Monday, April 29, 2013
Short Story: It All Boils Down
Blood crawled the walls.
Someone cried out in the distance, begging to be spared. A wet thwack met my ears, and liquid warmth splattered my arm and face. I touched it, came away with crimson fingertips. My breath caught in my chest, heart seizing.
I looked down.
A cleaver was buried in the skull of my flock-mate.
My fingers gripped the handle.
I gasped, dropped the weapon, and stumbled away from the fresh corpse. Something struck my heel, and I went down. The bodies of more comrades broke my fall.
A scream crowded my throat.
I jerked upright in my coffin, chest heaving around air I didn’t need. My heart writhed in my chest, though it didn’t need to beat. Fear responses left over from the days of my mortality.
The fingers of the hand gripping the coffin’s edge trembled.
I brought the other to my face.
Memories. Just the memories of a long dead vampire. Nothing to fear.
I rubbed my face and dropped back into the coffin, absently grateful the lid had been open. My back had just touched the satin when I felt a soft tap on my forehead and a tingle against the left side of my neck. When I placed my hand against the springing leopard emblazoned on my flesh, the mark was warm to the touch.
The Mistress was calling.
With my hand still in place, I said, “I hear you.”
The tingle subsided.
I climbed out of my resting place.
From the closet, I clothed myself in jeans and a t-shirt that read, “Now you’re just phishing.” Socks came out of the dresser by the door, and I slipped into sneakers and an ankle-length coat.
Anytime the Mistress woke me, I would be going out.
My fingers combed unruly brown hair as I marched down the stone corridor leading out of the nest. Zerai, my lovely mate, said I should try to look more presentable for the Mistress, but I doubted a powerful vampire cared what her enforcer looked like outside of a gathering.
A low growl rumbled in the dark, and I saw a pair of feline eyes resolve from nothing.
“It's just me, Jaime,” I told the wereleopard. I met her chartreuse eyes with my brown ones for a long moment.
Once she was satisfied, she chuffed at me and bumped her large head into my hand, demanding her toll of scratches. I paid my dues, receiving a flick of her sandpaper tongue, and ascended the ladder made of steel bars anchored into the wall.
At the top, I had to push open the trap door leading into the gathering room. Immediately to my left, was the Mistress’s dais and throne, both carved from the same stone. As expected, she sat waiting for me.
I kicked the trapdoor closed and came to stand before her.
Seraphina, the Mistress of Myrna, had been trapped in the body of a twelve-year-old girl by her transformation into a vampire. She wore a dress with full skirts decorated in silver skulls. Leather gloves covered her hands.
At her throat was a ruby, held fast to her flesh with a silver chain. Curls of mahogany fell around her bare shoulders. A cluster was pinned at her left temple with a skull bow. Her gray eyes were serious, but not unkind.
Placing a fist over my heart, I offered her a bow. “You wished to speak to me, Mistress.”
“We did,” she said.
“What do you need?” I asked, returning to my full height.
“We have need of an assassin,” the Mistress said. She held out her small hand, suddenly bare of its usual glove. “Come.”
The cold inside me moved behind my eyes, and I strode forward to do as she bid. I needed no further instructions, and she gave none.
I took her hand, warmer than mine. She’d fed recently. Opening my mouth as I bent, I then pressed my fangs to the flesh of her wrist. It resisted, more so than a human’s might, and then I was inside.
Thick, black blood washed over my tongue. It tasted of change after the hands of many had soiled it.
Images washed in, crowding each other at first, before smoothing into a cohesive whole. Once the sequence had resolved, I was looking out through the Mistress’s eyes. She was sitting atop her throne, and two vampires stood before her.
Viktor, the murderous child-vampire recently slain by the Reaper. And the Master who sired him. I knew the memories were old, now.
“Why have you come?” Seraphina asked. More formality than function.
The Master, Kristopher, placed a hand on Viktor’s head. “My youngling wishes to leave the nest. I thought, of all Masters, you would be amicable to his desire to see the outside world.”
“Our nest is not a home for untrained pups,” the Mistress said.
“I assure you, Viktor’s behavior is impeccable,” Kristopher said.
The memory curled in on itself and faded when the Mistress pulled her hand from mine. Seraphina waited until I could see the room around me once more before she spoke. “We made a deal with Mr. Nulis. The life of this Viktor’s sire in exchange for his cooperation in protecting the nest from Masters curious about Viktor’s death. You will hunt him for us.”
I strode from the room with her blessing at my back, through the double doors separating throne room and antechamber, ascending the elevator into the headquarters of the Seraphim Trading Company. The money that kept us safe and fed.
The elevator opened into a break room, deserted at this time of day. All human employees were gone, and the wereleopards were on security. When I stepped into the lobby, only Zerai remained, still in her severe work attire. Her golden hair was pulled into a tight bun at the back of her head. Wire frame glasses framed her pale green eyes.
She was finishing last minute paperwork by lamp light at the receptionist desk she called home during the day.
I paused to say, “I’m going hunting.”
Zerai looked up from her work, and nodded, though there was no joy in it. “ I thought the Mistress would send you.”
My clever Seer. She’d probably facilitated Seraphina’s bargain with the Reaper.
“I don’t know how long this will take,” I said.
“You never do,” she said. “Do you know where you’re going?”
I licked the blood lingering between my lip and gums. The information deposited itself in my brain. “Gorum on Didelis,” I said.
“Take the large shuttle,” Zerai said. She placed a set of keys on the desk before me.
I took them and touched my forehead to hers. “Peace with you, Sightling,” I said before turning away.
“Don’t forget to bundle up,” Zerai called after me. It was her own way of asking me to be careful because she knew I wouldn’t accept the words.
I waved a hand over my shoulder, and let the hunter slide into place behind my eyes. The cold part of me I never wanted her to see.
I stepped out into Myrna with a gust of frozen wind. My body couldn’t register its bitterness, but I buttoned the coat closed around me. Slush and street glow were my only constant companions as I trudged to the Mistress’s personal shuttle hanger.
The trip to Gorum took six days, and I was glad Zerai had suggested the larger shuttle. Stopping to feed would have doubled my travel time. This one was stocked with a commuting vampire in mind.
Docking in the city was an hour long affair.
Considering the plethora of tourist traps, I was more annoyed than surprised.
The cold thing desired a hunt.
When I stepped out of the shuttle, the city’s pulse throbbed against my tongue. The collective aura of its warm citizens moved together in a pattern unique to it. But there was one place where the city didn’t move. As with any place keeping vampires, a black hole of stillness nested in Gorum’s heart.
I followed the emptiness into Kristopher’s territory.
Once inside, I was greeted by a young enforcer, both in terms of his human and vampiric life. He rushed at me, swinging his fist.
I slapped aside the punch and added his momentum to the force of my knuckles colliding with his face. He hit the alley wall, slid into a heap, and tried again.
I kicked his feet out from under him.
Kristopher must not think highly of his enemies if this pup is guarding the door.
When he tried to get back up, I shoved him to the pavement and pinned him there with my foot in his back. “Rude little monster, aren’t you?” I said. “Is this how you greet all your Master’s visitors?”
“Visitors don’t have murder in their eyes,” he said.
I blinked and felt the hunter smiling out through my eyes. A look like that would have put me on the attack, too.
Not this one, but soon.
I felt its displeasure.
It didn’t matter. Gaining the nest required more delicacy than that.
I pushed my will into the young vampire, expecting a fight. The only obstacle I received was the brain’s natural resistance to having more than one consciousness inside it. He’d never been taught to defend himself.
Another Master who wants absolute control over his flock.
A memory threatened to surface. I pushed it away.
Now was not the time to get lost in my own pain.
“Do you know a vampire called Viktor?” I asked my captive.
“You mean the little sicko who cuts up girls?”
I made an affirmative noise.
“Yeah. Master was so happy to see him gone,” he said.
“So Kristopher knew about Viktor’s crimes?”
“We all knew,” he said. “Kinda hard to hide a fledgling who mauls children.”
But Kristopher had done it, and Viktor after him.
I hauled the young vampire to his feet. “Take me to the nest.”
His will tried to rise up beneath mine, then. It thrashed about, and I squeezed until the fight left him. I ignored the wriggly feeling in my guts. Later, I’d feel terrible for what I’d just done. Now, I was hunting.
A handful of blocks later, the young enforcer was gaining me access to Kristopher’s lair with the script I handed his brain. I watched skepticism cross the guard’s faces and prepared myself to face their challenge with force.
“We have a debt to the Mistress of Myrna for taking Viktor,” the young vampire said with my instruction.
The guards passed each other an uneasy glance before allowing us to pass.
Kristopher’s warehouse lair was a bolt hole compared to the Mistress’s sprawling catacombs. Its rooms were partitioned with fake walls that stretched only halfway to the ceiling. The vampires we passed looked shabby, minimally fed and dressed in cast off clothing. For all that he had aged, the Master here knew nothing of caring for a flock.
My young captive led me to the warehouse’s central room.
Inside, Kristopher stood against one wall with seven members of his flock positioned around the room. When we entered, he said, “Take your place” and I commanded the young enforcer to do as he was told.
Kristopher was much like the memories I’d gleaned from the Mistress’s blood. Thin to the point his skeleton pressed against the inside of his flesh. Dressed all in black as if there was some sort of vampiric dress code. His blonde hair fell in a dirty tousle to his shoulders, and his watery, green eyes were bloodshot and twitchy.
With a Master on the verge of breakdown, this nest was in greater peril than it appeared. I tried not to look as angry as I felt. Vampires such as Kristopher were too weak and selfish to maintain a flock, yet they were the ones most likely to scramble for any scrap of power they could find.
And he’d ruined a child because of it.
“What brings an agent of Seraphina to our humble nest?” Kristopher asked. He even tried to smile for me, but the affect was obviously forced.
“My Mistress wishes for your assistance in removing a rival from her territory,” I lied.
“Oh my. Why would such a powerful vampire need help from us?” Kristopher said.
“This vampire has proven to be well adapted to guerrilla warfare. Our leopards are not, though I recall you used such a tactic to claim your own territory,” I said. As the words left my lips, I focused a pinch of my will to inscribing runes on each of the flock members in the room. The blood tattoo on my back flared hot with each application.
Kristopher made a face. “I see. But we are only a small nest. Why should we sacrifice ourselves for a more successful flock?”
Faithless insect. “My Mistress took in your fledgling when she did not have to do so. You owe us a debt,” I said.
“But not nearly as grand as this.”
We continued to speak for some time. I insisted and he tried to wriggle out of his responsibility. Even a plea to offer aid to a vampire he’d sired was met with excuses and bargaining.
While he argued, I finished painting my runes onto the members of his flock in attendance. Then I moved on to a trick I’d only just learned. As a former mage, I was well acquainted with the use of will as a tool of manipulation. The vampiric element was the mind, and I’d learned to tinker in it without alerting the defenses of the bearer.
I slipped my mental lock pick into Kristopher’s brain.
It wriggled all the way into the place where a vampire keeps his special gifts. Even the most powerful vampires I’d encountered had this delineation, and Kristopher was nowhere near the power of the King of Vampires.
In that spot, I found the power that would make the end of this mission difficult. As shabby as the warehouse was, it had dirt floors. The perfect thing to provide ammunition to an earthmover.
And I tied a knot in the channels leading to it.
Over the knot, I laid another rune, similar to the ones on his minions.
Then I retracted my lock pick.
“Finally,” I blurted, interrupting another of Kristopher’s obnoxious excuses.
The Master in question blinked at me. “What?”
“I don’t have to listen to your drivel anymore,” I said and snapped my fingers. All eight of the flock members, including my captive, burst into flames. The tattoo on my back came alight with white heat.
Kristopher made a sweeping hand gesture as I launched my body in his direction.
Confusion and rage crossed his face, “What did you—?”
I punched him into the wall, activating the rune I’d placed inside him. The blood tattoo guttered like a candle trying to go out. It didn’t have the strength to send Kristopher up in flames like his minions. But a slow burn could still roast pork.
Kristopher came out of the shattered wall, hissing like a wet cat. I sidestepped his punch only to have him grab my elbow and hurl me into the side wall.
The plywood fractured and exploded out with me. Vampires scattered as though they’d seen this sort of violence before.
I hit the ground, rolled to my feet, and met Kristopher’s face with my fist, pushing personal energy into the rune in addition to the tattoo’s blood magick.
Even in that brief instant, I felt the warmth of his flesh.
Gorum’s Master made a new hole in the wall, and it threatened to come down.
To the flock members cowering in the corners, I said, “Get out if you don’t want to be ashed.”
They scattered once more.
A wall of will crashed down on me.
My own was sufficient to push it away.
“You have no business giving orders to my flock,” Kristopher said. I saw heat streamers flowing up from this flesh. The whites of his eyes had filled with blood.
“In a few minutes, you won’t be here to do it,” I said.
His will crashed down once more.
I slashed at him with my own.
Kristopher cried out, stumbling back. Blood oozed from his nose and bubbled over his lip. It was hard to be near him for the heat pouring off his body.
“What have you done to me?” he screamed. Flesh began to bubble and blacken. Organs should be rupturing inside him.
“Nothing more than you deserve.”
Kristopher screamed. A painful shriek, describing each second of his torment. It continued on each breath until his lungs could no longer expand.
And I watched.
I waited until he’d become an immovable mass of charcoal. Then I crushed his brittle head, just to be certain.
The tattoo sputtered out. I’d have to feed from a mage to replenish it, but the deed was done. I’d satisfied my duty to the Mistress.
Time to return to the nest and battle the memory of all I’d done here.