The frigid air scraped my lungs raw. I pumped my legs faster, praying for a second wind. Stopping wasn't an option. Their breath beat at my back, and if they caught me, I'd be dead.
I turned the corner, running down an alley. Footsteps echoed behind me. Faster. I wrenched two trashcans back into their path. A male cursed and grunted. Metal scraped against concrete. I focused on the mouth of the alley and prayed for a miracle.
A black sedan screeched to a stop in front of me. I didn't hesitate. My legs ached with the exertion, but I just managed to launch myself onto the hood. On the other side, the landing lurched every joint in my body.
Keep running. Find the light. Red means life.
Behind me, deep voices argued. I continued down the street, cursing the heels the Castor had forced me to wear for the Prime's birthday celebration. I couldn't spare the precious moments to rid myself of the torture devices.
Finally, a speck of red appeared in the distance. All thoughts of sore feet and desperation evaporated. The beckoning light glowed from the porch of a squat, run-down house that looked more like a prewar crack den than a haven for the lost.
I kicked up my pace and pushed through the pain. Salvation drew closer.
My pursuers' harsh breathing echoed off the burnt out shells of buildings and trash- strewn streets. A weathered poster bearing my own face mocked me from the brick walls of an old induction center. In red ink along the bottom, the Troika's slogan, the hated words I'd repeated so often on radio broadcasts and in speeches to grim-faced prisoners: "Blood will make you free."
Not a soul lurked in the shadows. Most humans now slaved in work camps or blood camps. Rebels sought refuge in the burnt-out cities, but if any were watching me from the darkened windows, their survival instincts precluded them from interfering in Troika business. After all, my pursuers wore the telltale black uniforms of the secret police. The lightning symbol on their br**sts had become a graphic promise of pain.
Not far now. If I could just--
Pain exploded on my scalp. My head whipped back with the force of the fist jerking back on the ponytail. My feet snapped out from under me. He used my hair to keep me from hitting the ground. The agony made me wish I'd hit concrete instead.
It was Sergei, one of the Prime’s personal guards, who'd caught me. The one who always watched me while caressing his precious riding crop. "Got you, bitch." His eyes burned like hot coals. Fangs flashed as he panted for breath. "Now we can add evading arrest to your list of crimes."
His partner doubled over, trying to catch his breath. I didn't know his name, but he had the wild eyes of a male who enjoyed his job too much. He glanced up at the glowing red light on the front of the house, now only twenty feet away. "She almost made it."
"Almost doesn't count," Sergei said, tugging my hair harder. He leaned in at my grimace. "You like that?" he whispered. "There's more coming." I gritted my teeth and waited for my opportunity. "Call headquarters and have them send a rover to retrieve her."
With the partner distracted, I slapped his fist to my scalp, holding it in place and easing the pressure. I scraped my heel down his shin and stabbed the tip into his foot. With a yelp, he released me. I grabbed the crop from his slack hold and jerked it against his windpipe.
It happened so fast his friend didn't see it. He spoke into his radio, his back to me, "Repeat: Meridian Six has been subdued--" I grabbed the blade from my garter and made his last words dissolve into a wet gurgle. As he fell, I grabbed his gun from his hand and turned it on Sergei.
"You won't be allowed to live." His words the confidence of a man determined to deliver the deathblow. "You'd already be dead if Director Castor didn't want the pleasure for himself."
I put the gun to his head. Pulled the trigger. His body jerked. Wetness splashed my face. I dropped his body and hauled ass toward the steps.
It happened as if in slow motion. I ran toward the door, my hand rose to pound. The roar and vibration of the Troika's arriving craft shook the building. The panel in front of me flew open. A female in red robes opened her mouth in shock, reaching for me. The blast ripped through the night. Fire exploded in my left shoulder. I fell in slow motion, the world a blur of pain--fell across the threshold and into the acolyte's arms. Blood filled my vision.
Red means life.
Whispers woke me. I peeled open one eye. Two females watched me from the doorway. I didn't move so as not to alert them to my newly conscious state. Not until I had a chance to take stock.
Drab-colored clothes were folded in a neat pile on the chair by the door. The stained and ripped green silk dress I'd been wearing hung from a hook and the high heels lay beneath them on the floor like two drunks. Across from the bed, a canvas hung depicting the beatified visage of some patron saint of the Sanguinarians, the religion to which the Order of the Sisters of Crimson belonged. On the table beneath the painting, lay the dagger I'd stolen off the guard when I'd made my escape. When I'd arrived it was bloody, but now it shone like pristine, polished silver.
A thin, coarse blanket abraded my na**d skin. The realization that I was totally at the mercy of these bloodthirsty holy women shocked my synapses into firing again.
They call me Meridian Six
"She is awake." The voice was feminine with an undercurrent of steel.
I used to be a tool for the Troika. But now I am their prey.
Turning my head, I focused on the pair by the door. The acolyte who'd helped me inside earlier stood next to a statuesque woman in crimson and black robes. All Sisters of Crimson wore red robes, but only those who'd achieved exalted status wore the sacred black as well.
Chatelaine...smart not to leave an acolyte alone with me. Not after the way I arrived.
She dismissed the acolyte with a nod. The door closed, and she moved forward slowly, almost gliding. She wasn't afraid to be alone with me.
"Welcome. I am Sister Agrippa, Chatelaine of this rectory."
She shushed me and placed a hand on my arm when I tried to sit up. "You must rest. The bullet grazed your shoulder, but you lost blood from your other wounds."
I didn't meet her eyes and pulled the sheet higher. She'd seen the bite marks on my thighs and br**sts.
"What happened to your lower back?"
I looked up quickly, thankful she hadn't mentioned the other wounds. "Had to dig out the chip so they couldn't zap me."
She nodded but showed no emotion on her face. "You wouldn't have made it far if you hadn't." Something lit in her eyes--respect? "It's a miracle you made it out of the Fortress as it is, Miss Six."
I fell back onto the flat pillow. Even my bones felt exhausted. I wasn't surprised Sister Agrippa knew the name the vamps had given me. Everyone knew about Meridian Six, model Troika citizen. The instant I escaped I swore I'd never be called that name again, but I didn't want to offend the holy woman when the situation was still so fragile. "Thanks," I said instead.
She eyed me with frank curiosity. "I assume you are aware I am only able to offer you sanctuary for twenty-four hours. You slept twenty of those away, I'm afraid."
I cringed. Four hours wasn't much time. I needed to regroup and come up with a plan. "I understand, Sister. I appreciate your hospitality."
"I took the liberty of having my assistant bring a change of clothes." She nodded at a stack of garments on a chair next to the door. "I guessed at your size, but they'll be better than the filthy ones you wore when you arrived." Her face didn't betray any judgment but I found her choice of adjective telling. Had my harlot's clothes and the blood kiss marks on my inner thighs and chest betrayed my status as the Troika's blood whore?
I wasn't sure how to reply. Thanking her again would have felt too much like a confession.
"I'll leave you to your ablutions. The first mass of the evening begins in five minutes. Perhaps you'll join us? Spiritual renewal may offer you a modicum of strength for your journey."
"I think I'll pass." I hesitated before adding, "No offense."
"None taken. I didn't think you'd agree anyway." She moved to the door again. "Go ahead and get dressed. I'll have my assistant retrieve you after mass, and we can discuss next steps."
"Hmm?" She paused by the door. The brighter light from the hallways fell around her like a halo.
"Aren't you going to ask why the Troika are after me?"
She paused and smiled, her small, white fangs flashing in the dim light. "Would you tell me the truth if I did?"
My lips quirked. I liked this woman's straightforward, no-bullshit attitude. "Probably not."
She nodded and left, closing the door behind her. I sat in silence for a few more moments, trying to will myself out of the warm cocoon of the bed. My soul ached to stay in this quiet place. My body ached for stillness. But my mind wasn't having any of that. I needed a plan--and fast. I'd have a lot more than aches to worry about if the Troika's men caught me when I left the convent.
Twenty minutes later, I'd completed my fortieth lap of the small room in the foreign-feeling clothes. The coarse woolen sweater and baggy denim weren't exactly the quality I was used to. I normally opted for simple garments of the highest caliber fabrics that wouldn't hamper movement or snag. Castor insisted that my clothes should also show off my form to its best advantage, which was why I didn't mind the shapeless garments the sisters provided. And the shoes! The soft leather moccasins hugged my feet like a dream. They'd be a hell of a lot easier to run in than the heels the Director of Propaganda insisted I wear.
His face flashed in my mind's eye. The lascivious gleam when he'd presented me with the dress and shoes. "And don't forget the hairpiece," he'd said, waving the green silk ribbon. "All birthday gifts should be topped with a bow." He'd giggled and left muttering to himself about how clever he was for thinking of the perfect birthday gift for the Prime.