changeling winds episode two (the bachelor battles book 2)

Who's ready to play? Are ya? Are ya really?

 

Dear Reader,

This second edition has new content (650 pages worth!) and professional edits. As I rewrote, it grew into a wonderful tale... However, t
his book is very graphic and contains material that made
me
blush as I wrote it. If you’re offended by out-of-the-norm sexual situations and multiple instances of violence, this will NOT be a good experience for you. Please do not come back later and post a bad review for it. You’ve already been warned.

Now that we’ve gotten to know each other a bit, please allow me to take you on a trip through a world none of us have ever known. Try to imagine…

 

500 Years into the future, nine of every ten babies conceived are female. Men have been enslaved for their own protection and the only way to get a mate is to enter the Network Games and fight for one.
The catch?
It's a live battle to the death and the competition is fierce.

Who's ready to play? Are ya? Are ya really?

 

Episode Two:

Changeling Winds

Watch Trailer

*
If you have not read episode one,
flipping to the very back for the 5 Stages of the Change and the history of the Network is recommended.

 

The Bachelor Battles

Episode Two

Changeling Winds

 

 

By Angela White

Edited by Kim Fillmore

Second Edition © 2012

 

Angela White © 2011

This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. Standard Copyright laws apply.

Made in the United States.

 

Table of Contents

 

Prologue

A Change in the Wind

The Bachelors

Medic!

Heaven and Hell

Are Ya Ready?

Working it out

A Smooth Ride

Just a Service

Warning! Danger!

A Family Matter

Ancient Demands

Riding the Wind

Impossible Dreams

Hounded

Rebel Feelings

Resistance is Futile

Training Time

Compromise

All that Heat…

Two for the Road

Plots & Plans

Ghosted

Brace for It

Aftermath

Close

Notes

Extras


Book Three


The Survivors


Alexa’s Travels


The Network’s History


Rules of this Game


Stages of the
Change

Let's meet the players...

 

 

“…Angelica Eve Pruett. A member of those merciless Bounty Hunters, this fast-burning Changeling resides in the Ohio Valley Recovery Zone, where she helps to clear the old roads. Following in her brutal cousin's footsteps, she seeks what can only be had here, at the Network Games - a mate. Rank:
9/15
.

“Kim Lee. Longing for a legal family, this Frogtown warrior knows a win will gain her the breeding pass she was denied by the baby registry for being under the 5'5" limit. This wild teenager finished first at the time trials and is ranked
1/15
.

“The Bush Sisters.
Sworn to secrecy as a condition of the Care Campaign, rumors suggest the wealthy starlets from Bangor have fallen on hard times due to unpaid taxes and criminal misconduct charges. If one of them wins, their family will no longer be in Network disgrace. Their ranks:
 
Chelsea:
3/15
. Emily:
6/15
.
 
Danielle:
8/15
.

“And just what are they fighting for?

“Their choice of lot #21207 - fifteen perfectly trained bachelors, all secretly longing for an escape from the Network.

 
“Who's Ready to Play?”

Prologue

 

1

“How far into the Borderlands did Baker get?”

“Almost ten miles, holed-up in a cave. The storms are bad right now, and they can’t move.”

“You’ll try to slip in between the squalls?”

“Yes. We’ll secure and wait. The storm season will be over in a week or so.”

“How many of them did he lose?”

“It doesn’t say. Sam found the message in the abandoned train they hijacked.”

I listened to the conversation between my cousin Candice and her mother without letting them know I was awake. Around us, the apocalyptic darkness was full of death and danger… like my heart.

“Will Sam help us get Baker and his group to the Safe Zone? She’s the best escort they could have.”

“She said there’s a family matter to be cleared up first. She’ll be here around noon. She headed for us two days ago.”

I heard Candice groan. It mirrored my own silent noise of misery. Sam knew I’d signed up for the Games. Little else would get my sister to delay the challenge of escorting fifty rebel males through the lethal land she spent most of her time in.

“She knows.”

“Yes.”

“How?”

“The Network scheduled Angelica’s episode and announced it live two days ago, complete with new amendments to the rules. She has to report to the time trials immediately.”

There was a stunned silence where I could sense them rearranging our plans and worrying, but all I could feel was relief. A week from now, I would be in New Network City, battling to the death. Finally, a place to put all this hatred! I’d been dreading the normal wait it took to be scheduled - a year in the rebel safe zone around those timid, tempting men. All 500 of them…

400
, I amended, still feeling the slashing burn of their deaths.
 
We’d lost a large cut in Stone Mountain - beautiful, skilled, enslaved males whose murders hadn’t been avenged. We couldn’t strike the Network openly, we weren’t ready for that yet, but the real war had finally started. As a Pruett, I was relieved.

“Sam wants to make sure she sees her… just in case,” Mary offered lowly.

My cousin Candice knew our nature so much better than her mother. It was the reason she was in the lead and that sharp intelligence showed in her answer.

“More likely, she wants to escort and cheer from the stands. You know how Sam is.”

I certainly did. My sister wouldn’t like my choice, but she would understand. Sam was the wildest Pruett in the family. Watching her go through an episode would be a real thrill.

“So, the Network has succeeded in splitting us up,” Mary stated ominously. “It gives them the advantage.”

“They’ve always had it,” Candice responded with her usual no-nonsense tones. “Sam will escort her, we’ll go help Baker hide til its over.”

“Whatever you think is best.”

Despite Mary having the legal authority, Candice had ruled our family since she was only fourteen and she’d done a good job. Whatever she chose to do, the rest of us would obey.

“We’ll cover it when she wakes up. No need to ruin a last night’s sleep.”

I thought about rolling over and telling them I hadn’t been to sleep yet, or even trying to frighten Candice like I used to when we were kids, but I didn’t. She was already worried. So was I, but for different reasons. She didn’t want to lose her new mate, or the very special males we were risking everything to help. I didn’t want to lose myself.

The Change had swept me away like it had nearly every other teenage female in the world, but I was burning faster than the rest of my friends and family. Candice had been close to this heat before she won her mate back from the Network, and she’d told me what slowed it down, but I couldn’t. I would never rent a male or have one around just to provide a service when I called. If I did that, I’d lose my chance at a real cure, because I’d never leave his arms long enough to search for a match. It would be hard for me to give up any form of relief from this torment once I experienced it, and I was wise enough to know that.

Due to the lack of males births, my Changeling body was instinctively demanding a mate, was being driven ruthlessly to continue our species. There was no other way I could stop the rages that had come with puberty and would leave with death. The years between would be an agony
of burning under the skin and blood behind the eyes as the disease progressed through the four common levels.
The Changeling Winds had come, twisting me into someone I hardly knew. I would never be the old Angelica again, even if I used that Pruett ruthlessness and took what I needed.
A service might slow the progression, but it wouldn’t stop it. Eventually, I would Burn-out or up.

Mary, Candice’s mother, was a frightening example of Burn-out. My aunt was so happy with her male, so in love, that she had no fire left. The only time she got riled was when he was in danger. If not for the family reputation and the protection Candice now made sure we all got, Mary would have been killed long ago and her mate stolen. That was the most common form of finding relief from this hell. Stealing a man wasn’t a crime in our world, only killing one.

Both were fates that I abhorred. I couldn’t stand the thought of winning one of those timid, cringing males for myself and retraining him, freeing him to live beside me as an equal… then not be able to defend him, or worse, snap and kill him by accident. It was awful how the sight of blood, the feel of it, could send the rage down a notch. Every time I took a life, my control grew.

That was the method my sister used to battle hers into submission, why she stayed in the lawless Borderlands. My family had their ways to maintain that
iron Pruett
control, but they were still burning. In time,
stage three or four
would claim them. They’d chosen to accept what relief they could find until it happened, but I’d sworn none of those would be my fate.

Remission
.
The thought of it made me careful, terrified. The fifth stage of the Change was one few of us found. Remission had occurred 12 times in our history when two compatible, willing partners came together. It didn’t sound that hard, but
willing
… males were slaves. They did what they were told and most Changelings did exactly as my family - took relief where it was found.

I was determined to be stronger… but this fire! Because I denied my body the contact it craved, I was burning faster. I was one of the ones who usually snapped and ended up slaughtering someone for their mate. I could feel that evil part of me and it was growing faster than my control. It wanted blood.

To keep from spilling it out here, I’d signed up to do it in the legal confines of the Network’s complex. It would give me a male of my own and a possible chance at remission if I could spot a brave bachelor - something I doubted existed - but it was mostly to satisfy the endless need and buy time.

At the Bachelor Battles, I was required to spill blood. I was praying it would knock the fire back long enough for me to get to know the mate I chose, so he would come to me
willingly
. Because of the need for a bond, I was afraid of the time we would spend alone together. I didn’t have Candy’s iron control, and I couldn’t wait for the bloody battles to start, so that I could build a tolerance.

It was hard to remember how happy I’d been before the Change. A part of who I was had begun to fade, so many memories, habits, pleasures. Nothing was the same. I loathed the Network and I wanted Baker’s enslaved males freed, but I wasn’t really sure of my place in the rebellion yet. It was the fire that I sought to ease by fighting to the death - live - on wall-screens across our world.

“What type of amendments?”

I’d almost forgotten Mary and Candice were talking, it had been so long since once of them spoke. I wasn’t the only one deep in thought.

“More contestants, no limit on visits with the bachelors as long as she wins and doesn’t give mercy…”

“Mercy?”

“They’ve added a withdraw rope. She can back out of two matches.”

“She won’t, and I pity the one who tries it in the cage with her.”

“I know she’s burning hotter, but are you sure?”

“Yes. Angel will get her own mate now, and their rule changes won’t make a difference.”

“The broadcast said the amendments had been in the works, but I think we both know why.”

“They don’t want her to survive.”

I agreed, but I couldn’t stand the thought of my family worrying over it and I rolled over, shrugging off the chills I’d gotten thinking about unlimited visits with the bachelors. The Network had sweetened the honey-pot. “I think they’re just shoring up chances of success, like we do.”

They both turned in surprise, drawing attention from our guards. Bruce and Daniel were standing watch over the small campsite, but they weren’t as sharp as a Changeling and there was usually someone awake while they pulled their weight.

“They’re covering both ends. Make it hard and maybe kill-off another troublesome Pruett, or follow me straight to the rebels.”

“How can you know that?”

It was Candice I answered, but my mind was seeing those dead males, remembering how full of life they’d been. “Because it’s what I would do. They killed a hundred with your episode. Why fix what’s not broken?”

“They’ll use the same tactics…”

“Yes. We’ll play it like we don’t know.”

 
“And while you’re inside?” Candice asked with a frown that drew Daniel to hover at her side.

I didn’t hesitate or bother to warn them that I’d be using my own rules. I said the only thing that mattered.

“I’ll act it like what I am - a Pruett.”

 

2

“And the final contestant is...
Angelica Eve Pruett!”

The screen blared static in the dawn’s ugly light and the camera paned out to show a menacing, stocky teenager standing in front of a wide-wheeled bike made for rough terrain. It was clear from the battle scars and hard expression that she had prepared to handle what was coming.

The voice faded to a mutter not meant for the wildly cheering audience.
“Is that the same…

A short pause.

“Wow, folks, it looks like this episode will feature another twist. Not one celebrity family, but two! That last contestant is a cousin to the infamous Candice Pruett, who I'm sure you all remember so well from last month’s brutal battles.”

Outside the Network dome, the battling mob is almost loud enough to drown out the next fade and mutter.

“Is she a Changeling, too?”

Another pause… fingers typing.

“Oh, wow, folks! This is
gonna
be good. Angel is a Level One Changeling!”

 
“Strike one.” I growled, as the audience roared their approval from the view-screen that we gathered around. The reporter called me Angel. I’d have to see if I could do something about that while I was there.

I snapped off the tiny viewer with a nasty smirk and straddled the packed Mopar. On either side of me, my sister and her crew of hard Borderlands Runners did the same. Seconds later we were flying toward the Time Trials, and my future, at full speed. I’d never felt more alive.

Chapter One

 

1

“Welcome to the Network Games check-in console. Please place your hand on the scanner.”

Candice Marie Pruett had come through an episode of the Bachelor Battles last month and gotten back her mate after he'd been sold to The Network. She’d not only won the episode, but intimidated everyone so thoroughly, that if she had signed on to defend her title, the program might have folded from lack of contestants. Candice, with her harsh grin and unblinking confidence, was the reason I'd found the courage to come but I had a different motivation.

“Please drop your ID into the box and choose a game.”

The light computer voice sang it repeatedly, and I dropped mine in with a heart of ice. It was the
future
that drove me, not the past.

“Processing...

Thanks to a war that had lasted only a single day, finding a mate to ease this torment was no easy task and this was the only way open to me. If I wanted a man, a chance end to this torment (and I did - more than even my own life) then I would have to fight for one.

“Enter your choice now...”

Mirroring my cousin's gloating expression, I pushed the largest button and spun around, smirking at those who were recognizing me with dismay. The Pruett name was well known.

I observed the vast, round reception hall intently. When the tall, lean girl with the crooked nose chose the same game, I marked her, openly assessing. I could see she was instantly leery of me, hoping I wasn't one of this week’s contestants too. My grin confirmed the thought, and she paled.

In the weeks since my cousin's brutal victory, the Network had expanded the games. Besides having fourteen females to kill instead of nine, unlimited visits with the Bachelors were now a part of the competition and the viewing world liked these intimate moments almost as much as the fighting. It drove up the ratings when replayed, as would each violent cage match I needed to survive to earn the visits - all the while possibly dodging attempts by the other contestants to kill me as I ate and slept.

Fun
, I thought, as the room became crowded with females - both normal and infected. Temperatures in the stone and tile hall began to rise and there was an edge of menace in some corners, snarled growls of warning floating sporadically through the black and silver room.

Out of the mix, I only spotted two contestants who made my heat flare - partially by the way the crowd parted so quickly to let them through. The first was a tiny woman. No more than 5' 1", she wore the Network logo on her bracelet, telling us she'd finished the time trials ahead of everyone else. Or maybe she'd sewn it on herself, like my cousin Candice had for her match after stealing the patch from the real winner.

Either way, I knew before she hit the Bachelor Battles button that she was someone to be careful of. It was in her walk and her relaxed stance. It said she wasn't scared of much, let alone any of us. It was the same impression she’d given when we raced in the final heat of the trials. If not for my intelligence, it would have been me wearing that patch instead of Kim Lee.

I’d set out to get it and realized at the last moment that I didn’t need the extra attention it would bring. I took a dive and kept my lower-profile cloak around me like an old friend. It would come off with my first cage match, but for now, it was a shield that I wielded very well.

The second female who drew my attention was average height and weight, with only her eyes (my dangerous, unreadable black) to give away the threat lurking inside. They said she'd come to win, but I didn't back down or flinch from her Changeling glare the way others in the hall did. I was eager for the first match to be underway and I was currently surrounded by females that I was almost allowed to kill. The temptation was powerful.

Outside, arriving Mopars and horses were a constant noise as more females came for a chance at this week’s lot of prizes. A rare few could afford to ride the sleek Network train to their match and the sounds of New Network City were loud enough to overpower the murmur of a hundred voices in the hall - the braying of sniffing hell Hounds and the cries of their victims were our background music.

A small explosive had been detonated in an eastern part of the city yesterday and now, people were being questioned. Rebellion from any source was a growing threat to the secure hold the Network had over everything and innocent blood would keep decorating the filthy sidewalks until the guards got answers.

The four females I'd already discounted were now huddled nervously near the Network guards that stood along the photo-covered walls, and I took my attention away from a set of familiar pictures as a soft chime sounded.

“It's three bells and all is wells.”
There was an awkward, computer-generated chuckle at the forced rhyme and then the voice continued,
“Please report to the Main Arena by 5:30 sharp. Those not signed into the Block on time will be disbarred from this episode. And remember, no battling until the Official Start at Sunrise.”

There was a short pause, and then another airy chime as the gates at each of the five arched doorways slid open.

Casting wary glances at each other, the females began to leave the wide-pillared reception area. I hung back, letting the rounded hall empty. It would have been safer to travel the narrow, photo-lined corridors in the pack, where the guards would be the thickest, but I was waiting for the stragglers.
And was glad.

The trio came in together a few minutes after the gates opened and it horrified me to think the sisters had willingly signed up for this. Sickened, I watched the triplets pick the Bachelor Battles.

The females were pretty and obviously wealthy, but they were the kind that wore a new pair of quartz gravity boots once and then threw them out instead of donating them. They were the kind who flocked to food shelters to dole out holiday meals, and threw orphan girls off their door stoops during the rest of the year. They were the kind who underneath, would do anything, pay anything, to get what they wanted.

I wondered why they hadn't bought a male from the Network like their kind usually did. Then I recognized the last female to select the Bachelor Battles and stiffened in surprise. It was Chelsea Bush.

I thought of the illegal news station we liked to listen to between bounty runs, the report we’d heard. Chelsea’s father had been found aiding a group of rebel males that had missed the train hijacking. Upon a complete search, the Bush family had been charged with more than ten violations of Network Laws. The sentence for their mother was death.

The sisters were here as high-profile outcasts, now poverty stricken from the heavy fines. My guts churned. They’d been sent to regain favor and refill their credits. It was a great deal for their families and for the Network, who would use the famous sacrifices to keep the Games popular. There were a few open calls now for he violent programs to be outlawed and a more fair system of male distribution to be created, but few citizens I knew were listening to the protestors. I hadn’t thought the Network was feeling pressured enough to do something so drastic.

The sisters turned toward the center door and I sent my gaze to the photos of my family, noting their wild faces and bloody hands. Then again, the Network would do just about anything for ratings… control.

I held my place until each and every contestant entered, dropped in their IDs and made their final choice - literally. Out of the fourteen I might fight, eight were no threat.
The other six?
Unknown.
I would have to see them interact to surmise more.

Fighting the urge to roam, to find a distraction during my free hour, when the last chime sounded and triggered a lock on the main door, I headed for my room. No one would come in or out of this section of the complex until the episode was over, until I’d spilled enough blood to coat the walls.

I knew these halls already, knew which way to turn, and was pleased to find myself next to the very cubicle my cousin had been in during her week of battles. I’d been here then too, kidnapped from another hall. That had been the last straw for me. I’d signed up the same day I was rescued.

More fun,
I thought sarcastically. Unlike my fearsome cousin or my wild sister, I wasn't so hard and dangerous. Sure, I had a skill for picking out weaknesses and yeah, I had a trick or ten that I'd been perfecting for years. What mattered was nerve. Did I still have enough to do this, knowing that my worries on the two-day ride here hadn’t been unfounded? Not all of my matches were a given.

I slung my kit onto the chipped green counter while listening to that angry voice inside. There was still time to withdraw, until the sunrise chime. Should I?

Could I?
That was the better question, I realized. Could I live with myself?

I scowled bitterly. No. Even without the family reputation to live up to, there was the cold bed waiting for my return… the painfully
empty
bed. I didn’t want any of those frightened bachelors, but I
needed
one. The Change had come and turned me into something else, something that hungered and burned endlessly. I had to try to get a mate, a cure. Even death would be better than this constant struggle for control.

 

2

I stepped into the wide room behind the Block at exactly 5:29. The last one through the door, all heads swung my way. Some of the waiting women instantly began viewing me less seriously despite the famous last name and I continued to give that impression, nodding politely at those who stared and glared.

Of that group, there were half a dozen. Apparently they saw my high-collared cloak, and then my perfectly blank expression, and recognized me for what I was - a contender.

“Chelsea Elizabeth Bush.”

Not bothering to watch the graceful trio move toward the velvet curtains, I tuned-out the speaker and concentrated instead on discovering which, if any, of the sturdy females lining these walls might be able to kill me when the official chime sounded at dawn.

“Danielle Ann Bush.”

Sighing inwardly at how long this would take, I didn't waste the time. I spent it picking my careful exit and return through the halls, but mostly I used it to narrow down a suspected weakness in each female. I thought of anything but the performance to come.

Ice had settled over me by the time they announced the fourteenth fighter and over-viewed her talents. She left the stage with a short glare my way and I understood she already hated me. I recognized her, too. She was a Diva gang member. Candice had killed their leader during her Games challenge last month. There was that family name again, helping things along.

I gave a short ‘bring it on, then!’ wave, and the woman fled the empty waiting area with only another quick glower.

“And the last Contestant is...”

The moment stretched into eternity for me before the speaker blared again.

“Angelica Eve Pruett!”

I felt the hush come over not only the live audience of Bachelors and viewers, but also over those tuned-in across the world.

“From sisters to cousins, this is Angelica, 18-year-old Pruett family Tracker. As a part of one of the most brutal clans in the history of the Games, I wonder what we can expect from this Changeling teenager.”

I moved slowly into view. I was the third of my family to come through these curtains to claim a mate. Would I live up to their expectations? What about the others? What did they want most?
A small show?
For me to be as harsh as the other women tonight hadn't been? I hoped both were true as I kept my gaze from straying to the small glass room at the very top of the honeycomb-like complex. It was the room that one of us Pruetts might step into before all was said and done.

I came out below the first cage where I would battle, a bit stunned by the sound of the audience. The red-faced mob was already violently drunk and peppered with Network guards trying to strike them, repeatedly, into obedience.

The Block was a protruding stage in the direct center of the complex, with fans on three sides and the males in a small, well-guarded pen on the fourth. There were thousands of faces crammed into the arena, enthusiastically betting on who would die first.

I stepped forward as my image flashed onto the giant view-screens that were spread among the triangle-shaped walls and the tension thickened with each light step I took. Even the announcer was silent, waiting to see me.

As I neared the center of the Block, I stopped, turning to face the cameras. In this version of the game, the contestants were allowed to give a short statement, and I made sure mine would be remembered.

“I'm so happy to be here. I'm sure it'll be a learning experience. Thanks
soooo
much to the Network!”

I'd memorized the exact tones of those who'd come before me, so much that it was perfectly eerie.
“I just love the complex and I can't wait to meet all the bachelors!”

My sarcasm was holding them still and silent and I snorted, making those in the front row jump. My hand pointed at the camera, and my gravelly voice dropped low, into dangerous. “I’m a Pruett. Don't bet against me.”

I spun toward the curtains, pulling the string on my cloak as I left the Block, revealing netted cloth that outlined my lean body in thin black strips. It was designed in a spider web, like Candy’s had been for her match, except my covering material was formfitting and the color of skin. In the camera glare, I appeared naked.

Chaos erupted, catcalls and yells exploding from the drugged Bachelors. The stunned announcer tried to recapture the moment, to control the disorder with laughter.

“Well, that is a Pruett butt, for sure!”

Another round of yells came in response and I stepped slowly from The Block to found the waiting area empty.
Damn!
Candy had been ambushed as she moved off the stage. Why not me?

I sighed in disappointment, taking my starless ID from the console before heading down the hall. Maybe there would be an assassin in my room.

 

3

My room was a mirror of Candy’s during her stay - a long green couch, a green kitchenette, and a washroom with a single green towel and bar of soap. The Network didn’t care for comfort or cleanliness, and I brushed the dust from the counter before setting my pack there. It appeared these rooms weren’t cleaned very often, but at least there were no bloodstains on the walls… yet.

The small apartment was far from the digs I was used to. It was partially my family's wealth and skills that had brought me here. The entry fees were exorbitant and my parents hadn’t given their support. I’d had to use my part of the bounties I’d collected over the last two years. If I had been caught on the payroll before I was 18, we would have all been killed, but I hadn’t been. Instead, I’d helped bring in a number of high-profile targets and earned my place, but it hadn’t mattered to my parents. Despite all the successes over the last two years, my parents still worried, doubted I would survive here. Because before the Change, I hadn't been rebellious like Candice or even outspoken like my sister. I'd been
nice
.

They didn't understand that part of my life was only a vague blur. All I could see, all I could feel now, was
Need
. And there was only one cure.

My dreams the first night were vague, shifting worries that were interrupted by wakeful periods when I sent pink eyes around the darkness, poised to react. I did this for hours, savoring every 30 minutes I was able to steal and when the chime signaled sunrise, I was rested. Being a family tracker had toughened me up
.
I'd soon see if it was enough.

 

4

I woke in time to hear the view-screen in my room click on, signaling the start of the episode. All over this floor, other Changelings were being brought to alertness the same way and their growls pleased me. I didn’t mind rude awakenings. It was all part of the job.

“We will now choose the Luck of the Draw contestant who will have three battles in a row to begin the episode. Viewers will vote on her match-ups as soon as we have a name. As usual, the Network will pick a replacement if our Luck of the Draw winner is defeated. No other official fights are held during this time, but attacks and assassination attempts are, as always, encouraged.”

In the corner of the room, a platform rose from the floor and a thin control device slid out of the grungy, puke-green wall.

“Please step onto the scanner and remain motionless.”

As I did,
rain began to drum against the rubber roof of the complex and I realized the dome must be open. I hadn’t heard it during the night, and that worried me a bit. How much technology did the Network have? With the secrets we’d learned, was it too far of a stretch to think them capable of having some of the very same weapons that had caused the world to end? I refused to shudder, but I felt it just the same.

 
“The contestants are now being evaluated by the Network computer designed specifically to determine which one of our players has the best chance to win. It’s meant to take away the edge of the fittest, over those who’ve had less training. Their pictures and stats are now showing up as the computer finishes.”

 
“Thank you. Please step off of the scanner.”

Thunder cracked, sending a line of fuzz through the monitor that gave the contestants an evil-looking glare on the screen. Mine was particularly menacing and I was pleased.

 
“We’ll have our Luck of the Draw fighter in a moment, but before that, a quick reminder on what our contestants can earn from their matches.
Stars are given for each kill, high popularity, and by Network decision. Each star will gain the contestant a guard while in the halls and their room, along with a fresh stock of weapons and medical credits. Stars cannot be lost, but at the start of Round Two, they can be given away to protect someone else, such as visiting family.”

 
“Okay… the results are ready. We’ll hit the button here, and… There. Now, we’ll see the name when the timer counts down.”

The crowd on the screen was starting to get unruly again despite the early hour, mirroring my own impatience. More Network guards moved into the mob with clubs and fists.

It was raining harder now and I thought of the trip waiting for me if I won. The dust storms currently raging across the Borderlands would be followed by a month of steady rain that killed more of those trying to survive there than even the pythons did during breeding season.

Not that the huge snakes were absent then. At the height of the rains, the female pythons placed their eggs in the ground, allowing them to populate the southern lands in staggering numbers as the eggs were washed downstream during the floods. It was a hostile land, one that I was set to become very intimate with.

 
“Angelica Pruett!”

“You have been scheduled for a match in one hour. Please report to the main arena on time.”

“Our Luck of the Draw contestant is Angelica Pruett! How’s that for a coincidence? Will this 18-year-old bounty hunter survive the first three matches? The computer thinks so.
Wadda
ya say, folks?
Wanna
place a bet or two?”

 
“And the first contestant our bounty hunting Changeling will face is…the Diva Brawler!”

 
I flipped the screen off in shock. There was no way I was the most likely to win. Someone had tampered with the computer for this match…
like Candice had
.

There was no way it was coincidence. I’d told my family it was just the Network covering both sides, but they did want me dead. There was no way to mistake the feeling. I’d been marked by the Network Council.

 

5

Interviews were done two ways.

I much preferred the screen conversations that I could respond to from the privacy of my booger-green room. The other way consisted of showing up in the press room below The Block. It meant strolling through the Network reporter cubicles and enduring their shouted questions as I searched for the one I was supposed to answer.

As I shoved through the door, the long hall of smoky, hutch-like setups fell silent… then their residents swarmed me. Behind them, a single female remained in front of her hooch.

When she held up her mic, I pushed that way. As I went, I wasn’t gentle and the others began to give me space, but still hurled their questions like spittle.

“Has the…”

“Did you…”

“How long...”

As I reached my reporter, I spun around with pink eyes and was gratified to see them all flinch back. “Go away, now.”

I let red orbs show, marveling at my on-the-edge control, and they went back to their places with fearful steps and twitchy glares. I remembered the way Candice had used them while she was here, intimidated them. Maybe they could be put to use. I would think on it.

I turned back to see my reporter hadn’t moved, but I could feel her hungrily memorizing every move I made. She had a sharp smirk, knowing she and her toga-clad body got me first, exclusively. I disliked her from that instant.

She waved me in and I sank down into her uncomfortable chair, noticing the guards now standing stiffly in the corners. When Candice had been here, the interviews had been done in the glass room directly above The Block. After my cousin’s encounters, the Network had changed it to the prepping area and made a lot of enemies among the Fourth Estate. These TV-minded females needed to be in the spotlight to be satisfied, and I would keep that in mind as I dealt with them.

“Ready?”

Despite my reporter’s almost reasonable appearance, I didn’t expect this to be anything like a calm chat and I tried to get ready for her attack.

“You know it.”

It was hard to remember some things, especially when they never meant much to you anyway. The first interview was uncomfortable as I struggled to walk the line between the new and old Angelica - the good and the evil. I was trying hard to give a relatively harmless impression so that when I let it out, when I snatched them by the throat, surprise would give me the win.

Before the Change, snarky comments and snide remarks were ignored, shrugged off. Now, they were a direct challenge and if not for the steady blink of the camera light to concentrate on, I may have exploded before the first match.

“So, we have Angel Pruett here with us…”

I recognized that voice now (
strike two!
) and made another mental note to handle it.

“As I’m sure you all know
,
Angelica’s cousin Candice is wanted by the Network for questioning. They are suspected of being rebel sympathizers, but I think Angelica wants the world to know she doesn’t share their views. What better way to uphold the family honor than to come here, right folks? Let’s give her a big welcome.”

After the applause and shouts, the smirking reporter quickly went through questions about my family and then the competition. I assumed I answered much like the others.

“How does it feel to be related to such brutal women?”

“Good.”

“Are you trying to prove you belong in the family?”

“I'm trying to get laid.”

A pause and a frown.
Hmm…

“You're only ranked 9th to start the first day. Does that worry you?”

“It's what keeps me up at night.”

A longer pause to my scorn, my mocking, and a deeper scowl that I was betting could get bigger. The reporter wore fine, caressing fibers with stunning style and no wind resistance, and I snorted mentally at the thought of her in my world. Without the Dome, these soft Network people would freeze in their elegant attire and indifferent social mindsets.

“Why did you enter the games?”

“Sex and blood.”

“No, really.”

“Yes, really.”

I'd been right. The scowl nearly encompassed her face now.

“The Change!
Does the anger make it hard to focus?”

“Only when I'm forced to answer stupid questions.”

Then again, maybe my tones weren't so similar. Maybe I was a bit faster, a bit sharper than the others. I'd know when the rankings came out this evening. I needed to jump a level every day to keep a full stock of food and medical credits.

“What do you think your chances are of getting a mate here?”

I couldn't help myself. I was going to like continuing Candy's traditions. “Better than yours, I'd guess.”

The reporter flushed. Not a gentle rise of color, but a bloom of red fury… and again, I couldn't stop it. I grinned.

Chapter Two

Day Two

 

 
“Welcome to the first match of this week’s episode!”

Blue lights flashed over the arena as the crowd roared. The fighting cage was a 12’ x 12’ dome with a fencing frame and dozens of small, sturdy cameras. To get to it, I had to walk down the same fenced-in area Candice had strolled and I tried hard to emulate her untouchable façade.

Candice had reminded me of two things before we split up. The first was to react to each situation exactly as it deserved, which had always been necessary when training with her, but it was the second advice that would serve me the best.

“Use the interviews. Spend the time blending the old and the new into something on the edge. Then set it loose in the cage.”

And she'd been right. As I stepped into the arena, I could feel my deadly edges gleaming hungrily at the first contestant I'd noticed in the reception hall.

I moved toward the crooked-nosed huddler eagerly. She had one minute to bow out, sixty seconds to choose life or death. I wasn't surprised when she remained. She wouldn't be here if she didn't have her own drives too.

I slid my cloak to the floor as I entered the ring. Still wearing the netted outfit from the introduction, it made even my opponent gape and gave me the instant advantage. I was the unknown, the high-odd’s wild card, and I met her in the center with fury burning in my gut.

The Brawler came at me like a boxer from the ring of the bell. I was tempted to duke it out with her (I excelled at hand to hand combat) but I couldn't wait. I needed her blood -
Now!

I let her fist get in the air before I ducked, leaned forward, and sank my blade deep into her unprotected belly.

I ripped upward as I spun, my wrist-blade slashing at her again, and the huddler’s hands came up as if to stop the gaping flood of crimson now streaming from her neck.

“Match to Pruett!”

The crowd
roared,
some screaming my name and I inhaled deeply, struggling not to slice her again. I already loved it here, in this small ring of death. Unlike my cousin, I felt no guilt. During the worst moments of the Change, spilling blood seemed like what I was put on the earth to do, and I did it well.

I stepped back as her body hit the mat, letting the fury thicken before giving the audience what they wanted.

The grin was ugly.

 

3

My first two battles had been scheduled back-to-back and I followed Candy's lead, leaving the bloody clothes on as I traveled the mostly empty, photo-lined halls. In the images, were centuries of females who’d suffered these Games, shown at their most violent moment. The Network made sure we were constantly surrounded by blood, distracted by the crimson…what were they hiding that we didn’t know about yet?

The Network had an arena-like cage set-up for each of their violent Games. The episodes that had multiple matches alternated between the unused cages - to allow for cleanup, I assumed. I found it all very orderly and awful. They’d made sure the death kept flowing, with no pause for the removal of bodies to be caught on camera and frowned over.

No one shrank from me yet as I sauntered along. I only had one star, one menacing guard, but the frowns of those I passed said they'd soon be researching my details from the safety of their wall-screens. It was something I'd already done for each of them.

I pushed the door open and moved down the walkway, stepping into the identical cage without sympathy for the bone-thin female. It was another of the four huddlers. Her panicked brown eyes, and those shaking, un-clawed hands told me she wasn’t a Changeling, but I only tightened my control. I would not allow compassion to ghost me. I was a Pruett. We weren’t that weak.

“Cage Match Two!”

The dividing bar went down, and I moved forward as the blue lights glinted blindingly. The huddler sensed my lack of compassion the instant we locked gazes. She flinched toward the withdraw rope…

No mercy!

I lunged for her…


Nooo
!”

My claws held her wrists back so that I could dip my head and slam her against the cage wall. Bloodlust in control, I sank my teeth deep into her neck with a growl of delight that was overpowered by the loud speaker and the screams from the live audience.

“Match to Pruett!”

Blood squirted, spraying crimson to compliment my eyes.

I let the warm body fall as I pulled my teeth back in, a hideous mess. I waited for the crowd to quiet, knowing this image would grace the front of every daily edition across our nuclear-torn world. The thought drew my harsh smirk, and the crowd thundered its approval.

Pruett! Pruett!

On my way out of the cage, I slid a fast knife into the air and cut the withdraw rope. I wanted it clear that I would give no quarter.

The screams grew louder, hungrier at my action. Laying low had been the plan, but it wasn’t possible. I already lusted for the legal violence of the next match too much to pretend anything else.

 

4

For some reason, I had three guards when I entered the halls and three flickering, golden stars on my ID. I stored it with all the other oddities I was noticing.

I headed to the bachelor cells next, with only a fast wipe on my sleeve. It was better that the males saw the new me, the Angelica who basked in the blood of her opponent. The male I chose would have to be able to accept it. Once
Changed
, there was no going back.

My trio of guards waited outside the cells and I didn't miss them. The bachelor dorm was only open to one contestant at a time to prevent injury to the valuable prizes and so far as I knew, that rule hadn't been broken in the history of the Games.

I studied the blue-haired female with the clipboard as I moved inside. I took her for the head Den Mother and knew I was right when she stayed in the doorway. That wide face, with those bushy brows and pox-marked skin, was hard to read, but her hovering said she was protective of the males hidden here.

“You have one hour.”

I wondered how deep the bond was between these big guards and the bachelors. Did they depend on these women for everything? I thought the answer was yes and that meant the one I chose would need the same support from me. The Network trained them to obey and to please, not to think for themselves.

There were three more enormous guards lurking in the large flat and each of them viewed me like the threat I was. They wore the Network uniform, silver on black, but each hair-do was a different, vivid color that might have had me shaking my head if not for knowing it was how the males told them apart. Names were not a big thing here, where the faces changed weekly.

As I swept cuddle chairs and candlelight, I identified the smell littering the air -
Italian food
. I grimaced, thinking of the blood drying on my hands, but made no move to wash. To do so now would be taken as a sign of weakness to those viewing us live, but without sound.

Unlike my room, the bachelor cells were neat and clean. Half the reception area was taken up by a long table with no less than fifteen place settings. On this wide table were tall, white candles and red cloth napkins in front of high-backed chairs that looked softer than anything my ass had ever been against.

The other side of the room was a compliment to the dining area. There were long, silver and black curtains, and small pillows to match the elegant red and black sofas. A number of floor-bound reading lamps threw a gentle glow over the room, and as a finishing touch, there was an enormous stone fireplace in the far corner, keeping the chill from the valuable males. It was very cozy. I assumed the Network liked the idea of the world thinking these men were pampered, but I’d been at Stone Mountain. I’d spent time with Baker’s escaped, terrified males, and I knew better.

“Evan, Christen, Alec,
Mikel
...”

I didn't bother to learn their names, instead judging their reaction to my appearance as they came out.

Fear.
Worry.
Fear.
Fear.
Near panic.
Nearly all of them stared, some freezing in their practiced entry. I searched them for a sign...

I narrowed in on one behind the others, drawn by shiny black hair draped over thick shoulders, and felt the heat rise. This one wasn’t wearing a complete cloak of fear, though he was shaking lightly.

He met my searching study with a slight lift of his chin that immediately drew my attention harder. Wide chest, thick arms, big hands resting against lean hips… The thought of being touched with those big fingers lit my insides up like a torch.

He dropped his head and I felt the spell break, my heat receding.
Interesting.
Would the rest of them make me feel that with just a look?

The males were pretty. With pleasing faces, and dressed in flowing, black Network cloaks, they reminded me of the sexless dolls I'd played with as a child. If not for their stiff stances and terrified expressions, they might well have been. They in no way resembled the lusty men from last night. Was there no real spark in these men? No hidden desires to be freed?

“May they sit?”

“Have them remove their clothes.” I observed reactions closely.

More fear, touches of panic, and then finally, a bit of reluctance, the mother of rebellion. It came from the one I’d already noticed.

“What?”

“Their cloaks.”

The males complied without argument, revealing shirts with ties tucked neatly inside soft trousers that I judged to be new by the way the men fidgeted as they undressed for me.

Bam!

Lightning struck outside the covered windows and most of the males flinched. Candy had told me about her mate’s fear of the weather - it came from not wanting to burn to death like other bachelors here had - and I was glad of a Den Mother’s low words from the dark doorway nearby.


Tis
just a storm.
We’re monitoring.”

Her words had an instant, calming effect and I vowed to remember to do it for my male when the weather was bad. I didn’t have many fears, but for those that existed, I wanted comfort while dealing with them. I planned to extend the same help to my prize.

“Leave us.”

Not a request, all but the blue-haired Den Mother disappeared. When I glanced at her, I could see she thought she wanted to take a stand on it and I sighed. I hadn't planned on the third match today, but I would be alone with these men or thrown out - one of the two.

I padded her way and was satisfied to see her take an immediate, startled step back.

I jerked a hand. “Go.
While you can.”

She fled and I concentrated, trying to reign in my rage. I didn't want the bachelors to be terrified of me and I couldn't be barred from them. I needed to be welcome.

I turned to see all of the men as far from me as they could get, their faces lined up in panicked rows. I locked down on my disappointment and gestured toward the long table. “Let’s eat.”

The last one to sit, I lingered, letting my hunting instincts send me in the right direction. It was the same killer line I used to judge runs and I employed it now to single out a few of the more promising from the herd. With all the tension, my need was rising at a fast pace. What would it be like to touch one of them?
To hold them during the cold, painful nights?

I concentrated, letting the Pruett come forward and I sniffed the air like an animal, tasting them…Sweet flowers…heavy cologne…
Mmm
… One of them had a thick, coppery scent that pulled me like blood. Another was throwing off odors of sugar and sulfur. Both of those last two would please my senses. What about attitude?

Most of them were slouched, clothes mussed slightly, but two had unfastened the top buttons of their shirts, leaving crooked ties and a slightly off-center impression. I liked that, too. Heads were
down,
eyes submissive… except a few of them were stealing subtle glances of confused fear and hope.
Interesting.
And tempting.
All those ways to relieve this fire, now sitting docilely at my fingertips.
If only one of them would show a spark!

The males only seemed to relax slightly when the Den Mothers came back out, carrying heavily-laden trays. The heaping bowls of pasta and meat filled the air with hunger, but they waited to be given permission. Slaves…