Avenari - Chapter 13
After leaving a short note on Simone’s office desk that explained my trip and told him not to worry, I picked up a light coat for myself and one of Sam’s old jackets for the kid. It only took a few minutes, and I soon headed back downstairs to get the show on the road.
After leaving a short note on Simone’s office desk that explained my trip and told him not to worry, I picked up a light coat for myself and one of Sam’s old jackets for the kid. It only took a few minutes, and I soon headed back downstairs to get the show on the road.
My brief absence, however, seemed to be all that was necessary to give the two in the living room enough time to start fighting again.
“Honestly, I don’t give a damn what you think of me,” Andris was saying as I descended the staircase. “Please, just shut up now before I find it necessary to kill you.”
“Like hell!” Nick snapped back. “I want a goddamn apology, jackass! Just ‘cause you’re a billion years old and a cannibal doesn’t mean you have the right to treat me like a bug!”
“Oh, go find a hobby!” The ancient was shouting now, thoroughly riled up. “I’m a different species! It doesn’t count as cannibalism!”
I stopped halfway down the steps and watched them squabble like rivaling siblings. In a way, it was kind of cute to think that Andris could have a—mostly—normal argument with a mortal, subject matter notwithstanding. Equally precious was Nick’s attitude towards the powerful vampire. The kid had some serious moxie to think that he was tough enough to hold his own against Andris. That certainly kicked him up a few notches in my book
Unfortunately, I couldn’t let the entertainment go on if we wanted to make some headway before nightfall. I also had to find a meal at some point, and despite his present energy, I knew that the kid needed sleep. The sooner we left, the sooner he could rest.
As I descended the stairs, Nick fell abruptly silent, glancing around as though he hadn’t been in the middle of calling the ancient a few choice names. Andris noticed the kid’s sudden reaction and turned to see what the cause was, frowning slightly when he saw me.
He cast a mean, sidelong smirk at Nick. “You have no backbone at all, do you?”
“Enough!” I interrupted before Nick got his second wind. Both of them remained quiet.
“Okay, look,” I said. “I don’t care how much you hate each other. You’re going to get along even if I have to beat you both half to death, understand?”
“Yes’m,” Nick said sharply, refusing to look at me.
I turned to Andris, and he gave a noncommittal shrug. “I’ll do what I feel like, but thank you all the same for trying to correct my wayward path.”
“You asshole!” Nick shouted, unable to restrain himself.
“Silence!” I chucked the coat at Nick’s face and he dodged it in surprise, finally making a determined effort not to rise to Andris’ bait. “We’re leaving now. Nick, you need the bathroom or anything?” The only toilet was on the ground floor.
“Nope. I’m fine.”
“Good. Andris, where to?”
He seemed oddly surprised. “Excuse me? Have today’s fledglings lost all respect for their elders, or are you just special because Simone, the Emperor’s favorite lap-dog, created you?”
I frowned, realizing that the Nariuvne wasn’t going to make this easy, and asked with strained politeness, “Andris, could you please lead the way to Ivanarke?” The really old ones were supposed to be such stuffy bastards. Maybe Andris wasn’t so different, after all.
The ancient considered it…then shook his head and stood. “Never mind. Someone like you being polite just doesn’t sit well with me.” Without waiting for us, he slipped his coat on in one liquid movement and made for the exit.
“Wait a minute. What makes you so damn sure that you know what I’m like?” I ushered Nick out of his seat and followed Andris out the front door.
When it clicked shut behind us, Andris said, “Because I know. You were the same demanding little girl at age ten as you are now. I have some of your mother’s memories of you as a child. I was sure that you were dead, but I never remembered actually killing you. I guess we know why.” He glanced over his shoulder and gave me an obscure smirk.
I felt my jaw start to drop, but caught it just in time and put on a stern glare. “That’s kind of twisted, don’t you think?”
He stuck his hands in his coat pockets and sighed as though I were being absurd. “I’ve lived long enough to learn that there indeed is nothing sacred in this world. Sometimes it’s more entertaining to give into some perversion than to live in the manner that Simone has. I wonder if he’s ever done anything for the sheer fun of it. Besides, you were entertaining.”
I trudged to the garage where my baby was waiting. “Where does this sudden energy come from? Ten minutes ago, you were practically comatose.”
“The sun,” he replied simply, black eyes glinting through his shock-white bangs like coal on Frosty’s face—assuming that Frosty had been an ancient, slightly demonic, vampire-predating creature.
If that had indeed been the case, the song would probably have made those children cry.
Frosty, the Snowman…was a twisted, heartless soul…with his pointy fangs and a thirst for blood and two eyes like twin black holes…
“Ah. The sun. Of course.” I punched in the code to open the garage door.
The door rose slowly on silent rollers, and suddenly I didn’t feel all that irked. My car was more and more beautiful every time I saw it in the sun, with a diamond-black sheen that shone pearl blue in just the right angles of light.
“Mornin’ sweetie!” I greeted, sliding my hand up the hood and readying my keys.
“I’ll be taking that.”
In a blink, the keys vanished from my hand. For a moment, I was at a total loss, as though my world had imploded—before I slowly turned to glower at the conniving bastard who dared defile my precious. “Keys or death, Andy,” I growled.
He frowned at the name and held the keys up higher than I could reach without jumping. “Don’t call me that. You don’t even know where we’re going, so I suggest you let me drive—actually, I’m not even suggesting.” He bared his insane fangs like a flashy newborn, taunting me.
“But...but my car!” I said, refusing to acknowledge the hopelessness in my own words.
“Please keep the drama to yourself,” he responded smoothly in that satin voice, laced with amusement at my expense. “You may ride in front if you wish, but this vehicle would not do well in an airport parking lot for an indefinite length of time.”
“Then what’s your brilliant plan, genius?”
“How does a limousine sound? It can drop us off.”
My argument got stuck in my lungs before it could escape. “Come again?”
“Li-mou-sine.” He said each syllable like a separate word, as though I were slow.
By the time I had processed the absurdity he had just suggested, he was already in my car, shutting my door, and revving my engine.
“Hey! Get out of my seat!” I snapped back to reality, trying to open the door to kick him out. Despite my efforts, he had locked it, and motioned for me to go around.
“I should get one of these for myself,” Andris mused when I opened the other door and tried not to fling myself across to kill him dead.
“Looks like I’m in the back, either way,” sighed Nick, sliding in behind me.
I glanced at the mortal then shot the ancient a vehement glare, before getting in and shutting the door in irritation. “If you hurt my baby, I’ll make you disappear from this world, Andy. Capice?”
“I’ve been driving since before you were born,” he said while we waited for Nick to buckle up. “The Model-T wasn’t nearly as impressive, and I never bothered with anything before that.” He smirked at me, and I couldn’t help but notice that the car’s all-black leather interior utterly completed his image. I eyed the driver’s seat with jealousy, resenting how snugly it held the bastard’s backside.
Ugh. My baby was a traitor. All that love and scrubbing and waxing and polishing...and for what? For this arrogant bastard? Why, my precious?!
“Regardless of how long you’ve been driving, if you hurt her, I will end you,” I hissed.
“Relax. Shockingly enough, I usually follow the speed limits. I have a thing for loud machines, so I take good care of them.” It was bizarre how quickly he learned what everything in the car did, fiddling with the seat to allow his long legs more space and putting the car in gear to exit the garage. Then again, it was entirely possible that he had driven one before.
“Thank God!” Nick said out of nowhere.
“What?” Andris pulled onto the gravel drive and hit the visor button to close the garage door. He turned to see Nick sinking back into the plush seats as though he’d just been informed that the tumor was benign.
The kid shook his head jerked his thumb at me. “Lynn speeds like you wouldn’t believe. I thought I was going to die just getting here.”
The ancient gave me an amused look. “Oh, really?”
“You shut up!” I hit the usurper of my throne across his shoulder, which earned me little more than a cocked brow. “I’ll have you for grand theft auto!”
“All the armies of the United Nations couldn’t touch me, so what chance do the police have, pray tell?” he said with another maddening smirk.
In only a few minutes we were on the highway; a few more and we were on rural lands.
Following the speed limit made me antsy. We were taking roads I hadn’t known existed in the area—roads leading into the deepest reaches of the forest—but despite the new scenery, I couldn’t help fidgeting constantly. I hated being a mere passenger in my own car.
“Go a little faster, would you?” I asked about twenty minutes into the ride, wringing my fingers in my lap and watching the nearest edge of the road because it seemed to be moving more rapidly than the rest. “It’s too slow.”
Nick popped in between the seats. “Are you nuts? Don’t listen to her, man.”
I shoved his head back and poked Andris’ arm. “Seriously. I’ll go stir crazy. Floor it or something. Just once. Once is fine.”
Andris sighed, “Could you two stop fighting? We’ve arrived.”
“Where?” I forgot the argument and pressed up against the window to stare at the remarkably green scenery. There was nothing particularly special about the location, other than that it was a quaint little meadow. A doe stared at us from the other side, probably wondering the same thing I was. “What the hell are we doing in the middle of the woods?” I asked.
“Get out and I’ll show you.” Instantly, he was on the other side of the door. It took longer for the door to slam shut than for him to get out.
I frowned…then got out like a normal person. “Creepy bastard. You’d better not have scratched the paint getting here.”
“Don’t call me creepy.”
“How about spooky?” Nick suggested, joining me on Andris’ side of the car.
The ancient gave him a rankled look before deciding not to address the alternate description. “This way.”
While trying not to catch our clothes on the multitudes of burr-bearing plants dotting the little patch of sun, we picked our way across the dewy, leaf-littered meadow. On the other side, there appeared to be a cleverly concealed outhouse disguised as a tree. Thick vines coiled around its frame, surrounded by several ancient oaks—one of which had grown branches through the structure itself. We were so far from the highway that could barely hear any cars.
“Isn’t it kinda small for a limo?” Nick asked, deadpan. He gave Andris the hairy eyeball. For once, I wasn’t the one under his psychoanalytical scrutiny, which was a relief.
Andris shook his head. “You really are stupid. The car is beneath us. That building only houses the staircase, which leads to an underground complex. There’s another entrance—a larger one—but I’d rather not let you know where. When we leave, we’ll take a roundabout route.”
“And how the crap did you find the time to create an underground complex?”
“Trust me. I’ve had plenty of time.” He gave Nick a pointed look, and the kid glanced away, probably feeling a little ridiculous for thinking that an immortal being wouldn’t have time for something.
“More importantly, we’re right outside Simone’s territory,” I said. “How on earth have you been sneaking around without our knowledge? Why are you here?”
He shrugged a little. “I’ve got hideouts in pretty much every corner of the United States. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is fairly remote, and I just happened to have connections in the area, so it seemed prudent to keep a stash of cars here. There are other stashes in Alaska, Maine, California, Florida, et alia. I normally stay in hotels when I need a place, but that’s not often. I move around almost constantly, all over the world.”
“I guess that makes sense. How come you’re here right now, though? I mean, it’s a pretty wacky coincidence.”
“I stopped by to do paperwork—well, to try and avoid doing paperwork.” He frowned deeply, clearly annoyed, and shook his head. “Anyway, that doesn’t matter. I was driving through your territory to change cars when I sensed your presence. The rest is history.”
“Did you know that Simone was here?” I asked.
“No, I wasn’t aware that Simone was the one who ruled that territory. I knew it was a fairly powerful ancient, but I don’t like to hunt near my safe houses, so I never felt the need to go poking my nose into his business. Besides, I can get through the barrier without anyone noticing. I can erase my signature at will when the need arises.”
I stared at him, squinting hard. “Nick’s right; you’re too spooky.”
“When you spend thousands of years avoiding people who want you dead, you get into the habit of hedging your bets. Now, are you done interrogating me or should I set up a small room with a hot lamp and a voice recorder?”
I pouted a little. “I’m done, I guess. I just don’t get to talk to new people very often. This is pretty exciting stuff.”
He rolled his eyes and continued onward. “Well, your life is about to become filled with excitement. I hope you know what you’re getting yourself into.”
I stuck my tongue out at him when he turned away. Nick chuckled, and we shared a grin.
Once at the structure, Andris reached into his coat and drew out a bizarre key—the kind one usually would see in movies, with little teeth sticking out from every side of a thin bronze rod. He then slipped it into a matching knothole and turned. I could hear dozens of little tumblers falling into place. Andris listened, too, and after a few turns seemed satisfied.
“Careful in here.” He tugged on another knothole in the warped, gray wood and pulled the door open with a strained creak. “I never put in lights for the stairs—my night vision is better than yours—so don’t go tripping over your own feet and knocking me down when you fall.”
“Wouldn’t want to inconvenience you,” I muttered, following him into the black hole and grabbing Nick’s hand so that he didn’t run into anything. “Nick, stay close. You can’t see in the dark at all compared to us.”
“That’s right, mock the mortal,” he said, closing the door and trudging right behind me down the nearly invisible, crooked wooden steps. “Just because he’s an asshole doesn’t mean you have to emulate him.”
“I’m not,” I said. “I’m just being realistic. Can you see at all?”
A moment passed, followed by a grudging “No.”
“Good boy. Now shut up and hurry up. Andy’s grumpy.”
From far below: “Would you please, for the love of the gods, stop calling me that?!”
Nick chuckled. “Walk slower. Piss him off a little more.”
“What did I just say?” I snapped.
The kid simply laughed.
After a few minutes of careful foot-placement and some close calls involving steps that had vanished completely—there were no hand rails—dim orange light finally brightened in the stairwell. Not long after, we entered a large concrete space, lit by only a few faint bulbs.
“Whoa,” my friend whispered in awe.
I could understand Nick’s feelings on the matter. Despite the absurd location, the entire room was filled with vehicles, packed neatly together with just enough room between them for a person to crack the doors open and squeeze in.
“No way. Is that a Ferrari?”
I found my hand empty in time to see Nick take off between the cars. He came to a sudden stop before a lipstick-red Ferrari something-or-other from long ago. “Don’t break it!” I called. It was the only thing I could think to say, recalling the movie about that Ferris kid and dreading Andris’ payment plan.
“If he does, I’ll rip his bones out one-by-one, starting with his toes. That car took years of planning to get.” As was his habit, Andris had disappeared from where he had been on the other side of the room and reappeared beside me, frowning in consternation at the kid.
“You’re such a nice person,” I said, pursing my lips. “I think he likes old things. He was like that when he saw our stuff at home.”
“Humans,” the ancient muttered, clearly baffled as to how this fascination could evolve.
I looked up at him. “So…what are you, some overlord of the underground street scene?”
“I suppose you could put it that way.” He nodded down the row. “The limousine’s over there, if you’d like to take a look. The only problem is that we don’t have a chauffeur.”
“Can’t you drive?” I asked, heading over to check out our ride. “And how are we supposed to get it out of here, anyway? I don’t see any doors.”
“The back wall over there is just plaster over a steel frame. I have a remote to open it.” He indicated the wall opposite the stairs, and the narrow path between two rows of cars which would allow us to drive out. “And I don’t feel like driving.”
“What, so you want me to drive?” I cupped my hands around my eyes to peer through the black Limo’s mirror tint. Cream leather seats…not as good as my baby, but good enough.
“No, I want you to wish for a driver. My usual chauffeur isn’t really a chauffeur—he’s more of a lackey—and it just happens that he’s on vacation. Besides, I don’t want him sticking his nose into any of this.” He seemed to be staring at something that I couldn’t see, and whatever he saw put a grumpy look on his face.
I gave him a hard frown. “Why are you so fixated on the fact that I can wish for stuff?”
“Why is the human so fascinated with old things?” he countered, folding his arms across his chest and matching my frown. “I happen to be curious about cars and sorcery. I would kill a royal family for the new Bugatti concept, but not even I have the power to speed development.” He paused, as though holding a moment silence for the yet-unborn car.
Faced with his baffling personality quirks, I finally relented. “Fine, but how am I supposed to wish up a human being? There must be some sort of natural law that says I can’t.”
“You won’t know unless you make an attempt. Wish up someone who won’t ask questions, and who will return my car before disappearing and leaving no trace.”
Well, the sun had risen, so it might work this time. “Oh, whatever. I wish we had a chauffeur like the one Andris just described.” I didn’t bother with theatrics—I was reluctant enough already, and putting in the effort seemed like a hassle.
For a moment, there was nothing, and I started to worry. Then a pinpoint of light sparked across the feather. I had just enough time to shut my eyes before it intensified to a blinding flash, and moments later it grew dim once more. When I looked again, it had returned to normal.
“Huh. Maybe it works better in direct sunlight?” I tapped the little stone, giving it a puzzled look.
“Perhaps. It worked, though.”
Andris pointed to the driver’s door.
Cautious, I walked up, peering through the lighter tint and seeing someone sitting quietly inside. “Whoa, I made a person! Do you think he’ll call me Mommy?”
The ancient stared at me in blatant disbelief. “Ye gods, I hope not. He’s a grown man—I think.” He motioned me aside. “Move. I want to see the results.”
“Be my guest.”
Andris pulled the door open. “You, in my car, what’s your name?”
The chauffeur was an elderly man dressed in a crisp gray uniform, aging well, and with a genial face. He smiled kindly at the ancient. “My name is James, sir.” On second thought, maybe I didn’t want an old man calling me Mommy.
“James.” Andris looked at me. “What do you think?”
“The amulet does what I ask. It should be fine. James, can you drive?”
The man bowed his head graciously. “Yes, ma’am. I’ve been driving for forty years.”
“There.” I disregarded the fact that the driver had been created only moments ago, yet claimed to have four decades of experience under his belt. “He’s perfect for the job. Now, make nice while I drag Nick away from your collection.”
“If he scratched it, make him run, because I will kill him.”
“Over my dead body, pretty-boy,” I called back.
By the time I got to him, Nick had already migrated to another car with cobalt paint and a hood vent big enough to eat my torso. I liked cars, but this was one I couldn’t have identified without a manual. Andris had dozens of both classic and original creations—from an old gangster car in flat black, to some more heavily modified specimens. He even had a Formula One racer. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know where it had come from. I would not have envied the poor soul whose half-million dollars just up and drove away.
“Nick, come on.” I tapped the kid’s shoulder to get his attention.
He ripped it away from the window. “What?”
“Get in the limo. I wished up a chauffeur, so we’re leaving.”
“Oh.” This news obviously disappointed him. “Wait, you wished for a person?” I nodded, and he reluctantly bade farewell to the cars and followed me back to the impatient old vampire, who ushered the two of us in and closed the door as James was just starting the engine.
Confused as to why Andris hadn’t gotten in, I lowered the window and stuck my head out. “Where are you going?”
“We can keep your car in here until we return,” he said simply. “It’s safer, and I don’t want to put up with the hell I’ll have to go through if it were stolen while we were away.”
“Oh. We’ll meet you outside then, I guess.” Jackass, making decisions like that without consulting me…though I appreciated his concern.
Andris waved halfheartedly and disappeared up the stairs without a response.
I wasn’t sure how he had known the way, but James managed to get the limo between the rows and glide out smoothly once the wall lifted up. Beyond the door, a dimly lit ramp carried us up until another door released us onto the driveway of a quaint, rustic vacation home, of all things. There was even a lake out back, and I could see a couple of cabins on the other side.
So that was how he managed to blend in. Such buildings weren’t rare—many northerners liked to split life between summer here and winter in places like Florida. I felt silly for thinking that the side of some hill would open up to let us out. Andris certainly had his affairs in order.
“I wish I had a car,” Nick said, lying across the row of seats opposite from me. They curved in enough for a person to sleep comfortably, making him look like a sleepy puppy.
“I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself,” I said, grinning when he scratched his hair and raised his head to squint at the sunlight on the other side of the tint. Yep, like a puppy.
He sat up, suddenly restless. “Oh, wait. I’m gonna scope out the joint before the asshole comes back.”
I rolled my eyes, deciding not to chide him for the name-calling. “You do that.”
While Nick wandered around, I watched the outside. James had parked to wait for Andris, and I could only assume that this was where he would be taking my car. I hadn’t seen any other ways in or out of the underground garage. Sure enough, my treasure rounded the bend of a road hidden by thick trees. It gleamed in the sun, throwing off mirror-like reflections of the surrounding forest and sky.
It made me jealous, but Andris really did look like he belonged in that car. It shared his dark, eerily perfect beauty and prestigious attitude. As he passed, I could have sworn that he had noticed me and smirked.
“Arrogant bastard,” I muttered under my breath. I turned my back to the glass and slumped in the seat. The only way to really learn his true intentions was to bite him, and despite my blood’s nagging I refused to give in. Besides, what I really needed was mortal blood.
I glanced back and watched my baby melt into the darkness of the garage, then looked at Nick. He had discovered a small drop-down television on the roof of the limo, and was in the process of figuring out which buttons did what on the remote he had found alongside it.
Just a little…
The blood was whispering again.
A little would not hurt him…
“Nick, come here a second.”
He held up a hand. “Wait, I think I’ve got it.” He hit a few more buttons, and up popped a local news channel rambling on about an upcoming cold front. With his mission accomplished, he turned to grin at me. “Okay, what did you want?”
I laughed a little uneasily. “Well, I know you haven’t had much time to recover, and that my blood should be wearing off soon, but would you mind letting me have some of yours? I didn’t have a chance to feed last night…”
“Sure.” He ducked his head and came over to drop casually beside me, then pulled sweater away from his pallid skin. “Take what you need. Just don’t kill me—I have a life now.”
His smile was so openly altruistic that I smiled back. “You’re a good kid.”
“Nah, I’m just a little twisted.”
“Nevertheless,”—I leaned in and slipped my hands around his waist and up his back, gripping his shoulders to pull him down to me—“I am happy to have you here.” As the thirst rose, my senses sharpened and the latent scent of his blood filled my lungs.
I bit, and the warmth flooded onto my tongue like a rejuvenating drug, making me sigh and tighten my grip as it quenched the burning thirst. By the first swallow, his arms were around me, urging me to continue. He was so remarkably fragile…
I stopped once the burning subsided and gently drew my fangs from his neck to lick the wound. After a few strokes, it faded to little more than a pink crescent.
When I pulled away, I saw that his eyes had glazed over, staring ahead and lost in their own little fantasy realm. I snapped my fingers in front of his face a couple of times, and he awoke with a start. He shook his head a little, clearing the fog away.
I smiled. “Welcome back. Thank you for suffering my burden with me.”
He wavered a bit, but steeled himself with the support of the seat back and placed a hand on my shoulder, grinning as though Christmas had come early. “Anytime, anywhere. If the only downside is dizziness and a freaky craving for liquids, then I’m all in.”
“Until she does something stupid and you die, of course,” growled a familiar voice.
Nick and I both nearly fell out of our seats due to a combination of surprise and the limousine’s sudden jolt forward. Luckily, I caught the nearest OS bar and grabbed Nick’s arm in time to save both of us from a tumble. Like the well-trained mortal he was, the kid immediately found the nearest over-the-shoulder seat belt—in the far back row of seats—and buckled up.
I, on the other hand, was too busy clutching the handhold and glaring at the irate demon in the seat across from me. “How long have you been there?”
His eyes were already slits, yet he still managed somehow to narrow them even further. “Plenty long. Care to explain why you are feeding from your pet when he hasn’t recovered from the last meal?”
“I didn’t take enough to hurt him,” I replied. “Besides, he gave me permission.”
Andris’ glare slid over to Nick, who was too dazed to really care about the argument, and then back to me. “He needs three days to recover from where he is now. Any less and he will die. His body isn’t strong enough to support your thirst. Is that enough of a reality-check, or would you like to know that just one more sip could have put him into a coma?”
I lost it. “What do you care! You hate mortals, so I see no reason why you should even have an opinion to offer.”
He didn’t shout, but his voice held the possibility of anger, like magma flowing beneath the earth’s insubstantial crust. “If what your blood partner said was any indication, you’ve only killed once before, and that person was probably a complete stranger. If you accidentally killed a friend, what would that do to you?”
“Blood partner? I don’t have a blood partner,” I said, instantly perplexed. “If you mean Ivan, he’s just my ex. And regardless of what your situation may be, mine is infinitely different. My blood does what I want it to do. It would never kill Nick.”
His eyes returned to normal at my response, though he was still frowning. “I see…however, no matter how well you think you know your thirst and your blood, they are still two faces to the same animal, and animals live by instinct. If you let your guard down even once, Nick’s death will be on your hands.”
“Which is why I’m not going to kill him!” I cried, astounded that he could fixate so firmly on one thing.
In the pause before Andris could come up with another retort, Nick’s voice floated between us, “Hey, guys, it would be really nice if you didn’t talk about me dying while I’m right here.” He was slouched back and breathing heavily, but the bottle of water he had mysteriously acquired seemed to be a great relief. It sent a painful twinge through me to see what I had done.
Hell, if I felt this guilty for Nick’s current state, accidentally killing him would crush me.
“Sorry,” I mumbled, turning away. “For arguing and for draining your energy like that.”
“Huh? I’m not mad. I told you already that I’m available when you’re in a pinch. Don’t let that guy’s pessimistic residue rub off on you.” Even when practically crippled, he still had the cojones to rip on a Crimson. What a brave, stupid mortal.
“You know, he may die without your help, after all,” Andris muttered darkly. “I told James to drive us to the international airport. He said that it would take a couple of hours.”
“Sounds like fun,” I said with mock-cheer. “I’m trapped in a car with a xenophobic madman and a potential guilt trip. Turn up the TV. I need a dose of someone else’s misery.”
“I’m not a xenophobe,” the madman said stiffly, folding his arms and frowning at the television. “I simply find it unfathomable how such flawed creatures have managed so thoroughly to infect their world. They aren’t even worth bleeding.”
“You’re not like me,” I said. “We have a use for them, and it’s their world. If it were ours, things would never change. Immortals bring no progress. We just stagnate until we rot.”
“Then that makes you a fool for trying to break out of the system created by the fathers of your race. After the humans die, and after the Shimaren are gone, I will be the only one left to gather the bones.”
I frowned—not because of what he said, but because of how he said it. His words seemed to make him sad. “It would be awful to be the last person alive on earth, wouldn’t it?” I said softly, disliking the thought.
“For all intents and purposes, I already am.”
“Don’t you get lonely?” I asked.
“Loneliness is for people capable of coexisting with others, who want to coexist with others.” He gazed blankly at the TV as he spoke. “As one who can’t be a part of either world, I have no business wanting such things. I feed and I live—thus passes the story of my life.”
I couldn’t understand him. I had always wanted to be around people who could talk to me without thinking I was a freak. When I was little, before meeting the twins and before my mom’s death, I had never gotten along with my classmates or the other kids in town. I hadn’t been a normal little girl for those times. I was the wild child, beating up the boys who made fun of me.
After Mom died, my behavior became so atrocious that I had to be home-schooled...and then Simone came. Simone was an immovable object. I had hated him at first, but after a while I realized that he was the only one I really didn’t hate. He wasn’t there for money, and he didn’t think I was creepy. He gave me a new reason to live, and the twins gave me new faith in the people around me. It had been that way ever since. Those three were my saviors, in a way.
“Well, you’re an idiot,” sighed Nick, finishing off his water and wiping his mouth with a sleeve. “Who says you have a choice? At some point, people are going to invade your bubble. I should know.” He sent a pointed glance my way, and I shot him a leer.
The ancient, however, was undeterred. “There is a difference between invasion and acceptance. To Lydian, I am nothing more than a fascinating new creature to be studied and utilized. Fortunately for her, I’m curious enough myself to play along. I just want to know why and how she’s still alive. I honestly thought that I had killed her.”
“Uh-huh.” Nick obviously didn’t believe a damn word he said. “Or maybe the real reason why you’re playing along is because you want her to forgive you for what you did. There’s even a possibility that you’re here because you plan on getting a crack at Lynn’s blood.”
“What the hell are you on about?”
He pointed his bottle at Andris. “You’ve already established that you don’t like us, and that you may leave without any forewarning. You’re also unstable and freakishly powerful. Maybe I’m not an intimidating, immortal creature, but human instinct is pretty good at telling me when I’m in danger—and every cell in my body is telling me that you’re bad news.”
“Nick, that’s enough.”
The kid turned to me, frowning a little. “I wasn’t lying.”
I shook my head. “Despite what your instincts tell you, I’m going with mine, and I trust Andris not to screw up what may be his only chance at redemption.” I had to believe that nobody was hopeless. Andris wasn’t a bad person—perhaps he had been, but at the moment he was little more than a lost soul. He was fascinating, yes; and I wanted to learn about him, true; but mostly I just wanted to see if there was a way to fix whatever had been broken inside of him. Hidden deep beneath bitterness and suspicion, I knew I could find good in him. The mere fact that he had agreed to my harebrained scheme gave me at least that much hope.
“You don’t have the power to redeem me,” the ancient muttered. “I’m a lost cause. Just give it up and let me rot in peace.”
“No,” I replied without hesitation.
He growled slightly, setting his elbow on the headrest and massaging his temple. “You’re worse than the hunters. At least they agree with my viewpoint. Granted, it’s nice that you’re not trying to experiment on me, but at least I can understand their motives. You’re just baffling.”
“No, I’m not—wait, who?” Hunters…it was something I had heard Simone tell me about years ago, when I had been a wild newborn.
His expression became more confused than irritated. “Don’t tell me you haven’t heard of hunters. Simone can’t possibly be that secretive.”
I suppressed the urge to chuck my shoe at his head, instead responding tersely, “Simone never gives me details, just random bits and pieces.” Whatever information I was given had been spun into cautionary tales to keep me from running amok and drawing attention to the family.
“Huh. Well, you should at least be aware of them. Like me, they are more than characters from scary bedtime stories.” He sat back and carelessly brought a foot up onto the leather seat. “Hunters, or Vimaren, are a step below Shimaren, but are purely carnivorous and organize into clans. They reproduce like normal humans, though their development is remarkably slow, and they eventually die of old age. From what I’ve gathered, they can live between three and four thousand years. Some live much longer, but those are few and far between.
“You can tell a hunter’s age by their hair, but that’s about it. Silver is the color you want to avoid. The older they are, the more powerful they are. Unlike the vampiric types, their powers are derived from sorcery.” He frowned as though recalling something unpleasant. “They only care about killing Shimaren, and are constantly developing new ways to do just that. They go after anything that even remotely resembles a Shimare—including Nariuvnen.”
That last bit…
“I take it that you know from experience,” I ventured.
He gave a mirthless laugh. “Experience? More like a crash course. About six thousand years ago, I met and…well, befriended a very young hunter. His kind keeps detailed records of the nonhuman races, and therefore understands them all better than anyone else. That knowledge was passed to me through him. However, time flies. Hunters don’t start training until they are about half a millennium old. That is when their powers reach maturity. He eventually came of age, and his clan brainwashed him into despising what I was. He took them to my hideout.
“My powers hadn’t yet stabilized, and my thirst was even less reliable at that time. I became their guinea pig, a victim of every experimental torture they had developed thus far…”
He trailed off, his eyes lost in the recollection, and I frowned. I’d never thought that such cruelty was possible. No wonder Andris seemed so wary of everything. His life had pretty much begun with the notion that all friends were potential enemies.
“How did you get away?” I asked, eager to hear more. I felt like a bird chipping its way out of a tiny egg. There was an entire universe beyond that shell, if only I could get through…
After a moment, he blinked and looked up at the tint-muted sun. “As I said, my thirst was horribly unstable at the time. The last torture they tested was something they called fire poison. It eats blood, and is delivered through the heart via a special blade. They ran me through.
“It hurt more than anything I have ever felt, before or since. It drove my thirst mad. I blacked out, and my thirst took over completely, calling on power I’d never had and using it to break free. I killed three hunters—my former friend’s mother, father, and younger sister. Their blood was necessary to drown out the poison, an antidote of sorts.
“When I regained my senses, it was too late. I ran away. For a long time his clan chased me, but after a while I saw them less and less. I haven’t seen them in a millennium. He must have died at some point and they just lost interest—not that it matters. If he did one good thing, it was to teach me that, in the end, creatures like me are not welcome in any world order.”
“But didn’t you ever think that some of us were more interested in getting to know you than killing you?” I asked. That had been so long ago. Surely he’d had better experiences since?
He shook his head. “I am a monster among the monsters. No one has ever seen me otherwise. Everyone I’ve met has tried to kill me, use me, or study me.”
“Well, I’m different from them,” I said firmly. “I don’t kill, and you’re much less monstrous than you portray yourself to be. You act like nobody gives a damn about you.”
“That’s because nobody does,” he sighed, clearly tired of trying to explain it all.
“Then I’ll be the first. I’ll prove to the Emperor that you’re not a bad guy. Nobody should be abandoned like that. You shouldn’t have to feel this way about everything around you.”
My declaration didn’t inspire any belief in him at all. He shot me a perturbed glare. “Find another hobby. I don’t need anybody telling me what to feel.” At that, he flipped down a seat arm and pressed one of the buttons it revealed, turning the television’s volume up high enough to make it impossible to carry on a conversation…or an argument.
That self-assured urchin. What would it take to prove to him that his attitude towards existence was wrong? I was going to make him eat that depression if it was the last thing I did.
“…authorities have yet to confirm any details other than that the murder is likely connected with similar incidents in the area. As you may recall, the others were described as ‘animal attacks’ upon initial investigation, but were later determined to be the result of foul play. The body found last night has been taken in for autopsy and further…”
My spine gave an instinctive shudder, and I jerked to stare at the television. The reporter took up most of the screen, but I could see a lake and the crest of a familiar hill.
“Jeeze, another?” Nick grumbled, sitting back and clasping his hands behind his head. “This world’s gone nuts, man. Hey, is this what you were talking about earlier with Simone?”
In an instant I was at the partition, pressing the switch to take it down.
James looked up at me in the rear-view mirror. “Is there a problem?”
“Turn the car around,” I said. My nerves were firing madly, telling me that there was indeed something very wrong. “It wasn’t far from here. We have to go to the medical examiner.”
He was silent for a moment, then replied simply, “Yes, ma’am.”
They hadn’t specified, but there weren’t many places to send a body in our little corner of the world. Actually, there was only one. This was the perfect opportunity to get some hard evidence, but we had to get there before the humans destroyed the only real proof available. Hopefully, luck was on our side, and we could finally know for sure whether one of our own had been making some very grave mistakes...and whether Tivor really was culprit.
If he was…well, that was why I wanted to go to Ivanarke. It was the only place I could think of that might have the information I needed, and for once Simone wouldn’t be around to censor the details. Hell, for all I knew, they could even help me figure out my amulets.
With the Emperor’s backing, nothing was beyond reach.