It was a clever move. Duncan admired it even as he defended against it, twisting the power of his shields into a whirlwind of energy that sent most of the table shards whipping out in all directions while others exploded upon impact into harmless matchsticks.
Victor was sweating blood and shaking with fury, his shields weakening perceptibly. Duncan suspected the other vampire had concentrated too much of his reserve power into that first preemptive strike, but Victor wasn't done yet. His shields might be weaker, but they held against Duncan's discreet probes. Duncan frowned as Victor's power suddenly surged, as if he was drawing energy from somewhere outside the room. But the most likely source of that sort of power would be Victor's vampire children, and two of them were already piles of dust, with the other two near death. Even if Victor had drained them dry, they couldn't have given him this much of a power boost. Did Victor have minions they hadn't uncovered? Someone beyond the four that had been with him for centuries? Impossible, unless . . .
Duncan concentrated, remembering that odd buzz of power he'd felt as they approached the house. He spared a bit of power, a fraction of his awareness, and searched the house, looking for the source of that buzz. It had to be here somewhere, and it had to be what Victor was feeding from. There! In the basement, there were . . . Duncan's eyes widened first in shock, then in revulsion as he looked up and met the old vampire lord's confident glare.
Victor laughed. "What a self-righteous little prick you are. I created them, and they live to serve me like any other."
Duncan's stomach turned. Victor had made vampires for the sole purpose of feeding his own power. There were at least twenty of them down there, trapped in the basement, half-starved, mindless, little better than feral animals, existing only to provide Victor with enough strength to hold onto his territory. It was a practice forbidden by the very Council Victor was a member of, and it was precisely what Duncan had called it-abomination.
Victor grinned maliciously. "Still think you can take me, puppy?"
Duncan felt his purpose harden into granite, his anger turn to cold intent. With a quick warning, he drew power from his own children, from Miguel and Louis. They sensed his need and gave it willingly, the two of them together far stronger than all of Victor's half-mad slaves, no matter how many there were.
Victor's victorious grin wilted, and Duncan saw awareness of his impending doom in the other vampire lord's eyes.
"Yield," Duncan offered, "and I'll make the end painless. For you and for those poor wretches downstairs.
"Go to hell," Victor snarled. He drew himself up, sucking up every last ounce of power remaining in the slaves in the basement, finally draining the two guards Duncan had left alive. Combining that with what was left of his own power, he fed it all into a wall before him as he advanced physically on Duncan. He held a long, jagged piece of wood in one hand, his fingers gripping it so tightly that it sliced his skin, blood dripping between his fingers and running down his arm.
With a howl of rage, he rushed the last few feet, the rudimentary pike up and ready, his power a battering ram before him.
Duncan waited until the other vampire was nearly upon him, and then he clenched his right fist and punched it straight out before him as though slamming it into Victor's chest. A thunderbolt of power hit the other vampire's shields. Duncan felt them crack under the impact of his strike, heard the shattering of crystal as Victor's shields broke under the strain.
And he heard the mindless shrieking of those poor souls in the basement as their world collapsed.
Victor staggered, his face gray with shock, the red haze of power in his eyes already beginning to drain away, leaving them a dull brown. The stake he'd been gripping fell from limp fingers as he crumpled to the floor, first to his knees and then lower as he fell back to sit on his heels, hands hanging limply by his sides.
He looked up as Duncan crouched next to him, barely able to meet Duncan's gaze as his head lolled weakly backward.
"You should have taken the easy way, Victor," Duncan said, breathing hard from his own exertion.
Victor grinned one last time, blood staining his teeth and dripping down his chin. "Fuck you, Duncan," he rasped harshly.
Duncan laughed. "As you wish."
He slammed his fist into Victor's torso, ripping through skin and bone, to wrap his fingers around the vampire's beating heart and yank it out of his chest. As Victor sucked in a final groaning breath, Duncan held the still-beating heart before his eyes and sent a concentrated blast of power directly into the pulsing organ.
Victor shrieked as his heart burst into flames, as his body began to disintegrate, as he became nothing more than a pile of ash to mix with the broken china and crushed food of the too small room. In a far away faint echo of their Sire's passing, Victor's two remaining vampire guards-the two he'd left lying in a room near the front door-died along with their Sire, as did the pathetic creatures in the basement, falling into dust with barely a whisper.
Duncan started to stand, but he fell back to his knees as frantic cries filled his head, the vampires of Victor's territory screaming out for their Master, pleading for reassurance and understanding, begging to know what was happening.
Duncan closed his eyes, groaning at the overwhelming flood of impressions, details, identities, hopes, wants. Raphael had told him what to expect when Victor died, when the burden of lordship fell upon Duncan, but nothing could have prepared him for the physical weight of it, for this sucking whirlpool of need that would bleed him dry if he didn't do something.
Throwing his head back, eyes still closed, he roared out a command for silence. As if cut by a blade, the flood of demands stopped dead. Duncan drew a deep breath and, despite his exhaustion, let his power flow out to every vampire in the territory, offering surety, offering support, letting them know that they had a new Master, but he was strong enough to take care of them. And that he would tolerate no rebellion, that challengers would die if they faced him.
Slowly he withdrew. The bond was established and it was strong. The territory's vampires were still there, a whisper of presence in his mind, like the nearly silent voices of an empty church. It was a weight on his heart that oddly reminded him of the first time he'd known he loved someone, that constant pressure in one's chest that is both a welcome presence and a frightening reminder of the persistent vulnerability that comes with love.
There were those among his new territory's vampires-his vampires, now-who remained uneasy, but that was expected. There were others who were curious enough that he knew they'd show up in the coming days, perhaps even to test his power, to see if he was as strong as he seemed. And that was expected, as well. But in the final analysis, no one had died-beyond Victor and his four bodyguards, and those pathetic creatures in the basement, who never should have been created at all-and that was a victory.
The Capital Territory was small, only encompassing the District of Columbia, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. Several hundred vampires lived in those states, many of whom had been there longer than Duncan had been alive. He had taken the territory with relatively few meaningful deaths, but it remained to be seen if he could hold onto it without the need to kill a few more.
Footsteps thundered down the hallway behind him with unnatural speed. There was no need to turn around to know that it was Miguel and Louis, responding to his distress and ready to defend him. The two of them were his only children for now, although there would soon be more. But they would always be the first. He'd turned them both fifty years ago, when he and Raphael had decided to take the first real steps toward this day.
Victor had been right about one thing. Raphael supported this move. Victor's corruption had long chafed at Raphael, especially in the last few years, when it had become more and more difficult to maintain the secrecy of vampire existence. Victor's excesses had become an embarrassment and worse to the vampire community he was supposed to represent in the U. S. capital. But it wasn't until the recent alliances with both Rajmund and Sophia had been cemented that Raphael and Duncan had decided the time was finally right to make a move against the powerful Washington, D.C. Vampire Lord. It was time to install someone Raphael trusted, someone who shared his larger vision of the future of vampires on this continent, someone powerful enough to take on Victor and win.
If Duncan had asked for it, Raphael would have gladly lent him an army of vampires to take with him to D.C. But it had been important to Duncan to seize the territory on his own, with his own people. Miguel and Louis were his, and they would always be the ones who'd stood with him when this all began.
"My lord!" Miguel skidded into the room first, going to his knees next to where Duncan still knelt on the filthy floor. "Sire, are you all right?"
Duncan smiled. "The territory is ours." He stood, letting Miguel give him a hand up, and then turned to include Louis. "And now the real work begins."
Emma Duquet parked her small Honda beneath a winter-bare cherry tree and stared at the elegant white mansion down the block. It was all lit up, sitting there like a queen lording it over the rest of the houses-the biggest lot and the biggest house on a block of big houses. Even the tiniest home on this street probably cost more than she'd earn in a lifetime. She frowned. Well, maybe not an entire lifetime. She planned to live long and well, if only to spite the Fates which seemed to have been against her so far.
A dump truck lumbered past, its headlights picking out the incongruous pile of debris sitting inside the house's fancy iron gate. In her neighborhood, that trash would have been dumped right on the street for pickup, but they probably had codes about that sort of thing around here.
The driver of the truck leaned out to speak into a receiver on the side of the mansion's small guard house, obviously announcing his arrival since the guard house itself was empty. The gate rolled open, but instead of driving forward, the truck reversed into a quick three point turn before backing through the gate and stopping with the rear of the truck bed right next to the pile of junk. Not seeming to care that their truck kept the gate from closing, two men jumped out and began tossing junk from the debris pile into the open bed of their vehicle.