The words seemed to echo around in the darkness, hitting the walls and gaining in volume until they almost deafened Julia. She swallowed, her throat making a dry, scratching sound.
“Hell? What do you mea—?” she started, but the sound of footsteps made her hold her breath.
She tilted her head, listening out. They were heavy footsteps. Male, wearing boots by the sound of it, and walking on wood? Definitely not on dirt like the floor of her cell. She paused at the word, but it was the only one that fit. She’d been kidnapped by force and held here against her will. The very fact that the door was locked changed the description of the room to cell.
A light outside the room snapped on, blinding her. Wincing, she tore her face away from the bars for a second to blink stars from her vision. When she looked back, a man was walking down the corridor. In jeans and a t-shirt, he was worlds away from the suited figures that had kidnapped her. He stopped at a door further up.
“Hey! Hello, in here!” she called out, shoving her arm through the bars to get his attention. “Please, you have to help m—”
He turned and she sucked in a breath, her words dying. He wasn’t human. He looked it from a distance, walked it, probably talked it, but something instinctive within her went still and quiet. Wary.
He walked toward her and she could see the awful blackness in his eyes. Like her dream.
She backed away from the door and frantically looked around for something to bar it. Fresh air was all she had. There wasn’t even a blanket or an old sack in the room with her.
The lock clicked, further evidence that he was with the men…no, the creatures…who had put her in here, but Julia was ready. As soon as the door swung open, she flung a handful of dust up into his face.
He roared, swiping at his eyes to clear them. Heart in her throat, her breath roaring in her ears, she slipped past him and raced up the corridor. More roars and crashes came from behind her, but she ignored them in favor of running. Guilt hit as she passed the other doors, one of them belonging to the crying woman, but she carried on. She had to get out, get free; then she could bring help back for however many women were trapped down here.
She reached the bottom of some crude stairs, freedom a mere few steps away, when hard hands clamped down on her shoulders.
“Where do you think you’re going, pretty one?”
Fear paralyzed her as recognition jolted her system. She knew that voice. For a second she was back in her house, fear running through her as she realized she wasn’t alone. The deep voice of her assailant whispering over her neck before pain and blackness overtook her.
He spun her around, and her breath caught in her throat as she looked up into his face. Any hope she’d been wrong died as her gaze stalled on his too-familiar features. Memory resurfaced. The scene changed to that of her nightmare. He’d been the one over her, cruel face twisted with lust shining in his dark eyes. But there were no scratches on his face, whereas she’d scratched the guy in her dream. She knew she’d marked him. Three long furrows across his cheek. She could still feel his skin giving under her nails, and the slick warmth of the blood that followed.
But his skin was smooth and undamaged, like it had never been torn... or it had completely healed. As soon as the thought occurred to her it felt right. She had cut him, but he’d healed the damage. Crap. How long had she been down here?
“Remember me?” he taunted, hands hard on her.
She shrieked, lashing out with hands and feet as she was dragged backwards away from freedom. Deeper into hell. He chuckled as she tried to kick him and rearranged his grip, shoving her arm up her back. The pain stole her breath, but she didn’t stop. They weren’t taking her without a fight. Her struggles seemed pointless though. She might as well be a week-old kitten for all the good they did.
Her captor hauled her closer, his breath washing over her neck. “Carry on, little one, and I’ll snap your arm like a twig.”
He sounded eager, as though the idea of hurting her excited him. Not wanting to give him the satisfaction, she suppressed her whimper as he bundled her through a door. As soon as they were through it, he let her go, throwing her to the floor. She hit the floorboards hard, taking the skin off her knees through the thin pajama pants she had on. Hissing past the pain, she rolled away. She didn’t care if he was bigger or that he’d threatened to break her arm. She’d take chunks out of him first.
But he didn’t follow her. Instead, he stayed by the door. In the shadows, as though he was scared or couldn’t come any further into the room. Turning slowly, she took in her surroundings. The room was plush compared to her cell. It had a floor rather than dirt, which was a definite upgrade. The boards were swept clean, and two battered sofas sat catty-corner to each other. A lone man sat on the one facing her.
At her entrance, he stood, glaring at her captor. “Slater! Is that any way to treat our guest?” He moved forward and held out a hand to help her rise.
Relief filled her; perhaps this was someone she could talk to. Her hand was halfway up to push her hair out of her face when she looked up. And froze. He wasn’t human either. Oh, his relaxed manner and charming tone concealed it better than the asshole who had dragged her in here, but her instincts still screamed at her just the same.
He smiled to reveal teeth that would make Dracula proud.
Shit. This was it. She’d finally snapped under the pressure of the divorce and all the other crap from Buddy. This was all in her head. It had to be. She was strapped to a bed someplace, drugged out of her skull, talking to her water jug. Either that or she was starring in her very own horror B-rated movie, and no one had told her.
Ignoring his hand, she scooted backwards to get to her feet. Making sure to stay out of reach of the scary one by the door, she slid behind the couch, keeping it between her and them. It wasn’t much protection, but right now she’d take anything she could get. That was until she realized there was someone else behind the couch with her.
A woman sat with her back to the tattered couch. Her arms wrapped around her knees, she rocked back and forth, singing softly. Concerned, Julia took a step closer then stopped as the woman looked up. Blood ringed her mouth and flowed down her chin like a beard of red.
Holy crap. That was so not good.
The black of her eyes when she looked up sealed the deal. Julia shivered and sidestepped. No way did she want to share the space behind the couch with the strange blood-woman. She was one of them, whatever they were. Even in the safety of her own head, Julia stayed away from the V word. This might be her own delusional little fantasy, but there was no sense in encouraging the crazies.
“What the fuck? Where am I?” she demanded, trying to keep them all in view at once. The woman with the blood seemed the least threatening, but Julia had seen enough horror movies to know not to take anything at face value. The quiet one usually turned out to be the rabid serial killer.
“Where doesn’t matter as much as why,” the guy in the middle of the room said. Tall, blond and handsome, he was Captain All-America. Huh, Double-A. Perhaps he was battery operated? She wanted to snigger at the thought, another sign she was definitely unbalanced.
“Yeah? Why’s that then?” With a confidence born of her belief that this was all a dream, she strode back into the center of the room.
He looked her up and down and she shivered, suddenly feeling dirty. Like he’d undressed her with his eyes.
“You’re a very lucky woman.”
He sat down, spreading his arms out along the back of the couch with the air of a king sitting on his throne. His shirt pulled over a muscled chest and firm abs. A drool-worthy sight, but it left her cold. Arrogant confidence surrounded him like a cape, which irritated the hell out of her. He reminded her way too much of Buddy. All charm when he wanted something, and fists when he didn’t get it.
“Go me. Why?” Once she had hold of a subject she was like a terrier. She didn’t let go.
Captain AA sat forward. The slick expression on his face made her pause. His smile didn’t reach his dead, black eyes. “Because you’ve been chosen to become a mother to a master race.”
She blinked to let that one sink in. She laughed. “What the hell...? Master race? Who do you think you are? A Nazi?”
Double-A rose to his feet, threat written in every line of his body. Julia’s survival instincts screamed at her to run, hide, do anything to get away from the predator in front of her. She backed up, too far, and hard hands clamped down on her upper arms. They held her still as Double-A approached.
“No, they lost. Stupid mistakes.” He shook his head. “But they had the right idea about pure blood. They tried to produce a pure race, and that’s where they went wrong. You can’t breed the stink of humanity out to breed true. You have to make pure breeding stock to begin with.”
Then he was in front of her, faster than the eye could see. She sucked a breath in as the guy behind her wrapped a hand around her forehead and pulled her head to the side, baring her neck. Fear rolled down her spine, the whimper escaping her lips unbidden as Double-A smiled, revealing sharp fangs.
“So pretty. You’ll breed true.” He stroked a thumb over the softness of her cheek gently. “If you survive the change.”
He struck, driving his fangs deep into her neck. The last thing she heard as she descended into darkness was the sound of her own screams.
The darkness was filled with pain. Heated razor blades tore at her insides, sliced at her guts even as they scraped the inside of her ribs. Agony lanced her veins, like each cell was a shard of glass. Thousands of shards, all driven around her body on their destructive journey by her faltering heart. It sped up, slammed against her ribs as though it couldn’t bear to be in her chest a moment longer. She gasped, but her lungs were in on the conspiracy against her. Every breath felt like antifreeze and bleach had been poured down her throat.
Coughing, her body tried to get rid of the offending substance, in this case her entire lung, and she slowly became aware that she was being carried. A hard band was clamped around her waist, so tight it felt like it was cutting her in half. When she opened her eyes, her vision was filled with someone’s ass. She blinked to focus. Then groaned. She was being carried over someone’s shoulder… again.
Only for a second though, before he ducked down and stepped through the doorway back into her cell. He rolled his shoulder and heaved her off, dropping her to the floor. She hit the dirt and cried out, more pain heaped on the agony already invading every cell. Slumped to the side, she couldn’t stop the flow of tears down her cheeks.
She thought her misery was complete. Until her stomach started to churn. Hot and cold chills raced over her skin as she moved fretfully. She wouldn’t throw up, she hated to throw up.
A male laugh, low and chilling, rolled around the small cell. It was the same guy who had taken her from the house. Her own personal tormentor. He turned to look out the door of the cell, still chuckling.
“Yeah, she’s gonna be out of it for hours.”
Fury worked its fingers through the blanket of her misery. The bastard found her pain funny. Even though her head swam at the movement, she managed to work her gaze up his leg. All smart-suit and expensive shoes, he evidently liked to dress well. In too much pain for even a small grin, she made do with a mental one and turned. Her stomach heaved and she retched, throwing up black blood all over his shiny shoes.
“What the fuck?!” His roar echoed in the small room and almost deafened her, but she didn’t care. She didn’t even care when he kicked her, the blow to her cheek throwing her backward. One more pain was nothing. She just laughed, the slick, foul substance still in her mouth and covering her teeth.
He kicked her again and then she knew nothing.
Consciousness returned in fits and starts. At first Julia couldn’t move. A prisoner in her own body, she just lay there and went with the ebb and flow until she became more aware. She still lay on her back, the dirt cold under her. At least, she knew it was cold, but where normally she’d be shivering and curling up, trying to conserve as much heat as possible, it didn’t bother her. She recognized the low temperature and dismissed it as irrelevant.
Finally, she could open her eyes. The insides of the lids scratched across the surface of her eyes, and she winced at the sound. Loud. Loud. Too loud. In fact, everything was loud, from her breathing to the steady, slow beat of her heart. The sound fascinated her as she listened to it. One beat, then the next. The next. She frowned. The time between each beat was getting longer. Shit, had they given her something? Was she dying?
But, try as she might, no panic attached itself to the knowledge that her heart was slowing. Instead, she looked up and studied the ceiling above her. Like the cell, it was crude. Rough wood. Boards across joists, probably making the floor of a room above. She tried to croak out a shout, to attract attention if anyone was up there, but no sound emerged. Just a dry, dull wheeze. Great, she sounded like a set of deflated bagpipes.
The cell had been pitch black before, but now she could see. They must have put a light in here. Why they’d do that though, she didn’t know. The memory of sharp fangs slicing into her neck made her gasp for breath. After all, it wasn’t like they were particularly bothered about her health.
She fought her own muscles where they had her locked into place. No, not locked. They weren’t tight; they were lax, like loose rubber bands. She closed her eyes and controlled her breathing. She remembered being kicked in the face...hard. Had the blow damaged her neck somehow?
As soon as the thought crossed her mind though, she dismissed it. She could feel the dirt and gravel pressing against the back of her leg where her pants had ridden up. If she were paralyzed, she wouldn’t be able to feel anything. There was nothing wrong with her, but it was like the signals weren’t getting through for some reason.
That wasn’t as concerning as the darkness she could feel circling in her blood like a shark. Predatory. Aware. Something dark that hadn’t been there before, but was strong. In desperation, she reached for it, and it welcomed her.
A gasp whispered over her lips as it spread out in her bloodstream, sank down and infiltrated every cell in her body. With the darkness came a new energy, and she turned her head just as the door creaked open.
The woman from the room, the one who’d had the blood around her mouth, slipped through the opening. Julia narrowed her eyes. She hadn’t seen it before, possibly because she’d been too worried about Captain AA and his goon, but there was something wrong with the woman. Even now, she hummed to herself and didn’t look at Julia directly.
“Open the door, the door is open,” she half sang to herself. “Let the birdie out. Birdie to fly, fly, fly away.”
Without realizing she’d moved, Julia was on her feet in a low crouch. Half a second was all it took for her to assess the room. They were alone in the same cell she’d been in earlier. There was no light, but she could see easily. How and why she had no clue, but it didn’t matter. The door was open and all that separated her from freedom was the woman in front of her.
“Rock-a-bye-baby, on the tree top,” she sang, sinking into a crouch by the door. Her eyes were bright, but they weren’t focused on anything. Certainly not on Julia. “Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird. Birdie to fly. Fly, fly away….” she crooned, mashing different songs together in a new melody that made no sense.
Julia watched her carefully, assessing the distance between herself and the door. Could she make it, or would the other woman sound the alarm? She’d been in the room before, and neither of the men had been bothered about her. She was one of them; the darkness in her eyes the same.
“Fly birdie.” She looked directly at Julia and made shooing motions with her hand. “Look after baby. Baby-baby, Alice. Look after Alice. Birdie fly.”
That was all Julia needed. Bursting into motion, she was across the room in a heartbeat and past the singing woman in the next. Her shoulder hit the half-closed door, but the pain barely registered in her haste. She paused for half a second. The corridor was empty.
Her feet barely touched the floor as she sped toward the stairs. A faint gust of a breeze brought her the scent of the freedom. The smell of the forest and wet undergrowth filled her nose as she took the stairs two at a time, expecting hard hands to grab for her at any moment.
But they never came. She burst through the door at the top of the stairs to find herself in a barn. It was old, apparently unused and abandoned. The doors were ahead of her, open, with one hanging off its hinges. Beyond them, darkness called to her, and she ran.