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The_Escape_Wheel_eBook

Chapter One

Zachary had always had awful luck with storms.  He reflected on this while sopping wet and smeared with dirt halfway through what looked to be an unsuccessful hunt through the woods outside Seattle.  If he had been alone once the clouds had erupted above him he would have immediately returned to the Jeep he’d rented for the excursion.  Unfortunately, the solitude he had enjoyed most of his life had become a rare commodity of late.

Dr. Jack Tanner had been his unofficially sanctioned stalker for the past five months.  Since the chaos in New York, no local government had been eager to welcome him onto their territory without supervision.  Even in a place like Washington where the vampire population was unusually low, no one had wanted him wandering free.  Zachary wondered where this abundance of caution had been when fanatics amassed the ashes of the progenitors of their race with the intention of unleashing them upon the world.  A little unified cooperation between the varied communities would have been helpful years ago.  Instead here they were with one half of the Fount resurrected and unaccounted for while every immortal gossip in the country muttered about how Zachary was an unacceptable risk due to his condition.  It might irk him less if they didn’t have a point.

The doctor paused suddenly in their trek, holding up a hand as he tilted his head back to scent the air.  His lip curled back and the white of his fangs stood out starkly against his black skin.  Irritatingly, Dr. Tanner remained handsome even when his inhuman features were on display.  His carefully styled hair was heavy with rain, dripping curtains brushing against his cheekbones and chin.  His usually warm hazel eyes were swallowed up in blackness as he scanned the lightless forest.

“I smell decay,” he murmured, barely audible to Zachary’s ears over the deluge.  That had proved to be a problem in his search for the Fount and yet another reason he required a chaperon.  His senses fluctuated between supernaturally enhanced and human standard.  Today was, sadly, a very human day.

Zachary went still behind the doctor.  “How old?”

“Young.  And faint,” Dr. Tanner said.  “I can’t be sure if that means it’s far or just the rain washing it away.”

“You’re certain it’s vampiric decay and not simply an animal carcass?”

The doctor shot him a barely discernable dry look.  “Given I’m not the one suffering under Fascination withdrawal, I think I can be relied upon to tell the difference.”

“Must you reference my condition every time I ask you a simple question?” Zachary hissed.

“Just as soon as you stop insulting my intelligence,” the doctor said.  “I may not be three hundred but I can tell the difference between a dead animal and a vampire.”

Zachary gritted his teeth.  His boots felt as though they were sinking deeper into the mud with every second and the blue jeans he’d reluctantly worn had been soaked for hours.  Few things grated on him as badly as the feel of wet denim.  Of course, it didn’t appear to bother Dr. Tanner, who was above such petty complaints.  “My age is irrelevant.”

“I’d say it’d explain your crankiness but Liam is nearing six hundred and I can count the times he’s brooded on one hand,” Dr. Tanner said, turning away to look through the trees.

Hearing about the famously hedonistic head of Los Angeles didn’t put Zachary in any better frame of mind.  While every other city regarded him as an undetonated land mine, he continually heard how Los Angeles would be happy to take him and would he stop being stubborn and move, for the love of God.  The last bit had been said by his oldest friend, Mara Navarro.  She was the only other vampire he knew personally who was hunting the Fount, though in her case she was after the half that had not yet risen.  He would have much preferred her company to the doctor’s but she insisted it would be ridiculous for them to search together when they could cover more ground apart.  Zachary suspected she was still upset that her niece’s fingers had been broken while he was meant to protect her.  Although that was hardly the only thing he’d done to earn her wrath of late.

“Are we going to proceed or would you rather stand in the cold staring at trees?” he asked.

The doctor’s inhuman eyes narrowed with concern.  “Are you feeling the cold now?  If you’re developing a sensitivity to temperatures – ”

“It’s the Pacific Northwest in December, of course it’s cold!  My withdrawal has nothing to do with it,” Zachary snapped.  “I don’t have to feel it to know it.”

As Dr. Tanner opened his mouth to argue, a loud snap of a branch erupted in the darkness behind them.  They turned together, crouching as one to scan the distance and prepare.  Zachary reached around the doctor’s back for the extra stake he’d tucked in his belt.

“Fledgling?” Zachary asked, a breath of a word that even he couldn’t hear but knew the doctor would pick up.  Dr. Tanner nodded once in his periphery.  It had him repressing a sigh.  They’d repeatedly stumbled on freshly sired vampires on their search, young enough that humanity still clung to their scent.  As though their community didn’t have enough on its plate, someone had decided it was a grand time to create more of their kind indiscriminately.  Since the partial rise of the Fount there’d been a hold placed on anyone seeking to sire new blood until the danger passed.

The Fount, two monstrous calamities from before recorded time, fed only upon the children they’d created.  Someone apparently was taking it upon themselves to make additional food available to their progenitors.  Whether they meant it as a distraction from other, older vampires or if they sought to build an army, no one could say.  All Zachary knew was that he was tired of putting down half-mad murdered humans.

Suddenly Dr. Tanner straightened out of the crouch, eyes widening with horror at a shape in the dark.  “Oh, no.”

It had to get closer before Zachary could make out the details but once it did he wished once more for his ignorance.  A girl no more than twelve stumbled through the mud, occasionally listing too far and colliding with tree trunks.  Her irises had been swallowed by black.  As she panted uselessly the flash of her new fangs were obvious.  Pale blonde hair had been plastered to her face by the rain, pallid skin almost tinged gray.  She stared blankly at them in her ripped, bloodstained clothes and trembling frame.

“Where’s the teacher?” she whispered.  “I’m not supposed to leave the group.”

Dr. Tanner and Zachary exchanged grim looks.  The law of their kind was very clear on the matter of children.  Zachary pulled away to allow the doctor his space.  It would be kinder to allow a medical professional to handle what had to come next.

The doctor kneeled in front of the little girl and held out a hand.  “My name’s Jack.  I think you must be lost.”

She swayed, the movement of Dr. Tanner’s hand almost enough to catch her attention before her empty eyes went back to staring into the distance.  “Is this the aquarium?  I’ve got to take a picture of the Nemo fish for Jill.”

“Who’s Jill?” Dr. Tanner asked as he gradually moved closer.  The squelches of the mud were covered largely by the pounding rain.

“My sister.  Nemo’s her favorite.”  The child’s mouth had gradually begun to slacken as a thin trail of blood leaked from the corners.  “I don’t feel good.”

“I’m a doctor.  Let me help.”

There must have been enough awareness in her to recognize the concept of a doctor because she collapsed limply into Dr. Tanner’s reaching arms.  Zachary turned immediately and walked further into the woods before his diminished hearing could pick up the sounds of the dying child.  He braced his hands against his knees as the impulse to retch almost overcame him.  Perhaps if he had anything in his stomach he might have.

For months they had confronted a series of nightmares.  They thought following the trail of disappeared vampires would lead to the Fount but so far, aside from the occasional discarded corpses mauled until unrecognizable, the only proof of its presence in the world was the reaction of their kind.  The depravity of fear or perhaps the madness of desperate followers had led to many abandoned fledglings starving in the wilderness.  At least when they starved they didn’t kill.  Those scenes were worse by far.

Zachary had hated his own kind since he joined their cursed race.  Days like this he felt compelled to claw his own skin off just to get away from himself.  They were monsters, each and every one.

“I need your help.”

He turned to look at the doctor who held the now eternally still child in his arms.  His face was haggard, natural handsomeness dimmed by grief.  Zachary passed a hand through his wet hair as his fingers got tangled in the knots.

“You want to bury her,” he said.

“No one can know,” the doctor muttered, cradling the child gently against his chest.  “Not even her family.”

A human whisper glided through Zachary’s thoughts along with a flash of green storm cloud eyes.  We’re not the weak link here.  He shook his head.  “Of course.  Where do you want to start?”

They found a nearby clearing then used their hands to shift enough mud away to serve as a grave.  Once they finished, Zachary realized that Dr. Tanner’s shoulders had been shaking for at least three minutes.  Their eyes met, revealing the tears.  He slowly wiped the mud from his hands on his soaked jeans as he looked away.

“I know a kid her age back home,” the doctor explained.  “I don’t know how I’m going to look her in the eye after this.”

Zachary stared at the man whose presence he only barely tolerated and tried to think of how to comfort him.  What would a better person do?  “Doctor – ”

“Seriously, man, you have got to start calling me Jack,” the doctor interrupted.

It hadn’t been the first time he’d made the request but it was the first instance Zachary felt inclined to acquiesce.  “Would that make you feel… better?” he asked awkwardly.

“I just had to kill a kid a year younger than my friend’s adopted daughter.  Somehow I don’t think the thrill of you using my given name is going to perk me up.”  Dr. Tanner stood, shaking out his hands once more to discard the remaining dirt.  His expression was difficult to parse and not just because of the lack of light.  Brief as their acquaintance had been, Zachary knew the doctor to maintain a professional demeanor in all circumstances.  If anything were to shake that he supposed the desecration of childhood would be an appropriate trigger.

He had no idea what to say in the face of his anguish.  They both knew there hadn’t been a choice but there was no comfort in that.  Vampirism hurt the young in ways that no one could explain.  Few were willing to conduct the experiments necessary to find the answer and rightly so.  Somewhere in the midst of massive blood loss and violent alteration of their anatomy, children withered.  Zachary had recently discovered some of what it felt like to have his biology turn on him.  Perhaps children endured a more radical version of his condition.

“Let’s finish this,” Dr. Tanner said, cutting off Zachary’s train of thought.  “We might still find those missing vampires.”

Finding what was left of them struck him as far more likely but he merely nodded.  “Of course, lead the way.”

The search continued for hours, well into the dead of night.  Slowly the pounding rain reduced to an irritating mist.  At least he could pick out sounds other than raindrops now.  The scent of wet earth was overwhelming, however, and impossible to shake in their circumstances.  He had no idea what caught the doctor’s attention but he abruptly changed route in the direction of multiple fallen trees.

Dr. Tanner’s nose wrinkled as they neared.  “There’s decay here but it’s muddled.  Too much natural decomposition.”

The fallen trees looked as though they’d begun to rot after exposure to the rain and mud.  It was impossible to tell for how long they’d been felled, although by the state of their stumps it did not appear as though the process had been neat.  Once they were in the midst of the improvised clearing it became obvious that these trees had not been toppled by a natural force.  They had snapped at different heights, one thrust deeply into the ground with great force.  Under another discarded log they discovered the source of the decay that had drawn Dr. Tanner.  An arm had been pinned beneath the weight and torn violently enough to be detached from the socket of its owner.

“I don’t think we’ll find much more of them,” Dr. Tanner said grimly.

“They always do this,” Zachary noted, crossing his arms as he considered.  “Over and over we find vampires either dismembered or gored or clawed.  It isn’t as though they can eat the bodies so why do they tear them apart this way?  Wouldn’t it be easier to feed and move on?”

The doctor shrugged.  “The legends always portrayed this half of the Fount as mad.  It’s hardly a shock that they’d be violent and unreasoning.”

“Not unreasoning,” Zachary said.  He remembered too well the terror from five months ago when the Fount had turned its fathomless eyes away from the feast of vampires before them to look at the mortal woman frozen on the stairs above for the sake of thanking her.  Then he strangled the thought before he could think her name.  If he could go one day without thinking it he would take it as a sign of recovery.

“Maybe they’re like you.”

Zachary stared at the doctor with confusion.  “What?”

“You hate your own kind.  Maybe they feel that way, too.  They might like hurting them while they feed.  It’s not like the Fount has any reason to feel warmly towards us after all those years of imprisonment.”  Dr. Tanner shot him a flat look.  “Or maybe they don’t know how to help themselves any more than you do.”

He let out a resigned hiss of breath.  “All right, I sense you desire a confrontation.”

“What I want is for you to realize this is not a good use of your time, much less mine.  We’re not learning anything new and if we did find the Fount, what would we do?  Hope they spontaneously burst into flames so we could scoop the ashes in a box and call it a day?”

Zachary threw up his hands and turned away to pace in the mud.  “Do you expect me to let them wander free?  Someone has to discover this creature’s intentions and so far no one has volunteered another way to do that.”

The doctor grabbed the material of Zachary’s coat in his fist, forcing him around to look him in the eye.  “You mean another way like pooling our resources and relying on more powerful, better connected people than you?”

“I am not going to Los Angeles,” he growled in the doctor’s face.

“Everyone – literally everyone – who is on our side in this fight is gathering there.  Mara’s already arranged Lili’s flight and she’ll be joining her once she’s finished with the latest dead end search,” Dr. Tanner said.

It was the first time Zachary had heard that Mara intended to give up the search, though perhaps he shouldn’t be surprised.  She thought there was a much more important search to undertake.  “The arrangements Mara makes for her niece are her own affair.  I can’t be in California.”

Dr. Tanner gaze turned speculative.  “So not just Los Angeles.  California as a whole.  I wonder why that could be.”

Zachary’s body seized up as he tried to tear himself out of the doctor’s grip.  “I am warning you, Jack – ”

“Oh sure, now that I’ve figured you out it’s Jack,” he complained.

“This is not a topic I’m willing to discuss.”  Fewer things were more embarrassing than being restrained by a vampire over a century his junior.  Worse would be to travel down the road Jack was insisting they take.

“We all guessed that they went to live somewhere in California,” Jack said, the ‘they’ in question no longer the Fount.  “But you’re certain.”

There were nights, mercifully few, when Zachary would lie still and hear a human heartbeat pounding in his ears.  The ghost of sweet blood would overwhelm him as he curled in tight on himself to stop the trembling.  He would smell rosewater on the air; a memory of a reckless time when he’d risked lives for his own selfishness.  Zachary refused to submit to those instincts again.  The closer they drew to California, the louder the beat became in his skull, and the more frequent those terrible nights.

He gritted his teeth.  “I refuse to discuss this any further.”

Jack shook his head, sympathetic but unmoved.  “You haven’t been telling me everything about your condition, have you?  The blood changed things.”

“Of course the blood changed things,” Zachary snapped.  “I can’t fucking feed anymore.”

The color drained from Jack’s face.  “Hold on a damn minute.  You mean you haven’t just been stubborn since New York?  You’re physically incapable of eating live?”

“I can barely force myself to bite you.  If I get near a living person, it’s… it’s like the Fascination knows now.  My teeth remain dull and when I try to drink mortal blood from a package, I gag.  Even warmed, it makes no difference.  Transfusing it straight into my veins has been the only successful workaround,” Zachary confessed.

“And you know where she is.”

He looked away before reluctantly nodding.  “Yes.  If I let myself, I could find her.  I don’t know how.”

Jack let out a frustrated snort.  “I do.  This isn’t my first experience with the bizarre cross section of feeding and love.  All the more reason to get to Los Angeles and work with the people who know more than you.”

“I told you I’m not going near her!” Zachary said, jerking abruptly enough to break the doctor’s grip.

“Except you already have been going near her.  Have you seriously not noticed over the past five months we’ve just been gravitating closer and closer to California?  We are even this very moment an incredibly short plane ride away,” Jack pointed out.

He sneered at him.  “My control is not so very poor as that.  I’ve merely been following…”  Zachary stopped.  His eyes went to the discarded arm on the forest floor as he went over the erratic trail the Fount had left in their wake.  “They were wearing her coat.”

Jack blinked at him.  “Wait, what?”

“The Fount.  When they rose, when they got out of the basement and came for sustenance, they were wearing her coat.  And they thanked her.”  It all unwound in his memory now.  In the house of his oldest enemy where the desired half of the Fount had nearly been completed, the other half emerged from the basement after the incursion of four reckless humans.  The moment of regard between the risen horror and human woman took on new, terrible gravity.

The implication hit Jack as Zachary turned to look at him and the doctor started to back up in the direction of where they’d parked their Jeep.  “Shit.  You think they’re trying to find her.  But why?”

“I don’t know.  However, if any vampires have recently gone missing in California…?”

“I need to get to a place with a signal,” Jack said as he took out his phone.  “We need the latest news and we need it now.”

They jogged out of the forest, Zachary at an aggravatingly slower pace.  He cursed the limitations his Fascination had imposed upon his physiology now when he most needed it.  For if he was right and the Fount’s trail had led them to California, then Prudence Whitby was in danger.

 

Available on Amazon.

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