PART I – Darkness
The near future…
“The queen is missing.”
Whispers from a fading dream ripped through her body, startling her from a restless sleep. Sitting up in the middle of the stuffed cot, she used the back of her hand to swipe away a heavy layer of sweat and oil from her brow. She looked down and saw that her hands were shaking. Her breath was ragged and she could barely breath. Her chest was heaving high with deep sobs that refused to release from her lungs. Silent screams were the worst. The burning behind her breasts was nearly unbearable, like the flare from a blowtorch was crisping her skin to shriveled shreds. When she realized what was causing the pain, she immediately recoiled. Her thin legs lifted from the edge of her shabby mat and yanked them back so that she could hug them to her chest and pin herself at the head of the bed.
With her back against the cool plaster of the wall behind the bed, her eyes watched the cause of her mania. The last beams of daylight were slipped through the thin slit used for ventilation and slid across the tiny single room quarters. Even the muted illumination of the pale orange was strong enough to cause a gnawing pain behind her eyes, forcing her to coward deeper into the darkness of the corner she was now trapped in. She shut her eyelids tight and buried her head between her knees, seeking desperate relief from the glow spilling into the assigned room of the apartment building. There was at least another full hour of torment to endure before the last drops of late twilight disappeared from the sky then sweet relief would finally come.
This was not the same world she had been born into. Somewhere along the way, everything had flipped. Night was day, and day was taboo – forbidden, dreaded, to be avoided at all costs…even lethal, like now. After so many years of hiding in the shadows, even the darkest skin was white as smoked ash and the palest skin was nearly transparent. A society of vampires? Hardly. A pack of ravenous heathens condemned to dwell in darkness? Very possibly that is what they had all become.
For the next hour, while the last embers of sunlight slid into a merciful twilight, she fought off panic and tried to ignore wispy strips of pain ebbing across her skin. The moment purple overtook gold in the eternal struggle for dominance of the sky, the first howls pierced the air. Strangled high-pitch screeches fill the early night. Time to move. And move fast.
After a quick birdbath from a small basin of chilly water stashed in the opposite corner of the room, she pulled on her work uniform – a tattered black halter top, battered mini skirt, tall leather spike-heeled boots, and elbow-high leather gloves with the finger coverings removed – and made a dash for the dive hall she called home seven nights a week.
Rule number one: Never let your guard down.
Keeping to the center of the cracked asphalt streets, she kept her steps small and quick. She set her pace so sleek and stealthy that she could barely hear or feel the soles of her boots tap against the hardtop. Her path was straight, never steering too far left or right of the nearly blackened nightscape stretching out before her.
Her eyes darted swiftly in all directions. Small barrel fires flickered every few hundred feet. Whenever she came within ten feet of any of them – and their unseen keepers – her pace quickened and she diverted her path slightly to the opposite direction. The more space, the better. She could feel the gaze of wicked wraiths peering at her from the cover of blackness just beyond where the flames licked the cold night air. Even at night, light could signal death. She could sense that she was always only one breath shy of merciless torment at the hands of whoever might be cloaking themselves deeper within the inky blackness of the shadows crawling behind the shimmering veil the red and orange flames created.
A woman’s worst nightmare was being dragged away into the shadows, never to be seen or thought of again. Scream. Scratch. Struggle and fight. None of it would matter. No one would come to your aide. No one would care that you’re gone. No one would remember who you were when day broke. The moment the greasy hands clutched your skin, you became a twin with death. When your meal card goes inactive for twenty-four hours, it would be canceled and the credits cycled back into the ward’s general account. Whenever the monitors took note that your quarters were empty, they get reassigned. The crack of a neck. A push of a button. Like you never existed. In reality, you could be in the wasteland keeping company with dear agony.
Three steps past the last fire barrel and a whistle breezed past her ear. Low snarls soon followed. Flight or fight. Instinctively, she kept moving. To freeze for even a second too long could be one second too long past permanent midnight. The tiny hairs on the back of her neck stood on end as the patch of skin covering that spot began to prickle with terrible anticipation. She sensed too much heat hovering behind her. Nowadays, probably for the last fifteen or so years, human – Could you still call them that? She honestly wasn’t sure – body temperature ran a little lower than the previously standard ninety-eight point six degrees. Even though she and everyone else in this forsaken land had banished by the light, a small part of her hoped that she wasn’t a complete monster. But now was not the time for such silly thoughts. Whoever or whatever was hovering behind her, not more than twenty paces away, was spilling enough heat for it to warm the full fold of her neck and shoulders. Even weres don’t spit out that much heat, and especially not from that distance. The creature was at perfect stalking range and closing in.
Her legs flexed into a run. She made quick work of bounding up the stairs that led to the entrance of The Lare. The open palm of her right hand and the clenched fist of her left pounded on the frosty metal door.
“Hey!” She yelled with every breath in her body. “Open up!”
She paused only long enough for a quick listen. No answer. No turn of the complicated locks. She resumed her banging.
“Open up! It’s me.”
The second the jury-rigged door swung open, she pummeled over whoever had just unlocked it and dashed into the safety of the dark cavern on the other side. Before she could disappear into the thick mass of writhing bodies stuffed into the wide gallery ahead, big arms grabbed her by the shoulders, causing her to tumble back against the bristly hairs of a massive, fur-covered chest.
“What’s up with you, Shay?”
Shalise Stanford. Say it. Her grandma’s voice echoed in the back of her mind. Say your name.
Shalise Stanford. She repeated in a child’s small voice.
Never forget who you are.
I won’t gramma’. She could hear herself repeating the vow, even now.
“Hey,” he said sharply then shook her slim body, rattling her back teeth and bringing her back to reality. “You in there?”
“Let go’a me,” she hissed through clenched teeth. While spitting the short bristly hairs from the mat plastered on his chest out of her mouth, she tried to snatch her arms out of his grip, but it was useless. He was stronger than a bear and twice as hairy.
His dark, glazed eyes glared down at her. When he flicked his pink tongue across his dark lips, a violent shudder raced down her body. A wicked gaze slid down to her exposed cleavage. She wasn’t ashamed of her body – no one ever was, not anymore – but that didn’t mean she wanted anyone to have free range over it either. So far, she had kept her intimate secrets to herself. How long that would last was anyone’s guess. She had been lucky, but one day that well would run down to the mud and she knew when that day finally came, it wouldn’t be pretty. Thankfully, it wasn’t today.
“She’s late,” another male voice boomed in. “Just let ‘er go. We need drinks in hands and tongues wet. New boss in town and we don’t want him t’see an unhappy crowd. She’s the fastest bar maid we got, so just let ‘er be.”
A nasty grin smeared across the bear’s fat face. Now that he had her scent, he would be on her…constantly, so she needed to watch her back at all times.
After he unhooked his grimy nails from the sensitive skin on the underside of her upper arms, she took off like a race hoarse, making sure to lose herself into the thick crowd. No looking back, just ahead.
Rule two: Never look back. Always meet the end face forward.
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