Archive for taint

Wine and Dine on Her

Posted in Fiction, Vampirony, writing with tags , , , on July 17, 2011 by vampirony

As nerve-racking as first dates are, I wasn’t holding a lot of sympathy for Skovajsa at present. The floral bouquet was making me sneeze and the wine was anything but a drinkable vintage. His demeanor was on par with some snooty playboy who wasn’t getting his fair share of adoring attention.

Oh, and the fact that he’d broken into my room under some romantic pretense and after receiving a not-so-favorable reaction had resorted to force and at present he held me down on the bed to smell at my hair, wasn’t endearing me too him to him much right now either.

“It’s impolite to address me in that way,” he spoke without a shred of anger or feeling, as if he was reading cue cards for some hack version of Romeo and Juliet. “I came to offer you my special bond. You should be honored.”

Then again with the smelling. Slowly, from the base on the left side of my neck, up past my earlobe, around the crown of my head, and down the other side. Vampires and their heightened senses dictated no need for this kind of scrutiny so I had no idea what he was up to. I just hoped to heaven that this strange sense I had, that Jesper was or had just been here with me, would not be something he could notice.

“Excuse me if I’m reading more into your actions than your gifts.”

He jerked back, staring at me. Since I had his attention and he looked a little like a scolded child, I figured I’d push it.

“A woman prefers not to be pawed at!” It took every ounce of my thinking mind to not slam my free knee into his groin, a move so instinctual and yet fatal in this instance, that I had to bite my lip. I was flexing my wrists against his grip but only to keep the blood flowing. Any direct resistance would trigger him into fight mode. And there would be no way back from that.

He released my hands and sat upright. His face looked mildly confused and he pursed his lips.

“I brought flowers.” His attempt at explanation.

I didn’t trust him so kept my position on the bed. I wanted to rub the feeling back into my hands but putting them together would make it easier for him to control me if he went feral again.

“Yes,” in my most stern school teacher voice. “And with no greeting, no explanation of how you came into my room, startled me and attacked me, unprovoked.”

He shook his head once and, like some ancient punch card machine, he calculated his mistake. “I brought you jewels.”

“Irrelevant while I’m still pinned to the bed. May I ask you to control yourself and get off my person?”

With vampire speed, he moved to stand just next to the bed. But it seemed like he paused, like he’d meant to go farther but something grabbed his attention. He looked down at the bedside table where the phone off the hook was beeping. He carefully picked it up and put the receiver back in its cradle.

“I have disturbed your sleep,” he said softly, his back turned to me as he crossed slowly to the other side of the room.

I sat up carefully, not taking my eyes off him. He was in some state, anxious, fang-happy, on the edge. But his shoulders were slumped, as if his intentions had been shattered. He stooped to pick up the flowers that he’d dropped when he lunged at her. He’d trampled the lilies.

I sneezed.

He turned toward me. “You are allergic to the flowers.”

“No,” I paused to rub my nose. “Actually, the pussy willows.”

Skovajsa stepped to the door, which hung ajar from him forcing it open. He opened it long enough to throw the entire bouquet out the door and then stepped back, turning to me.

“Thank you,” I said quietly. It seemed very strange that the one item out of all the ones florists might use in a bouquet that I was allergic to would be one that ended up in his offering. I touched my lips, which still tingled. I wish I could remember my dream and more importantly, why the room felt like it did when Jesper’s presence was around. I almost thought if I whispered his name, he might hear me. I bite my lip again. That was sure to enrage Skovajsa, who seemed to be calming down.

He gave me a determined look that made me think “Uh-Oh” and stepped to me, hand reaching into his jacket. In a swish of supernatural movement, he was on his knee before me, holding out a rectangular jewelry box.

“Forgive me. I have misbehaved. I had meant to shower you with gifts so you might see how much I desire you to join me.”

He flipped open the box, as eager as a schoolboy, but even I had to marvel at the creation inside. Not that I was warmly impressed. It was a stab of icy fear that a man with resources to acquire something obviously so expensive and so unique would’ve set his sights on me. It was a prelude to the kind of ownership that was absolute and completely devoid of any semblance of familiarity with me.

“You are of great value to me, Sophie Quinn. You should be with me.”

This is the part in most romance novels where the heroine tossing all care to the winds and recognizes that all was done for love, all should be forgive, the sins of the past were the forgotten under the spell of adoring admiration and undeniable sexual chemistry. Of course, in most romances the heroine was exquisite in form, wily of spirit, just in need of someone to love her completely, no matter what.

The only thing Skovajsa loved about me was my wealth of knowledge about vampires. The thing he truly cared about was his own safety and he would kill anyone and steal anything to safeguard it by becoming more powerful.

“You say nothing to my proposal?” His brow furrowed.

My eyes narrowed. He had backed me into a corner and there really wasn’t anything I could say that wouldn’t wind up with him killing me. So I might as well put a name to his doubt.

“Vasa Skoda.”

He took it like a slap. The lid of the jewelry box snapped shut and he was on his feet, his eyes hurt, his brain percolating. “What did you say?”

“Vasa Skoda. It’s your name. Your real name.”

He shook his head violently. “No.” He backed away, into the breakfast cart. “No.”

For the first time, I saw a hint of humanity in his eyes, a hint of fear. I had to take advantage of this opportunity. It would be the last I would get to try and pry him open. I flipped off the bedcovers and stood up in my sock monkey jammies and tank top.

“You are Vasa Skoda, Yugoslavian by birth, born sometime in the 1930’s,” I spoke with certainty, taking a step toward him with each bit of information I revealed. “You were a failed actor, model, who moved to Italy to try and become famous.”

“You lie! You know nothing about me. I am Skovajsa! I was blood brother to Vlad Dracul.” There was a note of panic to his tone.

“You were not. Vlad Dracul was never even a vampire. I have that on good authority. Dracul is a reference to the Order of the Dragon, a Christian group founded to defend Europe against the Ottoman Empire.”

He crouched away from me, his hand grabbing for the antique wine bottle. It seemed to be a talisman to him and, with it in hand, he straightened and took a step towards me. “I am Vampire!”

The force of his Vox shattered all the mirrors in the room and sent me to the floor. I didn’t stay there for long as he quickly grabbed me by the throat and threw me against the bed.

“You would slander me. You would deny me!”

With one hand around my chin forcing my mouth open, he flipped the stoppered top of the wine bottle open and began pouring what I knew to not be wine into my mouth. I seized my throat muscles shut, held my breath to try and prevent the liquid from getting down my throat but it didn’t do any good.

With a familiar flash of consciousness that harkened me back to the winter of 1885, a red searing pain cut through me, flooding my consciousness with all twelve prior lifetimes as they tried to exert themselves against the vampiric flood. I screamed as my head felt about to explode with the strength of thirteen enraged personas, tearing at the influence of the vampiric strain.

It was a familiar strain. I’d felt this before; the force of immortality trying to rip me asunder and staple me back together with rusty velvet ties. It was Valerian, his blood. His oppressive figure appeared in my mind, just as he had stood over me when an accidental taste had given us both a glimpse into what would come. Tearing at my hair, screaming at the burning with my mind, there had been no room for him in me. There was no room for him here, years later. But he pushed on anyways, his blood in wine format summoning his dark, demands of complete surrender.

The sisterhood of my lives formed ranks again to try and fight him but with only one new recruit and her fighting every thread of memory she had of him, they would be no match. It was a tapestry hallway in my mind, skirts of different ladies shuffling around each other, clustering together to protect the most essential part of my soul while the rest of me lying naked, shivering on the floor while Valerian approached.

He kneeled down to me, his hand brushing the hair pasted with sweat to my face. “No, no, no….”

The skirts stilled and then suddenly rustled as a figure stepping through them, tailored pants in short ankle leather boots. The figure stopped just behind me and kneeling Valerian looked up to see…himself.

“You cannot have her.”

The other Valerian, the one brought here by the Taint nodded and caressed my cheek. “She needs me. She is injured.”

“Fine,” my guardian Valerian spoke. The skirts of my past lives gathered behind him, each putting a hand on him to feed him energy. “You may go wherever you need to heal her, except beyond this door. You will not speak to her sisters. You will not dredge up any memories. And when she is healed, you will go, entirely.”

The tainted Valerian smiled fiercely. “She will need protection. She has always needed protection.”

A dark eyebrow rose. “Oh? I don’t know, ladies. I think we’re doing quite well, don’t you think?”

Heads of different styles and colors nodded. The taint of Valerian burst into a red flood and washed all through the hallway but parted around the back doorway, crashing into the carpet, completely absorbed. The pain continued but I felt the Guardian Valerian clasp hands with Darcie and the pain ebbed to an ache. I started to feel my body again, pushed gently back to reality by a young shepherdess I didn’t quite recognize.

Just as my mental redoubt was shoring up, Skovajsa chuckled in a pleased way, producing four fearsome, uneven fangs. Coming back to that was as jolting as waking up in the first place.

“No one denies me!” he snarled and tore into my neck.

Well, then, there’s nothing for it, Sophie dear. Knee to the groin then.

It was Darcie’s voice. I had never realized she did have a distinct voice until just this moment. Her accent reminded me of Maggie Smith. Wasn’t she in that one Mystery show? I launched my knee into Skovajsa’s groin only to have my suspicions realized. The man had no balls to speak of and my knee hit his pelvic bone hard. Ouch! Great.

The kukri, Sophie. Call to it. The accent this time was Indian, from the mountains, English not natural to her.

I didn’t have to call to it. I’d kept it close. Under the pillow. All I had to do was grabbed for it but I couldn’t reach and my consciousness was starting to fade as Skovajsa’s hand gripped into the opposite of my neck. Damn!

Just as another persona swelled up, Skovajsa jerked up and spat my blood out. I’d never see that happen, realized I wasn’t seeing it happen from within my body at all. I floated just above and watched my body racked by seizure, Skovajsa still holding me down, the wine bottle forgotten on the bed, soaking into the bedcovers.

The Taint and Skovajsa’s bite had caused me to jump out of my body. My other lifetimes were taking turns inside to try and get me free. I’d have to ponder over how it was possible later but the pain was a smidge less although I still couldn’t breathe yet. Skovasja was still choking me. But he suddenly staggered away from me, lifting the bottle to his lips and drinking down all that was left.

Somehow I recognized that whatever protection Taint Valerian offered might have extended into my blood. Or maybe it had been whatever had rendered me unconscious might have somehow altered my blood chemistry too. I wasn’t able to string the thoughts together to figure it out. Whatever it was, it meant he couldn’t feed from me which, in this case, meant he probably couldn’t convert me.

Universe 2, Vampire Psychologist (via her Super Secret Friends) 1

A sudden scent of jasmine and gardenia tugged at me hard, propelling me back into my body. I was dimwitted for certain but this nameless persona stretched my hand out and grabbed the bag the Kukri was in. Her strength suddenly faded as my skin contacted the metal but there was one last thought she shared.

“Jesper. Help us.”

I couldn’t know if it was she or I that breathed it but Skovajsa, eyes now red with fresh blood, raised his arm and smacked me in the face with the wine bottle. Before I could crash into anything, he’d already snatched me up.

“You will tell me everything. You will guide me towards the power I seek. And you will be my vampire bride.”

With that, he crashed us back through the hotel door, out a fire exit at the end of the hall, and jumped across the rooftops until he landed in a construction site across the street. Amazingly, I’d managed to keep the knapsack with the Kukri. Furthermore, the sky seemed to be lightening up with the dawn of a Northern summer sky.

Universe 2, Vampire Psychologist 3

The odds seemed to be stacking up for me. I just needed to somehow survive the next half hour. The prospect of which was absurd. However, a soft voice reminiscent of the scent of flowers assured me I wouldn’t be alone for long.

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And All Sorts of Messes

Posted in Fiction, Vampirony, writing with tags , , , on May 17, 2011 by vampirony

symbol_cleaver-colorWith a vampiric growl, the tea cup sailed across the velvet room like a missile, smashing into dust against the opposite stone wall.

“Something tells me this isn’t going as planned.”

Valerian now sat forward, robes askew, panting with the effort to keep from ripping the room apart. “If I had other choices, Aubry, I would use them.”

Aubry floated silently over to the wall and began to brush the dust into a pan that he pulled out from his robes. He always seemed to be cleaning up messes these days. “You could still send someone else. Or better yet, let me handle this.”

“No. I cannot afford to show more interest. And sending anyone else into that area would alert the Shapeshifters.” Valerian bowed his head, shaking it from side to side. “Jesper is all I have at the moment to work with. And what he lacks in actual vampiric ability, he makes up for in intelligence… and charm.” Valerian chewed over the last word as if it were moldy bread.

“He has altered from his time with her, has he not?” Aubry spoke, still bent about his task, his back to his master. But he did not need to see Lord Valerian’s face to feel the vampire’s displeasure nor wonder at its source.

“You saw his wounds?” Valerian asked softly.

Aubry stood, surprised. “No, I did not.”

“I only noticed because I’ve always felt he was made quite young, never having truly lived and experienced, showing no scars at all.” Valerian sighed heavily. “He’s sporting two recently healed round scars, square on his chest.” His fingers started tapping again.

“Stakes? Is that possible?”

Valerian nodded to himself, his eyes staring off into the distance.

“Perhaps Mr. Jesper is a better guardian than you thought.”

Valerian leveled his eyes upon his servant. “What good does it do me if he won’t obey later? If he wants her for himself?”

Aubry smiled cautiously, “Perhaps we should focus on the immediate need: keeping Sophie alive.”

“If it is the Taint, Aubry, she’ll need more than our bookish vampire to save her. There must be more we can tell her.”

“The last thing she asked about was the Book itself. She never answered back about the photo. She wanted to know about the book’s origins.”

Valerian stood, a glimmer of his weary mind showing in his slow movements. “Never mind about that. That damn book of hers is no longer important. I should have burned it a long time ago instead of allowing you to reunite her with it.”

Valerian made his way to the door while Aubry waited. He could see the wheels turning in the vampire lord’s mind. Hundreds of years of experience and this one human still vexed him sorely.

“No, Bruno has served his purpose for the moment. It would be best if he went dark. We could use him later to draw her back in, if all else fails.”

“And the tainted one, this Skovajsa?”

Valerian steeled an eye on Aubry. “Jesper had better hope his resources are enough to keep her safe. His life won’t be worth much to me if she dies. I can’t afford to wait another hundred and twenty-five years for a reunion.”

Valerian shuffled out of the room, leaving Aubry with nothing but doubt about this course of action and everything but hope about what the future held for his old friend from the Ghost Club.

DJB: Insults and Injurious Thoughts

Posted in Fiction, Vampirony, writing with tags , , , , , on May 16, 2011 by vampirony

symbol_wedge-colorValerian had once given me a protocol to use in the event and only in the event of an emergency. The protocol included a way to contact him, even in his most private chamber of his redoubt. Over the years, I suspected the technology attached to the protocol might have changed but the accessing it was the same.

An iron lockbox welded with no remaining seams covered in raised silver gilding. The silver would cause some burnt flesh to most vampires. I had chosen to keep it secret that it had no effect on me. The nature of the box was to ensure that it took quite some effort to get into.

It took me only a second to punch my hand through the box and tear into it after I’d flown back to my condo. Sophie’s reaction be damned. This was an Emergency. She was going to get herself killed. And I couldn’t let that happen, no matter what she believed.

The anger released in getting into the box calmed me enough to think about our fight. It was an old one. The book and now the old grievance, argued in the old tongue. The memories were still mostly locked away, but not the feelings, not the emotions. I hadn’t felt this on edge, this unsettled in a long while, emotions rumbling under the surface waiting to erupt. I had approached her in anger, not directed at her, but at the threat she continued to protect.

The Carpathian. When she’d spoken, I felt more than saw the need in her eyes to fix wrongs done long ago, her desperation to repair the past. I could not help her with imperfect knowledge. She did not know what to do. I had to help her see that only way out was through.

Inside the box, it was lined in black velvet with a single scrap of vellum. I fished out the ancient paper and tossed the box aside. On the paper, in simple handwriting, were a number and a location. The number was an old style phone number, from the 30’s. The location was 9 Universitat Luzern. Switzerland.

I did a quick online check and came up with a phone number. Then I used my computer to dial it. Once the line was picked up, I forced myself through the line into the room. It gave me a few seconds before I would be discovered, my form taking the time to solidify. In the meantime, while the receiver was being brought to someone’s ear to answer, I overheard the conversation.

“The child was already lost. I had to do the unthinkable to protect her.”

The voice was familiar, smoothly accented South American. But it was the voice of the reply that I well recognized. As my form materialized, my vision took shape as well. Valerian, head bowed, hand clutching something to his chest, spoke as if to himself.

“I’m still cleaning up the wrongs I did you in the past only to find troubles are drawn to you in the present."

“My Lord, we have an unexpected visitor.” Aubry didn’t bother to put the receiver completely up to his ear as by now, I had materialized right in front of him.

Valerian turned to look at me, but his mind still clung to the memories of his past. I knew the feeling and suspected more than ever that Valerian had a direct relationship with Sophie. I believed her now about her past lives. In what lifetime had the two of them met?

“Jesper. Not an unexpected surprise.” He stared at me for a moment, giving me the sense that he read me cover to cover.

“Sir, he called the Luzern line.” Aubry carefully set down the receiver of a very antique phone alongside its base. The room was his private chamber, alright, but not in Switzerland. It was his castle in Prague that the number had been forwarded to. Layered in baroque opulence, Bianchi looked like some Latino Ken doll posed uncomfortably on a red velvet chair.

Valerian spun his whole body towards me and his eyes flashed black for a moment as he commanded, “What has happened?”

I felt Vox buffet against me in a way that showed me only a glimmer of the power this Carpathian held. Sophie was right. I’d seen many things in my years but beside some sanctioned combat, I’d never seen the full fury of a Carpathian unleashed. Perhaps it was easier not to know the depths of evil my brethren were capable of. It had always been easier to turn my head away, distance myself from all those concerns.

But right now, Sophie was in the middle of it with an orphan, half mad Carpathian animal and she needed help. And somehow, I suspected that this Carpathian owed it to her.

I shrugged off the Vox and commanded in kind, “Tell me about the Vampire killing in Seville.”

Valerian stared, caught off-guard. But his face sobered and he sighed.

“I’ll fetch tea, my Lord.” Aubry left the room through a curtained doorway.

Valerian spread an arm to Bianchi, “Alejandro, you’ve heard of our scribe, Jesper Bretton.”

“Si, senor. Mucho Gusto.” He stood and bowed.

My brows drew together from the formality of it. But another word from Valerian cast some light on the situation.

“Bianchi had been keeping an eye on our Vampire Psychologist when she first surfaced from her slumber. Before she had to abandon her home in Ohio.”

“Then you already knew what she was doing, what she was up to. You didn’t need me to investigate her.” It felt like a betrayal deep down. He’d sent me to do work that had already been done. What game was he playing at?

“Alejandro, perhaps you might give us a moment? Jesper has not been brought up to speed.”

Bianchi nodded simply and withdrew, leaving me with the vampire who had me spying on the Vampire Psychologist.

“You lied to me.”

“You were never told to investigate her background. Simply to learn what you could about her current circumstances.” He moved slowly over to his seat, the black dress robes encumbering his movement, weighing him down. He sank down, weary, his hands spreading over the arm rests, gripping them. He breathed heavily and he finally let me read his face. After a moment, I could really tell what was going on.

“You’re protecting her. You sent me to see that she’s safe.”

“She has a tendency to get involved in situations…beyond her capabilities.” His finger drummed on the armrest in a building rhythm. I could see the tension in him finally, as if the day had worn him down. Aubrey, as if on perfect cue, arrived at his master’s chair, passing him a cup that Valerian drunk down rather quickly. As he handed the empty cup over to be refilled, his hands had stopped their nervous movement and he’d seemed to grip himself.

“But why?” I asked.

“Because you are the only one I can trust her with.”

It didn’t make any sense. If he valued her so highly, Xi would make a better guardian. I wasn’t half the vampire in strength or speed that he was, that any Carpathian was.

“I can see what you’re thinking and it’s true. I might’ve sent a better warrior to guard her life but I couldn’t trust anyone but you with her soul.” He sipped from the cup again, then set the cup deliberately back on the saucer. “She’s at it again, trying to save another Carpathian, isn’t she?”

“Tell me about Seville.”

He set the saucer down and settled deep into his chair. “A bottle of the Taint, disguised as wine. One of my agents was sent to retrieve it, trace its lineage. Alphonso. He reported the rumor of an abomination, one taken by the Taint. The rumored seems to be true.”

“And this abomination, it was made from your own elixir. Your own blood?”

“Yes, the sins of my past.”

I stepped toward him in the room, suddenly angry beyond anything I’d felt in a long while. “Did you know it would find her? Did you?”

“No. I had not seen that.”

“And there’s no helping this thing, no way to balance it, as she would say.”

Valerian’s eyes met mine at hearing the words. “No,” the words exploding with more force than perhaps he meant. Then, more softly, “No, I know of no cure for such a creature.” He shuddered through a sigh. “But there’s no telling her that. You must know that about her. That’s not how she learns. She’s not much on talking about things, she wants to feel them, touch them, understand how they work. And so you show her, thinking it is so wholly separate from who you are and how you feel and then she’s crawled right under your armor, under your skin to where you live and breathe. Reminding you that you still do live and breathe.”

I knew exactly what he meant. She thought she knew it all, thought there was always another way, another hope, even for those whose cause was lost. But I didn’t like hearing all this from him, as if he could teach me about my Helene. The fog was lifting on a lifetime spent in spices and sand, one spent in love and loss. I may not have begrudged another for feeling some semblance of what I did for her but there was no quarter given for one who claimed to know her better.

“You wanted the recipe for some tea, Mr. Jesper?”

As I moved to take the proffered paper from Aubry’s hands, I saw a muscle twitch in Valerian’s jaw. He saw me as a tool, sent to become a guardian, that was clear enough. He had felt certain that her charms would work on a vampire like me, a romantic like me, in ways that were predictable. He was playing the puppeteer and I vowed to cut the strings the first chance I got.

“I wouldn’t take that draught just yet,” Valerian warned. “Oh, Aubry may act as if it’s nothing but you’re not ready for that remedy. He’s just angry that you violated our laws in charming him to reveal secrets.”

When I looked in Aubry’s face, I saw the fierceness just underneath the veneer. But it was only what Aubry meant me to see. If he had wanted it, there would’ve been no warning at all. I read the recipe from the paper and handed it back to Aubry, who crumbled it up into dust, eyes seething.

“I tried to explain to him how you did it to protect our mutual friend but you see, that’s the rub. If you can’t trust your friends to behave, then who can you trust?”

I straightened and bowed, “You have my utmost apologies. If you’d like to call me out, I completely understand.”

Valerian sat upright in his chair, as if strike by lightning and full of fervor. “We’ve no time for that. You have a job to do. I expect you to do it.”

I swallowed hard and then nodded. I was no match for Valerian or his horror if it came to that. And as much as I trusted that he did want her protected, I had no idea what connection lay between Sophie and this particular Carpathian. I would have to turn over a lot more rocks to find those answers.

I started to release my hold on the connection through the phone but Valerian had some parting words for me.

“If I didn’t know you better, Jesper, if I thought you had skeletons in your closet and weren’t the closest thing to a blank slate we Vampires can be, I’d think you were utilizing Sophie’s services for yourself. And I’d perish the thought.”

symbol_sun-color

DJB: Memoirs, Volume 3: The Look of Things

Posted in Fiction, Vampirony, writing with tags , , , on April 17, 2011 by vampirony

“Sure,” was the length and breadth of her response to my text.

It didn’t leave me much to go on, which troubled me some. I scratched at my chest, my scars prickling under my shirt. It took me a while to notice that Conclave had gone suddenly quiet, as if the conference call had been dropped.

I pitched forward at my desk, realizing that I was no longer actively projecting into the room where the others had gathered. Someone had called this emergency session to talk about some slight somewhere or something. I had to admit a failing on my part as Conclave scribe that I hadn’t been paying much attention.

As I peered into the room, trying to re-establish what was happening, I saw a form move in front of the camera. A laptop was usually setup on the far side of the room where I could see everyone assembled and easily project myself without getting in anyone’s way. It tended to unnerve some of the others when my projected self interfered in their space.

The form was Valerian, clearly seated in his chair on the dais. He raised an eyebrow at me and blocked the entire room from my view as I heard the heated conversation continue in the background. But before I could grasp the thread, Valerian spoke, his voice low, just for me.

“You look a little different today, my absent-minded friend.”

“Huh?” I was scratching at my chest again. I made myself stop.

He didn’t say more, just slowly sat back out of view.

That is an insolent allegation–.”

I pushed my awareness back into the room just as Valerian, just behind my left elbow, spoke up.

“Considering that the focus of the allegation has not appeared to this conclave, perhaps it would be better to reserve these proceedings for a better time.”

Across the room from me was a very young looking Latino, wearing chinos and a white sports polo shirt with short cropped sun-streaked brown hair, more modern day soccer player than vampire. But his jaw was set with selfless resolution. And he stood alongside a very old friend to the Conclave, Imperius from the Jaguar clan. Imperius was no vampire, but had been a vampire servant from his Roman days, then traveled as a monk throughout Europe. He’d been a servant for so long and his bonded vampire had been so ancient that when his master had to be killed due to insanity, Imperius had survived on. It was a bit of a miracle that no one could still explain.

Xi, current member of Valerian’s staff although originally from Teng-Wen’s Jiang-shi horror, had stepped down from the dais, as if advancing on the Latino. His long dusty black locks were bristling, the tattoos over his naked torso rippled with magical intensity. It had been his voice that Valerian had forestalled. With his clenched fists and forward posture, he was a hair’s breadth from disobedience.

Imperius set his shrewd eyes to studying Valerian. He’d been old before Valerian had been human born. There wasn’t much that passed his notice or reasoning among vampire affairs and he had very deftly helped the South American contingent carve out equal rights among the vampire Conclave, including this particular privilege of direct access. No other horror would allow anyone but the leader to directly address Conclave. But the South Americans were different in many ways and we’d all chosen to respect that in their one small request for fear of the bloodbath that might follow denial.

“And when might young Bianchi, who’s already traveled quite far in service to the Conclave, get his satisfaction?” Imperius asked, suspicious.

Valerian stood, a signal this Conclave was at an end. “When the vampire in question can be found.”

The Latino Bianchi stepped forward, “I only wish to be heard, Lord Valerian. We in the southern provinces believe in your wisdom handling threats to all vampire society, regardless of their source.”

Xi made the slightest inhalation in temper but before breath escaped his lungs, his lips and jaw clenched shut tight and he began stepping back heavily, up the steps of the dais, behind Valerian. His eyes darted to his master but no other part of his body moved. He became a glorious statue of a warrior, frozen on the precipice of attacking. It was the first time in a long time I’d seen Valerian have to reign in one of his own at Conclave. His kindred were among the most obedient, mainly because they had been hunted the most throughout the ages and relied so heavily on him for their continued existence.

His full expression was hard for me to see from my vantage but his sharp face was dented in a pained smile.

“But of course. We shall adjourn from this larger group to talk it over.”

Valerian stepped down the dais towards the Latino vampire, his robe falling thick and dark around him. When he reached Bianchi, he put an arm around the boy, leading him away, with Imperius hesitating behind. For all his power and darkness, there was something so fatherly about that arm that it beckoned me forward.

“So, scribe, how will you record this session? I fear there was more unsaid than you could hope to surmise.”

I hadn’t realized I had pushed further into the room, some fifty feet from the laptop. Imperius looked at my projected self as if my presence were commonplace. Absent-minded indeed. Valerian was right; I wasn’t quite in control of body or spirit at the moment, both wanting to be elsewhere. But there were too many questions in the here and now that were hinted at, most of them from our appointed leader himself.

“What did the boy mean ‘regardless of the source’?” I asked, still looking after Valerian.

“Hmm, he refers to the Taint.”

I turned my head toward him. I was familiar with the blood cleansing programs. Valerian had just returned from one not long ago and had still deigned to meet with me about Sophie. I now knew he had been drinking pine needle tea as a restorative. I kept away from the cleansings as I had never had the thirst for gorging as some had, even though I understood the necessity of the process. But some programs devised more recently hadn’t always used such a direct approach.

“Yes, what of it?”

All manner of vampire concoctions had once been tried to affect a larger group of people without exposing vampires to direct blood consumption. All attempts had significant side effects moving Valerian to discontinue them and every unintentional spawn had been liberated. He’d had to argue very vigorously with Shadria and Galscythe, ministers of the programs, to revert to vampire individuals doing the direct cleansing, volunteering himself to start. They had not seen a few errant orphans as being statistically significant even after one had murdered a school bus full of children in Argentina.

Horrific as it had been, they had still thought to refine, not end the practice. Valerian wanted it eradicated immediately and every potion, powder, or bottle collected and destroyed. Their disagreement had come to combat in the Conclave chamber, Shadria calling Valerian soft in his concern for the humans and weak for his fear over a few fevered and wild offshoots. Before that day, the list of punishable offenses in vampire society included only two: Endangerment of vampire society and interference in another vampire’s horror or territory.

That day, Valerian in his swift and utter defeat of Shadria, a vampire two hundred years his senior, had added another. Children of any kind were untouchable. Of course, he explained that infanticide was a great threat to our treaties and our secrecy and therefore violated the primary law. But the ferocity with which he had physically mutilated Shadria and mentally wrecked her in unknowable ways gave rise to suspicions of his exact motives.

Imperius chewed the side of his beard, looking much the portly monk, still in his old traveling robes. “Valerian promised Jaguar clan that he would destroy every remnant of Taint from the Earth. It’s rumored a few still elude him, that his agents work even now to recover them. But Jaguar clan remembers how he fought with honor to protect all vampires from ultimate ruin and avenged the defiled children of the Argentines.”

“Yes, he’s become quite the family man.”

“Hmm, “ Imperius scoffed, slapping air where my chest would be. “You might ask Xi how he feels about his adopted father right about now.” He took his leave.

He was right of course but this interaction had revealed something a lot closer at hand. As I looked down at my chest, the V neck shirt hinted at something strange beneath, something Valerian had tried to hint at earlier. I pulled down the fabric at the neck and noticed that my projected self had an unblemished chest, even as I felt my real chest still itching. Somehow, my projected self was the old one, not the one with a few new scars that Valerian had woken from reverie in the laptop conference call.