SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 13 • 9:30 p.m. (roughly half an hour earlier than the last chapter)
Jude Hensley had been suffering a sense of uneasiness ever since he’d arrived at Andre’s safehouse in Esplanade Ridge, a neighborhood between the French Quarter and the New Orleans fairgrounds. On North Dupre Street and very close to the fairgrounds, Andre’s relatively modest three-story safehouse stood about one hundred yards from the crown-jewel of the neighborhood, a double-galleried home that was functioning as a bed and breakfast.
Rasul had dismissed Jude when he’d arrived to take over the watch. However, the Were had a feeling in his gut that told him to stay nearby, despite his not hearing a peep from Andre’s house until five minutes after sundown—when a van with four humans inside arrived.
Jude had been positioned with his camera and had taken pictures of Bill Compton, who let in the humans. Sadly, the magic around Andre’s house did not allow Jude to see in any further than the front door’s threshold. Hell! Jude had seen only Bill’s head, upper chest, and one arm—since those were the only parts of him that had actually extended beyond the threshold of the house. Nothing else had been seen—not even by his camera.
“Strong fuckin’ magic,” the Were muttered.
Not long after the humans had gone in, Rasul had arrived on scene. After a quick text sent from Rasul to Wybert confirming Compton’s presence in the safehouse, Wybert had reiterated that Rasul’s assignment was to follow Compton in order to see what he was up to.
At that point, Rasul had dismissed Jude. But the Were wasn’t always so great at following orders, especially not when he was concerned about a friend’s wellbeing. And Rasul was a friend—even if Jude didn’t admit to that at pack meetings.
Jude had parked himself and his telephoto lens on a second story veranda of the bed and breakfast. Given his long day of watching the area, he knew that the people who’d rented the room attached to the veranda that he was “borrowing” were planning a romantic dinner and a show at the Saenger Theater; thus, the space was his until at least midnight. He’d used his Were agility to climb to the second floor and to get into place—after picking the lock into the boarding house so that he could disappear inside if necessary.
Rasul could sense that Jude had decided to keep watch—as was clear from the several times that the vampire had looked up toward him and flipped him off.
Jude smirked. Yeah—he and the vampire were friends.
The Were would have put money on the human “donors” never leaving Andre’s safehouse, but they did—about forty minutes after they’d arrived. They all looked pale, roughed up, and glamoured. One of the two men in the group no longer had a shirt or a functioning button on his jeans. Jude could see several sets of fresh bite marks on his chest even from where he sat.
Compton had appeared at the door once more, and this time his whole body had stepped beyond the threshold. Jude cringed a little at the memory. Compton had been as naked as the day he was born, and that was a sight that the Were could have lived his whole life without!
After offering one more piece of glamour to the driver of the van, Bill had hurried back inside, and the humans had driven away.
Jude figured they were lucky, but the situation made the Were worry even more about his friend. Compton wasn’t one to display himself so immodestly, nor had he been known as being particularly rough with humans when he’d lived at court.
Oh—Jude knew that Compton was an entitled little punk, but not particularly violent. He couldn’t help but to wonder who Bill was keeping company with.
It was that unknown that made the Were extra vigilant.
After the humans had left, the house—again—became as silent as a tomb.
Jude glanced down at his watch out of habit more than necessity. It was 9:33 p.m., and he couldn’t help but to wonder when—or even if—Bill would leave the house. He could see Rasul from where he was perched. The vampire was crouched down behind a fence two houses down from Andre’s.
And then—suddenly—he wasn’t!
It took Jude a moment to realize that a being of incredible speed and strength had snatched Rasul from his spot! He watched with horror as Rasul’s body was—quite literary—propelled through the air and onto the front porch of Andre’s safehouse! In the next moment, a vampire—more deadly than any Jude had ever seen—stood over Rasul, whose body was clearly broken.
Detaching himself emotionally from the situation as any experienced guard knew was necessary, Jude processed the situation. And he understood immediately that he could not save his friend. But he could warn his employer. The Were glanced toward the door leading inside of the boarding house. It was less than five feet from where he sat.
He knew his best course of action would be to quickly—but quietly—go inside, shut the door, and then make a phone call to Wybert. Inside the human-owned home, an uninvited vampire could not enter. Also, Jude didn’t want to risk being caught by the monster who was currently ripping Rasul’s intestines from his body!
After a moment to mourn what was happening to his friend before his very eyes, the Were quietly rose to his feet and—with as little movement and noise as possible—made his first step toward the open door.
And then his second.
Unfortunately, he was not able to make it to his third.
The vampire who’d just been savagely ripping into Rasul had jetted onto the veranda faster than Jude could blink!
“You’re a pretty Were,” the vampire said with a smirk. “My child has a taste for your kind.”
Though he knew fighting was useless against the being in front of him, Jude was not one to do nothing.
So he lunged at the vampire, his body shimmering with an impending shift as he did.
However, the move had been useless, and Jude found himself caught by the throat by the ancient being! He tried to continue his shift, but the vampire squeezed harder.
“I love a fighter,” the vampire sneered sickly, his fangs glistening in the light of the almost-quarter moon.
Jude knew that it would be the last moon he saw in his life.
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 13 • 9:50 p.m.
“Would you like for me to clean this up before we leave?” Bill asked as he looked down onto the front porch of Andre’s safehouse. The sludgy remains of Rasul, a vampire in the queen’s court, were staining the wood.
Meanwhile, the Were’s corpse was inside. The wolf had given Alexei some temporary pleasure and had offered him a sense of peace, which made up for the fact that Appius had allowed the four human donors sent over by Andre to leave relatively unscathed.
The humans’ safe-leaving had not been an act of altruism by Appius; on the contrary, it had been a punishment for the youngest vampire in their nest, for he’d defied his maker on a small thing the night before. The young one had refused to put away his video game when his maker told him to do so.
Bill smiled fondly to himself as he thought of how childlike his “brother” was sometimes. Of course, Appius’s punishments of him were never overly harsh. Indeed, Alexei had gotten to eat an ample amount from the human donors before Appius cut him off. He’d just not gotten to drain them, a fact that had certainly disappointed the young vampire.
However, the gift of the Were had brightened Alexei’s spirts back to normal!
“No. I think that we will leave the mess to Andre,” Appius replied. “Either he is responsible for these spies who have been watching this dwelling, or he has been inept enough to lead them to us. Either way, we will not be staying in this home again. After the events of this night, we’ll either have an invitation to stay in the queen’s residence, or we shall spend the night upon Sophie-Anne Leclerq’s remains.”
“Do you believe you will have to kill the queen, Master?” Bill asked tentatively—so as to ensure that Appius did not think that he was questioning his behavior in any way.
The ancient winked at Bill. “Worry not. I will wager that the queen is welcoming. I have read up on Sophie-Anne Leclerq and know that she is a reasonable and—more importantly—a realistic vampiress. She may be upset that we have disrupted her party. But vampire law does not allow her to come between me and my plans for my child—despite the fact that she is his monarch. Since the telepath is currently under Eric’s control, the queen is employing her through him, and according to Andre, Sophie-Anne is paying a pretty penny for that usage.” Appius scoffed. “Once the telepath is transferred back to you, we will offer her services to the queen gratis or—at least—for only favors from her. I do not see why she would be upset with such a change in the telepath’s status. After all, she will get a better deal out of the new situation,” he added glibly.
“And—if Andre lives up to his part—the queen will be made to understand that your interests in Louisiana are benign, Master,” Bill said confidently.
Appius chuckled. “Well—at least—benign where she is concerned.” He looked momentarily displeased. “Perhaps, all these machinations are unnecessary. I could, after all, just go to the queen to inform her that I will be in my child’s life for the next year or so. And then I could simply call him to me and begin my work reforming his behavior without the witch or Andre having a part.”
Bill bit his tongue, but seemed quite worried due to his master’s words.
Appius chuckled and patted the younger vampire’s back even as a car drove by on the quiet street. With the porch light off, human eyes could see neither the bloody remains nor the vampires in the shadows.
“Do not worry, William. I will not alter our plans. We would not want for Eric to be able to do something foolish when I call him—like arrange for his own true death or organize the spiriting away of Miss Stackhouse.” He looked at Bill with a mixture of disappointment, pity, and mockery. “I know that your blood tie with the telepath is now lost, so we could not track her easily if she were to run away with her guards—especially if Eric ended himself in lieu of answering my call.”
“I am sorry that I have failed you, Master,” Bill said, looking down.
“We have discussed this, William,” Appius said. “You failed yourself when you let the telepathic asset get away—when you did not fully secure her with your blood so that she could never get away from you. But that was before you were with me, and I will help you to set the situation to rights.”
“I know. Thank you, Master.”
Appius petted his cheek. “Surprising Eric and the telepath tonight is our best move. We will take Miss Stackhouse without worry of her escaping. And—after we have her—I will reassert my control over Eric when he comes for her. Think of how surprised he will be to see me!” He laughed gleefully. “Oh—it will be so amusing! I am sure that the queen will appreciate the show! Or Andre will finally prove useful—and convince his maker to see things our way.”
“And if that’s not how things turn out?” Bill asked with concern.
“Then, the queen will pay for her child’s flaws with her existence,” Appius shrugged. “And—then—perhaps that Arkansas king that Andre is so worried about will see reason and support our stay in his new territory.” The elder leaned over to kiss Bill’s lips lightly. “Let’s just play all that by ear—shall we?”
Bill nodded, but he was still quite pensive.
Appius took him into his embrace. “Remember that the plan is quite simple. Miss Pelt will cause a distraction, which will—in turn—cause Sookie to be taken to safety while Eric helps to deal with the situation. We will then take Sookie easily and eliminate her personal bodyguards. Once we have her in our custody, I’ll call Eric, and—for the sake of Miss Stackhouse—he will bow to my will. Indeed, I would be surprised if the queen is involved in any of our actions! And the witches, Mark Stonebrook and Hallow—will help us so that we don’t inadvertently kill Sophie-Anne’s people. Sophie-Anne will have no reason to fret.” He chuckled. “Likely, we’ll be enjoying the ball with her by 1:00 a.m. Speaking of which—it is just after 10:00 p.m. We must get ready and go to the witch’s dwelling if we are to be there at the appointed time.”
“Yes, Master,” Bill said. “I’ll get Alexei on track.”
Appius nodded as he kicked some of Rasul’s sludge almost absentmindedly. “Oh—and William?”
“Be sure to dress in your best. We’ll be attending a party, after all!”
Appius smiled as he watched the retreating figure of William Compton, who was proving to be such the useful babysitter for Alexei when Appius needed it. Yes—it was nice to have time to himself, which had been a rare luxury for the ancient vampire, given Alexei’s need for almost-constant supervision.
Moreover, it was just so goddamned fun to test the American Civil War-era whelp, too!
And tonight was going to be such an intriguing test for William!
“Especially when little goes as he thinks it is going to,” Appius said softly to himself. After one last look at the remains of the ineffectual vampire spy, whom he’d smelled watching the supposed “safehouse,” the ancient made his way inside and was pleased to hear that a shower was going. The drive to the witches’ dwelling would take only fifteen minutes, but there was absolutely no time to dally, thanks to the fact that the Were spy had also remained outside after dark, sucking up a bit more time than Appius had counted on.
The elder vampire scoffed as he thought about the gall of the vampire and Were spies—setting up so close to his location. Of course, they obviously did not know that there was a vampire of superior senses inside of the house. And that fact would likely save Andre’s life, for—if he had arranged for the surveillance—he would have warned his people to stay much farther away.
Still, the spies being there at all was another mark against Andre; clearly, he’d not covered his tracks well enough. For that, Appius planned to make Andre’s life difficult for the foreseeable future.
Appius collected his tuxedo from its garment bag and made his way to an empty bathroom in the house—where he could hurry through his own shower. He’d already decided to have William collect all of their belongings and bring Alexei to the witches’ lair at around 11:00 p.m. Meanwhile, he would fly there sooner. He wanted to make sure that Andre could still be counted on. Plus, upon contemplation, he had determined that the plan needed to be altered to a certain extent. And he wanted William to be surprised when some of those changes came to pass!
It would be so much more amusing that way!
And, of course, William’s reaction would be yet another test for him.
Appius grinned! There was such an amusing evening ahead!
Pythia’s existence had been full of the existences of others. People she would never know. People she would know too well. So many people. So many versions of their stories playing out in her mind.
Sometimes those stories were as mundane as preparing a meal.
Sometimes they were epic.
It was the epic ones that repeated again and again and again—but never quite in the same ways, for the choices of individuals continuously vied with fate.
“Endlessly battling,” she sighed.
Pythia found it ironic that people thought that she could tell the future, for, though she could tell a future—sometimes even many futures—none of them were guaranteed.
Lesser individuals of her kind had been unable to endure the floods from the future that periodically came to the oracles.
“Oι οπαδοί,” she said softly in Greek, a language which was nearer to the one of her birth than the one the Spartans had taught her when she was brought to them as an infant by her mother.
Pythia had been payment for a good turn that the Spartan queen of the generation before had done for her people. The Spartans had simply waited until a seer of adequate strength was born on the small isle in the Aegean where Pythia’s people had once dwelled.
The ancient sighed. They were all gone now—the ladies who could both see into the future and understand what they had seen. It was the understanding that was the most difficult thing, for the future was not a single thing. When the future came to Pythia, it came in waves, and each wave told a different story—all with slight variations.
Some radically different.
Her “job” among the Spartans was to decipher what was most likely or guide the Spartans to an outcome which they would prefer.
But the future was never certain—even if she proved time and again to be an efficient guide. Indeed, sometimes, it was trying to change the shape of the waves that made them larger—overwhelming. The Spartans had punished her when she failed in her predictions, not understanding that they often created the failures themselves with their actions.
“Individual choice versus fate,” she scoffed.
The irony of telling a human about one of the waves she saw from the future was that—if she did—it would invariably not come to pass. Humans had no skill for simply waiting for fate; they would try to greet it, and—when they did—they altered their future.
Weres were no better.
And—vampires? They were the worst.
“Always thinking they know better than Fate,” the oracle judged.
Ironically, Pythia had learned to stay out of the future—for the most part. Since she’d become a vampire independent of her maker, she had used the future mostly to show her what needed to be done in the present or what had been done in the past.
Other vampires thought her to be powerful because of the knowledge she possessed. What they failed to understand was that she knew things mostly because she had already witnessed the aftermath and could, therefore, match what she had seen of the future to the past which had taken place.
However, sometimes ignoring the future until it happened was almost impossible when Pythia was involved directly in her visions. On occasion, she had been able to know thousands of possibilities about her own outcome regarding one situation or another. Sometimes, those possibilities even included her true death.
Indeed, more than once, Pythia had chosen a “wave” from her visions which had promised her true death; she would hold to such a wave! For dying held much appeal to her at times.
“So much appeal,” she said softly.
However, whenever she tried to let the ocean of the present carry her to true death and—hopefully—sweet oblivion, she inevitably failed. The instinct to live was so very impossible to ignore. And trying to do so only forced her to see more future waves which involved herself.
She had come to hate it whenever she did. She had learned that choosing the lesser of evils when it came to the possibilities of the future was all that she could do. Turning Appius had been an example of a lesser of evils—though that fact was difficult for even the ancient seer to believe!
She closed her eyes, recalling briefly the futures that would have come to pass if he’d not been turned by her or if—even worse—he’d been turned by another vampire. For it seemed as if Appius Livius Ocella was fated to be a vampire. Her turning him had truly been the lesser of evils considering what other vampires may have gotten to him.
And why not just kill Appius so that others couldn’t turn him? Again, his being in the world—ironically enough—had made the evils of it less—when taken as a whole with all of the things that his exit would have prevented from happening.
But that didn’t mean his continued existence would always be the lesser of evils.
“Tonight, my child,” she said coldly. “Finally.”
Pythia had foreseen that Appius’s continuation would now make the world worse—so much worse. She opened her glassy eyes; however, she could still “see” the repercussions if he remained undead. They were profound.
She shook her head and looked down as she stifled her memories of the visions she’d seen. She had chosen the most palatable future and had tried to put all of the pieces in just the right places for the desired outcome—Appius’s death—to happen. To try to do more would—she knew—make things worse.
“Fuck things up,” she said loudly, using the Louisiana vernacular.
“Mistress?” Noelle asked her from where she sat meditating across the large room.
Pythia could not help but to smile a little. How could she not live on when there were beings to help such as Noelle? She’d seen the waves of Noelle’s future just in time to save the child from dying.
And she had saved others, too—all of her handmaidens. All had contributed to the good of the world.
Appius, too, had contributed to the good, though he would hate that fact.
“I am fine,” Pythia said to her young Fae ward as she thought of the contributions of Eric and Karin alone. And Pamela would have her positive part to play in the future. Yes, Appius’s life had led to much good, despite the vampire himself.
Pythia had one more part to play in her child’s destiny, though—unfortunately—that part could not be to simply call him to her and kill him. The futures that would expand from that choice would be unpleasant to say the least. No—she needed to pilot the night ahead just right—like the captain of a ship upon a stormy sea.
And if she could just keep all the pieces on the correct “wave” until the night was done, she would—never again—see her child in any future she beheld.
A/N: First—apologies for my tardiness! There are many reasons for the delay to my posting—including holiday commitments, work commitments, and a “bug” that got hold of me for a week. However, I’m still sorry that I didn’t get you this chapter in a timelier manner as I had promised. If it helps, my burning pants have kept me warm.
So—last chapter—we got some “bad guy” deaths. This chapter gave us our first two casualties from the “good guys.” I hate killing off characters I like. And—poor Molly—had just started something with Rasul, too! And I’d just been getting to know—and like—Jude. But the Muse was out for blood.
I hope that—if you have stuck with me despite the delay—you will drop me a comment about what you think. It is my plan to recommence regular Sunday postings. Any encouragement from you is definitely appreciated! The good news is that my work commitments will be lesser for the next month, so I hope to draft the rest of this story so that there will be no more delays. And—then—on to the next project, whether that is returning to a languishing unfinished piece or answering the Muse’s call to delve into something new. Regardless, I continue to have more stories to tell.
All the best to you!