Camino del Diablo

(The Devil's Road)

 

Diamondback

 

New Edition - 2006

 

Part Three - El Camino a la Libertad

 

"I know fucking well there's a God because I kill
vampires for a living.  Are you listening?  I kill
vampires for money.  A lot of it.  So don't tell me
there ain't no God.  I know fucking well there's a God.
I just don't understand Him."

 

- Jack Crow, John Steakley's Vampire$ -

 

"I know there's a God now.  We still got our souls even being the creatures we are,
and that to me says it all right there."

 

- Josiah Sanchez -

 

Home
Part One
Part Two

 

 

Chapter Eighteen

 

Four Corners Dig Site, Present Day

 

"We shouldn't be out here, Perkins," Boyd bitched, the beam of his flashlight dancing nervously across the ground ahead of his steps, his eyes wide on the search for scorpions or rattlers or anything else nocturnal and hazardous to his health.  "That Larabee guy catches us on his property, we're royally screwed."

 

"He was cool enough," Tommy said as he moved on ahead.  "'sides, I don't expect he's camped out here."  He squinted into the night, past the focused glare of his own flashlight, at a landscape washed in silvery light from a gibbous moon.  Overhead, a billow of white clouds, rimmed with silvery illumination, framed a black sky dotted with billions of stars.  Tommy sighed.  "God, I loved it out here at night."

 

"Not me," Boyd replied.  "Too many bugs and shit."

 

"Then why the hell did you decide to go into a profession that required camping and digging?" Tommy quipped over his shoulder and pushed on ahead.  The circle from his torch beam alighted on the rise past the main dig site and he huffed a little harder, rolling his shoulder to adjust against the weight of the spade he carried.  His sneakers padded the ground, issuing the soft crunch of brambles and sand.

 

Boyd didn't answer his teammate's question, in part because he wasn't sure himself why he ever took an interest in digging up bones.  Nosing around in other cultures, he loved that, but excavating was hard work with too little reward.  That had changed with Four Corners, but in one fell swoop, even that was gone, and Boyd had rather cut losses and move on or he'd be too pissed off to breathe.  He turned and looked down at his car, a new model VW Beetle, parked near the main dig site.  The whole place was now silent and dead.  A few nights ago, there would have been a campsite near by, with a few fires, a lot of late night chatting about academia and telling ghost stories.  He did love that, even if he hated watching his ass for biting critters in the dark.  Now there was nothing there but some crates of larger equipment that still needed to be picked up, but Professor Jameson had already okayed it with that lawyer guy that the boxes could stay for a couple days.  The team also had a grueling trip back in the coming day to cover up the mass grave and erase as much evidence as possible that they had even been here.

 

It just wasn't fair.

 

"Why am I doing this?" Boyd asked and paused to drop his own spade so that the edge cleaved into the topsoil and he could prop on the handle.  Looking ahead, he watched Perkins' figure, highlighted by the blueness of the moonlight on his white tee shirt, persist on up the rise to stand over the seven cairns.  "Why," Boyd more accurately asked himself, "am I doing this with you?"  Grumbling, he pulled up the spade, slung it back over his shoulder and trudged on.  "Why are we here, Perkins?  I mean really, what are you trying to prove?"

 

"I want to know what's in these graves," Tommy replied, staring down at the cairn where he'd unearthed the old hat.  "If there are seven bodies here, they could be the seven regulators of legend."

 

"Stop it, Perkins.  Just fucking stop it right now."

 

"Shut up, Boyd.  You didn't have to come."

 

"Of course I had to come, it's my car that got us here."

 

"Then shut your yap and go wait over there."  Tommy positioned the spade above the ground, got some shoulder strength behind it, and then shoved the blade edge down.  He brought up a foot on the upper side edge and bore down, pushing the blade past the top layer of clay and dried grass.  There was a crunch as he levered down the handle and chunked up a load of dribbling dirt and stringy roots.  He heaved an exasperated breath when he saw that Boyd was still hanging about.  "So. . . you gonna help or what?"

 

Boyd raked fingers still creased with the afternoon's grime through his dark hair and wandered over, slinging the spade down to the ground while he aimed the flashlight at the patch Perkins had dug up.  "Really, man, what's up with this?  I can't believe you talked me into coming out here." 

 

"You'll laugh."  Tommy dumped the dirt to the side and slid the spade back into the ground, breaking up another chunk.

 

Boyd stared expectantly at him and blinked.

 

"All right!" Tommy finally exclaimed under the other young man's heavy stare.  "I'm trying to prove the Magnificent Seven really did exist, okay, sue me."

 

Boyd's brows shot up and he felt a deep laugh begin in his belly.  His lips flattened out as he sealed up his mouth, trying not to burst into full gales of delirium right there.  "Um. . . excuse me. . . come again on that?  I didn't hear you the first time."

 

"Look, my daddy got me into Westerns, right?"  Tommy explained.  "I loved all of them, Gene Autry, John Wayne, didn't matter if they were old grainy black and whites or spaghetti flicks.  Then one day he gives me this book on the Old West, and I start reading about this town."  He gave a gesture down slope to the boxy shadowed form of Four Corners.  "I fell in love with it.  I mean, this place has more legend around it than Dodge City, and we don’t even know why.  Every one just disappeared, including the seven men who protected it.  Seven of them, man."  He gestured at the cairns then scratched his head.  "I haven't quite figured out where Chris Larabee fits in, but I'm workin' on it.  I mean, if that guy we met today is the great grandson, then something doesn’t quite jive here."  He shrugged and repeated, "But I'm workin' on it."

 

Boyd reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a half eaten Snickers bar, peeled back the slack wrapper, and took a bite, listening with patience and humor.  At least he could give a college buddy the benefit of the doubt.  Tommy Perkins' enthusiasm for this sort of thing had helped him get through many a night of hard study to pass exams the next day.  "Okay, so they were the Magnificent Seven?" he asked with a shrug.  "The ones the movie's about?"

 

"Yep, that's part of my theory."  Tommy looked over the moonlit ground, finding a better place to set his flashlight.  "I think it's highly possible that a real legend managed to embed itself in our culture and find its way into fiction, where it has been buried for too long."

 

"The Magnificent Seven was based on The Seven Samurai, genius.  It was a Japanese film to begin with."  Boyd nonchalantly took a rich, chewy bite of peanuts and caramel and worked it around in his jaw, smacking loudly on purpose.

 

"Yeah, well. . ."   Tommy started to get back to work digging.  "I got that covered too, considering it's highly likely Kurosawa read the Western legend first before he decided to come up with his own version."

 

"Whatever."  Boyd took another bite before he was through chewing up the first, the wrapper crackling in his hand.  "Perkins?"

 

"Yeah?"

 

"You're fulla crap."

 

Tommy glared, but traces of humor danced through his eyes.  He was about to lever up the end of the spade again when something growled from somewhere out in the high grasses that still surrounded the cairns to the north.  A low, menacing snarl that sounded like it had sharp teeth to back it up.  He couldn’t tell how close it was, only that it made his skin crawl instantly.  "What was that?" he hissed as his heart jumped into his throat.

 

Boyd swallowed the clot of candy bar in his mouth and stiffened, clutching the Snickers.  He raised the flashlight and shone the beam across the grass, seeing nothing but a sea of dried strands and the occasional grasshopper settled for the night.  "Sounded like a cougar," he said after a moment.

 

"Ain't no cougars around here no more," Tommy whispered.  "I don't think. . ."

 

"I told you there was nothing in those graves, boy," a rasp of a voice replied from behind them.

 

Both let out a gasp, and Tommy spun around so fast that his foot slipped off the edge of the rise and he tumbled down on his ass.  Pain cracked up through his tailbone, and he gritted his teeth.

 

Boyd dropped his flashlight.  It clattered down the hill and rolled into a crack where the beam died.  He stepped back, catching his breath as his vision made out one. . . two. . . three. . . figures defined by the moonlight on their shoulders. . . and then those numbers continued to grow.  He could see others coming in, two of them just within his peripheral vision.  Their steps were virtually silent.

 

Tommy stared up at a man's figure silhouetted against the sky, lean and tall, and clad in what appeared to be a dark long coat.  He scrambled for his own flashlight lying by the edge of the spade and shined it up into a vaguely familiar face.  "Mr. Larabee?" he gasped in astonishment.

 

In a second, all he glimpsed were angry eyes so piercingly green as to seem unnatural.  The flashlight's beam appeared to reflect out of the back of those eyes, igniting them from within with a burning red.  Then the figure squinted away from the glare and a hand, fast as lightning, swatted the light out of Tommy's grasp.  Tommy suddenly wasn't so sure this was the same man he had met this past afternoon.  He remained leaning back on his elbows, gaping up at the figure, before he registered the others.  His vision darted from one to the other, first seeing a taller man moving in behind the one whom he had thought was Chris Larabee.  Then another, who looked like the lawyer, who had given Jameson the news on the property, came into view to Tommy's right.

 

Boyd, still on his feet, now counted the full, and exact number of them.

 

Seven.

 

He noticed a tall black man, clad in vest and jeans, while next to that one stood a broader shouldered man whose long gray hair shone white in the night.  The gray haired one wore a poncho, which in this light appeared to be striped with only drab gray hues, and his heavy brow shadowed his eyes.  But then. . . horror began to creep in over Boyd, forcing him to back up a step. . . from within those shadows, two glowing dots of red scowled evenly at him.  Boyd attempted to dismiss this as a trick of the moonlight, though he remained thoroughly chilled inside.  He looked down slope at the taller figure standing off to Larabee's right, this one lanky with a head full of dark hair, wearing a leather biker jacket and chaps.  Adjacent to that one stood a shorter figure, with lighter hair that cascaded past his shoulders, wearing a long tan duster, jeans and chaps.

 

Then there was the lawyer.  He was easy enough to recognize, for he was still in his blazer and bolo tie, neat hair combed back.  Beyond him stood a smaller figure who was far enough away that Boyd couldn't make out more detail, only that he was in black.

 

The next thing to jump out at both young men, was that the seven mystery men were completely armed.  They sported heavily weighted gun belts packed with ready to load clips of ammunition.

 

"What the hell is this?" Boyd said, trying to get his bearing.  "Bikers from hell?"

 

"Shut up!" Larabee snapped at him.

 

Although it was only a low, gruff, hiss of an order, Boyd felt like it rammed him in the chest.  He lapsed into silence and swallowed hard, his heart slamming against his rib cage.

 

Tommy tried to scoot back out from under the figure towering over him, as Larabee appeared to ignore him and looked out into the night beyond the low plateau of grasses and cocked an ear.  They were all quiet, alert, scanning the entire area for something unseen.  The two intruders didn't seem to be of concern at all.

 

After a long, unnerving silence, the man in black held out one hand and gave a gesture.  "Buck, Vin," he said to the two who backed him up on his right and left.  Then a nod to the gray-haired one who was nearest to Boyd.  "Josiah. . .  Watch them."

 

The tall, lanky man came forward with surprising grace, reached down, gripped Tommy's shoulder, and hauled him to his feet with little effort.  Tommy stared, trying not to breathe too heavily or leave his jaw hanging loose.

 

"What's. . ." the young man stammered.  "What's going on?"

 

The one called Buck cocked his head and, dim and cool though the light was, Tommy could see a warm smile lace his eyes.  "Hopefully nothin'," he drawled in a whisper.  "Now get on down here, kid, in case I'm wrong."  He pulled a half-tripping Tommy Perkins down the slope.

 

Boyd found his arm clenched up in the massive hand of the gray haired man, whom he figured now for Josiah.  He was ushered in the same direction as his teammate.  "W-w-what's. . ." he started to ask the same question.  It shifted to, "Who-who-who. . . are you?"

 

"Angels with dirty faces," Josiah replied and hustled him up next to Tommy where the two were virtually surrounded.  "Wait there, and get low."

 

The long-haired one addressed as Vin had not said a word.  He only moved in near the two confused hostages but faced out, continuing to probe the night, as did Larabee.  As they all did.  All creating a circle, tense as coiled vipers, listening and waiting.

 

Boyd lost his balance on the uneven ground, spun, and found himself looking into the face of the smaller man whom he hadn't completely made out before.

 

Dark doe-like eyes stared back at him, and yet there was something ancient in that gaze that alarmed Boyd into complete stillness.  This other young man's longish hair was so black that it cast a blue gleam against the moon's glow.

 

"Hey, can I have that?" the young man asked.

 

Boyd looked down to see that he was still clutching the rest of the Snickers bar.  A pale, cool hand removed it from his grasp, the wrapper crackling softly as it was tucked inside the other's leather jacket for later.

 

"Thanks."

 

Boyd nodded vacantly.  He wanted to burst out in frustration for an explanation of who these guys were, but neither his limbs nor his mouth would obey.

 

Tommy observed, nerves on edge.  He closed his eyes once, held them tightly shut, lids creased, and then opened wide, just to make sure he wasn't dreaming.  This was all so damned surreal.  Seven men around him and Boyd. . . seven men armed to the teeth and. . .

 

They were drawing their guns.

 

The soft slide of metal against leather traveled from figure to figure until each held a piece in his hand.

 

Shit!

 

He turned to look at Boyd and shook his head, eyes tearing up with fear at what they had gotten themselves into.  At what he had gotten them into.  "Man, Johnny. . . I'm so. . . sorry. . ." he uttered.

 

"Shhhhhhhh," the young man in black hushed gently, a black gloved finger raised to his lips while the other hand held up what appeared to be a Berretta, except that it was equipped with an apparatus on the barrel that didn’t exactly appear to be a silencer.  Whatever it was, the gun had been customized, and neither Tommy nor Boyd wanted to know for what.  "You heard the man," he said, indicating Josiah, "get low."  The same gloved hand made a waving motion toward the ground, and then he returned his attention to the watch.

 

"Fuck," Boyd exclaimed under his breath before he lost his voice again completely.  His lips still mouthed the curse even as he closed his eyes and waited for his life to end.  Tommy's hands clutched his arms and pulled him down to the ground slowly, putting both of them on their knees.

 

There was more silence.  Painful, deafening. . . silence. . .

 

"What do you think they're here for?" Tommy whispered more to himself than his companion.

 

"I dunno," Boyd said, eyes still closed tightly, and began to pray.  "God, please get me out of this and I promise I won't follow this idiot anywhere ever again."

 

"Boyd, chill out," Tommy hissed, attention on the ring of seven men.  His eyes watered, straining to make out other details.  The moon gave their skin a luminous, almost ghostly glow, with the exception of the black man, and even he had a more gray pallor in such light.  It was roughly two in the morning, so Tommy had never for one moment expected to find Chris Larabee out here, along with six other men and. . .  "Seven," Tommy mouthed.  It couldn't be, he thought, his mind stumbling on the fact that while they were in modern dress, there was something timeless about them. . . the way they stood, the way they drew their guns. . . and the ghost town looming not far away behind them.  Tommy gulped down a breath, started to let it out in a blast that was sure to be loud, and then nearly jumped clean out of his skin when a shriek issued out of the night.

 

The sound came from out of the grasses, building a Doppler effect as something sprang out along with it, straight for the leader.  The Seven spun toward the attack, but Chris Larabee had already opened fire.  The humanoid shadow reaching toward him stopped in its advance, spun in mid air, and came down on the ground with a hollow thud.

 

More figures followed, and it became clear that the growl the two young men had heard before had come from one of these things.

 

"OhmyGod-OhmyGod-OhmyGod. . ." Boyd began to chant, eyes like saucers as he cringed toward Tommy.  There were too many to count, and as rapid gunfire began to crack the air with little pause, they put their backs to each other, butts on the ground, covering their faces when one of their mysterious guardians stumbled in a little too close.

 

The rotten egg smell of spent gunpowder wafted down over the huddled figures, smarting in their eyes, causing them to cough.  The air and ground around them became a confusing circus of roaring and screeching , the overlapping thunder of gunfire, and occasional shouting.

 

"Come on," Tommy uttered to Boyd, gesturing toward a possible opening in the circle.  "That way. . ."  He tugged on Boyd's elbow and got up on his wobbly knees.

 

Boyd wanted to keep his head down and to hell with Tommy Perkins.  "No!" he barked back.  "Sonofabitch, you got us into this!"  He jerked hard on Tommy's shirt-sleeve, pulling his companion down to the ground only to have him bounce back up onto his knees.

 

"Fine, you stay and get your ass shot up," Tommy said and, remaining low, turned around, about to rise just enough to crawl all the way down the slope to the even ground near the dig site, when he bumped right into a pair of knees clad in black leather chaps.

 

Wide, blue eyes rolled upward, from the knees, to the waistline and the bulk of the ammunition belt slung low down across one hip, all the way up the tall and towering figure of the one called Buck.  Tommy managed to get himself up into a kneel, head craned steeply back as he looked full into the face above his.

 

The eyes that stared back at him were aglow from within, lit by some supernatural fire.  The tall man smiled then, and Tommy could swear that he saw long, pointed canines as the lips moved.  It wasn't that it was horrific to look into those eyes or even at those teeth, which gleamed back at Tommy.

 

It was that all of these things told Tommy that he was dreaming, and eventually he'd wake up, sweaty in his bed, gasping, his heart in his throat.  He'd be safe then.

 

"Now, where do you think yer goin'?" Buck asked, his gun held upward, barrel turned carefully away from the youth before him.

 

Tommy fell over in a dead faint.

 

-7-7-7-

 

Buck tried not to laugh as he watched the kid's eyes stare back at him for a matter of seconds before they rolled up in the head and closed.  The body fell over limp, next to his buddy, who was huddled, head down and grasped between his hands.  The other youth tried to steal glimpses of what was going on around him but for the most part kept his nose near the dirt.  Buck's partial smile melted.  He really derived no pleasure in seeing two scared kids.  It lightened the load to tease them a little, seeing as how they were still alive and in tact, and that the Seven had arrived just in time.

 

But then. . . no. . . they had not arrived in time.  To have arrived in time would have meant getting here soon enough that the human youths were completely spared witnessing this battle.

 

Buck took a glance over his shoulder at J.D., who had wandered out further below the rise, spotting goons attempting to sneak up from behind.  The kid shot with fervor as he had in the old days, a gun in each hand, firing right handed, then looking left, sighting down his extended arm, and firing again.  Over time he had developed a greater smoothness of motion that Buck admired.  Buck watched one of the hapless creatures take a shot to the head, not enough to stop it, since the round had to enter the heart.  J.D.'s second round took care of that.  The goon went over wailing its lament.  It thrashed in the dust before it lay still, pitiful and bedraggled.

 

Further upslope, now on the other side of the cairns Chris advanced into the tall grass, firing systematically, the tails of his long coat billowing behind him, snagging on an occasional thorn branch then tearing free.  Josiah and Nathan followed, while Vin advanced northward, and Ezra south.

 

Goons of every shape and size, men, women, children, came charging with no means to truly fight other than their claws and teeth.  Buck scanned across them then back toward the town, looking for their mistress.  Surely she was here.  Upon meeting Chris and Ezra back at the ranch, he had been livid to hear the suspicion that Ella was in the area, especially around the town.  He had not so much as scented her during his visit, but then the unplanned appearance of his personal ghost had been a distraction.

 

What's your game? Buck asked the air.  This made no sense, attacking the group with a small army of slave class who had no chance against seven masters.  Makes no sense at all.

 

"Buuuuuuck!" J.D.'s voice suddenly called as its owner came racing back toward the slope.  Buck spun to look down at the kid's dark figure running straight for him, while turning to shoot behind him as he came.

 

Three goons, once fully grown and healthy young men, came charging at J.D. with coordinated speed.  Such a display in goon behavior was rare.  It meant Ella was here somewhere, controlling them, sending them psychic messages on how and when to act.

 

Buck took a step down slope, aimed, fired, and took out one of them.

 

J.D. had to halt in his retreat to turn and get sufficient aim on his closest attacker.  The kid went over backward as the goon lunged.  He landed against the slope, curled his body and brought the flats of his feet up to stop the goon's decent.  It landed against his soles, claws lashing toward his face, before he raised both guns and fired round after round directly into its head.  Black blood sprayed across J.D.'s face as he snarled and bared his own sharp teeth.  He kicked out with both feet and launched the goon out away from him, at the same time he bounded back up into a crouch, one arm extended, patiently tracking with the body as it landed and rolled, before he fired, hitting it squarely in the chest as required.

 

In the same instant, Buck turned from the goon he had taken out and fired a series of shots at the third.

 

The whole time, the two kids from the anthropology team remained on the ground.  One passed out, the other flinching every time a shot went off or a body collapsed.  Buck couldn't even guess what a mad house this must be for them.  The conscious one gained the courage enough to look up at him with reddened, tearing eyes, lower lip trembling.

 

Yeah, kid, I know, it's scary as hell.

 

The din of battle began to ebb, the snarling, wildcat cries of the creatures fading out, while the sound of gunfire scattered over the area grew sparse.  A few final shots echoed from the north where Vin had gone.  Then one more sounded from the south, where Ezra stood out on his own, gun arm extended and angled downward as he made sure the goon didn't get back up out of the grass.  Buck fired a few more into the closest bodies to make sure their hearts were pierced, then gradually full silence descended.

 

Soon came the singing of metal as Vin drew his machete and began to handle the rest. The others who carried blades drew them as well, Josiah his wakasashi, Nathan a kopesh-type blade he had designed himself.

 

Buck could see them out in the grass, leaning over to hack with their blades.  Ezra roamed the area he'd taken, double-checking for more enemy movement, while Chris turned and plowed back toward the cairns.  J.D. wiped blood from his cheek and gave an instinctive snarl down at the goon that had been on top of him.  Buck looked over their contorted faces, their open mouths crowded with fangs, and swallowed an angry lump as he waited for Chris to approach.

 

"Any sign of her?" Chris asked as he strolled down the slop, holstering his guns and reattaching a few of his spent clips to his belt to be refilled later.  His coat trailed behind him, presenting the illusion of dark wings folded at his back.

 

"Nope," Buck said.

 

J.D. scanned across the three who had targeted him.  One body closer to him, another over there, sprawled, enough bullets in its chest to open up a gaping cavity.  "No sign of her," he called, "'cept for these three."

 

"Yep," Buck said to that and explained to Chris.  "They came after J.D. fast and hard, coordinated.  Might have actually gotten at him."

 

Chris' liquid-green eyes only alighted on one body for a moment, as he stood quiet, shoulders relaxing slowly, before he turned his full attention on the two youths on the ground.  "What happened to that one?" he asked, gesturing at the blond, who lay on his side, head lolling awkwardly on his neck.

 

"Fainted," Buck said and chuckled dryly.  "Sometimes it is a survival instinct."

 

"Yeah, like a possum playin' dead on the road," J.D. retorted.  "I think he hit his head, he's been out a good while."

 

Buck gave him a glower and looked at the other kid, who was slowly beginning to emerge from his huddle.  He slid his gun into its holster and cocked his head as he looked down and relaxed his weight on one hip.  "You all right?" he asked more gently.

 

Brown eyes looked up at him from under dark brows, and slowly the youth dropped his hands away from the sides of his head.  His mouth moved, trying to form a full word, but all that came out was a distressed, "Uh huh."

 

"What're we gonna do with you?" Buck whispered, more to himself than anyone else.

 

"You take care of it," Chris commanded.

 

Buck looked up at his friend and lover with a pleading glaze in his eyes.  A 'God, don't make me do this' look that literally sent ice shards into Chris' being, but it wasn't enough to make him change his mind.  The leader of the Seven turned away casually and walked back out into the grasses to investigate further.

 

With a sigh, Buck reached out a hand.  "Here, let me help you up."  He gave a casual nod to the other boy.  "Your friend there, I'm sure he'll be okay, but we gotta getcha both out of here.  Understand?"

 

The kid nodded, and the confusion and fear in his eyes began to melt away.  Buck could see the questions beginning to pile up in that young mind.  As soon as the kid took his hand, he acted. . . quickly, before any of those questions could be organized and vocalized.   With sudden force, Buck pulled the kid up off the ground into an unsteady stance and grabbed both shoulders, clamped down and held him, looking directly into his eyes.  It took a lot of effort to wade past the other's free will, to break in there without a blood link to guide him, but Buck gritted his teeth and persisted.  That, and the fact Buck hated doing it.  It was worse than rape, he thought, this violation of a young mind, and he and Chris both had the experience to support that analogy.

 

The boy was initially captured by fascination with the two embers that peered from within Buck's pupils. He gaped, eyes widening while his brows furrowed, and Buck could easily see that the kid's rational mind was trying to figure this out.  But such fascination left him vulnerable, and he opened up, accepting. . .

 

"What's your name?" Buck asked in an alluring croon.

 

"B-B-Boyd," the boy rasped.  "John Boyd."

 

"Well, John Boyd, this is what happened," Buck replied, never breaking eye contact.  "You and your friend came out here to dig up graves illegally.  You encountered a couple of biker gangs having a brawl, but you don’t know if anyone got hurt.  You and your friend got to your car and drove off, and that's all you remember.  You will not try to come back here again."

 

Brown eyes plastered to glowing blue ones, Boyd nodded, mouth bobbing open as some part of him in there still wanted to ask questions.

 

"Dream," Buck said, projecting images of a highway in the headlights, of the upper curve of a steering wheel turning in anxious hands.  Of racing away from something frightening, but which, to John Boyd, now had a completely human and normal explanation.  Buck reached up, traced fingertips down over the youth's eyelids, and sent him into a deep sleep.  The second he let go of Boyd's mind, Buck wavered, tried not to drop the kid completely as he eased him to the ground and fought a wave of dizziness.  He felt absolutely vile. . . disgusting.  Couldn't clean himself out enough if he drank bleach.  As if the others didn't know it enough already from previous experiences, he vocalized his feelings.  "God, I hate that."

 

"I know," J.D. said softly from where he stood behind the taller man, watching the whole thing.  "But you're the charming one, Buck."  His eyes lit up, warm, comforting.  It was all the kid could really offer at the moment, and Buck appreciated every bit of it.

 

"Feels more like scarin' it into 'em than mesmerism."  Buck clenched both hands to his temples, pressed in and massaged in slow circles.  "Okay," he said after a moment.  "Guess it's up to you and me to get these two out of here."  He knelt and patted around John Boyd's jeans pockets until he heard something clink.  Reaching in awkwardly, he turned the pocket inside out and came up with a set of car keys, which he dangled in the air.  "You drive 'em, I'll follow?"

 

J.D. nodded and gave an understanding smile.  "You mean you don't want to ride my rice rocket back?" he asked to lighten things up.

 

Buck laughed hollowly and tossed the keys to his companion.  "Kid, I got my own rocket," he teased back.

 

They called over for some help from Vin before they began to get the two humans rounded up and down to their car.  As for the rest of the clean up. . . well, Buck figured, the others had always been better at that.

 

-7-7-7-

 

Shadows in black BDUs and combat boots, Shaw and Kilroy lay stretched out and prone, bellies uncomfortably flattened to the uneven, rocky, ground.  Their heads were barely raised so that they could peer over the ridge and into the valley below and the small plateau marked with seven cairns above the dig site.  Night scopes cupped over their eyes, they observed and reported the scene to Gentry and Reeves, who were planted just below them, listening to the distant gunfire.

 

Shaw switched out his infrared scope for a heavy set of thermal imaging binoculars.  It was interesting to see the change in view, as the thermals revealed all active bodies down in the valley almost matched the temperature of the surrounding air.  They were hard to see and blended in with the landscape, which—to the thermal eye—appeared in shades of cool blue, and only movement gave the fighting figures away.  But then there were the two human anthropology students, whose bodies glowed in bands of hot orange, red, and yellow.  It was a good sign. . . the kids were alive, even if they weren't moving, but what was going on down there made no sense at all.

 

"Why the hell are they killing their own kind?" Shaw asked in a hush-hush tone.  He lowered the thermal binoculars and looked down over his shoulder at Gentry, giving a low signal for the other man to crawl up to the ridge and join him and Kilroy.

 

Elbows and belly scuffling over the ground, Gentry eased his way up, took the binoculars from Shaw, and squinted through them.  "So what do we have, exactly?"

 

Kilroy shook his head in disbelief.  "Seven masters killing off some thirty goons."

 

"Holy fuckin' shit, you're kidding me."  Gentry urgently went for the infrared scope lying beside Shaw and took a clearer look.  He whistled softly to himself at the activity and suggested with a mixed tone of confusion and sarcasm, "Maybe it's vampire survival of the fittest?"

 

"You're forgetting something," Shaw said dryly, looking at them both, his almond shaped green eyes clear in the moonlight.  "They're using bullets."

 

Gentry lowered the scope, frowning, while Kilroy continued his watch.

 

"What are you wankers gabbin' about?" Reeves hissed from his lower point.

 

Shaw eased himself down from the ridge and rolled onto his side, propped on one elbow, and looked thoughtfully at his teammate.  "The Italian knew those kids were going in there," he stated with agitation.  "He knew and didn't do a damned thing to stop them."

 

"You're still bothered by that human bait thing, Shaw?" Gentry grumped.  "Fucking get over it."

 

"Fuck you," Shaw hissed.  "I didn't join this mob to sacrifice lives.  We're trying to stop a plague here, not spread it around."

 

"We play human bait all the time," Kilroy said, half serious, half teasing, and completely as unnerved by the concept as Shaw was.

 

"You know what I mean," Shaw argued.  "And this group that supposedly contacted us, the Clarion Group?"  He leaned down further, voice rising to a fully suspicious sharpness.  "Why the hell aren't they here?  We should be joining forces."

 

"Doesn’t look like we need them, considering," Gentry remarked, throwing another look down into the valley.

 

Shaw nodded.  "Maybe they're just masters cleaning up their mess," he thought aloud then added again, "but they're using bullets, for Christ sakes."

 

"Bullets don't do a damned sight of good," Kilroy agreed.  He patted the little gauntlet of mini crossbow bolts strapped to his arm.

 

An uncomfortable silence ensnared the hunter unit and they looked over at the grouping of vehicles at the bottom of the ridge, far enough off the main road not to be seen and yet still within partial view of Four Corners.  On the other side of the ridge, the sound of gunfire began to die down.  Shaw and Kilroy went back to the watch, while Gentry slithered back down the rise and joined Reeves to go make a minor report to The Italian and the rest of the unit.

 

They were all working out of the open back of the Humvee, using tiny flashlights to go over maps of the area, including the ghost town and every minor road in and out.  The priest, Ives, was tucked inside the Humvee's rear passenger space and occupied for the most part with older documents concerning theories on the origins of vampires.

 

Reeves gave  the general report, particularly noting the confusion over seven master vampires shooting down a small hoard of goons.  He half sat against the corner of rear bumper and craned his head up to see over The Italian's arm as the quiet man studied an old, yellowed map that Reeves didn't remember seeing before.  "Hey, Boss, where'd you get that?"

 

The leader didn't so much as raise his dark, hooded eyes from the aged parchment.  In this lighting, his olive skin had paled out, while the starkness of black eyes and hair rendered him as deadly in appearance as the creatures he hunted.  "An old associate," he said, his deep, rolling accent expressing patience.  Then it seemed, suddenly, that he looked up, gazing briefly past the rear window of the Humvee's open right door at an almost perfect shot of the south end of Four Corners.  Even from here, the blocky shapes of the buildings and their surviving false fronts were clear, defined by an ever-lightening sky as the moon sank lower.

 

Reeves had to wonder how The Italian's concentration had broken so easily.  Perhaps he had heard something out there, and that put Reeves on edge.  "What is it?"

 

"Niènte."  The murky eyes rolled back down to full attention on the map.  One fingertip gently circled a northern section of the map as if he were actually enjoying the texture of the paper.  "There's what we're looking for, gentlemen," he said with a pleased purr.

 

Standing off from The Italian's right shoulder, Dobson took glimpses at the map, and then threw a look across at Reeves.  "Sounds like the shooting's over," he stated.  Then he turned at the sound of feet crunching softly closer.

 

Kilroy and Shaw had gathered all of the scopes and any other gear they'd had up on the ridge and brought it with them.

 

"They're done down there," Kilroy announced.  "Those seven. . . some of them loaded those kids up in the car.  One drove out, another went over the far ridge; might have another vehicle parked back there somewhere; would be why we didn't hear them actually come in."

 

Then as if to verify the report, the hush of tires on the main highway issued from the distance, coming around the ridge and then zooming past the hunters' location.  There were no headlights on, but the low moon cast a quick glint of a reflection off the silvery hood of the VW bug.

 

The Italian immediately began to roll up the old map, his hands almost working on their own.  "You two," he indicated Shaw and Kilroy.  "You follow that car, keep a safe distance.  See where they go.  It's almost day-break."

 

"But, Sir, those kids," Shaw started.  "If they've been bitten—“

 

"Then you know what to do," The Italian replied, completely unconcerned.  He held up the roll in his hand.  "We've got a location on a possible nest.  It's the only place they can go if not to ground."

 

"What about the town?" Dobson asked.  "There has to be some old root cellars down there, places like that."

 

"It's sacred ground to them," The Italian replied knowingly.  "They won't stay there."

 

"How do you know that?" Shaw asked.

 

The question didn't even merit a glare, nor even an impatient sigh, from the leader.  "Take care of the kids," The Italian reiterated more strongly.  Then he turned away, snatching the infrared scope out of Kilroy's hand as he went, and strolled with utter confidence up toward the ridge.

 

"The hell is he doing?" Kilroy hissed.

 

In a moment, the black-clad figure stood practically at the top of the ridge.  It didn't mean he was in complete and plain sight to the remaining five masters who were working below.  But it was still a ballsy risk the rest of the unit frowned upon, even if none of them lifted a finger of warning.  The Italian raised the scope to his eye and peered down into the shallow valley.

 

"I really don't like that man," Shaw murmured to himself, glaring at the strong-shouldered figure poised as if he gave a shit about nothing.

 

And apparently, he didn't.

 

Kilroy swallowed and glanced back toward the road where the VW had driven past.  Suddenly he reached out and gripped Shaw's elbow and squeezed.  "Listen," he hissed.

 

They all cocked their heads and quieted.  Inside the Humvee, Ives lifted his head in curiosity, looking out at the other five members of the unit, and frowned as he strained to hear it too.

 

It was like wind at first, the sound, then it grew into more of a grating roar, clearly the sound of some large two-wheeled vehicle.  It cleared the highway around the ridge and zoomed closer, growing louder, and like the car that had gone before, there were no headlights blazing through the night.

 

Still holding his own infrared scope, Shaw hurriedly raised it and looked out in time to see the vague shape of a man sitting up in the saddle of a motorcycle.  "That's right, you don't need headlights, do you," Shaw murmured casually.  He recognized the master vampire as the tall one who had lingered near the two humans, almost as if watching over them, during the goon foray.  He turned with the scope, tracking the vehicle's speeding path and happened to note a soft breeze as it caressed his sandy hair.  "Glad we're down wind," he stated.

 

More than a few brows went up at that.

 

 

Chapter Nineteen

 

Dawn light found Shaw, Kilroy, and Reeves inspecting the silver VW out on the side of the road half way to Silver City.  They weren't sure at which point it had been pulled over, only that the two kids were in it.  Alive, out cold, and both situated in the front seats.  No way they could have driven all the way out here in their condition.  Back on the ridge looking into the Four Corners valley, the hunters had seen through their scopes that the youngest looking of the seven masters had gotten into the driver's side and taken the car out of the vicinity.  The master who followed on a motorcycle must have picked him up later, after they left the car.  By now those two were well hidden away somewhere.

 

Shaw wandered along the quiet roadside scanning the pavement for any possible clues of what direction they'd taken: tread marks, an oil drip, anything. . .  He turned to face east where the sun had risen from murky orange, up into full white brilliance against a soft blue sky mildly patched with hazy clouds.  The disk appeared to be directly over a series of hazy hills, and here and there the silhouettes of saguaro cacti rose from the desert floor like three-fingered hands reaching for Heaven.  The whole was peaceful, a rare comfort to be enjoyed.

 

Several yards back down the road, Kilroy and Reeves had the two young men up and walking about, both groggy, their shirts removed. Shaw shook his head and gave a grunt of irritation as he watched Reeves throw a dirty white tee at the blond kid.

 

"Put it back on," the hunter said in resignation, satisfied that there were obviously no bite marks or scratches.  Not even a skinned elbow.  At most, the blond had a goose egg behind one ear that must hurt like a bitch and needed to be iced, but otherwise. . .

 

The blond's soft brows knitted and he wiped at his eyes.  "I'm tellin' you, I don't remember any more than that," he mumbled, finishing with his vague recount of what had happened.

 

"They were just bikers," the other kid said and scratched at his cap of dark hair.  "I think anyway. . . a lot of black leather. . ."

 

Kilroy reached up and gave him a careful examination around the neck.  "You're sure?" he asked.  "They didn't do anything, um. . . profane?"

 

Shaw tried not to cringe at Kilroy's choice of words.

 

"Like what?" the blond asked as he pulled his shirt back down over his head.

 

"Like bite you, scratch you?"

 

"Looked like they were too busy fighting each other," the dark haired one replied and sniffled back the morning congestion resulting from what had obviously been a long night for him.  He didn't seem to have even registered Kilroy's complete question.  "Seriously though, I was scared shitless."  He held up one hand and gazed at it, observing how it shook.  "Damn," he whispered and allowed Kilroy to tilt his head back in the other direction.  "What is it you said we coulda been exposed to?"

 

"You don't wanna know," the hunter replied.  "Besides, looks like you're okay."  He gave the kid a casual pat on the shoulder and handed his shirt back.

 

Shaw had been a vampire hunter for three years now, which was a decent running time, really, but never had he encountered anything like this. . . victims who had gotten out alive, intact, still human.  Something here was too fucked up for words.  Generally, these two young men should not be standing here talking.  They should be dead. . . throats ripped out, blood drained.  Taking a deep breath, he pulled the R-T off his utility belt and zoned out the loose discussion still going on.  The little speaker spit static as he hit the send button with his thumb and lifted the unit to his mouth.

 

"Lone Wolf to Alpha, you read me?"

 

There was a pause before The Italian's voice crackled back.  "Go ahead."

 

"We've found the two kids, checked them over.  No scratches or bites."

 

The silence that followed did not bode well.  Shaw frowned, eyes roaming back toward the climbing sun.  A locust burst into full symphonic buzzing somewhere out in the sands and grasses, forcing Shaw to stick a finger in one ear and press the speaker closer to the other.

 

"Alpha?"

 

"Take care of it."

 

What did that mean?  "Sir, there's nothing more we need to do here," he said, unnerved.  "They're not infected."

 

"You can't be sure."

 

Shaw tried not to clench his teeth as he replied, "Yes, Sir."

 

"When you're finished, report to the rendezvous point.  We have a bead on the nest."

 

"Really?" Shaw asked, arching one brow.  "Any sign of that other motorcycle?"

 

"Si, and four others."

 

The R-T spit static again, and Shaw pulled it back a little, wincing.  "All right, we'll be there in," he checked his watch, "thirty."

 

"Right.  Out."

 

Slowly the sound of youthful chatter began to come back, melting into Shaw's ears as he pulled his hands away and focused over the persistent insect.  They were just kids, for crying out loud.  Grad students with everything to live for.  And they were not infected.  He was sure of that.  Reeves and Kilroy had convinced them that they might have contacted a virus that would already be showing signs via rash on the body.  The two were so out of it with fatigue that they had bought the story and cooperated.  Being yanked from your car by a team of commandos in armored Jeeps tended to convince one of anything.  Hooking the R-T back onto his belt, Shaw turned and strolled back to the car.

 

"So," Kilroy called over to him, "what's the plan?"

 

Thank God for that noisy little locust.  The others hadn't heard a thing.  Shaw took a deep breath, held it, and then let it out with the casual order:

 

"Let 'em go."

 

At that, he knew he'd be handing in his resignation soon.

 

-7-7-7-

 

Don't be afraid. . .

 

The voice touched Chris' mind on the edge of a dream, causing him first to twitch in his sleep.  He struggled up to the lower levels of consciousness, registering Buck's shoulder serving as his pillow.  The man lying alongside him was completely motionless, not breathing, and alarming though that stillness had been in the early days, now it was nothing.  He automatically acknowledged this false death and the preternatural heartbeat beneath it.  Then Chris started to sink back into his own dark nether regions, breath fading.

 

Don't be afraid, and don't fight. . .

 

"Ella!" he hissed, snapping to.  His shallow gasp echoed within the little rocky nook that he and Buck had chosen for their bed.  Her voice had been so clear just then, and frighteningly close.  He cast it away by focusing on where he really was. . . here, tucked against his blood host and lover on the floor of the old mineshaft. . . camping out with the bats that clutched up in various corners throughout the entire underground stretch. 

 

The Seven had all known that there would be no getting back to the ranch in time, so that left the old mineshaft north of Four Corners.  It had become their back up shelter several times in the past, but this time was different.  They'd never been forced into it under such duress as this morning, following the one-sided shootout. Buck and J.D. had returned in time to join them, reporting that they'd left the two young men from the dig site in their car on the side of the road.

 

As Chris remembered all of this and registered his surroundings, shaking the grogginess of sleep off, he glanced around, saw J.D. curled against the wall in a nearby corner. Nathan, Josiah, and Ezra had all gone deeper into the tunnel, while Vin had staked out a niche closer to the opening, acting as something of a sentry.

 

The most comforting thing about this place was the darkness, for at this time of day, their minds became terribly aware of the light outside and what it could do to them.  It was like having a precise internal clock that told them when those rays were tolerable and when they were deadly.

 

Safety assured, Chris looked down at Buck, who faced up into the rocky ceiling, eyes closed peacefully, his thick wavy hair spilling back from his temples and forehead.  Chris' gaze intensified as it roamed over the soft rise of Buck's cheek, then down into the hollow right above the jaw line, then around to the mouth and lips that were not exactly voluminous but still well molded.  And that little dip there on the upper lip.  Without thinking Chris slipped a fingertip into it, caressed gently.

 

Buck didn't so much as stir.

 

Chris stared, recalling how there had once been a lush mustache covering that little bowl.  It was in the first year of change that Buck had lost a bet with Ezra and had to shave it off.  He bitched and moaned at first, and then it occurred to him that going clean-shaven made feeding much less messy.  It had been another lesson for all of the Seven, actually, as they learned more about their new bodies and the best methods of survival.  They found out that certain aspects of their human physicality did not change.  They didn’t age, but their hair still grew, whiskers and all.  Eating food was impossible, but they could still drink almost anything within reason and piss it right back out.  Their bodies seemed lighter, yet were more corded and much stronger than they had been as humans.  A lot of new discoveries were made along with that damned mustache getting shaved.

 

Amused at this recollection though he was, Chris suddenly found himself frowning, overwhelmed with a strange sadness as he examined the upward sweep of the sleeping man's eyelashes.  Without the mustache, Buck looked younger, especially with his eyes closed.  Once opened, those eyes revealed his true age with their storms of warmth and hardness battling in that sapphire hue.

 

Gorgeous.

 

Buck. . . Chris gritted his teeth at the continued inner bombardment. . .  Buck. . . who  had been propping him up all this time.  It seemed to be growing ever more unfair, and the humiliation of the situation. . . well, that was another matter.  Buck never spoke of it, sparing Chris any reminders of what it did to his pride.  Chris sighed and laid his head back down against the other's shoulder, unable to really determine where this rush of emotion came from, but at least he was certain it was his own.  Maybe it was that face before him, so still and closed to the world, hiding everything inside that made Buck so special, all the things that Chris realized he had never actually acknowledged, that he took for granted.  Hell, Buck never indicated that he wanted those things to be acknowledged, and. . .

 

Fuck me, Chris thought, it was so frightening to even think about it, let alone vocalize gratitude.

 

God, he so wanted to be able to cut Buck loose.  Let the man be free of this shackling responsibility.  Chris' eyes examined the upward jut of Buck's chin, and then roamed down to the extended neck and Adam's apple.  Would be easier if Buck complained now and then.  But a complainer. . . Buck was never that.  Maybe about his once-beloved mustache, but not about things that really mattered.

 

Damn you, Buck.

 

Chris brought his hand down from its gentle probe of that mouth and laid it on Buck's chest.  He closed his eyes and listened to the heartbeat. . . never changing. . . forever caught in the same undying rhythm.

 

Ga-gong. . . . ga-gong. . . ga-gong. . .

 

Swept up somewhere in the river of that rhythm, Chris went back to sleep.

 

When next he awoke, he found himself alone, one cheek to the ground.  Buck was gone, and over in the corner there. . . J.D. was gone too.  His senses told him that dusk had arrived and it was safe to go outside, but he couldn't imagine Buck leaving with such urgency as to dump him on his face.  Unless, Chris figured, he hadn't been dumped but laid on his side, and from there managed to roll into the awkward position in which he now found himself.  He was huddled in a partial fetal curl, the tails of his long coat strewn over the ground behind him and thoroughly embedded with dust.  Probably got some bat shit on him too.

 

"Buck?" he called, voice as crusty as an old crow's caw.

 

The mineshaft returned a hollow echo, but no one actually answered him.  He cleared his throat and looked around, sniffing the air for the familiar scents of the others.  Vin's earthiness. . . Ezra's cologne. . . these aromas lingered along with other recognizable odors like gun oil and the charcoal used in fashioning ammunition.  But those last two usually weren't so strong unless they had been in immediate use.

 

Frowning deeply, Chris got to his knees and listened to a mournful wind howl around the opening of the shaft.

 

"Buck!" he called more loudly.  Then, "Vin!"  He waited a moment, and when he once more heard nothing, he began to walk up toward the opening, easing his way around some of the rockier areas that had, in their day, occurred from blast zones.  The others must all be outside, he figured, and damn it, how had he managed to sleep in?  Why hadn't Buck awakened him sooner?  Had they been back at the ranch house, he might have understood, but he didn't exactly appreciate being left in a grimy old tunnel.  Buck, and anyone standing within the vicinity of him, would soon get a good tearing of a new one, and. . .

 

Then the new smell hit him.

 

Chris stopped and took a deeper breath, analyzing a distinct pungency that he recognized from a long time ago.  The charred, smoky scent outweighed the worst of it, but beneath that wafted a dryness, like dead leaves, earthy, stale. . .

 

He remembered it from as far back as his human life. . . returning from Mexico that day. . .

 

Before he caught it, a murmur of protest to the scent issued from his throat, weak and pitiful.  His feet practically began to walk on their own, then picked up pace, hurrying toward the mouth.  He passed through a thin veil of smoke near the opening, and then he was out in the night, looking at a horizon of mountain ridge and sky.  The landscape seemed a blend of lavender and gray, cool and motionless, the desert transformed into an arctic region before his eyes as he looked down and saw them there.

 

Nothing left but remotely human-shaped chunks of crackling charcoal and some ashes shifted by the wind.  Unable to move at first, Chris found his eyes darting from one to the other, unconsciously counting.

 

One. . . two. . .  These were closer to the mouth of the mineshaft, just at his feet.  Three. . . four. . . five. . . Chris felt as if his tongue swelled in his mouth and his throat tightened.  The fifth one had to be J.D., the mass of ashes and fragmented bones looked so small; so much of it had been blown away that what was left barely constituted the remains of a child.  And then. . .

 

Six.

 

Chris stumbled awkwardly forward, past the other bodies.  Almost everything was so burned that he couldn't recognize one from the other.  Only a turquoise ring lying where a hand had been told him that one was Ezra.  And that one over there. . . might be Vin.  The three larger forms. . . he couldn't tell for sure. . . couldn't. . .

 

Chris collapsed to his knees before the nearest one, mouth forming a name for it.  Whether it was Nathan, or Josiah, or Buck, it served as a proxy for only one of them.  Little ribbons of smoke still curled up out of the ashes, the overall form suggesting that the body had fallen forward, one arm pinned beneath it, while the other reached out across the ground.

 

How had they gotten out here and left him inside?

 

The only words that Chris could think of were, Too late.  He reached out, hand hovering in the air, before he plunged his spread fingers into the smoldering remains and pulled up a handful of hot ash.  A chip of bone, probably from a rib, shifted to the top of the little pile in his palm.

 

"Ahhhh. . ." he groaned, watching pieces of black and dust stream through his fingers.  "God. .  . no. . ."  His eyes burned, but he felt too dried out for tears.  As if his own body had burned with those of the other six, and there was nothing left to give.

 

How could they have gone without him?

 

He shuddered, knees rooted into the ground.  His other hand dove into the pile and came up, fingers curling to contain the ashes, soot digging under his nails and in the creases of his knuckles.  Dry sobs racked his frame, and he gritted his teeth, canines extending to the extreme that they cut into his lower gums.

 

Paralyzed-scared-angry-hopeless. . .  he felt a hand descend on his shoulder and knew without looking who stood behind him.

 

Chris, it's over.

 

Her voice was all around him, inside him.  He wanted to vomit, expel her from his mind and body. . . from his blood. . .

 

"You bitch. . ."

 

It's time to stop playing this game.

 

"You go to hell. . ."

 

He felt her thumb waver back and forth in a casual caress and for all that he hated her so much, he couldn't bring himself to stand, turn around, and confront her.

 

"How. . ." he coughed out pitifully.  "How did this hap. . . pen?"  Saliva amassed in the corners of his mouth and spilt past his teeth, over his lips, and dripped down his chin.

 

You destroyed them, Chris.  You brought this on your friends.

 

He realized it wasn't just her presence at his back that he felt.  It was all around him, ushering in the scent of blood and jasmine.  If the tears would only fall, he would be free.  They would wash him out of this hell.  If only. . .

 

If only. . .

 

You can't keep me out, Chris.  You never could.

 

If only he'd told Buck. . .

 

If only. . .

 

Chris leaned back into the hand on his shoulder, tilted his face toward the violet sky, and roared out his pain.

 

-7-7-7-

 

"Would you fucking snap out of it, already!"

 

Buck Wilmington had not been this scared in a very long time.  Clutching Chris' shoulders, he gave a desperate shake, causing the seizing man's head to loll from side to side.  Chris mumbled something unintelligible and coughed, sending out a spray of spit and blood; he'd bitten his tongue, released a free flow of red-black that spilled out of his mouth.  Buck cupped at a tightly clenched chin and angled Chris' face toward his own, finding the eyes partially open, rolling up and back, lids fluttering.  This degree of seizure had never happened before.  Not like this, so violent and consuming.

 

And never in the middle of a fight.

 

It was Vin's agony-laden scream that had announced the arrival of the chaos.  Buck startled out of his sleep to find Chris already caught in the throws, turned on his side and curled up, little choking noises and gurgles his only means of telling Buck that he was falling into an abyss and was going to need some serious help climbing back out.

 

Not now! Buck thought.  NOT NOW!!!  He started to shake Chris one more time and was then forced to drop the man as a beam of light flashed across his position, prompting him into new action.

 

Hunters.

 

Buck glimpsed the figure in black past the glaring utility light rigged to the underside of the massive crossbow the hunter was carrying.  He ducked and dove forward, head on into the hunter.  Both went staggering up against the far wall where Buck heard a pained, "Oomph!" come out of the figure.  The impact caused the man to incidentally squeeze the trigger on the weapon, and with a solid twang the bolt released to sing through the air and slam into the opposing rock wall where it splintered into two neatly ricocheting pieces that left a trail of steel cable in the dirt.

 

Even while in motion, Buck remained aware of Chris, helpless on the floor.  He caught sight of J.D. moving in, forming a guard against the entry into the nook where Chris huddled, but this only disturbed Buck more.  As if J.D. couldn't take care of himself these days, he started worrying about the kid's life too.  Before Buck could even think twice about it, the beast was out, fangs budding to full length, claws extending.  He grabbed the hunter by the shoulders and spun out, slinging the man deeper into the mineshaft where he hit the wall and slumped to the ground stunned.  The empty crossbow clattered to the stone.  Freed of this first obstacle, Buck poised, half crouched and ready to spring at the next.

 

The commotion had already brought Nathan, Josiah, and Ezra from the back of the shaft.  It took a matter of seconds to assess the situation, that there were five hunters in all, and likely more outside.  The Seven knew the methods the hunters were using, and that gave them some preparation.  It was the sight of Vin Tanner that halted them for a millisecond, chilled by the wild, frantic and yet savage shrieks issuing from his throat.  Ezra took two anxious steps closer before he was forced to dodge an attack.

 

Having found a comfortable spot against a ledge in the wall, that formed a natural chair, Vin had finally dozed off, lulled by the hazy light he could see from this angle on the shaft's opening.  At first the titanium spearhead hadn't even hurt.  He heard it pierce his lower belly before he actually felt it.  One side of the blade was edged with a series of graduated barbs, ensuring that the weapon snagged itself securely inside him.  It was when the hunter started to lever up on the spear's long pole, tearing up through intestine to get the point under his rib cage and into his heart, that Vin cried out.  One hand reached down and grabbed the handle at the base of the spearhead, preventing it from moving, while the other hand lashed out with sharp talons, attempting to reach the other end of the pole.

 

The hunter hissed an unintelligible curse through his gritted teeth, and sweat beaded on his brow, leaked down around his eyes.  The smell of salt and pumping blood grew strong around him.

 

Vin bared his teeth, a viper-like hiss emanating from deep inside him, before he got full hold on the spearhead with both hands, and turned, forcing the pole out of his assailant's hands.  But the pain grew blinding, and before Vin could pull the point all the way out, the hunter had a grip on the pole again, pushing it sideways.

 

"Aaaaaaahhhh!  God!"

 

Strength threatening to flee him completely, Vin fought against the path into which he was being forced, straight for the shaft opening and the ray of brilliant sunlight that would scorch his life away.  He kicked, lashed out with one hand again while the other grasped at the wall.  Talon tips found tiny crags to hook into, anchoring him from being pulled into the light.

 

Nathan and Josiah vouched to go for their guns, as did J.D..  But before any shots were fired, Josiah took a bolt to the right shoulder.  It embedded with a firm thunk, and partially immobilized his joint.  The big preacher cried out and immediately reached up to grasp at the arrow shaft protruding from his flesh, while awkwardly holding onto his gun.  A small blotch of red began to spread out from the entry point, staining his poncho.

 

The hunter who fired the bolt dropped his spent crossbow, raised an R-T to his mouth and shouted, "Go-go-go!"

 

"Shit!" Nathan hissed, diving for Josiah as the cable line attached to the bolt pulled taut.

 

Josiah fell over, rolled onto his back, and went sliding across the floor, hands flailing to find some solid rock to grab onto.  In a moment he would be mere feet away from the sun's rays.

 

They knew the line ran outside, where it was attached to one of the hunters' vehicles.  It was a very similar method to that which Michael Arrant had told them about all those years ago.  The vehicle was either being backed up away from the shaft or the line was being spooled onto a rig mounted on the bumper.  Nathan had already drawn his gun, making it awkward as hell when he managed to tackle Josiah's leg.  The former healer was pulled along with the preacher, shouting for help at the same time he extended his arm and began to fire the Beretta at the line ahead, hoping to sever it.

 

Meanwhile, Buck bared his teeth as he stampeded forward, reaching out for the next hunter to pass his way.  This man wielded a spear like the one that was lodged in Vin's gut.  Buck slashed out with one hand while sweeping the other down and forward, catching the pole just past the spearhead against his wrist as he circled his arm outward, creating an opening to slip past the point of the weapon.  The slashing hand came down close to the hunter's face, but with trained nimbleness the man veered sideways and Buck's strike merely swept at empty air.

 

The hunter turned back to face his opponent full on.   His eyes narrowed with fury, changing from brown to black.  Hunter and vampire stared at each other for a split second that could have been its own eternity, and then gradually Buck's brow furrowed and the blaze in his eyes grew.

 

The Italian, Buck thought, recognizing the other's face from a thumbnail he'd seen on Nathan's computer.

 

"Bastardo," the hunter snarled back and started to bring the spear back around for another slash.

 

Buck smoothly slid his gun out of its holster, raised and leveled it almost at point blank with the hunter's nose.  "Hey, I take that personally," he said under his breath.

 

It gave The Italian cause to freeze, backing up a step before Buck moved in and back handed him.  The man dropped the spear and went spinning, landing up against a boulder where he remained stunned for a moment before shaking it off and turning to face his enemy.  His hands clenched in the air, but he dared make no move while facing down the barrel of Buck's Beretta.  Out of the corner of his eye, Buck also kept sight of Nathan and Josiah's struggles with the towline dragging them both toward final death.

 

"J.D.!"

 

The kid sprang out of the cubby where he had been guarding Chris, and scrambled after the two on the ground.

 

"Hurry!" Nathan shouted, his amber eyes aglow as he saw J.D. arriving just in time.  The graphite rounds weren't enough to destroy the line.  They could pierce flesh and bone, but they were too soft against the steel cable.  "J.D., my blade!"

 

J.D. slid into first beside Nathan, reached down to the black man's hip and drew the kopesh.  The metal rang as it unsheathed, and J.D. raised the blade high.  He got his feet beneath him, and sprang over the two struggling men.  Josiah managed to claw at and snag one of the old support beams in the mine wall, and with brute strength and strained tears, managed to stall against the pull.  J.D. brought the blade down on the cable, hacking it completely in two.  The exodus into the daylight ended completely, and Josiah groaned relief as the pulling on his injured arm stopped.  While Nathan helped Josiah up, J.D. turned one of his Berettas on the hunter who had fired the bolt.

 

"Freeze, asshole," the kid ordered and then grinned when it got results.  He'd always wanted to say that.

 

Still caught on the spear's end and now being levered up the wall, Vin had ceased with the harsh shrieks as he focused on getting free.  His jaw clenched and pale lips curled back over fangs glistening with saliva.  He grabbed for his belt and got a hold on his gun, dislodging one of his spare ammo clips in the process.  He started to raise the Berretta on his attacker, but his hand shook too much.  Couldn't get past the pain.  Couldn't think around his instincts, which were to keep clawing and gnashing his teeth until something gave.  Shards of red crept into his eyes as his pupils constricted and he became too aware of how close the light was.  No time for regrets, or fear, or sorrow.  No time for anything.

 

Then a new shout carried over all others, closing the distance from the deeper shaft toward the opening.  Ezra's steps pounded the floor as he worked up ramming speed.  To Vin it seemed the conman appeared out of nowhere, slamming into the side of the hunter on the other end of the spear.  The hunter let go and both went rolling dangerously close to the light.  The tension on the spear released, Vin slid down the wall, groaning as he gripped the section of blade protruding out of his belly and tried to pull it out.  He could imagine the tip in there right under his heart, the point teasing with deadly sharpness at the beating organ.

 

Ezra rolled up on top of the figure in black, straddled him, and began to deliver a series of punches that tossed the hunter's face from one side to the other.  A splat of blood trailed across the ground from the man's nose.

 

"Ezra!" Nathan shouted and came forward to grab him by the arms and pull him back to safety. 

 

The hunter glimpsed the blazing green eyes boring into him, reddened around the edges and angry.  Ezra was hardly aware of the shaft of sunbeam that fell across the hunter's face.  Every time one of his fists came down, it grazed the light and burned, knuckles charring and smoking.  The human tried to shove Ezra off, but when that didn't work, he folded his arms over his head for protection.

 

"Ez. . .ra. . ." Vin grated as he managed to get his knees awkwardly under him and sat on his haunches with the spear still dangling out of him.  The far end of the pole sketched random patterns in the dust at his slightest movement.  "Ezra. . . stop. . ."

 

And then he was looking up into the face of another hunter.

 

A pair of gray eyes smoldered down at Vin, and slowly the hunter raised a miniature crossbow, much like the ones the Seven used as backup on their own hunts.

 

Vin still grimaced, baring his teeth.  His eyes paled to ice, his pupils narrowing to fine points as he focused first on the very tip point of the arrow with his name on it.  Then out of his lower peripheral vision, he noticed the hunter had come to stand with a foot to either side of the spear pole.

 

"Ezra, for fuck's sake!" Josiah's voice came from somewhere, and Vin could still hear the sound of fists hitting jawbone.  "They're human. . . we can't. . ."

 

This had all happened so fast, Vin considered in that moment, and he found it suddenly funny as hell that Ezra had saved his life.  Ezra who should be seriously hating him right now.

 

Not to mention, in the hundred and twenty-five years that they had been roaming, never had they managed to get themselves in a situation like this.  Seven against five, and he had managed to get a glimpse outside where a priest—defined by his black uniform and white collar—and another hunter stood near a line of dust-blotched black vehicles.  That made it seven against seven.  Both teams on the same side but still beating the crap out of each other.

 

His eyes shifted, moving from the point on the bolt and over the hand, up the arm to the face, and back to those gray eyes.  From deeper in the mine, Buck cursed and shouted at Chris to snap out of it, while splitting his attention to keep The Italian at gunpoint.  J.D. kept his gun focused on the hunter who had tried to target Josiah.  Nathan dragged a kicking, cursing, angry conman off a very bloody-nosed hunter.

 

And look at me, on my knees about to take an arrow between the eyes.

 

With that, the wounded tracker began to laugh with morbid glee.  He couldn't help himself, and had no idea where it came from.  It bubbled up out of him, grating and shaky like a sick old toad, and it hurt like hellfire in his belly when he shook like that.

 

The sound drew attention from the others, including the murky-eyed leader of the hunters.  From Buck, who was now scooping up a shivering but unconscious Chris Larabee in his arms; from J.D. who was ushering his hunter toward the mouth of the shaft with one gun and covering The Italian with the other for Buck; from Josiah who tolerated the bolt still lodged in his shoulder while keeping his firearm trained to back up J.D.; and utmost from Ezra, who stopped fighting Nathan and let the hunter he had pummeled crawl out into the safety of daylight.  They all frowned, both parties perplexed.

 

"What the fuck is so funny?" the hunter demanded, waggling the tip of the bolt back and forth before Vin's eyes as if to recapture his attention with it.

 

Vin coughed.  "You. . ."  His hands wavered around the base of the blood-slicked spearhead and then found a firm grip under the pole.  He cleared his throat and wheezed, "I'm about to nail you in the nuts."

 

The hunter glared defiantly, and his finger tightened on the trigger.  Vin leaned slightly sideways at the same time he put all the strength he had left behind lifting the pole end of the spear.  It came up with a sturdy smack directly between the hunter's legs.

 

Everyone winced, even Buck, despite most of his attention being on Chris.

 

The bolt released, skimmed harmlessly past Vin's ear, and hit the rock wall behind him

 

Ezra took that as his cue to step forward again and shove Vin's second assailant out into the opening.  The man went over on his side, clutching at his aching balls, and landed next to his fellow hunter with the bloody nose.

 

Ezra dusted off his hands, took an extra couple of seconds to straighten his blazer and bolo tie, ignoring that the backs of his hands were singed.  Then he strolled over to his downed companion, took the end of the spear, and looked up into Vin's eyes with a dangerous steadiness that almost made Vin wonder if he should accept this help or not.  Ezra had various poker faces, but none of them quite matched this one.

 

"Now?" Ezra asked, but before Vin could answer, the conman gave a steady jerk outward, dislodging the spear.  It came loose with the suctioning sound of ripping muscle, the barbed edge dripping blood and tissue.

 

Vin screamed with the same unnatural wildcat wail that had announced the arrival of the hunters, and fell back on his ass, a blood-soaked hand cupped to his belly.  "Jesus Christ, Ezra. . ." he groaned.

 

That seemed to be the end of it.  Everything at a standstill.  The hunters weren't going to chance getting shot inside the mineshaft.  The Seven couldn't risk staying so close to the mine's opening, and they weren’t going to try to further deal with The Italian, especially with Chris' current condition.

 

From his point at the back of the group—Chris cradled awkwardly in his arms and J.D. now back at his side—Buck barked orders.  "All of you, out—“ to the two hunters, including The Italian, who remained inside.  "J.D., grab that one—" over the one whom he had tossed against the wall and stunned.  "Keep him quiet."

 

"We're bringing him?" J.D. asked incredulously as he took the man by the upper arm and laid the barrel of his gun against the hunter's head.

 

"Something's fucked here," Buck growled.  "I want some answers."

 

The two hunters left standing inched their way outside to join their injured teammates.  The Italian, standing with a defiant sneer at the front of the group, squinted back into the shadows, noon sun highlighting his wavy black hair.  Behind him, the sixth hunter, who had been operating the vehicle, approached with a look of confusion as to why everyone was suddenly outside the mine and not inside fighting.  The priest only took a few steps closer, but the Seven could see his lips working and vaguely hear the prayer vocalized in frenzied Latin.

 

"This isn't over," The Italian said with clear maliciousness as he pointed specifically at Buck.  He didn’t even glance at the prisoner, whom J.D. kept close and under trigger.

 

"Oh, I don't doubt it," Buck said and boosted up his armload.  Chris moaned and one arm dangled free over the support of Buck's strong embrace, while his head leaned in and rested against Buck's shoulder.  "Come on," Buck said to the others and turned to go into the darkness.

 

J.D. carefully backed up, making sure until the last moment that the other hunters could see the prisoner. The human staggered alongside him, glaring with bloodshot and tired green eyes.  To emphasize his strength despite his size, J.D. dug a sharp thumb into the soft tissue of the man's inner arm, eliciting a sharp intake of breath at the pain.  Then he dragged his burden along, following Buck into one of the shaft's side tunnels that led farther back into the earth than they had ever had to go before.  Down there, where only the Seven could see without aid of flashlight or otherwise, the dark would render their prisoner even more helpless.

 

Josiah and Nathan remained steady, guns out, keeping the hunters at bay, while Ezra helped a grunting, groaning Vin to his feet and aided him in walking into the deeper sectors of the mine.  When the conman and the tracker were out of range of the opening, Nathan and Josiah backed up, eyes fixed on the threat, until finally they lost the view of the mouth, and the hunters.  They turned and followed their companions into the safe underworld.

 

-7-7-7-

 

The Italian had ripped everyone a new asshole, and Ives had delivered a closing blessing for the unit and then a separate prayer for Shaw's soul.  Gentry had salvaged some half-melted ice from a cooler to ease his throbbing groin.  Dobson had vocalized his disappointment that he hadn't gotten to drag any vamps out in the sun and give barbeque a bad name.  The worst, it seemed, was over.  For now.

 

Kilroy was still in shock an hour later.

 

"I don’t get it," he said as he paced just inside the opening to the mineshaft, "they didn't even really try to kill us."  He held a damp cloth to the swollen corner of his mouth.

 

"Tell that to Gentry," Reeves said and glanced out toward the Humvee where the man in question was sitting back against the wheel, in the shade with his ice pack, his brows fixed in a permanent knit.  "Nothing like having your 'nads shoved up inside you to make you wish for death."  Reeves went back to his examination of some fallen shell casings and gave a sigh of remorse.  "And then there's Shaw," he added.  Then, "And you."  He looked at the other man's bruised face and the little crusts of dried blood around the edges of Kilroy's nostrils.  "How you feeling?"

 

"Like a meat factory, but I've been through worse."  Kilroy shrugged.  The priest had already looked him over, treated any cuts with ointment and told him that he would live.  He was essentially under a sort of undeclared quarantine for the next forty-eight hours since he had come into closest contact. It wasn't too obvious, but the others were keeping an eye on him, especially The Italian.  Kilroy glanced out into the open where The Italian and Ives had now found a place to speak.  Now that the general chewing-out was over, the leader wasn't speaking to anyone but Ives, so this whole thing gave Kilroy a terribly uneasy feeling.  He was beginning to understand how Shaw felt.  "Man," he murmured more to himself than to Reeves, "I can't wait to move to another unit."

 

"You and me both, buddy."

 

Kilroy wandered the areas where the greater scuffles had taken place, finding the ashen remnants of bloodstains, the type which only the undead left behind.  This was where he'd had that one on the end of his pig sticker.  There were scuffs of boot prints in the dust, and the spear itself still lay there, but he didn't feel like picking it up yet.  The thing needed a thorough cleaning anyway.  Kilroy could feel every inch of his bruised face but like he'd said, he'd been through worse, and right now, what really bothered him was the recollection of looking into the eyes of the one who had pinned and beaten him.

 

He recalled the rage in that face, the lips drawn back over sharp, gritted teeth, and the smell of burning skin.  He'd never seen a vampire, master or otherwise, tolerate even that much direct sun.  It usually sent one shrieking into the darkest hellhole it could find.  Kilroy wasn’t sure of every action that had taken place, only that by some unknown virtue, his attacker had been pulled off him and not by any of his fellow hunters.

 

Ezra. . .  They had called that one Ezra.

 

Okay, so why didn't they just let Ezra kill him?

 

I should be dead, he kept thinking.  He had visions of himself lying there, half-in, half-out of the mineshaft, his throat ripped out.  That was how it should have turned out.  Wonder he hadn't shit his fatigues.

 

The scene kept replaying behind his eyes, and each time he tried to find something that would tell him exactly what had happened.  Kilroy nudged the toe of one combat boot at a few splinters from one of the crossbow bolts.  He looked across the shaft floor then, noticing a piece of towing cable.  Nothing about these things was out of the ordinary; every hunt left behind some garbage.

 

He went back to the place where he'd had that one vampire against the wall kicking and screeching.  Kilroy had felt the struggles from his end of the spear, every movement sending a powerful vibration down the length of the pole, forcing him to hold on tighter until the creature began to weaken.  Like the one named Ezra, there had been something about this one too.  The way it struggled, its watery eyes both glaring and pleading, cursing and forgiving.  It was easy, in this job, to forget that a vampire had once been human, but this one somehow reminded Kilroy of that fact.  Maybe it was that vampires were not known to cry out to God, even when they were hanging on the end of a lance.

 

"What do you think they'll do with Shaw?" he asked as he laid the damp, bloodstained cloth on a rock and knelt down.  He pulled a mini utility light out of one of his cargo pockets, and shone it over the area, then down in behind some rocks.  Something down there, wedged between a boulder and the wall, glimmered back at him.

 

"What do vampires usually do with humans, Kilroy?" Reeves replied as if it was a stupid question.

 

"Hey," Kilroy argued casually as he strained to reach his hand down inside the crevice, "they had us at gunpoint.  Maybe they couldn't go out in the sun after us, but they sure could have shot us.  And that one. . . could have kept beating me."  He paused to swallow against the sudden sensation of bile rising in his throat.  Too late, enough made it onto his tongue that he wanted to gag.  It burned its way back down, and he coughed, tried to work up some saliva to make the acidic aftertaste go away.

 

Reeves turned his attention back toward the rear of the cave.  "Well, they definitely weren't expecting us.  You'd think they'd have gone further in.  Nice and dark back there."  He pulled out his own utility light and swept the beam into one of the nooks that was especially shaded.  "Come to think of it," he thought aloud.  "One of them was down when we got here.  Like. . . like he was sick."

 

"I didn't notice, too busy getting my ass kicked."

 

Reeves turned a questioning look on the other man, who was now so wedged down close to the floor, Kilroy looked like he'd managed to get himself pinned under the boulder by the arm.  "You ever heard of a sick vampire?"

 

Kilroy grunted, his fingers just touching the object, jarring it loose.  He could feel that it was metallic and cool.  "You mean one that ain't on the sharp end of a stake?"  Crystal-blue eyes full of pain flashed in his mind.  "Or a spear," he added with a grunt as he reached a little harder.

 

Reeves shook his head and looked back out at The Italian.  "He's up to something," he said.  "We haven't gotten half the information we've needed on this hunt."

 

"No fuckin' shit."  Kilroy let out a relieved sigh as he grasped the thing awkwardly between his fingers, chopstick fashion, and began to ease it out slowly so as not to drop it any deeper into the crevice where it might become completely irretrievable.  "Maybe here's something. . ."  He pulled it out to find a fully loaded ammunition clip.  "The one I almost had. . .  he dropped it."

 

"What'cha got there?"  Reeves went over to help his teammate up.  He took the clip and held it up into the light, frowning.  "Strange looking slugs."  He pushed the top one in with his thumb, felt it give with the spring action inside the clip and then eased it out to hold up a single bullet.  Transferring it from one hand to the other, he noticed chalky smears coming off the tip.  "What the. . ."  he smelled the black stuff on his fingertips and paused in thought.  "It smells like. . . like pencil lead."  Turning his hand out, he let Kilroy get a quick sniff.

 

"What do you think. . . " Kilroy started to say, getting another smell.  Pencil lead?  He hadn't exactly smelled something like that since he was in high school, but come to think of it, the scent was rather nostalgic, woody and stark.  "Pencil lead," he confirmed.

 

"Oh, my God," Reeves said, holding up the bullet and grinning.  "It's made of graphite.  Ho-ly sheeee-ite."

 

"Graphite?"  Kilroy felt his own grin coming on.  God, no, he couldn't grin now, it would hurt too fucking much.  "You mean this thing is a tiny stake?"

 

Reeves nodded his head and before he could stop it, chuckled with glee at the discovery.  "It's fuckin' brilliant!" he burst out.  His voice rose enough to capture the attention of the other men out in the full light.  The Italian turned away from Ives and glared up toward the mineshaft, but Reeves was too excited to really notice.  "These masters—“ he went on. "They're not like any others we’ve ever fought."

 

Kilroy took a deep breath and eyed the tip of the bullet and the smears it had left on his teammate's hand.  "You thinking what I'm thinking?" he asked more quietly, aware of the attention they had attracted.

 

Reeves nodded.  "We wondered how they were taking out those goons with bullets," he said.  "This is how.  What they must have gone through to create these things.  I mean, the technology isn't impossible, but who would have thought it?"

 

Nerves humming at the implications, Kilroy was both amused and distraught.  Hard to know what to actually feel just now.  A vampire had nearly turned his face to pulp, and here he was feeling sorry for the bastard and his kin.  "They didn't hurt those kids," he recalled suddenly.  "Not a mark on 'em, remember?"

 

"Uh huh."

 

"Which means Shaw. . . He may be okay."  It was wishful thinking, he knew.  Reason, and experience, told him not to hope too much.

 

Reeves nodded and slowly lowered the bullet to peer out into the daylight at the other hunters, wondering what they would think if the theory were put before them.  But it was now more than a theory.  He was sure they had the proof right here, but these were master vampires they were dealing with. . . intelligent. . .  unpredictable.  "They're looking for more efficient ways to kill their own kind," he said softly.  "What does it mean though?"  He stared, blinking in astonishment as he mouthed his next thought.  "You ever heard of a good vampire?"

 

"Nope.  Just like I never heard of a sick vampire," Kilroy said, giving the other man a rough pat on the shoulder.  "Breathe, dude.  They're vampires hunting other vampires," he concluded, "but that didn't stop one of them from tenderizin' my face."

 

Reeves turned slowly and looked back down into the foreboding of the dark shaft, chilled by the knowing that they were in there somewhere, hidden deep out of reach.  The question remained why they were killing their own kind. . . for what purpose. . . and what would it mean to put that in a report to the Vatican?

 

 

Chapter Twenty

 

The dam was breaking.

 

One hundred and twenty-five years of her whispers were leaking through.  He could see the writing on the wall, that they were married for eternity, tied by blood, no less, and that she would never give up.

 

I can wait for you until the stars fall, Chris.  No matter how long you run, I will still be your destiny.  Sooner or later, you'll see. . .

 

. . . you'll see. . .

 

. . . and then we'll be together. . . you'll see. . . all others be damned. . .

 

He still heard her even as he made the climb back into consciousness and found his mouth filling with tepid blood.  Something swept against his tongue, and he felt fingertips pressing against the sides of his throat, gently massaging, helping him swallow.  Chris opened his eyes and moaned, tears stinging his eyes to realize he'd only been dreaming, and the blood he tasted now was Buck's, anchoring him back into the real world.

 

Buck had tried wedging a wrist into Chris' mouth, but the seizure caused him to spit more out than went down his throat.  Droplets flew up and splattered on Buck's cheeks and dribbled down.

 

Damn it, Chris, help me out here.

 

So Buck tried another method.

 

Cradling Chris in his lap as he sat on the cavern floor, he leaned down and pressed his lips over the other man's.  He met resistance as Chris' teeth clenched shut like a steel trap, but with some coaxing, Buck worked that other mouth open, covered it completely with his own, worked his lips until he pried the others open.  He raked his tongue hard against the point of one of his extended canines, tearing deep into the vein.  It didn't sting too much.  Blood swirled in with his saliva and he pushed it into Chris' mouth.  Ensuring the seal between their lips was tight, he felt the mouth below his fill up.  One hand spread across Chris' exposed throat, he massaged the muscles, triggering the reflexes so that the blood went down in a loud gulp.

 

As the cut healed, Buck drew his tongue back, slit it again over the point, and pushed it forward, sending forth another fount of blood.  He continued the process, creating a rhythm, fucking Chris' mouth with his tongue, until he began to feel a conscious response. The other's lips locked on more tightly, and Chris moaned, the vibration tickling the back of Buck's throat.  Chris' breath picked up. . . anxious. . .desperate. . . in and out of his nose. . . while he began to suck fiercely at the flow.  Soon the cut had no time to heal as Chris kept it open himself.

 

Suddenly light headed, Buck realized his body was reaching a critical low.  If he gave any more, he'd need human blood, and the nearest human was only a few feet away.  He pushed down, gently at first, a muffled protest vibrating into Chris' mouth.  When Chris held on tighter, depleting more sustenance to find his ground again, Buck clamped his hand on the other's throat, tight enough to let Chris swallow his last draught before he squeezed, cutting off the reflex.

 

Chris opened his mouth, let go with a slurp, and choked back an objection.  The last rivulets of blood spiraled down his throat, causing him to cough.  Deep jade eyes blinked open and peered into the gray light.

 

"B-Buck?" Chris spat out incredulously.

 

Buck's eyes smoldered back with a conglomeration of both relief and anger.  Blood traces lined the inner edges of his lips.  "Welcome back, sunshine," he said hoarsely.  "Ella?"

 

Chris nodded and wiped a thread of blood from the corner of his mouth.  "She's in. . ."  He coughed again, cleared his throat.  "I thought that you were. . ."  Disbelief tripped him up after stepping from such a vivid dream dimension into the real here-and-now.  "Ella. . . she's in the town. . .”

 

"Shhhhhhh," Buck hushed him.  "You rest, just. . . just a moment.  Be right back with you. . ."  Then abruptly he clambered up to his feet to pace, letting off steam before Chris even knew why.  Buck turned to face into a corner of the cavern, glaring at a form huddled there.

 

Chris lifted a shaking hand and rubbed crust from his eyes as he focused.  He heard the frenzied heartbeat, smelled the warm blood before he actually saw the human.  Following his nose, he eased up into a sit, slouched back on his arms—the taste of Buck's blood still in his mouth—and took in the full view.

 

A man in perhaps his late twenties or early thirties, light haired and clad in black BDUs, sat against the opposite wall.  He hugged his knees like a terrified child, staring into what was for him a pitch-black void, and flinched at the echoing slap of noises and voices against the walls.

 

Chris understood by the clothing alone.

 

A hunter.

 

Then before any questions could be asked, a tirade of fury erupted out of Buck, some of it aimed at the human, most of it just piss-and-wind frustration.

 

"How the fuck did those fuckin' fucks—. . . How did they fuckin'. . . grrrrrrr. . .  FUCK!  How'd they fuckin' find us!"

 

Ezra, propped casually against a stalagmite, watched the spectacle of flailing arms.  He cocked his head in a manner of amusement.  "Definitely exhibits the multiplicity of the word," he said dryly and returned his attention to the human while he blew gently on the backs of his hands almost as if he were drying his nails.

 

If the hunter tried to back himself up any harder, he'd be going through the rock wall.

 

Chris looked about, recognizing that they were not near the front of the mineshaft, but in the extensive natural caverns that connected to it and burrowed deep into the mountain.  The Seven had mapped them out a long time ago, gotten to know them well, including any other exits.  He started to ask what had happened, but it was clear Buck was on a roll with his rage, and for the moment it was easier to sit back, watch the show, and wait for the chance to speak when his head was more clear.

 

Buck stopped his pacing to stand seething for a moment as he organized his demands into a slightly less vulgar expression.  He wavered, dizzy, then his lips curled back and he snarled, "I wanna know how those fuckers knew where to find us."

 

The hunter's eyes darted from one sound to another, but utmost focused on the area in which he could hear the shouting.  His lips pursed as though he wanted to give an answer but couldn't find one.

 

Chris looked about to locate the others.  It took little time for him to deduce that a major kicking of asses had been had.  Their own asses.

 

Vin sat close by, on the floor and slouched against the adjacent wall, the front of his tank shirt and the waist of his jeans caked with blood-ashes, while he used his tan duster as a pillow.  The wound he'd sustained had mostly healed, but still oozed somewhat, so he obviously wasn't ready to get up and walk about yet.  His fingers, thoroughly drenched in gore, still clenched at his belly while he stared at Buck's display.

 

J.D. had perched himself up on a high ledge in the wall where he faced out into the opening of the greater cavern beyond.  He squatted with flexible ease, elbows propped on his knees, one hand draped casually down against his inner thigh and clutching one of his Berettas.  When J.D. turned his head and looked down on the group, the glow in his eyes flashed, reminding Chris of a vigilant young barn owl.

 

Nathan knelt between Vin and Josiah.  His attention was primarily focused on an arrow embedded in Josiah's shoulder, though he took glances at Vin to check his healing progress.  "I saw those other bolts they were using.  Thing's got barbs on it like that spear went in Vin," he informed the preacher with a gentle tone as he examined where the shaft on the bolt had pinned Josiah's poncho to his shoulder.  "Might be better to push it all the way through."

 

Josiah groaned and nodded in resignation.  "Whatever it takes."  He sat up straight, clenched his teeth, and waited while Nathan broke off the tail on the bolt and prepared to give the shaft a hard push.

 

The pop of skin breaking as the arrow was forced through, and the roar of pain that echoed through the cavern, startled the young hunter.  He let go of his knees and came out of his huddle to grab at the wall behind him.  He started to his feet, using the stone support as a guide, and tried to ease away from the heart of the noise, combat boots scuffling on the uneven rock beneath him.  He appeared as a blind man, eyes wide open and only appearing to see, though they didn't move, having nothing to focus on.

 

"Oh, for Pete's sake," Ezra grumbled and pushed away from his rest.  He wandered into a branch of the tunnel and retrieved an old lantern left on their last visit to these regions.  He gave it a little shake, listening to the remaining kerosene splash about in the reservoir and blew some of the dust off the globe.  "Let's shed a little light on the subject," he said and fished a book of matches out of the inside pocket of his blazer.  He fumbled with the wick for a moment before a soft glow issued from within the globe.  Then he carried it over to the prisoner, who squinted at the sudden flare of light.

 

The man raised a hand, shielding his eyes until they adjusted.  Then gradually he began to look cautiously about.  Ezra went to perch the lantern on a natural shelf in the wall.  The light gradually diffused throughout the room, until everyone was illuminated just enough.  The bewilderment in the hunter's eyes began to blink away to be replaced by cold composure.

 

"Better?" Ezra asked him.

 

The man stared back evenly, while his brows sank into a full glower.  His jaw tightened up as if to indicate he wasn't going to say a damned thing.

 

Ezra stood observing the prisoner, head still cocked as if amused, while his eyes hardened.  "The man asked a question," he said, indicating Buck.  "I suggest you answer it."

 

Buck paced like an agitated tiger, creating a wall of movement between the hunter and Chris, who continued to put piece after piece of the full situation together.   "How'd you and your buddies find us?" Buck asked again gruffly.  His eyes, and nostrils, still flared viciously even if he had put a damper on his tantrum.

 

The hunter remained backed against the wall, eyes narrowed.  His lips parted just so, while his jaw remained clenched, on the verge of a snarl.  Such defiance was betrayed by the stench of his fear, sour as piss and salty-sweaty.

 

"Guess we'll just have to make him one of us to get some answers out of him," Buck growled and moved in, nudged Ezra aside, and reached straight for the hunter's shoulders.  He grabbed the man, jerking him forward from his wall refuge, grabbed a handful of his hair, and forced his head to the side, exposing a tempting length of corded neck.  Buck opened his mouth wide, fangs at full bud, and started to dive right in.

 

"No!" the hunter cried out, kicking and pushing back.  If he had any combat skills, they were forgotten in such close proximity to imminent un-death.  "Please, no!"

 

Buck stopped short of piercing the skin and closed his mouth, waiting, smelling the rich aroma of the blood.  He watched the pulse that, to his vision, manifested as a soft warm glow beneath the skin.  "Then talk," he whispered in the hunter's ear.

 

"Careful, Buck," J.D. chimed in casually from his perch, "you'll scare 'im whiter than we are."

 

Ignoring the remark, Buck cinched his body up closer to the hunter, so tempted, if nothing else, to brush his lips along the course of the quickening pulse.  He never got this close to a human who wasn't a mark; it was too risky, too enticing.  "Talk," he said more softly, "'cause after what I just had to do, I'm feeling a mite bit parched."  With a sigh he sent a gust of cool breath across the exposed skin before he stepped back and let go, shoving the man back against the wall.  He was tired now, and craving, and while another mesmerism stunt would probably get him answers faster, he simply refused to go there.

 

The hunter worked his mouth, lips pursing.  He looked like he was going to spit in Buck's face, but he was only working up moisture, which he swallowed before speaking.  "This mine—“ his gazed darted past Buck to Ezra, "—it's the perfect place for a nest."

 

"Wrong answer," Buck growled.  "There's more to it than that.  You're working for The Italian. Don't think we don't know who he is, boy."

 

"What do you mean?" the hunter replied.  "You weren't staying in town, this was the next best place.  The Italian had a map."

 

"Impossible," Ezra stated.  "How'd you know we weren't staying in town?" He approached Buck's side, his thumbs hitched casually into his belt.  "And, no, the mine is not the next best place, not to an outsider."

 

The man's brows knitted and he shook his head with a shrug of confusion.

 

"What he's saying—“ Chris' voice suddenly grated from behind them.

 

Buck and Ezra looked over their shoulders as their leader got to his feet with a grunt.  Vin, Nathan, and Josiah all watched him saunter forward and come to a casual stance next to Buck, face pale, eyes blazing from within.

 

"Is that this mine isn't on any modern map," Chris explained and stared intently at the hunter.  "It's in no county or state records to date, so how your boss even found it is beyond us.  Better yet, how did he even know it was a nest?"

 

"I told you, he had a map," the hunter replied then added, "but it was an old map.  Said he got it from an associate."

 

"No way in hell," Buck said.  "The last man to hold a map that included the mine was Michael Arrant," he paused before emphasizing, "a hunter.  He died the same night this happened to us, and that was over a hundred years ago."  He started to step forward again, hands twitching at his sides as if ready to grab at the prisoner again.

 

The hunter maintained a steady glare, and the Seven could see his bravery was slowly climbing.

 

"Buck," Chris warned the other man off.  He stared at the prisoner for a moment, frowning as he examined the green eyes, so much like his own when he was human and young.  "What's your name, son?"

 

The question, so personal on various levels, startled the man.  "Um. . . Shaw," he said.  "Alan Shaw."

 

"Well, Mr. Shaw," Ezra replied, "today is your lucky day.  You get to tell us everything you know about The Italian and where he got his information."

 

From his place on the floor, Vin began to ease up, testing his strength, and the lingering soreness in his lower belly.  The gore on his hands had now completely turned to dust, which he swiped off on the backs of his jeans, leaving dark smears above the rims of his chaps.  Then as if cued, he stepped in closer, adding another barrier to the semi-circle of men around the prisoner.

 

J.D. came down from his ledge with a graceful leap and landed on both feet not far behind Ezra.

 

Nathan had helped Josiah remove his poncho and continued to examine the preacher's wound until he saw that it had completely closed up.  Then they also got to their feet and joined the group.

 

Alan Shaw shook his head, defiance bleeding out of his eyes and turning to curiosity.  "You aren't going to kill me, are you?"  It was really more of a statement than a question.  He didn't sound at all surprised.  When they all frowned suspiciously at such an about-face, he explained.  "I saw you last night.  We were watching you kill off those goons.  With your guns."  He gestured at the weapon hanging low on Buck's hip.  "How did you keep them down with bullets?"

 

"Ancient Chinese secret," Buck replied.  "You were watching us?"

 

"Saw you with those kids, and how you took them out of there."  At last Shaw dared to stepfurther away from the wall.  He straightened up to full height, more resembling the commando he was.  "You were protecting them, weren't you?"

 

"Now that's a question we don't hear every day," Ezra remarked.

 

"Yeah," Buck said with a sigh.  "Yeah, we were."

 

"I saw them.  After you took them out to the north road and left them, we dropped in, checked them out for infection.  Nothing."  Shaw shook his head and threw out his arms in resignation, slapped them down loudly on his thighs and cocked his head.  Knowing that he was not really in any danger did wonders for his confidence, and his honesty.  He paced slowly for a moment before he turned to them, planted his feet again, and asked outright, "Who the hell are you?"

 

"That," Buck said, "is a long story."

 

"Obviously.  In three years of hunting I've never seen anything like this.  You kill your own kind."

 

"Ain't our own kind we kill," Vin said defensively.

 

Shaw's eyes darted to stare at him and then lowered, focusing on the lingering smears of blood-dust on the front of Vin's clothing and his flat belly visible through the hole in his shirt.  "But. . . you're vampires," he stated as if that were all the argument he needed.  "Undead."

 

"We prefer life-challenged," Josiah said and more than a few smirks were repressed around the rocky room.

 

"No need for exposition."  Ezra backed up until he found another comfortable stalagmite to lean on.  "So, we have a situation here, gentlemen.  The Italian knew we were here, but how?"  He looked at Shaw.  "How did he get that map?"

 

"I told you, he said from an associate."  He paced again.  "Hell, he doesn't tell us much, just where the bad guys are, and then he sends us in and we clean house."

 

"Like the automaton you are?" Ezra said with cold irony in his tone.  "That all you do is follow orders?"

 

"No."  Shaw glared disgustedly.

 

"Who gave him the map?" Chris rasped, his voice suddenly so weakened as to draw Buck's attention.

 

"I don't know," Shaw barked in frustration.  "We were doing a routine run along the border, cleaning up after some brood that was attacking ranches and other places out in the middle of nowhere.  Then on our last clean up, The Italian reports we're heading to Four Corners, that we have a contract to kill seven masters who might be the ones responsible for the massacre."

 

"What?" Buck gasped.

 

"It sounded weird to all of us; masters don't usually travel in groups that large, and not for any long period of time.  And then there was the dig site.  I thought The Italian was breaking the rules, using civilians for bait, but we came in, set up camp and monitoring, and nothing happened, not until last night."

 

"And you finally got a look at your seven masters," Buck followed up that last statement.

 

Shaw sighed and nodded.  He rubbed at the bridge of his nose, gathering his thoughts anew.  "Look," he finally confessed, "the assignment came in from an affiliate group."  He took a breath as he recalled the name.  "Clarion."

 

Everyone stiffened, looked at each other, stunned and speechless for a moment.

 

"That can't be right," Buck said, eyes on Chris who stared back at him, both attempting to guess at this reasoning.

 

"Excuse me," Ezra tried to clarify, "did you just say Clarion?"

 

"Yeah, why is that so strange?  I mean, I never heard of them, but. . ."  Shaw did a double take on the grim expressions coursing the room, the lantern light dancing over stern brows and slowly shaking heads.  "You seem to know them."

 

"Of course we know them," Buck replied sadly and turned to walk a few steps away, head bowed.  "Shit," he said under his breath.

 

"We started Clarion," Chris finished for his friend.  He turned too, and moved to Buck's side.  "Sounds like we have a leak of some kind.  Someone inside doesn't like us."

 

Buck nodded.

 

"Wait now."  Ezra held up his hands in a gesture that they not be so hasty.  "How can we be sure?  I mean that was an extremely isolated incident."

 

"Doesn't mean it couldn't happen again," Nathan said and a few vacant nods responded.

 

Before they could brood on it any further, Shaw vocalized his amazement at this new information.  "What?  You mean to tell me you started a hunter group?"

 

"Yep," Josiah said.

 

"Just after this happened to us," Nathan filled in.  "Took a while to adapt, but we'd heard of hunter groups, including the Vatican's.  Decided to start one of our own."

 

Shaw fell into utter silence, mouth agape, eyes wide and blinking.

 

"I know, son," Ezra replied to the dumbfounded expression, "it is a lot to digest."

 

Then the conman began to fill in the hunter, starting with a history lesson on the ill fates of seven regulators who used to guard a little outpost in the Old West.  He kept his narrative to the human as short as possible, while the rest of the Seven remembered it all in painful detail.  Then he brought the story up to the first anniversary of the Seven's change.

 

They had already begun to seek out and kill some of the surviving goons Ella, Christobal, and Selvik had left in the territory.  From there they had moved on to continue their hunt for Ella, always a step behind her, always losing her.  They hunted for Cletus Fowler, too, but to not even the slightest avail.  Since horses wouldn’t tolerate their presence, they were limited to travel by foot or train, which made the search more difficult.

 

The decision to form their own hunter group came then, but the need for outside help was so great that they were forced to take a chance and make contact with someone of measure, someone whom they could convince.  And so one winter evening, they found themselves assembled on the front porch of Judge Orin Travis' home.

 

The shock on the old man's face, when he opened the door, was priceless.  Like the rest of the citizens of Four Corners, they were supposed to be dead, so Chris quickly spoke up that there was an explanation for their appearance.  After some whispered debate with the judge, he got them all invited inside.

 

A grandfather clock ticked in the front hallway, and the warm colors of an oriental rug greeted them.  Mrs. Travis stood at the foot of a staircase that was aglow with the dancing light of candles burning in a brass chandelier overhead.  Young Billy stood in front of her.  He was a year older than when the Seven had last seen him, though it didn't really show.  The boy's eyes were wide as saucers, for while he recognized them, there seemed to be a child's instinct at work, telling him that they weren't the same men he had known before, that there was something different about them and that they were dangerous.

 

Billy did not go near them, and a brief expression of sadness ghosted over Chris' face that the little boy didn't call out his name or run to hug his neck like he used to.  But then Chris did not really expect this.  Billy had lost his mother by mysterious circumstances, and here stood the men who were supposed to protect her and the rest of Four Corners.  Here stood the men who had failed at that task.

 

They tipped their hats to the missus as they were guided into the study, where a fire crackled in a cast iron stove, and Travis sat down behind a great mahogany desk to slip on his specs.  He gazed at them all sourly, his lower jaw jutting out defiantly, a trait Chris had often noticed when witnessing a hearing ruled by the old man.

 

"So you say you have a good explanation for this?" Travis asked.  He focused on Chris as the leader of the Seven took a seat before the desk and leaned back casually.

 

"Yep."

 

Travis could see intent in Larabee's eyes, a scowl that ensured that the former regulator could back up everything he had come to say.  Then suddenly there was an orange-ish glow behind those eyes, embers embedded deep inside the pupils.  Travis blinked, certain he was seeing things.  He refocused, and the glow was gone.  Taking off his specs, he picked up a cloth on the desk and began to rub at the lenses.  "All right," he said, calming somewhat.  "I don't expect you would be here without a reason.  But first, I want to know where you've been all this time."  He lowered his voice only to have it build back up again with agitation, "And what the hell happened in Four Corners?  The place is deserted. . . dead. . ."  He gestured toward the door as if to indicate his wife and grandson where they had been standing in the hallway.  "Billy's still wondering what happened to his mother.  I can't tell him a goddamned thing."

 

Chris nodded, tension saturating every muscle.  "Sir, it's a hard story to tell, and not one you're gonna believe easily.  We can prove what happened.  At least, we can prove to you what happened to us, but what you make of it, that'll be up to you.  You may curse us later, and we won't blame you."

 

Travis' brows knitted as he listened to this, and he slid his specs back on.  "I'm listening."

 

He hadn't known what to expect.  That the town had been attacked by Indians would have been easier to believe.  Or that the ranchers had rallied again, run off half the citizens and massacred the others.  Anything would have been more believable, but that creatures of myth had attacked the place and drained it of life. . .

 

Travis worked up a steady, angered glare well before Chris finished explaining.

 

"That's the truth, Sir," Vin put in as soon as Chris was done.

 

They could only guess what kind of speech the judge was preparing in his mind to tell them all that they had gone mad.  Perhaps he was even pondering how to get them under lock and key.

 

"Vin," Chris said, giving a head nod toward the desk.  "I told you we could prove it," he reminded Travis.  "We know it sounds crazy, Sir.  We could hardly believe it ourselves when it started happening, but everything's changed, and we need your help."

 

"Took us so long to come to you," Buck added, "because. . . because we had to learn to live this way."

 

"What way?"  Travis kept his gaze on Vin Tanner as the tracker stepped up to the desk.

 

Vin's sharp eyes roamed across the mahogany surface and leather protector pad until he found exactly the thing he was looking for: an ornate, dagger-style, brass letter opener.  He would have drawn his own hunting knife out, but they didn't want to frighten the judge any more than necessary.  They aimed to gain a believer, and this seemed the only other way short of showing their teeth at full bud.

 

"Mr. Tanner, what are you doing?" Travis asked as Vin leaned over the desk, scooped up the letter opener in his right hand, and then flattened his left hand down on the leather pad.

 

Vin looked down at the startled old man as he raised the letter opener, tip down.  "It's the best way we could think to prove it to ya, Sir."  His jaw clenched tightly before he stabbed straight down and right through the back of his left hand.

 

Travis yelped in alarm, one hand flying up to cover his eyes from the sight, and backed up in his chair.  The tip of the substitute weapon broke through flesh and bone and made a solid thunk noise in the leather beneath.  In the silence that followed, Travis lowered his hand and gazed over it, blinking, beads of sweat gathering on his brow.

 

Vin stood there a moment, staring back, his left hand pinned to the desk via the letter opener, before he worked the blade back and forth to lever it free, and it came loose with the tip coated in blood.  He held up his spread hand before the judge's eyes and watched as Travis' look of horror at such self-mutilation turned to one of amazement.

 

The wound sealed back up neatly, leaving only a small stain of blood that dried in Vin's palm and began to turn to dust when the oozing stopped.  The dust trickled down through the air and onto the desktop.

 

Before Travis could say anything, the door to the office flung open.  "Orin?" his wife said with a shiver in her voice, responding to the old man's outburst.

 

He continued to stare at Vin's hand for a moment, before his eyes seemed to cut themselves loose from the spectacle and he looked stiffly over at her.  "It's all right, Evie," he informed her hoarsely.  He took a loud gulp of a swallow before he explained, "I was just surprised by something Mr. Tanner showed me."

 

She hesitated, glancing from one visitor to the other, her wizened face cold and untrusting.

 

"Evie," the judge spoke up more clearly.  "I told you, it's all right.  Leave us be."

 

After a moment, she listened to him and departed, closing the door behind her.  Outside, Billy's little voice could be heard asking her, "What happened, Gran?"

 

"Nothing, Billy.  It's your bedtime now.  Come along."

 

They heard the footsteps moving away outside, floorboards creaking.  It was another long moment of silence before Travis found what he wanted to say next.

 

"What are you?"

 

He looked at them all again as Vin laid the letter opener back down and stepped away from the desk.  The fire snapped loudly in the stove as if it attempted to answer for them.  They could all smell the old man's blood heating, hear his heart racing.

 

"We don't even really know ourselves," Buck said.

 

"Indeed," Ezra chimed in, "as Mr. Wilmington made mention, we took the last year to attempt to make that discovery."

 

"So. . . it's true then."  Travis leaned hard against the padded armrest on his chair.  His hand came up to cradle the side of his face as he fought a dizzy rush.  Fingers threaded through the gray hair at his temple and clenched in while one eye peered at them through the crevice between pinky and ring finger.

 

They all nursed the old man through his shock with gentle words about the rules they had created and applied to their existence to separate them from the creatures who had done this to them.  They explained vampires to him, masters and goons, and how it was Ella Gaines who, with the help of Cletus Fowler, had brought this ill fate to Four Corners.  They told him about Michael Arrant, the young hunter who had taught them a thing or two before his death.  They took him step by step through how they had each become a master, only leaving out a few of the harsher details.

 

It was a very long night.

 

Before dawn they bid the Judge goodbye with plans to meet him again the next evening to discuss the further reasons for their appearance.  Knowing that he was a man whose interests were firmly vested in the good of mankind, they were certain they'd made the right decision.

 

"So that's how Clarion Group was formed?" Shaw asked now, looking from one to the other of the Seven.

 

"It took a few years really getting the show off the ground," Nathan explained.  "We had full human contact back then, needed to be around just to prove to possible recruits that vampires existed.  Then when we were in the field we only had telegraph and letter for communication."

 

"Found a few of the town's survivors along the way," J.D. added, "ones who witnessed the slayings in the cemetery that first day.  Eventually got a circuit hooked up and just went from there."

 

"And you still hunt with Clarion Group as a guide?  I mean, it's just you here.  Do they have other hunters in the field?  Human hunters?"

 

"Absolutely," Ezra replied.  "They aren't just our information gatherers."

 

"We work as a separate team from the main group now," Buck further explained.  "It's for security reasons, no direct human contact with the group unless necessary.  Nathan's our liaison via internet and phone."

 

"And I love technology," the black man said with a smile.  "Makes my job easier."

 

"We fund ourselves separately as well," Ezra added smugly.

 

Buck gave a patient grunt.  "Our stock broker."

 

"So, where is Clarion based then?"  Shaw looked like he was getting ideas already, but none of the Seven were ready to give him the full benefit of the doubt yet, even with the progress they had made in their discussion.

 

"We don't know," Chris replied.  "It's safer for them."

 

Shaw frowned in confusion.

 

"It's like this," Buck said, "we don't know where they are.  If one or all of us lost it, Clarion would be in danger.  Comprende?"

 

Shaw nodded, the frown still etched between his brows.  "This is—“ he continued after a moment, suppressing excitement.  "This is just. . . incredible."

 

"Oh without a doubt, we're a genuine enigma," Ezra remarked.

 

"You're still human.  That's what I'm trying to say."

 

They all stared, silenced by the statement.  It was their turn to frown as they looked at the prisoner who had somehow turned into more of a guest.

 

"Whatever you are outside," Shaw went on, "you're still yourselves on the inside.  You're like a breed apart.  It's really. . . just. . . incred—“

 

"That's enough," Chris cut him off.  "We're still monsters too, boy.  You never forget that."  With that he turned on his heel and walked into a corner to simmer down, head bowed as he rested one hand against a bulge in the wall.  He stayed there, just within the shadows, the lantern light barely contouring across his shoulders.

 

Shaw stood nodding with respect to the leader's last statement.  "Um, yeah, I. . . meant no disrespect. . . You've all been through a lot."

 

"Ah, don't worry about him," Nathan said softly and approached the hunter.  "We got our sensitive issues still.  Always will."

 

Seeing that the others were working to keep the ground they'd covered with the hunter, Buck excused himself to follow Chris.  Shaw, Nathan, and Ezra continued to chat softly.

 

Approaching Chris from behind, Buck reached up and touched a shoulder.  He felt the muscles beneath the coat sleeve clench up and turned the simple touch into a caress.

 

"Hey," he whispered, "you okay?"

 

Chris nodded, head still bowed.  "Hunters, huh?" he asked after a moment.  "How'd you deal?"

 

Buck threw a glance over his shoulder at Vin, who had settled himself against the wall again and was absently chewing on a hangnail on his thumb while he listened to the others.  "Good alarm system.  Shrieked so loud it nearly brought down the mine on our heads."

 

Chris made a half-turn and stared at the now-healed wound in the tracker's belly.  Judging by that hole in his shirt, whatever had gone in Vin's gut had been huge.  "A hunter's spear?" Chris guessed shakily.

 

Buck nodded, noticing the glassy sheen washing over Chris' eyes.  "Hey," he repeated in a rasp and reached up to cup the side of Chris' face.  "Hey, you with me?"

 

Chris' focus lingered on Vin then shifted with mechanical stiffness to Josiah and the bloodstain on his shirt to the right of his collarbone.  "Yeah. . . um, yeah. . ."

 

"What happened back there?  You remember anything?"

 

Chris shook his head, but Buck got the distinct feeling he wasn't being honest.

 

"What did she do to you?"

 

"Let it go, Buck," Chris griped back.

 

"Let it go?"  Buck raised his brows in astonishment.  "Chris, you were having a full seizure while we were getting our asses kicked.  Good thing we carry guns, because those guys certainly didn't want to get shot.  Guess they figured they can't hunt if they got a bullet in 'em, no matter what it's made of."  He glared, forcing Chris to face him.  "Now you tell me, what did she do to drop you like that?"

 

Chris swallowed stiffly, his Adam's apple flexing upward then dropping heavily.  "She was. . . she. . ."  He couldn't say it, couldn't explain the visions.  That whole time he'd literally felt himself in another world with no sense of his real body.  "I. . .  Buck. . . I. . ."  He felt frozen suddenly.  The animated corpse that was his body flooded with the sensation of ice in his veins.

 

Buck could see that he was trying hard.  Too hard.  Chris couldn't get a full sentence out without choking on his own tongue.  "All right," he concluded.  "You get a grip, but when we get home tonight, we're having a talk.  Got it?"

 

Chris stared at him, eyes unreadable.

 

Buck huffed out a tired and frustrated breath, closed his eyes tightly for a second as he shook his head to himself.  "Chris?"

 

Chris nodded slowly.

 

Buck was inclined to pressure the other for a more solid answer than that, but suddenly Nathan called over.

 

"Buck, Chris, ya'll need to come hear this."

 

"Yeah, okay, be right there, Nathan."  Buck gave one last severe glance at Chris before turning to go join the group.

 

Chris followed at a slower pace and lingered on the edge of the gathering.

 

"Now tell them what you just told us about Fowler," Nathan told Shaw.

 

All eyes on the young hunter, Shaw nodded and looked at Buck.  "I was just saying that when Ezra mentioned that name, and its variation, Kleitos, it sounded familiar."

 

"That so?"  Buck's brows shot up, his interest instantly piqued.

 

"Yes, see, there's a Kleitos in the Vatican files on master activity.  I'm not sure his activity in the US is very well documented, but in the mid '60s he allegedly emerged in Spain."

 

"That snake," Buck said more to himself.  "Probably fled Dodge the second he got wind about Four Corners.  We guessed he wasn't in the area anymore, but it still didn't hurt to look."

 

"That sounds like him," Shaw replied.  "He's efficient, doesn't care for the responsibility of too many goons around him.  Travels light that way and leaves fewer blood trails to follow and document."

 

"Just like the way he killed the men he hired," Buck reflected with an agreeing nod.  "Left no witnesses."

 

"And his hand?" Chris asked gruffly from the back of the group.  "The Fowler we met had a crippled right hand.  That sound familiar?"

 

"Oh yeah, makes me sure it's him."  Shaw rolled his eyes upward as if accessing some deeply stored data in his brain.  "I haven't been in the Vatican files in a while, but there are a few names that stand out from the Middle Ages."

 

"Take your time," Nathan replied.

 

"Well, I think the story is Kleitos was a foot soldier for the Church of Rome in the 1200's. . . I think. . . during the Albigensian Crusades."  Shaw ran a hand through his bangs.  "I don't think he was a true believer himself.  He was just good at killing.  Then in one of those crusades, his hand was injured, crushed somehow.  The master who approached him was was apparently impressed with Kleitos' methods and promised him that eternal life would also give back the use of his hand."

 

"Not so, huh?" Buck said lowly and added, "What a bitch."

 

"It was a rare occurrence, apparently.  Kleitos killed his creator almost immediately after he had risen, when he realized he was crippled forever.  That's another rare thing, probably why that story stuck in my memory.  You just don't see many cases of vampires killing their sires like that."

 

"Karma, plain and simple," Josiah said, "for both parties involved."

 

The others threw glances at Vin, gestures which only Alan Shaw did not notice.

 

The tracker shuffled uneasily on his feet, and readjusted himself against the wall, still fingering absently at the damage to his shirt.  "So," he said and cleared his throat, "this sounds like our mark.  You got any more on him?"

 

"Sorry, no."

 

"Well, it's a start," Nathan said.

 

"I feel a bit better thinking we might know more about him than he does us now."  Buck took a cautionary step forward, reached out, and gave Shaw a hearty pat on the shoulder.  "Thanks, kid, really.  You've been real helpful.  You've told us more than Clarion could dig up in a hundred years.  I'm sorry about dragging you down this dark hole."

 

Shaw held up his hands as if calling a truce.  "Hey, we're clear now.  I really am still. . . just. . . just amazed at all of this."

 

"Well, take that amazement and tell your buddies," Buck said, "we can use all the allies we can get."

 

"Sure."  Shaw took a deep breath and appeared to be reorganizing his thoughts.

 

"Not long before sundown," Vin said then.  "Pro'ly won't get you outside in time to prove to your team we didn’t turn you."

 

"As long as they can see I'm cooperating, I'll be quarantined.  Usual time's forty-eight hours.  Then some of them will be more ready to listen to—“  He broke off as if something had suddenly occurred to him, and his features sank into a frown.  Whatever it was, he shook his head and sighed.  He examined the faces around him bathed in lantern light.  "You said something like this thing with Clarion happened before?  Someone inside betrayed you?"

 

Buck addressed that question quickly.  "It's not something we like to talk about."  He was glancing around at the others again, when he stopped and did a double take on an empty space at the rear of the gathering.  "Where's Chris?"

 

He straightened, craning his head up and looking over Vin's bronze mane and around behind Josiah.  Everyone else looked too, stepping away from the tighter clutch to scan the cavern.

 

"Chris?" Buck called, his voice echoed by Vin also calling the leader's name.  "Shit," he hissed and stamped over to one of the two tunnels leading into and out of this section of cavern.  "Chris?"  When there was no answer, his voice rose with a conglomeration of worry and irritation. "Chris!"

 

"Aw, hell," Vin's soft drawl suddenly answered as the tracker peered toward the opposite tunnel.  "Buck, come here."

 

Buck turned and stormed over to the opening, looking down the length of winding stone enclosure.  A damp and rank draft carried up from the depths, bearing Chris' musky-earthy scent with it. "He went this way."

 

"That ain't the point."

 

Buck turned and looked over at the thing that really had the tracker's attention.  Draped over the lumpy top of one of the stalagmites at the tunnel's opening was Chris' gun belt.  The twin Berettas were still holstered, their barrels pointing downward and slanted toward each other to almost form a heart shape against the rock.  All unused ammunition clips were still in their slots.

 

The message was clear and stirred every nerve in Buck's body as he stared, momentarily speechless, at the abandoned weapons.

 

"Oh my God," he finally uttered.  "He's going to her."

 

"What!" Vin startled and looked frantically to the others.  "We gotta go after him!"  He hurried over to his previous resting spot on the floor, and scooped up his duster.

 

"Wait a moment, brother Vin," Josiah said sternly and reached out swiftly to grab the tracker's elbow as Vin came sweeping by.

 

Vin veered around with a snarl.  "Don't start preachin' now, Josiah.  You heard Buck."

 

"He went that way," Buck said, pointing down the tunnel past the stalagmite displaying the gun belt like some museum exhibit.  "That's the quickest way back toward town on foot."

 

"If we hurry," J.D. said, "we might get there just behind him."

 

Buck groaned, laden with fatigue and uncertainty, thoughts racing to put together a plan, any plan.  Time only allowed for the simplest of strategies.

 

"What about your bikes?" Shaw asked, squinting to see as far past the lantern light as his vision would allow.

 

J.D. went to remove the little lamp from its ledge and handed it to the hunter.  "What about them?" he asked.

 

"My guess is that's where the rest of the team is camped out, waiting for you to come out of here so they can track you.  They probably won't attack, so you can still get to your bikes."

 

"The bikes wouldn't do us any good," Buck replied.  "They're parked too far away in the other direction, and no tellin' what kind of lead Chris has on us."

 

"Damned straight," Vin added.  "Didn't even make a sound."  He shook his head and turned to suddenly find himself staring into two cool green eyes.  Vin nearly flinched as Ezra studied him a few seconds more before returning full attention to the situation.

 

"But maybe I could try to get the others to listen to me," Shaw explained further.  "If they know the one they really want. . . Ella Gaines. . . is in Four Corners right now."

 

"Think they'd dare face her at night?" Nathan asked.

 

"Pu-lease," Ezra said.  "The Italian?"  He rolled his eyes and gave a sour mock chuckle.

 

"Okay, so maybe he would."  Buck recalled the cold, dark eyes that had glared defiantly back at him during the mineshaft brawl.  "Here's the deal.  Nathan, you and Josiah take the kid out the main entrance of the mine and back to our bikes, if that's where the hunters are.  Let him go ahead of you to talk to his buddies.  If he can't convince them we're on the same side, fall back.  Get out of there and down to town.  Vin, Ezra, J.D., come with me.  We get into town and split up.  Whoever finds Chris first, try to reason with him, but if that fails. . ."  His voice cut off as if hands had wrapped around and squeezed his throat.  ". . . if that fails. . . or if he's with Ella. . ."

 

"What?" Vin asked anxiously, eyes narrowed and storming with mixed emotions that came aglow within his pupils.

 

Buck blinked, eyes watering, the edges of his lids reddening while he swallowed a hard lump and forced breath up through his thickened throat to finish out his orders.

 

". . . Shoot him. . ."

 

 

Chapter Twenty-One

 

"Wasn't me got my face pulped," a gruff and familiar voice said from somewhere just over the rise.  It belonged to Gentry.

 

"No, but I hope you weren't planning on having kids someday," Kilroy replied.

 

They both sounded snappish, up each other's ass, attitudes and egos on the defense.

 

Shaw crouched ahead of Nathan and Josiah, listening in.  The three had found the hunters exactly where Shaw had said they would be.  They had taken a safe distance back from the row of motorcycles parked in a line under the protection of a stone outcrop in the side of the ridge near the mineshaft's entrance.

 

"Harleys," Dobson was musing more to himself than anyone else.  "You believe vampires would have taste enough to ride Harleys?"

 

"Two of 'em are Big Dogs," Kilroy corrected him, voice now muffled as if he were chewing on something.  "That other thing though. . . now that is out of place."

 

"The rice burner?"

 

"Yep.  Something about that picture is just. . . just. . . wrong."

 

Shaw smirked at that.  He had thought the same thing earlier today. 

 

The golden evening glow was comfortable, just enough illumination that he could clearly see details in the landscape without a flashlight, and Nathan and Josiah were able to come out of their shelter.  Seeing them now, shrouded in dusk, they looked more human than they had in the cavern.  In the dark of the mineshaft, swathed only in lantern light, the Seven's preternatural features had been more obvious, their eyes aglow, their skin luminous; even with their fangs retracted, when the lantern light flashed on their canines, the sharp points gleamed lethally.  Now, seeing the two with him in partial, if fading, daylight, Shaw felt a little more at ease.  Indeed, as the one named Ezra had stated, they were not interested in exhibition, and any show of their vampire characteristics occurred via instinct or emotional stimulus.  Having just been attacked by hunters at that time, they had certainly had plenty to be emotional about, but they were all calmer now, focused on recovering their wayward comrade.

 

The walk back out, lantern in hand, had put Shaw's nerves on end.  Inclined though he was to trust them, he never let it slip his mind that they were predators.  As Chris Larabee had reminded him: We're still monsters too, boy.  You never forget that.  But considering what they could have done to him yet did not, and the story they had told, there was now no doubt in Shaw's mind that the Seven would be an asset to hunters everywhere.  Vampires hunting other vampires; it was a perfect set-up, considering the heightened senses and night vision, the speed, and the strength at their disposal.  All of these things constituted the reason human hunters didn't work in the field at night, especially when dealing with masters.  The Seven were on level ground with their prey in that respect.  Not to mention, they were more proficient in weapons creation and use than any other hunters Shaw had encountered.  His own unit only used crossbows of various sizes, spears and stakes.  They never bothered with guns since bullets were useless against the undead.  Well, regular bullets anyway, and who would have thought to mold graphite into a projectile?

 

Shaw took a deep breath and considered his only real options.  Still crouched, he crept backward until he reached Josiah's and Nathan's positions.  "Okay, I'm rethinking this," he said.  "They see you, they'll be easily provoked."

 

"You think?"  Josiah arched a brow at the hunter.  "You're going to have to prove we didn't turn you.  Can you do that?"

 

Shaw nodded as he looked into the deep-set crystal-blue of the immortal preacher's eyes.  "Yeah."  He looked down at Josiah's gun belt, nodding toward one of the Berettas.  "I need one of those guns, if you will trust me with it."

 

Josiah's eyes darkened as if in warning.

 

"Gotta hold 'em back," Shaw explained.  "They might rush me if I don't."

 

"Here, take one of mine," Nathan said, drawing one of his Berettas, turning it around, and presenting it handle up toward Shaw.  "We trust you."

 

Shaw held up the weapon and examined the modification to the end of the barrel. "What'd you do to it?  I guess this adjusts the spiraling on the projectile?"

 

"Something like that," Josiah replied.  "We have a second design that doubles as a silencer."

 

"Nice."

 

Nathan looked back toward the rise, and paused to listen to the voices coming from the other side.  Just hushed and mundane conversation among the hunters, nothing more.  "All right, let's do this thing."

 

Shaw tucked the gun into the back of his belt, out of sight but easy to reach.  "Me first."  He stood, took a deep breath, and walked toward the rise, shoulders hitched back confidently.  He intentionally took loud, dirt scuffling steps, and listened as the voices of the other hunters dropped off in reaction to his approach.

 

They heard him coming and had already veered around, preparing to draw up their crossbows by the time he stood at the top of the rise, looking down at the little gathering.  They had opened a small cooler of food and passed around bottles of water.  In the distance, past a patch of prickly pear and brambles, he could see the Seven's motorcycles tucked beneath the rock outcrop on the hillside as if parked in a natural garage.

 

"Nice picnic," Shaw called out, raising one hand, palm flat and presented to his comrades.  He paused to give them a moment of recognition.  "Easy now.  It's me."

 

"Shaw?" Kilroy gasped.  He had half a sandwich in one hand, a corner bitten out of it.  "Man, what the hell happened to you?"

 

"Hold it!" Gentry hissed suspiciously.  "He was captured.  He's one of them."

 

Shaw shook his head and couldn't help smirking.  "Sorry to disappoint you, but no."

 

"Bullshit."  Gentry's face looked oddly flushed.

 

Shaw frowned and did a double take on Kilroy as well, noticing minor swells and bruises on his cheekbones and jaw line, and enflamed nostrils that might be the remnants of a bloody nose.  "Would I be turned this soon?" he asked.  "It's only been—“ he checked his watch, "—five hours."

 

They all blinked at him.  Something was off, and he didn't realize exactly what it was until he did a head count.  Gentry, Dobson, Kilroy, Reeves. . . they were present. . . but where was. . .

 

"Stranger things have happened," Kilroy said warily.

 

"Hey, I know how this looks," Shaw said casually.  "But if you don't believe me, look at my heat pattern."

 

Reeves' brows sank down while the corner of his mouth twitched upward.  He retrieved his thermal scope from the clutch of equipment near his feet.  "You," he said sternly to Shaw, "stay put."

 

Shaw shrugged and waited while Reeves examined him through the scope.

 

After a moment the other hunter lowered the instrument and gave a startled, "Huh."

 

"I know the regulations," Shaw went on, acting terribly cooperative.  "I'll obey the quarantine."

 

"Heh," Kilroy muttered, "join the club."

 

"Where's the boss and the priest?"

 

"Beats the hell out of us," Reeves replied.  "After we fucked up today, The Italian nearly decommissioned the unit.  Near sundown he told us to stay here and took the Humvee.  Said he needed to run into that ghost town.  Refused to give a reason."

 

Shaw inadvertently glared at them, pondering the unit leader's intentions. "And Ives?"

 

"He insisted on going.  The Italian was pissed off as all get out, but he couldn't talk Ives into staying."  Kilroy forgot his sandwich and his hand dropped to his side.  His thoughts were quickly drawn elsewhere as evidenced in his next question.  "What did they do with you, Shaw?  Seven masters, man. . . how did you get away?"

 

Shaw looked down, sighed, and pondered how to explain.  He went for simple.  "They let me go."

 

Again they blinked at him, a variety of frowns and twitches lacing their brows and the corners of their mouths.

 

Shaw turned his head slightly and called over his shoulder.  "Did you hear that, gentlemen?"

 

"We sure did," Josiah replied as he came up over the rise.  His guns were drawn but dangled in his hands at his sides.  "No sudden moves now.  I know you boys are a bit jumpy."

 

Nathan appeared beside him, his second Beretta in one hand, also down at his side.

 

"You sonofabitch!" Gentry shouted at Shaw.  "You're in their thrall!" His arm tensed and he started to raise the crossbow again.

 

"Nope."  Shaw reached smoothly behind his back and drew Nathan's other Beretta out of his belt and aimed it with a cool glare in his eyes.  "Don't even think about it, Gentry.  I've got something to tell you, and you're all gonna be cool and listen."

 

Reeves twitched, Kilroy's sandwich slipped to the ground, and Dobson started to raise his own crossbow.  The movement provoked Josiah and Nathan into hoisting up their guns, holding them out casually at waist level.

 

"Déjà vu," the preacher commented, voice a silky deep purr of amusement.  He smiled lightly, and then winked at Reeves.

 

"Shaw, buddy, don't do this."

 

"Shut up, Kilroy."  Shaw gave a gesture with his free hand for Josiah and Nathan to come down from the rise.  "Sit tight now," he told the hunters.  "We're going to let these men get to their bikes, and then you're going to hear what I have to say."

 

"You think you'll be okay?" Nathan asked as he crept past Shaw, skirting the group.

 

Josiah took the opposite flank, never taking his eyes off the hunters.  Dusky golden light slipped along the barrel of the gun toward his hand as he crept on around the group. 

 

"Yeah, I'll be fine."  Shaw remained steady.

 

"We'll be on our way then," Josiah said as he reached the brush and rocks and stepped carefully past the prickly pears.  Then he and Nathan both slipped out of sight.  As they moved into the shadows at the base of the hills, their figures were almost completely lost, swallowed by the landscape.

 

Shaw stood his ground for another few minutes, the tension graced by the lonely howl of wind across the far prairie grasses.  The sun dipped further behind the horizon, amber light dimming to a muddy hue.  When he heard one of the bikes crank up and roar to life, he threw a glance over to see the vehicle speed away from the outcrop, ridden by Josiah with Nathan on the back seat, arms secured around the preacher's waist.

 

"All right, gentlemen," he said, and cringed slightly, realizing the authority in his voice sounded like The Italian.  "Story time."

 

They looked ready to hang him, but at least they listened.

 

-7-7-7-

 

Buck stumbled against the side of the old First National Bank, fighting a sudden dizzy spell and clenching a hand over his chest.  Fiery pain wrenched his heart, which continued to beat in its usual sluggish rhythm yet pumped too little blood.  His stomach knotted, the hunger at its gnawing worst.  He fought back tears, feeling as if Chris were already lost.  His mind reached out for the tenuous link he'd managed to establish with that last furious feeding, and found nothing on the other end of it.  And damned if his senses weren’t so wound up now he couldn't distinguish one scent from another.

 

He, Vin, Ezra, and J.D. had tracked Chris as far as the tunnel's mouth, which came out amid some rocks to the southwest of Four Corners.  Within the gradually narrowing tunnel, that specific musky scent had been clear and easy to follow, until the passage met the surface ground some five hills over from where the mine's main entrance was located.

 

New scents accosted them upon meeting open air.

 

Sand. . . dried grasses. . . scaly creatures. . . Chris. . .

 

They had wound their way down out of the hills before the town came into view, a long mass of shadow and dead wood on the plain before them.  Night insects buzzed, a rodent skittered by.  Finding not a single footprint, they had no choice but to move on and split up to widen their search.  No way to tell which way Chris had gone in, and no telling how far he'd gotten

 

Now, some three hundred yards later, the others out of sight, Buck felt the drain and found his fingertips numb, his feet like lead weights stuffed into his boots.  He figured he should have kept J.D. with him for back up, but he hadn't realized how bad his condition was.  Chris had taken more from him than he'd thought, apparently.  Waiting, taking a series of long deep breaths, he found the pain subsiding.  It was only temporary, he was sure of that, but if he could hold out a little longer, get this done.  He couldn't fail Chris. . . just couldn't. . .

 

Vin and Ezra had gone to the southeastern bend, while J.D. had taken the northeastern route up and around the old Stage Company.  With any luck they would hem in their quarry and stop Chris before he made physical contact with Ella.

 

Buck was heading back to the place where it all started.  That was where his gut told him to go, but then maybe he was just operating on hindsight.

 

One hand extended out to find support against the gritty wall of the bank, he made his way down the alley, Main Street coming into view ahead.  Directly to the northeast, he saw the corner of the saloon and the alleyway beside it.  Looking up the street, then down again, he found no sign of movement.  He took a deep breath to analyze the scents again.  Just dusty night air, nothing to even indicate the presence of a goon nearby.

 

Buck pushed away from the wall, wavered, waited for his head to clear, then crossed the street.  Veering toward the hollowed out shell of the hardware store, he reached the entrance to the alleyway and stopped to look up onto the boardwalk leading into the saloon where Christobal had died and Ella had mortally wounded, and infected, J.D..

 

Even with the kid coming in at one end of town, Vin and Ezra at the other, and Chris somewhere in the midst of it all, Buck suddenly felt alone, cold.  Maybe it was madness brought on by the hunger, or the sickening memory of that last night they saw Ella.

 

For a moment he looked up the street, and everything changed.  The sun appeared, white hot and centered in a pale blue sky, shining on freshly painted buildings and the rumps of three impatient horses tethered to the hitching post outside the saloon.

 

Buck gaped and stared around him, ears perking up as piano music poured out of the saloon doors, and three ladies in fine dresses giggled about something as they walked along the boardwalk.  They lifted their parasols and stepped down from the boardwalk to cross the street to Potter's store.  Buck turned stiffly and looked over his shoulder to find Mrs. Potter in the doorway, sweeping out the main entrance.  Suddenly three children burst past her out the door, nearly knocking her over, and she scolded after them, shaking a finger.  The horses shifted, a hoof or two clomping on the ground, the leather of their saddles creaking.

 

Buck let out a grunt of denial then swallowed a hard lump.  For all that the world had changed around him, he still felt the same, a dead thing standing here in the middle of the street.  The sun overhead should have been ripping his skin apart right now, burning him to the bone.

 

He closed his eyes and shuddered, the brilliant daylight penetrating his lids so that he saw the web of dark veins in the delicate skin.

 

"It's not. . .  Not real."

 

No sooner had he spoken than all the sounds died, borne away on the evening breeze.  Buck opened his eyes.  All the colors and movement that had brought the place to life were gone again, replaced by worn wood and sand, and there were no horses at the hitching post.  There wasn't even a hitching post. The sun had transformed into the pearl ornament of the moon dangling low on the horizon beyond the town.

 

Great, I'm hallucinating, Buck rationalized and, taking another breath, moved on before it could happen again.  Peering down the alleyway that led to the hotel, he drew his guns from his belt and crept forward.  The pains in his chest returned, not as intense as the first round had been.  He could tolerate them at this level.  He listened, and walked, and ahead saw the corner of the hotel with its front porch and double doors that had been left wide open and back against the outside wall.  The glass in the panels had long since fallen out, the hinges had rusted through and each had become one solid lump of crud that would probably crumble if anyone tried to close one of the doors.

 

Stepping up onto the porch, Buck kept his guns lowered, out from his body, sweeping the perimeter around him.  Wouldn't want to have them pointed up and accidentally fire at Chris should they bump into each other.  He wanted to be sure of Chris' frame of mind first.

 

And what if Chris was already with Ella?

 

Buck's heart stabbed a little harder at him, and nausea washed his stomach.  Even if Ella were in control, deep inside, Chris would be screaming for release.

 

Chris would want death. . . final. . . complete. . .

 

Then a warm, salty scent billowed out of the hotel doors, and Buck suddenly forgot about Chris.  He proceeded, guns still in their ready positions, and couldn't help but follow that delicious aroma.

 

Blood, freshly spilled. . . intoxicating. . .

 

The hotel's gray lobby met him, and he scoped it out, noting the blood scent was more intense past the old desk, and down the hallway.  For a moment the hallucinations threatened to return.  The desk, currently a colony of splintered wood, dust, and cobwebs, turned into a polished mahogany stand, complete with a guest book, and the form of the old lady who owned the place appeared, a mere phantom against the wall.

 

Buck blinked, shook his head, and the vision disappeared.  The smell kept him grounded as he searched out its source.  He tracked it into the corridor, remembering how once long ago, and still human, he had stumbled through here into the old kitchen, looking for a weapon of some kind.  Before he reached the kitchen this time, however, he stopped when he spotted a form sprawled on the floor, blocking his passage.  Buck looked past the body in black clothing, then back over his shoulder.

 

He could smell shit, the bowels having released at the moment of death, which, besides the blood scent, told him exactly how fresh the corpse was.  Wrinkling his nose, he crept over and eased down onto one knee to look into the vacant face.  Next he noticed the stiff black collar and the white Roman band accompanying it.  No question that this was the priest who worked with the Vatican team.  He'd glimpsed the full team from within the mineshaft, but his focus had primarily been on The Italian.  The priest's neck was turned to the side, revealing a gaping wound that still oozed, but for the most part the body was drained.  A crimson stain was seeping through the Roman band.

 

Buck stared, fangs budding to half-length.

 

Instinct to feed threatened to take him, his mind flooding with all means of rationalizing it if he leaned down and tasted the remaining blood.  His lips parted, eager, and he felt the burning behind his eyes, before he gasped, closed his mouth, and pulled himself back, forced himself to stand.

 

Dizzy, he once more closed his eyes and took deep breaths, turning his thoughts toward the fact that tasting the blood would do nothing for him.  There wasn't enough left in the body, and to taste would only mean to drive his own hunger on. That matter under control, he got to the real issue.

 

How had the priest gotten here, and who had killed him?

 

Buck drew in another breath, analyzing the blood scent and attempting to sort any others around it.  He didn't think he detected Chris' soft musk, but then there was that ungodly awful shit smell.  If he were human he would have puked by now.  His nerves crawled at the worry that an Ella-crazed Chris Larabee had done this.  Could Chris be so consumed?  Could he have finally succumbed and let the beast take full reign?

 

Buck shook that thought away immediately.

 

No. . . no way. . .

 

And then he caught it barely, the tiniest thread of jasmine curling up from the body.

 

The scent faded quickly, lost to the other overpowering molecules invading the air.

 

Buck gritted his teeth, knowing full well what it meant.  And with that he noticed a creaking from above.  Somewhere up there, feet were moving over the floorboards.  There was a louder creak, as if weight had shifted, but the sound was muffled, proving that the old hotel was still quite sturdy, even after a century and no upkeep.  Might even be two sets of footfalls up there.

 

Greater urgency moved him back out of the hallway and into the lobby.  He turned toward the great staircase, his gaze following it up along the wall to the balcony and its railing draped with thick laces of cobwebs.  Only one way to find out who was up there.  He moved to the steps and ascended with caution, pausing when his head started to swim.  He waited until the dizziness cleared again before continuing.

 

On the top landing, he cocked an ear toward the main corridor up the way, and listened, certain he heard voices.  One female, the other male, low and gruff.

 

 Chris?

 

He couldn't be sure.  Something about the second voice was off.  He moved across the long stretch of rug that had rotted and all but become one with the floorboards.  Then he turned into the corridor, moved down two doors, and looked ahead, finding the open doorway from which the voices came.

 

The woman's voice, familiar and cold, was much clearer now.  Moonlight fell through the windows in the rooms, and from the one at the end of the hall.  The panel of silver lying across the floor cast a hint of a shadow, including slender shoulders and a head.  Whoever else was in there wasn't standing where the light fell.

 

"I fulfilled most of my side of the bargain," Ella hissed angrily.  "I allowed those bastards to kill my minions for you, Mr. Donati.  What have you done?  Nothing."

 

The shadow moved.  Buck could see her thin waist alongside the cascade of her hair, tossed like a veil back from her face, and for a moment he glimpsed a profile distorted by the elongation of the shadow's angle.

 

The man in there with her responded with equal coldness, not a shred of fear in his voice.  But it was the rolling accent that caught Buck's attention.

 

"Look, bitch, when you give me solid information on how to take them out. . ."

 

"How fucking hard could it be?" she snapped back.  "They won't hurt your men."

 

"Want to bet?"

 

More pain jerked in Buck's chest, half of it from hunger, the other half shock.  She had The Italian in there with her.  He sucked in a breath, held it, realizing it was almost loud enough for them to hear.  Slowly he began to raise his hands, guns pointed toward the door, but damned if he wasn't shaking too much.  The Berettas felt so heavy.  At full strength he could hold them out like this forever and never tire, but not now.

 

Ella's shadow paced again then came to a halt, suggesting that she might be facing into the room.  She took a moment, calming.  "As it is, Mr. Larabee is on his way here now.  I feel him.  The others will come to look for him, but we will be gone by then.  They'll be forced to return to the mine, or take sanctuary in this town."

 

"You're so certain of that?"

 

Her shadow gave what looked like a subtle nod.  "Absolutely.  You can blast the mine, or burn this place down, whichever you like."

 

Buck's mouth dropped open.  The words spoken with venom, so much hate.  The dizziness returned, and he cursed at himself, determining to keep a clear head, to stand still and not make a sound.  They would come out of that room and he'd open fire, shoot the shit out of them both.  His throat knotting, he fought to keep the guns raised.

 

"Very well," The Italian replied.  "But when this is over. . ."

 

"I know.  You will never see me or Chris again."

 

The Italian drew in a long breath and exhaled, the sound reminding Buck of a pit viper coiling to strike.  "I see you again, either of you, I will kill you."

 

"I believe we've already covered this ground, Mr. Donati, and you shall have the blood of six masters on your resume.  That should please the Pope.  You'll be the first hunter to retire alive, with full benefits."

 

She sounded so sickeningly smarmy.  Buck closed his mouth, gritted his teeth, and tensed, certain they were about to emerge from their meeting place.  He was ready, his forefingers caressing each trigger, hot-wired and ready to squeeze.

 

He was dizzy again.

 

Shit. . .

 

Buck stumbled back a step for balance, his heel coming down too hard on the floorboards.

 

Ella's head turned at the muted thump, and she froze, the shadow of her profile in full view now, angled as if she were looking over her shoulder.  Then with movement so swift as to be a blur, she spun and stepped directly out into the hallway.

 

Buck tried not to gasp, but started to pull the trigger, fingers cinching in then. . . freezing.  He couldn't move.  Rooted to the spot, he stared at Ella.  She was clad in clinging black pants and riding boots, with a gauzy see-through blouse.  The dark circles of her nipples stared back at him through the flimsy material.  Her hair, groomed to a silky sheen, framed her face and spilt around her shoulders.

 

So here she was, a vision of the modern woman, and yet still the same insane creature she had been a century ago.  Her dark eyes narrowed at him, a cat-like sleekness in the sharp angles of her cheekbones and the exotic sweep of her lashes.  Her dark lips parted, revealing a hint of long canines as she merely observed him, so eerily calm.

 

"Mr. Wilmington," she purred then, shaking her head gently as if to indicate that she too had been surprised.  "Whatever are you doing out here?"  She took a silent, graceful step toward him.

 

Behind her, The Italian appeared in the doorway, watching cautiously.

 

"Don't. . ." Buck uttered and tried to command his arms to lift the guns higher, to aim for her heart.  Just shoot her, right there, between those two teasing tits of hers.

 

"You're not going to shoot me, are you?" she asked in mock fright.

 

The Italian looked rather amused.

 

Buck stiffened, forced his right arm to cooperate, and pulled the gun up to eye level, sighted down the barrel right at his target.

 

There was a sweep of movement, faster than a blink, and suddenly Ella was right in front of him.  She moved in, brought both hands up under his wrists, and forced his hands upward, the guns pointing uselessly at the ceiling.  In that same moment, sharp talons sprouted from her fingertips.  Her thumbs bore into his inside wrists, tearing deep gashes, ripping the muscle so that he cried out.  His hands lost their grip and both Berettas tumbled free, hitting the floor and clattering into the shadows along the corridor.

 

Ella let go of one bleeding wrist and took the other with her as she smoothly stepped around behind him, pulling his arm into a lock, and one sharp boot kicked him in the back of the leg.  His knee buckled and he went down into a partial kneel.

 

"Bitch," he whispered, grimacing as she pulled up on his arm, twisting his shoulder joint.

 

"That," she replied and pulled harder, "is getting so old."

 

Her lips descended beside his ear, and he felt a stray lock of her hair tickle his cheek.  In this close proximity, Buck smelled the jasmine perfume again, and with it the tang of fresh blood on her breath.  She was sated on the priest, and far stronger than Buck could ever have expected her to be.  His chest thrust out, his one free hand struggling to reach up and grab at her eyes, her hair, anything to force her to let go.  His vision danced, first to the floor, then to the figure of The Italian watching the show, then up to the ceiling.  The pain in his chest exploded anew as what little blood he had left in his body began to seep through his open wrists.

 

Buck groaned, the only sound he could manage as his throat constricted. The wounds in his wrists weren't healing.  Helpless, he hung in her arms with no choice but to listen to her voice.

 

"So fortuitous that you should be here.  I've waited a hundred and twenty-five long years for this," she crooned.  "You thought you could keep Chris from me."  Then her thumb talon, wielded like a switchblade, slashed down along the side of his throat up under his jaw line, neatly opening jugular and carotid.  A weak spurt of blood emerged, followed by another that drained down inside his collar.  "What's wrong?  No gas in the tank?"

 

Buck's weight sank with him, and Ella let go, dumping him on both knees.  He swayed, falling back on his haunches and only shaky balance held him upright.  Briefly he thought he heard gunshots somewhere far away, maybe even horses whinnying.

 

Damn hallucinations coming back. . .

 

Ella stepped around in front of him, admiring her work for a matter of seconds.  She looked almost sweet, smiling at him, and some part of him understood how she'd been so able to charm Chris that time on the Petrie ranch, before everything turned sour, before her true nature came to light.  Then her lips curled back and she bared all of her teeth, fangs fully extended, glossy and marbled with remnants of blood.  She raised her hand, the thumb still out, and slashed down again, opening a second gash in the other side of his neck.

 

The force with which she delivered the cut sent him falling over backward.  He rolled onto his side, tried absently to pull himself away.  His limbs wouldn't cooperate, and that damnable pain grew in his chest.  Tears glazed his eyes as he registered that soon he'd be dead.

 

She had won.

 

No, please, this is a nightmare. . . Wake up, Bucklin. . .

 

So many nightmares before. . . why couldn't he wake up from this one?

 

Ella kicked him in the side, the blow sending him flopping onto his back and staring up into the ceiling.  His lips parted as if instinct still hoped to find some sustenance to allow him to heal, even if he only drew it from the air above him.  Limp arms sprawled out from his body, he lay breathless.

 

In a state of bodily limbo, he watched Ella hover over him, before she knelt down and bent forward.  She reached toward him, caressed his cheek.  He could see that her nipples had hardened beneath the gauzy material.

 

Bitch got off on his pain, but he expected no less of her.

 

"Chris is on his way," she purred happily, one hand reaching down to run across his chest.  Graceful feminine fingers slid under the front of his shirt and then pulled back forcefully.  The material ripped back, exposing pale skin and sending three of his buttons flying into the air.  He heard them clatter on the floor around his head.  She extended her pinky finger, as she would holding a delicate brandy glass, and brought the talon down in a diagonal sweep.  "Cross your heart and hope to die?"  She made a second sweep across the first.  The full cut, an X-form right over his breastplate, looked more like a burn mark as it refused to bleed.  That of his blood already on her hands was drying into dust.  "Die for me, Mr. Wilmington."

 

She stood up, gloating silently, before she looked back down the corridor toward the front of the building.  "He's here," she whispered.

 

No.

 

Buck visualized himself finding some miraculous strength to bound to his feet, grab her around the neck, twist her head off.  But nothing happened.  He remained a dead weight, about to become no more than a memory, as he watched Ella step over him.  She stared straight ahead, almost in a trance, a crazed smile touching her eyes.

 

No. . . No. . .  And he thought of the worst thing he could possibly fling at her.   Cunt. . . you fucking. . . goddamned. . . cunt. . .

 

But she was safe from his slander, walled off by his inability to speak.  He lost sight of her out of the corner of his eye and new movement drew his attention.

 

The Italian came toward him, carrying a black duffel bag that gave a wooden rattle from within.  As the icy grip of fear took hold, Buck ceased flinging mental insults at Ella.  The Italian gazed down at him, face unmoving, nowhere near expressing the sick joy Ella had gotten out of all of this.  It seemed like it was business as usual to him.

 

"I told you it wasn't over," the hunter said.

 

Buck would have felt better if the man gloated.  The lack of emotion was more disturbing than being spit upon.  Then, as if to make matters worse, he saw something move just behind The Italian.

 

The apparition of Christobal faded into view standing to the side behind the hunter.  It didn't completely solidify, but the face and form were evident.  Head tilted, eyes even, he stared down at the helpless mass of Buck Wilmington on the floor.

 

Internally, Buck felt as if he were shaking his head, denying the vision.  To look at The Italian was nothing compared to this, to seeing his sire waiting for him.

 

You can't. . . you can't have me. . .

 

New tears flooded his eyes, spilled over, his only means of expression.  His attention fixated on the ghost while the rest of the world blurred away, lost to tunnel vision.

 

The Italian eased the duffel bag down beside Buck and reached inside.  He drew out a long, wooden stake, expertly carved to a fine point that looked like it could pierce metal.

 

Buck felt the sting of the point when it came to rest in the center of the X on his chest.  At least, some part of him rationalized, the torture of his empty heart still beating, and the hunger, would soon end.  He didn't take his eyes off the ghost.

 

Now you will see what it feels like, Christobal's deep, ethereal voice drifted around Buck and penetrated him.  The wounds in his wrists and on his neck, and the blood pooled around the openings, seemed to transform into iron shackles and chains with which the spirit would drag him off.

 

The Italian held the stake firmly in place while his free hand reached back into the duffel bag, dug around, and emerged with a sturdy mallet.

 

Buck recalled the night Christobal had died, how he had felt his sire's pain and even remorse with it.

 

Been there, done that.

 

The mallet came down in one neat blow and pounded the stake home.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Two

 

J.D. had just made his way around the north wall of the weathered old Stage Company building when he stopped short.  Across the entrance to Main Street, and parked near the hotel, he spotted a black Humvee.  The silvery disk of the moon reflected clearly off the vehicle's passenger side window.  He inched up against the wall and peered around the corner, sharp eyes scanning the area for signs of human movement, while he sniffed the air for various scents.  What he got back was vague, just remnants of human pheromones, but recent enough to keep him on edge.

 

Drawing his guns, J.D. eased around the corner, crouched for stealth as he looked down the street as far as this angle would allow, and listened.  Other than the usual evening trills of insects and distant night birds, he heard neither footstep nor breath.  Taking swift steps, he hurried across the street to investigate the vehicle, finding it unlocked, but no keys in the ignition.

 

Damn.

 

Some of the Vatican crew were in the area.  J.D. wondered if Alan Shaw was making any headway with the hunters, or if he, Nathan, and Josiah had had any luck finding them to begin with.  The three of them might have discovered the bikes unwatched.

 

Or what if the hunters were pissed off and trashed the bikes!

 

J.D. perked up and gritted his teeth in a silent curse.  They'd better leave his Ninja alone or heads would roll, and he didn't care if they were human heads either.  Scouting around the Humvee, he looked for tracks, and found two sets.  He couldn't tell whom they belonged to.  Probably The Italian, and of course one other from the Vatican team.  The lingering scents didn't help since during the fight in the mineshaft all human odors had been tangled up, and J.D. had been more focused on getting Josiah free of the towing cable, or helping Buck keep an eye on Chris.

 

And Buck. . .

 

J.D. felt a little stir in his belly at thoughts of the big guy.  Buck hadn't looked too hot when they'd split up.  He insisted all was well, that he could hold it together, and thought it better if they all went separate ways, covering more ground to find their leader.  No denying Buck could take care of himself, but that was when his blood reserves were normal.  He'd been so pale, and his eyes had faded from sapphire to ice.  His lids were reddened, fatigued, and it seemed that his only source of energy derived from his anxiety over Chris.

 

Shaking off his concerns, J.D. moved on from the Humvee to peek around the corner of the hotel.  He stepped up onto the porch, crossed to drop back down to the ground, and pulled back to hide in the shadows of the little wedge of space between the hotel and the next building.  Leaning out again, he looked across the street, keen vision examining every doorway and busted out window along the rows of buildings.  Much further down, under the awning of the boardwalk near the Sheriff's office, he caught movement.

 

Stiffening with anticipation, J.D. squinted to identify the individual.  He could see that the figure was in black, but that could be any one of the hunters in their fatigues.  Waiting, he watched the figure approach and then turn and come down off the boardwalk.  He saw the long black tails of a coat as they billowed along behind the figure as it crossed the street and passed the dry lump of a tumbleweed.

 

"Chris," J.D. said under his breath and leaned out a little further.  "Shit," he hissed and scurried around the corner and along the front of the buildings toward Digger Dave's, trying to keep sight of Larabee.  The figure disappeared down the alleyway on the other side of the neighboring saloon, the one which J.D. remembered most of all the places in town.  Buck hadn't discussed what to do if any of them actually saw Chris.  Approach him, try to talk to him?  Or just follow?

 

J.D.'s best guess was that Chris was headed for the hotel behind the saloon.  He stepped out from the walk and toward the street, eyes still on the other side of the saloon, and glimpsed one last flash of black coattail.  From this angle, he couldn't see any further down the alley without running over there, and Chris had a good distance on him already.

 

Yep, going to the hotel.  Gotcha.

 

More movement further down the street drew his eye and he squinted to see Ezra working his way along the other side.  A moment later, Vin emerged from the shadows around the livery.  J.D. started to hail them both with a wave, wondering if Buck would soon appear as well.

 

Before he could lift a finger, a savage shriek arose, gaining volume.  J.D. spun to face back toward Digger Dave's in time to see the goon diving at him from the boardwalk, its claws reaching for his throat.  In the split second that followed, J.D. bared his own sharp teeth and fired at the creature.  His first shot skimmed its shoulder, slowing it down before it plowed into him.  Both went over.  J.D. dropped one gun intentionally, held on tightly to the other, and used his now empty hand to grab the front of the goon's tattered shirt.  He fell back and curled his body, rolling over and dragging his attacker along.  Sharp claws grazed his cheek before he completed the backward somersault and threw the goon free.

 

The creature went over and came down flat on its back, dust billowing out around its flailing limbs.  J.D. flipped onto his belly, pulled one knee under him and rose up to look down at the contorted face of what had been a young man.  Probably a survivor of last night's shootout over by the burial ground.  He brought his gun around and fired into the fiend's chest.  The body bucked as one. . . two. . . three. . . rounds pierced its chest cavity and stopped its heart.

 

The gunfire sent a signal up the street, bringing Vin and Ezra running.

 

J.D. drew back and rose to his feet, eyes pinned on the dying goon, the collective bullet holes in its chest gushing, the blood spilling over and pooling around its upper body.

 

Poor bastard.  J.D. holstered his gun and looked about, locating the other.  He strolled over, scooped it up, and checked it before returning it to his belt.

 

"J.D., you alright?" Vin called as he came closer, overtaking Ezra.

 

"Yep."  J.D. looked past the pair, hoping to see Buck also appear from somewhere up the street.  Then he remembered the Humvee and that the town had other visitors who were just as unwelcome as Ella and her goons.  "There are hunters here," he announced, voice a low growl.  He gestured toward the alleyway.  "And I saw Chris go that way."

 

"Buck?"

 

"Don't know where he is, but—“

 

From the distance behind him, the rumble of a Big Dog engine approached.  All three turned to look up the street toward the Stage Company.  They heard the bike putter as it decelerated, before it came around the bend and picked up speed.

 

Josiah was at the helm with Nathan holding on behind him.  They cruised up alongside the gathering, the preacher bringing the bike to a stop and looking down at the body on the ground.

 

"You saw the Humvee," J.D. stated when Josiah killed the engine.

 

"Yeah, The Italian and the priest are here," Nathan said.  "Shaw's explaining everything to the other hunters right now, but those two had already come down here by the time we found their camp."

 

"What the hell for?" Vin muttered.

 

"Ah, man."  J.D. shook his head, brows furrowing with dread.  "I don't like this."

 

"I don't expect any of us do," Ezra replied.

 

"If Chris went to the hotel, that's where Ella is," Vin said, staring off toward the alleyway in question.  "That's where we need to go."

 

Nathan swung his leg up over the bike and stepped away while Josiah put down the kickstand before dismounting.

 

"What say you then, gentlemen?"  Ezra gestured onward.  "The hour of reckoning is at hand.  Shall we?"

 

A series of head nods went around the circle.  They couldn't find any other words and, even without Buck there with them, they knew there was no choice but to proceed.  Steeling themselves, they turned and walked together toward the alleyway.

 

-7-7-7-

 

Chris had not gone directly into town.  He'd detoured southward, toward the church and the burial site, and up to the row of seven cairns.  A breeze carried a smoky, dry scent, all that remained of the dead goons.  Wind and sand had already swept most of them away.  For a long moment he stood over the cairn that was his own, in which he'd buried Sarah's locket.  Back when the little stone mound had first been erected, he'd said goodbye to his human life.  As far as he was concerned, it was buried under those stones.  It actually had helped him move on and embrace this dark eternity.  He'd even accepted the struggle with Ella to the point it was almost commonplace.

 

At least, it was commonplace so long as it was restricted to a certain level, but the nightmare that had embraced him earlier today changed everything.  The bar had been raised, and his resistance collapsed when he awoke to discover how close that nightmare had come to reality.

 

What lay ahead, he couldn't guess.  Ella had given him this moment, a chance to say goodbye.  The whiskey-and-fire glow of sunset cast upon the rocks before him, but he perceived only that frigid landscape that had surrounded him along with the charred remains of his friends.

 

Now there were two Chris Larabees under the cairn: the human one from the time before, and a second from this life on the run.  He thought he might attempt to stand here until sunrise, just let the rays consume and cleanse him and wipe him out of existence.  But he recalled Vin's attempt to do this, and how the tracker had failed despite his determination.  So Chris knew that, no matter what he wanted, instinct would rule him.

 

He wondered what eternity with Ella would be like.  If he let her feed him, would he find oblivion in her thrall?

 

Etiam periere ruinae.

 

Even the ruins have perished.

 

Chris turned and walked down the slope and toward the town.

 

He didn't take Main Street but detoured around the backs of the buildings, planning on seeing as little of the place as possible as he kept his eyes straight ahead or slanted toward the ground.  Behind the First National Bank, he slipped into the alleyway, but upon reaching the other end he chose to stroll one last time along the boardwalk.  He stepped up and passed Potter's store, listening to the hollow thump of his boots on the wood.  At the Sheriff's office, he stepped back down, aligned with the opposite alleyway leading to the hotel.  By then the sun had completely set, replaced by the moon.

 

The whole time, he listened to his own heart beating, the unchanging rhythm serving as a distraction.  For each beat, he took a step, drawing closer, until the hotel came into view.  He stepped up onto the porch and looked into the mouth-like opening.

 

Gunshots sounded from somewhere to the north.  Chris paused to tilt his head in that direction, but the interruption didn't fully register.  He crossed the threshold, and waited, gazing around the lobby.  Veils of cobwebs draped from the high corners and billowed at the slightest stir of air.  The smell of human blood wafted toward him, but like the gunshots, it didn't motivate him to any action.

 

Slowly, his vision rose to meet the sound of footsteps above him, and he saw a figure emerging from the hallway that led onto the balcony.

 

"Ella?" he rasped.

 

"Yes, darling."  She came into full view and stood at the railing, looking down at him.

 

He didn't know what he had expected her to look like now.  The last time he'd seen her she was in a corseted white dress, and perhaps he'd thought she would be in similar attire.  Of course, her face was the same: chiseled, graced with a generous mouth, and dark eyes that penetrated him.

 

He noticed that she wasn't in white, but black, and as he took a breath, beholding her feminine shape, her breasts draped over with whispery, transparent silk, he thought how he hadn't touched a woman in over a century.  It would feel strange—he knew—but it wasn't a desire that had completely gone away, even though he found Buck's embrace rich and satisfying.

 

"At last," she said happily and turned to walk toward the stairs, her head tilted down at him, one fingertip running along the dusty railing.  "I told you this was inevitable," she purred as she reached the steps.

 

He watched her descend with casual grace, hips swaying with each step down.  He already imagined that tiny waist in his hands, her dark lips pressed against his own.  Nodding vacantly, he took a step, then another.

 

She came down off the last step and went to meet him in the center of the room, reaching out.  Small hands delicately crawled up the sides of his arms, caressing the dusty sleeves of his long coat.  Chris shivered, on the brink of collapsing into her.  Something about her smelled warm, soft and familiar, even though reason argued with him that this couldn't possibly be.

 

She was the killer who had destroyed his family, his life, and then, smiling seductively, crawled into bed with him.  He felt nauseated, as if he were wavering on the edge of a cliff, poised on tiptoes and looking down into a ravine, the vertigo of it all about to pull him down.

 

"You must be so hungry," she said.  "Remember this?"  One hand slipped up between their bodies and she tilted her neck to the side, pressed the edge of one nail into the skin, and drew a faint line of blood.

 

Almost of their own accord, Chris' hands drew up and came to rest on her hips.  He leaned down, smelling the blood, seeing it as a potent drug.  If he drank, and went away with her, could he find the strength later to kill her?  The dark garnet fluid welled up from the cut and streamed gently down over her sleek collarbone.  The cut healed, but the blood that had made it to the surface lingered.  It didn't dry right away but continued to tempt him.

 

The building creaked somewhere on the upper floor, the noise a mild distraction.

 

"Take it, Chris," she whispered, voice smoky and inviting, pulling his attention back in.  "It's the only peace you'll ever have."

 

Breath hissed desperately through his teeth and he leaned down, fangs extending.  His mouth opened wider, and he fancied how her skin would sound breaking under the pressure of his bite.

 

"That's it, lover.  Just drink, and you'll know happiness again."  She reached up and caressed his face.  "I promise you.  No more nightmares, no more running."  The pad of her thumb slid softly over the rise of his cheekbone, her palm cupped around his chin.  "I'll open your eyes and show you the world again."

 

The warm and familiar scent grew stronger, and Chris tilted his cheek deeper into her hand.  The scent of blood was there too, but something about it was different compared to that on her neck.

 

"What. . . ?" he murmured and pulled back slightly, looking down into her eyes.  "What is that?"  He pulled one hand from her hip and reached up to slide his larger fingers over hers.

 

"Hmm?"  She smiled back, not at all put off by the intensity of the gaze he returned.

 

Something in him snapped as he realized the smell on her hands definitely did not match her.  It was musky-rusty, sharper.

 

"Bu. . ." he mouthed before he even thought about it, and he pulled her hand more forcefully away from his face.

 

"Chris," she objected and started to pull free.

 

He held on tightly, gritting his teeth, and pulled back, turning her palm out and exposing it so he could get a better look.  Smeared on her fingertips, and ingrained in the little creases, were traces of blood-ash.  It was recent enough to still hold the scent of the substance from which it had derived, but how it had gotten there was the next question to cross Chris' mind.

 

"What did you do?"  He stared blankly while his thoughts backtracked.  She had come from upstairs, and he had heard a noise up there.

 

Could mean anything. . .  could mean. . .

 

He stepped back from her, eyes blazing with a fusion of horror and anger.  "What did you do?" he hissed and looked up toward the balcony.

 

"Chris, it was necessary."  She stepped closer again, reaching for him.

 

He had to know. . . had to be sure. . .  If it was nothing, he'd join her, just go away from here and leave his friends safely behind.  But if. . .

 

Shoving her back, he spun and stormed toward the steps.  The false sensation of a racing heart consumed his chest.  She was on his heels, grabbing for his elbow.

 

"Chris!"  Small as her hands were, they were strong and gripped him tightly.  She pulled him stumbling backward several feet.

 

"No!"  He jerked his elbow free, tearing the sleeve half off his arm, and turned back toward her.  One hand thrust out, knotted into a firm fist, and caught her in the center of the chest.

 

Surprised by the blow, she fell backward, and landed on her side, her hair falling around her face.  She scurried to get back to her feet, shouting after him as he once more bolted for the staircase.  He had his confirmation before he had gone three steps.

 

"You're too late!"  She started after him.

 

No.  Desperation forced his pace, and he took the steps three at a time, bounding up onto the top landing and racing toward the hallway.  He skidded around the corner, so focused on what lay ahead he didn't realize Ella was had not followed him.

 

He first looked straight ahead, noticing how intense moonlight fell through the window.  Then his gaze dropped to the two figures on the floor.  One was The Italian, kneeling with a short sword in his hands, preparing to slash downward.

 

The other, sprawled, not moving, was Buck.

 

An intense jolt of emotional pain stabbed into Chris as he saw the top end of a stake protruding out of Buck's chest, and the eyes that stared up into the ceiling, seeing nothing.

 

The Italian, startled at the intrusion, looked up.

 

In that moment, the beast in Chris Larabee found complete and total freedom.

 

-7-7-7-

 

"Chris, no, please!  I couldn't let him stand in the way!" Ella raged after the object of her desire as Chris rounded the first landing in the steps and was now on the second flight, a blur of black, his coat tails sailing behind him like furiously flapping wings.

 

Before she got to the steps after him, something thrust into her path.  The toe of her boot caught firmly and she pitched forward, landing on her knees and the flats of her hands with a less than graceful thud on the floorboards.

 

Again her hair cascaded around her face and, stunned by the abrupt fall, she looked down for a second, blinking in confusion as a pair of feet clad in boots, and legs sheathed in black leather, stepped into view.

 

Ella eased back from the new barrier that blocked her way to the steps, and looked up, tossing hair out of her face, to turn black and angry eyes up at the owner of the boots.  Her lips curled back and she bared her fangs, a growl rippling out of her throat.

 

"Get out of my way!" she commanded as she rose to her feet, fingers curling anxiously, her disheveled mane casting the illusion of an infuriated banshee about to rip out the soul of its mark.

 

Vin Tanner raised his Beretta and trained it on her heart.  He didn't glare, didn't snarl or growl back at her.  His cool eyes alone pinned her in place.

 

Ella backed up, staring at the gun as if it were some holy object, and clearly she knew it was no ordinary Beretta.  It, and its brethren, had already exterminated her minions.  She shifted her weight, instinct searching for the best way to spring at him and gain control of the weapon.  Then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw more movement.  Two figures disappeared around behind her, one of them reappearing on the other side.  Two others covered her left flank, all five pointing weapons at her.

 

She looked around, at the even faces of Ezra Standish, J.D. Dunne, Josiah Sanchez, and Nathan Jackson.  And back to Vin Tanner.  Five masters; all victims of her excesses, all as deserving of revenge as the man whom they followed.

 

"Bastards," she growled, teeth still gritted.

 

They opened fire, heedless of each other's stray rounds.  The chorus of gunshots thundered through the hotel.

 

-7-7-7-

 

Without conscious thought, Chris roared, baring extended fangs and charging forward.  His eyes blazed with hellfire, and his claws lengthened into deadly points.  The Italian rose away from Buck's body and turned, swinging the blade around to sever his attacker's head.

 

Chris dropped low and the metal sang through the air above him as he barreled forward, tackling the other man around the waist.  The hurtling weight was enough to take The Italian off his feet, and both flew through the air, Chris' talons caught in the sides of the hunter's torso.  The Italian hit the wall beside the far window with a grunt and twisted to get free.  Like a tiger wrestling with a tribesman, they fell over and rolled across the floor.  The sword remained firmly gripped in the hunter's hand, but he couldn't get a good angle on Chris. 

 

The Italian fought to keep Chris' gnashing teeth away from his face, and snarled back, arms straining, breaking a sweat that permeated the air with the reek of salt.  His heating blood titillated Chris' savage senses.

 

"I told her I'd kill you both," the hunter hissed through his teeth and brought his hand up, using the pommel like a hammer to strike across Chris' jaw.

 

The bone issued a loud crrrrack, and the strike forced Chris' head to the side, but he rebounded in a split second, grabbed the wrist and squeezed.  "You were working with her," he snarled back, some modicum of sense putting the pieces together.  He rolled on top of the hunter and pinned him.  Their eyes met in a heated glare of scathing jade versus black-brown.  "We're on the same side.  Why make a deal with the devil?"

 

"Because," The Italian spat, "no matter what you do, you're still an abomination!"

 

Chris stared, taken aback by the retort, all of his rage and anguish clutching up in his heart and head.  "You have no idea what we are."

 

Neither combatant acknowledged the boom of gunfire rattling the building.  The hunter bowed out his body, trying to buck free, and curled forward, head butting Chris on the bridge of the nose.  Chris howled in pain and unwittingly loosened his grip.  The Italian twisted over, reaching across the floor for something, fingers clawing past a crust of rotted old carpet.  Chris shook off the blow and refocused to look past his opponent's out-stretched arm, and saw feet away one of Buck's guns.

 

And near it Buck's slack hand lay, turned upward, the wrist bared so that Chris could see that it had been slashed open.  Tatters of skin jutted out around the inflamed edges.  Blood-ashes were matted to the floor around the body.

 

It felt like an eternity in hell passed in that tiny fragment of time that Chris stared at his best-friend-host-lover lying lifeless before him.

 

Buck. . .  God, no. . .

 

His eyes burned at the fleeting thought that he'd killed his best friend, and Ella had been right all along.

 

He'd brought this on the Seven.

 

It was all his fault.

 

-7-7-7-

 

Ella's body jolted and twitched violently as round after round slammed into her, riddling her heart and mid-section with profusely bleeding holes.  They pierced her from behind, from the front and sides, the rapid fire keeping her erect and immobilized, and even as the majority of slugs made it into her heart and stopped it from beating, she continued to bare her teeth defiantly.

 

When the gunfire stopped, the five had managed to graze each other. . . on a shoulder. . . a hip. . .  nowhere critical.

 

They remained standing.

 

She did not.

 

Ella collapsed to her knees, the viciousness seeping out of her eyes until they softened from black to a chocolate brown.  Her arms swung boneless at her sides, while her shoulders managed to hold erect and proud.

 

Vin drew his machete, stepped in, and with one swipe severed her head from her neck.

 

-7-7-7-

 

And then just like that. . .

 

Chris' mind cleared of a haze he had never realized was there—so long had he lived with it—and he gasped as the world around him came vibrantly aglow, fresh and new and free, and he knew exactly what he wanted and what he was willing to do for it.

 

A strength he knew to completely be his own poured into him and he shuddered with excitement.   He grasped a mass of The Italian's thick, black hair in his fingers and jerked at it.  The hunter cried out, his quest for the stray gun forgotten as he was pulled back and forced onto his knees.

 

Chris backed up, got to his feet, and dragged the cursing human with him.  He angled the head to the side, exposing the strongly corded neck and the tight olive skin.  Leaning down, he tore into the flesh, felt his fangs break through and find the vein.  He pulled back, raking the skin away.

 

The Italian's curses, growls, and snarls dropped into a deep, gurgling scream as Chris locked his mouth over the wound and drank furiously.  Hands grasped uselessly around to try to pry him loose, and the body in his arms stiffened, chest thrust out as Chris gulped down mouthful after mouthful of the precious fluid, remembering after so many years of drinking from Buck what fresh blood from a human was like. . .

 

. . . hot and tangy and oh-so-delightful. . .

 

With a predatory purr he dug in deeper, held on tighter, as his own body heated, taking in and distributing the flow to his extremities.  His prick hardened, and he murmured happily into the messy wound in his prey's neck.  He didn't notice when the struggling ended, only that suddenly there was nothing left to drink, and he was holding a limp form, the head lolling forward, face hidden by The Italian's long black hair.

 

Chris straightened.  Scooping the body up under the arms, he hauled it over to the window and with no effort at all hoisted it up and threw it outside.  It plummeted the two stories and landed in the dust face down.  Chris stared, entranced for a moment as he relished the newfound power in his body.  Such a victory was short lived, for he blinked, remembering why he was here, and what had provoked him to such violence.

 

He closed his eyes, braced himself, and then turned back around to face into the hallway again.

 

-7-7-7-

 

Vin and J.D. were up the steps first, all but tripping over each other.  Josiah followed, along with Nathan and Ezra, but upon reaching the landing and hurrying to veer into the hallway, none of them expected what came next.

 

J.D. halted, gasped out a cry, and turned on his heel so fast to get away from the sight that before him, that he bumped smack into Josiah's chest.  His hands came up to grip the big preacher's shoulders and keep himself from falling over.

 

"Whoa," Josiah murmured and caught the kid, understanding the reaction.  The leather of J.D.'s jacket creaked and rustled against his poncho.

 

Eyes wide with shock, J.D. slowly turned his head sideways and peered back over his shoulder while he remained draped against Josiah. 

 

They all stared, dumbfounded, eyes glazed with disbelief.

 

Chris sat on the floor, head bowed as he cradled Buck's body.  His hand hovered over the end of the stake lodged in Buck's chest as if he couldn't bring himself to clutch it.  He shook nervously, and when he looked up at them, they saw the blood on his lips, saw how his flesh was flushed and healthy.  The scent of a fresh killing permeated the passage, and moonlight glinted off the still orbs of Buck's eyes.

 

"Nathan," Chris said hoarsely.  "Help me."  He tried to touch the stake again and then drew back as if sickened.

 

Nathan nodded vacantly, unable to tear his gaze away, even to blink, and approached.

 

Chris threaded his fingers through the thick waves of Buck's hair to hold his head up.  "It'll be all right," he whispered.  "It'll be. . ."

 

Easing down beside the mass of limbs and bodies pressed together, Nathan examined the wound and the weapon that had dealt it, firmly lodged in the chest cavity and held in place by splintered ribs and constricted muscle.  It was like nothing they had ever dealt with before, and that was the real horror of it.  The open wounds, the crusts of dried blood everywhere, the void in Buck's eyes. . . it was all so pitiful. . . so damned painful to behold.

 

In theory, Buck wasn't dead yet.  He was still whole, so long as his head was attached to his neck.

 

In theory. . .

 

Was he trapped in there, feeling that stake continuously and unable to move?  Or was he out cold, lost within the depths of unconsciousness?

 

Chris sniffled and swallowed, one shaking hand sliding around to press against Buck's upper chest, above the wound, while the other still cradled the heavy head.  He stiffened uncomfortably when J.D. suddenly appeared beside Nathan, offering assistance.  The kid and the former healer worked silently together, joining their hands over each other and gripping tightly.  Nathan nodded a silent count down.

 

One. . . two. . . three. . .

 

Tears welled up in Chris' eyes as the point on the weapon came free, the crunch of bone and tissue releasing it, leaving a gaping cavity.  Everyone cringed at the awful bile-provoking sound.  "Ah. . ." he moaned, suppressing a sob as he pulled Buck tighter in and rocked with him.  "I'm so. . . so. . . sorry."

 

J.D.'s tears came more quietly.

 

-7-7-7-

 

There were no dreams here.

 

No pain.  No sorrow.  No happiness.  No-thing at all. . .

 

Just time between time. . . adrift. . . content in this No-state. . .

 

And then that nothing transmogrified into something, starting with a single sound.  It came steady and rhythmic, a drum with a double beat of ga-gong. . . calling inward. . . pulling him outward.

 

It took him a long time to realize that it was his own heart finding itself again.  The pain returned first—throbbing, empty, accompanied by that wretched hunger.  It ramified out from his middle, threatening to drive him insane, before soothing warmth washed down over it.  The taste of blood gave him recognition that he had a tongue, just like he had a stomach, and a heart.  When he swallowed, a completely reflexive action, he identified his throat, connecting stomach to mouth.

 

More of the warm, coppery fluid flooded in, and he swallowed again, this time consciously, and gradually he began to find the other pieces of himself.  Sensation spiraled out into his limbs, tingling sharply with the needles and pins of reawakening circulation.  His face warmed, and the sense of hearing began to bud, muted as if he were listening from under water.

 

That's it, a husky voice whispered close to his ear, and he tried to snuggle toward it.

 

Someone nearby laughed happily, a young laugh accompanied by a sniffle.

 

Careful now, Chris, don’t let him take too much.

 

Think I'm one to deny him taking too much?

 

He drank more deeply, and now he felt hands on his wrists, massaging below the heels of his hands.  It took a moment for him to understand why, that he'd been injured there, and the fingers pressing against his growing pulse were ensuring that the flesh mended.  He heard himself slurp greedily, and a grunt sounded above him.

 

Slowly, clearing away the filmy residue that had settled over his eyes, he blinked and stared into a silvery haze.  Then his vision opened up, light at the end of the tunnel growing outward, as he approached full consciousness, a speeding train, hungry for life.  He identified that the silvery haze above was moonlight reflected onto the crackled ceiling of the old hotel.

 

Water dripped onto his upper cheek, near his eye, and he blinked again, frowning as his mind wandered with the ungrounded thought, Damned ceiling's leaking.

 

But he didn't hear any rain, only the odd creak of a floorboard, and as he continued to focus, five figures crowded around him came into view.  Then he looked directly up and saw Chris Larabee's eyes above him, washed with tears and a growing glimmer of relief.

 

He drew in one last drink from Chris' wrist and swallowed too quickly, causing the blood to tickle his throat, and he coughed.  Eyes watering, he settled back down as the pad of a thumb caress his temple.  The wrist was taken out of his way so he could speak.

 

"Hey, cowboy," Buck rasped, and thought for a moment that maybe he'd made it to Heaven after all.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Three

 

J.D. and Chris had already found the keys to the Humvee on the Italian and headed back to the ranch with Buck before Shaw arrived with Kilroy and Reeves.  By the wee morning hours, the hotel had become a minor forensics scene.

 

"Ella killed the priest," Nathan was explaining to the three hunters as they all examined the body in the hallway downstairs, "and I'd say The Italian allowed it since, as you mentioned, Ives insisted on coming with him.  Couldn't risk word getting back to the Vatican."

 

"And here we thought they were so close."  Kilroy shook his head and stood up from a squat.  He held a flashlight beam over the dead priest with one hand and scratched his head with the other.

 

"How do you mean?"

 

"They were always like this," Shaw said, lacing his fingers together in a tight bond.  "Always having private discussions.  Frankly, it pissed us all off.  Guess we felt like they were holding back intel."

 

Nathan chuckled and shook his head.

 

"We'd never have thought the boss was in cahoots with that."  The hunter pointed out into the lobby where Ella Gaines' body and head lay separated, a sprawled shadow next to a smaller, more contained one.

 

"Well, I still gotta say," Nathan went on, "we're all sorry it went that way with your boss.  Chris wouldn't have killed him without a damned good reason."

 

Shaw shrugged.  "No love lost there."  He looked at his fellows and bowed his head almost sheepishly.  "Actually, I have a confession."

 

"What's that?" Reeves crossed his arms and stared grimly across the beam of Kilroy's utility light.  Clearly he was still digesting all of this with caution.  That he had decided to continue into town with Shaw said a lot, for they were going beyond breaking their hunter's code.  Their boss had made a deal with a master vampire, and now they were doing no less, even if the grounds for the latter were completely different.

 

"Those two kids on the highway," Shaw began.  "They weren't infected, right?"

 

"Yeah?"  Kilroy suddenly swung the beam around and landed it smack on Shaw's face, causing the other to flinch.

 

"Hey, man, goddammit."  One hand flew up to shade against the intense light.  Shaw waited for Kilroy to angle the beam down.  "They weren't infected, but The Italian gave me orders to terminate them anyway.  Said we couldn't be sure."

 

"But we were sure," Reeves said.  "We examined those kids ourselves."

 

"Yeah, well, I went against orders.  I told you to let them go.  It just seemed so. . ."

 

"Wrong."

 

"Yeah."

 

Nathan let them finish the uncomfortable exchange before gesturing for them to follow him out the back to where the Italian's body was still sprawled face down in the dirt.  "Come take another look.  I know you'll all have to send in a report before your resignations are official."

 

Reeves dropped his arms at his sides with an exasperated ssssslap!  "Oh, I'm tempted to say to hell with the reports.  This whole thing got fucked faster than a jackrabbit on a date."

 

Nathan threw him a glance, chuckled again, and proceeded on out the back door, talking over his shoulder.  "Well, I'm sorry the rest of your teammates didn't join on, but everyone's got a choice here, understand?"

 

"Don't worry," Shaw said, "we're certain this is what we want to do.  Besides, it won't surprise anyone to hear another hunter bit the dust."  He frowned and blinked.  "I just made a really bad pun, didn't I?"

 

They followed the former healer on, while Vin stood at the end of the hallway, just around the corner out of sight, listening in.

 

The tracker stared out into the lobby at Ella's corpse, her head turned toward him with open eyes empty, a glint of lingering moonlight casting off her cheek and the sweeps of her glossy tresses.  He replayed the execution in his mind, finding sick satisfaction in the memory of how her head had hit the floor and rolled, hair spinning about.  He had seen the same satisfaction in the faces of the others as they stood in a circle, their jaws set, eyes hardened with intent and glowing like hot coals.  But then satisfaction in the kill had evaporated as Vin stumbled upstairs, J.D. at his side, and rounded the corner to stare down at Buck's body.

 

He'd blinked, thought at first that he was imagining it, and wondered how the hell Buck had gotten here ahead of them all.  Then clear thinking tumbled off into pain as his throat constricted and he clearly comprehended what had happened here.

 

Buck was dead.  Or, at least, that was Vin's first thought.  Was killing Ella worth this?

 

Vin had assisted the others in dispatching Ella, but here lay the man who had sacrificed the most for Chris.  On occasion, over the past century, Vin had resented him, felt intense jealousy that Buck could be so strong, but that strength had all been poured into Chris.  In the end, Buck hadn't even saved any for himself.  The stake jutting up out of his chest proved that.  It reminded them all that immortality and invulnerability were not the same thing.

 

The idea of the Seven being reduced to the Six stirred Vin around inside while he continued to stand, a statue, seeing more clearly than before, and feeling bitterly ashamed.  His jealousy of Buck. . . that was just plain stupid.  All this time, he had refused to see that what Buck had done was for all of them.  He'd taken on the responsibility of hosting Chris, thus freeing the others to face their demons and move on, make the best of this eternity.  It wasn't a conscious effort on Buck's part, but it was, nevertheless, a gift.  Nathan and Josiah had accepted it, and J.D., and even Ezra.

 

And what have I done? Vin thought.

 

He'd brooded, hated, and fought the world.

 

His desire for Chris was inconsistent and based on a great many things, including lust, but none of them justified his actions.  Rather than take the freedom he'd been given to work with, to create something new, he'd fashioned his self-hatred into an invisible shackle.  He'd clamped it on himself and when he was in the mood, he attempted to push its weight off onto Ezra.

 

Vin felt filthy. . . no different from that moment when he had first awakened to the sight, and smell, of his sire.  He shuddered, angry with himself for being so blind.  All this time, he had still been under Selvik's control, an abusive child following the example of his parent.  This revelation kept him locked in time; a dirty, pathetic creature, self-condemned.  It had been easier to externalize this loathing, to believe that he would be happy if only he could have that thing outside himself.  He'd thought that thing was Chris, but Chris had Buck, whom he had known longer and who could take care of his needs.  Vin recalled his failure to provide for Chris, and understood now that it had not been some test of his fortitude or his friendship.  It was just something that happened.  Just a thing.  Simple as that. 

 

And here lay Buck. . . dead. . .

 

When Nathan and J.D. pulled the stake out, Vin almost had to turn away.  The sound of splintered wood sliding free of broken bone and flesh gave him chills, and empathically the sharp point tore into his own chest.  He waited, still frozen, so close to releasing his own anguish, and yet it was contained, a poisoned thorn deep in his heart.

 

He watched a beautiful thing occur as Chris opened a wrist and wedged it into Buck's mouth.  The lips looked so stiff, cracked and dry and unresponsive.  Chris urged his companion with whispers, massaging at his neck, getting the blood into him.  J.D. and Nathan each took one of Buck's limp wrists and pinched the gashes closed to help them heal as quickly as possible.  And slowly, first with a little turn of the head, then a blink and a cough, Buck came out of his death stasis.

 

A tear dashed upon Buck's cheek.  Chris' tear. . . perfect, and soft and glittering like some precious jewel, and Vin understood that this was how it was meant to be.

 

Everything had always been as it should be.

 

It seemed hours passed as they all stood around Buck, offering silent comfort, until he grew strong enough to get on his feet, awkward as a new colt discovering its legs. They wasted no time in finding a way to get him out of town.  Then the hunters arrived, just the three, and Nathan had to take them through the evening's events step by step, showing them every speck of evidence—and detailing with honesty how, and why, Chris had killed The Italian—so that they could form their own opinions.  So far it seemed to be working out well.

 

Vin wandered now, elated that his comrade lived, and hoped that he, too, could find the means to heal himself.  At the foot of the staircase, he laid a hand on the banister and propped one foot on the lowest step as he looked up toward the balcony.  He could hear Josiah's deep voice discussing something with Ezra up there, and soon the two emerged from the hallway where Buck had so recently died and been restored.

 

"Vin," Josiah said as he came down the steps.

 

"Josiah."

 

Ezra loitered on the balcony, hands propped on the railing, and surveyed the lobby below.  As Vin's eyes lingered on the conman, an image from long ago jumped forward in his mind.  Ezra had stood there once, in his frilly white Parisian shirt and red vest, looking down on the lobby and the hotel's patrons, perhaps scouting for some sport.  Whatever the case, he'd been the image of gentlemanly beauty, auburn hair swept back, sideburns neatly trimmed.  His fingers curled over the banister, showing off the big turquoise ring on his pinky.

 

But the gaze boring into Vin now was anything but that of a gentleman.  It was that of a cautionary predator.  The eyes, once forgiving, were closed off, sharing only their emerald hue, emotion not an option to be risked.

 

Vin swallowed, understanding how he'd destroyed what he had with Ezra with only a few bitter words.  He wanted to speak to Ezra about it, wanted to find the right way to undo the damage he'd done.  But first he needed time to himself, to sort it out, to slay his dragon and put Selvik in his grave once and for all.  He had no idea how, but with Ella gone, he had new focus.

 

"Now, you understand, this is probably the last time you'll actually see us," Nathan was explaining to the hunters as they all came back through the hallway.  "I'll email Clarion and put you in touch, then they'll set up the meeting and interview, but from here on. . ."

 

"We get you," Shaw replied.

 

Ezra stepped away from the railing and turned to follow Josiah down the steps, a false lightness in his stride as he joined the others.  "As it was explained, it is for your own security."

 

"Duly noted," Shaw said and stuck out his hand.  "Mr. Standish."

 

The conman shook the hunter's hand firmly and then turned to Kilroy.  They stared with uncertainty at each other for a few seconds before a weasel's smile crept over Ezra's lips and he said, "Kilroy, I certainly hope there are no hard feelings."  With a careful gesture he indicated the other man's bruised face.

 

"Nah," Kilroy said and finally accepted the handshake.  "You had your reasons."  Then, when he drew his hand back, he pointed stiffly at Ezra and gritted his teeth.  "But if you do it again, I'll stake your ass."

 

The smile fell away and Ezra blinked as if to declare how rude that was, then a second smirk twitched at the corners of his lips before he gave a dry chuckle.  "Oh, I get it, hunter humor."  Then the second smile was gone.  "How. . . droll."  Ezra cleared his throat.  "I see.  Well, if you don't mind, dawn will approach soon, and some of us are rather averse to the pitiless glare of Helios."

 

The hunters nodded and exchanged further handshakes with Josiah, Vin, and Nathan.

 

"We'll stay and clean up here," Shaw said, gesturing down the hallway and at Ella's body.  "Tell your friends hello, and thank you. . . for the job, I mean."

 

"Hey, we appreciate you joining up," Nathan replied.  "What you have to share on hunting will probably advance Clarion by years."

 

"Certainly, considering we're only a cottage industry," Ezra said wryly.

 

"And we'll see that the Humvee is returned," Nathan added quickly with a sideways glare.

 

Vin stood back, keeping a neutral gaze, though in truth the air in the place thickened with tension.  The hunters, vampire and human alike, all sensed the boundaries between their two worlds.  "Well, guess I'm gonna go caving."  He gave a nod, and an awkward excuse for a wave of goodbye, and turned to depart.

 

"Don’t worry about the Humvee," Shaw said as he watched the figure of the tracker disappear through the open doors.  "You might offer it as a peace trade to Dobson and Gentry."

 

"They weren't so convinced, eh?" Josiah chimed in.

 

"Well, Dobson didn't see what happened in the mine like we did.  He was our cable guy."  Reeves nodded toward the doors where Vin had gone.  "And Gentry, well. . . you know what happened to him."

 

"Well, then, we will spare the man some dignity.  Gentlemen." Ezra made the mock gesture of tipping a hat.

 

Josiah and Nathan turned to go with him, all three trickling out the front door to linger on the porch.

 

"So how shall we return?" Ezra asked.

 

"We've only got the one bike in town," Josiah said.  "Nathan's SUV and your car are still at the ranch.  The hunters need their jeep."

 

Ezra remembered that the other bikes, parked in their natural garage on the far side of the hill to the mineshaft's main entrance, were not within a comfortable distance to cover before the sun rose.  He blinked and looked from Nathan to Josiah.  "Well, that means I'll be spending the day in this dilapidated—“ he glanced up the alleyway between the saloon and hardware store, "—bastion of civilization."  The last he said with marked irritation.

 

Vin's figure was still within view, just reaching the end of the passage.

 

"Going caving," Josiah echoed the tracker's words.  "That sounded to me like an invitation, what about you, Nathan?"

 

"Oh yes, it most certainly did."

 

"If you two expect me to spend another day in a musty mineshaft, you're sorely mistaken."  Ezra blinked as he looked down the alley again in time to see Vin veer out of view onto Main Street.  Which cavern was the question, and caving did not necessarily mean the mineshaft.

 

"Ezra, shut up and go," Josiah said.

 

"But I don't think. . ."  Ezra's gaze fell and he shook his head.  "I don't think it's what he wants."

 

Suddenly he felt Nathan's hand on his shoulder, squeezing gently.  He looked up into the former healer's eyes and found their chocolate hue silken and brimming with empathy.

 

"Ezra," Nathan said, his tone a warm and gentle purr, "that time we found you two out there, he'd been holding you all night after what he had to do."  He leaned in, lips close to the conman's ear.  "Save that."

 

This coming from Nathan. . . the man who, it seemed, had endeavored from day one to punish him for every little indiscretion.  Dumbfounded, Ezra stared back down the alleyway.

 

-7-7-7-

 

It took two scrubbings in the shower before the water ran clean, and Buck could transfer into the bathtub for a nice long soak.  He leaned back in the steaming tub, eyes closed, while he listened to Chris and J.D. bickering somewhere out in the hallway.

 

"Oh shit, think he'll make it to tomorrow night?"

 

"He'll be fine, everyone here can always give a little bit more if need be."

 

"But Chris, he's still healing."

 

Get that child some junk food and shut him up, Buck thought and smiled to himself as he opened his eyes to the soft blue light from the track fixture overhead.  He raised his hands up out of the water and examined them.  The jagged scars in his wrists were still there, pearly pink and tender.  He touched one, observing how soft the mending skin was, and then dropped his hands back in again.  Kid was right about that.  He was still healing, and it would take a full feeding before he would be up to speed again.

 

"We need some towels.  Don't we keep any clean towels around here?"

 

"The closet in Ezra's room."

 

"What's Ezra doing with all the clean towels?"

 

"Beats the hell outta me.  You think Buck might like some whiskey?"

 

Yeah, Buck would love some whiskey.

 

"And what?  Piss it right back into the bath water?"

 

"Thought it might be nice and relaxin'."

 

"J.D., if he relaxes any more, we'll lose him down the drain."

 

It was comforting, Buck thought, to hear such stress over something as mundane as finding bath towels or serving whiskey.  Forget the towels, I'll drip dry.  God knew they needed more of the mundane in their lives, and maybe. . . just maybe. . . now they could get away with it.

 

When the debate over where to find towels, or another sponge, or more soap persisted, Buck groaned and slid down below the surface of the water.  The voices became distant and clouded, while he focused on the sound of his heart.  The steady thrum was amplified within the depths.  He stared up past the rippling surface at the blue glow, recalling how the ceiling in the hotel had looked as he was coming around to the taste of Chris' blood in his mouth.  Silvery and comforting.  He'd met the state between unconsciousness and realization, and found great relief that Christobal was not waiting for him in either realm.  That had to mean that the ghost was only a figment of his imagination, but he wasn't going to draw any conclusions yet.  He would wait and see.

 

He allowed his body to rise to the surface, felt the water slip back from his eyes and cheeks, beading in his eyebrows before spilling back into the tub.  His ears broke surface level, and he heard the slosh of tiny waves as water rinsed out of his canals.  Above, the ceiling and its fixtures came into focus.

 

Back in the world.

 

He sank, his body flooded over by wet, and he shut off his breath again, went back to listening to his heartbeat.

 

Out of the world.

 

So much had changed tonight.  All these years he'd performed a special duty, and now he was suddenly relieved.  Oh, there was still the job of the Seven as hunters. . . that was no different. . . but Buck realized how much he'd rooted his own identity in the position he'd taken as a host.

 

Chris was free.

 

Buck had never thought what it would be like to not have to feed his lover.

 

Could he still call Chris his lover?

 

He supposed they would always have something, but how deep it went depended on Chris.  No longer would he feel that tie, temporary though it had been, linking them, a channel through which he could reach and hold Chris steady, away from Ella.  Strange, Buck thought, but he should still feel some of that tie left.  Chris had, after all, fed him, and so at this moment they had some of the same blood running through their veins.  But there was no indication of a link.  Not even a tickle.  It could mean that Chris didn't wish to be connected any more, or it could mean he simply wasn't testing the fiber remaining between them.  Buck had gotten so used to that link, that to be without it was nothing short of alienation.  It was the abrupt end that felt strange, but where one path ended, a new one began.  Give him another century and he'd get used to it.

 

Buck rose up out of the water, away from the dull throb of his heart, craving answers.  His hair lay heavily against his head, wet and wavy, dribbling tiny streams down over his temples and the back of his neck as the cold air above shrouded his face like a death mask.

 

Back in the world.

 

New sounds drifted in, and he registered that the television in the rec room was on.  Judging from the buzz of engines and the tin-can speaker effect of an announcer's voice, some sort of motorcycle grand prix was on.  Buck casually turned his head, once more delighting in the mundane, and nearly jumped out of his skin when he found Chris kneeling beside the tub, arms propped on the wide rim, watching him.

 

"Uh, Chris. . ."  Buck coughed and wiped droplets from his eyelashes.  His hand shook, reminding him that he was still weak.  "Got J.D. settled down, I see."  His voice had not yet recovered either.  It came out coated in rust, tired and drawling more slowly than usual.

 

Chris nodded.  "Better than Saturday morning cartoons."

 

Buck coughed again, and met the other man's gaze.  He could see the changes on Chris' face, a freshness as if so many layers of dust had been washed off and his true brilliance shone through.  There was a light behind the eyes that had never been there before, not even when Chris was human.  Buck sighed, enjoying the view while he had this chance.

 

Uncomfortable silence fell, and only the stray drips from the tub faucet echoed in the tiled room with an almost musical tink-tink-ta-tinka.  Buck shoved his big toe up into the faucet before his nerves slithered out of his skin.

 

"Chris?"  He was going to sink again if Larabee didn't stop staring.

 

Then Chris frowned.  The light in his eyes dimmed, and a layer of the old dust came back.  Buck nearly choked up witnessing such blatant change of emotion.

 

No-no, don't be sad.  Please don't be sad again, Chris. . .

 

Chris slid one hand free from the tub rim and reached out, spread fingertips barely grazing Buck's jaw line.  "I was afraid I'd lost you. . ."

 

The words took Buck by surprise, mainly because he'd never considered himself the one at risk of getting lost.  If anything, he'd feared he'd lost Chris to Ella.  In that moment when he'd seen Chris' gun belt hung over that stalagmite, a sure sign of surrender, he thought he had failed his friend.

 

"No, Chris, I. . ."

 

Chris shook his head, silencing the other.  "Don't, Buck.  Please."  His hand lingered out in the air, and his eyes dropped to stare at Buck's chest.  "Look, I'll go get the bed ready, and then I have something I need to tell you, something I. . ."

 

Buck tensed, forcing himself to try to sit up, but he couldn’t stand to break the moment, with Chris' hand there near his face.  He leaned his head forward slightly, and caught the brush of the fingertips again.

 

Chris completed the connection, pressing the pad of his thumb to Buck's bottom lip, while he remained distracted, staring intensely at the area over Buck's sternum.  Then he stood and turned to go as if tearing himself away.

 

Buck closed his eyes, didn't want to watch Chris' back as the other man departed.  He focused on the distant sounds from the rec room and imagined, with fondness, J.D. absorbed in the race.  It was a nice image, and distracting, but he got the sense the television was on more for background noise than anything.  Just because, after all that had happened, a little bit of normal was most welcome.

 

Taking a deep breath, Buck hefted his long, quaking body out of the tub and pulled the plug.  Chris had apparently found the towels, for he had left a thick fold of cotton fluff on the sink.  Listening to the water gurgle down the drain, Buck rubbed down then started to wrap the towel around his waist when he looked up and into the mirror and froze. 

 

Forgotten, the towel hung over his forearm.

 

Maybe he'd been too covered with blood-dust before, and even though his ribs and breastplate still felt a little sensitive when he'd washed in the shower, he just hadn't seen it: a reddened patch of skin, almost like a sunburst pattern, glared back at him from the center of his chest.  Just around the edges, he could see the added scars from the cuts Ella had made, marking the target area.

 

X marks the spot.

 

Buck went from looking at the reflection to tucking his chin and rolling his eyes downward for a more immediate view of the healing skin. It wasn't quite as obvious looking at it from this angle as it was straight on in the mirror.  Little wonder Chris was distracted.  Buck found similar diversion as he touched the scars, gingerly pressing a fingernail along the edge where the rejuvenating skin met pale, smooth flesh.  In morbid fascination, he traced along the edge, and then recalled the fear he'd felt lying helpless on the hotel floor, watching The Italian move in.  He didn't know exactly by what miracle he'd been saved, only that next thing he was awake.  It was Chris surrounding him protectively that had kept him from immediately thinking of The Italian's cold composure hovering over him, or that last burst of pain as the stake descended into his heart.

 

In fact, the encounter with The Italian seemed years away already. . . if it weren't for that damned scar.

 

Buck pressed a hand over the ugly blotch, hiding it from view, and hated the thing.  Maybe in another couple of nights, after he'd fed enough, it would disappear.  Finally pulling the towel around his waist, he headed to the bedroom.  As he veered through the hallway, he heard the whine of the bikes on the big screen intensify before the sharp click as J.D. hit the remote and turned the screen off.  There came a soft sigh and the squeak of leather cushions as J.D. burrowed down into the couch.

 

All is right with the world, Buck mused.  One hand pressed to the wall to ensure he didn't fall on his face, he made his way down the hall and crossed into the bedroom he'd shared with Chris in this house for so long.

 

Chris had straightened the king sized bed and turned down the sheets.  A series of candles burned on the windowsill, the window itself shuttered off to keep out the approaching dawn.  Buck heard water running in the smaller bathroom adjacent to the closet, and took advantage of that moment to go to the chest of drawers and pull out a tank shirt.  He let the towel drop to the floor, as he stretched, grunting at the stiffness in his limbs, and pulled the tank down over his head.  It hugged his upper body with soft cottony comfort, while giving him plenty of free movement, but ultimately it covered up the sunburst.

 

He slid into his usual side of the bed and rolled over to adjust the pillow, propping up so that he faced the bathroom.  A moment later, the water cut off and Chris appeared, wiping his face and shoulders dry with a hand towel, his silhouette lean and panther-ish in the doorway.

 

"Buck?"

 

"Yeah?"

 

Chris turned out the bathroom light and stepped forward, the candlelight dancing over his naked pectorals and the stretch of his abdomen. He looked more exotic than ever, even with his black dusty jeans still on, and the brush of sandy hair over his brows.  "Buck. . ." he said breathily, the tiny reflection of a flame dancing in the corner of one eye.  "I know you're tired, and probably still hungry."

 

Buck slid out one hand along the covers, fingers spread wide, caressing the cool cotton as he peeled it back, leaving an opening for Chris to get into bed.  "What's on your mind, pard?" he whispered.  His tone was anything but an invitation to have sex.  He was too tired, and if Chris did want to continue such a relationship, Buck didn't plan on being half there.  It was all or nothing as far as he was concerned.  Chris had been there for him, and he would do no less in return.  Except right now.

 

Right now was for healing.

 

Chris unfastened his fly and slid the jeans off before getting into bed.  He adjusted the covers, pulling them up to his waist as he settled on the pillow beside Buck, propped up and looking down into the other man's sapphire eyes.  "Maybe it can wait," he began, and then shook his head.  "No. . . no, it can't."

 

"Ella?" Buck blinked, frown lines dipping down between his brows.  From this angle he was looking partially up under Chris' chin, at the expanse of his neck.  He followed the rise and fall of the acute Adam's apple when Chris swallowed stiffly.  "What happened back there?"  Attempting to rise up to eye level, he fumbled with the pillow, but his head was beginning to feel thick and heavy with fatigue and he only made it so far before easing back down.  "When you went to her—“

 

"I can tell you now," Chris interrupted.  He held his place, as if attempting to shield Buck from what had happened, as if the past somehow clung to the present and danger was still imminent.  His mouth opened to say her name, but only a breath came out.  He swallowed again, and his eyes glazed as he looked away, putting together a coherent explanation.  "Ella. . . she had been feeding ten times over what was needed.  That's why she had so many goons around her.  We just culled 'em back for her, part of her deal with The Italian. But it made her stronger, a lot stronger than I ever expected. . ."

 

Something in Chris' voice bothered him.  While whispery and deep, it also bore a tone of guilt.  "Chris, what are you getting at?"

 

"All these years, Buck."  Chris closed his eyes and didn't breathe.  "She's been getting inside me for a long time, rootin' down, getting stronger all the time.  I never could keep her out, but you helped me keep her from taking over."  His eyes opened, pupils constricting to fine points as he looked down at the face close to his.  "I never told you. . .  I couldn't tell you. . ."

 

Buck felt a sting deep in his gut, a nervy pain that crawled up into his heart and sickened him.  Hearing this, only now did he realize what a prisoner Chris had been in his own mind.  Held hostage by Ella.  And she thought that was love?  Buck tasted bile.  "Chris, I'm so sorry. . ."

 

Chris shook his head, bitter tears brimming in his eyes.  The watery membrane magnified the green in his irises, and the flicker of candle flame rippled across the surface.  "She finally convinced me I was going to be the cause of your death.  So when I went out to Four Corners. . . I knew I couldn't take my guns. . .  She'd know if I was surrendering or not, so I didn't take the guns.  I wanted to kill her, but didn't know if I could.  Hell, maybe I was surrendering. . . I didn't know what I was going to do with her."  He blinked, liberating a single tear.  "I just wanted it to end, somehow.  I was just so tired."

 

"Shhhhh. . ."  Buck reached up with one hand and gingerly brushed the back of a knuckle along the thin, glistening trail.  "You're free of her now.  Don't cling to it, or you still give her power.  You're free of her now. . ."  He didn't think about it as he continued, ". . . free of me. . ."

 

"You?"  Chris laid his hand over Buck's and pulled it away from his face.  "No, you're free of me.  I've been a burden on you for so long."  In an instant, his eyes cleared and narrowed with irritation.  "Goddamn it, Buck, I nearly got you killed."

 

Amusement at Chris' stubbornness lit up Buck's face, and he blinked lethargically.  "You were no burden on me," he argued lightly.  "I loved doing what I did, but I hated why I had to do it."  His jaw tightened as he braced himself for one bitter confession.  "I think I. . . I wanted it."

 

Chris only frowned and blinked at that.

 

"Doesn't make a lot of sense, does it?" Buck asked.  "I mean, I wanted you to be free, but those nights I came back, ready to feed you.  I loved that.  I loved being there for you."  He let his head dip deeper into the pillow and instinct told him that beyond the barrier over the window, dawn drew closer.

 

From some distance out, they heard the roar of Josiah's Big Dog making it home just in time.

 

"But you're free now," Buck finished and was surprised to find Chris' hand stroking his shoulder.  It strayed upward, fingers slipping under one strap on the tank shirt, and down toward his nipple.  He winced as the touch roamed to the center of his chest.  With a start, Buck pulled back.  "Don't," he said.  "It will heal, Chris.  Everything heals."

 

"Does it?"  Chris gradually eased further down into the pillows, rolling closer, propped on one arm.  "And us?  Will we heal?"

 

What exactly Chris was driving at suddenly hit Buck in the face.  Of course, Larabee always had to beat around the bush about these things.  Dealing with matters of the heart wasn't his forte.  Buck smiled at him and tried not to chuckle.  "Chris, I'm still yours forever if that's what you want."

 

"You sure?  Forever is a long time."  Chris closed his eyes and sighed as if he didn't believe a word he was hearing.  "In some way, I think maybe I was afraid of this day, when I'd be free of Ella, and you'd be free of me. . ."

 

Buck reached up and flicked him on the side of the ear and gave a snarl when Chris winced and glared at him.  "Are you listening to me?  Chris, I still want us.  The feeding?   That ain't us.  That was just something we had to do to get you through this, and it's what brought us together like this.  But that wasn't all there ever was to it.  You get me?"

 

Chris remained propped up, lips parted, barely showing the upper ridge of his teeth, including the fine, sharp points of his retracted canines.  "Yeah," he finally said huskily.  "I get you."

 

"Then hush up and hold me."  Buck snuggled closer, forcing Chris to rearrange himself and open his arms to receive his lover in a tight spooning position.  When he turned his face up for a moment, Chris leaned down, lips hovering an inch away.

 

Their breath collided for a second before Chris closed the gap.  His lips were softer, more satiny against Buck's drier ones, which opened up, welcoming in Chris' tongue.  As they drove together more forcefully, the kiss bound them tighter than the forever Chris had spoken of.  As Chris withdrew his tongue, he raked it over the tip of one canine and a thread of blood drained into Buck's mouth.

 

Buck purred with the deep rumble of a tiger, the supernatural thing in him rising just to the surface to express its contentedness.  Tired or not, he suddenly felt stronger than ever.  "Just hold me," he repeated more gently and laid his cheek against the inside of Chris' arm.

 

Chris did, and in no time, both were fast asleep.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Four

 

He had kept up with her through Clarion sources, just as J.D. had secretly followed Casey Wells' life.

 

It wasn't easy.  When he had been alive to the rest of the world, Ezra had gotten letters from her, imploring him to come away from his "little dustbowl" and join her on various great adventures, all of which were focused on con jobs.  He knew where she was then, and where she was headed, but now was different.

 

He was dead, and she was on the move with no son to write to anymore.

 

He'd finally caught a glimpse of her in Santa Fe, as she was just passing through, five years after the demise of Four Corners.  She looked almost the same, except the corners of her lips were beginning to turn down in a most unbecoming fashion, and while she walked with her head up and a stride that boasted confidence, she did not look like a happy woman.

 

Some time after that, he received word she had married.  Of course, to a millionaire, who spoiled her and endeavored to be her white knight.  Another seven years later, he died, leaving her penniless and forcing her back to a life of grifting.

 

That was all Ezra knew of Maude Standish's story, and it was through pure luck that he tracked her down in San Francisco.  He ordered Clarion Group to keep tabs and continued to maintain his distance.

 

Then, in 1901, they sent him a letter bearing somber news.  The Seven were situated in Tucson at the time.  After some heated debate with the others, especially Chris, who was completely against any of them making direct contact with their human pasts, Ezra went absent without leave.

 

Four nights later he walked along the Embarcadero, smelling the salt-and-decay of the sea.  He stared across the bay at Alcatraz Island and its dismal lighthouse flashing across the top of the fort.  A fog bank rolled across the water, and Ezra hastened inland, hands jammed into the pockets of his long wool coat, fur collar turned up.  Though he didn't feel the cold, he happily gave the pretense that he did, enjoying the soft mink against his neck, and the satin linings of the pockets.  His eyes were shaded under the elegantly curved brim of a top hat, as he wandered down various streets and alleys in a step pattern going southwest to Van Ness Avenue.  This put him northwest of Chinatown, and he thought with fondness of Li Pong.  She was little more than a girl when he'd met her twenty-three years ago, and he imagined what a lovely woman she must have grown into since then.  Ezra had no plans of finding out.  It was better that way, to keep her safe in his memory and heart and let it go at that.

 

Maude was a different matter.

 

On the avenue he headed south, counting down the numbers of the buildings, until he reached the corner townhouse he sought.  Three stories tall, narrow, with bay windows, painted a rich cream with dark green trim.

 

He soundlessly climbed the front steps to the door, and gently turned the knob.  Finding it locked, he smiled as he retrieved the tools he needed from the interior pocket of the coat.  In seconds the lock was picked and he was in the foyer, certain that no soul had seen him from the street.

 

Taking off his hat and coat, he casually draped them over the rack behind the door and turned to take in a full view of the furnishings in the adjacent living parlor.  Oriental rugs, Empire chairs and a sofa with clawed feet.  A mantel with matching silver candelabras and a Dresden vase.  She had, apparently, managed to recover from her last husband's monetary indiscretions.  Ezra knew she had a live-in nurse, another indication she had done well for herself.  

 

Straight ahead, stairs led to the upper floors, and he headed that way, again soundlessly, cautious of making a creak that would awaken the nurse.  At the top landing, he turned and made his way down the hallway, past the first door, which stood ajar.  He eased it further open and looked in to see a young woman nestled into a single bed.  Ezra watched the peaceful rise and fall of her chest as she slumbered deeply, breath even.  The hinges gave a tiny creak as he pulled the door back to its original position, but the woman didn't stir.

 

From the next room down, he heard a cough, hoarse and weak.

 

He moved on.  The following door was also cracked open.  Just enough, perhaps, for the nurse to hear any calls for help.  Easing into the room, he closed the door behind him and stood staring at the bed and the figure lying there.  Hazy streetlight filtered through the slats in the shutters and caught on the harsh angles of her prominent cheekbones.  Carefully groomed and curled tresses of white were fanned across the pillow out from her head, as she lay facing up into the dark.  The room smelled of talcum powder and menthol tonics.

 

Raspy breath grated the air, and even if she couldn't see him clearly, her gaze was angled in his direction, intense, and vicious.  She was well aware that there was another presence in the room.  The covers were pulled up to her chest, and one hand rested on her waist, most of her body swallowed up by the feather mattress beneath her.  It made her look even smaller than she already was.

 

"Who's there?" a flat voice asked, followed by more raspy breathing, and a cough.  "I said. . . who's there?"  The words shook, barely expelled by fragile lungs.  "You here to rob me. . . you think twice about it. . . I'll beat you bloody."

 

He would have been amused at this if she wasn't the most pitiful thing, this once vibrant woman who had managed to sink more ships than Helen of Troy.  Her head struggled to rise from the pillow and fell back, her neck too thin to support the weight.  At least the spirit was certainly still there, even if her body was reaching its end. 

 

"It's me," he said calmly as he stepped closer, reaching toward the lamp on her nightstand.  Tiffany, no less, with dragonfly motifs set in the jewel-toned plate glass shade.  He pulled the cord with a delicate snap and dim light bathed the tabletop and a silver tray of neatly arranged pill bottles.  Enough light for his face to be clear to her.

 

She hadn't moved, other than to turn her head more steeply toward the sound of his voice.  A tall-backed wheel chair was parked at the foot of the bed, and he glanced at it sadly, remembering when Clarion had sent him word of the stroke.  From what he understood, she could barely move one side of her body.  That had happened two years ago, but now her condition was deteriorating rapidly and she had precious little time left.

 

He stood beside the bed, eyes even as he stared her down, watched her own eyes, cool and blue, widen.  Pale lashes blinked with astonishment.  Her thin lips, painted with a heavy coat of red even for bedtime, parted with a soft gasp.  Then the gasp turned into a long sigh that sounded strangely relieved.

 

Ezra waited for her to get over her shock, what there was of it, for he was the next to be surprised as he watched her brows knit and her eyes water.

 

"My son. . ." she whispered.  "My beautiful. . . baby boy. . ."  The sweetest smile danced along her lips and he watched the crow's feet around her eyes deepen.  "Have you come for me?"

 

He swallowed, realizing that for all of his pale complexion and unchanged years, she probably thought him a ghost.  Suddenly, Chris' insistence that he not come here made sense.  What had he thought to achieve here?  Satisfaction, perhaps?  To see the woman whom he loved, yet who had been the torment of his human years, pass away.  Speechless, he stared, absorbed in the wrinkles at the base of her neck, just visible above the lace collar of her nightgown.

 

And then there was the strange softness that entered into her eyes.  "Have you?" she repeated and gave a little cough.  The hand lying across her waist rose, wavered in the air, and then came to cover her lips as she coughed harder.  She cleared her throat with a rustling wheeze and her hand fell back to her side.

 

Compelled to answer the question, Ezra took a steadying breath.  "No, Mother."

 

"Where have you been?"  She blinked, lids heavily climbing back open again.

 

Ezra tensed as he heard the nurse stir in the next room.  But it was only the creak of floorboards under the bed as she shifted in her sleep.  He returned his attention to Maude.

 

"You can't imagine."

 

Her mouth quirked, and for a moment he saw the woman who had swindled him; driven his saloon out of business and then bought it out from under him before he could make a peep of objection.

 

Raised me?  Did you say, raised me?  Come on now, Mother, you didn't raise me as well as a stray cat raises a litter.  You dumped me, remember?  At every aunt and uncle's house you could find.  Unless, of course, you needed me for a con.

 

He remembered launching those words at her and feeling as if they didn't even bounce off that thick, self-centered head of hers.  To think of that childhood. . . it suddenly didn't seem like his anymore.  This woman's son was dead.  What the hell had he come here for?

 

"Did you. . ." she began and then coughed.

 

He wanted out of this room.  Wanted to be back in Tucson, where he'd left the others on their hunt.

 

What the hell had he been thinking coming here?

 

"Did you get the flowers I left you?" she whispered.

 

Startled at the question, Ezra tilted his head and frowned quizzically.  "Fl-Flowers?"  He sounded as raspy as she did now.

 

"I went back to that dustbowl," she said, turning her eyes away and looking toward the ceiling.  "You had no grave. . . so I left them in that saloon of yours. . . the one I. . . the one I took from you."  Her eyes watered, the gleam dancing along the edges of her lids and turning her gaze to glass.

 

Ezra could hear her heartbeat.  How slow it sounded.  Tired and weighted down.

 

"Come here and. . . sit. . ."   Her hand weakly patted the blankets.

 

Reluctantly he went to the edge of the bed and lowered down into a sit, feeling the feather mattress give.  What had he expected to say?  What words could he offer to a dying woman who thought she was about to join her son on the other side?  Then he felt her hand slip over his, and her brow furrowed as her eyes strayed back to focus on his face masked in the dim rainbow of light from the Tiffany lamp.

 

"You're so cold," she gasped.  "Ezra?"

 

"Shhhhh."  He turned his hand over, capturing hers beneath it.  His thumb caressed the leathery, loose skin over her knuckles.  "I received the flowers," he lied, distracting her.

 

"Oh, good."  She pulled in a breath and then let it out.  "Forgive me."

 

Instantly his throat tightened.  Those were not words he'd expected to hear.  Not from her.  But then, the wasted creature that lay before him now was a different Maude Standish.  He couldn’t hope to comprehend what she'd been through in the years after his disappearance, or how she had mourned him.  And he wasn't about to tell her what had really become of her son, for what he saw in those eyes was true remorse and a begging for release.

 

Perhaps that was why he had come.

 

He wondered if somehow she had called him, reached out with her need for forgiveness.  Did he hold the key to her release?   It meant more to him than even he could comprehend, that she should hold on like this, just for him. . . for this very vision of him to come along and absolve her.

 

"I. . ."  He swallowed and took a deep breath.  The strange amalgamation of discord and admiration he'd felt for her his entire life eased out with the simple words.  "I forgive you."

 

"I love you, Ezra.  I always loved you, more than anything. . . even if. . . I never—“

 

He cut her off.  Didn't need the explanation she was struggling to deliver.

 

"I love you too."

 

Leaning over her, he felt her shallow breath stutter and fade against his chin as he kissed her forehead.  When he sat back and straightened, her last heartbeat sounded, a dull echo in his ears.

 

"Goodbye, Mama."

 

It was not an address he had ever used before.  Always she had been Mother or Maude, but never Mama.

 

Ezra closed his eyes, felt the bite of tears that wanted to rise.  Instead of allowing for that indulgence, he dismissed himself, turning away from her lifeless body, and stored the memory of her last words safely in his heart next to that of Li Pong.

 

Quieter than a mouse, he let himself out, creeping from her room, and back down the stairwell.  In the foyer, he took his hat and coat from the rack and went out on the porch without putting them on.  Before he could help it, a shudder wracked his frame and the first hint of a sob broke loose.  He choked it off and sniffled, brought one hand up to wipe at his nose, and composed himself.

 

The full weight of the fog had enshrouded the city, muting the air, casting calm and deathly silence over the street.  Even the sharp vision of a vampire couldn't pierce it.  Ezra breathed in the tangy dampness and analyzed its aroma.  There was something familiar in the air, smelling of musk, earth, and leather.  He was already turning toward the source of the scent when Vin Tanner's silhouette appeared on the end of the porch.

 

The tracker's full features bled into view as he came closer, the fog curling back from him until he stood in clear view, cloaked in a black duster, long hair beaded around the edges with clinging mist.  The collar on the duster was turned up, a most becoming accent alongside the hard angles of his jaw line.

 

"Mr. Tanner," Ezra said softly in surprise, standing with his own coat draped over one arm, the brim of the hat gripped tightly in his hand.  "What are you doing here?"

 

Vin shrugged.  "Thought maybe you shouldn't be alone."  His eyes maintained their usual cool steadiness, as if the man couldn't be bothered to smile anymore.

 

Well, it was the thought that counted, Ezra figured.  "What about the others?"

 

"There'll be hell to pay later, I 'spose."  Vin tossed a glance toward the front door.  "How is she?"

 

Ezra stared at the floorboards, all emotion swept away.  It made him feel so damned tired.  And he was undead.  He wasn't supposed to feel tired anymore.  "She's in another place."

 

Vin looked at him.  "Ezra, I'm sorry.”

 

"Ashes to ashes," the conman said under his breath.  He looked up, taking on Vin's hard gaze with no hint of resistance, and when he blinked, tears fell free.  There was just no helping it, so he gathered what dignity he had left and refocused.  "I guess we should go."  He walked to the edge of the porch and took one step down to stare out into nothing but solid white air.  "Thick as pea soup doesn't begin to describe this fog.  We could practically stand in broad daylight and not get burned. . ."

 

Suddenly hands crept over his shoulders from behind, and strong, spread fingers reached under the lapels of his suit jacket.  He sighed as the arms drew him back, and he felt Vin there, standing on the next step up directly behind him.  To not be alone here, and now, meant so much.  The coat and hat slid from his hold and rolled in a heap of wool, silk, and fur, down the steps into the mist.  Ezra leaned his head back and felt the comfort of Vin's soothing chest there, a lapel on the duster brushing his cheek.  His hands came up to cross over his chest and hold onto Vin's arms, securing him as he shuddered again.

 

Vin's breath whispered in his ear, and a damp lock of hair teased his temple.  Ezra closed his eyes and surrendered with a low gasp that grew into a full sob, as he basked in his lover's embrace.  For a moment the world outside the two of them did not exist.  There was only the fog and the protective pocket it created around them.

 

When Ezra opened his eyes, he was standing alone and dangerously close to the line between shadow and the sun's morning rays.  He looked up the slope of the rocky hill, at the mouth of the cavern.  For a moment, he was tempted to cross a foot over the line, just tease the sun, and see what happened, and suddenly he understood why Vin played that game.  Quite a rush to tempt the sun, casting fear to the wind to chance a fiery death.

 

The present was an extreme contrast to that place encased in the mists of San Francisco a century ago.  The landscape glared, the sun striking sand, shrubs, and rocks with golden force.  Ezra climbed up the slope, the cavern above coming into better view.  The opening reminded him of a gaping maw, stony deposits like fangs forming columns to either side of the entrance.  He saw Vin standing in the center opening, looking into the passage, hesitating.  The tracker had removed his duster, which hung, gripped tightly in his hand, at his side.  His muscled back was tensed, shoulder blades prominent under the tight fit of his black tank.

 

Squinting as the glare of the sun crept higher and thus more risky, Ezra took another step up, intentionally scuffing a heel on the rock so that Vin heard his approach.  The other turned around to face out, shoulders hitched back, eyes narrowed and reflecting an intense orange-red.

 

Ezra cocked his head and smiled casually.  "Womb and tomb all in one, eh?"

 

"That ain't funny, Ezra."

 

The smiled dropped, and Ezra finished the climb up to the opening.  "I wasn't trying to be funny, Vin.  I was here, too, remember?"  With continued nonchalance, he stepped past the tracker and dared to be the first to make the descent.  Vin's apprehension to go on was clear from the way he had been standing, so Ezra figured it was up to himself to put the wheels in motion.

 

"Ezra. . ." Vin grumbled.  "What are you doing here?"  He took a few reluctant steps down the path.

 

Ezra scoped the passage ahead, his vision adjusting from the bleed-out effect of too much daylight to the more gray perspective of seeing in darkness.  Time had wiped clean the reek of blood and goon carcasses.  There was more dust, and spats of bat guano.  In essence, nature had moved back in.

 

"I thought it might be hazardous for you to walk this path alone," he said over his shoulder and walked on, clearing the little bend in the path.  The proverbial butterflies flapped about in his belly.  Just ahead lay the entrance into the chamber where he and Vin, and later Nathan and Josiah, had all made the crossing.

 

"Ezra," Vin grumbled and started after him, taking baby steps, hesitating.  Ezra could hear the footsteps working out a pattern:  two greater steps. . . pause. . . three more steps. . . pause. . .

 

Ezra moved on into the chamber and looked around.  The candles that had been burning on the walls back then were, ironically, still there, even if completely coated in dust that had hardened into a shell.  The wax formations were another century short of becoming one with the stone.  He looked into the nook where Selvik's goons had held him captive all that day, facing into the wall, so he hadn't even known that Vin, trapped in the death sleep, was in the same chamber with him.  And there, across from the nook and against the opposing wall, was the altar upon which Vin had lain.  The phantom sensation of goose flesh climbed up Ezra's arms.

 

At the opening, Vin took a long, deep breath, and stepped down.

 

Ezra wandered toward one of the natural shelves and, out of need for a warmer atmosphere, used a thumbnail to scrape the top layer of crust off one of the thicker candles.  The wax beneath was hard and seemed to be preserved nicely.  He rooted out the wick and pinched it up.  From his blazer pocket, he pulled out a book of matches and lit the candle.  In seconds a soft, dancing glow cast around the chamber.  Ezra removed his jacket, grimacing at the damage it had taken, dirt and blood ground into the fabric.

 

"Au revoir, Ralph Lauren," he said and hung the jacket on the wall via a small jut in the stone.  He noticed the remark didn't rouse the tiniest grunt from Vin, and turned to find the other standing silently on the other side of the chamber, facing the wall.  "Vin?"

 

Vin's duster lay in the middle of the floor, forgotten.  His head was bowed, his forearms raised so that it appeared he was holding something before him, out of Ezra's range of sight.

 

Approaching the silent figure, Ezra kept the slightest distance as he came in from the side and halted, clipping off a gasp before it made full breath.  His mind leapt back, recalling how he and the others had cleaned this place out.  They'd dragged out the remains of several goons and dumped them where the sun would take care of them the next day.  First and foremost, they had taken Selvik's headless body out.  Headless being the operative phrase.  Apparently, they had forgotten the head.

 

Vin stared at the skull cupped in his hands, eyes hazy as they examined the fangs, which had dulled from white to dirty ivory but were still, nonetheless, glossy and fearsome in their sharpness.  The empty eye sockets appeared to stare back, as if the master vampire's spirit were still in there, trapped perhaps, but able to see that his mark on Vin remained.

 

"Ah, hell," Ezra murmured.

 

"You don't know," Vin said rustily, a fearful shake in his voice.  "You don't know what he did to me.  How he. . . changed me. . ."

 

"I know what he did to you, Vin.  You've shown me. . . off and on. . ."  He shrugged, shaking off the false chills that still clung to him.  Certainly the flashes of vision that had tried to escape Vin's mind in the past did not carry the full weight of the actual experience.  "But I won't pretend to understand how it must have felt when it was immediately happening.  You have to help me understand that."

 

Vin's fingers tightened their grip on the skull, his knuckles turning white as all of his focus poured into the dusty, gray shell of bone.

 

"Alas, poor Selvik," Ezra said dryly, the disgust like a sour knot lodged in the back of his throat.  He moved suddenly, reaching up and clamping his hands over Vin's as he stepped directly before the brooding tracker.  "Look at him now, Vin.  You beat him."  He gritted his teeth and hissed, "He is nothing.  Just a bad memory."

 

Vin's brows knitted, and his eyes glittered, every possible emotion sweeping over his face in a matter of seconds, and he breathed shallowly.  "How can you stand me?"  He looked up from the skull's grinning countenance.

 

“What’re you talking about?” Ezra gripped harder, shaking a little.  The skull appeared to shiver between the two sets of hands fastened around it like a vise.  Then Ezra found himself lost in a pair of soft blue eyes, the likes of which he hadn't seen since 1877.

 

The owner of those eyes had been dead for a long time.

 

"I gave you this life," Vin said, "and then I punished you for taking it."  His gaze roamed slowly, rolling out to the side, then up toward the cavern ceiling as if he would find more answers up there.  "You taught me to read, and you've put up with my shit, but I've never been there for you."

 

"No more of this, Vin," Ezra snarled.  "Enough."  The harsh tone was enough to keep Vin focused on him, to stop straying away from the matter they really had to address.  "You were there for me at the moments in my life when I needed someone most, so don’t even try to heap that shit on yourself."

 

A tiny gust of breath shook out of Vin at this minor swearing coming from Ezra Standish.  "I—“

 

"Enough," Ezra repeated more gently.  His hold on Vin's hands gradually loosened, and he coaxed the skull free to cradle it in his own palm and held it aloft.  Briefly he looked into the dark eye sockets and the nasal cavity.  The bulb-shape of the cranium made him think of an evil genie's bottle.  If Selvik's spirit really did reside inside there, then Ezra counted it a blessing, for what escape could there possibly be from that?

 

Carrying the skull across the room, Ezra glanced around until he found the perfect spot, a sort of cubbyhole just above the ledge where the other candles had been arranged.  He set the skull inside the little space, displayed like some grim trophy.  "Now," he said, turning to Vin.  "Take aim, and spit."  He pointed at the area above the skull's nose.  "Get him right there, between the eyes."

 

The tracker stared at him as if he'd completely taken leave of his senses.  Then an almost crazed look crept into Vin's eyes.  His eyebrows quirked with uncertainty whether to present a frown or rise with amusement.  He blinked and the corner of his mouth twitched.  Then a snicker, accompanied by a wet sniffle, erupted out of him.  Vin shivered where he stood as a hundred and twenty-five years worth of festering emotions rose to the surface and hit the last delicate wall of resistance.

 

"Vin. . ." Ezra whispered, his heart swelling in his chest, before the world around him shifted, and in his mind he saw it all, felt it all.  The little glimpses he had gotten before were nothing compared to the vision that struck him now.

 

Lying helpless and naked on the floor, humiliated and bleeding to death. . . pain shooting through his body. . . and vicious lower ranks of undead. . . stinking. . . filthy. . . lapping up his blood. . .

 

Never had the vision been so intense.  Ezra suddenly understood far more than he had thought he did before.  The terror of the situation was a given, but to feel it, to actually be there and die listening to that horrific lapping noise and the eager mewling and growling, unable to move or scream. . .

 

That inability to express himself then, to cry out, had blocked Vin off completely.  Left him incapable of truly venting his emotions without taking a violent bent.

 

Then the sores broke, the infection ran, and Vin let loose a long, drawn out gasp as a deluge of tears from his eyes.  He collapsed to his knees, hands reaching up to cover his face, his fingernails formed just slightly into little talon tips.  "Oh, God. . ." he choked on a sob and sniffled.  His lips curled back, revealing his fangs at half bud.

 

Eyes burning with tears of his own, Ezra went to him.  "I see, Vin.  I see."  He reached out to guide the tracker against him, pulling Vin's hands away from his face so that neither the beast, nor his tears, could hide.

 

"I didn't want to do it to you. . ." Vin sobbed.  "I'm so sorry, Ezra. . .  I'm sorry for everything."  His head bowed in against Ezra's chest and his shoulders heaved.  He squeezed his lids tightly, wringing out more tears that drenched the front of Ezra's shirt.

 

Ezra remained on his knees, arms around the tracker's quaking shoulders and head, rocking gently forward and back.  His own tears continued to slip quietly down his cheeks as he stared at the wall.  The candle flame's haunting dance became a blur of light to his flooded vision.  "Now-now," he whispered after a moment.  "Guilt doesn't become you, Mr. Tanner."  One hand lazily moved up and down the curve of Vin's spine.  "There was nothing you could do, Vin.  There was nothing any of us could do but keep each other alive, and we did it the only way we could."

 

A hollow and very wet sniffle answered him from down in the depths of his chest.  Vin continued to shake and weep.  "I just want. . . I just want. . ."  He fought around breaths to get the words right.  It was another long moment of sniffling and deep breaths before he could speak again.  "I want. . ."

 

Ezra calmly took the other man's shoulders in his hands, his thumbs caressing the hollows where the deltoids met the pectoral muscles.  His fingers slid beneath the cotton straps on Vin's tank, and he pushed Vin up and back.  "What, Vin?  What do you want?"

 

The eyes blinking back at him were framed in dark, soppy lashes.  Vin's damp cheeks sparkled in the golden light.  "I want to be free," he rasped.  "Ezra, I let him rule me."  His eyes roamed past their focus on the conman's to just over his shoulder, and Ezra knew he was looking at Selvik's skull.  "Even dead, he's been inside me.  Not like Ella with Chris, but. . . because I let him. . . even with him dead and gone. . ."

 

Ezra nodded.

 

"I want to be free," Vin repeated.

 

One hand reached up quickly to stroke at Vin's jaw line, drawing his attention back once more.  Ezra cupped the same hand around the side of Vin's neck, the place where Selvik had torn into him, opened his veins, and drained the life from him.  The pulse beneath the skin throbbed with that familiar and even rhythm, the same beat matching Vin's heart.  "Then. . ." he murmured softly and leaned in closer, lips hovering above Vin's.

 

"Move with me, Vin.  Not against me."

 

At that he captured his lover's mouth in a kiss.  Vin shuddered instantly at the contact and moaned.  The vibrations traveled into Ezra's throat, arousing a moan of his own.  Their tongues met, just the tips touching, before they both drew away from each other, lips parting.

 

Ezra dipped his head to the side, fingers spreading and sliding through Vin's hair as he smoothed it back from the tracker's face and sighed.  He listened to the pulse rising and falling, a soothing thrum, and smelled the tangy, alluring scent of Vin's blood.

 

"May I?"

 

Vin answered by stiffly tilting his head a little further.  The dense cords of his neck muscles flexed beneath the taut skin, and he swallowed with a loud, nervous gulp.

 

This was the first crucial step, Ezra realized as he kissed at the area over the pulse.  Vin murmured something between an objection and an urging.  Then Ezra opened his mouth, extended his fangs to full length, and bit down.  The skin popped under the pressure of the needle-sharp points, and Vin's body bowed toward his own.  Ezra kept the bite as gentle as possible, not tearing the skin beyond the punctures necessary to draw out one mouthful of blood.  He retracted his canines and tasted the flow, tepid and yet so alive and piquant.  In seconds the wound closed up, and Ezra swallowed.

 

The buzz line between their minds surged to new life.  One of Vin's hands wrapped around Ezra's side, cinching him in closer, clinging as if to plead for guidance.  The conman was more than happy to oblige and tilted his head, granting access for Vin to take his turn.

 

Vin nuzzled at the pulsing skin beneath Ezra's ear, his mouth open and fangs already at full extension so that Ezra felt the slightest rough graze and the slick of saliva before Vin bit down.  The pop and sting sent new shivers down through Ezra as he felt the blood pass through the holes, dizzying and delightful.  Like his lover, Vin took only a mouthful and then allowed the spot to heal.  Ezra sensed that the old urge to tear in harder and deeper was there in Vin, but not nearly as strong.  Vin resisted, and the bond between them coordinated their intentions, allowing them to flow with each other, their thoughts as clear to each other as if they were spoken.

 

Ezra stood, drawing Vin along with him, and reached down to remove the tracker's tank.  He paused to stare at the hole in the front, where the hunter's spear had gouged Vin, so close under his heart.  Ezra felt a jolt of inner pain to think what might have happened.  Then Vin's hands urged him on, and he continued to pull up the shirt at the sides until it slipped over Vin's head and along his raised arms.  Vin went to work, freeing the buttons on Ezra's shirt, pinching the tear-dampened material between his fingers and sighing as the hard-muscled chest beneath came into view.  Shirts discarded, they finished undressing each other while Ezra slowly backed Vin toward the stone altar, laying down a path of boots, jeans, slacks, and underwear.  Both were completely naked by the time Vin's buttocks pressed against the edge of the rough stone, and he backed off, glancing down at it and then at Ezra, sending a silent distress signal.

 

Of course.   Ezra had expected there to be some trauma over this particular stone.  He distracted his lover with a kiss, tasting tongue and tooth in Vin's mouth before he pulled away and went to retrieve the old duster from the floor.

 

Returning with the coat, Ezra spread it out on the altar as a makeshift pallet and looked into Vin's eyes for approval.

 

He found amusement ingrained within the shards of the blue irises, and lingering redness around the edges.  The conman's hands reached behind and gripped Vin's firm little ass, a cheek in each hand, and lifted, guiding him to sit on the platform.  Vin's toes unconsciously spread as they came up off the floor.  Ezra remained standing, leaning over him.

 

. . . do you trust me. . .

 

. . . trust. . . yes. . . trust. . . you. . .

 

. . . let me send you. . .

 

As Vin propped back on his hands, tilting his head so that his hair fell in a cascade between his shoulder blades, Ezra pursed his lips around a soft nipple and sucked vigorously.  His hands strayed away from the sweet curves of Vin's ass.  One hand, fingers spread, tickled around a lean hip and down along the crevice of the pelvic bone to locate Vin's flaccid but slowly rising cock.  The other trailed up, tickling the lower edge of Vin's ribs, to the second nipple and began to work the skin into a rigid bud.  A fingertip circled around and massaged the nub, while Ezra's teeth nipped at and teased the other nipple.  Air hissed through Vin's teeth, and he shifted his weight over to one arm, freeing the other to stroke the back of Ezra's head.

 

His groin nudged Vin's inner thigh, and Ezra felt tingles in his own cock.  The rosy head began to swell with anticipation, and brushed against the coarse nest of Vin's pubic hair.

 

. . . you don't have to be gentle with me. . .

 

. . . do not even go there. . .

 

With an anxious groan, Ezra dropped to his knees and circled a thumb and forefinger around the base of Vin's shaft.  He pulled out slightly, encouraging circulation, enjoying the texture of the foreskin, while he kissed the head, flicking his tongue over the tip, and tasting the saltiness of pre-cum beading out of the meatus.  Vin's hand still clenched his hair, but the tracker didn't try to pull him closer or force him to work harder.

 

. . . I never wanted to hurt you. . .

 

. . . I know. . .

 

Ezra opened his mouth and took the full organ in, moaning as the lower shaft slid over his tongue with the slightest give to the foreskin.  He paused, observing how the shaft pulsed and thickened.  The head, grown into a firm bulb of flesh, pressed up against the back of his throat.

 

Vin unconsciously pushed his hips out a little further, and Ezra looked up along the course of the body in front of him.  Past the graceful stretch of Vin's sleek abdomen, to the shadows beneath his pectorals, to the angle of his collarbone and his exposed throat.  The tracker still faced upward, eyes closed, lips parted so that the tip of his tongue briefly danced between his long fangs.

 

. . . I promise. . .

 

. . . promise nothing. . .

 

Ezra dragged his contouring lips back down the shaft and over the head, until he closed them to a purse and let go with a peck of a kiss.  He rose and licked his way up the middle of Vin's belly, pausing to sidetrack and tongue at a nipple, before he climbed all the way to the base of Vin's neck and under his chin.  Carefully he began to lay Vin back on the altar and eased up onto the stone himself, stretching out along the lower quarters of his lover's body.  He ran a hand under Vin's balls and cupped them, working one of the tender orbs around in its sack with the pad of his thumb.

 

They stared at each other, Ezra's green eyes tranquil, Vin's expectant blues still watering around the edges.  Ezra slid his hand past Vin's scrotum, just to the edge of the anal opening, but could reach no further as he realized Vin's legs were locked in place.  Not quite together, but not exactly spread enough to give him access.

 

A sympathetic ache moved around inside Ezra as he gently backed his hand out.  He stared down into his lover's eyes.

 

. . . let me do this for you. . .

 

. . . it will hurt. . .

 

. . . only for a moment. . .

 

The candle glow reflected in Vin's pupils, swirling patterns transforming his eyes into kaleidoscopes of blue, red, and violet.  Slowly he began to spread his legs, drawing one up so that his inner ankle rested on Ezra's hip.  His toes spread wide then curled in, gripping weakly at a patch of Ezra's skin.

 

It tickled like hell, but Ezra maintained calm and eye contact as he began to move his hand again, sliding down and meeting the tight opening.  Vin Tanner had not been penetrated since the rape.  Some part of him had sworn steadfastly that he would never be touched that way again, and it showed.  Ezra ran his fingertip just within the ring and felt it pulse and tighten in objection to any possible entry.

 

Vin blinked the bleariness away, and then the lovers moved at the same time.  Ezra backed away and waited, while Vin rolled onto his belly and propped on his forearms, legs stretched along the edges of the altar.  Vin lifted his hips so that Ezra could move in again, positioning himself.  He parted the two firm mounds of Vin's ass cheeks, finding a full view of the secret entry.  Ezra leaned down and licked at the ring with precision, pressing in his tongue, tasting Vin and enjoying the smell of musk and blood rushing beneath the skin.

 

And that heartbeat. . .

 

Ezra pushed his tongue inward with one beat, then out with the next, creating a gentle rhythm to help Vin's body relax.  With each thrust, he wetted the passage more, and felt the muscles begin to give.  When Vin suddenly undulated his hips, Ezra smiled inwardly, seeing that he was accomplishing his task, and the response was positive.  His cock was growing harder, urged only by his intent to give Vin pleasure such as the tracker had never had before.  Carefully, Ezra replaced tongue with fingertip, sliding the digit in up to the first knuckle.

 

. . . only if this is what you want. . .

 

. . . yeah, please. . .

 

. . . if it hurts, tell me. . .

 

. . . let it hurt. . .

 

Ezra worked his finger in a circle then slid in up to the second knuckle, then to the base of his finger.  Vin was already trembling, breathing in short, distressed bursts; he tossed his head, hair slapping down on his back.

 

"Go on. . ."

 

Ezra could hear anguish in the voice, and sensed more tears even though he couldn't see them with Vin facing the other way.  He hooked his finger downward and massaged.  Then he drew it out and added a second digit.

 

. . . we're already inside each other. . .

 

He slid both fingers in knuckle by knuckle, stroking at the snug, wet interior and imagining how good that tightness would feel around his cock.  Ezra put the anxious and lusty thoughts in check when Vin spat out another breath as if intensely pained.  Ezra watched from behind as his lover's ribcage expanded and contracted like that of a heaving steed.

 

. . . no, this is hurting you too much. . .

 

He started to withdraw both fingers.

 

"No, Ezra, please. . ."

 

. . . I want all of you in me. . . all of you. . .

 

It was all such torture, Ezra thought, seeing Vin squirm, and he could feel the other mind struggling to stay in the present, to accept that what was happening to the body now was not against its will.  Ezra pulled his fingers out, drawing more of the wet along to add to the opening.

 

. . . as you wish. . .

 

Like a cat he slinked into position, slipping his cock head between Vin's cheeks and against the opening.  He gripped Vin's hips and pulled him up onto all fours, sliding in just a hair and then watching as the muscles in Vin's back rippled, shoulder blades squeezing together, spine undulating with serpentine grace.  There were no more words offer, on the mental or spoken planes, which Ezra figured could prepare Vin for what was to come next.  Better to get the pain over with, for as he had learned in the past, their bodies would heal of any tearing, and contour quickly to the intrusion.

 

Ezra thrust forward, neat and clean, forcing the aperture fully open and around him.  His cock plunged inside Vin up to the hilt, and he held it there, resisting the temptation to shiver at that tightness around the base that trapped in the blood flow as sure as any cock ring, causing him to swell to greater proportions.  He gasped at the insanely deep pleasure that greeted him, before a greater sense of exploding pain followed.

 

Vin roared, the sound a clash of echoes fading into the deeper cavern.  The sound waves disturbed the candle flame violently, creating a strobe effect with their shadows on the wall.  His body bucked aggressively downward, while his hips pushed back against Ezra, keeping him in despite the instinct to pull free.  He shivered and muted sobs issued out from under the veil of his hair, as he kept his front weight up on his corded arms, his head bowed.

 

. . . it's me, remember. . . only me. . .

 

Every part of Ezra's being wanted only to soothe Vin, and before he could dampen it the emotion of it all overwhelmed him, pouring forth a single thought form.  There was no taking it back, no denying its release as the century caught up with him in three little words.

 

. . . I love you. . .

 

The effect was nothing short of astonishing as Vin's shivers died down and his breathing leveled off.  That calm acceptance was answer enough for Ezra.  He waited, ensuring that the pain had subsided completely in Vin, before he withdrew and thrust in again.  Vin murmured through his teeth and bucked again, but more receptively this time.  Gradually, they found their rhythm: Vin leaning forward then pushing back, while Ezra pulled back then pushed forward.

 

Ezra closed his eyes as every nerve in his engorged cock luxuriated in the silken wetness of his lover, and lightening bolts of pleasure built up in him.  As they drew closer to climax, he sat back on his haunches, hands secured around Vin's hips, fingertips making indentions in the skin.  He pulled Vin onto his lap, forcing his thighs and buttocks further apart to drive upward.

 

Vin uttered a moan as he sank downward, completely sheathing the stout organ a second time.  His hands reached around behind him to find Ezra's forearms and gripped as if holding onto two support bars.  Ezra's cock slid up against the erogenous wall, igniting greater sensation for Vin, whose own cock surged up.  Their moans and gasps grew into a duet echoing through the cavern.  Their shadows rose and fell together on the wall.

 

Feeling himself teeter closer to the brink, Ezra reached around and took careful hold of Vin's cock and began to slide the foreskin up, then back.  They worked this new rhythm into the one already established.  Mouth open, fangs now retracted, Vin rocked forward and up, then down, his lower back curved in, head falling back. 

 

They rocked harder, faster, building each other up, passions mounting, until Vin forgot the past and all his pain with it.  He cried out as he found relief, tearing off the shackles he had fastened around his own soul.

 

Ezra clenched his teeth and issued a contented growl as he came, spewing his seed up into Vin, who in turn came across the duster, shooting cool, pearly drops, before they both tensed up one last time then fell back, supported primarily by Ezra, who remained balanced upright.  For a long moment they sat that way, Ezra's softening cock lodged up inside Vin's ass.

 

Ezra draped his arms around Vin's waist and brushed his cheek against a cool shoulder.  His breath rushed over the skin and he kissed it, working his way inward until his lips met the ridge of Vin's spine.  Vin sighed, and Ezra relished the sound, so free and relaxed and bearing the vibration of a preternatural purr.  Vin leaned his head back, tilted just right to find Ezra's crown as a momentary pillow, and his hair dripped back and around his lover's face.  Ezra smiled serenely to himself and playfully blew at one of the bronze locks.

 

Then, before his legs could go to sleep on him, Ezra urged Vin off.  The tracker stretched out on his side, ignoring the drying drops of cum on his coat, and folded an arm under his head.  Ezra stretched out behind him, an arm draped along Vin's hip.  In no time the emotionally exhausted tracker was asleep, his breath dropping away into nothing, and he lay still as the very stone on which they rested.  Ezra lingered in the waking realm, propped on one elbow, and considered all that had been accomplished just now.  As he admired the sleeping profile—the eyes closed, long lashes resting against smooth cheeks—he saw a future that, for once, offered a cloud with a silver lining.

 

He looked up at Selvik's skull tucked neatly into its cubbyhole, those haunted eye sockets staring back at him, and he could swear he actually saw a look of horror distort the bone along the brow area.  Just his imagination, Ezra figured, though he mused on it until he yawned and happily smacked his lips.  In spite of himself, he felt the corner of his mouth twitch up into a smarmy smile that he directed at the skull, realizing that in winning this battle, he had won the war.

 

And feeling particularly catty, he even showed a bit of fang.

 

 

Epilogue - Un Camino Nuevo

 

Begging the maker

For just one

Gentle breath

It is whispered

We will walk together

Past that trail of blood

In shadowed truth we find

A hero's heart

 

- Vin Tanner, A Hero's Heart* -

 

"Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune."

 

Vin's soft Texan drawl soothed them all as the sun sank slowly below the horizon, its rays just touching the comfort point.  In their minds they felt its warmth, even if their bodies did not.  The color wash layered downward through pink to orange, to sienna.  The rim of the butter-rum disk peeked above a low cloudbank over the ridge opposite where the Seven had positioned themselves along a series of natural steps and boulders.  Leaning back against Ezra's knee from his place on the ground, Vin continued to read from Collected Poems and Maxims to Live By.  The classically bound book had been a gift from Ezra a few years ago, but Vin hadn't really touched it until now.

 

"But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.  Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness."  He paused on those words, worked his mouth gently, and swallowed to coat a suddenly dry throat.  "Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself."

 

Chris and Buck also sat on the ground, facing the western theater, faces bathed in the golden light.  Buck sat behind and straddling Chris, arms draped around his lover, his chin resting on a shoulder.  From the front, this position appeared to give Chris two heads.  They sighed together, relaxing a little deeper against each other.

 

"You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.  And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should."

 

"Amen to that."  Josiah sat next to a natural stone table, a row of quartz crystals, and a mini toolbox, before him.  He worked with a length of gold wire and pliers as he carefully wrapped one of the clear shards.

 

"Amen," Buck echoed with a gust of breath into Chris' ear.

 

"I know this wasn't exactly written about us," Vin said, "but he sure does drive a nice point home, don't he."

 

"I should say so," Ezra replied, absently slipping his fingers up under the veil of bronze-brown locks to rub the back of Vin's neck.

 

"So you think things really are happening the way they should?" J.D. asked.  He had perched himself up on the highest boulder, commandeering the best view of the sunset.  "It took so long to get Ella, and now, I mean. . . what do we do now?"  He put one hand to the stone beneath him and with feline grace vaulted down to land neatly on both feet and wander aimlessly closer to Buck and Chris' spot. 

 

"We still haven't found Fowler," Chris replied, but he didn't sound distressed or even remotely focused on their elusive foe.  For now, he was completely content with his new freedom.

 

"Well, maybe since we have some new recruits for Clarion, we'll have a better chance of finding him," Nathan said.  "Shaw seemed to know some good history."

 

"Yeah, but he said Fowler took off to Europe," J.D. said.  "What if he's still there?  That mean we're going?"  He sounded rather perky about it.

 

"Now, ya'll just hush," Buck objected.  "Let's talk about Fowler and Europe and whatnot when we get back from our week off."

 

Everyone shrugged, and Vin got ready to finish the passage only to be interrupted.

 

"So, what're you all going to do for the week off?"

 

It wasn't the question, but the speaker, that had eyebrows rising.  No one ever expected Chris Larabee to give a damn about what they were going to do on their week off.

 

"Josiah?"

 

The preacher looked up from his work fastening one of the quartz crystals into an intricate filigree cage of gold wire.  He gave a proud smile over his craft.  "I'm going up to Sedona.  There's a retailer, owns a rock and jewelry shop, interested in taking on some of my pieces for consignment."  The crystal in his hand caught one of the last rays of light and sparkled with the clarity of a desert stream.

 

"Woohoo," Buck said softly and smiled.  "I'm sure they'll be a hit."  His hands massaged absently along Chris' shoulders.

 

"We're going to Vegas," Ezra announced.

 

Vin didn't even glance up over his shoulder.  "We are not."

 

"We're considering going to Vegas."

 

Josiah grinned.  "Nice save, Ezra."  He examined the finished crystal, set it aside and picked up another one to ponder its natural facets.

 

"I'm gonna work on some new designs for our arsenal," Nathan said.  "Had some ideas on the back burner for a while now but no time to get 'em down."

 

"Borrrrrrrring," J.D. said.  "Why don't you come up to White Castle with me, Nathan?  There'll always be time later to make new weapons."

 

"What's in White Castle?"

 

"The first hamburger chain," Buck grumbled.

 

"Casey's granddaughter's family," J.D. corrected through his teeth, turning a useless glare on his tormentor, whose eyes glittered with amusement.  "Been a while.  Thought I'd check up on 'em."

 

"They have an angel watching over them," Josiah commented.

 

Vin held up the book and waved it back and forth.  "Hello?  Can I finish?"

 

"Certainly," Buck said, still grinning sideways at the flustered kid.  "Go on, Vin."

 

Vin cleared his throat and continued.  "Therefore, be at peace with God, whatever you conceive him to be."

 

Josiah smiled and found the best starting point on the crystal.  Nathan resituated on his rock and propped on his knees, focused on the last fingers of light creeping below the hills.  Chris leaned his head against Buck's knee and closed his eyes.  J.D. remained standing, head bowed as if in prayer.

 

"And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul.  With all of its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world."**

 

Vin closed the book and angled his head to look up at Ezra with warmth in his eyes.

 

"It is indeed," Ezra drawled happily and leaned down to kiss his lover.

 

"Ah, man, you guys.  Get a room," J.D. said disgustedly.

 

Buck patted Chris' shoulder, gesturing for him to sit forward so that Buck could stand.  He hoisted a leg over the rock he'd been sitting on and turned toward J.D..  Shoulders hunched, towering forward, he stepped closer.  "I got it.  Why don't you and I get a room, J.D.?" he asked low and husky.

 

"Yeah, very funny, Buck."  He didn't look too comfortable that six sets of eyes were all focused on him no less than if he were the lead role in a stage play.

 

"No, I mean it."  Buck reached up, brushing the back of his hand gracefully down J.D.'s cheek.  "Really, it's been a long time for you.  Or has it been ever for you?"  He scratched his chin and rolled his eyes as if searching deeply buried memory banks for the answer.

 

"Lay off, Buck."  J.D.'s eyes flashed with more than a little rising anger.

 

"So, what d'you say?"

 

"Fuck off."

 

"Well, fucking is the idea. . ."

 

It looked like Buck was going to need some help, Chris realized.  The kid was not nearly as easy to tease as he used to be.  Sitting up, Chris twisted around for a better view of the two and smiled casually.  Too casually.  It had the same startling effect as asking the others what they had planned for their vacations.

 

"Yeah, J.D., really.  Buck and I were thinking about opening the circle."

 

The panic that had been missing seeped in to flush out the anger.  J.D.'s eyes shot toward Chris like those of a rabbit under the shadow of a circling hawk.  "You're kiddin' me."

 

"Nah," Chris insisted.  "It's an open invitation.  Hell, Josiah and Nathan can join in if they want.  And Vin and Ezra."

 

Vin's eyes twinkled.  "Thank's, Chris, but I think I got my hands full."

 

The preacher and the healer shook their heads.  Josiah trained his attention on getting the last bit of wire looped, and Nathan watched the stars ignite one at a time.

 

"You can't. . ."  J.D. straightened, looking from Chris to Buck, cornered out in the open.  "You two can't be serious."

 

Suddenly Buck was on the kid, grabbing J.D.'s arm and swinging him forward and off balance, catching him in a dip.  Before he could yell, Buck covered his mouth with a deep kiss, arms clamped tightly around the wriggling, kicking smaller body.  J.D.'s hands pushed back against his shoulders and chest, both figures jostled by the struggle.  In a moment, Buck lowered him down on his ass, not dumping him too hard, leaving him sitting sprawled and wide-eyed.  "Boy, I been waitin' a hundred-something years to get you back for that love potion stunt."

 

J.D. tucked in a slightly swollen bottom lip and blinked.  He sat stunned as the comment sank in.  Slowly a smile spread across his face, proving that he still knew how to take a joke, and panic was replaced with relief.

 

And just as suddenly, all Seven laughed together.  Peels of chuckles, snickers, and snorts carried down the rocky slope, and up to the sky to greet the stars.

 

It was a sound the world had not heard in a long time.

 

 

fin

 

 

* A Hero's Heart, written by Dale Midkiff for The Magnificent Seven episode Achilles

**Fragments from Desiderata, written by Max Ehrman, 1927

 

 

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