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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

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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
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Blogophilia 15.11: Migina Part 1

it’s time again for blogophilia. This week’s prompts are:

 

Ecrits Blogophilia Week 15.11 Topic: Trouble Will Find Me
BONUSES: ** Hard Bonus (2 pts): Mention an Audrey Hepburn Movie (Sabrina)
Easy Bonus (1 pt): Use the phrase “High and Dry”

.

I was hoping to do this all in one shot but haven’t had the time. *sigh*

It’s 1976 in the citadel in Iowa…

**

Migina let herself into her apartment, dumping her luggage on the floor. Though she didn’t need the electric light to see, she liked it. A quick flick of the switch and the room brightened, like instant sunlight.

Her eyes snapped past the leather couch and chairs to the low coffee table. On top of the magazines was a folded piece of paper with her name scribbled on it.

She peeled off her coat, then took one of the chairs. Feet propped on the coffee table, she leaned back, note in hand. The handwriting was as familiar as her own; she knew every curve, every swirl, every oddly dotted i. She didn’t need to see the F scrawled at the bottom under the words, “I miss you, my wild woman,” to know it was from Franklin.

Wild woman. She chuckled softly at the term of endearment. It was the kind of thing he liked to call her, as if she was really any wilder than the other women in the Citadel. Compared to some, she was pretty tame.

It isn’t like I bathe in blood anymore.

The memories of those days were tucked away; dark skies, gleaming stars, the screams of mortal victims. It was a different time then. Untamed. Wild, even, like Franklin liked to call it. Then The Guild rolled through and put an end to it.

Civilization always wins in the end.

Her eyes strayed from the paper to photos on the wall. Mostly black and white, they were a collection of night photography, the play of light and shadow, of silhouettes in the dark. Though she was proud of them she wondered what she could accomplish with natural light. What interesting shots could she take if the sunlight didn’t burn her?

If only photography had existed before Tainge shared the gift of strength.

Migina pulled herself away from the past to reread the letter. Six days ago, Franklin had been sent on assignment for at least a week, but when he got back he had plans, “and you had best not be busy.”

She chuckled at the pseudo threat. They both knew she’d be available – assuming she wasn’t on assignment herself.  Though since she’d just gotten back, so there was a good chance she’d still be at the citadel.

Assuming he really gets home tomorrow. Otherwise he’ll just be high and dry.

She dropped the letter on the table and leaned back in the chair. Her den – an apartment in the Executioner’s block of the citadel – was quiet. Too quiet. She started to call to her human guard dog, Sabrina, to demand to know why she wasn’t working, cleaning, making herself useful, but then she remembered. Sabrina was gone.

Migina stood and drifted to the door of the small bedroom. Inside was a bed and a dresser, both empty.  A piece of clear tape clung stubbornly to the wall, the corner of a poster forever trapped.

She was just a mortal, Migina reminded herself. It wasn’t as if she mattered.

Still, she was used to Sabrina rattling around the place. The woman had been with her since…when? 1954. Or was it 55? The years ran together, but either way it had been more than twenty years.

Though in the span of immortality, that’s hardly anything, she reminded herself.

Still, it felt like something. She remembered when she’d captured Sabrina; a dark haired wild looking thing with eyes the color of honey. It wasn’t her beauty that had struck Migina, though, but her spirit. She’d clawed and fought, like a remnant of the old world, those strange eyes burning with fire. Most of the other Executioners had preferred meek, weak-willed humans as their servants, but Migina found them tiresome and useless.

Little more than a dishrag.

The humans had first been procured as protection against each other – to keep their fellow Executioners from sneaking into one another’s rooms during the day and killing them in their sleep. Fifty years later, no one seemed to care anymore. Jamie had gotten rid of his first, followed by Ark and her own Franklin. Then Bren relinquished his, and Senya killed hers, and even Griselda decided she didn’t need one. Migina had hung on, nearly the last to have her human, but when Verchiel started talking about sending his away, she knew it was time.

Lest the others think I’ve grown soft and attached.

Because she wasn’t attached. Sabrina was merely a human slave; someone to clean and run errands, and handle things Migina didn’t want to. She was an occasional snack. Nothing more. She was just a human.

And now she’s gone.

Which means that room needs redecorating.

Yes. Some new furnishings, some paint, maybe. She’d get Sabrina to-

Crap.

With a snarl of impatience, Migina flipped her long black braid over her shoulder, then flounced out of her apartment.  She’d go to the shopping area, buy some things, look through some catalogs, make some orders. She’d turn that room into…into…into something. A dark room, maybe. Then she wouldn’t have to pay to use the one in the shopping center.

Except it was too big for a dark room. The human bathroom, however, would be perfect. And it already had water piped to it.

But it’s going to take some renovations.

**

Migina leaned on the shop counter and flipped through the catalog. She’d hired a carpenter to build countertops in the bathroom next week, but she hadn’t decided what to do with the actual bedroom yet.

“We have a very nice suite collection. It’s new,” the salesman suggested, motioning to the glossy pages she flipped past.

“I don’t need bedroom furniture. I already have one. And I have a sitting room,” she added, before he could suggest it.

The vampire behind the counter gave an impatient huff, but kept his tone and expression friendly. “Then may I ask what you’re looking for?”

Migina flipped another page to gaze at shiny oak bookcases. “I don’t know. I have an extra room, but-”

“Ah!” The salesman tugged the catalog away from her and flipped several pages, stopping on a modern grouping. “Might I suggest a lounge? They’re very popular.”

Migina frowned at the orange upholstered furniture, the  pendant lights, and even the fake wood stereo cabinet. “What would I do with a lounge?”

“Relax?” he suggested. “Listen to records.” He pointed to the stereo. “Or 8-tracks. This beauty plays both. Not to mention cassettes and there’s an option for reel to reel.”

Migina frowned at the photo. “The plants. Do they come with it? They’ll die.”

He turned the magazine around and looked over the printed descriptions. “Actually we could order  artificial sun lamps for them… Let me see…Yes, you can order them…And we won’t need the lamps because they’re plastic. They look real, though, don’t they? Isn’t it amazing what they can make now?”

“Synthetic vegetation, fake sunlight, soon no one will ever need to leave their dungeons,” she muttered.

“Hmm?” Though it was a question, his hurry to rush on proved his disinterest. “You can get everything in the photo except the artwork and the carpeting, but we can order some paintings that would look good.” He pulled another catalog out from under the counter. “And as for carpeting, just a moment.” He lugged up a stack of sample books. “We have that covered, too. And wallpaper.”

Though she was still undecided, she let him flip through the binders, pointing out popular choices, including some heavy shag carpeting.

“Do you know your room measurements?” he asked.

She shrugged and he soon had an appointment set up for a workman to measure everything. “In the meantime we can go ahead and get this ordered. It will take about a month to get here, I’d say. Might be sooner, but I like to project on the longer side. When I do, I find that people are more likely to be pleasantly surprised than disappointed.”

Though she still wasn’t sold on the lounge idea, she couldn’t think of anything else. Half an hour later she left with a receipt, a photocopy of the catalog page, and a considerably lighter bank account.

She stopped in the corridor to stare at the black and white copy. Franklin’s going to laugh his head off when he gets home and sees this. Normally she didn’t let anyone talk her into things – she knew what she wanted and went for it – but this time…

There isn’t anything I want.

Except the dark room.

**

Migina returned to her apartment toting a sledgehammer. She ran into Verchiel in the hall, but for once the idiotic redhead only eyed the massive tool instead of offering some annoying quip.

Good. I hope he sees I’m not in the mood.

She let herself into the apartment, momentarily shocked to see her luggage and coat still stacked in the front room. “Sab-” she cut herself off. Right. She’d have to put her own things away, now.

Tell me again why we got rid of our servants?

After she’d lugged the stuff to her bedroom, she hauled the sledgehammer to Sarbina’s old bathroom. The tiled countertop looked empty, bare of all Sabrina’s toiletries. She’d been pretty  for a human, and a little vain. Migina remembered more than once waiting on her to do her lipstick or curl her hair. Though she hadn’t bothered as much the last few years. In her mid-forties, she’d joked she was past catching a man, and those she attracted…well, they just wanted her blood. They didn’t care what she looked like.

“Philip told me that once,” she’d said, while squinting into the mirror.

Migina had stood impatiently in the doorway, arms crossed. “I’ve told you that you shouldn’t fraternize with the vampires. You’re not much of a guard dog if you’re in love with one of them.”

Sabrina had laughed, a cold, hollow sound. “You don’t need to worry, mistress. I’d be glad of an excuse to cut his heart out.”

Wouldn’t we all?

Sadly Sabrina had never gotten that chance. No one had broken in during the day, let alone tried to attack them.

And that’s the reason the guard dogs became obsolete.

Migina tightened her old on the sledgehammer and looked the room over again. There was a tub, toilet, and sink. She could make quick work of the porcelain –  though she knew she should shut the water off first – If I don’t, trouble will find me, or something like old faithful, at least…but where was the valve? There was a valve, wasn’t there?

Half an hour later she checked the time and surrendered. The sun would be up soon. Tomorrow she’d have to call maintenance and have them shut the water off.

And then I’m going to gut that goddamn room.

**

guesses:

Topic: Dahlia

Picture: Christopher

1.wishful thinking 2. delusions 3. delusions of grandeur 4. reflection 5. mirror 6. inner tiger

Blogophilia 14.11: Tellith Part 3 END

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 14.11 Topic: June Gloom
BONUSES: Hard Bonus (2 pts): Incorporate a Cyndi Lauper song lyric (the vampires come out at night to play)
Easy Bonus (1 pts): Include your favorite fish (koi fish)

.

And now we finish Tellith. If things work out, I’d like to do full stories the next few weeks. I have an idea for two of them and a beginning for a third (though no idea where it’s going). It;s just Philip I don;t know what I’m going to do. Yeah, I know, only four Executioner stories left. Then I can start working on my novel instead. Fun times.

**

Tellith woke as the sun sank the next evening. He blinked for a moment, remembering the silly sing-song Gladys used to say. “To bed now, my darling say goodbye to the day, for the vampires come out at night to play. They eat naughty children, who won’t go to sleep, so hide under your covers, and safe you will keep. ”

Then she’d break into a cackling laugh and sashay toward the powder room.

She was more than a little nuts. Lucky for Bray that she’s still living with him.

He dismissed the familiarity of his old coven for the nightmares of the now. Roger’s panicked phone call, the explosions, the unanswered calls. He didn’t have time to lay there, thinking about his old coven days. He needed to move.

His urgency returned, he leapt from the bed, grabbed his stuff, and headed out without even changing.  His meal was a snack at the side of the road; using his phantom powers to make himself invisible long enough to pounce on deer.

He wanted more blood, but he let the animal break away, and headed back for his car. He should have taken an airplane. That would have been faster. He never thought of planes, though, not right off. Hell, his first instinct was still a horse. Cars and planes hadn’t existed for the first two-thirds of his life. For some reason his brain didn’t want to let go of that.

He was a good piece down the road when he decided to try Roger again. A great idea, but his phone was dead. The charger wasn’t plugged into the port – had he left it at Bray’s? – so he tossed the device in the passenger seat. What did it matter, anyway? It’s not like any of them could answer.

Because they’re dead.

He was sure of that, sure they’d all been slaughtered. Maybe the Hand of Death had swept through, killing them one by one in magnificent sprays of crimson. He imagined the floor wet with the blood of so many dead, and saw the monster-like man wading through the carnage, tearing his enemies apart with his bare hands.

Then he imagined himself arriving, walking through decimated hallways, to find the legendary vampire in the High Council’s audience chamber, seated on a pile of bloody skulls. His voice boomed, echoing off the crimson stained walls, “Who are you?”

In his imagination he fell to his knees and begged for mercy while the Hand of Death sat on his grisly throne and laughed. And laughed. And then, he’d stand and…

And kill me.

Tellith scowled. If he was going to die anyway, he didn’t want to grovel. His imagined scenario changed. The vampire god was still there, still perched on his skulls, his feet bare and stained in blood. But, instead of meekly dropping to his knees, Tellith charged, swinging a battle axe-

“Where the hell am I going to find a battle axe?”

But there was bound to be one laying around somewhere, right? After an epic battle with hundreds dead, there would be weapons everywhere among the carnage. It wasn’t as if the Hand of Death was going to go through and pick them all up. Something like that was too demeaning for a conqueror.

Unless he has followers.

Shit. That was something Tellith hadn’t considered. What if he had a whole army with him? The audience chamber disappeared, gone were the skulls and the vampire king drunk on blood, replaced with a mob of vampire soldiers, armed with shiny spears. They stood not inside, but outside the citadel, surrounding the entrance disguised as an office building. As soon as Tellith pulled into the parking area they pounced, attacking the car. Tellith floored it, but titans lifted the front of the car, leaving the wheels spinning uselessly in midair.

And then they dumped the car over. There was crunching glass, and suddenly hands would reach inside to pull him out and…

He shook away that scenario and tried again. What if he parked down the road? He could sneak up though the cornfield, and then…and then what? If he stepped out they’d get him. Unless they didn’t see him. Maybe he could slide into the garage and-

But there’s no corn this time of year.

He’d been in Florida, enjoying the summer-like warmth, but in Iowa it was January. The fields would be bare stubble and frozen dirt. There was nowhere to hide, no way to sneak past the waiting army.

Shit.

On the other hand, he was a phantom, a vampire who had the ability to become invisible. Not literally invisible, of course, but he could somehow trick other people’s minds so they didn’t see him. The trouble was, it didn’t work on everyone. And there was no way someone as old and legendary as the Hand of Death would be susceptible.

Maybe I’ll get lucky, he told himself. Maybe he’ll be gone already. Maybe he and his army will have moved on.

He imagined the citadel in ruins, corpse laden hallways silent as he picked his way through them. No sign of life, nothing left alive, discarded weapons and limbs scattered. The carpet squished with blood as he walked, and the atrium was a sea of death; bodies heaped among dead foliage-

He broke off. No, the plants wouldn’t be dead. The Atrium’s waterfall would still tumble five stories down to the pool below, and the greenery – potted trees and shrubs – would still be lush and green, growing under the artificial skylight that served as the atrium’s ceiling.

That ceiling, Tellith thought irritably. He’d had to help change the lightbulbs in it more than once. It was his own fault for having a friend in the maintenance department – a friend who’d since been smart enough to quit.

At least she’s still alive, Tellith mused. She wouldn’t have been there when the attack came, she’d have been at her den in Montana. Or was it Michigan? Some state that started with an M, anyway. He got those two mixed up all the time. And then there was Mississippi…No. He’d driven through that on the way to Bray’s, and he knew she didn’t live down south. She’d headed north on the arm of a dark haired vampire who’d promised her the moon.

“As if he can deliver,” Tellith muttered sarcastically.

Tellith had never been in love with June – she was too dark for him, too depressing. June Gloom was her nickname, a play off of her birth name of June Glome. But she was also loyal and when he took her complaints with a grain of salt, they were even amusing sometimes.

He’d met her at the citadel, one of his first new friends. That had been 1937 – wasn’t it? He was pretty sure because it was the same year that Gladys started the war with that coven master who had the wonky eye…

Tellith shook his head as if he could physically get himself back on track. What had he been thinking about? Oh, right, June Gloom.  She was slightly pudgy with red hair that curled unevenly, and one missing tooth. She said a donkey had kicked it out when she was a teenager. Though he’d witnessed their fellows’ rude comments about it, he found the imperfection endearing. It was a change from all the perfection of the upper echelon.

And they are perfect, he thought bitterly. All beautiful and glamorous, like polished stone that’s been sitting there for centuries gaining power. Meanwhile the peons were down at the bottom taking orders and wondering why.

Not that he wondered why. He knew why he took orders – because it was a steady paycheck. Vampirism didn’t negate the need for money. They still needed somewhere to live, a roof to shelter them from the sun. Sure, they could live like the rogues and squat in abandoned houses, but who wanted to do that for very long? No power, no television, no microwaved blood. Sure, he’d survived without those comforts for years, but now that he’d had them, he didn’t want to go back.

That was something he and June agreed on. It was the reason they took jobs at the citadel – she in maintenance, and he as a low level guard. He’d risen through the ranks, and she’d quit. He remembered the night she’d gone off the rails.

It was really Tristan’s fault. He was good looking, if you liked that bad boy type, and not more than forty years turned. Tellith didn’t know much about his past, only that he was dating Kathy, June’s maintenance partner and semi-friend. No, semi-friend was too strong. More like friend-she-hated.

Kathy was okay, not gorgeous, but most people agreed she was better looking than June. Tristan wasn’t most people, and he broke up with Kathy for the chubby redhead. That was what caused the rift that left June changing the lightbulbs in that nightmare ceiling by herself.

Which is why she asked me to help, Tellith thought glumly.

The ceiling of the atrium was made of milky glass. Above it was a crawl space that housed about a million light bulbs so that when they were all turned on it gave the illusion of a skylight. When they’d out it in, he’d marveled at it. Later, after helping June a few times, he’d come to hate the ting. That particular night, they crawled through the small space, swapping out bulbs, knocking away spider webs and the occasional grasshopper. When they finished, they’d climbed out to find Kathy and a gaggle of catty vampiresses. Before Tellith could do more than say, “Can I help you?” they’d pounced.

It was a helluva fight. The kind that sent more than one shrieking female through the wall and into the glowing bank of lightbulbs. He’d never forget the popping, shattering sound as the bulbs broke. When it was over, June’s clothes were torn, he had a scratch down his face, and the attackers lay moaning on the floor. As sharp as you please, the head of maintenance appeared. Oblivious to what had been all out war, his only words were, “I thought I told you to change those burnt out light bulbs, not stand here gossiping with your boyfriend.”

June’s face had wadded in fury, as red as her hair. She grabbed the crate of good bulbs from its safe place against the wall and dumped it over the vampire’s head while screaming, “He’s not my goddamn boyfriend!”

Then she’d stormed away, shouting after her, “I quit.”

Tellith had stood in the hallway, watching the vampire’s confusion melt into fury. He’d shaken the glass from his hair and arms, bellowing, “You! Clean this up!”

“Sorry, not my job.” And he’d also strode away, stepping over Kathy’s unconscious body. He’d heard later that the head of maintenance finally figured out about the fight, but he hadn’t connected June to it, and had even gone so far as to say Kathy was working when she was jumped by the other girls. The report was hilarious, though sadly only the garbage can got to enjoy it when Tellith accidentally dropped it there.

Whoops.

Three weeks later, Tristan talked June into packing up her suitcase and her pet koi fish, and leaving the citadel for that state that started with an M, where he had some family. By family he no doubt meant immortal family, but then as young as he was it was hard to say. He might have living relatives still. Hell, he might have children if they were conceived before he was turned.

Children. Tellith grimaced at the word. Not because he’d never had any, but because he had. One. A son.  That was in the 1700s. Being a vampire was different then, and when you got turned you had to leave everything behind – everyone. To be fair, the boy hadn’t been born yet, he was just a bump in a young girl’s stomach – a young girl he wasn’t excited about marrying. Vampiredom seemed like the perfect escape. He got out of the drudgery of marriage and he got to live forever. Could it be better?

He’d regretted the decision later, but it was too late. He couldn’t go back, couldn’t marry her after all. Hell, he wasn’t even supposed to see her. He had, though. He’d snuck back three years later and peeked through the cold winter window to see her and the child huddled before the fire, her husband in a nearby chair cleaning his rifle.

Tellith told himself that at least he seemed happy, at least the child was well cared for. But, deep down, he knew he should have been the man in the chair, the man providing the meals, the man taking care of them in that wild land.

Nothing I can do about it now.

That was the story of his life. There was never anything he could do about it. Like now.  He could drive and drive, but by the time he got to the citadel there would be nothing he could do.

Nothing except burn the bodies.

The sun was peeking over the horizon by the time he found a motel. He ran to the building to check in, leaving all his luggage locked in the car. He didn’t need it anyway, it at least not as much as he needed to hide from the glowing ball of hate.

His motel room had heavy curtains that he gladly pulled, but to be safe he spent the night in the empty bathtub, the door shut. The do not disturb sign hung on the knob, even so he wondered if they’d obey it, or of some well-meaning maid would waltz in around noon, screaming at the body in the bathtub.

Just the thing I need to interrupt my sleep.

**

Despite Tellith’s fears, he was undisturbed, and woke the next evening thinking of Gladys’ stupid rhyme. If she was here, I’d strangle her. Not that he really would. He’d had the chance while he was at Bray’s for a week, and he hadn’t done it. Even when she sang the worm song, as he called it for lack of a title,  while dusting the parlor.

I don’t have time to worry about Gladys. Or Bray. I need to get back.

And bury the bodies.

He returned the key to the lobby, stopping long enough to check the map pinned to the wall. If there was no construction or detours, he should get to the citadel by two in the morning.

Maybe I should buy a shovel first?

But he didn’t, just fed on the owner’s dog, leaving the canine alive but groggy, and then headed out. He stopped again along the side of the road for more wildlife, but didn’t linger. The sooner he got there, the better.

Right.

He steered down the interstate, his mind wandering back to Bray, Gladys and the others. They weren’t his original coven – that was why they had different abilities than he did. For that matter they weren’t anyone’s original coven, rather a hodge-podge of lone vampires who didn’t really want to be alone, no matter what they said.

That was what he’d been when he and Bray had found them. The only pair to share a master, they were as close to real brothers as it came in the group. But the others had quickly welcomed them, and soon they were a functioning family, if that was what you wanted to call it.

Does that make Gladys our mother, or the crazy sister?

He’d stayed with them for more than fifty years before leaving for the citadel. It had been Gladys’ war that prompted him to finally part ways. Not that he was adverse to fighting if it was necessary, but she just liked to pick fights, and how many should he be expected to fight before he got tired of it. Bray said she’d pouted for months after he left, even refused to fight the war she started.

At least that was something, he told himself.

Though he’d moved, he was still close with them – close enough to take two weeks of vacation days to help Bray paint his house. That was another thing people didn’t think about when it came to vampires. If they had a den, they still had to maintain it. It still needed painted, re-roofed. The yard still had to be mowed, if they were in town, and the trash still had to go out. All those mundane things didn’t disappear with immortality like they did in the movies.

Unless you work for The Guild. Then they take care of all that.

**

It was well after midnight when Tellith crossed into Iowa, and closing in on one when he got close to the citadel. He left the nearest town behind – a rural place with a handful of stoplights and dark businesses. The black highway hummed under the tires, but he forsook it finally for gravel, a path of white rock gleaming in the moonlight.

The way The Hand of Death’s skull throne gleams.

Tellith hands tightened on the steering wheel, and each mile saw them clench tighter. He imaged the citadel above ground; what had been a grain elevator and shining silver bins would be blasted open, the last of the stored corn spread on the ground like intestines.  The other building would be burnt shells, frames of twisted metal, charred wood, the garage peeled back sheet metal with rows of ruined cars whose owners would never see them again. The office building would be a smoldering wreck, the space-age silver door, previously hidden in the back room among sacks of seed, now exposed.

But would there be an army? Had the Hand of Death attacked alone? Was he still there?

Tellith cursed at his lack of information. Better safe than sorry, he pulled over to the side of the road and got out. He could see the hulk of the grain buns in the distance, maybe a half hour walk f he hurried, faster than a mortal could go.

If only I was a wind walker. I could be there and back out before anyone even noticed.

Gladys echoed in his head. “Who wants to be a wind walker? What’s the good of running fast when no one else can? I spend all my time waiting on everyone to catch up. But you – a phantom – you can sneak around, listen in on conversations, find out secrets. And don’t tell me you don’t do that!”

Except he didn’t. It hadn’t occurred to him, and even after she’d suggested it, it felt wrong. He’d eavesdropped enough in his life to know that you never heard anything good that way.

Thank God I’m not a mind reader.

He stopped long enough to dig through his trunk for a weapon – he hadn’t planned on trouble, so all his Guild issued hardware was still in the citadel. With nothing else, he settled for the tire iron, promising himself held grab the first discarded battle axe he could find.

He started out on the road. Moving closer and closer to citadel and the ruined grain elevator that hid it – except as he got closer he didn’t see much destruction. He could smell the smoke, though, heavy and laced with burning flesh. The attack was forty-eight hours ago, so why was it still burning, unless everyone really was dead. But then why hadn’t the humans-

The humans.

He stopped in his tracks and groaned. He hadn’t thought about them. The grain elevator and office was manned by humans in the daytime. Though the vampires liked to pretend that the mortals didn’t know what lurked beneath. He knew for a fact that they did. Maybe not the specifics, but they were aware that someone hid in the deep. How else could anyone explain the garage of expensive sports cars?  What they thought those someones were – whether rich recluses or genuine monsters – Tellith wasn’t sure, but they certainly knew they were there.

So what would happen when those humans had come to work the next morning to find the buildings burning and the towering bins – okay, the bins looked fine, but the buildings were surely destroyed. The vampire army would have had to hide underground by then. Even the Hand of Death couldn’t brave the sun.

Or could he? They said ancient vampires could take surprising amounts of sunlight. How old was he? Tellith knew that Malick was the Hand’s master, and Malick was definitely ancient. A couple thousand years at least. It made sense that the Hand of Death would be at least a thousand, maybe older.  It would explain what made him so strong…

Tellith’s imagination pulled up the ruined buildings, the smoldering ground, bathed in the red light of dawn. Humans stood around, confused. One pulled out a phone, dialed 9-1-1. A low rumble started under their feet, like an earthquake in the bowels of hell. It grew louder and louder, until the Hand of Death blasted through the naked, exposed silver door.

The humans screamed, ran, but the vampire grabbed them, tore through them with his gangs, gorging on their blood. He threw their empty casks aside with a howl of unhuman rage, muscles gleaming in the morning sun, body streaked in crimson…

And then what? When the humans didn’t come home that night, did their family come looking for them? Police? Firemen?  Had the Hand of death killed all of them, or had he left? If so, had those humans found the silver door? Had they crept down the stairs to find the carnage inside?

Tellith’s head swam with the horrible possibilities, with all the laws such a scenario broke.  That humans might discover them, their existence…it went against the edict handed out by Munich, by the ancients who ruled all vampire-kind.  By their command it was the responsibility of every vampire – more-so the Executioners and guards – to cover up the evidence of vampire/human interactions.

But who’s going to cover this up?

And when no one hid the truth, who would the ancient vampires in Munich punish? Tellith swallowed hard. Would they blame him? He was a greater guard, after all, and they’d want a scape goat, someone to blame and make an example of.

Maybe I should just go back to Bray’s.

Except…Except he’d promised Roger he’d come bury their bodies.

Shit.

No longer sire who to fear – the Hand of Death, his army, the humans, or Munich – Tellith tightened his grip on the tire iron and started walking again. He moved towards the edge of the road, and finally moved to the ditch. He could see the looming towers, the rest of the complex surrounded by trees. The yard lights were all blazing like usual, but that didn’t mean much.

Though there was no corn, he navigated to the field and cut across, drawing closer. He sniffed the air, inhaling the heavy smoke. The smell obliterated everything else, and he crept forward blind.  Concentrating, he disappeared, or would have seemed to if anyone was looking, not that he saw anyone.

He broke through the trees, into the complex area. The buildings weren’t the shambles he expected. Rather, they seemed undamaged, despite the horrific destruction that had happened there. The smoke rolled not from the citadel, but from an empty field beyond it.

What in the hell?

Still invisible, he slipped around the buildings, around the grain bins, until he had a full view. A large bonfire blazed, orange flames snapping up into the night like the scene his imagination had played over and over. Silhouetted in the fire were the black shape of vampires with weapons – no, not weapons, but-

Shovels?

Tellith moved closer, the scent of their immortality getting stronger as he mentally pushed away the smoke’s putrid smell.  They were vampires, all right, and not completely unfamiliar. In fact he thought he recognized-

“Roger?”

One of the silhouettes looked up, a hand up to shade their eyes. “Yeah, what?”

Tellith blinked back into existence, now visible to everyone, and hurried toward his friend. He stopped in front of him to grab his shoulders, checking he was solid, real, that his chest wasn’t a gaping hole of gore.

Roger ripped away with a scowl. “What the hell? Tellith? You scared the hell out of me! What do you think you’re doing just popping out of thin air to grab someone?”

“You’re alive!” he cried, ignoring the tirade.

“Of course I’m alive! No thanks to you. Where have you been? I’ve been trying to call you for two days – two days! Do you realize-”

“My phone was dead,” Tellith murmured, still dazed to find his friend all in one piece and in the same mood as always. “I think I left the charger at Bray’s den.”

“Well isn’t that great? I was starting to think you’d been killed in some kind of horrible wreck. It would explain why you called me in the daytime.”

Tellith stepped back, frowning. “I didn’t.”

“Oh yes you did.” Roger dropped his shovel to dig his phone out of his pocket. “It’s right here…” he flicked the screen several times, finally flashing the display with triumph. “See? The day before yesterday you called me at six-thirty in the morning. I didn’t answer because I was asleep, like any sane vampire, but some of the other guys said you called them, too. I figured it must have been an emergency since you were harassing everyone.”

Tellith ran over the events of the day before. He hadn’t – but he had. He’d called them from the motel the first night out, when no one had answered.

Was it really that late when I called? No wonder no one answered.

“You’d think the office would have picked up,” he muttered.

“Shit, we don’t hand landline service. No TV either, and the power is only now getting fixed.”

Tellith looked over his shoulder, to the undamaged buildings. “So there was an attack?”

“Of course there was an attack!” Roger shouted. “I told you – oh for crying out loud. Come on.”

He grabbed Tellith’s arm and started to steer him back to the office, but Tellith dug his feet in. “Wait a minute. Aren’t you on duty?”

“You call burning bodies duty?”

Burning bodies. Tellith looked to the fire, to the wheelbarrow heaped in corpses. “Shit. Who are they?”

“Casualties.  Anyway, you go there just in time. I have an appointment in the audience chamber, so we’ll have to talk and walk.”

Tellith relented and followed his friend. As they walked, Roger said, “I told you we were under attack, right? Well, it was Jorick’s fledgling Oren, and his group.”

Tellith shivered. “So it was the Hand of Death.”

“No,” Roger snapped impatiently. “It was his fledgling, Oren.  And there weren’t that many of them. Sure, enough to cause trouble, but not enough to make this big of a mess.”

“Then what-”

Roger hushed him as they entered the office, nodded to the vampire farmer behind the desk, and headed back to the silver door. Everything looked fine until they reached the bottom of the stairs, and then Tellith saw it. The welcome room was destroyed; walls scorched, furniture burned. Huge cracks in the ceiling were partially plastered, as if someone had started fixing things then got bored.

“What in the hell?”

“They had explosives,” Roger explained.

“So that was how a small army managed to kill so many?” He jerked his thumb in the general direction of the bonfire and the gory wheelbarrow.

“That didn’t hurt, but the main trouble was that none of the security systems were working at the time. None of them. And when the attack started, instead of sending the Executioners upstairs to fight, Malick called them all to the basement.”

“Why would he do that?” Tellith asked, half of his attention focused on the hallway they walked into. There were no dead bodies, no rug squishing with blood, only freshly repaired walls and a pair of vampires on a ladder trying to repair hanging electrical wires.

“Because he had plans!” Roger snapped. “Let me explain it, huh? As I was saying, Malick just sent the lesser guards up to fight, as if those guys could do shit.  And as I said, the attackers had explosives.”

“But the buildings looked alright-”

“Of course they did! What good would it do to blow them up? They blasted their way in here!” Roger pushed the elevator button and the doors swished open, revealing a glass backed carriage. He stepped inside, dragging Tellith with him. Gesturing past the glass walls, the six story atrium beyond. “See that? They blew a hole in the damn ceiling! And not just here but other places, too.”

Roger went on, detailing how they’d split up, blown through the roof, through the dirt and rock above their heads, and had even blasted their way from floor to floor, moving closer to the ground floor.

“We stopped them eventually, of course.” Roger’s chest puffed out as he turned and mashed an elevator button. “Captured them all, but not before Malick pulled his revolt.”

Tellith’s attention jerked away from the atrium; from the roof draped in plastic, and the bent vegetation. “Malick’s what?”

“You heard me. He revolted.”

“But he was in charge of The Guild! In order to revolt, he’d have to revolt against himself!”

Roger rubbed his chin. “I suppose, if you look at it that way. I assumed he was revolting against the rest if the High Council. Anyway, he did this thing that killed pretty much everyone who’d taken shelter in the atrium – made their brains explode in their heads. That was a mess to clean up. Then he took off.”

“What?” Tellith cried, no longer watching the elevator’s descent.

“I told you-” Roger broke off as the elevator stopped and the doors opened. He half dragged Tellith out and down the hallway. “Anyway, the important part, when he left, he took three Executioners with him – Three! Can you imagine? The final selection for replacements is today.”

Roger kept talking, but Tellith suddenly understood. Roger had put in for Executioner duty. Again.

“You know, there’s going to be a lot of competition.”

Roger drew to a stop to glare at him. “Don’t start. This is my time. I can feel it. I received special commendation in that battle, you know.”

“Ah. Well, maybe that will help,” Tellith muttered.

“I hope so. Now if you’ll excuse me?”

Before he could actually move, a pair of Executioners appeared.  Wearing semi-identical  black clothes and silver medallions, they both had long black hair, though one wore it in a bun while the other left his long.

As they strode by, Tellith snapped a salute from habit, but Roger only scowled.

“What the hell are you doing?” Tellith whispered when they were past. “Those were Executioners!”

“I know who they are,” Roger muttered. “And after today I won’t have to salute them anymore.”

“Maybe.” Tellith watched them disappear through the giant door of the audience chamber. “Who was the new guy? Not Jamie, but the other one?”

Roger rolled his eyes. “That was Executioner Jorick.”

Tellith choked on the name. “There’s another Jorick? I thought there was just the one.”

“How should I know? There’s probably a lot of Jorick’s in the world! But that’s the one you’re thinking of. The so-called hand of Death.”

Tellith couldn’t find intelligent words. “What?”

“Malick sentenced him to be an Executioner as punishment for killing so many of them. Can you believe that crap? I’d do it willingly, but he forces that guy to do it? Anyway, I figured he’d leave with Malick, too, you know, since that’s his master, but he didn’t. Not sure if he’s staying here as a spy for Malick or what’s going on. And I don’t care. In an hour I’ll be his equal. Wish me luck!”

With that, Roger dashed away, leaving Tellith standing in the cracked corridor, mouth hanging open.

Of all the things held imagined, that hadn’t been it. That the hand of death would be there, not as a conqueror, but reinstated as an Executioner, and that the death wasn’t caused so much by an invading horde, but by Malick himself…

I guess they say truth is stranger than fiction, and that’s too strange, even for my imagination.

**

And now for guesses

Topic: Christopher

picture: Stormy

1) out to sea 2) waiting 3) in the distance 4) where’s Nessie? 5) “piering” in the distance 6) under the umbrella 7) johnny sailor bold 8) storm brewing 9) rough seas are coming 10) solitude

Blogophilia 10.11 Tellith Part 1

It’s time 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 10.11 Topic – TMI (Too Much Information)
BONUSES:** Hard (2 pts) Include a line from Mark Twain’s ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’
Easy (1 pt) Include a mode of transportation

.

I was trying to do complete (or at least half) stories, but it;s not happening this week because most of my writing time is going to the Jorick short that will be in the Creature Feature anthology.

This story takes place during the end of Ashes of Deceit. (book 4 in my series)

***

Tellith wedged the edge of the blade under the flap of loose paint. He scraped, watching the bits of old paint drop down to the plastic. With a flick of his wrist he started again, on another chunk. Scrape. Scrape. Scrape.

With a huff of impatience, he blew a frizzy curl off his forehead and looked at his brother. The opposite of Tellith, Bray was pale with red-gold hair and freckles. The disparity wasn’t caused by an unfaithful mother, or a philandering father. In truth, they weren’t brown brothers, but had become so in the afterlife. Turned by the same master, they were brothers in blood.

And that was the only reason Tellith was there now instead of at the citadel. He was burning up two week’s worth of vacation to help Bray paint his den. It was a tedious job that he was sick of already.

“Why don’t you just hire someone to do this?” he asked testily.

Bray paused scraping to roll his. “You know anyone? It’s not like I can hire a human crew. Business hours…”

It was a valid excuse, but Tellith wasn’t interested in admitting it. “Yeah. Yeah. You’re just lucky they let me off for this.”

They went back to their work. Scrape. Scrape. Scrape. Finally, Bray asked, “You’re still just a guard?”

Tellith tried not to be annoyed with the question. “A greater guard, but yes. Though at the rate the Executioners are dying lately I’ve got a chance.”

“Oh?”

It was obviously a polite inquiry with no interest behind it, but Tellith felt like making Bray suffer. “The Hand of Death has been back at things, apparently. I don’t know that you’ve heard of him?”

“Not really,” Bray muttered.

Tellith bit back a smile and launched into a long winded story about a vampire named Jorick, the legendary Hand of Death, son of Malick, the head of the Executioners. Jorick had been an Executioner once, long ago. After trying to kill everyone in the citadel, he’d retired only to resurface a few months ago.

“Since then, five Executioners have died.”

Bray stopped scraping to look at him. “You don’t have that many of them, do you?”

“Twelve. So Jorick has wiped out almost half of them. Of course they’ve been replaced.” He started on a long drone about the process; how Malick called the candidates before him, probed their minds, and made his choice, but his ringing cellphone interrupted him.

“better get that,” Bray said with relief.

Tellith was tempted not to, just to aggravate him, but he tugged the device out. Roger’s name flashed on the screen, and on a whim he answered.

“Well hello! You just had to bother me on my vaca-”

Roger cut him off. “Where are you?”

Tellith gave an impatient huff. “I already tried to tell you. I’m on vacation, helping Bray repaint his den. You remember, he was in the coven with me-”

“Yeah, yeah. We’re under attack here!”

Tellith blinked at the partially scraped house. “What? Are you serious? What’s going on?”

“No, I’m joking,” Roger said sarcastically. “Yes. I’m serious! Get your ass back here before we’re all killed!”

“It’s a two day drive from here. If I left this minute-”

“You’d be here in time to bury us, maybe,” Roger snapped.

Bray looked up from his work. “What is it?”

“It’s Roger. He’s a greater guard, too. He says they’re being attacked.” Just then he heard the sound of an explosion on the other end of the line. “Holy shit. What was that? Roger?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m here. I think they’re blasting their way into the citadel!”

“Who is?” Tellith practically shouted.

“I have to go. I’ll see you if you ever get here, assuming I’m not dead!”

“Roger!” Tellith yelled into the phone, but it did no good. The line went dead.

He thought about calling Roger back, but if he really was fighting for his life it would just be a nuisance. Frustrated, he jammed his phone back into his pocket.

“What the hell is going on?” Bray asked, his task temporarily forgotten.

“I don’t know. It might be the Hand of Death.”

Bray shook out of his surprise and turned back to his work. “Aren’t you glad you’re here?”

“No. I’m going to have to go back.”

Bray spun back to him. “Are you kidding? You promised me two weeks, but you’ve only been here one. We haven’t even started to paint yet! Besides, it’s safer here! Why would you want to go running back? You sad yourself this Hand of Death killed half the citadel once. Do you want involved in that? The average man don’t like trouble and danger.”

“But I’m not average,” Tellith said, tossing the paint scraper onto the patio table. “I’m sorry, Bray, but I have to go. They’ll be requesting me officially pretty soon, anyway.”

Bray sighed. “Fine, man, whatever.”

“Look, I’m sorry-”

“Oh, don’t worry, I’ll just have to prostitute out the rest of the coven to raise enough money to hire someone that won’t ask questions, like why we’re not home all day. No big deal.”

“That’s a little TMI,” Tellith smirked. “You’ll be fine. We were almost done scraping, and you could make the rest of your lazy ass coven do the painting.”

“Good luck with that. The prostituting thing was more likely.”

Tellith chuckled as he ducked inside the house and hurried to the back room where his bag was. He gathered up the things he’d scattered around the house; bath supplies, extra clothes, a book, and hurried back out to his car.

Bray waited as he threw the bag in the backseat and climbed in. “You could come with me,” Tellith suggested.

“Hardly,” Bray answered. “Good luck not getting killed by the hand of the dead, or whatever his name is.”

“Jorick,” Tellith called as he fired the vehicle up. “And thanks! Good luck to you with your paint!”

He peeled off, leaving a spray of dirt and gravel behind in his haste.

Not that I’ll get there in time to do anything except bury them.

**

Guesses:

pic: Nissmech

topic: Stephen

  1. traffic jam 2. in the city 3. downtown 4. overcrowding 5. summer in the city 6. limousine races 7. city traffic 8. Busy afternoon 9. transportation 10. they need some stop lights.

Blogophilia 9.11 – Mary part 2

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

Ecrits Blogophilia Week 9.11 Topic – New Beginnings
BONUSES:** Hard (2 pts) Include the word “Wapiti”
Easy (1 pt) Mention Palm Trees

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And part two (the final half) of Mary’s story is here!

****

She tightened her hold on her weapon, waiting, counting the seconds in time to her heartbeats.  As she concentrated, tense, the whisper of the breeze became a roar, the chirp of a lone cricket a deafening symphony.

She heard him before she saw him; a rush of wind followed by a blur. Jared stumbled backwards, clipped by their indivisible enemy; his motions so fast that even Mary’s vampire eyes couldn’t see him.

She swung in the space he should have bene, but hit nothing. Reeling from the missed attack, she missed him as he came behind her. She felt the fists in her back a moment before she slammed face first into the damp grass.

She jerked to her feet, spinning in an angry circle, but that was it. He was gone. He’d escaped. Again.

Oh, no you don’t. Not this time.

She checked to make sure Jared was alive, then sprinted after the rogue. The world blurred into smears of green as she followed the scent, back up the street and into town. She raced past unseen houses, their windows dark, only to finally catch sight of him ahead of her. He slowed enough to look back and she saw his face, his dark eyes gleaming with surprise and his full lips stretched in a grin, as if to say, “Do you want to race?”

She thought she heard laughter as he spurred himself forward, leaving her behind. With a prayer to whatever dark gods might listen, she pushed herself. In her memory she wasn’t in a small Iowa town anymore, but back in New Orleans, racing the dark streets after Daquin.

His words flew back to her, echoing off the towering buildings and balconies. “You’ll never catch me!”

And she didn’t. She’d get so close; once close enough to pull his flapping coat free, but at the last moment he would bound away, using wrought iron balconies to reach the rooftops, and then he was gone, laughing into the night, leaving her to slump back to Madam LaFete alone.

“Where have you been child?” her mother in blood would demand when she sulked through the door. But she knew, they all knew.

“He’s good for nothing, child. You chase only heartbreak.”

If only I’d listened.

But she hadn’t listened then, and she wouldn’t listen now. She’d lost Daquin, but this rogue…this rogue, would be her prize.

His scent was heavy on the breeze, and she skidded to a stop. The mistake she’d made with Daquin was trying to match his speed.  No, the smarter thing to do was head him off, take a shortcut. They’d arrive at the same location at the same time, despite his superior skill.

But where is he going?

He’d come on the train and if his pattern held, he’d leave on the train. As if cued, a whistle sounded in the distance, mournful and alone.

No. Not this time.

With the renewed energy of a new beginning, she abandoned his trail and cut back towards the train tracks. He wouldn’t need to board at the station, wouldn’t want to, in fact. No, he’d hop on a little ways down the track, where there was no one to see him.

Praying that she was right, she hopped a fence, and raced headlong through someone’s yard. Another fence, an ally, and then on to the street.  Her feet flew, barley touching the earth before they were gone again, propelling her onward, so fast it seemed she was flying.

And then she saw him. Silhouetted in the moonlight, standing by the tracks. He sensed her a moment too soon, and after a surprised look back, took off. Her fingertips had brushed his arm; his shirt. She could still feel the warmth of his body, heated by his victims’ blood.

She flashed back again to Daquin, to the texture of his velvet coat between her fingers as he ripped away from her, laughing, tossing back that curious mixture of English and French that rolled from his tongue like warm honey. She’d wanted to wrap in those words, in his voice, wallow in it, bathe in it, never leave. She’d wanted to hear him call her ma cherié forever.

If only I’d known how empty those beautiful words were.

Her prey disappeared over a rise, and she caught the scent of water; a river. If he made it there, she wasn’t sure she could track him anymore. Jared could, but he was back at the house, still. With no other choice, she said a final prayer and leapt over the rise, throwing herself toward whatever she could tackle.

Whether luck or fate, she found her mark, slamming bodily into him, so that the pair rolled and tumbled down the rocky bank into the shallow water.

He pulled partially free, but she retackled him, wrapping her legs around his middle and her arms around his shoulders, pushing him face down in the churning water. He wouldn’t drown; vampires didn’t need air, but his instincts didn’t know that. They’d fight to breathe, fight for useless oxygen, and surrender the battle to get it.

He choked, sputtered, tried to get his hands free. She tightened her grip, squeezing with all her strength. Water splashed in her face, filled her nose, burned her eyes. I don’t need the air, she told herself. I’m fine. I’m safe. I don’t need the air. I can’t let go.

He choked, and finally went still. Surrender. Or at least the appearance of it. But she knew better than to take it at face value.

She pulled back, lifting his face out of the river. He coughed, hacked, gasped for wheezing lugfuls of air.

“All right. You…you got me,” he choked out. “Now…what?”

“Now I take you to the citadel to stand trial. Or kill you here, and leave your body to burn in the sunlight. Whichever you prefer.”

“I get a choice?” He spit out a mouthful of laughter and managed a chuckle.

“No, I do. Now get up.” She slackened her grip enough to slide off of him, using one hand to pull his wrists behind his back. She’d lost her mace in the struggle, so she settled for jamming her backup dagger under his chin. “If I have to, I’ll drain you dry and drag your empty husk back. On second thought, that might be easier.”

There was no fear in him, only amusement. “That it would. But you’d better hurry.”

“Or what?”

“Or you’ll have to fight my master, too.”

His master? Mary’s instinct was to jerk away, dagger held at the ready, while she scanned the night for a second vampire, but that was just what he wanted her to do. He wanted her to let go, to lower her guard so he could escape.

“I’ll worry about that when he comes. Now get up.”

The rogue shrugged, and stood, sinewy muscle sliding through her hands as he straightened.  Too tall for her to reach his throat effectively, she snapped the dagger around to his back, pressing the tip behind his heart. “What is your name? And who is your master?”

He spit out river water, and shook his soggy brown bangs out of his face. “Seth.”

Half an answer was better than none, and she didn’t have time to mess around. She needed to get back to Jared and Deanne, Between the three of them, they should be able to hold him. On her own, one wrong move, and he’d be free, and gone.

“Fine, Seth. Now march.”

He spit more river water and stumbled his way up the bank, tugging at his hands. She held them hard, and applied more pressure to the dagger. If he tried, he could break free. Hopefully the blade held enough fear for him to prevent that.

Or Jared tracks us here, and joins me in detaining him.

He stopped at the bank, shaking water from his boots. “Where are we marching to?”

“Back to the house, and the humans you butchered.”

He scoffed. “Since when did vampires care about mortal lives?”

“We don’t. We care that you kill in such a public way. Leaving the bodies lay in their beds, for some fool to discover? Do you know what they make of such a mess? What happened in Utah? This modern humanity is not so modern that a little evidence won’t convince them monsters exist. It was only luck that one of them blamed the open window and a rabid dog with blood on its muzzle. If you want to kill to feed, then do so discreetly. You’re so-called master should have taught you that.”

“Where’s the fun in that?” He snickered and flexed his wrists again, testing the strength of her hold. “You’re what they call an Executioner?”

“Yes,” she snapped. “Now march.”

“I would, but…” he trailed off into another chuckle. “It’s rude to go when we have company.”

Mary’s heart hammered and her eyes darted around, seeking the invisible “company”. Had his master arrived, as he’d threatened? She sniffed the air, finding mud, the heavy smell of the river, the green of the plants, the peculiar smell of a cool summer night, and then, on the breeze, the scent of shadows and molasses; a scent that froze her chest.

The voice came from the dark trees that bordered the river, words rolling like thick honey. “Seth, Seth. What trouble have you gotten yourself into this time?”

Though it had been years, Mary knew that voice, knew that scent, felt both echo in the core of her being.

Daquin.

He stepped free of his shelter to stand in the gently waving grass. Diffused moonlight shone on his chocolate skin, and his dark hair curled in a new style, one more suited to his modern wardrobe. Though he was some distance, her vampire eyes gave her a clear image of him, and of his face, so familiar and yet foreign by the passage of time.

“Master.” She could hear the grin in Seth’s voice. “I warned her you were coming.”

Master. No wonder the rogue made her think of Daquin, when he carried his blood.

“Those in power are all the same, they never listen. Why would immortality make that different?” Daquin walked closer, his movements the smooth grace of a predator waiting to spring. “Executioner, is it? You can see you’re out numbered. Drop the blade and step away.”

She narrowed her eyes, met his gaze full force. “Or what?”

He stopped, close enough to reach out for, and studied her. She could almost see the gears turning in his head as he surveyed her. “Do I know you, chere?”

That word slithered through her, and it took all of her self-control not to react. “I doubt it. Now back away, or I’ll take you in as well.”

Daquin gave a hearty laugh. “You have some nerve, I’ll give you that. But, as I already told you,” the amusement sipped from his voice as he closed the gap between them, leaving only cold menace. “Drop the blade and step away.”

He grabbed her wrist and she twisted away, pulling from his grasp. The moment the dagger was out of Seth’s back, he jerked loose from her, and bounded up the bank, stopping on the high ground to peer down. “I warned you, Executioner.”

“I told you, boug, they never listen. Haven’t you listened to the stories of the Executioners? The fearful whispers in the shadows of their merciless strength? We’ll see how strong they really are.” Daquin smirked, as he moved toward her, his every move smooth like a swaying snake that held her hypnotized.  She wasn’t there, by the tiny Iowa river, but back in Louisiana, watching him draw close, that same predatorial smirk on his face. Only then it wasn’t her blood he meant to claim, only her body, a thing she’d given willingly.

But Daquin, he was rooted firmly in the present, in a time and place where he didn’t know her, and didn’t care. “How do you want to die, Executioner? Fast or slow?”

Inside, she screamed a torrent of frustration. She couldn’t take two of them alone. There was only one option – to let them go.

“Neither.” And she took off, leaving his fingertips brushing empty air.

As she bounded past Seth, knocking him down for good measure, she heard Daquin laugh. “A shadow racer!” but she didn’t stay to hear the rest.

She’d crossed the tracks, when she was aware of him, tailing her, catching up. She was not the prey and they the hunters.

If I can just make it back to Jared and Deanne.

She put on a burst of speed and cut through a yard. Over a ditch, through a garden, past another block. So close. So…

He nailed her from behind, slamming her into the ground, just as Seth had earlier. Only, instead of leaping up to run away, he stayed, pressing her into the damp earth with the weight of his body.

“Not so fast, are you? What a pity for you. What should I do with such a weak Executioner?”

As she’d fallen, she’d folded her arm, keeping the dagger flat against her body. She wriggled under him, working to slide her arm free. “If you kill me, they’ll be a mark on your head as well as your fledgling’s. To this moment you’ve done nothing worth dying for. Do you really want to get involved in his crimes?”

“Nothing worth dying for? Ah, ma chere, but you don’t know me. I have done a million terrible things. What’s one more?”

Her arm broke free, and she used it to arch herself up, dislodging him, then rolled, slashing with the dagger. The blade caught his shoulder as he pulled back, leaving the glittering edge wet with crimson. He flinched away in surprise, then his face clouded with fury. He slammed his arm across her shoulders, knocking her back to the ground, and grabbed her wrist with his free hand, squeezing, trying to force the dagger from her grip. Leaning his face close to hers, he snarled, “You will die for that Ex-“ He broke off suddenly and leaned back, those invisible gears spinning again. “No, no, ma chere. You do know me, don’t you? Hmmm? And I know you. But from where, I wonder? Who are you?”

“I’m an Executioner,” she snarled between clenched teeth. She was already nearly outmatched and had no intention of telling him the truth; that she was that weak little thing he’d left broken hearted when he broke from their master so long ago.

He leaned close again, inhaling deeply, like she was some kind of exotic dish. “That’s as may be, but you have a name. And a history. Mmmmm. Your smell, it rings a bell, as they say. The edge of a memory. I can almost taste it.” He snapped his teeth and snickered. “I’ve had you before, yes? There’s so many, it’s hard to keep track of all of you.” He applied more pressure to her wrist, his thumb sending shooting shards of pain up her arm. “The question is, were you satisfying enough to spare, or should I go ahead and kill you? That I can’t remember says you can’t have been completely disappointing.”

While he rambled, she pulled her other arms free and used it knock him off of her. By the time he recovered, she was on her feet, blade at the ready.

He stepped back, hands up, laughing. “If you were mediocre, then you have improved, ma chere. Feisty. I like that in a woman. You may have saved your own life, but you cannot hope to take me to your Guild. You can’t catch me.” She saw the comprehension dawn across his features, the light of recognition spark in his eyes. “Of course! How could I not recognize our shared blood sooner? You are one of LaFete’s children…what was your name? An S I think? No, an M. Magdalene. No…No…Mary!” He made a sound of triumph as he lowered his hands. “Lord, but it’s been a spell, ma chere. An Executioner?” He whistled and circled her, as if taking in a grown child. “I didn’t expect that of you. I thought you’d be back in the bayou with LaFete, or long dead, like the others.”

Mary tightened her hold on the dagger, as if she could choke the air from him by proxy. Her memories flashed and she saw the others, victims of a coven war, their blood splashed up the walls. The basket she’d held slipped from her fingers, and she’d turned and run, sprinting harder than she ever had before, leaving behind the stench of death. It had taken her two days to go back. By then, the bodies were long gone, all evidence erased, and the other coven had moved in. She managed to avoid them, and found Madam LaFete hiding out in the bayou. Though her master swore revenge, it wasn’t something Mary could face, so she’d left.

And spent the years after trying to make up for that cowardice.

Maybe she wasn’t the only coward. “And where were you when they were killed, Daquin? No one had seen you at the den for days, we thought you’d already cleared out, but if you knew their fate, then it means you weren’t so far gone as we imagined.”

“Oh, I was gone, all right. And smart enough to stay gone.” He slipped closer, dropping his voice to a purr. “I knew they were coming, huh? Knew they were coming and knew better than to get involved. As you did, or you wouldn’t be standing here.”

“I was at the market when they attacked!”

“Then luck was with you, ma chere. And Lafete? Did she tell you where she was?”

Mary faltered. In her memory she saw her master, dark braids falling around her shoulders as she swore to destroy them. “They killed my children! They will die for this!” She’d poured out plans, but never had they discussed how they’d both come to survive.

Daquin snickered. “I can see by your face that she didn’t. She left, of course. When the fighting started, when the blood began to flow, LaFete slipped out the back and kept right on going. She conceded the den, the coven, all of it to save herself.”

Anger rose in Mary, anger she struggled to control. “How would you know? You said yourself you left before the attack.”

“And that I looked up LaFete afterwards. Call it curiosity to see how the old hag made it through.”

“Watch your tongue! She is your master, you owe her respect!”

All humor disappeared from his face. “I owe her nothing! And I owe you nothing, little Mary. She made us not out of love, but for her own selfish ends, because we pleased her eyes or her senses in some way, or reminded us of what she’d once had. A replacement for her daughter, weren’t you? But when she escaped that den did she go to the market to warn you, or did she flee, and leave you to your fate?”

“No doubt she trusted I was smart enough to notice the commotion.”

He stepped closer. “And were you? Or did you go back to that den, and only escape because fate let you? You should have learned the lesson I tried to teach you; you don’t owe anyone anything. Take what you want, leave behind what you don’t, just as she left you.”

With a cry of rage, Mary lashed out, slashing only air. Daquin chuckled behind her, and she spun in time for him to disappear and reappear near her elbow, holding a pocket watch. “A fun diversion, but one I don’t have time for. It’s been nice to see you again, ma chere, my sister-in-blood, but I have a fledgling to take in hand and a train to catch soon. I’m afraid this must be goodbye.”

She grabbed for him, but her fingers only brushed him before he’d hopped away. “I’ve let you live, this time, because I do remember you, and you were far from disappointing, sweet little cherry, but if you continue to hunt us, things may go differently.”

She suppressed a growl. “It’s your fledgling I want. He must answer for this, for making such a display, leaving such a mess.”

“Pshaw. Such a thing is in our nature, but this once, for the memory of that long ago time, I’ll speak to him. Hmmm?” He shot her a wink. “Adieu.”

And then he was gone. Mary lunged at the spot he’d been, but there was no point. His scent was strong, and she could have given chase, but again, it was futile. He was faster than she was, and she’d only end up pinned between the two of them, with very little time before sunrise.

At least I have names now.

Cursing the whole way, she made it back to the small house of death. The back door was unlatched, so she let herself inside. She found Deanna standing in the living room, a gory axe still raised and her face creased in a frown.

“What?” Before she could answer, Mary saw the child who lay at her feet, half inside a tiny bedroom.

Deanna lowered the weapon. “She was still alive. She regained consciousness as I was finishing the other child, and attacked me.”

Mary gave the window an impatient glance. “The sun will rise soon. We need to leave and find a safe resting place. Where is Jared?”

“Upstairs, finishing his strange rituals.”

“Then he needs to hurry. Go, wash up.”

Deanna saluted and hurried away, leaving Mary to stare at the ruined child sprawled on the floor. With a mutter of disgust, she hefted the body, and tossed it on the bed. The mirror had already been covered, probably before Jared went upstairs, and clothing was tossed on the floor, no doubt to cover their faces with.

Jared’s odd habit.

Mary grabbed the up and tossed them over their heads. She noted the odd angle of the second girl’s nightdress, but didn’t have time to correct it. They needed to go. Now.

“Jared! Deanna!”

The pair popped down the stairs, Deanna still wiping blood from her face and hands.

“Did you catch him?” Jared asked hopefully.

“No.” It was easier than trying to explain. “But we will. Come. The sun will rise in an hour and humans will be awake before that.”

They locked the doors and climbed out the window, pulling it closed after them. Mary rounded the side of the house and stopped when she something heaped in the yard.

A body.

Moving to it, she recognized Seth, his clothes and hair still wet from the river. His chest was a gaping hole, not yet congealed, and protruding from his shirt pocket was a rolled up piece of paper.

“Who’s that?” Jared asked, but his face showed understanding a moment later as he recognized the scent. “What in the hell?”

Mary pulled the paper free and unrolled it.

Sweet Cherry-

I already let you live as a favor, but just to me sure that you owe me when next we meet, I have also ended your chase. DO not take is with more sentimental meaning than there is. He has been troublesome for some time and, truth be known, I have also been chasing him. Not for his very public murders that you so object to, but because he stole from me when he left. I have recovered my property, and your manhunt has ended. We are both well served.

Adieu,

D

Deanna read over her shoulder, and drew back frowning. “I don’t understand.”

“Never mind.” Mary jammed the note in her pocket. “Grab him and let’s go.”

“Where?” Jared asked as he lifted the corpse.

“Back to the citadel. As the letter said, our manhunt is done.”

***

Mary signed her report with a flourish and leaned back in the chair. Once more at the citadel, she sat in the safe solitude of her rooms, locked away from the other vampires and their prying eyes.

She drew the note out of her pocket and reread it again. How like him to pretend at first that he’d done her a favor when he’d planned to kill Seth all along. As she rolled it up, for a moment she could smell him, the same scent that lingered in her dreams sometimes, and had been back with more ferocity since she’d started chasing Seth. It was the smell of jambalaya cooking, of palm trees, of ancient ceremonies, of drums beating in the dark while Madam LaFete conducted the ceremony to bring her children into a world of darkness; a ceremony Mary now knew was nothing more than show. But back then they’d thought it was real, that it was the magic that changed them, that drinking her blood was just to hammer it all home.

Maybe Daquin was right. Maybe she was always a liar.

Mary glanced at the report, the report that didn’t mention him, or the real way that Seth had been killed. And maybe I’m one too. Or maybe something worse.  Shed allowed the office to misidentify Seth, saying his mark looked like the work of Wapiti, a vampire long known to be rogue. They’d poured through the annals and determined that Seth was his fledgling Barnabas. She didn’t correct them, and had even gone so far as to bribe Jared and Deanna not to mention the note, or how the truth of Seth’s death. In exchange for silence, she’d given them special accolades, the kind that would look good if they ever wanted to be Executioners, and that also meant a pay raise.

But she hadn’t done it to protect Daquin. No, she did it to protect herself. There’d be too many questions, too many inquiries, too much to explain. She didn’t need that, didn’t need to relive it all, or to even think about it, if she could help it. Instead, she needed to dust while she could, and get ready for her next assignment.

At least this time it won’t involve faking axe murders.

**

topic: Michelle

picture: Trevor

  1. reflection 2. chorus line 3. can can 4. dancers 5. ballet 6. feeling blue 7. looking back 8. reverberate 9. stretching on 10. in line 

Blogophilia 8.11 – Mary Part 1

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 8.11 Topic – Birds and Bees
BONUSES:** Hard (2 pts) Quote or include a line from E.E. Cummings (You are my sun, my moon, and all my stars,)
Easy (1 pt) Include a town from Vermont (Killington, Vermont)

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This story takes place June 9, 1912 in a little Iowa town I am familiar with. Heh-heh.

**

Mary slowed her pace to a jog and looked over her shoulder. She could just see the guards in the distance, running to catch up. If they were human, they’d no doubt be huffing and puffing by now. Luckily, they weren’t. They were vampires like she was.

If only they were as fast me.

The Guild called her special ability wind walking, though Madam LaFete had called it Outrunning the Shadows, because even the shadows were too slow to catch you. She remembered in the early days trying to see if that was true, if she really was faster than her shadow, but she’d never come to any conclusions.

Mary slowed her to jog to a walk, and finally stopped altogether. While she waited, she sniffed the summer air, heavy with the threat of rain. The scent of flowers and fresh grass filled her senses. Night dew, and damp earth followed, with subtler tones on their heels. She could smell smoke from the nearby town, the coal and oil of the train yard, and the life, the blood, of the populace.

The guards caught up. Mary tapped her foot impatiently, expectant eyes on Jared. The guard sniffed the air and nodded, his hunter abilities finding the scent that even she couldn’t.

“He’s been here. The trail goes into town.”

Mary tightened her grip on her mace and nodded. They’d been hunting him for ten months, since Utah. They’d been to slow to cover that crime up, but they’d been in time in Colorado Springs. She’d been in charge, traveling with the same set of guards she had tonight. When greeted with the crime scene – six dead people, still in bed, their flesh torn the night before by vampires fangs – she’d first thanked the unknown that no one had discovered the bodies yet. But they would soon. Six people were too many to just disappear without causing a man hunt, so how were they going to cover up the slaughter?

It was Jared who’d suggested a murder scene. That was what had happened, anyway, so it would be less work to hide the evidence. The only thing they needed to do was cover up how they’d died. Deanna found the axe outside, and with great efficiency, hacked up the bodies, obliterating any sign of vampiric teeth marks. As they scoured the houses, double checking that the vampire had left behind no other clues, Jared had covered the corpses up.

Mary remembered glancing over his odd work and asking him why.

He’d frowned. “I don’t know. It seems respectful.”

She could tell by the set of his shoulders that he expected laughter. Instead, she motioned to a mirror. “Then you should cover that as well. They say the souls of the dead can get trapped there.”

In the end they’d left, exiting through a window and leaving the door locked. The puzzle they’d left behind had stumped the human authorities, which was good enough for her.

From there, they’d followed the rampaging vampire to Illinois, then to Kansas, and to Ohio. There they’d almost caught him, but he’d fled before Mary could lay her hands on him – or before he could butcher another family of humans.

A fellow wind walker, he’d been fast; faster than even she was. He was the kind of fast Madam LaFete had meant when she said they could outrun the shadows.

I bet he can.

The chase had gone on, winding around the country, following the rails. Only a few days ago they’d had to clean up after him in Kansas, again. Though they’d used different methods in several of the crimes – including burning the houses down, like in Killington, Vermont –  they’d gone back to the axe for that one because there wasn’t time for anything else. They were right on his heels, and to stay longer would risk losing him.

We’re so close!

Though her official orders didn’t say she couldn’t return to the citadel until the rogue was caught, she was determined not to. To do so would lose days, or weeks, to travel and give him even more of an advantage.

It doesn’t matter, she told herself. Because we’re going to catch him tonight.

If their map was correct, it was a fitting location, too, not far from the citadel. They could capture him and be there before the sun rose, their nine month hunt finally over.

She motioned the guards to follow, and headed into the town, letting Jared and his hunter senses lead the way. As she walked, her mind wandered back to the citadel, and her rooms there. She’d left to investigate the scene in Utah, never planning to be away so long. She could only imagine the dust that had gathered on the furniture since, ho stale the linens would be. Had she made the bed, she wondered for the thousandth time. She remembered packing a case, jamming extra shoes and clothes inside, but she couldn’t recall if she’d tidied first, or left it for when she returned.

If only David was still there. He’d have taken care of things while I was gone.

Except, that was the reason he wasn’t there anymore.

She could still see the letter in her memory, the blotted writing, the wrinkled paper.  I love you, he’d said. You are my sun, my moon, and all my stars, but how can a man live when that light is forever missing, when your place is forever vacant while you follow orders? In a vacuum of eternal night, I am left to wander alone, with a starless sky and a sunless dawn. I have asked you before to leave the Executioners, to come away with me. I have been patient, I have tried to live this way, but I cannot endure any longer.

Cannot endure. That note was all he’d left behind, set carefully on the sideboard where she’d see it right away. Even now, four years later, the memory of it punched her in the stomach and stole her breath. At the time she’d thought wildly of following him, finding him, giving up her life as an Executioner. But Madam LaFete’s words echoed too strongly inside her.

“You give up a part of yourself for a man, and soon they want another, and another, until there is no piece of you left, and when they look into your face, they see only a reflection of themselves. They may think that makes the happy, but it doesn’t. And when they realize that, child, they will leave you empty and alone, to seek a new pair of eyes to gaze into.”

Besides, David had been there for forty years. That was as long as any human relationship lasted – longer than many. The heart was never made for eternity, for immortality.

And neither is the soul.

She pushed the old thoughts away and concentrated on her surroundings. A quiet town, wrapped in the mantle of sleep. Trees swayed in the cool night and crickets chirped. Heavy clouds obscured the stars, and overworked the gas lights that tried their best to light the streets. In the quiet, without humans and their constant to and fro, the birds and bees and squirrels were free to roam.

A stray cat yowled in the distance, a tom singing for a mate. Mary wondered briefly if he’d land a lady, or if his call would go unanswered. That was the normal way of it. Those who wanted love were left wanting and those that didn’t, who only wanted to use it for their own gain, they found it in shovel fulls.

Like Daquin.

To think of two men in a span of a moment was too much, and she chided herself. She needed to be on the lookout, alert, if she wanted to catch the rogue, not ruminating on old heartbreak.

Jared drew to a stop and sniffed. His eyes lit, and he motioned them around a corner and down the road. They picked up speed as they went, and as they reached the edge of town, even Mary could smell the rogue.

He’s still here.

She didn’t wait for the others, but lunged ahead, leaving them and the shadows to catch up to her. The dark world flew by, and she skidded to a stop. She’d gone too far. Spinning back, she saw a small white farm house. Dark windows tried to convince her everything was fine within but she knew better. She could smell him, smell the blood.

He’s already killed.

Cellar doors stood open – his entry point? She dropped down the stairs into a small, damp room, but there was no other opening, no connection with the interior of the house. Cursing silently, she popped outside again, slamming the doors shut out of habit.

The sound echoed in the still night and she froze. Had he hear it? He’d have to be deaf not to. And now that he had, a simple sniff would tell him who was outside.

A sound came from inside. A door shutting? Furniture scraping? She wasn’t sure, but it meant motion, movement. She tensed, eyes moving over the doors, the windows, waiting for him to rip his way outdoors and then-

Jared and Deanna appeared, slowing when they noticed her.  She motioned to the house, telling them he was inside, but there was no point. They could smell him just as she could.

The pair split up. Deanna went around the back side of the house, while Jared joined Mary. If only one of them was a whisperer, they could have made a silent plan. Without those powers, they were left with hand signals and urgent nodding to get the point across.

There were three doors, one in the back and two on the front porch. Mary hoped Deanna was watching the back and motioned Jared to the porch with her. As long as the rogue didn’t go for a window, there was no way he could escape.

You’re mine this time.

**

to be finished next week

Topic: Stormy

Picture: Colleen

  1. bouquet 2. spring flowers 3. May flowers 4. token of affection 5. fresh 6. spring blossoms 7. How does your garden grow 8. blooming 9. blooms 10. maybe now that it’s stopped snowing we can get some of these.

Blogophilia 11.5 – Kioko

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

Ecrits Blogophilia Week 5.11 Topic – My Fate
BONUSES:** Hard (2 pts) Incorporate a lyric by the group Porcupine Tree – (A Purple Haze crawled on the lawn)
Easy (1 pt) Mention something found in a cemetery

,

I have maybe two people who read this blog, and one of them (Martien) said they liked having the whole story in one go, so, since I’m behind on my shorts anyway,  I worked my fingers to the bone and got all of Kioko done in one shot. Yay!

This story takes place during the fourth novel (Ashes of deceit) and before the Zuri short I posted awhile back.

***

Kioko stood uncomfortably to the side while Ark gave the guards instructions. Two weeks ago she’d been one of them; dressed in black and taking orders. But now she was one of the elite, an Executioner, chosen by Malick, the head of the Guild, himself.

It’s strange, she thought. After more than a hundred years of immortality, two weeks can make all the difference. Just two weeks.

Though her appointment had come at another’s expense, killed in an altercation with Jorick, the legendary Hand of Death. Though Kioko had never met him – he’d been an Executioner and quit long before she ever moved to the citadel – she’d heard the awed whispers. Stories of things he’d done, vampires he’d murdered, superhuman deeds that she doubted any vampire could accomplish.

He has murdered three Executioners in three months, she reminded herself, or at the least been involved in their deaths. Franklin had been killed in October, then Philip and Bren recently. It was the latter that she’d replaced.

The guards saluted and moved away. Ark straightened his coat and glanced over his shoulder, at the small house. “I think we’re done here. We have a few hours until sunrise if you want-” His chiming cell phone cut him off. With an eye roll he tugged it free and answered, “Hello?”

Kioko watched his eyebrows shoot up. His mouth worked, as he tried to get a word in. Finally he snapped, “Both Dismas and Zuri?”

Dismas. The Executioner who’d replaced Franklin, he’d only held the post for three months. Before that, he’d been a greater guard. Kioko had worked with him several times, and had even attended a few of the same social events. They weren’t close, but…

Ark gave an impatient huff of breath. “Where is he now?” He fell silent, nodded a few times, and finally snapped, “We’ll meet you there,” before he hung up.

Kioko waited as he shoved the phone in his pocket and ran a hand through his chestnut hair. “Excuse me, but what about Dismas?”

Ark ground his teeth. “He’s dead.”

“Dead?” She realized the stupidity of her echo, but it was too late. “How did he die?”

“They say it was Jorick. Dismas is dead, and Zuri’s whereabouts are unknown. Truth be told, he’s probably in the grave, as well.”

Not three Executioners then, but five. Jorick had killed five of them in three months. That was almost half of their number.

“They say he and his human have been murdering covens,” Ark added. “He won’t get away with it this time.”

Kioko tried to keep the trepidation from her voice, “What do you mean, sir?”

“We’ve been tasked with bringing him in to stand trial.”

He’s killed five Executioners, but the two of us will bring him in alone? Though it was the obvious question, she kept it to herself. “What about the coven in Manchester?”

“They’ll have to wait. I’ll send the guards ahead to start the proceedings while we find him.”

“Where is he?”

“He was last seen in Kentucky, with another coven. We’ll get the details when we get to the citadel.”

Kioko didn’t like to point out that the citadel was the opposite direction of Kentucky. “We’re going back, sir?”

He checked the time on his phone. “Yes. We’re to report there for supplies. If we hurry, we should make it before sunup.”

Supplies? Did he mean reinforcements?

Instead of asking, she saluted, a habit too ingrained to break yet, then followed him to the cars. He gave the guards their orders, then motioned her into his vehicle.

Sleek and red, it looked as fast as it was. Kioko fastened her seatbelt and watched her guild assigned car drive away, full of guards. It wasn’t her personal car – she and Aine both needed to choose vehicles still – but she was responsible for it. If they wrecked it, or damaged it, the cost would likely come out of her account.

Assuming I survive bringing in the Hand of Death to worry about it.

***

Ark sped all the way to the citadel. Kioko watched the speedometer anxiously. It wasn’t his skill she doubted, but his luck. At the rate they were going, the human police would pull them over and then what? Ark was a dream stealer, but not a whisperer, and she was only a hunter. Neither would be able to persuade the cops to let them go. Of course, The Guild would make everything all right in the end, but in the meantime their journey would be delayed, leaving them little time to get indoors before the sun was up.

Despite her concerns, they arrive at the towering grain elevator just as the sky was blushing pink. Ark parked the car in the building, and they headed through the private entrance into the underground citadel.

Ark checked his phone. “Everyone has retired for the day, already. We might as well do the same.”

She nodded, catching herself from another salute. I’m an equal now, she reminded herself, though it was hard to believe.

As she followed Ark through the citadel, toward their chambers on the second floor, she wondered for the millionth time why she’d been chosen as an Executioner. When an opening came up, all greater guards interested in the post reported to Malick. He’d look them over, skim through their minds, and then choose the most powerful. For some inexplicable reason, this time he’d chosen herself and Aine.

There were better candidates, she thought. Stronger candidates. Aine and I were probably the weakest applicants, and certainly the youngest. Neither of us are over one hundred and fifty. Why would he choose us?

It was almost as if he’d wanted weak Executioners. But what sense did that make?

She dismissed the worry as she let herself into her apartment with instructions to meet Ark first thing the following evening. She nodded her agreement before shutting the door. The apartment looked as it had earlier that evening, left clean and ready for a two week or more absence.

How long will I be gone now? she wondered. Even if they were successful in bringing Jorick in, how much would that delay them? After Manchester, there was a rogue vampire, and coven they were supposed to tend to, then they were to split up and she was supposed to handle two territory disputes before she’d be able to come home again. Thanks to the small number of Executioners and the vast distances, they often had jobs stacked up. Changing even one of them could ruin the whole string.

Maybe he’ll kill us, too, then it won’t matter anymore.

The thought was hardly comforting.

***

Kioko woke the next evening, dressed, and exited to find Ark in the corridor.

“I was on my way to summon you,” he said. “Come, we’re supposed to report to the lower laboratory.”

The name sent a shiver down Kioko’s spine. A semi-secret area in the bowels of the citadel, no one knew what went on there, except Malick and the so-called men of science who ran it. She’d done a stint as a prison guard, just up the hall from the lab. The vampires she’d seen scuttling up and down the corridor, heads bent, soulless eyes darting, had given her the creeps. She couldn’t explain the feeling, except to say that there was an air of evil that hung over them.

It wasn’t just the occasional brush with the scientists that had made her time down there unpleasant. The guards who were regularly assigned to the prison were little better than useless. If there was a prisoner to fetch, she was the one who had to do it. If there was a visitor, she had to deal with them. That they managed to crawl to their posts each day was a miracle, and when she finally demanded a transfer she hadn’t left under the best of circumstances. To say they all hated one another was an understatement.

What a way to start the night.

Kioko and Ark stopped at the café to grab breakfast, then headed to the lowest level. As the elevator descended, she could feel the crushing presence of the high council, hidden in their chambers. Ancients all, with Malick the oldest and most terrifying.

They exited in the shiny black and red corridor, something straight from a nightmare, and walked toward the secret lab. The closer they got, the worse the suffocating presence became. When the locked metal door opened wide, she saw why; Malick waited for them inside.

“Master.” Ark bowed, and she quickly did the same.

Malick beamed a benevolent smile over his long white beard. Hair the color of snow fell past his shoulders, left long today. A black and gold robe dragged the floor, work over a well cut suit, complete with a matching tie.

“Come, come,” he instructed, motioning them over the threshold and into the room. Painted white with a shiny linoleum floor, a bank of computers sat to one side, tended by a vampire in glasses. Two doorways on the back wall led away, while a table to the right was covered in items, including a box of what looked like red grenades.

A vampire in a lab coat stood behind it, his dark hair brushed back. He rubbed his hands excitedly, the end of his long nose twitching. “Yes, yes. Executioner Ark, I believe you’re familiar with the NR canisters?”

NR? Kioko looked sharply to her superior, but he ignored her to nod. “Yes. Most of the Executioners are.”

“I don’t recognize your friend.” The scientist squinted at her. “I assume you’re new?”

Kioko felt herself drawing away from his scrutiny. “Yes.”

He nodded, muttering to himself. “We’ve had some improvements, anyway.” He patted the box of grenades. “Yes, yes, improvements. With this, you can incapacitate any vampire.” He lifted one and hooked his finger through the pin. “Pull, toss, and step back. Yes, yes, the… shall we call it nerve gas for you? It is very potent. A minute at most for the toughest vampire. That’s why you must take these.” He lifted a bottle of pills with a rattle. “We call them PREP. Take one each – don’t swallow, mind, but let it dissolve on your tongue – no more than twenty minutes before you use the NR2.”

“How does it work?” Kioko asked uncertainly.

“It changes your chemistry – temporarily,” the scientist added. “For the twenty minutes after you take the dose, you will not be as you are now. When it wears off, you’ll be back to normal.”

“Does it actually work this time?” Ark asked.

“Yes, yes. It works.” Some of the scientists enthusiasm dimmed, replaced by the edge of a sulk. “And the NR2 will no longer kill humans.”

Malick’s voice rumbled behind them like summer thunder, “How fortunate, as Jorick travels with just such a companion.”

As the scientist bundled up several canisters of NR2, the Executioners turned to Malick.

“If I may, master,” Ark began. “What is going on?”

Malick chuckled. “It seems my son has gotten himself into trouble. Ah, how refreshing to see him doing something besides sulk! Nevertheless, we can’t have him killing indiscriminately, can we? You have perhaps heard of the murders that Verchiel was investigating before his transgression?”

Verchiel. A fellow Executioner, Kioko hadn’t seen him for several days. She’d assumed he was on an assignment but…

Ark murmured acknowledgement, and Malick continued. “To shorten the story, I will say simply that Senya was investigating the latest, accompanied by Zuri and Dismas. Imagine her surprise to discover that Jorick and his human were visiting the nearest den, where another murder allegedly took place, this time before a witness who named the human a killer.”

Kioko could see Ark struggling with the idea. “Excuse me, master, do you mean that Jorick’s human murdered someone?”

“So they say. Without examining her, how can I say for sure?” He spread his hands helplessly, and went on. “For reasons we do not yet understand, Jorick led an attack on the Executioners. Senya reported that Dismas was killed before she managed to escape.”

Ark scowled. “And what o f Zuri?”

“His fate is unknown, but one can assume, knowing Jorick’s renewed thirst for blood…Ah! But it is refreshing to see him back to his old ways! To once again revel in the fight, the blood, the death! Perhaps the human is worth more than I first thought?”

Kioko wasn’t sure if they were supposed to respond, and if so what to say. She looked to Ark, but he was silent, his face unreadable.

“It is no matter, for neither of you children knew him in the days before. Ark, perhaps, caught glimpses of his beautiful fury, but you weren’t there, in the old world, to see him alight with youthful anger, desperate to quench the flame of rage with his enemy’s blood. As to the matter at hand, it would be easiest for you to simply incapacitate him, and bring him to me. But you do not choose the easy path, do you, child? If you wish to make it difficult, you may tell him I only wish to speak to him, though it’s doubtful he’ll believe such a tale. When that fails, you will perhaps wish to employ this wonderful invention?” He motioned to the box of gas canisters.

“And the human?” Ark asked.

“It will be best to bring her along, I believe. Though even Senya has cast doubt on the charge of murder, there is a human involved in the serial murders, so perhaps we were mistaken about her? Though I saw no violent malice in her mind, perchance, hidden in some dark corner, was a patch of homicidal darkness I missed. She must be thoroughly investigated. And of course there is the matter of theft.”

“Theft, master?” Kioko asked.

“Yes.” Malick’s jewel like eyes crinkled with amusement. “He stole Senya’s car. Or at any rate, one of his allies did. I have no doubt that my son will end up with it in the end; a trophy he won’t be able to resist. If not, whoever does will no doubt be in his company, or at the very least know where he has gone.” The ancient vampire snapped his fingers, and the vampire at the computer bank abandoned his post to shuffle towards them, an electronic tablet in his hand.

Malick took the device and handed it to Ark. “Unbeknownst to him, we have recently begun toying with tracking devices on Guild vehicles. How fortunate Senya’s car was one that was outfitted.”

Kioko leaned over to peer at the screen. A map was displayed, with a blinking dot and a set of coordinates.

“He is stationary now,” Malick said. “Though perhaps not for long? I am interested to see where he will go. Will it be to his den? Or to his fledgling? Or perhaps, to find a new victim?”

The delight in Malick’s laughter felt wrong to Kioko. Jorick was murdering his Executioners. He should be furious, not amused.

The scientist shoved a bag into Kioko’s hands. “Remember to take the PREP no more than twenty minutes before, or its effectiveness will be diminished and you’ll risk succumbing as well.”

Kioko nodded. “Will this also incapacitate the human?”

“No. It doesn’t do anything to them, anymore. There’s a hypodermic included for her, and some chloroform if you need it. Getting close enough to use it should be easy for an Executioner.”

Even if she’s a vampire killer.

“You’ll need to be careful,” Malick added, almost as an afterthought. “We wouldn’t want either to be permanently harmed.”

Despite the casual demeanor, the sudden tension in the room said that it was an order. Neither Jorick nor his human were to be hurt, no matter what crime they’d committed.

“You will of course want to get underway?” Malick’s suggestion was yet another order.

Kioko and Ark bowed to the ancient, and she gratefully hurried out the door. Her shoulders didn’t relax until the elevator opened on the top floor of the citadel.

Ark strode ahead of her, leaving her to carry the bag from the lab, without looking back.  She expected him to comment, but there was nothing, even when they were both seat belted into the car.

He handed her the tablet , then started the car. The dot on the screen was still stationary, blinking but not moving. She zoomed out until she could see a town name. Altoona. It meant nothing, so she zoomed out farther to see the name Pennsylvania in large letters.

“Is his den in Pennsylvania?”

“Maine,” Ark answered. “Keep an eye on that and let me know if he starts moving.”

“Yes, sir.” Though they weren’t even sure he was the one in the car.

“As Malick said, whoever has it will know where he is,” Ark replied to her thoughts.

She ignored the intrusion. It was common enough with mind readers, and he was her superior. “Assuming we find him, at least we’ll be able to capture him with the NR2.”

“If it works,” Ark said. He sighed. “I’m loath to use it on him, of all vampires. Jorick…he has great faith in his own strength, and this will only encourage that. It’s as if we’re saying he’s so strong we can’t take him any other way.”

“Can we?”

He shot her a dirty look and laid on the gas. “He’s not a God.”

“Of course not, sir.” Kioko silently cursed herself for deferring. Ark was the leader of the Executioners, but the others didn’t treat him like this. They were his equal. And so am I now. Why can’t I remember that?

“Remember the NR2 won’t work on the human.” Ark broke away to mutter, “A human. How ridiculous.”

“What’s ridiculous about his having a mortal pet? Many vampires do.”

“True, but Jorick isn’t many vampires. I remember a time he swore to destroy every human in the world. That he would forget that already…Though, I suppose it’s been more than a hundred years. Time softens everything they say.”

Something strange flickered across his face, and Kioko had the sense that it wasn’t necessarily true; there were some things time didn’t erase. It was a topic she wasn’t interested in touching, so she changed it. “Do you think Jorick and his human committed the murders Senya accused him of?”

“Senya?” Ark spat the name like a bite of poison apple. “I wouldn’t believe anything she said, especially not concerning Jorick. Even you should know she’s Malick’s pet, second only his children. I imagine Senya would like to see Jorick fall, leaving her as the favorite. I find it very convenient that she was able to escape this great, random attack, while Zuri, by her own admission, was left to suffer an unknown fate.”

Kioko hadn’t paid much attention to the details, but now that Ark mentioned it. “Do you think that she left him on purpose?”

“I think she deserted him,” Ark said bluntly. “Dismas was killed, and without Bren to back her up, Senya ran.”

Bren. The Executioner Kioko had replaced. Even the greater guards knew that the two had been lovers.

“If Zuri is dead, it’s her fault, no one else’s,” Ark added.

Not even his killer’s?

***

The dot eventually started moving. Kioko followed it into New York, mentally calculating where it might be headed. As the night wore on, it moved into Connecticut, then Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. Ark was confident it was headed to Maine, and she could hardly argue. If he was right, then so was Malick; it would mean Jorick had taken the car as a trophy.

And he’ll be waiting for us at the end of our journey.

It was near dawn when the dot stopped moving, in Maine. Ark took the tablet to zoom in on the nearest town, then nodded. “That’s him. At least we know he’s likely to stay put now. It will save us chasing him all over the country.”

They stayed the night with a coven whose hospitality was begrudging at best. Kioko and Ark took two of the boxes, leaving the usual occupants to bunk up on the floor. It was a new experience for her; as a guard she’d have been left to sleep on the floor with the displaced vampires while the Executioner took the best.

She lay awake in the dark box, eyes studying the smooth underside of the lid, listening as strange vampires fell asleep around her. It reminded her of that first night in Hekili’s coven. They’d greeted their newest member with mixed emotions, but had given her the use of Ano’s box, since he didn’t need it anymore. Just her luck, he’d returned two months later, and she’d been relegated to the floor until a new box opened up. More than once she’d suggested just building a new box, but no one seemed interested in it. Vampires came and went; new members joined and quit, while visitors drifted through for days or months.

It was that insane lack of structure that led her to The Citadel in search of an ordered, organized existence. She’d tried not to crave it, tried to be casual and fluid, but it was ingrained too deeply in her. She blamed her parents and their obsession with duty, honor, regimentation. Of Japanese origin, they’d immigrated to Hawaii, before the United States had stolen it. She’d been born shortly after they settled in, and grown up surrounded by palm trees and daily visits to the beach. That was the only problem with the citadel. Iowa was a landlocked state awash in corn fields and cows. At first the change had been charming; so different from the island life she’d known for eighty years. But some days…some days it was wearisome.

At least I get to travel as a guard, she told herself, quickly correcting it to Executioner. I’m an executioner now. I need to remember that; need to act like. Especially if I’m going to face the Hand of Death.

***

They fed on wildlife the next evening, while a purple haze crawled on the lawn, then climbed in the car. The dot was in the same location it had been in the night before. Kioko had cross referenced Ark’s assertion with the Guild’s app. It was indeed the listed location of Jorick’s den.

“We should be there in a few hours,” Ark commented, steering around a slower moving vehicle.

Kioko gave a crisp nod. “What’s the plan when we arrive?” She stopped herself from adding, “sir.” The other Executioners didn’t use it. Why should she?

“I’m going to try to talk to him first.”

Kioko swallowed the first objections that popped in her head, settling at last for, “But sire, Malick suggested-”

“I am well aware what he suggested.” Ark waved it away with annoyance. “However, as I’ve already told you, to attack first with no warning only underlines his importance in his own mind. Not to mention it’s cowardly. He deserves to at least know that we’re there. He may come for Malick.”

Kioko didn’t bother to reply, didn’t bother to point out that it was a terrible plan. She didn’t even bother to read him the long list of charges attached to Jorick’s file. Instead, she turned her attention back to the app and the neat details written there. Turned in 1568 by Malick. Whisperer. Dream stealer. Blood debt paid. The file summed him up, listed his years as an Executioner, noted some accomplishments and one disciplinary note, dated 1868. “Let it be known that Jorick, fledgling of Malick, has been found guilty of the murder of seven lesser guards, the assault of eight lesser guards, with intent to kill, and unlawful assault on Executioners Beldren, Bren, Mary, Jamie, and Ark.” There was no trial mentioned, and no sentence, but still there it was in black and white. The famous moment when Jorick had stormed the citadel and tried to kill everyone in his path.

And that’s why Ark wants to take him barehanded, she thought. He wants to prove that this time, he can best the Hand of Death.

Only, she wasn’t sure that he could.

***

As the miles between them and the blinking dot shrank, Kioko mentally practiced her speech:

“Jorick, fledgling of Malick, you and your human are wanted for questioning concerning the murders of nine vampires, as well as the possible deaths of two Executioners and the theft of Guild property.”

It sounded tough, official, and most of all succinct and to the point. In her imagined scenario, Jorick stood by as she quoted it, a faceless shadow who stood well over six feet tall with broad shoulders and bulging arms. As the last words dropped, he lunged for her and she threw the gas canister just in time. As colored smoke billowed around them, he dropped to the floor and lay as if dead.

“Good work,” Ark said.

And that’s when the scene evaporated. Ark wouldn’t say that. Instead he’d be angry that she’d taken him down, that he hadn’t done it himself.

And that stubborn anger is going to get me killed.

Though the conversation was an uncomfortable one, she took herself in hand. It must be my fate to do things the difficult way, but better difficult than dead.

“Excuse me, sir? I know you’re against using the NR2, but-”

Ark made a low aggravated noise. “Yes, I’m against it, but I’m not stupid. If it comes to it, we’ll do what needs to be done to complete the assignment. However, we’re going to try it without the chemical first.”

With nothing more to say, she turned her attention to the passing scenery. They hugged the coast, and the smell of the nearby sea seeped through Kioko’s window. She closed her eyes and, for a moment, it smelled like home, like childhood, like Hekili; her brown skin, thick dark hair, sweet laughter. In her memory she could taste Hekili’s kisses, see the way she’d looked at her with love sparkling in her dark eyes, until the day that love faded, leaving only a sort of dull affection, an obligation.

An obligation I wanted no part of.

She’d told her that, seen the relief in her once-lover’s eyes. She’d stayed with the coven for a while afterwards, but without Hekili to distract her, that was when the pure insanity of the arrangement got to her; the complete lack of logic or regiment.

Or maybe it was just a broken heart.

Whatever it was, it was the past, and nothing to dwell on. Not now. The sea pounding the shore was the wrong ocean. The sand was the wrong color, and there were no gracefully curving palm trees, lifting their fronds to the heavens like open arms.

It’s nothing like Kaua’i.

She straightened in the seat, tugging at her coat, as if physically organizing herself could do the same for the thoughts in her head.

Ark glanced to her, then pointed to a house in the distance, ringed in trees, a ling driveway leading to the road. “I think that’s it.”

Kioko checked the tablet. Sure enough, they were almost on top of the blinking dot.

They parked at the mouth of the driveway, and Ark signaled her to climb out quietly.  She reached into the backseat and grabbed a couple of the canisters and the bottle of PREP. Ark frowned at the pills, but when she offered them to him, he snapped the top and popped one in his mouth. She did the same, holding it on her tongue. It fizzed as it dissolved, and burned, like tiny sparks.

As the sensation faded, a bang came from the front of the house; the sound of a door slamming.

“He knows we’re here.” Ark tugged his coat straight and squared his shoulders. “Come.”

She followed, forcing her spine straight and her face hard. She could do this. She would do this. By any means necessary.

They reached the end of the driveway, and paused to peer inside the shiny black sports car that was parked there. Though Kioko had gotten lucky and never been assigned to Senya, Ark nodded as if to say he recognized the vehicle.

They continued on, picking their way through the weedy front lawn to the small porch. Kioko could hear movement inside, and hushed conversation. She could smell a vampire and a human inside, no doubt Jorick and his pet.

She tensed as they reached the door, waiting for Ark to knock it in. Instead, he knocked. A moment passed, movement sounded from inside, and then the door opened a crack to reveal a slice of pale face framed in black hair. Dark eyes peered out from under heavy brows, and full lips were drawn in a tight angry line. “Yes?”

Though not a mind reader, Kioko could feel his anger, vibrating the air around them.  She could only imagine what it would be like full blast.

Ark was unfazed. “Hello, Jorick. You know why we’re here.”

Kioko held herself immobile in the face of Jorick’s sarcasm. “No, Ark. I can’t possibly guess.”

Her rehearsed speech tumbled out, just as she’d practiced it. “You and your human are wanted for questioning concerning the murders of nine vampires, as well as the possible deaths of two Executioners and the theft of Guild property.”

Ark shot her a look that said he had it under control. “Thank you, Kioko.” He turned back to the man in the doorway. “This doesn’t have to be hard, Jorick.”

“You’re right.” And Jorick slammed the door.

Ark growled and threw the door open again. Jorick stood not two feet away, eyes narrowed, and Ark marched inside toward him. Though his shoulders were stiff, his voice was forced patience. “That isn’t what I meant. Malick only wants to speak to you.”

Just as Malick suspected, the line didn’t work.

“We’ve done that already!” Jorick snapped, holding his ground, his hands balled into fists.

“I know,” Ark said, an edge of menace to his voice. “However, I have my orders, and I will carry them out.”

“Really?” Jorick gave a cold, challenging laugh. “I’d like to see that.”

And there it was. The threat before the storm, the moment when he challenged, then charged. The two men stood, eyes boring into one another. As dream stealers, Kioko wondered if they were waging some furious mental battle, or if it was simply macho bravado.

A second passed, then another. The tension in the room thickened, multiplied, until Kioko felt uncomfortable under the weight of it. She could feel Jorick’s presence, his power, like a dark cloud that threatened to knock her to the floor. Ark’s was nearly the same but not quite as strong; not quite as angry.

Not enough to overcome him.

Finally Ark broke the silence. “Is this really what you want Jorick?” He looked away, met Kioko’s eyes. Before he spoke she saw the message on his face. He was okaying the use of the NR2.

“All right Kioko.”

She reached into the inner pocket of her coat and tugged out one of the round red canisters. She pulled the pin and tossed it, just as Jorick shouted, “You!”

The gas hissed, disappointingly invisible. Kioko suddenly wondered if it really would work. If it doesn’t…

Her fears evaporated as Jorick’s knees buckled. He landed on all fours, snarling like a cornered animal.

Ark watched impassively. “I’m sorry, Jorick. I didn’t want to resort to this.”

“No, I’m sure you didn’t.” The dark vampire growled and tried to stand. His weak limbs failed and he fell back to the floor.

A human woman bounded through the doorway, blonde hair flying around her as she dropped to her knees next to the fallen vampire. “Jorick! What’s wrong?”

“Jorick.” Not “Master.” This was no mortal pet, used for food and slavery, but…

“Gas,” He choked out. “They have gas-” he broke off and clutched at the woman. “I swear, if you hurt her…”

No. No pet, but a lover? Jorick, the Hand of Death had a human lover?

Kioko flicked her gaze over the creature, taking in large, horrified blue eyes, slender shoulders, small breasts, pale skin. Though not beautiful, she was pretty, and would be even prettier with the touch of immortality. “The human will remain unharmed, as per our orders.”

Jorick snarled and swayed. For a moment Kioko thought he might make it back to his feet. “I can’t believe…you’ve turned into a coward…Ark.”

“I’m sorry, but there wasn’t any other way.” He stepped forward, his hand out to the woman. “Come.”

The human ignored him, arms wrapped around Jorick as she tried to prop him up. Kioko watched with silent fascination as he clutched her coat and opened his mouth, then fell still and insensible.

It actually worked.

“Jorick!” The woman shrieked and shook him. “Jorick!”

Ark rolled his eyes, but his voice stayed neutral. “He’ll be fine in a few hours. Now come with us.”

The human glared back. “What have you done to him?”

When Ark didn’t reply, Kioko filled in. “It’s a kind of nerve gas. It specifically targets vampires.”

“Then why aren’t you affected?”

With an impatient huff, Ark grabbed for the woman, but she jerked away shouting,  “Answer me! Why aren’t you affected?”

Though Ark had said they had a few hours until Jorick woke, Kioko wasn’t sure how much time they had left before the PREP wore off, or how long it took the invisible NR2 to dissipate. She didn’t want to fall victim to it herself.

“Your questions are unimportant, human. We will leave now.”

“Like hell!” The woman stood, hovering over Jorick’s fallen figure like a protective guard dog.

“You can do neither,” Ark said suddenly. The surprise on the human’s face said he must have been reading her mind. Kioko could only guess that she’s been trying to decide between fighting and fleeing.

“I suggest you cooperate,” Ark added. It will make things easier.”

“Can’t you just knock me out, too?” the human demanded sarcastically.

Kioko thought of the chloroform, still in the backseat. “If you wish.” She waited a heartbeat, but when Ark didn’t move she swooped in. The human tried to twist away, but her mortal strength was no match for Kioko’s immortal abilities. She swept the woman up over her shoulder and headed outside, away from the cloud of NR2.

She headed around the house and down the driveway while the human kicked and writhed. Kioko only clamped down harder and glanced back to Ark who shadowed her, carrying Jorick’s limp body.

This was easier. Why don’t we use the NR2 more often?

She stopped next to Ark’s car and waited as he stuffed Jorick in the backseat, coming back out again with the chloroform rag.

“We should render her immobile,” Kioko suggested. “It will make the trip easier.”

Ark prepped the rag as he spoke. “You may be right. He’s at least found someone as difficult as he is.”

He stepped forward and clamped the rag over the struggling woman’s face. She choked and fought, but Kioko held her fast.

When it seemed to be stretching out too long, Kioko asked, “How long does this take?”

“Usually not this long. She’s obviously had plenty of vampire blood.”

“That seems logical, since they’re obviously lovers.”

“Odd, isn’t it?” Ark asked as the woman finally fell still. He held the rag a moment longer, to be sure, then hefted her dead weight from Kioko’s shoulder and stuffed her in the backseat with her vampire master. “I’ll call The Guild and see where we should go from here. I’m loath to try to drive two days back with both of them.”

Kioko couldn’t agree more. Unless they planned a steady diet of PREP pills, they wouldn’t be able to use the NR2 to keep him subdued, and when he woke up…she didn’t want to be in a vehicle with him when it happened.

Ark’s conversation lasted only a moment. When it was over, he stashed his phone and turned to her.  “There’s an airport not far from here. The Guild will rent us a plane to take him back to Iowa. After the prisoners are delivered, we’ll fly back here to pick up the car, then go on to Manchester.”

It seemed it would be smarter to just fly to Manchester and let guards come fetch the car, but she imagined he wouldn’t like that. It was his car, and leaving it in someone else’s care…No. He’d never agree to that.

Though if it was me, I doubt he’d give me a choice.

***

With an extended trip looming, Ark administered the hypodermic to the sleeping human.

“What is it?” Kioko asked as she watched him push the liquid into her arm.

“I have no idea. It usually knocks them out for several hours. Normally I’d say she’d be back to the citadel before she wakes, but as resistant as she is, she may wake sooner. Hopefully not on the flight. The last thing we need is a hysterical human.”

The airfield wasn’t very far. They met the pilot on the tarmac, a wiry man who didn’t seem interested in asking questions, though there were plenty he could have asked. Like, “Why do you have two unconscious people?”

Kioko could only assume The Guild was paying him enough money to quench his curiosity.

The plane itself was small and cramped. It rattled when they lifted off, and made horrible creaking noises once they were airborne. Though not normally afraid of flying, Kioko spent the trip tense, waiting for the plane to rattle itself apart midair.

Hopefully that human does stay asleep. If she wakes up in this…

Luckily when they touched down, the airplane was in one piece, and the human still unconscious. Kioko slipped out the hatch quickly, grateful for the tarmac under her feet. A chill winter wind blew, though it’s bite didn’t bother them. Mist bloated the airports lights into glowing blobs, and gave the place an air of loneliness peculiar to the wintertime.

“Kioko!”

Her attention snapped back to the plane, where Ark hung half out, holding the human. “Are you planning to take her, or would you rather carry Jorick.”

She silently cursed her inattentiveness as she scrambled to take the woman from him. “I’m sorry, sir.”

Ark rolled his eyes and disappeared back inside, reappearing with Jorick. “I called, but they said someone is already on the way.”

They’d taken a few steps away from the plane when Kioko felt the woman stir. Or did she? A second movement confirmed it.

“She’s waking up.”

Ark fumbled for the chloroform in his pocket, but a nearby car motor gave him pause. They both waited as an SUV came into view; one of the Guild’s fleet of “work” vehicles.

It stopped nearby, and Jamie and Greneth climbed out.

“You got him?” Jamie asked.

“That was the assignment,” Ark replied.

“But no one thought you’d actually pull it off.” Greneth’s mouth twisted into his usual smug smirk, an expression Kioko had wanted to wipe off his face many times over the years. But, she was always just a lowly guard while he was her superior. Now…

“If they wanted failure, they’d have sent you,” she quipped.

Greneth’s amusement melted into a scowl. “I could have gotten him just as easily as you did, especially if I had the NR2! How hard is that? You pull the pin and wait. A monkey could do it.”

“Then they should have sent you,” Ark said. “Come on. We have to take these two back to the Guild and then Kioko and I still have to fly back to Maine.”

Jamie surveyed the plane. “Good luck.”

They loaded Jorick and Ark into the back of the SUV, while Kioko took the middle with her prisoner. The human was awake, though like a drunkard, she didn’t resist. It wasn’t until they were moving that she seemed to really understand what was going on.

Jamie turned around in the front seat, and after shooting Kioko a look that said, “I’ll handle it,” he met the mortal’s eyes. A moment later, the woman’s body relaxed back into the seat and her eyes slipped half closed, on the edge of sleep.

“It would be easier if you just knocked her out,” Greneth suggested. “Or killed her.”

“We have strict orders to keep her alive,” Ark replied. “And unharmed.”

Greneth’s eyes were visible in the rearview for a moment, looking back at them. “I wonder what Malick has planned for them.”

“A trial,” Jamie said.

Kioko looked at the still and silent woman, checking to see that her chest was still rising and falling with her breaths. “Would it not be easier for Malick to simply read their minds and-”

“Of course it would,” Jamie said before she could finish. “But where’s the spectacle in that? Truthfully, Ark or I could read the human easily enough, and have all the answers we need.”

Not being a mind reader, she hadn’t thought of that.

“I already have,” Ark said hesitantly, his attention focused on the back of Greneth’s head, as if unsure whether to speak in front of him. “We both know they’re not the murderers, but her thoughts confirmed it.”

“And Dismas and Zuri?”

“Zuri is alive, or was. He’s being held prisoner. She saw him there. As for Dismas…she doesn’t know what happened. I haven’t had a chance to try Jorick’s mind yet.”

“You won’t get far,” Jamie said. “He’ll block you from seeing anything he doesn’t want you to.”

“Probably,” Ark agreed.

They fell silent, leaving Kioko to watch the countryside slip past. What kind of spectacle did Malick want to create? And why?

The vice that whispered through her mins sounded like her own thoughts, but she knew it wasn’t. Those answers are above your paygrade.

She glanced sharply to Jamie, but he pretended not to notice.  She wanted to be angry, but he was right. She’d been an Executioner for two weeks. Better to keep her head down and leave such things to those who’d been there forever.

***

AT the citadel’s complex, Jamie parked in front of the small building marked office. Kioko climbed out and hefted the human over her shoulder. Jamie’s influence would fade soon, and then she was likely to be argumentative.

Greneth’s right. Killing her would have been easier.

Ark came around the vehicle, carrying Jorick. “Jamie said to take them to the detention center. They’re to be seen to tomorrow.”

Great. The detention center. Her favorite place.

The SUV pulled away as Kioko carried her burden into the office. Behind the counter sat a wrinkled farmer wearing a seed company hat. He nodded, and pressed the button to let them into the back room where, past shelves of seeds and binders, a space-age silver door led down to the citadel.

Kioko and Ark headed through it and down the stairs. Through the reception room, and into the corridor. As they waited for the elevator, Kioko tensed, ready for the woman to fight, to try to flee. Instead she hung compliantly over her shoulder, her breathing tight with terror.

Maybe she’s too scared to resist?

They took the elevator down, past the lowest level, to the subbasement; the home of the High Council, the secret laboratory, and the detention center.

I hope Paul isn’t working there anymore.

As if fate was determined to give her the most miserable week it could, Paul was not only still there, but one of two guards that greeted them. He gave her a cold once over and sneered, “We have a detention cell ready for them, if you’d follow me?”

As if she needed to follow him! She knew where the cells were!

Instead of saying that, she replied coldly, “It’s nice to see you doing your job for a change.”

Paul and his partner gave her dirty looks, but led them down the shiny black cell block. Silver padlocked doors set at intervals, some with prisoners behind them. Thanks to her stint as a detention guard, she knew what condition they were in; starved, withered, hungry, desperate. And the longer they’d been there, the worse they were.  Kioko was glad at moments like this that she wasn’t a mind read after all.

Paul motioned to an open door. Ark dropped Jorick off first, and Kioko followed with the human. She stepped back quickly, barley getting out of the way before Paul slammed the door.

“Wouldn’t want her to escape,” he said, though Kioko knew better.

She gave the guard a withering look and marched past him, back to the central detention room and on to the corridor. She was already in the elevator when Ark joined her, looking curious. “What was that?”

“What was what?” She almost added sir, but didn’t bother.

“The guards. True, they’re usually hostile to Executioners, jealous I suppose, but that was more than that.”

“I was assigned to the detention center at one time.”

When she didn’t finish, Ark pressed. “And?”

“And I wasn’t a good fit.” She felt Ark’s eyes on her, and knew that in a moment he’d probe her mind, push through her memories, seeking what had happened to cause such a problem.

“Paul was… romantically interested in me. I was not interested in him. When he found out, he made the workplace intolerable.”

“Not your type?” Ark asked, his tone disinterested.

“No,” she murmured uncomfortably.

“If you’re picky you’d do well to avoid Verchiel as well. He likes to-” Ark broke off and looked at her, interest in his eyes. “Ah, I see. Never mind.”

Kioko closed her eyes, trying to fight her own humiliation. She told herself for the millionth time that it was nothing to be ashamed of, that it was okay.

Ark cleared his throat loudly. “There’s nothing wrong with…It’s more acceptable among vampires than humans most of the time. Though I believe it’s in vogue again among them.”

In vogue. Like it was a fashion statement. But it wasn’t. It had nothing to do with what was accepted, or what was popular it was just…

“It’s just who you’re attracted to,” Ark finished the thought for her. “It doesn’t matter. It has nothing to do with your job. The only one petty enough to want revenge for rejection would be Greneth, and he’s infatuated with Griselda and Senya, who may or may not be having an affair of their own. If you’re worried, I can promise not to tell anyone, though most can pluck it from your thoughts as easily as I did, if they cared to bother.”

Kioko didn’t answer. What was there to say?

The elevator doors opened. She stepped forward, but Ark caught her arm and pulled her back.

He cleared his throat uncomfortably. “You’re doing well, by the way. I especially like the way you handled Greneth earlier.”

She tried to hide her surprise. “Thank you, sir.”

He let her go to stride out into the hallway. “And quit calling me sir. You’re one of us now. You need to remember that.”

Right. One of them.

****

Now for guesses:

topic: Christopher

photo: Colleen

  1. hand of God 2. reach for the stars 3. reach for the sky. 4. he’s got the whole world in his hand 5. full moon 6. moonglow 7. reaching for a dream 8. outer space 9. for the taking 10. looks like a Dr. Who episode.
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