Chapter 14

I went down the stairs on Alcide's arm. I was already feeling a little swimmy in the head, having taken an illegal drug for the first time in my life.

I was an idiot.

However, I was an increasingly warm and comfortable idiot. A delightful side effect of the shaman's drink was that I couldn't feel Eric and Alexei and Appius Livius with nearly as much immediacy, and the relief was incredible.

A less pleasant side effect was that my legs didn't feel quite real underneath me. Maybe that was why Alcide was keeping such a tight grip on my arm. I remembered what he'd said about his former hope that we'd be a couple one day, and I thought it might be nice to kiss him and remind myself what it felt like. Then I realized I'd better channel those warm and fuzzy feelings into finding out the answers to the puzzles facing Alcide. I directed my feelings, which was an excellent decision. I was so proud of my excellence I could have rolled in it.

The shaman had probably known a few tricks for keeping all this dreaminess focused on the matter at hand. I made a huge effort to sharpen up. In my absence, the group in the living room had swollen in numbers; the whole pack was here. I could feel the totality of it, the completeness.

Eyes turned to look at us as we descended the stairs. Jason looked alarmed, but I gave him a reassuring smile. Something must have been off about it, because his face didn't smooth out.

Alcide's second went to stand by the kneeling Annabelle. Jannalynn threw back her head and gave a series of yips. Now I was standing by my brother, and he was holding on to me. Somehow, Alcide had passed me over to Jason's keeping.

"Geez," Jason muttered. "What's wrong with waving your hand in the air or ringing a triangle?" I could assume yipping was not a summons in the panther pride. That was okay. I smiled at Jason. I felt a lot like Alice in Wonderland after she took a bite of the mushroom.

I was on one side of the empty space around Annabelle, Alcide on the other. He looked around to collect the pack's attention. "We're here tonight with two visitors to decide what to do about Annabelle," he said without a preamble. "We're here to judge whether she had anything to do with the death of Basim, or if that death can be laid at the door of anyone else."

"Why are there visitors?" asked a woman's voice. I tried to find her face, but she was standing so far in the back I couldn't see her. I estimated there were perhaps as many as forty people in the room, ranging in age from sixteen (the change began after puberty) to seventy. Ham and Patricia were to my left, about a quarter of the circle away. Jannalynn had stayed by Annabelle. The few other pack members I knew by name were scattered through the crowd.

"Listen hard," Alcide said, looking directly at me. Okay, Alcide, message received. I closed my eyes, and I listened. Well, this was absofucking-lutely amazing. I found I knew when his gaze swept the assembled pack members by the ripple of fear that followed. I could see the fear. It was dark yellow. "Basim's body was found on Sookie's land," Alcide said. "It was planted there in an attempt to blame her for his death. The police came to search for it right after we removed it."

There was a general surge of surprise ... from almost everyone.

"You moved the body?" Patricia said. My eyes flew open. Why had Alcide elected to keep that a secret? Because it had been a total shock to Patricia, and to a few others, that Basim's body was not still in the clearing. Jason moved up behind me and put his beer down. He knew he needed his hands free. My brother might not be a mental giant, but he had good instincts.

I was amazed at Alcide's cleverness in setting up the scene. I might not get Were thoughts that clearly, but Were emotions ... That was what he was after. Now that I was concentrating, focusing on the creatures in the room, almost out of my body with the intensity of it, I saw Alcide as a ball of red energy, pulsing and attractive, and all the other Weres were circling around him. I understood for the first time that the packleader was the planet around which all others orbited in the Were universe. The pack members were various shades of red and violet and pink, the colors of their devotion to him. Jannalynn was a blazing streak of intense crimson, her adoration making her almost as bright as Alcide himself. Even Annabelle was a watery cerise, despite her infidelity.

But there were a few spots of green. I held my hand out in front of me as if I were telling the rest of the world to stop while I considered this new interpretation of perception.

"Tonight Sookie is our shaman," Alcide's voice boomed from a distance. I could safely ignore that. I could follow the colors, because they betrayed the person.

Green, look for the green. Though my head remained still and my eyes closed, I turned them somehow to look at the green people. Ham was green. Patricia was green. I looked the other way. There was one more green one, but he fluctuated between pale yellow and faint green. Ha! Ambivalent, I told myself wisely. Not a traitor yet, but doubtful about Alcide's leadership. The wavering image belonged to a young male, and I dismissed him as insignificant. I looked at Annabelle again. Cerise still, but flickering with amber as her intense fear broke through her loyalty.

I opened my eyes. What was I supposed to say - "They're green, get them!"? I found myself moving, drifting through the pack like a balloon through the trees. Finally, I was right in front of Ham and Patricia. This was where the hands would come in handy. Ha! That was funny! I laughed a little.

"Sookie?" Ham said. Patricia shrank back, letting go of him.

"Don't go anywhere, Patricia," I said, smiling at her. She flinched, ready to run, but a dozen hands grabbed her and held her firmly. I looked up at Ham and put my fingers on his cheeks. If I'd had some finger paint, he'd have looked like a movie Indian on the warpath. "So jealous," I said. "Ham, you told Alcide there were people camping on the stream and that was why the pack needed to run in my woods. You invited those men, didn't you?"

"They - no."

"Oh, I see," I said, touching the tip of his nose. "I see." I could hear his thoughts as clearly as if I were inside his head now. "So they were from the government. They were trying to gather information on the Were packs in Louisiana and anything bad the packs might have done. They asked you to bribe an enforcer, a second. To describe all the bad stuff he'd done. So they could push through that bill, the one that'll require you-all to register like aliens. Hamilton Bond - shame on you! You told them to force Basim to tell them stuff, the stuff that had gotten him kicked out of the Houston pack."

"None of this is true, Alcide," Ham said. He was trying to sound all Big Serious Man, but to me he sounded like a squeaky little mouse. "Alcide, I've known you my whole life."

"And you thought that Alcide would make you his second," I said. "Instead, he picked Basim, who already had a track record as an enforcer."

"He got thrown out of Houston," Ham said. "That's how bad he was." The anger broke through, pulsing in gold and black.

"I'd ask him, and I'd know the truth, but I can't now, right? Because you killed him and put him in the cold, cold ground." Actually, it hadn't been all that cold, but I felt I was due a little artistic license. My mind soared and swooped, way above everything. I could see so much! I felt like God. This was fun.

"I didn't kill Basim! Well, maybe I did, but it was because he was screwing our packleader's girlfriend! I couldn't stomach such disloyalty!"

"Beep! Try again!" I fanned my fingers over his cheeks. We needed to know something else, didn't we? Some other question had to be answered.

"He met with a creature in your woods on our moon night," Ham blurted. "He, I don't know what he talked about."

"What kind of creature?"

"I don't know. Some guy. Some ... I've never seen anything like him. He was really handsome. Like a movie star or something. He had long hair, really pale long hair, and he was there one minute and gone the next. He talked to Basim while Basim was in his wolf form. Basim was by himself. After we ate the deer, I'd fallen asleep on the other side of some laurel bushes. When I woke up, I heard them talking. The other guy was trying to frame you for something because you'd done something to him. I don't know what. Basim was going to kill someone and bury him on your land, and then call the cops. That would take care of you, and then the fair ..." Ham's voice died away.

"You knew it was a fairy," I said, smiling at Ham. "You knew. So you decided to do the job first."

"It wasn't something Alcide would have wanted Basim to do, right, Alcide?"

Alcide didn't answer, but he was pulsating like a skyrocket on the periphery of my vision.

"And you told Patricia. And she helped," I said, stroking his face. He wanted to make me stop, but he didn't dare.

"Her sister died in the war! She couldn't accept her new pack. I was the only one who was nice to her, she said."

"Aw, you're so generous to be nice to the pretty Were woman," I said mockingly. "Good Ham! Instead of Basim killing someone and burying them, you killed Basim and buried him. Instead of Basim getting a reward from the fairy, you thought you would get a reward from the fairy. Because fairies are rich, right?" I let my nails dig into his cheek. "Basim wanted the money to get out from under the government guys. You wanted the money just because you wanted the money."

"Basim owed a blood debt in Houston," Ham said. "Basim wouldn't have talked to the anti-Were people for any reason. I can't go to my death with that lie on my soul. Basim wanted to pay off the debt he owed for killing a human who was a friend of the pack. It was an accident, while Basim was in wolf form. The human poked him with a hoe, and Basim killed him."

"I knew about that," Alcide said. He hadn't spoken until now. "I told Basim I would loan him the money."

"I guess he wanted to earn it himself," Ham said miserably. (Misery, I learned, was deep purple.) "He thought he'd meet with the fairy again, find out exactly what the fairy wanted him to do, get a body from a mortuary or a drunk's body from some alley, and plant it on Sookie's land. That would fulfill the letter of what the fairy wanted. No harm would have been done. But instead, I decided ..." He began sobbing, and his color turned all washed-out gray, the color of faded faith.

"Where were you going to meet him?" I asked. "To get your money? Which you had earned, I'm not saying you didn't." I was proud of how fair I was being. Fairness was blue, of course.

"I was going to meet him at the same spot in your woods," he said. "On the south side by the cemetery. Later tonight."

"Very good," I murmured. "Don't you feel better now?"

"Yes," he said, without a trace of irony in his voice. "I do feel better, and I'm ready to accept the judgment of the pack."

"I'm not," Patricia cried. "I escaped death in the pack war by surrendering. Let me surrender again!" She fell to her knees, like Annabelle. "I beg forgiveness. I'm only guilty of loving the wrong man." Like Annabelle. Patricia bowed her head, and her dark braid fell over one shoulder. She put her clasped hands to her face. Pretty as a picture.

"You didn't love me," Ham said, genuinely shocked. "We screwed. You were upset with Alcide because he didn't pick you to bed. I was upset with Alcide because he didn't pick me as his second. That was the sum total of what we had in common!"

"Their colors are certainly getting brighter now," I observed. The passion of their mutual accusation was perking up their auras to something combustible. I tried to summarize to myself what I'd learned, but it all came out a jumble. Maybe Jason could help me sort it out later. This shaman stuff was kind of taxing. I felt that soon I would be depleted, as if the end of a race were in sight. "Time to decide," I said, looking at Alcide, whose brilliant red glow was still steady.

"I think Annabelle should be disciplined but not cast out of the pack," Alcide said, and there was a chorus of protest.

"Kill her!" said Jannalynn, her fierce little face determined. She was so ready to do the killing. I wondered if Sam really understood what he'd bitten off in going out with such a ferocious thing. He seemed so far away now.

"This is my reasoning," Alcide said calmly. The room quieted as the pack listened. "According to them," and he pointed at Ham and Patricia, "Annabelle's only guilt is a moral one, in sleeping with two men at the same time while telling one of them she was faithful. We don't know what she told Basim."

Alcide spoke the truth ... at least, the truth as he saw it. I looked at Annabelle and saw her all: the disciplined woman who was in the Air Force, the practical woman who balanced her pack life with the rest of her life, the woman who lost all her practicality and restraint when it came to sex. Annabelle was a rainbow of colors right now, none of them happy except the vibrating white line of relief that Alcide did not plan to kill her.

"As for Ham and Patricia. Ham is the murderer of a pack member. Instead of an open challenge, he took the path of stealth. That would call for severe punishment, maybe death. We should consider that Basim was a traitor - not only a pack member, but a second, who was willing to deal with someone outside the pack, to plot against the pack interests and against the good name of a friend of the pack," Alcide continued.

"Oh," I murmured to Jason. "That's me."

"And Patricia, who promised to be loyal to this pack, broke her vow," Alcide said. "So she should be cast out forever."

"Packmaster, you're too merciful," Jannalynn said vehemently. "Ham clearly deserves death for his disloyalty. Ham, at least."

There was a long silence, broken by a growing buzz of discussion. I looked around the room, seeing the color of thoughtfulness (brown, of course) turning into all kinds of shades as passions rose. Jason put his arms around me from behind. "You need to back out of this," he whispered, and I could see his words turn pink and curly. He loved me. I put a hand over my mouth so I wouldn't laugh out loud. We stepped backward; one step, two, three, four, five. Then we were standing in the foyer.

"We need to leave," Jason said. "If they're going to kill two good-looking gals like Annabelle and Patricia, I don't want to be around to see it. If we don't see anything, we won't have to testify in court, if it comes to that."

"They won't debate long. I think Annabelle will see tomorrow. Alcide will let Jannalynn persuade him to kill Ham and Patricia," I said. "His colors tell me so."

Jason gaped at me. "I don't know what you took or smoked or inhaled upstairs," he said, "but you need to get out of here now."

"Okay," I said, and suddenly I realized I felt pretty damn bad. I made it outside to Alcide's shrubbery before I threw up. I waited for the second wave to roll over me before I risked getting into Jason's truck.

"What would Gran say about me leaving before I saw the results of what I'd done?" I asked him sadly. "I left after the Were war when Alcide was celebrating his victory. I don't know how you panthers celebrate, but believe me, I didn't want to be around when he fucked one of the Weres. It was bad enough seeing Jannalynn execute the wounded. On the other hand ..." I lost my train of thought in another wave of sickness, though this one wasn't as violent.

"Gran would say you're not obliged to watch people kill each other, and you didn't cause it, they did," Jason said briskly. I could tell that my brother, though sympathetic, wasn't thrilled about driving me all the way home with my stomach so jittery.

"Listen, can I just drop you by Eric's?" he said. "I know he's gotta have a bathroom or two, and that way my truck can stay clean."

Under any other circumstances I would have refused, since Eric was in such a charged situation. But I felt shaky, and I was still seeing colors. I chewed two antacids from the glove compartment and rinsed my mouth out repeatedly with some Sprite Jason had in the truck. I had to agree that it would be better if I could spend the night in Shreveport.

"I can come back and get you in the morning," Jason offered. "Or maybe his day guy can give you a ride to Bon Temps."

Bobby Burnham would rather transport a flock of turkeys.

While I hesitated, I discovered that now that I wasn't surrounded by Weres, I felt the misery rolling through the blood bond. It was the strongest, most active emotion I'd felt from Eric in days. The misery began to swell as unhappiness and physical pain overwhelmed him.

Jason opened his mouth to ask questions about what I'd taken before the pack meeting. "Get me to Eric's," I said. "Quick, Jason. Something's wrong."

"There, too?" he said plaintively, but we roared out of Alcide's driveway.

I was practically shaking with anxiety when we stopped at the gate so Dan the security guard could give me a look. He hadn't recognized Jason's truck.

"I'm here to see Eric, and this is my brother," I said, trying to act normal.

"Go on through," Dan said, smiling. "It's been a while."

When we pulled into Eric's driveway, I saw that his garage door was open, though the garage light was off. In fact, the house was in total darkness. Maybe everyone was over at Fangtasia. Nope. I knew Eric was there. I simply knew it.

"I don't like this," I said, and sat up a little straighter. I struggled against the effects of the drug. Though I was a little closer to normal since I'd been sick, I still felt as though I were experiencing the world through gauze.

"He don't leave it open?" Jason peered out over his steering wheel.

"No, he never leaves it open. And look! The kitchen door is open, too." I got out of the truck, and I heard Jason get out on his side. His truck lights stayed on automatically for a few seconds, so I got to the kitchen door easily enough. I always knocked at Eric's door if he didn't expect me, because I never knew who would be there or what they'd be talking about, but this time I simply pushed the door even wider. I could see a short distance into the kitchen because of the truck lights. The wrongness rolled out in a cloud, that feeling a mixture of the sense I'd been born with and the extra layer of senses the drug had imparted. I was glad Jason was right behind me. I could hear his breathing, way too fast and noisy.

"Eric," I said, very quietly.

No one answered. There was no sound of any kind.

I stepped into the kitchen just as Jason's truck lights went off. There were streetlights out on the street, and they supplied a dim glow. "Eric?" I called. "Where are you?" Tension made my voice crack. Something was awfully wrong.

"In here," he said from farther in the house, and my heart clenched.

"Thank you, God," I said, and my hand went out to the wall switch. I flicked it down, flooding the room with light. I looked around. The kitchen was pristine, as always.

So the awful things hadn't happened here.

I crept from the kitchen into Eric's big living room. I knew immediately that someone had died here. There were bloodstains everywhere. Some of them were still wet. Some of them dripped. I heard Jason's breath catch in his throat.

Eric was sitting on the couch, his head in his hands. There was no one else alive in the room.

Though the smell of blood was almost choking me, I was by him in a second. "Honey?" I said. "Look at me."

When he raised his head, I could see a terrible gash across his forehead. He'd bled copiously from the head wound. There was dried blood all over his face. When he straightened, I could see the blood on his white shirt. The head wound was healing, but the other one ... "What's under the shirt?" I said.

"My ribs are broken and they've come through," he said. "They'll heal, but it'll take time. You'll have to push them back into place."

"Tell me what's happened," I said, trying very hard to sound calm. Of course, he knew I wasn't.

"Dead guy over here," Jason called. "Human."

"Who is it, Eric?" I eased his bare feet up onto the sofa so he could lie down.

"It's Bobby," he said. "I tried to get him out of here in time, but he was so sure there was something he could do to help me." Eric sounded incredibly tired.

"Who killed him?" I hadn't even scanned for other beings in this house, and I almost gasped at my own carelessness.

"Alexei snapped," Eric said. "Tonight he left his room when Ocella came in here to talk to me. I knew Bobby was still in the house, but I simply didn't think about his being in danger. Felicia was here, too, and Pam."

"Why was Felicia here?" I asked, because Eric didn't ask his staff to his house, as a rule. Felicia, the Fangtasia bartender, had been lowest on the vampire totem pole.

"She was dating Bobby. He had some papers I needed to sign, and she'd just come over with him."

"So Felicia ... ?"

"Part of a vampire left over here," Jason called. "Looks like the rest has flaked away."

"She's gone to her final death," Eric told me.

"Oh, I'm so sorry!" I put my arms around him, and after a second, his shoulders relaxed. I had never seen Eric so defeated. Even the awful night we'd been surrounded by the vampires of Las Vegas and forced to surrender to Victor, the night he'd thought we might all die, he'd had that spark of determination and vigor. But at the moment he was literally overwhelmed with depression and anger and helplessness. Thanks to his damn maker, whose ego had required he bring back a traumatized boy from the dead.

"Where's Alexei now?" I asked, making my voice as brisk as I could manage. "Where's Appius? Is he still alive?" To hell with the two-name requirement. I thought it would be great if Alexei had been helpful enough to kill the old vampire, save me the trouble.

"I don't know." Eric sounded completely defeated.

"Why not?" I was genuinely shocked. "He's your maker, buddy! You'd know if he died. If I've been feeling you three for a week, I know you've been feeling him even stronger." Judith had said she'd felt a tug the day of Lorena's death, though she hadn't understood what it meant. Eric had been alive for so long, maybe it would actually cause him physical harm if Appius died. In a snap, I completely reversed my thinking. Appius should live until Eric recovered from his wounds. "You need to get out of here and go find him!"

"He asked me not to follow when he went after Alexei. He doesn't want us all to die."

"So you're just going to sit home because he said so? When you don't know where they are or what they're doing, or who they're doing it to?" I didn't know what I wanted Eric to actually do. The drug was still coasting through my system, though it was slightly weaker - I was only seeing colors where they shouldn't be every now and then. But I had very little control over my thoughts and my speech. I was simply trying to get Eric to act like Eric. And I wanted him to stop bleeding. And I wanted Jason to come push Eric's bones back in because I could see them sticking out.

"Ocella asked this of me," Eric said, and he glared at me.

"So, he asked? That doesn't sound like a direct order to me. It sounds like a request. Correct me if I'm wrong," I said, as snarkily as I could.

"No," Eric said through clenched teeth. I could feel his anger rising. "It was not a direct order."

"Jason!" I yelled. My brother appeared, looking very grim. "Please push Eric's ribs back in," I said, which is another sentence I never thought I'd hear myself saying. Without a word, but with a hard-set mouth, Jason put his hands on each side of the gaping wound. He looked at Eric's nose, and said, "Ready?" Without waiting for an answer, he pushed in.

Eric made an awful noise, but I noticed the bleeding stopped and the healing began. Jason looked down at his reddened hands and went to find a bathroom.

"Well, then?" I said, handing Eric an open bottle of TrueBlood that had been left on the coffee table. He made a face, but gulped it down. "What are you gonna do?"

"Later on we'll have words about this," he said. He gave me a look.

"Fine with me!" I glared right back and went off on an irrational tangent. "And while you're listing the things you should be doing, where's the cleaning crew?"

"Bobby ..." he began, and then stopped short.

Bobby would have called the cleaning crew for Eric.

"Okay, how's about I do that part," I said, and wondered where to find a phone book.

"He kept a list of important numbers in the right-hand desk drawer in my office," Eric said, very quietly.

I found the name of the vampire cleaning service based midway between Shreveport and Baton Rouge, Fangster Cleanup. Since it was vampire run, they'd be open. A male answered the phone immediately, and I described the problem. "We'll be there in three hours, if the homeowner can guarantee us a safe sleeping place in case the job runs over," he said.

"No problem." There was no telling where the other two resident vampires were or if they'd survive to return before the dawn. If they did, they could all sleep in Eric's big bed or in the other light-tight bedroom, if the coffins were required. I thought there were a couple of the fiberglass pods stashed in the laundry room, too.

Now the carpets and the furniture would be cleaned. We just had to make sure no one else died tonight. After I hung up I felt super efficient but strangely empty, which I attributed to having lost everything that had been in my stomach. Since I was so light, I floated when I walked. Okay, maybe I still had more drug in me than I'd thought.

Then it suddenly hit me - Eric had said that Pam was in the house, too. Where was she? "Jason," I yelled, "please, please - find Pam."

I returned to the foul-smelling living room, marched over to the windows, and opened them. I swung around to face my boyfriend, who before this night had been many things: Arrogant, quick thinking, strong willed, secretive, and tricky were only the short list. But he'd never been indecisive, and he'd never been hopeless.

"What's the plan?" I asked him.

He was looking a little better now that Jason had done his thing. I couldn't see any bones anymore. "There isn't one," Eric said, but at least he looked guilty about it.

"What's the plan?" I asked again.

"I told you. I haven't made a plan. I don't know what to do. Ocella may be dead by now, if Alexei was clever enough to waylay him." Eric's bloody tears ran down his cheeks.

"Bzzzzzt!" I made the noise of a buzzer going off. "You'd know if Appius Livius was dead. He's your maker. What's the plan?"

Eric shot to his feet, with only a slight wince. Good. I'd goaded him upright. "I haven't got one!" he roared. "No matter what I do, someone will die!"

"With no plan, someone's going to die. And you know it. Someone's probably dying right this second! Alexei is crazy! Let's have a plan." I threw my hands up in the air.

"Why do you smell strange?" He'd finally taken in the PEACE T-shirt. "You smell of Were and of drugs. And you've been sick."

"I've already been through hell tonight," I said, maybe overstating a little bit. "And now I get to go through it twice, because someone's got to get your Viking butt on the road."

"What am I supposed to do?" he said, in a strangely reasonable voice.

"So you're okay with Alexei killing Appius? I mean, I sure am, but I would've thought you would've objected. Guess I was wrong."

Jason staggered in. "I found Pam," he said. He sat down very suddenly on an armchair. "She needed blood."

"But she's moving?"

"Only barely. She's cut, her ribs are kicked in, and her left arm and her right leg are broken."

"Oh God," I said, and dashed back to find her. I definitely hadn't been thinking straight because of the drugs, or she would've been my first priority once I found Eric alive. She'd begun crawling to the living room from the bathroom, where Alexei had evidently trapped her. The knife slashes were the most obvious injury, but Jason had been right about the broken bones. And this was after she'd had Jason's blood.

"Don't say anything," she grunted. "He caught me unawares. I am ... so ... stupid. How is Eric?"

"He's going to be okay. Can I help you up?"

"No," she said bitterly. "I prefer to drag myself along the hardwood floor."

"Bitch," I said, squatting to help her up. It was hard work, but since Jason had donated so much blood to Pam, I hated to ask him for help. We staggered into the living room.

"Who would have thought Alexei could do so much damage? He's so puny, and you're a great fighter."

"Flattery," she said, her voice ragged, "is not effective at this point. It was my fault. The little shit was following Bobby around, and I saw he'd gotten a knife from the kitchen. I tried to corner him while Bobby got out of the house. To give Ocella a chance to cool the boy down. But he went for me. He's fast as a snake."

I was beginning to doubt I could get Pam to the couch.

Eric rose unsteadily and put his arm around her. Between us, we maneuvered her over to the couch he'd vacated.

"Do you need my blood?" he asked her. "I thank you for doing your best to stop him."

"He's my kin, too," Pam said, settling back on a pillow with relief.

"Through you, I'm related to that little murderer." Eric made a gesture with his wrist. "No, you need all your blood if you're going after him. I'm healing."

"Since you got a few pints of mine," Jason said weakly, with a ghost of his usual swagger.

"It was good. Thank you, panther," she said, and I thought my brother smirked a little; but just then, his cell phone rang. I knew the ring tone; it was from a song he loved, Queen's "We Are the Champions." Jason extricated the phone from his pocket and opened it. "Hey," he said, and then he listened.

"You okay?" he asked.

He listened some more.

"Okay. Thanks, honey. You stay inside, lock the doors, and don't answer them until you hear my voice. Wait, wait! Until you hear my cell phone! Okay?"

Jason flipped the phone shut. "That was Michele," he said. "Alexei was just at my house looking for me. She went to the door, but when she saw he was a deader, she didn't ask him in. He told her he wants to warm himself in my life, whatever that means. He'd tracked me there from your house by my smell." Jason looked self-conscious, as if he were afraid he'd forgotten to put on deodorant.

"Did the older one come after him?" I asked. I leaned against a handy wall. I was beginning to feel really ragged.

"Yeah, within a minute."

"What did Michele tell them?"

"She told 'em to go back to your house. She figured if they were vamps, they were some problem of yours." That was Michele, all right.

My cell was out in Jason's truck. I used his to call my house. Claude answered. "What are you doing there?" I said.

"We're closed on Monday," he said. "Why'd you call if you didn't want me to answer?"

"Claude, there is a very bad vamp headed to the house. And he can come in, he's been there before," I said. "You gotta get out. Get in your car and get out."

Alexei's psychotic break plus Claude's fairy allure to vampires: This was a deadly combination. The night, apparently, was still not over. I wondered if it ever would be. For an awful moment, I looked into an endless nightmare of wandering from crisis to crisis, always one step behind.

"Give me your keys, Jason," I said. "You're in no shape to drive after your blood donation, and Eric's still healing. I don't want to drive his car." My brother fished his keys from his pocket and tossed them to me, and I was grateful for someone who didn't argue.

"I'm coming," Eric said, and pushed to his feet once more. Pam had shut her eyes, but they flew open as she realized we were leaving.

"All right," I said, since I would take any help I could get. Even a weak Eric was stronger than almost anything. I told Jason about the cleanup crew that was coming, and then we were out the door and into the truck with Pam still protesting that if we loaded her in she would heal along the way.

I drove, and I drove fast. There was no point in asking if Eric could fly so he could get there faster, because I knew he couldn't. Eric and I didn't talk along the way. We had either too much to say, or not enough. When we were about four minutes away from the house, Eric doubled over with pain. It wasn't his. I got a backwash of it from him. Something big had happened. We were rocketing down the driveway to my house less than forty-five minutes after we'd left Shreveport, which was pretty damn good.

The security light in my front yard illuminated a strange scene. A pale-haired fairy I'd never seen before was standing back-to-back with Claude. The one I didn't know had a long, thin sword. Claude had two of my longest kitchen knives, one in each hand. Alexei, who appeared to be unarmed, was circling them like a small white killing machine. He was naked and covered in splotches, which were all shades of red. Ocella was lying sprawled on the gravel. His head was covered in dark blood. That seemed to be the theme of the night.

We skidded to a stop and scrambled out of Jason's truck. Alexei smiled, so he knew we were there, but he didn't stop his circling. "You didn't bring Jason," he called. "I wanted to see him."

"He had to give Pam a lot of blood to keep her from dying," I said. "He was too weak."

"He should have let her pass away," Alexei called, and darted under the sword to give the unknown fairy a hard fist to the stomach. Though Alexei had a knife, he seemed to be feeling playful. The fairy swung the sword faster than I could follow with my eyes, and it nicked Alexei, adding another rivulet to the blood already coursing down his chest.

"Can you please stop?" I asked. I staggered, because I seemed to have run out of steam. Eric put his arm around me.

"No," Alexei said in his high boy's voice. "Eric's love for you is pouring through our bond, Sookie, but I can't stop. This is the best I've felt in decades." He did feel wonderful; I could feel that coming through the bond. Though the drugs had temporarily deadened it, now I was feeling nuances, and there was such a contradictory bundle of them that it was like standing in a wind that kept changing directions.

Eric was trying to ease us over to where his maker lay. "Ocella," he said, "do you live?"

Ocella opened one black eye behind a mask of blood. He said, "For the first time in centuries, I think I wish I didn't."

I think I wish you didn't, too, I thought, and I felt him glance at me. "She'll kill me with no compunction, that one," the Roman said, almost sounding amused. In the same voice he said, "Alexei has severed my spinal column, and until it heals, I will not be able to move."

"Alexei, please don't kill the fairies," I said. "That's my cousin Claude, and I don't have much family left."

"Who's the other one?" the boy asked, making an incredible leap to pull at Claude's hair and vault the other fairy, whose sword was not quick enough this time.

"I have no idea," I said. I started to add that he was no friend of mine and was probably an enemy, since I figured he was the one who'd been colluding with Basim, but I didn't want to see anyone else die ... except possibly Appius Livius.

"I am Colman," the fairy bellowed. "I am of the sky fae, and my child is dead because of you, woman!"


This was the father of Claudine's baby.

When Eric's arms left me, I had to struggle to stay on my feet. Alexei did one of his darting runs into the circle of blades, punching Colman's leg so hard that the fairy almost went down. I wondered if Colman's leg had broken. But while Alexei was close, Claude managed to stab backward and wound Alexei in the spot right below his shoulder. It would have killed the boy if he'd been human. As it was, Alexei nearly slipped on the gravel but managed to scrabble to his feet and keep on going. Vampire or not, the boy was tiring. I didn't dare look away to see what Eric was doing, where he was.

I had an idea. Under its impetus, I ran into the house, though I couldn't run in a straight line and I had to stop and breathe on my way up the porch steps.

In a drawer in my night table was the silver chain I'd gotten so long ago when the drainers had kidnapped Bill for his blood. I grabbed the chain, staggered back out of the house with it concealed in my hand behind my back, and edged near to the three combatants - but closest of all to the dancing, whirling Alexei. Even in that short time I'd been gone, he seemed to have gotten a little slower - but Colman was down on one knee.

I hated my plan, but this had to stop.

The next time the boy came by I was ready, with plenty of slack in the chain I was gripping with both hands. I swung my arms up, then down, the slack of the chain landing around Alexei's neck. I crossed my hands and pulled. Then Alexei was on the ground and screaming, and a shaved moment after that, Eric was there with a tree branch he'd broken off. He raised both arms and brought them down. The second after that, Alexei, tsarevitch of Russia, had gone to his final death.

I panted, because I was too exhausted to cry, and I sank to the ground. The two fairies gradually dropped their battle stances. Claude helped Colman stand, and they put their hands on each others' shoulders.

Eric stood between the fairies and me, keeping a watchful eye on them. Colman was my enemy, no doubt about that, and Eric was being cautious. I took advantage of the fact that he wasn't looking at me to pull the stake from Alexei and crawl over to the helpless Appius. He watched me coming with a smile.

"I want to kill you right now," I said, very quietly. "I want you dead so bad."

"Since you've stopped to speak to me, I know you're not going to do it." He said that with the utmost confidence. "You won't keep Eric, either."

I wanted to prove him wrong on both counts. But there'd been so much death and blood already that night. I hesitated. Then I raised the broken bit of branch. For the first time, Appius looked a little worried - or maybe he was simply resigned.

"Don't," Eric said.

I might still have done it if there hadn't been pleading in his voice.

"You know what you could do that would actually be some help, Appius Livius?" I said. There was a shout from Eric. Appius Livius's eyes flickered past me, and I felt him tell me to move. I thrust myself off to the side with every ounce of strength left in my body. The sword intended for me went right into Appius Livius, and it was a fairy blade. The Roman went into convulsions instantly, as the area around the wound blackened with shocking rapidity. Colman, who had been looking down at his accidental murder victim with shocked eyes, stiffened, and his shoulders went back. He began to topple, and I saw that there was a dagger between them. Eric shoved the quivering Colman away.

"Ocella!" Eric screamed, terror in his voice. Suddenly, Appius Livius went still.

"Well, all right," I said wearily, and turned my heavy head to see who had thrown the knife. Claude was looking down at the two blades still in his hands as if he expected to see one of them vanish.

Color us puzzled.

Eric seized the wounded Colman and latched on to his neck. Fairies are incredibly attractive to vampires - their blood, that is - and Eric had a great reason to kill this fairy. He wasn't holding back at all, and it was pretty gross. The gulping, the blood running down Colman's neck, his glazed eyes ... Both of them had glazed eyes, I realized. Eric's were full of bloodlust, and Colman's were becoming full of death. Colman had been too weakened by his many wounds to fight Eric off. Eric was looking rosier by the second.

Claude limped over to sit on the grass beside me. He put my knives carefully on the ground by me, as if I'd been badgering him for their return. "I was trying to persuade him to go home," my cousin said. "I saw him only once or twice. He had an elaborate scheme to put you in a human jail. He planned to kill you until he saw you with the child Hunter in the park. He thought of taking the child, but even in a rage he couldn't do it."

"You moved in to protect me," I said. That was amazing, from someone as selfish as Claude.

"My sister loved you," Claude said. "Colman was fond of Claudine, and very proud she chose him to father her child."

"I guess he was one of Niall's followers." He'd said he was one of the sky fairies.

"Yes, 'Colman' means 'dove.' "

It didn't make any difference now. I was sorry for him. "He had to know nothing I said would have stopped Claudine from doing what she thought was right," I said.

"He knew," Claude admitted. "That was why he couldn't bring himself to kill you, even before he saw the child. That's why he talked to the werewolf, concocted such an indirect scheme." He sighed. "If Colman had really been convinced you caused Claudine's death, nothing would have stopped him."

"I would have stopped him," said a new voice, and Jason stepped out of the woods. No, it was Dermot.

"Okay, you threw the knife," I said. "Thanks, Dermot. Are you okay?"

"I hope... ." Dermot looked at us pleadingly.

"Colman had a spell on him," Claude observed. "At least, I think so."

"He said you didn't have a lot of magic," I said to Claude. "He told me about the spell, as close as he could say it. I thought it must be the other fairy, Colman, who put it on him. But since Colman is dead, I would have thought that would break the spell."

Claude frowned. "Dermot, so it wasn't Colman who laid the spell?"

Dermot sank to the ground in front of us. "So much longer," he said elliptically. I puzzled over that for a moment.

"He was spelled much longer ago," I said, finally feeling a little throb of excitement. "Are you saying that you were spelled months ago?"

Dermot seized my hand in his left and took Claude's hand in his right.

Claude said, "I think he means that he's been spelled for much longer. For years." Tears rolled down Dermot's cheeks.

"I bet you money that Niall did it," I said. "He probably had it all worked out in his head. Dermot deserved it for, I don't know, having qualms about his fairy legacy or something."

"My grandfather is very loving but not very ... tolerant," Claude said.

"You know how they undo spells in fairy tales?" I said.

"Yes, I have heard that humans tell fairy tales," Claude said. "So, tell me how they say to break spells."

"In the fairy tales, a kiss does it."

"Easily done," Claude said, and as if we had practiced synchronized kissing, we leaned forward and kissed Dermot.

And it worked. He shuddered all over, then looked at us both, intelligence flooding his eyes. He began to weep in earnest, and after a moment Claude got to his knees and helped Dermot up. "I'll see you in a while," he said. Then he guided Dermot into the house.

Eric and I were alone. Eric had sunk onto his haunches a little distance from the three bodies in my front yard.

"This is positively Shakespearean," I said, looking around at the remains and the blood soaking into the ground. Alexei's corpse was already flaking away, but much more slowly than that of his ancient maker. Now that Alexei had met his final death, the pathetic bones in his grave in Russia would vanish, too. Eric had cast the body of the fairy onto the gravel, where it began to turn to dust, in the way fairies did. It was quite different from vampire disintegration, but just as handy. I realized I wouldn't have three corpses to hide. I was so tired from the sum total of a truly horrific day that I found it the happy moment of the past few hours. Eric looked and smelled like something out of a horror movie. Our eyes met. He looked away first.

"Ocella taught me everything about being a vampire," Eric said very quietly. "He taught me how to feed, how to hide, when it was safe to mingle with humans. He taught me how to make love with men, and later he freed me to make love with women. He protected me and loved me. He caused me pain for decades. He gave me life. My maker is dead." He spoke as if he could scarcely believe it, didn't know how to feel. His eyes lingered on the crumbling mass of flakes that had been Appius Livius Ocella.

"Yes," I said, trying not to sound happy. "He is. And I didn't do it."

"But you would have," Eric said.

"I was thinking about it," I said. There was no point in denying it.

"What were you going to ask him?"

"Before Colman stabbed him?" Though "stabbed" was hardly the right word. "Transfi xed" was more accurate. Yes, "transfixed." My brain was moving like a turtle.

"Well," I said. "I was going to tell him I'd be glad to let him live if he'd kill Victor Madden for you."

I'd startled Eric, as much as anyone as wiped out as he was could be startled. "That would have been good," he said slowly. "That was a good idea, Sookie."

"Yeah, well. Not gonna happen."

"You were right," Eric said, still in that very slow voice. "This is just like the end of one of Shakespeare's plays."

"We're the people left standing. Yay for us."

"I'm free," Eric said. He closed his eyes. Thanks to the last traces of the drug, I could practically watch the fairy blood zinging through his system. I could see his energy level picking up. Everything physically wrong with him had healed, and now with the rush of Colman's blood he was forgetting his grief for his maker and his brother, and feeling only the relief of being free of them. "I feel so good." He actually drew a breath of the night air, still tainted with the odors of blood and death. He seemed to savor the smell. "You are my dearest," he said, his eyes manic blue.

"I'm glad to hear that," I said, utterly unable to smile.

"I have to return to Shreveport to see about Pam, to arrange for the things I must do now that Ocella is dead," Eric said. "But as soon as I can, we'll be together again, and we'll make up for our lost time."

"Sounds good to me," I said. We were alone in our bond once more, though it wasn't as strong as it had been because we hadn't renewed it. But I wasn't about to suggest that to Eric, not tonight. He looked up, inhaled again, and launched himself into the night sky.

When all the bodies had completely disintegrated, I got to my feet and went into the house, the very flesh on my bones feeling as if it could fall off from weariness. I told myself that I should feel a certain measure of triumph. I wasn't dead; my enemies were. But in the void left by the drug, I felt only a certain grim satisfaction. I could hear my great-uncle and my cousin talking in the hall bathroom, and the water running, before I shut my own bathroom door. After I'd showered and was ready for bed, I opened the door to my room to find them waiting for me.

"We want to climb in with you," Dermot said. "We'll all sleep better."

That seemed incredibly weird and creepy to me - or maybe I only thought it should have. I was simply too tired to argue. I climbed in the bed. Claude got in on one side of me, Dermot on the other. Just when I was thinking I would never be able to sleep, that this situation was too odd and too wrong, I felt a kind of blissful relaxation roll through my body, a kind of unfamiliar comfort. I was with family. I was with blood.

And I slept.

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