With the sun in rapid descent, Noah Michaels crawled through the woods of the military-held island off the Gulf of Mexico, with one of his fellow Enforcers, Zane "Black Dog" Johnson, a yard to his left. The knees of his black fatigues sucked up mud and mulch, eating away the terrain as they maneuvered to the assignment position – the outskirts of the island’s sole medical facility, and location of their extraction target.
Twenty-three-year-old Darla O’Neal, a human Firestarter, had come to the secluded location with a promise that the Army would use science to cure the flaw in her genetic code and they had. She no longer created emotionally driven firestorms. But not before "The Bloods," the deadly gang of demons responsible for the creation of much of the organized crime across the world, had taken over the facility.
Noah, and his team of Enforcers, had no intention of allowing the Bloods to complete their plan to clone Darla’s firestarting ability in human minions. The Enforcers might be immortal, but add enough fire and even they would burn. the Bloods weren’t going to turn this realm into their stomping ground, any more than Noah was ending his run as a Demon Hunter by way of becoming their Sunday afternoon barbecue. Noah had lost everything to the Bloods four centuries before, including his human life and everyone he’d loved in it. When he left this war, it would be on his terms.
Another several feet forward and Noah and Zane were in position, on the west side of the military complex, under the cover of a mass of brush. They exchanged a look of silent understanding, and Zane touched his earpiece with the intent to announce their location to the Blue and Green teams, but never delivered the message.
Instinct and a barely audible hiss sent Noah into action. Snake. With cat-like agility, Noah launched himself toward Zane, snatching the slimy head of the reptile a second before its fangs would have latched onto Zane’s jaw. Noah’s knife sliced the head off the slippery body, and he heaved a breath to expel the rush of adrenaline racing through his blood. With forced restraint, he resisted the urge to fling the predator aside, instead disposing of it in a silent, closer proximity. Zane offered a short nod of thanks that did nothing to disguise the concern etched in his chiseled face, and for good reason. That snake made four since they’d swum to landfall two miles back and dumped their dive equipment. Too many snakes, by Noah’s book. He’d spent countless hours on this island watching Darla O’Neal, planning extraction strategy. Not one snake encounter until today. Not one damn snake attack. Which led him to the obvious conclusion – these attacks were demonically influenced. Translation: they were on the wrong radar screens and headed for confrontation. If the Firestarter didn’t get spooked and turn them to toast, the demons had their own plans.
Noah wiped his blade and slid it into his waistband, his body strapped with a wealth of demon-killing weaponry. And it looked like he might need every last bit of that wealth before the night was over. He ground his teeth. Bring it on, he thought. Danger, conflict – those were the Enforcer’s drugs, their high. And compliments of the festering demon bite on his shoulder that he’d been hiding from his team, and the implications of its failure to heal, Lord-only-knew, he was hungry for that high. Innumerable bites over the centuries, and this one had finally injected enough demon sludge into his system to end his run on this earth. It was eating him inside out, and any day now he would have to embrace the underworld or die. He’d spent years in a lab, trying to save others like himself, others who were being destroyed by the sludge—and he’d failed to find an answer, failed to save their lives.
Only a few Enforcers had found the rare human mate that could bond with them, purify their blood, and save them. Some, like him, who hadn’t found that mate in time, had eventually lost themselves, turned to the underworld, became demons; others had died in combat, taking risks that ensured death with honor. The way Noah saw it, Death was definitely calling, and he was taking as many demons with him as he could. If tonight wasn’t his time to say goodbye, he had a feeling it would be a darn invigorating night of demon killing.
Any minute now, their target would take her nightly walk down the beach, and then they’d prove that the impossible odds of getting her off this secluded, demon-infested piece-of-crap island weren’t so impossible. If they couldn’t win her trust, they’d prepared to sedate her. As
the Enforcers' doctor and scientist, that put Noah in a risky lead position – the one who approached Darla on open ground, visible to an enemy who’d kill and never bother to ask questions.
“Red Team, go,” Zane announced softly, shaking Noah back into focus.
“Green Team, go,” came the follow up.
“Blue Team, go.”
Yellow Team was in position on a supply boat they’d confiscated, awaiting pick up.
“We have a visual,” Blue Team leader, Dante "D-Man" Martinez announced. “Do you copy, Medicine Man? We have target in visual. Countdown to action.”
“Copy that,” Noah responded, lifting his binoculars to the front door of the facility and focusing on the petite female who’d just exited the building, wisps of red hair blowing around an angelic, heart-shaped face.
Awareness slid through him, as it had each time he’d watched her these past few days. This woman stirred something inside him, something possessive and far too primal to be comfortable. She was innocence personified, innocence that seemed to call to every male fiber of his being, and he hated himself for it. The sludge, he thought. It was stirring the darker elements of humankind in him. It was as if the purity she represented demanded he take her, possess her, change her. And for the first time in centuries, he was scared, scared because he didn’t know who he was, didn’t know what he was becoming. His gut clenched in uncontrollable, male appreciation that had no place on a mission.
“We're moving,” Noah said into his headset as Darla started her nightly trek that would end a mile down the beach at the deserted docks. With Zane on his tail, Noah quickly traveled a pre-plotted path through the woods that would bring him to her destination before she arrived there.
From the shadows, Noah watched as the Firestarter stepped onto the dock and strolled toward the end of the planks – exactly where he planned to make contact. Zane motioned "clear," confirming that he, like Noah, had no indication of imminent threat from her captors. Darla was clearly allowed freedoms based on the fact that escaping an island in the middle of the ocean was no simple task. He was about to prove her captors wrong.
Noah and Zane synchronized their watches, and with one final scan of the perimeter, Noah exited the woods. He had exactly three point five minutes to convince Darla he was here to rescue her and that he was one of the good guys worth following. Once he’d achieved that objective, which he fully intended to do, they’d have another fourteen minutes to cut through the woods, inflate the raft he’d hidden near shore, and get to open water for a rescue.
He stepped onto the edge of the wooden planks of the dock and sauntered toward Darla, sliding his hat off, his long, brownish-blond hair tied neatly at the neck, and shoved it into his pocket. It was a small effort to appear normal in the middle of a demon-infested island, considering he was armed to the hilt and that wouldn’t go unnoticed.
The instant a board creaked, Darla whirled around, facing him, and he sensed her fear, her unease. She knew she was surrounded by enemies, knew she was a captive, though he wasn’t sure if she believed her captors were man or demon. Either way, she’d assume he was one of those enemies, assume him to be a threat. But he’d read her file, watched her closely. She’d spent a lifetime of being judged, feared, and ostracized by everyone around her. He didn’t believe for a minute that she would risk making them right about her by taking a potentially innocent life. That knowledge, and the unexplainable sudden certainty that this woman was his to protect, connected to him in some way, only made him more determined to get her off this godforsaken island.
He closed the distance between them quickly, his long legs giving him speed, despite an apparently relaxed stride. “I hope I’m not intruding,” he said, stopping in front of her.
The ocean crashed along the shoreline, and fading remnants of sunlight haloed her, casting her in a warm glow. She was a petite little thing with delicate features.
"No,” she said, hugging herself, telling him without words that he was, indeed, intruding. “Of course not.” The stiffness of her voice did nothing to erase the sweet, musical quality texturing its tone and sending warmth through his limbs.
“I’m new to the island. Just arrived today with a Special Ops team.” He smiled apologetically, and motioned to the array of weapons strapped to his h*ps and legs, all manufactured to deliver the ultimate demon poison. “I guess I should have disarmed a little before the walk on the beach. Sorry about that.” He offered her his hand. “Noah.”
Her expression flashed with barely concealed skepticism, several precious seconds passing before she untangled her arms and slid a palm into his. It was tiny and soft and stirred both man and protector inside him. “Darla,” she offered.
He leveled her in a serious look and held her hand gently but firmly, prepared to sedate her – sooner rather than later, if necessary, though he’d prefer her able-bodied and lucid. “That special ops team I’m on, Darla. We came here for one reason and one reason only – to get you off this island safely before these bastards turn you into some sort of weapon.” He paused to let his words sink in, and then asked, “You do want off this island, right?”
The lights above the dock flickered to life in the same instant that her expression flashed with momentary hope, before she tried, and failed, to remove her hand from his grasp.
“I’m not the enemy,” he assured her.
“How do I know you don’t want something from me like they do?”
“You don’t,” he said honestly. “But it can’t get much worse than captive on an island in the middle of an ocean, now can it?”
She considered that, a hint of desperation flaring in her face before her lashes lowered. He sensed her inner struggle, could almost feel the emotion rolling off of her. She wanted off this island, she wanted to trust him – but did she dare? Unexpectedly, she gasped and shackled his wrist, studied the cross etched into his skin. Her chest rose and fell, her gaze jerking upward to his. “You’re not one of them. One of those...monsters.”
the Bloods bore the mark of the devil, an inverted pentagram. No demon would wear a cross. At least, he now knew, she understood what she was dealing with. This would make his mission easier.
“No,” he said softly, giving her the confirmation she sought, without labeling the monsters "demons." Clearly she’d avoided that word and he didn’t want to push her past her comfort zone. “I’m not one of them.” And he’d die before he let this damn sludge turn him into one.
She drew herself straight, lifted her chin. “Please. Get me out of here.”
Noah had his acceptance. One obstacle down. “You have my word,” he said, meaning the vow with some deep-rooted purpose he could not fully wrap his head around. She was brave, strong in a way he hadn’t expected.
Her eyes hungrily searched his and then, “I believe you,” she said, and he could almost feel her handing him her trust, her life, in a way no one should hand those things to a stranger. But she’d given them to him and riveted him motionless for an instant with the impact of her offering. He shook himself inwardly, angry at his reaction – he was in the field, in the middle of demon territory, where the tight ball of emotion in his chest shouldn’t exist. What the Hell was wrong with him?
He released her hand and hit his mike. “Second base in play,” he announced to Zane. Silence greeted him. “I repeat second base in play – I need a copy.” Zane didn’t reply. He repeated his words. No one replied. Shit! Something was seriously wrong, and he and Darla were sitting ducks on this dock.
Adrenaline rocketed through his body, but he showed no outward reaction, no concern that might rattle Darla. He spoke to her in a low, controlled voice. “Do exactly as I say and we’ll be out of here in no time. Don’t hesitate when I tell you to do something. Don’t ask questions. Don’t speak.”
She nodded, and the long list of don’ts didn’t appear to faze her, but then, he didn’t give her any time to process it either. Noah grabbed her hand again and hauled her down the length of the dock, already scanning for trouble. His team wouldn’t be silent, unless they were too busy fighting demons to reply. His gut twisted with the other possibility. They could all be dead.
His booted feet sunk into sand a moment before trouble darted from the woods on both left and right horizons in the form of a line of six soldiers on each side. Soldiers that looked human but smelled of demon.
Beside him Darla let out a startled gasp but to her credit, her footsteps didn’t falter. She continued in the only direction available and that was forward. If they could clear the beach, they’d survive. He’d planned well, provided escape routes, and hiding places. But that plan died a fast death as another line of soldiers exited the woods directly in front of them.
Damn it, where were his people? Noah turned to Darla. “Now would be a good time to use that fire of yours.”
“I can’t! God. I can’t.” She heaved a breath, shook her head. Her cheeks red, her red hair flying wildly around her face, her eyes alight with remarkably controlled panic. “They gave me drugs. Suppressed my ability. I can’t use it. I can’t.”
He cursed under his breath, digesting that news in a 60-second sound bite of sour reality, and then evaluated options.
She had her own ideas. She pointed toward the dock, yelling, “Go! Go now! They won’t kill me. I’ll distract them, make them think I have my fire back.” Her hand closed around his arm. “Please. Go!”
No,” he said sharply, his tone hard, resolute. Her willingness to sacrifice herself stunned him, twisting his gut in a knot for reasons he didn’t dare allow himself to analyze. She was right though – there was no option but to go to the water, and pray Yellow Team picked them up before the sharks turned them into the main course.
He started to pivot, to go into a full run, when his eyes feasted on a damn welcome sight. The Enforcers had arrived, and they weren’t wasting any time getting down to the business of destroying the enemies. Two soldiers turned and fell to their knees, gold corkscrew rods twisted through their hearts, shredding them. A second later, the bodies burst into flames and evaporated.