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Chapter 15

“Scout?” The voice was hoarse. Whispered. The speaker made her name sound funny.

Scout cracked one eye open, not really sure she wanted to be awake to see what Rhys had planned next for her.

She was beyond shocked with what her one eye was seeing. Baby blue.

She was hallucinating. Had to be. There was no way that this could be real. Why would Merrick be here? It had to be a figment of her imagination. Sure he was the most likely to find her in the circumstances, but why would he do it? There was no way she’d dreamed a rescue into existence. It was just something she wanted so badly her mind decided to pretend it was real. It didn’t really make sense because she needed food more than a rescue. Water. The girl clenched her eyes closed, wishing her imagination would stop. She needed it to be useful. Figure out an escape. Had she lost her window of opportunity?

Scout began to shake.

This was no mirage.

Those blue eyes lit into hers, and a panicked voice whispered her name as his hand latched onto her shoulder and shook her vigorously.

She groaned, “You shake me any harder and I’m going to black out again.”

Merrick’s hand removed itself from her shoulder, “Are you okay?” He searched her face for--something.

Scout puffed out the air in her lungs, “Been better,” she replied.

His eyes traveled the length of her body, trying to assess the damage.

As she felt his eyes rove she was reminded of her nakedness. There was no way she could hide the damage from him. “Please, don’t look at me,” she asked.

“What?” His eyes met hers again.

“Don’t look at me. Like that,” she added. She couldn’t describe what made her uncomfortable. Maybe it was because she was completely and utterly helpless. She hadn’t just been stripped of her clothes, but her fighting spirit was temporarily on hiatus. “What are you doing here?”

Merrick tore his eyes away, analyzing her situation, “Don’t you recognize a rescue when it’s happening?”

“Why--?” Scout started to ask. He had told her he’d have her back but he had no reason to. She’d given up thinking that anyone would be looking for her.

Merrick didn’t answer. Instead, he pulled Scout’s chains free with an agility that at this point in Scout’s life, she could only dream of having. She slumped heavily on his thin frame as her feet proved unable to hold her weight. Rhys had done a thorough job of working her over.

Merrick supported her out of her own personal hell, up some stairs and out into open air. Scout did not recognize her surroundings. She did however note the sun’s position in the sky. It was fading, and fast.

She groaned, which Merrick reacted to immediately, gently dropping her out of the Fireman’s Carry onto the plush green grass.

Scout, now very aware of her nakedness thanks to the light and the breeze, and hugged her knees to her chest.

“What’s wrong?”

“Too many things to be able to answer that question simply,” she responded, wishing she had clothes. She had always been a modest dresser and now, she was naked, in front of a boy. Well, sort of. A member of the opposite sex. She tried to tell herself that he had seen naked girls before, but that thought just didn’t sit well with her.

She was just going to have to suck it up and deal with it. There wasn’t anything available to her to cover up and she wanted to get as far from this place as she could. “Let’s just put some distance between me and this place, and find me some clothes.” Slowly, very slowly, she crawled to a stand. Everything hurt.

Merrick hovered, hands out, prepared to catch her, like a wobbling piece of china, “Are you sure you’re--”

She slapped his hand away, “I’m fine. The quicker we get out of here, the happier I’ll be.”

“If you’re sure?”

Waiting for her to compose herself wasn’t going to help them in any way. She risked bleeding out or passing out. That wouldn’t get them anywhere. She needed to walk if only to remind her body that she could. It would slow them down, but Scout didn’t want to be carried. She shot Merrick a fiery glare in response to his question that got caught by the rays of the setting sun.

Part of her reasoning was that she wanted her body in working condition. Her body could use the change of pace. Scout also didn’t want Merrick touching her body any more than she wanted him looking at it. It would be a long time before she would trust a man, or a vampire after this. Even one rescuing her.

“Where are we going?” She asked.

Merrick pointed toward a stretch of forest on the east side of the dilapidated house they had exited.

She followed him dutifully as he led the way, albeit much more slowly. “How did you find me?”

“I can smell you for a quarter mile on a good day with a favorable wind,” he admitted. “It was a whole new ball game once your blood was spilled. Somewhere between three and five miles.”

“I’m guessing that’s above average.”

“A mile is above average,” Merrick responded. “You must have lost a lot of blood.”

“I imagine so,” Scout managed, her mind still reeling. “How long have I been missing?”

“Five days.”

Scout stopped dead and looked at him. He saw her halt and turn. “Five days?” The girl’s voice was a whisper.

He swallowed hard and seemed to shrink a little, “I apologize.”

Scout shook her head and started walking again. She didn’t expect him to come after her. The last thing he owed her was an apology. Why had it taken the others so long? Where the hell were they now?

“I wasn’t expecting you,” Scout admitted. “You don’t owe me any favors.”

“You’re wrong there. If I’d never met you, I’d still be in a bottle somewhere. You gave me a reason to be sober. I couldn’t save Macha, I could save you. I told you I had your back.”

“Thank you,” Scout’s voice was quiet as she limped along behind him. They were besties. Weren’t they? They used to be. Before Rhys had kidnapped her. “Fill me in on the last few days.”

“I figured you would call on me after your stay with the Hunters and your temper had settled. I stayed in the crypt so that I wouldn’t miss you. When you didn’t show by sundown I ambled out to see if maybe your bedroom light was on. That there was some sign of you. There wasn’t, but the worst part was that your mom caught me climbing out your bedroom window.”

Scout groaned, knowing exactly what her mom would do.

Merrick wheeled instantly, thinking it was her wounds that caused her outburst.

She waved him on.

“Your mother, wonderfully protective woman that she is, fired a shotgun at me. And then called the cops and put an APB out on me. The authorities found me as I was making my way to the Hunters.”

“And you let them take you?” She asked.

“They had nothing to hold me. Plus a fight would have made me look guilty. I answered their questions and they let me go. After about 24 hours,” he sighed. “Then I resumed my call to the Hunters.”

“You knowingly sought out Hunters?” To say her mind was blown was a severe understatement.

“They knew you, and they knew what you were dealing with.”

“And they know who you are!” She exclaimed. “As well as what you are. They wouldn’t help you. I’m surprised they didn’t kill you.”

“They tried,” he replied. “Your old boyfriend missed my heart with a bolt by a mere quarter of an inch. Have you any idea how painful that is?”

She replied with a cold laugh, “I know little of pain. How come no one mentioned Rhys founded the Incubi?”

“What do you know about them?” Merrick asked, slowing.

“I know their methods. I was in their care for a few days a long time ago. It wasn’t until I informed Rhys of my experience that I earned my reprieve.”

Merrick made no response.

They traversed the woods in silence in the growing dark. As Scout began tripping over more things, and Merrick began looking back more times, she acquiesced to holding his hand. It let him know that she was still behind him without him looking at her. She felt that every time his fierce blue eyes fell on her body he wasn’t exactly surveying the damage, and that unnerved her. This was no time to admire scars or her muscling.

It took her a moment to realize her uncomfortable feelings. It was that, once again, she felt like prey.

When they finally broke through the trees, Scout came to a dead stop, her hand pulling out of Merrick’s grasp as she did so.

He turned on a dime.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she murmured, frozen in place.

“What?” He asked, taking a step towards her.

“Do I really look that stupid?” She asked, nodding to the building looming up in the dark in front of them.

Merrick eyed the old cabin they were standing in the backyard of.

Scout couldn’t believe this. Her brain refused to process it. What would she never believe? That Rhys and Merrick were working together. It would explain why they hadn’t come to blows and no one had ended up dead. Their feud was centuries old and well-documented. Unless this wasn’t the vampire formerly known as Bran, just an imposter. It was genius really, making it seem like she had created a window of opportunity for escaping, Merrick swooping in like her knight in shining armor, only to bring her back.

Merrick was a vampire, with a keen sense of smell. He should be able to smell Rhys all over this place and avoid it accordingly. So why the hell were they currently standing in Rhys’s backyard? This was the last place she wanted to see. Let alone be.

Scout didn’t want to believe it. It was preposterous. Or was it?

Facts were facts. She had thought she was running away from Rhys, to safety, only to arrive in Rhys’s yard.

The girl bolted, on trembling legs.

Merrick was after her in an instant.

Despite his abilities and her handicap, she made a good run in the dark. Merrick didn’t catch her. She did get fouled up by an exposed root and tumbled into the underbrush. As her head connected with something solid and her eyes dimmed, she realized what she had overlooked. She had never been able to account for whoever had knocked her out in the altercation with Rhys that led to her kidnapping. She hadn’t thought about it at all until now, but there was no way Rhys was the culprit. He’d been standing in front of her the whole time. The only other person in the vicinity was Merrick. It had to be him. Right? How could she have been so stupid?

Against her express wishes, Scout’s body succumbed to the coming darkness.

When she came to, it was dark yet again. And she was wet. And her head hurt. She heard an exhalation of breath, and was instantly on her guard.

“Scout?” The foreign accent was all too familiar.

A cool hand felt her forehead.

Why wouldn’t they just leave her alone?

She shied away from Merrick’s touch.

“Are you okay?” He asked, his voice the barest of whispers.

“Please don’t touch me,” she managed to say. Her voice sounded gravelly, her throat was dry.

“What’s wrong?” He asked.

“Everything,” she replied. It was the truth.

“Could you be a little more specific?” He asked as she batted away his attempts to help her up.

“No,” she told him hotly. There was really too much she didn’t understand and too many questions she didn’t want to ask.

“Please don’t talk so loud. We’re still very close to Rhys’s house.”

“If he’s there I’m sure the volume of my voice isn’t going to alert him. No doubt he is very attuned to the smell of my blood since he’s spent the past five days encouraging it to leave my body.”

“I had no intention to come out in Rhys’s back garden. Please believe me. I told you that I could smell your blood from five miles away. A scent that strong at that distance is distracting in this proximity. We’re so close. Let’s just get you home. Rhys has probably figured out you’re gone by now and you’ll be easier to defend with your weapons collection close at hand.”

Scout was in no condition to go toe-to-toe with Rhys, regardless of the weapons in her arsenal. She needed Mirela.

Why the hell hadn’t the Hunters showed?

The girl led the way as she picked her way around trees and through the underbrush in the direction of her house. She was straying from the main road because she didn’t want to encounter Rhys, or her mother, especially in the state she was in.

Merrick didn’t say anything, he just followed her.

She stopped dead as a thought popped out of nowhere. She turned to question Merrick. He was probably fifty yards behind her, his iridescent skin the only reason she could see him. He was standing stock still, his nostrils flaring.

She refrained from asking him what was up, but in another few steps she knew. The wind had changed directions, bringing with it a whiff of burning wood. Scout continued on, maybe her mom was using the fireplace, or cooking outdoors. She didn’t know the hour, so she would find out when she got there.

After traveling a good distance closer, the smell of burning grew stronger and was not as fragrant as it had first seemed.

It put Scout on edge, just as Merrick hurdled through the woods, making up for the distance Scout had put between them. No words were exchanged as the vampire grabbed her hand and dragged her through the woods to the source of the smell. Scout didn’t know what to do, but she found herself running after him. She could tell when the trees began thinning. The orange glow in the distance didn’t escape her attention either. As they broke through the tree line, Scout stopped dead, her breathing stopping altogether.

Before the pair of them, stood Scout’s house. It was not at all as Scout remembered it.

The quaint little farmhouse was illuminated from within by orange flames licking at the windows on the first floor. Black smoke billowed through the open and broken windows, rising high into the sky, a column of death.

Scout’s first thought was sadness. All her important keepsakes were going to be reduced to ash. Her next thought was panic as she realized her mother was probably still inside.

She sprinted to the nearest door without a second thought. Merrick tackled her into the bushes as her hand was about to latch onto the knob.

“What the hell are you doing?” She asked pushing him off

“You’re going to kill yourself,” he replied, breathless. He was panicked too.

“My mom’s in there,” she could feel her composure breaking so she pointed to her mother’s room on the second story. This couldn’t be real. This couldn’t be happening. Five days of torture followed by her house burning to the ground with her mother inside. Real life was not like this.

Merrick followed her finger, his eyes narrowing. He was silent.

That meant she was right. “I’m not going to let her die,” Scout told him.

“You don’t know how long this place has been burning. She might already be dead.”

Scout scowled, “There’s only one way to find out.”

“I’m not letting you go in there,” he told her, tightening his grip on her body.

“If you don’t let me in there, you are going to regret it for the short amount of time I let you live,” she threatened, letting her body’s natural response take over. She did her best working at pummeling vampires when she didn’t think about.

Merrick held her firmly as she tried to wiggle out of his grasp to improve her leverage in the situation, “How do you propose to save her?” He was asking to make her think logically.

Scout did her best work problem-solving crises, “Enter the building, climb the stairs, jump out a window. Not very complicated. But the longer you keep me here, the shorter my time to rescue her gets. The floor could weaken, the stairs might be on fire…” she trailed off, leaving the worst case scenarios in her head.

Merrick wordlessly untangled himself from her body and climbed back to the threshold of the door. Scout followed clumsily after him.

“What are you doing?” She growled, watching him inspect the door.

He gave her a very intense look, then kicked in the door. As the smoke billowed out, Scout jumped out of the way, coughing. “You can’t be serious!” She called after him. “You’re going to die.”

“It should have happened a long time ago,” he replied, and then dissolved into the smoke.

Scout really didn’t know what to do. It was her who should be saving her mother, not some vampire. She knew where her mother slept. She knew the intricacies of her house. He was going in blind. He was going to get himself killed. Both him and Scout were vulnerable when it came to fire, why did he get to be the hero?

When the smoke cleared, she saw the stairs at the end of the hall. They were engulfed in flames. Had he even made it up them?

People respond to stress in different ways. Scout wasn’t the type to wring her hands or pace. She didn’t have a plan fully formulated yet but she wasn’t going to stand by and do nothing. That just wasn’t her way. The girl circled around the house, climbed the tree to her room and smashed the window. She dragged herself across the broken glass, not even noticing the way it made her bleed. She got to her mother’s room and saw the open door.

The bed was empty.

Scout wasn’t sure if that was a good or bad thing. She didn’t have time to dwell on it. She suddenly found she couldn’t breathe. She inhaled deeper, but that didn’t seem to help. There didn’t seem to be any air in the room.

Somehow she made it back to her room.

That was the last thing she remembered.

A solid slap had her on the mend. Scout’s grey eyes snapped open and found themselves on the opposite end of a fierce pale-eyed glare.

“The difference between me and you, Scout, is the fact that I don’t have to breathe,” Merrick informed her.

Scout didn’t acknowledge the weakness. She bolted upright. “Is my mom…?”

“She’ll be okay once we get her to the hospital,” he said. “She’s breathing and has good vitals. You’re from good stock,” he told her.

“Just once I want you folks to allow that we’re more resilient than you give us credit for,” Scout tried to chuckle but ended up in a coughing fit. “What are we waiting for?” She asked Merrick as she wiped the tears from her eyes and her breath returned to her.

He watched her with a strange expression, “Do you know how to get to the closest hospital?”

Scout made a face. She preferred avoiding them. They asked too many questions she she couldn’t explain, “I know someplace closer. The transportation seems to be the hard part.”

“I could carry you.”

“My legs are fine. I was tortured. Not crippled. It’s my mom’s unconscious body that has my concern.”

“Well, I could hotwire your car, but I wanted to ask your permission first,” he retorted.

Scout wasn’t sure of the sarcasm. “The keys are in the ignition.”

“Let’s go.”

Scout struggled to a stand. She waved off Merrick’s attempts to help, telling him that he should get her mother in the car. She’d follow along in her own time.

As the girl stood, she felt something skitter off her body and onto the grass. By the light of her burning house Scout could see that she had been covered with a pair off sweatpants and a hoodie.

She bent down to pick them up, disbelieving their existence. Where had they come from? Her house was in flames. Scout turned to eye Merrick, who was currently stuffing her mother into their Jeep. The girl decided not to overthink these much desired clothes. She hurriedly pulled them on, hating the way the cotton caught and tugged at her wounds but loving that she no longer had to look at her bruised and bleeding skin. There was a time she used to relish the marks. They spoke of victory or experience learned. Badges of honor. There was nothing on her body worth boasting about. She had survived torture at the hands of Rhys. He was still out there. When he was dead maybe she would see things differently. Until then...

“Where are we going?” Merrick asked as the girl climbed into the passenger’s seat. It was quite a debacle given that pressure anywhere on her backside was impossible to handle. Scout managed it in the end, but decided to focus on the peculiar shade of her sweatpants to distract herself from the pain.

Merrick noticed. “You were passed out on the floor of your room,” he explained, thinking she was just intrigued by the existence of clothes after days of nakedness. “I just grabbed the two nearest things.”

“Thanks,” she whispered, keeping her head down. Words could not express how much she appreciated the gesture.

Merrick didn’t acknowledge it, though she knew he had heard it. “Where are we headed?” He asked again as they raced past Rhys’s house.

“The Hunters.”

He nodded.

The short journey was made in silence. Scout was grateful that the “two nearest things” were a pair of sweatpants and a sweatshirt. The fact that he had even thought of clothing her, sort of blew her mind. She had seen him staring. But then, he had probably anticipated their need to be in a public place, and her lack of clothes would not go over well. They would, without a doubt, whisk her away and out of his clutches.

There was an awkward silence as he pulled the SUV into the driveway of Luca and Mirela’s house.

“Thanks,” Scout told him again and slid out of the passenger’s seat and opened the rear door to retrieve her mother.

He was beside her in an instant, “What do you think you’re doing?”

“You can’t go in there,” Scout nodded in the direction of the Hunter’s home base.

“And you can’t carry her,” he pointed out.

“She only needs to get as far as the doorstep,” Scout replied.



The vampire hefted the body of her mother over his shoulder and deposited her in the threshold, ringing the bell.

Scout gaped at him, and bolted up the steps, pushing him away.

It was Mirela who opened the door, rubbing her eyes, “Jeez, Scout, you look like hell.”

“You don’t look much better,” Scout replied.

“What’s up?” Mirela asked.

She was being strangely cool about the fact Scout had appeared on her doorstep at some unknown hour of the night after being missing for five days.

“Mir--who is it?” Someone asked from within.

“Huh? Oh. Scout,” the Hunter replied casually.

Feet thundered on hardwood, and Scout vaguely wondered at her chances of surviving the stampede.

Every Hunter she had ever met or heard about in Crimson was staring at her with wide eyes. Scout could see Alin and Dacy standing cautiously at the end of the hall. Someone had wrenched the door from Mirela, so that Scout could see the whole hallway.

Scout really didn’t know what to do. Did no one notice her mother lying at her feet?

“Where’s Luca?” She asked Mirela quietly.

Mirela looked to the Dumitru’s and then the Hunters, and then stepped outside, closing the door behind her.

“What’s going on?” Scout asked.

“You’ve been gone for a week,” Mirela said plainly.

“Yeah,” Scout replied, “why the hell aren’t you out looking for me? You know Rhys has never left a Hunter alive.”

Mirela looked at the ground. “We had to cover our own ass. We had to say you left here in good condition and we couldn’t get caught looking for you in the woods…”

“Don’t lie to me. Alin wouldn’t let you.”

“He’s the head of this sect. We have to obey him,” Mirela said. “You know I’d be there for you. I want Rhys’s head.”

Scout nodded and took a step back.

“There’s something Alin isn’t telling us,” Mirela continued. “He’s got every Hunter holed up here like he’s expecting the end of the world.”

Scout’s head shot up and she searched the girl’s face. Did she not know about Luca’s apocalypse theory? It would appear that Alin had bought stock in it.

“I am sorry,” Mirela apologized.

“What for?” Scout backed down another step, suspicious.

Mirela shook her head like there were too many things to count, “For not being able to come after you. For shooting your friend full of holes--I’m assuming the guy that tried to knock in the door was one of yours. He had to know coming to us wasn’t his smartest move.”

Scout shrugged, she didn’t feel the need to tell Mirela that Merrick had survived the barrage, “Are you also apologizing for not letting me in? I need medical attention.”

“I can’t.”

“Why the hell not? Because I’m not family?”

“Because no one has ever survived an internment with Rhys.”

“You think I’m a vampire? Do you think I would be standing on your front steps if I was a vampire? Do you think I would have these gaping and bleeding wounds if I was a vampire?” Scout pulled up her shirt to show Mirela her back wounds.

“It happens rarely, but some fresh ones don’t know they are dead.”

“Check my pulse goddamnit!”

“I can’t do that.”

“Then get Luca out here. I know what she can do.”

Mirela shook her head, “She won’t do it.”

“What the hell are you people good for? Hunters, to my recollection, are supposed to protect the human race. You left me out there in the hands of a crazy person.”

“The death of one is sometimes necessary to save the lives of many.”

“And now Luca won’t come out to confirm or deny my existence because she doesn’t want to. What is the point of her? That’s her only job!”

Mirela started to say something.

“No, you can go to hell. I came here because I wanted help. That’s what you people are supposed to provide. Why the discrimination against me? Because I don’t have a definitive lineage like you stuck-up Romanians? I don’t need help. I’ll bide my time and heal and I’ll kill Rhys without your help. I’d prefer it actually. Knowing now that you’ve got no qualms about hanging me out to dry as opposed to learning the lesson the hard way in the heat of battle. Forget I was ever here. I don’t need you. I was hoping for a safe place to rest up, since that isn’t going to happen now I have to find some place to put my mother so Rhys can’t get her.”

“Your mother?” Mirela’s voice was a whisper.

“Yeah, you didn’t think Rhys would let me just walk out of his torture chamber? I escaped. To make me regret doing so he torched my house with my mother inside. I don’t need your resources to kill Rhys, but I could sure use them to keep my mother safe.”

Mirela held up a finger and slipped inside. In seconds she was back with a friend to haul Mom’s body inside, “We’ll take care of her.”

Scout couldn’t muster up any thanks. “I want to see Luca,” she demanded of the door as it shut in her face.

She got it, really she did. They had to cover their own asses and make sure they didn’t let a vampire into their stronghold, but really, why would she show up to the home base of the Hunters if she was a vampire? They’d shoot her down, no question. Like they had with Merrick.

Scout had never trusted Alin. She could easily see him sacrificing her to save his own kin, but she didn’t understand Luca’s hesitation. It sounded like the girl didn’t get much play. This was her chance to be useful. Was it because she was scared of what she would see? Tough.

Scout collapsed on the front steps. She had kind of been banking on their protection. She was in no condition to handle Rhys. It had been a long time since she’d been this busted up. There was no place she could go that was safe. Her current state could lure vampires for miles off. How was she supposed to heal, nevermind survive?

“They think I’m a vampire,” Scout told Merrick as she sat down on the steps beside her, her head in her hands.

“You know you aren’t,” he told her, taking her by the chin and forcing her to look him in the eye.

“Do I?” She asked in a whisper, searching his face, afraid her voice would crack. She knew for sure she didn’t know everything Rhys had done to her.

“I know you aren’t,” Merrick told her, letting her go and giving her a reassuring smile.

Pain knifed through Scout’s stomach and she realized she didn’t know the last time she’d eaten and her body was angry. She lacked the energy to go in search of food. She also didn’t want to go out. She didn’t know where Rhys was. She wasn’t scared of him, she just knew she wouldn’t be able to fend him off, and she didn’t want to go back into the hole he’d kept her in.

“We probably shouldn’t stay here,” Merrick said after awhile. No doubt he was thinking about what the Hunters would do when they found out he was still kicking around.

“I don’t want to go anywhere until I find out my mom is okay.”

“It’s not safe.”

“I’m more safe sitting on the front steps here at the Hunters then I would be anywhere else. I can’t go anywhere else,” she amended.

Merrick made no reply.

Scout was dimly aware that her mood was kind of a downer right now. She had come to the Hunters expecting help. Disappointment was a gross understatement. She didn’t know how to proceed. She no longer had a home to retreat to. She needed medical attention.

It was only a matter of time before vampires started flocking in her direction. Open wounds sort of make an easy target. Easy to find. Not much fight.

“Guess we know why there’s no such thing as a slayer,” she said, trying to make a joke. “She would end her own life within a year of taking the job.”

Merrick was not amused, “I think you fared pretty well considering you have no definitive lineage and no formal training. Since you’ve been fighting you’ve taken out vampires that have killed many well-trained Hunters.”

Scout fell silent as she reflected on her life choices.What had she done in her lifetime? Killed vampires. And pissed a lot more of them off. The ones she’d left alive would hunt her, and any of her kin, until extinction. She’d read about it. That’s what they did to Hunters. That was the way of things, so why did she insist on fighting the established pattern? Because not everyone was like that.

She’d met vampires who weren’t all that bad. Until Crimson, Scout had never met a Hunter who didn’t deserve a gruesome death.

She’d known something was off about this town from the moment she’d stepped foot here. Hunters who didn’t fit the mold. A small town with a big cemetery. She had hoped it would mean that this town would be different, that she’d be able to have a friend again. She’d thought that person was Rhys, persisting against her better judgment because she’d needed the contact. That had been a bad choice, though he’d seemed harmless enough at the time. Vampires were such old souls, they understood her on a level that really no one else could. Probably because of their infinite years of life experience. Or did she default to them because she’d never had any human friends?

Luca, a quiet, soft-spoken girl, a Hunter by birth who was an outcast in her own world. Scout thought for sure that because of their unique natures that they would be fast friends. Her betrayal hurt the most.

Mirela’s behavior Scout had expected. She was a tough girl. Too tough for her own good because her hard manner made it impossible for anyone to like her. The boys respected her ability but gave her a wide berth. These skills made her a good leader, it wasn’t a popularity contest. Mirela could make the hard choices, to sacrifice Scout to save her crew. As much as Scout wanted to hate Mirela, it was the right thing to do.

She had been foolish to expect their help. She was in this alone. She always had been. She had always thought that having friends would be a hindrance, another body to protect. That’s why she’d avoided them. In this town, she’d allowed herself friends because they could take care of themselves. She thought things would be different here. That for once they’d help her out in a bind. She was wrong.

Scout stood, resolved to sort this mess on her own.

Merrick stood with her.

“You should go.”

“I won’t.”

“You can’t stay here.”

“Neither can you.”

Scout’s eyes narrowed, she didn’t want a fight. She just wanted something in her life to go right for once. “I don’t have anywhere else to go. I don’t know why you’re still here. We’re square by my watch. You don’t owe me anything and if you stay you’re liable to get shot at. Again.”

“I came here for Rhys. He wants you. It seems an easy way to foul up his plans pretty good. Hopefully that means keeping you alive and pissing him off. That’ll work well enough for me for now. So I don’t mind sticking by you if you don’t mind me kicking around.”

Scout just nodded. She didn’t know if she believed him. She was going to have a hard time believing any vampire for a long time. So far he wasn’t lunging after her throat despite the fact she probably reeked of blood. And he had barrelled into a burning building to save her mother. He was currently standing in front of a Hunter home and claimed not to care about getting shot. Scout wouldn’t think about trusting him until they had that inevitable encounter with Rhys.

Scout took a deep breath and tried to pace. Her body disagreed. Her ribs did not appreciate her breathing and her bare feet objected to the movement.

Merrick looked like he wanted to object.

Scout knew she shouldn’t trust him but she was too tired to think this all out on her own. Her only rest had been her increasingly frequent stages of unconsciousness. Since she was incurring no wounds, hopefully blood loss would no longer be the culprit. She just had to avoid head trauma. Now, if she could just get the words out. “When I was--with--Rhys--he told me that he was going to change me. But that the timing had to be right. That I had to be broken.”

Merrick started to pace as well, “That doesn’t make sense. If he turned you, you would have to obey him. That’s the way things work.”

“Is there a way to resist it?”

Merrick made a face.

“He told me he tortured Macha. Shouldn’t he not be able to do that?”

“He did what?” Merrick’s voice was a carefully concealed roar. He latched onto Scout’s shoulder blades and she hissed in pain.

That wasn’t what stopped their dialogue. There was a third voice. A gasp.

The pair whirled to face the newcomer.

Luca was standing in front of the door. One hand on the handle, one in front of her mouth. Her dark eyes were wide with fright.

Merrick jumped away from Scout and the dark-haired girl assessed her.

“What’s wrong with you?” Luca whispered.

“The easier question might be to ask what isn’t wrong with me?” Scout retorted. “Can you confirm I’m human or did you just come out here to kick me off your lawn?”

“You’ve never been human,” Luca replied, her voice a little stronger. “Like a Hunter, but different. Your pain is so strong it’s giving me a headache. It’s completely disguising how I distinguish humans. I’ve never seen anything like it. You should be dead.”

“But I’m not. Right?” Scout looked to Merrick for confirmation.

“Who’s your shadow?” Luca asked instead.

“His name’s Merrick,” Scout gestured he step into the light.

Luca’s eyes widened this time in fear, “But--we--”

“Shot him?” Scout laughed. “Thing I learned about really old vampires? They don’t respond well to staking. I think fire and beheading are the only way for them.”

“How old is he?”

“Old. You’ve probably read about him in the books. He used to go by the name Bran.”

Luca was openly gaping, “What are you doing with him?”

“He fancies himself my bodyguard, which is pretty lucky for me since, according to you, I shouldn’t be alive,” Scout made a face.

“You don’t have enough blood,” Merrick acknowledged.

“Your pain is blinding,” Luca added.

“You said I was still human,” Scout turned on Merrick.

“I never said you were human. I told you you weren’t a vampire. I can sense my own kind. You aren’t it. Hunters aren’t human, remember. Don’t be insulted,” Merrick told her.

Scout turned back to Luca, “If you aren’t going to let me in, will you at least keep me updated on my mother’s condition?”

“Now that I’ve seen you with my own eyes, I don’t know how Mirela was able to turn you away.”

“She lacks your gift. And she thought it was the right choice.”

“When was the last time you ate?”

Scout staggered, “Please don’t mention food.”

“C’mon,” the girl descended to the weak blonde.

“Alin doesn’t want me in there.”

“Like you said, he doesn’t have my gift. In this house of death, it seems only fair that I be the humanitarian.” Luca turned to address Merrick, “My invitation does not extend to you.”

Merrick responded coolly, “I had no intention of joining your clan meeting.”

Luca tugged the girl inside.

Scout flipped up the hood on her sweatshirt and demanded that the first stop be the kitchen. The girl guzzled water and ate everything she laid hands on in the fridge. She could hear the Hunters clamoring at the door, wanting to talk to her. Mirela kept them at bay while Luca watched her eat. Scout was like a savage. She didn’t heat up any of the leftovers she found and shoved the food into her mouth by the handful until she was sated. Luca kept her glass full.

All the water meant Scout’s next stop was the bathroom.

As soon as the toilet flushed, Scout was stepping out of her sweats and into the shower. She kept the water scalding hot, hoping that it would burn away some of what she had endured. The dried blood in her hair weakened and fell out in clumps. Scout scrubbed her body as best she could but knew that wouldn’t be terribly successful. She lacked the energy. She was too tired.

The damage done to her body could be hidden by clothes. Nothing could be done about her face. Despite multiple washings, Scout’s hair remained a rust color. The blood had dyed her hair a dirty shade of red. Scout didn’t want to look at it. She rummaged through the cabinets of the bathroom looking for a pair of scissors or clippers to do away with the memory. It being a spare bathroom, it didn’t see much use. There were no scissors. The mission wasn’t a complete bust however. Scout found a bottle of blue hair dye, the strong stuff to make a difference on the dark-headed Romanians. It was a bright blue and it was perfect.

When Scout finally emerged from the bathroom, her hair had everyone gaping. Mirela just nodded, like she understood. And didn’t she in some way? The bottle of hair dye could only belong to her.

The girls wordlessly escorted Scout to a closet-sized bedroom that had a small first aid kit on the bedside table. They insisted on fixing up the injuries they could see before they left Scout alone. They promised her that her mother was in Dacy’s capable hands (she was the Hunters’ medic).

When Scout was finally alone, she surveyed the tiny room to make sure she was actually alone, stopped the door with a chair and climbed onto the bed. Despite the fact that her flesh vehemently opposed pressure of any kind, her body was thankful for the horizontal position and the girl was gently snoozing in mere seconds.

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