Security prowls in force tonight and we are careful to avoid the glare of their flashlights. Any time we overhear the static from their radios, we alter our course. Kamiron leads us from the cabins towards Andhakar Lake and the trees and clearings that cluster around it. The dampness coating the ground keeps the branches and leaves from cracking underfoot but the boys are ill-experienced with creeping unnoticed and I find myself wincing at the noise they make, muted though it is.
As Kamiron directs us nearer and nearer to Andhakar Lake, I start to notice ominous signs. My heartbeat slows and I halt. The boys crowd around me while I rub my arms--as if by doing so I can brush away the slimy traces of defilement.
“What is it?”
“Something really bad.” I try to keep my voice low and even but panic taints it. “He’s here.”
“He?” Zakk tenses. “You mean--”
“Shh! Don’t say his name,” I hiss. “He can sense it. Do you see the trees?”
“Are those . . . icicles?”
I nod. “When The Darkness-That-Hunts is near, you’ll notice them. You’ll feel . . .”
“Dirty,” Hamilton offers, “the kind that don’t wash away.”
We creep closer. In the gloom of the night and fog, the ground below us suddenly drops, revealing a steep, bowl-shaped depression. Pines, brambles and bracken surround the basin like morose sentinels. To the south I can hear the gentle waves of Andhakar Lake breaking against the gravel shoreline but the thick fog blocks all view of the water.
I shudder. I wanted to escape the evil that lurks beyond the lake, but circumstances keep dragging me back.
Crawling into a ditch, we press our bellies against the cold, wet soil and wiggle until we get a good angle on the basin. The stench of corrosion assails us. Below, Sandra kneels in a ritual circle much like the one I saw her in before, only we are far from the campsite with the fire pit and the corpse of a security guard lies broken and mummified nearby.
Also unlike the first time, Andhakar, The Darkness-That-Hunts, is more than just a ghostly apparition. Unlike the first few times I’ve seen him, shadows don’t circle him like a living shawl. Instead he wears surprisingly modern clothes. Black leather pants hug his long legs and a matching coat trails across the ground. The top beneath looks like translucent cobwebs against his brown skin. A headdress of bones holds his midnight blue hair from his face while at his throat a basalt crystal dangles from a silver chain and pulsates with arcane light.
So that’s why Sandra continued to kill despite Andhakar’s wishes--she wanted additional power to bring a corporeal form across. From his glower and pacing, I don’t think Andhakar is too pleased with the summons. Their voices wan and wax with the ambient noises of the woodlands, but we hear enough to follow their conversation.
“Attention was worth it,” Sandra continues, keeping her head bowed and her shoulders stooped. “I needed the strength.”
“Again, for what purpose but to defy me?” Andhakar’s voice hisses through the pines.
“She has found the others.”
My heart pounds. How could she have known that? The boys freeze and I can practically hear their hearts thumping.
Standing, Sandra stretches her body as if to loosen stiff muscles. “I’m not sure. Her mind, it’s blocked to me. I’ve tried several times, but--”
“You mean you are not certain that she has succeeded?” Andhakar’s tone is soft, almost tender. I shiver. People die when he adopts that tone.
Again, Sandra collapses to one knee. Her hair spills over her left shoulder like a crimson shawl. “It is why I have brought you in this form, Master. I know she withholds critical information about the Blood Shield. With it, I can route out these traitors.”
The Darkness-That-Hunts is quiet. He walks contemplative circles around the Steel Fang. “How would you bring her to me?”
“My human . . .”
I lose the rest of the sentence.
“Ah, yes. Your ‘Kamiron.’”
At the mention of his name, Kamiron tenses. Dace rests a warning hand on his shoulder.
“And Shari trusts him enough to follow him into the night?”
Sandra scans the tree line. “I’m sure he will find a way.”
Dread fills me. “Kamiron--you wouldn’t.”
A tremor runs up his arm until it’s practically thrumming. “I haven’t.”
“I suppose you are right,” Andhakar sighs and crosses his arms. Long black nails scratch at his elbows. “Have him bring her to me. I cannot afford more wastes of time. I tire of this Blood Shield.”
Sandra rises like smoke on water. I cock my ear to the side, drinking in the clamor of footsteps crunching through brambles, blundering through the woods like some kind of elephant.
“Security?” Kam gives us a quizzical look.
“No flashlights, no radio static . . .” Hamilton refutes.
Dace peers over his shoulder and then along the rim of the basin. “Where’s it coming from?”
Zakk tilts his head. “The right, I think.”
The footsteps increase pace. I keep my focus on Sandra and Andhakar. They have stopped conspiring and wait silently. Weak, yellow light hobbles between the barks of the pine and spruce. When the light breaches the basin, it winks out entirely. I listen to the irritated admonishments and the repeated thunk of plastic against flesh.
“Oh, no.” Hamilton hands ball into tight fists and his lips settle into a grim line. One glance at him and I know he’s picked up the thoughts of the trespasser.
The intruder stumbles out from between a row of tangled bushes and startled gasps echo beside me.
Even Sandra cannot keep her mouth from gaping open. “What are you doing here?”
Melissa pauses and rests her hands on her knees, gasping with exertion. She takes no notice of Andhakar or the dead guard.
“I could ask you the same. I’ve been looking everywhere. I heard voices and turned this way.” Melissa straightens and spears Sandra with an accusing glare. “I didn’t see you or Shari in the cabin, so I thought something must have happened--”
She chokes on the rest of her sentence when she catches sight of Andhakar--and the corpse rotting in the night. A scream wells up inside her, brimming through her eyes and convulsing in her throat. She steps back and her purple flashlight tumbles to the ground.
“Look at me.” Andhakar’s command crackles across the darkness, snatching Mel’s scream from her vocal chords. Electricity pulses and Melissa’s gaze locks on him. His crystal darkens with the use of power. “Good. Now, what was that last thing you said?”
Mel’s voice is monotone and husky. “I came to find Shari and Sandra.”
Sandra scans the tree line. Andhakar’s mouth curves. “What is your name, child?”
“Melissa. Everyone calls me Mel.”
“Mel.” The Darkness-That-Hunts crooks a slender finger and immediately Melissa strides towards him. Her gait is uncharacteristically confident, sexy.
“We’ve got to save her,” Kamiron whispers.
“’Xactly how you propose we do that?” Dace fires back. “We don’t have any weapons. I don’t even know what trench coat guy is, and your girlfriend’s a damn homicidal psychic vampire.”
“We can’t just sit by and do nothing,” Kamiron admonishes. The muscles across his broad shoulders and back tense and loosen beneath his T-shirt and he looks prepared to bolt at any second.
“Hush, you both.” Zakk gestures to the unfolding scene.
Andhakar tilts Mel’s head back. His fingers, each boasting one joint too many, splay against her chin. He smiles. He has a heartbreaking smile. Beautiful and deadly. In the night, his eyes look like an owl’s--hypnotic amber globes that never blink.
“I don’t,” Mel responds to some question I can’t hear. The Darkness-That-Hunts presses his nose against the nape of her neck and inhales deeply. Mel nearly purrs. “She just wasn’t in her bed.”
“She made no mention of where she was headed?” presses Sandra. She paces and I feel--fury? Excitement?--radiating from her.
Mel doesn’t take her eyes off Andhakar. Pressing his lips against her throat and then her jaw, he tilts his head back just far enough to grace her with a benevolent smile. A blush creeps up her cheeks and her lashes flutter.
“You’re so . . . beautiful.”
“Thank you.” I watch him nip the corner of her mouth and Mel presses herself against him. His hands slide up her jaw, his nails sink into the curls of her hair. “Is there nothing you can do to make yourself useful to me, Mel?”
“We’ve got to do something,” Kamiron stresses once again. He moves to climb out of the ditch, but Hamilton and Dave hold him down.
“I touched her bed.”
Sandra pauses from her pacing and Andhakar raises a dark eyebrow. Mel continues, her voice breathless. “When I did, I caught a glimpse. Residue.”
Her breath hitches as Andhakar’s mouth nears hers. Their eyes lock. His knuckles trace circles across her brow. Sandra hovers near them all but forgotten, like a discarded birthday card. “Shari intended to go to Firestarter.”
“Oh, fuck me,” Dace exhales.
Sandra starts to speak but The Darkness-That-Hunts makes some motion I can’t follow before continuing. “What’s in Firestarter, my dear Melissa?”
“Her friends. Kamiron.”
My mind races, curses frothing inside. This is going to end badly unless I do something about it.
“You must stay hidden, all of you,” I warn.
“What are you . . .?”
“No, Shari,” Hamilton forces me to look at him. “I see what you would do, but it’s crazy.”
“Have to try. Won’t let them hurt you.”
“--Little slut is with Kamiron, then I’ll bring her to you myself,” Sandra rails.
“Unnecessary.” Andhakar rewards Melissa with a deep, toe-curling kiss before turning squarely to the ditch where we hide. Heart in my throat, I motion for the boys to stay hidden (I’d prefer they run) and pry myself from the bushes. I try to display a confidence I don’t feel.
Sandra hisses and crouches as she watches me pick my way down the hill. Fear quakes in me. I hear screams. I see the wasteland of Ater stretching before me, promising torture and undeath. Sky a deep shade of crimson, clouds the color of black opal. Desecration and a chill that saps all will to resist.
“Saved me the trouble of looking for you,” Sandra all but spits.
“Glad I could help,” I respond coolly, pausing far enough away that I can keep them both in my line of vision.
The mummified corpse near my feet doesn’t smell but the decayed grass around it stinks of sulfur and corrosion. Defilement. I swallow a rise of bile and instead focus on anything that can be of use. I notice the gun in his belt holster. A nightstick. Flashlight. Radio. Bloody combat boots.
I don’t think about his family or his final night spent alone in the arms of the Steel Fang. I don’t think about how his body looks as if it belongs in an exhibit, his thickened skin browned with advanced age. Gray hair falling out in patches. Eyes gone, sunken into a twisted and broken skull.
Instead my gaze swivels to Melissa.
“Oh, hi, Shari,” she greets, her voice still thick with enthrallment. “I was just looking--there’s a curfew and the buddy system, you know. You two shouldn’t be out here! Something bad could happen to you.”
The Darkness-That-Hunts tucks her close and studies me.
“Let her go,” I order, my voice composed although all I want to do is scream. I feel a tornado swirling down my spine. It slams against my ribs, shoving aside the doubt and fear. Tranquility spirals inside me like wind. I inhale it when I breathe.
Wait for it, girl, the masculine voice offers. The same one that guided me through Sandra’s psychic attack and sounds like warm breezes through vacant meadows.
Sandra practically froths at the mouth but Andhakar clutches her leash tightly. Almost as tightly as he grips Melissa’s shoulder. I pray the guys stay hidden. I pray they escape while they can.
“I confess I am disinclined to grant your request.” His chin tilts back and he ignores Melissa’s pain-tinged whimper. “You have something I want. Have always wanted.”
Sandra cuts her eyes from me to him. “But Master, she is pathetic. A human. You can’t possibly want her.”
To Andhakar, it’s like Sandra doesn’t exist much less has spoken. “Come back with me.”
I take three steps towards him before I shake his enthrallment from my skin.
“Release Melissa. She’s nothing to you.”
“Who are they, Shari? Tell me, and I will release your friend.”
“I don’t know for certain.”
The air shifts and then Sandra is on me, her fingers curled around my neck. Her manicured nails dig into my skin and my pulse thunders in my ears.
“Lie,” she snarls.
I don’t look at her. Andhakar and I have eyes only for one another. He smiles at me but there is no warmth. “Remove your hand from Shari.”
“My lord?” Doubt flickers in Sandra’s tone. Andhakar says nothing more. Sensing her danger, Sandra’s hand falls but she doesn’t move away. She blocks the corpse and my chance at the gun.
Patience, the voice reassures. My tornado blossoms into a tempest. Ferocious winds lap inside me. I feel dizzy but I hold firm. It will be soon now.
“Whom do you suspect?” Andhakar continues.
I take a deep breath. “Myself.”
Sandra laughs. It sounds like broken glass and alcohol. “She lies with every breath. Allow me to show her pain. That is medicine for liars.”
“She does not lie, Steel Fang. Why do you think I’ve let her live? I know what she is.”
If I weren’t already reeling inside from a tropical depression, my legs would have lost the ability to support my weight. Instead, the gale snatches the information from my ears and files it in my mind for later processing.
Beside me, Sandra thrums with energy, nearly vibrating from it. Malice, jealousy, spite. It riddles her. But my focus is Andhakar.
He and I are at an understanding.
Crunching shoes and cursing is what breaks my concentration and rips my gaze from The Darkness-That-Hunts. Kamiron comes trumpeting down the hill towards us, flanked by Zakk and Hamilton. Dace reluctantly follows, a scowl darkening his face.
“Sandra, what’s going on here? What have you done?” Kamiron demands. His stride towards us is sure but cautious.
The Steel Fang freezes. She stops her humming and vibration. Her expression belays something I never thought to see: shame and fear. She glances at Andhakar and back again at Kamiron.
“You should not be here,” she mumbles.
Recognition sparks in Andhakar’s golden eyes. The rectangular pupils dilate. “I remember you. You found Shari that night.”
Kamiron turns to The Darkness-That-Hunts. He doesn’t say anything in response, but gives a curt nod. Hamilton grabs my elbow and yanks me back, tucking me under his arm. I want to yell at them. I had things handled, but now . . .
Andhakar angles Melissa’s head to him as she is about to greet the boys.
“Please don’t hurt her.” Kamiron takes a step forward. “It’s us you’re after--the ones Shari was supposed to find.”
I attempt to kick Kam, but Hamilton crushes me against his chest. “Easy, love.”
“You should have stayed hidden,” I growl. Hamilton’s shoulders rise and fall in a shrug.
“Now or never.”
Sandra is confronting Kamiron in the blink of a false eyelash. Her stance is defensive as she bars access to her master. Though she says nothing, her gaze implores Kamiron to stay silent.
But the damage is done.
Andhakar feathers another kiss across Melissa’s wide face and she all but melts. Andhakar’s golden gaze turns molten, searing us over Sandra’s tense shoulders. His mouth purses in contemplation. Hamilton grips me even tighter and eases me behind him so that I hover close to the corpse. I angle my nose away from the smell. Nearby Dace shivers, murmuring expletives. Zakk and Kamiron stoically wait for The Darkness-That-Hunts’ next move.
“You neglected to tell me, Sandra, that your Kamiron could be a possible one.”
She shifts her defensive stance so that she can keep both Kamiron and Andhakar in her sights. “I didn’t know--”
“You should have suspected. I rely on your instincts. What do they tell you about your ‘friends?’” Andhakar’s voice is butterfly-soft, almost gentle, but Sandra winces as if he’s slapped her.
“I-I don’t know.”
The maelstrom in me reaches fever pitch and then folds in on itself. Like a black hole, a pinprick of immense pressure that reclines against my pelvis, it becomes quiet and immobile.
Hold on to it, the masculine voice croons.
“There are five here. Even with Shari, that still leaves one too many.” Again, The Darkness-That-Hunts’ eyes rake us as if he can pick which one of us he doesn’t need. At last he shrugs. “Since I can no longer rely on your instincts, my Steel Fang, kill them, starting with your Kamiron. Bring me Shari unharmed.”
Sandra gasps and I lock eyes on Andhakar. I need Mel away from him, but how?
He winks at me. “Too late, pet.”
Melissa crumples like a broken toy. All that remain of her eyes are steaming, empty sockets. Her mouth is stuck in a shocked, half ‘O.’ Russet foam dribbles down her chin and stains the green fabric of her “I <3 Iowa” hoodie. Part of her spine juts through the skin of her broken neck and glistens white in the night. My scream rends the air and before I can attack, Hamilton tugs me to the ground. A half-second later Sandra streaks over us, growling and cursing the missed blow.
Everyone is yelling.
Hamilton straddles me, his attention never leaving Andhakar as he takes to the air, floating in a sky obscured by clouds and shadow, his trench coat billowing like batwings. Sandra circles us, searching for a way to get to me. Kamiron plants himself near my head, his legs wide and arms outstretched as he attempts to talk his girlfriend down. Zakk and Dace each take a side, forming a triangle around me and Hamilton. Sandra bares her teeth.
I reach for the black hole inside me, trying to pull it up and use it to defend my friends, but I might as well have been trying to lift a SUV. The whatever-it-is doesn’t budge.
“Shari.” Hamilton glances at me, brow furrowed as I struggle to get out from under him. The reek of decay and sulfur from the grass surrounding the corpse makes my throat convulse but I tamp down on the urge to vomit. Fear and worry tighten in my stomach and I shove at Hamilton’s shoulders.
“Go, Ham! Get out of here!”
He shakes his head, violet eyes near black in the night. “Can’t leave you, Georgia.”
A deep bronze aura settles over Hamilton and he hisses. With him still straddling me, I feel the burning cold of the aura, like dry ice charged with electricity. I beg Andhakar, plead with him--anything but this, please, anything--but The Darkness-That-Hunts only tilts his head, navy hair curling down his back, and smiles. Hamilton reaches out for me, fingers splayed as he drifts up into the air. I try to grab him and hold him to me, but our fingers miss by a fraction of an inch.
Sandra snarls somewhere to my left and I vaguely hear Kamiron yelling at her to stop, to leave me alone. I don’t turn to look at her. My hands dig through the corrupted soil around me, searching until my fingertips bang against the dead guard’s holster.
My hand closes around the cool metal. I’ve never touched a gun before--never really seen one except in the movies. I fumble with it as Hamilton climbs the sky. Andhakar watches me, unconcerned. I can practically feel Sandra lunging for me. I raise the gun and fire at Andhakar.
All I hear is a click.
The gun trembles in my hand as I wrestle with the safety. Andhakar chuckles and suddenly he has Hamilton in his arms. Ham doesn’t move, immediately entranced. Andhakar brushes Hamilton’s wavy hair from his face, exposing the shaved side of his head. Andhakar’s slender finger traces Hamilton’s scalp and his nail draws a thick stripe of blood. Hamilton doesn’t so much as flinch. His expression is vacant, caught in enthrallment. The Darkness-That-Hunts inhales deeply and then a black tongue darts out, lapping at Hamilton’s skull.
Golden eyes find me, and The Darkness-That-Hunts’ smile is terrible. All teeth and malice. Without taking his gaze from me, Andhakar kisses Hamilton’s collar and then his mouth, leaving crimson smears with each press of his lips. The bronze aura around Hamilton flashes, blinding me.
A shriek. Behind me, Sandra curses Kamiron, tells him to get off her.
A second flash sears my eyes. Andhakar’s voice echoes in my head, cold and bemused.
Thanks for the new pet.
And he and Hamilton are gone.
The safety clicks off. I roll and bring my attention to Kamiron and Sandra tumbling on the ground. He grunts as she kicks him in the groin and then picks him up and hurls him several leagues into the air. His body disappears into the spruce and pine that rim the basin.
I don’t wait.
The bullet jolts her back, hitting her in the left shoulder. Whirling, she bares her teeth at me. Her blue and green eyes narrow and in them I read the dark knowledge that she won’t be bringing me back to Ater.
I pull the trigger again.
Her head snaps back. Brain matter sprays in a crimson cloud and she drops. I stagger to my feet. My stomach knots around the pinprick black hole in my belly. I stumble to Sandra’s body and unload the clip.
“Fuck,” Dace breathes, rushing to my side. He stares at the bodies around us and swears again. Zakk tugs on my arm.
“We’ve gotta go.”
As if to further spur us, the dead guard’s radio flares to life. Static voices announce that a bronze light was seen flashing in the sky and reports that shots were fired.
I drop the gun.
The shock wears and horror fills me. Bile clogs my throat, tears burn behind my eyes, and another scream threatens to claw free. Zakk is there and a brook flows over me, shoving away my emotional outburst. Up the ravine, we see Kamiron tumble out of the bushes. We rush to him. Dace hooks his arm under Kamiron’s and starts dragging him away.
Kamiron spits blood. Cuts and bruises litter his body, and his shirt is in tatters. Leaves and grass clutch at his ink-black hair. “Sandra?”
“Shari clocked her.” Dace shakes his head in disbelief.
Kamiron’s gaze settles on me. I read sorrow and accusation in them.
She tried to kill me! I want to shriek, but instead I mutter, “She’s not dead.”
Zakk floats between the boughs of the pine trees, vigilant for the flashlights and thud of security teams converging on the basin behind us. “That was a headshot, Shari, and if that didn’t do the job, you pumped her full of bullets. No way she’s coming back.”
Kamiron makes a strangled noise and falters. I ignore him.
“She’s not human. She’s the Steel Fang. Bullets will do nothing to kill her.” Uncertainty wars inside me. What do we do? Where could we go? “I’ve bought us a few minutes. She’ll regenerate soon.”
“You sound calm considering Kamiron’s pissed-off zombie vampire girlfriend is going to be hunting us.”
I disregard Dace’s quip. “We need a plan.”
“We need a place to lay low,” Dace counters.
“I don’t think there’s a place Andhakar can’t reach us.”
“He’s gone,” I assure Zakk. “Even with Sandra’s enhanced summoning, he can’t be here for long. He weakens the further he is from the Lake. It’s Sandra we have to--”
A trio of howls shatters the quiet of the camp and we freeze in our tracks.
“Tell me that’s coyotes,” Dace gulps.
I shut my eyes. Although long healed, my wounds from when I first arrived at Camp Genki throb. “Hounds.”
Kamiron straightens, glancing at my neck and calf. “You mean . . .?”
“We need to get inside.”
“Yes, we do.”
Zakk guides us onto the pavement. The squat tōrō cast more shadows on the sidewalk than light. “I know where to go. Follow me.”