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Embracing the Shadows

Embracing the Shadows

Book two of the Shadows series

By Gavin Green

Copyright 2015 Gavin Green

Smashwords Edition

Also by the author:

Eire of Intrigue (book one of the Eire series)

Eire of Mystery (book two of the Eire series)

Eire of Hostility (book three of the Eire series)

Eire of Aggression (book four of the Eire series)

Into the Shadows (book one of the Shadows series)

This is a work of fiction. All characters and events are purely imagined. Any resemblance to real people or situations is completely ridiculous, and you should get professional help if you think otherwise.

Dedication:

To sugar, caffeine, and nicotine – my unswerving, lethal friends. Also to you, for putting up with my ramblings . . . and all the damn cussing.

"Every man casts a shadow; not his body only, but his imperfectly mingled spirit. This is his grief. Let him turn which way he will, it falls opposite to the sun; short at noon, long at eve. Did you never see it?" -- Henry David Thoreau

Embracing the Shadows

HEALING

The taste of something familiar and strong woke me. It was harsh, sweet, and potent in a smooth combination – Viggo’s blood. One of my eyes fluttered open to dim light, and a blurry shape looming over me. There was a noise – I couldn’t understand it at first, but I recognized it as Viggo’s deep, ominous voice. I wanted to listen and obey, but all I heard was mumbled tones.

And then pain flooded in. Most of my entire right side throbbed with gut-wrenching agony. I gasped, which created a whole new world of searing torture. My left eye sprung open; only my left, because my right eyelid didn’t want to cooperate. All I could make sense of was Viggo’s cracked face looking down at me. I tried to speak, but could only force a wet cough.

When Viggo spoke again, I realized what he was saying; seeing his lips move helped to make sense of the words. “Heal yourself, Leo. Concentrate,” he commanded. “You have my blood in you. Use it. Focus on mending.”

I followed his order. Shutting my eye, I blocked everything else out and focused what energy I had, picturing Viggo’s strength coursing through my veins and healing me. Pain was spiking in my side, so I directed my efforts on my smashed ribs. I gnashed my teeth through the slow process of muscles and bones shifting to their intended positions. I flexed my jaw, and then willed my energy into my shoulder and upper arm. Next was the side of my head; I didn’t know how messed up it was, but it sure as hell didn’t feel good. Before I could try to fix my unbending knee, I passed out from exhaustion.

The next time I woke, it was to the sound of a violin being played. I don’t know shit about music, but it was obvious that there was a lot of talent involved. Skilled hands hit perfect notes and the virtuoso melody was soothing, but a deep echo gave it a haunted feel. It made me think of my parents; mom was the music, dad was the echo. I ignored the throbbing in my leg, kept my eyes closed, and just listened.

Too soon for my liking, the music ended. A moment after the last note faded, there was applause from a small audience of what sounded like four or five people. After that, I heard conversations begin, although they were garbled by echo and distance. The air was still and musty, with sweet incense that I could almost taste. Plus, there was a faint odor of raw meat mixed in. My right eye was still crusted shut, so I looked around with my left. I was in a dark space; dim light glowed far off to my right where the voices were. I was on a soft but ugly couch, and still in my sewer gear. I slowly sat up to get my bearings.

The first thing I noticed was that the floor under me was made of sections of metal grates, like the bridge over the chasm was. I guess somebody bought ‘em in bulk. The couch was against one smooth stone wall of a twenty-foot square room. Ten feet to my left was a heavy iron door. Across from me was another couch, with Viggo’s boxes stacked next to it. To my right was another room half a level up with stairs cut into the stone to access it, like a split-level house. From my angle, I could only see part of the low ceiling of the large room beyond. Pale blue light reflected off its smooth surface.

Next to my couch was a small table that held a dog bowl full of water and a rag. I assumed it was for me. While I sat in the near-dark and scrubbed dried blood off my face, I caught sluggish movement below the grated flooring. Searching, I found my cracked hardhat next to the table and checked the headlamp. I was surprised it still worked. I stretched my bad leg out to the side, leaned over, and shined the light down. That wasn’t such a great idea.

Below me, I saw . . . Try to picture an animal that was equal parts rat, Doberman, and nightmare. Then give it growth hormones. Patches of black fur partially covered muscular, dull red skin. Once you have that in your head, picture five of them sleepily lying around fifteen feet below you in a den of soiled blankets and bones. Then, because some idiot shined a light down on them, picture those five animals suddenly glaring up at you with yellow eyes, baring teeth the size of your thumb. When they started snarling and howling, I turned the light off and reactively pulled my foot off the floor.

“Ah, you are awake,” Viggo said from the top of the stairs. “Have you seen to the rest of your injuries?”

“Uh, almost; I still need to work on my leg. Oh, by the way, sir, I had no idea I could do that – you know, actively heal myself – with your, uh, Eidolon blood. It’s . . . Damn, you should bottle that shit.”

“I am glad you approve, Leo, although there are limitations for a minion. As you found out, the strain of mending your wounds was quite taxing, no? For me, in comparison, there would be no fatigue. The need to feed, however, would come along sooner.”

“Oh, okay,” I said, realizing how hungry I was. Ignoring the craving for a cheeseburger, I asked, “Was that giant your minion, sir?”

Viggo came down the handful of stairs and leaned against the waist-high wall. “That giant is simply called Brute, and technically yes, he is one of mine. Other Deviants feed him their blood as well, so he is more thought of as a servant of the faction. Brute has the mind of a pet, but is also aggressively defensive. It was a mistake to send him to carry in the boxes when Roach saw you on the monitors.”

“So it wasn’t completely my fault?”

He shook his head. “We all are aware that Brute is not fond of other Deviant minions. I believe he sees all of you as potential challengers to his favored position down here in the deep caves. Despite the considerable damage you inflicted, he will soon be back at his post.”

"I really didn't want to hurt him, but he scared the living shit out of me. He looked like he was gonna rip my head off, so I pulled my -"

Viggo stopped me with a raised hand. “We watched the replay on the monitor. While Roach does not agree, Mr. Merritt and I feel you were justified in your actions. Now, focus on healing your leg. There are still introductions to be made and gifts to be given . . . even if some are not fully merited.”

“Yes sir.” I looked down at my leg, and once again saw the animals below us looking up. “Uh, sir,” I said while pointing down, “what exactly are those?”

He glanced down. “They are a pack of decades-old canine minions whose diet over the years has solely consisted of vermin and carrion. Being quite intelligent, they have a variety of uses.” Viggo then cocked his head slightly to one side and asked, “Would you care to adopt one?”

“No fuckin’ way,” I blurted before I could stop myself.

CHAMBER

After I healed my knee and managed to stack the boxes so I could carry all of them, I followed Viggo up the stairs into the upper-level chamber. It was basically a deep stone vault carved into bedrock – by a machine, I assumed, because the surfaces were fairly smooth. The area was twenty feet wide and probably eighty feet deep, with three evenly spaced, four-foot thick stone pillars. The ceiling was about ten feet high, but seemed lower because of the other dimensions. By all the cobwebs along the walls, it seemed that housekeeping wasn’t one of Brute’s skills.

On the subject of Brute, it was the hemo called Roach who sent him to come ‘assist’ me. Yeah, right. He knew Viggo wasn’t there yet, and also knew there would be trouble. He was either an asshole in general, or he was yet another supernatural prick who had a personal problem with me.

The far end of the vault was aglow with bluish lighting, adding another level of spooky to the place. That light came from what I later learned was a bunch of filtered aquariums with bioluminescent algae in the water. Those aquariums were spread around, sitting on tables between all the mismatched living room furniture. If it weren’t for the setting, I would’ve thought that glowing algae was pretty damn cool.

The blue glow let me see the people at the far end, but I was distracted by what was on either side of Viggo and me as we walked. Banners and flags, some of which I didn’t recognize, were hung randomly on the walls. Stacked on the floor in front of them were wooden crates of various sizes and squat bookshelves full of dusty tomes. There were even a few archaic sets of armor on old-style mannequins. It all looked like a history nerd’s wet dream.

I turned my attention once again to the far end of the room, and was having some serious anxiety. Okay, more than likely I wasn’t in any real danger, but I was going to be surrounded by hemos once again. It was a fair bet that none of them were as pathetic as that Adept, Evan Dean, which really made me feel like a kid lost in gang territory. I had complete faith in my commander, but I also remembered that one of the hemos ahead of us angrily flung me at a rock wall. I wasn’t expecting any hugs.

I hesitated for a second, wishing I could down a few drinks first. Viggo sensed my anxiety and paused with me. He didn’t say a word or even look at me; he just waited. I didn’t have the words to thank him for that small act of kindness, so I didn’t even try. I let out a deep breath, whispered a quick “Okay”, and we resumed walking forward. It was time to meet some of the gang.

DEVIANTS

Viggo and I arrived at the end of the long chamber. Bathed in the eerie bluish light and stark shadows were five figures, only two of which I recognized. Barnabus Merritt lounged on a couch to my right, and Clara Page sat near him in an overstuffed chair that made her look smaller. We approached those two first. Viggo had me set down the boxes and gave the heaviest one to Barnabus.

“As promised,” Viggo said to him, “a token of my appreciation for your continued assistance. The collective works of Thoreau; I believe you wanted these at some point, yes?”

“Ah, yes indeed, my friend,” Barnabus said with a smile as he sat up and accepted the gift. In the glow, his bulging red eye was a violet color. “Oh, by the by, I’ve learned something that might interest you. We haven’t spoken since before the emissary meeting two nights past, and it held a few interesting topics. One of which was about the Adept’s own Mr. Dominic Riva and his recently wayward young scion. Favors are being offered for information concerning the whereabouts of a Mr. Sebastian Horn, who has been missing for nigh on a week.”

“Interesting,” Viggo commented. “I had not heard of Mr. Horn before. Considering that Riva is the scion of Lady Le Meur, however, I am sure that she gave him permission to create progeny. Do we happen to have any information about where this fledgling might be?”

“I know where he is,” Clara said softly as she wrote in a notebook on her lap. “Viv told me.” With those simple words, that little girl had everyone’s attention. The hemo behind us stopped typing on his laptop, the violin player stopped tuning a string, and my peripheral vision caught another guy sitting up straight.

Like everyone else, I turned to Clara, waiting for more information. I saw the same cute black girl that I first met a couple months back – still shy, still wearing a poncho and stocking cap. She glanced up, saw us looking at her, and dropped her head down to start writing again. I wondered who the hell Viv was.

“And what exactly did Vivian tell you?” Viggo prompted her in a calm tone.

“She said he was a bad man. She said he didn’t pay attention, and that he got powder in his blood.” Clara then looked up at Viggo. “Viv said that you know where he is, too.”

“I do, do I?”

“Yes, father,” Clara replied, and then pointed at me. “Your human caught the bad man, and you hid him away. Viv told me where. I promise I won’t tell.”

Holy crap, she was talking about the blood-lusting hemo I put down in Colby Park. That guy was an Adept? I could only guess that the powder she mentioned was cocaine, heroin or uppers, and that Horn either personally sniffed it or drank from someone who’d taken some. Yeah, she said “he didn’t pay attention” – the hemo probably drank from an addict who’d just gotten a fix. What an idiot.

“I know you won’t, Clara; you are very good at keeping secrets,” Viggo said. He turned, pulled a box from the stack, and handed it to her. “I got you more notebooks, plus pens with different colors of ink.”

“Thank you, thank you!” she said with an adolescent’s joy. Clara was a supernatural being brought into the night over eighty years ago, and she still had the mind of an innocent girl. I felt sorry for her, being so fucked in the head like that. And I still didn’t know who Vivian was.

While Viggo pointed out some of the items to Clara, Barnabus said to me, “It’s good to see you up and about, Mr. Beck. You and I should converse sometime; I’d imagine you have some interesting accounts.”

“Uh, yeah, sure, that’d be great. I’m staying at the last place we met.”

He smiled those piranha teeth at me and said, “I’ll keep that in mind,” and then returned to his book.

At Viggo’s gesture, I picked up the remaining boxes and followed him the few steps to the violin player, who sat on a padded barstool back in one corner. Dressed in only a gauzy black gown, the woman was willowy and tall. Her long milky hair hung straight, and her alabaster skin was riddled with wavy blue veins . . . even throughout her long, smooth face. Unlike an albino’s pink eyes, hers were dark, sunken, and unblinking. I didn’t know if it was her ghostly looks or that she smelled like death, but something about that violin-playing hemo reminded me of screaming murder and it spooked the shit out of me.

“Again, Neva, that was a beautiful composition,” Viggo said as he took one of the few boxes left and handed it to her. “Since I admittedly know nothing of violin bows, here is a selection.”

Holding her violin in one hand and accepting the gift in the other, Neva bowed her head low to him. When she sat straight again, she didn’t say anything but had an expression that could have been taken as gratitude. To me, though, it just looked like a sad smile. But who cares; I wanted away from her.

Viggo and I moved on. There was an L-shaped desk in the other corner stacked with a bank of over thirty small video monitors. Sitting in front of the desk in a leather office chair was an emaciated, dark-skinned cadaver staring at me with a scowl. He was basically a skeleton with a thin layer of skin pulled tightly over the bones, covered by a bathrobe and slippers. If he wasn’t giving me a ‘fuck you’ stare, I would have laughed at him. But then I noticed the rips in his taut skin, like the one in his cheek where I could see his molars grinding together. I didn’t feel like laughing anymore.

Before Viggo could say anything to him, cadaver boy hissed, “What’s your new toy still doing down here with us, Stone? Your trigger-happy piece of shit has caused enough trouble.”

Weird, he just referred to my commander as ‘Stone’. I wondered why Viggo would hide his true identity from some of the hemos in his own faction. That I was aware of, the only ones who knew who he really was were Ragna, Barnabus, and Clara. Ragna had that sight Gift, so maybe she saw the truth. It could’ve been the same for Barnabus and his creepy eye, although I wanted to think that he was just cool enough to keep a secret. And if Viggo didn’t tell Clara the truth, I bet the mysterious Vivian did.

“We have already discussed this, Roach,” Viggo replied. “I stand firm that my minion’s reactions were justified, especially when our most aggressive guard was erroneously sent for an unnecessary task. But I would rather not continue to point fingers. What’s done is done, Brute is healing well, and I have already fixed the stairs. Here,” he held out a large, light box, “a gesture of goodwill.”

Roach slowly accepted the box and opened it. “Hey, sodium bulbs,” he said, apparently pleased despite his mood. He then looked up at Viggo and said, “Thanks . . . and sorry about being snappy. Other than the plants, Brute is usually my only company, ya know?”

“I understand,” Viggo said with a nod. “No offense is taken. However, I expect a better attempt at civility if you and my favored minion cross paths again.” Hell fucking yes! I was the favored minion!

Roach acknowledged the statement with a nod and left it at that. Viggo and I turned to move on, and that’s when I noticed a hallway cut into the stone. It was between the desk full of monitors and an aquarium table, leading back into darkness. Roach saw me looking down that narrow corridor and said with a smirk, “Go ahead. I dare ya.” Viggo reached back and pulled me next to him.

We moved a few steps over to the couch across the room from Barnabus and Clara, where a small guy slouched with a laptop on his beer belly. By the size of his high-top running shoes propped up on a table, his feet were bigger than mine. He wore a baggy jogging suit and a pageboy cap over his short hair. It was tough to tell what color any of it was in the blue light. He had normal features and a wide smile. The only thing odd about the guy was the two-headed snake that slithered around on him. He ignored it.

“Here you are, my cunning friend,” Viggo said to him, handing over the last box. “And I believe you had something for me as well?”

“You betcha; I’m emailing it to you now.” He took the small box from Viggo without looking at it, tapped a couple times on his keyboard, and then looked up at me. Still grinning, he said, “Hangin’ in there, kid?” He spoke with an accent. It was different from Fletcher’s, but not by much. I guessed Irish.

“I’m doing alright, uh, sir.” I called him sir because I hadn’t been instructed on how to address any of Viggo’s Deviant buddies that I hadn’t met yet. If calling him by that respectful title didn’t work, I figured I’d be waking up on a couch again and needing to heal.

The short hemo’s grin widened with a chuckle. He leaned to one side, looked past me, and said across the room to Barnabus, “Check that out, he called me sir.”

“If he only knew . . .” Barnabus replied without looking up from his book.

“Leo,” Viggo said, gesturing with an open hand to the smiling hemo still reclined on the couch, “this is Mr. Scanlon O’Shaughnessy. For various reasons, he uses the simple moniker, ‘Skin’.”

What a weird nickname. I guess my opinion showed on my face because Skin said, “Yeah, you heard right, kid. You’ll figure it out sooner or later.” He slapped the cushion next to him. “Have a seat and let me show ya my latest little piece of work.”

I looked to Viggo, who nodded. When I settled in next to Skin, both heads of his snake hissed at me. Gently brushing the mutant snake away, Skin turned the laptop my way. It showed stills of a large and well-decorated bedroom, lit by a few small lamps. On the king-sized bed was a fat, older guy wearing only a t-shirt and socks. On top of him was a short-haired blonde woman barely out of her teens; the only things she was wearing were a garter belt and a smile.

“What we have here,” Skin said, leaning closer to me and clicking to another shot, “is a certain city zoning administrator trying not to have a heart attack while his wife is in Atlanta. He had no idea how the girl got in, but it didn’t take much persuading to let her stay a while. This fella has been a bit of a stickler allowing permits for one or two industrial sites up for reconstruction. Sites we might find useful, ya see. Catching our old boy in flagrante should make him change his mind.”

“It was pretty stupid of him to have cameras on in his bedroom,” I commented. “And if he didn’t bring that prostitute home with him, then his security sucks.”

"Yeah, well," Skin said, laughing, "she had a little help getting in, and told a few finely crafted lies to, ah, put him at ease. Oh, and those aren't his cameras. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, eh, kid?" As blackmail went, it looked airtight. That fat old man screwed himself more than he did the whore. "Now look at this," Skin went on, opening a different folder on the screen. "Back on Valentine's Day, I got -"

“Perhaps some other time, Skin,” Viggo said, looming over us. “Mr. Beck and I need to move along before night ends. We are coming into yet another season of long days, and we shouldn’t waste the precious little time available. Enjoy the discs – I believe they will suffice.”

I got up and stood next to Viggo while he wished everyone a good evening. We left the chamber the same way as how we came in. I didn’t look down as we walked across the grate flooring with the pack of whatever the hell they were down below us. The metal door at the far end opened into a rough tunnel lit by a hanging bare bulb. The short tunnel ended at another door, which opened to the metal stairs where Brute attacked me. It was morbid, but I had to look at my own bloodstains on the cave wall.

I followed Viggo into the long, curving hemo-built tunnel. Halfway through, he stopped and said we would void-walk back to my new place. Void-walking . . . Call me crazy, but I was getting used to it.

DETAILS

“I imagine you have a number of questions,” Viggo said as he sat back in an upstairs lounge chair. He had allowed me time to go mix a strong drink beforehand; I sat across from him and nursed it. “However, I should also meet with the fledgling Mr. Horn, who is currently my guest.”

“Yes sir, I figured as much,” I said, and then took a drink. That first gulp of Jack and Coke calmed any of the residual jitters that still lingered.

“I will summarize information for now, and we can speak more in depth soon. Now, to begin . . . this city’s faction of Deviants are quite eclectic, no? As you may have guessed, my scion Clara’s mind did not fare too well during the infliction, but it is probable that she was unstable when she was human. After being brought into the night, her mind truly splintered. Vivian is an aspect of her own psyche; she is the conduit of Clara’s visions, whispering secrets and rarely coming to the fore.

“The one named Neva does not or cannot speak. She stays underground, and does not concern herself with the machinations of the world above. The main reason for this is because of the rare trait in her blood that we refer to as the ‘taint of horror’. I’m sure you sensed it. The taint prohibits her from most social interactions, although we fellow Deviants accept her regardless. As a form of gratitude, she regales us with music that stirs the soul.

“Roach, as you’ve unfortunately found out,” Viggo continued with a deeper pitch to his voice, “has difficulty concealing his emotions. He is a bitter, cynical type, although he contributes generously to the faction coffers. Roach is a businessman of sorts, and does not stray from his tight circle of employees and contacts. Nor does he stray much from our Deviant-made catacombs, infrequently venturing out to see the stars. He is normally difficult to pity, although I sometimes do.”

So far, what he’d told me about his fellow Deviants troubled me. I mean, they were all a far cry from stable, and then add the fact that they were all immortals with supernatural abilities. That kind of power in shaky hands was like throwing shit in a room full of fans.

“Lastly,” Viggo concluded, “was Mr. O’Shaughnessy. I enjoyed seeing him again; he and I converse mostly by electronic means. He doesn’t travel underground often, so I took the opportunity to talk with him at length while you slept. You might say that Skin is in the extortion trade, but he most often targets those who are already corrupt in some fashion. Because of the nature of his ‘craft’, as he calls it, he is also a font of information. And, if nothing else, he is entertaining.”

“Yeah, I got that feeling when I met him, sir,” I said, stalling until I could politely form the question that came to mind. “I, uh – I was wondering, sir . . . Well, a while back, when I was kidnapped and kept in that museum, remember? Anyway, there was this Adept minion named Sarah who thought there were only five or six, uh, members in each faction. Including you, I’ve met ten Deviants – Wayne makes eleven. So, was Sarah way off count, or do you guys move around a lot so the number isn’t constant, or what?”

“There are the rare few in each faction who have wanderlust, the Outsiders most of all. Most often, though, we tend to be territorial . . . at least for a good length of time. That, however, does not truly answer your question. In all honesty, a number of Deviants have not introduced themselves to the Doyenne. They are essentially trespassers, even if Le Meur is unaware of their presence in her city. I am one of them, as are Clara, Neva and Wayne.” He stood and adjusted his coat. “When the timing is right, I will introduce myself.”

The way Viggo said that last part told me that it wasn’t going to be a festive occasion. I stood as well and said, “Uh, yes sir, I’m sure you will. By the way, thanks for taking me with you to . . . wherever we were. Other than having to shoot a giant and being smashed into a wall, I hope I wasn’t a pain in your ass. I was honored to be there with you.”

As a reply, Viggo patted me on the shoulder and then walked past me. At the doorway of the lounge, he half-turned and said, “Do not think I forgot you, Leo. I placed your gift on the desk in your office downstairs while you were preparing your beverage. I will contact you soon.”

COMPUTER

After Viggo found a dark corner and left, I finished off my drink and then made another to bring with me to the office. Lying on the keyboard was an envelope. I moved it aside and turned on the new computer. The basic set of programs had been set to shortcuts, and the screensaver was the logo for USMC Force Recon. Like I’ve said before, Viggo knew me too well.

I looked in the envelope and found a note and a flash drive. I plugged the drive in and clicked to access it. A new screen popped up, asking for a decryption code to proceed. I looked at the note; at the top of it was written a password: catabolism, although it used alternative keys to be spelled as ‘[email protected]@b0li$m’. I thought it was a pretty weird word to use – hell, I wasn’t even sure what it meant at the time – but it turned out to be a clue of things to come.

The message on the hand-written note said: The installed flash drive and code will access a private server. Data for current duties will be found in the icon named ‘Planner’. Other icons have been placed for perusal, although everything found within is considered highly confidential. You will also find that some files and links are restricted until you earn a higher security clearance. Once you have committed the password to memory, destroy this note.

PS: We should talk sometime. -G-

Gwen, it had to be Gwen. I’d been avoiding giving her a call, mostly because I was still conflicted about her involvement in the dark world I’d been thrown into. Still, she was a good friend, and I felt like a bit of a dick for ignoring her.

Besides the ‘Planner’ icon in the classified database, there were others called ‘Forum’, ‘Games’ and ‘Maps’. In the Planner folder was a calendar filled with various chores for the next couple of weeks. The chores were shit like shopping for simple hardware (mostly tools and wiring, small cuts of lumber, glass jars and disturbing amounts of car battery acid). I also had to remind certain people of their obligations, pick up ordered supplies and deliver them to specific locations, secure underground cables, and remove tunnel debris. I was disappointed that ‘exploring brothels’ wasn’t mentioned anywhere.

Each of the chores had linked comments giving details I had to be aware of. At the end of each comment was the reminder to “practice being ignored at any opportunity – report any success”. Okay, will do. I was pleasantly surprised to see on the calendar that once a week I was to train for both martial arts and marksmanship. The comment under those was that I had to find facilities beyond the suburbs. There was a college town about forty five minutes away that most likely had both.

Under the only other tab in the folder was another calendar, but it was for local events that hemos were either hosting or involved with. The night before, for example, there was an art gallery party. Yeah, sorry I missed it. Coming up soon was a literary meeting; some event called an Open Gathering; and in just a couple days was the rock concert that Shawn’s band, Glazefinger, was going to be part of.

The Forum link was a chat room for Deviants only, and apparently worldwide. It had tabs for different discussion topics, labeled as: Blood Politics, Rants, Open Season, Arts and Crafts, and Want Ads. Damn, those guys stayed connected. The only tabs I could access were the last two. Arts and Crafts had photos of sculptures and enormous mushrooms, open invitations to recitals, and art forgeries for sale. The Want Ads had everything from requests for illegal goods (drugs, body parts, etc.) to minion pets for sale.

I hoped the Games folder wasn’t as bizarre. In it was a listing of ideas for pranks – some of them dangerous and violent – to be played on non-Deviant hemos. There was also information about online games that some members of the supernatural community liked to play on private servers; one for hemos (marked as ‘V’, and inaccessible) and another for us minions (M). That seemed kinda ridiculous. I mean, how much fun could World of Warcraft be when you’re a creature of fucking legend?

The last icon, Maps, was what I really needed to familiarize myself with. There were tabs for dozens of American, European and African cities, but I was only able to open the one for Kansas City. The first of three layering, interactive maps was street level; it highlighted sewer ports, Deviant-run buildings, Civil Ground locations, and even some hemo domains.

The second map was of the sewer system known to the city’s Public Works and Water departments. There was a shitload of lethal booby traps all over the map, although they were only tripped when their sensors detected very low body temperatures. A schedule was posted of sewer worker inspection times and locations, plus any planned repairs or other projects. That info gave me the opportunity to practice ‘being ignored’ on city workers. It’d either work, or I’d run like hell – an adventure one way or the other.

The last map was of a lower level of tunnels, rooms, and cave pockets that no human knew about. The Deviant-made level showed entry points from sewer lines, and from basements of buildings and factories. It was all more extensive than I would’ve guessed. For the sake of orientation, I moved around on the map looking for familiar places and expanding my view from those. There was a large index of symbols to familiarize myself with, and the flag notes spanned pages. I had a lot of studying to do.

Hours later, when bleary light from a gray dawn crept through the office window, I turned the computer off. After putting the flash drive and Gwen’s note in the vault, I sat back and rubbed my eyes. I was glad that I had the next two days off, or I’d have been dragging ass through my first chores. The main reason I was still awake was because I was still trying to get my head around how modern and organized the Deviant faction was. To be fair, my only comparison was stupid vampire movies, but I don’t remember seeing a craigslist for grotesque blood-suckers in any of ‘em.

MOTIVES

Twelve hours later I was at Gwen’s place where we had pizza and drinks and an earnest conversation. She began her service to our “mutual patron” – as she put it – on the day I applied at Silas Security. Gwen assured me that, despite keeping a secret file on me, our friendship occurred naturally. I was relieved to hear those words; she was relieved that she no longer had to keep it from me.

Then Gwen told me something that ruined my appetite. She’d heard from one of her police sources that one of my neighbors – Miss Loretta, as it turned out – had filed a missing person report on me. I hated that I was making that nice lady worry; her heart didn’t need any extra strain. When Gwen told Cordell about it, he wanted to take time off work to look for me. Guilt trumps pizza.

Gwen also knew more about most of the Deviants I’d just met than I did. She first described Roach as a gardener of sorts, and that his plants were in demand. My comment that he served sewer lettuce with rat piss vinaigrette got me a scowl that could make children cry. Roach grew cannabis, and had quite a few well-hidden underground rooms full of weed crop. The sodium bulbs should have been a clue, but I’m not in the pot scene. Evidently, he was about the biggest dealer in town.

She also knew quite a bit about Barnabus, so I sat back with another drink while I listened to the condensed story of him. Mr. Merritt was a frontiersman in what is now West Virginia sometime in the late 1600’s, trading furs with one tribe of Indians while at odds with another. She said that Barnabus wouldn’t tell her much after that, other than being attacked and forcibly brought into the night in the summer of 1695. I figured the omitted part was filled with pain and hard times.

It was fun knowing shit that Gwen didn’t – specifically Neva and Skin – and teasing her with the info. I finally gave in and gave some details on the marble-skinned violin player who still gave me the shivers from just thinking about her. I talked about Skin a little, too, but not much. I wasn’t sure why.

When I asked what Gwen’s orders were since I was no longer the focus of her reports, she said that she was supposed to pass along any gossip from her own contacts. The shocking thing was that when she mentioned our “mutual patron” again, she referred to him as Mr. Stone. Ho-lee shit. I knew something else she didn’t, and I knew better than to say a single fucking word about it.

I crashed on Gwen’s couch, had some waffles with her in the morning, and then had to get moving. I had a busy day ahead. Saturdays were the best days for martial art and shooting practice out in the college town, so I had to go get those set up. The concert was that night; Viggo’s flag note for it in the Planner told me to wait at my place for him so we could go together. Not the date I expected, but I wasn’t going to bitch about it.

Viggo arrived soon after sunset. He met me in the kitchen/break room, where I was refilling my flask. “Have you spoken with Gwen?” he asked from the entryway.

“Yes sir,” I answered with a nod. “She and I straightened things out, and I didn’t tell her anything she didn’t need to know.” I pulled the concert tickets out of my wallet and walked over to him. “Here you go, sir. Look, there’s a little seating chart printed on the back.”

Viggo stared at the tickets in my hand. “I haven’t needed to use a ticket to gain entry into anyplace since before the Chinese invented toilet paper. Both are equally useless to me.” Well, okay then.

We void-walked again, and came out into one of the event center’s dark, unused balcony suites behind the stage. The lights were already dimmed, and the crowd of nearly six thousand was noisy. I could already smell pot. The first band wouldn’t start for at least half an hour; Glazefinger came on after them.

“You will need to stay near me and refrain from speaking unless I deem it safe,” Viggo said. “I will be using a Gift that cloaks us both from sight.”

“I understand, sir. Ragna did the same thing for me once.”

“Good. Now look to our left.” I saw a few more unused suites as they curved around to the side of the stage. In one of them was two dark shapes looking out over the crowd. “The taller of the two is a daemon named Enric Tomasino. He is a respected Adept, and the Doyenne’s enforcer of our laws. The shorter one is a relatively young Adept named Moses Dupree, who acts as a spotter and agent for Mr. Tomasino. In any venue where my kind would gather, expect to find those two as well.”

I followed Viggo over to the open door of Tomasino’s suite and quietly slipped in. He and Dupree were facing away from us, both using binoculars to scan the crowd. Dupree was dressed in jeans and t-shirt, while Tomasino wore a tailored suit. An overcoat was draped over one of the chairs between him and us, along with a scabbarded sword lying across two armrests. Yeah – an actual sword. I bet Tomasino could’ve quoted all the Highlander movies.

We stood there a while and listened to their sporadic conversation. Dupree mentioned a couple names as he spotted them. Tomasino said he spotted Riva, and said it with some contempt; weird, considering they were both Adepts. The two briefly discussed the growing number of missing hemos. They assumed Ragna had the Outsider Katala, still had no leads on the young Sebastian Horn, and then mentioned the Deviant named Harlan that I’d met once. I knew Viggo had Katala and Horn, but didn’t know anything about the crazy bum who had the very human ability to piss on cars.

Viggo and I moved on when the concert started. We didn’t have much of a chance to talk, so I split my time watching the show and keeping an eye on people near us. I have to admit, Glazefinger was pretty damn good. Shawn sounded even better live than on the CD, and he brought a lot of energy to the stage. During his solo, Viggo leaned close and said, “Very talented, yes?” I nodded. “A pity it will be his last performance.” When he pulled away, I saw him looking at the stage with a grimace of disdain.

I leaned up to Viggo’s ear. “I don’t understand, sir. Did Shawn offend you or something?”

Viggo shook his head, waited until the solo was over, and then told me, “Mr. Riordan will do something backstage after their set is over, reacting to an inhaled substance. The action will be foolish enough to lift the veil. That is, unless I intercept him. And I will. I must.”

He will do something, as in future-tense? “Clara?” I simply asked. He nodded solemnly. Okay, Shawn was gonna fuck up somehow. I was concerned for him; all things considered, he was a fairly cool guy. “Does it have to, uh, go to that extreme, sir? Couldn’t you just lock him up for a while or something?”

There was no reply until the song ended. “This is not Mr. Riordan’s first offense,” Viggo finally said, “and I will not abide recklessness. Moreover, his usefulness as an informant has dwindled to naught over the years. The fitting penalty would be to deny him my blood.” He paused and gently put a hand on the back of my neck. “I’ve fed Shawn for over thirty years,” he continued. “I know him well. He would rather have me end it all than to lose his Gifts and become an old man overnight.”

I almost asked if Viggo could give Shawn to another Deviant to be their minion, but I didn’t want to push the issue. My commander’s mind was made up, so that was that. I hoped Shawn took it like a man.

When Glazefinger finished playing, Viggo led me to a dim hallway that led to the concourse where vendors, bathrooms and exits were. He told me that he hoped I’d been practicing the mindset of ‘being ignored’, because my first real test had come. Until he returned, I was to stay in that area and remain unnoticed by anyone. Nothing like a little pressure to get me motivated.

Viggo showed back up twenty minutes later as Mr. Stone, and apparently could only see the young couple making out right next to me. I waved at him. It was the first time I ever saw Viggo smile.

UNEXPECTED

My first official evening on the job as a ShadoWorks employee was smelly, disgusting and disturbing. I had a long list of sewer-related chores that had me trudging all over midtown. Well, underneath it. The stench in those old brick tunnels was going to soak into my pores, I just knew it. I had to wade through a lot of human waste and, to give myself credit, only gagged once or twice. The only thing I hadn’t expected was the occasional random noise echoing through those slimy tunnels. I knew what went bump in the night, but that didn’t mean it still wasn’t spooky as hell.

I woke up the next day to a boom of thunder. Rain was pouring down, and weather reports said it wouldn’t let up for a while. I checked the Planner and saw that, because water in the tunnels would be high and fast, my chore schedule had changed.

First on the list was a daytime task to wait for a delivery at a warehouse and take the supplies back to my place for the time being. After that, I had to go make any necessary repairs to the pipes in a long steam tunnel under UMKC’s college campus. The flag note pinpointed an obscure access grate for me to use to get down there, and suggested a few types of metal patching material.

Six hours later I was spraying a crack with specialized sealant, wondering what was in the small crates that I’d picked up earlier. I was so caught up in my own thoughts that when a woman’s voice said, “Well, hello again” just a few feet away from me, I jumped about a foot off the ground.

“Aw, did I scare you?” she said with a chuckle as I turned to see who had somehow snuck up on me. Shit, it was the derelict, Audra. The tunnel was lit, so I could see her much better this time. She was wearing all black – sneakers, sweats and a hoodie. Her glossy black hair was pulled into a tail, hanging over the backpack slung on her shoulder. She had a mischievous glint in her green eyes, and lips curled into the grin that I remembered. And that body . . . Dammit, she looked better than the first time I saw her.

“What – what are you doing down here?” I stammered.

Audra put a hand on her hip and answered with a rhetorical question. “Did you think your boss is the only one who knows all the ways to get into the admin building?”

Why in hell would a hemo care about student records? "No, I mean . . . I just didn't expect -"

She reached out with a fingertip and softly grazed it along the scar on my cheek. “Hmm, nice; did you get this as a normal human, or was it caused by Deviant blood?”

“What? No, uh, I was wounded in combat, in Afghanistan. My unit was on a mission. We tripped an IED. Uh, that’s a kind of bomb.” Holy crap, I was talking like a dork.

Audra’s grin widened. “Calm down, handsome. No need to be nervous with me. Your boss is a good customer; I won’t do anything to ruin that.” She moved closer and said with a sultry voice, “Too bad you already belong to Stone. We could’ve had some fun.”

“Uh, fun?” Getting freaky with a hemo? I hadn’t really thought about it. Okay, that girl Macie with the big tits crossed my mind a few times, but that was before I found out what she really was. I was getting warm and sweaty; I blamed it on the steam tunnel.

She gave the slightest of shrugs and ran her hand down my arm. “I don’t normally play with my food, but yeah – fun.” I guess Audra saw the confusion in my eyes. “You haven’t been told about vampire sex yet, have you?”

I gave a shrug of my own. “To be honest, ma’am, no, but I figure it involves blood. Uh, no thanks.”

I had no idea what Audra’s response was, because I suddenly felt an overwhelming urge to reach some destination. I wasn’t sure where, but the intense need to immediately go blotted out any other thought. Audra forgotten, I turned and ran back to the ladder at the near end of the tunnel. I didn’t just lift the heavy access grate, I tossed it. Luckily, no one was between me and the van or else I would’ve run right over them. I burned rubber off the tires peeling out and gunning it every chance I got.

Once I got onto an inner-city highway, I flew north toward downtown. It slowly became clear to me where I was headed: the Realm Management building. Specifically, I was being pulled toward Emmeline Le Meur. There was no way in hell I wanted to go there or be anywhere close to her again, but I couldn’t stop myself. I was on a collision course with trouble. Ah, deep shit, we meet again.

BECKONING

If the downtown streets weren’t so empty at that time of night, I would’ve killed someone . . . and without much dignity. Death by panel van and a couldn’t-give-a-shit driver is no way to go.

Taking the last corner on what might’ve been only two screaming tires, I saw a small group of people out front of Realm Tower. How nice – a welcoming party. I drove the driver’s side of the van up onto the wide sidewalk and screeched to a halt. As soon as I hopped out, two of the men outside trained their assault rifles on me. They stood fifty feet away on either side of the main entry; big glass doors which opened into a huge lobby that I’d walked through a couple times before.

Besides the two armed guards, there was some dude off to the left who was lingering casually up against an ornamental light post. There was also a silhouetted figure watching from the dimly lit lobby. I practically ignored them both, instead focusing on the guy standing in front of the doors and between the guards. It was Evan Dean, Adept and douchebag extraordinaire.

I started walking right for him. I was less than halfway to the doors when a single round went off loudly, and a bullet pinged off the cement in front of me. I resisted the demanding call that urged me forward, but just barely. I was shaking with the effort of standing in place.

“Ah, so the rumor was false,” Evan said with a smirk while lazily swinging chains in his hands. “Myself, I never believed a single thing your dog-woman ever mumbled through her dirty scarf. Who would take the word of a disgusting Deviant? They are nothing but unhinged thieves and liars, all of them. And now you stand here before me, Mr. Beck, proving my words true.”

“I don’t want any trouble,” I said through gritted teeth. “I just need to go see Le Meur.”

“Well of course you do. A calling of immense power, was it not? I’m told that my Lady made a strenuous effort to beckon you, the troublesome and tenacious human that rightfully belongs to her. But I can’t let you go storming into Realm headquarters without an escort. That would be imprudent and against orders. No, no, Mr. Beck,” Evan explained as he held out the chains that I suddenly realized were two sets of shackles, “you will be presented with the proper attire. Now, remove your weapons and kneel.”

Slowly, I stepped forward – not with a surge of bravery, or because I had balls too big for my own good. The pull, the mental summons, was dragging me forward. And I sure as hell wasn’t going to kneel in front of that cocksucker. “No,” I growled, taking another step. “Your guards are gonna have to kill me.”

Another loud report went off, and I felt like I got hit in the stomach with a hammer. Evan laughed when I doubled over clutching my midsection. “Rubber bullets, Mr. Beck – I’m sure you’ll survive. And as much as I would enjoy giving the order to have you put down like a dog, Lady Le Meur demanded that you be alive and coherent when you submit to her once again. She would much rather enjoy you groveling at her feet than having to dump your corpse down a storm drain.”

I looked down at my boots, willing them not to move. As my right foot began to slide forward, a brown rat darted in front of me, paused, and then scurried off. My mind flooded with thoughts of Viggo; his honor, the respect and trust he gave, and the expectations of his favor. I couldn’t let him down, couldn’t be weak. I raised my head and stared Evan in the eye. “Fuck you, and fuck your Lady, too. I’m leaving.”

His expression changed from smug to stunned, which strengthened my resolve. The guards lifted their guns to take aim; they were gonna have to shoot me in the back to stop me. As I turned, I saw the guy off to my left make a simple gesture. I took half a second to look him over. Black dude, average height, athletic build, cardigan and slacks, short hair, thin beard, and held a cane in his hand. It was Moses Dupree, the toady of Tomasino. He wasn’t looking at me, though. He was looking behind me.

I spun, turning my back on Evan, the guards, and Realm Tower. Standing in front of the open van door, sporting a jacket with the Realm logo on it, was my former dojo instructor Phillip Aoki.

Shit, because of me, some Adept bastard got Phillip. Behind me, I heard Even say to the guards, “Save Mr. Aoki the trouble. Subdue the target.”

As I quickly whirled back around and pulled my Glock, another voice loudly said, “No.”

Crouched, I hesitated. So did everyone else except for Evan, who was looking back at the opened glass door of the building. Enric Tomasino stepped out from behind him with a stern expression on his youthful face. Tomasino was a clean-shaven and handsome guy with wavy brown hair and a predator’s gaze. I knew the look; some battle-hardened vets had it. He wore a suit without the jacket, and a sword strapped on his back.

“What is this, elder?” Evan asked while Tomasino strolled a few paces out to my right. “I have orders.”

“You were going to have the human attacked while his back was turned, Mr. Dean,” Tomasino replied with a scornful tone. “Your complete lack of integrity prompted me to step in. If our Doyenne wants the man detained, then of course he will be. But not by an act of cowardice.”

The guards lowered their guns. Somewhat relieved, I turned back to Phillip. "We don't have to do this, okay?" I said to him. "Let's just hop in the van and go somewhere to talk it through. Hell, I even know a great little Chinese place -"

“No, Leo, I’m sorry,” Phillip said, cutting me off. “My Lady Le Meur told me to bring you to her.” He glanced at my gun. “Are you going to shoot me? I was told you’d given up your honor, but I’d rather not believe it. Face me as you should.”

Fuck, fuckity-fuck. There was no way out of it. There were rubber bullets and a sword-wielding hemo at my back, and my former sensei in front of me getting into an attack stance; two crappy choices. Blowing out a sigh, I pressed one hand to my bruised stomach and looked at Phillip. He was calm and patient and dead-set on bringing me to the hemo bitch. Resigned, I put the Glock away and slipped the holster off.

Phillip wasted no time. As soon as I stepped back with a defensive posture, he attacked. I was forced to block or evade his initial barrage of jabs and low kicks. That flashy aerial bullshit doesn’t happen in a real fight. I threw a few back, mainly gauging any advantage I had. His technique was speed and discipline, while my military training was all about survival and quick subdual. Phillip was always quick, but he was now stronger than I remembered; it was harder to deflect his direct strikes.

I quickly realized that I had superior strength and position speed, whereas Phillip had smoother attacks and better accuracy. He was using them to try to wear me down and pick me apart. I had an opening and let it close, all because I didn’t want to seriously hurt him. I got a hard kick in the thigh for my stupid consideration. That wasn’t going to happen twice.

Feigning a punch and leaving myself open, Phillip took the bait. I slipped the straight kick he aimed for my solar plexus, came in close and hooked a knuckle punch to the side of his neck. When he winced, I drove a knee into his ribs, grabbed under his arms and heaved him backwards at the side of the van ten feet away. The impact was almost scary – he crashed into it a lot harder than I intended. Oops.

Stunned and winded, Phillip leaned against the now-dented van for support. I rushed forward and threw an uppercut. He couldn’t quite dodge the punch; my fist caught him in the eye instead of on the chin. The hard shot hammered his skull back against the van with a metallic thump. Phillip Aoki dropped to the concrete with his eyes rolled to the back of his head, but at least he was alive.

I didn’t have time to feel sorry for Phillip or congratulate myself. One of the guards behind me was yelling something, and I heard a low but constant noise of unsettling motion. That noise was growing. Turning my head to the left, I at first couldn’t quite make sense of what I saw. Under the glow of nearby streetlights, a massive undulating and thick carpet was flowing from the pavement onto the sidewalk, coming toward us from a distance. When it came close enough, I saw that enormous swath for what it actually was. Rats.

LEGIONS

There had to have been thousands of them, a low tide of brown and gray and black swarming toward the front of Realm Tower. The throng of rats I saw down in the sewer was nothing compared to it.

More rats came from underneath and around the van, parting to avoid me. Another vast horde was coming from the other direction. Tomasino and Dupree were backing up toward the building entrance, both with blades in their hands. The guards were spraying rounds wildly, trying to keep the oncoming wave of vermin at bay. Evan was already inside the lobby, attempting to lock the doors.

Forming a wide semicircle around the building entrance, the army of rats suddenly stopped. Tomasino and Dupree looked confused. The guards, who were already out of ammo, backed up against the locked doors; they looked ready to shit their pants.

From my angle, I saw a void of inky blackness form in the lobby behind Evan. It flickered and expanded, and then Viggo stepped out of it. He wore his dark hoodie and overcoat as always, but this time the hood was pulled up. Under it was . . . nothing – literally nothing but blackness, like he placed a part of the void over his face. I hadn’t seen that grim reaper guise before. Once was enough for me.

Poor, stupid, cowardly Evan never knew what hit him. Viggo grabbed him by his blonde hair and back of his jacket, lifting him off the ground without any effort. My commander then swung the douchebag like a battering ram at one of the glass doors. That glass was thick and tempered, probably able to withstand wind and debris from an F4 tornado. Viggo shattered it with Evan’s face.

When the glass exploded out, the unsuspecting hemos and guards ducked and covered their heads. They watched, stunned, as Viggo reared back with Evan’s limp, bloody body and smashed the other door. All at once, the army of rats surged forward and into the building. The hemos and guards stood statue-still while the rats swarmed around and past them. They remained tense even after the last one scurried by. In the following calm, I could hear the consistent bleat of a security alarm.

Viggo casually tossed Evan’s blood-stained body out onto the glass-littered cement; it skidded a few feet before coming to a stop. My commander then stepped forward under the large doorframe as shadows began to eerily gather and shift around his body. With his rumbling tombstone voice, he stated, “The Doyenne hoped to take one of my minions. I give her legions. Let my generosity be noted.”

The guards ran; I would’ve too if I were them. Dupree, apparently braver than he was smart, impulsively slashed at my commander with his cane sword. I lurched forward to protect him, but there was no need. Viggo caught the blade in his hand; I don’t think it even cut his palm. Turning his head toward the awestruck Adept, he rotated his grip and bent the sword until it snapped. Dupree glanced at Tomasino and took a few quick steps back. I grabbed my discarded gun and waited to see how it played out.

Longsword still in his hands, Tomasino said, “Your minion . . . So Mr. Beck is not a servant of Ragna?”

“He is not, and never was.”

“Then who are you to lay claim, if I may ask?”

Instead of answering, Viggo said, “Please sheath your sword, Mr. Tomasino. I do not wish to offend your pride by taking it away from you.” I think Tomasino had an idea of the power he was dealing with and reluctantly slid his weapon back in its scabbard. “Because of your noble conviction,” Viggo continued, “I will only be taking Mr. Dean and Mr. Aoki when we depart. Were you of low character, the van would be crowded. Alas, Mr. Dupree’s integrity is still in question, but I am tolerant. Tell the Doyenne that I will introduce myself to her when I deem the timing appropriate.”

“You plan on taking Mr. Dean?” Tomasino asked, not sounding very surprised. He slowly reached for his sword again and said, “Unfortunately, I cannot allow you to do that.” I got the impression that his heart wasn’t in it.

“As a matter of self-preservation,” Viggo replied calmly, “perhaps you should find some leniency in your code of honor. Besides, it was your Lady Le Meur who initiated an abduction of her own this evening. I am responding in kind – an eye for an eye, as they say. Unlike what she would offer, I give my word to return Mr. Dean to the care of his faction in due course, and in better condition than his current one.”

Tomasino took a second or two to think it over. “Very well,” he finally said, dropping his hand away from the sword hilt. It was obvious that in any scenario, Evan would be taken.

“It is good to see that you employ wisdom with your position as the Doyenne’s enforcer, Mr. Tomasino. Until we meet again – and we shall – I bid you farewell.”

I took that as the signal to get busy. I hurried over to Evan and simply dragged him back to the van, as well as the shackles that were meant for me. Viggo slid into the passenger seat while I threw Evan in the back. I locked the shackles on Phillip and gently rested him next to the disfigured douchebag. Coming around to the driver’s door, I saw Tomasino still standing there in front of Realm Tower. I felt sort of embarrassed for him, although he really didn’t have a choice. When it came to Viggo, no one did.

THUNDER

Phillip was to remain a ‘lodger’ at my new place, in the same room I was kept in. At least it was in better condition for him than what I had to deal with. Viggo suggested that Milo could fetch supplies and deliver food to Phillip, but I said I’d do it myself. I was advised to have little to no interaction with my houseguest; solitude would encourage clarity of mind. I knew the truth of that.

Before Viggo left with Evan’s body late that night, he told me to keep an eye on my Planner for changes in my schedule. I couldn’t say that I minded if a sewer maintenance chore got pushed back, but I was a little anxious about what it would be replaced with. I had a feeling that after the chaos at Realm Tower, the stakes had somehow been raised.

While I was buying gas station food for Phillip about an hour before dawn, a question came to my mind. I texted Viggo on the way home, asking how he knew where I was earlier when Le Meur beckoned me. His answer was to the point. ‘Audra called – I checked GPS tracker app that was downloaded into your phone before giving it’. Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’ had some competition, not that I minded. And yes, before you ask, ‘1984’ was one of the paperbacks given to me during my own captivity. I read it twice.

Since the Planner hadn’t changed when I checked it the next day, I went shopping. Besides groceries for Phillip, I got myself a punching bag, workout equipment, and a nice home gym. After setting all of it up in one of the empty offices and then fixing myself some dinner, I didn’t have long to wait until sundown.

I lounged around for a while with a drink or three, surfing the net to catch up on local news. There was no mention of a break-in at Realm Tower, let alone shots fired or a rat invasion. No surprise there; the Adepts most likely had the top brass of the police in their pockets, and maybe the media too.

Then I saw a report with a name that caught my eye. Following a tip, police found the bodies of bank owner Stanley Everett and his wife in a packing crate in a warehouse. One of the pictures that were included with the story was a shot of the building; the sign on it read, ‘Trade Solutions Import/Export’. I knew that name; hell, I had a business card for it. That was Declan McKenna’s company. I wondered if Gwen knew any more about that whole thing.

Giving enough time for night to settle in, I checked the ‘hemo-net’ for any updates in the Planner. Sure enough, there was. I was to attempt being unseen again until two further successes were achieved to strengthen my skill in that Gift. Any other duties were contingent on the completion of that one. The flag note told me to begin as soon as possible, and for detailed reports to be made.

An hour later I stood in the parking lot of a nightclub, next to a light pole with a dead bulb. I picked that particular club because Cordell mentioned in the past that he went there once in a while. Unless I made myself ignored, the predominantly black patrons were sure as hell gonna notice a white guy standing near their cars. On the bad side, Cord didn’t stop in that night so I didn’t get the chance to at least see him. On the good side, though, none of the clientele coming or going gave me a second look.

Checking the sewer map after I got home, I saw that the Water Department had a routine sewer line inspection planned for the next day. Even better, it was only about two miles from me. I put some ham sandwiches through the slot of Phillip’s door the next morning; I ignored his loud demands for answers and went down to the basement to use my personal sewer access. The inspection was set for an area that I hadn’t explored yet, so I had to scout it beforehand.

Finding a niche where one circular tunnel connected to a larger one, I pressed myself back into it when I saw the beams of flashlights further down the pipe. The workers’ lights passed over the side of me once or twice, but they kept moving while they talked about a coworker finding a shitload of dead rats and shattered glass in a downtown pipe. When they walked past, one of them looked right at me but didn’t even hesitate. I went home again, washed the stink off, and typed my second report with a smile.

An encrypted message from Viggo was waiting for me when I checked that evening. He first gave me short but strong praise for adapting to the Gift of Shadows so quickly. I think my military stealth/stalk training helped out quite a bit, but it felt good to get Viggo’s approval no matter how I earned it.

Viggo’s message also told me to expect Mr. Merritt to visit later that evening; he would be “delivering items for further testing, as well as information”. I liked Barnabus, although I couldn’t figure him out. From what I was told, he came from a very rustic and unsophisticated beginning. That clashed with the Barnabus I knew, who came off as more of a philosopher or college professor. Granted, the deer pelt pullover he always wore didn’t go along with my scholar concept, but still.

Barnabus called before he showed up; I opened the parking gate and let him pull in. I greeted him as he got out of his sweet ride – a sky blue 1951 Chevy truck in perfect condition. He had me help him bring two big boxes inside, saying they were mine to keep. Sitting in the break room, I opened the box in my hands and found all sorts of pet supplies and food. Barnabus opened the other box, and a big cat lifted its head out to look around.

That thing was fucking huge, three times the size of what I imagined a normal cat to be. It had a gray and white coat of long hair over its broad frame, and felt solid when Barnabus handed it to me. I figured it was an altered minion cat by its size, although it seemed mellow and friendly . . . and didn’t have any weird mutations. “Is this one of yours?” I asked him.

“Not at all,” Barnabus said airily. “Per a request of your lord, I had one of my own minions visit an animal shelter and pick out a pet befitting the circumstance. I believe a fine choice was made.”

“Wait,” I said, looking away from its green eyes to his mismatched ones, “this is a normal cat?”

“He is a Maine Coon breed,” Barnabus explained as he began setting the pet supplies on the table. “They are the largest of domestic cats. The shelter employees named him Thunder; he seems to respond to it well enough. However, that can be altered if you choose.”

I didn’t know shit about cat breeds, especially that one. “No, Thunder sounds like a good name, I guess.” I set the big cat on the table and turned back to Barnabus. “Not that I don’t appreciate it, Mr. Merritt, but why did you get me a cat?”

Barnabus leaned back and crossed his legs. “There were two reasons for that,” he said. “The first, as I stated a moment ago, was because a request was made to find you a suitable pet. The second reason filtered my choice. Given the vague parameters, I asked Ms. Page what type of animal she thought you’d be inclined to favor. Without hesitation, she said that you wanted a cat. She was correct, I presume?”

“Huh, yeah, she was. But,” I said, petting Thunder while he sniffed at the supplies, “you said something about befitting the circumstance. What circumstance?”

“The circumstance of a pioneering endeavor,” Barnabus replied with conviction. “Thunder is not merely meant to be a pet; he is also the focus of your continued training. That I am aware of, you will be the first minion to put effort into learning the Gift of Fauna. The attempt itself is an auspicious occasion.”

“Fauna . . . you mean like how my commander controls rats, or how Ragna can do some wild shit with her dogs? I’m supposed to learn how to do that?” I asked skeptically. The Gift of Shadows was one thing, but becoming a ‘beast master’ like that stupid 80s movie? “Look, Mr. Merritt, I get along fine with cats and dogs, but I didn’t really grow up with ‘em. I’m out of my depth here.”

“Then if only to appease your lord,” Barnabus said evenly, “you will strive to attain an understanding of it.” His voice was calmer when he added, “My own ability of that Gift is laughable compared to that of your lord or elder Ragna. Nonetheless, I can offer a few simple instructions that may set the course for your initial approach.”

I huffed out a sigh of relief. “Yeah, that’d be great, thanks.”

“Afterwards, your lord will assume the duties of your education. On that note, he also asked that I give you some details of historical value this evening.”

“History was never my best subject in school,” I said with a frown. “But if he wants me to learn it, I’ll do my best.”

Barnabus nodded. “I believe that there are two elements to help a student succeed. The first is a proper attitude, which you at least somewhat possess. The second is an interest in the subject matter.” He leaned forward, aiming that bulging red eye at me, and asked, “Do you have any idea what ‘the Veleti’ actually refers to?”

I only had a vague notion that the Veleti was a tribe or clan or something, and that Viggo was once one of them. I’d always wanted to ask him about it, but he seemed reluctant to divulge anything. I was being given a chance to learn about my commander’s past, so hell yes I was interested in the subject matter.

HISTORY

I set up the litter box and food bowls for Thunder and left him on his own to explore his new home. Not long after Barnabus and I went upstairs to the lounge to relax for my history lesson, the big shaggy cat joined us. Apparently, he wasn’t the solitary type. I didn’t mind that at all.

Barnabus first explained why he was giving me this information rather than Viggo. It was a matter of perspective, he said; my commander felt that a third party would offer the facts with more objectivity. Fortunately, Barnabus was one of the very few beings in existence who knew those facts.

Viggo was born in the mid-fifth century CE in an area that is now eastern Germany. He was brought up in a time when his parents joined with other Slavic common folk to repel the last remnants of Roman oppression from their lands. That group formed into a strong tribe, calling themselves the Veleti. They ventured north to expand the holdings of the tribe’s growing numbers. Coming across smaller tribes, the Veleti either assimilated them into their ranks or conquered them if there was resistance.

Expanding into and settling of what is now northeastern Germany, the word ‘Veleti’ became a blanket title for all of the smaller tribes that formed under its rule. Viggo belonged to the original body of the Veleti, and at a young age became a warrior for his people. Besides dealing with any internal conflicts, there were continuous clashes with Obodrites and Saxons. It sounded like Viggo led a hard, bloody life.

One late autumn day, sometime in the later fifth century, Viggo and two of his men had begun the long trek back home after a hunting trip near the North Sea. They were woken up that night by the sound of distant chanting. Viggo and his guys were camped on the edge of a forest; the noise came from deeper into those woods, and they decided to check it out. I thought about that scene, moving through dense woods at night to check out a bunch of strangers chanting. Those guys had balls.

It wasn’t hard to find the chanters; they had a few torches burning around the perimeter of a small clearing. The leader of the group was a woman whose inhuman presence had Viggo’s guys wanting to get the hell out of there. Viggo, on the other hand, was immediately attracted to her.

Long story short, he approached the assembly alone. The leader, who was revered by her people as a goddess, apparently liked Viggo’s bravery and imposing size. She made him a minion that night, and ordered him to hunt down his two men and bring them back to her. He managed to do it; they weren’t far away, and weren’t a match for him. Two nights later, one of Viggo’s men was tied to a tree and sacrificed in a bloody ritual. About a week later, so was the other one.

Just to make it clear, both Viggo and the priestess/goddess woman were basically pagans – a lot of people back then still were. Barnabus didn’t elaborate, so I didn’t know if all pagans worshipped the same set of gods or what. In any case, the priestess had a very different way of expressing her particular set of beliefs than Viggo’s people did. Or maybe she was just on a power trip, and it was all about the blood. No one knows for sure.

Her name was Fennore. She was a hemo in Ireland and had been doing her druid goddess thing for a long time there. That ended when Christianity swept over the island in the early fifth century. She and her followers, which included most of her mortal descendants, got a big boat and got the hell out. They sailed under England and all the way around Denmark, finally landing in Obodrite territory. Fennore had some trouble with those people, so she and her followers started migrating east near the coast.

For the sake of her follower’s safety, Viggo convinced Fennore to have them join the Veleti. She stayed away from those settlements, feeding on animals and human sacrifices brought by her followers when they visited. As Fennore’s minion, Viggo spent a lot of his time with her. She knew he felt a strong duty and connection to his people, so equal time was allowed for him to be with them as well. Even better, Fennore realized that ordering Viggo to attack his own men that first night really upset him, so she never asked that he bring another sacrifice unless it was an enemy. Aw, how nearly human of her.

I shouldn’t have thought too poorly of Fennore. I mean, Viggo saw something good in her, so I should’ve at least kept an open mind. By the things Barnabus told me, though, that wasn’t easy to do. But just to stir the pot, it turns out that I was very distantly related to her. I’ll get to that in a bit.

Things went on that way for a while. Fennore’s followers blended in, some changing their names to Germanic ones or marrying in. Viggo divided his time between being seen among his people, getting into battles and skirmishes with enemies, and visiting Fennore. I guess they had a real connection. She brought him into the night, and they became lovers. I wondered how that worked. Barnabus avoided the topic of bodily functions and explained that the sharing of hemo blood is very intimate, and gives greater ecstasy than feeding on human blood ever could. Better than a strong orgasm? I had my doubts.

A number of years later, when it seemed the right time, Viggo made a point of letting his closest friends know he was going out on a scouting trip. Then he simply didn’t return; his death would’ve been assumed. He and Fennore found a large cave that had a small entrance a mile or so inland and stretched underground to a rocky coast. They remained in that domain for decades. The war parties that travelled nearby made feeding easy.

During that time, Fennore gathered more followers as well as some of her own distant descendants to live in a section of the huge cave. Those humans who weren’t related eventually became compliant to Viggo’s presence after he and Fennore continually fed from them. I guessed it had some mellowing effect, like a lobotomy. Fennore continued her rituals; Viggo didn’t get involved, and left her to it.

After a long while, though, Viggo got restless; he wanted to be with his people again. Over a generation had passed for them and all the faces he knew were gone, but he didn’t care. The people were still Veleti – his people. So Viggo slowly introduced himself as some powerful being to the new generation of the tribe, soon establishing himself as a local warlord. In a fairly remote area, he had a fortress built that was big enough to bunk Fennore’s lineage and his own trusted warriors. It sounded pretty cool.

Fennore and her followers still did their dark druid stuff, but only in the fortress courtyard or out in the woods. People found out anyway. Viggo took his company out on raids to make sure his domain was secure. As a bonus, his people prospered from the loot he brought back. In those fights, he sometimes ran into other hemos, most of whom were leading the enemy’s forces. Being of a greater scion, he killed or defeated all that he met. Word spread from those encounters. Viggo and Fennore became recognized names, and not necessarily in a good way.

More years passed while the Deviant couple kept up with their habits and interests. A trio of supposedly young hemos came to the fortress one night, asking to serve in their company. They spent a long time gaining Viggo’s and Fennore’s trust, all the while using their mental Gifts to sour the villager’s thoughts. It didn’t work so well in reference to Viggo; he was a good and generous leader. On the other hand, the villagers were always nervous about Fennore. It was easy to turn their fear of her into hate.

Those young hemos belonged to a small sect that used their immortal blood to delve into some creepy occult shit. Barnabus used the word ‘macabre’. I guess the sect didn’t like what Fennore was up to, or saw her as some sort of spooky competition. Minions were made out of some of the village leaders, who kept everyone riled up during the day. It was getting ugly in Viggoville.

The trio of hemos waited for Viggo to take his men on another extended war march, and then made their move the next day. The short version is that most of Fennore’s followers were slaughtered, and her human lineage hid in secret rooms within the fortress when the villagers finally managed to break in. Fennore, apparently too arrogant to think humans would ever revolt against her, laid there slumbering without any defense. She was wrapped in about a ton of chain and then staked.

That night, the trio of hemos carried Fennore out of the fortress and waited for scouts to tell them what direction Viggo would return from. They got the info and used all that chain to secure her to a stone post on that edge of the village. The bastards waited until Viggo and his men were barely in sight, set Fennore on fire, and then used their Gift of the Void to escape. There was no way he or his warriors could get there in time to put her out, but they charged forward anyway.

The stake burned away, freeing Fennore, but she was engulfed in flames by then. At first she could only scream in agony, but then was able to form her last words when she saw Viggo through the flames that were licking her face. Fennore called out, telling him to watch over her lineage, and to swear to it. Viggo bellowed back that he would, but was never sure if she heard him.

Fennore’s last word was her lover’s name before she crumbled into dust. I knew that before Barnabus said it; the dream I had months before was still vivid in my mind. Barnabus could paint a good picture with words, but it couldn’t compare to actually seeing it.

Viggo couldn’t face the betrayal of his own people, not for a long time. Taking his men, he left the village to its fate. Using info from fellow Deviants, he finally found those responsible. Viggo wasn’t sure how many members of the sect there were – he went wild with bloodlust as soon as he entered their domain.

Barnabus explained that when a hemo is physically drained by another, down to the point of husk or ashes, the victim’s essence is pretty much consumed. While the act can transfer knowledge or power, there is a great risk of destroying one’s own essence in the process. If that happens, the mind loses all connection with reality forever. It’s the reason their law of death was created.

Viggo went back to the cave that was his home years before and claimed it as his domain again. He would have stayed there for a very long time, but he had humans to watch over. So, it turned out that I was related to a hemo who thought she was a deity and performed sacrificial murders. Wonderful.

“I’ve rambled on long enough for now,” Barnabus said, standing up. “I hope that small piece of your lord’s personal history was enlightening.”

I got up as well. “It sure as hell was. Thank you.”

We walked in relative silence until we got to the garage. After pushing the door remote, I asked, “So, uh, Mr. Merritt, about those Fauna tips you were gonna give me . . .”

“Ah, quite so,” he responded, waving a finger at me. “To start you on that journey, I suggest this: begin with initiating eye contact. Be calm, be confident. Do it often. Methodically extend the time of your gaze, let it linger.”

“What, that’s it?”

“It may take longer than you assume, Mr. Beck, but very well. I will expound further. Once you feel truly comfortable capturing Thunder’s attention in that manner, begin to focus your mind on simple thoughts while doing so.” He gave a single nod as if that crumb of advice was a meal.

“Okay, uh, thanks. And I mean for everything.” I made sure the gate closed after Barnabus drove out in his classic Chevy. “Think simple thoughts?” I said to myself. Shit, I’m the king of simple thoughts.

PARANOID

There was a new chore in the Planner for the next day. I had to buy some hardwood lumber and have it cut into short lengths. Then I had to wait until I got a text and deliver the lumber to a specific address. More duties would be given at that time. Sounded simple enough.

Since I was in the hemo-net, I decided to browse. I came across a want-ad of some Deviant in Detroit who was paying top dollar for live midgets to be delivered; the price went up for any previously mutilated subject. It was getting damn tough to have any type of respect for almost any hemo bastard, let alone the twisted ones that had nothing human left in them.

I was stewing in disgust when Thunder hopped up on the desk and rubbed his cheek on my arm with a purr. Huh, social cat. His antics for attention got rid of my dark mood. I tried locking eyes with him as Barnabus suggested, but he turned and left the office. I was gonna suck at that Fauna Gift.

Gwen and I met at some greasy spoon the next day for lunch. Considering that I was still technically missing – at least in the human world – we sat in a rear booth for concealment. She was a little jumpy and nervous, tapping her purple nails on the table and glancing out of the booth. “Well, this is a new look – paranoid Gwen,” I said conversationally. “Are you acting like that to freak me out, or do you have a real problem?”

“Oh, I think it’s real enough,” she replied, fidgeting with her menu. “And the cause of my problem is Mr. Leopold Beck, thanks so much.”

“What, me? What the hell did I do?”

“What did you do . . . Hmm. Let me start with a little background. One of my main duties for our mutual patron is to download data from various security cameras around the city and store it in a private server. All human and vehicular traffic is automatically run through a recognition software program. There are lots of profiles already loaded, so the program flags any reoccurring hits. I review the flags and make reports. With me so far?”

“Yeah, pretty much.” Gwen had started rolling up her plastic menu and then releasing it. “If you’re going to order coffee when the waitress comes,” I said, taking the menu out of her hands, “make it decaf.”

She moved on to fussing with her utensils. “So, two days ago I was reviewing a tape from a security camera at the front of a downtown parking facility that our mutual patron controls. That camera sets off lots of flags, mostly at night, and mostly getting matches on cars coming from and going to a big, fancy building right down the block on the other side of the street. Guess who I saw, Leo.”

“Uh, the Doyenne?” I had no clue; I was throwing rocks in the dark.

“Oh, no, no,” Gwen answered dramatically. “I saw someone much more familiar. A white van screeched to a stop in front of that building, and you got out.”

“Oh shit.”

“Oh shit is right. I saw the whole thing, Leo – the entire veil-ripping scene. I watched you and some Asian guy going at it karate-kid style, only faster than you should’ve been able to. Oh, and then there was the Great Vermin Incursion; that was a toe-curling hoot. Should I even mention the guy whose head was turned into pulp after our Mr. Stone was finished with him?”

“No need.” Our waitress arrived; I sent her off with two hasty orders of the cheesesteak special. “Alright, so you saw what went down. At least the footage is in safe hands. It is in safe hands, right?”

The offended glare I got as a reply told me I might’ve just put Gwen’s technological skills into question. That suspicion was confirmed when she quietly sniped, “Go shit in your hand.”

“Okay, sorry. So if it’s not that, then what’s got you so worked up?”

“The next day, yesterday, I was taking calls on the Silas business line when someone rang and asked to hire you as their personal EP. I said you were no longer with the company, and they hung up. After that, it got weird.”

“For you to call something weird, it has to be way out there.”

“I mean weird scary, dummy. When another call came for you and got the same reply, they wanted to hire any other EP you worked with on a regular basis. Right before lunch, a caller knew Cordell and Diego by their names and wanted to hire them. I think it’s a good thing they’re both contracted right now. Last but not least, one more call came in mentioning your name; when the creep couldn’t get any info on you, he asked who I was! Me, Leo!”

Shit, anyone I might’ve been close to had become targets to use against me, just like Phillip. He just wasn’t a good enough friend to be effective. I was sure Viggo had a shitload of resources and influence to cover my ass, but I doubted he could match the combined clout of the Adept faction. I had no way to protect Gwen, other than to get clearance to let her hide at my place. If that wasn’t allowed, though, I couldn’t think of many options. “Maybe you should take a vacation,” I suggested.

“I can’t right now – that’s the icing on the cow patty. Silas is going to be audited by the IRS next week, so Crane wants me and Leona from payroll to be there at all times. If one of the other factions is behind the audit, it means they’ll have access to details about every employee. I left messages for Mr. Stone about it, but he hasn’t responded.”

I watched Gwen absently bent her metal butter knife around two of her thick little fingers. I took that away, too, and put it in my pocket. “Okay, I’ll try to get hold of him, too. We can just get our meals to go, and you can get back to work. I doubt you’re in the mood to eat right now anyway.”

“No, not really.” She rummaged in her big purse for a second and then looked back up at me. “Wait; when you texted me this morning, you mentioned cheap lunch and something about a local report you saw. What report?”

I waved it off. “Don’t worry about it right now, it’s no big deal. Hey, just to be safe, maybe you shouldn’t take your normal route when you head home later. Circle a block once in a while, and keep an eye on your mirrors. Come to think of it, you should probably find another place to stay tonight. If I hear back from our patron before you do, I’ll give you a yell.”

I followed Gwen out of the lot and for about a mile after, making sure she didn’t have a tail. On my way to a hardware store for the demanded lumber, I took my own advice and turned a twenty minute drive into forty. I took the same precautions on the way home, taking side streets and watching every car behind me. Paranoia sucks.

WALDO

Knowing I had to drive later that evening, I didn’t hit the booze too hard. I received Viggo’s text just before the nightly news. I was only given an address, and to check with the guy at the gate. Okay, there was a gate – not much of a clue. I quickly googled the address; it was an inner-city cemetery. I wondered if Viggo was trying to be spooky on purpose, or if it was a prerequisite for anything Deviants did.

I got to the address a short time later, noting the rough neighborhood I was in. Elmwood Cemetery was surrounded by a big cement wall on every side, so I couldn’t get a look at the place before I pulled up to the tall iron gates. The guy who opened them for me was scruffy, middle-aged, and didn’t have much of a personality. He handed me a hand-drawn map of the cemetery that only showed the narrow lanes that ran through the place. An X was drawn in one area, with the word ‘Waldo’ written next to it.

The lane that the X sat on had a string of mausoleums built into the low knolls on either side. I hopped out of the van and was about to turn my flashlight on when I heard Viggo’s voice call to me. The Waldo family mausoleum was built with a tiny low-walled patio out front, big enough for stone benches to sit on either side of its iron-barred door. My commander sat there, waiting for me.

“Good evening, sir,” I said quietly; it didn’t seem right to make much noise in the solemn setting. “I have the lumber you asked for. Do you mind if I ask a few questions while I’m here?”

“We do need to talk, Leo, but deliver the wood first.” He leaned over and pulled the mausoleum door open, revealing its pitch black interior. “There is an empty crypt shelf on the right. Stack it there.”

When I finished unloading the hardwood cuts of 2×4, Viggo invited me to sit on the bench across from him. “Let us first be rid of your curiosities, and then we can discuss further duties.”

“Yes sir, thank you. Uh, the first thing on my mind was . . . what the hell did Le Meur do to me? I mean, I was just fixing a pipe and talking to that derelict, Audra, and out of nowhere I had some crazy urge that pulled me toward the Doyenne.”

“That pull you felt was the product of a higher ability within the Gift of Enchantment. Remember how we once spoke of a range of abilities as a Gift increases in power? What she used on you is most often referred to as Magnetism. Practitioners commonly employ it to wordlessly summon a minion or known human to their side. The Doyenne must have taxed herself to have so strongly drawn you to her.”

I nodded at the explanation and then asked, “Was that Audra chick involved? It seemed kinda weird to run into her down in a steam pipe under a college.”

“So far as I know, she had no participation in the events of that evening other than to alert me of your suspicious behavior. As to why Audra snuck into the administration building, I can only assume that she was scouting student files.” Even in the dark, Viggo must’ve seen the confusion on my face. “Many of us are very thorough and demanding when seeking a viable choice for progeny,” he explained. “Some look for a certain attitude and skill set, while others seek candidates that are talented or educated in specific fields. Either for herself or for a client, I presume Audra was gathering information on potential scions.”

“Okay, I get it – gathering intel, that makes sense.” I took a deep breath before I asked my favor. “So, uh, since Le Meur called the bluff of my death, everyone I care about is in an even more dangerous position than before. I think Gwen might be a target. Can she crash at my – uh, our – place for a while?”

Viggo shook his head. “The looming danger will end soon. Until matters are settled, it will be as when you first came to your new abode. I have arranged for Miss Solomon to take safe refuge elsewhere.”

“Yes sir, I appreciate that.”

“Let us proceed with your updated duties, shall we? I planned for certain events to come at a much later time, but the threat to your life has forced my hand. The Doyenne is now aware of an unknown Eidolon in her city that watches over you. Instead of claiming you once more to spite the Deviants, she now most likely wants you dead. Lady Le Meur is no fool, however; she is wary of incurring my wrath. Still, her pride cannot be quantified.”

Those vague words made me feel like shit. “Sorry to have fucked things up for you, sir.”

Viggo waved off the apology with a flick of his hand. “Your safety is the only important thing; my oath demands no less. You have a particular ancestor who was much more of a burden, but we’ll speak of him later.” He reached into his coat pockets, pulled out a couple items, and tossed one of them to me. As I caught the bundle of wrapped cash, he said, “Buy a new outfit tomorrow. If not formal attire, make it nearly so. You will be presentable.”

“Yes sir. Uh, presentable for what?”

He tossed me the other item, a key and remote fob on a key ring. “You will have a new vehicle. The van was seen by Adepts and Realm personnel. It also would not be the favored mode of transportation for the guest you will be chauffeuring to me.”

“Yeah, I guess a van with a big dent in the side is kind of easy to spot. Uh, where’s the new ride?”

“It is behind the cemetery chapel you passed on your way in. Leave the van next to it. Tomorrow night, just before midnight, a jet will be landing at a small airfield – the Truman Regional. It sits on the eastern outskirts of the city. You will collect my guest, along with his assistants, and bring them here to me.”

“Back here? To this cemetery – to Waldo?” I thought that was a strange order, although I shouldn’t have. With my commander, the unexpected had become the norm.

“Yes, here; pull right up in front. My guest is very important, very powerful. You will be courteous and respectful at all times.”

“Of course, sir. Uh, can I know who your guest is to address him properly?”

Viggo nodded and said, “His name is Aldo Skala. You will call him sir or Mr. Skala if he allows it. I once told you that one of my scions was the Doyen of Munich, Germany. It is he, coming to visit his sire.”

A few minutes later, I parked the van next to my replacement car. It was a newer Audi sedan, gleaming silver in the moonlight. Damn, it was sharp. I got in and began familiarizing myself with all the bells and whistles. After a minute, I glanced in the backseat, thinking that in about twenty four hours a Doyen – not to mention Viggo’s scion – would be sitting there. I doubted he was going to call shotgun.

TASKS

Despite protests from her boss (knowing Crane, it was more like whining), Gwen left work early the next day to go clothes shopping with me. Her choice sure as hell had nothing to do with putting her fashion sense to work because, honestly, she didn’t have any. I think it was more that she felt secure with me. It wasn’t just that Gwen thought she’d be safer in my company than at a building full of EPs – that would’ve been one hell of a compliment, and something she would never admit. The main thing was that we were both tangled in the web of the hemo world; it gave our good friendship an even stronger bond.

While we browsed slacks in an outlet store, Gwen told me about the ‘residence’ she was allowed to use. It was Shawn Riordan’s old place, a small abandoned fire station. It was refurbished, and the brass pole was left in. I thought it sounded cool. She wasn’t as excited, and asked if I wanted any of the musical instruments, equipment, or any of his other shit that was sitting around. One Glazefinger t-shirt was enough for me.

I brought up Stanley Everett’s death while Gwen picked out hideous shirt and tie combinations. She wasn’t aware that the warehouse he and his wife were found in belonged to Declan McKenna. She did, however, know some other stuff about the case. Everett’s son, a lawyer in Denver and sole beneficiary of their wills, came back to town after he lost communication with his parents. He met with detectives before they were found, and then once more afterwards to be ruled off the suspect list. Since then, no one has seen or heard from him.

On a whim, I asked Gwen to do some discreet digging on Trade Solutions Import/Export. When she turned to type the business name into her phone as a reminder, I quickly put her clothing selections back. I sure as hell wasn’t a fashion guru, but a peach shirt with a purple paisley tie might’ve gotten me killed in the wrong company. I chose an outfit that was nicer than my old suits, all in grays and black. Gwen frowned at the selection; screw it – I liked boring.

The lone ground controller at the Truman airfield accepted a bribe; I parked the Audi next to the end of their single landing strip and waited. The private jet landed on time and taxied to within one hundred feet of me. I expected the Doyen of Munich to exit the jet wearing something nicer than the Muddy Waters t-shirt, cargo pants and combat boots he had on. It was his two large assistants who wore suits.

When Mr. Skala got close enough, I could see the details of his appearance. He was about my size, built solid, and had an air of authority. Dark blond hair hung in a loose style over his black eyes – completely black, like Viggo’s. It looked as if a layer of rough-textured beige plaster had been spread over his skin, and little chunks of it had chipped off. Bizarre and inhuman, just like his sire.

Mr. Skala stopped less than ten feet away and silently studied me for a moment. As his huge minions stopped behind him with their hands full of luggage, he stepped closer. Taking in my features and facial scars, he asked in a thick German accent, “You are Mr. Beck, the current holder of my sire’s oath, yes?” The question came with a hint of irritation in his gruff voice.

Great, Viggo’s scion didn’t like me already. I would have liked the chance to at least earn his contempt first. “Yes sir,” I answered without emotion. “Allow me to get the door for you.” I didn’t wait for his nod.

Once the luggage was stuffed into the trunk and the minions stuffed themselves into the car, we began the forty minute drive back to Elmwood cemetery. The three of them had a few short conversations in German, so I had no clue what they were saying. I took a couple glances at the guy sitting next to me in the front passenger seat; he looked like over three hundred pounds of nothing but muscle and ugly. I couldn’t help but wonder if he would’ve turned out that way normally, or if drinking a lot of Deviant blood gave his genetics a nudge.

Viggo was waiting for us in front of the Waldo mausoleum. He and Aldo warmly gripped each other’s shoulders, both saying their hellos in German. I watched the two luggage-toting minions step into the small mausoleum, followed by their master. Either there was an underground passage connected to it, or the damn thing was like a clown car. Viggo told me to check my Planner and then sent me home. Not to sound like a whiny bitch about it, I felt a little excluded.

SUSPECT

I woke up to Thunder licking my eyelid. My alarm clock showed that it wasn’t even five in the morning yet. Less than three hours of sleep made me a grumpy prick. I was about to tell the cat to fuck off and then bury my head in a pillow when I noticed my phone vibrating with a new text. Grunting, I clumsily grabbed it off the bedside table and held it close to my blurry eyes. Two texts and two missed phone calls, all from Gwen in the last twenty minutes. I was suddenly awake, wondering if she was in trouble.

Fumbling with the buttons, I opened the first text. ‘TURN ON CHANNEL 9 NOW! JUMPING JESUS, WHAT HAPPENED?!’ I had no idea what Gwen was freaking out about. I rolled out of bed, shuffled to the lounge and fell back into a chair with the remote in my hand. Since I was up – sort of – I decided to find out what she wanted me to see before I called her back and chewed her ass for waking me long before the sun was up. I did enough of that for years in the military.

The channel 9 morning news was showing the weather. Great, more rain on the way. I switched over to channel 5; they had just started into their lead story at the top of the hour. It was an update on the case involving the murders of Stanley and Mary Everett.

“Upon reviewing footage from a security camera inside the warehouse where the couple was found,” the reporter said, “police are looking for a suspect that an inside source says is strongly tied to the case.” A photo appeared on the screen next to the reporter. Stunned is a good word to describe my reaction.

It was me.

The picture came from my military I.D. badge. I included the shot with the few dossiers I’d handed out. Off the top of my head, the only people I could think of that had a copy of it were Viggo, Ragna, Silas Security, and Le Meur’s business minion Dominique Rondeau. Goddammit.

“Former Marine sergeant Leopold D. Beck is wanted for questioning in the May 2nd homicides of the Everett’s. Beck, a highly-trained veteran of numerous military operations in Afghanistan, should be considered armed and extremely dangerous. Call the tips hotline if you have any knowledge of his whereabouts. There is a reward for any information leading to an arrest.”

What the living fuck? I had no clue how I was being fingered for Stanley’s murder, but man, I was being set up good. Because of this, everyone I knew probably thought I was at least somehow involved in it. First, all my friends thought I was dead or a wandering drunk or abducted by aliens or whatever, then they heard I was alive and a suspect in a murder case. Fucking wonderful. And the cherry on top was that everyone now knew my real first name.

Just like all the other times I had been screwed with in the last handful of months, some damn hemo was behind it. Whether it was Le Meur or McKenna or one of the other supernatural assholes that I left a poor impression with, they had ruined my life.

I didn’t bother listening to Gwen’s messages. I called her back on my way down to the kitchen to make a drink. Yeah, it was only five in the morning, but so the hell what? I deserved a stiff belt. She answered her phone with, “What does the D stand for?”

I could always count on Gwen to say the unexpected. “What? I thought you were gonna start with telling me how completely screwed I am, or asking if I was really involved.”

She made her annoyed sigh dramatically audible. “You being screwed is a given, and I find it offensive that you would wonder if I even entertained the thought of you having anything to do with it, Leo. You’re being framed, pure and simple. The questions are: who, why, and how?”

Ah, Jack and Coke, the mellow-maker. I slammed down my first drink before I replied, “The ‘who’ is any hemo who didn’t find me to be an absolute delight, which is most of ‘em. The ‘why’ could be anything from me being a pain in one of their asses, to nothing more than one of ‘em thought it’d be funny. Don’t expect me to know what they think or anything about the fucked up games they play. As for how I’m getting pinned for this, that’s a damn good question. I need to see that tape, Gwen.”

“Don’t expect me to be able to get my cute little hands on it. That footage is a hot commodity right now. No one I know could get near it, and wouldn’t take the chance of making a copy if they could. Sorry, Leo, you’re going to have to see what our patron can do. Until then, what are your options?”

“Shit, I don’t have any options, Gwen. I’m in a safe place. I can’t go out for anything, not anymore – my face is all over the news. The only thing I can do is wait until tonight and talk to the boss.”

“I’m sorry, Leo, I really am. You know I’d help if I could. Don’t go getting any wild ideas about how to fix this and get yourself in trouble. Well, more trouble.”

“No way. I’m staying put.”

“I expect the police will call or come by the office today, digging up what they can about you.”

“Do not defend me with them, Gwen. Don’t incriminate yourself, stay neutral.”

“I’m a professional, dummy. They won’t get a twitch out of me.”

I spent the rest of the day trying to keep myself busy. I cooked Phillip a quick breakfast, and made a few half-assed attempts to get into a staring contest with Thunder. I’d read that cats view that as a challenge or a threat, but he didn’t seem to mind. I also left a message for Viggo when he woke, explaining the fun new turn of events. A good hour was spent with the punching bag, which I beat the shit out of. The rest of my time was spent trying not to get hammered, and failing miserably.

VIDEO

A wet sensation on my nostrils woke me later that evening; I’d passed out in a recliner around dinner time. My eyes opened and saw Thunder sitting on my chest, and Viggo standing in front of me. My whole body jerked in surprise. Thunder didn’t budge. Sobering up quick, I set the cat aside and stood. Okay, make that only fairly quick on the sobering – the room wobbled when I hopped out of the chair.

“I recant an earlier statement,” Viggo grumbled. “You are the most troublesome of your entire lineage.”

“Sorry, sir. I don’t mean to be.” I swallowed down a hint of bile and steadied my feet.

Viggo’s posture slightly relaxed. “Intent was never your undoing, Leo. You simply continue to be placed in precarious situations, and by the local members of my race. Perhaps now your level of distaste for many of them rivals my own . . . But that is a discussion for another time.”

“Yes sir, I look forward to it.” I was relieved that my commander felt the contempt for hemos that I’d learned to feel. Hell, that opinion was inevitable with all the shit they’d given me. I would have never wanted Viggo to know how I felt if his opinion opposed mine. But with his words, I no longer had to worry about being diplomatic when the topic came up.

“Because of the message you left,” Viggo continued, “I began my own investigation of sorts. I may not be able to thwart the mortal authorities by clandestine means, but I am quite able to determine some of the true facts of the case.”

“Sire,” a gruff, accented voice said from the doorway of the lounge, “I am capable of completing the task on my own.” Aldo Skala leaned against the doorframe. His jeans, blue turtleneck and wavy blonde hair reminded me of a smug catalogue model, but his crumbling-plaster face ruined the effect.

I hadn’t even noticed Skala was there; I was focused on Viggo and trying to stop my vision from swimming. I couldn’t get my booze-soaked brain to figure out why Viggo’s moody European scion was there, or what he was talking about.

“If you knew exactly where to go,” Viggo said to him, “then I would agree with you, Aldo. As I told you earlier, you have a greater grasp of modern technology, while only I know the precise location. We go together.” He turned back to me. “Leo, Mr. Skala and I must go, but we will return for you very shortly. At that time, you will come with us. You have ten minutes to prepare. As a cautionary note, I do not believe that void-walking and inebriation is a wise combination.”

Viggo and Skala stepped out of the room into the dark staircase and then disappeared. As soon as they were gone, I went down to the kitchen and dunked my head in the sink that I filled with cold water and ice. My commander and his scion returned sooner than I would’ve liked, but by then my senses were clearer and I was wide awake.

Huddled together, we all void-walked into a dark corner of the first Deviant den that Viggo brought me to. It was the one that was a mix of cavern and studio apartment. It was as I remembered it; wires clamped all over the walls, the bed sitting back in a natural recess of stone, an array of electronic equipment, and the iron submarine-style doors on either end. The only new addition was the Deviant called Skin setting up a camcorder on a tripod.

“Hey, kid,” he said with an easy smile. “Stepped in some more shit, did ya now?”

I wasn’t sure how to reply to that, so I didn’t. Skala handed Skin a clear CD case. Viggo explained to me that Mr. O’Shaughnessy had been asked to help because of his audio and video expertise. Footage of ‘my’ crime had just been borrowed from an evidence room, copied and returned. Besides studying that new copy, Skin was going to access Gwen’s security camera files and cross-reference for any possible matches of everyone in the database.

But first, a video was going to be made of me moving around for the purpose of contrasting my shape and gait patterns with whoever the real killer was. The concept felt vaguely gay.

“Couldn’t you and Mr. Skala just have kept the original, sir?” I asked while Skin filmed me walking and carrying a heavy area rug on my shoulder. “With no evidence, there’s no case.”

Viggo shook his head. “Copies have undoubtedly already been made. I do not know how many or where they might be, so retrieval is impossible.”

I set the rug down with a sigh. “I’ll never have anything like a normal life again, will I, sir?”

“For what purpose, Mr. Beck?” Skala asked from a nearby reading table he was sitting at. “Do you truly wish to resume your place among the ignorant cattle? Consider where you are, what you’ve seen, and your newfound abilities. All because you have been shown the true, dark reality. How many others of the vast herd of shuffling bovines are as fortunate as you? It should be your privilege to knowingly be in the presence of immortal beings.” He frowned at me. “Normal life? What an insulting regression.”

Viggo scowled at his progeny. Skin kept his head down and busied himself with the video equipment. I kept my lips tight, fighting the urge to point out that billions of human ‘cattle’ unknowingly kept Skala and all his kind in check. Even though humans didn’t know they held that power, the hemos did. The only reasons I didn’t point that out were because Viggo wouldn’t take kindly to my lip, and that I didn’t have those billions of people right there to back me up.

ANSWERS

Twenty minutes later, I sat on the edge of the bed feeling like a liability. Viggo and Skin were busy studying computer screens and talking among themselves, leaving no room for a third set of eyes. Skala remained at the reading table, flipping through the pages of a thick book. Rather than sitting there like a useless piece of shit and feeling sorry for myself, I decided to get some answers of my own.

I sat across from Skala, rested my elbows on the table, and waited until he looked up from his book. “Not to be a bother, sir,” I said, “but I was wondering what I did to piss you off.”

He raised a cracked eyebrow in mild surprise. “I would rather call it continuous resentment. If I were angry with you, Mr. Beck, you certainly would not be allowed to converse with me.”

“Okay, fine, you feel continuous resentment toward me, whatever that means. I’d like to know how I earned it. I’ve got enough enemies as it is, Mr. Skala – I don’t want my commander’s scion as another.”

Skala pushed his book aside, leaned forward on the table and said, “Your master brought me into the night nearly twelve hundred years ago. I will spare you any descriptions of the cruelties of life in the middle ages. My sire told me of his oath, and showed me the current recipient of it. That man was a pig in all ways but shape. His eldest bastard boy wasn’t much better; a thief with hardly a hint of honor. After him was a callous warrior with no empathy. The lineage of that sordid sort continued.

“For over ninety years did I stay near Viggo and assist him. When I decided to make my own way, I still returned to visit my sire throughout the decades and centuries. All the while, he remained true to his oath, watching over human descendants that were not his own. In all of that time and having met so many of your forefathers, only two did I think merited Viggo’s guardianship. Two, out of dozens. My sire has spent his existence watching over people who did not deserve his sacrifice. That should explain what I meant by continuous resentment, Mr. Beck. History has tainted my expectations of your line.”

Well, shit, how was I supposed to argue against that? Skala might’ve been harsh in his judgments and tended to stereotype me because of a few assholes in my family tree, but he was thinking of Viggo and wanted what was best for him. I would’ve done the same. “I’m sorry most of my ancestors didn’t quite measure up, sir. I could say I’ll try to change your opinion, but it’s not your approval that I want.”

Skala’s response was interrupted by Viggo, who said to us, “As there is no obviously no reception here, I must go see if an informant has been able to gather any further information. I shall return shortly.” He walked over to a dark alcove and was gone a second later.

I turned back around, and into Skala’s unnerving stare. “We both have my sire foremost in our minds and hearts,” he stated in a low and quiet tone. “For that alone, I will reserve further judgment. Do not, however, think that performing simple chores and staying out of the way will alter my view. I am not your enemy, Mr. Beck, but I am not your friend, either. I hope that satisfies your curiosity.” Not waiting for a reply, he pulled the book back in front of him and lowered his head.

With that conversation obviously over, I went over to where Skin sat and watched a replay of the tape with ‘me’ in it. The time counter on it showed 2:16 a.m. of May 2nd. The camera angle showed a nearly empty cargo area. Light spilled out of an office window on the left side, giving a dim glow to a wide swath of the warehouse floor. A vague silhouette was back in that office, unmoving, apparently waiting. I couldn’t tell if it was McKenna or not.

The roll-up receiving door on the far end of the warehouse lifted a few seconds later. A figure stepped in with a body on his shoulder. He toted the dead weight over to a four-foot square crate and dropped it in, and then did the same for another body laying just outside. When the suspected murderer was done sealing the crate, he seemed to nod to the silhouette and walked out.

The camera quality was grainy, but the guy looked a lot like me. Not exactly, but close. When he crossed through the light, I could see he wore the same style of leather coat as me. He also had the same facial hair, haircut and scars that I did. Someone went out of his way to make himself look like me. “So that’s supposed to be me, huh?” I asked myself out loud.

“Bollocks!” Skin said, sitting next to me. “The man on the screen has a different posture and walking gait, plus he doesn’t have your arm strength. The structure of his jaw is a tad off, and his hands are paler than yours. There are other small signs, but no, kid, that ain’t you. As for him,” Skin reran the video and pointed at the silhouette, “I’m fairly sure someone manipulated some pixels. I don’t think there is anyone in that office at all – a clever ruse to pinch ol’ Declan McKenna in the process.”

“So who was the guy carrying the bodies?”

Skin shrugged and turned back to the two monitors in front of him. “That may take a wee bit to figure out, considering that I can even find a match from all of your master’s security clips.”

I flinched when Viggo unexpectedly spoke from directly behind me. Fuck, he was sneaky; I didn’t even know he was back down there with us. “Miss Solomon has learned that the dissolution of business arrangements between Mr. Everett and Realm Management was caused by an undermining offer by Trade Solutions Import/Export. I happen to know that Mr. McKenna does enjoy thwarting the Doyenne’s endeavors however he can.”

Skin swiveled in his chair to face Viggo. “So Le Meur had Everett iced and set up ol’ Declan and your minion here – both being right pains in her arse – to take the fall. I have to give her credit; well played.”

“Have you found any possible matches yet, Scanlon?” Viggo asked.

Skin shook his head with a small frown. “I’ve yet to determine who she used for the dirty deed. There was no forced entry, so it had to be someone versed in bypassing security systems. It’s either that, or your Beck impersonator had some help.”

We all took a moment to consider the possibilities. From Skin’s line of work, I bet he knew all sorts of career criminal types. It could’ve been one of them, but I doubted it; what self-respecting Adept would use a lowlife for the job? The help could’ve also come from an Adept’s minion who had those kinds of skills. Lastly, Le Meur could have hired or forced another hemo to be an unseen accomplice, one who had a lot of experience in that kind of work. I glanced at Skin for a second, and then let that idea go.

“One thing at a time,” Viggo said. “Concentrate on who the man in the tape could be.” He then put a hand on my shoulder. “I will return you to your home now, Leo. You’ll need your rest, for tomorrow may prove to be quite eventful.”

INNOCENT

The first thing I did when I woke up was check the hemo-net for any new notes in the Planner file. Viggo had deleted all the old shit and wrote one new message. Apparently, Skin had come up with a short list of possible matches. I was given one name and more info about him than I needed, all thanks to Natalie and her IRS files. The guy was an ‘asst. mgr. of facility security ‘ at Realm. I was told to “secure subject ASAP and hold in a Deviant location for eventual questioning”.

I shoved some dry goods through the slot into Phillip’s room, fed Thunder, and then started making preparations. The Realm guy worked third shift, so I planned on him being asleep when I got there about noon. Banging on the door enough to wake him up, or using a crowbar to gain entry were both really noisy – and therefore really bad – ideas. I also sucked at picking locks, so there was only one option left.

Hello, internet, almighty mentor of future criminals. I watched a YouTube video on how to make and use a bump-key for getting through a deadbolt. I used the tools up in the dusty assembly room to make a spare key from my old house to look just like the one in the video. Two lock tests later, I was satisfied.

Under an umbrella to keep the heavy mist off me, I walked a mile or so to a gas station and called a cab from there. I gave the driver the address when he showed up and gave a good tip when he dropped me off. As I walked through the parking lot of the guy’s complex, I realized I had mixed feelings about what was going to happen to him. If I was sure he was the guy who set me up, he’d be on the wrong end of my pent-up anger before I turned him over to Viggo. If he wasn’t, though, then the poor bastard didn’t deserve the day ahead of him. But hey, life sucks – wear a cup.

The bump-key worked like a charm on the first quick try. Natalie’s info told me the guy filed single on his taxes and no one else used his address for theirs, so there was a good chance he lived alone. Inside the apartment, it was roomy, clean and quiet. As suspected, my target was lightly snoring in his bed.

I stood at the foot of his bed and nudged it. When his eyes crept open, the first thing he saw was a pistol with a silencer pointed at him. “Hello, Mr. Finch,” I said evenly. “You’re about to have a bad day.”

To his credit, he stayed calm. Propping himself up on the bed, Finch asked, “What do you want?”

Next to a dresser was a chair with clothes thrown on it. I grabbed a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt and tossed them to him. “Put those on,” I ordered. I swept the other clothes off the chair, sat down and said, “I’m gonna start with the rules. If there’s a gun under your pillow and you go for it, I will shoot you in a place that causes lingering, pants-crapping agony. If you . . . Look, there are a lot of other reasons why I’d shoot you, but only one reason why I won’t. Do you get what I’m saying?”

“Yeah, I get it,” he slowly replied while pulling the t-shirt over his head.

“Lay on your bed, on your stomach, facing me.” When he complied, I asked, “Do you know why I paid you a visit, Mr. Finch?” He shook his head. “You might have trouble remembering, but were you recently ordered to do some work at a warehouse? Oh, and before you answer, I should mention that if I think you’re lying to me, I will turn your groin to gristle. I’m a very good shot.”

That statement added fear to the wariness and anger in his eyes. “A warehouse? No, I work in the same building every night. I swear.”

I had my fair share of reading the expressions of unreliable Afghani informers, so I knew some of the tell-tale signs. I studied Finch for a second and then said, “Fortunately, I believe you. Unfortunately, I’m not the only person you need to convince.”

Keeping my 9mm trained on him, I got up and moved the pillows. No gun. I then pulled a cover off one of the pillows, stuffed it in my pocket, and told Finch to slip some shoes on. I took his keys and wallet off the dresser, and then let him take a piss – bathroom door open, of course – before we left. I’m a nice guy like that.

I stayed ten feet behind Finch on the way to his car. He was surprised I knew which one it was; I told him that I had more info on him than he’d be comfortable telling his own mother . . . whose address I also had, by the way. He drove. I sat in the backseat and navigated. We pulled up behind an abandoned building in a desolate neighborhood. After we got out, I bound his wrists behind his back with a spool of thin wire and put the pillowcase over his head. Once I got him in the backseat and told him to lay down, we were on the road again.

Eight long hours later, Mr. Finch and I were in a small, condemned apartment building not far from where I took over driving his car. The place was listed on the hemo map file as a Deviant hideaway, stocked with a few basic and hidden supplies. Finch was blindfolded, secured to a support beam, and had duct tape over his mouth most of the time. I didn’t like doing that to an innocent guy.

Viggo came up the rickety stairs fifteen minutes after I called him. He motioned for us to speak in another room. “I do not know if you are good at judging a person’s character,” he said. “Nonetheless, give me your impression of Mr. Finch. Speak plainly, Leo; we are pressed for time this evening.”

“I really don’t think Finch is our guy, sir. He obviously works for the wrong people, but I don’t think he’s a minion. I talked to him a little bit, and I’m pretty good at sniffing out bullshit. He’s not a bad guy.”

Nodding, Viggo replied, “I will keep that in mind when he is questioned. As much as I trust you, we can take no chances. You should go find a way back home now; Mr. Finch’s vehicle will need to stay here.”

“You, uh, don’t want me to stay, sir?”

“I don’t think you would want to. While I have numerous Gifts, I cannot alter memories or perceive lies with penetrating insight. Elder Ragna does have those Gifts, and she will arrive here soon. I doubt you wish to spend more time with her. Moreover, you will need to make yourself ready in whatever attire you deem appropriate; the Open Gathering is later tonight, and we are going to attend.”

TOOL

I had a blast getting home. No cab was gonna come to the neighborhood I was in, so I had to hoof it over a mile to a safer area. The heavy rain came with gusty winds, rendering my umbrella all but useless. Because of my drowned-dog appearance, I had to prove to the taxi driver that I had money before he’d let me in. I had him stop a few blocks from my place and didn’t give much of a tip. I had to use my keys for the first time to get in; I fumbled with ‘em in the rain while Thunder watched from the window.

An hour later I had a meal in my belly, business casual clothes on, and a drink in my hand. A text from the ShadoWorks number told me to be ready by eleven. I had twenty minutes to burn. Thunder was keeping me company in the office, so I decided to give another shot at keeping his gaze. A few minutes into it, Thunder looked out into the hallway and then hopped into my lap. I looked down at him and then back to the doorway. Viggo was standing there with my ancestor’s metal goblet in his hand.

“It is difficult to catch a cat unaware,” he said conversationally. “You don’t seem very surprised, either.”

“Uh, no sir. Some of my latest dreams involving you have been about you showing up unexpectedly or just lurking in a dark spot. I’m getting used to it.”

Viggo shrugged. “As I understand it, a minion who shares strong affinities with his lord will have glimpses in his sleep of a past not his own. You and I were once warriors, and we both hold similar values in high regard. I am therefore not surprised that I am the occasional focus of your dreams.” He sat down across the desk from me and changed the topic. “You should know some things before we go.”

“Yes sir, I was wondering about a few things.”

“I thought you might be.” He set the goblet in front of me and continued. “To begin with, you were correct – Mr. Finch was not the culprit. Ragna erased today’s events from his mind. I drove him back to his apartment, put him back in bed, and placed a spilled bottle of sleeping pills on his bedside table. Mr. Finch will rationalize a reasonable excuse from there; the human mind is amazingly adaptive.”

“Alright, great, I’m glad I was right about that. Then, uh, if Finch wasn’t the imposter, who was?” I picked up the ornate goblet. It was half full, and the dark liquid inside carried the aroma of secrets and power and Jack Daniels. I downed it all at once.

Viggo absently gazed out the window behind me. His thick brows came down into a scowl, and flowing strips of shadow began to blur his form when he said, “Edward Galloway. He could have cut his hair to any shorter fashion; it would return to its original length the following night. Cheap Halloween kits can make believable scar tissue, and appear even more realistic from a short distance.”

“That motherfucker,” I growled. Ragna had the right idea when she wanted Galloway taken out, but I didn’t want to admit that out loud . . . or even at all.

“Mr. Galloway was the tool, and I believe there was a hand that used him. Most certainly an Adept. I strongly suspect Emmeline Le Meur, although there is no proof to support my claim.”

“Will he be at the Open Gathering?” I asked, handing the goblet back to him.

“If Mr. Galloway has no concerns of being found out, then he will attend for the sake of socializing. If, however, he has paranoid tendencies, the Gathering is one of the few places he is safe. To be clear, the Doyenne will declare the location of any Gathering to be Civil Ground, if only temporarily. Either way, Mr. Galloway will be there.”

Viggo’s angry shadows were fading, which was a relief. I had a stupid question, but decided to ask it anyway. “I guess that when I see him there, I’m not allowed to shoot him in the face. A lot.”

“Sorry, no,” Viggo said with a hint of regret. “Weapons are not allowed on Civil Ground, excluding the Doyenne’s enforcer. Violence of any sort will not be tolerated. The use of any Gift, however innocuous, is also forbidden. These rules have been in place for centuries. You will adhere to them.”

“Of course, sir.” I pulled my Ruger out of a pocket and set it on the desk. “When are we going?”

“Mr. O’Shaughnessy will arrive at any moment. We will ride with him.”

Viggo and I started discussing Thunder and the Gift of Fauna when a car honked out front. We walked out and saw an oversized black cargo van, extended and with a raised roof. Skin hopped out of the passenger door wearing a brown velvet tracksuit and tan pageboy cap. I would have laughed at nearly anyone else wearing that outfit, but the pimp/ridiculous mix didn’t look bad on him.

Skin first bowed his head to Viggo and then said to me, “You sit up front with Kurt, kid.”

While Skin opened one of the rear doors for him and Viggo, I climbed into the passenger seat. Behind the wheel was one of Skala’s mammoth men, who stared at me indifferently. “You must be Kurt,” I said, trying to be pleasant. He only nodded. I looked over my shoulder into the back of the van; it looked like the inside of one of those mobile command units that police use. Two chairs on casters sat in front of a bank of electronic equipment and monitors that took up one whole side of the van.

I was about to ask what was going on when Kurt held a piece of paper in front of my face. “I need route. GPS ist scheisse,” he grunted in broken English. “You know this place?”

I looked at the address written on the paper and . . . son of a bitch. “Yeah, I know it,” I said with a sigh. It was the Everett mansion.

CAMERA

“Mr. Skala’s tie clip has been fitted with a miniature recording device,” Viggo began to explain as we drove through the night. His understanding of modern technology was a little sketchy.

“If I may, elder?” Skin said to him. I was watching the road, so I assume Viggo gave him a nod to put things in simpler terms. “It’s a spy cam, and it picks up audio. It gets fed to one of the receivers back here. Mr. Skala’s limo is waiting near the Everett place. When we pull up behind it, I’ll go turn his cam on and ride the last couple hundred yards with him to the valets waiting out front.”

“Leo, you and I will watch the monitor for a time,” Viggo told me. “When the Doyenne calls for a formal convening, we shall join the festivities.”

“Yes sir. Uh, what exactly is a convening?”

“During a Gathering, a Doyen – or sometimes a faction emissary – will call for all in attendance to congregate for the purpose of bearing witness to decrees of various sorts. Those decrees range from granting progeny to administering justice, with many things in between.”

“I’ve got this set to record,” Skin said to Viggo. “I’ll have to watch it later on. The reactions to your scion should be damn entertaining. And that won’t be the best part!”

We made it to the upscale neighborhood. I gave Kurt more instructions until our van finally pulled up behind a limo parked a few lawns away from Everett’s. Skin hopped out and got into the limo. Viggo told me to come watch the monitor with him. The camera came on just as I was sitting down. We couldn’t see much inside the dark limo, but the screen brightened when Skala stepped out a minute later.

Two guards were waiting on either side of the wide front door. Holy crap, they were Frank Cantrell and Carla Dykowski, the detectives who tried to fuck with me a couple months before.

“Do you know those people, Leo?” Viggo asked. “You had a reaction.”

“Yes sir, I know ‘em. I told you about my run-in with those two outside of a bar a while back. They were also probably the ones who passed along my ties with Phillip Aoki to Le Meur, although they actually work for Dominic Riva. I owe them one for Phillip.”

“Ah, I see. The path to your retribution may be clear; I happen to know that Mr. Riva is currently out of action. As for how much the Doyenne might interfere in the future . . .” Viggo shrugged.

On the screen, Skala walked into the large, chandelier-lit foyer. Moses Dupree stood there, most likely to greet hemos and announce their arrival. Skala was evidently not covering his true appearance; Dupree flinched, but composed himself pretty quick. When Skala gave his name and title, Dupree looked like he crapped himself. I was fairly sure that was impossible for a hemo, but I liked the reaction.

“Is it another rule that your people can’t lie when on Civil Ground?” I wondered out loud. “Otherwise, couldn’t some other unknown Deviant claim to be Mr. Skala?”

“Fabrications are a part of gatherings,” Viggo said. “Some of my own faction members revel at selling lies at these social functions. I find them distasteful. Countering your query is Mr. Dupree, whose Gift of Discerning is quite strong. At his level of ability, knowing fact from falsehood is involuntary. When my scion spoke, Mr. Dupree automatically knew his words to be true.”

Aldo Skala moved leisurely around the huge house, muttering short hellos to everyone who bowed to him or gave a respectful greeting. Barnabus Merritt came up to him a little while later, offering a handshake and a monster’s smile. They started speaking in German, so I took that as my chance to talk to Viggo again. “It seems like anyone who knows Mr. Skala is kissing his ass, sir.”

“As well they should,” he replied. “Herr Aldo Skala is nearly twelve hundred years old – an ancient Eidolon to most. He led war parties for my people in the centuries after he was brought into the night, although he was originally a Pomeranian. Tiring of war as I did, he turned his interests to espionage for profit. A few decades before the time of your American Revolution, Herr Skala took to slumber deep in Deviant-carved catacombs below Munich. An occurrence during your Second World War stirred him; he claimed the city and has ruled it well ever since. He is preceded by his age and his blood, which is more potent than most active elders. The name of my scion is known to many.”

Unlike Viggo, who was busy keeping an oath for the sake of my lineage, his own progeny had a chance to sleep for a while. I tried not to dwell on the guilt and moved on. “There are more people in there than I expected. I’ve seen some faces that I recognize and a few I don’t, but hardly any Deviants – only Skin, Mr. Merritt and Roach so far. Does your faction avoid these parties for some reason?”

Viggo pointed to the screen as Skala’s cam shifted one way or another. “Some in attendance are merely minions. You will notice they never sit, and stay near their lords or ladies. Some of us bring a minion to a Gathering on occasion, although many do not. Attempting to bring an entourage is frowned upon. As for the absence of some of my faction members, those not presented to the Doyenne will not attend for obvious reasons. I have yet to see Ragna or her scion, Mr. Vestergaard, but they may have . . .”

He was distracted by something that the audio picked up in the background – a crash and some yelling. Hmm, something was amiss in the house of hemos. The view on the monitor turned chaotic from all the sudden movement of people around Skala. The scene began to steady as he pressed forward through a small crowd of onlookers. Someone screeched. A male voice yelled, “Lady, no!” And then a raspy bellow echoed through the mansion, a roar of rage that formed one word: “YOUUUU”.

I knew that voice. Ragna had made it to the party after all, and no one was happy to see her.

OFFENSE

Skala’s cam faced the center of the large foyer. Thick chunks and shards of wood littered the marble floor. I guessed that’s what was left of the front door. Also down on the deck among the debris was Moses Dupree, bleeding heavily from one ear and scooting to the far side of the crowd.

On the left side of the screen, Enric Tomasino held steady in a battle stance. He hadn’t pulled his sword yet, but I figured he was well-practiced at pulling it pretty quick. Cowering behind Tomasino was Edward Galloway, whose expression was a weird mix of satisfaction and scared shitless.

Barely in the camera’s view on the right was the Norse priest, Michael, who was trying to hold back his wild-eyed lunatic of a matriarch . . . or dark mother, or bitch, or whatever. Ragna kept her ice-blue glare on Galloway, snarling and straining against Michael’s desperate grip. Her scarf had come loose, revealing her nightmarish chin and neck. Something had made her go ape-shit, and she was holding the cringing Adept responsible. Ragna and I finally had something in common.

“What made her snap, sir?” I asked as we both kept our eyes on the monitor.

“Good question,” he murmured. “I will have the answer soon enough.”

Ragna was just breaking free of Michael’s grip when Barnabus ran forward, tackling her. Together, they held the dog-woman in place and spoke calmly to her. She stopped straining, lying on the floor under two grown men, but still stared daggers at Galloway. He was looking anywhere but back at her.

Tomasino said, “Mr. Merritt, please allow elder Ragna to stand if you think it safe to do so. It is unfitting to have someone of her esteem pinned to the ground, even with her transgression.”

I thought that was a very bad idea. Barnabus thought so, too. “She is still beyond reason, Mr. Tomasino. If I might suggest, do not meet her stare and please remove Mr. Galloway from sight.” I guess just the mention of his name set Ragna off again. She shrugged off both Barnabus and Michael, getting to her knees. Damn, that twisted cripple was strong. They reclaimed grips on Ragna’s arms, holding her in place and denying her the chance to get to her feet.

“Vanquish her,” came the command from off-screen. I remember Le Meur’s voice well; it was normally warm honey, but right then the honey was cold and mixed with venom.

Skala shifted the cam in her direction. The Doyenne stood three steps up on the wide staircase behind the circle of onlookers. Coiffed hair, flawless skin, shimmering dress, big amber eyes; it was tough to forget her. Wait, forget tough – it was impossible. At least for someone with a working dick, that is.

Frowning, Tomasino turned his head toward Le Meur. “Milady?” he asked, apparently surprised.

"Doyenne," Barnabus called out, "elder Ragna is subdued. There is no rea -"

“I gave an order,” Le Meur said coolly, interrupting him. “Stake the dog-woman, have her bound, and bring her to me before dawn. See to it, enforcer.”

Even from three hundred yards away, I could feel the tension. It was thick in the van, too; shadows were coming off of Viggo like creepy tendrils – pulsing, crawling . . . yearning. I felt the urge to go sit back up front with Kurt, who had a much smaller chance of making me piss my pants.

On screen, Tomasino reluctantly began to pull the sword strapped to his back. The camera moved; we realized that Skala had stepped out from the crowd, facing Tomasino and Le Meur. “With all due respect to your worthy and earned positions in this city,” Skala said formally to them, “I request that you allow a Deviant to deal with one of his own. Not to undermine your authority, enforcer.” Tomasino shrugged.

“You must be Doyen Aldo Skala,” Le Meur said. The audio picked up whispers of other hemos repeating his name. “While I am honored to have a visitor of your status in my city, why would I allow you to remove the offender? Your faction would no doubt show her lenience. Justice would not be served.”

“There is no contesting that elder Ragna has violated one of the rules of Civil Ground. She will not be spared fair and stern punishment. Her offense will be dealt with accordingly. On that I give you my word. One of the reasons for my presence in your city concerns her. Grant me the burden of Ragna’s penance; I am sure that equitable recompense can be negotiated for your clemency.”

“He’s pretty smooth,” I commented to Viggo. He merely nodded, and then said, “You will notice that Lady Le Meur did not ask the reason for Ragna’s unhinging. I believe she already knows why.”

“It’s pretty obvious it has something to do with Galloway. Ragna wanted to rip him apart.”

“Yes . . . the tool takes the blame for damage done. The wielding hand can easily feign innocence.”

The cam angle showed Le Meur standing there, weighing her options. The crowd waited. Skala suddenly moved; the camera swung and spun. I was pretty sure he bent over and turned around. I caught a quick glimpse of Ragna’s wide eyes and hands gripping her shoulders. A few hemos gasped. Skala stepped back, steadying the shot. Ragna was still kneeling, but a big shard of wood was jammed in her chest. The dog-woman was staked. Her previous expression of demented fury was replaced with one of surprise.

The camera spun again. Skala turned back to Le Meur and said, “I hope that satisfies your reservations.”

She smiled faintly and nodded. Skala called his other minion, Karl, to carry Ragna back to his limo and guard her. Barnabus led the stunned Michael away from the scene. Le Meur moved forward through the dispersing crowd and stood in front of Skala. From the angle, I could only see from the bottom of her jaw to just below her tits; most of the screen was filled with the top half of a shimmering red dress.

“And what exactly brings you to my city?” Le Meur asked.

“Business.”

“Hmm. If it is a new endeavor that you are researching, perhaps Realm Management could help you explore the possibilities. The recompense you owe might be found in a joint venture.”

“Ah, no. Let me clarify; family business.”

“Is that so? Your progeny resides here under my fair rule? Do you mean . . .”

“All in good time, Lady. When you convene your subjects, I shall formally present myself and make my reasons known.”

Barnabus found Skala a short time later in the billiards room, saying that Michael told him what made Ragna go nuts. Sometime during the day, a car that was eventually found out to belong to one of Galloway’s minions was seen driving through her domain. The people in that car set out large amounts of poisoned meat in vacant lots. Almost all of Ragna’s pets, plus other animals attracted by the smell, were dead by the time she woke. I could easily picture her flipping out about that.

The two continued talking, this time in English. Barnabus had just asked Skala what he planned to do with Ragna when Moses Dupree – wearing a new suit – politely interrupted them. “Excuse me, elder Skala, emissary Merritt. The Doyenne has called for a convening in the great room.”

Hot damn, game on.

CONVENING

As Viggo and I walked down the dark, quiet street with opulent houses on either side of us, I asked, “What are my orders, sir?”

He kept his gaze fixed on the Everett mansion ahead of us. “Stay one step behind me and to my right. If I give an order, you need not answer – simply do it. Do not speak unless I ask you a question, and do not reply to anyone else who might address you directly.”

Viggo’s shadows of anger hadn’t started dancing again yet, but I was sure it was only a matter of time.

We crossed over onto Everett’s lawn and approached the front. Cantrell was on a stepstool, nailing a blanket over the frame of where the door used to be. Dykowski saw us coming and signaled her partner. Cantrell pulled one edge of the blanket aside and said something to whoever was in earshot inside. Recognizing me, they stood tense on either side of the hung blanket. “Good evening, sir,” Dykowski said to Viggo, ignoring me with everything but her piggy eyes.

Viggo paused at the entryway, giving the detectives a chance to react to his true appearance. Jet-black eyes fixed on Dykowski; she gulped and began to sweat. Keeping his glare on her, Viggo asked me, “Do you wish to address these two before we go in, Mr. Beck?”

“Yes sir, thank you.” I glanced from Cantrell to Dykowski. “I don’t care about your badges or who you really work for. If I ever see either of you again, expect pain – a lot of pain.”

Both of their stares kept switching from me to Viggo, but they didn’t say shit. Probably a wise choice. I stepped forward, pulled the blanket aside, and we stepped in.

The last time I was in the Everett mansion, it was dark and quiet with a lingering odor of gunpowder and blood. This time the place was annoyingly bright, crappy instrumental music played through the house speakers, and the cloying scent of roses wafted by. The current ambiance was the lesser of two evils.

Waiting in the foyer for us was Dupree. He steeled himself for Viggo’s grotesque appearance and cold black eyes. Wisps of shadow had begun to lift and sway off of my commander’s form. Dupree’s eyes went wide and he took a step back. “May – may I have y-your name, sir?” he forced himself to ask.

“Lead me to your Doyenne,” Viggo growled, sounding like death itself. Without another word, Dupree turned and led us to the east wing of the mansion. “You remember my voice and attire from the other evening downtown, yes?” Viggo asked him as we walked. Dupree nodded quickly. “Then you would be wise to stay in my company for the time being.”

Past the large dining room was a short, wide hallway. It opened up into the great room, an area with a two-story high ceiling and enough space to seat forty people. The crowd of twenty-plus hemos and minions was gathered in the near half of the room, all facing away from us. Around a few bodies, I could see Le Meur sitting in a fancy chair next to a large unlit fireplace at the far end of the room. Tomasino stood nearest to her. We stayed back and listened to the conversation in progress.

The Outsider elder Jack Fletcher was voicing his concerns about two members of his faction who had been missing for some time. Le Meur said that she shared his distress because two of her own people couldn’t be accounted for, and another had been taken by a powerful stranger. She turned to Barnabus and asked if the Deviants were having the same problem. He nodded, admitting that Pedro Viera and Harlan couldn’t be found or contacted. Nervous murmurs filled the room.

Putting his left hand on Dupree’s shoulder as a reminder not to run off, Viggo leaned toward me. “I see you craning your head,” he whispered. “Who are you looking for?”

“Mr. McKenna, sir,” I answered just as quietly. “I didn’t see him on the monitor. Here, either.”

“While Mr. McKenna would find refuge on Civil Ground, it would only be temporary. I presume that the Doyenne has put the full weight of her influence into all but destroying him. You’ve had a taste of Le Meur’s power, Leo; she has used the same Gifts and more to keep key mortals under her thumb. Police commissioners, corporate heads, and directors of social media – her local manipulation is expansive. Were Mr. McKenna here tonight, authorities would no doubt be alerted and waiting for him once he left the grounds. He would not fare well in a holding cell that had a window . . .”

“So he’s on the run?”

“A fugitive, yes. His home, his properties, even his vehicles cannot offer a safe haven. I suspect that his assets have been seized and his accounts frozen. Declan McKenna finally overstepped his bounds in his attempts to subvert Emmeline Le Meur’s dominion.”

That had to suck for McKenna, not that I felt any pity for him. He was used to money and nice shit and throwing his weight around. And then, suddenly, he’s forced to grab what he can and disappear. His minions – Blake and the other one – would be watched, too, so crashing with them wasn’t an option. Neither was getting help from anyone in his loose-knit faction, not even his sire Fletcher; no one would want to share McKenna’s trouble. He was fucked, simple as that.

In the great room, other comments were being made about various faction members in the past that simply disappeared. I figured that if Viggo was involved with all of those cases, he had a good reason.

Le Meur refocused the crowd’s attention on announcements of introduction. First was a hemo who moved from Florida and wanted to make K.C. her new home. She introduced herself as Isabel Greco of the Adept faction, and said she was an artist of different mediums. Art, shmart – I was only interested in her exotic and dangerous looks, probably a blend of Asian and South American heritage. Le Meur welcomed Greco to the city, promised they would speak again soon, and then moved on.

The next announcement kicked my ass. “By my allowance, one of the Outsiders has brought another strong individual into the night,” Le Meur stated. “Jade Clayton, please step forward.”

A fairly petite, tattooed woman walked to the center of the room. Faded jeans tucked into knee-high boots, gypsy jewelry, and an unbuttoned jean jacket vest with a t-shirt underneath – she had a certain style. Her pale white skin contrasted to her dark red hair, pulled into a long braid. Jade was cute rather than beautiful; her large brown eyes added to the effect. I looked closer and saw that her black t-shirt had neon lime lettering that said, ‘Soylent Green – Tap the Resource’. I found out later what that meant.

“Thank you, Doyenne,” Jade said to Le Meur and then turned to address the other guests. “Nearly two months ago, I was granted the right of progeny. I was of course elated and honored. My issue was that I had no human in mind to award with the dark exchange. So few of them are worthy these days, as I’m sure you all know.” Jade was comfortable with public speaking, that was for damn sure. “The Doyenne knew of my plight, and kindly offered choices from her own pool of minion candidates.” She turned back to Le Meur and continued. “I am happy to say that I selected one of those choices, considering him worthy to join our numen ranks. Doyenne, I present my scion, Cordell King.”

No fucking way.

HERALD

Cordell King – my buddy Cord – stood and went to Jade’s side. He must’ve been sitting in one of the chairs against the wall, or else I would’ve noticed his big frame. I didn’t understand . . . Cord, a new hemo? I was stunned. My mind was a blender full of questions.

Towering over Jade, Cordell didn’t appear to be confused or nervous at all, as I might’ve expected. His demeanor was stern and proud. He also had a whole new look. Cordell used to be painfully predictable with his constant wardrobe choice of slacks, polo shirt and blazer. In casual settings, he took off the blazer. Going along with his change of species, Cord wore his military boots, black jeans, a long-sleeved pullover that clung to his muscles, and a sleeveless motorcycle jacket. His brown eyes had somehow lightened in color, emphasized by his dark skin. A new look for a new badass.

Cord turned to the Doyenne, bowed and mumbled a few words. She nodded to him and asked Jade, “The exchange was recent, no? I can sense new blood coursing through him.”

“Last night, Doyenne.”

“I thought your faction was of the habit to test a new scion’s mettle, leaving him to his own devices for a time. Did you doubt Mr. King’s ability to survive?” The question didn’t come off as insulting; it was more like creating conversation. It was clear that Le Meur and Jade Clayton got along, or pretended well.

“Quite the contrary, Doyenne,” Jade said with a smile. “Mr. King learned to be resilient long before I met him, so I saw no need to put him through our trial of determination.” That was true. Cord never spoke of his childhood much, but I knew he had it rough. His mom died young, his dad worked all the time, and he had to watch over his little sister. Living in a dangerous neighborhood didn’t help. I bet every day was a test. Cord finally enlisted at nineteen; the Corps gave him a whole new set of challenges.

Le Meur congratulated Jade and Cordell – basically a polite dismissal. When they stepped away, she announced, “Tonight, we have the pleasure of having an unexpected guest among us.” She stood and held one hand out in Skala’s general direction. “Here to present himself at our Gathering, I am honored to welcome the Doyen of Munich, Germany, the renowned Herr Aldo Skala.”

Confidently stepping out into the open area, Skala scanned the semicircle of hemos with a disapproving glare. That made me smile. He slowly turned toward Le Meur. In his gruff voice and thick accent, he said, “I told you I was here on business – family business. To be clear, that does not include elder Ragna, who is not of my line. I did not come here for her, nor am I here to present myself to the likes of you, Lady Le Meur. I, Aldo Skala, come to this Gathering as a herald.”

Obviously pissed but trying not to show it, Le Meur asked with a snotty tone, “A herald? For who?”

Skala turned his back on her and held his arms out wide to the crowd. “I am the scion of the walking shadow . . .” Viggo’s outline began to lose definition. He moved Dupree aside and started forward.

“. . . The offspring of stygian vengeance . . .” Skala continued. The room ahead began to subtly darken and gather a gloom, like someone was turning down the dimmer knobs for the chandeliers. Shadows of the guests began to move of their own accord, sliding up the walls and twisting into grotesque shapes. Everyone in the room was suddenly either tense or openly scared.

“. . . And the keeper of oaths,” Skala concluded. “You all stand in the presence of a true Eidolon, as bugs under a heel. None of you are worthy.” His utter contempt for them was nearly palpable, like a slow, lingering punch in the face. “To all of you undeserving numen, I present . . . the Veleti.”

RECKONING

In front of us was Barnabus and Skin; both stepped out of the way. Just as Viggo strode into everyone’s view, the fireplace spontaneously roared to life with flame. A few hemos screamed in surprise and alarm. Shadows slithered along all the walls, all forming into constantly shifting demonic shapes. I’d seen Viggo do something like it before, but not to that degree. A number of the hemos were reacting to the new, threatening ambiance like I did the first time I saw it. Three minions ran out of the room in fear.

Skala bowed to my commander and then stepped away. Viggo turned his gaze around the room, never letting his menacing black eyes linger. “To those of you who have the ability to gauge truth from lie,” he said with a voice of burning gravel, “consider these words and let your senses be the judge. I am Viggo of the Veleti, Eidolon of the Deviant faction and eldest of all conscious numen.”

“Truth,” Barnabus said loudly. Moses Dupree echoed him. Edward Galloway fell to his knees and bowed his head in the presence of one of his false gods. Tomasino yanked him back to his feet.

Viggo turned to Le Meur with an expectant stare. "Truth," she said quietly while cautiously easing into her chair. "Welcome, Veleti," she said, regaining her confidence. "We are all indeed honored that you have come to introduce yourself at this Gathering. If you would like -"

“I did not come here for presentations and pleasantries,” Viggo growled. “I came here for a reckoning.” He let his black eyes roam over the nervous, silent crowd for a second and then pointed a finger at a middle-aged hemo with iron gray hair and a sharp suit. “You, Nathan Powell. Setting aside the unethical treatment of your lowly Realm Management employees – for now – I will address a greater infraction under your control. Namely, the illegal dumping of your commercial waste. It stops now. If I hear of another occurrence, I will force you to build a hovel out of your company’s trash and live in it.”

Powell just stood there slack-jawed. Viggo moved his finger and aimed it at Jack Fletcher, who had the balls to glare back. “Your attempts, both failed and successful, to sabotage machinery at numerous industrial plants have been noted, Mr. Fletcher. While I applaud your fervor, it will not continue without reciprocation. Should you halt any company operations again, you will find your cherished parks infested with plant-damaging insects. If that does not deter you, the situation will become personal.”

I could see that Fletcher was about to lose his cool. His hands were balled into fists, and he shook with the effort of restraining himself. A second later, he spun and stormed out of the mansion.

Viggo wasn’t done yet, not by a longshot. He faced Jade Clayton with a cold stare; Cordell moved slightly in front of her as protection. My commander said that her continuance to use her radio show to incite protests of area foundries irritated him. If she kept it up, another rat infestation would occur to once again collapse her pipes, chew through her power lines, and use her shower as a litter box. I recalled him once sending a horde of rats off to fuck with someone. His threat told me who and why.

Next on Viggo’s list was a tough-looking Outsider named Lexian Grimm. I had no idea what kind of business Grimm ran, but Viggo told him that dumping body parts into the storm drain at the back of his property was prohibited from then on.

Surprisingly, Viggo then turned to Roach. In a less threatening tone, he said, “First, my deception as simply another Deviant named Stone was done for a measure of privacy; no slight was meant toward you. Secondly . . . While I do not condone or condemn your business, the distribution of your product needs to be curbed. It is being filtered into grade schools, orphanages and the like. I am not enforcing my own morality on you. However, the unchecked sales will create a stigma in and of this city – a stigma that will have a chain-effect. I will not allow that.”

Edward Galloway had kept his head down since Viggo arrived, but he couldn’t ignore his god standing in front of him. He fearfully lifted his head, looked into the eyes of the abyss, and quickly dropped his head again. “You are a fool that has been used, Edward,” Viggo stated. “But a willing fool, weren’t you? You wanted retribution for elder Ragna’s actions against you, for the humiliation you suffered at the hands of her minion. That minion – Mr. Beck – is actually mine. You did not have the clever mind to get the justice you felt was deserved, so you turned to one of your faction to assist you, is that not so?”

“Yes, lord Veleti,” Galloway whimpered. Aside from the tricky and cruel shit he did, I wanted to break his nose just for being such a pussy.

Viggo stepped back. “Mr. Galloway, you will accompany me when I leave this evening. If you flee, your desperate escape will be short-lived. I will hunt you. I will find you. I will put you in the black mouth of madness, a hungry place that will swallow your screams and your sanity.”

Galloway slumped to the floor again, sobbing tears of blood. Tomasino left him there that time.

Finally, Viggo settled his inky gaze on Le Meur. She must’ve gotten worked up while he made his threats and basically assumed authority over what she saw as her show. Her scowl and sneer took away from her unearthly beauty, but only a little. “Are you quite through passing judgment, sir?”

“You should feel honored, Miss Le Meur – I have saved you for last. Now mind your tone with me.”

I thought she was pissed before. I was wrong. “Spew your final threats and leave,” Le Meur hissed. “As Doyenne, I say that you are no longer welcome here. I will forgive that you infested my entire building with rats, but you will take your damnable minion and go! And Edward will be leaving with me, not you!”

“You always were rash, Emmeline,” Viggo replied calmly as he moved to stand in front of her. “You have sat too comfortably in the seat of power.”

“I won my seat decades ago, Viggo,” Le Meur retorted, leaning forward. “I have earned the right, and I am due to reap its rewards. Your own scion would say the same.”

“I agree,” he said with a nod. “You earned your position by your own merits. But,” he pointed a finger at her, “you keep that seat only because I allow it.”

“Allow it!” Le Meur barked. “Allow it? You are not the one to allow, vermin king. Perhaps your legend is overrated, Veleti, just as you underestimate me. I have the power to rule!” My commander, overrated? Impulsively, I began to step forward. Skala’s hand on my shoulder stopped me.

Viggo shook his head like he was dealing with a moron. It only infuriated Le Meur more. “Your power, such as it is, only afforded you the seat,” he said, “but obviously not the wisdom to rule well in it.”

“Wiser by far than the weak-minded Deviant whom I deposed!”

“Your predecessor – Mr. Dixon – was a disturbed fool. While you are not that, neither are you cut from the cloth of leadership. Since the beginning of your reign, I have watched you act with selfish impunity and, at times, cruelty. For years, members of every faction have gone missing. You have done nothing about it except to surround yourself with servants and security. You say you have power, but you use it only to serve your own petty desires. As a Doyenne, you . . . Hmm.” Viggo turned to me. “How would you describe her leadership, Leo?”

“She sucks.”

He turned back to her. “Well, there you have it.” Viggo was provoking her, pushing all the right buttons. He was attacking her vanity and challenging her rule. I was glad to help.

By then, Le Meur was paler than usual – almost Neva white – and her amber eyes glowed with fury. “Ah, I see now!” she yelled. “You want my seat! You think your intimidating tricks and your insults will drive me from it? You are a greater fool than Dixon!” Le Meur was near hysterical. I guess taking a verbal beating in front of everyone pushed her ego over the edge. She had lost control, just like Viggo wanted her to. “You don’t know the extent of my power! If I hadn’t declared this mansion as Civil Ground, you would be groveling at my feet, you grotesque, rat-drinking leech!”

Viggo smiled – the kind of smile that chills a room. Or, in my case, a spine. “Groveling, is it? By all means, Emmeline, subjugate me with the full magnitude of your paltry Gifts.” It had come to a breaking point. I felt it. I bet everyone in the room felt it.

Le Meur sprung to her feet, nearly in the same rage that Ragna was in a couple hours before. “By my authority,” she bellowed, “I declare that this location is no longer Civil Ground! Now I will make you my slave, Veleti!”

Viggo’s smile widened.

POWER

A silent wave of power washed through the large room. It broke over me, forcing me down to one knee. There was nothing in my world but Lady Le Meur. For a moment that felt like forever, her radiance and overwhelming control consumed me. It was a familiar feeling. Somewhere deep inside, I despised it.

That moment ended when a pair of unnaturally strong hands roughly lifted me up with ease and shook me. Through a haze of Le Meur’s power, I looked at the cracked plaster face and gleaming shark eyes of Aldo Skala. He was in my face, way inside my bubble. With another violent shake, he growled, “You have the blood of the Veleti in you! Show some resolve!” Then he head-butted me. I’m sure it was soft for him, but to me it felt like getting my skull pounded by a rock. “Beck! Be worthy of your lord!”

The combination of Skala’s words and the growing lump on my forehead broke Le Meur’s powerful spell. I blinked a couple times and nodded to Skala that I had my wits. When he moved out of the way, I saw everyone else bowing their heads or down on a knee. Le Meur stood tall with her arms leisurely spread and a wild look in her golden eyes. Viggo stood before her with his head down. With him facing away from me, I couldn’t see his expression. I was about to go to him when he lifted his head and spoke.

“As I said, Emmeline, you are rash.”

Le Meur’s face contorted with pure rage. Her scream pierced the room. She lunged at my commander, but he was ready for it. Hell, he was waiting on it. Viggo casually backhanded her; the deceptively light blow was enough to slam Le Meur back into her chair with blood drooling out of her slack mouth.

He stepped forward, looming over her. “In losing your impotent temper, you have forgotten the tenet of lineage. The mental Gifts of Enchantment and Control have no effect on those of purer blood than the wielder. Or perhaps you did not forget, and arrogantly believed that your proficiency in said Gifts would overcome an irrefutable truth. My blood is purer than yours, Doyenne – much purer by far.” I guess that explained why Skala wasn’t affected, either. “You have not seen a true Eidolon’s power. Therefore, I will give you a sample . . .”

Viggo stepped back and turned to one side, holding up an open hand. When he clenched it into a fist, the crackling flames in the fireplace snuffed into smoke and ashes. The room deepened in gloom from the sudden loss of firelight. I hadn’t seen that trick before, but I knew it wasn’t his best one.

In one fluid motion Viggo reached out, palmed Edward Galloway’s skull, and dragged him in close. Shadows stretched away from the walls, wrapping around Viggo as he began to twist with Edward in his grip. At the same time, the unnatural gloom was drawn to them. The shadows quickly condensed and darkened around the two until they became a swirling blur of blackness. With a pop that was felt rather than heard, the eerie hole of inky nothingness collapsed in on itself like a silent implosion. Viggo and Edward were gone, swallowed by the void. It began and ended in less than three seconds.

Nearly everyone stood in place and glanced around nervously, unsure of what they just saw. Hesitantly, Tomasino stepped over to Le Meur and handed her his handkerchief. After wiping her lips and chin, she turned her head to Aldo Skala and shouted, “What is this? Where is Edward Galloway?” Skala only stared back at her. Le Meur looked away from him and stood up. “Mr. Dupree,” she demanded with a bitter tone, “I want you to go search the mansion and the grounds.”

“You don’t understand, do you?” Skala asked. “Or do you simply refuse to acknowledge the power you’ve been shown? Either way, Mr. Galloway will not be found. Perhaps you should to sit back down, Doyenne; this isn’t over yet.”

BARTER

“Indeed it is not,” Viggo said as he walked from the hallway toward the center of the room again. A number of hemos flinched with surprise. “I now speak to all of you who have just learned of me. Listen well, for I will state my warnings only once.” He stopped a couple paces in front of Le Meur and turned to face everyone, his form only slightly blurred with pulsing shadow. “There is property across this city that I have declared as mine; if you trespass, I will know of it and will return the favor. I also control or have affiliation with many humans in key positions; if you tamper with them, I will tamper with you.”

“Excuse me, sir,” Enric Tomasino spoke up, “but how are we to know which places and people you have laid claim to?”

Viggo looked at him. “Initially, you will not know, so I suggest you tread lightly. I will say, however, that after this evening, I will consider this home as under my protection and one of my domains.” He then turned to one side to address Le Meur. “That means you will no longer use your Gifts on the late Mr. Everett’s son, Steven, who currently sits below us in the basement storage room awaiting your next order.” I wondered what happened to that guy; Gwen said he cut contact with everyone soon after he came back to town.

Le Meur averted his gaze, looking away with her lips pressed tight. “Yes, of course,” she finally said. Forced into obedience, most likely feeling humiliated, I figured that after we left she was going to lash out at some poor undeserving bastard. As long as it was a hemo, I didn’t care.

Turning back to the crowd, Viggo continued. “As most of you have minions, you obviously have an affinity for them to one degree or another. The same can be said of mine. Just as you would take offense to their ill-treatment, I do as well. Take Mr. Beck here as an example. He has been the target of abuse, manipulation and attempted murder on multiple occasions. No more. Any further malicious meddling with him or any of my other minions will incur the full weight of my wrath.”

“And what of Mr. Beck currently being wanted by the mortal authorities?” Skala asked knowingly.

“Ah, that.” Viggo faced Le Meur again. “I must commend you, Doyenne. Well played. Your handling of Mr. Galloway, whom I know to be the real culprit, took finesse.”

“. . . Thank you,” she replied hesitantly.

“I wonder whether he came to you with his concerns of Ragna and Mr. Beck, or if you saw opportunity in his plight and approached him.” Viggo shrugged, adding, “I will find out soon enough.”

“Where is Mr. Galloway?” Le Meur calmly asked.

“Safely hidden away for now. He is in the good company of Mr. Riva, Mr. Dean and others of your fine faction.” Her eyes widened at that admission, but she kept her mouth shut. “I could simply demand that you have my minion removed as a police suspect, but I consider myself fair and honorable. Therefore, I wish to barter with you.”

“To what end?” I liked how her voice had that cautious, suspicious tone to it. She was in a corner.

“Let us begin with the matter of the modified video from the warehouse.” Skin stepped forward and handed Viggo a CD case with a disc in it. He held it up and said, “This is a copy of the original. It has been altered by Mr. O’Shaughnessy only to point out certain features that differentiate Mr. Beck from the true culprit, Mr. Galloway. Have it entered into the case file.”

“And in return?”

“I give you the chance – no, the opportunity – to retain your position and make yourself worthy of the noble title. The alternative . . . Well, while I presume that you miss your absent Adepts, I am sure you would not wish to join them.”

“This is your version of barter?” Le Meur asked incredulously. “There’s not much choice to be made.”

“The other trades I have in mind are not so severe. For example, I ask that your police officials remove Mr. Beck as a suspect from the Everett murder case, whether they find credence with the new evidence or not. In recompense, I will return Mr. Riva to you. Further, I request that you use your influence to publicize Mr. Beck’s innocence in every form of media. Once you have done so, I will also release the fledgling Sebastian Horn to your care.”

I was a little embarrassed to be the focal point in a room full of hemos, but I was also humbled that Viggo was going out of his way for me like that. I wasn’t his only motive, but I was grateful nonetheless.

Le Meur stewed with a scowl. “Why does your method of barter seem so much like extortion?” she asked. I wasn’t sure if the question was supposed to be rhetorical or not.

“This is no ultimatum, Lady Le Meur,” he said, taking a step toward her. “You have a choice, or you can refuse the offers of trade altogether. However, it would be in your best interest to accept the terms.” The demoralized Doyenne hesitated. I wanted to feel sorry for the arrogant bitch, but . . . nope, nothing. “Dwell on it,” Viggo suggested. “Speak with your emissaries if you choose. I will expect an answer within twenty four hours.” He ended their exchange by turning away from her one last time.

Skala spoke up. “Sire, if I may intrude?” He waited for Viggo to turn and nod. “Deviants aside, I tire from this poor company. If you have no further need of me this evening, I will take my leave.” Yep, another slap in the face to nearly every hemo in the room. For a second, I thought Skala wasn’t so bad after all.

“Of course, Aldo, and thank you.” Viggo then said to me, “I must speak to Mr. Merritt for a moment, and then we will depart as well.”

Standing pretty much by myself in the great room, I saw that some of the hemos were cautiously exiting while others kept their place, unsure of what to do while Viggo was still present. Jade Clayton and Cordell were in the latter group, standing against a wall with uneasy expressions. I glanced over my right shoulder to make sure Le Meur was done being a pain in the ass; she was talking in whispers to Vincent Zapada, the Outsider emissary. Better him than me.

I walked up to Cordell, not sure what to say. He didn’t look pleased to see me. Before I could even get out a hello, he quietly said, “Your master is the devil’s own, Leo. You should go away.”

That caught me off-guard. "Whoa, Cord, what the hell did -" He and Jade turned and walked away, arm in arm. She'd turned him against me, or dismissed me because I served Viggo. On one hand, I thought, 'fuck 'em'. On the other hand, though, I didn't want to lose a friend; I didn't have many to begin with.

“Leo,” Viggo called to me, “we are leaving now.” I walked over and stood next to him, relaxing myself for another void-walk. He gave me a strange stare, and then said, “I meant in the normal fashion. We will leave as we arrived.”

“Oh, uh, yes sir.” Great, my first impression on the remaining hemos, and I looked like an idiot.

INTERACTION

There was bound to be a lull after the big scene at the Everett mansion, and I welcomed it. I’d also call that night Viggo’s coming out event, but that gives off the wrong impression. ‘Night of the Veleti’ has a nice ring to it – let’s go with that.

All in all, the spoiled Gathering had positive results. Viggo let everyone know he was in town, and they’d better watch their hemo asses. Everything he claimed or controlled – me included – was off-limits under penalty of Veleti retaliation. The Doyenne had been put in her place by both warning and bitch-slap. Declan McKenna was on the run or in hiding. Notices were given to specific hemos that they better knock their individual shit off. The only down side was Cordell, but there’s no way to unmake a hemo.

Viggo called me the next evening to say that I was no longer wanted by the police, and that a short statement of my innocence would be released the next day. It was a weight off my shoulders. I hoped it also meant I could no longer be listed as missing, if only for Miss Loretta’s peace of mind.

Part of me wanted to move back to my old house, just to try and reclaim whatever little bit of normalcy I could find. But what would that be? I mean, I wasn’t going back to work at Silas or at Keegan’s again. To tell the truth, I felt a lot more secure in my new place (I started calling it ‘the thunderdome’, after my cat). Plus, not having to pay any bills was a big bonus.

I once again had some freedom, and wanted to use it to stop by for a visit with my former neighbors. While I was in that area, a few drinks at Keegan’s sounded good, too. If my luck held up, maybe Tanya would give me some hot ‘I-missed-you’ sex. Work schedule permitting, I hoped that all of those scenarios became semi-regular events.

A text to Gwen was returned immediately, saying that ‘Mr. Stone’ called her as well. I figured it was up to Viggo if he wanted her to know the truth or not, so I left it alone. Gwen also mentioned that Cordell had quit Silas abruptly; over the phone, he only told her that he accepted another position that started immediately. Again, I had to bite my damn tongue.

I tried to call Viggo to ask about Gwen’s clearance, but couldn’t get through. He must’ve gone down below the city somewhere. On the hemo-net, I left the question about her in the Planner. A message was already in there for me, saying that Barnabus would be arriving later that evening. The reason for the visit wasn’t stated, but Barnabus was good company . . . as long as I didn’t look at him too much.

I spent my time with a drink and Thunder, researching the Veleti tribe until Barnabus showed up. Once he got there, we discussed a few hemos I noticed at the Gathering. I knew of a number of them, but I was curious about the ones I didn’t recognize.

The Adept Nathan Powell was the business brain behind Realm Management. Outsider Lexian Grimm owned a seedy bar that served humans and hemos alike, with a corral of prostitutes that did the same. Jade Clayton, who I was really curious about, had a syndicated radio show that catered to the activist and rebel demographic. I wasn’t sure why she chose Cordell; he was a live and let live kind of guy, or at least used to be.

Barnabus checked on Phillip to gauge his ‘Doyenne detox level’, as I put it. He also wanted to practice his Gift of Control on a resisting mind. When he joined me in the lounge, I had a few more questions about hemos in comparison to the legends. No reflection in mirrors? Bullshit. The concept of ringing bells to run ‘em off was, as Barnabus put it, “the most idiotic fallacy I have ever heard of in my extended life”.

I then mentioned the time that I saw Harlan in a parking lot, pissing on a car. Barnabus told me that a small percentage of Deviants can ingest regular food and drink, but get no nutrition from it. They do it only for the purpose of expelling waste to disgust unsuspecting onlookers. Apparently, pissing on someone’s shoes or vomiting on their evening gown was quite the party trick at hemo Gatherings.

The last topic of the evening was about Phillip. I was worried about him missing, and the stress it was no doubt causing his family. Barnabus said he managed to find out that Phillip told his father he was taking some time off to travel – a lie created by Le Meur. I was relieved to hear it, but still wanted him to get back to his normal life. Barnabus confided that he was just beginning to acquire the ability to alter or remove memories, but he’d do his best when Phillip was once again his old self.

Waking up the next day without much of a hangover, I did the necessary crap and then checked Viggo’s Planner for any updates or pending chores. Nothing there – I had the day off. Still being cautious (you might call it paranoia), I bought a prepaid phone and used it to make some calls to people who worried about me. I had a bullshit story ready for my absence, something vague about a Marine duty and I couldn’t talk about it. As for being wanted by the police? Just a case of mistaken identity.

All my friends were doing okay. Diego had only a slight limp by then, and was in good shape. Miss Loretta was glad I wasn’t dead, and then told me to mow my lawn. Hector talked about his kids; Anna was pregnant again. Keeg and Deb invited me to a night at their bar with complimentary food and drinks, within reason. I promised each of them I’d visit soon.

After a trip to my new dojo and gun range outside the city, I grabbed some dinner for Phillip and myself. An hour after sunset I turned on the computer, logged into the hemo-net and checked for anything new in the Planner file. Viggo left a return message that he would talk to Gwen the following evening, and wanted me to join them. As long as he was spilling the beans, I wondered who else was going to show up. I mean, it would’ve been stupid to think that Gwen, Natalie and I were his only minions.

While I had the private server open, I browsed around again. I figured Viggo’s coming out of hiding was leaked by then, but it wasn’t mentioned in my limited social files. Going back to the Maps folder, I saw a couple new flags on the sewer level. Attached to the flags was a copy of a Water Department report detailing vandalism in two utility tunnels; one under a downtown hospital, the other below an industrial park in a low-rent area. I blamed the damage on punk kids in serious need of a beating.

Before I logged off, I got a new message alert. Viggo sent an update, stating that at 10 p.m. the next night I was supposed to pick up Gwen at her townhouse. We were then supposed to go to a midtown diner called Ollie’s All-Nite Coffee Shop, where another of his minions – a Mr. Benjamin Traeger – would be waiting. I was then to proceed to a cement sewer port next to a gravel parking lot on the western edge of the huge Kansas City rail yards.

Viggo’s message explained that the port led to the alcove where we began from to visit one of his Deviant dens. I was told to guide them to that den. Yeah, the sewer route with the rats, false wall, and creepy staircase. Gwen and Mr. Traeger were in for a big fucking surprise.

HOARDER

On the drive to pick up Mr. Traeger, Gwen wouldn’t shut up. She started off grilling me about where I got the nice car. Then she talked about how happy she was to move back to her old place from the refurbished fire station. After that was an endless string of questions about Viggo because she thought I knew more about him than she did. She was right, but I wasn’t going to rub that in. Coming within sight of the diner, Gwen started asking about Traeger as if I knew about him, too.

Benjamin Traeger – just Traeg, as he liked to be called – was a lanky guy in his early forties with thinning gray-brown hair and a four day beard. He was dressed for the warm night in blue running shoes, urban camo pants, and a blue t-shirt with a big logo on it. That logo was for Traeger’s Trading Post, the biggest pawn shop in the Midwest. At least that’s what the t-shirt boasted. Traeg seemed like a nice enough sort, although he had a no-nonsense vibe. Being a minion of Viggo for over fourteen years, that vibe made sense. Knowing where I stood with Viggo, I wasn’t too jealous of him.

On the way to the sewer port, Gwen and Traeg worked out a possible deal for all of Shawn Riordan’s guitars, amps and other shit. I pulled into the deserted lot, spotted the cement casing for the sewer entrance, and popped the trunk. Traeg was silent when I handed him galoshes, rubber gloves, a safety mask and a small flashlight; Gwen looked nervous as hell.

“The ladder rungs are slimy as shit, so be careful,” I told them as I lifted the iron grate from over the hole. “There will probably be rats down here. They work for Viggo just like we do, so don’t kick ‘em or anything. They might run ahead to let him know we’re on our way. Smell that?” They both nodded, grimacing. “It’s a lot worse down there. The mask will help, but not completely. If you have to throw up, remember to pull it out of the way first. And no matter what, do not breathe in through your mouth. Trust me.” My little speech didn’t sit too well with Gwen.

While we moved along the walkway next to that disgusting trench, I learned some things about my fellow minions. Gwen may have been as strong as hell, but she had shitty balance; twice she almost slipped into the gurgling brown water. She also had a stronger stomach than I gave her credit for. Traeg haggled for a living, but he clammed up when he was tense. When he did talk down there, though, he swore like a drunken sailor.

When we got to the phantom wall, Traeg didn’t want to accept the illusion until I pushed him through. Gwen, on the other hand, wanted to keep stepping back and forth through it. She stayed between me and Traeg going down the spooky stairs, keeping a too-firm grip on my shoulder. At the end of the curving hallway, the submarine door was slightly open. I poked my head through and saw Viggo sitting on a couch watching TV. “Good evening, sir,” I said, pushing the door open. “Should I assume there’s no worry about Wayne visiting tonight?”

“No, that situation has been remedied. Come in, all of you.”

Gwen and Traeg stepped in to the cavernous room, staring all around. Soon enough, Gwen sat across from Viggo while Traeg took his time looking at all of the old knick-knacks lying around. He reached into an upside down medieval helmet sitting on a table. By the sound of his hand rummaging around in it, the helmet had a small pile of stuff in it. Traeg pulled out a big, rough-edged bronze coin and studied it for a few seconds. “Do you realize how much this is worth?” he asked Viggo.

My commander thought for a moment. “I do not believe I’ve brought one of those to your store before, unless one of its like was mixed in with the pouch of gold and jewelry I regularly bring to you. So, to be honest, I do not. Although, judging from your reaction, Benjamin, I would venture to say a tidy sum.”

“A tidy sum . . .” Traeg repeated. He looked at me and said, “Look, I know coins. On a quick sale, I could get four grand for this.”

“Holy crap, are you serious?” I asked, and then stepped over to him and the helmet. It was half full of all different kinds of coins. I held up a gold one and asked, “Is this a fucking doubloon? Seriously?”

“Yes, it is,” Viggo answered for Traeg. “Fellow medieval numen did not refer to me as the ‘Dark Dragon’ out of happenstance; I have always had a tendency to hoard. Now come have a seat. I did not invite all of you down here to admire my trinkets.”

“Yes sir, sorry,” Traeg and I said, putting the coins back.

When we sat down near Viggo, he began with some information. “I have seven other minions.” He browsed through a short stack of files on the coffee table in front of him. “There is a sorting director of a local trash company, a Public Works supervisor, a personal property manager, a police dispatcher, a construction company owner, a janitor at Realm Management, and an informant in the IRS.” The last one was Natalie. I had no idea about the others.

“Of my many minions, only you three do I trust with most of my secrets. The others are loyal, to be sure, but I do not feel a bond with them as I do with you. Not to dehumanize the others, for they are all fine people, but those minions are essentially tools I must use from time to time. Other than the false name of Mr. Stone – used for my own security – everything I have told each of you is true.”

“Thank you for that,” Gwen said sincerely. Traeg and I echoed her sentiment.

“I know you all have questions,” Viggo continued, handing me the DVD remote. “I have something for you to watch, and perhaps some answers will be given. Leo will address your queries about the video; he was there, after all. I will return shortly.” He got up and walked toward the dark corner back by the bed. I didn’t watch – I’d seen it before. Gwen and Traeg turned their heads to watch him, saw the corner get even darker, and then Viggo was gone. By their reactions, neither of them had seen that trick before. Traeg shouted “What the living fuck?” while Gwen started mumbling “Oh my God” over and over.

Keeping in mind what they were about to watch, I said, “Calm down. You haven’t seen shit yet.”

CONNECTING

Both Gwen and Traeg had the same access to the hemo-net that I did, although theyd given it different names. From it, they’d seen posts for Gatherings before. They’d just never been to one and had no idea what went on at them. I started my commentary with Herr Aldo Skala, the hemo who wore the camera. I was immediately questioned about the word ‘hemo’. Traeg used the term ‘vamp’. Gwen called them either ‘numen’ or ‘the predators’. To each their own.

I had to hit the pause and reverse buttons more than I wanted to; Gwen asked about everyone who passed in front of the lens. They watched the scene of a raging mad Ragna like it was a horror movie, which it basically was. Neither of them knew about Ragna before then. In fact, they didn’t know about a lot of hemos, Deviants included. Gwen had heard of Roach and Barnabus, and recognized a few faces from working with video feeds. Traeg knew Skin, but by his long Irish name; they’d haggled a few times through the years.

We watched the part -twice - where Viggo put a few hemos in their place. The few seconds where he gathered shadows and disappeared, though . . . They had me replay that like five or six times. Gwen was both excited and shocked to see Cordell on the screen. I told her that he was one of them now, and admitted that it was pretty much my fault.

Traeg was asking about scions and hemo lineage when Viggo came back. My commander fielded a few questions and then got to his point. “I want each of you to be better informed. Your interaction will remove some of the burden from me. Exchange computer addresses and phone numbers, but do not pass any sensitive information through the latter. A new file and icon will be made for your Deviant drives – a minion chat room, if you will. Stay connected. If there is a need for supplies, contact Benjamin. Gwen can offer assistance with questions of various natures. For any security issues, talk to Leo.”

Gwen and I already had each other’s info, so we typed our numbers into Traeg’s phone while he did the same with ours. “On occasion,” Viggo continued, “I will send you a report that the other minions have sent me. Therefore, familiarize yourselves with these people.” He turned and spoke directly to Gwen. “You especially. Along with your current duties of analyzing camera feeds, you will compile intelligence from these various sources. As we have discussed earlier, you will be compensated if time constraints do not allow you to keep your vocation.”

“Yes sir, it’s a generous offer,” she replied. “I’d still like to see if I can do all that and keep my job, if you don’t mind. I’ll only need a week or less to know if I can.”

“Of course,” Viggo answered. Addressing us all again, he said, “On the topic of compensation, personnel of ShadoWorks – whether full or part-time – shall begin receiving regular pay instead of cash as needed.”

I was a full-time employee. I figured because of Gwen and Traeg’s jobs, they were part-time. Gwen had an offer to go full-time, but I didn’t think Traeg would give up his business to do the same. Viggo most likely wouldn’t have wanted him to, either. “You don’t have to do that, sir,” I said. “I can’t speak for everyone, but I bet we’d all agree that how you’ve been doing things is fine with us.” The others agreed.

“This decision is as much for my benefit as it is for yours,” Viggo replied. “It will remove the inconvenient chore of passing around cash at various times for whatever mundane needs you may have. I will explain the process . . .”

It boiled down to this: ShadoWorks had access through a Deviant-run company to buy anonymous credit cards with a good limit. Those got issued to full-timers. The same card with a much lower limit would be given to part-timers. If the limit was reached – meaning I wasn’t spending my money – then another card would be issued to me. The whole thing was handled by Viggo’s property manager, so no aliases had to be used. When I’d buy shit, the only name showing up was that Deviant-run company. It also masked the listing of most purchases. As a topper, Viggo said he’d give out spending cash whenever it was time for a cup o’ blood. It sounded like a damn good plan to me.

I was essentially off the tax radar. Hey, fuck it – I’d served my country and taken one for the team. Shit, a lot more than one. Don’t go thinking I was one of those anti-government whackos; I was still patriotic, but I thought I’d done my share. No more taxes? No more red tape, paperwork or charges for . . . hell, pretty much everything? Who wouldn’t take that deal? I was all in.

Viggo said we should get back to our homes. He gave Gwen and Traeg the option of either going back the way we came – they hated every slimy step of it – or experiencing his personal mode of travel. Traeg hesitantly accepted the chance to take a void-walk. No, I didn’t warn him about it. Gwen was excited to try it, too, but her excitement was mixed with fidgety nervousness. At her request, Traeg went first. After he and Viggo were swallowed by the void, she asked if I’d done it before. I told her I had, and the first time left me speechless. I was intentionally vague. Sometimes I’m evil like that.

Five minutes later, Viggo reappeared and called Gwen to him. Presto, they were gone, and it was closer to ten minutes until he came back. “How’d they do, sir?” I asked, curious as hell.

“Mr. Traeger barely managed to control his convulsing stomach,” he replied as he walked over and sat across from me. “Miss Solomon feinted. Once I roused her, she assured me she was fine.”

I couldn’t help but grin; Gwen was going to catch so much shit from me. “I should get moving as well, sir. I don’t trust the Audi sitting by itself in a parking lot, no matter how barren the area is. Oh, uh, about that car . . . It’s a damn nice car, sir. In fact, maybe too nice. It’s pretty high profile, which really doesn’t fit me. And it kinda sticks out in my new neighborhood. I appreciate you lending it to me, but could I maybe start driving my Jeep again?”

He frowned. “Your vehicle is still known to certain parties. One of them still might be foolish enough to ignore my warnings and go after you if they recognized it. The chances of that scenario are quite slim, but I would prefer to take no chances whatsoever.”

Disappointing, but he had a point. “I can just trade my car in and get another.”

Viggo shook his head. “No, that entails a paper trail, which is what we are trying to avoid. Return the Audi to Elmwood Cemetery. Take your vehicle to Mr. Traeger; he may have vehicles available. If so, and if one of them suits your needs, he will manipulate the paperwork and offer you a fair deal. Otherwise, inform me and we will make other arrangements.”

“That sounds great, sir. I appreciate it.” I stood up to leave.

“Do not thank me yet, Leo,” he said seriously. “Check your Planner in the morning; an update will have been sent by then. Your new task will be outlined. An unpleasant task.” The shadows around Viggo began to slither and distort. Okay, bad sign. “Something has occurred. I want answers.”

QUINN

There was indeed a new task for me when I got on the hemo-net late the next morning. It was a file simply named ‘Quinn’ and had a handful of notes attached to it. The first attachment was a video clip of a news story that aired while I was driving my fellow minions around the night before.

There was an attack and explosion at Quinn Industries, a chemical processing factory a couple miles north of downtown. A woman and a man assaulted a second-shift employee who just got off work. They beat him, took his security badge and wallet, then shot the poor bastard in the head. They charged into the facility using a secondary door. The male suspect shot at any third-shift worker nearby, while the female suspect threw Molotov cocktails from a gym bag she carried with her.

One of the crude bombs made it into a flammable compound mixing area, and boom. It was an enclosed space, so the explosion was confined. Otherwise, the whole place might’ve blown sky high. As it was, there were fires and some structural damage. One worker died from a bullet to the chest, and another didn’t make it out of the mixing room. Six other employees were wounded; two from gunfire and four from the explosion. Other workers were hospitalized for possible noxious fume inhalation.

The two suspects escaped. The police had leads, but were asking for tips to assist their investigation. That told me they didn’t have shit, and I wondered why. I mean, a company like that had to have security cameras set up inside. Maybe a few outside, too. Even if some of the cameras got fried in the blast, their footage up until then would’ve been sent to a server in an office somewhere.

Viggo’s first typed note after the video said, ‘Since ShadoWorks is the primary stockholder of Quinn Industries, I have a vested interest in its productivity. Attached below is a security video that has not been released to the police. Clearly seen in the video are the two culprits. The reason for suppressing this evidence is simple. I want them first. I want answers. The police can have whatever is left.’

Well damn, that was definitive. I texted Gwen, saying that her skills were needed ASAP. While I waited for a reply, I watched the next video clip. The interior security camera was pointed at a loading dock and the back exit door that the man and woman came in through. Viggo was right; the camera caught clear images of both of ‘em. The guy had an AR-15, shooting it as soon as they came in. Two nearby Quinn workers ran like hell. The woman didn’t start throwing Molotov’s until she was almost off-camera. I replayed the short video a few more times to memorize their faces.

Gwen texted back, just short statements: ‘Not a good time – auditors here – will call later’.

Shit. I needed her help, especially for the recognition software. Rather than throw a fit, I drained my big cup of Irish coffee and moved on to the next note. It was a listing of Viggo’s other minions; each came with a photo and relevant data. Under the list was a comment saying that all of the above have been made aware of us (Gwen, Traeg, and I). They only knew us as ‘cohorts’. If contacting one of them, I must introduce myself with that title – no name given. Sort of clandestine, but I stayed anonymous.

I was allowed to contact those other minions for the purpose of gathering info. The problem was that none of them worked in areas that were gonna help me. The dispatcher would’ve been the closest to what I needed, but I doubted she had the clout to use police computers to find a facial match with the two suspects. It was a fair bet they already had records.

A thought occurred to me, so I typed a return message to Viggo. The attack might’ve been considered an act of terrorism, which meant the local FBI office was involved. The CEO of Quinn would have known if that was the case or not, and Viggo had access to the CEO. Hell, he probably had him in his pocket. If the FBI was running the case, our best bet was to gain control of the lead investigator. If Viggo agreed, that part would be on him. He wouldn’t see my message until that night. Yeah, inconvenient.

It was all a matter of going with the best option. Gwen had the recognition software and could compare the faces against anyone in her databanks. She also got info from a cop once in a while, but there was no guarantee he/she could or would use police technology just for her. Even if that did pan out, having an FBI agent as a reliable contact would be pretty damn handy anyway.

The last connected note from Viggo was a short list of directives. Find the assholes (he called them culprits). Subdue them by any means necessary. Make sure that at least one of them survives my attack. Depending on location and circumstance, I was to either bring them to Viggo or call him and he’d come to me. He made it sound simple. Experience told me that it hardly ever was.

I had plenty of time to kill. So, after a workout and a drink, I decided to take care of my car issue. Per Viggo’s order, I left the Audi where I first saw it in Elmwood Cemetery. A thunderstorm was moving in, so I jogged over to the office/crematorium by the gate and waited under its awning for the taxi I’d called. I didn’t check the weather beforehand, and didn’t bring my umbrella. I’m a moron.

The rain was coming down in sheets by the time I was dropped off a few blocks from the thunderdome. That was twice that I stood in the rain fumbling with my keys while my cat stared at me through the window, the asshole. After changing into dry clothes, I took the Jeep out one last time.

Miss Loretta was outside watching the late morning lightning show when I showed up. We talked from our respective porches; I promised I’d mow my lawn when weather permitted. I boxed some other personal shit to bring with me, wanting to make the thunderdome feel more like mine – like home.

TRAEGER

The name ‘Traeger’s Trading Post’ made me think of a quaint, western-style shop. That mental image was way off the mark. Set out on the far side of one of the city’s southeastern suburbs, the building was the size of one of those long cattle barns. There were two warehouses attached to the back of the main building, forming a huge U. The parking lot out front had plenty of room for customers. I parked close to a big iron gate on one side of the lot, where I guessed larger items came and went from the back. The place sat on an acre at least, and the back half was surrounded by security fencing. Quaint, my ass.

Inside, everything was behind a counter that bordered the interior of the long rectangular building. Like a jewelry store, only as long as a football field. And when I said everything, I meant everything. That place had it all. Trading cards, guns, watches and rings, guitars, electronics, artwork, tools, CDs and DVDs, toys, housewares . . . the list went on and on. There were also touchscreens to see the images of the big items like cars, motorcycles, tractors, boats, ATVs, mowers, appliances, and furniture.

Everything from backhoes to butt-plugs, Traeg had it. Yeah, he even had a backhoe. There’s a joke in there somewhere about backhoes and butt-plugs, but I’m not clever enough to find it.

Traeg and I talked in his office, where I told him about the Quinn incident before we moved on to a possible car swap. When I explained my lack of info, he said, “So you don’t know who or where they are. Not yet, anyway. That sucks. Have you got everything you need for every possibility?”

“Uh, I’ve got stealth gear, good weapons and enough ammo. Is that what you mean?”

“Sort of, but I was really thinking more along the lines of surveillance equipment. I’ve got some cool gadgets. I could cut you a good deal, Leo.”

I couldn’t stop myself from grimacing. “Damn, I don’t know, Traeg. Even with the deal you’d make for me, those kinds of toys are pricey. I’m not exactly rolling in the dough.”

“Alright, tell ya what, we can go with a loaner option for now. Let’s go look at some stuff I have in mind.” We went out to the sales floor, where he showed me some stuff that would be pretty handy in general for the kind of work Viggo wanted me to do. Traeg offered to let me borrow anything I wanted for a small, non-refundable deposit. If I broke it, I bought it. If I wanted to keep something, we’d work out a payment plan. Deal. I chose night vision goggles and a powerful sound amplifier with a small parabolic dish. Just to cover my bases, I bought an expandable steel baton. Enter your phallic joke here.

As for cars to trade my Jeep for, Traeg didn’t have many to choose from. Then again, he knew a way to write up the paperwork for any of them as a company car for ShadoWorks. All I needed to provide was my fake ID. I couldn’t get a better offer than that.

At the far end of one of his warehouses, just past a pontoon boat and some outboard motors, were the cars. The first one in the row was a pimped out Cadillac Eldorado. Uh, no. The next car surprised me: it was Shawn Riordan’s IROC-Z. Again, no; I liked the vibe of Glazefinger, but that didn’t mean I wanted to sit in it. Next was a BMW sedan. I thought Viggo would like me choosing another German car, but, like the Audi, it was too nice. Next to last was a ’71 Plymouth Hemi Cuda; I bet the owner cried letting that baby go. I always wanted a muscle car, but it wasn’t practical. And it was purple, for fuck’s sake.

The last choice was the only sensible one. The big blue Dodge Ram 1500 4×4 was less than five years old, not too many miles on it, with only had a few dings and dents. It was a regular cab, and had an attached matching blue camper shell. The only flashy parts to it were the slightly oversized tires and big-ass V8 engine. It was worth more than the Jeep, so Traeg offered me a no-contract payment deal. For coming off as a hard-nosed bastard, he was actually a really good guy.

Back in the office, Traeg offered me a drink to conclude our deals. He was a rum man, so I just kept to my flask. I asked him about the perks of working for Viggo for so long. The first word Traeg could think of was “lucrative”. He mentioned how Viggo started coming in with rare coins, unstamped bars of gold and silver, small antiques, and a steady supply of fine jewelry. Our commander never haggled much; he just wanted cash and was content with the going rates.

I hinted at the question of Traeg’s physical perks. “One thing’s for sure,” he said with a rare grin, “my dick hasn’t turned all big and ugly like some of those damn rats of his have. Shawn worked for him the longest, at least around here; I heard a rumor that Viggo’s kept some minions around for a long, long time. Anyway, Shawn was fast, fairly tough, and stronger than he looked. That kid had skinny arms. I’m not quick, but I got Viggo’s tough skin. A few years back, some punk tried to rob me with a crappy little revolver. I swung a tire iron, he let off a round. He still talks with a stutter. I got a bruise on my arm.”

Laughing, I said, “You probably didn’t need the tire iron.”

Traeg shrugged. “I might be a little stronger than normal, but nothing to brag about. And I’m not shit compared to our boss. I once saw him hit some other vamp with a car.” Traeg leaned forward in his chair to emphasize his point. “He wasn’t in the car – he swung it.”

“A car . . . He beat up someone with a car. You have got to be shitting me.”

“I shit you not. That other vamp was a tough mother; one of Viggo’s punches put him down, but not out. When he started to get back up, our boss grabbed a compact Toyota by its tow hook and swatted him into the side of a building. I tell ya, Leo, that wall looked like a Jackson Pollock mural with a body smashed into it.”

I’ll admit it. When I got home that rainy afternoon, I had to look up who Jackson Pollock was to know what the hell Traeg was talking about.

COMPARISONS

“That’s not the news I was hoping for, Gwen.” She’d finally me called back a few hours after I got home. Her cop contact wasn’t an option.

“What can I say, Leo? Does ‘too damn bad’ work for you? He’s a desk sergeant. He can’t go waltzing off and start playing with databases that most likely have restricted access anyhow. Oh, and since it’d be for personal use, he’d be lucky if they only fired him.”

“Okay, I get it,” I said with a sigh. “I don’t want you to abuse your friendship. If I knew his position or rank or whatever, I wouldn’t have put you in a bad spot. Sorry.” Just to lighten the mood, I playfully asked, “Who is this friend of yours, anyway – a special fella?”

“That’s none of your beeswax, mister. Look, I can still run your faces through my ShadoWorks software. The chances of getting a strong match in my system are slim, but it’s worth a shot, right? All that I ask in return for my handy programs and awesome skills is that you have to tell me what you’re working on. I want every juicy detail.”

I showed up at Gwen's place an hour later. I'd already forwarded the videos and notes about Quinn Industries to her, so all I brought with me was dinner. While we ate chicken, I talked about Traeg and his pawn shop. Gwen turned on her facial recognition shit and did a comparison run with the two terrorists. The best choice it found for the guy was a 34% similarity match, and a 21% match for the woman. We studied those comparisons. It wasn't them.

Because it was a Friday and Gwen refused to work weekends, we both had time to chill out and talk about all the new stuff we had in common. The rain had let off, so I took her outside to show off my new truck. “Huh,” she grunted with a shake of her head. “Big weapons and now a big truck . . . Exactly how small is your penis?”

Glaring at her, I replied, “I’m also the proud owner of a cat. Does that balance the testosterone scales?”

“Depends,” Gwen volleyed. “How big is it?”

I opened my mouth to answer, and froze. I wasn’t going to win that one. Luckily, an incoming phone call saved me. It was the ShadoWorks number. When I answered, all Viggo said was to be available for the next evening, and to be ready for any number of scenarios. He then told me he wanted to talk to Gwen. I’d forgotten about that GPS tracker app in my phone.

By her answers, I could tell he was asking about the two ‘culprits’ and the recognition software. She told him the results, listened for a second, and then handed the phone back to me. “Yes sir,” I said.

“The disappointing outcome of Ms. Solomon’s search has altered my plans. I am making arrangements as we speak. By dawn, there will be details of new duties in your Planner. I will want you at your best tomorrow evening. Am I understood?”

“Yes sir.” Basically, if I was drunk or hung over the next night, I was in deep shit.

As I put my phone back in my pocket, Gwen curiously asked, “Well . . . ?”

“Well . . . I guess I have the night off. Something’s going on tomorrow, but I’m not sure what. I might slip you a clue if I figure it out.”

“You’re such a turd. Get outta here; go get a good night’s sleep. And you better give me an update.”

“I’ll make you a deal,” I said as I climbed up into my truck. “Tomorrow I’ll tell you all the particulars, and then you tell me all about your desk sergeant boyfriend.” I pulled out of Gwen’s driveway with her still standing there, staring daggers at my grin.

I fought the urge to stop in at Keegan’s for a drink or three . . . or seven. Hardly entertaining the slim chance of Tanya wanting to churn some butter with me, I went straight back to my place. I wasn’t proud of my willpower. Hell, I thought it was a lost opportunity to enjoy my freedom, but Viggo had set his expectations. As well as my deep loyalty, there was the fact that he could kill me with his pinky finger. I had all sorts of incentives to follow his order.

By the time that I’d cleaned my guns, put in a good workout, and scooped Thunder’s neglected litter box, it was late and I was exhausted. I crawled into bed after a shower, wondering what was planned for the next night. I didn’t wonder long; I was out like a light in a few seconds.

As usual, I dreamt of Viggo. That night, though, it was different. I was at one end of a long and roughly carved stone hallway. It was lit from above by a string of bare bulbs, which were powered by lazily hung extension cords. The hallway walls were lined with dozens of thick wooden doors on both sides, and all set closely together. I didn’t see Viggo, but I heard him speaking. The only words I remember were the ones he’d said to me and Traeg not too long before. “I have always had a tendency to hoard . . .”

AGENT

Following the day of rain, the next morning was clear and relatively cool for mid-June. Too bad none of the damn building’s windows would open. I went ahead and did some chores – a load of laundry, gave Phillip more supplies, blah-blah-blah – before seeing what Viggo had in store for me.

In the Planner, the new message told me to be at a given address at 10:00 that night. There weren’t any details, so I figured I’d bring nearly every weapon I owned. The heavily armed Boy Scout, that’s me.

While my PC was on, I browsed local news headlines; stupid and ignorant are two different things, and I couldn’t afford to be both. Okay, so . . . The Royals won again. There was more vandalism in another utility tunnel, this time under a manufacturing complex. A big charity run was coming up. A leaking gas line caused a house explosion. The mutilated body of a man was dumped onto the lawn of the late Stanley Everett. The headlines were basically: good, bad, good, bad, and holy shit.

Needing directions to the address Viggo gave, I found out the place he wanted me to meet him at was in a suburban strip mall. Not exactly dramatic or secluded, was it? I was expecting something a little more clandestine than a vacant store between a deli and a nail salon.

With an afternoon to burn, I found a different barber for a high-and-tight haircut, ironed some slacks and a shirt, and otherwise hung out with Thunder. Speaking of my cat, I was getting nowhere with that Gift of Fauna thing. I didn’t want to let Viggo and Barnabus down, but it didn’t look good.

I showed up at the location a few minutes early. Lights from the parking lot showed that both the glass front door and display window had closed blinds. Neither on the door nor on the marquee out front were any signs to say what the store used to be, if anything. I was about to knock, but then figured that Viggo might’ve left the door open for me. It was unlocked, but there was someone else besides him waiting for me in there.

The relatively small and empty place was dark; light from an open backroom door allowed me to see basic shapes. One of those basic shapes was a woman, twenty feet from the door. She sat casually in a folding chair next to a card table. Without being able to see much detail, I could still make out that she was long and slender, had her hair pulled into a ponytail, and wore some sort of loose pants and a windbreaker. She was in the process of sharpening a long knife with a whetstone when I came in.

“Who’re you?” I asked, trying to sound polite as I stepped further into the open space. Not sure if I did, though. My social skills were always a bit sketchy.

Ignoring my question, the woman lazily jabbed her knife toward the door to the back like she didn’t give a shit. “They’re waiting for you,” she said quietly. Then, like I wasn’t there anymore, she returned to making her blade razor sharp. What a fucking charmer. If there was an orphanage on fire, she seemed like the type who would’ve brought marshmallows.

Viggo and a stranger were in the back room. It was another bare space, but the ceramic floor and wall spigots suggested it used to be a kitchen. Instead of sinks and grills and all that shit, a large and sturdy table sat in the middle of the room. The stranger sat on the far side of it, with Viggo standing next to him. “Good evening, Mr. Brock,” Viggo said, making it clear we were using aliases. “This gentleman,” he gestured to the stranger, “is Special Agent Jerome Rutherford of the FBI.”

From what I could see of him, Rutherford was an average-sized, dark skinned black guy in his late thirties with a shaved head, thin mustache and round glasses. I thought the normal look on his face would’ve been one of intensity and intelligence, although at the time he appeared to be a little confused. He eyed me with some apprehension, probably able to discern at least some of the weapons under my coat.

As I sat across from him and nodded a hello, Viggo continued. “This location is used as an FBI meeting place, where Agent Rutherford and his associates meet with informants. Tonight, however, the roles are reversed. The hidden cameras and listening devices have been removed. Agent Rutherford and I have come to an understanding. Is that not so, Agent?”

“It is, Mr. Stone,” Rutherford replied in a deep bass voice. He was quick to answer; being a new minion had a very strong effect on the guy. Maybe he was used to having control, and being suddenly obedient was something he needed. You know, like how hot-shot lawyers or CEOs go to a dominatrix. That’s the best guess I’ve got; I’m not a damn therapist.

“And, as we have discussed, my cohort Mr. Brock will be my liaison if I am unavailable,” Viggo continued. I was pretty sure that meant if he was down in the sewers. “Mr. Brock,” Viggo addressed me, “the good Agent has been informed of our current needs and has been given the necessary data to complete the task given to him.” The task was obviously to identify the Quinn terrorists.

In front of Rutherford was a phone next to a DVD in a case. “Do you have my number, Agent?” I asked.

“No sir, Mr. Brock. I was told to exchange the number on this new phone with yours. I suggested to Mr. Stone that normal emails aren’t secure, so any information should be passed along in person. If you don’t mind, I will only use this phone to give time and date to meet here without revealing the address.”

“That sounds good to me.” I looked up at Viggo and asked, “Was there anything else, Mr. Stone?”

“Yes, but only that you should expect to hear from Agent Rutherford by morning with positive results. Plan to meet with him again soon after.” He looked down at Rutherford. “Trade numbers and be on your way, Agent.”

After Rutherford and I gave our phones back to each other, he hurried out of the room without another word. I didn’t hear him say anything to the woman, either. Two seconds later, the front door opened and shut. Not caring if that woman overheard me, I just had to ask, “Who is that lady out front, sir?”

He cocked his head slightly to one side. “Surely you are not so naïve or proud to think the only minions that I have acquired are the ones in this city. Runa has served me since the Black Death.”

Okay, I was naïve and proud.

TRAILER

Agent Rutherford sent me a text before I went to bed that night. It simply said, ‘Task is complete. I have positive results.’ I replied for him to meet me again in ten hours. I knew Viggo wanted his culprits ASAP, but I still needed to make a plan with whatever Rutherford found.

The door to the vacant store was open again, so Rutherford was already there (he’d given a spare key to Viggo, who locked up the night before – the key was then given to me). The Agent seemed calmer and more composed than the night before. Not that I was worried about him; I was just glad I didn’t have to deal with a nervous wreck who’d been told too many supernatural secrets.

There was a file on each of the terrorists. As I suspected, they both had criminal records. Hell, they were both still on parole for the same crime – a murder that was knocked down to 2nd degree manslaughter. Ya gotta love our legal process. Some of their individual priors included weapon possession, assault with a weapon, battery, burglary, and eluding. In most cases, the charges were reduced – some down to misdemeanors – in order to flush the two pieces of shit through the system.

The guy was Mitchell (Mitch) Whitney, 36, dishonorably discharged from the Army at 19 after one year in. Police knew him to be an outspoken homophobe and white supremacist. The file had a recent line-up photo of Mitch, and a list of his tattoos. Under listed habits, he was suspected of meth use, had a gym membership, and tried getting into a couple local fight teams to get some MMA matches.

The woman, Maxine (Maxi) Knut, wasn’t much better. She and Mitch had the same parole officer four years back; that’s how they met and hooked up. Prior to Chuck’s violent and racist influence, Maxi was a freelance scumbag. I guess being a diagnosed kleptomaniac with a bipolar disorder and anger issues pretty much set her course. Well, boo-fucking-hoo. She was a sociopath, the same as her boyfriend.

Mitch and Maxi lived in a trailer home a few miles somewhere beyond the suburbs. Once I got home, I used google maps for the layout of their address and made a plan. The setting was great for me. It was a rural site, so neighbors weren’t a problem; straight roads, letting me see any traffic; lots of trees and ground foliage to dampen any noise, not that I wanted to make any. Their place sat alone on a small lawn, with a thick band of woods separating their backyard from some train tracks. About a quarter mile beyond that was an old farm road with no other houses nearby. I planned to go that night.

Loaded for bear and toting Traeg’s loaned toys, I locked the truck and headed into the field. Feeling a little exposed, I hurried between the rows of some low crop to the thin tree line ahead. The train tracks beyond that were recessed about five or six feet. I had cloud cover, so concealment was pretty easy on that dark night. The quiet and the open space behind me reminded me of some military missions that I didn’t want to dwell on. I kept moving across the tracks, up the far bank, and into the woods.

The night-vision goggles really helped me over uneven ground and avoid twigs. There was light ahead, so I kept my head down until I was near their edge of the woods. Finding a good spot, I took my goggles off and looked through the leaves. I was near one back corner of the trailer home. A light was on over the sliding glass door; Mitch was out back, attaching a 20 lb. propane tank to his grill. From inside, I heard the muted noises of music playing and voices talking. I turned on the little sound amp and pointed the hand-held dish at the trailer.

There was definitely someone else inside with Maxi. Great, they had company. I could tell their guest had a deep male voice, especially compared to Maxi’s, but both their words were garbled from the Metallica CD that was playing. Safe in the woods, I waited for a better time to make my move.

I thought maybe I’d be bringing Viggo three people instead of two. That thought died when the back door slid open and the guest stepped out, followed by Maxi. Nope, definitely not three people – maybe none at all. To be technical, I wouldn’t have called the unexpected guest a ‘person’. I was pretty sure that Jack Fletcher hadn’t been human for a very long time.

ASSAULT

Damn it, there was a hemo involved. And not just any hemo, either. It made sense that Fletcher was behind the attack on Quinn Industries. Among other radical ideologies, he had a deep-seated hatred for anyplace that created a little pollution. Viggo putting Fletcher in his place at the Gathering probably focused his anger to go after specific targets. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he was also responsible for dumping a body on a property that my commander had openly claimed.

I pointed the dish at them to hear what they were saying. “. . . not to light that thing until after I left,” Fletcher said angrily to Mitch. “I’ve told you I’m not fond of open flames.”

“Yeah, sorry – forgot. But it’s just a grill. I – I’m not settin’ the woods on fire or nothin’.”

Fletcher clamped a hand around Mitch’s neck, lifted him off the ground and tossed him a few feet back onto the lawn. “You’re pathetic, Whitney,” he stated with a growl while Mitch rubbed his bruised neck. “I know you don’t speak out of insolence, so it must be sheer stupidity. A fool and a slut; what a pair I’ve chosen. You may burn your overpriced meat after I’m gone. Now get up.”

Maxi just stood on the small set of stairs, not moving. I guess to take Fletcher’s attention away from Mitch, she meekly said, “We could really use the rest of that money, if it ain’t a bother.”

The burly Outsider turned his shaggy head to her. “Ah, so you can buy more steak, marijuana and cheap beer? Never fear, I keep my word. You’ll be given the remainder of what I promised soon enough. No matter what, I want you both ready for the next mission in three days. Have I made myself clear?”

Mitch and Maxi both nodded their heads. Fletcher gave each of them an uncomfortable glare, and then walked out of sight around the far side of the trailer. I couldn’t see any cars from my position, but I didn’t hear one start up, either. It was surprising that Fletcher was on foot; it would’ve been a long ass walk to get back to his parks in the city. Not wanting him within earshot, I planned to wait a while longer. That time would also give the couple time to get mellow from pot while their steaks cooked.

Much sooner than I expected, Mitch said the meat was ready. He apparently liked his steak black and bloody. Maxi came out with a platter, but no lawn chairs or anything. Shit, they were going to eat inside, where cell phones and any weapons were. I didn’t want them to have the slight chance of getting to one or the other before I got to them. The time had come.

I charged in fast from the dark – much faster than any normal guy – and caught them both by surprise. Using the butt of one of my 9mm’s, I hammered Mitch in the forehead. As he crumpled and dropped his spatula, I spun to Maxi. She was still holding the platter with two hands, eyes wide and mouth hung open. Without hesitation, I swept her legs. The platter went flying. She landed on her back with a grunt. My silenced gun was in her face half a second later.

Maxi had a stunned look on her thin face, which was framed by short, greasy brown hair. Her eyes were bloodshot. Her teeth were bad. She might’ve been cute once, a long time ago. Life hadn’t been very kind to her, though. At 32, Maxine Knut looked 40 and going downhill fast. Too damn bad.

Trying to be professional, I calmly said to her, “Roll onto your stomach, arms out from your sides.” When she hesitated, I added, “Don’t be stupid, Maxi. This is the easy way.”

As she slowly began to comply and roll onto her side, I heard Mitch groan “God dammit” behind me. He must’ve had a skull like a fucking Samoan. He was already getting to his hands and knees. I leaned over and hit him one more time at the base of his skull.

Just as I delivered the knock-out blow, Maxi yelled. I turned back. She’d pull a .22 revolver from the back of her jean shorts and squeezed off two quick rounds before I could kick her arm away. I momentarily ignored the sharp pain in my ribs, using my other leg to kick her in the side of the head with my combat boot. That fucking bitch shot me. I kicked her again. And damn it, the report from that .22 was loud.

I was stupid, so damn stupid. Between the two, I figured Mitch might’ve been carrying a pocket revolver. That’s why I went for him first. My black shirt was wet on my left side. Half a foot around to my back, it was wet there, too. I was pretty sure the bullet passed between two of my lower ribs.

Hoping no one heard the shots, I secured Mitch and Maxi with zip ties and gags. Even with me being a little stronger than normal, pulling them both toward the woods made my wound flare with hot pain.

I stopped, released the limp bodies, and tried to slow my breathing. I shut my eyes, concentrating on closing the entry and exit wounds like Viggo taught me. I stood there on a dark edge of the lawn and felt a last small trickle of blood being forced out as the bullet wound closed. My ribs were still sore, but I felt a hell of a lot better.

Mitch was bulky with muscle and a bit of a beer gut, so I dragged him through the trees first. After tossing Maxi down next to him near the train tracks, I went back one more time. I wanted to turn off the grill, pick up the platter, pocket the revolver, and generally tidy up in case a neighbor came snooping around. You know, get rid of any suspicious signs. I also planned to run inside the trailer to see if there was anything lying around that might’ve told me what their “next mission” was.

I was halfway between the woods and the trailer’s small deck when I noticed movement. The shadowed shape of a large animal came through some trees on the far side of the backyard. Large animal – yeah, right; it was the biggest fucking wolf I’d ever seen. It was staring at me with glowing, lava-orange eyes. I’d seen those eyes before. They belonged to the bad-ass hemo who’d left a few minutes before. I was so screwed.

FIRE

The wolf sniffed the air and took a few leisurely steps further into the light. With its tongue lolling out, I swear it was smiling at me – a hungry smile. And then, in just a matter of a few seconds, the wolf arched up and silently transformed into a crouching Jack Fletcher. He was still smiling at me.

No one ever explained to me that a hemo could turn into a giant wolf, so seeing one revert back into human form like a horror movie trick left me flat-footed. The trick was especially good because when Fletcher changed back into normal form, he was wearing clothes. It was his same old outfit of faded black jeans and red flannel shirt, but I wasn’t concerned about his lack of wardrobe at the time.

“I don’t want to take an animal shape while I’m tearing you apart, Beck,” he said in a Scottish-accented voice full of dark humor. “I want you to hear my laughter while I’m gutting you.” He sniffed again and turned his head toward the area of the woods I’d just come from. “It would be inconvenient if you’ve killed them, but I’d expect no less from you, Beck. You’ve been a pain my arse nearly from the start.” With a wider grin, he began moving forward. “Let’s remedy that, shall we?”

I figured a hemo in wolf form could run me down no matter how fast I ran. So instead, I pulled the Super Shorty from my back holster. Fletcher, near the deck by then, hesitated, but his smile quickly returned. “By all means, shoot me if your hands are steady enough,” he said with a growl in the back of his throat. “That worked so well for you last time,” he added sarcastically. Yeah, the time I put four rounds in his chest and he barely noticed. Something like that wasn’t easily forgotten.

Thing was, I had no intention of shooting Fletcher again.

Pivoting the Shorty a little to the left, I put a big slug into the propane tank, up near the top of it. No, it didn’t blow up like you’d see in movies, but a thick stream of propane gas blasted out of the ruptures. In less than a second, the flames from the still-lit grill caught the gas. An arc of flame was sucked to the tank below, creating a sustained ten foot pillar of yellow fire roaring out of it.

Fletcher literally freaked out. He turned back to wolf form and took off like his tail was burning.

I didn’t waste any time, either. Chock full of adrenaline, I was through the dark woods in a few seconds. I tossed Mitch and Maxi’s limp bodies down by the train tracks, not caring about their conditions other than not killing them. With the same strength borne of fear, I launched them up the other embankment. A line of crops probably got fucked up when I dragged the two bodies across the field.

Paranoid of seeing orange eyes back in the tree line, I threw the couple into the back of the truck and got the hell out of there. Once back into suburbia, I pulled over on the side of a highway to take a few deep breaths and calm down. Downing half my flask helped.

Hoping Viggo wasn’t down below where there wasn’t any reception, I called his cell as I drove. He answered on the second ring and, in vague terms, told me to meet him at the condemned apartment building where I brought that Realm security guy.

Viggo and the minion Runa were waiting for me when I came in the back entrance. He sent her to bring Mitch and Maxi in, and then pointedly looked at my shirt. I told him I was okay and that I wouldn’t take anyone for granted again. Then I described the short scene with Fletcher. “I knew your kind didn’t like fire, but . . . damn.”

“Those with loose control of their emotions tend to have stronger reactions to it – a survival instinct, if you will. I have had time to temper my own reaction to fire, enough to garner some modest skill with the Gift of Flames. Lighting a fireplace, as I did at the Gathering, is nearly the extent of my ability.”

“It was still pretty impressive, sir. Nearly everyone in the room took two steps back.”

“It had the intended effect,” Viggo said to finish the topic. “You have done well by me for your work this evening, Leo. Some time away from duties has been earned; five nights should do. Feel free to take your leave. Runa will assist me with the questioning of Mr. Fletcher’s minions.”

“I could help you question them if you’d like, sir,” I offered. “I have some experience with interrogation.”

“That will not be necessary, Leo. With the information you have gathered,” he stated formally as always, “not many questions need to be answered. Nonetheless, I like to be thorough.”

“Well, I’m sure Runa has better things to do for you than clean up afterwards,” I countered, hoping I didn’t come off as petty and jealous. “I can take care of that, no problem.”

Our conversation was paused when Runa dragged Mitch past us and into an apartment. “While I am sure that you could,” Viggo continued, “Runa has been chosen to assist. She has alternate methods of extracting information; some might consider those methods unsavory, however effective they may be.”

“You mean torture, sir?”

Viggo shook his head. “Not in the conventional sense. Runa has honor, although her set of moral priorities differ from the norm. I could just as easily intimidate and coerce information out of a subject, but Runa has acquired the Gift to sense the truth of things as well as her ruthless pursuit of it.”

She passed us again to go get Maxi out of my truck. I waited until she was outside before I asked, “Would you like me to learn how to do that as well?”

“If you so choose,” he replied with a shrug. “However, I still wish you to continue with your efforts of learning the Gift of Fauna, as Clara suggested.” I didn’t know it was her idea. “Do keep in mind that I have no ability with the Gift of Discerning as I do with Fauna and others, so it will not come to you easily. Extensive patience is needed for that endeavor.”

“But it’s still possible, right, sir? I mean, Runa learned how.”

Viggo waited to respond, letting Runa drag the semi-conscious Maxi past us. When she was gone again, he finally said, “Yes, she eventually learned how. It took her nearly three hundred years.”

VACATION

Viggo gave me my company credit card before I left that night, and told me to pass along Gwen’s and Traeg’s as well. It was late, and the events of that night left me a little drained. I went home and hung out with Thunder, the TV, and a strong drink. While thinking of what to do with my vacation time, I fell asleep in one of the recliners in the lounge.

I made it over to my old house the next morning to mow the lawn before the day really heated up, but not so early that I’d wake Miss Loretta. While the mower whacked away at the overgrown grass, I had an idea about getting out of the city and going camping. I visualized an image of what it might’ve been like, and felt myself relaxing just at the thought of it.

But then a pair of angry orange eyes invaded the calm picture in my mind, glaring at me through the foliage. Well shit, that idea soured fast. Even if I drove a hundred miles out into the country, I would’ve been paranoid of Fletcher’s hemo wolf nose eventually picking up my scent. Ridiculous? Probably, but I was not going to underestimate a supernatural bad-ass who wanted to show me my own liver.

Alright, fine, a staycation (as Gwen called it) sounded good, too. I started making a mental list of plans as I finished up the lawn. When I was done mowing, Miss Loretta invited me over for lemonade on her porch. Polite refusals did not work with that woman.

Among other topics, Miss Loretta asked if I was moving back in. When I said probably not, she told me to think about renting it out; she had a niece who’d just landed a good job downtown and wanted a place nearby. Renting – not a bad idea. I’d call Viggo’s business guy about it if I needed to.

Before I left, I suggested having another grill party with a few of the neighbors in a couple days. I’d bring a cooler of drinks, all the meat, and maybe a couple guests of my own. Miss Loretta could have her niece come so we could discuss renting my house. My charming, obese neighbor said she’d do the inviting. I was looking forward to it.

In the early afternoon, I went out to Traeger’s Trading Post to return the surveillance gear. I gave him his credit card, and then paid off the truck balance with mine. I didn’t like owing anyone, not even a cohort or friend or whatever Traeg was. Maybe not ‘friend’ at that point, but we were off to a good start.

In Traeg’s office, I relayed the Fletcher incident. When I told him the part about getting shot, he grinned and called me a thin-skinned sissy. As for the invitation to the cook-out, he said not to expect him because Saturdays were his busiest days. We parted with a handshake and I got on with my day.

Indulging a whim, I drove home, slammed a stiff drink, and then took a nap. I didn’t need one, but what the hell. My dream was short, but I relived a good memory of riding in my brother Al’s new car (well, new to him) to a park where we threw a football around. I woke up in a mellow mood, and didn’t even care that Thunder was hogging the pillow.

I hadn’t been to Keegan’s in a while. I figured that if anyone was looking for me, they wouldn’t consider his bar one of my usual haunts anymore. There was a decent crowd for a weeknight. Already in a good mood, the warm greeting from Keeg and Deb, the staff, and a few regulars raised my spirits even higher. I liked my solitude, but being surrounded by familiar and friendly faces raised my morale. The drinks and shots they kept buying me sure as hell didn’t hurt, either.

Tanya was on the clock, but she gave me a few seconds now and then to flirt with her. In my state of having a nice buzz and being epically horny, I didn’t much care if she was currently dating someone or not. We left together after her shift. She drove; I paid for the motel room. Regardless of all the drinks, I luckily wasn’t afflicted with whiskey-dick. We made the most of it.

The next day, a Friday, I got together with Gwen and Traeg for dinner at Shawn Riordan’s old fire station hideout. We decided to use that as our main location for meetings, although we just got together that evening to shoot the shit. I brought bags of food from the Wise Owl Wok, Traeg brought a cooler full of drinks, and Gwen brought some weird dessert that I didn’t want to even look at.

Neither Gwen nor Traeg had time to hang out for long, so I went back to Keegan’s. No power-drinking for me that night – just enough to keep a mild buzz. At one point, Mac the doorman asked me to take over so he could hit the head. I took a look outside and noticed a guy walking along the sidewalk on the other side of the street. He was carrying a backpack, which wasn’t too odd, but the way he was sniffing the air like a dog was pretty weird. I sniffed too, but didn’t smell anything out of the ordinary.

Deb’s sister and a female friend stopped in the bar that night; Keeg asked me to make sure no drunks hit on them. When the two ladies were ready to leave, Deb asked me to escort them to their car. As I walked them out, I saw that same guy across the street. He was facing the bar, taking a big whiff of the air. I walked the women into the parking lot next to the building, wondering what kind of drug makes someone have olfactory hallucinations.

Once Deb’s sister and her friend drove off, I went to go get another drink. I came around the corner of the building and saw the backpack guy striding with purpose across the street. He wasn’t walking toward the front door of Keegan’s, though – he was coming straight to me.

He was about average height, but had a big-boned, rangy look to him. He wore duck boots, tan cargo pants, and a denim shirt; along with the backpack, he was dressed for travel. In contrast to that, his lean face was pale. He had shorn brown hair, dark eyes under bushy brows, a large hooked nose, and a very thick mustache that was grown down to either side of his chin. His expression was kind of intense, but not in an angry way. Then again, he sure as hell didn’t look like he was going to ask for directions, either.

When the traveler stopped about ten feet away, I asked, “Something I can do for ya, buddy?”

He sniffed one last time, and then said with a slight accent I couldn’t place, “Ancient blood – I smell ancient blood.” Dammit, why couldn’t he have said no to my question and just moved on? I had no idea who or what I was dealing with, but I knew the human bloodhound wasn’t going to leave me alone. “It is of you, but not yours – a minion, yes?” he asked.

“How the fuck did you . . .” I paused when a couple came out of the bar and passed between us. When they were far enough away, I looked back at the bloodhound. “What do you want from me?”

“Do you know what the veil is?” he asked. When I nodded, he said, “Then you know I would be lifting it by asking questions of one who is . . . uninformed. Do you understand?”

“Yeah,” I sighed, “I get it, and I’m plenty informed.” Without knowing his intentions, I didn’t want to be stuck out there alone with him. “Why don’t you come on in? I can get us a booth and we can talk.”

He glanced at the door to Keegan’s and then shook his head. “Crowds of people unsettle me. If you know what Civil Ground is, would there be such a place nearby?”

I pointed down the street. “About a mile and a half to the south is a big museum – the Nelson-Atkins. It’s obviously closed by now, but the property it sits on is Civil Ground too.” Then I added, “Good luck” as a clear sign I was leaving, and took a step toward the safety of the bar.

“No – wait,” he said, putting his hands out in a non-threatening gesture. They were big, those hands, and had coarse hair all over them – even up onto the fingers. I also got the impression that he wasn’t much of a people-person, but at least he wasn’t being a prick. “I can sense your apprehension. I assure you I mean no harm. I am new to this city – information is all I want.”

I paused for a few seconds to think. Finally, I said, “You realize I have to check in with my, uh, lord, to see what he says, right? I’ll go in, make a call, and then let you know, okay? I give you my word I won’t leave you standing out here all night.” I got to the door, hesitated, and then turned back to him and said, “My lord might want a name . . .”

“Ah, of course,” he replied. “Not that it would help, for I am in no way renowned. All the same, if your lord would choose to meet with me, tell him my name is Grigori Romanovich Olinchenko.”

“ . . . Say what?”

SITUATION

Viggo’s phone was unavailable. I tried to call Barnabus and got the same result. I didn’t want to, but I also tried Roach’s number. The less I had to deal with that fuck-head, the better. No service for his cell, either. There was one last hemo number in my phone, but I barely knew the guy. Screw it. I called.

When he answered, I said, “Good evening, sir. This is Leo Beck; I work for the one who made a bit of a scene at the last party . . .”

“Yes, Mr. Beck, I remember you well enough,” Michael Vestergaard replied with tension in his voice. “I remember many things that I’d rather not.”

Well great, I was managing to get on the bad side of every damn hemo out there. "Uh, yes sir," I said awkwardly while pacing back and forth in Keeg's small office. "Sorry to bother you, but I ran out of options. I have an odd situation, and I don't know the S.O.P. - uh, standard operating pro -"

“I know what it means,” He cut in, but then asked in a softer tone, “Are you in danger?”

“No sir, I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure I can handle the situation, but I didn’t want to step out of line. I mean, is a guy in my position allowed to speak for you guys with another one of you guys?” Fuck, I hated being vague on an unsecured line.

“As long as you have the correct information and not offer too much of it, I don’t see a problem. Be careful, though – our emotions run high. You know, Mr. Beck, handling the situation on your own might also impress your employer. Then again, the opposite could be true; I’m not aware of how he conducts that part of his business. If that’s a concern, I’ll have some free time in a few hours to help you.”

“I appreciate that, sir, but my boss is pretty cool like that. I was just making sure there wasn’t any rule I was breaking. I’ll stop bugging you now.”

“Mr. Beck, two things before I go.” My heart sunk a little; it’d usually never been a good thing when a hemo brought up his personal agendas. “First, you may call me Michael, or Gothi Michael if you ever decide to join my faith. Secondly, did you ever truly work for my . . . mother?”

Oh, okay, that wasn’t so bad. “Uh, not in the way you think,” I answered. “Anyway, thanks again. Maybe I’ll catch another one of your sermons sometime soon.” I meant it, too. Michael might’ve believed some weird Norse shit, but he was a good storyteller.

When Michael hung up, I went back outside. Mr. Mustache (don’t even ask me to try and repeat his full name) was back across the street, probably to be less conspicuous. I gave him my word I’d meet him on the back lawn of the museum in an hour. There was no way I was going to offer a ride to a predator I knew nothing about. An hour was plenty of time for him to walk there – he looked used to it.

Just past midnight, I pulled up to the same spot behind the Nelson-Atkins as I did with Ragna months before. That meeting with Declan McKenna, and then Jack Fletcher, was still fresh in my mind. Strangely enough, the chain of thought led me wonder if Ragna’s remaining dogs were okay without her.

A nearby streetlight caused deep shadows under a small tree near the back edge of the Civil Ground. Sitting on the grass in those shadows was Grigori Russian-Mustache. On the drive down there to meet him, I asked myself why I was taking the chance. The only reason I could think of was that he seemed decent for a hemo. And, unlike most of ‘em, he didn’t want to kill me. Not yet, anyway.

OLINCHENKO

I sat in my truck for a minute, organizing the questions in my head. The guy had sensed Viggo’s ancient blood; smelt that I was a minion. No one ever mentioned that neat little trick. He was drawn to the scent, attracted to it. I wanted to know why, if only for my commander’s sake. There was only one way to find out what his intentions were.

I got out of my truck, hopped over the low retaining wall and sat on it. The backstreet was quiet, and we were easily close enough to each other to talk at normal volume. He was fiddling with some small piece of equipment, but lifted his head and said, “You kept your word. Good.”

I nodded to acknowledge his words, and then got right to it. “I have some questions myself, if you don’t mind, Mister . . . Chenko, right?”

“Olinchenko,” he corrected me. “Grigori Olinchenko. What do you go by?”

“I’m Leo Beck. So, uh, how did you smell me from nearly twenty yards away? And not just my cologne or whatever – I mean, you can actually smell my blood?”

Olinchenko put the item – a camera, I think – into the backpack on the ground next to him. “I have always been strong with that ability,” he stated while zipping his pack closed. “I’m not sure which Gift it stems from, not that it truly matters. My senses tell me many things, but not all. I can smell the blood of an ancient through his minion, but I can’t sense a thin-blooded strigoi near me. In the same fashion, I can hear someone’s heart hammering with adrenaline from across a field, but not a line of ants marching past my feet. It is a matter of intensity.”

“Damn, that’s . . . damn.” I know, not too smooth. But hey, fuck you – I was impressed.

“Now tell me true, Mr. Beck. Is the Eidolon you serve the one I have come here for, or are there other ancient beings in this commonplace city? Having even one here is unexpected enough.”

“Well, I guess my answer depends on which Eidolon you’re looking for,” I replied with a frown. “It also depends on why you’re asking. My commander is far too powerful to need my protection, but he doesn’t like surprises.”

"He is your 'commander', eh?" Olinchenko said, tilting his head to one side. "A military man, I'd say. It would explain your scars." He then took a second to gather his thoughts. "I will explain my reason. In the spring of 1845, there was a fire," he began. "Pittsburgh was booming at the time, and . . ." He trailed off, looking away. "The details of that day aren't important," Olinchenko said, facing me again, "other than to say a legendary Eidolon called the Veleti saved me and a Deviant friend. I have -"

"Whoa, wait a second," I said, interrupting him. "A Deviant friend . . . Does that mean you're -?"

“I was speaking,” Olinchenko interrupted right back with authority. “You wanted to know. I’m telling you.” That shut me up. “I have owed a huge debt since, and it weighs on me. Two nights ago, I heard a tale of the Veleti being in this city, of all places. I travelled atop a freight train from Illinois to get here and had begun wandering the streets for any of my kind to validate the story. Much sooner than I expected, I caught a scent – you.”

“Okay, you say you’re here to repay a debt,” I said hurriedly, wanting to know one more thing. “I’ll pass that along. If my commander doesn’t recognize your name, he’ll want to know which faction you claim.”

Olinchenko cocked his head to one side again. “I am an Outsider,” he said. “Isn’t it obvious?”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” I stood up and tried to keep the anger out of my voice when I said, “I’ll tell you a few things, and then I’m gone. Your nose works well. I am the minion of an ancient Eidolon, and yeah, it is the Veleti. Good luck finding him. If you want to introduce yourself to the Doyenne, her name is Le Meur. Just find the Realm building downtown, which should be easy for you – it reeks of hemos. There, I just told you everything you wanted to know, and then some. I’m leaving now.”

As I turned and placed one foot on the wall, Olinchenko said behind me, “Mr. Beck, at least tell me what caused your sudden hostility.” When I hesitated, he added, “If there is animosity between the Deviant and Outsider factions here, I don’t want to aggravate it. If that is the case, tell me now. I have explained myself. I deserve no less from you.”

“Fair enough,” I said, and spun back to face him. He was standing by then, but hadn’t advanced. “The only animosity I know of comes from the Outsider elder, Jack Fletcher. My real problem is that he and the rest of your people are severely fucked up, and most have a personal problem with me.”

Olinchenko asked, “My people?” I ignored him.

“Fletcher screwed with my head, used me, and now wants to play with my intestines. His scion McKenna let his minions attack me – right over there, as a matter of fact. Macie used me to pay off a debt and got me into this whole damn thing to begin with. I’m pretty sure your emissary Zapada is Le Meur’s boy-toy, and she hates me. Grimm, who hasn’t had his turn to mess with me yet, is having a problem getting rid of all the dead bodies he acquires. Jade, who I never even fucking met before, brought one of my best friends into the night just to spite me. And now he hates me, too. So, yeah, I’m a little hostile. Now here you are, and I’m not going to stick around to find out how you’re going to fuck with me.”

I’d turned and had one foot on the wall again when Olinchenko responded. “They may be Outsiders, but they are not my people, Mr. Beck. I don’t even know them.”

Only turning my head, I asked, “Are you saying you’ve made yourself a derelict?”

“No, of course not, although I normally live like one. Those strigoi you mentioned, they’re like extended family. We are strangers to each other, but they will be polite to me.”

“Polite,” I repeated sarcastically while turning back to face him. “I doubt some of them know how.”

“Yes, polite,” Olinchenko said sternly. “Unlike them – if what you say is true – I have been polite to you, as tradition dictates they will be to me. Your accusations have only one constant, Mr. Beck, and that is you. Why do so many strigoi dislike you? Is it them, or is it you?”

“It’s not that easy. I didn’t start this.”

“All the same, I’d prefer to move on and let you tend to your anger. Unfortunately, you are a direct link to the Veleti. I want to repay my debt. I need to. It sits on me like a yoke on an ox. It is no longer my way to force an outcome, Mr. Beck, so I ask you to tell your commander I am here to serve him.” Olinchenko paused, and then added in a milder tone, “For well over a century I have looked for clues of the Veleti, listened for whispers of his passing. I found nothing. Do not deny me this chance.” His last words were stated like a command, but there was a hint of desperation in them, too.

Shit. “Alright, I’ll tell my commander about you, and that you’ll be on this Civil Ground if he wants to meet with you. I doubt that’ll happen tonight, so find a place to stay. Will that do?”

“That will do,” Olinchenko replied evenly.

I wanted another drink, but I wasn’t in the mood to hang out at Keegan’s anymore that night. Instead, I went home and thought about why most of the hemos weren’t fond of me. Like Olinchenko asked, was it them or was it me? Nah, fuck that. It was them.

COOKOUT

I was on the road early the next morning, out to the college town for target and dojo practice. While I was out there, I got all the crap I promised to bring to the cookout. The weather was cooperating that day, with partly sunny skies and fairly mild temps for late June. It was going to be a good day to enjoy myself and forget all the supernatural bullshit, at least for a while.

One of the things I wanted to forget was Olinchenko, but I couldn’t. I wanted to hate him, wanted him to be a prick so I could be further justified in my view of the Outsiders. Well, except for Cordell – I couldn’t hate him. Thing was, I ended up respecting Olinchenko. That didn’t mean I liked him, but I could sort of understand where he was coming from. I left a note on the hemo-net for Viggo about him, and hadn’t heard any more about it.

I didn’t have any of my own guests coming to the cookout. Traeg had a valid excuse, Diego already had plans with his family, and Gwen backed out late. I asked if she was having more feinting spells. She promised me a slow death. I gave Phillip and Thunder some food, and then headed out again.

I showed up at my old house before the neighborhood guests came over. There was more than enough time to pull my grill and extra lawn chairs from my garage over to Miss Loretta’s front lawn, which was larger than mine and had shade trees. My lawn was fenced and bare, and probably still blood-stained.

Hector, his pregnant wife Anna, and their three little dream-killers were the first to come over. Next to show up was Miss Loretta’s older sister Lynette, followed by a handful of other neighbors. Next to last to arrive was Miss Loretta’s younger brother and his wife. Their daughter – the one who wanted to rent my house – pulled up a few minutes later. She was worth waiting for.

Introductions were made all around, but I had trouble looking away from my neighbor’s gorgeous niece. Miss Loretta’s brother Lamar was a healthy guy in his forties, about my size but barrel-chested. I already knew he was a wing nut lifer – specifically, an Air Force Captain – so I snapped him a salute when we met. It wasn’t strictly mandatory, but it showed respect. Lamar’s wife Denise was an attractive white lady with blonde and gray hair pulled up in a bun. They lived out near Whiteman Air Force base, which was close to the college town I went to on weekends. Huh, small world.

Then I was introduced to Lamar and Denise’s daughter, Valerie Foster. She had dark brown hair that hung in loose curls over smooth caramel skin. Her eyes were a bright hazel, and she had the kind of smile that could make men do stupid things. The derelict, Audra, had a similar effect on me, although her appeal was all danger and lust. Valerie was sort of the opposite. Her trim figure was sexy, but she had a simple charm and fresh good looks.

Valerie blushed while Miss Loretta praised her accomplishments. She’d graduated college a couple years back, spoke three other languages, and had just recently landed a job as some sort of copyrighter at some company downtown. All that was great, but it also meant she was smart enough to steer clear of a devil dog like me.

The rest of the day in Miss Loretta’s front yard went great. Everyone ate their fill, with enough leftovers for everyone. Valerie (she asked me to call her Val) liked my house; we made an informal agreement and she was free to move in when she wanted. I knew that between her “Auntie Lo” and her father, Val would keep the house in shape. I kind of wished it had issues so that I had an excuse to come over.

As the afternoon turned to evening, neighbors said their goodbyes. I gave Val a set of house keys and my number – of my regular phone, not the one Viggo gave me – and told her to call if she had any other questions about the house. I shook hands and said my farewells, but had to endure a smothering hug from Miss Loretta before I could leave.

Thunder warmly greeted my bag of leftovers when I got home. Feeling lazy, I spent the rest of that evening slumped in front of the TV. Hell, to be honest, I was a lethargic shit for the next two days as well. I did a few necessary chores and got in a couple short workouts, but for the most part I lounged in calm solitude and neglected my hygiene. It was pretty damn awesome.

CRATES

My vacation ended all too soon. There was a long list of tasks waiting for me in the Planner. Most of it was more mundane shit – dropping off supplies here and there, and checking certain sewer tunnels. I didn’t mind. Repetition only familiarized me with locations.

On my second day back at work, there was a strange chore. I was to pick up two wooden crates, deliver each one to a different address, open them and leave. The addresses were familiar, so I looked them up. Yep, just as I thought – both were parks that Fletcher controlled. I used to patrol each one. A map in the notes flagged a pick-up point; the crates were behind the dumpster of an abandoned building. Each one was three-foot square, and fairly heavy. First stop: Green Valley Park.

I drove into the big park just as the day began to really heat up. A note in the Planner told me to leave each crate in a clearly visible location, to be discreet, and not to touch the contents within. So, fifty feet away from the first picnic shelter along the paved park road, I unloaded the first one. After prying open the top with a crowbar, I saw that the crate held a large sealed plastic bag full of odd, lumpy items. Curious, I looked closer . . .

Body parts – the crate was full of human body parts.

Heads, feet, forearms, fingers, chunks of flesh – you name it. Random parts of dead people all piled in together. Some pieces were rotting. Some looked chewed on. Almost all appeared to be severed, but not in that surgically-removed way. More like chopped-with-an-ax kinds of cuts. Despite the heat, I got cold chills. I backed away slowly, turned, and hurried to my truck.

The crate I dropped off in Spire Park held more of the same. Fletcher was going to have cops and media all over his havens for a while. I figured he also was going to have to do some explaining to Le Meur and the emissaries. I made a mental note to catch the 6-o’clock news that evening.

Two nights later, I had a box of housewares – mainly light bulbs – that Viggo wanted me to deliver to him. It was humid down below in some unfamiliar tunnels, but at least I didn’t have to walk through any streams of shit soup. The cockroaches kept me company.

Following the directions, I got to the end of an abandoned shaft and had to crawl through a dry tunnel connected to it. The snug tube ended at a small antechamber, with an open iron door to my left. On the other side of the door was a Deviant den, one I hadn’t been to before. Except for the rough stone walls and low ceiling, it was set up like a large office. There were even a couple framed paintings hung up.

Viggo sat behind a big oak desk, staring at a computer monitor with an irritated expression. Before I could offer a greeting, he glanced at the box I was carrying and said, “Set that on the table behind me.”

After setting the box down where he wanted it, I turned and noticed that he was playing computer solitaire. “Is it not letting you win, sir?”

“An internet cable has been cut once again,” he replied, turning the game off. “The continued vandalism has begun to test my patience, Leo.”

“Yes sir, I bet it has. Uh, not to change the subject, but about those crates I dropped off . . .”

“Ah, yes. I have not seen any eyewitness reports of your activities. Well done.” His simple praise was sincere, but I detected that weariness of spirit in his voice again.

“Uh, yeah, thank you, sir. What I was wondering, though . . . And I hope you don’t mind me asking. Uh, it’s about a delivery receipt at the bottom of one of the crates. That wasn’t on the news; I got a message from your police dispatcher about it today. I’m not sure what that was about. Was it intentional?”

Viggo stared at me until I got uncomfortable, which wasn’t long. He eventually said, “Everything I do is intentional, Leo. Mr. O’Shaughnessy retrieved a billing receipt from the garbage bin behind a drinking establishment called the Rattlesnake Saloon. It is owned and operated by the Outsider, Lexian Grimm.”

“Oh, right – I remember him from the Gathering.”

“Yes; he rarely attends those functions. I warned Mr. Grimm about his dumping of victims into the sewer system, if you recall. He did not heed my warning. On my order, Mr. O’Shaughnessy placed the receipt in one of the crates to implicate Mr. Grimm in the grisly discovery. Another minion collected the human remains; I considered that chore beneath you.”

“Well, I would’ve done it, sir, but I sure as hell don’t mind that you passed that one onto someone else.”

“The other minion in question was better suited for that task. I try to delegate duties according to skill sets. For example, another task has presented itself – a task well-suited for you.” Viggo tapped on the computer monitor. “The vandalism in the utility tunnels has become a nuisance. Find the petty criminals and put an end to their irritating crimes. All other chores will be suspended until this has been seen to, but do not linger with this task to avoid them, Leo.”

“No sir, of course not,” I replied. “Does it matter how I handle this?”

Viggo gave me another black-eyed stare. “I would place that question in the category of lingering.”

Grouchy message received. I left before it got any worse.

PLAN

Later that night, I requested all the underground vandalism reports from Viggo’s Public Works minion. Copies of them were emailed to me the next morning. One Irish coffee later, I was ready for work.

First of all, I thought it was just internet wires being fucked with. Cable, landline, and local power lines were being cut as well. Where water and gas valves were available, they were being shut off. Since there wasn’t any obvious profit from it, someone was being a real dick for no good reason.

There were more reports of vandalism than I thought. Once I had the incidents listed by time, date and location, a loose pattern was easy to see. Three different areas kept being targeted, most likely because of easy access to them. The dickhead (or heads – there might’ve been more than one) moved in a loop between locations of A, B, and C. Location A was hit every three or four days; so was B, but always one day after A. Location C was every seven days. I guessed even dickheads needed an occasional day off.

Judging from complaint calls, almost all of the vandalism happened right around sunset or just before. The Public Works guy had put in a requisition for motion sensors, alarms and locks, but it hadn’t been approved by his superiors as of yet. Go figure.

Location A was the obvious choice. I knew the area because a number of Viggo’s chores (both above and below ground) brought me there. It was the old stockyard district just southwest of downtown; half of the buildings out there were empty. The service tunnels in that area were large to accommodate all the water and steam pipes for all the (former) businesses. Newer companies took advantage of the roomy underground and placed junction units for all of their phone lines and fiber optic cables.

There were other sewer routes into that area, but the easiest access point to get to those junctions was a large grate in a delivery alley between rows of currently empty buildings. I’d taken that route once; I’d take it again. One of the parking lots that Viggo owned was only about half a mile away, so I planned on leaving my truck there and walk. Location A was due to be hit again the following evening, so I had time for a recon trip to be sure of my plan.

With my ‘ignore me’ trick, there were lots of spots down there to hang out and wait. All I had to do was find a dark corner and hope the dickhead(s) came by the spot I picked.

Later that night, I was still thinking about any variables to my plan when there was a knock at the front door. The thunderdome was in a fairly desolate neighborhood to begin with, and I’d never seen anyone (besides me) walking around at night. Anyone who knew where I lived would’ve called first. Well, except for Viggo, and he would’ve just stepped out from the dark stairwell.

Gun in hand and with Thunder following me, I peeked through the plate glass window. I blinked and looked again. Clara Page stood there in the dark on the weedy sidewalk. Still in her purple poncho and stocking cap, she gazed back at me with big, innocent eyes. An awkward second later, she waved at me with one hand and held up a half-full grocery bag with the other.

I opened the door and scanned left and right before looking back down at her. “Uh, hi Clara,” I began hesitantly. “What’re you doing here?”

“Someone said I should stop by and bring you a present.” She held the bag up to me. As I slowly took it from her tiny hand, she looked down. “Oh, a kitty,” she said. “Can I come in and play with it?” I didn’t have much of a choice; she brushed by me and squatted down to pet Thunder.

She’d apparently gotten over her wariness of me. Hey, great, but that didn’t tell me why she showed up out of the blue. I shut the door and asked, “Clara, did Viggo ask you to come here?”

“No, not him . . .” she replied vaguely while picking up my oversized cat. Okay, she wasn’t going to mention Vivian. With Thunder in her arms, I could barely see the top half of her. “I went shopping,” she said through the fur. “I ain’t – haven’t – done that for a long time. I got all your favorites, I think.”

I stepped closer to the hallway light and looked in the bag. Inside was a can of sweet corn, a bag of steak fries, and a thick rib-eye. Yep, she somehow knew my favorites; it was only a little spooky. “Uh, hey, thanks. I don’t know what you got me this food for, but it was very nice of you. I, uh, already ate dinner tonight, so I’ll cook this up tomorrow.”

“Have it for supper, not lunch,” Clara said, while she walked past me with Thunder contently on her shoulder. “Can me and the kitty go watch some TV? I promise to brush him.”

She was already heading to the stairs when I answered, “Uh, sure. The big TV is up in the lounge.”

“I know,” she said airily.

Clara was a few steps up the stairs when I added, “His name is Thunder.”

“I know,” she replied, still moving.

"Okay, uh, let me know if you need anything," I called up the stairs when she'd gone out of view. "I'll be down here -"

“In your office – I know,” she called back from upstairs.

Okay, that was fucking weird. I couldn’t get my head around any part of that.

An hour or so later, I looked up from my computer and saw Clara staring at me from the doorway. She was as stealthy as Viggo. “Oh, hey, sorry – I didn’t see you standing there. Is everything okay?”

She nodded her head and said, “Uh huh. I’m gonna go now. Thanks for letting me play with the kitty. He’s nice. Maybe I can come and play with him again sometime?”

“Sure, you’re welcome here anytime.”

Clara gazed at me for a second, and then said, “Okay, thanks. Bye.” She turned to leave, but looked back at me with an odd expression on her cute little face. “You should shave tomorrow, too.”

I didn’t have a reply on hand for the random comment, and she was gone before I thought of one.

BOOM

The setting sun was still above the horizon when I climbed down through the alley grate. I’d done some basic recon earlier that afternoon and didn’t see any potential problems. As the strangest young lady I’d ever met had suggested, I shaved and trimmed my goatee when I got home from the recon drive. The steak dinner I cooked was fucking awesome, if I do say so; I could still taste it as I pulled the grate back into place over my head.

Fifteen minutes later, I stood in the corner of a dark alcove behind some ventilation pipes. The only light in there was dim, cast by the small signal bulbs on the row of control boxes next to me. It wasn’t much later that I heard voices out in the main tunnel – two voices, getting closer.

By the time they were close enough that the echo didn’t garble their words, one of them said, “. . . told you before, man. We have to turn it up a notch. What we’ve been doing obviously isn’t gettin’ the job done, is it? Don’t worry, I got this.”

"I'm not so sure," a deeper voice replied. "We were told to disrupt -"

“And that’s what I’m doin’. I’m just uppin’ the ante. Trust me, this’ll make ‘em notice.”

By then, I could see the beams of their flashlights and one of the guy’s feet. I didn’t have a good angle unless they came into my area. It sounded like the guy who was going to “up the ante” was across the hall, in what the city power and light workers called an electrical vault. It was nothing like a bank vault, though. The room had no door and was filled with bundles of wire and an underground transformer. The way he was talking was getting me nervous, and I wondered who they wanted to notice.

“Are you sure you know what you’re doing, Johnny?” the deeper voice asked from further away.

“Have a little faith,” Johnny called out. “I used to be a fireman a long time ago; we were trained in this sort of shit.” There was a pause, and then he said, “I’m almost ready in here. Once it starts sparkin’, there ain’t no stoppin’ it. And we better be back outside when it goes boom.”

“How big of a ‘boom’ do you mean?” the other one asked. I was wondering the same thing.

“I mean, boom, man,” Johnny said with a chuckle. “The pressure of the blast might make manhole covers a couple blocks away shoot in the air. Yeah, like I said – boom.”

My nervousness just jumped from mild to holy shit. I had to move and take them down. Stepping out from behind the pipes I saw the flashlight of the one I assumed was Johnny, thirty feet away. I noticed the other beam somewhere further back in the tunnel that separated the electrical room from my recessed area. The guy back there would spot me when I made my move, but that couldn’t be helped.

As fast as I could, I charged at Johnny. He never saw me coming. My left shoulder buckled his ribs. The momentum carried us into a big breaker panel. I jumped back and reached for a weapon. To his credit, the guy named Johnny wasn’t quite out of it yet. He groaned and wobbled, but started getting to his feet. His flashlight was on the ground, still on, so I could only see his general shape. It was enough.

Johnny never really got the chance to get back up. I snapped my expandable steel baton to full length and beat the shit out of him with it. There wasn’t much technique to my attack, but it worked – he was down and out. I heard running footsteps; the other guy was retreating. Kneeling, I grabbed the flashlight and shined it on Johnny, mostly to make sure I didn’t fuck him up too bad.

The face I saw was familiar. A little bloody and marked up from the baton, but I knew him. The last time I saw that guy, we were on Civil Ground; he wore a stocking cap and had dog shit smeared down the front of him. He was one of McKenna’s minions, which meant the guy who just ran off was most likely Blake. I had one of those ‘oh shit’ moments.

The old stockyard district was a good place to hide if you needed to lie low, so a fair guess was that McKenna wasn’t far away. I had to catch Blake before he could report to his boss. With another burst of speed, I ran down the tunnel after him. He had a big lead, but I was hoping my enhanced speed could catch up to him pretty quick.

I reached the wall-mounted ladder rungs and sped up them, nearly leaping out of the uncovered grate. The sky was dark by then, but I could still see. Twenty feet down the alley, a metal service door was swinging shut. I was gaining on him.

Surging forward once more, I caught the door before it closed. Holding it open with my foot, I pulled out my phone and speed-dialed Viggo. He didn’t answer, so I left a whispered message that there was an unexpected situation and that he might want to come. I exchanged the phone for my little Ruger and peeked inside.

It was a near-empty storage room, lit by a few flickering ceiling lights. Blake was thirty feet away on the far side of the room, leaning against a stack of palettes and trying to catch his breath. There was a set of swinging doors next to him, but he’d stopped running for some reason. I’d only met Blake a couple times, but I didn’t take him for a coward or a weakling. I didn’t trust the situation.

A hand came around the door I was holding open, grabbed me by my clothes, and yanked me into the room. “Don’t be shy, Mr. Beck,” Declan McKenna said, still gripping my shirt and jacket. “I’ve been waiting for you to show up.”

Two ‘oh shit’ moments in less than five minutes – it was a new record for me.

UNINFORMED

Declan McKenna, hemo Outsider on the run, glared at me with red-flecked lunatic eyes. He shook me with one hand like I was a child. He shut the back door with his free hand and growled, “I’ve been debating how you should die once I had my hands on you.”

I wasn’t going to offer any suggestions. Instead of trying to say anything as he kept me off-balance, I pointed my Ruger at his midsection and started pulling the trigger.

A couple things happened at once. McKenna let go of me and stumbled backwards. Blake got there just as my gun emptied, and landed a side kick to my chest that knocked me back hard against the door. He had some skill. I managed to block his follow-up swing, and counterpunched with a jab to his nose. He took a step back, his eyes immediately watering. Taking one step to the side – away from the doubled over McKenna – I launched a kick to the side of Blake’s knee. I heard the pop as it dislocated.

Just as Blake was dropping with a groan of pain, something hit me in the side of my head. For a second, I thought it was a brick. Confused, I stared at the white linoleum floor, wondering why I was laying on it. I turned my heavy head and saw McKenna coming at me. Most of his dress shirt was bloody, his young face was contorted with rage, and his normally slicked blonde hair was a mess.

Still trying to regain my senses, I looked over at Blake. He was still down, holding his knee. I had just started to wonder how he’d gotten ten feet further away when McKenna jerked me to my feet by my neck. He was in my face, snarling. He started to say something, but I stomped on his foot first. When he flinched, I threw a hook to his bloody gut. It didn’t have the effect I was hoping for. Hell, it didn’t have any fucking effect at all.

McKenna, keeping a hand clamped on my neck, grabbed my jacket with the other hand and heaved me across the room. I sort of remember being airborne for a second, but the impact of smashing into the stack of wooden pallets was unforgettable. I’d crunched a lot of the thin slats with my back, and found myself in an awkward reclined position in a bed of broken wood that my body just made. Aside from feeling like a bag of hammered shit, there was sudden hot pain in my left shoulder and right butt cheek.

There was no time to inspect my wounds, or even try to get up; McKenna was coming at me again. Reaching for me, he started to say, "You'll be happy to know I've made -" I cut him off with a boot to his face. It only pissed him off even more. He grabbed the collars of my shirt and jacket and yanked me out of the ruined pallets. Using the momentum, McKenna spun and slammed me into a wall.

My breath left my lungs with a grunt, and my skull smacked the cinderblock wall hard enough to make me see stars. McKenna held me there with one hand; my feet were a few inches off the ground. “You’ve caused me quite a bit of grief,” he said with clenched teeth. “Your actions placed me into a costly deal with no return, and then you forced me to kill one of my own minions.”

"Wait, I didn't -"

“As if that wasn’t enough,” McKenna said loudly, pulling me away from the wall and slamming me back into it, “you dumped the body of one of my business partners in my warehouse! It was the opening Le Meur needed. It no longer matters if she put you up to it, or if it was a damned Deviant plot. I’ve lost everything I have here, but I wasn’t going to leave without getting some vengeance first.”

McKenna was seriously uninformed. I guess being on the run kept him out of the loop. “Whoa, hold on,” I said, trying to focus. “That video . . . it was a set-up – both of us. I didn’t do it.”

“Oh, yes, I saw in the newspaper how the police no longer considered you a suspect. How nice for you, Mr. Beck, that some numen cared enough to pull you out of the fire. There’s no escape this time. You ruined me,” he said, seething, “and now it is your turn to suffer.”

He let go. I dropped unsteadily to my feet. The storage room seemed darker; I thought I was slowly blacking out. Still stunned, I never noticed that McKenna’s fingers had grown claws . . . Not until he used them on me. With an angry sneer, he swiped at me once and then walked away.

My stomach felt hot. I numbly looked down and pulled up my ripped shirt. Blood was gushing out of three long horizontal gashes in my flesh. More alarming was my guts bulging out of them.

I’d seen similar wounds in combat, and knew that was it. Game over.

DECISION

I was trying in vain to keep my innards from spilling out, so I didn’t pay attention to anything else. That is, until someone screamed. I looked up from my wounds and saw the blurry form of Viggo literally ripping Declan McKenna apart. Blood flew in arcing sprays. Blake was still down, but not holding his knee anymore. His head was a lumpy pancake with crimson syrup poured all over it.

My pressing hands felt the pulse of my open wounds. They were deep; nerves were cut, so all I really felt was a tingle as a chill began to settle in me. I slid and slumped against the broken stack of pallets, sort of propped up on my hip. Okay, not my best day. The screaming had stopped. Good, it was annoying. The chunk of wood in my butt cheek hurt worse than my splayed-open belly. That was weird.

I wished Al was there, doing his best to make me laugh. I didn’t want my mom to cry anymore. A vision of Val Foster came to mind – a gorgeous woman, an opportunity lost. Keeg and Deb, Miss Loretta, Diego, Gwen and Traeg . . . there’d be no more smiles, no fond farewells. Who would take care of Thunder? I’d failed Viggo, my commander, the father I wished I’d had. Damn, I needed a drink.

Viggo had crouched down in front of me, his black eyes staring into mine. I chuckled and said, “I told Barnabus you needed moisturizer. I thought that was funny.” He didn’t smile. “Sorry . . . I’m sorry I kept being a pain in your ass, sir.”

He glanced down to my stomach and then back up to me. “It is I who should apologize, Leo.”

I leaned my head back against the rough wall. “No, it’s okay . . . it’s okay. You can rest now.” My breath came short and choppy; I wondered if one of the claws nicked a lung. “I had a steak dinner, best I ever had. Clara went shopping for me.” Viggo’s eyes widened with surprise. “Yeah, I think she knew . . .”

He nodded and said, "Leo, had I known how things would turn out, I would have -"

“But you didn’t, you couldn’t have. No regrets, sir.” My hands were trembling. I didn’t trust them. “Could you get my flask for me?”

Viggo patted my jacket and found it. He unscrewed the lid and brought the flask to my mouth. I felt bad he was doing that for me, but just one gulp helped. “I give you one last choice,” he said as he wiped my lip for me. “I can bring you into the night, or,” he held up my little Ruger, “you can end your pain.”

I smiled and shook my head. “Gun’s empty . . . only one I brought.”

He hung his head. “There is no other humane way, Leo. I will not strike you; I cannot. To be selfish, I will not let my hands cause your demise. My oath will not allow it. I cannot let that be my last memory of you.” Viggo looked me in the eye once more. “Come with me, Leo – let me take you into the night,” he said almost pleadingly. “Even though it will damn you, it will save you as well.”

“It’s your choice now, sir,” I said with a labored breath. “Make me a fucking hemo, or stay here with me until I’m gone.”

Viggo made a quick decision. “Not here,” he murmured as he scooped me up with ease. We spun into the void; I didn’t mind it at all that time – the last time. He brought me to a place of stone walls, cool air, and the scents of dust and potpourri. Viggo set me in a soft chair; leather, I thought.

My brain was weaving in and out of consciousness. I barely noticed when Viggo gently pulled my right arm away from my wounds. Feeling the weak pulse in my wrist, he stated more to himself than to me, “There is not much life left in you to take.” Eyes closed, I laid my head back into the cushion. There was a momentary sharp pain in my wrist that turned into pure intensity. It faded, and I blacked out.

I woke again when I felt the trickle of a warm, strong liquid in my mouth and running down my throat. Thinking Viggo was giving me more Jack from my flask, I instinctively swallowed. It wasn’t Jack Daniels – it was better, so much fucking better. I let my mouth hang open for more, and it was given. My eyes sprung open. Viggo stood over me, pulling his wrist away from my face. “Welcome back, Leo. Welcome to your new life,” he said with a touch of sadness.

Confused, I looked down at the rips in my gut. They were still pushed open by my innards, but the blood had stopped. For each wound, I pressed my guts in, pinched flesh together, and visualized it knitting back together. The first wound healed quickly; the next two even more so. Other than a sense of clarity, I didn’t feel any different. Turning my head to Viggo, I said, “Was that it? That wasn’t so bad.”

He shook his head slowly. “Technically, you have been brought into the night. You are a member of the Deviant faction and, more importantly, my scion. Whether you can remain so . . . will soon be seen.”

“Whoa, uh, what the hell does that mean?”

Viggo crossed his arms and stated ominously, “By this time tomorrow night, you will be in the grip of the infliction. Your world will be nothing but pain.”

THIRST

Huh, infliction and pain . . . Not two of my favorite words. I was a little rattled by them.

“You are far from fully fed,” Viggo told me. “We should fix that. Can you stand?”

“Yeah, I think so.” When I eased myself out of the leather chair, I realized a few things. First, I still had big slivers of wood stuck in me. Second, I didn’t feel any of the aching effects of being tossed around. Third, and most evident, was that the blood-bond to Viggo was gone. I still respected him more than I can say, but I had a clear perspective on all of the things he’d said and done. I immediately began to question some of those things that were simply accepted before.

While Viggo helped me pull out the slivers, I looked around at the room he brought us to. It was a small chamber made of stone and mortar. A few pipes ran through it, up near the high ceiling. There was only one door, metal and rusty. Other than the nice recliner chair, the only other thing in the room was a widescreen TV mounted to a wall. “Where are we?”

“A private retreat,” he replied. “The entrance has been cloaked. I have others. This one, however, is near feeding locations, both above and below. For now, we will only take sustenance from down here. You must gather strength and learn your new Gifts before attempting to stalk humans.”

“Stalk humans?” I asked. I was a little unnerved by the idea. “I knew it was done on a regular basis, but I never pictured myself doing it.” Holy shit, hunting people for blood . . . The concept of being a hemo hadn’t sunk in yet. I’ll admit it – I was scared.

Viggo led me through the door out into a curving, narrow brick hallway lit with sporadic bulbs. It had a shallow trench cut into the center of the floor; the lumpy contents in it were moist, but there wasn’t enough fluid to make it flow. The resulting stench was a mix of mold, vomit, and sour milk. It made me doubt I could be one of the sewer-dwelling Deviants like Roach or Neva.

We turned left at a tunnel junction. It led to a T, where our tunnel met a wide drainage shaft. There was a sort of tiny sandbar where the two met, although that sand was really sludge with a sprinkling of broken glass. How lovely. Frolicking on that little underground beach from hell were about a dozen big rats. “Okay, now what?” I asked.

Viggo turned to me. “Tell me how you feel.”

“Well, I gotta take a piss, and I’m hungry. But, uh, like a cheeseburger kind of hungry, not raw rat.”

“Is that so? Indulge me, Leo. Run your tongue over your teeth.” I did, and was surprised to feel that my canines were very pronounced and sharp. Viggo saw my expression. “When a numen body is depleted of blood, the teeth for feeding will grow automatically. You must slake your thirst.”

“Uh, are there any other options?”

“Only one; you can deny your need. Soon enough, it will cause you to lose control, fully in the throes of blood-lust. You will attack anything, not stopping until you are fully sated.” The explanation reminded me of the wild hemo in the park that I shot. I still felt bad for that raccoon.

“Listen well, Leo,” Viggo continued. “Because of your strong lineage, your blood is concentrated. A large quantity will be needed to replenish you if you become hungry.”

“So . . . it’s like I have a big-ass gas tank, and it takes more to fill it up when I’m low, right?”

Viggo stared at me for a second; I guess he wasn’t thrilled with my analogy. “Essentially yes,” he said. “And, like a fuel tank, you can go further with yours than most others. They must ‘refill’ more often. Moreover, you can use your stronger blood to augment your physical abilities and empower Gifts that require it. As an example, Mr. Fletcher needs to channel a small portion of his blood into the effort of transforming into a wolf.”

"Are you saying I can -?"

“No, I do not have that Gift, so my blood would not have passed it along to you. There are many others I do possess, however, and we shall explore what you instinctively may already know, in due course. For now, though,” Viggo said as he waved an inviting hand toward the rats, “drink.”

I’m not going into the details other than to say I almost couldn’t do it, and that biting into a squirming, dirty rodent was going to take some getting used to. Okay, they were rats, but their blood tasted good. Viggo told me while I grabbed another docile rat that I didn’t have to worry about diseases or anything. Eleven rats later I was still hungry, so he used his Gift of Fauna to call more.

A short time later I was full, and completely disgusted with myself. I sat in the sludge with blood spilt down the front of me, surrounded by over forty dead rats. Fighting a gag impulse, I stood up and pissed into the streaming water. I stood there for nearly two fucking minutes draining my bladder. As I zipped up, Viggo commented that I wouldn’t have to worry about that bodily urge again – ever.

“No offense,” I said to him, “but I think I wanna be alone for a little while.” We went back to the hidden room, where Viggo told me I’d tire soon and that the chair was comfortable for resting. Before leaving, he said he’d be back the next evening.

I sat back in my ruined clothes and turned on the TV. The channel it was on reminded me the date was July Fourth. Fine, whatever – I’d had a different version of fireworks that evening. I was thrown twenty feet into a stack of wood, had my head bounced on a wall, got my gut ripped open, was turned into a hemo, and bit into one squealing rat after another. Regular fireworks were for pussies.

Ignoring the giant cockroach on the pipe above me, I changed channels until I came across a ‘Dirty Jobs’ marathon. I eventually dozed off convinced that the host of that show was some Deviant’s minion.

INFLICTION

Even though the recliner didn’t stretch out like a bed, I woke up feeling good. Wait, change that to great. Strong, alert, fluid in my movements – my new vitality was looking for an outlet. I wasn’t going to beat the shit out of the chair, so I calmed myself with a kata. I still felt like a live wire afterwards, but I gained composure and control over my body.

Three minutes later, that composure and control were gone.

The pain started in my stomach. It settled in my bowels and gathered strength, causing me to flinch and grunt from cramps. The king of all shits was on its way. When Viggo walked in, I yelled, “Toilet, NOW!”

He put his arm around me. We void-walked and came out in another stone room. I really didn’t notice anything else except for the toilet in the far corner. I didn’t care that there was no privacy. Viggo told me to flush often, and then stepped out of the room. Holy shit, it was like I overdosed on that stuff you’re supposed to drink before a colonoscopy. Someone thankfully thought ahead; there was a new six-pack of toilet paper on the floor next to me.

It must’ve been twenty minutes of grunting, groaning and constant crapping. I put my face in my hands, noticing that I wasn’t sweating like I would’ve expected to be after shooting out ten pounds of shit. Oh, sorry, was that too graphic? Deal with it. I did.

I cleaned up (which took a few more flushes) and looked around. The room was carved out of solid stone, about twenty feet square and without much in it. There was a rusty shower pipe and drain in the corner across from the toilet, a cot against a wall, a low ceiling with one overhead bulb, and an iron door in the far corner. That door had one of those slide slots for looking in. It also had locks that prevented me from getting out.

I started with a patient knock that quickly escalated into cussing in rhythm to my fist hammering on the door. I stopped when I saw the dents I was leaving in it. A while later, Viggo and Barnabus opened the door and came in carrying large cardboard boxes. Viggo set his box on the floor, pulled an apple out of his coat pocket and tossed it to me. “Take a bite,” he requested. I did, and it went down fine. About ten seconds later, it came right back up. I didn’t quite make it to the toilet. “You do not have Harlan’s ability to ingest food,” he stated conversationally. “No more steak or cheeseburgers for you, Leo.”

“Yeah, thanks,” I said as I glared at him. To be fair, though, there wasn’t any other way to find out. The apple also helped to drive home the point that I wasn’t human anymore.

“The emptying of your bowels signals the beginning of the infliction,” Viggo said with some compassion. “You will remain in this room until it is over. We have brought you some items for your stay.”

I wiped my mouth and fought back the despair of being imprisoned again. “Okay, thanks.”

Barnabus set his box on my cot. “I have selected a number of fine reading materials for you, Leo,” he said, trying to sound upbeat. “With any luck, you’ll be able to focus on the well-crafted literary prose instead of, well, anything else. And do not become disheartened if you unintentionally damage any; I happen to own more copies of each of these works.”

Reaching into another coat pocket, Viggo pulled out two rubber balls. He was about to toss them to me when I had sudden, painful spasms in my hands. Viggo waited while I tried to get my fingers to uncurl. He set the balls next to me and said, “These are for simple entertainment, and to grip when more pain comes.” He turned back to his box and tipped it over. The flaps opened, allowing a shitload of rats to come scrambling out. “These are meant for sustenance should you expend excess energy during your stay. I do ask that at least one is spared so you may continue your practice of the Gift of Fauna.”

“You may find,” Barnabus added, “that success will come sooner for you now.”

"What about -" An unexpected, stabbing pain in my spine interrupted me. "What about my cat?"

“Clara now has a spare key to your abode, and will look after your pet,” Viggo answered. “I have your phone, keys, wallet, and gun. Nothing was lost. I will soon return them to you.”

“Okay, okay,” I stammered as my teeth began to ache. “My friends – they’re going to worry.”

“One thing at a time, Leo,” Barnabus calmly said. “You can decide how to handle those matters once this is over. Your sire has expressed to me that two of his minions have been told of the situation, so don’t needlessly concern yourself with them for now.”

"Alright, thanks," I said, forcing out the words. "I appreciate all this, but maybe -" I flinched when my dick started burning - "maybe you should both leave now."

They turned and exited without a word. Soon after the echo of the shutting door faded away, all of my nerve endings screamed at me. I screamed back. The pain had just begun.

I’ve felt my share of pain before, and I’ve seen braver men than me endure more than I have. But none of that compared to the infliction. Torturing my body was not enough – it attacked my mind as well, challenging my sanity and twisting my memories into nightmares. I won’t try to explain the excruciating agony I went through; I don’t have the words, and you couldn’t imagine it if I did. I wouldn’t want you to.

The pain seemed endless, although there were a few merciful breathers. I tried reading Barnabus’ extra copy of Paradise Lost a couple times, but waves of searing pain made more than a few pages impossible. The balls were never used for fun; I never had the chance to be bored. I squeezed the balls to toughen my will when the infliction tried to trick me, break me. Some of the rats were used as food, but as few as possible. I raged a few times, and blacked out more than I care to admit. Time had no meaning.

The infliction’s last assault was the worst. When it was finally over, and before I lost consciousness for the last time, I knew who I was. I woke up sometime later on the floor, with my head on someone’s lap. I looked up and saw Neva smiling at me as she brushed my hair with her fingers.

When I was human, Neva’s ‘taint of horror’ truly freaked me out. But just then, as she held me, it wasn’t so bad. Once I was past that, her porcelain skin and blue veins were almost exotic. Her milky white hair almost glowed. If her looks weren’t so alien, she would’ve been beautiful. I fell back to sleep knowing I was safe, and that all of my memories were intact.

I woke again when the door shut; Neva was gone. With nothing better to do, I picked up a rat and gave the Gift of Fauna another shot. Within seconds, I was smiling.

I was on the cot when Viggo slid the door slot open to check on me. I had a nice little surprise for him. On the floor in the center of the room, I had the surviving rats gathered. I’d told each of them to move to a certain spot and stay there. When Viggo looked in, he saw ‘IM OK’ spelled out with wiggling vermin. Sorry, the apostrophe was dinner.

APPEARANCES

Viggo stepped in and looked at my side of the iron door, which I’d put a huge dent into at some point. He turned to me and said, “We should talk.”

“Yeah, uh . . .” I stopped for a second, realizing that my voice sounded lower and scratchy. “I’m not sure when I did that. I kinda lost it a few times. Don’t worry, I’ll pay for it.”

“A door is not my concern,” he replied as he walked over to me. “As the rats suggest, you are mentally sound, yes?”

“It sure as hell feels like it. There was once or twice I had a tough time with reality, but I’m good.”

“From casual observation, I tend to disagree.” Before I could argue with Viggo’s opinion, he said, “Have you taken a good look at your hands, Leo?”

“Yeah, as a matter of fact, I have.” I held my hands up. They looked like desert stone; splotchy beige skin, rough and dense. They had sharper angles, minor pits and imperfections, and hairline cracks. They were larger, too, but still as flexible as they used to be. “Accepting these was one of those tough times I was talking about. The new look of my junk was the other tough time, but I’m not gonna go there.”

“Ah, good,” Viggo said, obviously relieved. “I assumed that your mind forced you to ignore your new appearance. It has happened to others in the past, and their denial bloomed into greater neuroses. I would say that you have adjusted quite well, although you have not yet looked upon your own face. Confidentially, I find your visage much less disconcerting than your brother Aldo’s.”

Coming from the hemo with a face like Death Valley, that didn’t mean much. Still, I took it for how it was intended: a left-handed compliment. And . . . crap, Aldo the asshole was my brother now.

“To be truthful,” Viggo said, patting my shoulder, “I have been quite concerned for the last five nights. You were very vocal at certain times, and worryingly quiet at others. I am happy to find you in such good condition, Leo.”

“Five nights, are you shitting me? I would’ve guessed half that!”

He replied with a shrug. “The infliction has been known to take up to eight nights to run its course. But let us not linger on it; you are intact, and we can venture forward. Now, of course, more immediate matters shall be seen to, but there are also many other topics to discuss.”

“Alright . . . Other than coming to terms with this whole numen thing, getting used to the new me, and hopefully not drinking rats by the bushel for the next thousand years, what else is there?”

Viggo stepped back as he said, “There is the issue of setting your financial base, if you allow me to assist in that regard. There are also subjects such as stalking prey, and if you choose to be formally introduced into our society. For now, though,” he took another step toward the door, “let us leave this chamber of pain and see to more pressing concerns.”

“Whoa, wait – what was that thing about a financial base?”

“I will say this for now,” Viggo said with a frown. “ShadoWorks employees must be available for daytime tasks, as you well know. Unfortunately, you are now excluded from that. You were a fine worker.”

“What, I’m fired?”

“Leo, you no longer meet the criteria,” he answered with a shrug. “Consider it an opportunity for greater prospects. As I have done with my other scions, you will be offered a type of inheritance. From what I gave to Aldo, he has built a small but powerful European corporation. However, if you would rather turn to a criminal enterprise – which I will condemn – or perhaps find a third shift ‘work-from-home’ position, that is your choice . . .”

“Uh, no, no, your offer is very generous. I just didn’t know what you meant.”

“As I said, we will discuss it later. Come with me,” Viggo said as he turned toward the door. I was led in a different direction through a short zigzag of tunnels, up a flight of stairs, and into a dusty section of a steam tunnel. Not far from the door we came through was an old, forgotten city worker’s break room. A kitchenette, card table with folding chairs, and narrow bathroom door made for a cramped little room. Viggo opened that narrow door and stepped out of the way.

I stepped into the tiny bathroom and hesitated when I reached for the overhead light’s pull chain. I was afraid of what waited for me in the dirty mirror over the sink. I’d made peace with my new hands, but hoped in vain after the infliction was over that my face was the same, scars and all. I mean, Clara, Skin and Michael looked pretty damn normal. Why not me? I’d already felt my face, though, and knew I was out of luck.

I clicked on the light, faced the mirror, and did my best not to freak out. I was too stunned to cuss.

To begin with, my shoulders were wider, and the fun that the infliction had with my spine made my posture slightly hunched. Through my tattered clothes I could tell that my chest was a bit broader, but the overall shape of my frame hadn’t been affected much. I leaned in for a closer inspection . . .

My hair, still intact, was coarser and darker brown. My face had the same stone complexion and rough texture as my hands. My brows had become thick; one was set lower than the other, giving me a perpetual scowl. The blue eyes I inherited from my mom were darker and set back into the sockets. My facial creases were deeper, more pronounced. The scars on my cheek, jaw and neck had turned into roughly chiseled grooves. My ears hadn’t changed shape, but they had hairline cracks like the rest of my face. I looked like an angry sculpture, carved by a demented artist.

I came out of the bathroom pissed off, and a little hysterical. I bellowed at my calm sire, “What the hell did you do to me! I look like the statue of a fucking monster!”

Taking my outburst in stride, Viggo said, “Some general traits of my line are passed along with my potent blood. I daresay you should have expected it. As deformities go, yours could have been much worse. Would you rather look like Roach or Mr. Merritt?”

“I’d rather look fucking normal, like Clara does. This whole crusty skin thing sure as hell didn’t get passed along to her! How the hell did that happen?”

“Hmm, the smooth chocolate skin, the large doe eyes. Did you think that is Clara’s true appearance?” He shook his head. “She keeps her Deviant form constantly hidden. The façade rarely slips, even while she slumbers. That concealed aspect whispers to her, offering random insights. Clara has given it the name of her long-lost twin: Vivian. Your sister carries the traits of my line, but she hides them.”

My sister . . . Something about that concept appealed to me. Just for a minute, I forgot about my own new, horrific looks and thought about what Clara went through every damn night of her Deviant life. I still had room to bitch about my own situation, but I didn’t feel the need to dwell on it as much.

LEARNING

The next number of nights was sort of chaotic, but I learned a lot of shit. Mostly, I got an idea of what it meant to be a hemo. I also learned about myself, and all of the simple habits I had to break. At times, I felt like I was in field training, but that’s where the comparison ended.

I still had the same thoughts and opinions as before, but the ancient blood coursing through me formed an underlying . . . current, I guess, that affected my emotions. Intensity, passion, aggression – maybe it was all of those together. Viggo called it the ‘dark ardor’, and warned me about controlling it. I guess it could be described as having a shorter temper, and then apply it to every emotion.

Viggo left me alone for the rest of that first night to let me stare at myself. I guess he figured one night was enough, because the next night he brought me to a junk yard. I was put through a few tests to find out if I had potential in a few hemo Gifts. Viggo was persistent with the pressure of getting my best efforts, but not like a drill instructor. He was both stern and encouraging. It helped.

The first thing I learned was that I didn’t have any further ability with the Gift of Fauna. I could give simple instructions to an animal, but that was it. To be honest, I didn’t expect much else. Viggo didn’t seem deterred. Changing gears, he then told me to study my own moonlit shadow stretching across a dented car hood. As I watched my silhouette, he whacked me across the back with a car antenna. I barely felt it. When he did the same with the bumper of an F150, though . . . that I felt, big time.

Further back in the big junkyard were rows of wrecked motorcycles. He chose one at random and told me to pick it up. When I hesitated, he stepped close and said I could achieve the feat simply by urging the potency of my blood. Any strength I’d gained through a physical Gift would only make it easier. Holy shit, he was right. Not only did I pick up that rice-burner, I also threw it twenty feet.

Viggo used his Fauna Gift and called some stray dogs to us. The three mutts that showed up looked pretty damn pathetic. I thought my sire kinda dropped the ball until he explained that his call was only for sick or injured dogs. He wanted me to ‘refill my tank’ after exerting myself, and I could mercifully end their suffering in the process. My mind flashed back to Ragna, a vacant lot, and an injured pooch. I used her example and gave each mutt a happy thought before I drained them.

While we were out there, I noticed a few other little things. I didn’t need to catch my breath after doing something strenuous. My muscles didn’t ache. I never came close to sweating, even with the muggy night air. No yawning, no coughing, no sneezing, no booger build-up in my nose, no need to stretch my muscles. Mosquitoes couldn’t get through my thick skin. Even with the moon out, I knew I could see better in the dark than I ever could before. Everything was subtly different.

We left the junkyard and drove to a familiar midtown area. Viggo made a few calls on the way, and then told me park behind a specific building. It turned out to be the one where I’d first met the hot derelict, Audra. The backdoor was already unlocked, so we went on in. The centuries-old minion named Runa was inside, setting up camping chairs near the back wall of the large open room. Those five chairs were set up in a fairly tight circle; I had no idea what Viggo had in mind.

Runa studied me for a minute, and then respectfully bowed her head to me. I felt pretty awkward. There I was, the Veleti’s newest minion brought into the night, while she’d been his servant for longer than I could imagine. I wondered if she hated me for it, and discreetly asked Viggo about it. He said that Runa was a dichotomy in that regard; she had no problem spilling blood, but she would drink no more than necessary to prolong her life. Runa had no interest in becoming a hemo. I envied her a little.

Viggo sent her off on some errand to go find some guy named Mr. Lucida. The way he phrased the task made it sound like a bitch of a mission. When Runa left, Viggo told me that his guests would soon be arriving. He wanted to see if I could keep myself ‘ignored’, even while moving around. It sounded like a pretty big challenge, but I was ready to try.

Gwen showed up first, followed by Traeg. Then a third person showed up – a tall, thin blonde guy who wore a polo shirt, khaki pants and loafers. He looked like a lawyer on vacation. As it turned out, I wasn’t far off the mark.

None of them noticed me when they came in. Viggo introduced the guy to them only as Mr. Staalsen, a minion visiting from Europe. When they all sat, the discussion was about me. Viggo had already told them I’d been brought into the night, but he evidently didn’t give any details then. Staalsen just sat and listened while the other two asked questions. Traeg, reserved as always, only wanted to know how the infliction went and if I was okay. Gwen, obviously tense, had more than that on her mind.

“To begin with, what is this infliction?” she asked. Viggo answered with a short but honest explanation, which made her even more upset. “Is Leo recovering or something?” was her next question. Viggo said that I was currently learning about my new capabilities. Vague and smooth – I called it ‘hemo talk’.

And then Gwen’s questions came out rapid-fire. “No offense, but is Leo all hideous now?” “Is he still, you know . . . Leo?” “We’re not in any sort of danger now, right?” “With him becoming a predator, does it mean he’s lost his sexual urges? I only ask because he never hit on me, so I thought he might be gay. Does that matter anymore?” “Did Leo ever make a pass at you, Traeg?”

I’d moved through the shadowy room, closer to the group while Gwen rattled off her questions. Rather personal questions, too, which pointed out that she was oblivious of my presence. I watched my step on the littered floor and got pretty close. Mr. Staalsen glanced in my general direction once, but only for a second; his calm expression never changed and he continued to ignore me. My Gift of Shadows had become stronger. I wished I could’ve done my new trick back during a few recon missions.

Viggo knew I was there, so he never lost sight of me. Having pure black eyes had the advantage of shifting his gaze without anyone knowing. I stood behind Gwen; he gave me a barely perceptible nod. I leaned down next to her ear and said, “I’m not gay.”

Staalsen's whole body flinched. Traeg jumped out of his chair, cussing. Gwen screamed and then turned around to yell at me. "Dammit, Leo, don't you ever -" Then she saw me, saw my face. And she screamed again. Not exactly a compliment for my new, fragile self-image.

INITIATIVES

While Viggo and Mr. Staalsen moved off to talk privately, I sat down with Gwen and Traeg and answered their questions. I wouldn’t wish the infliction on my enemies, but it was all Viggo could do to save my life. I wasn’t sure yet if it was a good choice or not. I said that as far as I could tell, I was the same ol’ Leo on the inside and they had nothing to fear from me.

The reassurances seemed to calm Gwen down, which was my goal. In a more relaxed mood, I told them about the events leading up to McKenna kicking my ass and ripping my guts open. I wished I had more details of what Viggo did to that fucker in return.

Viggo said Traeg and Gwen were excused for the evening. On their way out, I told them we’d all get together again soon at the fire station. After they left, I was formally introduced to Rolf Staalsen. He was a Norwegian minion of Viggo’s who met with him at least once a month, whether by Viggo void-walking or Staalsen buying a plane ticket. His current visit was at Viggo’s request, and for my benefit.

Mr. Staalsen worked for ShadoWorks in the capacity of property manager over all of the Scandinavian holdings Viggo owned. Okay, an important guy. Staalsen spoke perfect English, and with hardly any accent. He explained the basic concept for his visit: Viggo was giving a handful of his northern European properties to me. Basically, the minion oversaw the properties while I sat back and got paid. It was by no means a fortune, but it would still be a fairly steady monthly sum I could easily live on.

“Are you sure about this?” I asked Viggo. “I hate the idea of taking money out of your pocket.”

“Leo, do you have any idea how much property I own around the world?”

Not having a clue, I looked to Staalsen for help. “Sorry,” he said, “I didn’t bring my spreadsheets here. In Scandinavia alone, however, I know for a fact that ShadoWorks owns a total of sixty-six developed sites, mostly in commercial and industrial zones.”

“Oh . . . uh, okay, when you put it that way . . .” Damn. With the assumption of free housing, no bills, and my truck being insured as a ShadoWorks vehicle, even a small income was mostly profit. Hell yes.

The next night, I sat down with Staalsen and Viggo at a nicer location. Viggo’s local financial manager, a recluse named Keith who had some sort of social phobia, was on speaker phone. We hashed through all the shit. Well, mostly Staalsen and Keith did; I mostly just sat there and thought up names for the LLC that they were putting together for me. I didn’t have to get too creative about it. By the next day, after the application was approved, I was the anonymous owner of Norbeck Limited.

After the meeting, Viggo and I sat alone and discussed how I’d feed myself. I really wanted to figure that out; I couldn’t keep relying on him for my new basic needs. Yeah, I know – Viggo was giving me a place to live and an easy income. I felt a little guilty about it, but I wasn’t fucking stupid enough to refuse all of it. Still, I had to gain some of my independence back.

Okay, so feeding, hunting, stalking, becoming a true predator. One option was to make a minion out of a blood bank worker. However, there weren’t many in the right positions, and they were probably already spoken for. I pushed the idea aside and moved on.

Alright, I should explain something at this point. I knew I couldn’t drink Jack Daniels straight – or with coke, either – but I found out I could have a half-shot chaser after draining a rat. For one thing, it made the blood taste even better to me. For another, that sip of Jack made the thought of physically drinking an animal’s fluid somehow more bearable. I don’t know why. Ask a shrink.

With that in mind, the next idea was right up my alley: stalking drunks. Like a pervert, I’d be creeping after piss-stained alcoholics, and coeds who made bad choices. Yeah, it was just as classy as it sounded. Thing was, it worked. Well, when I had the chance.

There’s a certain district in my city called Westport. It’s an area of themed eateries, craft shops, and a wide selection of bars. That was the logical place to test my stalking skill, but I figured other hemos went there as well and I didn’t want to be spotted. Viggo told me not to worry, he’d be watching.

The next night was a Friday, a perfect time to practice. Westport had a constantly moving pedestrian crowd. That made it easy for me to walk around with my new ‘ignored’ ability. Viggo called it “blending in”. I was scared at first. As I walked by or through crowds of people on the wide sidewalks, I soon noticed that they involuntarily walked around me or got out of my way. No one looked right at me.

One guy went so far as to veer away from me. When his girlfriend stopped and asked where the hell he was going, he said in a confused tone that he didn’t know. ‘Blending in’ was gonna be damn handy.

I’d found a narrow, unlit alley and waited there for the right prey to come along. I waited a while. The right prey meant I was looking for one or two people walking past, not part of a group, and stumbling drunk. As Viggo once said, the human mind was adaptable, and would create a logical scenario after being fed from . . . but not a lucid, fully coherent mind. That was a big fucking exception.

That’s where some Gift abilities came in. One trick of the Gift of Control could make a victim forget, or have the memory altered. I didn’t have that one. An ability of the Gift of Enchantment could make the victim think it was a pleasurable intimate encounter. I didn’t have that, either. The Adepts, some Outsiders, and a very few Deviants knew those two Gifts. I wasn’t one of them.

There was also a higher ability in the Gift of Shadows that made the hemo simply disappear; the victim would mentally give the encounter a different explanation. Nope, I couldn’t do that yet. There was also a trick of the Fauna Gift that turned the victim into emotional putty, mellow to the extreme, letting the hemo do as he pleased. I sucked at the Fauna thing.

That left the option of lying in wait for innocent, hammered people who wandered past me. I hoped they’d pass my attack off as an attempted mugging. I also hoped they didn’t puke on me. There could also be a situation where the victim might, uh, bump his head; drunk and stunned would’ve made it easy. I wasn’t too proud of having that idea to begin with, but a guy’s gotta eat.

Viggo had warned me beforehand that the ‘dark ardor’ would be felt when taking blood from a human. He described the taste as pure ecstasy – especially compared to rats – and that I had to stay in control. Not staying in control meant I’d have a dead body on my hands.

After three hours of standing around and bored out of my damn mind, I learned that I could bend my own shadow. Viggo later told me that it was the first step into learning the Gift of the Void. It freaked me out at first, but then I started to experiment with it. On the alley wall, I contorted my shadow in all sorts of ways; I stretched it, made it wiggle, and even managed to make it look like I had four arms and a tail. Twisting my silhouette into different shapes got easy after a while, so I pushed further.

I focused on the old-style streetlamp just down the block and tried to dim it with my shadow. Other shadows from parked cars and door frames extended toward the lamp. Those weren’t really shadows, though. There was a soupy, yet smoky, quality to the silent shapes. I got the creepy feeling there was a dark sentience in them. More fascinated than unnerved, I willed those slithering ribbons of darkness to complete their mission. They slid up the cast-iron pole and smothered the light.

Shocked by the unexpected event, I lost my concentration, which made the void-strips (for lack of a better term) suddenly fade. Knowing I had that ability both thrilled and disturbed me.

Luck finally came my way just as I was about to go back to my truck. A completely shitfaced guy came my way, using building walls to keep himself upright as he stumbled along. It was easy to pull him into the alley facing away from me and sink my big teeth into the side of his neck. And, holy shit, Viggo was right – that first sip was like having a full-body orgasm while eating a whiskey-marinated bite of steak.

I had control; fuck dark ardor. I licked the two punctures so they’d close, just like Viggo taught me, and then shoved the guy back out onto the sidewalk. He staggered and fell against a parked car, rubbing his neck. Then, without looking back, he walked off on unsteady feet.

That was it, I was a hemo. I felt the same way about that fact as I did with creating void-strips.

DEPRESSED

Viggo wasn’t enthusiastic about my surprising grasp of the Void Gift, although I think he actually smiled. He was also pleased that I had more confidence in sustaining myself. Before void-walking out of the Westport district, he said, “You have done very well, Leo. The rest of the night is yours. What would you like to do?”

Without having to think about it, I replied, “I wanna go home for a little while.”

“Then I will take you there. Keep in mind that I have arranged an event for the faction to welcome you the night after tomorrow. If the timing pressures you, I will postpone it.”

“Nah, two nights is fine. I just need a chance to chill out on my own for a bit. If I go back out tomorrow, I’ll go stalking someplace else where I don’t have to worry about anything or anybody interfering.”

Viggo thought about it for a second, and then nodded. He created a void and enveloped us with it. We stepped out into the small, dark office of the thunderdome. As we walked out into the hall, we heard Clara’s distant voice say, “I’m upstairs with Thunder.” I didn’t know how she knew we’d just arrived, and I didn’t want to. That little girl was spooky.

As we went up the stairs, I had a sudden thought. “Oh shit – Phillip. I hope Clara fed him.”

“He is no longer a concern,” Viggo said casually. “During your infliction, Mr. Merritt checked on Mr. Aoki. The man’s memories were altered to an acceptable degree, and he was then released to return to his home and his life. I do not believe Lady Le Meur will take any further interest in him.”

That was a relief, all of it. Phillip never deserved any of the shit he was put through. For him, at least, it all ended well.

Thunder greeted me with his odd purrs while he rubbed against my calves. Clara, without looking away from the TV in the lounge as she sat back in an overstuffed chair, told me, “I’ve been telling him what a good keeper you are, and to look out for you.” Then she turned her head away from her Pixar movie and looked at Viggo. “Hello, father,” she said. “I did like you asked. It fits okay.”

I turned to Viggo with a curious expression, or at least as curious as my new face would allow. “Your bed sat between windows,” he said. “That obviously would not do. So, at my request, Clara moved your bed down into the basement.”

“I had Milo go clean down there first,” Clara added.

“Thank you for that,” Viggo said to her, and then turned back to me. “I presumed you did not want a coffin. If you prefer, one can be obtained and placed where your bed formerly sat for sake of ease.”

“No, uh, thanks all the same. You presumed right.”

“Very well,” he said. “We will leave for now. I will come to collect you for the faction introduction.”

“Okay, cool.” To Clara, I said, “Thanks for looking after Thunder for me.” I still wasn’t used to hearing the new rumble in my voice; I sounded like I needed to clear my throat.

“Sure,” she replied as she crawled out of the big chair. Passing by me, Clara paused and looked up. “I’m glad you shaved. Your new face would’ve looked silly with whiskers.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right.”

“It isn’t as weird as father’s is,” she went on, still referring to my face, “but it’s alright.” Her unflinching gaze and candid opinion of my features left me feeling a little less self-conscious. “Don’t mope, okay?” Clara added with a smile. “Wait ‘til you see Mr. Lucida – you won’t feel bad then. Okay, see you at the party.” She stepped over to Viggo, who gave me a farewell nod, and they both walked off.

After they left, I went down to the kitchen and dug a knife into my finger to let a few drops of blood mix with the water in Thunder’s bowl. No pet of this hemo was gonna die from old age.

When the cut closed, I went another flight down to the small utility basement to see what it looked like. Not bad, really. Milo had obviously cleaned everything up, put a new coat of paint on the walls and pipes, and laid a big area rug down. Pinning down one edge of the rug was my bed. Clara had hung a few posters with tape on the walls for decoration. The ‘hello kitty’ had to go.

I went back upstairs and . . . And I let my stupid, frail male ego get the best of me.

I brought two mirrors into the master shower and propped them up. I needed to see the full effect of the Deviant infliction. The old bomb scars on my side, left thigh and butt cheek were turned into rough grooves, just like the ones on my face. My entire body was a dusty beige rock formation, shaped into etched muscles. The veins in my arms had turned into faded brown striations, like marble. And, like a fucking masochist, I studied my junk again. I mean, it was still there, but . . . damn.

I was depressed for the rest of the night. Not even Thunder’s friendly attention helped.

My first thought when I woke the next evening was that driving anywhere was going to be a pain in the ass. I don’t mean physical issues with operating a vehicle; that wasn’t a problem. I mean things like people seeing my inhuman face at stoplights, or getting pulled over for whatever reason. That could’ve caused serious problems. It was then I saw the real value in minions. I was going to need one.

Using the hatch in my new basement bedroom, I went down into the bowels of my neighborhood. The cramped sewers were thick with cockroaches and other creepy-crawlies; something I’d gotten used to. I came up a few blocks away from a drain port at the back of a string of rundown buildings. I went around front while willing myself to be ‘blending in’. Not that there was a crowd to blend in with. I was pretty much by myself out there, except for a drunk passed out on the cracked curb.

Leaning against a telephone pole, I studied the businesses that shared walls. The crappy tavern in the middle was the only one with lights on. To the right was a crappier two-story apartment building. On the right of the tavern was a repair shop that was in need of a wrecking ball.

Across the desolate street was a littered, weed-choked parking lot that gave me a view of any patrons who might go stumbling out of the tavern. I watched a few of them come and go – mostly go. They were the lower rungs of society; aging pensioners living off disability checks, or unemployed trash sucking the welfare tit. They didn’t shell out for whiskey, or enough of it to make them targets.

So there I was, a newly-made monster. I sat alone in the dark, on a crumbling low wall at the back of a bleak lot that faintly smelled of piss. Sewer grime was smeared on my overalls, and there was a roach under my t-shirt. I crushed little chunks of cement in my hand out of sheer boredom while I waited to make some loser’s night even worse. And then a drizzle started to fall . . . That was a nice touch. It sounds pretty glamorous, doesn’t it? Yeah, fuck you.

AWARD

Viggo showed up the next evening in his usual macabre way, and escorted me away in the same fashion. We stepped from one shade of black to another. There was a trace of an echo when I scuffed my boot on the gritty, hard ground. Okay, we were most likely underground, and not in a sewer.

“As before,” Viggo quietly stated to me in the pitch dark, “you may venture forward into lighted areas. My attention is needed for something further back into the darkness, and then I shall be along.”

Well hell, he’d brought me back to the cave that ultimately led to the cavern where I met the charming minion named Brute. Oh, and the prick called Roach, sort of. “Okay, I gotta know,” I said, not sure if I was facing him. “What’s back there?”

“If you must know,” Viggo replied from a couple yards away, “a species of stygofauna resides in the subterranean lake behind me – a species that has been considered extinct for eons.”

“So, it’s a fish, right?”

“Technically yes, although the mutations brought about by my blood has given the creature unexpected abilities. That, more so than it being a lost species, is of great interest.”

“A fish . . .”

Viggo was silent for a few seconds before he gruffly said, “Just move along as you did before, Leo.”

“Yeah, that turned out just peachy the first time, didn’t it?” He didn’t respond to my sarcasm, so I walked away. Maybe I shouldn’t have been a jackass about Viggo’s extinct fish thing. I was just moody from the night before; I’d gotten a glimpse of my new life, and I was less than enthused. Then again, I just learned that Viggo unintentionally put my life in danger to go visit a fucking fish.

With a pen light, I made my way through the stalactite cave and over the half-assed steel grate bridge. There was a bright light in the curving, domed tunnel ahead. Barnabus was waiting for me with open arms and a wide piranha smile. His embrace lifted my mood a little. He walked me all the way to their common room – the long chamber lit by blue bioluminescent algae where I was Viggo’s gift bearer.

I was casually but happily greeted by Skin, Clara, and Michael. Neva had a warm, sad smile for me; I kissed her cold hand as thanks for watching over me during my infliction. Roach lounged in an office chair, staring at me with an unreadable, cadaverous face. I nodded to him, he nodded back. It was good enough for me.

When Viggo arrived a few minutes later, Neva stood with her violin and played a stirring sonata for me. I was never into music other than to enjoy a catchy tune, but the perfect notes she played and how she combined them invoked a strong emotion in me. By the time Neva finished her haunting tune, I got the feeling she was saying with music that she couldn’t replace Al or my mom, but she’d be there if I needed her. It was what I needed to hear right then.

I received other presents as well. Clara gave me a big zip-up hoodie. Barnabus first handed me some language CD’s, and then gave me a paper-filled binder. On the cover was written, ‘the Book of Becks’. He’d personally put together my family genealogy dating back to a generation before Erlingr, the goblet forger. Barnabus had Viggo as a direct font of information, but still . . . holy shit. Michael shook my hand Viking-style and offered me an awesome drinking horn. Viggo had his special cup; now I had mine.

Viggo had a couple envelopes for me. In one was a short list of stocks for me to begin my portfolio. Not being savvy about stocks, I still knew that a thousand shares of IBM were worth something. In the other envelope was a password for complete access to the hemo-net. Nothing against the stocks, but I was a lot more excited to go visit all the formerly restricted tabs.

Just as everyone (except Neva) began talking amongst themselves, Aldo showed up. I’d thought he’d already gone back to Germany. He came over to me, gave me a bioluminescence kit, and then took me aside and sternly said, “Earn the award of this new life, Mr. Beck.”

“Award . . .” I mused. “I’m not sure if that’s how I look at it so far, Mr. Skala.”

“And I’m not concerned about any of your misgivings, fledgling. Be worthy of having the privilege to say you’re the Veleti’s scion. It carries weight and respect.”

“Does it also mean I get to be a dick to everyone?” Before Aldo could respond, I added, “I understand what you’re saying. It’s just that I’d rather follow in Clara’s footsteps than yours. No offense.”

“Not everyone is destined for greatness,” he replied with a hint of a sneer.

Hands rested on my and Aldo’s shoulders, stopping me from saying some stupid comeback that most likely would’ve prompted my ass getting kicked.

“I hate to interrupt the camaraderie, good numen,” Barnabus said, looking at us both, “but Leo has a decision to make. We are all eager to hear his choice.”

I turned to Viggo, who stood closer to the others. They were all looking at me expectantly. “This is about me being formally introduced, right?” I asked. Heads nodded. “I don’t know what the best move is.” Looking right at my sire, I asked, “You think I should?”

“There are merits for either choice,” he began. “You have solitary tendencies, Leo, but you are not a recluse. I believe it will be in your best interest to be known of; awkward situations may be avoided with the decision to be presented. More importantly, you may want the other factions to know you are now among them. Your presence will be a reminder of the failed attempts to control and dispatch you when you were mortal. Now a Deviant, you will be seen as a being to be truly wary of.”

Viggo’s little speech pumped me up. “Well hell,” I said, “let’s do it.”

“The next scheduled Gathering isn’t until mid-September,” Barnabus smoothly interjected. “I realize that two months is a relative trifle compared to the span of our existences. However, I see the impatience in Mr. Beck. I also see an urge to conclude affairs in you, Viggo. I suppose I could call for an Emissary’s meeting, which might draw the attendance of the Doyenne . . .”

“Thank you, Barnabus, but that will not be necessary,” Viggo said. “I have very reliable informants who know of the Doyenne’s itinerary for the near future.” He then turned to me. “You have two days.”

INFORMANT

The evening was muggy, not that I was really affected by it anymore. Viggo told me that in winter, a hemo’s breath didn’t plume – something about how our low core temperature didn’t produce hot air. The idea he was trying to get across was that, besides not being affected by weather unless it was drastic, an observant eye might notice that my breath didn’t frost in the cold.

Forget that, it’s beside the point. It wasn’t fucking winter anyway. It was two nights after my Deviant welcoming party, and my new hoodie wasn’t uncomfortable in the humid July air. Viggo wore his, too, plus his long coat over it. We’d just void-walked to one of his downtown parking garages and began strolling south toward the city’s “arts district” that unofficially started a half mile away.

We were both using our ‘blending in’ abilities, so it wouldn’t have mattered if we were losing chunks of flesh like a couple of damn lepers, let alone a lack of winter breath or summer sweat. Since no one could see us, the topic was moot. I just wanted to make my own point about that. Alright, I’ll move on.

From what I heard, most of the K.C. galleries displayed modern art slop. It was the kind of stuff that rich assholes would rave about because they were bored and entitled, and then praise the talentless hacks that made it. Just my opinion, but if it wasn’t cool photography or Norman Rockwell, then it was crap.

Yeah, okay, I was a little edgy. I wanted the introduction bullshit over with, and I wasn’t too thrilled about standing in front of Le Meur again. I wasn’t afraid – I just hated the bitch.

There was a lot more pedestrian traffic down where a number of galleries were clustered together. We were headed toward a busy block; there were a few limos parked out front of a well-lit art gallery, and people milled around out front. Viggo turned away from it and led me to the next street over. Other than being lined with parked cars, that street was quiet. “Once I speak to my informant just around the far corner,” he whispered, “we will proceed blended and follow him into the building. The Doyenne is somewhere inside. Another assistant of mine should be there as well.”

Before we began walking again, I had to ask, “Who is this informant of yours?”

“A recently blood-bound daemon,” he answered without any elaboration. Thanks, Captain Vague.

We went around the corner and saw a guy forty paces ahead, in the dimness between two streetlights. He was leaning against a shiny Mercedes and talking on his cell phone. I couldn’t see his face well, but what I could see told me he was a douche. The sleeves of his blazer were rolled up, he wore one of those skinny ties, and he had on the dumbest pair of striped slacks I’d ever seen. And then I recognized him: Dominic Riva. I hadn’t seen that jackass since Barnabus buried two axes in his head.

“What the hell?” I whispered. “Your informant is a fucking Adept? And he’s blood-bound?” I recalled Viggo saying that Riva was “out of action”, but I didn’t know my sire was the reason for it.

“Of course he is blood-bound,” Viggo murmured back. “It is the one true way to ensure loyalty. Mr. Riva and his progeny, Mr. Horn, were released when the charges against you were dropped, as promised. It was only practical to claim their fealty beforehand.”

His casual explanation shocked me. “Are you kidding? I don’t care if he’s a douche and Horn is a raccoon killer, that’s messing with free will. It’s like . . . slavery.”

“Do not dramatize the situation, Leo. This practice is not uncommon amongst us, so you should learn to accept the reality of it. I have bound every one of the numen I have collected.”

Collected? Viggo was collecting . . . Oh shit. All the missing hemos, and all the ones he took for “safe keeping” – Ragna, Pedro, Evan Dean, Edward Galloway, the bird-woman Katala, and probably more that I didn’t know about. It was a big step up from coins and trinkets. Viggo was hoarding hemos.

The sudden realization of my sire’s disorder left me speechless. He took my silence as acceptance. “We will allow Mr. Riva to see us,” he continued. “I will order him to hold the door of the gallery open before he steps in. Blended in, we will enter first. From there, we shall see about meeting with the Doyenne.”

I numbly nodded, not wanting to respond; I was afraid of what might’ve come out of my mouth. I saw Viggo in a new light, and it wasn’t complimentary. That’s an understatement – it offended my sense of honor, something I thought we had in common. The collected hemos had no choice – something I knew about – and that made Viggo’s hoarding immoral in my book. In a way, it made him no better than Le Meur. The worst part of it was that he believed he was justified to impose servitude.

If there’s a single word for crushing disappointment, I don’t know it.

RIGHTS

Dominic Riva eyed me suspiciously, but didn’t say a word while Viggo told him what to do. The simple plan of going into the gallery went off without a hitch. Well-dressed snobs unknowingly moved out of our way and ignored us. The posters near the front doors touted that night’s showcase artist, Sebastian Horn. He apparently was a rising star in his recently human days.

Some of the conversations I picked up on were about meeting Horn when he made his arrival, and asking about the new direction of his work. Yeah, I guess being a hemo would alter his perspectives.

I tried not to dwell on Viggo’s mental glitch, so I looked at the displayed art as we roamed the roomy interior. I gotta admit it – Horn was pretty damn good. His oil paintings were large and very detailed, his watercolor work was bold and catchy, and his small sculptures were all lifelike. I was studying a gloomy painting – one of Horn’s most recent pieces – when Viggo nudged me.

I followed him back to a corner where a hallway led off. It was posted as employees-only and there was a security guy standing nearby, but we ignored both and strolled on back.

It was an L-shaped hallway lined with doors for offices and supply rooms. Turning the corner, I was surprised to see Grigori Olinchenko standing next to an office door. He was leaning against a wall and cleaning his nails. When Viggo and I allowed ourselves to be seen, though, he snapped to attention.

“Grigori, I did not expect to find you at a function such as this,” Viggo said quietly as we approached.

“I didn’t either, elder, especially with how crowded it is. May I ask who your imposing friend is?”

“Ah, my apologies; you have met Mr. Beck before.” Olinchenko’s eyes widened as he stared at me. Viggo continued, saying, “He is the reason we are here this evening. What is yours?”

The question brought Olinchenko back to Viggo. “I followed your suggestion and met with my emissary, Mr. Zapada,” Olinchenko answered. “He took an interest in my photography and insisted I meet with the Doyenne. Once he introduced me, I was invited to this hosting to discuss sales of my own work. I wait back here to avoid the crowd while I wait to see if I can make some money. Did you have need of me?”

Because of the respect Olinchenko was showing Viggo, I wondered if he was blood-bound as well. For that matter, did my sire have any real friends at all? Did hemos like Barnabus and Skin admire him for who he was, or were they simply forced to kiss his butt? I didn’t know anymore.

“Perhaps,” Viggo answered. “Besides Doyenne Le Meur and Mr. Horn, who else is in the room?”

“Emissary Zapada, for one; he seems . . . quite taken with the Doyenne. I find it troubling. Also within is the enforcer, a Mr. . . .”

“Tomasino,” Viggo said. “Good, there will be proper witnesses. Since they are aware of your presence, Grigori, I ask that you make them aware of ours. As I recall, the Doyenne is not overly fond of uninvited guests. Would you herald us, please?”

It sounded more like an order than a question. Olinchenko nodded and opened the door. I was the last one to walk in, so I didn’t catch anyone’s initial reaction when he said, “Doyenne and esteemed numen, the eldest Eidolon has requested an audience.” He then shut the door behind me.

The office was fairly spacious. There was a desk and chairs to the right, a couch to my immediate left, and a wet bar across from it against the far wall. Le Meur, wearing a casual business suit, had just stood from her chair behind the desk. Zapada, in stylish clothes to compliment his Greek features, was getting up from his chair in the near right corner. Neither of them looked happy at the intrusion.

Horn sat nearest to us, in a chair across the desk from Le Meur. The last time I saw him was just after I jammed tree branches in his chest; I wondered if he remembered. Sitting there in jeans and a dress shirt, his young face under a mop of sandy brown hair held a mix of emotions. Enric Tomasino, on the other hand, showed only his wariness. In a sharp suit as always, he stood near the wet bar that he’d laid his big sword on.

"Grigori," Zapada said through clenched teeth, "what are you -"

“I will be quick,” Viggo butted in. “It is not my intent to disrupt your evening, which, for Mr. Horn’s sake, I hope is a pleasant one.”

“Thank you, elder,” Horn said quickly.

Le Meur glared at the young artist and growled, “Be quiet, Sebastian.” She then turned her glare to me and Viggo, not that we were worried about it. Her bark no longer had any bite, but I guess she had to put on a show for the sake of her bloated pride. “You’ve already barged in,” she said, casting a withering glance at Olinchenko, “but you said you’d be quick. State your business and be done with it, Veleti.”

Letting Le Meur’s bitchy attitude pass, Viggo said, “As our laws mandate, and with good numen to bear witness, I have come to present my scion. Doyenne, this is Leo Beck. You may have heard of him.”

I don’t know what thoughts passed through Le Meur’s mind just then, but, judging by the expression on her angelic face, none of them were good. She held her temper. “I do not acknowledge Mr. Beck. I will not accept this introduction. He must leave my city, now.”

I wasn’t able to tell, but I bet Viggo rolled his eyes. “You cannot deny a proper introduction,” he calmly explained. “Nor can you cast out any numen without cause. Mr. Beck has broken no law, vampire or mortal. He has been presented to you. It is done. I bid you all a good evening.”

Just as Viggo turned and gestured for me to open the door to leave, Le Meur said, “You are forgetting something, Veleti.” He and I turned back to see her smug expression mixed with a scowl. “I never gave you permission to create progeny.”

Shadows began to roll off Viggo. “That is not a core law,” he replied, low and ominous.

“So? As the Doyenne, I have every right to use and enforce it at my discretion.” The bitch was almost smiling, thinking she had the upper hand. It didn’t last long.

Viggo stepped closer to her; his form was out of focus, and the room began to dim. “Emmeline,” he said, his voice sounding like a volcano about to erupt, “your vanity and your despotism have left you undone. In your posturing, you have overlooked the rights of your subjects.” He used a single finger to push the desk out of his way, making Horn scoot his chair back.

I noticed that Olinchenko moved nearer to Zapada, and Tomasino rested a hand on the hilt of his sword. I kept my place, as tense as everyone else.

“What right is that, Veleti?” Le Meur asked with a snotty tone. She had more balls than brains.

“The right to challenge your rule,” Viggo answered as he reached for her.

A lot of shit happened at once, although I mainly focused on Viggo. Tomasino pulled his sword out. Olinchenko grabbed Zapada, who was yelling at him to let go. Horn stayed in his chair, covering his head with his arms. Le Meur was fast, but was also backed into a corner. She hit Viggo with a blur of punches; they had no effect. He clamped a big hand around her slender neck and lifted her up. Distorted shadows and void-ribbons swirled around the room, disorienting everyone except my sire.

Darkness was quickly gathering behind Le Meur, who struggled in Viggo’s iron grip. The two Outsiders were grappling; Zapada seemed stronger and faster, but Olinchenko had wrestling skills. They distracted me from noticing Tomasino moving forward and raising his sword.

I darted forward and caught one of Tomasino’s arms, ruining his attack on Viggo. Faster than I expected, he pivoted and reversed his swing. The flat of his blade smacked me in the side of my head and sent me reeling. He could’ve cut me with a sword edge, but for some reason didn’t.

Catching myself on the arm of the couch, I saw that Tomasino had returned his attention to defend Le Meur. A vertical, wavering black pit had formed behind her. The widening hole into the abyss obscenely rippled and swelled, giving the impression it was hungry.

Tomasino swung hard. The blade hit Viggo on his left side, slicing through clothes and biting into tough flesh. Barely flinching, my sire turned his head at the distraction. I surged forward again and grabbed Tomasino by his suit. Using all the strength I could muster, I twisted and flung the enforcer as hard as I could toward the far side of the office.

I apparently didn’t know the extent of the power I had on hand. Tomasino sailed across the room and smashed through the far wall, tumbling into the unlit storage space next door.

“You do not deserve any further lenience,” Viggo thundered at Le Meur. I turned to watch as he held her close, their noses only inches apart. “You do not deserve mercy,” he continued. “You do not deserve the tolerance of your betters. Your blood does not merit spilling. You are not worthy.”

Legs kicking, hands uselessly slapping at the arm that held her up, Le Meur franticly pleaded. “No, Veleti, do not do this! I beg you!”

Viggo ignored her. Thrusting her away from him into the black pit, he simply said, “The void welcomes you.” Le Meur and her screams were swallowed as she fell away into cold, dark nothingness.

POLITICS

Emissary Vincent Zapada let out a bellow of rage and tore away from Olinchenko’s grasp. Before he could charge two steps forward, Viggo swung a backhand fist that caught Zapada in the face. The crunching impact slammed the emissary to the floor in a heap. What a stupid bastard.

It was over. The distorted shadows dancing around the office immediately faded away to their natural positions. That’s when I noticed Horn, who was cowering on his knees over by the wet bar.

From the across the room, Tomasino said in a demanding tone, “What have you done?” He was stepping back through the hole he’d just made. His tie was crooked and his suit was dusty from drywall, but he otherwise didn’t appear to be hurt. “Where is the Doyenne?”

“For all intents and purposes,” Viggo stated evenly, “Emmeline Le Meur is gone. Accept it as fact so that we can move on. There are details to be handled.”

Tomasino hesitated; he was in a tough spot. “Look,” I said to him, “I know it’s your job to protect the Doyenne, but like Viggo said . . . she’s gone. We’ve got some shit to handle here, and we could use your help, okay?”

There was a sudden pounding at the door, and a muffled voice started asking questions. I guess that someone being thrown through a wall made a bit of a ruckus. I yanked Horn to his feet and harshly whispered for him to handle the guard out in the hallway. We all waited in silence while he cracked open the door, smoothly apologized for the noise, and said that everything was fine.

As soon as the door shut, Tomasino said to Viggo, “Eidolon, if you will not return Lady Le Meur, then we have a vacant position. A vacuum in power will draw unwanted attention.”

“I am quite aware of the possible consequences,” he replied while looking down at Zapada’s limp body.

I felt a rush of panic, thinking that my demented sire was going to blood-bind the Outsider emissary into servitude. “Grigori,” I quickly said, “can you bring Mr. Zapada around?” Viggo turned and gave me a curious look; I did my best to ignore it.

“Yes, although he might be in the same state of mind before the Veleti downed him.”

“Do it anyway,” Tomasino said. “If he is still in a rage, I will calm him. We need all of the emissaries to make important decisions. That is, unless the Veleti plans on taking the city throne.”

Viggo shook his head and said, “The only interest I have in the throne is to see a proper leader in it.” He pulled out his phone and added, “I will call Mr. Merritt and ask him to contact Mr. Powell so that they both might join us here. Excuse me.”

“I – I hate to sound petty,” Horn spoke up, “but I’m expected out in the gallery.”

“Yeah, okay, just give me a second.” I glanced around, getting priorities straight. Olinchenko was knelt over Zapada. Viggo was on the phone with his back to us. Horn was still shaken from the eerie shadows and Le Meur being thrown into the void. Tomasino remained tense. I asked him, “What’s the big fucking deal if we don’t have another leader for a little while? Can’t the emissaries handle the political shit until they choose one, or however it works?”

“If only it was that simple,” he said with a sigh. “A vacant seat of power will draw contenders who want it. They may wait for our faction emissaries to decide, or they may try to take the empty throne by force. The latter would make targets of the emissaries and me. I’m not fond of that idea. And that, Mr. Beck, is only the initial danger we’d have to deal with if the city throne is not filled soon.”

“Uh, alright, what else is there?”

“The Consortium . . . I’d rather not dwell on that now, especially if the seat can be filled and avoid it.”

“Okay then,” I said to Tomasino, “here’s what I had in mind. I need you to bring Mr. Riva back here; I’d ask Grigori over there, but he doesn’t like crowds. Riva will introduce Mr. Horn to the people out there, now that Le Meur’s gone.” I looked over to Horn. “Hey, he’s your sire, anyway, so it only seems right. Mr. Zapada is coming around. The rest of us will make sure he’s a good boy. When the other emissaries show up . . .” I glanced at Viggo, who nodded while still holding the phone to his ear, “it’d only be proper that the enforcer escorts them back here, right?”

“It would,” Tomasino agreed.

“Good, then they can pick a new Doyen between them, and no one will be the wiser except to know there’s been a shift in power. Does that sound okay?” They nodded, and I turned to Horn. “Give me your phone. I don’t want any of this leaking out.”

While he handed over his cell, Tomasino said, “I will collect Mr. Riva’s as well,” and then left the office.

Zapada didn’t fly off the handle again. He sat on the floor in the corner with a stunned expression. At Viggo’s request, Horn and Olinchenko watched over him. My sire led me to the far side of the office and quietly, sternly asked, “Why did you do that, Leo?”

I shrugged, playing stupid. ““I used to be a unit leader. I’m used to stepping up and making a plan on the fly. Sorry if I stepped on anyone’s toes.” I wasn’t sure if Viggo knew he had a serious ‘hoarding’ problem. If he did, then he just realized I recognized it and was going to be either defensive or pissed. But if he didn’t think he had a problem, then I might’ve just denied my magpie of a sire another shiny hemo.

"While your leadership skill pleases me for other reasons, that is not what I -"

The door opened, thankfully interrupting our little chat. Tomasino came in with Riva. All three of the Adepts left again a few minutes later. I caught another break and avoided Viggo’s questions as Zapada kept him busy with pathetic begging to bring Le Meur back.

Less than fifteen minutes later, Tomasino came back in with Barnabus and the Adept emissary Nathan Powell. They didn’t waste any time outlining the problem and discussing their proper procedure to endorse a new leader. Each emissary had at least one faction member present to confer with and decide what was best for their members.

Their mind-numbing chatter reminded me why I never watched C-SPAN. Olinchenko and I sat over by the desk to keep an eye on Zapada; we were pretty much bored as hell with the political bullshit.

Powell, looking like a white-collar workaholic, nominated himself. Tomasino countered, saying that the emissary was already busy with running Realm and wouldn’t endorse him. Zapada stood, straightened his clothes, and asked that Le Meur be reinstated. Unexpectedly, it was Powell who argued against it, saying that his own faction elder’s policies were flawed.

Viggo finally spoke up. “This is how I see it. Miss Le Meur will not be returning. Mr. Powell has other priorities, and therefore not endorsed by his own faction member. Mr. Fletcher, the only elder of the Outsider faction, is far too volatile to be given power.” Zapada nodded his agreement of the assessment. “I know for a fact,” Viggo went on, “that Mr. Merritt has no desire to claim the throne; he has personally told me so. Mr. Zapada’s objectivity is currently compromised.” Everyone nodded except Zapada.

“Pickings are getting slim,” I whispered to Olinchenko. “Wanna be Doyen?”

“Pardon my parlance,” he whispered back, “but fuck that.”

“So, in my unbiased view,” Viggo concluded, “there is only one choice – a good choice, no less.” He turned to Enric Tomasino.

“Me?” the enforcer asked, shocked. I was pretty surprised myself.

“You have fared admirably in your duties as enforcer,” Viggo explained. “Your only failures were events in which I was directly involved. And in those encounters, you displayed courage and honor. I doubt any of your peers could find fault in that.”

“I endorse the Veleti’s choice,” Barnabus said to the group. “I formally nominate Mr. Tomasino of the Adept faction for the seat of Doyen. His many Gifts are noteworthy, his martial skill is easily up to the task, and I know him to be a learned daemon. Along with restraint and wisdom, he has noble character.”

Nearly everyone nodded – even Powell, however reluctantly. Zapada just stared at his own shoes.

“Thank you for the kind words,” Tomasino said, “but I’m not sure I’m comfortable accepting this.”

“A good ruler does not rest easy in the seat of power,” Viggo wisely said.

With an unreadable expression, Tomasino regarded everyone in the office. “. . . Very well,” he finally said, “I humbly accept the position of Doyen.”

I followed everyone’s lead when they stood and bowed to him. All hail the sword-wielding wop.

PONDERING

Using every excuse I could think of, I avoided Viggo for the next few days. He called once or twice and left a couple messages in the hemo-net, but didn’t stop by. The latter fact led me to believe he knew what was bothering me. Did it also mean that on some level he knew what he was doing was wrong? I didn’t have a damn clue. Viggo wasn’t killing anyone, although some glitch in his head was saying it was okay to take that whole blood-binding thing and fucking run with it.

You could make the argument that Viggo has blood-bound a shitload of humans and that it’s not much different. You might wonder how it’s simply accepted. Well, it just is. Argue and wonder all you want, it’s been a part of hemo society for maybe thousands of years.

Like I said at the start, any given human is one of three things – ignored, a tool, or dinner. Since I started stalking them, my perception had changed. Hell, it had to, or I’d fucking starve to death. Even if I looked normal, I couldn’t hang out with someone like Miss Loretta anymore; too much had changed. Only other hemos could understand, and the plain truth is that humans were one peg down now.

My point is that making minions is no big deal, but blood-bonding a hemo is serious shit.

Sure, I felt sorta bad for Riva and Horn and whoever else was blood-bound to my sire. The good thing for them was that they were out making money, getting shit done, and generally living their lives, un-lives, whatever. They were still slaves, but it was an ‘on-call’ type of thing.

The question that kept crawling into my brain was what about all the others Viggo collected and staked? Where were they? What was he doing with them, if anything? How could my sire justify the stealing of their lives? I mean, those poor bastards were locked in prisons of their own minds, unable to move, every conceivable freedom taken away. What a fucking nightmare.

Maybe some of the hoarded hemos deserved that hellish fate. I don’t know. I assumed one of Viggo’s scions, Wayne, was in that collected group; he deserved death, not to be trapped in his own psychotic head. Ragna deserved some sort of penalty for her actions, but not to be held in an indefinite limbo. Edward Galloway and Evan Dean, on the other hand . . . They were assholes, but their punishment didn’t fit their crimes. I’m actually surprised I said that, but there it is.

On the night when Enric Tomasino was voted in and reluctantly took the title of Doyen, I slipped out while everyone was still talking. I wasn’t ready to have that serious conversation with Viggo yet, and he would’ve cornered me at some point. I needed a fresh perspective, but didn’t know who I could trust.

Wait, I take that back. I trusted Thunder, and confided in him when I finally got home. The overgrown hairball was a good listener, but wasn’t shit for advice. He silently expected me to figure things out by myself and then dozed off on the couch. Sleep – maybe that was the answer. And no, I wasn’t referring to me getting some shut-eye. I wasn’t referring to me at all.

Barnabus also left some messages in the local hemo-net chat room. He let his fellow K.C. Deviants know that Doyen Tomasino had called for another Gathering to formalize some shit and name some hemos for administrative positions. I figured I was expected to attend, although it wasn’t mandatory. Maybe I’d get a chance to straighten things out with Cordell. It’d also be a safe place to have the talk with Viggo that I’d been avoiding.

You know that feeling of nervous expectation – kind of tense, kind of excited, and mostly wanting to get something over with? Yeah, I fucking hated that feeling.

GATHERING

A week had passed, one damn long week. I walked around my shabby neighborhood, learning street names and remembering which little houses were noisy for one reason or another. I fed a few times, coming away from them with short-lived beer buzzes or pot highs. Clara stopped by one evening to play with Thunder; while brushing him, she talked about Ragna’s dogs and the mysterious Mr. Lucida. Viggo called the night before the Gathering and offered to take me there with him. I respectfully declined.

It was kind of a pain in the ass getting to Tomasino’s first Gathering. It was up in a penthouse apartment at the top of a luxury high-rise building. That figured. The new Doyen was basically cool, but he was also an Adept; being flamboyant every now and then was required.

The choice of entry into the building initially got under my skin, but I didn’t take it personally. Hemos who didn’t have an issue with security cameras were welcomed by attendants into the elegant lobby (I saw pictures online), where they were then escorted up in a classy elevator. Those who had a problem passing for human – meaning most Deviants – got to be met by nervous guards outside a rear delivery door. Armed with Mac-11s and thermite grenades, they silently ushered me up a service elevator to a closed-off floor. From there, they walked me over to the private lift everyone else got to use.

I stepped out of the elevator and into an enclosed foyer, where two more guards and Mr. Dupree were waiting. He was shutting the door behind him, apparently just having let in another guest. I pulled back the hood of my jacket so he could see me. Dupree studied me curiously for a couple seconds and then asked, “Your name and faction, sir?”

Frowning, I answered, “It’s me, Leo Beck. What, you don’t recognize me?”

“Leo Beck,” he repeated, a little surprised, “the Veleti’s minion?”

“Not anymore, buddy – I’m part of the family now. Can’t you see the resemblance? Don’t worry; the new Doyen already knows about me. Hell, he probably has a dry-cleaning bill for me to pay off.”

Dupree gazed at me for another second, I assume to use his Discerning Gift thing to make sure I was telling the truth. Tapping the tiny transmitter in his ear, he said to whoever was listening, “Mr. Leo Beck, Deviant, no minions.” He listened to a short response, and then tried to smile as he opened the door.

I stepped into opulence. In front of me and expanding to my right was the biggest living room I’d ever seen. Low-lit crystal chandeliers hung over three different sets of leather furniture. The couches and chairs sat on real fur throw rugs so they wouldn’t scratch the marble floors underneath. On the far side of the living room was a wall of huge sliding glass doors that all led to a deep outdoor balcony facing north. Classical music played through ceiling speakers. Framed art and tapestries were hung on every wall. The scent in the air was a subtle blend of vanilla, baby powder and leather. I was so out of place.

A few hemos were sitting. A number more were out on the balcony. A breeze of cool night air wafted in from the open doors, carrying murmured conversations. Behind me to my right was an eat-in kitchen with fancy bar stools at the counter. Out across from it was an open dining room, although the normal furniture was replaced with a pool table and more seating. Of course, the dining room had access to the east side of the wraparound balcony. What self-respecting penthouse wouldn’t?

Between the kitchen and the dining room was a wide hallway leading back to other rooms. There was another hallway just like it to my left. I assumed that they connected somewhere way back behind me, lined with plush carpet and stylish lighting. The place was fucking huge.

Stepping in from the balcony directly ahead of me were three hemos, two of which I recognized. Aldo Skala stood between Tomasino and some hemo I’d never seen before. Skala was wearing a Stevie Ray Vaughan t-shirt under his blazer, while Tomasino was in slacks, vest, and dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up. The stranger – a tall, younger-looking guy with long blonde hair and a naturally stern face – had on a long blue velvet jacket with a big sapphire necklace over it. In comparison, I didn’t have one lick of style. If I’d known fashion sense was a hemo prerequisite, I wouldn’t have let Viggo turn me.

The three were talking amongst themselves when I approached, so I stopped a few polite paces away. They were talking in German, so it wasn’t like I could join in anyway. Facing my direction, Skala noticed me first and frowned – big surprise. Besides boots, jeans, and my new hoodie, I had on a pair of heavy duty work gloves I found in the workshop of my place. Hey, sue me, I wasn’t exactly comfortable with my new looks yet. I returned his crusty, judgmental glare with one I hoped he saw as, “you’re a dick”.

The other two noticed me. Tomasino nodded a hello and said, “Thank you for attending, Mr. Beck.”

“Yeah, uh, sure, no problem,” I replied, and then stepped forward with my hand out. He didn’t hesitate to shake it, but did glance down at the glove. “Rough hands,” I mumbled.

“I don’t mind,” he said pleasantly, and then turned to introduce me to the stranger. “Leo Beck, allow me to present elder Adept Dorian Riniker, lately of Vienna. Elder Riniker has agreed to become part of this city’s collective, and shall be filling a needed position.”

I remembered to bow first; he was an elder, after all. “Well, uh, good to meet you, sir.”

Riniker gave a slight bow of his head. “Sprechen Sie Deutsch, Herr Beck?” he asked.

“Uh, no, sorry – I still have trouble with English.” The only German I knew was ‘nein’ and ‘gesundheit’.

“Ah, pity,” he said in a neutral way that could’ve been condescending or just a regular reply. “It seems we all have a commonality between us. As you and Herr Skala are both scions of the legendary Veleti, Mr. Tomasino and I are also related in such a way. He and I are scions of the renowned European Adept Heinrich Mueller, who was of course key in the establishment of the Hapsburg Dynasty.”

Like I knew what the hell that was. “No shit? That’s impressive,” I replied, trying to sound like I meant it.

“Mr. Beck,” Tomasino said as he stepped forward, “I wonder if you and I might have a quick chat.”

“Of course, Doyen; how can I help ya?”

“A private chat, if you will,” he amended as he put his hand on my shoulder and led me away. Heading toward the hallway, we passed a trio of Outsiders – Lexian Grimm, Jade Clayton, and my former friend Cordell. They all nodded to Tomasino, but only gave me a passing glance.

Stepping into a small study, Tomasino shut the door behind us and said something. I didn’t catch what he said because the room smelled strongly of Pledge, which distracted me for a few seconds. “Is there something wrong, Mr. Beck?” he asked, getting my attention.

“Uh, no,” I answered, turning to him. “Everything’s fine. What can I do for you, sir?”

“Let’s have a seat.” Tomasino gestured to the two padded chairs somewhat facing each other, separated by a small, ornate wooden table. When we both eased into our seats, he said, “I would begin with pleasantries, but I believe we both share the desire to skip idle banter and get to the heart of a matter.”

I tried to grin when I said, “I don’t even like wasting time agreeing with that.”

His smile at my response seemed genuine. “I’ve heard a thing or two about you, Mr. Beck,” he began. “For instance, I know you were quite capable of doing more than merely tossing me out of the way . . .”

I didn’t really want to discuss flinging my new Doyen through a wall, but he evidently did. Hey, his party, his rules. “Yeah, maybe, but I wasn’t pissed off at you or anything. You had a shitty C.O. who put you in some bad spots. Despite her stupid-ass choices, you still tried to do your job.” Tomasino reluctantly nodded. “It takes serious balls to stand against Viggo, and you did it more than once. I respect that.”

“Not that it did much good,” he said with a wry grin.

“It made him think highly of you, and that’s not easy to do.” I shifted in my chair and asked a similar question in return. “So, you turned your wrist. Why’d you only give me the flat of your blade?”

Tomasino thought about it for a second. “Honestly, the main reason I did so was because I didn’t want your sire to truly lose his temper. As you said, I did what was required and attempted to defend the Doyenne, however ineffectual I might be against the Veleti. And I was. I presumed he would take less affront of a full attack on him than on his new scion. I didn’t want his rage focused on me.”

“There’s no shame in that, sir. No one would want Viggo coming down on them.”

“I suppose,” he replied, and then seemed to refocus his thoughts. “One other subject, Mr. Beck, and then we can rejoin the others. When you and your sire came to the art gallery that evening . . . I wonder if the Veleti knew how events would play out. He chose a private place, yet surrounded by humans. He used blood-bound Adepts as informants. He met with the Doyenne in a restricted setting, rather than at a formal Gathering or on Civil Ground. He very well may have known Lady Le Meur’s foolish reaction, perhaps even counted on it.” He sat forward and asked, “Did Viggo plan to remove her that night?”

That was a damn good question, and I didn’t have an answer.

BALCONY

I always figured Skin was sort of a hustler, but I didn’t have any proof until we made a bet while playing pool. We’d both won a game against each other. Before we started the tiebreaker, I stupidly suggested a wager. His beady little Irish eyes lit up, and I knew right then I made a mistake. He was sandbagging during our first two games. That fucker wasted no time clearing the table, never missing a shot.

Skin was also a bullshitter, telling stories of wild things he’d done and famous people he’d met. The whole time of circling the table and sinking balls, he never shut up. I didn’t mind. Hell, I didn’t even mind being suckered; he was entertaining, especially at a dull party where most of the other hemos pretty much ignored me.

I stepped out of the way to let Skin drop the 8-ball when I saw Cordell by himself out on the balcony. He had his back to me, looking out over the city lights. I walked out there and leaned on the railing next to him. Keeping my eyes fixed on the view of downtown at night, I said, “I couldn’t have imagined anything like all of this if they paid me. How about you, Cord?”

He turned his head and asked, “Do I know you?”

I’d forgotten that the infliction messed with my vocal chords a little. I’d gotten used to it, but old friends wouldn’t recognize my voice over the phone anymore. “It’s me, man – Leo.” Cordell flinched and took a half step away. “Yeah, I know,” I said, understanding his reaction. “I’m not used to the new me, either.”

He silently studied my profile. I just kept looking out at the lights. "Leo, you -" he began and faltered. "The Veleti - that monster - he brought you into the night?"

I shrugged. “It was either this, or he got to watch me die . . . slow and painful. He left it up to me. Afraid of death or too stubborn to give up, I’m not sure. Maybe I was both. Right or wrong, I chose this.”

“But – but becoming a scion of the Deviant fiend?” Cord said with disgust. “To be a cursed child of the devil, that’s what you’ve chosen. I don’t know you anymore.”

When he turned to walk away, I barked, “That’s bullshit, Cord!” He stopped, but didn’t turn back around. “I’m still me, at least on the inside. No one and nothing is going to change that.” Cordell stood still for another second, and then started walking away again. “You fucking coward,” I growled. That got his attention. I went on as he spun to face me. “No matter what I’ve gone through, I always looked after my friends. You know that. Hell, Cord, you’ve done the same. Maybe it’s you who isn’t the same anymore, and you took the easy way out. I can’t believe my friend would replace old trust with new hatred.”

He came right up in front of me, glaring down into my eyes. “You know better than to call me a coward.”

“And you should know that I’m nobody’s bitch.” I stared back at him for a second, but my heart wasn’t in it. I kept my dark ardor in check. Sighing, I continued in a softer tone. “Dammit, Cord, I’m not the Veleti. I couldn’t be, and I don’t wanna be. I’m Leo, you’re my friend, and we’ve both been through some very surreal shit. It hasn’t changed who we are, has it?”

Cordell’s light brown eyes lost their intensity, and he took a step back. “I don’t have all the facts yet,” he replied with a calmer voice. “The truth isn’t as easy to find anymore. I’ll think about what you said, Leo, but my opinion of your sire hasn’t changed. The things I saw him do . . .”

"Yeah, him - not me," I said. "Look, man, forget our sires or a second. We can -" I stopped myself short, not wanting to push. I'd said what I wanted to. "Alright, I'll stop bothering you. But if you ever need me, or just wanna talk . . . you've got my number."

He stood there uncertainly for a second, and then walked away. I didn’t feel much better about where our friendship was, but at least he didn’t throw me off the balcony.

I was still out there a few minutes later when two figures approached from my left. Barnabus was coming over to me with what was obviously another Deviant next to him. I was introduced to Rolando Lucida. And damn, Clara was right – looking at him made me feel better about my new looks.

Rolando, as he gruffly preferred to be called by fellow Deviants, had four limbs and a head . . . and that’s about as human as he got. He was short with an elongated skull. His legs were long and his torso was squat. His skin . . . Shit, he didn’t have skin; it was a chaotic patchwork of fur and scales. Rolando had the ears and disgusting nose of a bat, overly large snake eyes, a tusked mouth like a boar, and a hard fin on top of his scaly bald head. Holy shit, he was one ugly hemo.

He stood there fussing with his new clothes – all denim, except for hiking boots – while Barnabus told me about him. The recently-returned Deviant was an explorer, all underground. He’d been part of the city’s collective for decades, but was rarely seen. Evidently, there were a lot of subterranean caverns and lakes in the Midwest, too deep and unreachable for normal archeological ventures.

Hearing that, it made sense that Runa’s quest to go find Roland sounded like a longshot. But, there he was. Either Runa somehow found him, or he was coming back to the surface anyway. Either way, it was clear by the way the explorer kept looking up that he wasn’t used to seeing stars above him.

Rolando didn’t seem like a smooth talker, either, but I had no problem with that. He asked if I’d been presented, gave a nod when I said yes, and then watched Tomasino chat with some female hemo in a checkered dress further along the wide balcony. That’s when I noticed the rock climber’s hammer in his belt loop. If I’d known weapons were permitted, I would’ve loaded up.

It was a few minutes later, after Barnabus and Rolando had moved on, that I noticed a hush in the hum of conversation inside. Glancing back into the penthouse, I saw Viggo striding through the living room. Any nearby hemos clammed up when he walked by. A few even bowed their heads. My sire didn’t even look at them. Conversations resumed after he went down a hallway and out of sight. I told myself that sooner or later that night, I’d be the one searching him out for a talk instead of vice versa.

Not long after Viggo’s arrival, the formalities of the Gathering had begun. Tomasino stood in front of a big corner fireplace (obviously unlit) in the living room, where he spoke to the crowd. His short speech was mostly about honor – honored to be Doyen, honored to be endorsed by the Veleti. He ended by saying he expected the collective to honor and respect the individuals selected for seats on his council. It was a pretty smooth segue into his next order of business.

Tomasino named the elder Dorian Riniker as counselor; a right-hand man, I guess. Barnabus and the Adept Nathan Powell were asked to keep their places as emissaries. Former Outsider emissary Vincent Zapada had stepped down, leaving a vacancy. However, a newcomer of that faction had applied to take Zapada’s place. I thought he was speaking of Grigori Olinchenko until the woman in the checkered dress stepped forward.

It was technically a dress, but something like you’d see at a Highland Games festival. It was a long tartan skirt of green and black, with a matching wide sash from hip to opposite shoulder. Under that was a white shirt with puffy sleeves. The woman herself was fairly attractive; average height and build, dark brown hair halfway down her back, and light eyes. The real appeal, though, was her air of confidence.

Given permission to speak, she turned and addressed the crowd. In a thick accent (I learned later it was Scottish), she said her name was Kyla Mackenzie. Getting right to the point, she told everyone that she’d known Jack Fletcher for a very long time. They fought together in clan skirmishes and against the English in centuries past. She knew Fletcher had a wild heart; she’d come to tame it again. And, if allowed to be emissary, she’d bring honor back to her faction.

It was a nice speech, but Mackenzie was just another Outsider – unpredictable and with anger issues. In my mind, none of them except Cordell had any honor to begin with.

Then I found out why Rolando Lucida was called for. Tomasino named him the new enforcer. He was a fellow Deviant and all, but . . . that guy? I was judging by appearances, which normally isn’t fair; in the case of hemos, extremely so. For all I knew, Senor Ugly was a damn juggernaut.

Not one for public speaking, Rolando simply told everyone that he was impartial and expected everyone to abide by the Doyen’s laws. There would be no leniency, and penalties would be harsh. Without any bullshit, he said how it’d be – I liked that. It reminded me of a couple drill sergeants I trained under.

I leaned against one of the open glass doors and watched the small crowd begin to fan out and mingle again. Over by the kitchen, I saw Mackenzie talking with Viggo. I left the balcony and made my way over to them. The Outsider spoke for another few seconds until she realized she was between two large and gruesome Deviants, neither of whom appeared to be interested in her words.

When Mackenzie smoothly excused herself, I said to Viggo, “I think we should talk, sir.”

He regarded me for a second before saying, “I was under the impression you had taken issue with me for some reason. That has changed, I presume?”

“No, it hasn’t,” I answered honestly. “I just needed to get my head straight first.”

“And what would you like to discuss, my scion?” There was a hint of challenge in his voice.

I held back the sarcastic reply that came to mind. “There’s a room back that way where we can talk privately,” I said instead. “Would you join me, sire?”

Viggo nodded, and we began walking. Unlike the chat I had with Cordell, I had to hammer my point home until he relented . . . Or until he blood-bound me again to stop me from being a pain in the ass, whichever came first.

ASSURANCES

The door to the study I formerly spoke with Tomasino in was open, although the room was occupied. Dominic Riva was talking with the artist Isabel Greco when we interrupted them. I wanted that specific room for its calming, Pledge-scented effect. With Viggo behind me, I said, “We need this room. There are others to choose from.”

Greco started to object when Riva cut her off, saying, “Sure, no problem.” I imagine Viggo gave him some sign to get his ass out. The blood-bound douche even dusted the seat off after he stood. “There you are, Veleti. We’ll move along.” He took the confused Greco by the arm and led her out past us.

I shut the door as Viggo sat. “I have seen similar behavior like yours from Aldo,” he commented while I took the seat facing him. “We were further along in our relationship than you and I are. His moodiness was fueled by jealousy – envious of my power, covetous of my wealth. It caused a rift for a time. Revolt from one’s child is to be expected, and comes wearing any number of masks. Is that the basis of this?”

“Nope, not one bit,” I calmly replied. “I’m not a greedy prick like Aldo. I’m not angry. I’m not resentful.”

Viggo relaxed a little. “I would have been surprised if you were. I never saw you as that type, Leo. That being said, you did imply there was an issue between us. So, if we are not here to discuss a grudge or some sort of irritation on your part, what topic did you have in mind?”

I didn’t want to dwell on the problems anymore, just the solution. I figured Viggo was going to want something specific at the back end of this, and I’d have to play dirty to get what I wanted. “Sir, I think you should rest now.”

“Rest? Would you care to elaborate?”

“Yeah, I mean, uh, the Eidolon siesta, the millennium nap. You know what I mean. You’re long overdue.” When he frowned, I pushed. “Look, you fulfilled your oath. It’s over. After all those centuries of watching over my line as you promised, it’s done. You kept that promise and then some. Sir, you’re world-weary, I’ve noticed it for months. Maybe it’s tough to accept after so long, but you can stop now. You need to.”

Viggo turned his head away toward the window. I couldn’t tell what was going on in his head. “I have just sired you,” he quietly said. “How can I leave you now? You are so new into this dark world . . .” He then looked back to me with an indignant glare and asked, “Have I not been fair and kind to you, Leo? Have I not been generous? Why do you wish me away?”

I couldn’t tell if he was genuinely offended, or if he was trying to play me so there’d be no objection when he kept on with his hemo-hoarding compulsion. Honestly, I wasn’t affected either way. “Wait a second, sir. This isn’t about me pushing you away. This is for your benefit. You said you’d rest when your oath was fulfilled. Well, it’s fulfilled. I’m the last of my line.”

“That does not mean my work is complete. You are my scion. I would be remiss in my duty as a sire to leave you to your own devices so soon. I watched over my other scions for years.”

I believed Viggo was sincere with that last bit. “I appreciate your concern, I really do. It’s just that I don’t want to . . .” I hesitated, thinking of turning it up a notch. Sure, what the hell. “Dammit, don’t you get it? I felt guilty enough knowing I was the reason you stuck around so long. Now you no longer have to, and you still linger out of a different sense of obligation. All because of me – I did this to you.”

“I am grateful for your selfless concern, but . . . you still have much to learn.”

I sat forward and said, “I know. I know I do. And of course I don’t want you gone, but I couldn’t live with myself if you stayed. How’s that for selfless?” Viggo was about to speak, but I pressed my case before he could. “It’s not fair to keep you here any longer, sir. You’re tired. I see it. You deserve to rest now. You’ve earned it. I’ve already learned a lot from you; I can go to the other Deviants for anything else.”

Viggo seemed to accept my logic. Well, most of it. “And which one would you turn to, Leo? Neva – fine company, no doubt – but she obviously cannot offer counsel. You and Roach are on tenuous terms at best. I would not consider Mr. O’Shaughnessy a fitting mentor, unless you choose to learn foul jokes and various ways to relieve fools of their money. Clara does have sporadic insights, but she also has the mind of a young girl. Gothi Michael knows scant more than you do. Mr. Lucida would likely refuse. And Mr. Merritt’s time will be taken for the foreseeable future.”

“Why do I have the feeling you already have someone else in mind?”

“Because you know me well enough,” Viggo answered simply. He sat straighter in his chair and moved on with his own agenda. “You have made a compelling case, Leo. I was not fully aware of the inner struggle you faced. And, truth be known, you are correct; I long to slumber. However, I require some assurances so that my sleep is not troubled . . .”

“Like a mentor?”

Viggo nodded. “That is one assurance, yes, with provisions.”

“I should tell you now, sir; this won’t be one-sided. You’ll have to barter for your assurances.” I didn’t plan to show my cards at that point, but I couldn’t be a sneaky prick and spring it on him later.

His thick eyebrows rose, and one corner of his mouth curled upward – holy shit, a rare Viggo smile. “Ah, a scion after my own dark heart,” he said. “Very well, let us see how you fare.”

I agreed to have a mentor of Viggo’s choice, someone I could turn to with any problem or question. In return, I wanted Traeg and Gwen turned over to my care. I also requested any other minions of his that would age dramatically or die if he released them.

No, I wasn’t hoarding. I just wanted to save who I could, and let them retain their normal lifestyles. In Gwen’s case – and any others who hadn’t been minions too long – I planned to stop feeding blood. Once they were clean, I’d give them the choice of being my minion. I was not going to force or coerce anyone into being my servant. And no, I didn’t tell Viggo any of that.

He agreed to my request, but amended that his oldest minions could choose between me and Aldo (if he wanted them). Besides Rune, I had no idea how many other old minions he had. It was a responsibility I really didn’t want. I didn’t know what those old minions did for Viggo, and I didn’t care. If my plan worked out, I was gonna have enough on my plate to deal with. I privately hoped they all chose Aldo.

We negotiated on a few other little things – including me getting roped into checking up on his stupid fish – until Viggo got to his last subject of concern. “There is one more issue, perhaps the most important one,” he said. “You must look after Clara for me.”

There it was. I normally would’ve been happy to agree, no deals or barters necessary. I liked the girl. She was a little lost, a little broken, but she had a good heart. It was obvious Viggo treasured Clara like a real father would his own daughter. And, in a truly shitty move, I was going to use that emotional bond against him. “Clara, hmm; that could turn out to be one hell of a chore . . .” I drew it out like I hadn’t already planned that exact scenario. “Alright, fine,” I finally agreed, “I’ll look after her . . .”

"Ah, good; now we can -"

“If,” I interjected.

“If what?” he asked cautiously. “I thought you simply agreed.”

“Not so easy, sir – you wanted to see how well I barter. I have to pay you back for tricking me into that whole extinct fish thing. Now, I’ll look after Clara . . . if you give me all of your hoarded numen.”

I’d never felt like a bigger piece of shit in my life. I just hoped it was worth it.

CELLS

“You do not know what you are asking for,” Viggo said in a rumbling, serious tone.

“I think I have a pretty good idea, sir.”

A frown crossed his cracked-earth face. “If you truly did, then you would know that I cannot agree to your terms in their entirety. And to use your sister as a pawn . . .” He shook his head in disapproval.

“Sir, we’ve both got our own agendas. I just had to play the game for mine. You should’ve known that I’ll always look after Clara – you didn’t have to ask. Either you doubted my character, or I’m a better actor than I thought. It doesn’t matter now; I still respect you, I still look up to you, and I’ll miss you while you’re gone. But you have some numen stored away somewhere, and they’ll do me a lot more good than they would a slumbering Eidolon. So, tell me why you can’t agree to the ‘terms in their entirety’.”

Viggo stood, held an arm out, and said, “Let me show you why.”

Void-walking into a place of darkness and stale air, Viggo told me, “There is no other way to this location than by the means we have just taken.” I could tell by the sounds that he opened a nearby door and stepped into an adjoining space. A bare bulb clicked on in an overhead socket. Blinking the spots out of my eyes, I saw that I stood in a stone hallway. In front of me was the open door that led to a small room. Behind me, the hallway went for another ten paces and stopped where the bedrock had collapsed.

A large stone sarcophagus dominated the small, roughly square room. Carved onto the heavy lid were letters and runes. Near it on the floor was a box of wooden stakes. To my left was a matching wrought iron set of desk and chair, and a car battery on the floor next to them. Attached to the battery was a pair of wires that ran up the wall and across the ceiling, powering the bulb. The wires continued to my right, into another chiseled hallway.

Viggo gestured for me to take a better look down that lit hall. I stepped into the room and went to the entry of it. I stood there for a minute, looking at the hallway I dreamt of once. Into the bedrock was cut a six-foot wide passage that stretched a long way back. It looked bigger because of the high, uneven ceiling. Along both sides were rough entrances into small rooms, dozens of them, stretching away into the distance. Each entry had an iron gate for a door, with a simple latch for each.

“Holy shit,” I blurted before I could stop myself, “how many hemos have you got down here?”

“The number of numen stored here is not as important as why some of them are here. Some were merely irritants,” Viggo explained with a shrug as he started down the hall of gates. “Mr. Dean, for example, is in this room here.” I peered into the room; the hallway lights shone on a simple wooden coffin with a manila folder lying on top of it. “I promised Mr. Tomasino I would release him,” he said with a twinge of regret. “I will see to it tomorrow evening.”

It was worse than I thought. Dozens of hemos were staked and thrown in boxes down there. Their cheap tombs sat in the dark cells of a lost underground tunnel. Some of those poor bastards, like Dean the douche, were prisoners only because they were pains in the ass. How much of a problem could Dean have been for Viggo? Hell, I could kick his butt when I was human. And here was a kicker: some of those hemos had been locked away a hell of a lot longer than Dean. Viggo stole their lives for being irritating. “Okay, so what about the others?” Part of me didn’t want to know.

“Many of them are the reason I cannot fully agree to your request. Some have developed serious derangements.” I almost made a comment about the irony of him saying that. “Others,” he continued, “have succumbed to the dark ardor; they have degenerated into beasts in constant states of blood-lust. None of them should be allowed to rise again, although it is not for me to end their existences.”

I wondered if Viggo ever listened to himself. He’d already passed judgment, so why half-ass it? Then again, I got why some of them were down there in the first place. “Does anyone else know about all of this?” I asked. It’d be good to know who knew what.

“Only to a vague degree,” Viggo casually answered. “I did state at Lady Le Meur’s last Gathering that I was the cause of disappearances within the collective over the years. But as for all this, only Aldo and you have seen it. Clara, through her insights, is aware of it. Aldo has offered in the past to do away with those individuals who are unfit for society. For his sake, I did not allow it; systematic elimination such as he proposed leads down a cold, dark path. I presume you have no intentions of placing any of these individuals into his stern care?”

“No – hell, no,” I quickly replied. “That might make me greedy like him, but I don’t care. Skala won’t get anything from me other than hospitality and a thin layer of respect.”

“Although he is one of my own scions, I understand your perspective.”

I wanted to ask about the Deviants who were most likely locked away – Harlan, Wayne, Pedro, and Ragna at least – but I figured we’d come across each one soon enough. I planned to read the folders of each and every hemo down there, and make my list of who I wanted.

Yeah, I know, that was pretty damn judgmental on my part, too, but I couldn’t take them all. By the sound of it, there were some hemos better left down there. I couldn’t fix ‘em, and I wouldn’t kill ‘em, so there really wasn’t an option. Sometimes having a conscience sucks.

NUTSHELL

Reading files and making my own notes took a while, but I’d made my selections of hemos who wouldn’t automatically go ape-shit when I woke them. We were both sleepy by the time we were done. Viggo slept in the sarcophagus. He decided to get used to the padded interior since it was where he planned to take his extended slumber. Good placement, too – no one would ever find him down there.

I had no other options than to lay down on the cold, hard floor for some shut-eye. Nothing new there; I’d had to deal with the same type of accommodations a few times while on military missions overseas. That didn’t mean it didn’t suck. Surprisingly, though, I didn’t have any sore muscles or numbness when I woke up. It was one of the few perks of being a hemo.

Moving filled coffins and ourselves via the void, Viggo and I stepped out into one of Traeg’s warehouses. I chose that location to temporarily store the chosen hemos because there was room for them to be hidden, it was relatively safe, and I couldn’t think of another good spot. Viggo called Traeg to let him know what we were doing and not to fuck with the cargo. Once the coffins were stacked in a corner and covered with a tarp, we void-walked back to the thunderdome.

Up in the lounge, Viggo commented on my place. He said it was functional and had its uses, but he hadn’t planned for it to be a permanent residence. He called it drab, and that the neighborhood was lean for proper feeding. I didn’t want to look a gift-horse in the mouth, but I had to agree.

“No scion of mine should be relegated to such a locale,” he stated. “Leo, I offer you better lodgings of your choosing. Bear in mind that it should either be completely hidden, or given a public purpose for the sake of camouflage. What would you desire?”

“Public purpose . . . You mean like a business or something?” When he nodded, I said, “Well hell, if there was a house or apartment magically attached to a shooting range, I’d be tickled pink.”

Then it was time for more red-tape bullshit. Considering I’m referring to people’s lives, that sounded pretty glib. Then again, getting bogged down in the morality of it all wasn’t going to do me any good.

For the next goddamn week, it was nothing but meetings, discussions, messaging, and more meetings. Getting all the minions organized and deciding on plans was a brain-numbing pain in the ass, all just so Viggo could take an extended vacation in a stone coffin. I’m not gonna drag you through the details, so this is it in a nutshell in case you give a shit:

  • My mentor turned out to be Grigori Olinchenko. Viggo had the wandering Outsider pay off his debt by sticking around for a while to help me if I needed it. Grigori didn’t seem to mind.

  • ShadoWorks gave my LLC, Norbeck Limited, a chunk of land in a growing eastern K.C. Suburb; that land had a recently vacated bowling alley on it (closed because of lease violations).

  • Viggo had his construction minion design and began rebuilding the interior of the bowling alley into an indoor shooting range, complete with a restricted-access apartment below part of it.

  • I named the shooting range ‘Corrective Action’.

  • A huge chunk of starting capital was given to Norbeck to cover all fees, construction costs, décor and fancy touches, upcoming salaries, full inventory, and any other damn thing I could think of.

  • Gwen chose to work for me. Traeg was farmed out to Skin – a logical move.

  • Viggo insisted – more like demanded – that I include two of his personal property managers, reclusive Keith Pierson and Norwegian Rolf Staalsen, as minions. I did.

  • Besides Gwen, Keith and Rolf, my other necessary minion choices (because of how long they’d been serving Viggo) were the Water Department supervisor and the construction company owner/operator.

  • Rune, one of Viggo’s elder minions (and the only one I knew), decided to continue in my service; her candid opinion of Skala was unflattering.

  • I offered Gwen a job as general manager of Corrective Action, and contacted Diego (who had been relegated to light contracts at Silas) about the floor manager position; they both accepted.

  • Skin took over Gwen’s security tape scanning duties; Barnabus was given Agent Rutherford of the FBI, the janitor at Realm, and Natalie at the IRS.

I realize shuffling all of Viggo’s minions around like that makes it sound like we were herding cattle and bringing them to auction. . . Well, shit, that’s pretty much what it was. I wasn’t fond of the idea or the practice, but Viggo made it clear that having human pawns increases the odds of a hemo’s survival. And I was all about survival.

FAREWELL

It was time to say goodbye to Viggo. All the loose ends were tied off, all his ducks were in a row, and he was ready to go. More than ready, actually – I’d never seen him so mellow and content. He, Aldo and I were once again in the Deviant cave, the one with modern electronics, a bed in an alcove, and bits and pieces of history scattered around the big room.

I had to ask, “Sir, why are we meeting here? I thought we’d all be down where your sarcophagus is.”

“You were hoping to perhaps tuck your sire in? How sentimental,” Aldo interjected with a sour tone.

“Could you stop being a condescending shit stain for one minute?” The words slipped out before I could stop myself, but I didn’t regret saying them.

“Scions, please,” Viggo said casually from the comfort of a recliner chair. “I will not let bickering be the last words I hear for centuries. Leo, to answer your question, Aldo has not mastered the Gift of the Void to the degree I have. He can transport himself only, so you would be trapped there. That limitation is why your blood-brother flew into town; he wanted two of his minions with him.”

I was in no position to throw that in Aldo’s face. “Oh, okay,” I said quickly to move past it. “What about Clara? Why isn’t she here with us to see you off?”

“I have already spoken with her.” He turned his head to Aldo. “She has been made aware that you will also be leaving this evening, and that she may call you at any time for any reason.” Viggo ignored his frown and said to me, “Clara has also been informed of the location of your future residence, Leo.”

“And she’ll always be welcome there, sir. Don’t worry, I’ll keep my word.”

Satisfied with my response, Viggo changed the subject. “Aldo, you only slumbered for 144 years, but you were woken prematurely. I expect to rest for much longer. However, I will allow you, Leo, to rouse me once you are able to travel to my resting place.”

“What, you mean void-walk? Uh, okay.” I turned to Aldo and asked, “How long did it take you to learn the Void Gift to that level?”

He locked his shark eyes on mine. “The stronger the ability of a Gift, Mr. Beck, the longer it takes to acquire it.” With an implied challenge, he gave me the answer. “I practiced for nearly four centuries to learn void-walking.”

Well, fuck. I couldn’t picture forty years ahead, let alone four hundred.

Viggo spoke again, pulling me from my thoughts. “None but you, my own progeny, know without doubt that I am going to take my slumber at last. It would be best to keep that secret, if only for the sake of keeping the local collective wary.”

“What of the two Deviants to whom you offered a number of your lesser minions?” Aldo asked.

Viggo shrugged. “Although Mr. Merritt and Mr. O’Shaughnessy have strong suspicions of my plans, they have no fact or proof. I did not insult them with lies, but neither did I disclose any motives behind my generosity. While they may have most likely come to the correct conclusion, I believe they both have the wisdom not to speak of their presumptions.”

“Yeah, I don’t think they would,” I agreed.

Viggo pushed himself out of the chair. “It is time to bid this age of gadgetry a fond farewell.” We stood, and he shook our hands. “My good scions, I must depart. May you fare well and account for yourselves honorably. Auf Wiedersehen.” He straightened his coat and walked back into the shadows near the bed. As an expanding pocket of the void gathered in front of him, he turned and looked at me. “Leo,” he said, “you have begun well, but you should have had better insight when you bartered with me. The ‘hall of gates’, as you called it . . . Did you think that was the only one?”

Son of a bitch – I should’ve known. I was about to say something, but he turned and disappeared. No long, weepy goodbyes for my sire. Viggo was gone. There was an unexpected loneliness attached to that fact, and also a mild sensation of freedom. I wasn’t going to dwell on it.

“I must be on my way as well,” Aldo announced, like it was just as big of a deal. “Kurt and Karl have my luggage and await my presence.”

Trying one last time to be nice, I asked, “Did you want a ride back out to the airport?” I was hoping he’d say no, but I at least made a half-assed effort. A wasted effort, as it turned out.

“No need,” Aldo replied with a surly tone. “Goodbye, Mr. Beck.” He went to the same dark spot as Viggo had and, without another word, created his own void and stepped into it. I wasn’t sorry to see Aldo go. I wondered why he stuck around as long as he did. Then again, he was gone, so I stopped giving a shit.

I stood there in silence for a few seconds, alone in a cave decorated with someone else’s extensive past. On my way out, I noticed something on the table next to the sturdy iron door. On a whim, I thought, Eh, fuck it, someone’s bound to take it – may as well be me. The helmet full of coins jingled as I made my way up the narrow stairs.

STRANGE

Three nights later, it was only about an hour before dawn when I pulled my truck into the big garage of the thunderdome. It’d been a good night. I was actually happy. Go figure.

I woke up with an idea of how to plan my minion feedings. Viggo needed to feed his minions every five weeks or so. With my slightly weaker blood, the time got condensed. So, I thought of the lunar cycle. Every new moon, I’d meet all my minions individually. Not a bad plan, right?

The evening started with a meeting I’d arranged with Gwen and Diego at the refurbished fire station. I figured since they were going to be running my gun range, they’d better get used to each other. Gwen knew how to run things and keep a tight ship; she did it all at Silas. Diego, besides being good with people, knew more about guns than I ever would. I was relieved to have them both.

I’d planned ahead, and Gwen was on board. I let her and Diego talk for a while before I made myself known. Using a trick I learned from Viggo, I used strips of the void to cover my face within the hood of my jacket. Diego freaked out a little, but not too bad. Gwen and I talked to him about the well-hidden, darker existence we were involved with. I gave him the choice to be part of it.

Gwen drank first from my Viking horn. With her assurance, Diego sipped and then gulped. He stopped smiling when I let my face be seen, but his stare was one of intense curiosity rather than horror.

After the meeting with Gwen and Diego was another short one with Ed Lockwood, the construction company boss. I met him at his house with the intention of getting to know him better, and also to get a set of keys to my new place. While I was there, I told Ed I wanted a big garage bay attached with a security door from the storage room. Hey, I was a business owner; I wasn’t gonna leave my truck out in the parking lot.

The sign for Corrective Action was up, the reworked exterior was almost complete, and the lot had new tar and paint. The inside was coming together quick. Permits were hung on a wall, codes were being met, and there was probably less than a week’s worth of work to be done.

There were plans to open the doors around the first of September after Gwen and Diego hired a staff, got a website going, advertised, and stocked up on inventory. All I cared about was getting a t-shirt with the cool logo on it. You know – priorities.

Finally, I checked out my underground apartment. There’d never been any plans made for it that I knew of, so it was left up to Ed. A plain door in the main-level conference room led to a large metal one five feet in. It required a pass-card and a code to open. That led to a wide cement staircase going down at least twenty steps to another big metal door at the bottom. There was also a video camera at each door. Once past the second card swipe and key-code, I was in my new place.

It was still bare bones – unpainted cement walls and a pile of new furniture in the large living room – but I liked it. There was more space than I expected, and more rooms than I knew what to do with. I wanted an office and a spare room for guests. Those were covered, with a few rooms to spare.

I drove back to the thunderdome in a good mood. On the way home, I thought of the next Gathering and what I planned to do there. I hoped to arrange a number of meetings with Tomasino and a few others – maybe the faction emissaries – where I’d bring a couple of Viggo’s hoarded hemos. Although they’d be bound to me when I woke ‘em with my blood, I had no intention of keeping it that way.

The effects of the unavoidable blood-binding would wear off in a month or so, and the formerly staked hemos would be free . . . albeit with a debt. Once revived, they’d be made aware that they owed me big time, and then were free to go. I planned to wake one or two at a time, spreading it out to give me time to refill my tanks. The details obviously weren’t worked out yet, but I felt pretty confident that Tomasino and the emissaries would go along with it.

The main thing was, I’d be distinguishing myself from Viggo and trying to compensate for his crimes. If it mended some fences in the meantime, I couldn’t complain. Another bonus was the fact that big favors would be owed to me. Hemos were heavily into holding debts over each other’s heads, although even a life-debt didn’t mean shit if there weren’t witnesses. Viggo’s way was just wrong – he played his own game. I was going to play the hemo game, and start out with a stacked deck.

Opening the door from the garage, I expected Thunder to be lying there in the hallway waiting for me like he normally did. The other strange thing I noticed was the glow on the stairs from an upstairs light. The only light I left on before leaving was in the kitchen. Needless to say, I got tense.

9mm in hand, I crept down the hallway. I spun into the kitchen. Empty. Since the stairs creaked, I just raced up them. The second story rooms were dark except for the lounge, where two of the lamps were on. I swung my gun into the room, looking for anything out of the ordinary.

Thunder was asleep on the far end of the couch. Like most cats, he was a light sleeper, so seeing him lying there breathing deeply as his tail twitched from a dream was weird. I’d also never seen him sleep on the couch before, so something was definitely off.

Strangest of all, I felt a breeze as I stood there in the entry to the lounge. Yeah, a breeze – inside my place where the windows didn’t fucking open. I turned, looked up, and saw a big hole in the ceiling. The half-moon was just visible from my angle. The hole was roughly circular, but with clean edges. There wasn’t any drywall on the hall floor. I was confused as well as paranoid.

And then a pair of glowing, lava-orange eyes came into view at the end of the dark hallway. Shit.

BLOOD

“Surprise, surprise, Mr. Beck,” Jack Fletcher growled from the far end of the hallway. “Since I’ll be eating your soul in a moment, I suppose we can do away with formalities . . . Leo.”

“Yeah, I guess we can, Jack,” I managed to reply, even though my mind was spinning with questions. I was always careful about being tailed. Did he somehow track me anyway? Did someone sell me out? The list of who could’ve was short, very short. I didn’t have time to mull it over right then – I had a hemo to piss off. He was already angry, but I needed him over the edge. That’s where mistakes are made.

“Just so I know,” I asked, thinking of how to get to my other guns in the bedroom, “why are you here? Is it because your boy Declan went out screaming like a girl and got turned into separate little piles of dust? Or maybe it’s because Viggo made you look like a trouble-making little bitch in front of everyone? Either way, you know he’d kick your ass in a heartbeat, so you come after me instead, right? What a fucking coward you are.”

“Your sire can’t save you now, and I tire of your weak chatter,” Fletcher said as his eyes lowered, telling me he was crouching to charge. There was no time to wonder if he knew Viggo was gone or if he just planned to finish me quick. In a sudden rush, the burly Outsider came at me with those damn claws.

I was the taller of us, but Fletcher had more mass. He planned to use it to either smash me back into the lounge, or jam his claws into my chest. Neither sounded good. I knew from experience that hemo claw wounds were much harder to heal. I guessed it was a supernatural weapon thing. I hadn’t asked.

I emptied my Glock into him as he barreled forward. The bullets stood him up straighter, but he hardly lost any momentum. I dropped a split second before Fletcher got to me and used my head and shoulder to take his legs out from under him. He tumbled over and past me into the lounge. The collision with some of the furniture finally woke Thunder, who came running past me out of the room.

I backed up to the door of my bedroom as Fletcher quickly got back to his feet like an animal. As fast as I was, there still wasn’t enough time for me to get my Super Shorty and load it before the bastard was on me again. I was quicker, and most likely stronger, but he had those damn claws and was the toughest son of a bitch (except for Viggo) that I’d ever seen. I needed to create some space.

Closer than before, Fletcher stood at the entry to the lounge with his back slightly hunched. He glared at me, ready to pounce. “You act like you’re the one with the advantage, asshole,” I said. “I’m just waiting for you to make another stupid move.”

“Keep running away, scared rabbit,” Fletcher countered while he took two slow, prowling steps forward and ripped off his tattered shirt. “Your blood will taste sweeter from the effort.”

“Come on then, prick. I don’t have all night.” Yeah, big talk; I was in deep shit.

Fletcher lunged forward, swinging a vicious set of claws. Reacting on instinct, I caught his arm at the wrist. He was a little surprised that I stopped his attack cold, so I took advantage of the moment. A front kick sent him reeling back against the banister. I rushed forward to press the attack and planted my boot in his chest with a running side kick.

I meant to knock Fletcher over the banister and onto the lower half of the split-level stairs. I forgot my strength, though, and sent him through it instead. Wood went flying as he rocketed backwards. He slammed into the wall of the stairwell and tumbled down the last few steps to the first floor.

There was no pause; I heard movement as soon as Fletcher went out of view. Just as I began to wonder what condition he was in, I heard him say, “Are you coming down, or am I coming back up?”

Fuck, he was tough. I ran into the bedroom and grabbed my Super Shorty from its case. I heard the stairs creak as I loaded the mini-cannon with whatever shells were handy. When I spun, he was coming at me again. With time for only one shot, I aimed high. Buckshot ripped into the right side of Fletcher’s face at point-blank range. The compact spray cratered his cheek and ruined his right eye.

The force of the deafening blast sent Fletcher back against a wall. The bastard didn’t go down. I guess that fact rattled me, because he managed to lurch forward and swing again. He was too far away to hit me, but his claws sliced two holes in the outstretched barrel of my gun.

Useless as a firearm, I swung the gun like a short club and dented the side of his head. The hit spun him, and he fell away from me to his hands and knees. I grabbed my combat knife with every intention of cutting the bastard’s head off. Yanking his head up from behind with my left hand, I reached around with the blade and slashed.

There was no sense of penetration, no piercing of flesh. Fletcher chuckled – yeah, chuckled – and then raked his claws through the muscles of my right forearm. Blood gushed and muscles were severed. Shit, I just lost use of my right hand. And worse than that, it fucking hurt.

The knife fell out of my twitching hand, so I took a step back and kneed him in the back of the head before he could turn around. Fletcher went down flat and slid a few feet on the hardwood floor, but immediately started to get back up.

Ignoring the blood pouring out of my burning forearm, I stepped forward and snapped a jab into his smiling mouth. My knuckles broke one of extended incisors. Fletcher blinked once, smiled again, and swung an open backhand. I ducked under it, stepping to the side. Two hard hooks to the gut made him buckle, but not enough. He got hold of my shirt and yanked me in close.

Stupidly, I went with the motion and head-butted Fletcher in his face – a grisly face that had already begun to heal. He head-butted me right back. I pulled his hand off me and stepped back to clear my vision. He swung again. I stepped out into the hallway to dodge the claws, but one of them ripped through my shirt and across my right shoulder.

My straight left to Fletcher’s bloody eye socket didn’t have much leverage to it, but it still managed to make him stumble back a few steps. “Is that all you got, you little bitch?” I taunted, hoping to make him attack wildly again so I could take advantage of it. My wish was granted, sort of.

Fletcher charged again. As he came in close, I leaned to my right and caught one of his reaching arms. I spun with the raging hemo’s momentum and hip-tossed him toward the staircase. The tenacious fucker grabbed my arm as I flung him, and we both flew over the edge.

I hadn’t really tested my exerted strength, but I knew it was disproportionate to my body. Well, I just had my first test. My focused power was enough to send two good-sized men hurling through the air. Unfortunately, I was one of them. Fletcher and I smashed down onto the lower case of the stairs, which was cement under the wood planks. The impact made us lose our grip on each other. We both tumbled out onto the first floor a few paces apart. I was next to my office door, and he was near the kitchen.

I’ll admit it, I was hurting. The claw wounds wouldn’t close, so my upper right side was blood-soaked. Landing hard on those damn stairs screwed up my left knee. My blood loss was sapping my strength. Looking at Fletcher as we both stood, though . . . He wasn’t doing too great, either. His face had stopped healing and was still pretty gruesome, he was pale as a sheet, and he was favoring his left side where I’d driven two hooks into his ribs. I think my greater progeny was keeping me in the fight.

Wanting to finish one way or another, I was the one who charged forward that time. A flying knee to the chest slammed Fletcher back into the doorway of the kitchen. He rolled to his left and stumbled into the lit room. I quickly followed. He was waiting for me.

Both of his hands latched onto my shirt as I ran in. He used my speed to slam me to the floor, and was on top of me before I could spin away. Our legs struggled for position while I held one of his arms at bay; my fucked up right arm could only block incoming swings. After one claw managed to stab me in the chest, I was able to pin that arm down against his thigh. That’s when Fletcher gave a broken-tooth grin, opened his mouth wide for a bite, and leaned his head down toward my face.

We both heard a gasp. Fletcher looked over his shoulder, and I leaned my head to one side to see who the surprise visitor was. At that moment, I thought any interruption was welcome. I was wrong.

“ . . . Leo?” asked a soft, trembling voice. At the entry to the kitchen was my doe-eyed sister Clara.

SISTER

Frozen in place by shock and fear, Clara stood there with a couple Disney DVDs clutched to her chest. She’d innocently come into danger, and I was going to have one hell of a time keeping my promise to watch out for her. In a panic, I yelled, “Run, Clara! Get outta here!”

Fletcher sprung off me like an animal and raced the few steps over to her while I scrambled to my feet. He grabbed her by the neck and lifted as he spun, pinning her back to his chest. Holding the terrified girl against him, he pressed his free hand of claws against her poncho and then smiled at me. “Ah, and who do we have here? Clara, is it?”

“She isn’t part of this, Jack,” I said, trying to keep my voice calm. “You only came here for me.”

“Oh, but I can’t let an unexpected gift like this pass me by, Leo. I can tell that this fresh young thing is important to you, just as Declan was to me. Now you can know my anguish before I put you down once and for all.” Fletcher sniffed her ear and added, “I sense old blood in little Clara. Perhaps it’ll taste as sweet as yours.”

From out of the dark hallway, Thunder suddenly landed on Fletcher’s head. Screeching like a feral beast, my awesome cat clawed at his face. Roaring in surprise, the elder Outsider flung Clara by her neck across the kitchen. I saw blood as she was tossed away, so the claws must’ve sliced at her throat. Thunder was knocked away a second later, but it was all the opening I needed.

With my last reserves of energy, I laid into the bastard with my good limbs. My right boot to the side of Fletcher’s head drove him sideways into the near wall. He bounced back and thrust his claws at me, but his swing was sloppy. I dodged, grabbed his arm as I spun my back to him, and broke his elbow over my shoulder. I drove my own elbow backward into his stomach, then turned and threw an uppercut into his exposed armpit. The punch to the nerve cluster there made him crumple to the floor. I shoved Fletcher the rest of the way down and stomped on the side of his neck. He didn’t move.

I was about to go get one of the broken banister spindles from out in the hallway to jam into Fletcher’s heart, but dizziness made me stumble. I was out of gas. Hell, the room was dimming from my wavering consciousness. I took a few steps and put my hand to a wall for support.

And then the hamstring of my right leg flared with almost unbearable pain. Fletcher had dragged himself the few feet to reach me and buried his claws in the back of my leg. I went down yelling and slumped against the floorboard.

“Now, before I finish you,” Fletcher said with labored breath as he struggled to stand, “you get to watch me slice your little friend into bloody ribbons. It’s only fair, don’t you think?” He turned toward the kitchen cabinets where he’d thrown my sister. “Say goodbye to Leo, Clara.”

The room dimmed even more. That time I knew it wasn’t failing eyesight, because the resulting gloom began to gather and spin. Following the shadows was a swirling breeze that quickly turned into a strong wind. I looked over to Clara, but I only saw a monster in a purple poncho. With a harsh, booming voice, she said, “My name is Vivian!”

The wind intensified, focusing on Fletcher. Strips of the abyss began adding in to the mix of airborne napkins, splinters of wood, and cat food. Weak on his feet, Fletcher was buffeted backward. Then, like they were sucked in by a tornado, those black strips converged around his neck.

I thought the strips were going to be used to choke him, like I basically had done to a streetlamp. Instead of constricting, though, Clara/Vivian used them to open a void – with Fletcher’s neck in the middle.

He didn’t even have time to fully reach up and claw at the darkness circling just under his chin. Trying to tear it off him would’ve been useless anyway. With a primal scream, my sister closed the void.

Fletcher stood there motionless, his long hair wafting in the dying wind, and with a thin layer of his neck gone. His fading orange eyes opened wide before his head tumbled off his shoulders.

Only a second after Fletcher’s head and body fell to the floor, they turned to dust and were swept around the room from the last of the breeze. I dropped my forehead to the floor from both pain and relief. Less than a minute later, I felt a small hand in my hair. “Leo, are you okay?” Clara softly asked.

I looked up and saw the same cute face I was used to. She had a dish towel pressed to her neck, and a worried look in her big, dark eyes. “Yeah, I’m okay,” I lied. “Are you?”

“I’ll be alright,” she replied with a shrug. “Maybe we should eat something. I’ll call some rats.”

“Yeah, that’d be great,” I said as I propped myself against the wall. Thunder quietly padded back in and settled himself next to me. He deserved pampering from then on.

“I hope Thunder doesn’t eat them all,” she added with a small smile, acting as if she’d forgotten what just happened. Clara then picked up something next to me; it was one of the DVDs she brought. “After we eat, will you come watch this with me?” she asked. “Some parts are kinda scary.”

###


Embracing the Shadows

  • Author: Gavin Green
  • Published: 2015-09-26 22:50:10
  • Words: 77292
Embracing the Shadows Embracing the Shadows