Author's note: I was so tired of picking up fantasy books that always had something to do with vampires,... Show full author's note »
Domino EffectThere was a reason why I’d given up on sleeping in the cold, barren HQ dorms long ago, I reminded myself as I folded up to rest on the edge of the bed, muscles screaming, the beds are a pain. They were deceptive in their always freshly pressed, starched white sheets and the downy pillow that made your head look as if it were floating on a cloud. Never mind that when you woke up your muscles were knitted into knots and there was a painful crick in your neck that ached six ways to Sunday. Never mind
And the pillows were lumpy.
The Master’s going to be hearing about this, I griped silently all the way down the hall, elbowing open the swinging door to the community showers. Steam was already bouncing against the wall tiles, the sound of a weak stream of water smacking against the drain. Stupid old cheapskate. Hadn’t put forth a dime towards renovations since this place was built in the forties. Stupid, stupid man…
The trickle of warm water I’d managed to get going from the showerhead succeeded in loosening some of the smaller knots of muscle along my neck, but the more stubborn aches in my shoulders remained there. I pushed back the curtain and stepped out into the bathroom dripping, slightly wet, and still slightly irritated. I crushed the rough edges of the towel around me, the coarse threads scrubbing against my skin as I pinned it up long enough to knot my hair back in a braid and rinse my mouth out with mouthwash. The minty wintergreen burned the insides of my cheeks, the aroma burning up through my nose before I spit it out into the sink.
“Julia, hi. Long time no see.” The voice echoed off the walls.
I turned. A girl stood with her back arched over the sink several feet away, her head angled toward me and a toothbrush shoved in her mouth. She grinned around a mouthful of toothpaste.
“Lena,” A rush of familiarity connected with the look of her familiar face. I made my best attempt at a smile back. “How’s it goin’?”
She shrugged, spitting out a mouthful of white foam and rinsing her toothbrush in the sink. She pulled away the towel that’d been wrapped around her head, letting long, damp tendrils of her blond hair spill out over her shoulders. “Oh, you know, can’t complain. Fourth division was sent out on a raid last night—got the chance to clear out a nasty infestation in a cushy, Upper East Side loft. Master was kinda pissed we trashed the place, but still—it was fun as hell while it lasted.”
I grinned. “Any of them put up a fight?”
She nodded, her green eyes going wide. “You should’ve seen it, Jules. It’s like they got wind that we were coming and they got out of there quick.” I noticed the dark shadows resembling half moons under her eyes; I wondered how long it’d been since they’d made it back. “Not fast enough, of course. But for a while things were a little chaotic. Got myself a bit of a warrior wound because of it.”
She peeled back her hair from her shoulders and angled herself so that I could see the six-inch gash underneath her tank top scoring her shoulder blade, the black etchings of stitches joining both sides of the wound. I winced out loud, the empathetic pain running hot up the back of my arm.
“Hawk?” I asked, knowing a bird’s razor-like talons were some of the only things that could’ve torn at someone that badly.
Lena shrugged. “Couldn’t tell. It came at me from behind, and things were so crazy at the time it made focusing impossible—I didn’t know which one was changing, what they were changing into, where they were going…”
I can anticipate the actions of people around me by knowing the decisions they’re going to make before they make them, I remembered Lena telling me the day I’d finally cornered her, demanding to know why it was that she could go out and fight, while I had to stay back at Headquarters with the other incapable nitwits who were too stupid to fire guns. I fight because I have an ability. You don’t because you’re a liability.
We’d gotten along ever since.
She let her hair fall back down like a blond curtain. “There was so much noise; it was like I was blind out there. The only decisions I was sure were being made were my own, and even then I was half-crazed and panicky. We think we got all of them, but I no one can be sure because they were so erratic. It worries me—”
“Relax,” I said, “I’m sure things went fine—they always do.” She sighed raggedly. “Although I’m sure I could do a better job than you with one arm tied behind my back.” I grinned, teasing.
She laughed. “Master still got you on lockdown?”
I nodded. “Now that they’ve found another one of Us,” Please. Just go away echoed in my ears, Devon’s face rising behind my eyelids coming at me like a fist to the gut, “He’s always got someone keeping tabs on me. The only way I get out is if I sneak out.”
Lena nodded in agreement although she had no clue as to what I was talking about—a gesture which turned the shame that nearly doubled me over into an intense flame that gave me half a mind to throw one of my fists into her face. People like her—warriors, ones that got to out and do something productive with themselves—never understood the pure frustration that rattled around inside me when they complained that they had to go out on a raid again, or they had to respond to a call after only two hours of sleep, or they had to clean their own gun after people like me were too busy to do it for them. They thought my complaints were petty, and, while none of them said it, let it fester in the backs of their minds that I was nothing more than a waste of space—the prophesied Savior, and yet I sat around all day and let everyone do the dirty work.
“Hey,” she said after what felt like too long of an uncomfortable silence, “I’ve got a morning training session I’ve got to power through. I was wondering—could you spare some sparring time? I don’t think I can go through another battle with a bunch of imaginary people and hoped that you could—”
The words were out of my mouth before she could finish. “Yes,” I said, careful to mask the pure giddiness running through me, “Just let me grab some gear and meet you at the mats. Fifteen minutes?”
She agreed, and I ducked out of the bathroom before I could lose control of the excitement already working through the coiled tangles of muscle rippling under my shoulders, a tiny bubble of happiness about to burst in my chest. A grin bobbled on the surface of my lips.
I was back in my room and dressed by the time a knock echoed through my door. “Come in,” I shouted, falling to my knees against the edge of the bed, tugging on my boots.
The door creaked. I ignored the hollow bang of it knocking into the wall behind it, keeping my mind on lacing my boots, hitting the mats, kicking Lena’s ass. Even the footsteps into the room hadn’t fazed me.
Levi set a blueberry muffin and a carton of orange juice beside me. “Good morning, sunshine,” he said, “See you’re up early. Didn’t think to escape?”
I overlooked his last comment the same way I overlooked his presence. “I’m gonna go spar with Lena,” Lace my boots, hit the mats, kick Lena’s ass. I rolled so that I was sitting on my knees, digging under the edge of my bed.
Levi made a sound of amusement. “Lena? All-knowing, crazy woo-woo powers Lena? Please tell me this is a joke.”
My fingers connected with the edges of a loose floorboard hidden away underneath the metal bed frame, prying it open and plunging my hand into the darkness below. “Nope. Crazy woo-woo Lena invited me to train with her today, and I’m gonna go.” I pulled out the bowie knife, strapping the sheath to the inside of my forearm.
“What, to take the place of the punching bag?” He sank down on the end of the bed, watching me. “Jules, she’s gonna kick your ass.”
The stiletto blade came out next, its cold metal sending ripples of icy shivers across my skin as I slipped it in between the inside of my calf and the worn leather of my boot. “Thanks, you have no idea how much your support means to me,” I muttered sarcastically, hoping he could feel the hint of acerbity lining my tone. Again I plunged my hand down into the dark hole. “You’d make a great cheerleader.”
I grabbed hold of the gun and spare clip, slamming the loose floorboard back into place and jamming the nose of the weapon in my back pocket. I pulled myself to my feet.
He slouched against the bed frame, his head dipped low so that his chin rested against his collar bone, arms folded across his chest and one booted foot folded up over the other. His complexion, although still the same shade of pale ash, had a bit of a glow to it in the light, the green tint he too often had gone after what I hoped had been a full night of sleep. He breathed deeply—calmly—and raised his head to look at me without dark shadows under his eyes, but instead with a light in his baby blues that sent relief surging through me. A grin curved at the end of his lips—one that looked innate, pure, and effortless.
“You’re right,” he said, “I would.”
I tried to hide the smile fighting to take over, pursing my lips together in what I hoped looked like a grimace. “What are you doing here, Levi?” Why must you be so damn happy all the time?
He raised his eyebrows, tilting his head towards the muffin and orange juice at my feet. “Breakfast,” he said. “And a favor.”
“Favor?” I hated when he said that—it usually meant I never had a choice in the matter; that it wasn’t a ‘favor’ at all but more likely an order from someone I couldn’t refuse.
From Master, no doubt.
“It’s the kid,” he said. “He’s refused to talk.”
Gotta hit the mats, kick Lena’s ass, chanted in my head. I could feel the seconds ticking by, the precious feeling of sweat and adrenaline slipping through my fingers. “So? What am I supposed to do about that?”
Levi looked at me, a knowing gaze blazing in his sapphire irises. I knew he was trying to tell me something, the feeling of unsaid but indistinct words flowing in the silent space between us before they fell to the floor, fading as their meaning was lost to me. His jaw was set tight, his eyebrows arched in a look laden with unknown meaning.
I stooped, picked up the muffin and orange juice, and turned my back on him. “Counter to what everyone might believe,” I said, heading to the door, “There’s no sign on my ass that says ‘Freakin’ Miracle Worker’,” I stopped, framing my butt cheeks for good measure. “If the boy says he doesn’t want to talk, he’s not gonna talk. I can’t do anything more about that than anyone else here. Thanks for the update, though.”
I was two steps from the doorway. Only two steps from freedom. It only would’ve taken one foot in front of the other and I would’ve been free.
But then he was talking again, and I froze.
“Au contraire, mademoiselle. He’s refused to talk to anyone—but you.”
The words had an odd ring to them, masked by the sounds of Devon’s voice echoing in my ears. Please, just go away reverberated over hit the mats, kick Lena’s ass in the back of my mind, swallowing Levi’s voice until it sounded far away and lost in what felt like a crowd of people tugging me in forty different directions. My head began to spin.
“Me?” I asked, disbelief thick in my tone. Please. Just go away. Shame ebbed behind my heart. “That’s impossible.”
Levi raised his hands, shaking his head. “Impossible, improbable, all together unlikely—call it what you want. Point is that he says he needs to see you, and Master is…inclined to give him whatever he asks for.”
“You mean, it’s an order.”
He nodded, refolding his arms over his chest. “It’s an order.”
Yeah, well, I’m not his damn dog, I thought about saying. He doesn’t just get to bark orders and have me come running. I never got catered to when I was brought in; I never got people to bend over backwards for me as I made special requests. I got thrown into the lifestyle and looks that said ‘just be damn happy you’re even alive’ when I made too big of a deal about it. I never got Levi to come and comfort me every time the big, bad men flashed their blades or gave me sinister looking, crooked smiles.
I never got cut a break.
“Tell him I’m busy,” I said, the gun feeling like a lead weight in my back pocket. I should’ve been at target practice. I should’ve been trying to beat the crap out of Lena as she used my own moves against me, moving faster, ducking lower, hitting harder.
It looked like that opportunity had gone just as fast as it had come.
“No can do, Jules,” Levi raised himself to his feet, rolling his joints back into place. “This messenger boy isn’t going to be killed today.” He grinned.
I bit down hard to keep from saying something Levi would take too much enjoyment out of. Instead, I left him there, chuckling to himself like a damn maniac, turning on my heel and storming past the threshold. I took the stairs two a time down into the interrogation rooms, ignoring everyone else in the hall who wanted to waste my time with hellos.
I swore I could hear Levi mocking me all the way there.
He pushed the manila folder across the table at me with his fingertips, nudging it along until it rested just along the table’s edge. “You left that here last night.”
Devon sunk back into his chair, eyeing me. He silently coaxed for me to take it, eyebrows arching.
Willing to humor him, I gingerly lifted up the worn paper-clipped and rubber banded stack of papers. “This is what I was summoned here for?” My grip released, and the file slammed back onto the table with a slap! that echoed through the room. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
A hot bubble of irritation burned at the roof of my mouth, forcing my teeth to fold down over my tongue so that the rage would stay contained inside me. My grip tightened on the back of the sturdy folding chair; my knees locked into place. Devon gazed casually up at me as I loomed over him.
“Or really it’s just what I considered to be night,” he said, speaking as if he’d never stopped in the first place. “I have no idea what time it is anymore.”
“It’s 8 pm,” I mumbled, throwing back the chair and crashing into it. “Everyone here’s on different sleeping schedules so the operations can run ‘round the clock. Right now is about the time the sleepers are waking up and the afternoon shift is just nodding off.” Welcome to nocturnal living.
In truth, it wasn’t like the ‘vampire shift’ didn’t go without its perks—everyone was so busy keeping an eye out for Shifters, escaping became a piece of cake. No one worried about where I wandered off to when masses of bloodthirsty monsters crawled out into the streets in the first dregs of moonlight wanting nothing more than to satisfy their cravings—I was the last thing on their preoccupied minds. Even Shifters thought I was tucked away somewhere they wouldn’t be able to get to me and didn’t waste their energy on sniffing me out.
Even so, I did well to make sure I stayed out of their hunting grounds.
Levi did his best to prevent me from leaving. He’d ratted me out to Master, getting an executive order to forbid me from leaving the premises. He’d found tedious work to keep me busy. He’d slept barricading my door—that had been the worst, his snoring kept me up most of the night—and then kept a close watch on me for the rest of the shift.
And he even put a lock on my door from the outside, holding me prisoner in my own room.
None of them worked, of course—it had always been a matter of time before I found a way around, under, or through his plans. And it always ended in him shaking his head, giving me the look, and saying how I was surely going to be the death of him.
Or humanity, whichever came first.
That was before. Before, when there was only one of us. When I was trained, practiced, and drilled into defending myself—preparing me for the day I would have to stand up and protect the world on my own. When losing me meant losing everything…
A lot had changed since then.
Devon’s gaze emptied deeply into his hands—ones that were rebound in silver cuffs, I noticed—his fingers gently tracing his ragged, scabbed over knuckles. I could tell by the way his eyes never moved, unblinking, that he was avoiding my presence, trying to pretend like I wasn’t there.
“What did you really bring me down here for?” I asked.
He shrugged again. “I wanted to apologize,” he muttered into his hands. His head raised and his brown eyes connected with my face. “What I said to you was wrong—I didn’t mean it—”
Devon’s face softened. For a second, his eyes seemed to be swimming, a gleam of fluorescent light reflecting in the whites of his eyes before he blinked and it was smoothed over with a look of stone. His eyebrows knitted together in a look of intense concentration as he fought for his own words, his lips pulled into a tight line. “I was scared.” He dropped his head again.
My insides squirmed with some form of an emotion I couldn’t really name. I shifted uncomfortably in his chair, trying not to look at the shadow of a busted lip, the still healing gash on his chin, the swipe across his forehead.
At his fragility.
I wanted so much to be mad at him. I wanted to be able to put a name and a face to my irritation. To my rage. But I knew, in that moment when it all seemed to slide away, none of it was meant for him.
He hadn’t done anything more in the last two days than what I’d done in nine years.
“Relax,” I told him, “I was never mad at you. Ashamed of myself, sure, but at you—there was nothing.”
His head rose in surprise. There was something swimming in his brown eyes again. “Ashamed? Why would you be ashamed?” Devon leaned forward into the conversation, digging his elbows into the table.
I felt myself leaning, too, squeezing the space that separated us until it was smaller and smaller. “I didn’t exactly break any of…this,” I motioned to the space around us, to the identical circular Marks on our arms and the small trickle of noise filtering through the door behind us. “to you gently. You shouldn’t have had to find out that way.”
He chuckled dryly, falling back into his chair again. “And how do you suppose it would’ve been best for me? Videos? Flash cards? Charades?” He thumbed the handcuffs. “There was no easy way around this.” The words were solemn.
Silence festered within the space. I fell back into my chair, sighing, absentmindedly rubbing over the small spot just below my elbow where the Mark stood out strikingly pink against the rest of my skin. Although tempted, I kept my shirt sleeve pulled down over it, fighting the urge to compare it with Devon’s. I looked up and he was watching me, the small edges of a rough smile curling the corners of his mouth.
“Those people had ones just like us,” he said, dipping his brown irises to the file. “They were just like us. Different races, different nationalities, different families—but we’re all the same. We all look the same here.” He tapped his forearm.
My gaze met his. “Kinda makes you wonder why we’re so special, doesn’t it? Why we were the ones to survive, and not rotting six feet under.” It took a certain ounce of control to pull my hand away from the Mark, resisting by wrapping my fingers around the edge of the table. “I see you’ve read the file.”
Devon shrugged. “Light reading.” He grinned again, but it fell before it had any sort of an effect on me. “There was no saving them, was there?”
We lost another one. I remembered Levi’s tired voice mutter in hushed tones. I had been young then—twelve, at the most—when I’d watched him from my hiding place slip down the hall and into Master’s office. I followed when I heard the door close with a definitive creak and a snick of the lock piece falling into place, my ear pressed to the door as Levi let out a long, ragged sigh. There was nothing we could do. She was in…pieces when we found her. They hadn’t left a trace.
Master’s rough, gravelly voice had shook my bones. You’re sure she was one of them?
Silence. Levi breathed deeply again, and then: They were sure to leave the Mark intact.
“None of them stood much of a chance,” I muttered. “Even we were saved by a matter of luck. Marked children were born to ordinary families with ordinary jobs with ordinary, workaday lives. For all intents and purposes, we were ordinary people. Ground teams just happened to be in the right part of town at the right time, following the right set of clues and responding to the right calls. It was just—”
“A miracle,” he muttered.
I shook my head. “A fluke.”
The memories burned of a rough pair of hands pulling me from the coat closet. Of their arms holding me close so I couldn’t get free, their low voice murmuring something that was supposed to be comforting as they covered my eyes, telling me not to look. We’re here to help, they whispered over the shouts I was too blind to place, snarling and screams and the vicious sound of bones snapping and teeth clinking together churning around me, swallowing my own frantic shrieks. Mommy, daddy…
I was carried into the inky, watery blackness of night spoiled by the silvery dregs of a full moon, crisp air burning the skin my nightgown hadn’t thought to cover. Hoarse, racking screams still ripped through my chest—I couldn’t stop no matter how much it hurt. Rough hands were replaced by much gentler ones. Sight overcame blindness as the cover was removed from my eyes. The face of a scared looking seventeen year old boy filled the cloudy edges of my vision, one whose piercing sapphire eyes poured into me a compassion that faded out the now distant sounds of chaos as he rocked me until it lulled me into a slumber…
I blinked, and the memories were gone. Once more, and the muddled fringes of my subconscious turned into Devon’s face, worry etched into its very contours. His tense jaw slackened, mouth opening to form some sort of his response, hands reaching out to grab mine balled into tight fists on the table. I saw the empathy in his eyes—the understanding without even saying a word.
“Julia,” he mumbled, his fingers just grazing my own. “I—”
And then he froze.
The muscles rippled in the back of his hand. His fingers coiled reflexively around my wrist, his blood-stained fingernails biting down into my flesh until I let out a gasp in both surprise and pain. I yanked my hand out of his grasp, but the grip held firm. The more I pulled, the tighter he seized, and less he started to react to me.
“Devon,” I pulled again. His muscles were tense and corded up into his shoulder blade, forcing pressure onto my joints until the tips of my fingers were numb and tingly. “Ow. Devon, seriously—get off me—”
His eyes lost focus—he was no longer looking at me, but through me—with the whites of his eyes swimming among the mass of swirling blackness in his dilated pupils. Nothing in him reacted to me; the light of recognition fled from his features and left him a hollow, wide-eyed, frantic shell of his former self.
“What is your—” My mouth locked around the word problem, but then I heard it.
I froze too.
It was the gentle rattle of the door hinges shaking against their bolts, the weight of something prying its way in from the outside pressing against the door frame. Nails raked against the pane of frosted glass; a screech of protesting metal rocked the sturdy barricade in its frame.
A maniacal laughter rippled in its wake.
Air flew from Devon’s lungs as a tremor of icy panic froze my very core—my heart beat loud in my ears, pulse thrumming against my temples. I choked on my fear rising like acid reflux into a knot in the back of my throat. I ripped my hand from Devon’s panicky grasp.
My muscles, unlike his, didn’t get scared stiff—they coiled instinctively for the gun in my back pocket.
Time slowed down long enough to watch in horror as a massive claw scraped against the outside of the glass, transforming in a fraction of a second into a human hand. It pressed into the bottom corner the same way a child held them up against the rainy windows—only these were thick, and strong, and evidently powerful.
And no child could draw their hand back and punch through an inch and a half of bulletproof glass.
My heart dropped into my stomach as the cold sense of reality washed over me. They’re here! my thoughts screamed, Shoot, you dumbass, shoot! I raised my gun, fingers locked on the trigger. SHOOT!
Nothing could compel me to move.
I was choking, spinning, falling into the dark recesses of my own nightmares, drowning in the looks of their faces through the wooden slats of lonely, ordinary coat closet. The memories swirled. My family—their bodies bloody and mangled beyond repair. Devon—bruised and badly beaten. And Levi.
The gun shook between my fingers as the hand slammed through again, its fingers grasping for the lock piece on the other side. They were muscular, burly fingers. Ones that would have no problem wrapping around my throat, forcing the air right out of my lungs…
It was over, I knew it—it’d only been a matter of time before things would’ve caught up to me. I just wished that I was going to go down with more of a fighting chance, not cornered like a herd of zebra who’s only other hope was lame and just as good as dead.
One shot, I knew that’s all I’d have. After that would be the Change, and then he’d be stronger, faster, and easily have the upper hand.
I’d been trained for a lot, but none of it included the art of dying valiantly.
Never shoot with your eyes closed, Levi had said to me. Never, ever. You could be shooting your best friend out there. Do you understand? I’d nodded, motioning my understanding with a wide-eyed grin, careful to get a full blink before my fingers squeezed the trigger.
He never bothered to tell me how hard that would be to remember when you were looking death in the face—how hard it would be to actually follow, because my eyes were closing just as my fingers were squeezing and the sound of the shot reverberating shook the entire room.
I wasn’t sure of what I’d hit—an animalistic roar tore apart what was left of the silence, one so piercing that even Devon’s screams were all but nonexistent. There was a deep, resonating clatter of something collapsing in the hallway, its immense weight crashing into the doorframe, lurching it forward on its hinges. Humanoid moans followed in the echo of the gunshot. And then, there was silence.
Did I do it? My thoughts screamed. Did my shot hit home?
The hope didn’t last long—the guttural snarl ripped through the air again, this time with the horrible sound of teeth snapping. The human moans faded into silence.
Something moved, and then the doorknob was turning.
I laid into the trigger again, preparing myself to empty out the rest of the clip. The door swung inward. My fingers grazed the trigger. I listened for the sound of the staggering, uneven footsteps to come closer, and closer, and closer.
The shadow fell past the frosted glass breathing raggedly and gasping for air. “Julia,” it wheezed, almost begging in a too-familiar tone, “Jules—”
Bloody, staggering, and apparently weak—but it was still him. He fell into the room, gazing at us through half-closed lids. He sank into a heap on the floor.
“Julia, you have to escape. Shifters—Shifters are—” He fought around his slurred speech. “They’re here. Go. Save yourselves. Save humanity.”
And he collapsed.