THE VAMPIRE UNLEASHES HERSELF WITH A SNARL. Vlad is instantly beside me. Take care of Frey, I tell him.
He doesn't argue or question. He moves away. When he is at Frey's side, I turn to the bear.
There is enough of Anna's consciousness left to make vampire wonder if it is Steffan or Archambault in control. No matter.
Vampire circles the beast. He watches her, wary. He makes no move to attack as if uncertain what type of animal he faces. That is fine with me. I, vampire, will choose the attack before he can make up his mind.
I glance to Frey. The other vampire has opened a wrist and is holding it to the cat's mouth. His own eyes are slit, too, like the cat's, like mine. Good. His blood will heal the panther.
A low rumbling sound from behind me. Bear is sounding a warning.
I turn. He has pulled himself to his full height, towering over me. He is snarling, showing his teeth. He waves paws with claws half a foot long in my face.
A plan forms. I need bear on the ground if I am to get to what I need. I reach up, grab one of the paws and, stepping back, twist until I hear the shoulder pop and the paw go limp. Bear screams and rakes at me with his good paw, but he does not fall.
I circle behind him. He stays with me. His useless paw hangs limp at his side, but the good one continues to stretch toward me, thrashing the air with those razor-sharp claws. One swipe connects, a blaze of red-hot pain sears my chest. Blood begins to seep through the rip in my shirt.
It awakens the lust. With a roar, I rush forward, catching the bear around his middle and throwing him to the ground.
I jump back, out of his reach. He squirms on the ground, gathering himself to stand. Before he can get legs under him, I am behind him. I bury my face in the thick fur, shielding it from the paw raking at me. I work my arms around his neck until my forearm is under his snout. I squeeze.
Bear bucks and twists. He slams me against the ground. He rears and kicks. I hold on-exerting more and more pressure until his attempts to shake me off weaken. Then, when I know the time is right, I shift my weight, grab his head with both hands. And wrench.
A sound, like the popping of dry wood. One ragged breath.
I back away. The bloodlust is unsatisfied. I kneel to open a vein, curious what the blood of bear will taste like.
Vlad's voice from the corner of the garden. I look up. A woman has come into the garden. She is holding a shotgun and its barrel is pointed at my chest.
I see her finger tighten on the trigger, feel a draft of air as something rushes past me.
Frey. He knocks her to the ground, the gun spinning from her grasp as it discharges into the yard.
I beat him to his prey before he can seize her throat with snapping jaws. Lock his eyes with my own.
"She is human. Wait."
He backs away, staying close, growling.
The human Anna surfaces enough to form coherent words. "Who are you to Archambault?"
Her eyes are huge, reflecting horror and fear. She sobs. "I am his wife. Why did you attack him?"
I turn back, close my eyes, allow vampire to withdraw so it is a completely human visage she faces now. "Do you know King Steffan?"
"The vampire who rules his kind?" Sorrow retreats as another emotion surfaces. "Did he send you here to kill my husband?" Her fists clench in anger.
"No. Steffan was sentenced to death tonight. He escaped-by using your husband's body. This you see on the ground is no longer Archambault, your husband, but Steffan."
Even as I say the words, I think of Sandra. She was still in her own body, but bit by bit, Avery was taking control. Archambault was not a were. Would he have had a chance to fight Steffan's control?
From the corner of the yard: We could not risk it. Vlad's words are hard as flint. He has read my thoughts, felt my conflict. You know that.
I draw in a breath, hold out a hand to the woman. "I am sorry for your loss."
She ignores my hand. In the darkness of the yard, I see her expression toughen. She is not a young woman, forty or so, but her face reflects a life well lived. In other circumstances I imagine those eyes might sparkle, those lips smile more than frown.
Now she fixes me a glare of undisguised fury. "His friends will want revenge against the vampires," she says. "Steffan has unleashed the fury."
For the first time, Vlad steps up to join us. My breath catches. When the shotgun discharged, it struck him squarely in the chest
His shirt is shredded, his chest pockmarked with dozens of seeping wounds.
The woman recoils when she sees him. A glint of recognition sparks, and her shoulders lose some of their rigidity. She knows who he is.
Vlad fixes her with a look of hardened steel. "You do not wish to make enemies of the vampires," he says. "History has proven that to be an unwise choice."