A New Torn Worlds Romance
I’ve been locked away in a vampire dungeon for nearly a year, and I’ll die here if that’s what it takes to protect my secret. Now he arrives with his pack and thinks he’ll be the one to break me? I’ll die first.
It was just another raid until we found her. Shivering and bedraggled, she should’ve seen me as her savior, but she stares at me as if I’m her worst enemy. Maybe I am, because I should let her go, forget I ever saw her, but I won’t…
The door to the basement opened, and I shifted farther into the shadows of my cell. It was too early for mealtime, which meant they were coming for something or someone else. They’d stopped experimenting on me a while ago, but every now and then, they’d have a guest who’d want to check me out, like the one last week. He was called Heiko, and when he’d touched me, smelled my skin, it felt like someone had taken a metal grater to my intestines.
Multiple footsteps and a female crying. I sagged into my spot, guilt warring with relief. They weren’t here for me. They were bringing in a new human. I’d lost count of how many had come and gone in my time here. None of them lasted long. A few feedings at most before the vampires would drain them. Expendable lives, meaningless to the creatures that kept us, no more important than a bug squashed under their heel.
The steps grew louder as she came into sight, with flushed, chubby cheeks, shiny hair, and all the hallmarks of health. She might make it a couple of weeks if she could pull it together, but right now her tears were wetting the floor as the vampire dragged her past my cell.
She caught sight of me, and her sobbing went from a pathetic whimpering to full-blown nose-running meltdown. She assumed I was the fate waiting for her. She didn’t realize her situation would be much worse. The vampires didn’t feed on me, an unknown curiosity they were afraid to sample. She wouldn’t be so lucky. She’d be dead soon.
Or maybe she was the lucky one.
I closed my eyes, trying to forget about the crying as they threw her in one of the cells with the other humans. My mind took me somewhere else, away from the cold stone floor that puddled when it rained, away from the smell of mildew, sickness, and death.
This wasn’t a dank basement anymore but a meadow with birds chirping and the wind rustling through trees, carrying the scent of flowers.
And dark clouds with obsidian specks of light…
My eyes snapped open again, seeking out the cracks in the window for a hint of what I’d seen in my mind. Something was about to happen, but what?
I didn’t have to wait long before there was a loud bang overhead, followed by thumps and then screams. The vampire who’d brought the new girl slammed the cell shut and dashed back upstairs, the sounds of screaming and things thudding and crashing growing louder.
There were loud footsteps crisscrossing overhead, as if utter chaos was breaking out. A growl split the air, so loud it nearly shook the foundation. That noise wasn’t a vampire.
There’d been rumors that the pact that held the shifter-vampire alliance together, the one that had enabled them to take over the U.S., had been growing tenuous. Even locked away down here, I’d heard snippets of gossip, talk of the inevitable war. Had it finally come?
Everyone in the basement had grown quiet, including the new hysterical girl. Something very bad was happening, and we didn’t need it to spill over to us. The enemy of your enemy wasn’t always your friend. The shifters had as large a part in suppressing humans as the vampires, and my kind hadn’t fared any better.
The new girl let out another wail. One of the women in the same cell walked over, laying a soothing hand on her back. The girl kept crying loudly, as if she’d cracked.
One of the men loomed over her. “Shut the fuck up before you get us all killed.” He spoke in a hushed voice, but it didn’t strip away any of the violence he promised.
She quieted down and curled into the woman’s arms.
Upstairs, the screams slowed as well, the running and thumping turning back into brisk walking and loud voices.
The door to the basement creaked open and the lights were flipped on.
I squinted, my eyes unaccustomed to the brightness.
“Jobo, put some pants on. There’s a bunch of humans down there already freaked out, and I don’t need them all screaming,” a male by the top of the stairs said.
A young man walked downstairs, his russet hair in disarray. He had jeans on, but his torso and feet were bare, and there were red droplets and splatters all over his flesh. Another young man followed behind him in sweatpants and similar remnants of blood.
The shifter’s face skewed as he took in the scene of the cells filled with humans. Or maybe it was the smell that disgusted him. After a while, you became nose-blind to the odor of mildew mixing with the latrine buckets, until you saw the horror on a newcomer’s expression.
The sweatpants-clad shifter with raven hair made a gagging noise as he followed his friend.
“What the fuck, Frankie? I hate when they do this shit,” Jobo said.
Frankie scanned the place, found a hook with several keys, and tossed them to Jobo.
“Start down that end. Let’s get them out and get out of here before I gag,” Frankie said. He made his way to the closest cell that was packed full of humans, including the new girl, who was still sobbing quietly. He tried several keys before finding the right one and pulling the door open.
“Come on, we’re letting you out. You’re all free.” Frankie spoke like someone who had said his lines repeatedly.
No one moved. Typically if you left this cell, you had fifty-fifty odds of living to see the next morning.
“You can come out. We’re not vampires. My name is Frankie. I’m a shifter, and I don’t have all day for this. You can leave the cell or stay, but I’ve got other things to do.” Frankie was either the best actor I’d ever seen or clearly didn’t give a shit what these people did. My money was on the latter.
The others must’ve had a similar read. The wailing girl broke for the exit first, followed by a stampede from the rest.
“Go outside. There’ll be someone there to direct you where to go next,” Frankie said, sounding a little like an underpaid cruise director.
Another two cells opened, and with no cajoling needed, the humans fled outside.
They both finished up in front of my cell. I was on my feet, halfway back, trying to keep a buffer in between us.
Frankie toyed with the key in the lock for a minute or so. My cell was always jammed. Half of my meals had ended up thrown on the floor because of it.
“Why are you in one by yourself?” Jobo asked as Frankie kept trying to force the rusted metal to open.
“I don’t know.” My heart was thumping so hard that I was afraid it would give out before I was let out.
Frankie sighed, and Jobo tried, fidgeting with it. Just as my fear that they’d give up and leave me began to grow, the lock gave out and the cell door opened.
Frankie waved me forward. “Come on. You’re free. Time to leave.”
Frankie waited for me as Jobo began making his way out of the basement.
One part of me wanted to run past Frankie and the other didn’t want to get too close, knowing what might happen. It was the same thing that had landed me here.
“Come on already,” Frankie said, watching me.
His friend at the bottom of the stairs turned back around. “Do vampires bake?” Jobo asked Frankie, looking confounded.
“You smell apple pie too?” Frankie said.
“Yeah,” Jobo said. “Smells so good I’m getting hungry.”
Shit, shit, shit.
With a deep breath and a leap of faith, I exited the cell, hoping they wouldn’t catch on.
Frankie stepped in front of me, stopping me from getting to the stairs. Everything I’d feared showed in his expression. Even as dirty and grimy as I was, they knew the smell was coming from me. It had been my downfall last time, and would be again.
“Hang on a second. What are you?” Frankie moved closer, his nostrils flaring. Odds were he wouldn’t recognize my race, just that it was different. This was a setback but not an absolute disaster.
“I’m River,” I said.
“Not who. What?” Jobo asked, coming closer and smelling the air around me as well. His face scrunched up with a thousand questions.
Even as young and inexperienced as they might be, they knew something was off.
“I’m human,” I said, pretending to be as confused as they were.
Frankie nodded and moved out of my way. There was still hope, but it was slim.
I walked up and through the mayhem of the main floor. Shifters, still in their beast form, were patrolling the house, probably looking for missed vampires. I’d seen shifters from afar, but not up close, like this. They were huge in their beast forms, tightly muscled and with fangs. Most had to be seven feet tall. They had so much going on that they’d forget about the odd girl and move on.
I kept heading toward the door. A shifter slowed down and moved closer, sniffing loud enough to be audible.
“Keep it moving, Charlie,” Frankie said, stepping in between us and ushering me outside.
It was a crisp autumn evening with a huge harvest moon lighting the landscape. The smell of wet leaves and fresh dirt was the most beautiful perfume ever created. At least if I died tonight, I’d felt the fresh air on my skin one last time.
“Stay there,” Frankie said, pointing to a spot off to the side.
The place was crawling with shifters, and all the human captives were being shuttled onto an old yellow school bus.
Frankie and Jobo walked a few steps away but didn’t bother to keep their voices down.
“What do you think?” Jobo asked. They both kept looking at me.
“We can’t put her on the bus with the others until we get Dante over here, just in case.”
Dante. The name was familiar. He was the alpha of a nearby pack, and the vampires had spoken of him being a possible problem. Looked like they’d gotten part of that right but had underestimated how much of one he truly was. From the clear wreckage of this place, and the dead vampire parts I’d stepped over on the way out, he hadn’t pulled his punches.
I crossed my arms in front of me as the chill seeped through my threadbare t-shirt, the same one I’d been wearing when I came to this place. I didn’t care. The fresh air was better than any shelter I’d gotten in that hell.
“Stay with her,” Frankie said right before he took off, probably in search of this Dante.
I tracked Frankie’s passage through the crowd as he approached one of the scariest beasts in the clearing. He was one of the largest, all lean muscles with a smattering of fur, and the meanest looking of them all, which said something in this group.
He started to shift to his human form, which was almost as intimidating as the beast. He was still over six feet, with blood marring his tanned skin and something gooey in his black hair. His dark gaze met mine across the clearing, and a shiver shot through me, this one having nothing to do with the cold.
Even if the amount of blood on his skin hadn’t warned me, there was something even more alarming in his eyes. He had the hard, cold stare of a killer, equipped with a body to execute his desires, and it was instantly obvious he was about to become a big problem for me.
This particular hive of vampires had been causing issues for way too long, with humans disappearing from the nearby town—humans I hadn’t hated. The pact between shifters and vampires, the one that held our two races together, decreed that humans were beneath contempt. That didn’t mean it was smart. It was bad business, in my opinion. There were too many of them and not enough of us.
Frankie walked over to me as I shifted back into human form, blood splattered over my skin. He might be young to be my second, but he had a loyal streak a mile wide, plus brilliant instincts that seemed next to perfect.
Except right now he was looking stumped.
“What’s wrong? Do we have a problem?” Everyone else was moving around, doing their job as if the attack had gone off without a hitch.
“The vampires are all dead, but when we let out the humans, we found an unexpected…” His gaze shot across the lawn. “We found something…odd.”
“What’s odd?” Everything about our life at this point was odd. We were out in the open as a species. We were supposed to be in a pact with vampires, our mortal enemies, except we were secretly at war. Odd was our day-to-day existence.
“Technically it’s a female. I’m not sure what to do with her.” Frankie was scratching his jaw.
A human female? That was the issue?
“I’m sure you’ll figure it out.” I began walking around the perimeter, having more important things to do.
Frankie jogged to keep up with me as I surveyed the building, making sure there had been nothing missed. This place had to be scoured for any potential information that could help us going forward before it was burned to the ground, the evidence destroyed.
“I don’t know if I will. She’s pretty weird,” he said. “I don’t know if I want to make a call on her without you checking her out.”
“She’s a human?” I asked, scanning the trees. Some of these places had surveillance rigged up and connected to the cloud. Every mission was inviting an open war we weren’t ready for, but if I didn’t try to keep the vampire numbers down, when the war did come, we’d have no way of winning. They were becoming the supernatural version of rabbits lately, except instead of fucking their way to numbers, they were biting.
“Well, she’s definitely not a vampire.” His gaze kept shooting back across the lawn.
“Then what’s the issue? If she’s a human, ask her if she wants to go to the sanctuary or scare the shit out of her about talking and let her go. I don’t have to tell you all this. You know the drill.” This wasn’t the first raid or the first stash of humans. At this point, I’d be more surprised if there weren’t a few humans locked away somewhere. Vampires kept stashes of people in the basement the way humans kept chips in the cabinet.
“That’s not quite clear either. She’s not a vampire, but I’m not sure she’s a human. That’s the problem. I can’t tell, and neither can Jobo. We found her in the basement in a cell by herself. She definitely wasn’t here willingly, but she’s not exactly looking at us like we’re her saviors—not that it means that much.” Frankie ruffled his hair.
At this point, it was becoming easier to check out the female than continue this conversation. Over on the other side of the property, recently freed humans were being loaded onto the bus. One female stood out immediately, like a jolt of color on a black-and-white canvas.
She was slender, overly so, as if she’d been in that basement a long time. Her long tawny hair hung in nappy locks, like it hadn’t seen a brush in months. Her t-shirt might’ve once been white but was now a dingy gray with mottled stains, including blood, and hung from her shoulders like it was on a wire hanger. Her jeans weren’t in any better shape, and her feet were bare and dirty. She looked like she’d break in a strong wind, but her back was ramrod straight.
I walked over as she watched me unflinchingly. She tilted her head back, meeting my stare with bright eyes the color of light beryl. They dominated a delicate face covered in grime. The shade wasn’t impossible in the human race, but it wasn’t common either, not with the way they nearly glimmered.
But beyond the fire in her eyes, her scent was what slammed the door shut on there being a remote chance of her being human. Even as filthy as she was, there was an overpowering sweetness to her scent, an aroma reminiscent of warm cinnamon apples baking in the oven. I’d smelled it the second I walked into the vampire’s house, but had written it off. It wasn’t a perfume or a chemical re-creation. I’d never picked up a scent like this from a human, or any other race, but it was something coming from who or what she was.
I tilted my head, signaling Jobo and Frankie to give us a little space.
Her narrowing eyes shot to Jobo’s retreating back for a flicker, but that was all that was needed. By the looks of her, she hadn’t been well treated by the vampires, but she didn’t appear to be a fan of shifters either, or at least not us. Her attention shot back to me fast enough to signal who she thought was the bigger threat.
“What are you?” I asked.
“I’m River. Your man wouldn’t let me get on the bus with everyone else, and I’d like to know why.” Chin up, she stared at me as if she were the one in the position to ask questions.
She probably hadn’t had a good meal in months, maybe years. She had one foot sitting on top of the other, as if her feet were frozen, and there was a smattering of goosebumps up and down her arms.
“He wouldn’t let you on the bus because that’s where the humans go.” I moved closer. The moon was full, but seeing her wasn’t the issue. I didn’t need a bright light to know something was wrong, but damned if I could say what it was.
Not only was I a werewolf, a shifter, I was an alpha. I could spot an animal running through the forest on a new moon more than five hundred yards away and name the creature before I saw it. My senses were better than the best of my race. But I couldn’t label something I’d never encountered before.
“Which is why I should be on it.” Her stare was full of venom.
“You aren’t human, though,” I said, adding a low rumble into my voice, daring her to lie to me again. “What are you? You can tell me now or wait and tell me later. Either way, you’ll tell me.” I leaned a little closer, just in case she was too slow to realize the threat I posed.
She crossed her arms, being either obstinate or cold. Experience led me to believe it had nothing to do with the temperature.
She didn’t stay silent long.
“Tell you what? You’re the one who seems to have all the answers. If I’m not human, you tell me what I am.” She shrugged, her nonchalance in strong contrast to the heat in her eyes and the anger seeping into her voice.
There were a million other things that needed to be done right now, and none of them included arguing with this odd female. I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and rattle her until she spilled all the answers. There was a strange strength about her that promised a longer fight, maybe to the death, if I wanted something she wasn’t ready to give.
I grabbed her wrist, since her heartbeat was so soft that I could barely hear it with all the chaos and movement around us. She immediately pulled at my grasp, but I held her until I got what I wanted. Her pulse was racing, and so erratic it was hard to tell if it was adrenaline or if she had some kind of condition. I let her go. It didn’t tell me anything that helped identify her, and there were a million other things to handle. Frankie’s dilemma was becoming much clearer.
She wrapped her hand around where I’d grabbed her, eyes narrowed and accusing, as if she couldn’t fathom how I dared to touch her.
I softened my tone, trying a different angle. “Can you at least tell me how long you’ve been here? I’d like to let one of my doctors look you over. You don’t look like you’re in great shape.”
Hope flared in her eyes and guilt swelled in my chest. If she wasn’t going to be forthcoming, I’d have to get my information however I could.
She looked down at her feet. There was the subtlest shake of her head as she said, “I’m not sure.” She spoke so softly that I wasn’t sure if she meant to answer me. “What’s today’s date?” she asked, looking up at me, her voice slightly louder.
“October first,” I answered, not allowing myself to pity this girl. It wasn’t usually an issue, but it was already clear she’d been living in that hell for longer than my sanity would’ve lasted.
“Ten months,” she said, staring at the ground again, as if she couldn’t quite believe her answer. She jerked her gaze back to mine. “But I’m fine. I can go with the others. I don’t need a doctor.”
Ten fucking months and no puncture wounds on her neck? They weren’t feeding off her, and they hadn’t killed her. They’d kept her alive, barely. The vampires didn’t keep anything that wasn’t useful alive.
That answer told me more than she realized. If the vampires had kept her, she must have some sort of worth that wasn’t obvious. She couldn’t be released, not without answers.
Frankie had moved farther away, directing shifters, but Jobo was still nearby waiting.
The second I turned my back on River, she took the opportunity to head toward the bus the humans were boarding.
I wrapped an arm around her waist, hauling her back. “Oh no, you’re not going with them.”
“You said I could leave.” Her voice was breaking, as if I’d offered her the ticket to freedom after all this time, and then ripped it up before she could snatch it from my fingers.
I dropped her back at the same spot. “No, I didn’t. And I won’t until you tell me what you are.”
I waited, expecting to see tears. All I got was anger so thick it nearly roiled off her.
“I’m human,” she said, but her words lacked the same energy of before, as if she knew the farce had come to an end.
I signaled for Jobo to near. “She’s not going with the rest of them. She’s coming back with us for a while. Keep an eye on her until we leave.”
Jobo was one of my tougher guys, someone who wouldn’t typically be wasted on a baby-sitting detail, but he seemed to realize things weren’t that clear-cut. He watched her with an intensity that was usually reserved for hundred-year-old vampires.
I put some distance between myself and River, something about her sticking in my craw more than it should.
Frankie finished with another shifter and then headed over to me. “Do you know what she is?”
“She’s not a shifter, vampire, human, or anything I’ve ever encountered.” There was no clear box to put her in, but I’d find one, even if I needed to build it myself.
“What do you want to do with her?”
What was I going to do with her? It would be so much easier to shove her on the bus, with the rest of the humans, but there were too many creatures in this world that had been rearing their ugly heads lately. She might not appear to be a threat—or an asset, for that matter—but some of the most vicious things I’d ever encountered were wrapped up in cute packaging. I didn’t have the luxury of guessing wrong.
“For now, drive her back with you. Bring Jobo along, just in case.”
“You think I’m going to need backup?” Frankie’s eyes went wide as he looked past me to River, as if we’d discovered some rare creature capable of killing with a glance.
“I’m not sure, but until we get a better read on her, and what she is, we’re going to use caution. She’s your responsibility until I figure out what to do with her.”
“Okay,” he said, and started walking toward her as if he’d been told he was taking home a class pet or something.
“Frankie,” I called.
He turned back to me. “Yeah?”
“Get her a blanket and some food. I don’t want her dead before we figure it out.”
And that was the only reason I cared. I couldn’t have her die before I learned her riddle or unloaded her.