Morrigans cross, p.27
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       Morrigan's Cross, p.27

         Part #1 of Circle series by Nora Roberts
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  She whirled, fangs glinting, eyes burning red. And the vampire who’d once been a man of two hundred and twenty pounds of muscle when alive, backed off hurriedly.

  “You question me?”

  “No.” She was here, after all—and he could smell her hunger. Lilith was not.

  “Bring her to me,” Lora repeated, tapping him on the chest, then wagging that finger playfully in front of his face. “And no tasting. I want her alive. It’s time I had a new playmate.” Her lips moved over her fangs in a pretty pout. “And try not to damage the coat. I like it.”

  They moved out of the shadows and onto the road, three males who’d been ordinary in life.

  They scented human. And female.

  Their hunger, always waiting, woke—and only the fear of Lora’s reprisal prevented them from charging like wolves.

  She glanced over as they approached. She smiled, quick and friendly as she straightened from her crouch at the side of the car, and raked a hand through short, dark hair that left her throat and neck exposed in the gloomy light.

  “I was hoping someone would come along.”

  “Must be your lucky night.” The one Lora had chastised grinned.

  “I’ll say. Dark, deserted road like this, middle of nowhere. Whew. It’s a little scary.”

  “It can get scarier.”

  They spread out in a triangle to close her in with the car at her back. She took a step back, eyes going wide, and they growled low in the throat.

  “Oh God. Are you going to hurt me? I don’t have much money, but—”

  “Money’s not what we’re after, but we’ll take that, too.”

  She still held the tire iron, and when she lifted it, the one closest to her laughed. “Stay back. Just keep away from me.”

  “Metal’s not a big problem for us.”

  He charged toward her, hands lifted toward her throat. And exploded into dust.

  “No, but the pointy end of this is.” She wagged the stake she’d held behind her back.

  She lunged, kicking one aside with a flashing foot to the belly, blocking a blow with her forearm then leading with the stake. She let the last one come to her, let the momentum of his rage and hunger rush him forward. She swung the tire iron full at his face. She was on him in an instant when he landed on the road.

  “Metal’s a little problem after all,” she said. “But we’ll finish up with this.”

  She staked him, rose. Dusted off her coat. “Damn vampires.”

  She started back to her car, then stopped, her head lifting like a dog scenting the air.

  She spread her legs, shifted her grip on the tire iron, on the stake. “Don’t you want to come out and play?” she called out. “I can smell you out there. These three didn’t give me much action, and I’m revved.”

  The scent began to fade. In moments, the air was clear again. She watched, and waited, then with a shrug hooked the stake into the sheath on her belt. When she finished changing the tire, she glanced up at the sky.

  Clouds had rolled over the moon, and in the west thunder grumbled. “Storm’s coming,” she murmured.

  In the training room, Hoyt landed hard on his back. He felt every bone in his body rattle. Larkin pounced, then brought the blunted stake down to tap Hoyt’s heart.

  “I’ve killed you six times already tonight. You’re off your game.” He cursed lightly when he felt the blade at his throat.

  Moira eased it back, then leaned over him to give him an upside down smile. “He’d be dust, that’s certain, but you’d be bleeding all over what’s left.”

  “Well, if you’re going to come at a man from behind—”

  “They will,” Cian reminded him, giving Moira one of his rare nods of approval. “And more than one. You make your kill, you move on. Quick, fast and in a bloody hurry.”

  He vised his hands on Moira’s head, feigned giving it a twist. “Now the three of you are dead because you spend too much time talking. You need to handle multiple opponents, whether it’s sword, stake or bare hands.”

  Hoyt stood, shook himself off. “Why don’t you demonstrate for us?”

  Cian lifted his brows at the irritable challenge. “All right then. All of you, on me. I’ll try not to hurt you more than is necessary.”

  “Bragging. That would be talking, wouldn’t it?” Larkin crouched into a fighting stance.

  “It would be, in this case, stating the obvious.” He picked up the blunted stake, tossed it to Moira. “What you want to do here is anticipate each other’s moves, as well as mine. Then…So you decided to join the party.”

  “I’ve been working on something. Making progress.” Glenna touched the hilt of the dagger she’d strapped to her waist. “I needed to step away from it awhile. What’s the drill here?”

  “We’re going to kick Cian’s arse,” Larkin told her.

  “Oh. I’ll play. Weapons?”

  “Your choice.” Cian nodded toward the dagger. “You seem to have yours.”

  “No, not for this.” She moved over, selected another blunted stake. “Rules?”

  In answer, Cian shot over, flipped Larkin and sent him tumbling to a pad. “Win. That’s the only rule.”

  When Hoyt moved on him, Cian took the blow, let the momentum of it carry him into the air. He kicked off the wall, revolved, and used his body to knock Hoyt into Moira. And took them both down.

  “Anticipate,” he repeated, and kicked back almost idly to send Larkin into the air.

  Glenna grabbed a cross, held it out as she stepped forward.

  “Ah, smart.” His eyes went red, just at the rims. Outside the doors, thunder began to grumble. “Shield and weapon, put the enemy in retreat. Except…” He lashed out, forearm to forearm and knocked the cross away. But when he spun to dispatch the stake, Glenna dived, going under him.

  “Now this one’s clever.” Cian nodded approval, and for a moment, his face was illuminated by a ripple of lightning against the glass. “She uses her head, her instincts—at least when the stakes—haha—are low.”

  They circled him now, which he considered a small improvement in their strategy. Not quite a team, not yet an oiled machine, but an improvement.

  As they closed in, he could see the need to pounce in Larkin’s eyes.

  Cian chose what he considered the weakest link, pivoted, and using one hand simply lifted Moira off her feet. When he tossed her, Larkin instinctively shifted to catch her. All Cian needed to do was sweep out a leg, take Larkin off his feet, and both of them went down in a tangle of limbs.

  He spun to block his brother, gripped Hoyt’s shirt. The solid head butt had Hoyt stumbling back, giving Cian the instant he needed to wrench the stake from Glenna.

  He had her back against him, his arm hooked tight around her neck.

  “What now?” he asked the rest of them. “I’ve got your girl here. Do you back off, leave her to me? Do you come in, risk me snapping her in half? It’s a problem.”

  “Or do they let me take care of myself?” Glenna gripped the chain around her neck, swung the cross back toward Cian’s face.

  He released her, vaulted clear to the ceiling. He clung there a moment, a dangerous fly, then dropped lightly to his feet.

  “Not bad. And still, the four of you have yet to put me down. And if I were to—” There was a burst of lightning as his hand shot out, snatched the flying stake an inch from his own heart. The end was honed to a killing point.

  “We’d call that cheating,” he said mildly.

  “Back away from him.”

  They turned to see the woman step through the terrace doors as another flash of lightning ripped the sky behind her. She was slim in a black leather coat that hit her at the knees. Her dark hair was cut short, showcasing a high forehead and enormous eyes of vivid blue.

  She dumped the large sack she carried on the floor, and with another stake in one hand, a two-edged knife in the other, she moved farther into the light.

  “Who the hell are you?” Larkin demanded.

/>   “Murphy. Blair Murphy. And I’ll be saving your lives tonight. How the hell’d you let one of them in the house?”

  “It happens I own it,” Cian told her. “This is my place.”

  “Nice. Your heirs should be celebrating really soon. I said keep back from him,” she snapped as both Larkin and Hoyt moved in front of Cian.

  “I’d be his heir, as this is my brother.”

  “He’s one of us,” Larkin said.

  “No. He’s really not.”

  “But he is.” Moira held up her hands to show they were empty, and moved slowly toward the intruder. “We can’t let you hurt him.”

  “Looked to me like you were doing a piss-poor job of trying to hurt him when I came in.”

  “We were training. He’s chosen to help us.”

  “A vampire helping humans?” Those big eyes narrowed in interest, and what might have been humor. “Well, there’s always something new.” Slowly Blair lowered the stake.

  Cian pushed his shields aside. “What are you doing here? How did you come here?”

  “How? Aer Lingus. What? Killing as many of your kind as I can manage. Present company, temporarily, excluded.”

  “How do you know about his kind?” Larkin asked her.

  “Long story.” She paused to scan the room, eyebrows lifting thoughtfully at the stockpile of weapons. “Nice stash. There’s something about a battle-ax that warms my heart.”

  “Morrigan. Morrigan said she’d come with the lightning.” Glenna touched a hand to Hoyt’s arm, then walked to Blair. “Morrigan sent you.”

  “She said there’d be five. She didn’t mention any undead in the crew.” After a moment, she sheathed the knife, tucked the stake into her belt. “But that’s a god for you. Just gotta be cryptic. Look, it’s been a long trip.” She picked up her bag, slung the strap over her shoulder. “Got anything to eat around here?”

  Chapter 19

  “We have a lot of questions.”

  Blair nodded at Glenna as she sampled stew. “Bet you do, and right back at you. This is good.” She took another spoonful. “Thanks, and compliments to the chef and all that.”

  “You’re welcome. I’m going to start, if that’s okay.” Glenna scanned the faces of the rest of the group. “Where did you come from?”

  “Lately? Chicago.”

  “The Chicago in the here and now?”

  A smile tugged at Blair’s wide mouth. She reached for the hunk of bread Glenna had set out, ripped it in two with nails painted a deep candy pink. “That’s the one. In the heartland, Planet Earth. You?”

  “New York. This is Moira, and her cousin Larkin. They’re from Geall.”

  “Get out.” Blair studied them as she ate. “I always figured that for a myth.”

  “You don’t seem particularly surprised it’s not.”

  “Nothing much surprises me, less now after the visit from the goddess. Heavy stuff.”

  “This is Hoyt. He’s a sorcerer from Ireland. Twelfth-century Ireland.”

  Blair watched as Glenna reached behind her for Hoyt’s hand, the way their fingers smoothly intertwined. “You two paired up?”

  “You could say that.”

  Now she lifted her wine, took a small sip. “That’s taking going for older men to a new level, but who could blame you?”

  “Your host is his brother, Cian, who was made a vampire.”

  “Twelfth century?” Blair leaned back, took a good, long look at him, with all the interest but none of the amusement she’d shown when studying Hoyt. “You’ve got nearly a thousand years? I’ve never met a vamp who lasted that long. The oldest I ever came across was a couple decades shy of five hundred.”

  “Clean living,” Cian said.

  “Yeah, that’ll be the day.”

  “He doesn’t drink humans.” Since it was there, Larkin got another bowl, spooned up stew for himself. “He fights with us. We’re an army.”

  “An army? Talk about delusions of grandeur. What are you?” she asked Glenna.

  “Witch.”

  “So, we’ve got a witch, a sorcerer, a couple of refugees from Geall and a vampire. Some army.”

  “A powerful witch.” Hoyt spoke for the first time. “A scholar of remarkable skill and courage, a shape-shifter, and a centuries-old vampyre who was made by the reining queen.”

  “Lilith?” Now Blair set down her spoon. “She made you?”

  Cian leaned back against the counter, crossed his ankles. “I was young and foolish.”

  “And had really bad luck.”

  “What are you?” Larkin demanded.

  “Me? Demon hunter.” She picked up her spoon to resume eating. “I’ve spent most of my life tracking and dusting his kind.”

  Glenna angled her head. “What, like Buffy?”

  With a laugh, Blair swallowed stew. “No. First, I’m not the only, just the best.”

  “There are more of you.” At that point, Larkin decided he could use some wine as well.

  “It’s a family thing, has been for centuries. Not all of us, but every generation one or two more of us. My father’s one, and my aunt. His uncle was—and like that. I have two cousins on the job now. We fight the fight.”

  “And Morrigan sent you here,” Glenna put in. “Only you.”

  “I’d have to say yes, since I’m the only one here. Okay, so the last couple of weeks, things have been weird. More undead activity than usual, like they’re getting some brass ones. And I’m having these dreams. Portentous dreams go with the package, but I’m having them every time I close my eyes. And sometimes when I’m wide awake. Disturbing.”

  “Lilith?” Glenna asked.

  “She made some appearances—cameos we’ll say. Up till then, I figured she was another myth. Anyway, in the dream, I thought I was over here—Ireland. It looked like here anyway. I’ve been to Ireland before, another family tradition. But I’m on this rise. Barren place, rough ground, deep chasms, wicked rocks.”

  “The Valley of Silence,” Moira interrupted.

  “That’s what she called it. Morrigan. She said I was needed.” Blair hesitated, looked around. “I probably don’t have to fill in all the details since you’re all here. Big battle, possible apocalypse. Vampire queen forming an army to eliminate humankind. There would be five waiting for me, gathered together. We’d have until Samhain to prepare. Not a lot of time considering, you know—goddess, eternity. But that’s how it’s laid out.”

  “So you came,” Glenna said. “Just like that?”

  “Didn’t you?” Blair shrugged. “I was born for this. I’ve dreamed of that place before, as long as I can remember. Me standing on that rise, watching it rage below. The moon, the fog, the screams. I always knew I’d end up there.”

  Always assumed she would die there.

  “I just expected a little more backup.”

  “In three weeks we’ve killed more than a dozen,” Larkin said with some annoyance.

  “Good for you. I don’t keep a tally of kills since I had my first thirteen years ago. But I took out three tonight on the road, on the way here.”

  “Three?” He held up his spoon. “Alone?”

  “There was another. It stayed back. Chasing it down didn’t seem like a good way to stay alive, which is the first rule in the family handbook. There might have been more of them, but I only scented the one. You’ve got more stationed around the perimeter of this place. I had to slip through them to get inside.”

  She pushed her empty bowl away. “That was really good. Thanks again.”

  “You’re welcome again.” Glenna took the bowl to the sink. “Hoyt, can I have a word with you? Excuse us, just for a minute.”

  She drew him out of the kitchen, toward the front of the house. “Hoyt, she’s—”

  “The warrior,” he finished. “Yes, she’s the last of the six.”

  “It was never King.” She pressed her fingers to her mouth as she turned away. “He was never one of the six, and what happened to him—”

&
nbsp; “Happened.” Hoyt took her shoulders, turned her to face him. “Can’t be changed. She’s the warrior, and completes the circle.”

  “We have to trust her. I don’t know how we begin to do that. She damned near killed your brother before she bothered to say hello.”

  “And we have only her word she’s who she says she is.”

  “Well, she’s not a vampire. She walked right into the house. Added to that, Cian would know.”

  “Vampyres can have human servants.”

  “So how do we know? Do we take what she says she is on faith? If she is what she says, she’s the last of us.”

  “We have to be sure.”

  “It’s not like we can check her ID.”

  He shook his head, not bothering to ask her meaning. “She has to be tested. Upstairs, I think, in the tower. We’ll make the circle, and we’ll be sure.”

  When they were gathered upstairs, Blair looked around. “Close quarters. I like things roomier. You’re going to want to keep your distance,” she warned Cian. “I might stake you, just knee-jerk.”

  “You can try.”

  She tapped her fingers on the stake in her belt. There was a ring, a ridged band of silver, on her right thumb. “So, what’s all this about?”

  “We had no sign you were coming,” Glenna began. “Not you specifically.”

  “So, you’re thinking Trojan Horse?”

  “It’s a possibility we can’t dismiss without proof.”

  “No,” Blair agreed, “you’d be stupid just to take my word. And I feel better, actually, knowing you’re not stupid. What do you want? My demon hunter’s license?”

  “You actually have—”

  “No.” She planted her feet, very like a warrior bracing for battle. “But if you’re toying with doing some kind of witchcraft that involves my blood or other bodily fluid, you’re out of luck. Line drawn on that.”

  “Nothing like that. Well, witchcraft, but nothing that requires blood. We’re linked, the five of us. By fate, by necessity. And some, yes, by blood. We are the circle. We are the chosen. If you’re the last link of that circle, we’ll know.”

  “Otherwise?”

  “We can’t harm you.” Hoyt laid a hand on Glenna’s shoulder. “It’s against all we are to use power against a human being.”

  Blair glanced toward the broadsword leaning against the tower wall. “Anything in the rule book about sharp, pointy objects?”

  “We won’t harm you. If you’re Lilith’s servant, we’ll make you our prisoner.”

  She smiled, one corner of her mouth rising, then the other. “Good luck with that. All right, let’s do it. Like I said, if you’d swallowed everything without
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