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The vampire knew of no one on the face of the earth that he despised as fervently as the Sortiari. Mikhail wondered if his torture somehow assuaged their guilt as the self-proclaimed influencers of Fate? Perhaps it justified the murders they'd tasked their lapdogs to commit? Because as far as Mikhail was concerned, the only thing the slayer had accomplished was to further enrage an already-rabid beast. Careful in his technique, the false priest took great care as he made a show of purifying Mikhail's flesh. A torch burned bright in the dark dungeon, the fire casting inhuman shadows as though revealing the slayer's true face. He touched the flame to Mikhail's skin again and again as he absolved the vampire of sin in preparation for the killing blow.
Mikhail's fangs punched down from his gums and a feral growl erupted in his chest. Pain fueled his rage and gave him strength as he fought to free himself from the bonds that restrained him. The silver chains were woven, it was said, with strands of hair from an archangel's head. Those lies might have worked on the simple folk who lived in the villages, but Mikhail knew that the Sortiari were nothing more than butchers hiding behind the cloister of the Holy See and the church's myths. The slayer wore an elaborate gold crucifix around his neck, which complemented his black and red robes, giving him the appearance of a man of God. But this creature was no priest and neither were the Sortiari holy. No, the members of this secret society were nothing more than zealots with the resources they required to further their cause thanks to the wealth of the church.
Weakened from a fortnight of torture and starved of blood, Mikhail swayed on his feet, the silver chains the only things holding him upright. Once a proud warrior, he'd been reduced to a bloodied mass of flesh and raw nerves. How he wanted to sink his fangs into his enemy's throat and rejoice in the warmth of the slayer's blood as it flowed over his tongue. He ached for vengeance, for the opportunity to deliver justice to the bastards who'd all but annihilated an entire race. Mikhail thrashed against his bonds, strained at the heavy length of silver that weighed him down and stole his strength. Endless black swallowed the whites of the slayer's eyes until no color remained and he laughed. A sound that grated in Mikhail's ears like the scratch of metal on metal.
The slayer paused in his ministrations, a silver dagger dripping with Mikhail's own blood clenched tight in his fist. "By the will of Fate, we have rid the world of your kind." The words were spoken as nothing more than a whisper, yet they resonated with the force of an angry shout. "The Sortiari have killed your females, ripped the wombs from their wretched bodies, and burned the abominations growing inside of them in sacred flames. Your warriors are gone, torn limb from limb, their black hearts speared, and the pieces buried in consecrated ground."
His breath hot and reeking of rancid flesh, the slayer spoke close to Mikhail's face. A monster stood in this cold, dank dungeon, but it wasn't the vampire. As the creature in the guise of a human sliced the blade across Mikhail's torso, cutting away great sheets of his flesh, he saw a glimpse of the beast that simmered beneath the slayer's skin. Berserker. He could almost laugh at the folly of the church for allying themselves with the Sortiari. Employing the very creatures they sought to vanquish. As pain clouded his mind and stole any sense of reason, Mikhail refused to cry out. He would not show weakness.
"I killed your sire with my own hands, you soulless wretch," the slayer said with pride. "Your whore as well. And as the last of your kind, you are nothing more than the heir to death. The entirety of your race will end with you." He dropped the dagger somewhere at his side and from his robes produced a long wooden spike, tipped with silver. "The future waits to do the Sortiari's bidding. We are Fate." Holding it in both fists, the slayer held the weapon high above his head, raised to the sky as though in prayer. "May God have mercy on your evil soul," he snarled as he drove the spike into the vampire's chest.
* * *
Michael Aristov came awake with the setting sun, clutching at his chest. His fingers found the familiar star-shaped scar, burned there by the wooden spike infused with Sortiari magic. Another inch to the left and he would have joined the entirety of his race in whatever afterlife awaited the immortal. Would there be a day of his existence that he didn't relive that wretched night of torture in his dreams? He collapsed back on his pillow as he attempted to rub the ghost of pain from his sternum. Tonight wasn't the first night he'd wished the assassin had been better at the job. Death would have been a welcome respite from the pain of isolation and the promise of an eternity of soulless existence.
He swung his legs over the edge of the king-size bed and let his head hang between his shoulders. How many nights had it been since he'd fed? Twenty? Thirty? Too damned many at any rate. His body ached with hunger, his throat raw and his gut pulsing with a hollow yet acidic burn that damn near brought him to his knees. With effort, Michael reached for his cell on the bedside table. He scrolled through his contacts and hit "send."
"What's on tap for tonight?" a man answered on the other end.
"I'm going out. Bring the car." Michael's own voice was gravel spinning in a cement mixer, and speaking did little to soothe the fire in his throat.
Michael's head spun. His thoughts clouded. If he didn't feed soon, instinct would overtake him and he'd be unable to control his compulsion to feed. "Make it five."
"Five minutes, then" came the reply before the call disconnected.
Arms braced at his sides, Michael pushed himself off the bed. He wobbled on his feet for a moment, light-headed. The collective hunger of an entire race exhausted his strength and he wondered, if he allowed them all to perish, would he too finally see his end? The slayers hadn't managed to do the deed four centuries ago; surely he was doomed to the torture of this empty existence for all eternity.
A few stumbling steps took Michael to a control panel on the wall. He pushed a button and the blackout blinds retracted from the floor-to-ceiling windows, revealing the gray twilight that draped the sky as though with the haze of a mourning cloak. Michael gazed out at the gardens beyond his window, and the tension constricting his muscles eased by slow degrees. He didn't miss the sun. The sun was hot, and bright, and punishing. He had no desire to feel the warmth of it on his skin or see the ocean in the daytime, bright and blue in its reflection, like the vampires did in the movies. Michael didn't secretly yearn for a time when he would meet the accursed yellow orb in a glorious display of morning light. The thing he feared-truly resented-was that he had to shut himself up in a tomb to block out those deadly rays. Even in his spacious house, miles from the congestion of the city, he felt suffocated once the blinds went down. And he had that Sortiari bastard to thank for that.
True to his word, Alex pulled up to the front door just a few minutes later. The human was worth every cent of his considerable paycheck: prompt, discreet, and efficient. He never asked questions and he did whatever was required of him. And in a city where gossip paid very, very well, he was a valuable commodity indeed.
"Where to?" Alex asked as he opened the door of the sleek black town car.
A nice open field in Siberia might be nice. "Take me into the city. Club district."
Alex inclined his head. "Anywhere in particular?"
Michael should have found a dhampir to supply a willing vein-that blood would surely sustain him longer-but he didn't have the patience or energy to deal with his own kin. Keeping company with dhampirs would dredge up too many painful memories for him to stomach. "Wherever's hot right now. I don't care about the specifics."
"Can do." Alex closed the door and took the driver's seat. "You do realize things won't heat up at the clubs for a few hours yet. Tongues will wag whether you're fashionably late or way too early."
True, but at this point it hardly mattered. "Like you said, they'll talk either way. Let's just get this over with."
"You're the boss," Alex replied as he put the car into gear and began the long trek down Mulholland toward the city.
Michael leaned his head back on the rest as he relaxed against the supple leather interior and closed his eyes. His control was slipping as the thirst mounted, his sanity on the precipice of collapse. The memories of the Ancient Ones assaulted his mind, remnants of lives extinguished by Sortiari slayers. Once he fed he'd be strong enough to keep the memories at bay, but right now his mind roared with myriad voices, thoughts, and events of lives in a time long since passed.
"Not much farther," Alex remarked from the front of the car. "Just hang on."
Awareness spiked for the briefest moment and a desperate snarl tore from Michael's throat. The scent of the driver's blood invaded his nostrils, tempting him beyond reason. His fangs slid down from his gums and it took every ounce of willpower in his control to keep from attacking the man speeding through the city in an effort to see him properly fed. Michael pierced his tongue with one sharp tip. It had been so long since he'd last fed, he didn't even have a drop of blood in his own body left to spare. His heart was silent in his rib cage, his lungs still. Chest unmoving with breath. He had nothing with which to keep the frenzy in check.
Michael Aristov was the last of the Ancient Ones, untethered and soulless, the lone remaining carrier of the collective memory, and the sole guardian of an orphaned race.
And if he didn't feed soon, he would be the death of them all.
* * *
Claire Thompson spread the wad of bills out on the table, smoothing the crumpled edges, and put them in order, largest to smallest. She promised herself this would be her last hustle, just this once until she picked up more hours at the diner. Without the three hundred dollars she'd won off those guys at the pool tables, she wouldn't have been able to make her rent. And there was no way in hell she was living out of her car again.
Truth be told, there was nothing like easy money. The hours at the diner were hard. Her feet ached every day, she was always tired, and half of her customers were filthy letches or undertipping assholes. She was good at hustling and it took a hell of lot less effort than balancing five plates of eggs and hash browns in one hand while trying not to spill the pot of coffee in her other. But she'd made a vow to herself that she was going to walk the straight and narrow from here on out. Well, from tomorrow on out. Tonight was about making her rent and getting the cash she needed for at least a week's worth of groceries. Los Angeles was a jungle. Survival of the fittest, kill or be killed, all of that law of the wild crap counted here, and she wasn't about to be culled from the herd because she couldn't take care of herself.
Claire stared across the street, observing the circus that had begun to set up camp at Diablo, the newest hot-spot nightclub. The neon sign glowed bloodred in the encroaching darkness and the lineup of party girls waiting to go inside were a spectacle in and of themselves. What in god's name would possess a woman to leave her house dressed like a sexy stuffed animal? Tall furry boots, shorter-than-short micromini skirts, and bikini tops weren't enough for these hard-core partiers' outfits. Nope. They topped it all off with pointy-eared furry hats and little fluffy tails that stuck out from the backs of their too-short skirts.
However ... with the drum and bass EDM party scene came a set of recreational drugs that would make a lot of them easy prey for a skilled pickpocket like Claire. And this wasn't the usual down-and-out crowd you came across in the Valley. The clientele who frequented Diablo tonight consisted of overprivileged, spoiled-rotten daddy's girls and unambitious trust fund boys. None of them would miss a diamond tennis bracelet or gold watch. They probably had drawers full of them at home. A single score would set her up for a couple of months. It was an opportunity she couldn't pass up. Besides, after tonight she was going straight.
She looked down at her worn skinny jeans, simple black tee, and cheap Payless heels. Not exactly the type of grade-A hottie who made it past the velvet rope, especially when she was contending with a horde of plushies, all sucking on pacifiers-probably laced with Molly-in a way that would tempt Freud from the grave. Ew.
There were other ways to get into a nightclub, though. She didn't need to look like a teddy-bear hooker to get past the gatekeepers. That's what back doors were for. Claire stuffed all but a hundred bucks of her cash into her pocket and headed out of the pool hall and across the street. She passed up the line of clubbers at the front entrance and strolled to the back of the building as though she belonged there. That was the trick to sneaking around: Never look like you're sneaking. A twentysomething guy in a red T-shirt with Diablo scrawled across the front in black script was standing outside the rear exit smoking a cigarette. He eyed Claire with suspicion, taking her in from head to toe. She smiled as though she'd known the guy for years, and tucked the two fifties against her right palm. Indecision gave her pause, and her step faltered as she headed up to the door. If she didn't score inside, she'd be out a hundred bucks and she'd have to go out tomorrow night to make up the extra cash. Which would totally shoot to shit her vow to make tonight her last night.
"Hey," she said to the guy at the door. "Sup?"
"The line to get in is around the corner," he replied on an exhalation of smoke.
Claire kept the friendly smile plastered on her face no matter how badly the smell made her stomach lurch. Scent and memory were closely tied, unfortunately, and Claire had a lot of shitty memories to dredge up. "Oh, I know," she said, and stretched out her right hand. "I just wanted to introduce myself. I'm Janae." Rule of the hustle number one: Never give your real name.
"Paul," the guy said, reaching out to shake her hand.
She slipped the bills against his hand and, though his eyes showed a hint of acknowledgment, he didn't give any other sign that she'd placed the bills into his palm. Apparently this wasn't Paul's first rodeo. He tucked his hand in his pocket without so much as a glance at the money. Like he knew that she'd tipped him well. Then again, Claire had always had this strange trustworthy quality about her. It was like she could project an aura of honesty and people just bought it. It's what made her so good at the con. And likewise, she always knew when someone was lying. Like a tingle that spread through her body. Intuition like that was a godsend when you grew up on the streets.
Paul toed the back door, easing it open to allow just enough room for Claire to pass through. He didn't budge from his spot, just took another drag and expelled the smoke. "See ya around, Janae."
"You're one of the good ones, Paul," she said as she slipped through the door.
He responded with an amused snort.
Once through the stockroom and in the club proper, Claire was reminded of why she didn't hang out at places like this. It always surprised her how high-class debauchery was so much more accepted. This place had the same sex, drugs, and dirty dealings on display as you'd find in a dive bar in the Valley. But in the morning everyone who'd been here would skip along their merry way like nothing had happened, as though money absolved them of all sin, whereas the stigma of bad behavior followed the less fortunate wherever they went. The wealth and privilege here was a painful reminder that these people were the haves while she was a have-not. She mused, as she took in her surroundings, that by midnight the accumulated net worth of the club patrons could probably pay off the national debt.
Acting as though she belonged in this crowd was tough when she felt so out of place. Her shoes were the most expensive part of her sad wardrobe. She'd saved up tips for two weeks to afford the thirty-dollar black heels, and to tell the truth, they pinched her feet so badly she was considering going barefoot. Dirty floors be damned.
From the corner of her eye she caught sight of a group of girls taking selfies with their top-of-the-line smartphones. Claire couldn't even afford a cheap prepaid burner phone. If she had to make a call, she used the phone at the diner. Besides, it's not like she had anyone in her life who might be interested in talking to her. For several minutes she stood there, staring as the trio made the standard pouty duck-lip faces, then switched to screwed-up gazes with their tongues lolling out of their mouths like deranged poodles. Which, considering the fact they were all wearing fuzzy hats and tails, wasn't too far off.
"Can I buy you a drink?"
Claire turned to the guy who'd sidled up beside her. Rule number two of the hustle: Free is always better. Especially at a high-end club like this, because a glass of white wine probably ran about twenty-five bucks. "Sure. Thanks," she said, flashing a winsome smile. "I'll take a bourbon and Coke."
As he led the way to the bar, Claire sized up her first potential mark of the night. He wasn't bad looking, a typical Cali guy: blond, blue-eyed, and built. From the looks of his True Religion jeans and Ed Hardy tee, he was comfortable, though not too well off. His watch was okay, Fossil, but not worth more than a couple hundred bucks, which equated to a thirty-dollar pawn. He tucked his cell in his back pocket, looked like an early-generation iPhone, and a little banged up at that. Nope, this guy wasn't what she was after. She hadn't risked a hundred bucks of rent money for chump change. Claire was hunting bigger game tonight.
She accepted the proffered drink and pretended to sip. Rule of the hustle number three: A sloppy drunk makes for a sloppy con. Keeping her wits about her while still looking like she was having a good time was essential. Once you got someone to let down their inhibitions, they made a much easier target.
"What's your name?" Cali Boy shouted over the heart-stopping bass of the electronic dance music. The twenty-foot display screen behind the DJ booth flashed: BassNectar. Dude was certainly living up to his moniker.
"Suzette!" she shouted back. "Thanks again for the drink!"
"No problem." He gave her a smile and leaned in. "I'm Steve. So ... what brings you out tonight?"
"Just livin' the dream, Steve." While he yammered on about whatever it was he did for a living-something in sports management-Claire scanned the crowd for her mark. The dance floor undulated with a mass of bodies, arms raised high, glow sticks clenched in their fists, and heads thrown back, grinding their asses against anything within touching distance like cats in heat. Strobe lights flashed with each thump of bass and lasers shot out from the DJ booth, projecting neon pink and yellow shapes on the walls and ceilings. Through the mass of bodies and constant movement Claire narrowed her focus. In addition to her built-in lie detector, she possessed an uncanny concentration that she could narrow down to almost a pinpoint. Each distraction melted away until it felt like everything moved in slow motion, giving her the time she needed to make her assessment. Like the eyes of a hawk searching for a mouse in tall grass, her gaze roamed the crowd until she zeroed in on a man headed to the back of the club where the VIP tables were.
Dressed in sleek black slacks and a dress shirt that probably cost more than a couple of months of Claire's rent. Swaying on his feet as though he could barely keep himself upright, he looked as out of place with the nouveau-raver crowd as she did. He stood about a foot taller than the tallest guys there and made Steve's sculpted body look puny in comparison. He wasn't there for the music. He was at Diablo because this was an "it" place and he was an "it" guy. She'd have to get a little closer to properly assess him, but that wouldn't be a problem. If her initial impression was correct, whatever she managed to lift from this guy would feed her for a few months. Hell, maybe she'd spring for the name-brand mayo this time.
"So, do you maybe wanna get out of here and grab a bite to eat?" Steve looked at her expectantly, setting his own drink on the bar as though positive he was about to score.
"Sorry, but no. Thanks again for the drink, Stevie!" Claire shouted over the music as she headed toward the VIP room.
"It's Steve!" he called after her.
She lifted her hand in acknowledgment but didn't turn around. It was time to hunt.
Copyright © 2015 by Kate Baxter
Excerpt from The Warrior Vampire copyright © 2015 by Kate Baxter