Tuesday, June 12, 2012

EXCERPT: The Healing & The Dying

Title: The Healing & The Dying (Tooth & Claw, Book #2)
Author: L. A. Witt
Publisher: Samhain Publishing
Format(s): ebook, print (coming soon)

Chapter One

I could live forever—which I quite possibly will—and still never understand how Ian or Levi slept that day.

Not that either of them slept soundly. Sometimes Levi was so eerily still and silent that, had I not been able to hear his heartbeat from the other bed, I’d have worried he was dead. Then he’d startle awake, release a weak, painful moan, and slip back into what sounded like a fitful, restless sleep. He had to be in agony, both emotionally and physically, but his exhaustion must have taken over. I wished mine would do the same.

Beside me, Ian was also still and silent, but he woke up constantly. Almost every fifteen minutes like clockwork, he’d jerk awake. His heartbeat shot through the roof, he breathed so hard he was almost hyperventilating, and more than once, I swore he was shaking. But before long, time and time again, he’d slip right back to sleep.

I, on the other hand, stared up at the motel room’s water-stained ceiling. Thick curtains kept out the sun’s deadly midday rays, but vampire eyes saw as well in darkness as human eyes did in daylight. Every bronze-ringed, asymmetrical stain in the cheap, ages-old ceiling was perfectly visible and gave me something to focus on. Something to hold my gaze, anyway. The two men sleeping fitfully in this bed and the next one kept a death grip on my attention.

Levi worried me. None of his injuries were life-threatening as near as I could tell, but what if there was something I hadn’t noticed? If there was any internal bleeding, any slow time bomb of an injury or blood flowing in places and directions it didn’t belong, I’d have sensed it. But I was no doctor. What else could the impact of a motorcycle crash do to him? None of us were sure how badly he’d broken his ribs, and I had visions of a piece puncturing his lung. Or a splinter off his broken collarbone getting into his bloodstream and fucking something up.

Taking him to a hospital was too risky. Especially after we’d left Selena’s body outside an ER in the early hours before dawn. I’d kept my face as hidden as I could when I’d carried her to the door, but a security camera might have picked up our license plate. And the car had likely been reported stolen by the wolf pack. This shady backwoods motel was reasonably safe, but once we set out on the open road, we were fucked.

I could convert him. He’d begged me to last night. With his closest friend dead on the pavement and his entire world crashing to the ground at his feet, he wanted to abandon everything he’d ever known and become one of us. But I couldn’t. Though it would heal his injuries and relieve his physical pain, a conversion was not something that could happen in the heat of the moment. That, and conversions were especially dangerous for wolves. It couldn’t be an impulsive decision.

Closing my eyes, I listened to Ian’s slow, steady breathing and his heartbeat. Almost half a century as a vampire myself, and I still expected to listen for his heart and hear nothing. Like we really were the walking cadavers legend had painted us to be, with neither breath nor beating hearts. But like me, he breathed, and his heart thudded dully in the stillness, marking a relaxed, slumbering pace that I hoped would last several restful hours.

Converting him was still one of my deepest regrets. There hadn’t been any other options, and even if there had been, there wouldn’t have been time to consider any of them because he’d been seconds away from death. Still, I’d hated this existence for all the decades I’d lived it, and regardless of the circumstances, my conscience wouldn’t let me forget that I’d condemned him to the same.

And now, in no small part because of that decision to convert him rather than let him die on my apartment floor, here we were. Question was, what the fuck did we do now? Were we safer staying together or splitting up and hoping for the best?

I banished that thought as quickly as it crossed my mind. Levi was in no condition to go on alone. Even if he were, we’d worked too hard to find Ian, come too close to losing each other, and already lost Selena. The wolves wanted to hunt us down and kill us because Ian and Levi had broken one of their sacred rituals? Fine. They’d have to catch all of us, because we were in this together, and that was the end of it.

We should have all been in it to the end. Selena’s death hit all of us hard, especially Levi, and I cringed at the memory of her slipping away after the motorcycle crash. I didn’t know if Levi heard it, but I couldn’t forget the silence that had followed her heart’s last feeble beat.

Of all of us, she shouldn’t have been the one to die. Hadn’t she suffered enough already? Destined from childhood to be bonded—spiritually married—to Levi, and then destined to be alone when he turned out to be gay. She’d selflessly given him her blessing to bond with Ian, and she’d kept Levi and me from killing each other while we’d tried to find Ian. When another wolf pack held us all prisoner, she’d used herself as human collateral to give us a fighting chance at getting to Ian before the pack found and killed him.

And last night, after the cars and bikes had stopped and the bullets had finished flying, it was Selena—Levi’s best friend and the only wholly innocent one among us—who’d died on the blacktop. She’d had no part in causing all of this to happen, and in my eyes, her suffering and death were the biggest crimes.

If only to honor her memory and keep her death from being pointless, the three of us had to continue.

I turned my head, watching Ian sleep. If there was one advantage to being a vampire, it was this spectacular night vision, and like the ceiling above me, Ian’s features were clear as day. He lay on his stomach, the pillow obscuring one side of his face, and looked deceptively peaceful. I resisted the urge to brush a few unruly strands of his dark hair back into place. Much as I wanted to touch him, just to remind myself again that he was really here and really alive—as much as a vampire could be, I supposed—I didn’t want to disturb what little sleep he’d been able to get.

On the other bed, Levi was almost completely motionless. We’d propped his injured knee up on a couple of pillows, and he hadn’t moved all night except whenever he startled awake. A dark bruise peeked out from beneath his collar and climbed the side of his neck. Just from the way his shirt rested across his chest, the swelling from his broken collarbone was unmistakable. I shivered; I’d long since converted when I broke my own collarbone some years ago, and it had healed in a matter of hours, but it was still beyond excruciating. Between that and his ribs, he’d be in a world of hurt for a while.

Beside me, Ian’s pulse and breathing shot up again as he jerked out of unconsciousness for the hundredth time. I closed my eyes, cringing on his behalf. Maybe lying awake like this was the lesser of two evils. At least then I didn’t have the dreams that must have been kicking him awake four times an hour.

His breathing slowed. So did his heart, both returning to a more normal cadence.

This time, though, he spoke.

“You ever going to sleep?”

I turned on my side and ran my hand up his arm. “Says the man who keeps waking up.”

Ian shuddered. “That’s a double-edged sword, believe me.”

“Trade you.”

“Be my guest.” He rolled over and faced me. “You’re more than welcome to these dreams.”

“On second thought…”

“Yeah, I figured.” Ian closed his eyes and sighed. “If I wasn’t so damned exhausted, I wouldn’t even try to sleep, because I just keep seeing last night happen again and again.” He shivered. “It was one thing when I killed the wolf in Grants Pass. I know he was a man too, but seeing him as a wolf… I guess…”

“Made him less human?”

“Yeah, I guess. I know that sounds cold. Killing an animal isn’t very high on my list either, but it just made it easier to deal with.” He rubbed his eyes. “Last night, though…”

“You did what you had to do, Ian.” I stroked his cheek with the backs of my fingers. “The wolf in Oregon was self-defense, and last night was keeping Levi alive. You’re not a murderer.”

“Semantics,” he whispered. “Yeah, I had to do it. Yeah, I could probably convince a jury it had to happen. Doesn’t change the fact that I’ve killed four people.”

“I know.” I rested my hand on his waist and leaned in to kiss him gently. “Believe me, I know.”

“So what’s keeping you awake?” he asked.

I laughed dryly. “You want the whole list?”

He slid his hand over my leg. “Okay, maybe I should ask if there’s something specific keeping you awake, or if it’s our whole situation?”

“Just trying to figure out our next move.”

“Any ideas?”

“Not really.” I propped myself up on my elbow and looked past Ian at Levi, who was still asleep. “He’s not going to be in any condition to drive any time soon, which means we’re limited to traveling at night. And I’m…” I hesitated.

Ian ran his hand up and down my arm. “What?”

“I’m worried about him,” I said, barely whispering. “His injuries. What if something gets worse, or I’ve overlooked something?”

“If anything serious was going to come up, it probably would have by now.”

“Maybe. Maybe not.”

“What can we do? We can’t take him to the hospital.”

“We might have to.”

Ian scowled. “Darius, odds are he’s fine. He had a helmet on. He probably wishes he’d lost some sensation, and if you knew Selena was bleeding internally, I’m guessing you would have known if he is or was.” He raised his eyebrows.

I nodded. “Yeah, we both would have.”

“Okay, so he most likely isn’t and wasn’t. There isn’t much anyone can do for a broken collarbone. He’ll be hurting for a while, but beyond that…”

“Yeah, but what if it’s something worse?” I asked. “A rib puncturing his lung, or some loose sliver of bone, or…”

Ian glanced over his shoulder at Levi. Then he faced me, and his expression was deathly serious. “I think you and I both know what can be done.”

“What do—” I stopped midbreath when the piece fell into place. “No. Absolutely not.”
Ian rolled his eyes and sighed. “It’s the least risky option here.”

“Is it?” I gestured sharply at Levi. “The conversion alone could kill him. It’s dangerous anyway, but for a wolf?” I shook my head. “Way too risky.”

“Why? How is it worse for a wolf than a human?”

“I…I really don’t know. But I’ve watched a wolf convert. Years ago. He very, very nearly died.”

“So did I.”

I met his eyes, trying to ignore the pang of guilt in my chest. “You were almost dead anyway. Had you been a wolf…”

Ian gulped. “Good thing I wasn’t.”

“Why weren’t you, anyway?” I nodded toward Levi again. “Wouldn’t that have made things easier with his pack in the very beginning? If you’d been a wolf?”

He shrugged with one shoulder. “Maybe. I still would have been a half wolf in their eyes, which I guess is better than being human, but I just didn’t want to be a wolf any more than—” He cut himself off.

“Any more than what?”

He shifted his gaze away from mine. “Any more than I wanted to be a vampire.”

I flinched. “I’m sorry, Ian.”

He touched my face. “I told you, I didn’t leave you a choice. You could have just let me die, but looking back, I never should have put that decision on your shoulders. I wasn’t… I wasn’t thinking clearly, or I never would have put you in that position.” Before I could speak, he gestured over his shoulder at Levi. “But he wants to convert.”

“He’s grieving.” I paused, listening to Levi’s heartbeat. When I was satisfied he was still asleep, I went on. “He’s spent his entire life being taught vampires were to be at best scorned, at worst killed. Becoming one of us is not a decision he can make that quickly. He’s got a lifetime of indoctrination to shake off before he can be remotely rational about it.”

“Maybe so,” Ian said, “but the fact is, we’re all in very real danger now, and his injuries could slow us down and get him or all of us killed. Converting him may be the best option we have.”

“It might be, but we don’t know that yet. Let’s see what our other options are first, because once we convert him, there’s no going back.”

“Getting killed isn’t terribly reversible either.”

I said nothing.

Ian put his hand on my arm. “It’s not a decision that has to be made this minute, but whether any of us like it or not, it’s an option we have to consider.” He tilted his head slightly in Levi’s direction. “And it’s what he wants.”

“It’s what he wants right now,” I whispered. “While he’s grieving Selena and the only life he’s ever known. It needs to be a rational decision. One he’s given a lot of serious thought. Two weeks ago, he hated our kind enough he was willing to kill you.”

Ian shivered. “I know him, Darius. He’s not going to change his mind.”

“Then he’ll still want it later, and we can convert him then. After I’m convinced he’s not being impulsive and making a choice based on grief and anger.”

Ian took a breath and was probably about to argue, but I said, “More immediate concern, though, is that somehow or another we have got to get out of this province.”

“Where do we go?”

I sighed and ran a hand through my hair. “Therein lies the problem. I have no idea. There’s wolves everywhere. Even a vampire-friendly place like Kayenta won’t do us any good now, because we’d have to get across the border and cross too damned much ground between here and there.”

“How did you guys get across the border to begin with?”

I scowled. “By walking through the snow and right into a wolf pack’s territory.”

Ian’s eyes widened. “Oh.”

“Yeah. Probably not a technique we ought to repeat.”

“Ya think?” He sighed. “Good thing I decided to hide from you two in Canada, isn’t it?”

I stroked his face. “You didn’t know how things would turn out. To be honest, it was a pretty smart move on your part.”

“And look where it got us.”

“We’ll figure it out.” I kissed him lightly. “Before we go too far, though, we’ll both need to feed at some point.”

Ian groaned. “Great.”

I laughed. “Still haven’t acquired the taste, have you?”

“I don’t think I ever will,” he muttered.

“Give it time. God knows you have plenty of it now that you’re more or less immortal.”


“Trust me. You’ll get used to it.”

“Ever learn to like it?”

“Well, I don’t know that anyone ever gets to the point of being a connoisseur, but…”

Ian snorted. “Oh, wouldn’t that be a sight?” Adopting a snobby tone, he said, “This Type A is ambitious and has a lovely bouquet, but the aftertaste suggests it was donated on someone’s lunch break with a rusty used needle and a cholesterol-filled tube.”

I snickered. “Oh, come on, it’s not that bad.”

“Says the man who’s been sucking this shit down long enough to not notice how awful it tastes anymore.”

“You’ll get used to it. I promise.”

“I’m holding you to that,” he grumbled. “Anyway, what do you suggest for feeding? We can’t exactly go wandering around out in public.”

“Every town has its bars,” I said with a half shrug. “A shithole like this, we’ll be able to find someplace where someone’s willing to trade half a pint for a few bucks.”

“Right, except we’re getting a little low in that department too.”

“We’ll figure that out. For tonight, it’s what we’ve got.” I absently trailed my fingers up and down his arm again, and he slid a little closer. “As soon as the sun goes down,” I said, “I’ll go find another car.”

“Okay, but where do we go?”

I blew out a breath. “Best thing I can think of is Prince Rupert on the northwest coast of British Columbia. It’s a hell of a drive, but there’s a vampire commune there kind of like the one in Kayenta. Best option I can think of.”

“Works for me at this point,” he said. “I don’t have any better ideas, and I don’t imagine Levi does either.”

“I don’t imagine we have too many other options.” I touched his face and leaned in to kiss his forehead. “We’ll find a way out of this. Somehow.”

“Here’s hoping.” He raised his chin and met my eyes as he pushed a few wayward strands of hair out of his face. Then he drew me closer to him. “Try to get some more sleep,” he said, letting his lips brush mine. “Neither of us will be worth a damn if we’re too exhausted to move.”

“Easier said than done, right?”

“Easier said than done,” he whispered, and kissed me. As he parted his lips at the gentle urging of my tongue, I wrapped my arms around him. I wasn’t horny in the least—God, I didn’t have anywhere near the energy to even think of sex—but I’d take every reassurance I could get that Ian was here. That I was here. That we’d survived so far, even if the future was anything but certain.

Ian broke the kiss but didn’t let go just yet. “We really should get some sleep.”

“Try to, you mean?”

He laughed softly. “Yeah, try to.” He kissed me once more, and then we separated. He rolled onto his other side, and I molded my body to his, draping my arm over his waist.
I kissed the back of his neck. “I love you.”

“I love you too,” he murmured.

Before long, he was out cold again, leaving me with my thoughts and his reassuring scent and body heat. I wanted to promise we’d get out of this, that we’d elude the wolf packs and the authorities and fuck knew who else, but I had no idea if we would or not. The only thing I was sure of was that I wouldn’t figure anything more out tonight, so I tried—and failed—not to think about anything.

Eventually, though, exhaustion got the best of me, and I drifted off to sleep.

And like Ian and Levi, I dreamed.

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