I PEERED AROUND THE TREE at the couple who sat on the park bench, their faces set, their bodies taut and anxious. The woman, Mari Jorgenson, had no idea what she was—what she had become. She spoke earnestly, but the man only pretended to listen. His eyes roamed the trees that dotted the area, stopping briefly on a grouping of three evergreens crowded by thick bushes.
What was he searching for?
I pushed my awareness out as far as I could, but nothing unusual registered on my senses. This area of the park appeared deserted, which was natural since November had slammed down on Portland like an iceberg from the Bering Sea, bringing a brutal cold spell the city hadn’t seen in decades. Still, it was a nice change from the constant rain or the wet snowflakes that seemed to saturate every inch of every piece of clothing I wore. My hometown of Kansas City wasn’t exactly warm in the winter, but the cold and wet had never been as penetrating. A twinge of nostalgia pinged in my chest when I thought about Kansas because I could never, ever go back to what I’d been. I was fortunate to have escaped mostly in one piece; others hadn’t been so lucky.
Peering around the tree again, my eyes found Mari’s small form on the bench. Even at this distance, I could see the Change that had taken place gradually over the two months I’d been watching her. I’d already sensed that she was Unbounded, though in the beginning it was hard to tell, even for someone like me. Complete confirmation had come last week after we’d gone skiing in Utah, and she’d banged up her knee so badly the doctors had told her she wouldn’t regain full use of it.
A day later she was walking. With that single event, both her life expectancy and the likelihood of violent death increased by nearly twenty-four hundred percent.
I felt for my Sig tucked inside its holster at the back of my jeans, easing it out so my long jacket couldn’t get in the way. It was racked, a bullet in the chamber. I’d double-checked before I followed them from work.
Crouching, I eased forward behind the bare bushes to the right of the tree, my muscles singing in relief at the movement. I’d trained vigorously for hours with the other Renegades before I went jogging in the park with Mari this morning, but I’d had all day for any strained muscles to heal. I felt as fresh as when I’d awakened.
My mind ran over what I would soon have to do. Mari and I had become friends, and I knew how betrayed she’d feel at the depth of my deceit. She’d figure it out quickly once it was all in the open. Her brain was already running at high speed because of the changes inside her. At the accounting firm where I worked with her under an assumed name, she’d begun to accurately calculate entire columns of numbers without the aid of a machine. Her Unbounded father had been skilled at engineering, and her great-aunt Stella was a technopath, so this ability didn’t surprise any of us. It was only a matter of time until her co-workers noticed. There was no telling what else she might be able to do, and her very existence made her a potential danger. To us, to our enemies, to the entire world.
Mari jumped to her feet, hands in her coat pockets, her breath forming white clouds in the air, more visible now that the sun had set and twilight was deepening. Night came early on these winter nights, though it wasn’t quite six o’clock, and some distance away, I could still hear the faint sounds of rush hour traffic on the main road. I couldn’t make out what Mari was saying, but I knew her well enough to guess that she was giving Trevor an ultimatum. She wanted to see a marriage counselor and for them to work toward having a child. I wondered if he noticed the new sureness in her movements, how the blemishes in her skin had disappeared, and how thick her long, silky hair had become. Her heart-shaped face showed only a hint of her Japanese heritage, which was less than an eighth, but since her Change, I thought she was looking more and more like the small-boned Stella, whose mother had been full-blooded Japanese.
Trevor also came to his feet but didn’t yell back at her, which made the fine hair on my body rise in alert. I’d been forced to get to know him somewhat over the past two months since we’d come for Mari, and this calm wasn’t like him. He was a loud, opinionated man who liked his dinner on the table by six-thirty and his wife submissive at all times. He never planned dates, remembered her birthday, or sent flowers on their anniversary. She’d admitted to me once in tears that he only touched her with affection when he wanted her in bed—which happened less and less these days.
Trevor was another reason we had to act sooner than later. Unbounded had a high rate of fertility and most birth control methods failed. If she slept with him now, we might end up with more complications than we bargained for. Better that Mari first understood the consequences.
Trevor eased away from Mari, his hands in his jacket pocket. He darted a nervous glance in the direction of the trees behind her. Something was very wrong. If I were closer, or if I touched him, I might be able to sense what he was hiding, but the only thing I felt from him now was a tight nervousness. I almost hoped he’d turn violent. If he did, it would save us oceans of headache in the long run, though I wasn’t about to let him have the satisfaction of hurting Mari.
A faint movement in the trees behind Mari caught my attention. Easing around the bushes, I paused at the edge of the sparse covering offered by an evergreen. To check out the movement physically, I’d have to expose myself by running across open space. Mari, Trevor, and whoever might be there would see me coming, and I couldn’t have that. Being careless might cost more lives than just my own. The Renegades depended on me.
A breeze hit my face, soothing my fears. Only the wind.
The cell phone in my pocket vibrated, and I checked the caller ID before answering. It was Ava, the fearless leader of our little band of Renegades, and also my fourth great-grandmother. I wondered if she was calling about Cort, who was supposed to have taken over watching Mari after we left the accounting firm. Unfortunately, Mari had quit work early when her husband showed up without warning. Cort should be following the signal from my GPS chip now, and catch up to me at any moment, but he’d been known to become distracted with whatever scientific experiment he was working on in his lab. It was kind of getting to be a problem. As one of the newest Unbounded in our group, I was at the bottom of the useful list and tattling wouldn’t earn any brownie points, but I’d endured the torture of the office all day and it was only fair that he and the others took their turns. Mari’s Change affected all of us.
“What’s up?” I asked, keeping my voice low.
“We have a problem.” The tension in Ava’s voice dissolved my concerns about Cort. She didn’t stress over anything small.
“What is it?”
“You need to get back here as fast as you can. I’ll explain later.”
I glanced again at the bushes behind Mari. No more movement. Had it really been the wind? Regardless, I couldn’t leave Mari alone with Trevor. “Is Cort on his way?” Okay, so I would rat on him. A guy who’d lived almost five hundred years should know better.
“He’s on a plane to Mexico—as of nine o’clock this morning. Dimitri went with him. I would have notified you sooner, but we’ve been a bit busy.”
I gritted my teeth. We had only two main interests in Mexico, and problems with either would mean more deaths. Worse, her tone told me Mexico was only the beginning of what had gone wrong.
“I want you to bring in Mari,” Ava continued. “We need you here. We should have brought her in last week when we were sure.” There was no censure in her voice, though I’d sided with Stella in waiting. I knew how hard it was to have my life change from one minute to the next.
I was tempted to ask for backup, but I could imagine the fun my brothers and the rest of the Renegades would have if the movement in the trees turned out to be nothing more than the wind or a stray dog. I needed to be sure. I hesitated several heartbeats before saying with a slightly forced confidence, “I’ll be there within the hour. Sooner if I can.”
“Good.” The line went dead.
How soon I’d actually make it depended on what I decided to do with Trevor and how good a fighter he turned out to be. Though I trained hard every day, my Unbounded ability had nothing to do with combat. I’d been weeks ahead of my brother Jace, and he’d surpassed me during his first lesson, his quickness immediately identifying his area of skill. Even so, they claimed I was progressing faster than most new Unbounded, and every now and then I felt I could almost see what my opponent would do next the way Jace could.
And Ritter Langton.
My stomach clenched. With the events in Mexico, would Ava call Ritter back from wherever he’d been the past two months? My pride hadn’t let me ask, but she probably had some way to contact him.
I shoved away the unneeded distraction, though the tightness in my belly remained. Trevor was the main problem here. If it came to it, I could deal with him, but I didn’t think knocking out her husband would go far toward lulling Mari’s suspicions so I could more easily kidnap her.
First I needed to be sure about those trees. Pushing out my thoughts, I began searching, straining. A dull throbbing began at the base of my skull, my mind not at all appreciating the effort. Yet there in the trees where I’d seen the movement earlier, I now felt two faint life forces. They didn’t glow as brightly as the average mortal, though they weren’t as dark as someone who was experienced at blocking sensing Unbounded. So something in between, which could mean a lot of different things. From this distance, I couldn’t pick up any thoughts or emotions. I fumbled in my pocket and came up with a tiny pair of binoculars that Stella had assured me were vital to my assignment. In the past two months, I’d used them exactly twenty-three times on mornings when Mari couldn’t jog with me, when she’d run errands at lunch, or eaten out with Trevor. I was lucky not to have been arrested as a stalker.
I studied the trees, regretting the fading light. Someone was definitely crouching behind one of the evergreens, but I could see little more than a patch of green jacket. Wait. Between the branches of the bush next to the evergreen, where a few tenacious leaves clung to an otherwise bare limb, I spied what might be the black barrel of a rifle. I shifted to another position that was slightly more exposed and looked again. Another figure hunched farther to the left, the insignia of a hunter with a rifle standing out on his dark jacket. A jolt of emotion arrowed through me.
There are few things Unbounded fear, and Hunters are one of them. For over fifty years the society of Hunters has dedicated their lives to eradicating both the Renegades and our enemy, the Emporium, never differentiating between the two Unbounded groups. That many of the Hunters’ older members began life as failed Emporium genetic experiments and were later abandoned, only makes their hatred that much stronger. Despite the fact that Renegades protect mortals from the Emporium, Hunters view all Unbounded as false gods they need to depose and punish. Eradicate like vermin. Kill.
My first thought was that the Hunters had somehow tracked me, though I was new enough not to be in their database. The tightness in my stomach now extended to the tips of my fingers. Both my previous run-ins with Hunters had nearly ended in a date with a sharp blade.
My left hand slid to the cell phone in my coat pocket, pressing and holding the single button on the side. After the Emporium attack two months ago on our Renegade allies in New York, where nine Unbounded and a dozen mortals were murdered in a macabre slaughter, and several more had been taken captive, we’d begun carrying these altered phones.
With Cort and Dimitri in Mexico, Ritter gone, and Ava up to her ears in whatever she wouldn’t explain over the phone, who would they send to answer my call? Stella wouldn’t come, not in her condition, and my brothers lacked training. Chris wasn’t even Unbounded. No, it would be someone from our mortal security detail, most of whom had served with the government in black ops. They were well trained and deadly. More than a match for any Hunters. Still, I’d try to mop up the Hunters before they got here—if only to prove to myself that I could.
I glanced at Mari, needing to adjust my position again to get a clear view. Trevor had moved several feet away from her, and now he dipped his head as he glanced at the trees where the Hunters crouched.
I didn’t know how he’d been contacted by them, but somehow he was involved—and he was giving them Mari. What was his price? Anger flooded me, and it was all I could do not to go running into the open and smash my fist into his face. Instead, I pushed partway through the bushes, forcing myself to wait.
Mari was still talking, her voice louder now. I couldn’t quite make out the words, but her tone was pleading. I hurt for her, for what she was about to lose. It wasn’t fair. Trevor had done a good job of isolating her in the three years since her mother’s death, and lately she had no one to confide in except him—and me. I was about to betray her now. How long would it be before she’d trust anyone again? Ava had told me when I Changed that I’d been given a priceless gift or a great curse, and this was yet one more example. The necessity of sneaking around, of lying to people who would be your friends.
Somehow, I had to get us out of this situation. I couldn’t depend on the others making it on time. They won’t shoot unless Mari fights them. Except she probably would. She wouldn’t realize that they didn’t care how they managed to take her prisoner. A simple bullet to the brain or heart would temporarily stop any struggle—long enough for the cutting to begin.
Biting my lip until I tasted blood, I edged forward as far as I could without exposing myself, close enough now to pick out actual words.
The Hunters stepped from behind the distant trees, running toward Mari, as silent as wolves. Still only two. Good. A thrill of anticipation rolled through me. One man sported a ponytail, a grizzled beard, and wore a camouflage jacket; the other was clean-faced with stringy blond hair that emerged from his knit cap and fell to the collar of his brown coat. The older man would likely be more dangerous, especially if he’d dealt with Unbounded before. Neither was a match for me, though if they got off a lucky shot, they could immobilize me long enough that I might be in trouble.
Mari must have heard something because she glanced behind her. Seeing the strangers, she moved forward quickly to join Trevor, but he held up his hands and spoke loud enough for the oncoming Hunters to hear. “Nothing personal, Mari. You have too much of their blood. It’s tainted. I can’t be with you anymore.”
“What are you talking about?” Mari sounded dazed. “Who are they? This has nothing to do with anyone but us.”
Trevor shook his head like the dog he was. “They tracked your ancestry. It was a long shot that you were one of them”—he uttered the word with disgust—“but they assigned me to you to make sure. Last week when your knee got better, and how you can add up those numbers. It all means something, Mari.” He gave her a mean little grin. “It means you’re a monster.”
I was going to kill that man when I got my hands on him.
Mari reached for Trevor, but he shook her off as though she carried contagion. The other men laughed and lunged for her, securing her arms.
“Hey, I know you.” Mari peered at the younger man. “You were at our wedding!”
He barked a laugh. “Ask Trevor how much bonus he got for that. Best way to see if you turned.”
“Let me go!” Mari began struggling.
At the panic in her voice, Trevor hesitated. “Go easy on her now.”
The older Hunter snorted. “You know what she is, and what you signed on to do. What you was paid to do. Now git outta here if you ain’t got the stomach for it.”
“You—you’re not going to, uh, do it here, are you?” Trevor stared at his frightened wife.
“Of course not. Now git. Or have you changed your mind? Because you know what that means.” The old man leveled his rifle at Trevor.
Trevor held up his hands, stumbling back a few steps.
“Trevor,” Mari whimpered.
Without another word, Trevor turned and fled.
Mari’s scream filled the park, and the grizzled Hunter shook her. “Stop that, or I’ll shoot you right here. Ain’t no one gonna hear you anyway. We got men making sure no one comes this way.”
She didn’t stop struggling. Fighting was against her docile nature—her former nature—but now that she’d Changed, the old Mari was gone.
The young Hunter pulled Mari against him, her back to his chest, and put a hand over her mouth. She promptly bit him, but he only laughed and stroked her neck with his other hand. “She’s a pretty one—and feisty. I want a go at her.” Squatting slightly, he rubbed his groin up her backside. A terrified sob escaped Mari’s throat as she arched away.
“There’s no time,” growled the old Hunter.
“Sure there is. It’s not like I have to talk pretty to her. You said yourself they ain’t human. What’s it gonna hurt? I want to see what it’s like. What Trevor’s had all this time.” His hand snaked to Mari’s waistband.
The old man searched the growing darkness. “Be quick about it then. You know how the others are. They think it’s a sin to touch one.” He laughed hoarsely. “Like it’s catching.”
“Then hold this.” The young Hunter thrust his rifle at his companion before turning his attention back to Mari, his hand slipping under her hip-length coat.
She struggled more furiously as he yanked open her pants. He turned her around, still pulling on the material, but Mari’s fist caught him in the face. Shoving her at the old guy, he ground out, “Grab her. Keep her standing. Won’t take but a minute. Smack her good if she tries anything. Might be true what they say about some of them being able to get into our minds.” He emanated a wave of lust so strong, I could feel it from where I hid without even trying.
Tucking the rifles under his arm, the old Hunter complied, placing one big hand on Mari’s stomach and pulling her to him, his other hand clapping over her mouth, jerking her head back until it hit his shoulder. Mari kicked at his leg, trying to free herself, but he shook her roughly. “Stop that, bitch, or he’ll make it worse for you.”
The young man laughed, his hand fumbling at his own clothing. “Just hold still and enjoy. I’m way more of a man than Trevor ever was.”
Enough. It was tempting just to shoot them both, but I didn’t want to alert the companions they claimed to have out in the darkness. If Ritter had been around, he’d have probably made sure I was carrying a silencer. But he wasn’t. He’d abandoned me, and I didn’t need him to finish this task. Mari was my responsibility; I wasn’t going to let them have her.
Slipping the gun back into my holster, I arose silently from my hiding place and sprinted toward the men, leaving a few strands of my blond hair on the bushes as I squeezed through. I’d traveled half the distance separating us before the old guy looked up and saw me, his face gray in the sparse light. He let go of Mari and tried to bring up his rifle, but he was clumsy with the added weight of the younger man’s weapon.
I helped him drop both guns to the ground with a well-placed kick that even my brother Jace would have appreciated. The old man grunted as my foot continued on to connect solidly with his side. As he curled forward in pain, I followed with a left hook, striking him to the frozen grass and hopefully buying me a little time.
Mari screamed, and I turned to face her. The young man, his pants open and sliding down his narrow hips, had jumped behind Mari, his arm circling her waist.
“Mari, it’s going to be okay,” I told her. “But don’t scream again.”
The young Hunter peered into the night. “Help!” he shouted.
Great. I hadn’t expected him to have that many cells left in his tiny brain.
Movement behind me signaled that the old guy had recovered. I whirled, slamming my elbow into his head as he tried to rise, a rifle clutched in his hands. I kicked the gun out of his reach.
The young man was backing away, dragging Mari after him. I took out my gun. “Let her go.”
He shook his head, his knit cap askew. His breath came in fast gasps.
“Let her go, or when I get finished with you, you’ll never touch another woman again.” I took aim at the thin slice of his face that wasn’t hidden behind Mari.
“You—you won’t shoot her.” His voice increased two octaves on the last words.
“Why not?” I took a step closer. “As you said, she’s not human, so it won’t matter if I shoot her. In fact, it’d probably be easier for me. I’ll get you both with one bullet. It definitely won’t hurt her as much as what you have planned.”
The sound from his throat was half protest, half sob. His eyes grew impossibly wide. “You’re one of them, ain’t you?”
“One of who exactly?”
I shifted my position so I could keep an eye on the old man. He wasn’t moving, but cockroaches had a way of coming back to consciousness when least expected. Besides, there was no way to tell if anyone else had heard the commotion. I had to be prepared for the worst.
Mari was struggling again, her efforts loud in the quiet of the park.
“I’ll give you to the count of three,” I said to the Hunter. “One . . . two . . .”
The young Hunter’s eyes went again to the blackness, where help had failed to materialize. With a whine, he pushed Mari at me and ran.
I sidestepped Mari and leapt after him. I didn’t have far to go. His jeans slid further down his thighs and tripped him. I chuckled, kicking his sprawled body over with my foot, my eyes sliding down his nakedness. “So that’s why you’re a rapist. Can’t blame a woman for not wanting any of that.”
Heat filled his eyes. He jumped up and lunged toward me, forgetting my gun and his bareness. Exactly what I’d hoped. I mean, how can you strike a naked guy lying on the ground?
I blocked his punch with my right arm, and hit him with two left jabs. He lunged at me again, and I heard a sharp click half a second before hot fire spread through my stomach.
A knife. I hadn’t expected that. We trained with knives as we did everything else, and for an instant, I considered retrieving the one I carried inside my boot. Stupid when I had the gun.
I aimed the Sig. “Stop.” I could feel warm blood leaking down my stomach, though already the wound would have begun healing. There were only two ways to kill Unbounded, and a scratch like that wasn’t one of them.
“You ain’t going to use that gun,” the Hunter mocked. “My friends will hear. Then you’ll be the one begging for this.” He felt his groin before hitching up his pants and rushing me. His movements were sloppy, unpracticed, but he had a knife and twenty pounds on me.
I turned to avoid the knife, hitting him at the same time with another left jab. He stumbled past me, pivoted on his heel, and dived at me again. I cracked the gun in my right hand down on his head. Take that, idiot. A pistol had more than one use.
He fell forward with a thump—and lay there unmoving.
Carefully I turned him over. He’d cut himself in the stomach with the knife, but unfortunately not deep enough to bleed to death. He still had a pulse, too, so that meant he’d recover from being pistol-whipped. For all that he was a scumbag, I was relieved. Since my Change, I’d shot people and fought a lot more, but I’d never killed anyone. Not permanently killed. Killing Unbounded didn’t count if it wasn’t permanent. At least that’s what I told myself because in truth it was still horrifying.
No time to think about it. I had to get Mari to the safe house—and I still had to decide what to do with the Hunters. They could identify me now.
I turned, half expecting Mari to have collapsed in a sobbing heap, but she’d grabbed one of the Hunter’s rifles and was pointing it—at me. She backed away, her eyes wild.
I put the Sig in my pocket and held my hands up to show I wasn’t armed. “Put it down, Mari. We have to get out of here.”
“You—how—why . . .”
“I promise I’ll explain everything, but later, okay? Trust me.”
“You killed him! You were going to shoot me!” Her face was flushed and her eyes wide, her hands shaking with fear. Fear of me, the person who’d gone to work at a boring accounting firm for months in order to protect her from people a lot worse than the Hunters. The person who’d brought her food when she was too depressed to eat. The one who’d urged her to start taking charge of her life.
The truth of it was that she had more than enough reason to be wary of me. I’d run myself if I were in her place—in fact, I had run, and my family had paid for that mistake with a life. Luckily, Mari had no family to endanger, except fourth cousins she didn’t know and Stella, who was technically her fifth-great aunt but whom she hadn’t seen since she was a little girl.
Mari looked ready to bolt, and I still didn’t know what else might be lurking out there in the dark. “He was going to rape you,” I reminded her. “Besides, he’s not dead.”
“How did you know I was here?”
“I followed you.” The street lamps in the park chose that moment to go on, making me feel exposed. How long before the Hunters’ backup arrived?
“You followed me?” Her voice rose to a pitch that hurt my ears. “Who are you, Erin? Who are you really? Because normal people don’t follow their friends. Normal people don’t know how to fight like that.” Her eyes went to the sprawled Hunters.
“I told you I’ll explain later. We have to get out of here. These guys usually travel in a pack.”
Besides, wherever there were Hunters, the Emporium was never far behind. Hunters might hate all Unbounded, but Emporium agents had been infiltrating their organization for decades, using them as a weapon against us. That the Hunters had found Mari or knew to watch for her Change smacked of the Emporium more than the Hunters, who were too short-lived to think over generations. But no matter how they’d found her, if I didn’t get Mari out of this situation safely, Stella might never talk to me again. Renegade Unbounded guard their family lines as carefully as any treasure—even from most fellow Renegades—and she’d been waiting more than a hundred years for someone in her family line to Change.
I sent out my mind, trying to determine if anyone else was out there in the darkness, or at least within my sensing range. We needed to avoid running into anyone else. Mari was already spooked as it was without watching me fight again.
Someone was coming—and fast. Had to be Unbounded. No mortal could move that rapidly. No time to run.
I reached for my gun.
Mari gasped as a shadow appeared from behind her, yanking the rifle from her hand. Her eyes went to the man, as if she didn’t know whether she should scream and run—or fall into his arms and weep with relief.
Which was almost exactly the way I felt.
He was a tower of strong muscle, carrying himself with undeniable grace, as did all those gifted with combat. No movement wasted, no attack he couldn’t anticipate. His black hair fell to the right, grazing a mole on his cheek. His square jaw, in need of a shave, was set in determination, and his eyes glittered with anger. He carried a gun in his right hand, and the sword emerging from a back sheath announced that he’d come prepared to find Emporium Unbounded. Wet-looking patches spotted his black jeans and jacket. Definitely blood.
Ritter was back. After two months with no word, he was back.
“Gaven and I took care of their friends.” He spoke in a clipped voice, one he might have used in his former life as a policeman a quarter of a century ago. I wondered if he was thinking of his family—and the woman he hadn’t been able to save.
“Who are you?” Desperation laced Mari’s voice.
Ignoring her, Ritter crossed the space between us. I felt burning inside him when he was still feet away. I’d always been able to catch glimpses of him like this, even from the first before I knew about my ability or how to use it. Desire swept through me, and I couldn’t tell if it was his or mine—or if it mattered. I had a brief vision of going into his arms, of our mouths clinging together, our bodies melding. Everything in my body screamed that he was mine.
Yet he’d broken his promise, and in a world where almost everyone I knew lied to survive, I valued truth more than just about anything. At least that’s what I told myself.
He reached for me, but I held myself stiff.
“Erin,” he began.
“Later.” I pulled my arm from his grip, jerking my chin at the Hunters. “They’ll be able to identify me, and we still don’t know how they found Mari. Are you sure you got the rest of them?” The emotions swirling around him cut off when I pulled away, as though they’d never existed. I knew differently.
“I’m sure.” His eyes glittered so darkly that the only color for them was black. He was nothing but empty space to my sensing now, and it wasn’t likely he’d relax enough to let anything more slip. We all learned how to block or suffer the consequences. The Emporium had at least two sensing Unbounded, one more powerful than I dreamed of becoming. She’d almost controlled me once, and I knew she’d eventually come for me again. I might be young in Unbounded terms, but I was valuable—or so everyone told me. I hoped when the time came that I’d be ready for her.
For a brief moment I thought with envy of my former life as a law-school dropout working a dead-end job as an insurance claims agent. Nothing more exciting than talking to distressed people and pushing buttons on a keyboard.
No one trying to carve me or my family into pieces.
Except I didn’t really want to go back. If it meant saving the lives that had been lost, I’d agree in a heartbeat, but that could never happen.
Being Unbounded changes everything.