SINCE BONES HAD BEEN PRETENDING TO BE weak prior to finding out who the traitor was, he hadn't spent much time with the prisoner he'd helped capture from the train ambush-Anubus, Patra's second-in-command. In fact, Anubus had almost been neglected in the furor over Bones's return, though I'm sure he didn't complain over his lack of attention. In fact, he almost seemed surprised to see someone in his cell.
This was really the first I'd seen him as well, since I didn't count that initial time when Ian, Rodney, and Spade had returned with him and without Bones. Anubus was tall for an Egyptian, well over six-three, and he had the long straight hair and pronounced features to brag of his heritage. His bearing was far from that of a prisoner awaiting a grim sentence, too. He almost appeared relaxed, even though he was welded into the steel wall he hung from.
His stygian gaze evaluated me in much the same way I considered him. Coldly. The first flicker of real disconcertion came when I moved aside to let him view the man who followed behind me.
"Ah, hallo there, Anubus. Blimey, I think the last time I saw you was over fifty years ago. You recall, I had just met this very forward wench who took me back to her chalet and then nearly bored me to impotence with her shagging. Don't think she moved once under me the whole time, and it took hours, didn't it? Why, if the mattress would have had a hole of similar size, I wager I'd have had a grander time shoving my cock into that…"
A bellow of rage cut off the rest of his sentence. I managed to keep my features blank. Bones had warned me what he would use to goad Anubus, since Anubus regarded Patra as a deity, but I'd insisted on being present. Guess he wasn't kidding about it being graphic enough to piss the other vampire off.
"Shut up, filth! I can't believe you're still alive, but you won't be for long. All the flames of the netherworld are more than what you deserve."
"Oh ho," Bones chortled. "So even after all this time, she still hasn't let you sample a taste? It's for the best, mate, trust me.Mediocre is the most flattering description I could give to detail what lies between that woman's legs. Makes me wonder why Mencheres bound himself to such a poor excuse for a female, but then love can be utterly blind. And shagless, if that were my wife. Now here is a real woman, in every sense of the word." Bones pushed me forward. "In her sleep she's more passionate than that lump of Egyptian clay you worship. Patra knows she pales next to her. Isn't that why she's tried so hard to have her killed? Because she knew no one would be deceived by her claims of superiority once the world got a look at Cat?"
"You will all die," Anubus snarled. "Patra is the reincarnation of Isis and the goddess of this world. She has reigned for over two thousand years, and she can't be stopped by insects who are lower than locusts!"
"You need to get laid, mate," Bones kindly observed. "She hasn't even let you rub one off in all these years, has she? Wants her guards to be pure and all that rot, right? Your unspent balls have warped your brain, they have. How long has it been since you've even gazed on a naked woman, hmm? Before or after Constantine converted?"
This verbal flaying was an unusual tactic for Bones, but he'd reasoned it was worth a shot. Ian, Rodney, and Spade had already tried other means, none of them pleasant, but Anubus had proved either unknowing or disinclined to reveal anything useful. I guess Bones's continued barbs about having sex with Patra was the equivalent of some heckler boasting to the pope about how he'd nailed the Virgin Mary. Patra definitely wasn't chaste, but if she'd had affairs aside from the infamous one with Bones, she'd been discreet about it. And she was notorious about declaring herself to be of divine lineage. Many of her people literally worshipped her. Anubus fell into that category.
"Are you picturing it yet? My hands on Patra, mmmm, how many mornings have you imagined it? Lying awake, wanting to murder me for it, and then to find out that all the while I touched her, I found the whole experience quite…lacking."
Boy, did we sure have his full attention. Anubus's eyes were blazing green and livid. "You're not even worthy to be sacrificed to her. Patra only laid with you to sentence you to death, yet even there, Mencheres failed her. She should have just let me finish you that night as I wanted to."
Bones laughed again, but lower.
"Think she was the first female who shagged me hoping it would lead me to my doom? Not nearly. That trick had been attempted before then and repeated numerous times after it. So no, sorry, that's not why Patra was substandard in bed. It's because she's a fraud, a fake, and stripped of her lies-and her clothing-she was nothing more than a spoiled little girl with illusions of grandeur reinforced by such idiots as yourself."
"The grave is coming for you," Anubus roared, all composure gone. "She's summoned it, and it will find you and swallow you down with unending hunger-"
And then he stopped. I didn't have to see Bones's smile to feel it. He straightened, all the bantering gone from him. Anubus's face went blank, but it was too late.You fucked up, buddy, and you know it.
"Now, mate," Bones said as he went to Anubus and settled his finger with deceptive lightness on his face. "Whatever do you mean bythat?"
"Should we open the champagne, or wait to hose the boys off with it?" Denise asked.
We were seated in the living room, a formal place with earth tones and gilded pieces of antique furniture. The massive table looked like it was carved from a single gigantic tree. Food adorned it, along with solid brass and silver serving pieces, but no one really ate. I'd been drumming my fingers on its polished surface before I glanced up at her question.
"Hmm? Oh, go ahead and pop the cork. They'll be a while."
The reason I was here, instead of downstairs, was twofold. One, I didn't want to leave Denise and my mother surrounded by strangers on a holiday, and two, though he didn't ask me to leave, I knew Bones didn't want me below. Since they now knew Anubus was hiding something and not just ignorant, the gloves would definitely be off. It bothered me that Bones still thought seeing him like that would change how I felt about him, but I didn't want him distracted over me. Not when lives might depend on how fast he got the information out of Anubus.
Denise poured the champagne. "This stuff is excellent," she enthused. "Man, is this place ever stocked. Did you see all the brandy? I'll need a new liver if we stay here long!"
Her cheerful mood made me smile, but with a touch of jadedness. No, she had no idea how ugly things were downstairs by now.If you stay around vampires long, though, I mused,you'll learn. It's not all fun and vintage liquor.
Instead I said, "Fill her up. There's two hours before midnight, we may as well start the party. The last report from Zero was that they were making progress, whatever that means."
While Bones, Mencheres, Spade, Vlad, Rodney, and Ian were below, Tick Tock and Zero were our guards. Hell, we wouldn't even be able to stub our toes without one of them jumping in to prevent it.
"The snow's died down," my mother commented. "At least now you can see out of these windows. I can't wait to leave this barren place-and just for the record, I won't be waiting much longer."
Uh oh, there she goes. Some New Year's wishes would never come true.
I sighed. "If you don't like being surrounded by these vampires and ghouls, imagine how much more you wouldn't like it if it were Patra's vamps and ghouls."
"I'm not a child, Catherine," she replied in her usual sharp tone. "Don't speak to me like one."
The tenseness of the past several days caught up with me, even though I of all people knew better.
"You're not a child? That is news, considering you've acted like one most of my life."
Denise's mouth dropped at my rejoinder. She gulped her champagne, settling back in her chair for a better view.
"That's it," my mother announced, furious. "I'm leaving!"
Why couldn't I just learn to keep my trap shut? With resignation, I followed her as she marched to the front door, grabbing a coat.
"Mom, be sensible. It's about six degrees outside, you'll freeze to death. Where do you think you're going, anyway?"
"I've had enough of this," she spat. "Go here, do that, stay still, silly little mortal, tricks are for kids! Well, I am through being carted around for guilt's sake."
During her tirade, she had pushed past me and marched straight out onto the lawn. I didn't stop her, partly because I didn't want to have to get physical and also so our grievances could be aired in semi-private. The living room was hardly the place for this kind of family circus.
"You're wrong, Mom," I said, trying to ignore the biting wind. I hadn't bothered to don a coat, and the chill cut straight through my sweater and pants. "Can you be a pain in the ass? Yeah. Do I wish you weren't in my life? Of course not. Now, really, let's get back inside, it's freezing out-"
"I'll walk to the nearest house, street, town, whatever," she snapped, not mollified in the least.
We reached the trees, the fallen snow silvery in the moonlight. My breath came in plumes of smoke. "There's nothing around for at least twenty miles," I pointed out in a calm tone. "Believe me, I know. Mencheres picked this place for a reason. You can't walk it, you'd be overcome by hypothermia inside of five. We're out in the middle of nowhere, trust me, there's nothing around…"
And then I stopped, frozen to the spot and not from the temperature. My sudden unyielding grip on her prevented her from going another step. She rounded on me angrily before ceasing at my expression.
"What?" she whispered.
It was barely audible to her, but sounded way too loud for my comfort. Then again, our bitching over the past fifty yards hadn't been quiet. Neither were the heavy footfalls in the distance, disturbing the night with how noisy they were.
I narrowed my eyes, focusing all my energy toward those sounds. No heartbeat, no breathing, but also no feeling of encroaching power. They were moving slowly. A whole hell of a lot of them. Why didn't I feel anything? Every vampire or ghoul gave off an aura of power, but there was nothing. What the fuck were they?
Without waiting to find out, I snatched her up and ran for the house. Zero and Tick Tock were already at the door, sensing trouble from my rapid pace.
"Get everybody downstairs now," I barked, shoving my mother in that direction for emphasis. "Something's coming."
"What?" Denise began, rising from her chair.
Randy was quicker on the draw and went to her, pulling her up. Zero gestured to the stairs, ever respectful but urgent.
"Please, this way."
When my mother didn't move, I shot her a single glare. "Awake or unconscious, you're going with them."
She muttered something but went after them, her shoulders stiff.
"Tick Tock," I breathed, still straining to listen to those figures. "Get Bones and the others."
Two minutes later Bones came, Spade and Rodney close behind him. I ignored the stains on him and pointed to the window.
"Do you hear them? I can't feel anything, but there are a lot of them. Headed right this way."
Bones narrowed his gaze, staring into the darkness with green pinpoints in his eyes. After a few seconds he let out a grunt.
"Can't feel anything, either, Kitten, but they're stomping around like a herd of elephants. Whatever they are, they aren't human. Charles?"
"I have no idea, Crispin. That curls my stones in my sack."
Rodney gave Spade a grimly supportive glance. "I'm right there with you."
"All right." Bones cracked his knuckles, his eyes all green. "Let's get ready to greet them. We'll need knives, swords, crossbows, guns…quickly. A few of them sound like they're ahead of the pack. We'll be finding out soon what's come to call."
"Why don't we just leave?" I asked on the way to the armory.
"Because there's not enough choppers to get everyone off, and if we take cars, it could be an ambush. We'll make a stand, luv. Find out what we're up against. Now, we'll have the chopper ready just in case. If need be, you can fly your mum, Denise, and Randy to safety."
"I won't leave you," I said. "No matter what."
Bones made a soothing noise even as he began to strap on about forty pounds of silver. "Now Kitten, they're human and therefore easiest to kill. The rest of us are capable of-"
"Not a motherfucking chance." In the same reasonable tone he used. "Juan knows how to fly and I'm stronger than he is, so he'd be the best choice if their evacuation became necessary. And if you even think of pulling a fast one, like knocking me out and loading me onto that chopper, I'll return to work full-time taking on assignments that'll make your hair even whiter than it is now."
Bones gave me a quick, fierce kiss.
"Bloody woman. Learned a few mind-reading tricks of your own, have you? Right then, suit up and change clothes. Your sweater's too bulky, it'll restrain your movements."
I just pulled it off, left in my bra, sweatpants, and sneakers. There was no time to go upstairs and find a more flexible shirt. I began to strap on silver knives, lashing them to my legs, waist, and arms with the enhanced speed of long practice.
"Just not going to listen to a word I say, are you?" Bones asked as he handed me a sword. "Keep one of these, we don't know what we're trying to kill and silver might not work. You're going to freeze like that, Kitten."
"Isn't that the least of our concerns?" With a laugh that was more strained than amused. "Now I've got full range of motion, and that's what's most important."
"Right you are." Bones drew off his own sweater and threw it to the ground next to mine. Most of the vampires and ghouls followed suit. Bare chests gleamed in the reflection of the light of the chandelier as everyone strapped on weapons. Even as we did so, those footsteps outside came closer.
Mencheres came downstairs. I hadn't seen him before this, but he'd obviously heard what was going on, because he had more weapons covering him than skin.
"To the lawn, we'll start with an exterior perimeter and fall back inside if necessary," Bones said. "Zero, you gather the humans and put them in the holding cells below, since they're the most reinforced. Feel free to use physical means to make any reluctant ones obey, especially her mother."
I would have replied with something rude, but this wasn't the time. We filed outdoors in a precise manner, setting up formation around the house. Hand signals were used once we were outside, the vampires and ghouls moving with a speed any military leader would love to command. Of course, they predated most military leaders. Practice did make perfect.
The frigid wind made me shiver. Yes, it was extremely cold, but it wouldn't kill me and hypothermia was something I didn't have to worry about. I was half vampire, after all, so my blood wouldn't know how to freeze. It didn't stop me from wishing I could be as impervious to it as my companions, though. Vampires and ghouls might not like the cold, but I was the only one whose teeth were chattering.
"All right, luv?"
Bones asked it while not taking his gaze off the trees in front of him. We were dead center in front of the house, and hopefully that wasn't prophetic.
I gritted my jaw to still it. "It'll go away when the action starts."
There was movement at my side. Tate slid next to me without a word, shouldering Spade aside.
"Leave him," Bones interjected when Spade was about to shove him back. "It's what he's good for."
Tate might have replied with something, I won't ever know. His mouth opened…but then the first of the mysterious figures cleared the trees and stopped his rejoinder. Bones stiffened, turning as cold and hard as any of the icicles on the roof. Spade let out a low hiss, and someone muttered something that sounded like a prayer.
"Sweet Christ," I whispered, a new freeze settling in me. "What is that?"
It was Mencheres who answered, coming up behind us and raising his voice to be heard above the thing's sudden snarl as it began to run, its mouth snapping obscenely from half-rotted lips.
"That," he replied, "is the grave."