Frost Burned (Mercy Thompson #7)

Chapter 13

chapter
Chapter

We huddled in our corner. I huddled, anyway. Asil looked faintly bored. Honey never took her eyes off Frost. Hao lurked – which he did very well for such a compact man. Marsilia? Marsilia was all business.

I was going to fight vampires, and my name wasn't Buffy – I was so screwed.

"Did you see his magic?" Marsilia asked me briskly. "I had Stefan tell you to watch closely."

"I saw."

"Your job is to stop him from doing it. Any way you can. Walkers are immune to vampire magic – even vampire magic that has its origins in witchcraft."

She sounded a lot more confident than I felt.

"You didn't seem to have much trouble stopping him," I said.

She grimaced. "Yes. But he wasn't trying very hard – and he exaggerated his reaction when the magic broke. He's trying to get me overconfident." She glanced over her shoulder at Frost, who was talking at Wulfe. Wulfe was watching Marsilia and not paying any attention to Frost that I could see. He noticed I was watching and winked at me.

"It is a tactic that Frost takes," Hao said. He paused and looked at his hands. They were smudged black, and he had black ash smears on his gold shirt. Marsilia's black outfit showed no wear and tear. I didn't bother looking down at myself. My foster mother maintained that I could get dirty in a swimming pool, and getting older hadn't helped much.

"There were only a few witnesses to his other fights who were willing to talk to me. Some of them were in the same shape Shamus is." He didn't look at the collared vampire, but I could feel his attention. "Shamus was a fine guitarist, and he liked Tennyson poems. He could and would quote them by the hour."

"Why aren't there other vampires here?" I asked. "He doesn't have all the seethes under his control, right? Aren't any of the other powerful vampires trying to stop him? Why are you and Hao the only ones here?"

"Vampires do not work well together – any more than Alphas work well together. And the Masters who are farther east feel Frost is at the limits of what he can control. An illusion Frost has done his best to foster," Hao answered me.

"And most of them think that Frost's desire to bring out the vampires and allow them to feed where they will is the best idea they've ever heard," said Marsilia. "Stupid. I hate stupid people."

"You don't seem to be in a hurry to plan anything for the fight," said Asil. "And you have two minutes left."

Marsilia looked at him – and for a moment I saw lust in her face again.

Hao bowed to Asil. "Marsilia and I have spoken about this much so our plans are already laid. She will take on Frost. I will take both Wulfe and Shamus. Ms. Hauptman's job is to keep Frost from bespelling either of us. It may be that Frost will be so busy that he has no time for tricks and your … Alpha's mate can sit on the sidelines and cheer."

I was going to have to come up with a rank for myself besides Alpha's mate. In the pack, I was just Mercy – but if ten more people called me the Alpha's mate, I was going to hit someone. It sounded like a chess move.

"More likely, he has tricks up his sleeves," said Marsilia. "He knew coming to this that he had failed to kill Mercy."

"He has a bunch of ghosts trapped here," I told her. And I remembered Peter brushing Honey's hair. Ghosts who could manipulate the physical world were few and far between. "They could be a problem."

"Ghosts are not problems," said Marsilia dismissively. "They moan and scare silly people."

"Ghosts who can throw rocks and debris are a problem," I told her. "And there's that dead but still-moving-just-fine fae assassin, too. If he animated her, it was because he had a job for her to do. If she is a real zombie, then my understanding of the rules says he can call her to fight with him. Zombies aren't living creatures, they are animated dead with no willpower or thoughts of their own. A zombie would come under the heading of his 'power' right?"

"You take care of the ghosts, then," said Marsilia. "And keep him from trying to control us. We will do the fighting."

Hao smiled and rolled his shoulders to loosen them. I'd been wrong. He did smile when he was happy.

"This should be an interesting fight," he said.

When the fight started, I was about fifteen feet behind the two vampires on my side with orders to stay as far away from the action as possible. My knee hurt, my cheekbone throbbed – and I was as scared as I've ever been.

"Dear God," I murmured earnestly. I'd quit worrying about who could overhear me when I prayed a long time ago. When you live with werewolves, there is no such thing as a private conversation even if you are talking to God. "Please don't let me end up in a wheelchair again. No broken bones would be a happy bonus, but I'm not expecting you to make up for my stupidity quite so completely." And then, even more sincerely, I said, "Whatever happens, you don't let that vampire make it out of here still moving. If he wins, it will be bad news. Any help you can give us will be appreciated. Amen."

Stefan heard me. He didn't look, but his mouth softened, and he shook his head.

"Go," he said, and stepped back against the wall where the spectators had been allowed to watch. He stood next to Asil and Honey, which I had a bare instant to appreciate – if something happened to me, I knew he'd do his best to get the wolves out of here. Not that Asil would need much help.

Vampires are loud when they fight. I don't know why that took me by surprise. I've been in a lot of sparring matches, and they get noisy. Maybe it was because werewolf fights are quieter, the silence imposed by the need to keep hidden. Though people know about the wolves, public fighting is still forbidden.

My job was to watch Frost, and that was what I'd do. The basement was "in," Hao had explained. I couldn't go outside the basement without forfeiting my place in the battle. That didn't mean I'd get out of fighting. It just meant that Stefan would have to kill me. That's why they had to have a powerful Master of Ceremonies. He would enforce the rules during the fight and declare the winner.

I found a perch on top of a broken section of walls with my back to the outer wall. Probably Frost wouldn't try anything too soon. Unlike human fights – or even werewolf fights – vampire fights could take a long time. Not breathing, not needing a beating heart meant that a vampire was dangerous long after a werewolf would be unconscious. It takes a great deal of damage to make a vampire lose consciousness.

The soot, disturbed by the violent action of the fighters, flew in a foot-high miasma of blackness. The footing was made worse because only part of the floor was tiled. Not even Marsilia was immune to inconvenient stumbles.

I was very grateful for Asil's perspicacity in grabbing a coat for me. Once I stopped moving, I quickly grew chilled. Tucking my hands in my pockets, I encountered Zee's abbreviated magic sword. Tad's warnings rang in my head, so I had no intention of drawing it under anything but the most dire circumstances. But it gave me something to fiddle with – and that actually helped me focus on something besides how terrified I was.

The action was so quick it was difficult to split my attention, and I was trying to watch Frost. Even so, I caught glimpses of Hao fighting and wished my sensei could see him.

I have to admit that Shamus attracted my attention first. Vampires usually look pretty human. I've only seen their true faces, what the monster inside looks like, a couple of times. Once would have been enough, but Shamus wore his monster on the outside.

His eyes glowed – not like a flashlight. It was more like a small Christmas tree light or a Siamese cat's eyes in the dark if the cat's eye actually lit up instead of catching and reflecting light. In a cat, it was cool – in a vampire it was just freaky. His lips were pulled back until his face looked as though it had been created to be a canvas to hold fangs and those faintly sparkling eyes. His fingernails lengthened until they were nearly as good a weapon as a werewolf's claws. There was nothing human left in Shamus at all.

Wulfe had released him from his chain, though the collar was still on. If Shamus wasn't twice Hao's weight, he was very near to it. He was fast – and, as promised, utterly ferocious. After Hao hit him once, Shamus was totally intent on reducing Hao to a pile of sludge.

But Hao was never where Shamus thought he was.

"Flow like water," Sensei Johanson often said, usually in a tone of exasperation. And he came pretty close. But I'd never seen anything like Hao.

Hao flowed like water. Sharp claws passed harmlessly by – and so close that a quarter of an inch more would have had Hao's skin sliced like a prisoner rolled in razor wire. He twisted, stopped, leaned back, and nothing touched him. It was beautiful.

I was supposed to be watching Frost, I admonished myself sternly. But I kept sneaking glances at Hao.

Then the ghosts came. I knew they were here before I saw them, their presence something the coyote could feel, a prickle down my spine and a tingle on the tip of my nose. I trusted the coyote's senses, tried to open my vision the way I had before, and took a good look around.

The dead spirits clustered against the wall, as far from the vampires as they could get. Ghosts, like cats (excepting my own Medea), don't like vampires. They didn't seem to be doing anything, though I could see the greasy spider-silk magic that tied them to Frost.

Despite the distraction of Hao and the ghosts, I was keeping my eyes on Marsilia and Frost. Who knew that Marsilia was a bruiser – and a trained boxer, from her tidy and agile footwork? Frost had been trained in some sort of hand-to-hand, too. It looked to be a relatively effective if piecemeal style, like the techniques the army teaches its new recruits – a style adjusted for vampiric strength and speed.

Just beyond them was a group of four of Frost's vampiric audience and with my vision changed because I'd been watching the ghosts, I about fell off my wall.

I couldn't see souls. Besides, vampires don't have souls. But something was wrong with Frost's vampires. Something was twisted and shredded that should have been straight and whole. I looked at my vampire then – at Stefan. He was standing a little in front of Honey, ready to grab her if she gave in to the drive that kept her intent on Frost. I still couldn't see his soul, but he looked right, just as he always did.

I found Marsilia. And she was different from Frost's vampires in the same way Stefan was. Hao had said his informant had been broken. I wondered if she would have looked like Frost's vampires.

But I wasn't here to check out Frost's vampires. I was supposed to watch him.

Both Marsilia and Frost were bleeding. Marsilia had found a metal bar somewhere, the kind someone might use to bar a door, and she hit him in the chin with it like Babe Ruth might have hit a ball out of Yankee Stadium.

He flew backward, and when he hit the ground, he fell like a wet washcloth. She pulled the bar back into batting position and watched him. He didn't move – but vampires don't need to breathe, and they can hold very, very still.

One of the ghosts of the Cantrip agents drifted closer to Frost. I thought for a moment that it was just chance. Throw a dozen ghosts into even a sizeable basement, and they have to go somewhere, right? There were ghosts drifting aimlessly all over the basement now – though only the one nearest Frost was anywhere near a vampire. The longer I watched them, the easier it was to see the binding Frost had netted them with.

It struck me as odd that in that dark basement, where every surface was blackened from the fire, I had no trouble seeing the web that held the ghosts captive. But the darkness of the net was different than just the lack of light.

The ghost that approached Frost had one of his sticky strings of magic wrapped around his neck, and that string was pulsing. Marsilia had started to relax, her hand on the bar less tense.

I stood up, but it was too late. Frost struck, his jaw hanging at an odd angle, but he moved so fast it was difficult to track. He grabbed the ghost and ate him. Not with his physical mouth. It was as if his body turned into a giant mouth and engulfed the ghost. To my sight, Frost's body flared – and then he stood up, wiping his own blood from his mouth with the back of his hand. The damage Marsilia had done to him was just gone.

She struck again, but he was faster than he'd been. As if the ghost had more than merely repaired him. He grabbed the bar and ripped it from her hands – and she was the one in retreat.

The fighting had started out loud. Shamus roared and screamed. Bodies make noise when they are flung on the floor. Not just the sound of floor and flesh, but grunts and cracks as bones broke. The metal bar added a new dimension to the noise. There was a rhythm to it as he drove Marsilia back toward me, and I realized he was just playing with her.

I couldn't help her with him. I had to trust that she was strong enough, good enough to protect herself, because I had another job – there were thirteen more ghosts in the room. And I had to figure out a way to keep Frost from eating them all. One of them was right next to me. I grabbed her by the wrist. My hand started to pass through, but I focused my sight on her and she became more solid, just as Peter had.

"Tell me your name," I said to her, giving my command that borrowed-from-Adam Alpha wolf push.

"Janet," she told me, her voice vibrating up my arm.

"Janet," I told her. "Leave."

She tried, but Frost's net held her. Her eyes were terrified. I tried stripping the net from her with my hands, but it didn't work. She wasn't pack, so I couldn't use pack magic to free her.

I pulled Zee's sword out and invoked its larger form. For Zee and Tad, Hunger had been a black long sword. For me, it turned into a plain-bladed katana with a gaudy red-and-purple hilt.

It didn't do anything to the net, though I had the feeling that in sunlight, when a vampire's magic would be at its weakest, it would have been able to eat the magic that bound the ghost. I even tried stabbing her with it. I felt it taste her briefly, and she looked even more terrified, if that were possible. But when I pulled the sword back, she was still there, encased in Frost's trap. I talked the reluctant sword back into its smaller form and stuck it back in my coat pocket.

The clank, clank, clank of the iron bar stopped suddenly, and I looked up to see it arc over the wall of the basement and safely out of useful range. Marsilia popped her shoulder back into joint without so much as a grimace and reengaged Frost. Without the bar, he was not so overwhelming – but she was still hurt. And then he reached out, almost casually, and ate another ghost. It was quick, and I was too far away to do anything about it – even if I could have figured out how. He smiled at me before he hit Marsilia in her damaged shoulder.

Desperate, I pulled my lamb-and-dog-tag necklace off my neck. Armed by my faith, the symbol of the Lamb of God had defended me against vampires. Maybe it would work against vampiric magic.

"Please, dear Lord," I said. "Let this work."

Then I pressed it against the net – which shrank away from the little golden lamb, twisting, curling, and lessening until the ghost stood free. I touched the lamb to her forehead, and said, "Janet. Be at peace."

She vanished in a bright flash of light.

"Yes!" I shouted in triumph and more than a little awe. My little lamb had outperformed Zee's sword.

From across the room, Stefan smiled at me.

"Holy symbols, Batman," I told him. "We have help."

I went after the ghosts, trying to avoid the fighting. It was more difficult than it might have been because Frost had heard my exclamation as well, and he kept trying to get to me. Marsilia redoubled her efforts to keep him away. I had to give up on two of them because Frost got too close. I was under no misconception about how fast Frost could kill me, not after seeing the damage he and Marsilia had been exchanging.

I had just freed a man wearing a dark blue suit and a Gryffindor tie when Asil's shout made me turn to see Frost right on top of me. Then Wulfe smashed into him like a freight train, if a freight train had been thrown by a Chinese vampire.

"Sorry, sorry," said Wulfe calmly to Frost as I sprinted across the room away from them. "But you need to watch what you're doing, or you're going to get hurt by your own teammates."

I pulled another ghost around and asked him his name without looking at his face because I was using the lamb to destroy Frost's magic.

"Alexander," he said.

My gaze jerked up, and I looked at Peter's killer. Why couldn't he have been one of the ghosts Frost had eaten? "You killed my friend," I told him.

"Yes," he sighed. "Werewolf, you know. Dangerous and evil."

"No," I told him. "Alexander Bennet. Dangerous and stupid."

"Are you arguing with a ghost, Mercy?" asked Wulfe in an interested voice from somewhere on the far side of the basement from me. "Good for you."

Wulfe was a mess, and in the darkness it was hard to tell what was soot and what was blood. Though he was not as obviously hurt as either Shamus or Hao – even water can't avoid being hit by two opponents forever. Hao was letting Shamus chase him toward a wall at breakneck pace. Wulfe had left them to it, evidently so he could watch me, though he made no move to stop what I was doing.

Hao stripped out of his golden shirt and ran at the wall. The shirt seemed to hover for a second, held in Hao's hand, which stayed where it was while his body pivoted on that axis as he ran his feet up the wall. The shirt ended up on Shamus's head at about the same time that Hao did a quick in-the-air somersault and landed with both feet on Shamus's back, driving the other vampire's head into the wall.

If I survived this fight, I was going to forever regret not having a DVD of it. Not that recording devices ever captured vampires correctly. They weren't that much faster in general than werewolves or me, but they could make very small movements incredibly fast, and it gave modern cameras fits.

The drizzle of rain earlier in the day had stopped for a while. But as the ghost started to tug on my hand, the one with the necklace in it, the rain began to fall again in earnest.

"Please," said Alexander, who had killed Peter. "I am so tired."

Me, too. I was also wet and cold and fiercely regretting I knew what the right thing to do was. But I finished the job I'd stopped in the middle of – cleaning off Frost's magic.

Instead of making soup of the ash on the floor, it was so cold the rain hit and turned to ice – freezing rain.

"Alexander," I told him forcefully. "Go." And I added the next bit because it was the right thing to do, too – even if I didn't know if it had any real effect. "Be at peace."

Like the others, he disappeared in a flash of light. If I had secretly hoped that the awful darkness that swallowed the bad guy in Ghost would come and haul him down into the abyss, well, that was a disappointment I'd just have to live with.

Fingers numbing, I went back to catching ghosts. I'd lost count somewhere – or maybe Frost had gotten another one when I had been preoccupied. But when I finished with the woman in the cocktail dress and turned to find the last one, there were no more.

The fighting had gotten more uncontrolled and violent as the combatants lost their footing on the ice and slid into spectators, debris, or walls with equal force. I slithered, slipped, and twice fell off my original perch after I finally reached it.

Shivering miserably, I shoved my hands in my pockets. I'd take forty degrees below zero any day over this miserable, wet, slick stuff. I could dress for forty below, but the wet went through whatever clothes I wore. My jeans were clinging to my thighs like an icy lover, and my coat, shoulders soaked through, was losing the war to keep me warm.

Something grabbed me by the back of my coat and tossed me onto the ground. Taken totally unaware, I tumbled over and landed flat on my back. My head slammed the floor hard, and I saw stars and little birds. I rolled anyway, tasting blood as I tried to get out of easy reach of my attacker.

Above me was the dead fae assassin I'd all but forgotten about. Her head bobbed at an unnatural angle, and weirdly, there were two of her crouched on the place I'd been perched. She jumped at me, and I pulled my cold hand out of my pocket and Zee's sword slid into her like a hot knife through ice cream. I was nearly as surprised as she was because the move had been instinctual and not planned – and I hadn't called the sword out.

Her body landed on me hard, and she was a lot heavier than she looked. Thankfully, impaled by the sword, she was also a dead weight. Only her head seemed to still be mobile and she couldn't turn it. The odd double image was making my head hurt. If I hadn't been worried about her doing something like biting my throat out, I might have closed my eyes. I got my left arm up and between her mouth and my neck.

But she didn't try to attack again.

"Hunger" – her voice sounded lost – "you have the sword. Where is my Sliver if you have his Hunger?"

She kept talking, but she'd forgotten to breathe, and I couldn't see her mouth, just feel her jaw moving against my arm. She could have been cursing me or telling me she loved me for all that I understood. I bet on the first rather than the last.

As she tried to say something, I'd realized that the strange double image I was seeing wasn't the result of a concussion. I was seeing her ghost, almost completely severed from her body but still connected to the dead body with greasy ties.

My left arm was busy keeping her off me; my right, holding the sword, was stuck between us. Since she wasn't doing anything immediately violent – and because I really was more afraid of Zee's sword than I was afraid of her – I wiggled my left arm down and tried not to pay attention to her cold, rotting flesh moving against my bare cheek as she vainly tried to talk. I also attempted to breathe shallowly, but it didn't help the smell much.

My left hand found the pocket of my jeans where I'd shoved the necklace. The jeans were wet and fought me, but I managed to snag the chain of my necklace with the tips of my fingers. The jeans had the last laugh, though. The lamb snagged on my pocket, and I gave it a hard pull. The jeans released the necklace, but my icy-numbed clumsy fingers lost their hold. The necklace flew with the force of my pull, and I heard it land well out of reach.

I tried to move, but as soon as the sword wiggled, her arms and legs began to twitch again. "Okay, Hunger," I told it. "Can't you do something about this?"

I tried it in German because, after all, it was Zee's sword. "Also, Hunger. Konnen Sie nicht etwas tun?"

I felt it listening to me. Goose bumps broke out on my skin, and magic thrummed in my chest and along my body where the dead woman's flesh pressed against mine.

In my hands, the pommel of the sword warmed. Spice's body began to vibrate about the time the warmth became heat.

I had a terrible thought. What if the sword liked the dead fae better than the live coyote and chose to switch allegiance? I'd been warned about Hunger's reputation for deserting its wielder. So I held on to the sword past the point where the heat became pain.

If the pommel was hot, though, it was nothing compared to the sword. The fae's body turned to ash on top of me between one moment and the next, mingling with the ash of the winery fire and the wet ice. I rolled and scrambled frantically to my feet, dropping the sword as I did.

There was nothing left of the zombie fae woman. I tried to wipe her ash off my coat and jeans, but I was so wet it just smeared. When I dropped it, the sword had burned down through the thin layer of ice on the ground, but it had cooled rapidly to the point where it was gaining another coat of ice from the freezing rain. It lay there in the muck, and the magic it had sent spinning through me was gone.

I didn't want to touch it – but I wanted even less to leave it here, where one of the vampires would get ahold of it. When I touched the hilt, it was so cold it burned my blistered and reddened hands again.

It fought me when I tried to shrink it down. That's why it was still in my hands when Frost hit me and knocked me a dozen feet away. I rolled to my feet and used the sword the way I'd practiced once a month for years when Sensei chose to have us work on weapon forms. Adrenaline meant the ache of my cheek and knee, the misery of being wet, cold, and afraid, was no more than a shadow upon my awareness. All the rest of me was caught in the blade and the dance of martial combat.

I'm not strong by vampire or werewolf standards, but I am fast, and armed with a sword, I fought with as much speed as I could summon. I didn't manage to hit him – but he couldn't get close enough to hit me, either. I was focused on him, but I caught a glimpse of the rest of the building here and there.

Marsilia was down. Her body was too broken for her to stand although she was trying to keep her promise because she was crawling toward our battleground.

Wulfe was down as well. He lay in the sludge, covered with ice, not too far from our dance, and I took care not to end up too close to him.

Hao and Shamus were somewhere behind me. I could hear them fighting, but I couldn't see them.

Stefan had a wrestler's hold on Asil, and he was yelling at him. "Stand down. Stand down, wolf. I don't want to have to kill you." Honey just watched my battle with yellow eyes.

But all of this, like my accumulated aches and pains, was peripheral to the rhythm of the battle dance. Frost couldn't afford to let the sharp edge touch him, and I was a hair faster than he was. The reach of the sword meant that he couldn't get close enough to use his strength against me. I was slowly, slowly backing the damned vampire across the floor.

I leaped sideways, and the edge of the sword caught on the vampire, then it broke free. When I landed, Frost was bleeding from his arm. It was a shallow cut. But it made me smile anyway.

I attacked again, but a noise distracted me – a wolf's howl in the distance – and I landed badly. It was enough to give Frost an opening, and he hit me with his body, like a linebacker. I folded over his shoulder and tried to roll, but he grabbed my wrist and flipped me to the ground and pinned me. I still had the sword in my hand, but it was useless because I couldn't move my wrist.

"If you had cost me this fight," Frost told me, his face pressed to mine like a lover's, "I would make your death slow." He slid his cheek against mine in a caress as he pressed his body against mine. "But Marsilia underestimated me – she has grown old since she was the Lord of Night's Bright Blade."

I changed to a coyote and bit his face. My teeth slid against bone, and he screamed. I opened my mouth again and caught his eye, ripping it away. Still howling, he retreated, and I changed to human before my clothes became an issue. I did not want to chance slowing myself down – or worse, let the vampire get his hands on Zee's sword.

I grabbed the sword again as I staggered to my feet. By instinct and training, I pulled the sword up as Frost leaped toward me. The blade slid through ribs as though they were cheese and lodged in his heart.

He started to say something, and my brain caught up with my senses just about the time a dark wolf hit him and ripped out his throat. The wolf looked at me, once, then went back to the slaughter.

I sat down on the ice-covered ground because I was too tired to move. Beside me, Adam ripped into Frost's rib cage with his front claws and his fangs. The sword had freed itself from the vampire when I sat down. I turned my head and watched Adam tug and wrench until the vampire's heart fell on the ground beside me. Vampires taste bad – very old flesh and blood just tastes wrong. I wiped my mouth hastily with the bottom of Kyle's shirt – I hoped it wasn't a favorite.

But the taste didn't stop Adam. He moved up to Frost's already torn neck and did more damage until the vampire's head rolled on the floor next to his heart.

Finished killing Frost for the moment, Adam crouched over the dead body, a silver-and-black killing machine.

"Adam?" said Marsilia. She was up on her feet again but not moving right.

Adam lowered his head and roared at her. It was a rumbling bass sound that vibrated my chest and hurt my ears at the same time. I could smell his rage.

I'd had my ten seconds of rest, and there was no more fighting to be done. I rose to my knees – and Adam turned to me and roared at me, too.

"I couldn't help it," I said to him. "He was going to destroy the world."

Adam snarled and snapped his teeth at me.

My cheekbone was hurting again; sometime during the fight, Frost had hit it. I was going to have the world's worst black eye. My shoulder hurt, my wrist hurt – my burnt hands hurt a lot, now that the battle rush was gone. I was cold, miserable, and tired.

Adam had every right to be mad. I'd have been outraged if he'd gone to battle without telling me. Without explaining himself.

"By rights, as the Master of Ceremonies, I should kill him for interfering," Stefan told me. I jerked my head around to look at him. I'd forgotten about that, forgotten, truth be told, that there was anyone but Adam and me there. "But I suspect that the Lord of Night won't stir himself to come punish me for a result that he himself desired. And" – he toed Frost's body – "he was as good as dead when you stabbed him. Adam was overkill." He bumped the body again. "Hmm. I thought he was older – but those of us who are really old turn to dust when they die. The sun will do the job."

Asil knelt beside me with a wary eye on Adam. "You okay?"

I wiggled my toes and fingers. The fingers hurt. A lot. But they moved. "Look," I said brightly. "No wheelchair. Last time I battled immortal monsters, I ended up in a wheelchair."

I heard Wulfe giggling. He was propped up on the remains of a wall that had taken more damage in the fight. The broken areas showed pale cement against the blackened surface of the rest of the wall. I had been trying to lighten the atmosphere, but I hadn't been as funny as all that.

Asil ignored Wulfe. "I like you – but I'll say it for him" – he tipped his head toward Adam – "because he can't. You aren't a monster, and if you insist on fighting them with toothpicks because it's the right thing to do, all the magic in the world isn't going to be enough to save you."

I looked him in the eye, ready to defend myself hotly – who did he think he was? And then I looked at Adam, who had quit growling. He was panting with effort – more effort than what he'd used to finish off Frost. How had he known? How far had he run?

My throat was raw, and my eyes were burning. It wasn't because of the remains of the fire.

"I understand. I really do. But I can't – " I swallowed. "I just can't sit and do nothing when you and the other people who are mine are in trouble. It isn't in me." Cautious, yes, I did cautious. I tried my best not to be stupid – and hey, I was still alive, right? "I called and let people know where I was. I brought backup. I can do that. I am careful." I wasn't talking to Asil anymore. "But Adam, good and evil are real – you know that better than anyone. I have to do the right thing. If not, then I am no better than that – " I jerked my chin toward Frost's body. "'All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.'"

Hao said, "Life is not safe. A man might spend his whole time on earth staying safe in a basement, and in the end, he still dies like everyone else." Half-naked, covered with the same filth we all were, he still gave the impression of being in control of himself and his environment.

Adam sighed. He picked his way through body parts and lay down beside me. He was wet and cold, too, on the surface, but underneath the top coat of his fur, he was very warm.

"How touching," said Marsilia, then Shamus was on her.

There was a loud sound – and it was Wulfe standing over Marsilia instead. Shamus lay in two pieces, and Wulfe had Zee's sword in his hand. I had to look at my hands to make sure I wasn't still holding it. My skin still held the memory of the cool metal against it. Wulfe glanced at the sword, then met my eyes as Shamus slowly dissolved into ash that blended with the wet soot on the floor.

"You feed this fae artifact your good blood, Mercy, and you won't share with me?" Wulfe asked me wistfully.

Everyone stayed motionless – and Wulfe laughed and tossed the sword in my direction. I caught it before it hit Adam. This time when I willed it to diminish itself, it did so, as if it was scared of Wulfe, too. I tucked it into my pocket while Wulfe helped Marsilia back to her feet.

"I did want to go back to the time when we could freely become lost in the blood of our prey," Wulfe said, sounding a little sad. "I guess it won't happen now, but that might be for the best. Here, let me carry you, it will be easier." He picked Marsilia up in his arms.

His look took in Stefan and Hao. "You'll have to kill Frost's vampires. He overestimated his hold on them because they didn't die when he did, but they have no ability to direct themselves anymore." He sighed. "And then I suppose I'll have to go hunt the other vampires he broke in his cities." He looked at Frost's body. "You've made a lot of work for a lot of people. If you weren't dead, I'd kill you myself."

To Marsilia, he said, tenderly, "I'm taking you back to the seethe. You need to eat and bathe and rest." Then he walked to the side of the basement and jumped out, still carrying Marsilia.

"Was he on our side all this time?" I asked.

Stefan shrugged. "Who knows. I've seen him be a lot more lethal than he was tonight. There were no firebombs, for instance. But he doesn't always remember how to perform magic – that's what he tells us anyway. And Hao is well-known for his ability to fight."

Hao shrugged. "Frost is dead. If Wulfe were mine, I would kill him, but Marsilia's seethe is no concern of mine."

When we left the remains of the winery, Hao and Stefan were killing the vampires who had collapsed against the wall of the basement. Marsilia's Mercedes was gone, though the seethe's other car was in the lot. There was no sign that Adam had brought a car, so we all piled into Warren's truck – the werewolves in the back. We went home.

We gave the Rabbit a Viking funeral.

She sat a battered warrior – or a decrepit pile of junk – perched on a pile of wood three feet high and a foot bigger around than the car. I'd drained her fluids and stripped her of any parts that were usable before the pack had lifted her to her final resting place.

Those parts were now tucked in and around the junker Rabbit that still graced the space between my old home and my new one. Sure, I could have found somewhere else to put the parts, but Adam had yelled at me about fighting the vampire one too many times.

I know I'd scared him – I'd scared me, too. I also remembered how mad I'd been at Adam when he'd hurt himself kissing me because he thought it would break the fae's magic that held me. He'd been right to kiss me, though it burned him, and I'd been right to help Marsilia with the vampire. I'd yelled at him anyway.

Which was why the old junker only got to wear a pair of tires on its trunk instead of getting something rude painted in fluorescent pink or (and I was saving this one for something serious) a solar-powered blinking red light that I'd found at Walmart on the ill-fated Black Friday shopping expedition.

The fire burned hot and long past the time when the last of the marshmallows and hot dogs were roasted. Even with the heaping mounds of firewood, the car wouldn't have burned to ash without Tad's help.

It had been two weeks since Frost died.

Adam's appearance on TV had cemented (if it needed cementing) his reputation as a hero and a pillar of all that was good and civil. It was a fortunate thing that no one had gotten a picture of him tearing into Frost's body. Tony assured me that the police were satisfied with the abbreviated story Adam and Agent Armstrong had given them.

Kyle forgave me the shirt I'd destroyed, and he'd helped us look for his car without a word of complaint. He was, I think, happy we hadn't found it that night and covered his buttery leather upholstery with soot and blood.

Warren told me, as we drove through nameless dirt roads through seemingly endless vineyards and orchards, that Adam had just suddenly gotten out of the chair he'd been sitting in at Kyle's office and sprinted out the door, leaving the rest of them to soothe the reporter who'd lingered to get a few more details.

Adam had taken off in Kyle's Jaguar and left the rest of them to call a taxi to get home.

Adam had explained, a little sheepishly, that all he knew was that I was at the winery with the vampires – but he hadn't been really certain how to get there. He could feel me, but the roads kept turning the wrong way. Finally, he'd abandoned the car and taken off on four feet.

It took us three days to find the Jaguar – and then only because someone called the police and reported an abandoned car in their vineyard.

I gave the sword back to Tad as soon as I saw him again, a couple of days after our adventure.

"What did you do to it?" he asked me. "It feels …"

"Frightened?" I suggested.

He grimaced. "Subdued."

"Wulfe – you know the crazy vampire? Wulfe used it to kill another vampire."

He grimaced. "That would do it. You should ask Dad about Wulfe sometime. It'll give you nightmares."

Tad was living at his father's house still, but he quit being a hermit. He's helping me at the shop again. I hadn't realized how much I'd missed working with someone I liked. I might still have to close down the shop eventually, but not for a while.

Peter's funeral, held as soon as we could manage, had taken place in sunshine, though it was still cold. The pack mourned, as was fitting. It was a quiet affair without the usual speeches because Honey didn't want them. I agreed with her; speeches weren't necessary. We all knew what we had lost.

Asil went home directly afterward. As did Agent Armstrong, who had stayed for the funeral, though he'd never met Peter.

"It is a good thing to remember the victims," he told me at the grave site. "It gives me perspective."

Adam made Honey stay with us for a couple more days before moving back to her house. Mary Jo planned on giving up her apartment in the next few weeks and moving in with her. Mary Jo, firefighter, and Honey, princess, seem to me a disaster in the making – but neither of them like me for a lot of reasons that boil down to my being a coyote and not a werewolf. Maybe that will give them enough in common to let their roommate situation work out.

The last of the flames under the Rabbit died down just as the snow began to fall in earnest.

"Come inside," Adam suggested. "Everyone's gone except Jesse, and she's asleep."

His gruff tone and the touch of his lips on my ear told me that he had something more in mind than sleep.

"I am," I told him, as we walked back to the house, "feeling very lucky tonight."

"Oh? Because you didn't die in the crash, when the assassin attacked you, or when you fought the vampire?" His voice had sharpened.

"You've yelled at me enough about that," I warned him. "Your quota is now full. Besides, that's not what makes me lucky."

After we had left the burnt-out winery and the vampires behind us, we went home – to our home. It was battered (the front door was so bad they had to replace the frame and resurface part of the house), but the bad guys were all dead.

I tracked blood, mud, and ash across the white carpet and up the stairs. I used to feel bad when I bled all over that carpet – but tonight I didn't care so much. Besides, Adam, still in wolf form, was even dirtier than I was.

"I'm going to shower," Asil said. "Then I'll sleep in the living room where I can keep an eye on the doors, just in case."

"There's a shower in the bathroom in the basement," I told him. "Get something to eat. There's food in the kitchen."

He smirked. "Yes, Mom."

Honey hopped onto the living-room couch with a sigh. It was white, like the carpet, but it was leather, so we could clean off anything that got on it. Probably.

Adam trailed beside me, up the stairs.

"You should eat, too," I told him.

He gave me a look, and I let it lie. If he really needed food, he'd get some. As soon as we made it into the bedroom, he started to change back to human. He was tired, and there was no urgency, so the change was very slow.

I peeled off everything I was wearing and threw it into the dirty clothes. Then I walked into the bathroom and turned on the shower. It took a long time to get clean. The ash clung with surprising tenacity, and since at least some of that ash had once been a person – a zombie person – I had to get it all off.

When I finally came out, Adam was stretched out on the bed, naked and asleep. He was clean, and his hair was wet, so he'd used the other upstairs shower.

I watched him while I towel dried my hair. Peter joined me. Dead or alive, he was a werewolf, he didn't care that I was naked, so I didn't bother covering up.

"He's a good man," he told me, looking at Adam.

"Yes," I agreed.

Peter tilted his head down to look me in the eye, and he smiled. "You know he doesn't believe that. He thinks he is a monster."

"It's all right," I said. "What he thinks doesn't change the facts."

"I told him where you were," Peter said. "You sent me away. Sent me here. But I found Adam, and I told him where you were and what the vampires had you doing."

"You left before I knew what they were going to ask me to do."

"You're a walker," he said. "And they were facing a necromancer who could bind the dead. Of course they wanted you."

See, even a dead man was smarter than I was.

"Peter," I said, "it's time for you to go. I know how to fix what Frost did to you."

Asil had given me back my necklace in the car.

"Good," Peter said. "But I would like to sleep beside her one more time."

"Yes," I told him. "Okay."

He changed into his wolf one last time and left the room without a backward glance.

I walked over to the bed and slid my sore fingers across the damp skin of Adam's shoulder. What if we had only one more time to sleep together? One last time.

He could have died instead of Peter.

I pulled the covers out from under him, and he was so tired he didn't even move. But when I got in bed beside him, he reached out and tugged me close.

"So," said Adam, holding the back door open for me as the snow smothered the last of the Rabbit's funeral pyre. "Why are you lucky?"

"Because." I leaned into him instead of going inside, pressing him against the doorjamb. His lips tasted like smoke and hot dog, with a touch of chocolate. He tasted warm and alive.

"Just because."


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