Deadly Desire (Riley Jenson Guardian #7)

Chapter 19

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Jack put his hand against the door to stop it from closing. "By the time Marg got to the warehouse and the card, the magic had faded. She said that the same would probably happen with any tracking magic that had been transferred onto people."

"Obviously not, because the zombies found Joe." I hesitated. "I've touched the thing, too, so theoretically, she could track me."

"I'll get the magi working on a blocker. In the meantime, turn on your com-unit and let me know the minute you get to the safe house."

"Will do, boss."

He stepped back and let the doors close, and I flicked the little button inside my earlobe, as ordered.

I made it to the safe house in record time, thanks mainly to the fact that there was little traffic. I parked the car in the driveway of the pretty, double-story cottage, but the minute I climbed out, the scent of blood hit. It was thick and fresh, but it had the stench of evil and decaying flesh entwined within it. And it was strong enough that the wolf within wanted to bare her teeth.

Which meant that the zombie might still be here.

I reached back into the car for my laser, shoving it in my back pocket before quietly closing the door. I couldn't see any crows about, so if the zombies were in there they mightn't be anything more than a lump of unresponsive flesh. But I wasn't about to bet my life on that. Who knew what sort of orders the sorceress had given it? And given she was capable of telepathic contact with her creations, she probably didn't need to be in the vicinity for them to create havoc.

I scooted around the front of the car, ducking past the front windows then running to the door. It was smashed in, lying in splinters on the floor, a clear indicator of just how much strength these creatures had.

The air flowing out of the house was heavy with the scent of decay, blood, and evil. Bile rushed up my throat and I gagged, unable for the moment to force my feet inside. God, the stench was vile. And considering my wolf soul generally liked rolling around in all things rotten, that was saying something.

Once my stomach was a little more under control, I stepped cautiously inside, breathing through my mouth as I looked around. The hallway was empty of anyone living or dead, but awareness skittered across my skin. Magic, death, violence-it all lay waiting in the room to my left.

I heard nothing other than the gentle ticking of a clock. There was no breathing, and no sign of life, in the immediate vicinity. Only the scent of new death.

And yet… I wasn't alone in this place.

Someone was here. Someone other than the zombies.

Maybe Jacques was still alive. Maybe Joe was. A street kid would have the smarts to get the hell out of Dodge when death came calling.

Or maybe it was neither of them. Maybe it was the sorceress waiting to spring her trap.

I grabbed my laser from my back pocket and switched it on. The soft whine as it powered up filled the edgy silence, but nothing or no one moved as a result of it. If the zombie master was here, then she wasn't too worried by the weapon.

I crept forward, my footsteps soft on the dusty floorboards. At the doorway into the living room I stopped, back against the wall and nostrils flaring as I sought to capture some of the room's fainter scents. It was pretty much useless-the aroma of death and evil was just too great for my senses to handle. And it didn't do my stomach a whole lot of good, either.

I licked suddenly dry lips, then slipped low and fast into the room, laser raised as I scanned for trouble.

Only the broken remnants of life remained as a reminder of its presence.

Like our previous vamp victims, Jacques had lost his head. It had rolled to one side of the champagne-colored sofa, his blue eyes staring at what remained of his body. Unlike the others, though, his torso was intact, and his blood had created a wide dark pool around his body. There were also arterial sprays up the wall. Obviously, the sorceress had no intention-or no time-to save the blood from this kill. Meaning this was probably a straight vampire kill rather than some form of bloody retribution.

Not far from his feet lay a zombie. Its head was laying at an odd angle and all its limbs seemed to have been broken. Even so it lived, because its fingers were twitching against the carpet, as if it were trying to drag itself forward. Maybe it didn't realize its partner had already completed their mission.

That partner was close. The overriding scent of death and decay might be playing havoc with my olfactory senses, but my psychic senses were in fine working order and they were tingling with awareness. Of course, they didn't actually tell me what was in the house with me. That would be far too helpful.

I crept forward, carefully avoiding the blood. Jacques's dead gaze seemed to follow me and chills ran down my spine. The closer I got to the body, the stronger the scent of evil became. It seemed to be centered around Jacques himself, and yet he wasn't evil. I'd met him-talked to him-many times at the Directorate, and never once had I received this sort of feedback.

So why was I getting it now?

My gaze scanned the floor around him. Maybe it was the dust. It was on his face and sprinkled across the carpet, and given that the dust had also been present at the vamp murders, there had to be a connection. And yet here it felt slightly different. There was another scent entwined within the evil of it, and it was different from the aroma so evident at the other vamp murders.

But I didn't have the time to stand here and examine it. I had to find Joe. Had to find out who, or what, was in this house with me.

I went through the next doorway fast and found myself in the kitchen. There were vegetables on the counter and a pot of water bubbling away on the stove.

The scent of evil and decay wasn't as strong here, suggesting the zombie and whoever was controlling him hadn't come this far. I checked the next doorway anyway-it turned out to be a small laundry area. There were clothes dumped on the top of the washer, and they smelled of Joe.

I retreated back through the kitchen and then the living room, and out into the hall. The stairs waited, leading up into the silence of the next floor. I climbed slowly, keeping my back to the wall and my laser aimed at the level above me.

Nothing jumped out at me. Nothing moved.

Yet the certainty that something or someone was up here grew, and tension twined through my muscles, making my fingers twitch against the laser's trigger. The weapon whined, the sound resting uneasily against the silence.

I reached the landing and stopped. Shadows filled the upper hallway, but nothing waited within. Four doors led off this corridor-three to the left, and one to the right, beyond the stairwell.

I went through the first doorway low, dropping to one knee, laser held at the ready as I scanned the room. It was a bedroom, and smelled more like Jacques than Joe. Not that he would have been using the bed. Vampires didn't actually need to sleep, even during the day. They just needed to keep out of direct sunlight, which is why vamps made good guards in these sorts of situations-as long as you kept them fed. Otherwise, snacking on the neck of the person they were supposed to be protecting became something of an issue.

I moved back out into the hall and into the next room. Another bedroom, and one that smelled like Joe. He wasn't here though, and neither was the source of the evil I was still sensing.

Which left two rooms.

Two rooms with their doors opposite each other.

I didn't like it, even though I couldn't sense anything living in either of those rooms. I couldn't sense anything dead, either, though I sure as hell was smelling it.

And the magic-it was much stronger here. It burned across my skin-a foul thing that made me want to take a shower and wash the sensation away.

Something waited in one of those two rooms. Something that had evil on its mind.

For all of two seconds I thought about firing the laser through the walls into both rooms, doing a sweep, and killing whatever waited in either of them. But I had no idea where Joe was-if he was still alive, that is-and until I did know, I couldn't risk anything that might kill him. And a random laser shot would certainly do that.

I flared my nostrils again and sucked in the scents surrounding me, but there was just no sorting through the sheer depths of evil and decay that filled the air. So it was a fifty-fifty proposition that I'd choose the wrong room, no matter which way I went.

I paused for a second longer, then went left, choosing what looked like the bathroom over the bedroom. I went low and fast, rolling through the doorway and coming up on one knee, the laser aimed and ready to fire. Nothing attacked me. In fact, no one was even in the room… or was there?

Feeling something, I looked up. A hatchway sat above the basin, and there were fresh fingerprints etched into the dust. Someone had moved it recently.

A street kid desperate to escape the newly risen dead, perhaps?

I stepped toward the basin, and in that moment, as the rush of an oncoming wind stirred the hairs along the back of my neck, realized I'd picked the wrong room.

I spun, but before I could fire, the zombie threw something at me. I ducked automatically, and felt a quick flash of amusement as it turned out to be nothing more than dust.

Then the thick cloud settled around me, clogging my eyes and catching in my throat, making me cough violently, and the amusement died.

Because it smelled foul.

As foul as the thing before me.

As foul as the magic evident near Jacques.

The zombie lurched forward and grabbed my hand, its dead flesh surprisingly strong as it wrested the laser from fingers that were somehow half numb.

In fact, all of me was tingling, my muscles feeling spongy. It was the strangest sensation, like half of me wanted to sleep and the other half was fighting it.

The laser got thrown-clattering to the floor somewhere in the hall-then there were dead fingers around my neck and fetid breath on my face. Through the tears streaming from my eyes, I could see the grin stretching his rotting flesh. Could feel the force of the woman behind it.

The bitch thought she and her creature had me.

How little she knew.

I raised my arms and knocked the zombie's hands away from my throat, then pushed him, as hard as I could, out the door. He stumbled backward, arms flailing as he tried to catch his balance, bits of flesh and God knows what else flying free as he hit the door frame and went down.

I twisted around, quickly turning on the tap and splashing water over my face. The burning eased a little, and though my eyes were still streaming, I could at least see a little better. Behind me, the zombie was scrambling to his feet. I ran at him, at the last moment launching in the air, hitting him hard in the chest, my boot heel sinking into rotting flesh, but the force of my leap enough to send him sprawling back against the wall. As I hit the floor and rolled back to my feet, there was a wet-sounding thump. I looked up to see the zombie sliding down the wall, leaving bits of hair and flesh and other things dribbling down the wall after him.

But he was still moving, still trying to attack.

Still being controlled by the sorceress.

I looked around and saw my laser in the corner. I ran for it, quickly grabbing it as the zombie's footsteps echoed behind me. I swung and fired without really looking, sweeping across the creature's legs and dropping him like a wet sponge.

It didn't stop him.

He simply crawled after me.

I raised the laser to hit him again, but didn't pull the trigger. This time I attacked psychically, diving deep down, into the darkness that had once been this thing's mind, once again feeling nothing more than the chill of death and a decaying emptiness.

But the sorceress lay in the deeper recesses, and she was whispering words of command and hate. Kill it, kill it, it doesn't deserve to live, kill it…

It? I obviously wasn't an "it," but I let it go as I wrapped a psychic rope around her presence and pulled it tight.

Shock rolled through the darkness, and then she was fighting, struggling, like a mad thing. A fierce ache formed behind my eyes as I fought to hold her, and the sweat already rolling down my cheek became a river.

"Tell me who you are," I said, both out loud and within. "Tell me why you're doing this."

Even as I said it, I attacked her, trying to rip past her shields and grab the answers. But it was taking all my strength to hold her, and I just didn't have enough left to break her shields.

She didn't answer, just continued to struggle. Then something grabbed my leg and yanked me hard. I yelped as I went down, my butt hitting the floor hard and sending pain jarring up my spine. My control over the sorceress snapped, and she was gone instantly, leaving her creature to carry out her last command-attacking me.

I kicked out with a boot heel, squashing his nose back into his rotting flesh, then rolled away, climbing to one knee and firing the laser, cutting off his head with one swift slice. Without the remnants of his brain and the orders planted within it, the creature stopped moving. I don't think he was dead, as such, but I didn't think he was dangerous anymore.

I stepped over him, the tingling in my legs once again evident now that the adrenaline from the attack was fading. I had no idea what it was, though it obviously was designed to stop me somehow. And if that stuff had been used on Jacques and the other victims, then maybe that explained why they hadn't put up much of a fight before they were hacked to pieces.

Though why had it only partially affected me? What was so different about me that I'd been able to fight back and the others hadn't?

There was only one reason I could think of. I was half vampire, while the other were all full-bloods. A powder designed solely to stop them probably wouldn't work on me the exact same way, thanks to my werewolf heritage.

Of course, I wouldn't know for sure if I was right until I talked to the magi, but I very much suspected I was on the proper track. It was the only thing that made sense.

I walked back to the end of the hallway and checked the remaining bedroom. Nothing and no one else was there. I moved back into the bathroom and stood on the edge of the bath, shoving the hatchway cover to one side. "Joe, are you up there?"

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