Commander Stavros Rii slipped out of his shuttle—which had converted itself to look like one of the small vehicles Earthlings called “cars”—and shut the door softly. He made certain the small craft was well hidden behind a screen of bushes that edged the narrow dirt road—more of a track, really—before he left it.
A glance at the moon told him it was nearly midnight—the perfect time for a secret recognizance mission. Not that he wanted to be up in the middle of the night—he found it irritating and ridiculous. But it was necessary, at least for now, as was the fact that he was currently hiding in a cabin in the woods outside of Asheville instead of working honestly, out in the open as he ought to be.
Stavros sighed. All this sneaking around was wearing on him. In the years he’d been stationed on Earth, he had been able to drive openly to and from the HKR building and anywhere else he needed to go. Now that the Earthlings had declared war, he and his kind were outlawed. Which meant he had to resort to hiding in shadows just to get back to his office.
He wouldn’t even be going back now if it wasn’t for the feeling he kept getting in his mind. It was a kind of internal itching or tickling and he knew what it meant—someone desperately wanted to talk to him. Someone was trying to bespeak him using a Think-me but somehow the Earthlings had jammed the communications systems between the planet and the Mother Ship. Only the viewscreens with direct lines were still any good. Luckily, the Asheville HKR had one of those few. So Stavros was trying to make his way as quickly and quietly to his old office as he could in the dead of night in order to communicate with the Mother Ship and find out what they wanted.
Off in the distance a siren sounded and Stav froze where he stood. He’d been certain for part of his trip that some agents of the newly created Earth Protection Bureau were following him, though he had made his shuttle/car look as nondescript as possible. The EPB was tasked with hunting down and locking up any Kindred who were still on Earth and Stavros didn’t have time to be locked up just now. Not with the Mother Ship urgently trying to contact him. The sound of the siren faded off into the distance and he gave a sigh of relief. His earlier suspicion that they were following him was probably ridiculous. After all, how could they know where he was or even that he was here at all?
He and Garron and Tess were staying in a cabin far back in the woods which belonged to a friend of Tess’s. They were fine people and Stavros had stayed with them voluntarily because he refused to abandon his post. He firmly believed no Kindred should be left behind without a comrade at arms to back him up. But though they were the nicest couple, living with them could be a bit…wearing. Mostly because the two of them were newly bonded and couldn’t keep their hands off each other.
Not that Stav minded all their loving looks and cutesy nicknames for each other but he’d spent most of his adult life avoiding romance and relationships. Calling a bride as most warriors did, wasn’t an option for him. A Sin Eater didn’t have a long lifespan and bonding a female to him wouldn’t have been responsible or right, not when he knew he would probably die before he reached forty.
Stavros pushed aside the morbid thought of his own death and began walking. He made his way confidently across the rocky field, never stumbling once. Kindred had excellent night vision—much better than humans. Which was why he was able to spot the two people stumbling along in the darkness long before they had a chance to see him. Stav wrinkled his nose—he could smell them too. They had just come out of the local tavern behind them called aptly enough, Bad Decisions, and it looked like they were doing their best to live up to the name of their drinking establishment.
“C’mon, baby—just one more drink,” the male was saying. He looked to be in his early twenties, as did the girl. The two of them were probably students at the local learning establishment—The University of North Carolina, Stavros thought it was called.
“No, Billy! I told you, I need to go. I have an exam tomorrow,” the girl replied. She had already drunk more than she really wanted and her stomach was rolling—Stavros could feel it, just as he felt the small paper cut on her left hand and the dull headache starting behind her right eye.
He pushed the pain away automatically. Almost from birth he’d been subject to the aches and pains of others and though he could never completely turn them off, he had found ways to block them in a fairly substantial way when he concentrated. He never could have become a warrior otherwise.
Most of the Cursed—the strange subset of Blood Kindred who were also called Sin Eaters—lived quiet lives away from others. A life of solitude and isolation was pretty much the only way to guarantee anything like a normal life span for someone who was constantly subjected to the pain of everyone around them. But Stavros didn’t want that kind of life—didn’t want to die having never really lived. He preferred to take the pain.
Not that creeping around in the dark like this is much of a life, whispered a sarcastic little voice in his head. But what else could he do?
Keeping to the shadows at the back of the building, he began edging around the human couple who were now having a full-blown argument. He sent a silent thank you to the Goddess that at least he didn’t have to endure their emotions. Only physical pain and distress made its way through the strange conduit that existed between himself and the outside world. But Stav would far rather feel pain than the emotional drama playing out in front of him.
“Why’re you being such a bitch for, Meg?” the human male demanded. “Swear to God, you’re always whining about fuckin’ exams!”
“Maybe because I want to pass them,” the girl snapped back. “I’m not here on a football scholarship like some people and I don’t have rich parents to back me up if I fail. Look, I told you I could only stay for a few minutes and you said you were okay with it. Can you please just take me back to the dorm now?”
“Alright, fine. But first…” The male pulled the female to him and cupped one breast in his hand. Stavros felt the girl’s pain as he squeezed just a little too hard.
“Hey!” The girl tried unsuccessfully to push him away. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Gettin’ paid.” The male’s tone had turned ugly. “C’mon, baby—I took you out and bought you a drink. You gotta give me a little something for my trouble.”
“No, I don’t! We’ve been out exactly twice. What makes you think I owe you just because you bought me a lukewarm Budweiser in a lousy bar?”
“I could’ve brought Candice Perkins or Lacey Owens,” he pointed out. “Either one of them would’ve put out. But no—I brought you because you’re hotter.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel good or obligated to you in some way?” The girl shook her head and tried once again to step away but the male wouldn’t let her go. “I guess this is what I get for going out with a Neanderthal in the first place. Let me go!”
“I don’t think so. This Neanderthal isn’t going home without a little somethin’,” the male insisted, pulling her closer. “C’mon, baby—just a quick hook-up.” He started to lower her to the ground but the girl screamed and kicked out at him.
Her high heeled shoe made contact with his shin and Stavros winced at the sharp pain that shot down his own leg. Despite the momentary discomfort, he applauded the human female. The male was being overbearing and demanding things he had no right to demand. Good for the female for defending herself! For a moment Stav had been afraid he would have to intervene which wouldn’t be good, considering he was trying not to be noticed.
But his relief was short lived.
“Oh no you don’t you little bitch! You’re gonna pay for that!” Quickly, the male reached out and grabbed the retreating female. He caught the back of her blouse and yanked, pulling her abruptly back down to the ground where she landed with a painful thump which knocked the wind out of her lungs. Consequently, she had no breath to cry out when the male climbed on top of her, crushing her down into the stony ground below.
Stavros couldn’t feel her fear but he could see it in her eyes—and he could see the male’s drunken, leering triumph as he kicked her legs apart.
“Just a quick hook-up,” he was panting eagerly, no doubt bathing her face in alcoholic fumes. “You don’t even have to do a thing—just lay there and enjoy it, baby.”
“No! N—” Her screams were cut off when the drunk male clapped a hand over her mouth. Her eyes went wide with terror but though she thrashed wildly, it was clear she wasn’t going to be able to get away on her own.
All right—this has gone far enough. As much as he wanted to keep quiet and not advertise his presence, Stav knew he couldn’t stand by and watch this happen. This male—drunk or not—was the lowest form of life—the kind that would hurt a female or child without thinking twice about it unless someone stopped him.
Let’s see how you like being the helpless one! Coming up from behind, Stavros leaned over and hooked one muscular arm around the drunk male’s neck.
The male was so intent on the girl pinned beneath him that he hardly seemed to notice until Stavros tightened his grip. Then he gasped and his fingers flew to his throat.
“Hey, man! I—akk!” he choked as Stav pealed him up off the frightened, crying girl.
“The lady says she doesn’t want any part of you,” he growled in the male’s ear. “I suggest you take her at her word and leave her alone.”
“Let…me go,” the male gasped. “Wasn’t…gonna hurt her. Just…having fun.”
“Right, because rape is so much fun for the one getting raped,” growled Stav. “I hope you’ve just had too much to drink and you don’t really think this is the way to treat a female. If it is, you ought to have your balls cut off to keep you from hurting anyone else.” He drew a long, curving knife—a ceremonial blade that was more for show than for any use as a practical weapon—and tapped the male’s denim covered crotch with the tip. “Is that what you want?” he growled.
When there was no answer, Stav poked him in the thigh with the tip, just enough to draw blood. He could feel the sharp little pain himself in his own thigh so he knew he wasn’t anywhere near close to cutting off the drunken male’s equipment. If he had been, he would have felt the agony in his own most sensitive areas. Though it would cause him no lasting damage, inflicting that kind of pain was something he would rather avoid. Standing this close to the male and having direct contact with him meant it would be next to impossible to screen out. Still, if it was the only way to make his point…
But from the way the drunk and abusive male reacted, it was clear he was getting the idea Stavros was trying to put across. In fact, anyone watching would have thought that Stav had cut off one of his balls already.
“No, man! Swear to God, please let me go!” The other male’s voice was shaky with tears.
“Are you going to leave this female alone and never bother her again?” Stav demanded. “And refrain from forcing yourself on any other females in the future?”
“Yes!” the male sobbed. “I…I sw-swear! I won’t bother no one ever again!”
“That’s good.” Stav poked him in the thigh again. “Because if you do I’ll have to come back and finish the job.”
But this threat appeared to be too much. The drunk male sobbed again and his bladder let go in a rush, filling the air with the sharp reek of ammonia.
With a curse, Stav jumped back, barely keeping the black flight leathers he wore from getting covered in the other male’s urine.
“Sorry, I’m sorry!” the male blubbered. Turning, he ran away, stumbling across the stony field and nearly falling headfirst several times in his haste to get as far from Stavros as he could.
Well, that’s him taken care of. With a sigh, Stav turned to make sure the girl was all right. She was still lying on the ground, breathing hard.
“Are you all right, my lady?” Stavros asked courteously. “I’m sorry you had to go through that. Can I help you up?”
He reached out a hand for her but she scrambled backwards, her eyes filled with fear.
“Look, I’m not going to hurt you.” Stav raised his hands in a gesture of peace and realized he was still holding his knife. Quickly, he sheathed it and reached for her again. “If you’ll just let me help you up…”
“Get away from me!” The girl stumbled to her feet on her own, staring at Stavros. “Get away!”
“It’s all right,” he tried to reassure her, stepping back. “No one’s going to hurt you. You can go.”
“You…you’re a Kindred!” she yelled, pointing a finger at him. “You’re not supposed to be here anymore! Leave me alone!”
“I’m not trying to hurt you.” Stavros fought to keep his voice level and calm. Couldn’t she see that he’d just saved her?
“I know what you guys do—you abduct women and take them up to your ship,” the girl accused him. “Well, we don’t have to put up with that anymore! The President came on TV and said the draft is over. So you stay away from me!”
“I’m not trying to claim you!” This time Stav couldn’t keep the irritation out of his voice. “I don’t have any interest in claiming you or any other female. Look, never mind—I will just go.” He started to back away from her but suddenly something hard and cold was jammed in his back.
“I don’t think so, Kindred,” a soft, feminine voice purred in his ear. “You’re coming with me. You’re under arrest by orders of the Earth Protection Bureau.”