Authors: Angela White
Tags: #futuristic love story, #apocalyptic romance, #angela white, #action romance, #Fantasy Series, #romantic horror, #apocalypse rebellion
“Tell me - now.”
I stammered, trying to breathe past the fear as she ran warm, rough hands through my hair. “The Network knows about the Borderlands Safe Zone. As soon as Baker’s there, they plan to destroy it.”
She jerked back to stare at me, maybe to see if I was lying, and then she pressed her mouth to mine!
I froze again, trying to listen through the panic… the
. She smelled good, like a fresh wind through the service tunnels.
“How do you know that?” she demanded against my lips.
I struggled to talk as her musky scent filled my nose. Her legs fit me so well… “Rankin let it slip.”
Angelica tensed at the name and I understood she didn’t like the Head Defender. It gave me the courage to wrap a gentle hand around her neck and draw back. I made sure her hair covered my words from the cameras. “I’ll give you anything you want. Please don’t let her have me.”
My heart clenched in jealousy and I nodded against his trembling hand. “You’ll be with me when I go.”
Jason smiled then and I couldn’t stop from sealing my promise with another kiss. The feel of him under me was incredible torture.
The heat blazed up when he responded. I knew that it was only to make sure I understood he would uphold his end of the deal and give me whatever I wanted. The thought had me crying inside, even as I smoldered.
The Den Mother’s voice held a tone that said I’d get a word or two before I left, and I pulled back from his sweet lips. “I’ll get you there and then you’re free.”
I stood up, instantly missing his heat.
Jason held my gaze.
“Whatever you want.”
I snarled in hurt at that and spun from the room. What I wanted had been denied.
The Den Mother was waiting for me near the music area and I made a good show of handing her a UD slip to cover the warning I suspected she was waiting to deliver. I didn’t mind it as much as I appeared to. This weird woman was one of the rebels. She would keep him as safe as she could.
As I neared her, I saw the cleverly hidden words she’d written in dust behind the camera.
“She’ll come after her property.”
I tossed the payment slip on top of it, so she’d be able to easily erase the message when she picked it up. “Good.”
As I closed the door to the bachelor cells, I evaluated the guards I’d earned. They weren’t naturally loyal, but I could pay their price.
I moved by with low words that had them walking along. By the time we hit my hall, I didn’t have any protection again and my unease had lifted. With what I’d just paid them, those guards wouldn’t let the head of the Network themselves in to see my choice without immediately calling me.
I couldn’t stop Rankin from visiting him, but I would know about it even when the Den Mothers weren’t around and hopefully be able to intervene before Jason got hurt again.
On the top, I was busy going over how we would get to Baker. Inside, I was burning. After all I’d done and would
I still wouldn’t be able to put out this fire. It seemed I would be picking through the rebels at the Safe Zone after all.
“Welcome to Round Three of the Bachelor Battles! Now that we're down to only four contestants, all the matches will be held here, in the big cage! Come see these man-hungry women fight to the death! Who's ready to play? Who wants to play? Do ya? Do ya really? Well, come on then...”
A brief pause, where I smothered a snarl.
How had Candice stood the wait between matches?
Clips of the week’s matches flowed along the huge screens as the enormous crowd screamed and pushed against the lines of guards and barriers in front of The Block.
“Let's look at our fabulous fighters…”
I tensed, wondering how bad it would be.
“Angelica Pruett is one slot out of first place and has caused much the same furor at these games as her cousin Candice did nearly a month ago, before going on to win. From stirring up rebellions in the Den Mothers, to ripping out throats with her teeth, she's certainly living up to that brutal family name...”
I hit the button, switching channels before I lost patience and used my claws on the screen.
“...refusing to let in other contestants to see the male she has a fondness for. Rumors speculate if she wins, she'll defend her title next week in an attempt to claim another of her favorites...”
I stopped on the next channel, studying the image on the screen. It was Stone Mountain and the charred, bare rubble sent me back to the night it had happened. I’d been there; I’d met the rebel leader and spent a night in their compound with Candice. It had been full of life then. Now, even the jungle that had hidden us was withered and brown. The rebel base was a symbol of death, and I bore a scar from that destruction on my back.
The station switched to a group photo of the top ten wanted rebels and my heart thudded heavily. Those male faces were angry, even more than I was in the heat of the Change. Their ready expressions and hard stances said they were coming for the Network at some point, and I silently rooted them on before switching programs again. I hit the button, got the Network station.
“…are investigating a contestant's claims that the bachelors are not safe. Changes to the Den Mother system may already be in the works...”
I turned it back to the announcer for my coming challenge, ignoring the sounds outside my door as reporters and players prowled the halls. I'd planted a seed and it was growing.
“For the start of this round, the Network will pick the exhibition for the remaining contestants. A reminder, these elimination challenges are no longer non-lethal. At least one of our contestants will not be with us when this is over. The top two finishers will feature in tonight’s final elimination match.”
“And our challengers will have to… climb the Network Wall of Death!”
“Please report to The Block.”
“The wall of death is a fifty foot granite cliff with deadly traps, and no dividers between the contestants! This should be just wonderful!”
I studied the wall as we waited for the announcer to finish, picking out areas to hit and spots to avoid. I’d only seen a few of the Games, and The Wall wasn’t among them. I’d heard of it, of course, and I’d seen the billboards as I entered New Network City, but staring up at that unflinching challenge was enough to kick in my survival sense. Deeply anchored in the floor, it looked as if part of a mountain had been set down into the complex. I couldn’t even see the top from where I stood.
“Our four challengers are allowed full contact in their race to be the first to reach the top. In order to make it harder, there are weapons hidden in the crags and ledges. How many will make it to the top? Will this episode end right here, folks? It’s happened before!”
The gate slid open and I moved along the fenced aisle to the starting line without responding to any of my opponent’s glowers. I was in the center right of the four lanes, but I already planned to take the far left and zigzag my way up. High above us, camera crews waited patiently to capture every drop of blood, every swing of a weapon.
“Are ya ready? Then go!”
To everyone’s surprise, I stayed still as the other three made a mad dash for the wall. They clawed at each other, drawing blood before the first foot of fifty was reached. I waited until all of them were scaling the cliff.
“What is that clever little Pruett doing now?” the reporter wondered as I finally moved forward.
I had an advantage over the others in only one way, but it would be enough to earn me second place - first, if I’d chosen the right dangerous path, but either would do. I wasn’t fighting for a mate now, but my family honor. It was a stronger drive than even the Change.
With that in mind, I lunged up the wall, grabbing the ledge the others had avoided because of the height. I grunted at the sharp stone under my fingers, the unforgiving feel of the rock.
I hefted myself up, feet catching a small crag to push from and then lunged again, springing up four feet to snatch a wild hold on the edge of a weapon.
The claw hammer snagged the stone and caught my weight… held. I hung there long enough to secure a foothold and then I started climbing, using the claw edge with lunging swipes that would either move me up large spaces or kill me with the fall. Hungry edges tried to grab me, already tacky with blood from this week’s episode. The stone sliced into my wrist… my arm... my leg.
The other three were closely bunched above me, set to get to the top first, but the fighting was about to slow them down. I kept moving up.
Chelsea reached a knife and immediately threw it at the Changeling athlete directly below her. The blade sank into the weight-lifter’s throat and she clutched at the hilt, falling.
The crowd roared its drunken approval all around us, those rafter-like seats giving them a birds-eye view of our fight.
The other player left starred regularly in the Network commercials, and in her free-time, liked to climb mountains. I followed Chelsea’s lead. My hammer slammed into the back of the actress’s head with a dull thud and she let go, fell.
Now, the noise was deafening. Chelsea and I moved toward each other, blue lights streaming, the bloodlust flowing…
I ducked her wild leg kick and punched out, hitting her in the chest. She grunted, kicked again.
I took her boot to the side of my head, and used the momentum to yank her off of the cliff. I swung her out and tried to let go, but Chelsea wrapped both legs around me in an iron vise, and dragged us from the wall.
I woke to see my off-limits bachelor standing next to me, worry covering his face. My Changeling sight went over his healing bruise first, then the room.
I was in the medical bay and the gated cubical next to me held my final battle, if I was to judge from the sounds. The medical quarter was set up much like The Block, with a center area for the doctor, surrounded by seven partitioned rooms. Each one was gated and shaded by a thin white curtain, allowing knowledge of each other, but no contact.
The bed was softer than the couch in my room and the equipment looked well cared for, but the stark, white walls were a vivid contrast to the green I’d been waking to all week. There were no windows here either, but this time, I doubted it was to keep us in. It was more likely that the Network council didn’t want anyone to see what was out there, on this side of the honeycomb complex. The view was likely staggering.
In place of an eighth bay, there was a small walkway that led to a main door. Less than ten feet from where I was, the shadow guarding that entrance was unmistakable.
“What deal did you make to come here?” I snarled, full of bitter jealousy and a rage that needed a target.
Jason looked away. “It doesn’t matter.”
“It does to me!” I growled.
“Don’t ever do it again.”
He bowed to my order. “I won’t.”
By the tone, I suspected the price was high, and I admired his courage. “Will you be okay?”
There was little I could do, but I had to ask. Want me or not, I already felt like he was mine.
“Yes. There’s only so much she’ll do right now.”
My hand shot out to capture his wrist. He didn’t flinch back, but he stiffened.
“You can use my name. I give you permission.”
Jason smiled sadly - a small glimpse of the man I thought he might eventually become if he were set free.
“I already did.”
I didn’t ask what he’d used it for, feeling the medication jerking me under. I let go of him. “Why did you come?”
“I had to make sure you weren’t… dead. I had to
His tone told me as much as his words. I was his only
was why. I closed my lids to hold in the disappointment. “It takes more than that to kill a Pruett.”
For an instant, the fury blazed hotter than the medication and my eyes turned solid red as they flashed open. I hated the sound of his fear. “This will never happen to you again!”
Jason gave me another of those gentle smiles that I knew I could become addicted to.
“It’s worth it. Get better. I... I need you.”
I wanted to examine the tone, the words, but the darkness pulled me under.
I closed the door to her gated area and made sure it was locked. I then waved the guards over and gave them a sharp glare that I knew Rankin observed with interest. She’d been waiting to see exactly what I was now showing - courage.
“If the Pruett dies and there’s no feature match, the Network will replace every one of you. Taking payments is fine, but not when it interrupts their scheduled programming. You know?”
The nods from the hard guards allowed me to turn to Rankin with an even tone despite my dread. I’d invoked Angelica’s name to get the defender’s attention, to make her bring me here. Rankin hadn’t liked agreeing one little bit and now, I would pay the fine. “I’m yours until dawn. No fighting.”