“So,” said the man lounging on a folding chair in the center of the room. “What would make a lady like yourself want to join the army?”
“I’m not a lady,” I said.
Shadows cast by moonlight and dull fluorescents filled the empty warehouse, slithering over the cracked concrete floor. I’d driven for three hours straight after finishing my last job to make it to the nearest neutral meeting place. It was a half-occupied steel town that hadn’t been absorbed into an Other territory and had no government ties, either. Another thirty minutes in either direction put us squarely over the boundaries of one territory or another, and they didn’t appreciate having a hunter on their turf unless they’d hired me themselves.
The echoing space all around us made our meeting seem isolated, though I had no doubt there were cameras in convenient places and support soldiers ready to burst inside. Neutral ground or not, they’d arrived first, and it wouldn’t do to have a monster eat their cohort if things became unruly in our first face-to-face.
“Fine, what would make a vampire like yourself want to join the army—better?” He quirked a small, irritated smile. “I try to be polite and not call everybody out by species.”
“First, I was under the impression that this wasn’t technically the army. Second, you must have listened to my phone interviews,” I said. “You know why I’m willing to compete for a military contract.”
“Why don’t you remind me?” he suggested. His expression seemed arrogant, but he kept his eyes safely on my chin.
I stalked closer. He leaned back in his chair so that when I stopped in front of him, our boots nearly touching, he still had some distance. Up close, I could see that his short-cropped brown hair held the faintest hint of curl. The thin line of his pressed-together lips detracted from his face but I was sure that when he relaxed he would be handsome. He was younger than I’d anticipated; not a wrinkle anywhere on his cheeks or around his eyes. If not for the status separating us and the fact that I wanted this job, he would have made a good snack.
Thinking of a meal made me notice my sluggish pulse, limping along at a slow, uneven rhythm. I needed to feed myself soon. Were I sated, I might not have noticed the rich smell of his flesh under the hint of cigarette smoke and aftershave.
“You contacted me first, and now you’re playing games?” I asked.
“I didn’t set this meeting up, the big guys did. I don’t know much about you.“ He lifted his hand between us to offer it to me, posture stiff. The slouch had disappeared. “My name’s Cal. You must be Hilde.”
I clasped his hand. When he loosened his grip as if to let go I held on and pressed my fingertips to his wrist, feeling his quickening pulse. He lifted his eyes to me, finally, and they held the heat of anger. I smiled wide enough to flash fang. He was a soldier and likely also a competent hunter, but I was treating him like food. The insult telegraphed where he stood with me, for now—a rude little upstart.
“It’s not just you who wants to vet your potential team-mate personally,” I said.
“You don’t trust I can keep up our end of the bargain?”
I locked my hand around his arm. He yanked against my grip. Tension ran up to his chest, bunching the muscles hidden under his fatigues, but his strength alone wasn’t enough to free him.
“The original offer implied that you were Other. I haven’t ever had a human partner. They can’t keep up,” I said.
“Oh, yeah?” he said, a dark excitement flashing across his face. “Well, none of them can keep up with me, either.”
I had no chance to ask what he meant. Flames flared to life around our entwined hands. I shrieked in surprise and instinctive, uncontrollable terror, jerking away so hard I stumbled back several steps. My skin was unmarked but I’d felt the heat. He kept the ring of fire braceleting his own wrist, his palm open and stare haughty. As he stood, the dancing heat grew, spread, until it stormed in a nimbus of blues and oranges around his body, though it never touched him.
“Think you can get through this, vampire?” he asked. The inferno flickered and spun, arcing off of his body in coils of flame that disappeared in the air. “I can melt bullets. One body is really not a challenge in comparison.”
I inhaled a measured breath to calm myself. Breathing wasn’t a necessity unless I wanted to speak, but it was comforting. “Can you use it at a distance?”
Behind me, a fluorescent bulb shattered with a crash. I looked over my shoulder. Another cloud of nearly white flame wreathed one of the light fixtures hanging from the bare metal bones of the ceiling for a brief second, though it disappeared as quickly as it had leapt to life. He cut his power and the show ceased abruptly, leaving him standing pale and un-singed with a faint sheen of sweat on his brow. The chair behind him, on the other hand, was scorched.
”Quite the show,“ I said.
“So, you still think I can’t keep up with you?” he asked.
”Your point is proven,“ I said as I sketched a half-sarcastic bow in his direction. His lips twitched as if repressing a smile and his stance relaxed ever so slightly. Minuscule reactions, but he hadn’t quite hidden them. He was pleased that he’d impressed me. “If we’re going to continue, I’d like to hear in your words what this contract has to offer me. The recruiter was specific that they wanted an Other. Why? It’s—unorthodox.”
Truthfully the curiosity was devouring me. The government and Others alike only hired hunters of the supernatural on a contract-to-contract basis, when there was unrest or dangerous elements that required our expertise. Long-term employment was unheard of. Ideally, we lived on neutral ground; we paid tithe to no Other leaders and didn’t interact with the territories except on a professional basis, even if they tried to wrangle us under their power on occasion. All I’d had to do to become a hunter was escape my old territory and declare myself ready for business—it was as simple, and yet as difficult, as breaking all my political and personal ties.
“It was somebody else’s idea. Higher up than I have clearance for. I got the news through my, uh, commanding officer that they had a job for me.“ Those words fit in his mouth like marbles. He paused, a shadow of a grimace flickering over his face. I didn’t comment. ”Basically, the way I see it, we’re building a team that can go into the Other territories that need… restructuring.“
”Don’t you think that’s their business?“ I asked.
”No, I mean the ones that are getting so out of control they’re starting to draw the mundanes’ attention, and the territory leaders are part of the problem, not fixing it. Hunters can only handle the kills, so someone else needs to tackle the politics that come after. Why not us? You must be pretty well-adjusted if you got this interview, and I’d like to think I am.”
“What you mean is that you’ve encountered too many upheavals an execution can’t fix,” I said. Perhaps that should have been a sign that they needed to keep their noses out of supernatural business, but they’d never learn. “And you can’t ask a glorified assassin to stay on hand and rule afterwards. Even if they agreed, most of them wouldn’t know how to do it.“
That had never been a problem before the humans started policing us better than we did ourselves, but they had a vested interest in creating the occasional coup. An Other would never hire a hunter to take out the leader of a rival territory—they would do it themselves to claim the land. It came down to the fact that, while both sides cared most about secrecy, the mundanes seemed to be a bit more concerned with crime. After all, victims of supernatural violence so often tended to be human, and a few human deaths here or there weren’t a huge concern to an Other community—but they were to the official authorities.
“Bingo, but I’m a human on their radar. If it was just me by myself and I killed one of the territory heads in combat, the Others there still wouldn’t pledge their loyalty. It would just fall apart. Or, you know, someone would assassinate me in my sleep and claim the position for themselves,” he said. He spread his hands wide in a frustrated gesture. “But if I’ve got you, it’s not disputable. We might lose a few groups who decide they’d rather forge their own little territory rather than declare loyalty, but it would hold together for long enough to stabilize the situation.”
“You’re right,” I said. He shifted, patting his pocket, and drew out a pack of cigarettes. I waited while he put one to his mouth and, glancing at me, lit it theatrically with a tiny flame at the tip of his finger. “Why are you interested in this? You’re not part of a territory. It doesn’t affect you.”
“I could say the same to you. But—” he paused, blowing out a lungful of smoke. Contrasted with this easy conversation, his earlier rudeness was out of place. It must have been all nerves. That was a relief. “Really, I’m waiting for the revolution when we all get to come out of the fucking closet and the territories go away. Until then, this is the best I’ve got. Some of these leaders treat their citizens like slaves, and there’s fuck-all they can do about it but leave, if another territory will even have them. No rights. I don’t like that. We’re people, too.”
The fact that he didn’t count himself as a human, and that he saw himself at war with the Others who abused their power more than anything else, raised my opinion of him.
“I agree,” I said. “Real freedom would be nice, if a revelation went well with the mundanes. Though I have my doubts about that.”
I felt wistful, and I let the emotion show in my voice. I had been born an American and died one. To be a citizen again and to legally serve my country was a fine dream, if they didn’t decide to burn us all when we revealed ourselves.
“But it’s not just about the humans freaking out. The Others won’t take an upheaval easily either,” he said, a touch defensive.
“The powerful benefit from being outside the law, certainly,” I said.
“How old are you?” he asked suddenly, tucking his hands in his pockets.
“One hundred and thirteen,” I said. “Give or take a year.”
“Jesus,” he sputtered. “I thought the only vamp hunters taking contracts from the government were babies. The old ones usually hate us too much. You really can play Queen wherever we go kick in doors.”
“I am the oldest to ever turn to your people for work,” I said, lowering my voice. “And the most powerful. I will be an asset.”
“Yeah, I kind of thought that,” he said. “But can you do teamwork?”
“We’ll see,” I said.
“Damn, but I can’t turn you down,” he said. He thumped me on the back, grinning at the look I gave him, and walked past me toward the old bay doors. “Test run, first job together, me and you. Tomorrow night. My handler set it up. You in?”
“Of course,” I said. He didn’t seem to notice that he’d switched from using the phrase commanding officer to handler, but I had.
At the door, he paused to call back to me, “Hey, what’s your special vampire trick?”
I smiled at him, and he left when it became clear I wasn’t going to answer.
My phone buzzed against my hip as I curled a lovely girl’s hair around my fingers. I listened to her breath deepen as I kissed her throat. Tiny kisses, feathered kisses, to taste sweat and glitter on my tongue. We sat on a small velvet-covered couch in a niche of the club, hidden by shadows from the blitz of flashing colored lights and writhing bodies out on the floor. The music blasted loud enough to hurt my ears, but I blended so well in these places—just another woman with black hair, long nails, and a dangerous look. I dressed to impress for dinner-nights; a balance of threatening and pretty that never failed to entice one person or another. The vinyl vest and shrug I wore also kept her curious fingers from too much of my cold skin as she petted me and traced the small curves of my breasts with her fingertips.
My hand found its way beneath her skirt as I licked the point of her pulse. I bit her gently, at first, so the pinprick of fangs went nearly unnoticed. She did cry out as I pierced her flesh but I made sure to provide her with as much pleasure as pain. I drank, heat searing from my mouth down my throat and throughout my body in a rolling wave. My heartbeat sped, the only time it would do so. Life filled me like liquid in a cup. When I was satisfied I eased away from the wound I’d made and rubbed my wet lips across her black shirt.
She met my eyes, dazed and smiling, and I pressed a thankful kiss to her cheek. The smallest tweak of power would convince her of what I said: “You are a lovely, kind woman. You had a good night with a stranger and nothing odd happened. Nothing odd at all, my dear. Thank you.”
I left her there to recover from the befuddlement I’d laid on her and escaped outside, my skin nearly warm to the touch and my nerves thrumming. It didn’t always happen. Sometimes I left starving and disappointed, but I wasn’t willing to trick a person into wanting me. That smacked of things I didn’t approve of, wouldn’t have wanted done to me in return. I was glad I’d fed tonight if I was going to be with the pyrokinetic on a job for who knew how long. Not knowing his feelings on donating blood, it was best to be prepared.
I opened the phone, taking in a breath of cool air, and returned the missed call.
Cal answered after one ring. “You ready for tonight?”
“I’ve just finished my preparations. Where are we going?” I slid back into my car and eased out of the parking space. The too-small lot was packed. Already, another car waited to take my spot.
“I’ll tell you in person,” he said. “Where are we getting together and who’s driving?”
“I’ll meet you at my hotel, if that’s acceptable. You can drive,” I said, then gave him directions to the place I was staying. It was in a bigger town than the one we’d had our meeting in, more of a city. Technically it was on the edge of a territory, but they wouldn’t notice me for a day or two. Plus, the steel town hadn’t had any available guest accommodations.
“Got it. See you in a bit.” He hung up.
The drive was quick, and when I reached the hotel, the lot was half-empty. It was a small building, four stories with intermittent lights on throughout, probably all travelers passing through. I couldn’t imagine coming here for a vacation, decent club-scene aside. I passed through the lobby, attracting a curious look from the night-clerk thanks to my outfit, and rode the elevator up to my room.
I stripped out of the vinyl as soon as I made it inside, dabbing the slightest bit of sweat off my skin with one of the white towels. It came away pinkish; the staff would probably assume hair-dye or makeup. I slipped into a pair of slacks and a button-down men’s shirt that hung loose enough on my frame to hide the holster and gun at the small of my back. A knock sounded at the door.
“Cal?” I called out as I rolled my sleeves up.
“Yeah,” he said.
I flipped the latch on the door and opened it, stepping aside to let him in. The fatigues had been replaced by dark jeans and a loose t-shirt. I looked him over but saw no weapons, unless he had a knife in his boot. He took the moment of silence to inspect my room, his eyes roving over the closed suitcase and neatly made bed.
“Well, what’s the job?” I asked.
He pulled the chair out from the desk and sat down, ankles crossed, one arm dangling over the side. It was a pose of relaxation, but his muscles were tight, and faint tension lines showed at the edges of his mouth.
“The situation’s gone downhill a little since yesterday. It was going to be a simple job where we settled a dispute about leadership,” he said.
I leaned against the wall and crossed my arms. “What changed?”
“There were three contenders for the territory, after the old boss died,” he said. “Now there are two. The third one managed to get himself nailed to the first one’s door. Literally.”
“Are we intended to investigate the murder and execute the guilty one?”
“I don’t think so,” Cal said.
“We have full discretion,” he said, shrugging. “I just have a feeling there’s something going on that I don’t know about, and it’s going to bite us on the ass when we get there.”
“The murder’s extraneous, then. Figure out which one did it, propel the other one to leadership, let them handle it amongst themselves.” I pushed away from the wall, gathering up my suitcase in one hand and the duffel bag I used for weaponry in the other. “And isn’t the purpose of this contract to see if we make a good team?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
The silence that settled between us held a sharp edge, a tautness brought on by uncertainty and eagerness in equal measures. If I performed well and the trial run was a success—whether that was decided by Cal, his direct superior, or the “higher-ups” who had done the initial interviewing, I didn’t know—it would be a positive mark for vampires as a whole. They must have had trouble finding any of us willing to even speak with them, but I was willing, and I would show the value that we represented. We were strong, fast, and nearly all of us past our first fifty years were gifted with intensified abilities, woken from our mortal lives. I could be the one to help us take a step toward legality. I had to do something; I couldn’t bear waiting for it to happen on its own any longer.
The moment passed as Cal stood and brushed past me, trailing the faintest whiff of cigarette smoke. I followed him to the door and he held it open for me. I noticed as I passed that my head only came up to his chin, which put him at a little over six feet tall. I must have seemed dainty in comparison, but he knew what I was, and what I wasn’t. I hoped that would keep him from underestimating what I could do during the job. The fact that he hadn’t offered to carry my bags was a point in his favor.
“What do you do during the day to stay safe?” he asked as we walked down the hall.
“In hotels, I put out the do-not-disturb sign and wedge a chair under the door, as well as latching the inside bolt.” I hesitated. My face flushed, warm with borrowed blood. “I prefer to sleep in a confined space, but I’ve found that a tarpaulin bag keeps out the light well enough. The zippers have locks on the inside.”
Cal stared at me for a moment, grinning again. “You sleep in a body bag?”
“Would you prefer I carted a coffin with me?” I retorted.
The blush still burned artificially under my skin. For a moment I wished I hadn’t fed at all. He seemed to notice as soon as I thought of it, and his smile faded at the edges, his eyes losing some of their previous humorous warmth.
“You already, ah, had dinner, I guess.”
I sighed and pushed past him out of the lobby doors. “Where’s your car?”
“That one,” he said, pointing to a dark green sedan.
“Where is the job?” I asked.
“About three hours from here,” he replied. “Edge of Mississippi.”
I calculated in my head. “We should beat dawn, but if we don’t, I’ll have to bed down in the trunk.”
He opened it for me and I loaded my suitcase and bag inside. They would need to be moved to the back seat if I had to use the space, but it was big enough to fit me.
“That has got to be fucking inconvenient,” he said after a pause.
“The things I’m paid to hunt generally keep the same hours I do,” I replied. “It’s not so difficult.”
My chest tightened as I spoke, belying the lightness of the words. Lamplight, moonlight, firelight—none of them replaced what it would be to see the sun rise or set again, or to sleep a sleep with dreams. I lived as well as I could, as happily as I could, but there were some losses too large to forget. If Cal didn’t understand that already, explaining it was both painful and pointless.
“Do you have a case file I can read?” I asked.
“Yeah, sure,” he said. “The files are in the back seat.”
I settled into the front passenger seat, snagged the folder, and plucked the rubber band off of it. A sheaf of photos spilled into my lap as I opened the cover, lurid images of a man’s body liberally spattered with blood. It was pinned, butterfly-like, to a door. I angled the photo to the outside light and inspected it. There was no blood under the body, only on it, so he had presumably been killed first and then tacked up.
“A nail gun?” I murmured. “Or was it done by hand?”
Cal glanced at me, pulling the car out onto the road with a flick of his wrist. “The depth of the nails when they pried him off suggests that it was by hand. Some of them didn’t go in at a good angle, some of them just didn’t go all the way through. A nail gun would have been uniform. Even the ones that penetrated the wall only took one hit, though.”
“Supernatural strength,” I said. “As if there was a doubt.”
The first few pages covered the leadership situation. According to the notes, the old King had died of reasonably natural causes. Death by combat was easier; the winner was the new leader of the territory. In these circumstances, with three potential new leaders and none of them clearly capable of taking power, things could get ugly.
One candidate was an alpha werewolf named Ben Haldeman, recorded to have an even temperament. He was alpha of the local pack. The second was a woman, Carly Lejourna, a—here the notes were scrawled, scratched out in blue ink pen—shaman, or possibly a shapeshifter, or just a very powerful psychic. No one seemed to be entirely sure, but her supporters were almost worshippers. The message, so to speak, had been left on her door.
Which left the victim and third contender, Adam Anderson, a werebear. That was a surprise; they were rare. The small collective of werebears in the area were unspeakably angry about his disappearance and subsequent discovery as décor.
“What do you think?” Cal asked, his eyes turned to me briefly.
I caught the flash of light in them, like sparks, before he turned away again to watch the road. “I believe you might be right.”
“Something is missing from this information,” I said, tapping the files. “Who gathered it for you?”
“I—“ He stopped, jaw muscles clenching. ”I can’t be sure.“
“Would it be safe to assume the gatherer is also your, shall we say, boss?” I asked, discomfort rolling over me.
“Okay,” he said. “Yeah, all right. Assume that. It’s really important to my wellbeing that we don’t fuck this up, okay? I can’t say any more.”
I took in a slow breath. “Are you really a volunteer for this team?”
He laughed. The edge under it was not pretty. That was answer enough, if he truly couldn’t tell me more about the person. The information, if this was as much a test for Cal as it was for me, was faulty. I tossed the folder into the back seat again and stared ahead at the dark road. The town had disappeared already, leaving rolling fields and the occasional tree. We passed under a green highway sign advertising an exit three-quarters of a mile away.
I had thought the official policy was to leave humans with abilities alone unless they became too much of a nuisance. I had also thought that hunters, human or not, always freely chose to be hunters, be the work government-sponsored or from Others. Cal’s tension, and the fear that smelled rich under his cigarettes, indicated something outside the official policy, and that made me terribly uncomfortable.
“I need to stop, okay?” he asked suddenly.
Without waiting for a response, he pulled off onto the exit ramp that had come up on the right side. The end of the ramp didn’t seem to lead much of anywhere, just a lone road with no restaurants or neighborhoods, but there was a gas station further down it. He turned into the station’s lot and parked.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him crooking a finger toward the building. He pointed at me and then at it, so when he climbed out of the car, I followed. The clerk gave us a cursory glance and went back to reading his magazine as Cal wove through aisles of snacks and knickknacks. As soon as we were out of sight, he grabbed my arm and pulled, which was not terribly effective. I stared at him and he made an irritated noise, stepping up close to me instead.
I moved back and bumped into a shelf, hands up in front of my chest. He pursed his lips. “Stop moving, dammit,” he whispered.
“Why?” I whispered back.
He crowded up against me again, bending his tall frame over mine so his mouth was against my ear. I froze with my cheek pressed to his jaw, my mouth near the tender parts of his throat. I ran my tongue over the points of my fangs, the little ridge of sharpness catching on my own skin. I wasn’t hungry but my muscles rippled with a shiver all the same at the temptation.
“The car’s bugged,” he murmured, shallower than even a whisper. “I’m pretty sure my cell phone is rigged, too, so I have to be pretty damn quiet. I need this team to come together, because if it does, I get my own command post. I get freedom.”
I moved, pushing my face against his to whisper back, “Freedom from what?”
“My handler,” he replied. “His bosses will make him let me go if I prove I’m of use and under control. It’s the deal. I hit the age point.”
The shelf rattled and Cal flinched, lifting his head.
“You two need to buy something or leave,” the clerk said from behind us.
I worked a hand up between his chest and mine to cover my face, hiding an unstoppable grin. How ridiculous. Cal cleared his throat, shuffled away from me, and tucked his hands in his pockets. I turned on my heel and walked out, listening to the tap of Cal’s shoes on the tile behind me.
I had more questions, but if he was right, I would have to find a better time to ask them. Age point—like an indenture contract? And, more interesting yet, what experience had taught him to suspect that he was always being spied upon, and what had taught him to fear it? The mystery itched in the back of my mind.
As I climbed in the car, he shot me a look, and I nodded. No talking, not here. In the quiet that settled afterwards, I realized that the taste lingering on my lips was the flavor of his skin from the brief moment of contact. I laid my head back against the seat and wondered if wiping my mouth would be too obvious.
Cal barely spoke for the rest of the drive, until we reached the border of the state and I had to rouse myself from a restful torpor. Dawn tugged at the edge of my consciousness like a dragging weight.
“Stop the car,” I said.
He jumped, gasping.
“Sorry,” he said as he caught his breath. “I thought you were asleep.”
“I don’t sleep,” I said, rubbing my eyes. “I need to get in the trunk. We won’t make it by morning.”
“How can you tell?” he asked, easing us into the emergency lane.
“I can feel it.”
He put the car in park and popped the trunk. I climbed out, dazed, my limbs already heavy. I’d waited too long. I needed to pay more attention. It took me a moment to rearrange the luggage and dig out my “sleeping bag.” I climbed into the dark hollow of the trunk and pulled the lid shut behind me, wriggling into the tarp. I’d lined the inside so it was soft, though in a moment, I wouldn’t feel it. I clipped the lock on the zipper closed, turned onto my side, and tried to relax. Terror made that difficult. My body grew heavier and heavier, until my eyes closed of their own accord and my mouth fell slack. It wasn’t sleep; I was dying again, and again, and again.
I slipped away, into emptiness, as the sun must have crested the horizon.
Disorientation—a gentle word for coming back to life with a frantic gasp and a stuttering heartbeat in a quiet, dark, small space. The air I’d gulped stretched stiff muscles and I coughed it out, wishing I knew how to stop doing that every time. I moved to find the key to the lock, but my elbow banged something hard when I shifted. I paused, then reached out with the other arm and encountered the same hard surface within a few inches. That wasn’t right. I had passed out in the trunk of a car, safely in my sleeping-bag, with a pyrokinetic guarding my body. At least, I’d assumed that was what he would be doing. The ruse was too elaborate if he simply wanted to trick me into letting my guard down.
I patted up the cold metal sides and found that they were attached to a lid of some kind, with textured bumps like the inside of a tool box. I shoved against the section above me and it clinked but didn’t break open.
It was good that hyperventilating wouldn’t make me lose consciousness, because I panted uncontrollably as I struggled and kicked with all my might. The metal dented under each slam of my leg but I didn’t have enough leverage to force it open. Someone had put me in a box and locked it up tight. They must have known what I was. Cal? I was never so wrong about a person’s sincerity—their scent and tiny bodily reactions were impossible to hide from me. Which meant that Cal had been in some way incapacitated and I was a prisoner.
Unless they’d put the box in a quiet, secret place and didn’t plan on coming back. Vampires could be starved to death, as punishment or torture. I would grow weaker, and I would fade, day after day, until one morning I died and didn’t come back. It could take months. I shrieked like a harpy and thrashed with all my might.
Four sharp knocks on the lid of the box stopped me.
“Who’s there?” I shouted, not sounding the least bit frightened.
“Someone who doesn’t want their throat removed from their spine any time soon,” a male voice said. “Or to get burnt to a crisp. So, we’ve got to figure out what to do with you two remarkably incompetent hunters.”
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Somebody who’s supposed to be figuring out why you’re really here,” he said. “Our sources said you were going to try to depose my king.”
The box shifted, as if he’d leaned against it, and I caught a whiff of scent. It was animal, but not wolf. Our dossier had, indeed, been incorrect. They were prepared for me, but what he’d said about burning meant they’d been prepared for Cal, too, and that didn’t bode well. As the movies like to say, we’d been had.
“That was not our intention,” I said. “We were told to moderate a leadership dispute between two local combatants after the old king died. The interested parties were a werewolf and a shaman. You aren’t either.”
“Right you are,” he said, thumping the case again. I flinched at the hollow sound all around me. “But if you’re telling the truth, then we’re going to be in some shit with you for doing this, anyway, am I right?”
“I’m more interested in my freedom than a grudge,” I said.
“You see,” he said as if I hadn’t spoken, “the king isn’t dead. Whoever told you that was a fucking liar.” I didn’t respond. He took a slow breath and let it out. “Not only that, but we haven’t had a dispute for leadership here for longer than I’ve been alive. No werewolf or shaman is even going to think about trying to take over this territory, trust me.”
“If the king’s not dead, then may I speak with him?” I asked.
It was growing harder to keep my voice steady. The box was not warm, but it was small, and I kept brushing my limbs against it when I moved. It seemed to squeeze down around me when I breathed, but if I wanted to get out of the goddamned box he needed to hear an amiable acquaintance, willing to let go a misunderstanding, not a panicked vampire.
“You’ll meet him pretty soon,” he said. “I might not be able to handle you, but he can. I promise you that.”
I heard shifting again, and footsteps, leading away.
“Where’s my partner?” I called out.
“Somewhere else,” he replied.
A chill wriggled down my spine. Hopefully he wasn’t dead. If an informant had told me a pyrokinetic was coming to assassinate me, I would not take the chance of letting him live. Sniper shot, no stress, no fuss.
The small lump of fear in my stomach grew and hardened into a lead weight. The silence was absolute when I stopped breathing. I started again to have something to listen to: rush of air in, rush of air out. Quiet, but something. I had to hold myself in check and think this through. If Cal’s handler had intentionally misrepresented the job, implying a trick if not an outright trap, it seemed likely that he had also been the one to set us up.
The motive screamed at me, it was so obvious. A military man who had held Cal’s life some way or another in his hands for years, who had instilled fear and hate in his charge, who had not been willing to let him slip away even when his superiors told him he must.
It appeared that he’d made the decision so common to jealous boys: if I can’t have it, no one can—and a combat-ready pyrokinetic was a very special toy indeed.
Another sunrise and sunset left me beating my fists in a blind rage against the mangled inside of the box as I woke. The panic coalesced into a burning sensation in my guts, so strong it might rip me apart from the inside if I didn’t let it out. My original master had done this to one of his girls. Once, only once, because even he had discovered a kernel of compassion too great to allow him to continue the torment. He’d simply ushered her on to her final death instead of letting her fully starve. It had taken three weeks to convince him. It was one of the reasons I’d fought my way out of my territory and become a hunter.
I did not want to die this way. I also did not want to come out of the box a raving lunatic, if they let me out at all. I uncurled my fingers and lay still again, or as still as I could while my body quaked and trembled out of my control. I hadn’t realized how much this would frighten me. I spent every day in a small, dark space. But it was mine, and I wasn’t trapped—trapped, trapped, trapped. I bit my own lip, the pain sharp and shocking enough to wrest me out of the terror. The wetness of thicker, cooler blood trickled down my chin and onto the collar of my shirt. I swiped the thin trail up with my thumb and sucked it off my fingertip. I couldn’t afford to waste it.
No one came.
The third night, I came back to myself with a whimper and tried to roll onto my side, banging my shoulder in the process. I curled up as tightly as the box would allow and pressed my fingers to my own pulse. The beat thumped irregular and lethargic. My mouth watered, teeth and fangs alike itching with need. Another day, or two, before the hunger became debilitating. I needed a plan, but if my captors left and never returned, who could I convince to let me out? The strength in my limbs was already fading.
There were footsteps, faint but promising. I held very still.
The metallic thump of a lock opening came a moment before light dazzled my eyes. It took me a squinting, awkward second to realize the lid to the box was open. Tension sang through me as I prepared to spring, but I stopped and let it go again as my sight adjusted—attacking one person would not get me out of my prison. A position of power over their king: that was the ticket. The room, a small basement judging by the bare concrete walls, was empty beyond my captor, the metal box, and me.
“Good evening,” said the man leaning over the box.
It was a testament to my hunger and exhaustion that I identified him by smell first. As soon as the bloody tang of kindred hit my nostrils, I felt him, the flickering sense of his power brushing against my own. I wanted to smile. Instead, I bared my teeth at him and sat up to my full height, shouldering his arm out of the way. That was what a frightened, weakened hunter would do, not a woman with a trick up her sleeve. The leak, Cal’s handler or not, hadn’t done quite enough research on me. I remembered Cal asking what my “special trick” was the night he’d interviewed me—because he didn’t know.
“You must be hungry,” the vampire said. He tucked a lock of dark hair behind his ear with a winsome smile, playing his pale good looks for my attention. It wasn’t going to work. “I apologize for the treatment, but I’ve found that making a point about consequences at first meeting keeps a guest from acting out.”
The real king alone in the room with me, and a vampire at that. Not letting my fierce joy show taxed my acting abilities.
“A guest,” I scoffed.
“You could be a guest,” he replied, parrying my sharp tone with his relaxed ease.
“You would offer me hospitality?” I asked.
“Oh, no,” he said. “You won’t get me to agree to that. You invaded my territory.”
“I already informed your assistant that we were sent here on a diplomatic assignment, and our information was incorrect,” I said.
“That isn’t what we were told,” he said.
“Then we are at an impasse.” I swung my legs over the edge of the box and brushed by him to stand. My back popped as I stretched. “Will you offer me a meal?”
“I’ll offer you your partner,” he said. A knot loosened in my chest. Cal was alive. “Because if I offer you one of mine, you’ll claim I offered hospitality, won’t you?”
He met my smirk with one of his own. Let him believe I wanted to trap him within our laws. I tasted the edges of his power in my head, trying it and finding it a heavy thing, rich and thick with age. I was too weak to challenge him just yet; I needed to refuel.
“Follow me,” he said, pushing away from the metal box and walking toward the stairs in the corner.
I glanced at my prison and saw that it was a coffin of sorts with a row of thick padlocks and chains to hold it closed. It must have been specially made. The bare, small cellar and the lone box made a perfect oubliette. Failure, and a return to that slow death, was not an option. I hurried to catch up to the vampire, inspecting him from behind. He gave me his back not as a sign of stupidity but of strength. He trusted that if I was idiot enough to attack him, he would win, and his arrogance confirmed it. Psychological warfare of the smallest sort. His shoes, leather and well-polished, clicked on the wooden steps. The pants he wore were tailored, as was the grey silk shirt with its glittering jewel buttons.
“And how have you kept him from burning your home down around you?” I asked as we emerged into a largebasement, carpeted and decorated sparsely. The small windows at ground level showed me darkness and grass, but nothing else.
“Drugs, of course,” he answered. “Our informant prescribed a certain tranquilizer combination that will keep him conscious but unable to control his ability.”
“I see,” I said.
“You must know who it was, by that tone,” he said with a little chuckle. “I might believe you, about your misinformation. But if I allow you to leave, will you come back prepared and destroy us? That I can’t risk.”
“We were told there was a murder, as well. A corpse nailed up to a door?” I asked, knowing what to expect for the answer.
“Really now,” he murmured. “That happened in our neighboring territory last year, but it was solved by a hunter in short order. We’ve had no murders at all.”
“Then you have no reason to fear us,” I said.
He turned on his heel, catching a handful of my hair and jerking me to my knees. I went along with loose limbs lest I lose that clump. I stared up at him, directly into his cool blue eyes, and said nothing. Play along until I fed, and then, and then…
“You must be terribly hungry,” he murmured. His thumb pulled my lip back and I let him touch the tender, itching surface of my fangs. I even winced for him. “You’ll feed, and we’ll discuss options. I have no interest in destroying two perfectly good soldiers, if I can win you both to me instead.”
I pulled my head away from the invasive fingers to say, “I agree to discussion.”
“Your partner is in that room,” he said, gesturing to one of the doors on the far side of the room. There were three in a row: bedrooms, I assumed. “Some privacy, but don’t take too long, if you please.”
I got to one knee first, laying a hand palm-up on it in traditional fashion. “Your name, if I have need?”
“No invocations of hospitality, I’ve told you,” he said. “But it’s Lysander.”
I nodded, once, and rose. He collapsed elegantly onto one of the tan couches arranged in the middle of the room without taking his eyes off of me. The bedroom door opened to a push of my hand and I closed it behind me, cutting off his line of view. The room was dim, lit by a small lamp, and contained only a bed and chair. I took a breath, scenting the bitter, poisoned sweat from the lax body on the bed. Cal blinked at me, rolling onto his side in an awkward spill of motion.
“Hilde?” he slurred.
“Hush,” I whispered, kneeling by the side of the bed.
The saliva pooling in my mouth tasted metallic. I pushed hair out of his face and watched his pupils, which were huge and black. Lysander had misjudged again, assuming that if he won me he would also get control of Cal. After all, Others always discounted those they considered human.
“I’m about to bite you.” I enunciated carefully. “Please don’t move, or you might hurt yourself.”
He made a sound that might have been a disagreement but I had no time for that. I pressed his cheek, tilting his head to one side. His skin was clammy to the touch but still warmer than mine. He groaned. I stroked his jaw to calm him and crawled up onto the mattress to get a workable angle. I was too short and he too uncooperative for anything else. One leg hooked over his to keep him still, I pressed my upper body over his arm and held the other one, which fumbled for me, at bay. He was weak as a kitten. Regret and the bitterness of his sick sweat tasted like ashes in my mouth as I found the thread of his pulse under his skin. I sank my teeth in as gently as possible and he barely reacted—the tranquilizers dulled the pain, at least. The blood that filled my mouth was acrid with additives but still rich and hot. I shuddered, suddenly ravenous, but drank only as much as I needed. The flow of life through my chilled limbs seemed to wake my every cell in a burst of light and pleasure. I pulled away with as much care as I’d used to feed, pressing my fingers over the oozing wounds.
“I apologize,” I whispered into his ear.
A part of me, a very small part, wished I didn’t have to pry myself away from the warmth of his company. I slid off the bed and patted his arm. Inadequate, but all I had to offer for stealing something as vital as life from his veins.
I drew my own power around myself in a wash of static and anger. Lysander was twice my age, but my old master had been nearly half a millennium when I rolled him under the force of my will. There were good reasons not to bring over a psychic who, in life, had possessed gifts with the dead.
“Lysander,” I called as I strode into the room. “Lysander, I call you.”
He was on his feet in a flash, fangs bared, his energy rippling in a wave of strength against mine. I dove for him. He caught me in his arms and took me to the floor with his weight, trapping me under a body half again my size. The bastard realized his mistake too late—he touched my skin, and all control amplifies with contact. My aura ate into his, a sensation that filled me bodily like a feeding. I consumed him, colored him my own, as he spasmed and fought helplessly on top of me.
“You didn’t ask my name,” I hissed into his shocked face. “Hilde. Devourer of masters and conqueror of death.”
He went still above me as the light went out of his eyes. All of that impossible, inhuman strength poised for my will and my orders—it was enough to make a girl tremble. The titles might have been silly, and vampires were a pretentious lot, but I had lived up to mine time and time again.
“Lysander,” I said. “Let me stand.”
He backed up on his knees until I pulled free. I tangled my fingers in his silky hair. The power was a rush, one too dangerous for even the purest heart. To reduce a king to a slave, or elevate slave to kingship? Too much, too much entirely.
“I command you to convince your followers you have released us,” I said. “Cal and I will leave unharmed, with your good will. You may play king if you choose, or give away your title to a successor.”
I had to think for a moment to make sure I missed nothing of import. An insidious whisper in the back of my mind requested that I finish it with an order to lay himself in the sun, or lock himself in that terrible box.
“You will behave with kindness and generosity towards those you meet, and you will brick up that cellar room with the coffin. Do you understand?”
Lysander nodded and stood. The first step, he wobbled, but afterwards he walked smoothly once more. I rubbed my face. The plan could backfire, if anyone noticed that his aura had changed entirely and guessed what had happened. I returned to Cal’s room and scooped him up, light as a feather, in my arms. His legs and arms dangled, but I managed to cart him up the steps. I emerged into a spacious, high-ceilinged living room decorated in dark wood furniture. There was a foyer to my left, leading to a glass paneled front door.
Lysander was speaking to a confused-looking wereanimal. Judging by his distinct scent, he was the same man who’d spoken to me when I’d first woken in the box, probably the lieutenant of the territory—I still couldn’t place his musky, rich smell. Coyote, possibly. He stared at me, bristling, but Lysander gestured us to the door with a smile. I nodded my thanks, ignored the glare stinging my back, and walked outside. Nerves sang under my skin. No-one called out for us; I was still on edge. We hadn’t really escaped just yet. I jogged down the steps of the wooden porch and started out across the yard. The night air was balmy and pleasant. Our car, unharmed, sat in the driveway. I glanced back at the gorgeous mansion, all a-glitter with light and surrounded by forest, and wondered, briefly, how long the orders would hold. Sometimes they faded.
I fumbled the car open, trying not to bang Cal’s knees against the door. He grumbled at me as I laid him in the back and looped the middle seatbelt around his waist, buckling it so he wouldn’t fall if I braked too hard. The keys were still in the ignition. How had he even gotten caught? I started the engine and pulled away down the solitary lane. I had no idea where we were, but I would have to find an interstate, if I wanted to get clear of this territory in a timely fashion. The throb of a headache started in the back of my skull.
Cal came back to himself by inches, rolling around in the sheets I’d pulled up to his shoulders. I watched from the other bed in a darkened hotel room. It was as anonymous and far away from the territory we’d escaped as I could manage with a limited amount of time to drive. One hour before sunrise, as I started to ready my sleeping-bag, he sat up and shook himself. His fingers crept up to the bandage on his throat. I looked away.
“Where are we?” he asked, hoarse.
“You managed to get us both captured,” I said. “Though I wouldn’t blame yourself.”
”What happened to you?“ I asked.
”I pulled up to a hotel and then—I don’t know what happened. I got out of the car and passed out, I guess.” He looked troubled, as I probably would too if I were in his position. “Tranquilizer, since I don’t remember anybody clocking me over the head. So where the hell am I?”
“The king was still very alive, and there was no dispute.” I held up my hand to forestall his questions. “He had been told we were coming to hunt him, and had also been fed information about you. How to drug you so you couldn’t use your abilities without killing you, for example.”
His face was bone-white, jaw clenched. “He did it. He really, finally did it. He tried to fucking kill me.”
“And you can’t prove it,” I said.
“I—what?” The tone of his voice fluttered somewhere between incredulous and panicked.
“How can you prove, definitively, that it was the man you think it was? Or that he was trying to kill you? You tell his superiors that he set you up, and he’ll tell them that he was testing you, and you failed.” I paused, but the bleak expression on his face prompted me to continue speaking. “Cal—we did succeed in our assignment. The territory is stable. Contact whomever you need to contact to terminate your connection to him. You’ve freed yourself. ”
“But he’s not gone, and I can’t get rid of him,” he whispered. “I’ve got to walk around knowing that he’s out there, watching me, and waiting to try and make a grab. Or just kill me.”
“He’s only one man,” I said.
“If I can’t kill him, he still wins,” he said. “He doesn’t forgive and forget, Hilde.”
I smiled. “Who says you can’t kill him?”
“I can’t,” he whispered. “I just can’t. So he’s still got me. He can still—“
Cal cut himself off with an anguished noise and punched the mattress, still weak. His shoulders trembled and he held in a hiccupping sob. I slipped off of my bed and sat on the edge of his, hands in my lap. I understood being trapped under a master who held so much power it was nearly impossible to see a way to escape him, but I also thought it likely that, one day, Cal would find the strength to win. He had to grow into it, like any young person.
I reached out a tentative hand. He didn’t pull away when I touched his back, so I rubbed smooth circles over his spine as he wept. I, however, jumped when he grabbed me around the waist and burrowed close. I moved my hand to his hair and held him. His skin was burning hot under my fingers, feverish, alive. I must have gotten the job as his partner or he was still inebriated, because the man I’d met four days ago didn’t seem like the type to let anyone see him cry—or perhaps I had misjudged him, and I had more to learn.
“I need a shower,” he rasped after a long moment of quiet shivering.
“You do smell,” I said.
He snorted and sat back, avoiding my gaze. “How did you get us out?”
“You wondered what my ability was,” I said. He nodded. “I was a gifted psychic when I was alive. I had an affinity for all dead things. When I died, it intensified.”
“So you, what, mind-control other vampires?” he asked.
“In a word,” I said. “Yes.”
“Holy shit,” he said. A moment passed in silence. He touched the bandage again, pushing down on it, and winced. “So, I don’t remember this. Was it—you? Or…”
He was putting a brave face on being unsure who had touched him, who had fed from his body, but he was so obviously unnerved. His attempt at a nonchalant smile was more of a grimace.
“It was me. They locked me in a box for three days,” I said as lightly as I could, which was not very. “If I hadn’t fed, I would have been too weak to capture the master, and we would have died there. I’m—sorry.”
“Fuck,” he said again, laughing in a burst of relief, and collapsed onto the bed like his strings had been cut. “I don’t care, what’s a little blood between friends when you save my ass like that?”
“Thank you,” I said. “I need to prepare for morning.”
He let the silence go on as I moved around the room, readying myself for the dawn, and then said, “Hey, Hilde.”
“Yes?” I murmured.
“Want to be my partner?”
“Of course,” I said. I walked back to the bed. “But I expect you’ll try to rescue me, next time.”
“You don’t seem like the kind of woman who needs a lot of rescuing,” he said, voice low. His eyes were still almost all pupil. Sudden tension, and the aftertaste of his blood in my mouth, made my breathing stutter and stop. When he spoke again, it was a whisper—“Honestly, I don’t think I can get up again, so if you want to do this you better lean down.”
I held in a laugh and bent at the waist, balancing above his prone form with one hand beside his head. He waited until the last moment to close his eyes. I pressed the smallest of kisses to his mouth, a thank-you even if it never led to anything else, and rested my forehead against his for a split second. Dawn pushed heavy outside. I squeezed his shoulder and returned to my own bed, the safe darkness of my sleeping bag. I caught a last glance at him as I closed the zipper, our eyes meeting briefly. His held a hint of flame.
Copyright 2011 by Brit Mandelo
Edited for Tor.com by Megan Messinger
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