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Brianna Vittori peered out the windshield at the wet April snow falling so fast the wipers couldn't keep up. Any sane person would pull over. She kept going because the only thing worse than being captured by the military was being captured by the vampires.
She passed the sign announcing the distance to the Marine Mountain Training Center in the predawn gloom, driving without headlights, because for her the darkness meant only the loss of color from her vision and not the blindness humans endured. She could still see perfectly were it not for the spring storm that sent flakes splashing ice across her windshield. There had been no snow down below in Sacramento. But here in the California mountains spring acted differently. Driving conditions were so dangerous that even the plows and sanders hadn't ventured out. But then they weren't fleeing from vampires.
Was she mad to run headlong toward the only creatures that could stop them? The wolves could save her, if they didn't kill her first.
Werewolves were the vampires' natural enemy, but she didn't know what they thought of Feylings. Her grandmother had not said. Bri thought again of the woman who had changed her world when she was only in high school. She'd told Bri that she was first generationa Feyling. Now vampires were hunting her. She didn't know why, but they were out there right now, searching.
She might have walked right into their trap if not for her second encounter with another female of her kind. That Feyling had taken a risk to seek her out. The woman was blunt as a dull hatchet with her warning, but without her, Bri would have been caught. No doubt in her mind. They were there at the hospital.
The thermostat told her it was twenty-two degrees out there, and she was only wearing sneakers, jeans and a tight white T-shirt with short sleeves. Brianna gripped the wheel of the rental car and stared out at the night. The snow flew at her like a living thing, blasting against the windshield and exploding against the glass like drops of plasma.
She peered out at the sky, searching vainly for daylight. They didn't like daylight. She knew that much, and she knew what they wanted with her. Bri shuddered.
She glanced into the woods that lined the road, catching glimpses through the snow of something moving there. An elk, a werewolf, a vampire? It hadn't been until she was in elementary school that she discovered every child couldn't see in the dark. Now she wished that she couldn't. She shivered and fiddled with the heat, knowing the cold she felt came from inside. Better not to see what was stalking her.
She'd never run so far or so fast. But she'd outpaced the one at the hospital and the one in her apartment. It had been stupid to go back there.
She'd known she was different"special," her grandmother had called herbut she never knew she could run like that. Perhaps you needed the devil on your heels to learn such a thing.
God, she wished she'd never found out about them. Bri-anna rubbed her tired eyes with her thumb and index finger as she steered with the other hand.
She passed the base entrance with all the floodlights and security. She lowered her head and continued on, anxious to get past this place. She didn't trust the military. The soldiers seemed like drones, mindless and intimidating, while their leaders were more secretive than vampires.
Something stood upright in the road. Brianna slammed on the brakes with both feet, and the car fishtailed. The man stood motionless as a ghost, his white face blotched with huge purple spots. Brianna's heart hammered in her chest as she straightened her arms and braced for the collision, no longer trying to miss him but trying to hit him, because she had realized that the being in the road was no man, but a vampire.
A moment before impact he leaped, clearing the car as her vehicle rushed beneath him. She was now sliding toward the ditch. The back end of the car hit the shallow embankment first. The car skidded sideways, tilting, and then rolled to the driver's side. She careened across loose gravel. There was a shriek of tearing metal and a crunch of collapsing plastic. The impact shattered the driver's-side window, which exploded into a million flying crystals of glass that flew at her like tiny bits of shrapnel. There was a final jolt as the car came to an abrupt halt.
Her heart slammed against her ribs, and her breathing came in puffy, white, vaporous pants of steam. Everything else was silent. Brianna unfastened her seat belt and looked about. The moment she breathed in the air, she noted the sharp scent of the werewolves. They were close.
Where was that thing that chased her? Had she hit it?
The answer arrived an instant later when the windshield exploded and the vampire reached his cadaverous hands inside the cab to haul her out.
She screamed and kicked, but he held on. He shook her to silence as another one grabbed her from behind. Brianna screamed again and the first one let go of her arm to slap her hard across the face. She'd never been struck before, and the sting and explosion of pain in her cheek and ear made her dizzy. She swayed as they dragged her to the vacant road.
Her knees wobbled but she remained standing. She was certain what would came next. Brianna recalled what that strange girl outside her high school had said. She was not to be caught by them. Not ever. For what awaited was a living death. Why did vampires capture Feylings? she had asked. The answer had turned her blood to ice. The April dawn and her panic turned her skin cold. She trembled as the first leaned in. It was the first time she had ever seen one close up, and his appearance made her flesh crawl. He stared with eyes white as milk. He seemed blind, but then she saw the perfect black pupil and realized it was only his iris that had the strange lack of pigment. His wrinkled ears and distorted head made him look as if he had some terrible genetic abnormality. But his eyes terrified her the most.
His slitted nose flared as he leaned close.
Staff Sgt. Travis "Mac" MacConnelly woke to Johnny pounding on his door and then to a female voice screaming just outside his quarters. He shook his head like a dog to clear the dreams from reality and groaned. What time was it? Oh six hundred, he realized. The pounding came again, on his window this time.
"Bloody hell. Johnny, I swear to God, I'm going to chain you up at night," Mac bellowed.
From outside the door, Johnny roared back. John Loc Lam had once been his grenadier, on his first combat assignment under a squad leader also on his first and, as it turned out, his last command. Mac scoured his face with his rough hands, trying to scrub away the grief that clung like tar.
"Fine. I'm up." Since the Marine staff sergeant no longer quartered in the barracks and he had more privacy, Mac slept in the buff. He tugged on his pants and thrust his bare feet into his boots. Then he stood, stretched and felt the familiar twinge across his torso. He glanced at the scars that crisscrossed his chest and right shoulder. There were four long slash marks from the creature's claws and then the punctures and puckered flesh where its teeth had torn open his shoulder. After four months, the battle wounds given to him by that thing had still not completely healed. Mac snatched up a shirt and thrust his arms through the sleeves, covering the worst of the scars, but he left the shirt unbuttoned as he tugged on his cap. "This better be good, Johnny."
He buckled on his holster, tapped the knife down in the sheath and checked the .45 pistol before sliding it home. Then headed out, not dressed for inspection, with his shirt-tails flapping in the wind. The first thing that hit him was the cold, the second was the unfamiliar scent. Since the attack, he could smell things, tiny insignificant things like the antacids the colonel carried in his left pocket. But now he smelled something new. Enticing. Alive. Something that did not belong in the middle of his territory. He inhaled deeply, bringing the scent to his sensitive nose. Like orchids and the ocean and exotic spices, and then he caught the smell of dank earth, rotting leaves and musty clothing. His body snapped to attention. They smelled different to everyone, they'd said, but the females' scent was universally irresistible and not like humans'. Since the attack, Mac could smell humans and differentiate between them and any other kind of animals, even from a distance. But these creatures did not smell human. They lacked the smell of meat and salt but not the scent of blood. That came through now and grew stronger by the minute.
Johnny appeared around the side of the concrete two-story enclosure that had once been a training site built to resemble the family compounds back in the Sandbox. Now it was their quarters.
John Loc Lam had once been a fine Marine. Now he was a huge wolflike creature, eight feet tall, who easily balanced on his two hind legs as he lifted massive claws and roared a warning, flashing dangerous fangs. His features were not human but neither were they wolf. Instead he combined both: small pointed ears, a long snout, wicked jaws and a face covered with glossy black hair.
"Do you smell orchids and blood?" he asked.
Exactly what he'd been prepped to expect if he ever came upon flesh eaters. They were out late for vampires, because the sun was up. That would make it easier to spot, track and kill.
"Training exercise?" he asked.
Johnny shook his head.
Mac inhaled again. "Bloodsuckers. Males and females. Did you see them or come here first?"
Johnny gave no answer. He couldn't. He could answer only yesor-no questions, to their continual frustration.
"I thought they avoided our kind unless provoked." He eyed his corporal. "Did you provoke them?"
Another shake of his shaggy head dismissed that line of questioning.
"Why would they come here? Can't be an accident. Got to be hunting us." Johnny growled.
Mac drew his sidearm. He knew a bullet wouldn't stop them, but he felt better with a gun in his hands. "Come on, then."
Johnny looked at Mac's weapon and shook his head.
"I'm going to keep it, thanks." Mac released the safety. "A couple in the head will slow them down. The bullets are steel."
Johnny groaned and thumped his chest. He wanted Mac to change.
"I'll turn when we get closer. Don't worry, I'll keep up." Johnny nodded.
"We have to kill them." He stepped around his gunner. "Capture one if we can. The colonel's wet dream is to have one alive. Might prove we're ready for combat duty again."
Johnny nodded his agreement. He was just as tired of being a lab rat as Mac was. The two of them set off, hunting as they often did, only this time the quarry was vampire. When the scent grew strong, Mac pulled up to disrobe and stash his clothing before summoning the change.
Johnny paused to look back. Mac felt the familiar flash of guilt at his ability. He motioned Johnny on. No reason he should have to watch. Mac slipped out of his boots. Before the change gripped him in that momentary blinding bolt of agony, he issued one last order to his corporal.
"Circle behind them. If they come your way, kill them. That's an order."
Mac recovered quickly from the change, but Johnny had already gone. Mac was faster now, running on two long, powerful legs, his gray fur flashing white in the sunlight that now shone in bright rays from the east. He thought of what might have happened if the vampires had found him in his quarters asleep and wondered if they were inside or outside the perimeter of the training center.
He saw Johnny now, a black shadow running parallel to him through the trees.
Mac recalled what he'd learned in his new training. He needed to get to an artery, a big one. Femoral, brachial or carotid. Open a vessel and hold the thing down until it bleeds out. Don't let it bite you and don't let it go. It will regenerate any lost body part except its head. Reopen the vessel if necessary.
Instead of the forest, for just the smallest fraction of a second, he saw his Fire Team around him at the building they had once used for training ops before deployment. He pushed aside the tug of grief he felt at the thought of all the good men who had died in the Sandbox, his men. If he'd known what they faced, could he have kept them alive?
Decisions made in an instant now rolled through his mind with the regularity of the tides. He didn't know, but maybe.
Now he was back in the present facing more split-second decisions that he'd have to live with every damned day. If he told the doctors about the flashbacks, they'd say PTSS and he'd be sidelined for who knew how long. Maybe he and Johnny could prove their worth right here and now. But maybe he'd fuck it up again.
The changing light caused by the breaks in the clouds made it hard to see the things, but he sensed them. Could the vampires sense Mac the way he scented the bloodsuckers? Two males and a female, traveling together.
He saw Johnny drop and realized they were nearly on the intruders. He threw himself down so he could stare through the perimeter fence. He saw two male bloodsuckers dragging a female along the shoulder of the highway beside an overturned car, her feet kicking wildly, uselessly.
They seemed oblivious to their company. He glanced at Johnny who looked to him for the signal to charge.
He signaled for him to hold and glanced back to the intruders, gaping, as this was the first time he'd seen the Night Stalkers. The sight sent a shiver down his spine. There were two males and they were hideous, pale and rodentlike, just as he'd been told, with purple-skinned and misshapen heads that looked as if they'd been crushed. Their eyes were milky, and their noses, if you could call them that, were slitted as if they belonged to reptiles. And then he fixed on the woman, struggling against their grasp and making every effort to wrench herself free.
She did not seem of the same species. They'd said the females were lovely, and he was curious to see for himself.
She was tall and lithe, dressed modestly in a pair of faded blue jeans that sat low on her curvy hips. Her struggles showed him both the pink mobile phone that did not entirely fit in her back pocket and also the scrap of white lace undergarment that peeked from above her jeans. Her white T-shirt fit her like a second skin and had hiked over her flat stomach, showing a wide-open stretch of perfect skin and the dark indent of her navel. How long had she been a bloodsucker, and why was she fighting them?
The beams of sunlight chased across the yard, illuminating her to reveal that her hair was coppery red, shoulder length, and with ringlets that wound tight, curly as a corkscrew. They bounced as she tossed her head. He wanted to see her face, which was now covered by her hair.
Now what the hell did he do? He hadn't counted on killing a woman.
Not a woman, he reminded himself. A dangerous assassin. The female vamps killed by drawing energy. At least that's what the intel from the Israelis said. The Israelis had captured one but couldn't turn her, so they'd put her down.
She's not human. A killer. A beauty, whispered his mind.
He shook his head. This wasn't possible. Her allure didn't work on him. That was what he'd been told. But he still found he didn't have the stomach to kill her. She'd be the capture, he decided. The colonel's prize.
But first he had to get her away from those butt-ugly male bloodsuckers.