Cover image for The shadows : a novel of the Black Dagger Brotherhood
Title:
The shadows : a novel of the Black Dagger Brotherhood
Author:
Ward, J. R., 1969-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : New American Library, [2015]
Physical Description:
xiii, 576 pages ; 24 cm.
Summary:
"Two brothers bound by more than blood discover a conspiracy that will change their destiny in the astonishing all-new novel of the Black Dagger Brotherhood, the "frighteningly addictive" (Publishers Weekly) series by #1 New York Times bestselling author J. R. Ward"--
Language:
English
ISBN:
9780451417077
Format :
Book

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Summary

Summary

Two brothers bound by more than blood fight to change a brutal destiny in the heart-wrenching new novel of the Black Dagger Brotherhood by #1 New York Times bestselling author J. R. Ward.

Trez "Latimer" doesn't really exist.  And not just because the identity was created so that a Shadow could function in the underbelly of the human world.  Sold by his parents to the Queen of the S'Hsibe as a child, Trez escaped the Territory and has been a pimp and an enforcer in Caldwell, NY for years- all the while on the run from a destiny of sexual servitude.  He's never had anyone he could totally rely on... except for his brother, iAm.

iAm's sole goal has always been to keep his brother from self-destructing- and he knows he's failed.  It's not until the Chosen Serena enters Trez's life that the male begins to turn things around... but by then it's too late.  The pledge to mate the Queen's daughter comes due and there is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and no negotiating.

Trapped between his heart and a fate he never volunteered for, Trez must decide whether to endanger himself and others- or forever leave behind the female he's in love with.  But then an unimaginable tragedy strikes and changes everything.  Staring out over an emotional abyss, Trez must find a reason to go on or risk losing himself and his soul forever.  And iAm, in the name of brotherly love, is faced with making the ultimate sacrifice...


Author Notes

Jessica Rowley Pell Bird Blakemore was born in 1969 in Massachusetts. She attended Smith College where she double majored in history and art history, concentrating on medieval period. She received a law degree from Albany Law School. Before becoming a full-time author, she worked in healthcare in Boston and was the Chief of Staff of an academic medical center.

Her first book, Leaping Hearts, was published in 2002. She writes contemporary romance novels under the name Jessica Bird. The Romance Writers of America awarded her the RITA Award for Best Short Contemporary Romance in 2007 for her novel From the First. She writes erotic paranormal romance under the pseudonym of J. R. Ward. Under this name, her books include the Black Dagger Brotherhood series, the Bourbon Kings series, and the Fallen Angels series.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Excerpts

Excerpts

BY J. R. WARD ACKNOWLEDGMENTS GLOSSARY OF TERMS AND PROPER NOUNS ahstrux nohtrum (n.) Private guard with license to kill who is granted his or her position by the King. ahvenge (v.) Act of mortal retribution, carried out typically by a male loved one. Black Dagger Brotherhood (pr. n.) Highly trained vampire warriors who protect their species against the Lessening Society. As a result of selective breeding within the Race, Brothers possess immense physical and mental strength, as well as rapid healing capabilities. They are not siblings for the most part, and are inducted into the Brotherhood upon nomination by the Brothers. Aggressive, self-reliant, and secretive by nature, they exist apart from civilians, having little contact with members of the other classes except when they need to feed. They are the subjects of legend and objects of reverence within the vampire world. They may be killed only by the most serious of wounds, e.g., a gunshot or stab to the heart, etc. blood slave (n.) Male or female vampire who has been subjugated to serve the blood needs of another. The practice of keeping blood slaves has recently been outlawed. the Chosen (pr. n.) Female vampires who have been bred to serve the Scribe Virgin. They are considered members of the aristocracy, and, in the past, they have been spiritually rather than temporally focused. They have recently been granted broad freedoms away from the Sanctuary, and are meeting the blood needs of certain Brothers. Some have the ability to prognosticate. chrih (n.) Symbol of honorable death in the Old Language. cohntehst (n.) Conflict between two males competing for the right to be a female's mate. Dhunhd (pr. n.) Hell. doggen (n.) Member of the servant class within the vampire world. Doggen have old, conservative traditions about service to their superiors, following a formal code of dress and behavior. They are able to go out during the day, but they age relatively quickly. Life expectancy is approximately five hundred years. ehros (n.) A Chosen trained in the matter of sexual arts. exhile dhoble (n.) The evil or cursed twin, the one born second. the Fade (pr. n.) Nontemporal realm where the dead reunite with their loved ones and pass eternity. First Family (pr. n.) The King and Queen of the vampires, and any children they may have. ghardian (n.) Custodian of an individual. There are varying degrees of ghardians , with the most powerful being that of a sehcluded female. glymera (n.) The social core of the aristocracy, roughly equivalent to Regency England's ton . hellren (n.) Male vampire who has been mated to a female. Males may take more than one female as mate. hyslop (n. or v.) Term referring to a lapse in judgment, typically resulting in the compromise of the mechanical operations of a vehicle or otherwise motorized conveyance of some kind. For example, leaving one's keys in one's car as it is parked outside the family home overnight. leahdyre (n.) A person of power and influence. leelan (n.) A term of endearment loosely translated as "dearest one." Lessening Society (pr. n.) Order of slayers convened by the Omega for the purpose of eradicating the vampire species. lesser (n.) De-souled human who targets vampires for extermination as a member of the Lessening Society. Lessers must be stabbed through the chest in order to be killed; otherwise they are ageless. They do not eat or drink and are impotent. Over time, their hair, skin, and irises lose pigmentation until they are blond, blushless, and pale eyed. They smell like baby powder. Inducted into the Society by the Omega, they retain a ceramic jar thereafter into which their heart was placed after it was removed. lewlhen (n.) Gift. lheage (n.) A term of respect used by a sexual submissive to refer to her dominant. Lhenihan (pr. n.) A mythic beast renowned for its sexual prowess. In modern slang, refers to a male of preternatural size and sexual stamina. lys (n.) Torture tool used to remove the eyes. mahmen (n.) Mother. Used both as an identifier and a term of affection. mhis (n.) The masking of a given physical environment; the creation of a field of illusion. nalla (n., f.) or nallum (n., m.) Beloved. needing period (n.) Female vampire's time of fertility, generally lasting for two days and accompanied by intense sexual cravings. Occurs approximately five years after a female's transition and then once a decade thereafter. All males respond to some degree if they are around a female in her need. It can be a dangerous time, with conflicts and fights breaking out between competing males, particularly if the female is not mated. newling (n.) A virgin. the Omega (pr. n.) Malevolent, mystical figure who has targeted the vampires for extinction out of resentment directed toward the Scribe Virgin. Exists in a nontemporal realm and has extensive powers, though not the power of creation. phearsom (adj.) Term referring to the potency of a male's sexual organs. Literal translation something close to "worthy of entering a female." princeps (n.) Highest level of the vampire aristocracy, second only to members of the First Family or the Scribe Virgin's Chosen. Must be born to the title; it may not be conferred. pyrocant (n.) Refers to a critical weakness in an individual. The weakness can be internal, such as an addiction, or external, such as a lover. rahlman (n.) Savior. rythe (n.) Ritual manner of assuaging honor granted by one who has offended another. If accepted, the offended chooses a weapon and strikes the offender, who presents him- or herself without defenses. the Scribe Virgin (pr. n.) Mystical force who is counselor to the King as well as the keeper of vampire archives and the dispenser of privileges. Exists in a nontemporal realm and has extensive powers. Capable of a single act of creation, which she expended to bring the vampires into existence. sehclusion (n.) Status conferred by the King upon a female of the aristocracy as a result of a petition by the female's family. Places the female under the sole direction of her ghardian , typically the eldest male in her household. Her ghardian then has the legal right to determine all manner of her life, restricting at will any and all interactions she has with the world. shellan (n.) Female vampire who has been mated to a male. Females generally do not take more than one mate due to the highly territorial nature of bonded males. symphath (n.) Subspecies within the vampire race characterized by the ability and desire to manipulate emotions in others (for the purposes of an energy exchange), among other traits. Historically, symphaths have been discriminated against and, during certain eras, hunted by vampires. They are near extinction. the Tomb (pr. n.) Sacred vault of the Black Dagger Brotherhood. Used as a ceremonial site as well as a storage facility for the jars of lessers . Ceremonies performed there include inductions, funerals, and disciplinary actions against Brothers. No one may enter except for members of the Brotherhood, the Scribe Virgin, or candidates for induction. trahyner (n.) Word used between males of mutual respect and affection. Translated loosely as "beloved friend." transition (n.) Critical moment in a vampire's life when he or she transforms into an adult. Thereafter, he or she must drink the blood of the opposite sex to survive and is unable to withstand sunlight. Occurs generally in the mid-twenties. Some vampires do not survive their transitions, males in particular. Prior to their transitions, vampires are physically weak, sexually unaware and unresponsive, and unable to dematerialize. vampire (n.) Member of a species separate from that of Homo sapiens. Vampires must drink the blood of the opposite sex to survive. Human blood will keep them alive, though the strength does not last long. Following their transitions, which occur in their mid-twenties, they are unable to go out into sunlight and must feed from the vein regularly. Vampires cannot "convert" humans through a bite or transfer of blood, though they are in rare cases able to breed with the other species. Vampires can dematerialize at will, though they must be able to calm themselves and concentrate to do so and may not carry anything heavy with them. They are able to strip the memories of humans, provided such memories are short-term. Some vampires are able to read minds. Life expectancy is upward of a thousand years, or in some cases even longer. wahlker (n.) An individual who has died and returned to the living from the Fade. Wahlkers are accorded great respect and are revered for their travails. whard (n.) Equivalent of a godfather or godmother to an individual. PROLOGUE TERRITORY OF THE S'HISBE, GRAND PALACE The footprints he left on the white marble were red. Red as a Burmese ruby. Red as the core of a fire. Red as the anger in his marrow. The blood was TrezLath's own, but he felt no pain. The murder weapon he'd just used, a sterling silver paring knife about as long as his hand and as narrow as his forefinger, was still in his palm. It was dripping, but that was not the source of the stain he was leaving behind. He had been injured in the fight. His hip. His thigh. Maybe his shoulder, he wasn't sure. The corridor was a mile long and sky-high, and he did not know what awaited him at its termination. A door, he prayed. There had to be a door of some kind--this was the way out of the palace, so there had to be . . . an exit. And when he came unto it? He had no idea how he was going to break out. But he'd also had no clue how to kill another living male, and he'd done that minutes ago. Further, he had no plan for what was on the far side of the palace enclosure or how he was going to get over the Territory's retaining walls. No clue where to go, what to do. All he knew was that he couldn't be in that cell anymore. It was luxurious enough, with silken sheets on a feather bed, and a bath that had its own pool, and a private chef to feed him. He had books written by the Shadow Masters at his disposal, and a full team of care specialists, from healers, to bathers, to exercise commandants. As for his clothes? His now-torn vestments were studded with gems from the treasury, diamonds and emeralds and sapphires cascading down his robes. And yet his body was regarded as far more valuable than the largesse it bore. Trez was the sacred fatted calf, the prized breeding stallion, the male whose birth chart had proclaimed he was to sire the next generation of queens. He had not yet been called into sexual service. That would come in time, when the Princess he was to mate had reached her astrological maturity. Trez looked over his shoulder. No one was coming after him, but that would change as soon as the crumpled body of that guard he'd overpowered was found--and that wasn't going to be long. There was always someone watching. If only he could-- Up in front of him, a door that was flush with the wall slid back, and a massive figure draped in black stepped directly into his path. s'Ex, the Queen's executioner, had his chain-mail hooding in place, his features covered by the metal weave. But the sight of his face was unnecessary. His voice, deep and evil, was pure menace. "You killed one of my males." Trez shuffled to a halt, his dragging robes stilling on the floor. Glancing down at the knife in his hand, he knew that the flimsy "weapon" was going to get him nowhere against the Shadow he now faced. The silver blade had been designed to cut pears and apples, not even tenderloin meats. And the executioner was not like that guard. "You are trying to leave." s'Ex didn't take a step forward, but seemed closer anyway. "Which is not only unacceptable from my point of view, but against the law." "Then kill me in punishment," Trez said in a tired voice. "Rip my body asunder and bury me in pieces outside of the Territory like the traitor I am." "I would do just that. In retribution for your taking the life of my guard." s'Ex crossed his heavy arms over his thick chest. "But the very beating of your heart and breath within your lungs is divine. So that avenue is not open to me--or you." Trez closed his eyes briefly. His parents had been thrilled with the news that one of their two fraternal sons had been born upon the perfect moment in time, a preordained, stars-aligned split second that would transform the family--a blessing for them, with attendant riches and social position; a curse for him that had robbed him of his life whilst ever still he lived. "Do not even think about it," the executioner said. As Trez lifted his lids, he found that he had put the knife to his own throat. His hand was trembling badly, but he was pushing the blade in enough to nick the skin over his artery. His blood, warm and smooth, caressed over his clenched fist. Trez's laughter sounded crazy to his own ears. "I've nothing to lose except a life sentence for the crime of being born." "Oh, I think you do. No, don't look away--you're going to want to see this." The executioner nodded at the open doorway and something was pushed out. . . . "No!" Trez yelled, his voice echoing up and down the corridor. "No!" "So you recognize him." s'Ex uncoiled his arms and pulled up his sleeves, deliberately flashing bloody knuckles. "In spite of my work. Then again, the pair of you have been together for how long?" Trez's vision went in and out of focus as he sought his brother's eyes. There was no gaze to hold. iAm was not conscious, his head lolling to one side, his face beaten until it was so swollen the features were distorted. His body was bound in a worn leather sleeve that ran from below his knees all the way up to his shoulders and was secured by a brass buckle system. Stains, new and old, darkened the brown of the straps and dulled the glow of the metal pieces. "Give him to me," s'Ex commanded. As the executioner grabbed onto the back of the hold, he lifted iAm's limp body from the floor with no more effort than he might put into raising a flask of wine. "Please . . ." Trez begged. "He is not of this . . . let him go. . . ." For some reason, his brother's dangling lower legs registered with nauseating clarity. Only one of iAm's shoes was on still, the other having been lost in whatever abduction and torture had occurred. And both feet were pointing inward, the big toes touching, one tilted in unnaturally from a broken ankle. "Now, Trez," s'Ex said, "did you think your decision wasn't going to affect him? I'm telling you to put the knife down. If you do not, I'm going to take this"--the executioner jogged iAm's limp body up and down--"and I'm going to wake it up. Do you know how I'm going to do that? I'm going to take this"--in his free hand he flashed a serrated knife--"and put it into its shoulder. Then I'm going to twist until it starts to scream." Trez began to blink away tears. "Let him go. This has nothing to do with him." "Put the knife down." "Let him--" "Shall I demonstrate?" "No! Let him--" s'Ex stabbed iAm's shoulder so hard, the blade cut through the leather and went into the flesh. "Twist?" s'Ex barked over the scream. "Yes? Or are you dropping that butter knife?" The clatter of the silver hitting the marble floor was overpowered by iAm's harsh, dragging breaths. "That's what I thought." s'Ex jerked the knife out and iAm started to moan and cough, blood speckling the floor. "We're going back to your quarters." "Let him go first." "You are not in a position to make demands." Guards came out of that hidden door in a swarm, all black-robed figures with chain-mail masks. They didn't touch him. They weren't allowed to. They surrounded him and began to walk, pushing him along with their bodies. Forcing him back to the place he had escaped. Trez fought the tide, rising up on the balls of his feet, trying to see his brother. "Don't kill him!" he shouted. "I'll go! I'll go--just don't hurt him!" s'Ex stood where he was, that notched, bloodied blade catching the light as he held it aloft. As if he were considering major organs for the next stab. "It's up to you, Trez. It's all up to--" Something snapped. Later, when the white light had faded from Trez's vision and the cresting wave receded, when the roar was silenced and a strange pain in his hands began to ride up his forearms, when he was no longer standing but on his knees, he would realize that the first guard he had killed that night was far from his last. He would realize that he somehow murdered with his bare hands all who had surrounded him . . . ...and s'Ex was still standing there with his brother. More than the deaths he caused, and the horror at iAm's imprisonment with him, more than the copper-scented blood that was so red and now not just marking his footprints, he would remember the soft laugh that percolated through the mesh links covering the executioner's face. A soft laugh. As if the executioner approved of the carnage. Trez did not laugh. He began to sob, lifting bloody, torn hands to his face. "The astrological charts did not lie," s'Ex said. "You are a force in this world, well suited for procreation." Trez slumped to the side, landing in the blood, the jewels embedded in his robes digging into his flesh. "Please . . . let him go. . . ." "Return to your quarters. Voluntarily and without hurting anyone else." "And you'll let him go?" "You're not the only one who can kill. And unlike yourself, I have been trained in the art of making living things suffer. Go back to your quarters and I will not make your brother wish, as you do, that he had never been born." Trez looked at his hands. "I didn't ask for this." "No one asks for life." The executioner hiked iAm's body up higher. "And sometimes they do not ask for death. You, however, are in the position to control the latter when it comes to this male. So what are you going to do. Fight against a destiny you can't change and sentence this innocent to a wretched, prolonged suffering? Or fulfill a sacred duty many before you have found great honor in providing our people?" "Let us go. Let us both go." "It is not up to me. Your chart is what your chart is. Your lot was determined by the contractions of your mother. You can no more fight this than you could fight them." When Trez finally tried to stand up, he found the floor slippery. The blood. The blood he had spilled. And when he was on his feet, he had to scramble through the gruesome tangle of bodies, stepping over lives that he knew had not been his to take. The footsteps he left on the marble were red. Red as a Burmese ruby. Red as the core of a fire. And the ones he left now were parallel to his first set of tracks, heading away from the escape he had so desperately sought. It would have heartened him to know that in some twenty years, three months, one week, and six days from this moment, he would get free and make it stick for quite some time. And it would have shocked him to the numb core of his soul that he would, sometime after that, voluntarily return to the palace. The executioner spoke the truth that night. Destiny was as uncaring and influential as the wind to a flag, carrying the fabric of an individual's existence this way and that, subjecting that which it rocked to its whims without an inquiry as to what the banner may have desired. Or may have prayed for. ONE SHADOWS NIGHTCLUB, CALDWELL, NEW YORK There was no knock. The door to the office just flew open like someone had hit it with C4. Or a Chevy. Or a-- Trez "Latimer" looked from the paperwork on his desk. "Big Rob?" --cannonball. As his security second in command stuttered and went into all kinds of hand flapping, Trez glanced over his shoulder at the twenty-by-ten-foot one-way mirror behind all his Captain Kirk, command central. Down below, his new club was poppin', humans milling around the converted warehouse's open floor space, each one of the poor sick bastards representing a couple hundred dollars of profit, depending on what their vice was and how much of it they needed to juice up. It was opening night at shAdoWs, and he'd expected trouble. Just not the kind that would make a veteran bouncer go twelve-year-old girl on him. "What the fuck is going on?" he demanded as he got up and came around. "I--you--I . . . the guy . . . he . . ." Find your vocab fast, Trez thought. Or I'ma have to bitch-slap some words into you, my man. Finally, the bouncer choked out, "Need to see this for yourself." Trez followed Big Rob out and jogged down the stairs. His office was self-locking, not that he had any secrets shut in there. He did, however, have a couple of nice leather sofas, and some video-monitoring equip that could go the eBay route--plus he didn't like people in his spaces on principle. "Silent Tom is containing the issue," Big Rob called out over the noise as they hit the ground floor. "Like it's a chemical spill?" "I don't know what it is." T.I.'s "About the Money" was so pumped it formed a physical presence in the air, becoming something that Trez had to fight through as they made their way past the security guy guarding the entrance to the private lounges hallway. As with his other club, The Iron Mask, there had to be little slices of Nobody Can See for his customers. It was tricky enough running a prostitution ring in Caldwell, New York, without having people flash their slappin' body parts out in the open. "Back here," Big Rob said. Silent Tom was a wall of human in front of the closed door of the third private room down. But Trez didn't need to have any reveal for him to put two and two together: His nose added that math up just fine. The sickly sweet stench of a lesser permeated the hall, prevailing over the sweat and sex of the humans that were all around. "Lemme have a look," he said grimly. Silent Tom stepped aside. "Still moving. Whatever the hell it is." Yeah, the slayer probably was. Those fuckers had to be killed in a specific way or they just kept on keepin' on--even if they were in pieces. "We're going to have to call an ambulance," Big Rob said. "I did it. I didn't mean to--" Trez held up his hand. "You're fine. And hold off on the nine-one-one." Opening the door, he grimaced as the stench ramped up, and then stepped inside the ten-by-ten-foot room. The walls and floor were painted black, the ceiling mirrored, a single inset light glowing softly overhead. The slayer was curled up in the far corner under the built-in fuck bench, moaning and bleeding an oil slick that smelled like dead roadkill mixed with fresh-baked oatmeal cookies and Johnson & Johnson baby powder. Nauseating. And once again, it put him off Mrs. Fields, which he did not appreciate--and children, which he didn't care about. He checked his watch. Midnight. Xhex, his head of security, was enjoying a rare evening off with her mate, John Matthew--and Trez had had to force the female to take the break, because it was the only time that week her hellren was off his rotation with the Black Dagger Brotherhood. He was going to have to deal with this himself. Trez stepped back out into the hall. "Okay, so what happened?" Big Rob discreetly flashed a handful of small cellophane packets with powder in them as well as a wad of bills. "We found him pushing this. He got mouthy. I popped him and then he fought back--he was a fucking demon, and when he pulled the knife, I realized I was in trouble. I did what I had to do." Trez cursed as he recognized the symbol stamped on the heroin bags. It was nothing human--and the second time he'd seen it. It was the vampiric Old Language--and the shit was on a lesser again? This time as a dealer? He took the drugs and put them in his pocket. Let his bouncer keep the cash. "You were lucky you weren't killed." "I'll talk to the police. Everything's on tape." Trez shook his head. "We're not involving the CPD." "We can't just leave him in there." Big Rob glanced at his mute partner. "He's going to die." It was the work of a moment to overpower the humans' minds. Both of them. As a Shadow, Trez was like any other vampire, capable of barging into a cerebellum and rearranging thoughts and memories like they were armchairs and sofas in a living room. Or maybe removing them from the house altogether. Big Rob's body instantly relaxed and he nodded. "Oh, sure. We can hang here. No problem, boss--and don't worry, you don't want no one in there? You got it." Trez clapped the man on the back. "I can always count on you." Heading back to his office, he kept up with the cursing. He'd gone to the Brothers months ago, when he'd first found a slayer with this shit on him. And he'd meant to follow up even more with them. But life had gotten in the way, things like the s'Hisbe coming after him, and Selena and him. . . . The mere thought of the Chosen female made him close his eyes and falter his feet on the stairs. But then he threw off the sting. 'Cuz it was either that or go into a black-hole tailspin. The good news? He'd spent a lot of time over the last nine months trying to pull his mind, his emotions, his soul off the topic of Selena. So he was used to this kind of power lifting. Unfortunately, she remained a constant preoccupation, as if he had a low-level fever that dogged him no matter how much he slept and attempted to eat right. And on some nights, it was a lot more than preoccupation--which was why he'd had to leave the Brotherhood mansion at times and crash back at his condo at the Commodore. After all, bonded males could be dangerous, and the fact that he wasn't with her--and shouldn't be--meant absolutely nothing to that side of him. Especially when she was feeding fighters who could not, for whatever reason, take their mates' veins. It was straight-up crazy. She was a virtuous servant of the Scribe Virgin's, and he was a reformed sex addict with a life-in-prison-type sentence hanging over his head--and yet, according to his cock and balls, this was a recipe for true love. Yup. There was some righteous math for you. God, he was almost relieved he had a slayer leaking all over one of his sex rooms. At least it gave him a bomb to dismantle--which was better than staring out at that anonymous crowd of strangers who were feeding their own addictions thanks to the women and booze he supplied them with. While he waited for the other shoe to drop back home. At the s'Hisbe. TWO THE PIT, BROTHERHOOD MANSION Rhage glared over the top of the Caldwell Courier Journal . From his vantage point on V and Butch's leather sofa, he had more view than he wanted of a shirtless Lassiter playing with himself. Foosball, that was. The fallen angel was working V's table like a pro, flashing back and forth between the two sides--and hurling insults at himself. "Question," Rhage muttered, as he rearranged his injured leg. "Are either of your personalities aware that you're schizo-freakin'-phrenic?" "Your mama's so stupid"--Lassiter dematerialized and re-formed on the far side, spinning the rods--"she thinks a California dime is something you dial a phone with." V came over and took a load off. "That's multiple personality disorder, Hollywood. Not schizophrenia." The Brother put a leather pouch of tobacco and a sheaf of rolling papers on the stack of Sports Illustrated s--just as Lassiter fired off a shout of triumph. "Oh, look," V said under his breath. "The idiot is finally winning." Rhage grunted as he tried to find a better position for his leg. He and V should both have been out fighting--except a lesser had gone Gordon Ramsay on him with a rusty knife and V had a gunshot wound through the left shoulder. At least they'd both be back online in another twenty-four hours, largely thanks to Selena. Without her being so generous with her vein, they wouldn't be able to heal so fast--especially given that neither of their mates were capable of meeting their nutritional needs that way. But, man, this sucked, sitting around like a couple of cripples. And then there was the Lassiter factor. The Pit was mostly as it always had been: full of gym bags, stereo and computer equipment, that Foosball table, and a TV the size of a city park. SportsCenter was on, talking about college football along with the NFL; there were dead-soldier Grey Goose bottles everywhere; and Butch's wardrobe was now spilling out into the hall. Oh, and yup, Schoolboy Q's "Hell of a Night" was bangin' on the speakers. But it wasn't exclusively a bachelor pad anymore. Lingering in the air was Marissa's signature perfume--something Chanel?--and Doc Jane's medical bag was on the coffee table. Those vodka deadies? Only from this afternoon and tonight, and V was going to pull a tidy-up before he crashed. And then there were the Journal of the American Medical Association and the People magazines. Oh, and the kitchen was clean, with fresh fruit in a bowl and a refrigerator full of things other than Arby's leftovers and soy sauce packets. Rhage had dipped his toe into that Frigidaire pond as soon as he'd come in, snagging a half gallon of mint chocolate-chip ice cream. That was about a half hour ago, and he was feeling peckish again. Maybe it was time to head back to the main house-- As Jeezy's "Holy Ghost" broke in, Lassiter started rapping. Rapping . "Why did you invite him over?" Rhage asked--just as V extended his tongue to lick one of his hand-rolleds shut. "And Jesus, when the hell did you pierce that ?" "I didn't. He followed us across the courtyard. And a month ago." "Why would you do that to yourself?" V shot an evil smile across the sofa, his lids falling low over his diamond eyes. "Jane likes it." Rhage went back to his newspaper. "TMI, my brother." "Like you wouldn't do the same if Mary wanted it." "Doc Jane asked for that? Like your goatee ain't enough shit going on with your piehole? Come on." All he got was another of those smiles. "Moving on . . ." He focused on the horoscopes. "Okay, so what sign are you, Lassiter?" "I'm fabulous"--the fallen angel flashed to the other side--"with the sun rising in the Kiss My Ass quadrant. And before you keep asking, I was made, not born, so I don't have a birthday." "I'll give you a funeral date," V cut in. "How about a shirt." Rhage turned to the next page. "Just a shirt. Would it kill you to cover up, angel? No one needs to see that." Lassiter gave things a pause . . . and then started pulling a Channing Tatum against the table, going all Magic Mike over the goal while he moaned like he was orgasming. V covered his eyes. "Never thought I'd pray for blindness." Rhage wadded up the paper and threw it at Lassiter. "Oh, come on, asshat! I wanna use that thing sometime--" Rhage's phone threw off a seizure, vibrating against his ass until he leaned to the side and dug it out of the back pocket of his leathers. "Yeah," he said without looking at the number. Trez's voice was low. "I got an issue." "What's doing?" "Incapacitated lesser in my club. I've done a scrub job on my bouncers--especially the one who fought him--but this ain't going to keep." Rhage got to his feet. "Be there in five." "Thanks, man." Ending the call, Rhage nodded at V. "Come on, I know we're red-shirted, but this is not a fight situation." "Don't need to ask me twice. Where are we going?" Lassiter straightened from his grind. "Field trip!" "No--" "No--" "I can be useful as well as decorative, you know." V started to arm himself, grimacing as he strapped on his dagger holster and slipped in a pair of sharp-and-shinies, handles down. "Doubt we'll need a battering ram." "Maybe we'd get lucky." Rhage headed for the door. "But I wouldn't bet on it." "I don't want to stay here by myself--" "And you ain't that decorative, angel." Outside, the night was all about the fall, cold, crisp September air, making Rhage's sinuses hum and his beast surge under his skin as he walked across the courtyard to the great stone mansion's entrance. Man, he couldn't wait for his Mary to get home from her work at Safe Place. All that talk about tongues and females liking them in certain places--okay, it had only been about three sentences, but that had been more than enough--had gotten him tight. Ten minutes, two forties, a pair of daggers, and a three-foot length of chain later, he dematerialized down to Caldwell's meatpacking district with V, both of them re-forming across the street from Trez's new joint. shAdoWs was located in a rehabbed warehouse, and as usual with any of the Shadow's places, there was a line snaking down the block, humans standing like cows about to go into a feeding shed. As music bumped, flashing lights and laser beams pierced the thousands of glass panes, making the place look like a three-story-tall psychedelic trip trapped under a tin roof. As the pair of them walked around back, there were all kinds of turned heads, but whatever. Human women had a way of noticing vampires--maybe it was a hormonal thing; maybe it was the black leather. Certainly wasn't that goatee. C'mon, now. And yeah, there might have been a time in the past when he would have had to take advantage of the dubious wares, but no more. He had his Mary and that was more than enough for him. V was the same with his Jane. Well, Jane plus a "healthy" dose of whips and chains. Sicko. The rear entrance of the club was a double-doored, triple-locked stretch of Staff Only, and it obvi had a security camera somewhere, because the instant they approached, a bouncer opened things up. "Are you . . . ?" "Yeah." V barged in. "Where's Trez at?" "This way." Dark halls. Dumb, drunk humans. DD working girls. And then there was Trez, standing outside a black door under a black light. The Shadow made an impression, even from thirty dim feet away. He was tall and had an inverted triangle for a torso, big heavy shoulders dumping into a tight waist, with thick thighs and long legs holding the production off the floor. His skin was the color of the mansion's mahogany dining room table, his eyes black as midnight, his hair trimmed down to nothing but a pattern on his skull. All of that was just pretty window dressing, though. The truth was that he was more dangerous a commodity than anything you could buy at a gun show. Shadows were deadly, capable of tricks even members of the Brotherhood were impressed by--and their kind usually kept to themselves, sticking to the s'Hisbe's territory way outside of the city. Trez and his brother, iAm, were exceptions to that rule. Something to do with Rehvenge. Not that Rhage had ever asked. "Where is it?" V asked as he clapped hands with the Shadow. "In here." Rhage did the same, greeting the Shadow with a hard embrace. "How you doin'?" "We got ourselves a complication." Trez stepped back and opened the door. "And not like you're thinking." The "dead" slayer was moving on the floor, writhing its arms and legs slowly. Things were broken in various places, one foot pointing in the wrong direction, an elbow cocked at a wonked-up angle, and there was a good deal of leaking going on, the floor puddling with the Omega's oil-black blood. "Nice work," Rhage said, taking a grape Tootsie Pop out of his jacket and popping the wrapper. "Bouncer did this?" "Big Rob." Trez put his hand out. "And here is the complication." In the center of his palm were a bunch of nothing-special packets of drugs-- Wait a minute. V picked up the things with his gloved hand. "Just like the ones you gave to Butch, true?" "Exactly." "Yeah, this is dealing." "Did anything come of this shit earlier?" "Butch talked to Assail, and Assail denied, denied, denied he was doing business with them. And that was it. With nothing else to go on, we had other priorities, feel me?" Rhage bit down to the chocolate center as he leaned in and did some WTF-ing of his own. The drugs were marked with a red stamp . . . of the Old Language symbol for death. The chrih . Assail was going to be in some serious ass-shit if he was using the enemy to get his product onto the streets. V dragged his free hand through his black hair. "Now I know why you didn't just stab this thing back to the Omega." "My bouncer said the slayer came in with the crowd and worked his way around, doing bit deals. He was asked to leave, argued, attacked, and then it was time for some lights-out when Big Rob took care of business. First time this particular lesser 's been around, but that's not saying much, because it's opening night. Bottom line, though, is I don't let people deal in my joints, human or otherwise. Don't want to be on the CPD's list of things to do any more than we already are . . ." As the pair of them kept talking, Rhage sucked the white stick clean and found himself sizing up the Shadow. Cutting into the convo, he demanded, "Why don't you come to Last Meal anymore." V's diamond-hard glare swung around. "My brother, focus." "No, I'm serious." He propped his hip on the black wall. "What's up, Trez. I mean, our food not good enough for you?" Cue the throat clearing on the Shadow's side. "Oh, no, yeah, I'm just . . . busy, you know. Opening this . . ." "And when was the last time you fed? You look like shit." Vishous threw up his hands. "Hollywood, will you get in the game--" "You know, I used Selena tonight and her blood is amazing--" It all happened so fast. One minute V was jawing at him while he was bringing up the very salient point that the Shadow needed to take a vein. The next, Trez's racket-size palm was locked on his neck, cutting off all his air supply. While the guy bared his teeth and snarled like Rhage was the enemy. In the blink of an eye, and in spite of that nasty shoulder wound, Vishous counter-attacked the Shadow, tackling him in a total body slam as Rhage grabbed at that thick wrist to pull the grip free. Incredibly, it got them nowhere. Even with V's close to three hundred pounds trying to pry Trez off and all of Rhage's tensile strength getting thrown into the mix, the Shadow was brick-wall-going-nowhere, barely moving. And then the three of them had something to really worry about. Rhage blinked, and when he opened his eyes, brilliant light flooded the cramped, black space. "Fuck," V gritted. "Let him fucking go, Trez! We got problems!" Beneath Rhage's skin, his beast surged to life, awoken by the mortal threat. "Trez! Let go!" Something got through to the Shadow--whether it was all that light, or the fact that Rhage's features were already starting to morph--and he loosened his hold just a little. V took it from there, throwing the Shadow to the slick floor and jumping on him, a black dagger flashing out and being put directly to the jugular. On a sagging curse, Rhage coughed and breathed deep a couple of times. Shit. His beast had a hair trigger on a good night, when he was well-fed, well-fucked, and properly exercised. But when someone tried to kill him? Even if there might have been a good goddamn reason for it? Clearly, the Shadow had bonded with the Chosen. 'Cuz that reaction had male hormones all over it. "I'm sorry," Trez mumbled. "I don't know what came over me. Swear on my brother's life." "Why didn't you"--Rhage tripped over his own words--"tell us you bonded with her?" There was a pause. Then Trez said, "I . . . shit." V added a string of curse words. "You gonna stay put, Shadow, or am I slicing the front of your throat open?" "I'm good. Swear." A moment later, V came over. "Rhage . . . ? My brother?" Rhage put his palms to his face and let himself slide off the vertical until he was ass-on-the-floor. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. They already had a lesser in the club. His beast was the last kind of patron they needed. Breathe in. Breathe out-- "What's going on with him?" Trez asked. "Don't ever aggress on that motherfucker," was the last thing Rhage heard before the world receded like smoke in a draft. THREE In the most sacred hall of the s'Hisbe's Grand Palace, s'Ex stood on the far side of a door that had no knob, no handle, hardly any seam to distinguish the panel from the wall it was set into. On the far side, he could hear the infant crying, and the sound, that plaintive entreaty for help, aid, succor, went into his ears and through to his soul. His hand shook as he put it to the cool expanse. His daughter. His offspring. The only one he would probably ever have. The infant was not alone in the ceremonial room. There was the high priest, AnsLai; the Chief Astrologer; and the Tretary, a position charged with witnessing and recording events such as this. The baby had been wrapped in a pure white blanket of woven wool by the nursemaid before being taken in there and left behind with those three males. To cry for a father who would not come to save her. s'Ex's heart pounded so violently the whites of his eyes registered the rhythmic pressure. He had not expected this reaction, but mayhap this precise fervor was why he had not been allowed to touch the child--or be alone with her. Ever since the Queen had given birth to her approximately six hours ago, he had been permitted to view her twice: once after she had been cleaned, and just now, as she had been rendered into that white marble room that had no windows and only one door . . . that locked from the inside. The second of her birth had determined this, demanded this. That was what custom dictated. The stars had aligned in such a way that his daughter was not to be the heir to the throne, and thus she had to be . . . Get in there! his heart screamed. Stop this, stop this before -- Silence. Suddenly there was silence. A sound like that of a wounded animal vibrated up his throat and out of his mouth, and s'Ex curled a fist, banging it into that door so hard, fissures formed in a star pattern, radiating outward from the point of impact. Distraught and deadly, he knew he must needs retreat before he did something as unthinkable as what had just been done. Tripping over his black robing, he wheeled around and stumbled down the corridor. He was dimly aware of banging into the walls, his momentum bouncing him left and right, his shoulders slamming into the more slick white marble. For some reason, he thought of a night many years before, at least two decades ago, when he had waited by the exit for TrezLath, the Anointed One, to come down and attempt to escape. Now he was doing what that male had done then. Escaping. Whilst in fact not freeing himself at all. Unlike Trez, who had not been allowed to leave the palace, s'Ex, as the Queen's executioner, was permitted to. He was also the one who was responsible for monitoring all comings and goings. There would be no delays for him. And that would save lives this night. That silence, that horrible, resonant silence, cannibalized his mind as he wound through the maze of halls, nearing the very exit Trez had sought. That male, too, had been condemned, the position of the stars the moment he was born more dispositive than nature or nurture. Those constellations, so distant, so unknown at the time of birth and unknowable in maturity, determined everything. Your status. Your work. Your worth. And his daughter, like Trez, had been born to a portent that had been a death sentence. Nine months they had awaited her birth, society coming to a kind of standstill with the Queen pregnant. Such fanfare, as there had been only one other pregnancy in the two centuries of the current monarch's reign--and that had yielded the Princess. Of course, the fact that the current conception had been by the Queen's executioner had been far less momentous and never publicly acknowledged. Better that it had been an aristocrat. A second cousin of royal blood. A male marked as significant by his birthing charts. Or even better, some kind of immaculate miracle. Alas, no. The sire had been he who had started as a servant and gained trust, access, and, much later, the sacred act of sex. But that was all largely insignificant in their matriarchal tradition; the male was as always a secondary afterthought. The result--the infant--and the mother were the most important. There had been a chance, when the child had come out, that as a female, she might surpass the current heir to the throne, depending on the stars. Although that would have resulted in another death, as there could be only one heir to the throne--the sitting Princess would have had to be ritually killed. All had waited for news. With the time and date properly recorded, the Chief Astrologer had retreated to his observatory and completed his measuring of the night sky . . . s'Ex had learned the fate of his infant before the general population, but after the courtiers: The birth would not be announced. The Queen would reaffirm her current daughter. All would continue as it had been. And that was that, the personal tragedy for him buried under court protocol and reverence for royalty and long-standing astrological traditions. He'd known all along that this was a possibility. But either through arrogance or ignorance, he had discounted the terrible reality. This terrible reality. When he finally burst out into the night, he drew breaths that he released in puffs. He had never expected an intersection between his personal history and this star-determining system that ruled everything. Rather stupid of him, really. Bracing his hands on his knees, he bent over and vomited into the cropped, dying grass. The expulsion seemed to clear his head a little, to the point where he almost wanted to do it again. He needed to do something, anything . . . he couldn't go back into the palace--he was liable to kill the first Shadow he came to just to cleanse the pain. His rescue, such as it was, came from duty. With this event, there was official business to be conducted, which, in his role as enforcer, he was required to discharge. It was quite a while before he could calm his mind and emotions sufficiently to dematerialize, and when he was able to scatter his molecules, he proceeded out of the walls of the Territory with a strange sense of commiseration. He was quite certain that the Queen was feeling nothing at this moment. As a result of that star chart, the innocent life that had been cut short had been devalued to the point of worthlessness, in spite of the fact that what had been born had come out of that royal womb. The alignment of stars was more significant than the alignment of DNA. That was the way it had always been. Would forever be. In spite of the fact that it was but September, as he traveled toward downtown Caldwell, it was the coldest night he had e'er known. FOUR The Chosen Selena entered the training center through the back of the office's supply closet, and as she emerged, she jumped at the tremendous figure behind the desk. Tohrment, son of Hharm, looked up from the computer. "Oh, hey, Selena. Surprise." As her heart rate regulated, she put her hand to her chest. "I didn't expect to see anyone herein." The Brother refocused on the blue glow of the screen. "Yeah, I'm back to work. We're going to open things up again." "Open what?" "The training center." Tohr leaned back in the ugliest green leather chair she had ever seen. And as he spoke, he stroked the arm as if it were a precious work of art. "Back before the raids, we had a good program set up here. But then so many members of the glymera were killed during the attacks, and those who did survive left Caldwell. Now, people are returning, and God knows we need the help. The Lessening Society is ramping up like rats to a warehouse." "I wondered what all these facilities were for." "You're going to see it firsthand." "Maybe," she said. But only if they moved fast-- "Are you all right?" the Brother asked, jumping up. With an abrupt spin, the world tilted around her, twirling her head on her spine--or was that the room itself? Either way, Tohrment caught her before she hit the floor, scooping her up in his arms. "I'm okay, I'm all right . . . I'm fine," she said. At least, she thought she spoke those words out loud. She wasn't sure, because Tohr's lips were moving and his eyes were locked on hers like he was talking to her, but she couldn't hear his voice. Her own. Anything. Next thing she knew, she was in one of the examination rooms and Vishous's shellan , Doc Jane, was peering down at her, all dark green eyes, short blond hair and roaring concern. The chandelier overhead was too bright, and Selena raised her palm to cover her face. "Please--this is unnecessary--" All of a sudden, she realized she could hear herself, and the world, once dulled and diluted, came back in sharp detail. "Honestly, I am fine." Doc Jane put her hands on her hips and just stood there, as if she were a barometer making some kind of a reading. For a moment, Selena was struck with fear. She didn't want them to know that-- "Did you just feed someone?" the Brotherhood's physician asked. "About an hour ago. And I didn't eat. I forgot to eat." Which was not a lie. "Do you have any medical conditions I need to know about?" "No." Which was a lie. "I'm perfectly healthy." "Here," Tohr said, pressing something cold into her hand. "Drink this." She did as she was told and discovered it was Coke, in a red can that said, "Share with Buddy," on the side. And actually, the stuff did revive her. "This is good." "Your coloring is getting better." Doc Jane crossed her arms over her chest and leaned back against one of the stainless-steel cabinets. "Keep drinking. And maybe you should consider calling someone else in for--" "No," she said sharply. "I will complete my duty." The importance of coming here, and making her vein available to the Brothers and others who were not able to feed from their mates, was the only thing keeping her going. It was the connection to normal life, the grounding of a job that was of significance, the metronome of nights and days without which she would consume herself with a bad destiny over which she had no control. The reality was that her time was running out--and she was never sure when her last moment was going to come, when the last time she did anything was going to happen. And that made being here in service absolutely critical. As she continued to nurse the soda, many things were said, questions asked on the physician's part, answers given on hers. The vocabulary didn't matter--she would utter anything, any lie, partial truth, or false construction to get free of this tiled room and continue on to her last visit of the night. "I shall complete my duty." She forced a casual smile onto her face. "And then I shall rest. Promise." After a moment, Doc Jane nodded--and the skirmish, at last, was won. The war, however, was a different beast entirely. "I'm just fine," Selena said, hopping off the table. "Really and truly." "Come and see me if it happens again, okay?" "Absolutely." She smiled at the two of them. "I promise." As she left the exam room, she supposed that the lie should have bothered her. But she didn't have the luxury of conscience anymore. She was in a sprint against death, and nothing, not even the people she valued . . . or the male she loved . . . could get in her way. For her, survival, such as it was, was a solo endeavor. * * * Back at shAdoWs, Trez had to take a moment to cough his larynx back into position before sitting up. One thing you could say about Vishous? The Brother did the dominating thing well. Natch. But whatever, shit was getting a little too real over there in the corner. Across the dim space of the sex room, Rhage was curled into a ball, eyes shut, breath going in and out of his open mouth with such a measured rhythm he was either hypnotizing himself or in a fucking coma. "What is he doing?" Trez asked. "Trying not to turn into a monster." Trez popped his eyebrows. "Literally." "Godzilla. Only purple." "Jesus . . . I thought that was just gossip." "Nope." V palmed a black dagger and lifted it over his shoulder. With a vicious--ha-ha--stab, the Brother obliterated the slayer's remains by nailing the thing in the empty chest, the second bright light of the night flaring blue-white as a blow torch before disappearing and taking the majority of the stinking remains with it. The flash didn't take care of the grease spot, but Trez had outfitted these rooms with a drain in the center and a hose hookup discreetly mounted under the bench. Humans could get messy, too. "So you've bonded, huh," V said as he took a load off and watched over his Brother like a pack animal guarding a fallen wolf. "I'm sorry, what?" "Selena. You've bonded with her." Trez cursed and scrubbed his face. "Ah, no. Not really." "A very wise person once told me . . . lie to anybody you want, just never yourself." "Look, I don't know--" "So is that why you've been gone from the house so much?" Trez considered staying on the blow-smoke train, but what was the use. He'd just attacked a male he respected, a male who, P.S., was totally and completely in love with his own female, just because the guy had taken the vein--and nothing else--of a Chosen trained to be of service in that way. If that didn't put the bonded-male stamp on his forehead, he didn't know what would. "I just . . ." Trez shook his head. "Fuck. Me. Fine, I've bonded--and I can't be around her feeding you all. I mean, I know it's a necessary service, and it stops at the vein, yada, yada, yada. But it's too dangerous. I'm liable to do that"--he nodded at Rhage--"at any moment." "She won't have you? I know it can't be because of Phury. He respects the shit out of you." Yeah, he and the Primale, who was responsible for all of the Chosen, were cool. Too bad that wasn't the issue. "It's just not going to work out." "Why." "Can we get back to why a lesser has Assail's drugs on him?" "No offense, but I just cut you some huge slack by not turning your jugular into a sink drain. Think you can do me the honor of being honest?" Trez looked down at his hands, and flexed the fingers out in a fan. "Even if I hadn't slept with a thousand human women, I'm not exactly a free man." "Rehv said your debt to him is more than repaid." "The tie that binds me is not to him." "So who owns your leash." "My Queen." There was a long, low whistle. "In what way?" Funny that he'd spent so much time with the Brotherhood and never told them anything about the anvil over his head. Then again, for so long all he'd done was try to pretend it wasn't there himself. "I'm supposed to service the heir to the throne." "When did this happen?" "Birth. Mine, that is." V frowned. "The Queen know where you are?" "Yeah." "You should have disclosed this to us before you moved in. Not saying we wouldn't have harbored you, but your people can be very particular about who they associate with. We got enough problems without a diplomatic issue with the s'Hisbe." "There may be an extenuating circumstance, though." As his phone started to vibrate in his shirt pocket, he reached in and shut it off without looking at who the call was from. "I've been in neutral. With the possibility of either a head-on collision with a semi or a swerve that could save me." "Selena know any of this?" "She knows some of it." The Brother inclined his head. "Well, it's your story to tell--at least with respect to the Chosen. As it impacts Wrath and our throne, though? All bets are off." "Any night. I'll know any night--the Queen's due to give birth literally any moment." "I keep nothing from my King." Trez felt his phone go off again and he silenced it a second time. "Just tell him the dice are still rolling. We don't know what we got. Maybe the star chart will not match mine--and then I'll be free." "Will pass that on." There was a period of silence, and then Trez started to squirm. "Why are you looking at me like that?" When there was no answer, he got to his feet, and brushed off his ass. And still those diamond eyes stared at him. "Hello? V--what the fuck." "You're running out of time," the Brother said in a low voice. "On two fronts." Trez's phone went off again, but he wouldn't have answered the damn thing even if he'd wanted to. "What are you talking about." "There are two females. And in both cases, you're running out of time." "I don't know what the fuck you're--" "Yeah, you do. You know exactly what I'm talking about." No, because there was only one ticking time bomb in his life, thank God. "Is Rhage going to wake up, or does he need a crash cart?" "This is not about him." "Well, it ain't about me either. Seriously, does he require medical help?" "No. And that is not what we're talking about." "Wrong pronoun, buddy. I'm not in this conversation." Besides, who knew, maybe if the s'Hisbe shit went his way, he could work on the situation with Selena. After all, if he wasn't the Anointed One, he was free to be . . . Shit, unless he gave up his work here, he'd still be a pimp. In recovery from his sex addiction. Who was going to need therapy to get over bad-destiny PTSD. Yeah, wow. Bachelor of the year over here. And hell, it wasn't like Selena seemed to miss him--and he didn't blame her. His past with all those human women, even though he'd stopped with the whoring as soon as he'd kissed her, was nothing romantic. It was downright disgusting. The months of celibacy hardly made up for his efforts to deliberately stain his physical body-- "I'm having a vision of you." V rubbed his eyes. "Look, unless you need me, I'ma--" "For you, the statue will waltz." As Trez's phone went off again, he found that the heebs had overtaken every square inch of his body. "With all due respect, I have no clue what you're talking about. Take care of that Brother for however long you need to, no one's going to disturb you here." "Be present. Even when you think it will kill you." "No offense, V, but I'm not hearing this. Later." FIVE In the training center's medical suite, Luchas, son of Lohstrong, lay on his back in a hospital bed with his torso and head propped up on pillows. His broken body was stretched out before him, rather like a landscape raked by bombs, scars and missing pieces transforming that which had previously functioned normally and well into a hodgepodge of painful, debilitating dysfunction. His left leg was the biggest problem. Ever since he had been rescued from that oil drum the lessers had imprisoned him in, he had been in a period of "rehabilitation." Odd word for what was really going on for him. The official definition, as he had looked it up on a tablet, was to restore someone or something to its former state of normal functioning. After so many months of physical and occupational therapy, however, he was confident in concluding that the nightly mental and bodily grind of movements both small and large was getting him no closer to his former self than it was successfully turning back time. The only things he knew for sure were: he was in pain; he still couldn't walk; and the four walls of this hospital room, that were all he had known since he had been locked in that cramped stasis, were driving him insane. Not for the first time, he wondered how his life had come to this. And that was stupid. He knew the facts oh, so well. The night of the raids, the slayers had infiltrated his family's regal home, as they had so many others. They had slaughtered his father and his mahmen , and done the same to his sister. When they had come to him, they had decided to spare his life so that he could be used as a guinea pig, a test for whether a vampire could be turned into a lesser . Incapacitating him, they had packed him away in an oil drum at some location and had stored him in the Omega's blood. There had been no experimentation, however. They had lost interest in him, or forgotten about him, or some other outcome had transpired. Unable to get free, he had suffered in the black viscous void, living but barely alive, waiting for his doom to come, for what had felt like an eternity. Unsure whether he had been in some way turned. His mind, once a thing he had held with great pride for its scholarly achievement and capacity, had become as crippled as his body, twisting in on itself, once clear pathways of thought tangling into a dark nightmare of paranoia and terror. And then his brother, the one he had never had time for, the one he'd looked down upon, the one he'd always felt so superior to . . . had arrived and become his savior. Qhuinn, the deviant with the blue eye and the green eye, the family embarrassment with the critical defect, the one who had been kicked out of the house and therefore not at home when the attack occurred, had turned out to be the only reason he had gotten free. That male had also turned out to be the strongest member of the bloodline, living and working with the Black Dagger Brotherhood, fighting with honor, defending the Race against the enemy with distinction. Whilst Luchas, the former golden boy, the heir to the mantle that no longer existed . . . was now the one with the defects. Karma? He lifted his now-mangled hand, staring at the stubs that were all that were left of four out of his five fingers. Probably. The knock upon the door was soft, and as he inhaled, he caught the scents on the other side. Bracing himself, he pulled the sheets up higher on his thin chest. The Chosen Selena wasn't alone, as she had been last evening. And he knew what this was about. "Come in," he said in a voice he still didn't recognize. Ever since his ordeal, his speech had been huskier, deeper. Qhuinn came in first, and for a moment, Luchas recoiled. Whenever he had seen his brother previously, the male had been in civilian garb. Not tonight. He'd clearly come fresh from the theater of conflict, black leather covering his powerful body, weapons strapped on his hips, his thighs . . . his chest. Luchas frowned as he noticed two particular fighting implements: His brother had a pair of black daggers upon his sternum, the handles facing down. Strange, he thought. It was his understanding that such blades were reserved only for members of the Black Dagger Brotherhood. Mayhap they allowed their soldiers to wear them as well now? "Hey," Qhuinn said. Behind him, the Chosen Selena was silent as a ghost, her white robes floating around her slender body, her dark hair woven up high on her head in the traditional style of her sacred order. "Greetings, sire," she said with an elegant bow. Glancing down at his leg, Luchas wanted desperately to get out of bed and pay her the respect she was due. Not an option. The limb was, as always, wrapped up tight in white gauze from toe to knee, and underneath that sterile dressing? Flesh that would not heal, the heat of the infection simmering like a pot of water on the verge of breaking into a boil. "So they tell me you've stopped feeding," Qhuinn said. Luchas looked away, wishing there was a window so that he could feign distraction. "Well?" Qhuinn demanded. "Is that true?" "Chosen," Luchas murmured. "Will you kindly permit us a moment alone?" "But of course. I shall await your summoning." The door shut silently. And Luchas found that all of the oxygen in the room appeared to have departed with the female. Qhuinn pulled a chair over to the bedside and sat down, propping his elbows on his knees. His shoulders were so wide, the leather jacket he had on creaked in protest. "What's going on, Luchas?" he asked. "This could have waited. You shouldn't have come in from fighting." "Not according to your vital signs." "So the doctor called you in, did she?" "She talked to me, yes." Luchas closed his eyes. "I had a . . ." He cleared his throat. "Before all of this, I'd had a vision of what I would be doing, what my future was going to be. I was . . ." "You were going to be like Father." "Yes. I wanted . . . all the things I had been taught defined a life as worth living." He lifted his lids and glared at his body. "This was not it. This . . . I am as a young is. People tending to my needs, bringing me food, washing me, wiping me. I am a brain trapped in a broken vessel. I do nothing for myself--" "Luchas--" "No!" He slashed his mutilated hand through the air. "Do not placate me with promises of some future health. It's been nine months, brother mine. Preceded by a captivity in Hell that lasted a century. I'm done with being a prisoner. Done with it." "You can't kill yourself." "I know. Then I do not enter the Fade. But if I don't eat, and I don't feed, that"--he jabbed a finger at his leg--"will get the best of me and carry me off. Not suicide. Death by sepsis--isn't that what Doc Jane is so worried about?" With a sharp motion, Qhuinn took off his jacket and let it land on the floor. "I don't want to lose you." Luchas put his hands over his face. "How can you say that . . . after all the cruelty in our household . . ." "Not your doing. That was the 'rents." "I participated." "You apologized." At least that was one thing he'd done right. "Qhuinn, let me go. Please. Just let me . . . go." The silence lasted so long, Luchas began to breathe easier, thinking that his argument had been accepted. "I know what it's like to not have hope," Qhuinn said roughly. "But destiny can surprise you." Luchas dropped his arms and laughed bitterly. "Not in a good way, I'm afraid. Not in a good way--" "You're wrong--" "Stop--" "Luchas. I'm telling you--" "I'm a fucking cripple!" "So was I." Qhuinn pointed to his eyes. "All my life." Luchas turned away, staring at the cream-colored wall. "There's nothing you can say, Qhuinn. It's over. I'm tired of fighting for a life I don't want." Another silence stretched out. Eventually, Qhuinn cursed under his breath. "You just need to feed and get your strength back--" "I will e'er refuse her vein. You might as well accept this now and not waste any further time on arguments I find unpersuasive. I am done." * * * As Selena waited in the corridor, exhaustion cloaked her in heavy folds that were no less real for being invisible. And yet she was antsy. Fidgeting with her robing, her hair, her hands. She did not like time that was unconsumed by her duties. With nothing to occupy herself, her thoughts and fears became too loud to contain within her skull. And yet she supposed there was a utility in this solitude. If she could stand to take advantage of it. What she needed to do as she stood out here was practice her good-bye. She should try to compose the words she wanted to speak before she ran out of time. She should get up the courage that was going to be required to say aloud that which was in her heart. She was going to follow through on the impulse to tell Trez good-bye. Of the many people she would leave behind, the Primale and her Chosen sisters, the Brothers and their shellans , Trez was the one whom she mourned already. Even though she hadn't seen him in . . . many, many nights. Even though she hadn't been alone with him in . . . many, many months. In fact, after they had ended their . . . relationship, or whatever it was, he had all but moved out of the mansion. No matter what time she had come or gone, she had not seen him face-to-face, and only on occasion caught a glimpse of his big shoulders as he headed in an opposite direction from her. That he was avoiding her had been a treacherous relief at first. It was going to be hardest leaving him, and harder still if they had continued their assignations. But lately, as her time grew shorter and shorter, she had come to decide that she needed to tell him. . . . Dearest Virgin Scribe, what was she going to say? Selena looked up and down the corridor, as if the perfect little monologue might obligingly march on by, at a pace leisurely enough so that she could memorize it. For all she knew, he had forgotten their time together. By his own admission, he was well versed in finding female diversions of the human variety. No doubt he had wiped the slate well clean. And then there was the reality of him being promised to another. She dropped her head into her hands. For her entire life, she had taken comfort and purpose from her sacred duty--so it was a shock to discover that as she drew closer and closer to her demise, the one thing she was driven to get right was her departure from a male who was not her own. With whom she had had an affair of the very shortest duration. There had been many nights that she had spent in her bedroom up at the Great Camp, attempting to convince herself that what had happened with Trez was pure folly, but now, as time was running out? A strange clarity was focusing her. It mattered naught the why. Only that she accomplished the goal of telling him how she felt before she died. She did not want to approach him too soon, however--rather embarrassing to pour out her soul to a potentially indifferent vessel and then linger for nights, weeks, months. If only her expiration came with a date, as if she were a carton of milk-- Qhuinn emerged from the hospital room, and the tight expression on his harsh face cleared away her tangle of preoccupation. "I'm so sorry," she murmured. "He is refusing again?" "I can't get through to him." "The will to live can be complicated." She reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. "Know that I am here for you both. If at any time he changes his mind, I shall come." "You are a female of worth, you really are." He gave her a quick, hard embrace and then stalked off down the corridor, as if he were leaving the facility. But then he paused in front of the closed door to Doc Jane's main examination room. After a moment, he pushed through. As she prayed there was a solution for the two brothers, another wave of exhaustion, the bigger brother of the one that had swept her off-kilter in front of Tohrment, shambled through her body, making her throw out a hand to the wall lest she fall down. Panic o'ertook her, her heart beating wildly in her chest, her head flooding with do this , do that , run away . What if this was an attack? What if this was her final-- "Hey, are you all right?" Training her wild eyes toward the sound, she found that Tohrment was coming out of the exam room. "I . . ." All at once, the whirling sensation receded unexpectedly, as if she had been approached by a mugger who, having been confronted by the Brother, had reconsidered his attack. Beneath her robing, she lifted one leg and then the other, finding none of the deadly resistance she was so terrified of. "Selena?" he said as he strode toward her. Leaning back against the wall, she went to brush over her chignon, and discovered that her forehead was damp with sweat. "I believe I shall tender myself up to the Sanctuary." She blew out her breath. "I shall refresh myself there. It is needed." "That is a great idea. But are you sure you'll be able to--" "I'm just fine." Closing her eyes, Selena concentrated and . . . ...with a twirl of the world and a spin of her molecules that her brain, rather than something in her body, initiated, she was relocated up to the Scribe Virgin's sacred, peaceful place. Instantly, sure as if she had taken a vein, her body was both eased and strengthened, but her mind did not follow suit--in spite of the lovely greens of the tree leaves and the blades of grass, the pastel colors of the tulips that were perpetually in bloom, the resplendent white marble of the dormitory, the Treasury, the Temple of the Sequestered Scribes, the Reflecting Pool, she felt pursued even though she was in arguable safety. Then again, having a mortal disease of indeterminate duration made it difficult to tell the difference between symptoms that were on the "normal" spectrum, and ones that had greater portent. She stayed where she arrived for quite some time, fearing that if she moved, she might trigger the expression of her disease. But eventually, she went upon a wander. The temperature of the still air was perfect, neither too hot nor too cold, and the sky overhead glowed a blue that was the color of a cornflower sapphire, and the baths gleamed under the strange ambient light . . . and she felt as though she were alone in a dark alley in downtown Caldwell. How much time? she wondered. How many more promenades did she have left? Shivering, she pulled her robing closer to her body as a familiar sense of sadness and impotence barged into her, crushing her chest, making it difficult to breathe. But she did not give in to tears. She had cried them all out some time ago, the why-me's, what-if's, and need-more-time's over now--proof that even boiling water could be gotten used to if you stayed within it long enough. She had come to terms with the reality that not only had she not been granted a full life, she had not really lived much a'tall--and so, yes, of course she must tender a good-bye to Trez. He was the closest she had gotten to something that was hers, something private rather than prescribed, attained, for however briefly, rather than assigned. In saying farewell to him, she was acknowledging that part of her life that had been her own. She would approach him on the morrow. To hell with pride . . . After a while, she discovered that her feet had taken her to the cemetery, and given the direction of her thoughts, she was not surprised. Chosen were essentially immortal, brought into existence long ago as part of the Scribe Virgin's breeding program where the strongest males were mated to the most intelligent females to ensure the survival of the species. In the beginning, the female breeding stock were quarantined up here, with the Primale serving as the sole male for insemination. As millennia passed, however, the role of the Chosen evolved such that they served the Scribe Virgin spiritually as well, recording the history of the Race as it unfolded upon the Earth, worshiping the Mother of the species, and serving as blood sources for unmated members of the Brotherhood--for whom some broke rank, and accepted mortality in exchange for love, freedom, the chance to bear young who would not be condemned to rigid roles. And then the current Primale had come along and relaxed even further the roles. Selena looked in through the graveyard's arched trellis; the marble statues of her sisters managed to loom o'er her in spite of the fact that they were quite some distance away and sequestered within their verdant bordering. For all the good the ancient breeding program had done, there had been one treacherous result from it, one prison that, however modern-thinking this Primale was, he could not exempt Selena and her sisters from. Deep in the cells of the Chosen, there lay dormant a critical weakness, a defect that came about precisely because of the limited pool of breeding that was supposed to make vampires invincible. A sacrifice to the intention of strength. Proof that the Mother of the Race could, and would, be curtailed by Mother Nature. The statues beyond filled her with terror. The elegant figures within the encircled acre were not actually made of stone--not in the sense that they had been carved from blocks. They were the frozen bodies of those who suffered from the same disease she had. These were dead bodies of her sisters who had walked the path her own feet trod upon, frozen in poses that they had chosen, sealed in a fine mineral plaster that, coupled with the strange atmospheric properties of the Sanctuary, preserved them for eternity. The trembling came over her anew as a wave-- --and once again, the quaking did not last. This time, however, the cessation did not usher in a return to normalcy. As if the sight of those frozen in the final stage had been some kind of inspiration for what ailed her, the large joints in her lower body locked tight, and then so did her spine, her elbows, her neck, her wrists. She became utterly fixed in place, immobile whilst fully aware, her heart continuing to beat, her eyes undimmed, her panicked mind hyper-aware. With a shout, she attempted to shake herself free of it all, tried to pull her legs up, fought to move her feet, her arms, anything. There was but a slight give on the left side, and that rendered her off balance. Upon a pitch and spin, she landed face-first on the ground, the fine filaments of grass getting into her nose, her mouth, her eyes. Knowing she was in danger of suffocating, she put all the strength she had into wrenching her head to the side so that her air passages were clear. And that would prove to be the last move she made. From her vantage point, she was a camera overturned, the odd-angle view of the Sanctuary like something projected upon a screen: blades of grass close-up and big as trees, with the Reflecting Pool's temple far in the distance, nothing but the roof showing. "Help . . ." she called out. "Help . . ." Straining against her bones, she tried to remember the last time she'd seen any of her sisters up here. It had been . . . Too many nights ago. And even then, no one came this far into the landscape, the cemetery being rarely visited at its peripheral site save for sacred remembrance rituals--that were not due to occur for months. "Help!" With a colossal pull, she fought against her body. But all that transpired was a twitch of her hand, the fingers dragging against the lawn. That was it. Tears flooded her eyes and her heart hammered and she wished absurdly that she had not e'er asked for an expiration date . . . From out of the depths of her emotions, an image of Trez's face--his almond-shaped black eyes, his cropped black hair, his dark skin--came to the forefront of her mind. She should have said her good-bye sooner. "Trez . . ." she moaned against the grass. As her consciousness receded, it was a door that shut softly, but solidly, blocking out the world around her . . . ...such that she was unaware, sometime later, when a small, silent figure approached her from behind, floating above the grass, a brilliant light spilling out from beneath flowing black robes. SIX SALVATORE'S RESTAURANT, OUTSIDE OF LITTLE ITALY, CALDWELL With a curse, iAm ended the call that had just come through on his cell phone and braced his upper body on the counter in front of him. After a moment of arrhythmia, he yanked on his wool peacoat, the black one with the forty in a hidden pocket on the left side and an eight-inch hunting knife stitched into the lining on the right. He might need the weapons. "Chef? You okay?" He glanced across the industrial kitchen at Antonio diSenza, his executive chef. "Sorry. Yeah. I gotta go--and I already started the mise en place ." He picked his cell phone back up. "You can finish it tomorrow." Antonio took off his toque and leaned a hip against the massive twelve-burner stovetop. All the equipment used for dinner service was cleaned up, the lingering steam from the dishwashers making the forty-by-twenty-foot kitchen seem like something out of the Amazon rain forest. Too quiet, iAm thought. And the brightly lit place smelled like bleach instead of basil. "Thank you, chef. Do you want me to stew the tomatoes before I leave?" "It's late. Go home. Good service tonight." Antonio wiped his face off with a blue-and-white dish towel. "Thanks to you, chef." "Lock up for me?" "Anything you want." With a nod, iAm left the kitchen and cut through the tiled delivery hall to the back exit. Outside, two of his waiters were loitering around their cars and smoking, their tuxedo jackets off, their red bow ties loose and hanging from their open collars. "Chef," one of them said, straightening. The other immediately came to attention. "Chef." Technically, he was more boss than chef here at Sal's, but he did do a lot of the cooking and recipe R & D himself, and the staff respected him for it. Hadn't always been that way. When he'd first stepped in to take over the Caldwell institution, he had not exactly been welcomed. Everyone from the waiters to the chefs to the busboys had assumed he was an African-American, and the deep pride and tradition of Italian ownership, cooking, and culture would have worked against anyone who didn't have Sicilian blood in his veins. As a Shadow, he understood the deal better than they knew. His people didn't want anything to do with vampires or symphaths --and certainly never those rats-without-tails humans. And Sal's was one of the most famous restaurants in Caldwell, not just a throwback to the Rat Pack era of the fifties, but a place that had actually served the Chairman of the Board and his slick boys. With its flocked wallpaper, hostess stand, and formal everything, it was Sardi's north--and had always been owned and managed by Italians. Over a year into his ownership, though, everything was all good. He had proved himself to everyone from the customers to the staff to the suppliers, not just stepping into Salvatore Guidette III's shoes, but filling them. Now? He was treated with respect that bordered on worship. Wonder what they'd think of him if they knew he wasn't from Africa, he did not identify as American--and more to the point, he wasn't even human. A Shadow was in their midst. "I'll see you tomorrow," he told the two men. "Yes, chef." "'Night, chef." iAm nodded at them and strode around the far corner. As soon as he was out of sight, he closed his eyes, concentrated, and dematerialized. When he re-formed, it was on the eighteenth floor of the Commodore, on the terrace of the condo he owned with his brother. The glass slider was wide-open, the long white drapes billowing in and out of the dark interior like ghosts trying and failing to escape. There had been two possible destinations for him: here or shAdoWs, and he'd picked their bachelor pad because of what was waiting inside. There was news from the s'Hisbe, and all things considered? iAm would rather be the messenger to Trez than the male they'd sent. Putting his hand into his coat, he found the butt of his gun and stepped inside. "Where are you." "Over here," came the deep, quiet response. iAm pivoted to the left, toward the white leather couch that was against the far wall. His keen eyes adjusted in a heartbeat, and the enormous black shape of the Queen's executioner came into focus. iAm frowned. "What's wrong?" The sound of ice cubes in a club glass twinkled across the silence. "Where's your brother?" "It's opening night at the club. He's busy." "He needs to answer his phone," s'Ex said roughly. "Has the Queen given birth?" "Yes. She has." Long silence. With nothing but the sound of those ice cubes to break it up. iAm inhaled and caught the scent of bourbon--as well as an acrid sadness that was so great, he released his hold on his gun. "s'Ex?" The executioner burst up from the sofa and strode over to the bar, his robes swirling after him like shadows thrown in a great wind. "Care to join me?" the male asked as he poured more into his glass. "Depends. What's your news and how does it affect my twin?" "You're going to need a drink." Right. Great. Without further comment, iAm walked over and joined s'Ex at the bar. It didn't matter what went into which glass, whether there were ice cubes, if there was a splash of tonic. He drank what turned out to be vodka down and poured some more. "So it wasn't the next Queen," he said. "The young that was born." "No." s'Ex went back over to the couch. "They killed it." "What." "It was . . . decreed. In the"--he waved his glass around over his head--"stars. So they killed the infant. My . . . daughter." iAm blinked. Drank some more. And then thought, Jesus, if the Queen could do that to an innocent young born of her own body, the s'Hisbe's leader was capable of anything. "So," s'Ex said more evenly. "Your brother is once again Her Majesty's prime concern. There is a mandatory period of mourning and I shall depart to join in that. But following the Enclosure Ceremony and its attendant rituals, I will be sent to collect the Anointed One." The Enclosure Ceremony was the formal entombing of the sacred dead, a right that was reserved for members of the royal family only. And the mourning would last a number of nights and days. After which . . . it appeared their reprieves had run out. "Shit," iAm breathed. "I am happy to inform your brother, but--" "No, I'll do it." "I thought so." iAm sat down in the chair next to the executioner. Looking over, he traced the male's features. s'Ex had come from worse than the lower class; the male had been born of servant parents but, through his brawn and smarts, had risen to seduce the Queen. It was an unprecedented ascension through the strata of social levels. "I'm sorry," iAm whispered. "Whatever for." "Your loss." "It was decreed. In the stars." The male's casual shrug was belied by the way his voice cracked. Before iAm could say anything further, s'Ex leaned in. "Just so we're clear, I will not hesitate to do whatever is necessary to bring your brother home and provide him bodily to the purpose for which he was born." "You've already said that." iAm likewise sat forward and locked eyes. "And get real, you don't actually believe that astrology bullshit, do you?" "It is our way." "And that means it's right?" "You are a heretic. So is your brother." "Lemme ask you something. Did you hear the infant scream? When they killed your kid, did you--" The attack was not unexpected, the executioner launching at him with such force his chair was blown backward and the pair of them ended up on the floor, s'Ex straddling iAm while shaking with rage. "I should kill you," the male growled. "Get angry with me if you want," iAm shot back. "But be honest, at least with yourself. You're not quite so duty-proud anymore. Are you." s'Ex shoved himself away and landed on his ass. Putting his head in his hands, he breathed hard, as if he were trying to pull a composure job--and losing the fight. "I'm not going to help the pair of you anymore," the executioner said hoarsely. "Duty demands to be served." iAm sat up and thought that the constellations under which his brother had been born were like a disease, something unvolunteered for, embedded in the life that was lived, a ticking time bomb waiting to go off. Trez's detonation had been put off for oh, so long. It would not be denied any longer, however. Not for the first time, iAm wished that he had been born before Trez. He would much rather have been the one cursed, the bearer of the burden. It wasn't that he wanted to be imprisoned for all his life, with nothing but repeatedly trying to impregnate the heir to the throne for a pastime, but he was different from Trez. Or maybe he was fooling himself. What he was clear on? He would do anything he had to in order to save his brother. And he was prepared to get really damn creative. * * * By the time Trez came back to check the private lounge, Rhage had woken up from his coma, trance, nap, whatever it was. And although V's verbal diarrhea had been a real ball slapper, as the owner of the club and the guy who'd attacked first, Trez felt like he needed to make sure the Brother was okay. "How we doing in here," he said as he reentered. As Hollywood slowly sat up, it was clear he was trying to reenter reality, returning from some mental destination that had been far from the club. "Hey, Sleeping Beauty," V muttered as he took out a hand-rolled and a lighter. "You back?" "You can't smoke in here," Trez said. Vishous cocked a brow. "What're you going to do? Kick me out?" "Don't want to get shut down on my first night." "You got bigger problems than the Department of Public Health." Fuck you, V, Trez thought. "You need something?" he asked Rhage. "I got all kinds of things that don't have alcohol in them." "Nah, I'm all right." The Brother rubbed his face and then looked over. "So you've bonded with that Chosen, huh--" "I even have food, if you want--" "Come on, man." Rhage shook his head. "You just tried to eat my lunch." Trez glanced at his watch. "Actually, it was over an hour ago." "I mean, whatever--what's the problem? Why don't you get with her." "You're still a little pale." "Fine, fine. You wanna hit the mute button, that's your business." Cue. Awkward. Silence. OMG, this was the best fucking night, Trez thought. What next, a meteor hitting Caldwell? Nah, probably just his club. "Sooooo . . . I'll take the drugs," V said, pocketing the cellophane packets. "You get any more--" The third goddamn flash in the room was bright enough to blind, and Trez put up an arm to cover his face as he fell back into a defensive stance. "Oh, fuck!" one of the Brothers barked. Bomb? Deadly slayer retaliation? All that new electrical wiring failing on an epic scale? Or maybe he shouldn't have given the universe a suggestion about the whole meteor thing. As Trez blinked the spots in his vision clear, it turned out to be a case of None of the Above. A figure was standing where the great burst of light had flared--a figure that was about as impressive as a garden gnome gone Goth: Whatever it was was four feet tall, covered from head to foot in black robing . . . and evidently the source of illumination: From beneath the hem, brilliant light glowed. Like maybe La Perla had gone Las Vegas strip under there. Abruptly, Trez stopped breathing as he put the math together and came up with the impossible. Holy shit, that was the-- "Hello, Mother," Vishous said dryly. --Scribe Virgin. "I have come for a purpose." The female voice was hard as crystal and just as clear. "And it must be served." "Really." V took a drag on his hand-rolled. "You gonna take candy from a baby? Or is it kick-a-puppy night?" The figure turned Her back on the Brother. "You." Trez recoiled, his head banging into the wall. "Excuse me?" "You're not supposed to make inquiries of Her," V bit out. "Just FYI." "Me?" Trez repeated. "What do you want me for?" "You are summoned by one of mine own." "You taking him to Disneyland?" V muttered. "Lucky you, Trez--but She's probably only tight with Maleficent, the Shadow Man, Cruella--" "How do you know so much Disney shit?" Rhage cut in. "Come with me," the Scribe Virgin said, extending her robed arm. "Me?" Trez blurted a third time. "You have been summoned." "Selena . . . ?" he breathed. Rhage shook his head. "Should I just get the marshmallows? 'Cuz you are about to get toasted for those questions, buddy." That was the last thing Trez heard before a swirling vortex of energy claimed him and carried him off to God only knew . . . ...where. As the sense of having been transported disappeared, he steadied himself on his feet with a shout, both arms punching out from his torso, his head spinning so badly he figured he was going to dreidel it to the ground. A sudden awareness of his surroundings stopped all that. Parkland. He'd been relocated to some kind of postcard-perfect parkland, rolling green lawns interspersed with top-heavy trees, blooming flower beds and, in the distance, white marble buildings of Greco-Roman extraction. Except the horizon struck him as all wrong. A forest boundary offered a verdant stretch of green off in the distance, but there was an unnatural quality to it, the same trees seeming to mark the acreage, as if nature were on a repeat pattern. And overhead, the sky was likewise an all-wonky, its milky brightness appearing to have no distinct source, like there was just an enormous fluorescent light up there. "Where am I?" When there was no answer, he twisted around. The small robed figure was gone. Great. Now what did he do? Later, he would wonder what exactly made him turn and start walking . . . then running. A noise? His name? Some instinct . . . ? He found the body on the far side of a rise in the undulating ground. Whoever it was was facedown, in the traditional garb of a Chosen female, the soles of the sandals-- "Selena!" he shouted. "Selena . . . !" Skidding to a halt, Trez dropped to his knees. "Selena?" Her black hair was a mess, the traditional twist of her chignon ratted and sloppy, falling over her face. As he lifted the tangle, her skin was paper white. "Selena . . ." He wasn't sure whether she was injured or had collapsed, and with no medical training, he had no clue what to do. "Breathing, are you breathing?" He put his ear down on her back. Then he leaned across her and took her arm to check for a-- "Oh . . . God." The limb was stiff, as if rigor mortis had set in. Except . . . when he placed his two fingers on the inside of her wrist, there was a pulse. Selena moaned and her foot twitched. Then her head jerked against the grass. "Selena?" His heart pounded so hard, he could barely hear anything. "What happened?" No reason to ask if she was okay. That was a resounding fucking no. "Are you hurt?" More moaning as she seemed to struggle against something. "I'm going to roll you over." Bracing himself, he took her arm and began to try to move her--but he had to stop. Her position did not change, her contoured limbs and stiffened torso were so rigid, it was as if he were dealing with a statue made of stone-- "Oh, shit!" At the sound of Rhage's voice, Trez jerked his head up. V and Rhage had materialized out of nowhere, and while he had always liked the two of them, at the moment, he could have kissed the pair of warriors. "You gotta help me," he barked. "I don't know what's wrong with her." The Brothers knelt down, and Vishous went for that wrist, checking the pulse. "She can't seem to move. But I don't know why?" "She has a pulse," V murmured. "She's breathing. Shit, I need my stuff." "Can we get her to . . . where the fuck are we?" Trez demanded. "Yeah, I can transport her--" "No one moves her but me," he heard himself growl. The position paper was hardly a bene in this situation. The bonded male in him, however, didn't give a fuck. Conversation rolled out between the Brothers, but damned if he heard any of it. His brain was tripping over itself, snippets of the past couple of months filtering through as he tried to look for signs that there had been something wrong with her. There had been nothing that he'd seen, or heard of through the grapevine. If she'd only collapsed, it might have been the result of offering her vein too much, but that wouldn't explain the fact that her body had seized up in the way it had--she seemed to have literally turned to stone. Someone tapped him on the shoulder. Rhage. "Give me your hand." Trez put his palm out and felt himself get lifted to his feet. Before they could talk at him, he said, "I have to carry her. She's mine--" "We know." Rhage nodded. "Nobody's going to touch her without your permission. We need you to pick her up--then V will help you both back, okay? G'on now, gather your female." Trez's arms were shaking so badly, he wondered whether he'd be able to hold her in his arms. But as soon as he bent down, a profound sense of purpose wiped away all the nerves and trembling: The goal of getting her to the training center's clinic gave him a physical power and a mental clarity that he had never known before. He would die in the effort. God, she weighed so little. Less than he remembered. And beneath the robes he could feel her hard bones, as if she were wasting away. Just before that whirlpool effect overtook him again, his eyes shifted to a thick row of stocky trees that were broken by a trellis. On the far side of the arch, there was a courtyard of some kind in which marble statues of females in various poses were set up on pillars. Had she been on the way there? For some reason, the sight of those statues terrified him to the core. SEVEN Standing in front of the long mirror in her bedroom, Layla tried to pull the supposedly loose coat around herself, but getting what seemed like its copious folds across her belly was like asking a throw blanket to cover a king-size bed. Looking down, she could no longer see her feet, and for once in her life, her breasts were big enough to create some serious cleavage beneath her robing. Given the breadth of her, it was hard to believe she still had months to go with the pregnancy. Why couldn't vampires be more like humans? Those rats without tails took nine months to do this. Her species? Try eighteen. Glancing over her shoulder, she checked herself out in the dresser's mirror across the way. According to the various human birthing shows she'd watched on TV, she was supposed to feel all aglow. Revel in her body's changes. Embrace the miracle that was conception, incubation, and impending expulsion. Guess humans really were a different race. The only positive thing she took from this experience--and arguably it was the only thing that mattered--was that her young was active and seemingly healthy. Regular checkups with Doc Jane had indicated that things were progressing with perfect order, milestones met and surpassed, stages entered and departed with grace. That was it for the positives. The rest of the experience? No, thank you kindly. She detested the way she had to heave herself to her feet. The big melons sitting on her chest made it hard to breathe. The swelling in her ankles and hands turned elegant limbs into tree trunks. And then there were the surging hormones. . . . That made her want to do things she felt pregnant females really shouldn't do. Especially given who she wanted to do them with-- "Stop it. Just stop it." Dropping her head into her hands, she struggled with the piercing guilt that had been her shadow these past months, dogging her close as her own skin, heavy as a suit of chain mail. Unlike the pregnancy, which had a termination date for all the discomfort and worry, there was no relief to be had with her other situation. No terminal event--at least not one that came with any joy. She had made her bed, however. Now she must lie in it. Going over to her door, she cracked the panels and listened for footsteps. Voices. The sound of vacuum cleaners. When there was nothing, she stepped out into the hall of statues and looked left and right. A quick check of her watch told her she had about an hour and a half before dawn would force her return to the Brotherhood mansion. Stepping out, she wanted to jog, but she could barely manage a fast walk as she headed in the direction of the staff quarters. Her route to the exit was preplanned and well-utilized, and she had the timing down to a science. Six minutes for her to get down the back stairs and out into the garage. Two minutes to the car that she'd been given to use and had told people she was taking out on a regular basis to "clear her head." Sixteen-minute drive into the tracks of farmland east of town. Two-minute walk up that field to the maple tree. Where she would find-- "Layla?" She tripped over her own feet as she wheeled around. Blay was at the head of the hall of statues and in his fighting dress, his leathers stained and his face exhausted. "Ah--hello," she replied. "Have you come off the field?" "Are you heading out?" Blay frowned. "It's awful late." "Just for a short drive," she said smoothly. "To, you know, clear my head." Dearest Virgin Scribe, she hated the lying. "Well, I'm glad I caught you. Qhuinn's not doing so well." Layla frowned and walked back toward the fighter. The father of her young was one of the most important people in her life, as was Blay. The mated pair were her family. "Why?" "Luchas." Blay stripped his dagger holster off his chest. "He's refusing to feed, and Qhuinn's just hit the wall with it." "It's been almost a month." "Longer." Ordinarily, if a healthy male vampire took the vein of a Chosen, he could easily go several months between feedings, depending on his activity level, stress, and general health. However, for someone who was as ill as Luchas? Much more than a week or two could quickly become a death sentence. "Where is Qhuinn now?" "Down in the billiards room. They called me off the streets early because . . ." Blay shook his head. "Yeah, he's not doing well." Layla closed her eyes and put her hand on her belly. She had to go. She had to stay . . . "I have to take a shower." Blay glanced over at the door to the room he and Qhuinn shared. "Is there any way you could sit with him until I get down there?" "Oh, yes, of course." Blay reached out and squeezed her shoulder. "You're going to need to help me with him. This is getting . . ." "I know." She took off her coat and didn't bother putting it back in her room. She just tossed it on the floor in front of her own door. "I'll head down right now." "Thank you. God, thank you." They embraced for a split second and then she waddled off, heading for the grand staircase and the male who had given her the most priceless gift of this child she carried within her womb. There was nothing she would not do for Qhuinn or his hellren . She was, however, very aware of the male who was waiting for her at this very moment, under that maple tree, out in that field. Her conscience tortured her, especially as she passed by the open double doors of the King's study. Through the regal doorway, she saw the throne behind the great carved desk . . . and was reminded of why she had struck the deal she had. Selling her body to the head of the Band of Bastards had been done to keep all of them safe here at the mansion. The deal had not yet been consummated on account of her pregnancy, however--something that had surprised her at first. Xcor was a brutal warrior, one who not only had the reputation, but the actual character, for doing harm to others--and enjoying it. And yet with her, he seemed content to bide his time before he collected his due. On a regular basis, they met beneath that tree and talked. Or sometimes simply sat in silence, his eyes roaming all over her as if . . . Well, sometimes she thought that he seemed to take strength from just staring at her, as if the visual connection was a kind of vein from which he needed to draw regularly. Other times, she knew he was picturing her naked--and she told herself to be offended by that. Scared by that. Worried over that. Lately, however, a strange curiosity about him had taken root under her fear, a curiosity tied to his powerful body, his narrowed eyes . . . his lips, even though the upper one was ruined . . . She blamed it on her hormones--and tried not to dwell on the urges. The only thing she needed to keep in mind was that as long as she continued to meet with him, he had sworn on whatever honor he had that he would not raid the compound. After all, the only reason he knew where they were was because of her. Indirectly, perhaps, but it felt like the security leak was solely her fault. The whole thing was a deal with a devil, executed to keep those whom she cared for most safe. She hated the lies, the double life, the guilt . . . and the fear that sooner or later she would have to live up to her end of the bargain. But there was nothing she could do. And tonight, her family had to come before her fraud. * * * Excerpted from The Shadows by J. R. Ward All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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