Once the last of his little sobs shook his body, I asked him what he needed, if there was anything I could do to make this better for him. I want you to have cake and ice cream. He lifted his head off my chest and squeezed my hand. I want it to be your birthday.

I know it’s not exactly strange for vampires to want privacy, but this is isolated even for them, observed Salem. Chico nodded. Unless they’re happy to survive on the blood of each other and the local wildlife, they must have to travel miles before reaching any humans. In my experience, the usual reason for someone to isolate themselves so thoroughly is that they have something to hide. Sam growled as she elbowed Salem. For God’s sake, will you keep bloody still. Salem just grinned. Much like David, he had an inability to keep still at times like this – like a boxer loosening up before a fight, he’d roll his shoulders and c**k his head this way and that way. While with David it was nervousness, it was anticipation and excitement with Salem. As such, the gift of having a psychic punch that could knock a person into unconsciousness suited Salem just fine. One might think that David was nervous of the situation. In actuality, the youngest of the squad was actually nervous of his gift. The ability to produce a psionic boom that caused extreme pressure on the skull, completely overwhelming the brain and leading to a temporary coma, was undoubtedly a weighty one to have. If the blast was strong enough, it could even cause death. Sam’s coaching had helped him dramatically, but he still feared accidentally harming or killing one of his fellow squad members. Hey, here comes Stu and Den, announced Max quietly, as he hopped down from a tree. I frowned at the flirty f**ker who, as usual, sat too close to Sam for my liking. While once-upon-a-time he did it because he thought he had a chance with her, now he just did it to piss me off. It worked. If he wasn’t such an asset to the squad in that he had the gift of sensory paralysis, I might have transferred him to another squad. Actually no, I couldn’t have. Sam was protective of them all and would never have allowed it. She was good at getting her own way. A trail of molecules and a small puddle of mush suddenly approached where we were hiding. Seconds later, the molecules reformed into Stuart, and the mush was once again Denny. I’ve done a lap of the perimeter of the forest, Denny informed us. There’s no one around other than us. I nodded. Okay, what about inside? The inside isn’t exactly well kept, but it’s liveable. Stuart flicked his shoulder-length blond curls from his face. There are four vampires; one female, and three males. They’re not alert. Two are lounging around playing poker and watching T.V, and the other two are f**king. There’s also a basement. I didn’t like the tone he used when speaking the latter words. And? This is where it gets bad. Down there are two rooms and eight cells. Cells? echoed Sam. Could you see what they contained? Stuart took a long breath. Vampires. Three are females. Five are males. And they are all deformed and crazed. Deformed and crazed? I repeated. Unease spread around the entire squad. You can’t deform a vampire. We’re immortal, we don’t change on a cellular level…so how the f**k could they be deformed? Stuart shook his head and shrugged. Your guess is as good as mine. There was only one who was relatively lucid. A female Sventé. Long dark hair and green dress? asked Sam. That’s the one. Now I really, really wanted to take my stubborn female back to The Hollow. What about the rooms in the basement? The first room had four male vampires inside – I got the feeling they were scientists by the terminology they were using. I didn’t really understand much of what they were saying, other than they were disappointed that their latest ‘experiment’ hadn’t been successful, and they would have to find a new ‘subject’ soon. That doesn’t sound good, the telekinetic Harvey muttered, anxious. Max looked at him incredulously. Dude, none of this sounds good. Suddenly Damien’s head snapped up and he exhaled heavily. Hey, welcome back, said Reuben, slapping Damien’s back. Well? I prodded. The only outdoor guards are the two vampires you can see standing on the roof, said Damien. Although the bungalow was a fair distance away, our enhanced vision allowed us to see them. They’re not very vigilant, so I think it’s safe to say that they don’t think anyone of any threat is going to come along. And wasn’t that dumb of them. Good, they’re no more prepared than the ones inside. I looked again at Stuart. What about the other room in the basement? I couldn’t get inside it. The door and wall were both made of steel, like a panic room. I couldn’t hear any movement at all. It was soundproof. Well now I really, really, really wanted to take my stubborn female back to The Hollow. Clearly she sensed it, because her voice was then in my head. If you want to keep both of your bollocks, behave. If you get hurt, I’ll spank your pretty little ass and strap you to the bed when we get home. All I got in response was an amused snort – probably because she happened to like it when I did that. Do you think these scientists have been trying to come up with some kind of drug that can severely harm us, like chemical warfare or something? asked Butch, his tone casual. But that was the thing about Butch; he could stand there plotting someone’s death while looking as cool and calm as if he were watching a movie. He liked violence even more than Salem did, he just hid it better. I imagined that it therefore galled him to have a defensive gift as opposed to an offensive one − even though the ability to negate and deflect anything that came at him was a substantial gift to have. Although Butch’s theory wasn’t a bad one, considering how many vampires liked to battle over territory – particularly the High Masters – I found myself shaking my head. My instincts simply weren’t in agreement, but nor were they offering any theories of their own. Reuben, I need you to do your thing on David, Salem, and Chico. With a respectful nod, the highlander lookalike – who I had to agree with Sam wasn’t the brightest bulb – used his gift of power augmentation to amplify those of three of his squad members. Using only the briefest touch, Reuben had made Salem’s psychic punch, David’s psionic boom, and Chico’s poisonous thorns all fatal.Good. Stuart, give me a layout of the bungalow. Having drawn a rectangle in the dirt with his finger, Stuart explained while sketching it. The place has a side entrance. When you open the front door, you’re in a hallway. The first room on your left is the living area, the second on your left is the dining room, and the one directly ahead of you on the opposite side of the bungalow is the kitchen. There’s only one right turning, which is parallel to the dining room, and it’s actually a continuance of the hallway. Once you make that right turn, you have a room on either side of you – one being a bathroom, and another being a tiny bedroom. You also have two doors in front of you. One of them is the master bedroom, and the other is just a standard sized bedroom. And the basement? The hatch is in the kitchen. There’s actually a back entrance to the bungalow and it leads straight into the kitchen, so we could just sneak— Easily reading where his thoughts had taken him, I raised a hand. No, we need to eliminate all the guards before entering the basement. Where exactly are the poker-playing vampires lounging? The living area. And the other two? If they’re still f**king, they’re in the master bedroom. Sam asked, From what you’ve seen, do you think it’s possible to save the vampires that are contained in the cells? Stuart blew out a breath, shaking his head. No, Coach. The Sventé from your dream is lucid, but she doesn’t seem stable, she looks like she’s deteriorating fast. I felt the disappointment that travelled through Sam, but I resisted trying to give her any comfort. With the guys, she was ‘Coach’, and she wouldn’t like showing any weakness in front of them. Reuben, Damien, Harvey – I want you guys to cover the back entrance, just in case anyone from the basement tries to surface and make a run for it. I doubted that anybody would. If these vampires were here to guard and hide something, the last thing they would do was run before at least trying to fight us off. Chico, Salem, Denny, Stuart – once we’re inside, I want you four to deal with the vampires in the bedroom. Before we do anything, though, Salem and Chico – I want you both to deal with the guards on the roof. Do it quickly and quietly. We want the whole thing to be over as quickly and quietly as possible. We have no idea what kind of gifts the vampires in that place have. We can’t afford to give them any warning that we’re here. They both nodded, slinking away. In a tense silence, we all watched as Chico and Salem moved with a predator’s grace toward the large bungalow. Unseen, they reached the building and leaped up onto the roof from opposite sides. Before either of the guards could react, Salem threw an uppercut toward the first guard – I could almost see the ripple in the air as the psychic energy flew at its target. At the same time, Chico lifted his hand and released several thorns from his palm – all of which hit the second guard in the chest. The guards were then nothing but ashes. Okay, people, time to move, I announced. We get in, kill the vampires inside, and extract the female Sventé if she’s rational enough. Then we burn shit down, declared Sam. If they’ve been creating any funky stuff, I want it to be completely and utterly destroyed. If it’s harmful to vampires, it needs to go. Butch, I need you to stay with David the whole time. The natural born killer nodded. It wasn’t that David was the weakest link – far from it. He was, gift-wise, the most powerful. But that made him an immediate target of any enemies in combat situations. As Butch was able to use his gift to project a deflecting shield, he often remained with David – extending his shield around them both. That way, David could simply concentrate on attacking rather than defending. At vampire speed, but still stealthy in our movements, we got into position. I watched, fascinated, as Sam’s delicate fingers prickled at the air around her, absorbing energy; ready to manipulate it in whatever way she chose. It was impossible not to be in awe of just how in control she was of all that power. Stuart, I want you to slip inside. If no one’s in the hallway, open up and let us in. He exploded into black particles that swished under the front door. When it quietly opened, I entered first, followed quickly by Sam. The noise of the T.V. didn’t drown out the dirty talk coming from the other side of the bungalow. Clearly those two were still at it. One at a time, I told Stuart, Salem, Chico, and Denny as I gestured for them to enter. Once all four were inside they slipped past us, heading for the master bedroom. Max, Butch, and David then entered, closing the door behind them. Knowing that if we lingered our scents would reach the vampires in the living area before we did, I didn’t waste any time in moving. I nodded at Max to go slightly ahead as we all inched our way along the wall. Not because I wanted to use him as a living shield – although it was an appealing thought – but because his gift would give us the best chance at ensuring the other vampires in the building weren’t alerted to our presence. Once we reached the doorway, Max turned sharply and, with the simple act of closing his fist, stole the senses of both vampires before they had the opportunity to react. While the shock of it seemed to freeze and distract one of the vampires, the other reflexively used his gift – conjuring a knife and hurling it in our general direction. It hit Butch’s shield, but Sam caught it before it could clang to the hardwood floor. As David swiftly raised his arms and splayed his hands, a psionic blast streamed from his fingertips and crashed into the heads of the vampires. Just like that, they were both ashes. With a tip of her head, Sam gestured for us to follow her further inside. I was not even slightly impressed by her taking the lead. Yeah, okay, she was my co-commander and it was her job, but I didn’t have to like it. The other four met us at the junction of the hallway, clearly having dealt with the sex fiends. Scanning my eyes over them, I saw that they were fine, other than that Salem’s shirt had been singed and Denny’s collar had been…bit? Finally in the kitchen, Sam quietly opened the back door to allow Damien, Harvey, and Reuben to enter. We all stood back, giving her space as she carefully opened the hatch just a crack. Seeing that there was no one in sight, and not picking up any nearby voices, I gestured for her to fully open the hatch. Most likely pre-empting that I would try to take the lead, she threw me a cautioning look and positioned herself in front of the squad. Forced to be satisfied with shadowing the wilful female, I followed her as she slowly and soundlessly descended the wooden staircase. The squad remained close, all extremely alert.

As Stuart had described, there were four cells on either side of the basement – all of which had a single barred glass window that allowed a peek of what, or who, was inside. Beyond the cells were two doors; one made of thick wood, and the other of metal. I could hear muffled voices, but I couldn’t distinguish any words, even with my enhanced hearing. Positioning myself at the right hand side, I signalled for Chico, Salem, Reuben, Damien, and Stuart to stand behind me. The other five stood behind Sam on the left hand side. Having exchanged a nod with Sam, both she and I began to edge our way toward the far doors while the squad followed closely. As I past the first cell, I peered through the window and inwardly winced at what I saw. A female Keja with grotesquely overgrown nails appeared to have torn out most of her hair. More disturbingly, she was eating it. I had no idea what she was ranting, as the cell appeared to be sound-proof. I had to wonder if the window was one-way glass, because she didn’t notice any of us passing. The vision within the next cell was no better. Another Keja was lying on the floor, clawing at an elongated face and then licking dribbles of blood from his fingers as the facial scratches healed. What was perhaps more troubling was that he had an extra arm. I didn’t look through the next window, not wanting to see more. Jared, I’ve found her. Signalling for the squad to all remain in position, I hurried over to Sam and glanced through the window. The Sventé was exactly as Sam had described, although her limbs were abnormally long. Her back kept bowing from the floor, putting her body at an unnatural angle that made Sam and I wince. She wasn’t fighting whatever was happening to her, as if she saw no hope. At least she wasn’t crazed. Yet. We can try to get her out, but not until we’ve dealt with the bastards in those rooms. She’d be a distraction we don’t need. Plus, we have no idea if she would turn violent and attack anyone. True, Sam allowed with a sigh. Most of the captives appear to be attacking themselves. Startling us all, the wooden door opened and four vampires stepped out, laughing amongst themselves and totally oblivious to our presence. That obliviousness only lasted a second, though. The squad did what they had been trained to do; they attacked first. Unfortunately, the vampire in front swiftly produced a protective wall of frosted glass – one so resilient that even my lightning bolt had no effect on it. That vampire definitely had to go – and fast. Sam must have been thinking the same thing, because suddenly fire was streaming out of her palms, weakening the glass. At the same time, Reuben placed his hands on it, drawing power from it. Their combined efforts weakened it just enough that my next release of electricity shattered it completely. Before the vampire had the chance to produce another shield, one of Sam’s thermal energy beams was buried in his chest. Milliseconds later, he was ashes…but not before the tallest of the three remaining vampires duplicated himself until there were ten of him. All of the clones stepped in front, acting as shields. Shit. Of course each and every one of us attacked with our gifts, but each time some of the clones turned to ashes, more would take their place. Harvey, we need to separate them. Without hesitation, Harvey made a motion similar to that of someone abruptly yanking open a set of curtains. Thanks to his telekinesis, the clones parted like the red sea – some flew into the walls, and others fell to the floor, exposing the three vampires. Not giving the vampire a chance to duplicate himself again, I sent a charge of electricity out of my palm, reducing him to ashes. His clones died with him. One of the last two vampires opened his mouth and exhaled a swarm of bees – not nice. Sam absorbed the energy around her, and suddenly a gust of wind sent the bees forcefully crashing into the wall, killing them instantly. That same gust of wind should have sent the two vampires crashing into that same wall, just as Harvey’s telekinesis should have knocked them over, but they hadn’t even stumbled against either force. It was then that I realised something, and I sensed that Sam was realising it at the same time. The second vampire was gripping the waist of the one in front of him, holding him in position. I’d heard of a vampiric gift that allowed immovability, and it seemed that the second vampire had that very gift and was keeping them both stable. Knowing what Sam had in mind, I teleported to her and lifted her so that she was above the first vampire’s level of height. She cracked her whip over his shoulder to wrap it around the throat of the second vampire, and tightened it enough to make him reflexively put his hands to his neck. Quick as lightning, yellowy-green ooze shot out of Denny’s thumbs and smallest fingers and engulfed the other vampire. Denny then bounced him to Salem, who delivered a fatal uppercut. And then there was one, drawled Sam as she stared at the remaining vampire. He didn’t struggle against the grip of her whip as I would have expected. In fact, he didn’t do anything at all…other than stare at Sam in utter fascination, which supremely pissed me off even though I could understand it. Don’t kill him yet. It might be worth questioning him a little first. I crossed my arms over my chest. Just what did you do to the vampires in the cells? When he didn’t answer, Sam began to circle him, whip still in hand. Have you ever pissed blood? You will if you don’t start answering our questions. His voice was shaky. I don’t know anything. Sam sighed sadly. No, they never do. But I can guarantee that within the next fifteen minutes after we’ve had some fun with you, your thought processes will be much improved. When the whip caught his jaw, he jerked and whimpered. I stepped closer to him. Now, why did you hurt the vampires like that? We didn’t hurt them, he quickly objected. We were trying to achieve something. And what is that exactly? Something that no one has even thought possible, said an amused voice as the metal door slowly swung open. Four new vampires stood in the doorway in some sort of protective bubble. The two in front closely resembled each other with their inky black hair and squinty eyes. I held up a hand, warning the squad not to attack in case whatever was thrown simply rebounded off the bubble and hit one of us. Care to elaborate? I snapped. Care to explain how, and why, there are deformed vampires in those cells? The taller and sharper-looking of the two vampires only spared me a glance before his gaze locked on Sam. He seemed surprised and intrigued. A Sventé with a Pagori power.She groaned and rolled her aquamarine eyes. I wish people would just get over it. His mouth twitched into a smile. A Feeder in full control of their gift. I cannot say that is something I have witnessed before. Your control…it is astounding. Inspiring, even. I find myself envying you, and that is not an emotion I am prone to experiencing. Well that’s great, but we’d like to know why the bloody hell you hurt those vampires. Neither my brother nor I planned for them to come to any harm, the podgy vampire replied, looking offended. Our experiments have simply not yet been fruitful and have caused negative side effects. Negative side effects? echoed Sam, disbelievingly. It’s not like they’ve got the shits or something, is it? They’re deformed and half out of their minds. The podgy one spoke again. Sometimes, when one is trying to achieve something grand, sacrifices must be made. And we will achieve our goal. Our work will be recognised by all of vampirekind. Sam scowled. I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me just what that goal is. Be assured that we only did to those vampires what they asked us to do. They knew the risks. That made little sense to me. And what, exactly, would make anyone prepared to risk becoming deformed? The feeling of desperation does many things to many people. And wasn’t that the vaguest thing I’d ever heard. Sam must have been just as frustrated, because she growled at them. Are neither of you capable of answering a question without talking in code? The taller brother pursed his lips. If you want answers, we shall do better than tell you, we shall show you. The brothers exchanged a look that I didn’t like, and I was ready to question them when I felt an echo of fatigue and disorientation through my connection to Sam. As she suddenly staggered beside me and lost her hold on her whip, I wrapped an arm around her to steady her. Utter panic overtook me. What the— Then something else hit me via our connection; an all-consuming, agonising pain. Sam cried out and doubled over with the force of it. Feelings of being stabbed, gutted, sliced at, and having her insides torn apart were torturing and weakening her. Fury and fear raced through me as I reflexively struck the bubble with a discharge so high in voltage that the entire building shook. It didn’t burst; only wobbled like jelly, oddly absorbing the electricity. Then, as quickly as it had come, Sam’s pain disappeared. She double-blinked and took a steadying breath. Oh, you little f**kers. Most likely sensing that I was ready to charge at them, protective bubble or no protective bubble, she grabbed my arm. Looking at the brothers through narrowed, accusing eyes, she asked, What did you do to me? The podgy brother cocked his head. Something that has made every other vampire collapse in agony and froth at the mouth. Again I went to charge at them, but again Sam stopped me, worried they would hurt me too. I growled, intent on finding some way to burst that bubble and kill them all. The tall vampire gave me a cool smile. Rest assured that we have not harmed her, we would never wish to make her ill. On the contrary, if this works – and I strongly suspect it will as she is so much stronger than any subject we have used before – it will make her beautiful and unique in a way that you could never imagine. For a third time I moved toward them, but once again Sam held me back. I growled again. Know this: I will f**king hunt you both down, and I will f**king destroy you both. It is understandable that you feel that way now. But I truly believe that this is something you will come to appreciate. He smiled at Sam. I shall be seeing you again very soon. The vampires had teleported away before anyone could say another word. Well great. Just. Fucking. Great. Anger surged through me, wanting an outlet, needing an outlet. Realising that they had left behind the vampire who had been minutes ago bound by Sam’s whip, I took him out with a lightning bolt. But it didn’t make me feel better. The same feelings of dread and helplessness that I’d felt when she’d once Merged with me were now taunting me again. See, this was why I didn’t want you to come! Oh yeah, logic told me that it wasn’t her fault, but whenever she got injured, I reflexively took my anger and worry out on her. Sam’s mouth fell open. Then she punched my shoulder. I didn’t want them to hurt me, you sodding fruitcake. We have no idea what they did to you! But if it was the same thing they had done to the vampires in those cells…Shit, shit, shit! Denny swallowed hard, studying her from head to toe. How do you feel, Coach? Well and truly ticked off. (Sam) The rage and fear riding Jared was beating at me, almost stealing my breath. He was practically vibrating with it. So when he tugged me to him and enclosed me in a hug, I went easily. Ordinarily, I didn’t like having displays of affection in front of the squad. But Jared was close to snapping and, truth be told, I kind of needed him right then. I wasn’t a person who allowed myself to lean on others, but that vampire’s words had spooked the living shit out of me. We need to get you to Antonio. Maybe he can do something. Turning to the squad, he began, You guys finish up. I want the whole place burned d— I tugged on his jacket. Wait, Jared, the Sventé— Sam, we need to get you back to Antonio. Jared, we came here for her. Exactly. If it wasn’t for her contacting you, those f**king bastards would never have— Jared. I framed his face with my hands, seizing his gaze. I know you’re worried, and I know you’re pissed, but whatever they did has already been done. That vampire said it wasn’t going to make me ill. We have to cling onto that, because right now there’s a female who is ill, and we need to talk with her. She might be able to give us some idea of what those motherfuckers were trying to do, Max pointed out. Then maybe we can work out what they did to Coach. Jared squeezed his eyes closed as if in pain, and I could feel that he was wrestling with his instinct to whisk me off somewhere safe. I kissed him lightly. We spend five minutes talking to her, and then we go.When he opened his eyes again, they were a little calmer. Two minutes. You’ve got two minutes, and then I’m getting you out of here. Any other time, I’d have whipped his ears off for speaking to me like that. Yes, then we can go. Sucking energy into my palms, I released it as an air blast that was strong enough to blow her cell door open. As we all stepped inside, she didn’t react other than to slowly turn her head to look at us. When her eyes met mine, her frown melted away. You…You c-came. I wanted to go to her side and give her some form of comfort, but the eleven males with me were feeling mighty overprotective right then and had planted themselves in front of me. Managing to shove Salem aside just enough to have a clear view of the female, I asked, What did they do? What’s happening to you? She swallowed hard and her eyes drifted shut. D-d-didn’t work. What didn’t work? Her words weren’t audible even to vampire hearing. Do you have any idea who they were or where they would have gone? Jared’s voice was gruff with anger. Without opening her eyes, she stammered, O-Orr-in. Jared frowned. Orrin? Is that a name, a place, what? She gasped as a spasm hit, making her back bow from the floor. Even through her groans of pain, she heard my wince. Her expression was almost sympathetic when she looked at me. Y-you c-c-can’t help m-me. What were they trying to do? Make…m-make me— She was cut off as yet another bad spasm racked her body. It was agonising just to watch. Her eyes shut and she seemed close to drifting off, but then they fluttered opened again. Kill me, she croaked out. I stiffened. No. Pain. Hurts. She cried out as a particularly violent spasm shook her body and her back arched so unnaturally that I heard a bone break. There were tears in her eyes when she looked at me again. Pl-please? I’ll do it, Coach. Chico squeezed my shoulder. Salem nodded. Yeah, you go see Antonio. We’ll take care of everything. We’ll make sure there’s nothing left of the place. I might have told them to stop coddling me if I hadn’t sensed that Jared was going to lose his composure any second now. No sooner had I slipped my hand in his than we were back in Antonio’s mansion. We found him in one of his many posh parlours with Luther. Jared didn’t even give them a chance to speak. Sam got hurt. I don’t know what the f**k they did, but you need to do something. Antonio double-blinked. Hurt? Hurt how? And who are ‘they’? We have no idea. He told Antonio about what had happened, giving full details on the condition of the captives, and carefully quoting every word the brothers had said. All we could really get out of the female Sventé was the word ‘Orrin’. Do you have any idea what she could have meant? I’ll have my researchers look into it. Antonio studied me intently. How are you feeling? I took stock. Fine. The pain’s gone. I don’t feel ill. I don’t feel any different at all. Releasing a heavy sigh, Antonio shrugged. I suppose all we can do is watch and wait. Watch and wait? repeated Jared. You’ve got to be kidding me. They could have done anything to her! Exactly, it could have been anything. Sam says she feels fine. You say you do not know what their gifts were. I have nothing to go on. Until I know what type of help she needs, I cannot know who I need to summon to help her. I doubt that my own gift will do her much good, no matter the problem. Jared scrubbed a hand over his face. Maybe we should postpone the celebrations. Well that got my back up, and he obviously felt it because he raised a placatory hand. I want that Binding ceremony, Sam − you know that. But I don’t trust outsiders around you; not when those vampires said they’d be seeing you again soon. I snorted. They wouldn’t be stupid enough to try to infiltrate The Hollow. Bennington tried it, and he was just as f**king weird as the brothers. They wouldn’t even know where to find me. They don’t know who I am. No, agreed Antonio. But they will have known who Jared is. He’s recognised worldwide; he needs to be. However, I do not believe it necessary for the Binding ceremony to be postponed. I appreciate that you are feeling particularly protective at this moment, Jared. I fully understand that, as does Sam. But she is very well protected here, and nothing can get in or out of here without my knowledge or permission. It is also worth noting that having the High Masters here for your ceremony will mean that she is even better protected than usual. And I know that the last thing you really want is to postpone the ceremony. It was a few moments before Jared exhaled a heavy sigh and nodded. Distracting myself from the shard of pain I’d felt at hearing him propose to postpone the ceremony, I asked Antonio, How could they have mutated those vampires like that? There are vampires who have the gift of genekinesis and similar abilities which allow them to manipulate a person or animal’s DNA. In fact, my Sire’s life-partner – who you will meet at the informal gathering tomorrow evening – has such a gift. But these gifts would not work on vampires. It is a shame that the female Sventé in the cell was not able to tell us more. I thought about mentioning Luther’s earlier vision, but there was a good chance that Jared would kill him for not having warned him. Instead, I waited until Jared was in deep conversation with Antonio before approaching Gandalf’s doppelganger. He had remained uncharacteristically mute and made himself busy in the far corner of the room. What’s going to happen to me, Luther? The vampires tried to change me in some way. What did they do? His expression was sad, apologetic, and anxious. Do you know what one of the hardest things is about having my gift, Sam? That sometimes I can see a very trying time ahead, but I also know that to do something would be to affect the future. There you go again with those sodding riddles. Is it something bad? At least tell me that much. That depends on what way you look at it. Oh for the love of God, Luther, throw me a bone here.

He placed a hand on my shoulder. All I can tell you without possibly meddling with the future is that you have a difficult time ahead of you, Sam. I know you do not like to rely on others, but you must accept what support Jared tries to give you. You’re going to need it. And then the confusing bugger walked off. CHAPTER THREE (Sam) Panting and shaking with the aftershocks of my orgasm, I griped, Now will you untie me? No, mumbled Jared, who was using my breast as a pillow. You can’t leave me to sleep like this all day. You’re so wrong about that. We’ve had sex five times. You were supposed to have stopped brooding by now. Although Jared had long ago stopped snapping at me and pacing like a caged tiger, he hadn’t quite calmed down. I could sense that he was trying to block what had happened from his mind in the hope of calming, but even five bouts of sex hadn’t been able to mellow him. Untie me. Could you shush? I’m trying to sleep here. Jared. Hey, I told you that if you got hurt I’d strap you to the bed. You knew I wasn’t kidding. Trying a different approach, I softened my voice and injected a little sensuality into it. But if you leave me all tied up like this, I can’t wake you up in style at dusk. A snort. I’m offended that you think I’d fall for that. Well if you really insist on being a plonker… Sucking the surrounding energy into my palm, I formed my whip and cracked it at him. He flinched and rubbed the healing gash on his lower back. Now that was just plain mean. It’ll be your ears next. Grunting, he untied one wrist, leaving me to free my other wrist and then my ankles. The second I relaxed back into the bed, he rested his head on my chest again. Then he flung an arm over me, cupping my hip possessively. Although I very much wanted to disappear to dreamland where I wouldn’t have to worry about anything, there was something nibbling at me. I need to ask you something. Hmmm? Are you having doubts about the Binding? He lifted his head, frowning. Baby, why in God’s name would you think— As realisation dawned on him, he sighed. I would never, ever have suggested postponing it if it hadn’t been for what happened tonight. I’m on edge right now, and I don’t like the idea of outsiders being around you. Binding is a big thing, I reminded him. It’s a lifelong commitment, and considering we’re never going to die, you don’t get one more serious than that. I never would have envisioned you being prepared to make that kind of commitment to anyone. In all honesty, neither had I, baby. But you’re it for me. I don’t think you get what it would do to me if you walked away. I’ll always remember something you once told me. You said that sometimes people only love each other for a little while and then it’s over. That plays on my mind all the time; I worry you might suddenly stop and decide to leave. Not that I’d let you leave me, but you get my point. I had to smile a little at that. I’m not going to leave. That’s good. I’d rather not have to keep you here against your will. All that aside, I’d understand if you didn’t feel like celebrating when your mum’s just died. And down went the shutters. You have to stop doing that. He lowered his head to my breast again, nipping it lightly. Sleep, baby. Talk, Jared. A sigh. Maybe tomorrow night. Now sleep. We only have one last evening to ourselves before all the guests arrive. After that, we’ve got a big week ahead with the Binding. If Luther’s vision was right, we had much more than a big week ahead of us. A part of me wanted to warn Jared, to talk to him about it. But doing that would risk Luther’s life, and talking in riddles wasn’t a reason to die. So I’d have to do as Antonio said…watch and wait. (Jared) So you have an assignment for us. Ordinarily, I’d be pleased. But this time, I didn’t have even an ounce of enthusiasm. After what had happened in the bungalow, the only thing I wanted was to lock Sam in a room where no one could reach her. Seeing her in pain had knocked me into a hyper vigilant state that I couldn’t snap out of, no matter how hard I tried. But the oh-so-stubborn female was insisting on going. Yes, replied Antonio. Luther had a vision. Unfortunately, it wasn’t entirely clear. Like that was anything new. Luther spoke to Sam. As I once told you, my visions do not always make much sense. Sometimes, it is the feel of the vision that I am left to rely on. What I do know is that this is something that hasn’t happened yet, but will happen very soon – in just a few hours’ time, in fact. In my vision, there was a park. It was the evening. There were two women; one was a vampire, one was a human. A pregnant human. I could feel that the vampire had every intention of murdering the human, who she had bound to a tree. The vampire’s rage and pain hit me hard. That wasn’t good. Not to be disrespectful, I said to Antonio, but surely you could select another squad to deal with this. Antonio’s expression was apologetic. Believe me when I say that I would have assigned this to another squad had it not been for one thing − you and Sam were in the vision. To remove you both from the equation might have a very negative impact on what happens. Fuck. Well now there was definitely no getting out of it. Do you have any idea who the women are? Luther shook his head. No. But when I have a vision about unfamiliar people, it means that one, or all, of the people in the vision will become important to The Hollow somehow. And you think the human will be important? Luther sighed. I do not know. I scrubbed my nape, agitated. What is it you want us to do exactly? Obviously we can’t allow the vampire to kill the woman, but then what? Do you want us to bring one, or both, here? I trust that you will know what train of action is appropriate once you decipher the situation, said Antonio. If it’s only two women we’ve got to worry about, I suppose it’s not necessary to take the squad, Sam concluded, but I shook my head.I’ve had plenty of experience with Luther’s unclear visions. They always seem like simple situations and turn out to be anything but. That was another reason why going on this assignment pissed me off. Antonio nodded in agreement with me. I’d recommend that you take at least three of the squad with you. Where will we find the two women? I asked Luther. He handed me a sheet of paper with coordinates written on it. I believe it would be best if you left as soon as possible. So that was exactly what we did. It turned out that the place from Luther’s vision was actually a redwood forest north of San Francisco. After hours of searching, I halted, sighing. I can’t hear or smell anyone nearby. Sam stopped beside me. Neither can I. This is the only area of the woods that we haven’t covered, said Butch, his eerily dark eyes taking in everything around us. Maybe we missed them. David shrugged as he nervously ran a hand through his coppery hair. Maybe we were too late. Or too early, suggested Chico. He said something else, but it didn’t register as my hearing had locked onto a distant moaning sound. Did you all hear that? I asked Sam and the guys. They each nodded. Be as quiet as you can – we don’t want the vampire hearing us approach. The guys stealthily followed Sam and I as we wound through the trees. Finally, my vampire enhanced vision picked up the source of the sound in the far distance. Just as Luther had described, there was a pregnant human sitting against a thin, tall tree with her hands bound behind it. The plan had been to make the job quick – disable the vampire, save the human, and decide if either of them should be taken to The Hollow. Instead, I held up my hand, signalling for Sam and the guys to remain in position. I wasn’t sure why, but every single cell in my body told me to wait, told me to listen. Sam arched her brow questioningly. I mouthed, ‘Trust me’, glad when she shrugged and focused her attention on the spectacle ahead. The moaning had now stopped and the human was waking. Her forehead was creased in a way that hinted at pain – probably a headache. It was a few seconds before she realised that she was in fact tied to the tree. She struggled, but it seemed that the knot was very secure. That was when sheer and utter panic took over her face. You can shout for help if you want, began a voice, but even if someone came, I wouldn’t let them help you. A tall brunette stepped out of the shadows and stood directly before the human. Malice literally gleamed from her eyes. I could see even from here that her irises weren’t glowing. If she was that pissed off but her irises weren’t glinting red or amber, she had to be a Sventé like Sam. Who are you? the human asked, her lips quivering. When the vampire didn’t answer, she rambled, Look, whatever Leon owes you, I can get it. But if you’re mistakenly thinking – like others have before you – that if you call him he’ll rush here like lightning to save me, you’re going to be very disappointed. He’s out of town, and he hasn’t got the money to give you anyway. He spends what he steals before he even steals it, trust me. So you’re the breadwinner? I have to be, or we’d have nothing. For someone who’s financially struggling, you’re dressed very smartly, aren’t you? The vampire was right; the woman was clothed in a black maternity suit – jacket, pencil skirt, and a white blouse. What’s your name? The human seemed taken aback by the question. What’s yours? she returned cockily. The vampire’s mouth curved into a smile. Jude. My name’s Jude. If I were you, Jude, I’d let me go. I’ve told you, I can get you your money. I don’t want money. Well whatever you want, I can get it. But hurting me would be a really stupid thing to do on your part. You’d be upsetting my employers, for a start. You don’t know who I— Yes I do. Jude squatted down in front of her. Maybe I don’t know your name, but I know something about you…something I doubt that many other people know…You’re a Scout. The human’s eyes widened and her mouth fell open. You really don’t remember me, do you? When the human didn’t respond, Jude explained, We met in a supermarket. We both reached for a velour baby sleep-suit at the same time. You told me that you were so sorry, massaging your pregnant belly. You said you had eight weeks left before your due date, that you were having a boy. I told you that I had four weeks left to go, that I was having a girl. Any of this jogging your memory? The human still didn’t speak, so Jude continued. Just as I was walking away, I felt a sharp prick in my arm that made me flinch, but I never thought anything of it. Why would I? A few minutes later, I was suddenly dizzy. Uncoordinated. My eyelids felt like they had lead weights hanging from them. With blurred vision and shaky legs, I stumbled outside. I just kept thinking that I needed to get to my car and go to a hospital. To any non-dizzy person, driving would have seemed nothing short of suicidal. But for me, the equation had been a little different: something was wrong and my baby might be at risk, therefore I had to hurry to get to a hospital. Then a car pulled up and the window lowered. A woman asked me if I was okay, if I needed a ride to the hospital. I said no, but she kept insisting that I couldn’t drive in my state. I would have said no again, but then I saw a toddler in a babyseat in the back of the vehicle, clapping his hands and grinning. It made me relax, made me think I could trust this perfect stranger. So I hopped inside the car. Seconds later, I passed out. When I woke up, two men and a woman, all wearing scrubs, were looking down at me. I thought I must be at a hospital…And then there was the most amazing sound. Crying, my baby was crying. I tried to lift my head and see, but my body wasn’t cooperating. The only thing I saw was a mop of black curls. Then, just before I blacked out again, I heard a harsh voice order, ‘Get rid of her quickly’. I truly would never have anticipated that the conversation would swing in this direction. I mean, seriously…what the f**k? When I came round, I was in a wooded area, just like this one. It felt like warm water had been thrown over my stomach. I reached down and realised my baby bump was gone. My baby was gone. When I brought my hand up, I saw that it wasn’t water, it was blood. I don’t know how long I lay there crying before I got up. I staggered about aimlessly, fuelled mostly by shock. But I was bleeding so badly. I was dying, and I knew it. I don’t think I got far before I fell again. But, unbelievably, someone found me. I begged them to help me, and they did; they made sure I lived. They said that if anyone had the right to live and get revenge, it was me.

I was betting this ‘someone’ had been the vampire responsible for Turning her. It wasn’t until about six months later that I was…healed enough to go searching for you. In other words, it had been six months before her bloodlust had been under a satisfactory level of control – although Sventés had a manageable bloodlust, all newborn vampires of every breed suffered from uncontrollable bloodlust. Had she been a Keja or a Pagori vampire, it would have taken her longer to control it. I searched and searched for you, but I don’t think I ever expected to find you, no matter how hard I tried to track you. I almost pissed my pants when I spotted you earlier. I think the woman behind me thought I was having a seizure or something. The human now had the look of someone who understood exactly what danger they had found themselves in. Jude, what happened to you was…horrific. Awful. But I swear to you, I had nothing to do with it. I don’t even remember us meeting— Surely you’re not suggesting I’d forget the face of— No, no, the human quickly added, clearly conscious of the danger of offending Jude. I’m not saying we didn’t meet, just that I’m not so good with remembering faces, but I swear to you, I was nothing whatsoever to do with what happened to you. Jude’s crooked grin widened, but it wasn’t a pleasant one. That would be much easier to believe if – she dragged up the brunette’s blouse to reveal an artificial baby bump – you were truly pregnant. What do they call these? Some antenatal classes use them, don’t they? Empathy Belly Pregnancy Stimulators, replied the human quietly. I hadn’t been expecting that. I sensed that Sam was equally surprised. She was also extremely pissed to the point that a silvery-blue energy ball had appeared in her hand. I imagined she was probably cooking up interesting ways for the human to die. You weren’t pregnant when we first met either, were you? Jude said to the human. You’d been wearing this. It gives you an excuse to talk to pregnant women without looking suspicious. It’s just two pregnant women comparing notes. Admit it, you’re a Scout. If you’re hoping I can tell you where your baby is, you’re very mistaken. My role ends at drugging the women. Slowly, Jude tucked her hand inside her knee-high boot and retrieved a jagged-edged knife about eight inches long. The moonlight glimmered off the steel implement. So what you’re telling me is…you’re no good to me? What I’m saying is I might have drugged you, but I didn’t perform the Caesarean, I didn’t take the baby. Rage flashed across Jude’s face, but somehow she remained calm. Don’t call it a Caesarean, don’t. A Caesarean section is a medical procedure that’s used with the mother and baby’s well-being in mind. Having my abdomen ripped open and my unborn baby snatched from my womb – risking its life – wasn’t a Caesarean. Jude seemed to be searching the human’s face for something, probably remorse. How do you sleep at night? How many women have you done this to? Don’t you even care that innocent little babies are being taken from their mothers? For all you know, they’re being sold to paedophile rings. What is it – can’t you have kids of your own so you hate women who can? Or is it all about the money for you? A scorned look suddenly took shape on the human’s pale face. Who are you to judge me? If you want to wiggle that knife in front of me and threaten me, go ahead, do it. I just hope you don’t think I can tell you where your baby is, or that you’d ever find it now anyway. I don’t. I gave up hope after a little while. I didn’t want to lose faith, it just went. To tell you the truth, she’s probably better off without me. Better off not knowing that her mom’s messed up and her dad’s a ra**st. But that’s not the point, is it? She wasn’t yours or anyone else’s to take. If anyone was going to give her away, it should have been me. Pain was etched into Jude’s face. There would be no point in me having her back now anyway. I can’t raise her. But neither can the people who she’s been sold to, because they’re just. Like. Me. I shared a confused look with Sam. Surely Jude wasn’t suggesting that her baby was sold to vampires. Jude looked at her blade admiringly. Being sexually attacked has a way of making you more cautious. After that day, I bought this knife and I carried it everywhere, except for that one day when you decided I was going to be butchered and my baby was going to be taken and sold. I dropped my guard for that day – can you believe that? The human licked her lips nervously. Desperation was in every word. Jude, think about this…you could hurt me or kill me, but what would it change? Nothing. It wouldn’t get you your baby back. All that would really come from it, is you would end up with my employers and the police on your tail for my murder. Is that what you want? You sound like an intelligent person, someone who’s been through enough. You need to let me go, and let all this go, and move on. I can’t. Not until all the people who were involved and profited from the sale of my baby pays for what they’ve done. Not wanting the human dead until I’d had a chance to question her, I turned to Chico, Butch, and David. You three concentrate on the vampire. Sam and I will take care of the human. In vampire speed, we were in front of the two women. Jude looked up; there was no surprise in her expression, and I had to wonder how long she’d known we were there. Oh thank God, please you have to help me! begged the human. She tied me up, she wants to kill me! I arched a brow. Is that so? She’s insane! I folded my arms across my chest. Well, the good news is, she’s totally sane. The bad news is my fiancée here is a crazy, homicidal bitch and she wants to kill you. As Sam’s energy whip appeared in her hands, the human blanched, gulping and shaking. I wondered if she’d pass out. Jude’s face took on a knowing look as she studied Sam – who was totally focused on the human. You’re the Sventé Feeder. She seemed entranced by her. I could understand that. Sam commanded attention when she was fierce. The vampire’s eyes eventually moved to me. And you’re the Heir. Her gaze raked over the three squad members who had surrounded her, lingering a little on Chico.

As I went to stand in front of the human, her eyes widened. I suspected that the red tinge to my irises was glowing. What are you? she asked shakily. I tsked. I ask the questions. First, I want to know who it is you work for. If Jude was right and vampires had bought her baby, this was a situation that I needed to take care of – and fast. There’s really no point in denying anything, said Sam. Although…it wouldn’t be so bad if you did, because then I could whip you silly. I winced, offering the human a sympathetic look. I don’t envy you right now. I’ve been on the receiving end of that whip a few times – and not in a good way. The human shook her head madly. No, this isn’t real. Sam cocked her head. Frankly, I find it harder to believe there are people out there evil enough to steal children than that vampires exist. But maybe that’s just me. Vampires? the human echoed, releasing a nervous laugh. Jude huffed. What, you didn’t realise you’ve been working for supposedly mythological creatures? What makes you think your baby was sold to vampires? I asked Jude. Because vampires are running the operation, replied Jude. Stealing human babies, and then selling them to vampire couples. Why would vampires do that? How else are they going to have children unless it’s to steal them? The human was shaking her head incredulously. You’re all crazy. Sam sighed. Admittedly, I am. So for every time you fail to answer our questions, I will crack this whip at you. This can be over quickly, or it can be prolonged. Totally your choice, though the latter sounds more appealing to me. It’s part of the ‘crazy, homicidal bitch’ thing. But me…I’d rather skip the cliché ‘I don’t know anything’ game. I seized her gaze with mine. Who do you work for? When she said nothing, Sam cracked the whip, catching the human’s earlobe. She cried out, flinching. Hurts like a son of a bitch, doesn’t it? It truly did; Sam was merciless with that thing. We’ll try this again. Who do you work for? The human spoke to Jude. You aren’t even a little concerned that there are people here claiming to be vampires? Jude tilted her head. As I’m also one…No. The woman cursed as Sam’s whip slashed along her jaw. I believe you were asked a question. Sam’s voice became even raspier whenever she was pissed. It sent a shudder through me every time. Jude tutted. I’d answer their questions if I were you. The worst I can do is kill you, but these guys…I have a feeling they have powers that will shock the shit out of you. Powers, the woman whispered. I turned to Sam. Show her. Sam let her whip fade away, sucked more energy into her palms, and released it as a blast of air that had debris whooshing around and the tree branches swaying. Taking more energy, she directed a flame of fire at the human, which stopped just short of her body. The human, sniffling and sobbing, then watched open-mouthed as Sam shaped the energy into a silvery-blue energy ball, which she bounced from hand to hand. Amazing, isn’t she, I said to the human. I remember the first day I met her, she kicked my ass using that gift – taunted me the entire time, even called me a pretty girl. Now, if you haven’t yet figured out that it’s in your best interests to tell us what we want to know— I didn’t steal any babies! Yes, we overheard you admitting that your role ends at drugging the mothers. So the question is…what happens next? It’s more than obvious that the woman who offered to give Jude a ride to the hospital was involved. So where do we find her? The human’s attention had drifted to Sam – most likely because she had her energy whip back in hand. I said, where do we find her? I don’t know— She yelped at the feel of Sam’s whip on her cheek. Wrong answer. If she had been anyone else, the scent of her blood in the air would have made my mouth water. But I couldn’t think of anything more disgusting than feeding from someone as callous as this woman in front of me. Come on, you must have a name at the very least. I’ve never met or spoken to her, I swear! I saw her from afar a few times when she drove away with a pregnant woman, sure, but that’s all. What does she look like? I knew that I could get this information from Jude, but I wanted to find out if the human was lying. Her hair was light blonde, but you could tell it wasn’t her natural hair colour, because her roots were very dark. She had to be in her forties. She wore glasses. I looked at Jude, who nodded. I swear that’s all I know. Leon tells me when and where to go Scouting. When I find someone, I drug them and call him. As far as I know, he then contacts the Deliverer and she takes it from there. He’s only ever referred to her as that, but he might know her name, I don’t know. The Deliverer? That’s what they call her and the other women who do that job. They take a kid with them on purpose to try to seem non-threatening and trustworthy. This is a big operation if there’s more than just one Deliverer. And didn’t that just worry the crap out of me. Yes, but I don’t know how big, and I don’t know more than what I’ve told you. I’m too low down in the chain to be trusted with details. She’ll be telling the truth about that, interrupted Chico. In big crime organisations, they don’t tell their employees any more than they have to know. They’re going to be extremely careful if, on top of that, they have the huge secret of being vampires to keep. I had to agree with that theory. Then it’s safe to say that the person we need to speak to next…is her partner. I turned to Butch, whose eyes were boring into the human. Check her purse for some I.D. After some rummaging around, Butch pulled out the human’s driver’s licence. Janine Peterson. Her address is right here. Good. I guess…you’re no longer of any use to us, Janine.I let DJ’s reassuring words flow through me and erase all of my doubt and negativity. As we part ways with one last kiss in the driveway, I watch his truck disappear down the street with an unmarked cop car right on his ass the entire way as I get into the passenger side of Jackson’s cruiser.

We make small talk the entire way to the hospital and I rest my head on the back of the seat, thinking about how much my life has changed in the last few months and how happy I am for the first time since I was a teenager.Parking my truck as close to the scene of the accident as I can off to the side of the road, I quickly jump out with my ALS trauma bag in my hand and weave in between the line of cars that are stopped until the accident can be cleared so they can get around it and head to wherever it was they were going.

I pick up the pace, jogging until I reach the first vehicle, where a few of my men are pulling the driver out of the mangled car.What do we got, boys? I ask as I pull a pair of latex gloves out of my back pocket and quickly slide them on.

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