Frost Burned (Mercy Thompson #7)

Chapter 11

chapter
Chapter

I thought we were going to catch her. It hadn't been five minutes since Sofia had broken into the meeting – and how fast could a zombie fae assassin run?

But when we got out to Bombing Range Road, the nearest main thoroughfare (so named because the area had been a bombing range back in WWII), the trail disappeared at the edge of the road. It was full dark, though it was only 6:00 P.M., but dark doesn't bother me much. I had a clear view in either direction for several miles, and there was no dead woman running along the side of the road. There were, however, a number of cars traveling both directions.

"She got into a car," Adam said, trying not to appear winded, as I cast back and forth with my nose to the ground. "Someone picked her up – or she hitched a ride."

Disturbing to speculate about either way, I thought, but there was nothing we could do about it now. "Disturbing" was a good word. Of all the things that had happened over the past few days, a dead fae getting up and running off might just be the most disturbing.

Still – a zombie. Maybe it would intrigue Marsilia enough she'd forget about her car. Not likely, but maybe. I wasn't sure I should feel responsible for the damage to the trunk. How could I have been expected to know that the dead fae would break out on her own?

Adam stared down the road. "If you hadn't slowed down for me, you might have caught her."

Maybe I would have – and maybe that wouldn't have been a good thing. Warren's truck pulled up, and Warren leaned over and opened the passenger door.

"No luck?" Warren asked, as we hopped in. I took the middle seat.

"No. Looks like she got in a car. Could have gone either way."

Warren turned the truck around and headed back before he said anything. "That's disturbing," he said.

Zombies or not, the press needed to be appeased.

Tony had checked in with his boss and given him the official story that Adam and Armstrong had come up with – which was basically to leave out Cantrip's involvement completely. The conveniently out-of-sight anonymous mercenaries took the majority of the blame. They had been hired to force the werewolves to act in violence and attack Senator Campbell, to get rid of the senator and to make the werewolves appear to be monsters.

Adam didn't look like a monster. He looked like a handsome, charismatic man. He was very good on camera.

The person behind the plot apparently panicked when some of his mercenaries were captured while holding Kyle Brooks prisoner. He had them killed to keep them from talking.

Armstrong had done some uncleaning to reveal the deaths of the men caught kidnapping Kyle because it was now a useful part of the story.

When they heard about the killings, the other mercenaries left, burning the winery and letting Adam and the pack break free. Officials were trying to find the mercenaries (with an implied fat chance) and the man behind the plot (also fat chance). And hopefully, everyone would leave satisfied with nothing but the truth – if not quite the whole truth.

So Adam, Tony, Armstrong, Kyle, and Warren headed for Kyle's office in Kennewick by way of Adam's house so he could dress appropriately for a press conference, leaving the rest of us to hold down the fort. The good news was that between the runaway dead woman and the upcoming press conference, no one had said anything to me about the fact that I'd changed into a coyote. Maybe they all assumed I was a half-blood fae like Tad.

When Ben came up to tell me that there was a messenger from Marsilia for me at the front door, I was in one of the upstairs bedrooms reading James and the Giant Peach to the youngest three Sandovals. Kyle's stash of emergency family-in-need supplies included a big box of books designed to appeal to a wide range of age groups.

"It's just getting to the good part," said Sofia. "We're almost to the giant bugs."

"Can you keep reading?" I asked Sylvia.

"Who is Marsilia?" she asked, taking the book from me.

"The woman who owns the car I've been driving around," I told her.

She winced – she'd seen the car.

"Is that the vampire, Mercy?" asked Sissy, who was nearly seven going on thirty.

"Vampires?" Sylvia asked. "There are vampires, too?" And then she said, "You stole a vampire's car and trashed it?"

I winced, too. "Officially, there are no vampires. If you don't believe in them, they will leave you alone. So it's best if you don't believe in them."

Maia nodded solemnly. "My best friend Penny asked me if there were vampires, and I told her, no. I did tell her I rode a werewolf, and her mama told me that lying wasn't good. I wasn't lying that time, but sometimes lying is good, right? Mercy, will you come to my house when they come over again and tell them I'm not lying?"

Maia was either going to grow up to rule the world or loose a planetwide plague upon the land. Maybe both. She had started kindergarten this year, or should have anyway, so we had a little time before we had to look for a place to hide from her.

"You stole a vampire's car?" Sylvia said again.

"Stole is a strong word," I told Sylvia. "It was at my shop for an oil change when trouble hit, and I needed a car that no one could track. It'll be okay, trust me – as long as you don't talk about vampires. They take their secrecy very seriously."

"Mercy," said Maia.

"Okay," Sylvia said. "I'll make sure the children understand."

"Mercy." Maia's eyebrows lowered, and her voice rose. "You need to tell Penny's mama so she won't think I'm a liar."

"I will speak to Penny's mama," said Sylvia. "Now hush so I can read about big bugs and rotten fruit."

They hushed.

Ben followed me down the stairs. Asil and Honey, in her wolf form, were waiting at the base of the stairs. Ben must have told them before he'd gone upstairs to get me. That was okay, it saved me time.

I pointed to Honey, and said, "Stay out of sight, please. Too many guards says I'm scared of her – which I am – but I don't have to advertise that. It would reflect badly on the pack. Ben and Asil can come to the door with me, because no guards says I don't respect her." Which was also true but not useful.

I patted the lamb necklace around my neck to make sure it was still there. Objects of faith worked against vampires, and for me the lamb worked as well as a cross. Adam had given me a gold-with-emerald-eyes replacement for my silver lamb because wearing silver is problematical when you are the mate of a werewolf. It was just the right size to stay around my neck when I changed, and it was sturdy enough to stay on when I ran. On the same chain I wore one of Adam's army dog tags. Wedding rings are dangerous for a mechanic. I took a breath and centered myself as if I were about to enter a match at a dojo.

The man waiting on the porch step was a complete stranger, though my nose told me he was a vampire. I didn't know all of Marsilia's vampires by name, but there weren't that many, and most of them I knew by sight.

Marsilia was low on powerful vampires. Maybe she'd been recruiting. Though I had no way of telling which vampires were more or less powerful than others, this one did not seem like a new vampire. They had less control of themselves.

He was Asian – Chinese, if I wasn't mistaken – with a lean build. He wore black jeans and a gold silk shirt with a mandarin collar. With the porch light shining directly on him, I could see that it was embroidered with dragons in a gold just slightly darker than the cloth of his shirt. The temperature had fallen with the sun, and if he'd been human, he'd have been shivering in the cold.

He'd been changed young – not as young as Wulfe, who still looked like a half-grown teenager, and had since the Middle Ages. But if the vampire on Kyle's porch had been over twenty when he'd been turned, it hadn't been by much.

He bowed his head in greeting – the kind of bow I made before beginning a karate match, with head up and eyes on your opponent rather than the way some of the older European vampires and werewolves do it. I returned his bow the same way he gave it.

"I am Thomas Hao, Ms. Hauptman," he said without inflection of accent or emotion. "It is my great pleasure to issue you and your mate an invitation to meet with Marsilia, Mistress of the Tri-Cities' seethe. You may, of course, refuse. I am asked also to inform you that if you come tonight, certain matters may be quickly resolved. She has some information regarding the recent regrettable incidents that she believes would be interesting to you."

"Oh, that's too easy," said Ben, looking at me. "What does she want?" He spoke quietly, and both he and Asil had stayed a step farther back in the foyer than I was, so Hao didn't have a clear view of them. That didn't mean he couldn't hear them clearly.

"Do the wolves speak for you, mate of the Alpha of the Columbia Basin Pack?" Hao asked, his voice exquisitely polite. No, this was not a new vampire.

"I agree with Ben," I said half-apologetically. "I've all but totaled Marsilia's new, very expensive car, and she's just going to forget about it and give me information to top it off? If that's so, why not just a phone call?"

Hao studied me, then looked over his shoulder and took a step back to stare at the Mercedes. He stood there motionless for a few seconds, and when he turned back to me, I was sure I saw amusement on his face, though there was not even a hint of it around his mouth.

"Ah. I do not believe she is aware that the car had been damaged, Ms. Hauptman." Yes, that was amusement.

I folded my arms; last night I'd have jumped at the chance. Having Marsilia invite me would have given me a slight advantage over inviting myself, as I had planned. But with Adam and the pack back safely, we didn't need the vampires anymore. "I think I'll play it prudent. Tell Marsilia that I'll have the car repaired to her satisfaction and give her a few months to get over it before I visit."

Hao looked at his feet and pursed his lips. "Marsilia is worried, Ms. Hauptman. We know about the abduction of the pack. The one behind the incident is a danger to everyone in the Tri-Cities and not just to the Columbia Basin Pack. At a different time, the damage to the car would, I am certain, have just the effect you are concerned about. But Marsilia is old and very, very wealthy. A car is as nothing given what she sees coming."

Beside me, Asil came subtly alert, and I felt it myself. This was a twist I hadn't seen.

"Why doesn't she just use the phone?" I asked.

"Or let you tell us right now," murmured Asil.

"Because one may be overheard on the phone, and this is dangerous information," said Hao, choosing to ignore Asil, "information that may prevent more deaths in your pack." He paused, and again I got the impression he was amused, but no sign of it crossed his face. "Also, because Marsilia dislikes using phones or" – he glanced at Asil – "surrogates when she can make you dance to her bidding."

That sounded like Marsilia, all right.

Vampires do not breathe except to talk, they do not perspire, and their hearts race only with stolen blood. So it's very difficult to tell when they are lying and when they are telling the truth. I cannot reliably do it.

"Can it wait until tomorrow night?" I asked.

"I believe that you would regret it if you waited," Hao said. It struck me as odd that he ventured an opinion. I might not be able to tell how old or powerful a vampire was, but I could read subtle cues. This vampire was not anyone's minion. He caught the mistake himself and was more careful as he continued to speak. "I was to tell you that you should bring Adam and however many of the pack you choose to."

Adam's welcome put a different slant on things. For one thing, it made it less likely that she was setting me up – unless she knew Adam wasn't here right now. It also meant that she probably had a use for the whole pack.

"She wants the wolves to deal with this person, so she doesn't have to," I said.

"No," he answered. "No. She will act against him, but matters are more likely to be successful if she and the pack can coordinate their efforts."

She was worried, I thought, and so was Thomas Hao.

"Adam is not here at the moment," I told him. And he wouldn't be for hours.

Hao's mouth tightened. "That is regrettable."

I was having to rely on body language instead of my nose, but either he was very good at lying with his body (and very few people, vampire or not, are aware enough to do that) or he was dismayed that Adam would not be coming.

"It would still be a good idea," Hao told me. "If you came, Mercy who is a walker."

A walker is the name given to those of us who are descendants of Coyote, Raven, Hawk, or any of the other archetypes who once walked this land. Vampires do not like us. First, I see ghosts, and ghosts congregate around the daytime resting places of vampires, betraying the presence of the monster who killed them. I am also resistant to a lot of magic – and almost entirely resistant to the standard magic of vampires. When vampires came to the New World, they were met by my kind and nearly destroyed. I think that if disease and war had not decimated the Indians – and thus the walkers – there would be no vampires in the Americas.

Of course, being resistant to vampire magic didn't mean I was a match for a vampire in any way, shape, or form.

This vampire stared at me with black eyes and waited. Marsilia wasn't going to hurt me – she couldn't afford to because the werewolves would destroy her if she did. She was just playing games. If I didn't accept her invitation, by werewolf rules, which weren't so different, really, from vampire rules because both are predators, it would be a coup for Marsilia and a black eye of cowardice for the pack.

Being seen as strong and scary kept the monsters at bay. If I showed the world that I was afraid of Marsilia, it made those wolves who belonged to the pack that much less safe.

I could insist on waiting until Adam got back. That might make me look weak, but it wouldn't reflect, much, on the pack. Adam had had less than an hour's worth of sleep since he escaped, and I was pretty sure he hadn't slept otherwise since before the pack was taken.

I was tired, too, and wanted nothing more than to go back upstairs and read about giant squishy fruit with the Sandoval girls. We had lost Peter, and I didn't want to lose anyone else, no matter how much the vampires scared me. Waiting for Adam, when I knew Marsilia wouldn't hurt me, really was cowardice. Adam was exhausted, and this was something I could do for him and for the pack.

"All right," I said. "I'll come. I have matters to arrange first if I'm going to go. I can find my way to the seethe."

Hao shook his head. "The Mistress asked me to make sure that you made it there safely. I will wait here."

"It might take me a while," I warned him.

He bowed again. "I am used to waiting."

"Your decision," I told him, then closed the door. I looked at the werewolves and waited for their reactions.

Asil gave Dick and Jane – the nude statues that adorned Kyle's foyer – an amused look.

"I like the hat," he said.

"Which one?" I asked.

Jane had a new hat this month, a straw cowboy hat with an ostrich feather pointing jauntily up, just like the first ten inches or so of the ski hat Dick wore somewhere south of his belly button. The long tail of Dick's hat drooped down until its pompom end hung just below Dick's knees.

Asil's amusement turned into a real smile, an open and beautiful smile that made him look twenty-five instead of how-many-hundreds of years old.

"Kyle has Christmas wear for them," I told him. "He usually dresses them up the day after Thanksgiving. But he's been a little too busy to get them rigged out."

"You aren't really going to go, right?" asked Ben.

"Marsilia isn't going to hurt me," I told him.

He rolled his eyes. "Have you seen what you did to her car?"

"Peter died," I told Ben. "Go find Tad, and tell him that you two will be watching this house tonight."

His chin rose.

"I'm not taking Tad into the vampire den," I told him. "And Honey … Honey should not be left guarding the kids, not tonight." Not when Peter had just died and she might lose control of her wolf.

Honey padded into the foyer, graceful, golden, and beautiful. She snarled at me.

"I am the boss of you," I told her as I headed for the stairs. "You're coming with Asil and me, so put a sock in it."

"Does the whole pack follow your orders so well, little coyote?" Asil asked, amused.

"Yes."

He laughed again.

I gave him a cool look. "Or they regret it for a long time."

We hadn't had a chance to resupply on cell phones yet, and that left me with no direct way to contact Adam. The first rule of being married is to communicate where you are going and why. I called Tony, and Sylvia answered – Tony had left his cell phone with her. Kyle's phone went straight to voice mail. I left a message on it and stopped to think. Armstrong probably had a cell, but I didn't have his number.

I called Kyle's office from the landline and told the recording that I was "going to meet with Marsilia" but didn't dare to get more specific than that. I called Stefan. He didn't answer his cell phone, and no one answered his home phone. I left more-detailed messages both places. When I set the phone on the counter, Asil and Tad were both in the kitchen.

Tad looked at Asil. "Mercy needs clothes to wear if she's going to face Marsilia. Stay here because I want to talk to her." Asil gave me an amused glance, Tad a less amused glance, but didn't protest waiting while Tad escorted me up the stairs and into the bedroom that he'd been sleeping in. He took out the odd chunk of metal from his pocket and invoked the sword his father had made.

"I already destroyed the cuffs," he told me, holding it out. "So I don't need it. I'm not a swordsman, and you're going into enemy territory dangerously unarmed. I don't know Asil, and Honey doesn't like you. You may need something."

"Asil is Bran's, he will defend me," I told him. I didn't take the sword. I've had some weapons training in karate classes, but I've also read the stories about the Dark Smith of Dronheim.

"Which is more than you can say about Honey," Tad groused. "Maybe you should take me."

I shook my head. "I don't want to leave either Honey or Asil with the kids. Honey might lose it and kill someone – I'd rather it be the vampires than the kids. Asil … is not entirely stable. If something does happen here and he had to kill someone, it could be worse than Honey losing it. This visit with Marsilia shouldn't be dangerous." If Hao was not lying. "Can you discern lies?" Some fae could, some couldn't – though they themselves could not lie.

"Not with vampires," he admitted.

"Vampires are tricky," I agreed instead of saying, "Me either." "But I think Hao was serious about Marsilia taking action – which makes me suspect that we are dealing with something that directly threatens the vampires after all. She wouldn't stir herself on our behalf unless there was something big in it for her." That "I think" kept it from being a lie. If he thought I could read Hao's truth, he'd be less likely to argue. But I was pretty sure Hao had not been lying.

Who gains, Asil had asked me, if the pack is gone from the Tri-Cities? Not Marsilia, I'd assured him. Because Marsilia benefited from our pack. No one wanted to take on Adam – and because Marsilia and Adam had cooperated a time or two, people thought that we cooperated more with the vampires than we really did. Adam didn't object because he felt it kept the riffraff out.

But that meant one of her enemies might come after the pack in order to weaken her. She'd already withstood one attempt to take over her territory – and we of the Columbia Basin Pack had supported her. "I should be safe enough," I told Tad. "Honey might not like me much, but she is loyal to Adam, and she is impressive. And of the werewolves we have here, she's the single best fighter. I need you here – you'll take care of the children, first and foremost. Ben is good for defense if you need it, but I don't know how he'll be around kids." With his four-letter vocabulary and his anger problems, I'd have normally avoided leaving him with children or undefended women. But he was loyal to Adam, and I was confident that he wouldn't hurt any of the kids even if he might expand their vocabulary in unfortunate directions.

"All right," Tad said. "All right. But you take the sword." He held it out again. It looked wicked and wrong in a room filled with Thomas the Tank Engine's cheery presence.

I made no effort to take it. "I know about your father's swords."

Tad laughed. "Yeah, there was a long period of time when Dad was pretty angry with the world. This one is called Hunger, and it needs to taste your blood; then it will serve you – until it tastes another's blood it likes better. I know you've done some weapon forms in karate, but, you're right, it's still better not to use it unless you have to. You'll never know when it might prefer someone else – and since you aren't fae, it will be even less inclined to stay with you. However. It will kill vampires in a way a normal sword cannot. It will also eat magic – items or spells, though from my experience it is pretty slow." He looked at me. "And there's still that fae assassin running around when she should be dead. I don't know for sure that this sword will do anything to her, but it's more likely to incapacitate her than a knife, a bullet, or even a werewolf is."

He held the sword out again, and I took it gingerly.

"Use it to cut yourself to bind it to you. I'd recommend forearm or calf – and be careful, it's really, really sharp."

So I touched my left forearm to the blade – and it zapped me a good one as it sliced into the skin. It felt like magic turned to electricity – like touching a hot wire on a fence.

Tad frowned. "That's not supposed to happen. Let's try this."

He pulled out a pocketknife and cut his index finger. He got a few drops of blood flowing, then pressed his finger on the still-bleeding cut on my forearm. I winced and winced again when he took hold of my hand that held the sword and guided it to taste of our mingled blood.

This time there was no zap of magic but a gentle dance of power through my body.

"That's better," he said. "Now you should be able to sheathe the blade just by thinking about it."

He was right. In an instant, the blade had vanished, leaving what looked like a random lump of pitted metal.

"If the Gray Lords were mad about the walking stick – " I said – the lump of metal's residual magic made my forearm buzz all the way to my elbow.

"Let's just say that it would be better if you give it back to me as soon as you return – and I intend to give it back to my father at the earliest opportunity. This isn't like Peace and Quiet; Hunger is a major artifact, and the fae lords won't be happy to find that it is in your hands – particularly as you gave another fae artifact to Coyote."

I jerked my head up to look him in the eyes, and he grinned. "Dad told me. He had to tell a few of the fae because they knew you had the walking stick, and they wanted it back in the worst way."

I started to put it into the pocket of Kyle's sweats when Tad stopped me. "You aren't really going to wear those to meet with Marsilia are you?"

"Right," I said. "I'll go look in Kyle's closet."

Kyle's closet yielded a pair of jeans that were tight but not unbearably so and a blue sweater that Tad picked out. I hoped I wasn't stealing Kyle's favorite clothes. I got downstairs, and Honey, still in wolf form, and Asil waited for me.

Asil handed me a coat.

It was a good coat, and it fit. More importantly, it had a pocket big enough for the fae artifact that was sometimes a sword, so I didn't have to keep it stuffed in the too-tight jeans.

Asil drove Warren's truck, with Honey beside him – she wasn't happy about that, but I didn't like her any more than she liked me. That she was mourning Peter, whom I liked very much, just made me more uncomfortable around her. Let Asil deal with her and vice versa.

I drove Marsilia's Mercedes. We'd take the truck back and leave the car with Marsilia. That would get it out of my hands, and anything else that happened to it would be her fault. Tad had had to bend the trunk more to get it to latch. Now the trunk looked like a tree had fallen on it, which didn't improve the car's appearance at all. I'd moved my gun from the car to the truck, but I planned on leaving it there. If I was reduced to shooting at the vampires tonight, I might as well shoot myself and get it over with.

Thomas Hao led the procession in an inconspicuous white Subaru Forester with California plates. I thought we were going to the seethe right up until he turned in the wrong direction at the Keene roundabout, taking us away from the Tri-Cities.

I hesitated, driving an extra round on the roundabout. If he was from out of town, as the California plates indicated, he might have gotten lost. When I could see him again, the vampire had pulled to the side of the road and was waiting for us.

If he'd taken a wrong turn, he'd figure it out when we ran out of town and ended up out in the countryside, I decided. If not – then I'd guess we were meeting Marsilia somewhere else. It didn't make me happy, but I wasn't unhappy enough to turn back to Kyle's.

I pulled out behind Hao, and Asil followed me. When he drove past the big hayfields without slowing, then turned to take us farther out into West Nowhere, I figured that we weren't going to the seethe and took out Gabriel's sister's phone – which I still had – and called Sylvia on Tony's phone.

"We're not going to Marsilia's," I told her. "We're out on Highway 224 headed toward Benton City. I'll give you another call when I know more."

"I'll keep the phone nearby," she said.

Twenty minutes later, we were through Benton City and headed up on the bluffs that overlooked the Yakima River, surrounded by orchard and vineyard. I hadn't seen a house in miles when Hao turned up a gravel road between rows of orchard trees.

I'd spent the entire time thinking about vampires. Old vampires had money. Marsilia had been going through a fugue – old-vampire version of depression, from what I'd gathered. She had sat around not doing much for years, and that made her look weak, which is why Gauntlet Boy had attempted to steal her seethe. Marsilia would never so much as blink unless it benefited her.

She wouldn't arrange a meeting with the pack unless she needed help. This, all of this, had begun with the vampires. The more I thought about it, the more sense it made.

Of course a vampire would kill the mercenaries who might know too much. He wasn't scared of what they might say to the police; he was scared of what they would say to Bran or Charles. If the pack died – and he'd intended them to die, probably couldn't believe that they'd let themselves be taken by a handful of mercenaries and Cantrip agents – then the Marrok would hunt down the responsible parties.

The trees fell away first, then the gravel, and we crawled through what seemed like acres of grapes that looked deader than could be attributed to the season alone. Marsilia's car was a city car and wasn't too happy with the rocks and ruts that had replaced the gravel.

Vampires gained powers. Stefan could teleport – and that was a real secret because it made him a target. James Blackwood, the Master of Spokane, could steal the abilities of the supernatural folk he fed upon. Maybe this vampire could create a zombie from my assassin. Why anyone would want to was another matter.

I was so lost in my thoughts that it wasn't until I got a good whiff of smoke that I figured out where we were going. The smoke itself wasn't unusual – this time of year a lot of places burned agricultural rubbish. But this smelled like a house fire and not just burning plant matter.

Hastily, I called Sylvia again. "Tell Adam that we're going to the place where he was kidnapped and held."

"Is something wrong?" she asked.

"Not necessarily," I said, though I was suspicious that Hao had been so careful not to tell me that we were meeting at the winery Adam and Elizaveta had burned to ash. "She might have something to show me here."

Or maybe not. Maybe I'd just been really, really stupid.

I took a breath. "Tell Adam that I didn't recognize the vampire who brought us here. He says his name is Thomas Hao, and he drives a Subaru Forester with California vanity plates that say DAYTIME." I spelled it for her. On a vampire's car, the plates could mean anything from irony to hope.

"Could be this isn't Marsilia's gig at all," I said, not liking that thought, either.

"I'll tell them."

I hung up the phone and continued to follow the vampire.

We came upon the burnt remains of the winery from the back side, the final confirmation of my suspicions. The fire had burned hot, leaving only stone, cement, and just a few shards of very black wood behind. Elizaveta had been thorough in this as in everything else she did.

The waxing moon, three-quarters full, gave the remains a horror-movie eeriness. As did the ghost waiting next to the vineyard on the opposite side of the dirt track we were following. Seeing ghosts was not unusual, and that one wasn't the only ghost hovering about. I would not have paid any attention to him except that he looked familiar. I sped up until I was close enough to get a good look.

It was Peter, our Peter. He was standing next to one of the angled posts set into the earth to support the wires that the grapevines cling to. He was hugging himself and looking toward the – I checked – mostly empty parking lot in front of the building-that-was.

I stopped, turned off lights and engine both, and got out of the car, forgetting my worries about whether or not I'd been summoned here by Marsilia, by Hao, or by some unknown enemy.

Ghosts are the remnants of the people they had once been. Most of the ones I've met don't have much, if any, intelligence. There was no reason to stop. This wasn't Peter, not really. He didn't need me – but that didn't matter. He looked like he needed someone, and I couldn't leave him alone and vulnerable.

As I rounded the front of the Mercedes, the backup lights of Thomas Hao's car turned on, Warren's truck pulled in behind me – and Peter turned and saw me.

"Get out of here, Mercy," he told me earnestly. "There is someone very bad here." He tipped his head toward the burnt-out building. He was as coherent and aware as I'd ever seen.

"Peter?" I asked, conscious of Honey and Asil getting out of the truck.

"He can't get me," Peter said, sounding more hopeful than certain. "He's calling me. Can you hear it? It's like when Adam calls, but different." He shivered and took a step toward the parking lot.

"Who is calling you?" I asked.

Peter shook his head. Sometimes ghosts appear in their dying state – complete with blood and gore. But there was no bullet hole in Peter's forehead, nor was he wearing the slacks and dress shirt he'd been wearing when I'd last seen him at Thanksgiving dinner, the ones he'd worn when he'd died. Instead, he wore the jeans, steel-toed boots, and flannel shirt that was his more usual garb.

I hadn't noticed at first because his presence had been too faint, but he'd become more real as he talked. If I hadn't known him, hadn't known he was dead, I might not have figured out he was a ghost – he was that solid to me.

Hao got out of his car and approached, arriving about the same time as Asil and Honey.

"Mercy?" asked Asil. "Who are you talking to?"

Honey whined very softly, staring at me intently, and Peter looked at her.

He fell on his knees, his face raw with pain, sorrow, and need, tears sliding down his face. "Honey. Min prinsesse. Oh, Honey, I am lost." He reached out and touched her, his fingers making her fur move. She shook and tried to get closer, though I don't think she could see him. Her movement only pushed her body through him.

Even when people don't know that there is a ghost present, they don't tend to stay intermingled with them for very long. Honey was no exception, and she took three quick steps back until she stood next to Asil, who put his hand on her head.

"Peter," I said.

Honey whined again and let out a little yip. Peter reached out, leaning until he touched her nose and looked at me. He started to say something, then jerkily grabbed his ears.

"I'm not going to him," he told me, wild-eyed. And suddenly there was a wolf where Peter had been – and that wolf was a submissive wolf. Peter the man might have been able to resist longer, but his wolf obeyed orders. Ears and tail drooping, he looked at Honey and turned to leave.

"Peter," I said harshly. I was getting better at stealing Adam's thunder. When I spoke, I pulled on the pack ties that, somehow, still held the dead werewolf. Something bothered me about that, but I was too concerned about keeping Peter from responding to whatever was calling him.

The pack bonds were gossamer-thin, but as I pushed my will through them, they grew more dense. He stopped, quivering – obedient still to the commands that had bound him in life.

"Peter." And this time I called him with the part of me that could see ghosts, the part that had sent the ghost at Tad's house away, that had forced obedience on the ghosts that had once belonged to James Blackwood, the Master of Spokane, who was now dead by my hand. I reached out to him, and said, "Come here."

Peter turned and sat next to my feet, his eyes on my face as though he were a herding dog and I his shepherd. Waiting for me to save him.

There were more ghosts here. They had been standing sentinel between the parking lot and the front of the house, and, although I'd noticed them, I hadn't paid attention because they weren't mine as Peter was. But when Peter had come to me, when I'd called him, they had all turned in my direction. Slowly, as if it were very difficult as well as imperative, they were coming toward us, too.

I bent down and took Peter's head between my hands. I breathed into his nose because it seemed like the right thing to do. Long-ago words spoken to me by Charles rang in my head.

Vision quest is opening yourself up to the world and waiting to perceive what it wants to show you, he'd told me. Then, almost absently, he'd said, Magic is like that. It wants to use you, and your only choice is yes or no.

So I followed my instincts, my magic.

"Peter," I told him, using Adam, using the pack bonds, using that other part of me – using everything I had. Stone-cold logic told me that what stood before me right now wasn't a ghost the way I knew them. I'd remembered why Peter shouldn't be bound by pack ties anymore.

Ghosts didn't look at me with intelligence and need, didn't respond to pack bonds. I looked, as I'd been learning how to do, I looked for the pack bonds and saw them, tinsel bright still, strengthened by my will. Pack bonds were soul binding soul – Adam had told me that. Though I could not perceive souls – pack bonds were another matter. Those bonds were firmly set in Peter's soul, and that soul was still here in his ghost, where it had no business being – here, where it was in danger from whoever it was who called him.

My senses were still expanded to their fullest, which is why I saw something else, too – a cloud of darkness that surrounded Peter and tried to slice through the pack bonds and take him from me. Asil touched my shoulder and abruptly lowered his head to stare at Peter. Honey leaned against my hip and froze, her body tightening until it felt like stone.

"Peter," I said, "you belong to us, to the pack. You are mine." The touch of pack, of Honey, helped. I brushed at the cloud of darkness, and as I touched it … it dissolved under my hands, but not before I caught the tingle of magic. Vampire magic.

"Leave this place, Peter," I told him. I needed to do something about the way his soul lingered when it should have gone on after his death, but instinct – and I trusted what my coyote knew – my instinct said it was more important to get him out of here. Away from whatever had been trying to claim him.

He glanced at Honey, who was watching my face.

"She loves you, too," I said. "Peter, get out of here. Go somewhere safe."

And then he was gone, and some of the life died in Honey's eyes, too.

"It's all right," I told her. I felt down the pack bonds to be sure, and Peter was still there. He didn't feel alive, didn't feel like the others, but we still held him safely. I straightened and felt a buzz of relief that left me dizzy. "He's safe."

Hao watched me. "They are right," he said. "You speak to the dead."

"Who is binding the ghosts?" I asked Hao.

The dead were all around us, looking at me urgently. Their mouths were moving, but I couldn't hear them. The net of darkness surrounding them was thicker than the one that had tried to capture Peter. Maybe it prevented me from hearing them, or maybe it was just because I was tied to Peter by the pack bonds.

Hao looked around. "Are they bound? Perhaps he has anticipated us. Are you finished here?"

"Who is it?" asked Asil, his voice a low, menacing rumble.

Hao was not intimidated – but then he didn't know who Asil was. "That is not for me to say. If you are done, we should go."

I looked at the dead here, three women and fourteen men. One of the women wore a black cocktail dress, but the rest of them were in power clothes like real-estate agents or business people. Suits and ties for the men, skirts and jackets for the women. If they were here, caught like Peter had been caught, then they, too, were not merely ghosts. But I was not bound to them the way I was bound to Peter; I didn't know how to help them.

Then I recognized Jones, from when I'd seen him through Adam's eyes – Armstrong had called him Bennet, I remembered, Alexander Bennet. I don't know why it surprised me to realize I was staring at the ghosts of the other people who'd been killed here. I suppose it was because I was so used to seeing ghosts everywhere that I'd quit wondering who they'd been when they were alive.

Alexander Bennet had killed Peter.

"Yes," I said. "I'm done." I felt no need or obligation to save these people from whatever had caught them. They had killed Peter and would have killed our friends and their families – down to Maia Sandoval, age five, who had ridden a werewolf and tried to feed him cookies.

These people could hang in limbo for all eternity for all I cared.

"I'm done."

They watched us as we returned to our cars. They'd quit trying to speak. I closed the door to the car, pushed the button to start it, and followed Thomas Hao to the parking lot, driving through several ghosts to get there. But this time I wasn't weakened by fae magic as I had been when the ghost tried to possess me in the secret stairway in Tad's house. All I felt was a slight chill as I passed through them. And then they were behind me.

I knew I was going to have to do something about them later, no matter how angry I was now. It wasn't a matter of what they deserved – it was a matter of who I was and who I wasn't. At some point, everyone had to draw a line in the sand over which they would not cross.

I almost turned the car around right then, but Marsilia – presumably – was waiting. There would be time enough to put things right if I could put things right with these ghosts who were not also pack.

There was only one other car in the lot when we pulled in – and I knew it because I did the maintenance on the seethe's cars in lieu of making the "protection" payments required of all supernatural creatures who couldn't defend themselves from the vampires. I suppose as the mate of the Alpha of the Columbia Basin Pack, I could have refused service without encountering trouble. But I felt like the interaction, as little as it was, gave both the vampires and the wolves a meeting place where we could interact without a lot of drama. I hoped that would help make the Tri-Cities a little safer for everyone.

The presence of the seethe's car meant that Marsilia was behind the meeting. It should have reassured me, but I was worried about the "he" who had bound the ghosts and tried to do the same to Peter's.

I drove to the far side of the empty parking lot. The formerly sleek Mercedes slid into the space and purred to a halt. I got out of the car, zipped up my coat, and turned to walk over to the winery.

Marsilia stood by my rear left passenger door as if she had been there all along, though I knew that space had been empty when I pulled in. I managed not to jump.

The Mistress of the seethe was a beautiful woman. The night robbed her gold hair of its richness, but the moon kissed her even features and made her dark eyes mysterious. She wore the most practical clothes I'd ever seen her in: a formfitting, long-sleeved, dark, rib-knit shirt and khaki pants that were probably green – I can see well in the dark, but colors are tricky, and there was no helpful porch light here. Her shoes were combat boots that looked like she'd worn them a lot – and that didn't fit in with the Marsilia I knew at all.

I took the key fob to the car out of my pocket and handed it to her. She looked at me, looked at the dent in the driver's side door, and paced slowly around the Mercedes, saving the trunk for last.

"Remind me not to leave an expensive item in your care again," she said. And that was the Marsilia who despised me, the one I felt just fine hating right back.

"You haven't shown yourself to be all that wonderful at taking care of your treasures, either," I said coolly. "At least the car can be fixed." She'd hurt my friend with her carelessness, and I wasn't sure Stefan would ever recover. "Besides, if what I suspect is true, this damage" – I waved at the car – "as well as the death of my wolf Peter Jorgenson is a result of vampire politics."

She didn't say anything, which meant my speculation was accurate.

"An assassin attacked me," I continued. "Her head hit the driver's side door during the fight and left the first dent. She broke out of the trunk – still quite dead." I tapped my nose. "I could smell it on her."

Marsilia gave me a tight smile. "Perhaps you are right," she said, and her hand went to the damaged trunk.

"But the bloodstains and claw scratch marks in the back seat are my responsibility," I told her, stepping off my high horse. "I took the car without asking you because I needed one that could not be traced to me. Adam and I will foot the bill for repairs."

Asil and Honey came up to flank me.

"No," said Marsilia with a sigh. "You are right, this was vampire business." She patted the trunk as if it were a living thing. "Especially this. Perhaps you can recommend a good repair shop."

She looked at my face and laughed. The subtle wrongness of the sound set the hair on the back of my neck rising. Marsilia was really old, and did not do emotions quite right. The effect was disturbing.

"Really Mercy, what did you expect? I can be civilized, too. It is only a car. Come inside." She waved her hand at the ruins of the winery behind her. "Come inside, and learn why your pack was targeted."

"Because someone saw us, saw the werewolves as your allies," I told her. "They wanted you weakened." The rest of the explanation hinged on that first part. "They hired mercenaries and dissatisfied Cantrip zealots so that Bran would go hunting for federal agents and hired guns – and miss the one who was behind it all. Personally, I think they underestimate Bran, but a lot of people do. He likes it that way. The bottom line, Marsilia, is that someone, some vampire, wants your seethe."

"Yes. And you, cunning little coyote," she purred affectionately, so I knew that my accuracy had displeased her, "you have been so clever as not to die." She reached out suddenly, and her face loosened with lust as she ran her fingers over Asil's face. "And look what you brought me. A new toy."

Marsilia had a thing for werewolves.

Asil smiled wickedly and deftly avoided her gaze – dominant werewolf instincts to stare down everyone they meet are all wrong when it comes to vampires. Vampires can capture most people's minds with their gaze. That is what allows them to hunt people and not get caught. The Moor was apparently aware of vampire eye tricks.

"I like you," Marsilia said to him. "You are pretty."

"I like you, too," said Asil. "Vampires are an acquired taste." He smiled, with white teeth showing.

She frowned.

"Marsilia," said Stefan, stepping out of the darkness. "You distract yourself."

She didn't look at him, didn't take her eyes off Asil, just angled her head a little toward Stefan. "And if I do? What is the harm?"

"Mercy might kill you before anyone else gets a chance." Stefan sounded bored.

Marsilia flashed her fangs at me with sudden rage. "Do you think you can kill me, little coyote?" Her voice deepened, and her eyes no longer looked black. "Do you think I am so easy?"

"Hey," I told those brilliant red eyes. "I'm not the one making threats. But if you try to do something to my wolves, you'll have to go through me to do it."

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Asil smile, just a little.

"Your wolf would enjoy it," Marsilia said, evidently dismissing Asil's earlier remark as admiration rather than a threat. More fool her. "You should let him make his own choice."

I stepped between her and Asil. "Leave him alone, Marsilia." Not that Asil couldn't defend himself. Until that moment, I hadn't realized that I'd quit fearing Asil somewhere along the way and started liking him. Not that he couldn't still go crazy and kill me – but I grew up with werewolves. Any werewolf can kill you if you are stupid and quit respecting him. The trick is not to be stupid.

"She takes care of what is hers, Marsilia. You should learn from her," Stefan said silkily.

"Are you trying to get me killed?" I asked him coolly, as Marsilia hissed. "We were actually almost having a conversation before you stepped in to help."

He laughed, sounding a lot more like himself. "Is that what you thought you were doing? I heard Marsilia trying to take your new wolf from you."

Asil smiled again, with teeth, but he didn't say anything.

"No," I told Stefan. "She wasn't. She just thought she was."

Marsilia shook her head – and changed before my eyes. Not physically, not a change of shape, but a change of personality. Gone was the sex goddess, the vicious woman who hated and despised me. Instead, she looked – ordinary, tired, and … and maybe a little scared.

"You are right, Stefan," she said. "I am sorry, Mercedes. Tonight, we need to be allies."

Marsilia had just apologized to me. Hell must have been experiencing some climate change.

"So," I said, "are you going to tell me what you know? Or are we going to spend another hour on drama and one-upmanship?"


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