Avenari - Chapter 18
It was a long, awkwardly silent trek back to the limousine. Andris’ moods were infectious, and I couldn’t help feeling a little bit guilty. I was glad for the peace and quiet, uncomfortable as it was, but Nick was suffering. In spite of his curiosity, he could sense that asking was less intelligent a decision than keeping his mouth shut and bearing it for now.
We found James in the same place where we had left him, which was both relieving and creepy. Relieving, because we didn’t feel like walking. Creepy, just because it was. What kind of strange person followed orders so precisely like that? Didn’t he get hungry or use the bathroom?
“Welcome back,” he said as he held the door open for us.
Andris didn’t even respond, simply getting into the vehicle and taking the far back seat. Nick and I mumbled our respective thanks and took our seats opposite from each other, wincing slightly when the door slammed shut. James apparently knew the plan, and in a few minutes we were on the highway, headed back to the airport.
Inside the limo’s confined space, it wasn’t as easy to pretend that nothing had happened between Andris and me. Nick’s behavior was proof positive of that fact. He wouldn’t stop fidgeting, adjusting and readjusting his seat as though some part of him would have been just fine with walking. In the end, he gave up and decided to nap for the duration of the drive. Fortunately, like me, he could conk out at will.
That was all well and good for the kid, but I wasn’t tired at all, and Andris wouldn’t stop frowning at me, like a cat watching a mouse as it ate his food. At least the blood was quiet. I wouldn’t have survived ten minutes if it suddenly decided that it was tired of my argument.
I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone as strange as you are, said a silent, too-familiar voice. You immediately take on tasks that are far beyond your abilities, yet ignore that which your very blood wants you to accept. It makes no sense to me.
I flinched and pretended to count the threads in my pants.
He continued as though I wasn’t pretending that I hadn’t heard. It’s a relief, though. I’m glad you don’t look at me with just your eyes or measure me by my powers.
Unable to stop myself, I glanced up at him. He was smiling slightly, watching the stars again. It was a lonely smile. “You like that I’m making you wait, even though you’ve waited half a century already?” I asked.
He gave an ambiguous shrug, closing his eyes and sighing, “Just a little.”
“Masochist.” The word leapt from my tongue before I could wrangle it into submission.
He was smirking now. Just a little, he whispered, chuckling aloud when I scowled at him.
It was amazing how easily he could antagonize me just by making offhand statements. Then again, there was probably some sort of order to his chaos, a method in his madness, so to Shakespeare. After all, he had somehow lured me into talking to him again.
A moment’s hesitation and he was back to staring up at the night sky.
“Hey,” I ventured, letting curiosity get the best of me once more.
“Why are you always looking at the stars? I thought it made you sick.”
Another shrug. “Stars don’t really change, so it’s a little nostalgic. They’re always in the same arrangement as the night before. I know that the earth will gradually move around, but the stars always return. I suppose I’m waiting for the chance to see one die. I’ve heard that, thanks to the immensity of space, the stars we see might already be dead. It’s an eerie thought, almost like we might be seeing a ghost.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Supernovae happen all the time—well, they happen all the time if your projected life span is in the thousands of years.”
“That’s not death—that’s rebirth. In all my life, I’ve never seen a star simply die, never seen one go quietly into the night, as they say...or maybe I have but never realized it. It wasn’t until I found you that I became stable enough to care.”
I wasn’t sure whether that was morbid or just weird. “Why do you care?”
At last, he turned away from the window and sat back, dropping his gaze to the floor. “They’re just like me: eternal. When I first came into my powers, I didn’t know about the immorality part. There was no Maker to teach me, so I had assumed that I would eventually die. However, after several seasons had passed, I noticed that the trees were getting taller, and that the people around me were growing old, yet I hadn’t changed at all. It was disturbing. I think I started watching the stars around that time. They were the only unchanging thing in my world.”
What a bizarre way of thinking. “How come you didn’t just find a Shimari familiar? We do it with mortals often enough. It seems like you should be able to do the same.”
His eyes flicked up, blacker than the abyss of a bottomless well, then returned to the floor. “The blood is the substance, but I need more than that. I actually have to kill a Shimare in order to sate my thirst. That is why I still needed to feed, despite what you had given me earlier. In a way, death is my source of life. Hence my belief that death is the meaning of life—despite your adamant contradiction, of course.”
A thread of fear wove its way into my thoughts, trying to sabotage my assertion that he was simply a good person stuck in a bad situation, but I shook it off, determined to disprove the legend. “But you don’t need to feed that often, do you?”
My response didn’t seem to be the one he had expected, and he frowned slightly. “Your presence helps, and as long as I take blood regularly, killing isn’t necessary all the time…but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a sickening price to pay for maintaining my sense of self.”
“Not if you’re taking out the trash every time you do it. In our world, that’s the only way to deal with troublemakers.”
Again, this surprised him—openly, this time. “I think this is the first time anyone has ever defended my essential nature. Most Shimaren call me a monster...the older ones call me Ambri-Qis.” He said the title as though it were a curse.
“Ambri-Qis,” I repeated, frowning in thought. “Ambri means shadow, right?”
He nodded. “The name literally means ‘Crimson Shadow’ in the oldest dialect of the Shimari language. Among your people, a shadow is a Shimare who has lost all sense of self, who lives only to feed and claims no bloodline. The Shimari Council often uses them as cannon fodder to wear down stronger enemies—they don’t feel pain the way we do.
“Normal Crimsons are seen like royalty, entities with so much power that no one dares interfere with their existence. In my case, however, I’m the usurper of the throne. There’s a good chance that the Shimari Council will order my execution the moment I set foot in their territory.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said, shocked that anyone could make that decision without reevaluating the ancient.
“Regardless, it’s entirely possible. Being fundamentally immortal, most of the Council members who ratified the order to kill me on sight are probably still in power. They hold a deep grudge against me, with good reason.” He spoke as though none of this mattered to him.
“Aren’t you worried?”
My concern seemed to confuse him. “Why should I be? They can’t touch me. There are upsides to being so ridiculously powerful. Only a handful of ancients could even lay a hand on me, skilled warriors and such.”
“Still,” I said, “I don’t like it. It’s just wrong.”
He smiled as though I were being naïve. “No, it’s perfectly normal. Anyone in a position of power would want to destroy something which threatens the people. The only ridiculous thing about it is the futility. I heal clean wounds almost instantly, and I can regenerate lost limbs. Even when the hunters nearly finished me off with their fire poison, my thirst took automatic control and forced me to survive. Only that blade has ever managed to leave a permanent mark on me.”
What? He had a scar from after he became an immortal? No way. Even mortal scars, save for the very deep ones, vanished once the blood got into our veins. Of course, Andris had evolved into what he was, but still...after?
“Whatever,” I denied outright. “We don’t get scars.”
“No, really,” he insisted. In one instantaneous, fluid movement, he slipped the borrowed turtleneck over his head and set it aside.
I gawked. Sweet sanity, he was like a life-size sculpture carved from pearl, smooth and lean and utterly radiant with his hair all mussed up from pulling the sweater off. He was pure art.
Fairly certain that I was blushing furiously—something I hadn’t done in several decades—I turned my wide eyes away and concentrated on my feet. “That’s okay!” I said shrilly. “I’ll take your word for it!” I hadn’t reacted to a male body since being turned, and now this? Was it because my blood wanted him?
There was a moment of silence, then:
“You know, I wouldn’t object if you wanted to touch it.”
Within the privacy of my head, I was screaming—outside, I simply said, “Pass!”
Much to my irritation, Andris laughed. “I’ve never gotten that reaction before. Now you have to come here and see it.”
“What?” My head popped back up, only to find that he had appeared in the seat beside me like a shimmering specter.
Before I could tear my eyes away and realize that backing up would probably be a good idea, he grabbed my hand and tugged me across those precious few inches, until I found myself pressed against that miraculous heat. He was perfect...just...perfect—so lean and smooth. Not a single hair marred that beauty, save for an almost cute line of baby-soft obsidian trailing down from his dimple of a belly button to disappear below his waistband. I’d never seen anything so captivating. I felt as if I were staring at a Renaissance sculptor’s magnum opus.
“Here,” he said, catching my attention as he led my hand to the spot above this thrumming heartbeat. “It’s a little bit smoother than the rest, and silvery.”
With all sense lost, I frowned and leaned in when he let go of my hand, tracing my fingertips around a three-inch silver streak that sat parallel to his midline. In the moonlight, it shone like a glossy burn scar, slightly different from the matte pearl of the rest of his skin.
“How long did it take to heal?”
His eyes tightened almost imperceptibly at the corners. “Several months, and I bled for weeks. It used to burn a little bit, but these days all I have is the scar. It may vanish one day, but somehow I don’t think so. I think fire poison forces the usual healing process to a stop.”
Without the shirt, his intoxicating scent doubled in potency. Needless to say, it was difficult to concentrate. “You’ve been through a lot, haven’t you?”
“I suppose you could say that.”
“You might be the most powerful Shimare in existence.”
“I’m not a Shimare, per se, but I might the most powerful immortal on the planet.”
“You’re probably the oldest, too.”
“That is entirely possible.”
I frowned and looked up at his serene expression. “Then why does your blood want me? I’m still an infant by our standards, and compared to you I can’t even compete.”
He gave me a gentle smile, then raised my chin with his fingertips and leaned down to whisper in my ear, “Because you allow me my identity. That is not something I can take lightly.” That was all, and he drew away to pick up the sweater.
Thoughtfully, I sat back and watched his entrancing beauty disappear beneath the black wool, feeling that it was wrong to hide such perfection—though some squirrel-esque part of me wanted to hide it away and save him for my own enjoyment. My fingertips still tingled with his heat, and my chest felt tight, making every breath ache almost pleasantly.
Andris was an utter sweetheart—an uncompromising, pushy sweetheart, but that was what he was, nonetheless. He’d spent so many years waiting, yet didn’t mind waiting even more. Granted, he hadn’t even remembered what he was waiting for, but still...
Once he finished adjusting the sweater and fixing his hair so that it wasn’t a chaotic puffball, I reached out tentatively and took his hand.
He glanced at it with an uncertain frown. “Yes?”
“I’m glad you’re happy,” I said, “but I’m not prepared to make this choice right now.” It hurt to say, but that was how I felt. There was no way around common sense. Blood partnerships were for ancients who had been around long enough to find the one person in the world who could make an eternity seem bearable. It was almost a survival mechanism for the insanely old. It didn’t surprise me that Andris was looking for that, but my eternity hadn’t even begun.
“I know, but there is something you can do for me without compromising your comfort zone,” he replied with a sad smile.
I gave him a sidelong leer. “What would that be?”
In an instant, his arm was around my waist. “Nothing too difficult,” he said with a chuckle, sensing my apprehension. “I’d just like you to watch the stars with me. It would be nice if I didn’t have to watch them alone for once.”
“Oh.” Well, that was simple. “Of course, if it would mean that much to you.”
His smirk turned into a genuine smile, and he hugged me closer, turning to look out the window. “That one there, in the middle—Sirius, near Orion—that one is mine. I’ve watched it since I was a child.”
“It’s bright,” I murmured, following his gaze to the twinkling spark and trying to imagine him as a young boy doing the same. The time span was so immense—as immense as space itself. Someone like me would never understand without experiencing it.
It filled me with peace to sit and watch the night sky with him as he pointed out his favorites. The eternal chill in my bones lessened in the presence of his heat, and out on the empty roads in the dead of night, the stars shone like fire-lit diamonds and rubies and citrine and sapphires. There were more colors involved than I could have imagined in my mortal years. Every sliver of the spectrum had its place. It reminded me of his eyes.
This was the first time I had ever warmed up to someone so quickly—no pun intended—yet it didn’t feel wrong. Andris was worth my trust, and there was a definite possibility that I would call him my blood partner someday. His strength and confidence was enough that I didn’t feel as though he needed me to baby him. The ancient was a lone entity, accustomed to being alone and perfectly capable of handling his own affairs. I still felt a nagging worry that the monster in him might take over someday, but at that moment, I didn’t want to let him go.
“Hey, could you do something for me?” I asked after a few minutes, glancing away from the sparkling lights and up into his equally captivating eyes.
“Anything at all.”
“Promise me that you won’t go back to being the monster you think you were. As great as it is that you’re so powerful, I like you as you are. I don’t think I could agree to anything if I’m too busy worrying about your past indiscretions.”
His smile faded, and he raised a gentle hand to trace his fingertips down my throat. “I’ll do everything within my power to make you happy and keep you safe,” he said. “Luckily for us, you have this uncanny ability to calm my thirst with just your presence, and I’ll be sure not to put off feeding. I won’t ever let anything happen to you.”
His seriousness made me chuckle. “You don’t have to take it that far. Just don’t attack me. You don’t have to ask, either—I’m willing to give you my blood if you need it.”
“Can I have some right now?” he asked hopefully.
I smirked. “Let’s just watch the stars for a bit. You’ve had enough for now.”
* o * o *
“The flight’s cancelled?” I cried in disbelief, projecting undeserved indignation upon the poor lady at the counter. “What happened? First, it leaves at an ungodly hour, and now you tell us that it won’t leave at all?” There was an early blizzard wreaking havoc in our plane’s current location—first Andris and now Mother Nature? The world was trying to crush me!
“Princess, please,” Andris said in an attempt to pacify me. “We can catch a later flight. It’s really not a problem.”
“Tell that to Simone!” I snapped. “I want to be out of the country before he decides to come get me.”
“Ma’am—” the counter-lady began, only to fall silent when I glared at her.
“Don’t ma’am me! Do I really look that old?! Sweet sanity, I’m not supposed to get old!”
Faster than even my eyes could trace, Andris’ arm wound around my waist and tugged me away from the very public area as he apologized for my appalling behavior. There was no point in fighting him. I didn’t want to use the amulets where people could see, and therefore couldn’t call up the power necessary to regain my precious dignity.
I loved the book, but Catch-22’s sucked.
“Jeeze, I’ve never seen anyone flip out like that,” Nick commented. “I’ve seen it in cartoons, but I never thought people acted like that in public.”
“Yes, well, fiction stems from truth, as they say,” Andris said tightly, his eyes narrowing when I bit his arm in spite. “Now, Lydian, this is a new, extremely expensive coat, so if you leave any puncture marks at all, I will be very upset with you.”
“Bite me!” I challenged.
His lips twitched into a conniving smile. “Much as I would love to, Nick is right. Public places are not for private moments. So please, if you really wish to throw a fit, do it outside.”
In one move, I popped my shoulders out of their sockets and slipped out of his embrace, then strode towards the exit as I snapped them back. Sam had taught me the trick during his brief obsession with Houdini about twenty years back. Ancients—who needed them?—just a bunch of pushy old coots trying to make my life more difficult. As much as I liked the guy, Andris still fell into that category.
“Wait, don’t you want to know when the next flight is?” Nick called, jogging after me while Andris just stood there and shook his head in exasperation.
“What, and deal with sunrise?” I demanded, shoving the glass door out of my path and stepping into the open air. It was cold, and snow was beginning to fall in thick clumps, leaving spots of freezing wetness in my hair. Lovely, but cold—the dichotomy of Michigan. Unlike Andris and Nick, my body didn’t fend off the chill.
“What about sunrise? Who cares?” Nick’s irises shifted to dark yellow, and once more I cursed the loss of his pretty natural eye color.
“The mortals will care when they notice you guys playing magic tricks on their eyes,” I hissed, dropping my volume so that arriving travelers didn’t hear the topic of our conversation.
“Fine, then what the hell do you plan on doing? There’s no other way for us to get to our destination,” he pointed out as rationally as he could.
“I don’t know. I’ll think of something.” To the east, there were enough gaps in the fluffy gray clouds to see the faded blue of an early morning sky. Despite the ruby’s ability to maintain my consciousness during and resistance to the daylight hours, my Shimari half still saw the great fireball as impending doom, powerful enough to turn me into little more than bone and ash. It was both exhilarating and terrifying all at once. Even though sunrise was still a couple hours away, I knew it was close—too close for us to wait for the next plane.
“Use the amulet,” suggested Andris, practically materializing beside me in that eerie way of his. “The moonstone does more than amplify your powers. If my observations are correct, you can use it to transport us long distances.”
I frowned, already used to his bad habit. “How would you know?”
He smiled in sober amusement. “When I destroyed your bloodline, I didn’t do it without first researching my opponent. Although it will place a massive drain on your energy reserves, if you can focus on the task you should be able to transport us in mere seconds.”
For a long time, I just stood there and gaped at him, uncertain as to whether I should refuse to believe him or throw another fit over his hesitation to tell me something so important.
“And why didn’t you inform me of this before we wasted a whole day doing the airport thing?” I asked slowly, resisting the urge to go ballistic.
He raised a brow at that. “Well, considering the damage it did to your ancestor over the course of several uses, I decided that I would rather not risk letting you die while there was still a suitable alternative. However, seeing as how that option is now out of the question, we have no choice. I sent the car back to my garage, so getting to another airport would be a bit difficult.”
I wanted to scream. Terribly. I was angry with him for hiding this, but because of his reasoning, my conscience just wouldn’t allow me to take that anger out on him. He was a quick study to figure out how to get past my temper. It was remarkable and enraging.
“Okay,” I said at last, taking a deep breath and trying to cool my head. I was too tired to argue anymore. I just wanted a nice hot bath and a toasty bed to sleep in—that was all. I had surprisingly human motivations.
“Okay, what?” Nick asked, glancing between us in obvious confusion.
“Okay, I’ll try it. Andris, tell me how—and make it quick. We’ve already lost an entire day thanks to all the shenanigans with the morgue and Nick’s turning. Thank goodness we’re far enough from the Manor that Simone won’t be able to sense us with the barrier, and sunrise is too close for them to try and look for us right now.”
Andris’ expression made clear that he didn’t want me using the power, but we both knew there was no other option. “Over here, where no one can see,” he said.
Glancing one last time at the edge of the horizon, I followed behind the guys as Andris went around a corner where no one could catch sight of us. I wasn’t sure what to make of his concerns over me using the amulet—vampires could take much more abuse than humans. His worry was unnecessary, but cute, so I let it go.
“So how do I do this?” I asked.
“Use the moonstone to amplify your spatial sense, focusing on the Brood Manor’s signature. Once you’ve located it, will the amulet to take us there. You’ll be tired afterwards, however. Defying the laws of physics tends to cost one.”
Ah. The laws of physics were a harsh mistress. “But I don’t know what the Brood Manor’s signature feels like.”
He sighed, rolling tangerine eyes. “Princess, please. It will be the brightest signature in Japan—a star, rather than a candle’s flame. It’s impossible to miss.”
“Uh, right.” I frowned in doubt, but closed my eyes anyway and felt for the moonstone’s icy powers. I hadn’t really tried using them intentionally yet, so I wasn’t certain if it would work.
It took some mental effort, but eventually the amulet opened up to me like a door swinging wide in a gust of wind. The icy blast of power hit my mind, and I gasped in surprise. It was a bit overwhelming, actually, but once I got over the freezing sensation and the sudden torrent of energy, I could focus much more easily on directing it. The power needed to boost my spatial sense, and I sought the connection as though reaching blindly for a light switch.
After several seconds of hard searching, I at last found it.
As soon as the connection snapped in place, a massive jolt of power shot through my core. My mind instantly flew off like the world’s largest seine net, gathering information as it raked across the planet. Andris’ signature was by far the brightest within the entire country, but I sought further and further, stretching the limits of my ability and surpassing them easily. The power was simply there, an endless stream fed by a source that I couldn’t see or understand.
The world stretched away, and I chased it down. Pinpoints of light like fireflies flickered past my mind’s eye, popping into my consciousness before quickly vanishing behind me. Off in the farthest distance, straight across on the other side of the world, I found the Pacific Ocean, a splotch of darkness in the middle of a candlelit landscape. Further than even that, the longest tendrils of my powers finally reached the Japanese archipelago, and in a flash I knew exactly what Andris had meant.
That was the Eastern Manor, all right. It shone like a star hidden in a patch of dull glitter, giving off the concentrated signature of something older than all living Shimaren.
“Gotcha,” I whispered, keeping my mind focused on that star. Blindly, I reached out and took hold of Andris and Nick, lacing their fingers between my own. “Let’s go, boys.”
Once certain that I wouldn’t lose them along the way, I reached as deeply as I could for the power I needed. The moment I ripped that power up and shoved it through the moonstone, a sudden, falling sensation gripped my whole body. My insides became lost somewhere up above, and all around was a soft, clouded texture, as though we were falling through damp cotton candy. It clung to me and spread its melting warmth across my skin.
There was no sound, just sensation. I took a breath, but nothing filled my lungs. Behind my lids I could see the blazing light of the Eastern Brood Manor getting smaller, and I realized suddenly that we were moving away. Startled, I pushed my powers even harder. Though I felt no motion in any specific direction, the light began to grow as I willed us closer. It was mind-blowing how much effort it took to direct us towards a particular location, but somehow I knew that without the effort we could easily be flung off into the unknown. There was no way to predict where the power would take me if I just let go.
Curious, I opened my eyes to an endless void, which brushed across my triggers and awakened them, and when I shut my lids once more I could see Ivanarke getting brighter and brighter, until it was the white-hot flame of a blowtorch right in front of my face. We were falling like a meteor into the heart of a star. My Shimari instincts told me to be afraid, but I couldn’t turn back. We were so close, but I could feel the void sapping my strength. It chilled my bones even as we slipped into the thickest part of this transitional world’s warmth. It was like plunging into a pool of hot syrup; the world itself seemed to resist our imminent presence. Still, it slowly enveloped us until we were encased in this new reality.
Then everything stopped. The sensations vanished, and I took a deep breath of proper air.
The light was still there, but much closer now—close enough for me to feel its warmth on my skin and see the red glow through my lids. My eyes opened slowly, adjusting to the brightness and taking in an unfamiliar, sunlit landscape.
“Sunlight?” I frowned up at the vast cerulean sky and tried to figure out what was going on. “Why is the sun up?”
Then I noticed that I wasn’t holding Andris or Nick anymore, and in a flash of fear I spun around, nearly collapsing with relief when I found both of them standing at a railing on the other side of the rooftop we had landed on. They were taking in the view, and I walked hesitantly over to see what was going on.
“Hey, what’s up with the sun?” I asked, trying to shake off the grogginess.
Nick gave a start and jerked around, but sighed in relief when he saw me standing there. “Dammit!” he gasped. “I thought you were the army!”
“Army?” I turned to Andris, who hadn’t even flinched. “What’s he babbling about?”
The ancient swept his snowy fringe out of now-obsidian eyes and nodded over his shoulder. “You should see for yourself. This is where the Shimari Council resides, but to think that they would allow this place to be built practically on top of the entrance is simply bizarre.”
“What?” Curious, I walked up and leaned against the railing to see what the big deal was.
“A military base,” he replied. “American, by the looks of it. That sign over on the other side says ‘Misawa Air Base,’ so I suppose that’s the name of this place. Serves me right for ignoring the Council for this long. I had no idea.”
“But why would they build it here?”
“The better question is why would they allow it to be built here?”
Nick shrugged. “Maybe it’s to keep people from snooping around? You need clearance to get on a military base, so it kind of makes sense.”
Andris just frowned at him. “Bullets still hurt, immortality notwithstanding. I know this first-hand. Seeing as how most of the Brood Manor’s inhabitants probably get their meals from people living nearby, it would put them at greater risk.”
“You’ve been shot before?” I asked in horror.
He seemed to find this amusing. “I was shot twice in the back several years ago. I still laugh when I think of Shimaren using guns. They have so much power at their disposal, yet they turn to mortal weaponry. It’s pathetic.”
“But you got shot!” I reiterated, trying to get across that this was kind of serious.
Unfortunately, none of my worry made it through. “Really, Princess, it’s fine. I could get hit by a bullet train and survive. I’m not nearly as fragile as you want to think. Bullets just make holes…but maybe buckshot would work. More holes would be more effective, I suppose. You’d have to cut me apart to do any significant damage.”
“Idiot!” I said, slapping his arm. “Don’t do things that make people want to shoot at you and hit you with trains! You might be tough enough to deal with it, but I’m not! You had better not draw fire when I’m around!”
His smirk vanished. “Oh.” Uneasily, he turned away to study the layout the long playground and the identical beige multiplexes organized in neat rows across the scene. “I promise I won’t let you get hurt because of me,” he muttered.
“That’s right! Now, where’s the entrance? I’m exhausted.”
As soon as the worry evaporated out of my system, an intense weariness replaced it. All I wanted was a nap and maybe a bubble bath.
“This way,” he said, noticing my ragged state and slipping an arm around my waist to steady me. We found the stairwell and followed the endless steps ten floors down.
“So why’s the sun out?” I said again when we exited the tower. “I thought it would be nighttime here.” The sun was low, but not low enough.
“It’s not normal to jump such a vast distance in mere moments, so we’ve probably gone a few hours back in time.”
“Huh...that’s kind of cool.” I stared absently at a rich, butter-yellow tree across the park, like a yellow pompom. I’d never seen a tree like that before. The ones around my home changed colors in rainbow patches, not solid colors. Even the maples never managed such a complete transformation. It was so pretty.
“Do the laws of physics apply to her powers?” Nick asked, frowning oddly at the way Andris held me, but conveniently neglecting to mention it.
“Not her Shimari powers, but they might apply to her amulets,” Andris said. “After all, they were created by mortals.”
“Wait, that makes no sense,” the kid interrupted. “You can’t divide by zero. There’s no way we could have gotten here before sunset if we were following physical laws. I’m not a physicist, but I am a geek.”
The Crimson gave him an irritated glare. “In that case, let’s just assume that it’s magic—which it is, I guess. Anyway I don’t understand it all myself, but something in our blood has the ability to ignore physical boundaries. That’s how the spatial sense works, though I don’t like to use mine very much.”
“Why?” I asked.
Andris smiled, leading us across the grass and onto a sidewalk, which encircled the entire playground. “I’ve gotten to the point where my spatial sense captures nearly every signature on the planet at once, complete with the ability to hear their thoughts and see through their eyes. It’s a bit of an overload, and it gives me a headache.”
“Don’t you have one now, from the sun?” Nick asked.
“No. I’ve fed.”
“Oh.” Uncomfortable with the reminder, the kid looked away and watched some children fighting over the swings. “Where’s the entrance, then?”
“This way.” The ancient tugged me gently along and we passed through a gap in the fence to a street lined with warped pines and more clone houses. A quick walk across that, and he stopped, apparently looking for something. “Over here,” he said at length, taking us between a couple of the multiplexes and stopping in front of a ten-foot chain link fence. It even had barbed wire lining the top. On the other side stood a copse of willowy pines and freshly cleared land.
Nick gave him a dubious squint. “Uh, good one. Now, where’s the actual entrance?”
Andris sighed, “It’s on the other side, fool. We have to jump over.”
The kid’s expression turned to utter derision. “Oh, like I can really jump thirteen feet to clear that! Are you an idiot or something?”
Without even looking, Andris’ hand flew up and smacked the kid across the back of his head hard enough to knock out a mortal…or surprise a Shimare. “You’re the idiot. Jump over. I didn’t give you my blood just to have you balk the moment you have to do something new.”
“Jackass!” Nick cried. “What the hell was that for?!”
“You’re not human anymore, so stop acting like one. Now jump that fence,” the Crimson ordered with a stern glare.
“Just jump, obviously,” I sighed, my eyes drifting closed, then opening again to find Nick staring at me. “What?”
“You’re awfully comfy over there. Since when did you two get so cozy?”
“Tch. Shut up and jump the damn fence. You’re wasting time, and I’m ready to kick it.”
He shot me a disgruntled frown before turning to the seemingly impossible obstacle before him. “Just jump, right?”
“That’s what I’ve been saying,” muttered Andris.
Nick ignored him, and after taking a steadying breath, he backed up a few paces then took a running start, springing up at the last moment and leaping over without a hitch.
That woke me up. I pulled away from Andris to gape at the empty air. “What happened?”
Stubbornly, his arm found its way around me once more. “This gate leads to a sort of pocket dimension. The Brood Manor is protected from mortal discovery because the only way to get through is to go in from up high, at this spot. Also, the barrier is locked against me, unless I have a Shimari escort. That means you and I have to go in together.”
“Oh. Okay, then let’s go.”
“I’ll carry you,” he said firmly, picking me up too quickly for my protest, and easily leaping over. My indignation dissipated the moment we passed over the top of the barbed wire.
Our sunlit world rippled away into darkness, and a second later the darkness was replaced by a shimmering, silvery-azure backdrop, like molten lead and cobalt blue that danced in shifting patches of light. As I looked further up, the metallic wall faded away to a velvet black sky, pierced with millions of glittering stars which silhouetted the canopy of a vast evergreen forest.
The endless fence had reduced to a single segment, no more than ten feet across, which stood awkwardly in the middle of a break between enormous trees. I could see that the strange barrier bordered the edges of this world, but the fence seemed nowhere near it. We had landed on a barren patch of dusty ground, and tiny violet wildflowers formed a ring around the clearing, lit only by a burnt orange, rising moon.
“Whoa.” Only the trees offered hope that this place was still on Earth, but even those were dark leviathans, standing tall and reaching up to snatch the stars themselves out of the heavens. “Why is it dark on this side?” I managed to whisper, taking in a breath of spicy pine.
“This is Ivanarke, a pocket dimension. It houses the Brood Manor—also called Ivanarke—and the barrier forest, Silvinox. Darkness lasts longer here by a few hours.”
Suspicion slipped into my thoughts. “You say you’ve never been here, but you certainly know a lot about this place.”
He gave an ambiguous shrug. “Seven millennia is a long time to pick up details. I’ve killed Council members, envoys, and even Nesciti. I’ve been under their scrutiny for thousands of years—it’s only natural to learn about the enemy.”
It was almost scary how easily he could discuss killing a member of the Shimari Council. We were talking about vampires older than Simone. Andris stood above all of that, and he stood alone. That kind of power was rare and terrifying.
“You’re a pretty creepy guy,” I said. “It’s as though you’ve stepped right out of a myth.”
He offered me a twisted smile. “I never stepped out; I exist. I’m not a myth.”
Damn, I loved that look on his face. It was so...cool.
“Yeah, you do exist, but you’re pretty low-key if most of my kind think you’re a legend,” I said awkwardly, noticing a little late that he was still holding me. He was just so warm. Some part of me didn’t want him to let go.
“This place is creepy,” Nick said, making himself known as he stood at the edge of the clearing and stared into the seemingly infinite forest. “It’s like the beginning of the world. I can’t even smell any car exhaust.” His and Andris’ hair had both gone back to their nighttime color scheme. They really did look like brothers now.
His rust-red eyes left the sky and turned on us. “Hey, you can put her down, now,” he told Andris, not bothering to hide the irritation in his tone.
The ancient frowned, then with a reluctant sigh he set me on my feet. “Be careful here. Even though this is where your Emperor resides, that does not mean you are safe here.”
“What about you?” I asked, shivering as a chill breeze wove through the trees. Great, now I was beginning to wish he hadn’t put me down.
He smiled and slipped his coat off in one move, placing its sweet warmth around my shoulders to fend off the erratic chills. “I’m older than he is. You only need to worry about yourself and Nick. I can handle both the Council and the Emperor if I have to.”
“Right,” I muttered, trying to pretend that the only reason why I wrapped the coat more tightly was because of the cold. “Just don’t get yourself killed.” It was hard to argue with his warmth seeping into my aching bones and his sweet scent hovering around me like a drug.
That made him chuckle, and too quickly for me to notice until after the fact, he planted a tiny kiss against my cheek. “I can’t die, and now that I have you, I don’t really want to.”
While I gave Andris a harried frown, Nick lost it completely.
“That’s it!” the kid declared, stomping over to stand before us in accusation. “What the hell is going on here?! Why is he...and why are you...?” He faltered, so riled up that he couldn’t even figure out what to ask.
Andris didn’t help in the least. He hooked his arm around my neck and pulled me firmly against his side, replying simply, “Mine.”
Nick gaped at him for several seconds before turning to me. “Lynn?”
I felt my eye twitch, and I looked up at the arrogant Nariuvne in mild annoyance. “Now you’re just being ridiculous. I don’t remember agreeing to any of this.”
“Perhaps, but I find it’s better to lay claim before anyone else gets ridiculous ideas of their own,” he said with grin.
I sighed, too tired to fight with either of them. “Whatever. Let’s go see the Emperor already. I need a nap.”
Shrugging off Andris’ arm, I stepped around Nick’s frozen, bewildered form and took to the only visible trail out of the clearing. Not long after, I could hear faint footsteps—Andris, of course—and agitated shuffling—definitely Nick—following close behind me.
In a bid to ignore both of them, I studied the landscape, finding more and more fascinating things to wonder about as we headed deeper into the forest. The trail we were on had an ancient feel to it, saturated with the ghosts of millions of Shimari signatures—some older than I could sense, and others less than a day or two.
It wasn’t a large trail, just wide enough for two or three people to walk abreast, but something about it gave me a sense of the destination’s importance. It was as though this small trail held a mere taste of what was to come. The odd little wildflowers lined either side, each one like a tiny, glowing orb of phosphorescent dew. Just beyond that, there hovered a dense, silvery fog that weaved through the trunks like a living entity.
The fog worried me just a little. It didn’t follow the icy breeze the way it should have, instead behaving as though it were curious about the newcomers. It would slip in near the edge of the trail then retreat back into the trees, only to return moments later. I wondered if it were a part of the silvery barrier, like a secondary defense against intruders.
I hoped it didn’t think we were hostile. I didn’t know how to fight a fog.
I felt my brows come together in agitation and turned to see Andris beside me. In this setting, he seemed more like a wandering phantom than an all-powerful cousin to the Shimaren. He had an ethereal look—as though he belonged here, in this eerie wasteland, more than he could ever belong anywhere else. It almost made me sad.
“The fog is weird,” I said, eyeing the silvery mist as its rolling form retreated yet again.
“Some Shimaren are able to develop their triggers a step further than most, and take on the title of Elementals. That fog may be the result of one of these keeping tabs on us.”
“Even creepier,” I sighed, noticing that it was getting brighter underneath the dense canopy, despite the fact that only a few tiny patches of moonlight reached the ground. “Where’s the light coming from?” I asked, looking around for the source, but seeing no lanterns.
“That would be the beetles.” He pointed to the nearest tree trunk. “Look closely. They light up gradually, so most wouldn’t notice until they were completely illuminated. The closer we get to the Brood Manor, the more there are.”
“Beetles?” Confused, I went to the edge of the trail, staring hard at the tree’s broad expanse of coarse bark until I finally spotted a dim patchwork of insects. There were millions coating the entire trunk, so many that the reason why I couldn’t spot them easily was that the entire tree seemed to be taking on an eerie blue glow.
“Wow, freaky,” Nick said, finally rising out of his bad mood. “Are those scarabs?”
Andris nodded. “This is the only place left where these insects still live. They went extinct outside of the barrier long before I was born.”
“You sure know your bugs,” the kid muttered.
“I’ve had time to teach myself plenty of things,” he replied matter-of-factly.
“So they do this every night?” I asked, moving to step off the trail and pick one of the dime-sized insects off the tree.
“Stop!” Before I could lift my foot off the ground, Andris grabbed my arm and steered me back. “They’re protected by the Emperor. As little as I care about bringing his wrath upon myself, I don’t need you two getting on his bad side before you’ve even met him. Besides, there are reasons for the trail. In a way, our safety is only guaranteed within its boundaries.”
I winced. “Sorry.”
He took my hand as he continued on, and I cast a regretful look over my shoulder. I silently wished I could play with the weird bugs, if only for a short while. My inner child was a stubborn little imp.
After several minutes of nothing more than the strange fog and glowing beetles, Nick cleared his throat to get our attention. “Um, I hate to interrupt your little...thing, but exactly how much further do we have to walk?”
“It’s right up there, actually.” Andris motioned towards what appeared to be the end of the trail. It stopped at the base of the largest tree I had ever seen, so enormous that it violated all the laws of nature. The White House itself could have fit neatly inside, and the trunk shot up so high that the peak seemed worlds away, taller than any of the others by at least double.
“Holy crap, that’s a big tree,” Nick whispered, craning his neck to gauge its height. “I’ve been to the redwood forests, but if these are redwoods, then I’m the Queen of France.”
“Again, they’re a theoretically extinct species only found on Brood Manor territory. There is an enriched underground water system a few hundred feet down, along with nearby lakes and streams which help keep the trees healthy. It also doesn’t hurt that the Emperor has Elementals who can maintain the forest and the Manor itself indefinitely.”
I stopped walking, and Andris bumped into my shoulder. “What’s wrong?”
“You said they ‘maintain’ the forest and the Manor, like they’re basically the same thing. What do you mean by that? Where’s the Brood Manor?” Surely he couldn’t possibly have been saying what I was thinking.
“They do, they are, and I’ve already pointed out the Brood Manor—respectively. It’s the largest tree in this forest.” He nodded towards the behemoth at the end of the path and casually stuck his thumbs in his jeans’ pockets, as if none of what he was saying could possibly be anything other than perfectly ordinary.
“What?!” Nick and I cried simultaneously, staring in disbelief at the seemingly unremarkable tree...well, aside from its irrational size, of course.
“It wouldn’t be able to survive, let alone stand with its insides hollowed out!” I insisted.
Andris sighed, “I’m not repeating myself. You’ll just have to come and see what I mean.”
As we approached, I began noticing differences between the main tree and the ones surrounding it. The bark was smooth like birch—although it was almost certainly some ancient species of conifer—but charcoal black with slashes and spirals of dark red traced intricately all around, as far up as I could see. The other trees had regular pine bark: coarse and reddish-brown. Near the base, at about chest-high, a small panel shone brightly like a beacon.
“What’s with the designs?” Nick whispered to me.
I watched the fog roll in and slide away once more, and replied just as quietly, “No idea.”
Once we were close enough to actually touch the tree, I realized that there were no beetles living on it, and neither was there any doorway to speak of. Aside from the tribal-esque designs, the only unnatural thing visible was the glowing panel. I could see the Shimari symbol for the number four etched into its surface.
Just as I was about to ask, Andris took my hand again and led me over to the red light, pressing my palm flat against it.
“What are you...?” I didn’t get the chance to finish. The panel dimmed and went out completely, and about six feet to either side of me appeared twin lines of golden light, which traced up in an arch then shot straight down under the panel.
A soft groan reverberated from the cracks, and the bark gave without warning, nearly making me lose my balance. The golden light widened to form a broad, arching doorway, and just inside, standing on the most exquisite Oriental rug I had ever seen, was a single figure.
He stood a few inches shorter than Andris, with dense, dark brown hair that stuck out all over his head. His attire was simple: black velvet robe with a tight, wide sash; embroidered at the hem, cuffs, and collar with red Chinese dragons. The robe covered his feet, but I figured he was wearing sandals of some kind to go with the ensemble. Bright gold eyes leered at us in bland interest, his arms folded, and we stared back in total confusion.
At last, he muttered in a bored tone, “Youkoso, Ivanarke e. Haette kudasai.”
I just gaped at him. Japanese? This did not help!
I didn’t understand a word of it, and apparently neither did Nick or Andris. For all we knew, he could have been asking us if we took tea or coffee. Who was he, anyway?
He frowned when a few seconds passed of us staring blankly at him, and then said slowly, “Am I the only one who sees the injustice in having to learn your language, while you aren’t expected to do a single thing to facilitate the communication process? I said ‘Welcome to Ivanarke. Get in.’ Understand now? Mattaku. Americans, I swear. Why do I have to fill in for the servants? Do I look like a slave?”
As though feeling that he had done his duty in simply greeting us, he turned around and began walking towards a gilded, black marble staircase wide enough to swallow a herd of elephants. “I’m not waiting for you, and without me, you’ll get lost,” he called over his shoulder.
Andris argued under his breath, “I’m not an American...”
“It doesn’t look like he cares,” Nick said.
After a moment to contemplate the absurdity of what was happening, we looked to each other, shrugged, and entered, feeling the vacuum of warm air as the doors sealed shut behind us.