Maximus cut in front of Inanna as she rounded the corner, moving swiftly toward the Atrium where their Queen was holding court, having issued summons earlier during the night. Simca loped along beside him as always, not an inch away from his legs, moving gracefully as if panther and man were one.
Inanna didn’t bother excusing her tardiness. Bringing up the Blood-Contract and her decision to delay yet another night would just open the floor for more questions.
She didn’t like questions.
“I notice you’re in a rush yourself,” she tossed at his broad back, practically blocking all the light in the narrow corridor as he led the way in front of her. “Know what this is about?”
“Negative,” he responded in clipped tones, ever a male of few words.
Though Inanna was by no means height challenged, Maximus was quite a bit taller, his legs longer and more powerful, and she had to double her pace to keep up with him. If she had to break into a sprint, it would be too humiliating.
She misjudged the distance between their bodies, though, and almost tripped into his back in her zealous attempt to keep pace.
But before she could take a tumble, a steel-like rope whipped across her shins, causing her to stagger backwards.
“Ow! Can you tell your cat to tone down the annoying protectiveness? She whipped me on purpose,” Inanna complained to her Commander, resisting the urge to rub her shins where the panther’s tail had slapped her hard.
But before Maximus could chide the feline, Simca was rubbing her long sleek body against his leg, rumbling an apologetic purr, and he heaved a short sigh.
“It wasn’t on purpose.”
My ass, Inanna thought, spearing a hot glare at the panther’s treacherous tail, now undulating carelessly from side to side as if taunting her.
Filing into the brightly-lit Atrium after the Commander of the Chosen and his pet feline, the heavy double doors closing soundlessly behind them, Inanna realized immediately that her Queen was in a dark mood indeed.
Jade Cicada, Queen of the New England vampires, lounged casually in her Chinese-style throne, her voluptuous torso contorting like a coiled cobra.
But Inanna knew that the languid posture belied the fury and seriousness blazing in the Queen’s dark eyes. A quick scan around the chamber out of the corner of her eye showed that Jade had already dismissed her harem; only the Chosen and one other were allowed attendance.
Seth Tremaine, the Pure Ones’ Consul.
Last autumn, Seth had sought the vampire queen’s aid in the Pure Ones’ battle with a new nemesis who was forcibly turning warrior-class Pure Ones into an army of vampire assassins. Jade had not shared details, had merely issued an order for the Chosen to lend their strength in one critical battle. Nor did she enlighten her personal guard further after the fact.
Inanna knew that the demon foe was still at large, though it appeared that his army was all but wiped out, at least the one in Boston that they knew about. And Seth Tremaine was apparently at the Cove to stay for the time being. For how long and for what purpose, Inanna and her comrades had yet to glean.
Inanna, for one, did not feel the need to know. Her queen was ever mysterious and private, but Inanna trusted her completely to make the best decisions for the Hive.
“There is nothing more revolting than grown vampires toying with their food and making a bloody mess,” the vampire Queen began without preamble, her low, husky voice echoing clearly in the spacious grand hall.
“And nothing more annoying than Rogues who flaunt the breaking of our laws before my face.”
The Queen uncurled slightly from her seat and straightened her back, the better to shoot daggers at each and every one of her personal guards from her elevated height on the throne.
“Maximus, report,” she ordered.
“The daily human body-count as a result of vampire kills has risen sharply,” the Commander promptly related.
“Over ninety-percent of the deaths are non-contractual; the humans did not Consent. In addition, many victims were found not only drained of blood and soul, but their bodies have been torn asunder and left in pieces in the aftermath of a vampire feeding frenzy.”
The Chosen shared ominous scowls upon hearing this particular abomination.
“Several of these crime scenes are located in the center of the city and have been blocked off by NYPD. The police’s official statement is that this could be the work of gang violence, symbolic of retribution for blood feuds, and the press is having a field day.”
Maximus nodded to Anastasia, the Queen’s head of security, to continue where he left off.
“Our investigation led us to the source of these killings,” Anastasia said, looking into the eyes of each of the Chosen in turn.
“Illegal fight clubs. Organized by humans, bankrolled and attended by vampires who revel in this particularly bloody spectator sport.”
“We have not been able to uncover the identities of the Rogues, nor have we been successful in catching them in the act. Fight locations change every time. This secret network of humans and vampires has yet been impossible to infiltrate. All we know is that this is impeccably organized and the members, human and vampire alike, are deeply embedded in New York society. We suspect they even have all of the human law enforcement branches on their payroll.”
“You might as well describe how it works,” the Queen said with disdain, shuddering delicately as if the sordidness of the crimes made her skin crawl.
“The rules are simple,” Ana continued, “there are no rules. Merely to fight until one opponent can no longer fight. Spectators bet on the match and choose the weapons for the fighters. They range from bare knuckles to maces, swords, lead pipes, you name it.”
“Some contestants are club regulars and spectator favorites. They usually get the most advantageous weapons. The winner takes a share of the proceeds from the match. More importantly, he gets to go home. Occasionally, death results from the ruthless beating, but more often the loser gets dragged to the ‘Cage,’ hidden away from the spectators where depraved Rogues drain his blood and steal his soul, and in the feeding frenzy, tear him limb from limb.”
She looked to Maximus to continue.
“What’s alarming is that these underground fight clubs are multiplying rapidly across the U.S., with the New England territories as the epicenter, and spreading around the world if our sources are right,” Maximus said, the black slashes of his brows drawing together in a ferocious scowl. “We’ve gathered sightings in Moscow, London, Tokyo, Rio De Janeiro.”
“The bloodlust and psychotic frenzy are escalating among Rogues,” he continued in a low growl. “They have no respect for the Dark Laws and risk exposing our Kind to humans at large. Humans who have aided us in the past are steadily backing out of the partnership. Others who know of us are forming vigilante groups that hunt our Kind to torture and kill in repayment for these senseless murders. If we don’t stop this vicious cycle, we will soon have a full-scale war on our hands.”
“Enough said,” the Queen announced, her face an iron mask of ruthless resolve. “We must stop the Rogues’ rampage before the mobs grow more powerful. Maximus, take Ryu and Inanna to search out the fight club networks and vampire sponsors. Anastasia, take Simone and Devlin to notify and partner with our allies, heighten security for our civilians.”
With those few words, the Chosen knew precisely what their Queen required of them.
As they bowed formally and turned to leave the Atrium, the Pure One’s Consul, all but forgotten in the shadows of the throne, asked quietly, “May I be of service?”
Jade Cicada tilted her head toward the Consul, curled her lips in a darkly ironic smile and said, “And what service would that be, Pure One?”
Seth ignored her sardonic tone and answered in all seriousness, “Your warriors are severely limited during the daytime, when these Rogues have the advantage in their human partners. Allow me to consult with the Dozen; the Elite may be able to reach where you cannot. We have a common enemy in these Hordes.”
The Queen considered his offer with a slight narrowing of her cat-like eyes.
But before she could reply, Simone interjected, “We cannot trust the Pure One, my Queen. It is too dangerous.”
Jade kept her gaze trained on the Consul and ignored her Chosen’s warning. “Inanna,” she said, without turning to face the female to whom she spoke, “see what the Consul has to offer. You have my full permission to drain him if he betrays us.”
Keeping her gaze glued to his, she smiled more broadly and added, “but leave the last drop for me.”
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