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Excerpt

DEEP IN THE WOODS, Book 6 - March 2010

3. The Boss

Dawn pivoted to find Costin standing at the foot of the stairs that led to the main rooms, and her pulse caught in her throat, in her veins. She was his master, and they were connected in so many ways when they were open to each other: mentally, physically through the blood he thrived on when he sipped from her.

But, again, that was only when they were open to each other, which hadn’t really been the case lately.

Her heart twisted in her chest as he glanced at her, but when she discerned the blue in his eyes—not the topaz color that denoted Costin’s dominance in the body he shared with Jonah—she knew that the other entity was in charge right now.

Jonah grinned at her in his cocky, American-guy way, confirming her guess. But then again, maybe she should’ve known from the way his dark hair was ruffled carelessly. Costin’s style would’ve been neater. And their lean body would’ve been postured like a soldier’s rather than that of a cowboy’s if Costin had been here instead of Jonah.

He was wearing a long-sleeved black shirt untucked from dark trousers, heavy black boots that nicked the floor with every fluid vampire step as he came forward, close enough so she could see the injuries on his face that had almost healed from last night’s showdown with Claudius.

Dawn never knew quite how to act around Jonah, especially nowadays. Where Costin could scorn her for a lack of control in fighting, Jonah seemed to understand that she was only human.

Or at least as human as she could be with these weird psychokinetic powers that’d woken up during the Hollywood Underground hunt.

“Where’s Costin?” she asked. “He was in charge the last time I knew.”

“And I’m in charge now.”

Jonah halted near Dawn’s side, his clothes smelling wash-clean. A ridiculous flutter painted the lining of her belly, but that shouldn’t be happening around Jonah. Just Costin, her lover. The only one she allowed to take her blood.

“He didn’t have a problem with me assuming control,” Jonah added. “I wanted to get things moving, and I kept jarring him out of our rest. But Costin needed a mental nap after all the Awareness digging he was doing with Claudius. Still, he’ll be back soon enough, even if daylight hours won’t see us at our best.”

It occurred to Dawn that Costin and Jonah had started to work together as much as they could. But what else could Costin do when Dawn had pretty much made her own deal with Jonah to facilitate his occasional emergence? Jonah had gotten so strong that he was able to push Costin down into their body for as long as he wanted, and Dawn had seen no other choice if she wanted to keep their ultimate attack weapon against the Undergrounds functioning. Of course, since Costin was bound to Jonah’s vampire body now, he didn’t have a fraction of the powers he’d possessed when he’d been a free soul traveler, so none of them even knew how effective he’d be when it did come time to infiltrate this Underground and destroy the master vamps.

Even so, they had to keep faith that Jonah and Costin combined would be enough to vanquish all the Undergrounds they had left…as well as the dragon.

God, she thought. How was Costin going to deal with the dragon if he was so limited?

Cocking his head, Jonah was considering Claudius, and Dawn stared at her boss in return, finally comprehending the reason the master vamp had been thrown back in his chair when Jonah had entered the lab.

He’d connected with Claudius’s gaze, even from across the room, and he’d used his vampire powers to enter the weakened master’s unprotected mind, reading his thoughts while Dawn had been asking about the shadow things. Claudius had been either too off-guard since he wasn’t worried about Dawn breaking into his thoughts, or too lacking in strength to resist.

“What did you get from his head?” Dawn asked Jonah.

Jonah continued watching Claudius as the other vampire squirmed in his seat. Dawn wondered if, when Costin had been questioning the master earlier, Jonah had emerged and raised some hell. Jonah was just as bad as Dawn in the control department, if not worse.

Custode,” Jonah said, his grin widening with this success. “While you were talking about the shadow things, Claudius, here, thought of a custode, which means ‘keeper,’ if I’m not wrong. But a keeper of what?”

Dawn could hardly contain herself. The dragon. They had to be “keeping” the dragon, right? Or were the shadow things only guards of the community itself?

“And,” Jonah added, “Mr. Claudius is really regretting that he didn’t summon a custode before we got a hold of him last night.”

The team had found Claudius in an abandoned building, threatening to take the blood of a female victim, probably so he could speed along his healing. He’d been a bit too busy when they’d arrived to make a phone call. Too bad.

In his chair, Claudius was shutting his eyes, keeping Jonah out. If Costin had been dominant, his blood brother Awareness and hypnotic skills would be even more powerful than Jonah’s vampire abilities.

She felt a vibration in her second back pocket, where she’d tucked her cell phone. She ignored it. She’d access the voice mail after it came through. No way was she going to take a call now, even if it was from Kiko and Natalia, team members who’d told Dawn last night that one of them had gotten a vision about the shadow things—custodes, as she’d just learned—and the psychics intended to go over to Eva’s flat first thing in the morning to investigate the site where Dawn had tangled with one of the keepers. Kik and Nat had the idea that, maybe, he could use his psychometric powers to conjure more visions and, thus, produce leads to the Underground. If Claudius had been more cooperative, further detective work wouldn’t have been so necessary.

Casually, Jonah folded his arms over his chest. “It was easy to read him,” he said about Claudius. “His will is weaker because of the damage you did last night, and I think he’s even more tired now, after having to fend you off this morning.” He loosened his collar. “It’s time for Costin to wake up out of his snooze. A catnap should’ve bucked him right up.”

“You’re letting him out?”

“I’m a team player. I do what I have to do.” He used his grin again. “Just like you’ve always done.”

There it was again—Jonah’s odd support of her. And the fact that it made her feel like she wasn’t such a monster after last night lent her some solace. Jonah truly wanted to do his part in saving the world; he just tried to do it in his own warped way. He loved using his vampiric powers and did it when Costin, who detested the monsters he’d always hunted before Dawn had turned him into one, refused to resort to it.

Dawn could only watch as Jonah winked at her. Then he reared back his head, and after a few seconds, righted it, revealing burning topaz eyes while he slowly dropped his hands to his sides and straightened his posture.

Dawn’s skin buzzed, the sensation drilling through flesh to bone, heating her.

He was back—Costin.

He didn’t look at her, and she knew she’d earned that.

“Dawn,” he said, and his tone held that exotic, world-weary drag of vibration that only made her want him all the more. “Please gently encourage our guest to open his eyes.”

Huh?

Was he asking her to assist? He trusted her?

When he didn’t say anything else, she moved toward Claudius. But just as she was thinking about how to be gentle about forcing someone’s eyelids open, the vamp did the favor for her.

“I can intuit,” Claudius said through clenched teeth, “that I shall be wide-eyed no matter the situation. I’d prefer to handle this myself, thank you.”

“Have at it,” Dawn said. “But if you don’t keep your peepers peeping, it’s Clockwork Orange time for you.”

She shouldn’t have said that, even if she needed to sound like she meant business. Nonetheless, one of the Friends broke her silence and tittered with that wind-tunnel laugh they had.

Costin frowned, cutting off the Friend’s giggle.

Dawn cleared her throat and waited to see what she needed to do next to help out.

Claudius said, “Just so you know, Costin, I’ll be doing my best to block you.”

“I would expect nothing less from a warrior brother,” Costin said.

“I--”

Claudius jerked, falling back in his chair and smacking the ground as Costin pounced toward him, keeping eye contact by poising himself above his blood brother—the fellow creature who’d also taken the oath to follow the dragon through the centuries in exchange for the glories of vampirism.

The master vamp’s legs were frozen in mid-kick, his eyes saucered, and Dawn stood there, feeling an electric vibration eating at her skin.

Costin was putting his all into this—more than even last night when he’d tried to get into Claudius’s mind via their Awareness. He was shaking so badly that she really thought he was going to implode, but she knew that if she interrupted him, he’d be angrier than ever, so she backed off, waiting.

Waiting.

Claudius was quaking, too, his mouth twisting, his head straining to the side, as if trying to break eye contact and unable to do it. A low moan whined from him, growing louder, louder, until it became a shriek.

Costin’s spine arched as his blood brother’s cry burst apart, echoing in Dawn’s chest as if she’d made the sound herself.

She pressed a hand to her heart because it felt like it’d been punctured. Then Costin backed away from Claudius, whose mouth stayed fixed in a silent cry.

She went to Costin, catching him before he slumped to the ground. “Are you all right?”

He couldn’t talk, only grapple for steady breaths. But she could also feel him resisting her embrace, so she let him go, stunned that he wanted to get away from her. Wounded at his reaction.

He seemed to realize what he’d done, but she couldn’t be sure, because his hair was covering most of his topaz gaze. Meanwhile, more Friends had entered the lab, swishing by with their jasmine scent, relieving the other contingent and smoothly taking the spirits’ places to bind Claudius, who was still shivering on the floor.

“What did you do?” Dawn asked. “How…?”

“He was primed to fail,” Costin said, his usually dark and heavy voice thin. “He has been whittled down, hour by hour. I made sure to lay the foundation before you even got in here this morning. Fear of you drained him further, and I used all of what I had in me to exploit that now.”

“You knew I’d come in here after you went to rest.”

“You are as predictable as the sunrise.” He sucked in a few breaths, then gritted his jaw, slowly rising to his feet.

She wanted to chide him for not telling her what he’d had in mind, but that wouldn’t do any good. It wasn’t in Costin’s nature to share. He was secretive, even with her--the master he resented in his heart of hearts.

She wondered how long she could take that. If there would ever be a time he would actually allow her in all the way…or a time she would do the same with him.

While Costin pieced himself together, pushing back his hair into his preferred neater style, Dawn thought that, in spite of his trouble in entering Claudius’s mind, he might not have gotten much.

Just as she was about to ask him, he turned away. Mortified, she finally took out her phone to check it, just to show herself that did have things to do, people who wanted to talk to her.

The old Friends, who were relieved of duty and would go to their painted portraits lining the hallways to take their rest, breezed out of the room while Dawn listened to a message from Kiko.

“Dawn! We’re getting something here! Tell Costin that we’ll be back in headquarters by dusk so he doesn’t haven to worry so much about our security.”

They were getting something. Visions of the Shadow Girl?

Costin headed for the stairs, Dawn just behind him.

“Kiko and Natalia are tuning into some shadow-thing vibes over at Eva’s flat,” she said. “They might have some clues we could use to find out what those things are and how they fit into the Underground.”

“Those two need to be inside headquarters as soon as possible. Please relay that information to them.”

He sounded as if he’d witnessed something in Claudius’s mind—something to put him on alert.

“Why so soon?” she asked. “Did you see any kind of planned attack from the vampires in Claudius’s head?”

“No.”

As they ascended the stairs, traveling under the steel-plating that lined the way, she looked back to see Claudius still chair-bound on the floor, the Friends captivating him as he continued staring at the ceiling, back to the near comatose state he’d been in after Dawn had gotten through with him last night.

They reached the door, and Costin paused with his hand on the knob. “But I saw enough to warrant our own attack.”

Before she could heave in a shocked breath, he opened the door, leaving Dawn standing there.

Their own attack?

The final step in vanquishing this Underground?

Already?

“Did you get a location?” she asked, dogging him as they entered the main floor, with its stifling dark wood, bas-reliefs of friars, and angel heads looming around like mean curly haired kids who kept constant watch.

“I gleaned enough of a location from Claudius to justify action.”

“Wait.” She pulled at the sleeve of his shirt, making him stop. “Enough of one?”

“Yes, enough.”

He made as if to continue walking, but she cut him off by standing in front of him, palms over his chest. His heart beat placidly beneath one of her hands.

“Costin, as far as I recall, the last time you ‘got a location’ in L.A., you meditated forever before you went on the attack.”

“There was rather a lot to deal with before that particular siege, Dawn.” He was talking about having to come clean with her back then, about using her as bait. About telling her what he really was—a former vampire turned savior of the world in a race against the dragon’s rising.

Then she remembered the rest of it.

“Right,” she said, lowering her hands. “You didn’t know the location until you kicked my ass out of the L.A. headquarters, driving me to the Underground after you’d planted a locator on me without me knowing it. That’s how you got the location.”

She could’ve sworn he looked guilty about that, but when it was weighed against all her own sins, it all balanced out.

She stepped out of his way. “So you’re off.”

“After some preparation, yes. I will have Friends with me, just as last time.”

“It’s all set then.”

“Almost.” He tilted his head, then seemed to catch himself, righting it.

He’d been falling into the vampire habit lately.

“With good on our side,” he said, straightening his spine, as if to get back to the righteous soldier within, “I hope to find the Underground while most of the schoolgirl vampires are emerging to hunt down our headquarters, if they track Claudius and decide he is worth the cost.”

“They might be coming with those shadow things,” she said. “You’re prepared to have us and the remaining Friends defend against all of that?”

“Against custodes?” Costin paused, as if just now doubting his plan. But then he recovered. “Breisi has studied the boy’s body in our lab, and although the anatomy differs, she believes the custodes to be humanlike. You and Frank, with the great aid of Friends, should have no problem taking them down, especially with the arsenal we have here.” He paused. “You will be able to defend yourselves.”

He went to the ornate stairway.

“Costin,” Dawn said. “This isn’t like last time with an Underground. Or the time before. You’re not the same.”

He slowed his steps. He didn’t like being reminded that Jonah’s vampire body locked in Costin’s essence, which had always been able to emerge, full force, to knock out Underground masters. He didn’t have the benefit of that now.

“Haven’t you wanted me to test what I can do outside these walls?” He hadn’t turned to look at her. “Haven’t you questioned whether I have what it takes to continue my quest?”

She nodded, unable to speak. Her voice seemed too laden to get out of her body. She’d doubted his courage ever since they’d tracked this Underground to London. So why was she trying to hold him back from proving himself now?

He was a warrior entrusted with a duty so significant that she was nothing next to it, and she suspected he was not only going to emphasize that to her—and maybe to himself—but that he had no other choice. This was why he’d been saved by The Whisper, who’d offered him redemption if Costin would only conquer the dragon and his ilk.

She couldn’t and wouldn’t stop him. Besides, she remembered all too clearly what disobeying Costin had brought back in L.A., when she’d screwed things up so badly that she’d turned him into what he hated the most.

Out of anyone, Costin would know what he was doing. Who the hell was she to know better?

“Blood,” she said softly. “You’ll need my blood before you go. You’ll be stronger with it.”

“Yes.” She thought she heard a hint of regret, anger at his weakness, and thankfulness in his voice, all at the same time. “I will be stronger with you in me.”

As he left, she trailed up the stairs after him, hearing the vague ticking of every clock in the house counting down to when she’d have to let him go again.

 

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A noir-mystery-fantasy series by Chris Marie Green