Shadow’s Bane – Karen Chance

It was freezing. He knew that because he could see other peoples’ breath frost the air as they passed, a crowd of shapes that should have been nothing more than dark blurs, but instead were full of light and sound and . life. He could close his eyes and still see them, streaks of color against the night, with bright streamers flowing out behind them like the pennants that used to fly from the ramparts at home. One approached the shadow where he stood; she was so vivid that she almost seemed unreal. Her eyes were blue, shimmering deep and dark, but not cold. Not the color of the ocean, but of the skies, limitless and clear, even shadowed with the knowledge that something wasn’t right. That somewhere nearby, a hunter waited. A strand of red hair slipped out of the hood of her cloak, curling against a cheek that others might have called pale, but which to him glowed peach and pink and warm, like a lantern against the blacks and grays of the narrow street, and the silvered thread of a canal behind her. The colors dimmed and bloomed with every heartbeat, with every sigh of breath that issued from between cold-reddened lips. The life pulsing in her veins called to him like a siren’s song, urging him to loosen the night he’d wrapped around himself and take one step into the street. That was all it would take. One step, one lifted hand to call her to his side, one vague brush against her mind to overcome the fear that hastened her feet and sent those beautiful eyes darting into shadows.

Just one. He didn’t take it. But someone else did. Mircea saw him even before he moved, not a man but a boy, barely a year out of the grave and without the hard-won restraint Mircea had learned. He must have been local; no one so far gone in bloodlust could have made it this far otherwise. Venice was an open port, where vampire territories were forbidden and everyone was permitted, but this child would have gotten himself killed long before he reached it. She came closer, the boy trailing her in shadow. Mircea could smell her now, a scent as bright as the daylight she seemed to carry within her, a strange, exotic perfume: bitter orange, honey musk, ambergris, and vanilla, set against the sweet smell of female sweat. His gut twisted, yet he gave no sign. Because she wasn’t alone. He couldn’t see the one who trailed her, like the fisherman following the bobbing of his lure. The light he gave off was dim, almost indistinguishable from the glimmer of moonlight on the water below.

So dark, in fact, that even with vision many times sharper than a human’s, Mircea could barely discern him, and only because he had known he would be there. The boy didn’t see him. The boy couldn’t see anything but her. Mircea remembered those days, not so far in his own past. When the bloodlust took you, it was a terrible thing, like being possessed, to the point that he understood why humans called them demons and thrust crosses in their faces. Crosses didn’t help. Or holy water, or garlic, or wedging bricks into the mouths of the dead, as the locals had taken to doing in a vain attempt to keep them from feeding if they rose. When the demon rode you, only blood would satisfy him and return you to something like sanity. It was a state the boy had not seen in some time. The young one slipped closer, in and out of shadow now, visible in glimpses even to human eyes.

And audible, too: a strange, low keening issued from between his lips. This was not the savage predator of legend, capable and cruel, but a half-starved child with no master to tend him, no family to help him, no one to lean on for information or even succor. Stumbling through the night, all alone. Mircea knew that feeling. He’d entered this strange life through an old woman’s curse, and hadn’t understood what was happening when his skin started to burn in sunlight, when his food became oddly flavorless, when his eyes seemed to acquire a cat’s vision, suddenly able to see clearly even in the dead of night. Not until his enemies caught up with him, tortured and buried him, leaving him to gasp his last breath in that tiny coffin underground, had he understood. And clawed his way back to the surface in a rebirth of sorts, as terrified and disoriented as a babe, and as ignorant of the new world he found himself in. Yes, he understood. He didn’t know this one’s story, only that he wouldn’t be on his own, crying in need, if he had a family to look after him. So he was one of the thousands who washed up on these shores every year, unwanted, abandoned, lost.

Made by mistake, on a whim or as punishment for an infraction, and then cast aside to die alone. Because vampire death was something of a Venice specialty. But before they died, they hunted. And ones like these hunted wildly, so driven by hunger that they no longer cared for their own safety, much less that of their prey. And while the Vampire Senate allowed them the right to feed here, on the massive festival crowds too drunk to know the difference, mangled corpses were treated seriously. Members of the city watch, the special ones with the Medusa-head armor and the Senate’s backing, had a hunt of their own, rounding up those who killed when they fed and carrying them away to tiny prison cells. Where they could scream themselves hoarse, or shred their hands battering warded walls that would never yield, and slowly starve surrounded by silence. As if they, too, had been buried alive. But that wouldn’t happen here. Because something else hunted tonight.

When the trap sprang, it took place in an instant, almost too fast even for Mircea’s eyes to follow. The boy leapt, with a strangled cry of defeat and desperation, as if he’d been holding himself back but could bear it no longer; the girl turned with a cry of her own, lips parted, eyes wide and frightened; the darkness surged around them. And the next thing Mircea knew, the girl was alone once more, her breathing rapid, her lips trembling slightly, one pale hand gripping her throat. Until the darkness whispered something that even Mircea couldn’t hear, and she turned and stumbled away. Walking hurriedly, almost drunkenly, down the street, not a woman but a trap. One that had been sprung and was now being deployed once more. Mircea waited, unmoving, unbreathing, as the girl and the strange, dark shadow that followed her passed him by. And then he slipped out into the street, quiet as a breath of wind, and cloaked in a shadow of his own. And followed. Chapter One The truck was old army issue, built back when even regular cars resembled tanks, and it could easily eat a Hummer for lunch and spit out the bolts.

At least, it could have in its prime. But the years had not been kind, resulting in it landing at Stan’s Auto Emporium, a junkyard/car dealership in which it was often hard to tell the difference between the two types of merchandise. “It’s as dependable as they come, Dory,” Stan said, patting its rusty hood. He was a tiny man, four foot something, with the something being mostly chutzpah. “This truck is rugged.” I crossed my arms. “This truck passed ‘rugged’ a long time ago. This truck couldn’t find ‘rugged’ with a map. This truck is—what’s the phrase I’m looking for? A hunk of junk.” “A hunk of junk you can afford, sweetheart.

” He had a point. “How much?” “Two hundred.” “Two hundred? I could practically get a limo for that!” “But you don’t need a limo.” “I don’t need a hole in my wallet, either.” Stan crossed his arms and silently chewed tobacco at me. “I just need it for the night,” I told him. “I can have it back in the morning.” “Fine. That’ll be two hundred bucks.” Something hit the concrete below the cab with an ominous rattle.

Stan didn’t bat an eye. “Okay, return her in good condition and I’ll take ten off the price.” “Good condition? You mean something other than the way it is now?” But I forked over the cash. Normally, I’d have driven a harder bargain, but I’d promised to help a friend and I was running late. And nowhere else was going to have the kind of steel-gauge construction I needed. This thing might be a hunk of junk, but it was solid. Yet, fifteen minutes later, as my team filed in, it was also sagging and groaning, to the point that I feared for the tires—all six of them. It wasn’t hard to figure out why. I peered into the cavernous interior, and found it alarmingly full of troll. “Here’s the thing,” I told the nearest four-hundred-pound slab of muscle.

“We’re going to need room to transport the illegals, assuming we find any, not to mention the slavers. And I don’t think they’re gonna fit.” Nothing. I might as well have been talking to the brick wall the guy closely resembled. “I’m not saying that everybody needs to stay behind,” I offered, trying again. “Just, you know, two or three of you.” Nada. I waited another moment, because troll reasoning faculties can be a little slower than some and I thought maybe he was thinking it over. But no. The small, pebble-like eyes just looked at me, flat and uninterested in the yammering of the tiny human.

I sighed and went to find Olga. The leader of the posse currently straining the hell out of my truck was in her headquarters, which consisted of a combo beauty salon and what looked like the back room at Soldier of Fortune. It would have been an odd marriage in the human world, even in Brooklyn, but there weren’t many humans shopping at Olga’s. And the local community of Dark Fey seemed to like buying their ammo and getting their nails done all in one place. I found the lady herself pawing through a cardboard box of suspicious items in the storeroom. Like her squad of volunteers, she was of the troll persuasion, weighing in at something less than a quarter ton—but not a lot less. Not that she was fat; like most trolls, she was built of muscle and sinew and was hard as a rock, all eight-plus feet of her. I don’t know how she found clothes, but she usually managed to be more stylish than me. That had never been truer than tonight. For the evening’s sortie into New York’s magical underbelly, I had selected jeans, a black T-shirt, a black leather jacket, and a pair of ass-kicking boots.

It didn’t make me look tough—when you’re five foot two, dimpled and female, not a lot does—but it hid a lot of weaponry and didn’t attract attention. Olga did not appear to be worried about attention. Instead of well-worn denim, she was strutting her considerable stuff in pink satin clamdiggers, a matching sequined butterfly top—cut low to show an impressive amount of cleavage—and glossy four-inch heels. The heels were nude patent leather, possibly so they didn’t clash with the toenails poking out the end, which were the same fire-engine red as her hair. I regarded it enviously for a moment. It made the paltry blue streaks in my own short brown locks seem dull and lifeless by comparison. I needed a new color. Of course, for that, I also needed to get paid, which meant getting a move on. “You’re coming, right?” I asked, as she flipped over the OPEN sign. “Moment,” she said placidly.

“I just wondered because, you know.” I gestured at the acre of sequins. Olga continued sorting through the box. “Not that you don’t look good.” Zilch. I was starting to get a complex. “So, listen. We’ve got a problem with the truck.” She finally looked up. “It no go?” “No, it’s fine.

It’s just, uh, sort of packed.” “Everyone not fit?” “No, they’re in there. But I don’t think we’re going to be squeezing in any more.” “Slaves make their own way home, once we free them.” She held up a fistful of the type of charms her kind used to pass as more or less human. “Okay, but that still leaves the slavers.” That got me a long stare. “Olga,” I said, getting a sinking feeling. “I have to bring them back for questioning. We’ll never stop the selling of your people if we don’t know who’s behind it.

” “That vampire behind it,” she said, stuffing the charms into a sleek pink clutch. She was talking about a rat fink named Geminus. Until his recent, unlamented demise, he’d been a member of the Vampire Senate, the governing body for all North American vampires. But power, fame, and the idolization of millions hadn’t been good enough. He’d wanted to be rich as Croesus, too, and found that running the slave trade from Faerie fit the bill nicely. “He’s dead,” I pointed out. “And yet business goes on as usual.” “Not for long.” I sighed but didn’t bother pointing out that a handful of trolls and a lone dhampir were not likely to bring down a network Geminus had spent years building. Because that wasn’t our job.

All we were after was a new arrival who had failed to arrive. That sort of thing had always been a hazard for the Dark Fey who paid to be smuggled out of the almost-constant warfare in Faerie. Sometimes the smugglers took the money and then failed to show up, or left would-be immigrants stranded far from home and on the wrong side of the portal. Others did make it through, only to end up in the usual mess faced by any illegals—lousy jobs, worse pay, and no one to complain to. Although that still beat what was behind door number three. There are tons of old legends about the fey kidnapping humans. What nobody bothered to record is that we do it right back. A lot of the slavers are dark mages who promptly drain the magic—and therefore the life—out of anybody unlucky enough to fall into their hands. Others are more like subcontractors, finding specimens for sale into nefarious “professions” that usually end the same way. But lately, thanks to Geminus’ death and a simultaneous Senate crackdown on smuggling, the number of active portals was dwindling.

That would have been good news, except for the law of supply and demand, which ensured that the price for slaves was going nowhere but up. That had left the smugglers with the ironic problem of having to watch out for other crooks who were trying to steal their illegal cargo. Like the group that attacked a band of would-be immigrants last night. They’d been lucky enough to make off with an even dozen new slaves. They’d been unlucky enough to have one of them be Olga’s nephew. If she caught up with them, I strongly suspected there’d be a few less slavers to worry about. Which wouldn’t have concerned me except that my job these days—on the Senate’s anti-smuggling squad—was to make sure that that didn’t happen. Well, not before I had a chance to question them first. “You know,” I said idly, as Olga locked up, “a few deaths, even of scumbag slavers, won’t do much to stop the trade. But the info they might provide .

” Olga threw me a look, which was hard to see behind her flashy new Dolce & Gabbana shades. They would have seemed odd, because the sun was close to setting, but these shades weren’t for keeping light out so much as letting it in. They’d been modified to enhance all light in an area, because troll eyesight sucks even at the best of times. And I guess Olga wanted to see the leader’s face before she bit it off. “You stubborn little woman,” she told me. “It has been remarked.” She tilted her head. “You take him away, how I know he dead?” “Because the Senate isn’t known for compassion?” She just looked at me. Olga didn’t have a lot of faith in the Vampire Senate. Olga knew that they only cared about the smugglers because of the weapons they also brought in, most of which went to the Senate’s enemies.

Olga knew nobody gave a shit about the Dark Fey, which was why they had to look out for themselves. “And because I’ll take care of it,” I added. “You kill?” “It’s what I do.” She thought this over while I sorted through the pastry box she’d brought for the boys. Tonight was muffins, although I couldn’t tell what kind. “What are these?” “Lemon.” I sniffed one. Human food was still a new experience for the fey, who tended to combine things in odd ways. I took a bite. “And these green things?” “Asparagus.

” That’s what I’d thought. We reached the truck and Olga climbed in, making the struts groan and drop another inch. I donated the muffins to the boys in back and turned to follow suit. And found a chest in the way. It was a nice chest, wearing a blue knit pullover in some kind of thin material that outlined hard pecs and a washboard stomach. It was attached to an even nicer pair of denim-covered thighs and a butt that ought to be hanging in a museum somewhere. It even smelled good—a rich, sweet, decadent scent that always reminded me of butterscotch. The face topping the whole mountain of awesome was pretty nice, too. Even crowned by a mass of auburn, Breck-girl hair pulled back from a manly jaw by an understated tortoiseshell clip. And even if it was currently regarding me sardonically.

“What are you doing here?” I asked. That got me a raised eyebrow. “Aren’t you glad to see me?” I guess so, since my nipples just got hard, I didn’t say, because his ego was big enough as it was. “It’s just a little unexpected.” “I gathered that.” Narrowed blue eyes took in the straining truck. “Am I interrupting something?” “Just . going out with some friends.” “Indeed. That is reassuring.

For a moment, I thought you might be planning to contravene doctor’s orders.” Yeah, I was busted. “We’re going to see the fights,” I said, hoping he somehow hadn’t noticed the army-issue truck, the armed-to-the-teeth posse, and the half ton of illegal weaponry I had hidden around my outfit. An eyebrow raised. Well, shit. “I enjoy a good fight,” Louis-Cesare said, in what had to be the understatement of the century. “I’ll come along. Consider it a date.” “A date, huh?” I looked him over. “If I buy you a popcorn, do I get to have my way with you later?” He took a step, and I suddenly found myself trapped between hard steel and harder vampire.

“How big of a popcorn?” “I don’t know. What am I getting in return?” He bent over and whispered something in my ear. I swallowed. “We’ll see if they have a bucket.” — They didn’t have a bucket. They did have beer, overpriced and in tiny paper cups, sold by enterprising types out of a repurposed ice cream van that prowled up and down the ridiculously long line to get in. I wouldn’t have plunked down the cash for what was essentially highway robbery, but I had my evening ahead to think about. And I wanted to see what the so-cultured Louis-Cesare would do with a half-frozen beer. Because the truck’s freezers had not been repurposed along with the rest of it, leaving us with what amounted to beer Popsicles. Not that I was complaining.

Until I ran into something. I’d been distracted wondering how the gargoyle-like things driving the truck were managing to reach the pedals, since they were maybe toddler height, when I suddenly stopped moving. The obstacle in my way was skin warm, although it felt more like stone. And looked like it, too, when I turned my head to see so many muscles that some had given up trying to find an appropriate spot and were just bulging out haphazardly, wherever they could find room. The living boulder regarded me for a second, and the squinty little eyes got squintier. “No,” he rumbled. “No what?” The rocklike dome, which lacked any sort of hair except for a couple robust tufts coming out of the ears, nodded at a nearby sign. NO WEPINS, it informed me, in dripping acid green spray paint. Okay, no. “They have lockers,” Louis-Cesare murmured.

This was true. A stoner with a bad case of Muppet hair was sitting cross-legged on the dirt beside the sign, in front of a row of lockers. They looked like they’d been ripped wholesale off an elementary school wall, complete with bits of happy ducky wallpaper still clinging to the edges. And then piled haphazardly against a sagging chain-link fence, without any effort to secure them to anything. Meanwhile, their only guardian’s eyes were starting to cross from a joint the size of a cigar that he was munching on, Churchill-style. “You have got to be kidding me,” I said. “Move,” the boulder rumbled, when I just stood there. “Then let me in.” “Then lose the hardware.” “You just let her in.

” I nodded at a tall, model-pretty chick in a leather catsuit, with bright purple hair, carmine lipstick, and a half ton of lethal accessories. She disappeared through a gate in the chain-link and immediately flickered out of view, masked by whatever glamourie was being used to hide the night’s festivities. The spell wasn’t perfect; every so often it let out a split second of raucous music, or a glimpse of smoky darkness lit by odd smears of light. But mostly it held. Meaning that the only thing I could see past the sagging fence was an overgrown lot strewn with grimy police tape, some pools of water from this afternoon’s downpour, and the fire-gutted building that had brought us all here. Fly-by-night pop-up events like this preferred disaster areas, because any damage could be written off as part of the previous catastrophe. But this one was a little more catastrophic looking than usual. The sun was setting, making the old brick building appear to still be on fire, with the last rays boiling in broken, smoke-clouded glass. Glass that looked a lot like jagged teeth, framing the solid black maws of burnt-out windows, which could be hiding anything, anything at all.

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