There's no warning, no tell-tale spark of light between the prongs as I jam the taser directly above his barely-beating heart. Zan's black eyes widen behind his mask as elephant-ending energy thunders through him. I can feel it, faintly, through the seal. Angry hornets in my brain. 

 

He never makes a sound, never tries to stop me. It's over too quickly. Zan collapses, falling away from my hand. Human bodies would still be twitching, even in death, after a shock like that. The way his body flops down reveals him for what he is. A corpse. 

 

Tossing my now useless phone on the table, I roll Zan's unconscious body so it won't be visible from the entrance. I'm still bent over it when the door cracks open. I surge up into a defensive posture, but relax as Robert slips through. He's changed out of Zan's bondage uniform into a black tee and jeans. 

 

Rich men prefer to have the best of everything, and that includes bodyguards. It's not uncommon in the upper class to hire undead muscle. When a certain senator had begged us to save his missing son, he'd promised us Robert as our mole. 

 

"Everything green?" I ask, as he hands me a black duffle bag.

 

The burly vampire nods. "The blood whores should notice the fire shortly."

 

"We have new orders," I say, rummaging in the bag. "Bring me Duncan. Quickly, before the smoke is noticeable."

 

Robert never asks how I had intercepted these supposed orders, just nods and leaves the room. Gotta love a leech who can take direction.

 

In the duffle I find a small metal case, the kind used for syringes. Inside are several needles filled with pig's blood. I spin one up into my hand, and take up position by the door. Just as I settle into place the door opens for Duncan to glide inside. Before he can react, I stab the needle in his neck and thumb the plunger down.

 

He gags as the animal blood hits his system, arms whirling. I dance out of reach as Robert swings the door closed. Duncan's flailing snaps the heel of one of his stilettos, and down he goes. To his credit he keeps trying, stomach-crawling away as the pig blood poisons his animating force.

 

"He'll crap out soon," I tell Robert. "There are chains strong enough to hold him attached to the bed."  

 

While Robert secures the vila, I stuff my hand back in the duffle. I happy-sigh when my fist closes around the loop-shaped grip of a sword. 

 

"Come here, Baby," I can't help cooing. 

 

Baby is a falcata, the traditional sword of the Saint James line. She's similar to a saber, but with the cutting edge on the inside. The gently curving blade caves in near the hilt, but as she arcs out becomes thicker, more convex at the point. She's hefty like an axe, but with the reach of a sword. Perfect for taking heads.  

 

But my pride and joy isn't what I need just now. Setting Baby carefully aside, I pull out an extra charging pack for my taser case. Snatching up my phone, I quickly switch out the dead battery. 

 

While I wait for it boot up, I tug down the ridiculous sandals and pull off the golden mask. The panties come off with a sharp tug, and I wipe off as much of Zan's come as I can with them. All of my clothes are still on the table where Zan had left them. As I throw back on my skeleton-covered leathers, any lingering vestiges of Ryan's milquetoast personality fall away. Shedding a persona is a little like surfacing after a deep dive, and reassuming my real self is that desperate pull of oxygen. 

 

Ping! My phone is live again.

 

"Finally," I mutter, thumbing open the surveillance app. My finger-bone gloves are designed for touch screen interface.

 

Zan had told me my phone wouldn't work in the club, but he had no way of knowing we'd hacked his wi-fi days ago. Thanks to my partner Eric's technical skill, all the camera feeds in the club pop up in little boxes on my screen. Only the Gold and Silver rooms are spared. It amuses me that Tyler's Bronze Room does have cameras. Excepting the humans cleaning downstairs, and the barely-living buffet in the Red Room, everyone is waiting for Zan in the White Room. All the guards, all of Duncan's vila, even Tyler's geek squad, everyone is there. Only one is unaccounted for.

 

"Selda's not onscreen," I say. "She must still be in her room."

 

"That's not unusual," Robert says, standing up from Duncan's bound form. "Geoff told me she always shows up to the briefing last."

 

"Perfect," I say. "While you evac the humans, I'll clear the White Room."  

 

I return to my bag of tricks. Inside an internal zipper pocket is a thin metal tube, a gas atomizer. I had always thought it looked like a perfume sampler. I make sure my jacket is zipped all the way up. No skin is exposed apart from my face. There's a sleek, specially designed gas mask in the bag for that. My uncle hadn't been able to resist making it match my leathers. The eye sockets and the breathing apparatus on the mouth are black, but the rest is skull-white.

 

Sword strapped to my back, I slip phone and atomizer in my pocket, and tuck the mask against my leg. "You okay for go?"

 

Robert nods at Zan. "What about him?"

 

"Be out for hours," I say. "Can't kill him yet, in case any of his fledges are still tied to him."

 

With Zan out of commission, and Duncan bound and paralyzed, Robert and I move out onto the balcony. The saints must have been smiling on us because at that moment a panicked blood whore bursts out of the men's room.

 

"Fire!" he shouts. "There's a fire in there!"

 

Robert immediately takes charge, voice booming from the balcony. "All of you evacuate! I'll inform your masters."

 

None of them question it, not even the black masks. Each of them is so used to following a vampire's orders they head to the exit without a second thought. Robert follows them, unlocking the door so they can get out. He locks it again behind them. I wonder if any of them even notice. 

 

Through it all the Silver Room stays closed. There's no sign of Selda. Unsurprising, given the sound proofing, but we can't afford any mistakes.  

 

"Watch out for her," I call to Robert, tossing my chin toward the Silver Room.

 

Robert nods, still coming up the stairs. I wait for him to take up a crotch-cupping bodyguard pose outside Selda's door before I make my move.

 

My eyes flicker up to the cameras as I head to the White Room. I know Eric's watching, even as he's already on his way. I hold up the atomizer so he would be able to see it. Pausing at the door, I slip my gas mask on. The eyes are wide, and despite their color they don't obscure my vision at all. 

 

I'm not afraid of walking into this room full of vampires. Their strength is only useful if they can touch me, and speed is pointless with nowhere to run. Pulling the atomizer from my pocket, I crack the door to the White Room just enough to slip inside. 

 

"What the fuck?" a guard growls, rising to his feet. 

 

It's already too late for them. Dimly, I hear the heavy click as the door's electronic lock sinks home. Activating the atomizer, I toss it toward the center of the room. The highly pressurized vanadium gas inside of it is so concentrated it's almost instantly fatal to any vampire in close range. In a small conference room like this they'll probably all be dead in moments. But slayers don't survive on probably.

 

Baby's blade sings as I draw her free, tolling like a bell above a tomb. 

 

My awareness expands, heightens, battle ready. Fighting a vampire is like avoiding a car crash. There's only an instant to react…but that's also true for the driver. 

 

The guard on his feet races toward me, to escape the gas, or to head for the door. At the last second I pivot to take his head from behind, swinging my sword with his motion rather than against it. His blood hasn't even finished fading from its stolen human-red to the true black of vampire ichor before I'm moving again. 

 

A Columbine in white streaks toward me through the air, but I'm more than ready for such an old trick. I don't dodge, I jump. With a swing of my sword, her chest splays open like a fish. Even as I'm falling, I make sure to cut deep enough to slice her heart fully in half. Her body crashes into the wall.

 

Duncan's boyfriend, still shirtless and barefoot, lunges at me as I touch down. I let him hit me, already tipping backward to avoid being insect-smeared across the floor. Rolling under the force, I end up on top, straddling his chest. Baby severs his head even as I'm flowing to my feet.

 

Surprisingly, it's foppish Tyler in his garish coppery gear that almost gets me. He picks up the conference table and flings it across the room. I have to hit the deck again to avoid it, somersaulting through the blood on the floor. I use the motion to come up in front of him, stabbing him right through the heart. He gags, black spattering from his mouth. Apparently he isn't old enough to survive a direct hit, or maybe he's already poisoned. I let his body fall.

 

Another guard is crawling to the door, hand over his nose and mouth in futility. Vanadium is like acid to his kind, he doesn't actually need to breathe it in. Stepping over him, I absently flick my sword down through his neck as I go.

 

The gas is doing its necessary work. Those closest to it, mostly Columbines and tech guys, have already fallen or on their knees coughing up blood. Their skin is bubbling, waxlike, while they howl and scream. All I hear is the steady rhythm of my breathing, unnaturally loud through the mouth piece of the mask.

 

One by one the few not felled by the gas meet my Baby's steel kiss. Conserving my motion, I duck, weave, step away at the last minute, doing what hunters do. Unnatural powers always fail in the face of simple human ingenuity.

 

As the gas eddies, I slide my eyes across the room, sword still at guard. But there's no red to be seen. Every corpse is seeping black. The natural order has been restored. I take a few minutes to sever heads, just to be sure.

 

With all the gas in the room I'm not sure if Eric can see me through the cameras, so I whip out my phone and text the all clear. The lock clicks open.

 

The gas hisses like a vacuum seal as I step back onto the balcony. Robert's passive eyes sweep over my bloodstained form. If he has any reaction to the slaughter of his own kind he keeps it in. 

 

I can hear pounding on the door downstairs. No doubt the humans have sensed their severed links. But the door holds. The smoke is obvious now, too, visibly billowing out of the bathroom. It looks worse than it is. Apart from the garbage can the fire was made in, there's nothing in a room of tile and glass that's terribly flammable. We need to act before Selda smells the smoke. 

 

Tossing off my gas mask, I rejoin Robert at Selda's door. "You ready?"

 

"Selda is older than me," he says. "I may not be able to subdue her."

 

"That's why I brought this." I toss him my phone. "You activate the taser with the two buttons on either side, simultaneously." 

 

"This will work on her?" he asks.

 

"In two point five," I say.

 

I step to the side, out of sight. Robert raps his knuckles against the door. For a moment nothing happens, so he knocks again.

 

Selda finally opens the door, her arrogant drawl obvious. "So Zan sends his newest sycophant—"

 

Bleary with motion, Robert thrusts his arm forward. But Selda isn't as easily caught as Zan was, falling back. Robert has no choice to but to force his way in, and I'm right behind. 

 

In a flash, I take in the whole scene. Selda's room is similar to Zan's, aside from the obvious color scheme differences, with accents in soft gray wood instead of black metal. Senator McConnell's boy is right where she's—apparently—left him, kneeling beside the bed, staring at the floor. He hasn't even moved a muscle at the commotion, probably can't. Selda's death will free him.

 

Robert has managed to push her into the middle of the room, but she's centuries stronger than him. With one hand she holds my taser phone at bay, and with the other she grasps his neck and flings him away. He hits the wall with stunning force, even for a vampire. 

 

Her eyes narrow as she notices me. Something flashes in her eyes as I come toward her, sword at the ready. I'm the only thing in the way of her still-open door. With my training I have all the time in the world to notice the way her body shifts, getting ready to bolt. But not in my direction.

 

She speeds across the room to grab the senator's son by the throat. She lifts him in the air as much as her small frame will allow. Sputtering and gasping, his hands hang loose at his sides. He doesn't scramble at this throat, not even out of reflex. All he would have to do is get his feet under him, he's so much taller than she is, but he doesn't even try.

 

"Take one step and he dies." Her voice is steady, eyes fixed on me. Not a single platinum hair is out of place. 

 

"Kill him," I say, knowing my calm pulse and even breathing won't give me away. I step deliberately forward. "He means nothing to me."   

 

"No?" Her fingers tighten around his throat.

 

"Wait!" Naturally, Robert recovers his senses at just that moment.

 

"So you are here for the boy." Selda smiles. "No doubt his father hired you?"

 

I stay silent, resisting the urge to glare in Robert's direction.

 

"So it's true; even angels fall," she drawls. "In the Old World, the Masters spoke in whispers of a saint's sickle-sword. How fitting your kind would be nothing more than common mercenaries in this savage country, Ryan. Oh, but of course that isn't your true name…"

 

"You'll never know it," I say.

 

"But Zan should have," she muses, like she's pondering out loud. "You were sealed to him. How did he not see into your mind?"

 

"Drop the kid," I say, though he's probably older than me.

 

"Drop your sword, or he dies," she counters, voice serenely unbothered.

 

"This is not a negotiation," I say. "If he dies, you die. You have no leverage."

 

"Strangely, I have the suspicion you'll kill me regardless," she replies. "As no doubt you've already done to the rest of my Zan's doomed experiment."

 

"Release the boy," I tell her again.

 

"Christopher," she says, relaxing her grip just enough for him to speak. "Do you want to go with them?"

 

"No, mistress," he gasps.

 

"There, you see?" She flops a hand, all what can you do? "He doesn't wish to leave with you."

 

"An enthralled human will say anything," I say.

 

"Enthralled?" Her smile goes low and knowing. "Is that what McConnell told you? I haven't trapped his son. Why would I? Pets beg for the honor of my service."

 

My eyes shoot to Robert, who won't meet my gaze, before training back to Selda's growing smirk.

 

"You don't believe me." With her free hand she strips Christopher's plain button-down. "Do you see a scar, hunter?"

 

"You can thrall a human without a seal." I know this has to stop. No good comes from bantering in battle. "It proves nothing." 

 

"Young McConnell is like all the humans of the club, here because he wishes to be," she says, smoothing a hand down her silver dress. "Christopher finds peace of mind in obedience. All humans do in the end."

 

"Release him," I say, feeling the hair rise on the back of my neck. "It's the only way you have a prayer."

 

"Don't you know?" As she stares me dead in the eye I know what's about to happen. "We aren't the praying kind."

 

Robert blurs away from the wall, but even with his preternatural privileges he can't stop her. I charge forward, hopeless, knowing I'll be too late. With a vicious flick of her wrist, Christopher's neck twists. She hurls his body at Robert, who goes down trying to catch it. Then she comes straight on for me.

 

It's her first mistake. Hunters let their prey come to them. Just as she's about to plow through me, I spin around, suddenly behind her. Vanadium trumps vampire, and her head sails through the air. Selda's body slides across the floor beneath her own momentum. Her blood's all turned black by the time I lower my sword. 

 

"He's dead," Robert says dully, crouched over the body. 

 

"Saints are slayers, not saviors." My voice is calm as I approach. "I was against this mission, if you'll recall."  

 

"What am I supposed to tell McConnell?" he asks, leaping to his feet. "We had a deal—"

 

I stab him through the heart. "I don't make deals with leeches."

 

He slides off my sword, but for the first time tonight red blood stains my blade. Dear old Robert can survive a chest wound. Interesting. 

 

Looking down at the three bodies, I sigh. "Perfect."

 

As the stillness of battle recedes from my mind, concern for the future creeps into its place. The Patriarchs were counting on Senator McConnell's good will to keep their secrets in Congress. What will happen now that we couldn't save his son?

 

More immediately, once Eric gets here we'll have to bag up all the bodies in the White Room for burning. Then there's the matter of any poor soul that might be saved from the Red Room. I doubt there will be many. At least my uncle will delight in having a vila to study. 

 

I leave the bodies where they lie, and wander back onto the smokey balcony. At least one thing will go right today. In the Gold Room Baby's tender mercy separates Zan's head from his shoulders with no effort. A slight sting tingles on my neck as the seal unties. Black ichor weeps from the wound, my body expelling Zan's pheromones, but I pay it no mind. In just a day or two there will be no trace of his mark on me, not even a scar.

 

Sirens sound, thunderous in the empty club, as the door downstairs bursts open. My backup, dressed as firemen, have arrived too late to do any good. I can also, just barely, hear the distressed humans trying to get past them.

 

"Regan!" Eric's voice calls out to me. 

 

"In here!" I call back.

 

Sheathing my sword, I head downstairs to face the music.

Act 0.5: agents of wrath upon the wrongdoer

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