The Hidden Threat

Timeline: Friday of February 29, 2008

It was a a special day for the Blood & Brew. As well as being a leap year, the extra day in February fell upon a Friday, making it the regulars a bit more celebratory than usual. The mood of the evening was also surprisingly, unidentifiably, sinister.

Lyla was personally working the bar as well as Rose. It was Ironclaw and Selene’s turn to patrol. It was Grey’s turn to monitor the spirit world, and Chaska had the night off — though he tended to spend his free time when not practicing tactics and fighting techniques with Rose and Lyla in quiet contemplation.

The bar was busy tonight and the grill was running non-stop since they began serving dinner at five. It would only run until eight when the grill was normally scheduled to be turned off and scrubbed down for the night. Even Ariyah had decided to come to the B&B tonight, and she’d received a surprised but warm welcome from Lyla. Ariyah, full of smiles and well-wishes had congratulated Lyla (in a quiet whisper) on her pregnancy. The Lupa didn’t say anything in return.

Ramiel had, by way of a chance divination in an idle moment, caught a hint that the Blood & Brew might be a very interesting place to be tonight. It didn’t usually take much encouragement to draw him to the bar in any case, but the extra metaphysical hint was ominous enough to focus his attention.

Ramiel walked into the bar and headed for the back.Tonight his hair was loose falling ot his waist. Just above the black leather drawstring pants that framed his manhood just as stunningly as it did his rear. He wore a shear black shirt that the lower half of the torso and sleeves were solid. A long silver necklace with a single ring accompanied his outfit. His feet adorned in black combat boots.

As he passed the bar he ordered a JD. Lyla noticed a new tattoo that wrapped around his right arm. What could be seen through the material was of a celtic design.

He was out for fun tonight, she could tell by the evil twinkle in his eyes. But he was also on gaurd. He had ordered his JD on the rocks.

If they had been in the city she knew women would be falling over him. His appearance tonight was exceptional, and goth.

Lyla handed him his drink, but held onto it a moment when he tried to take it away. She looked him in the eye with a serious look on her face. Once she had his attention she let go his drink.

His initial thought was what the fuc.. then he saw the look in her eyes and it turned into a question. Taking his drink in one hand and Lyla’s in the other, he sat at the end of the bar instead of his usual spot. “What’s the problem?” he asked.

Lyla leaned back and gave him a critical half-smile. “That guy in the corner that breezed in here about three hours ago and hasn’t stopped giving me a look like I’m the devil’s own child.”

Ramiel smiled and leaned over the bar. Taking Lyla by surprise, he kissed her gently, deeply. “Hi love, how are you?”

But he turned to leave the bar. “Time to say ‘ello gov.” He took his drink with him and moved over to take a seat next to the man in the back with the chain.

As Ramiel approached the table, the man kicked the chair away, sending it to its back. “Sorry. Table’s full,” he said. The man looked up at Ramiel with a defiant sneer. The guy had close-cropped brown hair, military style buzz cut and a sharp edge to his stare and wore a leather jacket, left to hang open, and a black tee underneath. It made the silvery chain and cross he wore stand out in naked relief. His combat boots were used but in top shape, shined to perfection.

“I see.” Ramiel said.” So I guess buying you a drink is out of the question. Perhaps then you would be more interested in meeting her.” He said as he motioned toward Lyla.

He lifted his glass, took a long drink of something dark and then set it down on the table heavily. “Buzz off.”

Ramiel bent down and returned the chair back to it’s normal position. Then returned to the bar. “What’s with that guy?” He asked Lyla.

“Just like a man,” she told him, “to waltz right into it all swagger and no mind to what’s going on.” She sighed and eyed him again. She wore a disappointed, sad look.

“Anyway,” Lyla said, “the important bit you don’t know is that guy is Uratha. But!” she said to keep the two of them from wandering off or doing something foolish before she was finished speaking. “Remember this place is neutral ground. That means neutral to foreign Uratha, too. Capiche?” She waited for each of them to acknowledge and answer her.

Rey flashed Lyla a slightly annoyed look. “Of course.”

“Now, I read every unknown super that waltz’s through my front door. I know his secret,” Lyla said, “and it’s me.”

“As far as that guy and me going over there,” Ramiel said, “I told you why, to say hello. He isn’t the social type. Guess he’s heard about me. I came down here because I picked up something that might be fun. Guess it was this guy. He wants something with you? Or knows something about you?”

Lyla was clearly distressed, but she noticed people could hear what they were talking about. Rose closed quickly toward the bar after she noticed Lyla was upset.

Lyla pulled off her apron. “The bar’s yours, Rose.” She headed toward the back room while Rose watched the stranger — who had a smug look on his face — through narrowed eyes.

Rose didn’t take her eyes off the stranger. “Hey guys? You two should probably have a talk with her. I’ll keep an eye on this guy.”

Rey nodded and followed Lyla after glancing at Ramiel.

Ramiel drained his glass. Sitting it down he looked at Rose. “Double shot, strait,” he said. After a stern look from Rose and downing the shot, he followed behind Rey in going off into the back room.

When Rey arrived, Lyla was sitting on the desk, her long legs propped up on the padded chair in front of it. The desk itself was a fairly recent addition and provided a place for Lyla to sit and work through papers and orders, bills — lots of bills — and taxes. It was made of stout oak so although it wasn’t made for sitting upon, it was more than strong enough. Rey saw the hurt on her face just before Lyla covered her feelings with a mask of false anger and looked toward to the door.

“Rey?” She hadn’t expected Rey to come back here. She glanced at the door, but if Ramiel was coming, he wasn’t there yet.

She sighed. “We’ve got trouble, Rey. Or at least I’ve got trouble. That guy out there goes by the handle of Preacher but he’s actually –“

The door opened again, cutting her off as Ramiel walked in. Lyla paused, looking at him. Then she shoved the chair toward him with her foot. “Have a seat Ramiel.”

Rey grabbed one of the spare bar stools and sat on it, all the while keep her eyes on Lyla and Ramiel.

Ramiel caught the chair and moved it over by the desk. He sat down without taking his eyes off Lyla. He wondered where this was going to go.

Rey noticed the new tatoo on his arm the same type of symbols were interlaced with celtic weaving. “Well I wouldn’t want to upset you. So tell me what is on your mind.”

“That would take too long,” Lyla said. “Why don’t I tell you about Preacher instead? That guy who’s been staring at me like I was the Wicked Witch of the West likes to be called Preacher. I’m going to guess the reasons will become obvious. I never met him before, but apparently I did meet his big brother. Twice.

“A couple years ago when you and I were on the Trail we made a pit stop in New York City. We were out of supplies and out of cash, so I did my usual — find a mark, sex him up and milk his wallet dry. I only remember the one time, but I guess I ran into him again a few months later and, though I didn’t remember him, he remembered me. Only he didn’t care that I was just using him to get to some quick cash.

“Well apparently I broke his heart somehow and his little brother has been looking for me ever since. Only, his little brother thinks I’m the root of all evil in their lives, despite the fact — and I didn’t know this at the time either — big bro is a made man in the mob. Well Ricky, the little bro, is Uratha and I’m gathering a pretty religious one at that. He’s convinced I’m a Bale Hound and he seems to have finally tracked me here to prove it.”

“Now for the translation. What is a Bale Hound and how is it bad?How is this guy a threat?” Ramiel asked in mild tones.

Rey remained silent, but wondered how many man and women Lyla had done that to, and how many ended up like Ironclaw or Preacher’s brother.

“It’s a Uratha that has betrayed its own kind by serving the Maeljin,” Lyla explained. “That’s basically like deciding your own kind deserves nothing short that total destruction and throwing your lot in with great Cthulhu or the lords of the Abyss. The Maeljin are god-like spirits that are things that were never meant to be and which form the antithesis of… well everything. Bale Hounds are practically legend and myth, but we Uratha are superstitious. Legends say that Bale Hounds will integrate into unsuspecting packs and at the right moment, sacrifice every one of them to its dread master, Soulless Wolf. If Preacher can come up with this evidence of his against me, he’ll be able to turn just about any Uratha against me. If he can’t my own pack, he might go elsewhere.

“The problem is this; he’s already made up his mind. Now he’s come to see what he can dig up to prove it.”

“What kind of evidence would he need?” Rey asked.

“Yeah Velma. What kind of evidence?” Ramiel said with a teasing smile.

Lyla’s brow creased faintly with worry. “That’s the part I don’t know. I’m not sure he knows what he’s looking for exactly. But since I don’t know anything really factual about Bale Hounds, I don’t know what constitutes ‘evidence’ of Bale Hound activity.”

“Kind of like an old witch hunt. Find something and turn it into evidence.” Rey frowned. Hamilton, can you hear me? She knew he was nearby, somewhere.

The head of a small, black cat appeared behind the desk; he’d been sleeping upon the very comfortable office chair (and consequently getting his shedding fur all over it). He he yawned and smacked his lips as he looked around with bleary inattention.

Ramiel stood silently and crawled onto the desk behind Lyla. Wrapping himself around her so his legs dangled off next to hers. His arms wrapped around her waist. His head rested on her shoulder. “No worries my love. It will work out. So tell me what else is bothering you?”

Lyla found it difficult to hide her feelings when Ramiel did things like that. She practically melted in his arms. She sighed as she snuggled into him. Her lupa’s pride wanted to make them figure it out for themselves, but her nature simply didn’t relate to such arrogant and vengeful urges. She didn’t want to fight with her friends or her lover, so she just let it all out. She took a deep breath, and began to tell them both what was scaring her, what had hurt her, and what had upset her.

“Well, I know it’s not my business but it hurt my feelings that Rey didn’t what my help and didn’t ask me because I mean, it’s me, you know? If there’s a secret I can smell it a mile away and I can suss out almost anything, especially if a have a face to match to it, but then you and Rey and Michael and even Daniel were gone for almost four days and all I know about it was that Rey had asked for time off, but I didn’t know why, I just had to guess because I figured, hey it’s me! They’ll tell me if they want me to know. But then you were all gone and then I realized Ramiel had gone away too and I got scared because I kept thinking about what happened to Ariyah and that Ramiel promised me he wouldn’t let that happen but he wasn’t here and dammit –” she paused enough to catch her breath and brush at her tears of frustration “– dammit I was scared but I felt like geez, I can handle myself, what do I really have to be afraid of?

“Then you guys came home five days ago and — nothing. Still nobody tells me what’s going on so I bury myself in the pack business thing. I mean, Selene’s a wreck since her fight with Michael and I really don’t see him doing anything to fix things between him. So I’m ticked at Michael for being a dick to her. I mean, Ramiel did it too. As far as I’m concerned that was just sex like any other time so no big deal to me personally, but to Selene… Selene is kind of innocent, you know? Michael was her first serious relationship and now’s she pregnant and she feels he betrayed her and well… for their relationship, she’s right.

“And Ramiel, you know… you know I’m what happened when…” Lyla was almost overwhelmed, but she choked back the tears and continued.

“So this Preacher guy shows up tonight and I realize that things could be a lot worse than Ramiel disappearing on me and me getting kidnapped by those Brotherhood freaks, I could be executed by my own pack on suspicion of being something I’m not.”

Pulled a tissue from the box on her desk and dabbed at her eyes. “Maybe… maybe I’d feel a lot better if I just took a little timeout and found something to hunt down and kill.”

Hamilton’s eyes grew very, very large at that and he slowly, silently sank back down behind the desk.

“Going out and finding something to kill won’t really make you feel better, Lyla,” Rey said, getting down from her bar stool to scoop Hamilton up in her arms. “I didn’t ask you to come with me because I didn’t want to weaken the pack or bring any of you into trouble. You see, I went back to Baltimore. I was stressing out enough about it, and the thought of possibly bringing you into another pack’s territory for something that wasn’t pack related wasn’t what I wanted. I didn’t even ask Grey to come along.

Ramiel kissed her neck tenderly. “I’m sorry love. You’re right to be mad at me. I didn’t even think about any of that before taking off.” He pulled her closer to him. “Now you know what I did in Baltimore. That makes it worse. I’m so sorry Lyla. I never meant to leave you alone and scared. Forgive me?”

Lyla clung to him. She didn’t trust herself to speak so she just nodded.

Rey watched the expressions flow across Ramiel’s face. She’d never seen such fear, sorrow and pain, such sincerity on his face before. It was like the mask he always wore, hiding his true feelings, had slipped from his face.

“As for Michael, he feels bad enough over what happened. You know how faithful he has been to her. We are working on it. If we can get it done in time. He is just lost right now. He is not used to being like me. He is scared and torn up inside. He is trying though and she will see soon.”

Lyla reached up to catch Ramiel’s cheek with warm, soft fingers, and then tilted her face up to kiss him for a long moment.

It took a minute; Lyla was really needing Ramiel’s attention and Rey was beginning to feel uncomfortable when they stopped.

“Just a sec,” she told Ramiel softly.

“Rey,” Lyla said, “hunting is what Uratha are made for. That normally ends with a kill or something just as good. Don’t forget that. Hunting something down and killing and eating the prey is a wonderful feeling for us. Doing that and then having sex? Heaven. And as far as weakening the pack goes, don’t you think that’s something I could decide on my own as lupa? In any case, Ironclaw gave clear, explicit consent to any forays outside the territory I see fit or as related to the Dark Man problem. So has Chaska for that matter. Grey and Ironclaw even gave us a movable Locus to take with us on such missions.”

At Lyla’s mention of hunting ending with a kill or something as good, Rey’s cheeks turned a faint pink. She opened her mouth to say something but didn’t get the chance.

Lyla held up her hands. “Look. You don’t need to apologize and you don’t need to come up with excuses. I was just saying why my feelings were hurt. Now I’m ready to let it rest if you will.”

“I owed that apology and I won’t take it back.” He kissed her again. “The reading I will let go under one condition.” He said with a smile. “We go hunt something, kill it and then fuck right there.”

Rey’s cheeks turned brighter and she looked away. Lyla knew about her dream, and she wasn’t quite ready to let Lyla know that it had been acted on.

Lyla felt her body respond to Ramiel’s suggestion; he could sense it within her. “Mmm,” Lyla said, “it’s a deal.” She reached up and touched his face. “Maybe we can just forget about the Preacher for a little while,” she said in a dreamy voice.

“Business now, Lyla,” Rey said, “fucking each other senseless later, okay?” She cleared her throat. Hamilton, do you know anything about Bale Hounds?

Only a little, Miss, he responded. I understand they are terrible creature, worse even than the Forsaken or the Pure Uratha. They serve horrible creatures that all spirits hate — unless they’ve been tainted by it. I believe a terrible darkness leads those Uratha, something called Soulless Wolf, something so dark and powerful that they are capable of the most horrific things of all — the corruption and destruction of the Lunes.

Bale Hounds, as servants of these foul creatures are hated by all. They are believed to be masters of deception, integrating themselves into packs and betraying Uratha, their Totems, and allied spirits alike. They nurse their sickness within great Wounds that scar the physical and spirit worlds, befouled places that warp spirits and the world into horrific, monstrous caricatures of what they once were.

Does that help, Miss?

Ramiel looked at Rey.”Why don’t you let us decide that. Right now he is not a threat. If he becomes one, we kill him. If I understand it right and he attacks any of the pack in this territory, he slipped up and we get to kill him.” Ramiel ran his fingers through Lyla’s hair teasing the skin along her neck. “You can look into what might be considered evidence. I have another apology to make. I might even let her hunt me, after we have caught and killed something.” He smiled at Rey.

“Besides. Isn’t the best place for her to be, out of his sight. Hmmmm?”

Lyla smiled smiled sadly at Ramiel’s touch. “Once he leaves this bar, I have every right to run him out of the here, beat him to a pulp, or both. Maybe I should just do that,” she mused.

“No love. Leave him be unless he starts something.” Ramiel swept her hair from her neck and took in her scent. Sweeping his lips along her skin as he did.

“Come on, you two,” Rey said. “Do I need to get a bucket of ice water and douse you two? Lyla, if you just disappear from sight, Preacher will just wonder what you’re trying to hide and cause trouble. If he’s busy glaring at you, we’ll know where he is and what he’s doing, right?”

Lyla could feel Ramiel’s need pressed against her. She could feel every inch of him in the position they were in.

It was a struggle to ignore his sexuality and his comforting presence, but Rey also had a point. They both did, but Lyla had to decide what would be best for her and for her pack. With a defeated sigh and a little consternation, she fought the urge to just disappear with Ramiel.

It was a very difficult struggle for her. But at last she said, “And I have a responsibility here. I can just pass it off onto Rose when I feel like it. So I’m going to do all three. I’m going to keep an eye on him and if he’s still here at closing time, Rose and I’ll run him out of the territory.”

Rey smiled, and gave a silent sigh of relief. “So, I can go back out there and get to work, then?”

“What do I do on the meantime love?” Ramiel asked with a teasing vioce. “Maybe I could borrow you for just a few minutes.”

Lyla didn’t move to leave his arms. “Well… maybe just a little while…” She said with a faraway look. “Rey?” she said distantly, “would you mind terribly letting Rose know that I’ll be just a few … more… minutes?”

His words were quite, but Lyla could make out the broken language of the supernal. He cast out the sound so nothing would escape teh room. His eyes were only for Lyla as his hands ran down her shoulders, guiding her onto him. “Lock the door on your way out please.”

“I swear,” Rey said, shaking her head and trying hard not to smile. “I’m going to get you two a matching pair of chastity belts and throw away the keys. I’m giving you 15 minutes, and then bringing the bucket.”

As she disappeared through the door, Rey noticed Lyla shoving papers, pens, and various other office implements off the desk and onto the floor. It appeared they were going to make the most of their fifteen minutes.

“I suggest staying out of the back room for the next fifteen minutes or so,” Rey said to Rose with a slight smile. “Ramiel and Lyla are having a bit of personal time. What do you need delivered?”

At the moment, Michael entered the Blood & Brew. He looked around for an empty table, but then decided to sit at the bar. As he approached the bar, Michael said, “Hi Rey, Hi Rose.”

John walked up to the bar and said, “The usual Rey.”

“Hi guys,” Rey said, and gave John’s order to Rose. “I’m working tables tonight. I’ll be back in a minute.”

Rose gave them each one of he patented charming smiles and poured John’s chocolate milk. “So,” she said, “what do you feel like tonight, Michael?”

“I’ll have a single malt scotch,” Michael replied.

Rey delivered the drinks from the bar, took an order from the table next to Preacher, then approached Preacher. “Hi, I’m Rey. Can I get you a refill, or something from the grill?”

He looked up at her with a predatory gaze that she knew well by now. But, it was more of a social anti-social like Lyla rather than the nearly palpable threat that surrounded Ironclaw. “Just a coke would be fine. Grill you say? That sounds pretty good. What do you serve here?”

“Burgers, steaks, brats.” Rey replied, relaxed but watchful under his gaze. “Everything comes with your choice of fries or chips. We’ve also got deep fried mushrooms, mozzarella sticks, and wings. The special tonight is a t-bone steak, cooked to order, with your choice of two sides.” She rested her tray on her hip, and when she turned slightly to glance back at the bar, the light caught and flashed on her belly button ring. Rose was watching her and the Preacher.
“I’ll try the t-bone, rare, and no sides, please,” he said.

“Will do,” Rey said with a smile. She walked back to the bar. “Rose, the guy at table three wants another coke, and the special, rare, no sides.” She gave Rose a look, hoping she’d catch the significance.

Within the secrecy provided by Ramiel’s spell, Lyla covered her face in her hands and cried, letting it out in terrible, gut-wrenching sobs while Ramiel held her. It seemed to take her a long time before she could regain control herself, and longer still to try to put herself back together in some semblance of her normal self.

“I love you Lyla.” His fingers gently swept her hair back.”No matter what happens I am always here for you. And I meant what I said, I’m sorry for not telling you, and even sorrier for my actions in Baltimore. Well most of it. You know full well what happened there. I was not even thinking about my own promise to you.” He wrapped his arms around her clinging to her. “I know this is not easy, but I want you to know I really was happy to be a father. No matter what my actions may have been. I was stupid and a jerk and well just my usual self. I let my frustrations with the events and all that was hinging make me loose sight of protecting you, again. Can you forgive me?”
She hugged him. “Ramiel, my love. What happened in Portland isn’t your fault. It’s mine, and that of my own body. I wasn’t good enough, so my instincts took over and made me strong enough at the cost of… the cost of…” She closed her eyes in emotional pain and couldn’t say it.

He held her close. “I think we need to know that it is not either of our faults. We knew going in that…” He choked on his words.

Ramiel tilted Lyla’s head so he could see her face. He wiped away her tears and some of his own.” We need to be strong now. There is another threat. There will always be another threat. Mom would have said it just wasn’t time right now. That when it is time we will have a baby. So let me see you smile my love. Because it makes the world worthwhile.”
Lyla searched his eyes and gave him the best smile she could muster. It looked convincing, though her heart was still broken over what had happened. More, she could only imagine Ramiel’s horror when he saw her slip into Kuruth. She’d never succumbed to the Death Rage before, and as she thought about it, she wondered that he must have risked his life to get within arm’s reach of her. She couldn’t see while she was Raging. At least, nothing she recognized. She saw only shapes and everything had looked menacing and hostile to her. Everything that moved potentially was a killer to her and so her instincts demanded that everything that moved must die. She had no idea how he’d managed to calm her, how he’d managed to make her recognize it was him and not another enemy. It must have been a close call. Very close.

Although her smile wasn’t as genuine as she wanted, her eyes still held all her love for him in them, as well as an awed respect. He could be a real bastard sometimes, but he was her bastard damnit, and that meant the world to her.

“We should get back out there,” she said, “before Rey comes at us with a bucket of water.”

He held he close and whispered. ” I would die for you my love. There is nothing I would not do.” He kissed her gently and smiled. “Let’s go.” He took her hand and led her back to the bar.

Lyla and Ramiel arrived from the back room. Lyla took her place behind the bar and thanked Rose for giving her a moment.

Ramiel took a seat at the bar and ordered some mushrooms with ranch. “Oh, refresh on the drink too.” He took a fifty out of his wallet and layed it on the bar. Looking over he smiled at Michael and made a motion to the free seat next to him. Giving him the “somethings up” look.

Meanwhile, the erstwhile Ann-Marie, looking fairly casual for her vampiric self, sauntered in and walked up to Rose. A look of satisfaction on her face gave away that she was having a good night. Her hands were subtly marked with paint, likely from a project from this evening.

“Rose, red wine please,” said the brunette artist.

Rose looked over at Lyla who nodded. “Red wine, yup I heard.” Rose smiled at her and then moved away to tend to some tables that Rey hadn’t gotten to yet. Lyla picked up a merlot (their wine selection was a bit limited), and poured a healthy portion into a stemless wine glass, then took it down the bar to Ann-Marie.

Rey brought her current list of orders to the bar, and waited for Lyla. “Hi, Anne-Marie,” she said with a smile.
“Hello. It’s Rey, isn’t it?”, said Ann-Marie.

Rey nodded. “Yup. Decided to take a break?” She glanced at the vampire’s fingers.

“Yes, a short one. Soon I have to get back to my studio, but I thought I’d breath in the outdoors for a moment before doing so,” said Ann-Marie.

Lyla arrived to work on Rey’s orders. As she did, she remained near both Rey and Ann-Marie for a moment. She commented, “Some new people here are here tonight.”

“Really, whom?”, said the vampire.

John carried his drink over to where Ann-Marie was standing and said in a normal voice, “So Ann-Marie what’s the latest project?” Then in a quieter tone, “What’s going on here tonight? The tension is so thick you could cut it with a knife.”

“Just a little witch hunt,” Lyla remarked. “Don’t worry yourselves too much. Nothing’s happened yet.”

Rey arranged the drinks on her tray as Lyla handed them to her. As she waited for the rest, she turned to look back at the room, her eyes scanning the table she was serving. She made sure her gaze didn’t stay any longer on Preacher than anyone else.
“Witch hunt, eh? I resemble that remark,” said Ann-Marie.

Rey chuckled softly, her eyes still on the room.

The stranger, having finished his dinner stood up, dropped a few dollars on the table and strode through the bar. As he passed tall counter, his eyes seemed to lock onto Lyla’s and they held each other’s gaze for a moment. Then he continued on his way and left through the front door.

Lyla waited a moment to be sure he was gone, then called Rose over. She made a beckoning gesture at Rose, who leaned across the bar in response. Lyla whispered a couple short sentences of something to her and then Rose withdrew with a nod.

Ann-Marie took her drink to a table. She indicated to John via his gestures that he could join her. Upon sitting, she took out her sketchbook and pencils, wary of the mounting tension her brother had noticed.
John carried his drink over to Ann-Marie’s table and sat down making sure to give her plenty of room to spread out once he saw her getting her sketchbook out. “So what are you working on, oh favored of all neices?”

“Well, Uncle Johnny, I’m sketching some ideas I have. I’ve been writing short stories for awhile now, so I’m doing some illustrations to spice them up.” Ann-Marie said, softly, “Let’s wait and see what happens.”

Meanwhile, back at the bar, “You okay, Lyla?” Rey asked, putting the last drink on her tray.
Lyla paused to look back at her a moment, then pulled out a rag and began cleaning the bar top. She nodded. “Fit as a fiddle.”

“Okay,” Rey said, picking up the tray. She didn’t believe Lyla. Everyone was acting different since they got back from Maine, but she hadn’t been able to find anyone to talk to about what happened.

“Well I think thats about all the excitement this old heart can take for one evening I think I’ll walk on home.” John said in a lower tone, “Judging by the tension that just left the room I am guessing it had something to do with that guy, I’m going to get a reading if I can.” John nodded pleasantly to everyone and then stepped outside, hoping to get a reading on the mystery man.

“Goddess protect him,” Ann-Marie whispered as he stepped out.

Michael moved down toward Ramiel, and sat in the bar stool next to him. “What’s with the outfit?” Michael asked, looking at how Ramiel was dressed.

“You like it and you know it.” Ramiel said with a smile.

“So what’s going on? It seems that a few of you guys are stressed about something.” Michael then grabbed one of Ramiel’s breaded mushrooms, and popped it into his mouth.

Ramiel leaned in closer to Michael. “Lyla is being watched,” he said as he watched Michael eat.
When Michael finished eating, he asked, “Watched by who? And why are they watching Lyla?”

“The man already left.” He said as he leaned on Michael’s shoulder. “But he is trying to find out info on Lyla.”

“And what kind of info is he trying to find out?” Michael asked as he ate another mushroom.

“He thinks she is something she is not. And not I am not saying here.” Ramiel took a mushroom of his own. “You smell nice tonight, new cologne?”

“Okay, we’ll talk about this guy later,” Michael said. “Yeah, I’m using something new, it’s one of those Axe body sprays. What do you care what I smell like anyway?”

“I care what it would smell like on me. Take that however you want,” he said with a smile.

Michael just shook his head. “How long are you going to try and get me into your bed?”

Ramiel looked into his eyes. “”Tell me you don’t like it and I will stop.”

“It’s become some sort of game between us,” Michael said. “If you stopped, I would think something was wrong with you.”

“I knew you liked it.” Ramiel took a drink. He shifted in his seat to face Micheal. “If I ever stopped I might loose my chance.”

“Who said you ever might get a chance,” Michael said with a smirk.

“Your smile did.” Ramiel could not help but smile himself. “Do you deny it?”

“I deny everything, unless I choose not to. But we are getting off topic. What are we going to do about the stranger?”

“Very well then.” He laughed. “We are going to do nothing about him. Lyla and Rose will take care of it. If we are needed then they will ask.”

John goes back to the bar and opens the door and shouts so Lyla can hear him. “Hey Lyla you might want to call our favorite deputy,” John looks in Micheal’s direction, “and tell him one of the street lights went out again. I don’t know if its kids or if its burnt out. I’m heading home night all.” John went back outside and waited for his eyes to adjust, straining his ears and tense because he expected to be accosted.

Lyla looked over to Michael; he hadn’t told John that he’d quit his job as a police officer. “You boys stay put,” she said as she took her apron off again. “Rey? The bar is yours. We’ll check and make sure the lighting is enough for our patrons to be safe.” She nodded to Rose, who gave her a half-smile and then slipped out the side door to the alley. Lyla herself moved straight out the front door.

The blackness pooled about the front of the bar, pierced only a little by lines of dim light thrusting through the front windows. John who had only stepped out a moment before Lyla, could see her backlit in front of the bar.

“I know who you are, Preacher. You’re not welcome here,” Lyla said. Her eyes had trouble piercing the dark and she couldn’t afford a full change — it would destroy her clothes. Instead, she let her eyes bleed to wolf eyes, ready and equipped to pierce the dark.

The John heard a voice reply from somewhere to his right, but it seemed to be moving. “You are a traitor to the People, Lyla.” He used her human name spitefully, as if he was spitting. “And I will prove it.”

Then John felt a hand on his shoulder just as a female voice whispered, “Stay very still John. We’ll get you through this in one piece.” It wasn’t Lyla, of course, but he thought it sounded familiar.

Since the voice sounded familiar John didn’t plunge the scalpel he had been concealing in his hand into some part
of her anatomy. But his adrenaline was really ramped up now and John was quivering with a desire to act. In a voice that belayed the adrenaline rush coursing through him he said, “I’m not worried about me. Yea though I walk through the valley and all that, but a gentle and refined person as yourself might break a nail.”

He heard a soft chuckle as her hand withdrew and she moved off to his left. He could see her dim outline as she moved past him and guessed it was Rose.

Lyla continued to draw Preacher’s attention to her as her packmate attempted to flank him. “I remember your brother. He was a decent lay, but a brute — just like you, Ricky.”

The use of his human name seemed to make Preacher angry. He twitched at the name. Realizing she saw him clearly in the dark without shifting, he approached to within a cautious ten paces. “You did worse than fuck him, you whore! You ensorcelled his heart! You put a hex on him and took his soul away! I know what you are, and I’m going to prove it.”

“You really believe that? Proving that will be hard, Ricky,” Lyla taunted him. “You know, you won’t even have to prove it if you take me down. Right here, right now.”

Preacher stared back at her and half-turned. His eyes fell, but whatever he was about to do was lost in a blur of drooling teeth and fur and razor claws as something large smashed into his back and sent him sprawling.

“What the fuck?” The voice was quiet, but Rose had been so surprised, her remark was clearly heard by John, who was nearest to her. That meant, of course, whoever had hit the Preacher was neither Lyla or Rose.

Ricky staggered to his feet and took off at a dead run, heading down the path toward the hub. The one who’d crashed into stopped long enough for them to see. It was a large timber wolf, that had wild, rust-red eyes. It growled and snapped its jaws at the Preacher but did not pursue.

The next second it was a girl of roughly Lyla’s age dressed in a winter jacket, jeans and tan hiking boots. She was blond with highlights, and her hair spilled wildly about her shoulders.

“Jill?!” Lyla said in startled surprise. The wolf had been Gillian Red Eyes, the Ghost Wolf they’d brought back with them from Portland.

John walked over to the light and tried to screw it back in, “Well I’ve had the show”, he said, “unless someone needs me for something I think I’ll go home and have the dinner.” Strangely, though he did nothing to the light, it seemed to brighten back up again.

Lyla looked to her packmate. “Rose?”

Rose nodded and fell in step with John. Apparently, he’d have an escort home tonight. They moved out of earshot and quickly made their way down the street to the northeast, heading toward Ramiel’s house.

Meanwhile, Gillian was looking downcast, sensing she’d butted in where she wasn’t wanted by the tone of Lyla’s voice. She stood, hunched, and shuffled her feet. But something shining in the gutter beside the sidewalk caught her eye. She picked it up and approached Lyla who was now standing with crossed arms.

Preacher was going to be a problem now that wasn’t going to be solved in one confrontation because Gillian had acted rashly and Lyla wasn’t happy about it. Her withering gaze seemed to be too much for Gillian’s resolve. She went down to her knees. “I’m sorry… I thought he was going to hurt you,” she pleaded.

Lyla watched her curiously, but didn’t let Gillian get close to her. The shiny object she’d picked up from the gutter was a knife of some kind. It glittered in the dim moonlight.

“He had this… in his pocket,” Gillian said. She held out a long knife with a slender edge. It was of an old-fashioned style with a straight blade and cross-shaped hand guard. It had a fuller that ran the length of the blade. Lyla didn’t move to get closer but she used her enhanced vision to examine the workmanship and patterns down the length of the blade. Her eyes widened slightly.

Gillian gestured for Lyla to take it from her. “It’s nice. It should be yours,” she said. Lyla moved toward her and took it, holding it up before her. Gillian moved in close to Lyla to touch her and this time Lyla let her. She pushed her face into the Lupa’s stomach bathing herself in Lyla’s scent. When she felt a warm hand touch the top of her head, Gillian looked up.

“Come on inside,” Lyla told her. “You look hungry. I’ll fix you up with something.” Lyla slipped the long dagger into the inside of her tall boot and led Gillian into the bar.

Ann-Marie looked up, hoping her ‘uncle’ had returned. Witch-hunter to her sounded too much like vampire-hunter, so she had decided not to push it. She recognized Gillian from Portland, though she hadn’t seen much of her since. She gave a look to Lyla of curiousity.

Thinking to herself, “Hmm, Gillian meet Gillian.” A smile crossed her lips on that inside joke, only briefly. She was more concerned about the hunter situation.

Michael looked over his shoulder to see Lyla and Gillian coming back in. Turning back to Ramiel, Michael said, “That was short.”
Ramiel looked at Michael and smiled. “Not everyone can be as long as you.”

“Well, what can I say,” Michael replied with a smile. “Isn’t that the injured Uratha from Maine?”

Ramiel looked shocked and mocked injury. “Anything but that.” Looking over to see Jill walking into the bar he nodded his head.

“I didn’t realize that she was still around,” Michael stated. “By the way, I still haven’t seen you put on that dress I keep asking you about.”

“Dress?” Ramiel asked. “When have you discussed a dress with me? Other than the ones we see on women.”

“Well, lets see,” Michael said. “I do remember something being mentioned in Baltimore. It started out as a comment about me wearing a garter and stockings. Then I said you would look better in them then me. And I think I said you would look good in a dress with those stockings. Any of that sound familar?”

“Aye.” He said. “Indeed it does ring in my ears. So what would be in this for me?” Ramiel asked with a smile.

“I don’t know yet. I haven’t seen you in the outfit yet,” Michael said with a sly smile.

He laughed. “Oh I see how it is. Tease.” Ramiel took a long drink finishing off his glass.”I’m not sure there is a prize great enough for that.” He looked over to Lyla. Standing Ramiel placed his hand on Michael’s shoulder. “Guess I have had my share of fun for one night. You staying or you gonna walk me home?” Ramiel knew the answer before making the comment. Hell he didn’t know what he would do if Michael went to his bed. He had been with men before, but never did he care about them.

“I think I’ll hang out for awhile yet,” Michael said. “I’ll see ya later.”

Ramiel smiled. “I thought so.” With that he went to Lyla and kissed her goodbye. Leaving the bar, he headed home.

Meanwhile…

Rey looked between Lyla and Gillian. “Everything okay?” she asked, wondering who the newcomer was.

Lyla nodded. “Yeah. He was run off for now. I sent Rose to escort John home because I’m positive now he’ll be back. He forgot something in his haste to escape.” She smiled. “Something I really don’t think he would want to lose.”

“What is it?” Rey asked.
Lyla went behind the bar to avoid the prying eyes of the patrons, and took Rey with her. There, she put her left foot on top of
the step stool they used to reach extra glasses on hangars above the bar and pointed to her boot.

Rey dropped the towel in her hand and squatted down as if to pick it up. When down by Lyla’s feet, she checked inside the Lupa’s boot and saw the tip of the knife handle. She looked up, seeking permission to remove the blade to look at it.
Lyla gave her a sly half-smile and twitched one perfect eyebrow to indicate she could go ahead and touch it.

Rey withdrew the knife partway and her eyes widened in surprise. She looked back up at Lyla and mouthed the word “fetish?” as she slipped the knife back into the boot.
Lyla nodded, still wearing that little smile.

“Can I have the burger?” Gillian asked. She’d been studying the menu card since they’d come in. “Done medium with chips?”

The interruption put Lyla’s attention back on the bar for a moment. “Sure Jill,” she said. Lyla slapped one of the pre-formed burgers onto the small, hot grill and kept an eye on it.

“Can I get you something to drink to go with that?” Rey asked Jill, giving her a friendly smile.
“Water is fine with me,” Jill said.

“So,” she said to Rey, “that’s why I’m really sure now he’ll be back when he realizes what he lost.”

“He’s probably going to be angrier than before,” Rey commented. “Should I take extra precautions?”
“I don’t think he really knows who you are,” Lyla said, “but he just might come around to anyone close to me. I don’t think he’s a direct threat, but it would be best to be cautious. I was planning on walking you home tonight, since we’ll both be out of here around the same time.”

“Good idea. Thanks.” Rey handed Jill a large glass of water. “He was as polite as could be expected, and gave me those semi-friendly but predatory looks when I was serving him. I doubt he was aware I knew what he was.” She shot a quick look at Jill. “Does Jill know about me?” she asked softly.
Lyla moved away, ostensibly to watch the burger, so that Rey could follow and they could talk with less chance of Jill overhearing.

“I don’t think so,” Lyla said in equally hushed tones. “I’m not quite sure what to do with her. She has no pack of her own. She’s apparently just been wandering around for past five years trying not to get killed and avoiding attachments. I suggested to Ironclaw that maybe Bjorn’s pack could use her, but Jill didn’t seem interested in that. She just keeps hanging around me like a lost puppy. I really don’t think the pack needs her but I also hate to just chase her off. She seems like she really would like to be accepted. Shoot, even the tribes haven’t accepted her. She’s just… a Ghost Wolf.”

“You’re probably the first person who’s shown her kindness or appeared to care about her,” Rey said, her voice still low. “Being alone for that long, it must have been horrible and difficult for her. Have you found out why she hasn’t been accepted?”
Lyla paused, feeling a little bit both guilty and selfish. “Honestly, I haven’t been paying any attention to her.” She flipped the burger over which sizzled spiritedly.

“Maybe you should. Or I could, if you want, but she’d need to know I can be trusted.” Rey grabbed a bun for the burger and started setting up the plate for it.
“Maybe you should. Or I could, if you want, but she’d need to know I can be trusted.” Rey grabbed a bun for the burger and started setting up the plate for it.

Ann-Marie walked up to the group of them, empty wine glass in hand, “Evening, sorry to butt-in. What’s the problem ladies? Oh, could you freshen this up for me?” She places the wine glass on the bar.

“Sure thing,” Rey said, taking Ann-Marie’s glass and left Lyla to answer the question.

“It seems that a… distant relation has come to town, and he thinks I’m something akin to the devil herself. And is bent on proving that to anyone who’ll listen,” Lyla said. “Given my past lifestyle, it may be hard to prove my innocence in a lot of ways, but the problem is that someone just might listen to him. I don’t think any of my friends and family here would turn on me, but that doesn’t mean neighbors the next county over would be willing to take the risk that this guy is wrong. And that’s a problem because some of them have a whole lot more muscle than we do.”

The vampire considered, “Hmm, I would not be the best person to convince him otherwise, being an agent of the devil as some holy rollers think I am. What could you have possibly done that would make someone, especially another ‘family’ member, think ill of you in that particular way?”

“Here you go.” Rey set a refilled glass in front of Ann-Marie.

“Thanks Rey,” Ann-marie said nodding to Rey, turning to Lyla, “You do know I’ll help you in any way I can.”
Lyla sighed. “I fucked his brother and stole his money and then left. Twice. Hell, I didn’t even remember I’d done that to him when I did it again. Just another mark to me, you know? Apparently, his brother knew it and let me do it again anyway. I think he fell for me, hard. And… ” Lyla sighed again, “it turns out his brother is some muckity-muck in the New York mob. Preacher is upset about it, so I’m just guessing, but I think that it must have affected his brother’s performance professionally. If you can call working for the mob a profession…”

Lyla scooped the burger off the grill and deposited it on the bun, then gave it to Jill. She dug in right away, acting as if she hadn’t eaten all day. Jill didn’t appear to be paying attention to what the other three women were discussing.

“Well, obviously he has a beef. Perhaps you can find a way to make it up to his brother. Just a thought, as devils rarely even the scales.” said Ann-Marie
“His brother clearly didn’t care about the money, and I am not going to marry the guy. Plus he sucked in bed. Got any suggestions?” Lyla asked.

“Find out what proof he needs, and find a way to show him he’s wrong.” Rey signaled to a guy further own the bar she’d be with him in a second. “I’ll be right back.” She went to serve the customer.
“I’d admit it. In your own way of course. You used him for his money, he knew it and he came back for more. That doesn’t make you evil. Perhaps immoral in his book, but women have done far worse. So have men. Anyway, he got laid by someone who is considered admittingly hot by most men. Twice. You used each other. You have nothing to prove. It’s no different than prostitution or dinner & a movie. You both knew the deal consciously or no. If an apology won’t cut it, then this deluded guy won’t listen to reason. Hit him with the facts, and ask him if pursuing you is his idea or his brothers. If his brother has a beef with you, let HIM come and bitch you out. If he doesn’t, then the whole situation isn’t this guys business in the first place.” said Ann-Marie with assuredness.

“Just my two cents,” she added.

“Well, I don’t think that’s what Preacher is hear for. He’s here to prove that what I did is evidence of what I really am; that being –” Lyla leaned over to whisper in Ann-Marie’s ear –“a horrible creature that gains power by murdering my own kind in exchange for power from nightmarish beings that definitely should not… be!

Lyla drew away, and began scraping down the grill; it was time to close out serving food for the night. “So you see, I’m not sure what you suggested will be quite enough. The Preacher is a friggin’ fruitcake. Only he just doesn’t act like it.”
“I bet he just needs to bet laid,” Ann-Marie said. “His type simply hates women. It simply makes no sense that he could just jump to such a conclusion. Misogynist.”

“I don’t think he hates women,” Rey said as she returned. “The look he gave me earlier certainly didn’t show it, and I get the feeling he’s not the kind of person to hold back on his feelings.”

“Yeah, I don’t think he’s stupid or a woman-hater. But he might be fanatic so I don’t know if that’s any better.” Lyla thought about it a moment, then said, “I wonder what exactly he’s found to lead him to this kind of conclusion…

“Hey,” she continued, “you want to continue this discussion after closing?” she asked the other two women.

“That’s probably a good idea,” Rey said.

“Sure. Hopefully he doesn’t try anything,” said Ann-Marie.

Epilogue

Lyla and Ann-Marie locked up the bar and headed home late that night. The walk home to Rey’s cabin was safe and quiet. Lyla walked with Ann-Marie and talked with her about various small things such as the weather, who was cute, handsome or sexy in the bar that night, and their opinions on men, sex, and religion. It was four thirty in the am before they wandered past Ann-Marie’s little place, where they tarried a bit before it got close to sunrise and Lyla left for home.

What she found waiting for her there was both frightening and infuriating. A manilla envelop had been slid under the door and given the latest (or perhaps earliness) of the hour, Lyla was the first to find it. Appropriately enough, it had her name on it. The handwriting was distinctly male, and sloppy. It was a fair guess that the Preacher had left her something.

She opened it to discover a short note with a written demand to return his knife followed by several dire threats. Lyla of course tossed the note into the fireplace. Also inside were several large pictures apparently enlarged down a the automated instant photo lab down at the hub. They starred Lyla, of course, and a willowy, blurred figure next to her. They were black and white images, which Lyla presumed had been taken in near proximity with an infrared-sensitive digital camera. The blurred figure was circled in florescent green highlighter and labeled with the word words, Servant of the Maeljin!!

Scribbled on the back of one of the photos was an accusation that this was proof that Lyla was in fact a Bale Hound and that she consorted with an obviously evil spirit of the Maeljin that was her master. The Preacher continued to rave, in writing, that he was sending copies of the photos to any neighboring werewolf packs as well as her pack Alpha. Lyla presumed he didn’t know who to look for, as he hadn’t actually mentioned any names other than hers.

The blurred image of Ann-Marie did concern her, and worry her. Was the disfiguring blur Ann-Marie’s true nature? Was her physical appearance some kind of illusion covering the fact that she was really a corpse or some kind of spirit-possessed body? After some thought, Lyla tossed the pictures into the fireplace as well, having decided no good could come of keeping them. She kept only the envelop itself for the purpose of allowing Ramiel to track the Preacher via sympathetic magic.

The following morning, which was the first of March, Lyla did ask Ramiel to track the Preacher down. He did so, and thus began a lengthy game of cat and mouse in which Lyla hunted Preacher. After their first encounter, in which Lyla surprised him under a bridge over a small stream, Preacher learned he was not a good match for her and chose to flee rather than confront her.

The persistent fellow refused to leave the territory for the next couple weeks. Lyla occasionally found his scent, tracked, him, and ran him out of the territory, but he would usually find his way back. The lupa didn’t inform the rest of the pack of the Preacher’s presence, and actually managed to mostly avoid them in this time. She didn’t want him interfering any more than he already was.

Finally, in the early evening of March 15th Lyla found him — or rather what was left of him. Preacher’s body lay half in the stream right at the very edge of the pack’s territory. The stream was the same one where she’d first encountered him, the one that ran below the bridge at which she ambushed him the first time. His eyes had been eaten, judging by the tooth and claw marks around his eyes, his skull cracked open and his brains scooped out. There was also a hole in his chest right where his heart should have been. She caught scent of something… inhuman that had been there, but the trail led to the west, far away from the pack territory, and into what appeared to a cracked mountain face wherein there seemed to be a sizable cave.

With concern deepening in her soul, Lyla backed away and returned with haste to her homeland and there chopped up Preacher’s body and buried his parts. It would not do, she felt, for the police and rangers to try to have a manhunt for Preacher’s killer. Not when John’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration was only two days away. No, this was something the “muggles” weren’t meant to handle.

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