The Shellfish, the Bumbershoot, and the Prodigal Son

Posted in Fiction, Vampirony, writing with tags , , , , on August 19, 2013 by vampirony

“You do not want to go up there.”

Nick turned his head as he entered the Wintergarden of the Bellevue Hyatt to see Morena at the front desk. Per usual, he had his moment of sheer awe caused by her now-proven deadly combination of beauty and brains. This evening it had been poured into a particularly tight pair of jeans just barely covered up with a low cut black silky tank. He stopped for a moment and blinked. Twice. Then with what he hoped was casual nonchalance, he strode over.

The delay was perceived but credited to their tiff. Morena attempted a meager smile but by the time he’d stopped in front of her, it had slide off. Instead of speaking, he just stood and looked at her, waiting for her to explain.

Her comment was so much easier to explain than her feelings so she stated, “She’s in a real mood. Jesper hasn’t roused yet.”

Nick threw a look behind her at the man at desk she’d obviously been chatting with and tilted a nod. ”Gabe.”

“Nick,” Gabe, a much broader shouldered fellow in a security uniform, gave him a curt nod back before letting his eyes float back to Morena. When Nick didn’t return his attention to her, Morena tossed a look back, then with a dismissive glare, stepped forward to take Nick’s arm and led him away, both of them stepping down into the atrium.

The moment they were out of earshot, Morena dropped his arm and he took several more steps away than was needed. It wasn’t lost on her. In fact, all her senses were tuned on him, awash in relief he’d returned and concerned at the state he was in. Despite his casual appearance in just a T-shirt and relaxed fit black denim, he had a stillness that hinted he was still angry. His face looked haggard and blank with no trace of the easy grin she desperately wanted to see.

“You look tired. Did you get any sleep?”

“Morena, your text said we needed to talk.”

Not at all the attitude she wanted. All business. She’d been determined to give him space to make the choice of whether to come back into crazy vamp land. But she’d been unable to let it be and when by half past midnight Jesper hadn’t snapped out of rigor dormitus and Nick hadn’t given a peep, she’d taken action. Sophie had been pelting her with questions ever since the emotional ire had taken the place of the physical pain and the more details Morena had related about fighting the revenant, the angrier Sophie had become.

“Yeah,” was all Morena could think to start with. “We do.” She shrugged her hands into her pockets. Then, she began to plunge headlong into it because she couldn’t handle it if he walked out the door on her again and here, in the atrium, he hadn’t quite walked back in yet. “When you didn’t text back…”

“Look, I know I said I’d be back soon to check on Sophie, but there were so many things to do. When you texted me, I’d finally wrapped up what I could and was actually sleeping. I figured I could waste time texting you back or just get on my bike and get over here.”

Morena couldn’t hide the puzzlement on her face. This was not the conversation she’d practiced in her head for the last three hours. The one where she did all the talking and Nick stood there brooding over her with disapproval. “Things? What things?”

Nick flashed a smile that was an attempt at the Cheshire cat which came off more like Snarf from Thundercats. “Well, the deli was a mess and the office trashed so I got my bro to get me the name of a contractor so then I had to whip up some specs for modifications like dark rooms, a decent kitchen, a bedroom, and a lot of plumbing rework to allow for a Fire Box. Greg and I figured out—“

Morena folded her arms to cover her surprise. This was the old Nick. Like nothing had even happened. Like they hadn’t even argued. It was pissing her off. She wanted to explain. She needed to apologize. “Who’s Greg?” she asked, sounding rather shrill.

“Oh. Reiterritter.” When Morena still didn’t acknowledge, Nick tried, “The guy that helped us out? Army jacket? Police uniform?”

Morena rolled her eyes. Nick took it as a sign to continue and as he walked her through the finer details of the fire box, the fireproof room that they’d be putting in the basement, she took his arm again and led him towards the elevator. Between Sophie rolling through all the scientific purposes for rigor dormitus and explaining her concern away with all the rationale for why Jesper wasn’t up yet and Nick yammering about this essentially oversized BBQ box, she figured her apology was unwarranted and unnecessary. She stuffed Nick into the elevator and stepped back hard against the wall, her arms folded up to her chin.

He’d been over at the comic book store, which apparently was like the Bat Cave for the Gypsy Twin Irregulars, all day hatching through his fourteen point plan to reconstruct the deli building into their very own VP HQ (Vampire Psychologist Headquarters, he explained), until Lucy showed up and forced him to go home ASAP. But not before assuring him that she would check in on Sophie to make sure everything was OK.

“So have you seen her?”

Morena, stewing in her emotions, lifted her head, “Sophie? Of course I have.”

The elevator dinged at their floor and they both stepped outside. “No, silly, Lucy,” Nick replied.

It was all she could stand. “Silly? You know what’s silly? Me feeling bad and worrying all evening, thinking I needed to apologize to you so you’d come back, that I might have pushed you away just like every other guy in my life. That’s what’s silly.”

It took her a few breathes to notice she’d backed him up against the wall and now, at eye level and pressed up against him, she couldn’t really remember what had made her lose her cool. The sheepish look on Nick’s face didn’t help and she was absolutely sure that wasn’t a pencil in his pocket. Rather, more like a compact umbrella.

No, what was really silly was how she didn’t step away immediately, how there was this wild jangle of sparks all the way through her as she stayed there, realizing the only one being intimidated by physical proximity was her. She eased away from him a little, but not enough to miss his ragged breathing.

“I mean…” She didn’t want to retreat, didn’t know how.

“You were worried I wouldn’t come back?”

It was his incredulous tone that lifted her gaze back to his. The corner of his mouth dimpled into a half smile and for a second it almost looked like he might…lean…forward.

She half-shrugged, taking a step back. One hand pulled the opposite elbow as her shoulders crept up and curled forward as if to hide her face and her embarrassment.

“Uni, I said I’d be back. I meant it.”

She nodded once, because there was no way words could be forced through the clamped garble that passed for her throat. Not when he was still giving her that look, some mix between adoration and affirmation, like he knew he had something on her. That she cared. Fuck, she did care. She was waiting for him to throw that in her face like a well-placed stun grenade.

As if sensing the moment was becoming too much for her, he peeled himself off the wall, breaking enough of the spell so she stepped further back and turned away. When he didn’t make more of the revelation, she relaxed. Even tossed her head back over her shoulder at him to ask a question.

Uni?”

The sheepishness bleated into his cheeks. “Yeah,” he nervously rubbed at his neck. “It was the best I could think up while you were, uh, right there.”

She recognized it for what it was. He’d just given her a nickname. “What does it mean?”

Bashful, but brutally honest Nick was back. “Uni is a word; it means a sea urchin.”

Her face showed her puzzlement, was creeping towards offense.

“I just meant you can be hard and prickly on the outside, but, uh, soft on the inside.”

She absorbed the comment and considered that if it had given by anyone other than the slightly awkward guy who she’d just moments ago backed against a wall and been incidentally acquainted with his not-so-soft parts, she’d likely have been offended. The smile was a reflex, maybe from when she was fifteen, before the world had landed responsibility on her shoulders and let her just be a girl.

She pivoted on her heel. “Well, I guess I’m not the only one that can be hard on the outside.” Before her courage left her, she began to walk away, her cheeks flaming at her own boldness.

She heard him swear to himself, “Shit, you noticed that.”

She spun around, grinning now, “Oh yeah, I noticed.” But had turned back around and was heading back down the hall before her teasing could catch up with her. By the time Nick met her at the open doorway, he’d wrestled with his own discomfiture and had thought up an appropriate comeback intended to pierce a little deeper into the soft spot he’d just uncovered. Something about Uni being quite tasty.

But when Morena turned her head back to him, hand on the handle of the open door and raised a finger to her lips for silence, the flirtatiousness was long gone, replaced by the warrior on high alert. He took hold of the door so she could step in and quickly survey the room. After the quick tour, she returned to the doorway to his questioning face.

“What is it?” Nick asked, not noticing anything out of place in the quiet room.

“It’s Sophie,” Morena answered. “She’s gone.”

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I’d been in the middle of rereading my inventory of Jesper’s injuries for maybe the twentieth time, trying to cross-reference it against known lethal vampiric allergies when I realized something. The longer Jesper didn’t break out of rigor dormitus, the more angry with him I got. In recollection, it was obvious that while he seemed to shrug off silver, something in the cabling that Skovajsa had used to tie him to the scaffolding had made him unable to tear through them. After a few dismal attempts to identify it, I felt fairly certain it was optical cabling and therefore likely filled with silica. Glass.

Could Jesper be allergic to something as pervasive as glass? It was terrifying. I’d heard on the news how someone had smashed through a window at the penthouse floor restaurant in the wee hours of the morning. A singe shard of that stuff might kill him? Then why the hell was he fighting a Carpathian pretender!?

Without him here to rail against, it was exasperating. What if some of the slivers of glass had gotten embedded into his skin before he converted to rigor dormitus? Would that make him unable to transform back out? If I could remember exactly where he was cut by the cabling, perhaps we could drill the glass fragments out. So back to my inventory and I sketched out a body, drawing in the injuries I remembered.

Forcing away the memory of his chin, I stuffed my face in one of my older notebooks. Without the Memento which I’d given over to Nick, I couldn’t complete much in the way of full identification. Although I tried hard not to question why Nick was still AWOL, especially since the moment I’d even prodded at her about it, Morena had stormed from the room. Too much drama there but I was trying to deal with my own shit. And having a 3000 pound marble-frozen vampire constituted a significant amount of shit.

Tante. Tante, come to me.”

“Maurice?” My head perked up and when I looked around the room, I realized I was suddenly on my feet. The blood rushed to my head and I swooned against the desk.

“I need you to come to me.”

Before I could even wallow in the pain it caused, I was up again and walking toward the door. The pain meds were not strictly speaking meant to cover all that I had to do to follow his call but I did it and several minutes later, I was outside, limping across the roof towards his shadowy figure.

“Maurice?” I couldn’t stop the panic in my voice. I hadn’t had any contact from the twins, just their surrogate Mr. Reitterritter and he had also gone dark. If anything more had happened to the twins, I couldn’t deal with it. I hobbled toward him only to stop up short as, in an inky burst, he appeared right in front of me.

I grabbed his arms, “Are you ok?”

He smiled in a pained way. “Fine. It is you who are unwell.”

I was gasping for air, whatever motivation had seen me to this point, adrenaline mixed with the last of my pain meds fled me completely and I doubled over to breath, clutching at him. “You said…you said you…needed me.”

This sense of warmth and welcome emanated from him as he wrapped arms around me to support my weight. It lessened the pain a little but I could at least look up and him and open my eyes as he raised my chin to look up at him.

“I needed you to come to me. Of your own free will,” he spoke distinctly, so I might understand.

But I didn’t understand. “But why?”

He shook his head gently at my confusion. He brushed strands of hair that clung to my sweaty face away with his thumb and forefinger, tucking the hair behind my ears. “Because, Sophie, you have become a danger to yourself and I need to keep you safe.”

As my ire was about to rise at his impertinence and I was about to ask him what he meant, his gentleness won me over, his fingers felt soft and cool against my fevered cheek, his arms reliable, strong, his whole frame contracting around me to hold me close. Somewhere deep in my brain, doubtless in a prim British accent, I shook my head, knowing that such influence on me was impossible. But not so. One other vampire had held me in sway…

“Maurice, I don’t…” I suddenly exhaled from the sheer weight of doubting him.

“Relax and trust in me. I will do you no harm.” His words lulled me, freed me from all the responsibilities throughout all of time and I blinked into sudden awareness, as he tilted my head back, his thumb gently brushing the corner of my mouth as he bent his head and kissed me.

I thankfully don’t remember much after that, although for some reason, he felt it necessary to keep that moment, the one in which he’d bent to his will, in my memory. And as much as I tried, as much as I heard the distinct snap of a rule against a desk and the rustle of skirts, I couldn’t find anything distasteful in that memory. It wasn’t the best kiss I’d ever had. But it wasn’t the worst either.

Awareness came back as I realized I sat, my legs to my side, on the rooftop. Maurice sat there next to me, not touching me but not shrinking away either. I realized that he’d made this decision himself as I couldn’t sense Lucy anywhere nearby. This was between him and me. And there was no regret in his shoulders nor did he seem pleased with himself. It had simply been his will. The force of his will.

“Please, do not be angry with me.”

But he was still my Maurice.

When I found my throat was free of constriction to speak, I came into complete awareness that I no longer felt pain anywhere. I was certain all cuts, bruises, strains, sprains, all of it would be gone now. And while that made some sort of sense to me, I needed to know his reasoning, needed to understand what this new Maurice had done and why. This new, more powerful, more controlled Maurice.

“No. I’m not. You made sure of that. I’m not sure how but you have. But it would help, for later, to know why you did it.”

He turned his head to me and I saw him for the first time, not a boy clutching at the awkwardness of his manhood, but a man, firmly in control of his abilities and committed to his beliefs. Whatever gentle feelings he still held for me were there but he was no longer at the mercy of them. He decided where it all fit and it all fit rather nicely.

“Sophie, you were damaged beyond what your doctors knew. For your own safety, you needed to be healed. And after last time, I needed to insure you allowed me to help you.”

I noted his new usage of this lifetime’s name. I would never again be his Tante. I nodded my head in acceptance. He smiled and let me see for a brief moment that somewhere in him, my acceptance denoted approval, which he did still want. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the idea that he would’ve done it whether I approved or not.

“Some lives are drawn together forever.”

My brows drew down. Something in how he said it sent a flutter through my consciousness and I distinctly heard a tea pot clatter. A memory threatened but I slapped it away.

I felt his hand again on my arm. “Sophie?” I nodded and he helped me to my feet.

“I’m alright.”

He nodded as he looked down at me. Then, he opened his mouth to ask something but paused. There was a question there but his eyes showed compassion, maybe pity, I’d never seen directed at me before. But then he closed his lips and gave me a meek smile. He reminded me so much of that whisper, a presence so recently felt, one that had saved me from the Taint, the kind of presence that was creeping from the shadows back into the light. But the recollection wouldn’t come and he stood there apart from it, his own self, a man molded out of his uniqueness and his duality.

“What is it?” I asked him.

He looked out over the night. “A storm is coming.”

“What kind of storm?”

He didn’t look at me when he said, “The legendary kind.”

We didn’t talk more. I went back downstairs and dodged the inevitable questions from Morena and Nick and noticed as I swept by the desk, that Nick had returned the Memento and it flipped furiously to that page that I dreaded as if to warn me that yes, some lives are drawn together. Forever.

And the little bottle said Drink Me

Posted in Fiction, Vampirony, writing with tags , , , , on August 11, 2013 by vampirony

The café was buzzing in the late morning fog, cups clattering and patrons chattering on the quaint little terrace. It was humid but still cooler than other places that Emmerick had been of late. Like Spain. He sipped his espresso from the small white cup and glanced at the paper some previous patron had left behind. Sport scores. He couldn’t remember the last time he cared about such trivial things. Maybe when he was twelve. Before the memories had flooded in. But that had been long ago.

He’d been up all night but that wasn’t unusual for him. What was unusual was the arrangement that had him sitting here. Getting the call, who it had been from, and the fact that he had accepted the invite to meet, all things out of the ordinary for him. Strangers in a stranger land, they all were. Anyone and anything at this point could set it all ablaze. Again.

As if to accentuate the point, a police siren wailed in the distance and his head turned only to recognize the nattily dressed older gentleman walking toward the café, the crook of an umbrella over his arm. Though it was summer, he wore a full suit that looked like worsted brown wool. Ah, the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Although the older man didn’t hurry, he walked with an elegance and sense of purpose that made Emmerick sit more at attention as one who knows his prey. Then, he thought better about it and by the time the man approached, he had resumed his practiced apathetic slouch.

“Good of you to be punctual, Roland.”

“Aubrey.”

Emmerick waited while Aubrey settled himself in the little folding chair, picking up the sports page and setting it on a nearby table. The fellow there gave Aubrey a momentary of disapproval look and then thanked him for his thoughtfulness.

“I see you haven’t lost any of your charm,” Emmerick stated, suddenly on edge though he’d never show it. Best to get this over with and quickly. He’d already chanced fate breaking into Valerian’s lair just a night ago; the Fates weren’t known for their generosity.

His erect posture in complete contrast with his words, Aubrey spoke, “You can relax, Roland. You know very well I mean you no harm.”

Emmerick folded his arms and sat back.

“Did you do as I asked?” Aubrey queried.

“I followed her,” Emmerick shrugged. “She got on a plane shortly after I left her.” He paused a moment, remembering their last conversation. “She was not happy with how things turned out.”

“She’s not a child to be coddled, Roland, and she never was. She came to us from a dubious connection that even Valerian does not recall that clearly.” Aubrey pursed his lips. “She’s up to something. Now more than ever.”

Emmerick felt a pang somewhere where his heart should’ve been. He quickly squelched it. “Well, I could tell you where she was heading, if that—.”

Aubrey became impatient. “Don’t you think I already know that? She flew to Los Angeles, using the assumed name of Mercedes Blanco. She had two bodyguards with her and the arrangements had been made a week before.”

Emmerick’s mouth twitched. “That long?”

“Using a private jet requires reservations. She was cautious but not completely.” Not something a Bruno Bonne couldn’t uncover with his vast online network.

Emmerick grimaced, “Right. If he keeps her on such a tight lease, what’s the worry?”

“Oh, he has nothing to do with this. He’s as blind as he ever was to what she is.”

Emmerick leaned forward, hackles raised. “And what is that?”

Aubrey shot him a disapproving eye. “Like I have to tell you. She’s dangerous and unscrupulous and won’t give up until she gets what she wants, like so many of the female kind.”

“Which is what, exactly?”

Aubrey went stock still and quietly spoke, “I’m not sure yet.”

The corner of Emmerick’s mouth tugged into a wry smile. “You know more about this than you’re telling me. This all goes way back. She won’t let go of the past. She wants him to pay for what he did. She didn’t think I went far enough. But as it stands, I’m done.”

Aubrey shook his head, fishing a small object out of his jacket pocket and setting it down like a gauntlet on the little table. It was an antique glass vanity bottle, perfume maybe, or some other tonic with a glass stopper and an etched silver label. “You can’t sit there idly claiming not to know who was really responsible. After all this time.”

Emmerick stared at the bottle. “Where did you get that?”

“From her room. The little bitch kept it. I had it tested years ago. What do you suppose I found?”

Emmerick forced himself to pick it up. He turned the label until he could read the engraving. My Darling Darcie. He didn’t need to hear it; he’d suspected for years. Instead of the hurt mellowing with age, it had only increased, a sickness not borne of loneliness or loss, but of guilt. The guilt of having done such wrong the only due course was to wipe it out through revenge.

Aubrey gave Emmerick a moment. He knew it couldn’t be easy on his old friend. They had all been thick as thieves, members of the Ghost Club, investigating their own strange natures when the true beast had walked into their midst. And she had been drawn to him like they all had been. And she had ultimately torn them apart, torn their entire world apart. And now, she was drawing them all back together, across centuries that even Emmerick couldn’t understand. Perhaps it was time for him to get back into the game he’d thought he’d left.

Right before Aubrey could speak, Emmerick set the bottle down and asked, “What do you need me to do?”

“First, I need you to tell me why you’ll help. It is too important to us all to risk…misunderstanding.”

Emmerick pondered a moment before replying, simply, “I saw what a devastating impact on others the horror had when it destabilized. Valerian is the only thing holding that community together with some semblance of structure. Whatever she ultimately wants threatens that and the human world with it.” He couldn’t look away. Darcie. He supposed he knew what Aubrey had found in the bottle. Valerian’s blood. Put there by an overeager adolescent desperate for a family. Desperate for a mother just like her.

“Good, we are on the same page then. I don’t know her end game but I know she’s started a hunt with ancient creatures she has no clue about.”

Emmerick finally raised his eyes from the bottle. “What creatures? Weres?”

“No, not those simpering creatures that run our transport lines. No, the ancient breed. The original line.” Aubrey paused, suddenly timid to share what he had never spoken of even in the heady early days in the Ghost Club. “The one I belong to.”

When Mr. Baka “Roland” Emmerick had first met Mr. Aubrey Rochester at the dock’s one foggy October night in Portsmouth, Emmerick was doing the sort of work a poor, overly-built African refugee could do in those days. He had been unloading crates. Crates earmarked for one Rochester Imports. He may have been formidably built, but manual labor had not been his forte where he’d been from and the memories that had compelled him to move about often gave him headaches so he bungled one of the crates. He was saved from dropping the heavy thing only because the proprietor himself had hoisted the box up almost singlehandedly, while still clutching his walking stick.

Expecting a lash or a squat with a stick for his clumsiness, Emmerick watched Aubrey set the crate down with inhuman ease and poked the end of his stick at a tattoo showing on his dark bicep. A symbol resembling two letter S’s, one turned toward the other to form a heart. “Something tells me this isn’t your usual form of work, old man.”

While Aubrey had always been quick to assess others, he had given little of himself away over the years except what Emmerick could guess. That he had many years, unusual strength, and a fair number of languages to his credit. He also knew people and had convinced the African immigrant to put on airs, own up to his uniqueness and his magnetism, and display some of the special arts that had forced him to leave his home. It was the age of spiritualism and for the right price, a powerful lord or lady would pay anything to be spellbound by stories from kingdoms afar and things that go bump in the night. And so they had partnered up with some others Aubrey had found to form the Ghost Club.

Ghosts were something that Emmerick knew well, at least his own. He had suffered them for years, being branded “wicked” and worse “possessed” by his own tribe. With the Ghost Club, they met others who claimed special abilities. Most of them had been full of crap but a few hadn’t been and through their work, Emmerick had brought his own demons to heel, even finding within them the strength to battle all sorts of monsters.

As for Aubrey, Emmerick always suspected werewolf, however he had never seen him turn. As the years rolled by and Emmerick learned just how diverse the world of the immortals was, he thought maybe a vampire of the South American persuasion. They were mostly impervious to the sun and often could take animal form.

Standing on the precipice of some revelation into Aubrey’s existence only filled Emmerick with dread. Through all the good and evil times the two had seen, even times when Emmerick’s life had made the human transition and he’d had to relearn himself all over again, with Aubrey’s help, the mystery had been maintained. There would be no joy or ease in this telling. He scratched his arm where his tattoo had been, in a former life, a nervous habit he’d developed.

“What line would that be, Aubrey?”

Instead of looking like he was relieved to be telling the truth after all this time, Aubrey clenched in some barely controlled emotion. “The Wilklas. The original three and their immediate pack. The ones turned by the Shining One in the Białowieża.”

Emmerick tried to contain his incredulity. The story of the Wilklas was more fable than legend, in some versions aligned with Russian folklore like Baba Yaga and the Firebird. Sometimes, a fairy tale was just fiction, no basis in fact, and in their studies, they had found nothing to substantiate the tales of the immortal wolf pack that ran through the Polish forest.

However, wolves at somehow cursed men or the other way around in Europe and given rise to the Weres. As difficult as it was to pinpoint the Vampire origins because of the breadth of their population, with the Weres, it was their general lack of awareness during their turn that limited uncovering their origin. But he knew little of them, having had so few dealings with them at the Club, leaving that mostly to….

Aubrey.

“So…it’s no myth.”

“Not all of it.”

“And what is this Shining One?”

Aubrey licked his lips anxiously. “He’s not of concern. No, it’s the original three. They do not follow any Were pack code and were never assimilated into modern society, even though the rest of their original pack came to take on major roles in forming up Were society and striking the accord that led to Were-Vamp peace. No, the original three would only have no allegiance to each other, if prodded.”

“And Belle has them hunting someone. Who?”

Aubrey was about to speak when a smell caught him and he turned his head sharply. As Emmerick followed his gaze, he saw a rather portly monk in Benedictine robes. The monk seemed to smile back at Aubrey but he was suddenly more at ease, as if a final decision made. Lord help him, Emmerick thought, if we get the Catholics into this.

“Belle met with the female several weeks ago and then again this night in Los Angeles. I have one of our South American brothers enlisted as her bodyguard to keep watch. The younger male has been out of the picture for a while, showing no interest to leave the forest but the elder, Elba, he’s the leader. He’s the one you must find.”

Emmerick took a long breath to try and wrap his mind around just what Aubrey was asking him to do.

“Yes, Roland, I’m asking you to hunt only this time, I want you to hunt a wolf. If you thought just because your silly penance with Valerian is over that you could walk away from this world, you were mistaken. Things have never been more perilous.”

“And why is that, old man?”

“Because I’ve been searching for years for a way to end these wolves, and beyond some witchcraft that would likely end all lives, not just theirs, I haven’t found anything. And the one thing uniting them is the abandonment they feel from their creator and the revenge they have wanted against the one they blame for it. If their leader is made to hunt again, they will all unite and they will not stop until they have killed what they have been set upon.”

Emmerick shook his head, “How does this have anything to do with me?”

“You’ve finally chosen your side, Roland. For years, you tried to avenge Darcie and yet held out hope that Bellecroix was not responsible for her death. Even when you finally knew the truth. But now, you’ve turned against Bellecroix, see what she really is and I can trust you again.”

“Why? Because you think I’m on Valerian’s side now?”

“No, because the side you’ve chosen is the one we should’ve all been on. Darcie’s. I’ve done what I can for her in this lifetime, am doing what I can short of triggering another Were-Vamp war. Valerian would never allow that and so my hands are effectively tied.”

Emmerick nodded. Instead of sending his own horror to protect Darcie’s current incarnation, Valerian had sent a bookish vampire scholar who had somehow managed the feat. It sounded very possible that this new threat would be much worse. The morrow in his bones felt frozen remembering his last conversation with Belle. She’d wanted him to kill Valerian and as much as he’d once wanted to do just that, he now realized she’d been playing him even then. And he understood her like never before.

“Quinn. She’s going after Sophie Quinn.”

“And she’s trying to use these wolves to do her dirty work. But she doesn’t understand them, doesn’t know them and the danger they represent. If Bellecroix has convinced them that Sophie is the one that took their creator away, they will kill her and everyone around her in a storm of revenge that will turn the rain in Seattle red.”

Emmerick felt the old rage building again, these creatures, all of them, just as manipulative and greedy as always. He and Aubrey had been friends once but after Darcie’s death, they had chosen different roads. Emmerick had first saved Belle and then went after Valerian. Aubrey had helped Valerian clean his house out of London and escape to the continent. Could a reincarnation of the very human that had caused such evil to descend upon the world do anything less again?

The doubt showed on Emmerick’s face as Aubrey leaned forward and took him by the arm, jostling the table. “It is the same kind woman we all fell for in our own way, who wanted nothing more than to save all of us from ourselves. Who mothered a strange, young girl with a wandering eye and sharp teeth and taught her how to be a lady. Who taught a black man that an English gentlewoman could see past the color of his skin and forge friendship of the heart. Who melted the hardened heart of an arrogant, angry nightwalker who had no care for his own kind.”

“You chose your side and he doesn’t sit outside for tea.”

“But he does take tea, pine needle, with a little honey. Just like she used to make for him. You’ve seen him. You know. Being on his side is being on hers. And right now, she is being targeted by a lunatic orphan who couldn’t care less about anything but revenge.”

Emmerick looked down at the arm Aubrey held, the one that used to bear a symbol of faith, a symbol of continuity, of remembering the past to forge the future. Where was that sentiment more apt than now?

“She needs the hunter, Roland. She needs him to find the leader Elba before he can find her.”

Emmerick picked up the bottle with his other hand, holding it there for a moment. He sighed. She’d called it once. He could find anyone. Anyone anywhere. It was his lot in this life and the one before and the one before that. And he would be the hunter again. And all over a little bottle she’d drank from.

Aubrey released his shoulder as Emmerick spoke, still looking at the bottle, “Tell me what I need to know. And I will do this thing.”

Aubrey gave him a thumb drive and he pocketed it, standing abruptly, still looking at the bottle. He stuffed it into his bandoleer pouch and was just about to stride away when Aubrey stopped him with a hand again on his wrist. This time, he felt oddly overcome with patience and strength, like he’d found the new purpose he was hoping for and unlike his pursuit of penance, this was a loftier goal that would give him salvation.

When he recognized what Aubrey was doing, he felt suddenly sick to his stomach.

“Roland, be wary. Your renowned abilities may not work as well against…these immortals.” Aubrey looked up at him with eyes almost yellow in color and his normally clean shaven face sudden sprouted with greyed whiskers. “Please accept this gift, to help you along your way.”

Aubrey broke skin contact just as suddenly and Emmerick, nauseated and sweating, stumbled away. No one in the street noticed the exchange and none of the other patrons would remember the strange visitors nor their conversation.

As the monk approached, Aubrey was stroking a newly grown beard with his thumb and forefinger, musing. The monk sat down and ordered an espresso as he had been up all night as well, talking in Spanish to his friends in LA.

“You were right about him after all,” the monk said into the lengthening silence. “And you gave him a boone?”

“He’s not well, Imperius. His abilities are eating away at his life expectancy. This may be the last time he can hold it all together.”

Imperius read the guilt and sadness in the old butler’s face and felt truth would be kinder than comfort.

“So you’ve sent him to his death, very likely.” Imperius shrugged. “An honorable one to be sure. We could all hope for nothing more than that.”

Aubrey threw the old monk a nasty glare. “No more honorable man exists in this world or may ever have than that one. When he has found his ease, this world will be a poorer place.”

Imperius scratched at his own beard while studying Valerian’s long-time companion and once fully-fledged member of the Wilklas. He wasn’t sure how much he trusted the Runt. When he’d left Wilklas land for the last time, he’d carried an awfully large chip on his shoulder. He’d been pushed around a lot in the years before the Three had remerged for good with the pack and with them, his litter mate brother Volta. But when Volta has retreated to the mountains while the others had chosen to modernize, the Runt had lost his place.

He always wanted the power but never had it himself. He became the power behind the thrown, over the years enabling princes and kings to dabble in the darker arts. It had given him plenty over many a gentleman but when he’d met Valerian, he could see a higher power to inspire awe, much like that which had bullied him for years in the pack. Imperius wasn’t sure exactly how much of the tale of the bottle was true but he sensed, like all stories, there were some final threads yet to be revealed in this one.

What mattered to him most was where his current loyalty lay and to his word, it was with Lord Valerian. He would fight to keep him in power and in control of the Conclave as his own survival depended on it. Imperius knew why Aubrey never changed; he was taking Valerian’s blood. Small amounts to be sure, but enough to hold some measure of the wolf at bay. It might’ve been where the girl had gotten the idea in the first place.

Imperius had other loyalties to fulfill and at this point, their purposes joined. Vega was on the move, Elba was still missing, and treachery was in play in Valerian’s house. Imperius wondered what Aubrey might do if he knew his brother Volta had also gone forth, tracking Vega. For now, he’d keep that bit to himself as he knew the modern day Volta better than anyone, having spent many long days at the monastery showing him the ropes.

“Good men are always hard to come by, my dear Aubrey, and always pass too soon from this world.”

Aubrey’s ire cooled. “How very monastical of you to say.” He was scratching again at the beard. “I’ll have to shave twice to rid myself of this.”

“I think it makes you look rather scholarly, much like your faculty picture at Lucern.”

Aubrey shook his head. “And your arrangements?”

“I’ve postponed for the time being.”

“What? Why?”

Imperius smiled. “You seem to think you’re the only chess player in this house, my dear Czeslaw,” Imperius paused to enjoy the hackles he raised and the whiskers that further sprouted at his saying Aubrey’s older name. “But for all you know I could have invented the game. No, you may have convinced yourself that this is about Sophie but I’d wager that fine ivory umbrella of yours that the real ringer in this story, one bookish vampire, will be coming back to Conclave within the fortnight.”

Aubrey stared, mouth agape. “And why would he come back here when she’s over there and he’s just saved her?”

As the waitress dropped off his espresso, Imperius sat back and enjoyed the forced pause in their conversation. Aubrey felt he had the cards and rightly, Imperius had given him a lot. Telling him part of the story that explained why the Three never bonded with humans again, removed themselves from that world. How a woman had come between them and their master. But he’d never told Aubrey the whole story and who all had been there that terrible night when the wolves had ended one human’s life and been separated forever from the Shining One.

He picked up his cup and drank deeply. And just when Aubrey had given up that he could get an answer, Imperius spoke.

“Because, my dear boy, sometimes what honor demands is more word than deed.” He put the cup down. “And it’s such a nice umbrella. I think I’ll be needing it a lot where I’m headed next.”

Favors in Fur

Posted in Fiction, Vampirony, writing with tags , , , , , on August 4, 2013 by vampirony

As the Lufthansa flight from Munich made its descent into LAX, the passenger in 41A pulled his scarf down from over his nose and was thankful the moon was only in first quarter. The smell from the dinner cart had set his innards quivering and it was only through sheer force of will and a rather tight weave of fabric that he hadn’t bolted from his seat.

His second flight on an airplane followed his first one this morning when he’d booked a last minute flight from Sofia, Bulgaria to Los Angeles, following a rumor. It couldn’t be true. He hoped to Hell it wasn’t true. He straightened in his immovable seat, the worst on the plane, the ticket agent told him. He barely noticed, pulling the newspaper out of his jacket pocket. It was rumpled and turned to a back page of the Entertainment section. Amongst the theories of why a certain sitcom starlet hadn’t been seen for weeks, believed to be hidden away in rehab, or some cosmetic procedure, or eloped to Mexico with her producer boyfriend was a picture of the starlet’s home, accosted by the paparazzi and the police who had been called in due to a scuffle.

While the photog who’d snapped the shot probably never intended it, the camera found her walking along the wrought iron fence line bordering the house, the collar of her short mink coat pulled up around her face, hiding most every significant detail that would call her out. She was just another leggy blonde in sky high heels in LA, albeit with a horrible sense of fashion in the middle of summer. The lack of bling on her fingers as she clenched the collar around her face, trying to blend as an innocent bystander, only made the tattoo above her ring finger that more prominent against the white fur.

From the distance the shot was taken, it almost looked like a smudge on the lens from the print but he knew it. Knew it as well as the one on his own hand, hiding under his fingerless mitten. A tree, an oak to be exact, branches and roots forming a circle. His had the leaves intact, still in full green and rippling in some unforeseen breeze. The skin itched under the mitten and he rubbed at it.

It was part and parcel of the overall sense of unwell he’d come under the moment he stepped on the plane and the further from ground the plane had risen, the worse he’d felt. Still, nothing compared to the pit in his stomach as he thought of what it could mean to have her here, at the house of the famous starlet. Especially with that starlet missing, at least from the glare of the media’s watchful eye.

He peered out into the lights of city in wonderment. He anyone slept with all this artificial light, he couldn’t fathom. But he had always been a simpleton, not needing for much, not demanding much, not happy but content to stay in the mountains, show a few tourists around the forest surrounding the old monastery, continue to help the monks with the grounds.

The plane hit the tarmac hard and he yelped, the sound muffled by the scarf and the rush of the air helping to break the steel bird. The bile rose in this throat, threatening to break loose, but he clenched his eyes shut and stuffed the fingers of his left hand under the mitten on his right, brushing across the oak tattoo. With that, a sense of calm came over him and he heard birds, smelled the musty forest, and could imagine the earth beneath his feet.

Only a little while longer and he would stretch his legs. He collapsed back into the seat back and looked down at the paper in his lap. He could still be wrong but with the calm of the tattoo came the sensation that she was close, closer than he’d felt for a while. He removed his left hand from the glove, mindful she might sense him too and he was not willing to announce his presence before he understood the rationale.

To the best of his knowledge, she had last been in Cairo, exploring the vast archeological heritage and seeking answers of her own for what they all had become. Before Cairo, it had been Vilnius, Warsaw, and Vienna. The last postcard after Vienna was her complaint that she could no longer stand the cold and she would be moving south through Venice. But she hated water. Well, the ocean. She feared large bodies of water after years living in the woods. She’d left a message for him that she had panicked and jumped a freighter for Egypt. There, she hoped to find answers.

So what was she doing in LA? It couldn’t be good. After all, all of them knew the cause of their state and the reason for their abandonment. It was the same type of creature that the media now scrambled for photos of from just outside a starlet’s palatial fortress in the Hollywood Hills. Vampire. And if he knew anything about his fur-enshrouded sister, she wasn’t in the neighborhood for the view.

“Sir, you can disembark now.”

The flight attendant brought him back to the present and he collected the small satchel from the overhead bin and a small leather book. It felt good to hold it again, especially when his thoughts were full of such dread. He would need it on his journey as he feared he would never make it back to the monastery again.

When his feet finally touched pavement, he breathed a sigh of relief. The city was hot, stuffy, loud, smoggy; everything he hated. But he was on the ground. He moved quickly through the endless parking lot, stuffing the book into the satchel and over-tightening the strap over his shoulder until the bag dug into his chest. When he reached the fence that marked the edge of the airport property, he took a look around and sniffed. At this edge of the parking lot, there were lots of shadows and few cars. And it was deserted.

He rolled his neck and sprinted toward the fence which he took in one easy leap as the man that had been sitting in 41A traded flesh for fur and sprinted out into the hot Los Angeles night, satchel bouncing along with him.

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“Did you get them?”

The blonde woman in the fur coat stared past the hooded figure smoking at the railing, transfixed and simultaneously terrified by the view. She took an involuntary step back, clutching her coat closed, the branches of her own oak tattoo devoid of leaves.

Rolling her eyes, Bellecroix stubbed her cigarette out and approached. “Oh, for fuck’s sake, it’s just salt water.” She stood in front of the blond and gave her a once over, her lips pursing in distaste. “I expected more from a born hunter.”

“I got you what you wanted.” The blonde handed over a CD.

“Good,” a syrupy smile crossing her features, Bellecroix took the CD, turning it in her hand. “And you left no trace?”

“None that a human could tell.”

“What about an inhuman?”

The blonde bristled. She still didn’t like how little she knew of this creature’s game but the promise had been given and so far, she had delivered. The Shining One lived and she knew where. For the prize of dispatching one of the undead and planting a few items, she would reveal just where he dwelled.

“By the time they get to the scene, it should be cleared.”

Bellecroix raised her eyebrows but nodded wistfully.

“Seems such a great favor you’ve done me. Are you sure you don’t want more? I could throw in a few more…treats you might like. Good for hunting.”

The blonde growled low. “I only want one thing from you. And if you break your word, the only trace they’ll find of you is a mess of blood on that white carpet.”

“Tut tut tut, unlike others of my kind, I keep my promises.” Bellecroix passed the blonde a packet. When she opened it, the blonde found a plane ticket for the next morning to someplace called Seattle. She raised her eyes to the vampiress to find her gloating. “I assume that this meets with your approval?”

“If he’s there, yes. We’re done.”

The blonde turned on her heel and walked out, bypassing the two armed heavies at the door that she could’ve ripped to shreds in seconds flat. As she passed them, one opened the door for her and offered to call her a cab. She politely declined, noticing the thick Latin accent and skin tone much darker than his other brethren. She hadn’t been aware they bred them south of the equator.

After the door had closed behind her, Bellecroix smiled widely, like the canary that had outsmarted the cat. But as quickly as the smile appeared, it faded. “Oh, no, sweetie, I’m not finished with you quite yet. But you’ll know when I am.”

She pulled her hood down and stared at the glass of the sliding door until her image materialized. The antlers were growing in nicely. She strummed her pearls and thought that a creamy silver wolf coat would make a lovely addition to her wardrobe.

Between a Rock and a Softer Place…and Another Rock

Posted in Fiction, Vampirony, writing with tags , , on July 28, 2013 by vampirony

My mouth felt like the remnants of a dog toy, soggy and shredded. As I regained awareness, the banality was stunning against the memory of gilding from my dreams. I realized I clutched my left hand into a tight fist and drool wet my pillow. I groaned and a shape moved above me, dark hair framing its head.

“Hey, look who finally decided to rejoin the living.”

Lifting my head, I tried to wet my lips and found them puffy and foreign. The shape moved to press something cool against my mouth and I managed to drink a little water.

“Not too much,” the voice warned.

The glass was removed and I tilted my shoulder back to look up more fully. Blinking and wetting my lips, I was contemplating my surroundings when all at once, everything, and I do mean everything, in my body came into full awareness with blunt, inescapable pain.

“Shit!” was the first articulate thing I managed to say after a few moments groaning.

Morena sat on the edge of the bed. “Yeah, I imagine it hurts like a mo-fo. Doc said I should have a conversation with you first before I give you your meds.”

I lay flat back on the bed, staring up at the ceiling. “Was there a particular topic of conversation or would swearing do?”

I could see her shrug but didn’t really care as memory fled back. I fought not to bolt upright as I was certain it would either kill me or knock me unconscious. Instead, I took in a deep, shaky breath and tried to ready myself with the question first and foremost in my mind.

Morena was doing her part in the conversation. “Nick went home hours ago. Kid needed a break. He handled himself well but I think it’s gonna hit him hard and he needs to be near his family then. That Ritterreiter sure can clean a scene. Never seen a more thorough clean up job, at least not outside government work.”

I tossed her a look and she stopped talking, her mouth hanging open.

“Oh, shit, look, Sophie, it’s not what you think.”

I didn’t even try to bluster through some falsehood that I didn’t care. I did. I was furious, in fact.

“You have no idea what you’ve risked in taking blood.” My voice was too high, too thin, too entirely transparent, spoken in too many gasps around the pain. The very fact I couldn’t name the source of said blood all too telling.

She straightened her spine. “Actually, you couldn’t be more wrong. It was an accident and it happened to save both my life and Nick’s and two other innocent bystanders. Beyond the fact that I would’ve been left anemic if I hadn’t accidentally bitten his shoulder because it fucking hurt so much, I know he had no idea there was another threat, otherwise he wouldn’t have drained me.”

“What the…what?”

She sighed. “This wasn’t how I wanted to tell you. But I guess the how is less important than the why.”

She seemed so serious, more than her normal self. But that was all that the gripping pain would allow to seep through. What little intellect I had realized any explanation presently given would be obscured by my own dark emotions: pain and powerlessness. So I opened my left hand and held it out to her palm up. When she raised a brow in question, I simply said, “Pill first, explanation second.”

The one pill was really three (I waved the Xanax away, not really remembering what had occurred to lead the doctors to prescribe that) and after a few more sips of water through teeth I could barely unclench, I was sweaty and exhausted. Morena let me lie back and close my eyes for a few moments while I waited for numbness to settle over me.

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“Where the Hell am I?”

I hadn’t realized I’d fallen back to sleep but I felt like I was running through the same gambit: Where was I? Why did I hurt? What time was it? Who the Hell was this Latina chick approaching me?

“Any better?” Morena asked.

“Yes, instead of shattering pain, it’s only thundering.”

She stood there, uneasy. But the drugs did their work; I hurt but found my empathy was intact and when I thought back to earlier, only patches of her words remained: accident, hurt, another threat, innocent bystanders. Some of the conversation from the hospital also joined in. Yes, the revenant.

“Seems like this might take a little while to tell. Want to sit down?” I offered.

She sat down gingerly, as if not trying to rock the bed too much. She rubbed at her thigh absentmindedly. She stopped when she saw I noticed.

“What time is it?” I asked.

“About midnight.”

I nodded.

“So,” she spoke.

“So…you said it was an accident.”

That seemed to put her at ease. What she told me felt practiced but truthful. It was her idea, giving him blood. He had warned her it would be to power him up, help him fight the bad vampire, and she had asked him to not use his abilities to mask how it really felt. So it hurt her but she felt it had been worth it in the end.

“I hope you mean that,” I said softly.

“It saved you, didn’t it?”

I took a breath. A few weeks ago, she was his girlfriend and she had warned me to stay away from him, that she had been wrong to contact me. Now she had given him blood so he would be strong enough to save me.

“I want to warn you, wish you’d known there was another way, but it would cheapen what you did. All I can say to you is thank you.”

She shrugged, seemingly more uncomfortable with my acceptance than my anger.

“And thank you for saving Nick.”

Her face perked up for a moment. And then the smile cracked her sullen face. “Jesper asked me to. I would’ve either way. That kid’s something else.” There was a bit of color in her cheeks I couldn’t discern which male was the cause.

Hmm.

As if we recognized the subject had been broached, the 3000 pound crate in the room finally acknowledged, Morena and I both looked back to where the crate sat safe against the far wall. While she began to rub her leg again, my face flushed at the disjointed memories and bits of stories knitting together.

“Fool!” was my prevailing thought about that vampire currently frozen in rigor dormitis. Because only a fool would rush into a situation knowing he was so unmatched, put other innocents at risk by taking their blood for some sense of chivalry that showed utter and complete lack of faith in my abilities without consulting me first.

“Fool!” I said out loud.

Morena snapped around. “What?”

“He must’ve been out of his mind to have no better plan than to blood dope up and take on a deranged Carpathian vampire in a straight up fight.”

My cheeks were burning, I felt such anger. I was alone in this quest of mine; I didn’t want casualties on my conscience, let alone those pretending to be knights in shining armor. That never ends well. I know deep down how that doesn’t end well. Nick needed a protector; I didn’t. My fate, whatever it was, was mine and mine alone and my faith along with my memories showed me that this life was one of many I had had. Nothing had shown me how to escape that cycle.

Morena was staring at me startled, not sure what to say.

“Untrusting, unbelieving, ignorant moron!”

Morena stood and grabbed my arm, simultaneously causing me to wince and releasing her grip. “Look, I’m not sure what just set you off, but you should probably calm down. Maybe you need that other pill, for now. I’m sure when given some time, you’ll feel a little differently about…last night.”

I threw a glare up at her. “And how can you condone it? He was your best ally to fight off the revenant and he was hell-bent on a suicide mission. In fact, if it wasn’t for your foresight of leaving me the Kukri, we both would’ve been dead. And not dead as in undead, dead as in eviscerated, decapitated, discombobulated dead.”

She let out a breath. A gasp, really. I hadn’t told her, or anyone yet, what actually had taken place in the hotel room or at the construction site. And it was clear, she thought it had been pretty simple, really. He’d had the strength, he’d fought the bad guy, defeated him, everything was fine.

I crumpled my hands into fists and shoved them into my eyes, trying to fight the wave of overwhelming anger and panic that was flaring up pain all through my body. No, this was not what my life or my memories were for. Pain and violence and death, dragging them around with me as if my beliefs meant nothing. I was supposed to be helping vampires, not pitting them against each other. The images were flashing through my head, the horror of impaled flesh, skin rubbed raw by cabling, and the sound of his shoulder popping and tearing.

“It’s…not…supposed to be…this way!”

Morena sank back onto the bed as my growls turned to tears, my breath heaving. I couldn’t get the gore out of my head, it kept replaying, the wave of it that had flooded my consciousness as I was succumbing to Skovasja’s wine rushing over me again, this time with no figment from my past to control it. And the screams…his voice in pain shouting…

Who, me? Naw, just a scratch or two.

And suddenly, it was ebbing away. I could breathe past the tightness in my chest just a little so I focused on that sound, that voice.

See? Already on the mend.

For a few seconds, there was a chin, stubbled with red gold whiskers covering it, just below lips formed in a smile…

“Sophie, you alright?”

I blinked the smile away from my vision and looked up at Morena. She leaned forward, showed more patience than I’d ever seen from her. Patience and something else.

“You kinda lost it there for a moment.”

My gaze moved past her to the crate. I felt my heart thud heavily. It was after sunset.

She followed my gaze again.

“Uh, yeah, was gonna ask you…shouldn’t he be up by now?”

I listened for it but the little hitch in her voice when she spoke of him was nearly gone, as if things between them had been resolved. For the closer, I was sure. They’d shared blood; what else could it mean? It was time to lock down these feelings, all of them, again. The rage, the fear, the desperate loneliness, the sense of iniquity, punishment for sins committed long ago for loving too much, for attempting to take too much joy from the world. Time to put all that selfishness away in the face of something I could hide behind: facts.

“Vampires sometimes use extended periods of rigor dormitus to repair damage, to let their cells recuperate. As it is, I don’t know…well enough to know habits, waking schedules…”

Somewhere down in the depths of the shuttered home where I had hidden what was left of my heart, the heart that had been made to endure the worst possible decision, to abandon her daughter, but had hoped to rise up again like the phoenix of old, there was a woman shaking her head at me, her gloved hands holding a small object.

She held it up for me to see, a token of some sort, it barely filled her palm. It was an oil painting, a miniature on ivory, surrounded by black pearls, on a golden chain but the details escaped me. As I focused in, I saw the dainty wrist above her hand bore a scar completely across it, too straight to be a natural occurrence. My eyes traveled up her forearm where there was another straight scar which ran up under her sleeve. It held my notice but her other hand slapped against the top of her palm, impatient with me. The vision of the miniature filled my mind and became distinct; I saw an eye, one I knew I should recognize, an inky eyebrow arced up above it, the iris a blue deep as the ocean.

I gasped, apparently in mid-sentence, repeating some mundane passage from my definitive theory on rigor dormitus.

“What is it?” Morena asked, startled. “What’s wrong?”

I met her gaze which brought me back to the present, dread over the miniature forgotten, replaced by necessity. She was afraid, therefore I couldn’t be. She needed me to be strong and my mind needed me to be vigilant.

“Nothing. I’m alright. Better than he’ll be when he finally wakes up. If you won’t be upset for the danger he put you in, than I will. Picking a fight with a Carpathian is one thing. Draining your confident to temporarily give you strength for fool’s errand is another. That’s no way to treat your friends. And considering he just fired me, I have plenty of words to say on the subject to Mr. Jesper, Vampire, when he awakens.”

The Burnishing of a Heart

Posted in Fiction, Vampirony, writing with tags , , , , on April 21, 2013 by vampirony

As my mind floated lazily up to the surface from my free dive into the depths of medically induced unconsciousness, there were creatures in the form of memories awaiting me, caught in glimpses like wisps of color in the filtered blue. Jellyfish or manta ray, puffer fish or electric eel, the nature of these creatures of reminiscing I wasn’t to know until much later.

But memories, like the things they are about, can be taken in various lights and with emotions held at bay by the pharmacological gods, can be witnessed like a short film festival in which the starring actress only reminded me a little of myself. So safe in the womb of numbness, I recalled lives not yet grasped in consciousness, threads of karma unraveling into single strands of truth.

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There was a girl, her short curly red hair stuffed into a boy’s cap, staring in awe at the shelves of books and stands of manuscripts in a small scriptorium. Her puffy cheeks were red from exertion; she had run all the way up the hill to the church as her father bade her. There had been bad men in the forest and her father had worried and sent her ahead on his horse.

When the ruckus had started, the monks had run out of the church and the side building and she had slid off the horse’s back, sprinting into the closest door, not knowing the bad men would soon follow her. She heard the boots scrap across the porch, snapping her out from her awed state.

She looked helplessly about the room, frozen and frightened, knowing that the room was too small in which to hide. After so many years of travel to dubious locations such as this, she had become an expert at being unseen. But her love and wonder at the trove had left her flat-footed. She turned toward the door as it creaked open and before her full form of her pursuer was revealed, there was a whoosh of light and she was suddenly up in the rafters, arms carefully about her and holding her, one hand over her mouth. After a few breaths in which she didn’t struggle, barely breathed, the hand over her mouth eased and she could turn her head.

The face she stared into was lit by lamp glow and was the most wondrous she’d ever seen. He raised a single finger to quiet her and then stared intently down into the room as more bad men entered, his eyes near to glowing in amber.

And as the men ransacked the room, grabbing random books and stuffing them into knapsacks, kicking over the tables and benches, the precious inks and paint spreading across the floor, she felt no fear with this man or of this man. He simply waited for them to be gone but with a rumbling quiet. It was as if she knew his mind for if he hadn’t been there, she too would’ve been angry and attacked them, kicked at their shins, berated them in as many languages as she knew for their wanton destruction.

But they found what they were looking for: the gold leaf used on the most precious of manuscripts, the illumination. That and destruction of some of the precious books seemed to be their aim as they cheered in a reckless way and stomped out of the room, crashing the door closed behind them.

The girl watched the man’s eyes drop from the door and stare into space, as if coming to some decision or capturing his will. But when he turned his head to her, he smiled pleasantly and pointed down. She nodded dumbly and in another whoosh that she couldn’t explain, she was back with her feet on the floor, standing amongst the ruin of the vellum, ink, and red. In any other place or time, she would’ve felt this sacrilege like a stab to her heart, her father’s passion and learning had become her faith.

But she was caught staring at the striking man, in his simple monk robe that looked sizes too big and hastily donned. His hair was wild and unkempt but shining bronze. He didn’t seem to notice the room much but looked as if through the door, his head tilted slightly as if listening. She didn’t need him to shush her again, her breath had been stolen. In the aura of the lamp glow, his rumpled robe cast a shadow upon the wall that made him looked like one of the winged ones.

Her eyes darted from the shadow to him, convinced he was giving himself away to her. She had read all about the djinn from her father’s people and the angels from the local ones and either way, his rescue of her spoke of the divine.

In the quiet of her breathtaking epiphany, he slowly turned to look at her. His face screwed up a moment as he considered her, then bungled over a few words in Latin as if words fell uncommonly strange from his lips.

Boni Pueri.”

The door then burst open and her father rushed in along with an old, bearded monk with a cane. How her father, who swept her up in his arms, had completely missed the man who’d just been standing there was a mystery and when her father asked how she’d escaped, she pointed to empty space where the man had been.

Only to see him standing up against the wall, now indistinguishable from his shadow. Her father’s eyes darted around the space, looking everywhere and yet still not seeing the man against the wall who smiled at her again, slowly lifting his finger to his lips. She lowered her arm and hugged her father about the neck, proclaiming she’d hid behind the shelves.

Her father praised Allah as she did too, with a little prayer to Yahweh thrown in for good measure. When her gaze looked up at the elderly monk, he seemed to be staring behind her, right at the space where her very own savior had stood. She gasped, ready to explain but when she looked, the man was gone, just wafts of smoke taking up the space but the memory forever burned in her mind.

The damage done to the monastery in total was isolated to the scriptorium and when her father’s fear for the daughter he hid in plain sight as a boy has passed, he mourned the very manuscripts he’d come to examine. Even if his patron, the Duke of Durazzo, had not settled a great sum of money upon him to travel afar for the potential of uncovering great works of astronomy and philosophy, he would’ve felt robbed of such fine works.

That night, the other monks kept their dubious distance from the newcomers as if harbingers of doom and it was much later when the last prayers had been said and a stillness of anticipation settled like darkness over the monastery, the old bearded monk, the rubricator, the one called Imperius, settled her father down with an ale of the monk’s own brew in the ruins of the scriptorium.

“So much destruction, so much knowledge lost,” her father despaired, ignoring the cup beside him. “And yet your monks seem so calm, as if this is a passing storm.”

“My friend, it is God’s will that we be tested.” Imperius folded his hands in his lap, easing back in his chair. He recognized the father’s words were not just limited to this most recent episode.

“Is there no rest for the wicked, no peace even high in the forest?” Imperius remained silent, letting her father settle into troubled thoughts before admitting the turn of his concern. “We were to go back to Sofia and as far as Bucharest before returning home.”

“Your daughter will be safe here if you remain until day after next.”

Her father blanched at the monk. “Daughter?”

Imperius fought the tug of a chuckle but knew in the face of this father’s despair over what was now deemed a horrible decision it would not be taken well. Instead he rubbed the grizzled beard over his chin to cover the smile. “Perhaps the other monks have been long divorced from the real world not to recognize, but it will soon become impossible to hide her in boy’s clothes. She will be quite a beauty.”

Her father glanced over to the pallet on the floor where she lay on her stomach, arms crossed under her head, by all appearances sleeping and to all thoughts to the contrary, much more able to translate the Greek they used for their discourse than even her father knew. She kept her eyes shut as her father sighed.

“I thought to teach her to use her mind, her intellect to survive. To be a master of languages and customs like myself. But her mother was a Circasssian…I fear I will have to strike a terrible bargain some day to keep her safe.”

Imperius understood well and hoped the girl would heed the words she overheard. There would not always be a golden demigod to save her. He listened to the wind in the woods. There would be no blood tonight, no terror in the forest whose sounds would echo up to the monastery.

“No bargain is needed this night,” Imperius spoke, standing. He took up the cup left untouched by this scholastic pilgrim and drank some of it down. “This place was just a copy room; we’ve learned to store all our valuable work in a safe place nearby. Tomorrow I will show you and the following day, one of our…ur…order will travel with myself to escort you to Sofia where I’ll take you to the library there.”

Her eyes flew open and she saw her father’s stunned face staring up at the monk. “These were…copies?”

“Yes, Idris, there are many secrets in this place.” Imperius threw his eyes to the girl faking sleep on the floor. “Some more wondrous than manuscripts.”

Heart beating in her chest, she hoped fervently that she would see the golden monk again and proceeded to succumb to the fatigue of a full day’s travel and horrible consequence of the day, not even noticing the shadow of wings the firelight cast above her.

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“You’ll not pursue them tonight.”

It was a command, not a request. One he found odd coming from the monk. Still, he felt the weight of it even though it made little difference to him. He scratched the gray-brown wolf under his chin and watched the fire dying.

“The sounds in the forest would be too much, I think, for our gentile visitors,” Imperius continued, throwing a short log onto the fire and taking a long draught from the cup he’d once offered the pilgrim.

His brows drew together. The boy. Maybe it had been a mistake to reveal himself to the lad but he couldn’t let the intruders take a victim. He’d already felt pained that the scriptorium had been desecrated, even if it wasn’t the valuable work. He’d wandered far afield with his wolves, appeasement that seemed to bring with it a price.

The boy had unsettled him and in truth, he had already planned to wait a day and then seek out the defilers to take his revenge. Such an innocent face looking up at him as if he were something…he couldn’t place the thought.

“What is it, my son?”

He struggled with his words and when he was troubled, as much as it eased him to find the right words, his vocabulary was still limited and the effort to bring his thoughts to sound an honorable fight against his mouth’s own strangeness.

The good boy sleeps?”

“The good boy?” Imperius didn’t stop the smile filling his face. Well, apparently, his nature boy had been fooled as well as all the other monks. “Yes, dreams laden in gold, surely.” His reply went with understanding or reply. “Thank you for seeing the youth spared.”

This caused him to turn his head, trying to understand the look of expectation on the monk’s face. When no words further passed between them, he returned his eyes to the fire, not seeing anything but light green eyes wide and awed staring up at him, painting him as something he was not.

What You Can Buy for a Penny

Posted in Fiction, Vampirony, writing with tags , , , , , on February 23, 2013 by vampirony

At half past ten, Nick gave up on the idea of sleeping in his comfy bed in his parents’ house as reward for a night full of mare. He kept flipping over onto his side and scribbling notes on what needed to be done to fix the office up. As he’d left Bellevue, he’d seen the police cording off the construction site next to the Hyatt. Something about some pretty extensive vandalism, bordering on criminal.

The only thing criminal was the fact that he couldn’t sleep for all the notes rolling around in his head. Sidekicks apparently don’t get to rest easy; always more kicking to do. He let out a mighty groan and got up out of bed, bracing his elbows on his knees, head in his hands. He didn’t need to count the twelve pages of notes he’d taken, the last of which read: “Find fire department rated architect to construct fireproof room.”

Sophie couldn’t expect all her clients to be as well behaved as Jesper, who no one was really saying what had happened to. He was in that wooden crate, probably in some gargoyle form like Lucy had been. As grotesque a form as it might be, Jesper had saved Sophie’s life and that made him good peeps in Nick’s book. It touched a nerve, the way he’d come to her aid, and while Nick was grateful his new boss with her substantial payroll wasn’t out of commission, it gave Nick a pang.

He grabbed his notebook off the nightstand and wrote: Flowers for Morena. Then he promptly scribbled it out. What do you get for the perfect woman who dispatched a vampire with you? Flowers seemed trite or presumptuous. And either way, he’d either offend her by treating her like a girl or pick the wrong ones.

Flowers were a trap, anyways. It was never about the thought. It was always execution and Nick already knew his execution stunk. He was barely able to control his staring around her, he had not a single action star move in his whole body, his only redeeming qualities were his ability to duck on cue and to read and retain ancient books full of crazy. While Morena’s martial expertise didn’t exactly emasculate him, it did put him in a rough spot of how to get her attention in a good way. Food wasn’t something that she took much notice of, his bike, well amateur hour there. Clothes weren’t a strong motivator for her either judging by her own attire. The only thing he seemed to do to make her smile was crack jokes and make self-effacing statements.

He sighed. Girls always liked the guy that made them laugh but they never wanted to be with that guy. But there was no way he was going to ever be able to do more of that Frog Brothers, Death Dealer crap they’d done last night. Not without fainting halfway through.

No, the best he could hope for was the sidekick, but not Robin or Shadowcat or even Rick Jones. He didn’t have the nerves for that. But he could make vichyssoise. Red and green was not his style but tails and a perfectly cooked beef wellington? He could aspire to that.

Look out, vampires, Sophie just got her Pennyworth.

Now, if he wasn’t going to sleep all day, he might as well go see a man in a fatigues jacket about a fireproof room.

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Somewhere along the line although he couldn’t place it, Nick remembered mention of some comic book store in connection with Lucy. And that henchman of hers would likely be a daytime guardian of hers, wouldn’t he?

Nick made Fremont by noon and had to knock on the door for ten minutes before he heard bolts snap, chains crackle, and a final latch pop and the corrugated metal door swing open revealing the disheveled mastermind of their deliverance blinking bloodshot eyes up at him.

Nick’s smile withered under acid glare.

“Whaddaya want? We’re closed.”

Nick realized that he must’ve woken the poor guy up but still, he didn’t expect to be completely unrecognized. “Hi, I…well…I’ve been thinking of some mods…and after this morning…I thought maybe…”

The guy widened his stance. “Oh, right. This morning. Yeah that was, like…” he rubbed his eyes before crossing his arms, “Six hours ago. Not like anyone would want to reward himself with sleep after that perfectly executed campaign.”

“Yeah I suppose not.”

Nick got the glare loud and clear.

“Look, kid, I’m sure you went home and cried on your huge pillow and then couldn’t sleep because you were too scared but trust me, it’s better to start with sleep in the daytime for this to pass over. My advice? A couple of shots of Nyquil and some chamomile tea and you’ll be in lala land.” The guy yawned and then began shutting the door, “Geez, civilians.”

Nick grabbed the edge and cut his hand. “Ouch! Just gimme a chance. I have a whole list. I want to be better prepared next time.”

That perked the guy up. “Next time? What makes you think there’ll be a next time?”

Nick had to stop and think. Because the book had a ton of other entries? But he wasn’t about to tell this guy about Sophie’s journal. So he settled for: “Things always come in three’s, right?”

The guy raised an eyebrow. “You already had three vampires last night.”

“Not three bad vampires.”

The guy took in a deep, thoughtful breath before exhaling it out of his mouth hard. “Alright. I suppose I could take a look at this list of yours. If you’re so intent on sticking your nose in it.”

“Great,” Nick said, and made a step forward only to meet the guy’s hand flat on his chest  holding him back.

“Not so fast. Give me the list. I don’t have time for garlic necklaces or Super soakers filled with Holy Water.”

Nick handed his twelve page vampire preparedness manifesto over and watched the guy purse his lips, nod, and then laugh in something more of a cackle. He was even more stunned when Ritterreiter stretched out his hand and shook his, “Come on in. You can call me Greg. And this list is wicked.”

The Animal of War

Posted in Fiction, Vampirony with tags , , , , , on January 6, 2013 by vampirony

He was trying to wake but his head kept smacking against rose marbled stone and the intensity of his earlier emotions of fear, panic, loathing, and triumph shocked the present from his mind with each blow, leaving a void of clarity. In the absence, the past reared up and caught him in its fiery claws. It was the truth unseen, hidden underneath everything he’d known, everything he’d built on top of the ruins when his sparkling kingdom had crumbled. She’d been gnawing at the rebuilt parts and now she demanded full awareness. Just an inkling of affection for her and the briefest touch of the book holding the pages where he had bared his soul were forcing him to remember. Recollection all the way back to places she couldn’t recall as of yet and he had fought so hard to forget. Back to the origin of their story and the beginning of his ruin. 

Back to the forest where he was still wandering but this time not so alone. Two wolves trotted along his left side, one on his right, all converted to his cause. And this time, they were the hunters not the hunted. The old pack that had harried him for weeks had lost three of their own, two of which were the strongest, best hunters.  They no longer craved his flesh; they protected it. Somewhere in it all, in their heightened senses, their increased endurance, their rapid healing, they had made a bargain with him, one forged in flesh and blood.

And that had turned the odds. He’d wounded the wolves so many times fighting them off that when he’d noticed how quickly some of them healed, he had learned a new sense of dread. But instead of pushing their favor, it had seemed to make them more docile, almost reverent. Who was this man whose flesh they feasted on nightly who grew back each day? As he had gained aggression and will, they reevaluated their prey. And for the two most ardent in his pursuit and consumption, the switch came easily. Almost with a mighty yawn, two had sought him out, followed him, allowed him to pet them, and then finally offered their furry backs to keep him warm at night.

When the pack would again take up pursuit, they would swing their fierce jaws at their old family, and snap and claw. Stay away, they warned. Elba had been the first, a bigger male who was littermate brother to the Alpha male. Then Vega, second only to her Alpha sister, followed. It was Volta who had a different turning. He’d been injured protecting the Alpha female from a vicious counterassault by Vega. She’d latched her jaws deep into the fur about his neck and tore.

As much as Elba and Vega had fought off the pack, the man had still suffered critical wounds; a flowing gash in his thigh, punctures to his throat. Volta’s scream had been enough to convince the others that Vega and Elba were deadly serious in their new alliance and the pack had left the youngster behind to limp and pant and whimper to a protracted end.

But the man took pity, knowing that this young wolf had only sought to protect his Alpha so he weakly picked him up and carried him to a peaceful place under an old tree, alongside a brook. With Volta in his lap, he stroked the wolf fondly, such suffering causing his eyes to tear. He knew by now that his pain would flow through him and in the morning, he would be whole again but this poor wolf would pant and then gasp and then shudder to an untimely end with no such promise.

He leaned his head down over the wolf’s muzzle and murmured penitent words to which Volta, with what strength he had left, raised his head and licked the man’s streaming face as if offering absolution. Elba and Vega even sensed the pathos as they snuggled on either side of the man and licked Volta’s fur clean. The more the man cried out for the life lost, the endless suffering, the sheer emptiness of meaning and purpose, the more Volta licked his face until they both bled out and their bodies stilled together against the ground.

In the morning, a heavy panting sound awoke the man. As he stirred, tongues lapped at his face until he rose up, his arms trying to guard against the canine bath. As he opened his eyes, he saw the younger wolf Volta, his ruddy-grey coat gleaming, laying just beside him. Elba and Vega then left him as they often did in the morning to go hunting or patrol but every morning since, Volta had stayed close by his side, having made his new pact with this man.

The wolf pack had followed him for miles, for what seemed like seasons, far away from where he had first encountered them in the snow, deep in the primeval forest of fir and oak.  After the change in allegiance, the main pack, now down to seven, left him and his three wolves alone, understanding that the numbers had evened up and any damage done would be summarily repaired on only one side of the battle.

The man suspected the wolves were not far, a sense confirmed at night when Elba and Vega called to their brothers and sisters in the wild and he’d hear the calls back. He even believed that their morning jaunts were to join with the old pack to hunt and provide but always they returned and were never gone long. He felt relieved that they had all found some sort of peaceful coexistence in the wilds after so many, many tormented nights.

The détente enabled him time to reflect on the scrawny nature of his being. He hadn’t eaten well for seasons, it seemed but the wolves were good about that. They led him to the bounty of their hunts which he only mildly appreciated. He found all the blood mildly revolting after all the pain and torture he’d endured. Sensing it, the wolves followed their noses and led him to where the fare would be more palatable to him. 

His first bites of human food were attained out of a rucksack stolen from some unfortunate soul. He retched up what he’d tried and the wolves, misinterpreting his actions, thought him all the better for sharing. They didn’t particularly favor the crusty bread or the jerky, but the fruit or cheeses were quite a nice change. He himself continued to try, keeping some down after awhile, finding the bread helped a lot.

Somehow he knew he’d need to get his body to learn to tolerate such sustenance, not just what they could hunt or he could forage.  This led them closer to other humans and the wolves watched and wondered why their human seemed more wary of his own kind than they did. Perhaps it was the question of the why that he searched for, why he wandered.

As foraging, hunting, and stealing eased the burden of eating and the man grew strong again, his thin but capable frame well-exercised from sparring with his companions, the man’s thoughts finally turned to the answers for his very being. He soon found what else ailed in these forests. 

The wolves followed him as he wandered to the edge of towns where torches and arrows guarded the night. He seemed to know where to go, back along the banks of a river that followed the base of the mountains. He retraced steps that he somehow recalled taking many moons ago, searching for familiarity, searching for memories and ultimately the answers to his unmaking. Somewhere, he had been a part of this civilized world and he wanted to remember where. But the journey became more perilous as the forests and hills filled with another kind of violence.

Men had come into the forest, men with weapons and horses, guarding caravans of destruction and war. Normally, he stayed hidden from the sounds of people, made uneasy by the words they made. But he also felt drawn, mostly to their songs and chants, specifically amongst them those robed and not carrying any weapons. They congregated in places that gave him peace, simple dwellings of stone. When he stumbled upon such a place, he would sit just within earshot and listen to their male voices harmonized in song, especially right at sundown. It filled him with calm.

As he continued to travel, he would often follow a lone monk making his way with a humble donkey to some simple place, his only ornament a wooden cross. From how the people treated such a man and how he treated them, the man begun to know this talisman as a sign of goodness and piety. But as the forest filled with more men carrying swords and spears, the simple robed folk seemed less and less. It didn’t take long for him to see the cross borne by men with swords, men who argued from up on horseback with simple folk with little to give, stealing all their cattle, forcing the males from boy to elder to leave their villages, to take up arms, and then began poisoning the waters, burning down homes, farms, scorching the earth, forcing all to flee the destruction.

It made him angry. He knew what it was like to be powerless, to have your will stripped away, to have everything you were laid bare and defenseless. He couldn’t fathom what faith would allow such reckless treatment of home, hearth, and land. But even in his anger, it didn’t lead him to action. He had his wolves to think about, to keep safe.

He’d surreptitiously leave food for some of the survivors or steal a waterskin from a soldier’s horse and secure it to a lowly donkey, some poor wretch’s only property left. It was what little he would do.

But it didn’t settle his growing unease. His wolves seemed happy enough; there were plenty of fresh corpses about to make need for their hunting skills rare. But none of the devastation he saw urged him out of the complacency of the shadows. And the invaders that carried a different talisman and spoke with different words were just more of the same. He couldn’t tell what was worse, the lengths these armies would go to capture land or the breadth of devastation wrought in their efforts to spoil it if it couldn’t be captured.

As the unrest in the valley bearing a strategic town grew unbearable, he and his wolves retreated further up into the mountains, to a place he’d been before, where the sounds of pious men scratching against thin paper filled the days and voices raised to heaven ended each night. It was a most tranquil of places, even though the site had been razed and rebuilt many times during conflicts. There were efforts underway to create a new place of worship, just beside a tower that had stood watch over the domed mountain and provide comfort to the souls of the villagers in the town just below.

But even this place was threatened, a place that humble folk only sought to strengthen as a symbol of their faith, random bandits smelling food stole and terrorized.   And he could no longer let that pass. He couldn’t bear to hear those voices he knew from calm, melodic song raised in terror and fear.

One night after a band had grabbed their fill and headed back down the mountain, he pursued, anger shaking every fiber of his being. And where he went, his wolves followed. The sounds of struggle, gnashing of teeth, yips and growls of the hunt, the shouts and then screams that followed, and finally in the end, a lone just barely human howl of rage caused the monks to huddle together and mumble their praise to their god that they had somehow served Him well and might continue to do so.

But in the morning, through the veil of low clouds, the monks found most of what had been stolen the night before returned, lying neatly stacked on the ground.  Even the food, minus a few choice morsels, had been returned. And all around the moist ground, fresh paw prints over those of boots. The local people soon heard the story and revered the wolves, although their holy book often spoke against the creatures. But here, the monks and the villagers, aching for some goodness in the dark days began to see the wolves in a different light.

When the winds swung providence in either direction, nights with bitter cold and no shelter to be found below the mountain or days of plenty where the smell of fresh bread and roasted meat drew the curious or the cunningly opportunistic, those were the times when the monks and villagers would hear the howls of the wolves and be surprised by a new horse, saddlebags full of coin, or rich objects from some ransacked home far away.

The people spread the word that this place was sacred and safe to only the penitent, under the protection of the wolves. The stories spread but with the tumult in the region, it didn’t stem the flow of new bandits of every order, trying to take what was not theirs in order to fight some perceived evil. There seemed to be an endless supply of these men, bearing symbols of different faiths.

And the rage heard on the wind grew ever more bitter for it.

That’s when I, Marcus Tertius Regulus, known after an age simply as Imperius, entered this story and decided my days dedicated to silence and seeking absolution for my past sins had come to an end. Here was emotion I knew how to sooth and a sign was revealed to me like a break in the morning fog in which I first spotted him.

He looked like nothing that could be saved, wild, disgusted, worry upon his dirty brow. He wore nothing, carried nothing, but stood there staring as my fellow monks gathered what had been left for us after a troubling night of screams. We would pray for the souls of the bodiless men but knew that God worked in mysterious ways, allowing us to continue our work.  As the others turned and hurried inside, the morning chill companion to the underlying fear of this wild pack that provided our protection, I held back, smelling him in all his mystery and ancient blood.

I was used to the older bloodlines, having served one for so many years after my purported death in Rome during the last age of the Empire. My master had been one of the oldest ever known, keeper of a bloodline that I had dated back into the beginning of recorded time. With that blood flowed power that boiled to conquer, to claim, and to protect its own. My master shared some of that power with me through the years, taking me down the dark path of damnation which kept me forever seeking salvation but never able to attain it.

I knew the special scent of immortality and this man, this creature who stood impervious to the elements and immutable to the ways of the world, reeked of old blood. Somewhere in his veins flowed some of the same power that flowed in me and that reawakened my troth. But something else bubbled closer to the surface, something even older and glimmering. An aura was about him that no stain of retribution and vehemence could tarnish. He had my old master’s rage but some other benefactor’s gifts.

As his hazel eyes met mine in a moment of human recognition, I turned my head slowly away, as one might a dog one wishes to greet. One does not stare into the eye of the newly met; one must let the frightened thing, with all its hopes and fears come to you.

I limped along back into the small shack I kept with the others next to the still forming new church, a smile crawling over my face. Sometimes all it took was patience. And the right offering.

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