Why didn’t anyone understand that writing program code was like creating art? You couldn’t rush it. Letting out a slow breath, Cassidy Long rushed from the office building anxious to get home and de-stress. It had been a long day, and her third late night in a row. Dead leaves danced with trash in a mini dirt he empty parking spaces, twirling around her feet. Abruptly, one of the parking lot lights stuttered and winked out with a hiss, throwing the area beneath it into inky darkness.
The breeze carried the tang of sulfur, the slightest whiff of rotten eggs.
Goose-bumps rose on her arms as an icy shiver ran up her spine.
The chill had nothing to do with the early Spring temperature.
Something moved at the edge of the light.
Her pulse quickening, Cassidy dug her cell phone from the depths of her purse and speed-dialed her roommate.
A deep growl rumbled across the asphalt like low earthquake. Cassidy spun around. Less than twenty feet away, next to one of the light poles, a huge animal emerged from the dark. With a snap-hiss, the lamp above it fizzled, sparked, and went out with a blue flash.
In the brief flare before the darkness closed in, Cassidy caught a glimpse of the beast. Huge shoulders rolled with each prowling step, moving unlike any dog she’d ever seen. Its elongated head was covered in matte black or dark grey scales flowing back onto a thick neck. Long muscular legs tensed as it brought its head down revealing a thick whip of a tail swaying back and forth as it curled up over its back. The yellow glow of the parking lights faded the closer it got to the darkness surrounding the creatures, as if afraid to touch it.
It was an honest to God monster, complete with dagger-sharp claws digging into the asphalt, and gaping jaws filled with shark-like teeth.
Cassidy opened her mouth to scream, but nothing came out. It was late, and she was alone. Normally she was a dynamo in the face of stress or even mild danger, but this was death staring back at her. Every muscle in her body seized, shutting down in panic. The phone slid from her fingers.
The beast’s ears swiveled toward the sound of plastic skittering across the ground. With a snort, it charged.
A jolt of energy slammed into Cassidy as if an outside force had slapped her awake. Regaining control of her body, she threw herself to the side across the rough pavement, allowing the creature to sail past her and slam into the car.
Rolling, she searched wildly for the phone, and caught a glimpse of the damage to her car—the little blue Hyundai looked like it had gone one-on-one with a bull dozer.
Hoping the phone was nearby, and connected, she screamed, “Tempe! Call 911!”
With a growl sounding like rumbling laughter, the creature swung its huge head in Cassidy’s direction and took one prowling step toward her, and then another, as though it hadn’t just pulverized a car.
Pulling her purse toward her, Cassidy dug out the handgun Tempe made her get for protection. Cassidy hated the thing, but found comfort in its weight.
Two shots rang out before she realized she’d squeezed the trigger. She kept firing well after thundering booms were replaced with teasing clicks.
Even though she’d hit her target at least twice, the beast hadn’t flinched. Gulping for air, Cassidy scrambled backward, turned, and pulled her feet under her standing with a wobble. Just as she gained her footing, pain exploded through her left side.
The blow twisted her around, throwing her back to the asphalt. A chuff of hot, rancid breath washed over her face.
Saying a prayer, she braced for the death blow.
Several heartbeats passed before Cassidy realized she was still alive. She tried to move but her body filled with a flood of The cool Nevada evening air turned cold as it seeped through her sweater and blouse. Her left side burned. Feverish heat raced through her blood. Her bones turned to ice.
Forcing her eyes open, Cassidy found a different beast standing over her; tall, with black wings spread out behind it. Light glowed from its eyes—two pits of hell fire blazing in the darkness.
With a whimper, Cassidy squeezed her eyes shut. A touch on her wounded arm shocked her into opening them. This time there was a man hunched over her. Now she was sure she’d died. The man was beautiful in a dark and dangerous way with his chiseled features; kissable lips, shoulder length hair so black it was indigo blue, and long, dark eyelashes framing his glowing eyes.
Cassidy felt something warm and wet touch her lips. At first she refused to open her mouth, but the intoxicating scent of cinnamon and cloves woke a strange desire in her. Made her body tingle.
After a few sips, Cassidy’s pain faded and warmth spread through her chilled limbs. Another jolt of energy, like the one that had forced her out of her fear-paralysis, sizzled through her body. This time she couldn’t hold on to the strength it provided and let herself drift.
In the closing darkness she heard a gruff voice shout, “We’re losing her!”
Rail dropped his leather duster off to the side and ripped off his black tee. Taking great care of the jagged flesh, he gently wrapped the fabric around the woman’s wounded arm. There wasn’t much else he could do here. He’d already given her some of his blood to stop the toxins from the skratars claws, but it would take time and it didn’t work on everyone. Thankfully they’d gotten to her early so she had a better chance than most.
She had to live.
The resonance marking her as a soul-keeper rang through his bones.
After shrugging back into his coat, Rail lifted and cradled her to his chest.
His commander, Kaz, approached with a grimace marring his face. Nodding to Rail, he picked up the discarded purse and gun lying next to the pool of blood. “How is she?”
“We need to go, now.” Rail looked around for the other member of their team, Boomer. “I’m not sure she’s going to make it through the night.”
In the distance, sirens wailed.
Kaz shouted, “Yo! Boomer! Police are on the way. Destroy the demons’ body and do a quick clean up. Find the girl’s cell phone and as many bullets and casings as you can.”
“Duh.” Boomer strode out of the darkness, a broadsword balanced over one shoulder and a length of red licorice hanging from his mouth like a cigarette. “You want me to beat out the dents and detail the interior,” he asked, sarcastically nodding toward the wreaked car as he chewed.
Ignoring the attitude, Kaz waved Boomer s’ comment off. “Do what you can. Sorry, you’ll have to find another way back.”
“No prob’. You see to the girl,” Boomer rumbled with a shrug.
Rail gasped as Kaz grabbed his arm drawing energy from him without warning. The air in front of them grew heavy, almost solid, and turned into a silver light expanding toward them.
Rail grunted and tucked the fragile form in his arms closer to his chest, preparing himself for the jump when the light turned into a glowing ball.
“We’ll go to the base camp to get her stabilized,” Kaz called over his shoulder to Boomer while he pushed Rail into the light and vanished.
Boomer cursed softly in their wake, then shrugged. He’d make the best of his walk back to base camp.
After finishing the cleanup, he could do a little solo hunting.
Cassidy opened her eyes, blinked a few times, and then opened them wider. The dim blue overhead light cast strange shadows around the contents of the room. Cabinets and counters lined the walls, a stool and rolling table in the corner, and what looked to be an old x-ray viewer hanging cock-eyed above the stool. On her right was a bank of monitors each cheerfully, but softly, beeping to the rhythm of her heart and breathing. Next to them was an IV stand. Cassidy followed the long tube from the IV bag to her right hand. There was a slight smell of decay under the bleach. Obviously she was in some sort of medical facility, but not like any she’d been in.
Taking another look around, Cassidy realized there wasn’t a phone or the standard call button to reach a nurse or attendant.
“Hello?” Her voice rasped like falling gravel echoing off the walls. Carefully, she to sit up. The pain in her left side stole her breath. Sucking in air through gritted teeth she made a second attempted. Once upright, Cassidy had a better look at the bandages wrapped around her left arm. They were spotted with red stains.
In that moment she noticed the quite. The stillness had an energy that made her skin itch.
A sudden urge to run filled her chest with cold fear.
Steeling herself, Cassidy pulled off the tape holding the IV in place. A surge of pain raced down her wounded arm. Once the light-headedness cleared, she pulled the IV from her hand with a hiss. Stars blinked on and off in front of her eyes, followed by a wave of nausea. The room tilted sideways.
Cassidy breathed through it until she felt somewhat settled and then slipped from the bed. The chill from the floor tiles helped chase the fog from her brain.
The next hurdle was the monitors. The finger sensor wasn’t a problem, but there were three other sensors—two on her chest and one on her back. It took a bit of work to reach the last one with only her right hand. After a few minutes it dropped to the bed. The monitor alarms went off, screaming in anger at her attempt to escape.
“Damn it.” Stumbling toward the door, Cassidy began to rethink her options. She was hardly in any condition to go traipsing around some unknown medical facility. What the hell kind of place is this? She thought Stories of secret military installations flitted around in her head. She hesitated for a moment and tried the door. It wasn’t locked.
With a small prayer to the Universe, she cautiously pulled the door open. There was no doubt now, she was not in a hospital of any sort. In fact she wasn’t even sure what kind of building she was in—other than condemned.
Once in the hall, freedom was all she could think about.
With no real idea of direction, she made her way down the dimly lit corridor as quickly as possible using the wall for support. When something pricked her, Cassidy pulled her hand away to find her palm and fingers covered in rust and paint flecks. Staring again at the wall, she couldn’t fathom what kind of place would be made of metal. Using the wall on the right as a guide, she kept moving, stumbling down corridor after corridor. Each step sapped her strength. Growing more and more unsteady, Cassidy caught her foot on a piece of debris and abruptly found herself on the cold metal floor with little strength to get back up.
It was only then she realized the distant pounding she’d been hearing was not her thundering heart threatening to explode from her chest, but the foot falls of heavy boots.
The floor vibrated, marking each step.
Her first instinct was to hide, but her options were nonexistent. She was trapped and too weak to fight. Desperately, Cassidy pulled herself into a corner and dragged a large flattened cardboard box over her body. Maybe they would overlook the trash, allowing her find an exit after a quick rest. Her efforts were a waste of energy. Beneath the edge of the cardboard, a pair of boots stopped directly in front of her.
The makeshift shield vanished in a gust a air.
“Are you trying to kill yourself?”
Feigning bravery, Cassidy let out a slow breath and glared up at the owner of the boots. He looked like the same man she’d imagined standing over her after the attack. Only this time anger clouded his beautiful features instead of concern. Before Cassidy could respond, another equally large man approached. He pushed the first man out of the way and made a grab for her. “Damn it, I told you we should have restrained her.”
The first man pushed the intruder back and growled. “Back off, Boomer.”
“What the fuck, Rail?”
With her two captors distracted glaring at each other, Cassidy squeezed herself in to a small ball while looking for a way to escape. The sound of fists connecting with flesh and bones snapping brought her attention back to the men.
No, not men. Not any longer.
Before her, two pairs of blue-black bat-like wings slammed into the corridor walls and ceiling, stirring up dust and
She couldn’t see their faces clearly around the wings, but occasionally Cassidy caught glimpses of a clawed hand. And if she wasn’t mistaken, the one called Rail had darkened from sun-kissed gold to dark chocolate.
“Break it up!” A third man entered the corridor and tore the combatants apart as though separating a couple of squabbling children. “Get yourself under control, Rail. You’re scaring your Aktura.”
The aggression visibly slid from Rails body when he turned.
Cassidy looked up and didn’t know whether to scream or beg for her life.
Not only had he sprouted wings and his skin had grown darker, but now two ivory horns grew from his temples, wrapping around his head like a halo. And his eyes—his eyes burned like the very pits of hell; made even more surrealistic by his hair floatingabout him as though he stood in a static electric field.
The fire in his eyes brought an image of a monster to her mind. A second monster she’d seen just after the attack.
As Cassidy watched, he relaxed and rippled back into the form of the beautiful man with no more than a soft grunt.
It was all too much for her brain to handle.
Feeling as though she’d been dropped from a thousand feet up, Cassidy let go of consciousness and welcomed oblivion.
“Great, she’s passed out,” mumbled Boomer, giving himself a shake like a big dog as he returned to his human form and stepped behind Kaz.
“This is your fault,” Rail snapped. “If you hadn’t provoked me—”
“We wouldn’t have known for certain she was your soul-keeper,” Kaz finished. “I’m sure you can feel the connection now.”
“We all felt the resonance. That doesn’t mean . . . ” Rail looked at him eyes wide “No.” Holding his hands up as if to protect himself from what he knew the other man was going to say, he stepped back. “No. It can’t be. She’s not my Aktura.”
“The way you reacted just now, there’s no denying it.”
“No. I mean, she’s too young,” Rail foundered for an excuse. Any excuse. She couldn’t be his.
Kaz shrugged and ran a hand over his cropped hair. “She looks to be in her twenties. That’s about right. Didn’t you feel the loss of your last Aktura about what, twenty-six, twenty-seven years ago? Check her ID.”
“Good Lord.” Boomer covered his mouth to hide his grin. “I hope you’re as happy as me and Gina, but with your luck, you’ll end up barely tolerating each other like Kaz and Seraphina.”
Rail took a swing at the other man. Kaz blocked him as Boomer danced back. With a snicker, he bowed, gave a single finger salute, and walked off.
“Take care of your Aktura, Rail. We’ll discuss this after she’s settled.” Shaking his head, Kaz followed after Boomer. “And this time, lock the door!”
Rail looked at the woman in stunned silence, fascinated by every eye flutter, breath, and movement she made. After all these millennia, he’d found his Aktura—the keeper of his immortal soul.
He should be thrilled beyond reason, yet instead he felt an old fear rearing its ugly head; a fear having nothing to do with how the woman might react when she discovered what she was being forced into. A fear he tamped down and forced to the back of his mind. Right now he had to focus on keeping his soul-keeper alive.