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It was the blackest, rainiest night the forgotten and overgrown cemetery had seen in centuries. Ancient tombstones leaned drunkenly beneath the bones of dead-looking trees, while gnarled limbs shivered in the cold. Arthritic twig-fingers scratched the tallest of the old stone monuments like old, yellow fingernails on slate. And the surviving vampires huddled together around an open, muddy grave.
Brigit Poe, part vampire, part human, and one of the only two of her kind, was dressed for battle, not for a funeral. It was only coincidence that she wore entirely black. That breathable second-skin fabric favored by runners covered her body from ankles to waist like a surgical glove. Over the leggings, she wore tall black boots, with buckles all the way up to her knees. The chunky four-inch heels provided extra height, an advantage in battle. And the weight of them would add more potency to a kick. Her black slicker looked as if she'd lifted it straight from the back of a cowboy actor in an old spaghetti western. It was long and heavy, with a caped back, but it did more than keep the rain away. Its dense fabric would help deflect a blade.
She could have wished for a hood. She could have wished for a lot of things, topmost among them: for the task she faced to fall to anyone other than her. But that wasn't going to happen.
As she stood there, watching each vampire move forward to pour ashes into the muddy hole, her twin brother walked up to her and plunked a black cowboy hat onto her dripping-wet blond curls. She had, she'd been told, hair like Goldilocks, the face of an angel, the heart of a demonand the power of Satan himself.
Black hat, she thought. It figured. In that spaghetti Western she'd been envisioning, she definitely would have worn a black hat. Her brother would have worn a white one. He was the good guy. The hero.
"It's not going to be easy," he told her. "Hunting him down. Killing him."
"No shit. He's five thousand years old and more powerful than any of us."
"Not exactly what I meant, sis." Jamesknown to her as J.W. despite his constant protestslooked her dead in the eyes. She pretended not to know what he was looking for, even though she did. Decency. Morality. Some sign that she was struggling with the ethics of the decision that had been madethat she must find and execute the ancient one who had started the vampire race.
Only days earlier, her brother had located and resurrected the first immortal, the ancient Sumerian king known as "the Flood Survivor." He was the original Noah, from a tale far older than the Biblical version. His name was Ziasudra in Sumerian, Utanapishtim in Babylonian.
A prophecy, the same prophecy that had foretold the war now raging between vampires and the humans who had finally learned of their existence, had also said that the Ancient One, the first immortal, the man from whom the entire vampire race had descended, was their only hope of survival.
Or at least, that was what they had thought it said. Turned out, their ancestor was actually the means of their destruction. Still believing the Ancient One was their salvation, J.W. had used his healing power to raise Utana from the ashes. And the man had returned to life with his mind corrupted by thousands of years spent trapped, conscious, his soul bound to his ashes.
Believing he'd been cursed by the gods for sharing his gift of immortality and inadvertently creating the vampire race, he'd set out to destroy them all. One look beaming from his eyes, and they were annihilated. He'd killed many vampires already.
Human vigilantes had killed even more.
The end of their kind, it seemed, was at hand.
Unless she could stop Utana from his self-appointed mission.
"What I meant," her brother went on, "was that killing someone who can't truly die, knowing that all you're really doing is sentencing him to spend eternity, virtually buried alive"
"Are you trying to tweak my conscience, J.W.?" she asked, irritated. "It won't work. I don't have one. Never have. That bastard's killed hundreds of my kind. Our kind. I've got no problem taking him out before he can eliminate the rest of us. No problem whatsoever."
Someone cleared his throat, and she looked toward the open grave again. Thirteen survivors of the recent annihilation had scooped up the dust of their beloved dead and brought the remains here, to this abandoned and long-forgotten cemetery in the wilds of Maine.
Those gathered included ten vampires: Eric and Tamara, Rhiannon and Roland, Jameson and Angelica, Edge and Amber Lily, Sarafina and the newly turned Lucy. In addition, there was Sarafina's mortal mate, Willem Stone, and the mongrel twins, Brigit herself and her brother, J.W. The supposed only hope for the dark half of their family.
Rhiannon, their unofficial aunt, her long, slit-to-the-thigh gown dragging in the mud at her uncharacteristically bare feet, poured the final jar of ashes into the hole, threw the jar in after them, then tipped her head back and opened her arms to the skies. The rain poured down on the pale skin of her breasts, almost completely exposed by the plunging neckline of her bloodred gown. Her long black hair hung in wet straggles, and her eyeliner was running down her cheeks, mixed with rainwater and tears. She was not herself.
"I know you can hear me, my friends. My family." Her voice broke, but Roland moved up behind her and placed his strong hands on her bare shoulders. Then slowly, he slid them outward, following the length of her arms upward, his black cloak opening with the motion, sheltering her from the rain. He clasped her hands in his, his arms open to the skies just as hers were.
It was a beautiful image. And heartbreaking at the same time.
"I know you can hear me," Rhiannon said again. "And I trust you've found that we, too, enter paradise when we leave this life. We, too, are worthy of heaven. We have soulssouls that feel, that love, that live, a thousand times more powerfully than those of the mortals who call us soulless monsters."
She closed her eyes, drew a breath. "Be well, there in the light, my beloved ones. Be well, and fear not. For those you've left behind will survive." She opened her eyes, and they were cold and dark, more frightening than ever, ringed as they were in black. "And I swear by Isis Herself, you will be avenged."
She lowered her arms slowly, but Roland still held them, and he wrapped them around her waist, enfolding her in his cloak and in his arms as if they were one.
"It is done, my love. Come, we need to brief our little warrior before we send her off into battle."
Rhiannon turned, meeting Brigit's eyes, holding them. There was so much there, Brigit thought, staring at her mentor, the woman she most admired, most wanted to be like and whose approval she most craved. And truly, had never been without. There was love in those dark-ringed eyes. Love and grief and fear. A lot of fear.
Fear in Rhiannon's eyes was something so unusual that it shook Brigit right to the core.
J.W. tightened his hand on her shoulder. "It's going to be all right, little sister."
"Easy for you to say. Your job was to raise our living dead forebear. I'm the one who has to deal with him now that he's up and rampaging."
"Come," Eric said. "Let's return to the mansion. It's unsafe to be out in the open for long, even here."
One by one, and two by two, they filed out of the cemetery together, taking a soggy path that wound from the old graveyard along a narrow and twisting course to the towering structure that sat alone on the rocky, seaside cliff. The ocean was as restless tonight as the skies, as the vampires and their kin made their way higher. Winds buffeted them, howling and crying as if they, too, mourned the loss of so many.
Brigit walked alone. Normally she and J.W. would have been a pair, side by side, the only two of their kind and yet opposites in every way. But now he had his mate, the beautiful, brilliant Lucy, a vampire now. And Brigit was
she was alone, and facing the biggest challenge of her entire existence. A challenge she didn't want and wasn't sure she could handle.
And yet, she was all but on her way. Her bag was packed and waiting at the mansion. She'd been waiting only for the funeral rites to conclude.
Up ahead, Rhiannon, in the leadwhere else?reached the mansion's door and stood, holding it open while the others entered the crumbling ruin.
Brigit was last in line, and as she passed, Rhiannon put a hand on her forearm. "We'll have a talk before you leave," she said softly. "Wait in the library."
Great, Brigit thought. One more delay, and it was as inevitable as it would be unpleasant. The elders must want to brief her before she left on what was undoubtedly a suicide mission. Just what she needed. A lecture before dying.