The Killing Dance (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter #6) - Chapter 7~8

7

I expected Richard to drive into the city, to some disreputable warehouse in a seedy section of town. Instead, he drove further into Jefferson County. We drove down Old Highway 21 between soft, rolling hills, silvered in the moonlight. It was early May, and the trees were already thick with leaves.

Woods hugged the sides of the road. An occasional house would break out of the trees, but for the most part, we were alone in the dark, as if the road stretched out forever and no other human had ever set foot on it.

"What's the plan?" I asked.

Richard glanced at me, then back to the road. "Plan?"

"Yeah, a plan. If Raina's there, she won't be alone, and she won't like you taking Stephen."

"Raina's the alpha female, the lupa. I'm not allowed to fight her."

"Why not?"

"An alpha male becomes Ulfric, wolf king, by killing the old leader, but the winner chooses the lupa."

"So Raina didn't have to fight for her place?"

"She didn't have to fight to be lupa, but she did have to fight to be the most dominant female in the pack."

"You once told me that the pack considers me a dominant. What's the difference between being a dominant and being an alpha female? I mean, can I be an alpha?"

"Alpha is the equivalent to being a master vampire, sort of," he said.

"So what is a dominant?"

"Anyone not pack, not lukoi, that's earned our respect. Jean-Claude is a dominant. He can't be more unless he becomes pack."

"So you're alpha, but you're not pack leader."

"We have about half a dozen alphas, male and female. I was Marcus's second in command, his Freki."

"Freki is the name of one of Odin's wolves. Why would second wolf be named after something out of mythology?"

"The pack is very old, Anita. Among ourselves, we are the lukoi. There can be two seconds, Freki and Geri."

"Why the history lesson and the new vocabulary?"

"To outsiders, we keep it simple. But I want you to know who and what we are."

"Lukoi is Greek, right?"

He smiled. "But do you know where it's from?"

"No."

"King Lykaon of Arcadia was a werewolf. He didn't try and hide it. We call ourselves the lukoi in his memory."

"If you're not Freki anymore, what are you?"

"Fenrir, challenger."

"The giant wolf that kills Odin at Ragnarok."

"I'm impressed, not many people would know that."

"Two semesters of comparative religion," I said. "Can a woman be Ulfric?"

"Yes, but it's rare."

"Why?"

"They'd have to win a knock-down drag-out physical battle. All the power in the world won't stop someone from pounding your face into the ground."

I would have liked to argue, but I didn't. He was right. Not because I was female. Small men get their asses kicked, too. Size matters if both people are equally well trained.

"Why don't the female alphas have to duke it out to win the top spot?"

"Because the Ulfric and his lupa are a mating pair, Anita. He doesn't want to get stuck with a woman he can't stand."

I looked at him. "Wait a minute. You're next in line to lead the pack. If you succeed Marcus, do you have to sleep with your lupa?"

"Technically, yes."

"Technically?" I said.

"I won't choose one. I won't sleep with someone just so the pack can feel secure."

"Glad to hear it," I said, "but does that jeopardize your standing in the pack?"

He took a deep breath, and I heard it sigh outward. "I have a lot of support among the pack, but some of them are bothered by my morals. They think I should pick a mate."

"And you won't, because . . . of me?"

He glanced at me. "That's a big part of it. It wouldn't be only one time, Anita. An alpha couple binds for life. It's like a marriage. They usually marry each other in real life, not just in the pack."

"I can see why the pack leader gets to pick his mate."

"I've picked my mate," Richard said.

"But I'm not a werewolf."

"No, but the pack considers you a dominant."

"Only because I killed a few of them," I said.

"Well, that does tend to impress them." He slowed down. There was a line of pine trees along the left-hand side of the road, too regular and too thick to be natural. He turned down a gravel driveway in the middle of them.

The driveway curved downhill, and at the bottom of a shallow valley was a farmhouse. Hills thick with trees poured out around the house. If there had ever been fields, the forest had reclaimed them.

The driveway opened into a small gravel lot that was crowded with cars, at least a dozen of them. Richard jerked the car into park and was out the door before I could unbuckle my seat belt. I had to run to catch up and was at his back just as he flung open the barn door. There was a thick wall of cloth hanging inside the door, not a curtain but more a barrier. Richard pulled it aside, and light flooded out around us. He stalked into that light, and I trailed after him.

There were lights everywhere, hanging from the rafters like large, ugly fruit. About twenty people stood around the open interior of the barn. Two cameras were trained on a set, made up of two walls and a king-size bed. Two cameramen were sort of draped on the cameras, waiting. A long table thick with take-out bags and cold pizza was set near the entrance. Over a dozen people were clustered around the food. They glanced at us as we entered. A handful of humans looked hurriedly away and began inching back. The lycanthropes stared, their eyes almost motionless, intent. I suddenly knew what it must feel like to be a gazelle near a lion pack.

At least two-thirds of the people in the barn were shape-shifters. Probably, they weren't all werewolves. I couldn't tell what animal they might be by looking, but I knew they were all shapeshifters. Their energy burned through the air like a hint of lightning. Even with the Uzi, if things went wrong, I was in trouble. I was suddenly angry with Richard. We shouldn't have come alone like this. It was too careless for words.

A woman stepped out of the group. She had what looked like an industrial-strength makeup kit on her shoulder. Her dark hair was shaved close to her head, leaving a very pretty face open and clean, without a drop of makeup on it.

She moved uncertainly towards us as if afraid she'd get bitten. The air vibrated around her, a tiny shimmer, as though reality was just a little less firm than it should be around her. Lycanthrope. I wasn't sure what flavor, but that really didn't matter. Whatever the flavor, they were dangerous.

"Richard," she said. She stepped away from the watching crowd, small hands running up and down the strap of her bag. "What are you doing here?"

"You know why I'm here, Heidi," he said. "Where's Stephen?"

"They aren't going to hurt him," she said. "I mean, his brother's here. His own brother wouldn't let him get hurt, would he?"

"Sounds like you're trying to convince yourself, not us," I said.

Her eyes flicked to me. "You must be Anita Blake." She glanced behind at the watchers at her back. "Please, Richard, just go." The aura of energy around her was vibrating harder, almost a visible shimmer in the air. It prickled along my skin like ants.

Richard reached out towards her.

Heidi flinched but stood her ground.

Richard smoothed his hand just above her face, not quite touching her skin. As he moved his hand, the energy around her quieted, like water calming. "It's all right, Heidi. I know the situation Marcus has put you in. You want to join another pack, but he has to give permission. To get his permission, you do what he says, or you're trapped. Whatever happens, I won't hold it against you."

The anxiety seeped away. Her otherworldly energy quieted until it was barely there at all. She might have passed for human.

"Very impressive." A man stepped forward. He was at least six foot four, maybe an inch taller, his head bald as an egg, only his eyebrows showing dark above pale eyes. His black T-shirt strained over the muscles in his arms and chest, as if the shirt was the skin of an insect about to split and let loose the monster. Energy boiled off him like summer heat. He moved with the confident strut of a bully, and the power crawling over my skin said he might be able to back it up.

"He's new," I said.

"This is Sebastian," Richard said. "He joined us after Alfred died."

"He's Marcus's new enforcer," Heidi whispered. She stepped back, halfway between the two men, her back to the curtain we'd entered through.

"I challenge you, Richard. I want to be Freki."

Just like that, the trap was sprung.

"We are both alpha, Sebastian. We don't have to do anything to prove that."

"I want to be Freki, and I need to beat you to do it."

"I'm Fenrir now, Sebastian. You can be Marcus's Freki without fighting me."

"Marcus says no, says I have to go through you."

Richard took a step forward.

"Don't fight him," I said.

"I have to answer challenge."

I stared at Sebastian. Richard is not a small man, but he looked small beside Sebastian. Richard wouldn't back down to save himself. But for someone else . . . "And if you get killed, where does that leave me?" I asked.

He looked at me then, really looked at me. He turned back to Sebastian. "I want safe passage for Anita."

Sebastian grinned and shook his head. "She's dominant. No safe passage. She takes her chances like the rest of us."

"She can't accept challenge, she's human."

"When you're dead, we'll make her one of us," Sebastian said.

"Raina has forbidden us to make Anita lukoi," Heidi said.

The glare that Sebastian gave her made her cringe against the curtain door. Her eyes were round with fear.

"Is that true?" Richard asked.

"It's true," Sebastian growled. "We can kill her, but we can't make her pack." He grinned, a brief flash of teeth. "So we'll just kill her."

I drew the Firestar, using Richard's body to shield the movement from the lycanthropes. We were in trouble. Even with the Uzi, I couldn't kill them all. If Richard would kill Sebastian, we might salvage the situation, but he'd try not to kill him. The other shapeshifters watched us with patient, eager eyes. This had been the plan all along. There had to be a way out.

I had an idea. "Are all Marcus's enforcers assholes?"

Sebastian turned to me. "Was that an insult?"

"If you have to ask, then indeedy-do, it was."

"Anita," Richard said, low and careful, "what are you doing?"

"Defending myself," I said.

His eyes widened, but he didn't take his glance from the big werewolf. Richard understood. There was no time to argue about it. Sebastian took a step forward, big hands balled into fists. He tried to step around Richard to get to me. Richard moved in front of him. He put out his hand, palm outward like he had with Heidi, and that roiling energy damped down, spilling out like water from a broken cup. I'd never seen anything like it. Calming Heidi was one thing. Forcing a lycanthrope to swallow such power was something else.

Sebastian took a step back, almost a stagger. "You bastard."

"You are not strong enough to challenge me, Sebastian. Don't ever forget that," Richard said. His voice was still calm, with the barest hint of anger underneath. It was a reasonable voice, a voice for negotiating.

I stood behind Richard with the Firestar held at my side, as unobtrusive as I could make it. The fight was off, and my little show of bravado hadn't been needed. I'd underestimated Richard's power. I'd apologize later.

"Now, where is Stephen?" Richard asked.

A slender black man stalked towards us, moving like a dancer in a shimmering wash of his own energy. His hair was braided in shoulder-length cornrows with colored beads worked into them. His features were small and neat, his skin a rich solid brown. "You may be able to control us one at a time, Richard, but not all at once."

"You were kicked out of your last pack for being a troublemaker, Jamil," Richard said. "Don't make the same mistake twice."

"I won't. Marcus will win this fight because you are a fucking bleeding heart. You still don't get it, Richard. We aren't the Young Republicans." Jamil stopped about eight feet back. "We are a pack of werewolves, and we aren't human. Unless you accept that, you are going to die."

Sebastian stepped back to stand beside Jamil. The rest of the lycanthropes moved up behind the two men. Their combined energy flowed outward, filling the room like warm water with piranha in it. The power bit along my skin like tiny electric shocks. It rose in my throat until it was hard to breathe, and the hair on my head stood at attention.

"Will you be pissed if I kill some of them?" I asked. My voice sounded squeezed and harsh. I moved closer to Richard, but had to step back. His power poured over me like something alive. It was impressive, but there were twenty lycanthropes on the other side, and it wasn't that impressive.

A scream shattered the silence, and I jumped.

"Anita," Richard said.

"Yeah."

"Go get Stephen."

"That was him screaming?" I asked.

"Go get

him."

I looked at the mass of lycanthropes and said, "You can handle this?"

"I can hold them."

"You can't hold us all," Jamil said.

"Yes," Richard said, "I can."

The scream sounded again, higher, more urgent. The sound came from deeper in the barn where it had been divided into rooms. There was a makeshift hallway. I started towards it, then hesitated. "Will you be pissed if I kill people?"

"Do what you have to do," he said. His voice had grown low, with an edge of growl to it.

"If she kills Raina with a gun, she still won't be your lupa," Jamil said.

I glanced at Richard's back. I hadn't known I was being considered for the job.

"Go, Anita; now." His voice was dying down to a growl. He didn't have to add, hurry. I knew that part. He might be able to stall, but he couldn't fight them all.

Heidi walked towards me, behind Richard's back. He didn't turn any attention to her, as if he didn't consider her a danger at all. She wasn't powerful, but you didn't have to be powerful or even strong to stab someone in the back, claw or knife, what did it matter? I pointed the gun at her. She passed within inches of Richard and he did nothing. My gun was the only thing guarding his back. Even now, he trusted Heidi. Right this minute, he shouldn't have trusted anyone but me. "Gabriel's with Raina," she said. She said his name like she was afraid of him.

Gabriel wasn't even a member of the pack. He was a were-leopard. He was one of Raina's favorite actors, though. He'd appeared in her porno flicks and even one snuff film. I almost asked her who she feared most, Raina or Gabriel. But it didn't matter. I was about to confront them both.

"Thanks," I said to Heidi.

She nodded.

I went for the hallway and the sound of screams.

8

I entered the hallway and followed the sounds of voices to the second door on the left. I heard at least two different male voices, soft, murmuring. I couldn't make out the words. The screams changed to yelling. "Stop, please, stop. No!" It was a man, too. Unless they were torturing more than one person tonight, it had to be Stephen.

I took a deep breath, let it out, and reached for the door with my left hand, gun in my right. I wished I knew the layout of the room. Stephen yelled, "Please, don't!"

Enough. I opened the door, shoving it against the wall so I'd know there was no one behind it. I meant to sweep the room, but what I saw on the floor stopped me cold, like some kind of flash-frozen nightmare. Stephen lay on his back, a white robe open, revealing his nude body. Blood trailed down his chest in thin scarlet ribbons, though there were no apparent wounds. Gabriel held Stephen's arms, pinned underneath his body, behind his back as if they might already be tied. Stephen's waist-length yellow hair spilled over Gabriel's leather-clad lap. Gabriel was naked from the waist up, a silver ring through his right nipple. His curly black hair had spilled over his eyes, and when he looked up at me, he looked blind.

A second man knelt on the far side of Stephen. Curling blond hair fell to his waist. He wore an identical white robe, fastened. When he looked at the door, his slender, nearly pretty face was a mirror of Stephen's. Had to be his brother. He was holding a steel knife. He was in midslice when I came through the door. Fresh blood welled from Stephen's skin.

Stephen screamed.

There was a naked woman curled over Stephen's body. She straddled his lower body, pinning his legs. Her long auburn hair fell like a curtain, hiding the last indignity from sight. Raina raised her head from Stephen's groin. Her full lips parted in a smile. She'd worked him to erection. Even with his protests, his body had gone on without him.

It took a heartbeat to see it all, a sort of slow-motion shorthand. I sensed movement to my right and tried to turn, but it was too late. Something furred and only half-human slammed into me. I hit the far wall hard enough to make it shudder. The Firestar went spinning, and I fell, stunned, to the floor. A wolf the size of a pony loomed over me. It opened jaws big enough to crush my face, and growled, a sound low and deep enough to stop my heart.

I could move again, but that face was an inch from my cheek; I could feel its breath on my face. A line of saliva fell from its mouth to glide down the edge of my mouth. It lowered its muzzle that last inch, lips drawn back like it was going to take a nibble. The Uzi was pinned between my back and the wall. I went for one of the knives, and knew I'd never make it.

Human arms curved around the wolf, tore it back, away from me. Raina stood holding the struggling wolf like it was no effort. Her beautiful naked body rippled with muscles that didn't show until they were used. "Draw no blood from her, I told you that." She tossed the wolf into the other wall. The wall cracked and buckled. The wolf lay still, eyes rolled back into its skull.

It gave me the time I needed. I pulled the Uzi around on its strap. When Raina turned back to me, I was pointing it at her.

She stood over me, naked, perfect, slender where she was supposed to be slender, curved where she was supposed to be curved. But since I'd seen her sculpt her body at will, I wasn't that impressed. When you could manipulate your body like she could, who needed plastic surgery?

"I could have let her kill you, Anita. You don't seem very grateful."

I sat on the floor, propped against the wall, not completely trusting that I could stand yet. But the Uzi was pointed nice and steady. "Thanks a lot," I said, "Now, back up, slowly, or I will cut you in half."

Raina laughed, a low, joyous sound. "You are so dangerous. So exciting. Don't you think so, Gabriel?"

Gabriel came to stand beside her. Both of them looking down at me was too much, so I used the wall to brace myself and stood. I could stand. Great. I was beginning to think I could even walk. Better.

"Back up," I said.

Gabriel stepped around her, bringing him almost close enough to have reached out and touched me. "She's perfect for anyone who's into pain and has a death wish." He reached out, as if to run his fingers down my cheek. I pointed the machine gun at his waist, because it would kick upward. Aim too high and you can actually miss.

"The last time you pushed me, Gabriel, all I had on me was a knife. You survived having me gut you, but even you can't heal from a submachine gun burst. At this range, I'll cut you in half."

"Would you really kill me just for trying to touch you?" He seemed amused, his strange grey eyes almost fever bright as they peered out of the tangle of his hair.

"After what I just saw, you bet." I stood away from the wall. "Back up or we'll find out how much damage you can take."

They backed up. I was almost disappointed. The Uzi with silver ammo would do exactly what I'd said it would do. I could cut them down, kill them, no muss, no fuss, just a hell of a mess. I wanted them dead. I looked at them for a heartbeat and thought about it, thought about pulling the trigger and saving us all a lot of trouble.

Raina backed up, pulling Gabriel with her. She stared at me as she moved, back towards the wall where the pony-sized wolf was staggering to its feet. Raina looked at me and I saw the knowledge on her face of how close she'd come. I think until that moment she hadn't realized I could kill her and not lose sleep. Hell, leaving her alive would cost me more sleep.

A roaring scream came from the other room. Howling vibrated through the barn. There was a moment of breathless silence, then growls, shrieks. The floor shuddered with the impact of distant bodies. Richard was fighting without me.

Raina smiled at me. "Richard needs you, Anita. Go to him. We'll take care of Stephen."

"No thanks."

"Richard could be dying while you waste time."

Fear flowed over me in a cool wash. She was right. They'd lured him here to die. I shook my head. "Richard told me to get Stephen, and that's what I'm going to do."

"I didn't think you took orders that well," she said.

"I take the ones I like."

Stephen had curled onto his side, pulling the robe over his body. His brother sat beside him, smoothing his hair and murmuring, "It's all right, Stephen. You're not hurt."

"You sliced him up, you son of a bitch."

He spread Stephen's robe, exposing his chest. Stephen tried weakly to close his robe. His brother slapped his hands lightly. He wiped his hands across the bloody chest. The skin was perfect. The cut had healed already, which meant that all the blood was Stephen's.

"Get off of him, right now, or I will blow you away."

He eased back from him, eyes wide. He believed me. That was good, because it was true.

"Come on, Stephen. We've got to go."

He raised his head and looked at me, tears sliding down his cheeks. "I can't stand." He tried to crawl to me, but collapsed on the floor.

"What did you give him?" I asked.

"Something to relax him," Raina said.

"You bitch."

She smiled. "Exactly."

"Go over and stand by them," I said to the brother.

The man turned a face to me so like Stephen's it was startling. "I wouldn't let them hurt him. He'd enjoy it if he'd just let himself go."

"He is hurt, you son of a bitch! Now get over there, right now, or I'll kill you. Do you understand me? I will kill you and be happy about it."

He got to his feet and went to stand beside Gabriel. "I made sure no one hurt him," he said softly.

The walls shuddered. There was a sound of splintering wood. Someone had been thrown through the wall of the room next to us. I had to get us out of there.

I had to get to Richard. But if I was careless, I'd never make it. Richard wasn't the only one in danger of getting his throat ripped out.

With this many lycanthropes in a room so small, they were too close. They could jump me if I went to help Stephen stand, but with a machine gun in my hand, I was betting most of them would be dead before they reached me. It was a comforting thought.

I spotted the Firestar in the far corner. I picked it up and holstered it without having to look. Practice, practice, practice. I kept the machine gun out. It just made me feel better.

I knelt by Stephen without taking my eyes off the others. It was hard not to at least glance down, but I was too damn close to them. The wolf had been unbelievably fast, and I didn't think Raina would save me a second time. I was lucky she didn't want me wounded. I got my arm around Stephen's waist, and he managed to throw his arms around my neck. I stood, and he was almost dead weight, but we both managed to stand, and with my help, Stephen kept his feet. I was glad he was about my size. Bigger would have been harder. His robe flapped open, and he took one arm from around my shoulders and tried to tie it closed, but he couldn't do it. He started to take his other arm off my shoulders.

"Leave it, Stephen, please. We've got to go now."

"I don't want people to see me." He stared at me from inches away, his face vague and unfocused from the drugs, but a single tear trailed from the corner of one cornflower blue eye. "Please," he said.

Shit. I braced him around the waist, and said, "Go ahead." I stared at Raina while he tied his robe, clumsy and slow from the drug she'd slipped him. He was making a low whimpering sound deep in his chest by the time he got it closed.

"In some ways you are as sentimental as Richard," she said. "But you could kill us, all of us, even Stephen's brother, and feel nothing."

I met her honey brown eyes and said, "I'd feel something."

"What?" she asked.

"Safer," I said.

I backed us towards the open door and had to glance behind to make sure nothing was coming up at me. When I looked back at them, Gabriel had moved forward, but Raina had a hand on his arm, stopping him. She was looking at me like she'd never really seen me before. Like I'd surprised her. I guess it was mutual. I'd known she was twisted, but not in my wildest dreams would I have accused her of raping one of her own people.

Stephen and I stepped out into the hall, and I took a deep breath, feeling something in my chest loosen. The sounds of fighting crashed over us. I wanted to run towards the fight. Richard was alive, or they wouldn't have still been fighting. There was time. There had to be.

I called to Raina, "Don't show your face out here until after we're gone, Raina. or I'll shoot it off." There was no answer from the room. I had to get to Richard.

Stephen stumbled and nearly took us both down. He hung from my shoulders, his arms pressing into my neck, then he got his feet under him. "You with me. Stephen?"

"I'm all right. Just get me out of here." His voice sounded weak, thready, like he was losing consciousness. I could not carry him and shoot, or at least I didn't want to try. I got a firmer grip on his waist and said, "Stay with me, Stephen, and I'll get you out."

He nodded, long hair spilling around his face. "Okay." The one word was almost too soft to hear above the fighting.

I stepped out into the main room, and it was chaos. I couldn't see Richard. There was just a mass of bodies, arms, legs, a clawed form rose above the rest, a man-wolf close to seven feet tall. He reached down and drew Richard out of the mess, claws digging into his body. Richard shoved a hand that was too long to be human, and not furry enough to be wolf, under the werewolf's throat. The creature gagged, spitting blood.

A wolf almost as long as Richard was tall leapt upon his back. Richard staggered, but didn't fall. The mouth sank teeth into his shoulder. Furred claws and human hands grabbed at him from every side. Fuck it. I fired the machine gun into the wooden

floor. It would have looked more impressive if I'd fired into the overhead lights, but bullets come down at the same speed they go up, and I didn't want to catch my own ricochet. Holding the machine gun one-handed was a trip. I held on and sprayed a line from me to the bed. I ended with the gun pointing at the fight. Everyone had frozen, shocked. Richard crawled out of the mess, bleeding. He got to his feet, swaying a bit, but moving on his own power. I could never have carried both him and Stephen, let alone the machine gun.

He stopped in front of the curtain, waiting for me to come to him. Stephen sagged against me, arms limp. I think he'd passed out. It was an agonizingly slow walk to Richard. If I tripped and went down, they'd be on me. They watched me move with eyes, human and wolf, but nothing I could have talked to. They watched me like they wondered what I'd taste like and would enjoy finding out.

The giant man-wolf spoke, its furry jaws thick and strange around human words. "You can't kill us all, human."

He was right. I raised the machine gun a little. "True, but who's going to be first in line?"

No one else moved as I walked. When I reached Richard, he took Stephen from me, cradling him in his arms like he was a child. Blood seeped down his face from a cut on his forehead. It covered half his face like a mask. "Stephen is never to come back here, not ever," Richard said.

The man-wolf spoke again, "You are not a killer, Richard. That is your weakness. Even if we bring Stephen back here, you will not kill us for it. You will hurt us, but not kill us."

Richard didn't say anything. It was probably true. Damn.

"I'll kill you," I said.

"Anita, you don't understand what you're saying," Richard said.

I glanced at him, then back to the waiting masses. "Killing is all they understand, Richard. If you aren't willing to kill them, Stephen isn't safe. I want him safe."

"Enough to kill for it?" Richard asked.

"Yeah," I said, "enough to kill for it."

The wolfman stared at me. "You are not one of us."

"It doesn't matter. Stephen is off limits. Tell Raina if he gets dragged back here, I'll hold her personally responsible."

"Tell me yourself." Raina stood in the hallway, naked, and totally comfortable as if she'd been wearing the finest silk. Gabriel was at her back.

"If anyone brings Stephen back here, tries to force him into the movies, I'll kill you."

"Even if I have nothing to do with it."

I smiled, like I would believe that. "Even if, no matter who does it, or why, it'll be your ass on the line."

She nodded her head, almost a bow. "So be it, Anita Blake. But know this, you have challenged me in front of my pack. I cannot let that stand unanswered. If you were another shapeshifter, we would duel, but your being human poses a problem."

"You know this, bitch. I am human, so if you expect me to drop my gun and fight you one on one, you're crazy."

"That would hardly be fair, would it?"

"I didn't think you worried much about being fair, after what I saw in the back room."

"Oh, that," she said, "Stephen will never rise in the pack. There is no more challenge to him. He is anyone's meat that is higher in the pack."

"Not anymore," I said.

"You offer him your protection?" she asked.

I'd been asked this question once before and knew it meant more than it sounded like it did, but I didn't care. I wanted Stephen safe, and I'd do what it took, killing or making myself a target. Hell, the assassin would probably finish me soon, anyway. "Yeah, he's under my protection."

"He's already under my protection, Anita," Richard said.

"Until you're willing to kill to back it up, it doesn't mean a whole lot to these people."

"You will kill to support Richard's claims of protection?" Raina asked.

"She doesn't understand what you're asking," Richard said. "It isn't a fair question unless she understands it."

"Then explain it to her, Richard, but not tonight. It grows late, and if we are to get any filming done, we must hurry. Take your little human and explain the rules to her. Explain how deep a hole she's dug herself tonight. When she understands the rules, call me. And I will think of a way to make a duel between us as fair as possible. Perhaps I could blindfold myself or tie one arm behind my back."

I started to say something, but Richard said, "Come on, Anita. We have to go now." He was right. I could kill a lot of them, but not all. I hadn't brought a spare clip for the machine gun. I hadn't thought I'd need it. Silly me.

We got out the door with me walking backwards, ready to shoot anyone who stuck a head out. No one followed us. Richard carried Stephen through the late spring night and didn't look back, as if he knew they wouldn't follow.

I opened the door, and he laid Stephen in the backseat. "Can you drive home?" he asked.

"Yeah, how bad are you hurt?"

"Not bad, but I'd like to ride back here with Stephen in case he wakes up." I couldn't argue with that. I drove. We were safe. We were all actually still alive. But if they'd rushed us, we wouldn't be. Now that we were safe, I could be mad. "Well, we survived. No thanks to your little plan," I said.

"And no one died, thanks to my little plan," Richard said.

"Only because I was better armed than usual."

"You were right," he said, "it was a trap. Happy?"

"Yeah, I'm happy," I said.

"Glad to hear it." Underneath the sarcasm he was tired. I could hear it in his voice.

"What are you supposed to explain to me, Richard?" I glanced in the rearview mirror but couldn't see his face in the dark.

"Raina backs up Marcus's orders. She's his lupa. He uses her to do things he doesn't approve of, like torture."

"So I set myself up as your lupa."

"Yes, I'm the Fenrir. Normally, I'd already have a lupa picked out. The pack is divided, Anita. I've given my protection to my followers so that if Marcus tries to hurt them, I come after him, or my followers will act to protect each other with my blessing. Without a Fenrir or a pack leader to back you up, it's a sort of mutiny to go against the pack leader's orders."

"What's the penalty for mutiny?"

"Death or mutilation."

"I thought you guys could heal anything short of a death wound."

"Not if you shove burning metal into it. Fire purifies and stops the healing process, unless you reopen the wound."

"It works that way with vampires, too," I said.

"I didn't know that," he said, but not like he really cared.

"How have you risen to next in line to lead and not killed anyone? You had to fight a lot of duels to get to the top of the heap."

"Only the fight for Ulfric has to be to the death. All I had to do was beat them all."

"Which is why you take karate and lift weights, so you'll be good enough to beat them." We'd had this discussion before when I asked if lifting weights when you could bench press a small car was redundant. He'd replied, not if everyone you're fighting can lift a car, too. He had a point.

"Yes."

"But if you won't kill, then your threat doesn't have much bite, no pun intended."

"We're not animals, Anita. Just because this is the way it's always been in the pack doesn't mean things can't change. We are still people, and that means we can control ourselves. Dammit, there has to be a better way than slaughtering each other."

I shook my head. "Don't blame it on the animals. Real wolves don't kill each other for dominance."

"Only werewolves," he said. He sounded tired.

"I admire your goals, Richard."

"But you don't agree."

"No, I don't agree."

His voice came from the darkness out of the backseat. "Stephen doesn't have any wounds. Why was he screaming?"

My shoulders hunched, and I made myself sit up straight. I turned onto Old Highway 21, and tried to think of a delicate way to tell him, but there was nothing delicate about rape. I told him what I'd seen.

The silence from the backseat lasted a very long time. I was almost to the turnoff for his house when he said, "And you think if I'd killed a few people along the way, this wouldn't have happened?"

"I think they're more afraid of Raina and Marcus than they are of you, so yeah."

"If you back my threat with killing, it undermines everything I've tried to do."

"I love you, Richard, and I admire what you're trying to do. I don't want to undermine you, but if they touch Stephen again, I'll do what I said I'd do. I'll kill them."

"They're my people, Anita. I don't want them dead."

"They're not your people, Richard. They're just a bunch of strangers that happen to share your disease. Stephen is your people. Every shapeshifter who threw their support to you and risked Marcus's anger, they're your people. They've risked everything for you, Richard."

"When Stephen joined the pack, I was the one who told Raina she couldn't have him. I've always stood by him."

"Your intentions are good, Richard, but they didn't keep him safe tonight."

"If I let you kill for me, Anita, it's the same as doing it myself."

"I didn't ask your permission, Richard."

He leaned on the back of the seat, and I realized he wasn't wearing his seat belt. I started to tell him to put it on, but didn't. It was his car, and he could survive a trip through the windshield. "You mean if they take Stephen again, you'll kill them because you said you'd kill them, not for me."

"A threat's not worth anything if you aren't willing to back it up," I said.

"You'd kill for Stephen. Why? Because he saved your life?"

I shook my head. It was hard to explain. "Not just that. When I saw him tonight, what they were doing to him . . . He was crying, Richard. He was . . . Oh, hell, Richard, he's mine now. There are a handful of people that I'd kill for, kill to keep safe, kill to revenge. Stephen's name got added to the list tonight."

"Is my name on the list?" he asked. He rested his chin on my shoulder over the seat. He rubbed his cheek on my face and I could feel a faint beard stubble, scratchy and real.

"You know it is."

"I don't understand how you can talk about killing so casually."

"I know."

"My bid for Ulfric would be stronger if I were willing to kill, but I'm not sure it would be worth it."

"If you want to martyr yourself for high ideals, fine. I don't like it, but fine. But don't martyr the people who trust you. They're worth more than any set of ideals. You nearly got yourself killed tonight."

"You don't just believe in something when it's easy, Anita. Killing is wrong."

"Fine," I said, "but you also nearly got me killed tonight. Do you understand that? If they had rushed us, I wouldn't have made it out. I will not go down in flames because you want to play Gandhi."

"You can stay home next time."

"Dammit, that isn't what I'm saying, and you know it. You're trying to live in some Ozzie and Harriet world, Richard. Maybe life used to work like that, but it doesn't anymore. If you don't give up on this, you're going to get killed."

"If I really thought I had to become a murderer to survive, I think I'd rather not survive."

I glanced at him. His expression was peaceful, like a saint. But you only got to be a saint if you died. I looked back at the road. I could give Richard up, but if I left him, he was going to end up dead. He'd have gone in there tonight without anyone, and he wouldn't have made it out.

Tears burned at the back of my eyes. "I don't know if I'd survive it if you died on me, Richard. Doesn't that mean anything to you?"

He kissed my cheek, and something warm and liquid seeped down my neck. "I love you, too."

They were only words. He was going to get killed on me. He was going to do everything short of suicide. "You're bleeding on me," I said.

He sighed and leaned back into the darkness. "I'm bleeding a lot. Too bad Jean-Claude isn't here to lick it up." He made a bitter sound low in his throat.

"Do you need a doctor?"

"Get me home, Anita. If I need a doctor, I know a wererat that makes house calls." He sounded tired, weary, as if he didn't want to talk anymore. Not about the wounds, or the pack, or his high ideals. I let the silence grow and didn't know how to break it. A soft sound filled the quiet dark, and I realized that Richard was crying. He whispered, "I'm sorry, Stephen. I am so sorry."

I didn't say anything because I didn't have anything good to say. Just lately I had noticed that I could kill people and not blink. No attack of conscience, no nightmares, nothing. It was like some part of me had turned off. It didn't bother me that I was able to kill so easily. It did bother me that it didn't bother me. But it had its uses, like tonight. I think every last furry one of them had believed I'd do it. Sometimes, it was good to be scary.