A Match Made in Blood

Timeline: January 24th, 2008

“We carry a sensitive cargo
Below the waterline
Ticking like a time bomb
With a primitive design
Behind the finer feelings
This civilized veneer
The heart of a lonely hunter
Guards a dangerous frontier”

“Lock and Key”
– Rush

The sun set upon another day and a large wolf trotted easily through the snow amid the trees. In its jaws was the end of a strap that was holding a small bundle together. As the last ray of sunlight disappeared, he set the package down on the snow and sat down, waiting expectantly as it watched a particular tree for signs of Ann-Marie. Just before sunrise the night previous, he’d watched her escape the sun, bane of her existence, by merging with a large, old maple tree. Now he awaited her return.

Her rest was at an end and she awoke naturally as her kind most often do. Cautiously she emerged from the tree, her body literally rising out of the old wood, transitioning between plant and flesh until she was out under the new-found dusk. The last rays of the sun in a zenith on the horizon tingled upon her, bringing her to full consciousness. Looking upon her lover from the last evening waiting for her, she smiled. His blood still raced in her veins and she felt his inner beast within. He did exactly what he promised and returned to her. A good start, her dead soul thought. This may lead to something, “Good evening Ironclaw.”

The wolf grew into a man with the grace and fluidity of a thought and the speed of a single heartbeat. He smiled and replied with a greeting in kind. “Good evening, Ann-Marie. Would you like to leave this cold behind? I’ve found a small cave nearby and built a fire for us.”

“Thank you,” She summoned a blush of life to her body, “First, I’d like to change back into my clothes.” She thought about the fire as she kissed Ironclaw on the cheek and began changing into her clothes. The fire, nice touch if she was mortal, but not so smart for her. She continued, “I don’t really need a fire, at least not a large one. I don’t require warmth you see, not in the way others so at least.” She couldn’t tell him about kindred issues with fire, not yet. “But the cave sounds cozy.”

“I think it is,” he said. “But if you’d rather me take you back to Eldon Well so you can clean up, I’d understand perfectly.”

“Thank you darling, but no. I can go into town later tonight and take care of that. Assuming you don’t mind me as I am.” She replied. “I’d like to spend some time with you, getting to know you. If you are more comfortable out here, that is fine. We can adjourn to Eldon Well perhaps later tonight, should we wish to. Lead on.” Dressed now in her winter coat and the clothing she had brought, she wrapped her arm under his and departed toward the cave with him.

Once there, she caught site of Ironclaw’s fire. It was already low, but the coals were hot and glowed an evil red. She could help an instinctive shiver of fear as he brought her near, but she marshaled her will and gutted through it. In a moment there were seated in perfect privacy amid some wood gathered from the forest and stones warmed by the fire to sit upon.

She held onto his arm, thinking it was appropriately intimate. It had been a while since she had been intimate with anyone who wasn’t the meal of the day. She still had to fight down the urge to feast upon his succulent blood. How sweet and riven with power it was, matching her companion’s physical frame and inherent bestial nature. Yet, she knew next to nothing about this man, this creature of raw primal rage. Likely, he knew nothing of her. It seemed that someone had to ask. After fifteen minutes of watching the fire and enjoying the nearness of each other’s body’s, Ann-Marie asked, “Can I ask you a question?”

“If you like,” he said quietly.

She continued, “Who named you Ironclaw? Was it your father?”

He shook his head and chuckled softly. “No, of course not. Spirits did. The name ‘Ironclaw’ is a translation from our native tongue, the native language of all spirits. And I have a question for you, in return. How did you become a vampire?”

She was a bit reluctant but answered, “I was killed by policemen. More accurately I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was dying. An acquaintance of mine whom I had know only a few months had pity on me and gave me a second chance for life. She was kindred, though I didn’t know it until that very day. A day of sorrow and joy for me, my deathday. Is it the same for you? Are you bitten like they say in the movies?”

“You mean to ask if being a shape shifter like me is transfered via bite, like a disease? In that case, no it is definitely not. How about vampirism? Is it like they say, thrice bitten and then killed, thus to rise as a vampire? It sounds as if your acquaintance had bitten you a couple times before, as if preparing to make you a vampire. Or is that not quite right?”

“I see we both hold common misconceptions,” she smiled with a light laugh, “but no, thrice bitten is legend. No disease or such. It is an act of desire and will on the part of the sire. Anyone so taken can become kindred, though it is not an easy decision, carries risks, and; well…suffice to say vampires are not born without foresight. Most of the time that is. How do you know someone is correct to become a werewolf? If it is in the DNA if it isn’t an infection?”

“We can sense it. Some can even predict when a human will inherit his or her true legacy,” he said simply. “And what about something I might call the Renfield effect? In other words, does being fed upon make a human an addicted slave to a vampire?”

“You noticed I took your blood but didn’t give you my own!” she laughed. “I was being cautious. Our blood is very powerful. I really shouldn’t get into the details, but suffice to say my blood gives me a wide variety of abilities, including creating bound servants. Don’t worry, a little from cuts and scrapes and biting won’t affect you, if your kind can be affected at all.”

She thought pensively and then said, “I don’t want to tread on asking what could be seen as a taboo or deep secret of your people. Until, I suppose I earn your trust. My kind is very secretive too and for good reason. Please don’t be offended if I am reluctant to answer certain things. But feel free to ask. If I may, you said there were many of you. Are you a tribe or pack? And what role do you play?”

He looked into the fire for a long moment. “There are many organizations,” he said, finally. “Tribes, packs, lodges, and more are out there. As to what roll I play, the best way I can answer that is to say that I am both a member and a leader. Technically, I follow no one, but some follow me. Everyone group does things a bit differently, so saying what I do here really tells you nothing of what goes on elsewhere. Here they might call me the alpha, but the people I lead here call me Ulfric, which is an old Norse term for Wolf-King. But that shouldn’t make you think that those I lead are less than I in some way. The fact is we each have our area of specialty. Mine just happens to be leadership. Also, position is important with us. In fact, one day perhaps someone else will prove to be a more worthy Ulfric than I, and I expect they will then challenge me.”

He turned his inquisitive mind toward Ann-Marie again. “Speaking of position, what position do you hold in your society? And why come here where you are alone?”

“So, for now you are the leader. It does give me pride that you say that. It tells me my senses were correct and you were important to them.” She kissed his cheek and said, “I like strong, powerful lovers. Pretty boys are generally useless, except as a snack.

“As far as me, I hold little position in my society because my specific blood are of a certain calling. We have many factions, lines of descent, viewpoints, politics, games and the like, but in addition we have many rules in common that hold us together. For most Kindred, being out here would be a death sentence. Me, I prefer it, as I have been a nomad for half of my existence, offering my services to those of my faction that needed it, as my blood has done since time immemorial. We are warriors, poets and priestesses all wrapped up in one. I still do act as the protector for some of my kind from time to time, but I was given a blessing to come out here and establish this area as my domain. Somewhat because no other kindred would want it, and somewhat because I get the freedom of the road, but still being close enough to help kin of mine in upstate New York or anywhere in New England.”

“What happened to make you seize power in your group?”

He shrugged. “It’s always been that way. My people are usually left to decide who rules on their own, rather than by an established hierarchy passed down to us. In my case, I was one of two founding members and I was clearly the stronger of us. I was challenged only once by a … warrior, but he was not experienced or strong enough to defeat me. Once he knew his place, he joined us. Over the past five years, the number of werewolves I lead directly has grown. And of course some of us lead or control human kin that have some limited uses to us. Some of my associates tell me they discovered vampires make use of humans as servants and soldiers. Do you make use of them that way as well?”

“I could,” she smiled devilishly, “however, I intend to find someone who holds the same basic beliefs as I do and should they wish to, I will teach her to be my servant. Perhaps an animal or two as well. It’s a necessity and for those who share my viewpoint of kindred kind, a point of honor and status. Not to mention, it is always wise to have a person you trust look over you. Note though, I would never do so casually. Having supernaturals know what you are is dangerous, random mortals knowing in courting disaster. You understand of course, the mortal gets benefits from their association. At least in my case.”

“How is that?” he asked curiously.

“It’s quite simple,” she said, “they get the opportunity to live forever, unaging, and other benefits. I really shouldn’t delve into that though. You have mortal members of your group, friends and extended family? Do you control them. What stops them from exposing you to hunters?”

“We are the hunters,” he said simply. “We have no need to directly control them. They only know what we care to tell them anyway.”

“So you don’t have religious fanatics and Van Helsing want-to-be’s hounding you,” she quipped teasingly and rhetorically, “must be nice?” Directly and with an heir of honestly and genuine concern to her lover she said, “I am a hunter too. Do you have any apprehensions with how I live my existence?”

“Not really,” he said. “If you wish to worship spirits, that’s your affair, and If it so happens a bunch of death spirits start influencing my territory, I know who to go to first.” He gave her a feral grin. His reply was given in jest but it also underscored how serious he took playing around with spirits, especially those he didn’t think knew what they were really doing.

“And I honestly don’t care what you do to most humans,” he stated.

She seemed satisfied, “Thank you,” her hand caressing his face, “That is important to me. You’ll find I don’t worship spirits insomuch as the Morrigan herself; but if you see her as simply an exceptionally powerful spirit, I won’t be offended. Perhaps you can teach me a thing or two to better handle spirit-kind. I would be,” her hand passed beyond his face to his chest, “appreciative…” She held him close, viewing the fire burning in the distance, her words trailing off as she thought about the night before and the possibilities of the near future.

She waited as her words sank in. Before he could answer she asked, “Are you sure want to get to know me Ironclaw, mind and body?”

“If I wasn’t, it’s a bit late now, isn’t it?” he said with a smile. He drew her closer, welcoming her into his lap. “Maybe all this is, is fascination. Maybe we’ve just found a physical match. Maybe all this is just a passing fad. I don’t know but I’m willing to try and find out.” His strong hands explored her body, kneading places that felt like they needed relaxing.

He paused for a moment. “Although sooner or later the others are going to find you out here. Maybe find us together out here.” He frowned. “I’m going to have to let them know about you so they don’t attack you, but at the same time I’d like to keep our… personal explorations just between us, though my Lupa is likely to discover everything anyway.”

“I’m happy with it, for a number of reasons,” she said, enjoying his touch, “I like you Ironclaw. You are different in so many ways that others I have known, and that is just what I’ve learned in our first few meetings. I want more of you, and you’ll get more of me. In any case, we share some of the same acquaintances apparently and the elders of the town know who and what I am and accept it with few reservations; though it would be nice to not have the others — I’m assuming of your group — attack me.” She smiled as she said that.

“Keep us a secret if you must, though such secrets have a way of revealing themselves. Who is your Lupa anyway?”

He explained, “She’s the female alpha. Not equal to me or superior to me, or they would look to her for leadership instead. But she’s the lead female and all the females will do as she says so long as it doesn’t run against my orders. She also runs a business that provides income for the pack –” he stopped suddenly. “Well. That’s the term we use for our group. Anyway, her name is Lyla.”

Ann-Marie began laughing, first a delightful titter, and roaring into joyous laughter.

Ironclaw frowned. “Is there something funny about that?”

She stifled her laugher, lifted herself up an gave him a soft, passionate kiss, whispering, “I don’t think Lyla will complain you are seeing a vampire.” Settling back down onto his lap she continued, “She is, well let’s say we had met long ago and we have -to a degree- rekindled that acquaintance. I think we’ll end up being good friends, and she knows who and what I am.”

Clarity hit her like a brick, and her eyes widened still filled with joy and passion, “Are Ramiel, Michael or Chaska werewolves? If so, that would make my night. The less humans who know who I am, the better. But if supernaturals have to know, well that’s something I can deal with. Oh, this is too perfect! Thank the Goddess!”

“Ramiel and Michael are not members of my pack, nor are they werewolves,” he said. “But they are very adept at keeping secrets. You’ll have few worries about them exposing you to those hunters you mentioned. But what was that about Lyla? You know her from years before? Can you tell me about that?” He seemed to have a keen interest in the subject.

“Well,” she was a little reluctant to discuss it, “she was prey.”

Ironclaw looked even more curious. “Yet she survived your attack. I would guess she was merely human then. Did she have help, or merely luck?”

“Survive? Oh! No, it wasn’t that way. Anyone we feed off is prey, the kine we hunt nearly every night. The hunt isn’t just physical, it can be emotional and rarely do will kill our targets. Think of it as ‘catch-and-release’. Few have any memories of the attack, or in the case of Lyla, other methods. I didn’t attack Lyla, though I knew there was something special about her. I can tell you what happened, but I need your word you will never mention it to anyone.”
He readily agreed. At last he would get to know one of Lyla’s secrets for a change! “Absolutely. Tell me what what happened,” he said with intense enthusiasm.

She looked at him in the eyes, “Well in brief, several years ago I went to a nightclub one night and saw her there with a man I later knew as Ramiel. We both were after the same man, me for a quick snack and her for other reasons, though I don’t think she was attracted to him. In any event, I gave her a look and she respected me by backing off. I appreciated that. Later, I came back to seduce her friend and noted that he was busy with his own goals. Lyla and I were left alone and I seduced her instead, took her back to her hotel room and gave her a night she will always remember. I don’t even think she knew I fed off her until last week. She was a lover of mine for a few brief days and then gone. She unintentionally set me up on a chain of lesbian affairs for the first time since the 70’s. She was so innocent then in some ways, worldly in others. She’s changed. Now I know why.”
This close to each other, Ironclaw couldn’t conceal his expression and feelings when she told him how she first met Lyla, and the fact that she was in his lap made it certain she’d notice he was aroused. He cleared his throat and tried to shove thoughts of Lyla and her short time with Ann-Marie away.

“So,” he began as he tried to make his way around the subject of Lyla, “I understand now what you mean by… prey.” He couldn’t meet his eyes and clearly his thoughts were not on what he was saying. He trailed off, having failed to detour around his emotional roadblock. Clearly he was somehow emotionally hung up on his ‘Lupa’ and that was something that hadn’t been so clearly hinted at until now.

“What is wrong Ironclaw? Do you…” she placed her hand under his chin and raised it so their eyes met, “do you have feelings for Lyla? I can tell you for certain that I harbor no feelings whatsoever for her other than the possible beginnings of friendship. Talk to me, let me help.”

As he looked back at her, he seemed to regain his familiar self-confidence and control. “Lyla is… easy to fall for. Even for me. And she’s very hard to quit once you’ve had her. I guess you know that.” A smile flickered across his features for a moment. “She’s like an old addiction. She and I may be over, having never even officially been anything, but it’s all too easy to fall into old habits.”

Ann-Marie didn’t quite understand as she never had been hung up on a mortal, even Lyla for decades. Though she was a memorable one, she thought. “I suppose she would be. To be honest, she was just a meal at the time. The fact we shared an intimate moment was not a necessity in feeding, but fun nonetheless.” With the depth of composure in her eyes she looked deeply into Ironclaw, knowing he had a soft side after all. “What she and I shared indirectly led to me being here with you. So you and I have to thank her for that. Do not worry, I do not find you caring for her wrong in any way, though I would be upset if you pursued her.” She caressed his cheek, “I can give you plenty of reasons to forget about her, do things she can never do, and take you to places you have never felt before. If you want a new addiction, I’m here for you. If you want a lover and friend, you conquered me, I’m yours. If you want a companion and someone to empty your soul to, I will take your heart into mine, conquer your rage and take you as my own.” The raw seductive power of the vampire rose to the surface. A dark, dangerous, but rewarding opportunity presented herself to Ironclaw. She wanted him to want her, to fight for her, to adore her, to conquer her and to be conquered by her.

“All this can be yours, just don’t disappoint me.”

He drew his eyes back to hers as she spoke to him, then smiled. “Lyla is the forbidden fruit for me anyway. I can’t pursue her and you… you can satisfy my urges far more than any human could and I needn’t be too careful. I don’t know that I need a new addiction, but you definitely scratch an itch I thought might never be scratched after her.” He smiled. “And there is little to fear of unwanted pregnancies with you, I think. I want to see where this thing between us will lead.”

She replied, “I do too. But I don’t want be her for you. You understand?” she said, looking deeply into his beautiful eyes with complete sincerity.

“Of course,” he said.

After a moment’s thought, he asked, “Do you have a place in town?”
“Yes. Do you want to adjourn to there? And here I thought you wanted me here and now?,” she said with sinister teasing.
He grinned. “I do but my pride would rather do it some place above freezing. Unless…” He raised an eyebrow and gave her a meaning-filled look.

“Well then…”, she purred. Ann-Marie looked him in the eye and her smile turned to a frown of mock anger — or real anger, with kindred one could never can tell. Without warning she slapped his face, dragging her nails across him leaving subtle cuts in his flesh, her hand becoming the paw of a black monstrous wolf as she changed and leapt from the cave, daring him to follow.
With a snarl he leapt after her, transforming instantly as he went.

Later, Ironclaw was leading Ann-Marie to the Blood and Brew. He paused outside and looked up at brightly-lit windows. It seemed to have a good crowd this night; not bad for a Thursday night.

“This is our place, sort of a hang-out,” he told her. “But it’s not just for us. Lyla got this thing going for us, even put up signs out near the highway to draw some folks in. It’s off the beaten path, but now and again you’ll find someone who is someone. Special people like you and I, only different if you understand. Lyla had a network from her traveling days. People who dabble in various kinds of occult. They’ve begun to come here as a safe place to exchange information as well as to do business. The pack will enforce the peace here if necessary, but so far it hasn’t been. Everyone keeps it low-key, no powers.

“Come on,” he said with a smile. “I’ll show you around.”

She answered, “Very well. Perhaps my ‘uncle’ is here, or any of the others. “
They stepped in and it was a little like the movies; as people around them realized an unfamiliar face had arrived, patron paused to stare for a long moment before returning to their drinks. Ironclaw peered through the smoky den for a moment, then smiled. “Most of them are here,” he said.

And there were more than one familiar face here, Ann-Marie noticed. The most obvious was Lyla at the bar pouring drinks for customers. Beyond her to the back of the bar, Ramiel occupied a booth by himself where he was was working on some kind of journal.

Ironclaw was heading to the bar first. Lyla smiled at him as he approached then noticed who was at his arm. She set down the glass she was filling and slid it out of the way down the bar, paying no mind to whose it was; yet someone picked it up and slapped down a five.

“Hey,” she said to them both. She started filling a glass of some dark beer and then handed it to Ironclaw.

“Evening Lyla,” said Ann-Marie with a sophisticated smile. “This fine gentleman told me you owned this place. I see Ramiel studying back there as well. How are you?”

Lyla’s eyes slid toward Ironclaw and she tilted her head a little as she looked at him. Then a small smile crept into place and she turned her attention back to Ann-Marie. “Oh, I’m doing great,” she said. “And I see you two are as well.”

Ironclaw smiled, too. “I understand the two of you got to know each other really well a few years back,” he said with none too subtle innuendo.

Lyla didn’t give him the overt reaction he was looking for, though she did blush slightly. She filled a glass with something and then took a long drink. She put the tumbler down. “Yup. Really well.”

Ann-Marie spoke up trying to transition the subject a bit, “Well, lets not worry about the past for the moment, I’m more concerning about the here and now. This is an interesting place you have.” Ann-Marie noticed the pregnant Lyla taking a drink, hoping for her sake it wasn’t alcohol, but didn’t want to be rude by mentioning things.

Rey came to stand at Lyla’s elbow, waiting unobtrusively until she had her attention.

Lyla noticed, then turned to Rey. “Oh Rey. Got an order to be filled?”

“Yup,” Rey said. “Two Buds, a Killian’s, and a request from the guys at table three that you institute a dress code that requires me wear a lower cut t-shirt and short shorts.” She chuckled. “Hi Ironclaw.”

While Lyla filled the order he smiled and nodded. “Rey.”

Lyla popped open the beers and handed them to Rey. “So what are you two up to?” she asked of Irconclaw and Ann-Marie.

“Well, Ironclaw and I met recently and he has been kind enough to show me around. I asked if I could see where he spends his time as well as the other interesting things in town. So we are starting here,” said Ann-Marie. “Though Uncle Johnny is supposed to give me a tour of the hospital and local educational resources soon, I figured Ironclaw might know some of the nightspots.”
He chuckled. “Well, this is pretty much the only nightspot around here.”

Lyla smiled. “I think a ‘night spot’ is anywhere you choose to make it. Unless the two of you have already made a ‘night spot’ or two of your own?” She raised a suggestive eyebrow, which evoked only a nonverbal, non-of-your-business frown from Ironclaw. That, of course, only amused Lyla further and she took a long pull on her drink, finishing it.

Ramiel quietly came to the bar and asked for a JD.

Ann-Marie seemed a bit amused by this, but echoed Ironclaw by saying, “Not so much, we’ve just met recently. Oh, hello Ramiel!”

Rey looked between Lyla, Ann-Marie and Ironclaw with a calm face. While she was amused, she was also concerned at this woman just showing up and an latching onto Ironclaw. Rey discovered she’d developed quite a protective streak when it came to members of the pack, some more than others. Hamilton, where are you?

Here miss! came his typically snappy reply. Looking around, Rey didn’t see any sign of the elusive fellow, though she knew he must be in the bar somewhere.

“Yeah hi,” Ramiel said and sat down.

“Well, as I’ll be around for awhile, I suppose we may as well have a seat.” She pointed to two stools at the bar for her and Ironclaw to take a seat. Looking to Rey and Lyla she then looked aside at Ironclaw and asked, “What do you want to drink?”

“Whiskey looks good,” he said.

Lyla filled a tumbler with a double shot of JD — just the way Ramiel liked it — and passed it to him. When his hand took the glass from her, she let her fingers stray a bit to touch him, lingering for a moment on the smooth skin of the back of his hand. She smiled and then poured one for Ironclaw as well. She finished her tumbler and put it away behind the bar.
“So you’ve found the magic of the Blood and Brew, hm?” Lyla said to Ann-Marie. “Hope you like it! I was just considering plans to put in a big, happy fireplace to make it just a bit more like home for people.

Fireplace…great, she thought, “That sounds lovely,” Ann-Marie said without giving away her composure. “It is a nice location in any event.”

Take a look at the woman next to Ironclaw. Do you see anything interesting about her? Rey knew Hamilton had the ability to see things she couldn’t. That made her little familiar very useful, and sometimes gave her an edge in potentially dangerous situations.

Apart from her being a vampire, miss? Nope, nothing at all, he replied primly.

“Thanks,” said Lyla with a touch of pride. “It’s off the beaten path and all, but it keeps us all entertained.” She paused, then said, “I know you don’t drink… alcohol, Ann-Marie, but is there anything else I might be able to offer you?” Lyla suspected only blood would do for a vampire, if the movies were right, but a lot times movies weren’t right about too many things. Besides, she’d be a poor host if she didn’t make the attempt.

Ann-Marie answered, “I’ll have a wine now and again, but for the most part I try to avoid alcohol. Just water. Thank you.”
“I’d better go deliver these drinks,” Rey said with a smile and retreated from the bar. Can a vampire enslave one of the Uratha the way they can a human?

An excellent question, miss! Bravo! the little spirit applauded. And it happens to be one I know the answer to. You see, while Uratha are creatures of flesh, they are also creatures of spirit and that is where their soul lies. So, while the blood and flesh of such Undead will most assuredly inflict a powerful addiction, their spirit nature means they cannot possibly be controlled.

Therefore! he continued excitedly, while Uratha cannot be enslaved via the blood of the Undead, they suffer the same threat of addiction to Undead blood as they do human flesh. Furthermore, Uratha wise enough not to feed upon human is equally wise enough not to feed upon the vital essence of the more powerful walking dead such as vampires. Er… one would assume…

Oh my! Bjorn has got that look again! Gotta run, miss! But I’ll be back soon! The helpful but flighty little spirit suddenly felt quite distant, though she knew she could coax him back if she had to.

At the bar, Lyla handed Ann-Marie her water. “By the way, thanks for helping out with the Bron Niesen case, Ann-Marie.”

Ann smiled, responding, “No problem. It was fun and I’d love to help you guys again if the opportunity arises. If I may ask, what ever became of him, or is that a conversation for another time?”

Lyla shrugged. “Not really. He’s at the house, where he’s been since we brought him back here a couple days ago. I don’t see any reason he shouldn’t go home, though.”

Rey returned from delivering her drinks with a new order. “Hey, sorry to interrupt. Lyla, I need a pitcher,” she said.

Lyla pulled out a pitcher but before she asked what beer they wanted, she looked at Rey. “So, what’s my girl crying over?” The look Rey gave indicated she didn’t want to say in public. Lyla wiped her hands on a towel. “I need to get more carbonated water from the back anyway. Give me a hand?” she asked Rey.

“Sure thing,” Rey replied, putting her tray on the counter and followed Lyla into the back.

Just then a Eldonwell Police officer stepped into the bar. For those who knew him it was Michael. Michael scanned the room, noticing where Selene was having an indepth conversation with her sister and Bjorn. Then he spotted Ramiel and a few of the others at the bar.

Michael made his way up to an open stool at the bar and sat down. “Hi everyone.”

Rey returned from the back room with an easy smile on her face. “Hi, Michael. I’ll be with you in a just a sec. Ironclaw, can I speak to you for a moment?”

He looked at her, over at Bjorn, Niki, and Selene (who recently had returned from the restroom but still had puffy, red eyes from crying, and then at the back room.

“Yeah, I get it,” he said. “I know exactly what she’s feeling right now,” he told her, reminding her of his power. “And I know where she is.” He stood up and those around him felt the predatory aura of menace he usually kept hidden behind his normal pretense of camaraderie. This was the Wolf King that until now usually hid in the sheep’s clothing of humanity.

He cracked his knuckles and emitted a menacing smile. Customers closest to the companions got up and immediately sought more distant tables. “I know how to hand this.” He strode confidently toward the alley access door and passed a confused Bjorn on the way. He paused long enough to murmur something into his ear and Bjorn instantly got to his feet. Ironclaw continued to the alley access door and outside, though Bjorn hung back and took up position by the alley door. His threatening gaze was sure to scare off any over-curious patron, but it wasn’t directed at the companions seated at the bar.

Ramiel silently stood taking his journal and glass with him. He followed closely behind Ironclaw, nodding at Bjorn as he walked by. Rey filed out into the alley as well.

Ann-Marie had to hurry to follow Ironclaw. His long strides had already carried him through the door and onto the first step down. She caught his arm. “What are you doing?”

Rey glanced at Ann-Marie, but held her tongue. This was pack business, and it was none of her concern, but it was up to Ironclaw to tell her that.

The blackness of the alley was marginally beaten back by a single lamp post that shed and ugly yellow light. It wasn’t strewn with filth as a city might have, nor was it crowded with dumpsters. This alley was lonely, dusty, and quiet, but it had plenty of space and few obstacles here. Beneath the sickly yellow of the lamp, Lyla stood seething. Her face, framed by black hair, was completely in shadow but her eyes glittered with anger.

Ironclaw took one look at Lyla and then said to Ann-Marie, “I’m going to teach her that may word isn’t open for debate and that my decisions are final.”

Lyla interrupted. “You had no right to break the pack without consulting me James Ironclaw!”

Ironclaw stepped into the alley and faced her some ten paces away. “In two days the pack will be expanded, larger than we need or want in this territory. The cubs need teachers and we have Uratha ready to make their own way now.”

“That’s beside the point. I’m well aware of the size of the pack, James. You’re Ulfric and I’m your queen! I say if a female leaves or not!”

“You are not queen, yet, Lyla,” Ironclaw stated calmly. “You’re my Lupa and you are the first among all the females of the pack, but that does not make you queen. I rule this pack. I decide what is best according to my vision.”

Lyla’s temper flared again. “We’ll see about that!” A flick of her wrist extended her asp to full length; she meant to teach him what it meant to cross her.

A flashback struck Ramiel as he gazed upon the battle from the shadows, a memory of her defiance of him — and what it had meant when a body was on the floor and blood splattered a hotel room wall. He felt dark eyes watching him and he looked over to see that Niki had joined the small group watching the fight in the alley. Her sister, Selene was behind her.

Ramiel simply looked at Niki and smiled. The look in his eyes were dark, cool, and cold. He knew Lyla would loose this fight. He knew she needed to. Niki turned back to watch the fight.

After arriving in the bar John found Bjorn guarding the alley door, and who told him the others were in the alley to watch a fight between Lyla and Ironclaw. John then appeared in the alley to find the others watching what seemed to be some kind of showdown between Lyla and Ironclaw.

“Ironclaw, don’t,” Ann-Marie called to her lover, “Lyla is pregnant!!”

“She should have thought of that before she called me out,” he growled coldly.

The Fight
Lyla and Ironclaw stared at each other for a long moment, measuring each other up. Then Ironclaw exploded into action with a rush and an overhand, two-fisted haymaker intended to bring this fight to a close before it began, but Lyla was too quick. With the grace and deceptively unrushed motion of a ballerina, she executed a perfect, no-hands cartwheel to her left and returned his brutish rush with a two-handed swing of her telescoping baton that cracked against his skull.

A human might have been felled in that one blow, but the massive man just shook off the stunning blow and reassessed his opponent. Rose had made the mistake of underestimating Lyla six months prior, and clearly the training Lyla had been doing with Chaska was paying off in a big way. He wondered briefly with pride how glorious it must have been when his Lupa had killed the Pure alpha just one month ago, but he had to shove those emotions aside. They would not help him here.

Ironclaw changed into a boxing stance and close on Lyla again. Her asp overcame his great reach and she used it with great skill such that he was unable to breach her defense. Lyla gave him only a bruised arm for his effort.

Lyla was doing very well, but Ironclaw decided it was time to up the stakes. He reached into his power and ripped forth his Dalu form. He grew nearly a foot and a half taller, adding scores of pounds of muscle and heavier bone as he took the humanoid form. His ears elongated and teeth came to resemble more that of predator than human, but he could still pass for human in the dark alley. The sudden size change extended his reach, causing Lyla to miscalculate. His fist connected square in her chest and she stagggered backward as her breathe rushed from her lungs.

Lyla spat upon the ground and recovered her poise, but was unable to effect a counterattack. Ironclaw moved in and executed a series of quick jabs, though only one glancing punch landed. She responded with a quick flick of the asp that delivered another sharp rap.

Just as she was figuring out his boxing attack, he dropped the pretense and body-checked her, slamming her to the ground. Her dexterity saved her again as she tucked and rolled with the moment, ending on her feet again. They exchanged blows again, diminutive human poised delicately against punishing blows from the over-sized brute she fought. Lyla was beginning to stagger. Then he suddenly kicked her legs out from under her and she went down with a startled expletive.

Then she, too, reached within her power and tore free her Dalu form. She still was a foot shorter and far slighter than the massive Blood Talon warrior she faced, but the female alpha shot back to her feet and commenced a cautious circling.

Ironclaw again swung a massive fist at her head, achieving another shock to her system. Clearly, he was using attrition to grind her down. But Lyla was not without tricks of her own. She sprang back with a burst of energy, leaping high over his head. She twisted while in mid-air and delivered a bone-jarring impact to the top of his head with her asp.

He spun in response, catching her with a strong backhand when she landed and knocking her clear across the alley.

Lyla seemed to have trouble focusing for a moment so he rapidly closed to finish her. This time he struck at her throat in a flat-handed strike designed to crush a larynx. She nearly failed to get out of the way in time. The graze ripped a hoarse choke from her throat even as she backed away and gripped her neck.

Now Ironclaw settled into a martial pose now. He massive body, perfectly muscles and formed with deadly power poised for a moment while Lyla tried to raise her baton again. With a roar that released his tightly-wound energy he put all his weight behind a punch that landed directly between her eyes. Her head snapped back and her eyes rolled up as she staggered backward until her back hit the lamp post. To her credit she didn’t fall, didn’t call out in pain, nor ask for mercy. A massive bruise had instantly formed where she’d been hit and clearly she’d have been deafened as the evidence of blood also dripped from her ears. Burst blood vessels in her eyes gave them a hideous, red-black tinge to the normal silver and white coloring. It was probably the first and certainly the very finest concussion she’d ever been handed in her life.

By all rights, she should have been down, but apparently her brain hadn’t registered that fact. Ironclaw almost casually walked up to her, expecting her to go down, but she lashed out at him, half-blind as she was, and caught him with a minor blow of her asp. He danced back and left her with light cuff on the head which had to have hurt like hell even if it didn’t do much damage. Lyla made a dizzied, wild swing, which he fended off again with a meaty forearm.

Now the fight seemed decided. But Lyla wasn’t down yet. It was hard to tell if Ironclaw was toying her or just trying to figure out how to get her down without resorting to body blows. Lyla swung wildly a few times while Ironclaw executed sniping shots to keep her disoriented and weak.

Suddenly, he rushed her again and grappled her. He was far, far stronger than she and was easily able to squeeze her wrist hard enough to maker her fingers go numb and drop her asp. He kicked it away, where it disappeared into a dark corner, then tried to put her in a sleeper hold. Somehow, Lyla managed to slip away.

Her senses were intact again; her werewolf metabolism having already corrected much of the shock her brain had endured. Ironclaw had never relinquished the initiative this fight, however, and they closed once more at the same time in a dust-raising tussel of fists and feet. Suddenly there was a loud snap as a bone broke. Lyla gasped in pure agony as she hopped back on one leg. Her right leg was folded at an obscene angle at the knee. She stared helplessly with eyes wide as Ironclaw paused long enough to casually wind up the finally blow. When his fist crashed across her jaw, she spun 180 degrees to stare blankly at her friends in the small crowd and then fall back into the dirt. She rapidly returned to human form, signaling an end to the fight.

Ironclaw knelt down and lifted her head off the ground. He spoke just loudly enough that the silent crowd could hear his words. “Listen carefully, my lupa. You don’t control me anymore. You don’t control this pack. I. Am. Ulfric. My word is law.” He let her head drop to the earth, then stood up, dusted his hands off, and walked away.

“Hey Doc? Fix her knee before it heals, will ya?” He jabbed a thumb toward Lyla. “Thanks. I don’t want to hear her bitching about it in the morning.”

Rey watched, and was relieved at the outcome. Not that she’d ever wanted to see Lyla end up like that, but it had to happen. The pack would be stronger for it. She hoped. And she hoped that Lyla wouldn’t end up disappearing into the forest alone as she always did when things went wrong with Ramiel.

Reluctantly, she returned to the bar, as she was the only other person working that night.

John seemed to snap out of a dream and gave Ironclaw a hard bitter look then ran over to Lyla, to make sure everything healed correctly. Her knee needed to be moved back in place — and that was going to hurt.

He heard the fallen werewolf female slur, “I guesh I dee-sherved thath.” Yup. She definitely had a concussion. Luckily the good doctor could guess that werewolf metabolism wouldn’t allow after-effects to linger. Luckily for her.

Ann-Marie showed no emotion at first; she hadn’t wanted the fight to happen in the first place, but once it had to happen the stronger one was victorious, and he was hers. The Goddess had been with the strong. Not that Lyla wasn’t ferocious. She was that, and tenacious too. Very admirable. Something about Lyla really had pissed off Ironclaw. Perhaps he would tell her some day. She stood in the alley, sorry for her friend, but proud of her lover, waiting for him to walk over and take her hand. She let slip a slight prideful smile, proud of both of them.

To her slight surprise, Ironclaw didn’t go to her. Instead, he stopped in front of Bjorn, Niki and Selene, whom she might now guess were also members of his pack. Bjorn had stepped outside to view the carnage just a moment after Lyla had been defeated.

Ironclaw pointed right at Ann-Marie. “I think I might take that woman to be my mate for a while. There isn’t going to be any discussion about this.”

There was an awkward moment, then Bjorn grinned widely and put up his hands. Niki matched the feral smile and said, “Have fun, sir.” Selene just stared with round, scared eyes and kept her mouth shut.

Ramiel heard the raised voice of his little witch in the next room. With a sigh he hefted himself off the couch and took another swig od JD. He stood in the door and listened to them for a little bit. “It’s not that you couldn’t handle it peaches. He didn’t want blood on your hands.”

Ramiel nodded to Ironclaw as he passed him. Then went to Lyla and after clearing it with John picked her up. “I’ll take you home the back way. Unless you want to stay.”

“Thankth, Ramiel,” Lyla said. Also still a bit slurred, she seemed to be recovering from the concussion already. Her body would be a couple hours mending, though. “I’d like to go home. Niki?” She twisted in his arms just enough to look at her packmate as Ramiel passed by. “Would help Rey with the bar tonight?”

“Sure,” she said. The she reached out and patted Lyla on the shoulder. “Hey. Good fight, Lyla. You did real good.”

Lyla smiled. It was the best complement — no, the only complement she’d ever heard Niki utter to anyone.

Ann-Marie nodded to them as they passed by.

Ramiel looked at Ironclaw for a moment, seemingly saying a lot without a sound. Then he turned his attention back to Lyla. “Yup. You faught well. Foolish but well.” He carried her out of the alley and toward home.

“Ann Marie”, John said with a certain edge to his voice, ” a word please.”

“Yes dear?” she said calmly with a certain joy in her step she turned and walked a little bit away with her brother. “What is it?”

“Is what he said what you want? Because if its not you don’t have to do it. He doesn’t have the right to try and make you if its not what you want.”

John looked like he was upset, angry and maybe wanted to hit something.

Ann-Marie answered in a whisper so no one else would hear, “We met a few days ago, Ironclaw and I. We are, well for lack of a better word, dating. It could get serious, and I think it just did. But he’s just full of bluster and pride. I like that type. I’ll hold my own,” she said referring back to the statement Ironclaw had made. “In fifty years, I’ve had many companions Johnny, I just found myself suddenly going from a few friends, to a lover, new friends, and family.” The last part of which she touched her brother’s chin and turned him gently to her eye. “What is wrong Johnny. It can’t be me. Is it the fight?” This was the voice of his big sister. This was Grace wanting to help John like she did when they were children.

John took a deep breath and tried to focus himself and think. “It’s that while my head knows that Lyla isn’t human and their ways are not our ways. I just watched a pregnant female that I call a friend, get beat up by a man twice her size — and her lover and I am guessing father of her child if what you said is true — is okay with that and right now I really want to hit something because my heart is screaming out that its wrong. I feel like I did when our brother died and there was nothing I could do. I feel helpless and it really really sucks.”

John took another deep breath and said, “If you are okay with him I am okay with him but I need to take a walk, before I do or say something that I can’t take back. I’ll see you in the morn.. tomorrow night Gr.. Ann Marie.” John turned and grabbed his bag. Right now it looked like he was ready to walk through a brick wall if thats what it took to get away.

“Johnny, wait.” Ann-Marie whispered as she took his arm. “It is not as it seems.” She guides her little brother away from the fight saying, “I don’t know what exactly is going on, but I can tell you Ironclaw didn’t start it, Lyla did. And he held himself back by only hitting the areas away from the baby. This I observed with my own eyes. I don’t know what is exactly between them, but any romance died a while ago and whatever control Lyla had over him from that romance just died here tonight. Lyla knew what she was doing. You don’t have to like what they do to each other, but I doubt they would kill each other. They are tougher than you know.”

“Ann Marie this is the second time I have seen Lyla beaten, and the first that I knew of that she was pregnant. It has nothing to do with who started it, and everything to do with who I am. I know that I don’t have the right to interfere or say anything. But it goes against my grain to watch and do nothing.”

“I’m not simply okay with it, but I am trying to understand it. In any case, Ramiel is the father not Ironclaw. Read my mind, if you wish, you’ll see my memories of what was said in Salem. You’ll know it is true.”

“Ann Marie I don’t need to read you mind. I need to get away right now and calm down. Good Night”

“Okay. But leave a message if you want to talk.” Ann-Marie watched her brother depart, then turned and awaited Ironclaw.

By the time that she’d turned back, she noticed that the others had already disappeared back into bar or gone home. Only Ironclaw remained now. “Sorry you had to see that,” he stated.

“It’s okay. The better to understand you I think. I would rather have known than not known,” she walked up to him, “just because I am a creature of the dark doesn’t mean I want to be in the dark. Someday I hope you will share more of your world with me, if only to let me understand you better.”

“Actually, I meant the part where I beat up a pregnant woman. Sorry you had to see that part,” he clarified

“I know. It was hard to watch, but it needed to be done I would think. But you know something?” she asked with a wry smile.

“What’s that?”

“I’m proud of you,” she said with a smile.

He looked a little surprised. He imagined most people couldn’t watch pack interactions on its most violent scale as it was tonight and not think them savages. “Why?”

“You took heed of my warning about the pregnancy. You still fought her, but you endeavored to avoid anywhere that could harm the child, handicapping yourself in the process. You knew what you could do, and still make your point. That is honorable,” she said proudly, her hand touching his.

He considered her a moment. “I’m glad you understand then. And I take it it’s not going to bother you that you can’t be regarded as one of my pack?”

“I suppose,” with slight disappointment, “I’m not a werewolf and I’ve been an outsider all my existence, this is no different. You made it quite clear to the others that I am your mate. That was quite a surprise, but I’m comfortable with it. Share with me what you wish, but I want to know you,” she answered confidently.

“Well, I said that I might take you as my mate. I deliberately left that open because I wasn’t going try to force anything. The ‘might’ becomes a ‘will’ if you agreed to it.” He paused to consider a moment. “Did we discuss what the term means to me? I don’t think we talked about what it might mean to you.”

“No we haven’t. I think we were too busy enjoying each other. What does it mean to you,” the vampiress replied.

“To most of us, me included, a mate is someone you have sex with. It is always someone who is not a member of the pack. We aren’t wolves, so we do not mate for life. Rather we tend to be passionate… well you know that,” he said with a smile. “And our passions often lead to tragedy for our mates because 99 times out of a hundred, the mate is only human. They often get hurt emotionally, physically, or both. Or killed when their werewolf partner flies into a rage for whatever reason. Older werewolves will try to break off relations or find a new mate before that happens. It isn’t easy for us. But mating with humans is the only way we have of propagating our own kind. And one werewolf, male or female, may have several or even many such mates in a lifetime.

“Different packs all have different rules regarding mates. In our pack we follow An– well let’s just say we have specific rules on mates and mating and that’s why I announced my intention in front of my pack mates. In our pack, mates are technically approved or denied by the Ulfric for the males, or the Lupa for the females. I’m pretty lenient for the males because we’ve never had trouble with them. Lyla is Lupa and she has the authority to say who can mate with whom. She hasn’t done that yet, but she hasn’t really be Lupa all that long. Five, maybe six months, I think. She’s still getting used the role. She did well tonight, so she might be able to better fit her role now.”

Ann-Marie considered his words, “Kindred rarely care enough to have sex, despite what Anne Rice novels and the like might say. It is a pale shadow compared to the Kiss. But you Ironclaw bring something out of me I have never felt before.” She wrapped her arms around his neck, “That combined with the Kiss… is very, very nice. You’ve felt it. You know the ecstasy. Your passion simply adds to it, and nicely. Oddly enough, our passions are very compatible.”

“Honestly we’ve only just met, though I found myself drawn to you. I think you feel the same way. We both want to know where this will go. Am I right?”

He smiled widely. He had an idea where he’d like it to go that night, at least.

Ann-Marie continued, “My line of kindred are hard to break, I wouldn’t fear that, but if I agree to be your mate, will I be the only one? I don’t care for rivals.”

“It takes an exceptional female to lure me to her bed,” he said with a grin. “Although I am most interested in what your bed might look like right now.”

She smiled her devilish smile, taking his hand and leading him off, “Oh, my bed has never been used before and my lures are the most decadent and dangerous. If you please me, I will likely consent to being your mate, and you will be mine.” Her last words were dripping with bestial vampiric lust.

In response he swept her into his arms and said in a low, husky voice. “Less talk. More sex.” His eyes sparked with amusement.

As they walked off toward Ann-Marie’s place, she mused, “What is An…?”

He simply chuckled and then kissed her.

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