Devil's Ball [Shadow Ancients]
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by Cammie Eicher
Category: Dark Fantasy/Romance
Description: When the Ancients' high elder is murdered in his bed, Giorgio Montrosa is assigned to find the killer--fast. So he's not opposed to being given a partner, especially when that partner is hand-picked by the Prophetess, the Ancient's highest authority. He didn't expect help to come in the form of Leykin Reneaut. After all, they weren't formally introduced until after she'd shoved him to the floor and covered him with ice. And once they are, he wonders if her youth and inexperience will make her more hindrance than help. The last thing Leykin expected when she left Minnesota was to work with the famed Giorgio Montrosa, whose reputation as a big, bad enforcer is all she knows about him. But as they work together to find the killer, solve a kidnapping, and unravel a plot to dethrone the entire ruling council, she discovers the sexy man beneath the tough exterior. The attraction, she soon learns, is mutual. But can they live long enough to find their happy ending?
eBook Publisher: Resplendence Publishing, LLC, 2010 RP
eBookwise Release Date: December 2010
14 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [259 KB]
Reading time: 159-223 min.
Giorgio stormed down the hall toward the ghastly noise that brought the entire household out of their beds. The piercing scream shattered the noonday silence of the limestone mansion, dwindling to a sob as the woman slid down the wall. Eyes filling with blood-red tears, she wrapped her arms around her narrow frame and began to rock as the others rushed past her into the high elder's bedroom.
Rafael Lenza's body lay sideways across the luxurious forest green bedspread, legs akimbo and arms spread wide. The eyes in his severed head stared at the rest of him from the top of a burled walnut dresser.
"No one move!"
The appalled, yet fascinated, vampires made way for the tall, stocky man with an air of authority and a scarred face. A whisper ran through the room as he was recognized.
The biggest and baddest of the Ancients' enforcers, answering only to the council. Or, as some believed, to no one but himself.
A vulgar curse in Ancient slipped from Giorgio's lips as his eyes met those of the newly deceased high elder. The bastard was dead, and he still felt like the man was judging him.
"Okay, you've seen enough," he growled as a dozen vampires crowded the doorway. "Go to the dining room and stay there."
He curled two fingers at an enforcer-in-training who looked like he was about to bolt.
"Tell the housekeeper to give them warm blood laced with brandy," he ordered. "And keep an eye on them. If anyone tries to leave, or acts funny, summon me. Immediately."
The young man stared across Giorgio's shoulder as he listened. Avoidance was something Giorgio was used to by now. Ten years ago, a savage attack with liquid silver nearly killed him. The damage, far beyond what his natural healing powers could handle, would leave him scarred for his hundred more years of natural life.
After the young trainee fled, Giorgio squatted beside the woman who found the murdered elder. She sat unmoving. Her blank eyes stared at the wall in front of her; she was as unaware of what was going on around her as the dead man.
Damn. A catatonic witness. Could this day get any worse?
Giorgio sighed and got to his feet. Well, yeah, it could. Now he had to notify the council of clan elders that a murder had been committed. He had no idea of the protocol for an announcement like this. Centuries had passed since a secret, deliberate act like this had been committed--not since the Dark Times. Ancient lives were taken only after an order of execution had been issued by the council, or in defense of one's life, at the risk of instant execution. Sneaking in to kill a high elder as he slept didn't fit either category.
An unfamiliar wash of dread filled Giorgio as he headed toward the dining room and the two dozen Ancients waiting there. Lenza was lying dead for one of two reasons.
Either a new vendetta against Ancient authority had been launched.
Or the beginning of End Time had begun.
Fear whispered to him, reminding him how delicate the stability of this vampire nation was. For millennia, his people had lived separately from the short-living human majority even as they mingled with them. The history of the Ancients was as much absorbed as taught in a classroom, and from an early age, Ancients knew their future depended on avoiding the wrong decisions of the past.
Once, they had been the only humans. When the first short-lifers appeared, living a half-century or so and reproducing as often as once a year, they should have been eliminated. The world would have been a better place. The world would have remained the sole province of the Ancients.
Giorgio sighed. What was done could not be undone. Like the Dark Times, when vampire turned upon vampire until their species was nearly wiped out. Had it not been for a Prophetess and her interpretation of the Book of the Ancients, his species might be long dead. Her wisdom had led them to create the world's clans, to form a council in which each clan was equally represented, and to select a high elder who guaranteed no clan could seize power.
Now there was no high elder. The man most recently occupying that post was waxen and bloodless down the hall. Yet there was one clan elder Giorgio trusted implicitly, the man he intended to warn before he began the tiring task of interrogation.
Stepping into an alcove, Giorgio tapped his earpiece and spoke the name of Misha Tsarentza. Once, Giorgio's fate had been in the man's hands. Tsarentza had allowed him to live when most elders would have executed him. He'd also hired him as a clan enforcer, an unprecedented act of forgiveness. Tipping him off was a first step in ensuring the elder and every member of his family survived the coming days.
"Giorgio, my friend."
A darkness colored those three ordinary words, reminding Giorgio of the powerful abilities Misha possessed. The elder had felt the rip in the awareness that tied all Ancients together, known the instant Lenza died that one of the people had left this plane.
"Rafael Lenza," Giorgio replied to the unanswered question.
A quick intake of breath answered him, followed by a long silence. His hands curled, nails cutting into his palms, as he waited for Misha to comprehend the implications of such a vile act.
Finally, Misha spoke.
"Decapitated and drained."
"Aah. A planned act."
"Who knows?" Misha asked.
"Every damned Ancient in the house," Giorgio said. "Thirty or so. I'm sure they've communicated the news to everyone they know by now. I stuck them all in one room, ordered blood with brandy to be served, and have an enforcer playing nursemaid. I'm getting ready to talk to them one-on-one now."
Giorgio waited through another silence. He knew Misha well, and anticipated the next question.
"Do you need Belle? Or any other outside help?" Misha asked.
"Not yet. But I'll let you know if I do."
After quick goodbyes, Giorgio prepared to put on his bad-ass persona and push for information from the vampires in the other room. He'd like to have company on this. He'd love to have Belle, Misha's personal enforcer, with him. She was literally unlike anyone else in the world--not an Ancient, yet not really a short-lifer, either. A genetic quirk she'd inherited gave her a life expectancy of several hundred years along with the ability to resist pain and heal quickly. Decades of knowing she was the last of her kind, of watching those she loved die of old age while she remained young, made her willing to take chances as she fought on the side of justice.
But this was something he had to do alone, like so much else in his life. He squared his shoulders and pushed open the dining room door.
Silence greeted him. It continued as Giorgio motioned for the first witness to join him in a small anteroom. By the time he'd finished with the last awakened Ancient, conversation had resumed in hushed tones. He knew by the time he released them all to find their beds again that the interrogations had been an exercise in futility. No one had seen anything--or else they weren't telling.
"Will we be safe?"
The question came from a strikingly beautiful Ancient, the matriarch of a family which had moved from Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina wreaked its havoc.
"As safe as I can make you," he replied. He nodded toward the young enforcer who stood outside the door. "Two more enforcers will join him. They will be stationed at your front and back doors while that one patrols outside."
"During daylight while we sleep?" the woman queried.
"Until whoever did this is found and punished," Giorgio returned. "Or until a new high elder is selected and gives me different orders."
He bowed and left before the woman could pepper him with more questions. She was wealthy; if she wanted more security, she could hire her own. His priority now was to find answers, fast, before he was separated from his own head by the council for failing to do his job. He'd gone through hell to stay alive, and he wasn't about to accept death without a fight.
Leykin Renaut balanced a teapot and two fine china cups on the silver tray and carried them onto the small balcony of the New York penthouse. She could toss a knife into the knothole of a tree twenty feet away and knew the precise spot to kick a man's throat to kill him. Yet she was all thumbs when it came to this sort of thing.
Relief slid from her in a small breath as she found her target, the low serving table, without the crash of the teapot.
"I'll be right back." She dashed to the kitchen and returned with a small plate of cookies. Setting them beside the tea tray, she said, "I made these myself."
"Excellent." Her companion picked up a chocolate chip cookie, examining the treat before placing it on the edge of her saucer.
"Hold the praise until you taste one," Leykin suggested. "I'm the kind of cook who can ruin ice cubes."
The Prophetess laughed. "You remind me of another young lady. She's a variation of human, but like you, she's far more comfortable beating up a thug than beating an egg."
Still smiling, she nibbled at the cookie. Leykin watched, waiting for a verdict.
"Very good," the Prophetess said. "I can't wait until you progress to cakes."
"As long as there's still one good bakery in New York, your cakes will come from boxes," Leykin retorted. "I'm an enforcer, not a chef."
"You weren't always an enforcer," the Prophetess reminded. "You learned over the years by example and by training. The same applies to cooking. Apply yourself, and you can cater my five-hundredth birthday party."
"Don't count on surviving that long if you keep me in the kitchen." Leykin grinned and poured blood-laced broth into the bone china cups.
The Prophetess laughed as she accepted the drink. Tipping her head, she studied the young Ancient staring out over the city. She'd never had a companion before and didn't need one now. She feared little in life, and had always been content with her own company.
Her days would still be solitary if the girl's image hadn't come to her, unbidden, a few weeks ago. Such an occurrence wasn't new, although it had been over fifty years since the last time. The Prophetess didn't know why this girl would be important in the days to come; she only knew that Leykin must be present when whatever was to happen unfolded.
Even after these many centuries, the Prophetess could be surprised by what life brought. The girl was the most unlikely potential hero she'd ever seen. In a culture founded on family and clan, Leykin had no contact with her parents, although she was beloved by the grandmother who raised her. She'd grown up in a place only renegade Ancients favored, the snowy breadth of Minnesota, but that had served the girl well.
Living among short-lifers had given her a unique perspective, unbiased by the Ancient attitudes toward the lesser humans. Minimal exposure to her clan made her strong in her own self-awareness and opinions, not a bad thing for anyone, Ancient or short-life human.
"How do you like the city?" she asked as Leykin settled in across from her.
"I love it and I hate it," Leykin answered. "I wasn't prepared for the noise and people, but there's such a vibrancy here. And I have appreciated being able to meet more of our people."
She made a face. "Grandmama is very protective, and far fonder of isolation than me."
The Prophetess laughed. She had wondered if this huge metropolis might be overwhelming for the girl, but Leykin seemed to be adapting.
"I loved attending a ceremony." Leykin's eyes sparkled and she leaned forward. "I expected it to be solemn, like church or something. It was wonderful."
"Ah, yes, a changing ceremony always is."
So much had changed in the Ancient world over the last centuries, but the rituals remained untouched, much to the Prophetess' satisfaction. There were only three of importance: the ceremony making a fledgling's change into full vampire, the ritual formalizing a marriage, and the cremation of a dead Ancient. The marriage ceremony was rarely performed these days. Modern Ancients had adopted the custom of mating, an informal proclamation that they were together until one of them called it off. Marriage bound Ancients together for their lifetimes, and few people were willing to agree to spend hundreds of years with only one partner.
The Prophetess feared the future of her species lay now in the established leaders, the elders of the council of twelve clans. The council was the judge and jury for every clan. The only check upon them was the sacred Book of the Ancients, and the woman who interpreted its passages. She'd been that woman for a very long time, well over 400 years, but the burden had never weighed as heavy as now.
Sighing and releasing her worries, the Prophetess turned her face toward the sun, relishing the gentle warmth against her face. Another spring had arrived, and she was still alive. For the time, that was enough.
She hoped to remain so for at least another decade or two. If her replacement had been born, she did not feel the girl's presence yet. She sighed. No one should foresee the end of their years, or be able to count the dwindling days.
"Another cookie?" Leykin asked.
The Prophetess smiled and accepted.
"Warm chocolate cookies are one of life's least appreciated treasures," she said. "Remember that, my dear. There is little in life that a fresh-baked cookie can't make better."
Chuckling, she placed her cup on the wrought iron table. Rising, she sought the balcony railing to stare at the traffic below. So many people, hurrying toward whatever ruled their lives. She could not imagine how life must press upon these whose days were measured in mere decades. She had lived a short time among the most feeble of these. Rather than saddening her, however, she had been enriched by the experience.
Despite their waning days, those short-life humans made the most of each hour. Ambition and power were less of a driving force for them; they were kinder to one another, even as their bodies failed and minds grew fragile. One woman in particular...
Her hands tightened on the rail and her body stiffened as the scene below began to fade and memories fled. Her mind was consumed by a terrible image.
"No!" A surge of fear and horror rushed through her. She closed her eyes, rocking against the rush of emotion.
Leykin's voice became a dim echo as the blackness overwhelmed the Prophetess. Flinching against the void, the Prophetess relaxed her hold and tipped toward the concrete support. She fell into the arms of her companion, who caught the Prophetess as she began to slide over the railing and toward the ground.
The Prophetess fought the spiral into unconsciousness. Her chest tightened as she gasped and struggled for control. Inside her head, she sensed Leykin's panic amid a wave of overwhelming grief and despair.
She sought and found the strong mind of the one she trusted most. As the darkness claimed her, she connected with Misha Tsarentza, elder of the largest American clan. One simple question slipped from her mind to his:
"Why are my people in chaos?"
Misha slumped against the leather wing chair, his fear subsiding as he accepted the presence of the Prophetess. The despair tormenting him since Giorgio's call began to ebb away.
Eyes closed, he relaxed as the Prophetess firmed the connection. Like a conversation between old friends, the communication steadied him as he made her aware, in the most secretive way possible, of the tragedy that had befallen their people.
My best enforcer will not rest until justice is done.
He cannot do this alone. Another will join him.
Misha nearly asked who would come, so overcome with sorrow and dread was he. He caught himself in time. To question the Prophetess was to show dishonor, and his respect for her went beyond that of most elders. A decade earlier, they'd joined minds to defeat a group of angry Ancients bent on destroying the old ways. The experience had changed Misha and tightened the bonds between them.
Hold fast, dear Misha, and reassure your people. All will be as it should be. You must trust.
The calm instilled by the empathetic presence of the Prophetess remained after she eased out of his mind. With a renewed strength and sense of purpose, Misha glanced out the window. Only an hour or two until nightfall. Sighing, he opened the mini-fridge beside his desk and pulled out a flask of O-negative. He drank without bothering to decant the blood, its rich, full taste lingering after the liquid poured down his throat.
Life had been good to him, to all the Ancients, for thousands of years. Yet the revered book of prophecy, which dated back to the beginning of the written word, predicted the end of his people. It revealed a world in which only short-lifers existed, when the rich history of the Ancients would be forgotten as if his species had been nothing but dust.
He considered the glass cylinder he held, envisioning the shards he could create with a simple fling of his wrist. And he wondered if it might not be best to end his life by drawing one of those shards across his throat rather than watch his world laid to waste.