Despite being extremely curious about them, Max kept his mouth shut for most of the ride to wherever the vampires were taking him. Every now and then he glanced over at either Sar or Laer, the former of which tried to give him encouraging smiles while the latter simply stared back with intense distaste. Mistral sat in the front seat with the driver, having a hushed conversation on his cell phone. The words "cleanup" and "leave no trace" were mentioned at least twice.
"Soren's not happy," the elderly vampire suddenly said as he threw aside his phone and turned his head around to look at the passengers. "Apparently, all hell's broken loose with the media and such. He's trying to do damage control, but the fires from the havoc you two have caused won't die down easily. And when you add kidnapping on the top of it," he said and looked pointedly at Max, "we'll be lucky if he doesn't decide to kill us all on the spot."
"Why you, though?" Sar asked, frowning with a cigarette between his lips. "You didn't do anything."
"No, but I was supposed to keep a close eye on you and prevent you from doing something stupid. Like this, for example. I've used up all my chances with the boss, so my days are most likely numbered. Thanks for that, by the way." Mistral sighed and turned back to look out the windshield. "Who would have thought a pair of kids would be the death of me?" he asked no one in particular. Upon receiving no divine answer, he sighed again and popped a garlic clove into his mouth.
"While we all sympathise with your plight," Laer said, his voice revealing no sympathy whatsoever for the older vampire, "we'd very much appreciate it if you didn't stink up the car with you garlic breath."
"My car, my rules," Mistral said childishly as he chewed and released puffs of lethal, weapons-grade garlic-laced air with every breath. "And I say that garlic goes. In fact, if they existed I'd get some garlic air fresheners to hang from the rear-view mirror, just to piss you off."
Max watched the exchange with interest. He had never expected vampires—real life vampires—to behave like this. They were childish and petty (an observation he had made when he had thought they were just assassins as well...and yet, now they seemed even worse), and nowhere near as dignified as they appeared in books and movies. But then again, they had all been fictional. From what Max was seeing right now, they seemed to act just like humans...though perhaps a bit more bloodthirsty. In both senses of the word. He almost grinned at the pun, but then remembered the seriousness of the situation and sobered up. While Sar had said he wouldn't hurt him, he was still unsure about his safety around Laer and Mistral. The apparently youngest of the vampires had promised to protect him, but for how long would he be able to keep that promise?
The rest of the trip was spent in silence. Max had no idea what to say, or even if he'd have the courage to voice anything at all. Laer seemed content to keep to himself in the backseat, and Sar had placed himself in the seat between his partner and Max. Whether it was to act as a buffer between him and Laer, or for some other reason, he didn't know.
Sighing inwardly, Max rested his head against the window of the car. He was exhausted. Far too much had happened in far too little time for his brain to process everything.
There were no more streetlights now, and the asphalt on the road was quickly turning into dirt. The forest grew thicker and thicker on both sides, and the darkness pressed in around the vehicle. He closed his eyes, wondering if perhaps he was just dreaming. He took a deep breath and let himself relax. He was in trouble—and lots of it—but for now, with Sar sitting behind him, he was safe.
He had no idea when he fell asleep, but when he woke up again, dawn was approaching fast. The trees were still rushing by, but the road was once again covered in asphalt. As he blinked the sleep out of his eyes, they passed through a tall and thick brick wall. Coils of barbed wire ran along the top of it, and as they passed it by, a huge iron gate swung closed behind them. He noticed Sar looking at him, those bright grey eyes watching him closely.
"We're in nosfer territory now," he said quietly, quickly looking behind him. Laer was asleep as well, his mouth hanging open like a gaping black hole with a bit of drool slowly running down his chin. "Don't mind him, he always sleeps like that," he told Max. He nodded at something ahead, which made the human turn his head around—and gasp.
They were approaching an absolutely gigantic mansion. It was built with marble, the white rock clearly visible in the early morning light. It was covered in steeples and towers, and rich and beautiful carvings covered every square inch of wall that wasn't occupied by windows. It was built on top of a steep hill in the middle of a huge, open field covered in various types of ornaments and decorations. As the car made its way up the gravel path, Max wondered who owned this place. That it belonged to the vampires was a given, but who'd had it built? And why had the vampires picked it as an apparent hideout? It wasn't particularly subtle or surreptitious.
"Welcome to the Coven," Sar said. "Home sweet home."
"Fucking dump, if you ask me..." Laer said from the back, his voice drowsy.
A massive fountain served as a roundabout in front of the entrance to the mansion. Another, smaller road led off towards the back of the mansion, probably to a garage or some other substructure. They pulled up to the stairs that led up to the entrance doors, at the top of which a suited man was standing, looking pointedly at his watch and tapping his foot against the steps.
"All right, ride's over. Everyone out," Mistral said. "Good work today, Marsh. I'll let Soren know." The other vampire nodded gratefully as they stepped out of the car. He then drove it along the smaller road, disappearing behind the building.
"Alfred doesn't look happy," Sar muttered and glanced up at the man waiting for them.
"When has he ever looked happy?" Laer said.
"Who's he?" Max asked, finally feeling his curiosity taking over.
"Alfred," Laer said, rolling his eyes as if the answer was the most obvious thing in the world.
"He's the...caretaker of the mansion, I guess you could say," Sar elaborated, glaring at his partner. "And our caretaker too, in a way."
"So...he's a butler?" Max asked in disbelief.
"I guess you could say that."
Sar blinked. "Er...yes?" When Max began to chuckle, he raised an eyebrow in confusion. "Did I miss a joke or something?"
"No, no, not at all," Max said, reigning in his amusement. "Alfred the butler...heh..."
Sar shook his head, clearly giving up. "If you say so..."
"Enough chit-chat," Mistral said, suddenly standing behind Max. "We should get moving. The sun will rise in mere minutes. And we all know what happens to naughty nosfers who try to defy the deadly rays, don't we?" He said it like he was speaking to a bunch of kindergarten toddlers, and Max expected a biting retort from Laer, but to his surprise the vampire merely nodded and began to climb the stairs.
"You're late," Alfred said as they reached the top of the staircase. He looked at his watch again for emphasis. "Lockdown is in two minutes."
"All the more reason to move inside, isn't it?" Mistral said and brushed past the man. He and Alfred seemed to be about the same age, but the butler's eyes were dark brown as opposed to the grey of the other vampires.
"We were held up on the road," Sar explained as they moved inside the mansion. Seconds later, the huge doors slammed shut behind them, echoing loudly in the lobby.
The floor was marble as well, and the walls were covered in expensive-looking paintings, most of them portraits or landscapes. A mirrored set of stairs led up to the second and third floors of the mansion while another set of double doors right in front of them probably led to the living room. Or living rooms, perhaps?
Alfred looked at his watch again. "Three...two...one...lockdown."
A loud claxon began to shriek and continued to do so for ten seconds before dying down. And then several things happened at once. A metal grate descended from above the entrance doors and sealed them, preventing anyone from getting out. Then large shutters began to lower across the outside of the windows, slowly rotating to block out all light. As they stood in the utter darkness of the entrance hall, Max suddenly felt a very primal fear overtaking him. He had never liked the dark, and knowing he was trapped inside the room with four vampires was all too much for him. That's why he surprised himself when he reached out to grab Sar's arm, holding on tightly.
Sar said nothing, but put a reassuring hand on Max'. It helped quite a bit.
Then, as quickly as the darkness had fallen, the lights in the mansion came on and illuminated the lobby. Another claxon sounded, and Alfred nodded in satisfaction.
"Lockdown complete," he said. "No incidents."
"Whoop-dee-doo," Mistral said sarcastically. "Well done."
Alfred glared at Mistral before clearing his throat. "Soren wants to see you all immediately. He's in the command centre. Follow me."
The vampires began to follow him, but when Max made to do the same, Alfred looked at him and shook his head. "Not you," he said shortly. "You will be kept under guard until Soren decides what to do with you."
"Now wait just a minute—"Sar began, but a glare from Alfred cut him off.
"You are already in quite a bit of hot water, Sar," the butler said. "I would not do anything to make it worse, if I were you." Sar looked ready to punch his lights out, but Laer put a hand on his shoulder and whispered something to his partner, which made him relax.
"You better take good care of him," Sar said warningly, giving Max an apologetic look.
"Like I said, he will be under guard. For his protection," Alfred said. As if on cue, a pair of men in suits descended from the staircase. "Take him to guest suite number two," the butler told them. "Make sure he is comfortable, but watch him closely."
Max felt panic setting in his chest again. Sar was going away, and wouldn't be protecting him. He looked imploringly at the vampire, who only looked back with an apologetic shrug.
"Sorry, Max. Boss' orders," he said. "Go with them. You'll be safe, I promise."
Realising there was no point in protesting, the human nodded miserably and began to follow the suits upstairs. They too were vampires, judging by their eyes. He began to wonder again why Alfred didn't have eyes like that. Did it have something to do with his age? He looked behind him, watched as Mistral, Sar and Laer were led through the main doors. He hoped nothing bad would happen...
The second floor seemed to be made up of mostly bedrooms, with door after door lining the walls. Many of them were occupied, judging by the nameplates that had been attached to the walls next to the doors. Many of the names were foreign; some of them appearing like gibberish to Max. There were even some Asian characters—he couldn't tell which languages they were.
They reached a T-section in the corridor and took a left. The rooms here didn't have any nameplates, only numbers. The suits led him to the second one and opened it, letting him inside.
"You will find every basic necessity inside," one of the suits said, his tone emotionless and empty. "If you are hungry, let one of us know and food will be brought up to you."
With that, the door was closed and locked, and Max was trapped.
As far as prisons went, however, this was quite luxurious. The suite had hardwood floors, tasteful rugs and furniture. A seating group stood close to one of the shuttered windows, soft chairs placed around a glass table on which a bowl of fruit stood. A flat screen television hung on the wall opposite of the king-size bed. The bed was covered in silk sheets and looked extremely comfortable. The headboard was covered in carvings of what seemed to be child angels. Were they cherubs? He had no idea. He didn't particularly care either.
A phone stood on the nightstand next to the bed, but when Max picked it up he realised it had no dial-tone. They had probably disabled it since they knew he'd try to call for help. Not that Max would know which directions to give to the police, though. He had no idea where or how far they had travelled.
A door next to the bed revealed a modern and luxurious bathroom, complete with a whirlpool bathtub and an attached shower cabinet. Everything was either glass or stainless steel, even the sink. A toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste stood on the counter, ready to be used.
Exiting the bathroom, Max sat on the bed. His feet didn't even reach the floor. He looked around the room, unsure of what to do with himself. How long was he going to be stuck in here? For all he knew, Sar and the others could be gone for hours.
He felt anxious. His fate depended entirely on what this Soren guy decided to do with him. Would he have him killed? Turned into a meal for a hungry vampire, perhaps? He began to fidget, feeling more and more nervous as the minutes went by. He turned on the television to try and distract himself from his thoughts, but there was nothing on that would catch his attention. Early morning programs were exceedingly dull. He turned the television off again and sighed, lying back on top of the sheets. He was still tired, the nap he had taken in the car having done nothing to alleviate his exhaustion.
Surely taking another nap wouldn't be too bad? He'd be up and about in seconds if the doors suddenly slammed open to reveal a bunch of hungry vampires. Probably.
He was unable to take the mental debate any further, for the second his head hit the pillows he was far away, dreaming about nothing at all.
"You're late," was the first thing Soren said as Sar, Laer and Mistral entered the command centre.
The centre was located in the very middle of the mansion, one level below ground. It was a stark contrast to the rest of the building; the walls here were bare concrete and covered in computer screens and other displays. The floor was glass, and the concrete foundation and complex systems of wires could be seen underneath.
This was the nerve centre of the Coven, their safe house in this part of the country. From here the nosfers could keep an eye on the other safe houses as well as the human cities close to it.
Soren was standing in the middle of the room, his back turned to them, focusing on the largest screen on the wall. It was a map of the states. Dozens of red dots were placed all over the landmass. Sar knew they represented the safe houses, but was puzzled to find some of them crossed out. On a partitioned section of the screen, a muted television news report was being shown, a serious-looking woman mouthing unheard words. A caption underneath her said "SHOOTOUT IN APARTMENT COMPLEX, ONE PERSON KIDNAPPED"
Sar bit his lip. This was not good.
"Mistral said you were ambushed on the road," Soren continued, still looking at the screen.
Even with his back turned, the leader of the Coven was an intimidating figure. Not so much because of his appearance, however. The nosfer leader was thin and tall, and wore a dark suit. He usually grew his ebony hair long enough to reach his shoulders and kept it carefully maintained. When he finally turned around, he revealed a young and handsome face belonging to a man that couldn't be more than twenty-five years old. On good days, his lips were usually curved into a gentle smile that would put anyone at ease, but now they were marred by an ugly frown.
No, it wasn't Soren's appearance that made him so feared among the nosfers under his command and protection. It was his eyes. They were always filled with such fierce intensity that if one tried to look into them for too long, they would be overcome by dread. Soren was a vampire who had been through it all. A bit over two-hundred years old, he had seen the best and worst that both humans and vampires had to offer, and had more experience under his belt than anyone else in the Coven. Those orbs alone could make anyone wet themselves.
And that was on good days. It was the reason everyone focused on the smile. Not today, however.
The rage that now filled Soren's eyes was enough to paralyze Sar with fear. He knew exactly what the elder vampire was capable of when he was angry like this. And the mental images his mind conjured up were not pleasant.
"I have dispatched someone to clean up the mess," Soren said. "I'd appreciate it if you could do it yourselves the next time."
The words were spoken with a neutral tone, as if he was gently admonishing them for making a tiny little mistake. But all three of them knew that there was an underlying threat there.
"If there will be a next time, that is." Soren crossed his arms and looked at the three closely, eyes narrowing more and more. "I've a good mind to lash you all to the steeples and watch you fry in the sun for all the trouble you've caused in the past forty-eight hours, but first I would like some answers. And if I like those answers, then perhaps I will consider letting you live for another day or two. So, who wants to start?"
"May I first preface the explanation, sir, that these two—"Mistral began, but Soren cut him off with a pointed look.
"I was not speaking to you, Marcus," Soren said, using Mistral's real name. "I was speaking to the disastrous duo there. I will deal with you later. So?" he said again, staring at Sar and Laer. "Care to explain what happened? Want to tell me why you decided to go on a rampage all over the city? Wish to regale me with the story of the events that left my best friend dead on the floor of a restaurant?"
We are so dead, Sar thought upon hearing the ice that coated the last part of the sentence. He prepared to do his best to explain what had happened, but Laer beat him to it.
"Someone fucked up the info for the contract," his partner said simply. "Selnick wasn't supposed to be there. We didn't realise it before it was too late and he got caught in the crossfire. It was an accident."
"Accident, was it?" Soren asked, voice still laced with venom. He turned to look at one of the technicians by the computers that lined one of the walls. "Bring up the contract file on the screen." The words began to scroll across the large screen, and they all read them until they hit a sentence that said: 'Note: Aaron Selnick will be present at the meeting. Exercise extreme caution when completing contract. Do not allow him to come to harm.'
Both Sar and Laer gaped. "T-that was not in the briefing we were sent," Sar said. "It made no mention of Selnick at all!"
"That's strange, because I wrote this briefing myself," Soren said, glaring at them both. "And I made sure to make it absolutely clear that he would be there. So, what happened? Did you forget the warning, or did you just decide to go rogue for the hell of it?"
"It didn't fucking say he was there!" Laer shouted, drawing the attention of everyone in the room. Alfred stood behind them, remaining completely silent, but his pleasure at the trouble they were in was obviously written in the smile he bore on his face. "I can even prove it!" He reached into his bag, but cursed loudly. "Fuck, I forgot my laptop at the apartment!"
"How convenient," Soren noted drily before sighing heavily. "I'm conflicted. On one hand, I want to believe you saying it was an accident, that you didn't know he was there...but on the other, the evidence that you were warned is right there." He pointed at the screen. "And then there's the fact that you both know very well what he looks like. You should have recognised him immediately." He shook his head. "The evidence is not pointing in your favour, I'm afraid."
"Sir, we...we didn't..." Sar didn't know what else they could say. "Please..."
Reduced to begging within minutes. It was incredible how intimidating Soren could be when he was angry. It was like the words simply died on their way out of his mouth.
"Like I said, I've a good mind to have you all incinerated for this," Soren continued, waving at the technician, who brought the map of the states back on the screen. "Unfortunately, everything is going to hell and I need every able nosfer I can get my hands on, and that means you get to live. For now." He cleared his throat and pointed at the map. "I will not sugar-coat it. We have lost contact with five safe houses in the past twenty-four hours."
"Lost contact?" Mistral asked. He sounded just as surprised as Sar and Laer were.
"Yes, lost contact," Soren repeated, rolling his eyes. "No radio, no video, no nothing. We can't even reach anyone by phone."
"Which safe houses?" Laer asked.
"Asgard, Elysium, P80, Saiga and Rural 19," Soren replied. "I have already spoken to the other masters and those closest to the affected houses will be despatching search teams to investigate. We are closest to Rural 19, and I am gathering a team as we speak. Marcus, you will go with them."
Mistral nodded. "Sir."
"What about us?" Sar asked.
"I have a special assignment for you two," Soren continued. "You reported to Marcus that the targets at the restaurant were armed with copper bullets, correct?"
"Yeah, that's right. I even took one in the arm. Burned like a motherfucker." Laer rolled up the sleeve of his shirt to emphasise his point, though the mark from the bullet had long since faded. "Where the hell did they get that kind of hardware?"
"That's what I want you to find out," Soren said. "As far as we know, copper bullets are not mass-produced anywhere in the world. The targets would have had to specially order them from somewhere, not to mention the fact that they had to know what they were meant for to begin with. It's too early to tell if the slayers are back, but just in case I want you to investigate the possibility."
Slayers. The word sent shivers down Sar's back. The last thing they needed right now was another war.
"Where do we start?" Laer asked.
"I suggest starting by checking out the factory where the bullets were manufactured. You should be able to find the documents regarding the purchase of them, shipping manifests and such. We have narrowed the possible manufacturing plants down to three. You will need to check them thoroughly. Bring any information you gather back here for analysis."
"When are we leaving?" Sar had a bad feeling about this already. If the slayers were involved, then that meant a resurgence would occur quite soon. The nosfers weren't prepared for that, as far as he knew.
"Tonight, after dark," Soren answered. "The manufacturing plants are all located in the city. Do not screw this up, or I will definitely make good of my threats. Understood?" When they nodded, he gave them a small grin that was neither angry nor humorous. "Excellent. The details will be given to you en route. Your room is ready upstairs. Get some rest and be ready to move out in exactly thirteen hours. Dismissed."
Sar could hardly believe that they would be leaving the command centre alive.
Soren must be desperate if he's this forgiv—
"One more thing, Sar," the Coven's leader's voice said just as they reached the door. "The boy...what do you intend to do with him?"
Swallowing, Sar turned back to Soren and shrugged. "I...I don't know, sir. Didn't think that far ahead."
Soren gave a sardonic smile. "Well, you're in luck. I'm going to narrow the choices down for you. You can either kill him..."
Sar felt disgusted at the very idea of it. "No, I won't do that to him."
"Then I shall contact the cleaners and—"
"We can't kill him either." He knew it was the wrong thing to say just as the words left him.
Soren went quiet for a few seconds. "I repeat, Sar: you will either kill him, or make him a donor. There are no other options. He knows too much, and he cannot be allowed to leave. If he does not become a donor, then he is useless. I do not keep useless individuals in this house. So it's up to you."
Sar looked at Laer, who only stared back. He knew what his lover's gaze was saying: Your choice, not mine.
"I...I need to think about it," he finally said.
"One hour," Soren said. "One hour, and I will make the decision for you."
Neither of them spoke as they headed for their room on the second floor. It wasn't until they had closed the door behind them and locked it that Laer finally opened his mouth.
"I say we kill him."
Sar whirled around. "What?" he asked.
"I. Say. We. Kill. Him," Laer repeated slowly. "Soren's right. He's nothing but a dead weight to anyone unless he becomes a donor. And I know how you feel about that, so...what other choice do you have?"
Sar shook his head, horrified at what his lover was suggesting. "We can't just kill him! None of this was his fault!"
"You're right about that," Laer agreed. "But it doesn't change the fact that he knows too much. If you had killed him at the restaurant, then you would have spared us—and him—a lot of trouble...not that we wouldn't have been royally screwed even if he hadn't been there, but...you get my point." He untied his ponytail and let his blond tresses fall free. Then he began to undress. "So...what are you going to do?"
Sar looked at his feet, the stress of it all getting to him. "I don't know..." he said quietly, voice shaking slightly. God, I'm pathetic...
Laer's strong arms encircled him from behind, and the Sar rested against his warm chest gratefully. "Listen," Laer said, his deep voice rippling through Sar, "I know the kid reminds you of him...but you can't let that affect your decision about this. Treat him as the person he is, not the person he looks like. It's unfair that he got involved in this, but what's done is done. You can't change that. He will never walk freely out of this mansion, dead or alive. You need to do what is best by him."
Sar closed his eyes and breathed in the scent of his lover. As always, it brought great comfort to him. "Since when did you care about Max?" he asked.
"I don't," Laer replied. "I care about you. And while I think that killing him is the best choice...I also know that it will kill you on the inside."
"I can't let him become a donor," Sar muttered. "I just can't...it's so awful..."
"Donors don't have it so bad," Laer reasoned. "I'd say they're quite comfortable, really. It's only a bit of pain every now and then...much more preferable than death, I'd say."
"But what if the nosfer who gets him doesn't treat him well? What if—"
"Stop over-thinking it, Sar," Laer said and kissed his neck gently. "If you're that concerned...tell Soren that you want him."
"You refuse to drink it, I know... Hm...What if I request him, then?"
"You...you would that?" Sar asked hopefully.
"Of course, if it'd make you happy." Laer kissed his neck again, a little firmer this time, sucking slightly on the sensitive skin there, making Sar whimper. "I'd be really gentle with him..." He started unbuttoning Sar's shirt with one hand while letting the other gently rest on his firm stomach. "I haven't had a donor in years...Soren wouldn't be able to say no..."
Sar turned around in Laer's embrace and stared up at him. "Do you promise?" he asked. "Do you promise that?"
"Cross my heart and hope to die...again," Laer replied, grinning.
A smile came to Sar's face, and he gently kissed Laer's lips. "I love you..."
To be continued...
Ah, been a while since I worked on this story. Don't really have any excuse apart from the fact that I lost all inspiration to write it for a long time...but now I feel it's time to pick it back up. My writing style has changed since then, for better or for worse (probably the latter), but I hope I'll satisfy those who are still interested in reading it. Sorry for the delay.