Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

The Master of Dimiloc

This story is taken from the collection Black Dog Stories (I).

Ezekiel knelt amid overgrown forsythia and shadows, watching the girl on the bench. Her name was Melanie Manteufel. She was pretty, if not beautiful. She had a broad forehead and wide-set gray eyes, a slightly snub nose and a generous mouth. She was also the sort of girl who lit up with genuine pleasure when she met a friend or a stranger, which gave her a different and rarer kind of beauty.

Ezekiel did not remember a time when he had not desired her. But at the turning of the year, Melanie had announced – blushing and shy and delighted with herself – that she and Daniel Hammond would marry in the coming spring. This spring. In June, now just a few short months away.

Daniel Hammond.

Ezekiel had always known that Melanie was more important to him than he was to her. Everyone loved Melanie. For him it was different. Everyone but Melanie was afraid of him.

He had known he was too young for her. But a year, two years, that difference in ages became less important as people got older. He had been willing to wait. He had been willing to wait, and hope no one else won her in the meantime. He had intended to begun courting her this spring. He’d had it all planned out: flowers and little attentions and the surety that no one else could protect her as well as he could.

And then, Daniel.

Daniel.

It had never crossed Ezekiel’s mind that Melanie might choose a man like Daniel Hammond…ousin from the town, an ordinary human with neither strength of his own nor position within Dimilioc, and besides that seven years older than her. Ezekiel had known he had many rivals, but he had never guessed Daniel might be among them.

When she’d made the announcement, he’d known that if he had said anything, he would say too much, and so he had said nothing at all. But he thought of that midwinter announcement and the coming wedding whenever he looked at Melanie, and could not entirely keep away from her.

Now they were both in Madison, alone together for the first time since her proud announcement, and Ezekiel was not entirely certain he knew how to handle this. Dimilioc law was clear: it was her choice. But did the law mean he wasn’t allowed to court her a little anyway, maybe try to get her to change her mind?

This was Melanie’s first visit to Madison. Ezekiel’s, as well, but he was accustomed to travel and she was not. They had arrived only two days before, on the same plane, at four in the afternoon, with an east wind spitting icy drizzle from the overcast sky. Ezekiel had followed her off the plane, and he had continued to follow her since: sometimes closely and sometimes at a greater distance, but always taking care to stay unobtrusive. He was good at that, but then he was good at many things.

Yesterday the skies had been clearing, but the wind that had driven out the clouds had been bitter. Even so, Melanie had walked for some time along the city streets with evidently no consciousness of potential hazard, though most of the neighborhoods she visited were dangerous. Today was much more pleasant, so perhaps it was not surprising she should stroll around the city from dawn until dusk, until at last she alighted on that park bench where daffodils and pink tulips bloomed between the clump of forsythia. This was not in fact a very safe area, but the park was pretty and, a girl who was a recent arrival in the city might not know that.

Ezekiel knew it very well. To him, the very air smelled of anger and dry ash, burnt clay and desperation. The earth of the little park was permeated by the metallic tang of fear and blood, scents that were growing stronger as the sun began to dip down below the jagged horizon of the city. Ezekiel breathed slowly and deeply, appreciating the exciting aromas.

Before him, Melanie sighed, glancing at the lowering sun. For a moment she gazed at the moon, near full, which was already visible in the sky, though pale and nearly transparent in the lingering light. She tucked a foot up under her other thigh, and reached for her sketchpad.

The first black dog burst from a narrow alleyway on the other side of the street and hurled himself toward the woman, closely followed by a second. They were huge, not actually much like dogs: far too big even for mastiffs, black claws too long and too sharp for any dog – to experienced eyes, they didn’t look like any natural animal at all. Their skulls was broad, their muzzles blunt and set with savage fangs as black as their claws; their eyes blazed with red fire. They separated as they rushed forward, coming at Melanie from two directions at once – more teamwork than one expected from stray black dogs. One lunged up and over a parked car, leaving gouges and slashes not just in the paintwork, but also in the metal itself.

Melanie tucked herself down against the arm of the bench, her arms wrapped tight around her legs, her face pressed against her knees. She didn’t make a sound.

Ezekiel was moving almost before the first black dog had lunged into the open. His shadow moved with him and around him, clinging to him, wanting to rise. He let it come, let the change take him, hot and furious; the new grasses charred and smoked where his feet fell. His claws tore the earth.

Both black dogs had stopped in the middle of the street, rearing up on their hind legs, snarling, trying to frighten Melanie and make her run. They knew she was Pure; any black dog would smell her Purity. They hated her and longed to kill her, but they also wanted the helpless flight of doomed prey to sweeten the blood. Melanie still did not move, but the black dogs were not experienced enough to wonder why. They were far too focused on their prey to sense Ezekiel.

He took the first with one blow, his claws tearing through shaggy pelt and muscle and ripping across the spine: the surest blow for an instant kill. The black dog screamed, black ichor and then red blood spraying as his body twisted into human form, one limb and then another, half his face and then the rest, grotesquely piecemeal. The great, smoky cloud of his shadow rose free, struggling to cling to the dying human body but unable to retain purchase, dispersing in the air. The human who had hosted it within his soul, of course, was simply dead.

The second black dog swung around, slashing. He was fast and strong, but Ezekiel simply ducked, folding himself down into his much smaller human form, letting the black dog’s blow whip over his head, then letting his shadow rise again. The black dog had not expected to miss his strike and found himself seriously overextended.

Ezekiel would have liked to play with his prey for a little while – he, too, relished the chase and the hunt and the kill – but Melanie would not like to watch such sport. So he tore out the black dog’s throat and three of his cervical vertebrae with one economical blow. Then he dismissed his own shadow and stood back as this black dog, dying, writhed and twisted into his human form.

“You let them get too close,” Melanie said, not looking up. Her voice didn’t shake, but her body trembled with reaction.

Ezekiel was amused. “How would you know? You didn’t watch. You never watch.”

“I felt them.” The woman cautiously lifted her head, flinching from the bodies that lay contorted and human in the street. “Oh, God. Just kids. Poor boys.”

Ezekiel lifted a contemptuous eyebrow. “Strays. Savages. They don’t deserve your pity.”

“But they do. They never had training, never had the Beschwichtigand, never even knew their shadows could be controlled. Born to the wrong mothers – ”

“Whom they probably killed.”

“Probably. Poor things.” She might have meant the mothers or the dead black dogs. She likely meant both. She got to her feet, stiffly. She rubbed her eyes hard, then dropped her hands and looked up at the red-streaked sky. To Ezekiel, the red looked like blood. He had no idea what the sky looked like to Melanie.

She said again, “You let them get way too close to me.”

Ezekiel wanted to go to her, touch her shoulder. More than her shoulder – killing put him in the mood. But she wouldn’t welcome even a friend’s touch from him now, and certainly not more. She’d made her choice, and it hadn’t been him. He stood still. But he said, “I let them get exactly close enough. I would never have let them touch you. But I’m sorry if you were frightened.”

“I wasn’t frightened,” Melanie said, though she must know Ezekiel could tell she lied. She didn’t look at him. “I want to go home.”

“Soon. One more.”

“We should forget the last stray,” she protested, though she followed obediently when he turned and walked away. “That one’s been quiet enough. Who cares about him, as long as he doesn’t kill a lot of people, make headlines, stir things up? We could just go straight to the airport, be home by morning… ” her tone was wistful.

Ezekiel said, not quite politely, “And will you explain to Thos why we left a stray roaming free in this city, or would you leave that to me?” He tried to smother his annoyance. She was Pure. Her hesitancy wasn’t her fault. But she knew they couldn’t leave Madison with the job unfinished. He wanted to snap at her. He wanted to grab her, shake her, shout at her. He moved a step farther away from her instead.

“I know,” Melanie said, not quite coherently. “I know, all right?”

“Only one more. We’ll do him tonight, go to the airport right after. We can still be home tomorrow.” He couldn’t quite stop himself from adding, “Daniel will be glad to see you, I’m sure.”

Melanie didn’t exactly flinch, but she darted a glance at his face and away.

Ezekiel wasn’t quite sure how to read that glance. He looked away. In the near distance, sirens wailed. He put out a hand, not quite touching Melanie’s arm, gesturing her toward a parked car.

“That belongs to someone,” she said, not very firmly.

Ezekiel lifted an eyebrow. “Not even you care. Whoever owns it, we need it more. You’re too tired to walk any farther tonight.” Ezekiel cut through the lock with a delicately elongated claw of sharp-edged shadow, reached across to unlock the passenger-side door, and went around to lift the hood and hotwire the ignition. The sirens approached, but several streets over: not an immediate concern. He got in behind the wheel and glanced sidelong at Melanie. “You have our direction?”

“Yes, yes… I will. Just a minute…” she had taken a small hand mirror out of her back pocket, the glass shimmering with silvery light. A trouvez. She’d done the finding magic the same night they’d arrived in Madison; it was still halfway in place. She passed her hand across the mirror and peered into it. “Left up there at the light.”

“Left?” Ezekiel was surprised: left would take them toward one of the decent parts of Madison, not the dismal mostly-deserted streets in which he’d have expected to find a stray black dog. But Melanie gave him an impatient shrug, so he said nothing more, but turned left and left the sirens behind.

… – –

Madison’s remaining stray proved to be very little like the brutes who had attacked Melanie. He was a little older: thirty at least. That was surprising. They died young, these wild black dogs who had never learned control and had no idea of Dimilioc law. Until they broke it too egregiously, of course, and found the Dimilioc executioner suddenly behind them.

This black dog was not only older than the other strays, he actually looked more or less civilized. He was a tall man with a bony, angular face. He wore good jeans and a plain white tee-shirt. He could have passed both for nearly human and nearly respectable in almost any company. And he was in human form, despite the nearly full moon, which explained why he’d never come to Dimilioc’s attention: he plainly had a good deal more control than most strays.

The black dog plainly knew what Melanie was as soon as he opened his front door and caught her scent, but though she backed away fast to draw him out, he didn’t let his shadow up and he didn’t attack her. Instead, he looked past her immediately, nostrils flaring, obviously looking for Ezekiel. He found him, too, amid the ordinary shadows of the night, though Ezekiel had expected to strike unseen as the black dog came out into the night after Melanie.

Since he’d been spotted, however, Ezekiel met the black dog’s eyes and smiled.

The black dog’s hand closed so hard on the edge of his door that the wood cracked. He’d had a black dog father to teach him, Ezekiel surmised – unusual, but sometimes a stray black dog actually raised a son rather than abandoning him. Whatever the story might have been, this man plainly knew who Ezekiel was: the Dimilioc executioner, who showed no mercy to Dimilioc’s enemies. Ezekiel Korte, who for three years now had been Thos Korte’s killer.

This black dog had sense enough not to fight and control enough not to run. He backed up instead, wordlessly yielding his place in the doorway as Ezekiel walked forward. He backed farther, down the hallway and into a dimly lit living room with a carpet that was old but clean, a single leather recliner, a small table holding a sweating bottle of beer, and, to one side, an ancient black-and-white television, the picture flickering. The sound was on, but turned very low. A paperback book lay open, face down on the arm of the chair. Ezekiel couldn’t read the title.

Ezekiel looked around, still smiling. He said, “How nice.”

The man flinched, but Melanie said, “Ezekiel!”

“Don’t you think it’s nice? So very… ordinary.”

The man ducked his head, avoiding Ezekiel’s gaze. He said, in a deep, harsh voice, his diction surprisingly precise, “I don’t make noise…on’t hunt in the city – those God-damned black pups, I knew they’d draw Dimilioc attention – ”

“Then you should have run, shouldn’t you?” Ezekiel took a step forward, hoping the man would let his shadow up, that he would at least try to fight.

Instead, the black dog took another step back. He opened his mouth, but closed it again without speaking. He was beginning to lose language, clearly. Many black dogs did, when the change took them. This one was still trying to cling to his human shape, but his face was beginning to distort, lips peeling back from lengthening black fangs; his shoulders shifting and broadening. But he neither lunged forward nor flung himself wildly away. Still mostly a man, then, and still fighting hard for control of his shadow. As though his paltry control would help him –

Melanie suddenly moved, catching Ezekiel’s arm, dragging at him. No one else in the world would have dared get between Dimilioc’s executioner and his prey, or would have dared lay a hand on him without invitation. Ezekiel tilted his head, his eyebrows rising, making no move to shake her hand off his arm.

“I can do the Beschwichtigand,” Melanie said quickly. “Ezekiel, look how good his control is already, you don’t have to kill him, I can do the Beschwichtigand for him, that would finish the job here, wouldn’t it? Thos wouldn’t have to know the details, would he? What difference would it make? Except to me, you know it would make a difference to me – ”

Ezekiel glanced from the girl to the black dog and back again, still smiling. “Is there something in this for me? Would Daniel approve, do you think?”

Melanie let him go, punched him hard on the arm – the only person in the world who would dare. “God, Ezekiel – ”

“Ah. You’re presuming on my better nature. You think I have one?”

Melanie didn’t hit him again, but she looked like she wanted to. “Don’t be an ass!”

Ezekiel laughed. He said impatiently to the black dog, “Get your shadow down, cur. Show me some control. Change now and I will kill you, understand?” He waited while the man fought his shadow down and back, while his face and hands and body slowly recovered their purely human shape. Ezekiel waited with something approaching patience until he could see the man had his shadow in hand. Then he asked, “You’re willing to take the Beschwichtigand? You know what that is?”

“The Calming,” whispered the other man, his voice thick and his words clumsy. “My father, he told me…”

“But he couldn’t find a Pure woman to work the spell for you?” Melanie said sympathetically. “Well, I can do it now.”

“Let me just add,” Ezekiel put in, staring hard at the black dog, “if you say yes, you don’t get to change your mind halfway through. You hurt her, I won’t just kill you, I’ll make you into an example for the ages. Do you understand?”

The black dog understood. He held very still while Melanie opened the window to let in the night air and the moonlight, and drew her pentagram in silver light on the kitchen floor around him. He shuddered with the effort of forcing his shadow to submit, but he did not move out of the pentagram. Ezekiel helped by leaning against the doorjamb, looking as threatening as possible; and Melanie, occupied with braiding moonlight into a silver cord to bind the darkness in the black dog’s soul, never noticed the potential danger at all.

And when she was finished with the Calming, once she’d reopened the pentagram, Ezekiel said harshly, “Well, dog?”

The black dog bowed his head, glancing covertly at Ezekiel through his lashes, avoiding the direct look that might be taken as a challenge. But his voice was clearer and more human now, and he looked at Melanie with dawning astonishment – the first time in his life, Ezekiel presumed, that he’d ever seen a Pure woman without wanting to kill her. This was not a change he remembered in himself: Dimilioc black wolves had the Beschwichtigand done when they were infants and never experienced that visceral hatred of the Pure.

Melanie met the man’s eyes and smiled. She smiled at Ezekiel, too. For that alone, he supposed the trouble and time spent here, even the risk of trouble with Thos, had been worthwhile.

“Don’t draw Dimilioc attention,” Ezekiel warned the black dog. “Keep clear of stray black dogs who might draw our attention. I don’t have to tell you that if I find you again, I’ll kill you.”

“Yes,” whispered the man. “No. I understand.”

“Get out of Madison. Go south, or west. Or both. There’s room here and there for a quiet black dog. So stay quiet. Understand?”

The black dog met his eyes for an instant before looking down again. “Believe me,” he said, his deep voice husky, “putting a great deal more space between me and Dimilioc is my new ambition.”

“Good,” said Ezekiel, and beckoned to Melanie. “Home by noon tomorrow,” he reminded her. “Unless we get stopped for speeding on the way to the airport.”

“You could let me drive,” Melanie said, though with resignation because she knew he wouldn’t. She smiled at the black dog once more, nodded, and headed for the door. “Much better than just slaughtering everyone,” she said to Ezekiel, over her shoulder.

“Not for me,” Ezekiel said, but the black dog didn’t attack him when he turned his back, so he regretfully gave up any chance of a fight and followed Melanie out of the house.

… – –

Dimilioc was set amid the Vermont mountains, in the part of the state sometimes called the Northeast Kingdom, though the humans who called it by that name had no idea how apt a name it was. At this time of year, the maples were still dormant, the firs and spruce black-green against the barren hardwoods.

The Dimilioc house stood alone on a rise amid the forest, the trees cleared back around it to open up all the approaches. It was a huge structure with two wings and three stories, large enough to house nearly a hundred humans if they were friendly, or perhaps half so many black wolves, who seldom were.

Ezekiel swung the big SUV around the long curve of the drive and parked in front of the generous porch. The plane flight had been fine, but the drive from Newport had been unpleasant: sleet and freezing rain all the way, every road worse than the one before, until he’d been genuinely tempted to abandon the SUV and run the rest of the way to Dimilioc in his other form. But Melanie couldn’t run across country and he could hardly leave her in a Newport hotel. So he had cursed the weather and had driven ever more slowly and carefully because if he wrecked the SUV, he would have to kill the first fool who laughed. Which was fine, but Melanie wouldn’t like it.

Stupid to care, when she cared only for Daniel. But he drove carefully anyway, and was absurdly relieved when he could finally take his foot off the gas and coast gently to a halt directly before the wide porch.

“Mind the steps,” he warned her.

She rolled her eyes, cheerfully scornful. “Do you want to hold my hand while I brave the treacherous ascent?” Then, as his crooked smile told her how that had sounded, she added hastily, “Too bad!” She leaped out of the car and fled up the steps without assistance, laughing. Happy. Happy to be home, happy because, of course, Daniel was waiting for her.

Ezekiel left the SUV for someone else to put away in the garage and followed more slowly.

But Daniel wasn’t waiting for Melanie in the atrium, though Ezekiel had called ahead from Newport. Nor was he waiting in the hallway beyond, nor in the kitchen. Melanie, enthusiasm undimmed, turned toward the stairs that led up to the private apartments on the second floor, but one of the Lanning cousins caught them before she could run up the stairs. The cousin was human, a boy barely out of his teens. He flinched away from Ezekiel, but that was nothing unusual. But then his eyes slid away from Melanie’s as well, and that was strange. Ezekiel frowned. Melanie said, questioningly, “Matt?”

“Thos wants you,” the cousin muttered. “As soon as you came in, he said.”

Ezekiel sighed.

“Poor Ezekiel!” Melanie said, laughing, but she meant it, too. “I’ll put some hot chocolate on for you, shall I, as soon as I find Daniel – ”

“I meant, you,” Matt said. “Both of you.” He ducked his head at Ezekiel’s sudden sharp glance. “Don’t know anything about it,” he protested, and backed clumsily through the door, tripping over nothing in his hurry to escape.

“What do you suppose?” Melanie said. She had gone pale. She looked at Ezekiel. “Thos found out we didn’t kill that last stray? But – ”

“He hasn’t had time to find out. But if he has, it was my decision, not yours.”

Melanie took a quick breath and nodded. It was like her to say we, to claim part ownership in that defiance of Thos Korte’s order. It was a measure of her fear of the Dimilioc Master that she was willing to let Ezekiel take the blame for it now.

“Thos won’t punish you for anything,” Ezekiel said flatly. He meant that he was Dimilioc’s executioner and he wouldn’t carry out any such order. He meant more than that: he wouldn’t permit anyone else to punish her either. Not even Thos Korte himself. He touched her hand: not a black dog gesture, but the kind of gesture a human might use to reassure a friend…esture he’d learned from Melanie, in fact.

And she was reassured. She understood what he had not quite said, or else the gesture was the right one. Her heartbeat, which had picked up, slowed nearly to normal. She laid a hand on his arm, drawing reassurance from that touch – the only woman in the world who would. “All right,” she said. “All right. Into the black wolf’s den, I guess…”

… – –

But Thos hadn’t heard or didn’t care about the details of the Madison run. He listened without changing expression as Ezekiel reported, briefly, that the black dog problem in that city had been dealt with.

“Good,” he said, without much apparent interest. “Four cities cleaned up this month. We shall assume the stray population properly cowed for the present. Write a report for Zachariah.” Zachariah was Ezekiel’s uncle, Thos Korte’s brother, and the man responsible for tracking blood kin and black dog strays.

“Now,” said Thos. “Sit down. We shall discuss an unrelated matter of possibly greater immediate importance.” He paused.

“Master?” Ezekiel asked politely, in case Thos was waiting for that acknowledgment. The disinterested tone was not reassuring. Thos sounded like that when he expected trouble. It was impossible to guess, now, what kind of trouble the Master expected, or why.

The Master of Dimilioc was a tall, thin, colorless man who sounded exactly the same whether he was barely paying attention or about to tear out someone’s throat. He did that, sometimes, to a black wolf who defied him. Sometimes he did it himself and sometimes he ordered his executioner to do it. Thos liked to have the world fear his executioner. The Master was a great believer in Machiavelli’s dictum about love and fear. Ordinarily Ezekiel approved. But Ezekiel knew Melanie was afraid, too, now. That, he did not like at all.

“Where’s Daniel?” Melanie asked abruptly. She was perched on the edge of her chair.

Ezekiel glanced at her, surprised. It had not occurred to him to wonder.

Thos did not seem surprised at all. Nor did he seem disturbed by Melanie’s sharpness, though he would never have permitted any Dimilioc wolf to speak to him in that tone. He said briefly, “Downstairs. Be quiet. Sit down and listen.”

Melanie, who had jumped to her feet and opened her mouth, sank back again. She darted a look at Ezekiel: appeal and something else. Fear. Not for herself. For Daniel. Because if her fiancé had somehow offended Thos Korte, then whatever he had done and whatever punishment Thos had decreed, it was very likely Ezekiel who would punish him.

“I don’t care for disturbance in the house,” Thos said, which was even true. He didn’t like disturbance and he didn’t allow it. He simply demanded total, unquestioning compliance from everyone, black wolf or human or Pure. He said to Melanie, “Daniel is not being punished. He is simply a guarantor of your cooperation. A match with a human man is, of course, an absolute waste of a Pure woman.”

He had said this before, when Melanie had announced that she would marry Daniel. But Ezekiel had believed the Master of Dimilioc had accepted her choice, as Dimilioc law required. Now he didn’t know what to believe.

“Your children by Ezekiel would be far more valuable,” Thos said, his tone flat. “You may marry Daniel: I don’t care. But first you will bear a black dog son and a Pure daughter to Ezekiel. So that there will be no confusion as to the parentage of your children, I will release Daniel only when we are certain you are carrying. If you want him free, I suggest a certain alacrity about your duty.”

Melanie stared at the Master, white and still, utterly wordless.

Thos said to Ezekiel, “You have her until she’s bearing. Then Daniel can have her until she delivers the child, do you understand? I will not have any trouble over that, is that clear? You may take her again once she bears the first child, until she gives you at least one black dog son and at least one Pure daughter. Is that clear?”

It was very clear. Ezekiel looked at Melanie.

She stared back. Then she jumped to her feet. “No!”

“Be quiet,” Thos ordered her, without emphasis. He gestured to Ezekiel, a small movement of one finger, disinterested command. “Take her away before she has hysterics. Get her pregnant. Tonight, preferably. Don’t forget that report, however. Go.”
Ezekiel closed a hand around Melanie’s wrist, hard enough to stop the flooding outrage in her eyes before she could give it voice. The outrage turned to fear when he touched her. He did not let go.

… – –

She did not have hysterics. She didn’t shout or scream or fight him. He was grateful for that. Fear was so seductive; a struggle far more so. Melanie’s furious calm made it much easier to let her go once they were clear of the Master’s office.

“Go see Daniel,” Ezekiel told her.

Melanie took several steps backward, bumped into the wall, stopped, and glared at him. “I won’t do it! He has no right!”

“He’s the Master of Dimilioc – ”

“I’ll leave – I’ll never come back, I’ll tell Carolyn and Hannah and Beth, see how he likes losing all of Dimilioc’s Pure women – ”

“And Daniel?”

She stopped dead. A guarantor of your cooperation, Thos Korte had said. They both knew exactly what that meant. Melanie opened her mouth, and closed it again.

Ezekiel knew exactly what she had meant to say, and exactly why she had stopped. She had started to demand – ask – beg, that he let Daniel out of the cage downstairs. She had stopped because he was the Master’s executioner. If she defied Thos, it was Ezekiel whom Thos would order to punish Daniel. And she thought he would do it, because she knew, she had to know, that Ezekiel wanted her. She thought Ezekiel would be glad to punish Daniel just for that, if once Thos gave him the excuse. She might even be right: Ezekiel wasn’t entirely certain himself. She stared at him in helpless silence.

“Go see Daniel,” Ezekiel repeated. “I’ll write that report. I’ll expect you, later. I’ll order a late supper for two. For eight o’clock. And you’ll join me for it. Won’t you?”

“Yes,” she whispered. She had lowered her eyes, which might be merely caution, but from her probably meant that she was trying to hide her fury and fear. She couldn’t, of course. Both were as evident to a black dog as though she had shouted aloud.

“This is not worth risking the Master’s anger,” he told her sharply. “You know I won’t hurt you.” But he wasn’t even sure himself whether he meant that as reassurance or as a plea for her understanding.

She backed away, one step and another; then turned and fled.

… – –

Ezekiel wrote the Madison report quickly and casually. He was mostly thinking about Melanie, and about Thos Korte, and a little about Daniel. He had little patience for reports. But he wrote it because Thos had ordered him to write it.

Six double-spaced pages of dry facts: arrived on such-and-such a date, used recent newspaper headlines to locate the hunting territories of the uncontrolled black dogs, narrowed the searches with Melanie’s trouvez. Confirmed there would be no need to trespass on blood kin territory to take out the black dogs – not a surprise, that last, because if a black dog was stupid enough to make a nuisance of himself in blood kin territory, there wasn’t likely to be any need to send the Dimilioc executioner after him. Dates and numbers of black dogs killed, names where Ezekiel had been able to make a reasonable guess. Trouvez confirmation that the city had been cleared out.

Then he glanced over the report once more to make sure it looked quick and casual throughout, and also to make sure he hadn’t been so distracted as to include any hint that he’d hidden an extra black dog stray between the lines.

Then Ezekiel printed and stapled the report, found a folder to give it official heft, and went to find Zachariah. He could have emailed it, of course. Ordinarily he would have emailed it. He wasn’t even sure why he had printed a hard copy, except that he discovered he longed for an excuse to leave his apartment. He wanted to move, to run, to fight; at least he could walk from one wing of the house to the other, climb two flights of stairs, and hand-deliver the damned report.

And then, possibly he wanted to leave his rooms because he looked forward to Melanie being there when he got back.

Zachariah Korte possessed a generous apartment on the third floor of the house. Ezekiel took the stairs two at a time and strode down the wide hallway that led to that apartment, paying very little attention to his surroundings. He was still thinking about Melanie. He was angry – any black dog was often angry, but he did not know why he was angry this time, or at whom. He had wanted her, and he would have her. No one could argue that Thos was wrong about the waste of a Pure woman bearing her children to a mere human man…

“….roblem is Ezekiel,” said Zachariah’s voice, clearly audible to black dog ears even through a closed door.

Hearing his own name caught Ezekiel’s attention, and that problem is Ezekiel was certainly fraught. He stopped dead in the hallway, listening.

“I can’t take him,” Zachariah said to someone unseen. His voice was light, cool, sardonic, unmoved. He might have been chatting about the weather, about the menu for supper, about whether the servants dusted thoroughly enough. But what he said was, “None of us can take Ezekiel. Not one on one; not two on one; possibly not even all of us together. But if it came to a serious fight, I think he might hesitate to kill me. I might be able to slow him down.”

“Well, that’s fine then, as long as you can slow him down,” growled a rougher, deeper voice. Harrison Lanning, sounding thoroughly exasperated.

In the privacy of the hallway, Ezekiel lifted an ironic eyebrow. But then a woman’s voice exclaimed, “I don’t want anybody killing anybody!” and Ezekiel, startled to realize Melanie was also there, eased forward a soundless step before he even realized he had moved.

A third man spoke: a deep, gritty voice, but not quite so heavy as Harrison’s. “A killing battle is coming, whether or not any of us wants it. The question is, who will do the dying? If it comes now, most likely that will be us.”

Grayson Lanning, of course. Grayson and Harrison Lanning and Zachariah Korte: a triumvirate of powerful black wolves; the only Dimilioc wolves who might possibly challenge Thos Korte. Ezekiel didn’t know whether he felt like laughing or swearing. Of course Melanie had gone to Grayson Lanning. Who else would anybody in Dimilioc go to, when they found themselves in trouble with Thos?

That had started years ago, when Ezekiel had been just a kid and Grayson not much over twenty. Grayson had interceded for a stupid black pup who’d lost his head and accidentally killed a townsman. He’d gotten Thos to let him teach the youngster proper control rather than simply killing him. Then Grayson had taken over the broader duty of teaching the pups rather than leaving the job, as tradition dictated, to their fathers. No one had objected, especially after it became obvious that the youngsters he trained almost always did develop excellent control.

Ezekiel, fatherless, only ten years old at the time, had been one of the youngsters who had benefited most from Grayson’s teaching – one of the few to surpass his teacher’s control. Soon he had surpassed anyone’s level of control. Very soon after that he had realized what a tremendous advantage this gave him. Then Thos Korte had realized it. Ezekiel had become Dimilioc’s executioner while still in his teens, unprecedented for such a young black wolf, but no one had objected. No one had dared object.

Grayson Lanning held no such formal position, but eventually Ezekiel had realized that a new take-your-problems-to-Grayson tradition had appeared within Dimilioc at about the same time. It made sense. Grayson had trained so many of the younger black wolves. They knew he would be fair, and calm, and would never lose his temper unless you deserved it. Besides, no one in his right mind would take a problem to Thos. So Ezekiel dealt mostly with problems only after they became too serious for the Dimilioc Master to ignore, and Grayson Lanning mostly kept problems from becoming that serious, and Thos Korte either didn’t notice Grayson’s increasing influence or else was too confident of his own strength to care.

Then Grayson killed a female black dog.

She was from Germany, one of three Gehorsam cousins who had come to Dimilioc to discuss some kind of high level business with Thos Korte. But Ursula Gehorsam had, it seemed, an unfortunate inclination to indulge her shadow’s natural sadism, and she liked to use the human servants for that indulgence. Of course that was forbidden, but Thos did not want to offend Gehorsam. He refused to notice the problem. Grayson had not ignored it. Ursula Gehorsam had paid no attention to Grayson’s first warning, or his second. She had not grown up in Dimilioc and did not know Grayson, but Ezekiel thought even so she should have known better.

Thos had punished Grayson, of course, for usurping the Master’s prerogatives when he’d killed the woman, and for creating a problem between Gehorsam and Dimilioc.

More precisely, Thos had ordered Ezekiel to punish Grayson.

And Ezekiel had done it, of course. But he had not realized how strong an impression that incident had left in Grayson’s mind until this moment, when he heard the other man say to Melanie, “I don’t think you understand how seriously overmatched we are.”

“But you…elanie began.

“No,” said Grayson, his deep voice flat. “Ezekiel has fought several times as many killing battles as the three of us put together, and Thos can force even my shadow down. I can’t do the same to him: he’s too strong for me. Together, they are far too strong for us.”

Harrison added, “If we act together, we might take either Thos or Ezekiel. Not both. But if we tackle one alone, we’d lose surprise with the other. Then there’d be another fight – one we’d probably just lose. Ezekiel isn’t the Master’s only partisan, unfortunately.”

“But…aid Melanie, and then, more strongly, “It’s not just what Thos is doing to me. You get that, right? It’s not about me. Thos is a terrible Master! You know that! He’s cruel and hateful and he’s made Dimilioc cruel and hateful. You know it, I know it, but everybody’s too scared of him to do anything – ”

Ezekiel blinked, almost physically staggered. It had never occurred to him to wonder whether Thos was a good Master or a bad one; it had never occurred to him to consider what Dimilioc might be like under a different Master. Clearly others had considered these questions. He had had no idea.

“Well, fine, but if nobody does anything, nothing will get done!” said Melanie, not quite shouting. She lowered her voice, gaining in intensity what she lost in volume. “Grayson, people would follow you, you know they would – you’d be a much better Master than Thos – ”

“Someday,” said Grayson. “Not now.”

“And not with my vicious nephew on Thos Korte’s shortest chain,” put in Zachariah.

“He’s not vicious!” protested Melanie, just as Grayson himself said in a deceptively mild rumble, “He’s not as sadistic as he pretends.”

There was a startled silence. In the hallway, Ezekiel, at least as surprised as anyone else, raised an eyebrow a second time. He might have expected Melanie’s defense, but Grayson’s astonished him. Ezekiel had, in fact, apologized to him for the punishment over Ursula Gerhorsam. He had meant that apology. He had known he should have stopped the woman himself. He had made certain, afterward, that no similar situation ever occurred again. But he had not expected Grayson to remember that, or to care.

“Good to know,” Zachariah said, his tone sardonic, plainly unconvinced. “Does it make a practical difference?”

“Not today,” said Grayson, and, to Melanie, “I’m sorry. I’ll do what I can. I’ll talk to Daniel. Then I’ll see what I can do with Thos. It will be easier if you don’t openly defy him. Understand?”

“Yes,” whispered Melanie. “Yes, all right.” She sounded sick. She sounded like she had given up. She sounded afraid, and black dogs loved fear, but Ezekiel had never wanted her to fear him.

Ezekiel did not wait for her to come out of Zachariah’s apartment and find him listening. He retreated soundlessly.

… – –

The servants had brought up the cold supper he’d ordered. The candles, too, and the pretty tablecloth. Everything was arranged beautifully on a small side table in his living room.

Ezekiel stood in the middle of the room, studying the effect. He had planned it out so carefully. He had meant to try to seduce Melanie away from Daniel – whatever she thought she wanted, he had hardly believed she could really prefer a human man to him.

Now the whole scene revolted him, though he hardly understood why.

Everything was the same. Grayson wouldn’t challenge Thos, no one would challenge Ezekiel, even Melanie would obey the Dimilioc Master.

And yet everything had changed. Ezekiel stood perfectly still, waiting for the silent waves of fury and grief and shock to crest and ebb. He was used to fury; but he did not understand the grief or the shock, and he was distantly aware there was no time now to sort out what he felt or why.

Melanie flung open his door without knocking, stalked in, saw the supper table, and glared at Ezekiel. “I suppose you think – ”

Ezekiel took the few necessary steps, caught her arm, and pulled her hard against his chest. He set his other hand behind her neck, stopping her attempt to wrench herself away. Her heart leaped and raced. Ezekiel met her eyes from a distance of mere inches. She seemed so small. Vulnerable.

Ezekiel smiled, his lazy executioner’s smile, the way he smiled when he wanted to terrify someone. Then he kissed her, brutally hard, and the intoxicating scent of fear suddenly filled the room, far more vivid than the scents of food and hot candlewax.

Her eyes were wide with disbelief as well as fear. The fear was what he needed; the disbelief was dangerous. When she tried to speak, he put a hand hard over her mouth, refusing to allow it. Leaning forward, he whispered to her what he wanted to do to her. He told her explicitly what he intended to do to her, how much he hoped she would not get pregnant right away, how much he planned to enjoy the weeks before a pregnancy could be confirmed. She believed him. She fought, twisting to get away… utterly hopeless; she could not possibly match his strength. She knew it, but she fought anyway. She was panting, short hard breaths like an animal run to exhaustion. Like prey. Utterly seductive.

“I want you forever,” he told her. He held her still, met her eyes, and smiled with black-dog savagery and with the special savagery that was all his own. “I won’t give you up to Daniel,” he whispered. “And you’ll smile for me no matter what I do, or I’ll make Daniel an example for the ages. Thos won’t object. Shall we make sure?” He caught her wrist again and hauled her toward the door.

She was weeping by the time they had reached Thos Korte’s private apartment. She was trying not to, but she was terrified and couldn’t hide it. Ezekiel had left bruises on her arms, on her throat. He had let his shadow claws tear bloody tracks in her wrist; he had hit her once when she had persisted in trying to fight him, a slap that had bloodied her lip as well. She was no longer trying to fight him. The scents of blood and terror were intense, provocative.

Thos opened his door. He surveyed the scene. One pale eyebrow rose, and he stepped back, inviting Ezekiel to enter with a brief tip of his head.

“She went to Grayson,” Ezekiel told him, with savage scorn. “Grayson and his brother and Zachariah. I overheard part of their little chat. Why don’t you send for them, ask them about the rest of it?” He shoved Melanie hard, so that she stumbled across the room, catching at a heavy chair to stop herself falling to the floor.

The other eyebrow rose. Thos picked up a house phone and murmured into it.

“I want her without strings,” Ezekiel told the Master. “I don’t care about Daniel, he could even be useful, but I’m not having him touch her. That’s the order I want you to give.”

Thos was beginning to look amused. “We can discuss it.”

“I’ve earned her,” Ezekiel began, but stopped, swinging around aggressively, as Grayson appeared in the doorway. Harrison and Zachariah were at his back.

Grayson’s eyes flicked from Melanie, still clinging to the chair, to Ezekiel, to Thos. The expression in his eyes went bleak and hard. A lesser black wolf might have broken and run, however hopeless that flight. Grayson had far too much control for that. When Thos beckoned to him, he came, grimly. Harrison and Zachariah glanced at each other. Harrison’s expression was as grim as his brother’s. Zachariah showed nothing at all. Both of them followed Grayson, one on his left and the other on his right, making no attempt to disguise their allegiance. Not that any such attempt could have succeeded.

“And I’ll earn her again tonight,” Ezekiel said to Thos. He added to Zachariah, smiling his savage, deadly smile, “Well, uncle, do you think you might slow me down? Do you think I might hesitate to kill you?”

Zachariah’s mouth tightened. He said nothing.

“Grayson’s the cornerstone,” Ezekiel said to Thos. “Kill him, and the other two will fall into line.”

“Yes,” the Master said, in that faintly impatient tone that was sometimes the only warning he gave of rising temper.

“Well, then?” Ezekiel shifted forward half a step, his attention on Grayson, watching with predatory alertness for any sign that the other man might try to fight, might try to run. Grayson might even attack Thos. If he did, things could get very complicated and very dangerous.

Grayson shifted his weight, measuring both Ezekiel and Thos – his face and hands began to distort with the change as his shadow rose – everyone balanced for that instant on the knife-edge of violence –

Then Thos Korte lifted a hand. His shadow rose, heavy, so dense it seemed to have actual physical heft. It rolled forward with irresistible power, pressing Grayson’s shadow down and back. Grayson tried to fight that smothering weight, but he had told Melanie he did not have the Master’s strength and he had been right. He lowered his eyes suddenly, like a fencer casting down his weapon, and went heavily to his knees.

“Well?” said Thos.

“Ezekiel’s right,” Grayson said, his tone flat. “Without me, neither Harrison nor Zachariah will threaten you.”

“With or without you, neither of them can threaten me. But it’s clear enough one treacherous conspiracy after another is going to form around you, if you live.” There was still nothing stronger in the Master’s tone than that trace of impatience. He glanced at Ezekiel. “Do it,” he ordered. “Don’t draw it out.”

Ezekiel smiled. He let his black-dog shadow burn through his body like fire. His bones twisted and thickened. Black claws extended from his fingertips. He stepped toward Grayson. Harrison turned his head away; Melanie sank to her knees, pressing her hands to her mouth. No one else moved. Grayson met Ezekiel’s eyes. He did not move or speak.

Ezekiel stared back at Grayson. He didn’t glance aside. But, as he passed close to Thos, he drove his claws straight across the Master’s back, tearing through his spine in one swift blow….Ezekiel did not wait to see what violent defense Thos might wring out of the last second of his life, but instantly following the first blow with another slashing cut across the Master’s belly and side, and then, almost before his body twisted around and began to fall, a third across his neck, a brutal blow that again tore across the spine.

Thos did not even have time to look surprised. His dense shadow roiled and twisted, abruptly freed, and his body hit the floor almost before the blood sprayed across the room.

Ezekiel took two precise steps back, away from Grayson, shifting from human to black dog and back again as he moved, letting his shadow carry away both the drenching blood and the hot rage between one step and the next…latant display of control no other Dimilioc wolf could match. He turned his shoulder to the three older Dimilioc wolves, holding a hand down toward Melanie instead. He was not smiling now. He was not trying to frighten anyone: he had let that go. He let everything go. He looked into Melanie’s face. She stared back, appearing stunned.

He said quietly, ignoring the other black wolves, “I’m sorry. I needed your fear and anger and blood. As a distraction, do you understand? I couldn’t let Thos realize I was afraid. But I am sorry.”

Melanie continued to stare at him, her eyes wide. Her gaze slid toward Thos’ body and jerked away as though the sight burned her.

“You saved yourself,” Ezekiel told her. “You said Thos was a terrible Master. I heard you. I asked myself, was that true? I had never… do you understand, I had never wondered that before?”
Melanie said nothing. She shook her head a little, not in denial, Ezekiel thought, but in disbelief of… just everything.

“You said people would follow Grayson. I could see that was true. I asked myself, would Dimilioc be different if Grayson was Master? And I could see it would be different. Better.”

Still no response.

Ezekiel backed away a step to give her a little more room. He said, even more quietly, “I saw there was this chance, tonight, if I chose to take it. So I did. But it was cruel for you. I am truly sorry.”

After another moment, Melanie uncurled slowly from her tucked-down self-protective posture. Reaching out, she let Ezekiel take her hand and lift her to her feet. He put a hand under her elbow to steady her. She seemed to need the support. “You’re all right,” he told her, hoping it was true.

“I…”

“Go let Daniel out. He’ll be glad to see you. Tell him…e stopped. Then he said, and heard the weariness in his own voice, “Tell him no one will step between you and him now.”

The mention of Daniel gave her new strength and assurance, and a new direction, as he had intended. She nodded firmly, pressed his arm once in wordless gratitude – he thought it was gratitude, though she might have just needed to catch her balance. Then she was gone.

Ezekiel turned to face Grayson. Zachariah and Harrison had spread out, one to either side, aware, as Melanie had not been, that the evening was not over. They were ready to attack or defend. So was Grayson. He had gotten to his feet at some point after Thos’ death and now stood regarding Ezekiel, his expression unreadable.

“Do you think you can take me?” Ezekiel asked him. “Even all of you together? Shall we find out?” He shifted his weight forward. Harrison immediately eased around to get behind him on the left, Zachariah moving to the right. Ezekiel’s shadow wanted to answer that implicit threat. It wanted the change and then the fight, blood and fire and death. It did not care who died as long as it wasn’t him.

Grayson’s eyes narrowed. His shadow rose, dark and powerful. As Thos had done, he let his shadow roll forward to flatten and smother Ezekiel’s shadow. Except, as they had both known, Grayson was not as strong as Thos Korte had been.

Ezekiel took a step forward. Another. His black-dog shadow rose around him. Not as smoothly or as fast as usual. But it rose. Grayson might hobble it, but he could not force it down. Ezekiel said softly, “It’s like walking through molasses. But I think I could still take you, even now, one on one. Possibly even all of you together.”

Grayson tilted his head. “What does that mean to you?”

Ezekiel met his eyes. “It means I’m too dangerous. You can’t trust me at your back.”

Heavy brows rose. “Thos certainly couldn’t trust you at his back, and he was much stronger than I. But I am not Thos.”

Ezekiel nodded slightly, acknowledging this. He said slowly, “I don’t want to fight you. I don’t want to kill you.”

“Then don’t.”

Grayson made it sound simple. There was nothing simple about it. Ezekiel glanced over his shoulder at his uncle. Zachariah met his gaze, wordless. Waiting. For a signal from Grayson, for a sign from Ezekiel himself? Ezekiel couldn’t tell. He said, though he didn’t know why it seemed important that he say it, “You were right, you know. I don’t want to kill you, either, uncle. If it came to a fight, you could slow me down.”

“That’s good to know,” said Zachariah, without detectable irony.

Ezekiel turned back to Grayson, took a step forward. Another. His black-dog shadow pressed him hard, wanting to rise, wanting to force the change. It drove him more fiercely than usual because the moment was so stiff with tension and the threat of violence. But Ezekiel held his shadow flat almost without effort, although Grayson was no longer trying to use his own power to smother it. He had learned to do that from Grayson, of course.

He dropped to his knees.

Showing no surprise, Grayson came forward the remaining small distance and set a hand on Ezekiel’s shoulder, closing his other hand around Ezekiel’s throat. His hands were nearly human, but blunter and broader than human hands, every finger tipped with a curved black claw.

Ezekiel did not move to evade Grayson’s grip. His heartbeat had picked up: he couldn’t help that, though he knew they could all hear it. Yet, though he was afraid of what Grayson would do, he found himself oddly unafraid of Grayson himself. He realized now – he had not understood it before – that he had always been afraid of Thos Korte.

He said, “Melanie was right. You’ll be a good Master for Dimilioc.” Then he waited.

But the pause lengthened, and Grayson did not tear out Ezekiel’s throat. He said, his deep voice unreadable, “I don’t want to kill you. Can I trust you at my back? I think I can. I think I might.”

“I killed Thos.”

Grayson’s heavy eyebrows rose. “I’m not Thos. Besides, Melanie trusts you.”

“Not any more – ”

“Of course she does.” Grayson gazed down at Ezekiel for a long moment. “I thought Thos had ruined you. Now… now I think not. Or I think you can choose not. I think you’ve chosen that now.”

Ezekiel turned this over in his mind. He said at last, “I don’t know about trust, or choice. I don’t know. But if you take Dimilioc, if you don’t kill me, we’ll both find out.”

Grayson continued to stare down at him for the space of a long breath. Then he lifted his hands and stepped back. He said, “Dimilioc is mine.”

Ezekiel got to his feet. No one tried to stop him. “It will never be the same,” he said, with just the faintest edge to his tone. He had meant to sound sarcastic. But as he made it, the statement sounded like a warning and a promise, and he knew it was true.