Chapter One

The ropes course fibers had chewed her wrists raw, but Sakura kept working at the knot. She thought it was beginning to give. If she could only untie herself…

The basement door creaked, sending light lancing into her eyes. She cursed silently. It figured the bastard would come back just as she was making progress.

"Missed me, my beloved?"

"Not really, no." Sakura squinted warily at the figure on the stairs. The liquid British accent like Orochimaru, but the voice itself was deeper, rougher, and the man's hulking silhouette looked more like one of her captor's thugs. Orochimaru had a whole pack of identical blonds working for him, apparently brothers. Not that it really mattered which one of them it was. They were all vampires.

Cowboy boots rang on the wooden steps as the vamp started down into her makeshift cell. Like his brothers, the Swede was a big man, beefy and broad-faced, with a round knob of a nose and greasy dishwater bland hair that hung to his shoulders. In contrast to his master's grey suits, he wore jeans and a Budweiser T-shirt. He carried a length of white silk draped over one arm–a nightgown? She squinted at the fabric uneasily, wondering what he intended. The light from the doorway made her temple throb.

"Headache?" the blond asked with sugared sweetness. Appraising blue eyes flicked across her face. "You seem to be in pain."

"What do you care?" she growled, in no mood for false civility. The punctures in her throat were aching, and her mouth was sawdust dry. After he'd taken her from her apartment two nights ago, Orochimaru had fed from her and forced her to drink his blood. He hadn't killed her – despite the myths, vampires weren't really soulless undead.

But he had infected her. When viruses like HIV and influenza destroyed their victims in order to spread, this one was actually symbiotic. In the long run, it would make her stronger and longer-lived – and better able to spread it, since it couldn't survive outside a host. By now the virus was already at work, reshaping her cells like something from a science fiction movie, altering bone and muscle even as it even her a need for blood. In the final stages, it would render her comatose as it completed its work.

"A headache is one of the first signs of the Change," the blond said now in that liquid purr that sounded so much like his master. "In a few days, you'll be one of us – a child of the night. A vampire." Fangs flashed. "And my slave."

Her stomach clenched at the thought. "I won't be your anything – your master is the one who's Turning me."

He grinned, exposing those gleaming fangs again. "My dove, haven't you guessed? I am Orochimaru."

He stepped into a shaft of light from the door. The master vampire looked out from the Swede's eyes, ancient and evil and supremely powerful. He possessed his fledgling – moved his consciousness into the man's body so he could use it like his own. Hinata had told Sakura once that master vampires could enter those they'd turned because they shared a mental link with them. Five years ago, she and Naruto had used a similar technique to defeat Naruto's sadistic sire, the Akatsuki.

Sakura's eyes narrowed with sudden speculation. That kind of link wasn't an easy thing to establish. Naruto and Hinata had only tried it because they couldn't defeat the Akatsuki any other way. Why would Orochimaru make the effort? Unless…"What's with the new body, Orochimaru? Are you expecting company?"

That chilling smile flashed again as he reached down and snapped the rope binding her wrists to a ring in the wall. "As a matter of fact, I am."

Sakura's heart leaped. Over the past two days, she'd tried desperately to contract Hin's mind, praying she really did have the psychic abilities Kith were supposed to possess. There'd been no response, so she'd assumed she'd failed. But maybe...

"Naruto and Hinata are on the way, aren't they?" Sakura bared her teeth. "He's going to rip your head off your shoulders with his bare hands."

"Your vampire brother–in–law? I think not." Reading her expression, Orochimaru laughed and jerked her off the cot so hard her pink hair flew. "Yes, I know all about your family. I checked you out thoroughly before I decided to take you. Don't get your hopes up."

Icy fingers clamped in her gut. "What did you do to them?"

He grinned mockingly into her eyes. "Sent them to Africa on a wild goose chase. They're busy fending off assassins by now."

"Assassins?" Sakura's knees went weak. "What assassins? And what the hell are they doing in Africa?"

He smiled, obviously enjoying her fear. "I planted a clue or two indicating I'd taken you out of the country. Then I sent three of my Swedes after them. Assuming they make it back alive, they'll be too late to do you any good.

The thought of her sister in danger made Sakura feel sick, but she'd hid it behind a sneer. She needed to get out of his mess before she could help her. "So if not Hinata and Naruto, who are you expecting? A mortal enemy, maybe? Preferably one who's going to rip out your throat? I want to watch and cheer."

Rage flashed through his eyes and he lifted a hand. She flinched, expecting another of his brutal slaps.

Instead he stopped and smiled a chilling stretch of the lips. "Oh, they're going to love you."


"The guests I went to so much effort to attract." Her brushed a knuckle down her cheekbone and grinned when she recoiled. "I'm sure they'll enjoy taking the…bait."

Still smirking, he scanned the length of her body, his gaze lingering on the paint-splattered shirt and jeans she'd been wearing when he'd snatched her. Blood had since joined the smears of crimson, ocher and cerulean blue. Sakura took a certain grim satisfaction in the fact that some of it was his. The resulting bruises had been a small price to pay.

"But I fear this not quite the look we want," Before she could shrink away, Orochimaru wrapped a fist in the front of her T-shirt and ripped upward, tearing it off her body in one effortless swipe. With a satisfied smirk, he stopped the scraps.

Sakura stared at him as cool air touched her bare breasts. "You teme!" Too pissed to consider the risk she was taking, she slammed a sneaker foot into his shin.

She didn't even see the return blow.

Stars exploded behind her eyes as she went flying. She hit the floor with stunning force and rolled twice before she came to a stop. Gasping, Sakura lay still, aching cheekbone pressed to the cold cement as tears of pain stung her eyes.

The vampire approached. Blinking at the engraved silver tips on the toes of his cowboy boots, she licked at the blood oozing from her cut lip. Something cool and soft landed across her back. "Put it on," he ordered.

Sakura lifted her spinning head to look up at him. Her heart was pounding, but she forced herself to ignore it and meet those cold, cold eyes. "Go to hell." When he grabbed for her, she fought him with swinging fists and kicking feet, too furious and terrified to consider the consequences. The second time her foot came too close to his balls, Orochimaru drew back a hand and hit her very hard.

Blackness crashed in for the second time in three days.