Camino del Diablo
(The Devil's Road)
New Edition - 2006
Email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Fandom: Magnificent Seven
Pairings: Chris/Buck, Vin/Ezra
Summary: In a world where vampires exist, the members of The Magnificent Seven are The Eternal Seven on the hunt for the leader of a band of vampires who massacred the citizens of Four Corners nearly one-hundred and twenty-five years ago.
Category: Slash, H/C, AU - Closed
Warnings: Undeath story, violence, rape, and some sex on the side.
Characters from The Magnificent Seven belong to MGM. All content is for
entertainment only. No profits are received from the presentation of this
Notes: The following is inspired by John Carpenter's Vampires for the movie's interesting use of Western homage. Some terms and hunter practices are borrowed from Vampires, but Devil's Road is not a crossover.
Part One - El Camino a la Muerte
I don't know where I'm going
Only God knows where I've been
I'm a devil on the run
A six gun lover
A candle in the wind
- Blaze of Glory, Jon Bon Jovi, 1990 -
Just South of the Border, Present Day
The caravan of two black Humvees and a matching conversion van rolled over the horizon, a rippling vision in the rise of heat from the highway. Dust devils swirled in the wake of the wheels and irritated a scorpion basking on the side of the road in the midday sun. At moderate speed they made their way to a crossroads and took a right that led them out into the dry, sand swept countryside amid scatters of odd rock formations, dry washes, and cacti.
Then the lead Humvee veered off into a private drive that merged out of nowhere, followed promptly by the other two vehicles, which had to gun their engines to keep up.
"The Italian is on a swing, huh?" Kilroy muttered to Shaw, who was driving the van they had lovingly given the name 'Buffy'.
"Yeah, I swear he can smell the blood from a hundred miles away." Shaw had four-wheel drive in gear, keeping the tires from sliding over the loose gravel. Nevertheless, the van slid another foot when he brought it to an abrupt halt behind the two in lead as they reached the car port of a low-sitting, adobe style ranch house constructed on a plain where a carpet of thick, tall grasses began. A lone brown bull stood out in the pasture, looking back toward the house as if paralyzed with fear at the new arrivals.
"Nah, he got a tip off on this one," Kilroy muttered in the silence that followed when Shaw killed the engine. "I heard gossip some other hunter group called this in."
Shaw raised a brow at this. "Someone outside the Vatican?"
Kilroy shrugged. "Yeah, think so. The Clarion Group. . . that was it."
All three vehicles sat for a moment, greeted only by the high-pitched buzz of some desert insect out there in the grass. Then the driver side door on the lead Humvee swung open with the crack of grating metal. The man who stepped out sported a pair of inky sunglasses, his dark hair combed back in natural waves from a harsh, olive hued face. He didn't say a word as he walked straight toward the house, wind buffeting the collar on his loose white shirt.
Six other men, including Shaw and Kilroy, poured out of the other vehicles, their legs stiff from two days of driving. They attempted to brush it off in the same toughened manner as their boss, but most gave in to a grunt or groan and wiggled an ankle or jittered their knees a bit to get the blood flowing again.
"Let's go," Shaw said grimly and commenced to follow The Italian around the far end of the house and along the side of a white washed wall. They came to an open archway that had once been blocked by an iron portcullis, but the bars had literally been ripped from the stone.
Each man filed through the opening to freeze in his tracks and gape at what lay within. They had all seen similar settings, but none ever got quite used to it. It frustrated them knowing they couldn't have done anything. Their quarry was too elusive, had struck, made its mark, and moved on well before their arrival.
The interior was a small courtyard with a fountain in the center. The water trickled peacefully up through a center spout. But it was a rain of red that came down, the water saturated with the blood of some twelve bodies torn apart or laid open and scattered throughout the little haven. The puddles that had drained onto the stonework had congealed into thick layers of rust-red. The stains had baked into the cracks, along with tendrils of hair or little shreds of skin. Flies buzzed over the carnage.
Men, women, children. No one had been spared here.
The Italian crossed himself, his face remaining still and unemotional as he did so.
Ives, the group's priest, did the same.
Two of the others, Gentry and Dobson, followed suit as if reminded of their faith. The others fought the urge to vomit when the smell of decay and shit hit them on the next down draft of wind. A small palm garden established along the edges of the courtyard rustled in the breeze, rattling large leafy branches. The blood had actually sprayed as high as some of the leaves and though dry still gleamed against the green like some disease.
"Clean it up," the leader finally said, his voice a growl bearing the roll of his accent.
There were no questions asked. Setting about their messy work, they went back out to the van to don light canvas jump suits, rubber gloves, breath masks. . . whatever it took. Ives remained in his black uniform and collar, a vial of holy water in hand as he bestowed a final blessing upon the dead then dismissed himself. The cleanup carried on into the late afternoon. Any bodies that still had their heads were quickly relieved of them. The fountain was cleared and all remains heaped into a pile near the entrance to the house.
The sky had gone from the bright blue of full day to the rosy hue of dusk by the time the corpse mountain was completed and dashed over thoroughly with gasoline.
"I've never seen anything like this," one man, Reeves, confessed though his voice was bland, untouched by any strain of emotion. He backed away from the funeral pyre that only awaited the touch of a torch.
Just near the pile of corpses, The Italian stood quietly discussing something with Ives before he reached into his back pocket and pulled out a Zippo lighter. He snapped open the cap and flicked the switch, held up the open flame as a warning to everyone to step back. He lit the end of a piece of dry wood and then tossed it into the carnage. The Zippo gave a sharp shhhhhick sound as he snapped the cover shut and eased it back into his pocket. The pyre caught immediately, flames bursting out in orange blooms and then billowing upwards, producing a column of acrid black smoke that also bore up the pungency of death.
Alone for a moment, the tall figure, broad at the shoulders but narrow at the waist, paced silhouetted against the pyre, sparks fanning the air around him though he didn't move back or appear afraid of the tongues of flame that danced close to him. Finally he turned to look back at his men and removed his shades, revealing hard, dark eyes framed in thick lashes that matched his hair. Had he any light behind those eyes, he might have been considered handsome, but all character was lost in the mission to which he had devoted himself.
"All right," he announced, and again his accent rolled out with his words. "Earlier today I received a call from the Cardinal and accepted an added commission and extension to our work here."
Each man stifled a groan and the urge to immediately argue what was or wasn't in his contract. But none dared make a peep about it lest they all have The Italian down their throats, or Ives giving one of his famous lectures on the good of mankind. Over time, it all came down to money, because to think of the good of mankind filled one with an urgency that hindered rather than helped get the job done.
"We are looking for seven masters," The Italian continued. "Seven more, and you men can go back to your homes. Wealthy," he reminded them. "But we aren't stopping until it is done."
"Where do we start?" Kilroy asked eagerly, though his voice was almost drowned out by the roar of the flames.
"Just across the border," The Italian replied. "In Four Corners, New Mexico."
"But," Reeves objected. "That's just a ghost town. Why go there? The killing is happening here."
"That is where they will be," The Italian replied.
"But why would a buncha sucker's want to hole up there? Ain't no 'food' for some forty miles around." Reeves shrugged, glancing back and forth at his kinsmen to see if they had any suggestions.
"Trust me," The Italian said, and for once that day his handsomely sculpted lips quirked up at the corners into a wicked smirk. "Last week an anthropology team uncovered a mass grave at Four Corners and has been camped out there working studiously to uncover more dust. There is plenty of 'food' in the area."
This obviously made everyone a little uneasy. They shuffled back and forth on their feet, hip to hip, wiped sweat from their brows.
Shaw was the first to dare speak up about it. "Sir, that is using humans as bait, and that is against the rules."
The comment was ignored as The Italian continued to speak. "I've already developed a plan. Timing is essential on this one, gentlemen."
They all looked from one to the other, not happy with such sparse information. It was dusk though, and not the time to remain standing out in the open, the fire a beacon to the ones who had wrecked such havoc on this simple ranch home. And hunting at night, no matter how experienced and skilled the hunter, was just plain stupid. The group would get themselves to a motel and each sleep with one eye open. After five weeks of hunting, paranoia was common place, and the sight of their black vehicles, particularly the Humvees rigged with huge spools of tow cable on their front bumpers, had become known in most of the border towns.
The men were blinking at each other, some waiting to get into their own vehicles and discuss theories on what the boss' plan of action might be.
When the stern voice snapped, "Andiamo!" at them, they moved, picked up their feet, and began to go back to the driveway shedding their jumpers as they went and wiping sweat from their grimy brows.
Kilroy looked back, once more spotted Ives and the boss standing near the flames holding some private discussion. He nudged Shaw in the ribs to point back, but the other man wasn't interested. Best not to stick his nose in.
The Italian had a plan, and that should be good enough.
Santiago, Mexico, formerly known as Purgatory, Present Day
Something was happening to him.
The sparse crowd in the outdoor cantina produced a strange roar in Jesse's ears, more like the sound of swarms upon swarms of flies buzzing over road kill, and despite the warm, arid climate, he felt chilled down into his core.
Couldn't stop shivering.
After two days of confusion and fear, he had begun to remember what had happened two nights ago.
Little flashes of memory slapped him every time he blinked. A glimpse of his old Jeep Wrangler sitting on the side of the road with a flat. . . the last rays of sun on the western horizon melting down into little more than a smear of burnt umber. . . hands. . . cold, pale hands, reaching for him. . . sharp pointed canine's near his face. . . on his throat. . . Sheila screaming. . .
What had started out a relaxing fall break with a drive through Mexico with his girlfriend had turned into a nightmare
Somehow, sometime, after the attack was over. . . at least he thought it had been an attack, but wondered if he had only been hallucinating. . . he had managed to drag himself and Sheila into Santiago and check into a hotel. The innkeeper stared strangely at them until Jesse was forced to look down and acknowledge the blotches of bloodstains on his shirt and all over his shoulder from an injury near his collarbone. Sheila had similar stains too, but her leather jacket managed to conceal the worst of it. Both were lightheaded, swaying when they stood in one place for too long, and once in their room they had both slept for another day and a half, and neither had any appetite whatsoever.
Jesse awoke feeling a little stronger, but still sluggish, and then the chills had crept up on him and he found himself nauseated every time he stood in the direct sunlight that spilled in through the tall windows that looked out on a mock veranda. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest, a steady slow beat, and something in the air, some smell, kept accosting him. He couldn’t figure out what it was. Something coppery-salty-tangy. It swept around him everywhere.
Sheila seemed to smell it too, and she was equally as chilled.
They didn't realize how bad it was until they tried to put things back to normal, to just ignore their discomfort and go out. Perhaps this was a mistake, for that smell, warm, inviting, deliciously tempting, wafted around them, and all voices just bled together into that fly like buzzing that chafed Jesse's ears.
At seven in the evening, the sun had just crept down over the rooftops of the stone and adobe structures, leaving a dusty chill in the autumn air. The sky spread beyond with a wash of brown and pink rapidly fading into black. Soft, jangling music drifted from across the square where a band played outside the old Spanish mission, and the Hotel Del Sol. Jesse had thought that there was nothing sunny about the hotel's front. The sign that hung over the street was cracked right down the middle of a Mayan design solar logo and the main foundation's stonework was in need of a power wash. The rooms within didn't get much brighter, all the furnishings sparse, the floors creaky, and the water running from the bathroom taps always tepid but never hot or cold.
The couple took a seat at a rickety table on the edge of the cantina space, and Jesse ordered a Corona without lime that came as lukewarm as the tap water in the hotel room. He winced when the bitter-sweet yeasty fluid touched his tongue, and he suddenly shuddered, feeling as if he would puke right there.
Sheila had hardly said a thing over her untouched Coke. Her small, heart-shaped face was set so that it was obvious her jaw was set, and she kept her head lowered, gazing out from beneath her brows with piercing amber eyes. Her pupils dilated to the point they almost swallowed away all color in her irises, and Jesse frowned back.
"Sheila? Want to go back to the hotel?"
With mechanical slowness her eyes rolled back toward his. She shivered a little and issued a series of short quick breaths that resembled those of an anxious young bull. Reddish dips had formed under her eyes, which Jesse took to be part of the fatigue that was dragging them both down.
They should have gone to a doctor, he realized, but neither had been too sure what had happened out there on the highway, and considering their Spanish wasn't the greatest, they easily shied away from the idea of seeking medical treatment.
Jesse had just pushed the almost full Corona bottle aside when the air moved with a light breeze, carrying through the square and across the cantina's patrons. It came from the north, bearing with it a strange scent. Jesse looked over Sheila's shoulder toward the bar and what was left of any expression on his face began to melt away into a deadpan stare.
He counted six men positioned up against the bar, each varying in height from perhaps five-foot-seven to six-foot-four.
Something about them. . . something. . . familiar. . .
Jesse clenched up in his chair, his heart pounding harder in his chest, yet not picking up rhythm. It was like a hammer slamming beneath his rib cage.
Thrum. . .
His gaze immediately landed on the one whom he perceived to be the leader. Something about the aura exuded it.
Thrum. . .
They were all in various shades of brown leather, but this one wore black, from his duster to his black leather trousers. Some cowboy out of a spaghetti western, his eyes were steady and set in an ageless, chiseled face. His blond hair was swept back, a few stray bangs falling loose over his forehead. He wasn't the tallest, but he was lean, a feature that lent itself to give him a taller appearance, even while he was propped back on one elbow against the bar, his hand relaxed and fingers spread spider-like over the rim of a whiskey tumbler.
Thrum. . .
This beat forced a gasp out of Jesse, and Sheila eyed him strangely as if she had heard the pounding too.
The one to the leader's right was taller, bigger, one leg pulled up and cocked over the bar stool while the rest of his weight was focused on the other straight leg. This one wore a short tan leather jacket accented with western-style fringe, jeans worn through with holes at the knees, and a white tee. He seemed most interested in flirting with the pretty Latino waitress who was bringing drinks from the bar to another table closer to the street. Dark blue eyes twinkled at her, then dimmed as he took a nudge to the ribs from his companion and looked down to meet eyes with his watcher.
Riveted in place, Jesse pretended to be unvexed and blinked then went back to his analysis.
To the leader's left stood a shorter man in a thigh length jacket over a black tank shirt. He wore jeans and chaps along with boots and looked no worse for wear than if he had spent the day rustling cattle. Long waves of light brown hair framed a sharp, almost boyish face shadowed by a good coat of five-o'clock growth around the chin, and ice-blue eyes stared evenly back at Jesse. This third man threw back a shot glass, swallowed the amber liquid undaunted by its potency, and then slammed the glass rim down on the edge of the bar, only taking his eyes off Jesse for a second.
Jesse continued to look over the remaining three who had taken up leaning positions along the rest of the bar.
One was a hulk of a man in a full-length desert duster and jeans. His face was long, the features almost over accentuated, giving him a leonine look, particularly with his heavy brow and the gray mane of hair loosed from his head and spilling to his broad shoulders.
Along side him stood a black man of a similar height but smaller build, not in leather but the casuals of a black tee, jeans, and boots, his jacket removed and thrown back over one shoulder, his fingers hooked into the collar. This one didn't appear to be drinking anything. . . nothing alcoholic anyway.
The next one looked much younger than the others to the extent he was completely out of place. He had dark eyes set in a bright face that might have appeared innocent were he not, like the others, drawing a bead on Jesse with a penetrating gaze. His clothes were simple but sporting: jeans, a tee, and sneakers, and a leather form-fitting racing jacket that matched the large bulbous helmet settled on the bar beside him. While the others were more like a seasoned cowboy biker gang, this one seemed closer to Jesse's age of twenty and appeared to be a city boy trying to go country and not quite making it work.
Overall this group seemed as intent on analyzing Jesse as he was them. Then gradually it began to occur to Jesse that none of them smelled quite like the rest of the cantina goers. Even from here he could tell. There was something so terribly out of place about them, including that they were missing that coppery scent. Instead, the aroma that carried downwind was dry, musty in a way, somewhat earthen. And Jesse cringed, sure for a moment that the heartbeat he heard pummeling the inside of his body had multiplied and echoed around him, until somehow his hearing homed in on it, and he realized that he was hearing not just his own heart, or Sheila's next to him, but six other steady, slow rhythms that seemed to reach right through the air and shatter him.
These men. . . whoever they were. . . seemed to be connecting with him on some level he couldn't define.
Jesse stared, breath hitching until he coughed it back out.
Sheila frowned. "Jesse?" It was the first word that she had really vocalized that evening, laced with concern.
"Over there. . ." Jesse grunted out between shaky breaths. But before she could turn her head and see what he saw, he suddenly found he had to get away from them. Some instinct told him they were dangerous, as if they were giants and he was merely an insect on the desert floor. "Sheila. . . come on. . ." he stood so fast his lap came up, hit the edge of the table, and nearly knocked it over.
"Oooookay," she said uncomfortably and fidgeted in her seat before rising to follow him.
He grabbed her by the elbow and steered himself and her out into the plaza through the small crowd, glancing back to make sure he was moving out of their line of sight while he still looked for a new vantage point. No good. They seemed to follow him with their gazes, confident that they wouldn't lose him.
Pulling Sheila with him, he tried to take cover behind a kiosk several yards out from the canteen. Here most of his perspective was obscured by the movement of goods and people in the night market, but he could still see the guy in black and the two particularly focused men accompanying him. This gave him time to try to rationalize what he was doing.
A bunch of cowboys and a biker boy for fuck's sake! What the hell did he have to be afraid of them for?
Just then he noted another figure crossing the range of the scope and followed it.
Damn, make that seven.
This one, another male, walked with something of a waltz as he veered through the crowd and up toward the bar to join his companions. Jesse cocked his head, amused by the observation that this one appeared to be dressed in no less than a silk suit, soft taupe material that moved as gracefully as its wearer. Great, so this one looked like a pimp with fashion sense. From this distance Jesse made out wavy light brown hair, but he wasn't close enough now to get facial details.
"Come on," he hissed and pulled Sheila with him.
Weaving his way through the night market, beneath strings of soft lights and colorful banners, he veered down a small side street which he'd discovered earlier to loop around to the back of the Hotel Del Sol and into a crumbling, walled in employee lot. He was headed there when that delicious coppery scent wavered around him again, all consuming, and he paused. Without thinking he let go of Sheila's elbow and dropped his hand to his side, looking about at the sparser flow of foot traffic around him.
His stomach gave a hurtful, hungry lurch as his eyes landed on and followed the path of a young Mexican woman working her way into the night market back in the direction from which he had come.
At his side, Sheila gave out a longing sigh, looked at him, and then slowly began to smile.
Jesse shouted, his reverie with that delicious scent broken by the black orbs that had been Sheila's eyes, now gazing back at him. Her canine's had grown long and sharp, and what sounded like a long low combination of a purr and a growl issued from her throat.
Jesse stumbled backwards. "Sh-Sh-Sheila?" he stuttered, taking a few involuntary steps backward.
Her pale lips curled back further, her mouth gaping to make room for the length of those awful teeth, and then she snarled at him.
Jesse spun around to run and bumped right into an elderly man. Without thinking he caught onto the obstacle's collar and held on, pulling the dull fabric away from the leathery skin of the aged neck. The man uttered a surprised cry and said something in Spanish.
The scent spilled over Jesse with a warm wash that momentarily flooded away all other senses. He completely forgot about Sheila, or the thing she had suddenly turned into. His rational mind fled as he focused on that scent curling off the man's skin, from his neck. Beneath the warm cocoa skin and all its wrinkles, the rise and fall of a pulse captured Jesse's attention. He leaned toward it, his tongue sliding out to lick his lips.
"No! No!" the man cried, and tugged himself away.
Shaken suddenly, Jesse realized what he had almost done. It was consuming him, the need for the source of that scent, that wonderful-warm-salty-coppery-syrupy. . .
"Ah!" he shouted a hoarse objection to the alien craving as he understood now exactly what that scent was.
It was blood, pulsing beneath the old man's collar, calling to him. Jesse almost gagged as he let go and pulled away so hard he sent the man reeling toward the crowd. People were turning toward him, faces curious to see what the commotion was about.
He realized Sheila was gone, and moment's later he heard a woman's scream rise from somewhere further up the street.
The same instinct that had sent him fleeing the cantina returned and sent him bolting down the half-lit alley, his footfalls echoing along the grimy walls, into the dead end of the parking lot behind the hotel, the far wall being that of the Spanish mission's grimy stucco. Jesse stopped, realizing there was nowhere else to go. He collapsed back against the entrance to the alley and sank down.
His skin tingled as if thousands of ice fingers were massaging his shoulders, his middle, through his scalp, and his gums began to hurt, his jaw clenching up as he reached out to the sides of the wall and his fingertips raked over old brick and a crispy layer of fractured stucco.
"Somebody. . ." he croaked out, "help. . . me. . ."
But he was alone, or so he thought. The sounds of the square—voices, music, the odd car—had faded away.
Then he caught that other scent. Not the one that lured him, but the one that had accompanied the seven men at the bar. . . that dry, earthy reek. . . and he could hear the loud boom of a slow-beating heart.
Looking weakly back down the passage toward the main street, realized he had been followed.
Chris Larabee had planted his focus on something that distracted him from his drink. He lowered his hand and propped back on the bar, casual as two of the cantina's patrons caught his attention. Their scent was his first clue, but he could also sense the lack of warmth in their bodies. Such was the case with the undead.
To his left, Vin had picked up on the same thing and followed his line of sight right to the source of interest. Two young'uns, or so it seemed, huddled up at a table, a male and a female. The girl was facing the other direction so there was no clear shot of her face. She was a red head, small and thin in jeans and a festive orange sweater. The male's eyes, soft blue and fringed in pale lashes, peered back over the girl's shoulder, blinked at Chris then feigned no interest as he looked away.
"Hey darlin'," Buck was chiming up at the barmaid as she carried a tray of freshly opened beer bottles around the far end of the counter. "One of those for me?" Smiling after her small figure sauntering by in a swishing skirt, he didn't bother to notice that there was a new scent in the air, or that the two heartbeats coming from that particular table were too slow and steady to be human. He jumped slightly when Chris' elbow made firm contact with his ribs and he turned, started to ask what that was for, then noted how Chris inclined his head toward the cantina's main floor looking out on the open night air and the Santiago square.
"We got two at one o'clock," Chris rasped softly and the word passed down the line, past Joshia and Nathan to J.D..
All six of them watched now, attempting to listen in, but the voices of the locals and the strum of music drowned out anything discernable other than their steady heartbeats.
"Loners?" Chris asked for an opinion.
Vin was already scanning across the crowd for any others, particularly a master who might lay claim to these two. In a quick glance he caught the young man's eyes again and gave an unconscious smirk in response before throwing back the contents of the shot glass he'd been holding. The liquor gave him a little sting to the tonsils, but otherwise drained on down into his belly without giving him any inner warmth as it had once done, or even the pleasure of a buzz. "Damnit, I miss a proper drunk," he muttered as he once more resumed eye contact with the youth. "They look lost," he noted.
Chris nodded. "No master, just two kids bitten and dumped out to survive on their own," he suggested.
"The innocent suffer the most," Josiah said, stepping in a little closer. "We can't let them live."
"Poor kids, they probably don't even know what they are," Buck interjected.
Chris turned his head and looked back at his best friend with naturally venomous eyes that faded in and out between green and blue, unsettled on a hue, expressing the constant turbulence of his emotions. He looked back out at the two at the table, and again there was that nervous glance from the male.
Kid had some serious shakes going on.
Most fledglings existed on pure instinct, killing wherever they went, driven only by their blood lust. These two weren't quite there yet, but their full conversion was almost at hand. They had not been killed and bled then resurrected. Each had been infected by a not immediately fatal bite. It didn't matter though. The results would be the same.
The Seven were on their annual pilgrimage back to Four Corners, but the recent slaughters that had taken place on the ranch near Vasquez had drawn them here to investigate. These two kids were obviously later victims, not part of the Vasquez slayings. It was always disturbing to find these types of victims, the ones on the edge who had just a little piece of humanity left in them.
As if to speak Chris' mind, Buck suddenly said, "Dang they look so. . . normal."
Chris spoke softly through his teeth. "They just haven't finished changing."
"You don't think. . ." Buck began. He shook his head, knowing the possibility was highly unlikely. "You don't think they could be. . . like us?"
Chris didn't bother to put words into a response for that. He just shook his head since technically there was no definition for what "like us" meant.
"Always the optimist, Buck," Vin replied rather acidly.
Just then the male got up, coming to a full height of perhaps five-ten, and dragged the girl with him by the elbow. All six watchers tensed as he left the table and hastened out into the night market crowd, the girl's much smaller figure stumbling along ungracefully in his wake.
"What're we gonna do?" J.D. asked, leaning down the bar a ways to bring himself more into the whispers of conversation.
Chris cocked his head, observing the crowd as it closed back in over the retreating figures. He glimpsed the male's head of blond hair reappearing in and out, followed by a little flash of the girl's red mane. They turned the corner of a kiosk but didn't drop completely out of sight.
Just then a more familiar figure crossed the path of Chris' vision and headed up to the bar.
Ezra Standish did not appear happy. He glanced haughtily back over the heads of the cantina's patrons as if seeking some distraction from whatever had him down, but found nothing or no one of interest. He had obviously just missed the odd pair on their way out into the market.
"I protest staying here one more night," Ezra immediately proclaimed when he reached the bar and stood before his companions. "It's the new millennium, and you would expect even a tiny backwater, particularly one formerly named after some region of Hell, and now converted and sanctified by the name of a saint, to have acceptable ventures." He wormed his way in between Buck and Josiah and propped back on one elbow, his wrist bent elegantly before him as he shook his head. "And they say civilization is on the rise." He rolled his eyes.
"Translation?" Buck asked.
"The only form of gambling here is cock fighting," Josiah replied.
"I abhor forcing any creature's natural inclinations to violence for the sake of human entertainment," Ezra elaborated.
Chris hadn't heard any of it. He leaned just toward Vin, giving the slightest nod of a gesture out toward the square. "Follow them," he said. "If they go on the blood hunt, kill them."
Hearing this, Buck took a step forward. "We should all go," he suggested.
"Excuse me," Ezra said, looking down the line from one to the other. "What exactly, as they say these days, is up?"
Without a hitch Buck just reached up, planted his spread hand on top of Ezra's head, and turned it forty-five degrees to look out at the crowd where the couple in question lingered. "We have two changing fledglings and no idea what they're up to," Buck stated. "Seem like just a couple'a scared kids ta me."
Ezra focused on them, the pupils of his jade eyes narrowing to a fine point, and his lips formed a soft, silent, "Oh dear."
Chris was taking the whole situation into quick consideration. "All right, we have their scent. Everyone branch out, close in."
Ezra immediately shook his head. "Seven against two? That's not exactly fair, Gentlemen. Soooooo. . . e re nata. . . I'll just stay here while you have those two unfortunates as a snack."
"Ezra," Buck warned.
The gambler blinked innocently at him.
Chris only nodded. "All right, you stay and keep watch, make sure there are no others about, or another master in the area."
Ezra seemed satisfied with this. "Happy hunting," he commented. If there was any killing tonight, he was more than willing to steer clear for the sake of his Armani. He settled back, ordered a shot of tequila—and not without grilling the bartender over whether it was the best quality or not even if technically it would just go right through him to be pissed back out—then positioned himself on one of the bar stools.
One by one the others parted ways, slipping sideways around the outer cantina so as not to be noticed leaving in mass. Hardly anyone noticed Chris, who whispered past several patrons using skills one-hundred and twenty-five odd years in the making.
Soon the other six had completely melded with the crowd in the night market. As planned, they branched out, Vin already tracking ahead of everyone else, and quickly catching site of their quarry rounding a corner into a narrow street that was little more than an alleyway leading back behind the Hotel Del Sol. Nathan and Josiah each forked off from the plaza and went completely opposite ways up along the street past the mission. J.D., his motorcycle helmet tucked casually under one arm, went to wander through the square, from kiosk to kiosk, pretending to examine the goods from jewelry to clothing, fruit, and flowers, all the while catching glances of Buck's tall lean figure moving ahead.
Chris and Buck stayed closer together, their eyes darkened and keen on every movement that passed by them, from the pedestrians to a cat inspecting the drainage ditch along the sidewalk. In moments like this, they felt as if they were once more back in their own time, where they belonged, acting as the regulators they had once been.
It took them back through memories deeply embedded like a festering thorn in each of them, to when everything was much, much simpler. To when all Chris wanted was to avenge his family. Vin wanted to clear his name. Buck only wanted to get J.D. laid. Finding the con of a lifetime was Ezra's greatest thrill. Josiah found Zen in refurbishing his church. Nathan desired only to save as many lives as possible.
And vampires were only a fairly tale.
Four Corners, New Mexico, 1877
The killings had started almost a month ago. Few and far between at first, near Watsonville then soon closing on Four Corners. Families were found slaughtered in their homes, or there was the odd body of an unlucky traveler, whom no one could identify, found dropped in the dust along the main route through. Their throats were often slashed, but sometimes the wounds were more extreme, laying open bowels, or leaving a victim headless. Rumors began to abound that there was some wild beast roaming the outskirts, and huge hunting parties were gathered and sent out. Vin Tanner served as a tracker for one such party but found nothing to lead him to believe the desert had spawned a monster. Given the opportunity to examine one body, Nathan Jackson determined only that the gash that ran from the young woman's chest up to the side of her neck to her ear had not been dealt by an animal. It was too neat for that.
Four Corners was becoming known as a cursed town. The stagecoach started detouring through Greenly. Wagon trains began to avoid it, so businesses declined. Mary Travis, owner of the Clarion press, sent her son, Billy, away to live with his grandparents. A few others followed suit, sending their children off to stay with cousins, aunts, and uncles. Even stubborn widow Nettie Wells had closed up her little stead and moved away, if only temporarily, in the interest of protecting her niece Casey. Then larger groups began to filter out. Of the three hundred who had called themselves citizens, one hundred relocated, headed for California or back east, with hopes of escaping the mysterious thing that left a vapor of fear in its bloody wake.
And to make matters worse, a certain seven regulators were getting a bad name for not finding who-what was doing this.
It was driving Chris Larabee just the slightest bit 'round the bend. Not only were his and his men's reputations at stake, but it was just plain frustrating, leaving the regulators feeling powerless to do anything.
Which was why one early fall morning he found himself, Buck Wilmington, and Vin Tanner all crouched down along the little ridge just above the cemetery. They had reached the point of following any damned lead they could get, and this one came from Conklin of all people. The old fart was actually onto something, for a change, when he claimed he had spotted someone fooling around with the graves of the recently brutalized and buried.
Chris had seen the stranger before. Come to think of it, the young man had made his appearance just after the slayings had started. He was often found in a corner of the saloon, nursing a drink and for the most part appearing to observe people. The figure down below was visible from the waist up as he stood down in a half emptied grave, a pile of freshly disturbed dirt on one side, his tan duster splayed on the other along with a carpet bag that stood open, but its contents were not visible from the vantage point of the ridge. Sweat had drenched a dark "V" down the back of his dirt-smeared shirt between his suspenders.
The young man was just reaching the bottom of the grave when Chris silently signaled Vin to take the east side of the cemetery and Buck the west. Chris came over the top of the ridge and straight down, a sawed off shotgun cocked and ready as he called out.
"Hold it right there," the gruff voice carried over the soft howl of dry wind.
The young man jumped and spun around, the spade in his hand instantly coming up into a defensive position. He freed one hand from its grip on the handle to shade his eyes and get a better look at the man in black carefully climbing down his way.
"Mr. Larabee," he called back.
Buck and Vin both made their appearances at that moment, moving upon the cemetery, jumping the weathered picket fence on each side and closing in.
"I don't recall officially meeting you," Chris answered as he reached level ground and maneuvered his way through the main entrance, shotgun still at the ready, and eyes narrowed viciously, the landscape reflected in the aquiline pools of his irises.
"Me neither," Buck said, his Peacemaker drawn and settled just at hip level. The youngster standing in the grave didn't look much older than J.D., a thing that proved an instant weakness for the tall gunslinger. As he drew closer, he noticed a chiseled face etched with premature lines around the eyes, skin tanned from constant exposure probably due to riding.
"Can't say's I do either," Vin added, his casual drawl the last warning to the young man that he was essentially surrounded. If he tried to bound out of that grave and vault the south side fence, he was going to have more buck shot in his ass than sand in the desert.
The youth looked from one to the other. "I got ears," he said, "and people talk, they say your names in Four Corners all the time."
Chris came to a stance not far from the open grave, having an elevated advantage over the little grave robber.
Vin stood near the headstone, his head cocked, eyes shaded by the brim of his hat. "That so?"
Of course, the three knew this, and each found it rather amusing to play upon this issue while at the same time intimidating their suspect.
"Yes, Mr. Tanner, they do." The young man realized he still had the spade up and ready to swing and slowly lowered it. He looked over at Buck. "The ladies particularly talk about you, Mr. Wilmington."
That did it. Buck went from serious to a full, proud grin, which Chris acted quickly to dissolve.
"You mind tellin' us what you're doing in that grave, Mr.—?"
"Arrant," the other replied. "Michael Arrant."
At least they were getting something in the form of cooperation over the matter. Vin raised his head and looked across the grave and the pile of dirt at Chris, awaiting the next order.
Chris gave each man a nod and gesture toward the open pit. "Get him out of there."
They both moved in unison, Buck keeping his gun angled at the youth's head while he took the spade away and tossed it. He was just taking one arm, and Vin the other, to haul the kid out of the hole when he looked straight down. The kid was standing directly on top of the coffin's lid, the edges just cleaned off with room to the sides. Worse, he noted the name on the wooden head cross and realized the coffin belonged to the eldest daughter of the murdered Jenkins family who had owned a ranch just six miles out from Four Corners. The girl's face, when she had been alive, flashed behind Buck's eyes. A honey-haired teenager with naturally flushed cheeks and a heart-melting smile.
"You sick little shit," Buck growled as he jerked up.
Michael Arrant howled out a protest to the strain on his arms as he was hefted up and swung unsteadily onto the topsoil. "I can explain!" he cried out. "Please, just let me. . ."
Buck shoved him away and Chris stepped over to look down into the grave, incidentally kicking free a small rain of dirt from the edge. It rattled on the coffin's lid and the air around them all seemed to chill down.
"Let me show you," Arrant still protested, trying to squeeze past them and clamor his way back down into the hole. "It's the only way you'll believe me." The calmer tone with which he had greeted the three regulators had shifted to pure desperation. He looked up, squinting into the sun as if checking the angle on the rays.
"Hold on," Chris hissed, grabbing the kid's collar and shaking him.
Golden waves of hair tumbled free around Arrant's sun-stressed face and he turned pleading blue eyes up at his captor. "You don't understand," he objected, teeth gritting, lips drawing back into a snarl. "I thought you of all people would want to know why I'm digging up this grave. It's not to rob it."
"What for then?" Buck said, uncocking the Peacemaker and settling it back into the holster.
"I can show you what is responsible for these slayings!" Arrant still struggled, though it seemed no trouble for Chris to keep him in check with a mere fistful of the youth's shirt.
"Oh?" Buck asked, getting in Arrant's face and seething with sarcasm. "I'm sure the murderer is hiding in that girl's grave."
Arrant glanced around the big man's shoulder as the sun's rays broke past the edge of the grave and began to climb down inside.
"Explain now," Chris said with cool eerie calm into Arrant's ear. Both men were skilled at intimidation tactics, but Arrant only squirmed a little more, straining to keep his view of the grave.
"I have to show you, goddammit!" The youth pulled forward, reached up and pried at Chris' grip. Then suddenly he simply dropped his own feet out from under him. His descending weight jerked his shirt free, the coarse fabric leaving a burn in Chris' palm that pissed the gunfighter off just that much more.
Buck nearly fell over backwards as Arrant scurried on hands and knees around him and dove right back into the open grave just as golden rays fell close to the coffin's lid. The kid landed with a dull thump on the hollow pine vessel, glanced up one last time into the blazing orb overhead, then reached down and pulled the lid open, rolling into the free space around the box and using the underneath side of the lid to shield himself.
Chris, Buck and Vin were all about to scramble after him, when they halted, confronted with the sight of the dead girl within. Bleached-bone pale with dark, bruise-like circles around her eyes, she lay in eternal sleep.
For two seconds.
The three regulators all had that amount of time to recall that this girl had been buried with a slit throat, but that wound was no longer there, only a pearly scar as if it had healed after death.
Then she opened blackened, glossy eyes to the sun and let out the roar of an ensnared bobcat. Her mouth opened wide revealing long canine teeth, her tongue flicking between her lips.
Buck came close to letting out a yelp. Vin stumbled back a couple steps not knowing whether to fire the shotgun or throw it at the thing in the grave, and Chris' heart rose into his throat.
The girl sat up in the coffin, scraping the air with clawed fingertips, reaching right for the three men above when the full beat of the sun's rays took her. Her body burst into flames, first spewing out of her wavering arms like the spark on a lit fuse, then ripping down through her from head to toe. In seconds it was all over. The flames went out on their own with a hot whoosh of air. Whatever combustible element possessed her body, it burned up quickly. The corpse collapsed back into its wooden bed with a rattle of bone and a whisper of ash.
Slowly Michael Arrant came out from his hiding place behind the scorched lid and looked down at the smoking, mummified mass that had once been a young woman. Her face was now burned away, leaving a blackened skull and those horrid sharp teeth.
The three regained their composure and simply stared as Arrant slammed the lid shut and stood up. "That," he said, breathless as he gestured down at the coffin, "is what is killing the people around here, Mr. Larabee. Vampires."
Agape, Buck breathed out the word first. "V. . . vampires?" Feeling terribly light headed, he fought the urge to. . . for the first time in his life. . . faint.
"Vampires," Arrant affirmed. He dusted himself off and stepped back up onto the coffin. "Now could someone help me back out again?"
It was a good three minutes longer before they all got their wits completely back together and obliged him.
They watched Arrant work a little longer on the Jenkins girl's corpse. He scrounged around in the carpetbag and brought out a mallet and a length of wood sharpened to a point at one end, then he pounded it down into the chest of the crispered body. Next he uncovered a machete from beneath his coat and unsheathed it. He knelt down along side the coffin and reached in to grab one shoulder and pull the body up awkwardly just so, the creak and crack of stiff bones and the pungent scent of baked flesh and decay permeating the air. With a crunching whack! he removed the head, dropped the corpse back into its confines, and placed the head at the foot of the vessel.
When he was finished and closed the lid, he looked up to find his three watchers green around the proverbial gills. That was how you made sure a vampire stayed dead, he explained. Even the sun's rays could not permanently destroy them, and the ceremony of staking the heart and removing the head released the tormented soul trapped within the monstrous corpse.
"But the girl," Buck asked later when they had filled the grave back in and begun the walk back to town, "how did she become a vampire?"
"Killed by one," Arrant explained as he strode along, his duster draped over one arm, and the carpetbag with his tools tucked under the other. "Or more specifically, bitten. The exchange happens in the saliva, and you get a goon like that poor girl back there. Sometimes a scratch can do it. That's rare, but you still want to remove the head and stake the heart to be sure. It's an infection, gentlemen," he went on, "a contagion. The only way to contain it is to hunt them down and destroy them." He was so nonchalant about it that he had them all scratching their heads, trying to find questions when it was still early to know what to ask.
Chris was glaring straight ahead, digesting all of this with extreme unease, part of him in denial and the other desiring only to climb down inside a bottle and cope with what he had just seen.
"So that girl," Buck said, getting more of a grasp on it now, "she had to have been bitten."
"Yeah, and her blood sucked out." Arrant walked closest to him, a good head and a half shorter. "She was only a goon, they're the easiest to kill. Sometimes they take a bit longer to resurrect."
"Goon?" Buck fingered his mustache and frowned, his eyes a storm of mystification.
"Yeah, they have different classes, masters and slaves, basically." Arrant dragged his heals along, looking down as if saddened by some sudden private thought. "Masters are created on an even exchange of blood, and maybe more. . ." he stopped there, blushing and letting the statement go unfinished.
"Wait," Vin interjected, "how do you know about them so much?"
"Oh, I come from a long line of hunters." Arrant looked over at the tracker who kept more pace with Chris, who still hadn't said exactly what was on his mind about all of this. "There are plenty of us out there, different groups. The Vatican even has operatives all over the world. What do you think the crusades were about?"
"Crusades?" Vin shrugged. If it wasn't in American history, more specifically the last thirty years, he had little or no idea of it.
"Um, never mind." Arrant paused to heft his burden up, then he hurried a few steps ahead and turned back, stopping the three in their tracks just as the main entrance to Four Corners came within view. "Look, I know this is hard for you all to stomach. Hell, it was hard for me the first time I saw one, and I was raised to hunt. But now you know. You make a decision about it. You either decide to turn tail and run, or you fight back."
They all stared back at him evenly, perhaps each inwardly waiting to wake up and find himself in a bed or under the stars. But a minute passed and no one woke up from any nightmare. They were all still standing here, looking at this dirty kid with a machete slung across his back and a bag full of wooden stakes and a mallet.
Chris adjusted his hat and stepped forward, looking down at Arrant with that unreadable half-sneer-half-smile-just-a-little-psychotic look of his. "Okay, kid, you got me. But I'm not going to speak for the others. To stay or go is their decision." He casually looked back over his shoulder at Vin and Buck. Vin stood with his weight cocked on one hip, his thumbs in his belt. Buck had his hands planted firmly on his hips under the edge of his coat, his face blank.
"Hell, I ain't denyin' what I saw in that grave," Vin declared.
Buck looked from one to the other then focused on Chris, his own look vague, portraying no decision, except that something that rarely passed through his eyes ghosted by in just one tiny moment, then it was cast aside with a blink.
A glimmer of fear.
Chris nodded a silent understanding. Who wouldn't be scared in this situation?
"I'm in," Buck said. Then attempting to return to his usual spirited self, he added, "Got to protect the ladies, ya know." But it came out with no humor, dead in tone. He cleared his throat then and straightened up. "So, where do we get started?"
"We tell Josiah, Nathan, Ezra and J.D.," Chris replied, "and as many people in this town as will listen to reason on this." He shook his head. "Can't say I blame anyone decides to have us carted off to a mad house though." He looked back at Arrant. "I take it there are more infected graves?"
"Yes, Sir," the little hunter replied.
"Then we have more work ahead of us today," he added then looked over at Buck and Vin with eyes narrowed against the glare of the climbing sun. "Digging."
Vin cocked an eyebrow at that, and neither he nor Buck appeared to be looking forward to it.
Chris motioned for them to continue on into town. "Find the others and tell them to meet us back down at the cemetery by noon."
Each gave a quick tilt of his hat to that and they both proceeded on ahead, focused on the church first to see if Josiah was in.
Chris remained with Michael Arrant, just generally keeping an eye on him since he still didn't know what to think of the little hunter. "Whatever else you've got to tell, you tell it," he gruffed.
"Sure, Mr. Larabee, but you might want to wait for your men."
Agreed on that, Chris started back into town. He knew Conklin had probably already seen them coming with Arrant in tow and begun to gab. He'd let the townsfolk all stew over it, first talking of some scandal concerning grave robbing, then they'd all come down to the cemetery to let curiosity have a good shot at the cat. Just as Arrant had done with him, Buck and Vin, he'd show the real threat as opposed to trying to explain it.
He strode up the main street and veered over to the Clarion News where he left Arrant to sit waiting on the edge of the porch while he went inside. The little bell on the door jangled over his head as it closed behind him. He found the place cool and the air thick with the acrid yet earthen scent of printer's ink. In addition to the bell, the hollow clunk of his boots on the floor notified Mary Travis of his presence.
She looked up from her typeset table where she was busy arranging letter blocks for the latest headline. This was always somehow quite a sight to Chris. Mary with her blonde hair swept up elegantly and pinned in back, pearls on her ears, bedecked in a burgundy satin dress complete with bustle, and ink all over her hands. The first time he had ever seen her she was wielding a shotgun against the men who had tried to lynch Nathan Jackson. He admired her for that, at least, even if her occasional prudishness made his hackles bristle. And he admired her enough to give her a fair warning about what had the life of Four Corners in such peril.
"Chris," she said, a whisper of a smile in her blue eyes while she attempted to remain formal with him, even using his first name.
It had been this way ever since the Ella Gaines situation a little over a year ago. Not that they had ever been too close to begin with, but Chris had detected a distance in Mary ever since she had heard what went down at the Petrie ranch near Red Fork.
As for Ella. . . she had never been found. She had "leaked out of the landscape" as Vin had once put it, and though her wanted posters hung in sheriffs' offices from here to Kansas City, no tips on her whereabouts had been reported. It still made life awkward as hell for Chris. The occasional knot still rose in his throat at the thought that he had slept with the killer of his wife and child, and at times he had felt practically crippled, unable to do anything about it for lack of evidence on where to find the bitch and end it.
He would never have expected to go up against something worse than Ella, but here he stood, figuring out how to get it across to Mary that he had indeed found a new nemesis to contend with and that it was far from human.
"Ms. Travis," he began, giving a two-fingered tap to the edge of his hat.
She came around from behind the table, her skirts swishing crisply over the floor. She wore a neat white apron over the front of her dress. "Any word on the cause of these murders?" she enquired, and had been enquiring such for a week now. Likely she would agree that murder was a soft term to choose, but this was Mary using all of the discretion she could.
He paused a moment to read the little anxious creases in her pretty brow. "Yeah, I know something about it, but it isn't suitable to print just yet."
"Chris, if you know something it's important that we get the story in the Clarion. These people have the right to know what is killing them." It was clear that every report on the slaughters had begun to wear at her emotionally. It put a quiver in her normally calm voice, and as with many other folks in the town, she had begun to phrase the term for the killer not as who, but as what.
"I'm not here to give you a story, Ms. Travis," he declared in a warning rasp. "I want you to leave," he said straight out. "Get out of town today and go be with Billy."
"I certainly will not—" she started to protest, incensed by his intentional lack of tact.
"Mary. . ." He almost reached out to grab her shoulders and shake her, but he caught himself, hands just elevated to above waist before he dropped them back to his sides. "It's not safe for you. . . for anyone. . . here."
"I'm not going to let this town just dry up and die, Chris."
"It's already doing that, Mary," he said through his teeth. "The blood is getting sucked out of it—" He caught himself on that, might as well have laid his own tongue out on the floor and tripped right over it. Their voices were rising just to the point they were probably heard over in the bathhouse next door.
She thought he was only speaking figuratively. "Look, I know you're concerned for these people. All of them. Please just tell me something. . . what have you found? I'll report it. Better at least some clue of a warning than nothing."
"These people know they're being killed, they don't need to read about it in the paper!" he suddenly growled through his teeth. That stung her. He knew it. Could see it in her eyes, but better that slap in the face than for her to end up another victim. "The newspaper is useless now, Mary! No one can comprehend this. . . thing!" Before he thought about it, he advanced on her a step then halted, teetered backwards just slightly, his heart beating fiercely in his chest over this matter. Why the hell was he here? he wondered briefly. What did he owe this woman that had him here trying to save her life by sending her away? He was not in love with her—never had been. He felt close to her, but it was as if she was a distant cousin or some other such family member. What drove him now? A possible answer flashed through his mind, that Mary Travis, in all of her refinery and jewels, with her gumption to keep the locals educated on the world at large, embodied civilization. A figure of fragility and strength all in one. It was quite heartbreaking in a way.
Chris almost lost his voice on those thoughts. When he found it again he spoke more harshly. "Mary, please just go. Go now. I can escort you to Greenly and you can catch the coach to Ridge City. When it's all over here you can come back, but just go far away from here where it's safe."
Her eyes betrayed a deluge of thoughts about to burst through a flood dyke. "Chris Larabee," she declared angrily, "you know as well as anyone that any place I go can be just as dangerous as it is here now in Four Corners."
He shook his head, looking away, no longer able to face the liquid ridges forming at the corners of her eyes. She wasn't about to cry. Oh no, not Mary Travis. Not without damned good reason and not in front of Chris Larabee. But she was still provoked by his blatant command that she just up and leave, and there was nothing she hated more than for it to be insinuated that she could not take care of herself.
Great, Larabee, he thought disgustedly to himself, don't forget that she's an independent woman out to prove to the world she's got balls under that dress.
Knowing this battle was lost, he stepped back away from her and gave a resigned nod. By the time she saw the proof that would give her a story for The Clarion, the day would be almost gone and there would be no time for her to leave. With a sigh he conceded. Maybe it would get her to listen to his other plans on the matter, but first she had to see what he had seen.
"All right, then. Come down to the cemetery this afternoon."
"The. . . cemetery?" Her brow furrowed in confusion.
"Trust me," he tossed over his shoulder as he turned to go. "You have to see this for yourself." In a few hurried paces he cleared the path back to the door. The bell jangled again when he pulled on the door handle and a shaft of bluish daylight fell across the floor. He gave her one last glimpse before he left and the shaft of light closed away again.
Roughly two hours later the Seven had gathered in the cemetery and begun an excavation of three other fresh graves. It had taken some solid urging to get them down there, especially J.D. Dunne. Being the sheriff and also disturbed by the idea of desecrating graves, he had tried to put a stop to it. Buck's charms had won him over with the insistence that he was going to see something completely unbelievable. The tall gunslinger practically made it sound like they were digging for buried treasure, only he wasn't smiling about it, a thing which J.D. took note on.
Some fifty townsfolk, including Mary Travis, clutched up around the outside of the fence to watch Chris, Vin, Buck, and Michael Arrant dig. Josiah stood whispering a prayer that his comrades hadn't lost their minds. Ezra had a lacey monogrammed hanky in hand ready to hold over his mouth against the reek of decay. Nathan simply stared as if he had eaten a sour grape. J.D. paced, worried first about what Judge Travis would think about all of this, and second about puking himself in front of everyone the moment one of those graves was opened.
The three regulators, along with their young guide, Arrant, pulled up the ground over each death bed simultaneously, practically racing to see who got his assigned spot of soil shoveled out first. It was a good thing, because the first one proved a dud. Sunlight dashed upon the corpse of the middle aged Albert Jenkins, slashed across throat and gut. These wounds were concealed beneath a dull gray burial suit, but everyone knew the details already. Conklin's face turned bright red as he started getting wound up to deliver a blustering speech about what an outrage this act was, to defile fresh graves. Especially the graves of people recently ripped open by Gawd-knew-whut kind of person or thang, as Conklin put it. Albert Jenkins remained intact. No flames burst out of his body in the light of the sun.
Everyone was ready to simply turn their backs on the Seven and saunter back into town when Arrant threw open the second coffin, that of Jenkins' wife.
The body practically leapt from the pine box with a screech and the gnash of fangs, then ignited in shoots of blue flame that consumed it before it fell to the ground in a smoking heap of mummified flesh. J.D. managed not to puke, but he came damned near close. Twenty more people were ready to leave town that very day.
Chris urged them on, and for those who deemed themselves brave enough to stay, he proposed that they form watch groups for the night. One group would house up at the church at dusk, others in the saloons or in the homes of those willing to share their space. He was just finishing his short speech on the arrangements when his eyes met those of Mary Travis. Her lips, normally full and pink, had paled with the rest of her face and drawn out into a grimace of disgust at what she had just witnessed. In all she appeared sickened, but it wasn't enough to convince her to leave.
Blue gusts of smoke still billowed off the vampire's corpse in the space of air between the Seven and the watchers. As Mary Travis hitched up the side of her skirt in one hand and turned to weave her way out of the surrounding group, Chris met with a cool feeling up his spine. He watched her slender figure waver slightly, perhaps with the threat of fainting, then she erected herself, hitched back her shoulders proudly, and proceeded back into town.
Chris couldn't have known that it was the last time he would see her again alive.
They found in the final grave Jenkins' son Albert Junior, who was also infected and quickly destroyed in the sun's light. Arrant pitched a speech to the remaining bystanders on what it took to kill a vampire, how guns could only hold them off but not totally stop them, that it would take decapitation and staking to put them down for good. Although Albert Senior appeared to be blessedly uninfected, his body was treated in the same manner just as precaution and rearranged in his coffin before being buried again. The other bodies were soon tucked back into their holes, and, his spiritual feathers right good and ruffled, Josiah said a new prayer over each one.
As a means of detecting where a vampire slept, Arrant also recommended the use of a horse. The animal would happily trample across any grave, but when it came to the grave of an infected individual, the horse would falter, refusing to go any further. This method was tested on the rest of the cemetery, but no more graves found to contain incubating undead.
That all done, the Seven and Arrant cleared out and headed back into town. Although they were not the cause of the contagion that was slowly leveling Four Corners, they received a good number of odd looks from those folks who remained in the streets. It was an uncomfortable feeling for all of them, having to adapt from being gunmen to vampire hunters, all in the space of a single day. But they had seen what such creatures could do, and Chris Larabee had the distinct feeling that the ones in the cemetery had been uncommonly easy to dispatch over those who attacked in the middle of the night and left devastation as a calling card.
The rest of the afternoon was spent making preparations. The town's main lumber supply was practically raided and wittled down to hundreds of sharp sticks, and Watson's Hardware cleared out of hammers, mallets, and anything that could pass for a good pounding tool. The townsfolk were running about gathering other supplies for a long night indoors—liquor, food, water, ammunition, and plenty of lamp oil.
"Look at 'em," Vin remarked from where he leaned against the porch support in front of the Seven's favored saloon. "Ya'd think we had an army of twisters comin' through." He flicked shavings of wood off the sharpened end of the stick he had just been working on and added it to the growing stack.
"Not much difference from the sound of it," Chris replied. He had gotten in on it too, coat discarded and sleeves rolled up. He finished off the tip on another stake and tossed it in with the others before picking up another piece of wood.
To Chris' right, Ezra complained constantly that his hands were not meant for this kind of treatment. After carving out his twentieth stake, he called it quits and went to check on Nathan and Josiah's progress making the church into a temporary hotel. The only other not accounted for at the moment was J.D., who was in his office.
Sitting just down the way, Buck cursed with a soft, "Sheee-it," as his hand slipped on the stake he was working on and a splinter pierced the heel of his hand. "Hey, kid," he piped up to Michael Arrant, who was currently looking over a map of Four Corners and the surrounding territory. "How many of these damned things you think we need?"
"As many as possible," the young man replied without looking up from his own project. "We've killed three fledgling goons. Whichever master created them had a link to them and now knows that we're onto them. The others will not waste time revolting."
Buck stared at him deadpan. "Yer kiddin'."
So they kept working. They handed out the stakes to passers by, and Buck took a good portion up to the sheriff's office for J.D. to hand out. Word was sent around to the outlying ranches and other homes that the owners and their families should come into town to spend the night where there was safety in numbers. Of course, not all of them knew about the real threat, and as none would believe it without having seen the spectacle in the cemetery, Chris knew that many stubborn farmers would blindly attempt to defend their homes. He confessed to himself that he was overwhelmed by all of this, but he did his damnedest not to show it.
The late afternoon sun couldn't have set faster. The lemon-yellow disk sank into a distant haze, turning rapidly to a more orange glow first. It made them all a bit more desperate to get as much done as possible, but soon the streets began to clear, and they simply picked up and went inside. Josiah, J.D., and Nathan all began to arrive at the saloon and then a new phase of preparations began with making sure the horses were saddled and readied as patrols of two men each were to make hourly rounds on Main Street only, where the street lamps burned in their sconce stands. With no idea if or how the goons would attack, they were all guaranteed a sleepless night. Perhaps even a few sleepless nights, watching each other's backs. What lay ahead in their days had yet to be determined as well.
When all were arrived, and the sky was still just pale enough that walking in the streets felt safe, they all went in to the saloon and piled up at their usual corner table. Beyond the window, Chris watched the dusty streets fade from warm hues to the cool gray of evening, and not a soul passed by now.
J.D. had commandeered a bottle of booze and sipped from it, his hands shaking as he set it down and attempted not to touch it again. Chris had happened to take a seat directly across from the kid and stared into the amber depths of the bottle with growing intensity. The leader of the regulators found himself briefly wishing all of this was just some whiskey inspired dream.
"They can accept it, they don't want to. . . they won't make up their minds," J.D. griped about the last of his afternoon in the sheriff's office. "I don't think nobody in this town wants to be saved, even though they saw it with their own eyes."
"Seein' isn't always believin'," Buck said, stepping up to the table, firmly gripping the bottle by the neck and removing it swiftly, eyes falling to meet with Chris' even, scalding gaze which didn't touch a single nerve in the taller gunslinger. Boots clunking softly across the floor, Buck returned the bottle to the bar and strode back to the table.
"I will make this brief as possible, gentlemen," Arrant said as he laid the roll of the map down on the table and captured their attention. He used empty shot glasses to pin down the corners, and the seven others all huddled in to peer at the layout of not only Four Corners, running end to end northwest to southeast, but the surrounding territories and lines that marked ridges, valleys, and roadways. "Whatever happens tonight, we also have to make plans now for tomorrow as well. There are several methods of hunting, and with a full group of hunters like you folks, I think we can pull it off." He looked around the table at their faces, each trying to maintain calm even though the space surrounding the table began to crackle with tension.
"What makes you think we'll work with you?" Ezra asked and the others threw
unreadable glances at him. Unlike Vin and Buck, he hadn't sworn any
allegiances even after seeing the proof of undead existence. Josiah,
Nathan, and J.D. had not either; they had simply continued to naturally work
with the seven-headed entity of the group.
"You want this whole town infected," Arrant quipped back, "I'll walk right out of here now and you can figure it all out yourselves."
"Don't worry, kid," Buck muttered. "He's with us, just doesn't like to be spoken for."
"Just get on with it," Chris said huskily, easing closer and looking at the map and how Arrant had circled various sections. "We'll do what we have to do."
Arrant continued to hover over the layout, Vin lingering at his shoulder for the best view. "When I first arrived here and the killings were beginning," Arrant said, "I was using a new map of the area, but thanks to Ms. Travis I got hold of this older one. Seems the newer version leaves something out." He ran his fingers up over the clutch of squares marking the town to an area to the north. There he had circled something neither Chris nor any of the others had even heard about, an old mineshaft. "Apparently some small measure of gold was found here but it dried up quickly. That old mineshaft is a perfect nest for vamps."
A few grumbles and grunts of nervous uncertainty went around the table, and Buck's more abstract mode of thinking considered retrieving that bottle from the bar. "So how is it done?" the tall man asked, inching his way in beside Vin for a better view of the map. "If they're in the mineshaft, and it's darker'n hell down there, how do you fight 'em?"
"You go in at mid day," Arrant explained. "Set up mirrors to reflect light into the shaft. You need plenty of men, some to go in, armed with spears, harpoons, and plenty of rope. Others stay outside on horseback."
Chris caught on, putting these elements together. "You spear the vampires and then use the horses to yank'em out into the sunlight on the rope?"
"Precisely," Arrant beamed. He seemed pleased that they still had their wits, considering the amount, and nature of, the material they'd had to swallow today.
"So you said there are ranks among them?" Buck pressed on, and Vin nodded his interest in this as well.
"Yeah, masters and slaves, as I said." Arrant rolled up the map and scooted it to the side as he sat down. "Slaves are the goons we killed in the cemetery. They're pretty mindless, though you encounter one now and then who manages to keep some of his wits even after the change. They can blend in with humans for a short while, but they give in to the bloodlust. Usually though, you find several goons under the control of a master in a nest."
Vin waved one hand gently for a moment to speak, recalling the exchange in the cemetery. "You said somethin' about an exchange of blood to make a master."
"Yeah, one master creates another, he drains a human's blood, then feeds his own blood to the initiate. It's uncommon. They do this only when they want to build their numbers. They're very particular though. New masters are dominated by their sires." He didn't explain this any further, but he went on to explain that it was a rule that hunters did not go after a master at night. "You just can't kill them at night. Not to say it can't be done, but it's just too damned hard. There's a superstition that crosses ward them off. They don't really work, though it's said a man of pure faith can pull it off wielding a cross." He shook his head and shrugged. "I've never seen it work."
"Hell of a test of faith," Josiah commented.
As if their troubled minds didn't already bear enough.
The night began to drag on, measured out for them by the slow, sleepy tick of a grandfather clock recently added to the head of the saloon under the balcony. A few other townsfolk had joined this gathering and spoke softly amongst themselves, some drinking for their nerves but keeping count, remaining as sober as possible.
"Well, it's time Nathan and I got back to the church," Josiah said. They were assigned first patrol, and were to finish it there, keeping the sanctuary open. A few townsfolk were already there, and Josiah didn't want to leave them unattended too much longer. At least there was also a full moon present and along with the torches along the street, the town was decently illuminated. Were gunshots to sound, the remaining five would be out of the saloon or the church and on the alert to aide their comrades. It seemed a workable system.
Over the course of hours, Buck and Chris ran the next patrol. They checked in on the church, the other saloons, and the boarding house. A single faint light issuing from the windows of the Clarion Press caught Chris' attention, and he sighed to himself, knowing it was Mary up late, at work no doubt trying to cover the story on the cemetery. He imagined that she was, like everyone else, finding it all difficult to describe.
Back in the saloon, the clock ticked on, hypnotic in its rhythm, and the eaves above creaked as they settled, putting some of the patrons that much more on edge.
"I sure wonder if Casey is all right," J.D. murmured as midnight drew near and his bored mind had wandered into avenues normally avoided due to sheer lack of nerve.
"She's fine, I'm sure," Vin coaxed from where he leaned against one of the supports for the balcony overhead. "Miz Nettie was wise enough to get her out of here before all of this."
"Yeah, they're lucky." J.D. scratched his head and resisted the urge to lie down right there on the table. Humming nerves or not, he was dog-tired. "I half wish I didn't know about all this, and these. . . these. . . vampires."
Vin only shrugged off a soft chuckle at the young man's frustration. This whole thing was so different than anything the Seven had been up against before. Not just because it was not a man, or a gang or any of the villainy they were used to dealing with. Not even because they had been introduced to something that belonged in myth. . . in a child's nightmare. . . the monster under the bed.
It was that this was so strange, so hard to comprehend, that all of the Seven completely understood each other now. If one of them was a little confused about it, the others knew why. If one panicked, they all related.
Scared. . . they were all that, and Vin deduced that they would be stump stupid not to be. The tracker had heard Indian lore about such creatures, and once while accompanying a small wagon train, he'd listened to a Londoner traveling west read from a pile of old yellowed newspapers called Penny Dreadfuls and the story of Varney the Vampire. Vin had just taken the stories as spine-tingling silly fun, but now they seemed more prophetic than anything.
The tick of the clock began to lull him to sleep in his chair, along with the few others who had elected to stay in the saloon proper rather than go up to their boarding rooms. Except for that clock, the silence of the later hours began to bring chills with it. Patrols went out and returned one after the other, and the town seemed peaceful as ever in the wee morning hours. But that peace was merely an illusion as all soon discovered.
It was right before dawn when history changed for the Seven. Right in that little crack of time when the moon descended and dark was darkest and the sun was just a breath away.
Santiago, Mexico, Present Day
Buck had split off from Chris and gone deeper into the crowd, J.D. not far behind. Josiah and Nathan had gone further up the street scouting for other goons roaming about.
Vin and Chris were on the girl before she could attack and draw blood. It caused quite a scene in the square, and sent a ripple of screams through the crowd. But as realization set in, the screams died into curious murmurs. The people of Santiago had known for some time what roamed the dark, preying on the outlying towns and ranches. Whispers of "esclavos del diablo" swept around the two hunters.
The devil's slaves.
The Seven had heard this term before, though rarely, and it never made them feel any better. Chris' eyes threw a stung glance at Vin who looked away, indicating that he, too, felt his heart twist.
The girl lay in a pool of blackened blood on the sidewalk, a bullet hole in her chest. Glossy void eyes stared up into the muddy night sky. Her auburn hair swept around her head, saturating with blood, and her mouth was opened, revealing long, sharp canines.
The crowd began to chatter back and forth, vocalizing their worry. . . bullets wouldn't be enough. . . her heart had to be staked. . . and so on. Chris just smiled to himself at this. They had no clue what kind of bullets the Seven used.
Vin knelt beside the body, drawing a machete from the sheath strapped to his thigh where he used to wear a sawed off shotgun, and calmly decapitated the unfortunate girl.
Three short blocks down, Buck had caught the scent of the young man once more and followed him into the sparser flow of foot traffic. Ahead, silhouetted against the orange-ish glow of a flickering streetlight, he saw the blond head, its owner stumbling into an old man who freaked, shouting and pulling back. Buck quickened his pace, even as he saw the kid let the old man go and stumble away, moaning miserably before he disappeared down the nearest alleyway, which Buck knew led back behind the hotel and the mission.
The old man stumbled into Buck with labored breath, spitting out a string of Spanish warnings and pleas.
Buck reached out, grasped at the man's sweat-stained shirt, and pulled him back and away from the alley. "Shhh," he soothed, and in his best Spanish ushered the frightened individual on.
Moving on toward his current purpose, Buck paused at the mouth of the alley then, looking down the corridor of old stone and cracked pavement, past gleaming puddles of run off, shreds of garbage and cardboard boxes. The passage was actually wide enough to qualify as a street, and Buck knew there was a parking lot back there. He had seen Santiago grow, after all, seen it develop from what was once a Mexican bandido town into a quaint little homey tourist trap. He knew the place like the proverbial back of his hand, and he knew the kid had nowhere else to go down that alley. It was a dead end.
J.D. appeared at his side, looking down the passage then up at Buck with eyes that had once been the epitome of innocence for the taller hunter, but that innocence had long been erased and replaced with dark intensity. "You got him?"
"Yeah, he's down there," Buck replied. He hesitated, smelling not just the creature into which the kid was changing but the fear that radiated with that change. "Stay here," he said softly. "I don't expect him to get around me, but if he does, you be ready to plug him."
J.D. nodded and moved over to the side of the alley, just out of sight, listening as Buck moved on ahead.
It didn't take long to find the kid. Buck took careful, slinking steps that made no sound despite the clunky boots he still favored to this day. All tension over the hunt began to seep out of him, though, when he found his quarry huddled up in the parking lot, leaning up against the wheel of a beat up old Jeep, sitting there bathed in full silvery streetlight, shivering.
This youth had had his whole life ahead of him. Perhaps he had been a college student come down here with the girlfriend on break. That was Buck's guess. For a moment, huge blue eyes stared up at him, blinked out large tears, and then the kid shuddered. His hands thrust down to the pavement and he braced himself as his body shook, bowing back against the tire. Perhaps some part of his biological makeup actually tried to fight the infection. But it was a losing battle, and there was no cure for it.
The blue eyes squeezed shut and the kid whimpered, breath hitching. When next he looked up, the blue had been replaced by black orbs shimmering from the continuous rise of tears. That look, so helpless and haunted, so pain stricken, clutched at Buck, who slowly began to reach inside his coat.
"W. . . w. . . what's hap. . . happening to me?" the kid groaned, gritting his teeth. His lips curled back over lengthening canines that literally reached all the way down into his lower gums, the points drawing blood that marbleized into his saliva.
Calmly Buck drew out his modified Beretta equipped with a silencer and thumbed off the safety. "What's your name?" he asked softly, figuring it wouldn't get him anywhere to make the kid's last few seconds on Earth anymore frightening than they had to be.
The youth stumbled over his own breath, and the beginnings of a predatory growl issued low from his throat. His hands curled, fingernails raking over the pavement with a gruffness that made Buck's skin crawl as if listening to nails on a chalkboard.
"Jes. . . Jesse," the kid managed to spit out between groans. He began to convulse then, and Buck recognized that as a sign the hunger pains were gnawing at his insides. Soon he wouldn't even know himself, only the hunger, and all human rationality would be gone.
"I'm sorry, Jesse," Buck said, then without any further hesitation, he aimed the Beretta and fired three graphite tipped bullets, two into the heart, one into the head.
Jesse's body jerked with each slug entry and he coughed out a cry at the first shot to his heart, but the second two finished the job so swiftly, so thoroughly, that no more noise came from him. His tortured spirit escaped with his last breath.
Buck swept back the side of his coat and eased the gun back into its hidden holster at the back of his beltline. "J.D.," he called in a partial whisper but he knew the other hunter had heard him. He knelt next to Jesse and reached up to close those blackened, dead eyes, his fingertips just barely glancing off the cool skin.
After a moment, J.D.'s leather clad figure appeared walking down the passage and into the little parking lot, his own Beretta drawn and on the ready, but when he saw that the situation was settled, he holstered it quickly inside his jacket. He stood over Buck in silent observation for a long time before the other rose to his feet and turned away.
"Do you mind finishing this for me?" Buck asked, brows furrowed sadly as he drew the machete sheathed on his hip.
"Uh, sure," J.D. said and exchanged his motorcycle helmet for the blade. He blinked, a glimmer of understanding in his eyes, and the corner of his mouth twitched in a weak, sympathetic smile.
Buck didn't look back as he made his way down toward the mouth of the alley, J.D.'s helmet tucked under his arm like some object of comfort.
Victims. . . he kept thinking. They're all victims. . .
. . . we're ALL. . . victims. . .
The uproar in the square had forced Chris and Vin to get out of there quickly, and soon they met up with the others in the side street where they had left their vehicles:
Two Harley-Davidsons, two Big Dogs, a Kawasaki Ninja, and a black Suburban SUV. The only thing missing was Ezra's latest obsession—and he went through one every other month—which was on custom order from a Jaguar dealer in El Paso. This defined their next series of destinations en route to Four Corners.
They were all temporarily rendered silent by a plethora of foul moods, their own growing hunger—which would require cautious sating within the next few nights—and agitation that there were only two more hours until dawn, and they needed to get well away from town to find trustworthy shelter.
The two Harleys belonged to Chris and Vin, while Buck and Josiah laid claim to the Big Dogs, and J.D. had, for reasons Buck could never understand, found an interest not in the classics, but in an import. Buck liberally used every demeaning term he could for the Ninja—rice burner, crotch rocket—and occasionally he also liked to tease Chris that he better keep a tool box handy.
At least they all agreed on one thing. The sound of the engines growling, the hush of tires on pavement, and the open night air on their faces, compensated for the warmth of a horse or the soothing clomp of hooves over bare ground. It helped to diffuse the tensions that arose in them all on nights such as this had been.
Nathan, practical minded and also in charge of a great deal of technical equipment as well as the weapons stash he and Vin had been developing for more efficient hunting, chose the Suburban with its deeply tinted windows and vast rear compartment which could also serve as emergency shelter should the need arise. Ezra, short of a means of transport at this time, rode with the former healer.
They did not always stay together on the road. Sometimes Buck and Chris took a route of their own to whatever destination the group was headed. Or J.D. might zip on ahead of everyone and get there first to be standing with a smug grin on his face aimed right at Buck. Vin would purposely lag behind, enjoying being on his own for a briefness, forgetting the world around him—and the past—and only believing in the road, wherever it led. Josiah often stayed near the Suburban. Only J.D. bothered to wear a helmet, and as far as helmet laws went, if the others were pegged by a patrolman, they simply killed their headlights and rode off into the night, playing phantom.
Tonight they rode no further than a mile apart from each other, the Suburban bringing up the rear. Time and experience had taught them that dawn would not immediately affect them. They still had that gray moment to look forward to, when the sun was just about to crest and the sky to the east shifted into soft shades of orange and purple. Such was the case when they reached the tiny Middle-of-Nowhere Motel—the Seven's name for it—just across the Texas border and just southeast of El Paso. It was a common stop for them in any of their travels along this route, and they always took the same series of rooms that were interconnected and situated on the far end of the strip of building with its flaking stucco, away from most of the other lodgers.
They enjoyed only a short glimpse of the rosen sky as they unloaded some of the gear into the rooms, leaving the SUV strategically parked with its rear doors facing the designated escape door of the hotel. A quick security check was made and Nathan began to set up door alarms.
It was all so routine now.
Ezra considered himself the lucky one, able to stand distanced from the buzz of activity around him that marked settling down for a long day's nap. He had other duties within the group, and fortunately none of them involved developing new means to turn a wooden stake into a bullet, or to more efficiently decapitate goons, nor was he ever on security detail.
For the moment he simply stood against the frame in the open door, the lightening sky and gray desert floor a backdrop to the silent parking lot now filled up with motorcycles and the hulk of the Suburban. He watched, his mind fluctuating on various moments lost in time, comparing what each of the Seven had been to what they were now. In some ways not much had changed, but on the other hand. . .
He found himself focused on Buck's now clean-shaven face and features that seemed softer now than then, in that long-ago-whenever, and yet that softness was completely overruled in times when Buck's eyes acquired a strange and hardened stare, and there was plenty of reason for it. The man did the most work of them all and carried the heaviest of weights on his shoulders, a thing that was just not discussed.
Ezra continued to watch as, in a moment, Buck gestured subtly for Chris to follow him into the other room.
Larabee gave him a quick gesture to wait, then turned, scanned the outer room with its worn shit-brown carpet, rust-and-white-swirl bed spread, and brass lamp fixtures that had probably not been replaced since the 60s. They all knew the motel lacked taste, and the smell of stale cigarette smoke burrowed in over the years gave it a slightly less than sanitary atmosphere, but those things didn't matter. The place had been turned into a fortress with portable alarms wired to the doors, the curtains draped over with the added strength of black tarps that completely cocooned the rooms away from the sun, and DO NOT DISTURB signs firmly in place.
"All right," Chris said as he concluded the night's dealings and prepared to turn in. He looked about at the others, determining that they were set as well.
Josiah had already laid claim to the bathroom and was splashing cold water on his face, running it through his mane of steel-gray hair. Nathan was waiting for Ezra to get out of the doorway so he could finish wiring the last barrier, and J.D. had flopped on the bed, leather and all, his helmet chucked into the cushions of an adjacent chair.
"Good day, Chris," Nathan called over to their leader while he attached a small box unit to the wall at the level of the doorknob. "I'll be finished up here in just a moment."
Chris nodded. "We're up at eighteen-hundred hours tomorrow. Get into El Paso, take care of business then get back here. Everybody sleep well."
"I'll finally have my own car," Ezra mused happily to himself. Then he perked up at Nathan, "You will drive me into town, won't you?"
Nathan rolled his eyes and finished the set up. "Move, Ezra, you make a better door than a window."
"I rather like watchin' the sunrise, thank you very much."
But his eyes were following Chris and Buck as they disappeared together into the dark and the door closed.
"Careful you don't go blind," Josiah called from the bathroom as if he knew, and was following, exactly what was going on.
The gambler ignored the remark. Then his attention slipped toward some movement on the other side of the room.
Just at that moment, Vin came out of the opposite door. He had stashed away his coat and boots in the other adjoined room. Barefooted, in little more than jeans and his black tank shirt, he gave the others a wave and started out the door.
"Have a good'un," came out more like a soft curse than well wishing.
Ezra's thoughts leapt from picking up his new Jaguar and cruising, to the sight of Vin's shoulder-length hair, windblown from the ride and cascading around his face. The tracker paused in the doorway, right where Ezra could admire his precisely chiseled profile. Vin's chin was down but his eyes focused up and out, beyond the parking lot at a sparse spread of wild shrubs and small trees. Just enough cover out there, the sunlight low enough that to walk out there now wouldn't harm him.
"Sure you won't stay in just once, Vin?" Ezra asked softly.
Vin started to turn and look at him, just the tiniest tilt of his head bringing into greater perspective the sharp slant of the jawline, a sideways glance from an eye, then he gazed back out into the dust-swept landscape and shook his head. "Have a good sleep, Ezra." The deeper drawl that had laced his voice a century ago leaked out void of emotion, tired.
It touched a nerve in Ezra who suddenly found himself swallowing a chunk of his own heart. This was also routine. Every year at this time, just days away from the anniversary of the Seven's rebirth and their scheduled return to Four Corners, tension and moodiness reigned supreme.
The gambler nodded vacantly, smelling the pain radiating out of Vin Tanner. Old pain strung like thick cobwebs across what remained of the man's soul.
Vin took a breath and then strolled out into the daylight, taking his own sweet time, even while a ray of sun fell across the far hills and crept toward his path, inch by agonizing inch. Flecks of mica ground into the soil caught the light and reflected it, or beads of dew clinging to the taller grasses along the roadside sparkled like diamonds. He all but dared the light to take him, his pace signifying that he was in no way afraid of dying.
He had already done that.
Unable to bear the sight of the departing figure, Ezra closed the hotel door and turned to lean against it, staring at the floor. Sleep time always filled him with an unexplainable emptiness, and watching his progenitor walk into the dawn as if challenging it to a duel did nothing to lift his spirits.
"You know, you could go sleep out there with him, Ezra," Josiah said. His deep purr of a voice intoned gentle understanding. He stood wiping his freshly washed face with a towel and scratching at some of the scruff that had begun to sprout on his chin.
Ezra smiled back at the giant of a man, the dim light from the room reflecting back a subtle red from within his eyes. "Nah, you know the man likes to be alone." He scooted aside, giving Nathan full access to finish up security on the door.
Then with a yawn, the conman began to remove his silk jacket and prepared to turn in for the day.
Outside Four Corners, 1877
The sun teased the sky but had not yet risen to full rosy blossom across the thin patches of clouds on the eastern horizon. It was enough light to define the dusty ground flashing by beneath Peso's pounding hooves, to lay little pools of shadows into the indentations of prints Vin followed, trailing the fiend who had escaped.
It had been almost completely dark when he rode from town, leaving Ezra and the others behind. He'd had only the shadow of the fleeing creature to follow, losing it at one time against the darkness of rising stone ahead, and then the first light filtered up through the black sky, shifting it down to a softer blue, then a smear of purple bled in. Vin saw the tracks then. Saw them clear. Not full tracks but the balls of naked feet, the toes spread, grabbing the ground for traction. The prints were widely spaced, indicating the creature was sprinting at amazing speeds for a thing that had once been human.
Vin was practically standing in the saddle, his capote tail trailing in the wake of the chase, his hat brim threatening to fly up and pull the cover from his head. His heels dug into the sides of the panting horse, forcing the animal on at full speed. Not much longer, he kept thinking, before first light would fry the creature's body. And then yards ahead to the right he made out the shadowed fortress of rock rising from the flat land, its edges just kissed with orange light. From that ridge, the sun rose, achingly slow, reaching thin fingers of light across the sky. Vin's keen blue eyes narrowed as he looked down to find the tracks suddenly disappeared. His mind did a flip on this, instinct telling him to rein in Peso, but the stubborn horse had already made his own decision.
Peso bellowed out a high-pitched objection to going any further, dug in his front hooves, and came to a skidding halt that sent Vin flinging forward. Vin shouted as he saw ground moving up toward him, before his body completed the turn that would land him flat on his back several yards ahead of Peso, who then reared, whinnying to the sky and stamping backwards. The reins hung unevenly off the side of the horse's damp corded neck, slinging around like a banner as the frightened beast turned tail and ran.
Vin hit the ground with a dull thump that knocked the breath from his body, and he felt strangely as if the entire inside of his chest had flattened from the impact. All sound in his ears reduced to a distant echo and all he could manage was a grunt when from that distance came a triumphant screech as hunter became hunted. The goon he had been chasing erupted out of the ground that had lain in Peso's path, spraying dirt and tiny shreds of root. It came at Vin in a flying leap, spidery claws reaching out, fangs gnashing and trailing a stream of spittle along its chalky pale cheek.
Eyes wide, mouth bobbing open as he fought for breath—and his wits—Vin attempted to scramble backwards across the ground, but the goon was closing in. Some part of Vin realized the thing had hidden in the ground, and like the infected graves in the cemetery, his horse had refused to trod across that patch. He could only reach up flailing hands to stop those vicious teeth as they came down close to his throat, the vampire pinning his upper arms and straddling his body. His heart pounded, his mind pleaded for the sun to finish its climb above the rocky ridge.
If only. . .
But from behind the towers of rock, more of the creatures emerged and scurried like rats down the incline.
With a burning burst of air, Vin breathed, the hot gust crystallizing in the cool veil of early desert morning. His body bowed up, and he attempted to throw off the creature pinning him. Its rank breath hushed across his face, and yet he staggered over the fact that it did not rip into his throat. None of them did as they converged upon him, cold, clawed hands grabbing his wrists and dragging him up to a half stance. He kicked and let out a hoarse yell as others snagged his feet and he was swept up and tossed on waves of vertigo. There were too many to count, carrying him kicking and struggling toward the rocks, deeper into the shadows. His hat fell from his head and dangled by its cord around his neck and he locked his jaw, gritting his teeth as he fought, desperation telling him he must get back down to the open ground, where the rays of the sun would save him.
He had broken a hard sweat that matted map lines of soft brown hair to his face, and the veins in his neck protruded from the strain as he continued to pull in with his limbs. At one point he managed to rip one arm free, but it only caused his captors to almost drop him on his head. Quickly those supporting his upper half snagged his coat sleeve and steadied him, and another wove its chilled fingers into his hair and clenched in, pulling his scalp until he gasped. They growled at him, hissed and seethed, particularly when he felt one boot heel make firm contact with someone's unguarded belly.
Why weren't they brutalizing him? He wondered. Why, with so many of them, had they not already torn him apart? And where were they taking him?
This last frenzied question became clear as the darkness of the rock consumed the clutch of undead and their struggling burden, and ahead Vin saw the flickering lights of hundreds of candles. They danced before his vision, in and out of view through the forest of rag-clad bodies around him. He craned his head back to look in the other direction and saw the mouth of the cave disappearing, and beyond it the morning light, gray and gorgeous and soon to be lost to him completely.
At that moment he managed to vocalize the only word one in his situation could. It ripped hoarsely from his throat and built up louder, echoing around him and over the mewling and hissing of the vampire brood.
Then with a grunt the cry was cut off when they dropped him. Briefly stunned, he looked up into their pale faces, heard them growl soft warnings as they looked down at him, sharp fangs bared and glistening in the flickering light of all those candles. Their claws readied to slash him if he moved any more.
He moved regardless, scooting backwards and fumbling at his belt for his sawed off Winchester in its customized holster, finding that in all the confusion of the chase and his capture it had been lost. They leered, appearing amused by his helplessness. . . the strong, sure bounty hunter. . . reduced to fumbling about in the dark . Never had his heart pounded so heavily in his chest, not even when Eli Joe almost had him strung up by the neck that time that now seemed not only so long ago, but a completely different world away.
How could these things exist? His rational mind tried to cast them out. . . tried to wake up. He swallowed down a hard lump and blinked away the dizzy side effect of his racing pulse.
Then in a frenzy of growls and hisses they moved in again. He expected to feel their claws ripping into him, first through his clothing, then down to his flesh, opening gaping wounds that spilled blood and ribbons of sinew. But he heard only his capote ripping, the leather splitting with a loud wrack of a noise as it was torn from him and tossed to the rock floor. The hat was snatched from where it hung at his shoulders and cast aside. Next came his shirt, pulled away from behind with a force that sent him bungling into the arms of the creatures lingering before him. He began to grunt and shout and pull against them again, attempting in vain to keep as much clothing on as possible; it proved just that little bit more protection between him and their cold touches, the pricks of their talon tips. Many of their claws did scratch him, and he snarled back, thrashed and kicked, all to no avail. The last piece of shirt came off and was stamped beneath the rabble, bearing Vin's chest and abdomen to the cool air.
He pulled in, attempted to curl his body and guard his increasingly vulnerable state, his mind heated with anger that he had fallen into their trap. They had led him here, tricked him into separating himself from the other six regulators without whom he was at this moment completely helpless. Forced to his knees, he felting the rock grinding beneath him. The ridges and uneven levels in the floor tore through his trousers. His arms were flailed out and held in place, literally as if he were being crucified.
They were coordinated as if under some silent command, and soon Vin realized this was exactly the case. Those before him stepped aside, allowing the light of the multitudes of dripping candles along the ridges of cavern wall to cast more golden light upon the scene. The place proved vast, every hiss and scratch from the horrid inhabitants carrying over boulders and stalactites and into the deeper crevices. No telling how many goons were down here, Vin realized, and with that he knew his fate was carved in this very stone, in this natural tomb.
Until this point he had only heard Michael Arrant talk of masters and slaves, and only actually seen the slave-class goons. Now he stared past the gathering of salivating goons at a figure lingering near the cavern wall, teasing the flame of one candle with a long, elegant finger. A six-foot-something figure that turned with fluid ease to stare back at Vin with milk-blue eyes, the pupils two tiny black pits that bore intently into the captive.
The chiseled face was framed in disheveled waves of long black hair, and the lips parted just slightly, opened by the crowding of long canines, and yet the effect molded those lips into a full, attractive purse, as if their owner were ready to bestow a kiss. Unlike the goons crowding around Vin, this one stood out as an individual, clothed in a long flowing robe of matte black silk that draped and curved over muscle and the V-form of broad shoulders tapering down to a narrow waist tied round with a sash. The head tilted, observing the captive with a pleased expression, and in the eerie dancing light of a hundred tiny flames, dark veins appeared to slink down from his hairline, contour around his high cheekbones, and seep in around those lush, ashen lips.
“I do not know your name,” the master said, his voice a casual and deep lilt as he approached, the flittering material of the robe trailing behind him.
Frozen to the core in the presence of this being, Vin found he could only gape, his own pale blue eyes hazing with involuntary tears.
“It was a wise strategy, wasn't it?” the vampire rasped, pacing to one side before Vin, looking down over his shoulder at the captive and giving a warm smirk. “The attack came right before dawn. You and your comrades had all but given up waiting, you were relaxing, letting your guard down.” He purred this out and waited for Vin to admit that, yes, it was indeed a remarkable strategy.
“W-what?” Vin stammered.
“You thought you were safe coming out here. You thought that the dawn would save you.”
Slowly, more in shock than anything else, Vin began to shake his head. After witnessing the dispatch of the Jenkins girl in the cemetery, he had not given any consideration as to whether vampires were capable of strategizing, setting traps. And despite Arrant's explanation of the ranks, masters and slaves, or goons, Vin had only witnessed goons, who seemed mindless, driven only by their blood thirst.
“Of course, we had to kill the hunter,” the master continued. “Another day and he would have taught you more about us. We had to move quickly.” He turned to face Vin full on. “You and your friends are efficient, we couldn't risk you learning more.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Vin asked miserably, his thoughts on nothing but his friends now. Especially those whom he had left back there in the saloon. He wondered if Chris and Buck had managed to dispatch the attacking goons, and then there was Ezra, wherever he had gotten off to. There had been no time to think in the chaos, only to act, and he had chosen to chase down the goon who had bolted out before him and run from the town into the remnants of night.
These thoughts and concerns fleeted, for he found the master vampire stepping in closer, leaning down and examining the stretch of the captive's arms out to either side, seized in the shackles of goon hands. One finger came up, the tip ending in a sharply pointed claw, and the master traced the blue river of a vein along the inside of Vin's upper right arm out to his wrist. The little dagger stung, slit a tiny cut along Vin's bicep, and then suddenly the same finger came up, a tiny tinge of blood on the tip, and pressed under Vin's chin, forcing him to look up.
“What is your name?” the master whispered.
Something about the eyes, perhaps that the pupils were so small, pinpricks in a colorless void, compelled Vin toward speaking. In his fatigue and fright, he found it easy to answer, especially short as that answer was.
NO! he inwardly snapped at himself. Don't tell him a goddamned thing!
“Vin—“ he croaked out.
“Ah, for Vincent, I presume.” The master continued to press the point of his claw up under the captive's chin, threatening to break the flesh there too. “I,” he said then, “am Selvik.”
The low purring growl of one of the goons drew Vin's attention upward, glimpsing all the teeth baring at him, eager.
“It's important, don't you think,” Selvik persisted, recapturing Vin's attention, “that we be on a first name basis.” He looked up, eyes softening as he appeared to admire the clutch of beastly slaves huffing impatiently for blood.
Vin stared, wondering exactly why Selvik should be concerned with his name. His sandy brown brows knitted, his lips parted as he tried to keep his panicked breath under control, and then that same breath jarred from his body when Selvik moved.
The vampire reached in, seized the captive around the waist and literally tore him out of the grasp of the goons, pulled him to his feet. One hand came up from behind, grabbed Vin's hair, and forced his head back, exposing the full length of the neck.
With a roar like an attacking cougar, Selvik opened his mouth wide and plunged his fangs into the lower side of Vin's throat.
Vin screamed at the burning pain that resulted as his attacker snagged skin and pulled out, opening a gash that immediately began to spit hot red liquid. He flailed about, got his arms up and his hands pushing at Selvik's immobile shoulders that remained locked around him. The barrier of flesh removed, the blood flowed freely, escaping in a sticky trail down the course of Vin's collarbone to the cleft between his pectorals. Some of it shot out into the floor, sending the goons into a fit of snarling and hissing, diving toward the stream, clawing at each other to get at it. Selvik spat aside the chunk of skin and closed his mouth over the wound, securing the flow into his mouth as he suckled and drank hastily, moaning his pleasure.
Vin's struggles were short lived, his extremities weakening quickly, fingers and toes growing cold as circulation petered down to nothing. Soon he sagged, his head a heavy chunk of lead hanging onto a neck that felt no stronger than a fractured twig. His hands fell away from Selvik's shoulders and he draped in the master vampire's arms, the world around him spinning, all sense of caring dying as his soul began to demand only one thing—release. A veil of frosted glass fell across his eyes, and his lids drooped, the darkness so close, teasing him, and just when he thought it would come, the fiend killing him drew away.
Selvik clamped a hand over the wound, stopping any further blood flow as he lowered Vin to the ground, a broken doll smeared with deep ruby stains. He gave a silent gesture and a snarl to one of the goons, who had crouched down, watching the spectacle and awaiting the chance for a share in the feast. With care Selvik transferred the blockage of the wound over to the goon, who while holding a cool tight hand over the gash, couldn't resist leaning down, sniffing the tangy aroma of coppery blood.
“Do not let the blood flow anymore,” Selvik warned the creature. “Hold him.”
Vin's head came to rest in the goon's lap, and he stared up into the dark recesses of the cavern ceiling, the muddled glob of his mind attempting to drift away up there, while his body lay spread eagled on the hard, frigid ground. He was aware of his own heartbeat, slow and heavy as the organ pulled hard to pump what little blood was left in his system. Some fluid still leaked through the cracks in the goon's fingers, and others scrounged about on the floor near Vin's head, sniffing and rasping pitifully for a taste.
Hands now free to roam, Selvik stroked his way down toward the buttons in Vin's trousers and began to pick them open. All the time his eyes peered over the rise of Vin's chest, watching the shallow breath draw in and escape, each successive breath weaker than the one it followed. Then he dipped a long, blood slicked tongue into Vin's navel.
The sensation, strangely, reached up through Vin with not cold but warm fingers, partially pulling him out of his stupor so that his eyes widened and he managed to grunt out an objection. He barely felt his trousers sliding free of his legs which in their weakness cooperated with Selvik's wishes. The vampire master molded his chosen victim carefully, spreading Vin's legs and caressing up between his thighs. He nipped and kissed at the nest of curls around Vin's limp member, provoking minor sensations of arousal but there was little to no physical reaction for the lack of blood to fuel any such fire.
Selvik delved lower, spreading Vin's legs even wider, bending them at the knees and reaching under to part his buttocks and lift at the firm flesh, exposing the tight ring of muscle within the cooling crevice. Vin grunted, eyes narrowing as he opened his mouth wider, hefted out a long breath meant to carry with it a fresh scream, but all that issued was a weak drawn out murmur. He forced out a groan when Selvik's tongue lapped around the edges of the puckered entrance, teasing it, relaxing the muscles.
Selvik smiled greedily to himself, tasting the salty remnants of sweat and the sweetness of the soft petal-like skin of the scrotum. He massaged at Vin's balls with a thumb while continuing to slather wetness into the passage, smearing the bloodstains around his mouth between Vin's ass cheeks.
Utmost, it was humiliation that gnawed at Vin, along with the clammy, heart-sinking weight of regret. Tears swelled up in his eyes and spilled over, matting his lashes together in little gleaming juts. Hallucinogenic dark circles rippled out across his vision, mercifully obscuring the sight of so many mouths, all baring their long pointed teeth near his face, but he still smelled the reek of decay that came on each goon's breath.
Satisfied with his preparations, Selvik pulled back and untied his robe, parted the silken collar and smoothed his languid hands down his own torso, revealing hardened stomach muscles, and a rosen cock gorged to full mast. He leaned over Vin and stared down into the chosen's deadening eyes. Then without warning he plunged his cock forward, sure to its mark.
Vin's body involuntarily bowed up at the entry and the pain, the expansion and tearing of muscles that, despite the lubrication of Selvik's tongue, were not prepared for such forcing. He groaned and spit out a gasp, hotter tears flooding his eyes, and he tried to look away. But Selvik grabbed the sides of his face and forced eye contact, a vicious grin spreading across his lips, his eyes piercing through the hallucinatory shapes dancing before Vin's vision and stabbing into his mind.
“Look at me!” Selvik commanded gruffly.
Vin's lids fluttered, moist and rimmed with red from the salt of his tears. His lips worked open, the dull slab of his tongue pressing against the roof of his mouth, forming his response in a whisper. “N-n-n-n. . .” But the rest did not make it out. His eyes closed as his only means of defense, and with that he felt Selvik's anger.
The vampire let go of Vin's face and leaned back, thrusting his hips forward with brutal force, grabbing Vin's legs and holding them in place wrapped around his waist.
The pain deepened with each thrust, Vin's body jerking into the arms of the goons, then pulled back toward Selvik, who gritted his teeth, blood and saliva glossing his lips and gums as he hurried his pace, fucking his chosen faster, gripping claws tearing treads in Vin's hips. Forward and back, Vin drifting ever more away from it. He was vaguely aware of the icy shots firing up into his ass when Selvik came. The waft of decay washed over him and he murmured as the master's last two thrusts gained in ferocity then stopped suddenly.
Vin thought it was over with that. Broken, torn, and eagerly waiting to see the Reaper himself appear, he slipped just that much more into the darkness. No, tried to clamor his way into it, but then before he could seal his own eyes forever, something pressed into his mouth.
His cock still firmly sheathed in Vin, Selvik had leaned over the sprawled and taut body and bitten a chunk out of his own wrist. Thick blackish-red blood flowed out of the wound, dripped across Vin's flat belly as Selvik brought the flow up to the chosen's lips and wedged his wrist in.
Vin jolted at the sweet and sour taste, his instincts congealing just enough for him to attempt to refuse it, but it flooded his mouth, tickled his throat and forced out a pitiful cough. Selvik reached up with his other hand and began to massage Vin's throat just under the chin, working the muscles, manipulating them into swallowing. With a loud gulp, the first current went down, and Vin's body shook as if struck by lightening. His hand closed of its on volition on a clump of rock, but slack fingers failed to capture it. His mouth filled rapidly again and down that went, swirling into his belly, which convulsed, almost sending the foul juice back up. It stayed down.
It was then that Selvik removed his wrist, and also allowed the goon holding the side of Vin's neck to let go, let the rest of the blood flow. It leaked out onto the rock, pooled around Vin's head and saturated his hair.
The last thing he heard as his death finally came was the ravenous licking and slurping of the greedy goons lapping up the rest of his blood.
Outside El Paso, Present Day
The sun had just dipped below the craggy ridge of the western hills, smearing the sky with pinkish orange. A few rays broke past the rolling approach of premature storm clouds and fingered the sky like a lover's caress.
Some fifty yards out from the Middle-Of-Nowhere-Motel, beneath the skeleton of a lifeless tree, lay a patch of soil that had been disturbed the morning before. A hand slowly wormed its way out, fingers emerging first and curling away the top layer of sand and brambles. A moment later a second hand emerged, reaching as if to touch Heaven from behind the confines of prison bars. Then all at once Vin Tanner sat up out of the ground, clumps of dirt spilling from his hair and face. Patches of crusty sand clung to his shoulders, rendering the image of an earth spirit escaping, transmogrified into something that looked human but wasn't.
He shook his head, spilling more dirt around his little "bed" and dusted lightly at that clinging to his shoulders and chest. Then he got his feet under him and stood up, still buried to the knees, before he stepped out of the pit and stared head on into the remaining light.
He'd chosen a place near a rocky jut that provided a perfect perch when he climbed up and sat crouched and gazed at the sunset, felt it mask his face in heat. The more intense ring of blue that encircled his irises had sharpened, standing out against the bloodshot backdrops of his eyes. His vision took in the tiniest of movements from a desert mouse beating a path into the miniature cavern of a prickly pear patch, and his hearing, equally keen, noted the minute scuff of tiny haired feet on the rock at his side.
Vin looked down unfazed at the tarantula creeping its way toward his bare foot. It tickled across his arch and then moved on, scuttling down into a wide crack in the jut. A soft breeze stirred his hair, swept the lingering sand from his cheeks. Vin closed his eyes to it, envisioning the earth riding by beneath him and the steady, rhythmic tromp of Peso's hooves. Damn but he missed that stupid horse. In the end the nag wouldn't have anything to do with him, just the way the horses in the old Four Corners graveyard had refused to gallop across an infected grave.
He opened his eyes. Forget that, he told himself. Peso's long dead. . . and so are you.
As the last rays descended from the sky, so did Vin from his perch. He headed for the motel and discreetly crossed the road, enjoying the peacefulness of the approaching night. Outside the series of secured rooms, he took note of Chris' Harley still parked, light from a nearby post reflecting off the chrome fixings. All the other vehicles were gone, which meant the others had already gone out to hunt. It could take any number of hours for each of them to finish and return, depending on the individual's methods, and almost anything went. The only rule was that they never hunted the innocent, and they cleaned up their messes thoroughly afterwards. Fortunately the need only came roughly once a week, twice for Buck who had specific requirements to follow.
Vin padded up to the door and listened, hearing the hollow voices of the local news issue from the television.
The traffic of seven men flowing in and out was so common now, that Chris Larabee didn't bother to look up from the television set. They all recognized each other by other factors. . . smell, sound. Right now Vin, of course, smelled particularly earthy.
"Evenin', Vin," Chris said. He was sitting with his bare feet propped up on the room's one small table. The sight conjured visions of a saloon surrounding him. . . hard wood floors. . . a bar with an elaborately decorated mirror behind it. . . shot glasses glowing with amber light on the table. . . gruff voices discussing ranch life. . . the tinish melody of an old battered player piano recycling Camptown Races. . . The vision died on the fact that Chris was not dressed for the occasion. He was shirtless, in jeans, one long sinewy arm relaxed on the tabletop.
Vin all but reached up to tip his invisible hat. Old habits died hard. "Chris," he replied solemnly and made his way to the bathroom. "You didn't go with Buck?" The idea gave his heart a little turn as he took only glances at the other man. Being alone with Chris. . . even for only a matter of seconds. . . meant so much to him that words could not define it.
"Nah, he's better off without me in tow." Such alien words from a man who was in most cases completely self-confident and controlled. But his reasoning ran deep, and Vin didn't dare broach the issue.
The tracker stuck to other topics. "Nathan pick up any more reports from Clarion?"
"Nope," Chris replied. "No more recent mass attacks. Just seems they're moving north. . ." From the tone of his voice, he was about to elaborate, when he stopped short, raising one hand to his temple. He cringed and closed his eyes, bowed his head.
"Shit," Vin whispered. He started for the table, concern furrowing his brow. There really was nothing he could do to help, an issue that instantly churned up every possible frustration. His gaze played along the soft rims of Chris' pale lips as they curled back, baring gritted teeth, and for a moment the canines extended, just slightly, tiny sharp points emerging. Then they retracted and the beast went back into hiding.
Chris raised his head, eyes still closed as he took long deep breaths.
Vin's tongue probed over the tips of his own canines, finding sharp tips that tore the tender tissue with a minute sting and for a moment he tasted his own blood. "You okay?" he asked.
"Was it. . . her?" Vin asked this cautiously.
Chris nodded again, still dealing with the remote intrusion on his senses. "I've got it," he insisted then. "I'm okay."
"Chris. . ."
"Goddammit, Vin, I'm all right." He opened blazing angry eyes, pupils fine pinpoints wreathed in pale green.
Vin raised his hands as if to call a truce and backed away. Best to let it go at that. With a vacant nod, he turned and walked as unperturbed as possible into the bathroom. The door closed firmly behind him, he practically ripped one of the fresh towels from the rack and deposited it on the back of the toilet next to the tub before he stripped down and wadded his clothes into a dusty bundle.
In the shower, he allowed his emotions to swirl down the drain along with the dirt from his body, his desires, his personal needs. He fingered absently at his flaccid cock, washing underneath, and felt nothing from it.
The water massaged the back of his neck, drowning out the ravenous pulse within his veins, and sending a veil of drenched hair down over his face. After soaping and rinsing, he banked his hands on the wall and hung his head under the current, luxuriating in the white noise of the water pounding his skull, and lost track of time until he realized the steam had dissipated. He shut off the water and dried, then with the towel around his waist and his mound of dirty clothes under one arm, he left the bathroom.
The room outside was silent, the television turned off, Chris nowhere in sight, but Vin sensed the other man in the next room that he had shared with Buck for the day. Beyond the walls, the growling putter of the latter's Big Dog approached, grew louder, until it was right outside the door, thunderous as the engine revved once and then killed.
Vin hurried into the room where he had left his trappings, donned a clean pair of jeans and shirt, and pulled on his cycling chaps. From the outer room he heard the clack of the doorknob as Buck entered, then the soft hush of boots over carpet.
Looking at the glow of the bedside clock, Vin cursed to see that it was already nine o'clock. Time to beat it the hell out of here, he figured. He still had to feed, but finding the right mark could mean hunting all night. Jacket slung over one shoulder, hair still damp, he left the room and started straight for the way out when he stopped dead in his tracks.
Buck had already crossed this room and disappeared straight into the next. . . man with a mission.
Vin heard further movement beyond the far door, which had been left cracked. He swallowed as his heart attempted to rise up into his throat at the thought of the two men in there together. He could smell them now, the clean earthy aroma of Chris, and then Buck. . . warm, coppery-tangy. . . the scent of satiety. It lured Vin closer, toward that little crack in the door. . . closer until he could make out the movement beyond. And then he was close enough that peeping Tom became an understatement.
The crack line framed in one figure—Buck, who had just removed his shirt and stood a tall, almost willowy, figure against the long chest of drawers that also served as a TV table. The man had fed thoroughly, and his skin cast a soft glow in the light, his cheeks flushed, healthy, living. Buck's attention was directed into the room, beyond Vin's scope.
Vin stopped breathing and didn't even notice. To breathe now was really just an automatic function, easy to shut off and turn back on. The one eye that peered through the crack narrowed wolfishly, harkening back to the time when he used it to site through the scope of an assassin's rifle.
Then his heart leapt as Chris stepped into view completely naked, silhouetted against the room's single light that contoured around the sharp chisels of his shoulder blades and down his panther-slim back to the cleft in his ass.
The two eyed each other, Chris inching up closer until his half erect prick nuzzled the crotch of Buck's jeans. He ran fingers through the thick wavy mass of Buck's dark hair, a gesture to which Buck replied by tilting his head back along with the flow of the other's spread hands, relaxing into the sensation. He looked up again to watch Chris examine his throat with a soft and hungry sigh gusting from the slightest part in his lips. Buck inhaled, close enough to taste his partner's wanton breath. He waited. Chris sniffed at his throat, nipped softly, and then began to kiss his way down over the collarbone to one hardening nipple. The gleam of a tongue flicked into the light, painted at Buck's abdomen. As if tickled by the wet touch, Buck sucked in his tummy and a faint smile ghosted along his lips before he grew solemn again.
Vin cringed, felt his cock stir as he imagined what it must feel like to have that tongue touch him instead. But he knew he didn't have Buck's strength. . . didn't have the will. . . to do what came next.
Chris sank to his knees, hands resting on Buck's narrow hips as he sucked on the other's navel with an anxious groan, and then worked his way along Buck's beltline, followed by groping hands finding not the button for his lover's jeans but the flesh of Buck's outturned wrist.
Gripping the lower arm held out before him, Chris sniffed at the vein pulsing beneath, heating the skin, and then ferociously drew that skin into his mouth. He bit. . . no, dug. . . into it with his teeth extended to full razor sharpness. The sound of skin splitting like ripe fruit reached Vin along with the salty, delicious aroma of fresh blood. Some of the thick, red-black liquid spilled free to stain Buck's pant leg, carelessly wasted on lust, as Chris sucked ravenously.
Buck winced at the initial piercing and stared down at his mate, brows knitted sympathetically as he endured the pain of Chris' ferocious appetite drawing the life fluid from him. The hands on his arm and wrist clutched with desperate, vise-like strength. Short but deadly sharp talon tips dug out little bleeding trenches on the back of his hand and his inner elbow. Chris' head leaned in more deeply as he began to gnaw, sucking and slurping, and something that might have been a sob of relief sputtered into the bloody mess as he gulped harder, faster.
It looked so damned painful, Vin reflected, and yet it aroused him further, his mind adapting to the sight, imagining the feeding ritual performed upon himself. A long stream of spittle and blood dripped like molasses from Buck's wrist, the smell growing more intense, too fresh, too perfect. The tall man laid his free hand on Chris' head, strung his fingers through the soft blond hair and caressed at the gentle indentation of a temple with his thumb.
Then mechanically Buck's eyes shifted, drew up from the man feeding on him to stare directly at the crack in the door. He didn't budge, didn't speak up to scold the watcher. His eyes, livened to a jewel blue from his previous feeding, only bore into Vin's.
They held each other's gaze for a moment, any possible silence shaken by the murmurs and shudders of Chris' tance-like focus on feeding off of his friend, his lover. . . his keeper.
His breath jump-started, and Vin blinked, breaking contact. Immediately he stepped back from the door, giving it a nudge so that the crack closed up. Aroused, frustrated, and his body humming for sustenance of its own, he turned and left, telling himself again—God how many times had he had this conversation with himself?—that this was how it had to be.
Outside the night had come to life.
Beyond the road and nearly empty parking lot, the landscape shone before Vin's eyes as brightly as if it were day, and he absorbed the sounds of insects whirring and chirping, the slither of a snake, and the flutter of owl wings. He had to pull himself away from the reverie of listening and feeling, and to help him there sounded the drone of a car engine racing in from the north. Eyes panning in that direction, he found the offensive vehicle and watched as a deep red Jaguar with pitch-black tinted windows sped into the lot and slowed down to a gentle cruise. It pulled up to the end of the motel strip and wheeled on around to the side of the building off the corner where it parked under the streetlight on the very secluded end of the building.
Vin walked casually to the corner and waited as Ezra got out of the thing and stood behind the open door, his arms spread as he presented his prize. Smug satisfaction curled up the ends of the gambler's lips.
The man probably jacked off the moment he crawled into the car, Vin figured, and stared across the slope of the hood from the chrome front and insignia, up to the windshield. It really was quite classy, one of Ezra's better choices, but to compliment it was too easy.
Vin cocked a brow. "Nice," he said. "Does a mechanic come with it?"
Ezra's smile drooped and he stepped around the door and closed it, strolling up to the corner. "Ha. This coming from a man who drives a Hog." He stood beside Vin, arms banked proudly on his hips. "The new S-series with V6 engine, navigational system, and CD player, in carnival."
"You mean undead-red," Vin said dryly. He could smell that Ezra had fed, and he conman's cheeks bore the same rosy hues as Buck's had. "Ezra, what the hell do you need a nav system for? It's not like you don't know these roads."
Ezra shrugged, actually stumped on that question. "Accessories are. . . essential," he recovered and crossed his arms quickly as if to shield himself from Vin's sarcasm.
"Yeah. . . right." Vin turned and looked the other straight on, eyes quickly roaming over Ezra's choice of clothing for the evening: a black silk chenille sweater with a V-neck that showed off just the upper cleft in Ezra's pectorals. Complemented by a pair of charcoal slacks, the sweater conformed to the other man's upper body, and Vin took complete notice. The tracker was already horny as hell and in an ornery mood, all from watching Chris Larabee on his knees, feeding in such an ecstatic state. This was a perilous combination for anyone near him, particularly the conman.
"Are you all right?" Ezra asked. He looked over Vin's pale face, his vision just brushing along the slight part in Vin's lips. "I see, you haven't fed," he deduced quickly and with concern. One hand gently raised, the index finger out as if it intended to trace along the hollow of Vin's cheekbone, but the touch never reached its destination.
Vin dropped his jacket to the concrete and grabbed Ezra's shoulders, clamped down hard on the muscle and spun him about, steering him toward the hood of the car. "Let's take it for a test dive," he hissed almost viciously.
The motion jarred all eloquence out of Ezra. "Hey!" He fell back over the hood, hands up and out forming a firm barricade. Technically speaking, he should have been stronger, fueled by the blood in his veins, but with little effort, Vin Tanner grabbed his wrists and slammed them down each to either side of Ezra's head as he used the Jag's front bumper as a step to maneuver his weight up over and then down on top of Ezra. Pinned beneath the cool body above him, Ezra glared and huffed to get his breath back under control.
"Come on, Ezra," Vin rasped and tilted his head in an eerily animalistic way, eyes intent, lips parted so that the tips of his budding canines barely showed. Purplish hollows had formed beneath his eyes, and the tiniest little accents of dark veins could be seen gradually creeping out of his hairline, along his temples, and down his neck.
"Vin, you need to feed," Ezra said more critically.
"Thought I'd have a little. . . appetizer," the other growled. Then in one swift motion he let go of Ezra's wrists and swept his hands up, gripping the edges of the V-neck and pulled out, ripped the sweater open as far down as Ezra's navel and sending little fuzzy fibers of chenille whirling into the air.
"Shit!" Ezra snapped. "That'll cost you," he said through his teeth and started to bow out, to push against his brutal lover.
Vin swiftly grabbed the gambler's wrists again and slammed them back down on the hood before surveying the damage he had done. Ezra's well-toned chest and belly were bared up at him, the flesh warm and ripe. While his captive tried to push him away, baring teeth and glaring, he smiled wickedly and leaned down, clamping his mouth to the side of Ezra's neck and kissing forcefully. The thrum of warm blood beneath the skin beckoned him to just take his sustenance here, steal it from the conman and have done, but he resisted, playing a little game with himself. He nipped at the vein with his incisors but didn't break the skin.
Ezra's warmth alone tasted good. Vin lapped his way down between the pectorals, observing the hardened muscle with only his tongue tip, until he side tracked to take a nipple between his lips and draw hard on it.
Ezra moaned and shuddered, immediately taken by the sensations, his anger at the damage to his sweater petering out. Vin felt the gambler's cock stir where it was pressed against his belly. His own swelling organ strained against the barrier of his jeans, begging for release. He could already imagine sheathing it in Ezra's tight little asshole.
For the moment he persisted in working on that one nipple, toothing and tonguing it until it stood at perfect attention, a dusty-pink bud of flesh like a radio knob. Vin moved on to the other, gradually feeling Ezra's body succumb, resistance melting out.
"Not on the hood of my new car," the gambler murmured futilely.
Without a word Vin released the nipple and leaned up, covering Ezra's mouth with a harsh kiss and shutting him up completely. He surmised then that he could let go of the conman's wrists and danced his fingertips along the spread arms to reach the split in the fabric again, finding those peaked nipples and keeping them erect. Vin's nails extended slightly, just forming the premature tips of claws, an involuntary response to his passion and desire for nothing but a good fuck. He kneaded and massaged at Ezra's abs, tickling his fingertips along the beltline, until he began to fumble it open, all the while keeping his mouth firmly locked over his lover's.
Ezra murmured incoherently, the sound vibrating up into Vin's throat as their tongues played against each other. For a second the point of one of Vin's budding fangs raked over Ezra's lip, tearing free a stream of blood. The tracker almost lost what control he had left. The taste of warm coppery-salty-sweetness teased his senses and he immediately abandoned the kiss. Too tempting to just bite off the end of Ezra's tongue and expose the vein there, to suck the sanguine flow directly out of his lover's mouth. . . to gulp it down voraciously and let Ezra be the one to worry about the consequences of having to feed all over again.
Vin stared wide-eyed and all but frightened at the new levels of brutality he discovered within himself even after a century. Ezra gazed back at him calmly, liquid green eyes hazed and blissful.
Vin took a deep breath, held it to ease the sinking feeling that swirled into his gut. His eyes watered, bloodshot, seeking. With a sigh he gave himself only to the lust, not the thirst, and leaned back down, licking at Ezra's navel while his hands worked the clasp on the slacks open.
Ezra reached up, hands grasping either side of Vin's head, fingers tangling in the long hair as he allowed the other to unzip his fly and remove his pants, shoes and socks. Freeing his lover's gradually rising cock, Vin leaned down, kissed it, fingered at the nest of curls surrounding it and subtly ran the tip of one talon across the delicate skin of the scrotum. Not enough to break it, to draw blood or cause pain. For Ezra the result was a biting tingle that began small then ramified up through him.
The conman gasped as Vin rolled the head of his cock against one cheek, smearing a glistening circle of pre cum. Hands working in unison, Vin spread Ezra's legs, exposing the deeper crevice that guarded his opening. The aperture of flesh pulsed at the contact with evening air, and Vin tabbed at it with a fingertip, made little circling motions. His hand wrapped around Ezra's cock and pumped inconsistently, while he leaned in, licked at the anal opening. The skin there was clean but moist, tasting of musk and copper. Vin dipped the tip of his tongue deeper, probing, his nose tickling as it brushed Ezra's sandy-brown pubic hair. His hands coursed up and down the backs of the gambler's thighs, while Ezra's hands never left off gripping at little catches of Vin's hair. The gambler's upper body bowed up, the torn sweater falling away from his shoulders even while the sleeves still sheathed his arms.
Vin worked harder, eager to finish preparations as the pressure in his pants grew and pulsed, causing him to gasp wet breath. Overcome, blinded and needy, he slid down off the car, dragging Ezra with him and flipped the conman over on his belly.
Ezra coughed out a startled, "Ow!" as his swelling prick hit the chrome grate inset on the hood and all sense of pleasure fled. "Tanner, 'the hell are you. . ."
Vin's cupped hand reached up from behind and clamped firmly over Ezra's mouth, while his other hand fumbled with his own belt buckle and fly. Frantically, gritting his teeth, he worked the button then unzipped, his fully gorged cock bouncing free. He pulled Ezra in closer, spooning against him, and positioned his head up between the firm and smooth cushions of the other's ass cheeks. With one quick and merciless thrust he drove up into Ezra's moist channel, filling him. Ezra hissed air into the fingers banded across his lips and stiffened at the pain spearing up into him.
Eyes closed, his focus only on his own dick, Vin pulled back and thrust again, barely nudging at Ezra's prostate, a cheap tease that failed to renew the conman's arousal after having his own pecker half crushed into the car hood. Ezra's eyes watered and closed tightly, squeezing out tears. Vin shoved up into the passage harder, felt Ezra sputter a new objection into his palm. Ezra tried to reach behind him, to pull himself free, but to no avail, his arms flailed, made no purchase on his lover-captor. The fabric of Vin's jeans and the creases in his chaps scuffed at Ezra's bare skin.
At last Ezra found sense enough to reach up and pry Vin's hand away from his mouth. The ability to cry out proved temporary release from the pain. Just as he almost managed to escape, pulling sideways to twist free, icy cum shot up into his guts.
Vin persisted, shooting his load inside Ezra, feeling it wash back down over his cock head. It drained out behind him as he withdrew, streaming milky wetness from his gleaming shaft. Abruptly he released Ezra and deposited him onto the car hood.
The humiliation was enough to fuel the conman into full retaliation. Before Vin could tuck his thing back in and zip up, Ezra was on him, spinning around and getting his feet under him with lightening speed and a rock-hard right hook.
The fist that connected with Vin's jaw sent him flying back up over the sidewalk and into the motel wall. The back of his head slammed into the surface, breaking away chunks of old stucco and exposing brick. He hit the ground, landed on his feet and fell back into a prop, dazed, one hand absently reaching up to massage behind his skull.
Ezra stood on the ready, teeth bared and canines budding to full length, the green of his eyes crystallizing to a more yellow hue reminiscent of a pissed off rattlesnake. Seeing that Vin remained stunned, he reached down, scooped up his pants, and hurriedly slipped them on. With a grunt of disgust at the condition of his sweater, he straightened and sniffed indignantly. "Let me guess," he spat. "Chris and Buck are havin' a party and, yet again, you weren't invited."
Vin slowly raised his head, eyes glaring out through a cascade of disheveled hair. His shoulders visibly tensed, the effect like that of a puma recoiling to spring, and then he did, diving forward, tackling Ezra, and grabbing him around the throat.
Both went flying onto the hood of the car, Ezra pinned once more but no longer receptive. One hand clamped firmly around Vin's throat, pushing him back, the other grasped a wad of the tracker's tank shirt. A rumbling growl issued from Vin's throat and spittle drained over his bottom lip. For a long moment the two clung to each other, Ezra merely holding his own, Vin struggling with something more terrifying within. The whites of his eyes were almost completely webbed in dark-red vessels, the blue so pale and his pupils narrowed to angry pinpoints.
"Vin," Ezra whispered more calmly then. Though he didn't state it directly, his tone bore the most crucial component to ending the confrontation: immediate forgiveness.
Vin snarled, his reddened eyes watering. He shook, fighting the urge to just snap Ezra's neck. So what if he did? The conman would survive. But the thought of it put him completely in check. His grip loosened on Ezra's throat, and slowly he closed his mouth.
"It's okay, Vin," Ezra whispered gently, his own grip slackening. He let go of Vin's shirt, leaving a clump of wrinkled black cotton. "I'm sorry."
As if he were the one who should apologize.
Vin's brows knitted, his vision flitting over the gentle reserve in Ezra's face. To Ezra it was both pitiful and gorgeous, those storms in Vin's eyes. The hand that had gripped Vin's throat crawled up to caress at a cold cheek, the tip of the thumb wiping away the spittle from Vin's lip.
Slowly the tracker eased up and slid off the hood of the car to stand, his shoulders heaving. He tucked his now deflated cock back into his pants and zipped up, took one last bitter glance at Ezra. Then in a hurry of clomping boots he went up onto the sidewalk, grabbed his jacket, and turned away.
Ezra sat up, staring after him as he disappeared around the corner to the front of the building. A moment later Vin's Harley revved, puttered angrily, and then roared off.
Shaking his head, Ezra climbed down and began to inspect the car for damage.
Caverns outside Four Corners, 1877
He was hungry.
It was the only thing he recognized at first. A yawning, feverish hunger that reached out from his center and captured every vein, every little nerve, fiber, and particle. This hunger defined his body as he awakened, crawling up through the sludge of his own mind and finding the last barrier of his closed eyelids. Stirring softly, he attempted to recall himself. But that failed as he felt a gentle caress at his temple, fingers through his hair.
Vin opened his eyes to look up into a familiar, chiseled face touched on the sides by long black hair. Blue eyes, that seemed exceptionally brilliant peered at him warmly. He struggled to remember exactly what it was about that face, but it didn't seem to matter. He felt warm and languorous and utmost. . . hungry. Yet the thought of any of the foods he loved. . . buttered biscuits. . . smoked meats. . . provoked a sickening churn in his gut. No, there was something else he wanted, something. . . he could smell here in this very place.
His tongue snaked forward slightly, tasting along the inside edges of his lips and met twin obstructions to either side. Teeth. Long, pointed canines. He felt the tips of them and encountered a tiny sting at each light tap. Undaunted by this change, he settled again. It seemed only natural, and he focused on the face hovering near. Some part of him remembered this being touching him, drawing him near, and then as his senses began to blossom open, he drew in a deep breath and with it smelled the heady, earthen scent that permeated off the black silken robe, and Vin remembered the master's name.
“How do you feel?” Selvik asked.
He didn't answer, hadn't found his voice yet, for his mouth felt dry and stony, and his throat even worse. He merely blinked back, suddenly finding deep fascination in every little line on Selvik's face, the creases at the corners of his mouth, the crystalline spokes in his eyes, the raven hue of his hair glistening with the slightest iridescent shimmer in the flicker of candlelight. The master reached down and slowly helped his newborn brood sit up on the stone slab. As he was lifted, Vin reached up with a hand, touched that cool, alabaster face and offered back a quiver of a smile.
“Stand up,” Selvik said, not commanding so much as coaxing, and he helped Vin get to his feet, find balance.
Standing naked before his creator, and still captured completely by Selvik's presence, Vin tilted his head, leaning in closer, his eyes wandering along the symmetrical clefts of the other's prominent collar bones. He reached up, touched at the ridges and ran eager hands down Selvik's chest, caressing the silk lapels on the robe, parting them. He could smell the master's own scent on himself, and when he looked down at the dried crust of semen on his inner thighs, he realized where that scent came from. He had been marked, possessed. Some part of him understood this in a strange way, accepted it. He didn't even stop to think how he was now also whole, all wounds healed. As he raised his head and looked up at Selvik again, he exhaled a longing breath, and it didn't even occur to him that he hadn't even begun to breathe until that moment.
And at that he felt so. . . alive.
A charge of new energy crackled down through him from head to toe, and utmost in his stomach, that continued to churn and beg for something he couldn't define, and yet he lingered in the euphoria of his awakening. Something hissed and shuffled about in the shadows around him, but his focus remained on Selvik, quietly questioning.
“How do you feel?” Selvik repeated, asking the question again as if fishing for a specific answer.
Vin leaned in closer, lips parted, ready to nip at the bare chest in front of him, his fingers roaming over each nipple with a voracious appetite for texture alone, the sense of touch heightened and captured by the hard and soft sensation of peaked and rosy flesh.
Then that other scent touched his senses again, something rich and coppery and sweet. He sniffed the air, eyes rolling toward the source, which he realized must be behind him somewhere. Looking back at Selvik, who waited expectantly for an answer, Vin worked his mouth a bit, managed to produce some saliva to coat his parched tongue and whisper.
“Hungry. . .”
“But of course you are.” Selvik caressed one cheek, then took the young one by the shoulders and began to steer him around to face the other direction. “And I have something for you.”
Vin's vision darted across the humanoid shapes of Selvik's other children crouched back from the central scene in the cavern, their dark eyes watching with glee, faces pale and almost appearing to glow to his new eyes. Details like every little crease in the ragged clothing they wore, or the slightest sheen along their ghostly lips, stood out. He was almost distracted by this, but as he sniffed the air, he kept following that wonderful scent to its source and there on the floor found the huddled figure of a warm body.
The man had been dropped to his knees, his hands bound in front of him. He wore stirrup pants and boots, and his dirtied white shirt, lined with frills at the collar, had been torn open, exposing a bare chest taut with muscle, and a hardened stomach. The candlelight haloed soft brown hair and danced over the more prominent planes of a soft face patched with bruises and cuts. Other bruises were visible through the part at the front of his shirt, and he looked up with distressed, liquid green eyes. Clutches of the slave brood gathered around him from behind, holding him in place, forcing his head up to watch. Compared to them, his flushed complexion beamed back at Vin, and it seemed the infant vampire could make out the lustrous threads of red veins beneath the skin, down the sides of the neck. They pulsed, emanating an ethereal flame along the edges of each tiny crimson river. . . beckoning. . . and Vin took an impassioned step closer, sighing at the realization of what he needed and that it was right here, provided for him.
But there was something wrong.
“Vin. . .” the captive husked out as he focused.
Vin stopped, frowning as the name, his name, stirred him, the soft drawl in the voice familiar. He padded closer, smelling the air as he went, sorting out the dustier smell of the slaves from this creature, warm and rosy and ripe for tasting. Dropping to his knees before the man, he reached up, took that handsome—almost pretty—face between his hands and stared into the eyes, reading the shock and fear there, smelling it too, as piquant as piss and vinegar.
“No. . .” the other whispered. “Oh, God, no. . . Vin. . .”
Tears swelled up in those jade eyes, and something in Vin struggled to remember exactly what it was about this man. He had to fight past his own hunger, his lips parted and desperate, to understand why he hesitated.
Vin drew back just so, examining the bruised face, noting the little creases between the brow, and yet still basking in that warm, coppery scent.
For Ezra it was the most terrifying moment of his life. He remembered being brained by one of the goons outside the saloon, only to awaken in this dark hellhole, bound and guarded by other goons. Clueless as to where he was, or why they even kept him alive, he had spent the day dealing with their retched breath accosting his body, his throat, their fingers exploring him, and all that while his heart hammered in his chest, eventually wearing him down. To see one of his best friends kneeling before him, completely transformed and fervent for his blood, was like a betrayal, the final blow. . . and still he knew that it was not Vin's fault.
Something was different too. Vin did not seem to be one of the slathering, condemned and desperate goons baring his sharp teeth at all times. The tracker's eyes were not glossy and completely blackened in. They were as crystalline as they had been before, only the dark ring of blue that had surrounded his irises before was more prominent, and his pupils were a finer point, blazing from within with some new fire fueled by blood hunger. Ezra cringed when Vin's cold hands came up to grasp either side of his face. He sensed, rather than saw, the claws on the ends of the tracker's fingertips, and he whispered pleas for release. His vision ghosted over the face close to his, illuminated on one side by the hundreds of candles kept alight on the natural shelves of the cavern walls. Some of them had been dripping for a long time and coated the walls with a cascade of white wax, like some eerie decoration for a morbid wedding. This seemed to be the case. Vin had been married into the world of the undead, and here before Ezra, he seemed childlike, caught in some spell. Ezra breathed out his friend's name again, hoping against hope to reach him. He looked down at the inviting part in Vin's lips, saw the fangs that protruded just so, and he found the look of that mouth, savage though it was, beautiful.
But it was no ordinary kiss Vin was preparing to bestow on him. That was evident in the dried bloodstains persisting on Vin's face. They were more black than red, and suddenly Ezra understood everything based on what Michael Arrant had told him and the others. Vin had been made a master. That was why his eyes were so clear, why his complexion was not nearly as sallow as that of a goon. And it was also why he did not go straight for Ezra's jugular right then. There had to be some self control in there somewhere.
Understanding this, Ezra thought there might be hope yet. If he could find the old Vin, coax him into resisting.
“Vin. . . this isn't you. . .” he drawled out. “Remember. . .” His thoughts jittered for some groundwork, some moment he and Vin had shared. Unfortunately nothing of particularly positive recollection came into play, and so he resorted to a reversed method. He was a conman, he could keep his wits here, scared though he was. “Remember when you had that poem in your head?” he whispered. “You came and asked me to write it down. . .”
I was wonderin'. . . if you would write it down for me all nice and purty-like.
Vin's icy breath touched Ezra's cheek and a soft rumble issued from his throat like some warning growl that Ezra cease this game.
Ezra gasped, attempted to cringe back from it, and found himself tearing up even more. He had to make this work somehow. “I laughed at you,” he continued, still rasping out that moment in the saloon when he had been too damned drunk and riled up over that Lester Banks for cheating him. He'd looked right at Vin and sputtered out a gale of laughter that was a complete affront to the tracker who was proving suddenly more sensitive than usual and stormed away in disgust.
I knew I was wastin' my time with you. . .
“I'm. . .” Ezra choked. “I laughed at you. I didn't know you couldn't read, Vin. . . I shouldn't have laughed. . .” Tears spilled over at this last pitiful attempt. He was going to lose this one, Ezra was sure of it. In the end he apologized not just for that moment when he had hurt Vin's feelings and injured his pride, but for all those times. . . those little moments. . . those little sins. . . the ones that were so easy not to notice. . . the ones that hurt his friends.
“I'm so sorry. . .”
Vin's brows knitted at this, his eyes softening, the ice crystals melting the tiniest iota, and he cocked his head curiously, one thumb moving in such a way that it practically caressed Ezra's jaw line.
“Ezra. . .” he uttered.
He remembered now.
It came back as if casting away an opiate haze. Everything. . . how he had gotten here, how Selvik had raped him and bled him. It all felt an age ago, and yet Vin could guess that, judging from Ezra's condition, it had been no more than a day. With that came the recognition of the thing that he had become. It jarred him from within and he drew in another long and laborious breath, as he understood what he was about to do.
Behind him, he heard Selvik's footsteps stealing closer, almost soundless, and around him the goons crept in, anxious to see the latest addition to their hierarchy commit the unthinkable. Ezra was not intended to become a master. He would be confined to the eternal mindlessness of a slave. Vin gritted his teeth at the thought. That they would find so much glee in watching him destroy one of his friends, his family. His fangs bit into his lower gums, drawing out a thin blackish fluid that he swallowed down.
“Vin, do it,” Selvik ordered in an impatient hiss. “Take him.”
There was little Vin could do. He shot small glances about him, seeing that all routes were cut off by the ring of undead watching and waiting. There would be no way to get Ezra out of here alive, and if he tried, he would likely get himself ripped apart. Vampire master or not, he would be slain for insubordination by the one who had created him. There were just too many of them, and as his body shuddered from within, reacting of its own accord to the wafting scent of Ezra's blood, he realized he could only do one thing. His eyes gave a silent apology of their own, boring into Ezra, pleading for forgiveness.
Then with an unnatural hiss that came from some untapped venue of his new being, he opened his mouth wide and dove into Ezra's neck. His fangs plunged into the flesh, felt it split under the fine points and tap into the vein. The slightest taste of blood ensnared him and without thinking about it he tore back, teeth dragging the skin, ripping a long, deep laceration that bore the spurting vein to the open air.
Ezra screamed and bucked against him, but Vin grabbed on tight, pulling the other man in close to him. One hand grabbed a handful of Ezra's hair and pressed the other's face into his own flesh as if to smother him, end his pain. As Vin suckled ravenously, his tongue dipping deep into the well of blood to savor it, he felt his entire being heat up as though he were drinking the finest whiskey. Ezra's chest, pressed against his, shared the thinning pound of a heavy heart.
He could vaguely hear the goons around him leering, and he could sense Selvik's approval. Drawing the flow into his mouth, each loud and gluttonous swallow built his strength. It tingled down into his fingers and toes, into his cock until it throbbed and he thought he might come against Ezra's belly. All the while, Ezra began to sink into him, all resistance fading with his life's blood, until Vin relented and pulled away with a loud, satisfied smack of tongue on lip.
Ezra fell over backwards, his head lolling to the side, exposing the raw wound that still oozed in small slow streams. Vin caught him by the shoulders, gazing grimly at the curve of Ezra's cheekbone and the soft fringe of his fluttering lashes as he fought to remain conscious.
Selvik smiled as he approached, looking down over Vin's shoulder at the wilting body, at the exposed chest running up to the mutilated neck that still curved upward gracefully. . . and then he noticed the thing that shocked him into stillness.
Ezra's bloodstained lips.
Blackish blood. . . Vin's blood. . .
It was smeared all over the gambler's mouth, over his teeth, which peered gently through the slight part in his lips as he drew his last breaths.
Slowly Selvik's gaze roamed up along the curve of Vin's tightened bicep, to his shoulder, and up the corded slope to the junction at his neck, where the small gleam of a self-inflicted cut began to heal quickly.
Selvik drew in a breath to speak, staggered over this occurrence which he could never have expected, that his own newborn could have made such a decision. “You. . . insolent whelp!” he snapped in a gravelly voice. “I'll rip your heart out!” He started to move toward the young master, his robe whipping along behind him.
Fueled by the feeding, and his own anger, Vin allowed Ezra's body to crumple to the ground and bounded to his feet, spinning, one hand flowing out before him. It was only instinct that drove him, and perhaps the knife fighting skills he had used as a human. He didn't charge into Selvik. Didn't even move, for that matter. He simply let the master fall right into the sharp knives of his own claws.
Selvik gave an ear-raking shriek as he halted in his attack, eyes wide and clouding over with swirls of red that encircled his irises. His mouth was open in a fierce growl that cut off into a gurgle.
“Like this?” Vin asked shakily as both looked down and there in the tracker's open hand lay the glossy black mass of Selvik's heart.
Vin hesitated, risking precious time as he marveled at his new abilities, before he closed his fingers around the meaty organ and clenched it mercilessly. It was still beating. The sensation of the gooey pulse within his palm almost made him drop it out of revulsion. Selvik stepped in closer and swung his body around, back handing Vin. The force cracked Vin's lower jaw and lifted him off the ground, sent him flying across the cavern and up against the wall where he slammed into a veil of candle wax. The dripping formations shattered and splintered down over him, while some candles fell from their ledges, their flames snuffed by the gust of wind and flailing vampire limbs.
Half-senseless, Vin hit the floor with a hollow thud and a grunt, but his newly altered body began to heal itself, resetting his jaw, refocusing his mind. He looked up, eyes narrowed bitterly as Selvik came staggering toward him, spitting up blood and baring his fangs in pure, unadulterated rage.
Vin simply gritted his teeth and held up the heart still clutched in his hand, presented as if on a silver platter.
The master vampire halted, one hand reaching out, claws curling at Vin.
Perhaps for a brief moment Vin felt the connection to Selvik again, felt the strange unnatural dream state that had consumed him just moments ago, after his awakening. But it was mercifully weak, and he easily broke the grip of Selvik's imposing will again. Lifting up the heart higher, he formed his grip into a vise, closing his claws in on the meat. The organ itself tried to fight him, the beat strong against the inside of his palm, until his talons pierced the inner chambers. Inky gore spilled down his arm, but the beating stopped. The heart collapsed in his hand.
Selvik hovered over his wayward prodigy, the rage on his face melting out into an anguished look of betrayal. “How?” he sputtered ruggedly and coughed out more blood. Then he collapsed, his body rolling into the shadows.
Vin lay shaken for only a short moment before a shrill cry called his attention to the air above him as one of the goons sprang from across the room and straight at him. He leapt to his feet and slashed forward with his hand out flat, again using his claws as though they were the edge of an outward-turned blade. The effect worked to cleave the goon's head from its neck. More gore sprayed the young master, but Vin simply side-stepped and let the body hit the ground. Another goon sprang, mindlessly attempting to avenge its master. With it came another three, all shrieking at the top of their undead lungs. Vin stabbed one straight on with his claws and opened its body up. Another scratched him across the back while he was distracted by the first, but then he turned and reached out, captured the thing's head in his hands and ripped it from the neck, finding revelry in the sticky texture of blood caking between his fingers. He took out the third easily and gained more practice on three more, littering the rocky floor with carnage. When he had done, he looked about, finding the rest huddled around him, the dark orbs of their eyes lost within the shadows beneath their deeply furrowed brows.
They didn't know what to do, he realized.
Without the master who created them, they were lost, ants with no queen to return to. He straightened up, oblivious to the splatters of black painting his bare body, and started over toward where he had left Ezra lying. His hands hung limp and empty at his sides, his fingertips dripping. Halting, he glared at the sight of two more goons hovering over Ezra, near the conman's head, one threatening to slit his throat with a single, extended claw.
Vin simply pointed a finger at the creature and hissed through his teeth. “Get away from him, you piece of shit.”
The goon practically let out a yelp, and scampered along with its companion into the shadows. Vin padded slowly over to Ezra, pausing when he saw that the other man's chest was still rising and falling, slowly, but still holding on to every last breath. A surge of hurt and excitement flushed Vin's own heart, and he dropped to his knees, leaning deeply over Ezra.
Green eyes, hazed with melting terror looked up at him, and he listened to the raspy breath that emitted through the blood-stained lips. Carefully he situated himself, folding his legs under his thighs and laying the conman's head gently in his lap. Had he made a mistake, he wondered, in feeding Ezra some of his own blood? It was the only possible way he saw out of this that could result in both of them surviving, even if it had to be as vampires. Both had been forced to the point of no return.
The gambler's mouth opened as if he had read Vin's thoughts and tried to answer, the gleam on his lips a reminder that he could have chosen to spit the blood out, to not accept what Vin was trying to do.
“I'm sorry, Ezra,” Vin said softly. He sat there, cradling his friend, watching the conman drift into the death sleep. When Ezra's stare became still, gazing up at nothing, and his chest fell and didn't rise again, Vin felt hot tears flush his own eyes and spill down his face.
So, he realized, it was still possible to cry, even for the undead.
Wondering what he had created, goon or master, the tracker bowed his head and waited.
Outside El Paso, Present Day
Buck stared back evenly at the single azure eye observing him from the crack in the door. His stomach squirmed a little at that hawk-like gaze, and he inwardly cursed himself for not being sure the door had been closed.
Good goin', shitbird. It had been a long time since he'd made a mistake like that. Not only had he not shut the door, but he hadn't bothered to make sure the entire place was cleared out, and leave it to Vin Tanner to come out of his mouse hole at just the right time.
Buck's somber exterior remained intact even while he tensed, jaw set as he waited for Chris to catch the tracker's scent. Talk about a prize-winning fuck up. Chris's ego would take yet another bruising if he noticed, as he'd grown increasingly sensitive about these matters over the years.
When the watcher backed away and the crack closed, Buck clamped down on the sigh of relief that threatened to explode out of him. He returned his attention to the sweet pain pulling on his wrist, at the suction of cool, soft lips and the gnawing of sharp teeth. Chris was apparently too enraptured in feeding. The only scent arousing his senses was that of freshly processed blood.
A tiny grunt squeezed out of Buck's throat as his charge bit in a little harder, preventing the wound from closing up. He felt warm wetness wash down into his palm, pooling into the cracks, and leaking between his fingers. The head of blond hair bowed before him, and the naked man it belonged to, further fired his protective nature.
This manner of feeding ensured Chris' freedom, and yet it bound him to Buck. The shackles were invisible, or rather it could be said that Chris was like a horse that had been given its head to roam as it pleased, but with the security that the rider could rein it in at any moment. There was no denying what an undignified predicament it was for him, a vicious nip in the man's pride, but he gave into it willingly, knowing that the alternative was unthinkable.
Vin knew this, Buck reminded himself. They all knew it. A long time ago, the others, including the tracker, had tried to remedy the problem and take turns feeding Chris. It worked marginally but proved such a strain on the others, particularly when it came to feeding twice in the same night. One-by-one they began to volunteer less, especially as Chris grew pissier with sharing his vulnerability around the group. Pure human blood did nothing for him. He got hungrier, and more alienating. From there on it was decided that only one of them deal with the matter, and plenty of reasons elected Buck the best candidate. The ritual was carried out in secret, often while the others were still out on the hunt, granting the couple privacy while Chris bared his soul.
Buck considered having a few words with Vin later. Nah, he decided then. No sense stirring up more hostility. The tracker already worked diligently to damn himself. A slap on the hand for spying was nothing compared, and the important thing was that Chris never know about it. Vin was naturally tight-lipped—that certainly hadn't changed in over a century—and that was good enough for Buck.
The former gunslinger closed his eyes, balancing against a strange euphoria that hit him every time Chris sucked out a long stream and paused to gulp it down. Like sinking and rising, sinking and rising, Buck swayed with it, smiled tenderly to himself when he felt Chris' cheek brush against his inner arm, and he ran a fingertip around the kneeling man's earlobe. At last he couldn't stand to give any more. He had to pry his wrist free, gently massaging the back of Chris' neck to bring him around, while pulling the feeding hand away.
Chris let go with a loud and satisfied slurp and looked up, eyes more focused and clear than they had been earlier in the evening. He stood slowly, slinking up Buck's body. His spread hands probed up radiating newly infused warmth, and spidered around Buck's waist as he leaned in, pulling the taller man closer to him.
Buck examined the mouth before him, smeared with red, open and waiting, lips poised as if to cast some dark whisper. He could smell the blood lingering in that mouth, and he probed for it with lips and tongue, tasted it mingled with tangy saliva and noted a piquant aftertaste that was undeniably Chris Larabee. He followed up with a series of little sugar pecks and licks, and allowed Chris to manipulate him around and toward the bed
"Well then," he breathed between kisses, "I guess you're feelin' much better now."
Chris backed his lover up until the edge of the bed pressed into the backs of Buck's knees, forcing him to sit, bouncing gently on the mattress amid covers still disheveled from the day before.
Reaching down, Chris took Buck's hand in his, turned it over and examined the inner wrist. His thumb brushed over the last smears of blood, revealing freshly healed skin. An uneven blotch of pink scar tissue stood out against the paler skin of Buck's forearm, then gradually even the scar faded, literally appearing to absorb back into the surface. Chris always wanted to make sure the skin healed. Didn't want to leave behind some remnant of his weakness, Buck figured, though the tender circle of Chris' fingertip over the skin implied something more. Concern, perhaps? Did he worry that one night that wound wouldn't heal?
Buck looked up at Chris standing over him, eyes roaming across taut skin and shapely pectorals, pausing on the little shadows cast by Chris' sharpened nipples. He slid his hands up the lean belly before him and caressed each little knob, rolled it around and pinched it, listening to Chris' breath hitch. Then the other leaned down, cupped Buck's face between his hands and brought his face up and close, their lips just inches away from each other. Sometimes that little tiny distance seemed so far. Like the eternity that had become their lives.
In one graceful and swift motion, they switched positions, Chris sidestepping onto the bed, releasing Buck, who stood. Chris panthered across the covers and turned over to lie against the pillows, one leg bent, his hand resting across his pelvic bone. His thumb absently maneuvered up and down dabbing at his cock.
Buck stood to slip out of his jeans and left them a wrinkled denim puddle half kicked under the bed. Then he crawled on all fours onto the mattress, slinking along the same path, first meeting Chris' foot. It was like following a trail of breadcrumbs, he mused, and feeling suddenly playful he scooped Chris' heel up in his palm.
Chris chuckled dryly, eyes narrowed and suspicious. "What are you doing?" His fingers curled around little clumps of blanket to either side of him.
Smiling, Buck sat back on his haunches and lifted the foot higher, presented in both of his hands as if on a platter. He rubbed the calloused pads with his thumbs together, then up the center under the arch, gripping just a bit tighter when he felt Chris start to pull back with a murmur of an objecting snigger.
His warm breath swept across the toes, prompting them to spread wide. From this perspective he could peek through the part in the big toe and the second and see Chris' face, masked in anticipation, eyes narrowed. Like sighting down the barrel of a rifle.
"Don’t you kick me now," Buck warned huskily. Then he stuck out his tongue and ran the tip up along the inner arch. Tension seized the muscles in the foot, the toes spread wider, and Buck held on a little bit tighter. Lowering his hands, bringing the foot down, he swept his tongue around to the top arch and up to circle the ankle. All the while his thumbs still rubbed back and forth beside each other, massaging the heel and the ball, then in between each toe.
Chris let out a sigh, gradually relaxing, letting his lover work on him slowly and efficiently as only Buck Wilmington could.
Unfolding his body, Buck began to work his hands up the leg, stretching himself out as he went, stroking underneath Chris' calf muscles, lingering on the back of his knee where the skin was softer and more sensitive. He bestowed light kisses, lips intentionally snagging on silky sandy-brown leg hair. He straddled that outstretched leg as he crawled further up, dipping his pelvis down so that his own cock slid along the warmed skin and hair. He draped himself completely across Chris' lower body, his head at waist level and face to face with the other man's cock. He gazed past the thick rod of pink flesh and up the course of the body beneath him.
Chris spread out his hand, reached at Buck's face. His green eyes captured reflections of red from the one dim bulb glowing in the room, as if to illustrate a fire roaring inside his head, viewed through the windows of his eyes. Buck felt like he could crawl into those eyes, find his own safe haven in there with the flame. He laid his cheek against the hand beckoning to him, smelled the musk and earthy dustiness that marked Chris.
He suddenly tensed as another scent wafted up to meet him, one that amid the others was most unwelcome, like the faintest odor of rot and sickly sweet perfume. This scent, too, was familiar and never ceased to vex him, for he knew that it absolutely did no belong to Chris.
No, it belonged to another, and Buck had vowed never to speak of its foulness.
"What is it?" Chris whispered, his brows furrowing as he clearly sensed that something was up.
An echo from the past stirred at the back of Buck's mind.
A dark cavern barricaded at the entrance by pure, unfiltered sunlight. . . trapped. . . still frightened and adapting to what they had become. . . and Chris suddenly looked down, distracted. . .
. . . I can smell that bitch on me!
Yeah, Chris knew all about that scent and that somehow after all this time it still clung to him, immune to any amount of scrubbing, and he didn't need any small reminders of its presence.
Buck had gotten good at distractions. He turned and kissed the inside of Chris' palm while one hand crept in and captured the base of the reclining man's pole, gently pulling upward.
Breath hissed through Chris' teeth at the tease.
Then abruptly Buck bowed his head and took his lover's cock fully into his mouth. Scores of years had taught him to turn off the gag reflex. He sank deep on Chris, felt the thick head nudge up into the back of his throat, until the tip of his nose met the coarse curls around the base.
Chris's body stiffened, his hips thrusting up, and his hands once more grabbed at the blanket. "Ah, God. . . Buck. . ."
Buck moved up and down slowly, his tongue curled underneath the shaft like a kitten's around its mother's teat. He came up to lick around the rim of the head and the oozing slit. One hand snaked underneath and cradled Chris' balls, undulating with them so that they rolled back and forth in their silken sac.
Pressing his hips up higher, Chris rammed his prick back into the tunnel of Buck's mouth and groaned out his approval. Buck began further preparations by reaching his other hand up Chris's body, two fingers finding a nipple and pinching it hard en route to Chris' mouth. And such a mouth it was as Buck plunged the digits into it, past those blood-warmed lips to the bed of the tongue, feeling past the hard edges of teeth. Chris sucked on the fingers, slathered his tongue up between them. When he was certain that he'd captured enough saliva, Buck withdrew his fingers and pulled his mouth free.
Chris shuddered, on the verge of coming right then, but he held it, sinking his hips back into the mattress and taking his cue to straighten out both legs so Buck could completely straddle him.
"Don't move," Buck whispered. He positioned himself over the other's hard, fleshy staff carefully. Then he reached down behind himself, up between his ass cheeks, found his own opening, and worked at it with the two fingers wetted by Chris' mouth. Just around the puckered entrance, he massaged gently in widening circles, smearing on the spittle, and up inside. It was not nearly as pleasurable to perform this task on himself, but he enjoyed the heady smell of Chris' eagerness as he was forced to watch and wait.
From Chris' perspective, Buck's long slender body took a dancer's form as it bowed backward so that he could reach up inside himself, his head thrown up and back, exposing a corded stretch of neck and the nub of his Adam's apple. His lips pursed slightly, the tip of that treacherous tongue of his creeping out at one corner and then withdrawing. Dim golden light pooled around the little dip above the upper lip where an age ago Buck once sported a lush mustache. It tempted Chris to sit up and dive right into that mouth. . . or order it go back to sucking his cock.
Buck took his own time, torturing his lover. He closed his eyes, taking deep breaths as he probed deeply enough to find his own touch zone, just the minimal tip of one finger jabbing it and setting off the chain reaction within that stirred his cock to full muster. He smiled to himself when he felt Chris' hand take the organ and pull down on it.
"Careful, pard," he whispered. His other hand probed down beneath him to more accurately locate Chris' cock, and then gradually he began to lower himself. The thick head made penetration just as Buck slipped his fingers free, and with ease he dropped down onto Chris. He then looked down at his lover who watched with that inner glow still in his eyes.
Chris thrust against the weight coming down on him, until he was fully sheathed in Buck, and the other man's cock came to rest along his belly. He cupped hot damp hands over it and pumped gently toward himself, then toward Buck.
Leaning back, Buck adjusted the angle of entry and wriggled his ass until he felt Chris' mast stir up against his prostate wall. Perfect. He moaned as he rocked his hips forward meeting Chris' thrusts. They settled quickly into a rhythm. Each pulled his hips back or down, then thrust forward or up, so that they met somewhere in the middle. Chris' hands formed a little tunnel for Buck's own cock to navigate each time he rocked forward. The rougher texture of his palms, including calluses and tiny scars from long ago, triggered every nerve in the blushed skin.
Gradually their mutual moans rose, and the strange utterance of an otherworldly purr, just on the verge of a growl, issued from Buck's throat. He never really understood how such a sound came out of him, even given the creature he was. His anatomy was still human and only partially capable of preternatural change in moments of passion or stress. This was one of them. His eyeteeth started to bud as he clenched his jaw, resisting the urge to cry out too loud.
Chris did the same, pushing up harder with his hips, his head tossed to the side, teeth gritted, growing sharper by the second, until it all ended simultaneously. He pumped one last time and came, spewing cool semen up into the slick passage, while Buck spurted out milky streams into Chris' hands, onto his belly.
Buck pulled back his hips one last time and eased them forward, feeling that last little inner tickle to his zone, forcing out a shiver of pure bliss as he leaned down and kissed Chris full on the mouth. Chris shuddered, breath hissing through his teeth and into Buck's mouth, his eyes closed tightly as the last of his seed shot into Buck's ass and tension slowly began to bleed out of him.
Patiently Buck drew away and propped up on his arms, looking straight down at his lover, until jade eyes blinked open and looked up at him.
"Hi," he all but chirped.
Chris' lips cocked at the corner in a wry smile that died quickly. "Hi yourself," he rasped back.
Buck smiled warmly, his eyes twinkling, then with care he boosted up to his knees, slowly separating from the organ lodged up inside him. Creamy wetness spilled out of him and down the insides of his thighs as he hiked one leg up and over Chris, dismounting to lie down and stretch out beside the other man. He laid a hand on Chris' chest, tucked his head against the little nook where shoulder and body met.
After a century, they never asked questions like How was it? They read each other too well for that. They lay quietly, listening to each other's heartbeat, the slow steady tempos nearly lulling them both to sleep, their naked bodies exposed to the air, cum drying into crust on Buck's thighs and around Chris' navel.
Buck used that time to quiet his own mind, turning off all thoughts and allowing only the existence of that eternal drum beat to which his ear was pressed. Somewhere within himself he imagined a dark web in which he could recline, a hammock that swung back and forth, a pendulum set to that heartbeat. He was almost asleep when Chris' voice rumbled softly.
It was the statement that snapped Buck to, instantly abandoning his reverie.
"I had an attack again tonight."
Buck raised his head and propped on his elbow, looking Chris in the eyes. The other man remained in eerie calm, like he was too tired to care about the implications.
"How long has it been since the last one?" Buck asked.
"I don't know. Three weeks?"
Buck counted back in time in his head and nodded. "They're getting closer together," he observed aloud, voice dropping as new concern stirred him. He sat up, scooting closer and leaning over his lover. "What do you think it means?"
Chris only looked at him, eyes hazy.
He didn't want to try to answer that question, Buck realized. The possibilities were endless and frightening. Nevertheless, Buck deigned to press the matter. "It's going to come to an end somehow, Chris. If we're getting close. . ."
"I'll know when we're close," Chris interrupted. "And I'll tell you," he assured.
Buck accepted this and nodded, though his brows had lowered into an unbecoming frown and his lips drew out into a thin and bitter line on his face. He laid his head back down, sighing. Then suddenly he was seized with the urge to curl his body around, draping one arm across Chris' middle and tuck his hand underneath the other body, enshrouding it in his own. He nuzzled his cheek against the hard pillow of Chris' chest.
Where before he had tried to escape into the silence, he now sought to flee it. "Come on," he said softly. "Let's go for a walk."
It was three in the morning when Chris and Buck dressed and came out of their nest. Neither J.D. nor Vin had returned, but Josiah, Nathan, and Ezra were out in the main room. Josiah and Ezra played cards under the hanging globe lamp over the table. Nathan had his laptop out and situated on a bedside table, using a satellite connection to get online. The television was on but turned down to a murmur.
"Ya'll goin' somewhere?" Nathan asked casually, looking up from the computer screen where he sat propped on his knees on the edge of the bed.
"Just a walk," Chris informed him but strolled over to stand close, looking down past their tech man's arm at the computer screen. "Any word come in tonight?"
"As a matter of fact, Clarion Group reported evidence of goon activity near the Arizona border," Nathan replied. "Attacked a priest in a small church outside Lordsburg. They're probably led by one master." Nathan looked up from the screen that displayed the Clarion Group logo with its crossed trumpets on a medieval heraldry shield, and below it a chat field.
"That ain't far from Four Corners," Buck thought aloud and moved closer to peer down over Chris' shoulder.
Nathan shrugged. "Can't be sure. We also got a warning, there's a Vatican hunter group on the roam. Led by some pro called The Italian. They've been hunting along the Mexican border. Cleaned up after that slaughter near Vasquez."
"Okay, keep tabs," Chris replied. "We'll steer clear of them as much as possible, let them do their job." He looked over his shoulder at Buck, then a quick glance at Ezra and Josiah completely absorbed in their game.
Buck gave a gesture with his head toward the door. "Let's go."
"All right," Chris replied and threw more glances around. "We'll be back in a little bit."
Mention of the Vasquez attacks had immediately plunged Buck into melancholy, thinking about the kid. . . Jesse. . . and about those frightened eyes, and the fact that he was still coherent enough to ask what was happening to him, and to say his own name.
However, melancholy didn't stop him from noticing the Ezra-scented black chenille sweater slopped into the waste can near the door. He cocked a brow and glanced at the gambler who now wore a clean white Oxford shirt with the collar turned up. Ezra's eyes were so clearly focused on his hand of cards, he didn't notice he was under scope.
"I don't wanna know," Buck grumbled and went out the door, Chris right behind him.
They looked up and down the parking lot and then out into the open desert, at the ridge of mountains on the horizon, and the field of stars above. A head nod from Buck determined that they cross the road and wander out near a grouping of rocks jutting toward the sky near a bony tree. Low on the horizon, an almost full moon became their sun, so bright that neither of them could look straight at it.
"Vatican hunters," Buck mused aloud over the current information. "There's some mean sons'a bitches."
"Yep." Chris shoved his hands into the pockets of his black Levis and intentionally dragged his heals.
Buck could have sworn for a moment that he heard the sound of spurs ringing softly with each dust-scuffing step, but realized it was actually the keys to his Big Dog jangling on his belt loop. An uneasy feeling stirred under his skin, radiating into his middle, like the gravity of flying his bike over a rise and down into a sudden dip in the road. He huffed out a grunt, turning the Clarion Group information about in his mind.
"What?" Chris asked, sensing his partner's agitation.
"It's just. . ." Buck started, hooking his thumbs into his belt loops and hanging one hand over the keys to silence them. "I don't like it."
"I think we need to get back to the ranch, lay low for a while. We've fed, right? We can go another week clear before we need to go out again. We could shack up then hit Phoenix later."
"Buck, we can't hide from every other hunter group that comes along."
"I'm not saying hide, just. . . you know, take a break. Hell, maybe even a full. . . . vacation?"
Chris stopped and turned toward him, eyes shadowed in a glare. "You know there's no break for us."
Buck always figured that Larabee somehow had break and vacation mixed up with call it quits. Maybe he was afraid of losing sight of their mission, but most likely, he was just afraid that he would never have his revenge. Buck sighed, hands flying up in the air in a gesture of immediate surrender before that dog could even start barking. He went straight for honesty then.
"Okay, thing is, it just scares me those guys don't know we're on the same side. And hell, would they care, if they did know?"
The deep furrow in Chris' sandy brow loosened up. With an understanding nod he turned and wandered ahead, stopping near the tree, his head bowed as something caught his attention.
His question unanswered, Buck followed, still tangling with that feeling of dread and stopping at his companion's side to look down at a stretch of churned up dirt: Vin's daybed.
"Just like back in the day he slept in his wagon," Buck mused with a forced sweetness in his tone. "Can't stand the sight of four walls for more'n a few seconds."
Chris stifled a chuckle at the comment. He knelt suddenly, reaching out and taking up a handful of the dirt in his hand. Then he turned up his palm and allowed it to filter out, pooling into a little pile beside the greater heap.
Buck could sense the walls going up. Perhaps the man was reflecting on the attack he had spoken of earlier in the evening. Could be anything. Buck stood looking down on the other's inclined back sheathed in a tight black tee, and he watched Chris' head tilt in that animalistic way that they had all managed to pick up being what they were.
"You all right?"
Chris stood, dusting his hand off on his hip and looked out across the night. "You ever think it's like we're. . . like we're just lost in time?"
The question made Buck more nervous than his thoughts on the Vatican hunters. "What're you talking about?"
Standing so still that he might turn to stone, Chris only drew breath to speak. "You know what scares me?"
"In another thousand years, we'll still be here."
The statement pulled Buck forward a couple steps, and his hands rose to grip his partner's shoulders from behind. "It ain't like that," he whispered, holding down the little strain of desperation that tightened his throat. This kind of conversation came along once every thirty or forty years, and Buck realized. . . yeah, it was about that time now. He hated it. He wanted to think that it all came down to recollecting their failure to finish what had started a hundred and twenty-five years ago. But it ran deeper than that, like some nasty little shard of glass still wedged down inside a cut. . . the sting constant, the flesh festering around it.
Buck hated it.
"Things ain't always gonna be the way they are, Chris. You have to believe that." He felt his lover's arms tense beneath his grip, and he roamed in closer, sealing his body up against Chris' back, embracing him from behind. To his relief the other didn't pull away.
"We're not lost in time," he whispered into Chris' ear.
Still gazing at the foreverness of the sky and its speckling of stars, Chris drew in a breath, held it for a long time, then released it. Then he leaned his head back against the shoulder behind him and tilted his face to the side where his forehead pressed up against the hollow of Buck's cheek.
"I am," he said.
Four Corners, 1877—Amanecer del Terror
Mary Travis caught herself about to fall asleep again for the tenth time. She looked up to see that the crystal reservoir in the oil lamp was almost empty. Her hand had slipped, causing her to smear ink on her dress sleeve, and she groaned softly at the stain and hoped that Borax could handle it.
All night she'd been trying to scribble down a basic article with quill and parchment before she started typesetting, but getting her thoughts on paper was not so easy. There were no words to describe the scene at the cemetery, and even if she could get it right, what difference did it really make? She had never questioned herself like this. If it was news, especially something as big as the existence of such creatures—vampire was a particularly ugly-sounding word to her—as the regulators had dug up and killed that day, then word needed to go out. However, a good portion of the remaining townsmen had been there watching, they knew already, they had been educated in dealing with the matter. Chris Larabee's words came back to harass her.
These people know they're being killed, they don't need to read about it in the paper!
And who would bother with that paper tomorrow? Chris was right, and now no one would want to read about what they had already seen with their own eyes. She had to find another approach. More research on vampires would contribute to a more useful article, something that would help further educate the remaining townspeople and reach the broader community on defending themselves and their homes, and surely the number of witness accounts would bring some credibility. She would also be sure to interview the slayer Michael Arrant in the coming day.
Should have done that already, she thought, but then like everyone else she had been a bit too frazzled by the truth. Now she was tired, her body ready to sleep while her mind buzzed, and along with that, she was in all honestly, scared as hell.
She set aside her quill and stood, pulling a shawl around her shoulders and sweeping a loose lock of blonde from her temple to tuck it back behind her ear as she picked up the oil lamp and went to go pick up an emergency lamp sitting on her file cabinet. The shadows in the room danced as she moved. The massive black bulk of the printer and its mechanics presented the image of a fat blocky spider sitting in the middle of the room. Fatigue did render one irrational, she mused as she walked carefully, annoyed by the creak of the floorboards.
From outside she heard the clomp of three sets of horse hooves going by and glanced out through the glass to see Vin Tanner, J.D. Dunne, and Ezra Standish ride by on patrol. The street sconces still burned, highlighting the shimmer of the horses' manes and tails, or the white accents like Peso's blaze.
"Think I'll stay up at the church this pass," J.D.'s young voice said, just loud enough to be heard muffled through the pane.
Ezra responded, but his softer lilt was lost to little more than a mumble. One of the horses snorted restlessly, another gave a sharp whinny but they stayed under control and moved on with their riders.
So the town knights were still on the case. Mary smiled to herself and looked down at the elegant ladies' watch hanging around her neck. Just shy of five-thirty in the morning.
Her smile melted. Had the night gone by so quickly? In that case, she thought, perhaps she would turn in, if only for a couple hours. Surely she could find sleep in the safety of the coming dawn, and as far as she knew, there hadn't been a single disturbance. She could rest, and then at midmorning she would freshen up and go down the street to find Michael Arrant. Perhaps the Seven and Mr. Arrant would even allow her to witness the hunt.
At the file cabinet, she set down the lamp that was running out of oil and reached up to get the one that was still full, figuring on doing a quick change out just to be on the safe side.
She didn't hear the footsteps on the porch, but when the door suddenly opened, the knob issuing a loud, wood-breaking CRRRRRACK, she almost jumped out of her skin.
"Oh, God!" she cried, dropping her watch, which caught on the chain, giving a little jerk to her neck as the weight of the disk came down. She clamped a hand over her racing heart, and turned as the door creaked open, the bell jangling. Slowly she began to get her breath back when she saw that the figure standing there in a black silk, tightly corseted dress was a woman.
A pale profile, partially veiled by neatly groomed long black hair, stepped into view past the door panel itself. The figure it belonged to gazed around the room, the face slowly turning toward Mary.
Mary felt a chill lay in a T pattern across her shoulders and down her spine, and she inadvertently pulled her shawl tighter, guessing the woman had let in a draft.
"Excuse me," she apologized for shouting and smiled nervously. "You just startled me." She inched forward, every part of her shaking, particularly her hands, and she thought what a good thing it was that she had set the lamp down first. Next her rational mind tried to put an identity to the woman standing there, or why she was here at this time of morning.
Then something hit the floor with a heavy thud behind the shadowy figure, and the brass of the broken doorknob gleamed as it rolled into view. It occurred to Mary exactly what that thing was, and that the door had been locked. She'd made sure of it.
The sound she had heard was not the door merely opening suddenly, the hinges and panel grating against the frame. That had been the sound of the knob being turned with such force, such strength, that the bolt and knob broke completely out of the panel. But how had such a graceful and slender woman done that?
"Excuse me, can I help you?" Mary asked, regaining her composure. "You know, you really shouldn't be out. . . yet. . ."
The face turned, half remaining in shadow, the other half defined in golden light from the lamp. Black eyes beamed purposefully at Mary from a harshly chiseled yet feminine face. Full, rouged lips spread wide with a venomous smile.
"You?" Mary whispered.
It was the last word to pass her lips.
J.D. dismounted to go up the church steps and knock on the door while Vin and Ezra remained on their horses keeping watch until the youth was tucked safely inside. The windows had all been completely covered over from within, hopefully making it more difficult for the night terror to enter not knowing what kind of reception it would receive.
"Password?" Josiah's deep purr asked from inside.
"It's me, J.D."
"That ain't a password," came back unimpressed.
Vin turned his face away to avoid smirking at the kid's expense. The remaining light from one of the sconces marking the path up to the steps illuminated his breath as it gusted against the chilled air.
"Aw, come on, Josiah, you know we didn't make up no password."
The door cracked and a single blue eye, leveled off on top by a heavy slate brow, glared out at J.D., then rolled to look at the horses and their mounts waiting at the foot of the steps. Josiah opened the door with a softly relieved grin on his face. Warm light from inside silhouetted his head. "Anything new?"
"Nah," Vin said, "quieter'n an angel's fart out here."
"Such locution, Mr. Tanner," Ezra remarked.
"We heard the horses around back get a little unsettled, but they calmed again," Josiah informed them. "Could have been anything."
Vin glanced toward the eastern sky, noting that the black veil had softened to more of a dark indigo and the slopes and peaks of the mountains were gaining definition. "Guess it's just about over for now. We still got a busy day ahead."
"I'm staying down here for a bit," J.D. said, slipping through the door and past the big preacher. He turned to peer around the barrier one more time and his baby browns drooped drowsily. "Sorry fellas, I gotta grab a bit of sleep. Meet you at breakfast?"
Vin gave a tip of his hat. "See you soon, Josiah," he called as he was already steering Peso away from the foot of the steps. Ezra followed on Maverick.
"Careful, ya'll," the preacher called after them then closed the door. The loud clank of the bolt setting sounded through the wood.
The two rode on more relaxed, slowly beginning to breathe easier, too tired to talk about much. Even the horses seemed to be dragging their feet, weary from being put on the alert all night long and expressing it by cocking their ears back and snuffling with indignation. They obviously wanted to be nowhere but in their boxes at the livery.
Vin slowed, noticing a light flickering within the Clarion News, and dipped his head a bit for a better look. He narrowed his eyes to peer through the window and barely made out the head and shoulders of Mary Travis lying hunched over on her desktop, her cheek resting on the back of one hand, an oil lamp on the corner. "Hmm," he mused aloud. "I see Miz Travis didn't let up trying to get something on paper."
"Rightly so," Ezra replied, "but at this desperate hour, information travels faster by mouth than by paper. I see she lost the battle against sleep."
They were just picking up the pace again when they heard the first shots fired somewhere within the vicinity of their meeting point. The peace-shattering explosions were followed by the shrill nickering of distressed horses.
"What the—“ Ezra muttered, while Maverick gave an uncomfortable whinny.
"The saloon," Vin said under his breath, and nudged Peso into a full run toward the building in question.
Ezra followed, both men feeling that instant sickness that swirls in one's chest when a dreaded moment finally comes to pass.
More gunshots cracked through the pre-dawn darkness. As the riders drew closer, they could see the other horses, tethered outside the saloon, pulling back on the hitching post, tossing their heads regardless of the discomfort from their bits, hooves stamping the dust. A flicker of struggling shadows appeared in the light falling on the porch through the windows and the saloon doors.
Vin was reaching the edge of the porch, ready to throw himself clear of the saddle and bolt through the doors, when the loud crystalline tinkling of shattering glass exploded toward him. The body of a young man, forearms flung up over his face, came through the rain of shards that left cuts and long gashes, as he landed firmly on his feet right in front of Peso and his rider. Peso whinnied, stumbled back a few feet, and stamped.
The horse's mane slapped Vin in the eyes and he gritted his teeth, focusing past the sting to see that what had leapt into his path was no mere man. The creature hissed up at him, its hands hooked into claws. Glass wedges cascaded across the porch and into the street. Vin felt a hard lump slam up into his throat as he thought he recognized the goon. Was that the son of one of the farmers who lived just north of town?
In the same instant, the creature sprang, taking off around one frenzied horse and almost up against another.
Ezra barely saw the thing coming before Maverick reared, tossing his neck back, and unseating his rider.
The gambler's voice rose and fell with his descent as he toppled over Maverick's rump. He hit the ground in a hard roll that sent him up against a ground support for the porch, where the back of his head slammed into the wood. Sparks rained down on his inner vision and he lay stunned, one hand groping across the cool, dusty ground.
Maverick came down on all fours and then reared again, but the goon had already veered away and taken off on foot down the street, leaving prints in the dust, Vin spinning Peso after it.
Focused on the goon, Vin prodded Peso's sides with his heels. "Heee-Yah!" he snapped viciously, and broke the gelding into a charge, following the figure, while Maverick took off in the opposite direction, his breath huffing before him like the steam from a locomotive.
As the thunder of horses hooves faded down the main street, Ezra climbed just to the surface of consciousness, some instinct in him telling him to wake up, get up. . . survive. His right arm stretched out, attempting to release the little Derringer rigged on its track up his coat sleeve.
It wasn't enough. Paralyzed by the pain in the back of his skull, the last thing he registered at all was the blood-curdling screams of the horses at the hitching post fighting against their tethers, and the pale faces of three goons moving in closer.
From inside the saloon above him, the cacophony of gunfire and shouting heralded the coming hell.
There are things that stand out in one's mind no matter what.
For Chris it was not that vampire goons had suddenly started birthing out of every shadow in the saloon, or that for every one he managed to stake, there were three more coming at him. It wasn't that in the chaos of the attack, he had turned to what was most familiar, his gun, as had Buck. As had every man in the building.
All of that was a mere haze. . . the voices shouting curses. . . the gunfire. . . the snarling goons.
What came to the forefront of his thoughts had been the very beginning of it all. . . the vision of Michael Arrant standing in the doorway that led back into the bar's storage room. Just standing there, first speaking of how his father had been a hunter before him, and his grandfather, too. How the Arrants had miraculously managed to live longer than any family of hunters out there. He was proud of that fact, said that many hunters rarely lived to see their twenty-fifth birthday.
Arrant paused to turn his head to the side and yawn, cupping a hand over his mouth, when he stiffened and his hand dropped away. His eyes widened with surprise and rolled toward Chris, and his mouth gaped. It was a look of awe, really, like he had suddenly thought of something else impressive that he had forgotten to mention before, but he didn't speak after that.
He only stared.
"What?" Chris asked from where he sat back at the Seven's favored table, feet propped up. He was on about his third wind for the night. Buck sat across from him, head bowed over folded arms, fighting the onslaught of sleep.
Arrant's lower lip bobbed up and down a little, but no words came out. He stood there with that glassy gaze aimed at Chris, and then blood welled up and poured out of his mouth as neatly as if it had been dispensed from the lip of a water pitcher.
Chris bounded out of his chair, rousing Buck and nearly toppling over the table.
From behind Arrant came the sound of flesh tearing, bones and tendons breaking. Then he collapsed to his knees, arms hanging slack at his sides.
The creature standing behind him still had its talon-tipped hand spread out before it, fingers caked in blood, torn skin and muscle from where it had ripped into Arrant's heart through his spine. Death was instant, certainly, but that blank look on Arrant's face penetrated Chris most.
This was what Chris saw first in his mind as he reached for consciousness.
His temple throbbed from a blow he had taken in the attack, the blow that felled him. It was like dropping down through a tunnel of darkness, and now, confused as to the passage of time, or where he was, he climbed back up through that tunnel, and behind the barrier of his eyelids he met the face of Michael Arrant.
It haunted him, so alive and vibrant one moment, dead and blank the next. He had seen men die in front of him before, and been responsible for many of their deaths, but this was something completely different, something that clearly defined the threat that the people of Four Corners were up against. The ranch and trail slaughters had been a warning, yes, but this had taken place right in front of Chris Larabee's eyes and so fast, so silent, he hadn't known until it was too late for the little hunter.
With a gasp he snapped into full wakefulness and found himself lying in bed. At first he thought he was in his own boarding room, in his bed.
It was all just a nightmare, he guessed as he stared up through faint light at a vaguely defined ceiling. But that didn't explain the throbbing pain remaining in his temple. Cool air enshrouded his skin all over, and he looked down the course of his body to realize that he lay spread eagled and naked. Chris slept naked most of the time, purely for comfort reasons, so he was not at all surprised. It was when he thought to reach up with his right hand and rub the bridge of his nose that he realized he was bound.
His wrists were each tied to a bedpost, the same with his ankles, by twisted lengths of cotton sheets. His nudity jumped more readily to mind then. With a grunt he moved his head from one side to the other, attempting to survey the situation, but the pain stabbed at his temple more rapidly. No telling what kind of a bruise he had there, but it hurt like the original sonofabitch. Taking long, deep breaths, he forced the pain to a more tolerable level.
And then abruptly a curtain opened somewhere in the room, letting in a shaft of indirect light just bright enough to splinter Chris' vision. He winced and turned away from the sensation of needles stabbing into his eyes.
"Over time, the light is not so frightening," a feminine voice said softly.
Chris' stomach did a sickening turn, and he forced his eyes back open again, slowly rolled his head on the pillow and looked at a figure in black standing before the window. The rest of the room began to register with him as well, like that it was too large to be his boarding room, and the furnishings were too fine. This was a room in the hotel across from the boarding house, not his own little box.
And that figure. . .
A miserable groan wormed out of Chris' throat as he recognized the precise profile, the sharp jaw line, the shoulders and torso tapering down to a tiny waist.
She turned, revealing herself completely in the half-light, a warm glimmer in her eyes. . . euphoric insanity. She wore a black silk corset and a dressing gown tied loosely at the waist with a sash.
"Ella?" he rasped, and the throbbing in his head expanded, turned into a whirling pool of anger-hatred-remorse-fear. He was beyond words then, stricken silent as his throat constricted and all he managed to get out was a pitiful gurgle. Like choking on his own tongue.
"Hello, Christopher," she said evenly. One slender arm reached up and she closed the heavy curtain again, folding away the shaft of light and bathing the room in shadow once more. "Not so frightening," she repeated, "but still a problem." She strolled gracefully over to the nightstand and water basin and there picked up a matchbox. She struck a match and lit several candles placed along the stand. Then she took one candle in its little brass holder and moved across the room with it, trailing the scent of wax and jasmine perfume as she went.
Chris opened his mouth, prepared to snarl curses at her, but still nothing happened. He grated out a miserable groan.
"I have so yearned for this moment," she said casually as she stopped at the mantle to a tiny fireplace and lit a row of candles there. "We were always destined, and finally you will understand everything I did for you, and what I'm going to do for you." That done, she set the last candle down and turned to approach the bed, her steps silent, the flowing edges of her gown a whisper. The frills on the black lace sleeves fluttered with her movement.
Chris shook his head. This couldn't be happening. This was a nightmare. The vampires, the attack on the saloon, Ella here with him. It was all even more unbelievable than before.
"Ah, darling," she crooned, coming to sit on the edge of the bed and tilt her head to examine his grimacing face. The candlelight caught up to full illumination, casting warm golden hues on the edges of polished wood furnishings. It masked her face, and he saw how dark her eyes had become, how sinister and yet still glittering with inner warmth at him. She smiled, crimson lips curling back over two generous rows of perfectly white teeth. Her hand crept up to his stomach and lay flat over his abdominals.
He grunted and sucked in his gut at the cool touch. His wrists turned in their bonds, pulling uselessly. A single bedpost creaked at his efforts, but the bonds and their foundation held.
She traced over the contours of his muscles with a fingertip, finding the blotch of scar in his side, just below his ribs. Her eyes widened, recognizing it, that place where he had taken a bullet because he had hesitated to shoot her over a year ago. "I saw you get hurt," she whispered gently, and yet with an undertone of complete control. "And I swore it would never happen again. I'll be sure nothing, and no one, can ever harm you again."
Swiftly her hand slid up over his chest to his neck, up to his cheek. The caress was enough to finally jolt him out of his speechless shock.
"Get away from me, you bitch!" he spat and turned his face away, teeth gritted, and once more his throat tightened up on him.
She glared back at him and leaned over further, more prominently exposing the soft swell of her bosom above the corset. Then her hand gripped his chin and with strength he had not imagined in her, she forced his face back to her. "Chris, I saved you from that life, and I'm going to save you again."
He stared back with rage-reddened eyes. Lower lip trembling, he managed to whisper out the great question looming in his mind.
It sounded as if he asked how she planned to save him, but she obviously understood the context in which he meant it. The corner of her mouth quirked up, and she ran a tickling fingertip down between his pectorals.
"Fowler," she said breathily. She leaned down yet further, letting the long silky hair falling over her shoulder brush against his navel and near his cock.
His brows knitted in confusion, his memory accessing the name easily enough, but not finding what it had to do with this situation other than that Ella—the human Ella—had hired the man to kill Sarah and Adam Larabee.
"You never would have guessed it, would you?" she said and smiled. "The fact that he only confronted you at night?"
"No," he uttered. He closed his eyes to this and shook his head again. "He's dead. . . I saw him walk into that fire. . ."
Even as he said it, he realized what it really indicated, that Fowler had not died in that barn fire. In fact, there had been no evidence left, no bones, no piece of jewelry, nothing to prove he had indeed died. Everything had been completely incinerated.
Further clues began to pour forth, clues that Chris had missed because back then he had no idea that vampires existed.
The brutality with which the assassin Cletus Fowler operated. . . there was one clue. First Fowler had cut the throat of the bartender who had spoken to Chris while he was investigating the case, and hung the man up in the closet of Chris' hotel room. In connection, there had not been nearly enough blood on the scene of discovery, a fact that easily indicated the bartender had simply been killed elsewhere. Now it sufficed to guess that Fowler drank that blood before depositing his warning "present" in Chris' closet. Second, Fowler had eviscerated John Black Fox for attempting to make a witness statement on the Larabee family murders.
Then there was that particular point Ella had made, that Fowler only made his appearances at night. The only time he had appeared at all during the day was in a photograph, which had been taken indoors, and even then he stood back in the shadows. And as Ella had demonstrated, apparently vampires could stand minor exposure to the daylight as long as it was not direct.
It all made so much goddamned sense, Chris could only attempt denial. "No-no-no. . ." he uttered through his teeth.
"Do not be afraid," Ella whispered. "Cletus made me like him, a master." She swayed her head serenely back and forth, causing the fall of her hair to move over his skin, tickling, soothing. "He owed me, you see. Remember the hidden passage under the storage shed on my ranch? I gave him shelter there. I helped him find sustenance among the immigrant workers whom no one would miss, and I paid him well to deal with that whore wife of yours."
"Shut up," Chris hissed. Every muscle in his body cinched up, recoiled with all the fierceness of a rattler ready to strike. His wrists turned purple around the edges of the ties. Hot tears pooled in his eyes and lingered there, hazing his vision.
It was obviously the reaction Ella wanted. She remained icy calm as she drove the verbal dagger deeper. "He drank from her, you know, from her and that boy, then he made sure they would never rise by burning the house with their bodies in it."
"You bitch!" he shouted and the curses poured free. The tears spilled over and down the sides of his cheeks, leaking into his ears. "You goddamned fucking BITCH!" He thrashed as he shouted, pulling until the skin of his ankles and wrists was raw and burned, until the bed creaked as if it would collapse, until his head throbbed so much and his face was so red and hot that he could have passed out again from sheer exhaustion.
Ella simply eased off of the bed and backed away while he finished out the tantrum.
It continued for several minutes.
Tossing his body from side to side, wrinkling the duvet beneath him, he visualized being able to simply break free and dive for her, break her neck, pound on her face with his fist. Such imaginings, conflicting with the reality of his immobilized limbs, only served to fuel his frustration-rage. When finally his stressed body could take no more self-abuse, he broke down coughing and sobbing. Spittle gleamed along his lips, and sweat on his brow.
"You bi. . . i. . . i. . . i. . . tch. . ."
Ella walked to the door and opened it upon a darkened hallway, giving a gesture to someone outside.
Chris stared after her, his mind a muddle while he panted with all the raspy and worn breath of a dog dying in the desert heat, his lungs burning. He shuddered again when three goons entered, all women, young, perhaps once pretty. Their lips were slightly forced open by the crowding of their fangs, and he could swear he heard one of them purr like a sated cougar to its mistress.
Their ashen faces made their black and glossy eyes seem all that much more sunken, and they didn't so much as look at him as Ella stepped back into the middle of the room and held out her arms from her body like a ballet dancer, allowing them to undress her. One goon caught the dressing gown as Ella shrugged it off while another unlaced the corset.
"I understand your anger only so far, Chris," she spoke to him casually as she stood poised and waiting for the last of the laces to come out. "It is time to move on. I told you in my letter that we belong together. Soon you will see the truth. We were always destined to be, and now. . ." She stepped forward as the corset came free and her bare breasts shone round and milky in the light. Her nipples, dark red and hardened to fine nubs, seemed to stare back at Chris as intensely as her eyes. "Now we will be together forever."
Completely naked, she stepped forward, leaving her slaves behind. Her words made her intentions all too clear.
Chris panicked, summoning one more piece of strength to commence thrashing again. "No! Noooooooo! Don't you fucking touch me! DON'T you fucking TOUCH me!"
Somewhere between his incessant shouting, another voice answered him. It came from outside the room, somewhere down the hallway, and he heard the unsteady stamp of approaching feet.
Ella and her goons turned toward the voice, all hissing their disapproval as the lanky figure of Buck Wilmington bled into view in the darkened doorway.
Buck drew up short at the sight of Ella, his eyes darting from her to the bed and back. He was flushed and sweaty, wearing only his trousers and suspenders.
"Oh, God. . ." the tall gunslinger said under his breath and stared in complete shock, his hands reaching out to brace either side of the doorframe as if to keep from falling over.
"Bu. . . Buck. . ." Chris stammered, trying to lift his head and see his friend more clearly.
Buck bore some cuts and scrapes to his chest and arms and a minor bruise on his cheek. His wavy hair, damp with sweat, clung to his forehead and temples. Regardless of Ella standing there, completely nude, pale skin glowing like some vile moon goddess barring his way, he stumbled forward, one hand reaching out toward the other man stripped and helpless on the bed.
Ella pointed at him. "What is he doing here!" she shouted and her voice shifted to something demonic, strained like two shrieking voices crying over top of each other. "Get him out of here! Kill him!"
"No!" Chris shouted, pulling at the bonds, his body bowing up and then dropping down, his ass bouncing on the mattress and causing the floorboards to creak.
All three female goons dove at Buck, grabbing him by the arms, pulling him back toward the door. He thrashed against them, focused eyes full of nothing but concern for his friend.
The bed rattled under Chris' persistent shoving to and fro. One hand spread, attempted to turn out, quivering fingers reaching in vain.
Buck's captors dragged him toward the doorway, their claws tearing more gashes in his arms and chest. The darkness sprouted arms as more goons arrived, reaching in after him. They hissed and growled, feet scuffling over the floorboards. The whole hotel had apparently been turned into what Arrant called a nest, and Chris had to wonder how Buck had managed to even get into the room.
"Buck. . ." he whispered one last time as his oldest friend and his last hope was swallowed away into the dark. He could still hear the shouting. It turned from calling his name to cursing the vampire brood, growing ever more vicious yet further away until there was silence.
Dead? His energy drained, Chris' grasping hand went slack in its harness, as if he'd felt Buck's very life slip through his fingers. Dead? Buck. . . dead?
The thought wrenched at his soul, the regret unbearable that he had blamed Buck unfairly for so many things gone wrong in his own life—Sarah and Adam's murders, and how he had resented Buck's skirt chasing antics. But the life that had just ended had not deserved that. It had been rich and vibrant and fun-loving, and Chris had sneered at Buck's determination to enjoy whatever came his way, whether it be an adventure or a pretty girl. Chris now cursed himself. His cries had brought Buck running only to have Ella's rage condemn him. Hell, maybe all of this wouldn't be happening if a year ago he had listened to Buck's cautions on getting close to Ella. He had been so short-sighted, so stubborn, so stupid. . .
The sensation of sinking into the pit of his own personal darkness crept up.
And maybe, he wondered.
Just maybe. . .
He deserved this.
Whatever came next was for him to face, his punishment for all the piles of shit he had heaped on his friends and anyone else who tried to get close to him. . . for never taking responsibility for his actions, especially those that hurt Buck or any of the others who had done nothing but show him support and respected him as their leader.
Yeah, some leader. . .
Alone with her captive, Ella sauntered toward the door, her ebony hair spilling down her sculpted back, and closed the barrier with a simple and graceful turn of her body. Her hand still resting on the knob, she turned back, head tilted flirtatiously as she smiled again.
"Now," she said huskily, "where were we?"
Chris swallowed a glob of congestion. His tears left a web work of patterns over his cheeks that slowly dried. He recalled how he'd never expected to go up against something worse than Ella, until early one fall morning—yesterday morning, to be exact—he'd learned that there were worse nightmares roaming the earth, and the night. That realization was intensified here in this room, as he saw two evils merged together in the body of this woman.
He could see her strategy now, and how it had worked. She'd dug at his feelings for Sarah and Adam to get him to wear himself down, and Buck's desperate appearance had added to the friction working at every nerve and muscle.
She had simply let his own rage tire him.
Watching her cross the room and back to the foot of the bed, he pondered some way to take his own life. Like how? Hold his breath? He almost laughed at himself over that bullshit wish.
Then he cringed, arms tensing and pulling him as far toward the headboard as possible, when Ella climbed onto the bed at his feet.
"As I said, darling, there's nothing to be afraid of," she murmured and laid her cold hands on his inner thighs, massaging her way up to the patch of coarse sandy hair around his balls and slack, completely withdrawn cock. Her thumbs slid under either side of his sack and teased gently, while her fingers touched at his cock head.
At first the touch did nothing. No way in hell she could possibly arouse him, he figured, not after what she had done, and certainly not being what she was now, a dead thing still walking and breathing and preying on blood.
But then somewhere down there, a fingertip stroked over a nerve and tickled. The tickle branched out, became a warm quiver. Chris' eyes widened at the shock that his body was even remotely beginning to respond.
"Ahhhhh," Ella purred, "just let it happen, lover." She leaned over and slid herself up between his legs, hands still working. Her thumbs lifted his balls up, massaged deep into the scrotum, working the orbs within around in a circling motion, and then she leaned in, wrapped her lips around one side, and pulled inward.
"No, please. . ." Chris whispered as his groin began to crawl with a life all its own. The lips sucking on that one ball seemed excruciatingly frigid, and yet began to warm, as if absorbing the heat off of him, adapting to whatever surface they touched.
Ella moaned, and the vibrations it produced sent a ripple of pleasure from his sack up into the base of his cock.
His own lips formed the word no again, but no sound came out, only a weak stutter of breath. He felt the silky touch of her hair on his inner thigh, the slight rub of her shoulder, and turned his head away, closed his eyes tightly and tried to shut her out.
It didn't work.
While the vision of her went away, her touches and her kisses did not. She moved from sucking and kissing on one ball to the other, pulling it in, applying enough pressure to torment him, then gently letting it slide out. She lifted his cock in one hand and licked the underneath side, up to the head, and there waggled her tongue back and forth near the slit which began to ooze clear fluid.
The result appalled Chris as his body betrayed him and blood began to flush into his member. He shook his head slowly, kept his eyes closed tightly.
Ella hummed softly into his skin, pleased that it responded as she wished. "That's it," she coaxed and repeated, "just. . . let. . . it. . .happen." Then her mouth came down on him, took him in all the way to the hilt. As she drew off, she tightened her lips into an "O" stimulating him from root to stem.
Chris felt the smooth curve of one of her breasts brush against his leg. Her arms stretched out and her hands moved up over his torso while she kept his cock captured in her mouth and growing larger by the second. Now her fingers pinched his nipples, rolled them around. He attempted to maneuver his upper body from side to side and escape, but the movement only served to aid Ella in coaxing his flesh. He was at full hardness now, his cock completely gorged, and miserably he opened his eyes, stared out from between tear-sopped lashes at her head and its bridal veil mass of black hair moving up and down rhythmically over his hidden staff.
When at last she pulled off of him, she straightened and stared directly into his green eyes, her own murky orbs suddenly capturing him. It was like her pupils had opened up into deep inky wells, absorbing him into her. Unable to look away, he stared, experiencing something he couldn't figure out. Morbid fascination perhaps, or perhaps he was just giving up. If he couldn't control his body, what did he have left?
"Yes," she husked. "Just give into it, lover."
The voice, smoky and lathered with lust, sank in, spoke to every part of him, and he found he couldn't hold together one more coherent thought. She rose up onto her knees and straddled him, her fingers still playing with his nipples, while the dark little triangle of her pussy glanced along the underside of his cock where her tongue had been moments before.
She lifted up a little further, positioned herself, and in one neat and clean slide rode down his shaft. Her inner passage smoothed around him, velvety and moist. He didn't really notice that it was cool in there, only that it snugged around him perfectly and he gasped.
Ella sighed her own pleasure and smiled at him. "This is how we belong, Chris."
Caught in her eyes, he sighed back, and instinctively flexed his cock inside her.
She inhaled sharply, and her smile broadened as she threw back her head, closed her eyes, and rolled her shoulders forward and back, luxuriating in the little teasing pleasure he'd given her.
The eye contact broken, Chris blinked and suddenly realized what he had just done. He was about to voice an objection, find another curse to spit at her, start thrashing again, anything, when she skillfully rocked her hips forward. Her head was still thrown back, her hair cascading down her back, which arched in, her breasts thrust out like twin beacons.
She rocked again and erupted into intoxicated laughter.
Chris tried to arch his upper body, thus pushing his ass down so he could pull himself out of her, but her knees cinched in, tucked at the base of his ribs, and that supernatural strength trapped him. She raised her head and looked down at him, her lips parted, and for the first time he saw the twin tips of her canines as they lengthened. Gradually at first, and then they were at full bud, long and sharp and. . . hungry.
"Huhn-uh," Chris groaned in objection.
She snarled at him and rocked harder.
Air hissed through Chris' teeth as he almost came.
"Come on, lover," she spat, "show me you've still got what it takes." Another rock and she laughed again in that husky, pleasure-drunk way. "Come on."
Chris tossed his head to the side, right onto the temple that had the bruise, hoping that the pain would snap him out of it, force some control down into his traitorous dick. It hurt like holy hell, and perhaps for a moment he had some control, but then Ella reached down and seized his face in her hands, held his head still, all the while still rocking until finally, the friction of his shaft against her tunnel wall produced.
Chris cried out miserably as he came inside her, tried to pry his head free and look away, anywhere but at the creature riding him.
Ella's laughter caught between breaths, and then rose again to full force as her captive reached completion. Chris could have sworn he heard a deep purr slither out of her throat. He closed his eyes again, swallowed hard and nearly choked on it as his breath heaved and coughed back out. The disappointment in himself for not having more willpower was excruciating.
She leaned down, her lips close to his. "That just means you're mine, lover," she whispered into his mouth. Then she let him go, straightened up onto her knees, and slid off of him.
He didn't know what to expect next as she crawled backward down the length of his body and back to focusing her attention on his cock as it remained half erect and gleaming with a combination of his cum and her juice.
"And now. . ." she said, her eyes intensely serious. "Eternity."
Then she lay down between his legs and bit deep into the inside of his thigh, close in to his groin, and tapped the vein.
Chris Larabee screamed.
Buck recognized the hotel lobby as he awakened, finding himself sprawled on the settee in the lounge, face down, one arm dangling to the floor, the other cramped uncomfortably beneath his body. With a grunt at the little stab of pain in the base of his skull, he lifted his head and thought he heard whispering nearby, or the soft pad of scurrying feet.
The place was empty. . . dim.
Boards had been nailed over the windows, pinning the drawn curtains against glass and frame. It was sloppy. Not all of the boards neatly lined up, so there were a few little slivers of light around the edges, or where a curtain panel was wrinkled. It was enough to define the patterns in the Persian rug spread beneath the settee, or the lion-footed legs of a plant stand turned over on its side, dirt and pieces of fern scattered about like a twister had come through. Still, it wasn't enough light to be of any help to Buck.
The air around him was stagnant and touched his skin with a waxiness that made him feel immediately dirty, and then the smell of shit and decay hit him. It was faint yet powerful enough to turn his stomach.
Easing up into a sit and freeing the pinned arm to restore circulation, he massaged gently at the back of his head. He remembered the fight and seeing Chris get side swiped by one of the goons in the saloon. The blow sent Larabee spinning like a rag doll until he slammed into the edge of a table and fell backward, out cold. Buck had run to his friend's side, practically skidded in on his knees, and scooped Chris' limp upper body into his arms, his mind racing at plans to cross the room. . . somehow. . . and get out of the saloon. It was almost dawn out there. At least they might have the chance of being saved by the sun.
But how? All around him, the saloon patrons who had holed up for the night were dying. He cringed to see a decapitation on one side of the room, an evisceration on the other. . . blood ejecting everywhere.
Then something popped him at the base of his skull and he collapsed instantly, dropping Chris, falling on top of him.
Now here he was, in the hotel.
He listened, hearing only silence at first, then the creak of a board from somewhere overhead. Looking up at the ceiling, he rationalized that someone was upstairs, and he had no particular compulsion to go up there and find out who it was. But what if it was Chris? Buck took a deep breath and stood. If it was Chris, then that was another story. He stood slowly, fighting a dizzy rush and the little jolt of pain in the back of his head. Damn but those goons could hit hard.
Gripping the carved wooden armrest on the settee, he got to his feet and only when his bare feet were planted on the Persian rug and he felt its scratchy fibers under his toes, did he look down and realize that he was half naked. His trousers were still on, and his suspenders, though one hung lazily off his shoulder. No gun belt, no shirt, no boots or a single sock.
"The hell—“ he murmured and looked around, forgetting that his head hurt or that he was in a room that had been shut up to keep out the sunlight. He moved carefully, looking for signs of life, and found none. What he did find was the body of a young woman lying against the front desk in the expansive main lobby. The hotel owner too, lay sprawled in the corridor of the lower floor. That was where the reek of shit came from. Their bowels had spilled at the point of death. Buck clamped a hand over his nose and mouth, filtering out the smell as much as possible.
He thought he heard another creak overhead, and he stepped toward the central stairwell that led up to the balcony, which in turn gave access to the hallway and connecting rooms. Someone was definitely up there, but he wasn't going to go charging up.
As if to remind him what a pickle he was in, two goons, both male, suddenly stepped out of the darkened corridor upstairs and onto the balcony, looking down at him from the railing.
Buck tensed, instinctively backing slowly toward the front door, his eyes remaining fixed on the threat above. His hand felt for the knob only to find it torn off, the double doors also covered over and secured with a crisscross of boards.
He waited, but the goons made no move. Their breath rasped in the eerie quiet of the hotel, and their claws clicked on the railing, but they stayed put, watching him. Spine tingling uncomfortably, Buck kept his eyes on them while he eased toward the front desk and under the balcony, loosing sight of them as he slipped into the hallway there. He stepped over the owner's body, resisting the urge to look down. The faint buzz of a fly added its own element of death.
He wondered at the skill with which the vampire attack had been carried out. Nothing Michael Arrant had told him, or the rest of the Seven, could have prepared them for it. Hell, even the little hunter hadn't had a chance. Arrant was sliced and dead before most of the folks housed up in the saloon had realized what was happening.
Buck felt his stomach lurch harder, and again he covered his mouth as he padded down the hallway and past the dark mouth of an open door. A sharp and displeased hiss erupted from the dark and he nearly hit the ceiling. Clamping down on a yelp of surprise, he skirted the opening, seeing nothing but what might have been the gleam of black eyes. Floorboards creaked from inside the room, but nothing emerged. Why they were leaving him alone, he couldn't figure.
Hurrying on, he veered into the hotel kitchen. Ah, at least he might find some sort of makeshift weapon. . . a knife, maybe a broom handle that he could break off into a stake. Hell, a frying pan would make him happy. He scanned the kitchen, noting a mess of pots and pans scattered over the floor, and a single congealing pool of blood where someone else had been killed. There was no body, just a smear of a trail where it had been dragged away.
Another fly buzzed somewhere within the confines, and Buck realized what an immediate intolerance he was developing toward the little critters. Swiping a hand through his hair, smearing back sweat from his brow, he rummaged about, no longer so quiet as he pulled open drawers and cabinets, making his way over to the cast iron stove that still radiated minor heat from the previous night. Near the stove he spotted the back door, also completely boarded. The window next to it was boarded too, except for one minor ribbon of light that beamed in between two of the slats. It was a brilliant beam, and he realized he was facing out the southeast side of the hotel. He could be safe here, he thought, if he could pry those boards off and bring in the sun.
Movement through the crack caught his attention and he anxiously leveled his eyes to peer through. Out there in the brilliant daylight, he recognized the tall, broad-shouldered figure of Josiah Sanchez scouting the back streets of the town with a Winchester shotgun tucked under one arm. There wasn't much back behind the hotel, just the grounds for the miners' camp which had been long since leveled when the first massacres started moving toward Four Corners and it was deemed unsafe to sleep outdoors.
"Josiah," Buck said under his breath, and his fingertips wormed desperately through the crack, finding a gripping point on the board. He pulled back on it but felt no give, paused to take another glimpse. Josiah was about twenty yards out, too far away to hear Buck give a quiet call, and it was too dangerous to risk shouting to him. Even if the goons he'd encountered so far had avoided him, Buck didn't want to suddenly find the means to bring their wrath down on him. He pulled harder when he saw that Josiah was about to turn and head back down the side street. The board gave a loud crack as one side came free, pulling out a jagged arrangement of long nails. Buck pulled down, causing more wood to creak as the board gave and lowered, widening the crack enough that he could get his hand through and bang on the glass. He grunted as splinters drove into his skin, as the board, firmly nailed in place on the other side of the window frame, didn't give easily.
Little wonder it was a surprise to Josiah to hear a screechy-scratchy knock from nearby. The movement of the hand wedged between two panels of wood was not so easy to spot behind the sun's reflection on the glass.
Then from the inside, Buck gritted his teeth, made a fist, and jabbed. A patch of glass broke wide open, jangling to the ground, shards catching in his skin. He hissed air through his teeth as he withdrew his hand and shook it, raining loose some of the shards as he looked through.
"Josiah," he hissed a little louder, and was greatly relieved to hear the dusty footfalls hurry closer.
"Buck?" the preacher's voice said as he came to a stop a few feet away.
Buck could only guess what must have gone down at the church while the saloon was under attack. He hunched up, gritted his teeth as he had to pull one of the pieces of glass out from between his index and middle finger, then he dropped the bloody wedge to the floor. "Yeah, Josiah, it's me," he called back, still keeping his voice at a loud hiss.
Josiah's blue eyes attempted to focus through the blackened crack between the boards, only glimpsing Buck's own stare blinking back at him. Buck wormed his hand back through the crack, offering a pitiful wave.
Then Josiah closed the distance and reached up toward the hole in the glass, his fingertips barely touching Buck's. "What are you doing in there?"
It was a serious, and understandable question, but Buck had no time to really answer it. He withdrew his hand to open up the view a little more. "Josiah, you all right?"
"Yeah, well. . ." The preacher looked away, tossing the shotgun up to rest on his shoulder. "For now." He looked pissed off, and sad, and a variety of other emotions drifted across his heavy gray brow as he resumed firm eye contact.
"What do you mean?" Buck said, putting his lips up closer to the crack so he could speak louder. His hands came back up to grip the lower board, widening the gap a little more.
Josiah reached up and pulled back the collar of his shirt. Between his collarbone and the dip below his Adam's apple, two long cuts, wide at the top and tapering off, still oozed blood. "If what that Arrant fella said about getting scratched or bit is true, then I'm infected," he responded bitterly.
Buck's mouth bobbed open and he jittered nervously behind the panel before pulling back with more force, nearly ripping it completely out of the wall. "No," he uttered in denial. "No, it can't be that easy. . . you think you're. . ." He trailed off, another thought hitting him.
The preacher still looked sad for a moment, but he responded calmly. "He's all right, but. . ." he looked away again. "Me and Nathan. . ."
"Shit," Buck whispered, and tears dampened his eyes. "They got us at the saloon, right before dawn."
"Yeah," Josiah replied. "Nathan and I been looking for survivors, but there aren't many. The telegraph lines have been cut so we can't send for help that way, and Lord God, what would we say anyhow?" He shook his head and looked down at the dust. "Don't know where Vin and Ezra are."
"They ran the last patrol," Buck recalled, and felt his throat tighten up.
Everything was going to hell in the proverbial hand basket too fast for him
to keep up. "But Nathan, he's like you?"
"Yeah," Josiah said. He appeared to be tangling with it inside himself, only calm as possible on the outside. "Took a bite on the arm when they attacked the church." No question what they meant. "What happened to you?"
"Got slammed on the head. Don't remember anything else." Buck glanced over his shoulder. "Don't know where Chris is."
Josiah's eyes roamed hastily over the window and the door then up the side of the building.
"Everything's boarded up," Buck explained. "This place is full of goons, but they haven't touched me, so for all I know I'm infected too. Don't know what the hell's going on."
"We gotta get you out of there," Josiah insisted and started for the door.
"No," Buck hissed. "There's something going on here, Josiah. I got a feeling these things chose Four Corners for some reason. Not just to feed. That Arrant kid kept talking about some master vampire running this gang. We need to find the master and kill him or this thing is gonna keep spreading."
"But how do we find him, and how do we tell a master from the rest?" His voice was beginning to rise with concern for his trapped friend. "We took these things to be just. . . mindless. . . but they still pulled off a scheme, attacked right before dawn. . ."
"After we let our defenses down. Yeah, I caught that too." Buck tensed as something banged on the floor upstairs and he thought he heard someone shout. It was faint, but startling enough that he backed away from the window to cock an ear and listen for more. After a moment of silence he eased back toward the crack. "Look, I think Chris is in here somewhere and I'm gonna find him before I go anywhere. You gotta get J.D. to leave town."
"Won't be easy. You know he's looking for you all over."
"Figure out something," Buck insisted. "This place is cursed, Josiah. We've lost this town. The only thing we can do is get the survivors out. You get J.D. to leave. Whatever survivors there are, you get them out and you send him with them." The thought of the kid dead or infected with vampirism ushered a sinking feeling into his gut and heated his head with every possible variety of worry. The hotel's confines suddenly seemed even more overpowering.
"I'll see what I can do. Buck, I. . ." Josiah's eyes now filmed over, but like Buck's his tears merely suspended along the line of his lashes but didn't fall over. "I don't know how long I have, or Nathan."
"Don't think about it, Josiah," Buck insisted with a harsh spit. The last thing any of them needed was to give up completely. "We'll figure something out, you hear me?" But he knew there was a tone of pure desperation seeping out in his voice. He felt like his point wasn't strong enough, and to enforce it, he pushed his hand back out through the crack and up to the hole he'd made in the glass. "You hold on, Josiah. You and Nathan both."
This time their fingertips did touch, but there wasn't enough reach for their hands to grip.
"Vaya con el dios, amigo," the preacher said softly.
"You too, buddy," Buck answered back and withdrew his hand. He lingered at the opening long enough to listen to Josiah's footsteps grind away, and then he knelt down, looking back across the kitchen floor at the pool of blood and the mess of pots and pans.
It was then that he heard the shouting begin upstairs. The anguish inflicted outcry of Chris Larabee.
"You goddamned fucking bitch!"
The ceiling might have muffled the volume, but the words were clear. Not only that, but something was banging on the floor above, scraping back and forth, like someone was pounding a headboard into the wall. Buck looked up, wet dangles of hair slapping his forehead. In the first few seconds he examined the outcries, focused on where exactly they came from. . . to the right or the left side of the upstairs hallway. . . near the front of the hotel or the rear. Then he bolted from the kitchen and started down the hallway, almost tripping over the body still lying there.
"You goddamned fucking bitch!" the voice from above still cried.
Stumbling into the central lobby, Buck shouted surprise when a huddle of goons near the lounge entrance hissed and recoiled as if ready to strike. But they held back, leaving him to wander backward, staring at them on alert. Damn, he'd forgotten to grab something from the kitchen. Another shout upstairs drew his attention. His gaze darted up along the step railing to the balcony, then back to the goons.
Then another figure stepped into view in the opening to the lounge.
Buck gaped for a moment.
The vampire was male, and to Buck's surprise handsome save for the features that distinguished him from a human: the tips of his fangs showing slightly at the part in his lips, the pallid hue of his skin. He was tall, his hair a honey-blond mass of long waves, and he gazed back with green eyes that appeared flecked with gold, much like the eyes of a wolf. In the partial light emitted through the uneven boards, they seemed to glow like amber pieces held up before a candle flame.
"So," the vampire said, the corners of his mouth turning up in amusement, "awake, are we?" He spoke in a strangely soothing, but certainly inhuman, growl that also bore an accent. Not exactly Hispanic, and not French. European something was all Buck could figure. Unlike the goons in their graven rags, this one also had Ezra's fashion sense, and sported a black waistcoat with silk accents, and a shirt with a cravat fixed at the collar.
Buck took a step back and unconsciously reached up to grasp at the lower stair railing where it dipped into an elegant swirl of oak and brass trim. "You sta. . ." he stammered. "Stay away from me." Of its own volition, his hand found one of the more narrow spokes in the railing, felt the smooth wood, and in desperation tugged at it.
"Heh," the vampire mused as it became obvious what his captive intended to do. Calmly he gave a gesture toward Buck. "Bring him here."
Buck saw them coming and shouted as he pulled harder, as if his very voice aided in the effort to pull the spoke free. With a snap it broke out of the fixture, one end more blunt, the other a jagged point. Not as sharp as he would have liked, but it would do. He held the makeshift stake up like a knife and made a jabbing motion with it. "Yeah, come on you pus bag," he threatened, but couldn't control the shake in his voice, or his hand.
One of the goons started for him then pulled back when he jabbed with the stake again. Then he completely lost focus on defending himself when the cries upstairs reached full volume.
"No! Noooooooo! Don't you fucking touch me! DON'T you fucking TOUCH me!"
"What are you doing to him?" Buck demanded of the tall blond vampire who remained watching, greatly entertained by the commotion. When there was no answer, Buck returned his own distress cry.
He turned and ran up the steps, vaguely aware that the goons were on his heels. One scrambled so closely behind that he felt the minor scratch of its claws nearly snag an ankle. Climbing so rapidly he almost tripped over himself, Buck came down on one knee and accidentally dropped the thin stake. It clattered down the steps behind him, and he glanced back at the approaching goon. In a panic he kicked out, nailing the goon in the face with the ball of his foot. The feeling of hitting such cool flesh with his own exposed skin made him jerk his foot back like he'd stepped on a scorpion. With a shudder he turned and pounded his way all the way up to the landing.
All the while, Chris Larabee's voice poured out a tirade of curses and objections from somewhere near. Buck merely followed it as if pulled on a rope.
One of the doors ahead was open, a panel of golden flickering light falling across the hallway from the passage. Buck veered into that lighted opening, sweat draining off of his brow and around the hollow of his cheek, and stopped short, stunned by the sight before him: his closest and oldest friend bound to the four posts of a bed, stripped to bare skin.
But it was the figure in the foreground who had Buck Wilmington's full attention.
Ella Gaines—Buck would never forget her name or her face—stood like an ivory statue, her hourglass shape turned about and poised with tension. Her face greeted him with a blazing glower and eyes as black as a lake surface at night. She was flanked on three sides by goons: her maid servants, Buck realized.
"Oh, God. . ." he gasped. What other words could have come out of his mouth at that moment? He gripped the doorframe to keep himself steady when he found Ella pointing directly at him. He heard Chris murmur his name, so week and frightened and. . . Oh, God, he thought again, what was that bitch doing to Chris! Remnants of tears glistened on the captive man's face.
"What is he doing here!" she raged, her voice an unearthly roar-shriek. "Get him out of here! Kill him!"
The women dove at him, reaching with their claws, hissing and spitting and growling like famished wild cats.
Chris cried out an objection and began to thrash on the bed, which explained the thumping and bumping noises Buck had heard all the way downstairs.
Tackled in goon arms, Buck stumbled backward, managed to get his feet under him, and pushed back toward Chris, blindly reaching now, frustrated as he got no closer, as more arms reached around him from outside in the hallway, and that last shout ripped out of him, some part of it laced with a plea that Chris forgive him this failure.
He felt claws tear his flesh but at some point, pain like that meant nothing. His heart pounded to the point the blood gushing through his temples consumed him. He didn't even remember how hard he fought as he was dragged back down the hallway and stairs, only that his face was hot and sweaty, and he had a runny nose, and he was suddenly back down in the lobby. Cool goon hands shackled him in. They had pulled off his trousers, cast them into a corner somewhere, and he now stood completely naked, squirming with childlike squeamishness as their hands felt him, down between his thighs, behind his neck. They lifted him off the ground, and bore him onto his back, hovering above blood-stained carpet. His limbs flailed as they situated him then locked him in place as if lain out on a table, his head tilted back and his throat exposed.
Above his head, the goons opened a path for the blond vampire, who stepped into view smiling down at his captive.
"Let's get to business, shall we?" the vampire asked casually and reached down to stroke spindly fingers through Buck's hair, sweeping it almost gently back from his face so that it cascaded downward.
Buck had put a damper on shouting, crying, screaming. He didn't want to give this fucker the pleasure of hearing his cries. He bit viciously at the hand that gracefully traced around from smoothing his hair to stroking at his mustache.
"Mr. Wilmington, I presume," the vampire said.
It was no doubt a shock tactic, for Buck had no idea how the creature knew his name. He stared up at the underneath of the sharp chin and felt those gold and green eyes bore into him, the lids hooded and sinister. The hand on his face went to caressing his cheek, then massaging at his neck. Twin fingertips laid against his pulse and felt the hammering rhythm.
"I don't believe you understand exactly what you've been chosen for," the vampire said. "It's quite an honor, but there are. . . shall we say. . . precautions, that must be taken." He withdrew his hand and ran it down the front of his shirt, unfastening hidden buttons, loosening the cravat. Like acting valets some of the goons helped him out of his jacket, until his upper body was bare. He flexed his shoulders and tossed his hair back proudly. Then he wove one hand down inside the front of his pants, stroking himself, while he unfastened the clasps and folded open the tongue of material, freeing the growing length of his cock.
The organ hovered above Buck's face, and he could smell a strange tangy mix of musk and corrosion. Clearly realizing what was about to come, Buck flexed his arms and legs, attempted to get the goons to drop him, but the sudden motions were futile, and their hold on him grew tighter. He cringed to feel one of them drool on the expanse of his taut belly as he bowed up.
The vampire leaned in a little, swept the tip of his cock head through the damp silky spill of Buck's hair and smiled. "So strong, but I will only make you stronger."
Buck's eyes darkened, pupils dilating to let in more light. His mind shifted back in time, back to a whorehouse in Texas where his mama was beaten by a client. . . a client who then turned his rage upon her son and found instead of beating, a desire to bury his cock in the boy's fifteen year old flesh. Buck remembered the experience instantly, from the grubby hands fondling him, to the stabbing pain in his ass, to the warm muck shooting up inside him. And utmost he remembered thinking afterwards how he would never let it happen to him again. The vision of his rapist appeared above him and melded with the face of the vampire. His jaw clenched up and he spoke breathily through his teeth.
"You do this, you better just kill me. You better make sure I stay dead because otherwise I'm comin' back for you."
His tormentor only seemed further amused by this statement. "Ah, but I don't think you'll feel that way once you've tasted it."
Buck was preparing a retort when his captor's hands closed on the sides of his jaw and strong, hard thumbs bore into the hollows of his cheeks, forcing his jaw open, at the same time his head was pulled back and down. This time he didn't even have time to cry out before the fleshy rod forced into his mouth, deep into his throat. His gag response instantly kicked in and tried to expel the intruder. His eyes clenched shut, squeezing out tears, and he could feel the cool soft skin of the vampire's balls press into his nose and hold there, waiting cruelly until his lungs burned and his body bowed up of its own accord trying to pull in breath.
Then the organ was pulled out and poised at the dribbling edges of Buck's lips, giving him a pale moment to breathe.
The thumbs holding his mouth open pressed in a little harder, as his lips swelled and bruised from the abuse. Stinging tears ran into his hairline.
Then the cock plunged forward again, sliding over his tongue and up against the very back of his throat. . . and further. . . held there like a huge fleshy cork stopping his breath again. . . then back.
He imagined being able to bite down, to inflict the worst pain possible, but even in his increasingly muddled state of mind, he had to wonder if vampires felt pain. They were dead. Dead wasn't supposed to feel.
After only a few more quick strokes that seemed like a thousand, the assault on his mouth stopped. The cock, now rock hard and gorged, pulled free, trailing a stream of spittle, and Buck's jaw was released. He immediately turned his head to the side coughing as regulated breath came back with scathing force to this raw throat. When he opened his eyes, he saw that the vampire had disappeared, and the goons had filled in the space.
Now they held the captive more upright, spread his legs further apart, and made a new path for their master. Buck coughed harder and more tears drained from his eyes, the loss of breath fatiguing enough that he had no more will left to really fight back physically. It evoked a conscious decision, the means to survive, the means to have vengeance not just for himself but for Chris, for Michael Arrant, for the people of Four Corners and the rest of the Seven whose lives were now changed forever. It was the most desperate decision he had ever made, and resolved to it, he waited.
He found the vampire standing before him, reaching between his legs and cradling his balls, massaging them, stroking deep under his ass near his opening. His cock stirred to life and he flinched from it, but the vampire had skilled hands that worked him with a gentleness he never would have expected. His arms and legs remained tense in the goons' grip on him, muscles tightened to the breaking point. They held up his head by the hair, made sure he watched the master inch in closer, until he was looking so directly into those eyes, and his own gaze traveled down to watch the lips move, and he found himself oddly fascinated as he got a closer look at the tips of the fangs, so precise and sharp, and slightly curved inward. Made not only for piercing, but for tearing.
"My name is Christobal," the vampire whispered to him and stroked a little harder.
Buck winced and his brows knitted. His cock flexed and he knew he was going to be stiff soon. Shit, some things just couldn't be turned off. The blazing sex drive for which he had been so proud was suddenly double-crossing him. Or maybe the vampire had some kind of snake-oil-magic-trick-evil-eye power over him, which was the only thing that really made sense, because the last thing Buck would have found arousing were those icy cold hands working his wand.
"Say my name," the vampire insisted, his breath a tickling hush into Buck's ear.
Buck worked his mouth gently, finding the corners of his lips sore from being stretched. He pursed up, shaped the first sounds of the name, and then let go with a bullet wad of spit that slapped into the vampire's cheek and fanned out in the perfect pattern of bird shit on a fence post. Tiny bubbles glistened in the spatter and began to run downward.
The vampire didn't budge at first. He froze, still staring deep into the captive's eyes, and then he let go of Buck's cock and reached up, smeared the spittle away in one neat stroke and transferred it over to Buck's cheek, where he slid it over the sweat-drenched skin. The sharp tip of his claw came close to the captive's lower eyelid.
Buck didn't blink. He seized that moment. With a snarl he lashed out and bit down on the vampire's hand, catching the heel at the base of the thumb. He felt the skin split and a thin wash of vile tasting blood rinsed through his teeth and onto his tongue.
The vampire held his hand still as if it were caught in the mouth of a rabid dog and to move would mean to stir the animal's ferocity. But he only smiled, remaining calm. "I like you very much, Mr. Wilmington," he crooned. "I like you. . . so very much." Then without warning he shoved his cock up full force into Buck's vulnerable ass. Uncanny how perfect his aim was. He didn't even need to line himself up and he was in, sheathed to the hilt.
Buck's mouth opened involuntarily, freeing the hand, and he bowed up. The burning, tearing sensation gripped him so tightly, cut off his voice, and he hovered on the edge of shock.
The vampire held the position, waiting it out as his captive shook and shivered, and Buck's eyes fixed on the ceiling, glazing over as all that existed was this sharp, fiery pain consuming him from inside.
Cold hands gripped at his ass hard enough to bruise, pulled his cheeks wider apart. The acrid taste of the blood lingered like rotten fruit. "Say my name," the vampire said softly into his ear.
Buck's mind fought to find a more proper response, some ultra scathing insult to fling at his rapist, but all retaliation went askew and he could only respond by bouncing back the answer. "Chris. . ." There was an instant of comfort as the first of it spilled out of his mouth. Then discord as he filled in the rest of the name. "Christobal," he whispered, eyes still gazing at the white void above.
"Very good, you win first prize."
Christobal began to truly fuck his captive then, pulling back and thrusting forward, putting more vigor into each successive shove, until Buck rocked up and down in the goons' arms, eyes rolling to stay focused, some part of him wishing so very much that this would be over. He didn't feel the tears now when they came. They were only his body reacting, finding some natural way to channel out the agony of violation by this very unnatural creature.
Buck almost didn't notice it when Christobal came. He was suddenly very cold inside, while simultaneously he felt the vampire's fangs plunge into the side of his neck, down low near his collarbone, tearing free a glob of skin and spilling warm blood down his chest. Buck dropped his head back, granting better access, vaguely hearing the goons begin to hiss and mewl anxiously for a share.
He didn't notice when the vampire pulled his dripping prick out of his ass, or that he had been settled upright enough to be cradled against Christobal. The master vampire fed quickly, allowing the goons to lap away the run off as it spilled over Buck's chest and down between his legs. Chilled and weak, he felt like his bones had melted, rendering his limbs useless. Then abruptly Christobal stopped feeding and took a hold of Buck's head by the hair and guided him, pressed the captive's mouth into his own cool skin at his throat.
"Bite," the vampire commanded.
Buck didn't really have the strength, and it was with the aid of Christobal's own claw that he made a gash deep enough to release the flow of the red-black fluid. He tasted it to the fullest now, found it both foul and wonderful, like a mix of salt and very strong and smoky whiskey, that settled into his belly and from there found its way into his own veins. Gluttonously he swallowed another mouthful and drew in another. . . and another. . . until it was so easy. . . so. . . very. . . easy. . .
He felt death creep up on him like millions of tiny worms wriggling around inside him, eating into him, becoming part of him. And right before he completely bled out, before everything went dark, he had one last moment of clarity.
I'm coming back for you. . .
Nathan figured, after a century, he'd have adapted to his companions' quirky habits. It might no longer be necessary for him to look after their wounds, but that didn't stop the healer that still lurked in him from being concerned.
"Did everyone decide to sleep outside all day?" he demanded as a dirt-caked J.D. walked through the motel door and big brown eyes blinked at him. It almost melted Nathan's anger, except that he knew that was no longer just a boy in that young body. That was a man, an old man—even if they did still call him "the kid"—who had learned over the years how to use his boyish looks and charms to pull off all sorts of capers.
"Oh, jeez, Nathan," J.D. exclaimed. His cycling chaps and jacket were pristine, indicating he'd removed them before digging in, and he had his beloved helmet tucked under one arm and a crumpled McDonald's bag under the other. The smell of hot foot accosted all of them, and this they endeavored to ignore. "I had a slow hunt, and an awful cleanup, so I couldn't get back in time," he explained. "Sunup hit me on the highway back so I pulled over. I'm sorry."
"You didn't call in," Nathan scolded.
"That's because he left his cell phone here," Ezra replied casually from where he sat at the table with his own laptop opened. His fingers clattered mercilessly over the keys at the same time he spoke, a skill no doubt spun off from his ability to deal cards and watch for cheaters at the same time. "That infernal squealing concerto on the time setting went off in my room at exactly five-thirty this evening."
J.D. blinked again. "Oops." He looked around the room, noticed Vin, also dirt-smeared, lingering near the bathroom door, waiting and studying something on a clipboard. Josiah was nowhere in sight, and the hiss of running water and the bathroom fan filtered through the door. Country music murmured and twanged from a small radio positioned on the edge of the table. "Who's in there?" he asked, giving a head-toss toward the door.
Nathan opened his mouth to speak.
"Chris and Buck," Ezra replied, still typing. His focus faltered only for a moment as he glanced at Vin, who continued to study the clipboard.
"So," J.D. tossed out his arms in a shrug, the huge helmet gripped in his right hand, "when are we leaving? I thought Chris wanted to get back to the ranch by Wednesday night."
"In due time," Ezra said and with a graceful, one fingered motion, snapped at one last key on the laptop. The little speaker sounded a notice that an email had been sent. "Four Corners isn't going anywhere."
"I got news for you, Ezra, neither are we," Vin muttered, meaning it in both an abstract and literal sense. "Looks like Nathan and I have to cast more ammunition," he said, looking up at the former healer. "We used up a good three-hundred graphite slugs this go'round. Those things are a bitch to make, you know," his voice started rising with irritation at anyone who was listening. "Need to start using crossbows more often, least you can buy bolts at any sports store."
"Damn," Nathan said. "We're that sloppy?"
"I beg to differ, Mr. Tanner," Ezra replied dryly. "Crossbows are cumbersome, as I believe the nether regions of your anatomy discovered not long ago."
"Should'a been your anatomy," Vin argued.
Nathan threw up his hands. "I am not touching that," he remarked then repeated it under his breath as he went over to the other laptop he'd left on the bedside and buried himself in the news boards.
"I did warn you about stashing that catapult in your capote," the gambler still addressed the tracker. "It's not like you have some trans dimensional or quantum pocket storage facility hidden in there."
"Okay, Ezra," Vin snapped, "then how about you make the goddamned bullets from here on."
"Oh, sure, if you don't mind keeping our stock portfolio to fund this little crusade." Ezra calmly eased back in his chair and cocked a brow at the tracker, his green eyes even, cold. "I'm sure you can take trading courses online. . . If you'd be willing to learn to use a computer, that is."
J.D. shrugged. This was getting just a tad out of hand, but then it always did. They bickered, scratched, pinched, bit, but never really meant anything by it. After so long, how could they not and be in each other's company constantly? He crossed over to the bedroom door on the right and there deposited his helmet and leathers, stripping down to tee and jeans to wait his turn in line for a shower.
Vin took a deep breath and calmed. Then before he could move on, Ezra went from sarcastic to considerate.
"I could teach you," the gambler offered in complete seriousness, and his eyes warmed, their green growing the slightest tint more vibrant.
The hand holding the clipboard dropped to Vin's side and he twiddled a pen in his other hand, tapping one end absently against his chin. "Um. . . maybe," he started, his voice dropping to its more common soft drawl. "Maybe some time, Ezra."
Ezra smiled. "You're welcome, Mr. Tanner."
Vin blinked at that and went back to his inventorying.
Seeing that the storm had calmed before it could really get started, J.D. brought his McDonald's bag back to the main room and plopped into the chair across from Ezra. He opened the bag with a loud rattle of paper that caused Ezra to look back up at him and stare evenly, only his hooded eyes visible across the top of the computer's fold up screen.
J.D. clicked on the television remote and pulled a Big Mac out of the bag while he waited for the old set to warm up. The tube came on with a static snap, and voices from a local news station bled into audio. J.D. unwrapped the burger, took a big bite and chewed it loudly. Then he took out a napkin, spit discreetly into it, and took another bite of his burger.
Ezra watched him do this halfway through the burger until there were three napkin wads of chewed up and spit out food, before the gambler was forced to say something. "Mr. Dunne, would you mind too terribly not doing that in front of me?"
"What?" J.D. asked with his mouth full of burger, special sauce, lettuce, and cheese. He was midway to lifting the remote to change channels.
Lectures on this bad habit had ceased long ago, quite close to the advent of fast food with the automat, to be exact, and eventually it was just accepted that J.D. liked the stuff, even if he couldn't actually swallow it without getting sick. Liquids were different, they went right through, but solid substances. . . Ezra had stopped bothering to come up with fancy words to get across that it was just plain gross.
The gambler shook his head to himself and wrinkled up his nose at the smell and the sound of burger being munched with gusto. In fact, he could have sworn J.D. was chewing louder just to piss him off.
The hush of the shower continued to filter through the bathroom door, suddenly accompanied by a moan from within and a thump.
"Now we don't need to hear none of that," J.D. said with his mouth full and turned up the television louder.
Ezra went back to his stock reports and emailing. "Agreed there."
Sounded like Buck was raising his voice about something, but the ceiling fan and the television blessedly drowned it out.
The sound of footsteps moseying along the walk outside didn't even draw attention, nor an eye bat as Josiah walked in and closed the door behind him. Unlike those guilty of worrying Nathan's nurturing side, he'd slept the day secured inside the room, been up at precisely the moment of dusk, tidied himself up, and taken a walk.
"What'cha got there, J.D.?" he asked, sniffing the air. His hair had been smoothed back into a ponytail at the nape of his neck and he was ready to go in his duster and chaps.
J.D. spit his latest masticated bite of burger into a fourth napkin, folded the paper neatly over the wad, and started to answer when something on the television caught his attention. "Hey," he chirped, sitting up and slamming the last of the burger down into the bowl of waxed paper it had come wrapped in. "Hey, that's Four Corners."
The other four sets of eyes veered toward the television and the face of a young woman whose straight dark hair and pale skin gave her a look of Native American descent. She wore a khaki blouse that almost blended in with the dusty background. The string of old weather worn buildings behind her drew the team's attention to the far distance. The town was gray, stripped of life, much of it hollowed out. But most distressing was the sight in the foreground, a scattering of folks aged twenty to forty-something, all working with brushes and mini spades about the square of land that had been the graveyard.
". . . piece of little known western history that has been shrouded in ghostly legend," the young woman was saying. She gave a gesture behind her at the town, and went on with her microphone poised. "Nearly one-hundred and twenty-five years ago the town of Four Corners simply died. While most ghost towns underwent a slow degradation, usually related to the route of the railroad and economy, until they were abandoned, the citizens of Four Corners disappeared without a trace virtually overnight."
"Oh, this is rich," Ezra remarked.
"Shush," J.D. hissed at him.
The woman continued to speak while the camera zoomed in on the activities around the graveyard. "But now, an anthropology team has discovered a mass grave on the edge of town. Oddly, most of the bodies unearthed have been decapitated, and their skeletons all share. . ."
"Um, I think we should get Chris and Buck to see this," Vin interjected.
They all nodded vacantly, absorbed in the segment that had obviously been taped earlier that day when the sun was high in the sky.
"J.D. go knock on the door."
The kid shot Vin a glare that could have scoured the paint from the walls, and rightly so considering the tracker stood the closest to the bathroom. "You knock on it."
"Oh, for Heaven's sake," Josiah muttered and crossed over to bang on the door with a solid fist. "Chris!" he called. "Bucklin!"
Ezra actually thought about hiding under the bed.
Buck had been highly amused by the spontaneous idea of sleeping under the sun as they called it, even though there was about a four-foot layer of dirt between himself and Chris and any sunlight. It was a strange way to sleep, and one they usually left to necessity, unlike Vin who was just. . . well, Vin.
Buck was beginning to see the appeal in it, particularly in the way the earth conformed around him like a big black, grainy blanket, and yet he could feel the softness of Chris' shoulder against his chest, or a hand clasped around his side, a cheek against his collarbone and the soft sweep of hair woven through the grains and pebbles like roots of corn silk. The blackness was like a womb, and they could pretend, when they dug their way out in the evening, that they were being reborn.
But what really made it worth it was cleaning off afterwards.
His hands took on a mind of their own as they smoothed soap down Chris' back, between the solid wing plates of his shoulder blades, to the cleft in his buttocks, both of which Buck cupped in his strong hands. He leaned in his head and kissed at the shoulder before him, while Chris tossed back his head and let his face meet the spray from the spigot.
The bulb in the overhead light had acquired a flicker in the last few hours, annoying and yet atmospheric, along with the white noise of the fan. Like being underground, the bathroom closed the world away. Funny, Buck mused, how he was finding escape in the most minute of places. He turned his sudsy hand sideways and wedged it deep into Chris' ass crack, rinsing out dirt that ran down between the other man's legs in marbled swirls.
Chris' hands reached back behind him, gripped Buck's hips and pulled the other man's stiffening cock up against the small of his back. Buck slipped his hand free and around to Chris' front, first swirling a fingertip into his navel, then following the little trail of coarse golden hair down to the root of Chris cock. Buck spread his fingers and let them flow around the base of the shaft. He was just getting results when Chris murmured close to his ear.
"No. . ."
"Don't like that?" Buck asked and lightly kissed the earlobe closest to him.
Chris let go of his partner's hips and raised one hand to his forehead, the other reached out, hovered in the air, and pushed out on the milky plastic shower curtain.
Buck thought maybe Chris had gotten some soap in his eyes.
"Get. . ." Chris suddenly growled weakly up into the stream of water. "Get outta my head. . ."
The statement broke the spell, telling Buck exactly what was going on. With less than gentle speed, he grabbed Chris by the shoulders and spun him around and up against the tile wall. The back of Chris' head hit the porcelain with a dull thump and he moaned an objection, eyes closed tightly.
Buck's eyes narrowed viciously as he cupped the other face between his hands and gave a firm little shake. Chris braced himself, palms spread, claws extending on his fingertips. The spray continued to cascade between them.
"She's there, isn't she?" Buck whispered, hushing breath over Chris' suddenly flushed cheek. "She's trying to get in." He watched every little crease of distress in his lover's face, from the crinkled, tightly closed eyelids to the gritted teeth and the lips curling back. How Chris managed not to bare his eyeteeth was a feat unto itself. It looked like he was holding back an avalanche in his mind. "Don't let her in, Chris," he said harshly, putting some spit into it. "You tell that bitch she still can't have you." His hands gripped tighter, fingers threading into Chris' hair.
It seriously angered Buck as much as it struck Chris with pain. The attacks were rare, and in recent weeks had grown closer together, but this was the first time they had come two nights in a row. They were especially rare this close after a feeding, so something was definitely brewing. The seizure didn't persist for too long. Chris' breath caught up, held, then released in exhausted gales.
"That's it," Buck urged gently and leaned closer, coaxed his lover into a kiss, allowing the sharp tip of one canine to scrape over his own tongue as it made entry. The salty-coppery taste trailed from his mouth into Chris', evoking a tender response as Chris gradually came around, getting a grip on himself. He relinquished his hold on the wall to reach up and reassuringly drape his arms around Buck's inclined neck. Buck's tongue healed quickly under the little pressure of Chris' sucking on it. He pulled his lips away and dropped more kisses on Chris' cheeks, up to his forehead, tasting the drops of shower water. His thumbs swept aside drenched locks of hair, and he felt Chris' eyelashes brush his own cheek in an unintentional butterfly caress.
Then their lips met again, pushing harder. Pretty soon they might swallow each other up, like the snake of legend eating its own tail.
Buck's hard on was about to renew itself when a booming knock rattled the door and he heard Josiah's roar call his name and Chris'. The kiss broke off, leaving pounding hearts in its wake. The lovers stared at each other, Chris' eyes blood shot around intense jade irises, Buck's a blazing blue sharded with amber.
"Better see what he wants," Chris urged reluctantly. He didn't look happy, but at least he was in control.
"Shit," Buck hissed as the fist continued to pound on the door. He threw open the shower curtain, grabbed a towel off the rack, slung it around his waist, and stepped from the tub. Crossing to the door, he opened it right as Josiah was about to knock again and bellowed out into the main room, "Somebody better be dead!"
"Very funny," Josiah commented. "You and Chris better come have a look at this."
Chris pulled his own towel down, and dabbed at his hair with it, in no way modest about walking dripping wet and naked out among the others. He followed Buck out into the main room where the others had more tightly grouped around the television.
Buck was mumbling to himself about the interruption when the voice on the news and the words Four Corners caught his attention.
". . . it's cool, ya know, we're digging to solve a hundred-year-old mystery," a young man from the anthropology team was saying. "I mean there are ghost towns, and then there is Four Corners. . ."
"So what exactly is this about?" Buck asked since he and Chris had already missed half of the report. He stared into the background of the screen, picking up a few familiar details like a head stone from the cemetery, a tree, jags of the toppled roof on the old grain exchange, and the steeple from Josiah's church.
"An anthropology team is trying to solve the 'mystery' of Four Corners," Vin said with hush-hush sarcasm, flashing his eyes in mock amazement.
"Damnit," Chris murmured. "Can't people leave well enough alone?"
"Well," Josiah rationalized, "everyone loves a good mystery."
"Not me," Buck intoned and he and Chris looked at each other.
"So now what?" J.D. asked.
"They don't know," Chris said, and the tiniest wicked grin jittered at the corners of his lips.
The others caught on quickly.
"I'll get the truck loaded," Nathan said.
"Hell, I'm ready now," Josiah said and grinned.
Chris nodded. "We have a ten hour haul. We leave now, we can get to the ranch tomorrow night, deal with this mess the following dusk." He went over to the television and calmly turned it off. "Ezra," he said with mild command in his voice.
"Time to get out the big guns."
Slowly a very happy and conniving smile crept across Ezra's lips as he replied with delight, "Yes, Sir."
Josiah hadn't revealed the worst.
It was bad enough that he and Nathan were infected, but then it turned out Buck might be too. That, plus the other man was trapped in the hotel, which had apparently been turned into a nest. It was pretty clear to Josiah, from the look he could see in the two blues peering out through that crack, that Buck wasn't coming out. Not without running a thorough search for Chris. And then those blues had misted over and the preacher couldn't bear to say much more about the town.
He couldn’t relay that in addition to the telegraph system being downed, he and Nathan had found Mary Travis dead. She hadn't been bitten or fed on from the looks of it. Her neck was broken was all, and her body situated at her desk, her head resting on the crook of her arm as if she had fallen asleep over her work. Knowing what Mary meant to Four Corners, Buck would understand that the town he and the others had tried so hard to protect was officially dead. Literally. The ranchers who had long desired to see Four Corners leveled would have been celebrating gleefully were not most of them and their families already butchered.
When he had said there weren't many survivors, it was an understatement. They numbered less than twenty, which included himself, Nathan, and J.D.
Josiah shook his head as he surveyed the empty main street littered in the oddest places with bodies and thought of the kid. He and Nathan would have probably been among those corpses right now if it hadn't been for J.D.
The goon attack on the church had been so damned well timed. J.D. had stretched himself out along one of the rear pews, and Josiah had closed the doors and locked them. The big preacher turned, started back into the quiet sanctuary where some nine other folks were sleeping. Just then there was another knock at the door.
"Now what?" he grumbled, sure that it was Vin or Ezra, back to tell him one more thing.
The moment he cracked the door, the goon lunged at him, hissing with that wildcat shriek. He reached up to stop the fangs from closing on the side of his neck but they still scraped him, sending fire raging across his skin for such a small wound. With a cry he got his hands up before him, wrapped around the goon's neck and holding it at bay as both of them spun into the pews. The seats went over in a domino effect, shoving J.D. into the floor, a thing which probably saved his life as he went unnoticed at first by the other creatures that stormed into the sanctuary, turning over candelabras and tearing into the other citizens who were too groggy from sleep to have a chance.
Nathan was already awake enough to fight back, and learned very quickly how to apply his knife throwing skills to throwing a stake. But he still took the gnashing to the arm Josiah had mentioned to Buck.
It was J.D. who recovered and noticed the sun piercing the one stained glass window left in the church's eastern wall. It turned the plain red, blue, and golden stained glass panels into glowing shards of salvation. He grabbed a candelabra stand and smashed the glass, flooding the sanctuary with life-saving light.
Josiah convinced the kid to leave by assigning him to protect the other nine survivors. There were tears in those young eyes, and his lower lip trembled. The preacher had seen that look before, and like then it provoked him to pull J.D. into a huge bear hug, feeling his heart pound with a sickeningly slow tempo. He wondered if it was a side effect of the infection. . . if the infection acted that quickly upon the body.
He didn't tell J.D. that he'd seen Buck alive. Better to let the kid think the others were all dead or he'd never go. By early afternoon Josiah and Nathan watched the tiny caravan depart, two wagons carrying nine survivors, and J.D. on his horse, head bowed, silent rivers sliding down his face.
Then preacher and healer began to clean up, decapitating and staking the bodies in the streets. They took extra precautions and treated the bodies like Mary's that had no marks. They hunted the goons who had nested in the saloons and boarding houses, successfully killing some twenty-five of them, sometimes with the gut-wrenching realization that they recognized some of the faces behind the bared fangs and smears of dirt and blood.
Of all the places, they did not try the hotel. It was too well boarded up, and neither man could bear to think of burning it down, not with their friends inside. Josiah lingered near the place in the late afternoon, pacing by the little crack in the boarded window where he had spoken to Buck. But only silence came from within there now. Numb, hurting, he assumed it had become Buck's tomb.
The preacher shooed off the remaining horses that had been boxed up and restless as hell in the livery. They skirted him when he opened their stalls. They grumbled as if disgusted then whinnied wildly as they galloped away, free of bridle or saddle. Then Josiah walked up the empty main street, listening to the sounds of the other few animals that had been left behind. A dog barked somewhere at the other end of town. After a while the barking turned into a whimper and the sound died, leaving a most foreboding feeling. Chickens, scattered from their coops, wandered aimlessly with ruffled feathers, clucking and grating defensively until they too quieted down. They simply found some other place to be. All of this took place beneath a rapidly declining sun, and a sky washed with varying shades of red.
By evening, both men found themselves at a loss of appetite and consumed in cold sweats and shivering. They closed themselves up in the church and waited, debating about what to do if this really meant that they were changing, and Josiah wondered if a man could at least hold onto his humanity in knowing that he was going to turn into something inhuman.
They waited together on the altar steps until night fell, and they listened, haunted by how quiet the town. . . their dead little town. . . had become.
It was the voices that brought Buck up out of the death sleep. Vicious, angry, solid as lead and stabbing at his mind. All he could do was lie and listen, unable to move, his body cold, stiff, dead. Only the sense of hearing worked. That and taste. He could still taste Christobal's blood on his tongue, now turned sour like fermenting fruit.
"What is this?" a woman's voice, familiar and full of spite, growled from somewhere above him. "He is supposed to be dead! That was the agreement! Kill them ALL!"
"I may choose any companion I like, Ella." This male voice—Christobal's—was calm, bearing up an unearthly growl at the verbal attack. There was honey in that voice now. Its accent, still strange and exotic, bore into Buck, leaving an eerie and very unwanted sense of comfort. "And figuratively speaking, he IS dead. But these men. . . the men who protected this town. . . they are all exceptional. It would be a pity to waste their skills."
"Wait until Cletus hears about it," she replied in a hiss.
"Kleitos only appealed to me to help you take Larabee."
Kleitos? Buck's thoughts spun out a single thread on that name. Cletus. . . Kleitos. . . the same name? And then the name that meant much more to him. . . Ella.
Ella! Buck remembered then, seeing her in the room with Chris who was shouting bloody murder. That he couldn't reach his friend then, and could not now, chewed on his soul. He wriggled and squirmed inside, felt panic unlike any he'd felt before, not even that time J.D. took a bullet and nearly died on him.
"You have him now," Christobal's voice continued and there was a heated silence. Buck felt its warmth, his consciousness crawling a little bit closer to it, trying to comprehend what exactly was going on above him. There were only the voices in the dark, and he felt that if he could reach up he would pierce through some veil and find light again, but his heavy inert husk prevented him from moving one finger.
There sounded movement. . . clothing shifting, footsteps padding back and forth. Pacing.
"Kleitos recognizes your excesses, Ella, and he is not impressed. Now your failure to control your minions has put us in an awkward position. Explain THAT to him when we reach Dodge in a week. We have to hunt more widely tonight and waste precious time. You will have to feed Larabee if you expect to control him."
There was a sharp intake of breath, like someone readying to unleash a barrage of curses.
"You will regret this, Christobal," Ella spat back. "The others. . . they should be dead. They should not even be allowed to rise."
"We shall, see, Ella. Now you'd better go. You have to feed enough for yourself and your plaything."
"He is not my plaything," Her voice rose with frustration that her argument did not seem to be taken seriously in the least. "Chris and I were always destined to be together. Our love was always eternal, and now so are we."
Yeah, I'm with ya there, Buck thought in spite of himself, even though right at this moment he suddenly remembered how much he hated Christobal. The argument died on the sound of footsteps padding away over floorboards that creaked and cracked and he thought he heard something scuttling along behind them. Then as swiftly as he had begun to hear the voices, he drifted again.
Death was not simple unconsciousness.
No, it meant being afloat in one's own mind, like a piece of wood on an ocean current, almost touching the shore only to have the waves sweep in around it and pull away again. It was like fucking and never reaching completion. Like feeling vibrant and happy one moment then sad and sick the next.
After so long, it was overwhelming.
Hate-love-remorse-happiness-fatigue-hurt-hunger-wanna-kill-warm-cold. . .
Unable to shake the first swelling then shrinking flood of emotions, Buck uttered a cry of protest. It slithered out of his stiff throat, met teeth and lips that were plastered shut, and came out as a miserable moan.
Sensation began to spread through his limbs, shedding rigor mortis, and slowly he opened his eyes, looked up at a ceiling and by some sensory means understood that it was dark in the room, and yet seemed as bright as day. And there was still some daylight. When he turned his head to the side, he could see it bleeding through the edges of the heavy curtains, golden and brilliant and if he could get to it, maybe it would be his salvation, but then a new instinct opened up inside him and the thought of that light suddenly became repulsive.
He stared at it, feeling weak and anxious at the same time, while also acknowledging that he was lying quite flattened into the soft, conforming depths of a feather mattress. Was it all a dream? He wondered briefly. Maybe he had gotten a little too drunk last night and dreamed a little too hard. He remembered Josiah once commenting on how a dream could feel like hours when it only took place in the space of a few minutes. That, the preacher had surmised, was indication to him that everyone went somewhere else unearthly in their sleep. Buck had shrugged it off.
He wished now he could shrug this off, but it had been too real, too there before him. The blood and violence, the gnashing teeth, the swiping claws, and finally his mind came around to that one jolting thing that clung to his memory even if his body, for reasons he didn't understand yet, did not feel any more pain.
So strange that he no longer hurt, not the way he should. Not like someone who had been dry fucked up the ass and then bled from a wicked gash in his neck. He was pondering this when a shadow whispered across the side of the bed and slowly his gaze rolled in its direction.
"That was rather quick," Christobal said as he eased in closer. He wore nothing but his trousers, his slim upper body no longer so pale but flushed and lively, and his long hair cascaded around his shoulders. "It's only been a few hours, you are anxious to get out in the world, aren't you." He smiled then. He bore no fangs, and while his eyes glimmered with an unnatural jewel color, he seemed at that moment most human.
It gave Buck every indication that there was no time like the present to fight back. He groaned as he surged up from the bed, shaky hands coming together to form one large clawing vise as he went right for Christobal's throat.
For a fleeting moment he felt the other's neck, the cup of his palm around the Adam's apple, the incline of the jawline along his index finger. But before he could squeeze, Christobal took hold of his wrists and leaned down, effortlessly forcing Buck's hands away, pinning him back down on the bed. They bounced together on the mattress, rocking the frame. Buck sucked in and exhaled frenzied breaths as he bared his teeth and snarled up at his captor.
Then abruptly he stopped as he felt something strange in his mouth, a slight soreness in his upper gum line and the tiniest sensation of teeth grinding as for the first time his fangs budded. He stopped snarling and stared in shock, feeling the sharp tips slightly touch his lower gums.
Christobal was extremely amused. "I know what you are feeling," he crooned. "It's frightening at first not knowing what you are." Still holding Buck's wrists, keeping them pinned above his head, he stretched himself out along Buck's body and tilted his head, observing the captive's reactions to the transformation that was still apparently taking place.
Buck still breathed with ferocity, still pushed against the body on top of him, and found himself too weak and uncoordinated. It was surprising now that he had even had that little bit of energy to attack Christobal in the first place. Must have been pure gut reaction. That energy spent, he shivered suddenly as a bizarre coldness streaked up through his middle and settled in his stomach. The cold turned into the most intense hunger pain he'd ever felt. Another miserable groan escaped him as he gazed up at Christobal with bleary eyes, looking for an explanation.
"Ah, it's as I expected," Christobal whispered lustily, "your eyes are more blue than before." He pulled Buck's wrists up beside each other over his head and clasped them in one hand, hence freeing the other hand to roam. It caressed down past Buck's neck, over his collarbone, to lie across his left pectoral, the touch sparking some minor response in that nipple.
Buck sought to toss his body to the side, to free himself, but he couldn't move from beneath Christobal's weight. He snarled again, and having not found his voice before, he was aghast at the unearthly sound that issued out of him, even if the words were stuttered.
"Get. . . get. . . off. . . m-m-meee. . ."
Christobal ignored the demand and leaned down, sniffed deeply at the expanse of Buck's throat. He kissed that spot, finding nerves that responded in ways Buck never would have thought possible as tingling pleasure filtered down through his chest and torso into his loins. Christobal propped himself up again, looking into his captive's eyes. "You will learn to respect me as your sire," he growled.
Buck wanted to tell the master vampire to go fuck himself, but then he figured Christobal would probably find some way to turn a comment like that against him. Then he made the mistake of acknowledging that eye contact. Christobal's own opal-flecked green orbs pierced him, drew him in. They were fathomless, the pupils illuminated from somewhere inside. Not like those of an animal's eyes, that reflected light, but more like they actually glowed from within. Like that simple kiss to his neck had given him the slightest arousal, he felt it again, this time building little by little. He gasped and tried to look away, but the effort was lost when Christobal simply cocked his head to the side, eyes narrowed intently, and recaptured the fleeing gaze like a cat nabbing a mouse.
"You're hungry, aren't you?" the master said softly and went to stroking Buck's hair away from his face, running skilled fingers comb-like through the longish dark waves. It made Buck's scalp tingle, the lulling feeling increasing like a weight on his brain.
There was no denying the answer to the question. Buck clenched his jaw, repressing that answer.
Then Christobal pressed his lips over his captive's, and as his tongue plunged into Buck's mouth, prying it open, the organ brushed beneath the sharp tip of a tooth, making a tiny cut that bled. The dark fluid drained into Buck's mouth, and over his own tongue.
It was as sweet as spring rain to one parched by the desert sun. He unconsciously sucked, pulling out more of the smooth flow, and swallowed it down, craving more. But the cut healed, and his head fell back onto the pillow as Christobal pulled free and looked down at him.
Buck sighed contentedly, understanding now that this was the way to get his sustenance. Like a potent opiate it consumed him.
"That's only a taste of what's to come," Christobal breathed into Buck's ear. Then he kissed and licked at the lobe.
Oblivious now, his memories vague, Buck focused only on the now, on the creature atop him, licking and nipping and kissing him, playing with a nipple, then caressing his balls. Unaware that his wrists were now free, Buck remained reclined, arms stretched up and framing his head.
Yeah, do that. . .
His upper body arched into Christobal's touch, his chest rubbing against the other. Despite that he felt neither warmth nor cold, the sensation of skin sliding over skin was luxuriant. Christobal leaned down and gave a teasing lick to the side of one testicle, provoking a moan out of Buck who slithered his hips to the side and angled them just right to receive more. The vampire's tongue nuzzled a little deeper into the crevice underneath the scrotum, and his lips sucked in gently. At the same time, he positioned one fingertip directly atop one of Buck's peaked nipples, the sharp tip of the talon balanced there, piercing straight down into the tightened skin with an ecstatic sting that sent Buck completely over the edge. It was as if an internal lightening bolt connected the points from his nipple down to those lips pulling at his left nut.
A shocking breath hissed through Buck's clenched teeth. He shivered violently as he reached orgasm without having achieved a full hard on or even coming. His body bowed up rigidly from the mattress and dropped back down.
Christobal danced the tip of his tongue free from the nook against Buck's inner thigh and ran it up along the submissive man's flat, quivering belly. "Much better, yes?" he crooned and looked up, observing that the daylight that had forced the cracks in the drapes was now dull and gray. He propped his arms across Buck's chest and rested his chin on the back of one hand as he smiled wistfully and waited for the orgasm to subside. When his new lover finally lay still, he said, "Dusk is here. I have to go now, but I'll return with more for you, understand?"
Buck stared ravenously back at him. A long lock of wheat-gold hair spilled past his sire's shoulder and tickled his cheek.
"Understand?" Christobal asked more firmly.
With a drowsy sigh Buck replied, "Yeah."
"Sleep some more. You're still weak. The change isn't finished with you." He ghosted gentle fingertips over Buck's lids, ushering them to close.
Without resistance, Buck drifted again, the experience lost in a dreamless void.
When next he regained consciousness, he registered almost immediately that he was alone. The drug of Christobal's blood had momentarily dissipated and he felt more alert, stronger.
So had the change completed? he wondered as one hand began to snake across the feather bed and gripped the edge. He lay in silence, listening to the hotel's eaves settle, fascinated with every little crack, with the scratchy trailing of tiny mouse feet up in the attic. His tongue absently explored the tips of his long canines. After a moment, they suddenly withdrew up into his gums, emitting the same sore sensation as before, and grinding a little as if operated by gears, then they literally transformed back into regular teeth. Amazed at this, he pondered how it could be possible. And with that his mind quickly started to put the whole picture back together again.
Awakening in the hotel lobby. Goons cramping up in the darkness avoiding him. Josiah. Chris. Ella. Christobal.
But then he also remembered the pleasure that came later. Christobal's mouth on him and how irresistible it was. . . and that first taste of blood, so perfect and intoxicating. It all culminated into a sickening feeling in the cavity of his chest. . .
He hadn't been able to refuse that undead bastard.
His heartbeat thrummed slow and steady, never rising to a faster tempo despite the conflict stretching every cord tight down his back.
And then there was the hunger. It gnawed at him from the inside out, burning his skin. He looked down the course of his body and found it leeched of its normal healthy tan.
No, don't think about what you are now, he told himself and began to thread together more coherent thoughts, overriding the emotions and instincts that wanted to take over. Acting on either right now could be deadly, and he had more important ground to cover.
As he lay listening to the building and all of the scufflings contained therein, he began to pick out a minute rattle, so faint, and then with it came a shudder of breath. A groan.
He recognized that sound.
He'd heard it plenty of times murmured from the depths of a drunken stupor.
Chris. . .
He recalled the sight of Chris tied to the bed, Ella standing near, her naked body illuminated by candle light, and the absolutely ugly way her face contorted with rage at the intrusion. Buck had run up the stairs to get into that room only to be dragged back downstairs again. Now it was clear that while unconscious he, too, had been moved into one of the upstairs rooms, and that meant he was on the same floor as Chris.
Knotted muscles objected when he forced himself to rise, got his arms under him and pushed up. The hunger stabbed at him, forced out shivers worse than any amount of cold ever could. With a grunt he swung his legs over the side of the bed and, teetering ever so slightly, got to his feet. He looked down at his nakedness, at his slack cock and placid skin. When he took that first step, he felt the dried cum flake off from between his thighs. He had to shake off his revulsion at the crusty feeling.
Get moving, find Chris, do whatever you have to, but get the hell out of here.
He would figure out how to deal with himself later. And as for Christobal, there was always a next time. Buck marked that in his mind.
Looking frantically about, he managed to locate a man's shirt. It had probably been left behind by the last hotel guest to have this room. Well, at least it was something to go between the open air and his nakedness, and he had no idea what had become of his own clothes. He pulled it on, found it thankfully too big so the tail end covered his ass and crotch. The upper three buttons were missing, but that was the least of his concerns. Scrounging around a little more, pulling drawers free, then tossing through the items in the bottom of the closet, he located a soiled white night shirt. If reason served him, he'd find Chris also in need of clothing.
And what about Ella?
What was it Christobal had said to her, something about having to hunt far and wide tonight because her goons had drained the whole town. Maybe not in those words, but Buck remembered enough of the argument—going on over his own motionless corpse no less—to sum it up himself.
And then he thought, What the fucking hell does Ella have to do with all this?
He recalled the previous suspicion he'd voiced to Josiah that the hoards had attacked for a specific reason, and now he was pretty sure that reason had been Ella. Had she brought the goons, and other masters such as Christobal, with her to Four Corners to collect Chris? And utmost, how had she come to be part of a pack of vampires to begin with?
No, he stopped himself from thinking too much again. No, just focus, get out of here. Christobal was obviously out, and if the argument he'd had with Ella about feeding held, so was she. Chris could be alone, or perhaps guarded by goons, but Buck dared the little critters to try anything now. The nightshirt slung over one shoulder, he started for the door, homing in on the little murmurs that he was sure belonged to his friend.
Stumbling into the hallway, still somewhat surprised at how bright the darkness was now, he stifled a grunt as a hunger pain stabbed into him. He truly felt like his skin was burning underneath with an even, roaming sheet of fire that devoured and yet did not destroy his body. He had to pause to orient himself, looking up and down the corridor, noting the balcony that led down into the lobby at one end, and a window at the other. He remembered exactly which room in which he'd last seen Chris, and he went straight there now.
The door was cracked, and he could hear the little moans and stutters of breath much more clearly. A greater moan, as if provoked by an abrupt stab of pain, sounded, and Buck wasted no time grabbing the knob and shoving the door the rest of the way open. The sudden movement almost made him dizzy, and he held onto the door for a moment as he collected his head and stared straight at the bed.
Chris lay facing away from the door, balled up in a fetal position, his pale, lean back toward Buck, shadows defining the ridges of his spine. He shivered, huddled up so tightly into himself that his feet were tucked against his buttocks, toes curled in.
"Chris," Buck gasped and hurried around to the other side of the bed, finding the other man's head tucked, his arms hugging his front. Chris' lips were pealed back over long canines, and dried blood was smeared around his mouth and in dribble patterns down his chin. Kneeling beside the bed, Buck gingerly swept cold, damp locks of hair back from his friend's brow, finding the eyes beneath tightly lidded. "Chris," he whispered again, more persistently.
Hearing the familiar voice, Chris began to pry open bleary eyes with an effort Buck completely understood. The jade hue that beamed out was so intensified, ringed in a darker green that added to Chris' already wolfish looks. He stuttered out a few more breaths, obviously focusing, before he replied weakly. "B. . . Buck?"
"Yeah, it's me." Buck leaned in closer. "What the hell did she do to you?" His eyes probed down the length of Chris' side, finding most of the other man's body hidden protectively by the fetal position.
Chris squeezed his eyes closed again in complete denial. "No. . . no. . . they killed you. . . not you, too. . ." He trailed off as if he were on the verge of unconsciousness, and yet continued to shiver, arms clamping even tighter around his middle. It had to be the hunger, or maybe the change had not completed for him. Perhaps, like Buck, he had awakened a little too soon.
Buck desperately reached out, clasped the other's head in his hands and lifted it from the bed. It was heavy as a lead weight in his palms, plastered locks tangling around his fingers. "Chris, stay with me. Wake up, Chris." His voice rose, putting emphasis on the name. To keep him remembering who he was.
Then his heart lurched as a wildcat scream pierced the darkness. He dropped Chris' head back onto the pillow and spun toward the noise just as one of the female goons leapt at him from a corner. He hadn't even noticed her there, so focused had he been on getting to Chris' side. Her small frame plunged into him, claws going for his face. Immediately his own fangs extended and he bared them viciously. Instinct, once more, guided him. He brought up one arm and elbowed the goon across the face, sending her spinning back into the corner.
She recovered and dove at him again. This time she came in low, tackling him around the knees. Both went over in a heap, crashing into a chair. The fine frame broke beneath them and Buck winced as some of the splinters went into his skin. The fragments stung, and that coupled with his hunger spurred on a most deadly rage.
"Don't mess with me, darlin'!" he spat at the goon as he caught her around the throat, holding her back. Her claws ripped into his collar bones, and he snarled back at her as his free hand reached out, grasped one of the chair's broken legs, and he brought it up and around, hitting her under the arm, going up into the side of her rib cage. He felt, and heard, flesh split, bone break.
She shrieked, the sound scathing to Buck's ears, and all the strength went out of her. Buck shoved her body away and watched her for a moment as she lay on her side, mouth agape, drool glossing over her fangs. The arm under which the chair leg was lodged hung awkwardly out before her, talons spread over the floor, gore spilling down the side of her ragged dress. Her legs sprawled in a manner that reminded Buck of a half crushed bug.
He swallowed hard, and when he was sure she wasn't going to move any more, he got up to his knees. The old shirt hung off of one shoulder, torn in the struggle, and splattered with some of the goon's blackish blood. He reached up, touched at the scratches near his neck, and then swallowed hard, bewildered momentarily when he felt the gashes close back up. The skin sealed up neatly from one end to the other with a slithering sensation beneath his fingertips. He could have sat there on his knees forever brooding on this new feature of his changed body, but again reminded himself that they had no time to spare. Buck stood, swaying, and backed his way over to the bed, where he found Chris still huddled, still in the same condition as before.
They were both royally screwed, that much was certain. He considered what he would do if he got Chris out of here. The only choice was to hope that Josiah and Nathan were still alive, still humanly intact, and seek their help. He'd try the church. Ella and Christobal still had to be dealt with, but how was the question and some recouping time was necessary first.
Carefully, as if lifting a glass doll, he clasped Chris' shoulders and maneuvered him into a sitting position, helping his legs to fall over the side of the bed. "Chris, come on," he said more harshly then, "snap out of it."
Chris' head lolled forward, his forehead colliding with Buck's where it remained propped, messy blond bangs draping over his eyes. From this angle, Buck could especially make out the other man's lips parted, the tips of the fangs barely peering out of the shadows of his mouth. Then his gaze went from those lips down the side of the throat, to the shoulder, followed the angle of Chris' collar bone down to the cleft between his pectorals, to his abdomen, to his lap. Buck gasped as he saw the blood smears between Chris' legs. The dark stains clung to sandy hair, left flaking brownish streaks up along the jut of Chris' pelvic bone, and little dirty rims around the head and base of his limp penis.
"That bitch," Buck whispered and felt tears rise, momentarily blurring his vision.
"I'm not me," Chris rasped. "I'm not me anymore."
Buck cupped the other's face in his hands, watched Chris' eyelashes flutter. It seemed the other man was making some effort to focus. "Don't give in to it, Chris," he hissed. "You're still you, hear me? You're still YOU on the inside. I know y'are." He gave a light pat to one cheek, the sting enough to make Chris draw up a little more alert. "Now we gotta get out of here, pard, before they come back."
Chris' head bobbed up and down in a vacant nod. All this time he still shivered, almost violently one moment, then a tiny shake the next. Buck looked around for the nightshirt that had been on his shoulder until the goon bitch attacked him. He found it strewn on the floor nearby, close enough that he didn't have to break contact with Chris to reach it. It was awkward, but he managed to get the white cotton slip over Chris' head, and work his uncooperative arms down through the sleeves. The wrinkled fabric pooled around Chris' waist and Buck tugged it down over his knees. It was like dressing a completely submissive child, which was damned disturbing considering that this was supposed to be iron will Chris Larabee, head regulator of Four Corners he was taking care of.
"I know this dirty thing would make Ezra cringe," Buck said, figuring if he could keep talking, he could keep them both focused on the goal. "But you can't walk around outside naked'er'n a jaybird and not draw attention."
The corner of Chris' mouth twitched up into a smirk. It wasn't much, just an indication that he was registering some of what Buck said to him.
"That's better," Buck persisted and pulled one of his companion's arms over his shoulder. "Now come on, get your feet under you. That's it." He hauled Chris up into a stance and balanced him there.
Chris' head flopped to the side, resting against the juncture of Buck's shoulder and neck. "So hungry," he whispered.
So that was the definite reason for the shakes.
Understanding completely, Buck nudged the heavy head up with a shrug. There was nothing he could do but suffer along and sympathize that Ella had done something beyond measure to traumatize Chris like this. "I know," he murmured. "So am I."
He had to give Chris a few more healthy smacks on the cheek to keep him awake. The man wanted to collapse, like a child refusing to go somewhere and letting his legs go slack so that he had to be dragged along. Buck knew it wasn't intentional. He continued to feel the shaking, shivering mass in his arms as he walked Chris down the steps, guiding him one step at a time, the whole time tangling with his own hunger. In the lobby he sat Chris down on the settee where he himself had awakened earlier that day and ventured to test the front door. The boards had been removed and the panel opened freely, waiting for Christobal, Ella, and whatever goons were with them to return.
As Buck returned to the settee, he found Chris staring hard into the darkness, and when he followed the gaze, he noticed a huddle of goons there, none nearly as brave as the one upstairs. They probably belonged to Christobal, while the female he had staked was Ella's. This hierarchy among vampires could get confusing. The group didn't attack, merely crouched back, mouths open to show only glimpses of their extended fangs. Buck stared back at them, hardening himself as much as possible to send them silent warning not to even move.
They stayed put.
"Chris?" he whispered.
Chris continued to stare at the huddle, swaying slightly, another shiver rippling up through his body. Slowly his eyes shifted around and looked up at Buck.
Buck knelt before the settee and laid a hand on his friend's, felt the fingers tense slightly at the knuckles. "You with me?"
Staring back almost critically, Chris breathed in slow and heavily as if the air had turned to mud. Something in his eyes churned, their now brilliant green sharpening, little amber flecks appearing, the pupils dilating. When he opened his mouth, the tips of his fangs still showed, unlike Buck's which remained retracted and hidden, unthreatening. "Ella," he rasped. "She. . ."
"She can see through me." He shivered again, slipping his hand free of Buck's and tucking it against his lower belly within the drooping folds of the nightshirt. "She's in my head—“ he broke off saying this and his eyes, caught in that unnatural phase of vulnerable and feral rimmed with wetness, reddening around the inner edges of the lids.
Buck swallowed his heart looking at those eyes. He grabbed Chris' hand again, held it tightly, feeling the little tips of claws on the ends of each long finger. "Now you listen, Chris," he hissed angrily. "She has no power over you, hear me? She. . . KILLED. . . YOUR. . . WIFE. . . AND. . . SON."
Chris blinked at that and his brows knitted as if he had needed the reminder.
Buck took one shoulder in his free hand and shook. "Do you hear me?"
Chris nodded, his eyes slowly drying, replaced by greater clarity. "Yeah."
"Now we're gonna get out of here. I don't know what we're gonna do when all this is over, but at this moment we need to go on. Do you understand?"
Still nodding, Chris reached up, hand spread, and Buck took it. With a grunt at his own hunger pains, Buck helped the other man to his feet again.
Then bound for the church, they hurried from the hotel. All the while Buck kept hoping that Josiah and Nathan were still alive.
And most of all, he hoped that they were still human.