What’s a vampire slayer to do when San Antonio’s vampire leader goes missing and rogue vampires are suddenly on the rise? Find him and bring him back—no matter what the cost—before the vacuum of power pits vampire against vampire in a deadly showdown for supremacy . . . with her boyfriend Austin’s immortal life at stake.
When she discovers that her ex, Shade, may have been "accidentally” responsible, Val Shapiro’s problems take on a whole new dimension and her loyalty to everyone in her life will be tested.
Parker blue lives in the wilds of Colorado with her own faithful hellhound, and she’s hard at work on the next Val Shapiro book in the Demon Underground Series.
"[The series is] an absolute joy to read! I laughed out loud. Repeatedly. Bite Me, Try Me, Fang Me." —@ Books With Bite
"Catch Me is a very good continuation of a great series. Val…continues to whoop vampire butt in this volume.” -- Shelia Robertson, Paperback Swap
THOUGH THE MOONLESS night was already black as ink, I retreated farther into the deep shadows of a live oak outside my townhouse. My mouth went dry, my heart pounded, and my stomach churned as if a dozen vampires were cavorting about inside me. Yes, it was my most frightening outing yet—a date with Austin.
Beside me, Fang, my trusty hellhound, snorted. You’ve taken on dozens of vampires, mage demons, and blood demons... and you’re afraid of a date with the guy who wants to be your boyfriend?
I’m not afraid of him, I sent Fang telepathically.
Then what are you afraid of?
Oh, maybe looking like a child to the vampire who was way over a hundred years old and sexy as hell. What did he see in me, an average-looking eighteen-year-old with virtually no experience in this kind of thing? I’d never really "dated” before, though I had two short-lived relationships—one with Dan Sullivan, a full human, and the other with Shade, the broody shadow demon. Neither had prepared me for a date with a sexy vamp.
After the fabulous Valentine’s Day flash mob he’d arranged for me with "zombies” dancing to Michael Jackson’s Thriller a couple of weeks ago, I’d promised to go out on a real date with him, and this was the first time we’d both been able to arrange it.
Unfortunately, Fang could read all my doubts and insecurities and would call me on every single one of them. I cringed, waiting for it.
You’re not half bad-looking, Fang said.
Don’t be an idiot. What could he possibly see in you? Well, maybe it’s the fact that you’re an awesome slayer, or maybe because you’ve saved his butt and countless other vamp and demon butts in San Antonio many times in the past few months—not to mention that of unsuspecting humans. Or maybe, just maybe, he’s hot for your inner succubus who makes his butt feel so gooooood.
"That’s a lot of butts,” I murmured. But I had to admit my inner succubus—I called her Lola—liked Austin, too. A lot.
You do get that Lola isn’t a separate entity? You are the succubus—that one-eighth demon part of you isn’t something or someone you can separate from your human self, no matter how much you might want to.
"How can I forget when you keep reminding me?” I muttered. Besides, I’d only wanted to get rid of Lola before I’d been kicked out of my home. Everyone else in my family—my mom, stepfather, and half-sister—was fully human, so I’d felt like a freak. But now that I’d discovered the Demon Underground, I didn’t feel so much freakish as I did... inexperienced.
Well, Fang drawled. There’s one way to get that experience, you know.
Yeah, I know. I’m doing it, aren’t I?
If you stop hiding—from yourself and him.
Austin drove up then, in one of the black luxury cars the San Antonio vein of vampires kept in their motor pool. He stepped out of the car, wearing jeans that snugged in all the right places, a black leather jacket, snakeskin boots, and his ever-present cowboy hat. My heart beat faster. What a hottie—and so out of my league it was ridiculous.
Fang nudged me with his nose. Don’t be ridiculous. You’re Val Shapiro, the Slayer, the Demon Underground’s Paladin enforcer. He’s out of your league.
Yeah, right. As if I could hide from Austin’s keen vampire vision anyway. His gaze found me in the depths of the shadows, and a slow, sexy smile widened his mouth. "Hello, darlin’.”
Would any girl not melt into a puddle right then and there? True to form, Lola surged front and center, her interest sharpening. As for me, I swallowed, trying to get some moisture in my mouth. "Hi,” I managed. Oh yeah, I am witty beyond belief.
He leaned against the car, waiting for me to come to him. "Shall we go?”
I took a deep breath and sauntered toward him, or tried to. Instead, I tripped over a root of the massive tree. Graceful, I was not.
I felt my face flame hot and wished I could rush back inside without looking like a fool.
Too late, Fang jeered.
I put a fake smile on my face and managed to leave the darkness of the tree without stumbling again. I headed toward the car under the streetlight, and Austin moved around to the other side to open the door for me.
I hesitated before getting in.
"What’s the matter?” he asked, his face hidden in his hat’s shadow.
I glanced up at him anyway. "Where are we going? Am I dressed okay?”
I really didn’t have much in the way of clothing to choose from. Jeans, a shirt, and one of my many vests was pretty much my go-to uniform, and tonight was no different. I needed the vest to cover the stakes in my back waistband. Not to use on Austin, of course—he was one of the good bloodsuckers in the New Blood Movement—but after being a slayer for several years, I kind of felt naked without them. The rest of my vampire-hunting kit was in the backpack I carried like most girls carried a purse.
"Perfect,” Austin said, opening the car door wider.
Good, because I didn’t have anything suitable to wear to someplace fancy and didn’t know if anything like that was open this late at night anyway.
I slipped inside to let the luxurious leather seat cradle my butt, but it seemed weird to see Fang sitting on the sidewalk instead of jumping in beside me. "Where are we going?” I asked again.
Austin leaned his forearms on the roof and door to dip his head where he could see me. He gave me a slow grin. "Well, darlin’, there are these rogue vampires attacking tourists in Brackenridge Park—”
"Near the zoo?” That didn’t bode well.
"Yeah, and I thought maybe we could have ourselves a little fun chasing them down.”
Relief coursed through me, and I relaxed. Grinning back at him, I said, "Sounds great.”
Austin glanced over at Fang, who looked as though he was an eager, tightly-coiled spring about to boing loose. "You wanna come?”
Damn betcha, Fang said, though Austin couldn’t hear him. He leaped into the car, jumped over my lap, then bounded into the back seat. Let’s go!
"That’s a yes,” I told Austin with a laugh.
As Austin went around to get into the driver’s side, Fang exclaimed, Wow. First date, and he’s taking you out to hunt evil vampires with your hellhound. Does he get you or what?
He gets me, I confirmed, smiling.
As Austin drove toward the park, I fumbled for something clever to say. "So, how was your day?”
That wasn’t it, Fang said drily.
Yeah, I sounded too perky, even to my own ears.
Austin shrugged. "Same old, same old. Train new vamps how not to get killed, check on the blood banks, sleep like the dead. You?”
I tried to match his tone. "Oh, you know. Read spells in the Encyclopedia Magicka,play with the hellpuppies, babysit Shade.”
Fang snorted in the back seat. Hellpuppies? I like that.
Austin cast me a sidelong glance. "Babysit Shade?”
His question didn’t sound like a jealousy-over-an-old-boyfriend thing, more like a what-the-hell-is-he-doing-now kind of thing.
"Yeah, ever since his sister was sucked into that other dimension, Shade has been trying to figure out how to get her body back, trying to convince other demons to help him.” Luckily, he’d stopped blaming me for her death, but he wasn’t talking to anyone much. "Either he’s holed up researching the encyclopedia or the Internet, or he’s hanging out at the blood mansion.”
"Blood mansion?” Austin repeated, sounding bemused.
"You know, the place where we lost his sister and took down the blood demon. I’m not sure what else to call it.” When he nodded in comprehension, I added, "Micah is afraid Shade’s going to do something stupid there.”
I grimaced. "We don’t know for sure, but he wants me to make sure Shade doesn’t do it.” I cast Austin a glance. "I hear Alejandro bought the blood house?”
Austin nodded. "We trashed it when we took down the blood demon and his followers, so Alejandro feels responsible for cleaning it up. Besides, the Movement is growing. We could use another place.”
"Maybe your boss could warn Shade off, threaten to have him arrested for trespassing or something?”
"You really think that’d work?”
"Probably not.” I sighed. Shade was another guy I didn’t know how to deal with. Give me a rogue vamp to slay or an evil demon to fight, and I was good. Personal relationships... not so much.
"How’d you get out of babysitting duty tonight?”
"Tessa had the night off from Club Purgatory and volunteered to watch him so I could go out with you. He’s probably sleeping, anyway.” After all, it was long past the time when most law-abiding citizens were in bed.
Austin cast me a heated sidelong glance. "Remind me to thank Tessa later.”
That look made Lola reach greedy fingers toward him, but I reined her in. Now was not the time.
Luckily, we’d arrived at the park, so I didn’t have to respond. Instead, I got out of the car and asked, "What’s the situation?”
"We’ve heard rumors of rogues hunting here, looking for clandestine lovers, oblivious teenagers, and the homeless to snack on.”
I nodded. "Let’s—”
I broke off as a patrol car pulled up, and an officer leaned out the window. "Hello, folks. What are you doing here at two o’clock in the morning? It’s not safe.”
"It’s okay,” I told him. "I’m Val Shapiro... used to work for the SCU?” If he was warning people away from the park, he probably knew what kind of "special” crimes the Special Crimes Unit handled and who I was. I leaned down so he could see my face. I vaguely remembered seeing him before.
He recoiled. Yep, he knew me all right. The scuzzies were okay fighting vamps and demons, but they didn’t really like having a demon in their midst, especially one who could whup their ass and make them enjoy it at the same time.
His gaze slanted toward Austin.
"My hunting partner tonight,” I added. "He can hold his own. Are we free to go, Officer?”
Apparently, he took my word for it, because he nodded. "Good hunting,” he said and drove away.
Well, respect is better than acceptance any day, Fang said.
Yeah, I kept telling myself that.
I turned to Austin. "Any idea where to start looking?”
Just follow my nose, Fang said and put snout to ground.
"I take it Fang knows?” Austin said.
"Looks like it.”
I headed down a trail after Fang, and Austin held out his hand. "We should pretend we’re lovers taking a stroll,” Austin said. "Lure them out.”
"Oh, okay,” I said, ducking my head to hide the flush warming my cheeks. I didn’t know whether to feel elated that he’d found an excuse to hold my hand or deflated that he found it necessary to explain. Either way, I’d take his words at face value and act out his little play.
He caught my hand, linking his fingers with mine. Oh, my. It was as if someone had dumped a bucket of hormones inside me, and they all responded at once, surging through my chakras with gut-churning intensity.
Fighting back the sensations, I tried to focus on why we were here. "Do you have the amulet with you?” I asked casually. For some reason, everyone seemed to think I was addicted to the thing since it constantly pulled at me, begging me to use it. I wasn’t, but the crystal was a handy tool now that I’d lost some of my slayer mojo. If it was nearby, I could use it for small things like seeing through a shadow demon’s swirliness, but for big things like controlling men, I had to touch it.
"Yes,” Austin said equally casual, "but you’re not going to get it unless we’re way outnumbered.”
The crystal called to me then, and I was able to pinpoint its location—deep in Austin’s front pocket. Well, crap. I couldn’t go after it there without embarrassing the heck out of myself. He knew it, too. I shrugged, pretending it was no big deal.
He caught my glance at his front pocket and grinned.
My face flamed, and Fang chuckled.
Don’t even start with me. I’d embarrassed myself enough already.
We walked for about a quarter mile down the path when Fang said, Undead bloodsuckers at three o’clock.
I squeezed Austin’s hand in warning.
He leaned down to murmur in my ear, "Yes, I hear them.”
And that’s when three guys came strolling out from behind the trees, as if they were trying to look chill but not quite succeeding. College guys, probably, and they came in three sizes—small, medium, and large. But they didn’t seem like the typical schoolyard bullies—more like the ones who got picked on.
"Hey, girlie, wanna play?” the heavy one asked.
He’d have to catch me first, and that wasn’t going to happen. "Oh, great,” I said, rolling my eyes. "Geeks on parade.” I exchanged glances with Austin. "Are these the vicious predators you were worried about?”
"Naw, can’t be,” Austin drawled.
"You think you can take me, cowboy?” the medium-sized one asked belligerently.
Sheesh, was that a pocket protector I saw under his squeaky new leather jacket?
Austin nodded slowly. "I do.”
"All three of us?”
"Piece of cake.”
They rushed him, ignoring Fang and me. Big mistake.
Fang took on the wimpy little guy, jumping up to bite him in the butt, then catching him off balance so he fell down. Fang bared his teeth at the kid’s throat as I muttered the spell for super strength, then grabbed medium guy and slammed him down on the hard ground. Austin joined us, easily tripping up the heavy dude so they were all three lying on the ground, side by side, staring up at us.
"Too easy,” Austin said.
"Hey,” medium guy protested. "Do you know who we are?”
"The Three Stooges?” I guessed.
Anger blazed in medium guy’s eyes. "I’ll show you who’s a stooge.” And, of course, he made the mistake of reaching out to control my mind. Fumbled, more like it.
That meant I could now read his.
"Sorry, Chris. That doesn’t work on me.” I glanced at the other two. "Go ahead, Carlos and Charlie, try to control me.”
They seemed shocked that I knew their names but narrowed their gazes at me.
"Don’t tell me,” Austin said with a small smile and shake of his head. "They actually tried it.”
"Yep,” I confirmed. Now I could read all three tiny little minds. I sighed. "These are not the droids we’re looking for.”
Austin cast me a puzzled glance.
I shrugged. "Sorry, their geekiness is kinda overwhelming.”
"Whoare you people?” the small guy, Carlos, asked.
"Ever heard of the Slayer?” Austin replied with a raised eyebrow.
"Her?” he said, his voice ending in a squeak.
"Me,” I confirmed. "And Austin here is what you strive for but can never be.”
"What does that mean?” chunky Charlie demanded.
"He’s a vampire, too, only he’s been doing it a whole lot longer than you have. Andhe doesn’t try to pick on innocent people to get his rocks off.”
Speaking of that, medium guy—Chris—was inside my energy field, so it was obvious he was starting to get mighty interested in me. Well, Lola, anyway.
"We haven’t hurt anyone,” Chris said, leering.
He was trying too hard to be sexy, and it grossed me out. Sometimes it sucked being part lust demon. "That’s true, you haven’t—not yet, anyway. But you were planning on it, weren’t you?”
These pathetic excuses for vampires wanted to be at the top of the pecking order for once, instead of being pecked on. But to do that, they needed larger... peckers.
Austin sighed heavily. "They really haven’t hurt anyone?”
"Not yet,” I confirmed. "This was their first foray as baby vamps.” They were hungry as hell but couldn’t quite bring themselves to drink blood... yet.
"Think there’s hope for them?”
Carlos looked back and forth between the two of us, seeming a little less frightened now that Fang had backed off so he was only sitting on the kid’s chest. "What are you talking about?”
"We ask the questions here,” Austin said. "Who turned you? Who was your sire?”
"We don’t know his name,” Chris said in a sulky tone.
He was telling the truth, and I read the rest of it in their minds. "They found a notice on a bulletin board at school advertising a seminar on how to become rich and powerful and went to it.”
"A bulletin board?” Austin repeated incredulously.
Yeah, it appeared the opposition was advertising now.
"What did they tell you?” Austin demanded.
The guys wanted to keep quiet in the face of Austin’s anger but couldn’t hide from me, so I told Austin what I’d learned. "Their sire told them they could kick sand in the bullies’ faces and take whatever they wanted, then turned the three Cs, saying they could join their army after they made their first kill.”
Austin shook his head. "Stupid.”
Watch out, Fang warned.
Chunky Charlie tried to surge up off the ground, but I slammed Lola into all three of them so they were nothing more than drooling love slaves. Sickening.
"Be still,” I told them, and they had to comply. I rose to my feet, and Austin and Fang followed leisurely. Shaking my head, I added, "I’m not sure if they’re meant as bait, cannon fodder, or if the vamp who turned them really thinks he can turn them into soldiers.”
The guys looked appalled. I added with some heat, "This isn’t some stupid cosplay at a comic convention where everyone believes you are what you pretend to be. And becoming vampire won’t make you super soldiers or super lovers. It only makes you more of what you already are.” Super geeks.
They glanced at each other, horror dawning in their eyes.
I glanced at Austin. "They haven’t actually been able to bring themselves to bite anyone yet. Not even one of the zoo animals. For three nights.” Austin nodded as he obviously got the message—they were pretty much starving.
"So you think they’re salvageable?”
"Probably.” All three were outcasts, from their homes and their families. They just wanted to find a place where they could fit in the world. I could relate.
Austin sighed heavily. "Okay, here’s the deal. You agree to join the New Blood Movement, and we’ll forget this happened.”
"Movement? What’s that?” Chris asked.
That was new. Before, the rogues were careful to tell their fledglings not to contact the Movement. Seemed they’d changed their strategy. So as to not tempt the newbies to the straight and narrow? Or to weed out the weaker ones?
Austin scowled down at him. "In the New Blood Movement, we don’t attack people or animals. We don’t take blood without permission, and we definitely don’t hunt and kill innocents.”
Carlos looked puzzled. "But... don’t we need blood to survive?”
"Yes,” Austin said. "But you get it from the blood banks we operate.”
The three exchanged glances and seemed reluctant. Going to a blood bank didn’t seem nearly as sexy as being a badass soldier. Hiding a smirk, I added, "As an added bonus, you’ll have access to safe houses with others of your kind, meaningful work to do, and Austin here will teach you how to fight and defend yourselves.”
That last one interested them more than all the others combined. They gave each other doubtful looks.
"This way, you can be heroes, ridding the world of evil rogue vampires,” I confided. They seemed to like that.
"And if you don’t,” I said cheerfully, "we stake you right now and leave you for the sun to turn your ass to ash.” I whipped out a stake and twirled it playfully, raising my eyebrows at them.
"I’m in,” Carlos said hastily.
"Me, too,” Chris chimed in.
Charlie looked mulish, so I raised my stake over his heart. He must be the ringleader in this little band of misfits.
"Okay, okay,” he said, raising his hands defensively.
Austin glared at them. "Belonging to the New Blood Movement is a lifetime commitment. We’ll feed you, house you, and train you as long as you follow our ways. But change your mind and hurt an innocent, and we take your life. Deal?”
They all gulped but nodded. "Deal,” they said in unison.
Lola released her hold on their chakras, and they scrambled to their feet.
Austin pulled out his wallet and handed each of the guys a card. "Here, this has the addresses of the blood banks around town. Get yourself something to eat. Tell ’em Austin sent you.”
The guys nodded and hurried off, apparently before we changed our minds.
Austin shook his head. "Three more fledglings to sponsor. And you wonder why we need more space?”
"Why the sudden increase in the undead population?”
"The rogues are getting out of control. They keep turning gullible idiots, then dumping them out on their own to survive or perish. We try to catch them and convert them before they can do much damage, but it’s a never-ending battle.” He gave me a rueful smile. "Sorry, this wasn’t as fun as I’d planned.”
"Hey, we added some new vamps to the good side. It’s a win-win. I like that.”
Well, I don’t, Fang complained. I wanted to bite more vampire butt.
"There might be more vampires lurking in the park,” Austin said. "There have been a number of clumsy attacks in this area. I get the idea the new ones get steered in this direction.”
But before we could scout the area, my phone vibrated. I checked the screen. "It’s Micah.” My boss in the Demon Underground didn’t call me often, but when he did, it was probably important.
"You’d better take it, then,” Austin said.
I nodded and answered the phone. "Hi, Micah. What’s up?”
"It’s Shade,” he said without preamble. "He ditched Tessa, and we think he’s gone to the blood demon’s former house. Can you check it out?”
I glanced at Austin, uncertain. After all, this was supposed to be a date.
He’d obviously heard both sides of the conversation—vamp hearing and all—and nodded. "Might as well,” Austin conceded.
"What exactly do you want me to do?” I asked Micah. "I can force him to leave, but he’ll be right back there tomorrow. Unless you want me to... ?” I trailed off, leaving the rest for him to fill in.
Micah sighed. "Does Austin have the amulet with him?”
"Then you can use it if you absolutely have to in order to make him stop this unhealthy, unsafe obsession, but only then. Got it?”
"Good,” he said. "Oh, and I have another request to ask of you.”
"What?” I asked warily. I hadn’t had to use my role as Paladin yet, except to babysit Shade, and I really wasn’t sure I wanted to go there.
"We have a visiting demon—Ivy Weiss—and I wondered if you could put her up for a little while in Gwen’s old room.”
"I guess,” I said reluctantly. After all, Shade wasn’t using it anymore. "What kind of demon is she?”
"A rock demon. The Sedona Underground calls her a gemstone whisperer—she can read stones and rocks and learn about their owners. Call me when you get home, and I’ll bring her by.”
A rock head?
Don’t be rude, I admonished him. "Okay,” I told Micah and hung up.
"Shall we go?” Austin asked, gesturing toward the car.
Oh, great, Fang grumbled. We get to babysit Shade. Again. Sheesh—he needs more supervision than the hellpuppies.
WHEN WE ARRIVED at the blood mansion and I got out of the car, Fang sighed. I’m tired of dealing with Mr. Dark and Broody. You two can handle this, right?
I could sympathize. I didn’t want to do this, either. After my mother had kicked me out of the house six months ago, all I wanted was a place to belong. I had kinda sorta found that place with the Demon Underground, and I just wanted people to accept me—demon, warts, and all. Was that too much to ask? Apparently it was. Fitting in with the rest of the crowd was hard when I had to play the bad guy enforcer all the time. Especially when they feared me.
Hey, I love ya, babe, Fang said, nuzzling my leg.
I smiled down at him. Thanks. I did appreciate that, but I wanted more. Hell, I wanted it all.
"What’s wrong?” Austin asked when I hesitated.
I sighed. "I’m just tired of Shade’s drama. So is Fang. I wish someone else would deal with him.” I looked at Austin hopefully, but he shook his head.
"You’re the Paladin, darlin’. Micah can either count on you or he can’t. Which is it?”
Yeah, well, sometimes responsibility sucked. I became Paladin because I believed in what Micah was trying to accomplish with the DU. And since I also believed in fighting for what was important to me, that meant doing what Micah asked, sucky or not.
I glanced down at Fang. If I have to go in and confront Shade, so do you.
He heaved an aggrieved sigh. Fine. Let’s get it over with.
"Okay,” I told Austin and hitched my backpack up on one shoulder as I headed for the entrance. The new wooden doors looked a lot like the ones at Alejandro’s main mansion and were probably just as sturdy. We’d broken down the previous oak doors the last time we’d been here and busted through the windows to take Emmanuel, the blood demon, by surprise. Though we’d whupped his butt good, we’d trashed the place in the process. Looked like Alejandro had gotten the doors and windows repaired.
"Looks good,” I said. "Is the rest of the house cleaned up, too?”
He shrugged. "Partially. We’re still working on it.”
Austin let us into the house and flipped on the lights. Thank goodness someone had cleaned this area. No blood on the marble floor, no stray demon heads leaking nasty fluids over the grand curving staircase.
I could see Shade partway up the stairs, dark ribbons swirling everywhere to obscure his features—the price of being one-eighth shadow demon and cycling through hundreds of dimensions all the time.
He stood in exactly the same location where his twin sister Sharra had gotten sucked through the portal to the demon world where she’d died. I knew Shade was obsessed with getting her body back, but what did he imagine he could do here? He couldn’t go through a portal he’d created—he had to remain on one side to keep it open. And there was no one else who could create one for him.
What’s he thinking? I asked Fang.
Dunno, Fang said, sounding surprised. I can’t hear his thoughts for some reason.
That was new—and troubling. Because it sure looked like Shade was trying something—he had his arms outstretched toward the left side of the staircase and hadn’t even acknowledged our entrance.
"What’s he doing?” Austin asked, frowning. He moved to the foot of the staircase, body tensed and ready for action, looking ready to take Shade down if necessary.
Since the crystal was so near, in Austin’s pocket, I could use it to see Shade’s expression. I connected with the amulet, then took a peek. Yep, his tortured expression was a pretty good clue he was trying to create a door into another world, and his lips were moving in soundless words. Cursing or praying, I didn’t know which. "Trying to create a portal, evidently,” I told Austin. Though I couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t working—no spooky green lightning cloud anywhere, though I could feel something trying to come into being.
"Shade, stop,” I called out. This obsession of his was not only morbid, but dangerous. He couldn’t go through one of his own portals, but what if there were demons waiting on the other side to invade our happy homes?
His brow furrowed even more, and his lips moved faster.
"I can take him down,” Austin said, looking eager to do just that.
I understood his frustration, but I shook my head. "No, better not. He’s generating a lot of energy—I don’t know what will happen to it if you touch him.” Would the lightning Shade generated in the cloud go through Austin?
Fried vamp. Not a good idea.
Yeah. I made a sudden decision. "I’m gonna need the crystal.”
Austin frowned. "You can stop him without it.”
"I can, yes.” Lola could make Shade do anything. "Temporarily. But I want to stop him permanently.” Only commands given using the crystal would last beyond my presence.
When Austin hesitated, I added, "So we won’t have to do this ever again. Micah said it was okay, remember?”
Austin narrowed his gaze at me, and I gazed calmly back. "I’ll give it right back to you, I promise.” I understood that I had to prove to them all I could live without the crystal and its pull on me, but the amulet came in awfully convenient at times.
Too convenient, maybe? Fang asked.
I ignored him.
Austin pulled the amulet out of his front pocket and handed it to me slowly, obviously still reluctant.
Sighing, I went slowly up the stairs toward Shade, who was still paying no attention to us, his eyes closed, arms outstretched, and mouth moving to form words I couldn’t hear. When I got close enough, I tried Austin’s way first, without the amulet to amp my power. "Stop it, Shade.”
He ignored me and continued, looking even more desperate.
And this proved why I needed the crystal. "Shade, stop it now,” I commanded, using the amulet to force him to obey.
He halted but stared at me with sadness in his eyes, as if I’d just killed his puppies. I felt for him, I really did, but couldn’t let him endanger us or the rest of the world. "What were you thinking, trying to create a portal without backup?”
"I was thinkingto rescue my sister,” he said without heat.
"She’s dead, Shade,” I reminded him gently. "You can’t rescue her, ever.”
He sighed. "I know, but I can at least retrieve her body. We owe her that much.”
I shook my head. "You don’t even know if she’ll still be there.”
"I have to try, Val.”
Feeling sorry down to my bones, I said softly, "No, you don’t. Micah doesn’t want you to.” Who knew what horde of demons he might let in from the other side? Clutching the crystal firmly in my hand, I said, "You will never open a portal to another world again without Micah’s permission.” I felt the command settle within him and take root.
His eyes widened, and he yelled, "No!” Snatching the crystal from my hand, he hurled it to the marble stair and stomped on it with his booted foot.
I felt the crystal shatter with a screeching high-pitched whine that pierced through my mind like shards of needle-tipped ice. Searing light flashed through the foyer, accompanied by a soundless shockwave that knocked us all on our butts. Blinded and deaf, I lay stunned at the bottom of the stairs for a few long moments, fear clogging my throat. I closed my eyes in disbelief. Was this loss of my senses permanent? Please, don’t let it be permanent, I begged any gods who might be listening as I clutched at my aching head, which pounded with an unholy migraine.
Whoa. That was intense.
An understatement. At least I knew Fang was okay.
Someone helped me to my feet. "Val, are you all right?”
Austin’s voice. I could hear!
"No,” I moaned and opened my eyes cautiously to blackness. "I can’t see,” I said, trying to hold back the panic.
"The shockwave overloaded the circuits,” he told me, giving me a comforting squeeze. "I think it tripped some breakers.”
"Oh.” I wasn’t blind—the lights were out. I glanced around, but it was too dark to see anything. I groped around on the floor.
"What are you looking for?” Austin asked.
"My backpack. I have a flashlight in it.” It must have come off my shoulder when I was tossed on my butt.
"Here,” Austin said and thrust it at me.
Thank heavens for vampire sight. I fumbled around in the pack until I found the flashlight by feel and switched it on. Pale yellow light illuminated the foyer. I sighed in relief. My vision was still intact, and the headache was receding. I played the light around the room, looking for Fang. He stood near Austin, shaking his head. Are you hurt, Fang?
I’ll live. How about Shade?
That’s right—Shade had been at the epicenter of the blast. Weird. At one point, I would’ve worried about him first. Guess I was well and truly over him. But... was he all right?
Yes, he was sitting up on the cold marble floor, rubbing the back of his head with one hand. "You okay, Shade?”
"Yeah,” he said. "Just bumped my head on the newel post when I fell. Remind me not to do that again,” he said wryly.
He must be okay—that was the first time I’d heard him use anything resembling humor since Sharra died. Annoyed by the loss of the crystal, I snapped, "Was it worth it?”
He paused for a moment. "No—your command is still in place.”
"Permanently, now,” I reminded him sharply. "Since I can’t use the amulet to remove it.”
"I know.” His tone was flat, saddened. Too bad I could no longer see his face. Unless, of course, I touched his skin, and I wasn’t willing to do that right now.
I poked at one of the bigger crystal shards, wondering if it had retained any of the power of its larger self. Nope—it felt inert, dead. But, just in case, I picked up a few of the larger pieces and stuck them in my vest pocket.
So, that’s it? Fang asked. One boom and it’s gone?
Yeah, it did seem kind of anticlimactic, after all the grief I’d been given about the thing.
"Why did it explode?” Austin asked.
I shrugged, my head pounding a little less now. "I have no idea. I don’t have much experience with magickal objects. Ask Shade—he’s the one researching stuff.”
"I don’t know, either,” Shade said. "Does it matter?”
"I guess not,” Austin said as Shade got to his feet.
Is he telling the truth? I asked Fang. Can you hear him now?
Nope. Zero, zilch, nada.
"Why can’t Fang hear you anymore?” I asked Shade.
Shade brushed the bits of crystal from his clothes. "Because I don’t want him to. I found a way to keep him—and everyone else—out of my thoughts.”
"Why?” Austin asked, his gaze narrowed suspiciously.
"Privacy,” Shade said curtly. "I know it’s a strange concept in your world, but I want to keep my thoughts to myself, without everyone picking over them.”
Well, excuuuuuse me, Fang said.
I rolled my eyes. Shade can’t hear you. Besides, he has a point. We had kind of been all over him the past couple of weeks. "Sorry,” I told Shade, meaning it.
Shade sighed. "And please don’t ask how I did it—I don’t want anyone poking around in my psyche under some misguided idea they’re helping me.”
"You got it,” I said. After all, I’d just stopped him from doing the one thing Micah most feared—forever. I could afford to be generous.
"Thank you,” Shade said and left without another word.
Austin gave me a raised eyebrow. "That was interesting.”
I shrugged. "I just hobbled his powers, permanently.” Not to mention taking away his only chance at recovering his sister’s body. "I know what that’s like, so I figure I can cut him some slack.”
Yeah, Fang cheered. No more babysitting.
I shined my flashlight around the room. "We should probably clean this up. Do you know where the cleaning supplies are? Surely they left some. And maybe we could find the breaker box?”
"No clue on the cleaning supplies, but I can find out.” He pulled out his phone, but before he could punch any buttons, a couple of young guys came running in, then stopped dead when they saw us. They couldn’t be more than twenty or so and bore a strong resemblance to each other—both slight, blond, and, at the moment, slack-jawed.
Vampires, Fang warned.
"Who are you?” Austin asked.
He didn’t know them? Alarmed, I pulled out a stake, and Fang growled, bristling.
The vamps glanced at my stake. The taller of the two visibly gulped. "Are you the Slayer?”
"Yeah,” I said and let Lola come out a little, just enough to make my eyes shine purple and creep them out. "Answer him. Who are you?”
The two glanced at each other, as if hoping the other would speak, then the taller guy said, "I-I’m Mike. He’s Ike.”
"Mike and Ike? Seriously?”
"We’re twins,” Ike said, frowning. "Our mother named us,” he said belligerently, as if daring us to make something of it.
"I don’t know you,” Austin said, narrowing his gaze. "Who’s your sponsor?”
Mike and Ike exchanged wary glances. Ike nodded at Mike who said, "L-Luis. We’re new.” He gulped, looking nervous.
Well, heck, if Austin glared at me that way, I’d be nervous, too.
Austin relaxed a little. "What are you doing here?”
They did that thing again, where they each tried to mind meld with the other. Mike apparently won the right to speak. "We heard a noise and came in to see what it was.”
"A crystal broke,” Austin said, leaving out so much more they didn’t need to know about. "But what I meant was, why were you here to begin with?”
Glancing down at the floor, Mike shrugged. "Uh, Luis asked us to help clean up. He’s... outside.”
"Good,” Austin said and stuck his phone back in his pocket. "You can start with this mess. And turn the lights back on.”
Ike and Mike exchanged another glance, then nodded and hurried off to do Austin’s bidding.
"That was odd,” I said, returning my stake to my back waistband.
Austin nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, it was. Supervising cleanup is usually Rosa’s job.” He shook his head and grinned at me. "But this mansion suits Luis’s notion of what he’s due in life. He must be eager to move in.”
Yeah, this place was even grander than the other mansion. The lights came back on then, and Fang whined. A little help here?
"What’s wrong, Fang?”
He glanced at the floor. Tiny sharp objects... no shoes?
Oh, of course. Sorry. "I just need to get Fang away from the shards,” I explained to Austin. "Poor little baby doesn’t want to cut his itsy bitsy little feetsies.” Picking Fang up, I carried him to the front door, out of range of the broken crystal.
Very funny. Now put me down.
Fang tried to sound stern, but it was difficult for the fuzzy mutt to look serious when I was cradling him like a little baby.
I grinned, and Austin opened the door for me so I could set Fang down.
Fang’s feet hit the ground, and I could tell he was about to blast me with withering sarcasm but was interrupted by a voice from the right side of the stairs. "What are you doing here?” Luis demanded.
Austin raised an eyebrow at Luis’s tone. "Taking care of errant shadow demons,” he said briefly. "And you?”
"I’m supposed to meet Alejandro and Vincent here.” He strode toward us, then paused when his shoes crunched on the crystal shards and looked down. "What’s this?”
"Broken crystal,” Austin said curtly. "Errant shadow demon, remember?”
Luis shook his head. "Irrelevant. Where’s Alejandro?”
"Not my day to watch him,” Austin drawled.
Luis’s eyes narrowed at Austin’s tone. "While you were out on a date, Alejandro and I actually had real business to attend to.”
Luis sighed, sounding put-upon. "I was supposed to meet him here fifteen minutes ago.” He consulted an old-fashioned pocket watch. "He’s late.”
Sheesh—who used pocket watches these days?
Stuck-up vampires who are stuck in the glory of their past? Fang suggested.
Austin’s look of annoyance vanished, replaced by puzzlement. "He’s never late.”
"Exactly,” Luis said in exasperation. "So where the hell is he?”
"What’s the big deal?” I asked. "Maybe he got held up in traffic or something.”
Luis checked his phone, the modern device looking odd in his hands. "Not without sending a message or calling.”
They frowned at each other, and tension rose in the silent room.
Uh-oh. I have a bad feeling about this, Fang said.
Yeah, me too.