JOHN watched the door swing as Spider emerged from the bowels of the laboratory into the sunlight-flooded hallway. The lean man blinked against the light and raised his hand to shield his eyes. A thick leather binder lay in the crook of his right arm. It commanded John's attention, and he couldn't keep from staring at it."The smell is truly abominable," Spider said."Sorry. It can't be helped."Spider nodded. "Walk with me a bit."They strode side by side along the hallway, the binder swaying gently with Spider's smooth pace.John watched the floor before his feet. The binder was full of translated notes, the thoughts of a genius mind. The things he could do, armed with that binder. The very idea of what it might be hiding made John light-headed. He braided the fingers of his hands together to keep from reaching for it. He could almost feel the slick leather against the pads of his fingers.Working for Spider was difficult. He was reasonable, but only when circumstances permitted; understanding of difficulties, yet completely unaffected by them. And he expected impossible things in an impossible timeframe.John had done the impossible. A fusion, and a relatively stable one at that, in less than a month. He had done well, and Spider appeared content. Yet the fruit of his labors, the prize, lay locked in the binder in the crook of Spider's arm, and John knew better than to trust Spider's seeming felicity."We've identified three possible sites," Spider was saying. "It will take us a day or so to examine them and perhaps another day to extract the unit. I'll be gone, oh, for about a week."Gone. The word rang like a chime in John's head. He will be gone."Why three sites, m'lord?""The journal notes aren't clear as to the landmarks. A local might be able to pinpoint the exact location, but I decided against compromising the document by the presence of an outsider. I'll be taking almost everybody. We have a lot of ground to cover."A dim light broke through the foggy melancholy in John's head. He was being told this on purpose."I'm leaving two slayers and a guardian to protect the house. It's a formality at this point anyway. There is nothing valuable here save for you and Posad, of course, and besides, the traps will do most of the protecting on their own.""Once the unit is located and the extraction is complete, I'll send a retrieval team for you. I'm sure you'd rather rest here than slog through the mud with the rest of us. I hope your forced isolation won't be a problem?"John smiled. "No, m'lord. I'm badly in need of sleep.""Ahhh." Spider nodded, gray eyes neutral under the blond eyebrows. "I'll leave you to the comfort of the sheets and down, then."They exited onto the second-floor balcony. The wind brought dampness from the flooded plain below. John shivered. "Ghastly place.""Mildly put." Spider ran his left hand along the balcony's carved rail and smiled, showing even, sharp teeth. The smile shot a bolt of alarm through John's neck all the way to his fingertips. He yawned, trying to mask his discomfort."John, you're exhausted." Spider patted his shoulder. "To bed with you.""By your leave, m'lord.""Go, go." Spider waved at him. "That yawn of yours is infectious."John bowed and strode to his quarters. Spider had the translation, but he had left the journal back in the fusion room. He expected him to make a play for it. A man less ambitious and more cowardly would walk away. He should walk away. But the journal called to him. The knowledge it contained . . . A secret to life, perhaps even to everlasting life. Armed with it, he could seek asylum in any realm. He would enjoy the accolades of a genius, protected and admired for the rest of his life, given an opportunity to take his work in the direction he desired, instead of being steered by a thug. For Spider was a thug, an intelligent, urbane, royally licensed one, but still a thug. The difference between him and a common street boss was the degree of devastation he could unleash.John entered his room and locked the door. He had to wait until Spider left tomorrow and then he would have to be careful. Very careful.THE scent laced William's nostrils just as he approached the house, the sharp musk of a wolf having freshly marked his territory. He tensed.A large older man stood before the door within a swarm of giddy dogs. Large, wide at the shoulder, he wore jeans and a leather vest. His hair was long and gray, and it fell over his back."Easy," Cerise murmured next to him. "Easy. It's just Uncle Hugh."The man turned and looked at him. A pale glow rolled over his eyes. A wolf.A low rumble rolled in his throat. "He's - "Cerise slipped her arm into the crook of his elbow. "Like you. I only found out a few days ago. He's a very kind man, Will."Hugh watched them approach. His face showed nothing.William halted a few feet away. When two changelings met outside of the Red Legion, it never worked out well. He didn't want a confrontation now. Not after he had finally mated."Uncle Hugh!" Cerise walked over and hugged him."Ceri." He hugged her awkwardly and let go. "I came to help.""Thank you!""Who is this?""This is my William."Hugh looked at her, then at William. "Your William?"She nodded. "With all of his fur, claws, and teeth."Hugh startled as if shocked with a live wire. Cerise petted his forearm. His gaze shifted to William. "Adrianglian?"William nodded."They turn you into killers there.""We were born killers."Hugh's eyes turned pale yellow. "If you mistreat her, I'll rip your throat out."William let a touch of growl slip into his voice. "Old man, I'll drop you where you stand.""That's nice," Cerise said. "Why don't all of us go inside and have some tea and pie?"Hugh didn't move."Hugh," Murid called from the porch.He glanced at her."Leave the boy alone," she said.Hugh shrugged his shoulders and petted Cerise's hand. "If he ever - ""He won't hurt me." Cerise put her other hand on William's forearm. "He loves me, Uncle. Come on."William growled a bit and let her lead him to the stairs.The door banged, releasing Kaldar onto the porch.William sighed and heard Hugh do the exact same thing. They scowled at each other over Cerise's head.Kaldar rolled his eyes. "Oh, that's just lovely. We've turned the house inside out looking for you, and here you are. Did you have fun, lovebirds?""None of your business," Cerise told him."To the library with you. We're holding the war council there."William let himself be ushered into the crowded library, where he was asked to sit in a chair in front of the table containing half a dozen dusty bottles of green wine. The library was full of Mars. No children were present, only the older adolescents and adults. The war party for tomorrow.Erian passed around cups made of some hollowed-out plant. "Swamp gourd," he said. "Tradition.""You didn't do this before fighting with the Sheeriles." William took his cup."That was different," Erian said."The Sheeriles were Edgers, like us," Mikita boomed to the left."The Hand and its agents are invaders," Murid added.Richard looked at Cerise. She pulled out her sword and handed it to him. "I think you should do it."Richard took the sword. A hush fell on the room.He held the blade out above the bottles. His face took on an expression of intense concentration.A second passed. Another.That was why Cerise was in charge, William decided. In battle, Richard would be dead by now.Magic flashed from Richard, an intense electric blue. It danced along his blade. He struck and beheaded the six bottles with one strike.A ragged cheer rolled through the library.Richard passed the sword back to Cerise. Bottles were grabbed. Ignata splashed some wine into William's cup."Today we drink the fifty-year-old wine," Cerise announced, holding her cup up. "To living the next day well."They drank. William gulped from his cup. The wine rolled down his throat, fire and joy blended into one. For the first time since leaving the Legion, he felt a part of something bigger than himself."We were hoping that Lord William would tell us what we're facing," Richard said."We want to know about the Hand." Ignata poured more wine into his cup.William took another sip. All right. He could do that. "As long as we're clear: Spider is mine."Heads nodded in agreement."Spider's standard unit usually consists of twenty-four agents in an advanced state of magic alteration.""Why twenty-four?" Kaldar asked."It's an easy number to divide: two groups of twelve, three groups of eight, four groups of six, and so on. We killed three.""I thought you only killed two," Kaldar said."Three," Cerise told him. "Are you going to let the man talk or will you interrupt some more?"William tapped his memory. "Spider's close circle, his elite. Karmash Aule. Origin: unknown. Height: seven feet, two inches. Approximate weight: three hundred and sixty pounds. White hair, red eyes. Enhancements: reinforced spine, transplanted glands, resulting in above-average reaction time and increased strength. Position: second in command. Prefers blunt weapons. Likely to rely on and overestimate his own strength. Easily enraged. Moderate pain tolerance. Possible weakness or target areas: joints, glandular implant in the left side directly under the ribcage."Veisan. Origin: unknown. Height: five feet, six inches. Approximate weight: one hundred and forty pounds. Bloodred skin, braided blue hair, blue eyes. Enhancements: glandular apothecary, resulting in superior reaction time, extreme speed, enhanced hand-to-eye coordination. Position: slayer. Prefers bladed weapons. Unstable. Once she begins to kill, she will not stop until the catalysts from her apothecary are exhausted. While engaged, unable to distinguish between civilians and military personnel. Possible weaknesses: none."They were staring at him as if he'd grown a second head."You don't do revenge halfway, do you, William?" Murid said."No. Ruh. Origin: Northern Province. Height: six feet, two inches. Approximate weight: one hundred and sixtyfive pounds ..."Richard grabbed a piece of paper and a pen and started taking notes.POSAD'S dark eyes didn't catch the light of the setting sun. They sat on his face like twin pools of carbon, solid black and sparkless. Spider stared into them until Posad blinked. "Do you understand me?""Yes. I finish packing and destroy the garden. Then I wait for the home team to clear the base and leave with them. I've done this before.""You do not go upstairs."Several bees landed on Posad's deformed shoulder and pushed past the scale of dried skin sheltering the hive opening. "I do not go upstairs."Spider nodded and walked away, to where Veisan waited with his saddled horse. The muzzle of her mare glistened with ointment, and Spider grimaced at the strong stench of mint emanating from it. No horse would bear Veisan unless her scent was masked.He mounted, casting one last look at the mansion. Somewhere within it his prized alteration specialist was taking the first steps on the path to his death."A waste," he murmured. It couldn't be helped. The hunger in John's eyes was too strong and the information within the journal too volatile to allow the pair to come into contact. He would miss John, miss his expertise. Yet no expense could be spared for the sake of the realm.008FROM the shadowed depths of his bedroom, John watched Spider ride away. He forced himself to read for another hour and set out for the fusion room. He started slowly, on quiet feet, pretending nonchalance, but the mansion lay empty around him, and spurred by anticipation, he walked faster and faster until in the end he was running.In his haste, he almost burst into the room, but caught himself at the last moment and halted, with his hand on the door.A fused being had no will of its own. It was both susceptible to instruction and unable to refuse an order. But the fused being retained traces of its personality. It couldn't disobey directly, but it could take advantage of a poorly phrased command. This was especially true if the human subject had been strong-willed, and Genevieve Mar had one of the most powerful spirits he had encountered.John caught his breath and swung the door open. The ugliness of fusion had ceased to affect him long ago, and as he stepped into the room, he watched only the creature's weapons: the three long, flexible appendages, studded with thorns. The plant equivalent of a whip. The whips operated on hydraulic power, flexing when their vascular bundles flooded with fluid. The supply of liquid was finite, and the whips were capable of a single devastating strike. That reserve spent, they would have to rebuild before striking again. From experience, he knew the time between strikes ranged from fifteen minutes to half an hour. Fifteen minutes. A smart man could accomplish a lot in fifteen minutes.The journal lay on the desk behind the fusion. Spider's bait.John stared at the fusion. First things first. He had to exhaust its hydraulic reservoir. He cracked his knuckles. "Obey. Use your whip to pick up the journal and gently place it on the floor at my feet."009WILLIAM stared at a black hair left on the handle of the door leading to his room. The old wine packed a hell of a punch. His head swam. He pulled the hair off and stepped inside.Gaston jumped off the chair."Do me a favor." William tried to sit on the bed. At the last possible moment, the treacherous piece of furniture made a panicked attempt to jerk out from under him. He landed on the covers, pinning the bed in place with his weight. That was some wine. "Don't leave your hair on the door handles. Or across bag handles. Or wrapped around letters.""I wanted you to know that I was in the room."William pulled one boot off. "For one, you opened the window, and there was a draft under the door. For another, the door handle was still warm. And then - "The other boot landed next to its twin."And then?" Gaston asked."I heard you. And smelled you." William leveled his gaze on the kid. "You are supposed to be asleep, because of your grandmother's magic. Why are you up?"Gaston locked his teeth. "I want to come with you tomorrow.""No.""Why?""You're a kid. Tomorrow is a fight to the death. It won't be pretty like in the books and movies. It will be hell. People will hurt and die, and you won't be one of them.""I'm strong! I'm fast, I can climb, I can hit really hard, and I'm good with a knife ..."William shook his head."He cut off my mother's leg!"William hopped off the bed. "I'm drunk. I'm wasted on that damn wine and I'm seeing double. So come on. Give it your best shot."Gaston hesitated.William rocked a little on the balls of his feet, trying to keep his balance. "Pussy."The kid's face went red. He bounced off the wall, leaping, hands outstretched. William grabbed his arm, channeling his momentum, and jerked him out of the air, flipping him. Gaston crashed to the floor and slid into the wall. William tilted his head, looking him over.The kid shook himself and rolled to his feet. Not a quitter."What's the matter? Can't you knock me off my feet? I can barely stand."Gaston bared his teeth and lunged from a crouch. The kid was fast, William reflected, as he slammed his elbow on the back of Gaston's neck. The boy sprawled on the floor. William kicked him in the kidneys. Gaston gasped."What's the lesson?" William asked."You're better," Gaston ground out and swiped at William's ankle.William kicked him again. Gaston curled into a ball, trying to draw some air into his lungs."Take your time. Try not to get knocked down. If you're down, keep your stomach flexed, so a kick to the gut doesn't take you out."The kid inhaled finally."What's the lesson?"Gaston coughed. "Not good enough.""Not good enough yet. Yet being the important part." William grabbed the kid by the arm and pulled him up. "Going to fight Spider tomorrow is very noble. People like us don't give a flying fuck about noble. We fight to win. We fight dirty and we use everything we've got, because the job is not to throw your life away. The job is to take the other fucker out. And a bastard like Spider takes skill to kill. Being strong and fast doesn't make you good. It just means you have potential."Gaston wiped his nose."If you live long enough, I'll teach you to be like me. Or you can run in there roaring tomorrow, like your father does, and let Spider turn you into a piece of bleeding meat.""What if he takes you out tomorrow?"William sighed. "If he does, go to Sicktree. Find a guy called Zeke Wallace. He runs a leather shop there. Tell him what happened and tell him that you need to speak to Declan Camarine in Adrianglia. Zeke will get you to Declan, and he will take it from there. In a few years you can hunt Spider down and kill him in my memory. Or you can die tomorrow. Your choice."William opened the door. Gaston walked out and glanced over his shoulder. "I'll beat you one day.""Maybe."William shut the door and fell on the bed. It was good that he never got hangovers, or he would be a sorry man in the morning.He closed his eyes and heard the door swing open. Cerise slipped into his room and slid into the bed next to him."Am I dreaming?" he asked her."No.""Oh, good."