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The abandoned farmhouse stood in a clearing fifteen miles outside Marseilles. Inside, Caris and Tiberius waited for word from Richard, the hours passing so slowly that Caris feared she would pull her hair out in frustration.
“Something has happened to him,” she said to her lover’s back. “We were wrong about him. The sickness has taken him.” The thought ripped through her. It had been her suggestion to send one of Tiberius’s most trusted men into the port city where the plague was cutting through the population like wildfire. They’d believed that Richard was immune to the Black Death, as he’d already survived the plague twice, though many friends had died at his side. Vampires who’d become ill and then faded into dust as if they’d been staked.
Her worry kept her in motion, and she paced the small structure, moving in and out of the shafts of moonlight streaming down through the dilapidated roof.
At the window, Tiberius turned to face her. As always, she was struck by the unchanging beauty of his face. Not feminine, but rugged and strong, with dark eyes that saw everything and broad shoulders onto which he’d invited the weight of the world. Tonight, that weight was heavy indeed.
“He’ll be here,” Tiberius said. He held out his hand to her, and she went to him, letting his arms engulf her, pressing her cheek against his chest. Even after more than two hundred years, it was his touch that calmed her best. His lips soothed her fears, and his body made her feel alive, even though life had slipped from her veins so long ago.
“And what if he couldn’t find it? We have to kill it.” The world had been tormented long enough by the vile creatures. The shadowers believed this to be the last surviving hybrid, and it needed to die. The horror had to end.
“We will find it. And I will kill it. That is not in question.” He tilted her chin up and looked into her eyes. “The only question for tonight is where that happy occasion will occur. Richard will bring us news of our destination.”
She nodded, grim. Humans might not understand the horrible illness that befell them century after century, but the shadowers did. Vampires like her and Tiberius. Werewolves. Jinns and para-daemons and all the other creatures that humans feared and prayed were only myths and nightmares.
They weren’t. They were real.
And the hybrids? Though rare, a mix of vampire and werewolf was truly a creature plucked from nightmares. Feared and reviled even among the shadow creatures themselves, a hybrid brought destruction with its touch and desolation with its breath. The Black Death. The plague. Whatever you called it, it always ended the same. Festering wounds. A hacking cough. And slow, torturous death that filled entire towns with doors marked in bold red X’s, silent reminders that the plague had come to those within.
Caris pressed her hand to Tiberius’s back. “Do you think this one changed form on purpose?” she asked. “Do you think it wanted to destroy Marseilles?”
Tiberius stroked her hair. “I don’t know. But I fear the answer is yes.”
“This time, I will fight at your side.” Whenever he stepped out in battle, she felt as if the birds ceased chirping and the tides stopped their eternal pull.
“Am I not strong? Am I not capable? Even when I was human, you said that I had uncommon strength for a woman.” They’d met after she’d set out to rescue her brother Antonio from the clutches of a particularly vile werewolf, not realizing that Tiberius had already sworn allegiance to her family and had set out to do the same. He’d found her disguised as a boy, battling a singularly nasty clutch of humans.
His lips curved into a proud smile. “Whether human or vampire, you are exceptional.”
“Then why do you refuse me? Did you not train me as a warrior? Have I not already fought at your side many times?”
“We’ve spoken of this before, Caris. I made a mistake. You are my heart and my soul. You understand me more than any woman ever has or ever could. And I cannot lose you.” He clutched her hands tightly on these last words, his eyes boring so deeply into hers that she couldn’t help but see the fear—and the regret.
Less than fifty years prior they’d fought side by side in an abandoned palazzo. She’d been unaware that a moldering tapestry at her back hid a secret passage, and when a werewolf burst through with a stake, it was almost the end of her. Fortunately, he missed her heart, but she’d fallen, blood gushing from her, her strength leaving her.
For the first time, she’d seen Tiberius’s daemon, the depraved creature that every vampire fought to keep buried lest he be compelled to do little more than rend and kill. She saw it—and it was a terrifying thing indeed. He moved with speed born of millennia, and he was on the werewolf in a second, his fist breaking through the weren’s rib cage, his hand thrusting the still-beating heart high.
She could remember the scent of him as he knelt over her, covered in the werewolf’s blood. A harsh, angry scent mixed with a terror she’d never before experienced, nor ever again. His terror. Not of the wolf, but of losing her.
He’d ripped his own flesh open and she’d drunk, and only once he was sure she was healed did his daemon fade into the background and his eyes clear, so it was only Tiberius she saw, and not the daemon within.
After that, she no longer fought at his side. The odd battle, yes, if they were taken by surprise. But she did not set out on missions. He had his kyne for that. Men. Brothers, in loyalty if not in blood.
She was his woman, his lover, his friend, and his confidant. She was his political advisor and strategist. His right hand in everything except that one part of his life. It should have been enough for her. She should have willingly accepted it.
But she couldn’t. Her own daemon cried out for a fight, and it was the battles that kept it down, easily subdued. Without that, it paced and gnawed and begged for release.
Without that, she was missing a huge part of their life together. She would stand for it no more. He might not yet have accepted it, but this time, Caris would fight at his side.
As if to punctuate her resolve, the door behind her blew open with a gust of wind. She whipped around, sword drawn, and saw a black cat leap through the doorway and then transform into Richard, who stood before them with a bloody wound at his shoulder.
“Speak,” Tiberius said as she moved to his side. “Did you see the hybrid?”
“I did not, but I met many weren in town. They are well, but they flee anyway. The hybrid’s power comes from a curse and they believe their survival is tainted.” Not much was understood about how a hybrid was created, and what little was known was a mixture of fact and myth. It was said to have started with a feud between two warring brothers who murdered a third brother to steal his power. Having done so, the two became the founders of the shadow world—the first vampire and the first werewolf. But the blood of the third seeped into the ground, and from within the earth he cursed them never to find peace.
As a physical manifestation of that curse, any creature that was a weren-vampire mix had blood that burned through flesh. Moreover, upon changing into a wolf, the hybrid sent an illness out into the world from which only either vampires or werewolves were spared—but which species survived depended entirely on the underlying nature of the hybrid in question.
It was that peculiar immunity that was the truly dastardly part of the curse. Vampires were immune to the sickness wrought by an original werewolf bitten and turned by a vampire. And werewolves were immune to the sickness wrought by an original vampire bitten and changed by a weren. But how either was changed in the first place was a mystery. Because as far as the shadowers knew, the vampiric transition was fatal to a werewolf, and no vampire could survive the transition forced upon it by the bite of a werewolf.
“So no news of the hybrid?” Caris asked.
“On that account, fate smiled,” Richard said. “I met a weren who stayed hidden as the hybrid passed by. He overheard the beast muttering. The hybrid travels this night to Cluny.”
Tiberius nodded, taking in the information. “Your shoulder?”
“Courtesy of Faro Lihter,” Richard said. “Apparently he was offended that I wasn’t already dead.”
“And the vampires?” Caris asked.
“All dead. Except for me. I know not why, but if there is a God, I thank him.” He shifted, focusing hard on Tiberius. “Lihter was praising the beast that did it, saying it was clear now which of the ancient brothers had true strength. He said he couldn’t wait for the day when all vampires were dust and the order of the world could be restored.” He glanced ruefully at his shoulder. “That’s when I got distracted from my mission. I’m happy to say he looks worse.”
“Good man,” Tiberius said.
“There’s more,” Richard said. “After Cluny, the hybrid intends to continue to London. And, Tiberius, I believe it is mad. It didn’t wait for a full moon at Marseilles. It will not wait in London.”
Beside Caris, Tiberius tensed, his hand going automatically to his blade. London was the center of the vampire community, and had been since the founding of Lon- dinium by the Romans. The vampire population there was the highest in all of Europe, and every vampiric representative to the Alliance table made his home there.
Caris squeezed Tiberius’s hand. “This is your chance. You already hold the governorship to three territories. Defeat this creature before it can infect London, and the people will demand that you sit at the Alliance table. You know Tomas will not lift even a finger.” The cur- rent vampire representative to the Alliance was a self-important slug who would flee in terror rather than fight to save his people, and then blame his cowardice on others. The faster Tiberius could unseat him, the better.
She could tell from his eyes that Tiberius had already thought of that.
“Go,” he said to Richard. “Take Caris with you. Feed if you must to regain your strength, but go with all speed to London. Tell them of the news. And tell them that I will stop the beast before it reaches the city.”
“I shall not go,” Caris said.
“You shall,” Tiberius insisted.
“No.” She crossed her arms and stared him down. “I’ll not be tucked away in London while you fight for your life, for all our lives. I will fight at your side, Tiber- ius, and you cannot stop me.”
He took a step toward her, his face as harsh as she had ever seen it. “I believe that I can.”
It was a fair point. “Perhaps. But it would take time. You tell me that you will not fall prey to its illness, and so I must assume that you will fight by stealth. If you are safe, then I am, too. Presumably it doesn’t know its mutterings were overheard. We have the element of surprise.”
“The task falls upon my head,” Tiberius said.
“It does,” she agreed. “And when you perform it, I will be at your side. Even if I have to abandon Richard and double back to assist you.”
He wasn’t happy, that much was obvious. And he stood for two full minutes before finally turning to Richard. “Go,” he said.
Richard wasted no time. He nodded to Tiberius and Caris, then disappeared into the night, presumably to feed before rushing home.
“Then you have accepted that I will fight at your side?”
A muscle at his jaw twitched. “Accept, no? But I am resigned to the reality of the situation.”
She smiled brightly. “That is sufficient for now.”
“Are you well fed? We must transform ourselves if we wish to get to Cluny with all speed.”
She was, and they shifted into spine-tailed swifts, sleek birds with incredible speed. Even so, Cluny was far. By the time they reached the city, they had less than an hour to both locate and kill the creature before they had to find shelter from the sunrise.
“Where?” she asked. “And how will we know it?” It was a fair question. If the hybrid transformed, they would recognize it by the humanoid shape moving on all fours, with elongated limbs and a wolven snout. They’d also know it because they would both be dead, a casualty of its mere existence.
“The scent of both weren and vampire should be upon it,” Tiberius said. “That, and the smell of death still clinging to it from Marseilles.”
“Shall we split up?”
He shook his head. “I am resigned to having you here, but you will stay at my side. We must make a stop first, but then we’ll head to the abbey. Perhaps he seeks redemption for what he is about to do.”
It was a solid guess. Cluny didn’t stand on a direct route to London. So if the hybrid had come here, it was probably for a reason. And Cluny was most famous for its abbey.
They stopped first at a small house near the abbey where the monks gave shelter to travelers. They entered in stealth, found a crossbow and a blade beneath the bed of a sleeping soldier, and left in silence. That was the unfortunate part of transforming to travel. Their weapons could not transform with them.
“The abbey is huge. How will we find him?”
“He will be in the central tower,” Tiberius said, his voice as firm as his jaw. “He will wish to feel small so that when he moves on to kill, he can prove that he is powerful after all.”
She took his hand and pulled him to a halt, then pressed a soft kiss upon his cheek. He’d told her of the horrors of his youth and she knew that had left him with an understanding of the madness that could stem from both power and servitude. Sometimes the depth of that understanding scared her. Sometimes it mystified her.
But when they entered the central tower, some of what he’d spoken of became clear to her. The room was enormous, the ceiling reaching higher than any she’d ever seen, as if it were trying to reach God himself. Even with all her power—even with immortality looking back at her—she felt as small and weak as a child.
“Come,” Tiberius said, pulling her into an archway. “We wish to see him before he sees us.”
They’d barely eased into the shadow of an archway when the telltale sound of footfalls echoed. She tensed, uncertain whether it would be the hybrid or a monk moving about the abbey before matins.
She knew the answer soon enough, smelling the creature even before seeing it.
Without having a stake dipped in silver, they had to move quickly. A wooden arrow through the heart would kill a vampire, but not a hybrid. Their plan was for Caris to shoot it through the heart even as Tiberius raced forward to lop off its head. If her aim was true, the heart-shot would at least prevent it from changing—though Tiberius would still be forced to deal with the tainted blood and the hybrid’s incredible strength.
It was moving closer . . . closer . . .
She readied the crossbow, felt Tiberius stiffen beside her. “Steady,” he whispered, his voice pitched so low only she could hear it. “Do not fire unless you are sure of the shot.”
Waiting was a painful thing, like a serpent coiled tightly around her chest. And when the hybrid finally came into her range, it was even closer than she’d anticipated. She adjusted her aim, said a silent prayer, and let the arrow fly. It was as if she’d launched Tiberius as well. He flew from the archway, his blade swinging.
And then everything happened so fast that it seemed to her addled mind to move in slowed time. The arrow penetrated and the hybrid howled, a pained, horrible sound that echoed through the massive tower. Tiberius leaped, but they hadn’t counted on the hybrid doing the same thing. Its legs were powerful, and it bounded up and over Tiberius. Though the upward thrust of his sword caught the beast’s thigh as it leapfrogged over the vampire, that wound did little damage to the already injured beast.
It landed in front of Caris and she backed away, wishing for her knife, trying desperately to load another arrow despite knowing that it would do no good. It was too close, and vile blood was pumping out, making its clothes smoke and disintegrate. Though she dodged to the left, she knew it was futile, and she readied herself for the pain of melting, burning flesh.
But it didn’t come. Instead she felt the pain of a kick to the ribs as Tiberius shoved her out of the way, taking the blow instead. He yelled in agony as the hybrid’s blood burned the shirt off his back, cutting into the already deep scars left from his years in the mines and the gladiator ring.
As she rolled to safety and looked up, she saw him execute a perfect spin, leading with the blade, his face a grimace of pain and determination. And then the hybrid’s head was on the ground, its body dropping to the floor. Tiberius stood over it, like Perseus with the head of the Gorgon.
“It is done,” he said, and then collapsed beside it.
She hurried to him, pulling him out of the way of the expanding pool of blood, then helped him roll over so she could get him out of the burning, smoldering clothes and soothe his back with holy water from the altar.
“My love,” he said, as he clutched her hand in his. “It is dead. The last hybrid is dead, and we will survive.”