Archive | Blogophilia RSS for this section

AI Art- Blogophilia 30.14

It’s time again for Blogophilia, the fun blogging group where Martien gives us prompts to use for our weekly posting. This week’s prompts are:

Ecrits Blogophilia Week 30.14 Topic:
Hope Springs Eternal

Hard Bonus: Use a line or quote by Walt Whitman
(Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them)

Easy Bonus: Include an aqueduct

(Note: AI is controversial because of the training methods of the bots, which really don’t train any differently than humans do. If you don’t like it, that’s your prerogative and I have no intention of changing your mind, so please leave me alone as well. Thanks)

Winter Queen

Since November – thanks to our dear Jonathan – I’ve been playing around with Wonder AI. It’s an art AI (artificial intelligence) and it’s a lot of fun. It does make some beautiful things, but it takes a lot of reuploading/rendering and clever prompt manipulation to get things from it, and even then it has issues with hands, feet, and in some cases limbs. Let’s just say that despite the art world’s fears, this version isn’t going to replace real world artists. For one thing it is time consuming. Did I mention having to run and rerun the same image through over and over again, sometimes tweaking prompts or style? You start to feel like Walt Whitman’s spider , “Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.”

Christmas Duck

Still, Hope Springs Eternal and I keep trying to get the image in my head. Honestly, if you have something specific in mind, you’re better off just drawing it yourself. However what I have mostly used it for is random art. I put in a vague prompt – like Queen’s Will – and let it make what it will for awhile, then eventually I’ll pick something out of it and start adjust prompts like “haughty, beautiful queen with long dark hair” etc.

Ice Princess

One of the things that makes it enjoyable is the community around it. I’m in a reddit sub for the Wonder AI and there’s also an official Discord (yeah, I normally don’t like discord because I have a heck of a time using it, but I try to make an exception here and there. ) The Discord has competitions, and though I never win, it’s fun to use prompts I wouldn’t do otherwise (like the new years fireworks). It’s also fun to share prompts with one another and see what we get.

New Years Fireworks

As I said, it’s mostly fun, and though it may be the foundation of something that changes society, like the paved road or the aqueduct, it’s not there yet.

Here are a few more of the images I’ve made, though.

Devout Flower
Another spawn of Devout Flower
Golden elf
An earlier spawn of Devout Flower
a spawn of Shadow Waterfall – maybe Dryad?
Retro
Cyberpunk City
An earlier Devout Flower spawn

And that’s all I have for today.

Have a fun art kinda day!

Jo 🙂

Blogophilia 28.14

It’s time for Blogophilia, the blogging group where Martien gives us weekly prompts for our blog. This week’s prompts are:

Ecrits Blogophilia Week 28.14 Topic: Hell Hath No Fury

Hard Bonus: Use a Clive Cussler book title
(Shock Wave)

Easy Bonus: Mention something you might see under a microscope
(germs)

Yeah, I noticed that I fell off the planet in November – or seemed to. I had stuff to blog, but I just didn’t get to it. Why? Laziness, maybe? I know such a confession is likely to send a Shock Wave through y’all, but it is what it is.

So, new year. We’re supposed to have resolutions, come up with something to make ourselves better, but…eh. I don’t really have any. There are things I’d like to get back to doing – like blogging – but I’m not going to resolve to do it because resolutions always get abandoned in about two weeks. And then we all feel bad and try to punish ourselves – Hell hath no fury like someone who is disappointed in themselves.

So, what would I like to do this year? I’d like to get back to writing. I’d like to get back in the habit of blogging. I’d like to have time to listen to music again. I’d like to watch TV. I’d like to watch the movies I’ve been wanting to see for multiple years. I’d like to redo Dad’s room and get the sunroom and storage finally dealt with. I’d like to keep the house clean, keep up with laundry – I could keep going, but you get the idea. No way it’s all going to happen. And that’s assuming the world doesn’t come with some new germs we all need to be scared of.

Anyway, happy new year, and here’s hoping 2023 is a better year than the last!

Jo 🙂

Halloween Decorations Are Done – Blogophilia 17.4

It’s time again for Blogophilia, the fun blog group where participants use prompts in their weekly blog. This week’s prompts are:

Ecrits Blogophilia Week 17.14 Topic: Everything Pumpkin Spice
Hard Bonus: Use a line or quote by Henry David Thoreau
Easy Bonus: Include a “new girl”

It’s also the time of the year where Everything Pumpkin Spice is…well, everywhere, and the time when we see ghouls and goblins – or rather, this year, skeletons. As Halloween decorations have popped up, I’ve seen an overwhelming number of skeleton set ups, which annoys me a bit because I’d planned LAST year to do a skeleton-scentric display this year.

It’s been said, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” And here I am, following right along with everyone else. Bah!

Anyway, I present for your viewing pleasure, this year’s Halloween display!

I haven’t done much with the porch, and probably won’t, but there’s something at least.

On to the front yard where Skully’s Lawn crew is working hard at getting my yard in shape. We have a guy who’s found a surprise in his wheelbarrow full of dirt, his friend who’s run into a snag while cleaning out the bird bath. The guy with the sheers looks to be doing a fine job – better than the guy who’s mowing, because I think he ran over one of his fellow workers. And then we have the guy who is supposed to be working on the tree. Looks like he can’t hike on, but luckily he has a cloaked friend ready to help…wait a minute. Maybe that’s not so lucky. Oh well, the guy raking the leaves doesn’t seem to worries, and neither does Skully, who’s supposed to be supervising them.

Considering the luck they’re having, it’s just as well they haven’t made it around to the side of the house. I don’t think these plants would take well to being trimmed. (The eyeballs are made out of those plastic eggs like the LOL dolls come in and the man eating plants are foam pumpkins, tree branches, some floral bits from walmart, and spray paint. I might add tongues to them on Halloween. We’ll see)

On down from the plants is the cemetery and the river Styx where the boatman steers some unlucky souls to the afterlife. Even the wildlife there is spooky, as this fisherman has found out with his catch. And look at that – the duck and the frog are just as skeletal. WooooooOoooOOoooooo….. (that’s a tarp – actually three tarps- and I made the lily pads out of felt because otherwise the frog didn’t show up well)

You might have noticed that the souls in the boat seemed very concerned, but they shouldn’t because the afterlife isn’t so bad. Why, look, they even have a park -a Helluva park, haha! It looks like it’d a good place to play frisbee…erm, unless your the guy who lost his hand, I guess. Luckily the Afterlife EMTs are there to save the day. And what park is complete without a dog walker? Fido and Spot look like theyre…oh, dear. Is Spot being a naughty boy? I hope that guy picks up after him! Meanwhile it looks like the dude on the bench is enjoying feeding the birds. (He was supposed to get a vulture, too, who would have been a new girl, so to speak, but at the last minute my order was canceled because they were out of stock. Boo!) But even if we didn’t get the vulture gag, the homeless guy (based on Madao from Gintama) worked well. My uncle is the one who put the bird on his head, and frankly it’s hilarious. Cerberus is also hanging out, though if he is one of the guys’ pet or just a stray, I’m not sure.

And last but not least are the spiders, which Mike put up. 🙂 They will get you if you’re not careful!

And that’s it. Hope you enjoyed the little tour.

Have a spooktacular kinda day!

Jo 🙂

Autumn Photos Take Two – Blogophilia 16.14

I mentioned the other day that I had some autumn photos from Wednesday, but was having upload issues. Well, got them done, finally, so here you go. I’m using them for my blogphilia blog, because I can!

What is Blogophilia? It’s a fun blog group where participants use weekly prompts to write a blog. This week;s prompts are:

Ecrits Blogophilia Week 16.14 Topic: Harvest Moon

Hard Bonus: Incorporate your favorite song title (Wicked Game)

Easy Bonus: Mention fire

So, the first batch of photos was taken on the way up to Council Bluffs along Highway 34 again. There was some nice colors, but nothing that looked like the trees were on fire or anything.

This is a park in…I forget the town name. But, anyway, every time we go past it the bro makes the same joke about the helicopter taking forever to land.

And then we changed directions and the sun became a nuisance… I mean, it made for some interesting photos, especially the ones where it reminds you of the harvest moon, but…

Not top notch quality, but not bad for a cellphone I reckon.

Got some more done on our Halloween stuff, but this is so long I’ll put it in tomorrow instead. It was a bit of a Wicked Game on WordPress’ part, getting these all uploaded and embedded, but I finally made it. I think I need a glass of wine…

Have an autmny kind of day!

Jo 🙂

Halloween is Coming – Blogophilia 15.14

Off and on for the last fifteen years or whatever I’ve participated in a blog group called Blogophilia. It started back on MySpace, and though it took a hiatus last year, it is now back! I missed the first week, but I’m here for the second, at least.

The way it works is Marvin (our fearless blogophilia leader) gives us prompts to use in our blog. This week’s prompts are:

Ecrits Blogophilia Week 15.14 Topic:

All Roads Point to Nowhere

Hard Prompt: Reference a Kevin Bacon movie (Footloose)

Easy Prompt: Include an object to your right while writing your blog (Benji the puppy)

https://marvgrn08.wordpress.com/2022/10/09/blogophilia-week-15-14-all-roads-point-to-nowhere

I still need to do the Renaissance Fair blog, but again, it’s the hundreds of photos hanging it up, so I’m gonna dance on past it now, Footloose and fancy free, as they say.

Haven’t done much that’s newsworthy, really. We went to Mondos the other day and, wow! It’s a Halloween explosion in there! This is what I mean when I say I want to decorate for a holiday. Sadly, I’m too lazy and crunched for time to do it, though.

We did get some work done on our display. We need to add the rest of the skeleton birds and the sign, but otherwise the Heluva Public Park is done. I’m not sure if you can tell it, but the guy on the stretcher got hurt playing frisbee with the other two. I need to add a beer can to the dude hanging out of the garbage can, give the bench guy some bird seed (and his other birds) and I think I’m going to make red crosses for the medic’s shirts, just out of sticky vinyl

We also started the front display, which will be Skully’s Yard Service.

I need to get one of my folding chairs from Mel’s so the boss can sit in it, and then we’re going to try to borrow a mower off someone for the mowing gag. Also have a gag coming with the wheelbarrow that we need to set up. And of course, make the sign.

The man eating plants haven’t made it any further, but hopefully this week they will. I don’t know where all my time is going lately, but so far this year all roads lead to nowhere and I can’t seem to get anything finished. Benji says it’s okay, though.

And for those interested in the yard saga, they are all done and even put grass back on it!

they even seeded the other part that has no green stuff on it. So, yeah, I was impressed.

Okay, that’s what I got.

Have a Halloween is coming kinda day!

Jo 🙂

Ecrits Blogophilia Week 22.12: Akbar is Missing!

It’s time for blogophilia, the fun blog group where Martien gives participants prompts to use in their weekly post. This week;s prompts are:

Ecrits Blogophilia Week 22.12 Topic: “When the Movie Credits Roll”
Hard Bonus (2 points): Use an onomatopoeia
Easy Bonus (1 point): Use a book title by Carl Safina

Last week Jonathan and his family came for a visit – for the annual Day and Dark conference. While he was here, he went for a walk in a cornfield because, Iowa, and met a new friend Akbar who wanted to see the world, but settled for going to Florida.

akbar

Akbar*

He packed his bags, practiced his song for the blue ocean, and – whoosh – left with Jonathan, bound for palm trees, but something happened…something mysterious. Jonathan claims that Akbar ran away with a “steamy housekeeping pepper”, and that was that. When the movie credits roll, Akbar is happy with his new flame, and Jonathan made it home safe, a happily ever after.

Right?

Wrong.

Not long ago a tiny knock sounded on my door. At first, I ignored it, but then, I finally checked and there I found a mysterious ear of corn.

9N3AvZ4h

Meet Saffron 

The corn introduced herself as Saffron and said she was looking for Akbar. Apparently, she’s his girlfriend, and she was pretty upset when I showed her Jonathan’s post.

MX9fc3Yp

the tears of corn

We made her a fortifying cup of tea while she told us her story. She and Akbar planned to be married this fall, but first he wanted to see the world. She was okay with that, as long as he kept in touch, but after he failed to check in, she got worried, and that’s why she came here.

5hl78dAv

The tea calmed her down and with her calm came doubts: doubts that Jonathan’s story was true. I had been suspicious from the start (a rumor says that Jonathan simply forgot to take Akbar from the motel), and so I loaned her my laptop and she did some research, starting from the last place we know Akbar was at.

fkE8aHJN

Is Akbar lost somewhere in Arkansas?

Since Arkansas is so far away, and Saffron doesn’t have a driver’s license, we had to settle for calling the police and filing a missing corn report.

i-Bmvrs8

She’s all ears, but there’s not much to hear

So now, all Saffron and I can do is wait for the police to do their job, contact Jonathan, and try to find out the truth!

*Yes, Akbar is a parody of a Julien Smith video on YouTube. You can check it out in Jonathan’s Facebook post. 

 

 

Blogophilia 30.11 – Reymen

It’s time for blogophilia, the fun blog group where Matien gives us prompts to use. This week’s are:

Ecrits Blogophilia Week 30.11 Topic – I’m Dreaming of …
**BONUSES: 
Hard Bonus (2 pts.): Include a Keith Urban song title – female
Easy Bonus (1 pt): Use the word ‘ magenta’ 

.

I actually had the first half of this written for last week, but went to bed and forgot to post it the next day. Ugh. So you’re stuck with the whooooole thing on one looooooong go.  Lucky. But as long as this took to wrote – three weeks total – all i can say is I’m dreaming of the day it is edited and done.

**

Reymen stood in the rain. He could see the breath of his horse against the night sky; little puffs of clouds that floated away in the deluge. Lightning split the clouds, an illuminating flash he didn’t need. His vampire eyes were well to the task of seeing in the dark, even with a late autumn storm.

The sound of hooves came in the distance, barely discernable over the pound of the raindrops in the mud. The road before him had turned to sludge, with little rivers carrying away the solid bits to leave behind a mire. His horse stirred, pulled, as if he sensed the approach of the other beast, of the monster that rode upon it.

The Hand of Death.

Had Reymen possessed a soul, the title would have sent a shiver down his spine, but as he stood both immortal and soulless, he felt nothing. The vampire was just another colleague, another monster, whose only outstanding features were his brusque way of handing a situation quickly, and his status as most beloved of their master.

Not that Malick was Reymen’s master by blood. That honor belonged to another. However, Malick was his master by choice. The one whose orders he followed and whose whims he catered to, on pain of death.

The sound of hooves grew louder, and then the horse came into view. A large black stallion that looked barely broken, nostrils snorting wide, eyes lit with the fury of some inner fire. It was just the kind of beast Jorick would choose.

As for the vampire himself, he sat tall and straight on the back of his steed, his own raven hair snapping in the wind, his black travel cloak billowing behind him. His face was pale and set, emotionless and unmoving, as one of the sentinel pines that guarded the roadway.

He pulled his horse to a halt, slinging mud. Reymen waited for the beast to stop pawing, then ventured forward, fist to his chest and head bowed in a makeshift salute, only looking up when he reached the side of great steed. Instead of dismounting, Jorick stayed seated, that hard gaze bearing down on Reymen.

He waited for Jorick to speak first, but when nothing came, he lifted his chin a notch. “Sir.”

Jorick’s reply was a murmur, so Reymen pushed on. He shouldn’t let himself be intimidated. They were both Malick’s henchmen, both so-called Enforcers or, Malick’s personal favorite, Executioners. They were near the same age, with maybe twenty years between them. They were both whisperers and dream stealers. By all accounts, They were equals.

Only, that equality was no more true than saying Reymen was equal to the master, Malick, himself. For just as Malick commanded The Guild, Jorick commanded the Executioner force, beholden only to their master, and no one else.

“There are two guards following,” Jorick said finally, his tone cold, disinterested.

Reymen frowned. “May I ask why?”

“Malick felt they might be useful. They will catch up to us, later. Unless you want to stand here all night?”

Jorick tugged the reins, and Reymen deftly avoided being stepped on by the steed. With a shake of his head, he mounted his own horse and followed his commander.

They passed in silence, following the road, the only sound was the rain and the suck of the mud on the horses’ hooves.

Reymen glanced at his companion.  As a dream stealer, he could slip into the thoughts of others, see what they wanted, what they hated, what they worried about. Though he very much wanted to know what thoughts churned inside the hand of death’s head, he knew better than to try.  Jorick was not much older than Reymen, but he was much stronger.

He’d feel the intrusion before I could discover anything of purpose. 

And then Jorick’s cold indifference would turn to anger.

Time passed, until Reymen could stand it no longer. “Why did Malick send you?”

Jorick scoffed, eyes ahead. “Your results have not come quickly enough.”

That was what he’d suspected. The message had come yesterday from a tired rider and even more exhausted horse. When Reymen had broken the seal, the paper said only, “Wait for assistance. Jorick will join you in two day’s time.”

Subtracting the hours it took the rider to bring the message, Reymen had figured the two days would mean only one. However, it was long enough – too long – and now he’d lost what tiny lead he had.

Jorick made a low noise in his throat. “The Kugsankal, the ruling council in The Holy Roman Empire, has threatened to send Malick some assistance.”

Had Reymen been walking, he’d have stopped dead in his tracks. As a rider, the forward motion continued, even as his brain froze in place. “Assistance? Do you mean…?”

“They feel the population may be sufficient to warrant a council rather than the rule of a single master.”

Reymen phrased his question carefully. “A council under his rule or one of equal power?” He couldn’t imagine Malick sharing control with others, especially those “sent” by the Kugsankal and not chosen by the master himself.

Jorick echoed Reymen’s thoughts, “Malick will not share power, though the True Council will expect him to.” There was a moment’s silence, then he added, “If this is not handled well, expect punishment.”

Punishment. It was a word that held a thousand unknown terrors. Everything from death to simple dismissal. Not that Executioners were routinely punished, but it did happen. Not as often as it occurred to the guards, of course. They more often earned the master’s anger, the orders for torture, imprisonment, or execution.

Reymen swallowed his discomfort. “I was unaware this was such a delicate matter.”

“Aye. The master is applying pressure to the True Council. Of course, he’s not as old as they are, but he is ancient in his own right. Near Malick’s age, I believe.”

If stories were to be believed, that meant nearly two thousand years old.

“And with that age comes great power; influence, and a large coven. The Kugsankal still fights to unify the world under their rule. If this master were to refuse to capitulate to them, it could mean war. They plan to avoid that at all costs.”

Reymen closed his eyes and wished someone else had been given this assignment. It had seemed easy enough when he first got the message: a pair of rogue vampires, one male one female, had escaped Europe, made passage on a ship for three months, and should have arrived last week. Rumor said they’d made port in Philadelphia and had fled from there. He was to apprehend them, and return them to The Guild, alive, so that they could be transported back to Europe where they would be punished for their crimes.

Though killing them would have been simpler, there was some comfort in the directions. It was always nice when he didn’t need to take the life himself. Not that he was a stranger to killing. Still…

“I’d ask who this important master is, but I doubt the name would mean anything to me.” The vampire society in Europe was complicated, many layered, and understood only by those who’d been involved in it. Reymen had been turned there, in the new world, insulated from the Europeans.

“No,” Jorick agreed. “It wouldn’t. However, he’s been known as Amerigo for some time.”

Meaning he’d changed his name. And why not? Reymen was far from his own birth name of John. It was something given to him with the dark blood.

A long time ago.

Jorick cleared his throat and hesitated, as if trying to determine whether to continue. Finally, “Be warned also, his patience is thin and his mood black. This has come at a poor time.  Only three days hence Clara was dispatched.”

Clara. Malick’s pet, a mysterious relationship that Reymen couldn’t wrap his mind around. More daughter than lover, the vampiress had been pampered and kept like a princess in their subterranean den, held above all others, not for her intelligence, or her beauty – not that she was unattractive – but rather for the amusement she seemed to provide the ancient master.

Or that was what Reymen could ascertain.

“What do you mean dispatched?”

Jorick looked to the heavens, as if asking for patience. “Executed.”

Reymen held back his burst of surprise, waiting for more to come. When it didn’t, he prompted, “Why?”

“Malick caught her entangled with a guard. He had their skin peeled from their bodies, then left them in the sun to burn while he watched their punishment from shaded safety.”

Punishment. The kind he could expect if this didn’t go well.

They fell to silence again, until the familiar house came into view; the place Reymen had spent the last day while he waited for his assistance.

He stopped his horse in the yard and hopped down. “The guards you spoke of, you’re sure they will find us.”

“They’re trackers.” Jorick dismounted and led his horse to the makeshift stable. “We have some small time until sunset. Tell me what you’ve discovered.”

Reymen sighed as he followed, his horse behind him. “Not much. They’ve been quiet since they arrived, no trails of victims or blood orgies to follow. They did make the mistake of stealing clothes from a washer woman. When she challenged them, they revealed their nature, and escaped while she was in a state of fright. She told the story around the settlement, not that any believed her.”

“However, you heard about it,” Jorick said impatiently. “Did you correct her memories?”

“I saw no need to. No one gave any credence to her words. To change it now, after she’d so highly publicized it, would be more suspicious than to leave it.”

“Perhaps. You say no trail of victims?”

“No, none I can find, at least. They hide their kills well.”

“Or else subsist on animals as a way to stay hidden.” Jorick looked to the saddle, and then to the building. “You have no servants?”

Reymen shook his head and saw Jorick wince. With a resigned sink of his shoulders, he turned to unsaddling his horse and readying it for rest. “Have you made contact with them?”

“With the rogues? No. And after waiting for your arrival, I fear the trail is gone.”

“Then we must hope the trackers can find it.”

Reymen didn’t bother to tell him how little faith he had in the yet unseen guards.

**

The guards arrived only moments before Reymen and Jorick were ready to descend to the root cellar. The Executioners waited impatiently as the vampires prepared their horses and then hurried to join them.

“We apologize for the delay,” the first said quickly, bowing at the waist.

“Apologize later,” Jorick snapped. “Before the sun is upon us.”

Reymen showed them below, not there was much to show. A small room, high enough to let them stand, backs bent, and just big enough to hold the four of them and a bin of moldy potatoes. Reymen settled next to the wall, and let sleep take him. His dreams were dark, as they always were, and he woke to the singing of night crickets.

Jorick was already gone, no doubt gone above to feed. Reymen climbed over the still slumbering guards and up the rough ladder. Though early evening, the grass was damp from dew or rain. Tattered clouds spread out in the sky above, keeping the secrets of their daytime weather to themselves.

When Reymen had fed, he returned to find Jorick seated on an overturned barrel, a magenta jacketed book in his hand. Reymen waited for the Executioner to look up, or acknowledge him. When nothing occurred, he cleared his throat, earning only a motion for silence.

“Are we going to look for the rogues, or would you prefer to stay here all night, reading?”

Jorick made a sound of impatience and snapped the book closed, eyes like dark darts that drilled into Reymen. “We are waiting for our trackers. When they return, you will take us to the place you last had the rogue’s trail. Until then, I intend to finish this scene.”

He popped the book open, but the guards appeared, wiping their mouths, and straightening their uniforms. Jorick didn’t bother to look up, merely quipped, “Ready the horses.”

The guards shuffled away. Reymen crossed his arms, watching as Jorick’s eyes digested the words. He didn’t bother to ask what the tome was; he didn’t care. In his mortal life, reading and writing had been something done only out of necessity. Immortality had done little to change that.

The vampires I was with were more interested in hunting than poetry.

He remembered his birth coven, as he thought of them. Dark skinned, with darker eyes, they’d dressed in furs and feathers and painted their bodies in blood. They’d come to the struggling colony, no doubt smelling the death that was coming, brought by natives and sickness. In the dark they’d slid over the walls, slipping through the night like snakes. They’d taken the Harvie babe first, then the child’s parents. The mother’s screams woke him and a few others. They’d followed the sound to find the monsters feasting, drinking, the bodies of their victims torn to wild shreds.

The rest was a blur, lost to time and shock. Reymen had a vague memory of trying to fight them, of being taken away, bound. He wasn’t the only captive. Later, he’d learn that the creatures had taken most of the surviving colonists, leaving those they rejected dead.

In their strange garb, he and his fellows took them at first for an undiscovered tribe, but soon learned the truth of them; of what they were. They were the monsters the Crotan had warned them of, the spirits of hell made flesh.

They were prisoners for weeks, maybe months, as the monsters slowly killed them. Reymen vaguely remembered a lack of food, and water. There was delirium, desperation, cold.  One night, as a spring moon rose, bloated and full, they’d set the remaining captives free, herding them to a clear space. They’d told them that there was food and life for only three of them. To ensure they chose the strongest, they bade them kill one another, so that only the strongest would survive.

Reymen couldn’t remember what Bailen’s name had been before, only the moniker he was given later. That he was the strongest among them was never in doubt, and he quickly proved it. Reymen had a smeary memory of standing back, appalled by what he was seeing, unable to move, to help his dying fellows, or to take part.

Until Bailen came for him. When the man grabbed him by the throat, Reymen’s instincts had kicked in, and he’d fought with all his strength. He hadn’t killed the man only wounded him, but it was enough to send him lurching to another victim.

After that he thought he’d fought others, maybe even killed one. He recalled being covered in blood, and shocked at the appearance.  Whatever his performance had been, it was enough, and he’d been chosen, with Bailen and another. They’d been fed, prepared and, when they were healthy, given the dark blood and new names.

Just as Reymen had learned to survive as a colonist, so he learned to survive as one of the day sleepers, as the monsters called themselves.  Until the Guild had appeared from nowhere, they had been Reymen’s main source of education and information about immortality. It was their laws he followed, their traditions he kept.

How many years ago had that been? Seventy? Maybe more. Kateesha was the first enforcer he’d encountered. She’d marched into the center of their coven, her black hair piled high on her head, her voice hard with authority.  She tried several languages, and when she hit upon English, something had sparked in Reymen’s mind, a dim memory from his life before.  He and Bailen had worked to translate, and soon learned her purpose; Malick’s purpose, the grand purpose of the True Council who lived far over the sea.

Reymen had followed her back to the den where Malick lived, hidden away with his handful of luxuries. Though Reymen hadn’t sworn loyalty to the ancient master then, deep down he knew he would eventually.

Yet I held out forty years, a lifetime for some mortals.

Though that was true, there he was now, standing ankle deep in wet grass, waiting for Jorick to close his book so they could track rogues who’d broken laws far away, across an ocean he’d once crossed but couldn’t remember.

The guards cleared their throats loudly, and one finally said, “Sir?”

Reymen turned to see one leading his horse, the other Jorick’s. Wordlessly, the hand of death closed his book and strode to his steed. He mounted in a smooth motion, then bid the rest to do the same with an impatient look.

If your hurry is so great, then perchance you should have skipped the last several pages?

Though Reymen though it, he kept it to himself. No point in starting a fight with his commander.

**

Reymen showed the vampires the trail and followed as the guards headed down the path, sniffing and murmuring to one another. A glance to Jorick showed that the Executioner was as disinterested in the proceedings as he was in everything else.

Perhaps if Kateesha was here he’d pay more attention.

Not that Reymen was sure what their precise relationship was. One moment it seemed they were lovers, and the next Jorick put her as far from himself as he could, disdain on his face. Not that Reymen had a lot of occasion to see either of them. They lived each in their own dens, miles apart, only reporting for assignments when a messenger brought them Malick’s orders. Working together was rare, and even rarer was having two guards attend them.  One was sometimes sent, but two…It meant there were fewer vampires to attend to Malick’s will, fewer to attend Clara.

No, he reminded himself. She’s past needing attendance of any kind.

Now that the shock of her execution had worn off, Reymen almost wished he’d been there to see her die, see her haughty features twist in disbelief, then terror as she realized she wasn’t better than they were. She wasn’t a queen.

She is certainly one of the things I will not miss.

The scent of blood interrupted his thoughts. He caught Jorick’s eye to see the hand of death already reining in his horse. They both dismounted, and followed the smell into the trees, the guards left behind to guard the beasts. Dodging low branches, they could soon smell the humans that accompanied the blood. Three males. Their voices were low murmurs that grew in volume the closer they got, until at last they could hear them.

“It does no good! He is past all aid. Do you not see that death has taken its hold? There is nothing you or can do for him.”

Reymen drew to a stop, but Jorick charged ahead. Though he’d have rather waited to discern more information, he plunged after his commander.

They came upon the men at last, huddled around a prone man that smelled of death. Fresh death, not more than a few hours old. His throat was torn, and though the humans’ thoughts said they took it for animal, Reymen knew better what it was.

The men froze at the sight of them, while Jorick quickly probed their minds. Reymen didn’t bother. He had the information he needed. At last, the missing rogues were acting like rogues.

Like we used to act before The Guild declared it illegal.

It was only after they’d headed back to the horses that Reymen heard the men stir again. Jorick’s influence is slipping from them, not that they’ll understand or even remember it.

They reached the horses and waiting guards. Though Jorick didn’t comment, Reymen told them, “It seems we may not be as far behind as we thought.”

Jorick swung onto his horse. “That wasn’t our rogues.”

Reymen ground his teeth. “How can you be sure? There are no other known vampires in this area.”

“Known or not, someone else is here. To take a human would break their pattern. They are in hiding, they would not broadcast their presence so.”

“How can you be so sure? I wish no offense, but as you’ve already stated, you won’t suffer Malick’s wrath.”

Jorick scoffed. “I said nothing of the kind. Clara’s execution should prove no one is safe from his fury. It is for this reason I say investigating this death further is a waste. Come.” He motioned to the guards. “Find our trail.”

**

Reymen’s mind went back to the body again and again. Back to the blood. The torn throat. They both knew it was the work of a vampire.

If we lose the rogues because of this…

What was the rest of the sentence? Would he march up to Malick and throw the blame at Jorick’s feet? If he did would the ancient master believe him? Or would he punish him for passing the responsibility to another? Would he believe that his precious hand of death refused to investigate further?

He can read my thoughts, my memories. He will be able to see the truth for himself.

The thought wasn’t enough to comfort Reymen. When they stopped for the day at a dilapidated barn, his brain was still painted with imagined scenes. He saw Clara and a faceless guard skinned alive, thrown in the sun, saw himself in their place while Malick blamed him for the True Councils’ interference.

Because of your failure, they will send someone to subvert t my will. You must die for this offense, child.

The voice sounded a little too real, and sent a shiver down Reymen’s back. If he didn’t know better, he’d think perhaps Malick really could send his thoughts, his voice, to them, even this far afield from The Guild’s headquarters. But such things were impossible.

Weren’t they?

While the guards were tasked with ensuring the barn was safe, Jorick leaned against the rough wooden wall, his book open again. He’d spent part of the ride reading it, and looked to be nearly finished.

At least then he’ll have to pay attention.

“I’m always paying attention.”

The reply jolted Reymen, and his eyes snapped to the Executioner. Jorick didn’t bother to look up, only purposefully turned a page. “And my observations are how I know that the vampire who killed that human is not with our rogues. You’ll see that for yourself, soon enough.”

“What is this? What mean you?”

Reymen held back from attacking the silent Executioner, though he wanted to. He is the commander, and Malick’s pet. You know what happens when you cross him.

He’d seen Executioners punished only twice, and once was because of Jorick. Three years ago, Daniel and Jorick had been sent south, to New Spain. It was an extensive assignment, one that lasted months as they fought rogues and tried to subjugate a Spanish coven who refused to bow to The Guild’s authority.  Eventually Kateesha was sent to help, and after wiping out most of the coven, and a good number of others, control was again established.

When Reymen pillaged the guards’ memories, he’d seen Jorick’s return though their eyes.  Malick complained that they’d taken too much time and too many resources. Jorick didn’t reply, but Daniel did. He blamed their slow progress on Jorick and the way he’d dealt with the Spanish, saying that he’d been too quick to kill and had seemed to revel in the flow of their blood. “How can we convince any to capitulate when they see their death written in his hand?”

Jorick had snarled back, “Perhaps if you’d spent more time assisting than rolling in Kateesha’s bed, I wouldn’t have had to kill them all myself.”

Malick had broken into raucous laughter, then ordered Daniel taken away. “Blood is the way of the vampire, child. Fear is the means of control. We will not rule with kindness and compassion, but with terror.  My son understands this. Do not question his methods again.”

Though Reymen had backed out of the memories, he’d caught a glimpse of Daniel’s punishment, of the whips, the screams, the starvation, Malick amusement. Immortal, when Daniel was freed, he looked no worse for wear on the outside, but Reymen could see the mental scars without trying.

And if I press this matter, that will be me.

Frustrated, Reymen stormed to the barn to oversee the guards’ efforts.

Better than staring at him in silence.

**

Despite his annoyance, Reymen slept well and rose just after Jorick. They fed on wildlife and the guards did a final scan to make sure they still had the trail.

“There’s another scent,” one of them said, glancing back the way they’d come. “Six furlongs. Perhaps a mile.”

Reymen breathed deeply, sorting past the smell of moldy hay, the horses, the vampires, the trees, the grass, the damp earth…on through layers of scents, but he could detect no one else.

Because I’m not a hunter.

“As I said, you’ll get to meet the mysterious third vampire soon enough,” Jorick quipped, mounting his steed. “Come. He will catch up or he won’t.”

The guards hurried to obey while Reymen glared. “You knew he was following us?”

“As you should have. Unless your skills or wit are lacking.” He smirked, then his face dropped back to its normal cold nothingness. “He is no matter. One young one against four.”

The guards hurried forward and Jorick urged his horse to follow. Reymen glanced over his shoulder, back to the invisible stalker.

As if I needed this to get more complicated.

**

They traveled at a hurried pace, stopping only to let the horses drink, eat, or rest. At such times the guards would scout ahead, rushing back to assure them that the trail was getting stronger, fresher.

“We may overtake them tomorrow,” one said enthusiastically.

That hope burned in the back of Reymen’s mind as he bedded down that morning, laced with a hint of trepidation. Their mysterious pursuer was still behind them. Though Jorick said it was a young one, it made no sense that he would continue to pursue them, knowing that there were four of them and only one of him.

Unless he’s very young indeed and doesn’t know how outmatched he is.

Still, what could his motives be? Robbery? Did they have anything worth stealing?

The questions were still swirling when he woke the next evening. He brushed off his clothes and fed, then waited as the guards readied the horses and checked for the trail.

Jorick sat on a large rock, reading a new book. Reymen glared at him and, with a sigh, the executioner snapped his tome closed to look up. “You should make yourself comfortable. If their estimation is correct, it may take a hour for our mysterious friend to join us.”

“You refer to the vampire following us?” Jorick nodded and Reymen tried not to sound annoyed. “You plan to wait for him to overtake us?”

“Yes. Better than his coming upon us at a surprise moment. As it is, we can control the encounter.” He opened the book again, adding, “If you wish, I have other books in my bag.”

“No, thank you. I cannot fathom the point of reading without need to communicate.”

Jorick looked up, his usual calm ruffled by a surprise that settled to contempt. “Then it’s your mistake.”

No, my mistake was taking this assignment.

Not that he’d had a choice. None of them did. A messenger would arrive with a command from Malick, and they were expected to go immediately, to carry out their master’s bidding and then, if ordered to do so, to report in person to the master himself in his New York den.

As I was ordered to do. Though he’d been commanded to have prisoners in tow when he did. Prisoners who would be sent back to Europe to suffer for…for what?

“What crime did they commit?”

Jorick glanced up. “Of what do you speak?”

“The rogues we’ve been ordered to catch. They’re to be sent back to Europe to this Amerigo for punishment, but for what crime?”

“Theft.” Jorick looked back to his book.

With no more conversation, Reymen abandoned the Executioner for the guards.  He passed on Jorick’s orders to wait. Though they only saluted, he could hear their confused, worried thoughts. He thought for a moment to comfort them, then dismissed it. Let them stew, as he was stewing.

The waiting seemed interminable. Reymen found rocks among the weeds and practiced throwing them at a nearby tree. The bark was well chipped when he caught the sound of a horse, followed by the whiff of an immortal.

Reymen tossed the last rock to the ground and pulled his sword from his belt. He slid behind the barn, so that he could see the road, unobserved. The guards had taken up similar positions, though he had no idea where Jorick was.

And then he saw him. The hand of death moved to stand in the middle of the road, his long hair and cloak stirring in the wind, like the tales of old warriors Reymen had been raised on so long ago.

The sound of hooves grew louder, and soon the horse broke free of the trees. He beast was dark, but the rider on its back was fair. Long blonde hair was worn in a ponytail, and, had his scent not given away the secret of his immortality, his pale skin would have.

The unknown vampire reigned his horse in, pulling to a stop just short of Jorick. They stared at one another, light and dark clashing. Finally, the stranger swung down from the steed and approached, hands up.

“You’re the same as I am.”

Reymen couldn’t see Jorick’s face, but he could guess by his tone that it was as grim as ever. “And what do you mean by that, sir?”

The stranger stopped a few paces from him and motioned to him. “A walker of shadows.”

“Yes,” Jorick replied. “What do you seek with us?”

The other looked surprised at the question. “Seek? Good sir, it is you I seek, you and your kind – our kind. When I broke with the sisters two months hence, I feared I would never happen upon another.”

“There are many.” Jorick dropped the defensive stance and motioned to the others to come out.

Reymen stepped free of the building, his attention on the newcomer. He focused on him, on the patter of his thoughts. The thread of deceit ran through them, manipulation, but under it was genuine surprise, and even a little loneliness.

“Where is your master?” he demanded.

The blonde turned eyes to him. “I left them, as I said, some two months  ago. There was a tedium to their company that was wearing to the intellect, if not the soul.”

“We have no souls,” Jorick said. “Your parting was amicable?”

As the vampire nodded, Reymen was already diving into his thoughts to see a pretty redhead, her hair in curls, her expression pinched. “If you feel you must, Beldren, then I cannot stop you, but to wander the world alone…”

“Then would you leave Ismene?” he’d replied.

When she shook her head, curls bouncing with the motion, he’d stepped back. “Then I must take my leave, for another month under the same roof as her will see blood spilled, whether mine or hers. One of us must go.”

So that was it. The vampire… Beldren’s… story was mostly true. He’d left with his master’s permission, though Reymen wasn’t sure if he’d killed Ismene first. Not that it mattered. It wasn’t illegal, unless they complained.

“Wither are you headed?” Jorick asked.

“Nowhere.” Reymen felt the truth in Beldren’s answer. “Until now I was unsure there were more shadow walkers in the world. In more than a hundred years I have seen none others, save the sisters.”

Reymen moved to join Jorick in the road. “You have been hiding, then?”

“Hiding? Nay, unless the isolation is abnormal.” Beldren frowned.

“Not completely,” Jorick admitted. “Those who come across the sea to this place often do so to escape the company of others. It’s no wonder once they’re here they shut themselves away.”

Reymen thought he caught something wistful in Jorick’s words, but it was gone before he could be sure it was really there.

“Where are you fine gentlemen traveling to,” Beldren asked, the smooth cleverness returning, sliding over him like an evening dress. “Perhaps I may join you?”

Reymen was prepared to say no, but Jorick only waved to the horse. “Do as you will. We are on an errand for our master. When it is done we will return to New York. But know, if you follow us to the conclusion, you will have to face Malick. He’ll demand it, if for no other reason than his own amusement.”

Beldren had questions, but Jorick motioned him to his steed and quipped that they could talk as they rode. “We’ve lost time enough.”

Reymen mounted his horse, watching as the blonde led his animal to fall in beside Jorick. Taking an unknown vampire with them, while hunting rouges? Was such a thing wise?

Of course it isn’t.

***

Jorick explained Malick, The Guild, the Executioners, and The Laws. Beldren’s eyes gleamed at each piece of information, and Reymen could feel him trying to piece it together to benefit himself. Let him try. Malick would see through it in a moment and then…

And then what? Beldren had committed no crime. There was nothing to punish him for. Malick would either convince him to join them as a guard or servant, or send him packing, back into the world alone.

When the lessons were over, they let the horses rest, then picked up the pace. The guards excitement was soon contagious; the trail was fresher than it had been earlier. They were gaining ground on the rogues, and, so long as their pace did not slacken, should see them by sunrise

They skirted away from an encampment of soldiers – whose soldiers Reymen didn’t know. The countries and kings of humans meant nothing to them now. That there was a conflict, he’d noticed recently, but what it was, or why…he knew not, and cared not. It would end, as all conflicts did, with a victor and loser, while life continued on unchanged for him and his kind.

Reymen felt the shift in the air as morning approached. Two hours at most until the sun rose. The birds, still silent, would soon burst into song, and the scattered villages would come to life with humans, beginning a day in their war torn country.

It was then that the guards motioned them to slow, their excited eyes gleaming. They pointed to a collection of houses ahead; not a village, but a cluster all the same.

At last, the rogues reveal their nature! No doubt they’d gorged upon the home’s occupants, leaving shredded bodies strewn in their wake. They’d think to shelter at the scene of their crime, to hide from the sun, but little did they know they were being followed; hunted.

And will soon be captured.

They slowed until they pulled the horses to a stop. Beldren looked on with a mix of confusion and excitement as the rest of them slipped silently from their mounts. His voice came as a whisper, nearly as soft as the wind, “Shall I remain with the horses?”

Reymen had a sudden flash of Beldren stealing the beasts and riding away, saddle bags and all. At the nearest village, he’d sell what he could. He glanced to Jorick. Were those Beldren’s thoughts, or his own paranoia?

“No,” Jorick murmured. “Come. If you get in the way I will kill you if need be.”

Beldren balked and then the same easy confidence was back. “Of course. I’d expect no less from the enforcers of immortal kind. What was the word you used? Vampire? A curious name, indeed.”

Reymen was inclined to agree with him. Day sleepers had been good enough for his own clan – or coven as Malick called such groups. More of that European civilization encroaching upon their wild world.

Wild or not, they had a job to do, and Reymen had no intention of letting Beldren interfere, despite the many chances Jorick seemed willing to give him.

He had best make good on his promise to kill the vampire if need be, or I shall do it for him.

With that in mind they crept toward the buildings. Reymen could smell the rogues, tucked neatly into one of the houses, behind crisp curtains and the smell of humans. Five? No, there were more, some in each house. He sorted through the scents: males, females, children. Families.

Before he could give it any further thought, Jorick kicked the door in. He stormed inside, leaving Beldren hanging back.

“Is this the usual way things are done?”

Reymen shrugged and pushed past him, into the darkened house. Occupants were stirring, no doubt woken by the sound of the door. Jorick stood in the middle of the room, before a hearth that glowed with coals. “They’re this way.”

Reymen didn’t need Jorick to tell him – he could smell the rogues as well as the other Executioner – but he didn’t bother to say that, only followed through a low doorway into the next room, and to a set of locked, double doors.  Reymen could feel the rogues on the other side, smell them.

A commotion came; the sound of breaking glass, of motion, of the rogues escaping. Jorick snarled and kicked the doors in, leaving them handing on their hinges, with the middle ruined. Reymen charged inside after him, but the rogues were gone, leaving a shattered window and broken glass scattered.

Reymen could see the pair running in the moonlight, dashing for the next house, as if that could save them.

“I’ll go after them.”

Reymen grabbed the window frame, ready to propel out, when the gunshot came; a loud echo that shook the house. Without thought, he dropped back and dashed toward the sound, barely beating Jorick to the scene.

A man in a nightdress stood in the middle of the room, a heavy rifle in his hands. Of the two guards, one was slumped back against the hearth, his face a mass of blood and pulp. The other was tensed in an attack position, ready to spring.

The human turned toward the Executioners, mouth open, ready to shout, but Jorick swept past him and snapped his neck before a word could fall. He dropped the body to the floor and snapped around to the guards. “Bring him!”

The command snapped Reymen out of his shock, and he shoved past the vampires and out the door, looking for the rogues. He’d seen them run for one of the houses. If they thought they could hide behind the humans…

He reached the house, ready to knock in the door, when the rogues stepped out from behind the building.

“Stop! Why are you chasing us?”

Reymen drew his sword and dropped into a stance, ready to fight. “We’ve been sent to apprehend you.”

“Sent by whom?”

Jorick joined them, his sword in one hand, his eyes hard. “The Guild. You can come with us willingly, or you can fight. The choice is yours.”

Reymen tensed. Ready for the attack. But, instead of fighting, the vampire sank to his knees. “Please. You don’t understand.”

Jorick stepped in front of Reymen, stopping just short of the rogues. “Nay, it’s you who don’t understand. It isn’t our place to judge you, or forgive your crimes, only to bring you back to Malick.”

The vampiress huddled behind the male. Her pale hands clutched her shoulders. “Who is Malick?”

“The head of The Guild,” Reymen replied.

When they both looked blank, Jorick said, “Amerigo complained to the Kugsankal, and they have commanded that Malick send you back to be punished for your crimes.”

The woman made a soft sound of horror. “No. You can’t.”

“We can, and will.”

Jorick took a step closer. The rogue jerked to his feet, pushing her back and tugging out a long bladed knife. “Go, Catalina! Run!”

“No, Filippo!” She broke into a foreign language, clinging to his arm. He shook her free and answered back in the same strange words.

Though Reymen didn’t know the language they used, he could gain a sense of their meaning by reading their thoughts. He could feel the pulse of their fear, hers stronger than his. He was telling her that it was better to go than to go back across the sea. Reymen had a flash of a face from her mind, a male with cold eyes and colder hands, a vision that brought her terror to a fever pitch.

Jorick gave a grunt of impatience and lunged. Filippo swung. The blade bit into Jorick’s arm, but he ignored it to grab the vampire by the hair and slam him to the ground. The shock of the attack left the rogue motionless for a moment, enough time for Jorick to roll him on his face and grab his arms.

Reymen rushed forward to help just a Filippo reacted. The vampire jerked and kicked, but Jorick shoved a knee in his back and shouted for someone to hold his legs.

Reymen grabbed the vampire’s ankles, but Jorick had barely gotten rope pulled out of his coat when Catalina attacked. Her hands, nails like claws, raked Reymen’s face, and her shrill cries were enough to wake everything within a mile.

Reymen tried to shake her off. Finally, he let go of his charge to bat her away, knocking her to the damp ground in a pile of skirts. He turned back to see Jorick, rope in hand, securing the bucking Filippo. That second was all she needed to leap on his back, heels digging in and hands scratching his face again.

On his knees, he didn’t have the range of motion to shake her off, and ended up face down in the cold grass, the vampiress on his back. She clubbed his head with her fists, screaming like a wild creature. Reymen managed to lift his head high enough to see flickering light in the nearest house; a human woken by her cries and coming to investigate.

Reymen tried to concentrate on the mortal’s mind, tried to tell him everything was fine, but he was too distracted by the pummeling to connect. If he couldn’t stop him, they would no doubt need to kill him, and anyone else who wandered into the midst of the struggle.

It will be a blood bath. No doubt natives will be blamed for the wholesale slaughter. Or perhaps the invading army.

Either way, he needed free of the vampiress. With a growl, he rolled over, suddenly, knocking Catalina from her perch. She landed on the ground, and Reymen used the chance to grab her hands. Now, if he only had some rope…

“Here!”

He looked up in time to see Jorick toss the skein of rope. He caught it with one hand, and hurriedly used it to bind her wrists. She bucked and kicked, her screams reaching an earsplitting pitch.

One knot secure, Reymen grabbed her swinging feet and secured her ankles, effectively hog typing her face down on the grass.

He was barely on his feet when the nearest door opened. An older man with a nightshirt tucked into his breeches loomed out, a rifle clutched in his hands. Jorick jerked to his feet, but the man didn’t seem to see him, only turned in a slow semi-circle, eyes searching the night.

The door of the next house opened, and another man stepped out – no, more boy than man. Similarly armed, his rifle shook in his hands as he gazed out.

In moments, others had come; mostly old or too young and one a woman bundled up against the early chill. They stood not a stone’s throw away, firearms in hand, eyes shifting from one another to their surroundings, yet not one’s gaze lingered on the vampires.

Catalina managed to roll herself to her side and screamed, a string of that same foreign language. Filippo shouted back to her, but the humans didn’t react, didn’t flinch didn’t even look at them.

Reymen moved slowly to Jorick. Was the hand of death controlling them all? He was strong, of course, so it would no doubt be an easy thing. Yet, his furrowed brow looked more confusion than concentration.

He glanced behind them, to see Beldren had joined them. The blonde stood, hands at his side, fingers spread, and face rapt with…with what? Was this something he was doing?

Reymen looked quickly back to the humans and touched one of their minds, gently, lest he break whatever trance they were in. For a moment he could see through their eyes, a flicker of landscape washed in shadows. They saw no vampires, heard no screams. There was only the dewy grass and the song of late crickets.

The humans broke apart, heading back to their houses. The bang of the nearest door shook Jorick and Reymen from their tense fascination. They turned as one, each grabbing a bound rogue. Reymen stopped to gag the shrieking vampiress. Her fangs sunk into his hand, and he backhanded her, hard enough to silence her. In the moments of quiet, he shoved his handkerchief in her mouth, then used a piece torn from her skirt to hold it in place.

She gave muffled cries as he hauled her back to the horses. With only an hour left until sunrise, Reymen wasn’t sure where they were going to go, especially given the heavily wounded state of the guard. He wasn’t dead, nor in danger of death; with rest or blood he would heal.

When he came to join them, once again whole, Reymen realized he must have taken the second option. Perhaps one of the family from the first house.

Reymen reached for his mind and saw Jorick in a recent memory. The Executioner spoke to the other guard, motioning with one hand as he pulled out his sword with the other.  In the corner of the room was huddled a woman, a young girl, and a boy. “I don’t have time to clear their minds. Use them to heal him then dispose of the others. No witnesses.”

Of course. The way of the vampire. Keep their existence secret.

Or so The Guild maintained.

In his immortal youth they hadn’t bothered with such things. The day sleepers were known by the tribes – known and feared. They hunted when and whom they wished, and were sometimes given sacrifices with the hope of mercy. But this European method, this hiding in shadows, of pretending they didn’t exist…he didn’t fully understand it. Malick had explained many times that their foreign masters feared what humans might do to them while they slept, what tortures and deaths the mortals might construct, and how, by unifying in fear, they might bring a means to the complete destruction of immortal kind.

Reymen doubted such a thing could come to pass, but it was not his place to argue, or to question. Those that did were punished.

Yemen shook away the creeping fear that word brought and loaded the vampiress onto his horse. He climbed up behind her, and looked to Jorick.  The Executioner didn’t look back, only clicked his tongue and snapped his reigns. His steed whinnied, then leapt forward, racing through the darkness.

Reymen looked back to see Beldren scrambling to his mount, his face weary with fatigue. His display had cost him dearly, but for now it had kept the humans alive. Reymen wasn’t sure whether to mark that as good or bad. Had they died, a place to stay the day would have been as simple as choosing a house. But such bloodshed might have upset the Kugsankal, who would surely have heard of it.

Not Malick, he thought as he urged his horse on. Malick seems to enjoy the death, with no preference to who does the dying.

**

They stopped at a small farm some way from the make-shift village. A woman was the only occupant, already awake and halfway through her morning routine, even before the sun had risen.  Jorick easily overwhelmed her mind, so that she paid no attention as they took over her root cellar, first jamming their prisoners in before folding themselves up in the small space, around a hearty store of vegetables.

Reymen hesitated to sleep. Though the prisoners were on opposite sides of the small space, both bound and gagged, there was the chance they might escape, that the chase would resume. Normally he’d have ordered the guards to stand watch through the night, each taking half the time so that they could gain some rest, but with the earlier injury, the vampire needed sleep or he would be useless tomorrow. Meaning there would be only one guard to stand the watch. With no rest, he, too, would be useless the following day, becoming a liability they could not afford.

Especially not with Beldren tagging along.

Though he’d been helpful earlier, and seemed to have no connection to the rogues – they made no sign they recognized him, nor him them – there was still a chance that he was really there to help them.

Reymen waited until the blonde was asleep and reached for his mind. He found a swirl of dreams, most centering on either his red haired master or a young, faceless woman. Past them, Reymen looked for the rogues, for their names, for any sympathy. He found nothing, beyond the most recent memories. Satisfied at last, he did a quick check of Catalina and Filippo, finding only terror, anger, and a desperate desire to escape, all normal for prisoners. Reassured, he let himself close his eyes and relax into the bank of root vegetables.

Jorick shook him awake the next evening. “We must feed quickly and be gone. The sooner the prisoners are on their way to The Holy Roman Empire, the better.”

He found no fault with the assessment, even if it cost him some minutes of sleep. He woke the guards, while Jorick hauled the rogues outside. Reymen followed to find Beldren already outside with the horses, looking better than he had.

“You’re an illusionist,” Jorick said as he heaped Filippo over the back of the horse. The vampire had been seemingly asleep until then, and jolted awake at the motion. He wriggled, pulling at the bonds and making low, sounds of alarm muffled by the gag.

Beldren looked from one to the other of the vampires. “Are you speaking to me, sir?”

“Obviously.” Jorick hauled Catalina up, ignoring her squeals of protest. Wide awake, she tried to kick as her bonds would allow, a pitiful picture. Though rest had kept her hair from matting and restored a healthy glow, unless the vampires let her feed she’d look terrible tomorrow.

Beldren frowned. “I apologize, but I fear you are mistaken. I am not…whatever you called me.”

“Yes, you are.”

Reymen could feel Jorick’s gaze boring into the blond vampire, feel him digging into his mind. Beldren went stiff, and his eyes widened, then he sprung free, his body sagging as Jorick released him.

“It appears you are unschooled. Your ability – the false truth you created for the humans – that is an illusion, which makes you an illusionist.”

“Of course.” Beldren rubbed his head, scowling. “As you have no doubt just seen, it is the name Ismene used on occasion. I had forgotten it, as Mabel and Thomasin had another term. What name do you give your uninvited intrusion?”

“He is a dream stealer,” Reymen replied, watching as the guards joined them, readying their horses for the day’s journey. “As am I. And a whisperer.”

Beldren arched an eyebrow. “What is this?”

“The ability to influence others thoughts or actions.” Reymen glanced to a stand of trees not far from there. “Will we not feed first?”

“Nay, we will stop in some time,” Jorick said, swinging into the saddle. “The faster the miles fly, the better. Besides, once we have wandered away, my influence will fade and the woman of the house will start to wonder who the horses belong to, and why there are people tied up upon the saddles. We could kill her, of course, but then we’d need to take the time to dispose of the body. We have already wasted enough time, I do not wish to throw away more of it.”

Reymen couldn’t argue with that.

**

They rode for most of the night, stopping only to feed and rest the horses. The prisoners were kept tied and gagged, given no meal. Such starvation would not permanently harm them, once fed they would be fully restored, no matter how many days sustenance had been withheld, but it would be uncomfortable.

It was near sunrise when they stopped for the day at the same dilapidated barn they used two nights before. They bedded down in the hay; the guards’ previous sunproofing still intact. Catalina moaned through her gag, and though her words were unintelligible, Reymen knew their meaning, knew she was pleading for mercy, to be released so she could move, straighten her legs, her arms, spit out the dry, horrible handkerchief.

Beldren looked curiously to the pair, but showed no guilt at their plight. Jorick was even colder. After tying them to opposite pillars in the barn, he bid the guards cover them with hay, then retired for his rest.

Reymen similarly bedded down and closed his eyes. Though he didn’t want to, his thoughts strayed to the pair. How many humans had he seen in similar plight, prisoners of the day sleepers, waiting their turn to die or be brought into the tribe? Had he felt sympathy for them?

But he had. A little, not a lot, but that little bit was enough, like a shard in one’s boot that pokes at inopportune moments. It was just such a moment that he was caught in.

He rolled over, peering through the hay to see the lump he knew to be Catalina. Thieves, Jorick said, yet they had no luggage. Or if they did, it had been left behind when they were apprehended. Odd that Amerigo had not demanded return of the item as well as those who stole it.

Unless the item is on their person. Perhaps a necklace or ring?

Reymen couldn’t remember if either had been wearing jewelry. Had it been earlier in the morning, he’d have asked Jorick what it was they’d taken, but as it stood the Executioner was undoubtedly asleep.

As I should be.

Reymen closed his eyes, but the question gnawed on him. He imagined their return, Malick demanding to know where the stolen goods were, and his own confession that they’d not thought of it. The ancient master had only one reply: punishment.

Reymen opened his eyes to focus again on the mound of hay. He bored through it, to the vampiress underneath. Though he couldn’t see her, he could feel her, still awake as he was, her breathing hard and irregular, the gasps of someone too tired to continue feeling her terror.

He reached out with his mind, feeling for her thoughts. They raced, a mesh of foreign words he couldn’t catch or understand. He could see the intent behind them. Beyond being cramped, hungry, and frightened for Filippo, she was terrified of returning home. He saw the sea voyage in her mind. Wet, dirty, hungry. Hiding in the hold, nothing to eat for months but rats. Fearful of discovery, of being thrown overboard, lost immortal in an endless ocean, without even the gift of death, an eternity of drowning, with lungs that didn’t need air, yet burned with the saltwater, eyes crusted, skin withered from the brine.

It was a terror Reymen had never contemplated, and one he didn’t want to contemplate again. He pushed past it, to their impending return. That cold vampire stood in a richly decorated room. Behind him hung a portrait of a lady, hair piled on her head, luxurious dress draped around her. Her face was soft, young, and familiar.

It was Catalina.

He saw the vampire grab her wrist, pull her to him, order Filippo’s death. And that was when he realized what they’d stolen. No, not they, but him. Filippo had not taken a something, but a someone.

Catalina.

Except, she didn’t seem to be unwilling. It was more an elopement than a theft. He could see plainly in her mind that she’d come of her own free will, running down cobblestone streets toward a harbor, her hand in Filippo’s. He felt the flush of her excitement, her joy at being free.

A freedom short lived, Reymen thought. They had survived a terrible voyage only to be hunted and caught, and soon sent back.

They should have thought of such things before they made rash decisions.

Despite that very logical conclusion, Reymen was still unsettled when the sun sank. His dreams had been filled with snips of Catalina’s memories, or perhaps his own versions of them. Amerigo was her master, both lover and slave owner. She’d been given to him as a child, a pretty present, raised to belong to him. She’d been at first frightened of him, and then merely repulsed. He offered her no kindness, no warmth, only disapproval and unsettling expectations.

Reymen pushed the tattered thoughts away, leaving the guards to watch the prisoners while he fed. He’d seen Catalina’s face for a moment, her hair lank and dirty, her hungry skin tightening on bones, eyed made larger by the starvation, their depths an echo of all the things he thought he’d imagined.

Outside, he finished with his prey, then returned to find Jorick at the horses. The executioner worked, saddling the beasts and readying them for the day’s ride.

“One more night,” he said as he tightened a strap. “Tomorrow we should reach the den before sunrise.”

Reymen nodded. He fiddled with hit belt, straightened his coat, and finally demanded, “What was it they stole?”

Jorick glanced up. “The rogues? Does it matter?”

“No. Yes. Perhaps.” Reymen didn’t like where his mind was headed, so he added quickly, “What will happen if we return without the stolen item?”

“We won’t.”

Reymen took a breath through his nose, glancing over as Beldren joined them. “She’s the stolen, possession, isn’t she?”

Beldren flinched in surprise, but Jorick showed no reaction. “You would do better to stay out of the heads of those you’re sent to bring to justice.”

“Is it justice, though? To return her to a cruel master and sentence the other to death?”

“It is the law,” Jorick said firmly. “Your feelings on the matter are unimportant.”

Reymen scoffed. “I have no feelings, I only asked-”

“As you say, but my answer remains the same. Relieve the guards so they may feed.” He broke off. “On better thought, finish the horses. I’ll watch the prisoners.”

Jorick stalked away, leaving Reymen to scowl after him. Did he think he’d release them? Speak t them? Dig into their minds and see something more?

He’s right, he chided himself. My doubts are unimportant. What matters are The Laws.

Or so The Guild would say.

**

Catalina was loaded onto one of the guards’ horses, and they headed off. Though the journey there had taken several days, if Jorick was right, they would reach Malick by the end of tomorrow, taking a more direct route now that they weren’t following meandering rogues.

Rogues. Were they really rogues, though? A rogue was a masterless vampire who did as they pleased, no laws to follow, no care for who they hurt or slaughtered. By such definition, this pair had never qualified.

No wonder there was no trail of dead for me to follow.

He found it disconcerting that Malick had chosen not to reveal the truth of their crime when he’d sent the assignment. Had he known in advance, he’d have been better prepared when faced with the pair’s memories, better able to handle them.

As he rode, he contemplated The Laws. Did they dictate who one could be with? What romantic ties one could forge? Was that truly a component of the European way? The day sleepers had no such laws. One was free to do as they pleased. Come, go, stay, take whatever lover one desired. That such things were controlled…He had dim memories of the human laws, but even those were not so strict. Were they? Had it been a crime to leave one lover for another?

And not even lover, if his impressions were to be believed.  Slave owner was more apt a title.

And therein lay the crux of it. As a slave she was owned; property, no different than a chicken or fancy dinner plate. As property she had no right to say where she went, or what was done to her, just as a plate had no vote in what was eaten from it. But the question remained, why was she a slave? What made her less than equal to the master and the rest of her kind? Why was she owned while he and Jorick were free?

A scoff from the Executioner sent Reymen’s attention skittering. Jorick grimaced, eyes on something far away. “I am no more free than they, nor are you. Malick owns us, and will until we die. Welcome to The Guild.”

**

They stopped again near sunrise, in a place Reymen had never been. A root cellar served as shelter. Reymen tried to get comfortable around the human’s provisions. They’d passed another camp of soldiers, or perhaps the same they’d seen earlier. The New World was nothing but war and strife, a constant turmoil of bloodshed. Perhaps The Guild should take over the humans, as well, and force their peace upon them, as they did the immortals.

Tell them whom they may take as a lover.

He didn’t like to admit it, but the idea rankled him. Among the day sleepers, all of the immortal were equal. It was only the humans who were slaves, who could be owned or controlled. Once you were one of them, you were free to do as you chose. There were even those who left the tribe, to be replaced by new humans turned monster. That was how he and Bailin had come to join their ranks; as replacements.

If they wish to leave Amerigo, they should have such a right. They are immortal, just as he is. Younger, perhaps, but no less viable.

Still, the European laws didn’t see it that way. They were about control, containment, suppression, ownership. All the old things he’d left behind when he came to join Raleigh’s doomed colony so long ago.

Yet here they are again, knocking on our door, brought by Malick and the European day sleepers.

He shifted, dislodging a root vegetable from his back. If he’d been alone on this assignment, there was a chance he’d have let their prisoners go, that he’d have returned to Malick empty handed, claiming that he couldn’t find them.

Yet Malick would catch the lie when he touched his thoughts, when he slipped through his memories like blood through the cracks of floorboards. He’d see the deception and punishment would be swift and severe. Whips, starvation, perhaps death.

No, he has yet to kill his Executioners. He needs us.

Or did. Malick’s original force held only dream stealers and whisperers, but with the addition of Daniel, not a dream stealer but a puppet master, Malick had decided to broaden their skill set. No longer were dream stealers safe by virtue of their irreplaceability. An illusionist would do as well.

And we bring one with us. A pretty present for Malick.

Not that Reymen thought Beldren was Executioner material. Too soft, for one, and too long winded for another. He could see that Beldren preferred to twist words rather than necks. Such methods would be too slow and tedious for one who enforced such wearisome, overbearing laws as The Guild’s.

Reymen rolled the other way, and his eyes fell upon the bundle that was Filippo. He knew he shouldn’t, yet found himself sneaking into the vampire’s memories. He saw Catalina, dressed in finery, her cheek red where Amerigo had slapped her for some displeasure or another.  It was nothing new, more commonplace than unusual, a nightly ritual, assuming she was allowed to be in the presence of the coven and not locked in her chambers. Reymen felt Filippo’s anger, his determination, his absolute need to save her, to be free.

Reymen pulled away quickly, but it was too late. Filippo had sworn to liberate her from Amerigo’s cruelty, even if he must destroy himself in the process.

And you will, he thought, angry at Filippo, at Catalina, at Amerigo, and most of all at Malick.

You bring this conflict, then leave me to suffer it alone. You should all be condemned.

**

Despite his fury, Reymen woke the next evening with a horrific plan in mind. While he hunted, he tried earnestly to talk himself out of it. To go against Malick…to betray his orders…and at such a time. If Amerigo was not satisfied, he would raise an army, war openly with those who sat in The Holy Roman Empire.

Or so Jorick had said. Reymen had seen no proof of this with his own eyes. No missive, no envoy, no messenger. Not that it was unusual for Jorick to be privy to things the other Executioners weren’t’ as Malick’s son and the commander of their band, such things were expected.

Perhaps it is an exaggeration of the facts, he reasoned with himself. After seeing the sea voyage through Catalina’s eyes, he couldn’t fathom the Kugsankal sending one of their own to join Malick and form a council. No, they would wish to stay in their foreign city, where it was safe, leaving the savagery of the new world to others.

That Amerigo would be angry was a certainty, but would he really war over Catalina’s return? She was a bedchamber slave, one he could replace. He had no great love for her – or else he’d have risked the voyage to take her home himself. A man in love did not coldly leave such task to another. No he would not war for a slave, only demand payment.

And I could send such payment. He had a small store of gold, both payment for his duties and money taken from victims. But what story would he present Malick? What reason for the prisoner’s escape? And how could he free them with Jorick watching every move?

It was too much to overcome. The idea was impossible. He’d do better to forget it entirely, to deliver them to his master, then to return home.

He held onto that resolve until he joined Jorick at the horses. The prisoners were already loaded, their clothes dirty, hay in their matted hair. He couldn’t see their faces, but he knew what they looked like; gaunt, bloodless, hungry, desperate.

And none of my concern.

Beldren mounted his horse. His eyes moved from one vampire to another, until Beldren feared he knew something. He’s suspicious. He probably read my – No. No, he can’t. He’s not a mind reader. Only an illusionist.

If only he was an illusionist, perhaps he could convince Jorick the prisoners were still there, even as they were running free in the opposite direction.

It was a good idea, but one that would require the cooperation of a vampire Reymen barely knew. He could count the words they’d spoken together, and they totaled few. He doubted the vampire would help him, and that was if he didn’t betray the intention to Jorick.

Assuming Jorick doesn’t read it in one of our minds before he gets the chance.

No, the idea was clever, but risked too much to be practical. There was nothing he could do. The prisoners’ fate was sealed.

**

They stopped near midnight to let the horses rest. A burbling stream seemed an ideal spot to rest. While the horses drank, the vampires dismounted to stretch their legs. Jorick pulled the prisoners down and heaped them to the side. Reymen had a flash of Catalina’s tear stained face. He could imagine the horror of being a captive, tied and starved for two days.

He caught Beldren looking at them and saw something similar flicker across his features. The blonde cleared his throat loudly. ‘Should we not allow them sustenance?”

Jorick took a seat on a fallen log and snapped open his book. “Nay. No permanent harm will come to them for it, and such a delay would add another day to our journey.”

“Not a day, surely.” Beldren glanced to the prisoners again.

Jorick sighed and lowered his book. “No, but the hour it adds would make it impossible to reach the den tonight, meaning we would need other accommodations. After an entire day of sleeping, you would again want to feed them, which would add more time, and it would be late evening tomorrow before we reached Malick. ‘tis better to push on. Once they are in the den, they will be untied and placed in a detention cell where they will be free to move, and be fed.”

“Are you so sure of that?” Reymen asked. Jorick narrowed his eyes, but it was too late, so Reymen pushed on. “How often are prisoners fed? From what I have seen, such a thing is rare. They will be house, perhaps left bound, and then shipped off to the harbor where they can be smuggled on a ship back to England or Spain, and then from there shipped to the Holy Roman Empire.”

Jorick looked ready to argue, then shrugged. “Perhaps. It is not our concern. We have only to deliver them to Malick, nothing more.”

“Your guild sounds harsh indeed,” Beldren said lightly. “Worse, perhaps, than the governing bodies the sisters spoke of in Europe.”

“’Tis the same governing body, unless they escaped long ago, before the Kugsankal was able to get a foothold. In which case, they would have been under the old lords, who were worse.”

When no one answered, Jorick gave a grunt, as if to punctuate the end of the conversation, and turned back to his book.

Beldren cast the prisoners an uncomfortable look and muttered something about a snack before he drifted into the foliage. Reymen waited an impatient moment, but hen Jorick didn’t so much as flinch, he followed the blonde.  He stayed several paces back, until they were some distance from Jorick and the others, before overtaking him.

Beldren gave him a quizzical look as he fell into step beside him, but said nothing.  Reymen peered into his mind, but on the surface found only questions regarding Reymen’s intentions, a vague paranoia, and a slight concern that meeting Malick might not be as incredible an idea as it had first seemed.

Reymen hesitated. Though Beldren had seemed sympathetic to the pair, perhaps this was also a mistake. Perhaps…

You won’t know unless you try.

Still, it was better to warm up to it rather than just burst out with the intention, so he broke the silence with, “You’re not a dream stealer, are you?”

Beldren quirked an eyebrow. “If you mean can I walk in your thoughts as you and Jorick can walk in mine, then no.”

“Perhaps you’re lucky. ‘Tis easier to handle prisoners when you cannot see the story that hides behind their eyes.”

Curiosity flared in Beldren’s eyes. “And such a story hides behind the eyes of your newest acquisition?”

Reymen fought the urge to pour it out. Better to be sure. “There’s always a story. But, yes, this pair has one as well. Perhaps more tragic than others.”

The words had their intended effect. Reymen not only saw the  other’s interest, but felt it; like a flickering flame in the depth of his chest. A burning desire to know and consume the pain of another. “What tragedy is that, if I may ask?”

“I don’t know that I should burden you with such things,” Reymen said quickly. “Perhaps I should not have mentioned it, only it weighs heavily and perhaps I thought to lighten the load by sharing. However, it is not yours to bear. I apologize.”

Beldren drew to a stop and laid his hand on Reymen’s arm, pulling him up short. “Nay, have no fear. I am already involved in this enterprise, for good or ill, so complete knowledge can only help the situation, can it not?”

Reymen made s how of hesitating, and finally poured the story out – hoe Catalina was gifted as a child, raised by her master, turned, and made into a bedchamber slave used to amuse Amerigo. Filippo, a lowly member of the coven, met her, fell in love, and vowed to save them both. Of course, Reymen hadn’t seen all of that, but he could guess at those parts. They had to have happened for things to be as they were.

Beldren hung on the words. Emotions shifted through his green eyes, and Reymen felt his softness towards their true love, to the idea of Filippo’s sacrifice. He’s a romantic.

When Reymen finished, he added for good measure what their punishment would be. “Though I cannot claim to be a demon eye and see the future, I know well enough what theirs will be. She will return to her cage, and he to death for stealing the fledgling slave of another.  It seems a pity after all they have endured.”

“It does at that,” Beldren agreed slowly. “As such, why do you not simply release them?”

“If I were alone I could, but with Jorick…” Reymen trailed off. “Jorick is Malick’s pet. He will not willingly disobey his master, not for a pair he knows not, and cares for even less.”

“A heartless sort,” Beldren muttered. “Then what do you plan to do? Leave them to their fate?”

The moment had arrived. Reymen explained that they could be released, so long as Jorick was led to believe that they were still there.

“As the humans saw an untruth, so he should see one.”

“And when you return to The Guild and he discovers the trick?” Beldren asked. “Nay, he will strike out at us both. I have no desire to die.”

He was right, though Reymen hated to acknowledge it. “Then what do you propose?”

“Better to create a distraction and let him believe they escaped during it.”

“Then what is to stop him from giving them chase?”

“The sunrise, of course. To chase after a pair that will likely die or seek shelter himself; the decision will be simple.”

Reymen saw the logic except- “If they escape near sunrise, what will prevent them from being burned alive so soon after gaining their freedom.”

“Because it will not be as close to sunrise as Jorick believes. ‘Tis a simple matter to make the morning appear nearer than it is, to make him see a blush in a dark sky and imagine that the world is lightening when it is not.”

“And the guards?”

“Aye, they would be easier. If I’m not mistaken, they are weaker than the two of you.”

Reymen nodded.

“We have only to discover a suitable diversion, during which I will hide your actions as you unbind and release them. Jorick needs to be thoroughly distracted – it would be best if he were not present as they escape – or he will never believe you provided no aid. As one who can sneak into your mind, he will do so if he is suspicious.”

Yes, he would. And he would be suspicious no matter what distraction they offered. Reymen had no illusion of getting out of this without punishment. He could only hope it wouldn’t be too severe.

**

They finished their plans and met back with the others. Jorick made a remark about their long absence, then loaded Filippo on his horse. Reymen hurried to put Catalina on the guard’s mount, taking the opportunity to weaken the hold around one ankle.

Reymen climbed on his own horse, allowing the animal to fall in line with no commands form him. He let his mind wander down dark paths that all ended in the same question: was this worth the risk? Were the lives of two vampires he scarcely knew worth his own demise, and perhaps that of Beldren?

No, of course not.

Yet…yet he couldn’t stand to turn them over. Not because he held romanticized notions as Beldren did, but because he knew The Law was wrong to dictate such things. The Europeans might be content under such a system but the new world would not be so controlled.

And it is time the Kugsankal understood this.

**

The night was waning, and morning only a couple of hours away, when Beldren suddenly pulled his horse to a violent stop and announced that it had thrown a shoe.

Jorick coughed lightly, but reined his steed in, signaling for the others to do the same. Reymen slipped from his mount to assist the blonde, unsure if this was part of the plan or if the animal was actually injured. Though the time seemed right, the area seemed less so. There were thick trees to one side, and rolling grassland to the other, with no buildings in sight for any of them to shelter in.

Reymen squatted next to Beldren, who was examining his horses hoof. The Blonde met his eyes, and Reymen mouthed, “Where is the distraction?”

“A moment,” Beldren murmured, before dropping the hoof and standing. “My mistake,” he called. “Was only a rock.”

“You know very little of horses then, to mistake the two,” Jorick replied.

“Perhaps. The sisters were not so keen on adventuring as you seem to be.” He broke off to squint into the trees. “What was that?”

Jorick arched an eyebrow, but followed his motion toward the heavy forest. Reymen did the same. Despite the audible gaps from one of the guards, he saw nothing.

“I smell them!” The guard dropped his horse, hand on his weapon. “They’re drawing closer.”

The second looked similarly alarmed as he left his steed. “Aye. There are-“ he broke off to sniff the air. “Six…no seven. I smell seven at least.”

Reymen inhaled but caught only the scent of the forest, of trees and grass and dying leaves. There was nothing there, and surely not seven somethings ready t o attack.

This must be Beldren’s distraction.

Jorick made a sound of impatience, as if he felt the drama was more than he should deal with. “Come. We should be well clear before they-”

But Reymen couldn’t take the chance, so he gave the guards a mental nudge, using his whisperer ability. “If you attack them first, you’ll have the tactical advantage.”

They took the bait and charged into the trees, blades drawn. Jorick looked back and forth between Reymen and the prisoners, then to the trees where the guards had disappeared. Finally, he rolled his eyes and dismounted. “Stay with the prisoners. I’ll retrieve them.”

He crashed into the foliage, and Reymen wasted no time. He hurried first to Catalina. He pulled her from the horse, then tugged at the rope he’d loosened earlier. Her foot free, she tried to roll over, but he held her, and quickly pulled the rest of the rope loose, a task made easier by her emaciation. The ropes fell away to reveal dark marks on the tender skin of her wrists and ankles, the indentions caked with dirt.

He left her to get her wits together and rushed to untie Filippo. Once freed, the vampire didn’t bother with his gag, but left it in place to crawl toward Catalina. She motioned her wellbeing, though her appearance was anything but. Two days without feeding had left her withered, like an apple left in the sun. Her fingers didn’t want to cooperate as she plucked the wadded handkerchief from her mouth. Filippo hurried to help her, and once her mouth was free, he held her at arm’s length, as if examining to be sure she was really unharmed. In the same general shape she was in, he was also unnourished, but her eyes said he was still the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen.

They clutched one another, while Reymen looked quickly to the trees. Jorick and the guards could return at any moment. “If you wish to live, take one of the horses and fly.”

Filippo looked up, as if he couldn’t quite believe such a change of heart. There wasn’t time to convince him, so he pressed into their minds, using his whispering powers. “Take her and go, before the Executioners change their mind. You swore to protect her, so do it now while you have the chance.”

Like the guards, he took the implanted advice, pulling her to her feet and helping her onto the horse. In their weakened state, Reymen was surprised they could manage the task, and that they could stand to be so close to the living animal without drinking. The thirst had to be incredible.

He smacked the horse’s flank, then dove for the trees, pulling Beldren behind him. They’d gone only a few paces before he heard Jorick stomping through underbrush, the rustle of the guards behind him. A moment later, he came into view, twigs stuck to his cloak. He stopped, his face flickering with surprise. “I told you to remain with the prisoners.”

“They’re tied up,” Beldren said. “Our skills seemed better used assisting you.”

“Perhaps they would have been, had the trackers not lost the scent of their prey so easily.” Jorick gave the guards a disparaging look. “We’ve lost enough time. Come.”

He strode past them. Reymen allowed the guards to go first, then followed, Beldren on his heels. He fought to clear his mind, to stay calm. Don’t give Jorick any stray thoughts to catch.

The guards exited a moment before he did, both crying out in surprise. He grabbed his sword, feigning confusion at their alarm, and dashed out, ready to attack an imaginary enemy. When nothing presented itself, he lowered the weapon and played up confusion. “What…?”

Jorick cursed and spun, grabbing the front of Reymen’s shirt. “Where are the rogues?”

“Tied up on-” he broke off as he pretended to notice their absence. “They were there a moment ago!”

“They took my horse!” One of the guards cried. “If we hurry, perchance we can catch them.”

Beldren moved for his mount, then stopped, one hand on the reins, his attention to the east. “Sunlight is so close, can we afford a chase?”

Reymen glanced to see only stars. Like before, Beldren hadn’t bothered to share the illusion with him. Probably to conserve energy.

“There should be an hour or more,” the guard said, squinting at what he saw ot be a blushing sky. “Did we lose so much time?”

“We don’t have time to catch them,” the other cried. ‘What do we do?”

“What is there to do?” Jorick snapped. “Come, we’ll seek shelter and look for them when the sun has sunk.”

They mounted the horses, the guards doubling up, and followed Jorick at a jog. Reymen glanced to see Beldren, his body stiff, and his face hard with concentration. As the land fell away, he struggled more to keep the illusion for the three.

At last, a small village came into view. A half-finished house on the outskirts held enough walls to make a shelter. The smell of autumn rain said there was unlikely to be any construction, so they took their chances. Jorick dealt with the horses while the guards hurriedly made sure a section was safe from the sunlight. Though Reymen couldn’t see Beldren’s illusion, he guessed that the sun must be very ear to breaking free of the horizon. When that happened, he worried the illusion would shatter.  It would be impossible for Beldren to give them the sensation of burning flesh.

Wouldn’t it?

Reymen’s luck held, and Jorick was inside before they had to find out. Safe in their cocoon, Reymen waited for further dressing down from his commander, but Jorick said only, “Rest well. We have a hunt tomorrow.”

As Reymen settled in to sleep, he worried that he’d only delayed the pair’s deaths, and extended the length of his own assignment.

**

Reymen woke to the patter of rain. His clothing was damp, but he fared better than one of the guards who was soaked, thanks to a steady leak that dripped water on him.

Jorick crouched in the corner, waiting. Reymen was surprised to see him without his book, then decided it must be the damp weather that stopped him. Were the pages to get wet, they’d be ruined. Surely Jorick wouldn’t stand for such a thing if he could help it.

Jorick nodded a greeting, his face an unreadable mask. “When they wake we will depart, feed in the forest, and then begin the hunt.”

“We’re nearly to The Guild’s den,” Reymen pointed out.

“I don’t take your meaning.”

Reymen tried to think innocent thoughts. “Would it not be belter to return to Malick and say that we have failed than to hunt in this miserable weather? The rogues know our scent now, and so will find it easier to elude us. Assuming they were able to find shelter and did not die with the sun.”

‘Whatever their fate, we will discover it. Beldren stirs now. Wake the guards, and let us be on our way.”

**

They left the village behind for the trees and breakfast. Reymen managed to corner Beldren alone. They were going to need another illusion; this one of death.

“An immortals bones will burn in daylight, as will most of their clothing, simply from the sheer heat of the body’s combustion. Ashes might suffice, though since they were riding a horse, the beast might also have been half burned.”

Beldren frowned. “It seems to me that had it happened, they’d have abandoned the horse and tried to dig into the earth of there was nowhere else to hide. Perhaps the beginning of a hole with a few ashes? Most, I believe, would have been washed away in this downpour.”

He had a point, so Reymen left it to him to conjure what he thought best. He only hoped it would be enough to convince Jorick.

Beldren waited for over an hour before he moved his horse next to Reymen’s to give him a short, sharp nod. Reymen understood the signal, waiting the count of thirty before reining in his steed to say, “What is that?”

The guards stopped eagerly, but Jorick was more reluctant. Reymen could feel his annoyance like a heavy cloud in his chest. Still, the commander pulled to a stop, and turned back. “What do you see?”

Reymen motioned wordlessly, unsure what vision Beldren would provide them. It was one of the guards who hopped from their shared horse to crouch over nothing. “Look. It’s as if someone dug desperately at the ground here.”

“Yes,” the second agreed. “See how the grass has been clawed away. And this.” He touched the ground then lifted his hand, sniffing at what was only mud to Beldren’s eyes. “Ashes. Whose, I cannot say. All scent was burned away in the sun.”

“Sun and not fire?” Jorick asked without dismounting.

“Aye. Fire would scorch more than just this. A vampire burned here. Perhaps two.”

“And so our rogues did not survive,” Reymen said, fighting to keep his tone neutral.

Jorick’s horse whinnied and he tugged the reins to calm it. “Then you have failed, Reymen. And you will be the one to explain that failure to Malick.”

Before Reymen could reply, Jorick turned his horse for the den. “I shall see you there, perhaps?” Then he took off.

The guards scrambled back on their horse and hurried after hi, but Reymen hesitated. His plan had worked so far, but to face Malick…the ancient would see it in his mind in a moment.

Unless he doesn’t look.

Somehow, Reymen doubted he could be that lucky.

**

The Guild’s den was primarily an underground structure, cut from the rock and earth below. Above ground was a stable, and a few other buildings necessary for both survival and the illusion of a farmstead.

Reymen reluctantly handed his horse in at the stable. “Has Jorick been here yet?”

The stable hand, a youth of fifteen who was made of sharp angles and jutting bone, shook his head, his eyes on the ground. “Nay, sir. You are the first visitors we’ve had this day.”

Reymen cursed silently, then motioned Beldren to follow him. A small shed stood at the entrance to the underground chambers, guarded by a vampire in black. With a salute, he let them past. Inside. A staircase led to the subterranean rooms.

“Impressive,” Beldren murmured. “How long until we see this Malick?”

The voice came like a booming ocean squall, “You do not need to wait.”

Beldren drew up short, but Reymen propelled him on, stopping only when they’d reached the room at the bottom of the stairs. Hung in paintings, a throne was center stage and in it say a vampire with flowing silver hair and beard. Dressed in crimson robes, he looked every bit the king he thought he was.

“Master.” Reymen dropped to one knee, and bid Beldren do the same. The blond followed the directions, his curious eyes cast down.

“And who is this child?” Malick asked. “The rogue you were sent to apprehend?”

“No, master.” Reymen drew a tight breath for courage. “This is Beldren, a vampire we discovered on our journey. Jorick thought it best if he-”

“Jorick, you say? And where is my son?”

Reymen squeezed his eyes shut. “I know not, master. Jorick left us when we discovered the death of the rogues.”

Malick laughed, a rich thick sound that reminded Reymen of honey. “You mean that he refused to be answerable for your failure?”

Reymen swallowed. Malick’s amusement was never a good sign. “Perhaps, though is it not also his failure?” He chanced looking up, to see Malick’s face hard, his eyes cold glittering jewels. “Had he-“

“Enough!”

Both Reymen and Beldren flinched at the command, struck momentarily dumb, whether from fear or Malick’s power.

“There can be only one consequence to failure – and especially failure such as yours. To fool your own is a grievous enough error, but to disobey a command – my command – deserves punishment. Guards!”

Reymen’s stomach clenched, and he looked wildly to the ancient. He knew. Of course he knew.

Guards shuffled forward and Malick waved to the prostrate vampires. “Take them both, for though a new face, he is already an accomplice.  Perhaps three weeks detainment will teach them who is the master here.”

Beldren pulled to his feet stuttering excises, but Reymen didn’t bother to fight. There was no point, nothing to do except take his punishment and pray it didn’t turn to an execution order.

As the guards led him away, he glimpsed Jorick standing at the foot of the stairs, his hair and cloak wet with rainwater.

Malick welcomed his son, his voice warm with affection. The guards shoved Beldren through a door. He caught the doorframe, and pulled back for a moment, entreating his ignorance of the way things worked.

“How was I to know?”

The guards didn’t reply, only pushed him on through.  As Reymen followed, he heard Malick’s warm laughter behind him.

“And so you knew the trick all along my son, yet allowed it. For though you had no wish to return the rogues over the sea, neither did you wish the punishment for disobeying. Perhaps you should join them for your complacency? But no, instead, a reward for your cunning, perhaps? Kateesha has been sent to handle a tribe of natives. You will join her.”

Jorick scoffed. “Perhaps I would rather join them?”

“Then look at this as your punishment.”

The door shut before Reymen could hear Jorick’s reply. Apparently they hadn’t fooled the commander either.

So what was the point of the hunt, of the time wasted hunting vampires Jorick knew they wouldn’t find, perhaps didn’t want to find?

Malick’s voice sounded in his head, laughing softly, “A reprieve from your punishment, child. What else? In three days you will beg for such a moment.”

Not if I can help it.

***

topic – Jonathan

pic – Colleen

  1. christmas 2) hanging onto a star 3) reaching for the stars 5) fairy 6) among the stars 7)

 

 

Blogophilia 25.11 – Philip Part 2

It’s time again for blogophilia, the fun blog group where Martien gives participants prompts to use in their blog. This week’s prompts are:

Ecrits Blogophilia Week 25.11 Topic – Time Traveling
**BONUSES:
Hard Bonus (2 pts): Use a quote or lyric from Oliver Twist (We have none of us long to wait for Death.)
Easy Bonus (1 pt): Mention a soccer player (Lionel – aka Lionel Messi)

.

***

Philip wanted to slap the smug smile off Beldren’s face; wanted to knock him to the floor, put his foot in the middle of the vampire’s chest, and shout the truth, but he couldn’t.  Doing so would jeopardize everything.

“Still, it’s odd,” Beldren added. “Malick’s never cared about the lives of the lower classes before. It makes one wonder if there isn’t more at play here.”

I’ll show you what’s at play, you-

The waiter interrupted with Beldren’s drink. Philip took the opportunity to slam the rest of his and make his excuses. He had a meeting to go to. Sorry.

As he strode out the door, he thought to himself it might have been better to feed alone for a change.

Next time.

**

Though Beldren had been annoying Philip mused over the implications of his news. The Hand of Death, or Jorick, as was his name, was Malick’s fledgling and one of the original Executioners. Philip had worked under him, and had only gotten promoted to Executioner when he left.

When he left.

Philip still remembered it; he’d been on duty that night. Jorick had stormed the citadel, slashing and killing everything in his path as he made his way to Malick – the master he planned to kill. The details of why were sketchy to Philip. He’d heard that Jorick’ wife died, that somehow he blamed his master for it, but that was all he knew. That and the force of Jorick’s attack. Unlike many of the guards on duty, Philip had survived the onslaught, and in fact gained his promotion because of his “bravery”. Still, he’d never forgotten the Hand of Death, more monster than vampire, tearing through the ranks, his face flecked in blood.

The Guild had kept uneasy tabs on him after that. They didn’t follow his every move, but Malick stayed abreast of here he was living. Until the fifties. He’d vanished from his Alabama den and that was it. No sightings of him, no rumors, nothing.

And now he’s on a beach somewhere. That Beldren had brought back intelligence was a sure thing, but would Malick send others to gather more? How long would it be before someone was assigned to go get him, bring him in, try to get him to join them again?

Ark will love that.

On the other hand, maybe it would make things better. Jorick had evolved into a kind of Legend in the last hundred plus years. Perhaps having him there, in person, would remind Malick that his fledgling wasn’t perfect. Maybe then the lectures and comparisons would stop.

Or maybe not.

Either way, it wasn’t Philip’s problem. At least, not yet. He had more important things to worry about, like his current assignment. Beldren and the others might think he was grounded, but if they ever found out the truth…

They’d be in for a surprise.

Philip made his way to one of the two elevators that would take him all the way to the secret basement of the citadel. He stuck his key into the slot, the only way to activate the floor. Not that these security measures do much. There are probably a hundred keys floating around at any given time. Still, the idea of it made it seem secure and intimidating, as long as one didn’t bother to reason it out.

And almost no one does.

Reason, that was something that most vampires lacked. Logic, precision, common sense. The masses were quick to panic, and easy to manipulate.

Just like sheep.

The elevator reached its destination, but Philip pressed the door close button, ignoring the guards outside. Alone, he leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes, concentrating on himself, on the lab, on the next few hours. An image flashed by, his own reflection in a shiny surface. He recognized it as one of the steel tables in the laboratory. The next scene was a flash of a scientist with limp hair, an open door, and then he saw the girl on the floor. A pool of crimson spread out around her, rolling toward a floor drain.

Looks like I’ll be working.

With that in mind, and Philip opened the elevator doors and exited on a sci-fi hallway. That was what he always thought of, with its shiny black floors and walls, trimmed with red.  He could feel the ancients in their chambers farther down the corridor. Celandine, Heng, and the other members of the high council. Malick’s presence was notably absent, but Philip didn’t care. He wasn’t there to see any of them.

He bypassed the dungeon, and headed further down the hallway, until he reached a metal door. A computerized plate hung next to it, but with no lights on it wasn’t yet operational.

More tech they haven’t really figured out yet.

Philip banged on the door and a guard in black opened it. Sallow faced, he stepped aside quickly, eyes cast down as Philip marched past.

Good. He understands respect now.

He hadn’t yesterday. He’d dared to meet Philp’s eyes to look sulky at being given orders, and had even talked back. Once. Philip had hit him hard enough to send him flying back into a metal table of instruments. He’d struggled to his feet, in time for Philip to grab him by his shirt and slam him into the wall repeatedly. Only when his face was a mass of gelatin had one of the scientists finally suggested he stop.

“We don’t want to train a replacement!”

Philip had left the bleeding unconscious vampire on the floor, and turned back to his work.  Another guard had hauled him away, maybe to the hospital wing upstairs, maybe to his room. Either way, blood and rest had healed his face, and taught him a valuable lesson about the pecking order.

One he won’t forget.

Philip purposefully tried to meet his eyes, but the guard continued to look away. Satisfied, the Executioner dismissed him to glance around the room. The walls were done in white subway tile, like an institution’s kitchen. The floor was lacquered gray, and the furniture was plastic and metal; maybe stainless steel, maybe coated aluminum. A pair of computers sat on a built in desk against one wall, their screens flashing numbers, or letters – pointless stuff Philip didn’t understand. Two vampires hovered over them, motioning to the output, as if it meant something to them.

Two doorways were set in the back wall. A tall scientist with dark hair stood in one, his hands clasped together. “There you are. Yes, yes, about time.”

Philip gave him a long, hard look. “Be careful, Gildan. I don’t want to have to teach you a lesson, too.”

The scientist snickered. “You won’t get far, Hmmmm? The guards can be replaced, but not us. Your master wouldn’t be very pleased, now, would he? Come, come. We have work to do.”

Philip snarled, but Gildan marched on down the hallway.

He dares to turn his back to me? I’ll show him!

Except, Philip knew he wouldn’t. As the leading scientist in the laboratory, Gildan was right. Malick would have Philip’s head if he so much as hurt the vampire, let alone killed him.

For now. One day he won’t be useful anymore, and then…

Then he’d be sorry.

With comforting daydreams of peeling the scientist apart, Philip followed down the narrow hall. They passed a couple of shiny metal doors, stopping when the hall deadened. A pair of locked doors opened when Gildan inserted his keycard, not the quick swish of a science fiction show, but a slower, noisier motion.

Gildan motioned Philip after him, into a sort of antechamber. One wall was half window, so that they could see into the next room. Empty and walled in the same white subway tiles, its bare concreate floor was stained from blood. The discoloration was the worst around the floor drain, where the liquid pooled as it slowly oozed away. There was no blood today – or at least, not yet.

Gildan pushed a button on a speaker box. “We’re ready. Bring in subject,” he paused to consult a clipboard. “Subject DE220.”

DE, for Demon Eye. The same ability Philip had. “What tests can you possibly perform on him?”

The corners of Gildan’s mouth quirked up. “You’ll see.”

Philip took one of the plastic chairs and crossed his legs. He’d watched experiments for the last two days in the scientific quest to better understand vampires’ unique powers. Yesterday they’d tested a dream stealer against a young, weak vampire with no discernable gifts. They’d begun by doing brain scans in another room, first with no pressure, and then with increasing amounts of inflicted terror and trauma, to see if the stress elevated their abilities. The scientists had oohed and awed over pages of squiggly lines, while Philip handled the terrorizing portion. That was what he was there for, after all.

“We’re scientists,” Gildan had explained. “It isn’t our job to terrorize vampires, just to collect and interpret the data.”

That was why Malick had assigned Philip to help them. They needed someone to do the dirty work; to scare the vampires, torture them, even. Someone who knew how to inflict the most fear in the shortest amount of time.

And Malick wants someone he knows is loyal to keep an eye on things.

Loyalty was always an issue, even in the Executioners. The laboratory and its tests were Malick’s pet project. Though he was the head of The Guild, and the High Council, there were vampires over him. The council in Munich, for instance. They could put their foot down and end the experiments, an edict Malick would either be forced to comply with, or face punishment.

Malick forced. The sentence seemed ridiculous, yet there it was. As strong and ancient as Malick was, rumor said the vampires in Germany were older, and stronger; that they could kill with a look. If that was true, Malick really would have no choice…

And so the experiments were being kept a sort of secret from the rest of the High Council, even the rest of the Executioners. There was only himself and Senya that knew about it. And maybe Bren. Since the pair were engaged in a sexual relationship, it wouldn’t be surprising if she told him.

Not that she isn’t having sex with the rest of us, Philip thought with a smirk. He’d had Senya before, though she was far from his favorite plaything. He preferred his women compliant – often against their will, or at least pretending it was against their will – while Senya preferred to be the one in control. Two Alphas in the bedroom was a recipe for disaster, and only worked when they were both in the mood for a quick fuck with no appetite for games or fun.

And what’s the point of that?

A door in the operating room opened, pulling Philip’s attention. A young female vampire was pushed inside. She stepped forward quickly, but on seeing her new surroundings tried to go back. The door slammed shut as she reached it, leaving her with her palms pressed against its surface.

Gildan pressed a button and barked through the intercom, “If you would step into the middle of the room please.”

The vampiress looked up, eyes wide. She backed slowly away from the door, edging toward the center of the room and the stained drain. Her mouth moved, but most of the sound was lost behind the thick walls and glass. Philip could just catch her asking what they wanted, and why.

Gildan pressed the button again. “We’re going to see if you can figure that out.”

“I’m not a mind reader!” she cried.

“No, but you’re a demon eye, aren’t you? You can see the future, yes? So look at it, and tell me f you can see what we’re going to do.”

She backed away from him, away from the drain and the window, until she was against the far wall. Philip well knew that for her to use her abilities, she’d need to be calm, be able to focus, maybe close her eyes, relax. None of that was going to be possible there. She might as well be powerless.

“She can’t you know,” he murmured.

“I know she believes she can’t, but we’ll see what happens. Have you never used your own gifts mid-battle?”

Philip paused to consider the question. Had he? Yes, probably. He’d had flashes before, sudden insights, usually when he was in an extreme situation with no time to relax and focus properly. But those flashes of the future were rarely right. They were like a mistimed reflex with little payoff. To truly determine the future one needed to concentrate, see several variables, weigh them out and average the outcomes into what was most likely. It was a talent best used by logical, calm individuals.

Still, maybe Gildan is right. Perhaps this could be interesting.

Philip shrugged and turned again to the vampiress. She was trying, but every time she closed her eyes, she’d jerk them open again, gaze darting around the room.

She should just guess that we’re going to kill her, Philip thought. The stained floor is enough evidence for that. Use your reasoning process, don’t just rely on your abilities.

It was advice he never gave her, though it soon became apparent someone should. After twenty minutes of trying with no success, Gildan nodded to Philip. “If you’d like to increase the pressure?”

Philip pulled himself up and headed for the door. He had a pair of daggers at his belt but that was it. Not as if I need much more for her. She’s young.

When he’d wound his way to the entrance and was let through, he was surprised to discover she was even younger than he thought. She couldn’t have been a vampire for more than five years, and more likely three. Her movements were still clunky, crude. Her skin was smooth, but not polished, and though her eyes glittered, they didn’t hold the depth of age, only of fresh immortality.

Is her blood debt even paid yet?

He didn’t know, and he didn’t care. Wordlessly, he advanced on her, watching as she shrank away, those eyes shining with fear.

“Please. I-I don’t know what you want. Please.”

He stopped and fingered one of the daggers on his belt. “I hope you figure it out soon.”

She gulped, and pressed back against the wall. “I-I can’t. Not like this. Please, just…just let me go back to the cell and-”

Philip drew the dagger and advanced; long slow strides. “You’ve had plenty of time in the cell. You didn’t once try to see your future? Not in all that time? Either you’re stupid, or you think I am.”

“No!” She threw up her hands, a gesture to stop, perhaps, or an effort to shield herself. “No! I-I’ve tried to use them, but I can’t relax enough. Please, just let me try again.”

He stopped in front of her and cocked his head to one side, as if he was considering the idea. “Hmmm. Well…” he saw the spark of hope in her eyes, and had to fight not to smile. “You see, there’s a tiny problem with that idea.”

The hope flickered. “What’s that?”

He leaned close, and dropped his voice, as if ready to share a secret. “I don’t really care if you ever get it to work.”

Incomprehension warred on her face, and then she understood. “But…”

“You’re part of an experiment, and I don’t care what their results are. I’m here to tease you up a little bit, and eventually start carving.” He brandished the dagger.

“Experiment? But…but…what experiment?”

“That’s the part you’re supposed figure out. Go on, close your eyes, look to the future. What do you see the scientists doing?”

Her eyelids fluttered closed, then open again. “I-I can’t. Not with you so close. Not with…with that.”

“This?” He turned the dagger so the blade caught the light. “That’s a pity for you.” He looked over his shoulder to the window and shrugged, indicating that she was useless. Gildan rubbed his chin then nodded and motioned the all clear.

Okay. Start hurting her.

Philip shrugged again and turned back. He gave her a merciful smile and stepped back, watching as her shoulders relaxed, as that hope popped back into her eyes…

Then he slashed.

The blade bit her exposed arm, leaving a trail of crimson to quickly rise to the surface. She cried out and flinched away, confusion on her features.

“It’s not personal,” Philip said as he approached again, the dagger ready. “It’s just how it goes.”

She stumbled away from him, landing on the floor. He swooped down to leave a line of scarlet on her cheek. He could smell the blood, but it did nothing for his appetite. It was the bland, dead blood of an immortal; they hadn’t fed her today.

How sad to die hungry.

Though the thought flitted through his mind, there was no emotion attached to it. No feeling of remorse as she crab-crawled away, no particular pity as he cut her again, and again, no guilt when she screamed and begged him to stop.

It’s not that she deserves to be tortured, it’s just the way it is. Bad luck, I guess. And obviously not a very good demon eye – or she’d have seen this coming.

Like he had.

After several minutes, Gildan called a halt. Philip stepped back and glanced down at his hands, both flecked in blood. A quick wipe of his face showed the same.

I’ll have to take a shower after this.

The vampiress lay in a sobbing heap on the floor.  A pool of blood ran from her, down to the drain, and her severed hand lay a few feet away, fingers still curled.

It was the scene he’d seen earlier, in the elevator.

The door buzzed, then opened. A lanky haired scientist bustled through, looking excited, and Philip took the opportunity to head out.  He stopped at a sink to wash the gore from his hands and face before heading back to the observation room for more instructions.

“Stress doesn’t seem to trigger her ability,” Gildan said, hands behind his back as he peered through the window to their subject.  “Perhaps not all powers are enhanced by it?”

“No idea.” Philip dropped back into the chair and yawned. “Demon eye takes practice to use, to focus. Even if she does get clips of the future, there’s no guarantee she’ll see herself, unless she’s focusing. And even then…” Even then there was no guarantee.

“Perhaps you’re right. Perhaps there’s too much going on here. She’s running, hiding, crouching. Physical activity may not be conducive to such powers. Perhaps we’ll try her on a table.”

Gildan gave the orders and the vampiress was dragged away. The vampire made several notes in a file, and then motioned Philip to follow. “We may want to continue the torture.”

They wound through out the door, and down the hall to another short corridor. There, they ended in a big white room that was brightly lit. Medical machinery made it look like something from the time traveling future or else the hospital on a space ship, or so Philip always thought. If only they’d lose the tile on the walls. No self-respecting spaceship would use ceramic tile.

To one side of the room, away from most of the equipment, the girl was strapped down to a table. They’d wrapped the restraints around the stump of her wrist, so tight that the purple skin puckered out over the edges. Despite that, Philip wasn’t sure it would prevent her from pulling that arm fee.

And doing what? He asked himself. There’s no hand there. Unless she’s going to beat you with her stump?

It was a fair point, so he kept his opinions to himself while they finished hooking electrodes to her head to monitor brain activity of some kid.

All this science stuff.

When they’d finished, they moved away and let Gildan come close. He peered down at her and asked, “Are you comfortable?”

She looked up, her eyes shimmering with terror and choked out, “Please. Please let me go.”

“I’ll take that as a yes. Now, as you know, we’re conducting some experiments today. All we want is for you to use your demon eye ability. You are a demon eye, yes?”

“Yes.” Tears spilled down her bloody cheeks. “But I-I can’t use it. It’s not working. Please. Just-”

Gildan interrupted her with a low noise. He scribbled a few notes, then waved Philip over. “See if you can prompt her?”

Philip tugged his daggers out and started by prodding her. She tried to get away but, with the restraints, she couldn’t. Her silent tears turned into gulping sobs, and though Gildan was unaffected, one of the other scientists looked uncomfortable. When Philips prodding became stabbing, and her cries turned to screams, the other vampire flinched and finally stammered, “Can’t we…we gag her, or…or something?”

Gildan rolled his eyes. “If you insist, Lionel, be my guest.”

The vampire with a conscience stepped away. “No! No, it’s…It’s not my job. Have your…uh, tormenter do it.”

Philip scoffed. Gagging her would defeat the purpose. How would they know if she’d had a vision if she couldn’t tell them? But it wasn’t his problem. He took the handkerchief Gildan impatiently handed him, and shoved it in the girl’s mouth. She tried to bite him, but he gagged her hard enough to force her mouth open again.

“You’ll have to…to tie something over it or she’ll just spit it out,” their pseudo concerned vampire said.

If he was really concerned for her, he’d try to save her, not just shut her up.  Obviously the screams were what made him feel bad, and if they were gone…Then he can pretend it’s fine. Pathetic.

When the gag was tied in place, Philip was ordered back to it. He yawned as he cut off her toes one by one. How much longer would this go on for? He was feeling peckish – he’d rushed his breakfast because Beldren had irritated him – and he’d spent the last three days doing this to other vampires. He was used to having to do some fighting or torture in the field, but not day after day. There was travel time in between, something to break it up. This was just getting repetitive.

And boring.

The vampiress started thrashing worse than before, her head flopping side to side, and then, she went suddenly still, like the dead. Philip stopped to see her eyelids fluttering and her face slack. Had she passed out? She couldn’t be dead. Not mutilation, or even extreme shock or pain could end their life. It took destroying the heart to kill a vampire.

And her heart-

The thought dropped away when her eyes popped open. Her back arched, and she strained, her back arching and her mouth worked, the words muffled. Gildan motioned Philip to remove the gag, and he complied, pulling his hand back from her mouth quickly, lest she bite him.

Instead, she managed to grab his sleeve with her good hand. Her head snapped towards him and she shouted, “Death! Death in the brick house!”

Philip pulled free just as she broke her stump arm lose. She waved it wildly, as if pointing to one of them, while shrieking, “Death! Ripped open! So much blood!”

Her tirade fell away as Gildan jammed the handkerchief back in her mouth. “We have none of us long to wait for Death. Least of all you.” He stepped back, wiping his hands on his white coat. “Finish her, Executioner. We’ve learned what we wanted.”

She bucked on the bed, swinging her free arm in an erratic pattern. Philip ducked past the limb and jammed his dagger through her heart. Her body drew tight, arched, frozen. Then, as he ripped the blade free, she went slack.

Dead.

Philip plucked the makeshift gag from her mouth and used the handkerchief to wipe his weapons. When they were clean enough, he left the scientists to their clean up, and headed for the sink. He met Gidan there, not washing his hands, but watching the water swirl down the drain just the same.

“You don’t mind if I actually use it?” Philip asked.

“No, no.” Gildan stepped to the side, still focused on the water. Finally he snapped out of it and gave a thin smile, an expression that made him look like a snake. “At this juncture I believe we can say demon eyes’ abilities are not supplemented by physical stress. Though she got the death part of her future right, one can hardly call this a brick house.”

Philip rinsed the soap bubbles off, trying to decide if he cared enough to comment. He didn’t, but… “Unless that isn’t her future. A demon eye can see the future of others, sometimes better than their own.”

Gildan rubbed his chin. “Interesting. Yes. Yes. It could be, I suppose. But it seems a stretch. Perhaps we should try another experiment?”

Philip shut off the water and dried his hands. “You’ll have to find a new subject.”

“Oh, it’s no trouble. One of your kind will supply it, I’m sure. She’s been very good at finding them so far.”

Philip bit back a smile. Yes, Senya would be efficient at it.

“I believe we’re done for today,” Gildan added as an afterthought. “Tomorrow?”

Philip nodded, but didn’t bother to agree. He didn’t need to. It wasn’t as if he had a choice.

Back in the sci-fi hallway, he ignored the horrified looks of the guards. He knew what he must look like, flecked in hours old blood, his hair matted. He wondered what scenarios they imagined for it, what scenario he’d have come up with if he was them.

I’d probably assume the Executioner had been killing an army of vampires.

It was a pity that wasn’t the truth. It would have bene more interesting, at least.

**

In his den, Philip showered, changed, and sent his dirty clothes to the laundry. Then he headed for the café. Another off time, he was left with the same luck as before: no one to sit with. He drank his blood, paid his bill, and headed home again. He had a couple of hours until sunrise and thanks to modern cable there was now programming on TV all night long. Not necessarily quality programming, but it was something to watch all the same.

Though he didn’t like to admit it, even to himself, the vampiress’ pronouncement had unsettled him. Death in the brick house. What brick house? And whose death? Not hers, but was it someone close to her? Or was it one of them?

I can’t imagine why the scientists would be anywhere except the citadel. But me…

He went out on assignments, infiltrated dens, fought other vampires. And it was his sleeve she’d hung on to.

Only because she couldn’t reach the others.

Though he told himself that, he lay in bed after the sun was up, staring through the gloomy darkness. Finally, he closed his eyes and reached for the future – his future. He saw flashes, snatches, but no brick house, and no death.

She was just babbling, he assured himself. Unless she can see farther ahead than I can.

Which, with her young age was impossible.

Just babbling.

**

The next evening, Philip woke, dressed, and headed for the café. Inside, he saw Bren. With messy brown hair, his slender frame was draped in a long black coat, and a silver medallion hung around his neck, marking him as a fellow Executioner.

One who’s more agreeable than Beldren.

“Hello!”

Bren glanced up from his glass and his book. “Oh, hello.” He checked his watch and frowned. “I don’t have long until I have to go.”

“Assignment?” Philip asked as he slid into the empty chair.

“Yes. Malick is sending mw to gather intel. Maine, of all places. This time of year the roads will be a nightmare.”

“You could fly.”

“I could, but…” Bren shrugged and closed the book.  “The guards will drive. If anything happens it’ll be on them.”

“True enough.”

“So how’s your suspension going?” Bren asked with a smirk. Philip stiffened, ready to let him have it, when the other held up his hand. “I bet you’re tired of hearing that, aren’t you? Shame you can’t tell them the truth.”

Philip relaxed a little. So, Senya had told him.

“How is the work going?”

“Honestly?” Philip poked Bren’s glass and glared towards the waiter. “It’s boring. The first day was slightly interesting, but after that…”

“I can’t imagine what good you’re being there does,” Bren agreed. “You’re not scientifically minded.”

“I wouldn’t say that. I have the capacity for it, if I wanted to.”

“Really? I thought erotic sciences were more your speed.” Bren chuckled. “There’s no shame in it. The goons in the lab give me the creeps.”

“They’re all right, I suppose. I just don’t understand what the point of these experiments is. I know what they want to learn, but I don’t know why. Does it matter if stress increases a vampire’s powers momentarily?”

“Of course it does,” Bren said. “You’ve seen it. I’ve seen it. When we fight them, when they fight us. A vampire is always harder to take down if he feels threatened. There are…chemicals or something. I don’t know.”

“Adrenaline, you mean? I thought they’d determined we didn’t have those anymore?”

“I don’t know. You’re the one with the scientists. Anyway, I don’t see that it matters. You’d be more use out on assignment than stuck here in the basement.”

Philip couldn’t argue with that.

**

Bren left, and Philip headed down to the lab. He stopped in the elevator to see what the day would bring. A few quick flashes showed Gildan, his face tight and his eyes angry. There was the stained cement floor. A vampire was hunched in a corner…

Same old, same old. Though it might be interesting to find out what Gildan would be so mad about.

Philip made his way to the lab and eventually back to the observation room. They hadn’t caught a new demon eye yet, so today’s experiment was a puppet master.

Finally, someone who might be a challenge.

They sent one of the scientists in first, to act nonthreatening and get a baseline for the young man’s abilities. Hunkered down in the corner of the room, their specimen wasn’t interested in attacking his captor, only asking why he was there.

Boring.

When they sent Philip in, he held onto his nonviolence – until the daggers came out. At the sight of the blades, his whole body went rigid, and then the fear slowly turned to anger.

“What in the hell is this? I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“Yes you did,” Philip said, moving closer. “You were in the wrong place at the wrong place and let Senya capture you. If you wanted to live, you should have killed her.”

Philip lunged, slashing with his weapon, but the stroke didn’t fall. Instead he found himself frozen paralyzed against his will.

“Why are you doing this?” the young vampire shouted.

Philip met his eyes, and for the first time took stock of his age. He was older than the others had been. Thirty years? Fifty? Maybe more. And he was strong.

This might not be as boring as I thought.

Philip concentrated on moving his arm. But their specimen wasn’t just a paralyzer, he was a puppet master, and he forced Philip’s feet to shuffle backwards. When there was space between them, Philip felt the draw on his fingers, as the other tried to make his fingers let go of the dagger.

Oh no, you don’t.

Philip tightened his hold, squeezing with all his strength. He saw his opponent’s brow furrow, and took advantage of that concentration to move his leg, then his left arm. He just needed to wait a moment and…

And then he sprung. In his surprise, the other vampire’s control flickered, and Philip managed a swipe with the dagger, one that cut through his opponent’s ear and sliced his cheek.

Philip hopped away ready to try again, when he noticed movement from the corner of his eye. He glanced back to the window where Gildan stood, no longer observing, but instead waving his arms at a guard dressed in black.

Philip didn’t have time to find out what was going on before the kid clamped down on him again, using his power to force his back against the wall. Philip glanced to the window again, looking for permission from Gildan to fight, but the scientist was still ignoring him.

“God dammit.”

Philip ripped free of the influence to go after the kid, but he didn’t reach him before he was stopped again. He wrestled with his own body, pushing away the kid’s influence. He managed to get another swipe in, this one across his upper arm, severing both his shirt and flesh.

And then Gildan’s furious voice came over the loudspeaker, “Executioner, return to the observation room.”

Philip looked back and forth between the angry Gildan and their specimen. The kid was crouched down, hair in his face, his chest heaving with the effort he’d been expending.

But I’m wearing him down…

Not that it mattered. Fighting him didn’t matter. It was just an experiment, anyway.

The door buzzed. Philip made a show of sheathing his dagger. “All right. I’m coming.” He gave the kid a half nod, a sort of mock salute, then headed out. It looked like he was about to find out what Gildan was angry about in his vision.

He pushed through the door of the observation room, but before he could ask what was going on, Gildan snapped, “We’re going to see Malick.”

Philip bit back a snicker. If he thought yelling at Malick was a good idea…No, let him. This is bound to be amusing.

Philip followed the furious scientist out of the lab and through the black and red corridor, until they reached the doors of Malick’s chambers. Before they could knock, Malick’s voice thundered from inside, “Enter!”

Philip flinched at the tone, like a roaring ocean mixed with an avalanche. To Gildan’s credit, the scientist didn’t hesitate, but flung the door wide and marched in. They were barely through the antechamber, into the main room, when he snapped out, “Sir, we’ve been ordered-”

Malick stood in the middle of the room, dressed in a suit and tie, his white hair clipped short and his beard neatly trimmed. It gave him the appearance of a slick modern business man, different w=from his usual god-like persona.

Despite the different style, he was his usual omnipotent self. “I know.”

Gildan came to a stop and fixed Malick with a daring glare. “And?”

“And you will disregard that order.”

Gildan’s anger melted into a snake-like smile. “Good. Good, good. We were in the middle of a specimen-”

Philip didn’t need to turn around to know that Celandine was behind him. He could feel her, the strength of her years, less than Malick’s, yet enough to crush a vampire if she chose.

Her voice rang through the room, like a cold, clear bell, “You will do no such thing.”

Gildan spun around, open mouthed, while Malick chuckled. “Ah, so you would enter my chamber uninvited?”

“When you leave the door open, and issue orders you are not authorized to give, then yes.” Celandine seemed to float past them, her long green dress trailing the floor as she moved to stand before Malick. He long dark hair was bound around her head, and her artfully shaped face was pale and cold, like winter dawn after the snow.

Malick laughed, a rich sound that made Philip think of deep green forests. “I seek no permission from you, or the rest of the council.”

“And yet you must have it to conduct these…experiments, as you call them. Though torture is the more appropriate name.”

So the high council had found out about the laboratory.

Celandine sniffed. “The high council is aware of everything. We merely gave Malick a few days, hoping he would end the travesty himself.”

Philip shrank back a step. Of course. She was a whisperer and dream stealer. She could hear all of their thoughts.

Malick’s voice echoed in his head, As can I.

This was why he disliked the ancients.

“Is knowledge a travesty?” Malick asked. “I understanding something to fear?”

“It is not the knowledge that is the issue, Malick, but the means by which you gain it. They cannot be allowed to mutilate and murder innocents.”

“Innocents?” Malick chortled. “What vampire is innocent? Do we not kill to feed, to live? Can any man who takes a life be called innocent?”

“They have committed no crimes under our laws.”

“And if they have?” Malick asked.

Her voice rose sharply, “Then they still may not be experimented upon. This ends now, Malick. The council has voted and passed the decree.”

“And if it doesn’t?”

Philip’s instincts said for him to run, run fast and far. Get away from the ancients before their disagreement turned to violence. But duty held him there. He hadn’t been dismissed, and angering them might be worse. At the moment he might be collateral damage, but if he made them angry…

Celandine drew herself up. “We will report you to the True Council in Munich.”

“Is that supposed to frighten me? They have a laboratory of their own, and their experiments are far more…imaginative.”

“The council has spoken. End this now, and keep some of your research, or we will vote to have the entire lab disassembled. You will lose all of your plans.”

Philip cringed. There was no way Malick would bow to her, or to the rest of the high council. There was no way he’d agree to discontinue-

The ancient master laughed. “As you wish, Celandine. The experiments you so object to will end.”

Gildan gaped, but before he could make an ass of himself, Malick glanced to him. “You will handle the specimens, and discontinue your current work.”

Though not a mind reader, Philip sensed Gildan’s coming argument. He thought about letting the scientist go, but a spark of compassion caused him to grab the vampire’s arm and drag him for the door, leaving behind a trail of “Yes, Master.”

In the hallway, Gildan jerked loose, brushing at his coat sleeve as if he’d been contaminated. “What do you think you’re doing?”

Philip instantly regretted saving him. “I have more important things to do than watch Malick and Celandine kill you. Speaking of which, I’m going to get to them.”

He strode down the corridor, leaving Gildan to shout after him, “Wait! You have to deal with the specimens!”

“Deal with them yourself,” Philip called, without looking back.

He could hear Gildan sputtering all the way to the elevators. Inside, he waited until the doors shut to lean back against the wall and close his eyes. He concentrated on the rest of his day, looking for what would happen now. He saw a few quick flashes; the café, a call from the office, a new assignment…

A brick house.

The last vision was too fast for him to be sure of, wrapped in the mist of the far future.

Or of my imagination.

That was what it had to be, he assured himself. Just a bored mind, looking for something exciting.

 

**

picture: Jay

topic: Lisa

  1. bride of Frankenstein 2. hair raising 3. monster mash 4. vamp 5. monster mama 6. monster’s girlfriend 7. gonna sue the hairdresser 8. bad trip to the beauty parlor 9. next big hairstyle 10. shocking

Blogophilia 23.11 – Senya

I think I’m too late for Blogophilia, but we’re gonna try it anyway. This week is writer’s choice, so:

Good Times, and Bad Times

Easy: Use a Russian word: Kiska

Hard: Use Lyrics from American Pie by Don McLean (a long, long time ago)

It’s Senya’s turn for a story. This takes place during Heart of the Raven

***

Senya  moved silently through the cold Russian night. Long ago, the temperatures would have left her shivering under layers of clothing, but not now. Immortal, such things didn’t bother her.

Like the dark.

The night that had once been her enemy was her friend, a haven from the damaging sunlight. She moved through shadows, hidden from the eyes of her prey, just as her enemies had once been hidden from her.

That was a long, long time ago.

The past was something she’d let go, moved on from, and yet here, in this place, with this particular hunt, she could feel it pressing close, like a photo without glass in the frame. She had only to lift her hand, reach out, and there it would be, there she would be, hungry dirty, still grieving for her dead brother, even as she took his place in the fight.

A familiar scent caught her and she stopped in her tracks. With that smell came a thousand memories, the smell of blood, fear, and later more blood, more fear, though of a different kind. Through it all, he’d been there, with his deep belly laugh and optimistic outlook, always promising that things would get better.

Did they, Boris?

She hadn’t seen his face – or smelled his scent – since 1660. How long ago was that? More than three hundred years, at least. Almost four. In that time she’d written him off as dead and forgotten him and yet here he was, crashing back, bringing those memories with him.

Memories she didn’t have time for.

“I assumed you were dead by now,” she told the darkness. “How have you managed to stay hidden alone for so long?”

The night gave no answer, so she picked her way slowly towards the small house.  The single light in the window stayed steady, no shadows moved, and no sound came from inside. Did he know she was there? Did he smell her? Would he recognize her if he did?

She stopped at the door and wavered. Should she knock as a friend, or kick it in as an enemy? Which was she? Which was he?

Time to find out.

She rapped on the door with her knuckles, three sharp little sounds. She heard a soft shuffle inside and tensed, waiting for the fight that often answered her knocks. The door click, then opened slowly, to reveal a mustached vampire. The round face matched his belly, and dark thick hair teased his heavy brows. His eyes, a deep brown, looked her over, snapping with a thousand thoughts.

When he didn’t speak, she snapped, “Hello, Boris.”

“So you come.” He stepped back , holding the door wide, and motioned her inside.

Senya stepped over the threshold cautiously, eyes taking in everything, looking for traps, accomplices, danger. What she found was a snake of cables running to a cobbled together pile of computer parts. A camera and tripod pointed to a blue screen, while a collection of buckets held various amounts of rain water, runoff from the water spotted ceiling. The only doorway was covered by a thin blanket, and though she couldn’t see past it, neither could she smell anyone else.

“You’re alone?” she demanded, her hand near her dagger, ready to grab it, to stab, to cut. Where is she?

“Do you see anyone, Fetiniia?”

The old name was like a slap, a memory she’d forgotten. “It’s Senya.”

“Yes, yes, I remember, but do you? Do you remember why you took his name?”

Senya fell back a step, fingers itching for the handle of her weapon. “I remember well enough.”

Boris chuckled. “Of course you do.” He turned and moved for the heap of computers, his back to her. If she planned to take the shot, this was it. This was the best chance. If it came to hand to hand combat…

“I’m glad to see your friends delivered the message,” he added, switching to their native Russian. “Would you care to sit?”

Though he tugged the chair free, she ignored it to demand, “Friends? What friends?” He didn’t mean…?

“Ah, but I have forgotten their names.” He tapped the side of his nose and winked. “I’m paid to forget such things, yes? You know them, though. They travel with a human.”

So he did. “Jorick and his entourage are not my friends.” Far from it. If anything they were her enemies. No, not my enemies, but Malick’s. Yet, now that they’d left The Guild, weren’t Malick’s enemies her enemies now?

How many days had it been since the battle? Malick had known an attack was coming to The Guild, but when Eileifr, the demon eye on the high council, mentioned seeing it, Malick always swished it away. “You see only his intentions,” Malick said. “They will not come to fruition.”

And they shouldn’t have. There was no way that Jorick’s fledgling and his ragtag band of vampires should have been able to breech the security and cause any damage. The moment they hit the parking lot above the underground citadel, the cameras should have seen them, and a small group of the highly trained Executioners should have been dispatched to take them out.

Except the cameras weren’t working that night. On Malick’s orders, she and Griselda had seen to that, leaving the vampire’s fortress blind. Then, when the attack came, Malick had ordered the Executioners below, to him, rather than sending the into the fight. Those that disobeyed and marched to the fray anyway were scattered and disorganized, as were the lesser guards Malick had ordered to the front lines.

Is it any wonder the casualties were so high?

But that was his plan, wasn’t it? Not that Senya could see into his heart, or really knew his motivation. Still, if Malick’s ramblings meant anything, then he’d let it unfold as a way to wipe out the weak vampires who populated the citadel. That was why his initial orders seemed so bizarre.

She’d stood in his chambers with the others, surrounded by plants, listening for the sounds of battle that would soon begin. He’d asked first for their loyalty, told any who were unsure to leave now, and then ordered them to pack everything.

Griselda had blinked blue eyes. “Master?”

Malick spun on her, so that his long silver hair flew round his face. “You question me, child?”

“No, master. Of course not.” Though Senya could guess her fear, Griselda held her shoulders straight, gaze unwavering.

“Good.” Malick smiled sweetly. “Then do as I say. Everything must go. And quickly. A truck waits outside, and from there we will take a plane.”

“We’re leaving?” Greneth asked. “But, master, I thought the point of this was to take The Guild back! To get rid of the high council and-”

Malick laughed, a sound like sunshine and ocean waves. “Child, if I wished to destroy the high council I could do so myself, at any moment. They are children to me.” His tone turned stern. “Now do as you are ordered!”

The collection of guards and Executioners hurried to their strange task, packing and hauling everything upstairs via and an old forgotten entrance. Seya vaguely recalled that they’d sealed it off sixty years ago, when some of the above ground buildings moved, but she’d forgotten it existed, and certainly hadn’t expected to see it open at the top.

But of course, he’d have it ready to go.

Despite their secret exit, Malick had chosen to leave in style. When his chambers were emptied, and the invaders had made as much headway as he felt they could, he and his three faithful Executioners sealed his chamber doors, then marched into the atrium. They’d faced Eileifr, then the guards above detonated the pre-timed explosives, turning the fake skylight into a real opening. While the glass fell, Griselda had used the grappling gun – as Malick called the bizarre weapon – to fire a bolt into the ceiling. Hanging together, the fur of them had left, winched up through the ceiling by a device they’d never tested before. As the floor fell away, Senya had wondered what would happen if they fell.

“Then we will make a different exit,” was Malick’s silent reply.

But they hadn’t fallen. They’d climbed out at the top, hopped in the waiting SUV and sped for the airfield. A crew of faithful had taken the truck to another airport, where a cargo lane waited, but here was a passenger plane, carefully cleaned of all tracking devices, and ready to go.

And go it did.

That was how they got to Namibia, where Malick had been secretly setting up a new base of operations.  He’d hired local villagers to build the complex, and furnish it. Once the cargo arrived with the last of his belongings from the citadel, he’d sent a death squad to handle the villagers. A fire later, and the world believed terrorists had destroyed it, or so Senya had seen in a newspaper later.

That was one blood bath I missed.

She’d been busy, handling other things, but Greneth had been happy to tell her about it. His eyes had glowed with the memories of the mortal’s screams.

Though Senya had a reputation for reveling in such things, too, she didn’t. To be fair, she didn’t hate them, either, she just didn’t care. An assignment was an assignment. One did their job and then moved to the next, no matter what that job might be. If it was kidnapping fellow vampires to hand over to humans, killing entire villages, or just luring the hand of death somewhere, it didn’t matter. Each job was as important as the one before, with orders that needed to be followed.

If that’s true, then why in the hell am I here?

She glanced to Boris, wearing his familiar friendly expression. It was that same kindness that had soothed her when her brother was killed so long ago, and when their master made them into what they were, when he started to demand that they follow his orders, complete his assignments…

“You are lost in thought, hmm? Memories, perhaps?”

Senya looked away. “You’re not a mind reader, don’t pretend to be.”

“No, no, but I recognize the look on your face. It is the same I wore when I last saw Basille. Was it…forty years ago, perhaps? Maybe more.”

Basille. Their master, the vampire who had given his blood and made them, and the others, what they were. His own private army. And yet with his diminutive figure, and cheerful expression, he didn’t seem the type to need such a force.

How wrong that assessment was.

“Where did you see him?” Senya asked.

“Here, in the old country. He was passing through. He asked after you, though I had no news to give him. I have often wondered how you are doing, whether you were still alive, or shared the same fate as our brothers.”

Senya bit back a million nasty retorts. If he cared so much, she was easy to find. As an Executioner, many of the vampires in North America knew her name, or at least her description. “I’m not hard to find.”

“No, perhaps not for one who travels, but me? Eh, I stay where I am. I move from den to den, yes, but Russia is my home, no matter what name they want to call it. I fought too hard for it once, remember?”

“That was a long time ago, when we were still…” she couldn’t say the word, as if having been human somehow made them lesser. “It doesn’t matter.”

“No, I suppose nothing matters.” Boris offered the chair again, then shrugged and took it himself. “Though it is good to see your face after so long, I have to ask, why did you come? To reconcile, I thought at first, but maybe not? Maybe you are here to finish our old argument?”

Senya stiffened. The old argument. A disagreement that had separated them all those years ago.  They’d had thirty years of freedom from Bassile and, in that time, the few who’d remained of their coven had peeled away, leaving just the two of them. Their partnership was not romantic, nor was it perfect, but they got along much like a father and daughter.

Until she came.

Eva was plump, but pretty. With a tiny mouth and curling hair, her expression was usually pleasant. At first. The closer she and Boris got, the harder that sweet face turned. Not in front of Boris, of course, but only to Senya. Her jealousy was a bitter, almost palpable thing that led her to first exaggerate, and finally lie about things Senya had done or said.

“I understand it is hard to accept new company,” Boris said to her one night. “But Eva is nice. You must learn, kiska.”

Senya had laughed. “I must learn? Or what? You’ll play the father and punish me? Eva’s words are lies.”

“Kiska…”

And with his gentle sadness, Senya realized he would forever believe Eva over her. Se and Boris were not lovers, were not related even except for the blood from their master. There was no reason for her to stay.

And yet she had stayed another month, or was it two? The days peeled away like apple skin, revealing a rotten fruit beneath. Boris’ gentle reprimands turned stern, then angry, and finally furious.

“You are like spoiled child, kiska, who cannot share! Before you were the only woman, but now there are two and you cannot abide it.”

“My hatred of the harpy has nothing to do with her sex! I would gladly welcome twenty women, so long as they were not the lying, manipulative-”

“Enough! No more name calling. No more accusations! If you are so unhappy, leave!”

And she did. Not immediately. First they shouted cruel words that devolved into a violent brawl. Eva stood at the fringes, hands clasped saying, “Oh Boris, don’t fight over me!” But Senya knew the words for what they were. She saw the gleaming blood lust in Eva’s eyes.

When Senya finally stormed out, covered in blood, she swore that the next time they met she would kill them both. And she’d meant to. But, as the years flew past, the old wounds felt different, until now she looked back not with hatred for Boris, but pity; pity that he could so easily be manipulated.

“Where is she?” Senya finally asked.

“You mean, Eva, yes? Ah, but she is gone. Long, long gone. We were happy, for a time, but such things end and then there is only dust and memories. Neither are strong enough to hold a person, are they?”

“And then what?” Senya demanded. “When she left what did you do?”

“Ah, you wish to catch up? To hear my whole history? But we do not have time for that, not when the sun will come soon. I will say that until now I have had good times, and bad times, and some times I cared for neither one way or the other. I made two fledglings, though both have gone on to their own lives now.  For the last fifty years I have been alone, working, learning, finding way in between the cracks to seek the information, because that is where the power and the profit are, kiska. In knowledge, and so much of it is now available with the click of a key.”

Senya wasn’t sure what he meant, but it wasn’t important. He was right about the morning. She could feel it approaching. She wasn’t sure she had time to make it somewhere else.

Boris stood and yawned. “If you wish to kill me, you should do it now. Otherwise it is time to seek my bed, and perhaps to find one for you, yes?”

The righteous anger was still there in a tiny ball, the desire to beat him to a bloody pulp and make him apologize, make him admit that she was right, that Eva was the monster that-

That none of it matters.

“You are right. It is late.”

He nodded and relaxed, as though her words had answered some deeper question. “Come, I will show you where I sleep. It is not luxurious, but it is safe.”

She followed him to a root cellar and accepted the box he offered. “You are guest, yes? Boris will take the floor tonight.”

She didn’t argue, and was soon bedded down, the lid secured above her. She lay awake until the sound of Boris’ breathing dissipated – a sign he’d fallen asleep – then checked to make sure the lid moved; that he hadn’t locked her inside. It lifted easily, and she peeked out to check on him. He lay asleep on the floor, eyes closed, one hand under his head, the other at his side, no weapons in sight.

Not that I don’t trust him.

Secure in her safety, Senya laid back down and slid the lid back in place. Tomorrow she’d find out what he wanted from her.

And what I want from him.

***

The next evening Senya rose to find Boris awake, but not yet up. “Good evening.” He smiled as he pulled into a sitting position. “You slept well, yes?”

“Well enough. What do you feed on?”

He laughed and climbed to his feet. “Always so direct, yes? Ah, but I feed on what I can. We are near a town, but not so near that there is no wildlife. You can take your choice of human or animal.”

“Human always tastes better, however, I assume you have a system to avoid too many disappearances?”

He chuckled and motioned her up, out of the cellar. “My system is simply not to kill too many. If you stay long, you will find that humans come to me, in secret, just as your friends did. No one knows they are here, so if they disappear…ah, it is no big thing.”

Friends? The word jolted, but again Senya realized who he meant. “What did Jorick and…” she couldn’t remember any of the other’s names. “…And the others want with you?”

“The same thing everyone wants, yes? Fake papers. Fake IDs. To hide themselves in plain sight, to have official documents that look real and yet maybe aren’t. Ah, but I can make them real, can’t I? It is so easy now, everything is computers and databases. You go in, you enter the information, you edit the files, and your little manipulations are now reality.”

Though not computer savvy, Senya understood what he meant. They had a department at The Guild to handle such things, to move money and identification around, to keep vampire’s immortal natures secret. Of course, they didn’t do it for free, and those who opted for such services paid The Guild a hefty fee.

“How else do you expect the citadel to pay the electric bill?” Malick had asked jokingly.

Senya followed Boris outside, pondering why Jorick would want fake papers. As a whisperer he could get by easily enough, no matter where he was headed. Logic said it was to Japan, to retrieve the item Malick sought, but…

But is it really there?

Malick said it was; said he saw it in Jorick’s mind while they were in the stronghold in Munich – now there was another example of Malick’s mysterious plans.  They’d moved into the complex in Namibia, taken out the village nearby with its many witnesses, and just settled in when Malick’s spies in the citadel sent word that Jorick was on his way to see the True Council in Munich, Germany.  They didn’t need the rest of the message to know why: The Guild had lodged an official complaint with the higher ups about Malick’s revolt, and Jorick had been sent to give testimony about it. The True Council would then hand down a judgement, but short of hunting Malick down, there was no way to enforce it. The whole proceedings were a joke. As Malick said, the True Council – or any council – had only the power that others allowed them to have.

Despite the farce, Malick was infinitely interested. Not because he feared the True Council, but because Jorick was involved. His son in blood, it had hurt him that Jorick hadn’t joined them. Senya knew the vampire never would – he was too pompous, too full of his own sense of justice to ever bend his so-called morals – but Malick saw things differently. He believed that Jorick would “awaken” to his “true nature” and “come back”.

With that goal, they’d traveled to Munich. Not two hours on the ground and they’d found a familiar face: Traven, one of the vampires who’d led the attack on The Guild. Though Senya wanted to kill him – there was something weasely about him she found offensive – Malick stopped her.

“I believe he will be useful to us, as one of Jorick’s former allies.”

“Not Jorick’s,” Traven said coldly. “I was allied with Oren, Jorick’s fledgling, but not Jorick. I’ve known him too many years for that.”

“How familiarity breeds contempt,” Malick said with a smile. “Such things may make you even more useful. Release him, Senya.”

With a snarl she’d done as she was told, though it made little sense. Traven was old, yes, but useless. His history with Jorick was useless.

“Can you see the future?” Malick’s voice had asked in her head. “Those who seem useless now may become the key to everything.”

It was only after Traven was gone that Malick revealed the scroll to them. “He knows not what it says, except that it contains details on the Heart of the Raven. He foolishly hopes it holds the location- though such will do him no good because Jorick alone knows where he has hidden it. However, he also believes it will reveal the secret to unlocking its power. If such a thing is true, we must possess it.”

“Where is it, master?” Greneth asked.

“Traven has been asking the same question, but we are smarter than he is, and I believe we will find out first. Come, the hour grows late. We will handle such things tomorrow.”

And they did. First Malick swept through the vampire underground, and when he had his information they stormed the stronghold, not that it was hard for them to get in. Rather than recruiting Jorick, as Senya understood the plan was, they had a brief face to face with him and one of the members of the True Council, then left.

As Griselda whipped their SUV out into traffic, swerving like a madwoman around cars and busses, Senya couldn’t stop from asking, “What was the point?”

“The point of what?” Malick asked from the back seat, where he rode like a rich king.

“I thought-”

“And therein lies your problem, child. You should not think, only do as you are commanded. We have what we came for. I now know where the heart is. Greneth! Make arrangements immediately for us to travel to Japan.”

Japan?

Greneth cleared his throat. “We’ll need to get new pilots, master. We killed the pair that brought us here from Africa.”

Malick motioned it away. “Not pilots. I believe the sea is a better choice. Jorick will be slow to get there considering the number he travels with, and we do not want to arrive too early. No, we will get there about the same time he does and follow. Let him lead us to his hiding place.” The ancient chucked. “I had not considered that he left it with her. How fascinating that he can still surprise me.”

“With who, master?” Greneth asked.

“His fledgling, of course. Oh, he assumed I didn’t know about her, and to be honest I had forgotten. I kept tabs on her for the first hundred years, but when he had no contact with her, I assumed she was unimportant.” He leaned forward to touch Senya on the shoulder. “And that, child, is why you should never be quick to judge another as useless.”

Griselda turned the wheel sharply, avoiding a large truck. “So Jorick really did steal the Heart of the raven from you when he left and hid it a so-called secret fledgling?”

Malick laughed. As it rolled through the car, the amusement turned cold and he snapped, “Do you really believe he would dare to steal from me? That he could get away with such a deed? No. I gave it to him for safe keeping, and he had it hidden in his den. When he left us, he still had it squirreled away. I assumed it was still in the United States, perhaps in his house in Maine. Ah, but this…this will be far more amusing.”

Amusing. Malick was always looking for amusement, as if it was the elixir of youth. And perhaps it was. He was two thousand years old, or older, and had managed not to turn into a cold creature, like the rest of the ancients.

Hell, I’m colder than he is.

***

Though Senya preferred humans, she followed Boris and fed on wildlife. When they’d finished, they headed back to his shabby house. As Senya ducked inside, she wondered why vampires preferred to live in squalid conditions, but decided it probably had little to do with choice. Days, weeks, years passed differently for them, and the ten years in between new house paint would pass in the blink of an eye, let alone the weekly necessity of mowing or weeding. Then there was the problem of sunlight. It wasn’t as if there was a lot of time in the summer for them to be awake, and who wanted to spend what little there was on house maintenance. No, it was more likely a lack of concern, so that one day you woke up in what had been a nice house and discovered it was a hovel.

That’s why I preferred The Guild. None of that to worry about.

Not that there would be any o fit to worry about at Malick’s complex, at least not for her. They’d brought a small army of guards and lackeys to handle the lesser tasks. Already a group of former guards was out recruiting more, while a team of servants was at the complex unpacking crates and rearranging rooms.

Not that they’d call themselves servants, she mused. Followers, perhaps, of the ancient master, but not servants.

Yet that’s what they are. What we all are.

She didn’t like the label, but there it was. Such things happened when you allied yourself with an ancient; one strong enough to crush you using the mere power of their mind. She’d seen Malick do that only a few days ago.

And what will he do to me when he finds out I’m here and not on the ferry, following Jorick and his human?

***

And now for guesses:

Pic: stormy

  1. gandalf 2. man in the water 3.old man 4. guardian 5. swamp man 6. watching 7. I hope this river stays low 8. in the river

Blogophilia 22.11: Obrad

It’s time again for blogophilia, the fun blog group where Martien gives participants prompts to use in their weekly blog. This week’s prompts are:

Ecrits Blogophilia Week 22.11 Topic – Scuba Diving

**BONUSES: Hard Bonus (2 pts): Incorporate a movie starring Emma Thompson (Stranger than Fiction)

Easy Bonus (1 pt): Mention uncovering a lie

.

This story takes place 15 years after the last novel.

***

Obrad checked his phone again, then let his eyes move over the abandoned house. It looked like a vampire den even smelled vaguely like one, but there were no vampires. And especially not a pair of rogues. There wasn’t even evidence of them. No corpses, no chained up humans. Nothing.

One of the guards came around the corner of the house, shaking his head. “There’s no one here, sir.”

“That’s what I thought.” Obrad stashed his weapon and walked towards the sagging front door. It hung open, swinging softly in the night breeze. He could see the empty room beyond, vacant of furniture or love, holding only a few broken beer bottles and old graffiti.

He stopped to survey the artwork. “Trina waz Here”. A lopsided Snoopy held a joint. A mouse in a mask enjoyed scuba diving until another artist had painted in a badly done shark.

“Idiots.”

Obrad moved through the rooms of the house. The dirty floor was littered with debris and an occasional piece of broken furniture, but that was it. Still no corpses, no blood, no sign of a vampire past a vague lingering smell.

“Obviously they’ve moved on,” he announced to the empty hallway.

As he tugged out his phone to report that his mission was complete, the second guard’s voice echoed through the house, “You should come see this.”

Obrad bit back impatience. He didn’t want to go see it. He wanted to send his text message and head back to the citadel in time for the ceremony.

But I’d better check it out.

With a resigned sigh, he picked his way down the rickety stairs to join the guards in what had once been a dining room. The men were both tall, one with dark hair, the other light. Their black uniforms were identical, and to be honest he could barely tell them apart. It was that way with a lot of the guards; they were accessories, background noise that he didn’t pay attention to.

I guess I’ve changed.

Fifteen years ago he’d been one of them; a greater guard accompanying Executioners on assignments. Then he’d gotten promoted. He’d sworn he’d never be like the others, never think he was better than everyone else.

And yet, here I am.

Damn.

He broke away from his internal chastisement to ask with a little more patience, “What do we need to see?”

“It’s in the woods. I caught a scent when the wind changed, and when I followed it…You’ll just have to come see.”

Obrad ground his teeth, but nodded. If the guy would just tell him it would save so much time. Who knew that it was even worth hiking through the woods to see?

Still, he followed the lighter haired guard. They pushed through the overgrown lawn and into the trees beyond. Close growing branches slapped at them, and thick weeds tried to choke their progress.  Obrad had just decided that nothing could be worth the overgrown jungle, when the smell of death wafted to him. Not just death; immortal death.

Dead vampires.

With renewed purpose, he forced his way past their guide and clumped through underbrush to reach a small clearing. The grass had been mashed down in a lopsided circle, weeds broken and overhanging branches torn free. Leaning against the base of one tree was a headless vampire, his neck a scabbed stub of old blood, his chest a mass of flies and gore. Parts of his body were burned, probably where sunlight had managed to creep through the thick canopy, leaving him with only one arm and no feet.

Nearby lay what was left of another corpse, mostly torso, animals had torn into it, leaving clothes and shriveled flesh shredded. Both legs were burned away, up to the hip, as was one arm. The other was only left from the elbow up, the rest taken by sunlight.

Obrad rolled the bits over with his foot, but aside from a mass of jelly where his heart had been, the remains gave no clues.

The dark haired guard turned away, gagging, but the lighter one knelt by the more complete body. “They’ve been here for a couple of days at least. It’s amazing they haven’t been burned completely.”

“There’s not enough sunlight.” Obrad pointed to the thick leaves overhead. “I imagine it’s taken a couple of days to do that much, as weak as it was. It must not have been hot enough to combust.”

Combust. A tidy word to describe what happened to their tissue in full on sunlight. After so much exposure, flames would appear, and sweep over clothing and flesh, gaining intensity until it was hot enough to burn bone. They’d all seen it happen, or at least he assumed they had. He could have pressed into their minds to find out, but he didn’t care enough.

“I imagine we’ve found our rogues.” Obrad tugged out his phone and snapped several photos of the bodies. “They’re already dead, so job done. We’ll take them back to the house and burn them in the yard, then head back to the citadel.”

The lighter haired guard frowned. “Shouldn’t we investigate, sir?”

No. We should head back before we miss the ceremony! Instead, Obrad asked, “Investigate what?”

“What killed them, of course.”

The darker guard joined them, eyes down, steps cautious, as if afraid to get too close to the mangled corpses. “Caleb’s right. If animals did this, they must be something pretty fierce to take out vampires. And if they ingested enough blood, we might have something more dangerous than rogues on our hands.”

He was right. Caleb was right. But…damn. “Good. I was testing you. You’ve both passed.” The guards tense shoulders relaxed and Obrad knelt near the more complete body. Using a stick, he shooed away the bugs and pried at the edges of the chest wound. Though gory, it was obvious it had been cut, not ripped by an animal. The stump of his neck was the same. Unsinged, it meant the head had been removed purposefully, not burned away.

“I don’t think it was an animal, though one has certainly eaten them. However, it’s doubtful they ingested enough pure blood to make a drastic change. They’d have had to be nearly drained themselves in order to be turned, and even if they were, chances are they were destroyed by sunlight later.”

The guards murmured agreement, though Obrad could feel their lack of sincerity.

He poked at the wounds again, then straightened. “If I had to guess, I’d say that they were killed by another vampire, maybe a coven mate, if you can call rogues that. Probably there was a fight, these two were killed, and the other – or others – left. We could try to trail them, but unless one of you is a tracker…”

He left the sentence unfinished, knowing full well they weren’t.

And thank goodness for that.

They mumbled that they weren’t, then Caleb turned to dragging the more complete body away through the underbrush. “Can you get the other, Bane?”

The dark haired guard edged towards the twisted torso, his face paler than usual. Obrad waited a full thirty seconds before he snapped impatiently, “Allow me.”

What was left of the corpse was soft, but Obrad managed to haul it back. IN the yard he threw it on top of the other, then peeled off his gloves and tossed them on top. There was no way they were ever going to come clean.

Caleb brought gasoline and matches from the car. While he worked, Bane apologized over and over for failing to help. Obrad dismissed him with a gesture, though he didn’t bother to comment. If the guard thought he’d leave it out of the report, he was mistaken.

Soon flames licked the night, the smell of burning flesh replacing the subtle hint of immortals. They stayed until the fire died down – didn’t want to start a wild fire, after all – then climbed back in the car. Obrad settled comfortably in the passenger seat, leaving Caleb to drive. If they hurried, they could be back to the citadel in time for the ceremony.

***

The road sped past, and Obrad counted the miles. It wasn’t just the ceremony he was looking forward to, but seeing Rayne again. Though she was still a guard, she wasn’t one that blended into the background. With her dark black hair, snappy sapphire eyes and smart mouth to match, she was the kind of vampiress any man would be happy to talk to.

And somehow she’s mine.

It was still a wonder to him that she’d ever spoken to him, let alone anything else. He still remembered their first assignment together, working under Ark, in Minnesota. As soon as he saw her, the black uniform hugging her curves like a sports car on a night road, he knew he was in trouble. Sure, he’d seen her around before, but never that close.

Despite her looks, she was humbled by her status of new recruit, and made a beeline for him almost immediately.  “I’m sorry to be a pain, but I want to warn you, I don’t really know what I’m doing.”

And she hadn’t. Ark spent most of the trip chastising her, and by the time they got back to the citadel she was ready to quit.

“I don’t know why I thought I could handle this. It sounded so exciting; getting to go places with the Executioners, but if they’re all as terrifying as him…”

“They are,” Obrad had agreed. “Senya and Bren are the worst, and Griselda and Greneth are close. Verchiel and Jamie are probably the best.”

Her shoulders sagged. “I’m not cut out for this.”

“We all feel that way at first,” he’d assured her. “Just hang in there.”

She’d not only hung in, but requested she work with him on the next assignment and the next, and the next. He told himself, and his teasing buddied, that it was just because he’d been nice to her, because she didn’t know anyone else.  He even made up a story in his head where she was alone, without coven or friend, and so looked at him as a kindly brother.

But truth is stranger than fiction, and finally she asked him to spend time outside of work. When he went to her room to pick her up, she introduced him to her sister and brother in blood. They surveyed him critically, though they acted friendly enough.

During dinner at the café, they were treated to no less than five different vampires who felt the need ot say hello to her and find out who her new friend was.

“This is Obrad,” she said for the fifth time. And for the fifth time she failed to add that they were work acquaintances, that he was just a friend, or any of the million other things that would have clarified his position in her life.

When he took her back to her room later that evening, she’d hung around with a slow goodbye, only surrendering when he inched away. Unsure what he’d just experienced – was it a pair of friends out for an evening, or some kind of date? – he’d hurried toward his own den. It wasn’t until the next evening that her brother cornered him in the mall.

“What are your intentions toward Rayne?”

Obrad had tried not to panic. “I don’t really have any intentions.”

The vampire had growled. “If you think you can break her heart without consequences-”

“Whoa! It’s not like that. We’re just work acquaintances!”

Then you’d better tell her that, before she falls any deeper! Be warned, for every tear she cries I’ll take an inch of your flesh.”

The vampire stomped away, leaving Obrad confused. “Falls any deeper”? Could he mean…?

Not someone like her.

They received their orders that day – accompanying Verchiel to Arizona. The redhead took a car on his own, leaving them to share alone.  Her brother’s words kept playing through Obrad’s head, taunting, teasing, confusing, until the temptation was too much.

He’d used his dream stealer power on her. Not enough to push into her mind, just enough to touch the surface thoughts; thoughts where she was worried that he didn’t like her, where she was disappointed he hadn’t kissed her, where she thought she wasn’t as pretty as some of the others.

“None of them are more beautiful than you.”

She jolted and he realized he’d replied out loud. It took her a moment, too, to understand that he’d been in her head. After hitting his arm and shoulder until they were sore, she dropped back in the seat and declared he’d better never do that again. “Or I’ll do the same to you.”

“I already said I was sorry. Besides, you’re not a dream stealer,” he countered, rubbing his shoulder.

“No, I’m a paralyzer, and if you don’t think I’ll make you stand perfectly still while I do exactly what I want to you, you’re mistaken.”

It had taken him the rest of the trip to find out just wat kind of things she had in mind, and once he did he was sorry he hadn’t found out sooner.

They’d been together since then, even after he was promoted to Executioner. She’d remained a greater guard, and for a while he’d been able to take her on assignments. Eventually, though, the office caught on and started splitting the up. Now it was nearly impossible to sync their schedules.

And if I miss this ceremony, she’ll be furious.

Except, that wasn’t completely true. She’d be mad at first, maybe smack him in the shoulder and yell a bit, but in the end she’d understand, and they’d snuggle up in bed after-

The alert on his phone interrupted the more enjoyable thoughts. The text that went with it carried instructions for a new assignment.

He cursed, ignoring the surprised look Caleb shot him. “We need to turn around. Back to Missouri.”

“Yes, sir.” Caleb slowed, eyes scanning for an offshoot road or field access. “May I ask where we’re headed?”

“Back where we were.” Obrad sighed. “It looks like they found the rest of the rogue coven, not far from the den. Apparently someone took exception to them.”

“Sir?” Bane asked from the backseat.

“They’re dead,” Obrad explained.

“Do they know who killed them?”

Obrad started to snap back, but realized he didn’t know. The message only said there were four dead vampires two miles from the location he’d reported previously, that he was to investigate if they were involved with the rogues and dispose of the bodies.

“We’ll find out when we get there.”

Despite his cryptic answer, an hour later he called the office. A guard stuttered over himself to say that they didn’t know, either. “A-a local coven called it in. Just said there were four dead.”

“Then I imagine they killed them. Have whoever called meet us there.”

“I’ll…I’ll tell them, sir.”

I bet you will.

***

Obrad’s phone alarm went off, a reminder that the ceremony would start in ten minutes. He glanced at the guards, then dismissed them. As long as he was careful he could make the call in front of them.

Rings fell away, and just as he was ready to hang up, Rayne answered, “Let me guess, you’re not going to make it?”

“Sorry. I thought I was done, but they’re sending me back. Apparently the rest of the rogues turned up.”

There was a moment of silence and then, “You should have found them while you were there the first time.”

“Maybe I would have, but I was in a hurry to get back for you.”

She sighed out most of her animosity. “I know. I’m sorry. I’m not mad at you. Just nervous. Do you really think they might pick me?”

“I don’t see why not. You have several commendations, and you’ve been a guard for a long time. You’re a great candidate.”

She took a deep breath. “All right. Wish me luck.”

“Wishing you all the luck in the world.”

He could hear the smile in her voice. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

He hung onto the phone for a moment after she’d hung up, as if he could hang onto her that way. But, he knew better, knew the smooth electronic device could never be a substitute for the real thing.

“Excuse me, sir, but were you talking about the choosing ceremony?”

Obrad gave Caleb a hard glare for eavesdropping. “I might have been.”

The guard sagged just a little. “I’d hoped to attend that, too. I filled an application out.”

Obrad scoffed silently. “Then good luck to you as well.”

As if he has a chance of beating Rayne.

***

They reached their destination an hour before dawn. A tumbled down barn with a skeleton windmill was all that stood in the lonely field. There were no trees, and no vampires.

Obrad cursed silently and dialed the office. “I specifically said to have the vampire who reported this meet us. Where are they?”

“I don’t know, s-sir. We couldn’t get ahold of them again.”

“Couldn’t get-” he broke off before he reeled out a tirade on their incompetence. “Fine. Give me the address of their den. We’ll need somewhere to stay.”

“I, uh, I don’t have it.”

Obrad sucked air between his teeth. “What?”

“They, uh, they left a name. Jenny, but no one thought to get an address. And it’s not in the database.”

Obrad grabbed Caleb’s phone and zipped to the app. He put in their location, but sure enough there was no Jenny nearby, only the coven who had originally complained; a coven Obrad had spoken to earlier today.

Obrad shoved the device back to its owner and hung up. They had just enough time to do a quick once over the scene and then make it to that coven’s den.

He could smell the death as soon as he stepped out of the car. Storming through old weeds, he stopped just inside the ramshackle barn. Four bodies were strewn about, their heads missing and their chests gory holes, like those in the woods.

Unlike the previous corpses, the death was fresher, a day at the most, and perhaps less. One of the bodies was seated upright, back leaning against the wall, a folded piece of paper taped to his shirt.

At a motion from Obrad, Bane snatched it up, and quickly turned away.

“What does it say?” Obrad snapped.

“It…It says…vampire hunters.”

“What?’ Caleb jerked the paper away and read over it. “Let this be a warning to your kind. You have ruled the shadows too long. We will no longer be your cattle. We have learned your weaknesses .The retribution begins. We will hunt all of your kind, and we will destroy you. We will no longer fear the vampires, rather you will learn to fear the vampire hunters.” Caleb looked up. “Do you think that’s who killed the other two, as well?”

“Vampire hunters?” Obrad scoffed. “There’s no such thing.”

“Then who did this?” Bane demanded, motioning to the headless bodies and puddles of congealed blood.

“More likely other vampires.” Obrad straightened, wiping his hands on his pants. “You don’t seriously believe that humans did this?”

Caleb waved the note. “I can smell the human on the paper,”

With an eye roll, Obrad snatched the missive from his hand and gave it a sniff. He, too, could smell human scent on the paper and yet…”That doesn’t mean a human wrote it, or left it, or killed them. You’re jumping to conclusions, like they want you to.”

“But-”

“But nothing. I imagine Jenny, whoever she is, and her coven killed them, then concocted this to hide. Knowing we’d uncover the lie, they took off. Which was stupid. These were rogues. It’s perfectly legal to kill them. Obviously Jenny and her friends are young vampires who know nothing of the way The Laws work.”

He prodded the nearest body. “Take photos and then we need to get these bodies burned. The sun will be up soon.”

***

They made it to the local coven just as the sky was turning pink. The vampires were confused, but knew better than to deny shelter to emissaries of The Guild. Obrad settled down and made a quick call to Rayne that went unanswered.  That she hadn’t called him right away was a good sign. Maybe it meant she was busy signing papers, getting sworn in, and all the million other things.

Or maybe it means she didn’t get it and is too upset to tell me.

With that unhappy thought, he drifted to sleep. His pessimism was forgotten by evening, and he woke feeling both hopeful and aggravated – hopeful for her and aggravated at his own situation.

The coven fed them, and nervously answered questions. They had no idea who Jenny was, or who her coven might be, or even where they lived.

“As far as I know we’re the only ones around here, until the rogues came.”

“At least you won’t need to deal with them, anymore,” Obrad said briskly. “If you see anything, or run into this other coven…”

“Yes, we’ll call right away.” The coven leader held his phone up and nodded vigorously.

With nothing else to gain, Obrad led the guards to the car, and soon they were on the road.

They’d gone a few miles when Caleb said tentatively, “You’re sure it wasn’t a human?”

Obrad rolled his eyes. “No. Humans could not have killed four vampires, especially not like that. And there’s no such thing as vampire hunters,” he added. “Past what they see in entertainment, humans don’t know about us. We have laws to make sure that they don’t.”

“I know,” Caleb said quickly. “Human slaves must be marked and tracked, and human witnesses are to be killed or have their memories purged by a whisperer. Humans who know but are unowned are forbidden.”

“Exactly.”

A moment passed and Caleb asked quietly, “Can you be sure on hasn’t slipped through the cracks?”

Obrad snapped, “Of course!” The silence that settled felt accusatory, and he relented. “All right, perhaps one, here or there, but do you think anyone else would believe them? If they told people that vampires were real, they’d be laughed at, scorned. They wouldn’t be able to recruit humans to help hunt vampires. It’s just ridiculous.”

“But there was human scent on the paper.”

“Meaning a human touched it. Jenny’s coven probably has a human slave, or pet. Look.” He straightened in the seat to give the guard a hard stare. “Do you want to spend days in Missouri, tracking down covens, sifting through weeds on your knees, and generally wasting time, or do you want to go home and find out how the ceremony went?”

Caleb’s lips pressed into a tight line before he finally said, “I want to do my job.”

“And your job is to do as I say,” Obrad reminded him as he settled back. “You are here to assist me, to follow my orders, and to help in any way necessary. You’re not here to play detective or to look for trouble where there is none.  Now concentrate on driving, and maybe we’ll get there before sunrise.”

Caleb’s face creased with unhappiness, but he was smart enough to keep his thoughts to himself.

Thank goodness.

***

They made it back to the citadel with a few hours to spare. Obrad checked in at the office and left the guards to do the paperwork. He’d file an addendum later, mentioning Bane’s issues. Though it seemed like a mean thing to do, there was no animosity behind it. If no one noted it, there was a chance he’d eventually get promoted to Executioner. If he was the one in charge, the one others relied on, a reaction like that could get him and the guards under him killed.

Obrad took the elevator to the second floor and stalked toward the Executioner block, ignoring the way other vampires shied away.  They saw the long black coat, the silver medallion around his neck, and cringed back, leaving him a wide berth. In his human years such behavior would have stung, but now…

Now I’m strong. Then I was weak, and lonely.

That was what had made vampiredom appealing. The youngest son, birthed to the east favorite wife, Obrad was virtually ignored by his father, until his mother was killed. Then he was elevated to favorite status briefly. He’d enjoyed it, reveled the way only a twelve year old boy could, until one of his brothers told him the truth: it was only temporary, to appease his mother’s family.

He hadn’t believed it, but in a matter of weeks he was relegated to the wayside once again, only this time he didn’t have his mother to soften the hurt of being ignored. He’d grown into a troubled youth, and when his father found him too big of a nuisance, he’d finally sent him away.

As strange as it was, that was the thing that had saved him. The caravan had been attacked by vampires. Their queen, Aka, found his harsh exterior and smart mouth amusing, so she kept him as a slave. She used to laugh and tell him that she could see though his lies, through his shield of anger, to the sobbing little boy underneath.

Those words just made him madder.

Eventually she took him as a lover, and finally turned him. Though they were intimate, it had never been about love, and when his blood debt was paid he left without looking back. Not that he didn’t still have strange feelings for Aka, but…

But it’s not like Rayne.

As if his thoughts summoned her, her scent wafted through the door of his den. He breathed it in a moment before unlocking the door and shoving it open.

“There you are!”

Her arms were around his neck, her soft body pressed against his, before he even had time to react. She squeezed tight, then let go and dropped back a step. Her dark black hair curled around her shoulders, and those eyes, like peering into one of his father’s pools, shone blue and excited.

“Guess what? Guess?”

He opened his mouth to do that, when she interrupted by pulling something from her pocket. With a squeal she waved it around, a chain with a swinging silver medallion.

“You were chosen.” He smiled and drew her to him. “I knew you would be.”

She was nearly bouncing in his arms, so he let her go and busied himself peeling off his coat and shoes, while she told him about it. “There were a lot of applicants. I think most of the greater guards were there. They had to bring extra chairs into the audience chamber.”

Obrad nodded absently, recalling his own appointment. After filling out pages of a paper application, they’d met in the audience chamber and waited as a committee of Executioners, led by Ark, read over them. Then they were called one by one to answer questions, and finally his name was announced. That was when the real ceremony began; the swearing in, if you will. In the old days that was all there’d been Malick had chosen a new Executioner, who received notice, and they appeared for the ceremony. But since he’d left…

Obrad realized he hadn’t been listening to Rayne, and murmured a sound, as if he had been. “How did your questions go?”

She cocked an eyebrow. “I was just telling you. Anyway, Ark gave everyone a different scenario, I suppose so no one had time to figure out their answer ahead of time, and Jamie asked everyone random questions. Mine was whether I preferred a six inch blade or a ten inch. What does that matter? But, anyway, I got it!”

“You should have called me right away and told me. Or today,” he admonished as he moved back to her. “I called you but you didn’t answer.”

“I’m sorry, I’ve been so busy, and everyone wanted to celebrate, and you were on assignment. I didn’t want to call in case you were in the middle of some life or death battle.”

“We weren’t,” he assured her.

“Good. I worry.” She drew her arms around his neck and leaned until the tip of her nose touched his. “Now you get to worry about me.”

“I always do. Guards die all the time, especially if their Executioner is careless, like Senya used to be.”

“She wasn’t careless with her favorites, just everyone else. It doesn’t matter, she and her group are long gone, and Eileifr’s worked really hard to blast that mentality out of the ranks.”

“I suppose added eight new Executioners is one way of doing that,” Obrad mused.

“He thinks so. Plus, it will mean you’ll be at the citadel more. More Executioners means fewer assignments. Still…” She broke off.  “I’m not sure about some of the appointments.”

“Like who?”

She opened her mouth to reply, then stopped, and started again. “Honestly, I’m not sure you’d know who they were by name. Come with me to the party and you’ll see.”

Party. The word sent a shiv of ice through his chest. “Um…”

“You’ll be fine. I know you hate those kind of things, but it might be fun.” She tugged away and headed for the bedroom. “I was just going to get ready when you got home. I better hurry or we’ll be late. No time for makeup.”

“You don’t need makeup,” he called after her, his mind already looking for excuses. He’d just gotten back after being gone for eight days. The last thing he wanted was to be surrounded by coworkers, politely sipping blood, and trying to pretend he cared.

“How did your assignments go?” she called from the next room.

“Fine. The first two were butter, and the third ended u easier than we thought. Some local coven killed the rogues for us.”

“Did you thank them?”

He drifted closer to the bedroom. “No, they took off. Probably thought they’d get into trouble. They left a craz note, blaming it on vampire hunters.”

Rayne stuck her head out of the door. “Vampire hunters? But-”

“There’s no such thing,” he said firmly. “Especially considering their heads were severed and their chests gutted. Humans couldn’t do that.” He waved it away. “It doesn’t matter. You were telling me about the new Executioners?”

“You’ll meet them at the party. I’m more interested in the vampire hunters.”

He barely controlled an eye roll. “Not you, too? There’s no such thing.”

“And if you asked mortals they’d say there’s no such thing as vampires.”

“Exactly. So why would they hunt them?”

They stared at one another in silence for a moment, and finally she relented. “All right. I’ll let it go for now. But if another case like this comes up…”

“If another coven of vampires is whipped out with a note declaring revenge on all immortal kind, I might worry about it then. Until then…”

“Until then we have a party to go to. You’re not going to wear that, are you?”

He looked down at his black button up and slacks. “Yes.”

“No, you’re not. Get in here.” He resisted and she snapped back, “Or I’ll make you.”

He felt the tug on his limbs as she exerted a hint of her powers. He could fight, but why bother? In the end it was as inevitable as death.

As he headed into the bedroom, he thought that maybe he should have listened to Caleb. If they’d wasted time investigating fake vampire hunters, they’d still be in Missouri, and he’d have escaped the horrible socializing to come.

When you look at it like that, it’s almost a shame they’re not real.

***

And for guesses:

topic: Myke

picture: Stormy

  1. haunting 2. figure in white 3. spooky 4. who ya gonna call? 5. apparition 6. casper 7. all the remains 8. from ashes 9. spectre 10 phantom
%d bloggers like this: