THE UPPER HALLWAY stretched white and empty. There was a silver wallpaper border high up on the wall; more silver ran in thin lines down the walls, an opulent yet tasteful display. It looked like the hallway of some upscale hotel. I didn't know if it was camouflage or if Narcissus just liked it that way. After downstairs' black techno-punk and Narcissus's own Marquis de Sade bedroom, it was almost startling, as if we'd stepped from some dark nightmare into a quieter, more peaceful dream.
We were the ones who looked out of place. All of us in black, too much skin showing. Jamil paced up the stairs on point, his muscular upper body showing in tantalizing glimpses through a series of black leather straps. The pants fit his narrow hips like a second skin, and I'd learned long ago from watching Jean-Claude undress that you didn't get that smooth line if there was underwear between the skin and the pants. He turned, his waist-length corn-rows flaring out around him. He was a contrast in darkness, the black of the leather, the dark, dark brown of his skin. He moved like a shadow in that white hallway.
Faust went next. He was the new male vampire I'd met downstairs. In the better light, his hair was obviously tinted burgundy, like a shade of red gone wrong, but somehow it suited him. His leather pants were covered in more zippers than seemed necessary to get them on and off, and his black shirt had a zipper up the front. It reminded me of Asher's shirt, except for the color. I tried not to think too much about what Asher might be doing right this moment. I still didn't know if Asher was pimping himself out for us or whether he truly wanted to be with Narcissus. I was more comfortable with the idea of self-sacrifice.
I brought up the middle with the two women behind me. Sylvie still didn't look like herself to me. The black skirt was so short that whoever was in back of her couldn't help but get a flash of whatever was under the skirt. The hose climbed her legs all the way up, making them look long and shapely, though she was only three inches taller than me. She was also wearing three-inch black spikes, which may have added to the illusion of long legs. Her leather top showed a very discreet line of flesh from neck to waist where a belt cinched in her tiny waist. Her breasts seemed to stay magically on either side of the line of skin, as if they were held in place by something more than a bra.
She smiled up at me, but her eyes had already bled to that pale wolfish color. They didn't match the careful makeup and the short, curly brown hair.
Meng Die brought up the rear. Where her pale flesh showed around the vinyl cat suit, colorless body glitter sparkled. There was a touch of glitter at the corner of each up-tilted eye, complementing pale eyeshadow and dramatic eyeliner. She was smaller than me, more delicate of bone, smaller of breast, more slender of waist, like a dainty bird. But the look she gave me was more vulture than canary. She didn't like me, and I didn't know why. But Jean-Claude had assured me she'd do the job. Jean-Claude had a lot of faults, but if he trusted Meng Die to keep me safe, then she'd do it. He was never careless with me, not in that way.
Faust just seemed to be amused as hell about it all. Everything made him smile, pleasantly. Most vampires went for arrogance to mask how they felt. He seemed to use mild amusement. Of course, maybe Faust was just a happy guy, and I was being too cynical.
Why weren't Jean-Claude and Richard with me? Because the wereleopards were mine. If I took other dominants with me, it would be seen as weakness. I was planning to interview other alphas to take over the wereleopards, but until I found someone to do that, I was all they had. If people began thinking I was weak, the leopards would be marked as anyone's meat. It wouldn't just be out-of-town shapeshifters that were trying to take them away from me, it would be every shapeshifter in town. It was funny how many shifters could be assholes unless you were strong enough to stop them.
I had to save the leopards, not Richard, not Jean-Claude, me. But I had to stay alive to do that, so I did take backup. I'm stubborn, not stupid. Though I know a few people who might argue that.
Each white door had a silver number on its surface. Again like a very discreet hotel. We were looking for room nine. There was absolutely no sound from behind the doors. The only noises I heard were the distant thud of the music downstairs and the faint whisper of leather and vinyl--our body movements. I'd never been so aware of how loud small noises could be. Maybe it was the eerie silence of the hallway, or maybe I'd gained something new from the marriage of the marks. Better hearing wouldn't be a bad thing, would it? So many of the "gifts" from the vampire marks tended to be double-edged swords, at best.
I shook off the gloomy thoughts and walked with my foursome of bodyguards down the carpeted hallway. I was trusting them to give their lives for mine. That's what a bodyguard does. Jamil had taken two shotgun blasts for me last summer. It hadn't been silver shot, so he'd healed, but he hadn't known that when he put himself between the gun barrel and me. Sylvie owed me one, and a woman her size doesn't get to be second in the pack hierarchy without being one tough werewolf. I didn't really trust the vampires to give up their undead lives for me. It's been my experience that the longer something semi-immortal lives, the more tightly it hugs its existence. So I counted on the wolves, and knew I could work around the vampires. It didn't matter that Jean-Claude trusted them. It mattered that I didn't. I'd have preferred to just bring along more werewolves, except if I showed up with nothing but wolves at my back, it would be like saying that I couldn't do this without Richard's pack. Not true. Or not completely true. We'd see how deep the shit was once we opened the door.
Room nine was nearly at the end of the long hallway. The building had been a warehouse, and the upstairs had simply been divided into long hallways with huge rooms scattered along them. Jamil was standing to one side of the door. Faust was standing in front of it. Not smart.
I stood to the other side of the door and said, "Faust, the werehyenas had to take guns off these guys."
The vampire raised an arched eyebrow at me.
"They may not have found all the guns," I said.
He still looked at me.
I sighed. Over a hundred years of "life," power enough to be a master vamp, and he was still an amateur. "It would be bad to be standing in the center of the door when a shotgun blast went off on the other side."
He blinked, and a little of that humor leaked away, showing that arrogance that most vamps acquire. "I think Narcissus would have found a shotgun."
I leaned my shoulder against the wall and smiled at him. "Do you know what a cop-killer is?"
He raised both eyebrows at me. "A person who kills policemen."
"No, it's a type of ammunition designed to go through body armor. The cops have no defense against it. You can carry armor-piercing bullets in handguns, Faust. I used the shotgun as an example, but it could be so many things. And they would all take out your heart, most of your spine, or all of your head, depending on where the shooter was aiming."
"Get out of the fucking doorway," Meng Die said.
He turned and looked at her, and it was not a friendly look. "You are not my master."
"Nor you mine," she said.
"Children," I said. They both looked at me. Great. "Faust if you're not going to be helpful then go back downstairs."
"What did I do?"
I glanced at Meng Die, shrugged, and said, "Get out of the fucking doorway."
I could see his shoulders tighten, but he gave a graceful bow at odds with the burgundy hair and leather. "As Jean-Claude's lady wishes, so shall it be." He stepped to the side closest to me. Sylvie moved up close to me, not exactly between us, but close. It made me feel better. Bossing around vampires was always chancy. You never knew when they'd try to boss back. I really, really wanted my gun back.
"What now?" Jamil asked. He was watching the vampires like he wasn't any happier with their company than I was. All good bodyguards are paranoid. It goes with the job.
"I guess we knock." I kept my body well to the side, extended just enough arm to get the job done, and gave three solid knocks. If they shot through the door, they'd probably miss me. But no one shot through the door. In fact, nothing happened. We waited for a few moments, but patience has never been my best thing. I started to knock again, but Jamil stopped me and said, "May I?"
He knocked hard and loud enough to shake the door. It was a solid door. If the door didn't open this time, they were deliberately ignoring us.
The door opened, revealing a brown-haired man as muscled as Ajax, but taller. What did Narcissus do, recruit from all the weight-lifting gyms in town? He frowned at us. "Yeah?"
"I'm Nimir-Ra for the wereleopards. I think you've been waiting for me."
"About fucking time," he said. He opened the door wide, pushing it flush against the wall, putting his back to it, arms crossed across his chest. His arms apparently weren't as muscular as they looked, if he could cross his arms that way. But he did demonstrate that there was no one hiding behind the door. Good to know.
The room was white -- white floor, white ceiling, white walls -- like a room carved of hard snow. There were blades on the walls -- knives, swords, daggers, tiny glittering blades, swords the length of a tall man. The bodyguard by the door said, "Welcome to the room of swords." It sounded formal, like he was supposed to say it.
From the door I couldn't see anyone. I took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and walked inside. Jamil followed a step behind at my shoulder, Faust was at my other side. Sylvie and Meng Die brought up the rear.
A figure stepped into the middle of the room. At first glance I thought it was a man, but on second glance, not exactly. He was man-sized, almost six feet, broad shouldered, muscular, but what I'd thought was a golden tan was golden tan fur, very thin and fine. Covering the whole body. The face was almost human, though the bone structure was a little odd. A wide face, a lipless mouth that was almost a round muzzle. The eyes were a dark orange gold with an edge of blue in them, as if they, like the body, were only partly through their change. It was as if his body had frozen, stopping just short of attaining human form. I'd never seen anything like it. Pale skin showed in patches on his bare chest and stomach. I couldn't tell if the dark gold hair and edge of beard that encircled his face was actually hair or what was left of a mane. The longer I stared at him, the more like a lion he looked, until I couldn't see the man I'd thought I'd seen for the light coating of beast that covered him.
He gave a snarling smile. "Do you like what you see?"
"I've never seen anything like you," I said, nice, calm, even empty.
He didn't like that, my lack of reaction. His smile vanished and became only a snarl of very sharp, very white teeth.
"Welcome, Nimir-Ra, I am Marco, we have been waiting for you." He made a sweeping gesture to either side with his clawed human hands. I glanced around at the "we". They were small to medium-sized men with short black hair and dark skin. Most groups, prides, packs, whatever, were mixed ethnically. But there was a sameness to these dark men, almost a family look about them. Two on either side wore hooded cloaks, with the hoods thrown back, the wide cloaks spread like curtains. I glimpsed blond hair behind the blackness to the left. I couldn't see Nathaniel's hair over the blackness but I knew he had to be on the right.
There was blood on the white floor, pooling into a little depression in the concrete. A drain was in the middle so they could hose the floor down when they were finished. There was another guard in the far corner who looked very unhappy to be there. Three women that I did not know were chained to the wall on either side of the door. Two blonds on the right side, a brunette on the left. They weren't wereleopards, or at least none that were mine.
"Let me see my people," I said.
"Will you not greet us formally?" Marco asked.
"You're not the alpha anything, Marco. You get your head lion in here and I'll greet him, but you, I don't have to greet."
Marco gave a small bow, the gaze of those odd tawny eyes never leaving my face. It was the way you bow in martial arts when you're afraid the other person will hit you if you glance away.
Jamil had moved up beside me, not ahead of me, but close enough that our shoulders brushed. I didn't tell him to move back. He'd saved my life once, I'd let him do his job.
"Then greet me, Nimir-Ra." It was another male voice. He stepped out from behind the cloaks to the left. As he stepped out, the cloaks dropped and I could see Gregory clearly.
He was turned towards the wall, nude except for his pants that had been peeled down to his lower thighs, his boots still on. Chains held his wrists above his head, his legs were wide apart. His curling blond hair fell just below his shoulders. His body was slender but muscled, butt tight. You have to take care of your body if you're going to strip professionally. There was no mark on his body that I could see, but blood had spattered on the floor in front of him, below him, pooling, dark, drying. They hadn't cut anything on his back. My stomach clenched tight, my breath squeezing down in my throat.
"Gregory," I said, softly.
"He's gagged," said the man. I finally dragged my gaze away from Gregory, and the sight of the other man, the alpha, made me stare.
He wasn't a lion man, he was a snake man. His head was wider than my shoulders, covered in olive green scales with large black spots. One arm was bare, and it looked very human except for the scales and the hands that ended in twisted claws that would have made any predator proud. He turned his head to look at me with one large copper gold eye. A heavy black stripe stretched back from the corner of his eye to his temple. His movements were vaguely birdlike. Other black-cloaked figures stepped away from the walls, dropping hoods to show themselves scaled, with the same stripes near metallic eyes and hands with curling claws.
My people fanned out around me, two going to either side. "Who are you?"
"I am Coronus of the Black Water Clan, though I doubt that will mean anything to you."
"Marco mentioned you were new in town. I'm Anita Blake, Nimir-Ra of the Blooddrinkers Clan. By what right do you harm my people?" What I wanted to do was start screaming, but there are rules. I couldn't be furry, or scaly, but I could follow the rules.
Coronus walked to the wall and stood next to the brunette chained to it. She made small panicked sounds as he reached for her. Sylvie moved a little closer to him, to the girl, as if she was waiting for an excuse. Coronus traced a finger down the girl's cheek, the barest of touches, yet she closed her eyes and shivered.
"I came here seeking swanmanes, and I found three of them. They had already tied up the male. We thought it was their leader, their swanking, or we would not have harmed him. By the time we found we had the wrong animal, it was late in the game."
I glanced at the cloaks still held firmly in place, the impassive faces of the men as impossible to read as if they'd already become snakes. I noticed that one of the figures had breasts. It was nearly naked where they showed above a scoop neck T-shirt. I could see the chains reaching for the ceiling and down to the floor. There was more blood, a lot more blood, on that side.
"Let me see Nathaniel."
'Would you not like to see your blond leopard up close and personal first?"
I started to ask why. I didn't like the fact that he seemed reluctant for me to see Nathaniel. "You want me to see Gregory first?"
The man seemed to think about it, head to one side. The movement looked animal-like, yet not exactly snakelike. "Up close and personal, yes, yes, I do."
I didn't like the way he kept saying personal, but I let it go. "Then you've made a request of me, Coronus. If I do it, I can make one of you." Sometimes the rules are helpful. Rarely, but sometimes.
'What would you have of me?"
"I want him unchained."
"He was easily taken once by my people. I see no reason why not. Go, gaze upon him, touch him, then we will unchain him."
Jamil stayed at my side as I walked towards Gregory. My gut was tight. What had they done to him? I could still remember the scream over the phone. A glance from Jamil cleared the snake people away. They stood as far away as the room would allow them to, on either side. I had to step over the chains on the floor and under the ones that held Gregory's wrists up. I came around to look in his blue eyes. A black ball gag was stuffed in his mouth, the string tucked under his hair so it hadn't been visible from the back. His eyes were wide, panicked. His face was untouched, and my gaze followed down the line of his body almost against my will, as if I knew what I'd find. His groin was a red ruin, healing, covered in dried blood. They'd ripped him up. If he'd been human he'd have been ruined. I wasn't a hundred percent sure that he wasn't anyway. I had to close my eyes for a second. The room felt hot.
Jamil had let out a hissing breath when he saw what they'd done to Gregory, and his energy burned over my skin, fed by anger and horror. Strong emotions make shapeshifters leak all over you. My voice came out in a squeezed whisper, "Will he heal?"
Jamil had to come closer to inspect the wound. He touched it reluctantly, and Gregory writhed in pain at the gentlest of touches. "I think so, if they allow him to change form soon."
I tried to pull the gag out of Gregory's mouth and couldn't. It was too tight. I broke the leather string that held it in place and threw it on the floor.
Gregory took a sobbing breath and said, "Anita, I thought you weren't coming." His blue eyes glistened with unshed tears.
We were almost the same size, so I could touch my forehead to his, hands on either side of his face. I couldn't stand to see the tears in his eyes, and I couldn't afford to cry in front of the bad guys. "I'll always come for you Gregory, always." Seeing him like this, I meant it. I needed to find a real wereleopard to protect them. But how was I going to give them away like stray puppies to some stranger? But that was a problem for another night.
"Unchain him," I said.
Jamil moved to the manacles and seemed to know just how they worked. No key was needed. Great. Gregory sagged as soon as the first chain went, and I caught him, holding him under the arms. But when the second wrist restraint opened, his body fell against my leg and he screamed. Jamil undid the last ankle chain, and I lowered Gregory to the ground as gently as I could. I was stroking his hair, his upper body cradled in my arms, across my lap, when I had a sense of movement to either side.
Jamil couldn't guard both sides at the same time. The knives in my boots were trapped under Gregory's body. It was beautifully timed. I rolled over Gregory's body, and felt the cloak rush over me, as talons slashed where I'd been. I went for the boot knife, but never had a chance. I saw the clawed hand coming for me. Everything slowed down, like images caught in crystal so that you see every detail. I seemed to have all the time in the world to draw the knife, or to try and dodge the slashing talons, yet a part of my brain was screaming that there was no time. I threw myself back onto the floor, felt the air rush over me as the snake man stumbled, so sure of its target that it hadn't been prepared for me to move. The rest was instinct. I foot-swept the snake, and it was suddenly on its back. I got a knife in my right hand, but the snake was on its feet, kicking upward like it had springs in its spine.
I felt more than saw something large and dark leap through the air over me, landing behind me. My attention was diverted for a fraction of a second, but that was enough. The one in front darted in, a movement so fast my eyes couldn't follow it. I put my left arm out, taking the blow, as my right tried to stab forward. My left arm went numb like it had been hit with a baseball bat. I could have stabbed into the stomach, but I caught movement out of the corner of my eye and threw myself on my side on the floor as the second claw swept over me. I slashed at the legs and opened a gash even through the boots. The snake screamed and limped away.
The second snake came for me, claws outstretched. I didn't have time to get off the floor or anything else. I held the knife ready, my left arm only partially useable, and watched the thing fall on me like an iridescent nightmare. A smaller black blur hit it from the side, and they both crashed into the wall. It was Meng Die. The claws ripped into her pale flesh as I watched.
I didn't have time to see more, because Coronus loomed up over me, blood dripping from his neck and shoulder, his shirt shredded. Sylvie was behind him, struggling with Marco, trying to get past him to follow Coronus. Her lovely hands had turned into claws, though the rest of her was still human. The really powerful shapeshifters could do that--partially change at will.
Jamil was in the far corner, fighting with two of the snake men. Gregory was flowing with fur, changing shape, helpless until he was finished. I didn't have time to look at the other half of the room. Coronus was almost on me, and I was out of time. I did the only thing I could think of. I up-ended the knife and threw it at him. I didn't wait to see if it would hit. I was already moving towards the nearest wall and the collection of blades. I had my hand on the hilt of a sword when Coronus slashed my back open. I fell to my knees screaming, but my right hand stayed on the sword, and I jerked it from the wall brackets as I fell. I turned, putting my left side to him. He sliced open my left shoulder, but it didn't hurt like my back had. Either the wound was deeper, or I was losing the feeling in that arm. I used the seconds I had--the ones he used to cut me--and it didn't hurt to turn the sword in my right hand and plunge it backwards, behind me without turning to see where he was. It was as if I could feel him behind me, as if I knew just where he stood. I felt the blade bite into flesh. I shoved upward, coming to my feet with the force of the blow, shoving the blade backwards, inwards, through him, as hard as I could. I had never done anything like that before, but the movement felt like old memory. And I knew it wasn't my memory. It wasn't my body that remembered now to turn the sword as I turned my body to do extra damage, scrambling internal organs as I drew the blade out, and raised it over the kneeling figure. I raised the sword one-handed. This I knew how to do. I'd been taking heads off of bodies for years. The blade was on its downward stroke when he screamed, "Enough!" I didn't stop or even hesitate.
It was Jamil who launched himself into me, over the man's bowed head. He pinned me to the wall, one hand on my wrist, while I fought him. "Anita, Anita!"
I looked up at him, and it was as if I was just realizing who he was, or what he was doing. I'd known, but only in theory, my body had been about to take the snake man's head. My body relaxed in Jamil's grip, but he didn't let me go.
"Talk to me, Anita."
"He gives. We win. You get your leopards." His hand went to my hand where it still gripped the sword. "Ease down, you won."
I tried to keep the sword, but Jamil wasn't happy until I let him take it. Then he moved slowly away from me, and I was left looking down at Coronus still kneeling on the floor, holding his claws against the blood that was flowing from his side. He looked up at me and coughed, a little blood touching his lips. He licked it off. "You nicked a lung."
"It's not silver. You'll heal."
He laughed, but it seemed to hurt him. "We'll all heal," he said.
"You better hope Gregory heals," I said.
His black eyes flicked up to me, and there was something in that look that I didn't like. "What is it, Coronus, what puts such unease in your eyes?" I went to my knees in front of him. My left arm hung nearly useless at my side, but it wasn't numb anymore. A deep burning pain was working its way from the wounds at my shoulder and lower back. I purposefully didn't look at them. I could feel the blood flowing down my skin in tickling lines. I kept my gaze on Coronus's eyes.
He met my eyes for a minute while Jamil loomed over us, then Coronus's gaze did a small slide to his right. I followed his look and saw Nathaniel across the wide room for the first time clearly. The world swam in streams of color, and I would have fallen to the floor if my right arm hadn't caught me. It was partly from blood loss and shock, but not all of it was from the wounds. I could hear Coronus speaking through the dizziness and the nausea.
His words were tripping over each other. "Remember that it was the hyenas who made us stop. They who decreed that nothing else was to be done until your arrival. We would never have been so cruel unless we intended to kill him."
My vision cleared, and all I could do was stare. Nathaniel was nude, hanging from his wrists, ankles chained like Gregory's had been. But Nathaniel was facing the room. Knives bisected each tricep. Smaller blades had been forced through each hand so he couldn't close his fingers around them. Thin knives had been forced through the bulk of the muscles just above each of his collarbones. Then the swords began.
Sword blades stuck out just below his collarbones. The blades gleamed silver, sprinkled with drying blood. Unlike the knives, the swords had been shoved in from behind so you couldn't see the hilts.
A wide curved sword stuck out of Nathaniel's right side, through the meat of his body. There were more, too big to be knives, too small to be swords, bisecting his thighs, his calves.
I was on my feet and didn't even remember standing up. I was walking towards him, my left arm hanging down, blood spilling from my fingers. The thing that I hadn't expected when I saw the damage was his eyes. Those lilac eyes of his were open, staring at me, full of things that I didn't want to understand. A gag filled his mouth, cut across that long auburn hair. He watched me with wide eyes as I walked to him.
I stood in front of Nathaniel and tried to get the gag out of his mouth, but I couldn't do it one-handed. Faust was there, breaking the thong, helping me take it out gently. I touched Nathaniel's mouth, trying to stop him from making any noise. I looked down the length of his body. All the blood! All the blood drying, stiff and tacky against his skin. I couldn't not look at the blades, and from inches away I saw something that couldn't be true. I lowered my hand from his mouth towards the sword blade that protruded from his upper chest. I touched the dried blood, rubbed at it with my fingertips. Nathaniel made a small moan. I didn't stop, I had to be sure. I cleared the blood enough to see, enough to feel that his skin had closed around the blades. In the two hours it had taken me to get to this room, his body had reknit itself with the blades inside of him.
I dropped to my knees as if I'd been hit between the eyes. I tried to say something, but no sound came out. Jamil was there, kneeling beside me. I grabbed a handful of the leather straps across his chest. There was fresh blood on him, wounds in his arms and chest.
He looked up at Nathaniel. "We pull the blades out."
I shook my head. "Help me up." The blood loss and the sheer horror were catching up with me. I felt sick, dizzy. Jamil helped me stand in front of Nathaniel. "Do you understand what we're going to have to do?"
Nathaniel looked at me with those purple eyes of his. "Yes," he said, softly, almost no sound at all.
I gripped the knife that was in his quadricep, hand wrapping around the hilt. My lower lip was trembling, and my eyes felt hot. I stared into his eyes, no flinching, no looking away. I took a deep breath, and I pulled it out. His eyes dosed, his head thrust backwards, breath coming out in a hissing rush. The flesh clung to the blade. It wasn't like taking a knife out of a roast. The flesh hugged the blade as if it had grown around it.
The bloody knife fell from my hand, making a sharp sound on the cement floor. Nathaniel screamed. Jamil was behind him, and one of the swords was missing from Nathaniel's upper chest. The other sword sucked back through his body as I watched. Nathaniel screamed again. Blood welled from the wound and I turned away. I looked back at Coronus still crouched on the floor, two of his people crowded around him. Something in the look on my face must have frightened him, because his eyes widened, and I saw something like human fear cross his reptilian face.
"We would have taken the blades out, but the hyenas ordered us not to touch either of them again until you arrived."
I looked across the room at the guard that was closest to Nathaniel. The one that had looked unhappy to be there. He flinched under my gaze. "I was following orders."
"Is that an excuse or a defense?"
"We don't owe you an excuse," the other guard said, the tall brown-haired one that had let us into the room. He was standing by the closed door. He was arrogant, defiant, and I could taste his fear like candy on my tongue. He was afraid of what I'd do.
Gregory came to stand near me in half-leopard, half-man form. I'd never seen him like this, all spotted fur, taller than his human form, more muscled. His genitalia hung large and healed between his legs.
One of the snake men was on the floor, dragging its legs behind it. Its spine was broken, but it would heal. Another scream tore from behind me, from Nathaniel's throat. Another snake man was huddled against the far wall beside the chained brunette. Its arm was almost torn from its socket. Sylvie's dress was in shreds, baring her breasts to the world. She didn't seem to care, her hands still curled into claws, pale wolf eyes staring back at me.
"Take your leopards," Coronus said, "and go in peace."
Another scream came on the end of his words. "Peace," I said. I felt strangely numb, like part of me was folding away. I couldn't stand in this room and listen to Nathaniel's screams, and feel. Not and stay sane. A quietness that I sunk into when I killed spilled over me, and it felt so much better. There are worse things than emptiness.
"Who are the women?"
"Swanmanes," he said. "No concern of yours, Nimir-Ra."
I looked at him and felt a smile curl my lips. I knew it was an unpleasant smile. "What happens to them when we leave?"
"They'll heal," he said. "We don't want them dead."
My smile widened, I couldn't help it. I laughed, but it was a bad sound, even to me. "You expect me to leave them to your mercy?"
"They are swans not leopards. Why should you care?"
Nathaniel's voice came thick, and when I turned I saw tears sliding down his face. "Don't leave them. Please, don't leave them here."
Jamil pulled another blade out. Only three to go. Nathaniel didn't scream this time, just closed his eyes and shivered. "Please, Anita, they would never have come here if I hadn't asked them."
I looked at the three women, chained naked to the walls, gagged, surrounded by dozens of clean, unused blades. They watched me with wide eyes, their breath coming in quick shallow pants. Their fear slid down my throat as if it were wine and I could drink it down, deep and cool. Fear, like wine, goes good with food. And I knew just by looking that they were food. They were swans, not predators. They were not us. I was channeling Richard now. I was being a smorgasbord of the boys tonight, of their thoughts and feelings. But there was one thing that was my own. Rage. Not the hot rage that the wolves used when they killed. This was something colder and more sure of itself. It was a rage that had nothing to do with blood and everything to do with ... death. I wanted them all dead for what they'd done to Nathaniel and Gregory. I wanted them dead. By the rules, I couldn't have them dead, but I'd do what I could. I'd cheat them of their other victims. I would not, could not, leave the three women here like this. I could not do it. Simple as that.
"Don't worry, Nathaniel, we won't leave them behind."
"You have no right to them," Coronus said.
Gregory growled at him. I touched Gregory's furred arm. "It's alright." I looked at Coronus surrounded by his snakes. "If I were you I wouldn't tell me what I have a right to. If I were you, I'd shut the fuck up and let us walk out of here with everyone we came for."
"No, they are ours until their swan king rescues them."
"Hey, he's not here, but I am, and I say to you, Coronus of the Black Water Clan, that I will take the swanmanes with me. I will not leave them behind."
"Why? Why do you care?"
"Why? Partly because I just don't like you. Partly because I want you dead and I can't do that tonight according to lycanthrope law. So I'll cheat you of your prize. That will have to suffice. But don't ever, ever get in my way again, because I will kill you, Coronus. I will kill you. In fact, I'd enjoy killing you." I realized that was true. I often killed cold, but there was something in me tonight that wanted him dead. Revenge maybe. I didn't question it, I just let it show in my eyes. I let the shapeshifter see it, because I knew he'd understand it. He wasn't human; he knew death when it looked at him.
He did know. I saw the knowledge in his eyes, tasted that fresh spurt of fear like a chemical rush. He looked suddenly tired. "I would give them up if I could, but I cannot. I must have something to show for this night's activities. I was hoping it would be the swans and the leopards, but if I cannot have one, I must have the other."
"Why do you care about either the swans or the leopards?" I asked. "They are nothing to you, you cannot make them part of your tribe."
His eyes shut down, unreadable. But that flash of fear grew, swelling in a rich odor of sweat and bitterness. He was very afraid. And it wasn't of me, not exactly, but of something that would happen if he didn't keep the swans. But what?
"I must keep them, Anita Blake."
"Tell me why?"
"I cannot." The fear was leaving him. Until that moment I never knew that resignation had a scent, but I could smell the quiet bitterness of defeat on him. It flared through me in a fierce wave, and I knew we'd won.
He shook his head. "I cannot give the swans up."
"You've already lost them. I can smell the defeat on you."
He bowed his head. "I would give them up if I could, but please, believe me, I cannot give them to you. I cannot."
"Cannot, or will not?" I asked.
He smiled, and it was bitter like the odor from his skin. "Cannot." Even his voice held reluctance, as if he wanted to just say yes, but couldn't.
"Do what's best for your people, Coronus, walk away from this." I knew in some indefinable way that we would win. My will to win was greater than his. We would carry this night in victory. Some of the snakes would die, because their leader had lost his nerve. Without his strength of will to buoy them, they could not win. They didn't want to be here. I looked at each of them, and in turn, they scented the air as I stared at them. Defeat hung over them like smoke; they had no will to win. They didn't want to be here. So why were they here? Their alpha, their leader, was here, and his will was theirs. So why were they all weak, as if something was missing inside their group, something that made them weak?
I realized with a start that this was what everyone had sensed from the leopards before I came to them ... this smell of weakness and defeat. Nathaniel was weak. But now my will was his, and I was not weak. I turned to stare into his face, his eyes, and I saw through all the pain, the torture, that he was not hopeless. When I first met him, Nathaniel had had the most hopeless eyes I'd ever seen. But he knew I'd come. He'd known with an absolute certainty that I would not leave him here like this. Gregory could doubt, because he thought with that part of him that was human. But Nathaniel trusted me with something that had nothing to do with logic, and everything to do with truth.
I turned back to Coronus. "Run away from this, Coronus, or some of you won't see dawn."
He sighed heavily. "So be it." And then he did what he shouldn't have done. Something that had no logic to it, from a nonhuman point of view. He was going to lose, and he knew it. Yet he did a very human thing. He attacked us anyway. Only humans waste energy like that when they've been given an out.
The two snakes guarding Coronus suddenly launched themselves at me, and I was too close. I'd been so sure with my new werewolf senses that they wouldn't fight us. I'd been careless. I'd forgotten that in the end we're only half animal. And that human half will fuck you every time.
They came in a blur of speed too fast for me to do anything but start for the other boot knife. I knew I'd never reach it. Gregory leaped in a butter-colored streak, taking one snake out in midair, rolling on the floor. But the other one was on me, claws slashing down before I hit the ground with it riding me. I was already going numb; it didn't hurt. The claws ripped at my stomach, diving through the cloth of my shirt to the flesh underneath. I felt it digging for my heart. I raised my right hand to try and grab the wrist, but it felt like I was moving in slow motion. My hand seemed to weigh a thousand pounds, and distantly I knew I was hurt, badly hurt. Something bad had happened in that first blur of claws.
Gregory was suddenly there, pale fur caught between the multicolored snakes. He fell on top of me, with one of the things on top of him ripping him up. He never tried to defend himself; he clawed at the one riding me, tore it away from me, and the three of them fought on top of me. There was a moment when Gregory's eyes and that snarling mouth were inches from mine. We were pressed as close as lovers, and I knew that the claws in me were his. He'd fallen against me, been pushed into my flesh. Then other hands were pulling us all apart. I had a glimpse of Jamil's face, saw his lips move, but there was no sound. Then blackness swirled over my vision and ate everything but a dim, dim spot of light. Then even that vanished, and there was nothing but the dark.