The trees said nothing. I shook my head and reached for the other bottle.

And saw a monster in my yard.

It sat on its hunches, sniffing at the wind. A large bastard, at least a hundred and sixty pounds. Long grayish fur grew in patches on its lean carcass. Bare skin, pale and wrinkled, showed between the irregularly shaped spots of fur, especially on the stomach, where long, ragged scars crisscrossed the flesh. A small hump protruded from the beast's back, and the fur covering it was longer and coarser, forming a matted mane that flared just behind the large head crowned with round human ears.

The thing's hind legs were heavy and muscled and shaped somewhat like those of a canine, but with longer digits. Its front paws, smaller and disturbingly human in shape, clutched something dark. I squinted at the wet fuzzy clump. A squirrel. The creature sniffed at its prize with long wrinkled muzzle, opened massive jaws, and tore into the squirrel. A sickening crunching of broken bones disturbed the night's silence.

It chewed with gusto, squeezing the bloody stump in its hands and looked at me. The small bloodshot eyes that glared from the beast's face were undeniably human. When you looked into the eyes of a shapechanger, you saw a beast clawing to get out. When I looked into this thing's eyes, they burned with understanding, dim yet significant intelligence, betraying sadness and a capacity for suffering.

The thing raised its horrid maw to the sky and made an eerie lingering noise, as if a dozen voices murmured the same phrase in a dozen languages at once. Then it turned to the squirrel and bit off another morsel.

A faint scraping of claws reached my ears. I glanced about me. Grotesque shapes hid in the shadowy comers, some small, some large. They perched on the rails, they slunk below, around the porch stairs, and darted under the truck in the driveway, shifting and moving all around me.

The rim of the bottle touched my lips and I drank, as the beasts drew closer.

"Poor Crest," a velvet voice murmured. "I've been alive for three hundred years and I can't remember the last time I laughed so hard."

I set the bottle down with marked slowness and looked toward the voice. "It's you," I said. "Shit. I would've never thought."

Bono smiled at me, showing even teeth, white and inhumanly sharp. There were too many of them, too. Funny how I never noticed it before.

The black, spiky, gel-saturated hair was gone, and long sleek strands fell to his shoulders. They were gray, the odd dark gray of dirty duct tape. His skin was pale and smooth, and I was seeing too much of it, since Bono chose to appear nude, except for something resembling a kilt or a skirt that hung from his hips, doing a piss-poor job of covering whatever it was supposed to cover.

The world went fuzzy. I rubbed my forehead. The wine was kicking in.

Bono slid from the rail on which he had been perching. He moved with liquid slickness across the porch, seamlessly coming to all fours and lowering himself to the floorboards to sit beside me.

There was something so alien in the way he moved, in how he sat, how he smelled, how he looked at me with the eyes brimming with hate, something so inhuman that my brain stopped, smashing against that inhumanity like a brick wall. He made me want to scream.

I forced myself to sit still. The effort burned some alcohol and the view didn't seem as blurry.

In the yard several smaller creatures waited impatiently as the large one finished his squirrel.

"It's hard for you, isn't it?" the upir said softly. "It's hard to sit next to me like this. You want to scream and run, run as fast as you can across the grass, never looking back, knowing that you can't escape but running still because it's better to die with your back to me. Do you know why that is? Because your body knows that you are food, to be used, eaten, and discarded."

I brought the bottle to my lips and took a small sip. "How many cheesy novels did you have to read to come up with that one?"

He leaned, lowering himself until he lay on his side, his head supported by the arm bent at his elbow. "Laugh, Kate. It's the last opportunity you'll have."

I shrugged. In the yard the squirrel hunter took a swipe at a smaller, hideous thing that darted to nip at the tuff of fur in his hand. The smaller creature yelped, readied for another pass, and froze, its short, nearly translucent tail quivering, gripped by an invisible hand. It stood stiff, thick legs far apart. The quivering spread up its spine, until its neck trembled. The phantom hand squeezed hard one last time and released it. The creature jerked and collapsed. Shaking, it gained its feet and stumbled away, whining softly, its tail between its legs.

"Children misbehave sometimes," Bono said. "They need to be punished. If you're wondering, I can do it to my women, too."

He stared at the big creature and it walked toward us. "Let's get the introductions out of the way," the upir said. "This is my eldest son at the moment. I call him Arag. Arag, this is a future dinner. Future dinner, this is Arag."

Arag's human eyes, sunken deep into his deformed skull, teared up.

"What the hell did you..."

"Baboon." The upir shook his head. "Strong, cruel, aggressive. Unfortunately, he got a little more from me than from his mother. He can speak. Say something for Kate, Arag."

The monster looked down at his hands. He shifted from foot to foot, unsure, and emitted a long distorted screech, like nails scraping against chalkboard. "Bloood," he shrieked.

"Sad, isn't it?" Bono smiled. "He walks the Earth, a pitiful, wretched creature, uttering words at random, longing for something - he himself doesn't know what - and hating everyone and everything. I tried ripping out his vocal cords, but the damn things just grow back."

"Blooood." Arag sighed.

The upir waved him away. "Go on."

Arag returned to his post in the yard. The upir sighed. "I'm thinking of killing him when we're done here. You think I should?"

I swallowed more wine.

"It won't help," Bono said.

I shrugged and drank some more. "Why make an alliance with Olathe?"

"Why not? It was a good plan. Sooner or later the half-breeds and the necromancers would've warred, and Olathe would take over the vampire stables. I'd have enough vampire meat to gorge myself sick. Vampire flesh is the best, Kate. It's aged and flavorful, like a fine wine."

"You ate shapechangers, too."

"Their magic strengthens me." Bono grimaced. "But they taste like shit."

His fingers touched my hair. He picked up a strand and raised it to his nostrils.

"I bet the original plan was to put a bun in Olathe's oven."

Tags: Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels Vampires