After a lifetime of avoiding his family, Fort has discovered that working for them isn’t half bad—even if his mother, Madeline, is a terrifying, murderous vampire. His newfound career has given him a purpose and a paycheck and has even helped him get his partner, foxy kitsune Suzume, to agree to be his girlfriend. All in all, things are looking up.
Only, just as Fort is getting comfortable managing a supernatural empire that stretches from New Jersey to Ontario, Madeline’s health starts failing, throwing Fort into the middle of an uncomfortable and dangerous battle for succession. His older sister, Prudence, is determined to take over the territory. But Fort isn’t the only one wary of her sociopathic tendencies, and allies, old and new, are turning to him to keep Prudence from gaining power.
Now, as Fort fights against his impending transition into vampire adulthood, he must also battle to keep Prudence from destroying their mother’s kingdom—before she takes him down with it....
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The highway sign indicating my entry into Hardwick Township appeared just as the digital clock display on my GPS clicked over to noon. I’d been driving for four and a half hours by then, enough time to take me from the heart of my mother’s territory in Providence, Rhode Island, to its very edge in northern New Jersey. There were a lot of people who would’ve been surprised to know that I-80 demarcated a line of ownership that had been established with blood hundreds of years ago. Those people would have been even more surprised to learn that the path of this particular interstate had been placed at the direction of a vampire.
Or not. New Jersey politics were rather notorious, after all.
My mother was the vampire in question, and also the reason that I was driving through New Jersey. Madeline Scott reigned supreme in a territory that stretched from New Jersey’s border with Pennsylvania up into southern Québec—and like any good leader, she had realized long ago the importance of delegating menial tasks. Today I was on my way to discuss terms and conditions with a group of hopeful immigrants to the territory. Not humans, of course—with few exceptions, humans moved through territories with blissful ignorance. Territory rules and boundaries applied to a much smaller, and more secret global population—the supernatural.
This was normally the kind of task that my older brother, Chivalry, was best at handling—with smooth good looks and the kind of diplomatic skills that would’ve made Madeleine Albright jealous, my brother was practically tailor-made for these kinds of missions. I was definitely the second string in this particular field, but I was at least an improvement over our oldest sibling, my sister, Prudence.
Her diplomatic skills mostly involved leaving bodies on the floor.
I’d been involved with only one immigration request before, and that was a fairly standard one of a werebear (sorry, metsän kunigas—the bears are picky about the terminology) family from Mexico coming in to join up with our local group. It had been back when I was still doing ride-alongs with Chivalry as part of my training. I’d spent most of my life trying to be like the humans around me, and pretending that things like vampires didn’t even exist—that had led me to a film studies degree from Brown and then a series of minimum-wage jobs. But last year things had changed, and now I was irrevocably part of the family system, and was even on the family payroll. At my own insistence, I’d kept the minimum wage, even though I knew that my family could pay me marriage-counselor-level hourly rates and never even notice. During one of the periods that the Scirocco had been in the shop, and I’d been relying on the Providence bus system and shanks’ mare for transportation, my roommate, Dan, had asked me outright why I didn’t just take more money from my family—they’d be happy to give it, and in fact could probably have just bought me a new car from the petty cash account and relied on their fleet of accountants to turn it into a tax write-off. It had been hard to put a lifetime’s coil of fear, stubbornness, and tiny private high ground into words, but the best that I’d been able to explain was that taking no more than I would otherwise have been earning on the open market of shitty jobs made me feel like I couldn’t be caught by my family’s money, or ever build up a style of living that required that money and therefore could put pressure on me to do things that I felt might be unethical. This way, after all, I could always tell them all to go pound sand and maintain my current lifestyle by pouring coffee and cleaning public toilets.
Dan had been so utterly disgusted by what he termed my “bullheaded and bullshit martyrdom” that he’d lent me his car until the Scirocco was fixed. While I hadn’t exactly followed his reasoning on that one, I supposed that at least we were both equally mystified by the other’s actions.
Today was going to be my first solo effort—and it probably wouldn’t even have been happening, except that Chivalry was on vacation with his new wife, Simone, in New Hampshire. The call requesting a hearing for immigration into the territory had come in yesterday, and had cited some emergency as the reason for the short notice. Chivalry had offered to come home early to handle it, but I’d promised to do it myself. Simone was a professional mountaineer, and she’d just finished guiding a group of winter hikers up Mount Washington, so it didn’t seem fair to make her cut short her downtime afterward at a fancy and expensive ski lodge. Plus, she and Chivalry had been married for only a month and a half, and most of that had been sucked up with the holiday season. With the new year only a week old, I figured that she deserved a little one-on-one with my brother. After all, it wasn’t like she had a lot of time to waste.
So that had all led to me here, in my gray Scirocco, cruising into a rural town (population 1,696) in New Jersey whose sole claim to fame was that the original Friday the 13th had been filmed there. Under normal circumstances, I might’ve been kind of excited. After all, despite the layer of snow on the ground that was old enough to have acquired a nasty grayish crust that removed all picturesque elements from it, the roads were dry, my car was running well, and my partner in crime and new girlfriend, Suzume, was reclining naked in the backseat.
Well, naked other than her natural fur coat. Suzume was a kitsune, and apparently the Scirocco had been built on a scale far too compact for her to willingly spend four and a half hours in her human skin. She had shifted into her other form, which had coal-black fur, amber eyes containing a world of mischief, and a snow-white tail tip. From the soft whuffling sounds emerging from my backseat, she’d been napping for at least the last two hours. Before that she’d been playing with a balled-up take-out bag from Dunkin’ Donuts—all that remained of our breakfast of champions.
Normal circumstances didn’t apply because the Scirocco’s passenger seat was currently occupied by the generously endowed figure of Loren Noka, the family’s business secretary and a woman whose air of complete and utter competency left me feeling more than a little intimidated. Her Native American heritage was clearly written across her face, and even though I knew that she was in her late forties, her dark hair showed not the slightest hint of gray. I had almost suffered a near-death experience from sheer shame this morning when she wordlessly lowered her cream linen pantsuit–clad body down onto a subcompact car seat that was not only older than I was, but had been liberally patched and repatched with duct tape in four different colors. And I also had a very bad suspicion that the entire interior of the car was currently coated with Suzume’s black fox hairs.
Loren was along on this trip to provide double duty as my chaperone in diplomacy, and also to handle most of the paperwork. Immigration into the territory had copious aspects, such as whether my mother was willing to let certain groups or species enter, but the biggest focus was a simple one: money. From the meagerest kobold right up to the elves, every supernatural who lived in my mother’s territory tithed heavily for the privilege. We even ran their credit scores.
In exchange, those who lived in my mother’s territory were under her protection. It was a very Mafia-style protection, with many regulations on behavior and activities, and the possibility of death-by-Prudence if they violated any of those rules, but it did prevent any group from preying on another. I’d never set one foot outside the boundaries of Scott territory, but given how desperate many people were to get in, what was out there couldn’t be a walk in the park.
Suzume was along in case ass needed to be kicked at some point. Which, though her current form looked like nothing more than an adorable plushy toy, she knew how to deliver.
Loren must’ve been following my train of thought, because she glanced over her shoulder and noted quietly, “We’ll be at the Supplicant House in less than ten minutes. Shouldn’t your companion assume a more appropriate form?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “She’s a lot more diplomatic the way she is.”
A delicately angled black snout immediately inserted itself between the two front seats, and a long vulpine tongue gave my right ear and surrounding hair a thorough slobbering, ignoring my shout of protest. Apparently Suze hadn’t been as asleep as I’d thought. The snout withdrew again into the backseat, and Loren restrained herself to a single raised eyebrow as she wordlessly removed a tissue from her purse and handed it to me.
I mopped myself off as best I could, grumbling as I did. A moment later I yelped again as Suzume leaned forward between the seats again, now entirely human and just as entirely naked.
“I resent your comment,” she said. “I have excellent diplomacy skills. In fact, of the two of us, I am the resident champion of diplomacy.”
“Yes, Diplomacy. The lying, backstabbing board game that appeals to every innate skill you possess. I’m aware.” We’d played it a few times with Dan and his boyfriend. I’d been soundly beaten each time. “Now can you please put clothing on before you cause a multiple-car accident?” Suze’s casual attitude toward personal nudity was genuine, but she was also quite well aware that the rest of the planet’s population was significantly less casual in response to it. In the passenger seat, Loren Noka suddenly exhibited a new and powerful interest in the rural New Jersey scenery.
Suze smiled at me, the delicate corners of the eyes that were the clearest marker of her Japanese heritage crinkling. “Now, who would expect to see a smoking-hot woman in the backseat of a car this shitty?” With that bon mot, she began a leisurely reapplication of her bra. All of the kitsune had a kind of illusion magic that they referred to as fox tricks—it allowed them to fool all of a person’s senses (and sometimes even cameras and technical equipment) into seeing only what the kitsune wanted to be seen. I knew that fox tricks were the easiest when the kitsune worked within what the viewer would normally expect to see—for example, it probably would’ve been more difficult for her to convince someone that there was a naked woman in the back of my car than to convince them that of course the woman in that car was wearing clothing—even while she was still functionally undressed.
“Don’t think I won’t turn the heat off if you take too long,” I muttered. If the January chill was what it took to get her dressed, then I wasn’t above unrolling my window.
Of course, if I wanted to see Suzume undressed again in a more recreational setting, then I knew as well as she did that the odds of me actually following through on my threat were practically zero.
“Hey,” Suze said, her voice partially muffled by the turtleneck she was pulling over her head, “any chance we can turn on some actual music? If I have to sit through one more minute of NPR, I might have to punch the next person I see with an All Things Considered travel mug in the face.”
“You knew the terms when you agreed to come on the trip,” I warned her. Suze’s preference in music could be best described as “tunes to speed to,” and while I normally didn’t mind it too much (and in fact had begun to develop an unwilling appreciation for J-pop thrash metal), I’d felt the need to intercede for the sake of Loren Noka (who struck me as more of a smooth jazz connoisseur), and we’d spent the entire drive going from one NPR station to another.
“This is completely unfair. If it wasn’t for me, we would’ve spent the entire trip with nothing but Springsteen.”
“I know that it’s New Jersey, but they do occasionally play something other than The Boss,” Loren interjected.
“No, she’s talking about my car stereo,” I explained. “When I bought the Scirocco back in November, the radio was broken, and there was a Born to Run tape permanently fused into the player. It wasn’t exactly at the top of my priority list of repairs, so Suze got me a new system for Christmas.”
“And surprised him with it,” Suze said. Her voice still sounded a little weird, and when I checked the rearview this time, I saw that she was in the process of wiggling into her jeans. Winter clothing was rough for shape-shifting.
“Yes. She surprised me with it by hiring someone to break into my car, take it to a chop shop, install the new stereo, and bring it back.”
Suze leaned forward again and frowned at me. “You’re not sounding appropriately appreciative of the awesomeness of my gift presentation.”
“It was a great present,” I assured her, “and I really was happy to not have to have it installed. I just wish that the installer hadn’t permanently broken the passenger door while doing it, and stolen my tire iron, cell phone charger, and flashlight.”
“No one likes an ungrateful gift recipient,” Suze said.
“They broke the passenger door?” Loren interjected, looking concerned. After all, if the door in question suddenly failed catastrophically, she was on the front lines.
“Not too badly,” I assured her. “They just broke the lock pin, so you can’t unlock the passenger door without the key anymore.”
“So I can’t open my door from the inside?” Loren asked.
“So you now essentially have a kidnapper-mobile?”
“Some people would regard that as an added feature,” Suze said helpfully.
“Yes, Suze. But those people would be kidnappers.” I’d been having this conversation with her since the holidays. A preliminary phone call to a repair garage had also revealed that fixing this particular issue could only be accomplished with a special thread die, so this was probably now going to be a semipermanent feature of the car from now on. That had definitely tempered my gratitude for relief from endless repeats of The Boss. Suzume’s helpful suggestion had been to simply leave the door eternally unlocked, but given my lack of interest in allowing the petty thieves of Providence to treat my car as a personal rummage sale, I’d simply gotten into the habit of manually relocking the car on every occasion that I had to let a passenger in or out.
Loren headed off the topic with a polite redirection to the kinds of minimum tithing amounts that we would be looking for in this meeting, and I let myself focus back on the road. The percentages and payoffs had already been thoroughly drilled into my head during a cram session spent with the documents that I’d been sent last night, and Loren had gone over them twice already on the trip. But apparently Loren’s back-to-business topic choice was enough to remind Suze about what was waiting for us in a few more miles.
“This is going to be awesome,” Suze interrupted, glee heavy in her voice. “It’ll be like the whole Victoria’s Secret catwalk show.”
“How do you figure that?” I asked.
Suze scoffed. “They’re succubi, Fort.”
“Oh. So they’re actually—” I looked over at Loren and raised my eyebrows inquisitively. I was living proof that superstition, literature, and Hollywood were not always accurate in presenting the supernatural, so I’d assumed that any particular cultural assumptions I might’ve had about succubi were likely to be hugely off base.
Loren wiggled a hand in a maybe-yes-maybe-no gesture. “We’ve never had them in the territory, and they seem to prefer warmer climates, so I couldn’t find much information in the files.” Irritation crossed her face for a brief moment. Nothing got under Loren’s skin like shoddy file-keeping. “Your mother categorized them years ago as completely nonthreatening, and with none in residence, that was rather it. It made for pretty brief reading.”
“The Northeast isn’t good thong weather. It makes sense that we wouldn’t see many of them,” Suze noted.
“They’re not all female,” I pointed out. How much of it was to prove that I’d actually done the reading, I couldn’t exactly say.
“Dudes can wear thongs too, Fort. Unlike you, I’m not making sexist assumptions.” Suze was using her most helpful tone, which she only used when she was having particular levels of fun.
I pushed onward. Loren’s mouth had made a suspicious twitch at Suze’s comment, and whether the secretary was struggling not to laugh or containing the urge to throttle the kitsune, I figured that a little more filler would give her the minute to find the strength. “It’s like foxes—we call females vixens, but they’re still foxes. All succubi are called succubi, but if you need the gendered term you can call the males incubi.”
“That’s very fascinating, Fort. I’m taking notes, I swear.” In the rearview I could see Suze push up her left sleeve to the elbow and solemnly start moving her index finger on the inside of her arm in a writing motion.
It was a sleepy, rural town, heavy on big farming fields covered in snow and a few derelict buildings that suggested that the area had been having trouble hanging on to businesses. It was close enough to wilderness vacationing areas that there were a few motels and one bed-and-breakfast, but that was about it. The GPS led us down several winding two-lane roads that boasted nothing but woods until, like magic, there suddenly appeared a tidy little subdivision. The neat and wholly forgettable and generic sign at the entrance to the subdivision read CEDAR HILLS, and a short road led to a rounded cul-de-sac with four identical houses set around it. They were all modest Colonials, the kind that could be found across the country. All of them were painted a tastefully bland wheat color; all of them were in good condition, with identical driveways and a basic amount of landscaping. And for fifty-one weeks out of the year, these houses were always completely empty.
This secluded little area, existing like a ghost in its community, was where petitioners from the south and west of the country came to wait for meetings with my family. There was a similar setup in Québec for more northern visitors, and I was fairly certain that the subdivision there was identical to what I was looking at now. Our eastern border was a whole ocean, so overseas petitioners essentially had to choose where they preferred flying into—Canada or New Jersey. These tiny wait stations were set just inside our border, positioned for easy expulsion of anyone who didn’t make a cut. There was no way for my family to fully police our borders against someone who just drove in—but anyone who did that was risking the death penalty that it carried if a member of the Scott family caught them. My sister had apparently made something of a name for herself over the years with how inventive she could be when it came to punishing trespassers. I’d been told that videos existed of her inventiveness.
There was a large van, the kind driven by church groups and college sports teams, parked in the driveway of the third house, and I pulled the Scirocco in behind it. Whenever a petition call came in, Madeline’s local agent would drive over to one of the houses and leave a key in the mailbox. The agent was also the one who was paid to make sure that the houses were always fully maintained, and was paid well for the privilege of asking no questions. One key per group, one house for their stay, and one interview with a member of the Scott family. Decisions were final.
We all sat for a moment in the car, looking at the house. There were blinds in the windows, but we could see them being rustled. At least one of the succubi was watching. I felt a tug in the pit of my stomach. Inside were the representatives of a group that desperately wanted to get away from wherever they came from and come to the presumed safety of my mother’s territory, and I was the person who represented my mother and held all that authority in my hands. Maybe it should’ve made me feel more excited, but mostly it just made me feel awfully depressed and a bit embarrassed.
Loren and Suze were both doing small, surreptitious checks on clothing and hair after the long drive, so I pulled my vanity mirror down as well. What I saw looking back at me was exactly what I’d expected—a guy in his late twenties who wouldn’t have turned a single head on the street, either positively or negatively, with dark hair that only with the greatest reluctance would yield to styling gels. I was wearing the khaki and collared button-down combination that Suze had said made me look like I was on my way to a Christian revival picnic, and I’d traded my aging winter parka for a more dignified black wool knockoff-of-a-knockoff jacket that came to midthigh, and that from a distance actually looked fairly nice. I’d spent my life trying to make sure that I didn’t become like the rest of my family, and while the surface still showed that, I was becoming more and more concerned about the rest of me.
Behind me, Suze made a rude noise and swatted me lightly. “I can actually hear your internal demotivating monologue,” she said. “The best cologne in the world is power, and right now you’re covered in it, so let’s head in.”
I deliberately didn’t look at Loren, and instead just opened the door. The blast of icy January air was immediate. In the car, with the heater cranked and the weak winter sun greenhousing through the windows, it had been easy to forget how lung-bitingly cold it was. After a quick walk around the car to unlock the passenger door and release the women, who were giving me what I felt to be unnecessarily grumpy looks about not having control of their own egress, I stuffed my hands into my pockets and shuddered. With the winter wind biting at us, we headed up the walk at double time, Loren’s sensibly low pumps clacking urgently against the slate panels. The door was pulled open as we neared it.
If I’d had any particular personal investment in having Suze’s expectations of six-foot-tall underwear models be realized, my day would’ve received a quick crushing. The figure standing in the doorway was male, average height, but lean in a way that reminded me of a marathon runner, with nothing but muscle, veins, and skin. His hair was black, but with a line of pure white at the roots, as if a recent dye job was growing out. His skin had that particular orange hue of someone who was a fan of spray tanning, with the lighter patches around his eyes and at the corners of his elbows that confirmed it. From his face I would’ve guessed his age at not more than early thirties, but that felt oddly wrong, though I couldn’t figure out why. His clothing was wildly out of season—sandals, shorts, and a thin T-shirt, and the house was definitely not heated to match.
As I stepped over the threshold and into the small foyer, I could see a woman standing a bit farther back. She was also showing the signs of spray-tanning, though hers looked a bit more evenly applied, and if I hadn’t caught a glance at the palm of her left hand, I might not have suspected it. Her hair was a midbrown, but had the same line of white rootiness showing at her hairline as the man. Both of them had dark brown eyes.
The man was standing within reach, so I began what I hoped to be a solid, honest handshake, but unfortunately the amount of stress sweat on the succubus’s part left the experience rather lacking in vigor—though it certainly made up for that in sheer sogginess. I concentrated on meeting his eyes and carefully resisted the urge to wipe my hand on my pants. “I’m Fortitude, Madeline Scott’s son. I’m here to negotiate.”
“I’m Nicholas,” he responded, and immediately tipped his head toward the woman beside him, “and this is my wife, Saskia.”
“Lovely to meet you,” I said, making another round of handshakes. Saskia’s hand was drier, though she was shaking hard enough that I felt like I was chasing a moving object. Clearly both were under pressure. My smile must’ve looked like a rictus by now, but I tried to normalize and continue with introductions. “My companions are—”
“Shenanigans.” Suze cut me off.
We all froze. I turned around, completely unsurprised at the sight of the long, carefully honed knife that had suddenly appeared in Suzume’s hands. I could feel my muscles tense immediately, and I looked around the room, moving sideways to put myself between Loren and the two succubi, who both looked ready to faint. “What’s wrong?” I asked, sliding my right hand into the pocket of my jacket. One of the things I’d liked about this coat was how well the pockets could conceal a .45. It wasn’t exactly a regulation holster, but with the safety engaged I wasn’t worried about it going off, and I hadn’t wanted to let anyone know that I was carrying. I’d gotten more distrustful over the last year.
“This isn’t just a representative pair. I smell multiple other recent scents.”
I took the gun out and stared at the succubi. “If there’s an explanation, I’d recommend that it starts fast.”
It was Saskia who started speaking—fast and terrified, never able to take her eyes away from Suze’s knife, even though I was holding a gun, and her words tumbled over one another and became incomprehensible.
Loren’s hand closed over my wrist. “Look,” she said softly, drawing my attention to the small figure that was just barely in view through the open archway that led into the living room. I froze at what I saw.
“Suze, put the knife away,” I whispered.
They must’ve been told to hide away where we wouldn’t see them, but there were a lot of them, so it was understandable that one had managed to slip the leash. Peeking around the corner at us was a toddler.
* * *
We ended up in the living room. All of these houses were fully furnished, so there were sofas to sit on, along with end tables, knickknacks, and even books to fill the shelves, though it all came off looking just slightly too much like an IKEA showroom display. I sat on one long sofa, flanked on either side by Suze and Loren. Saskia and Nicholas were on the catty-corner love seat. And between them was their daughter, Julie.
It was hard to look away from Julie. Saskia and Nicholas looked just a little off, but nothing that would’ve looked particularly unnatural on the streets of a city like L.A., or Las Vegas, which was where they were from. But Julie stood out—she lacked the familiar level of baby chub that I’d always seen before on toddlers, and was a miniature version of the adults, built like Iggy Pop. Like her parents she had only clothing fit for an afternoon in Nevada, but they’d tried to compensate by swathing her in an adult-size hoodie that covered her from neck to knees, the kind sold at highway rest stops—this one had been bought in Illinois, judging by what was written across the front. But I could see her face and her lower legs—her skin was pale, so pale that it was translucent enough to see the blue and purple tracings of the major arteries in her legs and throat. Her lips were the color of old chalk dust. Her hair was pale, and not just the white-blond of some small children before it turns to brown, but pale like the fur on a polar bear, ranging from pure white to a dull cream. And her eyes had just barely enough pigment to be charitably called gray—it was uncomfortable to look at, which was probably why her parents were both wearing colored contacts.
She was the one I was focusing on, but I could’ve looked at any of the others. Six other children sat around us, from a fourteen-year-old boy down to a two-year-old who was so tightly swaddled in a blanket from one of the upstairs beds that if I hadn’t been told, I wouldn’t have been able to guess gender. He was held by his father, the third of the adults, though Miro was clearly unable to do anything more at the moment than hold the baby and rock back and forth—though whether that was meant for his son’s benefit or his own, I had no idea. The children all had the same pale looks, the traits that the adults apparently covered up later with spray tan, hair dye, and makeup.
And according to what they were telling us, these three adults and seven children were possibly all that was left of a community that had been over fifty members strong.
“It started a month ago,” Saskia said slowly, focusing on the children rather than us. “Las Vegas is pretty quiet, supernaturally speaking. Usually it’s just been us and the humans, with a few roamers coming through every now and again, but we just minded our own business and kept our heads down and almost nothing ever happened. Then, overnight, there were a dozen skinwalkers walking the floor of almost every casino. Most of us ran as soon as we saw them, figured that they were just in for a convention or something, and that if we would all just take a few days off of work and lie low, then everything would be fine.”
“But they started hunting you,” I said grimly. I’d had a run-in with a skinwalker before—they were strong, predatory, and vicious, and Suze and I had both had our asses handed to us in a one-on-two fight. Frankly the fact that we’d made it through and even managed to kill it in the end had been more out of luck than skill. Skinwalkers were viciously dangerous, enough to make even adult vampires tread cautiously. A skinwalker had once killed one of Chivalry’s previous wives and worn her skin to taunt him—that it had managed to survive for several months was a testament to just how tough and deadly they were.
“Not at first,” said Nicholas, his voice choked. He coughed, then continued. “First they put out feelers, left messages. They said that they’d lost their home in Miami, and they needed to find a new place to live. They said”—his mouth twisted horribly—“they said that they wanted to share the city with us. That if we could help them settle in, that they would protect us.”
“We’re not strong like the vampires or like shifters,” Saskia said, her eyes sad and dull. “That’s why we ended up where we did, where no one else wanted to live, and where there were enough humans coming and going that we weren’t afraid of being discovered. But we’re vulnerable. So when the skinwalkers said that . . . we wanted to believe them.”
“When did it change?” Loren asked.
“Last week. By then they knew how many of us there were, where we lived, how much money we had . . . they started with the elders. The ones who lived alone. The first night, that’s who they killed. Then they left the bodies at the back doors of the ones who would be next.”
There was a long silence while I tried to figure out what I could possibly say.
“They wanted us scared.” Miro’s voice was rusty and strained. He didn’t look at anyone while he talked, just rocked his son faster. “They wanted us running, so that they could chase us. When my wife—” He stopped, swallowed, then pushed on. “I was carrying Kirby, and she was behind us. When the skinwalker caught her, he said that we were their housewarming present.”
“You’re the group that had the children,” Suzume said. Her expression was completely neutral, but her eyes were alert, and I could see the wheels cranking in her head. “The group with the weakest and slowest, but you were the ones who made it to safety.”
“The rest said that they would give us two days.” Saskia wasn’t even whispering. The children in the room were unnaturally quiet and still—for a moment I wondered why they’d been allowed to stay, but then I realized how pointless that feeling was. They’d already seen people die around them. It was no use pretending they didn’t know. “They would stay in Vegas for two more days, to keep the skinwalkers occupied, so that we would have a head start. Then, if anyone is left”—she choked, and corrected herself—“everyone who is left, will follow.”
Beside me, Loren made a small sound, softly enough that if my hearing hadn’t made some significant steps up during the last few months of my transition to being a full vampire, I might’ve missed it. It was a sad, despairing sound.
This group had no power, nothing strong to offer. It was quite possible that these three adults were the only ones left alive.
“You’re not really here because you wanted to emigrate.” Suze’s voice was like Joe Friday’s—nothing but the facts, ma’am. “You’re refugees, and you’re looking for asylum.”
I slid forward on the seat, not wanting to give either of the women beside me the chance to catch my eye, and I focused on the group in front of me. “Suzume is right. So tell me what you need, and what you can offer my family.”
I’d been hoping that they were also carrying all the liquid financial assets of their group—I knew that I’d be making a tough pitch to my family, and I’d been hoping for something to grease the wheels. But unfortunately this group was flat broke. They’d had the cash that they had on them, but had been afraid to use any credit cards in case the skinwalkers knew how to track those purchases. Early in their trip they’d tried to get cash out of ATMs, only to discover that their accounts had been emptied, undoubtedly thanks to the skinwalkers, who’d had ample access to their homes and financial records. None of them had owned a car big enough to transport everyone, so they’d dumped their cars and stolen a church youth group van, swapping its plates as often as they could to try to muddy the trail. The adults had driven straight in shifts, a few times even pressing the fourteen-year-old into service when they were on back roads, stopping only when they needed to put gas in the car. Everything they’d eaten had come from highway rest stations, and they hadn’t even dared to spend the money it would’ve taken to get seasonally appropriate clothing for everyone, just a few pairs of hoodies and sweatpants that they could trade off between the people who had to go outside the car to fill the gas or hit a restroom.
“You need safety—that’s clear to anyone looking at you,” Suze interrupted. There wasn’t anything cruel in her voice, just coldly practical. “But he has to go back to his family and know what to ask for. What kinds of jobs do you do? Where do you need to live? We know you have some need to hunt people—you’re going to need to be more specific, though.” Even as I winced at her words, I knew that she was right. If it had been up to me, I would’ve let them in and settled them deep in the territory where the skinwalkers wouldn’t dare go, but it wasn’t. Even if they’d been a strong, wealthy group with lots to offer, I couldn’t have said yes. I was getting information, finding preliminary common ground, and then I’d be going back to my mother to get the real decision. I could call myself the negotiator, but I had no authority to make deals on. The last time I’d been given that authority, I put a werebear into power that my family would’ve preferred to see dead—my mother had made it very clear that she wasn’t risking a repeat of that.
Suze’s questions seemed to calm Saskia down, though, maybe because it gave her something to focus on besides the terror of the skinwalkers’ attacks and their frantic race to the Scott border. “We would need a city that has a large transitory population, lots of people who are going to come, then leave again quickly.”
“Like Las Vegas,” I noted. “Atlantic City is outside our borders, and so is New York City, but we do have the Connecticut casinos like Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun. Are these the kinds of places that would suit you?” Beside me, Loren had slid a pad of paper out of her satchel and was taking careful notes.
Saskia nodded vigorously. “I was a card dealer—I’m not good enough for the big-time high-roller tables, but I had steady work at smaller casinos. Nicholas worked at a car-rental agency at the airport, and Miro was a hotel concierge.”
I nodded. Those weren’t highly paying jobs but were at least the kind that transferred easily—and with my mother’s interest in politics, I was sure that she had one or two people in her Rolodex who could arrange to make sure that open positions could be found. I braced myself, and made my voice get a bit harder. The next part was important. “Now tell me how you feed, and why you need a transitory population.”
There was an awkward pause, like the moment at the doctor’s office when it’s explained that you need to drop your pants for the rest of the exam. It’s not unexpected, but it is awkward. Saskia and Nicholas glanced at each other, one of those looks that longtime couples have where they almost seem to telepathically exchange information, and it was Saskia who extended her arm, then turned it over to expose the soft underside.
For a second nothing happened; then I saw a little ripple at her wrist, and something very thin, decidedly sharp, and almost completely colorless extruded itself outward. I had no desire to lean forward, so I was glad that my vision was good. At first it was just a little prong extending an inch from her wrist, but then it lengthened until it stretched up to the middle of her palm, a long, delicate appendage, gleaming slightly with moisture, but drying quickly. And once it was dry, I almost couldn’t see it against the skin of her hand because of its translucency.
“It’s a feeding prong.” Saskia moved her hand slightly, showing how the prong could move on its own. “It’s as painless as a tick bite when it goes in, but there’s a small venom that goes with it that works within a breath. The venom doesn’t cause damage; it just makes the human blank out for about two minutes. If I insert my prong when I’m shaking someone’s hand, then they’ll just stand there, and I can pretend that I’m talking to them while I feed. If I’m sitting next to someone at a bar and they’re wearing short sleeves, I can brush against them and feed. It can be on an elevator, in a lobby—anyplace where it wouldn’t seem odd to see two people standing or sitting beside each other for two minutes while one person talks and the other looks completely uninterested.”
“And what are you feeding on?” I knew what my family fed on—blood. But my sister had shown me what feeding on a human looked like, and it sure didn’t take two minutes. “And since you’re talking about quick, chance encounters, I assume that you aren’t taking repeat feedings.”
“We’re feeding on . . .” Saskia looked at Nicholas, who shrugged a little. She gave an apologetic smile. “I’ve never described it to an outsider before. It’s not a liquid as far as we know. We call what we take daya hipup. The closest translation to that is ‘vitality.’ One feeding will leave someone exhausted, but no more than you’d expect after a wild weekend in Vegas. But we need it, and without it we’ll sicken and die. And we could take multiple feedings from one person, but . . .” She paused. “It wouldn’t be a good idea.”
“I’m sorry, but you need to be specific,” I said.
Nicholas leaned forward, resting a hand on Saskia’s leg. Between them, Julie looked up, as eerily attentive as the rest of the silent children. “The problem is with what we leave behind.” He was clearly uncomfortable to be talking about this, but he took a deep breath and continued. “We leave contagion, and sickness. One feeding from us and the human will develop a urinary tract infection within a day or two. A second feeding, or even worse, a third, and the human will end up with something that looks indistinguishable from syphilis, and will act the same way.”
“You spread VD,” Suze said, almost musingly. “They’ll have to update the posters at the bus stops and subway stations.”
Nicholas’s mouth pressed into an angry line while Saskia immediately said, “We’re very careful. We feed on people when they’re leaving the casino or the city, not on their way in.”
“But is there any way for you to tell which human you or any other succubus has fed on before?” Loren was supremely calm as she asked the question, her pen never stopping its path across the page as she took shorthand of the conversation. I wondered exactly how many of these conversations she’d heard over the years, and how many times she’d listened as humans were described as the entrées to meals. She’d inherited this job from her father—how had he explained to her what his job was, and what kind of family business he’d hoped that she’d step into?
The couple glanced at each other again, and I knew the answer even before Saskia reluctantly said it. “No. No way. But our numbers are small, and only one partner in a pair hunts at a time. There’s no way to mark a human in a way that would stick out to another succubus without the human wondering what is going on, so we’ve mostly relied on the law of averages. In a city like Las Vegas, the odds of a human encountering two succubi on the same last day of their visit was low. The odds of them being fed on by another succubus on a later trip were even lower.”
“Pair?” I asked. “Like a marriage?”
“It’s not a bad parallel, but not complete either.” Saskia looked down at the toddler snuggled between her and Nicholas. “Two succubi become a pair when they’ve decided to have a child, and the pair stays together until the child is ready to hunt on its own, because the parents are both needed to feed it.” She hesitated. “We feed our children with a secondary prong that’s under our tongues, but it’s not a particularly . . . elegant process.”
“I can pass on the demonstration,” I assured them. “When can children hunt for themselves?”
“Around sixteen, but usually we continue to supplement them for a little while afterward. They’re fully independent at twenty.”
They were syphilis-spreading albatrosses. I couldn’t figure out whether this was sweet or creepy, but I did remember to shoot Suze a quick look that warned her not to say a word. She gave me a hurt look, clearly indicating that my impulse had been right, and she’d had a particularly choice remark waiting. “The kids don’t blend in very well. Even in New England, which as you can see from Fort is known for producing pasty, your children would stick out as pale.” That was as close as Suze came to being diplomatic.
“We always homeschooled, at least while they’re young,” Nicholas explained. “Even if our babies didn’t visually stick out, we needed to keep them home anyway. Prong control isn’t reliable for several years, and it’s not like we could just provide bagged lunches for what the kids need. Around high school we sent them to public school—for socialization if nothing else.”
“So you normally have a two-to-one ratio of feeders and eaters—and now you have three adults and seven children.” I said the numbers slowly. “Exactly how well has that been working out?”
“We understood the rules,” Nicholas said quickly, almost falling over himself to assure me. The expression on his face, though, clearly said that the honest answer would’ve been not well. “We haven’t hunted on the Scott property, and we won’t without permission. Saskia, Miro, and I will take turns making small runs into Pennsylvania to hunt enough to sustain the children.”
“And in Pennsylvania?”
“It’s not even close to ideal,” Saskia acknowledged. “We don’t know if anyone followed us, but we’d be fools to push our luck. Hunts will have to be fast, and we’ll have to feed heavier than we’d like to. We’re in a rural area, without a lot of people or movement. We’ll try to find truck stops or highway diners, places where people are just passing through, but it will be harder to initiate casual contact—” Her voice had been steadily rising as she spoke, stress and worry bleeding through. Beside her, Julie wiggled and crawled into her father’s lap. The movement startled Saskia, and I could see her strain to pull herself back, to soften her voice. She was begging, and it hurt to see it. “We’re grateful that the Scotts were willing to hear our case,” she said, even as her hands tightened hard on the edge of the sofa. Beside her, Nicholas rubbed their daughter’s back soothingly. “It’s hard to even say what a relief it is to be able to put the children to bed and tell them that they’re safe in this house.”
I knew she wanted to say the words, and that she wouldn’t let herself. It was Loren who said them, leaning forward slightly. “But you need to plan for the long term,” she said. “You need jobs, hunting rights, a place to settle and rebuild. You need an answer.”
“Yes,” Saskia whispered. Looking down, I could see that the children, who had seemed so still, had been slowly shifting and creeping, and now they were pressed as closely against where the adults were sitting as possible. Those pale faces were sneaking glances at me—me, the person who had the right to just tell them all to leave the house, leave the state, and live or die somewhere where I didn’t have to see it or be responsible for it.
I’d spent years running from this kind of responsibility. In honesty, a large part of me wanted nothing more than to tear out the front door—but the last months had shown me the costs of trusting that someone else would come along and handle situations like this one.
They would get handled. In a way that resulted in bodies in shallow graves.
“I’ll get you an answer,” I promised. I wanted to promise more, but I couldn’t. If I could be careful, do this right, I could help make things safe for this group—but it meant playing by the rules and doing my best for them. “I’ll be meeting with my family tomorrow morning, and I will tell you now that I’ll be pushing for us to take you in.” I’d run fast calculations in my head—all I had to do to schedule the meeting was to ask Loren to put it on the family calendar (we did e-mail notifications—it was charmingly corporate of us) and we would gather. I could’ve asked her to push it for that evening, but I wasn’t sure whether Chivalry would be back from New Hampshire yet—I knew him well enough to know that if he spotted any antique stores or adorable co-ops or (heaven help us) some hole-in-the-wall art gallery along the road, it would add hours to his ETA. And when I made this proposal to my mother, I wanted to make sure that Chivalry was there as a potential vote in my corner—because I already knew what my sister’s response would be.
I wasn’t used to having jobs where people relied on me for something important. If I wasn’t able to get someone a latte fast enough, or if I was slow bagging groceries, or if I was a terrible telemarketer, no one ever got hurt, because nothing was ever really at risk. That wasn’t the case anymore. And the look of desperate hope in their eyes at what I’d said, hope that rested in me, was enough to redouble that urge to run for the hills. I devoutly hoped that nothing on my face was indicating to the succubi how much I was longing to go back to my apartment and create a pillow fort to stand between me and the world I’d found myself in.
“We’re going to leave several of these financial forms with you,” I said, gesturing to Loren’s satchel. “I know that you’re going to have to leave a lot of blanks, but I want you to fill them out as honestly as you can. We have to run a credit score and a few other things, but Loren and I know that at this point you’re almost certainly victims of identity fraud, so don’t worry about that. You’ll have probably about forty minutes to do that before we get back.”
“Get back?” Nicholas looked confused.
“I’m echoing what he said.” Suze lifted an eyebrow. “Where are we going that we’re heading back?”
“We’re going to pick up some pizzas for everyone.”
As I’d hoped, it turned out that eerily quiet, horribly traumatized children with feeding prongs in multiple parts of their bodies could still perk up at the word pizza.
* * *
I’d broken my phone recently, and the one I’d replaced it with was talk and text and nothing else. Suze lived an active lifestyle that was similarly hard on phones, and her phone was barely better than that. Fortunately for both of us, Loren was in possession of the smartest and shiniest of smartphones, and was able to direct us to a local pizza place, where I ordered half a dozen large cheese pies. I’d taken a quick look in the Supplicant House kitchen before I left—there were a few cans of tomato soup, an assortment of cereal boxes, and a bag of rice, things that wouldn’t go bad and that could cover one or two meals, but that was it. Pizza was an easy answer for one night, and if they had leftovers, then they’d also have lunch for the next day.
As we stood inside the pizza place, enjoying the heat from the ovens, Loren was her usual quiet, diplomatic self. And Suzume was also herself.
“Fort, what have I told you over and over again about things like this?” She was keeping her voice low enough that the people behind the counter couldn’t hear what we were talking about, but it was pretty obvious that this was the early stage of a couple disagreement. “No money, no allies, nothing to offer. We might as well boot them out of the territory now, tell them to run for the Canadian border, and hope for their sakes that the skinwalkers either lose interest or don’t like cold weather.”
“Nothing is certain.” I looked out the front windows. There was a bank across the street—the same kind of bank I had an account at, actually.
“I think that I could place a very reliable bet on how Prudence is going to react when you want to give this group asylum at a cut-rate price.” Suze was grim.
“My mother is in charge, not Prudence, and she’s surprised us all before.” A few times. Personally I was hoping that an argument of asylum now, hugely crippling tithes later was going to appeal to her. “Listen, Suze, do me a favor and pay for the pizzas while I run across the street.”
“Wait, you want me to—” Suze saw what I was looking at and groaned loudly. “Oh no. Fort, you are the softest touch I’ve ever met.”
“I’ll pay you back next week,” I promised as I darted out the door. There was almost no traffic to speak of in this tiny little main street, so I walked across the street, balancing awkwardly on the piles of skuzzy snow left behind by the plows.
I didn’t want to do what I was about to do. Just walking into the bank branch made me grit my teeth, and picking up one of the blank withdrawal forms was almost physically painful. It wasn’t as if I was the kind of guy who could toss away a few hundred dollars and not feel the sting of it. But I reminded myself that, thanks to my brother, my half of the rent was paid up for three more months. And while the Scirocco had had a number of expenses when I first purchased it—notably the alternator, the timing belt, the interior fuel pump (that had actually been a tricky one, because unbeknownst to me, the Scirocco had been built like a Klingon and had two pumps, one internal and one high-pressure one on the outside), plus a leaking exhaust manifold, it was at a point where it ran pretty reliably now. There were some rust issues, but I could keep buying myself time on those by just slapping primer paint over them.
There wasn’t a line in front of the teller, which I was grateful for. Too much time and I might’ve talked myself out of this. Working for my family plus picking up a bit of extra with a part-time job had been good for me, and I’d built up six hundred dollars in my checking account that didn’t have to go to any bill. It had been a very long time since I had that much in my account plus a working vehicle.
I withdrew it all. Payday was this week, I reminded myself. I could live on the twenty-three dollars that was in my wallet. The six hundreds went into my back pocket.
Returning to the pizza parlor, where Suze stared at me disapprovingly through the window, I wondered how much it cost to get seasonal clothing for seven kids and three adults, plus fill up the van (which had to be a gas guzzler), plus put food on the table for however long it would take me to convince my mother to let them into the territory permanently. Suddenly the six hundred didn’t seem like much at all.
Both women were waiting for me. “Ms. Hollis thinks that you’re planning on giving the succubi some money. Is this true?” Loren looked curious.
“Just what I had in my account. It’s not that much.” I hesitated, then asked, “Loren, I’ll make sure that you’re reimbursed from petty cash—could you give me whatever money you have on you?”
Something flickered across her face. She was surprised—and like a good butler, Loren almost never showed it when she was surprised. “Did that bank have an ATM?”
“In the front.” Relief filled me. “Just whatever you can spare right now, and I promise that you’ll get it back.”
She left. Unlike me, she went to the corner before crossing. It was hard to imagine Loren Noka crunching her way over a snow wall, though even if that was her secret vice, it wasn’t as if I could expect her to do it in pumps. As it was, my formal shoes now had a solid coating of road salt that I’d probably have to scrub off tonight. Beside me, Suze just shook her head in disgust.
Loren came back and handed me a folded wad of twenties. “Here’s two hundred,” she said, then held up a hand. “Don’t say anything, Fortitude. I’ve worked for your family all my life, and I respect them terribly, but . . . they wouldn’t have done this, or thought of this. Not even Mr. Scott. So don’t say anything.” She cleared her throat loudly.
We both looked at Suze. She looked back at us.
A long minute passed.
“Fuck you,” she snapped, then zipped her parka up to her nose and pulled on her gloves. She stomped across the street, hopping the snow walls with the perfect balance and grace of a gymnast, and disappeared into the bank. A minute later she was heading back, and then she was shoving the door to the pizza restaurant open with bad temper and pushing two crumpled hundreds into my hands. “I’ll be adding a service fee to my bill for this,” she warned.
“Thank you, Suze,” I said.
Excerpted from "Dark Ascension"
Copyright © 2015 M.L. Brennan.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Praise for the Generation V novels
“Engrossing and endearingly quirky, with a creative and original vampire mythos...A treat for any urban fantasy lover!”— Karen Chance, New York Times bestselling author of Tempt the Stars “Full of vivid characters and terrific world building...Loved it! Bravo, M. L. Brennan, bravo!”—Devon Monk, national bestselling author of Infinity Bell
“Wickedly clever.…Rapid-fire prose and intimate characterizations infuse stock mythic figures with pertinence and attitude. Fortitude is an enthralling good boy going bad, struggling to merge monstrous powers with humility and wisdom.…Brennan’s smart, sassy, and seductive vampire mythos injects fresh blood into a lethargic subgenre.”—Publishers Weekly
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