Sam, Evan, and I leaped into action immediately. Sam took Stuart’s attacker out of the equation with an energy ball before joining Evan and me at the front of the group. Sam’s hands were suddenly like flamethrowers as she set the vampires alight, wincing at their high-pitched screams. My bolts of electricity took care of some of the other vampires that followed while the squad dealt with the rest. Still, there were just too many of the f**kers.
When Harvey telekinetically sent them flying down the tunnels, giving us plenty of space, I hollered, “Everyone hold hands!”
Just then, Sam’s wall crumbled behind us. Starving vampires were then charging at us from two directions. Thank f**king God that everyone had immediately done as I’d ordered, because I then managed to teleport us all outside of the caves before the vampires could reach us. Reuben and Damien instantly crowded around Evan, Stuart, Max, and Cristiano, who were all bleeding pretty badly. Fuck.
“We need to make sure they’re all destroyed.” I lifted my hand, and projected an extremely powerful lightning bolt at the entrance. Everything shook and rumbled as the tunnels caved in, crushing and burying alive anything that managed to withstand the impact of the lightning bolt. Breathing a sigh of relief, I grabbed Sam and ran my gaze and hands all over her, taking a full inventory.
Her reassurance didn’t matter, and nor did the fact that I could sense through our bond that she wasn’t in pain. I had to see for myself that she was fine. Apparently I was annoying her because she cuffed me over the head, her mercury irises glinting.
“I said I’m okay. But some of these people aren’t, so let’s get them back to The Hollow now.”
Finding Antonio and Luther on a bench in the botanical gardens, Jared and I relayed to them everything that had happened on Quentin’s territory. Their expressions turned grimmer and grimmer as the story went on. The guards were casting each other uneasy glances, and even the dogs looked anxious as if the negativity in the air was affecting them.
“I’m thinking someone trapped all the vampires in the tunnels, and left them there to starve to death,” said Jared. “But why? And who would do that? It can’t have been an attempt at usurping Quentin or we all would have heard about his replacement by now. The guy would be bragging and claiming his position as the new High Master of Quentin’s territory.”
Jared made a good point, but there was something else that was bugging me. I cocked my head. “This is what I don’t understand. Why, if the vampires were so hungry, hadn’t they all turned on each other? If they were thirsty enough to attack all of us like that, so senselessly, why hadn’t they fed from each other?”
Antonio leaned forward in his seat; there was a sense of urgency in his manner that hadn’t been there before, and apprehension slid through me. “I need to ask you something. And this is very important. In the tunnels, was there an awful smell?”
“Yeah.” Jared’s elbow brushed against mine as he folded his arms across his chest. “Like rotten fish.”
Both Jared and I tensed when Antonio and Luther exchanged a frantic look. They actually paled, which was hard for two extremely pale-skinned vampires to do.
“What, what does that mean?” demanded Jared.
“It means that this was not a case of them starving due to having been trapped there,” said Antonio, worry etched into every line of his face. “And it perfectly answers Sam’s question.”
Jared sighed with impatience. “Antonio, you’re losing me here.”
“Have you ever heard of ‘The Reaper’s Call’? It is often abbreviated to ‘The Call’.” When both Jared and I shook our heads, Antonio explained. “As you know, vampires are immune to illnesses. But like with many species, vampirism has a natural killer designed to keep the population down. Throughout human history, there have always been diseases or viruses that have done much damage to their race. When cures are found for those viruses, others later develop. Some theorise that their purpose is to keep the human population under control, which makes sense. It is the natural way of things, and the same happens for vampires. If it did not, we would outnumber our prey and quickly die out. The Call is not an illness, more like a preternatural poison that travels like a bug. And it is a killer.”
“There is only an outbreak every few centuries,” began Luther. “It seems that it occurs whenever nature feels that the population of vampires needs a ‘tweak’. It is a perfectly natural cycle, and this cycle helps maintain a balance in the population. But it does not do so cleanly. The Call works by stopping the vampire from being able to digest anything. Not blood, not food – nothing. As such, the vampire will regurgitate anything it tries to consume and slowly starve to death. A vampire can only survive starvation for four weeks.”
Jared rubbed at his nape. I could actually feel the crick in his neck. “How does the poison spread?”
Luther took a brief pause before answering with sympathy, “It can only taint its victim by travelling through saliva or blood to open flesh.” In other words, a bite would do the trick.
Jared’s eyes fell closed and then he was pacing in front of me. “Shit.”
Antonio nodded. “Yes…darn.”
An ache suddenly struck my chest; I wasn’t sure whether it was mine, Jared’s, or a combination of both our pain. If Antonio was right, then Evan, Max, and Stuart were now ‘tainted’. “Does this mean it’s possible that Ava’s brother isn’t tainted? He was clawed at badly, but not bitten.” Currently, all the injured were in the infirmary.
“If he has not been bitten, he is not tainted. Unless, of course, they somehow exchanged blood.” I was pretty sure that the latter hadn’t happened, so Antonio’s news would certainly calm Ava down. The girl was a nervous wreck at the moment, worried she would lose her brother – much like my mate was.
Jared halted. “Okay, so how do we stop it? How do we remove the taint from Evan, Max, and Stuart?”
“You can’t.” Antonio looked utterly distraught.
“Nothing can stop The Reaper’s Call.” Luther’s voice was sensitivity itself. “As the name suggests, death comes for them. Eventually, it will stop spreading through the vampire population and remain dormant for another few centuries.”
Everything Jared was feeling – all the panic, the anger, and the helplessness – hit me so hard that I almost lost my balance. He was vigorously shaking his head, pacing again. “No. No. My brother is not going to die, and neither is Stuart or Max.” I could sense that he felt he’d failed them all.