"Never piss off a Master Vampire. In fact, never piss off vampires. Period. It's just not smart. They don't just get mad — they get even."
It was something I'd told my students. In fact, it was their first lesson — the very first words I'd ever spoken to them as their instructor. Well, technically, that was their second lesson. Their first was: "Never piss me off — ever. Pissing me off is one of the single stupidest moves you could ever make in your sorry existences. Why? Because I won't just get mad — I'll kill you."
So, their second lesson was more along the lines of: "Never piss off a Master Vampire. In fact, never piss off vampires. Period. It's just not smart. Because unlike me, they don't just get mad — they get even. Which can be a thousand times worse than ending up dead."
Obviously, my own personal philosophies were quite contrasting to what I'd been ordered to teach. "Shoot first, ask questions later." "Get in my way, and I'll kill you." "Piss off as many people as you can — especially vampires." Don't get me wrong — it was sound and logical advice that I gave my students, and maybe one day I would take it. But it seemed today … just would not be that day.
"If any of you screw up this raid," I hissed into the tiny microphone of my headset, "your asses are mine." I ignored the few grumbles that were transmitted via earpiece. "Get into your positions and be ready to move on my signal."
This was my squad's first raid. The other missions I'd taken them on were reconnaissance assignments — strictly observe and report business. Now, they were going to put the weapons in their hands to actual use. But I'd trained them well. I was confident that their first raid would be successful — I mean, after all, we were busting into the den of a few rogue vampires that had decided to join up together; this wasn't a Clan; my team wasn't going up against anything that I've ever had to deal with as a full-fledged Hunter. Plus, it was sunset. These creepers were only just beginning to roll out of their coffins.
"Remember," I whispered, a few final words of advice, "watch each others' backs and work together as a team. Don't pull any of that hero shit, but don't stand there like an idiot either. And don't worry about me — just worry about each other. Yell if you need help." I paused. "Alright, ready?"
Their tense but electric silence was answer enough. I grinned. They'd be just fine.
"Team One — go!" Clara and Damien eased into the tiny space between the abandoned, crumbling flower shop and the condemned apartment building — our target — across the street. The pair clambered noiselessly onto the fire escape and began their ascent to the second floor.
"Team Two — go!" Simon and Kory scaled the wall on the other side of the building to the third floor, finding easy handholds in the spaces created by the corroding cement between the bricks.
"Team three — go!" Marissa and Nick were at the front door in the blink of an eye, readying themselves to break it down.
Satisfied with my squad's efficiency, I walked briskly to the rear of the rooftop, crouched into a runner's starting position, and braced myself. Then, I was off, using the opposite edge of the roof to propel myself through the air, over the street below. I glided easily through the night, my legs pressed firmly together and my arms at my sides — arcing outwards and up so that my flight turned into a dive. I landed with a roll on the roof of the apartment building, coming out of the tumble to spring lightly to my feet. I strode purposefully over to the rooftop entrance to the main stairwell of the building.
"Alright. Let's rock 'n roll!" The next second was consumed by the further shattering of already broken windows and the ramming down of dilapidated doors.
The plan was simple. My squad would flush out the vamps on the first three floors, and I would deal with them on the fourth. While I subdued those beasties, the three teams would meet up and take care of anything in the basement — the prime nesting area of vampires. We go in. We kick some ass. We take some prisoners. We get out. Cakewalk.
But as I slipped down the half-rotted stairs to the fourth floor, a feeling of unease tingled up my spine. I removed my twin blades from their crossed sheathes on my back as my eyes quickly adjusted to the gloom. My Hunting experience told me that something about this mission wasn't right.
"Stay in your pairs when you search the apartments," I whispered softly. "Remember — marked doors mean that it's occupied. But search the unmarked apartments, too. Be thorough."
I conducted a sweep of the fourth floor. Only one of the four apartments had been marked — fingernail scrapings, blood spatter, bone pilings were typical. But all of the dwellings were empty. There were traces of inhabitants, but the occupants were not present. I returned to the staircase, standing at the top of the flight that led all the way to the first floor.
"We just searched two marked apartments," came Damien's taut voice through my earpiece. "We didn't find anything. I don't like this."
"Just stay calm and alert," I replied, the icy sensation creeping up my spine again. "Intel said these particular vamps were crafty."
"We still don't like this," reiterated Clara.
I turned my head, looking past the open door of the only marked apartment and through a window, to see the last rays of the sun slide below the horizon. "The sun just set. Get ready for some action."
"Hey, guys," said Marissa from the first floor. "Has anyone else noticed the holes in the ceilings?"
I froze, my mind suddenly consumed by thoughts of Marissa's observation; it was running a freaking 10K marathon. Intel hadn't mentioned anything about this.
"Fuck … Alright, listen up," I growled. "The Intel was shit. They're not nesting in the damn basement — they're in the ceilings. It's a rare thing — a trend that's only just started. It makes nesting easier … somehow."
"What?" hissed Damien.
"You've gotta be fuckingwith us …" muttered Kory from.
"Holy shit!" spat Marissa.
"I cannot believe this!" breathed Nick.
"Shut up!" I snarled, gaining immediate silence. I could hear scraping sounds beneath the floorboards. There were vampires on the third floor.
"I've got movement!" whispered Simon. Kory inhaled sharply.
"New plan," I barked softly and swiftly, my eyes roaming the shadows as night fell. "Kory, Simon — you'll have visitors dropping in any minute. Flush them out and then get down to the second floor to help Damien. Clara, the second they arrive there, get down to the first floor. When the second floor's clear, meet up on the first and go down to the basement.
"Do not — I repeat, do not kill any of them unless you are attacked. Capture them if you can or flush them out to me. If they escape, let them go. Do not come up here. It's about to get a helluva lot messier that I had originally anticipated. I will come to you. Got all that?"
"Here we go!"
The first screech of the undead sounded below. "It's comin' your way!" grunted Simon. "There's a crossbow bolt in the side of its neck!"
"Nice shot," I muttered as I caught sight of the creature scrambling up the stairs. It was a female. She tore the bolt from her neck and threw it to the floor. Then she sniffed the air and her head jerked up, her gaze absorbing my stance and serum coated blades poised for battle. She hissed, two serpentine fangs sliding over her bottom lip.
"Here, kitty, kitty …" I taunted.
She came at me, flying over the stairs at an alarming rate. But I danced aside, carving my blades in an intricate pattern, slicing at her back. A few swipes with my swords — plus the serum coated crossbow bolt — would knock her out. She slumped against a wall and tumbled to the floor, her eyelids fluttering until they were shut over her bloodthirsty eyes.
"One down," I reported amid the shouts and sounds of skirmishes on the lower floors.
"Well, here comes another!" cried Nick, just as I heard an audible thump from the apartment to my left. I turned to face the open door, a shadow coming into focus — the silhouette of a vampire outlined by the doorframe.
"You want some?" I jeered as the sounds of something tearing up the stairwell reached my ears. I motioned for him to come forward with one of my blades. "Well, come get some, leech!"
Suddenly, a pair of chalk-white hands wrapped around the railing beside me, and up came the vampire Nick and Marissa had sent. He swung over the bar like a gymnast, landing just before me with an eardrum-bursting war cry. But an upward slice to the abdomen and a cut across the chest shut him up and had him on the floor with his eyelids drooping. I ran a blade over his torso once more for good measure.
I returned my attention to the vampire looming in the doorway just yards away in time to see him escape through the window that had housed the sunset. In the three seconds it had taken me to dispatch one leech, a second had escaped.
"Son of a bitch!" I shouted, driving the edge of a sword into the railing. "Another one's down, but one escaped."
"Third floor's clear," reported Simon. "One capture. We're heading down."
"One escaped from the first floor," added Marissa. "But we captured another."
After a moment of silenced gunfire from the second floor, Clara warned, "We're sending you two more."
"Well, keep 'em comin'!"I replied, twirling my swords as my next two adversaries came into view, a male and a female — mates.
They attacked from either side — the female vaulting over the railing and the male racing up the stairs. I ran the female through and punched her mate in the face. The former stumbled away from its skewer, tripped over its fellow gymnast, and remained unmoving on the floor. Furious, the male made a second go at me, hands reaching for my throat. With a quick flick, one of his grabbing hands was severed, and in the next second, both of my blades protruded from the vampire's back. It crumpled to the floor to join the other three.
"Second floor's clear," reported Damien. "
"First is clear, too," said Nick.
"We're heading to the basement," added Clara.
"Be careful and stick together," I advised, stepping over the slumbering vampires in the hall. "I'm sweeping the floors one last time, and then I'll meet you in the basement."
There was only the sound of slightly labored and anxious breathing over our communications system as I descended to the third floor
"We're in the laundry room," Marissa described after a few moments. "There's a hall of doors leading away from it to the west. They look like old storage rooms for the tenants. And there's a sealed door on the western wall. It looks like you can only open it from the other side."
"Check the storage rooms first," I ordered, stepping through the doorway of a marked apartment. My headset was silent again.
I was about to leave for the second floor when sounds of splintering wood caught my attention. I backtracked to the apartment in the northeast corner of the building and approached what was supposed to be the living room. The center of the floor — which had, by some miracle, remained intact and whole while the rest of the building decayed — was bulging upward. There was an animal-like grunting as something strained against the floorboards from beneath. Whatever it was must have been in an awkward position, seeing as how there wasn't much space between the ceiling of one story and the floor above.
I smothered my laugh with a hand. This creature was smart enough to wait for the Hunters to leave its nest and then escape through the apartment above. And he was trying to do so quietly. However, it was stupid enough to not scent the apartment it was trying to break into for Hunters lying in wait. I tiptoed to the center of the room, standing just beyond where it would actually emerge.
After a patient moment or two, the vampire's head was free of the floorboards, a grin of triumph plastered on his face. I cleared my throat, and his head swiveled to see my booted feet. He eyes followed my body upwards until he met my gaze.
"Well, hello, neighbor!" I greeted with a friendly smile. "How's the view from down there?"
The vampire hissed, struggling to break free; he must have been in a very awkward position if he couldn't break through some measly wooden boards. My smile turned into a grim line; I stuck one sword in the floor beside me, grasped the other in both hands, and raised it above my head, bringing it down and shoving it through the very-smart,-yet-very-stupid vampire's cranium. He stopped moving, and I withdrew my blade, grabbing up the other as well.
"The storage closets are clean," Simon said.
Clara added, "And we've almost got the sealed door open."
"Are you using explosives?" I questioned in my most scolding-school-teacherly manner.
"Uhm, maybe?" replied Marissa. The foundation rattling explosion that followed provided the answer.
I smiled as I stepped into the first apartment on the second floor. I had to hand it to them — for amateur Hunters, they were pretty good. Six students on their first raid — no casualties; two escapees; seven captured and counting; and who knew what else was in the basement? If I were arrogant enough, I'd credit myself for the entire night's success. But it took a certain degree of natural skill and ability — not just training — to make someone a Hunter. And these kids were naturals.
"What 'uh-oh,' Kory?" I asked, my grip tightening reflexively on the hilts of my twin blades.
"Uh … it's empty," answered Damien.
"What do you mean 'it's empty'?" I snapped, jaw clenching angrily. How could the basement be empty? Basements were prime realty for any creatures of darkness or children of the night. Basements screamed, "Vampires! Right down here! Come and get 'em!"
"There's nothing here!" exclaimed Clara. "It's just a huge, empty room!"
Nick explained further as I continued my sweep. "No, not 'nothing' … There's blood all over the walls, the floor, the ceiling … But it looks almost … decorative."
"And there are words," said Marissa. "They're written all over the place — in blood. But I can't read them. It's in some ancient tongue."
"Marissa." I stopped dead, my heart pounding in my ears.
"Yes?" she asked apprehensively.
"Marissa, tell me — can the door that was sealed be opened from the inside like you thought it could be?"
"No …" she said, uncertain. "Why?"
"And tell me — is there another door at the end of the room?" My voice had grown quiet. "One that can't be opened from your side either?"
"Yes," she whispered.
This couldn't be happening … It wasn't possible. How could Intel have missed this? We were sent into this place with basically no relevant information. We weren't told how many vampires we'd be dealing with. We weren't told that they were nesting in the ceilings. And now this? It had to have been a setup. The vampires in the apartment were a distraction, a lure. The two that escaped had run off to signal their Clan.
"What's going on?" demanded Damien.
I squeezed my eyes shut, willing my squad's observations to be illusions, tricks of the mind, something — anything — other than the truth. Racing out of the apartment, I sheathed my swords and booked it down the stairs.
"Everyone, get the fuck out of there right now!" I snarled, leaping over the railings in the stairwell from flight to flight. "I'm coming down! Get out now!"
"The door's opening," Simon whispered. "Someone's coming through."
I put on an extra burst of speed as soon as my feet touched the first floor and hurtled through the basement door and down the last flight of stairs. I caught a glimpse of the door on the western wall and pushed onward, flying into the Hall of Blood and coming to a halt in front of my students.
"Go!" I shouted over my shoulder. "Get out of here now, while there's still a chance!"
There was a dark cackle, and a woman stepped through the only other door in the Hall, an elegant dress draped over her graceful frame. "There is no chance, Hunter. You have no chance of survival. Not you, nor your little Fledgling Hunters."
"And who the hell are you, hag?" I challenged, looking her dead in the eye. I itched to have the hilts of my blades in the palms of my hands. My fingers twitched in anticipation.
Her smile was mesmerizing, even with the points of her fangs gliding over her bottom lip. She held her arms aloft, and a procession of vampires filed in — the males clad in a lightly armored uniform that sported the crest of the Raven Clan, and the females wearing attire similar to the hag's, appearing as through they were attending a social event. Well, to vampires, Blood Feasts were. Blood Feasts were their versions of dinner parties.
"I am Serina, Mistress of the Ravens. And I am here to conduct my Clan's next Blood Feast."
I felt my students stiffen at my back. We'd only just touched on the subject of vampiric ceremonies in our lessons, and I had yet to get into the gory details. But they had the jist of what a Blood Feast entailed. A Clan gathers for the massacre of a number of humans and together gorge on their victims' blood. But, of course, vampires liked to play with their food first. My students had no inkling of the torture we would endure if we couldn't escape.
I laughed haughtily, sliding my famous — or infamous, however one wanted to look at it — twin blades from the scabbards crossed over my back.
"You …" Serina of the Ravens whispered, recognition flashing through her eyes as the moonlight that trickled into the Hall through the grimy, high-set basement windows glittered over my fatal twins.
I winked at her, a dangerous smile playing at my lips. "That's right, hag. Me. And if you're looking for a fight, then you've come to the right Hunter."
Flickers of recognition travelled around the room. Eyes widened. Hands found weapons in easy reach. Mouths moved in barely audible whispers.
"Jonathan had said …"
"But she didn't believe him."
"If we kill her, then every Hunter in the city will come down upon us!"
"What will Lady Serina do?"
"Get ready to fight our way out," I mumbled into my microphone. Then I spoke up. "Yes, hag. Your minions raise a surprisingly well-thought point. What will you do now that my identity has been realized? You can't kill me or my squad — every Hunter will seek revenge."
"Think of this as my revenge upon you, Hunter!" Serina hissed, taking two steps forward; she was still out of easy range. "You alone have killed too many of my Clan! It is time you paid the price with not only your own life, but with those of your comrades!"
"Oooh," I taunted. "I'm shakin' in my boots."
"What the hell are you doing?" Clara whispered into her mouthpiece. "You told us to never piss off a vampire!"
"Do as I say and not as I do," I retorted quietly.
"Ah, is there disorder among your ranks, Hunter?" accused Serina, smiling fiendishly and eyeing my students. I stepped sideways to block her line of sight.
"Where? Here?" I asked, swiveling my head to take stock of the other vampires. "Nope. Sorry, hag. We were just discussing how we're going kick you and your Clan's asses and then go out for dinner." I tossed my head over my shoulder, using my eyes to give my squad their orders. They each blinked to confirm their understanding. "So, do you guys fee like Chinese or Italian? I'm sort of in the mood for egg rolls."
"Enough!" Serina screeched. I faced her, an eyebrow raised patronizingly and the corner of my mouth hooked upward.
"Enough," she growled lowly, her lips pulled back over her teeth. "You die — now!" She waved two uniformed minions forward.
"I'll die when I damn well please, thank you!" I rebutted, sizing up my opponents. They approached with caution, both withdrawing their broadswords. I rolled my right shoulder, then my left, signaling for my squad to face outward and keep watch.
The male to my left attacked with a roar, wielding his sword expertly. He swung at my side, but I twirled to the right, bringing one of my blades around to parry. With my second blade, I cut across his bicep and thrust the thin metal between two ribs, removing it in the same second, just in time to deflect the sword of the second vampire and run my twins horizontally over his torso.
"Attack!" Serina ordered, her hands raised in welcome. "Attack them and Feast, my family!"
My foes fell to the blood-stained floor, subdued by the serum. I turned to my squad as the others advanced upon them. "Marissa — explosives! Simon — crossbows! Damien — shotguns! Clara — daggers! Kory — gloves! Nick — handguns! Go, go, go!"
I observed as my squad broke apart and worked in the formations they'd practiced. Sporting a pair of fingerless gloves with serum coated spiked at the knuckles, Kory — our resident boxer — punched his way through a knot of vamps. Marissa — our explosives technician — followed in his wake, slapping nano-bombs on the vampires Kory knocked about that, after five seconds, would explode, coating the target in serum while also injecting it into the body and taking out nice-sized bits of vampire. Clara — our knife fighter and dagger thrower — stood back-to-back with Damien — one of our two firearms professionals. And Simon — our expert marksmen — brandished two compact, automated crossbows that worked much like machine guns, and Nick — our second firearms professional and Damien's twin brother — stood back-to-back as well. I was on my own.
A chorus of hisses sounded behind me. I whirled about, face-to-face with five salivating vampires intent on making me their meal. My eyes glowed with a fierce light and that dangerous smile played at my lips again. "Let's rock 'n roll!"
I went on the offense, my blades biting deep into undead flesh, shredding fanciful evening wear, and penetrating regulation armor. They were all down for the count before I could even make a sarcastic comment. Then, my Hunter senses tingled. I twirled my blades up and back, thrusting them behind me just as two jaw-snapping creepers attacked. They clawed at their impalements as the serum took affect and slipped to the ground amid their fallen brethren.
Suddenly, a single, heart-stopping scream rang throughout the Hall of Blood. A human scream. I turned on my heel to see Kory struggling against two burly vampires and Serina the Hag with her hands around Marissa's throat. Nick and Simon were preoccupied with a speedy vamp that flashed from place to place, and Damien, who'd run out of ammunition, was bludgeoning anything that came too close to him and Clara. Clara, however, had been alerted by Marissa's cry; she released three of her sharpest daggers, and all flew true.
But in the second it took for the weapons to reach their marks, Serina had knocked Marissa unconscious and turned to catch each of the blades, pitching them back in the same motion. Clara was able to dodge one, through it sliced her right upper arm, and the second caught her left shoulder, just next to her collar bone. The third stuck in Damien's thigh; he roared at the unexpected pain and tore the blade from his leg, tossing it aside. He heard Clara gasp before she fell to the floor and bashed in the skull of his most recent opponent, twisting as he dropped his shotguns to catch her before impact.
Nick and Simon moved on from their victory over Speedy to help Kory. Serina cradled Marissa against her front and made for the entrance to the basement of the apartment building. It was going to be a tough shot, but I had to make it or else we'd lose Marissa for good. I flipped my right sword so that the blade pointed upward and then stretched my arm back as far as it would go, my blade now pointing behind me. And then, like lightning, I whipped my arm forward and released the handle. My sword sailed down the Hall … and straight through the hag's abdomen, pinning her to the wall and missing Marissa by a mere inch.
Marissa was thrown to the floor as Serina scrabbled to free herself. I transferred my left sword to my right hand and strode over to the Vampire Mistress. She spat venom at me; I wiped it from the front of my jacket with a sleeved forearm and glared death at her with my smoldering gaze.
"If you kill me," threatened the hag, "my Master will gather the entire Clan and seek revenge!"
"What's left of it," Nick muttered from somewhere behind me. Kory knelt next to Marissa, murmuring to her softly and stroking her face with a gentle touch that seemed almost unmanageable for his fatal hands.
I snorted, scoffing. "Isn't that what I just told you would happen if you killed me and my squad? And look what you went and did! Had about fifty of your Clan go on a suicide mission, wounded three of my team, and then got yourself turned into a freaking shish kebab! I wouldn't count on your Master to seek revenge for your stupidity, hag."
Serina howled in rage and struggled again to escape. Somberly, I raised my hand, blade vertical; the flick of my wrist brought it to horizontal as the vamipress fought vigorously for freedom. And then, with another flick of the wrist and the swipe of the blade, she was still. I blinked twice before her bodiless head tumbled to the floor. I jerked my sword from the decapitated vampire and sheathed my twins. I turned to take in my squad.
"So much for Lesson One," remarked Clara, the long bladed dagger that had pierced her shoulder clutched in her bloody hand.
"Yeah," added Simon. "What the hell happened to never pissing off vampires — especially Master Vampires? Which, by the way, I think you just did with that little executioner act you pulled a second ago."
My eyebrows shot up in disbelief and annoyance, my hands finding the curves of my hips. "Excuse me? First of all, Lesson One was 'never piss me off.' Which, by the way, you guys are beginning to fail miserably at. Lesson Two was 'never piss off a vampire.' And second —" I thrust my thumb over my shoulder "— I just did the hag's Master a favor. That was my good deed for the decade. And third —" I pointed a finger at Simon and moved it down the line "— don't you ever — ever! — patronize me! Understand?" After a moment, they each nodded, and my accusing hand fell to my side.
"Good. Glad we're on the same page again. New orders. Damien, Kory — get Clara and Marissa outside and back to HQ for medical attention; don't call for a Cleanup crew — I want to leave this mess for the Ravens. Nick, Simon — you two are coming with me. I want to check out what's on the other side of that door." I jerked my chin in the direction of the intact door at the other end of the Hall.
"Any questions?" Silence greeted my words. "Alright. Get to it, then."
Kory cradled Marissa in both of his arms like a child and stepped into the basement at my back. Damien and Clara helped each other to stand; leaning against the other for support, the two limped and hobbled after their friends. I grasped Clara's wrist as she passed, taking the dagger from her grip. She looked startled at having her weapon removed from her possession.
"Don't worry," I whispered, patting her empty hand, "there are plenty more in the armory."
Once they had made it safely through the basement, I turned to Nick and Simon, who had reloaded their weapons. I tossed the dagger high into the air, catching it with the same hand and repeating the trick. "What I'm about to do in here, you will never do yourselves and you will never speak of to a single soul — not even each other — understand?"
"Sure," said Simon.
"Whatever you say …" muttered Nick.
"That's what I like to hear," I replied, smiling. "Complete faith and total submission. Now, run along while I finish up here, boys."
I waited a moment after Nick and Simon had disappeared through the remaining door before picking up the severed head by the hair. I followed my two students and faced the side of the door that stared out at the Hall of Blood. Flipping the dagger once more, I pricked the tip of my finger and then drove the blade through the hag's forehead, deep into the metal of the door. As the blood welled on my fingertip, I began to write: "XOXO, Your Favorite Hunter." Finished, I followed Nick and Simon.
"Oh, my God! A Blood Feast?!"
"I can't believe you survived!"
"Did you guys get hurt?"
"How many were there?"
I skirted the group of Hunters-in-Training on my way to the lobby. Nick and Simon were trapped in the midst of it, being interrogated by jealous peers, awestruck girls, and action-hungry story-seekers. Simon seemed to be enjoying all of the attention. I caught Nick's nervous eye and smiled encouragingly at him; he didn't like the spotlight, but like I said — my squad was full of natural Hunters. These kids were going places.
But as I broke free of the teenagers, I found Nick suddenly beside me. I glanced back at Simon. He hadn't even noticed that he was flying solo. And if he did, he certainly didn't care.
"I hate being the center of attention," he muttered, matching my stride.
"In that, you and I are quite alike," I replied. Nick shot me a sideways glance, and I sighed.
"You've heard of my bold exploits and many daring deeds, correct?" Nick nodded. "Well, I never liked being congratulated or awarded or any of that crap. I was doing my job. Just because I was exceptionally good at what I did, didn't mean I deserved special attention every time I walked through the front door. So, over the years, I've tried to make just that very clear. And look —" I waved a hand at the people around us "— not one person has come up to me and said —"
"Erin! I can't believe you pulled your squad out of a Blood Feast! Way to go!" Tony, a new transfer, clapped my shoulder and went on his way. My face was a mask of pure disdain — my eyes narrowed to slits, my jaw clenched, and my lips pursed as I watched Tony leave. I looked at Nick, whose mouth twitched dangerously.
"Tony doesn't count," I growled, marching into the lobby. "He's new."
"Right," Nick chuckled and then changed the subject. "Have you been to the Infirmary yet?"
When Nick, Simon, and I had returned, the remaining four members of my squad had been admitted to the Infirmary. Damien and Clara were treated for their flesh wounds and made to rest the next two days. Marissa had a CT scan to check for any brain damage that Serina might have caused and was put into a chemically induced coma for safety measures. Kory wasn't actually admitted into the Infirmary, but he had refused to leave Marissa's bedside.
I shook my head. "Not since last night. I was going to snag some breakfast and then head up."
"Then I'll join you while Simon fends off our new fan club." Nick followed me to the front counter, behind which Georgia, the receptionist, spent her days. I asked if there were any messages for me.
"No, sorry, Erin. No messages," Georgia said. "But there was a package for you. Mr. Reynolds —"
"Anderson!" bellowed Mr. Reynolds from across the lobby. "Anderson!"
I grimaced and turned to face my eminent doom. Mr. Reynolds — the Head of, well, Everything Hunter-Related in Our District — crossed the lobby in the manner and sporting the expression to which I had become most accustomed. (Anger. Displeasure. Rage.) And in his hand he clutched a rather stuffed manila envelope with my name on it.
"Anderson," Mr. Reynolds rumbled, his face reddening beneath his dark beard.
"Good morning, Mr. Reynolds!" I greeted in my most chipper of voices. "And how are —"
"Do not test me, Erin! After what you did last night — and now this —" he waved the envelope in front of my face and then slammed it onto the marble countertop "— I am in no mood for your games!"
"Excuse me?" I had expected some sort of hostility about last night's mission, but Intel was to blame — not me, not my squad. And what the hell had I done now? I never caused mischief on an empty stomach! Reynolds opened his mouth to continue with his unwarranted tirade, but I cut him off.
"Excuse me?" I jabbed him in the chest with a finger, which only turned his face a darker shade of pissed-off. "Your so-called 'Intelligence' was what screwed us over! My squad and I did absolutely nothing wrong! For once, I followed protocol with this mission!"
Reynolds more or less exploded. "And what the hell kind of bullshit protocol do you call not bringing in reinforcements or Cleanup for that mess I just know you left behind?!"
Instead of backing down like the good little insubordinate Hunter that I was supposed to be, I yelled right back at him. "There wasn't time to call for backup, which we obviously didn't need! And who's to say that Cleanup wouldn't have walked into the same trap we did?! I had three of my squad wounded — my priority was to get them to safety, and I did just that."
"Exactly, Erin!Ex-actly!" Mr. Reynolds continued. "Three of your squad were wounded and you had no captures to show for your night …"
But I had suddenly lost interest in our screaming match, which had drawn quite the audience. When my package had been slammed onto the countertop, the contents had spilled across the marble. They were photographs, spread out like a casino dealer's deck of cards. And as I took in the subject of the very first picture, my heart stopped dead.
I blinked hard — twice — to clear my head. I picked up the photos that had displayed themselves on the counter and flipped through them. Each and every one — each and every one — depicted the same girl. I checked the time-date stamp. They were all taken yesterday evening.
"… intolerable and inexcusable!" Mr. Reynolds huffed. "Erin! Are you even listening to me?"
I placed the stack I'd just rifled through on the counter in front of me and reached into the envelope for the next. They were all pictures of the same girl, though taken later that night. But just as I reached for the third and final stack, Mr. Reynolds snatched the envelope away.
"And this," he snarled, shaking the envelope, "is the other matter I wanted to address!"
I glanced at Mr. Reynolds only briefly, my gaze trained on the envelope, praying that the series of photographs did not end with a dead body.
"Do you know who delivered this, Erin? Do you?" He didn't wait for my reply. "Well, I'll tell you who, Erin! A vampire! A God damned, blood-sucking vampire!"
Anyone that hadn't stopped to listen and watch Mr. Reynolds tear me a new one definitely stopped to at the mention of a vampire. All eyes were trained on me.
"Mr. Reynolds," I said with as much calm as I could muster, staring at the envelope. "May I please have my mail?"
"Actually, Miss Anderson," he replied, "I am quite curious as to why a vampire would have the gall to pay us a visit. And I am quite curious as to why it would leave something as personal as a package for you."
"Well, sir," I said, forcing a smile and a bat of my lashes, "we all know I leave quite an impression. Now, if you please —"
"Shut up, Anderson!" And then, Mr. Reynolds poured out the remaining photographs into his hands and began to look through them, his expression of detest transforming bit-by-bit, with every picture he looked upon, to one of utter bafflement. "Anderson, why the hell am I staring at pictures of you?"
I exhaled through my nose, closing my eyes and rubbing my face with both of my hands. "Sir, those aren't pictures of me."
"Well, then who the hell are they of?"
"My … my half-sister." I waited for a "and who the hell is she" response, but instead, as Mr. Reynolds flipped to the last photograph, he blanched slightly.
"What?" I asked, the hairs on the back of my neck rising.
"Erin … What the hell did you do?" He lifted the picture between two fingers and turned it so that I could see.
The girl in the final photo — my half-sister, whom I had kept an eye on since I'd been informed of her existence and done everything in my power to keep out of my world of Hunting — had a bloody X scratched over her face. I snatched the image away, searching for the time-date stamp. 7:31 AM, today.
"Erin, there's something written on the back," Mr. Reynolds whispered. But even in the dead silence of the lobby, his voice carried to the ears farthest away.
Slowly, nervously, I turned the picture over in my hands, knowing what I would see written, but hoping that it would not be so. "XOXO, Your New Favorite Vampire."
"No … No, no, no …" I began to shake my head. Maybe this was all just some bad dream. Maybe this would all just go away. Maybe I would just wake up and …
"Erin. What did you do?" Mr. Reynolds repeated, takign in the mountains of other photographs as I stared at the single one in my hands.
"What did I do? I pissed off a Master Vampire. And now … now, he plans on getting even."
So, this short story was written for a writing contest hosted by The Fiction and Prose Supernatural Awards at fpsupernaturalawards(dot)webs(dot)com.
The prompt for this piece was as follows: "Never piss off a Master Vampire. In fact, never piss off vampires period. It's just not smart. They don't just get mad, they get even. It was good advice- my advice- and maybe one day I would take it." Obviously, I altered the actual quote while integrating it into my story.
Hope you enjoyed it.