In Bloodbound, Larsa is a dhampir—half vampire, half human. In the gritty streets and haunted peaks of Ustalav, she's an agent for the royal spymaster, keeping peace between the capital's secret vampire population and its huddled human masses. Meanwhile, in the cathedral of Maiden's Choir, Jadain is a young priestess of the death goddess, in trouble with her superiors for being too soft on the living. When a noblewoman's entire house is massacred by vampiric invaders, the unlikely pair is drawn into a deadly mystery that will reveal far more about both of them than they ever wanted to know....
Chapter One: Deserving Victims
Both were victims.
She ground against him, forcing hips away from the soot-smeared stone of the alley wall, hands grasping, mouth gnawing.
His breath came as a gasp but left as a growl. Hands struggled with her dress's collar. Hairy fingers dug in her skin.
Had I been a passerby, glimpsing them sidelong from the street, I might have been envious. Even knowing what they were, some voyeuristic urge stopped me on the slick shingle overlook. The appeal of hard and soft flesh aside, I wondered which of the pair was more the monster.
Clothes fell away, hardly barriers at all, the straps of her provocatively innocent dress following his tailored coat. Peasant cloth dangled from her waist, skin milky in the alley's slats of mist-webbed moonlight. He barely spared a hungry glance before diving back to her kisses, a coarse hand pinning her shoulder to the bare brick. Her own light touch played him like the moist rim of a wine glass, the results just as audible.
I couldn't hear their words, but the timbre of their murmurs gave away a predictable script. Gravelly whispers threatened pleasures. Feigned naivete filled her response with blushes. His hand slipped behind him, reaching for the grips of the tool jammed in the back of his belt, no longer hidden under his big coat. The steel of workman's shears scored the gloom—shears that had, in preceding weeks, pruned at least four similar alley flowers. Her slitted eyes didn't see, her head falling back under an assault of bruising kisses. The blades came up.
Here it was.
Like a whip crack, the motion was too fast even to blur. With a snip and splash the shears clattered to the boggy cobbles.
There was no pleasure in his second gasp.
Pale arms that had strained to enfold him a moment earlier now bit into his skin like viciously pulled reins. Her kiss on his neck was deeper now, sharper and hungrier. He struggled, but only now, with jaws at his neck, did he realize that he wasn't the predator.
A shame. I'd hoped she'd be the one surprised. Few humans could match her experience, though—she'd likely been hunting in the city for decades. She might have continued, too, if she played by the rules. Now she'd become a problem.
I dropped from my vantage. Heavy with the night's cold mist, my cloak slapped the stained cobbles. Her eyes were on me even as her mouth worked her lover's neck. Greedy thing, she was more chewing than drinking—obviously not of the sort of stock anyone taught manners. I straightened and pulled my sword, its silvered length catching a glimmer of moonlight through the dull haze.
Her eyes locked on mine, watching but obviously not considering me enough of a threat to risk losing her meal. The struggling in her grip was weakening, the man gradually accepting a warm, lethargic futility—the best part. I closed cautiously.
She came up, as if for the air she didn't need, gasping lewdly as she did. Sweat and blood trailed from her mouth in ribbons. She'd been sloppy, blood coursing down her jaw and chest. Daintily, she touched her hand to her lips, stained fangs glistening behind her fingers. A practiced pout poured over the shoulder of her current beau. "You can be next."
Very sloppy. My blade leapt up, obviously faster than she'd expected. A slender white digit arced into the air and plunked into the mud. It didn't bleed.
Her scream was not that of a blushing maid. Shrill with shock, it cracked, reaching a pitch like a shrieking hawk. Her lover barreled into me, thrown backward as she extracted herself from his embrace. I spun out of the way, surprised to hear him grunt as the muddy cobbles met his face.
My sword came back up for the milkmaid. The alley was empty. My eyes went higher, and so did a missile from my belt. The dart sounded like a wasp for the instant it flew, jabbing its silver stinger into a blood-drenched neck. She'd leapt up one of the alley's crumbling tenement walls—an elementary trick.
"Bitch!" Pain growled through the word. She sprang. I slid back. Even with a belly full of blood she was likely faster than I, but I was still quicker than she thought. Nails like claws sliced past my face, digging into filthy alley stone. It wasn't a jarring miss, though—she landed like a bounding cougar and pounced again.
My sword was between us, its hilt wrapped with the copper chain of an angelic ankh—the holy icon of Sarenrae, goddess of the sun. She skidded and reeled, expecting the symbol to flare with divine light.
"You are forbidden to hunt in this part of the city." I brandished the talisman as though I had faith in it. "Explain yourself."
"I have refined tastes." Even stained and exposed, she postured. "I hunt where I choose."
"You hunt where your master allows. You hunt where his truce isn't threatened."
She tittered, again raising a coy hand to her mouth. It came back wet. "I have no master."
"Your arrogance threatens more than you understand."
"You mean we threaten you mortals." She started to circle me. "Had that old coward not betrayed his kind with his truce, the only humans in this city would be mindless casks, waiting to be drained."
"Overestimation is a disease of the lowborn."
She sneered. "Your end could have been pleasant, had you the sense not to insult your betters."
It was my turn to laugh. "You had to trick a human into an alley. He wasn't under your control—he was planning to kill you. Was his mind too difficult to overpower? Or perhaps your will was too weak?"
Her eyes smoldered in the gloom. "How dare—"
"Speaking of control, not even a rat has come to your aid. Where are your minions, mistress?" I produced a match and ran my nail across its head, the crisp white flame dramatically lighting her snarl. She was ready to pounce.
"But most pitiful," I dropped the match into the muck between us, "is that."
On the ground between us lay her dainty, mud-stained digit.
"There's no magic in this blade, Your Ladyship. So apparently you're still mortal enough to be cut up by our weapons." I leveled the sword at her face. "You're not my better. You're hardly even fit to call yourself vampire. You're just some bored immortal's stray spawn."
Baring her fangs and screeching, she rushed me, crushing the match underfoot.
She wanted me dead. Good. There'd be no tricks now. She might not be a true vampire—at least, not as the full-bloods would consider it—but she was still deadly enough.
She lashed out wildly, claws blurring. I kept ahead of her, scoring several nicks across her forearms. The bloodless wounds knitted shut with unnatural speed, but her reckless rush gave me plenty of opportunities to make more.
Her chirping laugh echoed off the alley walls as I gave ground. A stroke across her stomach killed the noise, the gash deep enough to make her gush blood that wasn't her own. With a sound more gurgle than growl, she grabbed the blade as it freed itself from her midsection. The silver bit deep into her grasp. I thrust to impale her, but the sword didn't budge. Death lent her unnatural strength, and she yanked the blade from my hands. It clattered down the alleyway, toward her forgotten meal. My emptied hands snapped up, one covering my heart, the other reflexively trying to hold her off as she came. She slammed into me, pinning me against the wall just as her lover had trapped her moments before.
She locked her nails around my neck. "Scream!"
The chill of her hands caused my breath to catch. Death, palpable and endless, washed over me, an arctic wave seeking to erode my soul. While blood kept vampires fed, the chill of their lifeless essence leeched mortal life, freezing a living spirit to death.
Fortunately, I liked the cold.
"What?" She blinked, baffled as to why her touch wasn't sapping my life. I flashed her a smile, and in that last moment she understood.
I twisted, pulling a hawthorn stake from my bandolier, then lunged. The sharpened wood drove home, her weak, wet skin splitting like a reptile egg. A rigidity more appropriate to the deceased seized her body, freezing her face in a look of wide-eyed realization.
I pushed, and black locks trailed her stiff fall. She struck the stone with hardly a thud. The stake quivered, but stayed firmly planted through her heart.
She wasn't dead—or, rather, she wasn't destroyed. The stake would hold her paralyzed and unaware so long as it remained in place. A final destruction required a bit more effort.
At the other end of the alley, I was surprised to find the big man weakly struggling to pull himself against a wall, blood oozing between thick fingers clasped to his neck. I paid his groans no mind and retrieved my blade.
Back with my quarry, I performed the necessary field dressing—removing her head. It was a practiced grotesquery, and I hacked through the cold meat with a butcher's half attention. A trickle of gore—none of it her own—reminded me why I hated doing this right after the creature had fed. Finishing the work, I dragged the decapitated corpse to the alley's eastern mouth, propping it against a wall sure to be hit by the morning sun. The dawn would reduce the vampire's body to ashes, assuring no second resurrection.
A whimper drew my attention back to the bleeding man. Dropping the vampire's head into the stained sack I used for exactly that purpose, I turned back to the would-be murderer.
Past him, a carriage soundlessly pulled up at the far end of the alley.
I didn't hold back any of the curses that leapt to mind.
Stiff black clothes held a stiff-backed driver, a human in his late fifties who regarded the bodies and incriminating stains with disinterest.
"He's expecting you," he said in his perpetually bored voice. Despite the formality, I knew it was an order.
Damn. This was sure to further ruin an already perfectly unpleasant night. "I'm almost done."
The driver's expression didn't so much as twitch, yet I could tell he disapproved.
To hell with him.
I retrieved the bleeding man's heavy shears and knelt at his side. He couldn't resist me pulling his hand away, uncovering his torn neck. The spawn had been brutal, but he'd survive.
He let me scrutinize the wound closer, obviously mistaking my intentions. He hardly whimpered when my mouth clapped over the deepest wounds, fangs tearing the tortured flesh back open. I pressed his arm against the wall and drank fast, draining him like I was throwing down a shot. I didn't like sharing from the same flask as my quarry, but if the evening was taking the turn I feared, I wouldn't have another chance.
Anyway, he deserved it.