THE VAMPIRES IN the audience made a panicked run for the far doors. It was as if even Malcolm's tame vamps understood what was coming. Their screams let me know that the doors wouldn't open. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised; the Queen of All Darkness was coming to eat us. What was holding shut one door to everything she could do?
Micah leapt upon the stage like grace over muscles, proving that he didn't have to be in leopard form to be inhumanly graceful. He touched my arm, and the emotion we'd raised to save ourselves leapt to him. He was no one's servant, no one's master, but the love spread to him in a warm rush.
Jean-Claude looked at us with tears still painting faint pinkish streaks on his face. "You love him."
Even with all the good feelings, I frowned at him. "Yes, I do."
Jean-Claude shook his head. "I mean, ma petite, that your love for him..." He waved a hand and let me see inside his head, so much quicker. Because I loved Micah, Jean-Claude could feed off the energy of that love. It was as if his powers through Belle Morte's line had found a new way to think. She and her vampires were all about lust, love, but no one had ever been able to use love like fuel, the way the ardeur could use lust. It was like an intuitive leap in math, or science. You start with this bit of reality and suddenly you understand how to make a leap to a larger reality. Love, love was power in more than just a metaphorical way.
"Love won't conquer her." It was Richard from behind us. He'd come back to the stage.
I looked at him and wasn't sure I wanted him to touch me in that moment. Would the love spread to him, or would it not? Had he finally hurt me enough that he'd killed my feelings for him? If he had, then he would be no help here. He'd hurt me, hurt this soft new magic.
"You'll need a wolf, like last time," he said.
He was right, but... He held out his hand.
The dimness breathed around us, as if the room had taken a breath. He reached for me, grabbed my hand. His hand was warm in mine. It was still Richard, every gorgeous inch of him, but the power did not travel from my skin to his. He stood there holding my hand, and his touch did not move me. I'd never had him touch me where it didn't move me. The other men, even Damian was like a press of tenderness at my back, but Richard was cold to my heart.
"Anita..." He whispered it.
What could I say? "You said we were nothing to you. You said you didn't want the ardeur."
"This isn't the ardeur", he said.
I nodded. "Yes, it is, Richard. You never understood that for me the ardeur wasn't just about sex. This is the ardeur."
"I can smell the edge of it, it's as if love had a scent."
"It's the ardeur, Richard, what it's become."
"If I'd stayed by your side, you'd be spilling love all over me?" He made it a question.
"I don't know."
"Ma petite, could we discuss this later?"
We looked at him, still hand-in-hand. "Sorry" I said.
Richard scented the air, and for a moment I thought he really was trying to scent what love smelled like. "It doesn't smell like her."
I scented the air, too. "No, she smells like jasmine and rain, and night. There's no scent to this." The darkness wasn't growing... darker. It should have been. It was twilight, and power breathed through the room, but it wasn't quite enough power, not for her.
I turned back to Columbine and her servant. "Belle Morte said that the Harlequin are the servants of the Dark Mother. Did she mean that literally?"
"All of us bear a piece of the original darkness inside us, little girl. Feel the power of the night given human form and know true terror."
I shook my head and said to Richard, "It's not her."
He moved up beside me, as close as the other men would allow. We were getting to be quite a crowd again. "If I hadn't been in your dream with the real thing, this might be scary."
I nodded. "But we've felt the real deal, and this ain't it."
"This isn't the Mother?" Asher said. He'd gotten to his feet, scrubbing at tears on his face.
"No, it's a shadow of her, barely that," I said.
Nathaniel drew in a large breath. "I smelled her once in the car. She smelled like something cat, and jasmine, and so many things. This has no scent, it's not real."
The darkness began to press down like a shadowy hand, but it was only a shadow. The little vampires huddled and, beating at the doors, screamed louder. It had cleared the pews out so that there was no one but our guards in the aisles. The guards, and our vampires.
"The Dark Mother will consume you all, unless you lay down your arms and submit to us."
The shadow of dark tried to crush us. Damian made a small sound. "Don't be afraid," I said. "It's barely a shadow of her power. It can't hurt us."
Columbine gestured as if she were crushing something invisible in her hand. The shadowy darkness tried to squeeze down around us, but I thought, Love, warmth, life, and the shadows shredded. The lights began to grow brighter again.
Requiem spoke from a small distance away. "This is not the darkness that hunted my master in England. This is smoke and mirrors compared to what came for him in the end."
"Smoke and mirrors," I said, softly, "misdirection like a magician's illusion. How do we know you're the real Columbine, a real Harlequin? All vampires know the rules, the masks. Anyone could pretend," I said.
"You uppity little bitch," she said. "How dare you?"
"That would explain them breaking the rules," Nathaniel said. "They tried to kill you guys without giving you a black mask first."
"Are you truly asking us to prove we are of the Harlequin?" Columbine asked.
"Yeah, I am."
"Jean-Claude, does she do all your talking for you?"
"I am happy to have ma petite do my talking for me." Which wasn't always true, but tonight, I was doing okay.
"I wanted to own you, not destroy you, but if you insist," she said. A piece of blackness unwound itself from near the ceiling. It had to have been there all along, but none of us had noticed it. It was like some large black snake, if snakes were formless and could float. Oh, hell, it wasn't a snake, but I didn't know what else to call it. It was a ribbon of blackness that moved, and where it touched the lights, the lights went out, as if the light was eaten by the coming dark.
"It smells like night air," Micah said, in his growling voice.
"It does," Nathaniel and Richard said at the same time. They didn't even look at each other. The three wereanimals seemed intent on something I couldn't hear, or see, or smell. Then I felt it, a cool line of wind, and I did smell it, night air, damp, but not rain. Damp, but not rain. I drew in a deep breath. "Where's the jasmine?"
Half the lights on one side of the church had been engulfed by the sinuous stream of living darkness. The vampires and humans of the congregation had made a huddle of themselves on the other side of the church, as far from the dark as the closed doors would allow.
Requiem had pulled his cloak up around his face, but he was beside the stage now. "This is the darkness that killed my master."
"How did it kill him?" Micah asked.
"The darkness covered him, hid him from sight, he gave a terrible cry, and when we could see again, he was dead."
"How exactly, Requiem?" I asked.
"His throat had been torn out as if by some great beast."
We had two lights between us and the consuming dark. "I smell wolf," Micah said.
I shook my head. "The Mother of All Darkness doesn't do wolf, she does cats, lots of cats, no doggies."
Nathaniel and Richard sniffed the air, too. "Wolf," Richard said. Nathaniel nodded.
Edward called to me. "Can bullets hurt that thing?"
I shook my head.
"Let me know when you find something I can shoot."
"We can shoot," Claudia called.
The darkness was almost to the stage, but it didn't feel like her. It didn't feel like Marmee Noir. I closed down the warm fuzzy love flavor of the ardeur and reached out with my own power, my necromancy. I reached out not toward the coming dark, but toward the spot near the ceiling where it originated. Marmee Noir wasn't shy. If she'd been there, she'd have let us know. So what, or who, was it? Who held a piece of the dark inside them?
I searched the rafters near the high, vaulted ceiling. I almost heard a voice, almost a loud whisper, "Not here. Not here. I'm not here." I actually started to look away, then realized what I was doing. Something was in the corner of the ceiling, someone was there.
The darkness curled along the edge of the stage and began to eat the bright lights that usually spotlit the pulpit. Columbine laughed, a high, joyous, cruel sound. "The darkness will eat you all."
"You're not causing the darkness, Columbine, you or Giovanni," I said.
"We are Harlequin," she said.
"Tell your little friend hanging near the ceiling to show himself or herself."
Her body went very still. It was better than any human facial expression. There was someone there, and she hadn't thought any of us would know. Great, now how did it help us?
The darkness was almost here. A darkness that smelled like damp night, and earth, and wolf, like something acrid on my tongue. It wasn't wolf as I knew it. But I was out of time to analyze it.
I yelled, "Edward, shoot into that corner there." I pointed at the corner where I knew the vampire was hiding.
Edward and Olaf drew their guns, aimed. The darkness swirled toward us, toward Jean-Claude. I drew my gun and moved in front of him. Remus was beside me. "You're supposed to have bodyguards, remember?"
Haven came to my other side in a blur of movement. "Finally, something to shoot."
"Not yet," I said. "He's not here yet."
"Who isn't here?" Remus asked.
Edward and Olaf's guns fired, and darkness swallowed the world, black, moonless night. "Shit," Haven breathed.
They both moved in closer to me. I put my free hand on Remus's shoulder so I'd know where he was. I moved my leg to brush against Haven's, but his free hand found my back. At least we wouldn't shoot each other. We stood, pressed close in the utter dark, guns out, but nothing to see. How do you shoot if you can't see what you're shooting at?
Edward yelled, "Anita, can you hear me? We've got blood on the wall, but we can't see what we hit."
I yelled back, "I hear you."
"We're coming," he said.
I don't know what I would have yelled back, Come, Don't come, because Remus said, "Wolf."
Haven said, "Close."
There was a wet, thick sound, almost soft, like a knife being pulled out of flesh. If I hadn't been straining my ears like a son of a bitch, I might not have heard. But it would have been okay, because Remus and Haven turned like one person, and moved me with them, almost like you move a partner on the dance floor. We fired into that sound, that smell of bitter wolf. We fired until it hit us back.
"Claws," Haven yelled.
Remus was suddenly standing in front of me, enfolding me with his body. I felt him jerk, hard. I yelled, "Haven!"
"Anita," he yelled, and he was still on my right. I put my gun around Remus's body and fired into the body on the other side of Remus. I fired until my gun clicked empty. But Haven was there now, his gun shooting into what was on the other side of Remus. Remus's body jerked, and for a moment I thought Haven had shot Remus by accident, then I heard a sound, a ripping, meaty, wet, horrible sound. Bones cracked, and Remus screamed. Liquid ran hot across my skin. I screamed. Claws grabbed at my shirt. I drew a knife, because it was all I had left. A claw cut across my breast. I cut the claw back. Remus's arms had tightened around me, pressing me into the claws. I couldn't see what was happening, and what I was feeling made no sense. Where the hell was the claw coming from?
Haven wasn't touching me anymore. I heard fighting. "Get away, Anita, get away from him," Haven said.
"Get away from who?" I asked. I stabbed the claw that wasn't Remus. I cut it up, but it cut me up, too. I screamed more in frustration than anything. Remus whispered, "I'm sorry." His arms slid away from me and his knees buckled, but he didn't fall. I grabbed him, trying to support him, and that was when I realized where the clawed hand was coming from. I had to be wrong. I screamed, "Remus!"
There was movement, sound, fighting. I heard a sound I didn't recognize, grunts of effort. What the hell was happening? Remus suddenly fell forward. I tried to catch him, but it was too sudden and he outweighed me by a hundred pounds. I fell to the ground with him on top of me. He wasn't moving. The darkness vanished. I could see again.
There was a severed arm sticking out of Remus's back. I screamed. I couldn't help it. More guards were there, picking him up, getting him off me. They couldn't roll him onto his back, because the arm had pierced his chest. The hand looked human now, but my chest and Remus's said it hadn't been human when it went through. His eyes were closed, and he was so still, terribly still.
"Get that thing out of him," Claudia said.
Fredo was suddenly at her side with a knife the size of a small sword. He raised it up, and I looked away before he brought it down. I saw Wicked and Truth, with bare swords pointed at the throat and chest of a fallen Harlequin that I had never seen before. He was dressed all in black, even his mask. He was missing an arm. Edward and Olaf and more of the guards had Columbine and Giovanni at gunpoint. Jean-Claude, Asher, Requiem, and most of our vampires were gathered around them. I think with the real master Harlequin down, they'd been able to take the other two. Good that something had worked out. Haven was kneeling between the two groups, bleeding, but he'd live. I turned back to Remus. I wasn't so sure about him.
They had the arm out now, in two pieces, but there was a hole in his chest that I could see through like some sort of cartoon cannon shot. "Fuck," I said softly, "his heart."
Claudia looked at me, tears drifting silently down her face. "Bastard had silver bracers on his forearms. Silver, fucking razor wire as fucking jewelry."
"This one is healing," Wicked called. "How do we stop him from doing that?"
"Is Remus..." I couldn't say it.
"Dead," Claudia said, in a voice that was hard and cold and didn't match the tears.
"Yeah," I said.
She just nodded.
"He died saving me," I said.
"He died doing his job," she said.
I watched her tears and wondered if he had been more than just a friend to her. I hoped not. In that moment, I hoped not. I got to my feet and fell back down. Richard was beside me, holding me. "You're hurt."
"Remus is dead," I said, and pushed him away.
I shook my head. "Either help me walk over to Wicked and Truth, or go somewhere else."
"Can I at least see how badly you're hurt first?"
"Do you want Remus to have died for nothing, is that what you want?"
Micah was on my other side. "Let us see, Anita, then we'll take you to Wicked and Truth."
Nathaniel was there, too. "Please, Anita."
I nodded and let them wipe away some of the blood with a cloth that someone gave them. The scratches weren't that deep, deep enough that if I'd been a little more human I might have needed stitches, and seeing that they were across the mound of one breast I should have been more worried about that whole cosmetic thing, but strangely, I wasn't.
"Take me to them," I said.
Richard took one arm and Nathaniel the other. They lifted me to my feet and helped me walk where I wanted to go. Micah followed us, carrying bandages. Maybe I'd even let him use them on me eventually. Remus was dead, and I wanted to know why. Or maybe, how? The thing that had come out of the darkness had been a vampire that smelled like a wolf and had claws like a powerful shapeshifter. Impossible. But Remus was dead, so it had to be possible.
"Who are you?" I asked.
"I am Harlequin."
"One of, or the?" I asked. My voice sounded strangely distant inside my own head, as if the distance was greater than it should have been.
"I am Pantalone, once Pantaleon. I was one of the first children of the dark."
"You didn't send us a black mask, Pantalone, but you tried to kill us. That's against council law. Hell, that's against the Mother of All Darkness's law."
"You know nothing of our mother, human. You are not vampire, or succubus. You are a necromancer, and our laws say you can be killed on sight."
I smelled jasmine. Nathaniel said, "Flowers."
Richard said, "What is that?"
I felt the rain on the edge of a wind that hadn't existed for a million years. I tasted jasmine on my tongue, sweet and cloying. I wasn't afraid this time. I welcomed it. Because I knew I wasn't the one she was pissed at. Though pissed was too strong for the feeling I got as she breathed closer. Pissed was too human an emotion, and as she'd said herself, she'd lost the knack of being human.
"Marmee Noir," Nathaniel answered Richard. I'd forgotten he'd asked a question.
"Anita," Richard said, "fight it, fight her."
"If you aren't going to help me do this, then get away from me."
"Do what, let the Mother of All Vampires possess you?"
I screamed at him, "Get away from me, Richard, now!" A cut opened on his arm like a red mouth. It wasn't Marmee Noir; I'd done that a couple of times before under stress. I couldn't do it dependably, but... "That's not her, that's me. Help me, or get away." I fought to keep my voice even, because my emotions were dangerous, apparently.
"Don't let her inside you."
"Micah, take my arm."
"Don't let her do this," Richard said to him.
"We are still in danger here, Richard," Micah said. "Don't you get that? We have to finish what we started."
"You mean kill them?"
"Yes," I said, "yes, kill them. Kill them all!" Another cut opened on Richard's arm. He let me go, as if I were something hot that had burned him. Micah slid furred arms around me. He and Nathaniel led me forward, so I could do what needed to be done. No, truth, what I was going to do. Not need, want. I wanted him dead. He'd killed Remus, and Remus had died because the vampire on the ground had meant to kill me. Remus had given his life to save mine. I'd pay my debt, now, tonight, in the blood and pain of his killer. It sounded like such a good idea.
The smell of jasmine was everywhere. I could taste rain on my tongue. The wind was cool and fresh against my face, and the wind was coming from me.