Authors: Moira Rogers
This is for Sharon, whose eyes would have to be registered as lethal weapons if typos and grammatical errors ruled the world.
Fifty vampires filled the canyon below, the press of their dead auras so rank Hunter wondered when fur would sprout from his skin.
Soon. Soon he’d fight. Soon they’d bleed.
“There’s an awful lot of them,” Archer rasped.
“Yes.” Wilder’s words were more eager than anything, filled with anticipation and violence. “And we’re going to kill them all.”
Fifty vampires versus three bloodhounds. At any other time, Hunter might have laughed at the absurdity. Now, in the heart of the Deadlands, with the full moon heavy above their heads—
He needed a hundred. He needed
hundred to soothe the amplified rage boiling under the human flesh he’d shed soon enough. Fang and claw, fur and anger—this was his life now.
In moments like this, he didn’t mind at all. “We’ll kill every fucking one.”
Archer was the first to begin fumbling free of his clothes. “You’d think they’d know better than to camp so close to the border during the full moon.”
Close was relative. The three of them had run leagues yesterday, leaving their horses at a brothel on the border before taking off into the Deadlands on foot. Human feet, tucked into human boots—boots Hunter had lost somewhere last night when the heavy moon had called forth the monster without warning.
His feet would have been raw by now if he weren’t a creature who healed with a speed that defied all logic, even that of the Inventors Guild, creators of fantastical flying machines and weapons that burned with the heat of the sun.
He wasn’t science. Not entirely. Whatever sort of beast he was, it was part alchemy and part magic, and he’d bust out of his unmagical pants if he didn’t get them off before the change overtook him.
“Don’t know why you even wore clothes,” Wilder growled as he finished stripping with practiced ease. “You’re going to ruin them before we get back to Iron Creek.”
Hunter fumbled with his pants and gave in to an answering snarl, wordless but satisfying. Archer had been the one to insist he include a change of clothing in his small pack of supplies, and it had been good advice, if overly optimistic. If he ripped through these pants, he’d be walking back to the brothel naked.
Archer clenched his teeth and stretched as his body began to shift, break down and reform. The process looked—and was—excruciatingly painful, but even that pain was a welcome relief compared to the urgency that thundered through them. The full-moon need to fight, to kill, was as strong and terrifying as the sexual hunger that gripped a bloodhound when the night sky went dark.
Easier dealt with, though. Kicking free of his pants, Hunter ripped at his shirt, dragging the fabric most of the way over his head before that familiar agony tore through him.
Bones snapped, crackling like twigs crushed by an angry child. His skin ripped, and Hunter dug his teeth into his lip to hold back a scream of agony. There could be no warning, not until the hounds were close enough for the vampires to smell their death as it rushed toward them on monstrous claws.
Wilder was the last to change and the first to charge down the sharply sloped canyon wall, rocks and dirt skittering under giant clawed feet.
Only three of them, but now that they were approaching, Hunter could see that it hardly mattered. The vampires in the canyon below were outlaws, pale and half-starved, and if he’d had more than a scrap or two of mind left to think with, he’d have wondered what twisted vampire politics left these creatures homeless and wary, no doubt gathered together in an uneasy truce meant to prevent what was about to happen.
Right now, he only cared about their deaths, and the wisps of nothing they’d leave behind. Sad bones in the endless dust of the untamed frontier.
Archer reached the first vampire, tearing through him as he stood, shocked and still. The creature’s dying shriek reverberated through the quiet of the night and then that quiet exploded as the vampires swarmed, surrounding them with unnatural speed.
The last shreds of thought fled with Hunter’s first kill. Claws, sinking deep, tearing a snarling vampire in two, and satisfaction roared up from the darkest depths of his being.
Hands grasped at him. Blades glinted in the moonlight, sharp edges that cut sharp paths through the air and sometimes his flesh and fur.
Blood didn’t matter. Pain didn’t matter. He was a monster. He was death.
He was a bloodhound.
The second time Satira almost took her eyebrows off with a noisy, noxious explosion of chemicals, Ophelia put her foot down.
“Either take a break,” she insisted, “or let me help you.” With her in the workroom, Satira would exercise more caution, adhere to the strict safety protocols that were in place for a reason.
Satira winced as she lifted her delicate brass goggles from her eyes and let them rest crookedly atop her barely constrained hair. It only increased her appearance of absent-minded absurdity, her sooty, smudged face contrasting wildly with the two perfect circles of clean skin where her glasses had protected her eyes.
And those eyes were tired. Exhausted, but so worried. “I was closer this time,” she insisted, lifting a tube from the desk. Squinting at the label, she frowned. “Oh dear. This can’t be Hunter’s plasma. The color’s off…”
Ophelia reached out and turned the tray so Satira could see the larger label, which clearly marked the blood samples as belonging to Nathaniel. “You’re worried about Wilder being gone for the full moon,” she said gently, “and I’m sorry to say it’s compromising your work. Do I have to ban you from the laboratory? And before you say I don’t have that authority, please remember that you gave it to me when you asked me to manage this house.”
Her friend frowned in irritation, but she placed the tube back where it belonged. “It’s not just about Wilder. Nathaniel needs a blood substitute.”
“I know.” Until they developed one, Hunter wouldn’t be able to leave town for more than a few days’ time before Nate’s hunger grew unbearable. “But you’ll do us all far more good if you slow down and take some time for yourself.”
The door to Nathaniel’s private workroom crept open, and the man’s face appeared, his eyes squinted against the bright electric lights hung from the ceiling and balanced on every uncluttered surface.
Once, he’d been older, almost fatherly, his face lined with wrinkles and his hair gone silver. Now, the light glinted off dark hair and smooth skin as he stared at them, his eyebrows drawing together. “The explosion woke me. Is everyone all right?”
“Fine,” Ophelia assured him. “I’ve just come down to fetch Satira for a while.”
“Has she stopped for lunch?”
Supper had been on the table for half an hour. “Unfortunately, no.”
“Satira.” Nathaniel could still manage the paternal tone that made Satira shrink in on herself like a child caught with forbidden sweets. “What have I told you about tired minds?”
“They lead to injured bodies.” Satira sighed and stripped her goggles from her head, wincing again when the band tangled in her hair. “I know.”
“They should be back at first light.” Ophelia knew the mere words couldn’t settle her friend, but she had to try. “Three bloodhounds, hunting together… Nothing could stop them, Tira.”
“I know.” Turning, Satira smiled hopefully at Nathaniel. “Would you like to come upstairs and have supper with us? It must be full dark by now.”
His eyes tensed, and he drew back until his face was almost entirely in shadow. “No, thank you. You two enjoy your evening.”
“Nate—” Ophelia bit her lip. Perhaps it was too much to hope that a man who’d suffered such unwelcome change could overcome it, could set aside his struggles for someone else’s sake. But Satira was suffering now too, all because she was certain Nate found his transformation into vampire and bloodhound to be an insurmountable obstacle. That he no longer existed. “Please. Join us.”
For a moment, she thought he might. His guilty gaze fell on Satira’s eager face, and the door inched open. She caught sight of his fingers, curled so tightly around the sturdy brass knob he was sure to leave dents in the shape of his grip.
Satira smiled. “Nate, we could—”
“I’m sorry, I can’t.” Without another word he disappeared, the door slamming smartly. A few heartbeats later, Ophelia heard the deadbolt slide into place.
Satira’s face crumpled. One tear snuck free, and she wiped it away with an angry gesture that left a smudge on her cheek. “I shouldn’t have pushed.”
Ophelia slid an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. “We all have to push sometimes, honey.”
“Upstairs.” Satira tugged them both toward the doors to the elevator, then hesitated. “Do you mind?”
The damn cantankerous contraption was likely to stop between floors with them inside. “I’d rather not, all things considered.”
That won her a smile as Satira altered course toward the narrow staircase in the corner. “Are you sure? The last time I found myself trapped in one, I ended up in love.”
Ophelia kept her own smile in place even as a vague loneliness wound through her, tightening her chest. “I know. You and Wilder are so blissfully happy it hurts to look at you. Like staring into the sun.”
“And you’ll have an adventure of your own someday.” Satira’s boots scraped loudly over the iron steps as she ascended with little grace but renewed energy. “After we eat, perhaps we could play cards for a few hours? Or just talk. Maybe I
use an evening off.”
“Drinks and cards,” Ophelia confirmed. “That will surely be more entertaining than tatting lace or discussing the proper time to plant tomatoes.”
Satira’s horrified look would have been better suited to facing down an angry mob. “I should hope so. You promised you wouldn’t try to make a lady out of me.”
“As if such a terrifying thing could ever come to pass.”
At the top of the steps, Satira twirled and hooked her thumbs in her belt with a laugh. “Are you saying I wouldn’t look just darling in hoops?”
“You’d never trade your trousers for such frilly fashions.” Ophelia grinned. “And I don’t blame you. They’re tiresome.”
“So put on a pair of pants.” The back staircase led to the kitchen, and Satira went straight to the giant chillbox in the corner and tugged it open. “Did Caroline make pie today?”
“Yesterday, but there’s plenty left over.” With Wilder, Archer and Hunter out of the house, food had a way of lingering instead of disappearing as soon as the cook prepared it.
Satira ducked out from behind the door with a pie tin in one hand and gave Ophelia a guilty look. “I suppose I could wash up and change before we eat.”
“Given the layers of soot on your face and hands, I’ll not argue with that.”
Her nose scrunched up, but she obediently returned the pie to its proper place. “This is why we need you, Ophelia. Someone has to keep us civilized.”
“A daunting task.” She kept the words light, but actual weariness dragged her down into one of the dining chairs. “I’ll serve the meal while you wash up, how’s that?”
“That sounds fine.” Satira made it to the door to the hallway but paused before pushing through it. “Is anything wrong?”
Denial would only further inflame Satira’s curiosity, so Ophelia opted for a version of the truth. “I worry about them too, you know. When they’re out hunting.”
“Of course you do.” Quick footsteps returned Satira to her side, where she threw her arms around Ophelia in a desperate hug, mindless of the dirt she left behind. “I’m sorry. I promise, I won’t be this thoughtless forever. It’s only that it’s still new…”
“I understand. Really, I do.” The entire truth, for what it was worth. Satira was the same as her, trying to adjust to a new role and beset with challenges. “Tomorrow will be better, yes?”
“Tomorrow is always better,” Satira agreed quietly. “Always.”
The bloodhounds would return from their three-day hunt, and Ophelia’s work would begin again in earnest. There were always more details to be attended, groceries to order and help to supervise.
She hated it.
She could never say as much to Satira, of course. As far as her friend knew, she’d saved Ophelia from a life of prostitution, from selling her body to survive. In a way, she
saved her, mostly because Ophelia had clawed her way from nothing to a position where she could be discriminating in her choice of clientele, but that clientele had become far too demanding.
No one had ever warned her that when a man paid enough money for the privilege, he expected your soul as well as your body.
Now she had money and freedom, two things she’d never dreamed of during her hardscrabble childhood. If managing the hounds’ manor had left her enough time to enjoy them, she might not have loathed her new job. But every day was a struggle just to complete the tasks before her, and she found herself resenting the time it took from the things she could have been doing. Which left only one solution, a solution that would surely break her friend’s heart.
She had to quit.