Night Vision

Night Vision by Yasmine Galenorn

Berkley Mass-Market, July 2, 2013
Urban Fantasy
ISBN: 978-0425259221

Eons ago, vampires tried to turn the dark Fae in order to harness their magic, only to create a demonic enemy more powerful than they could have imagined. Now, even with Myst, the Queen of the Indigo Court, temporarily out of action, the new Queens of the Golden Wood finds themselves facing incredible danger...

Destined to become the Fae Queens of Winter and Summer, Wind Witch Cicely and her cousin Rhiannon are eager to assume their roles and marry the loves of their lives. But while Myst hides in the shadows, seeking to regroup her forces, a closer danger is lurking. Renegade vampires Geoffrey and Leo manage to free the Blood Oracle and set him upon New Forest, Washington. Not satisfied with wreaking havoc on the town, Leo ups the ante by kidnapping Rhiannon. Now, Cicely must lead her forces in a bloody battle to save her cousin before everything they've worked for crumbles to dust.

Excerpt:

The Beginning

So in time, the Court of Rivers and Rushes and the Court of Snow and Ice rose once again. Their beginning was bathed in blood . . . The blood of the innocent, the blood of the guilty. The blood of the holy and the blood of the damned. The old ways were passing, as new traditions and alliances emerged. Enemies became allies, and the Lost Ones came in out of the Wild to dance at the feet of the new Queen of Snow and Ice. It is thought that by joining with the civilized world, the Courts of Fae became more feral and primal than ever. But still, Myst, the Usurper, lingered, regrouping her forces, for the final battle yet to come . . .

-From The Return of the Summer and Winter: A Historical Study of the New Courts of Fae

Chapter 1

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As I stepped out from the forest, under the open stars, the dark silhouette of the Veil House warmed my heart, but it was a bittersweet moment. The house stood silent against the night sky, but signs abounded that it was slowly returning to life. The walls had been rebuilt, the roof repaired, and it was beginning to look like a house again rather than the bombed-out shelter that it had become. But it would never again be my home. After too many years on the road as a child, I'd returned to New Forest, Washington. I'd come home to my aunt Heather and the Veil House, only to lose both of them for good.

So much had changed over the past few weeks since I'd rolled into town. And so much was still in flux. Literally caught up by a whirlwind, I barely recognized myself now. Everything I'd ever thought about my childhood and heritage had been turned upside down.

A light flurry of snow fell softly, drifting flakes clinging to my shoulders like frozen butterflies. My breath hovered, a pale fog in front of me. Over the past weeks, I'd learned to hate the snow. Myst had destroyed my love for the icy months of the year.

"You'd better learn to love the cold," I whispered to myself. "Soon enough, winter will be your permanent home."

Standing on the precipice of a transformation, I would soon enter the realm of snow and ice forever. Today . . .today I was still Cicely Waters, Wind Witch and owl shifter. But soon, I'd be . . .

Who am I becoming, Ulean?

Are you afraid? Do not worry. The initiation will change you-make you stronger.

Again, I shivered. That's what I'm afraid of. Will I still be me afterward?

Ulean's laughter surrounded me, a gentle breeze that swept by, almost warm in its touch. The Wind Elemental had been with me since I was six years old. We were bound, and she guarded my back.

You will always be who you are. You'll just know more about yourself. You'll learn to control your emerging powers better. You'll be you, but you'll also be a queen. And I will always be with you. Lainule bound me to your service before you ever knew who or what you were to become. Her visions guided her. I will not leave you.

And then she fell silent, leaving me with my thoughts again.

I kicked a pile of snow, wishing for spring. Wishing for any season that involved green growing things. Myst, Queen of the Indigo Court-the Vampiric Fae, upstart winter queen-had brought the eternal twilight to town, determined to spread her ice and chill across the land. Her Shadow Hunters fed on bone and gristle and marrow and life force. Once we finally defeated Myst, the seasons would return to their normal ebb and flow. Until then, we were caught in her unwavering grasp, even though we'd driven her into hiding.

"Any sign of Shadow Hunters?" Rhiannon, my cousin, emerged from the wood to stand beside me. "I'm sorry I'm late-the Summer Court has been keeping me busy." She didn't sound exactly thrilled about the whole thing, but I knew that it was just her nerves.

I shook my head. "I don't see any. But they're out there. Somewhere. I doubt if they'll show themselves until Myst regroups her forces. Who knows how many of them managed to escape? And there were plenty of others scattered around the country. They'll come to her aid when she calls. She's just biding her time until she rebuilds her army."

"That's what I'm afraid of." Rhiannon glanced over her shoulders. "I wish I felt it was safe to go out alone. Do you think we should bring a couple of the guards?"

I glanced back at the trees. They were there, hidden in the woods, ready to join us if we required. But I'd managed to convince Lainule that-with Myst currently out of the picture-we really didn't need them. Especially since we were headed to the Emissary's mansion. Myst couldn't get through the vampires' defenses-not when she was at the peak of her power, and not now.

"I think we'll be fine. We're just going to Regina's . . ." I paused. "But soon enough, we won't be able to travel alone. Although, Lainule does. So maybe . . . maybe . . . they won't be on our tail every place we go." The thought of being watched everywhere we went didn't sit well with me.

As the dusk fell across the snowbound evening, Ulean whipped around me. She seemed agitated.

Trouble. There is trouble in the Veil House.

Fuck. Maybe we did need the guards. Shadow Hunters?

No, not Shadow Hunters. Vampires, and they have Luna with them. She's afraid-I can feel her fear.

I turned to Rhiannon. "Luna's in the house and Ulean says there are vampires in there with her." I rushed forward, wondering if the guards would follow. I had no idea if they could see us from where they were in the forest. Rhiannon plunged through the snow after me.

"Damn it. Lannan promised allegiance-"

I raced through the snow, slipping on the icy crust a couple of times. "I don't think it's Lannan." A sense of dread seeped through me. We'd been cocky. We'd driven Myst back and, even though we knew she was regrouping, the town had felt safe enough to wander around. We'd grown careless the past couple of days. So, when Luna had gone to the market alone, assuring us she would be fine, we let her go. Apparently, she was wrong, and so were we.

The back porch of the Veil House had been fully repaired and I bounded up the steps, glancing over my shoulder. No sign of the guards.

Ulean, can you warn Lainule we might need help? I will. Be cautious, Cicely. I do not know what's going on in there. I cannot read the vampires' energies.

With Rhiannon on my heels, I slammed through the door and into the kitchen, skidding to a halt in case they were there. Nothing but a silent room. The kitchen had been entirely rebuilt. The new color was chiffon yellow, pale as the cool morning light in early spring, and it spread across the room, a gradient of apricot blushing toward the ceiling. The trim had been replaced, and all the cabinets and cupboards. The workmanship was meticulous.

I glanced around, trying to decide whether to go up the back staircase to the bedrooms or-A noise from the living room caught my attention and I slowed, motioning for Rhiannon to stay behind me. I felt for the sheath hanging off my belt, gripping the hilt of my new dagger. Lainule herself had given it to me, and it was fit for a queen-wickedly sharp, a magical silver alloy, and deadly. Behind me, Rhiannon drew her matching gilt-edged one. I wasn't sure how I felt about that. Rhia hadn't been trained in use of a blade, and I didn't want her stabbing me by accident. Or herself.

We peeked around the wall leading to the living room. Here, where the smoke had damaged furniture and wallpaper but not the actual structure, the walls had been stripped and now a pale green illuminated the room, and the antiques had been restored where they could be. New furniture replaced the pieces too broken to be fixed.

Standing in the middle of the room, were two men-vampires by the looks of their eyes-wearing dark suits. Between them, they had Luna between them, each holding one of her arms. They were ignoring her as they talked in soft whispers over her head. Luna was crying, softly, and I saw her shiver as one of the vamps reached down to tip her chin up so she was staring him in the face. He said something-I couldn't hear what-and she let out a whimper, then pressed her lips together.

"So, what the fuck do you plan on doing with my friend?" I stepped out from around the wall. I wanted more backup, but we had to do something.

The vamps glanced over at me, and then one snorted. "Took you long enough, witch. We're here to deliver a message." He let go of Luna and shoved her forward with so much force that she went sprawling at my feet.

She landed hard on the floor, and I quickly bent to help her up. Struggling, she looked up at me, dazed. Her eyes were wide, and two ragged punctures marred her neck, dried blood from them coating her skin. I knew exactly what that meant.

"Fucking perverts, you fed from her." I whirled on them. "You'd better not be aligned with Lannan, or I swear, I'm-"

The first vamp sneered. "Shut up, cunt. Try being a little more respectful. You see, we don't give a fuck about your powers or your lineage or the fact that your oh-so-fragile neck is going to hold up a pretty little diadem."

"Quiet," his partner said. He pointed to Luna. "The girl is your message." They turned to leave, but he stopped and glanced back. "Next time we meet, the warning will be harsher. You might caution your friend about being so carefree. We could have broken her neck without blinking an eye and left her on the street. We could have turned her and taken her with us."

"Who sent you? Who are you working for?"

He laughed. "You'll find out soon enough. We're just administering a gentle reminder that not all vampires in New Forest are as entranced with you as that sycophant Altos and his bitch whore sister."

I drew back my dagger, knowing it was a foolish move. But I had to do something. I couldn't take them down with it, but I could do my best to protect us-atleast for a while.

I moved in front of Luna. "I don't care who hates me. Just don't take it out on my friends-" And then I paused. Crap. I knew who had sent them. At least, I was fairly certain. "Geoffrey and Leo sent you, didn't they?" Behind me, Rhiannon gasped.

"Get back, don't let them near you." I glanced over my shoulder to make sure nobody was behind us.

The larger vampire snorted. He cocked his head to the side, his obsidian eyes gleaming. "Don't worry your scrawny neck about it. We're not out for the win. Yet. Just consider this visit a promise of things to come. Geoffrey loves the chase, and the hunt. But you'd better prepare yourselves, because when it's time to get real, little girl, you can be sure there won't be any place to hide." And then, in a blur so fast I couldn't see them move, they were gone.

I stared at the front door. It was open, blowing in the wind.

"We're in deep shit, aren't we?" Rhiannon leaned close to me.

I nodded, staring at the snow that swirled in on the wind. "Yeah," I said softly. "And somehow, I don't think it's going to get any easier. Not for a long time."

Rhia and I managed to get Luna onto the sofa. I was attending to her wounds-the punctures were jagged and deep, and she'd lost a fair amount of blood-when
Grieve burst through, followed by Kaylin and several guards. Kaylin took one look at Luna, on whom he was crushing bad, and rushed over, sliding to the floor beside the couch.

"Is she-" He glanced up at me.

"I'm not dead, if that's what you mean." Luna groaned and sat up, gently pressing her hand to the bandage on her neck. "But damn, I hurt, and I'm dizzy."

"There's no food in this place. We need to get you something to eat." Kaylin pulled a candy bar out of his pocket and pressed it into her hands. "What happened? Did you cut yourself? Lainule said there were vampires up here . . ." He glanced around. The guards had already spread out through the house, making sure the coast was clear.

"The vamps are gone, for now." I let out a deep breath. "Geoffrey and Leo sent them. Luna . . . they . . ." My gaze went to the bandage on her neck.

Kaylin followed my look. "Those fuckers drank from her?" His eyes grew dark. He was Chinese, and his long hair was pulled back in a ponytail. He looked our age-around his mid-to-late twenties-but in reality he was over a hundred years old. With a night-veil demon wedded to his soul, Kaylin walked in shadows. He played in the dark.

"Yeah," I said slowly, standing so I could stop him if he tried to follow them. His eyes flashed dangerously, lighting with a fire I had seen only once or twice. "She'll be okay, Kaylin. They didn't feed enough to endanger her life."

Waiting for a moment till he calmed down and sat beside her, I turned to Luna. "Can you tell us what happened?"

She shuddered. "I was on my way to the market-I wanted to make apple pie, but they didn't have everything I needed at the Barrow. I thought I'd be fine. If anybody had to worry about going out alone during the day, I thought it would be you and Rhiannon. I argued with the guards until they let me go alone."

"Right. I heard." I'd vouched for her, told Lainule she'd be okay. I hung my head, sorry I'd ever opened my mouth. "You left around four, right?"

"Yes. I wanted to stop in at the bookstore to see if a book I ordered last week had come in. It felt so good to walk down the sidewalk without being afraid that the Shadow Hunters would be hiding in the alleys." She grimaced and stretched her neck, wincing from the pain of the bite. Vampires could make you come by drinking from you, but the aftermath? Not so much fun. Kaylin and I helped her sit down again.

"I guess you should have taken a guard with you." I stopped, realizing I'd just spouted off the same advice Rhia and I had refused to take. With a sigh, I shrugged. "What happened?"

"I stopped at a coffee shop after that, then the market. When I came out, it was just after sunset. I was waiting at a bus stop to return here when they appeared, out from the alleyway. Before I knew what was happening, they grabbed me and dragged me into the shadows. My packages were on the ground, and they pressed me up against the wall. One of them turned to look at me, and that's when I realized they were vampires. I tried to look away, but . . ."

Vampires could mesmerize with their gazes, and Luna, as magical as she was, couldn't possibly hope to stand up against them.

"They both fed on me." Her voice was thick, and she blushed. "I liked it. They made me like it. I feel . . . dirty. Used."

"Yeah, they do that." I flashed a look at Kaylin that said, Don't say a word, and then knelt beside her. "Did they do anything . . . else to you?"

She shook her head. "They dragged me into a limo. And then . . . we were here. I thought they were going to kill me, but the one-the bigger one-just told me that I was lucky this time. Then he grinned and said that next time, he'd finish me himself. He said my blood was sweet." Another shudder, another look of horror. "That's right when you came in."

"Kaylin, take her back to the Barrow and make sure she's okay."

Kaylin said nothing but wrapped his arms around her shoulders and, once again, helped her stand. It was obvious she was weak. Luna was short, plump, and pretty. The demon within Kaylin's soul had given him extra strength and speed, though, and he picked her up as if she were light as a feather and carried her out the door, calling to one of the guards to accompany him.

As they left, I turned to Grieve and Rhiannon. "Want to make a bet this has something to do with our meeting with Regina?"

"You need to take guards with you, since I am specifically not invited." Grieve glowered. He hated it when I went into Lannan's territory without him, but there wasn't much we could do. Having them in the same room together was pretty much like holding a lit rag to a can of gasoline.

I bit my lip. "Twenty minutes ago, I would have said no. Now? Not so much. But they can't ride in the car. The iron would hurt them." I pulled out my cell phone and dialed Regina's private number.

Within seconds, the Emissary for the Crimson Court answered, her voice slick like honey and oil.

"Regina, Geoffrey and Leo just delivered a bloody message to us. I need to bring guards with us tonight. You will allow them through the gate, right?"

Silence for a count of one . . . two . . . three. Then she answered, in a voice that wavered only in the slightest. But that faint quiver told me there was cause for concern. "Of course. I'll tell my guards to be ready for them. How many are you bringing?"

"Five should do it. And Regina, thank you." Without waiting for an answer, I punched the End Talk button. I knew Regina well enough to know that she wasn't going to say anything more over the phone. I notified the guards of the sudden change in plans, and they took off, heading for Lannan and Regina's mansion.

As Rhiannon and I prepared to leave, I held out my arms. Grieve, my Fae Prince, slid willingly into my embrace. "I wish you could go with me, but so not a good idea." Softly, I kissed his lips, and he growled a little, causing the wolf tattoo on my stomach to respond. "I'll be careful, I promise."

"See that you are." His dark eyes were as black as those of the vampires, but their onyx cores were filled with gleaming stars. Platinum hair cascaded down his shoulders, and he reached up, solemnly, to stroke my face, smelling of cinnamon and apples, bonfires and autumn leaves. "You are my everything. You are my Queen. Do not let the darkness swallow you, my love."

Nodding, I turned to Rhiannon, who followed me out the door. The guards were already off and running toward Regina and Lannan's mansion. They would meet us there. As we hurried to my beloved Pontiac GTO, several armed guards waited beside it, making sure we were safely tucked inside. I turned the ignition, dreading what the rest of the night held. Because I knew in my heart the news was only going to get worse.

"They're never going to give up until they get even, are they?" Rhia leaned her head against the window, watching as the evening dusk grew deeper.

I shook my head. "No. I don't think so. I wish I could say yes and mean it, but Leo and Geoffrey are dangerous. Not as dangerous as Myst, but we can't underestimate them. Regina sounded almost . . . afraid."

Rhia jerked around. "Afraid? Regina?"

"Yeah, I know-an oxymoron. But she sounded . . .cautious."

My stomach fluttered, a knot rising, but I pushed it away, focusing on the icy street as I navigated through the silent neighborhoods. So many people had fled New Forest, and though some were trickling back, the town seemed unnaturally quiet and subdued.

"We'll know what she knows soon enough." I turned onto the street that led toward Lannan's mansion. The estate had belonged to Geoffrey until he'd defied the Crimson Court and been ousted from his position of Regent. Now, Lannan Altos, the golden boy of the vampire nation, and my personal nemesis, had taken over the job.

The brilliant mansion lit up the night as we approached. Gleaming white with gold trim, the behemoth rose three stories high, with who knew how many stories below ground. Columns lined the wraparound porch, and urns sported rose bushes now nestled beneath the snow. The tableau suggested a Grecian temple more than a mansion belonging to New Forest. The entire estate sprawled across two acres, fully gated and surrounded by snow-covered gardens and security guards in dark suits. Vampires they might be, but they also carried guns and stakes and whatever else they might need to defend against enemies. With their obsidian eyes cloaked behind dark glasses, and dressed in black suits, the vamps had an old-time gangster look going on. But there was no mistake-they were vampires, far deadlier than the yummanii mobsters.

As we eased into the driveway, one of the guards hurried up to open my door. They knew my car by now and gave us only a cursory pat-down.

I politely turned over my silver dagger-which they were cautious to avoid touching. I slipped it into the weapons case one of them carried. I'd pick it up on the way back.

Beside them stood our guards. I saluted to them and they bowed, which felt weird as hell, but considering I was in line to become the Queen of Winter, and Rhiannon the Queen of Summer, we'd have to get used to it. I handed my keys to the valet. As we started up the steps, he carefully eased Favonis out of the way. Rhia and I glanced at each other.

"After what happened to Luna, I hate going in without backup," she said.

"I know, but Regina will keep us safe. Even though she's the Emissary to the Crimson Court, I trust her. She has to be diplomatic, and she knows that the Cambyra nation would come stake her royal ass if either of us were hurt."

As soon as I rang the bell, the door swung open. The maid who answered was a bloodwhore, but with perfect makeup, her hair in a chignon, and a stiffly pressed uniform and heels, she had to belong to the Emissary's stable.

"We're here to see Regina."

The woman curtseyed, then led us through the spacious foyer, past the office that had once been Geoffrey's. But we didn't stop there. Instead, she led us to the next door down the hallway, where she tapped discreetly. After a moment, she opened the door, peeked inside, and whispered something. Then, standing back, she ushered us in.

As we entered the room, I was surprised to see that it was yet another office, but this was oh-so-official, with what I assumed was a print of the royal seal hanging over the cherrywood desk. The polished desk was a monster, filling a good one-third of the room. The top was clear except for an appointment book, a pen on a blotter, and a bronze statue that at first looked to be a woman kissing a man. As I drew closer, I saw that it was actually a vampire holding her victim.

Regina, behind the desk, stood as we entered. Blond, like her brother, she wore her hair in an intricate updo that must have taken an hour to fix. A black linen pencil skirt hugged her hips, and a red corset boosted her cleavage in an impressive display.

A large ruby teardrop flanked by two diamond baguettes hung around her neck from a gold chain. I knew they were ruby and diamond because Regina would never stoop to wearing costume jewelry. Matching earrings dangled from her ears, and her face was flawlessly made up. Regina's eyes glowed with the soft, unbroken obsidian of all true vampires. She wore a neutral eye shadow, with thin, precise liner and heavy mascara that glittered with gold flecks. Her lips were crimson, moist and alluring, and her alabaster skin was like fine porcelain. When she smiled, the tips of her fangs showing, and motioned for us to sit, I felt a brief rush of hunger.

"Cicely, Rhiannon . . . please make yourselves comfortable." She waited until we were seated on the dusky mauve divan opposite her desk, then motioned for the maid to leave and close the door behind her. Sitting back, she studied us carefully, as if she were gauging what to say. Or, perhaps, how to say it.

I leaned back against the velvet of the divan. I'd learned never to rush a vampire. The more you pushed, the more they pushed back. So, we waited. Rhiannon nervously knotted her sweater sleeve in her hand, but after a moment, she let out a long breath and finally leaned back beside me.

Regina stepped from behind her desk, crossing to the front, where she leaned her butt against the edge, her long legs stretched out in front, ending in five-inch stilettos. She glanced at the door.

"Lannan will be joining us shortly." She held up her hand as I shifted uncomfortably. "I know you'd prefer to deal with only me instead, but the fact is that Lannan's input on this is vital. Trust me, the news isn't pleasant."

"I have a feeling your news is going to be just about as good as what just happened to us." On that cheery note, we went back to staring at each other. Even though she didn't try to pull glamour on me, her gaze unnerved me. I licked my lips and yawned, quickly trying to cover my mouth. Were Queens even supposed to yawn in public? Flustered, I glanced up at the gorgeous vampire, and to my surprise, Regina flashed me a little smile-probably as genuine as she could manage.

"There are so many things changing. The old ways no longer serve your people, nor mine. We must learn to adapt. I think that our two nations have much to explore over the coming decades, don't you agree? Hmm?" Her voice was smooth, silk against skin, and I ducked my head, feeling
oddly shy.

Before I could think of an answer, she straightened up. "I'm being remiss in my duties as hostess. Would you care for something to drink? Some wine, or sparkling water, or a café au lait?"

I was about to say no when Rhiannon surprised me. "Some sparkling water would be nice, with ice if you have it." She cleared her throat and straightened her shoulders.

"And the girl of light and summer can actually speak." Regina's laugh was throaty and rich. I could never tell if she was making fun of us or truly found us amusing. Either way, she rang a small bell and a different maid immediately entered the room.

"Sparkling water for the Queen of Summer. Cicely-what will you have?"

Regina expected an answer, and so I blurted out the first thing that came to mind. "Mocha, please, with extra chocolate." A jolt of caffeine would do me some good.

"Mocha, for the Queen of Winter. Extra chocolate and-I think-an extra shot of espresso would be in order for what we have to discuss this night." Regina dismissed her with the flick of a finger, and the woman scurried out of the room.

It was still hard for me to sit by and watch the vampires treat their servants like chattel, but even more disturbing was the realization that I was growing used to it. After another awkward silence, the woman returned with our drinks. Directly on her heels was Lannan Altos, who swept over to Regina and kissed her hand and then her lips, his tongue playing over them. After the maid had given us our drinks, Lannan turned to face us.

Lannan Altos, Regina's brother and her lover. Originally from Sumer, they were two of the older vampires around. Lannan Altos, my bane. Lannan of the golden hair that flowed down his back and the sleek, tight build. Lannan, the hedonist, whose obsession for me had become a dangerous game. Lannan, who had taken me down and made me grovel willingly at his feet. Lannan, who enjoyed games of humiliation at others' expense.

But Lannan-pervert though he was-had helped us when we needed it, though whether it was due to his own twisted agenda or not, I wasn't sure. And that meant I had to walk softly and try to keep out of his clutches and stay on his good side. He could do far more damage to me and our cause against Myst than I could do against him. Yet.

Rhiannon and I stood, giving him a cursory bow. As Regent, his position demanded it. He moved in close, looming over me, and I was keenly aware of his presence. My body responded to him, remembering him in a way I didn't want it to.

"This matter was brought to our attention just this evening, so I apologize for my tardiness. You will forgive me, won't you? Cicely?" And he fastened his gaze on me, holding me entranced with those eternally black eyes.

I cleared my throat, mulling over the best response. After our last interaction-the day I'd left the mansion-I wanted nothing more than to kick him in the balls, but diplomacy won out.

"Of course." I turned to Regina. "But first, let me tell you what happened tonight." I told them about Luna and the vamps, and the message from Geoffrey. "We have to find them. We have to stop them."

Regina pressed her lips together before answering. Her voice was tight and brusque. "I have been in communication with the Crimson Queen. The situation is far more dire than you think."

Uh-oh. That couldn't be good. I glanced at Rhiannon. We waited for Regina to continue.

"When one of our esteemed Vein Lords went to visit the Blood Oracle yesterday, he discovered that . . . well . . .Crawl has gone missing."

"Missing?" At first I thought I'd heard her wrong, but one look at her face and I knew she was telling us the truth. Her four little words were enough to crumble the world.

Lannan stared at me, unblinking. "Make no mistake. It's true. Crawl is missing, and no one knows how he escaped from his prison." His voice echoed through the room, no longer smooth and elegant, but instead harsh. He was on his feet the next moment, pacing back and forth.

"Prison? Crawl's chamber is a prison?" That was the first I'd heard anything to that effect. The Blood Oracle was esteemed, a seer among his people, revered as almost a god. I had no idea he was a prisoner, though it made sense. I knew they'd kept him tucked away between the worlds with good reason. The freakshow was deadly, with no conscience whatsoever, and he'd had his fangs in me once already.

Lannan glanced at me. "Crawl was imprisoned by the Crimson Queen eons ago, when she first anointed him as the Blood Oracle. He's far too powerful and dangerous to be allowed among the populace, especially around breathers."

He paused by me, lifting my chin to stare into my face with those gleaming black eyes of his. "You, of all people, should know what he can be like, my sweet Cicely." And the Golden Boy was back.

Shivering-from both his touch and the memory of Crawl tearing into my neck with wanton thirst-I swallowed the lump rising in my throat and forced myself to remain steady.

Rhiannon looked ready to faint. "How did he get loose?"

Regina grimaced. "Not without help, I can tell you that."

The idea of someone helping Crawl escape was ludicrous. "Who the fuck would help him get free? Who would even think of something that stupid?"

She gave me a long look. "Consider the situation, Cicely. Who has everything to gain by causing mayhem? By aligning himself with one as powerful as the Oracle?"

And then I knew. "Geoffrey . . ."

"Yes, Geoffrey and Leo. Word on the street is that Geoffrey is planning a major coup against Lannan, while Leo's out to kidnap Rhiannon. And both of them are out for revenge against you, Cicely."

"But why Crawl?" Rhia was so pale she looked as bloodless as the vamps.

Lannan answered. "Crawl can wield dark magic. Ever since he tasted Cicely's blood, he's been obsessed with how sweet and rich and tender she was. The Oracle does not forget lightly. And . . . the Oracle's sanity long ago turned to dust."

"Leo means to turn me into a vampire," Rhia said. "He wants to turn me and keep me locked up with him."

Lannan nodded. "No doubt."

Regina regarded him somberly. "We believe that Geoffrey plans on turning Cicely over to Crawl . . ." She paused, shuddering. "I wouldn't wish my worst enemy to be at the mercy of the Blood Oracle."

The room fell silent. I could barely think, let alone speak.

Lannan cleared his throat after a moment and turned to his sister. "What are the Crimson Queen's orders?"

Regina held up what looked like an official decree. "Direct from the Queen: Our first order is to secure the safety of the newly arisen Fae Queens and the populace of New Forest. With Crawl free among the townspeople, the Vampire Nation could suffer irreversible damage to our reputation. Second-we return him to his prison. And third: We terminate Geoffrey and Leo."

"Do you know where they are?" I asked.

She let out a soft whisper. "No. We have no idea. I sent in guards to raid their last known hideaway earlier this evening. There was no trace of them or where they went. The owner of the club died without revealing their whereabouts. My men used every form of persuasion possible. The club owner died in the process."

I crossed to the big bay windows. Every morning, they were covered with steel shutters. Now, I stared outside, into the dim night. The snow was piling up again. Myst was still out there, gunning for us. And Leo and Geoffrey had freed a monster from his dark and fiery hell to claim the streets of the town for his own.

Myst was a holy terror, but at least, she was somewhat predictable. Whereas Crawl . . . Crawl was as alien as an insect, and as dangerous as any predator who ruled the top of the food chain. Crawl wanted my blood, and Leo and Geoffrey were only too happy to serve me up on a platter.

Lannan was suddenly behind me, making no noise with his approach. He placed his hands on my shoulders and leaned down to whisper in my ear. "Are you afraid, Cicely?"

I turned to stare at him over my shoulder. He wasn't being sarcastic this time. His question seemed oddly genuine.

"Yes, I'm afraid."

"My offer stands, you know. Let me turn you. Renounce the world of Fae and join me. It would be easy for you to fight back, then. With your powers, combined with me as your sire, you could defeat Leo and Geoffrey." His words entwined around me, and the wolf tattoo on my stomach growled a low warning note. Grieve could tell I was all too close to his rival.

I shook my head. "No. I refused to let Geoffrey turn me-I would become a bigger monster than Myst. But thank you. I think you really mean it-you really want to help."

"Don't be so quick to think you know my mind, girl." Lannan let out a low laugh. "I just don't want to lose you." But the look on his face told me that Rhiannon and I weren't the only ones who were afraid. I turned to look at Regina. She, too, wore a look of concern on her face.

As I stared back into the night, too aware of Lannan's hands still on my shoulders, I thought I saw something dart past the window. As I wiped my eyes, whatever it was seemed to disappear.

It was all too much. Too many enemies. Too much stress. I just wanted to go home and crawl under the covers, but even home now had a new meaning, and was still an alien and strange place. Rhiannon joined me at the window and I took her hand in mine. We stood there, linked, twin-cousins, fire and ice against the shadows outside, as they grew dark and long, and looming.

COLLAPSE

Playlist

The 69 Eyes: August Moon; Some Kind of Magick; Angels

A.J. Roach: Devil May Dance
Aerosmith: Walk This Way
Air: Astronomic Club; Seven Stars; Moon Fever; Napalm Love; Playground Love
Alan Parsons: You Lie Down With Dogs; Children of the Moon; Breakdown
Android Lust: Dragonfly; Stained; Saint Over; A New Heaven
Asteroids Galaxy Tour: Lady Jesus

Black Mountain: Wucan; Queens Will Play; The Hair Song; Druganaut; Wild Wind
Bon Jovi: Wanted Dead or Alive
Brent Lewis: Beyond Midnight; Wild Wood
Buffalo Springfield: For What It's Worth

Cobra Verde: Play With Fire

Dave Draiman; Forsaken
Dave & Steve Gordon: Shaman's Drum Dance; Four Direction Ritual; Empowered Fire Groove

Eels: Souljacker Part I

Faun: Sieben; Deva; Punagra
Foster the People: Pumped Up Kicks

Gabrielle Roth: The Calling; Raven; Mother Night; Rest Your Tears Here
Gary Numan: When the Sky Bleeds; The Fall; Hybrid; Dominion Day
Godhead: Penetrate
Gorillaz: Stylo
Gotye: Heart's a Mess; Somebody That I Used to Know

In Strict Confidence: Silver Bullets; Something to Rememeber; Snow White

Julian Cope: Charlotte Anne

King Black Acid: Rolling Under; Haunted

Lady Gaga: Teeth; I Like it Rough; Paparazzi; Paper Gangsta; The Fame
Lady Tron: I'm Not Scared; Ghosts; White Elephant; Ritual
Lindstrom & Christabelle: Lovesick
Lord of the Lost: Sex on Legs
Low and TomandAndy: Half Light

Madonna: 4 Minutes
Marilyn Manson: Godeatgod; Tainted Love; Personal Jesus; Sweet Dreams; Redeemer
Mark Lanegan: The Gravedigger's Song; Phantasmagoria Blues; Riot in My House; Wedding Dress; Methamphetamine Blues; Riding on a Nightingale; Judas Touch

NIN: Closer; Down in It; Sin; Deep
Nirvana: Heart Shaped Box; You Know You're Right
Notwist: Hands on Us

Orgy: Social Enemies; Blue Monday; Fiend; Dizzy; Pantomime

A Pale Horse Named Death: Pill Head; Meet the Wolf; Heroin Train
People In Planes: Vampire
Puddle of Mudd: Famous

Red Hot Chili Peppers: Blood Sugar Sex Magik; Sir Psycho Sexy

Saliva: Ladies and Gentlemen
Sarah McLachlan: Possession
Screaming Trees: All I Know; Look At You; Dying Days; Witness; Dime Western; Gospel Plow
Seether: Remedy
Soundgarden: Let Me Drown; Black Hole Sun; Fell on Black Days; Fresh Tendrils
Susan Enan: Bring on the Wonder

Verve: Bittersweet Symphony

Warchild: Ash
Woodland: Will O' The Wisp; Lady and the Unicorn; First Melt; Winds of Ostara; I Remember; Gates of Twilight

Zero 7: In the Waiting Line

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