Chapter One ONE
29th and Market Streets
Caldwell, New York
Boone’s shitkickers shredded the frozen tire tracks down the middle of the alley, his powerful body churning through the dirty city snow, air sucking into his lungs cold and punching out hot as steam from a locomotive’s stack. In his right hand, he had a twelve-inch serrated hunting knife. In his left, a length of chain.
Up ahead, by about thirty feet, a lesser was running as if its undead life depended on all the Usain Bolt the thing was pulling. The telltale sickly sweet stench of the enemy was thick in its wake, a tracker that Boone’s sensitive nose had picked up on seven blocks ago. The slayer was sloppy of foot, flappy of hand, and given how saturated its smell was, Boone wondered whether it was already injured.
The Black Dagger Brotherhood’s commanding officer, Tohrment, son of Hharm, set the nightly territories for the Brothers and fighters, carving up sections of downtown into quadrants that would be stalked for the enemy. Trainees such as Boone were paired with more experienced people, either Brothers or members of the Band of Bastards, in the interest of safety—especially as there was a new threat out on the streets.
Shadow entities. That were killing innocent vampire civilians.
Boone glanced over his shoulder. Tonight, he was working with Zypher. The Bastard was a great partner, a big, brutal male who nonetheless had a teacher’s patience and an eye for constant improvement.
It was supposed to have been Syn. And a relief when it wasn’t.
Syn was… different.
Boone’s favorite to work with, bar none, was Rhage. But the Brotherhood was otherwise occupied tonight. Every last one of them.
And Boone was the one who had set them on a mission that he hoped and prayed didn’t result in death.
His father’s, specifically.
In the intervening twelve months since their blowup over the broken arrangement, he and Altamere had settled into an uneasy détente. Which was what happened when you finally called a bully on their push-and-shove. The two of them kept up appearances, something that was not hard given how starchy and superficial their relationship had always been, but Boone had drawn a line and instead of the threatened repercussions, in return he’d gotten a retreat of hostility.
He probably should have moved out, but as petty as it was, he had enjoyed getting the upper hand and keeping it. Especially after he joined the Brotherhood’s training program, something he was well aware his father disapproved of. Altamere’s “son” a soldier? Fighting in the war? How brutish. The move had made Boone’s bookish decades seem like a fine hand of cards.
But he loved the challenge and he was damn good at the work—and a new kind of life and rhythm had started, where he and his sire rarely saw each other.
Except then came the invitation: The pleasure of his father and stepmahmen’s company requested at an aristocrat’s home this very evening. Going by the card stock alone, it was clear that other members of the glymera were included on the guest list.
Social gathering? Maybe. Treasonous violation of Wrath’s ban on the Council coming together? More likely.
It had been the first time in a year that Boone had spoken to his sire about anything of note. Yet how could he not urge the male to stay home? That viper pit of aristocrats had already tried to take down Wrath’s throne, and if they were planning another attempt?
The training center had taught him in detail all of the things the Brothers were capable of doing to someone who crossed them. And he might not like his father… but that was the point. With his alarm bells going off about treason, if he didn’t at least try to keep the male away from that party, he would feel like he had killed Altamere himself.
And that was too close to what he had at times wanted to do, and who needed to live with that guilt?
Predictably, his father had refused the wise counsel. So Boone had gone to the Brothers directly, and that was why he was paired with a member of the Band of Bastards this fine, crystal-cold winter’s evening.
Refocusing on his hunt, he threw some more speed into his legs, his thighs beginning to burn, his calves tightening, his bum ankle issuing the first of what was going to be a lot of complaints. All of that was background chatter easily ignored, utterly forgettable.
Just breathe, he told himself. The more oxygen he could get into his lungs, the more he got into his blood, fuel for his muscles, speed for his body.
And what do you know, he was closing the distance. The problem? He was getting farther and farther away from Zypher, who was dancing with a slayer of his own three blocks—now four blocks—back.
Time to do this.
Per protocol, he hit the locator beacon on his shoulder to notify the other squads that he was about to engage. And then he closed his eyes.
Dematerializing was something that vampires ordinarily had to concentrate and calm themselves in order to accomplish. Boone, however, had trained himself to find that place of inner equilibrium even when he was running full tilt boogie in pursuit of the enemy. And courtesy of all his practice, his physical form disintegrated into a scatter of molecules and he shot forward, passing the lesser.
He re-formed in front of the enemy, his boots planted, his knife up and his chain down, ready to party.
The slayer did what it could to slow its roll, arms pinwheeling, shoes slapping at the snow and skidding as it tried to stop on ice. Momentum was not its friend. Unlike some of the scrawny new recruits, this one had a football player’s thick neck and barrel chest, and all that body weight was a boulder bouncing down the side of a mountain, all keep-going instead of back-that-ass-up.
As he had been trained to do, Boone’s peripheral vision imprinted the alley’s contours and possible cover opportunities. His brain also did a lightning-quick assessment of threat potential, cataloguing fire escapes, rooflines, doorways, and windows, all of his instincts feeding information into the calculation of his own safety. On the physical side, his body braced for contact.
And the length of chain began to swing.
Boone wasn’t aware of giving his hand and arm that particular command, but things had started happening like that in the field over the past month. According to the Black Dagger Brother Vishous, there were four levels of skill development: unconsciously unskilled, which meant you didn’t know how much you didn’t know and couldn’t do; consciously unskilled, which was when you began to be aware of how much you needed to develop; consciously skilled, which was the level at which you started to use what you’ve trained yourself to do; and, finally, unconsciously skilled.
Which was what happened when your body moved without your brain having to micromanage every molecule of the attack. When your training formed a basis of action so intrinsic to who you were and what you did in a given situation that you were unaware of any cognition occurring. When you entered “the Zone,” as the Brother Rhage called it.
Boone was in that sweet spot now.
The whirring sound of the chain links circling beside him was soft yet menacing, like the easy breathing of a great beast—and Boone knew the second the slayer was going to move because one of its shoulders lifted and its hips angled ever so slightly.
The knife the lesser had tucked in its hand came flying out at Boone end over end—proof that Boone’s subconscious hadn’t considered quite everything. But his reflexes were on it, jerking his torso to one side, the surge of aggressive energy flowing through him so acute, so pleasurable, it was almost sexual.
His counterattack started with the chain. Licking the links out, he sent them around the slayer’s neck, a snake of metal with a tail that swung wide and doubled up on itself. With a tight loop locked in, he yanked with his full body.
The slayer pitched forward into the snow face-first.
And that was when Boone lifted his own hunting blade over his shoulder.
Pyre’s Revyval Club
33rd and Market Streets
A vampire among humans pretending to be vampires.
And he was not the only one.
Among the two hundred or so bodies churning, churning, in the dim, laser-pierced cave of an old shirt factory, there were only four or five who were true biological specimens as opposed to made-up characters of a deluded mythology. But unlike the costumed and masked men and women who were desperate to appear as something other than they were, the male and his kind did not announce their DNA status in any fashion. They were just among the others, blending in, observing… at times participating.
The male was head and shoulders taller than the men who black-cape’d around the open belly of the abandoned building, and with the power he had in his body and the razor-sharp fangs that could drop down out of his upper jaw, he was never without violent means. Conventional weapons notwithstanding.
As he stood off to the side, he was aware that he was looking through his dark sunglasses with purpose, and that exhausted him. He was tired of his other side. But if he could not exercise his talhman, his evil, even a little bit, then coming here was a waste of time. Like dangling meat just outside the iron bars of a monster’s cage.
And that was the point. He needed to be sure he still had control of himself. There was a long time when he had not been able to rein himself in, and a long time when the consequences of his poor impulse control had not mattered. Things had changed, however.
He was in the New World now.
He was aligned with the King now.
So he tested himself here. Because if he were to snap? If the reins on his monster slipped free the grip of his mind and… things… occurred? Then, in this club, it was only humans or random vampires at risk. Who cared if a couple of them caught the brunt of his bad side. What was more important was the self-knowledge that he could be among these easy targets and resist the thoughts that plagued him. Be stronger of mind rather than temptation. Curb the hunger to kill.
And if he wasn’t able to stay in his lane? Well, sometimes pressure had to be released in one place so the rest of the whole could continue in relative peace. And again, having a problem here was better than anywhere else in Caldwell—
Over to the right, the crowd was thickening up, sure as if the bodies were cells and a tumor was spontaneously sprouting amongst otherwise healthy tissue. It was some kind of argument, the dim light and the black costumes and the pushing and shoving making it impossible to tell who the aggressor was, what the tussle was about, whether punches were being thrown or if it was just another case of humans posturing in front of a peanut gallery.
At least that was the information his brain registered. His talhman, on the other hand, was aroused by the physical expression of anger, tantalized by the possibility of blood welling and dripping from wounds, kindled by the prospect of stalking and taking down prey.
“Not for us,” the male muttered.
Reaching up, he pulled the black skull cap he had on lower. The action was reflexive, and it was only afterward that he recognized what he’d done.
He was preparing to go in. Get something. And he didn’t want his identity known.
As it turned out, his testing field found him.
From the chaotic knot of humans, a female broke free, and his first thought, as he recognized her as one of his own species, was what the hell was she doing getting involved with a bunch of rats without tails? But then nothing about her mattered at the same time all parts of her became significant.
She seemed harried as she looked around, her black hair tangled in the mask that covered her eyes and half of her face, her lipstick smudged, her bodice asymmetrical, one breast about to pop out.
The discordant scatter of her aura instantly changed as their eyes met. Her body, lost on its feet, caught itself, becoming still. Her breathing stopped and then resumed at a calmer pace. Her hands readjusted the bustier into proper position.
He was willing to bet her thoughts did the same beneath her skull, her cognition righting itself.
And focusing on him.
Leaving the melee she’d come out of in the dust, she strode up to him, kicking her bouncy hair over her shoulder, tilting her chin high.
Whether that was so she could meet his eyes from her lower height or as a show of independence and aggression, he couldn’t tell. And didn’t actually care.
“I am Nightingale,” she announced.
Like that is supposed to mean something to me? he thought.
By way of responding, he let his eyes travel the curves of her body from behind his dark lenses. That black hair was long, so very long, cascading over her shoulders and falling down to her hips, a river of spiral curls that caught and held the flashing blue in the lasers. That black bustier of hers trimmed her waist and pushed up her breasts, creating creamy globes that she had powdered with something shimmery. Her lips were blood red… her throat pale and lovely.
“What’s your name,” she said on a drawl.
The male drew in through his nose, scenting her. She was turned on, her sexual stimulation obvious and directed at him, an equation she wanted him to solve, a distance she had decided he would carry her, a fantasy she had chosen him to satisfy.
His blood surged. And underneath his own arousal, his talhman prowled. If she knew what he was really like, she would not have picked him out of the crowd. But that was the danger and the excitement of what places like this offered, wasn’t it: anonymous sex with strangers who you could wallpaper with your own fantasies, each side fulfilling needs that might or might not have been expressed outright, the reality that you didn’t know what you were really getting lending an edge to it all.
An edge that patched over the lack of true attraction, a tarp of make-believe to cover the holes left by the shingles that had blown off the roof of reality.
Vengeance, he decided. As he measured the hellfire in her eyes, and the way she glared back at the crowd like someone in the club had gotten into her face, he was willing to bet she was in search of some hot and heavy in retaliation for an offense.
Talk about burning off steam.
The male extended his hand and placed the tip of his forefinger on the soft spot between her collarbones, that divot in her flesh that was undefended by her skeletal makeup, that vulnerable, soft eyelet of her throat. When he pressed in, restricting her airflow just a little, she gasped.
And then moaned like she had a delicious ache between her legs.
The male pressed in again, harder this time… so that he felt her throat work against the compression.
The struggle was what fully hardened him, his erection thickening behind his button fly.
The male knew what was going to happen next. They would find a darkened corner or perhaps stay here in the crush of masked people. His hands would round her waist and sink onto her ass. He would pull her in close and roll his hips so his arousal brushed against her—given her much shorter height, it would be just under those pushed-up breasts.
She would shiver and offer herself, limp and willing and open, to him.
He would tremble because of the talhman, but she would assume it was on account of his arousal.
And when he got up under that long skirt, his thick, hard sex pushing deep into her, she would come, and in that little death, as the French called it, she would never know how close she was to her actual demise.
He would not climax.
He never did.
And provided his self-control held, she would never know how wrong she was to choose him. If he failed to control himself, however? Well, she was going to learn an important lesson—only once, of course. Because the dead not only had no tales to tell, there was no more education for them, either.
“Tell me what your name is,” she breathed.
The syllables vibrated against the pad of his finger, and his heated blood, his killing instinct, amplified the vision of her in her mask until he could see each individual hair on her head and every pump of her jugular vein.
The male focused on her lips.
Slipping his enormous palm around to the nape of her neck, he pulled her headfirst into him, her body following like water poured from a vase. But he did not kiss her. Even as she dropped her head back against his hold and leaned her lower body into his own, prepared to accept his mouth on hers, he stopped before contact was made.
With his free hand, he drew her wrist up. Maintaining eye contact with her, he hissed and bared his fangs.
The nick he gave her was a small one, but it was in the right place, blood welling up and running down the pale, soft skin of her inner arm.
Her breasts pumped in that tight bustier, that shimmery powder catching the light. “Now what will you do?” she breathed.
Shifting his grip on her hand, he extended his tongue and ran it up the flow he had created, lapping what had escaped her vein, swallowing the dark wine. Her taste was acceptable, not that his standards were high, so when he reached the knife-like incision he had made, he closed a warm seal around it with his mouth.
He knew exactly when she orgasmed. Her eyes squeezed shut and she bit down on her lower lip, her hard, white canines making the soft, red-painted flesh plump in submission. Her hips pressed into him and then rotated, and he imagined the sweet stinging pulses that gripped her core were more tantalizing than satisfying.
“Take me downstairs,” she groaned.
So private down there on the subterranean level. No prying eyes. Little foot traffic, and what passersby there might be would be drugged out and disinterested in anything other than themselves.
A bigger challenge.
The male picked her up, splitting her thighs around his torso, her breasts pushing against his chest. He carried her off using one arm. She didn’t weigh much.
The female didn’t bother looking at the crowd as they departed. He was the only thing on her mind now.
The way down to the lower level was easily located, and as he headed through the crowd in that direction, she nuzzled into his neck and worked her core against his torso. When he got to the steel door marked “EXIT,” he yanked it open. The stairwell was concrete and smelled of alkaline dirt and cold mold, and the temperature dropped precipitously as they got away from the radiating bodies and whatever heat system was in force in the open area.
“What’s your name?” the female said into his ear.
Down, down, down, the echoes of his heavy boots and heavier body rebounding around. At the bottom landing, he unlatched the steel door with his mind, his will opening the thing wide. The corridor beyond was strobed with old ceiling lights that flickered in their rusty, decrepit mounts, the dull illumination seizuring from above, making shadows dance in an evil waltz. The scents in the frigid, stale air suggested many others had used the corridor for the same purpose the female intended—
The male’s talhman stretched its clawed will under his skin, fresh aggression blooming throughout his body and making him wonder whether his control on this night might not fail him—
The blackout, when it came, only announced itself with its departure, the world returning unto the male in a rush of sensation, his lapse of awareness having stolen everything from him: eyesight, hearing, touch, and taste.
But he was still with the female—and she was alive.
He had pushed her up against an inset doorway, and his hands were trying to find a way under her skirt—
Well, one of them was. The other was feeling around for the latch to open the door.
From past experience, he knew that behind each of the many old wooden portals there were storage areas filled with discarded manufacturing equipment, decaying wooden crates, and colonies of rats that made homes out of the dank, dark caves.
Inside… he could do even more to her.
As the thought occurred to him, he wasn’t sure which part of him was talking. The sexual drive… or the monster. They were not one and the same, but at times, he had found it difficult to know the difference.
“Your name,” she demanded as she rubbed herself against him. “What is your name…”
“Syn,” he growled into her throat. “I am Syn.”