Charlestown, Nevis, West Indies
The breeze off the ocean was warm, as always. Kuromaku stood on the rough-hewn deck of the thatched-roof hut and breathed it in. A few light clouds lingered above the island of Nevis, but otherwise the sky stretched on forever, a vivid, unbroken blue. On the horizon, it met the water of the Caribbean and the two merged into one. Every day he woke to find himself in this place, his heart soared with the joy of life.
Every day but today.
The call had come during the night; Octavian, more anguished than Kuromaku had ever heard him. They had been friends for long centuries, had fought side by side, joining in savage wars and regional skirmishes for no other reason than that there were oppressed people who needed something to help turn the tide. Sometimes that had meant fighting for lost causes, but Octavian and Kuromaku - and a handful of other Shadows who had seen the world in the same way - had gone to war regardless. They were warriors, after all. In combat, they had managed to feel alive long after their human lives had ended.
Over the course of those many years, they had each made human friends and taken human lovers, and even fallen in love. But entropy was the great curse of immortality. Things fell apart. Lives and loves ended, and eternal warriors were forced to watch those who mattered the most to them grow old and pass from the world forever. Kuromaku had offered the gift of immortality - the life of the Shadow - to more than twenty-five people since he had first become immortal, and all but four of them had chosen to age and wither and die, to follow the natural order of things. Of those four, three now hated him, and one had given himself to the fires of the sun back in the days when Shadows still believed that it would burn them.
The longer he lived, the more he grieved, just as he did this morning. He had not spent a great deal of time with Nikki Wydra, but they had fought side by side more than once and she, being only human, had proven herself brave and loyal. And Peter had loved her, and now he grieved for her, and Kuromaku grieved along with his brother.
'Fly, spirit. You are free,' he whispered to the warm tropical breeze.
A small smile touched his lips. He grieved, yes, but no matter how much pain and loss he had endured in his long life, he had found more joy than loss, more laughter than heartache. He still embraced life. With his partner, Sophie, he still owned and ran a vineyard in Bordeaux, France, and when they felt they had worked long enough, they turned the management of the vineyard over to his assistant and retreated to this simple hut on Nevis, a stone's throw from St Kitt's.
'If you don't get going, you'll miss your flight.'
Kuromaku turned at the sound of Sophie's voice and his heart filled with adoration. Once upon a time, her father had been his attorney, and Sophie had inherited the role from him. Kuromaku had watched her grow from infant to gangly teen to beautiful, confident woman. It had been difficult for him to separate the girl from the woman at first, but they had been thrown together to face otherworldly horrors that would have driven many people mad or caused them to curl up and weep in surrender. Sophie had proven herself not only a woman, but a formidable one, and during that time he had realized that he loved her.
'I don't want to go,' Kuromaku said.
'Of course you don't,' Sophie said, arching a suggestive eyebrow. 'Look at me.'
He did. Her light, silken robe hung to mid-calf and was tied loosely enough that her breasts were only partly covered. Her blond hair shone in the sun and her blue eyes sparkled with invitation.
'How could you want to leave this?' she said.
But the playfulness drained from her tone before she had even finished the sentence and she faltered, swallowing hard and swiping at the moisture welling in her eyes. Kuromaku went to her and held her, whispering love in both of their languages.
'You know I don't want to go.'
'Part of you does,' Sophie said. 'Part of you can't wait to draw your swords.'
He could have argued that he didn't have his swords with him, but she knew all of his secrets, knew that his swords were no different from the clothes he wore when it came to the shapeshifting abilities of a Shadow. They changed on a molecular level, and that extended to whatever they wanted it to, except for living flesh. He couldn't shift and forcibly merge another person into himself, but he could make his katana and wakizashi seem to vanish and reappear at will.
If he'd said he hadn't brought them to the Caribbean with him, he'd have been lying.
'I'm a warrior,' he said.
'And I'm her friend. We haven't seen Nikki much, but I was her friend just as much as you were. I should be at her funeral.'
Kuromaku caressed the line of her jaw and lifted her chin so that she was forced to meet his gaze.
'You should be, my love,' he said, and kissed her softly. 'But you cannot be. This Cortez that Peter spoke of . . . he killed Nikki because Peter loved her. It's possible that anyone who comes to mourn for Nikki will also be a target. We can't be sure the funeral is safe.'
She put her palm on his chest and gave him a gentle shove, putting a bit of distance between them.
'I can take care of myself,' she said.
'As much as any mortal can.'
'And when I can't, I have you.'
'Yes. You do.' He kissed her forehead. 'But when the funeral is over, we are going hunting. And when we find the creatures we hunt, we are going to battle. It isn't safe for you to be with me, and it wouldn't be safe for me if you were. Worrying about you could get me killed. Is that what you want?'
Sophie kept her hand flat on his chest, but she dropped her gaze. After a moment, she sighed deeply, and when she lifted her eyes again, he saw the tears streaming down her face.
'I want this to have never happened. I want us to be here, warm and safe. I want to drink wine and make love on the beach. I want paradise.'
Kuromaku let her words hang in the air as he glanced around at their little piece of the island. Over the thatched roof of the cottage hut he could see the green hills at the center of the island rising toward the perfect blue sky. To his right, their small dock jutted out into the water, the sailboat tethered at the end, bobbing in the water with the sail tightly furled.
'This is as close to paradise as this world has to offer,' he said, stroking her face, brushing her tears away.
Sophie slapped his hand away. Then, angry with herself, she wrapped her arms around him and laid her head upon his chest.
'Not today it isn't,' she said through her tears. 'Until you come back to me, this place is going to be Hell. Come back to me, you understand?'
'I do, and I will.'
He promised, hoping that time would not prove him a liar.
Santiago didn't know how long he'd been staring into the glass. A final sip of whiskey remained but somehow he hesitated to tip it back. It had been long enough that the sweet burn of the liquor had gone from his throat. His thoughts drifted into numb meditation, only partly brought on by the alcohol.
Twenty-four years. That was how long it had been since he had last heard from Peter Octavian, but the hard son of a bitch had apparently kept tabs on him. Enough so that when the time came that he needed to reach out to Santiago, all it had taken Octavian was a phone call. The old warrior would have chalked it up to him having signed the Covenant, but he hadn't given the damned UN his correct address or telephone number. He was practical enough to know when the winds of change were blowing, so signing up had been a no-brainer, but he wasn't stupid.
Octavian, he thought.
The name brought a cascade of sounds and images into his head, gunshots and screams and flashing swords, hopeless causes and tight corners, their backs to the wall. Until the one time in Namibia when they had found themselves on opposite sides of a fight. Things had never been the same after that.
Tonight, just before ten a.m. local time, his cell phone had rung. The conversation had been brief and Santiago had considered hanging up, fighting the urge to feel sympathy for his old friend's grief. But then Octavian had said the magic words.
There will be combat. Maybe war. And, if something isn't done, maybe the last war.
Octavian had been at the center of so many conflicts in recent years and he had never called before. Santiago had resented it. There were times when he knew he could have helped, especially in killing Hannibal, but the call had never come. He could think of only two reasons why Octavian had reached out to him at last; either the situation truly was that dire, or the bastard son of the last emperor of Byzantium had finally run out of allies.
Either way, Santiago knew what his decision had to be. He'd known it from the moment he'd picked up the phone and heard Octavian's voice, but still, here he was, sitting on his usual stool in Luna's, a dive bar on Tamarack Avenue, on the southern end of the Barrio, staring into the last wet inch of whiskey in his glass.
'Tio,' a soft voice said.
It wasn't the first time he'd heard the voice, but the first time it had registered. Then he felt the gentle touch on his arm and he blinked, waking from a daze, and glanced up from his glass. Anita with the storm-gray eyes stood beside him looking tired and worn - much too worn for a girl of only twenty.
'Tio, please,' she said.
He frowned, not understanding, and she glanced away worriedly, as if she might fear his reaction. This puzzled him. Santiago had been coming into Luna's for years; they all knew him here. Tio was both a play on his name and the Spanish word for 'uncle', indicating the protective fondness he felt for the owner, Ana Moon, and the people who worked there. His appearance could be intimidating; he knew that. Though only five foot six, he was powerfully built, with ancient tattoos over corded muscles, and his bald head and long, pointed goatee spoke of menace and violence, even when he didn't want them to.
But these people knew him. The idea that Anita might be nervous around him would have made him laugh if not for the pang of hurt and disappointment he felt.
'Did I do something wrong?' he asked.
Anita smiled, but he could see that it was forced. 'Tio. It's three o'clock in the morning. We just want to go home.'
Santiago knitted his brow, trying to process that. He glanced around and saw that the bar was empty except for Anita and himself, and for Miguelito the cook, who sat slumped in a booth with an empty beer glass in front of him. Even the bartender, Rubio, had gone home. The chairs had been put up onto the tables and the wooden floor was damp with ammonia-scented mop water. The music had been turned off. He had no idea how long he had been sitting in near silence.
He shook his head, trying to clear his mind, and knocked back the final swallow of whiskey, setting down the glass. Then he slipped two twenties from his wallet and left them on the bar. When he slid off the stool and moved toward Anita, she flinched back. It hurt him all over again.
'No, no. Now, come on,' he said. 'A man just gets a little lost sometimes.'
Perhaps she saw the hurt in his eyes, for she stood still and let him kiss her cheek. He had to stretch a little to do it; Anita was two inches taller.
'My apologies to you both,' he said. 'You won't see me for a while.'
'Don't be that way, Tio,' Anita said quickly. 'It's only that we're tired.'
Santiago glanced at Miguelito, who looked so tired he didn't even feel any of the anxiety that had been troubling the waitress.
'I know, bonita. I'm sorry about that, but I didn't mean I wouldn't come into the bar. I'm just going away for a while, that's all. Go home and get some sleep. I'll see you when I come back.'
Santiago headed for the door. His flight to Philadelphia was at 7:10, which gave him plenty of time to go home, shower, change, and pack a bag, and still make it to San Diego in plenty of time. He could've flown out of McClellan, but changing planes would mean a layover, and he wanted the fastest route east.
'Where are you going?' Anita asked as he opened the door.
'To a funeral,' Santiago said. 'After that, maybe to war.'
Charlotte's eyes fluttered open. She was surprised to find that she had been dozing, her head nested between pillows and the bedclothes pulled up to her neck. The drone of voices from CNN came from the television in the hotel room that Octavian had secured for her. She had been watching numbly and had had no intention of sleeping. Shadows had the capacity for sleep but not the human necessity; yet she had apparently drifted off.
Drifted? she thought with bleary amusement. More like plummeted.
She sat up and propped herself on a couple of pillows, staring at the television and trying to make sense of the images there. Football players in action, some kind of sports report. Then the reassuring smile of a news anchor before cutting to a Middle Eastern city street scene, black smoke rising as a crush of people fled from uniformed men wielding batons. Children, covered in blood, being treated in a makeshift hospital.
The world we've made, she thought. Whenever she pondered such things, she had to wonder if immortality held any real allure.
There came a brisk knock at the door, the sort that implied it hadn't been the first. Had that been what had woken her?
Frowning, she whipped back the covers and padded to the door in her underpants and a fitted black tee. She would need clothes, especially something for the funeral
. Charlotte had gone days wearing the same outfit in the past, but never on purpose. If anything, she had grown more concerned about hygiene and clean clothes since leaving humanity behind.
She stood on her toes and looked through the peephole in the door, spying Allison Vigeant standing in the hall. As Charlotte reached for the deadbolt, the other vampire knocked again.
'All right, hang on!' Charlotte said.
She removed the safety latch and opened the door. 'What's up?'
Allison arched an eyebrow. 'You were sleeping?'
'I crashed,' Charlotte replied. 'Weird, right?'
'Sometimes we need to go dormant, like hibernating,' Allison said. 'Other times it's just reflex. Conditioned behavior from human life.' She looked Charlotte up and down, surveying her many intricate tattoos. 'Can I come in a minute?'
'Sure. Sorry,' Charlotte replied, backing up to let her pass. 'What can I do for you?'
'I just thought we should get to know each other a little,' Allison said. 'You being the new girl and all.'
Charlotte closed the door and followed Allison back into the room. She glanced at the nightstand and saw the clock.
'Sort of a strange time for a get-to-know-you, isn't it?' Charlotte asked. 'Quarter past six in the morning?'
Allison slid into a chair and gazed at her, once again seeming to take her measure. In another life, Charlotte would have felt self-conscious about being in her underpants and t-shirt in front of this woman she barely knew, but modesty had mostly died with her humanity.
'I didn't expect you to be sleeping,' Allison said.
Charlotte nodded, then crawled back into bed, sitting up against the propped pillows. She crossed her hands in her lap.
'What do you want to know? Octavian and Metzger spent about two hours interrogating me last night. I figure you've probably already heard about it from them.'
'From Peter, yes,' Allison said. 'Metzger is afraid to come near me in case I decide to rip his throat out.'
'That's going to make for an interesting alliance.'
'Yeah. It is,' Allison replied. 'What do you know about me?'
Charlotte shrugged. 'Only what Octavian's told me. One of his best friends. Badass vamp hunter. Fugitive. UN figured you for a traitor. Now Octavian's going to shove you down their throats.'
'How does that strike you?'
'If Octavian vouches for you, that's good enough for me. It's not like I have a lot of choices. He's pretty much the only reason I'm alive right now. He could have killed me when we met, and he's had opportunities to let me die.'
'But he's taken you under his wing,' Allison said.
'I guess, yeah.'
'And that's enough for you to be willing to go to war for him?'
Charlotte bristled, cocking her head. 'Cortez and his coven raped and murdered me and turned me into this. If I go to war, it's not for Octavian.'
'What if he wants you elsewhere?' Allison asked. 'The chaos you helped stop in Massachusetts is going to have repercussions. The world is going to start unraveling.'
'That's my fight too, isn't it? I have to live here.' Charlotte slid to the edge of the bed and stared at her. 'What exactly do you want from me? You want me to leave?'
Allison settled back into the chair, steepling her fingers on her chest. 'Not at all. I'm like you. If Peter vouches for you, that's good enough for me. But that doesn't mean I don't get to be curious and to wonder about you and your allegiances.'
Charlotte threw up her hands. 'Look, I told those guys everything I know about Cortez. I told them every safe house I ever visited and the names of every member of the coven I knew. It's a hell of a head start, I think. There's nothing else I can offer. And if I was out to kill Octavian, I'm sure I had an opportunity or two when we were fighting Navalica. You want to know whose side I'm on? Don't be stupid. I'm on my own side first. But I'm smart enough to know that Octavian's on my side, too. He wants to keep me alive and to take Cortez down. Seeing as how those are my two top priorities, yeah . . . I'll fight for him. Wherever he wants me, that's where I'll go.'
Allison nodded thoughtfully, turning to glance out the slider at the gray sky lightening over the city.
'He's a sort of mentor to you, now, I suppose,' Allison said, turning her attention back to Charlotte. 'He's good at it, you know. Being the "vampire godfather", taking ordinary Shadows under his wing and making heroes out of them. He did it for me and a lot of people I loved. But you'd better be very sure that's what you want.'
'I'm sure,' Charlotte insisted.
'See,' Allison went on, 'there were a lot of us, once upon a time. What Peter was talking about last night, the group he mentioned? Most of us are dead. Old friends and old lovers. We won the battles that mattered, yeah. But not without a cost. Not without a price that you have to be willing to pay if you're going to get into this. Most of us never got the chance to decide, to know what we were getting ourselves into. So maybe I'm coming off as a cold bitch. I'm sure I am, actually; I haven't had a lot to laugh about, or anybody to laugh with, for a long time. Might be I don't remember how to be pleasant. But I wanted to give you the opportunity to really think about what you're getting into, and to run like hell if you want.'
Charlotte blinked in surprise. She had thought that this visit was about suspicion, and that was certainly part of it. But what Allison had brought her this morning was an unexpected kindness.
'I . . .' she began, faltering. 'Look, I appreciate it. Honestly. But whatever happens from here on in, I'm choosing it. After I got away from Cortez I just wanted to have a life, but now that I know all of this is happening, I can't just do nothing about it. Besides . . . even if I wanted to run, I've got nowhere else to go.'
Allison sat forward, pushing her hair away from her face. 'All right, then. You're in. But Peter's going to have a lot on his mind, so if he's your godfather, from now on I'm your fairy godmother. You have questions, you need combat training, you're trying to deal with the life you left behind, come to me. I'll do what I can to help you get through it.'
Charlotte smiled, touched by her words and slightly taken aback. Allison stood to leave and Charlotte scrambled out of the bed to follow her.
'Thank you,' Charlotte said. 'Really. Thanks so much.'
She didn't expect to find a friend in this grim hunter. She didn't express the sentiment out loud, however. It seemed clear that there would be no hugs and late-night girl talk between them. Perhaps 'friend' was too strong a word, but 'ally' would do.
'My pleasure,' Allison said, reaching the door. She pulled it open and then turned, standing silhouetted against the corridor beyond. 'Let's be clear, though. If it turns out you're bullshitting and that you're still taking orders from Cortez, I'll spend hours killing you.'
Charlotte could only stare, wide-eyed, as Allison left, shutting the door behind her. She'd believed every word.
It seemed that perhaps even 'ally' was too strong a word.
Hannah woke in seething pain. Her skull felt like it might split and her belly and ribs ached so much that she couldn't breathe. Tears sprang to her eyes and she cried out, head back, venting her pain to a God she feared must be deaf. Where the hell am I? she thought. Charlie?
And then she remembered the demon, and that it had killed Charlie, whom she had never really stopped loving.
The pain turned her mournful sob into a moan. 'God!' she cried out, reaching down to put one hand on her belly - her rounded, distended belly. Something moved beneath the skin and she screamed, eyes widening as she propped herself up.
On the stairs.
Leading up from the sepulcher in the basement of the cathedral.
At the bottom of the stairs, the demon lay upon Charlie's corpse, stripping flesh and muscle from the bones, which jerked and twitched obscenely. Her eyelids fluttered and the edges of her vision dimmed, but she forced herself not to pass out again, searching her mind for the last traces of memory from before she had fallen unconscious. The demon had killed him, then come past him, reaching for her.
Why did it let me go? she wondered.
Another spasm clutched at her gut and she cried out in pain and put both hands on her stomach. Eyes wide, she felt a fullness descend inside her, stretching her open, searing her vagina with pain, and then she knew and felt stupid for not understanding immediately.
The demon had not let her go at all.
Her heart raced and her breath came in desperate hitches of denial. She propped herself higher on an elbow, the hard edges of the stone stairs biting into her back, and she looked down and saw the blood soaking through the crotch of her pants.
'Oh, God,' she whispered, tears springing to her eyes. What is happening to me?
Horror swept through her, her gorge rising in disgust even as the pain and fullness grew worse. Something inside her, growing and twisting and trying to come out . . . trying to be born.
Shrieking, tears streaming down her cheeks, unmindful of anyone who might bear witness, Hannah reached down and tore at the button and zipper of her pants. Even as she shrugged them down, fighting the pain and weakness that had left her stranded there on the stairs, she felt the surge from inside her, the stretching of her vagina as something wriggled inside her, struggling to be free. Pushing her pants down, she caught sight of herself . . . opening . . . and the blood- and mucous-smeared thing that was emerging, its skin a chitinous, insectoid armor.
As it pushed free, pain wrenched a scream from her throat and she threw her head back, slamming her skull against the stairs. Her thoughts blurred and her legs began to spasm and kick of their own accord, splayed wide. For a moment she thought the grotesque birth had already taken place, her lower half numbed by trauma, and then she felt it push again and slide from within her.
She couldn't look at it, could only close her eyes tightly and feel it slither over her, leaving a wet, stinking trail. It mewled beside her, fetid, brimstone breath on her cheek, and then she heard it on the stairs, clicking and then clattering as it slid up into the cathedral, where people would still be recovering from an earthquake, unable to imagine what the earth had shaken loose.
For several minutes, sickness roiling in her gut, she lay weeping on the stairs and listened for the screams she knew must come from above any minute now. Below her came wet, grinding, snapping noises and she wondered if the demon had begun to gnaw on Charlie's bones. Sobbing, she pushed all thoughts of Charlie away. She couldn't think of him, now, couldn't allow herself to wonder what might have happened if she could have just stopped with her sarcasm and little cruelties and opened her heart to him, told him how she really felt. That she still loved him.
Shaking, eyes burning with tears, pants around her ankles, she turned on her side and began to consider modesty. So weak, she thought. In all her life she had never felt so fragile and tentative. Grief felt like an iron shroud upon her, crushing her, suffocating her so that she did not even want to rise from her defilement.
But she had to. If she stayed here, when the demon had finished consuming Charlie, it would crawl up the stairs and come for her. Again.
Hannah forced herself to reach a trembling hand down and begin to drag her pants upward. Then she halted, brows knitted. How? she asked herself. The last thing she remembered was the demon reaching for her, touching her, and then a cold fire racing through her and pain shooting through her belly that sent her reeling toward the stairs. She had fallen on the stone steps and unconsciousness had claimed her. But when she'd come around, her clothes had not been torn. She'd had to remove her own pants for that . . . Stop. Don't think about it.
The demon had impregnated her with nothing but a touch.
A spasm wracked her body, bile burned its way up the back of her throat and she twisted to one side, spraying vomit onto the wall and stairs. Disgusted, she inched away, wrinkling her nose at the smell and at this humiliation added to all the rest.
'Come. You've got to hurry,' a voice said.
Recoiling from the gentle kindness, she fought for modesty, trying to drag her pants up the rest of the way even as she lolled her head back and looked to see who had come upon her in her ruin. Light from above silhouetted him, but when she blinked she saw that she knew him, and her humiliation was complete.
Father Laurent. She had entirely forgotten about the priest.
Hannah opened her mouth to speak but could only sob again, throwing a hand across her face to hide her shame.
'Ssshh,' he said. 'You are in shock. But we must get you out of here. There is another upstairs. It just passed me, but who can say how many more there might be?'
No, she thought, wanting to explain to him. This new demon, this thing with its chitinous armor, had not come from the tomb of Saint Denis like the other. It had come from-
Hannah cried out, contorting with the pain of fresh cramps in her belly. Her first thought was to wonder what damage the thing had done, growing inside of her. And then she felt the swelling and the squirming and the hideous pressure from within, and her legs widened instinctively, preparing once again for birth.
Eyes wide, breath catching in her throat, she began to shake her head furiously, even as Father Laurent's words echoed in her mind. Who can say how many more there might be?
And oh, how she screamed.