Authors: Alisha Rai
Building a world can be a long and solitary process. I am so grateful to have people in my life who make things a little less overwhelming.
I could not ask for a finer editor than Sasha Knight. I love you for giving me the freedom to take risks and believing so strongly in my abilities. There is no way this story would exist in the form it’s in without you.
My dear friends Bree and Donna, the writing team of Moira Rogers, cheered, bribed, caffeinated, tweeted, skyped and pushed me to the finish line. I’m so grateful to know you.
Special thanks to the lovely Edie Harris, who patiently read drafts and provided invaluable feedback. I’m sorry I scared you. Shadows aren’t real. (Probably).
And last but certainly not least, for my family, from whom I frequently heard questions like, “Are you still writing that
book?” I love you, A & P.
Long blonde hair swept over the ground, soaking up blood like a thirsty mop. Jules Guerrero crouched down to study the severed head. No one who had ever known her would call her fastidious, and the good Lord knew her scuffed leather footwear wasn’t exactly couture, but she was careful to keep her boots and clothes out of contact with the red gore spreading over the floor. She’d rather face a blade to her throat than these bodily fluids. The former held a hope of survival.
She ignored the three other bodies strewn at her feet. In the three years since the Illness had spread, she’d become almost desensitized to the appearance of the scratched, naked, silvery bodies of the once-human Shadows. This one, though…
The woman’s expression retained the focused hunger she’d worn when she’d lunged at Jules, fangs flashing and fingers curled into claws. Her skin was a telltale white that was so light it gleamed like smooth alabaster. A bright red roadmap of veins stood out on the pale backdrop of flesh.
It was the blonde hair and the bright blue eyes, now dull and staring, that had caused Jules to hesitate to deliver the killing blow. The thing had almost gotten a lucky nibble in.
The eyes are always the last to go.
The virus sucked the pigment from the skin fairly quickly, but the hair and eyes took a couple of weeks to transform into the eerie pearlescent hue of the Shadows. Which meant that less than two weeks ago, this adolescent had been human.
Late. Goddamn it, there was no worse feeling than being
She gently pressed her gloved fingers over the girl’s eyelids, tucking away that last sign of humanity before hoisting herself to her feet and listening. The Shadows weren’t real great at stealth mode, and if they were at the point where they were feasting on a—Jules studied the bloody mess in the middle of the grisly tableau—a cat, then they’d come running out of every nook and cranny at the ruckus she’d raised.
“Come out, come out,” she murmured softly and stepped over the mess, her blade gripped securely in one hand. With the other, she pulled a penlight out of her pocket and snapped it on. There were no exterior windows in this room, so it was a hazy dim blue, lit only by the sun trickling in from other adjacent rooms. No wonder the Shadows had congregated in here. Their eyes and skin couldn’t handle direct sunlight. Their bad luck she had waltzed in through those big double doors.
She toggled the light switch on the wall. Alas, nothing powered up. Either the building must have been too large or the university too poor to get off the electrical grid in favor of self-sustaining solar or wind energy before the Illness had spread. Too bad. Electric companies couldn’t supply a damn thing when all of their meter maids were either dead, undead or someone’s food.
She methodically went through the first and second floor, looking for humans as well as Shadows. Evidence of the latter littered the basement: bones, shredded clothes, small dead animals, though no actual beings leapt out at her. There was nothing, particularly in the sunlit classrooms, that suggested the former.
She made her way back to the ground floor and exited through the open doors, taking a deep breath of clean air to clear the stink of the decaying flesh of the Shadows. Call her crazy, but she was certain the air had become sweeter the minute she’d crossed out of California’s state lines early this morning, well before the sun rose.
Not a very high bar to meet.
She’d grown up in a crowded South Los Angeles neighborhood, where the smell of bodies and hopelessness had hung over the place like a heavy veil. Since she’d started patrolling a little over a year ago, her nostrils were permanently clogged with the scent of Shadows and destruction. Her state had been hit hard, both by the Illness and the nuclear attacks that had followed.
The high Colorado altitude made her lightheaded. It was impossible not to find the sensation kind of seductive. She’d only been sober for so long.
Jules glanced over her shoulder at the closed doors behind her. She supposed she ought to destroy the bodies first, but the clock was ticking before sunset, and she had to beg forgiveness from a certain someone who happened to be rather cranky with her. As tempting as it was, she also wouldn’t waste any more time scouting the rest of the buildings on this small college campus before hitting up the place she’d come here for.
She set out along the path to the building next door. Fall leaves littered the ground, falling from the golden and red-tipped trees all around her. She kind of wanted to stop and gawk at everything, especially the huge, natural snow-topped mountains on either side of her. Like the clean air and infrastructure untouched by bombs or fire, the setting was a far cry from the urban environments she normally patrolled.
Not here to sightsee.
But, man, if she had the luxury of time, she would totally love to get closer to those big stone monsters.
Wind whistled through the leaves, covering the sound of her footsteps. It felt like everyone had simply walked away from this small town nestled in the Rockies.
Except for the ones who had been turned into mindless, flesh-eating zombies. No, they were still hanging about.
With that in mind, she was cautious about opening the door to the building she came to a stop in front of. Like the first place, the lock had been broken. When she opened the heavy wood door, dust motes swirled and rose up to greet her. In the waning light from outside, she could see the thick layer of dirt and dust on the floor. A good sign that no one was within, but she wasn’t taking any chances. Blood, especially her own, would totally ruin her apology.
Thank God the building wasn’t very large and didn’t have any subterranean floors. She was able to search both stories quickly, finding nothing even when she peered beneath chairs and between stacks.
Her shoulders relaxed as she came back down the steps to the ground floor. She lifted a hand to her neck, about to press the button that would summon her sulking handler, when she heard the scrape. The noise was tiny, a whisper against the carpeted floor, but she froze, her hand dropping from her collar while her other tightened on her knife hilt. Barely breathing, she turned only her head and eyed the bank of defunct old computers to her left.
The muffled scrape came again, and she lifted her blade higher, ready to strike. Unlike her prey, her footsteps were silent as she made her way over toward the noise. The silent monitors facing her reflected her image back at her in triplicate. Her eyes were grim, her mouth set in a tight line.
The noise was coming from…under the table? Frowning, she walked around the u-shaped desk, stopping in the middle. She waited, slowing her heartbeat down, clearing her mind and staring at the darkness under that table.
The slavering ball of black fur jumped out at her so fast she stumbled back, catching her foot on the cord of the computer behind her. The machine fell with her, slamming into her shoulder as they both hit the floor.
The minion of evil squeaked loudly, like this was all a big lark, and she swore it grinned at her, beady eyed and fearless. “You fucking little—”
She sighed. Damn it all. There went her plans.
“What’s wrong? What happened?”
. Calm down.” When she was a kid, a woman named Crazy Ina had lived in her building. Ina claimed invisible people told her to do things, like wear tinfoil shoes and scream about the end of the world on the street corner.
Jules only heard one voice, delivered through the tiny earpiece that slid over her ear. She doubted any of Ina’s imaginary friends could hold a candle to sexy-sounding James Bennett.
Granted, James did also tell her what to do sometimes. She usually listened. Occasionally she didn’t. Case in point: she was in the wilds of Colorado right now instead of the dubious safety of her home state. He hadn’t quite gotten over that yet.
“Don’t tell me to calm down. Your heart rate jumped. Damn you, Jules, I told you. I told you something would happen, and it did. Are you hurt? Are you bleeding? Can you get to your van? Because then I want you to get in there and turn around and head home—”
She glared at the stupid rat for starting this nonsense, which she supposed was its cue to sneer at her and scamper away. “I hate rodents. Have I told you this?”
Though she couldn’t picture him since she’d never seen him, she knew James’s tension was receding. “Ah. Another close encounter of the squeaky kind, eh?”
“You could say that.” Christ, but she despised rats. Always had, though others in her neighborhood had been indifferent, another fact of life in a hot and crowded place.
“Where are you? You shouldn’t have needed to stop until you reached Denver before nightfall. Did you run out of food—?”
“Relax, James.” She grabbed her fallen blade and stood, grimacing at the ache in her ass and her shoulder.
No surprise that he knew she’d stopped a good fifty miles west of the city where she was supposed to meet up with the soldiers from his corner of the world, Raven. GPS was a wonderful thing, and she had a nifty one in the lightweight collar locked around her neck. James could probably pinpoint exactly what building she was in too, and then her whole surprise would be completely ruined. Asshole rat.
“Relax? I haven’t been relaxed since I woke up this morning and discovered that you’d gone AWOL.”
She winced, as she’d been wincing since he’d spent an hour chewing her out earlier. She’d risked the road at a dangerous 3 a.m. in order to make the long trek. It had still been dark on the West Coast when he’d discovered she wasn’t where she was supposed to be. “I said I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about my plan earlier, but I knew you’d react like this. And I was totally planning on meeting up with your soldiers at Cheyenne, not going off completely half-cocked.”
“I should never have told you about the Cheyenne mission. How was I supposed to know you’d get some crazy idea to—?”
“James. I’m sorry.”
His exhale rushed over the line. “Fine. Whatever. Now why have you stopped?”
That clipped tone was not what she had come to expect from him. He’d been funny, teasing and gentle with her since she’d “met” him a little over a year ago.
She owed the life she had now to another man, a man she should have been thinking about all day, especially since this trip’s purpose was partially to pick up his trail. Instead, she’d been frantically wondering how to get back into James’s good graces.
“Well, I saw this sign on the highway, and it got me thinking. So I pulled off at the exit and found this cute college town.”
“Yes. It looks quite quaint. It also looks far from where you should be.”
Oh, yeah, he was still peeved.
“Did you run into anyone?”
Should she tell him about the Shadows? “Nope.”
“Liar. Humans or Shadows?”
The man was a human lie detector. Jules wondered if it was a skill he had with everyone, or if she was special. “Not important.”
His tone immediately sharpened. “Shadows, then. How many? Are you okay? Let me see.”
No. There was no reason for the now-nonexistent threat to ruin her surprise. “Wait,” she blurted out. The object of her quest was up on the second floor. She began walking toward the stairs. “Don’t look yet.”
“What are you hiding from me?”
“Stop being so suspicious.”
“Is the area secure? There are more of them, aren’t there?”
“As secure as can be. You think I’d be chatting with you if there was danger in the place?” She walked swiftly to the staircase, keeping one ear tuned to the sound of any further danger.