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JD rubbed at tired eyes and looked up as the ancient grandfather clock began to chime. He'd been so engrossed in the articles that he hadn't noticed the passing of time until he counted each chime and realized it was ten PM. His stomach grumbled and he realized he hadn't eaten since breakfast and had been surviving on coffee.
"I don't have much to offer in the way of food, Kid, but I could throw on a couple of TV dinners," Galloway offered.
"Could order in a pizza," Dunne suggested.
"Not this late. Sorry, Son, but I don't open my doors for no one once the sun goes down."
"You really believe the stuff we're reading?"
"No...yes, I don't know. I mean this is stuff straight out of one of Wes Craven's horror movies. Shape-shifting vampires...dismemberment...draining of blood? I mean it's just too much to wrap my head around right now."
"Well, you fucking well better get your head wrapped around it because these things are real and we need to find a way to kill them for good," Galloway told him, standing and striding to the big window. He gazed outside, but was unable to see anything and resisted the urge to press his face up against the glass. "These things showed up 200 years ago and it's about fucking time they were sent back to wherever the hell they came from. If you can't help me do that then get out and leave me to find the answers myself."
"I didn't say I wouldn't help!" Dunne snapped. "I said it's hard to be serious about something I've seen in the movies. Maybe we should just go buy a bunch of crosses, as much garlic as we can carry, and as many wooden stakes as we can find."
"That's movie talk, Kid, but like I said before there's always a little truth to what we see or read. So maybe we should get garlic and crosses and stakes, but we're also going to get our hands on some silver bullets and lots of gasoline or lighter fluid. I figure after everything we've read we should be able to use one of them things to kill those bastards," Galloway told him.
"Well, we're not going to find any place open tonight, but we could go check out some of the old surplus shops..."
"I think there's a shop over on the west side that sells witchcraft supplies," Galloway told him. "We could get a couple of them star thingies they use for protection."
Taking a deep breath, JD picked up another article and began to read. This one dated back to the early sixties and catalogued several murders that took place in a small village in South America. Several villagers had been drained of blood and their bodies had been scattered over the area near an old church.
"JD, did you want me to put on a TV dinner for you?"
"That's fine," Dunne said.
"You want to spend the night...the bed in the guest room is comfortable enough," Galloway offered.
"Sounds good," Dunne told him and flipped through several more pages before reaching for his cell phone. He called the apartment and left a message telling Wilmington where he was and that he wouldn't be home and then turned the cell phone off before returning his attention to the papers spread across the table and floor. The answers had to be in here somewhere and that meant something more definitive than lighter fluid and silver bullets.
+ + + + + + +
Buck and Vin shifted in their small cages when they heard footsteps coming toward them. A single bulb, dangling by a cord suddenly came on and the two men noted there were several empty cages in the dank room they were being kept in. The sound of the heavy door screeching open had them both sitting forward and watching the big man enter.
"Josiah!" Wilmington called, but there was no answer from the unconscious man thrown over Edward's shoulder.
"What the fuck did you do to him?" Tanner snarled, angered when their jailer simply smiled and shoved Sanchez into an empty cage before closing the door.
Edward could feel the two men watching him and smiled at the thought of the anger flowing through their veins. It wouldn't be long before that anger changed to fear and that was something his kind could feed off of. The mistress had told him where to place the three men and ordered him not to speak to them and he could feel the frustration his silence caused. He moved outside and lifted Jackson from the trunk and carried him in next, placing the man in the cage dangling from the ceiling. Again, Tanner and Wilmington yelled at him, but he refused to answer their questions.
Vin and Buck could only watch as the man left and returned moments later with the unmoving body of Ezra Standish. He was also deposited into a hanging cage before the light was turned out and they were left alone in the darkness.
"What do you think happened to JD?" Wilmington asked worriedly.
"I dunno, but I think the kid is still free and if he is..."
"He's our ace in the hole," the rogue said softly. "I just hope he doesn't go doing anything stupid."
"JD's smarter than ya give 'im credit fer, Buck," Tanner told him.
"Yeah, J'siah...are ya hurt?" the Texan asked.
"Mostly my pride," Sanchez answered. "Any idea where we are?"
"Somewhere north of Billings. Chris drove past the ranch and took a couple of side roads," Tanner told him.
"Have you seen Ezra or Nathan?" the older man asked.
"They're in the cages hangin' in the corner," Tanner answered.
"She's done something to Chris, Josiah," Wilmington offered.
"Looks like we're all here except, JD and Chris," the Texan said. "I jest wouldn't go countin' on Chris fer help...that leaves JD..."
"Something tells me JD's not alone. We were on our way out to Galloway's place to see if the kid was there when we were attacked. If JD is with Galloway there's a good chance they'll put two and two together and..."
"Come up with five," Wilmington finished for the ex-preacher. "These things are behind the killings."
"What exactly are these things? Did you get a look at them?" Sanchez asked.
"I don't know exactly what they are, but they can change their appearance quicker than we can change our clothes. The bitch took on Sarah's face and is toying with Chris' mind. The male is a vampire...she changed him and he'll do anything she tells him to," Wilmington explained, wincing softly as his shoulders came up against the bars of his cage.
"Are you two hurt?" Sanchez asked.
"Buck's got some wounds to his shoulder. The bitch hunted him down before she had Edward put him in here. I might have a couple of busted ribs," Tanner answered simply, closing his eyes and reaching for the quicksilver touch against his mind, but was forced to sop when he met a malevolent force that sent daggers through his skull.
"Do you know what she's done to Chris?" Sanchez asked worriedly.
"She fed from him, Josiah...took some of his blood."
"That's not all," Wilmington continued and closed his eyes angrily when he pictured Larabee feeding from her veins because of him.
"What else?" the ex-preacher asked.
"He...he...the bitch told him she'd kill me if he didn't take some of her blood in return...I couldn't stop him, Josiah...I couldn't do anything...Chris' eyes were...they were...God..."
"Buck, you're not to blame for any of this," Sanchez vowed. "What we need right now is a way out of these cages."
"We've already tried," Tanner told him. "There's no lock, but there don't seem ta be a door either. Whatever Edward uses ta open them we ain't found it."
"There's always a way out of a cage," Sanchez offered.
"Now where have I heard that before?" Wilmington whispered and tried to ignore the burning sensation in his upper chest.
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Chris lay on the bed, hardy moving, barely even breathing as if to move would be an acknowledgment that he cared whether he lived or died. The truth of the matter was he didn't give a damn anymore. Too many things had happened, too much had changed, and even his sanity was now in question. He could feel the creature beside him and no longer saw her as Sarah, but as the shape shifting vampire he despised. Her cold touch caused him nothing but pain, and yet he could not deny that he wanted more...wanted to taste her...feed from her veins...spend eternity with her. The problem was he could no longer fight her and had fed from her several times, but only after she'd threatened to hunt one of his team down and feed on him while his heart still pumped blood through his veins.
"What are you thinking about, Love?"
Chris looked at the creature hovering above the bed with Sarah's body and face. He no longer fell for the ruse and turned away in disgust that at one point he'd truly thought he'd found the love of his life all over again. It felt as if his soul was no longer his own and yet he fought her touch, at least that's what he told himself, but when she fed on his neck and offered her wrist in return he could not deny the cravings raging through his mind.
"Chris, do not defy me...you know I can take what I want from your mind..."
"I hate you...hate what you're doing to me!" Larabee spat.
"Do you really? Somehow I doubt that very much...but you keep on telling yourself that right up until we are joined. Once that happens you will no longer care about those friends of yours. Even her memory will become distant and cold. You will care only for me and whether I will allow you to feed..."
"No...I won't let you take Sarah's memory from me."
"You keep telling yourself that, Love, and someday you and I will both laugh about how shallow it sounds. You feel it in your veins don't you? The strength that flows between us...the craving for my touch..."
"No...I don't feel anything for you," Larabee insisted, but he could not resist when she lowered her body onto his and sank her fangs into his throat. He screamed, louder and louder as she drove deeper, taking more than she'd ever done before.
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What is that?" Sanchez asked as the mournful cry reached his ears.
"She's feeding on him," Wilmington answered softly. He'd heard the screaming several times during his captivity and each time it got worse. The very fact that she was hurting his friend had already made him vow to take her down, tear her limb from limb as she'd done to so many others. There was no doubt in his mind that she would be defeated, but in defeating her would he also defeat Chris Larabee, killing him as surely as he'd killed the creature of darkness.
"How many times has this happened?" the ex-preacher asked as the screams died out.
"Four or five since I've been here," Tanner answered when the rogue remained silent.
"Did either of you see how she does it?" the older man inquired.
"I did," Wilmington said, shuddering at the thought of what he'd witnessed. "She digs them fangs of hers into his neck just like the vampire movies show...but she doesn't drink too much and then she makes him feed from her wrist."
"Then there's still hope..."
"I'm glad you think so, Preacher," the ladies' man snarled. "Because I don't hold out much hope of anything!"
"Buck, a lot of the older legends have changed through history, but there are some things that seem to stay the same or close to it. This creature drinks the blood of her victims and then dismembers them, but she hasn't done that to Chris. I keep thinking she has to wait until some kind of ritual is done before she can change him," Sanchez explained.
"Looks like whatever the ritual is, it takes place on Halloween," Tanner offered.
"That doesn't leave us much time," the ex-preacher said.
"You got any idea how to fight her?" Tanner asked.
"A few, but first we need to get out of these damn cages," Sanchez said, smiling when he heard another voice from he darkness.
"Perhaps I can be of assistance with that."
"Welcome back, Ezra, Are you okay?"
"An atrocious headache, but nothing I haven't dealt with before. Who else is here?"
"Me, you, Buck, Vin, and Nathan."
"That leaves JD and Chris to rescue...."
"Not exactly. Chris is here....don't really know where JD is," Tanner explained.
"Perhaps Chris will be able to help..."
"Not likely, Ezra, looks like our best bet is JD," Sanchez offered.
"Better hope the kid doesn't come in here all spit and vinegar," Tanner said.
"In this case he'd be better off with salt and garlic," Wilmington said and listened to the sounds from Standish's cage. If anyone could find a way out of a locked cage it was the gambler and right now he had to have faith in the conman's unique abilities.
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JD opened his eyes and pressed his fingers against them. His mouth was dry and his tongue felt covered in crud and he wished he'd brought along a toothbrush, but he hadn't expected to spend the night here. He shifted and stood up, silently cursing himself for not taking advantage of Galloway's guest bed and choosing to fall asleep sitting up at the table instead. Some choice...he'd simply dropped off to sleep before he'd waded through half the new pile they'd printed off.
"Coffee's hot and strong if you want one," Galloway offered from the kitchen.
"Thanks," Dunne said and grabbed a cup from the open cabinet. He poured a cup of the rich brew and added two heaping teaspoons of sugar before warming his hands on the outside of the cup. "What time did we stop..."
"I went to bed at three...you were still poking through several files," the older man offered. "Did you find anything useful?"
"I don't know...maybe," Dunne said and picked up the last few articles he'd read through. "It says here that we can still save anyone the shape-shifter tries to change by killing her before she can complete the ritual."
"What makes you think she's trying to change anyone?"
"Just some things that have happened in the last week. Chris...he's been acting real strange and he's shown some of the signs they talk about in here," Dunne said of the Celtic Legends and Folklore book he'd been skim reading.
"You think the creature's after him?"
"Yes, I do," Dunne answered and reached for his cell phone. He was already late for the office, but if he called in he could stop the others from worrying about him. The call was answered, but not by one of the team...it went straight to the automated answering machine and suddenly JD felt alone...more alone than he'd ever felt in his life.
"Something wrong, Kid?"
"No one's at the office," Dunne answered, staring at his phone when it began to ring. He pressed the talk button and placed it against his ear.
"JD, where the hell are you?"
"I'm...I'm working on a couple of leads, Orrin, what's wrong?" the Bostonian asked, keeping the fear from his voice.
"I had a call from Robert Miller. Nathan's car was found abandoned in an alley..."
"Look, I'm at the office, but there's no one here. Tom says Josiah and Ezra left with Nathan just after five last night."
"Have you heard anything from them?"
"No, not a word. As a matter of fact the only one I've been able to raise is you. Buck, Vin, and Ezra seem to have disappeared off the face of the earth too," the former judge explained. "When can you get here?"
"I'm working on a couple of leads right now, but I'll be there as soon as I can," Dunne answered.
"Look, Son, be careful....six missing men is enough...seven if you count Steven McNally," Travis explained.
"McNally...the FBI agent?"
"Yes, it seems no one's seen him since he left the office the other day. Maybe I should send the police for you..."
"I can handle myself, Orrin," Dunne vowed. "Look, there are a couple of things I need to check into and then I'll come in..."
"JD...just be careful, okay?"
"I will, Orrin," Dunne vowed and hung up the phone. He turned to see Galloway staring at him and took several swallows of the coffee before sitting heavily on the chair. "Looks like we got trouble, Arthur."
"Tell me," Galloway ordered.
"The others are missing...Chris, Vin, Buck, Josiah, Nathan, and Ezra are unaccounted for and I have a feeling we're not going to find them nearby," Dunne told him.
"Probably not, especially if what we believe to be happening...really is happening."
"So how do we find the creature's habitat?" Dunne asked.
"We look for something outside the city, but not too far. According to the information we have these creatures tends to stay close to their feeding supply. My guess is we'll find them within 200 miles of the city. They'll have a car...or something they can drive around in and carry things in case of an emergency. These things can fly when they take the form of a vampire, but they can't fly indefinitely."
"200 miles is a long distance to have to travel...even if they were speeding it would take a couple of hours traveling time," Dunne said.
"They can fly a lot faster than we can drive, JD...as I said the car is simply for convenience and show," Galloway explained.
"That doesn't help us find them," Dunne sad irritably.
"Maybe not, but it gives us a place to start. Look, Kid, if you're gonna sit there and whine about what we can't do then you might as well leave right now. I'd like your help with this, but I need the man...not the boy," Galloway warned.
"I'm not a boy, Arthur...I'm a man or I wouldn't be part of the best damn agency in the city...hell in the country."
"Good, now get on that computer and see if you can bring up a map that shows old properties outside Billings."
"That could take time and that's something we don't have a lot of!"
"Then stop yapping and get to it," Galloway warned and turned his attention to the details they already had.
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Orrin Travis paced in front of the vehicles while Miller's men went over the area with a fine tooth comb. There was no doubt that the men he'd hired for the agency were missing, all except for JD Dunne. He knew Dunne was still in the city and should be arriving soon. The news he had did not bode well for Buck Wilmington and he knew the special bond between JD and Buck would make this even harder. Wilmington's car had been found off the road near Larabee's ranch, but there was no sign of the missing man. Someone had tried hard to conceal the car, but some kids had been joyriding on the old road and wound up being pulled over by a patrol car. The driver, a young woman named Sandra Murtaugh, had noticed the tracks leading into the underbrush and the sun shining from high over head flashed off the mirrors.
Orrin reached for his cell phone, hit speed dial, and waited for Dunne to answer, a part of him didn't really expect one and was relieved when he heard the young man's voice.
"JD, how long before you can get here?" Travis asked.
"I'm just checking a couple of..."
"Leads...that's what you said the last time. Look, the police found Buck's car out near Chris' place. Any chance you can go out and take a look around?"
"I'll leave right away," Dunne assured him.
"Just make sure you keep in touch."
"I will, Orrin...have the police turned up anything on Nathan's car?"
"Nothing yet. It's in the impound lot and they'll call if they find anything. Be careful, JD," Travis ordered.
"I will, Orrin," the young man vowed.
Travis hit the end button and placed his cell phone back in his pocket. The biting wind had him tugging up the collar of his coat, but it did little to alleviate the chill that ran through his body. The officer working on the vehicles had been at it for over an hour, but had yet to find anything that would shed some light on the disappearances. With nothing else for him to do out here, Orrin hurried back into the building and tried to concentrate on the meeting he was supposed to attend.
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Shareena knew the time was drawing near and watched as several more of her kind arrived at her chosen home. This was her nest, at least for the time being, but once the ritual was completed she would no longer need this house. She'd already chosen a new location and would give the others a choice as to whether to join her there or go their own way. She'd seen Tackore hovering over the trees along the south ridge and smiled at the thought of bringing him to his knees at her feet.
Shareena knew none of the others were interested in challenging Tackore, but she had grown tired of being under his rules. She would take her mate in less than 24 hours and then Tackore would have no choice but to bow down to her or be forced to fight her for the right to rule the clan.
She shifted and stared down at the sleeping man she'd chosen and licked her lips as she remembered the taste of his rich blood. She knew once he became her changeling that the warm fluid would become as cold as her own, but that did not bother her because the rewards would make that sacrifice even better. She would have him at her side, feasting on the blood of their victims while growing stronger with time.
"Oh, Love, you're stronger than any human I've ever encountered..."
"Is he, Shareena?"
"How did you get in here, Tackore?" the female snarled, fangs bared as her talons elongated.
"Draw back your fangs, Shareena, I'm just here to remind you that you're not running the clan yet. Why are you keeping those men alive? Surely you know how dangerous a caged tiger is, and you have five of them right under your roof!"
"Remember that, Tackore, they are under my roof and I know what I'm doing. Tomorrow night Chris will become my full fledged changeling and he will need to be fed. Who better to let him feed off than those closest to him."
"Are you so sure you can get him to kill them?"
"He will do anything I ask of him," Shareena vowed and kissed the full lips, tasting the blood she'd shared with him before the interruption. Just having him so close to her was setting off tiny explosions in her own body that spoke of her cravings. She would have to feed again soon in order to be strong enough to challenge Tackore during the ceremony.
"Do not let your guard down with this one, Shareena, for he is not completely under your control until after you've drained his body of blood and his mind of everything he held dear. Are you strong enough to take those memories from him?"
"I can and I will...mark my words, Tackore, my changeling will be mine as will the leadership of the clan. Perhaps you should find a rock to hide under while the others gather for the feast."
"I have no need to hide, Shareena...you are the one who must prove your worth and I remind you that I have the advantage of already having been mated."
"Yes, but your changeling died while still young, Tackore, I will not let that happen with mine."
"We shall see...keep watching your captives...they are not as helpless as you might think," Tackore said and flew through the same window he'd used to enter the room.
Shareena looked down at the blond and saw blood where she'd dug her talons into his shoulder and silently cursed the waste. Tackore was as maddening as anyone or anything she'd ever known and she was so looking forward to beating him at his own game. She lifted her fingers to her mouth and licked the dried blood from them and could feel her body trembling with anticipation.
"Soon, Love, very soon," she whispered and listened to the beating of his heart and knew the blood running through his veins would soon make her stronger.
+ + + + + + +
JD looked at Arthur Galloway and was shocked to see how white the man had grown since leaving his home. Dunne had filled him in on the new murders and disappearances and convinced the writer to come with him to the site where Wilmington's car had been found. He drove north, heading for Old Pear Tree Road and thought about the evidence they'd uncovered so far.
Nathan's car had been found in an alley on the north side of Billings, Buck's Mustang was discovered near Larabee's ranch, and several victims had been found in the vicinity of the northern parking area of Rimrock Mall. JD realized they didn't have much time before Halloween and that he had to concentrate on one area and prayed he was reading the signs right.
"You better be right about this, JD, because if you're not then there's no way in hell we'll have time to search the other locations we discussed," Galloway warned tapping the laptop keys slowly, using one finger on each hand.
"It has to be one of those three places north of Vin's ranch. They're within the two hundred mile limit we put on the nest possibilities and everything we've seen seems to be centered on the northern sector of Billings. Just keep checking what you can..."
"I hate computers!"
"I know, but you're getting pretty good at it," the easterner assured him.
"Yeah right...I'm up to five words a minute," Galloway snapped.
"Just type in map quest and find out exactly where those three pieces of property are located," Dunne told him, spotting the tow truck ahead. He drove in behind the vehicle and nodded to one of the officers who was speaking with the tow truck driver.
"Be with you in a minute, JD," Carlos Martinez said and signed the paper the driver held out to him, before moving to speak with the newcomers. "Who's he?"
"Friend of mine...Arthur Galloway...this is Officer Carlos Martinez. He's one of the good ones," Dunne joked and moved to check out Wilmington's car. "Buck's going to throw a hissy fit when he sees the scratches on his baby."
"We ran the plates just to be sure, but I'm glad you recognized the car."
"Is there any other damage?" Dunne asked.
"Nothing that I could see," Martinez answered and walked around the outside of the vehicle. "There were a couple of raccoons that took offense to being driven out of their new home."
"Buck'd love that," the Bostonian said, a slight smile that belied his worry.
"What can you tell me about the car being out here, JD?"
"Not much...Orrin called me to tell me they'd found Nathan's car in an alley and Buck's Mustang out here."
"I heard about Nate's car and they just asked us to keep an eye out for the rest of your team. What'd they do, JD, decide to have a Halloween party without you?"
"I don't know, Carlos," Dunne said, sitting on the trunk of the Mustang. "Orrin says he hasn't heard from the others since the meeting with McNally and it seems like he's also disappeared."
"An FBI agent who asked us to help out with the investigation into the gruesome murders...we had a meeting with him a few days ago."
"And he's missing too?"
"Looks that way..."
"Jesus, I go out sick for a week and come back to Fright Week from Hell!" Martinez snapped.
"You got that right," Dunne said.
"Officer, I'm ready to go...is there anything else?"
"No, Mike, go ahead. Drop it at the station," Martinez ordered. "JD, if you find out anything make sure you call it in okay?"
"I will, Carlos," Dunne said and watched him leave before going back to his car and climbing back inside.
"Nothing new here," Galloway stated simply.
"No, but you can be sure Buck would never leave his car for the raccoons," Dunne vowed and drove north toward Larabee's ranch. He figured since they were in the vicinity they might as well check out the two ranches before checking out the three homes they'd honed in on.
+ + + + + + +`
Nathan shifted and coughed, his throat dry and his body aching. He didn't have much room to move and wondered where the hell he was. "Sonofabitch!"
"My sentiments exactly..."
"Buck, is that you?" Jackson asked.
"Yes, glad to see you decided to join the ranks of the living," Wilmington told him.
"Damn, where are we? Who else is here?"
"To answer your first question we don't know. The second one is easier...me, you, Josiah, Ezra, and Vin."
"Where are Chris and JD?"
"Chris is here, but he's not in one of these cages. There's a mean bitch..."
"Think shape shifting vampire," Sanchez explained.
"And apparently she's shifted her gaze to Chris," Standish answered, covering his eyes when the light flicked on without warning.
"Hello, Gentlemen, so good to see you all awake," Shareena cooed. She'd decided to keep the image of Sarah Larabee and stared at the dark haired blue eyed male she'd already had the pleasure of hunting. She knew how her appearance affected him and smiled when she stood before his cage.
"I'm going to enjoy killing you," Wilmington vowed, staring into the dark eyes.
"Why, Buck...I thought you cared about Sarah Larabee..."
"You're not and never could be Sarah...she was beautiful inside and out...You're simply a monster who stole her image, but you can't hope to steal her soul...her heart," the rogue's tone was scalding and he could see the creature's image slip slightly, but she quickly recovered.
"I already have, Buck, Chris warms my bed and drinks from my veins...soon he will feast on your flesh. None of you will matter anymore," Shareena said, jumping back when the man's hands reached through the bars of the cage. She knew there was nothing Wilmington could do to her, but instincts told her this man, and the other captives could be very dangerous if they did escape.
"You better be afraid," Sanchez warned. "God looks out for his children and you would be well advised to go back to whatever hell hole you crawled out of and pray he doesn't send us after you."
"I have nothing to fear from your kind or your God, Josiah. He can not touch me because we are not of your race..."
"You're nothing more than a bottom feeder...just like the fish that clean the floor of the ocean. Your kind will lose...bottom feeders always do," the ex-preacher assured her, smiling as he reached inside his shirt and pulled out the crucifix his father had given him on his seventh birthday.
"Your cross does not affect me...it cannot hurt me in any way," Shareena told him, smiling as she ran her talons along the top of the cage. "I will enjoy feasting from you while you hold your cross and pray to a God who does not exist!"
"Oh, He exists, and you will feel His wrath," Sanchez vowed and began reciting several verses in Latin, smiling when she backed away in anger. He heard her curse just before she slammed the door and left him alone with the others. The sound of footsteps caught his attention and he looked up to see another creature standing amidst the cages. This one looked like a cross between a dragon and Gargoyle, with elongated snout and fanged teeth. The eyes were what held his attention and Josiah realized he was looking into the very depths of this shape-shifter.
"Shareena will get us all killed."
"I don't see that as a problem," Wilmington snapped.
"It is if you want to save your friend."
"Who...what are you?" Standish asked.
"I...and the others like me are from a race that died out on another plane equal to this one. If we had but changed one simple step in our evolution we may very well have wound up like you. Alas it is too late for that," Tackore said and allowed them to witness his transformation. He simply took the visage and form of the man he'd killed the previous night and stood before the five men. "I have come here with a proposition."
"What sort of proposition?" Jackson asked.
"I can help you defeat Shareena, but I want your word that you will not kill the others..."
"You've been killing people for a long time and there's no way in hell we can let that go on," Wilmington snarled.
"We have the right to survive."
"Not at the cost of our lives," Jackson told him.
"We cannot stop what we do...feeding on flesh and blood is how we survive. It is no different from you feeding off the animals in your world."
"Is that how you perceive us? As animals to be fed upon?" Standish asked.
"Yes, you are the subspecies in this case and we are above you in what you call the food chain. We are few now and we need to stay alive. If it means some of your kind have to be sacrificed..."
"You tear us apart and drink our blood...that's not sacrifice...it's brutality," Wilmington snapped.
"No more brutal than the way you kill cows or chickens or..."
"We don't deny that we have our own flaws, but we do not discard the body of the animals we feed on. Every part of the body has its uses. Your kind simply drains the blood, feeds off the body and discards what remains all over the place. Then you kill again..."
"We do what we have to in order to survive. If you want to live you will agree with my proposition," Tackore stated.
"What about Chris?" Sanchez asked softly.
"I am afraid it may already be too late for Chris Larabee..."
"Then there's no deal!" Wilmington spat.
"She has been feeding off of him and he in turn has taken her blood into his body. There is only one way to stop him from becoming her changeling."
"How?" Standish asked.
"She must die before she drains him."
"Why hasn't she drained him?" Jackson asked, dreading the answer, yet knowing he needed to hear it.
"She wants him as her changeling, and a true changeling chooses to take his place at her side. He has to accept the gift she offers..."
"Some gift," Wilmington snarled.
"It is a very real gift, Buck. She is offering him a chance to live forever..."
"That's not the kind of life Chris would choose," Sanchez assured the shape-shifter.
"I wouldn't be so sure," the creature said with a slightly lopsided smile. "You see she is using your lives as a bargaining chip. She is telling him that the choice is his to make, but it is not a true choice."
"That's blackmail," Jackson observed.
"I am not familiar with the word, but from the way you say it I believe that is an apt description. He may already be beyond your help, but if you allow the ritual to take place then it will no longer matter because Chris will have become a changeling and will crave the blood that even now flows through his veins. Think on my offer..."
"How do we kill her?"
"You cannot...but I can. Tomorrow night at the ritual she will have the five of you ready for the hunt. Normally your hands would be tied, but if she wants to make this a true, strong joining then she will allow you to remain unbound. She will have Chris at her side in front of the others and it will be up to you to get him away from her when I issue my challenge."
"What if she doesn't accept your challenge?"
"Actually, the truth is she is going to challenge me for the right to lead the clan. That will be her first...and last mistake. She has to take her mate, but if you can stop that from happening then I can stop the rest of it," Tackore assured them. "I must go now, but give some thought to what I am offering; for it is the only chance you have of surviving."
"What do you think, Josiah? Can we trust the bastard?" Tanner asked, speaking for the first time since Tackore's arrival.
"I don't know, Vin, but given a choice between him and the other one...I'd choose Tackore. At least he's given us a choice," Sanchez answered.
"The lesser of two evils," Standish observe. "If we go along with his proposition, does that mean we allow his kind to go free and keep murdering people?"
"Depends on whether we give him our word," Sanchez remarked, leaning his head back against the cage and closing his eyes. How could they let Tackore and Shareena and the others live knowing they'd be condemning other people to die in a grotesque way? The five men remained quiet, thinking about the events of the last week and how the old nightmares were now very real.
+ + + + + + +
Darkness had fallen over the landscape and the bright lights of the city did not reach this far into the country. JD had driven north after leaving Larabee's ranch and pulled into an abandoned farm forty miles north of Tanner's ranch. Tanner and Larabee's homes were both deserted and Dunne grew more and more concerned.
"Your friends could be dead you know?" Galloway said softly.
"No...I can't...I won't believe that. Buck, Josiah, Chris...they're alive, all of them, and we just need to find out where the nest is and rescue them."
"You keep on thinking that way, Kid, but I don't hold out much hope...not after everything I've seen. These creatures live only to hunt and feed off us. They have no reason to keep your friends alive..."
"I would know if they were dead."
"How can you be so sure?"
"I can feel it...in here," Dunne said and touched his chest. "They are alive, but they can't get away from the bastards. We need to keep looking for them..."
"Right up until the creatures find us," Galloway whispered.
"We brought everything we need with us," Dunne said.
"No, JD, we brought everything we believe will kill them, but it's simply not enough. What do we know for certain about these things?"
"Not nearly enough, but I do know I'm going to try everything we brought with us until I find the right combination to kill the bastards," Dunne snarled. "If you don't think you can handle this then I'll drive you back to town..."
"I didn't say I wouldn't do it...I was simply pointing out the facts," Galloway told him and exited the car when Dunne grew silent. The house before them was as silent and dead as any derelict home he'd seen during his years of travel. He heard the younger man open the door and soon felt him standing next to him.
"This place looks like it's been empty for years," Dunne observed.
"It has," Galloway agreed. "There's no one here now...not even any animals. I don't think the creatures have ever been here."
"Then we need to check the other two!"
"What if we're wrong, JD? What if we're searching in the wrong direction? Tomorrow is Halloween and that doesn't give us much time to find them!"
"I won't accept that, Arthur! I'm going to keep searching until I find them and when I do I'm going to kill every last shape-shifting bastard we find!"
"What if one or all of your friends have been turned?"
"What if they are? Will you be able to take their lives without seeing their faces in your dreams?"
"If they've been changed then they are no longer the men I know, but there's always a chance that we can change them back."
"That's simply part of the legend kid."
"Yes, it is and didn't you say legends have some basis in fact? If that's the case then I'm banking on the legends being right in how to kill the shape-shifters and free my friends," Dunne said and headed back to the car.
"Kid, you're either brave or stupid...."
"Or both," Dunne said with a slight grin. He waited for Galloway to get into the passenger seat and open up the laptop. The second house was 68 miles west of this one and would take nearly an hour of driving on unpaved roads to get there.
+ + + + + + +
Orrin Travis paced the confines of his home office and silently cursed Larabee and his stubborn team. JD had checked in around midnight, but had very little to report about finding the missing team members. That had been over five hours ago and now Dunne's cell phone was dead and even the number he'd been given for Arthur Galloway was constantly giving a busy signal.
"Orrin, why don't you come to bed?" Evie Travis asked from the open doorway. She'd fallen asleep around ten, but her husband had not joined her and she could see the circles surrounding his eyes. She knew he was worried about Larabee and his missing team, but doing without sleep was not going to help find them.
"I can't sleep, Evie, Chris and the others are out there and I sent them into this mess. We had no idea about who was killing these people and yet Chris accepted the assignment without question. Now the whole team is missing..."
"You were talking to JD last night...did he say where he was going?"
"Just that he was with Arthur Galloway and he thought he might have a lead on whoever was behind the killings and where they might be holed up," Orrin explained and sat at his desk, picking up the phone once more. He dialed Dunne's cell number, but again was told the client was not available.
"Still nothing?" Evie asked.
"Not a damn thing," Travis snapped and apologized immediately.
"Orrin, I know what these men mean to you," Evie explained and began massaging her husband's tense shoulders. She knew there would be no relief from the tension until they had word from Larabee or some member of his team. "What do you know about the case they're on?"
"Not all that much. We know the victims were drained of blood and dis...they were..."
"I know how they were found, but was there anything about the murderer? Anything not in the official reports?"
"Nothing useful...except the strange DNA," Travis said.
"Strange DNA?" Evie asked rubbing her husband's temples.
"It was a combination of human and animal."
"The murderer is part human...part animal?"
"Not exactly...according to the test results the DNA is only partially human, partially animal, but there's something else in the mix that has no basis in our sciences. I can't explain it, Evie, but this murderer...this creature is something that doesn't belong here," Orrin told her.
"You sound like you're talking about something out of The Twilight Zone," Evie said, smiling slightly.
"Maybe I am...it's strange, Evie, but everything so far points to a monster of some kind and no, I don't believe in monsters. At least not the kind they show on TV," Orrin sighed and leaned into her touch.
"They'll be fine, Orrin," Evie tried, but she no longer believed it to be true. If Orrin thought the team was in danger then something was definitely wrong. She wrapped her arms around him and held tight as the first streaks of dawn heralded the Eve of Samhain. She shuddered at the thought that just maybe some of the little monsters, ghosts, and goblins that hit the streets in search of treats were not what they were supposed to be.
+ + + + + + +``
What was left of Chris Larabee stood staring out the bedroom window, watching as the sun rose above the horizon. A small part of him craved the sunlight, while another part, a much larger part, feared what it could do to him. He no longer fought when she came to him, allowing her to feed and then taking what she offered in return. His stomach no longer churned when the brackish fluid from her veins hit it.
The only time he rebelled from her attention was when his mind wandered to the team he called family. One man in particular seemed to reach out to him, but he couldn't quite latch on to the quicksilver resonance that had often been a safety line in an angry sea. Chris knew they were near by, but he could do nothing to help them now...his soul was damned and soon she would finish what she started and Chris Larabee would cease to exist. Squinting as the sunlight stabbed at his eyes, he turned away from the warmth and embraced the dark cold that surrounded him.
Chris made his way back to the bed and stared down at the rumpled blankets and sheets. She'd told him she would not free his team, and that as soon as he was her changeling, he would initiate the hunt that would kill them all. He wanted to believe he could fight her, but the strength and the will to do so no longer surged through his veins. He looked at his face in the mirror and his tongue slid across his upper gums, feeling the small protrusions that signaled his body was changing.
God, he didn't want this. He hadn't chosen to drink from her veins, not really...she'd used blackmail and he didn't have much choice in the matter. Anger filled him and he slammed his fist into the wall. There had to be a choice! Had to be a way out of this mess, but right now he couldn't see it. His anger intensified and suddenly he felt something, something he thought lost for good.
'Chris...keep fightin' her...don't let her win...'
'We're here...we'll help if we can, but yer gonna have ta want ta fight it...Cowboy.'
"Not a Cowboy," Larabee whispered and felt something inside his mind shift and the will to fight returned with the light touch against his mind.
+ + + + + + +
"Chris is still fighting," Tanner told them. Since the male shape-shifter left he'd been trying to get a read on Larabee and had finally broken through the barrier that seemed to have been erected. He sensed changes in the man he called 'brother' and prayed there was some way they could undo all the damage the female shape-shifter had inflicted on Chris Larabee. He couldn't explain the connection he had with his 'brother' but the others believed in it as if they sensed how strong it was. It had saved them both on several occasions and once or twice led them to a missing member of the team.
"How do you know...stupid question," Wilmington realized and felt none of the guilt he once experienced. There was something unique in the way Chris and Vin had forged a bond that transcended normal 'channels' and right now maybe they could use that.
"Any luck Ezra?" Jackson asked.
"No, it appears these cages lack the normal locking mechanism...there does not seem to be a door!" Standish snapped, frustration evident in his voice.
"Keep trying, Ezra, you've always said there's a way out of every box," Sanchez told him.
"Ez, ya said there was no box made that'cha couldn't get out of," Tanner said.
"Yes, I did say that...so if you would all give me a modicum of silence I shall endeavor to..."
"Pick the damn lock!" Wilmington finished and grew silent while listening to the sounds coming from Standish's cage.
+ + + + + + +
Galloway watched the young man beside him and knew he was losing patience with the search. It had taken nearly six hours to find the second house. It had been as deserted as the first, and the kid had been so angry he'd thrown several large sized rocks at what was left of the windows on the first floor. Galloway had stood back and let Dunne take out his anger on the inanimate object before pointing out the obvious...time was wasting...time they didn't have. Already the sun was high overhead and an icy wind had picked up even as JD sped toward the third and final house they'd discovered.
"JD, driving us into a tree is not going to help us find your friends," Galloway finally said when the tires squealed as he took a turn at high speed. "Slow down, Kid, or we're going to be real ghosts before the kiddies hit the streets tonight!"
"We're running out of time..."
"Time won't matter if we're dead!"
"Damn it!" Dunne spat, slowing the car to just over the speed limit.
"Easy, Kid, no point in getting angry...we need to keep our wits about us if we're going to find your friends before its too late!"
"I know, but everything about this is wrong! I keep thinking this is all a fucking nightmare and I'm going to wake up with Buck yelling 'GOT YOU!', but that's not going to happen is it?"
"I wish I could tell you what you want to hear, but I can't. Everything we've learned points to a nest of shape-shifting vampires hunting in and around Billings."
"Shape-shifting vampires...do you realize how crazy that sounds?"
"Kid, I've lived with the knowledge since my son was murdered. There's nothing for us to do except find that nest and kill every fucking vampire we see."
"I'm all for that, but we don't know whether one of...one of..."
"You need to face the fact that it is more than likely your friends have already been turned."
"No! No way in hell will I believe that! Chris and the others are probably tearing that fucking nest apart already!"
"Chris...he's the one who first disappeared?"
"Chris and Vin...but Chris was acting strange."
"More than likely he was already under their control..."
"I don't think so...we're going to find that nest and free the others then we're going to kick some shape-shifting ass!" Dunne snapped and turned onto another gravel road, cursing when he realized the car had blown a tire. He turned the key in the ignition off and tried to control the anger that was clouding his judgment.
"Do you have a spare?"
"Of course I do!" the young man said and exited the car. The sun shone down from high above and he looked around, but found nothing that could dispel the fear niggling at the back of his mind. He kicked the blown tire and opened the trunk, cursing loudly when he took note of the flat spare.
"What's wrong?" Galloway asked from the front of the car.
"The spare is flat! Is there something out there that doesn't want us....forget I said that!" Dunne snapped and threw the useless spare back in the trunk. He leaned wearily against the car, feeling as if there was no way in hell they'd ever find the nest now.
"JD, the house isn't that far..."
"How do you know?" Dunne asked.
"Trust me...Kid, I can feel them," Galloway said, joining the younger man at the back of the car. Everything he'd told the easterner was the truth, but there were a few things he'd left out. Now was the time to come clean and hope the younger man trusted him enough to keep going.
"What the hell do you mean you can feel them?"
"When my son was murdered I swore I'd find his killers and I didn't give a damn whether I lived or died. The problem is I got careless and was caught..."
"Caught? By who?"
"Not who...what? I got caught one night while chasing down a lead. The problem is that lead brought me right up close and personal with one of them bastards. He caught me and held me down...told me he could either drain me and I'd die on the spot or he could take as much as his body craved and allow me to feed off of him. I thought I was ready to die, Kid, but when facing death a man comes to realize just how much he wants to live. I took his offer...let him take what he wanted and then took back what I needed..."
"You're a shape-shifter?"
"No...not in the least. I managed to kill the bastard before I took anything from him. I'm not even a vampire not in the sense that I drink people's blood...but I do crave it and God help me there are times when I want to kill...but it's gotten easier to ignore over the years. Lord knows it's easy to eat a piece of raw meat though..."
"You're one of them...a vampire?"
"If I was a vampire I wouldn't be able to stand the sunlight..."
"You do stay locked up in your house with the shades closed," Dunne stated.
"Yes, I do, but that's so they can't find me. You see, JD, this race of shape-shifting vampires is not like the ones you see in the movies or read about in bestseller books. No one knows the real story because a lot of it is written so that the real monsters can hide in broad daylight. Oh they don't like the sunlight, but that doesn't mean they have to hide from it. They can walk in sunlight...they can even go into a church...look at a crucifix..."
"Tell me one thing, Arthur."
"Can I trust you once we find them?"
"Yes, I told you I'm not a vampire, JD, but because I was marked by one I can sense them...smell them."
"So why didn't you say something earlier...would have saved us going to those empty houses?"
"It's not that simple. I have to be close to them to sense them."
"And you sense them now?"
"Yes, but it's not strong enough yet. Why don't you put that stuff in your backpack and we can get moving?"
"You can't fly us there?' Dunne asked, a hint of humor in his tremulous voice.
"That's not funny, Kid," Galloway said seriously. In less than five minutes they had everything packed into Dunne's backpack and set out through the woods in search of the nest of shape-shifting vampires. Galloway knew there was one more thing he needed to do before they entered the nest and briefly wondered if JD Dunne was strong enough to go through with it.
+ + + + + + +
Shareena stared out the open window as the sun began to dip below the horizon. There were more and more of her kind arriving for tonight's ceremony. The more she thought about it the surer she became that Chris Larabee would be the catalyst that placed her as head of the clan. It could very well end in a death struggle between her and Tackore, but after so many years of groveling she felt it was time for her to take what she wanted. Tackore was without a mate now and that made him as vulnerable as any of them, but once she drained Chris Larabee and he accepted her offering in return she would have the strength to defeat Tackore and rule for the next 100 years.
Shareena turned from the window and smiled down at the sleeping human male...human. Perhaps he could still be considered human, but by her reckoning he was more her changeling than anything else. She'd continued to feed from him, stopping herself from going too far because it had to be finished when the moon was high and her powers were at their strongest. She didn't fear Tackore challenging her before than because if he did it would be taken as a sign of weakness on his part.
His body was everything she wanted in a male and had enjoyed exploring his intimate parts while feeding from him. The well toned muscles in his chest and thighs, the taut stomach, the perfect features, and the sea green eyes were a perfect compliment to the heady sound of his voice. She moved back to the bed and ran her fingers through his hair, smiling when he opened his eyes and stared up at her.
"Are you hungry, Love?" Shareena asked, keeping the shape she'd used to entrance him from the beginning. She knew there was still a part of him that craved to be with Sarah Larabee, but she would see that her memory was erased once he was totally powerless beneath her touch.
"No...no, I'm not," Larabee whispered, fighting to hold tight to the quicksilver resonance that flowed between him and Vin Tanner. He saw her tongue dart out between too bright red lips and swallowed the bitter taste in his mouth. He knew what she wanted, expected of him, but he didn't want to let her drink from his veins again.
"I'm hungry, Love, and I need to be strong tonight...I need to feed, but if you don't allow me to feed from you I will take my fill on one of your friends," she whispered, smiling when she saw his head tilt slightly as if giving her access to the puncture wounds she'd already made.
Chris could feel her body hovering over his and then felt her cold flesh against his body. He wanted to fight her, but to do so would cost the life of one of his team...his chosen family. He felt her mouth against his neck, fought the urge to scream when the fangs embedded in his throat, entering his vein and allowing her access to the thin blood that now flowed through them. His hands fisted in the sheets as pain, worse than any he had ever suffered before, cut through his body. White fires of agony raced along nerve endings, causing his heart to beat faster in order to keep the depleted blood supply moving, but the veins and arteries were sluggish now, and there didn't seem to be much left.
Chris Larabee was dying.
This was the end of everything he'd ever known.
The changeling was nearly there.
Darkness crept through his mind, yet there was a spark that still burned if he could just hold on to that. He screamed when she touched his mind and tried to snap the threads that kept him anchored and he prayed he was strong enough to hold on long enough for rescue to come.
The changeling smiled...its time was almost on hand.
+ + + + + + +
"Vin, breathe...damn you don't do this!" Jackson snarled, rattling the bars of his cage. The Texan had suddenly gone rigid and screamed as if something was attacking his mind and body.
"Vin, fight it," Sanchez tried.
"No...no...need to hold on to him...she's killing him! God help me she's draining him dry!" Tanner spat. "CHRIS!"
+ + + + + + +
Shareena drew back and smiled down at the pale man who looked as washed out as any of her previous victims. She knew she'd come dangerously close to turning him, but had stopped just short of draining the last of his blood. Shareena bit into her right wrist and placed it against his lips, smiling when her chosen mate began suckling from her veins. He was so beautiful, nurturing from her body as it should be, as any changeling should accept his creator's sacrifice. She felt her own body growing stronger with the new blood seeping from her stomach into her veins...it made her feel invincible. Shareena used her left hand to hold his head against her wrist until she felt he'd been replenished and finally released him.
"You see, Love, you were hungry," she whispered and pressed her mouth against his. She inhaled the scent of their mixed blood and smiled at the thought of what tonight held in store.
"Hungry," Larabee whispered, reaching for the touch and finding it was weakened to the point of breaking. He latched onto it and prayed he was strong enough to fight for the life he wanted, not the one she continued to promise. A soft sob escaped, but her mouth pressed harder and he lost whatever hold he'd sensed when she plundered his mouth and tried to capture what remained of his soul.
+ + + + + + +
"How much further?" Dunne called.
"We're close, JD...too close. Listen to me because what I'm going to tell you just might save not only your life, but your friend's lives as well."
"What are you talking about?"
"I told you I can smell them...sense them."
"Yes," the young easterner said, drawing his jacket closer around his body when the wind rustled the trees and the moon showed at the edge of his vision.
"I only told you part of the story at the car. The vampire...the one that attacked me did bite me and changed me. I'm not saying I've killed people, but I have stolen blood from the hospitals and also fed off the carcass of animals I've been able to capture. I have fed off several people, but I promise you, Kid, they were already dying and there was no way they would have lived even if help arrived. I wish I could say I'd never tasted human blood, but I have and God help me I wish I could change things, but what's past is past..."
"Why tell me this now?"
"Because in order for you to go into the nest you need to be marked...otherwise you will be taken by one of the others and I doubt if I'm strong enough to stop them."
"You're not going to like it, Kid, but it's the only way we can get into the nest without being spotted before we get within 100 feet of it," Galloway said.
"Spit it out and let me make up my own mind whether I like it or not," Dunne snapped impatiently.
"Look, Kid, if we're going to do this I need to take some of your blood..."
"How the fuck did I know you were going to say that? Can this day get any fucking worse?"
"Probably, but let's not go there. We don't have a lot of time..."
"Oh, that's a good one...time is something I should have lots of, but if I do what you want me to then I'll have nothing left..."
"JD, my taking your blood won't kill you..."
"I know...it'll turn me into a night feeder like you and the rest of them things...oh and I get to live forever or until someone slams a stake in my chest..."
"No, that's not going to happen...I told you the best way to kill these things was with fire..."
"And I'm supposed to believe you're going to tell me how to kill you?" Dunne snarled, pacing back and forth under the full moon.
"Believe what you want, Kid, but it's the only way. I feed from you...take just enough so that the enzyme covers the human scent..."
"What does it matter how much you take? Doesn't taking my blood change me?"
"Partially...but you can cut the ties between us and ultimately get your life back. I will only feed once...that won't change you although it might weaken you. Once we get your friends clear then it will be up to you to make sure the nest is destroyed and with it the shape-shifting vampires..."
"What about you?"
"You have to kill me too, JD...that's how the ties between us will be cut and you'll have your life back," Galloway explained.
"What about Chris?"
"Chris has probably been fed on...but if I'm correct she won't drain him until midnight when her power is the strongest. If you kill her before that happens then he should be fine..."
"I doubt any of us will ever be fine after tonight," Dunne said.
"Probably not, but I need your answer."
"You won't drain me?"
"No, you have my word."
"The word of a vamp...well, I never thought I'd say this to a man...man, but pucker up and be gentle," the easterner whispered, his humor not lost on the creature whose fangs were now bared. He felt Galloway's breath on his neck and then the sudden sharp pain as he bit through the skin and into the vein. His knees buckled, but Galloway held him upright, drinking the crimson fluid that pumped through his veins. He gasped and dropped to his knees when Galloway released him and tried to breathe past the nauseating pain that crept through his mind and body.
"I'm sorry, Kid, I should have warned you about the pain," Galloway said and offered the younger man a hand, which Dunne reluctantly accepted. The vampire held him until he was able to stand on his own. "The dizziness will pass in a couple of minutes...you could take some fluid from me..."
"No thanks...let's just get this over with!" Dunne snarled.
"I'm sorry, JD..."
"Don't be...unless this fails then we're both going to be sorry," the easterner said, wincing when he touched the wounds to his throat and looked at the blood on his fingertips. 'God help me I hope this isn't a mistake,' he thought and began moving through the trees toward the house he now knew was less than a mile away.
'I hope so too, Kid,' Galloway thought, easily reading what the younger man was thinking.
+ + + + + + +
"Shareena, it is time to begin," a voluptuous red haired shape-shifter whispered, her voice soft and sultry as she studied the five men kneeling on the ground. They'd been chained and brought to the front of the house one at a time and forced to kneel in front of Shareena and Tackore. The moon, full bodied and rimmed in a crimson tide lit the clearing as if it was mid day. Never had she seen such fine specimens and she fought the urge to grab one and begin feeding, but to do so would only get her torn apart by the two shape-shifters vying for leadership of the clan.
"I believe you are right, Valarhea," Shareena said and looked around at the gathering. It was smaller than she expected, and she'd been saddened to hear that several of her kind had been killed by hunters who preyed on them. "Edward, watch over them and do not allow anyone to touch them until I return."
"Yes, Mistress," Edward said and moved to stand between the five captives and the six members of the clan.
"Edward, you know you will have to decide where your loyalties belong once Shareena declares her intentions," Tackore warned.
"My loyalty is to Mistress Shareena, Tackore, and you should know she is stronger than you and after she is joined with her changeling there is nothing you can do to stop her!"
"Do not be so sure, Edward, for I am not as weak as you might think," Tackore warned and glanced at the five men behind Edward. He knew they could not help him until they were freed for the hunt, but once that happened he would turn on Shareena and make her bow down to his will. He knew the others would not fight him...nor would they challenge him once he defeated Shareena and proved he was the strongest and the rightful leader. He smiled, baring his fangs when Edward simply stared at him.
+ + + + + + +`
Shareena entered the bedroom to find her changeling as she'd left him. He was standing at the window in a simple black robe that covered him from his neck to his bare feet and she knew the others would be impressed by the imposing figure in black.
"It is time, Love," she whispered having taken the form of Sarah Larabee once more. She knew this man would soon be beyond help, but even now she sensed that he was fighting her. She wondered at the defiance she saw in the sea green eyes that gazed at her, but smiled in spite of what she saw.
Chris knew he should fight her, but as he looked at the face of his beloved wife he lost all sense of time and feeling. Wasn't this what he really wanted? To spend the rest of his life with Sarah? Why couldn't he simply accept her and love her? 'Because she's not Sarah...she's a fucking bitch vampire and God help me I don't want to be with her!'
"Not yet, Love, but you will. As soon as I complete the ritual and you become my beloved changeling then all memory of this she-bitch will be gone and you will only want me!"
"Yes," Shareena vowed and took his hands in hers. "Now shall we go finish this or should I take you now and make you drink the blood of your friends? Your choice, Love, but you'd better tell me now or..."
"I hate you," Larabee whispered, his voice desperate and yet he knew he was beyond help as she linked her arm with his and they walked out of the house. He stepped into the front yard and gasped when he saw the five men who'd been forced into kneeling positions. Buck and Vin were pale and he knew they were hurting, but it was the anger that brought him upright.
"Chris, what the fuck has she done to you?" Wilmington shouted, fighting the bonds that held him in place.
"I have simply taken what is rightfully mine," Shareena said and turned to Tackore and the others. "This man will soon take his place at my side as my changeling and when he does..."
"Shareena, I invoke my right as leader of this clan to issue a challenge..."
"You have no right!"
"I have every right and I challenge you to a fight to the death. The winner will tear the heart from the loser and feed it to the surviving members."
"I will not let you interfere..."
"I have issued a challenge...do you accept?"
"Yes...you bastard...I will see that your heart is not the only thing feasted on tonight," Shareena vowed. "I have the right to feed before taking up the challenge."
"Yes, you do," Tackore said, folding his dark wings across his back and smiling when she reached for Chris Larabee. Once he defeated the bitch he just might see for himself what was so tempting about the man.
Shareena turned to Chris Larabee and ignored the cries of rage from the captives as she bared her fangs and sank them into his neck. She knew he was close to the end, but she could not complete her feeding until after she defeated Tackore. At that time her power would be stronger than ever because it would be a duel victory...she would be rid of Tackore for good and Chris Larabee would indeed become her changeling in mind and body.
+ + + + + + +
JD heard the familiar voices raised in anger and wanted to race into the nest, but Galloway placed a hand on his shoulder and stopped him.
"We go in as if it's the most natural thing in the world, Kid. That means you're not to react to anything you see."
"It sounds like they're being tortured," Dunne ground out.
"Maybe, but if they even sense that you're not one of them then they'll kill you on the spot and what good would that do your friends?"
"What do we do?"
"We walk in...no sudden moves and allow them to see us and catch our scent if necessary. You watch me and do everything I do and we just might get your friends out of this alive," Galloway told him and was relieved to see the dark head nod once. He walked forward; baring his fangs so that the others would have no doubt that he was one of them.
JD could feel the charged air as if electricity was blown along with the wind. There were voices now and the sound of flesh hitting flesh and then cheering arose along with the sound of pain. They moved into the clearing and Dunne found it hard not to react to the scene before him. Buck, Vin, Josiah, Nathan, and Ezra were kneeling on the ground, their hands tied behind their backs, and a rope around their necks linking one man to the other. Two hideous creatures, with black wings, held either end of the ropes and each time one pulled the five captives were pulled in one direction or the other.
"Who are you?" a large shape-shifter moved to stand before Galloway, fangs dripping saliva while the eyes glowed red with a crimson tide of emotions.
"Shableek fed from me before he was killed," Galloway told her.
"Shableek? I did not know there were any still alive...he created you?"
"Yes, he did, and I in turn created JD. We felt the calling and had no choice but to come here and find our brothers and sisters," Galloway stated.
Dunne finally turned his gaze from the five men and found Chris Larabee. The blond was standing between two of the vampires and he could see blood on Larabee's neck. There was no doubt that someone had fed on him, and JD realized it was probably one of the creatures who were locked in an aerial combat that rained blood down on those watching. He could hear Galloway giving his explanation, but his gaze remained transfixed on his mentor.
"JD is young and new to all this and I felt the need to show him who was really at the top of the food chain..."
Dunne shifted his feet and slowly made his way to the group of five captives and prayed the others would continued to be entranced in the fight taking place above the clearing. He reached into his pocket, slipped behind Josiah Sanchez and quickly cut through the ropes. He placed the knife in the ex-preacher's hand and moved back to his position next to Arthur Galloway.
"You are both welcome here...I am Tareena and the others you will meet after this war between Tackore and Shareena ends."
"Why are they fighting?" Dunne asked.
"Shareena wants to take leadership of the clan away from Tackore. She has chosen a changeling and has every right to challenge Tackore, but he was smart and challenged her before she completed the ritual. Right now they are equal in strength and it could go either way...although I would prefer they kill each other, then the human would then be up for grabs...there is something about him that is very tempting," Tareena said with an evil leer.
'Hope they do kill each other,' Dunne thought and stared above as a strangled scream echoed across the clearing. He could hear the sound of the two shape-shifters landing blow after blow on each other's bodies.
+ + + + + + +``
Shareena felt exhilarated as she attacked her enemy again and again. She had landed several devastating blows against his rib cage and his head, but he had yet to make contact with her body. She rolled and came up under him, striking his stomach and driving her talons into his underbelly. Her shrieks of triumph were short lived as Tackore finally attacked.
Tackore had been letting her think she had the advantage, but it was time to make his move and drive the she-bitch away from the clan for good. The fact that she'd recently fed and no longer wore the wrinkles that spoke of age was not lost on him. Larabee had indeed given her back some of her youthful vigor, but she would lose that now. He raked her back, tearing at the black gossamer wings and shredding them with his claws. He heard her sharp intake of breath and knew that the fight would soon go to the ground. Her wings were badly damaged and she would not be able to stay in the air much longer.
Tackore flew higher and came down onto her back, driving her downward with a malevolent force of his own. He could feel her lifeblood seeping from the tears in her flesh and felt no remorse when her head impacted with the cold ground. Again he released her and hovered above her, just out of reach of her elongated snout and the sharp talons.
Shareena could not believe he'd stooped so low as to take her wings...her beautiful wings and tear them from her body. The shape-shifters prided themselves on their wings and to be without them, even for a short time, could be devastating. Tackore would pay for what he'd done; she would hear him scream before she tore his heart from his body. She stood, flexing her ruined wings and reached for the creature standing above her.
"I will kill you for what you have done!"
"I am certain you will try, but we both know who is stronger...if you give up now I might even let you have your little changeling..."
"I will never give up, Tackore...you should have read that in my eyes." With those words she reached out and grabbed the bigger male by the throat with her right hand as he bent to taunt to her. She reacted quickly, using her left hand to finish her attack. Again and again she squeezed, ignoring the other creature's attempts to dislodge her hold. She knew if she relaxed her grip he would escape and the fight would go on...and she would lose because he would have the upper hand with his ability to use his wings to fly above her.
"You will not...not w...win," Tackore ground out as he felt the talons tightening even more.
"I already have, Tackore!" Shareena said tightening her hold with her left hand and releasing her right. Her next move happened so fast that Tackore had no chance to react as her right hand, talons spread wide, plunged into his chest.
Tackore's eyes were filled with horror as he felt her hand close over his heart and begin to pull. With each movement it felt as if is life was being pulled form his body and his throat constricted as she pressed her left hand tighter around his neck. He tried to pry her hand from his throat, but could not budge her, even as he felt veins, arteries, muscle and sinew being torn from their proper places. Brackish fluids spilled from his body, filling his mouth and gagging him even as Shareena released her hold on his neck. He tried to move, but his body toppled backward, landing hard on the ground even as he stared transfixed at the object she held high in her right hand. It did not register that the beating heart in her hand signaled his death...the only thing that ensured there would be no way for him to live. He watched as she placed it against her mouth and bit into it. He screamed as the red glow left his eyes and then there was nothing left to hold him upright. As his body toppled he sensed the others of his kind attack him, tearing his body limb from limb as they fed upon his remains.