There were bodies everywhere. Julia stood, frozen in place. She’d never seen such carnage before. She’d watched horror movies of course, and Buddy had been fond of the torture porn movies that had been popular in the last couple of years. She hadn’t been. The over-the-top gore and blood with no plot had bored the daylights out of her.
This though, was different. She’d never seen people killed for real before, and certainly not right in front of her eyes. There was something primitive about being in the thick of the action. Smelling blood in the air as it splattered up tree trunks and across the ground. Hearing a scream at the same moment light died from the victim’s eyes. Seeing bits of bodies lying next to the corpses they’d been attached too only moments before. Seeing the stark glint of bone and the sheen of tissue not meant to be exposed to the air.
Her stomach rebelled, bile rising, and she was forced to lift a hand to her throat. Taking a deep breath didn’t help; it just pushed the smell of death and raw meat further down into her lungs. The worst bit about that was the part of her soul that leapt at the smell, that wanted to roll in the death and destruction the SARAs had wrought about them.
The few remaining Bloods had fled for their lives, the sound of their retreat through the trees loud to her enhanced hearing. To her left, Dom dropped the leg he was holding, all that remained of the Blood he’d been using as a club, and made to go after them. Fredericks held up his hand, stopping the bigger man in his tracks, and shook his head.
“Let them go. They won’t get far.” His deep voice rumbled almost on the edge of hearing, and he twitched his head to the side. She was getting used to that, and the weird sideways scuttle almost too fast for her to see. They were scary as hell, that was for sure. “We’ll check the barn. Never know, we might get lucky and that asshole McCoy is still around.”
Brett snorted as he turned, casting her a quick look. His chest and arms were covered in black blood, none of it his, and she breathed a sigh of relief. The battle had happened too fast for her to do anything but cower in the middle of the four men. Not one of their attackers had come anywhere close to getting to her.
“We can hope,” Brett said, stepping over a ribcage to reach her side. Thankfully, he wiped his hands on the back of his already grubby jeans before reaching for hers. He nudged a slumped body with his foot. It rolled over, looking up at the trees above with a sightless eye. The other, along with half its skull, was missing. She shuddered and moved closer to him as he spoke again. “McCoy’s too canny. He’ll be long gone by now.”
Frederick’s lips thinned. “Agreed. Okay, let’s check out the barn. I don’t see any women in this lot, or in the ones that ran. Chances are they’re still down there.”
Julia nodded and led the way toward the barn. It loomed above her, emerging out of the darkness and growing impossibly larger as they approached. Fear wound its way through her veins, trying to get its hooks into her, but she ignored it and forged on. A part of her mind wanted to put her bravado down to the men walking around her.
But as scary as hell as they were, she knew deep down that it wasn’t that. She’d been here before and lived to tell the tale. No, the difference was the darkness inside her. The craving to find the two men who had done this to her, Captain Double-A and his douche-bag accomplice. She hadn’t seen or smelled either of them during the fight, which meant they were still out there somewhere. She grit her teeth so hard she was surprised they didn’t break. One way or another, she’d track both those bastards down and make them sorry.
“In here,” she murmured, leading them through the barn door and to the steps leading down into the cellar below.
“Let me.” Brett pushed in front of her. He took the steps so quietly that if she couldn’t see him right there in front of her, she wouldn’t have believed he was moving. They crept onwards in the darkness, the other three fanning out around her. From their movements, it was easy to see that they had been soldiers. Ignoring the tic they all seemed to have, more so when keyed up, their movements were smooth. Natural. Aware of everything around them.
She stepped off the last step, and her bare feet touched down on the dirt of the corridor. The cells that lined it were all empty. The doors stood open, but even with them shut she’d have known they were empty. There were no heartbeats. At all. One door hung off its hinges, tracks in the dirt of the floor showing that a struggle had taken place. A darkening streak of blood decorated the wall. Julia’s lips quirked in approval. The woman in the cell hadn’t gone easily. Instead, even against a superior foe, she’d put up a hell of a fight.
Her gaze focused on one door. The cell she’d escaped from. Holding up her hand for a halt, she lifted her head to scent the air. Smells exploded in the back of her nose, filling her head with information. Women. Lots of women. And blood. Rich, hot, fresh blood with an irresistible tang that the black blood her companions were covered with just didn’t have. She wavered on her feet, a moan welling up in the back of her throat. Instantly, Brett was there, wrapping his arms around her to keep her upright. The others crowded around, concern in their pale eyes.
“I told you we shouldn’t have brought her here,” Brett growled, throwing a glare at Fredericks. “She’s only just out of conversion. She’s not e—” He cut off, sliding her a quick glance, but he’d looked away before she could isolate the expression in his eyes. “She’s not strong enough yet.”
“No, no,” she argued, pushing at his hold until it was loose enough for her to stand on her own two feet. “I’m good. The smell just took me by surprise. It’s overwhelming.”
Dom nodded. “It will be for a while. You’ll learn to filter it out.”
She nodded, and sucked in a breath. Her stomach rolled and she couldn’t work out if it was hunger or nausea. No time to figure it out now. “These are the cells. That one was mine. They’re empty now….” She frowned, turning around, and spotted the turn in the corridor. “The other room was down here.”
As she spoke, a slight breeze wafted along the corridor, bringing new scents. The Captain they’d named as McCoy, his asshole buddy and another scent. Fainter, and more delicate. The crazy woman.
Kelwood’s head snapped up just as she was looking at him, and blackness swarmed over his eyes, obliterating the little color there was. His lips curled away from his teeth, then he dropped his head back and howled.
The instant Kelwood opened his mouth to scream, Brett knew the situation had gone to hell in a hand basket. He’d hoped to God that Julia’s story of a woman talking about an ‘Alice’ had been a horrible coincidence, but Kelwood’s reaction to the new scents wafting down the corridor—female human and blood combined—ground that hope into dust.
He hauled Julia back and into his arms just in the nick of time, as Kelwood launched himself down the corridor, his movements entirely inhuman. His run was fast and almost sideways, then he took a sidestep and bounced off the wall, running a few steps along the perpendicular surface as though gravity were an optional extra.
“Holy shit!” Even Brett blinked in surprise. Although all of them had been fairly acrobatic when fighting in the cages, he didn’t realize they could do that. The two others looked as shocked as he felt, then as one they took off after Kelwood with Fredericks in the lead. They swarmed down the corridor, leaving Brett and Julia to catch up.
He grabbed her hand and ran, hauling her after him. The tunnel passed in a blur of wood and dirt walls until they reached a small room. The hitch of her breath behind him and the sudden increase in her pulse told him she’d been here before.
“Shhh, it’s okay. No one here,” he reassured her, wrapping an arm around her waist.
He was almost right. A woman’s body sprawled over the couch, her throat ripped open, and the ruined red mass of tissue was like a fancy silk scarf around her neck. Her dead eyes seemed to be fixed on them, the hard stare condemning them for not getting to her in time.
“Human.” Fredericks crouched by the body, his hand hovering over her chest. Not touching her, just…feeling. Of all of them, he could always sense how far away death was in a body. Said it was the echoes of the heart’s vibration or something, still lingering in the tissues. Brett had no clue; he wasn’t that sensitive. “Been dead a while. Too far gone.”
With the last three words, Brett relaxed. Dom caught his eye from across the room, and the two shared a smile. Too far gone meant they wouldn’t register the body as food, and wouldn’t feel the drive to eat. Julia might have accepted the truth of what he was, but he didn’t want her to see that side of him. Hell, even he didn’t want to think about that side.
“She was here,” Kelwood ranted, eyes wild as he looked around the little room. “Kathy was here. Where have they taken her?”
He turned in a circle, his gaze skittering past Julia, then doubling back.
“You!” His eyes narrowed and he stalked forward, menace in his every movement. “You led us around in circles, gave them time to escape. Didn’t you?”
The snarl slipped from Brett’s lips before he could stop it, the deep sound rolling around the small room. Too deep. Then Dom stepped up next to him, teeth bared and a deeper growl emanating from his big chest. But Kelwood wasn’t deterred.
“It’s her, I tell you!” he railed, gesturing at the woman behind Brett and Dom. “She was leading us in circles so her lover could escape. Tell me,” he spat. “How many of them did you fuck?”
One second Brett was looking at Kelwood’s snarling face, the next the guy staggered back, clutching at his nose as blood seeped from his nostril. Brett didn’t give him time to recover; instead, he shoved him into the wall and jammed his forearm into Kelwood’s throat.
Surprise filtered through the madness in the other man’s eyes, quickly followed by panic and fear. Emotions to be relearned. For months they’d been invincible, in the ring and out of it. In fact, there was only one creature that could kill a SARA.
“Never. Ever. Talk to her that way again,” he said in a low voice full of threat. He didn’t growl. He didn’t need to. His body shook with the primal need to tear apart the threat to his woman. A need so great, so overwhelming that it almost obliterated everything else.
Dom’s arm snaked around him, under his arm to over his shoulder, to haul him off Kelwood. He fought, but Dom was stronger. Staggering backward, he reached for Julia only to realize the room had fallen silent and they were all looking at him.
“Shit, man….” Dom breathed. “What the fuck did you do to your eyes?”
Brett shook his head, wrapping an arm around Julia’s waist to tuck her into his side protectively. All he wanted to do was drag her off somewhere and keep her safe. “What’s wrong with my eyes?”
“They’re white,” said Dom. “Completely whited out. Like a cue ball in a blizzard type of white.”
Brett blinked, his anger receding. Julia touched his cheek and he looked down at her.
“The color is coming back, slowly. Look.” She hooked a delicate finger under his chin and turned his face so that Dom and Fredericks could see. Kelwood, sensibly, kept his distance. “Perhaps it’s emotion linked?”
Brett nodded. “Never felt anger like it. It was as if it crawled inside me and took over.”
Dom nodded, his lips pursed. “It sounds like the Red Mist the Bloods get. If we’re starting to exhibit the same thing, they must have put something similar in the serum used to make us.”
Brett blinked, then chuckled, but Fredericks beat him to the punch. “Shit Dom, you almost sounded intelligent then!”
The big man cracked a grin. “I know. Go me, eh?” He shrugged. “Working the Blood Section you pick up bits here and there. They often reused the base portion of the serum, just adding the extra bits to go for Blood, Lycan or Re-animate.”
“So far today, we’ve got walking on walls and weird eyeballs, so fuck knows what they shoved in ours.” Fredericks stepped forward, the humor fleeing his expression. “I think it’s safe to say that our birds have fled the coop. Let’s get topside and see if Jared or Julia can pick up a viable scent.”
A few minutes later they were on the move again. This time the men didn’t have to slow down for Julia. Thanks to Kelwood being unable to pick up the scent, his shock about his wife sending him into some kind of blackout-trance, she was leading them. The trail was easy to follow, for her anyway. The scent of the fleeing Bloods and their human captives lit up her olfactory landscape like a light stream. Energy flowed through her like she was directly connected to a live power cable. Running at high-speed endlessly presented no problem. Nor did leaping over fallen logs and the occasional boulder with one stride. She wanted to whoop with joy and howl at the moon overhead when it emerged from behind the clouds to show its face. If their situation hadn’t been so dire, if they hadn’t left a dead woman behind to burn in the ruins of the barn, or weren’t racing to stop others suffering the same fate, then she would have.
Apart from the darkness coiled deep inside her that she was ignoring, she didn’t see what the big deal about being ‘converted’ was. So, she had fangs and a new manicure? Big deal. She’d always loved vampire films and books when she was younger. Real horror stories, not the crappy gore films that Buddy preferred. Huh, he should have been there for the fight earlier. She’d have given him a front row seat to having his own throat torn out.
The smell of blood exploded on the air again and she frowned, slowing her steps. The others stopped around her as she crouched to check out a blood-splattered leaf.
“Problem?” Brett asked as Fredericks dropping to one knee next to them. She didn’t miss the fact that Dom was keeping Kelwood away from her. One of them always was.
“I’m not sure.” She rubbed at the blood and sniffed her fingertips. “The scent is weird. Like it’s changing somehow.”
Prompted by a drive she didn’t understand, she stuck her finger into her mouth and licked her finger. A little voice in the back of her head went bat-shit, screaming about infection. HIV. Hepatitis. Ebola. All manner of nastiness.
Her eyes widened as new instincts kicked in, her stomach rolling with hunger pangs.
“It’s not quite human. Not anymore,” she decided aloud. “It was earlier, but not now.”
Acting on a hunch, she dropped a fang into her mouth and used it to slash the fleshy part of her palm, near the thumb.
“Fucking hell!” Fredericks arched back as black blood rose on her pale skin. “Warn us if you’re going to do something like that!”
She arched her eyebrow and licked the wound. It tingled as her tongue swept over it, but her attention was on the taste of her own blood. Before, it had been coppery. Hot and metallic. Now it was more metallic, but cold and musky. Old. It reminded her of basements and things long buried in the earth.
“She’s like me. Or she will be soon.”
“A Blood? You mean they converted her on the move?”
She looked directly at Fredericks. “I’m not subscribing to that name. That’s what you call the assholes who took us. We’re not them, so don’t use that name.”
“Attagirl,” Dom chorused from the back. “You tell ’em!”
Fredericks half-turned from his crouch, hands loosely braced on his knees. “Just whose side are you on?”
Dom grinned, a sideward step keeping him between Kelwood and the rest of them. “Mine. But she’s got a point. She’s not like a Blood. No hunger-lust that I’ve seen, and have you ever see a Blood drop just one fang before?”
She grinned as Brett and Fredericks whipped their heads around to look at her. Peeling her lip back, she dropped the fang on one side, then the other. “Can make them dance if you like?”
The stunned looks on their faces when she did just that made her giggle. The sound was so carefree and happy, she forgot everything that had happened to her for a moment. When had she last made a sound like that?
“Yeah, yeah. We got another damned comedian. You and Dom should do a double act; we could charge,” Fredericks griped, pushing to his feet, but she caught the tiny curve at the corner of his lips as he tried not to laugh. “Come on, let’s try and track these fuckers down before sunup.”
They carried on, the pace just as bruising as before. The only conversation exchanged was from Julia, updating the others on the scent trail. One by one, the human scents disappeared, to be replaced by the dark, mustier scent that marked the changed women. The original ‘Blood’ scent remained the same. Dark and rich.… Too rich, as though it was on the verge of turning to rot.
An hour passed, then another, the sky growing lighter all the time. Energy started to seep from Julia’s limbs, and she stumbled. The first time it happened, she shrugged it off. A light shower had left the undergrowth slippery. It could have happened to any of them. As she went to leap over another boulder, she lost her footing. With a gasp, she crashed into the side of the boulder, sliding down it, scraping her knees and elbows on the way. Hitting the ground with a thump, she knocked all the wind out of her lungs and lay there. Stunned.
“Julia? Julia! Are you okay?” Brett was first at her side, his eyes filled with concern. Warmth flooded her chest as he didn’t wait to check whether she’d broken anything, just gathered her up into his arms. Alarm rolled off him in waves, the sharp smell pushing through his pores and easily detectable to her sensitive nose.
“Yeah, I don’t know what happened.” She lifted her head with a struggle to look at the boulder. She’d leapt bigger during the night, so what gave? She’d felt invincible earlier. Now she just wanted to curl up in a small ball and close her eyes. “Just…feel so tired.”
“Sun’s almost up.” Dom’s deep voice reached them, and she realized that it wasn’t her new nocturnal vision that allowed her to see him clearly. It had steadily been getting lighter, and now a thin line along the horizon revealed the sun’s arrival was imminent. “She’s gonna get really tired. We should go to ground.”