"LET'S DO IT-let's do this thing now," Cole Granger's voice was low and filled with grim conviction as he spoke to his three comrades.
They had quietly skimmed the stone wall surrounding the prison yard. Earlier in the night, a perimeter had been formed by able-bodied soldiers in the blocks surrounding the area, troops badly needed elsewhere holding the streets around this fortress. But now there were no guards left to stop anyone from entering, those who had been on duty having fled inside amid bullets and blades.
Not that it would help them.
This wasn't a holding cell for the hardened criminal awaiting execution, or even for a pack of murderous madmen. Those incarcerated were guilty only of bowing before a different, Southern power, and they were being held only until the war's end.
For several seconds, Cole Granger, Cody Fox and Brendan Vincent remained frozen in place, listening. Strange noises, soft cries, sucking sounds, eerie laughter-punctuated by bone-chilling shrieks and screams-issued forth from within the massive brick facade they faced.
"Truly, the situation is only becoming worse by the second, gentlemen," Cole noted.
Brendan Vincent, veteran of many a battle and even many a war, nodded severely, his handsome and distinguished face set like a rock.
"Yes. Time to move," Cody agreed. Cody-who knew exactly what they were up against, who had brought Cole into this strange, other battle that had nothing to do with North or South, blue or gray.
"Indeed-now." Cole couldn't believe he was saying the words, or that they were entering the main prison, that he was holding his breath and about to go into action against a horde of bizarre demons.
Victory, Texas. Things had been going well there-so damned well that maybe they'd let down their guard a bit. But this wasn't Victory, and Cole still wasn't entirely sure what he was doing here, except that he'd seen the results of what was commonly known as "the plague." It had come to the West, and, back then, Cole hadn't believed what he now knew to be true. There was one thing that caused the bizarre deaths, the madness, the murder and bloodlust of man tearing apart fellow man and woman.
They'd come to his hometown and nearly annihilated the population, his people. They'd massacred almost everyone in Hollow Tree, too. But, thanks to the arrival of Cody Fox, they'd gotten things under control. So, improbably, now here he was, a Texas sheriff, called into the hallowed halls of a beleaguered nation, to help solve a plague again. A Texan, a Rebel, fighting monsters in the heart of the Union.
The key word in his strange situation was actually Texas. Out in the frontier of far west Texas, there were still folks who didn't even know that a war was taking place. They were too busy trying to feed cattle and sheep or grow subsistence from a lot of dry and rocky land. Most such hardy folk got along with their neighbors, including the Indians, but it was also an area where the different Apache or Comanche clans might go on the warpath. Civil war was something happening far, far away, to someone else.
Cole himself had wanted no part of it. Hard to say who was right and who was wrong when the abolitionist John Brown had flat out murdered slave owners in Kansas, and when the guerilla retaliation had been flat out murder, as well. John Brown had hanged at Harpers Ferry, and Robert E. Lee, sent out to apprehend the man, was now head of the Confederate Army. It was a mess of tangled loyalties all around, and among men who used to be brothers.
It was death. The death of the youth of one country, torn asunder; and it was mothers crying over the loss of their sons, little more than babes, because war always killed the fit, just as it killed the beauty of youth. Confederates were ripping it up as amazing cavalrymen and sharpshooters, naturally, because they mostly lived off the land, while their Northern brethren were simply whopping down hard on the South because they had numbers-numbers of men, numbers of weapons, numbers of financiers, numbers all the damned way around.
So many dead now.
The war was over States' Rights, and the main right that many of the states wanted had to do with slavery, while half the boys fighting on the Southern side couldn't afford a good horse, much less a slave. They weren't really fighting for themselves but someone richer. Always someone richer.
It was a mess to begin with. It was horrible; it was ugly, it was heartbreaking.
Death, horror and bloodshed.
Then throw in a few vampires.
But, then, you could go on forever and not even know about the vampires. Most didn't. The creatures had to slake a bloodlust, but they worked around the whole killing and draining human being thing by feasting on cattle-just like man himself feasted on beef. Then again, Cole knew a few folks who didn't eat much meat at all-they lived on the land, consuming mass quantities of vegetables and beans and the like.
There were no vegetarian vampires, he thought wryly. Not that he knew about, anyway, but some were better than others, some had to be.
Cody, for instance. Well, half of Cody.
"Cole, five o'clock!" Cody Fox whispered to him.
He turned; the shadow was just slipping up behind them. He saw it, and quickly assessed his supply of weapons. He wanted to keep it quiet-didn't want the creature screaming and alerting others.
Quick and hard, straight through the heart...his aim needed to be good-
The shadow pounced, becoming substance, the flesh and blood of something that had once been human. It started to snarl, gnashing its teeth, but Cole moved swiftly, his stake honed, his aim true. He rammed the creature through the heart, pinning it to the wooden door marked Warden. Unless it was the leader, an old vampire, it wouldn't turn to ash. No, this one wouldn't. It was wearing the tattered remnants of a uniform, butternut and gray-a recent soldier. The fellow had been a prisoner here. Already beaten and bested at war, he was now dying in truth, pinned by the stake. The thing's eyes widened and seemed to dampen with sorrow; its jaw continued to work. It-he-looked at Cole with a split second of humanity, and there seemed to be gratitude in the eyes.
Cole felt his heart squeeze. The thing twitched and went still.
Brendan stepped forward, a bowie knife in hand. A second later, the head fell to the floor. Brendan jerked the stake from the creature, returning it to Cole with a nod.
Once the rush began, there wouldn't be time for such thoroughness, neither in the killing nor in the covering up of their deeds. Brendan, a Unionist to the core, could manage the Union authorities and make their actions disappear if need be.
After all, it was Brendan who had gotten them here tonight. Cody Fox, who had come to Victory in a time of need and become a damned good friend. He had been military with Brendan, but Brendan had been in the service his whole life-right up to and into this War of Northern Aggression, as Texans called it. Not that that stopped him from coaxing Cody Fox out to Victory, Texas, to stop the infestation that had killed so many Southerners out there. Nonprejudicial infestation-the damned vampires didn't care much if you were free, slave, white, black, red, yellow, old, young, man or woman.
The bastards and their plague could certainly get around-here they were now, in D.C.
Hell. Ah, hell.
Maybe a Texas sheriff shouldn't be in Washington, D.C.
Maybe he was even a traitor, in a way. There was a sad irony to this. Here he was, a Texas sheriff, with a ragtag band in a Federal POW camp, having to put down not just the Union guards, but his Southern brethren, as well.
But Cole knew himself, when he'd heard about the madness, it wasn't going to matter to him any if the new bloodshed was occurring in the North, the South or Timbuktu, he was in on stopping it. Humans were humans, and that was that. He'd seen what the vampires could do, and he'd fight them with his fellow man, no matter what label anybody wanted to put on anyone.
God knew where they'd really come from, the whole damned war was so crazy, brothers choosing different sides, Lincoln's wife's family all in the South, fathers finding their own sons dead on the battlefield.
And now-this. No matter who was what and what uniform went on what man, there was no going around this.
"They're going to be coming en masse any second now," Cody said quietly. He looked at the others; they nodded to one another and stepped forward.
"Best we can, let's pick them off before the numbers flood in," Cole said.
"Oh, yes, yessir. As quiet as can be until..." Brendan said.
They all knew what he meant.
It started slowly. A few of them sensing-or smelling-fresh blood. They came slinking out along the walls, unorganized, instinct and bloodlust guiding them. Cole picked off another two, and Cody caught a couple while Brendan kept his keen eyes out, giving the warnings.
Then Brendan shouted, "They're coming in force!"
And they did. Confederate and Union soldier, prisoner and guard, old and young. They arrived without further warning.
The first wave were all young vampires, or so it seemed. They weren't turning to mist, weren't moving at the speed of lightning. They were awkward, untutored. They hadn't been diseased slowly, properly; they had been taken in a frenzy and, in turn, they were more like a sad and ragtag pack of stumbling, hungry corpses than creatures of wit and malice and true evil.
Vampires thrived in times of war and chaos. They could gorge themselves, and no one would really know what was going on-nobody could distinguish what was part of the war and what was part of an evil hunger. Vampires could be very clever, naturally keeping their numbers down by disposing of their food properly. Unless they were attacking an isolated people and had some luxury of time-such as with Hollow Tree or Victory-most vampires refrained from turning others. Mostly because they couldn't always control them, and they didn't like the competition. They could be restrained and clever, sliding right into society.
But vampires could also be like rabbits. Throw in a reckless, vicious few who didn't seem to care about competition, and suddenly they'd be coming out of the woodwork...and wild. The feeding here had been a careless one like that.
A Union guard staggered toward Cole, his head cast to the side. His face was gray, his throat a raw and bleeding mass where something had ripped it away. The three men were at a set distance from one another; they had learned how to watch one another's backs. Cole moved straight forward, Brendan and Cody flanking him.
The creature went down easily with a single strong slash of Cole's sword.
A boy came next. A drummer boy, perhaps. He couldn't have been more than thirteen or fourteen.
Some distant mother's child, not dead by canon fire, or the enemy's intent, but dead when he should have lived to go home one day, and tell his children and grandchildren tales of the great conflagration, and how it had ended in time, when people became reasonable again. What would come, he would never know.
There was no choice: the boy suddenly hurled himself at Brendan, fangs dripping, an eerie cry tearing from his throat.
Cole pinned him but inches from his companion's face. Brendan shuddered and quickly flashed Cole a nod of acknowledgment and gratitude.
Even younger soldiers.
Emaciated, but no longer needing the bandages that had covered their wounds, the splints that held together shattered bones.
And they went down.
At one point Cole grew particularly tense: at least ten of the maniacal beings flooded into the fray at once. There was so little room in the corridors and offices of the prison, and with this battle different from standard warfare in that the enemy must always be kept at arm's length, at times he doubted they'd make it out alive.
In a fury of motion and intent, the three fought together, closing their circle at times, stepping out when it was necessary to repel the attacks before the creatures came too close. Cody could best withstand a slash of the fangs, but it was critical that even he be constantly aware of an assault from any direction.
It had been worse than this, though, Cole thought, back in Victory, Texas. His thoughts always returned to his decimated hometown. There, the vampires had risen and sheltered, had gained strength and learned how best to survive their new existence. They could be shadow and wings against the umber light of the moon, and they could suddenly be behind a man and everywhere around him with no warning.
And in Victory there had been those infected who could still be saved. Sometimes vampires retained a certain amount of humanity-call it a soul-that bred a desperate, choking kind of hope when one fought them.
This prison had been...this had been a massacre. A changing with no guidance. A certainty that all infected would become monsters.
Out of the corner of his eye, Cole saw a flash of darkness-a shadow, a form. Instantly, he knew that this being was older. Clever-bent on survival.
There was always a head, king or leader in a pack of vampires. Once he was taken down, the rest fell far more easily. An idiot in life was an idiot as a vampire. Pure and simple. Murdering idiots were easy to kill in life, and they were easy to kill off again in death.
Thing was, sometimes, once a leader was killed, another picked up the reins. Or those who survived an out-and-out fight with human counterparts moved on and subtly started up again until they had power once more. Power in numbers. The right numbers.
It was a slippery slope for a would-be king. You needed enough followers to perform all your dangerous dirty work, but not so many that people began to realize that a real plague had been unleashed.
He spun around, certain that the creature was coming to lunge upon his back and sink his fangs into Cole's neck.
No. There was nothing there.
He spun around again, moving swiftly and with maximum speed.
Cody shouted the warning. There was one to the front of him, one to the right. Think quick, double time on movement. Holy water to the left, his sword to the front with a massive slash.
Again, he felt it. Something...something at his rear. He could feel the hair rising at his nape.
Still there was that thing...behind him...no things! Two-
He spun as Brendan shouted a warning. There were two. They seemed to be in concentrated battle with each other. Cole snapped open a vial of the holy water and tossed it, then drew back with his sword, ready to strike.
The first of the creatures burst into dust, ash and a clattering of bones. The second turned-at his mercy.
He heard a shriek, a cry. There was a blur before his eyes and he spun again-it was in front of him.
He slashed the air, and the form pitted downward, rolling to make an escape.
It registered in his mind that the voice was feminine.
Well, they held women prisoners here sometimes. Women they suspected of spying. The Union had always threatened that women would be executed for spying right along with their male counterparts, though that had yet to happen.
But this one...
Yes, she appeared to be a shadow form because she was wearing men's black breeches and a black cotton shirt. She had blond hair that glistened in the light of the moon and the few torches that still burned in the yard.
He saw her face.
Aquiline, sculpted, the face of an angel. Huge eyes, which glittered like gold, stared up at him. In contrast, her skin was as delicate and pale as porcelain.
He couldn't hesitate!
He strode forward, intending to finish her off. Straddling over her form, he raised his stake high in the air.
"Damn you, what are you, an idiot cowboy?" she demanded, scuttling a little away from him.
She was whole; she didn't seem maddened, diseased, in any way.
He had to hesitate; she might be among the living. Untainted.
"Who the hell are you, and why the hell shouldn't I kill you?" he demanded.
"Strike Cole, strike! It's deception, it's always deception!" Brendan cried.
He lifted his stake again.
"Please, for the love of God! I don't want to hurt you!" she cried. She glanced toward the others, then back at him.
"Cole!" Cody shouted in warning.
At his back!
He twisted, just in time to spear the man wearing a preacher's collar who was about to rip apart his back. He didn't dare take more than seconds to shake the fellow from his stake, not with the woman beneath his feet.
The body fell near her and she shuddered, but her eyes never left Cole's.
"Cole!" Brendan warned-there were two of them circling him.
"Give me a reason not to kill you!" Cole shouted to the woman at his feet.
She continued staring straight up at him.
"Cole!" Cody shouted at him this time; he could see that Cody was involved in helping Brendan-there were three around him, and now one had gained a certain power and speed, probably one of the first to be infected in the prison.
It sickened him. It had always sickened him. Self-survival had allowed him to learn to kill the creatures, just as the need for law and order and justice had always helped him out when a firm hand was needed in Victory.
But too often this felt like...
He didn't want to do it; God help him, he didn't want to do it. Neither did he want to be seduced into a dreaded death, granting mercy, and finding that a harpy suddenly flew from the face and shape of the angel, and dragged sharp, wicked fangs into his neck.
Tension riddled his frame.
Time. Time could be everything.
His fingers wound more tightly around the stake.
"Damn you! Prove it, prove you're not one of them. For the love of God, then, give me a reason not to kill you!" he shouted above the fray to the woman beneath his feet.
She looked straight at Cole. "One can prove nothing in this world."
He raised the stake with purpose.
"Wait, damn you," she cried. "I'll give you a very good reason not to kill me."
"And that is?"
"Fool! I've been fighting with you, not against you."
I'm Megan Fox. Don't you understand, cowboy? I'm Megan Fox, Cody's long-lost sister," she said with a dry and weary drawl that shook him, even in the middle of the melee.