Kiss of Crimson (Chapter One)
"Tell me," he murmured against the warm skin, his voice a low growl amid the heaving beat of the club 's music, "are you a good witch or a bad witch?"
The female squirmed in his lap, her fishnet-clad legs straddling him, black lace-up bustier pushing her breasts up under his chin like a buffet. She twirled her finger in her bright fuchsia wig, then let it trail down suggestively, past a Celtic cross tattoo and into her swelling cleavage. "Oh, I'm a very, very bad witch."
Dante grunted. "My favorite."
He smiled into her drunken gaze, not bothering to hide his fangs. He was one of many vampires in the Boston dance club that Halloween night, although most of them were pretenders. Humans sporting plastic teeth, fake blood, and various ridiculous costumery. A few others–himself and a handful of males from one of the vampire nation's Darkhaven sanctuaries, hanging out near the dance floor–were the genuine article.
Dante and the others were Breed, a far cry from the pale, gothic vampires of human folklore. Neither undead nor devil-spawned, Dante's kind were a hot-blooded hybrid mix of Homo sapiens and deadly other-worlder. The Breeds' forebears, a band of alien conquerors who crash-landed on Earth millennia past and who were now long-since extinct, had bred with human females and given their offspring the thirst–the primal need–for blood.
Those alien genes had given the Breed great strengths and shattering weaknesses too. Only the human side of the Breed, those qualities passed down by their mortal mothers, kept the race civilized and adhering to any kind of Order. Even then, a few of the Breed would succumb to their savage side and turn Rogue, a one-way street paved in blood and madness.
Dante despised that element of his kind, and as one of the warrior class, it was his duty to eradicate his Rogue brethren wherever he found them. As a male who enjoyed his pleasures, Dante wasn't sure what he preferred more: a warm, juicy female vein under his mouth, or the feel of titanium-edged steel in his hand as he sliced into his enemies and dispatched them to dust in the street.
"Can I touch them?" The pink-haired witch on his lap was staring at Dante's mouth with rapt fascination. "Dang, but those fangs look wicked real! I just have to feel them."
"Be careful," he warned as she brought her fingers to his lips. "I bite." "Yeah?" She giggled, gaze widening. "I'll bet you do, sugar."
Dante sucked her finger into his mouth, contemplating the fastest way he could get the female horizontal. He needed to feed, but he was never opposed to a little sex in the process–prelude or chaser, didn't matter. It was all good as far as he was concerned.
Chaser, he decided on impulse, letting his fangs puncture the fleshy tip of her finger as she started to withdraw it. She gasped as he suckled from the small wound, refusing to let her leave him just yet. The small taste of blood inflamed him, sharpening his pupils to vertical slits in the middle of his gold-hued eyes. Hot need rushed through him, settling into the swelling bulge of his cock, which strained beneath the black leather of his pants.
The female moaned, closing her eyes as she arched catlike on his lap. Dante let go of her finger as he wrapped his hand around the back of her head and pulled her neck closer to him. Taking a Host in a public place wasn't exactly his style, but he was bored out of his skull and needed the persion. Besides, he doubted anyone would notice tonight, when the club was rife with faux danger and open sensuality. As for the female on his lap, she would feel only pleasure as he took what he needed from her. Afterward, she'd remember none of it, her memory scrubbed of all recollection of him.
Dante came forward, tipping the female's head aside, mouth watering in hunger. He glanced past her and saw two Darkhaven vampires, part of the general Breed population, observing him from a few yards away. They looked like kids–current generation, no doubt. They whispered among themselves, clearly recognizing him as one of the warrior class and trying to decide whether or not to approach him.
Bugger off, Dante thought in their direction as he parted his lips and prepared to open his Host's vein.
But the vampire youths ignored his dark glare. The taller of the two, a blond male in desert camo pants, biker boots, and a black tee-shirt led the way. His companion, tricked out in baggy jeans, high-tops, and an oversize Lakers jersey, strutted along behind him.
"Shit." Dante didn't mind a small bit of indiscretion, but he sure as hell didn't need an up-close audience gawking at him while he fed.
"What's wrong?" his would-be Host whined when Dante pulled away from her.
"Nothing, sweetheart." He placed his palm against her forehead, wiping the past half hour from her mind. "Go on now and join your friends."
She obediently got up from his lap and walked away, fading into the press of bodies on the dance floor. The two Darkhaven vampires gave her only a passing look as they approached Dante's table.
"What's up, fellas." Dante tossed the greeting out with zero interest in chitchat.
"Hey." Blondie in fatigues nodded, striking a pose with his muscled arms crossed over his chest. Not a single visible dermaglyph on that young skin. Definitely current-generation Breed. Probably not even out of his twenties yet. "Sorry to interrupt, but we had to tell you, man–that was some kick-ass business you guys dealt the Rogues a few months ago. Everyone's still talking about the way the Order took out an entire colony of suckheads in one night. Blew that mofo sky-high. Freakin' awesome, man."
"Yeah," added his homeboy companion. "So, we was wonderin'… I mean, we heard the Order is looking for new recruits."
"Did you, now?" Dante leaned back in his seat and exhaled a bored sigh. This was hardly the first time he'd been approached by Darkhaven vampires hoping to join up with the warriors. Since the raid on the Rogue lair housed in the old asylum that past summer, the once secretive cadre of Breed warriors had gained a lot of unwanted notoriety. Celebrity, even.
Frankly, it was annoying as hell.
Dante kicked his chair back from the table and stood.
"I'm not the guy to talk to about that," he told the hopefuls. "And anyway, recruitment into the Order is by invite only. Sorry."
He strode away from them, relieved to feel the vibration of his cell phone going off in his jacket pocket. He dug out the device and clicked on to the incoming call from the Breed compound.
"How's it going?" It was Gideon, resident genius of the warrior class. "Any topside activity to report?"
"Not much. Things are pretty dead out here right now." Dante scanned the crowded club, noting that the two vampires had decided to move on. They were heading for the exit, taking a couple of costumed human females with them. "No Rogues in the vicinity at all so far. And doesn't that just suck ass? I'm itching for some action here, Gid."
"Well, try to cheer up," Gideon said, a grin in his voice. "The night's still young."
Dante chuckled. "Tell Lucan I spared him from another couple of wannabes looking to sign on. You know, I liked things a hell of a lot better when we were feared more than revered. Is he making any progress on the recruiting, or is our boy too caught up with that gorgeous Breedmate of his?"
"Yes to both," Gideon replied. "As to the recruiting, we've got a candidate coming in soon from New York, and Nikolai's got feelers out to some of his contacts in Detroit. We'll have to arrange some trial runs for the newbies–you know, take them through the paces before we commit."
"You mean, hand them their asses on a platter and see which ones come back looking for more?"
"Is there any other way?"
"Count me in," Dante drawled as he moved through the club toward the door.
He strolled out into the night, avoiding a group of human clubbers dressed like zombies in tattered clothes and death-warmed-over face paint. His acute hearing picked up hundreds of sounds–from general traffic noise to the shrieks and laughter of drunken Halloween partygoers clogging the streets and sidewalks.
He heard something else too.
Something that raised the hackles on his warrior senses to high alert.
"Gotta go," he told Gideon on the other end of the line. "I'm homing in on a suckhead. Guess the night 's not a total waste, after all."
"Check back in after you smoke him."
"Right. Later." Dante clicked off the call and pocketed the cell phone. He stole down a side alley, following the low grunt and stale, wafting stench of a prowling Rogue vampire as it stalked its prey. Like the other warriors of the Order, Dante had a deep contempt for members of the Breed who'd gone Rogue. Every vampire thirsted, every vampire had to feed– sometimes kill–in order to survive. But each and every one of them also knew that the line between necessity and gluttony was thin, just a few meager ounces of blood. If a vampire consumed too much, or fed his need too frequently, he ran the risk of addiction, of entering a permanent state of hunger known as Bloodlust. Lost to the disease, he would turn Rogue, becoming a violent junkie who would do anything for his next fix.
The savagery and indiscretion of the Rogues jeopardized all of the Breed to exposure to the human race, a threat that Dante and the rest of the Order would not abide. And there was a larger threat blooming as well: As of a few months ago, it had become apparent that the Rogues were organizing, their numbers increasing, tactics becoming orchestrated toward a goal that seemed nothing short of war. If they weren't stopped, and stopped soon, both humankind and Breed alike could find themselves at the center of a hellish, blood-soaked battle to rival even the worst Armageddon scenario.
For now, while the Order focused on locating the Rogues' new command post, the warriors' mission was simple. Hunt down and eliminate every Rogue possible. Exterminate them like the diseased vermin they were. It was a charge Dante relished, never more at home than when he was on the move, prowling the streets with weapons in hand, looking for a fight. It kept him alive, he was certain; even more, it kept the darkest of his demons at bay.
Dante rounded a corner, then crept into another narrow lane between a couple of old brick buildings. He heard a female scream somewhere ahead of him in the dark. Kicking it into high gear, he sped toward the sound.
And got there hardly a second too soon.
The Rogue had been stalking the two Darkhaven vampires and their female companions. It looked young, tricked out in basic goth garb beneath a long black trench coat. But young or not, it was big and it was strong, fierce with hunger. One of the women was held in a death grip, the Bloodlusting vampire already latched on to her throat while the would-be warriors stood by, shell-shocked and frozen.
Dante pulled a dagger from a sheath on his hip and let it fly. The blade struck hard, embedding between the Rogue's shoulders. The weapon was specially crafted of steel and titanium, the latter metal being extremely poisonous to the corrupted blood systems and organs of the Rogues. One kiss of that deadly blade and a Rogue vampire would start cooking from the inside out at record speed.
Except this one didn't.
It flung a savage look at Dante, its eyes glowing amber, fangs bloody as it hissed a vicious warning. But the Rogue weathered the dagger's assault, holding fast to its prey and swinging its head around to drink with even greater urgency.
What the hell?
Dante ran up on the feeding vampire with another blade in hand. He didn't waste a second, going for the neck this time, intending to cut it clean through. The blade sank in, slicing deep. But the suckhead spun out of the attack before Dante could finish it off. With a pained roar, it dropped the female and focused all of its fury on Dante.
"Get the humans out of here!" Dante shouted to the Darkhaven vampires as he yanked the woman out of the fray and shoved her toward the others. "Move it, now! Clean her up, scrub both their memories, and get them the fuck out of here!"
The two young males jolted into action. They grabbed the shrieking women and pulled them away from the scene while Dante considered the strangeness of what he'd just witnessed.
The vampire didn't disintegrate as it should have from the double dose of titanium Dante had delivered. It wasn't a Rogue, even though it had been hunting prey and feeding like the worst blood addict.
Dante stared into the transformed face, the extruded fangs and elliptical pupils swimming in irises awash in fiery color. A foul-smelling pink spittle crusted around the vampire's mouth, turning Dante's stomach with its stench.
Offended, he backed off, guessing the vampire to be about the same age as the two Darkhaven youths. A frigging kid. Ignoring the pulsing gash in its neck, the vampire reached back and removed Dante's dagger from its shoulder. It growled, nostrils flaring as though it would spring at any moment.
But then it ran.
The suckhead bolted away at a fast clip, the hem of its trench coat flapping behind like a sail as it headed deeper into the city on a zigzagging path. Dante didn't let up for a second. He followed it down one street after another, through alleyways and neighborhoods, then farther out, into the dockyards outside Boston proper, where empty factories and old industrial parks stood like bleak sentinels along the riverfront. The low throb of music pounded from one of the buildings, the heavy bass and intermittent flashes of strobe lights no doubt coming from a rave taking place somewhere nearby.
Ahead of him a few hundred feet, the vampire sped down a dock toward a rickety boathouse. Dead end. Spitting fury through its open jaws, the suckhead swung around and went on the offensive, roaring up on Dante like a lunatic. Fresh blood soaked the front of its clothing from the brutal assault on the human female. The vampire snapped and clawed at him, its large fangs dripping saliva, the gaping maw oozing more of the foul-smelling pinkish foam. Its amber eyes glowed with pure malice.
Dante felt the change come over him as well, battle rage coursing through him, transforming him into a creature not so different from the one he fought. With a snarl, he threw the suckhead down onto the wood planks of the dock. One knee planted in the barrel chest of his opponent, Dante drew his twin malebranche blades. The arced weapons gleamed in the moonlight, lethally beautiful. Even if the titanium proved useless, there was more than one way to kill a vampire, Rogue or not. Dante brought the blades down, first one, then the other, slashing deep into the fleshy throat of the crazed vampire and cleanly severing its head.
Dante kicked the remains off the dock and into the water. The dark river would conceal the corpse until morning, then the UV rays of daylight would take care of the rest.
A wind kicked up off the water, carrying the stench of industrial pollution and something… else. Dante heard movement nearby, but it wasn't until he felt the burn of tearing flesh in his leg that he realized he was under a further attack. He took another piercing hit, this one in his torso.
From somewhere behind him, up near the old factory, someone was firing on him. The gun's report was silenced but unmistakably that of an automatic rifle.
His dull night was suddenly getting more interesting than he liked. Dante dropped to the ground as another shot whizzed past him and into the river. He rolled, going for the cover of the boathouse as the sniper let another few rounds fly. One shot bit into the corner of the shingled structure, shattering the old wood like confetti. Dante had a handgun on him, a hefty 9mm backup for the blades he preferred to take into combat. He drew the piece now but knew it would be all but useless against the sniper at this range.
More rounds peppered the boathouse, one of them grazing Dante's cheek as he peered around to get a sight on his attacker.
Oh, not good.
Four dark shapes were moving down the sloping embankment from the area of the factory, all of them carrying serious hardware. While Breed vampires could live for hundreds of years and withstand severe physical injuries, they were still essentially flesh and bone. Pump enough lead into them, sever major arteries–or worse, their head–and they died, same as any other living being.
But not without one hell of a fight.
Dante kept low and waited for the newcomers to come into range. When they did, he opened fire on them, taking out a knee of one and planting a slug into the head of another. He was oddly relieved to see that they were Rogues, the titanium in the custom-crafted rounds dropping them instantly and sending them into swift cellular meltdown.
The remaining Rogues fired back, and Dante narrowly avoided the spray, moving farther back along the side of the boathouse. Damn. Taking cover meant sacrificing the position of offense. Not to mention the fact that it impeded his ability to track his enemies' approach. He heard them coming closer as he reloaded a new clip into the pistol.
He waited for a second, gauging his surroundings.
Something bigger than a bullet flew through the air toward the boathouse. It clattered heavily onto the planks of the dock and rolled to a stop.
They'd lobbed a frigging grenade at him.
Dante sucked in a breath and flung himself into the river a mere instant before the thing blew, tossing the boathouse and half the dock into the air with a giant explosion of smoke, flame, and shrapnel. The percussion was like a sonic boom under the murky water. Dante felt his head snap back, his entire body racked with unbearable pressure. Above him, debris rained down onto the surface of the river, backlit by a blinding spray of orange fire.
His vision clouded as the concussion dragged him under. He started sinking, drifting with the strong pull of the current.
Unable to move as the river swept him, unconscious and bleeding, downstream.