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VAELA DENARR (SHE/THEY) & MICAH IANNANDREA (THEY/THEM)

The Gift of Blood (Crimson Tears: Book One)

The Gift of Blood Book Cover by Lexa @rocket_bird


Author’s Note


CW: This book contains gore, brief mentions of self-harm, and brief mentions of homophobia.

Chapter 2

She couldn’t keep relying on dumb luck to save her ass. A weapon would be a good start. Ryann raised a hand before her face and tried to focus on the little claws that remained on her fingers, looking like the best manicured fingernails she’d ever had. She tried to make them grow.

Nothing happened.

Oh, come on…

She focused harder. She didn’t want to fight Batman, but he had already abducted one person. Ryann didn’t want to be next. Even if he had been more interested in a grave last time, he’d still shown a vested interest in eating her before.

Still, despite Ryann’s best attempts her fingernails remained pointy but short. “Dammit,” she muttered. She tried flexing her fingers. Still no sign of vampire claws. “Okay, fuck you too then,” she muttered. “Punching it is.”

“You sure you’re good?” Rowan asked from the radio. “You’ve been quiet.”

Ryann rolled her eyes. She pressed the button. “Almost like I’m sneaking through a monster-infested cemetery to find a guy that’s almost certainly dead.” She could smell the blood in the air. Jacob’s chances weren’t great already, and there was no telling where the trail might end. “Maybe I should call this off,” she muttered. She didn’t think Rowan could hear her. She wasn’t serious in the first place. She was just still very much pissed.

But Rowan quickly replied, “We can’t do that! He might still be alive! We have to help him!”

“Yes, of course, Jesus,” Ryann said back, annoyed. “I wasn’t serious.” She tested the air with her sense of smell. Was it her imagination, or had the blood scent become thicker? She pulled the mask down. She could almost taste the traces of blood on the wind, and sniffed the air like a bloodhound until she uncovered the source.

It came from an octagonal stone pavilion with iron fences filling the gaps between the pillars. It was the only place with any light around. In that light Ryann saw Jacob slumped against the inner wall. She rushed to the door quickly, and inside, stepping into a thick, red trail by accident.

Memories flashed before her eyes. The smell, the shape of the place, and the light… they brought back things she tried to push down.

She was in the ring. The smell of her own blood was in her nose, and something sharp and strange. Like the smell of something that had gone off. Lights glared overhead. The crowd was so deafening she barely heard it. He was there. Her opponent. There was not a drop of sweat on him, and his skin looked pale and dry.

Everything was moving in slow motion. Ryann saw the ripple of her muscles as she tried to block the strike, and only then felt the sharp jolt of her pain through her shoulder, cutting through the adrenaline. Her head snapped back as his knuckles collided with her jaw, she spat blood. Another strike hit her head, way too hard, making her vision black at the edges, then another, another.

She came back up, driving her fist into his jaw, and saw him grit his teeth as his head snapped aside. Teeth that were too long and sharp. They gnashed angrily.

They were in the same weight class. Ryann could have kicked his ass easily. She’d taken on opponents bigger and heavier than herself in less legal matches. But nothing worked on this guy. She could practically see the red marks of her strikes vanishing from his gut.

Ryann stepped in and blocked his kick with her own shin. The hit felt like it was designed to break bones. She ducked under his swing and drove her fist into his stomach again.

Even through the knuckle guards, it felt like punching a wall. There was not enough muscle there to not give. What she was fighting didn’t feel human.

It occurred to Ryann that she’d been fighting a vampire. The thought came suddenly and with a bit of a numb shock. It felt odd, like it should have been a greater revelation.

Well… Still choked him out like anyone else, she thought as she pushed the thought down. They’d told her to lose that fight. She’d told them to fuck off.

They’d waited for her outside the venue and had ambushed her.

After that, all she remembered was the hospital, the smell of disinfectant, the doctor telling her she’d been in an accident and a coma, and London crying at her bedside.

Ryann clenched her hand in anger. She gripped the pillar next to her to steady herself. Her claws scratched over the stone hard and left little marks.

The smell of blood ripped her from those thoughts. She took a deep breath and tried to fight the anger down. She’d deal with those bastards later. Maybe give them an accident of their own, let them see what it’s like. They were probably all vampires, right? They certainly all had looked pale enough, so they’d probably be fine with a few broken bones.

Her teeth ached again. She really wanted to dig them into something. Not to drink blood. Just to tear something apart.

The radio in her hand cracked precariously with her grip. The blood scent in her nose made her growl deeply. You don’t have time for this, she tried to tell herself. Her lungs burned as if the blood had entered into them as a thick, red mist. She staggered forward, through the blood smell, and to the man slumped on the inside of the pavilion.

She crouched down next to Jacob. He was pale and still. Dark circles under his eyes were overshadowed by his sweaty blond hair. A large puddle had already formed beneath him on his other side, and the smell intensified the closer Ryann got. “Found him,” she said a little hoarsely into the radio. Her throat stung with the words.

“Is he alive?”

Ryann already had her fingers to Jacob’s neck. No pulse. His body was still warm, but it would take between six and twelve hours to grow cold anyway. A little trivia from her time at med school.

She tried not to think about how many classes she’d missed in her four-month coma. Maybe they’d give her extra credit for that?

God, that’s fucking sad… She sighed at the thought and shook her head.

She lifted the radio back to her lips. “He’s gone,” Ryann said softly. “I’m sorry. Looks like he just about managed to crawl to safety.” She could see the huge claw marks under Jacob’s torn shirt. Even if his heart had just stopped, there would be no way to get him to a paramedic in time, not to mention him losing more and more blood.

The radio was quiet for a long, long moment. Then it crackled once. Rowan’s voice came over the line breathy and quiet. “Does he have a bag on him?”

Ryann frowned at the question. He was indeed wearing a bag, small, like the kind you’d put a planner or notebook in, or maybe a water bottle and some snacks. On closer inspection, it strained to hold its contents, bulging a little. “Yeah, he had one,” Ryann said into the radio. “What about it?” she followed up. Something didn’t feel right.

“I need you to tell me what’s inside.”

She frowned a little deeper at that. The bag was covered in Jacob’s blood. He seemed to have clung to it with his last breaths.

For a moment, Ryann felt herself transported to a different place. A darker place with no lights, the cold floor of an alley beneath her, and a different body at her feet. Someone else she’d failed to save.

She pushed the thought aside and busied herself with the bag. The smell of blood has lost its allure after that memory.

Her fingers brushed against leather, and she pulled it free.

It was a book, old, with yellowed pages that were stained darkly, and entirely leatherbound. She tried not to touch it too much. The binding felt old and badly cared for, and where she came in contact with the paper, it felt oily.

Emblazoned on the cover was the title, along with scratches that marked the leather, like someone or something had clawed at it. The Stalwart Hunter’s Almanac. She relayed this to Rowan.

Her friend from the Institute seemed to think for a bit. “You can see the lights in the middle of the cemetery, yeah?” she asked. “Make your way over to that. It’s safe there.”

“No offence,” Ryann said and narrowed her eyes at the white structure next to the decapitated angel statue, “but it doesn’t look like a huge monster bat would have any troubles with that.” She could only make it out in detail because her vision had sharpened so much over the last days.

“We have measures in place against that,” Rowan told her. “Get over here, you’ll be safe. And don’t forget the book!”

The smell of blood and grave dirt faded into the background at the emphasis Rowan put on that. A soft growl rose up in Ryann’s throat. Rowan wanted the book bad, and that didn’t sit right with her. Something was off.

“Why?” she asked. “I’d move quicker without it.”

“Jacob stole it. I need it back.”

Ryann stood up and leaned back against one of the pillars, crossing her arms. Her tongue played over her fangs as she brought the radio to her lips. “The blood smell could attract Batman. I should leave it here until it’s safe.”

“It could come back to get Jacob’s body!”

“So? What would it want with a book? Animals are smart enough to not eat books.”

“Kate!” Rowan strained and failed to stay calm. “I need that book! Or else you going after Jacob will have been for nothing!”

Ryann left the radio off for a bit. Rowan called her name. Then once more, getting more and more agitated. Ryann clicked the button again, cutting her off. “No bullshit this time…” she said in a low tone. “Did you even send me after this guy to get him back?”

“Of course…”

“Yeah?” Ryann asked darkly. “I said no bullshit. And I’m smelling bullshit.” She didn’t question her intuition. She didn’t always understand how she knew, but generally people lying to her left a bad feeling. “So if I bury this book in a fucking grave, you won’t really care?”

“No! I mean…” Rowan floundered. Ryann growled even louder now.

“Did you even think we’d find him alive?” she all but yelled into the radio. “Fess up, or your book gets spread around the entire cemetery, one page at a time!”

Rowan hesitated for a long moment. “To be honest…” she said then in a nervous stammer, “I assumed he was dead the moment you mentioned the blood…”

“Motherfucker!” She wanted to throw the radio to the ground and shatter it. It creaked precariously in her grip.

“I had to get the book back!” Rowan implored her almost desperately. Ryann had trouble hearing her over the agitated, clicking growl from her throat. “It’s an encyclopedia of monsters!”

Ryann ducked further into cover when she heard a scraping sound in the night. “Do you maybe want another souvenir?” she hissed into the radio. “A finger maybe? Or an eyeball?”

“I don’t— Kate, listen to me, I know you’re angry…”

“No shit, Sherlock,” Ryann interrupted harshly. “You sent me after some guy you thought was dead, all for some shitty old book!”

“I never sent you—”

“You let me go after him even though you — and I quote — ‘already thought he was dead ten seconds after I picked up his shitty fucking radio’! And at the mere suggestion of turning back, you told me to keep going anyway!” The radio cracked hard in her hand as she gripped it harder in her anger. “So what the actual fuck, dude??”

“I… I’m sorry,” Rowan said after a moment of silence. “I planned to reward you for bringing it back, of course. This book is so valuable that people are constantly looking for it. Especially vampires. We thought we would find it here. Jacob made it vanish before anyone else got a hold of it.”

Ryann stood there completely baffled. She’d been used. Manipulated. She had been through enough emotional abuse at the various orphanages to recognize an after the fact apology meant to get back into her good graces.

After a moment, she clicked the radio button again. “Don’t fucking talk to me right now,” she said. She kept her voice level to not let on how upset she was. Then she sat down opposite to Jacob’s dead, slack-jawed corpse, and tossed the radio out of reach. She buried her face in her hands.

This was utterly fucked. How was this her life?

Fucking Rowan, she thought with an angry clench of her fist. Stupid fucking Institute, goddamn fucking vampires and bat monsters. It felt like the entire world had gone insane overnight. Or at least the people Ryann had been forced to spend her time with.

Her eyes stung. Her nose felt blocked, which thankfully kept the blood smell away. She sniffed and rubbed her face. You got this. You’re fine. You can handle this, she told herself as tears of frustration collected in her eyes. It’s just one shitty person in a world full of shitty people. And yet the feeling of being used persisted. She’d thought she was past that.

She had trusted Rowan. Not implicitly, but she had believed they were on the same page, trying to save a life. Turns out that was a lie. I guess you just can’t trust people. She hated that it affected her so much. It shouldn’t. But she was just so stressed.

Being beaten into a coma had hurt.

Waking up weak and disoriented had scared her.

London leaving her had destroyed her.

And then she had actually been killed. Arms sliced open, a knife through her chest. Apparently even killing her hadn’t been enough. After the week she’d had, she was just so utterly done with everything. And still, shit just kept piling on from all sides.

Well, I’m not gonna take it lying down. Ryann swallowed against the lump in her throat. She wiped her eyes and dried them with her sleeve. Okay, she thought with a grim, angry determination. Fuck Rowan. Fuck her stupid institute. She had been lied to. She had absolutely no reason to care anymore.

I’m gonna get what I came here for. Maybe a little extra. And Rowan can fuck right off. She took a deep breath and centered herself.

She took Jacob’s thin, fancy gloves and wiped her fingerprints off the radio. Ryann had no intention of leaving any more traces than necessary, just in case Rowan recognized her as a vampire. Her skin wasn’t as pale or cold, but you never know.

She picked up the radio and looked at the small, blue light blinking on it with disdain. She steeled herself and clicked the button.

“Let’s get one thing straight,” she said evenly, but not without cold anger. “You fucking owe me for this.” She bit back a whole stream of curses.

“I’ll be happy to discuss adequate compensation with you later, when you’re safe,” Rowan said with a tired sigh. “I am not actually heartless. And you’ve really helped me out.”

“Yeah, well, fuck you,” Ryann snapped as she aggressively stuffed the book back into its bag and slung it around her shoulder. She pushed open the iron gate of the pavilion, too annoyed to slip through the crack. The metal hinges squeaked loudly. “I’ll talk to you when I’m there.” She let go of the button and tossed the radio into the night.

Ryann didn’t take any chances this time as she slipped out into the dark. She stayed low, hiding behind the headstones as she looked for the broadest path possible. Lakeview Cemetery was the largest cemetery in the city, and after a few hundred metres of graves starting from the entrance, the carefully laid out plans for the cemetery had apparently been abandoned completely, creating a wild and unorganized maze.

She kept an eye out, looking back over her shoulder every few steps, never catching sight of Batman. But that smell was always in the air, and more than once she ducked behind a headstone when she thought she heard the flap of wings in the night.

She also didn’t get any more weird feelings when she passed the scattered number of open, dark graves that lined her path. She still gave them a wide berth. They made her nervous. The darkness in them just wasn’t quite right. It made her skin crawl, and the smell emanating from them was too rotten to be right.

When she got within fifty metres of the glowing ring of lights surrounding the white tent, she briefly wondered if monsters could be tamed. Now that this was her life, what if she showed up to a fight with one of Bruce’s cousins in tow?

Fat chance, she thought with a dry chuckle. They would never let her into the building. Maybe in the underground fights. Not that there was any guarantee she could attend those anymore. Not with fucking vampires wanting her gone because she ruined their bets. She’d have to find a different way to make money, or keep her head down and not draw attention to herself.

A quiet growl rose in Ryann’s throat. She hated her situation. When she found the people who had put her in the hospital, she would teach them a lesson they’d never forget. Same with the ones who’d kidnapped and turned her into a vampire.

She loved fighting. And both those groups had tried to take that from her. Sure, she’d lost fights and tasted defeat, and the hours upon hours of preparation for an upcoming match were filled with constant, never-ending pressure. But it made her happy. She loved the burn of exertion in her limbs. And when she stepped into the ring to face an opponent, she felt alive. And once fists started flying, she was in her element.

She just wanted to enjoy that. Maybe someday she would have enough saved up to just enjoy life. Maybe she could get a dog? Maybe even a big one. Like a rottweiler. She vaguely remembered her parents’ car reminding her of one. She’d been saving up to buy a car like it, actually. But right now, she really wanted a huge pet. Batman was kinda cool.

But Christ’s titties on a bike, did he ever stink.

Especially his breath, Ryann noted as she peered around a gravestone and came face to face with Bruce. He roared in her face, mandibles shooting out to the side, and gave Ryann a good look at the skin and hooked teeth between. The roar itself was a hissing, growling sound that came with a blast of hot, rancid air and a few strings of saliva. It smelled like straight from the grave, full of rot.

“Oh SHI—” Ryann didn’t mean to jab him in the snout, but reflex made her act before she could think. Bruce yelped and jumped back. He whined and dragged a wing claw over his face and snout like an upset puppy.

She jumped away from the son of a jumpscaring bitch just in time. His claws raked the air a moment later. His wings made a noise like flapping cloth, and Ryann barely evaded the swipe before taking off in a sprint.

Bruce recovered quickly. He half-jumped, half-flew with frantically fluttering wings as he chased her. She was still not as steady on her feet as she would have liked, and the ground beneath her feet was uneven.

“Fuck off, Bruce!” she yelled over her shoulder. She could tell how rapidly her lead was shrinking by the sound of his throaty panting approaching. “Don’t make me punch you again!”

He just screeched. Worth a try, though.

She almost slipped in some mud that had crusted over to look deceptively like dirt but wasn’t quite hard yet. She scrambled up, turning a little, and Bruce lunged at her.

Ryann’s knee snapped up hard as her body went through the instinctive motions. She felt the impact through her bones as the monster’s jaws clamped shut from the force and its head collided with Ryann, tossing her to the ground entirely. The force sent her sprawling. She grabbed on to the bag at her side tight as she reoriented herself and staggered back to her feet.

Bruce had been flipped by the force of his impact and had crashed into a bunch of old headstones. One of them was rubble now. Ryann smirked. Still got it. Ah crap, he’s getting up.

She lunged to get behind another large tombstone with a monument of sculpted animals. It was low, but just high and broad enough to hide her. The tent was so tantalizingly close, and, for whatever reason, Bruce didn’t so much as look at it. But would it be safe if she ran to it with him right on her heels? It fucking better be, or else we’re gonna be in some deep shit, Ryann thought.

The monster screeched a low shriek, stomping around. Ryann shimmied away from the sound, keeping the bag pressed to her chest. Was Bruce coming around the right? There was no room for error. Those claws were much longer and sharper than her own.

Her claws, by the way, were still acting the fuck up. They’d been long and sharp enough to leave nicks on her face around Jacob’s body. When she needed them, they were barely half a centimetre.

Ryann took a deep breath, hearing Bruce’s sniffs. She couldn’t afford to wait. I can still do this, she thought, grit her teeth, and ran. Fuck you, bitch.

Immediately Batman’s low rumbling growl turned into a shriek. He came after her, wings flapping hard. Ryann held the book close as she sped up, relying on her monochrome night vision to guide her. Her heart beat rapidly. Her steps quickened and found secure footing and a path to run on. And when she jumped and her foot hit the first headstone to propel her up, she felt the speed in the drop of her stomach.

Ryann leapt and ran over the gravestones, going above to clear a distance that she would have otherwise had to navigate slower to not trip. Batman’s breath was hot and fowl at her back. One last jump landed her in the ring of light before the tent. Colour returned to her vision.

She tossed herself to the side to escape an attack. But none came, and, when she looked, Bruce was gone. “Yeah, fucking take that,” Ryann muttered and flipped off the night.

The tent flap behind was pulled aside quickly and Ryann turned to it after checking her mask was secure on her face. “Well, Batman can get fucked,” she said to the small woman standing there.

“I… yeah,” Rowan Caller muttered, staring at her with wide eyes. Ryann did strike an imposing figure. She would have said something funny or humorous to lighten the mood, but unfortunately she remembered that Rowan was a fucking liar. From the looks of her, she was probably regretting her lies. Too little, too fucking late, Ryann thought to herself.

Ryann frowned. “So… Gonna let me in?” Her voice was a little heavy with barely concealed anger.

Rowan stepped back immediately, clearly nervous, and let her inside. “Y-yes, of course!” she said, seeming a little taken aback. She eyed Ryann’s getup. “You can take off the mask, if you want.”

“I’m good,” Ryann said as deliberately as she could without letting out a growl. Even now, she was fighting down the vibrations in her throat. Sometimes she wondered if she’d been turned into a werewolf, rather than a vampire.

She didn’t need the growl. Anybody capable of reading a room could tell she was pissed. Her shoulders were tense, her voice terse. It didn’t take a genius to figure out her mood.

Rowan swallowed nervously and nodded.

The tent was huge. It spanned the entirety of the intersection of paths. In the middle sat a large stone tablet with crudely hewn grooves, and despite the previous, rainy night, it was still grimy with crusted brown and black. Dried blood.

Ryann clenched her teeth and had to redouble her efforts to stop that damned growl from rising into her throat. Best not alert Rowan to the fact that she was a vampire. She was already planning to make enough trouble. Though maybe that would be a fun little shock to her… No, she didn’t need the extra attention.

“Interesting place,” Ryann said, nodding her head over to the stone tablet. “Wanna tell me what went on here?” Maybe the Institute had some information she’d find useful.

Rowan stopped fidgeting with her thick-rimmed glasses. She pursed her lips nervously and crossed her arms. Well, she didn’t just cross them. She huddled into her jacket as if to make herself smaller, which Ryann thought would be quite the magic trick.

She was rail thin already, and clearly intimidated by the presence of Ryann (which she fucking better be), huge, muscular, oh and covered in blood as she now noticed. It had seeped into her black hoodie and she groaned, taking the hem of it and pulling it as she tried to see how far the stain extended.

The tiniest of growls escaped Ryann. Small enough to be overheard. “Son of a… Fucking Bruce!” At least the wound the blood came from was just a little scrape. Nothing she couldn’t handle. It had stopped bleeding already.

“You’re really gonna keep calling it that?” Rowan asked. Her mutter was a little disapproving.

“Yeah, what’s it to you?” Ryann snapped at her. Rowan was really short and thin, as she had noticed before. Her sturdy work clothes seemed out of place on her. She had a few little freckles on her face, darkly visible in the pale, fluorescent light that emanated from bulbs in wire cages. They illuminated the space harshly and cast their sharp shadows. Ryann would have placed Rowan’s age at late twenties, at best early thirties. Her dark brown hair was a little frazzled and cut into a short bob.

“So… Bruce, then. Batman. For real,” Rowan muttered, not taking the hint.

“Yes,” Ryann said decisively. “It’s a bat that walks like a man. Sometimes. And I’ve been calling him Bruce too long to change my mind now.”

She was mainly talking as a distraction. She didn’t want Rowan thinking she could start up a conversation. Not while Ryann was busy looking around.

There were large stains in the grass. Was that the spot where she and the other newly-Turned girl there had torn into their captors? It looked so different, far too sharply outlined in the glare of the lights

The decapitated angel knelt above the stone tablet, rising higher than the tent that had split around it. Its arms and sword cast stark shadows across the white tent wall.

Ryann stopped her little walk into the room and looked down.

On the hard ground with the trampled patches of grass were the frayed ends of a rope. The rope that had held her down to the tablet. It lay next to a little yellow flag stabbed into the ground.

Ryann shuddered and rubbed her wrists involuntarily. Bastards. She couldn’t suppress a hint of grim satisfaction at seeing the security tape cordoning off large spots of grey ash. Apparently Vampires burned after death.

Rowan cleared her throat behind Ryann. “I don’t think you should just walk around over there,” she said. “Official institute business, you understand…”

“I don’t, actually,” she said firmly with a sharp look to Rowan, “given how tight-lipped your little club is.”

“Kate…” Rowan sighed and shook her head. “I don’t expect you to understand what we do or why we do it. But it’s for the greater good. The world isn’t ready for this kind of thing.”

Ryann growled deeply now. The sound faded away as she turned around and marched back to the woman. Rowan backed away at her approach, but Ryann easily caught up to her as she hit the edge of a field table with her back. Several pens and notebooks on them shifted as Rowan pressed into it, leaning away from Ryann.

“So ‘the greater good’ is leaving people ignorant of the threats around them?” she growled at Rowan and leaned over her. “I think you owe me exactly as much information as I want.”

“I… I can’t just… There are rules!” Rowan stammered.

Ryann didn’t care to suppress her smirk behind her mask. Accidental or not, she felt a substantial amount of satisfaction at seeing Rowan squirm. “What’s the matter, Rowan?” she asked, giving her voice a low, dangerous edge just to drive her point home. “Is keeping secrets how you repay people who stick their neck out for you?”

Rowan leaned back a little more as she muttered another excuse about regulations and contracts. Ryann could practically smell the fear from her. She clenched her teeth a little, eyes locked on Rowan’s murky green ones. It’s not like she cared about scaring her… but she also didn’t care about not scaring her. Rowan had put her in danger and lied to her. She was pissed.

“I-I um…” Rowan swallowed hard and cleared her throat. “I really shouldn’t…” Her eyes were locked on Ryann’s in barely hidden trepidation.

Ryann leaned back a little and gave her some space. She still glared down at Rowan and thrust a finger at her chest. “You fucking owe me,” she said with her anger showing through a little. She crossed her thick arms expectantly.

Rowan looked away for a moment, too ashamed or intimidated to keep eye contact. Ryann could smell her so clearly. She could smell Rowan’s skin and the shampoo she had used recently, sweet and floral… She could smell the warm blood coursing around inside her. Faint, but there. And the nervous sweat, not breaking to the surface, but underlying and nerve wracking.

Rowan rubbed her neck. She was still leaning back over the table a bit. “Look, I’m sorry…”

“I don’t care,” Ryann interrupted dismissively. She didn’t want to hear apologies. Rowan fucking lied to her. She didn’t get to be sorry.

“I really didn’t have any other choice!” Rowan still protested. “I can tell you’re angry…”

“No shit, did you read that in your special book?” Ryann narrowed her eyes. “I brought it, by the way,” she added and held up the bag that Rowan had definitely been eyeing.

Rowan’s face lit up and she reached for it. At that, Ryann turned a little and stepped away. She pressed the bag to her chest.

“Actually,” she said, “I’m gonna need you to give me that reward you promised. I don’t work for free.” She still made no effort to be any friendlier.

Rowan stopped attempting to grab the book when the dark tone of her voice reminded her how angry Ryann was. She shrunk back a bit. “I need that book!” she insisted.

“And you’ll get it,” Ryann said. “After you make it worth my while.”

“You were going after Jacob anyway!”

Ryann hummed. “Yeah, see, you not telling me why you wanted me to do that doesn’t change my fucking mind on being paid.”

“Fine!” Rowan seemingly relented and reached out a hand towards her. “Give me the book, and we’ll get in contact with you.”

“Uh, no,” She said with a furrowed brow. “You first. Then book. Do you need me to repeat it?” Her voice got a bit more of an edge to it when Rowan continually tried to play stupid.

“I can’t do that without my supervisor’s approval,” Rowan argued.

“You should call him. You probably have a lot of explaining ahead of you, what with your co-worker being dead in the middle of nowhere,” Ryann said evenly. She just stared at Rowan’s eyes. She’d made it pretty clear she wasn’t gonna back down.

Rowan averted her gaze. She sighed. “But it’s the middle of the night!”

“Sounds like that’s not my problem,” Ryann said. She moved to the table and half sat on it. It creaked under her weight. “Go on, I’ll wait.”

“I… You don’t have to—” Rowan’s voice faltered and she looked away. “I see. That’s how it’s gonna be, huh…?”

Ryann didn’t answer her. She looked around once more. A clump formed in her throat as she saw the scrape marks on the stone, and her free hand closed into a hard fists. The memories flooded back.

Ropes burning at her wrists. Her fingernails on stone. Half-blurred faces leaning over her. Whispered words of feigned kindness. They were giving her a gift. “The Gift of Blood!” they repeated in such excitement. And she really had to thank them! Why wouldn’t she?

Metal bit her wrists and cut long, horizontal gashes.

A hand brushed over her head almost tenderly. She spat in the face hovering above her. She was slapped hard in return and saw stars. Her next spit in her captor’s face was a spray of red.

They hissed to each other, growls and discontent lacing their words. She was beginning to feel weak. Her body hurt. Her legs and arms weren’t used to the strain of movement anymore. Her head throbbed painfully. Her body was starting to feel numb. Cold. Her blood trickled out only faster as she tried to wriggle free and stop the bleeding.

Then her captors returned to the stone. The knife plunged hard into Ryann’s chest, and her world went dark.

Ryann slowly unclenched her jaw and looked at Rowan. “Don’t try and fuck me over,” she said darkly. “I’m not in the mood.”

“Fine,” Rowan said. “I guess I can also call in your monster…”

“His name is Bruce,” Ryann said.

“Kate…”

“But he prefers Batman, make sure they remember that.”

“Oh my god…” Rowan sighed deeply. She shook her head.

Ryann smirked. Humour to deflect the pain. The only thing half as good as payback.

Rowan headed for the tent flap opposite the one Ryann had entered. “Fine, I’ll try and call him. But Julius Argent is a busy man. So it might take a while.”

Long enough for you to figure out how to get the book from me without making good on your promise, I bet. Ryann smiled at her behind the mask. “Take your time,” she all but purred. She watched Rowan unzip the flap, revealing steps that led up to a mobile living space or camper van. “You know, I was wondering,” she said and stopped Rowan with her thoughtful tone. “Why did you think Jacob was dead? Didn’t he have a gun?”

Rowan stiffened briefly. “Yeah,” she then said tersely. “He did. Had his kill count engraved on it.”

“So why the instant belief that he’d bit the dust?” Ryann cocked her head. “You heard those gunshots.”

“You described the scene of a monster attack,” Rowan shrugged. “Bullets generally don’t kill monsters.”

Ryann frowned. “You said he had a kill count engraved on his gun.” Twenty-four. She remembered seeing it. “Seems like enough monsters did die to bullets.”

“… As I said,” Rowan repeated softly. “Bullets don’t kill monsters.” She stepped out of the tent and left Ryann to imagine exactly what that meant.