…..Ketha woke in the middle of a dozen Vamps. Iron burned her skin where manacles circled her ankles and wrists. If she’d thought the smell was bad before, it was an absolute reeking horror now. Vampires smelled of blood and death and rot. How could any Shifters worth their vows align themselves with these bastards? Taking care to be stealthy, she glanced about an oval room, inlaid with wood. It had a church-ish feel that was clinched when she spied a Christ figure attached to one wall.
Close to a dozen Vamps crowded into the space. All of them held an eerie beauty, but Ketha wasn’t fooled. Their striking good looks ran less than skin deep. Skilled, ruthless killers, they counted on blood to survive. Living blood. Blood tapped from dead things ran a poor second.
The back of her head throbbed painfully, and she shut her eyes to buy herself time to think. Maybe no one had noticed she wasn’t unconscious. The Vamp standing nearest kicked her, right before he ordered her to wake up.
She flinched away from her attacker. Eyes flickering open, she regarded the one who’d struck her. Long, dark hair fell around his perfect face, and he augured fog-colored eyes her way. Ketha edged beyond easy reach of his booted feet into a sit, awkward because of her bound limbs. She didn’t waste words telling him she was already awake, or that no one could rest easy in their midst. She stared at a newly dead rat clutched in his hand and beat back a knowing smile. If they were using rats for blood, the Vampires were in as desperate a predicament as she’d assumed.
“You’ve captured me,” she sneered, opting for defiance. “Now what? Do I get to be everyone’s dinner?” She swung her head from side to side, encompassing the room full of Vamps. “At least remove my shackles. If I’m going to die, I’d rather face you as a wolf.”
The rat-wielding Vamp didn’t answer.
“I’m Ketha.” She held onto her slender advantage and flowed to her feet. Once she got her balance, she folded her arms as best she could beneath the swell of her breasts. “Rat got your tongue?” She jerked her chin at the rodent still clutched in the Vamp’s hand.
Before he could answer, she kept right on rolling, taunting him. “If you’re going to kill me, get on with it, but know this—” She summoned what magic she could, given the iron circling her wrists and ankles. The air about her shimmered with the blues and golds unique to her castings. “You will never escape Ushuaia without us.”
The Vamp faced off against her. “What makes you think we want to escape, Shifter?”
Ketha shrugged, favoring him with the full force of her gaze. “You like it here? Soon there won’t be anything left to eat or drink, and then all of us will die. Even Vamps. But if you’re good with that”—another shrug she hoped spoke for itself—“I suppose there’s nothing to talk about. Go on.” She made shooing motions with her bound hands. “Get on with it. I’m prepared to die. We don’t have too many more months here at the ass end of the world before none of us will be left. Take a chance, Vampire. Face my wolf.”
The Vamp smiled coldly. “I’ll pass. I suppose you have the answer to all our problems.”
“I do.” Ketha let a small, secretive smile play about her mouth. “But I’ll never tell you. Funny thing about being captured. It quiets the tongue.”
The Vampire’s chilly expression didn’t change. “Show some respect. No one addresses me that way.”
“It appears I just did.” Ketha tossed her shoulders back. She’d be damned if she’d let the blood-sucking bastard intimidate her. “You need us. Unfortunately, we need you as well, but what I had in mind was equal partners at a conference table, not being knocked over the head and dragged here.”
Satisfaction warmed her when a vein throbbed in the Vamp’s temple before he crushed the rat to bits of bone and tissue, splattering her with blood. Apparently, she’d gotten to him. What that meant remained to be seen. He summoned one of the others, a Vamp named Viktor. Ketha watched with interest when the other Vampire—clearly some minion—didn’t race to comply, but took his sweet time making his way to where they stood.
Another gorgeous man. This one had copper-colored hair that fell to his shoulders. A high forehead, square jaw, and emerald eyes made him movie star dazzling. Ketha bit down on her lower lip to force her thoughts away from his allure. Like the other Vampires, he was dressed in a motley collection of rags. Either they couldn’t sew—or they had no idea how to create garments that resisted decay.
As Viktor drew near, she assessed him with magic and shielded her surprise. He didn’t feel anything like the one with bloody rat remains on his hands, and the characteristic rot smell was absent Moving with the unholy speed characteristic of his breed, Rat-Vamp slapped cuffs atop her manacles and snapped, “Take her to the caves,” all but shoving her into Viktor’s arms.
Viktor latched a hand firmly around Ketha’s elbow, focused his attention on the other Vampire, and asked, “What then?”
Rat-Vamp sent a sharp look his way. “Lock her up and return. I’ll decide her fate once she tells us whatever she knows about escaping Ushuaia.”
“I already explained how that would happen.” Ketha made her tone pointed. No reason to be subtle around these fuckers; they didn’t deal in nuance. “At a conference table as an equal. So long as you hold me captive, my wolf and I will die before we help you do anything.”
Rat-Vamp shifted his gaze her way. “It appears we’re at a stalemate. Perhaps some cell time will alter your perspective.”
“Don’t count on it.”
She turned her magic toward Viktor, wanting to know what was in his mind. The answer shocked and thrilled her. This one was different, malleable. It wasn’t her imagination that he’d dragged his heels reacting to Rat-Vamp’s command. Viktor might be her ticket to freedom. He might actually let her go—if she played her cards right.
“Lead out.” She hip-butted him to spur him into action. “This room stinks of Vampires, and it’s giving me a headache.”
Rat-Vamp snarled and lunged for her, wrapping his hands around her shoulders and shaking her until her teeth rattled. “Never forget who runs things in Ushuaia. This is blood’s dominion. My dominion.”
Ketha stood her ground. “Funny, but I thought I and my Shifters were in charge. Besides, if you were going to kill me, I’d already be dead.” Ketha could’ve said more. Could have voiced her suspicion that he was intrigued by what she’d said, but she opted to keep her mouth shut. The sooner the weak one left with her, the sooner she’d be free.
Rat-Vamp drew back his lips and extended his fangs, bloody from his earlier skirmish with the rat, but he didn’t say anything further before Viktor herded her from the room.
“Remain quiet,” Viktor said sternly and shepherded her toward a stairwell. “Vampires have excellent hearing.”
Ketha took a chance. Easy enough since she had nothing to lose. Could he hear telepathy? Now was as good a time as any to find out. “I’m sure they do, and you don’t want them to know what’s in your mind. Lucky for you, Vamp magic can’t hold a candle to mine, even bound as I am by iron.”
They’d started down stairs dimly illuminated by long-unwashed windows. A startled look flashed across his face, and it gave her hope. “Son of a bitch. You heard me.”
“Watch it!” Her cat was near the surface, and a snarling hiss punctuated its words.
Aura ground to a halt. She’d pulled well ahead of everyone else with her leggy stride. Viktor and Ketha strolled with their arms wrapped around each other as lovers often did. Karin and Rowana brought up the rear, chatting.
“Watch what?” she asked her bond animal.
“I caught a whiff of wrongness. Check for yourself.”
“What is it?” Ketha pulled up next to her. “Why’d you stop?”
“My cat thinks something’s not right.”
Viktor slipped the rifle off his shoulder in a fast, fluid motion that spoke to his familiarity with it.
Aura shut her eyes, urging her senses to preternatural sharpness. Something unpleasant and eerily familiar zapped her. She curled her hands into fists and dug deeper. She had to be wrong.
Before she was through dissecting what she sensed lay beyond, perhaps in the barracks a couple hundred yards away, Ketha muttered, “Shit! It isn’t possible.”
Aura opened her eyes and gripped the other Shifter’s arm. “You picked up on Vampire emanations, right?”
Ketha nodded, eyes wide with disbelief. “How? They’re all supposed to have transformed into humans or Shifters.”
“Why are you talking about Vampires, dearie?” Rowana asked. She and Karin had finally caught up with them.
“I have no idea how,” Aura gritted out the words, “but they’re here.”
Karin narrowed her eyes to slits. “Vampires? Don’t be ridiculous. The Cataclysm altered them, removed the Vampire mutation in their DNA.”
“Or not.” Rowana twisted her face into a grimace.
“Check for yourself,” Ketha told the other two women.
Aura scrubbed the heels of her hands down her face, urging rational thought, and then scanned the place that felt menacing one more time. “It’s not quite right for Vampire, at least not the Ushuaia variety,” she muttered.
“Not exactly,” Ketha agreed. “But there are at least two of whatever they are, and their emanations are closer to Vamp than anything else.”
“The question of the hour,” Viktor said, “is whether we move forward or retreat. It’s a group decision.”
Aura thought about it, and when she spoke, her words came hard. “We left Ushuaia to figure out what was left in the rest of the world. If we turn tail and run the first time we encounter anything, we may as well never have set sail.”
Viktor grinned wryly. “Spoken like a true explorer. Shackleton would have been proud of you.”
“I remember reading about him,” Aura muttered. “If this is Grytviken, isn’t he buried here?”
“He is, indeed,” Viktor said. “His grave is on the far side of the post office, but only because his wife told the ship with his remains to bring him back here. I guess he was quite the philanderer, and she wasn’t interested in footing the expense of bringing his cheating ass home.”
“Interesting,” Aura said, “but we’re stalling. My vote is to see what the hell feels like Vampire.”
“Mine too,” Rowana said.
“I’m in,” Karin said. “If we could survive Armageddon against the Cataclysm, how hard could this be?”
Viktor cocked his head to one side. “Depends. If they’re Vamps, only beheading with iron will do them in.”
“Maybe they’ll be friendly.” Ketha screwed her face into what might have been a hopeful expression, except it came off more like a grimace.
“Friendly and Vampire in the same sentence is an oxymoron,” Viktor said in a flat, dead tone. “It appears we’re all game, so all of you get behind me and stay close. Deploy your magic. It’s still far more finely honed than mine.” He shouldered the rifle. “If I have to, I’ll use this. It should at least slow them down.”