Blood of the Damned
Self-published Re-issue | September 10, 2012
The Embraced Series, Book 4
This book is the fourth in The Embraced series. All books in this series are written to stand alone and do not need to be read in order, although reading them in order may contribute to a richer reading experience.
2006 winner of Best Erotic Romance in eCataromance’s Reviewers Choice Awards
Jade has been entrusted with the keeping of a Vampir known for his ruthlessness. The Embraced need Niccolo Romano in the fight against the Dominion, but even his own friends consider him dangerous. As a Priestess of the Morrigan, Jade can handle most anything, but perhaps not this man.
Jade looks damn good to Niccolo, but she proves resistant to his charms. Soon bedding her becomes a mission, but he takes one step too far in his quest to possess her and soon she possesses his heart. She has secrets she wants to keep, but Niccolo has a way of laying her bare in more ways than one. Every time Niccolo seduces her to his bed—sometimes gently, sometimes not—he unravels another piece of her history, bringing up long repressed sexual need and emotion.
Soon Niccolo is fighting two battles—one against the Dominion and the other for Jade.
“This was a fabulous read.” —Fallen Angel Book Reviews
“BLOOD OF THE DAMNED is a wonderful read…Bast incorporates fast-paced burning romance that blazes.” —The Romance Studio
Harcourt Maximum Security Penitentiary
Zhejiang Province, China – Sometime tomorrow
Jade’s heavy boots clanged on the metal walkway as she trekked across the heart of Harcourt Prison. All around her men stood at the bars of their cells catcalling and shouting obscenities. Thirteen levels could be seen in the cellblock she walked through, each floor lined with at least three hundred rusted iron cells, and every single prisoner in them seemed riled up by her presence.
But she was only interested in one man here.
She ignored the rest of it. Ignored the sound of their voices, and the noise of the clanging iron bars and the metal walkway beneath her boots. She closed her senses to the stench of the place—unwashed human body, rotten food, old semen and blood. Jade closed her extrasensory perception to their emotions as well, their rage, their desperation at being out of control. She cut herself off from all of it. Fifty years of training as a Priestess of the Morrigan gave her that ability.
She approached the end of the walkway and the armed guard who waited for her. The red-haired prison guard had bad teeth and a profane grin. His gaze trailed from her heavy combat boots, up her leather-clad body to her face. Apparently the prisoners weren’t the only ones who hadn’t seen a woman in a while. She flipped her long black leather coat open so he could see the two weapons—two high-caliber pistols—holstered on her waist. His grin faltered.
To further dampen his spirits, she reached into her back pocket, pulled out her ID and release order, and flashed them at him. “Jade Xiang, officially empowered by the International Federation. I’ve got a remand order for Niccolo Romano. Take me to him.”
The guard snorted, expelling a bit of spittle that Jade moved to the side to avoid. “That crazy fuck? You can have him.” He peered behind her. “But I don’t see any Federation agents with you. You sure you can handle this guy on your own?”
She stared at him as she slid her documents back into her pocket. “Let me worry about that.”
He looked at her doubtfully and shook his head. Then he turned and led her down a row of cells. Jade made sure she walked close to the railing on her left to avoid the inmates’ grasping hands. If only she could avoid their spit and their words as well. A lot of them growled out things they were thinking about her, things she didn’t want to hear. Her close proximity seemed to whip them into an even greater frenzy. She couldn’t wait to be out of here.
The guard led her down a hallway, away from the inmates’ housing. They took an elevator down several floors, and then walked down a corridor lined with heavy steel doors. Her gaze flicked to the small viewing slits set in each one as she walked past. This was solitary confinement, Jade guessed.
It was quiet here. All Jade could hear were their footsteps and the guard’s breathing. The quiet was a blessed thing to her ears and senses. Even so, she could still feel the tormented souls who clung to this place, the ones who lurked in the shadows of the living and screamed soundlessly. They were imprisoned here for eternity in anguish.
The guard stopped in front of one of the doors, punched in some numbers on the lock by the knob and the door swung open. “There he is,” the guard said.
Jade stepped into the nearly pitch-black room. It took a second for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. The floor and walls were concrete. The ceiling appeared to be constructed of that same ancient steel that comprised the rest of the prison. No furniture decorated the cell. There was nothing at all.
The man she sought knelt on the floor, his arms strung out on either side of him and bound at the wrists by thick chains attached to the walls. They’d left his chest bare and his dark head was bowed. Long, straggling dark hair and a beard shadowed his face. They’d put him in an uncomfortable position, obviously designed to punish. Though Jade figured this vamp hardly felt the pain.
“Why is he restrained this way?” she asked sharply of the guard.
“Killed an inmate last week. Some asshole stupid enough to mess with an Embraced.” The guard spat on the floor. “Saved us the cost of executin’ him.”
Niccolo Romano raised his head and let his gaze slowly rove her in the same way the guard’s had earlier. He parted his lips a little and she saw his fangs—white and sharp—in his mouth. She stifled the urge to kick him in the face. Had they been feeding him synth-blood to keep him sated? Or maybe blood hunger had been how he’d killed the inmate. Maybe Romano had drained him.
“Leave me alone with him,” she said without looking at the guard.
Keeping her eyes on Romano’s face, she ground out, “I said leave me alone with him.”
She heard the guard turn and leave.
Romano just stared at her. His long black hair hung around his well-chiseled face. The darkness of his hair seemed to swallow up all the light around his head, giving her the impression he thirsted for it…or maybe she was just projecting. She’d done her reading on this guy, knew what a hard history he’d had.
She knew a lot about him, but they hadn’t told her what the Embraced would look like. She hadn’t been expecting this. Even dirty and unkempt this man radiated power, strength and overall physical perfection. She let her gaze trace over his muscled legs, torso and arms. The man had to be unstoppable in a fight. She was preternaturally strong, but she doubted she’d be able to take this man in combat. She certainly didn’t want to try.
“Niccolo Romano,” she said, her voice loud in the small cell. “You’ve been remanded into my custody.”
“Have I been loaned out again?” His voice was a deep baritone and smooth, silky dark chocolate. There was just the faintest trace of an unplacable accent. Jade knew his original tongue had been Latin, but he’d sailed through several civilizations since then.
She took a couple steps toward him, her boot heels clicking on the concrete floor. “You’ve been passed around a lot in the last two hundred years, I’ve heard. In and out of different agencies, bartered around for special initiatives.” She shrugged. “But every time they’re finished with you, they throw you back in here like a well-used whore.”
His dark eyes flashed with anger and his huge hands fisted loosely.
So, he wasn’t broken and he still had pride. That was good.
She paced in front of him. “Yeah, you’re being loaned out again, but this time when you’re finished you get your freedom.”
His body went very still and power sizzled through the air, a flare of his glamour brushing against her magick. The powerful force raised the fine hairs on her arms and at the back of her neck. She stopped pacing.
“My freedom.” His voice sounded flat, expressionless. She could get no emotional read on him because he was an Embraced. The man was stoic as a rock, anyway.
Jade crossed her arms over her chest, hearing the creak of the leather she wore. “Don’t you want it? I mean, everyone knows how you allowed yourself to be arrested so long ago. Still, don’t you think two hundred years is punishment enough?”
“What’s the job?”
“You won’t object to it, Romano. Anyway, we wouldn’t be able to keep you if you did.”
Niccolo Romano—that wasn’t the name he’d been born with, of course—had a knack for death, a talent for it. It was what he did best; bring death to those who deserved it. She’d heard all the stories. When this man had walked down the street, everyone had gotten the hell out of his way. On some level, most of them could probably sense that death walked beside this man, that it was an old friend and constant companion of his. Everyone had a little psi ability, a little intuition. This man sent out a danger signal louder than a storm siren. Someone would have to be near brain-dead not to perceive it.
This was a man who’d murdered his way through the centuries. Innumerable men had lost their lives to him. Still, she’d done enough research on him to know that he wouldn’t kill innocents. The vamp wouldn’t aid in senseless destruction. He couldn’t be used as force against the greater good…well, not most the time. If someone had the right leverage on him, he could be forced into it. That was his biggest weakness. But the bottom line was that, even two thousand years since he’d been Embraced, the man was still a protector.
That’s why they needed him.
He said nothing. He only lowered his gaze to her boots.
She raised an eyebrow. He didn’t want to talk anymore? Fine. It was past time they got out there, anyway. She turned. “I’ll get the guard and the keys for those chains.”
“How do you know I won’t just kill you and take off?”
She stopped, but didn’t turn toward him. Jade smiled a little. “I know a lot about you, Romano, more than even your closest friends. I know you won’t.”
She tracked down the guard who cast a nervous glance at her before he plied the security code to the release mechanism on the outside of the cell. The hydraulic cuffs released and fell with a ringing clank and chink of the chain. She noticed the vamp’s wrists bled from the rasp of iron against skin. Dried blood marked him from fingers to elbow.
He pushed to his feet with muscles that didn’t seem the least fatigued from the awkward position he’d been sustaining. Romano stood before her dressed in a pair of gray prison pants, a pair of black prison-issue boots and nothing else.
He was tall and he was ripped. She’d seen that when he’d been kneeling. He made her respond like a woman did to a man. Her reaction was instant, primal and wholly unwelcome. This man made her whole body sit up and take notice. He made her heart rate and breathing speed up. He made her cream just a little. She couldn’t remember the last time someone had made that happen. She thought it had all but dried up.
He walked toward her with menace set into his shoulders and his swagger. She had the urge to back away from him, but stood her ground. He stopped right in front of her, so close his breath—the sweet, calm-inducing breath of the Embraced—stirred the fine hairs around her face. The heat of him rolled off and warmed her. Despite the threat in his eyes, her body started a slow burn. Her sex began to throb and nipples became sensitive.
Man, oh man.
Romano’s eyes were hard and cold, the lines of his face set in a cruel expression. He had a face that could be either beautiful or brutal depending on the light, his expression…or his mood, she’d make a guess.
“Who said I’d agree to help you?” he snarled in a low voice. “Who said I was ready leave this place? Who sent you for me?”
A flicker of apprehension raced through her stomach, but she held his gaze steadily. Goddess, please, sweet Morrigan, I hope we haven’t misjudged this man. “The Council of the Embraced,” she said in a steady voice. “The Federation, the Order of the Morrigan…and Gabriel Letourneau.”
Niccolo’s eyes blinked and unfocused for a moment as she uttered the last name on the list.
She took advantage of his surprise, and turned and walked out the door and past the guard. Her heart pounded in her chest. Romano would follow if he wanted out of here.
“You don’t want him cuffed?” the guard asked as she passed.
Yeah, she kind of did, but she waved him off without a glance and continued down the corridor.
She’d been expected to arrive here, and if they could plan on her being somewhere for any length of time, bad things tended to happen. Very bad things. They needed to get out as quickly as possible.
“You have a lot to explain,” Romano called from the cell.
“Somewhere other than here,” she yelled over her shoulder.
Niccolo caught up to her. “You’ve been reinstated,” she said without looking at him. “You’re a Council Executioner again.”
“No. I will never hunt and kill others for money again.”
“It’s part of your current deal.”
She found herself slammed up against the wall in less than half a blink of an eye. His hand fisted in the leather of her jacket at the shoulders. She stared at him, her heart pounding and her breath coming fast. For the speed and strength it had taken him to get her into this position, he hadn’t hurt her.
Instantly, she took stock of how she could defend herself. Eyes, throat, balls. That’s what she’d go for to free herself.
His face was close to hers. His chocolate-brown eyes narrowed. “I will never be an Executioner again,” he growled.
She shrugged, trying to appear as though he hadn’t just scared the shit out of her. “You do this work, we all get through it alive, and you can quit being one. After this, you can go become a goat herder in Inner Mongolia for all I care. As they used to say so long ago, scout’s honor.”
A muscle worked in his jaw. He stared into her eyes. Finally, after several tense heartbeats, he relaxed and backed away. Jade took several shaky, shallow breaths. “I will go with you,” he said in a low voice. “I will see what this job—” he snarled the word at her “—is. If I don’t like it, I’m not doing it.”
Jade passed him, walking down the corridor once more. Once he found out what it was, he’d agree. “Fine,” she shot back at him. “Can we please get the fuck out of here now? It’s like you want to stay or something.”
They continued on in silence and when they hit the metal walkway, that silence became a necessity. The prisoners were whipped into an even greater frenzy now than when she’d come in. The noise was deafening. The emotions ran high. She could feel their rage, their lust, their despair. The combined sensation felt cloying to her. It caught in her throat and made her gag. It was like having a sweaty sock stuffed in her mouth.
Finally they reached the tall, wide chain barrier that separated the exit corridor from the cellblock—the main gate. The guards there let them through and they turned the corner to proceed down the long hallway that led to the first checkpoint.
The prison was a huge square building, the bulk of which was comprised by the open cellblock. It was an old prison, built right after World War III. The Chinese government and the I.F. didn’t have a lot of money to keep it up, even though this was an international prison—the largest in the world.
Jade understood that the prisoners were controlled in groups of fifty cells apiece. Corridors led off the main cellblock to other parts of the prison. Around the perimeter lay a large secure outdoor exercise area. When the temperature rose above freezing, the prisoners were allowed out there. Four towers armed with guards stood at each corner of the prison yard. Two security checkpoints stood between themselves and freedom—one inside and one outside.
She led Romano to the first of the two checkpoints. Even here the echo of the prisoners back in the cellblock filled her ears and their emotions scraped her acute senses. Guards stood on both sides of metal doors tall enough to allow a bus filled with convicts to pass through.
One of the guards, a black-haired Caucasian, rose from his desk where he was munching a sandwich. Jade flashed her papers at him while he wiped some mayo from the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand. They’d done all the hard stuff on the way in, so Jade was hoping this would go fast.
One of the guards took Romano aside to a small cage-covered window and gave him a black duffel bag, likely filled with his possessions.
The Caucasian guard nodded and she slid her papers and ID back into her pocket.
“No cuffs?” he inquired.
She shook her head.
He stared at her. “Don’t you know who you just took into custody, Xiang?” He dropped his gaze, taking in her tall, slender body. It wasn’t a sexual assessment, but a practical one. She knew she looked like a helpless female, but she wasn’t. “I know you think you’re pretty tough and all, but—”
Her temper flared. “I’m a Priestess of the Morrigan,” she ground out.
He blinked and his eyes filled with understanding and respect. “Okay.”
Romano came back to stand beside her, and the guard pressed the buzzer that opened the heavy gates. They slid apart slowly, revealing the blinding white environment beyond, and she and the vamp stepped through. A blast of frigid air froze her lungs, but the man beside her didn’t even flinch. In the swirling snow a distance away was the second checkpoint.
That’s when all hell broke loose.
Behind them, the lights shut off, plunging the prison into complete and utter darkness. Tension flared through Jade’s body as she turned. Romano stood beside her. She could feel his body heat radiate out and hit her, warring with the cold air. The auditory chaos within the prison had quieted, though the sound of the hydraulic security doors still sliding open sounded loud in her ears. Emergency lights turned on, bathing the corridor walls in red light. Somewhere deep in the prison, an alarm sounded.
The erratic yelling of the prisoners swelled. Their emotions swelled, as well. A sharp, poignant flare of hope emanated from them and then a desire for pure, unadulterated violence.
It wasn’t the violence that bothered her, it was the hope. Her brow furrowed. Hope? That had to be a bad thing. It just had to be. Then everything started happening all at once, and far too quickly for her tastes.
“Shit! Something’s overridden the cellblock door control and the main gate! Close these doors! Close these doors!” one the guards yelled.
He meant the gate separating the cellblock from the exit corridor, Jade guessed. Not good. The guards started punching buttons on the control panel, trying to get the ancient doors to stop their slow slide open and begin to close. They made a grinding, groaning noise that didn’t sound promising.
At the far end of the corridor, Jade could see men rounding the corner. They appeared to be running straight for freedom. Unfortunately, that path led directly through where she and the vamp stood.
“Fuck,” Jade breathed.
She’d actually thought for a minute she’d be able to get Romano out without incident. She turned and ran for the second set of gates with Romano beside her. Resisting the urge to move as fast she was able, she forced herself to keep pace with him. If she didn’t get out with Romano, she might as well not get out at all.
Her boots crunched over the ice on the concrete walkway and the cold wind whipped her hair into her eyes. That combined with the swirling snow made it hard for her to make out their goal, the final checkpoint.
A loud scrape and groan sounded behind them. She chanced a glance back and saw the escapees had wedged a desk between the closing doors. The heavy piece of furniture was partially crushed, but it had served its purpose. Prisoners scrambled over the desk into the exercise yard in a trickle that was fast becoming a flood.
From the towers above them, the guards fired at the prisoners breaching the gate. The pop, pop, pop of the tower guns sounded not at all comforting…especially when bullets hit the snow-covered ground beside them. She tuned in with all she had on her environment, not an easy thing to do under the circumstances. She heard a stray bullet whizzing through the air near her and dodged to the left to avoid it.
She felt two others flying toward Romano, one going for his head, the other his leg. She shoved him to the side but it was like trying to topple a tree. One of the bullets missed him, but the other hit him high in the chest. Blood sprayed out onto the snow and Romano went down beside her.
She stopped and knelt, helping him up. It took more than a simple bullet to kill an Embraced, and they had to keep moving. At least his leg hadn’t been wounded. He could still run.
He pressed a hand to his chest and lunged to his feet. She wrapped an arm around his waist and propelled him forward. They left his duffel bag behind on the ground.
“You just dodged a bullet,” he rasped at her. “What the hell are you?”
“Uninjured. Come on, move!”
He shrugged her off and started to run. Behind them, the prisoners gained on them.
The heavy solid iron gates ahead of them were closed. Jade pulled both her guns and ran to the small door to the right of the gates. She had no wish to shoot unarmed men, but she knew what they’d do to her if they made it to this gate before she got through it. Romano, he might survive…maybe. She wouldn’t, and she had no desire to die by being raped and beaten to death.
She pounded on the metal door. “Open up! I’ve been empowered by the International Federation to take a prisoner out of here!”
The small round viewing hole in the door opened. “No way. If I open this door more than one prisoner is walking out.”
Behind them, a couple of the fastest prisoners had reached them. One went for Romano and Romano gave him a quick, clean death in half a blink of an eye. No hesitation. No mercy.
The other ran for her. She whirled, drawing her weapon, but Niccolo was there first. He grabbed the man by the throat and cracked his neck. The prisoner slumped to the ground and Niccolo turned with a ruthless look on his face.
The noise of prisoners behind her was becoming louder by the heartbeat. Their pounding feet filled her senses. She turned and stuck the muzzle of one of her guns against the guard’s forehead. “Open this door right now,” she gritted out in a low voice.
The man blanched. He fumbled for the door’s release while staring straight into her eyes. It opened a crack. She pushed it, forcing the guard back, and she and Romano surged through it. She whirled and slammed it shut with her foot. The guard bolted it about a half a second before a force of men hit it on the other side. The gates groaned ominously under the weight and Jade staggered back and fell, ending up on her ass in the snow with both barrels pointed at the door.
“Holy shit,” she said in a shaky voice. Their collective emotions bathed her now. It was almost more than she could bear.
Rage, deep, horrifying rage. It rasped against her mind like sandpaper on a baby’s bottom.
Pounding fists beat on the metal gates and on the thick metal walls that surrounded the prison’s exercise yard. Jade was glad she couldn’t see their faces. For several moments she just sat there, feeling the cold seep through her clothing and watching the five guards at the outside gate run around like they didn’t know what to do. The other guards inside were probably already dead. Mayonnaise man was probably dead. Beyond the gate came the pop, pop, pop of the tower guns…and more men died.
It was possible there had been some internal error in the Harcourt security system that had thrown the cell doors and the main gate…but she suspected it had been no accident.
The gate groaned again and she forced herself to push to her feet. They needed to get out of there in case that thing gave. She looked up and her breath caught in her throat as she registered Romano.
He stood staring at the gates and seemed to be absorbing and radiating back all that thick, cloying anger. His body, even though the temperature was well below zero, looked hot to the touch. It was as if he identified and reflected that rage. The lines of his body, which seemed powerful and strong before, now appeared brutal to her.
She holstered her weapons and touched him on the arm.
He jerked and looked at her. His eyes were clouded, distant and a muscle worked in his jaw. He blinked and they cleared, leaving behind pools of deep brown. His body relaxed.
The spell was broken. Jade took a deep breath.
“Come on,” she said. “We have a bullet to get out of you.” She turned and walked toward where she’d parked her snow glider.
“Hey,” the guard she’d threatened yelled at her. “You’re I.F. Aren’t you going to stay and help?”
She wasn’t I.F. She’d only been empowered by them. Her allegiance lay elsewhere. “Not my problem,” she called over her shoulder. She’d been there to get Romano out and she’d done that…barely.