THE ROOM WAS black, utterly black, like being flung into blindness, nothingness, like a cave. Chimera released my arm. It was like being cut adrift, lost in the blackness. I stumbled in the darkness. I reached out blindly to catch myself and touched something. I grabbed at it, trying to hold on to something, anything. Then the flesh gave under my hand, and I realized it was human and not where it should have been. It was too high up to be someone's calf. I jerked back, and something else brushed my back. I let out a little squeal, hands out, stumbling in the dark, and smacked into something else that swung as I hit it. I realized whatever it was, was hanging from the ceiling. I moved away from it and ran face first into the next surprise. The solid smack of flesh on flesh let me know it was a body. The scream let me know it was still alive. I'd hit hard enough that the man swung into me again, and I tried to back away and bumped into another one. That one didn't make any noise. I kept my hands out in front of me and fought to get free of them, but my hand kept touching bodies and body parts--hips, thighs, groins, buttocks. I moved faster, trying to force my way out of the forest of hanging bodies, but moving fast made them start to swing and crash into me. Screams came out of the dark, as if I'd started them all bumping into each other. Men screaming in the dark; by the sound of the voices I knew there were no women. One body hit me hard enough that I fell, and dangling feet brushed against me. I tried to crawl away from them, but they were everywhere, touching me, brushing me, some struggling against my back. I lay down on the floor trying to get away, to get clear, swatting at them with my hands, frantic not to be touched. I crawled on my back, using my feet and hands to try and get under them, but their heights were all different, and I couldn't get free of them.
I felt a scream building in my gut and knew if I screamed once I'd just keep on. My hand landed in a pool of something warm and liquid, and it stopped me. Even in the dark I knew what blood felt like. This was probably the point where most people would have definitely started screaming, but somehow the feel of the blood calmed me. I knew about blood and letting it out of a man until he died. I pressed my hand into that still-warm pool and it steadied me.
I lay back on the floor with my hand in blood and my head resting in God knows what and relearned how to breathe. If I lay very still and didn't try and move, the feet didn't touch me, nothing touched me. So I lay in the dark and closed my eyes and tried to use my other senses, because my eyes were useless. I've got pretty good night vision, but even a cat needs some light, and there was nothing, nothing but the darkness.
The chains creaked as the bodies still swung heavily above me. There were tiny air currents. A warm drop hit my cheek. All the movement had started fresh bleeding from someone. I kept my eyes closed and forced myself to take steady, even breaths. One man was screaming, "God, God, God!" over and over again, as fast as he could draw breath. He'd lost it, and I didn't blame him. I'd come damn close myself, and I wasn't hanging nude from the ceiling, bleeding.
Chimera's voice came out of the darkness. "Shut up, shut the fuck up!"
The man stopped screaming almost instantly, but his breath came in whimpers, as if he had to make some sound.
"Anita," Chimera said. "Anita, where are you?"
Even he couldn't see in the pitch blackness, and the smell of blood, sweat, and flesh masked my odor apparently. Great, he didn't know where I was. I wished I could think of something good to do with that information. But I just lay in the dark on the foul floor, my hand in the pool of cooling blood, another drop of fresh, warm blood hitting my cheek, and did nothing. All I had to do was stall until the cavalry arrived. I'd tried talking to Chimera and that hadn't worked so well. I'd try silence.
"Anita, Anita, answer me."
I didn't answer. If he wanted to find me he could damn well turn on the light. I thought I wanted some light. But then I thought maybe I didn't really want to see what hung above me in this room. Maybe it would be one of those sights that blasts the mind, one you never really recover from. But I badly wanted to see something, almost anything. I lay in the dark, the way I used to huddle under the sheets as a child, afraid of the dark, afraid of what I could not see.
"Answer me, Anita!" He screamed it this time, voice harsh.
A male voice from above me. "Answer him if you can, you don't want him angry with you."
Another man gave a sound like a choking laugh. It sounded thick, as if there were blood in his mouth and throat.
The dark was suddenly full of voices saying, "Answer him, answer him." It was like the wind had found a voice and was giving me instructions in the dark.
Another drop of blood fell on my cheek and began to slide slowly down my skin. I didn't wipe it off. I didn't move. I was afraid any movement would let Chimera know where I was, and I didn't want that.
"Shut up!" Chimera yelled, and I heard him move farther into the room. The voices above me fell silent. But I could still feel them hanging there like weight above me, like a rock ceiling pressing down on me. I took a deep breath, let it out slowly. My claustrophobia was trying to scream in my head that I couldn't breathe, but it was a lie. The dark did not have weight to it; that was the fear talking. If Chimera wanted to let me lie in the dark for the next hour until help arrived, I'd let him. I would not panic. It wouldn't help anything for me to start crawling frantically across the floor with feet brushing my back. If I did that, I would start screaming, and I wouldn't stop for a long, long time.
The blood oozed along my neck into my hair, and I kept my eyes closed and concentrated on breathing shallow, quiet.
"Answer me, Anita, or I will start cutting on the men hanging above you," Chimera said. His voice was closer, but not too close. He was still outside the forest of hanging bodies.
I still didn't answer.
"You don't believe me? Let me prove it to you."
A man screamed, high, piteous, hopeless.
"Don't," I said.
"Don't hurt them."
"They're nothing to you, not your animal, not your friend. Why do you care?"
"Orlando King knows the answer to your question."
"I'm asking you," Chimera said.
"You already know the answer," I said.
"No, no! Orlando knows the answer. I don't. I don't understand. Why do you care about strangers?" The other man screamed again.
"Stop it, Chimera."
"Or what?" he asked. "What will you do if I don't stop? What will you do if I stand here in the dark and cut pieces off this man? How will you stop me?"
The man was shrieking, "No, don't, not that, nooo!" The scream fell off, which meant the man was either dead, or he'd fainted. I hoped he'd fainted, but either way I couldn't do much about it.
"Can you taste the fear, Anita? Roll it on your tongue like the strong spice it is."
Right then my mouth was so dry I couldn't have tasted a damn thing. But I could sense their fear, smell it on them. All of them were afraid now, fresh terror, pouring out of their skin. "It's easy to scare people in the dark, Chimera. Everybody's afraid of the dark."
I avoided the question. "I was told if I came down here that you'd let Cherry and Micah go."
"I did tell Zeke that."
And in that moment I knew he had no intention of letting them go. It shouldn't have surprised me, but it did. Had I really expected fair dealings from him? Maybe. It offended some part of me to know that he wasn't going to do what he'd said. It meant all deals were off. I'd gone from having something to bargain with, to nothing. Just on a whim, he could kill Cherry and Micah before help arrived. My pulse was speeding up again, and I fought to keep my breathing steady. I took my hand out of the cooling pool of blood. I might as well move. He'd locate me soon through my voice.
I laid my hands on my stomach and tried to think of what I could do, unarmed, against a man who outweighed me by more than a hundred pounds and was strong enough to break through brick walls. Nothing useful came to mind. Maybe violence wasn't the way to stall. What did that leave? Sex? Sweet reason? Witty repartee? Dear God, a little help here.
"You don't feel the need to talk, do you?" he asked, voice calmer than it had been, more "normal."
"Not unless I have something to say."
"That's unusual in a woman. Most of them can't stand the thought of silence. They talk and talk and talk." He was sounding calmer. In fact, he sounded like we should have been sitting across a table in some nice restaurant on a blind date. Since we were in a pitch-black torture room with blood on the floor, the matter-of-fact voice was more frightening than the ranting had been. He was supposed to rant and rave, but calm small talk, that was really crazy.
His voice got calmer, but it never sounded exactly like Orlando King's. It was as if there was another voice coming out of him, another personality, maybe. I didn't know, and I didn't care. If it kept him from cutting people up, then yea.
"Would you like to see your leopard now?" the calm voice asked.
The lights exploded across my vision, and I was as blind with the brilliance as I had been with the dark. I put a hand over my eyes to shield them, then slowly lowered it as my spotty vision cleared.
I was staring up at a pair of feet, legs. My gaze went up the line of the man's body to find fresh claw marks on his buttocks and thighs. Another drop of blood trailed from his bare foot to land on my hand. My gaze went slowly to the next pair of legs, and the next, and the next ... Dozens of men hung like obscene ornaments. For the first time I let myself wonder, was Micah hanging somewhere in the forest of bodies?
"Do you want to stand up or are you enjoying the view from there?" The calm voice spoke from only about two feet away from me. It made me jump badly. I rolled my head back to see Chimera standing two hanging men away from me.
"I'll stand, if you don't mind."
"Allow me to help you." He pushed one of the hanging men to the side like you'd move a drape, like the pale blue eyes weren't open, staring, like the man didn't shudder as Chimera touched him.
I was on my feet, carefully avoiding the body nearest me, before Chimera could push aside another one and help me stand. I really didn't want him to touch me.
Chimera's eyes had bled back to human gray. His face was blank, ordinary. That nearly diabolical smile was gone, but I wasn't looking at Orlando King either. It was somebody else. The question was, was the new personality going to be more helpful or more dangerous?
He pushed back the bodies like holding open a door so I could walk out. I let him do it, but I kept my attention on him, as if I expected him to try and grab me. I guess I did. When I stepped out into a clear space a breath went out of me that I hadn't even known I was holding.
Chimera stepped beside me, and I moved just a little away from him. Movement caught my attention but it was only the hanging men swinging slowly from where Chimera had moved them. All of them bore marks of some kind; claws, blades, burns. One of them was missing his legs below the knees. I turned back to the man in front of me, and I knew I looked pale. I couldn't help that. I hadn't screamed. I hadn't panicked, much. I couldn't control the involuntary stuff. I was having enough trouble with the voluntary.
"Where are my leopards?" I asked, and my voice sounded almost normal. I got a zillion brownie points for that.
"Your leopard is here," he said and moved to a heavy white curtain that took up almost all of the near wall. He pulled on a cord and the curtain parted. Behind it was an alcove, and Cherry was chained by her wrists and ankles to the stone wall. A leather ball gag filled her mouth. Her pale eyes were wide. Tears stained the dried blood on her face. Her face looked untouched, but the blood had come from somewhere.
"She's healed everything we did to her," Chimera said. Abuta the snake appeared at Chimera's side, as if he'd been summoned. The bigger man stroked the snake man's head, like you'd pet a dog that you liked a lot. "Abuta has shown quite a talent for this sort of thing."
I swallowed hard and tried not to get angry. Anger wouldn't help anyone. Help was coming. I just had to stall until it got here. I glanced around the room. There were men chained to the wall all the way around. I didn't recognize any of them. There was a certain uniformity to them--youngish, or at least not old, well built, some slender, some muscular, all races, all physical types, all attractive. I wondered how long it had taken Narcissus to find this many good-looking men?
Micah wasn't along the wall. The room in the Polaroid had looked more like the alcove that Cherry was in. I glanced at the still unopened part of the curtain. Was he behind there?
I had moved closer to Cherry without realizing it, because she made a small movement in her chains, and I startled. I turned back to find her looking at Chimera, not me. He hadn't moved as far as I could see, but something he'd done had frightened her, and I finally realized what. His eyes has gone animal again, and that eerie smile was back. It was Chimera again, and call it a hunch, but I was betting he did most of the pain work for the other two personalities.
"Unchain her," I said, like I was positive he'd do what I asked. I so wasn't sure.
He reached out a hand towards her face, and I grabbed his wrist. "Unchain her."
He smiled that unpleasant smile at me. "I'd hate to lose one of the only women we've got up here. Narcissus may go both ways, but he keeps the women out of his pack. Real spotted hyenas are matriarchal. He's afraid if he brings women in that instinct will take over and he'll lose his pack, because he's not woman enough to keep it."
"I always enjoy learning new zoological facts," I said, "but let's unchain Cherry and get her out of here."
"But what of your lover? What of Micah?"
I met those mismatched animal eyes and fought to keep the fear out of my face. "I figured you were saving him for last, a sort of finale." My voice had gone from calm to jaded. From the tone, you'd have thought that it didn't matter to me one way or another, but I couldn't stop my pulse from jumping in my neck.
His smile deepened, and I watched a human expression fill those animal eyes. Anticipation, anticipation of my pain, I think.
He opened the curtain slowly, revealing Micah chained by his wrists and ankles to the wall, just like Cherry. But unlike her, his wounds hadn't healed. The right side of his face had been beaten badly. His eye was swollen completely shut, encrusted with dried blood. That delicate curve of jaw was so swollen it didn't look real. The swelling had twisted his lip to one side. It was so swollen that I could see the pink inside of his mouth and glimpse teeth where his mouth no longer closed completely.
I heard a small sound, and it was me. It was close to a sob, and I couldn't afford that. If Chimera knew how much this cut me up, he'd just hurt Micah more. I couldn't stop myself from touching him. I had to touch him, because only then would he be real to me. Seeing was never quite believing with me.
I touched my fingertips to the whole side of his face. His good eye fluttered open. There was a moment of relief, then I think he saw Chimera, and his eye widened. He tried to speak but couldn't open his mouth. He made small hurt noises.
Chimera touched his bruises, lightly, but Micah winced anyway. I grabbed his wrist, as I had for Cherry, and moved my body in between the two men. "Unchain him."
"I broke his jaw personally for lying to me."
"He didn't lie to you," I said.
"He told me you were going to be a panwere like me, but you're not." He leaned into me sniffing. "I'd smell it if you were. You're something, and it's not human. It smells of leopard and wolf." He took a deep breath just above the skin of my face. "But it also smells like vampire. You aren't what I am, Anita." He looked at Micah. "He was just trying to keep me from hurting him or his cats after he saved you from my people, when they came to your house."
"So I'm not a panwere. Does that mean you don't want me for your mate?"
He laughed then. "Oh, I don't know, I enjoy rape, adds spice." I think he said it just to shock me, but I wasn't sure. Had he raped Cherry? Had he touched her? I tried to keep the thought off my face, because with the thought came a white, hot wash of anger.
"Oh, you don't like that idea, do you?" He tried to touch my hair, and I stepped away from him out of the alcove so I'd have room to maneuver. Help was on its way, but a glance at my watch showed another twenty minutes of the hour still left. Maybe the troops would come sooner, maybe they wouldn't. I couldn't afford to count on it.
He didn't try and follow me, just let me inch away. "I could rape you in front of Micah. I don't think either of you would like that. Though truthfully I might prefer it the other way around. Orlando is homophobic. I wonder why that would be?"
I spoke as I inched down the curtain, drawing him away from Cherry and Micah. "We dislike most in others what we hate most in ourselves," I said.
"Bravo," Chimera said. "Yes, I keep a lot of Orlando safe from Orlando."
"That must be hard," I said.
"What?" he asked.
"Keeping secrets when you share the same body."
He followed me slowly around the edge of the wall. "At first he didn't want to know what we did, but lately he's become ... unhappy with us. I think he'd have done himself harm if I hadn't stopped him." Chimera motioned towards the hanging men. "He woke up in the dark in the middle of them. He screamed like a girl." Chimera put his fingers to his lips and said, "Oops, excuse me, you didn't scream at all. He screamed like a baby until I came and rescued him, but he didn't seem all that grateful. Like he blamed me." Chimera looked puzzled, and again I had that impression that he was listening to things I couldn't hear.
He stared at me. "Do you hear that?"
I widened my eyes at him and shrugged. "What?"
He looked off past the hanging men, and I looked around for a weapon. All this damage and cutting people up, there had to be a blade around here somewhere. But the room stretched white and empty, except for the chained men. Weren't there supposed to be pokers, maces, fucking weapons? What kind of dungeon was this, victims but no instruments of torture?
I heard it then, screams, fighting. The battle was on. Though it was still distant. The good news was that help was on its way, the bad news was that Chimera knew what was happening and I was alone with him. Alright, not alone, but nobody chained to the stone was going to be able to help me.
He turned a face so full of rage to me that it was almost bestial, without any shifting of form.
"Why did you take all the alphas?" I asked. I was still going to try and keep him talking; it was all I had.
"So I could rule their groups." His words came out low and growling through clenched teeth.
"Your snakes are anacondas. The alpha you took was a cobra. You can't rule over a type of snake you're not."
"Why not?" he asked, and he started to stalk towards me, still in human form, but with that tense grace that is more animal than human.
I didn't have a good answer for that one. "Are the alphas alive?"
He shook his head. "I hear fighting, Anita. What have you done?"
"I haven't done anything."
"You're lying. I can smell it."
Okay. Maybe truth would help. "The sounds you hear are the cavalry riding to the rescue."
"Who?" he asked, voice almost pure growl. He was still stalking towards me, and I was still backing up.
"Rafael and his wererats, probably the werewolves by now."
"There are hundreds of werehyenas in this building. Your cavalry cannot get through them in time to save you."
I shrugged, afraid to tell the truth, afraid he'd take it out on the werehyenas' lovers. And I didn't dare try to lie; he'd smell it. So I just kept backing up. We were almost to the door. If I could get it open, maybe he'd chase me. Maybe I could lead him into an ambush of my own.
Abuta moved in front of the door. I'd forgotten him, and that was careless. Not fatal, not yet, but careless.
I pressed my back to the wall so I could keep an eye on both of them. Abuta stayed by the door, the message clear that if I kept away from the door he'd keep away from me. Chimera, on the other hand, kept stalking closer. I was between a panwere and a snake--not actually a rock and a hard place, but close.
Chimera flowed into his other form. I've seen shapeshifters change for years, and it was always violent, or messy. But this, this was almost ... breathtaking. Scales flowed over him as if they were water. There was no clear fluid, no blood, nothing but the change, as if he stepped from one form into another, like Clark Kent changes into Superman. It was so quick it was almost instantaneous. He didn't even miss a step. His clothes folded away like the petals of a flower falling to the earth, and he stepped out in the snake form of Coronus. The big snake man stopped moving. He froze in that stillness that reptiles love. I froze when he did. He finally turned his head so he could look at me with a copper eye. It must have played hell with his depth-perception having to do that.
"I remember you. Chimera told us to kill you." He looked around at the dark room and said slowly, "Where are we?"
Then he bent over as if in pain, and the next form was human but not Orlando's body. He was Boone and before Boone's eyes had lost their confused look, he was a lion man. For a second I thought it would be Marco, but of course he couldn't be both Marco and Coronus; not even Chimera could pull that one off.
He was golden, tawny, muscled, masculine, with a mane around his half-human face that was almost black. The claws on his hands were like black daggers.
"This form is truly mine," he growled. "The snake and the bear are like Orlando, they still believe in themselves. But I am all there is, and there is nothing but Chimera." He reached for me, and I bolted. I ran towards the hanging men, because I knew they'd slow him down, then turned at the last second, so fast I fell on the ground and skittered away on hands and feet like a monkey. They would slow him down, but he'd cut them up to get at me. I couldn't let that happen.
He cornered me on the far side of the room--farthest away from the door and Micah. I think he could have caught me sooner but he wasn't rushing. I don't know why. The sounds of fighting were closer, but not close enough.
Chimera came at me like grace contained in violence, a mountain of tawny muscle and fur that gleamed in the lights. He opened his mouth and roared, a sound I'd never heard outside of a zoo before. That coughing roar made me stand a little straighter. Zeke and Bacchus had promised to come get us out of here before the rest of the fighting started. They'd failed, or lied, but I wasn't going down without a fight, and I wasn't going down screaming. I watched him come towards me, like a slow-motion nightmare, beautiful and terrible, like some kind of beastial angel.
Suddenly, the ardeur rose inside me like a warm wave, spilling along my skin, drawing a gasp from my throat. The last time it had risen because of Richard's nearness. This time ... maybe it was just time to feed again. The moment I thought feed I knew Jean-Claude had awakened, and with his rising, down in the depths of the Circus, the ardeur had risen inside me.
Chimera stopped where he was, shaking his great maned head. "What is that?" he growled.
My voice came breathy. "The ardeur."
"The ardeur, the fire, the need," I said. With each word the ardeur grew like a weight, and that weight brushed against my beast. It spilled upward from that tight curled place inside me, and the two separate heats rose up inside, spilling along my body, drawing me forward towards Chimera. I wasn't afraid of him anymore, because I could smell his fear. You never had to be afraid of anything that was afraid of you. Part of me knew that wasn't true, that a scared man with a gun is more likely to shoot you than a brave one, but the parts of me that were able to think were sliding away, leaving behind only instinct. What was left liked the smell of fear. It reminded me of food and sex.
Chimera backed away, and we began a slow walk back the way we'd come, this time with me advancing slowly on him. I stalked him as he'd stalked me, and part of me noticed that I was placing my feet one atop the other, almost stepping in my own footsteps, like a cat. The walk was oddly graceful, swaying my hips. My spine was very straight, shoulders back, arms almost motionless at my sides, but there was a tension running through my upper body, an anticipation of action, of violence. Always before the ardeur had overridden the beast's hunger, but as I stalked Chimera, watched that huge muscular form back away from me, it was meat I was thinking of. Teeth and claws, flesh to rend, to bite, to tear. I could almost taste his blood--hot, almost scalding in my mouth, down my throat. It wasn't just my beast's hunger, but Jean-Claude's blood thirst and Richard's craving for flesh. It was all that and the ardeur running through all of it, so that one hunger fed into the next in an endless chain, a snake eating its own tail, an Ouroboros of desires.
Chimera stopped running, pressing himself up against the white curtain. We were almost back to Cherry and Micah. There was solid wall behind Chimera, behind the curtain. "What are you?" he asked in a voice that was strangled, full of the fear that rose off of him in waves. He scented the air, nostrils flaring. "You don't even smell the same."
"What do I smell like?" I touched his chest with just my fingertips, not sure what he'd do. But he didn't pull away. I pressed my palm over his heart and felt that thick, heavy beat rise against my hand, as if I could have caressed it, like running your hand over the head of a drum. I knew in that moment what he wanted most of all. He wanted to die. Whoever was at the core, whatever was left of who Orlando King had been, he wanted to end it. He'd been trying to kill himself since the moment he learned he was going to be a werewolf. He'd never changed his mind. He just couldn't bring himself to commit suicide, not directly anyway.
I leaned in close to him, pressing our bodies together, lightly, both hands on his chest. "I'll help you," I whispered.
"Help me, how?" But his voice was fearful, as if he already knew.
Pain lanced through my chest. My knees collapsed and Chimera caught me, carefully, in those clawed hands. I think it was an automatic gesture. I saw through Richard's eyes for a moment, saw a werehyena snarling in his face, felt the claws ripping through his chest. The pain was sharp, bones breaking, then numbness, and Richard didn't fight it. He let the numbness roll over him. I knew in that instant that Richard wanted to die, or rather he didn't want to live as he was. The pain had made him reach out for me, but his hands were slow, slow to defend himself. He would never admit he'd let himself die, but he wanted it, and it made him slow. Slow enough to have the hyena man carve his chest open like cracking a melon.
Shang-Da was there pulling the hyena off of him, then I was back in my own body, airborne, thrown into the curtain and the alcove beyond. The curtain cushioned some of the fall, and the last remnants of Richard's numbness made my body limp, so it didn't really hurt. I lay for a second in a spill of curtain. My hand brushed outward and hit metal. I raised the edge of the curtain and found that this alcove was full of weapons. I'd found the blades. Chimera had thrown me into them, and the shock of Richard's injury had squelched the ardeur. My hand closed on a knife that was longer than my forearm. I raised it to the light and knew silver when I saw it. The ardeur was gone without my feeding it, and I was armed. Life was good.
Then I heard the sound of claws, or blades, in flesh; a thick, tearing sound of something sharp going through meat. You hear the sound often enough, you know what it is.
I could see the hanging men from here, and they were untouched. My stomach clenched tight and cold, because I knew where Chimera was. I just didn't know which of them he was cutting up.
I pushed the curtain away from me, started to stand, and Abuta was in front of me. I kept one hand balled in the curtain and flung it at him. He did what anyone would do. He flinched, and I drove the silver blade through the middle of his body, angling up, hunting for the heart.
Abuta screamed, hand reaching back towards where Chimera was cutting up my people. He said something in a language I didn't understand. As his body collapsed, I kept twisting the blade trying to find his damn heart, but the blade was stuck on his ribs and wider than my usual knives. It wouldn't move where I wanted it to go. I got a glimpse of a golden-colored blur moments before Chimera smashed a hand into me and sent me flying back into the hanging men. I hit solid, and they cried out, then I was on the ground trying to relearn how to breathe. His arm had taken me across one shoulder, and it was numb from the impact.
Chimera knelt over the snake man, cradling him in his arms. Movement turned my gaze towards Micah and Cherry. The front of Cherry's body was bloody ribbons, as if he'd racked claws down either side of her as deep as he could go, as much damage as he could do in as little time as possible. Her ruined chest rose and fell frantically; she was alive.
Micah's body was spilled open like something ripe that had been thrown against a wall. His intestines glittered like something separate and alive. I could see things inside his body that were never meant to see the light of day. He convulsed, jerking against the chains.
I screamed, and something about my panic opened me to Richard again. He was lying on the floor downstairs, and he was dying, and more than that I felt that his giving up had hurt the wolves. He was their Ulfric, their heart and their head, and his will was weak, and it made them weak. The hyenas and the halfmen that fought for Chimera were fighting for what they believed in, or fighting for the ones they loved. The wolves had nothing but Richard's willingness to die.
And I knew in that moment that if he died like that it wouldn't just be Jean-Claude and me who would join him, it would be all the wolves. Something had gone terribly wrong with Bacchus and Zeke's plan. The hyenas and the halfmen would slaughter our pack. All of them, all of them would die.
I screamed again, and Chimera was in front of me, one hand balled in my shirt, his claws ripping shallow wounds in my upper chest. He drew the other hand back, and time seemed to slow. I had all the time in the world to decide what to do, and yet, I had no time left. I felt Richard's breath rattling in his chest, felt him begin to die. Micah's body gave one last shudder, then he went very still.
I screamed, wordless, reaching for something, anything to save them. My power came, my power, and the one thing I could do to save us all. It was one of the worst things I'd ever seen done and I didn't hesitate.
I didn't call my power--there was no time. I became my power. It flowed up, through me, instantly, spilled into my hands. I touched one hand to the furred arm that held me, then blocked his other arm as it swept down towards me in a blur of motion. Blocked the blow and swept my free hand up over Chimera's arm, so that both my hands touched his arms. The moment enough of me touched enough of him, I called the power I'd learned in New Mexico. When I raised a zombie I put energy into the corpse, helped what lay in the grave to be solid and real. This was the reverse of that. I took energy out, sucked it away, made the lion man less real, less alive.
The fur flowed under my hands until I touched human skin. It was Orlando King's body that collapsed to its knees in front of me. Orlando's eyes that raised horrified gray to search my face, to beseech me, maybe. But he never asked me to stop, and truthfully I wasn't sure I knew how to stop.
He started to scream just before his skin began to run with fine lines, like watching decades catch up with him in one fell swoop. I fed on him, fed on his essence, fed on what he was. It rushed through my body, thrilling along my skin, singing through my bones, cascading in a rush of joy through every fiber of my being, and beyond. I felt the energy flow outward to Micah, down that link that made me want to touch him every time we were close. The power found Richard and made him breathe. It spilled outward to all the wolves, and they were no longer dependent on Richard's broken will, they had mine, and I wanted to live. I wanted us all to live. We would live. We would live, and our enemies would die. I willed it so. I made it so. I used Orlando King's life to fill my leopards, my wolves, and distantly, my vampires, with will. Will to live, to fight, to survive.
And through all of it, Orlando King shrieked. He screamed as his body drained away into my hands. His skin was like dirty tissue paper on skeleton sticks when I finally let him go. He collapsed on his side, that large body turned to something light as air, but still he screamed. One ragged horror of a sound after another, and I felt no pity. I felt only the rush of power like a flight of bird wings inside my head.
Micah was beside me in black, furred leopard man form. The center of his body was whole, healed, only partially due to his shifting. A huge spotted leopard the size of a pony stalked around us, hissing at what was left of Orlando. Cherry was whole in her furred coat, not even bloody.
I must have stood there longer than I knew, draining Orlando King's life away. Long enough for them to tear the chains off, long enough for them to shapeshift and heal. The hanging men were changing form, too. And with the change, they broke their chains, healed most of the damage that had been done to them, and dropped to the ground in spotted fur and claws. They sniffed around what was left of Orlando. They gave strange barking sounds as the thing continued to scream.
Micah's voice came furry, rough with his new shape. "Your eyes are like a night-filled sky with stars in it."
I didn't need to see a mirror to know what he meant. My eyes were black, swimming and dark with the distant glow of stars in that darkness. Obsidian Butterfly's eyes had been like that, and my eyes had mirrored hers after she touched me with her power.
The far door opened and the wolves poured in. Shang-Da and Jamil were holding Richard between them. He was still in human form, still refusing to shift and help the power heal him.
The wolves, some in human form, some not, came to touch me, lick me, abase themselves before me. They growled and snapped at the dried thing that still screamed on the floor.
Jamil and Shang-Da helped Richard around the room until he stood facing me and Micah. It was only when he was that close that I realized his eyes were black with the play of cold stars in them, too. I wondered if Jean-Claude's eyes looked the same, and a thought let me know that it was so. Jean-Claude was basking in the rush of power. Richard stared at me like I'd run over his mother. The pain on his face had nothing to do with the healing wounds. I'd taken just a little bit more of his humanity, or so he felt.
He gazed down at the screaming thing on the floor with those black star-filled eyes and said, "How could you do it?"
"I did what I had to do," I said.
He was shaking his head. "I didn't want to live this badly."
"I did," Micah said.
The two men looked at each other; yellow-green eyes to black. Something seemed to pass between them, then Richard looked back at me. "Is he dying?"
He closed his eyes, and I got a glimpse inside him before he threw up his shields. It wasn't the horror that made him blanch, it was the fact that the power rush had felt better than almost anything else he'd ever experienced. Then the shields tightened, but his eyes stayed a swimming blackness.
"Get me out of here," he said.
"Change shape, Richard, heal yourself," I said.
He just shook his head. "No."
"Damn it, Richard."
He just said, "No," then Jamil and Shang-Da helped him towards the door. I watched him go but didn't try and call him back. I did my best to ignore him as I knelt by the skeletal thing that I'd made out of Orlando King. I knew how to give him back his energy, and that too would have been a rush in it's own way, but Orlando wanted to die, and Chimera was too dangerous to be kept alive. I did what Orlando wanted, and I passed judgment on Chimera. I called my magic one more time and spilled it into that struggling, screaming thing, and I released the soul. It fluttered past me like an invisible bird, and the body gave that long harsh breath that is often the very last sound. Orlando King died unrecognizable, unless you had dental records.
Micah helped me to my feet. He was back in human form. Before I'd seen Chimera, I would have said that Micah's change was smoother than anyone's I'd ever seen. He pulled me into the circle of his arms, and I pressed my face against the bare skin of his neck, caught the scent of his skin, and the ardeur welled up inside me, as if it had been waiting. Goosebumps ran up his bare arms, and he gave a nervous laugh. "I don't know if I'm up to it. I've had a hard day."
I wrapped my arms around his back, pressed my face against his chest, to hear the beating of his heart strong and steady. And for no reason that I could figure out, I started to cry, and the ardeur flowed away on a wash of tears, and hands. Hands not just Micah's, but hands of wolves, hyenas, and the leopards that had disobeyed me and come for the fight. And finally Zeke and the halfmen who had joined him. They all touched me, marked me with their scent, their tears, their laughter. We laughed and cried, howled and roared, made every noise you could make. Richard missed a hell of a victory party.
RICHARD DID MAKE me his Bolverk. But I was no longer his girlfriend. I'm not even sure I'm upset about that. He's free to find another lupa, though I'm not sure the pack will agree with him; they seem to like me just fine. As Bolverk of the Thronnos Rokke Clan, my first order of business was to execute Jacob. Paris is still alive at Richard's insistence. I think it's a mistake, but he is Ulfric. Oh, well.
I did not turn furry with the full moon. Apparently, Jean-Claude was right about the leopards being my animal to call, just as Damian is my vampire servant. I'm gaining powers like a master vampire. Go figure.
The snake men and Marco died during the fighting. The remainder of Chimera's people have joined their appropriate animal groups. We have a shape-shifter coalition to promote better understanding among the groups. I'm chairman, though I tried not to be. Micah and his pard stayed in town.
Micah and I are still dating, if you can call sharing a bed and my house dating. But I haven't left Jean-Claude. I'm dating them both. I am Jean-Claude's human servant, and I can't hide from that anymore. Jean-Claude wasn't horrified by what I did to Orlando King, either. He was pleased. Pleased we won, pleased we all survived. He and Micah seem to be getting along, so far. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop and all hell to break loose between them, but so far, so good.
We rescued Joseph, the lions' Rex, and his wife is still pregnant, four months and counting--a record. Narcissus turned out to be a hermaphrodite, and he's pregnant, too. I'm not sure Narcissus should be breeding, especially knowing who the father is, but it's not my choice.
The cobras' king and son were both dead. Killed after Chimera had broken them.
I wake up pressed between Micah and Nathaniel. You can't feed the ardeur off of the same person every day, not even a lycanthrope. That's why they used to say that succubi and incubuses killed their victims. You can literally love someone to death. So, I feed on Micah and Nathaniel. Micah as my Nimir-Raj, and Nathaniel as my pomme de sang. No, I'm not having intercourse with Nathaniel. Both of them seem peaceful with the arrangement, though I'm still a little weirded out by it. I'm still hoping the ardeur is temporary.
Belle Morte's people contacted Jean-Claude. They're negotiating for Musette, one of Belle's lieutenants, to come for a visit. The mention of Musette's name made Asher and Jean-Claude go pale.
Ronnie is horrified that I came so close to getting killed, but it hasn't made her any more reasonable on the subject of my love life. We're back to not seeing a whole lot of each other. Maybe Micah can be my new workout partner, no pun intended.
I still love Richard, but it doesn't matter. It won't work. He can't accept what he is, or what I am. Neither of us can change our nature, and I don't even want to anymore. Micah accepts me for what I am, all of me. He loves me, from my toy penguin collection to my cold-blooded practicality. He doesn't mind bodies on the ground, and neither does Jean-Claude. I hope Richard makes peace with himself someday, but it's not really my problem anymore. I'll keep the pack safe with or without him.
As for the rest, if I wake up to silk sheets I know I'm at Jean-Claude's place. If I wake up on pure cotton sheets, I'm at home. But wherever I am, Micah is beside me. I go to sleep against the smooth warmth of him, breathing in the honeyed sweetness of his skin. Sometimes the sheets smell of Jean-Claude's cologne, sometimes they don't. Sometimes Micah's body bears two neat fang marks, and I feel Jean-Claude in his coffin, settling down for the day, content and well-fed, full of my sex and Micah's blood. Life really is good, even if you are dead.
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