"Goddamn it, Zsadist! Don't jump - "
Phury's voice barely carried over the sound of the car crash in front of them. And didn't stop his twin from leaping free of the Escalade while the thing was going fifty miles an hour.
"V, he's out! One-eighty us!"
Phury's shoulder slammed against the window as Vishous sent the SUV into a controlled skid. The headlights swung around and caught Z rolling on the snow-covered asphalt in a ball. Split second later he sprang to his feet and hauled ass, gunning for the steaming, crumpled sedan that now had a pine tree for a hood ornament.
Phury kept an eye on his twin and went for his seat belt. The lessers they'd chased out to Caldwell's rural edges might have just had their ride screwed by the laws of physics, but that didn't mean they were out of commission. Those undead bastards were durable.
As the Escalade heaved to a stop, Phury popped his door while going for his Beretta. No telling how many lessers were in the car or what kind of munitions they had. The vampire race's enemies traveled in packs and were always armed?em>Holy hell! Three of the pale-haired slayers got out, and only the driver looked wobbly.
The goat-fuck odds didn't slow Z down. Suicidal maniac that he was, he headed right for the undead triangle with nothing but a black dagger in his hand.
Phury tore across the road, hearing Vishous pound it out behind him. Except they weren't needed.
As silent flurries swirled in the air, and the sweet smell of pine mingled with leaking gas from the busted car, Z took down all three lessers with just the knife. He sliced the tendons behind their knees so they couldn't run, broke their arms so they couldn't fight back, and dragged them across the ground until they were lined up like gruesome dolls.
Took four and a half minutes tops, including stripping them of their IDs. Then Zsadist paused to catch his breath. As he looked down at the oil spill of black blood smudged across the white snow, steam rose from his shoulders, a curiously gentle mist teased by the cold wind.
Phury holstered the Beretta on his hip and felt nauseous, like he'd hammered a six-pack of bacon grease. Rubbing his sternum, he looked left, then right Route 22 was dead quiet this time of night and this far outside of Caldwell proper. Human witnesses were unlikely. Deer didn't count.
He knew what was coming next. Knew better than to try to stop it.
Zsadist knelt down over one of the lessers, his scarred face distorted with hatred, his ruined upper lip curled back, his fangs long as a tiger's. With his skull-trimmed hair and the hollows under his cheekbones, he looked like the Grim Reaper; and like death, he was comfortable working in the cold. Wearing only a black turtleneck and loose black pants, he was more armed than dressed: The Black Dagger Brotherhood's signature blade holster crisscrossed over his chest, and two more knives were strapped on his thighs. He also sported a gun belt with two SIG Sauers.
Not that he ever used the nine-millimeters, though. He liked to get personal when he killed. Actually, it was the only time he ever got close to anyone.
Z grabbed the lesser by the lapels of its leather jacket and jerked the slayer's torso off the ground, getting mouth-to-mouth tight.
"Where is the female?" When there was no answer other than an evil laugh, Z coldcocked the slayer. The crack echoed through the trees, a stark sound like a branch snapping in half. "Where is the female?"
The slayer's mocking grin jacked Z's rage so high he became his own arctic circle. The air around his body grew magnetically charged and colder than the night. Snowflakes no longer fell anywhere near him, as if they disintegrated in the force of his anger.
Phury heard a soft rasp and glanced over his shoulder. Vishous was lighting up a hand-rolled, the tattoos around his left temple and the goatee around his mouth getting highlighted in the orange glow.
At the sound of another fist pop, V took a deep drag and shifted his diamond eyes over. "You okay there, Phury?"
No, he wasn't. Z's savage nature had always been the stuff of a morality tale, but lately he'd become so violent he was hard to watch in action. The bottomless, soulless pit of him had been on a rampage ever since Bella had been abducted by the lessers.
And still they hadn't found her. The Brothers had no leads, no info, no nothing. Even with Z's hard-core questioning.
Phury was a mess about the abduction. He hadn't known Bella for long, but she'd been so lovely, a female of worth from the highest level of aristocracy within the race. Though to him she'd been more than her lineage. So much more. She'd reached beyond his vow of celibacy to the male beneath the discipline, stirring up something deep. He was as desperate as Zsadist to find her, but after six weeks, he'd lost faith that she'd survived. The lessers were torturing vampires for information on the Brotherhood, and like all civilians, she'd known little about the Brothers. Surely she would have been killed by now.
His only hope was that she hadn't endured days and days of hell before she went unto the Fade.
"What did you do with the female?" Zsadist growled to the next slayer. When all that came back at him was a "Fuck you," Z pulled a Tyson and bit the bastard.
Why Zsadist cared about a missing civilian female, no one in the Brotherhood could understand. He was known for his misogyny... hell, he was feared for it. Why Bella mattered to him was anyone's guess. Then again, no one, not even Phury, as his twin, could predict the male's reactions.
While echoes of Z's brutal work cut through the isolation of the forest, Phury felt himself cracking under the interrogation even as the lessers stayed strong and gave up no information.
"I don't know how much more of this I can take," he said under his breath.
Zsadist was the only thing he had in his life other than the Brotherhood's mission to protect the race against the lessers. Every day Phury slept alone, if he slept at all. Food gave him little pleasure. Females were out because of his celibacy. And every second he was worried about what Zsadist would pull next and who would get hurt in the process. He felt like he was dying from a thousand cuts, slowly bleeding out. A target by proxy for all his twin's murderous intent.
V reached out with a gloved hand and clasped Phury's throat. "Look at me, my man."
Phury glanced over and cringed. The brother's left eye, the one with the tattoos around it, dilated until there was nothing but a black void.
"Vishous, no... I don't..." Shit. He didn't need to hear about the future right now. Didn't know how he would handle the fact that things were only going to get worse.
"The snow falls slowly tonight," V said, rubbing his thumb back and forth over a thick jugular vein.
Phury blinked as an odd calm came over him, his heart slowing to the rhythm of his brother's thumb. "What?"
"The snow... it falls so slowly."
"Yes... yes, it does."
"And we've had a lot of snow this year, haven't we?"
"Yeah... lot of snow, and there's going to be more. Tonight. Tomorrow. Next month. Next year. The stuff comes when it comes and falls where it will."
"That's right," Phury said softly. "There's no stopping it."
"Not unless you're the ground." The thumb stopped. "My brother, you don't look like the earth to me. You're not stopping him. Ever."
A series of pops and flashes broke out as Z stabbed the lessen in the chest and the bodies disintegrated. Then there was only the hiss from the shattered car's radiator and the heavy pump of Z's breathing.
Like a wraith he rose from the blackened ground, the blood of lessers streaking his face and his forearms. His aura was a shimmering haze of violence that warped the scenery behind him, the forest beyond him wavy and indistinct where it bracketed his body.
"I'm going downtown," he said, wiping his blade on his thigh, "to look for more."
Right before Mr. O went back out hunting for vampires, he released the clip from his nine-millimeter Smith & Wesson and eyed the inside of the barrel. The gun was overdue for a cleaning, and so was his Glock. He had other shit he wanted to do, but only an idiot let his heat degrade. Hell, lessers had to be on top of their weapons. The Black Dagger Brotherhood was not the kind of target you wanted to get sloppy with.
He walked across the persuasion center, making a little detour around the autopsy table they used for their work. The one-room layout had no insulation and a dirt floor, but because there were no windows, the wind was mostly kept out. There was a cot that he slept on. A shower. No toilet or kitchen because lessers didn't eat. Place still smelled of fresh boards, because they'd built it only a month and a half ago. Also smelled of the kerosene heater they used to warm it up.
The only finished fixture was the shelving that ran from dirt to rafters down one whole forty-foot-long wall. Their tools were laid out, nice and neat, on the various levels: knives, vises, pliers, hammers, Sawzalls. If something could rip a scream out of a throat, they had it.
But the place wasn't just for torture; it was also used for storage. Keeping vampires over time was a challenge, because they could poof! on you if they were able to calm themselves and concentrate. Steel prevented them from pulling the disappearing act, but a cell with bars wouldn't have sheltered the things from sunlight, and building a solid-steel room was impractical. What worked nicely, though, was a corrugated-metal sewer pipe set vertically into the ground. Or three of them, as the case was.
O was so tempted to go over to the storage units, except he knew that if he did he wouldn't make it back out into the field, and he had quotas to meet. Being the Fore-lesser's second in command gave him some extra benes, like having the run of this place. But if he was going to protect his privacy, he had to dial in an adequate performance.
Which meant taking care of his weapons, even when he'd rather be doing other things. He pushed a first-aid kit out of the way, grabbed the gun cleaning box, and pulled a stool over to the autopsy table.
The only door in the place swung open without a knock. O glared over his shoulder, but when he saw who it was, he forced the pissed-off expression to bleed out of his puss. Mr. X was not welcome, but the Lessening Society's tough-ass in charge could hardly be denied. If only for reasons of self-preservation.
Standing under a bald lightbulb, the Fore-lesser was not a good opponent if you were looking to stay in one piece. At six foot four, he was built like a car: square and hard. And like all members of the Society who were long past their initiation, he was paled-out. His white skin never blushed and didn't get windburned. His hair was the color of a spider's web. Eyes were the light gray of an overcast sky and just as glowless and flat.
With a casual stroll, Mr. X started looking around the place, not measuring the order of objects, but searching. "I was told you just got another one."
O put the cleaning rod down and counted the weapons he had on his body. Throwing knife at his right thigh. Glock at the small of his back. He wished he had more. "I picked him up downtown about forty-five minutes ago outside of Zero-Sum. He's in one of the holes, coming around."
"I'm planning on going out again. Right now."
"Are you?" Mr. X paused in front of the shelving and picked up a serrated hunting knife. "You know, I've heard something that's pretty goddamned alarming."
O kept his yap shut and moved his hand onto his thigh, closer to the butt of his blade.
"Not going to ask me what it is?" the Fore-lesser said as he walked over to the three storage units in the earth. "Maybe that's because you already know the secret."
O palmed his knife as Mr. X lingered over the mesh metal plates that covered the tops of the sewer pipes. He didn't give a shit about the first two captives. The third was no one's business but his.
"No vacancies, Mr. O?" The tip of Mr. X's combat boot nudged at one of the sets of ropes that disappeared down into each of the holes. "I thought you killed off two after they had nothing worthwhile to say."
"So with the civilian you caught tonight, there should be one empty pipe. Instead, you're jam-packed."
"I caught another."
"You are lying." Mr. X kicked off the mesh cover of the third unit.
O's first impulse was to surge to his feet, take two running strides, and punch his knife into Mr. X's throat. But he wouldn't make it that far. The Fore-lesser had a nifty trick of freezing his subordinates in place. All he had to do was look at you.
So O stayed put, shaking from the effort of keeping his ass on the stool.
Mr. X took a penlight out of his pocket, clicked it on, and angled the beam into the hole. As a muffled squeak came out, his eyes peeled wide. "Jesus Christ, it really is a female! Why the hell wasn't I told?"
O slowly rose to his feet, letting the knife hang by his thigh in the folds of his cargo pants. His grip on the handle was steady, sure. "She's new," he said.
"That's not what I hear."
In quick strides, Mr. X went to the bathroom and threw back the clear plastic shower curtain. With a curse, he kicked the bottles of girlie shampoo and baby oil that were lined up in the corner. Then he marched over to the ammunition supply closet and pulled out the ice chest that was hidden behind it. He upended the thing so the food inside hit the floor. As lessers didn't chew and swallow, that was as clear a confession as any.
Mr. X's pale face was furious. "You've been keeping a pet, haven't you?"
O considered his plausible denials while he measured the distance between them. "She's valuable. I use her in my interrogations."
"Males of the species don't like to see a female hurt. She's an inducement."
Mr. X's eyes narrowed. "Why didn't you tell me about her?"
"This is my center. You gave it to me to run as I want." And when he found the fucker who'd squealed, he was going to peel the bastard's skin off in strips. "I take care of business here, and you know it. How I do the job shouldn't matter to you."
"I should have been told." Abruptly, Mr. X went still. "You thinking of doing something with that knife in your hand, son?"
Yeah, Dad, as a matter of fact I am. "Am I in charge here or not?"
As Mr. X shifted his weight onto the balls of his feet, O primed for a collision.
Except his cell phone went off. The first ring was shrill in the tense air, like a scream. The second seemed less of an intrusion. The third was no BFD.
As their head-on got derailed, it dawned on O that he wasn't thinking clearly. He was a big guy and a damn good fighter, but he was no match for Mr. X's tricks. And if O got himself injured or killed, who would take care of his wife?
"Answer it," Mr. X commanded. "And put it on speaker-phone."
The news was from another Prime. Three lessers had been eliminated at the side of the road only two miles away. Their car had been found wrapped around a tree trunk, and the burn spots of their disintegrations had scorched the snow.
Son of a bitch. The Black Dagger Brotherhood. Again.
As O ended the call, Mr. X said, "Look, do you want to fight with me or do you want to go to work? One way will get you killed for sure and right now. It's your choice."
"Am I in charge here?"
"As long as you get me what I need."
"I've been bringing plenty of civilians in here."
"But it's not like they're saying much."
O went over and slid the mesh top back on the third hole, making sure he could see Mr. X the whole time. Then he put his combat boot on the cover and met the Fore-lesser in the eye.
"I can't help it if the Brotherhood keeps themselves secret from their own species."
"Maybe you just need to focus a little harder."
Do not tell him to f**k off, O thought. Fail this test of wills and your female is dog food.
As O tried to rein in his temper, Mr. X smiled. "Your restraint would be more admirable if it weren't the only appropriate response. Now about tonight. The Brothers will go for the jars of those slayers they wiped out. Get over to Mr. H's house ASAP and get his. I'll assign someone to A's place, and I'll cover D's myself."
Mr. X paused at the door. "About that female. If you use her as a tool, that's fine. But if you're keeping her for any other reason, we've got a problem. You go soft and I'll feed you to the Omega piece by piece."
O didn't even shudder. He'd lived through the Omega's tortures once, and he figured he could do it again. For his woman he would go through anything.
"Now, what do you say to me?" the Fore-lesser demanded.
As O waited for Mr. X's car to get gone, his heart was going off like a nail gun. He wanted to take his woman out and feel her against him, except then he'd never leave. To try and calm himself, he quickly cleaned his S&W and armed up. It didn't really help, but at least his hands had stopped shaking by the time he was through.
On his way to the door he picked up the keys to his truck and engaged the motion detector over the third hole. That techno prop was a real ass-saver. If the infrared laser was broken, a triangulated gun system would go off, and whoever got curious would have a serious case of the leaks.
O hesitated before leaving. God, he wanted to hold her. The thought of losing his woman, even in the hypothetical, made him mental. That female vampire... she was his reason for living now. Not the Society. Not the killing.
"I'm going out, wife, so be good." He waited. "I'll come back soon and then we'll wash you." When there was no answer, he said, "Wife?"
O swallowed compulsively. Even though he told himself he should be a man, he couldn't make himself leave without hearing her voice.
"Don't send me out with no good-bye."
Pain seeped into his heart, making the love he felt for her soar. He took a deep breath, the delicious weight of despair settling into his chest. He'd thought he'd known love before he'd become a lesser. He'd thought that Jennifer, the woman he'd f**ked and fought with for years, had been special. But he'd been such a naive fool. Now he knew what passion really was. His captive female was the burning pain that made him feel like a man again. She was the soul that replaced the one he'd given to the Omega. Through her he lived, though he was undead.
"I'll be back as soon as I can, wife."
Bella sagged inside the hole as she heard the door shut. The fact that the lesser was going out off-kilter because she hadn't answered him pleased her. So the madness was complete now, wasn't it?
Funny that this insanity was the death that awaited her. From the moment she'd woken up in the pipe however many weeks ago, she'd assumed her demise was going to be of the conventional, broken-body variety. But no, hers was the death of self. As her body lingered in relative health, the inside of her was no longer living.
The psychosis had taken its time getting a hold on her, and like corporeal illness, there had been stages. At first she'd been too petrified to think of anything except how the torture would feel. But then days passed and nothing like that happened. Yes, the lesser struck her, and his eyes on her body were revolting, but he didn't do to her what he did to others of her species. Nor did he rape her.
In response, her thoughts had gradually shifted, her spirits reviving as she'd grown hopeful that she'd be rescued. This phoenix period had lasted longer. A whole week, maybe, though it was hard to measure the passage of days.
But then she'd begun the irreversible slide, and what had sucked her down was the lesser himself. It had taken her a while to realize it, but she had a bizarre power over her captor, and after some time had passed, she'd started using it. At first she pushed him to test boundaries. Later she tormented him for no other reason than that she hated him and wanted to make him hurt.
For some reason the lesser who had taken her... loved her. With all his heart. He yelled at her sometimes, and he did terrify her when he was in one of his moods, but the harder she was on him, the better he treated her. When she withheld her eyes from him, he'd go into a tailspin of anxiety. When he brought her gifts and she refused them, he wept. With increasing fervor, he worried over her and begged for her attention and curled up against her, and when she shut him out, he crumbled.
Toying with his emotions was her whole, hateful world, and the cruelty that fed her was killing her. Once she'd been a living thing, a daughter, a sister... a someone... Now she was hardening, setting like concrete in the midst of her nightmare. Embalmed.
Dear Virgin in the Fade, she knew he wasn't ever going to let her go. And sure as if he'd killed her outright, he'd taken her future. All she had now was just this god-awful, infinite present. With him.
Panic, an emotion she hadn't felt for a while, surged into her chest.
Desperate to go back to the numbness, she concentrated on how cold it was in the earth. The lesser kept her dressed in clothes he had taken from her own drawers and closet, and she was insulated by long Johns and fleeces and warm socks and boots. Except, even with all that, the chill was relentless, sneaking through the layers, burrowing into her bones, turning her marrow into an icy slush.
Her thoughts shifted to her farmhouse, where she had lived for such a short time. She remembered the cheery fires she'd made herself in the hearth in the living room and the happiness she'd felt to be on her own... These were bad visions, bad memories. They reminded her of her old life, of her mother... of her brother.
God, Rehvenge. Rehv had driven her crazy with all his domineering behavior, but he'd been right. If she'd stayed with the family, she never would have met Mary, the human who had lived next door. And she never would have crossed the meadow between their houses that night to make sure everything was okay. And she never would have run into the lesser... so she never would have ended up both dead and breathing.
She wondered how long her brother had looked for her. Had he given up by now? Probably. Not even Rehv could keep going for so long without hope.
She bet he'd looked for her, but she was glad in a way that he hadn't found her. Although he was a highly aggressive male, he was a civilian, and liable to get hurt if he came to rescue her. Those lessers were strong. Cruel and powerful. No, to get her back it would take something equal to the monster that held her.
An image of Zsadist came to mind, clear as a photograph. She saw his savage black eyes. The scar that ran down his face and distorted his upper lip. The tattooed blood-slave bands around his throat and wrists. She remembered the whip marks on his back. And the piercings that hung from his nipples. And his muscled, too-lean body.
She thought of his vicious, uncompromising will and all of his high-test hatred. He was terrifying, a horror of her species. Ruined, not broken, in the words of his twin. But that was what would have made him such a good savior. He alone was a match for the lesser who'd taken her. Zsadist's kind of brutality was probably the only thing that could have gotten her out, though she knew better than to think that he'd ever try to find her. She was just some civilian whom he'd met twice.
And the second time, he'd made her swear she would never come near him again.
Fear closed in on her, and she tried to bridle the emotion by telling herself that Rehvenge was still searching for her. And that he would call upon the Brotherhood if he found any clues as to where she was. Then maybe Zsadist would come after her, because he was required to, as part of his job.
"Hello? Hello? Is anyone there?" The shaky male voice was muted, the tone tinny.
It was the newest captive, she thought. They always tried to reach out in the beginning.
Bella cleared her throat. "I am... here."
There was a pause. "Oh, my God... are you the female that was taken? Are you... Bella?"
Hearing her name was a shock. Hell, the lesser had been calling her wife for so long, she'd almost forgotten she'd gone by something else. "Yes... yes, I am."
"You're still alive."
Well, her heart was still beating, at any rate. "Do I know you?"
"I-I went to your funeral. With my parents, Ralstam and Jilling."
Bella started to tremble. Her mother and her brother... had put her to rest. But then, of course they would have. Her mother was deeply religious, a great believer in the Old Traditions. Once she was convinced her daughter was dead, she would have insisted on the proper ceremony so that Bella could enter the Fade.
Oh... God. Thinking they'd given up and knowing they had were two such different things. No one was coming after her. Ever.
She heard something weird. And realized she was sobbing.
"I'm going to escape," the male said with force. "And I'll take you with me."
Bella let her knees give out, and she slid down the ribbed wall of the pipe until she was lodged at the bottom. Now she really was dead, wasn't she? Dead and buried.
How horribly appropriate that she was stuck in the earth.