A few minutes later we went aground on the edge. Several ravines converged here, forming a gap almost wide enough to enclose a football field. The house sat in the center of the gap. Two stories high, with a row of white columns supporting a triangular roof, it looked at us with twin rows of windows blocked by dark shutters. Its black front door stood closed and so did the doors of the cellar on the left side. A ten-foot-tall fence topped with coils of barbed wire guarded the house.
As we watched, Cerberus trotted out of the ravine. He whined softly, spit dripping in burning clumps of foam from between his fangs, and inched toward the fence. The left head stretched on his shaggy neck and sniffed at the mesh. A blue spark jumped from the metal to his nose. Cerberus yelped, clawed the ground in frustration, and trotted off.
Electrified fencing. Peculiar. No wires stretched to the house, so the power must have come from inside. I strained and heard the faint hum of a generator.
The doors to the cellar rose slowly. Something squirmed beneath them, something pale. The right half of the cellar door fell open and a creature leapt into the open. Its gaunt, vaguely humanoid body had lost every iota of its hair and fat long ego. Thick, bloodless skin sheathed the dry cords of its muscles, every rib distinct beneath its leathery hide. Its stomach was hard and ridged. Huge yellow claws tipped the fingers of its hands and its long toes.
A vampire. And where there was a vampire, there had to be a navigator. I raised the binoculars to my eyes.
The vampire’s face was horrible, a death mask sculpted with human features devoid of emotion, intellect, and self-awareness. The creature paused, perched on the edge of the cellar entrance. It unhinged its maw, displaying twin sickles of yellow fangs, leapt straight up, and clutched on to the wall of the house like a fly. The vamp scuttled up the wall, ran along the dark roof to the white stub of the chimney, and hopped in like some nightmarish Santa.
We could possibly deal with the electric fence. But a vampire would prove problematic. We had no way of knowing how many of them were in that house. Two would present a challenge. Three would be suicide. Especially if magic hit.
“Andrea?” Raphael’s voice was a soft cloud of warmth in my ear.
I glanced at him. What?
“Did you like the thing I left for you?”
The thing? Oh. The thing. Shapeshifters had an odd way of courtship. Mostly it involved proving to your prospective mate what a stealthy and sleek operator you were by prancing in and out of her territory. Because all of the land belonged to the Pack overall, “territory” came to be defined as the potential mate’s house. Most shapeshifters broke in and left presents, but boudas had an odd sense of humor. They broke into the houses of their intended and played practical jokes.
Raphael’s father glued Aunt B’s furniture to the ceiling. Raphael’s uncle lock picked his way into Raphael’s aunt’s house, flipped all the doors around, and hung them back on their hinges so the handles were inside. In fine bouda tradition, Raphael somehow snuck away during the Midnight Games, broke into my apartment, and left me the thing.
“You want to know that now?” I hissed in a fierce whisper.
“Just tell me yes or no?”
“Do you really think this is the best time?”
His eyes flashed with red. “There might not be any other time left.”
I turned and saw Cerberus crouching in the ravine behind us. He stood there absolutely still, the three pairs of his eyes fixed on us with baleful fury.
I turned very slowly to Raphael.
“Did you like the thing?” he asked with quiet desperation.
“Yes. It was funny.”
He grinned, his face made unbearably handsome by the flash of his smile.
With a deafening growl, Cerberus charged us. Fur sheathed the monstrous bloom of Raphael’s jaws. I flipped on my back.
Cerberus’s center head dove at me, his black maw gaping, ready to swallow me whole.
The first shot punched the back of the dog’s mouth. It yelped and I sank two more in the same spot. Flesh exploded and I saw sky through the hole where the back of the beast’s throat used to be. The head drooped down. I rolled clear just as an enormous paw clawed the spot where I had dropped. The smallest claw grazed my side and leg, ripping the clothes in a hot flash of pain.
I leapt to my feet. The left head dove for me and missed as Raphael launched himself into the air, slicing Cerberus’s nose with his claws. Cerberus jerked back and Raphael clutched on to his muzzle. The dog shook, but Raphael clung to it, flinging bloody chunks of dog flesh to the ground.
I backed up, reloading. Raphael carved huge clumps out of Cerberus’s muzzle in a frenzied whirl of fur and claws. Blood spurted in dark streams.
The right head snapped at him, great fangs clamping together like a bear trap. Raphael hooked his claws into the dog’s nose, dropped out of the way, swung his legs like a gymnast on a pommel horse, and smashed his clawed feet into Cerberus’s right head.
I snapped the Weatherby up, anticipating Cerberus’s recoil.
The huge head swung back, as if in slow motion, the ruby eye clear and bright.
An ancient tie stretched between Cerberus and me, vibrating like a live wire. The bond between the hunter and her prey.
The head reared higher and higher.
I have time.
Blood burst from the back of Cerberus’s head. The head jerked straight up, its nose pointing to the sky. Fire leaked from its ruined orbit. The flames surged, engulfing the head. As it crashed down, bouncing once on the hard dirt, Raphael leapt to the ground. Behind him the last head shuddered and fell, catching the flames. Raphael straightened, a dark demonic figure silhouetted against the orange fire, his eyes two points of red light.
If I weren’t a trained professional, I’d have fainted from the sheer overload of his badassness.
I pointed my rifle straight up, resting the butt against my hip, and put on my Order face. Move along, nothing to see here, I do this every day. I thought of blowing imaginary smoke from the rifle barrel, but the Weatherby was long and I’m barely five feet four, so I’d look pretty stupid.
Raphael strode to me. His voice was a ragged growl torn to tatters by his fangs. “Are you alright?”
I nodded. “A bit scratched up. Nothing major.”
We walked away, slowly, trying to maintain our coolness. A greasy stench of charred flesh tainted the air currents.
“That was a hell of a shot,” Raphael said.
“Thank you. That was a stunning display of hand-to-hand.”