A saturnine mon of average height and slender build rode down Sophren Bay Road, a basket-hilted broadsword at his hip. His companion, a six three blond, had heavy-boned features and a square jaw; a cross-hilted longsword jutted above his shoulder. They drew rein before a sprawling two-story house with dormer windows that nestled in a pine thicket. Those who did not know where to look would never have seen it from the road.
Their approach must have been noticed, for a servant emerged from the small stable beside the house and took their reins as they dismounted. Before they could even set foot upon the steps that led to the veranda, a mon in butler's livery opened the door. He ran his eyes across the dark mon. "Corradeo?"
"Yes." Corradeo Vorsini's expression twisted into a sneer.
"And this is Eginhardt?"
Eginhardt Lutz's eyes narrowed and he demanded in a deep, guttural voice, "Who else would I be?"
"Of course." Taken aback, the butler's voice lowered and he showed them inside.
Five myn occupied the chairs and sofas of the sitting room. Four of them belonged to Corradeo.
Tuketu Demothi, whose name meant 'Bear who Talks while Walking', nodded but said nothing. He wore a warrior's feathers woven into his kwaklahmyn braids, a beaded shirt, and a necklace of turquoise and bear claws.
Ieuan Cardew tilted his head with a skeptical eye and took the pipe from his mouth. He ran his hand through his long chestnut hair and scratched at the back of his head. The bastard son of a Gormondi noble, he spoke with polished tones and a soft inflection. "Good that you're finally here, Corradeo. I've been getting restless."
"I'm certain you have, my friend. What have you been doing while you waited? I'm sure you have not been idle."
"I've acquired us three cottages. I assume we'll be working this job in the usual manner?"
"No reason to change what has always worked so well for us."
Ieuan's smirk thinned his lips to invisibility. "As I expected."
Vakadis Tullin's perpetual sneer unlimbered long enough to give Corradeo a polite smile. "So you finally made it. We were beginning to wonder."
"We had a bit of trouble…" Corradeo said.
"I hope you rited it."
"What else would we do?" Eginhardt bristled.
Vakadis pointed at Eginhardt's coarse short hair. "I'm surprised you can keep your neck warm long enough to do anything."
Corradeo caught Eginhardt's arm as the burly blond started toward Vakadis. "Don't bait him, Vakadis."
Xanthus Makaon chuckled, pausing with a whetstone in one hand and a dagger in the other. He slipped the dagger into his boot top and shoved the stone in his pocket. "Those boys will not be an easy kill, Corradeo. That big triton seamage is going to be tough to get past. If we're going to get the boys, we'll have to put a blade into him first."
"I've planned for all contingencies." Corradeo turned to the last mon in the room. "I assume that you're Wesley Lockhart?"
"You assume right." The ash blond vampire displayed his fangs, favoring Corradeo with a cheeky smile.
"I don't like vampires, but I don't mind their money. I assume you also understand that?"
"I do. Lord Hoon instructed me to give you everything you wish. Carte blanche, as they say."
"Then you got me a triton?"
Lockhart gestured for them to follow. He led them down a corridor to a door and opened it. They descended to the basement with Corradeo directly behind Lockhart.
A triton lay bound to a table, spread-eagle as if for a sacrifice, but on his back, not on his belly as the rites of mortgiefan required. The mon was huge, larger than Eginhardt, and taller by five inches. Wesley brought a chair and placed it near the triton's head.
"Magnificent creature, don't you agree?"
Corradeo shot a questioning look at Wesley. "Are they all this big?"
"Mostly." Wesley shrugged.
"What do you mean by mostly?"
"Some of them are larger."
Corradeo's mind spun in circles at the thought of going up against creatures like that. He returned his gaze to the triton. The mon's eyes were glazed and distanced. "You drugged him?"
"I had to. He kept snapping the chains."
Vakadis lost his sneer with a low whistle. "Xanthus is right. This isn't going to be easy."
Eginhardt's teeth curled back from his lips in contempt, his fangs descending from their sheaths as his eyes turned their true color: amaranthine without irises, pupils, and whites. "No trouble for me. I'll snap their spines."
The other five myn dropped their illusions and stood revealed as sa'necari. Those necromancers were the only serious rivals within the ranks of darkness that the vampires like Lord Hoon had. They had stolen all of the powers and abilities of the undead that they could take or control, assuming them through their rites, mastering and perfecting them in addition to their native arcane talents. This had been gained at a price, for they also had the needs and cravings of the undead, the unnatural appetites for blood. After generations of sa'necari being created in the rites, their very genes had altered until more and more of their descendants began to be born sa'necari with those appetites and powers manifesting in puberty. Their rites of blood, rape, and death had become merely the means for increasing their powers through the shattering of souls.
A few were still created through the rites and indoctrinated into their culture. Eginhardt, Tuketu, and Ieuan had been made sa'necari. The others had been born such.
Corradeo stripped his clothes off and settled into the chair with a shrug. "So there's some extra challenge to it. My plans are sound."
He bent forward and nuzzled the triton's neck, sensed the artery with his arcane gifts, and felt the mon flinch when his fangs broke the flesh. Corradeo wrapped the triton in his power as he hauled the blood from the creature's veins. The triton's memories flooded into him first. Corradeo shuttled that to a pocket of his mind to be examined at his leisure. As he continued to suck, a change came over him. His skin altered from copper to brown with a greenish tinge. He grew larger and larger. Scales erupted over him. It had been decades since Corradeo had taken a creature so utterly alien to himself and so powerful.
"Shape-thief," Wesley murmured in awe. "I've heard of your kind, but never met one before."
The triton stilled in death; his body a withered husk. Corradeo lifted his head, exulting in the power of the body he had acquired. He drew a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the blood from around his lips. "Piquant. I could get used to the taste of them."