excerpts

Excerpt from THE SLAYER

Branches cracked and snapped as Alexa tore through them on her way to the forest floor. Fortunately the drop wasn't too great. She landed in a crouch on the ground, letting her knees absorb the shock of her fall. She slowly rose and glanced up at Winchester, still suspended in the ruined glider. From this distance he reminded her of a Christmas ornament in a very tall tree.

"Are you going to join me?" she shouted up at him, enjoying the opportunity to dig at him.

"Not like that, I'm not," he replied as he carefully maneuvered his way out of the pod, loading his pack and the holstered rifle onto his back. Hunters. They were nothing without their toys.

She sniffed the wind, trying to scent out their distance from the Castle Barranoch where the captain had adjusted their course. It lay on the edge of the border with France. The moldering smell of ancient stone and fresh blood reached her, but it was tainted with the feral scent of wet wolf. The castle was fifteen miles to the northeast, and the wolves were no more than a few miles away, between them and the protection of the castle. She swore heartily in Russian under her breath. For herself she wasn't afraid. She was stringer and smarter than any were. But the Hunter was merely human, with all the frailties that entailed.

"Insufferable creatures," she muttered to herself. When they later retrieved the wreckage of the airship, she had no doubt that it would be Sidhe bolts recovered. No one else but the dark fae who lingered in the Black Forest could shoot that distance accurately, which was bad news. It meant the Sidhe and the Russian werewolves had formed an alliance in her absence. While the werewolves were brute strength, the Sidhe had more powers. It was a formidable combination. Now that the Sidhe had brought down their airship, the werewolves were closing in for the kill.

Where are you? Are you harmed? Enric's insistent voice, edged with worry penetrated her mind.

The Hunter and I are fine, for the moment. How far are you from Castle Barranoch?

We transported there, per your instructions.

Excellent. Inform Count Vernay that we have landed and need an escort through the forest. There are werewolves on the ground and I suspect Sidhe in the forests. We shall be arriving shortly.

His majesty is not going to be please his airship was wrecked.

Pfft. He can have another built. He'll be more worried if we allow these werewolves to kill the Chosen.

She kept a close eye on Winn's progress down the tree. A crackle in the underbrush caused her to tense. Alexa sniffed the air, her gumline beginning to throb. The wolves were still a few miles away; this was a different scent altogether. Gun powder, oil and leather.

From the bushes sprang five men, all armed and pointing their weapons at her. Helsing crossbows, loaded with silver tipped arrows that could pin her to a tree in less time than it would take to transport herself away from the clearing. Each of them had a scabbard at his side, the handgrip of their swords easy for her to see even in the gathering gloom.

"I think we have us a lone vampire, men, and one worth ransoming from the look of it," said the blonde man, German by the sound of him, a glitter of avarice in his eyes.

Alexa hissed at them. Damn Hunters. "Where is your honor? Do you not have treaties with his vampiric imperial majesty?"

"What that old vamp doesn't know won't bother him," the blond Hunter sneered. "Take her." Two of his comrades lowered their crossbows, shifting them to their backs, then pulled out their swords and started forward.

There was a crack just above her and Winn dropped from the tree between her and the Hunters. He sprang up, armed and ready to fight, the Amanarath stretched and loaded.

"Not so fast, boys. This vampire happens to be off limits."

The blonde Hunter stepped forward, brandishing a blade with a twist and flourish of his wrist, making the metal flash.

"Drop it." Winn held the Amanarath poised and pointed right at the Hunter's chest.

"Identify yourself," the Hunter demanded.

"You first. I'm gettin' a mighty itchy trigger finger. Takes a lot of thought to control it. Might hit everyone of you before I get my control back."

"I'm Lieutenant Victor Van der Hoff, a Hunter with Saxe-Coburg regiment of the Legion. And this vampire is in our custody."

"Is she now? How do I know you aren't just making that up?"

Van der Hoff quickly unfastened the buttons of his shirt, pulling it aside. A tattoo of the triple cross bracketed by a lion, palm tree and raven at the points was inscribed over his heart. He was definitely a Hunter. No one else would want a tattoo that ugly. "Satisfied?"

Winn nodded and lowered the crossbow slightly from his shoulder. "I'm Winchester Jackson, part of the Legion out in the western territories of America."

"A Slayer?" One of the others behind Van der Hoff said, a note of derision in his tone. Two of the others snickered as if it were some kind of a joke.

Winchester frowned. He didn't know what they meant, but he knew he didn't like it. Choosing to ignore them, he locked gazes with Van der Hoff. "Our airship went down. We're trying to get to Castle Barranoch."

Van der Hoff jerked his chin in the Contessa's direction. "What about the vampire?"

Winn's hands tensed on the Amanarath, ready to aim and fire in an instant if it became necessary. "She's my guide."

One of the Hunters in Van der Hoff's party gave Alexa a lewd appraisal. "To what?" he interjected.

Van der Hoff glared at the other member of his hunting party. "Hold your tongue, Werner. I'll ask the questions." He turned back to Winn. "What are you looking for? Perhaps we can help you and you can give her to us in exchange."

Winn raised the barrel of the Amanarath an inch from Van der Hoff's face. "No deal."

Van der Hoff smiled, but it didn't reach his pale green eyes. They remained as unyielding and cold as deep lake ice. "Alright. No harm, no foul, Slayer. But you can't possibly want to protect that Darkin."

For a moment the irony did sink in. Here he was protecting a Darkin, and a vampire at that, from other Hunters. Pa would have risen out of the grave and kicked his ass if he'd known. But this wasn't a normal situation. He needed her help. "My bow begs to differ with you."

A blood curdling howl tore through the night and all of them turned to peer at the dark maw of the forest. "Werewolves!" Alexa shouted as she ran up and grabbed Winn's arm, almost causing him to misfire the bow. "We're running out of time!"

"Correction," Winn said as the shadows burst from the trees. "We're outta time."

The twenty or so wolves were far larger than any Winn had seen before. They were the size of grizzly bears, and while most of them were gray, there were a few brown, white and black wolves among them as well. With coordinated movement they circled him, the Contessa and the small band of German hunters.

"Insufferable Weres," the Contessa muttered, her voice turning more guttural and growl-like as her face shifted and changed.

By now it didn't shock Winn as much, even thought the sight of her in her fighting mode still disturbed him. She hissed, and the wolves came to a stop. They were close enough in their formation that Winn could see no easy gap for him and the Contessa to get through.

He changed his target for the crossbow, grateful Marley had offered it. Winn's mind quickly calculated his options. With only fifteen shots in his rifle he would have been out of ammo before dispatching all of the wolves. He had that pathetic water shooter, but he didn't trust it to do more than slow the wolves down. And it wouldn't do anything to the Hunters. If he ran out of bolts, he could likely take out the other Hunters with his rifle butt first, backed up by his fists if necessary.

"Kill only if necessary," the Contessa warned under her breath.

Winn nestled the crossbow against his shoulder ready to let it release. "They attack, then it's all necessary."

"Hold your bloodthirst, Slayer." Van der Hoff's voice itself was irritating right now.

Winn wanted to tell the Hunter to go screw himself. This was no time for being some pasty yellow-bellied mama's boy. It was kill or be killed. That's how it always went in these kinds of situations. Negotiation was done by who had the least dead. Period. "This ain't bloodthirst. It's survival, and I swear I'll kill every damn one of them if I have to."

The wolves glanced at one another, ears twitching as if they talked to one another the way the Contessa did with the other vampires. The hair on the back of Winn's neck prickled up like an agitated porcupine.

A few of the wolves growled low and belly-deep, their black lips curling up to reveal razor sharp yellowed teeth. It was a veritable Mexican standoff with the furries on one side and the Hunters, and vampire on the other. "They don't look like they're here for a tea party, Van der Hoff. What do you wanna do here?" Winn prompted. His finger was getting itchy to pull the trigger on the bow as tension pulled at the muscles in his neck and shoulders.

"Hold," Van der Hoff ordered.

"You don't even know what they want." Winn's thigh burned with the tension of the muscles beneath his skin.

"Does it matter? They're Darkin."

Winn's mood darkened further. He didn't see a good way out of this. He edged closer to the Contessa. "I thought you said there were treaties for this sort of thing."

"That's the problem with treaties. They get broken all the time, and usually when it's most inconvenient," she said with annoyance.

"What the hell do they want?" Winn asked. "They're just holding back."

"Why don't you ask them?" the Contessa growled through her fangs.

A loud howl broke the standoff. Winn didn't wait another second. His Hunter training kicked into gear, taking over both his body and his mind, making his movements as automatic as breathing. He shot down three of the Werewolves in quick succession. The thwang of the crossbow jolted up his arm with each rapid release of the bolts. Thunk. Thunk, thunk. Three of them fell. The others kept coming, a blur of movement.

Winn cranked the bolts into place and shot off three more. The Contessa leaped forward into the fray, fangs at the ready. For an instant Winn's heart forgot to beat as he watched a bolt graze past her, shearing off a lock of her hair. An inch closer and he would have hit her square in the head. She tore every Were within reach with her bare hands, sending fur, muscle and skin flying as she ripped away limbs.

His heartbeat returned twice as hard and Winn turned away from the grisly sight to glance in the direction of Van der Hoff and his men. The Hunter hacked and slashed at anything with fur that came within striking distance. Winn's chest burned. His blood was pumping hard. The fighting had turned hand to hand now, wolves and men in mixed battle. Winn swung his crossbow to his back and pulled the bowie knife from his boot.

A great gray wolf coiled his back legs a split second before he launched into the air, seeming to sail toward Winn in slow motion. The dinner-plate sized paws connected like a solid punch to the solar plexus, knocking the wind from him and leaving him gasping as he fell backward into the fir needles of the forest floor. But he didn't need to breathe to act. Winn pulled hard and fast, slashing the blade of his Bowie across the exposed throat of the wolf, looming over him.

Hot blood splattered his face and the weight of the enormous dead wolf crushed down, smothering him. Winn's lungs burned as he scrabbled to lift the huge beast off of himself. Cries of anguish and pain from Van der Hoff's men were followed by the sickening crunching sounds and abrupt silence.

"Winchester!"

Winn managed to shift the weight enough to crawl out from beneath the wolf carcass. The Contessa was surrounded. He scrambled up, hacking a bloody path to her. He and the Contessa stood back-to-back against the ten remaining werewolves.

The growls of the largest wolf shifted and warped into words Winn could comprehend, stunning him. "Slayer, cease your resistance. Rathe wants you taken alive, but he didn't say unharmed. Put down your weapons. Come with us now and we will let the vampire live."

Winn twisted the handle of the Bowie in his extended hand, still brandishing it against the werewolves. Tessa was snugged up tight against his back, her derrière brushing the backs of his thighs. "Let me get this straight. You expect me to just give in and come quietly?"

"Yes."

Winn let out a brittle, caustic bark of laughter. "Clearly you've never met an American Hunter before. We don't quit, and we sure as hell don't give in."

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