the blade again. He slapped a hand about her wrist to contain the flailing weapon. It looked like brass knuckles, with a blade cupped in the palm.
Strong and determined, this one. Dark bangs hung to eyes of a color he could not discern in the darkness. Dirt blushed her cheeks. She smelled like brightness and courage. At her neck the blades on her collar glinted with moonlight.
In Domingos's brain, the phoenix performed a maniacal jig to celebrate his stolen survival instincts.
"You're Order of the Stake," he said. "Good for you, little girl. I didn't know they were knighting chicks these days. Too bad you die tonight."
"If I die, I'm taking you with me."
The violin ceased tormenting his brain. The sound of her heartbeat thundered into focus. And suddenly Domingos heard his own heartbeat, which he hadn't noticed for weeks. Why was that? The woman's fierce gaze didn't mesmerize, but instead pierced his heart without aid of a weapon. That pain he felt more deeply than he had the knife.
He crushed her wrist and gave her hand a shake, and the blade looped about her fingers dropped to the cobbles with a clatter. Still she resisted, willing to fight to the end. He liked that. Most women would scream and beg for mercy. And he wanted to hear her beg.
"Mercy," he hissed. "Ask for it."
"Fuck you, longtooth!"
"You're one tough mortal. Why are you after me? I thought the Order didn't stake vamps unless provoked? I have done nothing to bring harm to mortals."
"This conversation is over."
He took a blade in his back. She'd kicked him with those nasty boots. And now she wrestled to get the stake from him. Domingos released his prize and propelled himself over her head, landing deftly on the tarmac, and ran out into the main street.
She twisted up to a running pursuit, slashing the deadly stake toward him. Moonlight gleamed on her long black hair queued in a ponytail and at the bladed collar. Focused grit tightened her face, yet her lips were so red. Sensual.
Domingos stood but a kiss away from death.
He didn't have time for death.
"Adieu, my pretty little hunter." He bowed, danced a few steps to the side and just as the stake whisked the air near his cheek, he leaped to a rooftop.
Standing at the tiled edge, he looked down over the frustrated hunter. She flipped him off. He made a motion to capture the gesture and smashed it against his heart.
"Until we meet again!" he called, and hurried across the tiles until her heartbeat faded from his senses and only the violin caterwauled in his brain.