Frost Burned (Mercy Thompson #7)

Chapter 12

chapter
Chapter

"Come on inside, then," Marsilia said, though she didn't sound angry. "Come inside, and we will talk."

I followed her, and everyone else followed me. If Stefan hadn't been there, I wouldn't have let Hao trail behind. I didn't really have a lot of confidence in Honey, and I didn't entirely trust Asil, though I liked him. But Stefan I trusted to watch my back against the strange vampire.

Marsilia walked to the edge of the burnt-out shell of the winery and stepped up until she stood on the rim of the foundation, then jumped the ten feet or so to the floor of what had been the basement. I jumped after her and landed with loose knees and ankles to take up the strain of landing. The hard floor still made my feet sting. I was macho, though, and didn't whine about it. Posturing like a werewolf, I thought with some amusement. Probably I wouldn't have yelped in front of Marsilia even without the wolf pack's reputation to worry about. Honey hopped down like the ten-foot leap was nothing, and Asil, Asil didn't make a sound when he landed.

Marsilia continued across the floor toward the center. Above us, twin steel I-beams loomed dark and menacing. I didn't like them because something could stand on them and attack us from above when we weren't looking. The vampires, the night, and the ghosts were making me paranoid. The moon had disappeared behind clouds, and only a few stars peeped out at us.

I could tell from the way the floor felt under my feet that we walked across tiles, but there was a good inch or more of black ash on top. My toe caught an uneven spot, and I realized that debris was scattered across the floor, large and small, hidden by the soot and the shadows. Unburnable bits of the building had fallen into the basement. I watched my footing and followed Marsilia, who had no more trouble than if she'd been walking across a ballroom floor. I could see in the dark, but maybe vampires could see better. Asil stumbled over something, which made me feel less clumsy.

Somehow, I expected there to be more vampires in the building, but, except for us, it was empty. In my experience, Marsilia did everything with an audience. But the only vampires here were Marsilia, Hao, and Stefan.

In the semi-enclosed basement, the acrid smell of the fire was much worse than it had been in the parking lot. The stink of it burned my sinuses, clogged my throat, and made me impatient. "Is there a reason we can't talk outside?"

"Yes." It was Hao who answered. "But it needn't concern you yet."

I didn't like the sound of that "yet," nor the subtle, patronizing feel, so I stopped where I was.

"It seems to me that it might concern me very much." I turned to look at him even though it left Marsilia behind me. Asil and Honey were keeping an eye on her – and it was a coup to have the guts to turn my back to the Mistress of the City. "Who is it that has Marsilia running scared? Who is it that keeps the dead from moving on?" Accusing her of being scared while my back was to her wasn't the smartest move I'd ever made – but smart coyotes don't fall in love with werewolves or go to meetings with vampires.

"You've met him." Stefan could smile and keep his voice totally serious. He wouldn't have smiled if Marsilia was coming up behind me, so I relaxed that little bit more. "Do you remember the vampire who was pulling Estelle's strings, who talked Bernard into rebellion?" When Stefan had been driven from the seethe with unpardonable brutality so that he could be an impartial witness.

"Gauntlet Boy?"

Marsilia laughed. One of those horrible not happy laughs. Like the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. And on that thought I had to turn around so I could keep an eye on her. I noticed as I moved around that Honey's ruff was up, and Asil had stiffened.

"Gauntlet Boy?" She knew she'd creeped me out. I could read the pleasure of it in her expression. "Gauntlet Boy. Yes, Mercedes, Gauntlet Boy. He started amassing power five years ago, taking over one city after another. He sees himself as the vampire's version of Bran."

"Bran is not a bad thing." He might rule with sharp fangs, but life was better for everyone, werewolf and human alike, because he did so.

"A vampire's version of Bran is not Bran." Stefan spoke from right behind me. I hadn't heard him approach.

I moved casually so that I had my back to empty space, with Honey on my left and Asil on my right – and all of the bloody scary vampires (Stefan included) in front. I knew they saw me do it – but they were willing to let me get away with it without commenting. Maybe Marsilia was serious about working together.

"Not Bran," agreed Hao. "He goes by the name of William Frost. We do not know how old he is or where he came from. I first heard of him when the Master of Portland disappeared. For three weeks his seethe searched for him. As you know, Ms. Hauptman, because I am told that you do, vampires who are not powerful cannot live without feeding upon a vampire strong enough to maintain them. This is the most powerful hold that the master or mistress of a seethe has over their fledglings. The vampires of Portland were dying without their master, and so they called upon me. When I got there, though, they had already been … saved." He said the word with a twist of his lips. "William Frost had them in hand, he said. Then he invited me to join him. He was quite forceful. I did not, however, wish to join his seethe. I refused, but because I also did not want to command a seethe, I left him unharmed. Mostly."

Hao was not one of Marsilia's minions. He'd told me that she'd sent him to get me, but if he went, it had been because he wanted to. Both of them were acting as though he was her equal.

Stefan put a hand on Hao's shoulder. "You couldn't know."

Stefan liked Hao. I hadn't known that there were any vampires left that Stefan liked.

Hao shrugged. "It is past and done. I cannot do it over. I did not want a seethe, and I was happy to leave Frost to it – though he made my skin crawl."

He met my eyes, started to drop his – and then left them where they were. A vampire's gaze didn't affect me the way it does everyone else, but he tried anyway. When he failed, he gave me a solemn nod.

He looked away, and his gaze traveled to Marsilia and Stefan. "We are not good people, Ms. Hauptman. Good people don't become vampires. I knew he was evil, and I left the vampires of Portland to him." Hao smiled, and I knew that when he was really amused, he did not smile. "You have heard, I think, that the police are having … difficulties in Portland. Too many of them are dying as they go about their jobs. Bran moved the Portland pack to Eugene, Oregon, where they would be safer. I believe he was more worried about the police than the vampires, and he was right. Frost is not ready to take on Bran just yet."

I'd heard about the move out of Portland. It happens that packs move. Not often. Usually it is just a matter of the Alpha switching jobs to a place where there is no pack and bringing the rest of his wolves with him. I hadn't asked why the Portland pack moved to Eugene. At the time, it hadn't concerned me.

"Bran is watching him?"

Hao shrugged. "I do not know Bran, Ms. Hauptman – that is your area of expertise. If he is watching William Frost, he isn't doing anything about him. I suspect, though, Bran has enough on his mind without dabbling in – how did you put it earlier – vampire politics."

"I am sorry if I offended you." Nope. Not a bit, but it seemed politic to say so – or might have, if I'd used a different tone of voice.

He caught my lie and gave me an amused half bow. "Frost moved south from there instead of north to Seattle. I think it was because the werewolves in Seattle have a very strong hold on their territory, and the seethe there is small and weak. He would have had to import vampires from Portland to really control the city."

I couldn't remember who the Seattle Alpha was offhand. I'd have to ask Bran.

"He hit Los Angeles next. The vampires there are …" Hao's voice trailed off, presumably because he was looking for the proper adjective.

"Barbaric," supplied Marsilia. "Stupid. Weak. The Master of the Los Angeles seethe surrendered to Frost, practically gibbering in terror after seeing a demonstration of Frost's power. William Frost, whoever he is, wherever he came from, has one of the rarest of vampire powers – he is a necromancer."

"Not necessarily. Perhaps he was a necromancer before he was turned." Hao's nonexpression looked thoughtful, and I suddenly realized why I could read him. Charles had nonexpressions like that when his wife Anna wasn't in the room. "A witch with an affinity for the dead. If so, he is very old, because the witch family who had those spells, that affinity, was among the first destroyed in the wars in Europe."

He wasn't talking about human wars, but about the vendettas and feuding that killed off most of the witch families in Europe and sparked the Inquisition and its softer, gentler brother, the witch hunts.

"By necromancer," I said carefully, "you mean he controls the ghosts here. And he somehow reanimated the body of the fae assassin?"

"Yes," Hao agreed. "At the very least, he can do such things – and there is no reason for anyone else to do so."

James Blackwood, the Master of Spokane, had been able to control ghosts because he could absorb the powers of the creatures he fed from, and he had drunk the blood of a walker. Even the other vampires had been afraid of him – though not because he could control ghosts. He was just that crazy.

But a witch was different from a walker. A lot more powerful – if I could judge by the kind of power Elizaveta had. A necromancer witch would control the dead – and ghosts and zombies weren't the only kind of dead. That was why Marsilia was afraid.

"Can he control vampires?" I asked.

"He is not strong enough to take us over," Hao told me, motioning to the vampires present. "Though younger or less powerful vampires would be at risk."

Was that why Marsilia hadn't brought any of her other vampires? Why we had met here instead of the seethe? Did she worry that Frost would interrupt us?

"He has control of Oregon," Marsilia said before I could ask her if she was expecting Frost. "The Master of Portland was the only one he killed, the only one who might have stood against him – the rest being weak of will and cowards. He has Nevada, not that there were ever many vampires in Nevada. He has California except for San Francisco. Frost is still afraid of Hao, and Hao is the only vampire in San Francisco. Like Blackwood, Hao prefers not to have encroachers in his territory."

"Your lieutenants, Estelle and Bernard," I said. "He suborned them to weaken you and take over your seethe. He didn't do anything like that with the other seethes? Why not?" I asked.

"He has to be careful with Marsilia," said Hao. "She held the Master of Milan in thrall for centuries, and any vampire with two pennies' worth of common sense is terrified of attracting the attention of the Lord of Night."

A small smile ghosted across Marsilia's face and was gone. "The Lord of Night might be angry with me, but he would enjoy avenging me." She made a noise, and I couldn't tell if it was happy or unhappy. Maybe even she didn't know. "But he would enjoy mourning my death twice as much."

"Only great love can inspire such heated rage," agreed Stefan, and there was a glimmer of affection in his voice. "But Frost is right to be afraid. Even now, the Lord of Milan talks of you to his courtiers."

She ignored Stefan, which made me think that what he was saying was very important to her.

"Only if I violated our laws could Frost steal my vampires by stealth," Marsilia told me. "If Bernard and Estelle had instigated a rebellion, Frost could have claimed he was coming to my 'aid.' But I rid myself of his tools, and he was forced to look for another way."

"In the meantime, he continued to take over seethes." Hao looked at Marsilia. "To my shame, I ignored him until one of my making came to me. She had been in Shamus's care."

"Reno," Stefan told me. "Shamus was a tough bastard, but fair and smart."

"As good a master as a vampire can be," Hao agreed. "Constance … Constance was strong. Frost broke her. She escaped him, or he let her go – it's hard to tell and ultimately not important. She came to me and told me I was a fool to keep ignoring Frost. Eventually, he would amass enough power that he could destroy me."

His face tightened, and he spoke very softly. "She said it over and over. It was the only thing she could say. She was afraid of the dark, afraid of small spaces and large. Afraid of rats and quite mad."

His nostrils flared slightly. When Charles did that, it was either a sign of high emotion or it meant he smelled something interesting. I had no idea what it meant when a vampire who did not need to breathe did it.

Hao looked up at the night sky as a drop of moisture fell on his face. "Constance couldn't be trusted to feed without killing, and she was always hungry. I was fond of her, and I had to kill her. But even if she had said nothing, her death would have caused me to look at what was going on outside my city."

My jaw had dropped when I thought he was crying – but then moisture fell on my face, too. It was starting to rain. I blew out, and my breath fogged. It wasn't going to stay rain for long. The good news was that it was only the barest drizzle, so maybe it would stop soon.

"I could have killed Frost without help or much effort when I first met him," Hao told me. "But like your Alphas, a master vampire gains power from those who serve him. Frost has many who serve him now."

"I'm the only one left in Washington before he goes after Seattle." Marsilia wiped a drop of rain off her forehead.

Stefan took a deep breath. "It's not just about Marsilia. It's not even just vampire business at this point, Mercy. He intends to bring us out the way the werewolves have come out, the way the fae have come out."

I envisioned every town in the US finding out that there were vampires – and not the seductive lovers in the paranormal romances Jesse bought, either. The Inquisition would look like child's play. Asil, who had lived through the Inquisition, gave me an unhappy look but didn't say anything. He was playing my second for all he was worth. Another werewolf might have read the lies of his body language, but the old vampires didn't have a chance.

Asil was my ace in the hole, and my instincts were telling me I might need one. Though anytime I was anywhere near Marsilia, my instincts screamed, "Run away, run away."

"Not quite the same way the fae and the wolves came out," said Marsilia, her voice dry. "Bran hides the monstrous side of the werewolves, and the Gray Lords would have had the world believing that the fae were all like Tinker Bell. The Necromancer wants the world to know exactly what a vampire is, reveal ourselves in our full glory to completely terrify our prey, let the humans know once and for all who is the dominant species. He doesn't just want to rule the vampires, he wants to take down the human government. He wants to rule."

I had nightmares about vampires sometimes. There was the particularly nasty vampire who I'd heard speak longingly of the "before times" when vampires killed every time they fed, and they fed where and when they pleased. Vampires still kill their prey – but they don't kill every time they drink. When the people in their menageries die, it is usually accidental.

I didn't want to live in the "before times" – and neither, I could tell, did Marsilia. The slaughter would go both ways.

Hao said, "I called Marsilia and spoke to her of what my Constance had told me – as it turns out, Frost had just talked to her. So I came to see what I could do to help. Having failed to kill him once, I feel that he is my responsibility."

Marsilia tapped her foot and grimaced. "I called Iacapo. He was intrigued." She probably wouldn't be happy to know how lost she sounded. "The problem with living so long is that one grows so bored that even disaster seems a good thing. And so I told him. He hung up. Oh, he'll come avenge my death, but he will not bestir himself before then."

"Iacapo?" I asked.

"Iacapo Bonarata, the Master of Milan, the Lord of Night." Stefan paused, and said in an odd voice, "I wonder if he has anyone left in his court who knows his given name."

I wondered if Asil was the Moor's first or last name. From what I'd heard about him, he was old enough not to have a last name.

"There will be no vengeance if Frost has his way," said Hao. "If he wins this challenge, Iacapo will be handicapped by his own rules."

"It won't stop him," Stefan said with an odd smile. It made him look young for a moment. Then he continued thoughtfully, "But you are right. Frost might not know how free and easy our former master is with his own rules because when people think of the Lord of Night, they are more interested in the scary and very dramatic things he does to people who break them."

Marsilia nodded. To me she said, "Frost cannot take my seethe by murder or he risks the Master of Milan's remembering that his job is to destroy vermin – even all the way across the world. Frost was not skilled enough to take over my seethe by stealth. So he is left with a frontal attack – and this is a problem. He is not entirely certain that he can take me."

"Marsilia is no fledgling." Stefan looked at her, and his face was … pensive. "She has a well-deserved reputation that followed her here. She is powerful and dangerous, too dangerous even for the Necromancer to fight alone. The werewolves have dominance fights, fights to the death for the position of Alpha, yes?"

"Bran frowns upon them," Asil murmured. "But yes."

"We have the same, but with more rules and variety. Frost would not challenge her alone – he brings two more with him, a triad. Marsilia is allowed to bring two others to the fight as well."

"Except that he can bring two former masters," Hao said. "And none of the vampires Marsilia has are capable of acting against him. Constance was strong, and he forced her to do his will. She was not quite his puppet, not quite, not even at the end. But Constance was stronger than any vampire Marsilia has to call except for Stefan and Wulfe."

"And Stefan is not hers to call," I said. Marsilia narrowed her eyes at me, narrowed them further when I held her gaze.

"And Wulfe would be a mistake." Marsilia looked away. "He is strong enough in power and a vicious fighter when he chooses, but …"

Stefan broke in. "He is less stable now than he ever was."

"I have never been certain," Marsilia said, speaking to Stefan, "that he wasn't smack in the middle of the conspiracy that Estelle headed up. I know she thought so." She hugged herself and looked about fifteen. "To tell you the truth, I did ask him if he felt up to the fight. He said he felt that it would not be a good idea." She gave Stefan a gamine grin, an expression I've never seen her wear. "He called Iacapo and yelled at him. Said he was getting old and lazy if he couldn't bestir himself to 'squish' Frost."

Stefan snorted. "That sounds like Wulfe."

"I have heard it said that Wulfe made Iacapo," Hao said.

Marsilia shrugged. "Wulfe is the older – and Iacapo could never get Wulfe to obey him any better than I can. But that means nothing."

"Iacapo couldn't get Wulfe to obey him at all," said Stefan – which for some reason made both Marsilia and Stefan laugh. Stefan stopped laughing first. He rubbed the thigh of his jeans and looked away.

I followed his gaze and realized that he was watching for something. For Frost.

"Tonight," I said, feeling stupid because I'd been evaluating the basement as a fighting ground since I'd jumped in after Marsilia. "He's coming to fight you tonight. Here."

"Yes." Marsilia's eyes were dark again. And she still looked like a college student, young and vulnerable. I knew some of the people in Stefan's menagerie whom she'd tortured to death. She was not some helpless girl but a sociopath who had outlived most of her enemies.

I was her enemy. Stefan was my friend – and he wasn't Marsilia's anymore.

"You wanted Adam for your second," I said.

"How long has your fight been scheduled?" Asil asked.

"He picked the time, I chose the place," said Marsilia. "He challenged me two weeks ago."

Which gave Frost time to set up the attack on the wolves.

"They were supposed to hold the werewolves until the fight was over," I said, working it out. "Then what? He would come in to rescue the wolves and kill the humans? Vampires and werewolves unite?" I'd thought he wanted the wolves dead. But if he allied himself with Adam … Not that Adam would ever be that stupid. If Frost came in as the rescuer, it would take Bran longer to understand that he had a new enemy. Maybe too long.

Asil growled, a subsonic sound that jangled my nerves. Then he echoed the gist of my thoughts. "At least until he feels strong enough to take on the werewolves as a whole – because Bran would never allow Frost to do as he wishes."

"That was probably part of Frost's plans," said Marsilia. She sounded like I was amusing her. Maybe it was supposed to irritate me – but I thought it was just habitual; she seemed too distracted to be her usual nasty self. "But he had something else in mind as his real target. Whom does the pack protect, Mercy? Who would be vulnerable if the pack were gone?"

There was a dramatic pause while I stared at her. I understood who she meant, but for the life of me I couldn't figure out why.

"He wants you dead," Stefan told me. "When his mercenaries failed, he sent a pair of half-fae assassins after you."

He'd known that someone had been sent after us?

Stefan made an impatient sound. "Don't look at me like that, Mercy. Remember, I'm not a part of the seethe anymore. How do you think Marsilia got me to come here?"

He'd been sounding pretty chummy with her, I thought uncharitably.

"We only heard about the assassins earlier tonight," Hao said, half-apologetically. "After they had already failed."

"They were supposed to kill me?" I said. "That makes no sense at all. Why go after me?"

Marsilia's lips turned up as if she'd had a pleasant thought, and her voice was velvet-soft when she said, "I would kill you if you didn't have the pack."

I made a frustrated sound. "I mean someone who didn't know me. I'm a lightweight."

"Clever coyote, to survive so many attempts to kill you." Marsilia sounded somewhat bitter.

"Really, why me?" I looked at them. "I get the whole vampires-hate-walkers thing, I do. But we're not talking about sending me out on a hunt to find where he sleeps. I'm just not that – "

"Like Coyote, you just keep staying alive," said an amused voice from outside of our makeshift, ash-coated arena. He'd been standing on one of those damned I-beams watching us for Heaven knew how long.

He hopped down and looked around, laughing silently to himself, a man no one would ever look at twice. At least not unless he were wearing metal gauntlets that looked as though they ought to be part of a torture museum display – as he had been the last time I'd seen him.

William Frost turned around and clicked his tongue against his teeth. "You chose the oddest location for this, my lady fair. We shall all look like chimney sweeps when we are through here. And – no audience? Marsilia, my love, you disappoint me."

Marsilia drew herself up like a cat that someone had tried to pet without permission, and he smiled. "That's what the Lord of Night said when he sent you away, isn't it? 'Marsilia, you disappoint me.'"

Stefan cleared his throat. "I've heard that version. But … actually not." He sounded apologetic. "It was in Italian, which is a much more beautiful language, but I can translate for those who don't speak Italian." This last was aimed at Frost, with just the right amount of veiled contempt. "He said, 'My beautiful, deadly flower, my Bright Dagger, you dare more than I can allow. I will die of sorrow and boredom without you, but it must be done.' I was there for that part. The rest I have from an acquaintance in his court. The Master of Milan composed a love song in her honor, as beautiful as his pain, that all who listen to it are moved to tears. The painting the Lord of Night created on the evening when she was banished is still on the wall above his bed so that he can show his lovers that none can compare with his Bright Dagger." He smiled, showing his fangs, and his voice was nearly as sharp. "He will not be pleased with thee, William Frost. But you won't have to worry about it, because you'll be dead."

Frost had quit smiling.

"It's like that bit in The Princess Bride," I told him. "When Vizzini says, 'You fell victim to one of the classic blunders.' Never go in against an ancient Italian vampire when death is on the line."

Stefan laughed. I think he might have been the only one who had watched the movie. Or no one else thought I was funny.

"I have brought an audience for us," Frost said, ignoring me entirely. "So the display will not be ruined."

He clapped his hands, and the upper edge of the north side of the shell of the basement of the winery was suddenly lined with the shapes of people – like Indians on the ridgetop in one of those old Westerns. It should have looked hokey – and it did, sort of – but it was also worrisome. Then, in a simultaneous motion that raised every hair on my body, they all jumped into the basement. They were so close in sync that they made one sound when they landed. I'd seen vampires do that kind of thing before, responding to the dictates of their master or mistress. But repetition didn't make it seem less wrong.

A black cloud formed around their feet and rose as far as their knees before the ash settled back down on the ground. Maybe a little more rain would be a good thing – but the water that was coming down so far was still just a drop here and there.

"These are mine," Frost told Marsilia, raising one arm theatrically. "I have bound them to me in such a way that if I die tonight, they will all die. I thought it only fitting that they witness this."

He looked around again. "So it is you and the Soldier who will fight me, then? Who is your third?"

Marsilia just smiled at him – and I realized we were missing someone. I tried to remember when I had last seen Hao, and it was a long while ago. Long before Frost had done his sudden-appearance act. The sharp smell of the burnt building, so much more sour than true woodsmoke, made it impossible to pick out one vampire from so many. If Hao was somewhere nearby, I couldn't find him. I wanted to turn around to look, but controlled the impulse. If he had disappeared, it was for a reason. The broken-cement remnants of walls stuck up waist high in places. Maybe he was hiding behind one of those.

Frost laughed again, and all of his people laughed in unison. They all had exactly the same expression as he did on their faces.

Unable to help myself, I snarled. Frost looked at me with a sudden intentness that told me he'd been paying attention to me all along.

"Don't tell me that you're going to pull the coyote girl into this? What exactly is she supposed to do – besides die?" The words were a chorus spoken by all of his vampires in time with his lips. I could tell from Stefan's careful expression that I wasn't the only one who was getting creeped out by it.

"I've been good about not dying so far," I said. "You should quit concerning yourself with my health."

I didn't say it very loudly, and the vampires were too busy talking to each other to pay attention to me. But Asil frowned at me and made a motion with his hand. I recognized the soundless instructions because Adam used the same ones with our pack. Asil thought we should leave.

But I had a feeling that leaving was not an option. For some reason, Marsilia had wanted me here.

"I have heard about you, Frost," said Marsilia, sounding bored. "I had disregarded it as vindictive gossip, but I see that it is true. You are a show-off who wastes resources making himself look impressive. You talk and talk, and it is empty talk. You will bring in a new era of vampire freedom and power, and blah blah blah. And yet you have only puppets. When their strings are cut, you have nothing."

The other vampire's lips flattened, and he said silkily, "Marsilia, raise your right hand."

Her lips tightened and both of her hands fisted.

Pay attention, coyote, whispered a voice in my ear. Can you see what he is doing? How he is doing it?

Stefan, to whom the voice belonged, was several feet away. My stomach clenched. He wasn't supposed to be able to do that anymore. The blood bond between us had been broken when Adam brought me into the pack.

Stefan glared at me and tilted his chin toward Marsilia.

"Marsilia," said Frost again, focusing his attention on her. "Raise your right hand."

I felt it then, the thread of power he used – it was sort of like the power of Adam's voice when he'd roll it over the pack and bring them to heel. I could almost see … I squinted at Frost and tried to look, as I'd learned to see pack bonds without meditation. I had used that method to see Peter. But this needed some of the part of me that ran on instinct. The same part of me that ran on four paws gave me a little push and left me using coyote's eyes while still my human self.

And I could see magic.

Frost pushed his power at Marsilia. To me, his magic appeared to be a black spiderweb of nastiness that tried to stick to her. Greasy threads of power slithered from him to his puppet vampires. I wondered how much of the way I viewed his magic had been dictated by Marsilia's comment about puppets, because Frost's vampires had strings of his will tied around each hand and foot and a whole slender web around their heads. Or maybe Marsilia could see his magic, too. The vampires weren't the only thing he was controlling. Fainter threads of power dripped from his hands to the ground, glistening faintly where they snaked across the floor and climbed the walls surrounding us, disappearing over the edges.

Frost was a Puppet Master. I actually thought the name in capital letters, which meant I'd been hanging around the vampires too long. Marsilia had called him the Necromancer, and that was worse than Puppet Master. Names have power and I refused to give him any more than he already had. "Frost" would do, "Gauntlet Boy" if he got really scary. I looked at the threads trying to crawl up Marsilia's body and thought that I might be able to destroy them the same way I had the ones that ensnared Peter. And as if she read my mind, Marsilia's brilliant red eyes met mine. She jerked her hands and the Puppet Master – the Gauntlet Boy – stumbled forward. The strings with which he'd tried to capture Marsilia were broken on the ground in front of him, and they faded to nothing after a few seconds.

He was able to control every move of his vampires with very little effort, but he couldn't get Marsilia to move one hand. It was true that she fought him, and his minions had given up, but he still had thirty vampires dancing to his tune. That Marsilia had resisted showed everyone here that Marsilia wasn't just the Mistress of the City – she was a Power.

And the way she'd met my eyes made me think that she could have put a stop to it earlier. She had wanted to give me a chance to see what his magic looked like.

Marsilia knew more about walkers than I did. When she'd come to this country, banished from Milan, there had been no Europeans here. I wasn't sure how long she'd been in this area, but it was a couple of centuries. She'd seen walkers kill other vampires, lots of vampires.

This summer, on my honeymoon, I'd met other walkers for the first time. I'd been exchanging e-mails with them ever since, trying to learn more about what I was. They knew more than I did, but they still suffered from the same problem I had. Too many walkers had died before they could pass on their knowledge to their heirs, and much of it was lost.

She'd had Stefan contact me deliberately. He'd never have shown me he could still talk in my head because he knew I would hate it. So did she. She hated that Stefan and I were still friends. She was teaching me what I could do to fight a necromancer – and doing her best to drive me away from him. I thought that she was wasting her time with that last, because Frost had been right.

She was going to pick me to fight with her. I was pretty sure that Frost was right about my chances of survival, too. She wouldn't have to worry about Stefan being my friend because I was going to be dead.

Frost was worried about fighting Marsilia, the vampires had told me. That's why he'd chosen a challenge of three. He didn't like the odds of going against her by herself, but he thought he could come up with two other vampires stronger than hers. Likely he was right – so she'd chosen a different way.

If Adam had come with me, maybe she would have used him instead. He was a werewolf, and necromancy would have no effect on him. But she would work with what she had.

"Yours is the challenge and the manner of challenge," Marsilia said coolly, as if she hadn't just jerked his chain. "You chose now, and a three-way challenge. My choice is the place and the official. I choose here. It is large enough and remote." She smiled at him. "Since it is in my territory but owned by you, I thought it appropriate."

Owned by Frost. That made sense if he was the money man.

Marsilia paused for a moment and looked around. "Almost symbolic since one of my colleagues destroyed it yesterday."

Adam would be surprised to find out he was her "colleague." But I kept my face still.

"And for the officials, as the Master of Ceremonies tonight, I call upon Stefan Uccello, also known as the Soldier."

One of Frost's vampires said, "That is unacceptable. He is yours. The Master of Ceremonies cannot be yours."

I'd quit looking at the magic threads that bound Frost to his vampires. It produced an eye strain, like those bizarre patterns that showed a 3?D picture when observed through unfocused eyes. I couldn't tell if Frost was making the vampire talk or if the vampire in question was doing it on his own.

"I am not Marsilia's," said Stefan. "I do not belong to her seethe."

"He speaks truthfully," Frost told his people. "I witnessed this myself. Marsilia treated him so shamefully that he left her seethe, and she was too weak to prevent him. A real man, a real soldier, would never serve such a one. We can accept him – in all ways."

Rat bastard. He was right, but that didn't make him any less of a rat bastard. I could see, even if no one else did, that those words had hurt Stefan. Here he was, helping her again as if his menagerie mattered not at all to him.

"It is my place to remind you of the rules," Stefan said, his voice even. "You, William Frost, have chosen three against three. Two fighters, with you as the captain of yours, and Marsilia as the captain of hers, with the other two participants on either side yet to be chosen. The fight is to the death of the captains."

"Excuse me," I said diffidently. "But both the captains are already dead."

Everyone looked at me. The vampires with cold, unfriendly gazes, and Honey as if I were crazy. That was okay – because I was utterly crazy. I knew Marsilia was planning on making me fight a bug-nuts vampire. The more scared I get, the faster my mouth moves. I was a smart-ass because I was terrified.

Asil smiled. He was supposed to know all about crazy.

"The fight," said Stefan gently, because he knew me that well, "is to the permanent elimination of one captain or the other. Does that satisfy you, Mercy? As soon as that elimination takes place, the other members of the teams may quit fighting – or not, as they choose.

"The captains can call upon anyone to be on their team and those persons cannot refuse. The only stipulation is that they must be present – which for our purposes means within five minutes – of this room. Though I caution you both that an unwilling team member will not fight for you as well as one who chooses to fight. After the teams are chosen, you will each retreat to the farthest corner opposite each other and take five minutes to confer before the battle begins."

Asil caught my eye and quite boldly repeated his earlier gesture. Five minutes away was doable, I knew it as well as he did. Especially if Honey and Asil worked to slow down the vampires.

I looked at William Frost – Gauntlet Boy – and thought about what he planned. All of the bloodshed and chaos, and the people who lost the most would be the humans who lived in those cities. At first. Then those humans would gather their weapons and give battle. Then they would destroy the vampires, the fae, the werewolves – and it would cost them dearly to do it.

I would not, could not allow Frost to do as he planned. I could not let him win. I would do anything I could to stop him. I shook my head at Asil. He gave me a respectful bow.

Stefan walked between Marsilia and Frost, his posture military straight. "For the duration of the fight, the participants may use anything, any power, any weapon that comes to their hand. People who are not participants may not fight. This means that I must caution the audience – and more directly you, William Frost, that no vampire other than those requested by each of the participants, may join the fight. Even if they do not do it of their own free will. Violators will be killed – by me – and if such violation, in my estimation, leads directly to a victory, that victory will be overturned by the Lord of Night."

"You are drawing a very fine line," said Frost, but not as if it made him unhappy.

Stefan bowed his head in acknowledgment. "The rules are the Lord of Night's. My job is to make those rules clear. The first call for comrades belongs to the challenged – Marsilia?"

"I call upon Mercedes Athena Thompson Hauptman, mate of the Alpha of the Columbia Basin Pack," she said, not unexpectedly.

Beside me, Honey growled, her voice low and threatening. I'm not sure whom she was growling at – possibly me. Asil just stared at me. He knew I'd seen this coming.

"Yes," I said coolly.

I was no match for a necromancer, though I was beginning to think that I might actually be an asset along those lines. I worried Frost enough that he had tried – twice, if Stefan was right – to eliminate me. Fear like that can be as much of an asset as actual power.

"Mercedes," said Asil in a cheerful voice. "You are going to get me killed at last. Bran would not do it, but I believe your mate will have no trouble."

I frowned at him. "I make my own decisions. Adam knows that."

He smiled at me. "He may know this in his head, Mercedes. But his heart will feel differently. You are a woman, and this is a thing of men."

"Asil," I said. "You heard. You want me to turn down this fight?"

He closed his mouth and looked away.

"Touching," said Frost. "But not germane. She is required. She cannot refuse."

Honey snarled at him, and he drew back involuntarily. She looked at me and snarled again, louder.

"He hired the man who killed Peter," I reminded her. She quit growling and looked at him, again, and this time she showed him her very large white fangs. Werewolf fangs are more impressive than vampire fangs. They are more impressive than coyote fangs, too.

"I've accepted already," I told Stefan. "Get on with it."

He looked at me a long moment. I couldn't read his face. "Don't get killed," he said.

"Awfully late to be worrying about that, vampire," snapped Asil. "You should have made certain that Adam could be here. He at least would have stood a chance."

"Werewolves," said Marsilia, "are specifically forbidden from participating."

I stared at her. "But you invited Adam, too."

She smiled at me. "He is not what you are, Mercedes. Do you think that I who beguiled the Marrok's son would not be able to beguile your mate so that he would allow you to fight?"

She'd caught Samuel, but she'd never have caught Adam. Samuel might be more dominant and a lot older, but Adam was more wary. He'd never have let her trap him in her gaze – and if he had, I could have freed him. But that part she probably didn't know. Mating bonds are one of the things we didn't talk to the public about, and they are idiosyncratic.

Mating bond or not, that she was so certain of her ability to incapacitate Adam made me reevaluate her intelligence – and not upward.

"She couldn't have asked Adam," Stefan said, meeting my eyes forthrightly. "Werewolves are specifically excluded from this kind of fight for territory." He wasn't just repeating the rule Marsilia had already stated. He was telling me he'd known what Marsilia planned and had not warned me.

For a moment I was hurt. But only for a moment. If Marsilia was right, that I was useful, more useful than Stefan would be – and I wasn't forgetting the way she'd misjudged Adam's vulnerability – then bringing me here had been the right thing to do. Frost had to be stopped.

I gave Stefan a faint nod.

"Your first pick, Frost," said Stefan in a "let's get this done" tone of voice.

"Shamus," Frost announced grandly. "Shamus, former Master of Reno and now my right-hand man."

We waited, but no one appeared.

"He will be here in plenty of time." Frost smiled genially. "He has always been a ferocious fighter. Under my tutelage, he has only improved – especially the ferocious part."

"Marsilia? Your second and last choice."

"I choose Thomas Hao, Master of San Francisco."

Out of the shadows, not three feet from Frost, Hao sort of coalesced. "Of course," he said. "I am delighted to accept the invitation."

Frost hissed, stumbled back, and for the first time, his eyes flashed ice blue with shock. He recovered himself almost immediately, giving Marsilia a small salute.

"You have been busy, I see. Well then, I have a surprise, too. Let us finish the preliminaries. I call for my last companion – Wulfe. Better known as the Wizard." He smirked at Marsilia, who was not happy. "Keep your enemies close, Marsilia. You have kept him so close to you all these years – but you failed tonight. You might have called him to your side, but you chose to summon this filthy walker instead." He spat. On the floor. Toward me.

I guess I was supposed to feel insulted or impressed. "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me," I chanted tunelessly and quietly, as if to myself, except that everyone in the room could hear me. If Frost wanted to be childish, I could do it, too – and do it better.

Stefan turned his head away, and I was pretty sure he laughed.

But no one was laughing when Wulfe dropped in from behind me so I didn't see him jump, only heard the sound of his feet hitting tile. I turned so I could see him and still keep an eye on Frost.

Vampires scared me. I even had a mental list of the vampires who scare me the most. Some of those were dead. More dead. Not ever moving again. On the very top of the list of the still moving was Wulfe. I didn't know why, exactly, he was so much worse than other vampires. Maybe it was the way that every time I met him, he seemed to know just exactly how to freak me out. Maybe it was the "nobody home" look in his eyes.

The Wizard looked like he should be worried about how to ask a girl out on his first date, checking the mirror for acne spots, deciding if he should get an ear pierced and if so, how he could hide it from his mom. He wore ripped-up, red Converse basketball shoes, blue jeans, and a thick cable sweater. His hair had been shaved boot-camp short. He held a thick chain that was attached to a metal collar wrapped around the neck of another vampire.

The second vampire was huge. If he'd been standing upright, he would have been the tallest person in the room … the grungy basement. He must have weighed nearly three hundred pounds.

He wasn't standing upright, though. He was crouched on hands and knees, and he clicked his teeth together in a weird rhythm.

He saw me looking at him – all of the vampires had looked away from him almost immediately. If I had known him when he wasn't this … monster, I doubt I could have kept my eyes on him, either. He roared at me, then launched himself like a junkyard dog and hit the end of the chain hard.

Physics said that he should have been able to drag Wulfe across the floor. But physics had only a nodding acquaintance with Wulfe. He had no trouble holding the vampire – who must have been Shamus – with one hand. His other rubbed the stubble of his hair, which looked more white than blond in this light.

"Hey, Mercedes," Wulfe said lightly. "So they succeeded in roping you into this? I've always wanted the chance to taste your blood from the source. Walkers have this lovely bouquet. Like daffydowndillies in the spring, my old ma used to say."

"Wulfe," said Marsilia. I think she wanted to say something else, but didn't know exactly what. So she was just quiet, but her quietness had a quality of sorrow to it.

"Don't be mad, Marsilia," he said earnestly. "But us badass vampires must stick together, you understand." He paused. "Maybe not. How about if I put it this way? It grievest me, dear heart. But in sooth, it is for the best, as you will see anon."

"Five minutes," said Stefan. "Starting now."


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