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Darkness flowed in, washing over him in relentless waves. Closing his eyes, Ranulf drank in the shadows with his other senses. Evil always felt the same, but the taste and smell and sound of it were different each time. Even here in his remote mountain home, the violence from the cities below tainted the air.
Who had dared to disturb his isolation? Ranulf traced the web of his protection wards, testing each one to locate the intruder. The sticky triggers of his protections were silent but effective, for the more someone struggled against them, the stronger the bond became.
It didn't take long to locate the snarl in his trap. Ranulf released the mental coils that held the man enthralled and let him approach the front door. The intruder was human, with very little of the Kyth in his blood, but then the blood of Ranulf's kind had become diluted over the centuries, lost in the wash of mankind.
He triggered the door to open but left the man cooling his heels on the porch. Bracing himself for the assault on his senses that always accompanied his return to society, Ranulf stepped into the doorway.
"You have something for me?"
The messenger jumped at Ranulf's sudden appearance, but he recovered quickly. With a courtly flourish he produced a heavy velum envelope. "The Dame sends her regards."
"I'm sure she does, Josiah." Ranulf reluctantly accepted the envelope.
The handwriting on the outside was the same spidery scrawl that had been issuing him orders for far too long. A millennium had passed since he'd first sworn fealty to the Grand Dame of their kind. Months ago she'd promised him a respite from killing, but he hadn't really expected it to last. They both knew that if she had need of his special talents, he would go. Duty was the one thing he understood.
As he cracked open the old-fashioned wax seal, he noticed the messenger still hovering in the doorway, neither in nor out.
"What?" Ranulf demanded, already weary of the man's presence.
"I'm to wait for you."
Ranulf bit back a curse; a lackey didn't deserve to lose his head just because Ranulf's instinct was to attack first and answer questions later and then, only when he was forced to.
"Tell her to expect me when she sees me."
"But she said it was an emergency," the fool sputtered.
"It always is," Ranulf snapped, his temper boiling close to the surface. It wasn't as if he could simply lock the door and follow the man back to civilization. For him, travel took preparation.
He forced a compromise. "I will be there as soon as I can. I can't be more specific, but after all these years, she knows that. Now get the hell out of here, Josiah. Every minute we spend arguing is a minute I could put to better use."
The man started to say something else. When Ranulf took one step in his direction with his fists clenched, the messenger backed away with a reluctant nod, then fled toward his car. Ranulf slammed the door shut and threw the dead bolt.
Delays were pointless; it was time to start packing. That wouldn't take long, because clothing had never been a priority for him. Not like some other Talions he could name. The Grand Dame had Old World sensibilities about such things, but bloodstains were a bitch to get out of silk and wool.
After packing his duffel, he zipped it closed and set it down by the front door. Then he walked over to a glass case and pondered its contents. After a few seconds, he lifted the lid and picked up his talisman by its leather thong. The bright shine of the gold sparked and flickered with power. The talisman felt to him far heavier than it looked.
He settled the centuries-old image of a god's hammer around his throat and tucked it inside his shirt collar. The cool metal absorbed the heat from his skin, reconnecting him with the Grand Dame. Once again, he was a warrior preparing for battle.
The small cache of energy he kept stored in the talisman soothed his cravings enough to maintain control, but it wouldn't last long. He could've used the Dame's messenger for a quick fix, but she wouldn't appreciate his sending her man back damaged, even just slightly.
Retrieving his duffel, he headed out to the garage, where his dark mood immediately improved. It was early summer and definitely time to take the dustcover off the Packard. The car, a creamy white 1940 convertible, always drew a crowd a drawback in his line of work. But as a six-foot-three, blue-eyed Viking with fiery red hair, he wasn't exactly inconspicuous anyway. If he had to drag himself back out in the world on a mission for the Grand Dame, at least he could do it in comfort and style.
He'd owned the car since it had first rolled off the lot back in 1940, and it still looked brand-new. He put the top down, then brushed a hint of dust off the elegant curve of the fender, enjoying the smooth feel of the metal and the comfort of the buttery soft leather seats. On the outside, the Packard hadn't aged any more than he had. Inside, where it counted, he felt every one of his thousand years. He turned the key and the car purred to life, the 160 horses under the hood just begging to be unleashed on the mountain roads.
Ranulf ripped down the familiar curves, wondering why the Dame needed him. Most of the time she used the other Talions at her command, preferring to use diplomacy rather than Ranulf's brute strength to impose her will on their people. If she was worried enough to send for him, she must suspect that one of their kind had crossed the line and needed to die. He flexed his hands on the steering wheel, feeling the harsh scrape of raw energy under his skin. It had been a long time since he'd fed on a renegade, and he didn't relish the thought of doing so again.
Killing was rough work, and messy. It always had been, from the very beginning, when blood had flowed for the glory of his people. But he was a Talion, a group named for the eye-for-an-eye principle that ruled their kind. Ranulf served the Kyth as executioner and was the acknowledged best at what he did. He had few regrets, even if every life he'd taken had chipped away at his soul, leaving him cold and grim.
In recent centuries the Kyth had grown more civilized, and now most feared rather than respected the Talion class. Maybe rightly so. The ability to kill without remorse was a rare gift, but one he took no pride in.
On the way, he'd look for a crowd to get lost in long enough to harvest sufficient energy to last him for a day or two. That way he'd be better prepared to face whatever had the Dame worried enough to unleash a Viking warrior on the streets of Seattle. A growing sense of dread urged him on, his foot pressing down hard on the accelerator as he charged down the mountain and prepared to do battle.
The music was alive, pulsing through the dancers. The concussive beat vibrated through the club's walls, the floor, and the very air until it became just another note in the symphony. The melody flowed out in waves, reaching the farthest corners of the club.
Closing her eyes, Kerry Logan lifted her hands high in the air and gave herself up to the fierce beat, her hips swaying, her head gently rolling from side to side. For the first time all day, her skin didn't hurt from the demands and expectations of others. She'd ditched her coworkers and her friends for a night out alone on the town.
Right now the music was all there was, and that was enough. She'd spend the evening lost in the crowd of dancers, letting the music take control. After a few hours she'd head home, her soul replenished.
Lost in the anonymity of the packed dance floor, she moved and slowly spun, enjoying the occasional brush of a stranger's body against hers. She was dimly aware of the weight of voices and the crush of bodies, but finally everything except the music faded into the background. This would heal her weary spirit.
The city lay sprawled under a blanket of bright lights as Ranulf followed Interstate 90 into the heart of Seattle. Just before he reached the turnoff to the Dame's home, the song on the radio was abruptly cut off by a news flash about a fire raging out of control at a nearby dance club. There was nothing unusual in the few sketchy details, but Ranulf's gut instincts had him riveted to the story. Without hesitation, he drove past his exit and into the downtown area.
The blaze might have been caused by any number of things, from bad wiring to a careless fool with a cigarette, but if a Kyth had set the fire, Ranulf wanted a head start in hunting the bastard down. No matter how careful an arsonist was, he'd leave enough of a trace for Ranulf to detect. The unique flavor of his energy would identify him as clearly as a fingerprint would.
Screaming emergency vehicles were converging on the scene, so Ranulf parked a block away to approach on foot. The scent of smoke and the faintest tang of burned flesh hung heavily all around, and he could hear the screams from a block away. Drawing in a deep breath, Ranulf tasted a bitter darkness in the air the familiar flavor of evil. He ran toward the burning building, determined to snatch as many away from the grasping fingers of flame and death as possible.
Kerry was dancing, loving the slide of muscle under her skin, her bones no longer solid but fluid and bending with the rhythm of the song. This was what she'd come for.
Then the night was shattered by a woman's terrified scream. "Fire! My God, fire!"
Kerry's eyes flew open. Everyone stood frozen in horror, their faces reflecting the crimson flicker of flames. As terror swiftly turned the crowd into an ocean of panic, Kerry fought to remain calm in a scene straight out of hell. She glanced at the ceiling to the silver glint of a sprinkler system, praying it would kick on to drown the roiling smoke and terrified voices.
How had the room filled up with so much black smoke and flame so quickly? It didn't make sense. Ignoring the chaos, she struggled to get her bearings. Access to the front door was already cut off by a lethal combination of too many people and the fire itself. The intense heat drove the crowd back, sending a solid wall of mindless bodies flooding right back toward her.
There had to be another way out. She wiped her eyes with her sleeve to clear away the sting of tears and smoke. Keeping close to the wall, Kerry darted toward the hallway at the back of the club. The power failed as she turned the corner, plunging the narrow passageway into darkness, leaving only the dim glow of the red emergency lights to guide her.
She tried door after door, including the bathrooms, but found no windows. No access to the outside. Spying an Exit sign at the back of a storage room, she ran straight for it. The heavy door resisted opening, but she gathered up her strength and shoved one more time. Blessedly cool night air poured through the opening and kissed her skin. She filled her lungs, shaking with relief at having made it to safety. But before she could step outside to freedom, the screams and agonized shrieks back in the club brought her up short.
She couldn't save herself and let the others die. Fear and common sense argued she was making a mistake, but her conscience wouldn't listen. After jamming a box in the door to keep it open, she drew one last breath of clear air and resolutely turned back toward the hell inside.
The fire had engulfed one entire side of the club, herding its victims back into nooks and crannies to consume at its leisure. Kerry grabbed two women by the arms and dragged them toward the hallway. Once they were headed in the right direction, she returned for more.
With smoke burning her lungs, she made trip after trip out of the inferno, leading some people, herding others, helping as many as she could. Once the able-bodied were moving in the right direction, she looked for anyone who didn't have the strength to make it out on their own.
Ignoring the stench of burned flesh, she lifted a man who was struggling to breathe. Wrapping his arm around her shoulder, she staggered under his weight as they shuffled step by step through the heavy smoke, half carrying and half leading him toward the exit.
A tall male figure suddenly loomed up in front of her through the smoke. The haze was too thick for her to make out his face clearly, but she was sure he hadn't been among the dancers. She would have remembered someone that size. He seemed to be the only other person who'd managed to keep his head in the face of such terror.
She shoved the injured man at the tall stranger, shouting over the chaos, "Get him out of here while I go back for another look."
Before she'd gone two steps, his hand snaked out to catch her by the arm. "I'll be back to help."
With a renewed burst of energy, she made another foray back into the club. The dim hallway was no longer clear of smoke and fire, and heat licked its way along the ceiling, rolling in blue and red waves. Dropping to her hands and knees, Kerry crawled and coughed her way back into the dance floor, where she spotted four people huddled behind the bar. Were they waiting for an engraved invitation, for God's sake?
"You've got to get out of here!" she shouted, frustration and a growing fear threatening to overwhelm her.
When they didn't respond, she tried again. "Come on, get moving! I'll take you to safety."
A boy who looked far too young to be in a bar shrank back farther into the corner, his eyes huge with panic. "NO! We're waiting for the firemen to come get us."
"You won't live long enough for them to find you." Running out of time and patience, she gave his arm a solid yank. "Now get moving, all of you!"
"You heard her, boy. Move or we all die."
Kerry jumped at the deep voice barking orders from right beside her. The stranger was back, just as he'd promised. With him standing beside her, the fear that had been lapping at her control faded to a manageable level.
He shoved the boy and his friends back toward the exit, then leaned in close to yell over the roar of the fire, "Better get out of here. The rest of the roof is about to go."
"I'll be right behind you."
"You better be." Then he was gone.
Dimly aware of the shouts behind her, she realized that the fire department had arrived and was sending in the troops. At last.
Before she'd gone more than a few steps toward the exit, she heard a sound that chilled her despite the boiling heat surrounding her.
Closing her eyes to listen, she hoped to hear nothing but the mad cackle of the fire's fury. But there it was again a whimper coming from off to the left. Common sense told her to leave any more rescues to the pros. But she had to live with herself, even if that meant dying right along with whoever was still trapped inside the inferno. Praying for deliverance or, failing that, a merciful death, she worked her way farther into the room.
Part of the ceiling crashed in, sending up a shower of sparks as the front door of the club was axed open and the first spray of water hit the flames. A rush of steam hissed and boiled through the room, and she instinctively flattened onto the floor. If the fire didn't finish her, the superheated water would.
From the floor, she spotted the source of the agonized moans. A woman lay curled up on her side a few feet away, cradling her badly burned arm. From the unnatural position of her foot, it looked like she also had a broken ankle. Kerry lurched to her feet, then muscled the woman up off the floor and over her shoulder. She wasn't sure how far she could carry someone who was both taller and heavier than she was; hopefully that huge guy would reappear.
The smoke had too much substance now for her to see clearly, so she was forced to trust her instincts. Through the darkness, she fought her way toward the exit one last time. It felt like it took an eternity before she finally staggered through the door.
Outside she was dimly aware of the crush of people and the scream of sirens as ambulances pulled into the parking lot. She turned in their direction, going only a few steps before EMTs were there to relieve her of her burden. As they gently settled the woman on a gurney, she grabbed Kerry and held on tightly.
Squeezing her hand lightly, Kerry offered what comfort she could. "You'll be fine. They're going to take you to the hospital."
"What's your name?" the woman rasped, her voice damaged by the smoke.
"Kerry. Kerry Logan."
"Thank you. Without you, I'd be dead." A tear streaked down the woman's sooty face.
"We'll take her now, miss." The EMT wheeled the gurney toward a waiting ambulance.
Kerry stared after the flashing lights long after the ambulance streaked out of the parking lot. The adrenaline rush left her buzzed and unable to concentrate, with no outlet for the energy coursing through her. Where was that tall guy? She wanted to thank him for his help and make sure he'd made it out of the fire safely. Odd that just his presence had helped her remain so calm.
Before she could spot him, a uniformed man approached her. "Miss, I'd like to talk to you if you wouldn't mind."
Kerry blinked several times, forcing her eyes to focus. "Yes, Officer?"
"From what I've been hearing, a lot of folks are alive here because of your efforts. So far it looks like no one died, in large part thanks to you. Tell me what happened in there."
Kerry shuddered as images of flames and fear flooded her mind. "There was music and dancing, and then suddenly there was fire everywhere."
He looked up from his notebook. "Can you describe it in more detail? I'm the arson investigator for the fire department Maynard Cooper, although most folks just call me Coop. I'll be in charge of the investigation."
"I'm Kerry Logan, but I don't know how much help I can be. Most of it's just a blur." She shoved her hands in her jeans pockets. "Right now I just want to go home."
"You'll get there, but first I need your contact information. Then you need to get checked out by the EMTs before we can release you. You took in an awful lot of smoke tonight."
She was reluctantly following him across the parking lot when Coop abruptly steered her back the way they'd come.
"The vultures have landed." He glanced over his shoulder. "Listen, unless you want to be grilled by a mob of reporters, why don't you wait by my car over there? I'll send one of the techs to check on you."
"Thanks." The last thing she wanted was to face the flash of cameras and a bunch of stupid questions.
While Coop fended off the press, she watched the firefighters swarm the club, pouring on more water and checking for hot spots inside the remaining walls. Had anyone been left inside? God, she hoped not. What a horrible way to die! Visions of that fiery hell would terrorize her dreams for weeks to come.
As she waited, she could feel the weight of someone's gaze. She looked around, at first seeing no one, then spotted a man standing back in the shadows of a nearby alley. Though she couldn't see his face, she could feel him staring directly at her. She tried to ignore him but found it impossible to look away.
As if sensing her interest, he stepped forward into the glow of a streetlight and met her gaze head-on. His mouth turned up in a predatory smile that chilled her to the bone. Glancing toward the door to the club, he held out his hand. With a quick flick of his thumb, he lit his cigarette lighter, then lifted it up as if he'd been making a toast.
His smile broadened and he bowed, then faded back into the shadows as quickly as he'd appeared. Kerry stood frozen, unable to move, grasping for words to describe what she'd just seen. Only one fit.
There wasn't a doubt in her mind that this man was responsible for the fire. Closing her eyes, she did her best to recall every detail about him, then ran straight for Coop.
He was still fielding questions from the reporters. She caught his eye and gave him a pleading look. Abruptly he cut off the interview, promising the reporters an update as more information became available. Kerry waited impatiently for the press to start moving off.
When they were out of hearing, she leaned in close to the arson investigator and whispered, "I need to talk to you, but not here."
After one look at her face, he nodded and took her arm. "Let's get in my car."
There, he asked, "What's up?"
Bracing herself, she met his gaze head-on. "I know who started the fire."
The investigator jerked upright, all signs of exhaustion gone. "What makes you say that? Where is he now?"
"Gone." Her teeth began to chatter, and cold chills raced through her body. "Can I borrow your notebook and a pencil?"
He handed them over.
With trembling hands, she started sketching the face she'd seen, closing her eyes periodically to remember more detail. It took her several attempts to get the mouth right, but finally she was satisfied.
And scared all over again.
Coop leaned over to look at the picture. "Who is he? And what makes you think that he's the one?"
"While you were talking to the reporters, I felt someone staring at me." She pointed toward the alley. "He was standing in the shadows between those two buildings. As soon as I spotted him, he smiled and held up his cigarette lighter and flicked it. As if he was making a toast to celebrate the fire."
She shivered. "His smile was the scariest thing I've ever seen."
Coop merely nodded. "How come you draw so well?"
"I'm a graphic artist. That's a pretty rough sketch, though."
He studied the picture. "Looks pretty damn good to me. And it's a helluva lot more for my team to work with than we had a few minutes ago. I had one of my guys taking pictures of the crowd. Maybe we'll get lucky and find him in one. I'd like to take you into headquarters to make a statement."
She ached all over, but she couldn't find it in her to refuse. "If you think it will help."
He pulled out a cell phone. "I need to let my men know where I'm heading. Do you need to call anyone?"
She shook her head. No family, few friends, and she'd told her boss that she was going to work at home tomorrow. Glancing at the digital clock on the dash, she realized that it already was tomorrow. She'd been up for almost twenty-four hours straight and felt every minute of it.
As they drove out of the parking lot, Coop opened his mouth briefly, as if to say something but then closed it when he thought better of it. Whatever it was, she'd be better off knowing what he had to say, especially considering the worried look on his face.
"Tell me, Coop. I'd rather know."
He gave her a sidelong glance. "I didn't give the reporters any information about you back there, but they're bound to interview some of the people you saved tonight. If any of them know your name, the media will be on your trail, wanting your story. Your name and picture will end up splashed across tomorrow's headlines."
It didn't take a genius to add two and two and come up with a scary answer. "He'll find out who I am."
Coop nodded grimly. "I can request some protection for you, but until we get a fix on who this guy is...Hell, he could be anybody, anywhere. I won't lie to you, Miss Logan. It could be dangerous, because so far you're the only one who can place him at the scene."
"How mad will he be that I screwed up his plans?" It was a hard question to ask, but she preferred to have all the facts, no matter how grim.
Coop stared out the windshield as he considered his answer. "It depends. Chances are he loves fire like most men love a woman. If that's the case, he might be happy with burning the place to the ground. But if he wanted more than that, then he's crazy as a bedbug and there's no predicting what he'll do."
"Either way, I have to do this. I couldn't live with myself, knowing what I saw and not doing anything about it."
"You're a brave young woman, Miss Logan."
She laughed shakily. "I'm not so sure about that."
"Like they say, being brave is being scared and doing it anyway." He gave her a reassuring smile. "And a lot of people are still breathing today because you kept a cool head in that fire, Miss Logan." The respect in his voice came through loud and clear.
She managed a small smile. "Thank you, Coop, and call me Kerry. I suspect we'll be seeing more of each other."
"Yeah, and I'm truly sorry about that." Coop patted her on the shoulder just before turning into the fire department parking lot.
"Me, too, Coop. Me, too."
"Son of a bitch!"
Ranulf kicked a rock, sending it skittering down the street after the car disappearing down the block. He'd been too busy trying to trace the elusive scent of the renegade to realize that the woman was about to be whisked away by someone in a uniform. For her sake, he hoped the man really was part of the fire department. The renegade Kyth's scent had faded away at about the same time, so it was possible that the bastard's fun wasn't over for the night.
He turned back to where the fire crew continued battling the blaze. Soon there'd be only charred wood and a few nightmares for those who had lived through it. Which brought him right back to the woman in the fire. She was Kyth. He hadn't known that until he'd grabbed her arm.
His hand still tingled from the burn of energy that had arced between them. Had she recognized him for what he was? Probably not. She'd been too intent on hauling that human's sorry ass to safety to notice anything else. How many of those trapped in the renegade's fire party owed their lives to her cool head and clear thinking?
The Dame would want to hear about the woman's exploits in the club. Thanks to the fire and smoke, he couldn't provide many details about her other than she was on the small side and had dark hair. And that she'd displayed far more strength and courage than anyone he'd met in a long time.
The renegade would be hunting for her, but Ranulf wasn't going to let him get to her. Not on his watch.
With the fire department and police still crawling all over the scene, there wasn't anything else he could do now. First thing in the morning, he'd return to study the scene and start tracking down his target. He'd do better after he'd rested and fed.
After one last look at the smoldering ruins, he walked back to his car. Time to report to the Dame.
Copyright © 2008 by Patricia L. Pritchard