Robin paced the deck of the airship, ignoring the recently recruited pirate slaves and even the occasional glance from Valerie. All she could think about was that they were rapidly approaching Toro, the place where she hoped she could liberate her parents from captivity.
A memory kept flashing through her mind, incessantly harassing her. That night when the vampires had come.
It had been a peaceful night, one spent listening to her dad go on about his plans for them.
“When we’re through this and we’ve settled down,” he had said, “we’ll have the biggest house this side of Chicago. That’s what I’ll build for you. There will be grand windows with a view of the mountains so you’ll always have something to inspire you when you’re painting, dear.”
At the time she had loved the idea, since she was always painting when not out gathering berries or helping her dad hunt. Now it was different; painting seemed like the stupidest waste of time.
“We don’t need a big house,” her mom had countered, lowering herself to the log he sat on and wrapping her arms around him. “Just one that keeps us together and warm.”
“As long as it will give you two some privacy,” Robin had joked, flicking a small twig at them. “Keep it clean.”
“Robin!” Her mom gave her a scolding look. “You should be happy your parents still love each other.”
“She should be happy we’re both alive, given this hellhole of a world,” her dad had said, voice raspy.
It was the first time she heard him talk so negatively, as well as the first time she’d seen that look in his eyes—terror.
Her mom had given her a glance that said, “Not now,” and soon they had gone to bed in their one-room shack. Robin laid there staring at the two of them, wondering what had spooked her dad so. She promised herself she would find out in the morning.
Except that morning had never come. Not really, anyway. Just as she was nodding off, the front door had been kicked in by a man with glowing red eyes and then two more had swept in with such speed and power she was sure they were demons.
It hadn’t taken long for her discover they were vampires. They had soon made her one of their own and sent her mom and dad off to be sold as slaves.
There had been so much screaming, shouting, and struggling that night. She remembered the smell of piss, though she didn’t think it came from her, and something gripping her arms so tightly she had thought it was all over.
But the image that really kept haunting her was the terror in her father’s eyes before they had gone to bed. That loss of hope.
She couldn’t shake it from her mind, no matter how hard she tried. No matter what sort of distractions she put in its place.
“Robin,” a voice called, and she looked up to see Valerie giving her a worried and caring smile. “We’re here. We’re landing right now. Are you ready?”
Without so much as a nod, she turned and looked at the blur of the city that was just starting to come into view. Was she ready to save her parents and bring a level of revenge to this city that they had likely never seen?
Hell, yes, she was!
It worried Valerie that Robin was so distant and quiet, but she understood. If it were the other way around—if Valerie thought there was the slightest chance of saving her family—she would already have charged in and slaughtered every one of those bastards by this point.
They had secured their small armada of blimps on the far side of a hill that separated them from Toro, so that they would go unseen by the pirates. Now Valerie stood close to the peak, waiting and watching as a woman approached—a scout, it seemed.
The woman had on a long black coat over torn jeans and a ragged shirt with a bandana tied around her head and a brimmed hat to keep the sun from her eyes, likely so that she’d be a better shot with the old AK-47 she carried. Valerie cocked her head at the sight of that, wondering if its presence meant they were manufacturing ammunition here. That could be of use, when this was all over.
She waited in the cover of some tall grass until the woman was nearly upon them, then moved with vampire speed to sweep the woman’s legs out from under her and snatch the rifle. Her next action was to crouch and aim the rifle at the scout’s face.
“You’re with us or against us,” Valerie barked, nodding to Robin, who looked like a ninja, and the others behind her.
The woman’s eyes narrowed and she pulled a blade from her side, swinging for Valerie’s throat.
Valerie moved aside on instinct and slammed the butt of the rifle into the woman’s nose hard. Possibly a little too hard, as it didn’t just break her nose but caved her face in.
The scout gave a half-dying, crazed scream as blood gushed and the bone likely lodged in her brain took its time cutting off life. Valerie realized she now had no choice. She dropped the rifle and covered the woman’s mouth with one hand while snatching the knife and slitting her throat with the other.
The vampire waited until she stopped twitching.
Responding to a wave of her hand, Martha and River ran up and dragged the body back over the hill behind them.
Dammit! Blood covered the hand that had been on the woman’s mouth and she sniffed it, contemplating. Not long ago she would have been all over that blood to absorb the nanocytes within, but with Michael’s energy flowing through her now, she didn’t need it.
She positioned herself to watch the city, hating herself right then for being forced to take a life, and not wanting to make eye contact with any of the others.
Old Toronto, they called the city, and now that Valerie knew where it was and where Robin’s parents were likely being held, it pissed her off. They had done well by going north first, following the coast to deal with the pirates who had been interrupting trade with what remained of Europe. Cammie and Royland had taken over for the character who had styled himself “the Prince” before Valerie and Robin had beaten him into a bloody pulp.
Now that the coast was taken care of, however, it was time to rid the continent of the rest of these jackholes. Apparently that meant heading inland to an area not far from where they had traveled when moving through Ohio to Chicago, according to Valerie’s estimations on flying distance and directions.
If she had known that then, she would have simply gone north, killed everyone, and been done with it.
Of course, proper maps didn’t exist now, and that was probably for the best. Since she had been talking to the slaves they had rescued from Slaver’s Peak, she had a better understanding of the situation. These people weren’t all bad. In fact, many of them were just trying to survive. They were no different from the people of Old Manhattan before Valerie helped liberate them.
Here she was, staring down at a city that didn’t appear to be so different from New York, and she had a whole new group of people to liberate.
“Tell me,” she said, glancing over at the man named Rand, whom she had grown to trust in the days since the fight at Slaver’s Peak, “where would the council meet? There?”
She pointed to a dome on the far side of the city, closer to the lake. The large spike of a building or monument—she wasn’t sure which—stood next to it, with several toppled buildings nearby. While the city was in much better shape than New York, with more infrastructure intact on the outskirts of the city. There was also a section of it that was clearly segregated from the rest; she could see that even from here. People had set up obstacles, spikes with concertina wire, and other barriers that would stop any sort of assault.
The needle and the dome were within that area, but Rand shook his head.
“The slaves will likely be in that area, but not in the dome,” he told them. “They held sporting events and whatnot there back in the day. Wouldn’t make sense to use it as a stronghold, not with the crazies in the world now.”
“What do you know?” Robin glared at him, and Valerie had to laugh, remembering that Robin’s assassin trainers had headquartered them in a converted sports arena.
Why she was getting defensive about the idea was beyond Valerie.
Rand just snorted. “Used to live there, in the slums.” He motioned to a bend on the other side of the lake. “That area was hit hard in the riots, and it’s now mostly cardboard houses. When I was taken, that’s where I was, and when we free this city, that’s the first place I’m going.”
“You’d live in a cardboard box?” Martha asked. “There are surely better options.”
She and River stood behind them, staying below the sight of any possible lookouts from the city.
“Not to live there,” Rand replied. “To find out what happened to my sister. If they touched her, you all will have a hard time holding me back.”
“Holding you back?” Robin started to stand. “As far as we know my parents are being held as slaves in this city. I say we go in now, guns blazing!”
Valerie put a hand on her arm and shook her head. “There are too many innocents.”
She wished she could see Robin’s expression under the black assassin’s mask she wore along with her other protective clothing to shield her from exposure to sunlight. The sun was at full strength, hovering just past midday.
“Like my sister,” Rand agreed. “She’s never done a thing wrong in her life, just tries to make it from one day to the next.”
A glance over her shoulder showed Valerie the other men and women, those they had rescued from Slaver’s Peak and who would have otherwise been forced into the life of piracy, preparing the airships and loading weapons in case she gave the order to assault the city.
When she thought of the way the Prince had treated his people, shooting the community with bullets from an airship Gatling gun and worse, her eyes glowed red and she wanted nothing more than to charge into this city and tear it to shreds. But Rand had a point.
All her friends from New York would be dead right now if she had started a killing spree on arrival. A thought hit her and she frowned. When had killing become such a common thing? Like that woman, the scout or guard or whatever. Instinct had taken over, not even leaving a moment for doubt.
When she had first arrived in New York, taking a life had felt like an egregious sin. Now she found herself teetering on the edge of the “greater good” argument.
If past Valerie could read present Valerie’s mind, she would slap the stupidity right out of her.
Present Valerie knew she shouldn’t cross that line. On the other side waited only darkness.
“Rand’s right,” she finally agreed, imagining the glare Robin was probably giving her. “We’re going to find your parents, I promise. But we’re going to do so with the fewest possible casualties.” When Robin said nothing, Valerie added, “Imagine if we attacked and innocents were killed in the fight, people used as cannon fodder or hostages during the siege. Now imagine you’re walking through the streets of Toro afterwards and the dead are lying there with blank stares—and among them are your parents.”
“Shut up,” Robin hissed, pulling her arm away. “I’m not arguing with you. I’m waiting patiently for you to come up with a plan that doesn’t suck.”
Valerie smiled. “I think I just did.”
The others waited, and Rand got a nervous look on his face. “Don’t say it.”
“Well, we have a person here who knows at least one area of this city fairly well,” she replied, giving Rand a look that said she had no choice. “We go in through the slums. Get close, find out what we can, and then make our move.”
“It’s not going to be easy,” he told them. “I mean, I knew the streets when I lived there. I knew who was who, but then they started patrols. They started corralling us, shipping us off to Slaver’s Peak, or worse.”
“Do you still know your way around?”
He shrugged. “I mean, yeah, it’s not like it had been that long.”
“Good.” She moved away from the hillcrest and motioned for the others to follow. “Gather everyone and set up a secure location for now. Just a few of us will go in with Rand. We’ll keep it small until we know what we’re dealing with.”
The others nodded and got to it, leaving Valerie to pause and look back at that needle-like building sticking up into the air. Perhaps it had once been a thing of beauty, a symbol of God-knew-what, but now it was like a spear or a sword’s tip, reminding her that people were going to die during this assault one way or another.
She would just have to do her best to ensure it was only the bad people.
FROM JUSTIN >>> This is a bit of a long snippet because we’re only going to be able to do 2-3 of them, since we’re launching Monday! Stay tuned 🙂 If you recall, book 5 left off with Robin, Val, and a few others heading off to deal with Toro. Instead of spending time on the journey again (we’ve seen that!) I thought I’d get right to it. Bam. We’re there! So here’s the start to that, and a taste of what’s to come.
Check in tomorrow for a snippet from some of our other fun-loving characters!
In other news, I’ve been trying to become my own little Michael in a way (I know, it’s impossible to actually become Michael, I ask and the doctors told me that would be weird and expensive). But what the doctors did let me do was copy a little part of his brain into my own, and now I have the bug for working with others in spinoffs of our own. Those will be coming soon, but in the meantime I started a Facebook Group for this universe I’m doing – on my own – with a couple buddies. Lots of fun! If you are interested in being part of the process, offering advice, checking out covers, maybe having a character named after you, you’re welcome to join! It’s going to be a secret group when we decide to close it, to keep it from getting out of hand.
Also, I’m abut half way done with both Reclaiming Honor 7 and Shades 3, so stay tuned for those. I’m getting to the point on both of those where I’m having a blast. It’s like the characters have grown into who they need to be, experienced all those growing pains, and now they’re ready to kick butt. I’ll keep you updated 🙂