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All I could smell was blood.
Blood that was thick and ripe.
Blood that plastered my body, itching at my skin.
I stirred, groaning softly as I rolled onto my back. Other sensations began to creep through the fog encasing my mind. The chill of the stones that pressed against my spine. The gentle patter of moisture against bare skin. The stench of rubbish left sitting too long in the sun. And underneath it all, the aroma of raw meat.
It was a scent that filled me with foreboding, though why I had no idea.
I forced my eyes open. A concrete wall loomed ominously above me, seeming to lean inward, as if ready to fall. There were no windows in that wall, and no lights anywhere near it. For a moment I thought I was in a prison of some kind, until I remembered the rain and saw that the concrete bled into the cloud-covered night sky.
Though there was no moon visible, I didn't need to see it to know where we were in the lunar cycle. While it might be true that just as many vampire genes flowed through my bloodstream as werewolf, I was still very sensitive to the moon's presence. The full moon had passed three days ago.
Last I remembered, the full moon phase had only just begun. Somewhere along the line, I'd lost eight days.
I frowned, staring up at the wall, trying to get my bearings, trying to remember how I'd gotten here. How I'd managed to become naked and unconscious in the cold night.
No memories rose from the fog. The only thing I was certain of was the fact that something bad had happened. Something that had stolen my memory and covered me in blood.
I wiped the rain from my face with a hand that was trembling, and looked left. The wall formed one side of a lane filled with shadows and overflowing rubbish bins. Down at the far end, a streetlight twinkled, a forlorn star in the surrounding darkness. There were no sounds to be heard beyond the rasp of my own breathing. No cars. No music. Not even a dog barking at an imaginary foe. Nothing that suggested life of any kind nearby.
Swallowing heavily, trying to ignore the bitter taste of confusion and fear, I looked to the right.
And saw the body.
A body covered in blood.
Oh God . . .
I couldn't have. Surely to God, I couldn't have.
Mouth dry, stomach heaving, I climbed unsteadily to my feet and staggered over.
Saw what remained of his throat and face.
Bile rose thick and fast. I spun away, not wanting to lose my dinner over the man I'd just killed. Not that he'd care anymore . . .
When there was nothing but dry heaves left, I wiped a hand across my mouth, then took a deep breath and turned to face what I'd done.
He was a big man, at least six four, with dark skin and darker hair. His eyes were brown, and if the expression frozen on what was left of his face was anything to go by, I'd caught him by surprise. He was also fully clothed, which meant I hadn't been in a blood lust when I'd ripped out his throat. That in itself provided no comfort, especially considering I was naked, and obviously had made love to someone sometime in the last hour.
My gaze went back to his face and my stomach rose threateningly again. Swallowing heavily, I forced my eyes away from that mangled mess and studied the rest of him. He wore what looked like brown coveralls, with shiny gold buttons and the letters D. S. E. printed on the left breast pocket. There was a taser clipped to the belt at his waist and a two-way attached to his lapel. What looked like a dart gun lay inches from his reaching right hand. His fingers had suckers, more gecko-like than human.
A chill ran across my skin. I'd seen hands like that before–just over two months ago, in a Melbourne casino car park, when I'd been attacked by a vampire and a tall, blue thing that had smelled like death.
The need to get out of this road hit like a punch to the stomach, leaving me winded and trembling. But I couldn't run, not yet. Not until I knew everything this man might be able to tell me. There were too many gaps in my memory that needed to be filled.
Not the least of which was why I'd ripped out his throat.
After taking another deep breath that did little to calm my churning stomach, I knelt next to my victim. The cobblestones were cold and hard against my shins, but the chill that crept across my flesh had nothing to do with the icy night. The urge to run was increasing, but if my senses had any idea what I should be running from, they weren't telling me. One thing was certain–this dead man was no longer a threat. Not unless he'd performed the ritual to become a vampire, anyway, and even then, it could be days before he actually turned.
I bit my lip and cautiously patted him down. There was nothing else on him. No wallet, no ID, not even the usual assortment of fluff that seemed to accumulate and thrive in pockets. His boots were leather–nondescript brown things that had no name brand. His socks provided the only surprise–they were pink. Fluorescent pink.
I blinked. My twin brother would love them, but I couldn't imagine anyone else doing so. And they seemed an odd choice for a man who was so colorless in every other way.
Something scraped the cobblestones behind me. I froze, listening. Sweat skittered across my skin and my heart raced nine to the dozen–a beat that seemed to echo through the stillness. After a few minutes, it came again–a soft click I'd never have noticed if the night wasn't so quiet.
I reached for the dart gun, then turned and studied the night-encased alley. The surrounding buildings seemed to disappear into that black well, and I could sense nothing or no one approaching.
Yet something was there, I was sure of it.
I blinked, switching to the infrared of my vampire vision. The entire lane leapt into focus–tall walls, wooden fences, and overflowing bins. Right down the far end, a hunched shape that wasn't quite human, not quite dog.
My mouth went dry.
They were hunting me.
Why I was so certain of this I couldn't say, but I wasn't about to waste time examining it. I rose, and slowly backed away from the body.
The creature raised its nose, sniffing the night air. Then it howled–a high, almost keening sound that was as grating as nails down a blackboard.
The thing down the far end was joined by another, and together they began to walk toward me.
I risked a quick glance over my shoulder. The street and the light weren't that far away, but I had a feeling the two creatures weren't going to be scared away by the presence of either.
The click of their nails against the cobblestones was sharper, a tattoo of sound that spoke of patience and controlled violence. They were taking one step for every three of mine, and yet they seemed to be going far faster.
I pressed a finger around the trigger of the dart gun, and wished I'd grabbed the taser as well.
The creatures stopped at the body, sniffing briefly before stepping over it and continuing on. This close, their shaggy, powerful forms looked more like misshapen bears than wolves or dogs, and they must have stood at least four feet at the shoulder. Their eyes were red–a luminous, scary red.
They snarled softly, revealing long, yellow teeth. The urge to run was so strong every muscle trembled. I bit my lip, fighting instinct as I raised the dart gun and pressed the trigger twice. The darts hit the creatures square in the chest, but only seemed to infuriate them. Their soft snarls became a rumble of fury as they launched into the air. I turned and ran, heading left at the end of the alley simply because it was downhill.
The road's surface was slick with moisture, the street lights few and far between. Had it been humans chasing me, I could have used the cloak of night to disappear from sight. But the scenting actions these creatures made when they first appeared suggested the vampire ability to fade into shadow wouldn't help me here.
Nor would shifting into wolf form, because my only real weapon in my alternate shape was teeth. Not a good option when there was more than one foe.
I raced down the middle of the wet street, passing silent shops and terraced houses. No one seemed to be home in any of them, and none of them looked familiar. In fact, all the buildings looked rather strange, almost as if they were one-dimensional.
The air behind me stirred and the sense of evil sharpened. I swore softly and dropped to the ground. A dark shape leapt over me, its sharp howl becoming a sound of frustration. I sighted the dart and fired again, then rolled onto my back, kicking with all my might at the second creature. The blow caught it in the jaw and deflected its leap. It crashed to the left of me, shaking its head, a low rumble coming from deep within its chest.
I scrambled to my feet, and fired the last of the darts at it. Movement caught my eye. The first creature had climbed to its feet and was scrambling toward me.
I threw the empty gun at its face, then jumped out of its way. It slid past, claws scrabbling against the wet road as it tried to stop. I grabbed a fistful of shaggy brown hair and swung onto its back, wrapping an arm around its throat and squeezing tight. I had the power of wolf and vampire behind me, which meant I was more than capable of crushing the larynx of any normal creature in an instant. Trouble was, this creature wasn't normal.
It roared–a harsh, strangled sound–then began to buck and twist violently. I wrapped my legs around its body, hanging on tight as I continued my attempts to strangle it.
The other creature came out of nowhere and hit me side-on, knocking me off its companion. I hit the road with enough force to see stars, but the scrape of approaching claws got me moving. I rolled upright, and scrambled away on all fours.
Claws raked my side, drawing blood. I twisted, grabbed the creature's paw, and pulled it forward hard. The creature sailed past and landed with a crash on its back, hard up against a shop wall. A wall that shook under the impact.
I frowned, but the second creature gave me no time to wonder why the wall had moved. I spun around, sweeping with my foot, battering the hairy beastie off its feet. It roared in frustration and lashed out. Sharp claws caught my thigh, tearing flesh even as the blow sent me staggering. The creature was up almost instantly, nasty sharp teeth gleaming yellow in the cold, dark night.
I faked a blow to its head, then spun and kicked at its chest, embedding the darts even farther. The ends of the darts hurt my bare foot, but the blow obviously hurt the creature more, because it howled in fury and leapt. I dropped and spun. Then, as the creature's leap took it high above me, I kicked it as hard as I could in the goolies. It grunted, dropped to the road, and didn't move.
For a moment, I simply remained where I was, the wet road cold against my shins as I battled to get some air into my lungs. When the world finally stopped threatening to go black, I called to the wolf that prowled within.
Power swept around me, through me, blurring my vision, blurring the pain. Limbs shortened, shifted, rearranged, until what was sitting on the road was wolf not woman. I had no desire to stay too long in my alternate form. There might be more of those things prowling the night, and meeting two or more in this shape could be deadly.
But in shifting, I'd helped accelerate the healing process. The cells in a werewolf's body retained data on body makeup, which was why wolves were so long-lived. In changing, damaged cells were repaired. Wounds were healed. And while it generally took more than one shift to heal deep wounds, one would at least stem the bleeding and begin the healing process.
I shifted back to human form and climbed slowly to my feet. The first creature still lay in a heap at the base of the shop front. Obviously, whatever had been in those two darts had finally taken effect. I walked over to the second creature, grabbed it by the scruff of the neck, and dragged it off the road. Then I went to the window and peered inside.
It wasn't a shop, just a front. Beyond the window there was only framework and rubbish. The next shop was much the same, as was the house next to that. Only there were wooden people inside it was well.
It looked an awful lot like one of those police or military weapons training grounds, only this training ground had warped-looking creatures patrolling its perimeter.
That bad feeling I'd woken with began to get a whole lot worse. I had to get out of here, before anything or anyone else discovered I was free.
The thought made me pause.
Did that mean I'd been a prisoner in this place? If so, why?
No answers emerged from the fog encasing the part of my brain that held my memories. Frowning, I continued down the street. The road banked sharply to the left, then fell away, revealing the lower half of the complex. Partially built houses and shops lined the rest of this road, but this time they were interspersed between lush gum trees. At the end of the street stood a formidable-looking gate, and to one side of this, a guard's box. Warm light seeped out of a small window at the side of the box, suggesting someone was home.
To the left, beyond the partial buildings, there were concrete structures lit by harsh spotlights. To the right, a long building that looked like stables, and beyond that, several blocky concrete structures and lots more trees. And surrounding the whole complex, a six-foot wire fence.
"Any sign of Max or the two orsini?"
The sharp voice came out of nowhere. I jumped a mile, my heart racing so hard I swear it was going to tear out of my chest. Wrapping the cloak of night around myself, I melted back into the shadows of the shopfront and waited.
Footsteps approached, their leisurely manner suggesting the missing Max and orsini weren't yet causing concern. Though considering I'd probably just killed Max and seriously damaged the missing orsini, that lack of concern would very quickly disappear.
A figure appeared out of a small lane just ahead. He was human–had to be, because anything else I would have sensed. He was dressed in brown, and like the man I'd killed, had brown hair and eyes. He stopped, his gaze sweeping the street. The spicy scent of his aftershave stung the night air, mingling uneasily with the reek of garlic on his breath.
He pressed a button on his lapel, then said, "No sign of them yet. I'll head up to the breeding labs and see if Max is there."
"He was supposed to have reported in half an hour ago."
"Won't be the first time he's slacked off."
"Might be his last, though. The boss ain't gonna like this."
The guard grunted. "I'll give you a call in ten."
Ten minutes wasn't much time, but it was better than the two it would take him to walk up the road and discover the knocked-out beasties.
I waited until the guard came close, then clenched my fist and let rip with a blow to his chin. The force of it sent a shockwave up my arm, but he was out long before he hit the ground. I rolled him into the shadows of the fake shop's doorway, then scanned the road ahead.
With the main gate guarded, I'd have to try and climb the wire fence. The best place to do that was in the shadows created by the stable.
From the Paperback edition.