Kouji sat gingerly on a hard wooden stool in what was most likely the living room in Carlotta's house. It was difficult for him to tell what sort of room this was supposed to be, since the furniture was appropriate for a jumble of different purposes: a brass daybed, two dining room chairs with no sign of the matching table, an overstuffed purple velvet chaise, an elaborate roll top desk with no chair at all, the stool upon which he now sat, several full-length mirrors, and no less than fourteen lamps of various shapes and sizes. All that would be unusual enough, but Kouji squirmed as he tried his best not to notice all of the glass eyes staring at him from every possible nook and cranny in the room.
Dolls. Carlotta had dolls everywhere. Most of them were the creepy porcelain dolls that looked so realistic that they could spring to life at any moment. Baby dolls with plump faces and puckered lips. Prim and proper Victorian dolls with parasols and upswept hair. Dolls made to look like almost life-size toddlers with various toys and sweets clutched in their chubby little hands. Distressed antique looking dolls made all the more sinister by their rumpled hair, threadbare clothes, and hairline cracks in their otherwise smooth faces. There had to be hundreds, maybe thousands, of dolls crammed into this room, and Kouji could see even more sitting on the staircase, their legs dangling between the balusters and their beady little eyes glinting from the darkness. The whole house must be stuffed to the rafters with dolls. Kouji was beginning to seriously worry for Carlotta's sanity – it would be enough to drive anyone mad to sit here, surrounded by all of these dolls all the time. He thought that it might be enough to drive him mad, even during what he was increasingly hoping would prove to be a short, yet productive, visit.
Kouji cast a glance toward Jacob, and it looked like the elder vampire wasn't any more comfortable than he was. Jacob was still standing, even though Carlotta had asked him to sit in one of the dining room chairs. He shifted from one foot to the other in a gesture that Kouji recognized as nervousness or anxiety, though the expression on Jacob's face revealed neither. He just looked uncomfortable and entirely out of place. It was almost comic to see the tall, leather-clad vampire surrounded by frilly dolls and all manner of floral patterns and fringe and doilies, but Kouji was too on edge to laugh right now. In fact, he felt like he had walked right into a horror movie and that the damned dolls might spring to life at any second and launch themselves in wave after wave against them. The thought of it was enough to send a shudder through Kouji and return his gaze to the floor.
The longer he had to sit there, the more his mind raced. Of course, the most prominent concerns in his head had to do with the dragon lineage and what the hell they were supposed to do to stop its rebirth, but so many other questions had occurred to him since their arrival. He wanted to know why Carlotta knew anything at all about him, and why she had called him 'boyfriend' before inviting them in. He assumed that she had seen something about his future with Jacob, and while he hated that he would sound like a moony teenager, he wanted to know what she had seen about them. Mostly, he just wanted to know that he had a future, and in particular, a future with Jacob. At least that might mean that everything with this dragon problem turned out okay. Kouji also wanted to know how Carlotta seemed to know some things, like that two vampires were coming to pay her a visit, and yet she didn't know some basic details about them, like their names. She had known that Jacob was a killer, but she didn't even know his name. That struck Kouji as very odd, and not very promising. If Carlotta could only see the big picture, they would still be on their own to fill in all of the little details, and that was usually the most important and difficult part of solving any problem, so Carlotta suddenly didn't seem like she would be nearly as helpful as he had been led to believe.
Kouji kept telling himself that it wasn't his place to jump in and start asking this woman a ton of questions, even though that had proven to be the way he dealt with most of his concerns since he had become a vampire. He knew that Jacob was in charge here, and that he needed to sit still and follow his lead, but at the same time, Jacob had said that Kouji's recent status as a human might help him interact with Carlotta, so maybe he was expected to step up and play a more active role in all of this. He sort of kicked himself for not spending the last leg of the drive asking more questions and trying to formulate some sort of plan with Jacob. In hindsight, that would have been a really good use of the time. Too bad that there was nothing he could do about that now.
Carlotta finally came back down the stairs, still carrying her shotgun, and stared warily at Jacob for a moment before walking over to the chaise and sitting down with a pronounced sigh. Upstairs, her dog barked and whined, digging at the floor in a frantic attempt to get free. The second the vampires had walked in to Carlotta's house, her huge dog had gone crazy, growling and snapping at them, lunging toward them in what could only be described as pure rage. Carlotta had grabbed the dog's collar, and somehow managed to muscle the creature up the stairs and out of sight, but Kouji still kept a nervous eye on the stairs. He had always liked dogs when he had been human, and it rather hurt his feelings to have a great big mutt react so badly to him, but he didn't want to get bitten either. He wasn't sure what might happen to a dog if it had the chance to ingest vampire blood, but horrible images of a Saint Bernard trying to eat a little boy in a hatchback sprang to mind, and that was enough to change Kouji's mind about dogs, probably for a very long time.
"Are you going to sit, vampire?" Carlotta asked Jacob, motioning again toward one of the chairs.
"I'm fine like this," Jacob mumbled, though he still didn't look particularly fine to Kouji.
"I expected the little one to be skittish in here, but it surprises me that you're even worse than he is," Carlotta remarked with a slight shrug. She cast one more suspicious glance at Jacob, and then propped her gun against the edge of her chaise, though Kouji thought that it looked like it could fall over and accidentally blast one of them at any moment.
"Maybe for everyone's sake we should just get right to the point, then," Jacob suggested, edging a little closer to Kouji's side.
"That would probably be for the best," Carlotta agreed. "Anything to get you out of here and back on your way a little sooner."
"So what have you seen?" Jacob asked.
"Not much for manners, are you?" Carlotta responded.
"You're the one who shot at us."
"There's a sign at the bottom of the driveway – 'No Trespassing'."
"You should've seen that two vampires arriving in the middle of the night weren't going to use the driveway and the doorbell."
"Jacob…" Kouji hissed, eyes wide as the two of them escalated back toward an argument.
"So you do speak," Carlotta remarked, turning her eerie golden eyes to Kouji, who immediately regretted reminding her that he was in the room.
"Yes, ma'am," Kouji replied quietly, trying to avoid direct eye contact and failing almost instantly. The zillions of dolls' eyes were far preferable to this one pair of mortal eyes.
"And you have manners, too," Carlotta mused, continuing to stare at Kouji. If there had still been any question in his mind about whether or not Carlotta's eyes had something to do with her gift, the strange feelings in the back of his brain and the pit of his stomach were quickly answering it. In a way, he felt that he was being read like a book, even though he knew that was impossible. Or at least, he thought that was impossible. She was a seer, not a psychic – though Kouji was increasingly alarmed that he wasn't entirely sure if there was a difference between the two. Could she read minds? Did anyone have that ability? Is that what she was doing to him right now?
Kouji tried to close off his mind, as Jacob had started teaching him to do during their long stretches on the highway coming here, but he couldn't bring himself to avert his gaze, and he was still captured by those odd golden eyes boring into his. He just sat there, trying not to whimper, and hoping for the best, whatever that might mean.
"You're new to all this," Carlotta observed. "No wonder. That explains a bit."
Kouji hoped that he wasn't expected to reply, because he had no idea what to say to that comment. All he wanted to do was break their eye contact and find out why Jacob wasn't doing anything to help him. Regardless of what went through his head, Kouji still couldn't find the will to tear his eyes away from Carlotta, and so he sat there, frozen and silent, helplessly waiting to see what would happen next.
Carlotta sighed and looked away after what felt like an eternity, pausing to pick at some stray dog hair on the arm of the chaise before she reached for a teacup almost hidden on the small end table tucked next to the chaise. Kouji tried to stifle his sigh of relief, though Carlotta's quiet chuckle established that he hadn't done a very good job.
"Do I really frighten you so much, little one?" Carlotta asked, making a disapproving face after trying a sip of her tea, and then setting the cup back down on its saucer. "I'm nothing more than a human, after all, and you're a vampire. Don't you think that I'm the one who should be afraid of you and your lumbering friend?"
"You're a lot more than just a human, from what everyone has told me," Kouji answered quickly to prevent Jacob from saying anything else to provoke further confrontation. Jacob seemed needled by Carlotta's little jabs at him, and Kouji was sure that an escalating conflict between them wouldn't end well for anyone.
"That's true enough. Kouji, wasn't it?"
"You can call me Carlotta. I don't stand on all that much formality around here. So, what did the vampires have to say about my family after all of these years?"
"Just that you are all powerful seers, and that if anyone could help us find out more about this dragon thing, it would be you, but you might not be interested in helping us."
"I see. And did they say why I wouldn't be willing to help you?"
"More or less," Kouji shrugged. "Sometimes they don't tell me all the details right away."
"Your kind is like that. Just wait until you've been with them a little longer – you'll find out what I mean," Carlotta replied with a wan smile. She tried another sip of her tea and almost choked on it with a fierce grimace. "I need fresh tea before we go any farther with this. Kouji, I take you for a tea drinker – care to join me?"
Kouji glanced briefly at Jacob, who seemed either entirely exasperated by the odd turn in the conversation or inexplicably amused, before nodding at Carlotta. Without another word, she abruptly rose from her seat and walked out of the room, heading back into the kitchen. Kouji wasn't sure if he was supposed to follow her or not, but he decided that he probably should, so he slid off his stool and crept toward the warm light of the kitchen. At least there were no dolls in there, and he was very relieved to notice that she left her shotgun propped against the chaise.
Carlotta's teapot was already full of water and sitting on a burner, as though it stood ready for constant use. She touched a match to the burner beneath it and then stretched on her tiptoes to retrieve a second teacup out of the cupboard next to the stove. It was a starkly different floral pattern than the one she was using, and Kouji silently wondered if anything in Carlotta's house was still in a matched set. In his brief time inside her home, he was already left with the distinct impression of disarray bordering on outright chaos, though it all came together in a strangely comforting, homey sort of way. Except for the dolls, the shotgun, and the vampire-hating dog that still periodically baled woefully from somewhere upstairs. So more like homey in a madwoman sort of way, as though Carlotta was your favorite spinster aunt who kept fifty cats, had hand-knit cozies for every object she owned, and spoke of the characters on her soap operas as though they were her closest friends.
Kouji felt himself on the verge of inappropriate laughter and hid his mouth behind his hand, but it was too late. Carlotta seemed a little nutty, but she sure didn't miss much.
"What about my kitchen is enough to give a young vampire the giggles?" she asked, cocking one eyebrow and leaning back against the counter by the stove.
"Nothing," Kouji replied. "It's a bad habit – I laugh when I'm nervous."
"Well, I don't think you have anything to be nervous about here," Carlotta sighed. "Your boyfriend in there isn't about to let anything happen to you, after all."
Kouji smiled slightly at the mention of Jacob and leaned forward to try to peek around the corner to see if he could catch a glimpse of his uncharacteristically stoic friend. Jacob must not have followed him toward the kitchen, because Kouji could only catch a glimpse of the edge of the stool he had just abandoned, but no sign of Jacob lurking just out of eyeshot. A moment later, his attention was drawn to the soothing rhythm of fat raindrops pattering against the roof, and his eyes widened as he peered out the kitchen window into the rain that Carlotta had warned him against earlier. Evidently, she really could see things before they happened, though the true depth of that talent remained to be seen.
"So how long have you been a vampire?" Carlotta asked. Her tone had changed almost entirely, and Kouji wondered if she didn't really have a problem with vampires in general, but just didn't like Jacob because she knew what he was, or more accurately, what he did.
"About two months," Kouji answered. It seemed like it had been so much longer than that, but as he ticked off the weeks on his fingers, he was sure that it had only been a couple of months. He furrowed his brow for a moment when he realized that he wasn't all that sure what date it was. He always knew the date when he was human, but it evidently didn't matter so much now that he was undead and had no real schedule to keep.
"I didn't think it had been very long," Carlotta nodded. "Was it your choice?"
"No," Kouji replied quietly. "It just happened."
"And it wasn't that one, was it?" Carlotta motioned her thumb toward Jacob in the other room.
"No. Jacob took me in after…" Kouji trailed off. He wasn't sure he should be talking about this with a human, even if she was a seer who seemed to know all about his kind. It just didn't feel like the right thing to do – telling his deepest secrets to a human who bore a grudge against his kind.
"After he killed your maker, eh?" Carlotta completed Kouji's sentence with a solemn nod, clicking her tongue. "I thought that might be you."
Kouji felt his eyes widen again as Carlotta turned back toward the cupboard, retrieving a box of tea bags and a plastic bag full of artificial sweeteners, each packet a different color and brand.
"How could you know about that?" Kouji asked softly, hoping that he wasn't overstepping his bounds, but hopelessly intrigued by how much Carlotta seemed to know about him – past and present.
"You already know the answer to that, little one," Carlotta replied in the gentlest tone Kouji had heard from her so far. "I'm a seer. We see things – hence the title."
"So you can see the past, too – not just the future?" Kouji asked, rather incredulous. His mind had boggled a bit when he thought that seers could only see the future, but if they could also see the past – well, that had to be overwhelming enough to drive them all mad.
"Everything is the future at one point or another. It's the future until it happens, and only then does it become the past," Carlotta explained, turning her attention to the stove as the teapot started to gurgle, not quite whistling yet.
Kouji started to ask her to explain that cryptic remark, but as he repeated it under his breath, it dawned on him and made sense. Carlotta had known that he was going to be made into a vampire at some point before it happened, and she knew that Vivian was going to be killed. She had known all along, and if only he had known, he might have been able to prevent the whole thing. If she had told him, he could have chosen to stay in his dorm room that night. He could have skipped that party, never crossed Vivian's path… He could have avoided his own death. He would still be nothing more than a run of the mill human college student, oblivious to vampires and dragons and their looming conflict.
Kouji wasn't sure what to do with that. A part of him was pained that Carlotta had known in advance and failed to warn him. A spark of frustrated anger chased away that pain, followed immediately by a sense of sadness and regret for all the things that could have been if only he had known, if only he had been warned. Yet another part of him was glad that he hadn't been warned, because if he had stayed in that fateful night, he never would have had the chance to meet Jacob and Julian. He was happy enough as a vampire, right? He didn't regret it that much anymore – or did he?
"Kouji," Carlotta called over the whistling teapot. "There's no sense in dwelling on what could have been. Nothing can change what has already come to pass, and even if I had warned you, you probably wouldn't have believed me anyway. Cassandra wasn't the only one of us who was never taken seriously. Do you take sugar?"
Kouji blinked a few times to clear his head, and then shook his head. Carlotta handed him a steaming teacup with a white string hanging down onto the saucer. She patted his forearm in an unexpectedly comforting gesture.
"If I warned everyone of everything that I saw, I would be interfering in the natural order of things. It's not my place to prevent the things I see. I only see them. I see all the death and heartbreak, and there's nothing I can do to stop it all. I know that it's going to happen, and all I can do is stand by and watch the misery come to pass. And that is the truest curse of the seer, don't you think?" Carlotta concluded quietly, and her odd golden eyes seemed more haunted and sad than frightening to Kouji.
"Come on now, if we don't get on with this, you'll both be stuck here after sunrise, and I don't want your kind in my house for that long," Carlotta concluded, leading Kouji back to the sitting room where Jacob waited, still standing with his arms folded across his chest.
Kouji sat back down on the stool, glancing around for a place to sit his teacup, but there was no table nearby, so he balanced the saucer rather precariously on his thigh and turned his attention back to Carlotta. He had no idea what was going to happen next. He didn't even know whether to expect the venomous Carlotta who seemed to hate vampires, or the kindly soul who had just made him a surprisingly tasty cup of lavender-scented green tea.
"So, seer, what can you tell us about the dragon line?" Jacob asked abruptly, as though he was quite eager to get the answers they sought and get away from this human's house.
"What did you bring me?" Carlotta replied, peering at Jacob through the wisps of steam rising from her fresh tea.
"Bring you?" Jacob parroted as realization dawned across his face and he muttered a few more of those foreign curse words that Kouji had heard earlier in the woods.
"You know that my kind expects a tribute, and you didn't think to bring me anything at all, did you? I knew you were a boor the moment I laid eyes on you," Carlotta snorted.
"I thought we decided that the old ways were best left in the past," Jacob countered, and Kouji was slightly proud that he had come up with a logical reply so quickly.
"The Hittite would have remembered to bring me something."
"If you think having me in your house is horrible, be glad that the Hittite isn't here. You'd really hate him," Jacob observed. A brief hint of his trademark crooked grin flashed across his face.
"I have no doubt," Carlotta agreed with a subtle smile of her own. "Where to begin?"
Kouji glanced at Jacob as Carlotta trailed off, sipping her tea and appearing to organize her thoughts. He hoped that he wasn't going to be left behind during their entire conversation because he really wanted to know more about what was going on, but he hated to ask them to stop and give him a history lesson every time they said something obscure. Kouji had never been comfortable when he was the youngest person in the room, and it was even worse now that he was immortal.
"Isaac," Jacob murmured to Kouji.
"What?" Kouji whispered back.
"Isaac is the Hittite. You looked confused," Jacob explained.
"Oh," Kouji nodded. He knew that Hittites were a Bible thing, but he didn't know much else. But if Isaac was from the Old Testament, he must be even older than Kouji had imagined. Kouji struggled to save his questions for later as Carlotta sighed loudly.
"The Scale keeps the record and holds it secret," Carlotta said in a breathy, unnatural voice. An odd, distant sort of expression played across her face, and she seemed somehow transformed from the common human who had sat there moments earlier. Even her eyes were subtly changed, as though the highest and thinnest clouds were racing across a golden sky in the graven lull before a storm. "Long and peacefully it slept, cradled in stone, silent as the grave. Human hands hold it now, confused and malcontent, ragged screams in the swirling darkness. Death seeks it, drawing ever closer. It was stolen, and it will be stolen again. The key is lost to all who demand it. Blood must follow blood, and only the blood will tell."
Carlotta closed her haunted eyes and fell silent, leaving her obscure statement playing over and over through Kouji's head. He wished that he had recorded it, or that he was taking notes, but to his surprise, Jacob was a step ahead of him, scrawling away on a sheet of paper that he must have pulled out of the pocket of his coat. His lips moved silently as he wrote, and he shook his head at the end, evidently as confused as Kouji was. Neither of them said a word. They just watched and waited for Carlotta to continue.
She seemed to be in a sort of trance, swaying slightly with her head bowed. Her fingers were curled, digging slightly into the tops of her thighs, and her breath sounded irregular – not really gasping, but no longer calm and comfortable, either. Kouji could only imagine what turmoil must be playing out in her head, but in truth, he was glad that he didn't know what was going on in there. Given the choice, vampire seemed a far better existence to his eyes than seer.
Carlotta's head snapped back up, and she glared from one of them to the other, as though it was entirely their fault that she had to endure her visions. Kouji instinctively froze, and Jacob tensed slightly at his side.
"Rage boiling under the surface since ages and ages hence. Bitter and vengeful, but biding its time. Waiting. Plotting. Strength growing in secret, even as more and more forget, save for the most loyal few. Known to none, not even unto itself. Wary and troubled, but for naught. Sought, but not found," Carlotta hissed, her voice barely audible over the increased pounding of the rain on the slate shingles above. "Carefully guarded, protected as a cherished pearl on display to the world. Caged, yet free – aware, but oblivious – dragon, but human.
"Shadows seek to close out the light, twisting and molding the unformed clay unto their image. Scourge and plague with regard to none, not even themselves. Blind, dangerous, clawing ever closer to downfall at the goal. Opposed by eternal foes, dancing anew at the cusp of abyss. Arrogance taints agenda, allied in strife, flawed and imperfect… Cracks on the surface open to the pit lest they all fall.
"The source of all power knows not which direction to turn. Susceptible, seeking, open to influence, black or white. The balance shall tip by an unlikely cause. A clash of fire and steel. Old scores amid new sins. All is renewed, yet nothing shall change…
"The ivory fang drips the blood of the new dawn…"
Carlotta gasped, her limbs suddenly seizing and stiffening into the contorted image of raw pain. Her eyes tugged shut, all trace of color and vigor drained from her face, and her eerily bloodless lips gaped open. Her head sagged forward, obscuring her face behind a veil of limp, drooping curls. Her breath came in ragged jags, whistling and gurgling through her chest as her muscles twitched and fired at random.
Kouji shook free from his stunned silence and started to reach for Carlotta, but Jacob's firm grip on his shoulder stopped him even before his forgotten teacup had the chance to slip off his thigh. Kouji looked up at the elder vampire, who sternly shook his head and tugged Kouji back into his seat. He furrowed his brows at Jacob, who seemed to understand and leaned down to whisper in Kouji's ear, never entirely taking his eyes off the hunched seer.
"Never, never lay hands on a seer in that condition," Jacob whispered in the barest breath that Kouji strained to detect. "She's perfectly fine, but you might not be if you mess with her right now. She'll shake it off and be back with us shortly, and until then, sit still and don't say a word."
Kouji opened his mouth to protest, but the deathly serious expression on Jacob's face, transforming him into a nearly perfect clone of Isaac, forced Kouji to meekly obey, though from where he sat, Carlotta looked far from fine at the moment. He couldn't exactly call it a seizure, though spasm may have been the right term, and her breathing remained worrisome. Once again, no one had bothered to warn Kouji in advance, and he was left wondering what was happening and what was going to happen next. He made a mental note to insist that Jacob start warning him about everything up front, so that he could ask his questions beforehand and be prepared for all of the little quirks he was expected to navigate in his new, supernatural world.
But all of the mental notes in the world did him no good at the moment, and Kouji squirmed as he struggled to hold his tongue, watching helplessly as Carlotta twitched, listening as the sound of the pouring rain dueled with her moans and choking gasps. Kouji jumped a little when Jacob's hand closed around his shoulder again, though this time, it was an unmistakable gesture of comfort. Kouji looked up at Jacob and managed a wan smile, before leaning lightly against his friend and chewing on his bottom lip to wait for Carlotta to recover.
Evidently, a seer's gift was far more than just a mental torment. Kouji had no idea that there would be such a physical toll, as well. No wonder seers went mad. To be constantly bombarded by knowledge of events and troubles destined to happen at some point in future, to possess such knowledge yet to be able to do nothing about it, to be subjugated into service by what Kouji could only assume was a motley assortment of power-hungry villains and underworld creatures of every stripe, and to then endure this kind of physical pain and torment on top of all of that? It was enough to bring tears to his eyes, though he resolutely refused to let that happen. Even he knew enough to understand that a vampire wasn't meant to cry over the plight of a gifted, or cursed, mortal.
Kouji struggled to focus on what Carlotta had said to them, before she fell into this torpor. He was so relieved that Jacob had written everything down, because most of her words swirled together into a confusing jumble of warnings that led him to believe that there was indeed a war coming. A war. A battle between vampires and dragons. The potential of such a clash was enough to make Kouji wish to curl up on the chaise next to Carlotta, drifted far away from this reality, perhaps never to return. But that wasn't really an option for him, so he just had to hope that he was aligned with the winning team. Surely he was. Surely vampires, with their centuries of experience, bottomless wealth, and otherworldly powers would triumph. They had to. He hadn't lost his mortal life just to get torn apart by some undead war machine, had he? Kouji couldn't put his finger on it right now, but he had drawn some measure of hope from everything that Carlotta had foreseen. Somehow, he sensed that they were going to come out on top. Of course, Jacob had been right: the seer's vision was amorphous and riddled with statements that could go either way. Kouji doubted that Carlotta had been purposefully vague – in fact, she didn't seem that she was in control of her mind and body, and perhaps, she wasn't even in there right now at all.
Her last statement, what stood out clearly in Kouji's mind as her final conclusion, chilled him. It was such a simple, plain statement, and yet, he wasn't sure that he had ever heard anything more ominous: The ivory fang drips the blood of the new dawn…
Her words played through his head over and over, until he felt as though Jacob's strong hand on his shoulder was indeed the only thing tethering him to this waking plane of existence, lest he tumble away into Carlotta's spiraling madness…
The ivory fang drips the blood of the new dawn…
Whose fang? Never mind the blood, and never mind the new dawn. If only Carlotta had told them what sort of fang. Fangs like his own, or the fangs of a newly reborn and victorious dragon? When taken in context with blood, it would seem to indicate a vampire, but if linked with the new dawn – well, anything dealing with the sunrise didn't really seem to bode well for night-dwelling vampires, now did it? Kouji could make an argument for either side based on that statement, and in fact, he was making an argument in his head for both sides at once, which further made him wonder if they had wasted their time in coming here in the first place. His initial hope threatened to fade as he mulled the possibilities tangled in that last statement.
Didn't this prophecy further muddy the waters and distract them from the true task at hand without really leading them any closer to anything? Kouji had been so focused on the search and proving himself useful that he'd never really thought about what he would do or how he would react if Carlotta ended up being no help at all. Faced with that very real possibility, he felt somewhat betrayed. Julian had trusted him to find Carlotta and to bring back her vision to contribute to their efforts against the dragon lineage, and this was the best he could do? Sure, he had found her, and they had listened to what she had to say, but she hadn't really said much of anything in the end. Just a bunch of vagaries and ambiguous nonsense – the ramblings of a madwoman after all. Most of it they already knew – The Scale was key to finding the heir to the dragon lineage, and they were racing against this human cult – the Draconigenae – to put a stop to the resurrection of the lineage or face nightmarish consequences. Right now, Kouji couldn't make sense of anything past that, though he desperately hoped that this hadn't been a waste of time.
"Dark times ahead, from the looks of it," Carlotta croaked in a weak, distant tone. "But you all prefer the dark, don't you?"
"Not like this," Jacob responded quietly.
"Hmmm," Carlotta murmured, gingerly realigning her limbs and blinking her eyes rapidly as she lifted her head and attempted to smooth her rambunctious hair out of her face. "So, little one, we have time for a few of your questions before you leave, I suppose."
"Are you okay?" Kouji asked without hesitation.
Carlotta gazed at Kouji for a moment before sinking back into the plush chaise and dissolving into gentle laughter. For the first time since their arrival, Kouji was absolutely certain that her smile was genuine, though tinged with a fatigue that hadn't been present before.
"I never thought I would lay eyes on an innocent vampire, and yet here you are…" she chuckled. "Yes, child, I'll be fine. Thank you for asking. Visions are… taxing, to say the least."
"I know that you don't want us to stay here, but are you sure that you'll be okay by yourself in this condition? I mean, what if something happens?" Kouji pressed.
"I've survived every other time, and this will be no different. And no matter how charming I find you, you're still a vampire, and you're not staying in my house. I hope you don't take offense, but that's not open for negotiation."
"But…" Kouji sputtered, only to be interrupted by Jacob's crushing squeeze on his shoulder. "Oww – what was that for?"
"When the seer tells you to drop it, you should drop it," Jacob murmured through barely moving lips.
Carlotta laughed again, sipping a bit of her tea before she spoke again, her voice firmer and clearer with each passing moment. "I trust you'll be taking my information back to you the rest of your kind."
"As soon as possible," Jacob confirmed, easing his grip on Kouji's shoulder. "Don't suppose you'd be up for interpreting any of it for us before we go, would you?"
"That's not part of my job description."
"It was worth a shot," Jacob shrugged.
"I will tell you this much – don't underestimate the Draconigenae this time. If you have the chance, wipe them out for good."
"It must pain you to advise vampires to be sure to kill a bunch of humans."
"It does – but that should show you how important this is."
"And it tells me that you might be on our side, after all," Jacob grinned, raising his eyebrows with a good-natured smirk.
"Don't gloat, vampire," Carlotta retorted. "It's no prize to be the lesser of two evils."
"So you think we can win?" Kouji interjected, clattering his teacup back against its saucer more loudly than he intended. The sudden sound broke the relative calm in the sitting room, and reminded Carlotta's dog to resume its forlorn baying upstairs.
"Win?" Carlotta mused. "I'm not sure it's as black and white as that, but if the pieces fall into place… Yes, I suppose you could see it that way.
"But take this caution, child," Carlotta continued sternly when she saw the hopeful expression bloom across Kouji's face. "I can see many possible futures, and very few things in this world are carved in stone – particularly where great and ancient forces are at play. Nothing is that simple, or that easy. There's always a price to pay, and the more dear the results, the richer the price."
Kouji didn't know how to respond to that, so he meekly nodded and finished his last, tepid sip of tea, taking care to quietly sit the cup back down this time. He couldn't help but feel such a surge of hope, but no matter how hard he racked his brains, he couldn't come up with any reference in Carlotta's vision to this price to be paid. He wanted to see Jacob's transcription, but now didn't seem like the time. He could always try to come straight out and ask Carlotta to her face, but he had the distinct impression that she wasn't about to hand him a simple, direct answer.
As he sat there, staring at the wrinkled lump of soggy teabag left in the bottom of his cup, chewing on his bottom lip with his bangs covering his eyes, Carlotta leaned forward off the chaise, and laid a blazing warm hand on Kouji's knee, startling him. He looked up and was once again captured by Carlotta's unearthly golden stare, helplessly watching a sort of swirling mist deep within her eyes. Kouji had no idea how much time passed as they sat there like that, locked together, far from dragons and vampires and the waking world…
Finally, Carlotta closed her eyes and broke her gaze, freeing him to gulp in a great breath that he didn't even realize he had been holding. The room snapped back into focus, and he was suddenly aware that no more than a few seconds had passed, yet he felt that he had just been on a long journey to an amorphous, distant place where time and space and the rules of physics didn't have any meaning. In fact, he felt vaguely nauseous. Jacob's hand was still on his shoulder, and Carlotta was still leaned in close, braced against his knee, but Kouji's head spun a bit anyway.
"You'll be fine, little one," Carlotta cooed with a maternal smile and a wise nod. "You think too much and you worry too much for someone so young. Follow your heart, hold true to it, and you'll do just fine. I'm still not a fan of your kind, but you've had the good fortune to fall in with a good lot, all things considered. This one," Carlotta gestured her chin toward Jacob, "will be a true and loyal companion to you.
"Above all, remember who you are and what you were. Your humanity sets you apart, and it will serve you well and never lead you astray. It will serve you all well in the long, dark days to come," Carlotta concluded, patting Kouji's knee one more time before retreating back to her chaise with a weary sigh.
"Now get out, the both of you," she declared in a flat tone, neither playful nor spiteful. "You have what you came for, and I'll not suffer vampires in my house for another moment."
Remembering what Jacob had told him earlier about not arguing with a seer, Kouji held his tongue and nodded. He slid off his stool and took his empty teacup to the kitchen, running water in it and leaving it in the sink. He walked back into the sitting room to stand in front of Carlotta again. He looked up at Jacob with a dazed smile, which elicited a gentle snort and exaggerated roll of the eyes from the elder vampire.
"Thank you, Carlotta. You have the gratitude of the Cabal," Jacob said, bowing at the waist. Kouji immediately followed his lead, holding a deep bow for a long, respectful pause, though he inwardly wondered about this 'Cabal' that he'd never heard mentioned before. Every step forward in this process seemed to yield a fresh layer of new secrets.
"Prove that gratitude by keeping your word, and leave me in peace," Carlotta muttered, slipping back into the defiant, standoffish persona she had used upon their arrival.
"You have my word," Jacob promised, rising again to his full height and edging toward the kitchen and the exit.
"Thanks, Carlotta – I'll remember what you said," Kouji whispered. He was pretty sure that Carlotta's expression briefly softened toward him, but it could have been his imagination, as she immediately waved him away.
"Get out," she demanded, wrapping her fingers around the barrel of her shotgun. "And don't come back."
Without another word, Jacob and Kouji left the sitting room at a brisk pace, exiting Carlotta's house without a backward glance, though Kouji did pause to turn the lock on the kitchen door, just in case. The rain had slowed to a chilly drizzle, though the leaf-littered ground on the way back to their SUV was mushy from the earlier downpour. Jacob slowed his strides so Kouji could easily match his pace, and Kouji was grateful for the gesture and stayed tight against his friend's side. They quickly reached the sleek black truck and climbed in to escape the nagging damp outside. Kouji locked the doors behind them and dangled the key from the ignition, but they sat there in silence for a short while.
"It's late, kid – we should head back through town and try to check in to that little motel we passed on the way in," Jacob said quietly, sounding as tired as Kouji suddenly felt. "After all that, I want to sleep inside today."
"Yeah," Kouji agreed. "And then what?"
"I'll make a call. We'll meet a plane in Denver tomorrow, and we'll be on our way."
"Europe – where else? We'll meet up with Julian again and try to sort this out. I want to find out how Angelo made out against the humans – and it's time you got to meet everyone."
"Really?" Kouji couldn't mask the doubt from his voice.
"Really. There's no sense in putting it off any longer, and there's not much we can do about that now, anyway. Start the engine – let's go."
"Yeah," Kouji murmured. So it was almost time for him to meet the rest of the 'family'… He wasn't looking forward to that so much anymore, regardless of how many cool stories Jacob had told him about various other vampires during the long, boring stretches of this road trip. But, it was bound to happen sooner or later, and with all the troubles looming… Sooner seemed to be the only option.
With a resigned sigh, Kouji started the engine and fastened his seat belt, reminding himself exactly when they had passed the little no-name motel on the other side of Cedaredge. Before he had the chance to put the SUV in gear, Jacob grabbed the back of his neck and turned his face to the side, catching him entirely off-guard and smothering him in a deep, lingering kiss. Kouji reflexively stiffened for a moment before yielding to the cliché by melting against Jacob's insistent mouth. Kouji felt his brain switch off – he wasn't sure what brought this on so suddenly, but he didn't really care, either. Carlotta kept saying that Jacob was his boyfriend, and Kouji just wanted that to be true – and with a passionate kiss like this one, he was half-tempted to start believing it.
Jacob gently released Kouji's mouth, but kept the firm hold on the back of his neck and pressed their foreheads together. His gentle grin was back, though it seemed a bit strained and not as natural as usual.
"Kouji, don't take this the wrong way, okay? But can we just not talk about any of this Carlotta stuff until tomorrow?" Jacob asked softly, leaning back in for another kiss at the end of his request.
Kouji snorted a quick laugh and smiled broadly at Jacob. "That's an awfully nice way to ask to me to shut up."
"That's not what I mean..."
"I know," Kouji interrupted. "I think even I need to let this sink in for a little while before I can start picking it apart and asking a zillion questions. Don't worry, okay?"
"Okay. Thanks, kid," Jacob smiled, in earnest this time, before releasing Kouji and sinking into the passenger seat, staring out the window as he lit a cigarette.
Kouji smiled again, before steering the SUV back onto the road and re-tracing their route back toward town. He let the gentle road noise and the subtly greying sky lull his mind into silence, pushing his fears and questions aside for the time being, knowing they would still be there when Jacob was ready.