Photo by Godisable Jacob
CHAPTER 1: THE MISSION
The building is a good fifty stories tall. The office I need to breach is on the thirty-seventh floor. The elevators inside use fingerprinting and voice-command and keycards, and for all my skills I have yet to develop one that’ll fool a computer into thinking I’m someone I’m not. The stairways are equipped with emergency exits. I don’t want to trip the alarms; not quite yet. I still need everyone inside the building.
My head is pounding. The knot in the middle of my brain, the one that diverts all of my thoughts into it whenever I’m not careful, is getting bigger. I need to go. I need to move. Before I have another breakdown. Can’t afford another mishap. Can’t afford another Veracruz.
I start towards the building, readjusting my suit jacket. Thank you, Montero, for insisting I dress like a mortal for this one. It’s not time to be setting off alarm bells.
I can feel the blood fading in my vain effort to keep up my mortal disguise for long enough to get started. I force myself to breathe. Too many mortals around, too many suspicions raised if they don’t see the little puffs of steam coming out of my mouth and evaporating into the cold night air. It’s just wasting precious blood, but I can’t think about that. Not now. I’ll feed in a little bit. Inside. Maybe take a new Enchanted.
Ha. As if.
I start down the dark alley to the side of the building, fading from the view of the mortals in the street. About halfway down, I stop. This side of the building is not equipped with windows. Good for now, not so good when I have to get inside. Oh, well. If there were windows here, it’d be almost too easy.
I drop the affectations of mortality, sighing with relief as the blood resettles in my stomach instead of being wasted on rosying up my cheeks for appearances’ sake. Then I reach out, into the shadows lurking in the corners of this alley, and pull a shroud of darkness around myself. It’s not perfect, wouldn’t hold up very well to close scrutiny or even a strong flashlight, but it’s not too likely that anyone will be pointing a strong flashlight at the side of a random office building. I walk up to the wall. This is the worst part. It’s always the worst part.
I let my senses expand, sharpening to the point where I can hear the conversations passing by in the street. The knot in my brain begins to throb even more painfully. It’s not enough, though. I expand deeper, so that I can see every crack and crevice in the wall, hear the flies in the Dumpster at the end of the alley climbing on… is that a Burger King wrapper? Doesn’t matter. My skull is pounding, and my thoughts are being forced through the knot, emerging as incoherent ramblings with no logic or consistency to them whatsoever. I hate this. I hate this. I hate this.
I reach out for the wall, letting my fingers run over the rough, porous stone, feeling for any imperfection, any flaw.
There! A little bit above my head, there’s a slight crack in the stone. I wedge my fingers into it, then pull myself up and reach my arm up higher, searching for another arm-hold. Reach, grab, pull. Reach, grab, pull. The repetition soothes the knot in my skull somewhat, enough that it’s not creating its own gravity within my head anymore. I can salvage some thoughts, enough to remember what I’m reaching for. Reach, grab, pull. Reach, grab, pull. I look down at the ground. I’m maybe thirty stories up now, clinging to miniscule crevices in a seemingly perfect stone wall. Almost there. Reach, grab, pull. Reach, grab, pull.
I hear a sound from within the building, a voice muttering. I can’t make out the words, but that doesn’t matter. I don’t need to know what they’re saying, not yet. But they’re the only ones here this late at night.
I begin to move again, not up, but sideways, climbing along the wall until I’ve reached the back of the building. There are windows there, looking into darkened offices sitting along darkened hallways. The one I want is further in, with no windows and one door. But I need to get inside somehow.
I pull my shroud of darkness a little more tightly around myself. I can see the red blinking of a camera in the corner of the office I’m looking into. There’s a desk just a little way inside, covered in boring office papers. I suppress a snort. Mortals, so obsessed with their jobs and their things, when none of that matters in the end. But who am I to judge?
I reach out with my mind, exploring the inside of the building. There are four minds on this floor; the one I’m looking for, and the three set to guard them. I can’t read any of their thoughts– they haven’t allowed me access to their minds, and so I have no way inside– but I can see their emotions. All three are relaxed, calm, unperturbed. They aren’t expecting anything.
The window is locked. Even if I had wanted to open it to climb inside, I wouldn’t be able to. Ah, well. Time to start setting off a couple of alarm bells.
I smash through the window with my elbow, flinching back as glass shards fly. The knot in my skull flares up at the crash, and I hear the faintest pop as a silent alarm is triggered. Right. Wouldn’t want to evacuate the building for one measly burglar. Fools. I slide in through the window and brush myself off before walking towards the door. My hand rubs against the tiniest slit in the front of the suit jacket. Oh well. Shouldn’t be noticeable to mortals, and by the time the one I’m after notices it, it’ll be too late.
I open the office door, simultaneously dropping my shroud of darkness before closing the door behind me and walking down the hall. Only each third light overhead is turned on, but it’s still bright enough that I need to dull my senses somewhat. The knot in my skull loosens slightly, and I suppress a sigh of relief. So this is what it feels like to be able to think coherently.
The office I want is in the center of the building, a big block that the hallway snakes around. Bad idea, strategically. But it doesn’t really matter to one of us– at least, until it’s another one of us who’s hunting.
I speed up. The door is on the far side of the office, opposite where I came in. They’ll hear my footsteps, put them on alert, but it’s okay. Don’t want this to be too easy, after all.
The door opens just as I approach it, and the first burly, black-suited mortal falls before he knows what hit him. Behind him are two more men, earpieces in and sunglasses on, gaping at their fallen comrade. I leap at one, knocking his head back and forth between my fists a couple of times before pushing off of his chest as he falls to flip and land sitting on the other’s shoulders. I let my momentum continue to carry me back, flipping the guard up over my head and onto the floor, where he lands with an aborted cry. I push myself to my feet to see the first one shakily pulling his gun out of its holster and pointing it at me. In one motion I step towards him, yank the gun out of his hand, and twist his arm back until I hear a snap. He yelps in pain, and kick him in the head to shut him up before turning towards the last person in the room, leveling the gun at them. It’s not quite the right weight for a Glock this size…
The person sitting at the desk just smile at me. They wear a stylish navy-blue suit and have raven-black hair that falls just past their ears. There were dark scribbles in the alien language of the Shadows around the edges of their face and sticking out above the sleeves of their suit, and they had dark eyes that could be blue or black. Their long fingers were steepled above their desk.
“That won’t kill me,” they say. I reach out towards them again with my mind, and feel the smallest sliver of fear– more than an ancient vampire such as this one should have when looking at a miniscule little gun like this.
“No, but it’ll hurt,” I reply.
They raise an eyebrow at me. “It’ll hurt… did the Dynasty really send another Shadow after me? I thought they were smart enough to only use the Madmen in their schemes.”
It’s my turn to smile. “The Dynasty may have found what you’ve been looking for.”
Their mouth opens in a little oh.
I nod. “I don’t really fit in with any of them.”
They lean in, their eyes narrowing as they search my face for any of the families’ disfigurements. Eventually, they mutter, “No sign of any of the scripts. Not a Shadow. I don’t smell rot, so you can’t be a Madman. That doesn’t look like a wig, but these days you can never really tell…”
I smile slightly. “Not a wig. You can check.”
They shake their head, then laugh a little and say, “They sent you to me? Of all the stupid things…”
“I asked to be sent on this mission,” I lie, walking forward and lowering the gun. “They trust me enough by now to know that I don’t need hidden cameras on me to do their bidding.”
They smile again. “Are you offering to join me?”
I shrug, pulling out a chair and lounging back in it. “I want to hear what you have to offer. If it sounds good, I might bite.”
They laugh a little. “Loaded phrase.”
I just shrug. The gun is in my lap, and my finger is playing on the trigger.
They nod and clear their throat. “All right. How much do you already know?”
“That you’re trying to learn about the vampires that fall in between the families, and that you work here every night. That’s about it. Briefings are pretty need-to-know.”
“Well, then,” they say. “We have a lot of catching-up to do. My name is Alex Bukoski, and as you said, I specialize in those vampires who do not have a place in our order. I believe that they– that you hold the key to our ancestry and to our future, and I hope to find the key within your blood.” They blink. “Well, not yours, specifically, but. Others. Like you.”
“How?” I ask.
They blink again. “Well… I have been performing… experiments, on those orphans that I happen to find. Unfortunately, so far, all of them have ended up being Madmen, Shadows, or Fools who were abandoned after being turned, so the payoffs have been rather… low. But, should I find a volunteer who truly does not belong to either family, I am sure that there would be some crucial secret revealed–”
“So it was you?” I ask. “Who put those advertisements up? Asking for orphans to volunteer to be part of something bigger than themselves?”
They nod, smiling. “You have seen them?”
“That’s why I was sent here,” I say. Then I clear my throat and ask, “Did you get all that, Montero?”
They blink again and start to stand. “Wait– what are you–?”
I lift the gun and shoot it three times. They lurch back as the bullets slam into their forehead, then fall still, slumped over their chair and staring at the wall behind them. I smile slightly. Charmed bullets. A vampire hunter’s best friend.
I hear a shout from maybe a floor down. Dammit. Guards are here. I have a minute, maybe two, to get out of the office and back outside before they’re swarming all over this place. I drop the gun on the desk. No time for an elaborate cleanup. Then I bolt out of the office and back down the hall. Just as I reach the room with the broken window, I hear footsteps drawing closer. No time. No time. The knot in my head is throbbing. No time.
I sprint towards the window and leap out of it, my arms and legs windmilling as I fly through the air before landing on one of the gravel paths in the middle of the garden behind the building. There are several loud cracks, and I bite back a cry of pain as what feels like fire shoots up both of my legs and through one of my hands. I see dark, purplish blood dripping onto the gravel. I forgot to feed. Dammit.
There’s a yell from the building, and I hastily pull a shadow around myself, praying that they don’t have flashlights that can pierce through thirty-seven stories worth of darkness. The knot in my skull flares up again, and I bite on my tongue until I taste my own sickly-sweet blood. There’s a flare of light from the window above…
And then it’s gone. I let the darkness around me dissolve before reaching to check that the mic on the front of my suit coat is still in place.
“Montero?” I breathe. “Can I get a ride home? I’m a little banged up.” I lean forward and line my calves back up so that they’re not at ninety-degree angles halfway through, hissing slightly as the action shoots more of the white-hot fire through my body. My right hand is a little mangled and not-quite human looking, but I’m not entirely positive about how to reconstruct it so that it doesn’t end up permanently crumpled-looking, so I leave it for Montero’s doctors to take care of. I dull my senses, and the pain in my body fades, leaving room for that damned knot in my skull to start drawing my thoughts into itself again. I don’t have the energy to fight it, so I let my thoughts become jumbled and chaotic. It almost feels good.
Maybe two minutes later, there’s the crunching of tires on gravel, and I look up to see a black limo driving towards me, its headlights off. The driver’s door opens, and Montero steps out, then hisses when he sees me.
“Man, it looks even worse through my own eyes than through yours, he says, walking up to me and bending down to lift me up. “You’re good at this thing.”
“At what? Getting the job done?” I ask. I can still taste my own blood.
“No,” he says. “Getting yourself hurt. You know that if you were mortal–”
“If I was mortal, I’d be out of commission for months, I need to learn how to do this stuff without hurting myself, my healing is going to break down if I keep going on like this, yadda yadda,” I say. “You’ve given me this speech a hundred times.”
“And you have yet to listen to a word of it,” he says as the back door to the limo opens. He passes me off to Dr. Stuart, who’s sitting inside, and shuts the door behind me. The doctor gets to work on my legs, and I gnaw on the inside of my cheek to keep from saying something about the fire in my legs and hand. I wait until I hear the slam of the driver’s door before saying, “I’m not mortal, though, and this gets the job done, so I don’t see what the problem is.”
“The problem is that it takes time to bounce back from constant injuries, even for you,” says Montero, starting to drive. “Fall far enough, take enough bullets to the head, you’re not gonna come back from that for a long time, if at all. You’re our best girl, Ava. We can’t afford to lose you.”
“Is that personal attachment I hear?” I tease.
“What, from me?” he scoffs. “That would be absurd.”
The doctor sits back on her knees and says, “You’re done. You know the drill.”
“Thanks, Crystal. Crys? Crys. Have we gotten there yet?”
“Still Dr. Stuart,” she says. “Please. Just because I see you every other night doesn’t mean that you’re not my patient.”
I roll my eyes. “Fine.”
“Ava, lay off the doctor,” says Montero. “She’s probably just sick of you.”
“She’s a bit stuck up,” I say. Then I look over at her and smile. “No offense, Doc.”
“Ava,” Montero says warningly.
“Fine, fine, fine,” I mutter, closing my eyes and leaning my head back. The knot in my skull is filtering all of my thoughts and words through it. I need to fix it somehow. I bite on the inside of my lip, concentrating on dulling my senses to everything until I can actually see the knot, a black, pulsing mass of tangled-up brain-threads sitting there. I imagine reaching towards it and pulling the threads out of the knot one by one. Slowly, I can feel it start to shrink, until some thoughts manage to fly past it without being drawn in. I release my lip. There’s even more blood in my mouth. I’m starting to get hungry. Drinking my own blood is about as satisfying to my hunger now as swallowing saliva was when I was alive.
“Dr. Stuart,” I say, opening my eyes and using my relatively-uninjured arm to push myself up into a sitting position. “Do you happen to have something to eat on this thing?”
The doctor blinks once, then nods and turns to the icebox behind her. I drag myself up onto one of the leather seats and lean back with a small sigh of relief. Dr. Stuart is used to dealing with the Madmen. My moodiness is not nearly severe enough to bother her. A couple of seconds later, she turns back, holding out a bottle filled with blood. I smile at her, take it, and down the whole thing in three gulps. The pulsing of the knot in my head slows slightly.
“Woah,” says the doctor. “Did you just not feed for a couple nights?”
“Just yesterday,” I say. “My Enchanted went haywire on me in Moldover. Held onto them for a couple more weeks before I had to kill them two nights ago. I figured two full bodies of blood would get me through until I found a new one, but I guess not.”
“You shouldn’t just skip a night,” says the doctor, frowning at me. “What if you had gone into a frenzy?”
I laughed. “Please, I haven’t frenzied since my turning, and I’ve definitely gone more than one night without feeding before.”
“We’re home,” says Montero’s voice from the front of the car. I start to push myself up, but a flare of pain shoots through my broken hand, and I collapse back with a gasp.
“Don’t you dare,” the doctor says, her frown deepening. “You are not allowed to put any pressure on that hand or your legs for a week.”
“Dr. Stuart,” I protest. “Please. You know that–”
“I will instruct HQ not to give you any missions for the next week,” says the doctor. “You are not to put any strain on your legs until I or another doctor has determined that it’s healed. Do you understand?”
I nod, folding my arms and glaring off into the distance, ignoring the pain in my hand as I do so. I can feel the strange grinding and popping as the bones in it and my legs shifting and reassembling themselves,
“Hey, look on the bright side,” says Montero, opening the door closest to me and picking me up like a doll. “You get a free ride into HQ.”
“Unfortunately, all the Madmen we pass will know I’m defenseless for a while,” I say.
“They won’t act on it,” says Montero. “Don’t worry. The Dynasty’s security isn’t that useless.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” I say with a small smile. Montero frowns slightly, then walks towards the building, carrying me inside. I grimace slightly as the doors swing open and a wave of foul air heavy with the scent of rot washes over us. The Madmen who live at HQ are scattered around the entryway in varying states of decay. Some of them wear massive smiles across their half-rotted faces, and others stare intently at nothing. One of them– an ex-member of a cannibalistic vampire cult named Briella– wears a scarf stitched together from pieces of her victims’ dried skin. I tend to avoid Briella as much as possible.
As Montero carries me past the veritable hordes of Madmen, I avoid wrinkling my nose at the smell and instead look around for any sign of the Fools who run this place. There’s no sign of any bald heads nearby except for Montero’s, which makes sense, honestly. None of the Fools want to hang around in the Madmen’s commons.
There is the sound of a door banging open to my right. I crane my neck around to see who it was and see a black suit and a garishly pink wig. It’s my missions coordinator, Milo Neumann.
“Milo!” I say, grinning and letting my head loll back so that I can see him more clearly, if upside-down. “Got something for me?”
“No, he doesn’t, because Ava is injured and can’t put strain on her legs for a week,” says Montero warningly.
“Montero, I’m fine,” I protest, rolling towards his hands and landing in a crouch. My legs send small jets of fiery pain through my body in protest, but I ignore them and straighten up, smiling at Neumann.
“You’re injured again?” asks Neumann, frowning at me.
I shrug. “By some definitions. I’ll be fine.”
“Good, because this mission is time-sensitive,” says Neumann. “C’mon.” We walk back through the door he came through, Montero on our heels.
“No,” he says. “As her ground support, I will refuse to go on a mission with her until she’s healed up some. She cannot–”
“You were the one who recced her for this mission,” says Neumann, stopping. I nearly run into him.
“That was before she was injured!”
“Um, hello?” I say, raising my hand a little. “What is this mission that I can’t go on because I’m ‘hurt’?”
“It has to do with the Devotees,” Neumann says.
I freeze. Fucking… I thought I killed them all. They were all supposed to have died in Veracruz. What was the point of that mess if they didn’t die? The knot in my skull starts to grow again. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, then look up at Neumann and smile.
“Right,” I say. “What do you need me to do?”
“There are rumours that they’re gathering again in a small town in Pennsylvania.”
I suppress a snort. Pennsylvania, of all places…
“You need to head out there, infiltrate their ranks, see what they’re doing, when, and why, and call in some backup,” Neumann continues. “No killing them all by yourself. We need you here.”
“Clearly, it didn’t work last time,” I say. “Don’t worry. I’ll keep my head on this time. When do I leave?”
“When are you ready?” asks Neumann.
I look over at Montero. His face is stormy, but he stays silent. I turn back to Neumann and shrug. “I’m ready now.”
A grin breaks across his face. “Then let’s go now.”
We walk back out into the commons, and Neumann calls, “Briella!”
The Madwoman looks up, a dark glint in her eyes. She makes her way over to us and asks in a much softer voice than I was expecting, “Yes, Miles?”
“Mission time. It has to do with the Devotees. Manolakos and Montero will brief you on details on the flight,” says Neumann.
Briella smiles at us. Her teeth are yellow, and the tips are stained with something dark purple and crusted-over that looks almost like dried vampire blood. I suppress a shudder and glare at Neumann.
“You didn’t say I’d have a partner,” I hiss. The pounding in my head is growing stronger.
“Briella is an ex-member of the Devotees. You’ll need her knowledge of the base,” says Neumann. “Have fun.”
“Neumann!” I snap, but he’s already walking away.
I turn back to Briella and Montero, force a smile, and say, “All righty then. Let’s go.”