We were running out of time.
We'd crawled into the tunnels two hours ago, planning to be underground for only an hour. We'd planned to use the drug lord's own ATVs—parked in the main tunnel—to haul ass across the border, arriving in the United States near Calexico. It wasn't a great plan, but better than waiting for the cartel to tear apart the village looking for us.
But things had changed. Roving groups of guards had forced us into the side tunnels. Luis had assured me they would lead us to the same place and that the trip would only take a little longer. But we'd gotten turned around twice and now there was only an hour left before sunset.
"I need to rest, Celia. Please, can't we stop and sit down for a second?"
Serena's whisper made me flinch and I stole a moment to look at her face. She was nearly as pale as the vampires I feared would rise when night fell, and I didn't doubt she was in a lot of pain. I eased some of my irritation by remembering what it had felt like to walk with a broken leg in a makeshift splint.
"We don't have much time, Serena. We have got to get you to safety." My voice was likewise a whisper. It wasn't just that she was a nice person who deserved to get home to her family in Milwaukee, which she was—but she was the last employee of MagnaChem's Mexico City plant and if she didn't make it out alive, I didn't get paid my full fee.
She let out a small noise that was part whimper and part swear. She stopped walking and I had to as well unless I planned to drag her. I couldn't carry her—the tunnel simply wasn't big enough. We had to crouch slightly to keep from banging our heads on the support beams, and two people barely fit, standing side by side. Raising a hand to push the sweaty hair from her face, Serena began to beg. "I know. I do. But just five minutes. Please. Don't we have a charm left?"
Maria turned and looked at me with concern. We did have one. But there was a problem. "Yes, but we only have one Blackout charm left and we need it to cancel the noise of opening the tunnel exit. We'll be vulnerable when we crawl out if anyone hears."
Serena nodded and bit at her lip, then took a deep breath of stale air and stepped forward, leaning heavily on me, trying not to drag her shoe through the hard-packed dirt because noise echoed down here. I could tell she was mulling over the situation. I'd carried her in the main tunnel, when I thought we were going to use the ATVs. The main tunnels were smooth and wide, with concrete floors and excellent lighting. But this branch was almost claustrophobically narrow, the chiseled stone broken only occasionally by hand-fitted support beams of raw wood. The dim lighting was from low-wattage bulbs strung on wires along the ceiling, about half of which actually worked. The ventilation wasn't great, either. I was sweating heavily enough that the blouse beneath my jacket was sticking to my body and my bra was soaked.
Going into the tunnels where local priests told us the vampires live had been crazy. But desperate people take insane risks. After six weeks in Mexico, "desperate" was definitely a word that described me.
Ahead of us, Luis raised his hand and stopped cold. I likewise stopped while he listened. If I weren't so tired, I could have amped up my hearing. One of the nice things about being partially a vampire was having enhanced senses. But I was just so damned tired. It was all I could do to keep trudging along. Even my adrenaline rushes only brought me back to near normal.
After a long moment, Luis eased backward and lowered his voice to where he could barely be heard. "We're nearing the main tunnel again, but there are guards. If we stay here for five minutes or so, they'll pass and then we can reenter the good tunnel."
Beside me, Serena let out a relieved breath. So, she would get her rest after all. I took a breath and helped her to a sitting position, making sure her leg remained as straight as possible. It was swelling badly but there wasn't anything we could do until we got to a doctor or healer. I'd long ago expended every charm in my medkit on the others I'd already gotten to safety, ferrying them one at a time across the border.
Maria, Luis, and I took up perimeter positions in the near darkness. There would be no rest for us. At least I'd had the good sense to make sure a priest blessed not only me, but also my weapons and ammunition. Vampires laugh off regular bullets. They don't laugh at holy items. They don't find fire amusing, either, which was why Luis was wearing a homemade flamethrower.
I really, really, hoped he didn't have to use it. A blast from the flamethrower would use up oxygen better left for breathing, and I didn't relish the thought of a possible cave-in if one of the support beams got badly damaged.
I shuddered in the dark, painfully aware of the not-quite-corpses "sleeping" somewhere in the tunnels. "I'm afraid of vampires," Serena whispered. "Present company excluded, of course."
I turned from watching behind us to glance at her. "Any sane person is. I sure am." That seemed to surprise her enough that I elaborated. "I've killed my share. I wouldn't be alive otherwise." Even though that was only partially true. "And I am still alive. The master vampire who bit me didn't finish the job." I have prominent, pointed canines, death-pale skin, and some enhanced healing abilities, among other things. But I still have my soul and mind. Most bats don't. That was another one of the reasons I really wasn't liking these tunnels. It wasn't just that I was afraid of feral bats, I was afraid of becoming a feral bat.
I felt, rather than saw, something in the darkness. Maria stirred next to me, just a little flutter of the rope that bound us to each other so we didn't wind up getting separated.
"What's the problem, Graves?" Maria's voice was the barest breath of sound in my ear, a surprise since she's under five foot one and I'm five foot ten in my bare feet. I guessed she was standing on her tiptoes. Luis likewise moved closer until we were a mass of bodies, like elephants circling the wounded and vulnerable members of the herd.
Maria Ruiz Ortega had started this adventure as my guide. She'd felt she owed me a favor after I saved her brother Lorenzo's life (and missed my own flight out of what amounted to a war zone because of it). Luis was her other brother. They were astonishingly good looking, charming when they wanted to be, and absolutely deadly. Luis seemed like he was probably full human, but unless I missed my guess, with the full moon, Maria shifted. Werewolves are tough. Very tough. Between me, her, and a good flamethrower, if there was a way of getting out of this alive, we would.
I didn't answer, just used my arm to hold her back. Someone was coming. They were moving very quietly, their footfalls nearly silent on the smooth concrete floor to our left. Sunset was close and my inner vampire was ready to come out to play. In the past year I've gotten much better at controlling my blood lust and other abilities. Stress makes it harder, but here and now, they were useful. I could smell the faint scent of Maria's soap, her brother's sweat, and the rubber inner tube we'd used to secure Serena's broken leg to the boards.
More important, I could hear the pounding of their hearts and the tiny, frightened gasps from the wounded woman on the floor. And another heartbeat, one that was slow and steady. And close.
Maria helped me get Serena to her feet without even a whisper of noise. I pulled one of my knives from its wrist sheath and cut the rope that connected us. If we had to fight, or run, we needed to be able to move independently. Then we waited quietly.
There was a muffled crackle of radio static from less than a foot away and then a burst of Spanish that my mind translated efficiently. "Garcia, do you see them?" Before I came down here, my Spanish had been minimal, but I learn quick. I now understood every word coming over the man's radio earpiece and every word he spoke.
"No. I'm only fifty yards from the exit and there's no sign of them. Either they got away or they're still back in the tunnels somewhere. It's almost dark. What are our orders?"
A pause while we each held our breath. "Two more minutes, then we evacuate and seal the tunnels. If they're in here, the bats will take care of them."
"What about the boss's whore?"
"If the Abomination hasn't already eaten her, leave her. Paulo said he's tired of her bitching anyway." There was a muffled snort of laughter in front of me. Maria stiffened beside me, her lips peeling back from her teeth in a silent snarl.
So, this had been a trap from the beginning. Only the fact that I refused to cooperate, hadn't allowed myself to be led where Maria had wanted to go, had kept us alive this long.
There was a soft gasp from Luis as he realized the truth. She had planned to lead him to slaughter. But his gasp wasn't soft enough. I felt the air shift as the man in front of me turned.
The moment he was in range, I leapt, bringing my knife up at an angle. If he was tall, it would catch him in the guts; if average height, it would hit under the ribs. I put my all of my weight behind the attack, because if he was wearing a spelled vest, the knife might not get through at all.
He wasn't tall, and the spells on his vest weren't a match for my strength, along with the magic of a knife that qualifies as a magical artifact all by itself. The knife slid in and I felt his weight start to sag as wetness poured out over my hand. He tried to shove his gun into me but I slammed my hand onto it and his shots went down, ricocheting off of the floor and into the alcove.
Luis swore in pain and startled anger, and I smelled that he'd been hit by a stray bullet. I was just glad none of the ricochets had hit the tank strapped to his back.
The scent of blood was everywhere. My vision sharpened, my canines elongated. Saliva filled my mouth. I wanted blood. I wanted it like I've never wanted anything in my life. I heard the rattling sound of the bat in a nearby alcove taking his first breath of the evening and I hissed at him on pure instinct. The vampire part of me wanted to bite down on the neck of the man I'd gutted while the last flicker of life left his body, to taste the warm, salt-sweet flavor that was like nothing else in this world.
But no. I was human, damn it. I would not feed from a human. Never.
There was a flash of blinding light, a whooshing noise, and flame roared out of Luis's homemade flamethrower, filling the alcove, setting the waking vampire ablaze as Maria and her brother stumbled past me.
The heat was horrendous, breath-stealing. I could only whisper a silent prayer of thanks that we were near enough to the main tunnel that we could still breathe after the blast. I gasped, the nauseating smell of burning hair and flesh filling my nose and lungs, making me cough till I gagged. As suddenly as the blood lust had come, it was now gone. My stomach lurched; I pulled my knife from the guard, flinging his body to the ground.
Distant screams echoed through the rocky tunnels. The vampires were rising and some of the human guards hadn't made it out.
Oh, fuck a duck.
I picked Serena up by her waist and tossed her over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes. She didn't complain. We ran. By the light of flickering flames I could see the fork in the passage that led to the open desert outside. I could smell the sand. Twenty yards to the fork, so maybe thirty past that to the outside. We were nearly there. But closing fast from the other direction were vampires, newly risen and hungry for blood.
Maria stumbled and Luis went down with her. Luis struggled to his knees, trying to get off a blast from the flamethrower. Then a pair of vamps was on him. They rode him to the ground. Fast, they were so fast. Serena turned her head, saw him bleeding, and screamed. The bats looked up, eyes glowing. I didn't doubt mine were as well because everything was in hyperfocus. I managed to pull my gun, but I was having to aim carefully so as not to hit the tank, and with Serena kicking in panic, it was hard. Luis's scream of agony cut off abruptly as the larger male broke his neck with a single vicious twist.
Another pair of bats, two females, surged forward. Maria began firing wildly, not aiming—which was useless. Grabbing her arm, I flung her ahead of me.
"Run!" I screamed, as I fired blessed bullets into the vamps to slow them down. It wouldn't stop them entirely, but I needed to buy us enough time to get to the cave entrance. Once there, I'd shoot the gas tank with a tracer round. The explosion would take out the vamps and, if we were lucky, block the tunnel entrance behind us.
Just a few more steps. I twisted, firing over my shoulder, struggling to stay balanced while carrying Serena. I pulled the trigger again and again until the gun clicked empty. I was almost to the exit. I could see the stars above and smell cactus and sage. So tantalizingly close now—but they were gaining on us.
A bat grabbed at my leg, causing me to stumble and nearly drop Serena. I kicked the bat in the face until she let go but that gave the others time to get closer. There wasn't time to pull out the derringer in my ankle holster.
Thankfully, I didn't have to. Maria had reached the cave entrance ahead of me. She'd pulled herself together, and though there were tears streaming down her snarling face, she stood, gun drawn, feet solid. She wasn't aiming at me. "Go, Graves! Get Serena to safety. They won't follow. I swear."
She waved me past, giving me a shove in the back with preternatural strength that sent both me and Serena sprawling a dozen feet from the tunnel exit. I pushed to my feet and screamed, "Maria! Get out! You can still make it." Even as I yelled, the bats leapt toward her. Crap.
She didn't go down when they hit. They hung on her, fangs embedded in her snarling form. One hand braced over the other, she took careful aim and sent a tracer round back into the tunnel. I followed the blaze of fire as it flew straight and true, right into the tank of her brother's flamethrower.
I threw myself over Serena to shield her from the blast, but I had to look back. The explosion was pretty spectacular, imprinting red onto my retinas and turning Maria, Luis, the guards, and a dozen bats into charcoal.
Yes, she'd betrayed us, but Maria Ruiz Ortega had found her path to redemption from Paulo and his cartel.
Copyright © 2013 by C. T. Adams and Cathy Clamp