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    He was on fire.  It stuck to him, invisible flames enveloping his skin.  He clawed at himself, tried to find some edge to pull on, to no avail.  Then his bones joined the chorus of pain, screaming, shifting, trying to knit themselves into some kind of logical shape.
    This is not how he thought it would be.
    He screamed, and the stupid girl with her notebook paled and ran, door slamming behind her.
    Hunger, huge and overwhelming took him.  His world centered on it.  The pain, the screaming, was nothing next to that need, and it gave him the strength to leap over the chalk and silver circle drawn on the floor.
    He lay panting outside the binding circle, trying to remember who he was.  Cold air swept around him, circling and caressing  his skin.  Instead of calming the inflamed nerve endings it seemed to whip them even more.  "Are you mine?"  a voice whispered in his head, feminine and slithery.
    His jaw was unhinged, he could not reply even if he knew the answer.  Slowly, the cold left him, leaving an echo of  disappointment.
    The sharp breeze blowing outside made his skin crawl, like a million tiny pins dancing across it.  The woods smelled alive with a thousand dormant little things.  Here and there a patch of dirty snow crushed under his feet.  Eventually the breeze brought to him the warm smell of blood, like lace draped across the air.  He heard a heart beating, feet crunching down the stone covered path to his right.
    He hid in some bushes, stealthy except for the twig his weight rested on too heavily.  It cracked like a gun shot. His quarry paused.   He smelled female smells, and his stomach growled. Female flesh would be softer, tender, with more delicious fat.  He began to drool.
    She moved another few paces, then stopped again.  He could almost touch her, but now that she was closer, he could smell something else on her, an underlying taint, bitter and wrong.  He shied away from her, stalking up the path for better prey.  A man came down the path, but he let the disgusting thing pass.  Men were stronger, and not as tasty or fun.  

Chapter One

    "Everything you have ever read, everything you have ever dreamed, exists.  Knowing this and keeping this constantly in mind is the only way you'll ever survive the world."
Grigori Temkov, in a letter to Andromeda.

    It will be snowing soon, Andromeda thought as she pulled her black cloak around her.  It was an impractical thing, fastening only at the throat, the wind parting it at will, but she liked it.  Her usual winter coat lacked the elegance needed at these sorts of parties.
    The too loud, too glittery party faded as she walked up the path, her feet crunching on the pale gravel.  She sighed in relief at her temporary escape.  She'd gone to the party to keep a friend company, but the people there were not the kind she felt comfortable with. The food was elegant, the music was good, and everyone was nice enough, but she couldn't seem to relax.  Andromeda kept fighting the feeling that any minute she was going to do something awful and embarrassing, exposing her to the world as the classless slob she was.
    Then there was
    She looked up at the night sky and watched the clouds pass across the waning moon.  She was mad at herself for coming here, for trying to wedge herself into a place where she fit about as well as an egg in a sack of marbles.  I guess I'm just lonely, she admitted with a bit of asperity, her eyes panning the tree tops, noticing how the branches met and interlaced.  
    She continued down the path, the woods now surrounding her.  For a few moments, until the cold chased her back to the party, she was free.  She paused and picked up one of the pale, water smoothed pebbles.  How expensive, she wondered, would a path of all white river stones be?  
    A twig snapped, and she jumped.  For a second her fancy had made the sound into a gun shot.  She clutched the stone to her chest, looking into the woods on either side of the path. Here and there, thick brambles and bushes obscured her view. She tilted her head, listening.  
    Nothing, she decided, considering going back. But she wasn't ready to face the crowds yet, and she remembered that there was an old greenhouse further down the path.  Being out alone in the dark didn't bother her, she'd gotten over that fear long ago.  
    There was a bend in the path, and when she turned along it, the moon removed its mask.  The trees were suddenly outlined in light, their shadows so crisp they seemed tangible. The path glowed, trailing like a satin ribbon to the greenhouse that glittered, dark and jewel like in the middle of the tiny clearing.  
    A breeze began to rise, causing leaves to skitter and branches to rub.  At times they sounded like an old, squeaking bedstead, and sometimes they sounded more pained, deep and sorrowful.  She shivered, and realized she was beginning to get unpleasantly chilled.
    She reached out and tested the door knob.  It opened with barely a whisper, and she was in, leaves somersaulting after her, cloak swirling as she turned and closed the door.  She wrapped the cloak around her, attempting to make it airtight.  It was slightly warmer out of the wind, and the moon silvered everything, turning even the most mundane things magical.  There was frost on some of the panes, and the light picked out gem colors in it, the glass seeming to be held by frames of ice, not metal.
   "Maybe I should run away."  Her voice sounded oddly hollow, so she swallowed and ran a finger along the water stained table that dominated the room.  She could cut across the woods, get to the road, walk to town and the nearest gas station, call a cab.  
    That would be easier than facing
Alaister again.  It was more than she could stand, in some ways, being reminded how nice he had been to date, to talk to.  They had gotten along better than most couples, so well in fact that the relationship had turned too serious too quickly.  Unfortunately,  she couldn't explain her job as an agent of Balance.  Outside of the fact she wasn't allowed to discuss her job, how did a girl tell a perfectly sweet, normal guy that she made  her living keeping the peace between Werewolves and Vampires?  That, not only did they exist, but that they had helped create a government agency (she'd heard it called a supernatural UN, once.) to monitor relations between them and humans?  She had too many secrets, and he was perceptive, and asked too many questions.  
    There was a  gust of wind as someone opened the door. She turned and saw him.  "Hello
Alaister."  Part of her was panicking.  Of course, he would follow her.  That's the way her life worked.
    He said nothing for a moment, just looked at the long tables with their high sides and mesh bottoms, empty save for a dried leaf here and there.
    "A magical place."  he said softly, his deep voice resonating.  He was taller than her, strongly built.  He looked wonderful in his black suit, and the attraction she felt for him, a niggling smothered bit of annoyance in the back of her head came forward with full force.  
    "What makes you say that?"  She asked casually.
    He looked around at the tables, the hutch with its stack of broken pottery. He had the look of a man whose bluff had been called.  "There's still a lingering smell of growing things, plentiful work space, mysterious location...I think it easily could have been an alchemist's laboratory."
    She was playing with a split at the edge of one of the tables, running her fingernail up and down the crack.  "Alchemists usually work in basements."
    "Andromeda,"  he said, coming closer, almost touching her.  "I've been trying to talk to you all night."
    "And I've been trying to avoid you all night."
    He leaned his forearms on the table.  "You would have done better sticking with the crowds."
    "I thought you could take the hint."
    "If you keep doing that you're going to break a nail." he said, looking at the crack she was digging at.
    "A sign you care!"
    "You knew were to find me."
    "Oh, I was supposed to find you?"  
    "Our last conversation pretty much convinced me that's the way you wanted it."  he sighed.  "I would have called, but I didn't think I'd be welcome."
    She tried to find something to say.  "
Alaister..."  she let it trail off, and they stood together in an awkward silence neither one of them could seem to fill.
    Andromeda was the first to hear the scream.
Alaister cursed.  "Where did that come from?"
    "From the direction of the  house."  She pulled the door open and they went out into the cold again, running up the
    Sometimes only the paleness of the stones led them, as the moon hid itself behind fast moving clouds.
    She couldn't hear music, even as they got closer to the house.  A blanket of absolute silence settled around them, as if the world was holding its breath.  
    They slowed, picking their way carefully.  As they rounded the bend, the white gravel seemed to disappear, and she thought for a second that the path had ended.
    No, she realized, something was laying across it.   She bent, eyes straining, as she tried to make sense of the shape.  When the cloud passed, Andromeda saw a face, eyes dark and vacant, the shadows of the branches crisscrossing the woman's pale skin, giving it the look of crazed china.  That, and a hand, palm up and out of place, were the only recognizable pieces.  
She felt something cold touch her face.  She jumped, and straightened.  She looked around, shivering, knowing that shrouded by the woods and uncertain lights, something was watching her.
Alaister muttered something under shaking breath, and his hand took Andromeda's elbow.  As one they stepped back.  "What could do a thing like that?"  He whispered. The body had been ripped apart, scattered.    
    She shuddered, feeling ill, but the spell was broken, and she turned her thoughts back to the tragedy at hand.  "This just isn't one of those things you get used to, is it?"  
   "No."  He answered.  "I don't see how you could.  Let's get to the house, and see if there's anything we can do."  They backed down the path, neither one of them quite taking their eyes away from the corpse, as if it might come to life. They found a gap through the trees and weeds, and got off the path.
    "I think we can both agree that she's not the one who screamed."  She said, as the killer had obviously spent some time with his victim.
    "Then there'll be others coming soon."
    She tripped,  cursing the heels on her shoes, but the ground was too cold for her just to take them off.
    "Take my arm."  
Alaister offered.  "I don't bite."   "Thanks," she whispered. He was nice and warm, and she could feel comfort flowing from him.  
    In the distance, she could hear sirens.  Good, hopefully the police would detain everyone to ask questions, which would make her job easier.  
    "That...what ever did that wasn't human."  She whispered. "Do you think it was a wild animal?"  
    "I don't know...there are things..."  He paused. "I just wouldn't wander the woods alone again."  
    In the silence that followed, she worried the murder over and over in her mind.
    She had a tricky situation on her hands.  Such savagery could easily be blamed on a Werewolf. If this was true, she had to discover who exactly was responsible before the Vampires used it as an excuse to declare war on Werewolf kind.
    Hearing her sigh, he said, "We're almost there."
    Soon they were crossing back into the lighted areas of the front yard and porch.  They walked up the steps and were greeted by some of the people who were milling around, trying to get some news.
    "Did you see anything?"  A couple of them asked, but
Alaister did not answer, just gently pushed his way through and opened the door for her.  
    "I guess it's time to part ways."  he said, smiling.  He was hard to resist when he smiled like that, she thought, just before it turned rueful. "I know all the answers to the questions I want to ask now, so I'm going to say good night."  He leaned forward and kissed her forehead, and she closed her eyes.  He whispered fiercely, "You take care of yourself, okay?"  When she opened her them again, he was leaving, and she watched him make his way through the crowd.
    "I love you."  she said softly, to his retreating back.  She pushed the thought aside and began looking for her friend.  She saw her, in the back, brassy red hair tumbled in Marie Antoinette curls down bare shoulders, a primrose yellow dress standing out from the crowd.  Beside her a balding man in rumbled clothes gestured with a conductor's grace.  She shook her head.  "I'm not very photogenic, really I'm not."
    "Nonsense. You have the perfect skin for it. Any tiny imperfections...which I doubt you have...can be easily fixed." "Hello Vera." Andromeda said.
    "There you are!  I've been worried sick." she turned back to the man.  "You see, I'm the reason she came, and if a friend died because I brought her along to a party, it would really have sucked."  They both giggled at that, and Andromeda barely kept herself from rolling her eyes.  Vera was very young, and for some strange reason, young Vampires thought that using the word suck as a pun every chance possible was the funniest thing in the world.
    "About the pictures..."  he began.
    "I'll ask my husband."  Vera said.  
    He looked at her, smiled.  "You do that."  Then he seemed to see someone in the crowd.  "You must excuse me.  I need to talk to him."  He quickly left their side.
    "He was nice." Vera said."I always like to flirt with men plainer than
Gavin, just in case he's spying on me."  
    "Why flirt at all?"    
    She tilted her head.  "I think it's latent instinct.  Vampires always want to have their possible victims in love with them.  It makes the hunt more intense.  Oh, don't look at me like that, Miss Police Woman, you know I don't feed on poor humans.  It doesn't mean I don't like to have fun."  
    "I'm just jealous, because I'm not good at it."
    "No, you're just grumpy.  Talk to
Alaister?  Did  you find out that he's now happily married with five kids?"  
   "It's only been a year."
    "So?  Maybe he adopted them."
    "It's not
Alaister.  Well maybe a little, but it's mostly what happened to that poor woman."
    Vera's hand was on her shoulder, and it felt like cool porcelain.  "Please tell me it was a mundane crime?  A jealous dispute between lovers?"  
   "No, it wasn't.  Not the way she was killed."
    Vera's eyes flicked towards a point over Andromeda's shoulder. Andromeda turned. A policeman, tall, gawky, and too young looking for his job approached them.
    "I'm Lieutenant
Osbourne.  Are you Andromeda Pendragon?"  She nodded. "We would like a word with you.  This way, please?" "I'll take your cloak, honey."  Vera said, and Andromeda relinquished it with a grateful smile.
    He lead her to the library.  A young woman sat in one of the stiff black leather chairs, a lap top computer on the glossy table in front of her.  At the same table, facing the doorway, a plain clothes policeman sat.  He stood when she entered and smiled.  There was something easy about him.  In other circumstances, talking to him would be pleasant.
    "Detective Manuel
Swinbourne."  He said, holding out his hand. She shook it.  "We're just asking a few questions, trying to get a feel for the situation. Please sit down."      
They sat across from each other, like opponents across a chess board.  For her it was a type of game, this is what I can tell you, this is what I can't.  She often had to try and fish out information with out revealing suspicious interest.  
"Now, I'm told you left the party an hour ago?  By yourself?" she nodded.  "Why?" His dark eyes were serious, genuinely interested.  Trust me, they said.
He's good, she thought, sharp. She decided to be as honest as possible, adding the kind of reaction that would at least let him think his approach was opening her up. "The crowd was getting to be too much for me.  You know how noisy these things get.  So I went for a quick walk to clear my head."
Alaister MacDuff followed you down?"
    "I wouldn't say followed. But he ended up down there. We talked."
    "This didn't worry you?"
fessed up. "I know him.  So no, I wasn't worried."  She grinned.  "I can take care of myself."
    "Maybe."  He looked at the yellow legal pad before him.  "This says you have a PI license. Did a client or a case bring you here?"  
    "No. A friend brought me. Her husband hates parties, and she wanted someone along."
    "Why you?"
    "Why not? In my line of work, I don't meet a lot of eligible bachelors.  The main quality for eligibility being an eighty five percent chance that I'll get home in one piece and still breathing."
    "So you came all this way to find a mate?"
    She looked him straight in the eye.  "Is that so strange?" He asked her more questions and cross questions, trying to catch her up. She had some of her own questions, but put them aside when she realized that she was his pet suspect.  His suspicions did not worry her.  Sometimes Balance employees got tossed into jail, since they certainly couldn't tell the whole truth, but Balance always managed to get them out quickly.
    "If you think of anything I might find useful, please call me.  Here's my card."   She smiled and took one.  It was plain, white, with the usual information on it.  It didn't have any symbols or abbreviations that would hint that he knew of things outside the mundane world.
    The mundane world, the place where most people grew up, thinking that Vampires were only found in the horror movie section, that myths were only stories that explained how things came to be.  So they were, but half the world lacked the key information to interpret these explanations properly.
    Back in the living room, she paused, observing. People were mostly gathered around the long buffet tables on either side of the room, or around the couches and chairs.  She was looking for sort of midpoint place to sit, were she could eavesdrop the most conversation groups, yet still look like she wasn't.  
    She thought the room was pretty. Ivory walls and bright crystal chandeliers, everything done in hunter green, burgundy and gold.  Very Architectural Digest, with its huge flowered rug and neo-Victorian furniture.  She helped herself to something pink and fizzy, the raspberry smell removing illusions of champagne, and a variety of small sandwiches and cheese. She situated herself on a striped dining room chair.  
Alaister was across the room, talking to a woman of cool, discriminate beauty.  He saw Andromeda, and smiled.  When she entered the room hours earlier, she had both been mortified and ridiculously pleased to see him.  Now, she wiggled tired feet and wished she could take her shoes off and rub her cramped toes.  
    The most important thing she did, while picking through her food and looking preoccupied, was listening.
    "Have you seen Evan?"  the voice was high,
fluty, female and somewhere to the left of her.  
    "Did he even arrive?  I've heard that things are not all that peaceful in love land these days..." A chuckle, insinuations.  
    Another voice, behind her, taught as a drum.  
Margo Perkins, the hostess.  "Hello Charlotte.  Having a good time?  I'm looking for Olivia."  
    "I haven't seen her. I'm terribly worried, but the police haven't said anything about the victim.  I hope it's not her."   Andromeda winced, since neither
Olivia's limbs or her life were still attached to her body.
    "Oh, you two!  Evan was here, but he left."  a matronly person was informing the
conversants to her left.  "His Aunt's ill, and he went to see if he could help.  He's a fairly good doctor, and he won't charge her because she's family."
"That's what that little cat Mary said, all right, but I wouldn't trust her with anything as far as Evan's concerned."  Laughter and insinuations again followed, but Andromeda turned her attention.  
Margo was called into the library, and when she returned a few moments later, she was pale.  Someone rushed over to her, and they spoke as she walked through the room, on her way upstairs.  From there, the word was passed along.  Olivia Calloway was dead. "Why would anyone be so stupid as to walk in those woods alone?  All of those wild animals."
    "My dear, most of those wild animals are hibernating."      "Are they now?"
    "I wonder what the library will do now?" Another voice, in another conversation asked.  "She was their best reference person."  Andromeda switched away, continually riffling through snippets of conversation.
    "I'm Amber.  A friend of Mary's..."
    "My father told me of this bear attack once..."
    "She always thought she was smarter than everyone else.  Wouldn't give you the time of day unless you wanted to know what time it was in China."
    "Her parents were rich enough that she didn't even have  to work, but she wanted to go out, make her own mark on the world.  It's rather sad."
    "Oh Lord, this is awful."  The first real voice of grief, and Andromeda turned her head to see the woman.  She wept freely, her mascara making ugly streaks. "She told me only a little bit ago that she was finally going to get something that she wanted for a long time."  
    "What was it?"
    "Oh, I couldn't say. She was making me guess, and I kept trying, but I never got it."  She blew her nose, then said wistfully, "I wonder now if it was a someone, not a thing.  Someone she'd wanted very badly for a long time.  I never even attempted to guess that it might be him.  She was so lonely, you know. She used to joke that the library field wasn't the ideal place to meet men."
    They continued, but Andromeda was attracted by an angry voice.  It belonged to a woman in her mid-fifties, and beside her a much younger man sat, trying to placate her.  Their actual words were hard to make out, so she stood and wandered back to the buffet, looking for something salvageable in the carnage.   They stopped and looked at her as she picked up a cracker and spread brie on it.  It tasted fishy and bitter, and Andromeda chalked it up on her list of little disappointments.  
    The woman dismissed her as unimportant and continued.  "I told her that he was no good.  He probably lured her out there, then stabbed her to death with one of his scalpels."
    "Aunt, please.  They rarely saw each other.  There's no reason to think he had anything to do with it."
    "Then where is he?"
    Andromeda thought that was a very valid question.

Andromeda Pendragon:  Balancing Act
by Cindy Lynn Speer
Go to  Balancing Act:  Part 2