Gothic Rhapsody: Second Stanza

I remember I heard them say, 
Only the strong survive,
Living in the world today, 
It's hard enough to stay alive,
Somewhere around the corner, 
Deep inside the dead of night,
Somebody's watchin', somebody's waitin',
Somebody's getting ready to fight,
Get tough! They're gonna get rough with you,
You better . . .
Get tough! Oh, that's what you gotta do.

--Joe Lynn Turner, "Get Tough"

A few hours later, Lis stood in the parlor, peering impatiently out one of the tall windows. Zoey should be returning any moment now, and she was rather tired of waiting.

A rueful smile crossed her lovely face. As a Kindred elder, she'd become a virtual expert on patience; her kind was used to organizing schemes that could take years, decades, or even centuries to come to fruition. Yet when it came to her golden-haired angel, it was obvious that her patience couldn't stretch very far. She wanted him by her side as much as possible.

Hiding the staked Kindred from Tony and Rick hadn't been hard; the space in the rear of the van was quite dark, and closed off from the passenger compartment besides. The two mortals had been quite shaken from the frightening events of the evening, and had refrained from asking questions.

Lis had made arrangements for them to stay in a rather high-class hotel only a few miles from her estate. The security at that place was admirable; she was certain the young men would be safe. Zoey had insisted on staying with them for a little while to spin a reasonable story to explain what was happening; Lis and her ghouls had left the three musicians at the hotel and returned to the estate to put the Sabbat member under lock and key. The staked body was currently incarcerated in one of the house's outbuildings, under Grant's watchful eye.

She'd given Zoey money for a taxi to take him back to where they'd left the Mustang; she chuckled wryly, remembering the look on his face when he'd glanced down and realized she'd just tucked a plump roll of twenty-dollar bills into his hand. There was perhaps three hundred dollars there--pocket change to her, in all truth. He'd no doubt be intelligent enough to refrain from flashing the money around to all and sundry.

The thick braid of her hair swung behind her as she paced the parlor floor; she'd changed from the neat jeans and silk blouse to something more suited for the interrogation yet to come. All in black--jeans, long-sleeved turtleneck, polished boots--she was even more the night-born angel, her eyes burning green in the paleness of her face.

Her sharp hearing picked up the sound of a car coming up the driveway; she whirled and peered out the window. Relief rushed through her as she caught sight of the green Mustang and the long blond hair of its driver. Zoey was home, safe and sound.

Lis broke habit and went to the door herself, rather than waiting for Victor. She was eager to hear how the talk with Tony and Rick had gone . . . and even more eager to be close to her angel again.

"Holy shit. . . "

The voice was a soft murmur as the trio of young men stepped past the mountainous doorman through the glittering brass and plexiglass door and into the huge, plush lobby of the hotel. Tony glanced around the area--the entire place practically *screamed* luxury--absolutely awestruck.

Rick too craned his neck, staring around in silent astonishment, taking in the rich burgundy carpet, the mahogany and velvet furniture, the sleek and modern architecture of metal and bulletproof glass. Light from enormous brass and lead-crystal chandeliers filled the plant-adorned lobby and cast scintillating little rainbows over room and occupants alike.

Zoey, however, wasn't *quite* as awed as his friends, though he too felt just a bit overwhelmed by the atmosphere of *money*. Well aware of what seemed to really be going on, he scanned over the place and noted the high level of security that subtly watched over the entire place. This was the hotel where the truly rich and famous came, and they paid for and expected security; it was quite obvious that this place would deliver.

And he wondered, as he lead the other two over to the check-in counter, if maybe the security was so good here because there were Kindred behind it all. Careful, Zoey, he chided himself, a faint frown settling on his face. Or you'll end up paranoid, seeing vampires in every shadow.

After nearly ten minutes of jumping through the strict hoops at the check-in counter, the members of the band called Ravensblood entered into one of the elevators leading to the upper floors. Not that Zoey or the guys really minded the delay; it was rather comforting to know that the staff wanted to know that they were indeed the people they said they were. The elevator itself was just as richly appointed as the lobby, with a thick carpet on the floor, walls lined with blood red marble veined in black and gray, a potted Boston fern on a brass tripod table--and a rather large operator clad in the smart, perfectly tailored uniform of red and gold worn by the entire efficient staff.

"Where to, sirs?"

"Twentieth floor, please," Zoey's soft voice replied, sounding almost unnaturally loud in the hushed atmosphere of the elevator.

The operator nodded, light glittering off the gold accents of his red cap. Pressing the button for the indicated stop, the car grew even more silent--almost oppressively so--as the doors whispered shut and the conveyance rose up the shaft. Rick and Tony were still quite subdued by the events of the night so far, and Zoey still wrestled with what he was going to say. He still didn't have a decent clue.

The blond musician grimaced at the sensation of the elevator coming to a smooth stop--he never was completely comfortable on such things, and the lurching feeling of gravity being momentarily suspended, then pulling down on him always *did* make him feel faintly queasy--and was quite happy indeed to stride out of the rather confined space. With the memory of the Dementation still there in his thoughts, Zoey had found the enclosed space more disturbing than usual. Slender fingers gripping the key card tightly, he strode down the opulently decorated hallway in uneasy silence, Tony and Rick practically on his heels.

The room Lis had arranged for them all was situated at the far end of the warmly lit corridor, overlooking the water. The ponytailed guitarist had to grin a bit in remembrance, a snippet of the car ride over here playing through his mind. The Toreador had been all business, her sultry voice seductive and her name-dropping of local celebrities in politics and business shameless as she had called out on her cell phone to arrange for a place for the band members to remain in relative safety. Dios, he didn't think there really was anything Lis *couldn't* do if she put her mind to it. The fact that she was so clearly on his side only made Zoey grin more.

A swipe of the key card through the sturdy lock, and the door silently opened beneath the pressure of the slender guitarist's hand. Still very much aware of the low glow the coals of power the Toreador vitae within him had given him, Zoey was careful to not accidentally trigger that effect. Unsure of how exactly he had done it those two times, he chose to err on the side of being overly cautious since his friends were right there behind them.

Once inside, he took a moment to look around the trio's new surroundings. The suite of rooms included a living room and a large bedroom with a pair of double beds; large windows caught the perfect angle to view the skyline of the city, the glimmer of streetlights throwing orange pools of distant light on the wooden panelling. Tony reached over and flipped on the light switch, instantly illuminating the suite in a blaze of incandescent light. Decorated in deep red and mahogany with a grace and style that was elegant and Victorian in appearance, the rooms were just as grand as the rest of the place.

"God, I just can't believe this place," Rick said, his voice still in a hushed tone of awe. "It must be costing your lady a fortune."

Tony grimaced, a twinge of jealousy clearly seen on the keyboardist's good-looking face. "Fucking lucky dog, Zoey--"

"Not another word, Anthony. Not another word," the ponytailed blond growled, his soft tenor actually taking on quite the ring of steel as he turned to face the other man. "I'm getting sick and tired of you always thinking that I get all the breaks. You know that I've always done what I could to get the band supported as a group. Now someone had better start explaining what the hell's going on. Why the fuck is someone trying to grab us all?

"Us all?" Rick was swift to jump on that, his eyes staring at their band's leader in shock.

Zoey frowned, suddenly feeling like a man walking a tightrope over shark-infested waters. He couldn't tell his closest friends in all the world what the truth was, but he couldn't get away with saying that there really wasn't anything going on at all. "Yeah, us all. Bunch of biker types played bumper cars with Lis's limousine that night I first went out with her, and we got into a wreck. Nothing serious, but that's why I was still a bit shaken up when I made it back the next day. Of course, at the time, I thought it was just some sort of random shit. Guess it wasn't. Now . . . You two know something I should know?" Fixing the two of them with his emerald glare, the guitarist folded his arms over his chest.

From the way the pair of still-terrified musicians looked at one another, Zoey just knew they held one of the keys as to why Ravensblood was suddenly getting a bunch of very unwanted attention. Finally Rick pointed at Tony; the keyboardist scowled in response.

"He fell off the wagon, Zoey, but he made me swear that I wouldn't tell you. Met some gorgeous chick with a rather exotic look--I mean, she looked Middle Eastern, but with dark red hair--and, well. . ." The drummer faded out, not having to tell the rest.

Sighing in exasperation as Tony continued to stare daggers at the other man, Zoey shook his head, long ponytail swaying gently against his teal shirt. "Not again. Tony? Do you ever think with anything other than your dick? I suppose she just wouldn't party with you unless you joined her in snorting a line or two?"

A resentful expression on his face, Tony's body slipped into a defensive stance, his arms crossing almost defiantly over the black T-shirt emblazoned with a heavy metal band's logo. "I tried, Zoey, but it's not as easy as you think."

"Damn it, Tony. You know that whole scene could screw us all over." It probably already has, somehow. . . Pacing the floor, chin cupped in the fingers of a hand, the guitarist did a slow burn at his friend's foolishness. He had a feeling that this had something to do with how the Sabbat had come to know of the band and its members, a feeling in his gut that he just couldn't shake.

"Hmm? What the hell's this?" Rick's voice was quiet, thoughtful. Glancing over at the bemused-sounding man, Zoey raised a slender, golden eyebrow in mild surprise as the drummer pulled a hand out of the front right pocket of his sturdy blue jeans. Something golden glittered as the younger musician held out his hand. "Oh, yeah. . . I remember now."

It was a ring made of gold, a blue beetle-like emblem made with what looked like inlaid lapis lazuli. Quite obviously Egyptian in style, Zoey at first thought it might be something that was made as a piece of merchandise for a particular movie--until he remembered that his band's missing bassist had an uncle that was an Egyptologist. Holding out his hand in a silent inquiry, he frowned as his emerald gaze inspected the piece.

"Alex said that that came in the mail just about two weeks ago from his Uncle Bill. Tony asked to borrow it for a while to show it off, and when he went to party with that stunning little redhead, he slipped it to me for safekeeping. I was supposed to give it back to Alex today, but. . ."

"But he turned up missing and his room was trashed." As he was listening, Zoey's sensitive hands were running the scarab ring along his fingertips. Feeling something like a wire sticking out, he pressed it in as he murmured his reply. A faint but audible snick sounded, and he watched in fascination as the lapis lazuli beetle swung away from the gold base on a tiny hinge.

"What the hell?"

"Hey, how'd you do that?"

A look of puzzled concentration settled on the ponytailed man's beautiful face as he carefully stared over the piece of jewelry. "I'm not sure. I felt something and gave it a push."

Hieroglyphics etched neatly and delicately scored the gold underneath where the scarab had sat. On the underside of the lapis inlay, the surface was concave, with what looked like a crude, tiny iron key attached to it. Emerald eyes narrowing slightly at the discovery, Zoey bit back his hiss of surprise and quickly shut the ancient locket before his friends could also see what was there.

"Hey!" the keyboardist complained, having tried to peer over the older man's shoulder at the secret compartment's contents.

"There was nothing there but hieroglyphs, Tony. And I know you can't read those, so it wouldn't have made a difference if you had seen it or not." Glaring at his two friends, the guitarist continued, "You two stay here and lie low. Lis must think you'll be safe here and I trust her judgment. If you need anything, let Room Service get it; I'm positive that Lis can handle just about anything you charge. Whatever you do, don't leave here unless it's me, Lis, Victor, or Grant taking you somewhere. You remember Victor and Grant, right? The two men waiting outside? Grant's the one that drove us over here."

Both of the other young men nodded; they remembered the chauffeur and the grim-looking valet. "But what about you?" Rick asked, a worried look on his face.

Slipping the scarab ring into the pocket of his indigo jeans, the blond musician gave the other two a slight smile. "I'll be all right. Believe me, Lis's place has quite the security itself, and her staff will see to it that no one will get in that doesn't belong. She wants me close by, so that her people can keep an eye on me."

"All right, if you say so." The dark-haired drummer didn't exactly sound convinced, but he knew Zoey well enough to know to not try to argue the point. Stubborn as hell, their band leader usually ended up winning any disagreements. Besides, if he wanted to go out there and risk having those monsters grab him, that was his business. Rick wasn't about to stick his nose into the middle of that.

For his part, Tony merely gave the guitarist a firm nod of acknowledgment before wandering off to check out the rest of the luxury suite. After all, it wasn't everyday Little Miss Warbucks came along and offered to put you up into swanky digs for free. After nearly having those lunatics grab his ass for who knew what, the keyboardist wasn't about to pass up the opportunity to take advantage of the situation.

A slight flash of irritation at Tony's obvious opportunism joined the exasperation at hearing that his drug habit was still a continuing problem as Zoey turned around and reached for the door to the suite. Tossing the key card onto the elegantly carved mahogany table right there next to the entrance, he left his friends there without saying another word.

"And that was basically the end of my conversation." Zoey's sweet, melodic tenor filled the parlor. Sitting in a chair near the fountain in the corner, he held out the ring to Lis, then leaned back against the comfortable seat as the Kindred took the piece of jewelry and looked it over. "I went back down to the lobby, had the front desk call a cab and waited in the lobby until the taxi arrived. I didn't say a word either, just sat there in silence until I was let off where my car was. Then I drove straight here, with no instances of anything strange.

"So tell me. Do you have any idea at all what that ring could be?"

Elisabeth turned the gold-and-lapis ring slowly between long, elegant fingers, handling it as if it were something distasteful. If her suspicions were correct, it was quite distasteful.

"I . . . have an idea, yes," she replied to Zoey's question, her voice subdued. Deep green eyes focused on the ring, absorbing each detail with a sort of sick, fascinated dread, as though it were a live insect that might pierce her flesh with a poisoned sting at any moment. The tip of one finger found the tiny clasp, and she caressed it for a moment, silent.

"Lis?" Zoey was suddenly worried, and with good cause; Lis's face had lost all the supple animation that gave substance to her illusion of life, becoming a too-smooth, too-pale mask, like polished alabaster. Surrounded by wisps of dark hair that had escaped their confinement, that ghostlike face with its eyes of jade was frighteningly inhuman, distant.

"I must tell you of yet another clan, Zoey. I have already spoken to you at length regarding the seven who are part of the Camarilla, the two who make up the backbone of the Sabbat, and the Caitiff who are disdained by all; in full number, though, the clans are thirteen--four of which stand apart, independent."

Zoey nodded. "You told me a little about those."

"Name them for me, angel." Her voice was hardly above a whisper; she seemed so alien, and the impact of her true nature hit him all over again. It made his voice tremble just a little when he spoke.

"You mentioned the Assamite assassin clan, the Ravnos illusionists, the Giovanni necromancers, and the Followers of Set, the Egyptian--" He stopped suddenly, his emerald eyes growing round as he stared at the piece of jewelry that lay caged in Lis's long fingers.

"The corrupters. The sand-snakes who whisper their poison-sweet words, their false promises, in the ears of those they seek to drag down with the weight of temptation. Yes." She rose from her chair, still holding the ring. "They, too, have their counterparts in the Sabbat, but true clan and antitribu hate each other with a vicious passion. The Setites who have turned to the Sabbat call themselves Serpents of the Light." She looked up from the scarab in her hands. "But in any guise, the childer of Set often favor redheads, for red hair was thought to be Set's own mark in the days of ancient Egypt--a bad omen."

"The girl that Tony went out with . . ."

Lis nodded just a little. "It is probable that she was a Setite--whether antitribu or not, I cannot say--or else one of their ghouls." She gazed down at the ring again, pressing her finger gently against the tiny catch that held the locket shut. The lapis scarab swung silently open, and she touched the tip of her nail carefully to the tiny iron key. "I have heard . . . rumors. Unsubstantiated rumors that a monster created thousands of years ago in mockery of Isis's sacred ritual slumbers in a hidden crypt halfway across the world."

"What kind of monster? And what ritual?" Zoey was sitting forward in his chair now, his eyes bright and intense.

"Surely you know some of the old legends of the Egyptian gods--how Set slew his brother Osiris in a replay of the even more ancient crime of Caine against Abel, and how Isis searched to find the parts of her husband's body and raised him from the dead."

"Lis, those are . . . just stories--aren't they?" The young musician grew pale, staring at her.

"No, Zoey. They are part of Kindred history. Set killed his nephew Horus as well--but Isis used powerful magics to resurrect him as the first mummy." Lis didn't look up from the key. "There are perhaps forty or fifty mummies in the world, to my knowledge. They are not like the shambling, mindless, bandage-draped creatures Hollywood has made them out to be--they die, but return to their bodies to live again, time after time. I've never heard of one being truly and utterly destroyed--though Set, flush with the power of the Third Generation, did manage to mutilate Horus; he tore out his nephew's eye, in those ancient nights of struggle."

"What kind of monster do you mean then, Lis?" Zoey looked stunned; she could easily tell that he was shaken by yet another revelation of the shadow-world that had lain beyond the boundaries of human knowledge since the First Times.

"Set stole a corrupt version of the sacred ritual from the Cult of Isis, thousands of years ago. From his experimentations with magical mummification were born seven things, monstrous and twisted; they are called Bane Mummies, and are all irrevocably insane--psychopathically so--but they're still frighteningly cunning and intelligent creatures. Like the mummies crafted with the true ritual, their bodies may be slain, but their spirits always return after a time." She turned the ring in her hand so that the gold caught the light, illuminating the tiny hieroglyphs.

"Can you read that?" Zoey asked suddenly, standing up and stepping near her to look at the etching.

"I can. I was taught by someone who trusted me with his very life in a time when survival was an uncertain thing." Her voice dropped again to that hushed whisper as she read, translating the ancient script. "'Hail Set, bringer of darkness, father of corruption. His Reborn slave sleeps in death and bound about by walls of stone. Let no one free Hemhemti the Roarer lest the children of the Dark God are threatened, for his strength and rage are beyond control.'" She lowered her hand, closing the cover of the ring. "That puts it rather in black and white, doesn't it? That name is one of those ascribed to the Bane Mummies."

"Do you . . . do you think they took Alex because he owns the ring?" Zoey stared at her, his mouth a tight line of worry.

"It's likely, Zoey." She tucked the ring into her pocket and turned to take the young man gently into her arms; he held onto her tightly, and she could feel him trembling. "If I had to choose the lesser of two evils, angel, I would hope that the true Setites have him."

"But you said the ones you saw in his room were definitely Sabbat," he whispered against her shoulder. "And it was Sabbat who were at the police station."

"I still have to question our little guest," she murmured into his hair. "Zoey, we'll find him--even if I have to make a deal with the devil. Even if I have to find the Setites in this city and offer them this ring in exchange for their aid in recovering your friend. Trust me, Zoey. Please."

It couldn't be a good sign that the brunette Kindred that seemed to be afraid of nothing on Earth looked rather worried indeed as she handled the scarab beetle ring with her slender fingers. The fact that at that moment she looked like a statue carved from the palest of marbles, a distant goddess unreachable by the human rabble and unable to understand their emotions, only made the golden haired singer more ill at ease. Zoey still found it hard to see her for her true reality; it was "better" to be able to cling to the illusion of humanity that surrounded her.

It figured that the redheaded girl that tempted Tony back into the drug scene--Zoey wasn't about to believe that it was an isolated incident; much as he hated to admit it, the keyboardist had a personality just too easily influenced into such stuff--would be some sort of a Setite, now that the young guitarist knew something about the ring. Alex had mentioned at one point not too long ago that his Uncle Bill, the Egyptologist, was having trouble at his dig over in Iambus--the same place the ancient Egyptians had called Nubt. Apparently some of the hired help, no matter that they were all on highly professional level, were somehow responsible for pieces found going missing, including the documentation that proved the pieces ever existed, and Egypt's Department of Antiquities was stonewalling Uncle Bill in getting anything investigated of the thefts.

It also figured that mummies were as real as vampires. For some insane reason, despite his outwardly stricken expression, Zoey found himself berating himself for not having realized that mummies were real all by himself. God knew what else lurked out there in the hidden shadows of the night. Just like the city of Troy had proven, not all the legends were just legend, and not all myths were just myths.

It easily made one feel like they were a stupid idiot to have never noticed all this stuff before.

Stepping up to stand behind his beloved angel of the night--I should have known Lis would be able to read the inscription; perhaps I knew she could all along when I had taken the ring from Rick--the slender musician rested a hand on Lis's shoulder as he listened to the words intoned by her hushed, sultry voice. A thrill of dread washed over the young ghoul as he walked around her gorgeous form to face her, the fingertips of his hand sliding across her shoulder in an unconsciously sensual caress. Even as he asked her if whoever took Alex did so because they had expected him to have the ring, Zoey knew in his heart that that was the case. He shuddered, feeling like a tiny ant caught up in something immense and far beyond his control; the feel of his beloved night angel holding him closely, comfortingly, seemed to help him keep a grip on reality and not give in to the fear that threatened to drown him within its mesmerizing whirlpool.

Snuggling up against Lis's slightly cool body, gently rubbing a cheek against her as his eyes closed, Zoey did his best to try to make some sense out of the overwhelming sequence of events. If the Setites, either type, wanted the ring, then why the hell did the Sabbat get involved? It seemed mind-boggling, the twists of this little web of intrigue.

Giving his precious Kindred lover a hug, his voice sounded so very soft indeed when he finally did speak. "I trust you. I have from the very beginning, Lis. I just have a feeling that we will have to give the get of Set this key to the Roarer, no matter what else happens. I just hope that in giving this up, we don't let loose something far worse."

He took a step back, just enough to be able to solemnly gaze at the stunningly beautiful woman. Still his melodic voice was far, far too soft to even be close to a normal tone as he continued, "'Serpents of the Light'? You would almost think that they would be something opposite their renounced clan, but you act as if they are far worse. Why? What makes you worry about them just that much more?"

Then another pause as Zoey continued to stare at his domitor, his lover . . . his savior. "And when you go 'question' your 'guest', I'd like to be there. I want to hear what he has to say about trying to run off with my friends."

Elisabeth did not respond to Zoey's soft words, his hope that exchanging the tiny iron key for Alex's life would not set something far worse than the death of one mortal in motion. She knew that to give over the means of the Bane Mummy's freedom would virtually ensure the release of a nightmare; true, the Setites were very canny when it came to handling the monsters that Set had created, but surely some things were beyond their control.

She let her arms slip from around Zoey as he stepped back, gazing at her; she merely watched him with an expressionless visage as he spoke, and chose to answer his request first. "Very well, Zoey--you may be present when I speak to my 'guest'. You may not like what you see, but I acknowledge your desire to hear what he has to say."

She turned away from him then, pacing the length of the parlor floor, a dark shadow against the light, elegant colors of the room. "Why do the Serpents of the Light worry me so? Ah, Zoey . . . you don't quite yet understand the Sabbat in full. To be antitribu does not necessarily mean that one is automatically the reverse of what their true clan normally is. Were that the case, the Serpents would be far preferable to the Followers." She glanced down at the rug for a moment. "The Sabbat, one and all, have utterly abandoned their humanity, swapping the morals and values of a human viewpoint for the ethics and structure of the Paths of Enlightenment, philosophies that forms the core of their existence. The Sabbat also holds one goal paramount--they oppose the Antediluvians, the thirteen members of the Third Generation, the founders of the clans. The Serpents of the Light are heretics in the eyes of the Setites, for they would extend that war to destroy Set himself. Legend claims that when the Antediluvians rise from their millennia of sleep, they will sate their hunger for vitae on the bodies of their own descendants." She gave a wry half-smile. "The Camarilla usually tries to proclaim that the Antediluvians are mere myths. It gives them a sense of security to deny the existence of creatures so vastly powerful."

"But why, exactly, do the Serpents worry you more?" Zoey persisted, watching her curiously.

"Ah, angel, haven't you heard a word I have said? The Setites are bad. The Serpents are worse. It's true that many Setites also follow Paths of Enlightenment--focusing on either self-gratification, warrior prowess, or strict obedience to Set--but they hold their worship of their dark lord and his aims in the highest regard. The Serpents, though, are subject to the will of their leaders in the Sabbat. The Setites' goals tend to be achieved through long-range planning and careful forethought. The Sabbat often lack such patience. Should the Setites possess the Bane Mummy, it would almost be *safe* in their hands; the Sabbat, likely as not, would unleash it merely to enjoy the chaos and horror it would spread."

"How could I have missed seeing any of this before, Lis? I thought I was a relatively bright, well-informed adult . . . but all of this is news to me." He put a hand in his pocket, pushed his other fingers through his hair with a wry smile on his face.

"Because every supernatural creature in this world knows the wisdom of keeping a low profile, Zoey." Lis smiled at him softly. "Every society has its own rules to help ensure its protection. True, there are many of us and we are powerful--but humans far outnumber us as a whole, and we all have weaknesses that knowledgeable humans could easily exploit to destroy us."

"Fire. Sunlight. A stake through the heart . . ."

"Yes, Zoey. Humans can move in daylight, as we cannot; even the most powerful Kindred is subject to the lethargy brought on by the sunrise. Kindred are not the only ones who have such glaring weaknesses--every other race of creatures beyond humanity could be brought down in a similar fashion." She looked at him for a long moment . . . and then at the comfortable couch. Desire stirred in her; he had been very brave tonight, facing the charging Sabbat with only a sharpened branch for protection. She certainly admired that bravery, and she definitely wished to reward him for it . . .

Zoey stood there a moment longer, quick mind filing away the information Lis had given him, dread still sitting there in the pit of his stomach as he discovered an awful truth about himself. If it meant keeping a nightmare from being loosened upon all those innocent lives of the mortals that scurried around day in and day out ignorant of the world lurking in the shadows, then he was quite prepared to sacrifice the life of a single mortal, no matter how precious that life was to himself. Bowing his head, hands clenching in disgust and his emerald eyes closing beneath long, spun-gold lashes, the young musician softly sighed at the revelation. If it came down between Alex and letting that . . . thing . . . fall into hands that would use it as a weapon against humanity, Zoey was fully capable of writing off his best friend. Adios; vaya con Dios. Nice to have known ya, Alex.

Suddenly aware of eyes staring at him, the guitarist lifted his head in time to see the gorgeous brunette turn her gaze from him to look at the couch sitting along one wall of the salon. He could almost tell from the expression on her face--perhaps instead he could somehow sense a small spark of desire within her, Bound to her as he was--that at that very moment, she'd rather be there, with him, harmonizing together in a symphony of mutual passion and love. Still feeling ill and disgusted at himself for being capable of so callously tossing away any chance the one person that was closest to being a brother to him had to continue to remain alive, safe and sound, Zoey reached up a hand to the band that tied back his soft, golden hair.

Slender fingers gave the band a tug, slipping it down the length of his mane; a shake of his head sent the wispy strands flying, only to settle softly around face and shoulders to form once more the perfect frame for his angelic countenance. Slipping the band into a pocket of his indigo jeans, he crossed the short distance between himself and the all-black-clad Kindred. Wanting to wash away the sick feeling within himself, to drown out everything for the moment in a sea of passionate sensation, and knowing that she wanted to do much the same for her own set of reasons, Zoey took one of her hands in his and gently tugged her toward the inviting couch.

Elisabeth smiled at the approach of her beautiful, young lover, slipping the gold and lapis scarab ring into a pocket of her sturdy, black jeans. Dieu, he was breathtaking--if she still could breathe--stalking across the parlor floor like a little, golden lion on the prowl. He probably didn't even realize how enticingly predatory he could be, with his long hair shimmering around him and desire darkening the large, half-lidded, emerald green eyes. Still smiling, a slight thrill of anticipation curling through her, she let him take her hand, let him lead her over to the couch. She might actually be the dominant force, the stronger partner, but it gave her such passionate pleasure to submit to his desires.

Sitting down on the padded cushions of the couch, the only sound in the parlor the happy burbling of the fountain and his slightly faster breathing, the guitarist leaned back against the back of the comfortable piece of furniture and pulled Lis down to him. The brunette Kindred sank down, straddling Zoey's lap, hands resting on his chest as her lips met his in a heady kiss. Such the symphony of sensation it was-the feel of soft cotton overlying firm muscle, the nearly soundless whisper of silken hair beneath the stronger sounds of the steady percussion of heart and breath, the clean, masculine scent twining with the smell of the muted, spicy-incense-like cologne he tended to wear, the radiant warmth of his vital, youthful body, especially there on her rear and thighs where she straddled him and her palms resting on him, the thrilling press of his lips against hers as she opened her mouth under his, invitingly.

With a soft, groaning purr, Zoey took the invitation, plunging his tongue in to dance intimately with hers. Grasping the soft fabric of her ebony colored turtleneck sweater in his hands, he tugged the bottom of it free of her jeans, then slipped his hands beneath it to run his fingertips against her satin-smooth skin in a caress that was worshipful, sensuous, lovingly erotic. Dios, she was so wonderful, so perfect; she would do whatever she could to keep him safe, to make sure that this world within the shadows he was just now discovering wouldn't chew him up and spit him out. She thought he was something special, something to be loved and cherished, even if he just happened to hate his own guts right at the moment. As his hands slid across her perfect form to grasp her at the small of her back and pull her against him, his heated kiss deepened in intensity but also took on a tone of desperation. I'm willing to let Alex die a horrible death--or worse--if it means keeping innocents safe from that thing. And I hate myself for being so offhandedly callous. I don't deserve to be liked or loved, do I? I don't deserve anything wonderful . . .

Show me, Lis, if I do still deserve such things . . .

It's not callousness, Zoey, Lis answered silently, running her hands slowly across his chest as the kiss grew more heated, more intense. If you were truly so cold, you wouldn't be so disgusted with yourself. You'd shrug, say c'est la vie, and get on with your life.

Lis, he's my best friend, the blond musician whispered mentally. He's like a brother to me. It makes me sick to think of what could happen to him--what might be happening right now--but I can't justify trading something that could destroy hundreds of innocents just to save a single life.

Hush, she soothed gently, stroking her hands up over his shoulders to tangle in his hair. I'll do all that I can to ensure Alex is safe, angel.

For a while, then, there were no words between them--only the breathless, impassioned sounds of pleasure; Dieu, she wanted so desperately to take away his fears, to give him confidence in her. He'd seen only glimpses so far of her real power--not just her physical prowess and proficiency in the various Kindred Disciplines, but the influence and resources she could call upon. Even now, as she and Zoey lay together on the couch, thinking of nothing besides each other and the passion they shared, her agents and contacts--mortal, vampire, and other--were on the move, carrying out a dozen complex sets of commands.

When the two of them, dark angel and bright, lay panting softly in the warm afterglow, Lis threaded her fingers through Zoey's hair, smiling faintly as he purred in drowsy satiation. "You said you wanted to watch the interrogation, hm?"

"Yes," he murmured against her shoulder, and she felt the slight tension in his slender frame.

"It will not be pleasant, angel. You may watch, but if it gets too . . . extreme for you, I will not blame you for leaving." She paused, clenching her fingers a little in his hair, her voice dropping to a soft whisper. "I am . . . afraid you will think less of me for what I do, Zoey."

"Never happen," he vowed, running his hands slowly down her sides. "Never."

"We'll see," she whispered.

"God, no!"

The piercing scream rent the smoky air; the windowless chamber, located in one of the outbuildings behind the stately mansion, was a scene out of the Spanish Inquisition. Everywhere one looked, one saw iron, steel, and leather wrought into tools designed to cause pain--slashing-sharp blades, cruel hooks, heavy whips, and other, more exotic things.

The centerpiece of the chamber this evening was the vampire who hung suspended by heavy chains shacked around his wrists, his toes barely touching the floor; cuffs around his ankles, bolted into the floor, ensured he wasn't going to be moving around much. A solidly built wooden table stood nearby, its dark-stained surface holding an array of disturbing implements. At the end of the table, an open iron brazier was heaped with smoldering, sullenly glowing coals.

Lis, her face utterly expressionless, set aside the red-hot knife and pulled the heavy insulated gauntlets off her hands. Rolling her sleeves above her elbows, she flexed her fingers and held her hands less than an inch from the scorched gash across the Sabbat vampire's abdomen, just beneath the ribcage. "Really, this is very uncivilized. I do wish you'd be more cooperative. I dislike dirtying my hands . . ."

"Fuck you, bitch . . ." the prisoner spat weakly.

". . . but there are times it just can't be avoided, I suppose," Lis concluded, and gouged her hands into the open wound. The man screamed in agony as she curled her fingers up under his ribs and began to pull steadily, tearing cartilage and breaking bone.

Zoey, who had paled when he'd first seen the chamber and gotten very wide-eyed when she had sliced the vampire with the hot knife, went white as a sheet when she pushed her hands into the wound. As the gruesome, wet sounds and the screaming continued, he turned faintly greenish.

Poor kid, Lis thought distantly. I suppose he's never seen this in documentaries on the Discovery Channel or in horror movies. Then again, it does always have more impact when it's actually happening right in front of you, for real.

When she had his ribs open up about halfway along his chest, Lis paused, reaching over to the table; she wedged a short, sturdy iron rod into the gaping cavity to hold the wound open. Her bloody hands spattered red marks across the floor as she stepped back and picked up a pair of tongs, then lifted a glowing coal from the brazier. "I think I'll start with something unimportant. If I do too much to your heart, you'll die early, and if I damage your lungs, you won't be able to speak very well. Are you very fond of your liver?" She stepped close again, extending the red-hot coal in the grasp of the tongs.

The slickly glistening, dark purplish-red surface of the organ in question was sizzling and letting off puffs of steam from the nearness of the coal when the vampire shuddered. "Please, oh God, don't, I'll tell you whatever you want, just don't do that! Oh God, oh God . . ."

Lis drew the coal back, holding it up near her pale face, letting it cast dull orange shadows across her alabaster skin as she smiled pleasantly up at the Sabbat member. "I thought you'd see it my way sooner or later."

From Heaven to Hell, Zoey had mused when he had stepped into the closed-off room in the building out back behind the flower-surrounded mansion, led there by his angel of the night while the warm satiation of their lovemaking still glowed within him.

The very medieval, very brutal, appearance of the room had made that nice feeling abruptly vanish; large emerald eyes going wide, the blond musician had swallowed hard as he had glanced at the many "interesting" instruments laid out on the table near the center of the oppressive, darkened chamber. It really didn't take a whole lot of imagination to see what those various things could do to a body--and Zoey always was one with quite an active imagination.

Spanish Inquisition. That thought had crossed his mind as he had shifted his gaze to the captured Sabbat vampire. For once, the slender blond man had actually felt uncomfortable with his heritage of Spanish nobility. His own ancestors had done much the same to others as Lis was preparing to do to her prisoner, all in the name of religion. The fact that this time around it was going to be the interrogation of an inhuman predator so that his best friend might be recovered relatively intact hardly penetrated the guitarist's horror-stunned mind. All he could really see were very cruel-looking implements, a very human-appearing victim . . . and his angel of the night.

He really had to wonder about the wisdom of insisting on being there. Faced with the horrid, technicolor reality of that place in which he'd found himself, he had quickly realized why Lis had said, "We'll see." After all, she was the one that had this torture chamber ready and waiting in the first place. And that had made his numbed mind wonder just how often she actually did this sort of thing.

Zoey swallowed hard, bravely fighting the violent queasiness that threatened to overwhelm him, while the anguished screams and gruesome sounds filled the grim, windowless, seemingly airless room. Shuddering, his huge-eyed emerald gaze remained on the morbid sight as Lis manually ripped open the shackled Sabbat member.

Heaven and Hell . . . Those same elegant hands that were now brutally convincing the other Kindred--and if there was ever any doubt in Zoey's mind that the tortured man was a human-looking, inhuman something-else, it was long gone since it was obvious that anyone actually human wouldn't still be bleeding and screaming like that--to spill his guts, so to speak, about what he knew about Alex's disappearance were the hands that had, only a short while ago, helped Zoey experience that scintillating ecstasy he found only with her.

Blood glistened darkly, potently, on the floor from where it had flowed--pulled by gravity, of course--from both the iron-shackled Sabbat member and the hands of the gorgeous brunette that was so clinically applying the sullenly glowing coal to the captive's insides. Feeling ill, light-headed and weak in the knees, he flicked his gaze from what Lis was doing . . . and froze, emerald eyes locked on those deep ruby speckles and streaks littering the floor.

Dark, glistening, a contrast of garnet red against the polished linoleum, the drops and spatter seemed to form a fascinating pattern, a work of abstract art that bordered on sheer genius--a work of art created by the grimly glorious creature that he loved. There was a power, a presence, a majesty to the way the jewel-like drops of blood were scattered across the floor. Zoey could only stare, mesmerized, at Lis's creation.

The guitarist never even noticed when the brunette woman pulled the coal away from her captive and smiled up at the Sabbat member. He remained lost in the contemplation of the blood spatter that stained the surface of the floor under where the prisoner hung.

Heaven and Hell . . .

Lis had noticed Zoey's fascinated stare; she chose not to wrench him out of his focus. It was likely best that he not take in too many details at the moment.

She set the coal carefully back into the brazier, wiped her fingers meticulously on a towel that was draped over the corner of the table, and folded her hands behind her, eyeing the whimpering captive in much the same manner as she'd look at a preserved insect pinned into a glass-fronted case. "Now, my fine, subhuman friend, perhaps you should begin speaking. I shall, of course, endeavor to stick to one question at a time, so as not to strain your limited cogitive facilities." Her mild tone vanished in an instant, turning into a glacial hiss. "Why did you try to take the two young mortals from the police station?"

"The--the Serpents," he whimpered. "They wanted those two."

"I assume you mean the Serpents of the Light." She waited for him to confirm her words; when he did, nodding almost frantically, she smiled a brittle little smile. "And why did they want those men?"

"S-some artifact," the Sabbat member whispered. "Something major that they wanted. They grabbed the other juicebag first, but he didn't have it--so they thought these other two had it."

"Ah." Lis leaned forward slightly as if interested in a closer look at the glistening organs that were still exposed in her subject's opened torso. "This would be the young man with red hair, ne c'est-pas? The bass guitarist?"

"Yeah, yeah. The--the Setites wanted him--they're so obsessed with redheads, I swear--but th-there's an infiltrator in their ranks, and she found out about this artifact thing and told the Serpents, and the Serpents got there first."

"You are most informative, mon ami," she said pleasantly. "Here, allow me. This must be growing quite uncomfortable." She reached up and yanked the bar out of his chest. He let out a squeal of pain, then panted heavily as his ribs relaxed back into place. "There. Much better, hmm? Now, then . . . perhaps you'd like to tell me where the young man is, and his condition?"

The vampire squirmed in his chains. "The--the Serpents have him. I don't know what his condition is. I don't!" He screamed the last two words in panic as Lis frowned slightly and reached up toward the long incision down his front again. "Oh God, oh God, please, it's true, I don't know!"

"Very well," she said with mock petulance, as if disappointed at being deprived of the chance to split him open wider. Of course, she did believe the truth of his words; his aura showed no waver, no tinge of deception. Still, she wanted him to keep on spewing the truth, and a little extra fright should accomplish that. "Tell me where the boy is being held."

"I don't remember the exact address, but it's the basement of this nightclub called the Black Sphinx . . ."

"How atrociously predictable," Lis sighed. "You'd think after all these years that some members of various clans would get off their 'theme' kick. Zoey!"

"Yes, Lis?" The young musician focused his gaze on her, trying to block out the sight of the still-gaping wound in the Sabbat vampire's body. She hadn't been paying attention to him, thus wasn't sure just when he'd stopped staring at the blood on the floor; interesting that he seemed to be developing such a curious fascination. It echoed her own clan's notorious flaw.

"Call your friends. The phone is out there." She pointed at the doorway; where a small antechamber lay between the torture chamber and the door to the outside. "Find out what nightclub the one man was in the night he met that interesting redhead."

Zoey nodded and stepped quickly out the door, shutting it behind him, no doubt relieved to be away from the closed-in chamber with its sickly smells of hot metal, burnt flesh, and blood. Lis watched him go, then turned back to her captive.

"Well," she murmured. "Now that it's just the two of us. Who else might be pursuing the two mortals?"

"Just the Serpents," he mumbled. "I don't think the Setites actually know much at all . . ."

"Just the Serpents, hmm? Tell me, was there any contact at all between any of the vampires at the police station and anyone on the outside once I arrived? Anyone standing guard outside at all?"

"N-no, none, nobody," he was quick to assure her.

"So," she said pleasantly, "that means that no one in the Sabbat really knows what happened at the station. No one knows that I or my angel were involved, and no one knows exactly what happened to those two young men, hmm?"

"Right," he answered, managing to smile brightly as he nodded in agreement.

"No one . . . except for you," she finished, her voice losing the sweet tone. Her hand closed on the hilt of a sheathed sword that lay on the table, and she drew it with a rasp of steel on leather.

His eyes grew round with terror. "N-no! No! Please!"

"I do apologize, mon ami," she said, lifting the solid weight of the heavy broadsword. "But I detest your kind, and traitors always meet this sort of end anyway. Consider this my gift for your cooperation--a quick death opposed to hour upon hour of slow agony at the hands of the Sabbat's skilled torturers." She saluted him mockingly with the weapon, then drew back and swung, hard.

The door clicked open--Zoey returning--just as she began the glittering arc of the weapon. It sheared through the screaming vampire's upraised arm, then his neck--silencing the screams at once--and his other arm without slowing, a splatter of dark red following the weapon through the air as it came away from the flesh.

The head bounded up off the neck and fell with a thump at Lis's feet as the body collapsed, leaving the shackled arms still hanging from the chains. For an awful, ghastly moment, the tableau remained; then the dissolution of Final Death struck, decaying the corpse rapidly. Lis stepped back, wiping the sword on the towel, and casually kicked the brazier over, clanging on the stone floor and scattering red-hot coals onto the body and head to encourage the process along. She watched with a jaded stare as the severed limbs shriveled and fell from the manacles, the dessicated hands slipping easily through the steel rings.

She turned just in time to see Zoey--so pale his skin looked almost translucent--waver on his feet. Dropping the sword onto the table, she sprang lightly across the room to steady him; he recoiled just before she touched him, and she swore softly as she caught sight of the blood droplets marring the fine skin of her hands.

"Angel," she whispered, but he backed away, then turned and ran through the antechamber out into the cool night. She could hear a soft thump as he fell to his knees, then the sounds of his retching--probably into the flowerbeds.

Lis sighed and returned to the spot where the slain vampire was crumbling into a sort of greasy ash that lay thickly beneath the cooling coals. She stared at the mess for a few moments, then stepped over to the intercom and pressed the button that opened the house connection. "Victor."

"Yes, Lis."

"I'm afraid I've made a mess again, Victor."

"You tend to do that sometimes, Lis."

"I'll need you or Grant to clean it up, Victor."

"Ecstatic to serve your every whim, Lis," her valet finished the exchange, his voice quite dry. Neither the Kindred nor her retainer laughed. The humor didn't need verbal expression at all.

Lis stepped over to the corner to the right of the door, where a small sink, a container of soft-soap, and a towel waited. She washed her hands and forearms thoroughly, then rinsed her face as well in case some of the blood had spattered across her porcelain features.

She stepped out into the antechamber just as Victor stepped in--a broom, dustpan, tin bucket, and small plastic drinking cup in his hands.

"Zoey's throwing up into the petunias, Lis," Victor said calmly.

"I thought he might be, Victor."

"You ought to give him some water, Lis," the retainer added, holding out the cup to Lis. She stepped back into the room and filled it from the sink, grabbed the small hand towel as an afterthought, then went back out. She and Victor were briefly stuck in the doorway together.

"Thank you, Victor."

"I live but to anticipate your every desire, Lis," he replied, and went into the torture chamber to clean up the coals and the remains of the Kindred.

Lis emerged into the cool night just as Zoey was sitting up, trembling. She knelt beside him in silence, offering him the cup of water and the towel, just watching.

Emerald eyes blinked as the odd little fugue slipped away; Zoey frowned, wondering why he was staring at the bloody floor. Then again, after what he'd seen Lis do so far, he guessed that perhaps it was better that he had somehow blacked out. The sickening scents of broiled meat, hot metal and spilled blood once again assaulted his nostrils; he felt a sudden surge of bile rise up in his throat and it took a supreme act of will to keep from vomiting. Deliberately not looking at the center of the room, here the black-clad, gorgeous female Kindred was putting the captured Sabbat member to the question, the young musician listened in silence as the captive stammered out the replies to Lis's purred inquiries. Still, he felt the blood drain from his face as he heard confirmation that the Serpents of Light were holding his best friend captive. If what Lis had said was true . . . No, he didn't want to think about that, didn't want to think about anything going on at all right now. Reality was just too much to handle.


At Lis's call, the guitarist turned his attention from scanning the wall for any cracks or flaws to her, emerald eyes fastening on her beautiful face, a face that at the moment seemed as impassive as a marble statue's. "Yes, Lis?"

At her indication of where the phone was located and her request to call his friends, he felt a sense of relief fill him. All but bolting for the door, Zoey crossed the room's floor and slipped out into the antechamber, firmly pulling the door closed behind himself. Taking in a deep breath of air not filled with the overpowering stench of pain and torture, he leaned his head against the cool wall for a moment, forcing his nausea down.

Once he felt he was sufficiently back under control, Zoey lifted the receiver of the phone and dialed the number of the hotel in which the remaining members of Ravensblood were staying. His call directed by the switchboard operators to the correct room, he impatiently tapped his booted foot on the floor as he waited for one of the guys to pick it up.

It took quite a number of rings before Rick's voice answered, but as soon as he did, Zoey knew exactly why. The two men had decided to get rip-roaring drunk. The guitarist certainly couldn't blame Rick and Tony for doing so; it had been one hell of a night for them all. Even so, the ponytailed blonde found himself gritting his teeth and getting impatient with his bandmate as he tried getting a straight answer out of a blitzed Rick as to where they were when that interesting redheaded woman was met. A rambling answer later, Zoey had what Lis had asked for; yes, they had gone to a nightclub called the Black Sphinx, one that was reaching new levels of popularity because of its Egyptian theme and the fact that there had been a pair of hit movies set in ancient Egypt right around then.

Hanging up the phone, the handsome guitarist turned over what he knew in his mind. The Sabbat said that Alex was there, in the basement of the Black Sphinx, a nightclub that the other bandmembers had wandered into that was apparently a Serpent stronghold. Still, since it was a functioning nightclub, the Masquerade was still something to be relied upon. Feeling a sense of determination settling within him, Zoey nodded to himself, then turned the knob of the door.

Stepping back into the torture chamber, he softly gasped as the glitter of an upraised sword caught his eye. The door shut behind him, otherwise he would have scrambled back out, unprepared for the sight that had greeted him. Butting up against the closed egress, he stared, wide-eyed, as Lis demonstrated just how vulnerable Kindred truly could be after all.

The last time he'd seen the dissolution of vampires at Final Death, he'd been barely conscious and in agony; those memories were faded now, comfortably numbed by the powers of his beloved angel of the night. But this . . . Every detail of the horrible sight was etched in the musician's mind, every smell frozen forever in his memory. Hand scrambling for the doorknob as he felt a rushing darkness threatening to overwhelm him, Zoey managed to get the door open as the unearthly brunette tossed the bloodstained sword to the table and rushed to his side. Catching sight of the crimson staining her perfect hands, the musician again felt the bile rise in his throat; pulling away from her, ignoring her whispered word, Zoey whirled and stumbled through the antechamber, escaping out into the night.

This time, he couldn't stop his body from violently reacting to what he had witnessed; falling to his knees, he vomited until dry heaves made his ribs ache, eyes and nose watering from the effort. In fact, he was still trying to throw up the contents of his now-empty stomach when Victor appeared; the continued heaving of his body kept him from truly noticing the passing of Lis's oldest retainer into the torture chamber behind the slender musician.

He was just sitting up, sniffling to clear his running nose, when the beautiful brunette Kindred knelt down beside him. Looking at the glass and towel through his watering eyes, Zoey took a deep breath and tugged the towel from Lis's grasp. Wiping off his face, head bowed to hide his expression of shame, he dropped the cloth to the ground before Lis's knees and took the glass. Unable to look at her--not because he feared her or couldn't stand what she had revealed about herself in the confined quarters of the torture chamber, but because he was embarrassed at not being able to handle it after all--he took a couple of long sips at the water, washing the sour taste out of his mouth. Still trembling enough to make the surface of the remaining water in the glass shimmy, he sat there for a long moment in silence before he finally turned his emerald gaze to Lis. "Rick . . . He said that that place is where they were."

The silky, melodic voice was harsh and ragged from the strain on his throat, the words barely heard whispers. Forcing himself to stop trembling, Zoey continued, without looking up, "I . . . think I need to get some sleep. It's been a hell of a long day for me."

With a faintly ragged groan, he gracefully rose to his feet. A weary smile on his beautiful face, he finally looked right at Lis, holding out the cup for her to take back. "Thanks for the water. I needed that.

Lis reached out to touch Zoey's face, worried for a moment that he'd shy away; when he closed his eyes after a moment and rubbed his cheek against her palm, she let out a soft sigh of relief. Gently taking the water glass out of his hand and setting it aside, she slipped an arm around him, pulling him close; swooping down and plucking the towel from the ground where he had dropped it, she dabbed carefully at his face.

"Yes, it's been a rather eventful evening," she murmured, starting for the house with him at her side. "We should both bathe, and I'll have Claude make you a sandwich or perhaps a salad--something you can nibble on when your stomach settles." She ran the tip of her tongue over her teeth. "I'm rather hungry myself."

Zoey paused, tilting his head to offer his neck; she chuckled softly and dropped a feather-light kiss just beneath the corner of his jaw. "No, angel--not you. I believe the boys have their own schedule worked out; I'll just ask Claude whose turn it is."

"Oh. I--hope I haven't made them jealous or anything . . ." Zoey's voice was a soft, uncertain murmur.

Lis chuckled again. "Zoey, you should realize by now that while the feeding itself is pleasurable, the aftereffects can be debilitating--even with a ghoul's enhanced system. I take great delight in supping on you, but too much and your body will suffer. Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised if the boys are glad to have another circulatory system added to the list." She kissed his cheek lightly. "Kindred of my generation can store up a great deal of blood; I rarely *need* to replenish myself to any great degree. Usually I simply 'top off,' as it were; I have access to donated blood from reliable sources if I ever need to drink a large amount in a short time." Another soft chuckle. "I instituted policies at several of my business holdings to allow for cash bonuses for employees who donate at the quarterly blood drive, and the drives are always performed by clinics that I also own--it helps ensure that the blood is carefully screened. Kindred cannot contract mortal diseases, but it *is* possible to accidentally infect a vessel while feeding--or worse, one's ghouls, through the requisite dose."

They were at the kitchen door now; Claude whisked it open, looking a bit anxious as he saw Zoey's waxen face. A salad was already waiting on the table--just lettuce, shredded carrot, sliced tomato, and a few other odds and ends; a small bowl of broth and a packet of crackers sat next to the salad, and a glass of what looked like ginger ale stood at the other side. Lis smiled at her retainer. "Thank you, Claude, that was very thoughtful. Whose turn is it? I'm feeling peckish."

"Mine, Lis," the chef replied, reaching up and unbuttoning his shirt collar. Lis pointed Zoey toward the light food.

"As I was saying, angel, while I don't really need to feed very often, I like to take the edge off. Blood bags satisfy the baser hunger, just as plain bread might satisfy a mortal's stomach, but to sate my more refined taste, I prefer a fresh source." She took Claude's arm, pulling him gently to her; the slender Frenchman closed his eyes, tilting his head back, passive and calm. He let out a faint gasp as her fangs pierced his flesh, then moaned softly with the slow, gentle sips; Zoey finally got to see a reflection of the rapture that his own face expressed each time Lis gave him that dark kiss.

Lis finally broke off, passing her tongue over the tiny wounds to close them, and immediately turned to sit Claude firmly in another chair at the table. The chef was breathing in slow, deep breaths; his blue eyes were a bit glazed when he opened them. "Sit still for a few minutes--you know the drill. Zoey, I want you to at least try to eat or drink a little. I'm going up to bathe. When you're done here, angel, clean up and go to sleep; I have some paperwork to take care of." She leaned over and kissed Zoey's forehead, then hugged Claude lightly. With a flick of her heavy braid, she turned and strode from the kitchen.

Hours later, near dawn, Lis pushed her chair back from her desk and stood up, stretching. The web of her influence stretched across the globe; her carefully chosen and loyal agents--mortal, ghoul, and Kindred alike--handled much of the work, but there were still things that required her personal attention.

Switching off the lights, she went quietly out into the hall, down the few doors to her bedroom. Zoey was in her bed, his face innocent and unguarded in sleep; she smiled at the sight of him, even as she stripped out of her robe. Slipping into bed beside him, she kissed his cheek; he sighed softly and cuddled close against her, draping an arm over her. Lis purred, then closed her eyes as the rising sun climbed slowly over the horizon.

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