There were three things Wraith did well: hunt, fight, and fuck. He was going to do all three tonight. In exactly that order. Crouching on the rooftop of a shop run by immigrants who had probably come from such a shitty country that the violence in the streets of Brownsville, Brooklyn, didn’t faze them, Wraith waited. He’d spied the gang members earlier, had scented their aggression, their need to draw blood, and Wraith’s own need to do the same stirred. Like any predator, he’d chosen his target with care. But unlike most predators, he didn’t go for the weak or the aged. Screw that. He wanted the strongest, the biggest, the most dangerous. He liked his pint of blood with an adrenaline chaser. Unfortunately, Wraith couldn’t make a kill tonight. He’d already met his one-humankill-per-month limit set by the Vampire Council, and no way in Sheoul would he go over. Strange that he worried about it, given that ten months ago Wraith had happily gone through his s’genesis, a change that should have made him a monster who operated only on instinct—an instinct to screw as many demon females as possible, with the goal being to impregnate them. An added bonus of the s’genesis was that male Seminus demons became so focused on their sex drives that they cared little for anything else. But in Wraith’s case, he was also a vampire, so killing things was in his blood.
So to speak. Eager to get started with his new life, Wraith had found a way to bring on The Change early. Unfortunately, it didn’t change a damned thing. Oh, he wanted to screw and impregnate females, but that was nothing new. The only difference was that now he could impregnate them. Oh, and he also had to shapeshift into the male of their species to do it, because no female on Earth or in Sheoul, the demon realm in the planet’s core, would knowingly bed a post- s’genesis Seminus demon. No one wanted to give birth to offspring that would be born a purebred Seminus despite the mixed mating. So yeah, a few things had changed, but not enough. Wraith still remembered the horrors of his past. He still cared about his two brothers and the hospital they had all started together.
Sometimes he wasn’t sure which was worse. Wraith scented the air, taking in the recent rain, the rancid odors of stale urine, decaying garbage, and spicy Haitian cuisine from the hovel next door. Darkness swirled around him, cloaking him in the shadows, and a cold January breeze ruffled his shoulderlength hair but did nothing to ease the heat in his veins. He might be the epitome of patience while waiting for his prey, but that didn’t mean that inside he wasn’t quivering with anticipation. Because these weren’t your typical gangbangers he was hunting. No, the Bloods, Crips, and Latin Kings had nothing on the mercilessly cruel Upir. The very name made Wraith’s lips curl in a silent snarl. The Upir functioned like any other territorial street gang, except those pulling the strings were vampires. They used their human chumps to commit the crimes, to provide blood—and bloodsport— when needed, and to take the falls when the cops busted them. For their service and sacrifice, the humans believed they would be rewarded with eternal life.
Idiots. Most vampires adhered to strict rules regarding turning humans, and since a vampire was allowed only a handful of turnings in his entire lifetime, he didn’t waste them on lowlife gangbangers. Of course, the gangbangers didn’t know that. They played the streets, their fangsdripping-blood tats and crimson-and-gold gang colors screaming warnings others heeded. No one messed with the Upir. No one but Wraith. The Upir came. Seven of them, talking trash, swaggering with overblown arrogance. Showtime. Wraith unfurled to his nearly six feet, six inch height, and then dropped the fifteen feet to the ground, landing right in front of the gang.
“Hey, assholes. ’Sup?” The leader, a stocky white guy wearing a bandanna wrapped around his bulbous head, stumbled back a step, but hid his surprise behind a raw curse. “What the fuck?” One of the punks, a short, fat, crooked-nosed troll—not literally a troll, which was unfortunate, because Wraith could have killed him, penalty-free—drew a blade from his coat pocket. Wraith laughed, and two other punks produced their own knives. Wraith laughed harder. “The dregs of human society amuse me,” Wraith said. “Rodents with weapons. Except rodents are smart. And they taste terrible.” The leader whipped a pistol out of his droopy-ass pants.
“You got a motherfucking death wish.” Wraith grinned. “You got that right. Only it’s your death I wish for.” He smashed his fist into the leader’s face. The leader rocked backward, clutching his broken, bleeding nose. The scent of blood jacked up Wraith’s temp a notch… and he wasn’t alone. The two gangsters at the rear zeroed in on the scent, heads snapping around. Vamps. One black male, one Latino female, both dressed like the others in baggy jeans, hoodies, and ratty sneakers.
Jackpot, baby. Wraith was going to get some kills in tonight, after all. Before any of the stunned humans could recover, Wraith sprinted down a side street. Angry shouts followed him as they gave chase. He slowed, drawing the gangsters in. Nimbly, he leaped on top of a Dumpster and then swung up to a rooftop and waited until they passed. Their fury left a scent trail he could follow blindfolded, but instead, he dropped to the ground, used his infrared vamp vision to see them in the darkest shadows ahead. He hated using any of his vampire skills, including super speed and strength, but vision was the one he truly despised. Despised, because he hadn’t been born with it. Instead, it had come twenty-two years later, with the eyes Eidolon had transplanted into his head nearly eighty years ago.
Every time Wraith looked into the mirror at the baby blues, he was reminded of the torture and pain that had preceded the new peepers. Kicking himself for letting the past distract him, he silently started the hunt. Normally, he’d take out the vamps first, but the troll was just ahead, huffing and puffing and trailing far behind the others. He pounced, squeezed the breath out of the squat human, and left his unconscious body behind a pile of boxes. Next, he tracked the male vamp, who thought he’d gained the upper hand by swinging around behind Wraith. Wraith feigned distraction, standing in the open beneath the bright glare of a street light as the vamp crept forward. Closer… closer… yes. Wraith spun, pummeled the massive male with a flurry of fists and feet. The vamp didn’t have a chance to throw a single punch, and once Wraith had hauled him into the darkness beneath an overpass, he took him down. With a knee in the male’s gut and one hand curled around his throat, Wraith drew a stake from the weapons harness beneath his leather jacket.
“What,” the male gasped, his eyes wide with shock and terror, “what… are… you?” “Buddy, sometimes I ask myself that same question.” He slammed the stake home. Didn’t wait around to watch the show as the vampire disintegrated. There was another one to take out. Anticipation shimmered through his veins as he stalked the female through side streets and alleys. Like the male, she believed she was the one doing the hunting, and Wraith caught her off guard as she crept in the shadows behind a building. He shoved her into the wall, lifting her by the throat so she dangled off the ground. “This was too easy,” Wraith said. “What is the Vamp Council teaching younglings these days?” “I’m no youngling.” Her voice was a low, seductive purr, and even as she spoke, she lifted her legs to wrap them around Wraith’s hips.
“I’ll show you.” The scent of lust came off her in waves. His incu-bus body responded, hardening and heating, but he’d rather kill himself than screw a vampire—or a human, though he had different reasons for not bedding human females. He leaned in so his lips brushed her ear, which was pierced all the way around. “Not interested,” he growled, but still, she arched against him, affected by his incubus pheromones. You shouldn’t play with your food. Eidolon’s voice rang in his ears, but Wraith ignored it the way he ignored pretty much everything his brothers said to him. He had no intention of making a meal of this female. “Could’ve fooled me,” she said, rolling her hips into his erection. “Maybe you need some convincing.
” Wraith pulled back and gave her an eyeful of wooden stake. Her eyes went wild. “Please…” She swallowed, her throat convulsing beneath his palm. Her body wilted like a dying flower, and that fast the temptress was gone. “Please. Just… do it quickly.” He blinked. He’d expected her to beg for her life. He met her wide, haunted gaze, and slowly, with a sick sense of dread, he shuffled his fingers on her neck. A raised pattern peeked from beneath the collar of her hoodie.
Damn. He shoved his stake into his pocket and tugged her sweatshirt aside to reveal a welted pattern the size of his fist. A slave mark. Not just any slave mark. The cross-bones brand of Neethul slavemasters, the cruelest of the demon slave traders. This female had been forced to live in hell for gods knew how long. Somehow she’d gained her freedom, probably by escaping… and now she was doing what she had to in order to survive. She’d suffered. Was probably suffering even now. Something clawed at his gut, and it wasn’t until he lowered her to the ground without realizing it that he identified the strange feeling.
Sympathy. “Go,” he said roughly. “Before I change my mind.” She got the hell out of there, and so did Wraith. Rattled by his uncharacteristic display of mercy, he ruthlessly shoved aside the incident. He needed to get back on track. He needed to feed. He needed to cause some pain. The punks had split up, and one by one, he tracked them down with almost mechanical efficiency until only the leader was left. Somewhere nearby, a gunshot rang out, a familiar sound in this part of the city, so familiar he doubted the cops would even be called.
The leader was ahead, pacing in front of a boarded-up shop front, his voice crisp with agitation as he barked out orders on his cell phone. “Yo, scumbag,” Wraith yelled. “I’m over here! Would it help if I wore a neon sign?” -Red-faced with fury, the leader bolted into an alley after Wraith. Halfway in, Wraith pivoted around. The gangster pulled his gun, but Wraith disarmed him before he could so much as blink. The weapon skidded across the wet pavement as Wraith put the guy’s back into a wall and jammed his forearm across the human’s thick neck. “This is disappointing,” Wraith drawled. “I expected more of a fight. I seriously wanted to tenderize you before I ate you. When are you guys going to learn that a gun is no substitute for learning hand-tohand combat techniques?” “Fuck you,” the guy spat.
“Guy like me?” Wraith smiled, leaned in so his lips grazed the guy’s cheek. “You. Wish.” An outraged bellow made him smile even more. He inhaled the man’s aroma, anger tainted by a tantalizing thread of fear. Hunger roared through Wraith, and his fangs began to elongate. Playtime was over. He sank his teeth into the gangster’s throat. Warm, silky blood filled his mouth, and after a couple of spasms, his prey went limp. Wraith could have used his Seminus gift to fill the guy’s head with happy, pleasant visions, but this dude was scum.
The things he’d done slapped at Wraith’s brain in rapidfire succession. Sure, Wraith was no angel—though he’d screwed a false one or ten—but with the exception of Aegis Guardians, he didn’t harm human women or children. This guy… well, Wraith wished he hadn’t blown this month’s kill quota on the Sumatran poacher. Still, tormenting the gangster could be fun. Swallowing the human’s alcohol-laced blood with relish, Wraith used his mind power to feed the guy gruesome images of what Wraith would do to him if he ever found out that he’d committed a violent crime again. For the most part he couldn’t care less if a human lived or died, but this guy got off on preying on the weak and the old. There was no sport in that. Power surged through Wraith, power and adrenaline and flashes of heat lightning under his skin. His dermoire, a history of his Seminus demon paternity, pulsed from the tips of the fingers on his right hand to his shoulder and neck, and all the way to the right side of his face, where the swirling black glyphs marked him as a post- s’genesis Seminus. Humans thought it was a tattoo—some thought it was cool; the rest were appalled.
Humans were so freaking uptight. His prey’s pulse picked up as his heart tried to compensate for the blood loss. Wraith took two more strong pulls, disengaged his fangs, and hesitated before licking the puncture holes to seal the wound. He’d never minded drinking from his victims, but he hated licking them, tasting sweat, dirt, perfume, and worse, their individual essence. Cursing silently, he swiped the holes with his tongue and tried not to shudder, but the shakes wracked his body anyway. “You should kill him.” The male voice, deep and calm, startled him. No one snuck up on Wraith. Ever. He released the gangbanger, letting the guy hit the pavement with a thud.
In a fluid, easy movement, he faced the newcomer, but too late he saw a flash and a blur, felt the sting of a dart in his throat. “Shit!” Wraith ripped the dart from his neck and threw it to the ground, even as he charged the guy who had shot him with it. He was going to gut the bastard. Wraith grabbed for the male’s shirt, some sort of burlap tunic, but his fingers only brushed the collar. The guy was unnaturally fast—unnaturally fast for a human. This male was demonkind, species unknown. The male didn’t make a sound as he whispered through the night, moving toward a sewer grate. Awkwardly, because his left side had begun to weaken, Wraith drew a throwing star from his weapons harness. He hurled it, catching the newcomer in the back. The male’s ear-shattering, highpitched scream rent the night as he fell.
Wraith slowed, a sudden sense of dread weighing him down, turning his limbs sluggish and uncoordinated. He stumbled, attempted to catch himself on the side of a building, but his muscles had turned to water. His vision grew dim, his mouth went dry, and with every breath it felt as if he was taking flames into his lungs. He tried to reach his cell phone, but his arm wouldn’t work. And then his mind wouldn’t work, and all went black. Throbbing pain in Wraith’s head woke him, and a serious case of cotton-mouth made him gag. He smelled sickness. Blood. Antiseptic Shit, what had he done last night? He’d been clean for months… well, he hadn’t fed on a junkie just for the sake of getting high, anyway. He’d eaten his share of humans and demons who had drugs in their systems, but that hadn’t been why Wraith had chosen them as food.
At least, that’s what he’d told himself. In any case, he hadn’t woken up with a drug or alcohol hangover in months, but this… this was one mother of a hangover. He peeled open his eyes, the pain convincing him his eyelids were coated on the inside with sandpaper. They watered, and he had to blink several times before he could focus. Through blurry vision he saw chains hanging in loops from a dark ceiling. Low, muted voices blended with the sound of beeping hospital equipment and ringing in his ears. He was at Underworld General. He should be relieved, comforted to be safe. Instead, his gut wrenched. Clearly, he’d screwed up again, and his brothers were going to chew his ass but good.
Speak of the demons, he thought, as Eidolon and Shade entered the room. Wraith tried to lift his head, but the room spun in a nauseating swirl of dark colors. “Hey, bro,” Shade said as he grasped Wraith’s wrist. A warm, pulsing sensation shot up Wraith’s arm. Shade was doing his body probe thing, checking his vitals and whatever other crap needed to be checked. Maybe he could do something about the spins. “What’s up?” he croaked. “You boys are wearing your grim faces.” Which meant he’d fucked up even more royally than he’d thought. Eidolon didn’t smile, not even the fake, doctorish, it’s-going-to-be-okay smile.
“What happened the other night?” “Other night?” “You’ve been out for two weeks,” E said. “What happened?” Wraith levered up so fast his head threatened to fall off. “Oh, no. Fuck, no. E, did I kill someone?” His brothers both pushed him back on the bed. “Not that we know of. Yet. But we need to know what happened.” Relief made him sag into the mattress as he searched the black hole that was his memory. An alley.
He’d been in an alley. And in pain. But why? “I’m not sure. How did I get here?” Shade grunted. “I felt your distress. Grabbed a medic team and took a Harrowgate to you.” “What do you remember?” E asked, jacking up the head of the bed so Wraith could sit up. He sifted through the fuzzy memories, but piecing them together was like trying to do a jigsaw puzzle while blindfolded. “I was eating a gangbanger. Tasty, surprisingly free of drugs.
” He frowned. Had he killed the guy? No, he didn’t think so… remembered closing the punctures. “I felt a sting in my neck. And there was a male. Demon, I think. Why?” The pulses down his arm stopped, but Shade kept his hand where it was. Even though he was no longer using his healing power, his dermoire continued to writhe. “You were attacked by an assassin. Sent by Roag.” “Ah… did you guys miss the bulletin that said Roag is gone?” Wraith eyed his brothers, waiting for the punchline, but they didn’t look like they were jacking with him.
“Oh, come on. Roag is as good as dead. For real this time.” Their older brother had plotted a gruesome revenge against the three of them, had nearly succeeded. If Wraith never saw the dark depths of a dungeon again, it would be too soon. Eidolon ran his hand through his short, dark hair. “Yeah, well, he hired the assassin to handle his revenge on us in the event of his death. You must have injured him, because he was in bad shape. Tayla tracked and caught him while Shade was bringing you back here. He confessed everything before Luc ate him.
” “Ate him?” E nodded. “The assassin was a leopard-shifter. Nothing scares them more than werewolves, so we chained him up in Luc’s basement to get him to talk. We thought we’d secured him far enough away from Luc.” He shrugged. “Apparently not.” “I love werewolves,” Wraith said, shooting Shade a sly grin. “Guess you’d better not piss off Runa. She might eat you.” Shade had bonded to a werewolf last year, and had been disgustingly happy since.
“Why are you here, anyway? Shouldn’t you be helping her with the monsters?” “You mean the ones you haven’t bothered to come see yet?” “Shade.” Eidolon’s voice held a soft warning, which was odd. Usually Shade was the voice of reason when it came to handling Wraith. But ever since Runa had delivered their triplets, Shade had been seriously overprotective and easily offended. He just didn’t get that not everyone went as goo-goo over his offspring as he did. Wraith shoved the sheet off his body and saw that he was naked. Not that he cared, but his coat had better not have been ruined when they stripped him. Knowing Shade’s love of trauma shears, Wraith figured odds were good that he’d have to buy another one. “So why all the doom and gloom? The assassin failed.” Shade and E exchanged glances, which set Wraith on high alert.
This wasn’t good. “No, he didn’t fail,” Shade said softly. “The guy has a partner. He’s still out there, and he’s after all of us.” “So I hunt his ass down and kill him. I don’t see the problem.” Shade’s pause made Wraith’s gut do a slow slide to his feet. “The problem is that the first assassin shot you with a slow-acting poison dart.” Wraith snorted. “Is that all? Just shoot me up with the antidote.
” “Remember Roag’s foray into the storeroom?” E asked, and yeah, Wraith remembered. Last year during Roag’s bid for revenge, he’d helped himself to E’s collection of rare artifacts and crap Wraith gathered for him. “One of the things he took was the mordlair necrotoxin. That’s what the assassin used.” E exhaled slowly. “There’s no antidote.” No antidote? “Then a spell. Find a spell to cure it.” Panic started to fray the edges of his control, and Shade must have sensed it, because his grip grew firmer. “Wraith, we’ve consulted every text, every shaman, every witch.
… There’s nothing that can flush the poison from your system.” “So, bottom line. What are you saying?” E handed Wraith a mirror. “Take a look at your neck.” He brushed Wraith’s hair back to reveal his personal symbol at the top of his dermoire. The hourglass, which had always appeared full on the bottom, had emerged following his first maturation cycle at the age of twenty. Wraith inhaled sharply at what he saw now: The hourglass had been inverted, the sand flowing from top to bottom, marking time. “You’re dying,” Eidolon said. “You have a month, maybe six weeks, to live.”