Arthur / CIRCLE OF DESIRE
Air hissed through the silence. Tendrils of smoke began to curl past the window frames, its color luminous yet sickly. Katherine Tanner tugged one of the two white ash stakes strapped to her jeans free and clenched it tightly. On the opposite side of the room, a little girl slept on, oblivious to the smoky slivers of evil beginning to slip past the window. Kat hoped she remained unaware, but how likely was that, given her kidnapper seemed to be targeting children born into shifter families? While not all shifters were sensitive to magic, many were. It was a part of their soul, after all, even if a child this young would not be able to shift form. Not until puberty, anyway.
Kat was keeping her fingers crossed that this kid did get the chance to hit puberty.
Because if Gwen’s premonition was right—and her grandmother’s premonitions usually were—this child would be the next to go missing. They’d done everything they could to prevent that. They’d nailed the windows shut, they had cops patrolling close by, and warding stones had been placed around the child’s bed to prevent any magic from coming close.
But these wards weren’t designed to stop evil itself—and that’s what was seeping into this room tonight. Kat’s stomach began to churn. Though she’d spent the last ten years hunting the rogue elements of the supernatural community that preyed on humans, she’d never come across anything that went after kids the way this thing did. She had never met anything that did to them what this thing did.
She closed her eyes, fighting tears, trying not to relive the moment two nights before when they’d stepped into that old factory and found the body of the second missing four-year-old. Daniel had been unmarked except for two small puncture wounds on his neck. Though he’d been drained of blood, this was not what had caused his death. Only those gifted with psychic sight would ever see that.
Something had stolen his soul—had ripped it from his body between the beats of his heart. He’d died quickly, but in pain. Terrible, terrible pain.
She didn’t want to face the thing that could do something like that. No one in their right mind would. But she had no choice, simply because the Damask Circle’s resources were stretched to the limits right now, and there was no one else free to make the trip to Oregon.
She gripped the stake tighter and watched the smoke draw together and find shape, becoming a scantily clad, extremely beautiful woman.
Evil came in all shapes and sizes, but for some reason Kat hadn’t expected it to take the form of such Oriental perfection. And maybe it was just her own maternal instincts coming to the fore, but she just couldn’t understand how any woman could harm a child—particularly one so young.
But this was the thing snatching the kids. It had the same sense of deeply entrenched corruption that she’d felt in the other bedrooms.
The woman stepped toward the child. Kat tensed but fought the urge to move, sensing the show wasn’t over yet. Her fingers ached with the force of her grip on the stake. She had no idea whether it would actually kill the soul-sucker or not, but at the very least it would do some serious damage and give her time to yell for reinforcements.
A cold smile touched the woman’s bloodless lips, then she turned and tried to open the window. It didn’t budge, held steady by the nails placed there earlier. The woman stepped back and energy surged, crawling like fire across Kat’s skin. The nails slithered from the wood and dropped softly to the floor. The woman lifted the window and leaned out.
A gaunt, dark-haired figure appeared, and the sensation of evil increased tenfold. The vampire’s dead gaze scanned the room, stopping when it reached the shadows in which Kat stood. Though she was certain he couldn’t see past her grandmother’s wards, he really didn’t need to. Not with the frantic beat of her heart.
He snarled softly, revealing stained canines. The soul-sucker spun, the malevolence in her dark eyes overwhelming any lingering impression of beauty. With an inhuman growl, she leaped for the sleeping child. Kat raised her hand, thrusting a lance of kinetic energy at the soul-sucker, flinging her away from the bed. The woman hit the wall with enough force to dent the plaster and shatter the nearby window. As glass fell to the floor, the child woke, her shriek almost ear-piercing. Hurried footsteps began to echo down the hallway, but it was doubtful the cops would get here fast enough to even see this thing, let alone catch it.
As the child’s screams continued, the woman’s gaze met Kat’s. In the dark depths of the creature’s eyes, she saw the promise of retribution. A chill chased through her soul and she shivered.
Then the woman’s form disintegrated, becoming little more than mist that eddied out the open window. Kat cursed and ran across the room. The woman had regained shape near the back fence, and though the vampire was nowhere in sight, the scent of his evil stung the night.
The bedroom door burst open and police poured in. They called to her to stop, but their voices were almost lost beneath the child’s continuing screams. So Kat ignored them and climbed out the window, simply because she had no other choice. By the time she stopped to explain what had happened, the soul-sucker and the vamp would have disappeared. Besides, she doubted the cops would believe her anyway. The only person who would understand would probably be scrying right now, staring into her crystal ball in an effort to track the creatures and perhaps discover their daytime hideaway.
Smoke swirled up the wooden fence and disappeared over the top. Kat scrambled after it and sprinted down the alley, her footsteps a lone echo in the night. Ahead, streetlights shimmered and traffic rolled, but it all felt a world away. The creature she chased wanted seclusion and darkness—at least for the moment.
It turned left into another small alley. She followed, leaping over the rubbish and battered trash cans strewn across her path. She was tempted to shift shape and hit the night sky in her raven form, but she didn’t dare risk it with the stakes she carried. And she wasn’t about to leave them behind—not when the vampire still lurked. Her quarry ran past one of the gates leading into an old factory. Metal creaked, as if stirred by a wind that didn’t exist, and another chill ran down her spine. The vampire was out there, pacing her. Watching her.
If he was the soul-sucker’s partner, why didn’t he attack?
The smudge of vapor continued on, moving toward a squat-looking building at the end of the alley. Kat slowed and half wished she’d brought a flashlight. The moon above was almost full, yet its light struggled to touch the shadows lining the small alley. Though her night sight was generally better than a human’s, even she would struggle to see through the pitch blackness inside that warehouse.
The soul-sucker wrapped itself around a window and disappeared. Kat stopped and scanned the outside of the building. It was a two-story brick structure, though the color of the bricks had long since been lost to thick layers of dirt and graffiti. Most of the windows on the lower floor had been boarded up, and the upper ones were all smashed. There was a small door to her right. The thick chains that had locked it were shattered.
An invitation, if ever she saw one. But an invitation to what? Was she walking into a trap, or had she merely found the most recent hiding place of these creatures?
The pounding of boots against concrete echoed against the night—probably the cops coming after her. She couldn’t let them find her. The vampire could take out a dozen men in the blink of an eye. Even her powers gave her no certainty against him, despite her experience and psychic senses. Especially with that other thing wandering around.
She flipped the stake in her hand, then walked across to the entrance. Raising her fingers, she sent a sliver of kinetic energy at the door and pushed it open. It didn’t creak. It didn’t make any sound at all, not even from the chains that swung gently back and forth.
Her unease stirred anew. She stepped to one side and studied the darkness. Though the moon caressed the outer wall with light, no brightness shone through the doorway. It was as if a blanket of night hung over the entrance, sucking in all light.
She stepped inside. Nothing stirred the blackness except the wild beat of her heart. Yet she wasn’t alone. The vampire and the soul-sucker were both here—along with someone new. Another shapeshifter.
Taking on two was tempting fate; three was inviting a trip to the nearest morgue. But she couldn’t retreat. Not when the image of little Daniel Baker rose in her mind.
She edged forward. The farther she moved into the warehouse, the heavier the air became. The scents of age and rotting rubbish mingled with the ripe aroma of evil, turning her stomach and making it difficult to breathe. Breathing through her mouth didn’t help, either. The air tasted as bad as it smelled.
Her foot hit something solid, and metal rattled across the concrete floor, the noise deafening in the silence. She cursed under her breath, but the night seemed to amplify her words and echo them across emptiness. Laughter answered, deep but feminine.
She hesitated, her gaze sweeping the night. The soul-sucker wasn’t running anymore. It was out there, watching Kat struggle through the dark. Waiting for her slightest mistake . . .
Despite the chill in the air, sweat trickled down her back. A white ash stake suddenly seemed woefully inadequate against the creatures that waited ahead.
Her fingertips touched a wall. It was wet and slimy, even though there didn’t appear to be any water running down its surface. She skated her hand across it, using it as a guide as she moved deeper into the darkness. Concrete eventually gave way to metal—a staircase, leading down into a deeper gloom.
Down to where they waited.
God, she so didn’t want to go down there. She didn’t want to confront these things. In ten years of fighting evil, she’d never been this scared, and she’d faced some pretty foul beings during that time. But none of them had the power to suck the essence from her body and destroy all that she was, all that she could be—both now and in future reincarnations.
Once again the image of Daniel rose, and she took a shuddering breath. He would have been just as scared. And he’d certainly deserved more than four years of life. While she and Gran had been placed on the trail too late to save him and the other two kids, they were here in Springfield, Oregon, now. They had a chance stop this.
All she had to do was go down into that darkness.
She took another deep breath, then felt for the edge of the step with her toes. She kept hold of the banister for guidance and repeated the process, moving slowly down.
The chill in the air grew until it felt like she was breathing ice. Her fingers were so cold they ached, and despite the fact that she’d put on extra-thick socks, her toes felt numb.
Or maybe it was just fear, paralyzing her from the extremities up.
She reached the bottom and stopped. Nothing moved. Her breathing rattled across the silence, and the wild beat of her heart echoed in time with it. The vampire and the soul-sucker stood to her left. The shapeshifter was more distant and to her right. There was no sense of evil coming from his direction, just wave after wave of anger and hostility. It didn’t seem to be aimed at her, or even at the duo she chased. It seemed to be aimed at the world in general.
And it was odd that she was getting such a strong impression of a man she hadn’t even met.
Evil stirred, splitting up as it moved forward. She backed away until she hit a wall, her grip on the stake so fierce her knuckles ached.
Air rushed at her from the left. She slashed the stake across the night and felt the slight resistance as the sharp point tore into flesh. The vampire howled but didn’t stop. She dove out of his way, hit the concrete with a grunt, and rolled back to her feet. Tendrils of softly glowing smoke reached for her. She hit it with kinetic energy, momentarily fragmenting it.
The darkness stirred, then lashed out, connecting hard with her chin. The force of the blow sent her sprawling backward. Her back hit the floor, and her breath left in a whoosh of air. For a moment, stars danced in her vision.
Then, the weight of another hit her, pinning her in place. Though gasping for breath and fighting the blackness invading her mind, she still heard the vampire’s snarl. She looked up in time to see the shadows unravel around him. His dead brown eyes were inches from hers and his teeth were extending, dripping blood in expectation of a feed. Tendrils of smoke gathered above him, pulsing red. Excitement, she thought. Need.
With as much force as she could muster, she smacked the heel of her palm into the vamp’s nose. At the same time, she sent a surge of kinetic energy at the vapor, again tearing it apart.
“Bitch!” The vampire’s voice was hoarse, his breath full of dead things.
“Bite me,” she said—and yelped when the bastard did. She stabbed the stake into his side, using kinetic energy to force it deep.
Blue fire flickered, and the smell of burning flesh rent the night. The vampire howled and slashed at her, not with his teeth but with fingernails as sharp as claws. They tore across her face, and she cursed him fluently. Kinetic energy surged, but before she could release her weapon, the vampire was torn from her.
“You all right?”
The voice was rich, husky, and called forth fantasies of long nights and silk sheets. She blinked, wondering where the hell her mind was. “Yeah.”
A hand appeared in front of her eyes. “Then get the hell up, because that thing is coming back.”
The shifter’s fingers were a furnace compared to hers, and he pulled her up with an ease that spoke of strength. He was a warm, solid presence she could feel but not see. A man whose emotions she could taste as easily as she tasted the evil of the other two.
And she had no idea why. Empathy with the living was not one of her talents.
“Thanks.” She pulled her hand from his, and the emotive swirl died a little. But his hostility lingered, mixed with some deeper emotion she couldn’t quite define. Yet it stirred her senses. Made her pulse race.
“Get out of here,” he said. “This place is too dangerous for a woman. I’ll keep the creature occupied.”
“It’s not alone,” she retorted. “And this place is just as dangerous for a man who has no idea he has two opponents rather than one.”
Tendrils of smoke formed behind the shifter’s solid presence, ready to caress and kill. Kat hit the soul-sucker kinetically, dissipating it yet again, then was flung sideways by the shifter.
She flailed her arms, battling to keep her balance, then heard a grunt as the shifter was hit by the vampire. Blue fire flickered across the darkness—evidence that the stake was still buried deep in the vampire’s flesh. So why didn’t he damn well die, like all bad little vampires should?
She dragged the second stake free and clenched it tightly. The two men were slugging it out, the shifter apparently giving as good as he got. But he obviously knew he was up against a vampire, so why didn’t he just grab the stake and thrust it into the bastard’s heart? Surely he had to know it was the best way to stop a bloodsucker? Going toe-to-toe with one generally never ended well—for the attacker, not the vampire. Hell, the only reason he could even hit the vampire was the stake holding it in human form.
She shifted her weight from one foot to the other and fought the need to move. She didn’t dare attack until the shifter was clear. The stake she held was just as deadly to him as the vampire, and the slightest mistake could prove costly.
The mist began forming again. She swore and slashed it with the stake. The air howled—an inhuman sound that sent a chill down her spine. The vapor disappeared, and the sense of old evil retreated, flowing up the stairs and out the door.
If she didn’t follow it, she’d lose it. But she couldn’t leave the shifter here alone, either. Not when instinct suggested he would not come out of this warehouse alive if she did.
“Back off, shifter, and let me at it,” she said.
“Like . . . hell.” His words were punctured with the smack of flesh against flesh.
“Hitting it is not going to damage it.” Exasperation edged her voice. If she lost the soul-sucker’s trail because of this man’s stubbornness . . .
“He’s injured. Bleeding.”
“And already dead,” the vampire snarled. “As you and the bitch will be by the time I’m finished with you both.”
“As I said to the lady, like hell.”
His words were emphasized by a grunt of effort and another smack of flesh. The vampire made an odd sound deep in his throat and staggered backward. It was the break she’d been waiting for. She reached deep, drawing on all her remaining kinetic strength, and flung the shapeshifter back—far back, across the warehouse. Surprise whisked around her a moment before he smacked against the wall, then all emotion died. He hit his head. At least she didn’t have to worry about him getting in the way.
She raised the stake and ran at the vampire. He snarled and tried to dodge, but his movements were slowing, and he was nowhere near fast enough. She drove the stake through his chest into his black heart, then leaped sideways as he lashed at her with clawed hands. His fingers slithered down her leg, tearing through her jeans and into flesh. She cursed and kicked him, shoving him backward.
He hit the ground with a splat and didn’t do anything more than writhe. Blue fire encased his torso, and the smell of burning meat churned her stomach. She climbed to her feet, brushed the dirt from her hands, and watched the vampire incinerate. She felt no elation at her victory. She couldn’t. Not when there was one more horror still running free.
When there was nothing left but ash, she turned and ran for the stairs. The shifter was safe enough now that the vampire was dead, and with any luck, Gran and she would be well gone by the time he awoke. Because if the hostility he’d projected was anything to go by, it wouldn’t be pleasant to be within a ten-mile radius of the man when he eventually stirred. Especially after she’d knocked him cold.
The moonlight seemed abnormally bright after the shuttered darkness within the warehouse. She blinked and hesitated, searching for some sign of the soul-sucker. Evil was a distant echo, moving away fast.
She shifted shape and flew down the alley, skimming past the cops who raced toward the warehouse. This time, the creature headed for the main street. Perhaps it hoped the noise and motion might loosen any psychic hold she had on it—which was a definite possibility after all she’d been through tonight.
The soul-sucker hit the street, its ethereal form getting lost in the warm glow of lights. It whisked away to the right, and the psychic leash she had on it snapped with a suddenness that had her plummeting to the ground.
She hit with a grunt, then shifted shape and rolled onto her back, staring up at the moon.
She’d lost it.