The dogs of war: Purity teaser

He could feel anger radiating from Vanessa like steam. He understood why, of course. He had ample opportunity to shoot Heinrich in a fatal zone—the heart, the head—and end this foolish war without further bloodshed.

But Vanessa didn’t understand. Vanessa had never been truly lost and alone in her darkest time of need, had never found that one person with whom to seek solace. In truth, Vanessa had no friends. Only allies.

No matter what happened, Heinrich had been a friend.

Fane gritted his teeth and tightened his grip on the pistol at his side. Joachim was right. He wasn’t strong enough to kill the man who had been his pillar of strength after the deaths of his father and Verity.

Heinrich snarled another curse in German. He released his injured arm and, before Fane could even move to react, grabbed a fistful of Joan Gwyther’s hair, yanking her upright. She shrieked, thrashing, but Heinrich held tight. “See what you have done, Fane!” he roared, loud enough to startle birds from their roosts. “This is the end! Everything you have fought so hard to protect will die today!” Continue reading

The Darkness: Purity teaser

The sun was still setting; a violet haze still lingered on the horizon, streaking the clouds rainbow hues. It was beautiful, despite the faint sting on his flesh; he had forgotten just how much he once enjoyed simply sitting outside and watching the last dredges of daylight struggle against the night. It was poetry in nature.

A twig snapped beneath his perch, and he squinted through the cover of leaves to see three people trudging through the dense forest beneath him. Two strigoi morţi, famished but well rested, dragging a limp figure through the dry grass and fallen leaves of autumn.

Continue reading

Lessons: Purity teaser

Jezebel Baudelaire was gasping for air, scratching at the sleeve of his coat with desperate fingers. Fane’s glare sharpened and he pressed his arm harder into her throat. He was tempted for a moment to be like Vanessa, when she was showing him the ropes of hand-to-hand fighting several centuries before, and coolly ask upon pinning the opponent, “So, what have we learned?”

Instead, he leaned closer to her, and she tried to buck him off by jerking violently. Fane stayed firmly planted atop her, legs on either side of her body. “Have you had enough yet?” he hissed. Somewhere behind him, he could hear the vârcolaci and strigoi morţi engaging in battle.

Satan only knew if Caitlyn had gone.

The vârcolac beneath him couldn’t answer, not while the life was being choked out of her.

“Get out of Auvergne, Miss Baudelaire,” he said, formality itself. “Return Estelle Moreau her son, and leave the pack be. I will not hesitate to kill you.”

He eased up on her throat, and a huge gust of air inflated her lungs as she finally managed to catch her breath. Gasping and panting, she glared at him and whispered, “You… won’t win. Heinrich… has too many… supporters.”

“Heinrich may have strong support, but I have greater allies. We shall see how this battle of wits plays out in the end.”

Leaning over her face as he was, Fane was suddenly very strongly reminded of several points in his childhood when he and his brother would wrestle for fun. Mircea, being older and bigger, always ended up pinning Fane, and leaned over him in this exact way, slowly drooling spit until Fane would call for their mother.

He smiled slightly at the memory. Baudelaire saw and her eyes widened, misunderstanding. She thrashed wildly beneath him, determined to free herself. Fane pressed his weight on her, and she gave up after a few moments. Her chest heaved with the effort of dragging in breaths, and she was still pawing weakly at his arm.

Fane sighed and moved his free hand. He reached into his coat and calmly removed the revolver. Pulling the hammer back with a click, he pressed the barrel into her temple, and she immediately froze.

“Return Master Moreau to his mother and leave Auvergne, and I will spare your life. This is your only chance, Miss Baudelaire, and the only mercy I shall ever show you.”

There was only a brief hesitation and flash of indecision in her dark eyes before she shoved him off. He let her and stood, watching her closely as she gasped and rubbed her neck.

“The kid’s in those trees there,” she croaked, pointing to a copse nearby. “He’s not hurt.” Turning away and crawling to her feet, she waved a hand. “Hey! It’s time to get out of here!”

The fighting ceased almost immediately.

“What?” A German voice—Manfred Gottschalk, unless Fane was mistaken—rose up in the darkness. “Where are we going?”

“Home.” Baudelaire limped toward her group, eyes cast down.

Fane kept the gun aimed at her, silent.

“Baden-Württemberg?”

Baudelaire’s mouth twitched. “Baden-Württemberg. Auvergne isn’t about to be swayed to join Heinrich. Let’s go.”

Fane watched as the rebels abandoned their fights and trudged toward their leader. The night was filled with the crunch of breaking bones for several long seconds, then a large pack of wolves stood on the ground before Fane. One—judging by the ash brown fur, Jezebel Baudelaire—glared up at him, and he nodded once, and lowered the gun. In silence, they turned toward the north, toward France’s far border with Germany, and began to run.

Fane waited until they were shadows. “Estelle Moreau’s child is in that copse. We are going home as well, and may this business with Heinrich Abendroth be finished.”

He turned and began striding back toward Le Vallon. In the distance, he could see Vanessa’s recognizable figure heading toward him, leading the third and final prisoner. A bubble of hatred popped inside him as he neared them; renewed disgust for Alfred Blade and everything he stood for.

Vanessa was near Joan Gwyther and Caitlyn now, who were watching in stunned silence, a large rifle on the grass before them.

“My lord,” Vanessa said, pushing forward the final prisoner. “What do you want to do with him?”

In one fluid movement, Fane lifted the gun and pulled the trigger. A sick splat as the bullet ripped through the prisoner’s forehead, and a thud as his body jerked in Vanessa’s arms; Fane barely heard any of it. His mind was elsewhere.

Vanessa dropped the corpse, looking disgusted, but Fane ignored it and pushed past her. Keeping his emotions under control, he said flatly, “Burn the body,” and, leaving the others behind, he slipped into the darkness around Le Vallon.

Battle Plans: Purity teaser

He opened a drawer of the desk and flipped through a hefty stack of maps until he found one of Germany. He set it flat on the desk with two paperweights. “We will go to this area, here,” he said, gesturing to part of the map. “Not many human settlements, and it is only a dozen or so miles from the Danube. Those who do not wish to fight the battle will remain in the castle, to guard it against vârcolaci scouts. The rest will join us in Germany. Have we any solid number of Heinrich’s followers?”

“A few hundred at most, and not all are based in Germany. He’ll probably call them all together now that there’s been a battle.”

“Hm. Send out the message, then. Any European or Asian strigoi morţi or loyal vârcolaci who wish to participate are hereby welcomed to Castle Dracula to be armed and prepared for war. Inform General Fernandez and Lieutenant Romanov of the plan, and no one else. We cannot risk this news leaking. Do you hear me, Belial?”

“Aye-aye, Captain.”

“Have the guards continue treating Madam Gwyther as they have, with enough blood to keep her alive. Break her will, if necessary. If she knows of the plan, she may betray us yet again.”

“Abendroth will kill her the second he finds out it’s a trap.”

“Sacrifices must be made. If we can spare her life, all the better. She certainly has her uses. If the plan is in jeopardy, we will have someone spying in the area, downwind of the vârcolaci, who can end Madam Gwyther before our cover can be spoiled. Do we know any dryads in the area?”

“None we’re friendly with.”

“Figures. Then whomever is sent as her potential executioner must have as little scent a possible. Choose someone with discretion, and have them feed several hours before the plan is set in motion. Soak their clothes in sap and mud if you believe it will help.”

Vanessa nodded and rolled up the map. “Any idea when you want this to happen?”

“Give it a fortnight at the most. Heinrich will likely launch his own attack before then, but he must also collect reinforcements.”

“And recover from a nasty bullet wound.”

Fane almost smiled. “Oh, yes, that as well. What a delightful advantage. Then we have more time. Send word to our munitions contact as well. We will need more firepower.”

“Sure thing.” Vanessa scooped up her coat and backed toward the door. “Anything else?”

“That will be all, for now. Oh, and remind me to get on better terms with dryads and nymphs and pixies and fairies, and all those little nuisances.”

Vanessa chuckled and stepped into the hallway. “I’ll get right on it.”

“Thank you. One more thing,” he added just before she could carry out her orders, “do the tengu still owe us a favour?”

“No, your father called it a long time ago.”

“Damn.”

“Anything else?” she said again, almost grinning. Her irritation about Caitlyn and anxiety over the ghost of Mircea were vanished, overcome by her lust for war.

Fane considered it for a moment. The strigoi morţi still had running favours with other societies of demons they didn’t often converse with, but he didn’t want to call on them just yet. A vârcolaci rebellion he could handle with those loyal to him. One never knows when one might need the help of shinigami, harpies, encantados, or tokoloshes.

“No. That is all. Thank you, Vanessa.”

She nodded. “Think about what I’ve said.” And she walked away.

Old Friends: Purity teaser

“I do not want to kill you, Heinrich,” he breathed. His hair was tousled around his shoulder, spilling over Heinrich’s wet snout. The wolf was panting heavily from their short battle. The hot dog breath made Fane wrinkle his nose, and he could feel the ribs moving beneath him as the lungs made an effort to breathe.

Heinrich growled. Fane didn’t understand what he was trying to say.

They remained that way, trapped on the forest floor as the strigoi morţi and vârcolaci around them slashed and snarled at each other. An echoing boom made the trees shake and the reek of gunpowder suddenly tore through the cool calm of rain.

Distracted, Fane glanced up. The movement tore at the scratches on his chest, and he inhaled sharply against the pain. Before he could look around to see who had fired the gun—honestly, the fight had only just started—Heinrich snarled and kicked him off.

Fane tumbled back and rolled down a slight slope, coming to rest at the base of a large evergreen. Woozy, he pushed off the leaves and onto his fingers and toes, squinting through the dark.

Heinrich stalked toward him, tail swishing in the dirt. His lips pulled back from his long, filthy teeth as a low growl issued up from his throat.

Fane stared, waiting.

Saliva dripped from the fangs. Deadly teeth in a powerful jaw, ready to snap. Sharp claws, already proved to draw blood even from a vampires. Heavy yet agile. Fane was almost intimidated. Werewolves were worthy foes.

Or at least, Heinrich Abendroth was a worthy foe.

Just as the wolf was about to pounce again, Fane lunged and grappled him to the ground. The rain was picking up, washing the dirt and blood from flesh and fur. Heavy, muscled legs thrashed out, slicing claws in all directions. Fane snarled and rolled to the side to grab Heinrich’s flailing legs; the wolf’s filthy, matted fur pressed into the open wounds on Fane’s chest, making the jagged edges sting.

Heinrich wriggled away and snapped his drooling fangs at his opponent. Pain blossomed in Fane’s shoulder; thick blood pooled down his flesh and ruined shirt.

He had not been bested in a true fight in years, not since the 1970s, when he had been briefly killed by his father’s former friend, mind lost.

He leaped forward, batting Heinrich’s sharp claws and bloodstained maw out of the way. The wolf roared, but Fane dodged his next attack by feigning to the left, and leaped at his object of desire: his black frock coat, cast so carelessly on the leafy carpet, soaked by the waterfall of raindrops. In one quick motion, he bent and swiped up his coat, unearthed his revolver, clicked back the hammer, and aimed it at the approaching vârcolac.

Heinrich stopped.

“Silver alloy ammunition, Heinrich,” he hissed.

All around them, the strigoi morţi and vârcolaci still fought with snarls and awry gunshots, oblivious to their leaders’ halt. Rain soaked his hair, his shirt, watering down the coagulated blood on his chest and shoulder and sending it in thin rivulets down his stiff body.

The wolf stared at him, tail swishing over the damp leaves.

“Take one more step toward me and it shall be your last. That is a promise, Heinrich. You know I do not make empty promises.”

Cowardice: Purity teaser

Crispin Kramer would not be one to call himself a coward. But when he had seen Evangeline Moreau picking wildflowers a few kilometres away from Le Vallon, prickly fear had instantly overwhelmed him.

That fear had turned into outright panic when Belle Baudelaire leaned in close to his hear and whispered, “Why not kill her, Crispin? Write a message in her blood. Heinrich would be proud.”

He didn’t want to tell her what he thought. He was sure Heinrich already doubted him, and sent him as the leader of the revolt in Auvergne to test his loyalties. Heinrich Abendroth was no fool. Crispin figured he was a genius, but of the unhinged, unstable variety.

Outright panic turned into sweaty palms and shallow breaths when Samantha Boulanger and Genji Lee captured Moreau with ease and brought her to the rebels.

When that goddamned harlot Baudelaire circled him with that dark gaze on him, silently taunted him. When Ivan Petrov and his wife, Katarzyna, cooed taunts in English and Russian, prodding their prisoner and scratching her unmarked skin.

And when he felt a hand slide slowly up his back and curl over his shoulder, and when he felt breath touch his face when Belle murmured, “Kill her, Crispin. Show the Arsenaults just who they’re dealing with.”

He couldn’t bear to look at Moreau. He could hear her stifled cries, her desperate pleas in a choked mixture of English and French. And when she struggled against her captors, Regina Carter had viciously slapped her, hard enough to shut her up and make Manfred Gottschalk grunt something about how pitiful the Arsenaults truly were.

Standing still, unable to move or speak, Crispin had done nothing when the aptly named Jezebel Baudelaire slithered up to him and lightly touched his cheek, grazing his skin with her pointed nails.

“You can’t do it?” she had purred, giving him a particular pouting look that every man—even Heinrich Abendroth—melt and become a doting puppy to her every whim. “Too bad.”

And sweaty palms, shallow breaths, terror at what in the hell he was doing—it all became an indifferent haze when Belle ruthlessly kicked down Evangeline Moreau and crushed her skull with a single well-aimed stomp.

While everyone else hooted and laughed at the grotesque execution, Crispin had been the only one to spot Evangeline’s husband, Claude, near a copse of trees in the near distance.

He had witnessed the entire thing.

Belle spotted him next. Crispin, along with Samantha, Regina, Katarzyna, Ivan, and Iris Santos, waited at their makeshift camp as the others—Belle, Manfred, Genji, and Alex Hanson—stalked up to the panic-stricken Claude in hopes of giving him the same ending as his wife.

But while Manfred managed to cut Moreau’s chest, he escaped.

And now, after waiting until day broke to launch the official attack on Le Vallon, Crispin sat on a hill overlooking the town, watching as the nine under his command shrieked and shouted and destroyed everything they could.

Commandments: Purity teaser

Once she was clothed, with her hair piled in a sloppy ponytail, she opened the closet.

Fane was hunched over on an upturned clothes hamper, as far back as he could be. His face was drawn with exhaustion and he looked as though he was about to be physically ill, but otherwise seemed to be in decent shape.

He grimaced when she opened the door to his sanctuary, and looked up at her with the exact expression of a kicked puppy. “Please close it.”

Caitlyn sidled in next to him and shut the door. She was thankful for the thin gaps between the slats of the door, letting in just enough electric light from her room to keep her from panicking. She navigated through the dangling clothes and wondered why her parents felt the need to give her such a massive closet when they built the house. She had been a child at the time.

“I was thinking earlier,” she said, reaching blindly forward. A hand caught her wrist and he guided her the rest of the way to the back of the closet. “Since it’s daytime, presumably you can’t feed. And you haven’t fed since you left Romania—again, presumably.”

“You presume correctly.”

“And you’re probably weak without blood.”

“Rather. If you are offering me your blood or giving me permission to kill your cat, please do not torture me any longer.”

She patted around until she found his face. “My cat remains alive, thank you. But—I am. It’s one-thirty now. The first sponsor showed up not long ago. Be quick, and we can scout around downstairs before the meeting starts.”

In the dim light, she saw him nod once. “Sit,” he murmured, and pulled her onto his lap. She had a sudden absurd image of sitting on Santa Claus’ knee at Christmastime—then he brushed the hair away from her neck, making gooseflesh ripple all down her body, and her mind went blank.

His lips brushed the pulse fluttering just behind her jaw; his teeth lightly grazed the skin. Her breath jumped from her throat in a gasp, and her body tensed in preparation for the pain that was to come.

Then it came. In a sharp burst of pain that made her eyes shut and her mouth open in a soundless cry, his teeth cut into the flesh and she felt his tongue dance against her pulse as his mouth caught the hot blood. His hand moved to the small of her back, pressing lightly, and she arched against him, gasping.

The pain faded as quickly as it came, and she relaxed, boneless, against his chest. His mouth moved and his tongue took its place, sliding up her neck to catch a drop of blood that dripped down to her collar.

Her fingers found his shirt, and she pulled on his sleeve. Panting, he released her and licked her neck once more, and moved an arm behind her back, holding her upright on his lap.

“Thank you,” he all but growled into her ear, and when she looked up at the predatory glint in his eyes she was overwhelmed with a sudden urge to push him against the wall and break a few of the Commandments.

“Jesus,” she whispered, placing a shaky hand on her neck and sliding off his lap to sit on the floor instead. The floor was safe. She couldn’t get into trouble on the floor.

Unless he joined her on the floor—

“We—we should go,” she stammered, crawling one-handed toward the door. “Things to do. Save the world. All that.”

His chuckle was little more than a low rumble behind her.

Past Lives: Purity teaser

They marched down the dank tunnel in silence. The earth around them seemed to groan and curse in protest of their intrusion; with each step they took, the wooden beams let out unhappy creaks. Or was she imagining it?

Five minutes into the hike, Caitlyn was desperate to end the deafening silence. But the only thing she could think of was the song.

She coughed to break the silence and remarked, “You, um, play the piano very well.”

“I have had a very long time to practice.”

She scoffed and glared ahead. He could just accept the compliment, rather than be an a—

“I would prefer you did not finish that thought, if you please,” he said, sounding irritated. “There is a root in your path.”

Despite the warning, Caitlyn’s toe caught on the root and she stumbled. A hand grabbed her wrist and hauled her upright before she could fall flat on her face.

She straightened out, gasping. “Thanks for that,” she said, breathless. “I’ve, uh, never heard a song like that before. Did you write it yourself?”

“A friend of mine wrote it.”

“Oh. It sounded very sad.”

“It is not meant to be.”

“Oh.” Caitlyn breathed a sigh of relief when they reached the barricade at the end of the tunnel. Whoever had used it last hadn’t fully closed it, and they squeezed through before continuing into the forest.

The night was warm, and crickets sang all around them. Feeling a long-awaited sense of calm wash over her, Caitlyn looked up at the sky, at the moon smiling wanly at them and the smudges of navy and violet across the dark sky. It was peaceful, beautiful.

With this new sense of ease and the joy of the upcoming opportunity to clean herself up, she quickened her pace to keep up with Fane, almost skipping alongside him. “Who wrote it?” she asked.

“Verity Romano.”

As enlightening as it was, these short answers weren’t at all helpful. She would just have to keep pestering him. “Word around the block is that you loved her. Is it true?”

This time, his expression was carefully composed. It was a blank facade, well-practiced. “Would it change your opinion of me if I said yes?”

“No. Well, maybe. Right now it seems like you don’t have a heart. If you loved her, then maybe you have a heart. And maybe if you’d loved and lost her, it’d explain why you’re so…” She trailed off when she saw the dangerous glint in his eyes. “Um, the lovely person you are,” she recovered lamely.

“You do not know when to keep quiet, do you?”

Caitlyn smiled and felt her cheeks head up. “Not really.”

Maybe it was the shadows playing tricks on her, but she thought she saw him smile and murmur, “Neither did she. Come,” he said, louder now. “The stream is not far from here.”

“You loved her, then?” She peered up at him through the darkness, picturing him standing next to Verity Romano. The ghost was a knockout; she must have been beautiful in life. And if he wasn’t so gaunt, he would be a handsome fellow himself; though he couldn’t really help his weight, as he only had blood to keep him going. “I’d understand if you loved her. She seems like a really nice person, and—”

“If I told you I loved her,” he interrupted, voice calm, “would you stop talking about her?”

“No guarantees.”

He pressed his fingertips to his forehead as if easing a headache. “Yes, I loved her. More than life itself.”

“And you’re miserable because she died?”

“Perhaps I have always been this way. Have you ever considered that as a possibility?”

She hopped over a fallen log, using his arm as support. “Maybe, if you’re anything like your father it’s a definite possibility.”

He suddenly stopped walking, and she turned to see him scowling at her as a muscle in his jaw jumped. “Must we continue to discuss my personality faults? This is not therapy.”

“I never said—”

He waved his hand to the trees ahead of her. “The stream is just through there. Be swift.”

Ghosts of the Past: Purity teaser

Muriel was not haunting her favourite spot on the balcony when he strode beneath it. Silence rang from the first room of the fifth corridor, where Harold’s poltergeist resided. Vlad had not been in the ballroom when he passed through to exit the double doors to the tunnel. No doubt Madalina would not be in Bran Castle far above. Mircea was far away and lost, save for a small memorial in the prince’s cold, still heart.

It seemed the ghosts of his past were quiet this evening.

Well, save for one.

“It has been far too long, mio vampiro,” a breathy voice said from behind him as he reached the top of the hill. The chilly evening was enhanced by a cloudy sky, and Bran Castle was filled with darkness. No lights flickered or glowed from inside; the tours had long since been closed for the evening.

He rested his palm on the cold, hard stone wall, pressing on the bumpy scar until it almost physically hurt. “Sixty-one days,” he said, shutting his eyes. Pat of him had hoped she wouldn’t come out of Purgatory this evening, hoped he could go about his business in peace.

“I have not been completely alone.”

He dropped his hand and turned to face her. “Have they been asking more questions?”

“They never stop.” She moved closer to him, and her big eyes were wide as she gazed at him. “The half-breed and her friends frequent this place more than anyone.”

Her voice, her presence—everything about her was disconcertingly cold. He could remember a time when he revelled in her human warmth. Even her innocent eyes, once comforting, were as pale and dead as the rest of her.

He hated ghosts. Congratulations were in order for Mircea—the only ghost of his past who did not insist on existing nearby, or at all. He was perfectly content in Hell. “I will speak with Madam Gwyther. She is a troublemaker.”

She nodded, but it was distant and slow. She was distracted. “I met a human girl recently. She asked questions as well.” She turned away and stared up at the sky, where the moon would be if there was no cloud cover. “She asked how long I was your prisoner.”

“Odd. Did you indulge her?”

“Yes. There were some… problems, as I did not know the proper English, but she understood. She seemed kind.” She lifted a hand as if she could cup the stars in her palm. “The heavens are truly beautiful. I hope to one day be with them.”

He watched her in silence. The longer time he spent in her presence, the heavier a painful block inside him became. This was why he hadn’t visited her in sixty-one days.

“Humans have visited the heavens,” he said after several long beats. Verity glanced back at him, confused, and he continued. “They built a device that could take them to a world beyond this Earth.”

A tiny smile perked her mouth, surprising him. Since when could a devout Catholic appreciate science? “Did they make it?”

Fane shut his eyes and turned his face away from her. His right hand was clenched around the scar, and his nails gouged his palm. “There are footprints on the moon.”

Castle Dracula: Purity teaser

Tears finally broke free and slipped down Caitlyn’s cheeks.

She was being taken to the home of the vampires.

Memories flooded her, nearly crippling her with their sudden strength. They were things she blocked out of her childhood—memories of a time not long after her mother’s death, when she had lived in a haze. She had visited the museum with her father’s old housekeeper and sometime-babysitter; being the precocious brat she was, she broke free and was quickly lost in the crowd. Taken by an old man related to her mother, who she trusted. Put in a car she didn’t know, and taken away.

Her father’s business rival had kept her under lock and key, deranged by his desire to learn the secrets of her father’s success. She was eleven; she knew nothing. To convince her, he had her locked away with a monster with blood red eyes and a name from hell.

It took far too long, but light eventually pricked the distance. It wasn’t harsh electric light, but rather dim and flickering, and warm orange. An old wrought-iron sconce was jammed into the earth wall, and in it danced a small fire, just enough to lit up the door before them. It was plain and black, but there was something about it that was decidedly menacing.

Caitlyn was handed back to Coulter, and his great paws rested on her shoulders, keeping her still.

“Ready, boys?” Makarov grabbed the handles of the door. “Welcome to Castle Dracula.”

There had been hushed babbling before their entrance. At the moment the door opened, it immediately silenced and Caitlyn could feel hundreds of cold, hard eyes locked on her. The room they entered was large and vaguely circular, with walls covered by black drapes and a floor of exquisite marble. Ancient furniture lined the walls, and across from the door were two curved marble staircases that joined a balcony with five hallways. On the floor between the staircases was an old piano with a man at the bench, but no one played. The room was dim, lit only by torches in the same sconces as the one in the tunnel.

Men and women of all races and states of disrepair filled the room. Some were ghastly and pale and looked starved, so their musty clothes hung off them like rags. Others were rosy-cheeked and contented. But all of them had the same bold, brazen eyes; the colours that would be muted and plain in the faces of humans were brilliant and sparkling, full of life and completely animated. Everything, even the people, was immaculately structured, yet it seemed as though all was covered in a fine film of dust.

The silence was palpable. Caitlyn remained stiff, terrified even to breathe in case these predators decided to pounce. Her brain had shut off, and her body tensed, waiting for something to happen so it could decide whether to fight or flee.

Those eyes. Those hard, bright eyes were locked on her. Unmoving. Unblinking.

Caitlyn dropped her gaze and her breath suddenly returned with a painful wheeze. She had accidentally looked into the dark brown eyes of a scowling woman near the front, and her reptilian brain knew that this woman would kill her without a second thought. And she would enjoy it.

Her entourage nudged her forward, and she returned to full consciousness when a dry sort of cackle exploded from above them.

Every hair stood on end, and she glanced back. The sound seemed to come from two grotesque chimera-style gargoyles that flanked the door, but that was impossible.

There seemed to be no hurry, and her captors gave her a moment to stare. As she did, a gravelly voice asked in an unnatural accent, “What are you staring at, human?”

A deeper, slower voice just as rocky as the first drawled, “Why is a living human still in these hallowed halls? Vanessa, you have proven yourself to be intelligent in the past. Why is this girl in the halls of our lord?”

“I don’t know, Abaddon.” The voice was haughty and English, and when Caitlyn looked back around, she saw it came from the woman she had locked eyes with. She was staring now, her eyes narrowed beneath a dark frown. “Why don’t you ask the human’s escorts?”

“Bethany,” the first voice said, singsong. “What are you doing with a human? A living human?”

“Just ignore them,” Makarov muttered, and pushed Caitlyn forward. The crowd parted in silence, cutting a clean path to the staircases.

Forgetting her fear for the moment, Caitlyn asked, breathless, “What was that?”

“Two of the castle’s resident gargoyles,” Jacques-Marie Blanchard replied from behind her left shoulder. “They guard the door.”

“Abaddon does,” Makarov corrected, stealing one more glance behind them. “Asmodeus needs to be removed.”

Caitlyn swallowed a dry lump in her throat. Two of the castle’s gargoyles. That meant there were more of those things.

The crowd in the circular room remained silent as the grave as Caitlyn was escorted up the stairs and onto the balcony. They lingered there in the quiet, waiting.