The thick titanium bolts around the door snapped back into the walls faster than they’d deployed. Then it didn’t open; it crashed inward, flattening a body beneath it with enough force to make something that looked like raspberry jam spurt from its sides.
But that wasn’t what made me freeze, my M-4 halting halfway up in its arc. It was the thing on the other side of the door. White hair framed a face that showed more skull than skin except for a set of blazing emerald eyes. Bullet-riddled clothes hung off a body that looked like old leather and dried meat wrapped around bone. When it bared its teeth in a hideous version of a smile, I instinctively recoiled.
And then it spoke.
“Hallo . . . Kitten.”
Later, I’d be ashamed that I didn’t run into his arms when I realized who it was, but at the moment, my brain refused to reconcile the half-rotted, walking corpse with the man I loved.
Bones didn’t have my hesitance. He also didn’t have over sixty percent of his flesh, but that was the point. He grasped my arm and yanked me out of the panic room, then propelled me down the hallway. I let him lead me, still trying to grapple with the reality of his being here, let alone trying to make sense of the condition he was in. Bodies of guards littered the hallway, their heads ripped mostly off and puddles of their blood causing me to slide once or twice as we ran. Red lights flashed, and alarms blared, but we didn’t encounter more guards, and if this section had employees, they’d long since evacuated.
Then a large set of double doors barred our path into the next section. From the empty security station, the entry guard had left his post, and through the small viewing panel, I didn’t see anyone in the room beyond, either.
“Initiating Dante Protocol for Section 13 in fifteen seconds,” a computerized voice intoned over the com system.
I cast my senses outward trying to discover what that meant, and the thoughts I caught were ominous.
They can’t incinerate Section 13! There might be survivors!
Oh, God, I’m gonna die . . .
That’s right, burn every one of those f**kers!
“They’re going to torch this section,” I told Bones, then shook him when all he did was close his eyes.
“Bones! We have to go now, or we’re going to burn.”
He still didn’t open his eyes. Didn’t he hear me? Maybe not, it didn’t look like much of his ears were left under that shock of white hair.
I grabbed him and tried to fly, intending to blast us through the ceiling into a section that wasn’t about to be barbecued, but he planted his feet and wouldn’t be budged. How he managed that while looking like an extra from Night of the Living Dead was beyond me, yet I might as well have been trying to lift a mountain.
“No,” he said in that guttural, unfamiliar voice.
“Five seconds until Dante Protocol in Section 13,” the warning system intoned.
Bones still didn’t move. If I flew away without him, I had a chance of making it, but I’d rather die than do that. Freaky-looking or not, this was Bones, and my place was with him, in life or in death. I threw my arms around him and squeezed my eyes shut, hoping the fire was so intense that this would be quick—
Explosions did go off, causing everything to shudder as though we were caught in an earthquake, yet there was no heat or pain. After a few seconds, I dared to open my eyes.
No wall of flames rushed toward us. Or guards, for that matter, but from the frantic crescendo of screams in my thoughts, people were dying somewhere. It took some doing to sort through the mental chaos enough to figure out what happened, and when I did, I was stunned.
“You used your power to sabotage their incineration machine before it could torch this floor, and it blew up where it was located.”
Talk about fighting fire with fire. Or with telekinesis, in this case. When had Bones gotten to be that powerful? A better question, how could he still be, in his condition?
He nodded. “And . . . opened . . . doors.”
Speech was clearly difficult for him, but his abilities were at astounding levels, judging from what he’d done.
“Which doors?” The ones leading to the surface, hopefully.
“All . . . of them.”
So saying, the doors in front of us unlocked and slid open. When a surge of new screams invaded my mind, I understood the significance of what he’d said.
He hadn’t only opened these doors. He’d opened all the doors in the facility, including the ones that kept undead captives in their cells.
This time, when I listened to the mental screams, I smiled.
From the sounds, Tate, Juan, Dave, and Cooper had their situation well in hand, but more guards could be on their way to them.
“Stay here, I’ll get the guys,” I told Bones.
He might be missing over half the flesh on his face, but he still had no trouble conveying “Are you bloody joking?” with his expression.
“There might be fighting, and you look like a hard stare could break a limb off,” I said in exasperation.
Something beamed me in the back. I whirled, already shooting, but I’d been struck with a detached head—gross, yet not dangerous. Then another head came rushing toward me as if it were a bowling ball, and my legs were pins. I dodged out of the way only to have it turn in midair and smack me in the ass.
“Stop it, you made your point!”
Guess I should have realized who killed all those guards to begin with, although with how rotted Bones looked, the only threat someone would assume him capable of was to their appetite . . .
It hit me then. All of it. Maybe it should have been obvious from the moment he broke down the panic-room door, but shock had prevented me from putting the pieces together. Now I knew how he was still alive although I’d seen him die, and why he looked the way he did.
And if it wouldn’t have knocked a hunk of his flesh off, I would’ve punched him right in the face.
“You heartless bastard,” I choked out.
His gaze was unblinking. Lacking eyelids will do that to a person.
“Later,” he replied in that rasping voice.
Oh, he could bet on that.
I turned, seeing a mirror image of myself bounding down the hallway. At some point since her transformation from rat to my doppelganger, Denise had swiped a pair of medical scrubs. From all the holes in them, she’d also taken on heavy fire while pretending to be me.
My happiness over seeing her was tempered when I noticed she didn’t look the slightest bit surprised to see Bones alive, or in the condition he was in. Was I the only one who hadn’t known the real plan behind my meet-up with Madigan on the pier?
“Come on, the vampire jail section is this way,” Denise said before running past us and taking a right where the hallway forked.
I followed her, pushing past my whirling emotions to send my senses outward. It wouldn’t do for us to run right into a trap. After listening for a few moments, my tenseness eased. Bones’s destruction of the Dante Protocol machine hadn’t just killed a lot of people. It had also injured many of the rest of them since most of the thoughts I picked up on were disjointed with pain. The thoughts that were still clear seemed panicked, as Madigan’s employees realized that all of the interior doors were open, but the main lift to the surface was out of order.
Good. It was time they knew what it was like to feel helpless and trapped in this underground hellhole.
I hunted through the thoughts as best I could, yet Madigan’s wasn’t among them, making him either dead or unconscious. I hoped for the latter since I wanted to kill him myself. First things first, however.
Denise ran past the open security doors into the section where the holding cells were. Then she stopped, her nose wrinkling. The cells were vacant but bodies slumped over computer monitors, chairs, and on the red-smeared floor. Tate and the guys had been busy. Multiple bloody footprints led to an interior room past the cells, though another, smaller set had gone down the hallway in the opposite direction from where we’d come.
“A little more, amigo,” Juan’s low voice crooned from the interior room. Then softer and more urgently, “Get ready. Someone’s coming.”
I went in that direction instead of down the hall. “It’s Cat,” I called out, not wanting to get shot again.
“¿Querida?” Juan let out a weary laugh. “Of course. Who else could cause such trouble?”
I glanced at Bones and Denise before I spoke. “Most of it wasn’t me this time.”
Then I stepped over another crumpled form as I entered what looked like an operating room. Medical equipment hung from the ceiling in various spots, while scalpels, bone saws, and other sharp instruments rested on a table next to a large metal slab with restraint straps. That table was empty, but the tubular machine on the far side of the room wasn’t. Tate was inside it, tubes protruding everywhere from him, while Juan and Cooper stood next to a control panel.
Dave came out of the corner, lowering a bloody M-4 carbine.
“Damn glad to see you, Cat,” he said, giving me a brief, fierce hug. Then he held on to my arm when I tried to get to the others.
“Wait. They’re getting the liquid silver out of Tate.”
I looked around with grim understanding. I didn’t remember being here, but this must be the machine Dr. Obvious alluded to when she said the liquid silver had been dissolved with nitric acid and flushed out. That meant the restraint table and multiple instruments were for lesser cases when the silver could be cut out, not that it would make it any less agonizing.
“How did Tate get silvered?”
Dave started to answer, then stared over my shoulder. Denise and Bones were behind me, and it was a toss-up as to which of them had shocked him more.
“Denise can shapeshift, and Bones was playing possum,” I summarized. “He’ll regenerate fully when he drinks more blood.”
“Now I’ve seen everything,” Dave muttered, shaking his head. “Tate’s restraint clamps were still on when they put him back in his cell after you drank from him. When the doors unexpectedly opened, we went for the pricks, but one of them managed to hit the switch that turned on the juice in them.”
Flooding Tate’s body with liquid silver. I shuddered at the memory of how excruciating that felt.
“They’ll have it out soon, it didn’t get too deep,” Dave went on.
“How do they know how to operate the machine?”
He gave me a bleak look. “They picked it up after all the times it’s been used to get silver out of them.”
Tate mumbled something that sounded like my name, but his voice was barely audible above the noise the machine made.
“I’m here,” I called out.
“Not you, querida,” Juan said, glancing up before he pressed more buttons. “Katie. She ran when the cells opened. Have you seen her?”
“Is she an employee?” If so, I hated to break it to them, but she was probably dead.
“The little girl,” Cooper said impatiently.
I winced. How awful if someone had brought their kid to work today of all days . . . wait.
“The child in the cell?” I asked, memory surfacing of the one I’d glimpsed when the guards wheeled me past.
Dave let out a grunt. “Yeah, that child. Seen her?”
“Footsteps,” a guttural voice stated behind me.
Bones was right. Now we knew who the small ones leading away from this section belonged to.
“I’ll get her,” Denise said at once. “I’d rather do that than what you guys need to do.”
Denise hated killing, and I couldn’t leave some poor child wandering around, yet we couldn’t take the time to search for her. We’d already spent too much time here as it was.
Dave grabbed Denise before she could leave. “Do not attempt to force her if she doesn’t want to go with you.”
“I won’t scare her,” she said with a scoff.
Bones’s harsh voice cut off whatever Dave had been about to say. All of us turned except Denise, who left with preternatural speed.
“What? Madigan what?” I prodded.
His mouth stretched into a truly terrifying smile. “Alive.”
I gripped his arm and spoke one word.
Bones redefined the term “fast food” as we ran through the labyrinth of hallways and tunnels in this massive facility. Every hundred feet or so, he’d snatch up a body, squeeze it since no pulse equaled no natural pump of blood, suck hard, and then throw it away for a new one. He had an abundance to choose from given the mind-boggling slaughter he must have engaged in before reaching me.
I kept my eyes peeled since side hallways could contain soldiers waiting to ambush us, but I also couldn’t stop staring at Bones. With each body he drank from, his frame filled out, and new skin grew back to cover him. Soon, all of the awful gaps closed and muscles bulged where there had been dried, sunken tissue. It was like watching a vampire wither in reverse as youthfulness and vitality overcame all vestiges of his wasted appearance. If not for his thick, curly hair still being white, he looked exactly as he had before.
That wasn’t the only remarkable change. As his body regenerated, so did his aura, until the air around him became charged with pulsating waves. Feeling his connection to me again was almost as big a relief as seeing his body restored.
“If you could regenerate this fast, why didn’t you drink blood sooner?” I couldn’t help but ask.
“Didn’t have the time.”