―The wargs must die.ǁ Sin paced back and forth in the master chamber of her assassin den, her mind working overtime to process Bantazar‘s words. The Assassin Guild‘s messenger stood near the cold fire pit, outstretched hand holding a parchment scroll. Sin snatched it from the Neethul male, who must stand seven feet tall even without the platform Goth boots he wore. With them, he was at least two-and-a-half feet taller than she was. Still, the Guild‘s lackey didn‘t intimidate her. She‘d killed much larger demons than him. ―Eight of them?ǁ Sin asked. ―Eight werewolves at once?ǁ He nodded, his shoulder-length, snowy hair catching on his pointed ears. The Neethul were— externally, anyway—a beautiful race, elven in appearance. ―An entire pack.ǁ Which included a two-year-old cub. She cast a covert glance at the male standing in the corner, saturated in shadow and silence. Lycus, her only warg assassin, might as well have been a stone statue. The news that the contract would end the lives of several of his own people didn‘t faze him at all.
Not that she‘d expected it to. He was a professional. Cold, efficient, and ruthless. Biting back a curse, Sin stopped pacing. She couldn‘t afford to show nerves or reluctance. The Guild was watching her closely for signs of weakness, would seize any excuse to crush her and take her assassins for themselves. She had to be more ruthless than ever right now, especially since she‘d already declined to bid on nearly a dozen contracts, and she‘d only been an assassin master for three weeks. She scanned the details scrawled on the parchment in Sheoulic. ―Who else has this job been presented to?ǁ ―You know I can‘t tell you that.ǁ Bantazar‘s ruby lips peeled back in a lecherous smile.
―But if you use some of your succubus talents on me, I might let some names slip in a moment of passion.ǁ Sad as it was, she was actually tempted to screw the bastard if it would get her the information she needed. She had to offer on this job, but she needed to ensure she overbid and wouldn‘t win the contract. Knowing who else was bidding would give her an edge. ―I‘d tell you to go to hell, Bantazar, but no doubt you own a large chunk of it.ǁ The Neethul were wealthy slave traders whose holdings included massive sections of Sheoul, and as a minor assassin master, Bantazar was definitely on the same path. ―Deth would have taken me up on the offer,ǁ he purred. ―I wouldn‘t brag about that.ǁ She studied the ring on her left index finger that used to belong to her dead boss. ―Deth would have screwed a spiny hellrat if he could catch one.
ǁ Bantazar laughed as he moved toward her, sinuous as a serpent. ―Your assassin slaves grow restless, half-breed. Are your human morals interfering with your ability to manage them?ǁ She snorted. ―I have no morals.ǁ Maybe she‘d started out with them, back before she found out she was a demon, but all the things she‘d done in her life, both forced and of her own free will, had chipped away at her heart and soul, and there wasn‘t a lot left. At least, there hadn‘t been until she‘d started a plague that was killing werewolves all over the globe. Something about that action had scraped her emotions raw, exposing a nugget of regret that sat inside her like a pebble in a shoe. And now there‘d been a mysterious increase in the number of hits put out on werewolves—wargs, as they liked to be called—and she was having a hard time bidding on contracts that would set her assassins against them. She was already killing them by the dozens, without ever having touched them. Absently, she rubbed her right arm, her palm registering the difference in temperature between her bare skin and the sharp lines of the tattoo that had appeared when she was twenty.
The dermoire , a paternal history of her demon heritage, had come with a raging libido and the ability to infect anyone she touched with a disease that killed within minutes. As sucky as that was, her twin brother, Lore, had gotten off much worse. She could at least control her ―gift.ǁ He couldn‘t touch anyone but his siblings and mate without snuffing them. ―Well?ǁ Bantazar cracked his knuckles, an annoying sound that echoed off the chamber‘s smooth stone walls. ―Will you bid, or will you let your slaves mutiny?ǁ Thanks to the bond that connected her to her assassin slaves through the assassin-master ring, they couldn‘t raise a hand against her—not so long as she remained in the den or at assassin Guild headquarters, or in a place protected from violence, like Underworld General. But they could attack her anywhere else in Sheoul or aboveground, in the human realm—which was why assassin masters rarely left their dens. For the millionth time since she had accepted the position of assassin master, she cursed her situation. She hadn‘t wanted it, but she would never let her brother know that she‘d taken it to prevent his angelic mate from being forced into the job Idess had won by killing Detharu. Idess would have lost her soul over this job, and since Sin figured she‘d already lost hers… Yeah.
No big deal. Snagging a double-ended penknife from the hip pocket of her leather pants, she scrawled an absurdly high monetary figure on the parchment. She signed, and then flipped the pen over and sliced her thumb with the sharp blade. A drop of blood splashed onto the page, and instantly, red, pulsing veins sprouted from the fluid and wove their way through the document. Within seconds, the parchment had gone from a crisp, stiff square of dried skin to a pliable, warm scrap of flesh that would become a binding contract if the individual behind it accepted her bid. Disgusted, Sin handed the thing back to the Neethul, her stomach churning as he sauntered to the exit. ―That was hard for you,ǁ Lycus said, after the huge door slammed shut. From behind her, his hands came down on her shoulders, his fingers kneading, but his touch made her tense up only more. ―Take me up on my offer. Mate with me.
We‘ll rule the den together.ǁ ―Are you deaf, or just really stupid?ǁ Not once since taking this job had she committed violence against one of her underlings, but she really was tempted to turn around and introduce her knee to his balls. ―How many times do I have to say no?ǁ His lips brushed the top of her right ear. ―I can say no, as well.ǁ She stiffened. ―Blackmail, Lycus?ǁ He was one of her few, precious bedmates now; since becoming master of the den, most of her assassins, the ones who had shared her bed for years, had become wary or afraid of her. Although it was within her rights to force them to service her, she would never do so. Lycus allowed her full use of his body, but it wasn‘t because he knew that she‘d die without sex. He wanted her job, wanted her as his mate so he could assume shared control over the den. But as nice as it would be to shove off the hard decisions on someone else, she couldn‘t give Lycus what he wanted.
She could never, ever be someone‘s mate. Could never belong to anyone again. Funny how she‘d considered sleeping with Bantazar for information, but she had issues with bonding with a male in order to pass off distasteful but necessary duties that kept the den running and her assassins happy. Something was going to have to give soon. So, as she shoved Lycus away, she did something she hadn‘t done since she found out she was a demon. She prayed. One “There are nights when the wolves are silent and only the moon howls.” —George Carlin ―You damned pire motherfucker !ǁ Con barked out a laugh at Luc‘s shouted insult, even as he hit the snow hard enough to shatter a human man‘s thigh bones. But Con was a dhampire, a rare cross between a werewolf and a vampire, and he was made of stronger stuff. As a werewolf, Luc was equally strong, but he wasn‘t nearly as fast, as Con had proven by hot-loading out of the helicopter before Luc had even tugged his ski goggles down over his eyes.
Con hopped his skis twice to pull himself out of the snowpack that still glazed the peaks of the Swiss Alps, and then he was zigzagging down the mountain. The sky was clear and blue, and here above the timberline, the silence was broken only by the soft whoop-whoop of the helo blades and the swish of his Rossignols as they cut the fresh powder. The lulling quiet lasted only until Luc hit the snow and hurled insults at Con again. The helo sounds faded as the pilot, who had called them all kinds of insane but had agreed—for quadruple his usual fee for heli-skiing—to bring them up higher on the mountain, hauled ass out of there. The dude had nearly stroked out when Con told him to hover at thirty feet instead of the inches he normally held at when letting human skiers off the bird. But no, Con didn‘t do anything the easy way, or even the same way twice. The last time he and Luc had heli-skied, the drop had been shorter. And the risk of avalanche had been far, far less. The powder was thick on top of an unstable snowpack, the slope steep, and the effort it took for Con to navigate it all would have him trembling with exhaustion by the time they reached the Harrowgate in the valley miles below. Ahead, the mountain face became a sheer cliff, and he leaped, catching air under his skis.
The ground was impossibly far beneath him and scattered with boulders, but the wind was in his face, the scent of pine was in his lungs, and adrenaline was pumping hotly through his body. This was the best way to live—or die, depending on how he landed. Sometimes, he didn‘t really care either way. He came down hard in an explosion of snow and nearly took a header, but he caught himself just before he hit a patch of wind-loaded crust that would have sent him flying. Behind him, he heard Luc‘s skis scratching out turns… and then came the sounds of something more ominous. Con turned in time to see Luc leap off a snowcapped boulder, but behind him, a giant sheet of snow had begun to crack and slide, an avalanche being born. ―Luc!ǁ Heart pounding painfully against his ribs, Con tucked and pointed his skis down the hill, angled toward Luc and a massive boulder stabbing out of the side of the mountain. Luc couldn‘t see the potential shelter, was too close to the leading edge of the slab of white death coming at him. Luc, never one for delicate maneuvers anyway, left finesse behind as he shot straight down the slope, barreling through drifts like an oil tanker through thirty-foot seas, but shit, he wasn‘t going to make it. The avalanche behind him was gaining, and though Con could veer to the left and avoid it, he headed straight into its path.
The wind seared his face as he gained speed, getting closer to Luc… closer to the rock… closer to the fucking wall of ice and snow. They had one shot at this, and his mind shut down, taking him to a place of calm as he hit Luc at the last second, knocking them both off their feet and into the boulder as the monster wave of snow rolled over them. Con landed on top of Luc, gripped his shoulders hard as he turned his face away from the assault of frozen chunks that broke apart against the rock. The noise was deafening, the rumble so fierce that it vibrated Con‘s body and seemed to shock his heart into a new, frenzied rhythm. Sixty seconds later, he lifted his head. Excellent. They were still alive. ―Get the hell off me, you damned pervert,ǁ Luc muttered. Con eased himself off the werewolf and brushed snow out of the gap between his jacket and his neck. ―Nice way to thank a guy who saved your miserable life.
ǁ Luc sat up and patted himself down, as if checking to see whether he was missing any parts. ―Fuck,ǁ he breathed. ―This means I owe you.ǁ ―Damned straight.ǁ Con lifted his leg and discovered that one boot had snapped out of its binding, but thankfully, he had a ski leash, so the ski hadn‘t gone anywhere. ―I can‘t wait to cash in.ǁ ―You‘d better not make me do something stupid. Like run with the bulls.ǁ Luc dug inside one of his jacket pockets and pulled out a flask. ―Naked.
ǁ Con grimaced. ―Trust me, I have no desire to see your pale, bare ass.ǁ He snatched the flask from Luc and took a swig, relishing the burn of the rum as it slid down his throat. ―But I wouldn‘t mind seeing you trampled by bulls. You‘re an asshole.ǁ ―Ditto.ǁ Luc grabbed the liquor away and took a deep pull. ―You ready to go?ǁ Con snapped his boot into the binding. ―Yep.ǁ ―What are we gonna do after this?ǁ A flare of regret jerked in Con‘s gut.
Eidolon had sent all warg hospital employees into isolation to keep them from contracting the virus that was attacking the werewolf population, and Luc was going stir-crazy. Though Con and Luc had never been friends, exactly—they‘d gotten their introduction in a bar fight with each other—they were paramedic partners and they hung out together occasionally, mainly to see who could beat who at whatever they did. But ever since Luc had gone into isolation, he‘d been even more eager to do crazy shit. Con was always game, but he did have a job, and he was working more than ever to make up for Luc‘s absence. ―I gotta work. But we‘ll go skydiving next week.ǁ Luc nodded, and though his expression was as stony as ever, Con didn‘t miss the flash of disappointment in the guy‘s dark hazel eyes. ―When‘s the last time you got laid? When you were in Egypt? That Guardian chick?ǁ Con shoved to his feet. ―You need a woman.ǁ Luc snorted.
―Women are a pain in the ass,ǁ he said, and wasn‘t that the truth. In fact, the biggest pain in the ass female he‘d ever met was responsible for the very epidemic that was killing wargs. And Doc E had requested—well, ordered—a meeting with Con this afternoon, and he had a sickening feeling that the pain in the ass female, aka Sin, was going to be there. Fuck. Once more, Con grabbed the flask from Luc, put it to his lips, and finished it off. Then he punched down the mountain. Oh, yeah. Rum and adrenaline mixed well. Much, much better than he and Sin ever would. Sin had been summoned.
Here she was, the freaking head of an assassin den, master of more than three dozen highly skilled killers, and she‘d been summoned like some lowlife imp to an audience with her brother. The great demon doctor. She‘d already given him her blood, her DNA, her pee, her spinal fluid… whatever samples the doctor wanted for his research, she‘d handed over. Sin was, after all, responsible for the disease that was wiping out the werewolf race. What a claim to fame. A couple of days ago, she‘d even come into Underworld General to channel her power into an infected male in an attempt to kill the virus, but if anything, she‘d only accelerated its spread. And she hadn‘t thought it could get any worse. Sin muttered to herself as she traversed UG‘s dark hallways on the way to Eidolon‘s office. Her boots clacked on black stone floors that were unusually in need of a good sweeping, and the echo bounced in eerie vibrations off the gray walls. She trailed a finger over the writing on said walls— protective antiviolence spells scrawled in blood.
She had to give credit to her brothers for that; the hospital serviced nearly all species of demons, many of which were mortal enemies. She rounded a corner to enter the administrative area, only to curse fiercely. Wraith, the only one of her four brothers with blond hair and blue eyes—neither of which were original parts—stood in the doorway as though he‘d been waiting for her. His arms were folded over his broad chest, the dermoire on his right arm blending in with his T-shirt‘s Celtic print—Celtic print that was cleverly designed to form the words ―Fuck off.ǁ ―Well, if it isn‘t Typhoid Mary.ǁ ―Read your shirt.ǁ She pushed past him to enter the office, missing a step when she saw not only Eidolon, MD, but also Conall, SOB. Great. When she‘d last seen the vampire-werewolf a few weeks ago, they‘d parted on shitty terms. He‘d assumed the worst of her, threatened her, had been an utterly unlikable ass.
Oh, sure, she‘d led him to believe she‘d intentionally started the epidemic that was killing his warg relatives, but if he hadn‘t been such a jerk, she might have told him the truth. Not that the truth was much better. ―Sin.ǁ Eidolon remained at his desk, his espresso eyes bloodshot and framed by dark circles. His short, nearly black hair was mussed, probably from repeated rakes of his fingers. He pretty much looked like hell itself had beaten the crap out of him. ―Sit.ǁ The command ruffled her feathers, but she hooked a chair with her foot, yanked it as far from Conall as possible, and planted her ass. ―What now? I don‘t have any blood left, and if you think you‘re getting a stool sample, you can—ǁ ―I don‘t need a stool sample,ǁ Eidolon interrupted. ―I need your help.
ǁ She felt Con‘s silver eyes boring into her like drill bits, and to her annoyance, her body flushed with warmth as though remembering another drilling he‘d given her. That was so not happening again. ―Look, you should know that the Assassin Guild has been flooded with requests for hits on wargs. I don‘t know if the sudden surge is related, but I figured I‘d tell you.ǁ Wraith‘s sharp gaze cut to Eidolon. ―I‘ve heard the same thing. Word on the street is that some of the other were-species are worried that the wolves will transmit the disease to them, so they‘re being a little… proactive.ǁ Both Eidolon and Con uttered the same raw curse. Sin settled back in her chair and forced herself to stay calm, when all she wanted to do was scream at this disaster she‘d created. ―You said you needed my help.
What kind?ǁ Eidolon reached for the water bottle on his desk and took a swig before speaking. ―Thanks to Harrowgates and the ability to travel instantaneously, the virus has now made its way to every continent except Antarctica. The death toll is climbing. The disease has a one hundred percent mortality rate, a practically nonexistent incubation period, and no victim has lived longer than seventy-two hours after infection. Basically, by the time a patient arrives, we don‘t have a lot of time for treatment.ǁ Jesus. It was worse than she‘d thought. ―Haven‘t you made any progress at all?ǁ ―A little.ǁ Leather squeaked as Eidolon leaned back in his chair. ―We‘ve discovered a half-dozen wargs who were exposed but didn‘t contract the infection.
The R-XR is trying to determine what makes them immune.ǁ The U.S. Army‘s paranormal unit was involved now? And Eidolon was working with them? She‘d known that their brother Shade‘s mate, Runa, used to be a member, and that Runa‘s brother Arik still was, but holy crap —it just didn‘t feel right for the government to be involved in any way with Underworld General. Especially not a military unit that killed, captured, and experimented on demons. Then again, UG had several strong ties to The Aegis, a civilian demon-slaying organization—hell, Eidolon was even mated to an Aegis Guardian—and so far, the association had benefitted both UG and The Aegis. ―So I‘m here, why? Are you in need of assassination services, or what?ǁ She threw that out just to get a reaction from her uptight, always-in-control brother, but to her surprise, it was Con who made the noise. ―You‘re here because wargs are dying, and it‘s your fault,ǁ he growled, a hint of an odd British-ish accent tweaking his words. It happened when he got all pissy, and it was strangely… hot. But she still didn‘t like him, and she wrenched her head around to peg him with a glare.
Which might have been a good plan if he hadn‘t looked so damned good in his black paramedic uniform, which set off his deeply tanned skin and sun-streaked blond hair so beautifully. Toss in those shimmering silver eyes, and there was no glaring at him. Only admiring. ―Why are you even here?ǁ she snapped, more irritated by her reaction to him than anything. ―I didn‘t think the disease affected dhampires.ǁ ―I‘m on the Warg Council. I‘m keeping them informed.ǁ ―Well, good for you.ǁ