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Chapter One

            It wasn’t being shot that was the problem. Or the fact that someone had apparently decided to beat the crap out of me beforehand. Or afterwards. Or, considering the way I felt, possibly both. 
            I wasn’t sure as I couldn’t seem to remember the fight that had left me bloody and bruised, with a bullet hole in my right thigh and another in my left shoulder. I couldn’t seem to remember much of anything else, either, including who the hell I was. But that still wasn’t the problem.
            No, the problem was that I’d woken up next to a vampire. 
            One who was maddeningly hard to kill.
            “If you would but listen to me for a moment,” he said, as I slammed his pretty red head against the concrete floor for the sixth freaking time
            “Okay,” I panted, wondering what the hell his skull was made of. Granite? “Let’s chat.”
            Of course, that would be difficult since I’d just changed tactics, grabbing his throat and squeezing for all I was worth. 
            I wasn’t trying to choke him to death. That doesn’t work with creatures who don’t breathe, and the bastard’s neck was too muscular for me to close my hands around, anyway. But most vamps have instincts left over from their human days, and they don’t like being grabbed there. It distracts them, messes up their concentration, makes them panic.
            At least, I really hoped it did, since otherwise, I was screwed. 
            He didn’t have fangs in me yet, but he didn’t need them because Hollywood had got it wrong. Even plain old vamps could leech blood molecules through a simple touch. As a master, this one could probably do it without even that, just by being in my vicinity, assuming he could concentrate. Which judging by the bulging eyes was probably not the case.
            But then he got a leg over mine and flipped us. 
            Okay, then, I thought grimly. It looked like the choking thing wasn’t providing enough of a distraction. Fortunately, he’d left me a hand free.
            So I used it to break his nose. 
            “Damn it!” He actually looked surprised. “Stop fighting me!”
            “Sure thing,” I grunted, struggling for a foothold. “I’ll just lie here and let you drain me.”
            “I’m not draining you!”
            “Then why do I feel like shit?”
            He stared down at me, exasperation and what looked weirdly like concern shimmering in liquid blue eyes. “Because you took two bullets in the last hour?”
            Oh, yeah. 
            For a second, dizziness and a weird sense of familiarity combined to mess with my head.  I stared up at the stranger, trying to place him. It should have been easy; he wasn’t exactly the sort of guy you forgot. 
            The hair was actually more auburn than red, and there was an absurd amount of it for a man, flowing over his shoulders and my hands. It should have made him look girly, but somehow it didn’t. Maybe because it framed a strong, aristocratic face—high cheekbones, sensuous lips, hard jawline—that managed to be arresting even covered in blood from the broken nose. A nose that was already twitching back into place, like the smear of red was sinking back into the pale perfection of his skin, leaving him looking as if he’d never been injured at all and--
            Damn it!
            This was how they operated, I told myself harshly. They drained you until your brain didn’t work so well, then turned on the innocence or beauty or charm, confusing the hell out of you until you blacked out and they could finish the job. Only that so wasn’t happening this time.
            Of course, that would be a lot easier to manage if I had a stake. Or a knife. Or anything remotely weapon-like, because hand-to-hand against this bastard was starting to look like a gesture in--
            I paused, noticing the shackle dangling off my right wrist. 
            Oh, goodie.
            “I’m trying to help you,” he strangled, somehow getting a hand under the chain before it decapitated him.
            “Sure you are,” I grunted, really putting my back into it. “Next you’ll be telling me you’re my boyfriend come to get me out of this.”
            He burst out laughing, since clearly, he was off his head.     
            Or maybe that was me, because now I was hearing voices.
            “Status.”  The word rang in my ear, as clearly as if someone was looking over my shoulder. My head whipped around, but the only occupants of the iron-barred cage I’d woken up in were me, the vamp and a desiccated rat.
            “I have…ugh…located her.”
            “Estimated extraction time?”
            “That is…still being determined.”
            “There is a problem?”
            The vamp’s hand flailed out and grabbed one of the cage bars. I smashed my foot—the one in the steel-toed Cat--down on it. He cursed and let go. “Yes, well...a few.”
            “Show me.”
            And suddenly things went from weird, to super-ultra-weird, as a picture flashed through my head as vivid as a movie. It was upside down and jiggling, but the best I could tell it showed some chick wearing a blood-splattered tank and a crazed expression. Her short dark hair was spiky with sweat, her face was livid with bruises, and her weird golden eyes were slitted with effort as she—
            Oh. I guessed that was me.
            Wow, I look like shit, I thought, right before I noticed something else. I looped the slack of the chain around the bar behind me for leverage and—
            Oh, yeah. That worked better.
            “What the hell is she doing?” That was someone new, a crabby voice with an English accent.
            “With respect, Lord Marlowe,” the vamp snapped. “What does it look like?”
            “And she is trying to remove your head because?”
            “She doesn’t recognize me. I believe drugs may have been involved. She--”
            “Drugs have no effect on dhampirs.”
            “I will be sure to tell her that, my lord. As soon as my vocal chords knit back together!”
            “What about Laurence?” That was the first voice again.
            “I found him at the dock. He is dead.”
            “You are sure? He’s first level--”
            “Quite sure.”  The vamp’s mental voice was dry. I got another flash—this time of a vampire, or what was left of one, the pieces arranged almost artistically on a patch of bloody concrete—and then it was gone. 
            Someone cursed. Maybe one of them, maybe me. I couldn’t tell anymore. The longer they talked, the more my head ached. By now waves of pain were stabbing my brain with every word, like needles through the eye. 
            “Where are you?” the voice demanded. “We were tracking you, but lost the signal--”
            “Because they took her into one of their labs.”
            And suddenly, I was in freaky visual number three, running through what looked like a time-lapse film of a city at night. For a couple of seconds, my brain took me on a crazy ride over mangled fences, under trash-strewn bridges and through a maze of alleyways that zipped by so fast, all the graffiti streamed together into one long, obscene snarl. It ended in what looked like a warehouse out of some dystopian nightmare, except even post-apocalyptic ruins don’t usually feature a bright orange hell-mouth swirling away in the middle of a wall.
            “What is that?” the English guy demanded.
            “The other problem,” the vamp rasped, as the cage blinked into view again. 
            The transition left me dizzy and nauseous, and royally pissed off. Whatever kind of trick this was, it wasn’t going to work. I growled and got serious.
            “That is why we have had difficulty finding their test sites,” voice number one said. “They’ve begun hiding them outside our world.”
            “Yes,” the vamp strangled. “It would appear that the Black Circle…is somewhat more inventive… than we had thought.”
            “Are they folding space?” the English guy asked. “Or did you actually pass through to another--”
            “Do you know, my lord, somehow I haven’t had time to look!”
            “Don’t take that tone with me when we’re trying to—”
            “We will have operatives at your location in ten minutes,” voice number one cut in smoothly. “Attempt to contain the situation until then.”
            Great. The guy was like freaking Teflon; every time I thought I had a grip, he slithered out of it. He should have been dead a couple times over by now, but he didn’t even seem to be getting tired, while I was panting like a steam engine and sweating like a pig. And now he was about to have backup?
            Of course, that might not matter, since I was going to be dead from an aneurysm soon if they didn’t shut the hell up.
            “And Louis-Cesare—be careful,” that was voice number one again, sounding grim. “I can control her fits, but not until she reenters our world. And the fact that she does not recognize you is a bad sign—”
            “Oh, do you really think so?”
            “Listen to me! The two halves of her nature do not communicate. Therefore the fact that she does not know you may indicate that her vampire nature is perilously close to assuming control--
            “Yes, I have seen it before. I can handle--”
            “You have not seen it before! You have seen it nearer the surface, perhaps, but still partly diluted by her human side, which tends to be—”
            “Lord Mircea—”
            “--dominant mentally. But when she perceives herself in mortal danger, her vampire half—”
            “Lord Mircea!” the vamp had somehow managed to croak that out loud, but it didn’t help. The needle was an ice pick now, jabbing merrily around the inside of my skull. I made a sound between a snarl and a mewl, and smashed the vamp’s head into the floor again.
            It didn’t help, either.
            “—can assume full control and it is physically far stronger. It is also ruthless, cunning and five hundred years old. You must not—”
            “What I must, my lord, is be able to concentrate!”
            “Listen to him, you arrogant fool!” The English guy broke in. “He’s trying to tell you that nobody knows what a dhampir that old can do because they’re always put down before then! But if you’re not careful, you’re going to find out the hard—”
            “GET OUT OF MY HEAD!” I screamed, unable to take it anymore. It was mental, because I didn’t have enough breath left for anything else. But it had an effect anyway. I got a flash of a couple dark-haired vamps sitting at a table; one winced as if in pain, while the other let out a curse and stumbled backwards, knocking over his chair.
            But the biggest reaction came from the vamp beside me. He went suddenly, rigidly still. I didn’t know if he was dead or just as freaked out as I was, and right then, I didn’t care. I just wanted out of there.
            Fortunately, the door of the cage we were in was hanging half off its hinges, the bars twisted in ways iron wasn’t supposed to bend. I looped the chain around the vamp’s neck another time, and through the sturdiest bar I could find. Then I pulled it tight, locked it shut and ran like hell.
            I couldn’t see much; the windowless room was dim and there was a bunch of junk in the way—cargo crates, broken pieces of metal and machinery, and tarp-covered cages piled high and stacked like a maze. The only light came from a naked bulb swinging from a wire overhead, throwing leaping shadows against the walls. It would have been an accident waiting to happen even if I hadn’t been staggering about like an old drunk.
            As it was, it took about five seconds to stab myself in the side with something, and to bark my shin on something else. Not that it mattered; even breathing sent burning signals shooting along my nerves, lighting up a constellation of oh-shit-points. I grabbed the side of a cage, pulse pounding fiercely, nausea roiling in my gut, and wondered if the light was really fading in and out or if that was me.
            And then I saw it.
            As a door, it left something to be desired. Like everything, since it was just a dark rectangle set into a wall of peeling paint and rot. It would have looked perfect on one of those old B-movie sets, the kind with the dippy blonde edging slowly towards certain doom.
            Only it looked like I was a brunette. And I’d already met the monster. And right now, I’d take it. 
            Or, you know, maybe not.
            I pulled up abruptly after a couple seconds, but not because the vamp had caught me. That’s just how long it took to round the side of the cage.  And to find myself in the devil’s own operating room. 
            The low light glinted off a rusty metal table sitting all alone in a cleared space near the door. It looked oddly like the trash heaps were trying to get away from it. I didn’t blame them. 
            It had a high lip, presumably to catch slippery organs, and leather restraints heavy enough to have held Frankenstein.  He wasn’t on it at the moment, but there were weird stains on the restraints and around the drain underneath, and it reeked like a skunk dipped in sulfur.  And if that wasn’t enough to make the point, there were saws and clamps and assorted nasty things piled on one end. There were also more cages heaped around, many with claw-like gouges in the bars.
            Oh, yeah. There were also some creatures. 
            It looked like whatever had been in the cages hadn’t been too successful at getting out. Because jars of their not-so-spare body parts lined the room in shelf after shelf of formaldehyded nightmares. Most were just dark squiggles against the glass, or pale globules of what-the-hell preserved by somebody who probably slept with the lights on.                 But a few…
            A few were staring back.
            Ooookay, I thought, gawking at something that looked like an eye on a stalk.  Dead things in jars were clearly a level seven on the creep-o-meter. But the operative word here was dead, and I didn’t think that something bobbing about in formaldehyde was exactly a huge--
            The eye abruptly spun and looked at me. 
            And then the milky iris turned black as the pupil blew wide. 
            And then I don’t know what happened, because I and my suddenly full bladder were limping like mad for the door.
            "Dory!”  Somebody shouted a name behind me, but it didn’t mean anything. Not when my brain was busy doing a montage of scenes from the kind of movies they show at 2 A.M. And apparently, whoever I was, I liked old monster flicks way more than was healthy, because it had a lot of fodder.
            “Damn it!  Listen to me!” The voice came at the same moment that a hand latched onto my ankle. I was moving too fast to stop, not that I would have anyway since there were worse things than hitting the floor chin first. But it still hurt like a bitch, and my bitten tongue flooded my mouth with copper. 
            That was oddly appropriate, since a red haze had descended over my eyes, like maybe I’d cut my forehead, too. But it didn’t seem to interfere with my vision when I flipped over, jerked my foot back and then plowed it into the vamp’s pretty face. And broke his nose. 
            He cursed and I cackled, because it was funny. And because I was a little tense. Which wasn’t helped when I noticed the long white hand that was still wrapped around my ankle. 
            Well, shit.
            The bastard gave a jerk, sliding me underneath him in a move so fast, I barely realized what had happened. Until I looked up into the bloody face of death, swift and sure, glaring down at me. For a second, before I did the only thing I could.
            And kneed death in the nuts.
            Death, it turned out, knew a lot of French curse words. I was treated to most of them as we rolled around the floor, me trying to throw him off, him intent on draining me. And it looked like he was winning. At least, I assumed that was why the room kept trying to gray out at the edges, and why my attacks were batted aside like the antics of an overly energetic puppy. 
            Until I made a sudden lunge to the side, snatched a fire extinguisher off a trash pile, and smashed it into his stubborn head. Which would have been great, except that it gave Red a chance to get a foot on the floor. He did something balletic that was too fast for my eyes to track, but it ended with me flipping over his head and then him flipping over mine, only to land five or six yards away. 
            On his feet, facing me.
            “Who the hell are you?” I demanded. “Spiderman?”
            “No.” He swiped a hand across his bloody face. “Your boyfriend, come to get you out of this!”
            “In your dreams!”
            “Frequently,” he growled--from all of an inch away. 
            Shit. I hadn’t even seen him move. And then he fisted a hand in the front of my tank, jerked me up to his face and—
            Kissed me? 
            As crazy as it sounds, that’s what the lunatic was doing. In the middle of a mad scientist’s lab, watched by all the creepy things in their little jars. And it looked like crazy was catching, because for a second there I was kissing him back, sucking on a bloody lower lip that tasted like heaven, tasted like candy, tasted like the best thing ever. Until I came to my senses and abruptly wrenched away, freaked out and furious and turned on and—
            “What the hell is wrong with you?”
            “You are. Tu me rends fou!”
            “Fou, fou!” He made some weird gestures in the air. “You make me the crazy!”
            I stared at him. “Buddy, I got news for you. I don’t think you need any help.”
            The vampire looked offended, but he didn’t get a chance to respond.  Not with the place taking that moment to start coming apart. The ground rumbled under our feet, a bunch of little jars shook their way off the shelves and a big red light started revolving by the door.
            Because yeah. What this place had really needed was a bloody strobe. 
            But that wasn’t half so bad as the ear-piercing alarm that split the air a second later. Or the fact that a nearby, tarp-covered cage started shaking violently. Something in there really wanted out, and I really wanted to be gone before it managed it. 
            But it didn’t look like the door was an option, since it was currently being used by a bunch of G.I. Joe look-alikes. Or they would have been, if Joe dressed in black body armor and slung bandoliers of potions over the parts of him that weren’t already occupied by guns. War mages, I identified, half a second before all hell broke loose.



Chapter Two

            I dove for the operating table, since it was the only source of weapons, and grabbed a couple knives while sliding underneath. Meanwhile, the vamp was jumped by half the guards, who he promptly threw into the other half. Mages hit the deck, bullets started flying, jars started breaking and I hesitated, feeling conflicted. 
            The problem was that I didn’t know if the mages were the bad guys, come to throw me back in my cage, or the good guys attempting a rescue. And then one who’d fallen nearby looked up and spotted me.  And I barely had time to push the table over before a couple dozen bullet-shaped dents pinged out of the metal in front of my face. 
            Well, okay then. 
            The guy stopped firing after a few seconds, probably figuring out that whatever caliber he was using wasn’t enough to punch through the thick old metal. So he used knives instead. And they must have been enchanted, because where the bullets had only pockmarked the surface, the knives sliced right on through. 
            But they didn’t slice through me, because I wasn’t there anymore. Bullets slammed into the wall over my head and sparked off the bars of the cages I dove behind. But only one hit me, and it was a minor wound in the calf that I barely noticed because I was too busy noticing the contents of one of the jars, which had been smashed by the earthquake or the bullets or who-the-hell-knew. 
            And, okay, maybe that hadn’t been formaldehyde, I thought, as the hand that landed in it went numb to the elbow. But it looked like the effect wore off fast. Because the creature that had been floundering around in it--something that looked like an octopus if they had six inch fangs—suddenly perked up. And lunged for my face.
            I screamed and slashed out with a knife, which didn’t appear to do much more than piss it off. It came after me as I ran and stumbled and ducked behind this crate and that cage, not being picky, because bullets and fangs. And then I fell, tripping over something I never saw because I was too busy rolling to the side to avoid the creature, which hit the concrete beside me with a slimy, squelching sound that I thought might haunt my dreams assuming I survived to have any. 
            And then it lunged for me again and I kicked it. 
            Although, no. To be fair, I kicked it, with enough force to have sent a football fifty yards to the end zone. Only there was no end zone, there was only the mage’s face, which had popped up over the nearest cage with an anticipatory gleam in his eye right before the creature gnawed it out.
            At least, that’s what I assumed it was doing. It was kind of hard to see considering that pale tentacles had wrapped around the man’s entire head and neck. But the munching sounds would seem to indicate—
            I blinked and stumbled back as something tiny skittered underfoot. It might have been a rat or a roach, but I wasn’t in the mood to take chances. I was in the mood to make it out the damned door. Which I would have--if another flood of mages hadn’t been blocking it as they poured inside, taking the odds from insane to just plain silly.
            “Dory! Get out of here!” It took me a second to realize that the vamp had spoken, mainly because I was kind of surprised he was still alive. And even more so when he threw me a gun. “Go!”
            I plucked it out of the air. It was a shiny black 9mm Glock 18. Nice. 
            And then I sprayed bullets—but not at the mages. Because pistol ammo probably wouldn’t get through their body armor and because I wasn’t feeling that charitable right now. If you’re going to be a bitch, might as well be a big bitch, I thought, a little hysterically. 
            And took out the shelf behind them.
            Suddenly, it was like the shooting gallery at the fair if the gun was fully automatic and the ducks never moved. I’m not going to say I broke every bottle, but if there were more than two or three remaining when I finished emptying the clip, I’d be surprised. Bullets ricocheted, jars exploded, bits of flying glass and shrapnel took out other jars, and not-formaldehyde rained down on the mages. Whose faces went saggy, and whose numb hands dropped their weapons, even as they stared around trying to find the source of the barrage. Which they never managed to do since they rapidly went from confused and pissed off and homicidal to…
            Well, whatever emotion can best be described as “lunch.”
            The only exceptions were the ones who had been spry enough to dodge back out the door before the fun started. Or the ones who had thrown themselves at the vampire, I guess under the impression that they’d last longer. Or the one who had been in front but who had ducked behind a bunch of crates.
            You know, the one I hadn’t seen.
            He emerged shrieking a spell that blasted me off my feet and through the air, before slamming me back into the wall hard enough to crack bone. Hard enough to liquefy my insides.  Hard enough to cause the whole room to bleed--

*   *   *

            I woke in the middle of a battle, which was not unusual.
            A human was lunging at me with a knife, attempting to gut me, which was.
            I blinked at him.
            He was yelling something that I couldn’t hear over the roaring in my ears, which always took a few moments to subside. But the sound bounced off the inside of my skull like rocks. It didn’t hurt, but it was annoying, like an insect buzzing around my ears until I reached out and-- 
            That was better.
            I peeled myself off the wall and looked around.
            It was…colorful. The meaty smell of new blood painted the room in spatters, glowing crimson bright against the darkness. The stench of tainted magic came from a fire eating its way across the floor, flaring along the spectrum as it consumed old potion stains. And a familiar, skin ruffling scent followed some of the humans, a sickly green that lingered like aftereffects every time one of them moved.
            The combined stench was bad, but I had woken in worse, in battlefields days old, full of bloated corpses. No, it was alright.
            But something else wasn’t. 
            Something was wrong.
            It wasn’t the strange things running around underfoot. One started for me, then paused, raising long feelers like a crab’s out in front of it, before abruptly turning and scurrying away. I let it go.  
            Surprisingly, it also wasn’t the vampire. There was one here, raising every hair on my body from the power he was radiating. First-level. Old. Perhaps four hundred years, perhaps more. But the blood lust was cool in him, his outline merely a vague blue shadow, only the pale mist steaming up from his body and the thin silvered veins under his skin showing any difference between him and the humans.
            Satiated or gorged.
            I let my eyes move on.
            The room was cool, too—blues, grays, darkness in corners, one small source of light overhead. My nose twitched, calling it to me, only to be flooded with the ozone taste of electricity. I growled and then ignored it.
            But something else gleamed, in brilliant flashes here and there. I walked through the writhing mass of humans toward it. One grabbed my arm; I tossed him against a wall. Another raised a weapon at me—slow, slow, they moved so slowly I could have ripped his throat out before he finished the motion. I settled for taking his rifle away and batting him across the room with it.
            I reached the source of the light, but I still couldn’t see it clearly. I growled again, and this time, something answered. A strange, haunting cry, and then a hand, bright, bright like flame, emerged from nothingness. And started feeling around the floor. 
I cocked my head to the side, nonplussed. I had seen many hands move about on their own, torn or cut off of vampires, or spasming from soon-to-be-dead humans. But they didn’t glow. 
            Only I glowed.
            I growled and grabbed it.
            Something gave a shriek, and the hand jerked back. And there was muscle behind it, oh yes there was. Not like the humans, two of which jumped me a second later and forced me to release the hand in order to crack their skulls together. And by the time I threw them aside and turned back, the hand was gone. 
            I growled.
            Something whimpered.
            Something else moved, and I caught a gleam again, like a candle behind a curtain. 
            I jerked at the fluttering thing and it slithered easily through my fingers. Cloth; waxed. I pulled some more and something on the other side grabbed it and pulled back. But I was stronger, and when I gave a jerk, it came away in my hands. 
            And the glow flooded the room.
            Golden light, like looking into the sun, spilled everywhere, so bright I wanted to shield my eyes. It made it hard to see features; hard to see anything. But features didn’t matter; I normally barely noticed them. Power I did.
            I went down on my haunches and reached for it, but something was in the way. 
Bars. Iron. New. I could still smell the solder. I pulled them aside and felt around in the box—why was it in a box?—and finally grasped it.
            It bit my hand.
            “No,” I told it. “Bad.”
            And then I snatched it out.
            I still couldn’t see it very well; in fact it was harder up close where the light hurt my eyes.  But it smelled wrong. I pulled it close and sniffed it, mentally filtering out the stink of blood and urine and peppery fear radiating off it, but for once, scent didn’t help. I pawed at it, checking its limbs. It whimpered again, and the light flickered.
            “Hurt?” I demanded, because I couldn’t find any unclosed wounds.  
            It didn’t reply. 
            “Hurt!” I said again, louder, because maybe it was deaf. But no. It flinched; it had heard me. And then some gunfire hit the cage, sparking off the bars, and it flinched again. And kept doing it, in little motions that flickered against the canvas like firelight.
            Oh. It didn’t like the noise. I stood up and tucked it under an arm. I would take it away from the sounds, and then it would be better. 
            I scanned the room.
            The humans were dead or as good as. The vampire, of course, was not. Injured, but not mortally so, which made it more dangerous. I narrowed my eyes at it. There was a faint tinge of pink around the blue now, blended by the currents of its power into mauve tendrils that smoked up from the surface of its skin. 
            I kept the small thing close as I skirted the field of bodies. The vampire turned as we did, but made no forward movement. But the currents shivering through its veins increased, as its power surged. 
            I growled a warning.
            The vampire was unhappy; I could feel it in the heat it suddenly gave off, in the way it flooded the air with ozone. My nose wrinkled. I hated that smell. How humans lived in cities steeped in the scent of those who hunted them, I would never understand. How could they know when they were stalked, when every house already reeked of the hunters? When every streetlight hummed like the stolen energy in their veins, making it almost impossible to tell the difference?
            I would take the small thing somewhere with no false lights. With nothing but trees and wind and scurrying things even smaller than it was. With sounds of the earth that would not make it shiver and mewl.
            The vampire hadn’t moved. 
            I eyed it warily. Its power had faded, the silver current barely visible now, but it was only reined in. And its wounds were closing. The only serious one was on its stomach, where some potion had splattered and was eating through the flesh. But the vampire’s healing abilities were faster than the poison’s destructive ones. Soon, it would be whole again. And if it fed from the few humans whose pulses still beat faintly, here and there, it would be back to full strength. 
            If I was going to attack, it should be now.
            “Dory?” The creature spoke, low and soft. The name wasn’t mine, but it was looking at me. The eyes were limned in silver, too, like the veins. They stared at me, deep and empty and awful.
            I growled and renewed my grip on the small thing, which was thrashing about. I would kill the vampire if forced, but I was injured, too, and would also need to protect the small one.  This was a fight I would avoid if I could.
            “Dory—” It held out a hand.
            I backed up, jerking the small thing with me. “Mine,” I said, low and guttural, and the vampire started as if surprised.
            It probably was. They always assumed that I did not speak. That I could not. So many had plotted my death, discussed it, laughed about it, while I was even in the room, because they assumed I was mindless. Like one of the failures of their kind, born mad.
            But I was not a failure. I was what I was supposed to be. I was dhampir.
            And they never lived to tell anyone they were wrong.
            “Mine!” I said, challenge in the tone this time. If it wanted a fight, so be it.
            But the vampire took several steps back, hands raised. “Oui—yes. Yours,” it agreed. The words meant nothing, because vampires lied, but it also changed color. The pink faded to blue, to gray, to black as it went dim and almost seemed to collapse into itself. Dark and small suddenly, instead of bright with power. I watched it narrowly.
            Unlike the young ones, those as old and strong as this could summon power in an instant, with little or no build up required. It was backing down. It was refusing challenge. 
But vampires lied.
            My muscles tensed, adrenaline drowning my system, power and speed and—ripping, tearing, burning, yessss. The blood lust flooded me as I prepared for fight not flight, always the preference, always the joy. And then I lunged—
            --at the door, slamming it shut a second before something crashed into the other side.
            The vampire jumped.
            “You did not feel them change?” I challenged, pushing against the clawed hand that was caught in the gap between the door and the wall. It was longer than a man’s, with huge, exaggerated knuckles under a covering of black hair, and thick yellowed talons that scored the heavy metal.
            “I was….distracted.”
            “That kind of distraction can get you killed, vampire.”
            “So I see.” It brought the butt end of a weapon down on the creature’s fingers, hard enough to sever several of them, and the rest withdrew with a howl. “Shifters.”
            “Yes. I smelled their musk when I awoke. Did you not?”
            “No.” The voice was clipped. “They scented as human to me.”
            That must have stung, because power flashed through its veins for a split second, before being reined in again. “There are thirteen, two of them injured,” it said, showing off. “The odds are acceptable.”
            “Not with the small thing.”
            “The small—you mean the child?”
            I looked down. The little one had grabbed onto my leg with a grip I would have defiedeven the vampire to break. That was good. It left my hands free.
            “Child.” I used language so seldom, sometimes the words wouldn’t come. But this one…
            “I will protect her.”
            I didn’t answer. I was looking at the claw marks the creature had left on the door. They had the same foul stench as the creatures, wrong unnatural, and were bubbling the green paint as they dripped down the surface. A moment later, the lock on the door began to sizzle, smoking as if a blowtorch was on the other side. 
            I glanced up at the vampire. “You were saying?”
            It scowled. It did that a lot. But a moment later, I joined it when the room lurched hard to the right, like a ship on the seas, and ugly cracks ran up the walls. One split the ceiling all the way to the light, causing it to flame out in a shower of sparks. But more light flooded through the cracks, crisscrossing the gloom in slivers of hellish orange.
            One lit on the bar of a cage, and the metal went as molten as in a furnace. But I had never seen a furnace turn a bar white hot in an instant. Or boil it away to smoke in another.
            I did not to bother to see what the rest of the rays were doing. My eyes lit on a turned over table not far away. It was in poor condition, but it had wheels. It would do.
I righted it and started piling things on top.
            “What are you doing?” the vampire demanded. It looked like it might have interfered, but the lock was now gone and its back was to the door, keeping it closed.
            More or less.
            “That will become apparent. Where are we?”
            “Nowhere. The dark mages who used this place folded over a piece of a ley line, creatinga pocket in non-space—” It broke off with a disgusted sound. “There is no time for this! We have to—”
            “There is time,” I said, poking my nose into a large jar. Little round balls of greasy metal. I added it to the pile.
            The vampire made another displeased sound, but it answered. “A ley line is a river of great metaphysical power.  Among other things, it separates worlds—”
            “I know what a ley line is.”
            “Then you know that they are meant to be travelled through very quickly—as when stepping through a portal. They are not designed to be used as a permanent residence!”
            “Yet someone has done so.”
            “Those with an extensive knowledge of magic and a pressing need to hide have used the trick for centuries, but it carries great risk. If the spell they used as an anchor fails, the shield bubble keeping out the ley line’s energy will fail, too, and in that case—” it broke off with a gesture at the room. “Do you understand?”
            I glanced up. In the few seconds I had worked, the scene had changed. It now looked as if the room was made of glass, and someone had thrown a ball at it. The impact point was a solid heart of flame, with boiling orange-red energy radiating outward in jagged rays. They lit the remaining pieces of the room like the sun through stained glass, causing the gunpowder in the air to shimmer like gold dust.
            So much power.
            It was beautiful.
            I tore my eyes away. “I understand that we need to get out.”
            “Yes, yes! We need to get out! Therefore making a barrier will do us little—”
            “I am not making a barrier.”
            The vampire looked at the heavy pieces of trash I had gathered on the table. “Then what is that?”
            I didn’t bother to answer. “Open the door,” I said instead.
            “Efin!” It threw up its hands, and then had to replace them quickly as the door buckledbehind it. “Yes, yes, d’accord.  Now you and the child, you stay behind me, do you understand?”
            I looked at it. It liked to scowl, it liked to demand things, and it liked to talk. It reminded me of someone. 
            “I understand.”
            “Good.” It took a breath. Then another, which made little sense as it did not breathe. And then it spun to the side.
            The door crashed open and a snarl of fur and unbridled savageness boiled into the room. And stopped, several yards in, slavering mouths agape. Which is what most creatures would do when faced with the solid field of flame the back half of the room had become.
            They would have recovered in a second. I didn’t give them one. I swung the table outward, putting all my strength behind it, and with the heaviness of the metal augmented by the tower of machinery on top. Machinery that spilled over when its base slammed into the shifters’ backs, or stomachs for those with slightly better reflexes, not that it mattered; not that anything mattered. Not with a thousand pounds of falling steel and iron and tiny rolling metal bits sweeping them toward their doom.
            And then I was jerked back by the vampire. Its teeth were out and its blood-lust was rising. But I did not think it was about to feed with the flames licking towards us. “Get on,” I told it impatiently, shoving the table at it.
            “You get on!” It snarled, and threw me and the small one onto the pitted table top. And then through the door. And then down a corridor, which was fast collapsing behind us.
            I twisted around in time to see that several of the shifters had somehow made it out also, but they were uninterested in attacking us. They barreled into two of their own who had stayed behind, and then attacked them in their panic to get out. They went down in balls of fur and thrashing limbs and the next second were consumed by the gaping maw of energy behind us.
            It was less like glass now, I thought, holding the whimpering small thing as the corridor curled up, concrete, brick and plaster, all the same. As if the scene were merely an image drawn on paper and held to a match.
            It was oddly unreal, like the expression on the vampire’s face as it ran, pushing us with inhuman speed, racing the impossible until fire lapped at its heels and I jerked it onto the table with us. The flames followed, crackling like lightning across the width of the tunnel, burning through the vampire’s jacket and scoring a searing wound in its arm. Smoke, stinking of burnt flesh and fabric, flooded the air. The corridor bucked and buckled. Electricity lifted the hair on my arms and prickled at my exposed skin, the space left to us sizzling with it as we scrambled backwards, as the tunnel flamed out around us, as beautiful death reached fiery hands out for us—
            --and missed.
            The floor bucked wildly one last time and, suddenly, we were bouncing into darkness, the table smoking like a flare, the portal behind us burning not orange but bright, incandescent white for one, brief instant.  Before it exploded like a bomb, picking us up and throwing us through the air and into a large group of people that were rushing through what looked like a warehouse door. 
            But they weren’t people; they were vampires. Dozens of them, some getting out of the way in time, others somersaulting along with us as we hit the ground, as we rolled toward a street, as I reached for the small one the impact had torn out of my arms and a knife at the same time, because the fight was not over yet. No, the fight was just beginning as I rolled to a stop and surged to my feet and--
            The voice tore through me like a hundred knives, plucking me out of the air halfway through a leap and sending me crashing to the ground. My body twisted, but the power wouldn’t let me rise. Not the vampire’s—not this vampire’s. There was only one who could do this to me, and I looked up with no surprise at all to see the diffuse outline of a being made of moonlight, shimmering in the air above me.
            “No,” I told it. And “wait” and “child.”
            But it didn’t listen. It never listened. 
            And then the glow faded, and there was nothing but darkness.


 Look for Fury's Kiss on October 2, 2012!