We drove until the air conditioner in the suburban was no longer keeping up, only stirring the air enough to keep us from being stifled. I started noticing a few saguaros, then Gary veered off into the desert. I’m not sure what I’d been expecting, but not off-roading. I went from trying to sit in the middle and avoid the heat of the growing day to sitting half on top of luggage with my temple pressed against the glass.
I could see we were on a rutted road, just different enough from the orange of the sand to be noticed, with fewer big rocks and only one or two random spiny plants.This had to be the middle of nowhere. Were we even allowed to be out here? A roadrunner dodged us and sped off into the drifting cloud of dust our tires threw into the wind.
The road started to go up hill. We jolted up to a rocky crest and sped back down into the most amazing green pocket of land I had ever seen. Succulent ground cover surrounded patches of tilled earth, dark as good chocolate. Small, concentric canals with a trickle of moving water in the bottom spread out like frozen ripples from the main structure. My eye was caught then by the spiraling spin of an artsy-looking windmill, it’s bottom disappearing behind a heavy stone and adobe wall taller than Gary. Inside this wall sat another, with well-tended apple trees planted between them. The inner walls had leaded glass windows and tile roofs. I glimpsed a courtyard with a large fountain before we were down on level ground.
The walls humped up in an arch in front of us. The arch contained heavy ironwork gates and was topped with a delicate weather vane in the shape of a running wolf.
“Welcome to our winter home,” Gary said, his voice full of quiet pride. The gates swung apart. The jeep slowed until we were coasting through. The gates swung shut behind us, meeting with a loud clang.
“God bless this house,” Tag whispered.
I scrubbed long after the water ran clear down the drain. I scrubbed until my blood hummed under my skin and turned me rosy pink, then I scrubbed some more.
I’d never killed a vampire before, but I knew what happened to one if you did it right. I’m pretty sure a beam of energy does a sufficient job of atomizing one. I shivered in the scalding water. I wondered if my pores would ever really be clean.
I washed my hair twice, wincing every time my fingers brushed the bump on my skull.
“You okay in there, love?” Tag sounded genuinely concerned.
“Uhm, yeah, sorry. Uhm… be out in a sec?”
“Right. Okay, then.”
I turned off the water, toweled off, yanked clothes on over damp skin. I twisted my hair up in my towel and looked at my form in the foggy mirror.
My favorite shirt and jeans, I realized.
I’d left these clothes at Laish’s apartment.
My stomach gave a little flutter.
I put the duffel on the sink and felt around inside. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting to find. I felt every inch with my fingers, until– finally– something turned up in a little zipper pocket. I slipped out a tightly- folded piece of lined stationery. The flutter in my stomach turned into a cloud of panicked butterflies as I slowly unfolded the page to reveal Laish’s compact handwriting.
The page had been torn from the journal I’d given him for his birthday.
It was beach-themed. All his best dreams were about the beach, he’d said.
I’m betting they already told you you’re going to see the Irish pack. Be polite, and don’t panic. Gary’s awesome, so you’ll be fine. Just put off a good, confident vibe. I know that’ll be the hardest part.
I know something’s happened. I didn’t tell Tag, but I saw you there.
I sat down on the bathroom floor. It was true, then. Somehow, I’d really seen him sitting in the front row…
I never told you about the last dream I had before we met.
I found you on my beach.
That’s why I kissed you when you opened the door. I’d never kissed anyone before you. You need to know that now, and I’m sorry I never told you before. It’s not fair that you didn’t know that about me when I knew that about you.
Please forgive me. I was scared, I guess.
Right now I don’t know if I’ll ever see you in person again, but we need each other.
I’ll try to help you how I can, but it’s hard, and I’m still human, mostly.
Remember Who watches over us both.
Instead of signing his name, he’d drawn a small sketch of a lion’s silhouette.
My throat ached. The handwriting blurred. I wiped at my face. I would not let myself blubber. Not now. I did, however, sniffle rather loudly.
I stared at the paper and tried to figure out what to do with it.
There was a quiet knock at the door.
I folded the note as small as I could and, after a moment’s hesitation, tucked it in my bra.
I stood, shook out my hair, and checked in the mirror that I didn’t look too splotchy. I took a deep breath.
Like I’d expected, when I stepped out the guys were going about their business, pretending they hadn’t heard anything emotional.
“When is the pack expecting us?” I asked.
“Whenever,” Gary said.
“By five-thirty,” Tag said, giving Gary a look. “Otherwise we’ll get locked out of the house ‘til morning. Which we may not want to happen in the desert.” He’d changed into something a bit more casual, I noticed. Fitted t-shirt and jeans. Gary had added a leather jacket to his getup and pulled back his hair.
“What time is it now?” I asked.
“The sun will be up in an hour,” Gary said. “We should have the sub loaded by then.”
I’d hoped that for once a long loading process wouldn’t be “the girl’s fault”, but I had way more luggage than I expected. They’d basically cleaned out what I’d kept at Laish’s apartment, crammed it all into Tag’s little four-door coupe, and brought it back to add to the rest of the supplies gathered in the back of Gary’s four-wheel-drive suburban. I found this exceptionally awkward, even though most of it was probably training gear.
It must’ve shown, because after I climbed in the back seat and buckled up, Tag turned around in the front passenger seat and said, “He’s leaving town, and he knows you’ll need all of it. He even packed the rest of your weapons himself. We know you weren’t sleeping with him. Stop looking guilty.”
Heat rushed into my face. I cleared my throat and nodded, looking out the window.
It was going to be a long ride.
My head was humming when I woke. I could smell wet ash and blood. I lay on a lumpy mattress, covered in several blankets. It was an effort to pull my arm out from under them and look at my hand. My hand trembled, but my eyesight seemed fine. I felt of my face. I seemed to have several small, stinging scratches, and my nose felt sore.
“May have bashed it against something when I was hauling you out from under the curtain,” said a deep, male voice. “I apologize.”
I struggled to a sitting position and looked around. The mattress sat on the floor in the back of a rectangular room. Two walls were white, painted cinder block. Another was drywall with a wooden door in the center. The far wall hid beneath several electrical boxes, framing an open door nearly hidden by the bulk of a very large man. His hair was dark and just long enough to curl. His eyes glowed a wolfish gold in his dark caramel face. Each ear sported two gold rings I could have slipped easily onto my thumbs. His blue golf shirt and jeans were snug over heavy muscles. He looked like he’d been told to “blend in”. I wondered if that was the idea of the smaller, blonder fellow sitting at the card table in the room’s center. Him I knew. Tag.
Tag snorted into the pre-packaged Caesar salad he stabbed at with a plastic fork. “Don’t apologize to her. It’s her bloody fault any way you put it.”
Tag was looking neglected. His flaxen hair was getting shaggy enough to hide his eyebrows, and his whiskers were growing in. He was dressed dapper in a white dress shirt, the French cuff sleeves rolled neatly away from his food. Over this was a pinstriped, double-breasted vest with dress slacks to match. Upon closer inspection, though, I could see he looked wrinkled liked he’d slept in it all, and his wingtips were scuffed.
“Give you a long night, did I?” I quipped. The effect was spoiled by my voice’s scratchiness and the cough at the end. I looked around for water. No dice.
Tag stopped chewing and glared at me.
“It wasn’t my idea,” I added when the coughing stopped. “Y’all have any water to drink?”
“Oh, pardon me,” the big guy said. He ducked back out of the room.
Tag finished chewing and tossed his fork into the remains of his… lunch? I looked at my wrist. My watch was gone.
“It melted. So did your necklace and half the theater.”
I gaped at him, rubbing my wrist and chest and around my neck. I wasn’t burned anywhere that I could tell. Was it because I’d used my own energy, somehow? Had I managed a ward after all? “I… Did everyone get out?”
“The humans were fine. Several said they thought the place was struck by lightning, and only two even remembered you were the one there giving the lecture.”
“But, that’s good, right?”
“There was no storm that night. It was clear. Also, we want them to remember you were there, or there’s no point. We need witnesses to this mess. The fact that you’re pulling in vampires old enough to glamour a theater full of people isn’t working in our favor. Neither does your pulling the bloody building down on top of them. You’re supposed to have more control than this.” He shook his head. “I can’t believe how poorly this went.”
“None of the normal people are dead, and neither are any of us. I think it went sort of okay…”
“Do you know how long you were in that bed?” Tag asked.
I swallowed, feeling my body temperature drop at that question.
“Three days. We’re in a bloody basement, doll. Do you know why? Because we were afraid if you didn’t wake well, we’d be in trouble and so would this building. Or the block, for all we know. You’ve unlocked something, and you’re not prepared to use it. It’s your fault for not saying something more clearly if you weren’t ready.”
I looked down at my hands. “Who did the vampire kill?”
“He didn’t attack anyone in the theater but you.”
“He was covered in blood when he walked in.”
“There’s no way we can check that until a body turns up. According to our large friend, you vaporized the vampire with a sunbeam.”
Not all my own energy, then. I’d be dead, not bed-ridden—even I knew that.
“Who is he?” I asked, nodding toward the doorway. “He’s not blending in all that well.”
“He blends in better than most of his kind. Good for you he does. He’s the one who pulled you out of the theater.”
I huffed a laugh, “And what kind is that—Barbary pirates?”
My rescuer ducked back into the room, breaking off whatever snarky reply Tag was about to give. In one hand was a pint mug full of ice water. The other held several bags of luggage slung over his shoulder by the straps. He strode into the room and flopped the bags at Tag’s feet. “Someone’s a pirate?”
“You are, apparently.” Tag said, “She wants to know where you’ve left your turban and scimitar.”
The pirate looked amused. He took two strides to the bedside, holding out the mug to me. I took it gratefully and drank up the whole thing. Ice cold with a hint of lemon. It was delicious. I could feel my body soaking it up already.
“So, what’s your name?” I asked him. “Hassan?”
He guffawed. It echoed off the walls, and goose bumps swept over me in waves—not unpleasantly—as I remembered the large arms and laughter from the theater rescue. Yes, this man had saved my life. He also seemed to think this whole mess was entertaining.
“Name’s Gary, actually,” he said. “I don’t have a turban, but I do own a scimitar. It’s plastic. I wore it to a Halloween party with my little sister a couple of years ago. I’ve never fought with a sword in my life. I prefer closer,” he flexed his hands, “or very far away.”
I shook the hand he held out to me. His grip made me feel very tiny.
“Adair,” I said. “I don’t fight, as a general rule.”
“Well, that seems to be changing, doesn’t it? I saw what you did to the theater. Also, Laish says he’s been training you. Meeting you is definitely a pleasure. We’re all cheering you, whatever Tag says.”
The mention of Laish gave me a pang. I wondered if his hair really had turned as white as my vision in the theater told me.
Gary stepped to the pile of luggage and hefted a duffel as long as I was. Something in it clinked, getting his attention, so he set it on end, pulled open a drawstring closure, and peered inside.
“I think I missed something,” I said. “Who’s ‘we’? And what should we be cheering, exactly? Last night hasn’t proven much.” Besides my ability to combust a vampire with a bolt of light and melt all my jewelry.
Tag got to his feet and pulled a smaller duffel and a garment bag onto the table, shoving his food out of the way. “If that isn’t the truth…” he muttered, then said, “If you’re done handing out true names, we should get moving. The ‘we’ Gary’s talking of want to meet you. Gary says they have info that will help. Don’t speak unless spoken to, though. Some of them bite.”
“Yeah…” Gary sounded embarrassed. “A couple of the pack elders have grown a little… physical in their old age. Some still think this may be a stupid idea, sorry to say…”
“Gary, for the last bloody time, stop apologizing for everything,” Tag grumped.
Gary grinned, visibly biting off another apology. “I suppose it’s a habit you pick up when you’re just getting where you don’t trip over short people all the time.”
Tag looked up from rifling through the garment bag, one eyebrow raised. He didn’t seem sure whether this was a direct reference to himself.
“Pack?” I asked. I got off the bed, stood and attempted a stretch. I felt like I should be making creaking noises. My clothes made gross crackling noises as I walked over and set the mug on the table. “You don’t mean, like, wolves, do you?”
“Not many other things have packs, love.” Tag sounded tired of the whole situation. I felt sorry for him. He didn’t ask for this. He was just doing his job, like Laish had asked, and he’d ended up baby-sitting me, wondering if he’d go up in smoke.
“But there’s no such thing as werewolves,” I said.
They both stopped what they were doing and stared at me in disbelief.
Gary’s laughter made my ears ache.
Tag rolled his eyes and threw the small duffel bag at me. “Go take a shower.”
I reached a hand behind me as I walked backward.
The vampire grinned. “It will do you no good,” he said.
There had to be a way. Why did I even bother to carry a gun if a bullet couldn’t harm what wanted me dead the most? I could not recall a single ward or shield. Would they even matter? My breath came in ragged gasps, my heart raced.
“Stop. Count to four.” The voice resounded in my head like a tenor bell, and time slowed.
I found I could tear my eyes away from my hunter. I looked out toward the seating. In the front row, in the very middle seat, sat Laish. Hair that had once been black as raven feathers was pure white, even his closely-trimmed beard. His eyes were still the deep green of a calm sea. Some part of me knew he wasn’t really there, but I didn’t mind.
I remembered my breathing. Four in. Hold. Four out.
“Now,” he said, as clear as if he spoke in my ear, “remember your true name. Let it fill you with its whole meaning.” He recited our last session together. “When that energy has filled you and set you alight, focus it like a beam at your foe. Nothing can stand before the light that shines forth from the Living.”
The memory glowed at my core and spread outward until it reached my limbs.
The vampire leapt!
I threw both hands in front of me, and focused my shout into physical force. A flash of light, as bright and hot as any lightning bolt, split the air between us, and I flew backward. My heels clipped the top of the bench, and my body slammed into the heavy curtains separating backstage from front. I curled into a ball. My ears rang. People screamed. Fire alarms were going off. Water poured from the ceiling, soaking me. The curtain fell, knocking the remaining breath out of me. I struggled against it for a moment, but all my strength was gone. I curled tighter and waited.
Loud grunts, and the fabric was heaved away. Warm hands grabbed me, scooping me against a massive chest. My consciousness faded to the sounds of a deep, hearty laugh.
Catch the Dueling Vampire Prose on Worlds Before the Door
I staggered back from the mental force of his presence.
The crowd seemed unaffected by the strangeness and gore. None even glanced his way. He was shutting them out of the situation entirely. So powerful—what would I do?
My speech stammered to a stop.
Someone mumbled, “I’ve heard this before,” stood up and left! What did they see and hear? In their minds was I still blabbering on about the theory of wards or something?
I thought of shouting “Fire!” and managed to croak out, “VAMPIRE!” The effort left me gasping, like I’d hefted a medicine ball off my diaphragm. No reaction from the crowd.
He stalked towards me. I managed to move away from him at the same speed, step for step. His face was beautiful. I didn’t dare look away.
I felt at my side—as though I was wearing a sword for once. No weapon. I knew exactly where my bag was, behind me on a bench, pistol waiting inside. Backing up, I was getting closer, but to look away would be like a mouse ignoring a cat. He would pounce.
“Tell me your name,” he said. His voice was like warm honey. I wanted to tell him so very badly, an itch in my mind.
“No!” I shouted.
His beautiful smile turned to a frown full of darkness and animal violence.
Inwardly I crowed. Point to me. I wasn’t completely in his thrall, could not be until he could call to me with my true name.
“What is. Your name,” he commanded again. I had to give it willingly. But, why was he here, if he didn’t at least suspect I was the one they all sought?
“If y-you d-didn’t know, y-you wouldn’t b-be here,” I managed. The back of the stage and the bench had to be close now.
His frown became a sneer.
Oh-ho! He didn’t really know, then! He’d come on a hunch! How desperate were they?
I suddenly wondered whose blood covered him.
“You are a fool to come here with so little protection,” he said. “If what they say is true, you are powerful, but I do not see you wielding it.”
“Maybe you heard wrong,” I said. Of course, he hadn’t. And yes, we had rushed things. I had very little control. I had only practiced when I was calm. I was definitely not calm.
Catch the Dueling Vampire Prose on Worlds Before the Door
I’m not good at looking people in the eye—never have been. Giving speeches and having large amounts of people stare at me is even worse. So, giving a speech wasn’t my idea; it was just something that needed to be done. I still didn’t really look anyone in the eye.
Then he walked in. He made no noise, walking in from the side door. His skin was as white as his shirt used to be. His hands and clothes were dark with another’s blood. He glanced around the room, then looked at me and smiled. His eyes glowed as red as the exit sign. I couldn’t look away from them.
Catch the Dueling Vampire Prose on Worlds Before the Door