Authors: J. C. Daniels
Tags: #Romance, #Fantasy, #Vampires, #Tagline… A knife in the dark
If I’d gotten an earlier start, I could have finished the job yesterday.
Still, we made good time, even with the stop to sleep. The hotel was fortified, protected by magic and expensive as hell. Everything in South Carolina was these days. In a few years, I figured the state would be a wasteland, home only to the vampires and surrounded by a magicked gate—assuming that tactical strike didn’t happen.
According to a witch I knew, there were already noises being made about the gate thing. It was a scary thought, though. Most of the vampires were civilized enough creatures because it benefited them, and because they’d been around long enough to learn control.
New ones were a different story.
The infestation in South Carolina had started after a few of the newer vamps had managed to slip away from their masters and then they’d gone on a rampage.
What would happen if a bunch of them got out? The thing about gates, and magic…sooner or later, everything could fail.
Thoughts like that kept me awake half the damned night and I was cranky as hell when I woke to smell coffee drifting through the air. Cranky, tired, hungry. A quick meal and two cups of coffee helped with the tired and the hungry, but I’d stay cranky until we were out of South Carolina.
Megan took care of the bill for the meal and the hotel. Good thing, because the price made me cringe.
As South Carolina slowly became a distant memory, the weight on my shoulders eased and I felt like I could breathe. I hated that state. Pitied the poor fools who persistently refused to leave and I wanted to smack the government officials who insisted they were getting a handle on the problem.
. The feel of so many vamps still crowded my mind, but it wasn’t a problem I could solve.
* * * * *
A little past ten in the morning, we found ourselves deep in the trees. The GPS had the coordinates for the pack programmed into it, but I didn’t need it anymore.
My skin was crawling, all but buzzing from the energy I could feel dancing in the air. As the road narrowed down to nothing, I glanced at the woman on the bike behind me. She pointed to the narrow shoulder of the road.
Well. I guess we were walking.
Autumn was a cool whisper in the air as I climbed out and the bright red and yellow of the leaves made a colorful backdrop. We’d have a picturesque hike as I hauled around my grisly little delivery. I hefted it the strap over my shoulder and shifted around to make sure I could drop it fast if need be. I could. With the strap over my left shoulder and my hand resting near the grip of my sword, I met Megan’s eyes. “Ready?”
“They won’t like you bringing a sword.” Megan eyed the blade critically.
“I’m on the job. I’m allowed to bring the weapons I normally carry.” I shrugged. “And I’m not a shifter so they can’t expect me to follow by their rules.”
I could have left the sword.
But I get damn tired of people telling me what they
She sighed and settled herself at my side. “Just don’t draw it.”
“Gee, and here I was planning on attacking the first person I saw. But if you think I should keep my cool…” I smirked a little as we started to walk.
I could feel them.
wrong here. My Banner contact hadn’t gotten back in touch with me, but I didn’t need any information to already figure out that something was wrong. I smelled death and decay and madness. It clung to the air like a disease, lining the inside of my nasal passages. A quick glance at Megan showed that she was catching the same thing, and probably ten times worse, but other than a faint crease between her brows, she gave no sign of being affected.
Hell, she had a
on her face.
smile, but she was smiling, nonetheless. Like she was out shopping instead of clomping through the trees while I hauled around a couple of heads.
Off to the side, I saw a furred hide dart behind a tree. Too tall to be a wolf, unless they grew them six feet at the shoulder here, which wasn’t likely. Wonderful. Even on their own turf, none of the packs I’d ever dealt with would be running around in that form with a human around, at least not right off the bat. I had no doubt they’d assume I was human. Almost everybody did, at first.
Something fucked up going on here, huh, Damon
I should have called Banner again.
Even as that thought echoed through my mind, I heard a howl drifting through the trees. The sound of it sent goose bumps breaking across my flesh. That, of course, only pissed me off. It had been a long, long time since the sound of a wolf’s howl in the distance had freaked me out.
But then again, I wasn’t sure I’d ever been surrounded by this much…death…before.
This much decay.
It was everywhere.
Still, my fear wasn’t going to help me any and I knew it. Swallowing back the bitter taste of it, I reached for that mental place of calm and started to focus.
I am aneira.
My sword arm is mighty.
I will not falter.
I will not fail.
My aim is true.
My heart is strong…
My heart is strong…
I told myself that even as the damned thing kept trying to rabbit out of my chest.
Over the past four months, Damon’s been trying to work with me on controlling it.
Baby girl, that fear might be the death of you. You spend too much time around shifters and they respond to fear the way a shark responds to blood. Even if you don’t
it, you smell of it.
And right now, I knew I was throwing it off bad.
My heart is strong. My heart is strong
I pictured myself with Damon.
Pictured him with me.
The strength of him.
Pictured my sword. I had
with me and even just thinking of her calmed me.
“Whatever you’re doing, keep it up. Your heart rate is slowing and that’s a good thing.”
I tuned Megan’s voice out, kept focusing.
Calming thoughts. Strengthening thoughts.
My heart is strong
By the time I saw another furred hide appearing through the trees, I was steady again. Or as steady as I was going to be.
This one had fully shifted and was down on all four paws, watching me with distrustful yellow eyes. He was so damned skinny, his bones jutted out against his pelt and there was something about his eyes that bothered me. Even in their other state, when a were looked at me, I could usually see some sign of their human self. They weren’t human, but they still possessed that part in some way. That intelligence. A comprehension. Something.
But looking into his gaze, it was like there was nothing there…except hunger, and a lot of fear.
The musk of fear filling the air all but choked me. Too much to be coming from just one wolf, I knew. Sliding my gaze to the right, I watched the trees until another one slipped forward. Followed by another and another. Fifteen in all.
They stood there, staring at me for a long moment and then they turned and started to walk.
Glancing at Megan, I said, “I guess that means they want us to follow.”
“Yep. That’s my take.”
Shifting the cooling unit around, I sighed. Hopefully, it wouldn’t be too much farther. The damn thing wasn’t heavy but it was awkward as hell.
* * * * *
Twenty minutes. Up one majorly massive hill but I made it up easy enough. I’d done hikes like this back when I’d been a kid, although they weren’t considered
exercises and I’d often been running and dodging attacks the entire time. It wasn’t fun, but I made it and wasn’t even winded when we reached the top.
And that was it.
The rest of the wolves were there. I was even pretty certain this was the entire pack.
Forty-six of them, I counted, including those already in wolf form gathered around us. MacDonald had told me the pack only had forty-eight members. The heads of two were in the cooling unit.
“I have a message for the pack leader,” I said, dumping the unit at my feet. “My name is Kit Colbana. I’m on official business from the pack in East Orlando.”
A skinny kid, just barely out of his spike if that edgy energy around him was any indication, stood. A smile slanted his lips. He might have been a good-looking kid at some point, but the cruelty and the crazy on him had eaten away at that. The only thing I saw on him now was
. I looked at him and saw somebody I’d either stay the hell away from or kill.
As he came prowling toward me, my palm started to itch.
“We don’t listen to human whores from that pack,” he said. “But if you want to be
I looked away. “I’m on official business. I’m a registered member for the Assembly and this contract was also duly registered. I’m expected to check back in with them in…” I checked my watch and then smiled. “Roughly two hours. If I do not, a Banner unit will dispatched to check on me. If I’m not found, your mountain will be searched and any wolf on it will be exterminated. No questions asked.”
He snorted. “Humans don’t get registered…and stupid humans should know better than to come onto wolf land.”
He took another step.
Sighing, I shifted my attention to him. “You don’t want to come any closer, kid.”
“Oh, yes I do…”
I drew my sword before he’d managed to take another step. As the silver kissed his flesh, he yelped.
All around, people shifted.
Megan lost her skin.
As she went from a lovely, graceful brunette to a monster, trapped between human and wolf, I twisted my sword, watched as the silver bit into his flesh. Smoke drifted up from it as he whined, frozen in place by the shock of it. Never felt silver before, it seemed. Badly trained, stupid.
What were they were doing up here? He had to have seen the blade…what did he think I was carrying her for? Looks?
“Again. I’m here on official business and I’m a member of the Assembly. That means…”
“It means you ain’t human.” A voice spoke from the crowd. “It also means you’re afforded certain protections, bitch, but if you harm my boy, those protections are rendered void.”
Ahhh…there’s the pack leader. From the corner of my eye, I watched as he came striding my way. “Please take note, I told him not to take another step and he did so anyway. I carried my sword in plain view and he ignored it. Now…I’ll put the blade away when you tell him to step back.”
Growls rose in the air around me.
Megan was the one who decided things. She cleared her throat and damn if that’s not an odd thing to hear from a creature that’s almost seven feet tall, covered in gray fur and looks like something out of a nightmare. And although her voice was a deep bass growl, her tone was still so very polite. “If I may…Kit. You’re wearing a bracer. Please remove it.”
I would have glared at her if I dared to look away from those in front of me. “Not the time, Megan.” And how the hell
“Oh, it’s exactly the time.” And her clawed hand struck, slicing through the leather cord that held the bracer in place. I managed, barely, not to flinch as the bracer fell to the ground.
“I’d like to ask you all to look at Ms. Colbana’s left wrist. What do you see?” Megan said, her voice calm and cool, despite the fact that she sounded like something out of a nightmare.
If I wasn’t so busy staring down the idiot kid in front of me, I would have glared a hole through her hairy head. No. Forget
a hole. I would have
a hole somewhere in her furry hide.
The boy’s eyes shot to my wrist.
To the bite marks left there by Damon.
“I was sent as her…companion,” Megan said. “Because my alpha doesn’t wish to cause unrest between my pack and the cat clan should anything happen to Ms. Colbana. The Alpha would be so very pissed.”
“Why would the cat Alpha give a fuck?” the kid demanded.
The pack leader swore. “Shit, boy. Who the fuck do you think marked her wrist?”
He summarily jerked his son away with enough force that the kid went flying across the small clearing. I turned my head and stared at Megan. She shrugged.
Nothing to be done for it now. After I snagged my bracer, I stepped back from the cooling unit. I was
opening that thing, nor was I touching the nasty presents inside. “You have something in there,” I told him, nudging the grisly container with one foot.
He stared at me. “Well. Open it.”
I just tugged a cloth from my back pocket and cleaned the small bit of blood from the tip of my blade. That done, I slid her back into the sheath. She went back with a disgruntled sigh. She’d wanted a fight—I could tell. My weapons liked a good bloody brawl, the bloodier the better and they didn’t have much sense. It didn’t
that Megan and I wouldn’t have been able to fight our way free of this many wolves.
He growled at me.
I just stood and waited.
Finally, he glanced at one of the women and she came scurrying. Literally, chin tucked to her chest, shoulders hunched, like she was trying to make herself seem as small as possible.
Once she had it open, she dashed away, like she couldn’t stand to be any closer to him than she had to be.
I couldn’t blame her.
I sensed the energy shifters carried. Actually, it wasn’t just confined to shifters. I could peg a shifter, a witch, a vamp, a human…and just about anything else with just a look. It had to do with the energy that wrapped around them. Their souls. All of it.
And this guy’s soul was dark and dirty, the energy of his beast a dirty, snarling thing like a rabid monster, crouching and ready to bite.
As he looked down, I braced myself.
A snarl escaped him as he bent over and hauled the heads out, one in each fist.
“You dare…?” he whispered, staring at me through near colorless lashes.