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Gale-force winds blew in from Bellingham Bay, tunneling rain between the darkened lecture hall buildings like a raging river. Red Square in the middle of campus should've been deserted at this time of night.
A lone student dashed under the covered walkway of Haggard Hall and slipped off a heavy backpack. It hit the bricks with a splatter.
In the shadows behind her, a dark figure watched her movements with interest. He didn't bother stepping deeper into the doorwaythe darkness rendered him invisible to humans.
Alfonso Serrano sniffed the air and let his pupils dilate with hunger.
Don't they tell students, especially the female ones, not to walk alone at night?
Fortunately, there were always a few who didn't follow directions.
Breathing hard, the student brushed off her rain-sodden hood and swiped her nose with the back of her hand.
Alfonso moved a step closer and reached for her.
But when she grabbed a cell phone from her pocket, he hesitated and dropped his outstretched arm. If she made a call, he'd wait. If she texted, he'd continue.
She brought the phone to her ear, and he retreated into the seldom-used doorway, careful not to disturb the waterlogged pile of leaves in the corner. Stuffing his hands deep in his pockets, he clenched them into fists to stop the tremors. Her call had better be quick, otherwise he was likely to drain her dry when he struck. Four weeks between feedings was way too long.
She yelled into the phone and he bristled at her harsh tone. Fighting the urge to plug his ears, he rethought his decision to wait. He didn't know how long he could listen to this.
As she carried on her heated conversation, a blast of wind swirled around him, blowing his chin-length hair into his eyes. He pulled out a knit skullcap, stretched it over his head and tucked the hair beneath it.
But when the damp wind changed direction, it brought with it an odd smell. A sickeningly sweet odor, like that of rotting meat, and he froze.
He scanned the darkness and unzipped his coat with quiet precision. From a leather sheath strapped to his chest, he eased out two silver kunai and held them by their rope-twined grips. The custom-made weapons, small but deadly, were designed to be thrown. They fit perfectly in his hands, like the contours of a lover.
What were Darkbloods doing in Bellingham? The Alliance didn't normally set up cells in small northern towns like this. There weren't enough people and, given the low ultraviolet index, the residual energy level in the indigenous population was too low to make it worth their trouble.
Christ, that was why he'd moved here. To be far away from them.
Staying in the shadows, Alfonso crept to the next doorway, trying to pinpoint their location. The scent came from the far side of the square, but he didn't have a visual yet.
It shouldn't have surprised him they were here. Logic said they'd move in eventually. Expanding the DB power base among law-abiding vampires was one of the Alliance's primary objectives. However, it wasn't as if Bellingham was a hotbed of activity. Of the vampires who lived in the region, most were concentrated near Seattle and Vancouver. Not in small college towns.
And then another possibility dawned on him.
The smell might not be from an ordinary Darkblood.
It could be his blood assassin.
A glacial calm filled his veins as he fingered the handles of the identical knives and looked out into the night again. Puddles of standing water rippled in the howling wind, reflecting the light of the streetlamps scattered around the drained fountain. A paper coffee cup tumbled toward him and lodged behind his heavy work boots.
What a fool he'd been to think he was out of the Alliance's reach. You couldn't do what he did and expect to get away with it. But, Jesus, he thought he'd been so careful moving to this remote town.
The sound of the girl's voice drew his attention once more.
"Listen, Ryan, I'm not putting up with this bullshit much longer. Either you tell her or I will." Oblivious to the fact that she was surrounded by those with deadly intentions, she stepped away from the leading edge of the rain and slumped against the building. She popped a piece of gum into her mouth and let the wind carry away the wrapper.
Could she be the target, not him? Her blood type was relatively uncommon in this part of the country, he reasoned. He'd covered his tracks well and it wasn't as if this was a planned visit to the campus anyway. No one knew he was here.
Movement in the overhang of Old Main on the other side of Red Square caught his eye.
Two figuresdarker than the shadowshugged the ivy-covered brick. Like marionettes on the same wire, their arms and legs moved in unison. To a casual observer, they looked like well-coordinated Goths, but to a fellow vampire, they were remorseless killers who profited from the death of humans.
Alfonso relaxed. Blood assassins worked alone. They must be after the girl.
Adjusting the rope grips in his palms, he cursed silently. His fingers felt so weak. Hell, his whole body did. If it hadn't been so long since he'd taken the blood of a human, he'd be stronger right now. He couldn't confront them like this.
Besides, since he was marked for elimination, the average DB wouldn't hesitate to finish him off if they learned his identity. It wasn't like he wanted to rub shoulders with them on purpose.
He tucked the blades away and melted into the shadows.
As soon as he rounded the far side of the building, his steel-toed boots began to feel like lead, each step more difficult than the last, and he stopped. The hollow pit in his stomach became too hard to ignore.
He had planned to take only a small amount of the girl's blood, leaving her tired and a little dazed, yet alive. But if he left, she'd be dead within minutes, her body completely drained of its life energy, her blood portioned out and sold in vials to the highest bidders. A perfect example of how supply and demand worked on the black market of the vampire underworld.
He didn't need much from her to regain his strength. was there enough time to?
Nope, too late now. He'd have to let them have her. Better her than him, he thought as he turned up his collar and took off again toward the empty parking lot across the street. The sound of his boot heels striking the pavement echoed loudly between the buildings. Each step seemed to be saying, "Loser, loser."
A Guardian would never stand by while a Darkblood took a human.
I'm not a Guardian, he wanted to remind his conscience. It's not my job to protect humans from vampires. But he hesitated anyway.
The Darkblood Alliance believed their kind belonged at the top of the food chainthey had no regard for human life. They didn't want to blend in; they wanted to dominate. These predators would either discard the body here to be discovered by the authorities, or they'd take her back to their den and drain her there. Regardless of what they did with her, every kill, every disappearance, risked exposing their secret to the human population.
That backward attitude may have been tolerated in the Middle Ages, but it wasn't acceptable today.
Even in his weakened condition, he realized he wouldn't be able to live with himself if he didn't at least try to prevent the inevitable. Goddamn guilty conscience.
He made his way back along the edge of Haggard Hall. when he got to the corner, he glanced quickly around. Driving rain fell at a severe angle, but he could still make out the Darkbloods moving on the other side of Red Square.
He sprinted across the narrow walkway over to Miller Hall, thankful the weather was so crappy. Chances were, even though vampires' senses were more acute than humans', the DBs couldn't hear him above the sound of the wind and rain. As he flattened himself against the brick facade, he formed a plan. He'd jump them when they got closer and hope to God he had the strength to pull it off. Retrieving the blades, he waited.
Within heartbeats, the two figures emerged like liquid darkness from the corner of Old Main and stopped on the far end of the same walkway, but they didn't advance farther.
Damn. Had they seen him? He doubted they smelled him. Not only was he downwind, but their all-blood diet dulled their sense of smell.
Although he couldn't make out exactly what they were saying, the wind carried snippets of their hushed whispers. They were trying to figure out what to do next.
Shit, they had seen him.
With his lack of strength, the element of surprise had been his only ally. He couldn't hope to fight them like this and win. His only hope now was for the girl to leave. Then he'd split.
For chrissake, he wanted to yell at her. Would you get the hell out of here? Your voice is like a goddamn dinner bell.
Unsure what to do next, he considered his options. Maybe he could stall the bastards.
Switching both blades to his left hand, he tucked them against his forearm to keep them hidden. He stepped from the shadows and ambled toward the end of the walkway in his best non-confrontational manner, a skill he'd honed to perfection as a double agent.
Side by side, with their hands on their hips, they waited for him. The tall, gangly one, a female with stringy blond hair whipping across her face like Medusa, fidgeted the heel of her boot.
A newbie maybe? Seasoned DBs were usually more stoic and controlled. Perfect.
The other one, a stocky male, stood silent beside her. Both wore matching ankle-length black coats, but because neither one had on the wraparound sunglasses common among DB pairs, he could see their coal-black irises and the lifeless gray of their whites. Along with that rotten meat smell, it was another characteristic of their all-blood diet.
"What's going on?" Alfonso asked as he got closer. He touched two fingers to his lips in a fang-slang greeting and dropped his hand. "Darkbloods, right?"
Wordlessly, they looked at each other, something passing silently between them before they relaxed their stances and returned the gesture.
Great. Just great. The female couldn't be as new as he'd first thoughtthe pair operated in tandem like most longtime DB partners who fed from the same hosts night after night.
The male cocked his head in the direction of the coed. "You taking her tonight?"
Relieved that it definitely was the girl they were after, not him, he flashed an apologetic grin, hoping they'd buy his discomfort. "Was thinking about it."
"Is she an A-poz or B-poz? We couldn't tell from over there."
"B-positive, I think." He tried to convey uncertainty, although he knew for sure that she was. "Why?"
"Excellente," the male said with a faux accent. "We're building up our stock and are short on a few of the less common varieties. More people are B-poz up in Vancouver than down here. Didn't want to head up there just for that, so this is perfect." He flipped open his coat and displayed his wares. His partner did the same. The inside was like a goddamn pharmacy with vials full of blood, syringes, a few nasty-ass knives and God knew what else.
"You a revert?" the woman asked, as she fastened her coat and scrutinized him. "Or just slipping." One of her eyeballs canted slightly off center, not quite moving in conjunction with the other one.
Glass eye or lazy eye?
He noted the whites of both her eyes had the same dull gray tint.
Better assume lazy and be pleasantly surprised if I'm wrong.
"Am I reverting back to the Old Way? Yeah, I guess you could say I've moved beyond the occasional slip-up."
"Well, good for you," the male said. "Got any kills under your belt?"
Alfonso shrugged. More than you'll ever know.
"You're in luck," the male continued. "Me and Sigred" he indicated his partner with a jerk of his chin "are settin' up shop here in Bellingham. We can save you the trouble of having to come out on a night like this looking for a little substinex."
The blonde leaned toward her partner. "Sustenance," she whispered.
"Don't go fucking college on me," he said through clenched teeth. "I know what I'm talking about. As I was saying, we're gonna save reverts such as yourself a lot of time and offer a delivery service of sorts. You call us, place your order, and we'll figure out where to meet. No more embracing the elements, if you know what I'm saying."
Sigred produced a plain white card with a single phone number printed in black. "As far as I know, no other Darkblood cells are offering this special service. Not even those fancy big-city ones. In Seattle or Vancouver, you go to them. You traipse through the clubs and alleys looking for a seller if you're in the mood for a little sub-stinex. That, or take it off the hoof. We know most reverts aren't comfortable doing it old-school, at least when they're starting out. But here, we come to you."
Forcing another smile, Alfonso took the card and tucked it into his pocket, where he crushed it into a tiny ball. "You know what they sayyou get better customer service in a small town." That got a hearty laugh from both of them.
"Since you found her first, how about we'll do her to save you the trouble and give you a couple of freebies." The male pulled out an empty syringe and displayed it with his pinkie lifted as if he had class. "Sound like a plan?"
Alfonso rubbed his forehead under his cap to make them think he was considering their offer. Maybe if he stalled them a little longer, the girl would leave and they'd all go home empty-handed. He glanced over, but she was still there on the far side of the square. Jesus, how long was she going to fight with her boyfriend anyway?
"I don't know if you've done it much," the male was saying, "but feeding off the hoof is a little tricky, although you did choose an excellent localedark, privateand your subject is alone. But the instant you strike and you taste the rush of fear in the blood, it can freak a guy out if you're not expecting it. If you're not good at mind manips, you feel what the human feels the entire time their life energy is waning. Not sure if you'd be into that or not."
Did he look like a youthling fresh out of puberty? Most of their kind did feed from live donors, just not as often as these losers did. Suggesting an alternate memory of events during a feeding was one of the first things a youthling beginning his Time of Change was taught. This is perfect. They think I'm younger and less experienced than they are.
He tried to keep the satisfaction from showing on his face, flashing them a nervous smile instead. "I wasn't planning to drain her dry."
"Old habits are hard to break." Sigred patted his arm. Although his first instinct was to jerk away, he didn't flinch, instead rubbing the pad of his thumb on the rope grip to control the impulse.