Incoming emergencies got Vladlena Paskelkov’s adrenaline surging 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 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 jumpstarted.”
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.
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 little over a year, 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.
“Vladlena?” Eidolon’s right arm, which was encased in glyphs that ran from his fingertips to his shoulder, lit up as the healing ability inherent to his species channeled into the male. “You know this patient?”
“Vaughn.” She stumbled to the side of the bed, her legs threatening to give out on her. “He’s my brother.”
Vaughn had had been the only one of her three brothers who hadn’t tried to kill her. As the runt of the litter, she’d been the target of their vicious games, and if not for her father, they’d have slaughtered her. Now that he was gone, Van and Vic had made several attempts on her life…which was one of the reasons she pulled a lot of double shifts at the hospital. Here, she was safe.
Eidolon motioned for another nurse to take over for Lena, and she didn’t argue. Vaughn needed care she couldn’t give right now. Not with the way her hands were shaking and her mind was spinning.
Dear God, he’d been torn to shreds. One arm looked like it had been chewed nearly off. Deep bite wounds left skin and muscle flayed in massive slabs that peeled back from exposed bone. His throat had been torn open, and blood seeped through the layers of pressure bandages.
One of Vaughn’s eyes was swollen shut, but the other opened, and his bloodshot gaze latched onto hers. Recognition flared in the brown depths, along with unthinkable pain.
“Hey.” She took his hand, tried not to cringe at the icy-cold, clammy skin. “You’re at UG. You’re going to be fine.” She offered a trembly smile that faltered when she glanced up at Eidolon, whose expression made a liar out of her. “Vaughn, what happened? Who did this to you?”
“Th-thirst…” His voice was barely a rasp, his words gurgled through blood. “Club…”
He convulsed, and all around, her co-workers became a flurry of action, and then Shade was pulling her back with gentle hands as Eidolon tried to save her brother.
Time became fluid, elastic, stretching without giving Vladlena any sense of how much of it had passed before Eidolon finally looked up at the clock and spoke the words no one wanted to say — or hear.
“Time of death, three twenty-two.” The doctor looked over at her, his powerful shoulders slumped in defeat. “Lena, I’m sorry.”
She nodded, her throat too clogged with emotion to speak.
“Shade.” Eidolon lifted a sheet to cover Vaughn’s body. “Where did you find him?”
“Same place as the others.” Shade gave Lena’s shoulders a squeeze and stepped away from her, though he stayed close. “In the sewers beneath Fifth street.”
Shade’s words barely registered. She’d latched onto a rhythmic tapping tapping noise that rose up even the din of the bustling emergency department outside the cubicle. It took a moment to realize what it was; her brother’s blood, dripping to the obsidian floor. Odd what the brain focused on when it didn’t want to think about something horrible right in front of you.
“What is going on?” Lena whispered.
Shade’s dark, shoulder-length hair brushed the collar of his black paramedic uniform as he shook his head. “I don’t know, but your brother is the only one to make it through the hospital doors alive.”
“This is the third victim this week.” Eidolon stripped off his gloves. “The human and demon realms have been in turmoil lately, but this is too specific to be related to the apocalyptic events.”
Turmoil was a mild way to put what was happening, given that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse had recently appeared, and at least one apocalyptic Seal had broken. The hospital had been dealing with the violent fallout nonstop, and Eidolon had been forced to hire unschooled help and train them on the job just to keep up with the patient load.
Shade casually kicked a towel beneath the exam table to stop the sickening drip of Vaughn’s blood. It was a small thing, but a thoughtful one, and Lena could have kissed the demon for it. “So what the hell are we dealing with?”
“Fight club.” Wraith, Shade and Eidolon’s blond, half-vampire brother, sauntered up, his leather duster flapping around his boots. “You’re dealing with some sort of underground gladiator fights.”
“And you know this, how?” Shade folded his arms over his broad chest in that universal big brother pose Vaughn used to give her while he waited for an answer he knew he wouldn’t like.
Wraith blinked, all mock innocence. “I wasn’t always a model citizen, you know.”
Vladlena glanced over at her brother’s lifeless body before quickly looking away. “He wouldn’t have been involved with something like that.”
“Maybe not willingly,” Wraith said. “These places are run by the same kind of scum who run dog and cock fighting rings.”
Her hands tingled, and she realized she’d been hanging onto the stethoscope around her neck like it was a lifeline. “What are you saying?”
“That your brother could have been bait. Used to train fighters. Or he could have been forced into fighting.”
“Oh, gods.” The strawberry milkshake she’d had for dinner soured in her stomach. Pinpricks of pain spread through her fingers as she pried them away from the ancient stethoscope, which used to be her father’s. “Where do these things operate?”
Wraith jammed his hands into his jeans’ pockets. “The really skeevy ones are run in Sheoul, but the most profitable ones are here in the human realm.”
“Hey, guys, look at this.” Shade held up Vaughn’s hand, and under the glow of the ultraviolet lamp on the wall, a stamp glowed beneath blood on the back of his hand. “One of the other victims had a similar stamp.”
“Thirst,” Wraith murmured. “Nice place.”
Vaughn’s voice rang through her head. Th-thirst. She sucked in a harsh breath. “That’s what Vaughn said when he came in. I thought he was asking for water. What is Thirst?”
“Vamp club.” Wraith propped his hip against the counter and crossed his booted feet at the ankles. “Shifters and weres go too, and a few humans who are in the know about us.”
Vaughn had been even more of a recluse than she was. So why he’d go to this vampire club was a mystery. A mystery she was going to solve. If she had only a few weeks left to live, she’d make the most of them, and she’d get revenge for her brother.
A forbidden thrill shot through her at the thought, and yep, that had to be a symptom of the pending insanity, because the idea of violence had never excited her. And somehow, she couldn’t even bring herself to be upset about it…which was probably another symptom.
Very gently, she tucked Vaughn’s hand under the sheet. “Looks like I’m going to pay a visit to a vampire hangout.”
“Lena, if Thirst is a cover for a fight club, it’s too dangerous for you.” Eidolon’s tone softened to the one he used with children. “When your father asked me to give you a job, he also asked me to look after you if anything were to happen to him.”
She stared at the handsome doctor, surprised by his admission, but it didn’t change anything. “You can’t stop me,” she blurted, and wasn’t that mature? She might as well stomp her foot, too. Breathing deeply, she found her big girl voice. “It’s just that I need to do something that matters in the time I have left.”
The doctor closed his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them, they were resigned. “Give me an hour to do some research.”
“I’ll do recon,” Wraith said, his blue eyes bright with mischief. She didn’t even want to know what he had planned. With Wraith, it could be anything.
Shade popped a stick of gum in his mouth. “I need to clean the rig, but let me know if you need anything.”
The brothers left her alone with Vaughn, and she sat with him, remembering all that they’d been through, until, an hour later, Lore, the fourth Seminus brother, arrived to take Vaughn to the morgue.
“I’m sorry, Lena.” Lore placed his hand — gloved to prevent any accidents with the lethal power he wielded — over hers. “I’ll treat him well.”
As he wheeled Vaughn away, Eidolon arrived with a cup of coffee. He handed her the cup, which she took gratefully. Maybe the hot liquid would ease the chill that had settled in.
“You can access Thirst either through a secret entrance behind a human Goth club called Velvet Chain,” he said, “or from a hidden door in the sewer beneath it. Since it’s mainly a vampire club, non-vamps are expected to donate blood.”
“Not if they work there.” Wraith swept in the way he always did, like a tornado. “The club employs six medics. And they’re hiring.”
Eidolon frowned. “How do you know?”
“Because they’re now short two medics. I convinced one to quit.”
“And the other?” Eidolon asked.
“I convinced him to die.” Wraith flashed fangs. “It was that douche you fired last year for swapping out patients’ pain meds for vitamins.”
“Excellent.” Eidolon nodded in approval. “But I still don’t like the idea of Lena going into that den of violence.”
“It’s not your decision,” she said quietly.
“You’re right,” E said. “And I wish I could send someone with you, but we can’t afford to lose any more hands.”
“It’s okay. I have to do this.”
Wraith clapped her on the shoulder. “We’ll check in on you.”
Before she had a chance to thank him, Eidolon rounded on her, danger rolling off him in a scorching wave she felt on her skin.
“If anything happens to you,” he said, in a voice as deadly as she’d ever heard from him, “I promise we’ll bring that club down so hard nothing will be standing.”
“Especially not the fucks who run it,” Wraith added, his eyes glittering with anticipation.
Funny thing. People talked big, said stuff like that all the time but never followed through. Without a doubt, these guys meant every word.