Darkness Awakened

Darkness Awakened: Legends Of A Dark Empire

 Merciless Obsidian never met a rogue vampire he wasn’t eager to assassinate. Until the beautiful Kayla Chandler enters his life. Her courage touches a part of him he thinks lost forever—his heart.  When the vampire empress orders Obsidian to murder Kayla, he refuses and they flee west toward the only shelter against the Dark Empire…a legendary stronghold which may be more fable than fact.

 

Darkness Awakened

Tori Minard

Copyright © 2012 by Tori Minard

Cover Image by Tori Minard from photos by © Chaoss , © Dmytro Konstantynov , //© Shirophoto, © Mariia Komar , © Akv2006

This story is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places and incidents are invented by the author or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any similarity to actual persons or events is purely coincidental. All rights are reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written consent of the author. 

 

 Chapter 1

Jefferson, Pennsylvania

Two hits down and one to go. Daranda really needed to find him more challenging targets. Things were working out so well, he was ahead of schedule. Thunder rumbled in the sky behind the assassin as he hung a left, cutting across the shabby landscaped central court of the faux French-country style apartment complex where his current target lived.

He ran his finger under the studded black leather of the collar around his neck. A collar for the Empress’s Guard Dog, a reminder to all who looked on him that if they ever chose to betray Daranda, his was the last face they’d see. If he didn’t think her Seer would discover his disloyalty, he’d take the damned thing off and toss it in the nearest trash can.

None of the buildings in the complex seemed to have working air conditioning—not surprising in a poor neighborhood like this. No-one lived here if they could afford something better. Hell, half the people in the complex probably didn’t have a full-time job, or if they did it paid no more than minimum wage.

Windows stood open to the muggy summer air, and his vampire hearing easily picked up every muttered obscenity, every moan of sexual pleasure, every slap of a parental hand on an undefended cheek. He could smell them, too, sweating in the heat, their blood pulsing in veins that begged for the attentions of his fangs. But drinking would have to wait. He had a job to do.

He paused in the unlit courtyard and peered up at Building #3 of the Riviera Estates. The target lived on the third floor, and should be at home according to his usual schedule. Go through a window or try for the front door? The window was more likely to be unlocked, and since the court had no lighting he could just fly up there unobserved. In and out in a matter of minutes, then knock off for the rest of the night, have a few beers, find a willing woman for a fuck and a sip of the blood he craved.

Obsidian levitated gently into the air and ascended the outside wall of Building #3. The hair on the back of his neck stood up straight as a powerful sense of being watched came over him. The watcher, however, wasn’t human. Lightning flashed over his head with a deafening boom and the feeling dissipated.

Something in one of the cheap aluminum-frame windows on the second level caught his eye. He paused, hovering. The room he peered into was a dining nook off the beat-up kitchen of the apartment. A girl stood with her palms over her head and flat against the wall of the room as the rest of the family sat in the attached living room and watched TV.

Her cheeks were hollow, and purplish circles underscored huge, pale-blue eyes fringed with sooty black lashes. Her black hair hung so thin it looked like she was going bald, and her skin had a yellow, sickly cast to it. She was as skinny as a famine victim. She could have been any age from twelve to seventeen.

What the hell? Why did they have her standing against the wall like that? Nobody else in the apartment looked like they were starving. He frowned, momentarily forgetting his mission.

The girl had a distant expression on her face, as if she wasn’t fully in the room. Her arms trembled. She wore low-rise shorts that hung on her bony frame, the points of her hips poking at the skin above the waistband. A fan running on the table blew a whiff of her scent to him. She was ill, feverish, probably suffering from an infection of some kind.

Her illness and emaciation should have made her ugly. Instead she had a kind of strange, luminous beauty, like an alien woman from a far-away planet. The way she stared seemed to call to him, as if she were silently asking him to rescue her. He stared at her through the open window, wanting to reach out and touch her poor, bony shoulder.

A middle-aged woman with long, black hair came into the room, her lips a thin line. She glared at the girl and smacked her in the back of the head. “Straighten those arms. You’re slipping.”

Wordlessly, the girl obeyed.

The assassin’s hands tightened into fists at his sides. She shouldn’t treat the girl like that. Something about the teen’s patient endurance of the abuse made his gut churn. Made him want to hurt someone, preferably the woman who seemed to be responsible.

But it wasn’t his business. Wasn’t anything he wanted to get involved in.

“Sheila, we got any ice cream?” bellowed a masculine voice from the floor above.

Obsidian glanced up. He had to make this last hit. Daranda kept careful track of his work, and if he slipped up there would be consequences for everyone involved. Even the target would suffer. More.

You’re a killer, not a rescuer. Don’t forget it.

He resumed his ascent, pausing again at an open window on the third floor. It led into a messy bedroom, with clothes and dirty dishes strewn all over the floor and the bedding half off the bed. The stink of stale sex and moldy food permeated the room. Obsidian grasped the sill and slipped easily inside.

Sauntering past the piles of filth, he emerged into a short hallway. The front section of the apartment reeked of cheap pizza and beer, which was an improvement on the bedroom but not by much. The sound of cage fighting blared from the TV.

The target sat in the living room, shirtless, his skinny chest stark white, his hair in greasy strings to his shoulders. What a winner. Why was it that these amateur vamp wannabes always looked like their next step up in life was a box under a bridge?

Okay, technically they were real vamps, not wannabes. But they were self-made, they hadn’t taken Daranda’s blood or paid their dues, they didn’t know what the fuck they were doing. And that’s why they had to go.

Are you sure about that? After all, what’s this idiot ever done to you? He snorted under his breath. Yeah, he was sure, and if he ever had doubts, Daranda’s torturers would be happy to show him the error of his ways.

Sid walked into the guy’s living room and smiled. The new vamp jumped out of his threadbare brown recliner so fast the thing toppled over behind him. His jaw hung open and his face lost the last little bit of color it had.

“What the fuck are you?” he said in a strangled voice.

“Honey, what’s going on?” said a woman’s voice in the kitchen.

“Tell her it’s okay,” Obsidian said quietly.

“I-it’s okay, baby,” the guy yelled.

“Good.”

“Who are you? What are you doing in my apartment?”

“I’m a real vampire, Brad.” Sid let his fangs descend. Then he opened his mouth wide. “We don’t like little fucks like you who try to go it alone.”

The reek of urine filled the air and a dark stain appeared on the front of the guy’s denim shorts. “Please. I didn’t know.”

“And now you do.” He slipped up to the target, so fast the poor fuck probably couldn’t even see him move. Put his hands on either side of the guy’s head. “Good night, Brad.”

Sid gave the target’s head a quick twist to one side. The spinal bones cracked as they pulled apart. He kept twisting until the target’s head came off, strings of flesh dangling from the stump. Sid grabbed it as it listed to one side. The man’s body fell backward over the upended chair. He set the head, its mouth slowly opening and closing, on the target’s lap.

Behind him, a woman screamed. Obsidian turned. A young blonde stood in the doorway to the kitchen, a bowl of ice cream covered in fudge sauce in her hands, her mouth open in one long shriek. She wasn’t a vampire. He could tell by her scent.

Sid pressed on her mind with the power of his. “Shut up.”

She quit screaming.

“Don’t be stupid and do what Brad did. If you turn yourself into a vampire, I’ll have to kill you, too. Got it?”

She nodded with a whimper. For an instant, he saw himself through her eyes, and wanted to howl.

Sid clenched his hands. “Good. You can call the police now. “Normally he’d take the body and leave it in the sun somewhere, maybe the top of a building, to destroy the evidence. But this kill was supposed to be a warning to others.

How’s it supposed to warn them, huh? It’s not like there’s a national association for rogue vampires to put out the word. Daranda just wants to stir up the humans and make them wet their pants.

Dismissing the dangerous thought, he strode down the hallway, through the bedroom and climbed out the window. In the apartment, the woman was dialing the cops. Her fingers made soft, panicky noises on the buttons of her phone.

The air outside the apartment smelled sweet in comparison with the stench inside. Obsidian took a deep breath as he began an easy descent to the ground. As he passed the second story window, he paused and glanced inside.

She wasn’t there anymore. The dining room was empty, although the fan still blew the hot air around. He could hear the TV playing in another room—some kind of detective show, from the sound of it.

He shrugged. She was none of his concern, just some puny human who wouldn’t live above eighty or ninety years anyway. Why should he care what happened to her?

 

His favorite nightclub was just getting started when he arrived. Obviously his unusual luck tonight was holding. There wasn’t even a line of people out front waiting to get in. Sid found a table at the edge of the dance floor and ordered a whiskey. Beer just didn’t feel strong enough tonight.

On the floor, an early clutch of humans did their bump and grind in the darkness, the movements intimate but their faces remote. He knew just how they felt. His whole life was a series of intimate encounters devoid of real connection.

As he drank his whiskey and watched the dancers, he couldn’t get that young human girl out of his head. Her pinched little face and form made her look like a grotesque, sorrowful elf … with lovely, haunting eyes. That woman, probably her mother, beat and starved her. The bitch. What was wrong with her, that she’d treat her own daughter that way?

Christ, why should I care? I’m a killer, not a social worker.

He didn’t even belong in her world. The only time he interacted with humans directly was to buy something from them, drink their blood, fuck them or kill them. His kind gave the humans nightmares.

Now that he was here, he didn’t want to be. What he needed was to get a little blood donation, then go home and have a drink in the peace and solitude of his apartment. He’d forget about the pathetic black-haired girl, forget about his job, forget everything.

On the dance floor, an over-endowed twenty-something with garish blonde highlights and a fake tan smiled at him while she gyrated to the beat. Her lips looked fake, too. Maybe the whole woman had come out of a box, like a high-quality blow up sex doll.

That one would let him have as much blood as he required, without any work on his part. He smiled back at her, lifting his glass in a salute. Her partner seemed oblivious to the exchange, moving clumsily, probably already drunk.

Obsidian got up and stalked onto the dance floor, the humans melting back as he approached. All except the blonde. Her partner had disappeared, ceding the floor to him. He put his arms around the woman.

She laughed up at him. “I was hoping you’d come over.”

Sid slipped into her mind so easily he could almost believe she’d invited him in. “Let’s get some fresh air.”

“Sure.”

They walked to the door together, Sid’s arm around her waist. She had a hard body, toned in a gym no doubt, and smelled like the newest trendy perfume all the young human women wore. He didn’t know what it was called, but he smelled it everywhere he went. It made his nose wrinkle.

Outside, the breeze blew some of her obnoxious scent away. He led her to a shadowy area on the side of the building, a place no sensible woman would go with a stranger. They were out of view of the main street and the entrance to the club; he could do anything he wanted to her and no-one would ever know. The blonde leaned against him, giggling, with no sign she thought she was in any danger.

Of course, she wasn’t. He had no intention of killing her.

She went up on her toes to press her lacquered lips to his mouth. “Mmm, I knew you’d taste good.”

Sid broke away to lick the side of her neck. This made her giggle again, as she tilted her head to the side to give him better access. Perfect. He flooded her mind with sexual desire just as he stabbed his fangs into her vein. She didn’t even whimper.

The blood slid hot down his throat, bringing energy and a sharper mind with it. He should have done this last night, instead of waiting until after the hits were finished. It was always better to eliminate his targets when his blood hunger was recently sated. Made him even colder, more calculating.

Releasing the blonde, Sid wiped a few drops of blood from her neck. She gazed up at him with a little frown creasing her brow. “What did you do that for?”

“Forget me,” he said, still pressing on her mind with his own. “Go back inside and find the guy you were dancing with.”

Her eyes glazed over. She turned and walked slowly toward the front of the building without looking back at him, taking her cloud of perfume with her. In a few minutes, she wouldn’t even remember that she’d been outside.

Sid tilted his head back and stared at the sky. The lights of downtown Jefferson drowned out the stars, except for a handful of the brightest ones. He could see Vega at the moment, a tiny bluish pinprick overhead, and that was about all. So far away. Cold, remote, untouched.

The black-haired girl appeared again in his mind’s eye. She’d smelled not of perfume but of sweat and sickness.

Christ. I’m going to have to do something about her or I’ll never get her out of my head.

He had plenty of time before dawn, so he might as well get this nonsense over with tonight. Backing deeper into the shadows, he took to the air. Jefferson passed beneath him in a blur as he made his way back to the Riviera Estates. Luckily for him—and the girl—the complex was only about a mile away from the club by air.

Cop cars still gathered around the front entry of the building, a few of them with lights flashing blue and red. Men and women in dark blue uniforms passed in and out, carrying small plastic bags, talking on cell phones, interviewing other humans who didn’t wear uniforms. They didn’t even think to look up as he glided overhead.

The window of the apartment where the girl lived was still open. He paused outside, listening. The TV still yammered in the living room. From somewhere deeper inside came the rhythmic smack of someone hitting an object. A stifled moan.

The woman was beating her.

Didn’t the humans have government agencies, child protection or something like that, to help kids like her? Where were they when she needed them? What good was child protection if it couldn’t protect her? God only knew how many other kids were suffering like this, in silence, brutalized by the people who should love them and care for them.

It was none of his business and he didn’t give a damn anyway. He didn’t know these people, didn’t give a shit what they did to each other. They were only humans, after all. But he climbed through the window and stood in the darkness of the cramped dining nook and watched.

From here, he could see part of the living room. The stench of impending death hung over the room, as if the cramped apartment were permeated with it. How could these people not smell that? A dark-haired girl and boy, probably in the same age range as the black-haired girl, sat on the dingy shag carpet staring at the screen. They weren’t starving, though. They looked completely normal, well-fed, maybe even slightly plump.

A man with a beer belly and a comb-over lounged on the sofa behind them. He looked up and saw Obsidian, shock in his piggy eyes. The man jumped to his feet, surprisingly fast for such an ungainly body.

Sid held up a hand, using his mind to control the humans. “Quiet.”

None of them spoke. He walked past them, following the sound of the beating. It came from one of the three bedrooms in the apartment, the one with the closed door. Sid opened it and looked inside. What he saw and smelled wiped his mind blank for a moment.

The bedroom reeked of blood and infected flesh. It held one twin bed, covered with a ruffled pink comforter and bedskirt with white lace trim. Stuffed animals were piled on top, and a poster of kittens hung behind it in lieu of a headboard.

On the floor on the other side of the room, well away from the bed, was a kind of pallet made of several layers of cardboard. The girl lay face down on this pallet, completely naked. The woman from earlier bent over her with a belt, beating her with the buckle end. The girl’s back looked like hamburger, the smell of blood thick in the air. Bright crimson spatters decorated the grayish white walls next to the pallet.

Obsidian’s stomach twisted and he began to tremble with rage. The woman glanced up at him. Her mouth opened to scream.

“Quiet.” His voice sounded icy and calm. As if he didn’t care. As if this were merely a matter of curiosity to him. But his fangs itched to descend, to take blood from this beast of a woman. No. He didn’t have time. He could hear the faintness of the girl’s breath, so slow and quiet it was barely audible even to him. If he didn’t get her to someone with medical skill, she would die.

“You’re killing her. Why?”

The woman’s lips pinched together in a white line. “I’m not killing her! And she’s my daughter. How I discipline her is none of your business.”

Sid crouched next to the girl and laid his fingers against her neck. Her skin felt scalding hot, her pulse thin and thready, barely hanging on. Not two hours before, he’d murdered a man. Before that, he’d offed a couple of others. Now he sat with this nearly dead girl and wished he could give her life back to her.

It was so easy for a vampire to kill. Especially him, a professional killer for two hundred years. But saving a life, now that took some skill. Skill he didn’t have. However, he knew some people who might be able to help.

One life to balance the countless ones he’d taken.

“What’s her name?”

“B-britney.” The woman was shaking now, her eyes—so similar in color and shape to those of her daughter’s—round with fear.

“How old is she?”

“S-sixteen. W-who let you in here?” she demanded. “Who are you? What do you want?”

He looked her right in her pale blue gaze. “I’m Death, and I’ve come for you.”

She gaped at him, her mouth opening and closing just like Brad’s had. “You—you—”

“You deserve to die for what you’ve done. But I’m taking your girl instead. When I’m gone, you’ll go downstairs to the police and tell them exactly what you did to your daughter. You will confess to murdering her. Do you understand?”

“No—I can’t—there’s no b-body—”

“Then I’ll come back tomorrow night and take your head from your shoulders. I can pull it off with my bare hands. Does that work better for you?”

She seemed unable to reply, her mouth still opening and closing without any sound.

He scooped the girl into his arms, trying to avoid putting any pressure on her wounds. She moaned, but her eyes didn’t open. She was going fast. Sid carried her from the bedroom, still face down so as not to further injure her back. The three people in the living room stared at him as he passed through their home. None of them said a word.

He couldn’t go out the front door because of the cops. The window would have to do, although hauling the girl through it might worsen her injuries. Sid paused between the living and dining rooms and jerked his chin toward the man.

“You. Come here.”

The human lumbered toward him. Sid held out the girl. “Carry her until I tell you to give her to me.”

The human nodded dreamily. He was exceptionally easy to control, and strong. Very convenient.

Sid led the way to the dining room window. He climbed out and hovered there. The human male watched without a trace of surprise.

Laying his arms across the windowsill, Sid beckoned to the human. “Put her in my arms now.”

The man obeyed. She was so light that even with his arms extended in this awkward position, she felt like nothing but a down-filled pillow. Or, given her emaciation, a bundle of twigs.

The human still stared at him. Sid met his gaze. Should he wipe their memories? If he did, it would blunt their need to obey him and turn themselves in. Besides, they’d be too scared to run to the cops with a story of a floating vampire, and no-one would believe them if they did. He let their memories remain.

He turned his back on the man, gliding away from the building. An explosion blasted the air and something slammed into his back, knocking him off-kilter. Looking down at himself, he could see a red stain blossoming on the front of his jacket. An exit wound. Shit. That idiot had shot him.

Obsidian zoomed away into the blackness above the apartment house. Below him, the cops were shouting and running into the building, guns drawn. He paused long enough to look at the apartment window, but all he could see was the human male holding a handgun and staring at it like he didn’t know how it had gotten there.

The injury in his back closed up, the speed of his healing fueled by the blood he’d taken earlier. Luckily, the bullet had passed completely through him, so he wouldn’t have to worry about digging it out. The whole incident was messed up, though. That human shouldn’t have had so much fight in him.

Maybe it was the woman who fired the shot. And then what? She handed the gun to her man in order to incriminate him? He snorted in disgust. She seemed like the type who’d do something like that.

The wind created by his flight whipped the strands of the girl’s hair, exposing acres of white scalp. Her little body shivered in his arms. The sound of her heartbeat slowed even more. He could feel her giving up, drifting away.

She wasn’t going to hold on long enough for him to get help. He thought of her dying, slipping away into whatever it was that awaited humans on the other side. Maybe that was best for her. She would feel no more pain, no more humiliation, no more terror.

Yet she wouldn’t feel joy, either. Didn’t she deserve to feel joy, after what that monster had done to her?

The girl gave a little sigh, almost inaudible even to his vampire ears. He didn’t have time to get her to a hospital emergency room, let alone marshal the human guardians he had in mind for her. She had no time for anything now but a cold grave. Unless he took action…forbidden action.

Sid looked beneath him for a short-term hiding place. They were still in the thick of Jefferson. Parking lots, alley ways, roof tops too slanted to stand on, streets and more streets… wait. There, a tiny graveyard behind a small church that looked almost as old as he was. He descended unsteadily into the midst of the headstones, blood loss from the bullet wound making him a little weaker than usual.

A floodlight mounted on the back wall of the church sent glaring light into the cemetery. An enormous granite monument with a winged figure on the top dominated the plot. Sid whipped around to its other side, putting the edifice between him and the church building. A weeping angel carved in white marble gazed down at him mournfully from the top of the monument.

He turned the girl so that his arm supported her upper back. She gave a low moan when he touched her injured flesh, and Sid gritted his teeth in guilt and sympathy. He was causing her more pain, but it was necessary.

Her poor body didn’t even look like that of a teenager. Her breasts were tiny, mere buds, her stomach pitifully shrunken, the ribs standing out like barrel staves. Her mother must have been starving her so long she’d stunted her growth.

“I’m going to give you something that will help you get well,” he said.

Her eyes opened and she stared at him in dull incomprehension.

Sid lifted his wrist to his mouth, willing his fangs to descend. What he was about to do was forbidden in the Dark Empire. The only vampires who engaged in this practice were the West Coast renegades who followed Daranda’s enemies Niko and Laila. His blood would create a bond between him and the girl, connecting them on a deep psychic level for the rest of the human’s life. It would be awkward, maybe even dangerous, but worth it. She would live.

He slashed his wrist with his fangs, letting the blood well up before holding the wound over the girl’s mouth. Blood dripped onto her closed lips.

“Open up for me, little one. Open your mouth.”

Her lips parted, revealing two missing teeth. Knocked out? Or lost due to malnutrition?

“Good girl. A little wider.” Now the blood landed on her tongue.

How much should he give her? He didn’t want to turn her—not that he could do it this way, but taking too much of it might have strange consequences for her. There were stories….

He pulled his arm away. “Good. Now swallow.”

Her throat worked, but not enough to get the blood down. Some of it dribbled out. Sid wiped the drops away and urged her jaw shut. He stroked her throat until she swallowed. The sound of her heartbeat strengthened.

“It’s working, little one. You’re going to be alright.”

A door slammed open. “Is somebody out there?” yelled a man’s voice.

Sid froze. Time to leave.

“This is private property, “the fellow hollered. “And sacred ground. You get outta here before I call the police.” He shut the door, muttering that kids these days had no respect for the dead and he was going to teach them a lesson they wouldn’t forget.

He would come back with a big flashlight, maybe a stick, and search among the grave markers, his intention so powerful even Sid—who had little telepathic ability—could pick up the thought. They had to leave now. Sid yanked off his jacket and shirt, pulling both over the girl’s head. Her arms felt like sticks when he drew them through the sleeves, and the garments were so big on her it looked like they had swallowed her whole. But at least her back would have a little protection and she wouldn’t be so cold.

“I’m taking you to some friends, people who can help.” He gathered her into his arms again, facing upward this time.

Her eyes were open, her gaze fixed on something behind him. “Angel,” she whispered.

He glanced over his shoulder at the monument. The angel’s wings spread in silhouette against a fat white moon.

“That’s right.” He kissed the girl’s forehead. “You have an angel looking out for you.”

A few years ago, he’d saved a woman—Susan Chandler—from death at the hands of a pack of vampires who killed for sport, in defiance of Imperial law. She was a nurse, living on a small farm just beyond the suburbs. She’d be able to help this girl, Britney. And she owed him.

Sid took his bearings from the few stars he could see in all the light pollution of the city and headed out in the direction of the farm. They were still in a bind. Britney struggled just to keep her heart going, just to keep breathing. She needed help fast.

The amount of blood he’d given her would allow her to hang on long enough to get proper medical attention, but it wouldn’t be a miracle cure. She still needed a hospital, and she needed someone in the human world to look after her and fight for her. Susan Chandler would be that person.

The suburbs passed beneath them in rivers of streetlights and headlights and the stench of exhaust. Then the houses began to thin out, the streetlights disappeared, and they were in the country. He could smell horses and cows, corn and alfalfa.

Sid looked down to see a large white house beneath him. That looked like the right place. It had a cupola on top with a weather vane shaped like a pig with wings. Some human’s idea of a joke, he guessed. He descended rapidly and hit the ground in front of the front porch with a thump.

The door opened as he dashed up the steps. A slender woman looked out. She had golden hair down to her waist, and a face that looked twenty-five years old at the most, but Sid knew she was around forty. She frowned at him.

“Obsidian. What are you doing here?”

“I brought you someone. She’s been hurt. I hoped you could help her.” He lifted the shirt and jacket to display the human’s wounds.

The woman stepped out onto the porch. She glanced down at the girl’s back and sucked in a shocked breath.

“Who did this to her?”

“Her mother.”

“My God. We’ve got to get her to the hospital.”

“Don’t let her family get her back.”

“I’ll call the police, get child welfare involved. Then I’ll call my lawyer. We’ll keep her mother away from her.”

Sid managed a nod. “Thank you, Susan. I knew you’d come through for me.”

Susan shrugged. “I owe you my life.”

Her husband, Mark, came to the door and peered around her shoulder. “What’s going on?”

“Obsidian brought us an abused girl.”

Mark leaned over his wife to take a closer look at Britney under the harsh glow of the porch light. “Jesus Christ. What did they do to her?”

Sid’s throat felt painfully tight. “Beatings and years of starvation.”

“I’ll call an ambulance,” Mark said.

Britney opened her eyes and stared at him vaguely. “What… name?” she whispered.

“I’m Obsidian. These people are going to help you.” His eyes were stinging in the most irritating way, and he didn’t know what else to say so he shut up.

Susan looked up at him and smiled. “She’s going to be fine.”

“She’s missing some teeth. Can you fix that?”

“We’ll take her to a dentist when she’s feeling stronger.”

“And she can’t go back to her family. Don’t let her go back, no matter what you do.”

She nodded, her eyes so compassionate that he wanted to hide. “She’ll be safe with us.”

“Good. Uh, that’s real good. Listen, I’ve gotta go. You’ll take care of her, right?”

“We’ll take care of her.”

He nodded. “I’m going, then.”

They closed the door, taking Britney into the warm house where she’d be safe and leaving him alone on the cold porch. The bullet wound he’d taken ached and throbbed, still unhealed because of the blood he’d given her.

Yeah. He needed to get some more blood, and these people weren’t going to give it to him—not that he’d take from them even if they offered. Sid backed away from the humans. He spun on his heel and walked out across the porch and looked up at the sky. There was Vega, almost directly overhead. Out here you could see a lot better, although there was still so much light from the city that most of the stars were obscured by a glowing haze, one that hovered over the entire East Coast, merely thinning out over the rural areas but never completely disappearing. It wasn’t like the old days, when you could see the Milky Way from anywhere on Earth.

He flew off, pretending he couldn’t feel the empty hole inside him. Something about the girl had opened it again, made him feel it for the first time in at least a century. Shit. He liked it better when he was numb.

She still might not survive. Maybe the ambulance wouldn’t get to Susan and Mark’s farm in time. Or she might go into some kind of crisis in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, something the EMTs weren’t equipped to handle. And when she woke, she would be alone. There’d be no-one there whom she knew, even a little, no-one to comfort her.

Imagining her awakening in a strange bed in a hospital, the air full of the peculiar tang of hospital antiseptics, he paused and hovered. He could go back. There might be time to intercept the ambulance, and he’d know which one it was by the girl’s energy. Now that he’d given her his blood, he’d always know where she was.

But she didn’t know him either. He probably wouldn’t be a comfort to her. He barked out a bitter laugh at the thought of him comforting anyone. Then he looked down at the building beneath his feet.

He could see the sign on the lawn: All Saints Catholic Church.

He might not be able to comfort her, but he could pray. If he went into the church, he could light a candle for her. Sid closed his eyes briefly. The last time he’d prayed had been on a battlefield in Spain, bullets whistling by his head, cannon booming like the shouts of demons.

He was a vampire—an unholy, immortal creature. What would happen if he went inside that church?

In the end, Obsidian went home. He landed on the balcony of his new condo and slipped into his dining room, where he kept a single candle on the table. Lighting it, he tried to remember the words of the Pater Noster and the Ave Maria. For the longest time, they wouldn’t come.

 ***

 A week later, he drove back in his car. Stood on the porch and knocked on the door. It was stupid of him, coming all the way out here just to check on a human girl, but he was curious. He wanted to know how she was doing, make sure she was okay, and give the Chandlers some money to cover Britney’s hospital bills.

Susan opened the door.

She smiled at him, almost as if she liked him, even though that couldn’t be true. She’d been terrified of him when he’d rescued her, sure he was in cahoots with her attacker. “You want to know about Britney?”

“Yeah.”

“I was just going to the hospital to visit her. Want to come along?”

He narrowed his eyes at her. She felt safe enough with him to let him into her car?

“You can ride with me.” Susan pointed to a gray SUV in the driveway.

“Yes. I would like that.”

She fetched her purse and they got into her SUV together.

“Is she going to make it?” he said as Susan rolled down the driveway.

She nodded. “She’ll survive. Unfortunately they can’t repair all the damage, as there was some deep scarring on her body from old wounds. She’d had several broken bones and old burn scars on her feet, and some deep infections that had moved into the bone. It’ll take her awhile to get her strength back.”

The core of him turned to ice. “Jesus. Burn marks?” Bone infections? Maybe he should have killed her monstrous parent.

“Yes. Didn’t you know?”

He shook his head. “I just found her that night. I was going past her apartment and saw her mother beating her.” Stretching the truth wasn’t the same as lying, right? “I put a stop to it and brought her here. I didn’t trust the hospital to do the right thing without someone to stand up for her.”

Susan looked at him as if she knew he wasn’t telling her everything. “You made the right decision.” She reached over and patted Sid’s hand. “She needed someone to work the system on her behalf.”

“What will happen to her once she gets out of the hospital?”

“Mark and I are applying to the county for a license to foster parent. We’re going to petition to take Britney.”

He nodded. “Thank you. I’m grateful.”

“It was the least we could do, after what you did for us. And we already love Britney. She’s a sweet girl.”

They fell into a tense silence as she sped down a winding country road toward the hospital. He had saved Britney’s life, not just in a long-term sense but in that very moment. If he hadn’t chosen to intervene, she’d be a week dead by now. The thought gave him a little satisfaction, but he still ached inside when he remembered how she’d looked.

At least she had people on her side now. He didn’t know much about the foster-care system, but he’d gotten the impression it was overburdened with kids in need. And he didn’t want strangers taking care of Britney. He wanted someone he knew he could trust.

At the hospital, Susan led him to the pediatrics unit and straight to Britney’s room. The teen still looked more like a school-age kid. Her skin looked yellow and unhealthy against the brilliant white of the hospital sheets, and her hair was even thinner than before. But the dark blotches were gone from her eyes. She had an I.V. in her left arm, with two bags attached to the metal pole.

She opened those eyes and smiled when she saw them. “Hi, Susan.”

“Hi, sweetie. How are you?”

“Okay. They’re supposed to bring me something real to eat today.”

“That’s great.” Susan put her hand on Obsidian’s arm. “Do you remember Obsidian? He’s the man who brought you to us.”

Britney stared at him, her face intent. “I know you. I remember you.”

He cleared his throat. “I’m Obsidian. I took you away.”

A look of joy came over her face, as if he’d given her a priceless gift just by standing in the room with her. No-one had ever looked at him like that before. He walked toward her, drawn irresistibly, his hands extended, reaching out for her as he came close to her. She clasped them in hers.

“You saved my life. Thank you.”

He shrugged. “It was nothing.”

“That’s not true. You stopped her. You stopped my mom.”

He made himself meet her eyes. They were pale blue, like her mother’s, but so much more beautiful. An angel’s eyes. He didn’t know whether he’d find redemption or destruction there, but whatever it was would be immeasurably better than what he had now.

Sid flushed at the thoughts running through his mind. He was turning into a mushy idiot. “I couldn’t just leave you there.”

She lifted his hands to her lips and kissed them. “I owe you.”

“No. No, you don’t. Britney, I’m not a good person. I’m just a guy who happened to be there at the right time.” He squeezed her hands and then pulled away as he stood. “I’m going home now. I just came by to make sure you were alright.”

“Will I see you again?” She had a wistful expression now.

“No. It wouldn’t be right.”

She bit her lip. “I’ll never forget you.”

And he would never forget her. She’d given him something, although she didn’t seem to know it and he could never tell her. He wasn’t sure what it was himself. He couldn’t stay there anymore, not with the way she was looking at him.

“How are you going to get back to your car?” Susan said.

“Don’t worry about it. Have your visit.”

Sid turned his back on her and let himself out.

 ***

A year later, he paid Kayla another visit. She couldn’t see him, because he hid in the trees, thick with summer leaves, outside the Chandler farmhouse and watched her through a window. It was kind of creepy, and he shouldn’t be doing it, but he wanted to make sure she was alright without letting her know he was there.

She wore a tank top and shorts, and he could see how much she’d filled out. Her body had the curves of a healthy seventeen-year-old; her hair was short but thick and shiny. She even smelled healthy. His cock swelled at the sight of her.

Mother of God, he was a sick bastard, standing outside, spying on her and getting turned on at the same time. He knew it, yet he couldn’t take his gaze off her, couldn’t stop wanting her. His heart pounded, and he tensed the whole of his body to keep from going to her like an idiot and declaring himself.

As she moved around the room, she lurched slightly as if one of her legs was significantly shorter than the other. Her infected hip must have healed wrong. Britney turned her back to the window and pulled her tank off over her head. He gritted his teeth at the sight of the revealed skin. She was covered in scars.

He’d saved her life, and he was grateful he’d had the chance to do that. But she’d probably carry those awful scars until the day she died. What kind of mother would do such terrible things to her own child?

You’re a hit man. Why do you even give a shit? Besides the sick lust he had for her, that was.

He didn’t know. But one thing he could be sure of—going all sappy and lovesick over a little human girl was only going to get him in hot water, not to mention what it would do to Britney if he made himself known to her. He needed to stay away from her. Forever.

 

Chapter 2

 

Ten years later, Jefferson, PA

On the way home from work, Kayla Chandler—formerly known as Britney Peach—got off the bus at the wrong stop. She stepped off the hulking vehicle, thoughts drifting back to the dream she’d had that morning. She’d dreamed of Obsidian—that he was making love to her. He’d almost entered her body when her alarm went off. She’d never been so disappointed to wake up from a dream in her life.

Of course, in reality a guy like Obsidian wouldn’t give her a second glance. He was beautiful. Movie-star, underwear-model gorgeous, with those big soulful black eyes of his. She’d only met him briefly, but she’d never forget his face. Not after what he’d done for her.

Men like him never noticed gimpy chicks like her. She had to wear a lift for her left foot or else she’d lurch from side to side when she walked. That was a gift from her mom, courtesy of the infection in her hip bones. When the infection had finally healed, some of the bone  had been destroyed, leaving her left leg significantly shorter than her right. But, hell, that was okay because she was lucky to even be alive. She wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t been for Obsidian.

Kayla emerged from her daydream to stare at her surroundings with no recognition whatsoever. She’d gotten off at the wrong stop. She only rode this bus route every day, and she knew exactly where her stop was, so why had she gotten off here? This wasn’t even the right neighborhood.

One glance around told her the area was even tougher than her own. She rented a studio in a borderline neighborhood, where the really bad violence didn’t happen quite as often and you could walk the streets safely, at least as long as it was broad daylight. This street didn’t look all that safe, even at five-thirty in the afternoon.

Kayla tilted her head back to look up at the bus schedule. The next bus wasn’t due for another hour. Shit. What was she going to do for the next hour in a place like this?

Not hang around in the liquor store across the street, that was for sure. The place had bars on its windows. Lovely. In fact, most of the stores had the same arrangement. They also had assorted garbage clinging to their facades, and dirt piled up in the crevices that had failed to attract rubbish. It looked like the kind of place where women were assaulted in full view of others. Who did nothing.

She heaved a sigh. What were her options? A pawn shop with a broken neon sign, the liquor store, a tiny grocery featuring a clot of hard-faced men outside, and several empty storefronts. Casually, she glanced in the other direction. Wow, what do you know? Another liquor store.

A gray-haired man with a bandanna tied around his head sat on the sidewalk outside, a cigarette dangling from his lips. Just past him, there was one shop with no bars on its windows. Intrigued, Kayla strolled toward it.

The smoker looked up as she passed. “Nice jacket.”

Kayla stuck her hands in the pockets of the black leather and ignored him. She shouldn’t have worn such a short skirt. But at least she had black tights on underneath, so nobody would see anything they shouldn’t. Putting on her don’t-fuck-with-me look, she walked up to the store with the unbarred windows.

It occupied two narrow spaces in a nineteenth-century red brick building, its bright-green-painted doors at forty-five degree angles to one another. Its narrow display windows were sparkling clean and held an amazing assortment of antique and vintage lamps, crystal, china, silverware, and jewelry. The sign hanging from an old-fashioned iron hanger read “Something Wicked, A Shop of Mysterious Delights and Angelic Antiques.”

Well. With a name like that, she had to go in.

A bell tinkled happily as she opened the door. In the cluttered interior, she couldn’t see a proprietor. Kayla gave a mental shrug. That was okay. She wasn’t here to buy anything, just to look.

And there was certainly no shortage of stuff to look at. Away from the sunny windows, she found not just china and glass but textiles. Antique dolls with porcelain faces and human hair stared at her with round, blue glass eyes. A small iron rack held antique clothing, and a quilt stand held, oddly enough, quilts. Their faded colors looked completely authentic. She didn’t even want to touch anything, in case the oils on her fingers might stain or otherwise harm the fabrics.

The musty odor in the air smelled like old houses and great-grandma’s attic. If she’d ever had a great-grandma. Of course she had, everyone had, but hers was probably an evil lunatic just like Kayla’s mom.

Whatever. The point was, this store rocked. If you were into old stuff, at least.

Wandering into the back, she discovered a whole floor-to-ceiling bookcase full of old books. All of them had either cloth or leather bindings. There was not a modern dust-jacket among them.

She ran her finger along a shelf at her eye-level, until it stopped, held back by a pale leather-bound volume that stuck out slightly from the rest. Its binding had no printing on it, just handwriting in faded brownish ink. She couldn’t read the words. Hmm. Kayla pulled the book off the shelf.

Its covering was grungy and worn at the corners, with brown smears ground into the grain of the white leather. More old-fashioned handwriting, obviously made with a quill pen, read The Words of the Vampire. Was it a hoax? Maybe someone had just taken one of those expensive hand-made journals you could find in bookstores and artificially aged it.

She opened the cover. The paper inside was thick and slightly rough, with an uneven deckled edge. The pages were stained and aged-looking. If it was a hoax, it was well-done, at least to her inexpert eyes.

“What do you think of it?”

Kayla jumped about two feet in the air. She spun around to find a comfortably middle-aged woman with graying brown hair smiling at her from the other side of a low table covered in glassware. The woman had on a gypsy skirt, a purple knit top with a deep scoop neck, and horn-rimmed reading glasses.

“You made me jump out of my skin.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you, Britney.”

Britney? “How did you know—I mean, that’s not my name. I’m Kayla Chandler.” Not Britney Peach. Not ever again.

“As you wish. Are you interested in the book?”

She glanced down at the antique. “Is it real?”

“Oh, yes. It dates from the seventeenth century.”

“The Words of the Vampire? Come on, it sounds like a hoax. And if it is real, what’s it doing in an obscure little shop like this? No offense, but why isn’t it at Christie’s or something?”

“You have an interest in antiques, I take it?”

Kayla shrugged. “Yeah. Sort of.”

“And vampires?”

Did a collection of vampire romances on her bookshelf count? Yeah, she was interested in vampires, although she didn’t know why. “Vampires are okay.”

The woman smiled. “This book goes where it’s needed. The people who frequent Christie’s auction house are there mostly to acquire objects they think will increase in value or things they can show off to their friends. The Words of the Vampire doesn’t fall into either category.”

Kayla ran a finger down the title page. The ink here looked slightly less faded than that on the cover. “Are you saying this book doesn’t increase in value?”

“It’s priceless. Its value lies in the knowledge inside it, not in the form of the book.”

Kayla gave the woman a skeptical stare. “Uh huh. So how much do you want for it?”

“For you, I’ll ask twenty dollars.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Twenty bucks? You’re kidding.” It didn’t seem like enough, if it was real. Her gaze dropped back to the book, drawn to the spidery handwriting. It looked like a personal journal, or a handwritten grimoire. A book of magic spells.

It’s got to be a fake. There’s no such thing as vampires.

But what if it wasn’t? Okay, vampires weren’t real, but that didn’t mean the book itself was a fake. It could be a genuine antique. Besides, it was wicked cool. It had drawings and tables, funny illustrations of vampire fangs and other minutiae of vampire life, all hand-made and labeled in the same spidery, archaic-looking script. She hadn’t meant to buy anything, but it was only twenty dollars. She could afford that.

“I’ll take it.”

The clerk smiled and held out her hand for the book. She brought it to the counter and began wrapping it in brown paper. The counter looked like it was almost as old as the book, or at least the building. It was made of dark oak, the wood full of dents and grooves from many years of use. Even the cash register, all dark wood and gleaming brass, looked like an antique.

“That’s an old-fashioned register you’ve got there,” she remarked.

“We’re an old-fashioned store.”

“You don’t need all those computer functions they have in the new machines?”

The clerk smiled again. “I have a very good memory.” She handed the package to Kayla.

Kayla fished a twenty out of her purse. “Well, it’s a great store. I’m glad I found it.”

“So am I.”

When Kayla left the store, a lot more time had passed than she thought. Night had fallen and the air had grown chilly. Two men had joined the smoker in front of the liquor store, and they all stared at her as she emerged onto the sidewalk.

Luckily, a bus stood at the bus stop, its doors just opening. It was her route, so she ran to catch up with it, the book tucked under her arm. Although she longed to read the thing, she waited until she got home. The bus, with its tight quarters and jostling riders, wasn’t a good place to read a delicate antique book.

The cold thoroughly chilled her in the time it took to walk from her bus stop to her apartment house. She locked her door and threw the deadbolt. Then she changed into some thick, fluffy sweatpants and a hoodie and took the book into the kitchenette of her tiny studio where the light was best.

There was a thump from next door, voices raised and angry. They were always fighting over there. It reminded her of growing up in that crappy apartment her mom and stepdad had rented.

Susan tried to convince her to move out every time they got together. She’d invite Kayla to move back to the farmhouse or at least get a place in a nice building. Susan and Mark would pay her rent. But Kayla didn’t want to depend on her foster parents or anyone else. She wanted something of her own, even if it was a hellhole.

She unwrapped the book and opened it to the first page, feeling a little guilty she was pawing it with bare hands. Didn’t antique book dealers usually wear white cotton gloves when handling the really old stuff? But Kayla didn’t have any white cotton gloves, and she didn’t want to wait to buy some.

The writing inside was spidery, just like that on the cover, and full of weird anachronistic spellings, so reading it was slow-going. But at the end of an hour, she’d figured out what it was. What it claimed to be.

A set of instructions for turning yourself into a vampire.

Supposedly the writer had painstakingly copied it by hand from a set of ancient scrolls called The Words of the Vampire, first written down in the days of Atlantis. Supposedly, if you followed the instructions to the letter, you would align yourself with a personage known as the Dark. Supposedly the very fabric of your being would change until you developed retractable fangs, an aversion to sunlight, and a remarkably long lifespan.

Definitely a hoax.

This thing was probably the after-school project of some Goth teen with a romantic and morbid fascination for death and darkness. Wish fulfillment fantasies at their best. Although she had to hand it to whoever had done the work—they’d done an amazing job. And she’d paid only twenty dollars for it.

She stared thoughtfully at the faux relic. Wouldn’t her mom shit herself if Kayla turned up, a vampire, and gave back just a taste of what she’d gotten all those years after the social workers had returned her to her mother? Even those godawful foster homes she’d occupied like seats in a game of musical chairs had been better than home sweet home. It was enough to make her wish the book was for real.

After Obsidian had rescued her, her mom’s parental rights had been terminated, for Britney and her brother and sister. Debbie had tried to pin the abuse on Britney’s stepdad, but for once he stood up to her, and so had the kids. Kayla had read all about it in the newspaper.

Her mother had been sent to prison, but recently she’d gotten out on parole—for good behavior. She’d lost the relationship with Jerry McManus, the stepdad who could never be bothered to step in between Britney and her mom. Jerry had gone to prison too. Now Debbie was married to some jackass of a guard she’d met in jail. Wasn’t that nice? It made Kayla all warm and fuzzy inside.

So once again the woman lurked like a fat spider in another cheap apartment, deprived of her victim and waiting—Kayla hoped—for the day retribution came knocking at her door. Was that mixing metaphors? Whatever. She returned her attention to the book.

The first thing the vampire initiate was supposed to do was to recite aloud a kind of prayer to the Dark. She began, idly, to read it in a low voice meant only for herself.

“I, Britney Peach—uh, Kayla Jocelyn Chandler—call this night upon the power of the Dark. Hear me, O Dark, for I offer myself to you. I pledge myself, body and soul, to your service and make of myself an offering to you. Take me, O Dark, and make me one of your own, one of your children, and give me everlasting life in return. So be it.”

Feeling ridiculous, she closed the book and went to her tiny cupboard for a can of soup. Stupid book. Who would believe something like that could change a human being into a vampire?

 ***

Sid dreamed of Britney. The first thing he realized when he saw her was that she’d grown up. Her body was still slim, even delicate, yet she had a lovely rounded form under the lace-edged floral dress she wore. Lustrous black hair tumbled around her shoulders. She smiled, her teeth white and straight. He reached for her, set his hands at her trim waist.

Then they were naked, their bodies entwined in an intimate embrace. Their mouths came together, mating, loving, tongues sliding slick and wet. His cock swelled and he groaned, pressing his hips against her. He slipped a hand between her legs, savoring the creamy heat of her.

He was about to enter her when an alarm sounded somewhere outside his building and he woke up. Damn car alarm. Sid groaned again, this time in frustration. He’d been so close. So close.

You shouldn’t be dreaming about Britney that way. She’s just a kid.

But she wasn’t a kid anymore. She had to be in her mid-twenties by now.

You still shouldn’t think of her that way. She’s not for you.

His cock refused to listen.

 ***

A few hours later, Obsidian stuck his hands in his jeans pockets and leaned negligently against the stark white doorjamb of Daranda’s elegant living room, ignoring the armed guards who stood on either side. “You sent for me?”

Daranda, Empress of the Vampires, raised her pale aqua eyes, fringed in thick black lashes, to his. “Yes, I did. An hour ago.”

He shrugged. “I was delayed.”

“Don’t let it happen again.”

Sid let a smile slowly curve his mouth. “Did you have something for me?”

“Raphael tells me Niko and Laila are awake again.”

Raphael Black was the Empress’s seer, the only man in the Empire more feared than Sid. He was the one who found the self-made vamps and divined their locations so they could be destroyed. Black, along with the rest of the court, had not yet arrived at Daranda’s for their nightly gathering.

Sid raised his eyebrows. “I thought they were living out West somewhere.”

“They are.” Daranda sat up straight on her lipstick-red ultramodern chaise longue, mahogany waves of hair sliding over her shoulder. “But now they’re awake and ready to cause trouble.”

“Are they really that dangerous?” he said. Any mention of the rogue leaders made odd shivers run through his gut. He couldn’t help thinking of the black-haired girl to whom he’d given his blood, Niko and Laila style. Britney.

“Of course they are.” Daranda narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “They stand against us. You’re not developing a sympathy for them, are you?”

“For rogues? Hardly. I just don’t understand why you’re so afraid of them.”

She narrowed those eyes at him. “You have no respect. I don’t know why I tolerate it.”

“Because you love me.”

That earned him a snort and a head shake. “I think it has more to do with your usefulness. If I ever find you less useful, you will find me a great deal less tolerant.”

Was that a veiled threat? She hadn’t threatened him in at least a decade. Obsidian smiled again, keeping his hands in his pockets, his posture casual. Daranda liked to see people sweat, therefore he would show no signs of sweating.

“So Niko and Laila are awake. What does that have to do with me?”

“I want you to keep an eye on them.”

“I’m an assassin, not a spy.”

“You’re whatever I say you are. Right now I need someone I can trust absolutely to tell me what they’re up to.”

“So you’re sending me out West?”

“I am.”

Finally, something interesting. He allowed his smile to broaden. “I can do that.”

“Alright. Good.” She plucked at the skirt of the slinky black dress she wore. “I don’t know why they’re awake now, after so many years asleep. It’s damned inconvenient.”

“That’s probably part of the charm for them. Wouldn’t it be for you?”

Finally she smiled. “I suppose. But I would never run and hide in some desert cave the way they do.”

Daranda loved to hold forth at length about Niko and Laila’s odd behavior. Sid wasn’t even sure they were real. Had anyone actually met them? The only person he’d ever heard speak of them was Daranda herself. They seemed like a mirage, a fairy tale. But according to the Empress, their whole tribe of vampires was strange. They did things differently than Daranda’s people did, which made them foreigners, aliens.

A threat, to Daranda’s way of thinking.

“Is there anything in particular you want me to look for?” he said.

“Just watch them and report back to me.”

“Alright. Do you have an address?”

“No. They keep their location secret, even from their followers. Only the most loyal inner circle members know where they live.”

That was convenient for Daranda. She could have these mysterious enemies and yet no-one knew where to find them. How to defect to them.

He stared at the Empress for a moment before remembering to drop his gaze. One didn’t stare at Daranda, not if one wished to keep one’s head. Her obsession with Niko and Laila hadn’t manifested in half a century. He’d actually thought she might have forgotten them, or at least gotten beyond them.

Apparently, he’d been wrong.

“A challenge, then.” He stopped leaning on the doorjamb.

“Good evening, Obsidian,” said a male voice from behind him.

He looked over his shoulder and saw Daranda’s personal assistant, Grant Kowalski, watching him with a wary gaze. “Evening, Grant. You here to see Daranda?”

Grant nodded, giving him a nervous half-smile. Sid let him pass. Grant sometimes worked with Sid, giving him assignments when Daranda declined to speak directly to her assassin. The blond vampire approached the Empress with his head bowed and sank to his knees.

Daranda smiled. “Excellent, Grant. I’ve been waiting for you.”

“Not long, I hope, Your Majesty.” There was a note of anxiety in the blond’s voice.

“No, not long. You aren’t late. I’m simply eager to get started.” She gave him a predatory smile.

Nice. Sid eased back toward the door. Leaving was his option of choice, but Her Glorious Majesty hadn’t yet given permission. He gritted his teeth and waited.

Daranda took a mirrored box from the sculptural stainless-steel table next to her chair. She lifted the lid. “You may remove your clothes.”

Grant swallowed audibly. He stripped while remaining on his knees, a feat he would never have accomplished as a human. When he was completely bare, Daranda patted the chair. “Come closer so I don’t have to reach.”

He moved forward on his knees. She lifted an object from the box. A safety pin, extra-large size.

“Now, where shall I begin?” Her voice sounded like a purr.

Sid folded his arms over his chest. She’d never stuck pins in him, thank God, and he didn’t want to hang around watching her do it to Grant, either.

“What do you, think, Obsidian? Where should I start?”

“I defer to your greater wisdom, Your Majesty,” he said, his tone dry.

The Empress lifted a delicate hand to caress Grant’s ribs and muscular backside. “Maybe here.” She paused at the indentation of his waist. “Yes, this is the perfect spot.”

She opened the pin. Its sharp point glinted in the lamplight. Daranda pinched a fold of Grant’s skin between her thumb and forefinger and shoved the pin in on one side. Grant sucked in a breath. The Empress pushed the metal all the way through until the point came out the other side. Then she locked it. Tiny drops of blood oozed from the holes she’d made.

“Very nice.” She leaned forward and licked the blood from Grant’s skin.

Some of her vampires enjoyed watching her torment her favorites. Sid had better things to do. However, she wouldn’t take kindly to him leaving without her permission. The trick would be to manipulate her into ordering him to leave.

And that should be easy. Because I’m such a slick manipulator. He bit back a snort. Usually, when Sid disliked something, he killed it. If he couldn’t kill it, he walked away from it.

Daranda inserted a second pin into Grant, her eyes flicking up and meeting Sid’s for an instant. She looked pleased with herself. Did she know how much he hated watching this kind of thing? Yeah, she did. That was probably the very reason she hadn’t told him to go away yet. With him watching, she got to torture two people at the same time.

She continued sticking pins into the blond, making a line up one side of his body, then a second one on the other side. After that, she started at his navel and moved upward, creating a V-shape on the front of his torso. The upper points of the v ended with pins through his nipples.

The scent of female arousal filled the air.

Nothing was as he’d first believed. When he’d become a vampire, he’d loved Daranda. Hero-worshipped her. She’d been the most beautiful woman he’d ever known, a powerful yet benign leader who made difficult decisions for the good of her people—at least in his imagination. He’d been willing to do whatever was necessary to protect her and her interests.

Now, he just wanted to get the hell out of this room. Go someplace where he wouldn’t have to monitor every expression to cross his face. If there were some other game in town, he’d be playing it. But Daranda’s little empire was the only home for him. No-one else would have him, after the things he’d done for her.

There was a huge downside to being the empress’s pet killer.

Had she taken that into account when she ordered him to insinuate himself into Niko and Laila’s group? Getting their trust wasn’t going to be easy—if they even existed.

Now she reclined on the chaise, her legs spread open, Grant’s head between her thighs. Her eyes were closed, a smile on her face.

Obsidian moved slowly backward, his soft-soled shoes making no sound on the black marble tile of her apartment floor. She moaned under Grant’s ministrations, her fingers buried in his hair. Sid eased his way into the hall and made for the front door.

 ***

 She was having the dream again. The one that had haunted her nights for the last ten years. Although she knew it was a dream, she couldn’t influence the events or make herself wake up.

Britney lay on the little cardboard pallet she used as a bed while her mother beat her with her favorite belt. It was a man’s belt with a large buckle, which was why she liked it. The buckle tore pieces of flesh out of Britney’s back every time Debbie struck her with it.

Britney wasn’t allowed to sleep in the bed. That was for her little sister, Crystal Anne. Britney slept on the floor, on the cardboard, which was there to keep her blood from soaking into the carpet.

She tried so hard to be good, but it was never enough. The buckle hit her back again, sending searing agony through her body. Everything hurt, and her back was so bad she couldn’t feel anything there except a hot blur of pain. She bit down on her lip until it bled. If she cried out, her mother would only beat her harder. Britney wasn’t supposed to make any noise, because then the landlord would find out about her punishments and he might tell someone.

“You little shit,” Debbie muttered as she beat Britney. “You’re such a pain in the ass. You make my life so hard, you little bitch. You ought to be grateful I don’t do worse things to you. I could, you know.”

She struck extra hard on that last statement. And then the beating stopped. The next thing Britney knew, she was being lifted into the air, held in strong masculine arms, carried from the room. And later, when she saw his face, his beautiful dark eyes, she thought he must be an angel. After all, he could fly.

And then she was back on the floor, her mother ripping her back apart with the belt. Her life was slipping away, bleeding out of her and soaking the paper beneath her body. She didn’t care anymore. It was easier to let it go.

Kayla woke up, sweating and trembling and confused. She had a blanket around her, a fluffy pink blanket that must belong to Crystal Anne. How had it gotten down on the floor with her? She shoved it off in a panic, hoping no-one had noticed. God, she might have gotten blood on it or made it smell bad, because she smelled bad and everything she touched or wore smelled bad too, and if Mom found out she would beat her again and take away her food and she wouldn’t have anything to drink all day either.

No, wait. She wasn’t on the floor. She was in a bed, and it couldn’t be Crystal Anne’s because it was too big to be a twin. She rubbed her forehead, looked around the darkened room. This was the studio she rented, with money she made herself at her job.

Now she had a real bed of her own, a double, and a new name, one her mother didn’t know about, and a job doing tech support at a bank. She was Kayla Jocelyn Chandler, not Britney Peach. Debbie Peach McManus could never hurt her again.

But other people could.

She’d taken a self-defense class to go with the assertiveness training her therapist had recommended. It had given her some extra confidence, but honestly her meager skills would be no use against a gun, and the nightmares of her past kept dogging her no matter how many classes she took.

She got up and went to the kitchenette, put water in a big mug and stuck it in the microwave for tea. Her hands still shook. Kayla paced back and forth in the cramped kitchen.

The book sat on her little table, where she’d left it. That spot was turning into its permanent home. Every evening after work, she studied it and wondered what it would be like to perform the rituals.

The silly thing wouldn’t leave her alone. It was like she was obsessed with it. When she wasn’t dreaming of her mom, she dreamed of the book. She didn’t believe in vampires or any of that stuff, although she did believe in angels. But that was because she’d met one once.

Not Obsidian, who was really just a man, who really couldn’t fly; she’d only thought he could because she’d been in so much pain that night she hadn’t been thinking straight. No, she’d met a real angel once, and even though she’d been hurting and full of despair she knew that angel had been real.

If angels were real, could vampires be real too? Nah. The idea was just too absurd. It was one thing to believe in spirit beings like angels, but something else altogether to believe that magic could turn a human like her into an immortal being who needed human blood to stay alive.

Vampires were strong. No-one beat them up or starved them. At least, not in the stories. She kind of wished they were real, because then she could become one. The only problem she could see with being a vamp would be never having children, but then she had some messed-up genes anyway. She’d even toyed with the idea of getting her tubes tied so she could never pass on whatever genetic malformation had made Debbie.

I want to do the rituals.

There. She’d admitted it. The goofy thing had gotten under her skin, taken all her extra attention and then some. If she did the rituals, maybe she’d get it out of her system and then she could forget about it.

The aspiring vampire was supposed to take a full two weeks—from just after the full to the dark moon—to perform the rituals. She glanced at the calendar on her petite refrigerator. The full moon was just three days away, which meant it would be waning soon.

This seemed like a good time to start working with the book. Yes, she was going to do it. Purge this crazy book from her mind, and then bury it in the ground or throw it in the river. Or better yet, return it to Something Wicked and get her money back.

So, what was the first thing she had to do? She got out some paper and a pen, and began to list all the items she would need to perform the “transformation.”

 

Chapter 3

 

Was she really going to do this? From her coat pocket Kayla pulled the garden trowel she’d bought especially for this project and glanced around in the gloom of the graveyard to see if anyone was watching. Of course no-one was. She was the only one dumb enough to be out here in the cemetery after dark, and besides, she was practically invisible with her black clothes and hair.

The only noise was from distant traffic, which sounded more like a fast river than vehicles on a road, and the wind rustling naked tree branches. The air smelled clean and wet, completely free of the car exhaust that hung over her neighborhood. She could see almost nothing, except some vague humps where the gravestones were, and the looming black shapes of trees and bushes.

For some reason, the city had decided they didn’t need to light a cemetery, so the shadows here in the center of the place were thick and impenetrable. She’d tripped a couple of times on headstones as she’d made her way to the place where she’d buried her stash a month ago, and that was when there was still a little light in the sky. Now it was black as Satan’s armpit—with his arm lowered, of course, so as not to let in any stray photons.

Last month, she’d spent one whole weekend searching all over town for the odd selection of herbs and crystals the potion required. Then she’d crushed the crystals to a fine powder with the special mortar and pestle she’d bought, chanting lines from the book, feeling like the village witch the entire time. And afterward, she’d stuck the mess in a plastic baggie, wrapped it in a clean bandanna and buried it after sunset, in the shelter of a big rhododendron that guarded a line of children’s graves from a 1930’s polio epidemic.

Kayla crawled under the enormous shrub. After this, she was going to have wet and dirty spots on the knees of her tights. Where had she put the thing? She felt around blindly for the rock she’d left to mark the spot.

She’d actually hoped that if she took action on the vampire nonsense, it would satisfy whatever part of her subconscious was obsessing over it and she could move on. Instead, the dreams and urges had only intensified. So here she was, groping the rhododendron roots for her marker.

Her fingers met a smooth, rounded stone. That felt right. She pushed it aside and stuck the trowel into the ground. It bit easily into the soil she’d already disturbed a month earlier. A couple of scoops of dirt and she hit the bandanna.

She pulled it out of the soil, brushing some errant crumbs from the fabric. Good. Now all she had to do was get out of here and go home. Technically, she was breaking the law by being in the cemetery after dark. The law was there to protect the graves from jerks whose idea of fun was breaking gravestones and otherwise vandalizing the place, but it applied to people like her, too. Besides, it wouldn’t be any fun to explain to a police officer why she’d dug a hole in the cemetery.

Sorry, officer, but I had to bury my magic potion in a graveyard to make it powerful enough to work. Yeah, that would go over well.

Sticking it in the pocket of her coat, she crawled backward until she emerged from under the bush. Thank God that was over. She could hardly wait to be out of here. Cemeteries after dark weren’t her favorite places. They were peaceful and beautiful during the day, but at night they always felt like ghosts were lurking in the tombs and under the overgrown bushes.

A rumble of masculine voices came from the darkness somewhere in front of her. Kayla froze. Who were these people and why were they in the graveyard? Probably not as part of a quest to make themselves into vampires. She suppressed a nervous giggle.

The voices came closer. One of the approaching men gave a whoop and burst into drunken laughter.

“Shut up,” one of his companions said. He sounded really young, maybe college-age. Maybe high-school. “We’re not supposed to be in here.”

“You shut up. I’m having a good time.” There was a sloshing sound, like beer in a bottle. “If we had a woman, it would be perfect.”

“You don’t think there are any ghosts in here, do you?” said a third voice. “We wouldn’t want little Tommy to get scared.”

“Fuck off,” the first guy—Tommy?—said.

Probably college guys from Jefferson University. They might not hurt her, but then again at least one of them was obviously drunk and you never knew what a drunk would do. Out here there was no-one to help her if they decided to get rough.

She needed to get away. They couldn’t see her any better than she could see them. All she had to do was sneak around them and get out of here. Kayla took a step. A twig snapped under her foot. Shit.

One of the guys gasped. “What was that?” It was the one who’d mocked his friend.

“Probably a squirrel,” said Tom.

“A squirrel!” the drunk intoned. “A squirrel! My kingdom for a squirrel!”

“Shut up!” his friends replied in unison.

Kayla moved quietly to her right, but she wasn’t quiet enough. She walked smack into another bush, making it rustle loudly. Damn it. Maybe she should just announce herself and get it over with.

“Shit!” one of the men said.

“Dude, relax. It’s just an animal.” That one sounded like a Californian.

“No way. I can hear breathing.” The mocking guy sure was a scaredy cat.

His friends laughed.

“I’m serious! Can’t you hear that?”

In the shadows, Kayla grinned. She took a deep breath and gave a long, shuddering sigh.

“See? I told you!” the believer said.

“Crap,” Tommy muttered.

“I’m outta here.” The believer’s shoes made a wet scuffling sound in the dead leaves that covered the ground.

“Is someone there?” the drunk called.

“Go awaaay.” She made the words into a kind of raspy sigh.

“Shit!” the drunk yelled.

The other guy just yelled without words. They pounded off across the graveyard, apparently unconcerned with tripping or cracking into some huge monument. Kayla pressed her hand over her mouth to keep from laughing out loud.

Now she could leave too, without having to worry about being accosted by drunken frat boys.

As their voices faded into the distance, the hair on the back of her neck began to rise. Someone was still here. Watching her. She didn’t know how she knew, but the sensation of being stared at was so powerful she couldn’t argue with it.

Kayla shivered, looking over her shoulder. Whoever it was, they were invisible in the darkness. Her sixth sense placed the watcher behind her, so she started walking forward. No way was she going to cower in the graveyard waiting for whatever-it-was to come and get her.

Don’t run. If you run it will only chase you and you’d probably trip on a headstone and break your neck.

Her body shook. The watcher remained behind her, keeping pace with her, the force of its attention making chills run all over her back. Yet it made no sound at all. Not a footfall. Not one brush of clothing against clothing.

The entrance to the cemetery lay ahead, vaguely illuminated by a single streetlamp almost a block away. In the pale light, she could see the iron spikes of the fence, the gate standing open. Rows of gravestones stood between her and that gate. It had been stupid to come here alone. She should have brought a friend.

Except she had no real friends in Jefferson. The people at the office where she worked were nice enough, and sometimes she went to lunch with them, but she could never bring them on an adventure like this. And Susan was right out. Her adoptive mom would have Kayla’s head if she knew what she was up to.

The weak light of the streetlamp at least showed her where the graves, shrubs and trees were. Less than a hundred feet to go. She picked up speed, yet the watcher stayed with her, its regard laying heavy on her mind, making her skin prickle and her hair stand on end.

A chilly finger traced a tingly line along her cheek. Kayla bolted, her thick-soled boots thudding on the soggy ground, her pleated woolen miniskirt flapping around her thighs. She arrived on the sidewalk wild-eyed and sweaty. Once there, she kept running, leaving the watcher and its icy hands behind her in the cemetery.

God, what was that? A ghost?

It served her right for scaring those guys. She’d only done it because she was afraid of them, afraid of what they might do to her if they discovered her. She knew how to fight, but there was no way she could fight off three grown men.

Two blocks from the cemetery, she was back in a populated neighborhood filled with modern office buildings, stores in converted nineteenth-century houses, and Victorian mansions made over into condos. Since it wasn’t too long after sunset, the streets were still full of people, most of them probably just getting off from work or going out to dinner. She made for the bus stop, checking her pocket as she ran to ensure she still had the packet. Yep, it was there, safe and sound.

People stared at her as she passed—men in business suits, women in heels and pencil skirts, casually dressed students, and one guy in blue paint-spattered coveralls. Ooh, look at the freaky Goth girl running from the cemetery. Kayla ignored them. She’d never fit in and didn’t care to try.

She made it two more blocks, and nothing at all strange happened. So she quit running and let her heart rate return to normal. Maybe the watcher hadn’t been able to leave the graveyard. If it was a spirit, it might be bound there.

Or maybe it was all in your imagination.

Graveyards didn’t normally spook her. She liked them. They were quiet, and other people usually left you alone when you went there. Most graveyards had beautiful trees, sometimes really huge, old ones, and the gravestones with their names and dates and little epitaphs were interesting. Every so often she visited this one, just to be somewhere outdoors yet peaceful. But she’d never felt like something was watching her before.

Of course, she usually only went into a cemetery during the day and she’d never been working vampire magic before, either. God, this vampire crap was starting to get to her. She needed to take the damn book back to that store and tell the woman to keep it. The money didn’t even matter, just getting rid of the book.

I should tell Susan and Mark what’s going on. They’ll probably cut a bitch, but then they’ll sit me down and give me good advice.

Tomorrow was Saturday. No work. She’d call them when she woke up, and go out to the farm for a weekend visit. They’d talk it over, and figure something out.

On the bus, no-one looked at her. Next to her, the middle-aged businessman with graying hair and an orange tie kept his head down as he tapped on his smartphone. A couple of teenaged lovers snuggled and whispered to each other, and a mom with two small kids and a bag of groceries looked too busy to notice anyone else.

Kayla closed her eyes. The packet was safe in her coat pocket. The question was, would she take the potion when she got home or would she flush it down the toilet? The sensible part of her said flush it. But there was a crazy little voice that said go all the way. Take the potion. See what happens.

The bus turned down her street. Kayla reached up and pulled the bell. She was going to be sensible, wasn’t she? Flush the potion, rent a car, drive up and see her folks tomorrow. That was her plan.

The bus stopped. She was the only person to get off at this stop, and when she left the vehicle she was alone on the sidewalk. Her apartment house was one block up the street, a distance that didn’t normally bother her.

Tonight was different. Shadows darker than the dark lay thick between buildings, under trees, in unlit doorways. Kayla shivered. This was the world she would inhabit if she became a vampire. A chilly, dark world in which only predators felt truly comfortable.

Hello? Vampires are not real.

Doing the rituals had been a mistake. Instead of curing her of her obsession, they had cemented it.

Her studio, small as it was, had never felt so welcoming. She locked and bolted the door, turned on every light in the place, then put some water in a coffee mug and stuck it in the microwave for some tea. She’d never needed hot, sweet tea as much as she did right now.

The curtains were still open, and the window glass was like a black mirror, reflecting herself and hiding whatever was outside. She closed them, then put on some cheerful music. Much better.

She picked up her tea and took a big swallow. The book lay on her table, where she’d left it that morning. The tooled decorations on its leather cover made her want to trace them with her fingertip. Sitting down on her padded kitchen chair, she did just that. The raised lines made her skin tingle slightly from the friction.

The book had illustrations, obviously hand-drawn by whoever had written it. Some of them were pen and ink, others drawn with brushes. Relics of a long-ago era, when the educated person had at least a little skill at drawing.

Except this book isn’t from a long-ago era; it probably isn’t even ten years old.

The lettering surrounded the pictures and sometimes overlapped them, as if they were merely doodles or page decorations rather than formal illustrations. She sipped her tea while gazing at a line drawing of a vampire’s fangs.

Lots of paranormal romance writers wrote about vamps with retractable fangs, so it wasn’t surprising that Little Goth had included them in his or her vampire grimoire. At least the kid had been thorough. And the rituals were interesting. They had a certain resonance, like the person who’d invented them had experience with magic.

Please. This book is your only experience with magic. You don’t have any yardstick to judge it by.

Kayla set down her mug, surprised to see it was empty. There was a weird gritty substance at the bottom. She stuck her finger in it. Where had that come from? She’d made an ordinary cup of jasmine tea.

Glancing over at the counter, she saw the tea packet she’d left there. Unopened. Next to it was the plastic baggie with the potion ingredients. Empty.

“Oh, shit.” How in the hell could she have made a mistake like that? She hadn’t even noticed that the taste was different. Jasmine tea had a distinctive floral fragrance that couldn’t be missed, yet somehow she had missed it. Or rather, failed to miss it.

The room began to spin slowly. Kayla closed her eyes, willing the sensation to stop. Something was happening, for sure, and it wasn’t caused just by drinking a little herbal tea. It must be the combination of ingredients—they must be interacting to produce this strange effect.

Or else the magic is real.

The book had said something important about drinking the potion—something about an incantation that had to be recited afterward. If the incantation wasn’t recited, the potion could be deadly. She opened her eyes just wide enough to see what she was doing as she leafed through the book, the room continuing to spin and make her dizzy.

Here it was. The words didn’t make any sense, but she spoke them anyway. Maybe they were in some ancient language.

Or maybe it’s made-up gibberish. This is just crazy. I should call poison control. The dizziness could be from the herbs, or it might be nothing but anxiety.

Except something had tricked her into making and drinking that potion. She hadn’t been aware of what she was doing. When she dredged her memory looking for something, some image of opening that baggie and dumping its contents into her mug, she got nothing. That was not normal.

Kayla finished the incantation and moved on to the second one. It was also in the gibberish-like mystery language. As she spoke the strange words, the air in the room seemed to take on weight. It pressed down on her, while the inside of her head began to buzz.

Time to stop.

She continued speaking. The sense of being watched returned, making the fine hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. Her fingers gripped the book’s edge, and she struggled to make herself turn the page. To close the book, knock it to the floor, anything. But her mouth continued to speak the words, and the volume remained open. The watcher drew closer.

This was bigger than some Goth kid’s prank. She flashed on that cold finger skimming over her cheek. Had the watcher thing really touched her? Maybe it had gotten inside of her somehow. Possessed her. And now it was here, in her studio, invading the one place she normally felt safe.

The chant came to an end. All the energy seemed to run out of her body, and she slumped forward, forehead resting on the table top. The sense of being watched disappeared. She felt drained. The room still seemed to rotate gently around her. It was going to make her sick if it didn’t stop.

How would she make herself dinner or get a shower if she was too dizzy to move?

At the thought of dinner, her stomach rebelled. Did vampires even eat solid food? She had no idea. She might have to drink blood from now on.

This situation was utterly insane. She was already beginning to believe that she would turn into a vampire.

A shower. Maybe she could manage that. She stood up, swaying. The room spun faster, and she closed her eyes, hanging onto the back of the chair for support. Somehow she had to get her clothes off and get into the shower.

Her boots laced up the front. She sat down again, biting her lip against the nauseating whirl of her head. Lifting one foot, she wrestled with the laces until she could remove the boot. The second one was no easier.

Kayla stripped her sweater off, wriggled out of her bra and skirt. But when she began to peel off her black cable knit tights, her stomach clenched so hard she moaned. Damn. It hurt. She bent over, taking short shallow breaths against the pain.

This. Sucks.

What the hell had she been thinking? Oh, I’ll just do the silly rituals and then the book will leave me alone and I won’t obsess over it anymore. Christ. She should have known it would lead to something like this. But who would believe it possible?

No matter how many vampire shows were on TV, it didn’t mean people believed in them. She couldn’t have known.

Another wave of nausea rolled over her. Had one of the herbs in the potion been poisonous? No. She’d looked up each and every one to make sure they were all edible. And they were. All commonly used herbs, often drunk as teas. Yet somehow the combination had caused this charming sensation that her gut was being turned inside out.

When she was a teenager—before Obsidian had rescued her—she’d thought about suicide. Her mom had “homeschooled” her. In Debbie McManus World, homeschooling meant being starved, beaten nearly every night, and made to eat dog shit. Yes, really. The kitchen knives had begun to look like her friends. But she’d never done it—until now. Now she was going to die because of some stupid vampire ritual.

She used her toes to push the tights off her legs. Then, wearing nothing but her panties, she tottered over to her bed and collapsed on top of it. During the day she kept a bunch of toss pillows and a microfiber throw on the bed to make it look like a couch. She pulled the throw over herself and lay there, shivering and trying not to puke.

 ***

The book was whispering to her again. Harsh morning sunlight flooded the tiny apartment, dazzling her and giving her a headache. Kayla rubbed her eyes and took her coffee grinder down from the top shelf of her cramped kitchen cabinet. Usually she had tea in the mornings, but she hadn’t slept very well. Bad sleep equaled coffee in the morning.

She’d survived the potion fiasco and her body had settled down, going more or less back to normal. Thank God for that. Silly vampire ritual over, end of story. But then the whispering had begun.

That damned book had kept her up most of the night. She found the coffee beans in the freezer and measured them out, while behind her the book continued to murmur to itself. The sound was at the edge of her hearing, almost as if it was in her mind. But it was real. She was sure of it.

Are you sure? Maybe you’re just going nuts.

Okay, she didn’t have a witness to support her view that the book could talk. All she had was her own observations. But when you put the whispering book together with the potion incident, it seemed fair to conclude that sometimes when you think a book is talking to you, it really is.

She got out the French press and heated some water in the microwave. The book continued to whisper.

Kayla glared at the book. “Shut up already.”

It didn’t listen. Finally she went over to where it rested on her kitchen table and opened it. That made it quiet down. It didn’t talk when she was reading it.

I’m taking this thing back. Today.

It was Saturday. Returning the book was the first thing on her to-do list. She left it open while she got ready to go, just to keep it from talking to her. Then she wrapped it loosely in the brown paper it had come in, and walked outside to the bus stop.

Although the sunlight had seemed bright when she was inside, now she saw that heavy clouds covered the sky, threatening rain and dimming the light to near twilight. Yet her eyes watered and she had to squint against the glare. It was probably the result of staying up all night.

On the bus, she set her hand above her eyes to shield them and stared out at the passing scenery until she saw the ugly strip of buildings with their barred windows and pulled the bell. The same men seemed to be there, or maybe they were different men with exactly the same attitudes and style of dress. Rain began to fall, but the men remained on the sidewalk.

Kayla glanced around the rainy street to get her bearings.

There was the pawn shop and the grocery. The liquor store across the street hadn’t opened yet. She looked to her left. Right down there, about half a block away, was Something Wicked. She could see the green paint on the door.

But when she arrived there, the space was empty.

 

Chapter 4

 

Kayla stood and stared through the windows of the shop space where Something Wicked had once been. The whole place was utterly empty. Not one bookshelf or clothing rounder remained. Dust lay thick on the floor, without so much as a footprint to mar the smooth gray surface. It even smelled like dust.

What the fuck, over?

She reached out and touched the green window trim. The glass looked dirty, as if it hadn’t been washed in months. Glancing up, she saw that the sign had disappeared as well. It was like she’d hallucinated the whole experience.

Except she still had the book. That was real.

Kayla looked down at the brown paper package. Something very strange had taken place here. Maybe the woman who’d sold her the book—a woman who in retrospect seemed to be more than human—didn’t want her to have a way to return it. Did that mean that any attempt to destroy it would also fail?

This isn’t a movie, K. People are people, and books can be burned or torn to pieces. Get a grip.

She took the volume out of its paper wrapping and grasped a chunk of pages, ready to rip them out. But instead of tearing them, she just stood there staring at the hand-drawn image on the top page. She couldn’t do it.

The truth was, she didn’t want to destroy a beautiful artifact like this, even though it gave her a major case of the creeps. Kayla sighed heavily. She was going to take the thing home, like a fool, just because she couldn’t bear to harm it.

She walked on heavy legs to the bus stop. There was going to be quite a wait for the next one.

A young man emerged from the grocery store. He wore a denim jacket with shredded cuffs. His dark-blond hair had been cut so short he was nearly bald. A death’s head tattoo decorated the side of his neck, peeking out from under his jacket collar when he turned his head.

He looked at her and grinned. “Hey, pretty girl. What’s your name?”

“Mary.” Her voice was flat and cold—a leave me alone voice.

The guy didn’t get the message. He sauntered over to her, looking her up and down like he thought he could buy her. “You seem kind of snooty, Mary. Maybe you think you’re better than me.”

“I’m not better than you. I’m a nun.”

He snickered. “A nun dressed like that?”

“It’s Goth day at the abbey.”

“Ha ha.” He leaned against the post holding the bus stop sign. “You look lonely, Sister Mary. How ’bout I keep you company?”

“No, thank you.”

His arm extended. He brushed the side of her face with the backs of his fingers, tenderly, like a lover. Kayla suppressed a shudder. The last thing she wanted was for this thug to know how much he scared her.

“Nice tat,” she said with heavy sarcasm.

He grinned again. “Thanks. It’s a new one. Want to see the others?”

“Nope.”

“Aw, come on. I’ve got one right here.” He pointed to his heart. “And another down here.” He pointed to his crotch.

“You should know I’ve already got a boyfriend. He’s six-five and he knows how to fight.”

“I thought you said you were a nun.” He lifted a lock of her hair, rubbing it between his fingers and thumb.

“His name is Jesus. He can take you out, so you’d better leave me alone.”

He laughed. “You’re funny. I like you.”

“The feeling is not mutual. Go away.”

“Maybe I’m lonely. Maybe I want your company, Mary.” His hand slid down her arm, then around to the small of her back.

Kayla stiffened. This had gone way too far. When was the bus due? She probably had another hour before her route came along, and by then Mr. Death’s Head would have had his fun with her.

His hand slid farther south until he squeezed her ass, massaging. “Yeah. I like you a lot.”

A bus came around the corner. It wasn’t her number, and she didn’t care. She waved frantically at it.

The thug removed his hand, swearing. The bus pulled up with a screech of brakes and opened its doors. He grabbed her wrist. His other hand moved along her ribcage toward her breast.

“Let go of me.”

“Let the bus go, baby. I want to talk to you a little while.”

She yanked on her wrist, hard enough to hurt. He released her and she dashed for the bus. Thank God. She stumbled up the stairs and showed the driver her pass.

“Having an argument with your boyfriend?” the driver said.

“He’s not my boyfriend.” She grabbed a seat near the front and crossed her arms over her chest. The next person who touched her was going to get bitten.

When she got home, she tossed the book on the kitchen table and paced. Her door was locked, her curtains drawn. She was as safe as she could expect. Tomorrow she was going to take the bus out to Littleton, where she could call Susan and get a pick-up. She needed a break from the city.

She pulled her cell from her purse and punched in Susan’s number. But when her adoptive mom answered the phone, Kayla felt like someone had glued her lips together. She couldn’t tell her. How did you tell someone who cared about you that you were being compelled by a magic book to turn yourself into a vampire?

“Kayla?” Susan sounded puzzled. “I know it’s you. I have caller i.d., remember?”

“Uh, yeah, sorry. I had a frog in my throat.”

“Are you okay?”

“No. Not really.”

There was a long pause on the other end. “What happened? Debbie didn’t come around, did she?”

“No. Nothing like that. It’s just…I bought this weird book at an antique store. It’s about making yourself into a vampire”

“Uh…Kayla, there’s no such thing as vampires.”

“I know, I know. But this book—it’s starting to scare me. I think it’s possessed or something.”

“Huh?”

“I could swear I can hear it talking to me. Okay, I know how that sounds, but seriously, it makes noises. It’s doing it right now.”

“I think you need to get rid of that thing,” Susan said flatly.

“I tried to take it back today, but the store was gone.”

“Gone?”

“Yeah. The space was empty, like it had never even been there. It even had dust all over the floor.”

Another long pause. “Have you told anyone else about the book?”

“No.”

“So you’re the only one who’s seen it?”

“Yeah. Except for the lady at the store.”

“Which isn’t there anymore.”

She frowned at the tone in Susan’s voice. “Do you think I’m making this up?”

“No, I don’t.” Susan didn’t sound entirely sincere.

“I’m not crazy.”

“Honey, I never said you were. I just wanted to know if anyone else is aware of what’s going on.”

Kayla clutched her cell phone hard. Maybe she shouldn’t have told Susan. She might try to get her into the hospital for a psych eval.

“Kayla? Are you still there?”

“I’m here.”

“Listen, I can’t come tonight because I have to work. Mark is still on that business trip. But tomorrow I’ll drive down and you can show me that book and we’ll talk. Okay?”

“Yeah. Sure.”

“Don’t do anything with it until I get there.”

Hadn’t Susan listened to anything Kayla had said? She couldn’t just stop the process, whatever it was. That time had passed.

If that’s what you think, then why did you call her?

“Um, I have to go now.”

“Be careful, honey.” Worry was clear in Susan’s voice.

“I will.” She hung up.

Her adoptive parents couldn’t help her. Whatever this was, it went far beyond anything they could understand. She shouldn’t have called. The only thing she’d accomplished was scaring Susan. Kayla turned toward the book.

That asshole at the bus stop had been planning to rape her; she’d put money on it. Only the arrival of the bus had saved her, and then she’d had to ride all the way into the central station to get a route back to her own neighborhood. She had a headache from all the light in her eyes.

The book had begun to whisper again. Either she was going crazy or she had a magic book on her hands.

And if the book is magic, maybe the vampire thing is real, too.

Kayla stopped and clutched her head in both hands. This whole situation was so bizarre it felt like she was stuck in a dream and couldn’t wake up. Vampires weren’t real. Magic wasn’t real. Except everything that had happened today pointed in the direction of some big-time magic.

If I were a vampire, that jerk at the bus stop wouldn’t be able to hurt me.

How many people had been drawn to this life for that very reason? To make yourself strong, stronger than anyone around you, to have super-human powers, to live forever. They were powerful incentives, especially for someone who’d been trampled on. Like her.

So, if she really was turning into a vampire, what would happen if she stopped the rituals before the transformation had finished? She opened the book, flipping through the pages to find the general instructions. There they were.

“Now, the power of this Transformation is so profound, so Complete, that it doth Seize upon the Human body immediately it is Begun; therefore, the Initiate must Continue with the Magical Operations no matter what Hardship is met, nor Pain endured. To stop Midway is to Invite Death.”

Okay. Death would be undesirable. When she’d read those words the first time, they’d seemed quaint. Maybe even cute, especially with the random capitalizations. They didn’t seem cute anymore.

She was turning into a vampire. She’d have to quit her job in tech support. Her company didn’t have any night positions. And her volunteer work at the hospital—well, maybe she could continue that, as long as she could do it at night. But would parents or hospital staff want her playing with and comforting kids if they knew she was a vampire?

None of these concerns would matter if she failed to survive, though. Kayla turned the next page. She had to find her stopping place, so she could continue the transformation.

 ***

 Underneath the streets of Jefferson, Raphael Black sat in meditation in his private chamber. The black walls made it dark, even for a vampire. It was perfect for him, perfectly dark, perfectly silent except for the murmur of his own breath and heartbeat. In this room, he could hear things no-one else knew existed.

What he heard now was the sound of a name, repeating over and over. Kayla Chandler. Kayla Chandler. Kayla Chandler. A modern name, the name of some human. He didn’t normally receive the names of humans, and this one was so mundane it had the perverse effect of fascinating him.

She meant something—something important. What was it?

He followed the sound of her name as it echoed inside his mind, followed it like a trail of fairy-tale bread crumbs until he bumped up against the energy of the woman herself. And what do you know…she was deep in the process of turning herself into a vampire using the forbidden book.

Hmmm…another rogue. Normally he didn’t detect these people until they’d completed the transformation. In fact, for the past hundred years or so, it was his under-seers who found most of the rogues. Black had more important prey to track on behalf of the empress. Yet he’d found this rogue, and she was still half human.

Kayla Chandler. Her name still repeated in his mind like an awkward drumbeat. She was more than a rogue, although he couldn’t see how.

She’s probably just more psychic than the average human. That’s why she’s showing up so clearly and disturbing my meditation.

Psychic or not, she had to go. Rogues could not be tolerated. He might as well put this one out of her pathetic human misery as soon as possible. Black hated to cut the meditation short, but it was already blown to pieces. He might as well put in a call to Grant and get little Miss Chandler on the list for immediate removal.

 ***

 Obsidian’s phone rang as he was packing for his probably fruitless trip West. He added a black cashmere sweater to his suitcase and pulled his cell from the back pocket of his jeans. “Yeah?”

“Hey, Sid.” It was Grant. “Got a new assignment for you. Are you ready?”

“Go ahead.”

“Young woman named Kayla Chandler. She’s at 1335 Baltimore Street, Apartment 38, in Jefferson.”

A woman. His back stiffened as his grip on the phone tightened so hard the plastic creaked in protest. “Got it. Anything else?”

“She lives alone, doesn’t seem to have many friends. That’s all we’ve got.”

“I’ll get on it, but don’t call me after tonight. I’ll be on the road.”

“I remember. Call me when it’s done.”

Sid hung up and stuck the cell back in his pocket. He went to the computer in his living room, feeling slightly sick, pulled up MapQuest and typed in the address. It wasn’t too far from him.

Why did these fools want to turn themselves, anyway? Did they think the life of a vampire would be just like it was in all those ridiculous vampire shows on TV? Only better, no doubt. Immortality, power, and riches. All for the low price of blood dependence.

Tonight he’d use his knife. It gave the victim a quicker, cleaner death, especially if he made sure she was out when he did it. He could put her into a trance and then kill her, so she wouldn’t suffer. He slid into the rig he used for his machete, a sheath that lay against his back, then pulled on his black leather jacket and matching gloves, plus a black wool cap. They were having some real shit weather.

The moon was dark tonight, making it easy to fly undetected. He could take his car, but flying gave him a lot more flexibility in case he needed to disappear in a hurry. This was a job he wanted to dispatch as quickly as possible. Then he’d come home and get drunk, try to forget the nasty creature he really was. From his balcony he launched himself into the sky just as it started to rain.

1335 Baltimore turned out to be in a marginal neighborhood. The apartment house had four stories and fake Spanish styling that looked like it hadn’t been updated since it was built. It was flanked by another just like it on one side and a rundown office building on the other. Lights in the windows gave the apartment houses a homey gloss, while the darkness hid much of the disrepair that was probably visible in daylight.

He strode to the front door. It was locked, with a panel of buzzers labeled with the residents’ names. He wasn’t going to announce himself, so he leaned against the stuccoed wall of the building and waited.

A few minutes later, a middle-aged woman with a harried expression and two bags of groceries came puffing up the walk. She gave him a narrow-eyed look as she came up the front steps, probably suspecting him of being a potential murderer, or at least a rapist. Obsidian put on the friendliest smile he could muster.

He reached into her mind at the same time as he reached for the bags. “Let me take those for you.”

Her suspicion disappeared under the force of his influence. “Yes. Thank you.”

He held the bags while she unlocked the door. Sid carried them inside and up stairs covered in carpet so dirty and worn that he couldn’t tell the original color. When they reached her apartment on the second floor, he returned the bags with another smile and a command to forget she’d ever seen him.

The Chandler woman lived on the third floor, at the end of the hall. He paused outside the dull-brown door of her apartment, which was covered in dings and scratches, and listened. She was home. The sound of her breathing, very soft, crept beneath the door along with her scent.

Obsidian sniffed. There was something familiar about that scent, something that brought back a summer night from ten years before. He frowned. It couldn’t be.

He pulled a lockpick set from his jacket pocket. The lock was as old as the building, of low quality and easy to manipulate. Sid opened the door slowly, silently, and eased into the apartment, a studio by the looks of it.

A cramped kitchenette occupied the wall near him. A drop leaf table sat under the window, half its meager expanse swallowed by an expensive-looking computer and monitor. There was an entertainment stand crammed with books and a small TV, and beyond that, the bed.

She was curled up on her mattress, her body wrapped in a hot pink micro-fleece blanket, its fluffiness obscuring her figure. Only her overall shape showed, and a spill of ink-black hair. Something shivered deep in his gut. This didn’t look good at all.

He closed the door behind him and walked to the bed. The woman never stirred. Sitting down on the edge of the mattress, he pushed the strands of hair from her face. Holy Mother of God. It was her. How could this be?

Idiot. Obviously she changed her name. The Chandlers must have adopted her.

She was even lovelier than he remembered, her lashes making thick black fan shapes against the ivory of her skin. Perfect straight nose, lips full yet exquisitely shaped, pink and kissable, chin just slightly pointed, giving her an elfin appearance.

The smart thing—the kind thing—would be to remove her head with the machete while she slept. One clean stroke would do it, especially if he slipped something rigid under her neck to provide a more stable striking surface than the bed. A cutting board, maybe, or even a heavy book. She’d never know what was happening to her. No fear, no suffering.

But he didn’t move. He didn’t pull the machete from its sheath, didn’t lift the blade for the final strike. He just sat, cold and empty, watching her sleep.

What the fuck was wrong with him? He needed to move, get the blade out, finish the job before she woke up and raised hell. The last thing he needed was for her to draw attention to him with her screams. The last thing he needed was those clear, glacier-blue eyes on him while he killed her.

He’d never failed a job. Not once. Obsidian always got his man—or woman. He was Daranda’s Guard Dog and perfect weapon. Always loyal, always lethal. Until now. If he didn’t go through with this execution, his life wouldn’t be worth shit.

Britney’s eyes opened. She gasped and recoiled, hitting the wall of her apartment in her eagerness to get away from him. At the look on her face, a piece of his heart he didn’t know he still possessed died inside him.

Then she frowned, her eyes narrowing. “Obsidian?”

He cleared his throat. “Yeah.”

“What—” She clutched the pink blanket more tightly around herself. “How did you get in here?”

“Picked the lock.”

“But the deadbolt—”

“You must have forgotten it. There was only the door lock.”

Her frown deepened. “Why? Why are you here?”

Why, indeed. He bent his head.

“I never thought I’d see you again,” she said. “Susan told me you stopped answering her calls.”

“I couldn’t see you, Britney.”

“It’s Kayla now.”

Sid lifted his head, forcing himself to look her in the eyes. “I couldn’t see you. I had to stay away.”

“Why?”

Her face was open, questioning but not suspicious. Not afraid. She ought to be afraid of him. He’d just broken into her apartment, for chrissake.

“What did Susan tell you about me?”

Britney—er, Kayla—shrugged. “Not much. She said she hardly knew you. That you’d saved her life once, from some tweakers who were trying to mug her.”

Tweakers. Susan thought those vamps had been tweakers? He gave his head a slight shake. “Okay. Susan doesn’t know much about me, that’s true. She doesn’t know I’m a …”The word stuck in his craw.

“A what? Did you come here to rob me?”

“No. Shit, no. I have plenty of money.”

Kayla rubbed her forehead. “Then why? I’m feeling pretty sick right now, so don’t make me wait.”

“I’m a—” Jesus Christ. He swallowed. “I’m a vampire.”

Her eyes slowly widened. “A vampire.”

“Yeah.”

Then her scowl returned, fiercer than ever. “Is this some kind of sick joke? Did Susan put you up to this?”

“She’s got nothing to do with it.”

“Why would you say that to me? Huh? Why now?” Her voice rose with every word. “You broke into my apartment to tell me you’re a vampire? What the fuck is that?”

Sid blinked. He’d expected tears, terror, maybe even hysteria, but not fury. She had quite a spirit. “I came here … Christ. I came here to kill you.”

 

Chapter 5

 

Kayla’s jaw dropped as she gaped at him from her pink nest. “Kill me?”

“Yeah. Because you turned yourself, didn’t you?”

She paled. “How did you know that? Are you a slayer?”

“No.” He shook his head. “Not the way you mean. I’m a vamp, too, remember?”

Kayla searched his face, obviously trying to process what he’d told her. His whole body ached from the urge to draw her into his arms, to caress her everywhere, taste her, make love to her. He shouldn’t be thinking about that now. Their lives were at stake—no pun intended—and everything depended on the way she took his news and the decisions they made here tonight.

“If you’re a vampire too, then why do you want to kill me?” Her voice sounded remarkably even for someone under a death threat.

“I don’t want to kill you. I was ordered to.”

“By whom?”

“Daranda, Empress of the vampires.”

“Whoa.” She blinked. “The vampires have an empress?”

He nodded. “Most vampires in the world are subjects of the Dark Empire. Daranda is our empress. She has forbidden anyone other than herself from making another vampire. When she discovers a rogue—someone like you, self-made—she sends an enforcer to kill him. Or her.”

“Damn.” Her brow crinkled. “Are you going to kill me?”

How could she be so calm about it?

“No. I can’t.”

Kayla gave a short laugh. “That’s reassuring.”

“She’ll send someone else. When she finds out I didn’t do it, she’ll send a new enforcer, someone who doesn’t know you.” And that person would kill both of them. He’d signed his own death warrant by sparing Kayla.

“Can’t you fake it? Take her a deer heart in a box or something?”

He looked at her blankly.

“It’s from Snow White. The fairy tale.”

“I see. No, it doesn’t work that way. She has seers. They’ll discover us sooner or later. We’ll have to leave. At least we’ll have a chance if we run.” A very slim chance. Paper thin.

“Where would we go?”

“West. There are other vampires, ones who don’t follow Daranda’s laws. They might be able to help us.”The words fell out of his mouth before he had time to realize how unlikely that was. Niko and Laila would have no reason to help them, refugees from the Dark Empire who might for all they knew really be spies for Daranda. After all, that was his original reason for heading West. And that was assuming Niko and Laila were even real.

Kayla tilted her head. “Why would you do this for me? You don’t really know me.”

Because I long for you.

He cleared his throat. “I saved you once. I’m not going to be the one to murder you.”

“But won’t she come after you too?”

“Yeah. She will.”

She looked at him like he was a coded message she was trying to decipher. “I don’t understand. But I’m grateful.”

He reached out and took her by the hand. Her fingers were so slim and delicate. He wanted them all over his body. “So you’ll come with me?”

“What choice do I have?”

“There is that.”

“Hold on. How do I know you’re really a vampire?”

Sid let his fangs descend. He opened his mouth.

She recoiled. “Holy crap.”

He retracted the fangs with his mouth open so she could see them disappear. “I’m really a vampire.”

“I guess you are.”

“Get your things together. We need to get out of here.”

She nodded. “Okay. Um, can you turn around? I’m not wearing anything.”

Those words made his cock swell so fast it hurt. He turned his back on her, letting go of her hand. There was a soft rustle. The bed squeaked as she climbed off. She took two uneven steps across the floor and fell against the TV cabinet, making the whole thing sway.

Sid jumped off the bed to catch her before she sank to the floor. Her bare skin stung him, soft curves pressing into him, desire threatening to overwhelm his concern for her safety. “Are you alright?”

“I’m sorry.” She clung to him, panting slightly. “Like I said, I’m not feeling well.”

“How long has it been since you drank?”

“I had some tea about an hour ago.”

“I meant blood.”

She looked up at him with a grimace. “I haven’t done that yet.”

“You haven’t—how far have you made it through the transition?”

“I don’t know exactly. Maybe half way.”

Sid urged her back to the bed, carefully keeping his eyes from wandering down to the glorious nakedness of her. “You rest. I’ll get your things.”

Kayla reached out and snatched the blanket to her, tucking it around herself as tightly as she could. “Thank you.”

He let her go. She whipped the end of the blanket around her backside before he got a good view of it. God, he was a pig. He shouldn’t be thinking like that right now. He shouldn’t be thinking like that at all. This was Kayla, not some slut of a blood donor.

Kayla fell onto the bed, her pale skin suffused with a crimson blush. “I hope you didn’t see anything.”

“Nothing,” he said soberly.

“Good.”

Obsidian made himself turn away from her. He’d been doing a lot of that ever since he’d arrived—making himself meet her eyes when he didn’t want to and look away when he’d rather gaze longingly at her bare flesh. Come to think of it, his first encounter with her had involved a similar battle with his impulses. That fact could be seen as a reason to stay the hell away from her…but he couldn’t. It was too late for that.

“You have a suitcase?” His voice came out all growly, like he was pissed off or something.

“It’s in the closet.” She pointed at a set of doors.

He opened the first one. Bathroom. The second revealed a closet in perfect proportion to the rest of the apartment. Tiny, in other words. Everything in it seemed to be black.

Pawing through a pile of thick-soled shoes and boots, all in black leather, he found the suitcase on the floor in the back. The case was black, too. Sid dragged it out and started throwing clothes into it. Black miniskirts, black jeans, black sweaters, black tee shirts. In a cheap plastic set of drawers, he found black panties, black bras, black tights and black ankle socks.

He forced back a grin. All this time, he’d pictured her in floral dresses with lace trim. Instead, his angel dressed like a vamp on the hunt. Black underwear went flying into the suitcase.

“Oh, God,” Kayla said. “Um, you should have let me do that.”

“It’s okay.” Seriously. She had some hot little things in these drawers. He pulled out a black garter belt with pale pink bows.

“Don’t—I never let men go through my underwear drawers.”

He turned. “Do you have many offers?” Sid pictured himself removing the heads of the bastards who’d gotten close enough to her to fondle her lingerie.

She blushed brightly enough to match her blanket. “No. But that’s not the point.”

Good. “I wouldn’t be intruding like this if you were well.”

Kayla looked at her lap. “I know. I’m sorry.”

“There’s nothing to be sorry for.” He tossed the garter belt in the case and followed up with the matching bra. “I’m glad they sent me on this job. Otherwise you’d already be dead.”

Her blush vanished, replaced by a stricken expression that made him wince. But she needed to understand how urgent her situation was. Daranda didn’t fool around.

“Is there anything else you need?”

“My make-up and stuff. And my vampire kit.”

“Vampire kit?” He couldn’t help smiling.

“Yeah. It’s in the fridge. And the book is on the table.”

He found the book lying next to the computer. It had a beige leather binding that might have been white at one time, and faded handwriting in English. The Words of the Vampire. When he picked it up, it seemed to vibrate softly, sending energy into his hands and chills up and down his back.

He stared at it. “I never thought I’d really see one of these, even though I kill people for using it. They’ve usually destroyed their copy by the time I get to them.”

“I’d never heard of it.”

“It’s legendary among us vampires.” He looked at her. “Where did you get it?”

“A little antique store. The lady sold it to me for twenty bucks. I thought it was a fake. But then I read the opening prayer, and after that I couldn’t stop thinking about the book. It was like a compulsion. I made the potion and drank it, and did some of the other stuff. I tried to stop, I really did, but I couldn’t.”

He watched her through her explanation. Was she making excuses? He didn’t think so, but he was hardly impartial where she was concerned. Still, it brought up an interesting and disturbing possibility—that he’d spent the last two centuries killing people for something they hadn’t any control over.

Well, he wouldn’t be doing that anymore. He’d just changed sides.

Sid placed the book on top of the clothes and zipped the case. He turned to Kayla. Hell, she wasn’t even dressed and it was cold outside. For a human, anyway. She probably wasn’t far enough into the transition to have acquired a vampire’s tolerance of extreme temperatures.

And even some vampires hated the cold. He, for example, sometimes still longed for the hot weather of his birthplace.

He unzipped the case again, yanked a sweater and a pair of knit yoga pants—in black—from the top of the pile and tossed them to her. “Put these on.”

She took the sweater and drew it over her head with slow, careful movements. When it came to the pants, though, she hesitated. Kayla glanced up at him.

“I don’t think I can manage the pants. When I took off my tights earlier, I almost passed out.”

“I’ll help you.”

Right. Good plan. Helping her would be easy, except for the nearly-uncontrollable lust that swamped him whenever he touched her. He had the perfect excuse, however; they couldn’t have her losing consciousness and maybe hitting her head on the wood of the bookcase.

He bent down to guide her feet into the pants legs. They were slender feet, the nails painted with hot pink polish. Her calves had a delightful curve to them. Sid focused on pulling the garment onto her body. He could not caress those legs, no matter how much he wanted to.

When he’d first found her, she hadn’t been a sexual being to him. He’d only wanted to help her, not seduce her. But she’d been a starving child at the time, and now she’d grown into this beautiful woman.

She’s still not for you. Do you think she’d want you? A stone-cold killer?

He got the pants up to her thighs and stepped back. “Are you okay with the rest?”

“Yeah,” she said faintly. “Thanks.”

But when she tried to lift her hips to pull them up, she made another strangled noise and stopped, panting.

“Here.” He held out a hand. “Lean on me and I’ll pull them up.”

She let him draw her off the bed. Her head only came up to his shoulder as she leaned against him. Slender arms crept around his waist. Sid’s heart began to pound. He ignored it and pulled her pants over her round little ass. Then his own arms came around her to hold her against him for a moment.

He bent his head down to hers. The scent of her shampoo was something tropical. Coconut, maybe.

Sid brushed his lips over the crown of her head. “Ready to go?”

“Yeah. Where are you taking me?”

“To my place. No-one will think of looking for you there.”

Kayla pointed to her kitchen chair. “My coat and boots. Can you help me with those, too?”

“Sure. Can you stand on your own?”

“Yeah.”

They let go of each other. Kayla swayed on her feet, but she remained standing. He strode to the table and got her things before she could fall over. The coat was a black peacoat, the boots some combat-looking things with extra thick soles and silver buckles up the sides. His little angel was a Goth.

Sid buckled the boots as quickly as he could. He glanced at her face. She looked as white and chalky as the paint on her walls.

“I’ve got to make a call before we leave.” He put a gentle hand on her shoulder. “You have to stay completely quiet while I do it. I don’t want the man on the other end to know you’re here.”

“Okay.” She gave him a half-hearted smile.

Sid speed-dialed Grant’s number.

“Grant here.” The other vampire’s voice sounded unnaturally cheerful, given the fact he’d once again played pincushion for Daranda earlier in the night. Maybe Sid was wrong about him, and he truly enjoyed what the empress did to him.

He cleared his throat. “The job is done.”

“Good. Are you coming in?”

“Not until later. I’ve got some hunting to do.”

“Alright. Good hunting, then.”

 ***

 The vampire empress didn’t need to send assassins after Kayla. She was going to die all by herself, thank you very much. For the eight hundredth time, she wondered what the hell she’d been thinking when she’d read the opening prayer in The Words out loud.

Oh, wait, I know. I was thinking vampires were made-up Halloween monsters. How was I supposed to know this shit was real?

She clung to Obsidian in shame-faced need, the heat of his body burning through his clothes and into her skin. Weren’t vampires cold? But he wasn’t. He felt warmer and more alive than anyone Kayla had ever met.

Her dark angel had finally come back to her, and it turned out he was a vampire hit man. How was that for irony? He was just as sexy as she remembered, though. She’d be helplessly turned on, except she was too sick to feel anything but the trembling of her limbs and the agony in every molecule of her body. Besides, he was touching her in such a gingerly way, it was like he thought she had cooties or something. Gimpy nerds with scarred backs were probably not his thing. Just as well—killers weren’t hers.

“How are you going to get me back to your place?” She said it more for a way to break the awkward silence than because she was worried about logistics.

“We’ll have to fly, unless you have a car.”

Oh, shit. Heights were not her thing. “Seriously?” She grinned though her dismay. “You can really fly?”

The corner of his mouth twitched. “I can.”

“That’s wicked cool.”

Obsidian huffed a laugh. “I guess it is, but tonight we’re going to get rained on.”

“I won’t melt.” Can you die from panic?

“Alright, then, Elphaba. Let’s go.”

She laughed. He had a sense of humor. Her laughter disappeared in a little squeak of surprise when he swept her into his arms, though.

“I can walk.”

He glanced down at her. God, he was beautiful, the sculpted planes of his face thrown into gorgeous relief by the low light in her apartment. In the opening of his jacket, she could see his throat, banded by a heavy black leather collar decorated with silver studs. “You almost fell over a minute ago. I’d rather carry you.”

“But what about my case?”

He bent his knees, holding her with one arm while he grabbed the suitcase handle. “I’ll carry that, too.”

“Put me down. I’m too heavy for this.”

Obsidian snorted. “I can hardly tell I’m carrying anything.” He reached for the door handle and paused. “Is there a back way out of here?”

“Yeah, at the end of the first floor hallway. Why? Are you being watched?”

“You never know.”

He carried her into the hall and locked the door after them. All around them, in the other apartments, people were cooking dinner and playing music and yelling at their kids. Normal life kept chugging along, even while her life fell apart.

“I won’t be coming back here, will I?” she whispered.

“No. Now keep quiet. We’ll talk later.” His voice was pitched so low she could barely hear it.

No-one saw them leave the building. At least, no-one she could detect. When they reached a pool of deep shadow beneath the lone spruce tree in back of the apartment house, Obsidian’s feet left the ground and they began to rise. Kayla threw her arms around his neck and pressed her face into the smooth black leather of his jacket. She’d never liked heights—couldn’t even handle the Ferris wheel.

“I won’t drop you,” he murmured.

She couldn’t answer. There was nothing under their feet but air, and they were still going up. The smell of rain was thick in her nose, covering up the city stench of car exhaust and dumpsters. Even stronger was the scent of leather and man. Obsidian smelled like pure animal sex.

There was something unreal about the situation. Here she was in the arms of a killer, a man who’d murdered God only knew how many people, and she wasn’t even afraid of him. It was the pain. If she were her usual self she would be terrified of him.

He had cold eyes. Hard eyes. Even when he smiled. She hadn’t remembered that about him. He’d looked at her like she was a math problem to be solved, not a person. Except when he was helping her get dressed. For an instant, his gaze had softened. He’d almost looked affectionate, as if he cared about her.

Don’t fool yourself, Kayla. He’s a killer, not your boyfriend.

He glanced down at her face. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah.” She looked away, making herself peek at the view.

A vista of rain-wet streets, head-and-tail lights, and the roofs of buildings stretched away in every direction. My God, they were up high. There was nothing under their feet but air. She clung more tightly to him, turning her face into his chest.

“Don’t worry. I won’t drop you.” His deep voice reverberated beneath her ear.

“I know.”

“Are you sure?” He sounded amused.

“Yeah. I trust you.”

“I’m not sure why,” he muttered.

He couldn’t have meant her to hear that. “You mean because you’re a killer?”

“I told you once before. I’m not a good man.”

“You saved my life twice. There must be something good in you.”

The wind whipped her pants legs and her hair as he picked up speed. It drove right through her peacoat, making her shiver. How long was this flight? And were they going to serve peanuts? She bit her lip to stop a hysterical giggle from escaping.

Kayla had only been on an airplane twice, when Susan and Mark had taken her on a vacation to Mexico. One flight there, and one flight back. Her birth parents certainly never flew.

“I couldn’t stand what she was doing to you,” Obsidian said.

She lifted her head. “Who?”

“Your mother.”

“How did you even know?”

He flicked a glance at her, then looked away. Into the distance. “I was on my way to a hit. The target lived in your building, on the next floor up. I saw you through the window. You were standing with your arms against the wall.”

She fought down another shiver, this one caused by memory and not the cold. “She did that a lot.”

“I had to complete the hit.” He swallowed. “When I came back, you weren’t in the dining room and I could hear the sound of someone being beaten. So I came in through the window.”

“But why? Why did you care?”

“You were just a girl. A kid. I don’t know, I couldn’t leave you there.”

She smiled, although he couldn’t see her because he wouldn’t look at her. “There is something good in you, Obsidian. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have cared. You would have just kept going.”

He didn’t answer.

“I thought you were an angel,” she said.

He laughed. “An angel?”

“You were saving my life. You came out of nowhere. You can fly.” And you’re the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen. “Of course I thought you were an angel.”

“You must be disappointed with the truth.”

“I’m intrigued. I didn’t know vampires were real until I started turning into one.” And she wondered what kind of vampire hit man would save the life of a girl he’d never even met before.

“We are real, and the world we inhabit can be an ugly place.”

“So can the human world.”

“That’s true.”

He resumed staring off into the distance. Kayla rested her head against his chest again, closing her eyes. Their conversation had taken all the energy out of her, and she hadn’t had much to begin with.

He began to descend. She opened her eyes and looked down. They were coming to earth in a deserted alley with no street lights. She couldn’t even see the pavement, it was so dark.

They landed hard, Obsidian’s knees bending to take the shock. Kayla could smell the water on the pavement and the rankly sweet stench of garbage. She wrinkled her nose. Everything seemed to smell more these days.

Sid carried her around the corner onto a walkway bordered by a tidy hedge of leafless privet. She loosened her hold on his neck.

“You can put me down now.”

“You’re still weak.”

“People will wonder what you’re doing if you carry me.”

By this time, they were almost at the front of the building. He looked down at her as if considering, and finally set her on her feet. Kayla straightened her pant legs. She felt a little unsteady, but if she moved slowly she ought to be able to make it.

“Thank you.”

He offered his arm. She took it. The muscle under his leather jacket was hard as stone.

The sidewalk in front of his building was perfectly swept, the entrance covered with a bright red-and-white awning and flanked by two gigantic pots filled with some kind of modern arrangement of skinny Italian cypress and fancy grasses. A doorman in uniform stood with his back to them.

Sid paused in the shadows at the corner. “On second thought, we’ll fly up.”

He brought her back to the alley and picked her up.

“You don’t want anyone to see me going into your building,” she said.

“Daranda has informants everywhere. She has my address, and I’m sure she’s keeping tabs on me.”

He lifted off, going faster this time. Floor after floor sped by, some of the windows dark, some covered in blinds or curtains, some bare and brightly lit. The lit ones invited her to look inside, at spacious apartments filled with modern art and luxurious furniture.

Obsidian’s windows were utterly black. Somehow, that didn’t surprise her. They landed on a balcony with no furniture of any kind, not even a plastic patio chair. He set her down and opened a sliding glass door to a dark interior. Kayla tottered after him as he went inside, closing the door behind her.

They’d entered in a dining room, apparently, although it held nothing but a metal bistro table—the kind they had at garden supply centers—and two matching chairs, faintly illuminated by the light of the street lamps. The room beyond had stark white walls, an enormous black leather sectional, a single floor lamp, and a monstrous flat-screen TV. Next to the TV, a rolling bar cart held some crystal and three bottles of assorted hard liquor. There were no decorations, no books, not even a centerfold taped to the wall. But it was warm. At least he’d turned on the heat.

“I have to go out for a while,” Obsidian said.

“Hunting?”

“No. I’m going to make an appearance at court. There’s food in the kitchen.”

She opened her mouth. “You eat? Food?”

“Yeah. Did you think we only drank blood?”

“I didn’t know what to think.”

“The blood makes us vampires, but it doesn’t fill the stomach. We still have to eat.” He pointed at an archway on the opposite side of the living room. “If you get sleepy, the bedroom is through there.”

“I don’t want to take your bed.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll take the couch.”

She hunched her shoulders. “Okay.”

“I won’t be gone long. Don’t turn on the lights or watch TV. We don’t want the watchers, if there are any, to know you’re here.”

Kayla nodded. “Yeah. Alright.”

Obsidian put his fingers under her chin. “You’ll be fine. I’ll only be gone for an hour or two.”

“Yes.” She nodded again. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”

“When I come back, I’ll come through the sliding glass door.” He turned to leave.

Kayla caught his arm. “Thank you, Obsidian.”

He shrugged. “Don’t worry about it,” he said carelessly. Then he pulled away from her and went back onto the balcony.

She didn’t know him at all. Ever since he’d rescued her from her mom, she’d had these fantasies about him, about what a generous and heroic man he was. He’d said he wasn’t a good person, and she hadn’t believed him. After all, he’d saved her life purely out of compassion. Bad people didn’t do things like that, right?

Since her foster mom didn’t know much about him, Kayla had filled in the gaps with her imagination. She’d kept hoping she would see him again someday. That he’d come for her, tell her she was the only one for him, and take her away. That day had never come.

She gave an inelegant snort as she dragged her bag unsteadily into the living room and dropped it next to the couch. Fantasies. That’s all they were. The teen-age daydreams of a girl who’d never been kissed, or even looked at by a boy.

She wasn’t that girl anymore. She’d had a handful of lovers and, for a couple of years, a steady boyfriend. The beaten-down little mouse who’d dreamed of being swept away by her dark angel was gone, and Kayla didn’t want her back.

Unzipping the suitcase, she took out her vampire kit with its plastic baggie of yew berries collected on the sly from a local botanical garden. Somehow she had to read the correct prayer from the book while eating the berries. It wasn’t going to be easy, since she couldn’t turn on any lights.

Maybe a bathroom would work. Kayla took the kit along while she shuffled, bent over like an old woman, through the condo looking for the john. She opened a coat closet and the door to the spare bedroom—which contained nothing but a desk with a computer on it—before she found the powder room. Eureka. It had no windows.

Kayla shut the door before turning on the lights. The bathroom was ultra-trendy, with a floating vanity out of coffee-dark wood and a vessel sink made of beaten copper. She laid the book open on the vanity and opened the bag of berries.

They were red and fleshy, almost waxen in appearance. She put one in her mouth. It was sweet and didn’t taste poisonous at all until her teeth crushed the seed in the center. Hideously bitter. She gagged, tempted for an instant to spit the nasty thing into the toilet. But who knew what the consequences would be if she stopped the process now? Kayla forced herself to swallow.

She bent over the book. The words she had to recite looked like more gibberish. Did this crap even mean anything? Presumably it did, or it wouldn’t be in here, but you’d think they—whoever they were—could have included an English translation. After all, the rest of the book was in English.

A voice seemed to whisper the words inside her head. Kayla sighed.

“Mah-tay nah-kah-rahk-tay. Ipo-hee-nah mah-kah-rahk-tay.”

She chewed another berry. Gack.

“Nah-tay mah-kah-rahk-tay. Ipo-hee-nah nah-kah-rahk-tay.”

The n and the m had changed places. Maybe it was a copy error. But the voice in her head pronounced the words as written, so that’s how she said them.

When all else fails, follow the voices in your head.

 

Chapter 6

 

Sid made it back to Daranda’s mansion, where she held court, a couple of hours before dawn. He’d had no blood in ten days, which meant he was getting into the danger zone. A few more days and he’d be suffering from the blood hunger. Tomorrow night, he had to drink, no matter what else happened.

He landed on her roof-top garden, abandoned because of the chilly rain. Her mansion had originally been a bank built in the 1880’s, and she’d had the roof reinforced to support the garden. A fountain splashed in the courtyard, and potted Japanese maples brushed their sodden leaves against his face as he strode toward the door.

She was in her enormous living room, although not on the chaise longue. Tonight she sat in an oversized armchair that—not coincidentally—resembled a throne. Two naked human pets, one male and one female, sprawled at her feet. Raphael Black sat at her right side, his long dark hair and goatee making him look slightly Satanic. Another female pet curled up on Black’s lap.

Obsidian hesitated an instant when he noticed Black. What was he doing here? He rarely made an appearance at court. Supposedly that was because he needed to be insulated from everyday energies so he could perform his duties as the Seer—the Empress’s spy. Most of Daranda’s subjects, however, believed that he preferred to amuse himself with the rogues he’d helped to disappear, tormenting them at his leisure in the tunnels that made up his home.

Obsidian recovered and moved toward the two. With luck, no-one had noticed his reaction to Black’s presence. The man was uncanny, feared even by vampires. Even by Sid.

Black’s strange greenish eyes met his gaze without smiling. The Seer had a knack for looking right through people, as if he knew everyone’s innermost secrets without being told. Until tonight, Obsidian had had nothing to hide. Now, he’d rather Black be kept in complete ignorance of his thoughts, his deeds, his whereabouts.

Sid bowed to Daranda. “Your Majesty.”

“Where have you been all evening?” she said languidly.

“Hunting.”

“Ah. It’s too bad you weren’t here earlier. Raphael and I were having the most fascinating conversation. But it’s getting late and he must fly home.” She patted Black’s thigh as if he were a pet.

Black smiled, but the expression was not friendly. He remained inscrutable even as his lips curled upward. “It is time for me to be going.”

Sid gave him a careless smile in return. “Don’t let me keep you. I’ll be off in a few minutes myself.”

The Seer focused more intently on Obsidian’s face. In order to put Black off the events of the evening, Sid turned his mind toward the last hit he’d performed, on a recalcitrant senator in Washington. The man had resisted complying with Daranda’s objectives, in spite of the influence of one of the Empress’s most highly placed vampires. She kept her people close to all the powerful politicians of the world, so she could whisper in their ears via her proxies.

Sid had used his vampiric ability to control human minds to gain access to the senator’s home. He discovered the man in his study, where he delivered an injection of a certain chemical substance which caused the victim to have a stroke and which left no trace of its presence. All in all, a more difficult but tidier way of dispatching an enemy than tearing off his head.

Black picked up the pet on his lap and set her on the floor. She pouted. His gaze slid away from Sid as he rose to bow respectfully to the Empress. Had he noticed anything? Had those strange eyes seen the traitorous act Sid had committed earlier in the evening? If so, he gave no sign of it.

He patted the girl on her naked ass. “Go visit Sid for a while. He looks like he could use the company.”

The Seer stalked from the room. It seemed as if everyone present gave a sigh of relief when he was gone, even the Empress herself. He was her beast in every way, and yet she seemed to fear him almost as much as her subjects did.

The girl smiled at him as she climbed on his lap. Sid put his arms around her naked waist, as much to prevent her from falling to the floor as anything. She had curly blond hair and a vacuous expression, although that was likely not her fault. Daranda kept her pets in a state of mental vacancy. She liked them docile.

The girl put her arms around his neck, her breasts crushing against the cool leather of his jacket. “Hi, Sid.” She kissed him on the cheek.

She was new. “Hi, sweetheart. What’s your name?” He’d seen her before, but couldn’t remember.

“Chrissie.”She kissed him again. “Mr. Black wouldn’t drink from me. Would you like a drink?”

He’d love one, but he’d just told everyone he’d been out hunting. If he drank, he’d give himself away. Still, his gums tingled as his fangs tried to descend. Hunger clawed at his gut.

“I already drank tonight.”

She lowered her head, disappointment plain in every line of her body.

“Oh, go ahead and drink, Sid.” Daranda laughed. “Have pity on the child.”

He sighed in make-believe resignation. “Alright.”

“Don’t you want my blood?” Chrissie said.

Sid caressed the side of her neck with his fingertips. “Of course I do. I just don’t normally take blood more than once every few days.”

“Then it’ll be a treat.” She looked pleased with herself.

“Yes, it will.” He bent his head and pressed a line of kisses along her neck.

Chrissie sighed as her head tilted even farther against his shoulder. He probed her mind, sending her the suggestion of sexual arousal. She responded instantly, the scent of her desire perfuming the air around her.

“You might as well take her, too.” The empress smiled like a cat.

“For God’s sake, Daranda.”

She frowned at the use of her given name. “Don’t be tiresome, Sid. I want to see you take her.”

“Yes, please,” Chrissie murmured, her hands busy with his fly.

She was pretty and eager. And he could never have Kayla. He let the girl undo his pants and set his cock free as he reached up to cup her breast.

Chrissie was so wet he slid easily into her body. She worked herself up and down on him while he put a hand behind her neck, drawing her in for his bite. His teeth pierced her skin and she gave a little cry of pleasure. Sid used his other hand to touch her, playing with her clitoris until she came, screaming. His own climax arrived silently, his face buried in her neck, body shuddering in release.

When he finally arrived at his apartment, he opened his balcony door with a sharper sense of relief than usual. Pulling down the blinds and drawing the curtains kept him and Kayla safe from the ravages of sunlight. He put some classic jazz on the cd player—he still resisted the whole MP3 thing—and poured himself a shot of whiskey.

What a fucked up night. He glanced around his austere living room, with its flat-screen TV, charcoal sectional and single floor lamp. Kayla must be in the bedroom. After tonight he wouldn’t ever see this place again. His quixotic act of compassion forced him to switch loyalties, or at least to cut and run from the Dark Empire.

Most people who left didn’t last very long. Raphael Black’s stable of under-seers rooted out deserters efficiently, and Daranda’s assassins eliminated them. He’d never heard of anyone eluding them for more than a few weeks.

Two hundred years of loyalty and service dumped in the trash for a girl he barely knew. What the hell had he been thinking? All he’d known in that moment, looking down at her wrapped in that pink blanket, was that he couldn’t take her life.

Sid threw himself onto the couch and stretched his legs out in front of him. He was tired of death. Tired of bringing terror and despair to people with whom he had no quarrel.

Saving Kayla was the only good thing he’d ever done. In the first hundred years of his vampire existence, he’d truly believed in the work he was doing. Protecting Daranda and her empire had meant protecting vampires as a whole, keeping the race strong, ensuring no rogue vamps were out there terrorizing humans and foolishly revealing vampire secrets to the general public.

Somewhere along the way, the shine had worn off his mission. The so-called rogues were usually down-on-their-luck losers like Brad, the man he’d killed right before saving Kayla. Occasionally they were principled occult masters investigating the claims of the vampire grimoire—The Words of the Vampire—which they’d stumbled upon in their studies.

None of the rogues he’d killed had seemed particularly threatening, yet their blood was on his hands—so much of it that he’d probably never get clean.

Kayla knew what he was now, yet she didn’t seem properly afraid of him. Sid knocked back the last of the whiskey. She hadn’t seen him actually kill anyone. If ever she witnessed him in the act, she wouldn’t think of him as her guardian angel anymore.

He got up and poured himself another drink. Time to make a plan. No-one in the Dark Empire knew about his rescue of Britney Peach. He’d never spoken of her to anyone. Therefore, they wouldn’t be watching him—or Kayla, for that matter—and wouldn’t catch on for several days, maybe a week.

How long did it take to get through the transformation via ritual? His own had consumed three whole days, and then another three weeks of extreme weakness and vulnerability. He could only afford to give Kayla another couple of days. After that, he’d have to quit the Dark Empire or risk being exposed by Raphael Black.

When he left the empire, Black and his minions would soon realize he’d defected. They’d examine everything he’d done for the last six months or more. He gave them a day or less to figure out that he hadn’t wasted Kayla as ordered. Once they did, Daranda would come after him and Kayla with all her power.

She’d send hunters. A team, probably. If that didn’t do the trick, she’d send in her army. And she’d keep sending hunters after them, until both were captured and dragged back in chains so she could have them killed slowly and publicly over the course of many days. This was not something she’d be able to let go, because Sid was part of her inner circle and was well-known in the empire. One might even say he was infamous. Daranda’s favorite killer.

She would make an example out of him.

He closed his eyes, leaning his head against the back of the couch, the whiskey forgotten. There was no way he would allow Daranda to torture Kayla. Therefore, they had to avoid capture.

But how? That was the question of the moment.

Sid pushed up his sleeve and fingered the lump made by the tiny crystal that had been implanted under the skin in the crook of his elbow. That crystal, plus the bond established by the exchange of blood during his transformation, gave Daranda a link she and Raphael Black could follow to find him. No matter where he went. If he cut it out, they would also know that and be alerted.

And even with the crystal gone, Daranda would be capable of sensing his presence, maybe even of tracking him long distance. No matter what he did or where he went, they could find him.

Kayla needed help adjusting to vampire life, so he couldn’t abandon her in an attempt to protect her. No, what they needed was outside assistance. And who would be willing and able to help two vampires on the run from the Dark Empire?

Niko and Laila might.

He pushed his fingers through his hair. Niko and Laila were little more than a vampire fairy tale as far as he was concerned. He’d heard stories about them for two hundred years, yet he’d never met them. He’d never even met someone who claimed to have met them, other than Daranda herself. They might not exist at all.

If they did exist, they might be even worse than the empress. Daranda was a tyrant, but she did keep order in her empire. She did enforce her law and protect humans in general from being ravaged by rogue vamps.

She also uses mind control to influence human affairs.

It was for the good of everyone, of course. Vampires needed rich hunting grounds, and humans needed the vampire population to remain at a reasonable level so they didn’t overhunt. That was her noble reason for fostering war, famine and grossly overpopulated cities with an underclass vulnerable to fanged predators.

How much worse could Niko and Laila be?

Enough waffling. Daranda had given him an excuse to get out of town, gift wrapped and tied with a ribbon. They needed to get out of here before anyone suspected what he’d done and while there was still enough darkness left to give them a good head start. Sid put down his shot glass went into the bedroom.

She was curled up on top of his comforter in a fetal position. Sid leaned down and shook her gently by the shoulder until she opened her eyes and gave him a bleary stare.

“Are your things still in your suitcase?”

She blinked. “Yeah.”

“Good. We’re leaving now.”

“Okay. Wait. I left my vamp kit in the powder room.”

“Get your coat on. I’ll grab the kit.”

He went for the powder room without waiting to see if she’d follow directions. The book lay open on the counter. Next to it was an empty plastic sandwich bag and a paper sack with the rest of her supplies. He scooped all of it into his arms and brought it to his bedroom, where he tossed it into his own suitcase. She was already in the living room with her coat on.

“Can you walk by yourself?”

“I think so.”

Obsidian hoisted her case in his free hand. “Come on, then. It isn’t far.”

She stumbled after him as he locked up and led the way to the elevator. “Won’t they see me?”

“Not unless they have access to the security cameras. Which they don’t.” He hoped.

The elevator took them down twenty floors to the underground parking garage where he kept his car. At this hour, the place was silent and deserted. He stowed their cases in the trunk of his Mustang and then settled Kayla in the front passenger seat.

“Lay down until I tell you otherwise,” he said.

“What about the stick? I don’t want to mess up your driving.”

“Then get in the back.”

She climbed into the back and lay down without complaint. Sid got in, started the engine, and drove sedately out of the garage.

He was the only vampire in the building, as far as he knew. And he’d checked, multiple times. Yet he frequently sensed the presence of another of his kind when he came and went. Tonight was no exception. There were eyes on him, on his car, as he exited the garage and turned right on Taylor.

It was a good thing the Mustang had a black interior. With her black hair and clothes, Kayla would be virtually invisible as long as she kept her head down. Her energy signature and scent, on the other hand, were more difficult to disguise. He could only hope the watcher had less than stellar psychic abilities.

A few blocks past his building, he glanced in the rearview mirror. She was still prone on the back seat. “You can sit up now.”

Her only answer was a tiny, lady-like snore. He smiled and turned on the radio, keeping the volume low. She needed her sleep.

The streets were slick with rain, the tires of his car making a hissing noise as they swept over the pavement. Lights flashed in his eyes—stoplights, lighted signs, headlights, on and on in a rhythm of light and dark. He drove west toward Pittsburgh, but it took a long time to get out of Jefferson—inner-city, suburbs, suburbs and more suburbs, all whizzing by in flashes of light until finally he reached the countryside and drove on in the darkness.

What was he going to do with Kayla? If they managed to find Niko and Laila, she could stay with them while he went on his way. Even if he stayed in that group he wouldn’t have to be responsible for her. But if they did not find Niko and Laila, she would be dependent on him for some time in the future. Newly transformed vampires could not be allowed to live on their own. They needed training, which took months if not years.

He did not—could not—see himself with Kayla for years.

He was no one. He was nothing for a young woman like her. He would ruin her. Somehow, in spite of everything that had happened to her as a child, she had retained some goodness. Not just some goodness. There was a light inside of her that shone so bright it almost blinded him. And he—he would dim the light just by being near her. It was his way. His own light had gone out, and he could feel the darkness inside him swallowing up every stray beam that came his way.

Somehow he had to get rid of Kayla. She needed people who could look over her, train her in the ways of her new life, until she was strong enough to stand on her own feet. He was not that person. For her own safety, he had to let her go.

He didn’t know how long he drove her through the countryside before he reached the Allegheny Mountains, but eventually the highway began its twisting climb toward the higher elevations. Even with his vampire eyes, he could see little of the scenery that surrounded them. There was nothing but darkness and the hiss of tires on pavement.

A soft moan came from the back. Obsidian twisted in his seat and peered into the shadows of the car to see what was wrong. He could hardly make her out she was so dark against the black interior of the car. Another moan rose to his ears.

“Are you alright, Kayla?”

There was no answer.

“Kayla?”

She moaned again, more loudly this time. He could hear the sound of her body or limbs thrashing against the leather seat. Something was very wrong.

Sid began to slow the car down as he peered out at the road in front of him looking for a place to pull over. All he could see was trees and underbrush crowding the road, the mass of greenery occasionally pierced by a driveway or a small country lane. If necessary, he would use one of those.

Come to think of it, a country lane would serve his purposes better than a pullout. There would be more privacy. He slowed down even more, until he came to the next narrow road and made a hard right, bumping along the dirt until he’d gotten far enough off the highway and he felt safe from the curious stares of passersby.

He put the car in park and turned on the interior light. Then he turned to see Kayla. She still hadn’t awakened. Her eyes were closed. She was panting and trembling, her lips blue. He laid his palm against her skin. Cold.

“Kayla, can you hear me?”

There was no response. Damn it. He shouldn’t have left her alone. The court wouldn’t have suspected anything if he’d been gone for just one night.

Sid got out of the car. He opened the back door and climbed in. He took her by the shoulders and gave her a gentle shake. “Kayla! Kayla, wake up!”

No response. Not even a flick of her eyelids.

Sid held two fingers against her carotid artery. She had a heartbeat, faint and weak but still there. Should he do the blood exchange? If he did, Daranda would be able to sense Kayla through the blood connection the empress had with him.

To drink from Kayla was a temptation he’d never allowed himself to even consider. She was forbidden. He wanted her to remain innocent, untouched by someone as ugly inside as he was.

Kayla began to shake, violent tremors that rocked her whole body. He was going to lose her if he hesitated. It might already be too late.

He bent over the shuddering girl as his fangs descended. Before he could talk himself out of it, he plunged those fangs into her neck. She didn’t even seem to notice.

Retracting the teeth, he began to drink in long pulls. Her blood tasted strange, probably because she was part way through the transformation. Yet it filled him with illicit pleasure, so much pleasure. The earlier orgasm with Chrissie couldn’t prevent him from becoming hard and ready all over again. His cock throbbed, shoving against the restriction of his jeans.

 

Chapter 7

 

Sid found himself stroking Kayla, long caresses that moved from nape to hip and down her thigh. The movement was awkward in the confines of the Mustang’s back seat, but he couldn’t stop. Her shuddering eased, the beat of her heart slowing and slowing and slowing, until it ceased completely.

He pulled back. He pushed his fangs out again, and used them to slash his wrist, just as he had ten years ago. With his other hand, he pulled her jaw open and let the blood drip into her open mouth. When he judged she’d had enough, he closed her jaw and stroked her throat until she swallowed reflexively.

He’d never made another vampire before, but he’d seen it done a couple of times. Daranda didn’t allow any of her subjects to make another. She was the only one who had the authority to do it. The real reason, he suspected, was that she wanted the blood connection between her and each subject to be as strong as possible for control purposes.

Kayla’s eyes moved beneath her eyelids. Her lashes fluttered. She looked up at him blankly.

He shoved his bleeding wrist against her mouth. “Drink.”

Her lips pressed weakly against his skin. He pushed harder, so that her teeth contacted the edges of the wound. She drew in a mouthful of blood and swallowed.

Then she reached up and grasped his arm with both hands, holding him in place while she sucked on his vein. His cock pulsed, forcing him to shift around to accommodate its increased size. Jesus, it felt good for her to drink from him. He’d had no idea.

This secret, if it got out among the subjects of the Dark Empire, would endanger everything Daranda had built. Vampires would be making more vamps just to have people who would drink from their veins. No wonder the empress wanted to keep the making of new vamps to herself.

How much should he let Kayla take? When the empress changed someone, she let them drink for about a minute. It felt like time to stop.

He drew back on his arm. She moaned, holding him tighter while she took another pull. He peeled one of her hands off his arm, pinning it so he could remove the other. His cock still throbbed, gleefully anticipating the hot, tight clasp of her body.

Stop thinking about it.

“Time to stop, little one.”

“No.”

“Yes.” He laughed softly as he removed his arm from her possession. “You’ve had plenty.”

She had blood on her lips. Sid took a facial tissue from the box next to the bed and wiped her mouth, suppressing a sigh of relief. She was going to make it.

Kayla frowned, her gaze clearing. “What happened? You made me drink your blood?”

“You went into convulsions.”

“Oh.” She brushed her lips with the back of her hand. “So I’m a vampire now?”

“It’ll take about three days for the full transformation to take place. But you are, basically, a vampire now.”

Kayla struggled into a sitting position. “Is the whole thing going to be this rocky?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Because this sucks.”

“It’ll get better.”

He wanted to kiss her. No kissing. “Are you going to be okay now? We need to get back on the road. We need to get as far as we can this first night, get as far away from Jefferson as possible. Why don’t you ride in the front seat?”

“Okay.”

They both got out of the back seat went around to the front. Kayla seemed a little shaky but she climbed in alright without assistance and sat down, leaning her head against the head rest. Sid shut off the interior light, put the car in reverse, and backed up all the way to the highway.

By now it was so late there were very few other drivers on the road. It was easy to pull out. He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. She still looked pale and sickly, but he guessed she would be good for two or three hundred miles anyway. And that was all the time they had. By then the sun would be coming up, or close to it, and they would have to find a place to hide during the day.

His hand itched to reach out and touch her somewhere, anywhere. Hand, thigh, face, it didn’t matter. She’d taken his blood. Maybe that had created more than a mere psychic bond between them. Maybe it had affected his body as well as hers, making him long for her even more acutely than he already did.

He tightened his grip on the steering wheel. No touching unless absolutely necessary. She wasn’t for him and never would be.

“I had a weird dream,” she said.

“Oh?”

“There were these people I was trying to find. Vampires. Nick and Linda? No, that’s not right. What was it?”

He went cold all over. Glancing at her, he waited to see if she would find the names.

“Niko and Laila. That was it.” She looked away from him, out the window. “I had to find them because they were the only ones who could make me a real vampire. Isn’t that weird? Especially since you were about to give me your blood.”

“It’s weirder than you think. There really are two vampires named that, and I’m trying to find them.”

Her head snapped around and she stared at him. “Seriously?”

“Seriously.”

“Are they friends of yours?”

“No.”

“Who are they then? More of Daranda’s people?”

“They’re not with Daranda. They live somewhere on the West Coast. They’re considered enemies of the Dark Empire.”

“So they’re enemies of Daranda, too?”

“They are. She sent me to them, hoping I could spy for her. But now I think they may be able to help us. It’s the best plan I’ve got at the moment.” He hated showing so much uncertainty to Kayla, but he owed her some honesty. She ought to know what they were up against.

“They must be powerful, if they’re Daranda’s enemies.”

“Niko and Laila are almost like a fairytale to us vampires. They’re said to be among the most ancient of us, and that they came from ancient Atlantis. That’s the story Daranda tells anyway. She claims to be from Atlantis too.”

“So do you believe that story?”

“I don’t know what to believe. But Daranda seems to believe it, so I guess Niko and Laila must exist somewhere. Supposedly they’re on the West Coast. If we can get to them, I think they may be able to protect us from her.”

“I hope you’re right.”

Me too.

He sensed that she wanted to talk more. It made him feel like crawling out of his own skin. And yet—there was something restful about her. Something safe.

Don’t be a fucking idiot. She’s not safe. No one is safe. If you want a friend in the vampire world, get a dog.

They didn’t say much after that. His cock gradually realized it wasn’t getting what it wanted and settled down. Sid turned on the radio so he wouldn’t fall asleep while driving, turned the volume up high. He favored heavy metal tonight, and he had a feeling Kayla didn’t like it. Well, that was too bad. He was the one driving.

Eventually they came on a crappy little motel with a vacancy sign. The VAC had burned out, so only the ANCY still showed. It was called the Wishing Well Motel, and only had three cars parked in the lot. At least one of them had to belong to a staff member. Nice place. Popular, too.

He left Kayla in the car while he went inside to get a room. The room had one double bed. He didn’t want anyone to know that he was traveling with a companion, which is why he did not request either a king size bed or two doubles. But now they had the joy of sleeping together.

Kayla stumbled out of the car and into the motel room without comment, even though it was one of the shabbiest places he’d ever seen. Maybe she’d never even been in a hotel before. Her birth family sure hadn’t been able to afford nice vacations.

Sid dumped the suitcases at the foot of the bed while Kayla threw herself down on top of the mattress, over the bedspread, and closed her eyes. She was instantly asleep. He went into the bathroom, used the toilet, and washed his face. Then he returned to the bedroom.

He lifted the covers. Leaving his clothes on, he climbed into the bed and closed his eyes. They were both dressed, and they had the covers between them. That should keep him from doing anything too stupid.

***

 

A scream woke him a few hours before sunset. He jackknifed into a sitting position. Kayla lay on the bed with her spine arched, her head falling back, her mouth open for another shriek, eyes wide. She already had fangs, and they were fully descended.

The sheets and blanket were tangled around her legs. She collapsed flat on the bed. Then her arms and legs began to flail as she clawed at the bedcovers, wailing. Jesus.

He grabbed hold of her wrists. “Kayla! Wake up. Kayla, wake up.”

Her head thrashed back and forth. She moaned.

“It’s alright. You’re having a bad dream.”

But she wouldn’t wake up, wouldn’t stop kicking. Her skin, which had been so cold earlier, felt feverishly hot. Obsidian lowered his body over hers, weighing her down to prevent her from hurting herself. Unfortunately that brought up all kinds of feelings he didn’t want to have at the moment. He told his cock to stand down.

He’d never seen this kind of reaction to the transformation process. Most vampires just slept a lot during their transition. Maybe it had something to do with all the rituals she’d performed.

“No,” she moaned. Her voice sounded artificially high. “No, Mommy, please. I’ll be good.” Like the voice of a child. His heart pinched at that sound.

She really was having a nightmare. He lowered his head as she thrashed violently beneath him. “Shh, little one. It’s just a dream.”

Kayla rammed him in the forehead with her skull. And still didn’t wake up.

“Sonofabitch.” He grabbed both her wrists in one hand and used the other to capture her head. “Settle down, now. No-one’s going to hurt you.”

She started to cry.

“It’s alright.” He didn’t know what to do, so he kept repeating the same phrase.

Her weeping turned into hard sobs, her body quiet now, almost limp, and he rolled to the side and gathered her into his arms and held her. He was the wrong person for this job. What the hell did he know about comforting a woman? Not a single thing. But he was the only one there, so he kept holding her.

A slender arm crept around his waist, giving him his first clue she was awake and aware. He’d been petting her, stroking her back, and he didn’t know if he should stop so he continued. It couldn’t hurt. She was crying like it was the end of the world, and maybe it was, for her. Maybe she didn’t want to be a vampire and drive off with him, leaving everyone she knew behind.

“Just a dream, little one. It was just a dream.”

Her sobs stopped, yet her body still quaked, as if she held the force of it inside her.

“I’m sorry.” Her voice sounded rusty. “I don’t know what’s the matter with me.”

“You’re having a rough transition.”

She gave a shaky laugh. “Is that what this is?”

He ought to let go of her. “Do you normally wake up screaming?”

“Sometimes.”

Shit. “I’m sorry.”

“You’re the last person who should be sorry.” She sniffed. “If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t even be here.”

Sid reached over the nightstand and grabbed a few tissues from a box set into the wall. Sunlight tried to stab its way around and through the drapes. By its light he could see that her eyes were swollen and red-rimmed. Her nose was red, too. She still looked beautiful.

He gave her a tissue. “Your mom can’t hurt you anymore.”

“I was talking in my sleep, huh?”

“Yeah.”

She dabbed her eyes and delicately blew her nose. “Sometimes I relive those days. I know I’m dreaming, but at the same time, some part of me thinks it’s all real. I’m sorry if I woke you up.”

“I was going to get up anyway.”

Kayla gave him a crooked smile. “Liar.”

He found himself smiling back. Lifting his hand, he brushed a strand of hair from her eyes. She fitted so well against him, even though she was tiny in comparison to his bulk.

Those perfect lips would feel soft against his. Her waist felt tight under his hand; the thought of her breasts, round and tempting, made him ache with longing. Just a few inches higher and his palm would close around one feminine mound.

He would drag his thumb across her pretty pink nipple until she moaned, until she lifted herself, arching into his hand and begging for more. And then he would taste her, kiss her everywhere, her face and breasts and between her legs. His cock pulsed ferociously.

Her arm was still around him, holding him close, and they had a couple of hours before it would be dark enough to leave. They could stay here in bed, and he could make her forget all her problems for a while. Sid leaned down, his lips parting.

What the fuck am I thinking? I can’t be her lover. The best thing I can do for her is get her to a safe place and disappear. That was the plan.

He let go of her and got off the bed. The fledgling glow in her eyes faded, and he felt a weird twinge that might be guilt. He hadn’t meant to hurt her feelings, and he forced down the urge to apologize.

Why her? If he was going to develop feelings for a woman, why couldn’t he have picked someone in his own league, someone less vulnerable and young than Kayla?

She’s just another female. Nothing special. Keep your distance and this idiotic attraction will fade.

“I’m going to take a shower.” Sid walked into the bathroom and shut the door. Jesus. He was getting in way too deep with her, and he’d only been around her for less than a day.

No more heart to heart talks or cuddling. That crap had to stop or he’d go crazy long before they reached the West Coast.

***

 Kayla woke up with a piece of sharp metal jabbing her in the roof of her mouth. Ouch. She reached in and pulled it out. What the hell? It looked like a bridge. Her bridge, with her two false teeth—made to replace the ones that had fallen out because of starvation—still attached to the wire.

Now that she had the wire out, she noticed a mouthful of other junk. She spit it into her palm. Yuck. Chunks of shiny silver metal and whitish filling material filled her hand. All her fillings had come out—and she’d had quite a few, because Debbie had never taken her to a dentist or given her a toothbrush, either. She’d spent a lot of time in the dentist’s chair after going to live with Susan and Mark.

She ran her tongue across her upper teeth, then her lower. Everything was there, perfectly normal. Looking down at the bridge in her hand, she frowned. Somehow her teeth had been restored. Had the bridge and the fillings just popped off, then? You’d think something like that would hurt.

She pulled a tissue out of the box on the wall and placed her dental discoveries on it, then threw the bundle in the trash. There were probably other weird surprises in store. Maybe her back scars were gone, too. Those she definitely wouldn’t miss.

Stretching out on her back, she stared at the ceiling. She was going to disappear. Would she ever see Susan and Mark again? It didn’t seem right to just leave without saying anything, and she didn’t want them to worry. On the other hand, she didn’t want them to betray her to Daranda. They would never do it intentionally, but if vampires had the mental powers the book said they did, then the empress could pry the information from their memories.

Maybe once things got settled, she could call them and let them know where she was. The job would have to go, along with the volunteer work. What she’d do for money from here on was up in the air. Did vampires need IT people?

Whatever she did, it wasn’t going to involve Obsidian. He didn’t want her—that was obvious. She was probably just a kid to him. A kid with a limp and a back full of ugly scars. She couldn’t really blame him if he didn’t want to get involved with that.

He emerged from the bathroom with wet hair, naked except for a towel wrapped around his hips. That made his second shower in eight hours. Either he had a cleanliness obsession or he was using it as an excuse to get away from her.

The black leather collar was gone. His body—God, what a body. Broad shoulders, hard lean muscles, a tight waist. He even had the sculpted lower-abdominal muscles she’d only seen on statues and in photographs of male models. Kayla turned her face away, because looking at him made her want him, and he shouldn’t see that expression on her face.

“Can you take a shower by yourself?” he said.

She sure wasn’t going to ask for help from him. “I’ll manage.” She made herself sit up. Her head swam a little, but she didn’t feel like she was falling apart.

“Okay.” He went to the end of the bed and started rustling through his suitcase. “You can use my stuff. I’ll bring your case in here while you’re in the bathroom.”

“Thanks.”

Kayla got out of bed and tottered over to the bathroom. Everything seemed slightly off-kilter, and when she put her hand on the knob it was lower than she expected it to be. Kind of like she was wearing platform shoes with really big platforms, except she was barefoot.

Her gait felt smooth, without the hitch she usually had when she wasn’t wearing her lift. She didn’t limp anymore.

She glanced back at Obsidian. “I feel funny. Do I look different to you?”

“Yeah. You’re taller.”

“I am? Why would I be taller?”

“The transformation corrects anything that was previously wrong with you. I would guess the starvation you suffered as a kid stunted your growth. So the transformation made you the height you should have been.”

“Huh. That must be why I lost all my fillings, too.”

“You did?”

“They’re in the trash.”

She went into the bathroom and shut the door. Then she looked in the mirror. Sure enough, her head came higher than it used to. Her figure looked different, too. Rounder. Not fat, just more filled out, with bigger breasts. Guess she hadn’t been meant to be so skinny and flat-chested after all.

Kayla opened her mouth. Did she have fangs yet? Her teeth looked completely normal. She peeled back her upper lip and examined her gums. Nothing. Maybe they hadn’t come in yet.

They didn’t have time to waste on her admiring her reflection, so she stripped and got into the shower. An hour and a half later, they were speeding down the freeway again in Obsidian’s maroon 1969 Mustang.

Obsidian was silent, his black eyes fixed on the road ahead, jaw set and angry-looking. Kayla turned her gaze away from him. Whatever he was pissed about, it couldn’t have been something she did. Could it? Anyway, if he had something to say to her, he could just go ahead and say it. Out loud.

The highway twisted through the hills, and Obsidian took the curves of the darkened road at full speed. Kayla clutched the seat, telling herself it would be okay, he knew what he was doing. And if they crashed, they were both vampires, right? So no problem. They’d survive.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw him glance at her.

“My driving making you uncomfortable?”

“It’s fine.”

“Your knuckles are turning white.”

“Well, you are going a little fast.”

“I’m trying to put some distance between us and Daranda.” He slowed down a bit. “Is that better?”

“You didn’t have to do that.”

“Make up your mind, Kayla.” His voice held dry amusement. “Am I going too fast or not?”

“I’m trying not to be a burden. I know you didn’t plan any of this.”

He gave her one of his inscrutable glances. “You’re no burden, little one.”

Little one. Why did he call her that? She looked down at her lap. Well, she was kind of small, even now that she’d attained her full height. But, still—did he think of her as a child?

She turned her head to stare out at the darkness whizzing by them. It didn’t matter what he thought. Clearly they would never be together, and her dreams were just a childish fantasy. Anyway, she was a child compared to a man who was over two hundred years old.

The sun had gone down hours ago, yet she could see some of the details of trees and shrubs that crowded up against the roadway. Her vision had improved. Vampires must have good night vision. They’d need it to hunt their prey.

Oh, God. Prey. She was going to have to drink human blood to survive, wasn’t she? And soon, judging by the strange hunger that had begun to grip her belly. She had a craving for something that was not food, at least not in the ordinary sense, and she was afraid that she knew exactly what it was her body wanted. Kayla put a hand over her midsection, pressing inward in an attempt to calm her stomach.

Obsidian looked at her. “You’re feeling the blood hunger, aren’t you?”

“I think so,” she said faintly. “I feel sort of hungry, but it’s different somehow.”

“I know. You’ll need to drink soon, but I don’t know where we’ll find prey in this place without breaking and entering. You’ll have to drink from me.”

Her eyes widened. Drinking from him seemed too … something. “Is that necessary?”

“Yes. When you’re newly made, you suffer from the blood hunger almost continually. You’ll need a lot of blood, and waiting is a bad idea. The longer you wait, the less reasonable you’ll be. Vampires who wait too long to drink become violent and lose touch with reality.”

“Oh. That sounds bad.”

“It is.” He slowed the car.

A few minutes later, he pulled off the road onto a pullout that Kayla hadn’t even seen. It was overhung with the branches of an oak tree, still fully leafed out in spite of autumn’s cold.

“No-one will see us here.” He shut off the engine and turned to her. “Can you let down your fangs?”

“I don’t know how.”

“You have to will it. Here.” He pushed a finger against her lips. “Open.”

She opened her mouth. Obsidian rubbed her gumline above her right canine. The touch of his finger in her mouth was strangely intimate.

“Your fangs are here.” He moved to the one on the left side and rubbed. “And here. Can you feel them now?”

There was something, an awareness she hadn’t noticed before. She ran her tongue across the area, feeling a slight bump or projection over each canine. Kayla imagined teeth protruding from those bumps. They tingled, almost painfully, and she winced. Then something pricked her tongue, and she winced again.

“Ow.”

“Let me see.”

She opened her mouth wide.

“There they are.” He sounded proud of her. Kayla flushed. “Now when you bite me, you have to be careful not to pull down into my flesh with your fangs. You can break a tooth that way. Just stab my neck and then pull out. After that, it’s just drinking, like you did with my wrist.”

She drew back with a frown. “Are you for real? You want me to stick my fangs in your neck?”

“You might as well start learning now.”

“But I don’t want to hurt you.”

He laughed a little. “You won’t hurt me. Don’t worry about me. You need the blood.”

She swallowed, her throat suddenly tight. “Okay. If you’re sure.”

“I’m sure.” He opened his door. “I’ll come around to your side.”

 

Chapter 8

 

Kayla opened her door and turned to face outward as Obsidian walked around the front of the car. He knelt in front of her, his knees on the wet gravel. It was so quiet up here, just the sound of the wind rustling the tree branches, and an occasional car passing in a rush of tires on wet pavement.

She opened her legs so he could fit between them. There was something unbearably intimate about this position, much more intimate than merely having his finger in her mouth. The heat of him between her thighs made her think of sex, and suddenly her core throbbed with want. Did he have any idea how she felt about him?

He braced his hands on either side of her hips and leaned into her. “Okay. Don’t worry about me. Just bite.”

Now she could hear his heartbeat. The rhythmic sound of it made her stomach clench in sudden need. Without the collar, his throat looked vulnerable, the skin tender and smooth. She pressed her face against his neck and licked him there. Obsidian made a low sound in his throat.

She cupped his neck in her hand and took his upper arm in her other. His body felt warm even through his leather jacket. The thump of his heart called her, making her mouth water.

“Go ahead, little one,” he said in a husky voice.

“I’m sorry.” She stabbed him.

There was a slight resistance as her fangs met his skin, and then she punctured him and her teeth slid into his flesh. He made another low sound, an almost sexual noise.

“Now pull out,” he whispered.

Right. Pull out. She withdrew her teeth, her jaw aching slightly with the unaccustomed position. Blood welled from the two holes she’d made in him. Kayla licked it.

“Retract your teeth.”

She thought of her teeth going back into her jaw, but nothing happened. “They won’t go back.”

“Look at me and open your mouth.”

When she did, he reached in and massaged her gums again. Kayla focused on pulling her teeth back. A sharp twinge followed.

“You did it. Now drink, before I bleed all over my clothes.”

She licked the hot rivulets sliding down his neck, then latched onto the wounds she’d made. The blood tasted rich and dark, like wine and chocolate, meaty like a steak, faintly metallic, and like nothing she’d ever imagined. She didn’t remember this flavor from when she’d drank in his car. Of course, she’d been practically unconscious then.

It flowed down her throat and filled her up inside, easing the cramping pains in her stomach almost immediately. She took a long pull, drawing a groan from him. His arm came around her waist, holding her to him as she drank. He was enjoying it.

The silk of his hair brushed the back of her hand. She moved her fingers up and plunged them into the thickness of it where it curled over the back of his collar. He smelled like male musk, like sex, and she stifled a moan. If only he would let her—if he would just kiss her—

“That’s enough, little one.” He broke her hold on his neck by inserting his fingers between her mouth and his skin. “You’ll have more later. Tomorrow evening, we’ll find you a human to drink from.”

Kayla licked her lips. “You taste good.”

He ruffled her hair. “We’d better get going.”

She found some tissues in her purse and used them to wipe her mouth. When he got into the driver’s seat, she handed him a couple so he could clean up his neck. Then they were on their way again, the hot mood completely broken.

Well, they had a lot more traveling to do. Maybe she could seduce him slowly, let him get used to her and then tempt him with her closeness. Make him see her as a woman, a sexual being, instead of as a pathetic child who needed saving.

Okay, now you’re being stupid. You know he can’t be your boyfriend. So quit with the fantasies. We don’t have time for that crap.

A few hours later, they found a shabby little country motel much like the one from the night before and got a room. There was only one story, and they pulled the car up right to the door of the room. Naturally, Obsidian chose one with two double beds so they wouldn’t have to sleep together. Damn him for being such a gentleman. And she didn’t even have a sexy nightgown, just an oversized black t-shirt with a dancing skeleton on it.

At least this time she wouldn’t be wearing street clothes. Although she wasn’t sure what was worse, appearing in a nightshirt in front of Obsidian, or laying on top of the bed in her street clothes like a dumbass.

He turned from hanging out the Do Not Disturb sign, grinning when he saw what she was wearing. “I like your shirt.”

“Thanks.”

“You like the Goth look, huh?”

Kayla shrugged. “I guess. I wear a lot of black and people tend to think that makes you a Goth.”

“I always imagined you in flowers and lace.”

She made a face. “That girly stuff isn’t really me. I need a harder edge.”

“You like to look like a tough girl?”

“Yeah. It keeps people away.”

His grin disappeared. “Is that what you want? To keep people away?”

Kayla shrugged. “Yeah, most of the time. Otherwise they think I’m an easy mark, you know? Because I’m small, I guess.”

“Makes sense.” He went to the window and pulled the drapes. They closed the little room in and made it seem even smaller.

Kayla drew back the bedspread, a pastel pink-and-blue concoction that probably dated from the mid-eighties. It might be older than her. She climbed under the sheets and settled down on the saggy mattress, which must predate the bedspread by a few years at least.

“It seems weird to say good night.” She drew the covers up to her chin. “Since it’s almost morning.”

“We usually say ‘sleep well.’”

“Okay. Sleep well.”

“And you also.”

It was an odd turn of phrase, old-fashioned, and served to remind her that he was over two hundred. He took off his jacket and laid it on the single chair the motel-owner had shoehorned into the room. Then he peeled back the bedspread and lay down fully dressed.

“Aren’t you going to change into something else?”

“No.” He turned off the bedside lamp.

“You look uncomfortable.”

“I’m fine. Go to sleep.”

Why was he planning to sleep in his clothes? Maybe he was afraid she’d have her wicked way with him, and he needed the clothing as armor. Not that it would be much of a barrier.

She closed her eyes. It was going to take a long time to fall asleep. Sunlight had begun to poke around the edges of the curtain, making it too light in the room. Besides, she was too tense to sleep.

All she could think of was Obsidian in the bed next to her, and how he’d tasted, and felt in her arms. Her core ached, growing warm and moist as she imagined touching him the way she wanted to, pressing her naked body to his, feeling the smooth warmth of him all the way down her front.

He’d probably beat her off with a stick if she tried it.

The next thing she knew, he was shaking her awake. She looked up at him in sleepy confusion. He shook his head and put a finger over his lips. Kayla’s eyes went wide. Something was wrong.

The door knob rattled. Someone was trying to get in. Whoever it was, it couldn’t be the maid; they’d hung out that sign. Besides, the maid wouldn’t cause Obsidian so much concern.

She jerked to complete alertness, her nerves singing with tension. Obsidian pulled her from the bed and took her to the closet. He pointed into it.

She crawled inside, heart speeding. It wasn’t very big, just enough to hang a few shirts and a pair of pants. But it was dark and far away from the window. Kayla crouched behind the brown bifold doors, her back against the back wall of the closet.

The door swung open. Sunlight poured into the room from outside, so bright it blinded her even though it couldn’t reach her behind the door. She heard Obsidian suck in his breath. He was out there and the light hurt him.

Heavy feet clomped into the room. Human men, at least two.

“Get the girl.” It was a man, a voice she didn’t recognize.

A muffled bang. Then another. What the hell was that? It reminded her of a gun with a silencer on it—only she’d never really heard one except in the movies. This seemed louder, and a lot more frightening. Kayla shrank back against the wall behind her, trying to make herself as small as possible. She still couldn’t see.

God, please let Obsidian be okay.

Did God even listen to the prayers of vampires?

Even more light flooded the room. It lapped at the edge of the closet, making her skin tingle unpleasantly. One of the intruders must have opened the drapes. Obsidian must be in agony, but she couldn’t hear any sound she could identify as him.

There were more gunshots. Then thuds and yells from the men in the room. Something snapped loudly, a crack like a thick branch breaking. Another scream.

Running footsteps. The door slammed shut.

Silence.

Someone was breathing heavily. The light receded, and Kayla could see again. She stuck her head out of the closet. The drapes were closed. Blood spattered the walls. Obsidian stood at the foot of the far bed, leaning on the little dresser across from it and panting. His skin looked blood-red and moist, as if fluid were leaking from inside him.

“Oh, God.” She jumped to her feet and went to him. “Your face. Your hands.”

Then she saw the man on the floor. He wore jeans, a dark-green fleece jacket and black running shoes. His eyes were open, fixed and staring at the space under the bed, his neck at an impossible angle. There was a terrible smell in the room, like someone had lost control of his bowels. It must be the corpse.

Her stomach cramped painfully. She’d never seen a dead man before. “You killed him.”

“Yes.”

“Oh, God.” Think. She had to think. “The cops. Someone might have called the cops. We have to get out of here now.”

“Can’t. It’s daylight.”

“But if the cops come, we’ll be burned up. They won’t understand. And if they know we’re vampires, they’ll assume we’re at fault.”

Obsidian chuckled, but it came out sounding more pained than amused. “I can control the cops. Don’t worry about that.”

“They’ll open the door and let the light in.”

“I’ll control them through the door.”

“Oh.”

He touched her arm. “Are you alright? Did you get hit?”

“Hit? You mean shot? No, I’m fine. Did you get hit?”

“Just twice. The gunman had shitty aim. Besides, I’m a vampire. I can withstand a few gunshot wounds.” He snorted. “Amateurs.”

For amateurs, they’d done a pretty good job. If Obsidian weren’t a trained killer, they probably would have won.

“Is there something I can do to help you? Do you need my blood?”

He gave his head a sharp shake. “No. You need it more than I do.”

“You look awful. It must hurt.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

The wail of sirens came from down the road. The police were on their way. Kayla rubbed her trembling hands together, then rubbed them on her thighs. She crossed her arms over her chest and bounced on her heels.

“It’ll be okay,” Obsidian said. “You’ll see.”

“I guess I’ll have to take your word for that.”

The sirens got closer, and louder, until they screamed into the parking lot right in front of the room. Car doors slammed as the officers jumped out. She couldn’t look out the window to see how many there were, but it sounded like four doors opening and shutting, which made just two cars. Right?

“Police!” an officer bellowed. “Come out with your hands up!”

Obsidian turned toward the door, his eyes narrowed in his ravaged face. She could almost feel the thought energy rolling off his body. From outside there was silence. Then muttering, as the cops talked among themselves. He continued to stare at the door.

Finally, there was a polite knock. “May I come in?” a man said in a subdued voice.

“Come in slowly and shut the door after,” Obsidian said, backing toward the closet.

Both vampires hid in the shadows as the door swung open. A man’s footsteps sounded on the carpet. Then the door shut. Obsidian left the closet.

Kayla peeked out. The cop stood there waiting, a vacant expression on his face. His gun was holstered. He didn’t even look at the dead man on the floor.

Obsidian approached him. “I need your blood.”

“Yes.” The cop stared straight ahead.

Obsidian stroked the side of the man’s neck. The officer bent his head to the side to give the vampire better access. He was almost the same height as Obsidian, and had blond hair cropped close to his head.

The vampire bent his head and struck. The cop gave a low gasp, but he didn’t fight to get away. As Obsidian removed his fangs and began to drink, the cop put his arm around the vampire’s back as if to steady himself. There was something strangely, disturbingly sexual about it.

When Obsidian finished, he used a tissue to wipe the officer’s neck. His skin had lost the bloody hue and looked almost normal except for the residue of moisture left behind. He pointed at the dead man.

“Take him and leave. All of you will leave. The perpetrators are gone, and the room was empty when you arrived.”

“Yes.”

“Go now.” Obsidian backed into the closet again.

She heard a dragging sound, then the door opening and closing. After a few minutes, the car engines started and the two vehicles drove out of the parking lot.

Kayla slumped against the wall of the closet, trembling. “Thank God.”

“We have to leave as soon as the sun sets.” Obsidian walked into the room. “I estimate we have three hours.”

“Do you think the cops will come back?”

“No.”

“But what if they do?”

He gave her an exasperated look. “They won’t. They’ll believe what I told them to believe. By the time they decide they made a mistake, we’ll be gone.”

“I hope you’re right,” she muttered as she left her hiding place.

“Daranda must have suspected something was wrong.” He began to pace. “Or else it was Black. He’s a suspicious bastard. Then one of the vamps in the area sent in their human pets to kill us.”

“Were they the first group?”

“Yes.” He flicked a glance at her. “I couldn’t control them because they were already under vampire control.”

“Who is Black?”

“Raphael Black, the court Seer. He’s a powerful psychic. Daranda uses him to detect people like you, and anyone who tries to leave the Dark Empire.”

“But how did they know where we are?”

“Two ways. I have a crystal planted in my body, and they might have planted a tracking device on my car as well.” He paced some more, back and forth, back and forth in front of the beds. “I’ll cut the crystal out. But where they put the tracking device—shit, it could take hours to find. We don’t have hours. We’ll have to switch vehicles.”

“Steal?”

“Don’t look so shocked. I’m a hit man, remember? One of the bad guys.” He grinned wolfishly.

Yeah. One of the bad guys. And he’d killed a man, broken his neck. She clutched herself, trying to stop the shivers. She hadn’t actually seen the murder, but she’d heard it.

“I should’ve prepared better before we left.” He picked up his suitcase, opening it and rummaging through the contents.

He pulled out a black mask and a pair of black leather gloves. A little more rummaging and he produced a second pair of gloves. Giving her an assessing glance, he tossed the second pair at her. Kayla caught them, frowning.

“Do you have any thick scarves with you?” he said.

“No. Not really thick.”

“How about a sweater? Something you can wrap around your head and face.”

“Yeah. The one I wore last night might work.”

“Okay. Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re gonna wrap ourselves up good and get in the car. We’ll drive down the road a little away and head off into the underbrush. Then I’ll look for the device they left on me and get rid of the crystal at the same time.”

“I thought you said that would take hours.”

“It’s worth a try. If I can’t find it in a couple of hours, we’ll drive to the next town and switch cars.”

She glanced at the window. The light cutting its way around the edges of the drapes seemed a little softer than it had earlier. Maybe the sun was setting already. The clock said five. Yeah, it should be down soon, and if the weather was anything like it had been during the night, it was cloudy outside so the light would be less intense than on a sunny day.

“Get dressed.” He pulled the mask over his head, wadding a bedspread under his arm. “We’ll cover you with this for extra protection.”

“Don’t you think someone will see that on you and wonder what the hell you’re doing in that getup?”

“Maybe. But it won’t matter because we won’t be here long enough for them to do anything about it.”

“Just write down your license plate number.”

“That’s easy to fix. I’ll just switch the plates.”

“Okay. You’re the expert.” She gathered her clothes and went into the bathroom to dress.

This outlaw stuff wasn’t very much fun. She was too scared to enjoy herself. Some vampire she’d turned out to be. For crying out loud, she hadn’t even wanted to put her teeth through Obsidian’s skin, even when he was encouraging her to do it. She hadn’t wanted to cause him pain. She was a wimp.

When she came out, he was suited up in the leather jacket, mask and gloves, dark shoes on his feet. Kayla slipped into her peacoat, put on the gloves he’d loaned her, and wrapped the sweater into a clumsy blob around her head.

She groped for her bag and slung it over her shoulder. “I can’t see a thing.”

He took her by the elbow. “I’ll guide you.”

“What about your eyes?”

“I’m wearing sunglasses. Really dark ones with polarized lenses.”

“Oh, sure.”

He gave her arm a little tug. “Really. They work pretty well.”

She let him lead her out the door and to the car. He opened the car door and helped her sit down. Kayla twined her hands together, the gloves so big that they stuck off her fingers at least an inch.

I hope no-one can see us. I’m not sure even vampire powers can explain a sweater wrapped around my head.

Her skin tingled slightly all over her body as the sunlight tried to work its way through the fabric of her clothes. Even on a cloudy, almost dark day, she could feel its inimical power. It was bizarre, really. She’d always loved the sun, loved being outdoors all day in the summer, until now. Now it scared her.

The car dipped a little as Obsidian got in. He shut the door and started the engine. “You okay?”

“Yeah.”

“Here we go.”

“Did you pay for the room?”

He laughed. “You’re kidding, right? Someone at the motel probably turned us in after the first group failed.”

“No way. Isn’t that just too much coincidence? Why would Daranda have people planted at this little place?”

“She doesn’t. But if Black knew where we were, they could influence the people long-distance.”

“Christ.”

Obsidian started the engine and pulled away. “You’ve got it.”

“How can we get away from people like that? They’ll find us no matter what we do.”

“No, they won’t. I won’t let them.”

It felt like he drove more slowly this time than he had the night before—the speed limit instead of the speed of light. Fifteen minutes later, he pulled off the highway onto a side road. It must be one of those narrow, unmarked country lanes because the car bumped over a brutally uneven surface for a long way before he pulled over. Branches scratched against the body and the window glass, and the ride got even bumpier. Then he stopped the car.

“Okay. This should work. I’m going to search the interior first. Open the glove box and get out the flashlight.”

Damn, he was bossy. She did as she was told, using her sense of touch to find the latch of the glove box. The flashlight was right in front, making it easy to find.

“Can I take the sweater off now?”

“Go ahead. It’s pretty dark here.”

“But there’s still some sunlight.”

“We can withstand a small amount if it’s filtered, like through leaves or a curtain.”

She removed the bizarre turban-slash-mask. The light around them was dim and greenish, diffused through layer after layer of evergreen branches. They were under the canopy of an enormous spruce tree.

“You hold the light while I go over the car,” he ordered.

“Yes, sir.”

Obsidian grinned. “Now you’re getting the idea.”

Kayla stuck her tongue out at him and he laughed.

They examined every inch of the interior, even pulled up the carpet, and found nothing. Kayla’s stomach growled so loudly she wondered if it was audible outside the car, but she didn’t say anything. First off, Obsidian could hear it as well as she could. Second, they had to find that tracking device, or at least do everything they could to locate it. Her stomach could wait.

Sid got out and switched his plates to a new set he had in his trunk. Afterward, Kayla held the light as he ran his hands across the underside of the trunk compartment, then the sides, looking for the tracking device. Finally, he pulled up the carpet in the trunk. Tucked in a corner was a tiny black box, small enough to fit in her palm and have room left over. In the gloom it was nearly invisible.

He plucked it out and displayed it to her. “Here it is.”

Kayla touched it with her fingertip. “What are you going to do with it?”

“You’ll see.” He smiled grimly. “Now for the other.”

 

Chapter 9

 

Dropping the device into Kayla’s hand, Obsidian pulled a folding knife out of his pocket. He shrugged out of his jacket, handing that to her also. Then he flicked open the knife and shoved the point into the skin of his inner left elbow.

His teeth clenched, his lips stretched back in a grimace as the blade entered the skin. Blood welled up from the cut. Kayla shoved her free hand across her mouth. What was he doing to himself?

He sliced an opening in his skin, then shoved the tip of the blade into it, a strangled noise escaping his throat, and pulled upward. A small, bloody lump emerged. Obsidian grabbed it and stuck it, blood and all, into his jeans pocket. He wiped the blade on his jeans, folded it, and returned it to his pocket also.

“Let’s go.”

“What was that thing?”

“It’s a crystal. When Daranda makes a vampire, she inserts a piece of quartz under the skin. The crystal is keyed to her mind, so she has another layer of awareness of each of her people. It’s a control mechanism.”

She shook her head as they got into the car. “Damn. How many vampires does she have?”

“I’m not sure. Thousands. Every one has a crystal.” He started the engine and turned on the heater.

“Aren’t we going to leave those things here?” she said as he backed out of their hiding spot.

“No. I’ll get rid of them soon.”

Kayla gave him a sidelong glance. “Okay. You’re the expert.”

“You’ll see.”

 ***

 The gas station was full of cars even at this late hour. Obsidian pulled in behind a giant black Hummer and killed the engine. He felt strangely light, almost empty, as if the removal of the crystal had opened up a hole inside him. Daranda’s influence over him had gone with the stone. There was nothing left of her to fight anymore—at least, not inside his body and soul. Unfortunately, the Empress’s outer-world influence was as strong as ever.

The tracking device and crystal weighed on his pocket and his imagination. Until he got rid of them, Daranda and her people would continue to track them. The only advantage they presently had was their early start, and he’d bet that Black was already up and about. He’d probably been the one to direct that raid on their motel room.

“Wait here.” He opened the door and got out.

“Where are you going?” Kayla’s voice sounded tight.

“I’ll be right back. Don’t move.”

He strolled down the line of cars waiting to fill their tanks as if he were just stretching his legs. While he walked, he looked at license plates. Ohio, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Florida. Hmm, Florida.

It was one of those obscenely large fifth-wheel trailers, the kind with everything but a swimming pool. An older woman with brassy red hair—certainly dyed—and deep lines on her sunbaked face sat in the passenger seat of a blue one-ton pickup acting as tow vehicle. The driver’s seat was empty.

The thing was parked off to the side of the station, by the air pumps people used to fill their tires. He moved silently around to the far side of the rig, away from the eyes of other drivers.

The objects had to be stuck somewhere the road vibration wouldn’t shake them loose. But the rig was smooth on the outside. Too smooth to hold the cargo he wanted to deliver. He needed to get inside the thing.

A toilet flushed inside the trailer. Sid waited. A minute later, a stooped man with thinning white hair and a mint-green cardigan emerged from the vehicle. He stuck a key in the door lock.

“Wait.” Obsidian spoke softly, using his mental powers on the old man.

The fellow paused with his hand on the key.

“Stay here.” Sid opened the door, squeezing past the human, and climbed inside.

The interior was as luxurious as his apartment, with glossy granite counters and a wooden floor in the living area. They even had a crystal chandelier over their dining table. He shook his head. Crazy humans. Now, where to hide the objects?

A soft growl came from the bedroom. Sid froze. Jesus. They would have a dog.

The growl intensified. He went to the kitchen and opened a cupboard at random. Little claws click-clacked on the wooden floor. He glanced up to see a scruffy terrier about the size of a large rat standing in the middle of the living room. It had a pale pink bow clipped to the fur on the top of its tiny head.

The dog began to bark in a shrill voice.

Shut up. Sid willed the creature to be silent. It barked louder and faster, bouncing on its feet with the force of each exclamation.

“Shit.” He pawed through the contents of the cupboard. Cereal, prunes, flour—they baked in this thing?—raisins, hot cocoa mix.

“Walter?” It was a woman’s voice, New Jersey accent. Probably the redhead. “What’s going on back there? Make Lizzie shut up.”

Yeah, Lizzie, shut up.

The dog’s barking grew frantic.

Salt, noodles, sugar, ground pepper.

“Walter! Are you alright?”

Sugar. That would do. He opened the plastic canister and stuffed the tracking device and blood-encrusted crystal as far toward the bottom as he could. The dog barked so fast it was like one long canine shriek.

Shut up, Lizzie! He pushed on the dog’s mind, but it refused to respond to him. Sid reached for the dog and crooked his fingers. Come here. Let me give you a treat. It looked at him, pausing in its frenetic barking to growl.

“You wouldn’t even be a snack for me,” he told it.

The dog blinked and cocked its head, having finally gone quiet. The door of the one-ton opened and shut. Here comes the redhead.

Sid shut the cupboard door, hoping Walter and his woman didn’t eat a lot of sugar. Lizzie the Dog yipped so loudly it hurt his ears. That dog had the strongest will of any being he’d yet encountered, with the possible exception of Daranda. She’d make the perfect pet for the empress.

He grinned to himself as he left the trailer. Walter stood right where Sid had left him, the key still in the lock. The redhead was coming around the front of the truck, frowning. She saw him and her jaw dropped.

“Who are you? What are you doing? Did you hurt my dog?” Her gaze fell on Walter. “What did you do to my husband?”

Cars began to honk in the main part of the gas station.

He pressed in against her mind. “You never saw me. You want to go back to Florida right now. Drive all the way to Key West.”

“Key West,” she repeated, looking dazed.

Sid laid a hand on Walter’s shoulder. “Key West, Walter. You’re going to Key West, starting tonight. Take the back roads.”

“Key West,” Walter said.

“Get in your truck and forget me.”

“Get out of the fucking way!” a man yelled from the gas line.

Obsidian left the two of them standing in the shadow cast by their trailer. He walked back to the gas line. A pot-bellied man with a scanty brown beard and a gray hoodie leaned in to the open window of the Mustang. He seemed to be arguing with Kayla. Sid tensed, his hands curling into fists.

“What’s the problem?” He frowned at the man.

“Your girlfriend here says she don’t have the keys and your vehicle is blocking the rest of us.”

“I forgot she didn’t have a set. I’ll move the car.”

The man stepped back to allow Sid to get in. Kayla gave him a dirty look as he stuck the key in the ignition. He pulled up to the pump.

“I can’t believe you left me there like that.”

“I had to get rid of the stuff.”

“You should have parked.”

He cut the engine. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

Her eyebrows raised. “You are?”

“Yeah. I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”

Hoodie leaned in the window again with a tough-guy swagger. “Now you expect us to wait while you pump your gas? You gotta be kidding.”

Sid stared into his eyes. “We were first in line. You’ll wait your turn.”

“Yeah, okay.” Hoodie seemed to deflate slightly as he backed off. “Sure.” The man turned and left, his swagger nowhere in sight.

“How did you do that?”

He glanced at Kayla. “Mind control. Comes in handy sometimes.”

“I guess so.” She crossed her arms over her chest and stared out the passenger window. “I thought you’d left me. For real, I mean.”

“You’re the whole reason I’m running like this. I wouldn’t leave you behind.”

Outside, other drivers glared at him while he removed his gas cap and stuck the nozzle into the opening. He gave them a bland stare in return. One by one, their gazes dropped and they found other things to look at. Humans. They were lucky he didn’t use them as a late-night smorgasbord.

Speaking of a smorgasbord, he and Kayla needed to find a blood donor, and then some solid food.

As he pulled out of the service station, Sid glanced over at her. She was staring out the window with a lost look on her face. He didn’t like seeing her this way. She looked so alone, and like a fool, he wanted to comfort her. But he wasn’t a man who offered, or could even give, comfort. He was a man who took, who hunted and killed.

Is that really true? Didn’t you comfort her after that nightmare?

That didn’t count. It was random, out of character. Still, her loneliness ate at him as the dark miles passed, until he had to say something.

“So what did you do in Jefferson?” Sid winced. He could have come up with a better line.

Kayla’s gaze flicked toward him. “I—uh—worked in tech support at a bank.”

“Did you like it?”

“Yeah. I did.” She fell silent.

This wasn’t working very well. He had no experience at drawing people out. Ripping heads off, that he could do, but charming lonely young women was outside his expertise.

“You like computers?” he said awkwardly.

“Yeah.”

“Me, too.”

“Really?” She smiled. “What do you do, research better ways to murder people?”

She was joking, and he knew it, but the remark stung anyway.

Kayla bit her lip, reaching out to touch him on the arm. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

“It’s alright.” He gave her a nonchalant smile. “Sometimes I do some research for my work, but mostly I use it as recreation. You can find all kinds of crazy stuff online.”

“Like the Church of the Vampire.”

He gave a short, hard laugh. “The what?”

Kayla grinned. “You’ve never heard of them? The Church of The Vampire. They claim to be a religion.”

“Are they actual vampires?”

“They’re ‘psychic vampires,’ not vulgar blood-suckers like you and me.” She put air quotes around psychic vampires.

He grinned back at her. “Really. Psychic vampires.”

“They claim to be able to syphon energy off other people and use it for themselves.”

“Wish I could do that. Then I wouldn’t have to get my fangs dirty.”

She giggled, a light-hearted girlish sound that made him smile again. “I didn’t know you were so squeamish.”

He sighed theatrically. “I’m very delicate.”

“I’ll try to be more gentle with you, then.”

“I appreciate that.” He winked at her.

She just laughed. Finally, she looked at ease. Worry free. At least he’d managed to distract her from their problems for a few minutes, and he hadn’t had to use sex. Damn.

 ***

 Raphael Black gave the Empress’s guard standing at her office door a knowing stare and the man shrank a little, as if he’d inadvertently revealed a terrible secret to the Seer. It was an infallible technique. Everyone he turned his gaze on in that manner seemed to think he could see directly into their souls. Of course, some of the time he really could.

The guard hastened to knock on her door before opening it and poking his head inside. “Raphael Black is here to see you, Your Majesty.”

She lifted her gaze, looking cool and composed as usual. Never let the underlings see you in anything less than complete control was the motto by which she lived. Unfortunately for her, he could see her nervousness under the icy exterior. “Good. Send him in.”

Black swept into the room as if he were the emperor, ignoring Grant, who sat next to her taking notes on his tablet. She wasn’t going to like his news. He gave her an abbreviated bow. “Your Majesty.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her tense.

“What is it, Raphael?”

Black sent a sidelong glance toward Grant. “I have something I’d like to discuss with you.”

She took the hint. “Have a seat. Grant, we’ll finish later.”

Grant gathered his things and left without protest. Daranda propped her elbows on her desk and steepled her fingers, watching Black with an expressionless face. Most of her subjects grew painfully nervous when she looked at them like this, shifting around in their seats, avoiding her gaze. Black looked back at her serenely.

“What is it that’s got you in such turmoil, Raphael?”

He looked at her and raised one dark eyebrow. “Turmoil?”

“Yes.” She waved her hand at her office. “Bursting in here like this.”

Black regarded her coolly. “I thought you’d want to be informed immediately. However, if you prefer I make an appointment, I can come back later.” He made as if to rise.

“No, that won’t be necessary. Go ahead.”

Black relaxed back into his chair. “We have a problem with Obsidian. I assigned him to remove a rogue vampire last night. He failed to do so. The rogue has disappeared and so has Obsidian.”

Her demeanor became glacially cold. “He was supposed to drive West tonight.”

“And he did. But the girl went with him.”

“What?” Her voice came out low and vicious. She pressed her hands against the desk top. “He ran off with a rogue?”

Black nodded. “He did. The local vampires sent five of their familiars to his last known location. He killed one and the rest fled. I influenced the motel clerk on duty to call the police. However, the police were not able to apprehend him or the rogue.”

“Are you tracking him?”

“Yes.”

“Good.” She banged a fist on the desk. “Damn him.”

“I was just as surprised as you are.”

Daranda stood and began to pace behind her desk. He could see that her agitation hid a rage and bewilderment even deeper than his. “I can’t believe he would do something like this. He’s always been one of my most loyal subjects. What in hell is he thinking?”

Black shook his head. “I can’t imagine.”

“He’s giving up a lucrative career and one of the most important jobs in the empire for this ridiculous would-be vampire.”

She was probably thinking if Obsidian could be disloyal, what about all her other subjects? In her mind, the fate of the entire Empire rested on the loyalty of her subjects as well as the skill and ruthlessness of her enforcers. No, not just the fate of the Empire—the fate of the entire world.

Daranda believed humans could not be allowed to turn themselves into vampires on a whim. They must be made to go through her, and her only. Otherwise, there would be no order, and without order in the form of a strong leader the vampires would wreak havoc on the human world.

Vampires would proliferate without the controlling influence of the Dark Empire. They would attack humans entirely at random. And humans would be free to make their own society, a society which might be inimical to vampires. Two opposing forces would rise up and battle one another, resulting in the Dark only knew what kind of global disaster.

He’d believed it at one time himself. Now, he didn’t believe in anything.

She stopped pacing. “I want him found. We’ll make an example of him and this rogue he likes so well.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

“You did well by bringing this to me.”

Black bowed his head. “Thank you.”

“Put every seer you can spare on this problem. We’ll have them back inside of a week.”

“I’ve already done it.”

“Good thinking. I knew I could count on you.” She gave him a dazzling smile.

“I live to serve you and the Empire.” He said it without a trace of irony.

“Your service is noted and valued, Raphael Black.” She came to him and held out her hands.

Black rose to his feet and clasped her hands in his. She usually offered sex to those underlings who’d especially pleased her, but he knew she wouldn’t offer it to him. She feared him too much. No matter. He had no desire for Daranda and never had, in spite of her undeniable beauty.

She undoubtedly wanted to get rid of him. He made her nervous and she hated that, saw it as an impertinence. Perhaps she wondered why he hadn’t made a move to steal her title. If anyone could control the Empire as well as she could, it would be Black. But he didn’t want her damned Empire. He didn’t want anything.

“I’d like to give you a new pet, with my compliments. You can have your pick of my recent acquisitions.”

He smiled, but the expression didn’t reach his eyes. “A new pet would be most welcome.”

“Wonderful. Come to court and you can choose your favorite.”

 ***

The young man Obsidian had stalked for her looked like he was barely out of high school, barely old enough to legally drink. He stood in the shadows at the back of a restaurant-nightclub combo off the highway and glanced from one of them to the other, shifting his weight from foot to foot, as if he wanted to leave but couldn’t quite find the strength of mind. He had a hint of new beard and dark hair so short it looked like black velvet on the crown of his head.

“Let your fangs down,” Obsidian said.

The young man’s eyes widened and his throat worked, but he said nothing. Kayla could hear his heart beating, loud and fast. The blood rushed rhythmically through his veins, making her stomach clench in longing. But she didn’t want to hurt him. The terror in his eyes made her feel dirty.

She willed her teeth to descend, and they did. A little practice on the way here had made a big difference. Kayla put her hand on the young man’s shoulder.

“Don’t worry.” She gave him a smile that felt false. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

“He won’t remember anything,” Obsidian said.

She threw a glance over her shoulder. “He’s scared.”

He shrugged. “I’m about to put him under.”

The human’s heart beat even faster.

Obsidian laid one of his large hands on the boy’s other shoulder. The human looked up at him. Although the vampire said nothing, the human’s body lost its rigidity and his heart beat slowed to a normal pace. He took on a faraway expression, his mouth curled up slightly at the corners. He was under.

“Go ahead.” Obsidian nodded at her.

God. She swallowed hard.

 

Chapter 10

 

Obsidian stood in the frigid parking lot and gestured her forward, toward her …victim. “Kayla, you have to do it. Without blood, you die.”

“I’m getting ready.”

She stroked the side of the young man’s neck. He bent his head away from her, giving her better access. Then she lifted herself onto her toes and kissed the skin below his ear. He smelled so good, like a combination of food and sex.

Kayla opened her mouth as wide as it would go and struck. The boy flinched in her embrace and made a soft noise of protest.

“Be still.” Obsidian petted his hair.

She withdrew her fangs and began to suck the blood from the boy’s vein. He tasted different than Obsidian had, meatier, the liquid giving her an instant boost of energy. A murmur of pleasure and appreciation came from her throat.

An odd emotion flooded her, gratefulness and affection and pleasure all mixed up together. She played with the short hairs at the back of the young man’s neck, stroking him, wishing she could give him something in return for the gift he’d given her. The boy’s arm went around her waist.

Obsidian tapped her on the shoulder. “That’s enough.”

She wasn’t done. It tasted too good to stop so soon. Kayla pressed her body closer to the human’s and kept drinking.

“Kayla.”

She motioned to him to get back. Damn it, she was hungry and the boy didn’t seem to mind anymore. In fact, he seemed to be enjoying it, judging by the way his hand kept rubbing over her back while she drank.

Obsidian shoved a finger between her lips and the boy’s neck. “Stop. Now.”

“Why did you do that?” She wiped a smear of blood off her face with the back of her hand.

“You were taking too much. You don’t want him to get sick, do you?” He pulled an old-fashioned handkerchief out of the pocket of his leather jacket and blotted the human’s neck.

The boy did look pale.

She went cold all over, the pleasure of the blood fading away as if it had never been. “Oh, no. Oh, God, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize—”

“You’re new at this.” He gave the human’s neck another swipe, then put the handkerchief back in his pocket. “Just remember to listen to me.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry.”

Obsidian patted the human on the shoulder. “You saw no-one tonight. Go home now. Have something to eat and get some sleep.”

The human nodded. “Yes.”

Taking her arm, Obsidian led her away from her donor and into thicker shadows. She peered at him. In the dim light, he looked dangerous. The kind of man who would carry a weapon and know how to use it.

He is dangerous. He’s an assassin, remember?

Yet he’d taken the time to help that kid, to make sure he got home okay. Kayla kept staring at him in the dark until he turned his head and looked at her, one brow raised.

“I’m protecting myself by taking care of my blood donors,” he said. “If we get careless, the humans are more likely to find out about us.”

“Is that the only reason?”

“Pretty much.”

She didn’t believe it. He’d saved her, too, and there’d been no practical reason for that. It was clear by the set of his shoulders and jaw that he didn’t want to talk about it, though, and she said nothing more.

Ten minutes later, they were sitting in a steak restaurant. He’d influenced the hostess to seat them immediately, although they had no reservation and there were at least three parties there ahead of them. Kayla wasn’t going to complain. Her stomach was growling so loudly she was sure the other patrons could hear it.

They read the menu, ordered their food, and received their drinks all without much conversation. She poked her fork into her salad. He’d been trying to keep her at arm’s length most of the time they’d been together. Yesterday the ice had thawed briefly when he’d teased her in the car, but now they were back in the arctic. What would he do if she asked him about himself?

“So, how long have you been a vampire?” She used the most casual tone she could manage.

He looked at her, his face cool and remote, as usual. “A long time. Two hundred years or so.”

“Two hundred years. Wow. I must be a baby to you.”

His lips curled up slightly on one side. “You could say that.”

“Where were you born?”

“France. On the southern coast.”

“Oh.” Not what she’d expected him to say.

“Where were you born?”

She blinked. “Jefferson. Where else?”

“I don’t know. You might have moved there from somewhere else.”

Kayla stuck a bite of salad in her mouth so she wouldn’t have to answer that. She’d lived in other towns, because of her time in foster homes. But her mom had always lived in Jefferson, and she’d gone back there when the social workers had returned her to Debbie’s care.

“Is Obsidian your real name?”

“It is now.”

She sighed. That wasn’t what she meant and he knew it. “Is it your original name?”

“No.”

“So, what was it?”

He shrugged. “What difference does it make?”

“Louis? Gaston? Philippe?”

“Jean Martin.”

“Oh.” He didn’t really look like a Jean. He looked like an Obsidian. “It sounds different from regular French when you say it.”

His lips crimped at the corners, the faint smile warming him ever so slightly. “That’s because we didn’t speak French. We spoke Occitan.”

“What does that sound like?”

Obsidian responded with a flood of words in a fascinating mixture of French and Italian or Spanish sounds. Although she’d taken French in high school, she could only catch a word here and there.

“Wow,” she said when he stopped. “What did that mean?”

He flushed. “I said you are the loveliest woman I’ve ever seen, that your beauty rivals the moon and I want to rest in your arms forever.”

Kayla blinked. Then she laughed. “You did not say that.”

“Yes, I did.” He put a piece of steak in his mouth.

“You shouldn’t make fun of me. I might get my feelings hurt.”

“I’d never make fun of you,” he said with a frown.

Okay. Did that mean he really thought her beauty rivaled that of the moon? The extravagant compliment seemed unlike him, although to be honest she still didn’t know him all that well. Maybe he routinely complimented women that way.

“Did you want to be a vampire, or did Daranda turn you against your will?”

He looked at her like he knew she was trying to change the subject. “She offered, and I accepted. I was wounded. Dying.”

“Why were you wounded?”

“It was during the Napoleonic War. I was a fusilier.”

She wrinkled her brow. “What’s that?”

“A common foot soldier—the lowest of the low.”

“So, you were injured in a battle and she just appeared and offered to help you?”

He gave a humorless laugh. “More or less. I think she was looking for recruits, especially men who could fight.”

She didn’t know what to think about this guy. He was a killer. An assassin. When he first told her, it seemed like an abstraction, like something she’d read in a book. It wasn’t even as immediate as something seen in a movie. It was like a story he told her, that didn’t have anything to do with real life. But then he killed that man in the motel room.

She hadn’t seen him do it, but that body was definitely dead. The first dead body she’d ever seen. And Obsidian had made it that way. He’d taken a man’s life and destroyed it with his bare hands.

He’d done it to protect her and himself, and she knew that the killing was justified. Necessary. But it was killing just the same. She’d never met anyone—at least not to her knowledge—who committed murder before. Of course, her mother had come close. But that wasn’t quite the same thing.

Obsidian had turned his attention to his food, and was methodically cutting his steak. He didn’t want to talk about himself anymore than she wanted to share the details of her own sorry life. But one of them had to open up, or neither of them ever would.

Did she really want to know what was going on inside the head of this man? There were so many ugly possibilities. They wouldn’t be together for very long, would they? Nope. He was trying to get rid of her; she knew it. And she didn’t blame him. But for the time they had together, it might be easier if they knew a little more about each other—and that meant she had to open up a little as well.

She took a deep breath and let it out really slowly. “I was in the foster care system for a long time. They took me away from my mom when I was four years old. Debbie went through a whole bunch of parenting programs and anger management and all that kind of crap. And then they gave me back to her.”

“So how many foster homes were you in?”

Kayla shrugged. “Ten, I think.” She glanced at him. For the first time, she saw a look of surprise on his face.

“Ten foster homes? What the hell happened?”

“That’s not unusual. A lot of foster kids go through home after home.”

He was watching her with that slight frown on his face. “But I don’t understand. How can they call it a foster home if you keep getting moved from one place to the other?”

She gave him a wry smile. “Home is just a word. Sometimes the placement doesn’t work out; sometimes it’s just a temporary placement anyway. Sometimes the foster parents decide they don’t want to do it anymore. And then there are the homes where the foster parents get in trouble for abusing the kids because either they should never have been foster parents in the first place or they were just overloaded by a system that never has enough foster parents to go around.”

“So is that why they sent you back to Debbie?”

“No. They sent me back because she’d done everything they asked her to do. She went through all the parenting classes and the anger management classes and counseling and everything else; whatever it was they asked her to do, she did it. So she was qualified, I guess you could say, to be my mom again. And they’d never taken the other kids away from her. She had them the whole time that I was in foster care. So obviously they didn’t think she was completely incapable of being a parent.”

“So what about the other two? Your brother and sister?”

“She never treated them the way she treated me.” Kayla looked down at her plate. She pushed some steak around, stabbed at a piece with her fork, and lifted it to her lips. Then she put the fork down again without taking the food into her mouth. “I guess I was a special case. I’ll never understand why, but Debbie took out all her poison, her anger, on me. The other two, well I guess they got some overflow, and they were witnesses to whatever happened to me, but she never beat on them or starved them like she did me.”

For a long time Obsidian said nothing. Kayla went back to eating her food. The steak was really good. She’d ordered hers medium rare, and it was very pink in the center and full of juice. Just the way she liked it.

Maybe he didn’t want to know the details of what happened to her. And that was fine. She rarely told people about her past. The only person who knew everything was her therapist, and she hadn’t spoken to the woman in six months. So if Obsidian didn’t want to know, he didn’t have to hear it. She wasn’t going to force it on him.

He took a long swallow of the red wine he’d ordered. “You had a rough break.”

Kayla laughed. “Yeah, I guess I did.”

“You’re a really strong lady. Not everyone would come through that without turning into the same kind of monster Debbie was.”

“We’ll never really know, will we? I’ll never have children.”

“Is that why you became a vampire? So you wouldn’t be able to have children?”

His words stunned her. “No. How could you even think that?”

“People have all kinds of reasons. Mostly it’s about power or immortality. What you said made me wonder, that’s all.” He took a bite of steak and chewed thoughtfully, as if he hadn’t said words that shattered her inside.

Was it possible that she had been drawn to The Words of the Vampire because she wanted a life without children? She didn’t think so. But what if she was wrong? What if she was hiding something from herself, some dark fear, or worse yet, some evil lurking within her, something that she knew would destroy any children she might have. Was that who she really was?

“It was just a thought, Kayla. Don’t take it too seriously.”

“I’m not.”

She began to eat again, working methodically through the meal. There was nothing more to say. She did not want to talk about this. But her mind couldn’t stop turning it over and over in her head, like a strange object she was trying to understand. She had almost killed that boy by taking too much blood. If there was something evil inside of her, that was exactly the kind of thing it would probably do. Sucking a young man dry just because it felt good to her, with no thought for his safety or what she might be doing to him.

She hadn’t ordered any wine, and now she wished that she had. This was a good time to get drunk. Of course that was a stupid idea. The last thing she needed right now was to be drunk, and falling all over Obsidian, probably blabbering everything that was in her heart and mind about him. He didn’t need to know any of that.

They finished the meal in silence and returned to his car. It was late, past the usual dinner hour, but there were a lot of people still about. They laughed and talked, joking with each other, kissing in their cars, completely unaware that there were two predators in their midst. And she was one of those two.

She had gone from prey to predator in the space of a few days. It was a strange thing, like putting on a pair of sunglasses that changed the color of everything around you, only these glasses, this perceptual change, was in the mind. It didn’t just cover the eyes, change the vision; it changed everything about her.

She got into the passenger seat and buckled herself in, although since she was a vampire now, she probably didn’t need the protection. But it was habit, and besides, driving without a seat belt was illegal in some states. They didn’t need the attention of any cops that happened to come around. Obsidian started the engine and drove off.

As they sped along the on-ramp to the freeway, he gave her a sideways glance. “You’re not evil, Kayla.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Yeah, I do.”

Kayla slapped the side of the car door. “You hardly know me, Obsidian. And what I almost did to that boy back there—I would’ve killed him if you hadn’t stopped me.”

“We all do that at first. That’s why a new vampire needs a mentor. That’s why you can’t be on your own at first. It has nothing to do with whether or not you’re a good person.”

She had no answer for that, so she turned her head and stared out the window. “Why didn’t you ever come see me?”

He gave a heavy sigh. “You know why.”

“No, I don’t.”

“I am a hit man,” he said, with exaggerated enunciation, as if to make sure she understood his words. “I kill people for a living. I am not a good person.”

“I needed you.”

“You didn’t need me. Maybe you had a crush on me or something. I don’t know. But I do know that you did not need me. I’m not a good man. I told you that before, and you need to listen to me.”

“There is something good in you. You didn’t have to save me. There was nothing for you to gain by saving me, but you did it anyway. Why? You could have left me there to die. I was ready to go. I was nothing to you, and yet you came back and got me. Why did you do that?”

He blew out his breath. “I couldn’t get you off my mind. Okay? I don’t know why I did it. It was out of character for me. Don’t make it into more than it is.”

“Do you understand that you’re the only person I have now? I can’t contact Susan and Mark, can I? That would put them in danger. Christ.” She rubbed her forehead. “They’re already in danger, aren’t they? Oh, God. What if that spy person you told me about goes after my parents? We have to warn them.”

“I don’t think Black will bother your parents. He’ll know that they’re ignorant.”

“But what if they tried to use Susan and Mark as bait? What if they tried to threaten them in order to force me to come in? I can’t allow that. I’d rather turn myself in to your Empress than allow them to hurt my parents. If it weren’t for Susan and Mark, I would have gone right back into the foster care system. I probably wouldn’t have survived.”

“There’s nothing we can do for them.”

“Is that true? Or is it just that you don’t want to bother going back to help them?”

His fingers tightened on the wheel. “We can’t go back there. If we do, Daranda’s people will catch us. They’ll bring us to her court, where she will publicly torture us until we die. That’s what she does to traitors. She’ll especially want to make an example of me because…”

“Because what?”

His lips flattened into a thin line. “I was one of her favorites. She sees me as a kind of pet, like a hunting dog. The Empress’s Guard Dog—that’s what they call me. She won’t be able to let this go.” He looked at her, then back at the road. “The only thing we can do is keep going forward.”

“You saved my life. But so did Susan and Mark. You don’t know how much they did for me, Obsidian. I can’t let Daranda have them.”

“You can call them. That would be safe enough.”

“What would I tell them?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m not sure there’s any place they could go that would be safe from her. The only thing I can think of is if they never go out at night, if they stay in their house with all the doors and windows locked, they might be safe enough. But Daranda has human slaves; they’re often called familiars; they go out and do her work during the day. There’s just no guarantee.”

“Will a gun stop a vampire?”

“It would slow one of us down. But the only way to kill a vampire for sure is to remove the head.”

“What if I asked them to fly out to meet us? I won’t tell them about the vampire thing, because they wouldn’t believe me anyway. I’ll just say there are some bad people after us and they’re in danger. Do you think that would be okay?”

His jaw clenched. “That might work, except we’ll have to meet them somewhere. We’ll have to agree on the meeting place ahead of time, otherwise we would end up waiting around for them, and that would be dangerous.”

“Do you have any idea where we’re going? Besides the West Coast, I mean.”

“Not really. I suspect they’re in the Pacific Northwest, but I’m not sure.”

“Why is that?”

“California is too sunny. Sunny locations are hard on vampires. There’s no leeway in a place like that.”

“Should I ask them to meet us in Portland then?”

“It’s as good a place as any.”

Kayla reached out and laid a tentative hand on Obsidian’s forearm. “Thank you.”

His mouth twisted up at one corner. “You may change your mind about thanking me later. Waiting around for your parents is going to put us and them in a lot of danger.”

“I love them. I can’t—I just can’t leave them for her to find.”

“I understand.”

“Do you?”

“I had parents, too, you know.”

They drove quietly in the silent dark, Kayla staring out the window at the flashing lights of the cars that passed them going the other direction. She could barely make out the shapes of trees and fields and buildings as they zoomed through the night.

“What were they like?”

He glanced at her again. “Who?”

“Your parents, of course.”

He lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug. “They were peasants. Very simple people. My father was a fisherman, and my mother was the daughter of a fisherman. They had no education, and no way to make their lives any better.”

“Did you love them?”

“Yes. I did.”

“Were you drafted into the Army, or did you leave by choice?”

His mouth gave a wry twist. “You’re determined to find out as much about me as possible, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I am. Now give.”

His smile broadened. “I left by choice. I thought I was better than the life my parents led, and I didn’t want to be a fisherman. I was a young idiot, and I had my head full of crazy ideas about glory and honor.”

“So you weren’t really into the whole soldier thing?”

“Oh, I was into it, until I found out what it was really like. My first battle was hell.”

He didn’t look at her. He stared off into the darkness of the highway ahead of them, looking like he might never speak again. A muscle ticked in his jaw.

After some hesitation, she said, “some things are hard to talk about.”

“Yes, they are.”

She turned her head away again, gazing out at the night. Now she knew more about Obsidian than she ever had before, probably a lot more than Susan knew. And yet she still had next to no information about him.

The radio was off. She reached out to turn the knob and glanced at him sidelong. “What kind of music do you like?”

“It doesn’t really matter to me.”

“Are you telling me that you don’t have a favorite kind of music?”

“That’s what I’m telling you.”

Weird. “So if I want to listen to Italian opera, you won’t mind?”

“I doubt you can find Italian opera on the radio around here. But if that’s what you want to listen to, and you can find it, I don’t mind.”

“I would have pegged you as a hard rock guy.”

He laughed. He looked like a different person when he did that. He got creases in the corners of his eyes and his whole face changed, making him look boyish and happy. “Why hard rock?”

“I guess it’s the tough guy thing.”

He looked over at her, still grinning. “What kind of music do you like?”

She liked a little bit of everything. “Emo, what else? And you still haven’t answered my question.”

His grin faded, and he seemed to consider her question seriously. “I’ve spent so long in the court that I haven’t given much thought to my own likes and dislikes. At court, you like whatever Daranda likes. At least, that is, if you value your hide. So I don’t really have an answer for you. I’m honestly okay with whatever you want to listen to.”

“Okay, you asked for it.”

It turned out there wasn’t much available on the airwaves besides classic rock and country. Neither of those were her favorites, but she left on the classic rock just for something to listen to. His time at Daranda’s court reminded her of living with Debbie. Your own personality not only didn’t matter, it was a liability, something that could draw the attention and anger of the tyrant.

He had lived under those conditions for 200 years, and she could only imagine what that had done to his psyche. It couldn’t be good.

By midnight she was starting to get hungry again. Conversation had slowed and then stopped, and they had spent what felt like hours riding in the dark silence. She turned her head to look at Sid. Opened her mouth to suggest they stop for food.

Brilliant light flared behind them. There came a jolt so hard and abrupt her teeth clicked together and her hands scrabbled for a hold on the smooth leather interior. She threw a terrified glance over her shoulder. Headlights from a car behind them blazed a blinding glare in her eyes. Another jolt, this one harder than the first, threw her forward and she caught herself with her hands braced on the dashboard. Her palms were slick with sweat, her heart racing out of control. Out of control….

“Sid?” she yelled.

“They’re trying to force us off the road.”

“Who are they?”

“Hell if I know.”