I think I’m too late for Blogophilia, but we’re gonna try it anyway. This week is writer’s choice, so:
Good Times, and Bad Times
Easy: Use a Russian word: Kiska
Hard: Use Lyrics from American Pie by Don McLean (a long, long time ago)
It’s Senya’s turn for a story. This takes place during Heart of the Raven
Senya moved silently through the cold Russian night. Long ago, the temperatures would have left her shivering under layers of clothing, but not now. Immortal, such things didn’t bother her.
Like the dark.
The night that had once been her enemy was her friend, a haven from the damaging sunlight. She moved through shadows, hidden from the eyes of her prey, just as her enemies had once been hidden from her.
That was a long, long time ago.
The past was something she’d let go, moved on from, and yet here, in this place, with this particular hunt, she could feel it pressing close, like a photo without glass in the frame. She had only to lift her hand, reach out, and there it would be, there she would be, hungry dirty, still grieving for her dead brother, even as she took his place in the fight.
A familiar scent caught her and she stopped in her tracks. With that smell came a thousand memories, the smell of blood, fear, and later more blood, more fear, though of a different kind. Through it all, he’d been there, with his deep belly laugh and optimistic outlook, always promising that things would get better.
Did they, Boris?
She hadn’t seen his face – or smelled his scent – since 1660. How long ago was that? More than three hundred years, at least. Almost four. In that time she’d written him off as dead and forgotten him and yet here he was, crashing back, bringing those memories with him.
Memories she didn’t have time for.
“I assumed you were dead by now,” she told the darkness. “How have you managed to stay hidden alone for so long?”
The night gave no answer, so she picked her way slowly towards the small house. The single light in the window stayed steady, no shadows moved, and no sound came from inside. Did he know she was there? Did he smell her? Would he recognize her if he did?
She stopped at the door and wavered. Should she knock as a friend, or kick it in as an enemy? Which was she? Which was he?
Time to find out.
She rapped on the door with her knuckles, three sharp little sounds. She heard a soft shuffle inside and tensed, waiting for the fight that often answered her knocks. The door click, then opened slowly, to reveal a mustached vampire. The round face matched his belly, and dark thick hair teased his heavy brows. His eyes, a deep brown, looked her over, snapping with a thousand thoughts.
When he didn’t speak, she snapped, “Hello, Boris.”
“So you come.” He stepped back , holding the door wide, and motioned her inside.
Senya stepped over the threshold cautiously, eyes taking in everything, looking for traps, accomplices, danger. What she found was a snake of cables running to a cobbled together pile of computer parts. A camera and tripod pointed to a blue screen, while a collection of buckets held various amounts of rain water, runoff from the water spotted ceiling. The only doorway was covered by a thin blanket, and though she couldn’t see past it, neither could she smell anyone else.
“You’re alone?” she demanded, her hand near her dagger, ready to grab it, to stab, to cut. Where is she?
“Do you see anyone, Fetiniia?”
The old name was like a slap, a memory she’d forgotten. “It’s Senya.”
“Yes, yes, I remember, but do you? Do you remember why you took his name?”
Senya fell back a step, fingers itching for the handle of her weapon. “I remember well enough.”
Boris chuckled. “Of course you do.” He turned and moved for the heap of computers, his back to her. If she planned to take the shot, this was it. This was the best chance. If it came to hand to hand combat…
“I’m glad to see your friends delivered the message,” he added, switching to their native Russian. “Would you care to sit?”
Though he tugged the chair free, she ignored it to demand, “Friends? What friends?” He didn’t mean…?
“Ah, but I have forgotten their names.” He tapped the side of his nose and winked. “I’m paid to forget such things, yes? You know them, though. They travel with a human.”
So he did. “Jorick and his entourage are not my friends.” Far from it. If anything they were her enemies. No, not my enemies, but Malick’s. Yet, now that they’d left The Guild, weren’t Malick’s enemies her enemies now?
How many days had it been since the battle? Malick had known an attack was coming to The Guild, but when Eileifr, the demon eye on the high council, mentioned seeing it, Malick always swished it away. “You see only his intentions,” Malick said. “They will not come to fruition.”
And they shouldn’t have. There was no way that Jorick’s fledgling and his ragtag band of vampires should have been able to breech the security and cause any damage. The moment they hit the parking lot above the underground citadel, the cameras should have seen them, and a small group of the highly trained Executioners should have been dispatched to take them out.
Except the cameras weren’t working that night. On Malick’s orders, she and Griselda had seen to that, leaving the vampire’s fortress blind. Then, when the attack came, Malick had ordered the Executioners below, to him, rather than sending the into the fight. Those that disobeyed and marched to the fray anyway were scattered and disorganized, as were the lesser guards Malick had ordered to the front lines.
Is it any wonder the casualties were so high?
But that was his plan, wasn’t it? Not that Senya could see into his heart, or really knew his motivation. Still, if Malick’s ramblings meant anything, then he’d let it unfold as a way to wipe out the weak vampires who populated the citadel. That was why his initial orders seemed so bizarre.
She’d stood in his chambers with the others, surrounded by plants, listening for the sounds of battle that would soon begin. He’d asked first for their loyalty, told any who were unsure to leave now, and then ordered them to pack everything.
Griselda had blinked blue eyes. “Master?”
Malick spun on her, so that his long silver hair flew round his face. “You question me, child?”
“No, master. Of course not.” Though Senya could guess her fear, Griselda held her shoulders straight, gaze unwavering.
“Good.” Malick smiled sweetly. “Then do as I say. Everything must go. And quickly. A truck waits outside, and from there we will take a plane.”
“We’re leaving?” Greneth asked. “But, master, I thought the point of this was to take The Guild back! To get rid of the high council and-”
Malick laughed, a sound like sunshine and ocean waves. “Child, if I wished to destroy the high council I could do so myself, at any moment. They are children to me.” His tone turned stern. “Now do as you are ordered!”
The collection of guards and Executioners hurried to their strange task, packing and hauling everything upstairs via and an old forgotten entrance. Seya vaguely recalled that they’d sealed it off sixty years ago, when some of the above ground buildings moved, but she’d forgotten it existed, and certainly hadn’t expected to see it open at the top.
But of course, he’d have it ready to go.
Despite their secret exit, Malick had chosen to leave in style. When his chambers were emptied, and the invaders had made as much headway as he felt they could, he and his three faithful Executioners sealed his chamber doors, then marched into the atrium. They’d faced Eileifr, then the guards above detonated the pre-timed explosives, turning the fake skylight into a real opening. While the glass fell, Griselda had used the grappling gun – as Malick called the bizarre weapon – to fire a bolt into the ceiling. Hanging together, the fur of them had left, winched up through the ceiling by a device they’d never tested before. As the floor fell away, Senya had wondered what would happen if they fell.
“Then we will make a different exit,” was Malick’s silent reply.
But they hadn’t fallen. They’d climbed out at the top, hopped in the waiting SUV and sped for the airfield. A crew of faithful had taken the truck to another airport, where a cargo lane waited, but here was a passenger plane, carefully cleaned of all tracking devices, and ready to go.
And go it did.
That was how they got to Namibia, where Malick had been secretly setting up a new base of operations. He’d hired local villagers to build the complex, and furnish it. Once the cargo arrived with the last of his belongings from the citadel, he’d sent a death squad to handle the villagers. A fire later, and the world believed terrorists had destroyed it, or so Senya had seen in a newspaper later.
That was one blood bath I missed.
She’d been busy, handling other things, but Greneth had been happy to tell her about it. His eyes had glowed with the memories of the mortal’s screams.
Though Senya had a reputation for reveling in such things, too, she didn’t. To be fair, she didn’t hate them, either, she just didn’t care. An assignment was an assignment. One did their job and then moved to the next, no matter what that job might be. If it was kidnapping fellow vampires to hand over to humans, killing entire villages, or just luring the hand of death somewhere, it didn’t matter. Each job was as important as the one before, with orders that needed to be followed.
If that’s true, then why in the hell am I here?
She glanced to Boris, wearing his familiar friendly expression. It was that same kindness that had soothed her when her brother was killed so long ago, and when their master made them into what they were, when he started to demand that they follow his orders, complete his assignments…
“You are lost in thought, hmm? Memories, perhaps?”
Senya looked away. “You’re not a mind reader, don’t pretend to be.”
“No, no, but I recognize the look on your face. It is the same I wore when I last saw Basille. Was it…forty years ago, perhaps? Maybe more.”
Basille. Their master, the vampire who had given his blood and made them, and the others, what they were. His own private army. And yet with his diminutive figure, and cheerful expression, he didn’t seem the type to need such a force.
How wrong that assessment was.
“Where did you see him?” Senya asked.
“Here, in the old country. He was passing through. He asked after you, though I had no news to give him. I have often wondered how you are doing, whether you were still alive, or shared the same fate as our brothers.”
Senya bit back a million nasty retorts. If he cared so much, she was easy to find. As an Executioner, many of the vampires in North America knew her name, or at least her description. “I’m not hard to find.”
“No, perhaps not for one who travels, but me? Eh, I stay where I am. I move from den to den, yes, but Russia is my home, no matter what name they want to call it. I fought too hard for it once, remember?”
“That was a long time ago, when we were still…” she couldn’t say the word, as if having been human somehow made them lesser. “It doesn’t matter.”
“No, I suppose nothing matters.” Boris offered the chair again, then shrugged and took it himself. “Though it is good to see your face after so long, I have to ask, why did you come? To reconcile, I thought at first, but maybe not? Maybe you are here to finish our old argument?”
Senya stiffened. The old argument. A disagreement that had separated them all those years ago. They’d had thirty years of freedom from Bassile and, in that time, the few who’d remained of their coven had peeled away, leaving just the two of them. Their partnership was not romantic, nor was it perfect, but they got along much like a father and daughter.
Until she came.
Eva was plump, but pretty. With a tiny mouth and curling hair, her expression was usually pleasant. At first. The closer she and Boris got, the harder that sweet face turned. Not in front of Boris, of course, but only to Senya. Her jealousy was a bitter, almost palpable thing that led her to first exaggerate, and finally lie about things Senya had done or said.
“I understand it is hard to accept new company,” Boris said to her one night. “But Eva is nice. You must learn, kiska.”
Senya had laughed. “I must learn? Or what? You’ll play the father and punish me? Eva’s words are lies.”
And with his gentle sadness, Senya realized he would forever believe Eva over her. Se and Boris were not lovers, were not related even except for the blood from their master. There was no reason for her to stay.
And yet she had stayed another month, or was it two? The days peeled away like apple skin, revealing a rotten fruit beneath. Boris’ gentle reprimands turned stern, then angry, and finally furious.
“You are like spoiled child, kiska, who cannot share! Before you were the only woman, but now there are two and you cannot abide it.”
“My hatred of the harpy has nothing to do with her sex! I would gladly welcome twenty women, so long as they were not the lying, manipulative-”
“Enough! No more name calling. No more accusations! If you are so unhappy, leave!”
And she did. Not immediately. First they shouted cruel words that devolved into a violent brawl. Eva stood at the fringes, hands clasped saying, “Oh Boris, don’t fight over me!” But Senya knew the words for what they were. She saw the gleaming blood lust in Eva’s eyes.
When Senya finally stormed out, covered in blood, she swore that the next time they met she would kill them both. And she’d meant to. But, as the years flew past, the old wounds felt different, until now she looked back not with hatred for Boris, but pity; pity that he could so easily be manipulated.
“Where is she?” Senya finally asked.
“You mean, Eva, yes? Ah, but she is gone. Long, long gone. We were happy, for a time, but such things end and then there is only dust and memories. Neither are strong enough to hold a person, are they?”
“And then what?” Senya demanded. “When she left what did you do?”
“Ah, you wish to catch up? To hear my whole history? But we do not have time for that, not when the sun will come soon. I will say that until now I have had good times, and bad times, and some times I cared for neither one way or the other. I made two fledglings, though both have gone on to their own lives now. For the last fifty years I have been alone, working, learning, finding way in between the cracks to seek the information, because that is where the power and the profit are, kiska. In knowledge, and so much of it is now available with the click of a key.”
Senya wasn’t sure what he meant, but it wasn’t important. He was right about the morning. She could feel it approaching. She wasn’t sure she had time to make it somewhere else.
Boris stood and yawned. “If you wish to kill me, you should do it now. Otherwise it is time to seek my bed, and perhaps to find one for you, yes?”
The righteous anger was still there in a tiny ball, the desire to beat him to a bloody pulp and make him apologize, make him admit that she was right, that Eva was the monster that-
That none of it matters.
“You are right. It is late.”
He nodded and relaxed, as though her words had answered some deeper question. “Come, I will show you where I sleep. It is not luxurious, but it is safe.”
She followed him to a root cellar and accepted the box he offered. “You are guest, yes? Boris will take the floor tonight.”
She didn’t argue, and was soon bedded down, the lid secured above her. She lay awake until the sound of Boris’ breathing dissipated – a sign he’d fallen asleep – then checked to make sure the lid moved; that he hadn’t locked her inside. It lifted easily, and she peeked out to check on him. He lay asleep on the floor, eyes closed, one hand under his head, the other at his side, no weapons in sight.
Not that I don’t trust him.
Secure in her safety, Senya laid back down and slid the lid back in place. Tomorrow she’d find out what he wanted from her.
And what I want from him.
The next evening Senya rose to find Boris awake, but not yet up. “Good evening.” He smiled as he pulled into a sitting position. “You slept well, yes?”
“Well enough. What do you feed on?”
He laughed and climbed to his feet. “Always so direct, yes? Ah, but I feed on what I can. We are near a town, but not so near that there is no wildlife. You can take your choice of human or animal.”
“Human always tastes better, however, I assume you have a system to avoid too many disappearances?”
He chuckled and motioned her up, out of the cellar. “My system is simply not to kill too many. If you stay long, you will find that humans come to me, in secret, just as your friends did. No one knows they are here, so if they disappear…ah, it is no big thing.”
Friends? The word jolted, but again Senya realized who he meant. “What did Jorick and…” she couldn’t remember any of the other’s names. “…And the others want with you?”
“The same thing everyone wants, yes? Fake papers. Fake IDs. To hide themselves in plain sight, to have official documents that look real and yet maybe aren’t. Ah, but I can make them real, can’t I? It is so easy now, everything is computers and databases. You go in, you enter the information, you edit the files, and your little manipulations are now reality.”
Though not computer savvy, Senya understood what he meant. They had a department at The Guild to handle such things, to move money and identification around, to keep vampire’s immortal natures secret. Of course, they didn’t do it for free, and those who opted for such services paid The Guild a hefty fee.
“How else do you expect the citadel to pay the electric bill?” Malick had asked jokingly.
Senya followed Boris outside, pondering why Jorick would want fake papers. As a whisperer he could get by easily enough, no matter where he was headed. Logic said it was to Japan, to retrieve the item Malick sought, but…
But is it really there?
Malick said it was; said he saw it in Jorick’s mind while they were in the stronghold in Munich – now there was another example of Malick’s mysterious plans. They’d moved into the complex in Namibia, taken out the village nearby with its many witnesses, and just settled in when Malick’s spies in the citadel sent word that Jorick was on his way to see the True Council in Munich, Germany. They didn’t need the rest of the message to know why: The Guild had lodged an official complaint with the higher ups about Malick’s revolt, and Jorick had been sent to give testimony about it. The True Council would then hand down a judgement, but short of hunting Malick down, there was no way to enforce it. The whole proceedings were a joke. As Malick said, the True Council – or any council – had only the power that others allowed them to have.
Despite the farce, Malick was infinitely interested. Not because he feared the True Council, but because Jorick was involved. His son in blood, it had hurt him that Jorick hadn’t joined them. Senya knew the vampire never would – he was too pompous, too full of his own sense of justice to ever bend his so-called morals – but Malick saw things differently. He believed that Jorick would “awaken” to his “true nature” and “come back”.
With that goal, they’d traveled to Munich. Not two hours on the ground and they’d found a familiar face: Traven, one of the vampires who’d led the attack on The Guild. Though Senya wanted to kill him – there was something weasely about him she found offensive – Malick stopped her.
“I believe he will be useful to us, as one of Jorick’s former allies.”
“Not Jorick’s,” Traven said coldly. “I was allied with Oren, Jorick’s fledgling, but not Jorick. I’ve known him too many years for that.”
“How familiarity breeds contempt,” Malick said with a smile. “Such things may make you even more useful. Release him, Senya.”
With a snarl she’d done as she was told, though it made little sense. Traven was old, yes, but useless. His history with Jorick was useless.
“Can you see the future?” Malick’s voice had asked in her head. “Those who seem useless now may become the key to everything.”
It was only after Traven was gone that Malick revealed the scroll to them. “He knows not what it says, except that it contains details on the Heart of the Raven. He foolishly hopes it holds the location- though such will do him no good because Jorick alone knows where he has hidden it. However, he also believes it will reveal the secret to unlocking its power. If such a thing is true, we must possess it.”
“Where is it, master?” Greneth asked.
“Traven has been asking the same question, but we are smarter than he is, and I believe we will find out first. Come, the hour grows late. We will handle such things tomorrow.”
And they did. First Malick swept through the vampire underground, and when he had his information they stormed the stronghold, not that it was hard for them to get in. Rather than recruiting Jorick, as Senya understood the plan was, they had a brief face to face with him and one of the members of the True Council, then left.
As Griselda whipped their SUV out into traffic, swerving like a madwoman around cars and busses, Senya couldn’t stop from asking, “What was the point?”
“The point of what?” Malick asked from the back seat, where he rode like a rich king.
“And therein lies your problem, child. You should not think, only do as you are commanded. We have what we came for. I now know where the heart is. Greneth! Make arrangements immediately for us to travel to Japan.”
Greneth cleared his throat. “We’ll need to get new pilots, master. We killed the pair that brought us here from Africa.”
Malick motioned it away. “Not pilots. I believe the sea is a better choice. Jorick will be slow to get there considering the number he travels with, and we do not want to arrive too early. No, we will get there about the same time he does and follow. Let him lead us to his hiding place.” The ancient chucked. “I had not considered that he left it with her. How fascinating that he can still surprise me.”
“With who, master?” Greneth asked.
“His fledgling, of course. Oh, he assumed I didn’t know about her, and to be honest I had forgotten. I kept tabs on her for the first hundred years, but when he had no contact with her, I assumed she was unimportant.” He leaned forward to touch Senya on the shoulder. “And that, child, is why you should never be quick to judge another as useless.”
Griselda turned the wheel sharply, avoiding a large truck. “So Jorick really did steal the Heart of the raven from you when he left and hid it a so-called secret fledgling?”
Malick laughed. As it rolled through the car, the amusement turned cold and he snapped, “Do you really believe he would dare to steal from me? That he could get away with such a deed? No. I gave it to him for safe keeping, and he had it hidden in his den. When he left us, he still had it squirreled away. I assumed it was still in the United States, perhaps in his house in Maine. Ah, but this…this will be far more amusing.”
Amusing. Malick was always looking for amusement, as if it was the elixir of youth. And perhaps it was. He was two thousand years old, or older, and had managed not to turn into a cold creature, like the rest of the ancients.
Hell, I’m colder than he is.
Though Senya preferred humans, she followed Boris and fed on wildlife. When they’d finished, they headed back to his shabby house. As Senya ducked inside, she wondered why vampires preferred to live in squalid conditions, but decided it probably had little to do with choice. Days, weeks, years passed differently for them, and the ten years in between new house paint would pass in the blink of an eye, let alone the weekly necessity of mowing or weeding. Then there was the problem of sunlight. It wasn’t as if there was a lot of time in the summer for them to be awake, and who wanted to spend what little there was on house maintenance. No, it was more likely a lack of concern, so that one day you woke up in what had been a nice house and discovered it was a hovel.
That’s why I preferred The Guild. None of that to worry about.
Not that there would be any o fit to worry about at Malick’s complex, at least not for her. They’d brought a small army of guards and lackeys to handle the lesser tasks. Already a group of former guards was out recruiting more, while a team of servants was at the complex unpacking crates and rearranging rooms.
Not that they’d call themselves servants, she mused. Followers, perhaps, of the ancient master, but not servants.
Yet that’s what they are. What we all are.
She didn’t like the label, but there it was. Such things happened when you allied yourself with an ancient; one strong enough to crush you using the mere power of their mind. She’d seen Malick do that only a few days ago.
And what will he do to me when he finds out I’m here and not on the ferry, following Jorick and his human?
And now for guesses:
- gandalf 2. man in the water 3.old man 4. guardian 5. swamp man 6. watching 7. I hope this river stays low 8. in the river
In April we visited the Harveys in Florida and they were awesome enough to take us to New Orleans. I’ve posted photos of the city and the French Quarter, but here are pictures of the drive from Mobile, Alabama to New Orleans.
It was a fun drive, with some crazy bridges. One was insanely high – there’s a photo of it that fails to capture it – and then there was the insanely long one that I assume went over the gulf. It went on and on and on and on and… as someone who is usually scared of bridges, I was surprisingly unconcerned that we were miles out over water with no land nearby. Mostly it was just cool.
And of course there’s the required photos of the USS Alabama in Mobile because you gotta do that!
And now I m off to get some work done. Have a super long bridge kinda day!
And now that we’ve seen the French Quarter for days, here are some from other parts of New Orleans.
If you missed the previous 7 entries, this was a trip we took in April when we visited the Harveys for the annual Day and Dark conference. (It’s a thing. I swear.) They were awesome enough to show us around New Orleans and we had an amazing time. It’s just taken me this long to edit the photos.
And actually, that’s not too bad. I have photos from 2012 left to edit up, let alone the years between. Yikes. Hopefully I can get some of that done. I’ve been using Lightroom, though it is not a one stop shop since there’s no clone brush or perspective corrections, etc. Plus I only barely know what I’m doing, but we’ll get there.
In the meantime, have a blue bicycle kind day!
It’s time again for blogophilia, the fun blog group where Martien gives participants prompts to use in their weekly blog. This week’s prompts are:
Ecrits Blogophilia Week 22.11 Topic – Scuba Diving
**BONUSES: Hard Bonus (2 pts): Incorporate a movie starring Emma Thompson (Stranger than Fiction)
Easy Bonus (1 pt): Mention uncovering a lie
This story takes place 15 years after the last novel.
Obrad checked his phone again, then let his eyes move over the abandoned house. It looked like a vampire den even smelled vaguely like one, but there were no vampires. And especially not a pair of rogues. There wasn’t even evidence of them. No corpses, no chained up humans. Nothing.
One of the guards came around the corner of the house, shaking his head. “There’s no one here, sir.”
“That’s what I thought.” Obrad stashed his weapon and walked towards the sagging front door. It hung open, swinging softly in the night breeze. He could see the empty room beyond, vacant of furniture or love, holding only a few broken beer bottles and old graffiti.
He stopped to survey the artwork. “Trina waz Here”. A lopsided Snoopy held a joint. A mouse in a mask enjoyed scuba diving until another artist had painted in a badly done shark.
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.
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.
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 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.”
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.
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.”
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:
- 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