Jane used to hunt vampires, but now she’s their queen. She’s holed up in the mountains with the Yellowrock Clan, enjoying a little peace, when a surprise attack on her people proves that trouble is brewing. Someone is using very old magic to launch a bid for power, and it’s all tied to the place where Jane was first drawn into the world of Leo Pellissier—the city of New Orleans.
Jane is compelled to return to NOLA because someone is trying to destabilize the paranormal world order. And because she now sits near the top of the vampire world, the assault is her problem. She will do what she must to protect what’s hers. Her city. Her people. Her power. Her crown.
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A Dervish in the Dark.
Poetry with Bloody Blades.
Beast woke in big bed, tangled in Jane clothes. Sniffed soft, not loud, not what Jane called Flehmen sound, but hunter's sound. Silent. Bruiser was not in big bed. Had not slept in big bed.
Beast rolled over and sat. Put front paw on Jane sleep clothes. Wriggled out. Did not claw or tear Jane clothes. Did not want Jane to be sad. Beast was not happy to be Beast form. Knew Jane would not be happy to be Beast form.
Jane had gone to sleep in human form. Jane body turned into Beast while Jane slept. Was not first time Jane body changed shape in sleep, and not when Jane or Beast wanted change.
Had happened many more than five times since Jane was healed in waters of arcenciel rift.
Sickness that was killing Jane was gone. But much was wrong with Jane body. Jane could not hold shape for many hours. Beast did not know how to help Jane. Was bad.
Angel of Beast-Hayyel-was not helping Jane.
Mate of Jane-Bruiser-could not help Jane.
Molly, mate of Molly-Evan-and Angie could not help Jane.
Jane could not help Jane. Jane was angry.
Jane clan was worried.
Beast did not worry as stupid humans worried. But Beast feared Beast had missed important thing.
Beast studied place in Beast mind where Jane slept. Jane dreams swirled, like leaf on fast water. Jane breathed fast, as if monster chased her. Needed deep calm sleep like dark pool in forest. Beast pressed down on Jane self, deeper into sleep. Jane breathing went smooth.
Beast slid to floor. No thump sounded. Silent hunter landing.
Beast went to window. Put front paws on narrow ledge, standing high on back paws to see into dark with Beast's night vision, looking into world of silvers and greens and grays. Looked out at hills and many trees with bright leaves, what Jane called mountain forest in autumn. Beast did not want to leave mountains. Was best time to hunt-female deer in heat, male deer stupid with rut and running fast, fat autumn moon making hunt effortless, cool wind so Beast could hunt for long time.
But Jane had to leave mountains and go to place of salty water called New Orleans. Was Dark Queen need. Beast understood power in African lion pride or puma family clan or clowder of cats. Understood that Jane had to keep peace, hunt Jane enemies, swat and claw and nurse Jane clan, and do Jane things. Understood. Did not like.
Beast tilted head. No light came from place where grapes rotted into pungent stench to make human wine. Was stupid thing to do, but Bruiser said that making wine was like Beast burying carcass in snow to eat later. Bruiser was not in wine-making place. Bruiser was not here.
Beast dropped to floor. Sniffed pile of luggage on floor in corner. Was Dark Queen clothes for New Orleans. Jane had packed for big human-witch-vampire event in New Orleans, for Jodi to mate with Wrassler in what Jane called wedding. Jane had packed for fighting too. Much killing things, hunting things.
But was dangerous for Jane to hunt and fight. Jane body was wrong. Had been wrong since Jane and Beast swam back through the rift. Was not sickness Jane called cancer anymore, but shifting was not always in Beast's or Jane's control. Shifting hurt Jane more sometimes. Other times did not hurt Jane at all. Did not know why. Was bad to not know. To not always control. And Jane body was too skinny, like young cat, needing more food than she could take in. Beast chuffed sadness. Padded out of room, pawpawpaw. Soft. Quiet. Down stairs in dark.
Went to back door. Lights in vampire dens-cottages-were lit and bright. Beast heard Koun laugh. Was good sound. Koun was old. Older than Leo had been. Older than most vampires. Was powerful. But did not laugh often because had seen too many die, had lost much. Beast smelled Tex out in dark, watching over den. Was good smell. Clan-scent. Except for Tex-dogs-smell. Tex-dogs marked trees and left scat on top of ground. Was stupid. All dogs stupid. But Tex liked dogs and trained stupid dogs to do tricks, like sniff out enemies and bombs and track missing humans and vampires. Tex made stupid dogs smarter. Was strange.
Beast padded to office. Smelled Alex at desk. Smelled much garlic and onion and stinky human pizza food. Smelled much coffee. Smelled gunpowder from Alex at gun-range. Smelled Brute-stinky wolf-scent-in room with Alex. Stinky human and stinky werewolf, Brute, spent much time together. Smelled strange lizard-with-wings-creature that Jane would not let Beast hunt and eat. Werewolf and large lizard Jane called Longfellow were asleep on big mattress in corner, lizard tail twined around Brute snout. TV over fireplace glowed and moved but had no sound.
Beast stood in dark and watched. Waiting. Breathing scent of own breath into room.
Brute nose twitched. Brute eyes opened. Brute leaped to feet and growled.
Beast chuffed. Padded into office.
Alex did not look at Beast. Said, "Are you playing games with Brute again? 'Cause you know the rules. All fights, even mock fights, go outside."
Beast chuffed. Padded to Alex. Put paw on table.
"You swat my hardware and tablets to the floor," Alex said, much patience in voice, "I'll swat your nose." Alex held up rolled papers. Still did not look at Beast. Was like cat action.
Beast liked Alex. Beast chuffed. Sat. Paw still on desk.
Alex said, "Okay. Am I talking to Jane?"
Beast moved head side to side as humans did. Felt stupid on Beast body.
"You want something?"
Beast dropped muzzle in nod as humans do.
"Do you want to know where Bruiser and Eli are?"
"Out hunting with Lincoln Shaddock. They heard about a small nest of vamps who might be building a food herd of unwilling humans. Could be Legolas's heir, or his secondo heir, and his followers, or it could be another group they haven't swept up yet. It's just a reconnoiter, not a battle."
Did not wake Jane. Jane would be angry. Beast was angry too. Beast growled.
"Jane was exhausted. They thought she might sleep all night for once, so they went without her. Their right as Jane's Consort and her second."
Beast snorted and shook head no. Felt anger for Jane. Jane's place in clan stolen by males. Jane would want to be at fight.
"The team doesn't need Jane's help. They'll either kill the vamps, or Bruiser will take them over and give them to Shaddock."
Beast snorted. Did not sound like re-con-o-i-ter. Sounded like battle. Pressed claws into Jane spirit and Jane part of brain. Jane came awake. Beast told Jane where mate and brother had gone.
Jane cursed in human thoughts. This isn't the first time they left us at home to twiddle our thumbs. Or paw pads. I'm healed. Jane looked at paw on table desk. Except for this pesky shape-changing thing. And they're still treating us like I'm dying.
Beast thought, Teach males cat lesson?
I don't know. What do you have in mind? Jane-thought sounded suspicious.
Beast is alpha. Beast will teach cat lesson. Beast held Jane down, pricking Jane thoughts with claws. Padded to kitchen. To cold-place, what Eli called com-mer-cial fridge. Slid paw under handle and pulled. Door opened.
Do not, Jane warned.
Back door opened. Beast whirled, holding cold-place door open with haunch. Snarled at door.
Koun stood in open door. Cool hunting air blew in. Koun was good-smelling vampire. Smelled of woods and winter wind. Had strange pelt-skin, pale and black and blue, what Jane called Celtic tattoos. Was most beautiful vampire with much magic. Strong magic danced from him across Beast pelt like sleet in air.
"And what are you doing, little cat?"
Beast chuffed, showing killing-teeth. Am not little cat. Am Big-Cat.
"Are you going to wreak havoc and release the hounds of war?"
Jane tried to speak to Beast. Beast shoved harder with claws. Jane made mouse squeak of pain. Beast turned back to cold-place and sniffed raw cow meat inside plastic. Grabbed meat and pulled onto floor. Landed with thud. Beast pulled meat to middle of kitchen, dragging same way Beast pulled dead deer. Cold-place door closed.
Beast stared at Koun, holding Koun in place with hunter-killer eyes. Ripped plastic with killing teeth. Water-blood spilled everywhere.
Koun chuckled softly, his magic tickling across Beast pelt. "You are making a mess on purpose, aren't you? You are angry with . . . Ahhh. They went vampire hunting without you. And they didn't even tell you."
Beast growled low, showed killing teeth again, eyes still on Koun. Sat with cow meat between claws. Ripped cover off meat and spat to floor. Tore meat off. Ate. Swallowed. Ate chunks. Water-blood ran across floor.
"So, the kitchen is a lesson for Eli. What are you going to do to George? Hack up a hairball onto his pillow?"
Beast chuffed. Ate more meat. Belly was full. Dead cow meat was gone.
"Tell me, Vengeful Cat. Would you like to join the vampire hunters? The Chief Strategist of Clan Yellowrock would be happy to follow you into battle."
Beast ear tabs perked high. Venge-ful Cat. Was good name. Beast nodded as human does.
"Do you go in cat form, or do you shift into Jane?"
Most vampires and humans in Winter Court of Dark Queen did not know the I/we of Beast was not always Jane. Most did not know how to talk to not-human-forms. Koun knew how to talk but did not always act with knowledge. Koun asked two questions at one time. Could only ask one. Beast waited. Stared at Koun.
Koun pursed lips, thinking. "Do you hunt vampires in cat form?"
Beast licked paws and muzzle free of blood, rough tongue getting all blood and meat-bits from paws and toes and off pelt. Shook head no.
"Shift then. I'll weapon up." Koun turned and left kitchen, closing door softly.
Beast looked at office area. Met Brute eyes, blue as sun on ice. Brute shook head and went back to big mattress in office corner. Turned three times and curled into ball with lizard. Beast raced up stairs and into sleeping room. Went to place where Bruiser kept clothes. Nosed open door. Found Bruiser best shoes for dancing. Carried one to empty room and hid in empty closet. Could bite holes in dead-cow-skin-shoes with killing teeth, but did not want to make Bruiser sigh. Hiding shoe was enough. Chuffed. Padded back to bedroom, to bathroom, and leaped into place where humans lay in hot water. Was cold on Beast belly. Took claws off of Jane.
What the heck are you doing? Jane shouted at Beast.
Beast reached into Jane skinwalker magics and thought about Jane half-form. Did not know what would happen when shifted. Did not know what form I/we would be. Most of Jane people did not know of Jane shifting problems. Some knew secret. Beast liked secrets. All cats liked secrets.
Silver mist rose, shot through with dark motes of skinwalker power. Let muscles go limp on cold white tub. Pelt shivered hard as magics rose. Pain quivered through Beast. Painpainpain . . .
I don't cuss out loud. Mostly never. But if anything in life deserved cussing, shifting deserved cussing. There were times when shifting was painless, but it didn't happen often. I figured that was because I learned to shift by trial and error instead of over years with a teacher. This time the pain was so bad that when the shift ended, my lungs were stuck in the exhale position.
Panic clawed at me, and I fought through the pain, forcing my lungs to expand. Air whooshed in with a sucking judder. I gasped in several breaths.
"Dang cat," I wheezed. "This tub is freaking cold!"
Inside me, Beast whistled with laughter. Which was a new sound. I had a feeling it portended nothing but trouble.
I reached a hand to the tub's edge and saw my knobby knuckles. I was in half-form. Which was pretty brilliant, actually. I could stay in half-form longer than human. My belly gripped my insides in hungry claws and growled. I patted it. "Gimme a minute," I said to it.
I pulled myself out of the tub and into our room, closing the bedroom door. Bruiser and I had this wing to ourselves most of the time, but I was fairly prudish. Nudity was not one of my comfort zones.
I opened my closet and turned on the light. Smart lights had been an option, but if we wanted to move around in the dark, with bad guys outside, then smart lights were stupid. The bright lights illuminated the mirror and the hanging rack for my brand-new armored leather. Seven sets, four in different shades of matte black, and three sets in colors. There was more armor in New Orleans, with and without leather exteriors; I had an extensive armor wardrobe. I chose a charcoal camo set. The moon was nearly full, making pure black foolish.
I held the armor up in front of me and studied myself in the cheval mirror. I never turned out the same way twice when I shifted into half-form. This time I was a six-foot-tall monster with human-looking amber eyes, furred cat ears placed high on my head, a half-human / half-cat nose on a cat snout, extralong canines, and my black hair to my waist. I had a mixture of skin and pelt on my face, human boobs with skin, pelt down my back, thighs, lower belly, and legs. I'd never win a beauty contest, not even in a cat show. I grinned at my reflection, and I was horrible to look at. Yeah. I was enough to make even a vamp pause in fear. I was the shapeshifting, skinwalker, Dark Queen of the Mithrans.
I dressed fast and pulled on the special boots that expanded to the sides to fit both human and half-form paws. I strapped on the Benelli spine harness, a double-thigh holster rig in case I shifted back to human and needed the nine-mils, and slid my blades into the blade sheathes. I debated on the sword, but I still sucked at swordplay, even with the last six months of practice. I braided my hair and twisted it into a sloppy bun. If an enemy got close enough to grab my hair, I was already dead. Into a pocket, I stuffed the Glob, a magical thingamabob that sometimes did things to protect me. I was scary and armed to the teeth. Literally. I snarled, seeing my fangs. I was at war, and I needed every weapon I had.