Deep within the shadowy maw of the alley, a vampire held a witch in his arms. The air around them shimmered with its glamour, like electrified heatwaves rising from asphalt. Humans passing by would probably see a happy couple making out, but vamp magic didn’t work on shifters, and the sight that met me was much less romantic.
It was a huge, hulking thing with oleaginous dark hair and nacreous blue-green eyes. Its skin was alabaster white, paper thin, and looked slightly…moist. This was why vampires needed glamour. No one would look at this creature and think it was human. The sight of it was deeply repellant to me on an instinctual level. And they only became more monstrous the older they got.
The witch it assaulted was short and curvy. Strands of her mousy blonde hair clung to the vamp’s clammy skin. Her brown eyes were wide in her face. She looked terrified. The smell of her fear permeated the air, but stronger still was that of her anger. She was pissed, and if given half the chance, might help me take the vampire down if I freed her.
I noted all of this within a second of entering the alleyway, my brain working on overdrive to assess the current threat.
The vampire pulled its lips from the witch’s neck and backed up, dragging her with him, deeper into the shadows, where it wouldn’t be seen from the street. Its hand was clamped over her mouth in a vicelike grip that must have been painful. Her eyes met mine and she tried to yell through it, whether asking for help, or trying to curse the bloodsucker, I couldn’t tell.
I let out a low growl and took a measured step forward. I didn’t like witches, but I hated vampires. I had been bred to kill them. My worst memories involved an ancient one ripping my birth pack to pieces. Not even the fact that we’d earned her wrath lessened my hatred of the species. The countless hours I’d spent in my adoptive pack’s therapist’s office working through the resulting trauma were useless to me now. Seeing this vampire attacking someone brought all of my fear and rage boiling to the surface.
Back then, I’d been too helpless to save anyone. Things were different now. This vampire was young. From the feel of its magic, I’d say it was less than a year undead. I could take it.
An echo of my mother’s warning tried to surface then, cautioning me against anger. I smothered it. In my shoes, she’d step in and do something too. She wouldn’t just let a vampire kill a witch in front of her.
“Hey, asshole,” I said, moving forward.
Michael grabbed my shoulder. “Wait for backup.”
The vampire smiled. It was a terrible sight. Its teeth were long and needle-sharp. They dripped crimson like something out of a nightmare. When it spoke, the voice that rasped out of it sounded like a dry wind scorching through a barren wasteland. “I killed your backup.”
Michael stiffened, fingers digging into my shoulder. “Layla?”
I took a deep pull through my nose. Son of a bitch. “It smells like wolf blood.”
Anger roared through the bond. Michael let go of my shoulder and stepped beside me. His face was open, tone conversational, betraying nothing of his true feelings. “Free the witch and I won’t tell your brood leader that you attacked her in the middle of my territory.”
I could tell from his scent that he was lying. Hell, the vamp probably knew he was lying – they had some freaky magic. The question was, why was Michael lying? Was he stalling? Hoping someone would find the bodies and converge on us? Or give a passing sentry time to feel the vamp here?
Wait a second. Why hadn’t we felt the vamp? Was this one so young that it slipped under our metaphysical radar? I concentrated, directing my power in its direction. Nothing. It didn’t even register as a vampire from this close. Like it didn’t exist. Or was cloaked. But Michael said they couldn’t do that.
What the hell was going on here? Why did nothing make sense in this god-cursed city?
The vampire’s grin widened. “What makes you think my brood leader would care?” It pulled the witch back a few more steps, staring Michael down, and then leaned in and dragged its freakishly long tongue over her savaged neck. She jerked away and kicked at its shins. It chuckled like it thought her struggle was cute, and then licked her again, lapping up her blood like a cat with an ewer of milk.
In general, I didn’t think of myself as a violent person. I’d trained pretty hard not to be. The instincts might be there, but I was able to think past them and instead solve my conflicts with words. Right now, no amount of talking would lessen my desire to punch the smug smile off this vampire’s face. It had come into Michael’s territory, killed wolves, attacked a witch, and now it was taunting us.
Screw waiting for backup.
I glanced behind me. We were deep enough in the alley that the towering walls and heavy shadows of night gave us cover. Human eyes couldn’t penetrate this level of darkness. I turned back to the vampire, loosened the cage around my power, and started to shift. My fingers thickened. Claws pushed out of their tips. Fur flowed down my arms. My jaw cracked, elongating, making room for the stiletto-sharp teeth that pushed up through my gums. Muscles rippled beneath my skin, gaining mass. A seam along my zipper gave out with a loud tear, scattering beads over the alley floor.
Damn it! I really liked this dress!
I growled in anger, the sound low and guttural and filled with menace.
The witch saw me and let out a muffled squeak. I knew what I looked like: a monstrous amalgamation of human and wolf. Most adults in my adoptive pack had this level of control, so to me it was nothing out of the ordinary. We even had a yearly contest to see who could distort themselves into the most grotesque half-form. The winner received the Lon Chaney Award. Word of our ability had spread, but we rarely displayed it to outsiders. It was one thing to hear about it. Another thing entirely to see it firsthand. In certain situations, like dinner last night, it gave other preternaturals pause. Or, judging by the witch’s spiking scent, scared the shit out of them.
The vampire finally looked away from Michael, to me. It backed up another few steps, the wall only a few feet behind it now. The bloodsucker’s dry-dirt scent was colored with unease. I’d surprised it. Good. Now let’s see if I could keep that up.
I took a step forward.
A dark shape shot past me.
Michael sprinted toward the pair, his rage replaced by a cool, steady calm. The vampire grinned at him, like this was what it had wanted all along, and then lifted the witch and threw her at the brick wall so hard that if she hit, her skull would crack.
I assessed the situation in a microsecond. Something threatened my mate. Something big and undead and powerful that could probably kick his ass. But the witch was about to die, or at the very least be critically injured if one of us didn’t make her our priority. If Michael shifted his trajectory to try and save her, his right side would be left wide open to the vampire. I didn’t know if he was fast enough to reach her before the vamp reached him.
“I got her!” I said.
I sprang forward, closing the space between me and the witch so fast that the alley blurred around me. I got between her and the brick and wrapped myself around her much smaller frame, trying to soften the impact, careful to keep my claws off of her. My spine cracked against the bricks when we hit, and the wall shuddered. Her head bounced off my chest. Mortar wafted down around us like snow.
Well that fricking hurt.
I set the witch on her feet. “Are you okay?”
Her eyes were slightly glazed, but she nodded. Then she caught sight of me and took a quick step away.
I opened my mouth to tell her I wouldn’t hurt her, but a crushing pain erupted along my right ribs and all that came out was a low wheeze. It felt like someone just hit me with a sledgehammer. I doubled over, clutching at my side. What the hell? Had I hurt something critical when I smacked into the wall? I didn’t think so. I could already feel the bruises healing down my back.
I turned to see Michael favoring his right side as he circled the vampire. Oh, dear Goddess. I hadn’t been punched. He had. I forgot that on top of sharing pleasure through the bond, we also shared each other’s pain.
Michael feigned right. The vampire moved with him. Michael dodged back to the left with inhuman speed, planted those tree trunk legs, and hammered three blows into the vampire’s ribcage. Beneath his fists, bones snapped with the sound of dry sticks splintering. Pain spread through my hands. I looked down to see purple blossoming across my knuckles.
The bloodsucker snarled and surged forward, but Michael danced away. Vampires were supposed to be faster than us, more graceful. My memory served up images of a wraithlike creature that cut through ranks of werewolves like an unstoppable miasma of death. Michael made this one look clumsy in comparison.
The vampire reached for him, clawed fingers outstretched like a giant bird of prey. Michael let them come. I was just about to shout a warning when he shifted out of the way. The vampire’s fingers grazed his suit jacket and grasped empty air where his neck had been. Michael raised an arm and pinned the vampire’s nearest wrist to his shoulder. Then he stepped back and dragged it off balance, locking the creature’s arm straight. His heavy muscles flexed beneath the dark fabric of his suit. They uncoiled with shocking violence as he smashed his palm into the vampire’s elbow, shattering the joint.
The vampire hissed, it’s face contorting into a demonic rictus. It threw an impossibly fast punch with its free hand. Michael somehow managed to duck away, tensing, so that he took the blow on his upper back instead of his face. An echo of his pain shot through me, making me stumble.
Michael didn’t stumble. He didn’t even slow. He reacted. Like he’d been punched a thousand times and this was nothing new. Like he’d been trading blows with vampires his whole life. The first time I saw him, I’d doubted he’d ever been in a fight. This would teach me to not judge a book by its cover.
He took the hit and kept spinning, one leg planted, the other slingshotting forward. The heel of his expensive Italian loafer connected with the vampire’s solar plexus with a sickening thud. The vampire flew backward. Michael surged forward with him, managing to land several blows even as the vampire fell.
He was so fast. How was he this fast?
I felt a gentle breeze rush past me. The hair on my arms stood on end. Aether permeated the air. Magic.
“I can’t do anything,” the witch said from beside me. I’d forgotten she was there. She must have tried to cast a spell. “They’re too close. I might hit your friend.”
“It’s okay. Stay here,” I told her. I’d had just about enough of watching a vampire try to hurt my mate.
The vamp in question was back on its feet. Michael stepped in and dropped low, aiming a sweeping kick at its ankles. The bloodsucker saw the move coming and leaped up on legs that seemed made of springs. It shot straight into the air, back arched, knees drawn to his chest. A murderous gleam appeared in its eyes as it started to fall.
Oh no you don’t.
I raced forward and grabbed it out of the air, using its momentum to turn its big body and slam it down into the concrete. I didn’t have Michael’s grace, but what I lacked in training I made up for in brute strength. The vampire’s bones shuddered. The pavement groaned beneath it. I dropped to one knee and held it down by the throat, my claws digging in, blood for blood.
“How’s it feel, asshole?” I growled.
It squirmed beneath me and tore at my hand, ripping my skin to ribbons. Shit, that hurt.I gritted my teeth against the searing pain and squeezed harder, cutting off its airway. It stopped scratching and started trying to pull my fingers off.
I felt Michael move through the bond and looked up just in time to see him drive a wicked length of rebar straight through the vampire’s chest. Undead blood sprayed the side of my face, viscous and hot. The creature shuddered, eyes bulging out of their sockets. Michael wore a look of dark satisfaction. He gripped the top of the metal bar and wrenched it back and forth, mangling the vampire’s heart. The vampire spasmed once and fell still, staring past me with dead eyes up into the night sky.
I let it go and stumbled back, falling on my ass. My concentration evaporated as I bounced off the pavement, and I shrank back to my human form. Warmth dripped down my right cheek. I wiped at it with shaking fingers that came away sticky and crimson.
Oh, Goddess. We’d killed it.
The witch sprinted forward and kicked the vamp’s ribs. Her face was a mask of fury. “Fuck you, you fucking fuck!” She pulled back and kicked it again, so hard the body moved. The next time she did it, the toes of her sneaker squelched into its flesh. “Oh, fucking gross,” she said, hopping back.
I scuttled away from the corpse. When vampires died, the magic animating their undead bodies disappeared, returning them to their natural state. For a vampire that was less than a year undead, that meant we were treated to a horror show of advanced decomposition. Its skin turned sallow, yellow in some places and puce in others. A wet sheen spread over it, taking on a glossy green hue. Its mouth popped open and a foul wind spilled out that smelled like methane and sulfur.
I stared, transfixed by the nightmare unfolding in front of me. The creature’s exposed flesh roiled just beneath the surface, collapsing down and then ballooning back up before popping open in sores and pustules. Its limbs quickly lost their mass, shrinking within its clothes. Liquid stained the fabric of its shirt and pants, a dark river of putrescent yuck draining out from its sleeves and pantlegs. Its stomach bloated outward like a beached whale. Those nacreous eyes turned pale and milky before bursting open like overripe grapes. White slime spilled down its cheeks.
I scrambled to my feet and turned away from the sight. Behind me, the witch vomited noisily. Meanwhile, Michael felt calm and composed. Why wasn’t he freaked out by this? Had he seen something similar before? I tried to latch onto his calm, make it my own, but it remained just out of reach.
The sibilant shifting of fabric reached my ears. Michael’s jacket came into view, dangling off his finger.
“Here,” he said.
Oh, right. I’d ripped my dress.
He stepped close and took a deep, measured breath through his nose, scenting me. I was so freaked out right now that the reek of my fear was overpowering. The Goddess only knew what I sent over the bond. To Michael, I probably felt in danger of going into shock. I took the jacket from him and slipped it on, fingers shaking, limbs trembling. Maybe I was in danger of going into shock.
Michael pulled his phone out and made a call.
“Where are you?” Ronald rumbled through the speaker.
Michael relayed our location. “We have a problem. Code red. Teams one and seven to me now.”
“Roger,” Ronald said, then hung up.
The witch straightened, dragged the back of her hand across her mouth, and stumbled over to us. “Jesus fucking Christ they’re gross when they die.”
Michael reached toward me and pulled the cotton pocket square from his suit jacket. He offered it to her. “You’re still bleeding.”
She took it and pressed it to her neck. “Thank you.”
“Can you cloak the alleyway?” he asked her.
“Way ahead of you,” she said. “The humans can’t see or hear anything in here.”
He tilted his head and inspected her. “What were you doing in the alley in the first place?”
“What I was told.”
“And what were you told?”
She clenched her jaw shut.
I stared at her. “Seriously?”
Her expression became closed off, mulish.
“We just saved you,” I said. “I heard you from down the street and came running. If not for us, you’d be dead right now.”
Beside me, Michael began setting himself to rights. He tightened his tie, smoothed back his hair, straightened his vest, and then adjusted his cuffs. When he spoke, it was with measured calm. “If you don’t answer our questions, you may still succumb to your injuries.” He stilled and raised his gaze to meet hers. His eyes were amber. “Such a shame we were unable to reach you in time. The vampire must have broken your neck in the struggle.”
The witch took a measured step back. I almost did too. He stared at her with the neutral gaze of a wolf. In my head he felt coiled, like a snake ready to strike. The witch had a choice: answer our questions or die. Michael didn’t seem to care which one she picked.
She looked from him to me, her stubborn expression morphing into unease.
“Answer the question,” I urged her.
“I was told to watch you,” she said. “We felt you enter the city.”
“Just watch her?” Michael asked.
The witch nodded. “I was on my way out of here when that piece of shit dropped from the roof and grabbed me.” She glanced at the decomposing vamp. “He’s too young to cover the distance from the Commons to here so soon after the sun set. He must have spent the day nearby.”
That was a troubling thought. I turned to Michael. “Shouldn’t someone have felt him in your territory?”
It was the witch who answered me. “He’s too young. Maybe a month undead, max? I didn’t feel him until he was right on top of me, and I have better vamp sense than most of my coven.”
A dark SUV backed into the mouth of the alley and spat out a small swat team of werewolves. Monica was at their helm, her braids pulled back in a bun. Her eyes swept over the alley, assessing it in a clinical way that made me think that if she was asked later, she could recount every detail of the scene, down to the last drop of blood.
“Please excuse me,” Michael said. He turned and went to her.
“What are you, anyway?” the witch asked me. “I’ve never seen a wolf half turn like that.”
“Right now? Your savior. You’re still the enemy to them.” I nodded in the direction of the city wolves. They were swathed in black fatigues, large, well-armed, and brutal looking. A few of them stared at her with openly hostile looks.
“But not to you?” she asked.
I shook my head. “I’m new here. I don’t really like your kind, but I won’t let anyone kill you after we just went through all this trouble saving you.”
She let out a heavy exhale. “Thank you. For saving me. I’m Bonnie, by the way.”
“You’re welcome. I’m Layla.”
“I owe you,” she said. “One favor. Anything you need.”
I cocked a brow at her. “Anything?”
Her expression turned steely. “Anything that won’t end with me dead.”
That was a hell of an offer. One I’d be stupid to pass up. I took two steps away and scooped up my dropped clutch, careful to keep my gaze away from the decomposing body. A gurgling sound came from it that turned the limited contents of my stomach into pure acid.
I walked back to the witch and pulled out my phone. “Give me your number.”
She hesitated, then glanced at the other wolves. One of them snarled at her. She turned back to me and held out her hand. I passed my phone over and watched her enter her contact information. I immediately called her. Her phone rang from her back pocket, and I hung up.
“Now you have mine too,” I said. “I want one other thing besides a favor.”
“If the order changes from watching me to something else, let me know.”
“Done,” she said.
“And if you don’t, you’ll have to deal with Michael.”
Her fear scent spiked again. I couldn’t blame her. After everything that just happened, I’d be afraid of him too.
We were there for another ten minutes. I stuck to Bonnie’s side like glue while she answered Monica’s questions. She went on her way afterward, with promise of safe passage out of the territory. I told her to text me when she was out, so I knew that the wolves kept their word.
I still couldn’t look at the corpse. It had stopped making noises, but the sickly-sweet smell of its rotting flesh permeated the alley. I retreated close to the SUV, savoring the air that wafted in from the street just past it. The smell of chemicals and car exhaust were better than that of death. Even the chaotic sounds of the city were a welcome relief. I needed them to distract me from the inner turmoil that threatened.
Michael’s wolves spread out over the alley like a small army, some carrying boxes filled with instruments, a few working to clean up the body, and still others scaling the walls and disappearing onto the roofs as they tried to track the vampire’s scent. They were like a paranormal emergency response team. One that moved like a well-oiled machine. How often did they get called out to scenes like this?
A second SUV pulled up to the curb just past the first, this one familiar. The driver’s side window rolled down and Ronald peered out.
“Layla,” Michael said.
I hadn’t heard him approach. Showed just how out of it I was.
Ronald drove us the short distance back to the apartment and escorted us all the way to the front door. He and Michael poured over every detail of the attack. I stayed quiet, stuck in my own head, replaying the moment when undeath had fled from the vampire’s eyes and true death had taken over.
I stood in the middle of Michael’s living room after Ronald left, hugging myself.
Michael approached me slowly, like I might bolt. Wariness came through the bond. He stopped an armlength away, his brown eyes gazing steadily into mine. “Talk to me.”
“We killed it.”
“I killed it,” he said.
“But I held it there. I kept my hand around its throat while you…”
I gagged and ran for the bathroom. We never made it to dinner, and I threw up sour wine and bile that only made me heave harder. Michael followed me in, the bond bringing out his protective instincts. Afterward, he flushed the toilet while I washed my mouth out and scrubbed the tears and snot from my face.
I didn’t go far, afraid the need to vomit would come rushing back. Instead, I sank down onto the cool tile of the bathroom floor and leaned against the clawfoot tub. Michael sat next to me, pressed close so that we touched from shoulder to ankle. I needed the contact. It offered both relief and distraction. When he relaxed into me, I realized I wasn’t the only one who needed it.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “The first kill is the hardest.”
The first kill. I had helped to kill someone. I was a murderer.
Goddess help me.
I tried to tell myself that we didn’t have a choice. That it was the vampire or us. But that was bullshit. It was newly undead. Michael had been kicking its ass. We could have beat it to a bloody pulp and sent it back to its brood to serve as a warning. We didn’t have to kill it.
No. Not it. Him.
He might have looked like a monster, but once he’d been a person. He had parents, a family. Maybe he still kept in touch with them. He might have had a romantic partner. Like the witch, he might have only been there following orders. And I’d held him down in a dirty back alley while my mate ground his heart into dust. His friends and family and broodmates would never see him again. I doubted they’d even learn what happened to him.
A tear slipped down my cheek. I turned to look at Michael. “How do I deal with this?”
His expression was carefully neutral. He’d retreated far into himself, so that almost nothing came across the bond. “Remember that he wasn’t human. He’d already killed our sentries. If we hadn’t interceded on the witch’s behalf, he would have drained her dry. He would have reveled in the resulting high. With such an influx of power, he might have gone on to kill several more people tonight, gluttoning himself like an overripe tick.”
That’s right. He’d killed Michael’s people. I’d somehow forgotten that. “How many wolves did he take out?”
“Two that we know of so far.”
I frowned. “How? How did he manage to kill two wolves and then corner that witch so soon after sunset?”
Michael’s expression hardened. “I don’t know. But I’m going to find out.”
“Do you think he had help? That there were more of them?”
“It’s a possibility.”
“He felt…wrong. The witch said she didn’t feel him until he was right on top of her, but I couldn’t feel him at all. Even when I focused my power on him. It was like he wasn’t there. Like he’d been cloaked.”
“He’d need a witch’s aid for that. You saw them tonight. They loathe each other. A witch would never stoop to helping a vampire. Not even if she’d been exiled from the coven.”
“What if they forced her to? They could be holding one captive and making her cast the cloaking spell. There could be more vampires hiding in your territory.”
His expression turned contemplative. “I’ll make some phone calls. We may be close to war, but we still have intelligence sharing avenues open. If the witches are missing one of their own and think she’s being used in such a way, they’ll handle it.”
“Why not help them?” I asked. “Why not try to stop all this infighting and instead make an alliance with them against the vampires? Witches might be obnoxious, but they’re not monsters.”
He turned to regard me from inches away. “You only say that because you haven’t been around them long enough to learn better. Don’t underestimate them. And never trust them. They’ve done things to my family and our people that would make what we did tonight seem like child’s play.”
“I think you’ve suffered enough shocks tonight. Tomorrow, if you still want to know, I’ll tell you the stories.”
I managed to haul myself up off the ground. Michael remained nearby while I showered. I didn’t ask him to, and he didn’t offer, but I felt him lingering outside the door, waiting, ready if I needed him. After I cleaned myself up, he coaxed me into eating. The food tasted like ash, but I choked it down. I burned through a lot of calories shifting parts of myself, and I needed to replenish them if I didn’t want to look half-starved come morning.
We said goodnight outside my door. I woke several hours later, crying. I’d dreamed of the vampire. What he’d been like as a human. My mind, intent on torturing me, had given him a nice, happy, normal life. Had humanized him even in his vampirehood. And then it had me kill him in cold blood in the middle of a crowded street like some sort of deranged assassin while his family screamed nearby.
Michael was there when I woke up, standing next to my bed. I reached out and latched onto his hand as I sobbed, and he sat, carefully, on the very edge of my mattress until I fell back asleep.
Copyright © 2019 by Navessa Allen
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.