God’s fangs, have I ever been in so much pain?
Slowly, Rev forced open his swollen eyes. Nothing but darkness surrounded him, crowded tight with the dank stench of rotting flesh, unwashed bodies, and mildew. Invisible legs skittered along the skin of his temple and he tried to raise his hand to brush whatever it was away, only to find his wrists shackled with heavy iron cuffs. Tried his legs and found the same.
Never in his eons-long life had he ever been in such agony.
Images flashed through his beleaguered brain. Endless suffering. The satisfied grin of Elon, Rev’s Council tormentor, the man’s teeth bloodstained. The scrape of his nails, digging deep. The bark of his laughter followed by the terrible scents of brimstone, sweat, and fear. One brutal emotion after another bombarded Rev—disgust, rage, utter violation. Desperate to avoid a breakdown, he’d built a brick wall around his screaming heart and soul.
The three members of the Council—Auric, Elon, and Jareth—had beaten Rev for hours, relentless, stopping only to allow Rev to heal enough to start all over again. Most every bone in his immortal body felt broken, bruised, or otherwise battered.
The Council was thorough in their punishment.
And he’d evaded them for far too long.
There was no doubt in his mind they had rejoiced at his capture, relished bringing him back here, locking him away in what would surely become his final grave. Still, he couldn’t bring himself to regret what he’d done to save his friends and his gang, the Blood Ravagers.
On their last mission, Dex and Liz had proven themselves worthy, brave, true.
Before this was over, Rev hoped to prove those things about himself as well. By paying back the three bastards of the Council for all the evil they’d wrought on the otherworld and perhaps earn his eternal rest at last.
With a sigh, he leaned his head against the rough stone. They’d taken his hat, his clothes, everything he owned, except for the filthy loincloth slung around his hips. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d fed, bathed, seen the sun or the moon.
Time had lost all meaning.
He prayed for a few hours of sleep before they came for him again and the torture started anew.
“Hello?” a voice whispered through the shadows, so quiet it sent a shiver down Rev’s spine.
Rev glanced around, but spotted nothing. He was alone.
Probably a hallucination.
“Hello? Can you hear me?”
His head snapped up. He searched the interior of his cell again. “Who’s there?”
“You’re alive.” The voice sounded hesitant and decidedly… female.
“Unfortunately, yes.” He strained against his bonds, to no avail. “Who are you?”
She laughed, his mystery woman. “The one who will help you escape.”
The blood in Rev’s veins ignited, as if touched by a lit match. His heartbeat thumped loudly in his ears, faster, faster, the need to break his restraints, stalk to the bars of his cell and rip them to shreds, overwhelming him. He needed to see her, would die if he couldn’t.
An extreme reaction, especially for him.
The uniqueness made it no less uncomfortable or unstoppable. From the first word, his entire universe had centered on this woman. The huskiness of her tone, the promise of absolute pleasure, the come-hither seduction that made his cock grow hard…
Roaring with frustration, he yanked with all his might, but still his restrains held.
Dropping his head to his chest, Rev squeezed his eyes shut.
The Council. They must have done something to him, given him something that turned him into a feral animal, made him into nothing but a sex fiend. Never, in all his long eons of life, had he ever felt such lust, such desire.
Worse, he hadn’t even seen his phantom lady. Her appearance? A question mark, just like her voice. Yet, somehow, the tantalizing unknown only intensified his obsession. So much that for five minutes in her company, he would’ve risked annihilation.
And for that reason alone, he deserved another beating by the guards.
He had a mission here, a purpose, and it didn’t involve fucking.
“Hello?” she said again. “Talk to me, please. Tell me why you’re here.”
Such longing in that tone. The same longing that clawed through him.
Blood lust rose into a frenzy, slamming against Rev’s skull, desperate to resurface, to suckle, to taste…
Another first. His inner vamp had long ago gone silent in the face of the Council’s torture and training methods. He swallowed hard and forced words past his constricted throat. “Can’t.”
Scuttling noises moved closer to the door of the next cell. “Why? Why won’t you tell me?”
Her desperation matched his.
“I’m here because I chose to be here.” The words exploded from him, bitter, cutting.
Truth. From his initiation into the Blood Ravagers biker gang back in Salvation, Wyoming, he’d known it would only be a matter of time until the Council’s numerous spies reported his whereabouts.
Still, even expecting their attack, he’d been shocked by their audacity.
One minute he’d stood on the top of the Schwartzman Library Building in Manhattan, prepared to help complete his mission for the gang, and the next he’d been chained to a wall in the Council’s Siberian headquarters as Elon had used his powerful dark magic to slowly peel the flesh from Rev’s bones, strip by tiny strip, until he’d passed out from the agony.
Now, he only hoped his sacrifice had not been in vain. He hoped Dex and Liz had defeated their enemies and made it back to the gang’s club, Seven, in Salvation, alive. Hoped they’d gotten the information Dante needed to complete the Oracle binding ceremony and that even now the gang was stronger, more secure, better defended against the Council’s retaliation—an epic attack that was sure to come.
“Tell me,” she demanded. “Tell me why you would willingly come to this place.”
Rev didn’t know the woman’s name or if she was human or otherworld. He only knew he’d given up everything, gotten himself thrown in here, and now he needed to find a way to make it count. No matter if he’d been in these dungeons a day or a century.
“My reasons are my own,” Rev said, having learned long ago not to trust anyone or anything inside these walls. “They are not your concern.”
The female huffed. “And yet you take their beatings and do nothing to stop them.”
“Yes.” He croaked.
And in return, Dante and the gang would have a fighting chance to gather their strength and their resources. If the Council members were focused on Rev, then that meant they weren’t focused on the gang.
Besides, his suffering didn’t matter. Hell, it had stopped mattering so long ago Rev had forgotten. Just one more casualty of his time spent working as an assassin for the very people who now would kill him. Once upon a time, he’d been their top killer, responsible for more hits against the Council’s enemies than anyone else, ever. But the day he’d walked away from all the senseless brutality and destruction had been the day he’d signed his own death warrant.
Given that kind of unforgivable past, what was a little extra torture now?
“Fine. I don’t care about your reasons,” the female said. “I only care about escaping this hellhole.”
Rev shifted his position where he sat on the cold, hard ground, careful not to wrench his side and reopen the gaping wound where Elon had sliced into him and flayed his organs. It was just now starting to heal, pain searing through his gut as his intestines knit back together.
“Ignoring me?” she asked. “Do you have any idea what I am?”
He stared straight ahead into the darkness. Didn’t much matter, not in this place.
Down here, they were all the same.
“My name is Claire Deveraux and I have served the Council for two centuries. I am Dygarian, the last of my race. I will see the outside world once before I perish or die trying.”
A shadow shifter?
She was rare indeed. Her kind had the power to become invisible, allowing them complete anonymity. Also, they could become one with the elements around them.
Per Jareth’s orders, Rev had participated in the long-ago raids on the last surviving Dygarian villages, helped bring her people into bondage within these palace walls, shackled them to their fate just as he was now shackled himself.
The irony was not lost on him.
Her name didn’t ring true though. The Dygarians had their own language, full of guttural grunts and growls that would’ve made the Romulans proud.
“Claire Deveraux,” he said. “That’s a strange choice for your kind.”
“I picked it myself. Never knew my birth name. Not sure I even had one.” She paused. “What should I call you?”
“Are you a member of the clergy?”
He was about as far from holy as a creature could get. “My friends call me Rev.”
A soft, lonely sigh escaped her. “Why are you in here, Rev?”
To die, most likely, if he couldn’t break these restraints somehow. It would only be a matter of time before the guards came to collect him again, dragging him back up the stone stairs to Elon’s torture chamber.
“Before you answer,” she added, “you should know I would rather save an enemy who tells me the truth than a so-called friend who lies.”
Rev had to wonder if her sentiments would remain so admirable if she knew exactly who he was, how he’d been responsible for her enslavement within these walls. Then again, it was nice to set his troubles aside, just for these few moments, and enjoy this brief solidarity with her. After all, he too had no real home, only distant memories of his real family, no real hope of escape beyond these walls.
Trapped as they were in these Council dungeons, built to hold even the strongest of otherworlders, it seemed there was nothing either of them could do but marinate in their fury, growing more helpless and weak each day as their emotions grew darker and darker.
In the end, they would both pray for insanity.
Given that bleak forecast, not telling her the truth about his goals seemed pointless. “I am here…to eradicate the Council.”
Silence. Oppressive, cold, surrounded him, heavy as a death shroud.
Eventually Rev spoke again, just to hear something other than his own raspy breath. “I was once forced to work for them too, but I deserted my post nearly a century ago. The Council have hunted me down since, waiting for the day they would punish me for my sins.”
He shifted, lancing pain shooting upward from his injured side and jarring him back to reality. What the hell am I doing? He didn’t know Claire, sure as hell didn’t trust her. At least he’d stopped himself before mentioning Dante or Seven or the Blood Ravagers gang. For all he knew, she’d been planted by the Council to glean his secrets.
“I see,” she said, the two quiet words sending a fresh rush of lust straight through his system.
It had been millennia since he’d had any carnal stirrings, even longer since he’d craved fresh, warm blood. Yet this woman had made him desire both in a span of seconds.
The Council’s wicked trickery had to be behind this. There was no other explanation.
She could be my mate.
At the idea, his cock hardened and his skin tingled and… fuck!
He nearly screamed in frustration. Even if, somehow, this strange siren had awakened his long dormant passions and was his fated mate, there was no way she’d ever willingly be with him. Not with his legacy of barbaric cruelty, not with his past filled with murder and mayhem and masterful obliteration of any opposition to Council edicts—including Claire’s people.
For all those long years, women had been nothing but an afterthought… until he’d needed release. Even then, he’d usually been too rough, too harsh with his chosen lovers. He’d been a vicious mercenary, never allowing his emotions to get the better of him.
Now, though, he would’ve traded what little remained of his tattered soul for a moment of contact with his mystery woman.
“Rev?” Despite the strain in Claire’s voice, his body continued to pulse with the same raw hunger. “They exterminated the people of my village.”
Yeah, I know. He settled against the hard, stone wall, resting his head back against its smooth surface, swallowing hard around the lump of regret in this throat. “Yes.”
He’d always known one day his past would catch up with him.
Seemed that day had finally come.
“Rev?” Claire said again. “I hate them for what they did.”
No more than I hate myself.
“I meant what I said.” She hesitated. “I can help you escape. I know a way out of here.”
His pulse quickened. There’d been rumors during his servitude here in the headquarters, whispers of underground tunnels left behind from the first settlers to these deserted Siberian wastelands. “Explain.”
“I heard many things, read many secret texts in Jareth’s library.”
“There are hidden passages. The Council sealed most of them,” she continued. “But there was one they missed.”
Truth? Exaggeration? Either way, the possibility excited him as much as her voice.
“Why are you telling me this?” he asked, wariness still riding him hard. “Why not just leave yourself?”
Claire sniffled, her anguish slicing through him like a scalpel.
“The walls of the headquarters are lined with Tobernite, a substance which renders my powers useless. I’ve also never set foot outside this compound. I have no idea how to survive. I require someone to guard me, protect me, until I can protect myself.”
He exhaled. That explained why she needed him. But what would Claire say when she discovered he was the reason for her being here at all?
Not that he planned to tell her. Not yet anyway. If she knew a way to help him escape, he needed her as much as she needed him. Regaining his freedom now would allow him time to regroup, give him a better shot at destroying the Council.
“Once I’m strong enough,” she said, the thread of steel in her tone heralding the dawn of a coming storm. “I will hunt down and kill every single person responsible for the deaths of my people.”
From the pure vehemence of her tone, Rev had no doubt she meant what she said. Too bad he’d be at the top of her hit list. Rev opened his mouth, closed it, not sure what to say. Honestly, he couldn’t blame her for wanting revenge. After all, he was here for the same reason. Except whatever she planned to do to the Council would only be the beginning of the carnage he’d exact when his time came.
The steel door at the top of the stairs banged open and Rev closed his eyes, succumbing to a sudden, drugging pull of unconsciousness.
Seemed the Council had come for him again.
At the crash of the iron door against the stone wall, Claire scurried to the corner of her cell and pressed her back to the crumbling wall of the dungeon. The cold stone stung her delicate, chameleon-like skin, making every bone and tendon in her body ache so badly she wanted to cry. Which surprised her because she’d thought herself beyond tears.
A man—tall, dark hair, pale, white skin, expensive suit made by the finest Parisian tailors—stalked up to her cage, his expression pissed as hell. Auric, one of the three men who comprised the Council, paced in front of her cell, ranting and raving.
The first time she’d seen Auric, she’d thought him a god, with his shadowed gaze that seemed to peer clean through to her soul, his false acts of kindness and concern. False because they masked a savage streak that bordered on psychotic. Now she knew him for the devil he was.
She wondered what Rev thought of her visitor, but he remained oddly silent.
Perhaps he’d passed out. Lucky him.
“I saved you, Claire.” Auric’s sharp tone held certain death. “Took you into my private quarters, allowed you to serve me. And how do you repay me? By hiding your friend Jakara’s pregnancy. You lied, an offense punishable by death.”
Allowed her to serve him? As though she’d been a willing participant in her slavery.
Near the edges of her mind, Claire felt Auric, searching for a way into her head, into her thoughts. Quickly, she squeezed her eyes shut and fought back with all her might.
“And now you block your mind from me.”
True. She would continue to do so too, a testament to her stubborn resilience. With only a thought, this raging maniac could render unending pain. In fact, she’d seen him vaporize entire cities with just a wave of his hand.
Still, she was beyond the point of holding her tongue now. “You tricked me.”
Auric narrowed his black gaze and her knees wobbled, threatening to buckle. “Explain, slave.”
“You promised no harm would come to Jakara.” If she closed her eyes she could still see her friend, her sweet face and kind smile, before the Council had destroyed her. “Yet you allowed her to be murdered under your protection.”
Unshed tears stung her eyes but she refused to let them fall.
I won’t break down. I won’t.
“Yes.” A muscle ticked near Auric’s clenched jaw. “I am sorry for your loss, Claire.”
Claire bit the inside of her cheek until she tasted blood. No. Auric never apologized for anything. He was playing her, using her pain and heartache to gain her acquiescence. Same as always. Bastard wasn’t a vile enough word for this beast.
For the last two-hundred years she’d been a prisoner within the walls of these headquarters, forced to serve the three men who governed the otherworld with an iron fist. Auric with his polished façade and pretty lies; Elon with his dark and terrible magic; and Jareth, the studious bookworm who collected prophecies and secrets within his private library of horrors.
All three beings had spent eons harnessing their powers, waiting to unleash them on an unsuspecting planet. Now, though, as unrest grew throughout the otherworld, cracks had formed in their once solid bonds. A sign perhaps their alliance wasn’t as unbreakable as they pretended.
Before being thrown down here in the dungeons, Claire had seen the signs. Auric’s willful disregard for any life not his. Jareth’s insatiable lust for every female within his sphere of control. Elon’s greed, tempting him to steal everything from ancient artifacts to the abilities of others.
None of the members of the Council had any shame. Or any limits.
“Save your pretty lies for someone gullible enough to believe them,” Claire said.
In a blink, Auric was inside her cage, a mere whisper away, his hot breath fanning her face as he towered above her. “Aren’t you curious why I’m here? Do you not wonder why I seek out a condemned traitor?”
She blinked hard and gulped. “Y-yes.”
A spark of crimson flashed in his pitch dark eyes, hinting at his demonic origins. Beneath her feet, the foundations of the ancient headquarters shook.
“You know our secrets, our operations. You were once my possession.”
“And now I am your prisoner.”
Claire was expendable, nothing more than a puppet on the Council’s strings. She’d known it from the first day she’d stepped inside these walls as a child. Once her family had been eliminated, Auric had claimed her for himself, much to the ire of Jareth. She’d always assumed his anger was because of lust. Bookish Jareth was a pervert of epic proportions. She’d seen some of those forbidden texts he hid in his collection.
Auric grabbed her by the throat, cutting off her air supply. Claire clawed at his hand, gasping for breath as her feet dangled useless in the air. If only she could transform, if only…
She closed her eyes and concentrated, envisioning herself becoming one with the shadows, but…
Finally, Rev gave an agonized groan.
Maybe she would pass out too and her world would go blessedly black. For a little while, at least. Then Auric or Elon or Jareth would come down here and find her again and the whole vicious cycle would start anew.
“Devoted as you were to Jakara in life, perhaps you’d like to join her in death,” Auric said. “I’m sure she’d welcome you with open arms.”
The reminder of her friend’s murder, and her vow to avenge the senseless death, kept Claire fighting. “Kill me then and be done with it.”
Another flash of red streaked through Auric’s eyes, brighter than before. He squeezed her neck tighter. “You are still a rare commodity.” He growled. “And I have other uses for you.”
“Uses?” she asked, though she feared she already knew the answer.
“Enough!” Scowl dark as midnight, Auric slammed his fist against the iron bars of her cage, causing the stone walls to rumble and the air to fill with dust plumes. “How dare you question me! I am your master. I answer to no one.”
For once in her miserable life, Claire stood her ground. Figuratively, at least, since Auric still held her by the throat several feet off the ground. “I don’t care who you are.”
The walls rattled more violently, as if the entire dungeon might collapse.
“Listen well, you Dygarian bitch. I can be your executioner, ensuring you cease to exist in every possible way, or I can be your savior.” Tighter, tighter, Auric squeezed… then, abruptly, he let her go, his breath panting loud in the stillness. “Remember my words, Claire. For you are the one who may decide the fate of all.”
Claire sagged to the dirt floor, gasping for air yet somehow managing to rasp, “Whatever choice I make, you’re still a bastard.”
Surprising her, Auric grinned wide. “Very true.”
As a child, Claire had always tried to remain meek and obliging, afraid of hurting anyone’s feelings, desperate to smooth any ruffled feathers lest she be beaten to death. Now, she realized how worthless her subservience had been. These men would kill her eventually, no matter what.
She’d never had more to lose—or cared so little. “Go to hell.”
Rather than fuel Auric’s temper, however, her statement seemed to calm him. His gaunt features softened, the murderous rage draining from his gaze.
He lowered his arms, and turned slightly, the sharp lines of his profile silhouetted by moonlight streaming in from windows high above. “Do you enjoy your time here in our prison, Claire?”
“No.” The whole place was rank and filthy and filled with all sorts of poisonous critters just waiting to sink their tiny fangs into her body. The worst part of all, though, was when Elon used his evil sorcery to dig deep inside her mind as she slept to plunder her vilest memories.
Every night, she was forced to relive Jakara’s death, to feel the all-consuming defeat of knowing she’d failed to save her only friend. Every night, she witnessed the brutal slaying, Jakara’s blood flowing hot and sticky, covering the floor, the walls, climbing higher and higher until Claire feared she’d drowned. Every night, her friend’s lifeless eyes stared at her through the gloom, condemning her, shattering her heart.
“That’s a shame. Since you will remain here until it pleases me to let you go.” Auric smiled slowly, his lips twisting cruelly. With that, he disappeared back up the stairs, as quickly as he’d arrived.
The minute the heavy metal door clanged closed once more, Rev stirred.
“Claire?” he said, his quiet voice rife with agony. “I blacked out.”
She curled into a ball on the floor, her eyes burning and her chin trembling. Hot tears trickled down her cheeks, the only warmth in this godsforsaken place. Auric didn’t have to hurt her physically to get what he wanted. He only had to pull the right strings.
“What happened?” Rev asked, confusion lacing his voice.
Claire clenched her fists, her nails digging into her palms until they drew blood. “I can’t stomach any more of their lies.”
“You crave vengeance.” His chains rattled as he moved. “I understand. But there’s no guarantee you’ll find it even if you leave this place.”
“Will you escape with me or not? It’s the only way I can achieve justice.” Claire raised her chin in defiance. The stale air of the dungeon seemed to vibrate with tension. “If you refuse to help me, I will go alone.”
Rev snarled, his cage shaking so hard she feared the ceiling would collapse from his frustrated yell. “You said you would not survive without my assistance.”
“It will be much harder, but I’ll find a way.”
Please don’t make me find a way.
He didn’t answer at first, and she lived and died in those few seconds.
Straightening, finally, Claire squared her shoulders. Enough games. “My people are dead and someone must pay.”
“Trust me, I am,” he said, followed by a loud curse.
A rusty squeak issued then a distinct clang-scrap of metal against stone. Footsteps pounded toward her and Claire huddled in the shadows once more as a man appeared in front of her cage. Seemed Rev had somehow escaped his cell and now stood before her in little more than a loincloth, revealing nearly every inch of him. The fancy-clothed men of the Council she was used to seeing. But Rev…
Well, Rev was something else entirely. Tall and muscled, all pale skin and ebony-dark hair. And his eyes. Icy blue and cold as an arctic blast—yet they somehow made her feel warm all over. Moisture flooded her mouth, her blood turning molten. Every fiber of her being urged her to reach out… to touch him…
Claire snatched her hand back at the last second.
“How did you get out?” she demanded.
“The rocks are old.”
“That’s not an answer.”
“Wasn’t meant to be.” His gaze raked over her, the stark intensity making her pulse race.
Even through the shadows, she saw his pupils dilate, black overshadowing the blue, and something primal responded within her, awareness zinging through her nerve endings.
“Like I said, I blacked out,” Rev said. “When I awoke, the chains restraining me had loosened. It was easy enough to pull them out of the wall this time.”
Seemed Auric’s visit had served a higher purpose after all.
“What about the lock?” she asked.
“I told you I spent time here. Once I could reach it, it was easy enough to pick.”
“Easy? Those locks were enchanted by Elon himself. Made to respond to no one else.”
Rev flicked his tongue over his teeth. No. Correction. Over his fangs. A vampire. That would explain his unearthly beauty. And his deadly calm. He gripped the bars of her cage and leaned closer. “Enough questions. If I help you escape, you must promise not to disobey or betray me or get in the way of my mission. If you do, I will end you. Do you understand?”
Claire swallowed hard, mesmerized by his hypnotic voice. Was this what his victims felt like just before he sank his teeth into their neck and drained them dry?
She looked away from him fast and forced a smile. “Aren’t you the fierce protector?”
Rev rattled the bars of her cell. “Do you understand?”
She inhaled and caught a hint of his scent—woods and leather and musk—mixed with the dungeon’s usual aromas of dirt and desolation. Goose bumps prickled her skin. If he’d been any other man, she would have moved closer, would have finally discovered what it meant to be a woman rather than a prisoner. But she had one shot at escape and she couldn’t afford to let her emotions interfere.
“Claire,” Rev said, “answer me.”
“What will you give me in exchange?”
“In exchange for your demands, I have a few of my own. You must agree to protect me until I can protect myself,” she said. “You must agree to teach me what you can about this new world I’m entering. And you must agree to help me catch the man responsible for killing my people, if the opportunity arises.”
He stared at her for so long Claire thought perhaps he hadn’t heard her.
“Fine,” he said at last.
“Then we have an agreement.”
“One you may come to regret.” Rev punched one of the bars. It bent, but didn’t break. His eyes narrowed as crouched to work on the door’s lock.
End of Excerpt