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By Dianne Duvall
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Dianne Duvall
All rights reserved.
Yuri closed his eyes and let the night sounds serenade him.
How he loved the quiet.
"I don't miss the city," Stanislav murmured beside him.
Yuri smiled. As usual, his friend had read him well. Stanislav might not have been able to peer into one's thoughts as telepathic immortals often did, but he could — like Bastien — discern one's emotions through touch. And his shoulder brushed Yuri's as they strode through the somnolent college campus.
"Nor do I," Yuri responded, opening his eyes.
Duke University's students appeared to have all retired for the night. No parties raged at the frat houses. No lights brightened the windows of the sorority houses. No music thump thump thumped, the bass pounding through the streets while students blew off steam and got drunk off their asses, providing easy targets for vampires.
Instead blissful silence embraced him, broken only by nocturnal creatures that scavenged about whilst the humans slept.
Or most of them, anyway. The occasional straggler or two staggered wearily through the campus. Up late cramming for exams, Yuri supposed, or returning home after a late-night tryst.
"Do you think Seth will transfer us back to New York?" Stanislav asked, his sharp eyes scouring every shadow.
"I don't think so. Not for quite some time, anyway. Whenever we quash one enemy, another rises. There seems to be no end to the troubles here in North Carolina."
"There is also a proliferation of new immortals in the area," Stanislav countered.
Almost half a dozen transformed in just the past few years. Quite an astonishing number. But Yuri wasn't concerned that it would render the two of them obsolete.
"Every one of us will be needed until no more threats arise."
Until a few years ago, all had been the same old same old: Immortal Guardians hunted vampires nightly to reduce their numbers and keep them from preying upon humans. Nothing more.
Then Bastien had raised his vampire army and pitted it against the Immortal Guardians, aided by a weaselly scientist named Montrose Keegan. Unbeknownst to Bastien, Keegan had fostered ties to a budding mercenary group that possessed a very dangerous sedative. A sedative they had developed with the sole purpose of torturing Ami, the petite mortal female in the Immortal Guardians' midst who had come to them from another world. Ami had suffered six months of torture before Seth and David, the two eldest and most powerful immortals, had found and rescued her, welcoming her into the fold.
Then the mercenaries had tried to get their hands on her again and, in the process, had discovered that the sedative worked on immortals and vampires, too.
Thank you, Bastien, Yuri thought sarcastically.
No other drug had been capable of affecting an immortal until then. None at all. The odd, symbiotic virus that infected immortals replaced their immune system when they transformed and was hyperproficient when it came to repairing any and all physical damage they suffered, including that spawned by drugs. Except for this one unique sedative.
Twice mercenaries had attempted to use the sedative to capture an immortal they could use to create an army of supersoldiers. And twice the Immortal Guardians had defeated them. The immortals had killed everyone — every single mercenary — in the last epic battle.
Things had been pretty quiet since then. But considering the troubles the Immortal Guardians had faced here since Bastien's initial uprising, Yuri doubted it would stay that way.
A pale flash of color caught Yuri's eye, drawing his attention to one side.
A woman strolled parallel to them, her feet making no sound that carried to his preternaturally sensitive ears. A long, cream-colored dress adorned her slender form. Casual, not formal. The skirts so long they hid her shoes. An oddity today when skirts so short they showed everything if the woman bent over were more en vogue.
Sleeves encased her slender arms to just beneath her elbows. The bodice hugged a narrow rib cage and even smaller waist. The only thing that wasn't demure about the dress was the neckline, which dipped low enough to provide a tantalizing glimpse of cleavage.
Were she wearing stays and panniers and petticoats, she would have fit right in with the mortal aristocrats he had rubbed elbows with ... oh ... about two and a half centuries ago. She certainly carried herself with the grace those women had practiced.
Stan mumbled something Yuri didn't catch.
Too entranced. Yuri couldn't seem to pry his eyes away from the woman.
She was a beauty, with raven hair that tumbled down her back to her waist in thick midnight waves. Her profile displayed a small nose and pert chin. Full lips that bore no smile.
A cat slipped around a corner of the building a few feet away and stopped short upon glimpsing her.
The woman stopped, too, and smiled at the ragged little creature. Bending forward, she appeared to speak to it.
Yuri strained to hear her words, but failed to catch any.
The cat dipped its head and crept forward, every movement cautious until it reached her.
She knelt down, her pretty face brightening with a soft smile.
The cat lay down and rolled over onto its back, begging for a belly rub.
"Cats are strange," Stanislav said.
The woman, reaching a hand toward the stray, looked around at the sound of his voice.
Yuri's heartbeat picked up. Moonlight spilled across her nose and chin, leaving her eyes in darkness. But he could feel her gaze upon him like a touch.
"Don't you think?" Stanislav asked.
"What?" Yuri murmured. "Oh. Right. Yes."
"What's wrong? Your heartbeat just picked up."
He would notice that, damn him.
Yuri surreptitiously put more distance between himself and his friend so Stanislav wouldn't brush his shoulder and feel the attraction and whatever the hell else it was that claimed him in that moment.
"Ah," Stanislav said. "I smell them now. How many are there?" Frowning, Yuri tore his gaze away from the woman and drew in a deep breath.
Vampires. Six of them.
"Half a dozen," Yuri told him. A century older than Stanislav, Yuri should have caught the vampires' scents first, but had allowed himself to become distracted.
The two stopped walking and let their ears and noses determine the vampires' location.
When Yuri glanced to the side once more, only the cat stared back. The woman was nowhere to be seen, though he had not heard her leave.
A faint whimper floated to him on the night's breeze.
Yuri caught Stanislav's gaze and pointed northeast as the wind ruffled his hair.
Nodding, Stanislav drew a pair of shoto swords.
Yuri drew his treasured katanas and shot forward without another word.
They found the vampires in the shadows behind a building Yuri didn't care enough about to identify. Six vampires. Two victims. All male.
Vampires were humans who had been infected with the same rare symbiotic virus that transformed immortals. As with immortals, the virus replaced their immune system and lent them many of the characteristics that had been found in vampire folklore over the centuries — greater speed, strength, and regenerative capabilities, coupled with heightened senses, photosensitivity, and a frequent need for blood. It also spawned progressive brain damage in every human infected with it that resulted in a rapid descent into madness. A madness Yuri and the other Immortal Guardians were spared thanks to the protection provided by the advanced DNA with which they had been born.
These vampires, Yuri swiftly discerned as he watched them do their damnedest to draw forth every drop of blood from the humans they had slain, were a mixed bag. Two had long since embraced the madness. Their ragged clothing and filthy bodies reeked. Their oily hair hung in limp straggles around faces stained with both new blood and old blood from the previous night's kills. Their eyes glowed blue and green with mirth as they cackled over the torturous deaths they had just inflicted.
Three others had not yet completed their descent into madness. They made at least a minimal effort at maintaining basic hygiene. And they seemed a bit leery of the insane vamps. But they clearly had taken pleasure in hurting their victims. Any sense of right and wrong that had been instilled in them by their parents had packed its bags and headed for the door. Little conscience remained. Only some basic sense of self-preservation that told them the older vampires might just be psychotic enough to turn on them one night.
Yuri met the sixth vampire's glowing blue gaze as that one noted their presence and rose in a slow, controlled movement.
Towering at least a head above the others, the sixth vampire nearly matched Yuri in height. Crisp, clean clothing adorned a form packed with muscle. Neatly cropped hair, almost military in its appearance, accompanied an air of I-can-and-will -kick-your-ass-at-my-discretion. The vamp's iridescent eyes bore no insanity, indicating he had only recently been turned. And when they latched on to Stanislav ...
He would've sworn those blue eyes lit with triumph. As though the vamp had merely been biding his time until Yuri and Stanislav had made an appearance.
The other vampires looked up at Vampire #6, followed his gaze, then rose, growling and hissing like B-movie vampires.
Instinct telling him the sixth vampire was trouble, Yuri spoke not a word. Issued no warning. He simply left the weaker five vampires to Stanislav and shot forward, his gaze never leaving the big vamp.
Vampire #6 reached behind him — so quickly his movements blurred — and drew a weapon.
Yuri barreled past the slovenly vampires and swung his katana ... just in time.
Cold steel cut through the flesh of the arm the vamp raised to aim what appeared to be a handgun at Stan.
The gun tumbled to the ground with a clatter as crimson liquid poured forth from the vamp's brachial artery.
Yuri breathed a quick sigh of relief. Immortal Guardians rarely carried guns, the loud reports of which tended to draw unwanted attention to their battles. Vampires usually didn't carry them either, having heard rumors of this or that careless vamp experiencing an excruciating death in a sunlit cell after being taken into custody by law enforcement officials.
Rumors Immortal Guardians had spawned. Such had served them well thus far.
But vampires weren't always the brightest bulbs in the box.
Had this vampire fired his weapon, campus security would have swarmed toward them. Police would've joined them as residents nearby called 911 to report gunshots. And Yuri and Stan would've been up to their ears in chaos.
The large vampire roared with rage as he clutched his injured arm and struggled to stanch the flow of blood from the severed artery. It was a fatal wound. Both knew it. Unlike immortals, vampires died if they lost too much blood.
But this vampire wasn't ready to throw in the towel. Swirling around, he delivered a roundhouse kick that sent Yuri flying through the air.
Dust and mortar exploded around Yuri in a cloud as he struck the side of the building. Landing on his feet, Yuri raced forward, leapt over the two lesser vampires Stanislav had already slain, and swung hard at Vampire #6 before that one could retrieve the gun.
The vampire stumbled backward and drew two short swords.
The expertise with which the vamp wielded those swords astonished Yuri. He fought as though he had been trained by an Immortal Guardian.
Yuri pressed forward, keeping the vampire on the defensive. The vampire countered Yuri's every strike until blood loss slowed the vamp to near-mortal speeds.
Yuri struck a second killing blow, slicing the vamp's carotid artery.
Vampire #6 dropped to his knees. His weapons fell from lax fingers as he wavered, then pitched forward.
A blade parted the material of Yuri's coat and sliced through his hamstrings.
Hissing in pain, Yuri swore and spun around.
The two vampires Stan had taken out had begun to shrivel up like mummies as the virus they housed devoured them from the inside out in a desperate bid to continue living. Stan now battled two others and held his own very well. The last vampire had snuck up behind Yuri with two big-ass Bowie knives, thinking to slay Yuri while the sixth vampire had distracted him.
Yuri parried a blow that otherwise would have severed a limb, then countered it with a strike that broke the blade of the other's Bowie knife.
The vampire gaped at what remained of the jagged blade, then started swinging wildly as fury and fear battled for dominance in his glowing silver gaze.
Trained by a master swordsman, Yuri defeated this one easily.
The vampire's body dropped to the ground, then began to shrivel up like the others. Yuri started to step over him, then stopped when the two vampires Stanislav fought fell limply to the pavement.
Stanislav looked at Yuri. "You okay?"
Yuri nodded and pointed to the big vamp. "This one actually had some skills."
Vampires rarely had any real training with regard to fighting or swordplay. Most were college students who had spent much of their time prior to being transformed in sedentary pursuits like gaming or surfing the Internet. So they tended to take the easy route, aiming for the hamstrings to bring their opponent to his knees, then falling on him like jackals.
"Reminded me a bit of the fencing-instructor-turned-vampire we encountered back in 1843," Yuri continued.
Stanislav laughed. "I remember him." He nodded to Vampire #6. "Did I see him pull a gun?"
Yuri nodded and glanced around, but didn't see it. "He must have fallen on it."
"Dumbass," Stanislav muttered. "Good thing you kept him from firing it."
Yuri laughed. "I know. What about you? Are you injured?"
His friend glanced down at his left arm, then shrugged. "A few cuts. Nothing more."
Stanislav had an impressively high tolerance for pain, thanks to the sadistic vampire who had turned him. So a few cuts could refer to anything from shallow slices that didn't need stitches to deep gashes that left his arm barely attached.
Yuri studied his friend's movements as Stanislav sheathed his shoto swords and bent to retrieve the weapons the vampires had dropped. Satisfied that Stanislav's wounds indeed posed no threat, Yuri sheathed his own swords, drew his cell phone from a back pocket, and made a quick call.
"Reordon," Chris Reordon, who headed the East Coast division of the human network that aided immortals, answered.
"It's Yuri. Stanislav and I just took out six vampires at Duke."
Chris grunted. "Any human casualties?"
"Two. Both slain before we arrived."
"Where are you?"
Stanislav, whose preternaturally sharp hearing enabled him to hear both sides of the conversation, identified the building for Yuri.
Yuri passed it along to Reordon.
"I'll have a crew there in five minutes," Chris vowed.
Yuri pocketed his phone, then pursed his lips and looked at Stanislav. "I should've asked him what to do with the gun."
Stanislav shrugged. "Just toss it in a Dumpster with the rest of the weapons. I'm sure anything a vampire would carry would be far inferior to the arsenal of weapons the network keeps at its disposal."
Yuri waited another minute for Vampire #6 to finish disintegrating, then gathered his clothing and weapons together with that of a couple of the other vampires in one fell swoop and deposited it all in the nearest Dumpster.
Stanislav did the same while they waited for Chris's crew to arrive and collect the human victims.
* * *
Cat entered the home of David, the second eldest and second most powerful immortal on the planet. Located in the North Carolinian countryside with no nearby neighbors who might panic upon seeing powerful warriors come and go with bloodstained clothing (hunting insane vampires was a violent, messy business), this sprawling one-story home appeared to be the hub of the Immortal Guardians' world here on the East Coast.
Cat had been drawn to this place — and to these people, these warriors — ever since her brother Bastien had raised a vampire army and done his damnedest to bring the immortals down.
What a terrifying time that had been. Terrifying and frustrating and heartbreaking. She had known Bastien was in the wrong, that he had focused his quest for revenge upon the wrong man, but had had no way to convey it to him.
And she had feared every day that it would be his downfall.
Had Seth, the Immortal Guardians' leader, not been so forgiving, she knew her brother would be dead now, killed in that final battle between his vampire army and the Immortal Guardians.
American and British immortals Ethan and Edward entered David's home behind her and strolled past, their long black coats glistening with the blood of the vampires they had slain.
Krysta and Étienne, still newly wed, called greetings and offered the duo smiles.
Étienne's twin, Richart, and Richart's wife Jenna added their own hellos.
Yes, Cat thought, as she watched the immortals smile and trade jests, it was the people who drew her here time and time again. They were different. And not just because they were infected with the same virus that afflicted vampires. No, these men and women, these immortals, had been born like Cat — with special gifts no humans or vampires possessed.
Excerpted from Phantom Embrace by Dianne Duvall. Copyright © 2015 Dianne Duvall. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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