Home > This Side of the Grave (Night Huntress #5)(14)

This Side of the Grave (Night Huntress #5)(14)
Author: Jeaniene Frost

I actually blanched at the coldness in Bones's tone, not to mention the whole "send her inside" part, but Vlad's mouth curled in what looked like grudging appreciation.

"Majestic did not know," the ghoul repeated, more emphatically this time. "We planned to leave the city afterward to avoid her wrath for striking a guest without her permission."

"Oh, she'd be right brassed off at you, if you're telling the truth," Bones agreed. Then his grip tightened ominously. "But I'm still not convinced. If you're not doing her bidding, who sent you?"

"We sent ourselves," the ghoul rasped.

"Kitten." Bones's voice was so flat it was terrifying. "Go inside."

"Now wait a minute," I began, even as the ghoul shouted, "It's true! We cannot allow Apollyon to incite our species to war!"

My brows rose at that. I'd assumed if Marie hadn't sent him, he must be one of Apollyon's ghouls, but it didn't sound like he was a fan.

"Who's we?" Bones asked, tracing his fingers almost delicately over the ghoul's regenerating skin where Vlad had burned him. Even that light touch generated a harsh gasp from the flesh-eater before he spoke.

"Those like me who know Apollyon seeks war for his own gain, not for any benefit to our species." The ghoul tossed a hard look my way. "Apollyon was denied his coup centuries ago when the other half-breed was killed, so now he forbids his supporters from harming her. If we're to stop him before his madness infects too many of my people, she must die." Bones crashed the ghoul's skull into the driveway hard enough for a hunk of it to fly off, clattering like a grisly mini Frisbee not far from my feet. I looked away, rubbing my temple with a sudden weariness that had nothing to do with the approaching dawn. It shouldn't surprise me that more than the vampire nation might seek my death to avoid war, but I hadn't anticipated things to progress this far so soon. I'd also assumed Apollyon wanted me dead. Silly me should have realized my death didn't fit into his grand scheme of species dominance. No wonder his ghouls avoided Bones and me when we were out trolling in Ohio. We were the safest vampires in the state, if Apollyon had forbidden his people from harming me.

"Why is Apollyon so convinced ghouls would win in a war against vampires, anyway?" I asked, still rubbing my temple. "No offense, but from what I've seen, fangers have some distinct advantages over flesh-eaters."

The ghoul still seemed a little dazed from the recent blow to his head, but he managed to answer me.

"Ghouls are harder to kill than vampires with your fragility to silver. But most importantly, since her sire is dead, Majestic no longer has loyalty to the vampire world. Should the ghoul nation go to war, she will now side with her people instead of vampires." Vlad let out a short laugh. "Your brains must not have fully regenerated if you think one ghoul alone can win the war."

"I don't know if Majestic's aid can cause us to win," the ghoul replied, sounding as weary as I felt in that moment. "Apollyon believes it can. But my brethren believe both sides would suffer unimaginable losses if we warred, and after that, how could anyone be considered a winner?"

A part of me empathized with the ghoul. He understood what a lot of people didn't - that if you had to nearly destroy everyone on both sides to win a war, then it wasn't a victory. He wasn't blindly driven by a lust for power like Apollyon; in fact, in his own twisted way, this ghoul and the others from the hotel had been trying to save lives. I might not care for their strategy, but their motivations were far better than those of other hit men who'd been after me.

"Aside from your dead mates back at the hotel, how many others make up this vigilante group of yours?" Bones asked, his expression still hard as ever. A glance at Vlad revealed equal coldness. Looked like I was the only one feeling sorry for my would-be assassin.

The ghoul smiled. With the still-healing rent in his head, it wasn't a pretty sight. "We were assigned to small groups, never knowing anyone outside our immediate division so that if one of us were captured, we couldn't betray our brothers." Great. Someone smart had masterminded this cadre of killers out for my head. Maybe I should add shopping for tombstones to my To Do list. Was it Kennedy who said if an assassin was willing to give his or her life for a kill, there was no real way to defend against it? If so, he'd sadly had his own theory proved, too.

"How did you know where we were?" Bones went on.

The ghoul's gaze slid to me again. "We heard you were meeting with Majestic. We watched the airport, the docks, train station, and bridges. There are only a limited number of ways into New Orleans. We followed you to the hotel when you rode in. Without your helmet, you were recognizable, even if she was not."

"Told you helmets were safer," I couldn't help but mutter.

Bones gave me a look before hauling the ghoul up to his feet. "Right, then. If you've nothing else useful to tell me - "

"Let him go," I said to Bones, who'd already hooked an arm around the ghoul's neck with obvious deadly intent. "There's no reason to kill him." His arm quit tightening, but both brows rose. "You're putting me on?"

"No." I came closer, giving the ghoul a measured look. "We don't want war, either.

That's why we're going to stop Apollyon before things get to that point, but we'll do it without offering up my head. Maybe you can find those other groups and tell them we're on the same side."

Then I returned my attention to Bones. "Killing him isn't going to help anything. While I'd be glad if I never saw him again, in his own way, he was just trying to protect his people." Bones let go of the ghoul with a muttered "Move and you're dead," before closing the last few feet that separated us. His hands settled gently on my shoulders.

"Look, luv, you can sympathize with the plonker's motivations all you want, but the fact remains that - "

I smelled smoke right before hearing the "pop," like a firecracker had gone off. Splatters of something thick coated my back even as a thud reverberated behind me. I whirled around to gape at what was left of the ghoul. His body pitched forward on the driveway, nothing but a smoldering mess left where his head had been.

Much slower, I turned around to see Vlad examining his fingernails, as if his hands weren't still ablaze in the flames that had blasted the ghoul's head off moments before.

"What the hell was that?" I gasped.

"Premature inflamulation," he replied. "Happens sometimes. Very embarrassing, I don't like to talk about it."

A snort of amusement came from my right. I swung in that direction to see Bones bestow the most approving look on Vlad he'd ever given him. Then his expression sobered as he met my gaze.

"This is some sort of joke to you two?" I asked sharply, waving at the ghoul's still smoking body. "We had a chance to maybe spread some goodwill among people who hate Apollyon as much as we do. You know, my enemy's enemy is my friend and all that? But no, you guys think a barbecue is a better way to go about it!"

"If you'd let him free, he wouldn't have told stories praising your generosity," Vlad replied, his coppery green gaze remorseless. "He would've gone back to his zealot friends with the happy news that you're a sentimental fool, inciting them to redouble their efforts to kill you.

Quit applying human rules to undead power plays, Cat. You won't like the results." Bones said nothing, but a glance at his face confirmed that he agreed with every word.

My fists clenched as angry despair welled up in me. Dammit, why did it always have to come down to taking the bloodiest road or risking death and defeat? Couldn't problems for once be worked out by negotiation, instead of just seeing who could kill the most opponents?

"It won't always be this way," Bones said quietly, sensing the source of my frustration.

"You're still very new to this world, but once sods like Apollyon see they can't break you, they'll move on to easier game."

Vlad gave a shrug in concurrence. "I'm rarely challenged anymore, even though I have my fair share of enemies. When you respond harshly enough the first few times, it makes other adversaries less eager to test your mettle later."

I blew air out in a tight sigh without asking the question logic stated neither of them could answer anyway. How many enemies do I have to kill before the rest of them decide it's not worth it to take me on? And the more frightening questions - what sort of person would I be by the time I reached that point? Would I even recognize myself anymore? Was survival really worth giving up so many pieces of my soul?

Bones came nearer, taking my face between his strong, pale hands and gazing at me as if I was the only person around for miles.

"Do you think me an evil man? A wretched bloke you'd have been better off never having met?"

"Of course not," I said at once, hurt that he'd even wonder such a thing. "I love you, Bones. You're the best thing that ever happened to me, and I'm not half as honorable as you are."

A slight scoff sounded behind me. I ignored that, concentrating on the dark brown eyes boring into mine.

"Yet you know I'm a killer. So if you believe I'm a good man despite that, then you know you can still be a good person even though, sometimes, circumstances will require you to act harsher than you'd prefer."

"Eh, I'll be inside," Vlad said with another soft scoff. "For some reason, I feel the urge to watch Hitman followed by Mr. and Mrs. Smith." I ignored that as well, still staring into Bones's eyes and feeling the steady thrum of power coming from his hands. Yes, Bones was a killer, but that wasn't what I saw when I looked at him. I saw the person who'd taught me how to accept myself when no one else wanted me to.

Who loved me without any of the fears or conditions I'd first put on our relationship, and who'd risked death several times for my life, my mother's, my friends, and countless other people he'd never even met when he took on an undead white slavery ring. All of that had just been in the past decade, too. I'd probably never know all the things Bones had done for others in the time before he met me, or the centuries before I was even born.

Killer, yes, but that was the smallest part of him in my eyes. I was a killer, too, but he gave me hope that I could learn to make it the smallest part of me, even if it was necessary in the world I'd chosen to live in.

"As long as you're with me, I can handle it," I said, reaching up to touch his face. "I can handle anything with you."

"I'll always be with you, Kitten. Always," Bones rasped before his lips closed over mine.

Even though he was inside the house, I could still hear Vlad's sardonic mutter of

"Where's a tissue when I need one?"

I turned my face away from Bones after a long moment, ending our kiss, and called out,

"If you're not too busy watching Hitman, I hear Dracula 2000 is a good movie."

"Vicious," came Vlad's reply, amusement clear in his tone. "Just make sure you hold on to that ruthless attitude until Apollyon's been defeated, Catherine." I couldn't help my grin at his emphasis on the name I was born with but rarely went by anymore. Bones rolled his eyes, putting his arm around my waist as we walked into the house.

"If it's not too much trouble, Tepesh, we could use some new clothes, blood, and a place to sleep. I don't fancy retuning to New Orleans until it's time to meet with Marie, in case more of this ghoul's mates are hanging about."

Vlad came out of a room down the hall. "I only arrived yesterday, so this house doesn't have much, but it does have all of those things. Maximus." The tawny-haired vampire I remembered from my stay at Vlad's home in Romania came out, bowing once to Vlad before gesturing to Bones and me.

"Please, come with me."

Chapter Fifteen

Seeing the spectral forms twiningaround the whitewashed crypts inside of Saint Louis Cemetery Number One made me miss Fabian. Who knew I'd get so attached to a ghost? But just because Fabian was transparent didn't mean he wasn't also a great friend. Most of the ghosts in the cemetery weren't sentient like he was. They were just shades of their former selves, no thought, no feelings, just repeating the same actions over and over like a snapshot on a Mobius strip. Occasionally, I saw some spooks that clearly had all their ectoplasmic marbles like Fabian did. They gave Bones and me looks ranging from curious to disdainful as we waited outside the cemetery gates. They were locked, a warning to visitors that no one but the dead or wannabe dead should be inside the graveyard's walls at night.

I doubted we'd be attacked by any ghouls so close to Marie Laveau's preferred meeting place, but Bones was rigid enough to shatter as I ran a hand along his arm.

"My poor cat's going to hate me for disappearing on him again," I remarked just to break the tension. We'd left Helsing back in Ohio since it would be animal cruelty to try and tote him on the back of the Ducati. I'd intended to leave him at a nice pet resort, but oddly enough, Ed and Scratch insisted on watching him. Seems they considered kitty-sitting Helsing as the least they could do to demonstrate their new loyalty to Bones as their Master. Considering what had happened at the Ritz, I was glad that we hadn't attempted to take my cat with us to New Orleans.

If the hotel management had figured out that we'd been part of the elevator destruction yesterday, they might have seized Helsing and turned him over to the pound in retaliation.

Tate already placed a few calls to have the ghouls' bodies from the elevator shaft shipped to him instead of the local morgue. Nothing made cops ask a lot of questions like having corpses dated to be decades or even centuries old turn up at a crime scene. Tate handled everything with perfect competence, but speaking to him instead of Don about crime scene containment was just another reminder of how serious my uncle's condition was.

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