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The Final Battle



Aya Walksfar



Published by Wild Haven Press


Distributed by Smashwords


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This book is a work of fiction. With the exception of recognized historical figures, the characters in this novel are fictional. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.


Copyright 2017 by Aya Walksfar



All rights reserved. In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher constitute unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like permission to use this author’s material work other than for reviews, prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher. Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.


Cover Art: Deva Walksfar


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Chapter 1

Matriarch Helena Outterridge

The dungeon room echoed with the sharp clicks of Lady Helena Outteridge’s booted feet as she paced. Her blood red robe swirled around the knee high boots whenever she spun around. Eyes blazing nearly red in her creamy white face, her nostrils flared. Dark hair swung past her slender hips. She’d have been a beautiful woman, except the lovely features of her face twisted with rage.

She came to an abrupt halt towering over a cowering vampire. He groveled at her feet. “Please, Mistress...”

The whip in her hand cracked. The shirt on his back split and a line of red seeped into the remains of the shredded material. “You let animals murder your superior!”

The man pressed his forehead against the cold concrete. “Please, Mistress, they...they were just suddenly there.”

“That animal would never have reached Baskell if you had stopped it. Why else would you have been stationed at the door?” Her lip curled in disgust.

“I...I tried, Mistress. The wolves...they attacked. There were too many.”

Her voice dropped to a harsh whisper. “Then why are you not True Dead?”

He lifted his face just enough to gaze up at her. “I...they said...” He licked dry, cracked lips. “The one said to...to return and to tell you....tell you that the North America territory....” His body quivered as if anticipating her rage. “You...you cannot have it.”

The tip of the whip slashed across his face. “Stand.” She bit the word out as if it tasted bitter.

Warily, the man climbed to his feet, head hanging.

“Look at me.”

Eyes wild with terror, he pleaded. “Pl...please, Mistress.”

“You let those filthy animals kill the one I sent you to protect. What happened to you? Once your name was whispered in the darkness and people trembled. When did you become so weak?”

Chin lifted, he gazed into her unrelenting eyes. “I did not become weak, Mistress.” He inhaled deeply, as if calling upon hidden reserves of strength, and his voice no longer quavered. “I fought with honor. No vampire, regardless of his abilities in war, can alone overcome such large numbers of werewolves.”

In less than the blink of an eye, the sword in her hand rose and fell. The vampire clamped his jaws tight and barely slanted a look at the bloody emptiness where a stub of his arm connected to his shoulder. Drained and starved for days, he no longer possessed enough strength to ash out his own blood. It streamed in red rivulets down the stub and splatted onto the stained concrete.

The sword swung again and cleaved one leg in two. Helena kicked the useless appendage aside. He balanced on the remaining leg. Hate blazed in the depths of his eyes. “Last night, Mistress, I dreamed a beautiful dream.” His lips peeled back from his teeth, exposing shimmering white fangs. “I dreamed that you went to the New World...and met your True Death at the hands of a child.”

With a snarl, she swung the sword. His head parted from his shoulders, but even as it tumbled to the floor, the grin never left his face. Growling, she snatched it off the floor and flung it. The skull shattered against the cold walls.



Chapter 2

Serena Longer

Dawn lingered three hours away when they came. City streets lay quiescent beneath the crescent moon. Though street lights cast puddles of yellow light along the sidewalk, the old Victorian house presided over an acre of land too secluded to be touched by the weak rays. Cedar privacy fence, lined with tall arborvitaes, enclosed the area around the house. Open lawn rolled like a manicured green carpet between house and fence. The new grass shone with the bluish cast of security lights.

When the black dressed figures breached the fence, the guardian at the rear of the house glanced up. Before he could call out warning, a gold-plated knife thudded into his throat. He stumbled a few feet, short sword raised as he charged. The first invader slapped the short sword aside with his longer blade. With a flick of his wrist, he thrust the blade into the guardian’s heart.

The clang of swords alerted the sentries around front. A swarm of invaders overwhelmed them as they raced along the side of the building. The youngest guardian, Teresa, had a breath’s time to telepathically broadcast before a blade sliced through her neck.

****

I jerked awake, tears streaming from my eyes. Why in the name of Goddess had they put a two-year-old vampire on guard duty?

Awakened by my distress, Alexis bolted out of our bed, short sword in hand. Her head whipped around as she surveyed the room for danger before she swung her gaze to me. “What is it, Serena?”

“The house in Seattle—the one in Ballard--is being attacked,” I gasped.

Yanking on black jeans, she darted to the dresser and pulled out a black t-shirt. Boots hurriedly tied, she grabbed a .44 mag and jammed it in her shoulder holster. Sheathed knives decorated her belt along with the cell phone. A lightweight jacket covered them. Her feet pounded down the stairs, as she yelled for Lieutenant Nikki Howitter, Captain of Artemis’ Warriors, and Lieutenant Chang of the Guardians.

Jerking on a robe, I raced behind her. The house had sprung awake. Vampires and human Warriors, in varying stages of dress, strapping on weapons as they gathered in the living room of the mansion. Ariel raced from her bedroom, sword in hand then stopped when the fighters rushed for the front door.

Her head swiveled between Lieutenant Chang and me. Finally, she settled on me. “Matriarch, who was attacked?”

My not-quite-thirteen year old daughter’s formality jerked my attention away from the closing door. “The Ballard house is under attack. We must prepare in case that attack is merely a distraction.”

Outside the van roared and gravel pinged against the undercarriage of the vehicle as Alexis tore down the driveway. Within minutes the sound of the van’s specially built engine faded down the narrow, dirt road that connected Phoenix Estate to the human world.



Chapter 3

Alexis Night Runner

The wrought iron gates gaped open. Bits of brain and bone splattered the guard shack’s window. The headless guardian, too young to ash out, slumped against the once-white front of the small building. Voices floated faintly on the night air as we ghosted toward the mansion. Another headless guardian sprawled in the center of the lawn.

Spreading out, we clung to the shadows closest to the fence, though someone had helpfully doused the outside lights. Probably from the guard shack. It was meant to be a safety feature—a warning and a way to slow down attackers without night vision. I had argued for a warning bell instead, but the Head of Family Myers refused to heed my words.

I shifted to Other Sight. Trees and bushes popped into my vision as if I had turned on a dim light.

On the front porch, the ember of a cigarette glowed orange. Shuffling feet sounded loud on the wood. The light from the living room spilled to the porch from between the not-quite-closed drapes, interrupted when a second guard ambled past. Whatever had happened was already done.

I froze, hoping Captain Nikki Howitter of Artemis’ Warriors had spotted the sentries. Arrows thudded into the chests of the vampires, answering my question. They dropped to the porch floor. Knowing the sound of bodies falling would alert the rest of the invading force, I broke into a run. Vampires poured through the door as the light inside flicked out.

Arrows hit two more vampires, missing the hearts. They yanked the gold-plated heads out, tossing them aside as they sprang from the porch and raced across the lawn.

Fangs gleaming under the weak light of a quarter-moon, one of the creatures leapt toward me. I yanked out the silenced .44. A tight pattern of holes over his heart dropped him. From peripheral vision, I caught the gleam of a blade slashing downward. I dove to the side and rolled to my feet as the blade buried itself into the dirt. Whipping my gun his way, I pulled the trigger until his head exploded in a shower of brain and bone and blood. He ashed as he fell.

The gun clicked on an empty chamber. Before I could slap in another magazine, a vampire lunged at me from the shadows. I dropped the gun and jerked a knife from my belt. The glint of blade slicing toward my neck gave me a fraction of a second’s warning. Instead of leaping backward or to one side, head lowered I charged forward.

I plunged the knife into his gut and ripped upward. My hand slammed into the dissected meat of his abdomen and I angled the knife. It sliced into the heart. His knees gave way, but his body ashed before he fell any farther.

How old were these assholes? Not only did they ash out, they wield long swords. Even the more retro of Serena’s people switched to short swords years ago. Easier to hide under a long coat.

I found my gun. Knife sheathed, I slapped in a new magazine and chambered a round. The clanging of metal on metal jerked my attention to the porch. A Warrior fought a losing battle with a vampire; her short sword no match for his longer reach. As his weapon sailed toward her neck, she ducked. The momentum of the sword jammed it deeply into a wood porch pillar. In that millisecond, the Warrior darted in and slammed a knife into the vampire’s heart. As gray ash coated her arms, she headed for the front door.

Fear weakened my legs. Damn it! She knows better than to enter a building without backup. I leapt up the stairs just as the Warrior passed the open archway into the living room. A vampire leapt out and plunged his sword in her stomach. As she fell to the floor, he lifted the weapon for a killing blow.

I tattooed a pattern of holes in his chest that staggered him back, but no far enough to save the Warrior. Sword raised, he snarled--his mouth ringed with fresh blood. Before the weapon arced down, the tip of a short sword exited his chest. Ashes floated to the hardwood to mingle with the Warrior’s blood. The clang of the sword sounded like the knell of a funeral bell.

I dropped to my knees and felt for a pulse. A faint thread skittered beneath my fingers. I rolled the woman onto her back. For a moment, her eyes cleared. “Sorry...General.”

“You’ve nothing to be sorry for; you fought well, Warrior.”

A faint smile touched her lips before she sagged in my arms.

The Warrior, who had entered through the back door with Nikki, stood over us and whispered, “I wish I’d been a coupla seconds sooner.”

Gently, I laid her head down and pushed to my feet. “We can’t always be those couple of seconds sooner.” I tilted my head and listened. Silence. It scratched its way up my back.

“General,” Nikki’s voice eased across the distance between us.

I waved her forward. “I’ll take four fighters and head upstairs. You clear the downstairs.”

She nodded. I pointed toward the fighters I wanted and headed toward the stairs on the far side of the open living room. The fighters spread out in staggered formation behind me. The stairs squeaked as I eased up them.

The upstairs hall turned to the left with nothing, except a large window to the right. Six doors lined the two-person wide corridor. I shivered as the memory of another hallway flitted through my mind. With a shrug, I tossed off the dis-ease.

The first five doors opened onto bloody chaos, scatterings of ashes, and chopped up bodies. I swallowed hard as the sixth door loomed at the end of the corridor. All of a sudden, it swung wide and the pssting of multiple, silenced guns sounded as loud as thunder.

I dove to the floor. Rolling into a prone position, I returned fire. A body thudded behind me as doors slammed open. I couldn’t look around. At a disadvantage, I angled my weapon upwards. Heads blew apart, painting the ivory cream walls a speckled reddish-black until the blood turned gray and drifted to the floor.

Blindly firing with one hand, I jumped to my feet. Shoulder ramming the nearest door, it flew open. I tumbled inside the room as a weapon strafed the hall. Bits of plaster pelted my face. A sliver of the wood doorjamb stung my upper arm. I slammed in a fresh magazine as the sound of an old window sliding up reached me.

“Sonofa...” I didn’t finish the curse as I darted from the room. Blasting away at the space to the right of the door, the distinct thump of a body followed as the bullets sliced through plaster and lathe.

I lunged through the open doorway, firing blind as I dove behind the bed. Popping up, I aimed at the body squatted on the windowsill. A circle appeared on his back. Another vampire shoved the already ashing body aside and dove through the window.

Warriors poured through the door, firing as fast as they could pull the triggers. Three more vampires ashed out, but another one made the leap. When silence fell, I glanced around. A belt acted as a makeshift tourniquet on the thigh of an injured Warrior. The other three Warriors appeared unharmed, except for rug burns.

Once the master bedroom and bath had been cleared, we headed cautiously toward the stairway. Footsteps milled about below us.

Nikki called up, “Anyone hurt up there, General?”

“Yeah, but she’s able to walk.”

Carpet muffled our descent. The open banister along the stairway allowed full view of the space below. One adult and five children hunched on the fabric-upholstered couches—the pitiful handful of survivors. Tears streaked the children’s faces. A grim look of determination hardened the lines of the adult’s face.

I walked over and stood in front of them. “Names?”

The adult’s lips quivered, but he swallowed hard and cleared his throat. His voice sounded hoarse as if grief had rasped it raw. “I’m Carl Tomacha, a human donor and the donor coordinator. This is Jenny, Rosalinda, Mark, Denny—all human children. The baby is Holly, a huvam.”

He unclasped his hands and dug in the pocket of his jeans. The silver medallion dangling from his hand shone in the lights a Warrior had flicked on. A smaller medallion than the ones worn by Clan Mothers, the front boasted the Family’s Crest. Engraved on the back were the words To Artemis Be Ever True. “Mother....” He choked up. Sucked in a hard breath then continued. “Mother Stella Myers said if I lived I was to bring the children to Phoenix Estate and give this to First Councilwoman Ariel. Should I give it to you, General Night Runner?”

With a shake of my head, I said, “No. She trusted you with the children and the medallion. You’ve earned the right to deliver it to First Councilwoman Ariel.”

We loaded our van with the children, their clothes, and their most precious belongings. Several fighters climbed in with them, guns in hand, constantly on alert. Carl, assisted by a Warrior, pulled a van out of the garage and loaded it with the Family Head’s journal, photo albums, and jewelry. A few pairs of jeans, some t-shirts, socks, underwear, and a pair of runner’s shoes were carelessly tossed into a worn backpack. It bode well that he valued the Mother’s legacy more than his own belongings.

After we drove several blocks away, we pulled over on a quiet side street with few street lights. It wasn’t long before Nikki and three of her people climbed into the van. I pulled out and headed toward the highway. In my rearview mirror, an orange-red light ate a hole in the night. From farther away, the sound of sirens echoed off buildings.

As I steered onto I-5 North, the knowledge that I had failed to keep our people safe settled in my chest—a sharp physical pain. With a fisted hand, I rubbed at it, though I knew it would be many days before it eased.



Chapter 4

Alexis Night Runner

It had been a difficult week--coming to grips with the loss of the Ballard House, settling the few survivors into the estate--and now my upcoming tour of the estates loomed in the front of my mind. I needed some down time. And, to be honest with myself, I needed time to be with Serena—the woman I loved; not the Matriarch.

After hours of coaxing, I’d finally convinced Serena that the estate wouldn’t go up in smoke if she let me take her to dinner in Seattle. When she acquiesced, I’d quickly made reservations at The Lavender House, a restaurant that boasted white linen napkins and handmade, lacy tablecloths as well as the best Northwest cuisine.

Seated at the back of the candlelit restaurant, I gazed into Serena’s spring green eyes. Once again, I wondered how I’d been so fortunate; me, a woman who’d grown up on the streets of Seattle.

I shivered. I’d come so close to losing her to Arundia’s evil machinations. I shoved the thought away. Now was no time to recall those dark days.

From where I sat, I could see out the plate glass windows at the front. The early summer night had fallen softly over the city. My attention returned to Serena as I thought about the small box in my desk drawer at the estate. I set the fragile china cup on its matching saucer. With a deep inhale, I willed my heart to slow its galloping pace. As my breath eased out, so did my anxiety. Enfolding Serena’s hand between both of mine, I kissed her knuckles one by one. “When do you want to get married?”

Long, chestnut hair spilled around her shoulders. “A paper issued by a civil authority cannot make my commitment to you any stronger than it is already, Alexis.”

“I know it doesn’t mean much to you, but...”

She held a hand up to stop my words. “I do realize how much this means to you. And, we will get married, but not yet. Not with the ongoing war.”

Abruptly, I released her hand, flopped against my chair and crossed my arms over my chest, though I knew I looked like a pouting child. “Damn it! We can’t put our lives on hold indefinitely. We have no idea how long we’ll have to deal with this situation. Even if the war ended tomorrow, who’s to say another situation every bit as critical won’t develop?”

She drew herself taller in her chair. “This war must end soon. I won’t have my People looking over their shoulders, always wondering when the next attack will come; who will die. They can’t go on being afraid that any day, any hour they might find a loved one drained and left like garbage on the street.”

Hands held up in surrender, I apologized. “I’m sorry I brought it up, Serena. I brought you here to relax; so we could enjoy each other’s company. Forgive me.” Leaning forward, I wrapped my fingers around hers. “Tonight, I am with the most beautiful woman in the world. Let me drown in the depths of your eyes.”

A smile graced her lips. “And, let me drown in the depths of your malarky. Are you sure you don’t have Irish roots?” The crystalline chime of her laughter shattered the tension between us like cheap glass.

“The only roots I am certain about is Native American on my mother’s side.” I shook my head as I let go of her hand and picked up my cup. “Changing the subject. Did Ariel mention wanting to build an Olympic-size pool to help everyone stay in shape?”

Brows scrunched in mock annoyance, she glowered at me. “That child! First she wants a gym and an arena, so there’s some place to practice fighting and horseback riding, and now a pool?”

I grinned, knowing that Serena would give Ariel anything she wanted. It wasn’t that she spoiled the child; but that she loved her without reserve. Serena once told me that money was only good if we used it to bring good to the world and pleasure to family and friends. We’d be getting a pool soon. “It would be nice to have a pool and a hot tub.”

“You agreed with her about the arena and the gym, too,” Serena tried to pull a stern face, but a smile tugged the corners of her lips.

A slight lift of my shoulders conceded her point. “They are both in nearly-constant use.”

The smile Serena had tried to hide burst across her lips. “I’ll ask Melissa to see to it.”

Levity faded from my face. “Thanks for making Melissa your admin assistant. There for a while, she was pretty despondent over the loss of her arm.”

“Don’t thank me. That Warrior earned her place. To be honest, I’m not sure how I managed without her. She does a bit of everything from keeping my calendar to managing the estate books. A lot like you used to do before I forced graver responsibilities on your shoulders.”

Sadness settled over her aristocratic features. Seeking to distract her from painful memories, I said, “Did I tell you Ri wants to send one of her panthers over to learn how to be an admin assistant from Melissa?”

With a blink, she pulled away from the past. “No, you hadn’t mentioned that. If Melissa is okay with it, I certainly am. She’s well aware of what must remain private and what she can share.”

A basket of warm rolls arrived with our appetizers. Our discussion meandered lazily from books to gardens to whatever popped into our minds. The lightness continued during the main course and on through desert. Finally, unable to eat another bite, I leaned back in my chair and placed the napkin on the table. “That was an excellent meal with excellent company.” I stared across to my fiancee. “How did I get so lucky?”

Serena leaned forward to answer when the first explosion rocked the building.

Humans screamed, jumping to their feet. The clatter of overturned chairs competed with the panicked yells. Smoke filled the front of the restaurant. Flickers of orange flame licked across the tables closest to the shattered windows. Several bodies lay in scattered heaps. Shards of glass, some as big as a short sword glittered amid the debris. One especially long, narrow shard stuck up from the back of a human like a grotesque wind-up key.

Serena’s chair flew backward as she lunged to her feet and swirled around, intent on reaching the injured. I snagged her arm and hung on. Leaning close to her ear, I shouted, “It’s a trap! We’ve got to get out of here.”

“I can’t leave them.” Her arm swept wide, encompassing the dead, the injured, and the terrified who bolted this way and that way like startled sheep. “This place is so old that once the fire catches it’ll go up like a matchbox.”

I pulled the Glock from its holster. With a grim set to my mouth, I gave a brusque nod. “Okay, but we do it my way.”

Briefly, she bristled. “I’ve led my share of battles, Alexis.”

“I know you have, and you are by far a better soldier than I am...most of the time. But, this attack was aimed at you. And our people cannot afford to lose you. Let me lead and if I say run, we run.” I tightened my grip on her arm.

With a downward jerk of her chin, she conceded. “Fine. Now, let’s help transport the injured to the back door, so they can be evacuated.”

The first attacker materialized out of the smoke before we had gone five feet. He carried an automatic rifle diagonally across his chest as he scoped out the room. I knew the moment he spotted us. He stilled like a cat who had caught sight of his prey.

Shifting into Other Sight for accuracy, I raised the Glock and fired. The bullet thudded into his chest. Red blossomed around the hole. He stumbled, fell over a damaged table and landed on his back. He didn’t get up. Functioning in Other Sight, I spotted the next one before she cleared the smoky area. This time the bullet created a neat round hole in her forehead. A trickle of blood dribbled down and across her nose before she dropped with the loose-limbs of the dead. The hollow point bullets did their job, mushrooming and tumbling through the target, but not exiting to do collateral damage. Not human; but not vampire, either.

Serena leaned over the female and sniffed. “Werepanther,” she said before she darted forward and grabbed a dazed woman lying behind an overturned table.

I snagged the arm of the unconscious man next to her. Eyes roaming, I let Serena get ahead of me as we backed toward the exit across the restaurant, close to where we had sat.

As soon as we deposited the two, still-breathing humans next to the emergency exit, we plunged back into the increasing chaos. People slammed into us as they stampeded for the rear exit. Black smoke overwhelmed the lighter gray smoke from earlier. More orange-red flames licked along the base of the front wall. A light breeze stirred the smoke; encouraged the fire.

As we dragged more humans toward the exit, my eyes roved over the interior of the destroyed restaurant. Did they only send two? Or are they waiting for us out back?

A siren wailed through the city corridors, echoing off the front of the buildings, making it difficult to tell if it drew closer. Fire fighters entered the restaurant. Suspiciously, I watched them. Fire fighters or enemies in disguise? When they began fighting the growing blaze while others evacuated the injured, I holstered the Glock. “We need to leave.”

Serena nodded.

Weaving through stragglers, Serena and I exited the rear of the restaurant. As we stepped outside, a black clad figure rounded the corner of the building and opened fire. I grabbed Serena. We hit the rough asphalt of the parking lot and rolled to our feet.

A cop rounded the building, gun stretched out in two-handed grip. “Put down your weapon!”

The black clad figure whirled and fired. The chatter of the automatic rifle ripped the night. The officer’s head exploded in a shower of blood, brains, and bone. Unable to get a clear shot with milling humans, I yanked Serena into a run, not attempting to hide our escape route. More automatic weapon’s fire dropped three humans to the ground. Blank eyes stared toward the sky.

A police car jumped the sidewalk and skidded to a halt. Uniformed officers piled out. The chatter of the automatic weapon greeted them. As I whirled toward the attacker, his head blew apart. Blending with the thinning crowd, Serena and I hurried from the scene.

Five blocks away and free of the screaming mass, I pressed a key fob and the lights of my truck flashed. Serena hopped into the passenger side while I slid under the wheel. Not blocked by arriving emergency vehicles, tires squealed as I tore away from the curb. Within minutes of the attack, I gunned the engine and merged with the flow of I-5 traffic heading north, away from Seattle.

Serena unslung the tiny shoulder purse she had somehow hung onto and dug until she retrieved her cell phone. She punched the quick dial button for the estate and hit speaker. Captain Howitter’s calm voice came online. It required a few seconds before my numb brain realized it was a recording.

I shot a worried glance at Serena. She quickly hung up and dialed Lieutenant Chang’s cell phone. Finding no better success there, she called the landline in both the mansion and the admin building. The phones rang unanswered until they defaulted to voice mails. My foot pressed harder on the accelerator.

Stomach clenched, I concentrated on darting through the light traffic and hoped no cops appeared. After I cleared Arlington’s city limits and hit Highway 530 going east, I shoved the accelerator to the floor. Neither Serena nor I spoke.

Coming up on the road leading up to the estate traveling too fast, I whipped the wheel in a hard right. The backend of the truck nearly swapped ends with the front until I wrestled it straight. Rocks clattered against the undercarriage as we bounced through bone-jarring potholes. Switchbacks and drop-offs flashed past the headlights.

Around a bend about halfway up the mountain, three cargo vans blocked the road. Brakes locked, I skidded to a halt within inches of the closest van. Slamming into reverse, I hit the gas and the truck shot backward. Headlights killed, I spun the wheel hard and swung onto a dirt track barely wide enough to allow passage. Branches scraped the sides. A quarter of a mile along that dirt track, I shut off the truck and pushed open my door. Flipping up the backseat of the crew cab, I pulled out a couple of short swords while Serena dumped her stiletto heels and purse onto the back floor board.

The back door shut with a quiet click. Crickets chirped. Frogs sang as we scrambled through the woods. Two-thirds of the way up the side of the steep ravine, we slipped around a dark-gray boulder and into the cave that housed a special library beneath the now-rebuilt House of Females. I crept forward along the black tunnel, grateful for the ability to call on Other Sight. Having magic wasn’t always a plus—and had nearly gotten me killed several times—but there were definite perks.

As we emerged from the House of Females’ back entrance, the clang of metal on metal assaulted my ears. Heart pounding, I raced around the building and onto the edge of the lawn that spread between the group of buildings.

Fighters engaged across the open spaces. A small group of huvams and humans—donors and children--had been encircled by Guardians and Warriors, apparently trapped by the invaders as they raced from the mansion. Swords flashed. A Guardian lashed out at a vampire who ashed before his head hit the ground.

Serena’s panic-stricken eyes searched the clumps of fighters. “I don’t see Ariel!”

“I don’t see Nikki either. They must’ve followed protocol.”

Rage deepened the green of Serena’s eyes to a blazing emerald. “Let’s get rid of these upstarts.”

A tawny panther appeared out of the shadows and leapt at Serena. The animal was too close for me to get a clean swing at it. It hit Serena in her right shoulder, effectively immobilizing her sword arm, and then rode her to the ground. Before I could reach for the panther, Serena’s left hand flashed upward. Blood gushed from the panther’s neck as her fingers ripped out its throat. Before the cat stopped twitching, she tossed the animal aside. I slashed downward and severed the beast’s head.

Three vampires rushed us as Serena sprang to her feet. Gray ash clung to the shoulder of her lovely blue dress where her blood had been moments before. Sword moving in a lethal dance, she kept two of the enemy at bay while I engaged the third vampire. The man was an accomplished sword fighter and nearly took my head.

Hoping I could manage magic while keeping his weapon from finding my body or neck, I called my inner fire. A blue flame leapt in the palm of my right hand. I ducked beneath a swing of his blade. When I bobbed back up, I flung my hand at him. The flame rounded into a tiny comet that burst across his face.

Screaming, his sword thudded to the ground as he clawed at his eyes. I stepped to the side and swung. My blade cleaved his neck. Body and head ashed so quickly that a pile of black cloth lay on the ground still burning. The magic fire would eat the clothes then die out. I swirled around as Serena lunged forward and drove her blade through the last enemy. She jerked upwards, shredding the heart. The vampire ashed out.

Quiet deafened me. I gazed around. Dead North American panthers littered the ground. Piles of black cloth dusted with gray ash scattered across the lawn.

We picked our way across the grounds, passing two dead Warriors. One had her throat partially torn out. A dead panther lay next to her; her dagger sunk deep into its side. If she had been vampire, she would have survived. The second Warrior clutched black cloth with the ashes of a vampire in her dead hand.

Relief washed through me. Both women had been recruited after I became General of the Guardians. These were Captain Howitter’s recruits. As selfish as it felt, I was glad I didn’t know either woman.

Lieutenant Li Chang pushed between two Guardians. His round face and dark eyes remained unreadable as he gave a slight bow toward Serena, and another one toward me. “Matriarch Longer, we are glad to see General Night Runner and you safely returned home.”

Without waiting for a response, he pivoted to face me and launched into his report. “At 21:00 hours the estate was attacked by an enemy force of vampires and werepanthers. As instructed by you, shortly after the attack commenced, Captain Howitter took First Councilwoman Ariel Morningstar-Longer and followed protocol to remove her from the area of combat. Now that the attack has been repelled, shall we begin a search for them?”

“No need to do that, Lieutenant Chang.” Nikki stepped out of the black shadows of the forest. Silver that spilled from Grandmother Moon illuminated the dark splotches on her clothes and face. As she drew closer, I could see blood had mixed with ash and dotted her clothing.

“Report, Captain.”

She stopped in front of me, her shoulders sagging with fatigue. “Ariel refused to go to safety, so we began a joint effort to evacuate huvams and humans. When we had most of them together, we headed to the tunnel. Before we got there, we met resistance.” She glanced down at her clothing and grimaced.

“Only vampire or werepanther, too?” I asked.

“Both, General. An older vampire—as determined by how fast he ashed out—led five werepanthers in an effort to thwart the evacuation. I left the remains of the panthers in the house.” She gave a negligent wave toward the House of Females.

She didn’t need to say more. I knew the route she’d taken with Ariel and the evacuees. Not knowing who to fully trust, we had agreed that no one would know the exact location of the caves I had warded and set up as a safe zone for Ariel along with a detail of two Warriors and two Guardians specially selected in addition to Nikki. Now all of that work had been compromised by Ariel’s stubborn insistence on saving as many of her People as possible. One part of me swelled with pride for the 12-year-old—soon to be thirteen as she frequently reminded me--while the other part of me wanted to strangle her. She knew the reasons for the protocol.

A sigh wafted from me. No use getting my panties in a bunch. Ariel would always be a wild card. If we could keep her alive, she’d make a remarkable leader. “Serena and I can retrieve Ariel and the others. You’re needed by the Warriors.”

“Thank you, General.” She spun on her heel and hurried toward the center of the compound where Chang was organizing clean-up efforts.

As we drew closer to the caves, Aife stepped out of the gloom, Glock leveled at us. On either side of her, Artemis’ Warriors held swords in ready position. Aife took a half-step forward and locked eyes with me. “Name of the witch camp panther.”

I grinned recalling the time Aife attempted to run a sword through a panther who had waltzed into our barracks at the witches’ compound. “Queen Rianna.”

Serena stepped forward. “Be at peace, Aife.”

Ariel bolted from the darker shadows near a large tree. “Mother!” She sheathed her sword just before crashing into Serena and flinging her arms around her mother. “I was so worried about you.”

Arms tightening around the child, Serena pressed her cheek against her daughter’s. The child already stood as tall as her mother. “I was worried about you, too,” she murmured. After a few moments, she held Ariel at arm’s length. “Why did you ignore the protocol we put into place for your safety?”

Ariel backed a couple of steps away from her mother. Defiantly, she lifted her chin. “I am the First Councilwoman. I cannot put my safety above the safety of my People.”

“Ariel, you could have been killed or kidnapped!” Serena flung her hands skyward in frustration.

“Mother, you taught me that our People are more important than any desire we might have as individuals--that includes our desire to continue living. I did what you would have done—I ordered Captain Howitter to assist me in evacuating our huvams and humans to a defensible location. We succeeded with all, except a few we couldn’t reach in the mansion. Do you know if....” She trailed off and her eyes darted past her mother’s shoulder.

“I believe they are well.” Propping her fists on her hips, Serena glared at her daughter. “Child, you are going to give me gray hair.”

Suddenly a child again, Ariel laughed and stepped close enough to put her arm around her mother’s waist. “Mother, you’re a vampire. You can’t get gray hair unless you dye or magic it.”



Chapter 5

Alexis Night Runner

The smooth growl of bikes echoed through the trees as the sun painted the western sky with a brush dipped in pale gold. I waited on the front porch of the mansion.

Queen Rianna Mayson of the Mayson Werepanther Pride and Leader of All North America Weres blasted through the gates, and then quickly cut her speed in case children lurked in the deepening shadows. She kicked the bike’s stand down and flung her leg over the leather seat of the Honda. The tan helmet with a snarling black panther painted on the side came off next and she finger combed short black hair as she headed toward me. “Helmet hair never looks good.”

I shook my head with a smile. “Quit fishing for compliments. You know your gorgeous next to the rest of us peons.”

“If you don’t fish, you’ll never catch anything.” Her grin widened.

“Explain to me again why you and your guards ride Hondas, instead of a Harleys. A Harley is way more badass.”

Ri strode up the stairs, closely followed by her personal guards, Doreena and Hot Rod, both once part of Artemis’ Warriors. “We’re badass enough without riding Hogs. Besides, Hot Rod got us a great deal on these three bikes.”

I embraced Ri and laughed. “If Hot Rod got you the deal, you’d better double check the VIN numbers. I’d hate to bail you three out of jail for stealing bikes.”

Hot Rod bounced up the stairs behind Ri and gave me a quick one-armed hug. “Hey, that was when I was just a kid. Haven’t got caught doin’ anything like that since. Besides, I was just borrowin’ that bike. Not my fault if my boss at Ghost Bikes Rebuild shop didn’t remember that convo.”

“Yeah, yeah; the operative words are haven’t got caught.” I returned the quick hug.

Hot Rod laughed as she strolled into the house. When Doreena sashayed up, I threw my arm over her shoulders and we trailed the others inside.

Serena and Ariel gave grave nods from the couch as we entered the living room. Doreena and Hot Rod dragged a couple of chairs and set them slightly behind the leather arm chair where Rianna flopped. The levity of a few minutes ago forgotten, the queen of the Mayson Pride glanced around before her eyes settled on Serena. “Wha’s up?”

Nikki hurried in. “Sorry I’m late.” She sprawled on the loveseat closest to the couch where Ariel and Serena lounged.

Over at the bar, I held up a carafe of freshly brewed coffee. “Coffee, tea, juice?”

Everyone opted for coffee, except Ariel who asked for English Breakfast tea. “Hanging out with the witches ruined you,” I teased as I handed her the cup.

She smiled. “Patrice was right; tea doesn’t taste bitter, like coffee does.”

After serving everyone, I settled on the chair between Ri’s chair and one end of the couch, completing the rough circle. “Serena and I were attacked in Seattle last night...”

“What!” Rianna jerked upright in her chair.

Hand held in a wait-a-minute gesture, I continued. “A small incendiary device was tossed through a plate glass window into the restaurant where we were having dinner. Two attackers with automatic pistols followed it in. I took them both out. Serena sniffed the female. Definitely werepanther.”

I sucked down half the cup of coffee I held. “Fortunately, we escaped without injury, and without having to deal with the authorities. By the time we returned home, halfway up the hill strange vans blocked the roadway. We came in through the ravine. The estate was under attack by vampires and werepanthers in panther form. Unfortunately, after the fighting ended, we realized some of the attackers escaped. At least three, since all the vans disappeared.”

“Holy Mother of Cats! Did you lose anyone?”

Nikki answered. “Two Warriors.”

“I’m sorry for your loss. How can I help?”

I pushed to my feet. “We tossed the dead cats into the walk-in freezer. I hoped you might be able to identify them, or tell us if they were rogues—ones that never belonged to any pride.”

“Absolutely.”

In the basement, I pulled open the heavy freezer door. Walking into the roomy cold space, I flipped stiff blankets from the faces of eight werepanthers in cat form. It still weirded me out that Weres who died in animal form didn’t change back to human. But it made sense. Animals who suddenly became people would’ve made it more difficult to remain hidden from humans over the millennia. “Lieutenant Chang reported that the invading force had more vampires than panthers.”

Ri squatted next to each one, carefully examining the bodies and faces for markings that only she would understand. Finally, she stood and flipped the blankets back over the corpses.

The thick door hissed shut behind us. She didn’t speak until we returned to the living room. “Two Pride cats; the other six are rogues.”

Serena gave a slow nod. “Is there any other information you can give us?”

Anger flared in Ri’s eyes. “The Pride cats belong to the Silver Pride in Colorado.”

My fist hit the arm of my chair. “Damn it! I knew that woman wouldn’t disappear quietly.”

“I never thought she would,” Ri said softly. “Until I returned to my aunt’s house, Amanda Silver was appointed-heir to the Mayson Pride. That kind of power was too enticing to let go, especially to a nobody panther.”

“You are far from a nobody, Queen Rianna,” Serena snapped. “That twit was appointed; not a royal. The Pride rightfully belongs to you. Royal blood flows in your veins.”

Ri gave a rueful look at Serena. “Well, her blood would have become royal once she took the Oath.”

“She would not have survived the Trials of Conversion.” Serena gave a disdainful sniff. “Your People are fortunate that you returned.”

Rianna ducked her head, but not before I noted pink spots on her cheeks. Even as the queen of the werepanthers, she blushed at compliments. Her gaze shifted to me. “How can I help?”

****

Later that evening as the last bike blasted through the gates, I looped an arm around Serena’s shoulders. “It’s a good thing werepanthers are hard to kill.”

Her eyes sparkled. “Yes, it is. That girl loves living on the edge.”

We headed into the quiet house. A Warrior stepped from the kitchen with a sandwich in her hands. “Everything okay, General?”

“Yes, thank you. We were seeing Queen Rianna off.”

The woman’s pale blue eyes lit up. “Isn’t that a bad bike?”

“Yeah, it is, but don’t tell Ri I said that.”

The Warrior shot me a conspiratorial grin. “Your secret’s safe with me, General. Good night.”

“Good night.” I led Serena up the stairs to our bedroom. Inside the room, I clicked the door closed then backed her against it. “I’ve been wanting you all night.” My mouth crashed down on hers. My hands worked the button on her slacks free then undid the zipper. My tongue darted into her mouth and swept through it, tangling with hers.

She grasped my shirt and yanked. Buttons skittered across the floor as her hands kneaded my braless breasts. When her fingers pinched my nipples into peaks, I moaned into her mouth.

With a handful of her blouse, I backed us across the room. We fell on the super king-size bed, Serena on top. I flipped Serena onto her back.

Propped up on my elbow, I gazed at her sprawled across the bed. My free hand reached out and slowly undid the buttons on her blouse. Soon after, her front-clasp bra fell to one side, exposing full breasts with nipples peaked and darkened with desire. Two fingers on the button of her slacks, I watched her face as I popped it open then slowly clicked her zipper down. Backing off the end of the bed, I peeled her slacks down her sexy legs tantalizingly slow. Black lace panties mocked me, but I soon had them flung across the room. Easing up to the thick nest of curls between her thighs, I ran my tongue lightly up the inside of one thigh.

Serena shivered. Her breath caught as my tongue flicked across her swollen clit. She raised her hips toward my mouth and my hands wandered up her body. Fingers pinched and pulled at her sensitive nipples. The swirling of my tongue around the hard nub of her pleasure center had her squirming.

One hand withdrawn from ministering to her breasts, I slid it down her side and across her tight abs. Two fingers delved into the heated wetness of her womanly place. A third finger quickly followed.

She cried out and thrust hard against my hand. Breath rasping in and out, she tossed back her head. Crawling up between her spread legs, my tongue made damp pathways from her belly button up her hard abs then onto the delicious firm mounds of her breasts. I sucked a nipple into my mouth and flicked it with my tongue before I continued my journey over her collarbone, up her neck and to her parted lips.

My tongue dove into her mouth as my throbbing sex pressed against her mound. She groaned and lifted her hips, shifting a little to increase the friction between us. My hands grasped her shoulders tightly. Tongue and lips ravaged her mouth as lust raged through me.

A groan wretched from me. My body clenched then exploded. Serena cried out a nanosecond behind mine. When the last wave of pleasure crashed over us, I dipped my forehead to hers. “Goddess, Serena, you’re hotter than Caine’s Hells.”

She chuckled. “Since I’ve never traveled there, I can’t remark on that comment, but thank you. You’re not too bad yourself.”

I pulled back enough to mock-glare down at her. “Not too bad? We’ll see about that!” I nipped her lower lip and slid down her sweaty body. My tongue laved her mound then suddenly drove inside. Her hot, salty juices flooded my mouth.

She groaned loudly and rocked up against my lips. Her groans quickly became gasps as my fingers rubbed her swollen nub. My body trembled on the brink then crashed over as she screamed my name.

I flopped on the bed next to her. “It keeps getting better, doesn’t it?”

She rose up on her elbow and planted a gentle kiss on my lips. “Yes, it does.”

With her snuggled against my shoulder, I brushed a sweaty strand of hair from her forehead. “Do you ever regret our commitment to each other?”

The sharp-nailed finger running down the center of my chest hesitated a fraction of a second. I knew she had to be thinking of my much-shorter, human lifespan. With Magic User blood coursing through my veins, she feared to give me sips of her blood; sips of blood that allowed humans to live many years longer than they normally would. There was no telling how vampire blood might affect me. “No, not one moment of it.”

In a quiet voice, she asked, “What about you, Alexis? Have you truly come to terms with the fact that my needs are more than you alone can provide?”

I afforded the question the consideration it deserved. “I’m dealing with it. It helps that I’m included in the donor selections.”

She captured my lips for a deep kiss then snuggled back against my shoulder. “I’m glad.”

Long after Serena slept, I lay awake. I hadn’t lied about coping with her needs. Even though I refused to admit it, having the woman I wanted as my wife sucking on another woman’s, or a man’s, neck and pulling that kind of lustful response from them bothered me. It would bother me more if she chose to share her body with others.

Unfortunately, my research had not turned up any more ancient texts about enthrallment. Slim though it might be, I held onto the hope that I would eventually find something more. I needed to discover something that would convince Serena her fear of enthralling me--by taking blood and lust simultaneously--was groundless. Until then I had to share the woman I loved or risk her Powers weakening.

With the specter of extensive travel time on vampire and Alliance business, yet another complication loomed. Even a vampire as old as Serena might need to feed her hungers, both for blood and for lust, before I returned. I brutally shoved away the image of Serena in another woman’s arms.

Goddess! Why couldn’t I acquire the mindset that sex and lust did not equate love? If Serena needed to feed her sexual hunger while I was gone would she tell me? Would I be able to accept it?

Enough! I needed to turn my attention to the important thing—keeping our People alive until we stopped Helena.



Chapter 6

Alexis Night Runner

A week later, I cupped Serena’s face between my hands and kissed her. “I won’t be gone for more than a couple of weeks; three at the most.”

“I know, Love. We’ll be fine.” Serena took a step away from me. “Sometimes, you forget I once led my mother’s military.” A gentle smile took away any sting from her chiding comment.

Already I missed her arms around my waist. Urgency filled me and I moved closer to her. “Listen, don’t even think about drinking bagged blood while I’m gone. You can’t stay strong with stale blood.”

She lifted a hand to my cheek. “Bagged blood will suffice until you return.”

I turned my lips and kissed her palm. “Your safety, the safety of our People is more important to me than my own life. If...” I swallowed hard. “Things happen, Serena. Bad things. If you need to feed your hungers—both of your hungers—do it.”

“You worry overly much, Alexis. I told you I will follow the ways of your mother’s people; I will only feed lust with you.” She placed a finger against my lips when I would have protested. “Hush, now. I am not a young vampire who must feed her hungers every few days.”

I laid my hand against her cheek, reveling in the softness of her skin. “I love you, Serena. As long as we are together, I can face whatever happens. Just remember, hurt feelings and unnecessary jealousy I can live with; I couldn’t live without you, though.”

She leaned into my palm. “I love you, too.”

I dropped my hand and walked over to the waiting van. The spot between my shoulder blades itched. Twisting around, I scanned the compound and saw no threat. The only ones here were those gathered to see us off.

****

After two weeks on the road, tomorrow would be the last estate inspection before I headed home. I called good-night to Clan Mother Betty as I climbed the stairs to the second floor guestroom. Grateful for the en suite bath, I indulged in a long, hot shower then padded naked into the bedroom. With my back to the door, I pulled on my runner’s shorts and the tight, black tee I wore to bed.

“Beware, Alexis Night Runner,” a soft voice said from behind me.

Whirling, I snatched my short sword from the sheath hanging on the bed post, even before my eyes found the source of the words. “Who are you?”

The translucent woman laughed lightly at the sword I gripped; or perhaps, she laughed at me. “Your sword cannot kill those who are already dead.”

“Who are you and what do you want?” I demanded, voice harsh.

“I come to warn you, Alexis Night Runner. I bring you no harm.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard that before. How did you get in here?” I glanced at the door.

“It remains locked. You know the dead no more heed a locked door than we do a sharp sword.”

I felt stupid for having asked. Blue Fire ignited and danced along the fingertips on one hand.

Again the ghostly apparition laughed. “Your Witch Fire cannot harm me, though it can harm some who are no longer corporeal. I am but a messenger; we are protected against all harm. Would you care to sit and talk now, or should I return at a more convenient time?”

I lowered the tip of my sword; however, nothing could entice me to lay it down. Blue Fire sizzled on my fingertips, though it no longer danced in flames along my hand. “I would not turn away a messenger. Speak.”

“Ah, you are indeed not only brave, but wise.” She tilted her head. “Though I never doubted General Trueson’s claims.”

My heart thumped inside my chest. “Gregory... you know Gregory?” I couldn’t help leaning forward as if my urgency would be enough to call his form into the dim light of the room.

“Even on the Other Side, Gregory Trueson is a man who commands much respect. He asked that I bring this message.”

“Why didn’t he bring it?” As childish as it was, a sliver of hurt stabbed me.

Something akin to compassion stirred in the woman’s silvery gaze. For a moment, I wondered what she had once been.

“Some things cannot be. Listen closely, Alexis Night Runner, for I am permitted to say this only once.”

I nearly held my breath as I leaned even farther in her direction. There was one way to be certain she was sent by Gregory and not a new trap set by Helena. Face blank, I whispered, “Haboo.”

She inclined her head slightly in acknowledgment. “Gregory said that when you were truly willing to listen, you would use this word.”

The word of respect, of willingness to pay attention, that Gregory had taught me years ago. I had never used it with anyone else. Gaze fixed on her, every sense trembled.

“Tell no one about my visit or about what you hear. It is for your ears alone.” When I nodded acquiescence, she intoned, “That which does not seem a gift, may be the treasure you most need. Do not reject those who would be your ally, even though you may not understand their hearts.” As the last word rode the still air, the translucent woman faded away.

If I had been a werewolf, I would have howled frustration. What in Goddess’ Name was that supposed to mean? What did they think I was--some kind of scholar? I hadn’t even finished high school; I’d gotten a GED, for crying out loud, though I did go on and take college classes in all things computer.

I sheathed the sword and crawled between the crisp, clean sheets. Once the light clicked out, sleep pulled me under. The next morning a lance of sunlight pried me from bed. As I dressed, I wondered if I had dreamed my ghostly visitor. Whether I had or not, a full day of defense training loomed ahead of me. I shoved the haunting words from my mind as I headed downstairs.

By noon, I climbed into the van and we headed for the next, and thankfully last, stop. With any luck I would be home by the day after tomorrow.

The van wove through flat fields of corn head high to a tall person that undulated toward the distant horizon. Huge, red barns hulked amid the green. As we turned onto the dusty road leading to the estate’s main house, children chased each other through stands of corn and grasses. Though I scanned the area, I failed to note any estate guards.


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