Grave Shifter Chapter One

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CHAPTER ONE:

Six feet above her, the summons grew louder.

Damn it. She’d just gotten comfortable. The graveyard was a tiny heritage site nestled in the bend of a stream in a small town somewhere in the Northeast. It’d been springtime when she’d shifted in.

Assembled enough to have a sense of smell, she sniffed. The dandelions had long since decomposed, although not as much as the wife of a Civil War soldier she shared the coffin with. The flower scent lingered, however, mixing with the damp, fertile earth that seeped between the boards.

It was a good place to rest for a few years. She could rise on occasion, walk down the main street, grab something to eat, and not have to worry about demons or summons. Because no one should be able to find her.

She rolled her head on her shoulders, pulling more mass from the bones around her. She wasn’t sure if it was her neck or the bones creaking and cracking, but it didn’t really matter. Soon they would be one.

Did that voice sound familiar? Her knuckles scraped against the lid of the casket as she raised a hand to pull at her ears. Her other hand found the hilt of her sword, feeling more secure, as her fingers wrapped around it. Whoever called to her would pay for the rude awakening.

She’d zipped her jacket to her chin, but a burning on her upper chest, a few inches below the hollow of her throat, had her pulling the supple leather away from her skin. She rubbed the spot. The amulet wasn’t there. It had fallen off at the Estate, during the fight that had almost killed her. Without it, she could ignore the summons, shift away to another grave on the other side of the world.

The soft tap of her foot against the wood sounded loud in the small space. Who had managed to find her? And why?

Having lungs now, she pulled in her first breath in months, a deep one, full of the scent of old bones and healthy earth. Underneath it all, she could still detect the faint mildew of the woman’s burial clothes.

She knew that voice.

Growling, she rolled her joints, stretched her limbs, her feet and the top of her head pushing against the ends of the coffin. Careful not to crack it, she took another deep breath and began to push upwards, letting herself dissipate as she moved through the dirt, and reassembled above.

The fall air held a chill. No matter. Leather was warm enough. Dried leaves, bright oranges and reds in the dim cast of a nearby streetlight, swirled in the air moving around her as she solidified. More clothes were stashed in the large monument behind her. More importantly, so were her other two swords.

But the small one in her hand was all she needed to kill the man with his back to her, stupidly summoning her from several graves away. She’d spent years fantasizing about kicking, punching, stabbing, killing him. She wouldn’t do it. She’d never killed anyone without a proper sanction from the Council, but for a moment, she thought of just cutting off his head and sliding back into rest.

Where would be the fun in that? He’d almost killed her five hundred years ago. He could suffer for a bit. As she stood there, letting her eyes roam over his muscular back, what she really wanted to do was knock him to the dirt and ride him like a carousel of naughty ponies. Only that would dirty his suit. He hated that. Which only made her want to do it more.

She’d barely raised a foot to step toward him when something heavy crashed into her back. Air exploded from her lungs as she hit the hard ground, a bony knee slamming into her hip. Claws gripped her head, wrenching her neck back.

Demon.

Those required no sanction to kill, and she’d killed hundreds in the years since he’d betrayed her, sharpening her skills.

“Good thing I got my beauty sleep,” she groused, slamming her elbow against its torso. It grunted, moving to the side, but didn’t let go. The benefit of small swords was the maneuverability. The blade caught the light as she whipped it behind her head, severing the demon’s hands. It howled that otherworldly sound humans thankfully couldn’t hear. No one in the small houses on the other side of the hiking path would ever know.

Kicking hard, she got out from underneath the rancid mass, nose curling at the stench of demon blood. Or whatever they called the slime oozing from its arms. She didn’t stop to ask. Just pulled the dagger from her boot and plunged it between the demon’s blank eyes.

“Nothing like a little demon slaying to wake a girl up.” Every sense was alert, synapses firing, blood pounding. On her left, she caught the hulk of a shadow as a hellhound came at her. On her right, Galen’s dropped jaw as he turned at the ruckus. She stepped back, above another grave, and felt the tingling in her feet. As the hellhound lunged at her, she let her body dissipate enough that it moved right through her.

Quickly solidifying before it figured out what happened, she swung her sword. A cleanslice sent its head bouncing across the grass, rolling to a stop at Galen’s feet. He just stood there, as arrogant and imperturbable as ever. He didn’t look down; only the twitch of his nose  and the tilt of his head, as if to hear better, indicated he knew something was there. She snorted as she surveyed the woods around them, peering deep into the darkness down both sides of the stream.

Moving to the monument, she pushed in the loose marble panel at its base and retrieved her bag and other swords, glad her reflexes were faster than ever. She slung the bag over her shoulder and as she stalked toward him, she pulled her dagger from the demon, twirling it between her fingers as she came to a stop.

“What the fuck are you doing bringing demons after me before I’ve even had breakfast?”

“Must you always speak with the most course vocabulary of the age, my dear Penelope?” He recoiled from the ooze flicking off the end of her dagger, raising the back of his hand to his nose as he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his cheek and then his vest. Perfectly tailored for him, of course.

“Naughty words give me the happys.”

He smiled slowly, wickedly, and as if he controlled it the same as his mouth, heat spread through her. “Yes, I remember.”

She growled, mostly to stop the memories of his voice whispering dirty things in her ear. Stepping closer to jab a finger to his chest was a mistake. The scent of expensive cologne with undertones of spice and wood pried loose too many erotic memories. It smelled too much like the fire in the small stone cottage in Ireland. The sex had been too wild for the heavy wool blankets on the bed to contain. Galen hadn’t stopped until the furs on the floor in front of the hearth were matted from her sweat.

Mortified when she heard herself make the same little gasp she had then, she closed her fist. She pulled her elbow back to punch his solar plexus but he wrapped her hand in his, and she jumped a little as electricity arced through her.

He was the same temperature as the environment. Vampires had no sense of heat or cold, no need to dress for the weather. Even many degrees cooler than her, the firm, supple press of his fingers around hers spiked her temperature.

“Behind you,” he said calmly, not moving a muscle except to release her hand. His stillness was strange, more otherworldly than even the oldest of vampires usually were.

Glancing over her shoulder, the sexual tension broke immediately. Slobbering, mangy demons had that effect. She drew her sword as she pivoted. Shoving as she lunged, the thin sword easily pierced the abdomen. Pus, brownish and reeking, spurted from the wound. Her gag reflex almost choked her, but she held it off. Stomach wounds were not fatal. She yanked hard on her sword, but only accomplished pulling the demon against her, more pus soaking into the front of her clothes.

“Bend over.”

“Now?” She snapped her head around, deflecting a blow of the demon’s fist.

Galen lifted one of her swords. “Be a shame to cut your pretty skin when I decapitate this fellow.” His voice calm, even bored. How lovely for him.

“Oh, yeah, right.” Her face heated.  She twisted slightly and bowed over the hilt of her sword, holding tightly to keep the demon in place. Its head hit the ground beside her, slimy blood shooting up at impact and hitting her in the face.

She was pretty sure she was going to throw up. Holding her breath, she straightened. Another yank did nothing to free her sword. Her shoulders fell, and she shoved out a breath. “Oh for fuck’s sake, already.” This was already too much. And she didn’t even know why he’d summoned her yet.

“Care for some assistance?”

“No, I do not.” She planted one foot in the dirt, one foot on the demon’s torso beside her sword, and shoved hard. Several inches of the sword slid free. She adjusted her weight and balance and pushed again. Another inch or two. Blowing her bangs out of her eyes, which unfortunately also blew more stench into her nose, she replanted her feet for maximum leverage. The sword gave slowly, her arms shaking with the effort. She pushed a bit harder with her heel, and the sword finally gave way with an unexpectedly fast release of suction.

Her arms spun wildly trying to find her balance, but her boot slipped in the blood and she tumbled backward.

Galen took a long step back and let her ass hit the dirt. She snarled at the little birds chirping at the bright dots in front of her eyes. Her skull seemed to constrict down to a black hole and then explode. She sawed a few mouthfuls of air in and out of her lungs and gave her head a small toss to help clear her vision.

“Those lovely chaps were here for me, I’m afraid.”

The moon cast a halo around his head. It was almost full. With the streetlight and his vampire senses, he’d be looking down at her, covered in demon gunk, in the dirt, in high definition. It was all his fault, and what was he doing? Standing over her, hands in his pockets, doing a shitty job of not laughing at her.

Her jaw clenched so hard she heard her teeth creak. One fire of muscle, her shoulders against the ground for leverage, her core tightening for power, and she was on her feet. She had to catch herself before she fell again, driving the point of her sword into the earth, but she managed to spin and glare at him.

“Good. Then you can dispose of the bodies before I kill you.”

He had the nerve to chuckle. Despite the rue in it, her hackles went up. “Easy, love.  I’m not who you’ve been summoned to assassinate.”

He pulled a small scroll from an inside vest pocket and held it out. Not directly to her, but several inches to the side. Her brows drew together as she took it. A missive from the Council. She studied him as she unrolled it. Sunglasses covered his eyes, but the angle of his body put his line of sight over her shoulder.

Odd. He always met her eyes.

She turned her head, scanning the area behind her. Nothing. What was he looking at? Darting her glace between him and the parchment in her hand, it took a few passes before the information sank in.

“Elsbithy?” she gasped, pleasure and horror mixing in equal measure. “I finally get to assassinate the dark lord himself?”

“It would seem so.” His accent had smoothed over the centuries, an odd mixture of all the times and places he’d lived. The timbre of it still drew her, despite the anger boiling in her gut.

She harrumphed and went back to the parchment. The Council still used the old language, pagan and long since lost to the world, and it took a few welcome moments for her to decipher it.

Upon completion of above sanction, dispatch bearer of summons.

What? She got to kill Galen, Curator of the Catacombs, betrayer of her affections, witness to her humiliation, sanctioned? Oh, that was too priceless. And yet, her stomach made a pitch for her throat before sinking. Nausea, from the demon guts. Had to be.

“Have you read this?” she asked, casually rolling the parchment and tucking it into her pant pocket.

“The seal remained intact, did it not?”

“A seal is easy to replace these days.”

He tugged the bottom of his vest then smoothed a hand down the row of buttons. Good. He was annoyed she dared to insult his integrity, such as it was. He’d be easier to resist that way. She’d used seduction to get close to her marks before, but she wasn’t so good at lying to herself as to think she could succumb to Galen’s charms and then put a stake through his heart.

He adjusted the cuffs on his shirt, the muscles of his arms flexing under the finely cut cloth. It was expensive, and probably magnificent to touch. Galen had worn nothing less for at least a millennium.

“Shall we go now, then?” he asked. He raised his head, but his posture still put his gaze over her shoulder.

She stepped into his line of sight, wanting him to see the smirk she wore at his refusal to answer her insinuation about the seal. Her shoulders slumped when he still didn’t react. Pouting, she waved a hand in front of his face. Still nothing. So she did a few steps of a little dance.

He sighed heavily. “Blind, yes, but I can still hear you dancing.”

“Blind?” She jerked to attention. “What?”

“It means one cannot see, Penelope. Went daft in the ditch, did you?”

His laughter stopped abruptly when the tip of her longest sword touched his temple. Galen looked like a proper gentlemen, but she’d seen the viciousness he wielded. It had taken only a few moments for him to string up and cut open a man for kicking a poor begging orphan. It hadn’t helped that scant hours prior the man had dared to put his hands where they didn’t belong.  On her.

Galen had been reluctantly satisfied with her handling the first, the second not so much. He’d then provided for the orphan and his four brothers and sisters for the rest of their lives.

But she wasn’t taking chances now. Also, she wanted to unnerve him a bit to even the debt for letting her fall. The blade left a thin line of blood as she slipped it under the stem of his glasses. The sound, metal sliding down metal, not unlike the scrape of swords, echoed in the stillness. Had every leaf stopped moving?

His eyes, once a deep brilliant blue, were clouded, hazy and almost dead. He wore a smudge of black eyeliner and it made his long black lashes look even thicker. A dog barked, running to the end of its chain as it chased a squirrel. It triggered a floodlight and Galen squinted at the sudden brightness, as if it hurt his eyes.

It took forever for the air she pulled in to fill her lungs. “What happened?”

The cant of his mouth was sinister. “I have many reasons to enjoy the sight of Lord Elsbithy twisting on the end of a sword.”

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