THE CHANGELING    

by Winnie

 

Part 2

Josiah looked at the clock and tried Tanner’s cell number again. There hadn’t been any word from either of the missing men since they’d left the office and Josiah, Nathan, and Ezra were getting worried. JD’s cell phone was busy, Larabee’s and Tanner’s were out of range, and Buck’s seemed to be turned off.
 
“Josiah, who was that writer JD said he was going to see?” Jackson asked.
 
“Galloway, Arthur Galloway,” Sanchez answered.
 
“Ezra, do we have an address on him?” the medic asked.
 
“I believe so, if not I will find it…hold on,” Standish said and began tapping the keys on his laptop.
 
“This just doesn’t feel right, Josiah. Something’s going on and it’s not something I want to see,” Jackson observed.
 
“I know what you mean, Brother, there’s something out there and somehow it’s feeding off our fears. Lord knows there are enough references to evil and its incarnations in the Bible, but I’ve never truly believe it was something we could reach out and touch.”
 
“What does the Bible say about fighting it?” Jackson said.
 
“It says a whole lot of things, including faith, but my father always said when faith is not enough then use bullets, knives, and anything else you can hold in your hands. He called it going Old Testament on them,” Sanchez offered with a toothy grin.
 
“Your father was a smart man,” Jackson said.
 
“Here it is,” Standish told them and printed off the address.
 
“I think it’s time we had a talk with Arthur Galloway,” Sanchez said and waited for the two men to finish what they’d been doing. It was nearly quitting time anyway and nothing more could be done until they had the reports from the police department or Larabee, Wilmington, Tanner, or Dunne called in.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“Edward, I want them brought here tonight,” the creature said as she ran her fingers through Larabee’s hair. She’d caused him more pain than she meant to, but at least now she had him under her control and would hold him here until the ceremony was completed. Chris Larabee was proving to be a lot stronger than she’d given him credit for, but that pleased her because it was something he would pass on to their children.
 
“It will be easy to get Standish, Jackson, and Sanchez, but the young one…Dunne…he is holed up with Galloway,” Edward explained.
 
“When all of this is over I want that nosy bastard dealt with,” she said and looked into Larabee’s glazed eyes. She had fed on him again and easily cajoled him into drinking from her veins with just a threat to Tanner’s life. It would not be long before Chris Larabee was a full changeling and would never question or fight her again. Until then she would enjoy his little attempts to betray her and use his friends to make him cooperate.
 
“Yes, Mistress.”
 
“Go get the others and bring them here,” she ordered and continued to toy with Larabee’s soft hair. She heard him leave and knew it would not be long before the other three men were in cages and that would leave just one on the loose. Perhaps she would leave him alone and see if he truly believed what Galloway was telling him. He would not be able to hurt them so long as they left Billings and found a new place to start over.
 
“Please, let them go…”
 
“So you were not sleeping as you wished me to believe. You know, Love, there really is no point in fighting me.”
 
“I will do everything you ask…just don’t hurt them.”
 
“You will do everything I ask anyway, Love, they are simply a means to getting you to cooperate. It will be up to you whether they die quickly or if I prolong it so you can hear their screams. Perhaps you would enjoy hearing them scream, Love…it would be a reminder of what happened to Sarah and Adam.”
 
“God…”
 
“God has nothing to do with my kind, Love, it’s time you realized that,” she whispered and nuzzled his neck. Slowly she slid down his body, touching his mind with her own and allowing him to see how many lives she’d drained over the last 200 years. She could feel his disgust at what she’d done, but it didn’t matter because soon he would be responsible for killings of his own.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Nathan offered to make the drive in his car and they’d readily agreed. They drove north as darkness began to spread across the city. The streetlights drove back some of the shadows while lengthening others and sometimes ominous images developed along their peripheral vision.
 
Josiah watched the streets, amazed that there were even fewer people around than normal. So far he’d seen only two people in the six blocks they’d driven and that was low even for a cold night like this one. His gaze swept the edge of an alley and he frowned when he saw movement just inside the entrance.
 
“Nathan…”
 
“I saw it,” Jackson said and quickly pulled a U-Turn and headed back to the alley. He kept the beams on high which drove back the shadows and revealed everything in the debris covered alleyway. There were several garbage bins and a couple of recycle containers, but what caught their attention was the dark sedan parked near the back fence.
 
“Ezra, stay here,” Sanchez ordered.
 
“Josiah I can…”
 
“I know you can handle yourself, Ezra, but I’d really like to have someone watching our backs,” the ex-preacher warned and exited the car. He saw the younger man nod once before he too joined them on the street. “You see anything you yell!”
 
“I will,” Standish assured them.
 
Josiah stepped deeper into the alley and could feel Nathan following close behind. There were several soft, whimpering noises from the shadows cast by the sedan and Josiah motioned for Nathan to cover him.
 
Ezra watched the two men closely, ready to move should anything seem out of the ordinary. He turned and gazed toward the abandoned building to his right, but nothing moved. Turning back to the alley he saw Josiah step into the shadows while Nathan covered him and couldn’t stop the niggling feeling that something wasn’t quite right. A sound, more of a soft whispering breath at his ear startled him and he tried to turn, but his body refused to obey his mind’s commands. He saw an impossibly large figure of a man, but there was something wrong with it. The arms extended, showing gossamer wings with throbbing veins running through them. Ezra tried to warn his friends, but the creature seemed to draw the very air from his lungs. Darkness reached up to claim him and Ezra tumbled into the waiting abyss.
 
“Josiah, did you hear that?” Jackson asked and turned back to his car.
 
“I didn’t hear anything,” Sanchez said, pointing his flashlight inside the empty car.
 
“I thought I heard Ezra call out…you okay here for a minute?” the medic asked.
 
“I’m fine…doesn’t seem to be anyone in here,” Sanchez answered. He heard Jackson walk away from the car and tried the door handles. Finding the back door open, Josiah opened it and looked inside. Too late he remembered no one was watching his back and turned around in time to see something aimed straight at his skull and he fell into the backseat with a soft thud and whoosh of air escaping from his lungs.
 
Edward turned to see the last man reach the car at the edge of the alleyway. He smiled at how easy it was to capture the humans and looked forward to being part of the ritual hunt. With a quick check on the two unconscious men, he moved to retrieve the third man.
 
Nathan heard a sound behind him and turned, but there was nothing behind him. He looked back down the alley, but could not see Josiah and that coupled with Ezra’s disappearance sent a chill through his spine. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone even as he yelled the ex-preacher’s name. “Josiah!”
 
The wind gusted along the street and he pulled the jacket tight around him as he looked through the numbers in his cell phone directory. A sound above him had his head snapping up in time to see something impossibly large hovering above his car. “What the fuck!”
 
Edward landed in front of the handsome male, and smiled allowing the human to see his fangs drop down, but he knew he could not use them on either of these men. His mistress wanted them brought to her and sucking their veins dry was not part of her plans.
 
Nathan tried for his gun, but the shock of seeing the creature land before him made his movements slow and his arms felt as if they were wrenched from their sockets. He cried out, dropping to his knees in pain, but could not fight the vampire that now loomed above him. The creature quickly raised its winged hands and brought them down on the male’s neck and shoulder sending shockwaves of agony twisting through his gut. Consciousness was a feeble thing, and was quickly lost to the darkness.
 
Edward lifted the human into his arms and carried him toward the sedan. He opened the trunk and dropped Jackson inside before moving to retrieve Ezra Standish. He placed him inside and closed the lid before moving to the third victim. He quickly wrapped a length of cord around the man’s wrists and did the same with his ankles before covering the unconscious form with an old, moth eaten blanket from a bygone era. He climbed into the car and drove out of the alley, stopping next to Jackson’s car. He quickly got out, drove the second vehicle inside where it could not be seen from the main road before getting into the sedan and driving away from the city.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
JD rubbed at tired eyes and looked up as the ancient grandfather clock began to chime. He’d been so engrossed in the articles that he hadn’t noticed the passing of time until he counted each chime and realized it was ten PM. His stomach grumbled and he realized he hadn’t eaten since breakfast and had been surviving on coffee.
 
“I don’t have much to offer in the way of food, Kid, but I could throw on a couple of TV dinners,” Galloway offered.
 
“Could order in a pizza,” Dunne suggested.
 
“Not this late. Sorry, Son, but I don’t open my doors for no one once the sun goes down.”
 
“You really believe the stuff we’re reading?”
 
“Don’t you?”
 
“No…yes, I don’t know. I mean this is stuff straight out of one of Wes Craven’s horror movies. Shape-shifting vampires…dismemberment…draining of blood? I mean it’s just too much to wrap my head around right now.”
 
“Well, you fucking well better get your head wrapped around it because these things are real and we need to find a way to kill them for good,” Galloway told him, standing and striding to the big window. He gazed outside, but was unable to see anything and resisted the urge to press his face up against the glass. “These things showed up 200 years ago and it’s about fucking time they were sent back to wherever the hell they came from. If you can’t help me do that then get out and leave me to find the answers myself.”
 
“I didn’t say I wouldn’t help!” Dunne snapped. “I said it’s hard to be serious about something I’ve seen in the movies. Maybe we should just go buy a bunch of crosses, as much garlic as we can carry, and as many wooden stakes as we can find.”
 
“That’s movie talk, Kid, but like I said before there’s always a little truth to what we see or read. So maybe we should get garlic and crosses and stakes, but we’re also going to get our hands on some silver bullets and lots of gasoline or lighter fluid. I figure after everything we’ve read we should be able to use one of them things to kill those bastards,” Galloway told him.
 
“Well, we’re not going to find any place open tonight, but we could go check out some of the old surplus shops…”
 
“I think there’s a shop over on the west side that sells witchcraft supplies,” Galloway told him. “We could get a couple of them star thingies they use for protection.”
 
Taking a deep breath, JD picked up another article and began to read. This one dated back to the early sixties and catalogued several murders that took place in a small village in South America. Several villagers had been drained of blood and their bodies had been scattered over the area near an old church.
 
“JD, did you want me to put on a TV dinner for you?”
 
“That’s fine,” Dunne said.
 
“You want to spend the night…the bed in the guest room is comfortable enough,” Galloway offered.
 
“Sounds good,” Dunne told him and flipped through several more pages before reaching for his cell phone. He called the apartment and left a message telling Wilmington where he was and that he wouldn’t be home and then turned the cell phone off before returning his attention to the papers spread across the table and floor. The answers had to be in here somewhere and that meant something more definitive than lighter fluid and silver bullets.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Buck and Vin shifted in their small cages when they heard footsteps coming toward them. A single bulb, dangling by a cord suddenly came on and the two men noted there were several empty cages in the dank room they were being kept in. The sound of the heavy door screeching open had them both sitting forward and watching the big man enter.
 
“Josiah!” Wilmington called, but there was no answer from the unconscious man thrown over Edward’s shoulder.
 
“What the fuck did you do to him?” Tanner snarled, angered when their jailer simply smiled and shoved Sanchez into an empty cage before closing the door.
 
Edward could feel the two men watching him and smiled at the thought of the anger flowing through their veins. It wouldn’t be long before that anger changed to fear and that was something his kind could feed off of. The mistress had told him where to place the three men and ordered him not to speak to them and he could feel the frustration his silence caused. He moved outside and lifted Jackson from the trunk and carried him in next, placing the man in the cage dangling from the ceiling. Again, Tanner and Wilmington yelled at him, but he refused to answer their questions.
 
Vin and Buck could only watch as the man left and returned moments later with the unmoving body of Ezra Standish. He was also deposited into a hanging cage before the light was turned out and they were left alone in the darkness.
 
“What do you think happened to JD?” Wilmington asked worriedly.
 
“I dunno, but I think the kid is still free and if he is…”
 
“He’s our ace in the hole,” the rogue said softly. “I just hope he doesn’t go doing anything stupid.”
 
“JD’s smarter than ya give ‘im credit fer, Buck,” Tanner told him.
 
“Vin…that you?”
 
“Yeah, J’siah…are ya hurt?” the Texan asked.
 
“Mostly my pride,” Sanchez answered. “Any idea where we are?”
 
“Somewhere north of Billings. Chris drove past the ranch and took a couple of side roads,” Tanner told him.
 
“Have you seen Ezra or Nathan?” the older man asked.
 
“They’re in the cages hangin’ in the corner,” Tanner answered.
 
“She’s done something to Chris, Josiah,” Wilmington offered.
 
“Looks like we’re all here except, JD and Chris,” the Texan said. “I jest wouldn’t go countin’ on Chris fer help…that leaves JD…”
 
“Something tells me JD’s not alone. We were on our way out to Galloway’s place to see if the kid was there when we were attacked. If JD is with Galloway there’s a good chance they’ll put two and two together and…”
 
“Come up with five,” Wilmington finished for the ex-preacher. “These things are behind the killings.”
 
“What exactly are these things? Did you get a look at them?” Sanchez asked.
 
“I don’t know exactly what they are, but they can change their appearance quicker than we can change our clothes. The bitch took on Sarah’s face and is toying with Chris’ mind. The male is a vampire…she changed him and he’ll do anything she tells him to,” Wilmington explained, wincing softly as his shoulders came up against the bars of his cage.
 
“Are you two hurt?” Sanchez asked.
 
“Buck’s got some wounds to his shoulder. The bitch hunted him down before she had Edward put him in here. I might have a couple of busted ribs,” Tanner answered simply, closing his eyes and reaching for the quicksilver touch against his mind, but was forced to sop when he met a malevolent force that sent daggers through his skull.
 
“Do you know what she’s done to Chris?” Sanchez asked worriedly.
 
“She fed from him, Josiah…took some of his blood.”
 
“Damn…”
 
“That’s not all,” Wilmington continued and closed his eyes angrily when he pictured Larabee feeding from her veins because of him.
 
“What else?” the ex-preacher asked.
 
“He…he…the bitch told him she’d kill me if he didn’t take some of her blood in return…I couldn’t stop him, Josiah…I couldn’t do anything…Chris’ eyes were…they were…God…”
 
“Buck, you’re not to blame for any of this,” Sanchez vowed. “What we need right now is a way out of these cages.”
 
“We’ve already tried,” Tanner told him. “There’s no lock, but there don’t seem ta be a door either. Whatever Edward uses ta open them we ain’t found it.”
 
“There’s always a way out of a cage,” Sanchez offered.
 
“Now where have I heard that before?” Wilmington whispered and tried to ignore the burning sensation in his upper chest.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Chris lay on the bed, hardy moving, barely even breathing as if to move would be an acknowledgment that he cared whether he lived or died. The truth of the matter was he didn’t give a damn anymore. Too many things had happened, too much had changed, and even his sanity was now in question. He could feel the creature beside him and no longer saw her as Sarah, but as the shape shifting vampire he despised. Her cold touch caused him nothing but pain, and yet he could not deny that he wanted more…wanted to taste her…feed from her veins…spend eternity with her. The problem was he could no longer fight her and had fed from her several times, but only after she’d threatened to hunt one of his team down and feed on him while his heart still pumped blood through his veins.
 
“What are you thinking about, Love?”
 
Chris looked at the creature hovering above the bed with Sarah’s body and face. He no longer fell for the ruse and turned away in disgust that at one point he’d truly thought he’d found the love of his life all over again. It felt as if his soul was no longer his own and yet he fought her touch, at least that’s what he told himself, but when she fed on his neck and offered her wrist in return he could not deny the cravings raging through his mind.
 
“Chris, do not defy me…you know I can take what I want from your mind…”
 
“I hate you…hate what you’re doing to me!” Larabee spat.
 
“Do you really? Somehow I doubt that very much…but you keep on telling yourself that right up until we are joined. Once that happens you will no longer care about those friends of yours. Even her memory will become distant and cold. You will care only for me and whether I will allow you to feed…”
 
“No…I won’t let you take Sarah’s memory from me.”
 
“You keep telling yourself that, Love, and someday you and I will both laugh about how shallow it sounds. You feel it in your veins don’t you? The strength that flows between us…the craving for my touch…”
 
“No…I don’t feel anything for you,” Larabee insisted, but he could not resist when she lowered her body onto his and sank her fangs into his throat. He screamed, louder and louder as she drove deeper, taking more than she’d ever done before.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
What is that?” Sanchez asked as the mournful cry reached his ears.
 
“She’s feeding on him,” Wilmington answered softly. He’d heard the screaming several times during his captivity and each time it got worse. The very fact that she was hurting his friend had already made him vow to take her down, tear her limb from limb as she’d done to so many others. There was no doubt in his mind that she would be defeated, but in defeating her would he also defeat Chris Larabee, killing him as surely as he’d killed the creature of darkness.
 
“How many times has this happened?” the ex-preacher asked as the screams died out.
 
“Four or five since I’ve been here,” Tanner answered when the rogue remained silent.
 
“Did either of you see how she does it?” the older man inquired.
 
“I did,” Wilmington said, shuddering at the thought of what he’d witnessed. “She digs them fangs of hers into his neck just like the vampire movies show…but she doesn’t drink too much and then she makes him feed from her wrist.”
 
“Then there’s still hope…”
 
“I’m glad you think so, Preacher,” the ladies’ man snarled. “Because I don’t hold out much hope of anything!”
 
“Buck, a lot of the older legends have changed through history, but there are some things that seem to stay the same or close to it. This creature drinks the blood of her victims and then dismembers them, but she hasn’t done that to Chris. I keep thinking she has to wait until some kind of ritual is done before she can change him,” Sanchez explained.
 
“Looks like whatever the ritual is, it takes place on Halloween,” Tanner offered.
 
“That doesn’t leave us much time,” the ex-preacher said.
 
“You got any idea how to fight her?” Tanner asked.
 
“A few, but first we need to get out of these damn cages,” Sanchez said, smiling when he heard another voice from he darkness.
 
“Perhaps I can be of assistance with that.”
 
“Welcome back, Ezra, Are you okay?”
 
“An atrocious headache, but nothing I haven’t dealt with before. Who else is here?”
 
“Me, you, Buck, Vin, and Nathan.”
 
“That leaves JD and Chris to rescue….”
 
“Not exactly. Chris is here….don’t really know where JD is,” Tanner explained.
 
“Perhaps Chris will be able to help…”
 
“Not likely, Ezra, looks like our best bet is JD,” Sanchez offered.
 
“Better hope the kid doesn’t come in here all spit and vinegar,” Tanner said.
 
“In this case he’d be better off with salt and garlic,” Wilmington said and listened to the sounds from Standish’s cage. If anyone could find a way out of a locked cage it was the gambler and right now he had to have faith in the conman’s unique abilities.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
JD opened his eyes and pressed his fingers against them. His mouth was dry and his tongue felt covered in crud and he wished he’d brought along a toothbrush, but he hadn’t expected to spend the night here. He shifted and stood up, silently cursing himself for not taking advantage of Galloway’s guest bed and choosing to fall asleep sitting up at the table instead. Some choice…he’d simply dropped off to sleep before he’d waded through half the new pile they’d printed off.
 
“Coffee’s hot and strong if you want one,” Galloway offered from the kitchen.
 
“Thanks,” Dunne said and grabbed a cup from the open cabinet. He poured a cup of the rich brew and added two heaping teaspoons of sugar before warming his hands on the outside of the cup. “What time did we stop…”
 
“I went to bed at three…you were still poking through several files,” the older man offered. “Did you find anything useful?”
 
“I don’t know…maybe,” Dunne said and picked up the last few articles he’d read through. “It says here that we can still save anyone the shape-shifter tries to change by killing her before she can complete the ritual.”
 
“What makes you think she’s trying to change anyone?”
 
“Just some things that have happened in the last week. Chris…he’s been acting real strange and he’s shown some of the signs they talk about in here,” Dunne said of the Celtic Legends and Folklore book he’d been skim reading.
 
“You think the creature’s after him?”
 
“Yes, I do,” Dunne answered and reached for his cell phone. He was already late for the office, but if he called in he could stop the others from worrying about him. The call was answered, but not by one of the team…it went straight to the automated answering machine and suddenly JD felt alone…more alone than he’d ever felt in his life.
 
“Something wrong, Kid?”
 
“No one’s at the office,” Dunne answered, staring at his phone when it began to ring. He pressed the talk button and placed it against his ear.
 
“Dunne!”
 
“JD, where the hell are you?”
 
“I’m…I’m working on a couple of leads, Orrin, what’s wrong?” the Bostonian asked, keeping the fear from his voice.
 
“I had a call from Robert Miller. Nathan’s car was found abandoned in an alley…”
 
“What?”
 
“Look, I’m at the office, but there’s no one here. Tom says Josiah and Ezra left with Nathan just after five last night.”
 
“Have you heard anything from them?”
 
“No, not a word. As a matter of fact the only one I’ve been able to raise is you. Buck, Vin, and Ezra seem to have disappeared off the face of the earth too,” the former judge explained. “When can you get here?”
 
“I’m working on a couple of leads right now, but I’ll be there as soon as I can,” Dunne answered.
 
“Look, Son, be careful….six missing men is enough…seven if you count Steven McNally,” Travis explained.
 
“McNally…the FBI agent?”
 
“Yes, it seems no one’s seen him since he left the office the other day. Maybe I should send the police for you…”
 
“I can handle myself, Orrin,” Dunne vowed. “Look, there are a couple of things I need to check into and then I’ll come in…”
 
“JD…just be careful, okay?”
 
“I will, Orrin,” Dunne vowed and hung up the phone. He turned to see Galloway staring at him and took several swallows of the coffee before sitting heavily on the chair. “Looks like we got trouble, Arthur.”
 
“Tell me,” Galloway ordered.
 
“The others are missing…Chris, Vin, Buck, Josiah, Nathan, and Ezra are unaccounted for and I have a feeling we’re not going to find them nearby,” Dunne told him.
 
“Probably not, especially if what we believe to be happening…really is happening.”
 
“So how do we find the creature’s habitat?” Dunne asked.
 
“We look for something outside the city, but not too far. According to the information we have these creatures tends to stay close to their feeding supply. My guess is we’ll find them within 200 miles of the city. They’ll have a car…or something they can drive around in and carry things in case of an emergency. These things can fly when they take the form of a vampire, but they can’t fly indefinitely.”
 
“200 miles is a long distance to have to travel…even if they were speeding it would take a couple of hours traveling time,” Dunne said.
 
“They can fly a lot faster than we can drive, JD…as I said the car is simply for convenience and show,” Galloway explained.
 
“That doesn’t help us find them,” Dunne sad irritably.
 
“Maybe not, but it gives us a place to start. Look, Kid, if you’re gonna sit there and whine about what we can’t do then you might as well leave right now. I’d like your help with this, but I need the man…not the boy,” Galloway warned.
 
“I’m not a boy, Arthur…I’m a man or I wouldn’t be part of the best damn agency in the city…hell in the country.”
 
“Good, now get on that computer and see if you can bring up a map that shows old properties outside Billings.”
 
“That could take time and that’s something we don’t have a lot of!”
 
“Then stop yapping and get to it,” Galloway warned and turned his attention to the details they already had.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Orrin Travis paced in front of the vehicles while Miller’s men went over the area with a fine tooth comb. There was no doubt that the men he’d hired for the agency were missing, all except for JD Dunne. He knew Dunne was still in the city and should be arriving soon. The news he had did not bode well for Buck Wilmington and he knew the special bond between JD and Buck would make this even harder. Wilmington’s car had been found off the road near Larabee’s ranch, but there was no sign of the missing man. Someone had tried hard to conceal the car, but some kids had been joyriding on the old road and wound up being pulled over by a patrol car. The driver, a young woman named Sandra Murtaugh, had noticed the tracks leading into the underbrush and the sun shining from high over head flashed off the mirrors.
 
Orrin reached for his cell phone, hit speed dial, and waited for Dunne to answer, a part of him didn’t really expect one and was relieved when he heard the young man’s voice.
 
“Dunne.”
 
“JD, how long before you can get here?” Travis asked.
 
“I’m just checking a couple of…”
 
“Leads…that’s what you said the last time. Look, the police found Buck’s car out near Chris’ place. Any chance you can go out and take a look around?”
 
“I’ll leave right away,” Dunne assured him.
 
“Just make sure you keep in touch.”
 
“I will, Orrin…have the police turned up anything on Nathan’s car?”
 
“Nothing yet. It’s in the impound lot and they’ll call if they find anything. Be careful, JD,” Travis ordered.
 
“I will, Orrin,” the young man vowed.
 
Travis hit the end button and placed his cell phone back in his pocket. The biting wind had him tugging up the collar of his coat, but it did little to alleviate the chill that ran through his body. The officer working on the vehicles had been at it for over an hour, but had yet to find anything that would shed some light on the disappearances. With nothing else for him to do out here, Orrin hurried back into the building and tried to concentrate on the meeting he was supposed to attend.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Shareena knew the time was drawing near and watched as several more of her kind arrived at her chosen home. This was her nest, at least for the time being, but once the ritual was completed she would no longer need this house. She’d already chosen a new location and would give the others a choice as to whether to join her there or go their own way. She’d seen Tackore hovering over the trees along the south ridge and smiled at the thought of bringing him to his knees at her feet.
 
Shareena knew none of the others were interested in challenging Tackore, but she had grown tired of being under his rules. She would take her mate in less than 24 hours and then Tackore would have no choice but to bow down to her or be forced to fight her for the right to rule the clan.
 
She shifted and stared down at the sleeping man she’d chosen and licked her lips as she remembered the taste of his rich blood. She knew once he became her changeling that the warm fluid would become as cold as her own, but that did not bother her because the rewards would make that sacrifice even better. She would have him at her side, feasting on the blood of their victims while growing stronger with time.
 
“Oh, Love, you’re stronger than any human I’ve ever encountered…”
 
“Is he, Shareena?”
 
“How did you get in here, Tackore?” the female snarled, fangs bared as her talons elongated.
 
“Draw back your fangs, Shareena, I’m just here to remind you that you’re not running the clan yet. Why are you keeping those men alive? Surely you know how dangerous a caged tiger is, and you have five of them right under your roof!”
 
“Remember that, Tackore, they are under my roof and I know what I’m doing. Tomorrow night Chris will become my full fledged changeling and he will need to be fed. Who better to let him feed off than those closest to him.”
 
“Are you so sure you can get him to kill them?”
 
“He will do anything I ask of him,” Shareena vowed and kissed the full lips, tasting the blood she’d shared with him before the interruption. Just having him so close to her was setting off tiny explosions in her own body that spoke of her cravings. She would have to feed again soon in order to be strong enough to challenge Tackore during the ceremony.
 
“Do not let your guard down with this one, Shareena, for he is not completely under your control until after you’ve drained his body of blood and his mind of everything he held dear. Are you strong enough to take those memories from him?”
 
“I can and I will…mark my words, Tackore, my changeling will be mine as will the leadership of the clan. Perhaps you should find a rock to hide under while the others gather for the feast.”
 
“I have no need to hide, Shareena…you are the one who must prove your worth and I remind you that I have the advantage of already having been mated.”
 
“Yes, but your changeling died while still young, Tackore, I will not let that happen with mine.”
 
“We shall see…keep watching your captives…they are not as helpless as you might think,” Tackore said and flew through the same window he’d used to enter the room.
 
Shareena looked down at the blond and saw blood where she’d dug her talons into his shoulder and silently cursed the waste. Tackore was as maddening as anyone or anything she’d ever known and she was so looking forward to beating him at his own game. She lifted her fingers to her mouth and licked the dried blood from them and could feel her body trembling with anticipation.
 
“Soon, Love, very soon,” she whispered and listened to the beating of his heart and knew the blood running through his veins would soon make her stronger.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
JD looked at Arthur Galloway and was shocked to see how white the man had grown since leaving his home. Dunne had filled him in on the new murders and disappearances and convinced the writer to come with him to the site where Wilmington’s car had been found. He drove north, heading for Old Pear Tree Road and thought about the evidence they’d uncovered so far.
 
Nathan’s car had been found in an alley on the north side of Billings, Buck’s Mustang was discovered near Larabee’s ranch, and several victims had been found in the vicinity of the northern parking area of Rimrock Mall. JD realized they didn’t have much time before Halloween and that he had to concentrate on one area and prayed he was reading the signs right.
 
“You better be right about this, JD, because if you’re not then there’s no way in hell we’ll have time to search the other locations we discussed,” Galloway warned tapping the laptop keys slowly, using one finger on each hand.
 
“It has to be one of those three places north of Vin’s ranch. They’re within the two hundred mile limit we put on the nest possibilities and everything we’ve seen seems to be centered on the northern sector of Billings. Just keep checking what you can…”
 
“I hate computers!”
 
“I know, but you’re getting pretty good at it,” the easterner assured him.
 
“Yeah right…I’m up to five words a minute,” Galloway snapped.
 
“Just type in map quest and find out exactly where those three pieces of property are located,” Dunne told him, spotting the tow truck ahead. He drove in behind the vehicle and nodded to one of the officers who was speaking with the tow truck driver.
 
“Be with you in a minute, JD,” Carlos Martinez said and signed the paper the driver held out to him, before moving to speak with the newcomers. “Who’s he?”
 
“Friend of mine…Arthur Galloway…this is Officer Carlos Martinez. He’s one of the good ones,” Dunne joked and moved to check out Wilmington’s car. “Buck’s going to throw a hissy fit when he sees the scratches on his baby.”
 
“We ran the plates just to be sure, but I’m glad you recognized the car.”
 
“Is there any other damage?” Dunne asked.
 
“Nothing that I could see,” Martinez answered and walked around the outside of the vehicle. “There were a couple of raccoons that took offense to being driven out of their new home.”
 
“Buck’d love that,” the Bostonian said, a slight smile that belied his worry.
 
“What can you tell me about the car being out here, JD?”
 
“Not much…Orrin called me to tell me they’d found Nathan’s car in an alley and Buck’s Mustang out here.”
 
“I heard about Nate’s car and they just asked us to keep an eye out for the rest of your team. What’d they do, JD, decide to have a Halloween party without you?”
 
“I don’t know, Carlos,” Dunne said, sitting on the trunk of the Mustang. “Orrin says he hasn’t heard from the others since the meeting with McNally and it seems like he’s also disappeared.”
 
“Who’s McNally?”
 
“An FBI agent who asked us to help out with the investigation into the gruesome murders…we had a meeting with him a few days ago.”
 
“And he’s missing too?”
 
“Looks that way…”
 
“Jesus, I go out sick for a week and come back to Fright Week from Hell!” Martinez snapped.
 
“You got that right,” Dunne said.
 
“Officer, I’m ready to go…is there anything else?”
 
“No, Mike, go ahead. Drop it at the station,” Martinez ordered. “JD, if you find out anything make sure you call it in okay?”
 
“I will, Carlos,” Dunne said and watched him leave before going back to his car and climbing back inside.
 
“Nothing new here,” Galloway stated simply.
 
“No, but you can be sure Buck would never leave his car for the raccoons,” Dunne vowed and drove north toward Larabee’s ranch. He figured since they were in the vicinity they might as well check out the two ranches before checking out the three homes they’d honed in on.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Nathan shifted and coughed, his throat dry and his body aching. He didn’t have much room to move and wondered where the hell he was. “Sonofabitch!”
 
“My sentiments exactly…”
 
“Buck, is that you?” Jackson asked.
 
“Yes, glad to see you decided to join the ranks of the living,” Wilmington told him.
 
“Damn, where are we? Who else is here?”
 
“To answer your first question we don’t know. The second one is easier…me, you, Josiah, Ezra, and Vin.”
 
“Where are Chris and JD?”
 
“Chris is here, but he’s not in one of these cages. There’s a mean bitch…”
 
“Think shape shifting vampire,” Sanchez explained.
 
“And apparently she’s shifted her gaze to Chris,” Standish answered, covering his eyes when the light flicked on without warning.
 
“Hello, Gentlemen, so good to see you all awake,” Shareena cooed. She’d decided to keep the image of Sarah Larabee and stared at the dark haired blue eyed male she’d already had the pleasure of hunting. She knew how her appearance affected him and smiled when she stood before his cage.
 
“I’m going to enjoy killing you,” Wilmington vowed, staring into the dark eyes.
 
“Why, Buck…I thought you cared about Sarah Larabee…”
 
“You’re not and never could be Sarah…she was beautiful inside and out…You’re simply a monster who stole her image, but you can’t hope to steal her soul…her heart,” the rogue’s tone was scalding and he could see the creature’s image slip slightly, but she quickly recovered.
 
“I already have, Buck, Chris warms my bed and drinks from my veins…soon he will feast on your flesh. None of you will matter anymore,” Shareena said, jumping back when the man’s hands reached through the bars of the cage. She knew there was nothing Wilmington could do to her, but instincts told her this man, and the other captives could be very dangerous if they did escape.
 
“You better be afraid,” Sanchez warned. “God looks out for his children and you would be well advised to go back to whatever hell hole you crawled out of and pray he doesn’t send us after you.”
 
“I have nothing to fear from your kind or your God, Josiah. He can not touch me because we are not of your race…”
 
“You’re nothing more than a bottom feeder…just like the fish that clean the floor of the ocean. Your kind will lose…bottom feeders always do,” the ex-preacher assured her, smiling as he reached inside his shirt and pulled out the crucifix his father had given him on his seventh birthday.
 
“Your cross does not affect me…it cannot hurt me in any way,” Shareena told him, smiling as she ran her talons along the top of the cage. “I will enjoy feasting from you while you hold your cross and pray to a God who does not exist!”
 
“Oh, He exists, and you will feel His wrath,” Sanchez vowed and began reciting several verses in Latin, smiling when she backed away in anger. He heard her curse just before she slammed the door and left him alone with the others. The sound of footsteps caught his attention and he looked up to see another creature standing amidst the cages. This one looked like a cross between a dragon and Gargoyle, with elongated snout and fanged teeth. The eyes were what held his attention and Josiah realized he was looking into the very depths of this shape-shifter.
 
“Shareena will get us all killed.”
 
“I don’t see that as a problem,” Wilmington snapped.
 
“It is if you want to save your friend.”
 
“Who…what are you?” Standish asked.
 
“I…and the others like me are from a race that died out on another plane equal to this one. If we had but changed one simple step in our evolution we may very well have wound up like you. Alas it is too late for that,” Tackore said and allowed them to witness his transformation. He simply took the visage and form of the man he’d killed the previous night and stood before the five men. “I have come here with a proposition.”
 
“What sort of proposition?” Jackson asked.
 
“I can help you defeat Shareena, but I want your word that you will not kill the others…”
 
“You’ve been killing people for a long time and there’s no way in hell we can let that go on,” Wilmington snarled.
 
“We have the right to survive.”
 
“Not at the cost of our lives,” Jackson told him.
 
“We cannot stop what we do…feeding on flesh and blood is how we survive. It is no different from you feeding off the animals in your world.”
 
“Is that how you perceive us? As animals to be fed upon?” Standish asked.
 
“Yes, you are the subspecies in this case and we are above you in what you call the food chain. We are few now and we need to stay alive. If it means some of your kind have to be sacrificed…”
 
“You tear us apart and drink our blood…that’s not sacrifice…it’s brutality,” Wilmington snapped.
 
“No more brutal than the way you kill cows or chickens or…”
 
“We don’t deny that we have our own flaws, but we do not discard the body of the animals we feed on. Every part of the body has its uses. Your kind simply drains the blood, feeds off the body and discards what remains all over the place. Then you kill again…”
 
“We do what we have to in order to survive. If you want to live you will agree with my proposition,” Tackore stated.
 
“What about Chris?” Sanchez asked softly.
 
“I am afraid it may already be too late for Chris Larabee…”
 
“Then there’s no deal!” Wilmington spat.
 
“She has been feeding off of him and he in turn has taken her blood into his body. There is only one way to stop him from becoming her changeling.”
 
“How?” Standish asked.
 
“She must die before she drains him.”
 
“Why hasn’t she drained him?” Jackson asked, dreading the answer, yet knowing he needed to hear it.
 
“She wants him as her changeling, and a true changeling chooses to take his place at her side. He has to accept the gift she offers…”
 
“Some gift,” Wilmington snarled.
 
“It is a very real gift, Buck. She is offering him a chance to live forever…”
 
“That’s not the kind of life Chris would choose,” Sanchez assured the shape-shifter.
 
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” the creature said with a slightly lopsided smile. “You see she is using your lives as a bargaining chip. She is telling him that the choice is his to make, but it is not a true choice.”
 
“That’s blackmail,” Jackson observed.
 
“I am not familiar with the word, but from the way you say it I believe that is an apt description. He may already be beyond your help, but if you allow the ritual to take place then it will no longer matter because Chris will have become a changeling and will crave the blood that even now flows through his veins. Think on my offer…”
 
“How do we kill her?”
 
“You cannot…but I can. Tomorrow night at the ritual she will have the five of you ready for the hunt. Normally your hands would be tied, but if she wants to make this a true, strong joining then she will allow you to remain unbound. She will have Chris at her side in front of the others and it will be up to you to get him away from her when I issue my challenge.”
 
“What if she doesn’t accept your challenge?”
 
“Actually, the truth is she is going to challenge me for the right to lead the clan. That will be her first…and last mistake. She has to take her mate, but if you can stop that from happening then I can stop the rest of it,” Tackore assured them. “I must go now, but give some thought to what I am offering; for it is the only chance you have of surviving.”
 
“What do you think, Josiah? Can we trust the bastard?” Tanner asked, speaking for the first time since Tackore’s arrival.
 
“I don’t know, Vin, but given a choice between him and the other one…I’d choose Tackore. At least he’s given us a choice,” Sanchez answered.
 
“The lesser of two evils,” Standish observe. “If we go along with his proposition, does that mean we allow his kind to go free and keep murdering people?”
 
“Depends on whether we give him our word,” Sanchez remarked, leaning his head back against the cage and closing his eyes. How could they let Tackore and Shareena and the others live knowing they’d be condemning other people to die in a grotesque way? The five men remained quiet, thinking about the events of the last week and how the old nightmares were now very real.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Darkness had fallen over the landscape and the bright lights of the city did not reach this far into the country. JD had driven north after leaving Larabee’s ranch and pulled into an abandoned farm forty miles north of Tanner’s ranch. Tanner and Larabee’s homes were both deserted and Dunne grew more and more concerned.
 
“Your friends could be dead you know?” Galloway said softly.
 
“No…I can’t…I won’t believe that. Buck, Josiah, Chris…they’re alive, all of them, and we just need to find out where the nest is and rescue them.”
 
“You keep on thinking that way, Kid, but I don’t hold out much hope…not after everything I’ve seen. These creatures live only to hunt and feed off us. They have no reason to keep your friends alive…”
 
“I would know if they were dead.”
 
“How can you be so sure?”
 
“I can feel it…in here,” Dunne said and touched his chest. “They are alive, but they can’t get away from the bastards. We need to keep looking for them…”
 
“Right up until the creatures find us,” Galloway whispered.
 
“We brought everything we need with us,” Dunne said.
 
“No, JD, we brought everything we believe will kill them, but it’s simply not enough. What do we know for certain about these things?”
 
“Not nearly enough, but I do know I’m going to try everything we brought with us until I find the right combination to kill the bastards,” Dunne snarled. “If you don’t think you can handle this then I’ll drive you back to town…”
 
“I didn’t say I wouldn’t do it…I was simply pointing out the facts,” Galloway told him and exited the car when Dunne grew silent. The house before them was as silent and dead as any derelict home he’d seen during his years of travel. He heard the younger man open the door and soon felt him standing next to him.
 
“This place looks like it’s been empty for years,” Dunne observed.
 
“It has,” Galloway agreed. “There’s no one here now…not even any animals. I don’t think the creatures have ever been here.”
 
“Then we need to check the other two!”
 
“What if we’re wrong, JD? What if we’re searching in the wrong direction? Tomorrow is Halloween and that doesn’t give us much time to find them!”
 
“I won’t accept that, Arthur! I’m going to keep searching until I find them and when I do I’m going to kill every last shape-shifting bastard we find!”
 
“What if one or all of your friends have been turned?”
 
“They’re not!”
 
“What if they are? Will you be able to take their lives without seeing their faces in your dreams?”
 
“If they’ve been changed then they are no longer the men I know, but there’s always a chance that we can change them back.”
 
“That’s simply part of the legend kid.”
 
“Yes, it is and didn’t you say legends have some basis in fact? If that’s the case then I’m banking on the legends being right in how to kill the shape-shifters and free my friends,” Dunne said and headed back to the car.
 
“Kid, you’re either brave or stupid….”
 
“Or both,” Dunne said with a slight grin. He waited for Galloway to get into the passenger seat and open up the laptop. The second house was 68 miles west of this one and would take nearly an hour of driving on unpaved roads to get there.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Orrin Travis paced the confines of his home office and silently cursed Larabee and his stubborn team. JD had checked in around midnight, but had very little to report about finding the missing team members. That had been over five hours ago and now Dunne’s cell phone was dead and even the number he’d been given for Arthur Galloway was constantly giving a busy signal.
 
“Orrin, why don’t you come to bed?” Evie Travis asked from the open doorway. She’d fallen asleep around ten, but her husband had not joined her and she could see the circles surrounding his eyes. She knew he was worried about Larabee and his missing team, but doing without sleep was not going to help find them.
 
“I can’t sleep, Evie, Chris and the others are out there and I sent them into this mess. We had no idea about who was killing these people and yet Chris accepted the assignment without question. Now the whole team is missing…”
 
“You were talking to JD last night...did he say where he was going?”
 
“Just that he was with Arthur Galloway and he thought he might have a lead on whoever was behind the killings and where they might be holed up,” Orrin explained and sat at his desk, picking up the phone once more. He dialed Dunne’s cell number, but again was told the client was not available.
 
“Still nothing?” Evie asked.
 
“Not a damn thing,” Travis snapped and apologized immediately.
 
“Orrin, I know what these men mean to you,” Evie explained and began massaging her husband’s tense shoulders. She knew there would be no relief from the tension until they had word from Larabee or some member of his team. “What do you know about the case they’re on?”
 
“Not all that much. We know the victims were drained of blood and dis…they were…”
 
“I know how they were found, but was there anything about the murderer? Anything not in the official reports?”
 
“Nothing useful…except the strange DNA,” Travis said.
 
“Strange DNA?” Evie asked rubbing her husband’s temples.
 
“It was a combination of human and animal.”
 
“The murderer is part human…part animal?”
 
“Not exactly…according to the test results the DNA is only partially human, partially animal, but there’s something else in the mix that has no basis in our sciences. I can’t explain it, Evie, but this murderer…this creature is something that doesn’t belong here,” Orrin told her.
 
“You sound like you’re talking about something out of The Twilight Zone,” Evie said, smiling slightly.
 
“Maybe I am…it’s strange, Evie, but everything so far points to a monster of some kind and no, I don’t believe in monsters. At least not the kind they show on TV,” Orrin sighed and leaned into her touch.
 
“They’ll be fine, Orrin,” Evie tried, but she no longer believed it to be true. If Orrin thought the team was in danger then something was definitely wrong. She wrapped her arms around him and held tight as the first streaks of dawn heralded the Eve of Samhain. She shuddered at the thought that just maybe some of the little monsters, ghosts, and goblins that hit the streets in search of treats were not what they were supposed to be.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
What was left of Chris Larabee stood staring out the bedroom window, watching as the sun rose above the horizon. A small part of him craved the sunlight, while another part, a much larger part, feared what it could do to him. He no longer fought when she came to him, allowing her to feed and then taking what she offered in return. His stomach no longer churned when the brackish fluid from her veins hit it.
 
The only time he rebelled from her attention was when his mind wandered to the team he called family. One man in particular seemed to reach out to him, but he couldn’t quite latch on to the quicksilver resonance that had often been a safety line in an angry sea. Chris knew they were near by, but he could do nothing to help them now…his soul was damned and soon she would finish what she started and Chris Larabee would cease to exist. Squinting as the sunlight stabbed at his eyes, he turned away from the warmth and embraced the dark cold that surrounded him.
 
Chris made his way back to the bed and stared down at the rumpled blankets and sheets. She’d told him she would not free his team, and that as soon as he was her changeling, he would initiate the hunt that would kill them all. He wanted to believe he could fight her, but the strength and the will to do so no longer surged through his veins. He looked at his face in the mirror and his tongue slid across his upper gums, feeling the small protrusions that signaled his body was changing.
 
God, he didn’t want this. He hadn’t chosen to drink from her veins, not really…she’d used blackmail and he didn’t have much choice in the matter. Anger filled him and he slammed his fist into the wall. There had to be a choice! Had to be a way out of this mess, but right now he couldn’t see it. His anger intensified and suddenly he felt something, something he thought lost for good.
 
‘Chris…keep fightin’ her…don’t let her win…’
 
‘Vin…God, Vin…help…’
 
‘We’re here…we’ll help if we can, but yer gonna have ta want ta fight it…Cowboy.’
 
“Not a Cowboy,” Larabee whispered and felt something inside his mind shift and the will to fight returned with the light touch against his mind.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“Chris is still fighting,” Tanner told them. Since the male shape-shifter left he’d been trying to get a read on Larabee and had finally broken through the barrier that seemed to have been erected. He sensed changes in the man he called ‘brother’ and prayed there was some way they could undo all the damage the female shape-shifter had inflicted on Chris Larabee. He couldn’t explain the connection he had with his ‘brother’ but the others believed in it as if they sensed how strong it was. It had saved them both on several occasions and once or twice led them to a missing member of the team.
 
“How do you know…stupid question,” Wilmington realized and felt none of the guilt he once experienced. There was something unique in the way Chris and Vin had forged a bond that transcended normal ‘channels’ and right now maybe they could use that.
 
“Any luck Ezra?” Jackson asked.
 
“No, it appears these cages lack the normal locking mechanism…there does not seem to be a door!” Standish snapped, frustration evident in his voice.
 
“Keep trying, Ezra, you’ve always said there’s a way out of every box,” Sanchez told him.
 
“Ez, ya said there was no box made that’cha couldn’t get out of,” Tanner said.
 
“Yes, I did say that…so if you would all give me a modicum of silence I shall endeavor to…”
 
“Pick the damn lock!” Wilmington finished and grew silent while listening to the sounds coming from Standish’s cage.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Galloway watched the young man beside him and knew he was losing patience with the search. It had taken nearly six hours to find the second house. It had been as deserted as the first, and the kid had been so angry he’d thrown several large sized rocks at what was left of the windows on the first floor. Galloway had stood back and let Dunne take out his anger on the inanimate object before pointing out the obvious…time was wasting…time they didn’t have. Already the sun was high overhead and an icy wind had picked up even as JD sped toward the third and final house they’d discovered.
 
“JD, driving us into a tree is not going to help us find your friends,” Galloway finally said when the tires squealed as he took a turn at high speed. “Slow down, Kid, or we’re going to be real ghosts before the kiddies hit the streets tonight!”
 
“We’re running out of time…”
 
“Time won’t matter if we’re dead!”
 
“Damn it!” Dunne spat, slowing the car to just over the speed limit.
 
“Easy, Kid, no point in getting angry…we need to keep our wits about us if we’re going to find your friends before its too late!”
 
“I know, but everything about this is wrong! I keep thinking this is all a fucking nightmare and I’m going to wake up with Buck yelling ‘GOT YOU!’, but that’s not going to happen is it?”
 
“I wish I could tell you what you want to hear, but I can’t. Everything we’ve learned points to a nest of shape-shifting vampires hunting in and around Billings.”
 
“Shape-shifting vampires…do you realize how crazy that sounds?”
 
“Kid, I’ve lived with the knowledge since my son was murdered. There’s nothing for us to do except find that nest and kill every fucking vampire we see.”
 
“I’m all for that, but we don’t know whether one of…one of…”
 
“You need to face the fact that it is more than likely your friends have already been turned.”
 
“No! No way in hell will I believe that! Chris and the others are probably tearing that fucking nest apart already!”
 
“Chris…he’s the one who first disappeared?”
 
“Chris and Vin…but Chris was acting strange.”
 
“More than likely he was already under their control…”
 
“I don’t think so…we’re going to find that nest and free the others then we’re going to kick some shape-shifting ass!” Dunne snapped and turned onto another gravel road, cursing when he realized the car had blown a tire. He turned the key in the ignition off and tried to control the anger that was clouding his judgment.
 
“Do you have a spare?”
 
“Of course I do!” the young man said and exited the car. The sun shone down from high above and he looked around, but found nothing that could dispel the fear niggling at the back of his mind. He kicked the blown tire and opened the trunk, cursing loudly when he took note of the flat spare.
 
“What’s wrong?” Galloway asked from the front of the car.
 
“The spare is flat! Is there something out there that doesn’t want us….forget I said that!” Dunne snapped and threw the useless spare back in the trunk. He leaned wearily against the car, feeling as if there was no way in hell they’d ever find the nest now.
 
“JD, the house isn’t that far…”
 
“How do you know?” Dunne asked.
 
“Trust me…Kid, I can feel them,” Galloway said, joining the younger man at the back of the car. Everything he’d told the easterner was the truth, but there were a few things he’d left out. Now was the time to come clean and hope the younger man trusted him enough to keep going.
 
“What the hell do you mean you can feel them?”
 
“When my son was murdered I swore I’d find his killers and I didn’t give a damn whether I lived or died. The problem is I got careless and was caught…”
 
“Caught? By who?”
 
“Not who…what? I got caught one night while chasing down a lead. The problem is that lead brought me right up close and personal with one of them bastards. He caught me and held me down…told me he could either drain me and I’d die on the spot or he could take as much as his body craved and allow me to feed off of him. I thought I was ready to die, Kid, but when facing death a man comes to realize just how much he wants to live. I took his offer…let him take what he wanted and then took back what I needed…”
 
“You’re a shape-shifter?”
 
“No…not in the least. I managed to kill the bastard before I took anything from him. I’m not even a vampire not in the sense that I drink people’s blood…but I do crave it and God help me there are times when I want to kill…but it’s gotten easier to ignore over the years. Lord knows it’s easy to eat a piece of raw meat though…”
 
“You’re one of them…a vampire?”
 
“If I was a vampire I wouldn’t be able to stand the sunlight…”
 
“You do stay locked up in your house with the shades closed,” Dunne stated.
 
“Yes, I do, but that’s so they can’t find me. You see, JD, this race of shape-shifting vampires is not like the ones you see in the movies or read about in bestseller books. No one knows the real story because a lot of it is written so that the real monsters can hide in broad daylight. Oh they don’t like the sunlight, but that doesn’t mean they have to hide from it. They can walk in sunlight…they can even go into a church…look at a crucifix…”
 
“Tell me one thing, Arthur.”
 
“What?”
 
“Can I trust you once we find them?”
 
“Yes, I told you I’m not a vampire, JD, but because I was marked by one I can sense them…smell them.”
 
“So why didn’t you say something earlier…would have saved us going to those empty houses?”
 
“It’s not that simple. I have to be close to them to sense them.”
 
“And you sense them now?”
 
“Yes, but it’s not strong enough yet. Why don’t you put that stuff in your backpack and we can get moving?”
 
“You can’t fly us there?’ Dunne asked, a hint of humor in his tremulous voice.
 
“That’s not funny, Kid,” Galloway said seriously. In less than five minutes they had everything packed into Dunne’s backpack and set out through the woods in search of the nest of shape-shifting vampires. Galloway knew there was one more thing he needed to do before they entered the nest and briefly wondered if JD Dunne was strong enough to go through with it.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Shareena stared out the open window as the sun began to dip below the horizon. There were more and more of her kind arriving for tonight’s ceremony. The more she thought about it the surer she became that Chris Larabee would be the catalyst that placed her as head of the clan. It could very well end in a death struggle between her and Tackore, but after so many years of groveling she felt it was time for her to take what she wanted. Tackore was without a mate now and that made him as vulnerable as any of them, but once she drained Chris Larabee and he accepted her offering in return she would have the strength to defeat Tackore and rule for the next 100 years.
 
Shareena turned from the window and smiled down at the sleeping human male…human. Perhaps he could still be considered human, but by her reckoning he was more her changeling than anything else. She’d continued to feed from him, stopping herself from going too far because it had to be finished when the moon was high and her powers were at their strongest. She didn’t fear Tackore challenging her before than because if he did it would be taken as a sign of weakness on his part.
 
His body was everything she wanted in a male and had enjoyed exploring his intimate parts while feeding from him. The well toned muscles in his chest and thighs, the taut stomach, the perfect features, and the sea green eyes were a perfect compliment to the heady sound of his voice. She moved back to the bed and ran her fingers through his hair, smiling when he opened his eyes and stared up at her.
 
“Are you hungry, Love?” Shareena asked, keeping the shape she’d used to entrance him from the beginning. She knew there was still a part of him that craved to be with Sarah Larabee, but she would see that her memory was erased once he was totally powerless beneath her touch.
 
“No…no, I’m not,” Larabee whispered, fighting to hold tight to the quicksilver resonance that flowed between him and Vin Tanner. He saw her tongue dart out between too bright red lips and swallowed the bitter taste in his mouth. He knew what she wanted, expected of him, but he didn’t want to let her drink from his veins again.
 
“I’m hungry, Love, and I need to be strong tonight…I need to feed, but if you don’t allow me to feed from you I will take my fill on one of your friends,” she whispered, smiling when she saw his head tilt slightly as if giving her access to the puncture wounds she’d already made.
 
Chris could feel her body hovering over his and then felt her cold flesh against his body. He wanted to fight her, but to do so would cost the life of one of his team…his chosen family. He felt her mouth against his neck, fought the urge to scream when the fangs embedded in his throat, entering his vein and allowing her access to the thin blood that now flowed through them. His hands fisted in the sheets as pain, worse than any he had ever suffered before, cut through his body. White fires of agony raced along nerve endings, causing his heart to beat faster in order to keep the depleted blood supply moving, but the veins and arteries were sluggish now, and there didn’t seem to be much left.
 
Chris Larabee was dying.
 
This was the end of everything he’d ever known.
 
The changeling was nearly there.
 
Darkness crept through his mind, yet there was a spark that still burned if he could just hold on to that. He screamed when she touched his mind and tried to snap the threads that kept him anchored and he prayed he was strong enough to hold on long enough for rescue to come.
 
The changeling smiled…its time was almost on hand.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“Vin, breathe…damn you don’t do this!” Jackson snarled, rattling the bars of his cage. The Texan had suddenly gone rigid and screamed as if something was attacking his mind and body.
 
“Vin, fight it,” Sanchez tried.
 
“No…no…need to hold on to him…she’s killing him! God help me she’s draining him dry!” Tanner spat. “CHRIS!”
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Shareena drew back and smiled down at the pale man who looked as washed out as any of her previous victims. She knew she’d come dangerously close to turning him, but had stopped just short of draining the last of his blood. Shareena bit into her right wrist and placed it against his lips, smiling when her chosen mate began suckling from her veins. He was so beautiful, nurturing from her body as it should be, as any changeling should accept his creator’s sacrifice. She felt her own body growing stronger with the new blood seeping from her stomach into her veins…it made her feel invincible. Shareena used her left hand to hold his head against her wrist until she felt he’d been replenished and finally released him.
 
“You see, Love, you were hungry,” she whispered and pressed her mouth against his. She inhaled the scent of their mixed blood and smiled at the thought of what tonight held in store.
 
“Hungry,” Larabee whispered, reaching for the touch and finding it was weakened to the point of breaking. He latched onto it and prayed he was strong enough to fight for the life he wanted, not the one she continued to promise. A soft sob escaped, but her mouth pressed harder and he lost whatever hold he’d sensed when she plundered his mouth and tried to capture what remained of his soul.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“How much further?” Dunne called.
 
“We’re close, JD…too close. Listen to me because what I’m going to tell you just might save not only your life, but your friend’s lives as well.”
 
“What are you talking about?”
 
“I told you I can smell them…sense them.”
 
“Yes,” the young easterner said, drawing his jacket closer around his body when the wind rustled the trees and the moon showed at the edge of his vision.
 
“I only told you part of the story at the car. The vampire…the one that attacked me did bite me and changed me. I’m not saying I’ve killed people, but I have stolen blood from the hospitals and also fed off the carcass of animals I’ve been able to capture. I have fed off several people, but I promise you, Kid, they were already dying and there was no way they would have lived even if help arrived. I wish I could say I’d never tasted human blood, but I have and God help me I wish I could change things, but what’s past is past…”
 
“Why tell me this now?”
 
“Because in order for you to go into the nest you need to be marked…otherwise you will be taken by one of the others and I doubt if I’m strong enough to stop them.”
 
“Marked? How?”
 
“You’re not going to like it, Kid, but it’s the only way we can get into the nest without being spotted before we get within 100 feet of it,” Galloway said.
 
“Spit it out and let me make up my own mind whether I like it or not,” Dunne snapped impatiently.
 
“Look, Kid, if we’re going to do this I need to take some of your blood…”
 
“How the fuck did I know you were going to say that? Can this day get any fucking worse?”
 
“Probably, but let’s not go there. We don’t have a lot of time…”
 
“Oh, that’s a good one…time is something I should have lots of, but if I do what you want me to then I’ll have nothing left…”
 
“JD, my taking your blood won’t kill you…”
 
“I know…it’ll turn me into a night feeder like you and the rest of them things…oh and I get to live forever or until someone slams a stake in my chest…”
 
“No, that’s not going to happen…I told you the best way to kill these things was with fire…”
 
“And I’m supposed to believe you’re going to tell me how to kill you?” Dunne snarled, pacing back and forth under the full moon.
 
“Believe what you want, Kid, but it’s the only way. I feed from you…take just enough so that the enzyme covers the human scent…”
 
“What does it matter how much you take? Doesn’t taking my blood change me?”
 
“Partially…but you can cut the ties between us and ultimately get your life back. I will only feed once…that won’t change you although it might weaken you. Once we get your friends clear then it will be up to you to make sure the nest is destroyed and with it the shape-shifting vampires…”
 
“What about you?”
 
“You have to kill me too, JD…that’s how the ties between us will be cut and you’ll have your life back,” Galloway explained.
 
“What about Chris?”
 
“Chris has probably been fed on…but if I’m correct she won’t drain him until midnight when her power is the strongest. If you kill her before that happens then he should be fine…”
 
“I doubt any of us will ever be fine after tonight,” Dunne said.
 
“Probably not, but I need your answer.”
 
“You won’t drain me?”
 
“No, you have my word.”
 
“The word of a vamp…well, I never thought I’d say this to a man…man, but pucker up and be gentle,” the easterner whispered, his humor not lost on the creature whose fangs were now bared. He felt Galloway’s breath on his neck and then the sudden sharp pain as he bit through the skin and into the vein. His knees buckled, but Galloway held him upright, drinking the crimson fluid that pumped through his veins. He gasped and dropped to his knees when Galloway released him and tried to breathe past the nauseating pain that crept through his mind and body.
 
“I’m sorry, Kid, I should have warned you about the pain,” Galloway said and offered the younger man a hand, which Dunne reluctantly accepted. The vampire held him until he was able to stand on his own. “The dizziness will pass in a couple of minutes…you could take some fluid from me…”
 
“No thanks…let’s just get this over with!” Dunne snarled.
 
“I’m sorry, JD…”
 
“Don’t be…unless this fails then we’re both going to be sorry,” the easterner said, wincing when he touched the wounds to his throat and looked at the blood on his fingertips. ‘God help me I hope this isn’t a mistake,’ he thought and began moving through the trees toward the house he now knew was less than a mile away.
 
‘I hope so too, Kid,’ Galloway thought, easily reading what the younger man was thinking.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“Shareena, it is time to begin,” a voluptuous red haired shape-shifter whispered, her voice soft and sultry as she studied the five men kneeling on the ground. They’d been chained and brought to the front of the house one at a time and forced to kneel in front of Shareena and Tackore. The moon, full bodied and rimmed in a crimson tide lit the clearing as if it was mid day. Never had she seen such fine specimens and she fought the urge to grab one and begin feeding, but to do so would only get her torn apart by the two shape-shifters vying for leadership of the clan.
 
“I believe you are right, Valarhea,” Shareena said and looked around at the gathering. It was smaller than she expected, and she’d been saddened to hear that several of her kind had been killed by hunters who preyed on them. “Edward, watch over them and do not allow anyone to touch them until I return.”
 
“Yes, Mistress,” Edward said and moved to stand between the five captives and the six members of the clan.
 
“Edward, you know you will have to decide where your loyalties belong once Shareena declares her intentions,” Tackore warned.
 
“My loyalty is to Mistress Shareena, Tackore, and you should know she is stronger than you and after she is joined with her changeling there is nothing you can do to stop her!”
 
“Do not be so sure, Edward, for I am not as weak as you might think,” Tackore warned and glanced at the five men behind Edward. He knew they could not help him until they were freed for the hunt, but once that happened he would turn on Shareena and make her bow down to his will. He knew the others would not fight him…nor would they challenge him once he defeated Shareena and proved he was the strongest and the rightful leader. He smiled, baring his fangs when Edward simply stared at him.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~`
 
Shareena entered the bedroom to find her changeling as she’d left him. He was standing at the window in a simple black robe that covered him from his neck to his bare feet and she knew the others would be impressed by the imposing figure in black.
 
“It is time, Love,” she whispered having taken the form of Sarah Larabee once more. She knew this man would soon be beyond help, but even now she sensed that he was fighting her. She wondered at the defiance she saw in the sea green eyes that gazed at her, but smiled in spite of what she saw.
 
Chris knew he should fight her, but as he looked at the face of his beloved wife he lost all sense of time and feeling. Wasn’t this what he really wanted? To spend the rest of his life with Sarah? Why couldn’t he simply accept her and love her? ‘Because she’s not Sarah…she’s a fucking bitch vampire and God help me I don’t want to be with her!’
 
“Not yet, Love, but you will. As soon as I complete the ritual and you become my beloved changeling then all memory of this she-bitch will be gone and you will only want me!”
 
“No!”
 
“Yes,” Shareena vowed and took his hands in hers. “Now shall we go finish this or should I take you now and make you drink the blood of your friends? Your choice, Love, but you’d better tell me now or…”
 
“I hate you,” Larabee whispered, his voice desperate and yet he knew he was beyond help as she linked her arm with his and they walked out of the house. He stepped into the front yard and gasped when he saw the five men who’d been forced into kneeling positions. Buck and Vin were pale and he knew they were hurting, but it was the anger that brought him upright.
 
“Chris, what the fuck has she done to you?” Wilmington shouted, fighting the bonds that held him in place.
 
“I have simply taken what is rightfully mine,” Shareena said and turned to Tackore and the others. “This man will soon take his place at my side as my changeling and when he does…”
 
“Shareena, I invoke my right as leader of this clan to issue a challenge…”
 
“You have no right!”
 
“I have every right and I challenge you to a fight to the death. The winner will tear the heart from the loser and feed it to the surviving members.”
 
“I will not let you interfere…”
 
“I have issued a challenge…do you accept?”
 
“Yes…you bastard…I will see that your heart is not the only thing feasted on tonight,” Shareena vowed. “I have the right to feed before taking up the challenge.”
 
“Yes, you do,” Tackore said, folding his dark wings across his back and smiling when she reached for Chris Larabee. Once he defeated the bitch he just might see for himself what was so tempting about the man.
 
Shareena turned to Chris Larabee and ignored the cries of rage from the captives as she bared her fangs and sank them into his neck. She knew he was close to the end, but she could not complete her feeding until after she defeated Tackore. At that time her power would be stronger than ever because it would be a duel victory…she would be rid of Tackore for good and Chris Larabee would indeed become her changeling in mind and body.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
JD heard the familiar voices raised in anger and wanted to race into the nest, but Galloway placed a hand on his shoulder and stopped him.
 
“We go in as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, Kid. That means you’re not to react to anything you see.”
 
“It sounds like they’re being tortured,” Dunne ground out.
 
“Maybe, but if they even sense that you’re not one of them then they’ll kill you on the spot and what good would that do your friends?”
 
“What do we do?”
 
“We walk in…no sudden moves and allow them to see us and catch our scent if necessary. You watch me and do everything I do and we just might get your friends out of this alive,” Galloway told him and was relieved to see the dark head nod once. He walked forward; baring his fangs so that the others would have no doubt that he was one of them.
 
JD could feel the charged air as if electricity was blown along with the wind. There were voices now and the sound of flesh hitting flesh and then cheering arose along with the sound of pain. They moved into the clearing and Dunne found it hard not to react to the scene before him. Buck, Vin, Josiah, Nathan, and Ezra were kneeling on the ground, their hands tied behind their backs, and a rope around their necks linking one man to the other. Two hideous creatures, with black wings, held either end of the ropes and each time one pulled the five captives were pulled in one direction or the other.
 
“Who are you?” a large shape-shifter moved to stand before Galloway, fangs dripping saliva while the eyes glowed red with a crimson tide of emotions.
 
“Shableek fed from me before he was killed,” Galloway told her.
 
“Shableek? I did not know there were any still alive…he created you?”
 
“Yes, he did, and I in turn created JD. We felt the calling and had no choice but to come here and find our brothers and sisters,” Galloway stated.
 
Dunne finally turned his gaze from the five men and found Chris Larabee. The blond was standing between two of the vampires and he could see blood on Larabee’s neck. There was no doubt that someone had fed on him, and JD realized it was probably one of the creatures who were locked in an aerial combat that rained blood down on those watching. He could hear Galloway giving his explanation, but his gaze remained transfixed on his mentor.
 
“JD is young and new to all this and I felt the need to show him who was really at the top of the food chain…”
 
Dunne shifted his feet and slowly made his way to the group of five captives and prayed the others would continued to be entranced in the fight taking place above the clearing. He reached into his pocket, slipped behind Josiah Sanchez and quickly cut through the ropes. He placed the knife in the ex-preacher’s hand and moved back to his position next to Arthur Galloway.
 
“You are both welcome here…I am Tareena and the others you will meet after this war between Tackore and Shareena ends.”
 
“Why are they fighting?” Dunne asked.
 
“Shareena wants to take leadership of the clan away from Tackore. She has chosen a changeling and has every right to challenge Tackore, but he was smart and challenged her before she completed the ritual. Right now they are equal in strength and it could go either way…although I would prefer they kill each other, then the human would then be up for grabs…there is something about him that is very tempting,” Tareena said with an evil leer.
 
‘Hope they do kill each other,’ Dunne thought and stared above as a strangled scream echoed across the clearing. He could hear the sound of the two shape-shifters landing blow after blow on each other’s bodies.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Shareena felt exhilarated as she attacked her enemy again and again. She had landed several devastating blows against his rib cage and his head, but he had yet to make contact with her body. She rolled and came up under him, striking his stomach and driving her talons into his underbelly. Her shrieks of triumph were short lived as Tackore finally attacked.
 
Tackore had been letting her think she had the advantage, but it was time to make his move and drive the she-bitch away from the clan for good. The fact that she’d recently fed and no longer wore the wrinkles that spoke of age was not lost on him. Larabee had indeed given her back some of her youthful vigor, but she would lose that now. He raked her back, tearing at the black gossamer wings and shredding them with his claws. He heard her sharp intake of breath and knew that the fight would soon go to the ground. Her wings were badly damaged and she would not be able to stay in the air much longer.
 
Tackore flew higher and came down onto her back, driving her downward with a malevolent force of his own. He could feel her lifeblood seeping from the tears in her flesh and felt no remorse when her head impacted with the cold ground. Again he released her and hovered above her, just out of reach of her elongated snout and the sharp talons.
 
Shareena could not believe he’d stooped so low as to take her wings…her beautiful wings and tear them from her body. The shape-shifters prided themselves on their wings and to be without them, even for a short time, could be devastating. Tackore would pay for what he’d done; she would hear him scream before she tore his heart from his body. She stood, flexing her ruined wings and reached for the creature standing above her.
 
“I will kill you for what you have done!”
 
“I am certain you will try, but we both know who is stronger…if you give up now I might even let you have your little changeling…”
 
“I will never give up, Tackore…you should have read that in my eyes.” With those words she reached out and grabbed the bigger male by the throat with her right hand as he bent to taunt to her. She reacted quickly, using her left hand to finish her attack. Again and again she squeezed, ignoring the other creature’s attempts to dislodge her hold. She knew if she relaxed her grip he would escape and the fight would go on…and she would lose because he would have the upper hand with his ability to use his wings to fly above her.
 
“You will not…not w…win,” Tackore ground out as he felt the talons tightening even more.
 
“I already have, Tackore!” Shareena said tightening her hold with her left hand and releasing her right. Her next move happened so fast that Tackore had no chance to react as her right hand, talons spread wide, plunged into his chest.
 
Tackore’s eyes were filled with horror as he felt her hand close over his heart and begin to pull. With each movement it felt as if is life was being pulled form his body and his throat constricted as she pressed her left hand tighter around his neck. He tried to pry her hand from his throat, but could not budge her, even as he felt veins, arteries, muscle and sinew being torn from their proper places. Brackish fluids spilled from his body, filling his mouth and gagging him even as Shareena released her hold on his neck. He tried to move, but his body toppled backward, landing hard on the ground even as he stared transfixed at the object she held high in her right hand. It did not register that the beating heart in her hand signaled his death…the only thing that ensured there would be no way for him to live. He watched as she placed it against her mouth and bit into it. He screamed as the red glow left his eyes and then there was nothing left to hold him upright. As his body toppled he sensed the others of his kind attack him, tearing his body limb from limb as they fed upon his remains.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Arthur Galloway saw their chance and nodded to JD Dunne. The young man reacted instinctively and dropped the backpack to the ground. He pulled out several items and was not surprised when his five friends joined him.
 
“How do we kill them?” Wilmington spat.”


“Fire….we burn their bodies…”
 
“No, JD, I was wrong. We need to cut their hearts from their bodies and destroy it!” Galloway told him.
 
“How do you know?” Dunne asked, hoping the creatures would not lose interest in the body they continued to devour.
 
“Shareena killed him by tearing his heart out. I can take care of several of them, but you and your friends will have to take care of the others!” Galloway ordered.
 
“JD, don’t trust him!” Tanner said.
 
“We have to, Vin, he’s the one who got me in here…”
 
“He didn’t do you any favors, Kid,” Sanchez warned and accepted a razor sharp knife from the youngest member of the team.
 
“JD and I will take care of Shareena,” Galloway told them and turned to face the creature that was moving toward Chris Larabee.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Shareena felt the victory in the cold heart she held to her mouth. It stopped beating and no more fluid left the organ as she turned to her changeling. Ignoring the frenzied feeding of her fellow shape-shifters she stepped up to Chris Larabee and placed the heart in front of his mouth.
 
“It is time, Love, time for you and I to lead the clan for the next 100 years,” Shareena told him and smiled, showing her blood stained fangs.
 
Chris stared at the object placed before his mouth. He could smell the stench of decay, but it did not sicken him as it once would have. Instead he opened his mouth, giving in to the inevitable and tasting the rancid organ with his tongue even as Shareena pressed her mouth against his throat and sank her fangs into his veins. He felt the blood leaving his body, screamed with the pain it caused and was sent flying through the air to land in a heap near the doorway.
 
Shareena snarled and turned to face the strange vampire who’d dared pull her away from her feeding. She hissed and advanced on him, and suddenly remembered hearing stories about this creature before Shableek’s death. Shableek had indeed changed him, but Galloway had never given in to the blood lust that should have been unbearable.
 
“I will kill you!” Shareena warned and turned to see a young man advancing on Edward. There was something about the dark haired youth that sent fear into her heart. Whoever he was, he could very well be the cause of the clan’s demise.
 
“Not this time, Shareena…this time it is your kind who will die…”
 
“You are one of us!” the shape-shifter spat.
 
“No, I am only partially of your kind…Shableek made me a vampire, but I have chosen not to feed from another human.”
 
“Until him?” Shareena said of the younger male.
 
“Yes…”
 
“Then you have already started to change him and he will be one of us,” Shareena said, smiling as blood dripped down her chin. She screamed as something sharp was driven into her body and tried to fight, but whoever was holding her from behind was stronger than she thought possible. She turned, looking over her shoulder, gasping when she saw the blond. The sea green eyes were blood red and she knew he was closer to becoming the changeling than being human and she tried to speak to that part of him as she shifted her body and became Sarah…his Sarah.
 
“No…” Larabee whispered, blinking his eyes and trying to keep her out of his head.
 
“Please, Love, don’t let him do this,” Shareena whispered and tried to reach for him, but Galloway was having nothing to do with that. He simply used the knife Dunne had given him and drove it into the shape-shifter’s chest. As she screamed, brackish liquid covered his hand, yet he cut upward until he knew he was close to her heart. Reaching into her body, Galloway felt the heart beating and cut through the muscle and sinew and veins until he was able to pull the still beating organ from her body.
 
“Die…and take the rest of these bastards with you!” Galloway snarled as the light began to ebb from her eyes. He saw Chris Larabee standing behind her and knew he was damn close to becoming the changeling, maybe too damn close. He turned to see JD and knew the young man was having problems with Edward who seemed to realize Shareena was dead.
 
Dunne had moved to help Galloway, but had been intercepted by a big vampire who towered over him. JD held little hope of defeating the bastard, but he had to give Galloway a chance to take care of the she-bitch. He held a knife in front of him and moved to his right when Edward reached for him. The sharp nails raked across his shoulder and JD felt blood soaking through his jacket, but he couldn’t let it stop him. He’d seen Shareena throw Chris Larabee off when Galloway attacked her, and briefly wondered how many bones were broken when he impacted with the steps. JD knew the others were in a fight to the death and prayed they would come out on top. He heard Shareena scream and took advantage of the distraction when Edward turned to see what was happening. JD drove the knife deep into the big man’s chest and quickly cut into the heart. His stomach churned as he caught the rancid scent of death and decay and wasn’t sure he had the strength to finish it. The decision was taken from him as Galloway quickly cut the heart from the vampire’s body and destroyed it.
 
“JD, go keep Chris away from the others!”
 
“Why?”
 
“If they get to him they could complete the ritual…if Chris becomes a changeling then he will be virtually unstoppable and will need to be destroyed!” Galloway said.
 
Dunne didn’t need to hear anything else and ran to his mentor. “Chris…Chris it’s me!”
 
“J…JD…you…you’ve been…oh, God, not you too,” Larabee whispered, fighting the urge to sink his newly forming fangs into Dunne’s exposed throat.
 
“No, Chris, I’m not a vampire and neither are you…”
 
“Changeling…”
 
“No…she never finished it,” Dunne assured him.
 
“She didn’t, but I will,” Tareena snarled, shoving Dunne aside and reaching for the blond. “Shareena had good taste and when your friends are dealt with I will make sure you do as she wished and you will feed off your friends!”
 
“No,” Larabee shook his head in denial, but he barely had the strength to stand on his own two legs. Shareena had fed on him twice without giving anything back and he’d barely been able to help defeat her, what could he do against this shape-shifter. He stared into the dark eyes and found himself losing what little will he had left.
 
“Get away from him you bitch!”
 
‘Buck…help me…’ Larabee thought and felt another touch against his mind.
 
‘He can’t help you, Chris…no one can!’ Tareena whispered along the thread she’d used to capture this man’s mind.
 
‘Wanna bet, Bitch!’ Tanner snarled inside his skull.
 
Chris could feel the others nearby and fought with everything he had left. He had no idea how many of his team was still alive, but he vowed the creatures would die before they could attack anyone else. He struggled against the intimate touch against his mind and fought to keep her from going as deep as Shareena had.
 
‘Fight her, Chris…’
 
‘I’m trying, Vin,’ Larabee sent and prayed the others were still fighting. This shape-shifter was strong, but this time he had the others fighting alongside him and he drew on their presence. Slowly, but surely he could feel the invisible fingers withdrawing from his skull.
 
Josiah and Nathan battled side by side, but they knew there was still a fight for Chris Larabee’s human body…mind and soul. JD, Vin, Ezra, and Buck were fighting to free the blond from a hideous shape-shifter. Praying the others were strong enough to hold the creature off, Josiah and Nathan continued the battle against the large shape-shifter before them. They’d managed to get a rope around him before he could open his gossamer wings and escape, but it was hard to keep the thing on the ground.
 
Arthur Galloway looked around the clearing and realized most of the shape-shifters and the vampires were dead, their hearts cut from their bodies. He knew they would have to burn the bodies and everything else in order to be sure they could no longer feast upon the human population. It also meant that one of the humans here would have to kill him or JD Dunne could very well become his first victim.
 
Galloway could see Sanchez and Jackson were having trouble with the creature they were trying to control and quickly moved to help them. He moved in front of the shape-shifter and quickly drove the knife forward eliciting a high pitched scream from its throat. Before the thing could react he pulled out the heart and destroyed it before the two men released it and watched it fall to the ground.
 
The trio rushed forward to help the others with the last shape-shifter. The men had nearly defeated it, but it was apparent that it was costing Chris Larabee more than he could afford. Blood oozed from several small wounds, but if Galloway was correct in what Shareena was doing to Larabee then he could ill afford the loss.
 
“JD, get Chris away from her!” Galloway shouted and positioned himself to act as soon as the others were clear. He could only watch as the five men latched on to some part of their friend and began pulling him away. As soon as there was enough space between Larabee and Tareena, Galloway moved in and stood before the largest shape-shifter he’d ever seen. He knew this one recently fed, and fed often and the strength of her kills raced through her veins.
 
“You will die today, Arthur Galloway, and I will be the one to tear the heart from your chest!”
 
“You may try, Tareena, but you will find that I do not give up easily and my age has nothing to do with my strength!” Galloway smiled and moved to the right when she reached for him. She was strong, smart, and fast, but so was he and years of craving revenge was giving him the added strength he needed.
 
“Your son screamed when I drained him and begged me to take you instead!” Tareena cooed softly and saw the hatred flare in his hooded eyes. Anger caused mistakes and that’s exactly what she wanted from him.
 
“If he did he will be glad to know I am putting a stop to your butchery!” Galloway knew she was goading him and had long ago dealt with the anger over his son’s death. Whether she was the one who had drained him of his life did not matter, because once she died this race would die with her. If he was correct then once his life ended the simple vampires the creatures created would also cease to be. As she reached for him a second time he twisted around behind her and sliced at the black gossamer wings and heard her screeching ululations as she struggled to pull away.
 
“I will kill you!”
 
“I’m sure you will try,” Galloway said with a grin and ducked away from her talons.
 
JD knew he had to help Galloway and turned to the others. “Keep Chris safe!”
 
“JD! NO!” Wilmington shouted, torn between stopping the younger man and holding on to Chris Larabee. The blond was struggling to stay on his feet and there was no doubt in his mind that Tareena was still influencing him. He’d seen the wounds on Larabee’s neck and had also seen what could only be described as fangs in Larabee’s mouth.
 
“Chris, help me!” the creature said and shifted into the form she’d found in his mind.
 
Larabee’s struggles intensified as Tareena went down under Galloway and Dunne’s combined assault. “Let me go to her!”
 
“That ain’t her, Cowboy,” Tanner tried.
 
“Chris, you know it’s not Sarah…Sarah’s gone…she’s gone, Ol’ Son, but you’re not and I don’t aim on losing you to some blood sucking bitch!” Wilmington vowed and held tight to Larabee’s right arm.
 
Dunne prayed the others were keeping Chris safely away from the shape-shifter. Galloway was winning, but the female was far from out. She twisted in his grasp and snarled as bloodied spittle escaped her tightly clenched teeth. JD held tight to the knife he’d used several times on this unholy night and shoved it deep inside her chest. He heard the sickening sound of the blade scraping against bone and twisted upward.
 
“CHRIS!” Tareena screamed and turned to see Larabee fighting the arms that held him. She knew if she could get to him she could take what she needed, but the young male was not easing up on his attack. She felt him cutting deep inside and was suddenly screaming as Galloway renewed his attack and drove the second blade into her back. Brittle bones shattered beneath the onslaught and she felt the life leaving her body as Galloway cut her heart from her body and pulled it out through the back.
 
Chris screamed and fought to escape the people holding him as Sarah screamed and dropped to her knees. Blood and saliva slid down her chin as her mouth moved, but only the gargling sound of someone drowning escaped her throat. Her eyes dimmed, the red glow quickly leaving it as she died while Galloway held her heart high above his head.
 
“Arthur, what do we do now?” Dunne asked, ignoring the others as he moved closer to the writer.
 
“This is where you have to be strong, Kid,” Galloway turned to the younger man and saw fear in the eyes. “I can’t fight the bloodlust much longer, JD, so I need you to finish this…finish this for my son…for me…”
 
“Finish it…how?” the Bostonian asked, dreading the answer he knew would be forthcoming.
 
“You have to burn the bodies and whatever is left of their hearts. It’s the only way to be sure they will not come back.”
 
“What about you?”
 
“You have to kill me, JD…now, before it’s too late. Use the knife and bury it in my chest and cut out my heart before…before…”
 
“Can’t you go back to getting blood from the hospitals or killing animals?” Dunne asked hopefully, his fingers straying toward the wounds on his neck.
 
“No, JD, not if you want to go back to who you were. I don’t want to do this…”
 
“I don’t know if I can, Arthur,” Dunne said and was suddenly on the ground with the man’s mouth against his ear.
 
“Then I’ll let your friends finish this part of it!” Galloway whispered before lifting his head and snarling at the two men who reacted instinctively.
 
Ezra grabbed the older man while Josiah reached for the knife and plunged it into Galloway’s chest. Blood sprayed over the three men as Sanchez completed the maneuver and cut the still beating heart from the man’s body.
 
“Thank you,” Galloway whispered as the life flowed from his body.
 
“God, Arthur, there should have been another way,” Dunne said and pulled the man’s body into his arms. He whispered a soft prayer against Galloway’s forehead and lifted his tear stained face just in time to see Larabee collapse between Wilmington and Tanner.
 
“Nathan!” Wilmington called, but realized Jackson was already examining Larabee.
 
“Josiah, we have to burn it…burn it all…the house…the bodies…the hearts. There has to be nothing left or they could come back,” Dunne explained.
 
“We’ll see it gets done, Son…you did well,” Sanchez praised of the younger man’s actions over the last week. “Ezra, how would you feel about helping me get these creatures inside the house?”
 
“Although I abhor menial labor I take offense at creatures such as these intruding on…”
 
“Ez, just say yes, Josiah,” Sanchez stated with a toothy grin.
 
“Yes, Josiah, it would be my pleasure to divest the world of these hideous creatures,” Standish said, but turned to look at their fallen leader. Larabee had suddenly gone very still while Buck held him against his chest and Vin placed his hand on the blond’s shoulder. Nathan seemed to be checking for signs of life and for a brief moment, Ezra thought he saw Jackson’s shoulders slump in defeat. 
 
“Nathan?’ Wilmington repeated.
 
“He’s alive, Buck, but his heart’s straining to pump blood that isn’t even there. He needs a transfusion as fast as we can get it into him,” Jackson warned.
 
“I still have my cell phone,” Dunne offered and finally released his hold on the dead man. He knew Arthur Galloway was no longer in his body, and promised that he would find out where his son was buried and make sure a part of Galloway was buried there. He reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out the phone, and handed it to Sanchez before moving to help Standish with the first grotesque body.
 
Josiah flipped open the phone, but found there was no signal. Cursing softly he placed it back in his pocket and moved to Nathan and the others. “There’s no signal…we’re going to need to drive out of here and hopefully pick up a signal closer to home.
 
“Been thinkin’ ‘bout that, J’siah.”
 
“About what, Vin?”
 
“Maybe we’re better off takin’ Chris somewhere else.”
 
“Chris needs medical attention….fast!” Jackson grumbled.
 
“Are you thinking about Kojay, Vin?” Sanchez asked.
 
“Reckon I was. Seems ta me he’s the best bet right now or do you boys figure anyone else’d listen ta what we got ta say?”
 
“Vin, Chris needs a blood transfusion….Lord knows he needs more than one pint to bring up his blood pressure,” Jackson stated.
 
“I know and what better place than at Kojay’s clinic. Rain helps out there and Kojay has his own place over the clinic. I know he’d do anything for Chris and he won’t ask any questions about what we saw. He’ll treat Chris and the rest of us and jest maybe he’ll listen ta anythin’ we want ta say,” Tanner explained and looked down at the man Wilmington held. “God help me but he needs help, but he also needs privacy.”
 
“Vin’s right,” Dunne told them, shivering as he helped Standish shift another body onto a blanket and carry it into the house.
 
“All right, let’s say we do it your way, Vin…I want everyone’s word that they’ll listen to whatever Kojay says. I don’t want to fight with you to stay down if that’s what Kojay says,” Jackson warned.
 
“You got it. Buck, keep him with us,” Tanner ordered and moved to help the others with the bodies.
 
“Buck, how are your shoulders?” Jackson asked of the dried blood he’d noticed on the man’s ruined shirt.
 
“Hurts like a bitch, Nathan, but it’s not so bad knowing they’re dead and there won’t be any more hunts,” Wilmington vowed and felt Larabee tremble. “Nathan, see if there’s anything to cover him with.”
 
“I’ll check in the house,” Jackson said.
 
Buck cradled the unconscious blond to his chest and knew Larabee was in bad shape, physically as well as mentally. The she-bitch had used Larabee’s dead wife to reel him in and keep him from fighting as he normally would have. Buck had seen the evidence of fangs in Larabee’s mouth and prayed they would go away with time.
 
“I’m not letting you go, Pard, not when it’d mean that she-bitch took Sarah’s shape and features from your mind. I know you probably can’t hear me right now, but in case even a tiny piece of you does hear me then I figure it’s worth saying. Sarah would have kicked that shape-shifting bats ass to hell and back if she was here…JD took her place though and he helped take her and the rest of the nest out. You should have seen him, Pard, you would have been proud of him,” Wilmington said and watched the youngest member of the team closely. There was something about the way he held himself that spoke of pain and Buck wondered what Dunne was hiding.
 
“I found this,” Jackson said and covered Larabee with a blanket before realizing they were all freezing. He knew they should get Larabee to Kojay’s as quickly as possible, but somehow it felt imperative that they deal with the creature’s remains before leaving.
 
“They’re all inside,” Standish said and handed JD several pieces of newspaper. “We found some kerosene in the kitchen and several lamps were full of oil. It should burn pretty quickly, but if you’d rather not be the one to start it…”
 
“Thanks, Ezra, but I need to do this for Arthur and Chris and…and for myself,” Dunne said, lighting the yellowed paper and tossing it through the open window. The flames caught immediately, igniting the tattered remnants of curtains and other debris strewn across the floor. He stood watching while the fire slowly crossed the room to the pile of twisted bodies they’d placed at the center. He could hear Josiah saying a prayer and found himself repeating the words as he watched the house steadily being destroyed by the hungry flames devouring it.
 
“Come on, JD, we need to get out of here,” Sanchez finally said.
 
“No, Josiah, we have to be sure it’s gone…they’re gone,” Dunne vowed.
 
“The fire will burn for hours, Son, besides we can come back after Chris has been taken care of,” Sanchez offered and saw the dark head dip once before Dunne turned and walked over to where Buck still held Chris.
 
“How is he, Buck?”
 
“Alive…thanks to you.” Wilmington said, sending gratitude through emotive blue eyes.
 
“The keys are in the sedan,” Tanner told them and opened the door. It was going to be a tight squeeze for the seven men, but they were not going to leave anyone behind. He tossed the keys to Josiah and opened the back door before returning to Wilmington’s side. He reached for the unconscious blond and saw the fear in Wilmington’s face.
 
“Are you sure Kojay’s what Chris needs, Vin?”
 
“Yes…he knows things, Buck, and he’s seen things that we ain’t even thought ‘bout. He’ll know what to do for Chris…for all of us,” Tanner stated and helped Wilmington get Larabee on his feet. The carried him to the car and eased him into the back seat before climbing in on either side of him. JD climbed in beside Buck and held his breath until Nathan closed the door and got into the front seat with Ezra sandwiched between him and Josiah.
 
“Nathan, keep trying Kojay’s place!” Tanner ordered.
 
“I will,” Jackson said having taken the cell from Sanchez. The signal was still non-existent, but he would not give up. As Josiah drove the sedan away from the flame engulfed house he hit the phone number he knew so well. It was not until they were back on the main highway leading toward Billings that the call finally went through and Kojay answered on the first ring.
 
“Nathan, I’ve been waiting for your call…”
 
“How did you know I’d be….never mind,” Jackson said shaking his head when the other’s looked at him. “Look we need help...”
 
“Bring them to the clinic, but come around back to my private entrance.”
 
“Chris is going to need a blood transfusion.”
 
“I know…tell Buck he better have been taking care of himself.”
 
“I will,” Jackson said and realized Buck could not give blood because of the wounds in his shoulder. “Kojay…”
 
“It is okay, Nathan. Chanu is here and he is also Chris’ blood type. I will have everything ready for your arrival…Rain is in the clinic so we will have help with the others.”
 
“Thank God,” Jackson said. “We should be there in half an hour!”
 
“We will be ready.”
 
“Thanks…we owe you,” Jackson said before turning off the cell and looking into the rear view mirror. The four men looked pale, but Larabee’s skin had the washed out appearance of a corpse. He knew the others were as worried as he was, especially since Larabee showed no sign of coming round. JD also looked paler than the others. He’d seen the wounds on his neck, the same marks he’d seen on Chris’ and that sent fear straight to his heart.
 
“We need a cover story,” Standish told them.
 
“I know, but right now I can’t come up with a single rational reason that Chris and JD have bite marks on their neck. Not to mention Buck’s shoulders and whatever other injuries we have,” Jackson answered, rubbing at his temples when the headache began to send lancing pain through his skull.
 
“Look, Kojay won’t give a fuck ‘bout explanations. Like I said he knows things and he just might be able ta give us some advice on this…’specially with what Chris went through,” Tanner said tiredly.
 
“No point in trying to come up with a story until after we check that house tomorrow,” Sanchez said and grew quiet. The remainder of the trip was made in silence, each man lost in thoughts of what they’d witnessed and whether they would ever truly believe what they saw.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Kojay stood on the back steps and could hear Rain Goines moving around in his upstairs apartment. He’d taken the large three bedroom flat when he was given the license to open this clinic and he’d even set up one room with a hospital style bed. On several occasions he’d cared for people who were in trouble, not with the law, but with gangs on the street. He had no enemies in the city and often gave free medical service to those who did not have insurance and could not afford the exorbitant prices of the major hospitals.
 
Rain also worked at the clinic, taking care of neighborhood children and also helping out with new mothers. Her natural charm eased most of the patients and even the elderly who frequented the clinic spoke to her of their troubles. He knew there were those who hid in the shadows and would only speak to him, but Rain was slowly gaining their trust and often spent long hours in the clinic on her days off at Saint Vincents.
 
Chanu had remained at the clinic and had volunteered to help with the injured when they arrived. Kojay loved his son, but sometimes the young man had a volatile temper that was only eased by his new wife, Claire Mosley. Although the pretty woman was welcome in his family, her father hated that she’d gone against everything he stood for and married outside her own race. The man would someday find out that race did not matter, especially when it came to children and grandchildren. Chanu and Claire were expecting their first child in a little under four months.
 
The sound of a car reached his ears and Kojay pulled the warm coat tight around his body as he walked off the bottom step and watched the dark sedan drive into the back parking lot. The car stopped in front of him and he hurried to the back doors as Tanner opened it and stepped outside.
 
“How is he?” Kojay asked.
 
“Still out…he’s lost a lot of blood, Kojay,” Tanner stated and moved aside to allow Josiah to reach into the car and pull the unconscious blond into his arms.
 
“Bring him upstairs and put him in the hidden room, Josiah,” Kojay ordered and stared into the car. Buck and JD both seemed ready to pass out and he knew they would need help getting inside. He motioned for Vin and Ezra and pointed to the trembling dark haired Bostonian. “You two get JD out and take him up to my spare room. Nathan, you get Buck and do the same.”
 
“Sure, Kojay,” Tanner readily agreed.
 
Kojay turned and walked toward the door leading inside. He held it for Sanchez and was amazed at how gentle the giant was while holding his friend in his arms. He led them up the narrow stairs and into the room he’d used as a private place to care for people in trouble. These men had no idea how many times he’d been called upon to help with a government witness who needed both a place to hide out and medical attention. That also meant he had contacts that could get him the things he needed…no questions asked and he’d used some of those favors tonight and would have everything he needed within the hour.
 
“This way, Josiah,” Rain ordered when the door to Kojay’s apartment opened and Sanchez entered carrying a very pale, bloodied blond. She’d readied the bed and had the portable monitoring equipment set up around it. The first thing they needed to do was to get fluids into the man and get him out of the ruined clothing he wore. She motioned for Sanchez to place the unconscious man on the bed and waited for him to move out of her way.
 
“Rain, get that IV started,” Kojay ordered and checked Larabee’s eyes before finding the seeping puncture wounds in his neck. He looked at Sanchez, but never said a word while he attached the pulse oximeter to Larabee’s finger and moved to check his blood pressure. He looked up when Nathan Jackson entered the room.
 
“What can I do to help?” Jackson asked.
 
“How’s JD?” Kojay inquired.
 
“He’s weak…think he’s lost some blood too,” the medic answered.
 
“Get an IV started on JD and Buck and I will get to them as soon as I am done here,” Kojay ordered and turned to see Rain taking a blood sample from Larabee before attaching the IV line and running it wide open. “Rain, as soon as you’re finished with that, take samples from JD and Buck. Make sure they’re both in bed and that the others get something to eat. Tell them to order something from the all night diner down the street and charge it to my tab!”
 
“Yes, Kojay,” Rain said and moved out of the room.
 
“Chanu, go down to the coffee shop and bring plenty of coffee and hot chocolate…it’s going to be a long night,” the elderly man said and turned back to find a pair of glassy, red-rimmed eyes staring up at him. “Chris.”
 
“Why…”
 
“Why what, Son?”
 
“Why…hurt?”
 
“Why do you hurt?” Kojay asked and watched the sweat soaked blond head dip once. “You had a run in with several Halloween…”
 
“Sarah…no…not Sarah…shape-shifter…vampire…changeling,” Larabee whispered, eyes filled with liquid fire as he stared up at the ceiling.
 
“You are going to be fine, Son,” Kojay said and realized Sanchez was still in the room. “Josiah, help me get his clothes off.”
 
Sanchez moved to help his friend and was shocked at how cold Larabee felt. The blond was awake, but he didn’t seem to be aware of anyone or anything. Josiah looked into the sea green eyes and briefly wondered how close Larabee had been to becoming a changeling. The hint of crimson in the whites terrified him, but he prayed the blood transfusion and other medical treatment would help return Chris to the man he knew and respected.
 
“He needs blood, and I’m afraid Chanu is ill and cannot…”
 
“Where…maybe we should bring him to the hospital,” Sanchez said tiredly.
 
“No, I don’t think any of you could handle being in the hospital right now. I have called in several favors and am expecting a delivery of everything we need within the hour.”
 
“Does Chris have an hour?”
 
“Chris is stronger than any of you realize, but it is going to take more than just physical healing to bring him back. He has been through something no human should ever see or have to deal with,” Kojay talked as he set up a second IV and then moved to clean the puncture wounds to Larabee’s neck.
 
“Kojay, do you know what made those?” Sanchez asked and heard the soft inhalation that signaled the man did indeed know more than he was saying.
 
“My grandfather spoke of a legend, but it has been many moons since I heard the tale. I won’t go into details right now, but grandfather told of a clan of shape-shifting vampires who drained their victims of blood while they dismembered the bodies. There was also mention of one or more of these creatures choosing a mate who was slowly drained of blood and forced to feed off the host’s body, while not being turned into a vampire. On a certain night the creature drained her chosen mate and then made him feed off a victim, often a close friend or family member.”
 
“That’s what I figured,” Sanchez said and placed a hand on Larabee’s forehead when the younger man began to moan softly. “Easy, Son, you’re safe now…”
 
“God…hurts…it hurts…burns,” Larabee muttered, unable to keep the pain from showing any longer.
 
“Where does it hurt, Chris?” Kojay asked, frowning when he saw how tense the blond was as his back arched and he grabbed at his abdomen.
 
“Stomach hurts…burning,” Larabee ground out.
 
“Chris, did you drink anything…anything from her?” Kojay asked.
 
“N…no choice…hunt…hunt Buck…wh…where’s Buck?”
 
“Buck and the others are fine, Chris. Rain and Nathan are looking after them,” the elderly man explained.
 
“Kojay, what’s wrong?” Sanchez asked worriedly.
 
“If she forced him to drink from her veins then there’s no time to lose. There is a poison in his stomach and it’s going to eat away at him from the inside. It can only be neutralized by an enzyme she would have secreted once he became her changeling.’
 
“How do you know all that?”
 
“I have no time to explain, Josiah. Go tell Rain and Nathan I need them in here now!” Kojay knew he would have to explain to the others how he knew he was right, but he hoped they trusted him enough to act now and get answers later.
 
“What’s wrong, Kojay?” Jackson asked upon entering the room.
 
“We need to set up for a gastric lavage?”
 
“Now…why?” the medic asked, but went to the cabinet the elderly man motioned toward.
 
“Trust me, Nathan and I’ll explain later,” Kojay said and was glad to see Rain enter. “Rain, I’m going to need your help.”
 
“What do you need,” Goines asked.
 
“Help me with the restraints,” Kojay ordered and saw several members of Larabee’s friends in the doorway. “I do not have time for explanations right now.”
 
Jackson placed several sterilized containers on the table next to Larabee’s bed and moved to the door. “Get them in the other room and stay with Buck and JD, Josiah. Kojay doesn’t need the distraction right now!”
 
Sanchez nodded and turned to find Standish and Tanner had followed him. “Boys, let’s go sit with…”
 
“Josiah, I need…”
 
“Vin, you trust Kojay don’t you?”
 
“Course I do…”
 
“Good, then let him do what he has to and we can help by keeping Buck and JD in bed,” Sanchez ordered and walked toward the room down the hallway. He knew whatever was wrong Kojay, Nathan, and Rain could handle it, but was Chris strong enough to keep fighting.
 
“Josiah, what’s going on?” Wilmington asked, wincing as he managed to sit on the edge of the bed.
 
“I’m not clear on everything, Buck, so why don’t we wait until Kojay can come tell us?” Sanchez asked.
 
“What’s wrong with Chris?” the ladies’ man asked and glanced toward the other bed where JD was trying to sit up, but seemed as weak as a new born calf.
 
“JD, stay put…there’s nothing we can do right now, and you falling on your face is not going to help anything,” Sanchez warned and turned to see Chanu standing in the doorway.
 
“I brought coffee,” Chanu told them and handed each man a cup.
 
“Thanks, Chanu, how’s Claire?” Tanner asked, hoping to keep everyone’s mind off Larabee and the fight to save his life.
 
“She is heavy with child, but as beautiful as a dawn’s sunset,” Chanu answered.
 
“Spoken like a man who’s found the rare gift of true love,” Sanchez said.
 
“Is her father still being a jerk?” Wilmington asked.
 
“Jerk is too good a word…more like a miserable bastard,” Chanu spat. “The man has disowned Claire and she is hurting, but I keep telling her it is not her fault that the man is too pigheaded to see what he is missing. This will be his first grandchild and yet, he is willing to toss it aside like yesterday’s news.”
 
“Sometimes people don’t know what they have until it bites them on the…”
 
“Ass,” Tanner interrupted Standish’s speech.
 
“Yes, well, I would not have put it so eloquently,” the gambler said with a slight smile. The men grew quiet then, hoping and praying for some good news after everything they’d been through.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Kojay removed the tubing and looked at the pale face of his patient. Larabee had remained conscious through the procedure and was now turned slightly on his side, and trying to get his emotions under control. The sound of the doorbell had him hurrying from the room and he was pleased to find the supplies he’d ordered set outside his door. He’d warned his contacts that he didn’t want to have to explain to the others how he’d got everything he needed, not when secrets were too important to his own reputation.
 
“Chanu, help me get these upstairs,” Kojay ordered when the younger man appeared at the top of the stairs.
 
Chanu hurried down and picked up three of the four boxes and followed his father up the stairs. He set them outside the room where Chris Larabee was being cared for and moved out of the way when Jackson hurried to help get the newly acquired supplies inside.
 
Kojay closed the door once more and motioned for Jackson to open the box marked fragile and knew the man was fighting the urge to ask questions. The box contained everything they needed for blood transfusions including several pints of Larabee’s blood type.
 
“Rain, start the blood and monitor his pressure closely,” Kojay ordered and looked into Larabee’s eyes. “Chris, I know you’re uncomfortable right now, but we’re doing everything we can to help you…”
 
“Don’t want…want to be her changeling…don’t want to kill…blood…”
 
“I know you don’t and you won’t, Son. I know you feel weak and sick, but the blood should help and Nathan told me the creatures are all dead so that should end their line.”
 
“Won’t become…become her changeling?” Larabee asked hopefully.
 
“No…you won’t. She didn’t get to complete the ceremony, Chris. Everyone’s safe and…”
 
“JD? Is he….was he...” Larabee frowned, trying hard to remember what he’d seen in the clearing. He remembered hearing Dunne and another man join them, and knew there was something he should tell the others.
 
“JD is going to be fine, Chris,” Jackson explained. “Galloway took some of his blood, but just enough to make sure the other shape-shifters and vampires could not detect the difference.”
 
“Not a dream?”
 
“I’m afraid not, but just maybe we can all forget what happened and move on…”
 
“Try,” Larabee said and closed his eyes. He didn’t sleep, not right away as visions of Sarah filled his mind. Only this wasn’t his Sarah, the one he loved more than life itself, this was a creature with red eyes, sharp talons, and fangs protruding from her gums. She called to him and he tried to fight her, but the pain slammed through his skull and his body arched upward on the bed.
 
Kojay and Nathan reacted instinctively to keep Larabee from coming off the bed as he strained against the restraints. His body bucked against the straps holding him down until Kojay reached for a syringe and loaded it with valium before inserting it into an IV juncture. It didn’t take long for the sedative to take affect and Larabee relaxed back on the bed, and a sigh of relief escaped from the three people still present. Kojay and Nathan lifted the side rails and checked the restraints before Kojay asked Rain to stay with Larabee while he and Nathan went to speak to the others.
 
Nathan was the first to enter the room and found the others waiting anxiously for word on Chris Larabee. He moved to sit beside Dunne and let Kojay answer the questions that came rapid fire.
 
“How’s Chris?” Tanner asked.
 
“Is he going to be okay?” Dunne snapped tiredly.
 
“What are you doing about his blood loss?” Wilmington inquired.
 
“Gentlemen, give Kojay a chance to answer one question at a time before bombarding him with inquiries,” Standish said and turned to the elderly man.
 
“Thank you, Ezra,” Kojay said and was glad when Sanchez pushed a chair close to him and he sat down. “Well, I suppose you all have some idea of what happened and what those creatures were…”
 
“Yes to the first question…no to the second,” Wilmington answered as Jackson fiddled with his IV.
 
“Josiah, as I said earlier my grandfather spoke of the legend behind these creatures, but what I didn’t tell you was of my own experiences with them. They appeared around 200 years ago and are probably what modern day vampires are based on, although I doubt there are any like Angel or Spike…”
 
“Galloway was,” Dunne offered, looking at the floor as he spoke. “He was a vampire…but he didn’t feed off humans. He got blood from hospitals or animals, but he never killed a human…never took blood from one until...until…”
 
“Until you,” Kojay said simply.
 
“He didn’t want to, but he said it was the only way we could get into their nest undetected,” the Bostonian answered.
 
“He probably saved your life, Son,” Kojay assured him. “These creatures feast on our blood, but they also crave the fear we go through when confronted with the ‘monsters’. That’s why they tend to dismember their victims while feeding unless they decide to make the victim a vampire or a…”
 
“Changeling,” Tanner whispered.
 
“Yes, I believe that is the name they are given. If she had succeeded Chris would have become her mate and would have been forced to hunt those closest to him in order to prove his loyalty,” Kojay explained.
 
“You mentioned you had experience with shape-shifters,” Sanchez said.
 
“Yes, but again it was not direct. A member of our tribe came to me with news that his brother was acting strange. The elders asked me to check on his health and I sought him out, but I did not find him. What I did find was his wife and eldest son…they had been drained of blood and dismembered much like the victims you were investigating. We did not find him until several weeks later when his body was found burned beyond recognition…”
 
“How did you know it was him?” Tanner asked.
 
“There were some distinguishing marks…such as a deformity to his left leg…the family agreed to an autopsy and it was determined that he had been dead for three weeks or more. The problem was he had been seen by several members of the tribe after he had supposedly died.  There are just too many similarities between his death and these creatures to dismiss it,” Kojay finished.
 
“So Chris is going to be all right?”
 
“I am pretty certain he will make a full recovery, but it will take time. JD and Buck have also been wounded by these creatures and will need antibiotics to keep those wounds from becoming infected. JD might need a transfusion…we’ll know more when the test results are back. Buck, I will want to take a look at the wounds on you shoulders. Nathan, would you ask Rain to bring me two syringes of morphine…”
 
“I don’t…”
 
“I’m not…”
 
“Doesn’t matter what you don’t or what you’re not,” Kojay interrupted the two reluctant patients. “I want you both lying down and resting. As a matter of fact you could all use some rest. Chris is going to be sleeping most of the day…maybe even longer and that gives you all plenty of opportunity to rest. Now I know there is no point in telling you to go home, but there are some empty beds in the clinic that you can take advantage of for now.”
 
“I’ll see that they do, Kojay,” Jackson vowed, having returned with the syringes he helped Kojay administer the medication to his patients.
 
“Nathan, that goes double for you,” the elderly man warned and heard soft chuckling from the others as Jackson turned his own version of the Larabee glare at the others. “You have not only been through what they have, but you have also been helping me treat them and that’s taxing on the sanest man…”
 
“Tell me about it,” Jackson said.
 
“Since sleeping arrangements have been settled I might as well take a look at you two,” Kojay told them and moved to check on the quiet young man who could not meet his eyes even after the others finally left. “JD, you did a brave thing by letting Galloway mark you.”
 
“Just doing what I had to do,” Dunne said.
 
“It was still brave…”
 
“Or foolhardy,” Wilmington said and stared at the youngest member of Larabee’s team. “You took a chance letting him bite you like that…what if he’d decided he couldn’t fight it any more?”
 
“It was a chance I had to take,” Dunne told him and let his eyes close. He could feel Kojay cleaning the puncture wounds and finally relaxed as the medication, combined with the events of the last 48 hours caught up to him and he slipped into an exhausted sleep.
 
“Kojay, is he going to be all right?” Wilmington asked, worried about how quiet and withdrawn Dunne had become.
 
“In time…yes, I am sure he will.” Kojay placed a bandage over the site of the wounds and then moved to check on Wilmington. He peeled back the gauze strips and winced sympathetically before reaching for a clean basin of water. “I am sorry, Buck, but there is some infection in these and I’ll need to drain them.”
 
“Figured as much,” Wilmington said. He’d been in pain since they’d escaped the horror at the old house, but had refused to acknowledge it until after he knew Larabee and Dunne were taken care of. His thoughts went back over what he’d witnessed since being kidnapped and hunted by a vile creature that did not belong in this world. ‘This world,’ he thought and shifted when Kojay touched a particularly sore spot. Again he let himself relax and his mind wandered over how much the world had suddenly changed and yet there was no way he would talk to anyone about it except the six men who’d share his experience and Kojay. The world was not ready for the reality that sometimes legends really did walk the earth and not all of them were heroes.
 
“You rest now, Son, I’ll check in on you throughout the day,” Kojay assured him and left the room.
 
Buck lay still, listening to JD’s soft breathing across the room and sighed tiredly. So much had happened in the last few days, most of it changing the way he viewed the ‘monsters’ he’d thought were imaginary. He knew he wasn’t going to sleep until he saw for himself that Chris was okay. He stood up and looked at the IV attached to a pole hanging from the wall and wondered how he was going to manage to carry it. He reached up; wincing at the tug on the shoulder wounds, and took the IV bag down. Holding it above his shoulder Buck walked toward the room where his long time friend slept.
 
Buck wasn’t expecting Chris to be in good shape, but he wasn’t ready for the corpse like form that lay huddled under sheets that weren’t as white as he was. He walked slowly to the bed and could feel Rain watching him, but he only had eyes for the blond. He reached out and touched Larabee’s bare shoulder, shocked at how clammy his skin felt; unaware that Rain had taken the bag of fluids from his hand and hung it above the bed. He sat down, felt his own energy level drop and finally turned to Rain.
 
“How is he?”
 
“His blood pressure has picked up a little since he’s been receiving the blood transfusion,” the pretty woman explained.
 
“Kojay must have more contacts than Bausch and Laum,” Wilmington whispered.
 
“He helps a lot of people, Buck, and some of them are looking for medical care outside normal channels. He’s been involved with the Witness Protection Program for years…”
 
“I remember him telling us that after the O’Malley case ended and the family disappeared,” the rogue told her. “Sometimes I wish we could just disappear and forget about all this shit for a while.”
 
Rain heard the pain in the man’s words and came around to stand in front of him. She bent down and looked into the sorrowful blue eyes and knew this man had been cut deeply by the events that led them here. She gently kissed his forehead and felt the slight heat of fever and silently prayed there was nothing going on they didn’t know about. She pulled him close and hugged him, feeling his body tremble with what could only be suppressed sobs and knew Buck Wilmington was tired beyond belief.
 
“I’m sorry, Rain…”
 
“No need to be sorry, Buck, you’ve seen things over the last few days that no man is supposed to see,” the pretty physician told him.
 
“You got that right, Rain, wish I could just forget what I saw….make Chris forget how she used Sarah’s image to get to him,” Wilmington whispered.
 
“Chris knows…he knows what she was and he knows Sarah would never hurt anyone, especially not the people she loved and cared about. I’m not saying he won’t need help because he will…you all will. Kojay and I have spoken about what happened to all of you and it’s something that most people would call the stuff that urban legends are made of, but unfortunately most urban legends have some basis in fact.”
 
“Think I heard that a time or two,” the rogue said, sighing tiredly.
 
“Buck, you’re tired and you’re hurt…why don’t we get you back to your bed. I promise everything will look better after you’ve had a chance to rest,” Rain explained.
 
“I…” Wilmington tried to protest, but he found it hard to concentrate as Rain helped him to his feet. He swayed, and grabbed at the rail in order to get his balance and smiled sheepishly at the physician. “Sorry, Rain, guess I’m more tired than I thought.”
 
“Who wouldn’t be,” Goines said and took the IV bag. She held it up and walked beside the rogue, relieved when they reached the bedroom without mishap. She watched him lie back and then eased the blankets up over him before kissing his forehead.
 
“Folks’ll talk if you keep doing that,” Wilmington lightly teased and closed his eyes knowing Larabee was in good hands.
 
Rain moved to check on the youngest member of Larabee’s team and was not surprised to see his eyes open and staring at the gentle rogue. She checked the IV flow and knew the blood tests results should be back shortly and they’d know whether there was anything they should be treating. Although JD’s blood pressure had been a little low it had improved with the infusion of fluids.
 
“Rain, is he okay?”
 
“I believe so, JD, but like you he needs to be resting.”
 
“I’m trying to…hard…keep thinking maybe this was all a dream…a nightmare and I can’t wake up.”
 
“It was a nightmare, JD, but unlike most nightmares this one was very real. You…all of you are going to have to realize you can either keep on living it and letting it run your life, or you can put the nightmare aside and go back to your normal lives.”
 
“I’m not so sure there’s such a thing as a normal life anymore,” Dunne told her.
 
“There is, JD, and I’m sure when Casey comes home she’ll help you deal with this. So will the others, but right now I want you to try and rest, okay?”
 
“Okay…I’ll try,” the younger man said and closed his eyes. He heard her move around before finally leaving the room. Dunne opened his eyes and stared at the window. The blinds were closed, but he could tell the sun was shining and for a second shied away from the thought of sunshine. He silently cursed himself for his weakness and knew Galloway had not changed him, yet there seemed to be an urge to stay in the darkness.
 
‘They’re dead…all dead and Arthur wouldn’t….didn’t lie to me. I’m not a vampire…I’m JD Dunne and I work and I’m damn good at what I do. I’m no monster…no monster…no monster…’ those thoughts raced through his mind and followed him into his dreams.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Two days had passed since the encounter with the race of shape-shifting vampires, two days of nightmares and rethinking that the ‘monsters’ of this world sometimes transcended what made up nightmares. Vin sat next to Larabee’s bed and winced at the pressure on his ribs. Kojay had insisted on checking him over once the others had been taken care of and x-rays revealed he’d broken a couple of them at some point during the last few days. JD and Buck were both fighting high fevers and had been receiving antibiotics and IV fluids. They were both covered with cooling blankets and hooked up to cardiac monitors. Vin stood and moved to the bed when Larabee began to moan and his head moved from side to side.
 
“Sarah…not my Sarah…no…no…”
 
“Chris, come on, Cowboy, it’s time to wake up. You’re safe now…we’re all safe,” Tanner said and touched Larabee’s bare shoulder. The blond was burning up and was still restrained because Kojay was afraid he’d hurt himself during his struggles.
 
“No…no hunt…Buck….please…I can’t…no feed…no…”
 
Tanner reached out and touched Larabee’s forehead, wincing sympathetically as the muscles corded in the straining neck and shoulders. This was the third time in less than two hours that the blond reacted to the restraints and tried to fight his way out of them and Vin knew something had to be done.
 
“Damn it, Chris…stop!” the Texan cursed and dropped back on the chair as he ran his fingers through his hair. His ribs throbbed and he could see Kojay readying an injection that would be used to sedate Larabee. He knew the elderly man would rather not use anything, but the violent outbreaks were doing more damage than good. 
 
“I don’t w…want…don’t want it!” Larabee screamed and continued to buck until it looked as if he was going to break either the restraints or his own bones. “Sarah…God help me…I can’t…..burning…burning…”
 
“Chris,” Tanner said and moved to the bed. “Listen to me, Cowboy, Sarah’s not here…”
 
“Burning, Vin…so fuck…fucking hot…this hell…am I in hell?”
 
“No, Pard, it’s not hell. You’ve just got a fever, but Kojay’s doing everything he can to bring it down,” Tanner tried to get through to his friend and watched Kojay inject the medications. “We’re okay, Chris, we’re all okay and so are you…or you will be as long as you fight…”
 
“Fight…fight monsters…vampires…feed….sick…going to b…be sick,” Larabee said and was turned slightly on the side as a basin was placed before him. Again and again he wretched as thick black ooze ejected from his throat and his body trembled uncontrollably.
 
“Kojay?” Tanner asked worriedly.
 
“It’s from whatever that creature had in its veins, Vin. I was expecting this and although the gastric lavage cleansed most of it from his stomach, it was still clinging to his throat and stomach lining.”
 
“Should we be worried?”
 
“Always….especially since we are dealing with the unknown,” Kojay said, easing Larabee back down when it seemed this new bout had ended.
 
“Ko…jay?” the ill man groaned and looked into the sympathetic eyes of the older man.
 
“How do you feel, Son?”
 
“Feel like hell…what hap…happened?”
 
“What do you remember?” the older man asked.
 
“Remember Sarah…but it wasn’t Sarah…why the re…straints?” Larabee managed.
 
“You’ve been having some severe reactions to what happened and right now they are needed to protect you,” Kojay told him and checked the monitors. Larabee’s blood pressure had picked up, but his temperature remained dangerously elevated.
 
“Protect me from what?” the blond asked, frowning when he turned to see Tanner standing on the opposite side of the bed. “You okay?”
 
“I’m fine, Chris, busted a couple of ribs, but that ain’t nothin’ compared ta what happened ta you and the others.”
 
“I remember Sarah…but…”
 
“It wasn’t Sarah, Chris, not even close. She was doing somethin’ ta ya ta make ya see her as Sarah…”
 
“Shape-shifter?”
 
“Yeah,” Tanner answered simply.
 
“Vampires…monsters…don’t exist.”
 
“Normally they don’t, Cowboy, but in this case they were real. Think they’re all dead now…”
 
“Need to know…need to find out,” Larabee said with a certainty that spoke volumes to the two men standing on either side of him.
 
“I know we do, but there’s nothin’ ya can do until Kojay says yer okay,” Tanner warned. He knew Josiah and Nathan had left that morning to go check on the house and would return to Kojay’s clinic with the report. The police would also be called in as soon as the two men completed their own search of the area.
 
“Chris, I want you to rest now,” Kojay ordered and watched the sea green eyes close slowly.
 
Vin could feel the elderly man watching him, but he wasn’t in the mood to talk. He understood Kojay had seen and heard many things in his lifetime, but unless he really believed in monsters there was no way Kojay or anyone else would be able to keep a straight face.
 
“Vin, there are many unexplainable things in this world, and often people choose not to admit to what they’ve seen because they are afraid. They fear being ridiculed by others, but they are also afraid that if they speak of it then it just might become too real to deny. They hide behind their fears and hope that no one asks them about what they saw.”
 
“I know what I saw, Kojay, jest wish I hadn’t seen it,” Tanner answered.
 
“I would say the others feel the same way, but it happened and you saw it. There is no denying it in your mind and if you try I can promise it will never go away. It will eat at you until you go crazy trying to act as if nothing happened. Admit to yourself what you saw and to your friends, but don’t try to deny it,” Kojay warned.
 
“I ain’t denyin’ what I saw, but I ain’t gonna talk ‘bout it any more’n I have ta,” the Texan vowed. “Them creatures are dead and as soon as Josiah and Nate get back we’re all gonna rest a lot easier.”
 
“They may not find anything,” Kojay warned.
 
“That’s what scares me,” Tanner told him.
 
“Vin, just remember what I said and you will all be fine,” the elderly man assured him and turned back to his patient. He could tell Larabee was finally sleeping, but also understood there would be nightmares for a long time to come. He just hoped the others would be strong enough to give Larabee, Wilmington, and Dunne what they needed.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Josiah and Nathan had been quiet during the ride to the house they had hastily driven away from after setting fire to the structure. They knew it was on an old back road that hadn’t been used in years and Nathan was watching for the turn off.
 
Nathan’s mind was also on the five men back in Billings. Vin was up and around, although the busted ribs were going to make him uncomfortable. Ezra was suffering from headaches brought on by the blow to the head he’d received. JD and Buck were both fighting high fevers and Kojay was worried about the strange enzyme that showed up in JD, Chris, and Buck’s blood work.
 
Chris had them all worried…he was in and out of consciousness and repeatedly fighting the restraints. The wound on his neck was still showing signs of infection no matter what antibiotics and other treatments Kojay was using. Larabee was also hallucinating and seeing Sarah, but not his Sarah…he was still seeing the shape-shifting vampire they now knew as Shareena.
 
“It should be coming up on the left,” Sanchez remarked.
 
“Are you sure we’ve come far enough north?”
 
“I think so…although I could be wrong…”
 
“No, you’re not,” Jackson said, pointing to the turn that would take them to the remnants of the old Victorian house. It would take at least fifteen, maybe twenty minutes to get to the house and Nathan was glad there was still plenty of daylight left. He shuddered at the thought of being on the lonely stretch of road after dark.
 
“Place kind of gives me the heebie-jeebies,” Sanchez offered.
 
“I’d be surprised if you didn’t feel that way,” the medic said and reached for a bottle of water, silently wishing he had something a lot stronger. He knew they’d destroyed the bodies and the house, but right now he was hard pressed to believe it was over. ‘It’s not over until Chris, JD, and Buck are out of the woods,’ he thought.
 
“A penny for your thoughts,” the ex-preacher said when the silence deepened and Jackson seemed to be off in a world of his own.
 
“Sorry…was just thinking about Chris, Buck, and JD. Will they ever be the same?”
 
“I doubt if any of us will,” Sanchez told him. “Seems to me we’ve all seen something we thought was straight out of the movies or an Anne Rice book, and that’s not going to go away just because we would like it to,” Sanchez told him.
 
“Makes you wonder how many urban legends are actually real,” Jackson said, shivering as a chill ran down his spine. “I think the house is close.”
 
“I know. It’s almost like it senses we’re coming,” the older man said. He slowed the car down as the road narrowed and trees, heavy with frost hung over them. They reached the clearing and he turned off the ignition, staring at the burnt out shell of the home. Taking a deep breath he exited the car and stood next to Jackson before moving toward the destroyed structure.
 
“If I didn’t know any better I’d swear the fire happened a long time ago,” Jackson said.
 
“Nathan, you might be right,” Sanchez agreed and moved toward the house. There wasn’t much left that could be recognized as a home, in fact it looked as if the remnants had been picked through and several animals now nested within the debris. Spider webs were also evident, although they looked deserted and the leaves from the surrounding trees were already decaying in the midst of the destruction.
 
“Josiah, this looks like…”
 
“I know,” the ex-preacher said and began searching through the area for any signs of the creatures they knew had been there. He carefully picked his way through the tattered remnants of a home that had long since gone to rot. There was no evidence that anyone had visited the area in many years, yet he knew this was the place where they’d confronted the shape-shifting vampires.
 
“Anything?”
 
“No…there’s nothing here,” Sanchez answered, barely catching himself from plunging through the rotted floorboards.
 
“Maybe we should leave,” Jackson offered, hating how his voice sounded.
 
“There’s no point in staying here, but I’d like to look around the trees. If Buck was hunted…maybe there were others,” the ex-preacher explained and moved toward the tree line near the front of the house. He could feel Jackson beside him and knew they were taking strength from one another. Neither man was afraid, but they both understood the danger that could still be lurking.
 
Nathan kept his eyes peeled for anything and was sickened when he spotted something hanging from a tree several feet in front of him. There was no doubt about what he was seeing and he knew this had to be treated as a crime scene. “Josiah…”
 
“I see it…and there’s more over there,” Sanchez said and made the sign of the cross on his chest. There were human remains scattered helter skelter around the trees and scrub brush. There was no blood and he knew this was probably the only evidence that would point to the creatures that had been nesting in the area.
 
“We need to call this in,” Jackson said.
 
“I know, but we also need to come up with an explanation about why we came out this way,” Sanchez explained.
 
“These people deserve a proper burial,” the medic said and wondered how many victims had met their death over the years. He was saddened not only by the loss of life, but by the fact that so many people would probably never know what had happened to their friends or loved ones.
 
“I know…I think we need to call McNally’s team,” Sanchez said, turning to show Jackson what he’d found. There was no doubt who the wallet belonged to and the mystery of McNally’s disappearance had been solved.
 
“We could let them handle this while we take care of our own,” Jackson offered and wondered if that was the only reason he wanted to step back from the case.
 
“That might just be the best plan, Brother,” Sanchez said. “If we get involved we’d have to go into how we wound up here and right now I doubt anyone would believe our story.”
 
“That’s what I was thinking,” the medic told him. “I doubt if any of us will forget what we saw and what happened, but maybe we can put it behind us and deal with…”
 
“Ignore it you mean?” Sanchez said simply and nodded at the stricken look that came over Jackson’s face.
 
“There’s enough horror in this world without actually bringing it out in the open,” Jackson said, walking slowly back toward the car.
 
“I’m not an advocate of keeping the public in the blind, but in this instance I have to agree with you,” the ex-preacher said and climbed behind the steering wheel. They’d spent over an hour going through the rubble and the surrounding area which left both men feeling drained. He watched Jackson pick up the phone and call the number they’d used only once or twice over the years. It was a number they all knew by heart and it would set in motion a clean up that would hopefully keep the public from knowing exactly what had happened out here.
 
Jackson spoke to several people and was assured that there’d be a team at the site within the hour. He agreed to stay put and make sure no one else interfered with the collection of evidence and knew it was going to be a long day. He settled back to wait for the clean up crew to show up and knew Sanchez was thinking about the others as well. For now there was nothing they could do, but wait.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
He knew it could not be real, and yet he soared high over the countryside, his eyesight better than it had ever been as he sought out his prey. Wings spread wide he dipped and flew with the wind until he spotted his victim and tasted blood in his mouth. There was no fighting it any more, he needed, craved, and would do anything to stop the burning sensation in his gut and dipped lower as the man’s features came clearer. He knew this man, knew his name, respected him, but he could not stop the natural order of things. Fangs and talons distended and the wind whooshed through his wings as he grabbed his victim by the shoulders and lifted him into the air. He could hear the screams and feel the trembling fear, but the feast was so close now and he lowered his head to the neck and used his chin to brush back the soft hair before sinking his teeth into the vein that promised ecstasy.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
It was dark, no light could be seen, yet there were no clouds in the sky and the streetlights should have come on hours ago. The air was frigid, the wind buffeting his body and pushing him forward. High overhead he heard the keening wail of an unknown creature and looked up, but could barely discern the darker shadow outlined against the midnight black night sky. He pulled his shirt closer around him and wondered why he hadn’t put on his coat and gloves. Fear drove him to move faster, but instinct told him he could not outrun the creature that shadowed him. He felt the wind grow stronger and realized his stalker was now directly above him and he screamed as the talons dug into his shoulders and his feet left the ground. Higher and higher they climbed until sea-green eyes met hazel ones just before he felt the bite to his neck and the familiar feeling of blood leaving his body.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“NO!” Chris Larabee’s scream of pain awakened everyone within earshot, but it was Ezra Standish who reached the man first, although the scene before him sent fear racing to his heart and he fought the urge to be sick.
 
“JD!” Standish cried and pulled the younger man off of the restrained Larabee.
 
“Don’t fucking touch me, Ezra!”
 
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” the gambler asked fearfully.
 
“I’m trying to wake him up!”
 
“What’s going on?” Kojay asked upon entering the room to find Larabee trembling uncontrollably while Standish forced Dunne up against the wall.
 
“I found JD attacking…”
 
“I wasn’t attacking him, Ezra, I was trying to wake him up!” Dunne snarled.
 
“Ezra, let him go,” Wilmington said from the doorway where he stood wavering as he held tight to the IV pole.
 
“You didn’t see what he was…”
 
“I didn’t have to. JD woke up and told me he had to see Chris…he was dreaming and he said Chris was too and he had to wake him before it was too late,” the rogue explained and was relieved when Kojay helped him to a chair. He looked at the pale blond and could see he was fighting his way out of the nightmare he’d been lost in. “Come on, Pard, it’s time to shake it off and wake up.”
 
“B…Buck?” Larabee whispered when his eyes finally focused.
 
“The one and only. How are you feeling?”
 
“Tired…is JD okay?” the blond asked.
 
“I’m fine, Chris,” Dunne said and carefully made his way to the bed. “I heard you…I had to come help, Chris. I wasn’t trying to hurt you.”
 
“I know…nightmare…same eyes…thought it was you at first…knew it couldn’t be,” Larabee assured him and wished he could wipe away the pain he saw in the hazel eyes.
 
“I’m sorry, JD, I saw the blood…”
 
“Blood?” Dunne asked and looked down at his hand. There was blood, a lot of it running from the puncture wound left by the hastily extracted IV line.
 
“JD, I need to check…”
 
“I’m okay, Kojay,” the Bostonian tried, but was led from the room.
 
“Jesus, Chris, you look like hell,” Wilmington stated, with just a hint of a relieved smile.
 
“Have you looked in a mirror lately, Buck?” Standish asked. “Stupid question because if you had you would know you look as bad, if not worse than Chris does.”
 
“Now you know that just ain’t possible,” the rogue said with a grin before growing serious once more. “Want to tell me about the dream, Chris?”
 
“What’s to tell? A dream’s a dream,” Larabee told him, sighing wearily when both men stared at him. “I was walking along the back parking lot of Rimrock Mall. It was dark and for some reason there were no stars in the sky in spite of the fact there were no clouds. The wind was so strong I thought it was going to knock me off my feet. I looked up just as something dug into my shoulders and lifted me off the ground.”
 
“Did you see what it was?” Standish asked when Larabee grew quiet.
 
“Yes…it was…”
 
“It was me,” Dunne finished for the blond.
 
“Yes and no,” Larabee answered. “I wish I could explain it better, but…”
 
“You’d have to admit that you believe in those things,” Wilmington whispered.
 
“Yes…I don’t want to, but God help me they were real,” Larabee snapped.
 
“Yes, they were, but we took care of them, Chris,” Standish assured him.
 
“If Arthur was right then we killed the last of their bloodline and that ends the threat,” Dunne explained. “He told me what they were and said that in order to put a stop to the shape-shifters we had to destroy them with fire. We did that, Chris. We put them in the house and burned it to the ground…we can’t…we won’t be like them.”
 
“JD is right, Son,” Kojay interrupted as Vin, Nathan, and Josiah joined them. “The bloodline is severed or you would have already shown signs of becoming what she wanted. Your blood work is showing a marked improvement and your blood pressure is close to normal. The fever is also coming down and that goes for the three of you.”
 
“Josiah, the house?” Wilmington asked.
 
“It’s gone,” Sanchez answered vaguely.
 
“What do you mean gone?” Dunne asked.
 
“Did the fire destroy it?” Larabee inquired.
 
“What about the bodies?” Standish put in.
 
“The house was destroyed by fire, but from what we saw it happened a long time ago,” Jackson explained and moved to sit on the edge of Larabee’s bed. He knew the news they were about to impart would be devastating to Larabee, Wilmington, and Dunne. “There was no sign of the bodies…”
 
“What?” Wilmington snapped, missing the look that passed between Larabee and Dunne.
 
“There were no bodies in the rubble, but we did find evidence of other victims besides you, Chris, and JD,” Sanchez offered. “Steven McNally was one of them…we found his wallet at the scene.”
 
“Who’s out there now?” Larabee asked.
 
“We called McNally’s people and they are going to come up with a cover story after they recover the bodies,” Jackson assured him.
 
“Whole bodies,” the blond asked.
 
“No…at least not the way it looked,” Sanchez told him.
 
“Shareena liked to hunt her victims. She’d tell them they could go free if they made it to the road…made me watch with Steven and Bu…Buck. She tore Steven apart while she drained him and didn’t give a damn what happened to his body. She just tossed it aside like yesterday’s garbage…was going to do the same thing to Buck if I didn’t let her feed from me…made me…made me…God,” Larabee groaned and turned on his side as the bitter taste of bile rose in his throat. His body shook with the effort it took to rid himself of the taste of her brackish fluids, yet he knew he would never really forget.
 
“Easy, Son, it’s over,” Sanchez vowed.
 
“How do you know?” Dunne asked.
 
“JD, did you trust Arthur?” the ex-preacher asked.
 
“He trusted him ‘nough ta let him mark him,” Tanner said.
 
“Arthur didn’t deserve what happened to him and he didn’t feed off people,” Dunne said.
 
“But did you trust him…here,” Sanchez asked, touching the area of the younger man’s heart as Kojay lowered Larabee back to the bed.
 
“Yes,” the younger man answered, his voice barely above a whisper, yet filled with certainty. “He told me what to do and how to kill those bastards and marked me so we could walk into their nest without being discovered.”
 
“JD,” Larabee called the young man’s name and waited for Dunne to look at him before asking. “Are they dead?”
 
“Yes…yes they are. I know what Josiah and Nathan saw out there, but it doesn’t mean it never happened. We know there were victims and McNally’s people are doing the clean up, but we’re also the only ones who really know what happened. I wish we had more proof, but I also know they’re dead and that the nightmares are going to fade and we just might forget what really happened,” the Bostonian explained and felt a weight lift from his shoulders when Larabee simply nodded.
 
“I think you’re right, JD. I think the creatures’ bloodlines died out there and maybe we can forget…or at least file it away until…”
 
“Until something happens to prove otherwise,” Standish finished for the blond.
 
“Exactly” Larabee said. “We can’t live our lives afraid that there are monsters behind every door or hiding in some dark alley…at least not this kind of monster.”
 
“You’re so right, Chris,” Sanchez said. “Lord knows we have enough work with the two legged monsters who prey on the innocent.”
 
“Amen to that,” Jackson said.
 
“All right, Gentlemen, I still have patients who need their rest. I’ll give you five minutes then I want Chris sleeping…Buck and JD in their room…in their beds. No arguments!” Kojay warned and checked Larabee’s monitors, pleased to see things were closer to normal parameters.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Chris sat on the edge of the bed and looked at the untouched tray of food Kojay had brought to him. JD and Buck had already gone home, but neither man was ready to return to work. Chris sighed and closed his eyes, opening them again when the image of Shareena flashed across the closed lids. He fought to keep his breathing even and looked up as Kojay entered the room.
 
“You need to eat, Son,” the elderly man ordered and sat on the edge of the bed.
 
“Kojay, every time I close my eyes I see her…see her using Sarah’s image. I tried to fight her, but Sarah…God she used her…used my love for her.”
 
“I know she did, but as long as you remember that it wasn’t Sarah you’ll be able to face what she did. Shareena was able to take Sarah’s image from your mind, but she could not duplicate how you felt about her. That’s why her ruse didn’t work with you. Deep down you knew she wasn’t Sarah and you were able to fight her on an inner level. Perhaps that’s why you and JD were both able to get past what happened. You’re strong, Chris, and I know the memories are going to continue to plague you, but at least you know they were not real. Shareena’s image and actions will fade and when they do you’ll be able to see what you and Sarah shared.”
 
“I hope so, Kojay…I need Sarah’s memory. Without it I feel empty inside and God help me I don’t want to feel that way ever again.”
 
“You won’t, Son, as long as you hold her in your heart and mind and continue to love her as if she was still a part of your life.”
 
“She is…she always will be,” Larabee said and knew it was true. As long as he kept her memories pure then no one could take them from him. ‘I love you, Sarah…’
 
‘I love you, Chris…’ The whisper soft words were like heaven to Chris and he smiled as he reached for his fork.
 
Kojay had seen the smile and knew Larabee had tapped into the memories that would help him get through the pain Shareena had caused him. Between that and his team of brothers, Chris Larabee would be able to live with what the shape-shifter had done and come out on top. He watched Larabee eat and finally left the room in search of his own meal.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Chris looked at the young man seated next to him. It had been a long two weeks, but Kojay had finally released them all from his care. They’d talked through the events of the week leading up to Halloween, and were somewhat surprised to find the memories and the wounds were indeed fading. He turned to see JD watching the moon come up behind the trees and knew Dunne would never really forget what happened any more than he could. They were alone right now, but the rest of the team would be there before long and would be bringing dinner.
 
“Chris, do you ever wonder if…well if there’s anything to the stories we’re told as kids?”
 
“You mean stories about the boogie man and aliens and…”
 
“Well, yes and no. See I keep thinking about Arthur and wondering why he left his stuff to me?”
 
“Probably because he saw a kindred spirit,” Larabee answered. Dunne had heard from Galloway’s lawyer and been told that the man had made changes to his will and that since he had no surviving family he was leaving everything he owned to JD Dunne.
 
“He must have planned it before we went looking for he house…before he called me at the office.”
 
“Well, JD, I know I’m glad he trusted you and vice versa because if you two hadn’t shown up when you did then Buck and the others, and I would all be dead,” Larabee told him. “It may not have been the smartest move…going out there alone with Galloway, but it was damn brave. I doubt there’s anyone else who would willingly sacrifice himself to save others.”
 
“I don’t call it brave, Chris…I wasn’t real sure about letting Arthur mark me, but he said it was the only way,” Dunne said, staring out over the yard that was now bathed in moonlight. The nightmares were receding, although every now and then he was plagued with one where he flew high over the city of Billings searching for prey. It always ended with him grabbing his victim and lifting him high in the sky. He’d look into Larabee’s sea green eyes just before sinking his fangs into the exposed throat.
 
“Are you still having nightmares?”
 
“Sometimes…not as bad or as often,” the younger man explained.
 
“Same one?”
 
“Yeah, but lately I’m waking up before…well you know,” Dunne said. He’d already spoken with Larabee about the nightmares and realized they were sharing the same dream from different angles. They’d spoken with Kojay and Josiah and it helped them both deal with the emotional trauma they’d been through.
 
“I know…but it’s not your fault, JD,” Larabee assured him. “The nightmares will stop eventually, but until they do why don’t we agree to call each other just to make sure we’re okay with them?”
 
“Sounds good, Chris,” Dunne said.
 
“Dinner’s here!” Wilmington called as the other men joined Larabee and Dunne on the back patio. “Jesus, you two must be freezing!”
 
“It’s not that bad, Buck,” Larabee said.
 
“Speak for yourself, Pard…as Vin so aptly puts it the boys are shriveling up to nothing but buttons,” the rogue said and patted his arms.
 
“Buck, I heard tell that was normal fer ya,” Tanner quipped from inside the house.
 
“Oh that’s real funny, Vin, come on you two…feedbag’s on and I’m starving,” Wilmington said and motioned the two men inside, stopping Larabee once Dunne stepped inside. “How is everything?”
 
“He’s fine, Buck…we’re fine,” Larabee assured the ladies’ man.
 
“Thank God…”
 
“Already did,” the blond said and stepped into the house. The door closed and the warmth of the house blanketed him inside and out. He could hear their laughter and feel the healing nature that went with their friendship and knew they really would be all right. It might not be tomorrow, but sometime in the next few days or months or however long it took their lives would be normal and safe once more.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
The wind buffeted the slender, rotted piece of wood and a low keening wail echoed through the clearing. The branches of the trees scratched against one another while the animals who’d found shelter in the burned out remnants of the once stately manor scurried away from the figure that emerged from the ground. Wings formed, and the scorched body lifted off the ground, hovered for several minutes and stared toward the city it once lived in. The house belonged to someone else now, and he could not return there, but at least he could move on and allow the city to forget the ‘monsters’ the darkness harbored. With one last look toward the city, the creature turned away from the life he’d known and flew north, away from Billings, away from the young man who would never know the full truth behind the gift he’d come so close to receiving.
 
THE END


PART 1

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