Excerpt from The Master Vampire
Blood has a distinct odor. To humans, the coppery bite stings the nose and often dominoes into a gag reflex, out of fear of spilling too much of life’s precious fluids or sheer revulsion. For a vampire, the metallic zing triggers far different reactions. A sharp hunger, the elongation of pointed fangs, and if enough is imbibed, an unnatural thirst for more combined with an overwhelming lust for another human’s flesh.
I was inundated with the stench of drying blood seeping out of wounds too deep and jagged to heal. It soaked into the dirt beneath lifeless bodies, feeding the earth the same way it had once fed my mistress. She was pinned to the ground beneath the limp carcass of a dead wolf. Her long, midnight hair lay in a tangled mess around her head, hiding the pale, ethereal beauty of her features.
Marco crept toward her, pulling himself forward one clawed hand at a time. His love for her bolstered his strength, urging him forward, but he was already too late. Even from this distance, I knew she was dead. My bond with her had thinned as her blood gushed out, diminishing until it finally snapped.
Sorrow clogged my throat and I stuttered in a ragged breath. Elizabet had taken me under her wing. She’d given of her blood, accepted me into her stable, then her crèche. She’d mentored me as a true friend would, and in return, I had pledged her my loyalty, a fitting gesture considering the gift she’d bestowed upon me.
Or a curse, depending on one’s point of view.
A heavy hand landed on my nape and Jason stepped up beside me, six and a half feet of heavy muscle and unwavering determination. “Eric, the sun.”
I glanced at the early morning sky slowly lightening in the east. I should’ve felt dawn’s coming, should’ve known we were running out of time by the tingle shivering down my spine. Right then, it was simply one more pang, lost among a profusion of aches.
I swallowed past the heartache and focused on the now, on my family and the aftermath of an exchange gone horribly wrong. “We need to find shelter.”
“I’ll get Gigi and Willow.”
A furtive movement twenty feet away caught my attention, and my gaze zeroed in on Zane. Raw fury spewed through me, burning through the agony of claw marks slashed across my body. The cold man rattled and jeered from the corner of my mind, and my heart jumped against my sternum.
Zane, Devin’s former roster mate turned crazed vampire’s lap dog.
That fucking son of a bitch. He was the reason Elizabet was dead. He was why we were out in the middle of a werewolf refuge surrounded by the wounded and the dead, and he would by God not get away with it.
I stabbed a pointed finger at him. “Get him. Find a way to secure him. We’ll let Marco deal with him back at Elizabet’s.”
“She’s dead,” Jason murmured.
“I know. I know—” My voice broke on a low sob. I shoved the sorrow aside. We had no time for mourning now, not with the sun’s deadly rays on the verge of cresting the horizon. “Do what you have to, then save anyone you can. Hurry.”
He squeezed my nape, then his hand fell away and he was gone, his huge body a blur as he raced across the clearing toward the root of today’s fiasco.
A warm body pressed into my thighs and a soft growl drifted to me. I knelt beside Darien, eyes carefully averted. A budding vampire was no match for an alpha werewolf, and I wasn’t in any shape to fight him regardless. Nor would I. Darien had been a loyal ally from the start, in part thanks to his pack’s long alliance with Elizabet. If playing the submissive was what I had to do to retain his friendship, then so be it.
“Thank you,” I said softly. “We have to get our people out of here now, but we’ll be back after sunset to help with the cleanup.”
Darien’s head swung toward the two-story, log structure dominating the clearing and back to me.
I slowly shook my head. “We can’t stay in there. Too many windows. Besides, if any of your rogues come back, we’ll be trapped.”
He butted his head into my chest, then loped off toward the closest group of his injured wolves.
I inhaled, winced at the pain shooting down my right side, and stood. Jason had one hand curled into the collar of Zane’s tattered shirt and was dragging him into the parking area. Two pets, Rob and Craig, were trying to help Marco get to Elizabet, though they were barely in better shape than Marco. A few other pets were staring sightlessly into the remnants of a starry sky. Alice groaned and pushed herself unsteadily off of Gregory’s chest, Gigi was on the porch with Nathaniel, cradling a sleeping Willow to her chest, and that was all I could make out through the tears blurring my vision.
I prodded the many bonds in my mind, forged through blood, sex, and the indefinable kinship that was the Vampyr. Marlena was no longer there. I doubled over and breathed through the agony of her loss. She’d been a good friend to me, and would be sorely missed. I groped for Therese’s thread, planted deep inside me, and found it on the first try. My knees buckled. Thank God she was still alive. I pinged the thread, got no response, and tamped down on my worry. She was probably out cold, but that was better than the alternative.
The coming day finally stung the skin across my nape hard enough for me to feel it. I shook my pain away and limped toward Alice and Gregory. Tears trickled down her cheeks, dripping onto his face. She smoothed them along his skin and over his closed eyelids, her fingers feather light.
I ignored the screaming gashes embedded in my thighs and crouched beside her. They weren’t deep enough to worry about, and I had work to do. “The sun’s rising.”
“I’m not leaving without him,” she said.
“No one’s asking you to, but you both need to get to safety. Can you get him into a working car?”
“He’s hurt, Eric, so badly, and I…” She sniffed and her china blue eyes slowly lifted and focused on me. “You will save him.”
I sucked in a breath. “Alice, please.”
“You will save him, Eric Logan,” she said, and her voice, normally so sweet and kind, held a thread of an emotion I knew only too well. Love had a funny way of turning the good in a person inside out, and it often left a monster in its wake. “You threw him into my life. You encouraged me to bond with him and I did, and look what happened. Don’t let him die, Eric. You will not let him die.”
I smoothed a bloodied, golden curl away from her ashen face. “We don’t have time to discuss this now. Get him to safety, ok? Just get him home so we can tend him in a safe place.”
She folded into herself and her angelic face crumpled into desperation. “Ok. All right, but when we get there…”
“Yes, when we get there.” I balanced on one leg and worked myself into a stand. “Give him some of your blood, whatever you can spare without passing out.”
“That much will—” Her teeth clicked together and her expression hardened. “All right.”
I left her with him and steadily crossed the clearing toward Marco. Rob and Craig had managed to drape one of Marco’s long arms over each of their shoulders and were half carrying, half dragging him toward our fallen mistress. We all arrived there at the same time, Jason from the direction of the cars, Nathaniel from the cabin, me from across the clearing. The pets dropped to their knees beside Elizabet’s still form, holding Marco upright between them.
His sorrow lashed in an unceasing howl across our minds.
I caught Jason’s gaze and jerked my chin at the dead wolf pinning Elizabet to the blood-soaked earth. He and Nathaniel heaved the limp carcass off and tossed it aside, and Marco gently turned his lover onto her back.
Claws had ripped through her ribs into her soft belly, disemboweling her in one, wicked swipe.
Marco threw back his head and screamed his fury into the night. The muscles in his neck bulged and popped, and his fists pounded into his thighs, and his shoulders shook with tears I’d never seen him shed. The scream ended as abruptly as it had begun and he bowed his head, his breath a harsh whistle panted in and out of his lungs.
“Eric,” he said.
The single, hoarse word held a grim finality. Craig and Rob pulled themselves away, and I knelt beside Marco, the man who had pushed me into becoming something even Elizabet, in all her wisdom and knowledge, hadn’t foreseen.
I draped an arm around his trembling shoulders. “The sun.”
“I’m not leaving her, not like this.”
“We’ll get a blanket, take her back to the mansion—”
The cold hand of dread wedged its way under my skin. “I’m not letting you die.”
“I was dying anyway. Without her…” He bowed over her, one hand on her forehead, the other groping through the dirt for her narrow, lifeless hand. “I have no reason to live.”
“I will not let you die,” I gritted out. “She was the only vampire strong enough to hold the South. If you don’t help us pull it together, this region will collapse into anarchy. We can’t let that happen.”
“You can’t let that happen.”
I laughed. The eerily empty sound echoed through the clearing and into the surrounding forest. “Jesus God, Marco. Like I can do anything to stop it.”
“You will. That was your purpose. That was why you were created.” He pressed a gentle kiss to Elizabet’s mouth, and the weight of his loss rebounded out of him into every bond he’d had a hand in sustaining. “Drink me dry. Allow the change to take you. Become who you were meant to be.”
Horror crept through me, and I gaped at him. “I was supposed to be her favorite. I was supposed to take your place, not hers.”
“You knew what we wanted from you.”
“You knew what you would become.”
My fingers dug into his back through a rip in his shirt. “I can’t be that. You don’t know what you’re asking me to do.”
His head whipped around, and his beast’s dark nature obscured the natural brilliant sapphire of his irises. “I know exactly what I’m asking of you. You will fucking drink me dry, Eric. You will accept your beast and complete the turn, and you will save what your mistress worked so hard to build here. So help me God, if you don’t do it now, I will kill you where you sit.”
Words crowded my throat, clinging there in a futile attempt to escape my parched mouth. I swallowed hard and scrambled for a rebuttal, a retort. Anything to make him see reason. “The cold man will destroy everything in its path.”
He leaned forward and speared me with his cold gaze. “You. Will. Control. It.”
“What if I can’t?” I whispered.
“You will.” He sagged into me, and my bond with him, always so strong, sputtered and sparked and flickered. “I love her so much.”
“I know,” I said softly, and in that moment, I conceded to the hand fate had dealt me, or part of it, at least. I would never be Elizabet’s favorite, but I couldn’t betray the trust she’d placed in me by letting everything she’d worked for disintegrate. I had no idea what I’d do to save it, but I had to try. I had to do something.
I cupped Marco’s face and kissed him, an apology for what I was about to do. He was dying. I wouldn’t take enough to call the cold man out of his cage, but Marco’s blood was too strong to waste. The knowledge cramped my stomach into a sick knot. Please God, let it help me be strong enough to care for Elizabet’s crèche until I could contact the queen and beg for aid.
“We’ll wrap your bodies and bring them home,” I said.
“Here, together. The sun.” His eyelids slid shut and the whistle of his breath became a rattle. “Hurry.”
“Ok,” I said, and my vision blurred and distorted. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. Better now.”
I resettled him in my arms, then turned to Jason. “Find Therese. Put her in a car with Gigi, Willow, Craig, and Rob, then come back here. Gigi, you drive. Nathaniel?”
He knelt beside me in the blood-soaked dirt. “Yes?”
“Could you check for live pets and get them to safety?”
He nodded. “I’ll meet you back at Elizabet’s.”
“Thanks,” I said.
Gigi’s fingertips brushed through my hair. “Be safe.”
“I will.” I snagged her hand as she passed and kissed her bruised knuckles. “I love you.”
She smiled, an angel among the living. “We love you, too.”
She walked away, carefully cradling our sleeping daughter in her arms, Craig and Rob close behind her. Jason disappeared, then Nathaniel, and I was alone with the man who’d been as much friend as enemy over the past few years of my life.
“Are you ready?” I asked.
Marco wheezed in a slow breath and his fingers tightened on Elizabet’s. “Long…time ago.”
I wrapped my hand around theirs, nuzzled my face against his bare throat, and sank my fangs deep, striking the slow throb of his pulse on the first try.