Gabriel couldn't manage a solid enough grip to turn the doorknob. His hand was slick with blood and other fluids he didn't have names for -- didn't want names for -- and it kept sliding off, until he heard quick footsteps on the other side and Grace threw the door open.
She immediately retreated, no doubt driven off by the stench. Gabriel's own nose had long since gone on strike, but the memory of the smell would probably haunt him for the rest of his life.
"Yeah, I know," he said, stepping over the threshold of the villa they'd been loaned for the duration of this case. It was the one thing he'd be sorry to say goodbye to; Tuscany was a damned sight nicer than Rittersberg. Pity his books weren't selling quite well enough to justify maintaining a beautiful Italian villa as well as a moldering German castle. I'd need about twelve more bestsellers to make that happen, he sighed inwardly, thinking of the bottomless pit of repair bills that was Schloss Ritter. Assuming I'd even survive twelve more. There was a distinct downside to using his real-life cases as inspiration for his novels.
By the time he kicked the door shut behind him, Grace had fled to the sitting room. When Gabriel followed, he found her pouring water from a pitcher into a basin. "Here," she said, pushing it across the table toward him, past her closed laptop. "You'll want to soak that before you try to clean it."
She wouldn't quite look at him, but gestured vaguely in his direction. After a moment, Gabriel realized she wasn't talking about his jeans and t-shirt -- they were a dead loss -- but the Schattenjäger medallion. Those unnameable fluids had glued it to his chest; he had to peel the heavy gold off his t-shirt, aching fingers slipping again, before he could drop it in the basin. The chain tried to take half his hair with it. God, what had that creature done to his hair?
"I was going to suggest we celebrate," Grace said, breathing more easily, adjusting to the epic mess. "But not while you look like that. Go shower, Gabriel, while I call Berlusconi and tell him the case is finished."
He was more than happy to let her take care of that. Gabriel didn't much like talking to their employer even when not coated in supernatural filth. Politicians set his teeth on edge. He detoured through the deserted kitchen long enough to grab a trash bag, then headed straight for the bathroom, where he stripped off his ruined clothes and set to work finding out just how large the villa's hot water heater was.
You never appreciate just how glorious it is to be clean until you get covered in demon goo, he thought wryly, giving his hair one last rinse. Grace kept insisting the thing wasn't really a demon, but whatever. Technical details were her business. Taking out the critters was his. Nights like this, he really thought she had the better end of that particular bargain.
His skin-crawling disgust ran out before the hot water did. Gabriel shut off the shower and got out to discover that apparently Grace had slipped in and out of the bathroom without him noticing; the trash bag had vanished, taking his slimy clothes with it, and a set of pajamas waited on the counter. Berlusconi's idea of pajamas, and the man was as bad a lecher as Herr Priess. Gabriel put on the pants, because it was that or a towel, but he refused to touch the shirt. There was only so much silk a man could be expected to wear at once.
The lack of the medallion made him feel more naked than the lack of a shirt did. He remembered the days when Gerde had to pester him to wear it. Not that long ago, either, but now he felt strange without its weight around his neck. Gabriel went back out to the sitting room, to see if it was clean yet.
He stopped cold in the doorway. Grace was there, but not tapping away on the keyboard like he half-expected, adding the details of tonight to that database she and her brother were cooking up. She'd changed out of her own clothes into another of Berlusconi's gifts, a short, silky robe that covered almost nothing of her legs and even managed to soften the severe lines of her hair. Given how the man had leered at her, she was lucky the robe covered that much -- but Gabriel's mouth went dry at the sight of her.
As if she could tell, Grace held up a pair of champagne flutes. "Now, where were we? Ah yes -- celebration."
Startled, he accepted the glass from her. This was probably Berlusconi's, too, which meant the bottle cost more than anything Gabriel had drunk in his life. Not that he could taste the difference. Not that he could taste much at all. Grace clinked her glass against his and he downed a sip by reflex, the fizz sliding down his throat to dance with the butterflies in his stomach.
"That's better," Grace said softly, brushing a damp strand of hair back from his cheek. God, she was tiny. Normally her manner made her seem six feet tall.
He let her guide him to a well-padded chair, which he sank into gratefully. Grace perched on the arm, close enough that the crimson silk brushed his arm. It exposed almost the entire length of her leg, too. "I'm sorry you had to go through that," she said.
"Yeah, well, it wasn't so bad," Gabriel said, lying through his teeth. "You, uh -- you want details?"
She shook her head, black hair swinging gently. "Maybe later. No point in making you relive it so soon. The important thing is, it's over, and you're safe."
He must have looked even worse than he thought, if Grace was taking pity on him like this. Normally she would have been trying to drill a hole in his skull, the better to drain information out. Gabriel gulped down more champagne.
"I was worried about you," Grace admitted, biting her lower lip. "You took so long to come back --"
"Maybe next time we'll do that radio idea of yours," Gabriel said. He'd resisted the suggestion before, saying he didn't want her yammering in his ear when he was trying not to die. Which was true, but not the whole story; he also didn't want her overhearing his unheroic panic and swearing. She already gave him a hard enough time as it was. And if she was safely out of harm's way herself -- which was exactly where he wanted her -- then what good would it do for her to listen to him in danger?
Somewhere in the course of that thought, he managed to empty his champagne flute, because Grace took the empty glass from his nervous fingers before he could drop it. "Would you like more?" she asked. He shook his head; the fizz seemed to have gone straight to his brain. "Good," Grace whispered, and then she set the glasses aside and kissed him.
It was exactly like he had always imagined, in the fantasies he prayed Gracie never guessed at, because she would kill him if she knew. Or maybe she wouldn't. She slipped down from the arm of the chair to settle across his thighs, a warm, light weight. Gabriel's left hand hovered for a moment, then did what it had always wanted to do: came to rest against her bare leg, and when she didn't protest, slid upward. Her own hand rose to cup his jaw as she leaned in for another kiss, slow, lingering, but with the promise of so much more to come. It was perfect --
-- and it was nothing like the real Grace Nakimura.
Like his fantasy of her, absolutely. But the upstairs brain, screaming desperately for the rest of him to pay attention, knew damn well Gracie would never come to him like this. Maybe would never come to him at all -- he couldn't be sure -- but the silk robe, the champagne, the tender concern for all he'd suffered, none of it was his hard-headed New York-bred research assistant.
He broke off the kiss, hands on her shoulders, pulse beating so hard in his throat she could probably see it. "Hang on a sec --" he said, lifting her up until she stood, whereupon he scrambled out of the chair.
"Is something wrong?" she asked, frowning with that same tender concern.
Gabriel floundered for something to say, anything that wouldn't raise suspicion, but in the end it was his eyes that gave him away. They flicked past her, to a table along the far wall, where the Schattenjäger medallion lay submerged in a basin of water. She saw it, and her face hardened: closer, but still not like the Grace he knew.
"Surprisingly few men," she said, "become suspicious, when given exactly what they desire. You have come a long way, Gabriel Knight."
"What have you done with Grace?" he demanded, in a voice that was supposed to be steady and didn't come out that way at all.
The creature spread its hands -- Grace's hands. Had it possessed her body? Or was this some kind of illusion? Damn it, he should have paid more attention to what Gracie, the real Gracie, had told him. All he could remember at the moment was that succubi weren't really demons. And apparently everything he had gone through tonight, taking out the one that had latched onto Berlusconi, had been some kind of trick.
"Be at peace," the creature said. "I haven't come to prey upon you. Only to make a deal."
Demon or not, that sounded like a very bad idea. "Go to hell."
"All I want is my freedom. Take what I offer, and let me go; you have my word that I will move on, and release the man you've chosen to defend. You will even have your Grace back, unharmed."
He'd let the medallion be taken from him so damned easily. Gabriel's inner monologue had become an uninterrupted stream of curses. Had all that reeking goo been a setup purely for this, to give "Grace" a reason to stay away from him until the medallion was safely removed?
"What you're offering ain't what I want," he said, his voice thick with anger. It was true, sort of. Okay, yes, he'd imagined exactly this kind of thing more times than he could count -- but always with the real Gracie, acting of her own free will. Even if that meant it wouldn't go anything like his fantasy. And if that was her body -- if she was possessed right now, and he took advantage of that . . . .
The succubus pouted its lips into a moue of disappointment, totally unlike any expression Grace would ever show. Gabriel's breathing eased. "Perhaps I should have been more subtle. Or, on second thought --" It cocked its head to one side, considering him. "Perhaps I should have been less."
Upon that word, the succubus' shape began to change. It grew taller, the shoulders broader, the black hair softening into a gentle curl. And Gabriel's heart tried to stop beating entirely.
"I might be more persuasive," Baron Friedrich von Glower said.
It took three tries for Gabriel to speak. "Oh yeah. Not subtle at all. Seeing as how he's dead."
Having started up again, his heart was beating madly against his ribs, as if trying to batter its way free. His memory obligingly offered up another tidbit from Grace's research: that succubi and incubi were actually the same thing, shifting to match their target's desires.
"I know," the succubus -- the incubus -- said. Christ, it had the voice down pat: resonant and deep, the perfect balance of velvet and steel. "I also know how badly you regret my death."
"Von Glower was a monster," Gabriel said violently.
"But unlike von Zell, I was not only a monster. You admired me, Gabriel -- admired my vision, the promise it held. A promise you destroyed."
He still felt it, some nights: the thud of body against body, the searing heat of the furnace as he knocked von Glower in. Nightmares he woke from, gasping. Now the man himself was standing there, saying the words even Grace didn't dare voice --
No. The creature in front of him wasn't Friedrich, however it talked; it only looked like the man. Looked exactly like him. But the appearance was enough to awaken all his guilt and regret, and that, as much as anger, twisted Gabriel's voice as he snapped, "You can't bring back the dead." It can't, right?
Regret shadowed Friedrich's face, softened his voice to a gentle caress. "No. But I can give you a moment that never was, except in your dreams. Do you remember Detta?"
Detta? Who the fuck was -- "Your friend," Gabriel said, the pronoun slipping out despite him. Von Glower's friend. But his unruly subconscious kept insisting von Glower was standing right there in front of him, immaculate suit and all. "She came over one night, when I was at y -- at Friedrich's house. I, uh -- I slept with her. What the hell does Detta have to do with anything?" A sudden, horrific thought came to him. "That wasn't you, was it?"
The incubus -- succubus; whatever -- threw back its head and laughed. Friedrich's laugh, merry and honest, and Gabriel's gut cramped at the sound. "No, no. An ordinary woman, I'm sure. No, Gabriel, think later."
Later. When Detta had gone away, leaving Gabriel mostly asleep in Friedrich's guest room, and then the door had opened --
A feather-light brush of fingers across the bare skin of his chest. Von Glower, lifting the Schattenjäger medallion to the light. Gabriel had feigned sleep, because he wanted to see what the man would do; Friedrich studied it a moment, showing no sign of the pain it surely must have inflicted on him, and then laid it down again. A soft touch in his hair, and then . . . .
"What happened afterward was only your dream. But it does not have to stay that way."
Those words came to rest in his mind, heavy with promise. A moment later, Gabriel realized they'd been murmured into his ear, that he'd closed his eyes at the memory and shit --
His eyes flew open again. Friedrich was right there, so close that if Gabriel took a deep breath they would touch. Panic sent him backward instead, three quick steps and then his shoulders smacked into the wall. Friedrich only smiled: the lazy smile of a predator with no fear that its prey can escape. Or wants to.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Gabriel said, which was just about the worst lie he'd ever told.
And Friedrich knew it, too. The smile deepened, carrying all the formidable charm he'd used to draw men to his side. "I can see men's desires, Gabriel. Whether you acknowledge them or not. You regret killing me -- necessary though it was -- because you regret the loss of what might have been. The bond between us, that could have been so much more. I wanted it to be more, and so did you; you want it still, and all the more intensely because it frightens you. Do you not remember my philosophy? That man is made stronger by listening to his primal instincts. What do those instincts tell you now?"
Gabriel couldn't have answered if he tried; his instincts were shrieking a dozen contradictory messages into his brain. Run and fight and please and impulses too basic for words. He remained paralyzed, pressed against the wall as Friedrich came closer, the taller man bending over him, close enough for lips to brush. "Free me," that perfect voice whispered, "and you will have what you wanted, and could not bring yourself to take."
His chin rose, face turning up to receive that promise. If the movement had been completed, Gabriel wouldn't have been able to stop; Friedrich was, always had been, the consummate alpha, born to bend others to his will. And Gabriel wanted to be bent. He wanted to forget, even if only for a few, illusory moments, that when he destroyed the monster he also destroyed the magnificent, charismatic man. Friedrich, who had understood and accepted the parts of him Gabriel didn't want Gracie to see, who made him believe there was strength in that darkness, if only he could learn how to use it.
The rage burst out of him with explosive force, howling up from the depths where he normally kept it chained. Gabriel slammed his hands into Friedrich's chest, driving him backward, and then he came off the wall with teeth bared in a snarl. "Get the fuck away from me."
He didn't have the Ritter dagger, but he didn't need it; right now, with the fury pulsing in his veins, his hands would have been enough. Tear the threat limb from limb, beat it to the ground until it troubled him no more. Against anything else, he could have done it -- but not that face, that voice. He'd killed Friedrich once. He couldn't do it again.
Friedrich -- no, the incubus -- must have known that, because it regained its composure with remarkable speed. "Interesting," it said, studying him with a combination of chagrin and surprised delight. "I was certain that would work; repressed desires are far more easily manipulated. In most cases. Tell me: why did you refuse?"
He could have given any number of answers. Because you did something to Grace. Because I was hired to kill you. Because you're a monster. But the rage heating his body was too honest for that, and so he spoke the simple truth. "I didn't show throat to Friedrich, however much I wanted to. I sure as fuck ain't going to show throat to some goddamned copy of him."
The incubus' expression faded down into something Gabriel didn't like at all. Speculative cunning, and far too much confidence for anyone's peace of mind. "Ah, yes. Of course. Let me make you a different offer, then --"
Gabriel was done listening to offers. He crossed the intervening space in one swift leap and seized the creature's throat, ready to find out whether Friedrich's height and broad shoulders translated to real mass or were just an illusion. Before he could, though, the incubus gasped out words that froze him where he stood.
"I can make certain no one ever learns your secret."
Gabriel's fingers tensed, but he didn't clamp down. Or let go.
"Grace. Gerde. Even your old friend, Moseley. Your beloved grandmother, back in New Orleans. Everyone you know, or meet -- none of them will ever know. I can promise you that."
"You're a goddamned sex demon. You're lying."
"I'm not a demon," the incubus whispered back, in Friedrich's all-too-persuasive voice, "and my power does not end with sex. I grant desires, Gabriel. And you desire this so very profoundly."
There wasn't any movement; he simply became aware of something, as if it had been there the whole time, and he somehow hadn't noticed. Grace, sprawled unconscious over the chaise against the far wall.
The sight of her made his throat close up. "She is unharmed," the incubus said, but that wasn't what Gabriel feared -- not the only thing he feared.
She did such amazing work on his behalf, digging through dusty old books and the wilds of the Internet to find out what he needed to know, putting together little fragments of information to form pictures Gabriel never could have guessed at. Without her, he wouldn't have survived his first day as Schattenjäger. And it satisfied her more than school ever would, he knew, using her knowledge and skill to help him hunt the shadows.
But you can't believe everything you read, Gracie. Just because somebody wrote it down, doesn't make it true.
He couldn't tell her that. She might leave; or worse, she might stay, thinking that if she just found another book, a better piece of information, she could make it all right. He didn't know which would be worse.
Gabriel redirected his snarl to the incubus. "So you're like a genie, huh, granting wishes? Then take it away from me."
"I can't," the incubus said. Calmly, as if they were discussing it over a couple of beers. "My influence goes beyond sex, but it ends at the mind; I can only control what people perceive, not their bodily nature. Besides . . . ." It still wore Friedrich's face, and those lips curved in a knowing smile. "You don't truly desire that. You still think you can turn what I taught you to good ends."
He thought that way because he didn't have any choice. It was that, or go mad -- or kill himself. But he'd rather do any of the three than tell Grace she had failed, or that he had failed her.
"If I let you go --"
"I leave," the incubus said immediately. "Berlusconi will live in peace -- free from my attentions, at least -- and I will not return to Italy for one hundred years. Nor come within sight of you again. Grace will wake up, unharmed, knowing nothing of what has happened between us, and you will never have to fear discovery, from her or anyone."
Meanwhile, it would go off and latch onto someone else -- but if what Grace had told him was true, incubi -- succubi; whatever -- weren't really that dangerous or destructive.
If what Grace had told him was true.
If what she read in her books was true.
It was a rationalization anyway, and Gabriel knew it. But it meant he'd already made his decision, and now was trying to justify it to himself.
The real reason is that you're a coward, Knight. You'll do whatever you have to, in order to keep Grace from knowing the truth.
The thought didn't shame him enough to stop him.
"Deal," Gabriel said, and opened his hand.
"Sorry, I must have dozed off while you were on your way back." Grace sat up, rubbing the side of her face where the button of a silk pillow had imprinted itself upon her skin. Must be the real Gracie, Gabriel thought. Slacks and a button-down blouse; no silk robe. Damn. He clung to the sour note so his knees wouldn't give out from relief.
"I'm terribly offended," he drawled, going to the far wall, where the Schattenjäger medallion gleamed gold in a basin of pristine, unsullied water. "Anybody would think you were the one chasing after a succubus tonight."
"Yeah, please, don't throw you into that briar patch!" The click of a laptop opening behind him, and the familiar rattle of keys. "Everything's taken care of, then? Great. I'll call Berlusconi and let him know we're done."
He opened his mouth to say they were in no rush, that it couldn't hurt to stay a few days longer in this nice, luxurious villa, but his teeth sank into his lower lip as his fingers touched gold. The familiar ache spiked up his hand and arm, the medallion rejecting the foulness that still permeated his body.
If the Alpha werewolf is killed -- through some action of the Beta -- the Beta's curse is broken.
According to the books. But Gabriel had knocked the black wolf into the furnace, burning Friedrich alive, and it hadn't cured him. Grace's research was wrong. Or it was the supernatural inheritance of the Schattenjäger line, making him not a beta at all, but an alpha in his own right.
The reason didn't matter, only the result. He was learning to control it. Bit by bit, starting with the medallion, until he could touch it without screaming, as Friedrich had done. There had to be truth in the hunting club's philosophy, the notion that the beast within could be a source of strength. That he could master it, and not become a monster.
If he could avoid damning himself to hell.
Gabriel forced his lips into a smile. Ludwig had done it, the pansy-ass bastard, at least for a while; a Schattenjäger could surely do better.
Slipping the medallion over his head, letting the weight of it burn pure against the skin of his chest, Gabriel turned to show that smile to Grace. "Hey, we're in Italy. Think they can make a decent pizza?"