Blood. Violence. Sex. Cheering crowds.
None of it fazed Nathan Sabine anymore. If someone had told him a hundred years ago that he’d be completely numb to the gladiatorial battle taking place in the hockey rink-sized arena below his VIP booth, he’d have ripped out their throat with his teeth.
Hell, that still sounded like a good plan.
Instead, he was watching a hyena shifter rip out the throat of another hyena shifter. Should have been the same-old, same-old, but one of the males hadn’t shifted out of his human form.
Which was why the male had been at a serious disadvantage, and why he was now bleeding out in the sand.
Nate didn’t give a shit why the guy had wanted to fight this battle, but he had to have known he couldn’t win. The fool. No amount of money was worth dying for. Nothing was worth that.
Turning his back on the bloodthirsty roar of the spectators, Nate strode out of the private viewing box reserved for club personnel and wondered if it was possible to hate himself more than he did right now. Doubtful. He might be anesthetized to everything outside his body, but inside, he was a seething cauldron of self-loathing. Sometimes he thought that if he wasn’t a daywalker, a rare vampire who could tolerate natural light, he’d step out into the sun and end it all.
And wasn’t he a hypocrite of epic proportions, given that he’d just wondered why the hyena non-shifter had given up his life.
He took the stairs down into the commons, where people sought refreshments and placed bets while they waited for the next death match. At one time, the sour stench of their excitement and greed had turned his stomach. Now it was like any other unpleasant odor the nose learned to ignore. Lately, though, the stink was stronger, the result of a command from the big boss to step up the number of fights—and the brutality—in order to maintain pace with the unrest in the underworld. Fade was desperate to keep paying spectators coming to the club instead of enjoying the violence elsewhere for free.
The crowd parted for Nate, some whispering his name as he passed. An ugly-ass, gray-skinned demon male near the pit railing asked when Nate was going to fight again, and Nate swung around, his black hair snapping about his shoulders, his fangs bared.
“You volunteering to get in the pit with me, demon? Because I’m itching to put another set of antlers on my wall.”
The normally inaudible beat of music from the dance club upstairs rang clear enough in the sudden silence to identify the artist.
The demon cleared his beefy throat as Goldfrappe Ooh La La’d its way to the end of the song. “Another time, perhaps.”
“That’s what I thought.” Nate hadn’t been in the arena in nearly seven decades, and these morons still wanted to see him fight—as long as he fought someone else. No one ever volunteered to step into the pit with him.
He sliced through the throng and slipped past the two guards who kept the general public out of the tunnel separating Gladius from Thirst, the respectable half of the club complex. He’d only gone about ten yards and taken the first corner when he heard footsteps behind him.
Nate stopped but didn’t turn around. “What, Gunnar?”
“The body, sir.” The hulking werewolf ’s voice was little more than a rumble in the shadowy hall.
“Why are you asking me? Where’s Budag?”
“He went out.”
Budag, who had once been Attila the Hun’s right-hand man, was the only person besides the club owner who outranked Nate, but the asshole was hardly ever around. Nate had no idea what the demon in human clothing did in his spare time, but he certainly seemed to have a lot of it.
Exhaling on a curse, Nate looked up at the flickering fluorescents on the ceiling. “The male is a shifter. You know the rules.”
Usually the dead were fed to the creatures that were kept either as bait for training or for actual gladiatorial matches, but a few species, including most shifters, could bond so strongly to a mate that after death, the surviving partner would be driven to find them. The club couldn’t afford for some grieving, pissed-off female to track down the male’s remains and cause trouble.
Nate continued down the hall and up a flight of cement stairs. A casual observer who arrived at the narrow landing would see only a monitor mounted on a textured black wall. Nate checked the grainy screen, and after he’d ensured that no one was inside his office, he pushed on the wall, opening a hidden doorway.
From the office side, the door appeared to be nothing more than a sturdy wine rack, and it made a whisper of a click as it closed. Only Thirst’s top management knew that this was one of two entrances from the dance club to the fight club. Most of Thirst’s employees weren’t even aware that behind and underneath the most popular vampire bar in North America, was the most popular blood arena in the human realm.
Nate had known for over a hundred years. He’d known, and he’d planned to take it down. And he would, when the time was right.
Self-loathing slithered through him again, because he’d been singing that tune for decades. So many right times had come and gone, and he’d done nothing. His interest had been as dead as his heart.
Cursing himself, he slammed out of the front door of his office and into another hallway, this one brightly lit, the walls plastered with gaudy murals depicting scenes of various underworld creatures getting their grooves on under disco balls. His shoes sank into the plush crimson carpet as he strode toward the club’s public area. The music grew louder as he walked, throbbing through him like a pulse and granting him the illusion, at least, that he was alive.
Once he went through the swinging door at the end of the hall, he was immediately assaulted by sultry heat, glaring, colored lights streaming in the darkness, and all the erotic sounds that went with a place like this. The lower level was a mass of writhing bodies—people dancing, sexing, feeding. At the tables and on the couches lining the walls on the upper and lower levels, there was more of the sex and feeding. Cocktail waitresses delivered drinks under the watchful eyes of bouncers who ensured the waitresses went unmolested.
That had been one of Nate’s changes when he’d been promoted to manager—a rule that no one touched the staff or he’d maim them. Period.
“Yo, Nathan.” Marsden, Thirst’s vampire chief of security and Nate’s second in command, shoved his way through a gaggle of males eyeing three scantily-clad females leaning over the railing on the upper level. “We have a situation.” Marsden’s hazel eyes shifted to the medic station near the restrooms, and Nate sighed.
“Injury, overdose, or overfeed?”
“Overfeed. Vic is human.”
“Shit.” Bad enough when a vampire got too eager with an underworlder, but humans were a lot harder to treat, keep alive, and dispose of if they died.
“It was the perp’s second offense,” Mars said, as they moved toward the medic station. “He’s been given the boot.”
“Hope that boot was up the nightcrawler’s ass.”
Mars, the only soul on the planet who knew about Nate’s daywalker status, didn’t take offense at the dig at regular vamps. He merely grinned, revealing the latest in vampire fashion; gold-plated fangs studded with jewels. Feeding must be a bitch for both him and the victim.
“Boot went far enough up his ass that he lost a couple teeth.”
Inside the thirty-by-thirty room set up as a medical station, John, a human EMT who moonlighted here on weekends, was monitoring the flow of blood through an IV inserted into a red-headed woman’s freckled arm.
“She’ll be fine,” John drawled, his twang betraying his Texas roots. “This ain’t her first rodeo.”
True enough. The woman, whose name Nate thought was Allison, lay motionless and pale on the table, her silver tube top barely covering breasts made too big by a surgeon’s scalpel, and her black micro-mini skirt definitely not covering what it needed to. She was a regular here, a swan who gave herself to vampires for blood, sex, or both.
John carefully applied a bandage over the punctures on her neck . . . a neck that was scarred from hundreds of feedings.
The scent of blood teased Nate’s nostrils, drawing his gaze to a crimson trail on the inside of the girl’s thigh and reminding him that he hadn’t fed recently.
“There were two feeding on her,” he said, gesturing to the seeping punctures in her femoral artery. Some vampire had done a piss-poor job of sealing the wound.
John leaned in to examine the second bite. “Could have been just the one, tapping two places.”
“Different size fangs. The one at her throat was female.” Which, dammit, meant Marsden had another vamp to punish. “Alert me when you release the human.”
Nate didn’t wait for a response. He went straight to the bar, poured a double shot of O-neg, and took the edge off his hunger. His blood hunger, anyway. As he watched the grind of bodies on the floor, another need rose in him, one he hadn’t sated in far too long.
Marsden came up behind him and clapped him on the shoulder. “That hot little piece of human ass at the end of the bar has been eyeing you.”
Yeah, he’d already felt her lusty gaze on him. “I don’t need your matchmaking skills.”
“You need something. You’re wound around the axel, man. Want me to send her to your office?”
The human woman tilted her head to expose her slim throat as she ran black-lacquered fingernails along her cleavage in blatant invitation. He wondered if she was a star-fucker who knew who he was, a legend in the blood arena, or if she was a run-of-the-mill vampire chaser eager for any set of fangs to penetrate her. Either way, Nate wasn’t game no matter how strung out he was. He’d always preferred to get his blood and sex from females he hadn’t seen screwing other males that night.
“No.” He started to walk away, but Marsden’s hand on his arm stopped him.
“Trust me on this. You need to work off some juice.”
A chill shot up Nate’s spine, and his jaw clenched so hard he could barely ask the question he already knew the answer to. “Why?”
Marsden’s nostrils flared, the diamond nose stud glinting in the smoky light. “He’s coming.”
The demon who owned both Thirst and Gladius was coming for a visit. Nate waited for the hatred to sear him from the inside, but instead, his chest cavity filled with ice, and his entire body went so cold he shivered. Fade was the reason Nate had infiltrated the club’s organization in the first place. He’d waited for decades to destroy the bastard, had gained his trust while growing stronger and amassing a fortune at the demon’s expense.
Nate’s hatred had eaten him alive for decades, but now it seemed that the hatred had been replaced by apathy. Once upon a time, Fade had killed the love of Nate’s life, and it was now becoming obvious that the demon had also killed Nate. He searched deep inside himself in an attempt to find a flicker of life, but there wasn’t even a spark.
He. Was. Dead.
Incoming emergencies got Vladlena Paskelkov’s adrenaline surging and brought her to life like nothing else. As a nurse at the only hospital that catered to vampires, demons, and other various underworld creatures, she got to see things she’d never encounter at a human facility and, as with most medical people, the more bizarre or horrific the injury, the more excited she got.
It wasn’t as if she liked seeing anyone hurt, especially not the young of any species. But she’d inherited the medical gene from her father, who had been a surgeon at this very hospital.
Until he was tortured and killed by The Aegis, a society of human demon slayers who called themselves Guardians and made it their mission to rid the planet of evil.
Lena had been bitter, but not for long. Her father, though he’d been good to her, had walked a sinister path, and she was surprised the slayers hadn’t killed him sooner. She’d also learned to like a few Guardians, including one who used to work at Underworld General but now ran The Aegis, and one who was mated to the hospital’s chief of staff.
And speak of the incubus, Eidolon, a dark-haired, impossibly hot Seminus demon, jogged into the bustling emergency department and snagged a pair of surgical gloves from the supply stand.
“What have we got?”
Lena gloved up as she spoke. “Male shifter, unknown breed. Found like the others, with multiple wounds, no vitals when the paramedics found him, but Shade got him jump-started.”
Eidolon smirked. “What were Shade’s exact words?”
Shade, Eidolon’s brother in charge of the hospital’s paramedics, rarely minced words. Yes, he’d given her all the technical jargon, but only after his more personal observations.
“Hell’s fucking rings,” she said, doing her best Shade imitation. “Dude looks like he went through a wood chipper.”
One dark eyebrow arched. “That’s more like it.” The red rotating light at the ambulance bay doors lit up, signaling the ambulance’s arrival in the underground lot. Before the doors opened, Eidolon turned to her, lowering his voice. “Did the serum work?”
All the adrenaline that had been surging through her veins turned to sludge, and she absently rubbed the spot on the back of her hand where she’d given herself the injection.
“No.” She cleared her voice to rid it of the sudden hoarseness. “I didn’t shift.”
Pity dulled Eidolon’s espresso eyes. “I’m sorry, Lena. I’ll keep working on it.”
He didn’t say anything more. What was there to say? Sorry you’re a freak who can’t shift into your animal form, even with a drug that works on everyone else? Sorry you’re going to go insane and die?
Over the years, she’d been through therapy and lessons, desperate to shift into her furry form before she turned twenty-four, when the inability to shift would kill her. Yesterday, on her twenty-fourth birthday, she’d injected a drug Eidolon had developed as a catalyst for those who couldn’t shift any other way. It hadn’t worked. She was a failure among failures, and it was probably a good thing her father wasn’t alive to see how, very soon, she’d lose her grip on reality and grow violent before finally dying in agony. Shifters with her problem rarely survived more than six weeks after turning twenty-four, and she’d already started marking off days on the calendar. So much time wasted. So much more she’d wanted to do.
This really sucked.
The ER doors whooshed open, and Shade and his partner, a werewolf named Luc, wheeled in a bloody male on a stretcher. As they hurried the patient to a room, Shade rattled off vitals, the dismal numbers putting an immediate damper on hope. Lena had only been out of nursing school for a couple of years, but she knew a goner when she saw one.
The acrid stench of death clung to this male like a dire leech, and . . . she gasped, grinding to a halt as Shade and Luc lifted the patient onto a table.