Nightsiders, Book 1
4.5 STARS! “A complicated and fascinating mythology makes Daysider a fun read. Its fast-paced excitement will keep readers’ attention from beginning to end.” —RT Book Reviews
Human/vampire relations are in turmoil in a stunning new series by New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author Susan Krinard
Tensions between human and vampire factions are escalating. Peace hangs in the balance. And like two ill-fated stars, Alexia Fox and Damon are destined to collide. She’s a seductive human operative on a mission to infiltrate an illegal vampire colony. He’s a vampire and represents everything she loathes-and all that she desires. Their attraction is scorching, immediate…and could explode like the fragile truce they’ve both been fighting independently to preserve. Now the world’s last hope hinges on their ability to work together. As enemies they are doomed, but as allies they just might save the world.
Read an Excerpt
San Francisco Enclave, West Coast Region
“It may be fatal,” the Director said.
Alexia laughed. “Since when hasn’t that been true of every mission?”
Aegis Director of Field Operations Wilson McAllister regarded her without a trace of amusement. “This isn’t funny, Alex,” he said. “We’re talking about violating our side of the treaty and striking deep into the Zone. Even the Mayor doesn’t know about it.”
“At least not officially,” Alexia said.
“Not officially enough to send someone to pull your ass out of the fire if you get caught.” The steel rims of McAllister’s glasses flashed as they caught the cold and sterile light from the overhead fixtures. “Your mission will be to learn everything you can about the Nightsiders’ illegal colony without doing anything to attract the Citadel’s attention. If you fail or are captured—”
“—Aegis will disavow any knowledge of our actions. I know the drill.” Alexia wandered to the window overlooking the glimmering waters of San Francisco Bay. From Aegis headquarters in the old Financial District she could see a heavily guarded convoy of trucks carrying agricultural products from the Central Valley into the City. The Treaty meant that the Nightsiders were supposed to leave such convoys alone.
Usually they did. But there were always the terrorists, the ones who wanted to start a new War. On both sides. And that was what her team would be sent in to try to prevent.
Alexia drifted back into memory, of the year the Nightsiders had first appeared. Not that they’d been her memories, not exactly. But she’d seen the archived news vids, the looks of bewilderment and fear on the newscasters’ faces when the first reports came in: horror stories of vampires arising seemingly out of nowhere, some emerging from decades or centuries or even millennia of sleep in sanctuaries built deep under the earth. No one knew—or at least the leaches weren’t telling—what had woken them, or why they had chosen that time to rise and claim the earth.
Ten years later—ten years of chaos and plague and terrible war, the time when Alexia’s mother gave birth to a half-vampire child—had led to the Treaty, and now most parts of the world were carefully divided into territories: vampire citadels and human enclaves, separated by the unclaimed regions known as the Zones.
Just outside the enclave that embraced San Francisco and the area once known as the East Bay, the Zone comprised an immense semicircular region that had once held thriving suburbs, now abandoned and slowly crumbling back to the earth. Beyond that lay the farmlands that produced sustenance for the enclaves, each surrounded by its own Zone and patrolled by special military forces whose job it was to keep Nightsiders out and human workers in.
And to the north, in the area once distinguished by its scenic fields of grapevines and boutique wineries, its rolling hills and towering redwoods, stood Erebus. The Citadel of Night.
Alexia remembered the images on the TV when the construction began. Very little had been known then, because the Zone had just been established, and rumor was more plentiful than fact. Human laborers, prisoners of war, had built by day, vampires by night. In a year the citadel—all black, gleaming, windowless towers and paradoxically Gothic ornamentation—was large enough to hold a population of ten thousand, and that was only on the surface. It was speculated that the underground portion of the city housed five thousand more. Today, the citadel was twice as big, with its own farms and fields to support its human inhabitants.
Slaves, Alexia thought with that deep-burning anger that never diminished. The prisoners, the cast-offs from the human enclaves. The damned.
She turned back to McAllister, who was leaning over his desk with an ominous frown on his lean brown face. His sudden formality wasn’t a good sign.
“You aren’t listening to me,” he said. “Are you sure you’re up to this?”
Alexia returned to stand before the desk, taking a formal stance that betrayed none of her emotions. “Yes, sir. More than up to it.”
He cleared his throat. “It’s only been a year since your brother was—”
“I haven’t forgotten, sir.”
“The Examiners say you may still harbor resentment against the Court for sentencing him to Deportation.”
Deportation. Such a nice way of putting it. “I know the Court weighed the evidence thoroughly, sir. It was a fair trial.”
The Director sighed and sank back into his chair. “Was it?”
Alexia knew it was another test, and one she had to pass. “The evidence was conclusive, sir.”
“Then you no longer believe it was self-defense?”
The same questions the shrinks had asked her, over and over again, ever since Joss had been sent to Erebus.
“Without the laws there would be chaos, and the Enclaves would die,” she said with perfect sincerity. “I blame the leaches, sir. Only them.”
“But do you blame them enough to lose your objectivity in an operation of such extreme delicacy? That is the question.”
“Have the Examiners suggested that’s the case, sir?”
McAllister smiled without pleasure. “If they had, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But the final decision rests with me. If I’m making a mistake—”
Alexia straightened, staring hard at the framed mission statement hung on the wall behind the Director’s chair. “You aren’t, sir. When do we go?”
McAllister made a show of shuffling a few folders on his desk and slid one of them across the desk. “Tomorrow. You and Michael will be the only team for the time being, and your mission will be to observe, and observe only.”
“Call Carter and study the report. There’ll be a briefing at 1100 hours.”
Before Alexia could salute, McAllister was back to his computer, typing away as if she had already left the room. She knew he preferred it that way. And so did she.
She returned to barracks and the small apartment that she, as a highly valuable Aegis asset, was permitted to occupy alone. Alexia unlaced her boots and allowed herself a small glass of the rare and expensive Riesling she had bought with the better part of last month’s pay. After a short breather she buzzed Michael, and they synced their computers to study the report.
“Looks easy,” her partner said when they had gone over it a second time. “In and out.”
Alexia glimpsed her reflection in the computer screen, briefly blotting out the image of Michael’s habitual smirk: straight auburn hair cut at an efficient and regulation chin length, tilted green eyes, slightly pointed chin. New recruits sometimes thought themselves clever by suggesting how much her appearance matched her surname.
But even a fox might not sneak out of this one. Not even a highly trained dhampir agent like her. If she’d thought Mike was taking this as lightly as his words suggested, she might have been genuinely worried.
She knew better. Her partner was one of the survivors, an agent who had made it through ten missions with only minor wounds and the same partner until Jill had been killed a year ago. Since then, he and Alexia had been on three assignments together, and they’d worked as a perfect team. She trusted him more than anyone else in Aegis, even the boss.
Michael had been deep into the Zone several times, while she’d never gone much beyond the Border. She would be relying on his greater experience, but she intended to pull her full weight. This was her chance to prove just how good she was.
She glanced at her watch. “Briefing in fifteen minutes. See you there.”
Michael gave her a mock salute. “Don’t even think about finishing that wine. I plan to drink at least half of it when we get back.”
“It’s a deal.” Alexia signed off, laced up her boots and sipped the last few drops of the wine in her glass, wondering who would be drinking the rest if she and Mike didn’t make it back.
Craving some fresh air, Alexia took the elevator to the lobby and walked out into the busy morning street. Twenty-six years ago, on the day she was born, no one would have believed that San Francisco could ever return to what it had been in the years before the Awakening.
It hadn’t, of course. Not completely. But the rhythms of human life had resumed after the Treaty had permitted regular farming, manufacturing and inter-Enclave commerce. There were bankers and office workers, reporters and shopkeepers, cops and financiers all going about their business much the same way they had in the twentieth century.
But Alexia could never venture out among the general public without knowing what had changed. Because when her eyes met those of an ordinary human on the street, she saw the suspicion. Suspicion, or fear, or hostility—all the same emotions most humans felt for Nightsiders, only a little less severe because they knew she wasn’t one of the enemy.
The existence of dhampir agents couldn’t be kept from Nightsiders or Enclave citizens. But neither she nor any of her fellow Half-bloods could pass for human. Not with eyes like those of a cat and teeth a little too reminiscent of a wolf’s.
Or a Nightsider’s.
As Alexia paused at a fruit stand to examine a fresh orange, just shipped in from the Los Angeles Enclave, she heard a child’s voice on the other side of the stacked crates.
“Look, Mommy,” the little girl said. “Is that a bloodsucker?”
Alexia tried to smile at the mother, hoping to express her understanding for the child’s mistake. The woman looked mortified, but she couldn’t hide her distaste.
“You mustn’t say such things, Jenny,” she said, jerking at the little girl’s hand. “It isn’t polite, and anyway, she’s on our side.”
Our side, Alexia thought as she returned to headquarters. Yes, her loyalties could never be in question. It was her late human mother who had raised her, not her unknown and reviled Nightsider father.
But for the dhampires, there would never truly be an “our.”
* * *
The ferry slid quietly away into the fog, its wake swallowed up in the choppy waves stirred by a brisk late-summer wind off the Pacific. Unless an observer were standing nearly on top of Alexia and Michael at the old Larkspur Ferry Terminal, he or she would hardly know a boat had ever been at the dock.
But then again, Alexia thought, this was still technically part of the San Francisco Enclave, and there shouldn’t be any leeches here. Which didn’t mean a damned thing. They were standing almost at the border of the Zone, where the Redwood Highway crossed over Mission Avenue in the crumbling city of San Rafael. It was an arbitrary border, like so many of them, but it was quite real. Broad daylight, more than any mere treaty, was what protected them now.
The abandoned stronghold of the former San Quentin Correctional Facility stood within view across the inlet to the southeast, and beyond it the twisted halves of the Richmond Bridge, separated by a kilometer of empty water, reached out from each side of San Rafael Bay like hands desperate to touch one last time before an eternal parting.
Alexia tightened the straps of her pack and nodded to Michael, who was already scanning the disintegrating ferry buildings for any sign of movement. She watched him for a moment, grateful that she’d never felt the slightest romantic interest in him in spite of their close partnership. It would have made things very complicated, and fraternization was against Aegis policy in any case. But with his rugged good looks, heavily muscular build and sun-streaked blond hair, he had plenty of female admirers.
“All clear,” Mike said, oblivious to her inspection. He checked his weapons, traditional XM30 assault rifle and VS120 “Vampire Slayer” pistol and combat knife. The XM30 was powerful enough to slow a vampire down, even stop one for some time when used by an expert marksman, but the Vampire Slayer was the only weapon that could kill a leech. And it was to be used as a very last resort, because the damage it inflicted on a vampire, as well as any other creature unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end, couldn’t be mistaken for anything but what it was. It almost literally blew its target apart.
After checking her own weapons, Alexia instinctively touched the underside of her arm, tracing the raised shape through the heavy fabric of her uniform jacket and the shirt beneath. The patch was exactly where it should be, attached to her skin by a thin graft of synskin that held it in place and continuously fed the necessary drugs into her bloodstream. It was new, replaced only yesterday, and would remain effective for up to a month.
Without the drugs, she—like approximately forty percent of dhampir agents—would be unable to take nourishment from human food, and since Half-bloods never fed on blood, death was the inevitable result. At least she, unlike the other sixty percent, was immune to any risk of conversion by a vampire’s bite.
And that was a horror far worse than death. Michael noticed her gesture and touched her shoulder. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ll have this over and done within a week.”
Alexia quickly dropped her hand. There were eleven hours of daylight left, but it was a good thirty miles northeast across the Zone. If the garbled reports were correct, the illegal colony was just west of the old city of Santa Rosa, on the other side of the Sonoma range and at least three miles from the eastern border of the territory claimed by Erebus.
And the closer they got to Erebus, the more likely they were to run into the Citadel’s own agents, both Nightsiders and the elusive Daysiders…. That is, if they managed to make it past the mutant creatures even the Nightsiders wouldn’t allow near their city.
Without exchanging another word, Alexia and Michael set off toward Highway 101.
* * *
Damon crouched at the crest of the hill, looking down into the valley below. From this elevation, the abandoned city was a maze of streets and decaying buildings, empty of human life. Rusting automobiles caught the sun’s light—brief, glaring beacons that appeared and vanished in a matter of seconds like the signals of an unknown code.
But he knew the emptiness was only an illusion. Somewhere, nestled at the foot of these hills, was a society that shouldn’t exist.
He smiled, though there was no one to see. It wasn’t as if the Council hadn’t known about the colony. They hadn’t shared that fact with their field agents, but those the humans called Daysiders, despised minority that they were, had their own secret channels of communication within Erebus. Certain powerful Bloodmasters had simply failed to acknowledge the “problem”…as long as the humans, other than the serfs in the colony itself, didn’t know about it. After all, it was to Erebus’s benefit if the Opiri gained a strong foothold in the Zone. One step here, another there, testing the waters, seeing just how far they could push.
But the colony wasn’t a secret any longer. Word had come that the Enclave knew something was up, and at this very moment Aegis operatives were on their way to investigate.
And that could mean war. A new war the Expansionists would be eager enough to encourage, if the humans would be cooperative enough to instigate it. Some believed the Expansionists had established the colony themselves for that very purpose.
Even if they hadn’t, Damon had no doubt that the conservatives were secretly giving the settlement their full support, perhaps even providing serfs for the colonists. Not so the ruling Independent. They still controlled the Council, and they had no intention of letting the fragile Armistice be destroyed.
But they faced a problem that wasn’t likely to be solved without significant conflict. Damon knew the establishment of the illegal colony had been motivated by a very simple instinct shared by both Opiri and humans: the need to survive.
For Opiri, survival meant not only blood but room to live as their very biology demanded. Erebus was beginning to outgrow itself. Opiri were not meant to dwell in close proximity to each other like humans or rabbits, squeezed into apartments stacked like blocks under a single roof. Though Bloodmasters and many Bloodlords were accorded their own towers to accommodate their many serfs and vassals, there was little room in the Citadel for upward mobility. And Freebloods needed blood as much as any other Opir.
Sooner or later, the pressure to increase their territory would incite certain Opiri to violence. The only thing to be done was to delay the inevitable until some new bargain could be reached with the human government…or the Expansionists found a way to break the power of the Enclaves forever.
Damon had no personal stake in the colony’s fate one way or another, and his opinions were of no consequence except where they related directly to his work. He belonged to no Bloodmaster. He served only the Council, and Erebus. Because that was his nature, and his destiny.
To be forever alone. Neither human nor Opir, too valuable to be discarded like the Lamiae, too different to ever fully integrate into Erebusian society. But vital to the Citadel nevertheless, and free in a way no vassal could ever be.
Squinting against the lowering sun, Damon started down the slope, his feet deftly finding their way among stones and tough, hardy shrubs scattered like spots over the hillside pelt of summer-gold grass. He would not be approaching the colony; his job was both more dangerous and much simpler.
He reached the foot of the hill and opened his senses. He smelled nothing but the sharp scent of spice bush and the musk of a fox, heard only the rustle of fleeing mice and the distant cry of a hawk. As long as he traveled by the sun, he was not likely to be detected by the Opir colonists, whose own powerful senses would be muted by their retreat into daytime shelter. As for the human serfs, they might as well be blind and deaf.
That left only the dhampires. It was not a matter of if they were coming, but when.
And he would be ready.
The person, whoever or whatever it might be, was coming closer.
Flashing the hand sign that meant he was about to circle around behind the approaching stranger, Michael left Alexia to watch and wait. It was morning—the third since they’d left the ferry—so Alexia knew the one they were about to meet couldn’t be a Nightsider. Silent as they were, even vampires couldn’t move very quietly bundled up in the kind of protective gear they had to wear in daylight.
No, this was either human or one of the others. And while the stranger was making no particular attempt to sneak up on them, his “noise” was about as loud as the sound of a feather landing on a down pillow. Humans just didn’t move like that, not even the most highly trained agents.
The one coming toward them could only be one thing: a Daysider. And whatever he or she intended …
He, Alexia decided, breathing slowly through her nostrils. Definitely male.
She checked the VS120 strapped to her pack and adjusted her grip on her assault rifle. He couldn’t be stupid enough to think he could just walk up to an Aegis operative and dispatch her after all but announcing his presence. Not that agent deaths on either side were acknowledged by the respective governments, but that hardly meant they didn’t happen. Enclave agents had been operating in and around the Zone too long not to have a very respectable reputation, even among vampires.
But if the Daysider wasn’t planning to attack …
All Alexia’s muscles tensed as the thicket of toyon bushes in front of her rustled, the slightest movement of leathery leaves that might have heralded the passage of a rabbit or some other small animal. She aimed the XM30.
The man who walked out from behind the bushes was tall, lithe, and yet imposing. That was the first thing Alexia noticed as she drew a bead on his chest directly over his heart. Then she looked up into his face, knowing that an enemy’s eyes—even a Daysider’s—would give him away before he made the slightest movement.
The Daysider looked back at her without a trace of concern. His features were quite extraordinary … that she had to admit, in spite of the situation. He was one of the most beautiful things she’d ever seen. Not beautiful like a woman, but in the perfect harmony of his features: the strong chin, straight nose, high cheekbones, expressive lips.
And his eyes. They were dark … not maroon like those of a Nightsider, but the deepest sapphire imaginable, the pupils almost swallowing up the blue. His short hair was not white, like most vampires’, but a hue somewhere between brown and gold, and his skin was deeply tanned.
Alexia swallowed. She had met her first Daysider at last, and he was so much … more than she had expected.
The Daysider glanced down at the assault rifle. “There is no need for that,” he said mildly.
His English was unaccented, bearing no hint of the ancient language all Nightsiders, whatever their origins, spoke amongst themselves. His voice was a pleasant baritone.
Alexia’s finger hovered over the trigger. “Put your hands up,” she said.
He did so, slowly and without alarm. “I am not here to hurt you,” he said.
She scanned him again the way she should have done the first time, looking for telltale bulges in his tan and brown uniform. She couldn’t detect any weapons, but if all she’d heard of Daysiders was true, they were just as good at concealing whatever they needed as the agents of Aegis.
“I am no threat to you,” he said.
Alexis didn’t even bother to reply. “On your knees. Hands clasped behind your head.”
He obeyed, each muscle working in such perfect harmony that suddenly he was on the ground without her having even noticed how he got there.
“You see,” he said in that same reasonable tone, “you have nothing to fear from me. It’s generally accepted that half-bloods are only a little inferior in strength and skill to my kind, so you seem to have the adva—”
The butt of a rifle slammed into the Daysider’s temple, and he slumped to the ground. Michael turned the gun around and aimed at the Daysider’s head. He was already stirring, only temporarily stunned by the blow.
“Are you crazy?” Michael demanded, glaring at Alexia. “Chatting with a Daysider as if he wouldn’t bite your throat out the second you blinked?”
Alexia knew she had no call to be angry with Michael. He was right. She’d let her curiosity about her first Daysider dangerously compromise her training. And her sense.
“Shoot him if he moves,” Michael said, crouching behind the enemy operative. He unfastened a pair of steel cuffs from his belt and bound the Daysider’s hands behind him. Then he rolled the other man over, patted him down, and removed a wicked-looking knife and a small pistol of a type unfamiliar to Alexia. He tossed them into the bushes, pushed the agent back onto his stomach and jabbed the muzzle of his XM30 into the Daysider’s spine.
“Sit up,” he said.
The Daysider rocked to his knees and blinked as a thin trickle of blood dripped into his left eye. In a few more seconds the bleeding had stopped, the small wound closed by the accelerated healing powers dhampires and Daysiders shared, and the agent was studying Alexia as if nothing had happened.
“That wasn’t necessary,” he said. “I have come to offer a truce.”
“A truce?” Michael scoffed. All the good nature he displayed at home, the charm that drew so many women to him—even the human ones—was lost in hatred. The very emotion Director McAllister had warned her about. “You?” he said. “You have the authority to make a truce for your masters?”
Not by the slightest flicker of expression did the Daysider acknowledge that Michael could sever his spine at any moment. “Not for Erebus,” he said. “For myself.”
Alexia stared into those remarkable sapphire eyes and had to fight off a shiver. “Explain,” she said harshly.
“We have both been sent on the same mission,” the Daysider said. “If your people were not aware of the colony, you would not be here, so close to the Citadel’s border. We both know that the settlement is illegal under the Armistice, but the Council have no desire to see new conflict break out between our peoples. They have assigned me to observe the colony for Erebus and gather information that will help them determine what should be done to prevent such hostilities.”
The Daysider was so straightforward compared with the average leach that a normal human might actually have been taken in by his story.
Michael wasn’t. “’Hostilities,’” he said mockingly. “Your leaders should have thought of that before you broke the Treaty.”
“They did not,” the Daysider said. “That is why it is necessary to—”
“Liar,” Michael snarled. “Freak. You were sent here to kill us.”
The Daysider tilted his head as if he were listening to Michael, but his gaze never left Alexia’s. “I had discretion to kill you if it would have served my mission, but you know as well as I that your unexpected deaths in the Zone would likely be coutnerproductive.” He paused. I think we all want the same thing, and that is to maintain the peace.”
Michael spat into the brown grass at his feet. “There will never be peace until every last one of you is—”
“Carter,” Alexia interrupted. Michael glanced at her, took a deep breath, and calmed down. She didn’t know what had gotten into him, but his uncharacteristic loss of control didn’t exactly make either one of them look strong in the eyes of the enemy.
She and Michael were at least going to have to act as if they were considering the truce the Daysider had offered. Just as she would continue to pretend she didn’t despise this leach even more than Michael did. And despise herself for feeling nearly overwhelmed by his sheer, undeniable masculine power.
His. She didn’t want to know anything more about him than she absolutely had to, but it was going to be damned inconvenient to keep thinking of him as “the Daysider.”
“What is your name?” she asked him.
He inclined his head as if to acknowledge her civility. “Damon,” he said.
Appropriate, coming as it did from the ancient Greek word for “demon.” But what interested her more was that he had no Sire-name to indicate which Bloodmaster or Bloodlord claimed his vassalage.
It was true, then, what Aegis taught … that Daysiders lived outside the strict hierarchy of Nightsider society. No one in the Enclaves was completely certain of how they had come into being. The ongoing question was whether or not they had “awakened” years ago along with the regular Nightsiders, or if they had been created since.
“I’m Agent Fox,” she said, “and this is Agent Carter.”
“Ms. Fox,” Damon said, arching a brow. Alexia wondered how close he was to comparing her to her animal namesake. What did he remind her of?
A leopard. Sleek and swift, well-defined muscle sliding under golden skin and mottled olive-brown uniform, dappled with shadow.
“Agent Fox,” she corrected him. “Let’s not waste any more time. What exactly are you proposing?”
Damon moved his shoulders as if he were stretching against the pull of the cuffs. It almost looked as if he could snap the reinforced steel like the thinnest plastic.
“I propose that we work together,” he said, “pool our skills and our knowledge. Learn what we can about the colony without engaging the colonists, and then go our separate ways.”
“That’s insane,” Michael burst out.
Alexia was inclined to agree. But she also wasn’t too blinded by hatred to see the possibilities inherent in Damon’s suggestion.
“Why would you encourage your enemies to learn more about a settlement founded by Nightsiders?” she asked him bluntly. “Wouldn’t that be against your handler’s best interests?”
“Since Aegis will eventually obtain the information in any case,” he said, “it is my judgment that our working together would be very much to the Citadel’s advantage.”
Michael spun to face Alexia. “Can’t you see he intends to lead us along the garden path and kill us at the end of it?” he said.
Alexia let his anger pass over her. “Why should we trust you?” she asked Damon.
The Daysider’s eyes, already so dark, grew darker still. “Your partner wants to destroy me,” he said. “I am in no position to stop him. There are two of you, and I am alone. Yet I am offering the truce because I know that the distraction of fighting each other will lose us valuable time.” He leaned forward. “You understand the delicacy of the situation. Even the smallest misstep—”
“Are you trying to tell us that your Council didn’t encourage this colony from the beginning?” Michael interrupted.
“And your masters don’t see this set-up as a way of getting a foothold in the Zone, or provoking a new war they think they can win?”
Damon blew out his breath in a brief sigh. “Your agency is well aware of the way my government is organized,” he said. “The the Expansionists have minority status at this time. I serve the Council as a whole, which wants to keep the balance just as it is.”
“So you say,” Alexia murmured.
The corner of his mouth quirked up. “If your agency believed the Expansionists were in ascendance, this new settlement would be the least of its concerns.”
He made perfect sense, Alexia thought. Too much sense, in fact.
She rose, keeping the rifle leveled at Damon’s head. “My partner and I will have to discuss this privately,” she said.
“Of course.” Damon shrugged his shoulders again. “It’s unlikely I’ll be going anywhere.”
“I’ll make sure of that,” Michael grunted. “Lie on your stomach.”
Damon did as he commanded, and Michael made quick work of cuffing his ankles. Maybe the Daysider could break free of them eventually, but Alexia didn’t plan to be away more than a few minutes.
She and Michael retreated into the brush, backing away with their weapons still fixed on Damon. Once they were a good thirty meters away, Alexia pressed the skin of her throat over the subcom implanted beside her larynx and adjusted her earpiece.
I think we should do it, she said, speaking soundlessly through the subcom.
Mike touched his own highly sensitive earpiece, which picked up their subvocalizations as if they were spoken aloud. He’ll kill as soon as our backs are turned.
You think I don’t hate him as much as you do? she asked. But we have to find out how much he knows, if he’s really working for the Independents.
Independents, Michael repeated, the scorn evident in his words. You know even they would enslave or slaughter all of us if they could find an excuse.
So let’s not give them one, Alexia said. Look, there are useful things we can learn just by observing him. Maybe he’ll slip and give us a clue about his real agenda.
Then you’re assuming he’s lying, too, Michael said.
We don’t have to trust him. He may be stronger and faster, but we’re pretty well matched in acuity of smell and hearing—and there are two of us. One can stay with him while the other keeps watch from a distance. That way we’ll have someone free to report back if there’s any treachery.
Forget it, Michael said. We stay together. That’s Aegis policy, and—
We can break policy if we judge it necessary. And I think it is, Mike.
He gave her a look she’d never seen on his face before, one uncomfortably like mistrust. But when he spoke again, there was only resignation in his expression.
Okay, he said. Who do you propose stays with him?
I will, she said without hesitation. I’m better at hand-to-hand, and you’re the better marksman.
Once we split up, he’ll know what we’re doing, Michael said.
Then he’s not likely to try anything, is he?
After a long moment of silence he nodded, briefly and not at all happily. Alexia frowned. It just wasn’t like him to be so grim. I guess the best thing to do is pretend to have an argument, she said.
Michael pulled a face. He’ll never fall for it.
Probably not, but he’ll be even more suspicious if we don’t try to make it sound convincing.
Michael signaled agreement, and they switched back to audible voice, still whispering to make it seem as if they were trying to prevent Damon from listening in. Michael was extremely persuasive in his refusal to go along, and Alexia found it easy to work up the appropriate anger. She’d already been troubled by Michael’s open protests before, and Damon wasn’t likely to think their exchange this time any worse than the previous one.
Once Michael had “stomped” off, vowing to let her learn from her own mistakes, Alexia returned to Damon. He was sitting up again, head cocked as he watched her approach. He wasn’t smiling, but she could feel his amusement at her and Michael’s little game.
“It seems your partner doesn’t agree with your decision,” he said.
She crouched a safe distance from him, her gun loose in her hands, and met his gaze. “We work together, but we’re not chained at the ankle. He’ll see reason eventually, and until then you won’t be able to complain that we aren’t on equal footing.”
Damon’s eyes reflected a shaft of sunlight breaking through the rustling canopy of oak leaves above them. “I don’t remember complaining,” he said, “but I’m gratified that one of you has seen the benefit in my proposition.”
Something in the way he said the words, the way he looked at her, made Alexia feel unaccountably warm. He was so damned agreeable that she found she had to remind himself what he was and whom he worked for.
And she didn’t dare make the mistake of believing that this mild behavior wasn’t just a cover for savagery that would reveal itself the instant she let him think she trusted him.
“I don’t expect you to trust me,” Damon said, as if he’d been reading her mind—an ability she was pretty sure not even full vampires possessed. “But we can do nothing if you don’t release me.”
Alexia wasn’t in any hurry to follow his pointed suggestion. “First I want to know exactly what you plan to do.”
He shifted as if he were trying to make himself more comfortable, but Alexia could see the tension in every line of his hard, lean body—tension that belied his easy manner. “I suggest we approach the settlement together,” he said, “and once we’re close enough to observe the colonists’ activities, we’ll separate. At the end of a set time we rendezvous and pool our information.”
Too simple, Alexia thought. Much too simple. “Why do you think we’ll come up with different information?” she asked.
“Because we are different, you and I.”
She knew that technically that wasn’t as true as she wanted it to be. Over the years Aegis had determined that Daysiders and dhampires were much alike in their speed, strength and senses, with one or the other holding slight advantages in a few areas. Neither was as strong and fast as a Nightsider, but both held the advantage of being able to move freely in daylight without suffering the deadly burns that afflicted full vampires.
The only comfort Alexia took from the comparison was that dhampires were, without exception, on the side of law and decency, while Damon’s kind served an evil, corrupt society of unrepentant killers. And while they lived on blood like their masters, no dhampir would ever give way to that sick, unnatural hunger.
“Yes,” she said coldly. “We are very different.”
He stared into her eyes again, and she felt as if she could fall right into that spellbinding blackness and never come out again. “But not so different that we cannot understand each other,” he reminded her. “And in one way we are very much alike.”
“We are both outsiders in our worlds.”
Alexia wasn’t about to admit how true that was, but Damon had freely offered information that seemed a little too personal to share with an enemy. It had to be part of a plan to get her off guard.
“Have you ever met a dhampir before?” she asked.
“I have only observed from a distance.”
Once again his candidness surprised her, though he could, of course, be lying.
“You don’t allow the birth of my kind in Erebus,” she said, testing him.
“Such matters are the province of the Bloodmasters.”
“Do they kill my kind when they’re born, or before?”
“Such conception is forbidden.”
“Funny how that didn’t stop vampire males from impregnating human females during the War. But then again, they didn’t have any part in raising the children they created. None of our mothers had much choice about conceiving, but at least they didn’t discard us.” She paused, remembering to breathe. “We have a unique place in the Enclaves, and a purpose. What about you?”
“If I had no purpose, I would not be here.”
“So even though you’re an outsider, you’re loyal to your masters.”
“As loyal as you are to yours.” His expression, previously so mild, went cold. “Tell me, how much choice did you have in becoming an agent of your city, risking your life every time you leave it?”
“How much choice were you given to be what you are?”
They stared at each other. Eventually Damon shook his head.
“I have suggested a course of action,” he said. “Do you intend to release me?”
Alexia shouldered her gun and crossed the space between them, every sense alert. She used her own key to unlock the cuffs. The moment he was free she jumped well out of his reach. He stretched his long legs and rubbed his wrists just as if he could feel pain and discomfort as much as any human being.
“What about your partner?” he asked, gathering himself to rise. “Do you expect him to rejoin us, or is he likely to move on his own?”
“If you mean will he attack you, no. He won’t endanger me.” She watched him intently as he got to his feet, her eyes drawn once more to the litheness of his body and the assurance of every move he made. Why, in God’s name, wasn’t she feeling the disgust and contempt she should have felt at the mere sight of him?
Because it was something else she was experiencing, both physically and emotionally. Something she couldn’t begin to understand.
She hated it.
“What about your people?” she asked before her emotions could escape her rigid control. “Do you expect me to believe that Erebus hasn’t sent more than one operative to observe the colony?”
“It seems likely,” Damon said, “but as we generally work alone, I would not know the nature of their assignments.” He brushed the dirt from the front of his pants. “I would advise you to tell Agent Carter not to compromise your mission by approaching the colony alone.”
“You know wireless communication is forbidden in the Zone,” she told him.
Which wouldn’t have made any difference to agents from either side, except that both the Enclave and the Citadel scrambled all signals outside their borders. She might be able to get through to Michael, but the odds were against it. He’d have to find a way to keep close enough to help her if she needed it, but far enough away to avoid making Damon too nervous.
“May I collect my weapons?” Damon asked.
Back to that damned politeness. Alexia jerked her head in permission, though every instinct was screaming in protest. Damon searched among the bushes, found the knife and pistol, returned the knife to a sheath at his back and tucked the pistol into some inner pocket of his uniform jacket.
“That’s it?” she asked, narrowing her eyes. “You must have other weapons.” He straightened and zipped up his jacket, though the weather was warm and he probably didn’t react to changes in temperature any more acutely than she did.
“I left them some distance from here, along with my pack,” he said. “I will retrieve them on the way to the colony.”
“I assume you know the way?”
He stood facing her, unmoving, legs braced slightly apart. “Don’t you?” he asked.
Now he was testing her. “Let’s not play games. You’ve tried to make us believe that your Council hasn’t known about the settlement all along, but that’s a little difficult to believe given that it’s less than two klicks away from the Citadel’s western border. It’s not exactly hidden, is it?”
“I see you do have some information already,” he said, deflecting her question. “Perhaps Aegis has sent other operatives before you.”
“You haven’t answered my question.”
“The first concrete intelligence on the colony was provided to the Council by an operative less than a month ago.” He hesitated, frowning with what appeared to be uncertainty. “It is possible the Expansionist Faction were aware it existed before that time.”
Alexia didn’t believe for a moment that he hadn’t rehearsed that line very carefully. “Hasn’t it occurred to you the Expansionists also set it up right under your Council’s noses?” she said.
“No. This was done quietly, by those who did not expect to be noticed. Or missed.”
“Like your Freebloods and the cast-off human serfs no one in Erebus wants. But you’ve admitted the Council has been aware of the colony for a month, and they still haven’t done anything about it.”
An inscrutable look flitted across his face. “The first agent was able to tell us very little. He died soon after he made his report.”
“That’s unfortunate,” she said with false regret.
“He was fatally injured in the Zone by an unknown assailant. The one who attacked him was a professional and used a weapon forbidden in Erebus.”
Alexia stiffened. “What are you suggesting?” she asked. “That one of our people killed him?”
“The weapon was the one you call ‘Vampire Slayer,’ such as the one you carry strapped to your pack,” he said, his eyes locked on hers.
“The killing of hostile agents isn’t permitted except in cases of self-defense,” she retorted.
“Yes,” he said with a wry twist of his lips. “We are only spies, after all, tasked to make certain the buffer zone is maintained. But it would not be the first time an agent of either side has died between the Borders.”
Not the first time, Alexia thought, and certainly not the last. There had been at least one dhampir fatality in the Zone each year since the Treaty had been signed, the latest Michael’s former partner. Such facts could not be openly acknowledged by either side. But dhampir agents were hardly a renewable resource, and they weren’t casually sent on missions to assassinate enemy operatives for no good reason.
“Even if I believed one of ours did it,” she said, “I wouldn’t tell you.”
“I wouldn’t expect it,” he said. “Just as you won’t expect to learn anything from me that my superiors don’t want you to know.”
So he was confirming that everything he said to her was calculated to achieve a certain goal. Not that she’d ever doubted it.
She smiled back at him, baring her teeth. “I guess we understand each other,” she said. “After you…”
Without a word he turned and set off north, moving almost soundlessly now that he had no need to be heard.
Alexia followed close on his heels. He was giving her the chance to shoot him in the back, but nothing in his posture suggested that he was worried. She kept half an ear out for Michael, but he must have decided to stay out of range of her senses, or Damon’s. Just as well.
They traveled quickly over once-occupied land that was gradually reverting to its original state, hiking up and down oak-studded hillsides and avoiding the valleys with their decaying suburbs and open streets. Damon picked up his rifle and pack after they’d gone a few miles, securing the weapon to the back of his pack as a sign of “good faith.” There was no further sign of human or vampire presence until they reached the summit of a hillside overlooking what had once been known as the Bennett Valley.
Most of the fields and vineyards below had long since become overgrown with native grasses, shrubs and scattered trees, but there wasn’t any mistaking the nature of the several green rectangles that marked out the deliberate cultivation of crops. They had not been created for Nightsiders, who had no need to rely on such food sources, but for their human “property.” At the opposite side of the valley, tucked up against the foot of the low Sonoma Mountains, stood a high, rectangular wall guarding a compound of buildings—twelve or thirteen according to Alexia’s count, suggesting the presence of as many as a dozen Nightsiders and perhaps three or four times as many humans.
The sight both chilled and infuriated her. She glanced at Damon, who crouched beside her with his own binoculars in hand, almost as if she expected the same reaction from him.
Of course that was ridiculous. He was from Erebus. What disgusted her would be perfectly natural for a leech. This was only a job to Damon. There was nothing personal in it.
She couldn’t afford to make it personal, either. Not if she wanted to keep her head…and her life.
Alexia pulled off her pack, and Damon did the same. “How do you want to do this?” she asked him. “If we split up here, you can go around from the north and I’ll approach from the south.” She glanced up at the sky, noting the angle of the sun. “We don’t have much daylight left. Let’s rendezvous tomorrow morning at 0900 hours on that hill directly east of the colony, by the rock formation. Whoever gets there first will wait for the other. Agreed?”
Damon lowered his binoculars. “Agreed,” he said. He met her gaze, his own unreadable. “I trust you’ll keep your partner from killing me if he rejoins you?”
“I already told you. He won’t do anything rash, unless you—”
The report of an automatic weapon cut her off, and she flung herself flat on the ground. Damon was down beside her a second later. Bullets whizzed over their heads and struck the tree trunk just behind them.
“Someone,” Damon said, “does not want us here.”