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King laid a manila folder on Rook's desk and then stepped around to stand beside it, arms crossed.
"Got time to take a look at this?" King asked Rook. "I'm getting itchy about Slater with the Zmaj tribe. He's been acting out through others. Over the past six months the tribe has turned sour. Too many murders linked to their vamps, and the increase in their numbers is disturbing. Slater is creating vampires without regard. I think it's time the Order stepped in."
The Order of the Stake policed the vampires across Europe and took out the ones who proved a danger to mortals. One of the Parisian tribes, Zmaj, had been peaceable since its inception early in the twentieth century, but recently the Order's intel had noted a shift in power within the tribe. And a disturbing penchant for violence.
"I'll put our best knights on it." Rook, King's right-hand man and the figurehead in control of the Order, tapped the keyboard to boot up the computer screen. "I might even scout them out myself. Been feeling the need to return to the field lately."
"Is that so? I thought you'd grown accustomed to your cozy office chair."
"That's just it. Do you know what happens when a man rests?"
"He rusts," Rook replied. "I haven't trained a new knight in months. I need to do something physical. Go beat in some vampire skulls and get the death punch out of the bottom drawer."
The Order's knights called the specially designed titanium stake the death punch. Standard gearno knight went on the hunt without three or four in his arsenal.
King, the founder of the Order, had recruited Rook about a decade into his project. They'd known each other since the end of the sixteenth century and had been friends and brothers through the ages. Rook loved and admired the man. He would do most anything he asked, and he knew the respect was reciprocated.
While King watched over his shoulder, Rook scanned through the Order's database on tribe Zmaj. Their computer network kept detailed records on all known vampires and tribes in Europe and the surrounding nations. Although they focused on vampires, the Order also recorded information on all other paranormal breeds because their work tended to overlap.
They'd been keeping an eye on the vampire Frederick Slater for more than a decade, since his creation in the early part of the twenty-first century. Before that, he'd been mortal for thirty years. The sick bastard had asked for vampirism. The tribe leader was aggressive and devious, yet used others to do his dirty work. And he had entitlement issues. Took things that didn't belong to him, such as expensive cars and nightclubs. And innocent mortal women he then turned into vampires. A nasty habit the Order had overlooked because he hadn't been killing them. Until now.
Rook opened the manila folder, a recent file on Zmaj. The first picture was a crime scene photo of a young woman lying in an alley, her neck torn out. Dead. A bloody handprint marked her cheek, a common indicator in the other photos that followed.
"Zmaj is marking their kills," King noted, tapping the handprint. "Why?"
Rook had no clue. "Vampires tend to be secretive and hide their mistakes." He shuffled through the photos, each f lashing bloody handprints. "These kills are bold and blatant, as if they wanted someone to discover them. Or, rather, to know they are the tribe responsible for the death."
"They've captured the attention of the mortal authorities."
"Which means," Rook said, "it's time the Order shut down tribe Zmaj before Tor has his work cut out for him."
Torsten Rindle did spin work for the Order. He was a master at convincing the mortal press that a vampire bite on a dead body was simply deranged fandom at its worst.
Rook closed the manila folder. "I'll take care of this personally."
"See that you do." King strode out of the office as silently and unexpectedly as he'd entered.
From the drawer at the bottom of his desk, Rook drew out a titanium stake. With a squeeze of his hand to compress the paddles, out pinioned the deadly stake from the sleek column. Pressed against a vampire's chest, the weapon pierced the heart and reduced the vamp to ash. Rook had created the stake centuries earlier, and as technology had improved, so had the original design. He took pride in the implement.
He spun the weapon smartly, slapping it solidly into his palm. A bloody palm print? "You just signed your death certificate, Slater."
He stood and, with a keystroke, put the computer to sleep. In the closet at the back of his office hung a long, leather cleric's coat with a bladed collar and reinforced Kevlar panels on the chest and back. Leather pants, a cotton undershirt and a Kevlar vest hung inside.
Stripping off his crisply ironed gray dress shirt, he tossed it aside and caught a glimpse of his bare chest in the mirror inside the door. He proudly fisted the raised brand of the Order of the Stake on his left shoulder and announced, "Tonight I'll turn this city gray with vampire ash."
With full intel on the Zmaj tribe, Rook had headed toward the seventh arrondissement, where most of the attacks marked with the bloody handprint had been reported. It was an affluent quarter where old money mingled with the new. The Eiffel Tower and Les Invalides attracted tourists, which led Rook to believe Zmaj was hunting either unknowing tourists or the established, yet oblivious, rich.
His steel-toed boots took the cobblestones swiftly, quietly. His senses were alert for sounds beyond the incessant traffic noises. The city never slept. It was something he had in common with Paris. The air was crisp with imminent autumn, a season he enjoyed because it softened the city's harsh odor as the ominous dread for winter settled in.
As the principal trainer and supervisor for the Order, Rook took knight trainees out in the city on the hunt, but he hadn't hunted alone in years. Not for lacking desire to stake some longtooths. He had simply been too busy training and running the Order. The paperwork involved in keeping their secret order an actual secret was ridiculous. He never could have imagined, four centuries earlier, filling out computer database profiles or making duplicates over an office copy machine.
The vampire population in Paris was high, but most of them enjoyed their anonymity from mortals and worked hard to keep it that way by not killing humans and thus raising the Order's ire. Best way for a vampire to ensure immortality? Avoiding a stake to the heart.
Yet there would always be the young and reckless vamps who deemed the world their playground and enjoyed the kill. They never survived long. And although the Order served only to protect mortals from vampires, Rook knew many breeds appreciated the work they did because keeping all vampires mythical in the eyes of the mortal population benefited everyone.
Some mortals believed in vampires, werewolves, faeries and all the other breeds that shouldn't exist. Those mortals were few and were rarely considered a problem. It was those who did not believe but then had been attacked by a vampireforcing them to believewho Rook wanted to keep far from the fangs of hungry vampires. Those victims who would scream, raise a holy stink and invite investigation, and Rook wanted to avoid that.
And the only way to do that was by ashing the culprits.
Directing his attention inward, Rook questioned Oz's statement.
Something feels familiar.
Rook always paid attention to the entity within him. Asatru, an incorporeal demon, had been trapped within him for four centuries, accompanying him through this thing called life.
"What seems familiar?" he asked Oz. Sometimes he spoke aloud to the demon, but he could think the question and the entity would understand just as well.
It is a feeling. You are close to something important.
Not far ahead of him, a female cried out.
Rook fitted a stake into both hands and ran toward the harrowing sound. It was before midnight, yet this section of the city was quiet and dark with only intermittent vehicle traffic. Ancient buildings that had seen war, revolutions, and the rise and fall of monarchies closely paralleled the street. The alleys in between buildings were claustrophobic. Street lighting was at a minimum. Not the optimal place for a lone female to go walking.
Nowadays mortals had lost their sense of danger. Their naive complacency never ceased to astonish Rook. One must always be vigilant.
He spied a crowd of young men looming around something, or someone, he could not see. Yet he could feel fear in the air as tangibly as he could read a person's truth by placing his hand over their heart. Had to be the woman who had screamed.
One of the men hissed dramatically and exposed fangs.
"Thought so," Rook muttered. He picked up his pace.
What was that?
A fireball, small and tight and flaming orange, zipped through the air and singed one of the vampires on his bald head. The vamp yelped and batted at the flame, hissing and cursing at the one who had lobbed the attack.
Was the woman they had surrounded a witch? Had to be to throw fire like that. A rare witch, though. Few practiced such magic because fire promised a witch's sure death.
Another ball of flame looped in the air but fell onto the cobblestones like a deflated balloon. Sparks sputtered, and the flame hissed to smoke. She didn't have control. Had her hands been shackled by an attacker?
Rook shouted, catching the vampires' attention. Four charged toward him. He took one out with a plunge of the stake to his chest. Ash formed in the air in the shape of a man. The remaining three vampires scattered in the inky darkness.
Rook ran through the ashy cloud toward the woman clinging to the brick wall. In the confusion of having one of their comrades ashed, the vampires had left her alone. Fire burned in patches on the ancient cobbles before her, finding tinder in the dry autumn leaves littering the ground. She huddled against the wall, her dark hair spilling over her face and wide eyes taking in the scene. Hands out before her, her fingers shook, and he thought perhaps the flames on the ground danced at the command of those shaking fingers.
Rook lunged to kneel beside her, laying a hand high over her breast to feel her frantic heartbeats. It was a conditioned touch. He could read a person that way, butnot this time. What the hell? Perhaps her fear blocked his read.
She nodded frantically.
He was getting nothing from her. Not the clear read of truth he always did when touching another. Yet he felt a strange sensation of recognition surge through his system. Something familiar but so distant he couldn't touch it. He'd lost it so long ago.
That is it!
He winced at Oz's inner outburst. Looking into the woman's shadowed eyes that flickered with small red flashes from the flames, he wondered aloud, "My soul?"
Jerked away from the woman by a vampire's claws, Rook switched from the sudden, overwhelming knowing that clenched about his heart to fierce and ready fighting mode. He twisted at the waist, swinging out an arm and slashing the stake across a vampire's face.
Behind him, three vamps lined up. He caught a glimpse of the woman. Now on her feet, she ran away from them. Get as far away as you can, he thought. No, we need her! Oz said.
Perhaps, but right now he stood his ground surrounded by vampires. All thoughts focused on getting the job done. This night, no longtooth would walk away from him alive.
Verity ran down the dark street, her heartbeats racing her strides. A short skirt and heels were not optimal running attire, but when her ankles threatened to buckle, fear pushed her.
After a long night at the gym practicing her performance piece for the Demon Arts Troupe, she'd looked forward to strolling home in the crisp night air to walk off the strain in her muscles. Her mind reviewing the new routine she'd been perfecting, she'd walked right into the gang of vampires. Though she'd never feared them in numbers before, immediately she had known they hadn't wanted to chat.
She'd thrown fire at them, but there had been too many. Two had wrangled her wrists, stopping her from casting more flame balls. They'd begun to reason out who would bite her first when the hunter had charged onto the scene, stakes swinging like some kind of samurai warrior.
Though he'd worn the coat of the Order of the Stake, the long leather jacket had not concealed his muscular physique. His movements had been skilled and swift. Nothing like having a knight in dark leather rush in for the save. Verity had swooned a little when he'd held his hand against her chest and their gazes had locked. When he'd said "My soul," she had gasped.
Could it be?
She clasped the wooden heart that hung from a leather cord around her neck and ran faster over the cobblestones, her heels clicking too loudly. So long she had wondered about what she held in her hand, andcould he have finally found her?
Sensing someone was quickly gaining on her, she couldn't risk turning back for a look. One of the gang must have escaped the hunter and now pursued her, a panther hot on the rabbit's tail.
She dodged to the right down a narrow alley, seeking the streetlight some hundred yards ahead and cursing the fact that she didn't know where she was. She needed a moment to reorient herself with the neighborhood.
Testing her magic, with a thought she sent out a spurt of fire. That was all she could manage, a tendril. She'd expelled most of her fire during practice. She needed a night of rest to properly recharge and restore her magic.
And although she was skilled in gymnastics, this running in heels business was quickly taxing her after hours of exertion in the gym. In proof, she stumbled on a loose cobblestone, but instead of her body floundering, she felt a hand sweep around her waist, turn her and slam her shoulders against the concrete wall. Impact jarred her teeth. Her ankles wobbled. Verity could barely hold herself upright as she faced the bald vampire with fangs revealed and menacing eyes.
"What the hell do you want?" She tried to say it with command, but without any magic to control, she had lost her only defense.
"Your blood, witch." The vampire slammed his hands to either side of her shoulders and leaned in to sniff at her hair. "You burned me, so now I'm going to make you scream before you die."
Before she could reward him with the scream he sought, the vampire sunk his fangs in her throat. Instinctively, Verity jammed her knee upward but only managed to connect with his thigh. The bloodsucker didn't even groan. She beat his chest with her fists, but he easily wrangled her hands with strong, pinching fingers.
The teeth in her neck tore at her skin. It hurt like nothing she'd ever experienced before. She'd never been bitten. Would not suffer a vampire to be so intimate with her, despite having once dated one. The creep sucking at her vein drew out her blood. He moaned as if in the throes of orgasm and
A yell from down the alley stopped the vampire. He tore out his teeth from Verity's skin, twisting his head to pinpoint the origin of the shout. The wounds hurt so badly, the pain manifested as a scream. Slapping his hand to her cheek, the vampire mimed a goodbye kiss, but thankfully, his bloody lips did not touch hers.
As the vampire ran off, Verity sank against the wall. Grasping her neck, her fingers slipped in her blood.
The hunter lunged to a diving kneel before her and lifted her chin to peer at her neck. He inspected her cheek and swore. "Damn it. I didn't see that one get away!"
Eyelids fluttering, Verity tightened her jaw to keep back the tears that threatened. She wanted to beg him to save her, to make it all better, but she knew it was too late. She'd been bitten. And the vampire couldn't have had time to seal the wound. If the wound was not properly sealed, the victim risked becoming a vampire.
"You a witch?" the hunter asked quickly.