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More Chapters for your enjoyment! The Hunter Archives, Book One

January 21, 2014

Prologue

Gwen!” somebody yelled. The voice seemed vaguely familiar, but Guinevere turned, and instinctively raised her weapon, just in case the hunter was about to become the hunted.

She found that, in her excitement, she had wandered too far ahead, and had been separated from her companions. She stood perfectly still while she waited, her senses heightened , anticipating that her crafty prey would be making a single move so that she could finally use all of her hours of training. She could almost taste her first kill.

It took about thirty seconds for them to catch up, but with her body tingling with such anticipation, it felt like a lot longer.

Denver looked at her with a smirk. “I remember my first. Stay close and I’ll make sure you get a big one.”

Gwen responded, somewhat sheepishly, “Thanks, Denv. I still can’t believe they’re letting me join in a hunt this early. The other recruits still have months of training to go!”

“I know,” Denver replied. “Anabel and I are proud of you. We aren’t surprised, though; your reflexes are amazing and your aim is spot on… if we had more Hunters like you, we’d be rid of these filthy Beasts!” He smiled.

A twig snapped, causing the three Hunters to form a circle, back to back, like elephants guarding their young.

It was only a matter of minutes before ten pairs of golden, glittering eyes surrounded them.

“Alright, Gwen,” Denver whispered confidently, “Remember your training and this will be easy.”

“I’ll try,” Gwen uttered through clenched teeth. She aimed her crossbow at one of the pairs of eyes, dropping it down and to the right before letting her bolt-stake loose. A second later she heard something she hadn’t expected: a horrible, grinding, screeching sound. Her prey’s eyes went out, like a snuffed candle.

The remaining sets of eyes charged them and everything became a blur; Gwen barely remembered anything! The only sounds that night were the muted twangs of crossbows, and the growls and screeches of the Hunters and their prey. The battle lasted scant minutes.

There was now one Beast, retreating into the night with lightning speed. Mission un-accomplished (even with a high kill count) the party started to relax and headed home. The Hunters were content with their victory.

Denver clapped Gwen on the shoulder, “You did well! Very well, for your first time out!”

She was trembling. Adrenaline was rushing through her body like the drugs one of those Chinamen was always touting as they ambled from one town to the next.

As they left the scene of the scuffle, Gwen felt a familiar swoosh past her shoulder, catching her completely off guard.

Before Gwen could react, but not before the third companion could rotate, letting loose a bolt of her own to kill the assailant, Denver was already dead.

 

1

Six months later…

The night was cold. Gwen shivered, clutching her tan duster closer to her chin. She felt the fabric tighten across her back, feeling the warmth in her bones.

The night was also dark: very dark.

Were it not for the small amount of light her oil lamp put off, Gwen would not be able to see the dirt road in front of her. It swayed to and fro as she walked, casting long shadows on either side of her.

The road was quiet.

When she had left Anabel’s, it was close to eleven. The others had gone long before then. As their friends had drifted through the front door towards home, Anabel held Gwen behind by gripping her elbow tightly.

“Something wrong?” Gwen asked.

Anabel slowly nodded. Her free hand trembled as she closed the door. “I think he’s back.”

Gwen was alarmed. She wretched free from Anabel’s grasp and flew to every window, her eyes; one steel grey, the other green as grass; darting back and forth outside before snapping each pair of curtains closed. “Are you sure?”

Anabel smiled grimly, clasping her hands. She didn’t speak.

“Have you contacted the Council?” Gwen peered at her friend.

Anabel breathed out, obviously relieved. The clouds lifted from her brown eyes. She choked, “Now, I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of that!”

Gwen scowled, but wasn’t upset. She said, gently, “You’ve got to be more mindful…”

A scratching sound, followed by a soft thud, came from upstairs cutting Gwen short. She led the way slowly up the rickety stairs and over the creaking boards of the long hallway.

Anabel’s husband had done well for them, collecting bounties on the Beasts that nested frequently in the canyons nearby. As a result, Anabel lived in one of the largest houses in Butte, and continued living on the residuals of said bounties.

Even before Butte was an official township of the Territory, it was thought that these beasts wouldn’t be an issue. The hope was the parasites would starve to death, considering the town was less than one hundred souls, at the time.

Very few people had disappeared which lead to an even larger problem: friends and family were coming back home, settling old scores and vanishing without a trace with wives, husbands and children. Their actions withered the population.

It was at this point it had been decided they would take action. So, a council was formed, employing more than half the remaining townspeople. Three served as heads to decide what marks were, or were not, threats, and the rest were Hunters.

In the beginning the Council had very little money so they paid the Hunters in crops and alcohol. Word spread and soon the town grew to more than double its original size. Forming the Council had created a lot of jobs, and people flocked to the opportunity.

Finally, in Butte, the Territory of Montana, there were jobs that didn’t involve the endless tedium of mining for gold. After some time, money replaced the crops and alcohol as payment, although it should be said that some still preferred the latter.

Anabel’s father was one of the first Hunters. He’d been mining gold for years, always moving the family around, and had grown weary of it. He retired his pickaxe years ago, taking up any job he could, the last of which landing them here, in Butte. Being a Hunter for a short while he had felt fulfilled his destiny and died happily of old age two years ago. Anabel’s husband, however, did not die of old age.

His death was gruesome, at the (indirect) hands of the Clan Father, Leopold, months ago, leaving his wife alone in this big house. Before dying, however, Denver held the highest kill count.

“It’s probably a raccoon,” Gwen said cautiously. She crept slowly; holding Anabel at bay; towards the room from which the scratching came.

Poor Anabel had not yet fully recovered, thus tonight’s gathering. She found comfort in the presence of her friends. It was only because of them that she had started eating again; gaining weight. Even the pallor of her skin was returning. Despite this, she’d continued having troubled dreams: mainly of Denver. He came every night, tormenting her, telling her she’d soon join him in his eternal life.

Gwen was Anabel’s closest friend, and a Hunter. Though it was more appropriate to call her a Trainee, each of these attributes made her the perfect companion. Sometimes Anabel stayed with her, other times she stayed with Anabel.

Though Denver hadn’t yet made an appearance, each time Anabel was afraid, Gwen took every precaution.

In fact, it had probably been months since the last dreams. “It’s probably a raccoon,” she repeated, more for Anabel’s sake than her own.

Her friend was frail, even before her husband’s death; made more for housework and patch-work quilting than for killing. As for Gwen, she loved the thrill that came along with the Hunters training. She could only imagine what it would be like to be a full-fledged Hunter! Even though she’d witnessed Denver’s death, she still wanted it. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t for everybody.

Anabel caught the hem of Gwen’s shirt, holding onto it even after her knuckles turned white. Her other hand held a lamp.

Gwen took the lamp, eased the door open and peered around the edge, holding out her switchblade-stake. The window was cranked open slightly. She looked to Anabel. “Did you open that?”

Anabel nodded.

Gwen motioned for her friend to stay in the hallway while she checked it out. Walking around the farthest corners of the room, she saw nothing out of the ordinary. She backtracked to the window.

There were claw marks along the inner edges: a classic sign of a Beast’s… a Vampire’s… presence. She cranked it open further, and leaned out, resting her palms against the sill. She looked left, and she looked right.

There was nothing in sight, and she knew the rules: Vampires couldn’t come in, unless invited. And even though this was once Denver’s house, it no longer was, and he would need that invitation. She pulled herself back into the room and shut the window, latching it. As she turned, she saw what had caused the thud.

In the corner behind the door, there was a large rock, the size of a man’s fist. Wrapped in twine around it, was a crumpled piece of paper.

Feeling no sense of danger, Gwen tucked her switchblade away and said, “Anabel, I believe you’ve got a message.”

Anabel crept into the room, looking in the same direction as Gwen. She bent and picked up the rock and unwound the twine. She clutched the rock to her flat belly with her forearm while her fingers smoothed out the paper. She read it aloud. “’My darling, we will be reunited soon. When the Clan Father approves your arrival, all of our dreams will come true. Ever your loving husband, Denver’.”

Anabel’s face turned white; she dropped the note and the rock, her hands going to her throat.

Gwen was troubled. She took up the letter and said, “You stay in the house until I can get to the Council, you hear? It will be safer inside: if you go out, you’ll be a sitting duck. Remember, Denver can’t come in unless you invite him.”

When she was assured that Anabel would not leave the house before she got back with word from the Council, or invite her deceased husband in, Gwen felt it would be alright to leave her friend alone.

She watched the lantern as it swung, the shadows growing and shrinking as she walked. Why hadn’t she ridden Charlotte? It was too late to be walking like this, it had to be around eleven fifteen now.

Gwen herself was not worried about Denver, or any other Vampire. She had her crossbow, her pistol and her switchblade-stake. Her senses were slowly becoming attuned with the Vampire movements; during the training exercises, the instructors had mimicked the Vampires and Gwen had gotten the highest scores. It didn’t hurt that her mentor was one of the highest ranked Hunters, and that she’d had limited field experience (after Denver’s murder, she had been leery of going on any other expeditions).

She almost felt sorry for the others; those who chose to live in “blissful” ignorance and denial: they didn’t stand a chance against the Clan Father, Leopold, or his Children. She’d never physically seen a Vampire, and never up close, but she knew all the rules; all the tricks. That, coupled with the fact that she’d already killed a few, she knew she’d be ready when the time came.

The Safe House was just in sight, right next door to the inn. She quickened her pace and was at the door within minutes. She took the large silver stake-shaped knocker in hand and banged it hard against the wood. Her knock was answered in seconds by a seasoned Council Member.

“Ah, Gwen, what brings you here so late tonight?”

“Evenin’, Millie… it’s about Denver.”

Millie’s brown eyes took on a sardonic hue. “Oh?” She sounded bored.

“He’s actually come back this time, not just in Anabel’s dreams. He left her this.” Gwen reached into her satchel and pulled out the note, and handed it to Millie; who pulled out small rimmed spectacles to read it.

“Oh, this is bad…” Millie didn’t bother removing her glasses before hastening to the back, behind a tall wooden desk. “Stay here!” she barked.

Not knowing what else to do, Gwen complied.Now alone, she looked around. She’d never been in the main room of the Safe House when it was so empty; usually it was abuzz with Hunter activity (it doubled as a Training Academy for up and coming Hunters).

There was a weapons rack in the corner, by the entrance to the back room.Sienna colored photos covered the walls. Most of them were of the Hunters, after a successful hunt, one foot on their prey, weapons raised high.

Here was one of the Council’s most admired Hunters; Arden Jade. She also helped train the recruits. She was there when… No…don’t think of it.

The picture was of Arden Jade’s most recent kill. Gwen was in awe.

It was more of a slaughter, really. While after her last Mark, she had stumbled upon a small Nest during daylight and had blasted it, and those unfortunate enough to be at home, to smithereens.

Vampires are their most vulnerable during the day, Gwen remembered Arden Jade saying during a training session, Because during the day, they are not much different from you and I: they can be killed by any ordinary weapon. That’s why I always carry a pack of TNT, she’d said with a little wink. During this time, they are generally at rest in their Nesting Grounds. If you’re fortunate enough to find a nest, take full advantage of it, no matter what time of day it is. Nests are very well hidden, and with good reason. If you can wipe out an entire nest, you’ve single-handedly saved more than a dozen lives.

Gwen smiled slightly. The nest pictured was that of Fledgling Vampires and practically out in the open; a mistake many Fledglings made. They become so frenzied with hunger that they set up camp as close as they can to their food supply; much like the Indians do with buffalo, or other wild game.

Gwen shook her head. She continued on. The remaining photos were not as impressive as Arden Jade’s and she grew bored. She turned her attention to the display cases lined up neatly across the room.

Some of the cases held memorabilia from fallen Hunters: crossbows, switchblade-stakes, blood-drenched jackets; others held treasures reclaimed from Nests; treasures too valuable or sentimental to trust to the public.

This particular case held a fist-sized ruby found on one of the Children’s scorched bodies. It had been engraved by Leopold himself, proclaiming his love for this specific Child. It was the newest addition to the Safe House. Rumors swirled, speaking of Leopold’s desire to retrieve it. As of yet, nothing had come of those rumors.

Gwen sighed louder than she meant to.

“Something wrong, young Gwen?”

Momentarily forgetting where she was, Gwen drew her six-shooter, poised for attack. Arden Jade stood there, one elbow resting on the tall wooden desk. Gwen lowered her gun. “Please forgive me…”

Arden Jade raised a hand. “Nothing to worry over, you’re simply prepared, and that means I’ve done my job,” she smiled crookedly. “What’s this I hear about Denver?”

Gwen re-holstered her gun. “You remember how Anabel’s been having those dreams? Denver paid her a flesh and blood visit just tonight, while she and I were visiting. Left her a note and everything.”

Arden Jade nodded. “That much, I knew. Is there anything you’re leaving out?”

Gwen knew there wasn’t, but thought for a moment wanting to leave nothing to chance. “No, nothing.”

Arden Jade pursed her lips together, her green eyes thoughtful. “Why now?”

Gwen was at a loss. She didn’t say anything.

Arden Jade wasn’t really paying attention to her, and spun on her spur-booted heel to the back, parting the waterfall of Indian beads that served as a door between the two rooms.

What’s back there? Gwen had never been. She’d been upstairs, to the boarding rooms (many of the Hunters called those rooms ‘home’), but it was always assumed that she needed clearance to go behind the desk. This is Anabel we’re talking about! You have a right to know!

This logic startled her. She tip-toed across the floor, holding anything that might jingle and give her away to herself. Unfortunately, the floor squeaked and groaned, and each time it did, she froze, trying to put on a mask of innocence, as though she were just studying pictures or weaponry.

To her delight, she found that she could hear voices from a couple feet away, where she stood. While she still wanted to see what was back there, behind those Indian beads, hearing the conversation would serve her purpose.

Millie was mid-sentence. “… he was in with them even before he changed!”

Arden Jade spoke, “No… it was only assumed that he was allied with the Vampires, and by only a few of us.”

Denver? Allied with the Vampires?What reason would he have to do that? As Gwen was thinking this, she missed what Arden Jade said next, in a low, gravelly tone. “Besides, we killed many of the Children who’d been sent to attack us, and I took out the one that killed him…”

Sooner than Gwen could come up with a good answer, a man was speaking, ignoring Arden Jade’s remark, making it clear this was not the reason for tonight’s meeting. “She’s right… the evidence against Denver was circumstantial, and weak at best. He was one of our best! Why would you, of all people, try to turn us against him, Millie?”

Millie: “Excellence, I apologize, but you’ve got to wonder… why has he come back now? He’s been… dead… for half a year!”

Arden Jade: “No matter the reason, we need to bring Anabel here to keep her safe. If Denver truly was involved with the Clans before his demise, there is likely something larger afoot. Anabel may merely be a pawn, or a distraction.”

Someone cleared their throat. The Man responded. “Agreed, Arden Jade… I’ll send out the brigade to collect Anabel right away. In the meantime, we’ve got to…”

A voice came from behind her, interrupting her eavesdropping. “Gwen?”

A startled gurgle came from Gwen’s throat. She brandished her gun, spinning around quickly.

“Whoa, cowgirl…” the newcomer laughed, putting his hands up. “What are you doing there?”

Gwen sighed, putting her weapon away for the second time that night. “Erik, what in blazes are you doing skulking around?”

Erik laughed. “Me? You’re the one standing there with your ear to the Council’s door!”

Gwen had to admit, Erik had a point. She apparently, during the course of the conversation on which she’d been eavesdropping, had crept closer. She grimaced. She quietly explained the situation as they sat on the sofas in the front parlor.

Erik was one of her fellow recruits, and a friend. He’d always fancied her, somewhat. He was fresh from California, tired of the same humdrum lifestyle that brought most people to Butte.

Gwen sighed. “I’d never thought Denver to be a turncoat, and I can’t imagine it now, either.”

Erik shrugged. “I couldn’t tell you either way, I didn’t know him.”

Someone was calling for Gwen from the room adjacent. “Excuse me.” She hurried out, Erik close behind. She found Millie waiting for her by the desk.

“We’ve sent out a team to pick up Anabel, and we’re going to keep her here for a while until the dust settles.”

“How long will that be?”

Millie shrugged. “Not rightly sure. But you can be damn sure Denver won’t be able to get to her here.”

The question was burning her tongue. How could you ever think that Denver, one of your most loyal Hunters, was in league with the Vampires? Instead she said, “Well that’s a relief…refresh my memory, if you would…what sort of security measures are in place to ensure that Vampires can’t come in here? Other than the normal invitation, or lack thereof, as it were.”

The older lady sighed and clicked her tongue; Gwen ignored this, awaiting her answer. “The Blood Coven put a spell on the building; including the porch and Training Yard; that keeps the Vampire charms at bay; anybody who enters is immediately covered with the same defense,” Millie’s impatience was showing again, “So in other words, even if the Vampires somehow make it past the outer shell, the Safe House occupants cannot fall prey to the Vampire mind tricks. Not only that, but alarms would sound in each room of the house, so several Hunters will be there to meet it.”

Vampire mind tricks… when the Vampire reaches into your mind, distorting your reality and your inhibitions, using you as his or her puppet. Including making you invite them in… “Oh no! Denver wouldn’t have gotten to Anabel already, would he?”

Millie shrugged once more. “Doubtful… the note implies soon, not tonight.

“You never liked Denver much, did you?” Gwen finally asked, hoping for more information.

If Millie was shocked by the question, she was doing a good job of hiding it. “Nope… never did.” She went behind the desk and sat down on a chair that matched the desk in every way. She grabbed a stack of papers and started going through them, her small-rimmed glasses perched on her nose, perhaps to avoid encouraging further questioning.

Gwen was already interested. “Why not?”

I never could quite put a finger on it, but that boy seemed like trouble the moment I laid eyes on him. Anabel saw differently, I suppose, but I still never could let myself trust him.”

Gwen nodded absently. She’d known a few folks like that. Denver hadn’t ever been one of them. A ludicrous thought occurred to her. What if Denver had spurned Millie’s advances? Maybe she was sore about it?

She nearly laughed out loud. Millie was old, and set in her ways. Gwen had never known the older woman to be reliant on a man for anything. In fact, Gwen admired Millie’s strength and self-reliance; she would likely end up just like her one day. And for a moment, the thought made her sad.

But a Hunter’s life was not to be shared. Look at Anabel and Denver. Because Denver was taken, it put, and kept, Anabel in danger. At least they hadn’t had children, even though they’d been discussing the possibility.

Gwen quietly excused herself and went to the porch, awaiting Anabel’s escort.

 

2

Anabel stood at the window, pulling back the curtains and peering out into the darkness. She knew of the Vampire trickery, and she was certainly on edge. She knew that Denver could reach into her thoughts and make her do what he wanted.

She was too afraid to sleep. Being awake meant she would stay alert, and be less vulnerable to his charm. She let out a soft giggle. God knows I was a victim of that long enough while he was alive!

It was how they’d begun courtship. Anabel wasn’t at all interested in courting, more intrigued by school. She’d had plans to attend school in San Jose when he approached her. Within moments, he’d had her convinced she never wanted to leave Butte.

Anabel paced in front of the fireplace. She sighed dreamily.

It was his expressive blue eyes that had first caught her fancy. Then it was his charm. How he’d told her she was the most beautiful woman he’d seen in Butte to date. Of course it was a line, something men said to get into a woman’s knickers. There was something about the way that Denver said it that told her he wasn’t one of those men.

While she’d never been beautiful, like Gwen, she always felt like a goddess while in Denver’s presence. He’d said he’d been struck by her smile, and the kiss hidden on the corner of her mouth.

Denver was a good man, and a good provider. They’d been discussing starting a family for months when he’d been killed.

When she thought he’d been killed.

She never saw a body, as it was a closed casket service, but she’d had no reason to disbelieve the Council, or Gwen, when they told her of his demise.

They had not lied to Anabel.

The Council hadn’t known that after Denver had been buried, his remains and been excavated, the plot being restored to after-funeral newness.

Nobody had known.

With Anabel’s limited knowledge of Vampires, she understood why she’d been having the dreams: they were his way of communicating with her. So why hadn’t he charmed her into inviting him in yet? Why not just knock on the front door and speak with her in person?

As she thought this, there was a loud knock.

Anabel stopped pacing, turned and, without thinking, called, “Come in!”

She gasped, her pupils growing wide. What have I done?

Her first instinct was to run, though her feet stayed rooted to the floor. Until she backed up, into the wall, her right shoulder brushing the mantle, knocking her knick knacks askew.

The door swung open on creaky hinges.

Miz Murphy?” a voice, that wasn’t Denver’s, asked urgently. “It’s Lyle… Council sent me!”

Yes… I’m here,” Anabel let out her breath. She hadn’t realized she’d been holding it. She took a walk to the door. “I’m here.”

The young man standing in her doorway was barely any older than she was, and armed to the teeth, it seemed, with all sorts of weapons. A wagon waited beyond him. There were two others in the wagon; one on post off the tail, and the other on post, riding shotgun, each just as armed as the others. The horses whinnied impatiently.

Alright, Miz Murphy, we gotta get you some belongings packed up, cause you’re comin’ back to the Safe House with us,” he threw his thumb behind him, “With uh; me, Pete and Parris.”

Anabel nodded. She raced about the house packing pictures, clothing and anything else she could grab that would be travel worthy. Of course she wished she could just stick the entire house in her luggage, but that was nonsense. Lyle encouraged her to take anything she wanted, within reason.

An hour had passed when Lyle and his cohorts loaded Anabel and her things into the wagon, and sped back to the Safe House, where Gwen and Erik were waiting patiently out front.

* * * * *

Gwen leapt from the rocking chair, relieved to see her friend, who was ushered past her into the back room by Millie and Arden Jade.

She, Erik, Pete, Parris and Lyle brought in Anabel’s things and set up her room while Anabel was in a briefing. Excellence would likely be there as well, but Gwen had never seen his face, nor did she know his name.

When she became a Hunter officially, she would insist on meeting him. Until then, it wasn’t as important as her friend’s safety.

Lyle, Pete and Parris returned home, and Erik and Gwen returned to the front parlor, making small talk while Anabel was finishing up.

Weather’s been a mite unpredictable lately,” Erik said, tapping his fingers together. “Tonight was warmer than usual.”

Gwen nodded, uninterested. “You can go home if you like… once Anabel gets out of that meeting, I’m putting her to bed, and checking into a room myself. Although…” she turned her attention to him, “Why did you come here? Are you staying here?”

Erik did a double take. “Pardon me?”

Earlier tonight, when you snuck up on me. Why were you here?”

Erik shrugged, unsure of what to say. He said, slowly, “If I tell you, you’ll laugh.”

Gwen waited.

Erik sighed. “I come here sometimes to look at the pictures, to imagine what it’s going to be like when I get out in the field.”

Instead of laughing, Gwen nodded. “No, no… that’s perfectly reasonable.”

For the record, I didn’t intentionally sneak up on you.”

Now Gwen laughed.

* * * * *

She was saying goodnight to Erik as Anabel was coming out of the Council Chambers, looking relieved.

Gwen hooked arms with her friend and lead her upstairs. The old steps creaked and groaned under their weight. She opened a door on the right. “Home sweet home… at least for now.” Gwen grinned slightly.

Anabel pulled Gwen into a hug. “Thank you… are you staying the night?”

Gwen bobbed her head, dark locks bouncing, red and blond streaks shining in the dim light. “For as long as you like.”

Good.” Anabel released her and stood back, looking around. “Night clothes?”

Gwen pointed to the bottom left bureau drawer. “You can familiarize yourself tomorrow. For now, go to bed and get some sleep.”

Anabel laughed. “That’s the plan.”

The friends bid goodnight and Gwen found an empty room at the end of the hall.

* * * * *

Gwen didn’t sleep quite as well as she usually did.

She had even more reason to sleep well under the heavy protection of the Council, but all she could do was toss and turn. Her dreams were fraught with Vampires, and something ebbing just on the edges; mysterious, but not unfriendly.

She woke up for the last time around three; paced the floor until five. Around this time, the Safe House residents were waking up.

Gwen dressed, swung her locks into a ponytail, and checked in on Anabel: still sound asleep.

Letting her friend sleep, she helped with the Safe House chores. Among them were: pumping the water, feeding the horses, cleaning the stables, and cooking breakfast. By the time breakfast was on the table, Arden Jade, Millie and Anabel had all made an appearance. Also around the large table were Tex; a Texan tired of the way the “Confederate States of America” were handling the Civil War, Dominic; from Mother Russia, and, hailing from the Territory of Montana: Lyle, Darla, Pete, Erik, Sarah and Parris.

Anabel was thanking Lyle, Pete and Parris for their assistance the previous night, and making small talk with Millie. Arden Jade, Darla, Tex and Dominic were discussing something more serious. Denver.

Gwen wasn’t entirely sure now was the time or place to be discussing this, but because Anabel was distracted, Gwen didn’t say anything. She listened, vaguely noticing the furtive, shy glances Erik directed at Anabel, barely registering the fact that he had shifted his romantic intentions from her to the young widow.

“… he’d been warning her for a while…”

The dreams are essential for communication with loved ones…if the family isn’t frightened; they’re more likely to follow them into the night.”

And that’s my question…why didn’t he try to lure her out?” The Russian asked.

Arden Jade shook her head, her long red tresses bouncing. Normally they were pulled into braids and up against her neck; this morning they flowed free. “Once we can get close enough to them to find out, I’ll let you know. But the best I can figure is that, based on Denver’s note to Anabel, the Clan Father has to approve each and every addition. A process that might take months, depending on how many new Vampires there are, how many family members each one wants to change… I mean, the list literally could go on and on.”

Dominic grunted, turning his attention back to the sausage and eggs steaming on his plate.

Millie passed a skillet of hash browns around.

Thirsty, Gwen excused herself, went into the kitchen and grabbed a tray. She juiced some oranges into a pitcher, and put another pot of coffee on to brew. On the tray she arranged twelve tall glasses around the pitcher of juice. She carefully carried it out, offering it to each person. “I put more coffee on, too.”

There was water already on the table, but in the mornings, Gwen preferred the freshly squeezed juice the Safe House offered. In fact, some mornings, she came for that alone. Lastly, she took a glass for herself and sat down, setting the tray aside.

Thankfully, because the conversation Anabel was in seemed to have stayed away from the subject of Denver, she looked happy and refreshed. All things considered. If Gwen had been oblivious to Erik’s flirtatious glances, Anabel had not. Gwen could see her friend flushing slightly when looking towards Erik.

Gwen wondered about that. Was Anabel quietly grieving? Quietly afraid? Or did she genuinely feel safe, and therefore happy, here? Was it Erik’s newfound attentions?

Ironically, as Gwen was thinking these words, the atmosphere in the room darkened, as if a shadow had passed over the windows. Anabel asked quietly, “What happens when he doesn’t find me? Surely you can’t keep me safe here forever.” Gwen guessed Anabel had been listening after all.

Millie said matter-of-factly, “Of course we can.”

What if he gets angry? Won’t that endanger the town?”

Nobody knew what to say, eating in silence.

Gwen chewed a bit of sausage, thinking. The Council would surely put a mark on Denver’s head, thereby saving Anabel from his clutches. But if the Clan Father wanted her; really wanted her, he would hunt her down for the rest of her days. She groaned inwardly.

Arden Jade bent forward, her hair falling across her shoulder, blocking her face from view. She seemed deep in thought. After a few moments, she voiced what Gwen had been thinking, adding, in a hopeful tone, “The Clan Father has never come after anybody. However, I’d rather not take any chances.”

Millie agreed with a nod of her head. “Arden Jade… gather the other Hunters, and reconvene in the Council Chambers at two p.m.”

Arden Jade obeyed swiftly.

While the Hunters were practicing and gathering together, Gwen and Anabel took it upon themselves to clean up, and cook a second round of breakfast. The Night Hunters would be returning and would surely be hungry. Erik went to the stables to groom the tired beasts.

I could be content here,” Anabel said with a chuckle.

Gwen smiled. “Of course you would, little house-mother. You’re perfect for this type of thing.”

Anabel seemed put off. “This ‘type’ of thing?”

You’re a caretaker, my dear. You’re absolutely thorough and make sure everybody’s fat and happy and warm. Not to mention you’re a cleaning dervish.” Gwen smiled again. “Believe me, dear, I’m giving you a compliment.”

Anabel nodded, satisfied her friend wasn’t insulting her. The second round of breakfast went out without a problem, and was cleaned up just as quickly.

With nothing to do now, Anabel searched through the pantries and started lunch.

Gwen left the kitchen to Anabel and went in search of Arden Jade.

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