Logan Blevins sat on the stone floor with his arm encased in a manacle. The cuff and attached chain hung from a ring bolted to the wall of a claustrophobic room once used as a dungeon. No prisoners were kept there these days; everyone chained there was carried out shortly thereafter, either mutilated or dead.
He'd been in the room as a child, sneaking into a forbidden place. He had stood in that exact spot, his head no higher than it was now, gaping in horror at the shackles and dark spots on the stone and using a too-vivid imagination to envision the tortures and suffering inflicted there.
Only the manacles and two wall sconces occupied the dungeon. Wooden stairs led to a hatch that opened to the floor above. A torch burned in one of the sconces, and the meager heat it put out did nothing to warm Logan. He was dressed as comfortably as possible in woolen breeches and a heavy tunic that was open at the neck, but the clothes weren't enough to protect him from the winter chill that seeped in through the stone.
Twelve shadowy figures crowded into the room and converged around him in a half circle. They were naked, and someone murmured a complaint about the cold floor. Room temperature notwithstanding, The atmosphere was charged with anticipation, not just over the event at hand but also the Full Moon that reigned over the night above.
Logan considered himself an authority on the Moon. It was hard not to be, growing up in the House of Blevins, and Logan had studied her obsessively. He had read Ptolemy, Euclid, and the writings of the Church, and he was sure he knew as much as the scholars did. Still, in spite of everything he read, he had always felt he was missing something. The scholars had knowledge and theory, but they didn't really understand the Moon. When he'd asked his family members, who were privy to secrets and mysteries not written in any books, they had waved him away or diverted him with platitudes. On the rare occasion when they had tried to explain, what they said hadn't made any sense.
Logan's brother Aidan knelt before him and looked him in the eye. Aidan closely resembled Logan, with dark, curly hair and deep brown eyes, but Aidan had a badly broken nose and a cold glare. Eye contact was crucial in their culture, and a glance or stare could have significant implications. Though it was a necessary part of the rite, Aidan's gaze made Logan squeamish, and it was hard to meet his eyes.
"Logan Peter Blevins," he said, "upon having reached the age of twenty years, thou hast requested admittance to the House of Blevins. By what right dost thou so petition?"
Logan drew a quivering breath and tried to remember the formal response. There really wasn't much to recall, but under the circumstances, nerves were to be expected. "I, uh, it is my birthright as third son of the House of Blevins and brother of Aidan and Ian."
"Hast thou employed a sponsor to speak for thee?"
"Yea, I have brought Amanda Blevins, who is a member in good standing."
Aidan turned and addressed a female who stood outside the circle. "Amanda Blevins, step forward. Wilt thou speak for Logan?"
Two of the others separated, and Amanda stepped through and knelt next to Aidan. Her lustrous curls cascaded over her shoulder, obscuring one breast. Logan swallowed hard at the sight of her curves and smooth skin. Nudity was commonplace in the House of Blevins, but Logan was barely out of his teens. She was stunning, and even being chained to a wall didn't keep him from wanting her.
"Yea, I shall," she said. "He is my cousin, known to me these six years. He shall make a fine addition to the House of Blevins." She winked at Logan and backed out of the circle.
"Petition and affirmation having been made," said Aidan, "I call for a vote." He called the name of a male on Logan's far left.
Don Williamson knelt before Logan, who turned his head to the side. Don touched his nose to Logan's throat, sniffed, and backed away to look him in the eye. He said, "Yea," patted Logan on the shoulder and returned to his place.
Everyone in the lower and middle ranks assented, some of them offering an encouraging smile or a pat on the shoulder, but Logan hadn't worried about those votes. His only concern was Aidan. They had never gotten along, and sometimes it seemed Aidan went out of his way to make life difficult for Logan. Oddly, when Ian had asked to formally initiate Logan into the House of Blevins, Aidan had agreed. It should have been Aidan's place as the highest-ranking member of the family. It had made Logan wonder: would Aidan vote no? It would take a majority vote to admit him, but any dissent was a dishonor. A "no" from one of the others would be bad enough, but opposition from his own brotherand head of the house, no lesswould be devastating.
Aidan moved forward and paused long enough to make Logan wonder if he was going to sniff his throat at all. He finally did so, backed away, and said, "Yea." He returned to his place and said, "One vote remains. If that vote is yea, thy initiation shall commence forthwith. Now is the time to object."
"I have no objection," Logan said shakily.
"Ian Blevins," Aidan said.
Ian went down on all fours and crept toward Logan. His eyes were pools of solid, inky black. Ian was the tallest and the most muscular of Logan's brothers, imposing not only by his stature but also by his brooding demeanor and menacing glare, but he was gentler than he appeared. While Aidan was distant and harsh, Ian was Logan's best friend. Before now, Logan had never feared him. Ian would never harm him. But accidents did happen, didn't they? Weren't they always saying that? Ian was so young. What if he did it wrong and accidentally killed Logan?
The time to scare himself was over. A power poured from Ian, and it felt like a million fire ants crawling over Logan's body. He turned his head, and Ian nuzzled his throat. He sniffed but didn't back away.
"Yea," he whispered.
Logan closed his eyes tightly and clenched his fists.
In the instant it took Logan to shut his eyes, Ian changed. With a snap of bones, his face elongated and his teeth became fangs that tore into Logan's throat. Not-quite-human wails and howls went up all over the room.
Nothing Ian had told him beforehand, no nightmare he'd had, not even the memory of Ian's injuries after he was brought across, could have prepared him for the assault. There was no pain at first, but when it washed over him, it was overwhelming. Blood and bile covered his tunic as he vomited, and he would have collapsed to the floor if the chain had been lower. As it was, he just hung there, retching and clinging to his ravaged throat with his free hand.
Along with the pain, Logan had the strangest sensation that Ian could see into his mind and that he understood intimately what Logan thought and felt. Likewise, he could feel Ian's worry that he might have injured Logan too badly.
The hatch slammed shut and the torch blew out, and one of the females screamed. Logan's gags punctuated less mundane noises, unnatural moans, pops and cracks, and sounds of battle as the hatch opened and the room flooded with light.
Battle? That couldn't be right, not here. He was probably delirious with shock and the chasm that was once his throat. His head began to spin, and he slipped from consciousness.
* * *
Too many of them were crammed into too tight a space. They had descended into cellars like this a hundred times, and though they were cautious, one could only prepare so much for the unexpected.
A bone-chilling crash and sudden blindness accompanied a sharp pain in Erica's shoulder, eliciting a startled scream. When the light returned a few seconds later, she felt stupid as she realized the crash had just been the hatch slamming shut behind them. Someone had thrown it open, but when Erica saw the chaos that had ensued, she wished it were still closed. The number of individuals in the room had nearly doubled, and they barely had space to move, much less fight. The enemy who had stabbed her had removed the dagger and was going for another thrust. She called it several colorful names as she parried the knife with her shortsword and swung back across, laying a deep gouge in its throat. As she reset for another strike, the dagger connected with her arm.
Unbelievable! This fiend had actually stabbed hertwice!
"Damn you!" she cried as she swung again. This time the blade went to the bone, and her opponent fell. And still moved. "Oh, for the love of God, will you just die?" Erica yelled. She abandoned finesse and descended on her enemy, hacking away until it finally stopped moving.
Farther into the room, Gerard was pulling a crossbow bolt from his side. A crossbow in this confined space? How? Then again, combatants from both sides were dropping quickly, leaving more room to shoot, if not to melee. A red mist of blood filled the air, and soon it would be difficult to discern friend from enemy.
Erica tried to step over the body of the creature she had just killed, only to trip over another and tumble to the floor. Someone yanked her up by the hair, and she jabbed her blade at her attacker. The movement was awkward, but she managed to get it in the throat.
It shouldn't have been this hard! This was their vocation, their lot in life, to stop the atrocities these monsters perpetrated, and they rarely had this much trouble.
Erica heard a pitiful gasp and turned to see one of her companions fall. Just beyond her, another lay on the floor beneath a tiny female who sat atop him, furiously slashing at his chest.
Gerard shouted, "Fall back!"
Erica's complement started making their way toward the stairs. Most of them didn't make it. A sudden sharp pain in her chest made Erica wonder if any of them would get out.