Description: Night reigns (immortal guardians)
File name: Night reigns (immortal guardians)
It was not the cool breeze that made the hairs on the back of Ami’s neck rise, but the low bestial growl that accompanied it.
She froze, one arm extended in front of her, fingers tightening on the DVD case poised half-in half-out of the movie rental quick-drop slot. Gooseflesh broke out on her arms. Adrenaline surged through her veins and sped her pulse.
Swiveling to face the source of that disturbing warning, she surveyed the parking lot behind her and found it empty save for her shiny black Tesla Roadster. Orange and brown leaves swirled and tumbled across patched black asphalt that still glistened in places from a midnight shower. Whole Foods, Blockbuster, and the other businesses in the strip mall had long since closed for the night.
She glanced to her right. East Franklin Street was deserted … as it should be. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, was a college town. At roughly 3:20 on a Sunday night (or Monday morning), students and professors would be snug in their beds, catching Z’s in preparation for an early start to the work or school week.
Ami relaxed her death grip on the DVD and let it thunk down atop the myriad of other movies and games that had been returned. She took a step toward her car. The growl sounded once more, seeming to buffet her and ruffle her bangs alongside the northerly wind. Deep and full of menace, it was not the complaint of some irritable house pet left too long in the elements. No dog produced this rumbling. Something larger did, bringing it closer in tone and texture to that of a lion or a tiger.
Another growl answered it, not as impressive as the first, but nevertheless disturbing. Then another. And another. And another. Frowning, Ami reached into her jacket, withdrew the Glock 9mm Seth insisted she always carry, and approached East Franklin Street with caution.
It definitely came from the north. Not from the darkened businesses across the street, but from the bike trail to their right that veered left into the trees behind them. A snarling infused with such violence and fury one might think a lion were battling a pack of wolves.
Just as she reached the edge of the parking lot, odd shick, ting, and clang noises joined the fray.
Ami darted across the street and raced down the bike path. Tall trees formed spires on her right. A small meadow with a radio tower lay on her left, but soon surrendered to forest. When it did, Ami slowed to a brisk walk and entered the denser shadows. Her heart pounded. The babbling of a brook she couldn’t see teased her ears.
Ten or fifteen yards in, she left the path, headed into the trees, and began wading through the undergrowth. Fortunately, it had rained earlier. The autumn leaves beneath the canopy were still damp and muffled her footsteps.
Up ahead, small lights flickered like fireflies. Amber. Green. Blue. Silver. Sometimes individually. Sometimes in pairs. Moving and shifting. The length of time they remained visible varying.
Ami swallowed hard and questioned her sanity as she came to an area where the trees thinned. She paused, concealed by the denser foliage on the perimeter.
Ahead, too small to be called a clearing, lay a patch of land the size of a two-car garage that just happened to be treeless. In its center, a fantastical scene unfolded that—for many—would defy belief.
The flickering lights she had spied swam in and out of focus as the faces that housed them moved so quickly to and fro that they blurred. Men, who were clearly more than mortal men, engaged in a surreal battle that resurrected her first description: a lion facing down a wolf pack.
The lion—a dark, menacing figure in the center of the storm—bore glowing amber eyes and long black hair that floated around his head like tendrils of smoke as he spun, fought, and slashed at his attackers with a speed that brought to mind the Tasmanian Devil in the Warner Brothers cartoons Darnell had shown her.
No other creature could move so swiftly.
The pack of wolves—growling and snapping like their namesakes—also bore glowing eyes, theirs green, blue, and silver. Though they all, like the immortal, were garbed in midnight hues, their hair varied. Blond. Brunette. Auburn. Long. Short. Shaved. Spiked. Pulled back in a ponytail. They, too, moved faster than humans ever could, darting in and striking at the immortal with indistinct motions, then leaping back and pausing to gauge the damage and let their comrades have a shot, their blades dripping crimson liquid.
Though they couldn’t match their enemy’s speed and strength, the vampires outnumbered the immortal … eight to one as best she could count. Ami could only make out individual features when the vampires paused between strikes.
She discerned none of the immortal’s features because he remained in continuous motion, his swords or sais or whatever blades he wielded defending him from assaults on all sides.
Ami reached into her left pocket, palm sweating, and pulled out a cylindrical aluminum silencer that was longer than the Glock itself. Keeping her gaze on the conflict before her, she screwed it onto the barrel. The top-of-the-line suppressor would reduce the explosive expulsion of each hollow-point bullet to a mere click that would not rouse residents slumbering in the houses and townhouses beyond the trees.
Raising the Glock with her right hand, she supported it with her left and waited.
A blur of movement solidified into a blond vampire who halted—aqua eyes gleaming, bowie knives dripping—on the fringes of the pack.
Ami fired twice.
Blood sprayed from his carotid and femoral arteries. Dropping his weapons, the vampire emitted a garbled croak and clamped his hands to his neck in an attempt to cease the gush of his life’s blood.
A vampire with shaggy brown hair appeared next to him.
Ami fired thrice more, striking the new vamp in his carotid, brachial, and femoral arteries.
All six remaining vampires stilled and glanced at their injured colleagues, who sank to their knees as they bled out faster than the virus that infected them could heal their wounds.
The Immortal Guardian paused and unerringly met Ami’s gaze.
For one split second, her heart stopped, and everything around her fell away, out of focus, a dark void. All but the immortal.
His hair settled on his shoulders and tumbled halfway down his back and chest in wild disarray, concealing much of his face. His eyes, viewed through the tangles, glowed a vibrant amber beneath raven brows. Dark stubble covered a strong jaw spattered with spots and streaks of scarlet. His full lips parted, emitting great gasping breaths interspersed with the rumblings of a lion, and displayed white, glinting fangs.
It was, perhaps, one of the oddest moments of Marcus’s existence.
Well, odd might not be the correct word. Vampires still moving in packs larger than twos or threes was odd. Vampires remaining lucid enough to organize the ambush he had plunged into was odd. At least, it had been up until a year and a half ago.
This was surprising.
And very little surprised Marcus Grayden.
Panting, losing blood from dozens of cuts and gashes that had not had time to heal before more were inflicted, he stared at the instigator of this fortuitous pause.
He had expected to see a Second decked out in black vampire-hunting togs. Instead, his fascinated gaze landed upon a sweet, undeniably feminine face with a halo of bright orange curls. Wide green eyes as vivid as emeralds peered out of concealing foliage and met his.
She was pretty. And small. And seemed to radiate innocence. Were it not for the weapon extended before her, he would wonder if he weren’t imagining her.
Who was she? What was she doing here?
The clothing she wore labeled her a civilian—snug jeans, loose sweater, dark jacket—so why wasn’t she screaming? Why didn’t she shoot him? Why was she helping him instead of fleeing or firing at them all?
Marcus lacked the time to speculate further. He sensed the instant the six remaining vampires located the petite assassin and drew back his arm.
Ami watched the immortal swing a gleaming short sword at the vampire nearest him as all six vampires searched the trees for a glimpse of her. The head of a third vamp hit the ground at roughly the same moment Ami realized she had been spotted.
Sheer terror ripped through her, shocking her heart back into action and ramming it against her ribs in a panicked triple-tempo. Three of the five remaining vampires resumed their clash with the immortal. The other two turned their furious attention upon her.
Ami squeezed the trigger again and again and again, firing blindly into the blur their bodies became as they raced toward her. Or tried to race toward her. Hollow points did a lot of damage internally, bursting open like flower blossoms upon impact. And a semi-automatic could fire a lot of hollow points in a very short time.
Amy emptied the clip, filling the vamps’ torsos with the ten remaining bullets. As the two vampires stumbled and hesitated, she ejected the clip and drew another from her pocket.
One vamp—head shaven—recovered faster than the other, leaping toward her with a feral sound as she slid the new clip into the grip.
An unfocused shape swept between them: the immortal, moving so fast the breeze created by his passing yanked the hair back from her face. The bald vampire, nearly upon her, bounced back as though he had hit a wall. Cuts seemed to open on his flesh spontaneously as the immortal’s short swords flashed.
Shaken, Ami slammed the clip home, advanced a bullet into the chamber, and raised her weapon.
Two of the three vampires the immortal had been fighting had fallen. As the immortal halted, the two who had pursued her both fell, limp, to the ground. The sole surviving vampire took in the rapidly decomposing bodies of his companions and fled.
The Immortal Guardian turned to face her.
Ami swallowed hard and looked up at him. Way up at him. At six foot one or so, he towered over her own five feet. Her fear did not lessen, though she knew it should. Immortals were the good guys. Immortals had rescued her from the monsters who had locked her in a hell of their making. Immortals had taken her in, helped her regain her sanity, protected her, and given her a home.
But not before those monsters had done irreparable damage to her psyche.
Ami forced herself to lower her weapon, but could not lessen her grip on it or still her trembling.
The immortal studied her in silence. His clothing was torn in numerous places and wet with blood, both his and the vampires’. Though his hands still grasped short swords in loose, comfortable clasps, one arm hung at an odd angle.