A Tragedy of Errors
by Davey Jones
It was night.
It shouldn't have been. It was ten in the morning, had one a functioning clock with which to measure time.
Jamie Kinnison, perched in the air a foot above the snow cover in the woods, did not. He was good at judging what time it was by any number of subliminal clues, not the least of which was the planet's magnetic field. He knew when it was in the day.
He knew where he was, too, with a precision unknown to most—a half-mile uphill from his ramshackle double-wide, snow piled heavily against it, no light showing from the darkened windows. A hundred feet from the edge of the snow-filled thirty-foot-deep gully that had, several years ago, been a small stream gurgling down the slope of his back yard. Two and a third miles from the crumbling metal structure that had been a relay tower for WMAR out of distant Arkham. Seven miles from the Robinson Homestead.
Darkness didn't matter. He'd had four years to get used to the lack of real light at any time of the day. Fours years in which nothing had changed, and in which yet everything was now different.
He had the edgy anger to him indicative of someone who slept neither well nor much, dark brown eyes red with perpetual fatigue. Night was when things came out, and then he slept lightly. The camouflage work he'd done on his now-ramshackle double-wide served its purpose; his home looked deserted, and the creatures of darkness didn't as a habit investigate such for victims.
Day was when it was safer to be out—at least by comparison. Some of the creatures of darkness that now owned the world rested during the daylight hours. There had been sunlight only a few times during the past four years, but even with a cloud cover, those things would retire from the playing field. Daylight hours were when he could hunt for the few animals that remained alive in this fimbulwinter world, for food and for raw materials. Some things he could work into tools on his own. Some things he rolled up and carted to other, less-fortunate homesteads where he could trade them for food or clothing or books.
But he was active almost all the time. The nervousness, the lack of rest, the loneliness and solitude—these had all gone into making him the short-tempered man that he now was, rather than the friendly, easy-going man who'd come up here for a week's vacation four years earlier with his wife and infant daughter.
Four years ago, the world had gone dark for a day, and in that time, something terrible had happened. Almost everyone in the world died during that time, screaming in agony or in the anonymous silence of their inadequate hideaways. A few—far too few—isolated homes in the hills had survived. A few of the towns had survived. A few individuals, scattered here and there, luckier than most, had survived.
And with the death of six billion people had come the beginning of the death of civilization.
That day of darkness had ended, hellishly too long, mercifully brief, and since then the world had been darker and colder and bleaker.
And the sound of drifting darkness skittering near his home was not the only thing that often woke him in the night.
Four years ago, there'd been others with him. Linda Anne Kinnison, daughter of James and Cora McDonnough, his wife of four years. Blonde, hazel-eyed, as tough and strong as her parents, and the friendliest, most caring woman he'd ever known. And Rebecca Anne Kinnison, almost two, blonde and brown-eyed and almost as hyperactive as her father.
The three of them had decided to take a vacation before he started college that fall. Annie had been a doctor, but things had still been tight; when her parents had offered the use of the family place, high up in the Miskatonic hills, the Kinnisons had been happy to accept.
The day had been warm, as any day in the late summer ever was. The drive up from Boston had taken only hours, with the baby asleep most of the way, the time spent in happy conversation and companionship. It had been nearly four years since the couple had been able to go anywhere together, and they'd looked forward to the opportunity.
And the day had finished with a beautiful sunset, and a happy family dinner of the remains of their picnic lunch, and the night had been warm and peaceful after the baby had been put in bed, and all had been right with the world.
And he'd gone out the next morning hunting, intending to bring a deer back for the week's meat. He'd hunted before, and was no stranger to woods or mountains.
But the morning had been darker than he'd expected—darker than either of them had expected. Annie had busied herself with the baby, nervous and irritable and uncertain why. He'd kissed both his girls and headed out, promising to return shortly.
It had taken him perhaps an hour to work his way into the depths of the forest that edged the property. During that time the sun hadn't shone, and no moon had been visible, and even the wind had stilled. He'd worn a thick shirt so that he wouldn't mess up better clothing with his kill; the temperature had dropped enough that he kept that shirt buttoned tightly, free hand stuffed in his pocket.
And he'd finally stopped to puff warm air on his clenched hands, and he'd only then realized just how silent and still the world had become. Yesterday there had been birds chirping and squirrels chattering and the occasional small animal darting from cover to cover.
Now there had been nothing.
He'd looked around for a moment, more cautious than concerned. Bears seldom ambushed people, and mountain lions didn't bring about such a stillness in the area. Darkness aside, nothing had seemed out of the ordinary—at least not to his city-bred experience.
In spite of the darkness his eyes had been drawn to lights, dim glows, on the Eastern horizon. The closest he'd assumed to be Bridgeport or Arkham, and the farthest he wondered about being Boston itself.
But those glows had not been the steady, friendly lights of cities alight with life; they'd flickered and strobed, and sometimes shadows had moved across them, almost as though things too big to cast proper shadows had moved across the view. They'd been like cities afire.
His blood hadn't run cold until he'd heard the pale, breathy sound of an air-raid siren from what had to be distant Arkham. This was like no attack he'd ever read about, like no attack by terrorists or supervillains or even aliens—but he no longer wanted to be out here in the darkness alone, away from his wife and child.
He'd made it less than a quarter of the way back to the house before the growling—and then the screaming—had started. He'd screamed himself, in fear for his family, bolting through the woods, branches slapping at his face, dirt shifting beneath his boots.
The screams—and then the other, more monstrous noises—had stopped before he'd gotten another quarter mile.
And the newly-childless widower had remembered very little of the next year with any sort of clarity.
Mid-morning or not, there was never very much light during the daytime, but there was usually enough to tell that it was morning. Today? Today it was dark as nighttime. He didn't understand, and the Enclave broadcasts had reflected equal confusion on the situation. The morning broadcasts had been full of fear that The Day had returned—but there was nothing save the endless darkness to mark this day any different from any other in the past four years. It was mid-summer—technically—and he supposed the hurricane season might be getting a reboot. There seemed to be no other weather to cope with, though, just cold, still darkness. There was a lot of speculation, but no facts to go on.
Part of his abilities involved perception beyond the normal visual range. He'd learned to his satisfaction that he could perceive infrared, and ultraviolet, and the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Right now those extra-range senses were as useless as his eyesight; there was nothing radiating in the IR for him to see, and there was never anything in the other EM bands.
He waited, quiet and patient, in the closeness of the forest that bordered his backyard gully. His pale snowsuit made him look like part of the landscape, and this made hunting a great deal easier. He'd cleared the land for about ten miles around of uroths, great lumbering creatures from whatever otherwhere had touched upon the Earth, things that hunted the deer and moose and bears and lions that frequented this area. He and his neighbors needed the meat from the terrestrial creatures. The uroths ate so voraciously that they could clear the animal population of an area within weeks.
And in his considered opinion, uroth tasted like lemon-chicken soaked in gasoline—a poor swap, in his opinion, for normal meat. You could eat the things if you had to—he'd had to—but you had to be desperate, and Jamie didn't like being that desperate. The nice thing about uroths was that they'd eat each other; not all of the creatures that infested this world would feed on each other. He'd dragged the carcasses well away from his traveled routes, and so far, the area was staying clear of them. Other pests, like slarachnids and glytters, took more time and effort.
He knew there was a herd of deer in the area; he'd seen them during flyovers in the past few days. One good-sized one would keep him in meat for a month, and give him a chance to make another goodwill mission to the Robinsons where they used anything he didn't.
The deer always went by the house, because there was no sign of life there. They didn't come up to this side of the gully because this was where what few bears and mountain lions remaining in the world occasionally wandered. He was up here so that the deer wouldn't suspect his presence, and he could reach them without moving from this spot.
He had to work now to remember what it had felt like when his paranormal abilities had triggered on The Day. He knew what it felt like now to use them, to feel the presence of metals as silk mixed with steel between immaterial fingers, to see colors and patterns that he had no words for in the light of day. He knew these things, and knew that they couldn't be anything but good. After all, they were what let him fight the creatures of darkness on an equal footing.
That first year alone up in the hills had been when he'd learned to be a killer, and a good one.
His radios had all died during the first months of that year; he'd exhausted all of the batteries. It hadn't mattered. The last surviving radio station had already been off the air for too long. At the beginning of the second year, he'd found batteries on a salvage operation, and out of boredom had switched one of the little things on again.
In spite of his feelings of self-sufficiency—and what others would have courteously termed paranoia—his heart had pounded when he'd heard a human voice that day. The broadcast came from people, or so it said; people who had banded together inside a walled town they called the Arkham Enclave. That had been a surprise in itself; the Arkham he remembered passing through on the way up hadn't deserved the title Enclave. This 'Enclave'd had food, in large part from stockpiles gathered from other towns that hadn't survived, and they'd had power from a river power plant, light and heat, and they were in occasional communication with other such Enclaves.
For a day, perhaps two, he'd been more excited than he'd been in over a year. Survivors. Others to talk to. People to help him, and people that he could offer his assistance to. He'd always been a social being, and being alone for two years had done little to assuage his insanity.
Ironically, the very broadcasts that had gained his interest had kept him away.
The radio station in the Enclave had had plenty of things to say on the subject of freaks such as himself, and for a very long time little of it had been good.
In the world that had been, there had been paranormals. They were rare beyond belief, perhaps one in a hundred thousand. Some fought to enforce the law and defend the innocent. Others chose to break the law and commit acts of terror. In every case, the individual had been normal until something—a shock, a fright, an injury, chemicals or electricity or radiation—had triggered their paragene, and they had become a force for good or ill.
He had learned from the Enclave broadcasts of the triggering of so many others into paranormal abilities and nonhuman shapes—something he'd feared for a long time might still happen to him—and he had learned what had happened to many of these equally-innocent victims of the darkness. It had taken another year and a half before the Enclave's tone of reporting had finally settled down and begun to say good things about the paranormals among its population, as those paranormals had proven themselves again and again to be effective in defending the city from the forces in the darkness.
The paranormals were tolerated now in Arkham—but only just. "A monster's a monster no matter whose side it claims to be on."
By the time he'd reached that point in his listening he'd long since become self-sufficient. He missed the company of others—missed it so much that sometimes he could taste it—but not enough to risk his life to be with them.
Instead of making his long, laborious way to the Enclave—even in the 'day' there were things in the cloud that made life hazardous for a flier, and the deep valleys harbored things that would've turned a straight twenty-mile hike into a forty-mile terror-filled fight for life—he'd begun to tramp the countryside, exploring and salvaging.
Occasionally—not nearly often enough—his salvage expeditions had turned up signs of life. He'd gradually made the acquaintance of a handful of other households that had survived in the area. He'd been hunting the less-ethereal creatures of darkness with a focus that bordered those creatures' own hunting frenzies, and he'd been proud that his constant hunting of those creatures had made life easier for his new neighbors. Proud as he'd been, though, he'd still been cautious, and had said nothing about this to anyone. Everyone listened to the Enclave station; it was the only broadcast entertainment there was. The Enclave's opinions, particularly on paranormals, were widely disseminated. And he did want to fit in.
He'd worked out ways to trade with some of these households, and he'd worked out contacts between many of them without his presence, so that a network of such contacts slowly grew. He was still the most mobile of any of the people of the hills; flying, it took him less than five minutes to reach the Robinson homestead, and a little over thirty to reach Ravensfork, the most distant he knew of—even if flight seldom meant leaving the cover of the forest.
At first he hadn't had much to trade, and neither had anyone else; humanity now existed on the ragged edge of starvation. But one of the homesteads had possessed a crankable generator that had stopped working, and none of the people there had been able to make it work again. Without it, life had been going to be even harsher, possibly completely untenable when actual winter had come.
Before The Day he'd made his living at working with mechanical things, and since his powers had activated he'd gotten even better. He'd managed to fix their generator for them—it now worked better than it had before the breakdown—and this had broken the ice. The people hadn't been able to offer him much, but even a little was a pleasure. Other homesteads had begun to find work for him as well, and, nearly four years after the Day, he had become well-known in the area as the Miracle Mechanic.
The other homesteads conducted their own salvage operations on houses Jamie had left alone, and he found himself supplied with an unsteady stream of books and clothing.
The only group to know of his paranormality were the Robinsons, the closest homestead to his house as the mutant flew. His secret had come out when a tangle of uroth had attacked the place, and he'd taken serious injuries killing them. The two oldest daughters, Tam and Pen, had taken an interest in him from that time, and as their friendship—and, he admitted now, affection—had grown, he'd begun to seriously consider their suggestion of returning to take up householding with him at his place.
He'd lost his own family during The Day. The Robinsons were the people he'd settled on, fiercely looking after their fortunes as well as his own.
But he still spent most of his time alone, out here in the frozen darkness and stillness—and he knew at the best of times how badly this was affecting his own sensibilities. He had issues. He knew it, and knew he had to address them.
He just never seemed to have the time.
His attention returned to the here-and-now at a flicker of movement in the distant trees. He drifted over the ground, his booted feet not quite touching the snow cover. He needed a good-sized deer. It had been several weeks since he'd hunted, and he was nearly out of edible meat. And he knew that the ladies he looked out for at the Robinson homestead could make use of everything else from the deer, bone and sinew and hide. Food for him, a CARE package for those he looked after. Regardless of how wrong the day felt to him right now, he had to get this taken care of. Resources in this new, dead world were already stretched thin; he did what he could to help others survive. He focused on infrared, pure heat, the better to see the warm animals against the cold of the background.
There was fuzzy shape dashing through the woods. He frowned. It didn't look like a deer, or any other animal; for all of him, it looked like a person running toward his house through the woods. The snow even in those trees was deep, and the person looked short. A lot of the motion was floundering and struggling.
Another flicker of movement caught his eye. This movement wasn't visible in infrared, or ultraviolet; it wasn't technically visible at all, but was something he'd gradually figured out was some kind of cloaking field. But that field was used by only one set of the nightmare creatures who ruled the earth, things that were invisible until you killed them and then just noisome disintegrating tatters when you did. He and others called them Dark.
There was a Hunt of Dark following the fleeing figure, and Jamie cursed softly. The damned fool was leading them right toward his house, and his greenhouse was uncovered now in vain hopes for the day's pale sunlight. Then he cursed again; the figure was going to come out of the woods a few dozen feet uphill from the house, right on a path for the snow-covered gully.
With the suddenness of a lightning strike the figure broke out of the trees. For a moment it looked as though darkness surrounded it like a cloud; it took long seconds to resolve it into a person in a cloak and wrap, possibly in a robe as well, all black as night. The figure stumbled heavily in the snow once it was clear of the trees, picked itself up again with remarkable energy and struggled for the trees on the other side of the open area. Jamie cursed once more just for the sake of it; strangers up here didn't know about the gully. He'd fished two bodies out of it in the last four years, each time taking them downrange to be found by otherworldly creatures so that no suspicion would be drawn to his home. He didn't want to have to do it again. He opened his mouth to call a warning.
He stopped cold as a river of gray-silver shadow, shifting and roiling like smoke or water, flowed from the trees. It didn't move in a straight path, but dipped and wavered as though following the flow of the land that lay many feet of snow beneath it. It was sinuous and smooth and there was no way to mistake it for anything other than the motion of cold sentience. In spite of its roundabout course it was gaining on the struggling figure.
Six arrows slid out of Jamie's quiver, joining the one he'd already had in preflight, awaiting a deer. He left his bow on his shoulder. He trembled, and opened his mouth to call a warning regardless of the danger.
The point became moot. The figure reached the edge of the gully at a full run and, with a sharp, shrill cry, went over. The gully was thirty feet deep at that point, but the snow had nearly filled it; there was every possibility that the figure had survived the fall, and might continue to survive if he could take out the Dark before it took him.
The arrows hovering near him disappeared with soft thwips. They glittered briefly even in the darkness that was today's daytime, and then they reached their flowing, shifting targets.
He watched with grim satisfaction as the Hunt immediately collapsed around seven different impact points, whirling and tangling upon itself. He bowed his head in concentration, his eyes never leaving that section of land, and kept watch as the Dark, shrinking in on itself, again pulled painfully and tightly around seven more impact points. The creatures of a Hunt of Dark, whatever they looked like in reality, responded quite nicely to the touch of silver. His arrows were like free-circling bullets, piercing the otherworldly creatures again and again and again, tearing them to softly-flapping shreds of protoplasm. In the lack of light he could see the twinkling of the silver-tipped arrows as they spun at his control through the ever-decreasing flood of the Hunt. Within seconds only one pool of Dark remained, and that was still five feet from the edge of the trees when it dissolved into noxious nothingness.
Jamie felt a hard satisfaction; that was another Hunt of Dark that would never again stalk humans.
He drifted toward the gully edge. The figure that had taken a fall was his immediate concern. He hoped the snow had cushioned its fall; broken bones would heal, where being consumed by a Hunt was terminal. But freezing to death was a good possibility, too. His arrows returned to him like happy hunting dogs, and he took a moment to wipe the venomous goo from them in the snow. Each slid into its place in his fanlike quiver as he finished cleaning it.
Then he drifted, silently and swiftly, over to the hole that showed where the figure lost its battle with the gully's edge.
Before he checked on the figure he checked on the faintly-smoking remains of the Dark. There was one long puddle of vicious-looking slime that, in spite of the cold, was slowly evaporating. He nodded, satisfied, and kicked some snow on top of the remains. Within minutes there would be nothing left to show that the Dark had ever been here. If nothing else, he wanted any other Hunts that risked encroaching on his territory to wonder what had happened to their predecessors. He took a moment to look into the woods whence had come the Hunt, but it appeared that the entire assembly had been there; no escapees this time. By now he'd learned to tell.
Back at the edge of the gully he stopped, hovering over the hole in the snow where the figure had fallen. He snapped on his shoulder-mounted flashlight, shining it down the hole. "Hello!" he whispered loudly. In the stillness of this place even that whisper would carry long yards. "Hello!" he repeated at the silence. "Who's down there?"
He got no direct response, but he made out a soft whimper, as of someone in pain and only semi-conscious. It was possible, he considered, that the figure was lying down there stunned. If it kept moaning, it was likely to get louder, and even though he'd dispatched the Hunt, he didn't want to invite any other unwelcome company.
He allowed himself to descend into the hole in the snow until it covered his head. At that point it narrowed to a body-sized tunnel, and that could collapse easily if there were two full-sized people trying to rise back through it. He slipped his bow from his shoulders and whisked it around in a circle as he dropped, spreading the snow and widening the opening. At around eight feet down the cover got too heavy for him to continue, but by now he could see the figure at the bottom, lying partly in a hollow it had created on impact.
He touched down. His fingers were light as he pushed the figure's hood back to check for consciousness or blood. His eyebrows went up. The figure was a girl, thirteen or fourteen years of age—Jamie wasn't very good at judging them at that age—and everything about her save her skin was black; dress, coat, cloak, gloves, boots, a pair of bulging carry pouches, banged hair, thick eyelashes and thin eyebrows.
Her skin was extraordinarily pale. Given how many people could get to the sunlight any more to tan—he was the only one he knew of—a pale face was little surprise, but even so, he was astonished at how white the girl's skin was. At an initial glance he would have guessed her weight at just over a hundred, soaking wet, and she looked as if she might come up to his collarbone if she didn't do the teenager slouch. That was allowing for her being barefoot; she was wearing boots with heels, out here in the deep snow.
He cleared out more space by packing the snow back, and stretched her out as gently as he could. He took his gloves off to better judge the condition of her head and neck. He sucked in his breath at how cold her skin was; she must have been out here for hours to be so chilled.
As he examined her she moaned, a small gloved hand coming up to her head. She felt the touch of his fingers on her neck. Her eyes shot open and she cried out in fear, her hands coming to her chest. Jamie was astonished; her eyes were the darkest black he'd ever seen eyes be. "Dammit, girl," he whispered harshly to her as she twisted and pulled away, "hold still! I'm making sure it's okay to move you!"
She breathed harshly, rapidly, obviously still remembering the heart-stopping fear of the chase that had led her here. Those dark eyes darted about, looking at the tightly-cramped cave in the snow. This was not a situation she'd been expecting; she focused on Jamie instead, the look of fear not diminishing.
He realized what part of the problem was. He pulled his ski mask off and twisted his flashlight around, revealing a high-cheeked, narrow face, topped by short brown hair with a semi-permanent kink to it from his ski mask. Once that face might easily have smiled; now it frowned with impatience. "See? Plain old person. Now settle down." The girl's breathing gradually slowed—people were far different from life-sucking monstrosities—but she never took her eyes off of him. Jamie took advantage of the silence. "Can you feel if anything's hurt?" he asked her. "Can you move your hands? Your feet?"
The girl automatically tried. She looked at her limbs, wiggling both arms and then both legs, and gasped and looked back at Jamie. She brought a small hand back to her head, and winced when she touched her forehead. "My—my head hurts," she said, her voice soft and high and colored with a light French accent. "My arms do as well, mostly in the shoulders. My right hip hurts as though I struck it, but I can move everything. My left leg does not hurt so much, but it feels as though that shin is broken." Her dark eyes went back to his face, searching it carefully. "Who are you? What is this place?"
"'This place' is the bottom of the gully in my back yard," he told her dryly. "I saw you fall in." He was silent for a moment. "I saw what was after you, too." Her eyes widened. "Don't worry. I took care of them, and there don't seem to be any more around." He glanced back up the hole in the snow to the black sky dimly visible. Then he looked back at her face and tried to put a soothing tone in his voice. "What's your name? And which household're you out of? I haven't seen you at any of the places I usually visit, but that doesn't mean anything; there are twice as many out there as I've found." He shook his head. "Your parents are going to be pissed when they find out you've been out alone. Was this some stupid bet with your friends?"
Jamie had heard radio reports of young people taking chances on leaving the Enclave at night. Not nearly so often he heard follow-up reports that they'd returned safely. He didn't have a high opinion of people who sought thrills in that manner, and he thought better of the common sense of the teenagers who lived at the homesteads he did visit.
She looked away from him, down at her hands folded across her midriff. "My—my name is Lilu," she told him hesitantly. "Lilu Demarais." She swallowed. "I was out because I needed to gather something that I had planted a long time ago. Tonight was the best night to do so. I thought myself safe from the Hunts because there had been no report of them in this area for some weeks now." She stopped a moment, and continued more softly. "My parents... are not a concern."
Which probably means they're dead, Jamie thought logically. Ninety-nine out of a hundred people on the planet had died in the course of a single night; there were far more orphans out there than complete families. Still... "Did you get what you were after?" he asked her. Her little hand flew to one of the bulging packs against her slender hips. She made sure both were there, and seemed to deflate with relief. She nodded to him.
She tried to shift herself and winced, whimpering. "Please, sir. My leg hurts very much. Can you help me?"
Jamie lifted the girl's cloak and skirt up past her knees. Even in the dim light of his flashlight he could see that the girl's left leg below the knee was twisted abnormally. He sighed. The cold was just going to make things worse. He looked at her leg, at her face, and up at the stars again. It would be the work of a minute to straighten and splint her injured leg, and that would make it much easier to get her out with minimal pain and panic and get her back into his house. Only then was he going to actually feel safe to look after her injuries.
He drew two of his arrows and planted them off to one side. The girl's eyes widened and she glanced back at him. "Easy," he told her, trying to calm her as he took a couple of equipment straps off of his quiver. "I'm going to straighten your leg and put some splints on it. It won't take but a minute, but it'll help. You're going to have to be as quiet as you can; I don't want to draw anything else down on us."
"No more so than I, sir," she whispered to him in a surprisingly mature manner.
He shrugged. "Once the leg's straight, I can get you back to my place in just a minute. We're almost there. After that we'll get you fixed up and see about getting you back to your place, okay?" The girl nodded hesitantly, as though unsure whether or not to agree to this suggestion. Her dark eyes watched every move he made. Once or twice her lips parted, as though she wanted to correct what he was doing. She remained silent. He laid his hands on her leg on both sides of the break and he hissed in surprise. "God!" he whispered. Her eyes widened. She said nothing. "I thought it was just your face, but you're freezing! How long have you been out here?"
"A—a few hours," she responded slowly.
"God," he said again, "you're not dressed for this. I hope I've still got some of that heating cream at the house. You could lose your leg. Damn!" He sighed heavily. "Okay," he said, shifting to brace himself straddling her thigh, putting his hands on her lower leg, "I'm going to straighten this out before I splint it. On three, okay?" She nodded frantically, small hands digging convulsively into the snow. "One!" He jerked the bones apart, letting them spring back together where they were supposed to be. "Twothree." The girl bit back most of a shriek, lips drawn back from the unexpected flare of agony. He climbed off her leg and glanced at her as he reached for one of his arrows. "Sorry," he started, "but if you wait all the way 'til three your patient has a chance to lock their muscles, and..." He trailed off into silence as he looked harder at her, her lips drawn back in pain. She drew her lips together, whimpering, dark eyes flashing with anger.
"Could you not," she gasped, a little more fire in her voice, "have given me some warning of what you were going to do?"
He jumped and came back to the snow cavern. He shook his head. "No, I..." He caught his breath. "No. Like I said, you usually have to surprise people if you're doing it single-handedly." He was trying to convince himself that he was seeing things in the dark, jumping shadows from his flashlight—certainly he hadn't seen fangs. He slipped the equipment straps under her leg, moving it as little as possible, and laid an arrow on either side.
The girl arched her back in pain and jerked frantically away, unable to stifle a cry. Even in the dimness he could see where the skin of her leg was reddened and blistered, as though burned. "What the—?"
"I am," the girl gasped, blinking tears away and trying hard to relax her leg, "I am very... very allergic to... to some metals..." She panted in the silence, gradually unclenching her small fists and wiping at her watering eyes. "It is why... why I do not wear jewelry, or—"
She stammered to a stop, focusing tear-filled eyes on him as he drew slowly away from her. "Where did you say you're out of?" he asked her with deadly calm.
"I—I did not," she whispered, "I—"
"You're one of them," he whispered hoarsely. His eyes slowly hardened.
She continued to look blearily at him. "Wh-what?"
He reached forward and pushed her upper lip out of the way with one hand. His other hand darted forward, holding her head still as he looked at the two tiny, perfect fangs on her upper jaw. He let her go and she gasped and pulled away from him. "One of them," he repeated. He traced two fingers across his lips. "The fangs, the skin, the silver... you're a damned vampire!" Her dark eyes widened in fear.
Before The Day, vampires had been a thing of fiction to most, cheesy horror movies and cheaply-produced television shows at best. No one had seriously believed in them.
After The Day, vampires had been discovered among the survivors who populated the Arkham Enclave—and a number of vampires, captured and interrogated, had confessed that The Day had been brought about by vampires, those of the undead working in concert with human magic users.
And after that, a horrified humanity had found an enemy even closer to home.
Given that the news had been made known that vampires were responsible for the sorry state of the planet—and the grimly hate-filled expression on this man's face—Lilu was fairly sure that his sudden revelation wasn't a good one.
The two arrows he'd been going to use for splints rose from the ground, hanging in the air pointing at the girl where she lay very, very still. He breathed hard. He gritted his teeth. He remembered smiles. He remembered screams. He remembered—
Then he looked up, startled from his anger, at an unheard signal. He'd laid alarms around the perimeter of his house, silent alarms that he sensed rather than heard. They were there to let him know in advance of the approach of anything, anything at all—and he never invited people to his house, so it had to be an intruder. Ralcadu's delegates had been told how to trigger the alarms so that he'd know they were friendlies and react accordingly; this alarm indicated simple intrusion, and that meant only one thing under these conditions: creatures of darkness. Them or their minions. Their helpers.
Helpers such as this creature he'd been about to assist.
"What were you doing out here?" he growled, yanking her up by her blouse. She barely stifled a cry of pain from her still-injured leg, her small hands coming up to clutch at his with surprising strength. Her small fangs were much more visible now that she wasn't trying to conceal them any more.
"Please, sir!" the girl cried, still keeping her voice to a whisper. "I mean you no harm! I was out gather plants that I needed, plants that I had—Here, you may see for yourself, I—"
"Names!" he growled more harshly, shaking her small body. "Where are you out of? Where?"
"Please," she repeated, "I cannot—"
"Dammit!" he concluded angrily, "you were a distraction!" He slammed her back to the ground. "You kept me busy so some of your friends could get into my house." He straightened up in the hole. His eyes were deadly. "Go to hell," he finished.
Before the girl could react one of the silver-tipped wooden arrows snapped forward, straight through her chest, pinning her to the ground. The breath went out of her as though she'd been punched. Her eyes widened, tears streaming from them, and her small fingers clutched weakly at the weapon, gasping helplessly for breath that would not come. Over the course of the next few seconds her struggles weakened, and finally her dark eyes fluttered and closed and she was still. Logic said that her second death had been far quicker than her first one, and it still seemed too fast to suit him.
"I'll be back later to cut your damned head off," he promised her, and soared out into the night-like daytime. As he pulled his ski mask back into place his flight twisted downhill, and he hugged the snowscape, every curve and dip familiar to him. Intruders at his home meant more than just a fight; it meant that after four years of relative safety, he'd been found—and he wasn't sure where else to go to continue living.
He spared a silent curse for the vampire he'd left in the gully—but he felt sick to his stomach, too. The radio reports about oddities and creatures had mentioned vampires more than once, usually to list the latest that had been learned about them, or deaths they were suspected in—and about their own boasts of having been responsible for this world of perpetual night. This vampire had been part of a raiding Hunt of Dark; she was the 'victim' who would have faded into nothingness while he was killed and devoured for trying to save her from those creatures. She'd miscounted on the gully being there, and this raiding Hunt hadn't known about the tools he kept handy for dealing with them in his territory.
He'd seen houses pulled apart, houses that like his had been kept safe and secret. He'd seen their inhabitants torn or melted or devoured, the lour of death surrounding them. Up until today it had been a mystery why some houses survived and some did not.
Now he knew.
The one thing the Dark and their allies never counted upon—because they never learned of it with any chance of passing that information on—was the fact that he was a paranormal. Control of the electromagnetic spectrum and anything magnetically responsive wasn't a power one usually thought of as useful for fighting creatures of nightmare and death, but it sufficed.
But this agent, this vampire—she'd looked like a child, a young teenager. And to have done violence to a child, any child—to have killed her—cut Jamie to the quick. Regardless of what the girl was, it was what she had appeared to be that would cost him sleep in coming nights.
On final approach to his home he swung wide, hugging the cover of the snow on the ground at the edge of the woods. The intruder alarm had been from the downhill side of his territory. There were homesteads in that direction, but none of them came to see him—most had no clue where he lived, and he liked it that way—and he'd been expecting no visitors.
He swung high, coming up over the house, risking momentary exposure to the lower cloud surface to gain an advantage. Sure enough, even in the unusually-dim light he could see huge, misshapen footprints. His visitors weren't human.
In the tiny threadbare greenhouse he kept a spare rifle. As he floated a silent circuit of the house, taking stock with his mutant senses, he summoned that weapon to himself. The huge shotgun smacked into his gloved hand. He checked the barrels, confirming two shots loaded. He hoped it would be enough.
He drifted to a stop fifty feet up as a massive figure reminiscent of a cross between a weight lifter and a crab came out of the back door of his home. It jumped down into the snow on its legs, but then walked like a gorilla through the deep drifts. Its head swiveled rapidly, jerkily, like a hunting bird. Whatever it was, it was aware of everything.
It muttered something in a voice like gravelly thunder, and moved out into the back yard. The fact that it 'spoke' at all told Jamie that there was at least one more with it. Sure enough, another figure slipped out into the darkness to join it as it prowled. This one was long and lean, more like a human cat than anything else. Dark, featureless eyes gleamed in the dimness, seeming almost to glow. Jamie froze, becoming part of the nightscape. This second creature took a different direction from the first, muttering something in a higher-pitched, growling voice. The two wandered farther apart. Jamie watched for a moment, and realized that they must have been searching for any spoor at all that would indicate his presence. He wished them luck; he entered and left the house from the rooftop hatch or the hunting blind a quarter-mile uphill; his feet never touched the snow anywhere near his home to leave revealing footprints.
He tried to cock the shotgun quietly, but both creatures snapped their heads up at the faint sound. The largest one said something in tones of profane explosion, the words far too slurred to understand. Jamie drifted sideways, leading them away from the house as he took aim. "Send one of you to hell," he said in a low voice, "or send a herd of you. All the same to me." He fired at the catlike one, astonished at how fast and how fluid the thing moved even as he heard it yowl with pain and knew his shot had gone true. It was, after all, hard to miss with buckshot. His second shot struck the crablike being as it leaped several yards to cover the catlike being with its own body. Jamie could tell that most of the shot had gone wild on that one. "You just hang on," he advised the creatures grimly. "I've got more. Lots more." He concentrated on the greenhouse. The box of shells on the small shelf drifted out into the open and darted into his hand. He took a few seconds to load the shells into his pockets, two more popped into the opened shotgun and another two held in his lips.
The two figures were pulling back from the house, heading for the nearest cover of trees, the larger almost carrying the smaller. "Nope," Jamie snarled coldly, "not tonight."
The shotgun kicked again and the larger figure went down, although Jamie was pretty sure it was from the impact of the shot rather than any actual damage. He hit it with the second barrel, and while it was down and struggling, reloaded. The next shots were dead center, and the thing went down and stayed down. Jamie reloaded one last time.
Then the lithe catlike creature yowled in fury and leaped up at him. Only the fact that his first shot had actually done her some damage—he could tell by her silhouette that it was indeed a her—kept her jump low, but she still managed to get high enough to scrape metal claws against his booted feet. He yelped as iron-strong fingers clutched at his boot. He drifted higher and she struggled, hanging on by her one unwounded hand.
This close, he could understand her high-pitched, sing-song yowl. "Gonna gut you like a fish, you son of a bitch," she promised him.
He pointed the gun straight down. "Eat silver." She ducked, curling into a ball as she released his foot. The shotgun bucked and the figure dropped thirty feet to the ground. It didn't move any more.
He reloaded again and drifted down and around, weapon aimed and ready, but the figures were still. He knew he'd need to come back and burn them and dump the remains in the gully. He figured he'd make a pyre of them and the vampire together.
Shotgun at the ready, he darted to the point on the perimeter where the alarm had been tripped. He bit off a curse. He flew into and out of the area without leaving prints to show that anyone lived here, but these creatures had left a track that could be seen from dozens of yards away, even in this near-nighttime gloom. In the dimness he followed the furrow of their passage—it looked as though the big one had been blazing a trail for the smaller one, for he seldom saw catlike tracks—until it disappeared into the distance. Avoiding the deeper areas where smaller guire occasionally lurked, the crooked trail led south and southeast. He knew a couple of homesteads in that direction.
He darted back to his house, shutting the back door and circling around the place to inspect it. There was no damage, and no sign of forced entry. Of course, out here he never bothered to lock the doors; forcing an entrance wouldn't have been necessary.
He looked back in the direction whence had come his unwelcome guests. He sighed heavily. Common sense told him to get the bodies burned and buried and the tracks wiped clean before the next Hunt of Dark happened this way. Today's was the first he'd seen in weeks, but his 'visitors' had doubtless just showed this to be a grand area to look for victims. Decency told him that he needed to check and see if the homesteads these creatures investigated were intact or destroyed. If the former, he knew he had to warn them of this. Jamie had lost enough neighbors in the last four years; he had no desire to find out that he'd lost more. Particularly not the girls at the Robinson 'stead.
From the greenhouse he pulled out a yard-wide lawn broom. He flew low and slow toward the distant trees, swinging the broom behind him. The tracks disappeared as though never made, only a slight indentation showing that any snow had been disturbed. The breeze was stiff and steady, and in six hours even the indentation would be gone.
At the edge of the trees he hid the broom; he planned to pick it up on his way back. He'd done this trick before when people had come to him, to cover the fact that his house was occupied and sometimes visited.
Once over the hill he continued along the trail. He stopped, and looked around, puzzled. Up the hill to the left, about two miles from where he floated, was the small Robinson homestead. He'd traded with them sometimes, meat for metal or cloth, and simply supplied them with his salvaging excess at other times, and had enjoyed dinner with them more than once. Two of their daughters were about his age, and the three of them had become closer over the course of the past two years. Still, until he was ready to commit to them being a permanent part of his life, he tried to maintain some distance. One day, maybe, he'd be ready to invite them into his life—but not now. He concentrated, focusing his perceptions on that distant, unseen house.
He felt the power of a pair of small crank lights they'd once had him repair. He felt movement—more than likely, someone was shifting pots and pans.
The trail didn't diverge toward that house. The creatures hadn't known, or cared, about the Robinson Homestead.
Five miles distant, up the slope of the next rift of hills, was another homestead familiar to him. The Foxfire Homestead was occupied by eleven men and women, all born-and-bred survivalists; they'd found The Day a minor inconvenience, little more, and knew how to take care of themselves in this disastrous new world. He could feel the power of a small battery-operated radio that the people there relied upon for their news.
The trail didn't turn to check that place out either.
Jamie's grim certainty was turning into concern. This hadn't been a random hunting party, then. Along the line he was following, his house was one end—and the household of Ralcadu, the place the man called Ravensfork, was the other. He knew the Robinsons and the Foxfire bunch, and while they were sensible, capable people—well, the Robinsons were sensible—they weren't extraordinary in any way. He knew why the Dark and its minions might seek him out—Dark and its creatures that intruded into these mountains had a habit of disappearing—but he couldn't think of any reason for them to scope Ravensfork.
Then another, uglier thought occurred to him. These creatures, crab and cat and vampire and Hunt, might have already raided Ravensfork, tearing the old, solid mansion down as the Dark did their unholy feeding on the people that Ralcadu had been protecting. If they'd done that, someone there might have mentioned Jamie's place as a possible target in a futile attempt to save their own life.
Ralcadu had been a good trading partner and someone capable of diverting conversation, the latter of which Jamie seldom got at other homesteads he visited. It was worth preserving if such acquaintance still existed, and missing if it no longer did.
Jamie's heart raced. He hoped now that his suspicions were wrong. He dropped to the deck and sped up, a light wake of white rising behind at the speed of his passage.
He crested the last wooded ridge and descended into the valley. Ravensfork was a massive building butting up against the next ridge, two intact lower stories on the ground supporting a third story that was long ago torn and wrecked. He knew Ralcadu left it in disrepair for the same reason that he himself laboriously covered and uncovered his own greenhouse panes each day—for the disguise. The Dark did not as a rule explore into ruins and wreckage.
Jamie slowed to a puzzled halt a hundred yards distant after circling the place once. The windows were dark, some cracked and open to the elements, but they'd always been like that. Yet he could sense several active sources of electricity inside. Ralcadu, like most in the area, had radios that were powered with rechargeable energy sources or by cranks, hand- or bicycle-powered. For all that Jamie could tell, every one of them was working right now.
The tracks he'd followed faded out near the house, already almost filled in from the constantly-blowing snow. No matter how carefully he looked, he could barely find the trail before this house; he couldn't see which direction the creatures had come from.
The only thing he could think was that these minions were scouting the most visible households in the area. The Dark didn't bother abandoned buildings, but if someone controlling the Dark had taken it in mind to re-inspect such constructions on the off-chance that someone was still using them, not a homestead in the area was going to be safe.
First thing, he told himself, is to go and check on Ralcadu while I'm here. If he hasn't seen anything unusual I can warn him, and we'll take it from there.
His soft knock at the front door was answered almost immediately. The old man who greeted him was named Jenkins, and from what Jamie understood the old man had been with the household for decades before the Day Of Night. "Mister Kinnison," he greeted Jamie as though the paranormal had been expected.
Jamie didn't react. He'd never seen a sign that anything perturbed old Jenkins. "Is Simon around?" he asked. "I need to talk to him about something that could be pretty important."
"Allow me to inquire, sir," the butler responded, closing the front door firmly behind Jamie. It was the first time since taking off on his hunting expedition an hour ago that Jamie's booted feet had touched ground. He glanced around out of habit, but nothing had changed since his last visit, several weeks back.
Jenkins returned to the foyer entrance. "Master Simon asks that you join him in the Study, sir." Jamie nodded and joined him. "Tea will be served." Jamie shrugged; something warm would be welcome on a night like this, and he'd long ago learned not to be surprised at what Ralcadu pulled out of his seemingly-inexhaustible stores.
Once, the Study had been a place of pillars and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a set of windows that made up one entire wall, beautiful old carpet over a hardwood floor and three overstuffed chairs for the benefit of readers and visitors. Simon's study desk was the size of a small car, and the ancient wood still glowed with the polish of years of tender care.
Now the windowed wall upon the world was painted black and heavy ebony curtains were draped over that wall. Trunks and boxes from the trashed upstairs rooms were stacked neatly about but nonetheless taking up space. Simon's desk remained the same, but it was pushed over to one side. Simon had told him what the Study had been like in the Days Before, and Jamie was impressed even now at the elegant grandeur that remained.
Simon Ralcadu was a man in his late forties or early fifties, hair long and dark and combed back from a peaked forehead. His high cheekbones and skin that had once been very dark proclaimed his old-world ancestry—on a past visit, in conversation, he'd mentioned to Jamie that many of his own ancestors had come from the Roma of Europe, the gypsy wanderers whose culture was so much older than that of Europe itself. Jamie, an orphan with no memory of his life earlier than his sixteenth year, had been both impressed and envious when he'd learned this.
Jamie was smarter than he often acted, and Simon was a very good conversationalist.
"Jamie!" Simon said to him, rising to meet him around by the chairs. Simon's handshake was firm. "I wasn't expecting you," he continued. "You're not carrying a pack, so you're not coming to trade. A tale to tell?"
"'fraid so," Jamie responded grimly. "I just had some unpleasant visitors at my place."
Simon motioned at another of the chairs. "Sit. Let's hear it." Any talk of 'unpleasant visitors' could have had long-reaching ramifications for everyone in this area.
"I was out hunting," Jamie related to him. "Needed some fresh meat. Waiting a few hundred yards from the house, but the deer that'd been wandering around for a couple of days didn't show. While I was concealed, I saw a Hunt of Dark come out."
Simon was all serious attention. "They haven't come around these parts for some time now," he observed.
Jamie nodded quietly. Simon knew that he had a way of dealing with Hunts, but the man had never asked and Jamie had never volunteered the information. That Jamie kept on obliterating Hunts in this area was an unspoken understanding. "This bunch had prey in sight, though," he said. "Or that's what it looked like."
Simon's dark eyes narrowed. He knew what happened when the Dark hunted a victim.
"I managed to bring the Hunt down," Jamie continued. Simon's eyes flickered to Jamie's bow and quiver. They'd discussed Jamie's choice of weaponry before, and the general lack-of-Hunts in the area was just evidence to support Jamie's veracity when he spoke of bringing down such. The difference he made in this area was a visible one. "Here's the bad part. They weren't alone. They had agents with them."
"Agents?" Simon echoed disbelievingly. "People working with the Dark? Miseries?"
"Miseries?" Jamie asked him with a frown.
Simon frowned back and waved a hand; obviously Jamie knew nothing of those creatures. "Later. Continue."
""Not people," Jamie corrected him, leaning forward. "Two of them were monsters, one big and crablike, the other one like a human cat. One of them looked like a teenage girl, but she was a damned vampire." He leaned back. "The girl suckered me in while the other two made a roundabout approach to my place."
Simon's eyes went wide with shock and displeased surprise. "What?" he cried forcefully.
Jamie nodded. "Stack'o Bibles. Once I finished with them, I went to sweep their tracks, and traced them back this way. They didn't even look at the Robinsons', or at the Foxfire place. Their tracks led past here. They disappeared in the snow outside; it's blowing pretty hard, so I don't imagine we'll find where they came from. But it looks like they were scoping your place out too. I thought I'd better come and give you a heads-up."
Simon raised his hand, stilling Jamie's tale. His breaths were hard and quick. "No. Go back. You said you took care of the Hunt, and I have no reason to doubt you." Jamie nodded. "What of the others? Did they make it to safety?"
"Hell, no," Jamie responded grimly. "That's three less monsters to help the Dark out."
"What have you done?" Simon whispered harshly. He caught his breath. "What have you done?"
Jamie thought Simon was just concerned about his attracting unwelcome attention to the area. "Don't worry. I took care of the two that were trying to get to the house. I staked the vampire. I'm going back and dump all the bodies in the gully and burn them. I've had to before. Covered with snow, the Dark never found any trace of them. They won't this time, either."
"No!" Simon was out of his chair with a convulsive move. Jamie leaned back, surprised. He'd expected Simon to be happy that more of the enemy had been dealt with. "Horned One take you for being too good at surviving, Kinnison," he gritted, iron in his voice. "The two at the house. You said you 'took care of them'?" Jamie nodded slowly. "How?"
"Shotgun," Jamie told him, brows coming down with concern and puzzlement. "Silver buckshot. Took several shots, but they finally went down and stayed down."
"Were they still monsters after you—you took care of them?" Simon asked him, his big hand gripping the chair arm hard enough to whiten his knuckles.
"Yes," Jamie responded slowly. "Just monsters." He cocked his head. "You're asking like you have a reason to," he continued equally slowly.
"And the vampire? The girl?" Simon leaned in over Jamie. "You only staked her? Nothing else?"
"I didn't have time for anything else," Jamie responded grimly, "and I'd left my big knife in the house. Don't worry. I'll get her taken care of."
"No!" Simon leaned into Jamie's face. "No! You've done enough damage this evening already!" He was visibly shaking; it took Jamie long, incredulous seconds to realize that this scholar and householder and gentlemanly occasional friend was trembling with anger, not fear.
This occurred to Simon as well. He pointedly straightened up and strode to stand against one of the overloaded bookshelves. He leaned into his fist. He tapped the ornate signet ring on his index finger against the bookshelf. Tap tap tap. Tap tap tap.
Jamie stood slowly and moved to the chamber door. He didn't draw his bow or bring out an arrow, but he was tensing up. This was completely unlike the man's behavior on earlier visits, and exceptionally strange considering the news that Jamie had brought. "Simon," he finally said after a long silence punctuated by the absent tapping of Simon's ring. "talk to me. What's going on? What do you know about this?" The tone of his voice said that he halfway believed he'd made a serious mistake in coming here tonight, and in what he'd thought about this man in the time they'd known each other.
Simon took note of the tone of the younger man's voice. When he turned, his expression was cold, grim, his voice tinged with anger. "What do I know about it?" His eyes narrowed. "Fine. Time and past." He folded his hands behind his back. "Jamie, I sent those people—those 'creatures'—out there tonight. I sent them to look for someone who was not supposed to have left this homestead—but who did anyway, Horned One take her—and who had disappeared without a trace. I didn't specifically send them to your house, but they know who you are and where you live, and if the trail they followed led in that direction they no doubt thought they'd ask you for help. It's likely that if you'd been inside sleeping or farther up in the hills hunting or on a trading trip that you'd not have ever known they were there. They are very good at this." His dark eyes took note of Jamie's hand moving slowly toward his bow. "There's no need for that. The people you describe are two of my people, and they were looking for a third."
Simon blinked at the speed with which Jamie nocked an arrow, pointing it straight at the older man's head. "You work with the Dark," Jamie accused him coldly. It was obvious that this news was a shock to him; he'd believed better of his sometimes-acquaintance.
"No," Simon told him levelly, his eyes unblinking, focused on the younger man, willing him to listen and believe. "Never. I want the darkness lifted from the world as much as you do. Perhaps more. I have worked as actively as you have against them in the past four years—even if my methods are longer-term, and... more stealthy than yours." Simon's dark eyes flashed with a force the younger man had seldom felt. "But I do not limit my allies to the merely human."
The arrow stayed pointed. Jamie said nothing, eyes locked on Simon's face.
"You've listened to the broadcasts from the Enclave," Simon told him. Jamie nodded slowly. "You've heard the reports of paranormals, those calling themselves Bane." Jamie nodded again, hesitantly, uncertain what he was agreeing to. "Humans, Jamie, just like yourself. But they're more than human, too. When the Day Of Night happened, their paranormal abilities were triggered. In the world that's passed, they might have turned their paranormality outward, becoming heroes or villains to make themselves places in history. The Day Of Night triggered them—triggered all of them—but it tainted them as well. Paranormals they still are, but now they look very much like the monsters they fight."
"Prove it," Jamie said grimly. "You've never shown me any monsters when I've come here before."
"I've never had need," Simon responded equally grimly. "You were a trading partner, one of many. You were an itinerant mechanic, one of the best. You were a good conversationalist; I've seldom met anyone your age who's so well-read." He leaned forward. "But you're not part of my household, and you're not someone I felt it necessary to share any of my own secrets with."
"Monsters are hard to miss," Jamie pointed out, arrow unwavering.
"They aren't monsters most of the time," Simon pointed out. "Most of the time they look as human as you or I." His eyes narrowed. "But your reaction to this shows why I would hesitate to offer up any of my own secrets." He stopped, and visibly worked to get his anger under control. "Jamie," he said, his voice much less confrontational, "I need to know where my people are. If there was one Hunt of Dark out there after Lilu, there could be others. Some of my people say that this is a very, very bad time to be out in the open. Those people at your house could be in serious danger."
"They're dead," Jamie reiterated, hiking the arrow to show that he intended to remain in control of this conversation until he was satisfied or gone. "The dead don't interest the Dark."
"When you... killed them," Simon pressed, "you said they remained monsters? They didn't revert to human form?"
Jamie hesitated; this was a good point. "I watched 'em for a minute to make sure they weren't playing possum. They didn't move, didn't look like they were breathing. But they were still monsters when I headed back this way. I remember wondering how I was going to move the big one to the gully."
"Then they're still alive," Simon said, taking a deep breath. "Horned One be praised." He locked gazes with Jamie. "As I reminded you, Bane are simply paranormal humans. If they are killed in their—their monster form, they will revert to human at the point of death." He couldn't forgo one more angry look at Jamie, who was still wound up tighter than a spring at the tension in the room. "Do you remember," Simon went on, "a dark-haired young woman? Christina? Works with some of the still-functional electronics around here?" Jamie thought back, coming up with an image of a short young woman, slender and small-breasted, ebony hair cut short behind her shoulders, dark green eyes glancing at him and dismissing him as she worked. He nodded absently. "That was the catlike one. That is her paragene. She has strength, reflexes, senses and speed far beyond human norms. She normally bears a set of metal claws that she had made for herself, silver-laced titanium. I've seen her take down Dark before, just with her enhanced speed and her claws. She can track a flake of snow through a blizzard, and I know of few who regard human life with greater respect than she."
Jamie's case was taking hits, and he knew he was showing it. He shifted his sweaty grip on his bow. "How do I know she's not here at the house somewhere, in hiding?"
"Had I the time," Simon responded quietly, "I would let you look through any room in the house. Unfortunately, I don't." He paused. "Both of your last visits. You met a man named Douglas. Very large, huge by normal standards. A mechanical genius. He works to keep our few vehicles working. He's the shop foreman who supervised you." Jamie remembered a man, a head taller than himself and muscled like a god, with platinum-blond hair and a cheerful grin in a blocky face. He nodded again. "That was the, eh, 'crablike' creature you mentioned. Douglas becomes very strong and very tough. I would be surprised if your buckshot did anything more than sting him. He may well have been pretending injury or death simply to persuade you to leave without further fighting."
"I put enough shot into him to bring down a tank," Jamie protested, but half-heartedly. He still wasn't sure what to think, but everything Simon was saying was making a fascinating, hideous sort of sense. Simon was one of the most believable men he'd ever known.
"Do you remember SooJin?" Simon asked him.
Jamie thought back. "Taller than, uh, Christina? Korean or Japanese? Kind of quiet?"
Simon nodded. "You've described her to a 't'."
"What's she do when she's not monstering out?" Jamie asked him, trying hard to make his uncertain voice mocking.
"Frequently, she consults with me on the security of the homestead," Simon responded quietly. "She's certainly capable of discussing it at greater length with you, if you wish." He shifted in his stance, relaxing very slightly. "She also comes and checks on me periodically—such as now." He nodded at something behind Jamie. "Very slowly, my young friend, turn and look."
Jamie sensed nothing behind him with his enhanced senses—but then he felt the waft of a slight breeze. Something told him that something big had joined him and his host in the Study.
He glanced back. He felt his face go pale. Standing behind him was what appeared to be a flickery, sharp-edged, out-of-focus spider the size of a compact car, brown and black and tan in patterns that shifted and blurred, forelegs tipped with more delicate, more pointed claws than he expected a spider to possess. The dark eyes—and there were far too many of them to suit him—were all focused on him.
He darted into the air, heart pounding, breath coming in short pants, coming to rest twelve feet off the floor in front of the closed doors. His quiver fairly exploded with arrows; within a second he was surrounded by a cloud of them.
And then he did nothing but look hard at Simon.
Simon smiled at him, thin and humorless. "And your own secret as well, eh?" He cocked his head. "It takes Bane-like abilities to fight a Hunt. Yet you appear human. If you're not a paranormal yourself, then what are you?"
"That's all I am," Jamie said grimly. The arrows remained pointed outward at both Simon and the spider-form.
Paranormals that triggered on the Day, a woman's quiet voice said from somewhere other than the room, always have a monstrous form. Always. If you did and you don't, then that makes your own existence suspect. Jamie glanced around. Then he looked where the spider-form had crouched, unearthly still. Now a young woman stood there. Her hair was short in front and long in back, the same ebony of her slanted eyes. He recognized her as SooJin, the woman described by Simon, a person he'd been introduced to on a previous visit but had never spent any time around.
Jamie returned his attention to Simon. "Vampires," he pointed out grimly, happy to be able to score a point in this conversation. "One of the people there tonight was a vampire. Vampires work with the Dark. Vampires brought this all about."
"Some did, yes," Simon agreed, and there was a touch of sadness in his voice now, "but not all. Not all vampires wanted this, and not all vampires work with the Dark. Some hate the Dark and the creatures of darkness as much as humanity does. They want the creatures of darkness returned to their place of exile, and the normal world restored. The young woman you staked. She has worked for the last four years to find a way to restore the world. Harder than anyone else on the planet."
"And you just happen to keep vampires around to help you out too, huh?" Jamie snorted, shifting his grip on his bow. "I don't know why I'm even listening to this any more. I—" He stopped talking when Simon shook his head.
Then Simon smiled to him. It was not a pleasant smile, or a humorous one, but it got the point across. Jamie could see the man's sharp, pointed fangs, things he'd somehow always glossed over or missed completely on previous visits.
Three sets of the silver-tipped wooden arrows snapped into cross formations, two focused on Simon and the third on SooJin. Simon looked calmly at them. "Oh, my young friend," he said, and there was honest sympathy in his voice. "You have to believe in them for them to work. When did you stop believing in God?"
"And silver and crosses and wooden stakes don't have any special effect on plain old Bane," SooJin pointed out quietly.
Jamie's narrowed eyes were hard for long, long seconds. When he breathed again it was with heavy, difficult breaths, and he trembled with reaction. He'd just had his world turned upside-down, and he was doing his best to cope with it.
The arrows filling that part of the room slowly drifted back to stow themselves in his quiver. Once he'd folded it up, his booted feet came down to touch the floor. He stood tense and unmoving at the door.
"Kinnison," SooJin said to him. He looked dully at her. "Had we ever wished you dead, you would be so. Poison in your drink or food, a bullet or knife or arrow in the back when you were relaxed. Were we the villains you want to paint us as, we could have told the Dark where you live. As I understand it, we're among the few who know this." He nodded slowly. "We've kept your secrets because we're all fighting for the same thing. We really are. We haven't invited you to join us because you've had your own battle to fight. We haven't told you of ourselves because what you don't know you can't act on, or betray, accidentally or intentionally." She gracefully sat down in one of the overstuffed chairs, crossing her legs and looking up unblinkingly at him.
Simon took back the reins of conversation. "Jamie I need your help. I need it badly. But you have to trust me or you won't do it. I need my people back. All of them. Douglas, Christina, and especially Lilu." He spread his hands. "What can I do to convince you that you're safe here? That we're not monsters, and that we're not supporters of the world the way it is? Tell me and I'll do it." Jamie's face was stony and unresponsive. "I'm asking. Bring my people back home. Please." Jamie looked down at his boots, his thoughts racing.
He looked back up as Simon's big hands came to rest on his shoulders. "I know that true trust must be earned, and trust in this case could take a while. For now, all I can do is remind you that neither of us has knowingly betrayed the other, and take that as a promise of greater trust to come. Right now I need you to return to your home and to gather my people to safety. Douglas, Christina and Lilu. Bring them back here, where they can be concealed in safety. If you fear for the security of your own home, you're welcome to remain here until things return to... well, return to normal."
"And they were up there again for what?" Jamie pressed.
"Lilu had planted a particular kind of herb that she needed for her experiments," SooJin told him. "Per her research, the damned things had to be harvested just now or their usefulness would be ended. She asked for an escort to go and do it, and was refused. One of our other sorceresses said that there's something very, very bad going on out there right now."
"The reason it looks like night time even during the day?" Jamie asked her.
"The very reason," SooJin responded. "Lilu ignored the admonition and took off on her own. It was several hours before we found her missing. Douglas and Christina were dispatched to track her and bring her back here." She shook her head disgustedly. "Frankly, if you hadn't staked her, I'd be threatening to as soon as they dragged her back in."
"Calmly," Simon said to her quietly.
"Look at how many lives the woman's endangered just this evening," SooJin responded acidly. Simon was forced to nod rueful agreement. Jamie frowned at referring to the girl in the gully as a 'woman' but put it down to household politics.
"She looks like she'd come up to about my shoulder," Jamie offered. "How in hell could she have made it all the way up into the mountains? Some of the drifts through the valleys are as deep as my head." He paused. "Some of 'em have guire."
"Since the Day Of Night, even vampires who sought the power of the elder god Nyogtha have found their abilities diminished greatly," Simon admitted to him. "Most of us can do little that we once could. Lilu is a sorceress, though, and doubtless filled herself with the essence of wind or something silly like that. Given space and peace, she can do much with her magics."
"Yeah, but letting a kid get out there by herself?" Jamie protested, disapproval strong in his voice.
SooJin cracked a bare smile. "Best not to call her a child," she advised him.
"Have you seen her?" Jamie shot back. "What is she, one of those kids that thinks they're as big as the adults?"
Simon sighed. "Something like that. It's complicated."
"Teenagers are practically Dark themselves," Jamie commiserated.
Simon almost smiled. "Under most circumstances, she's capable of evading the Dark by her own means," the man told Jamie. "That she did not when you saw her pursued worries me. If the Dark detected her, let alone chased her, then something must have gone wrong with either her plans or her abilities. I'll have to check with my other people about the latter possibility." He sighed. "And regardless of what happened afterwards, you have my thanks, pure and simple, for saving her from the Dark. Believe me or not as you wish, she's a precious, irreplaceable resource in the battle to take back this planet." He paused. "Will you do this for me simply because I ask you to? You know about us now, and know that we've known of you for far longer." Jamie's eyebrows went up. "You're good with a bow, my friend, but not that good." Jamie's mouth drew to the side and he nodded acknowledgement of the point. "I will offer you any proof that I can of our sincerity, but I must do it later. Right now I need you to get back to your house and get my people under cover. It's midday now, and it will take even you time to work your way unseen back to your place. There may not be time for you to gather them and bring them here before sunset, and I have a strong hunch sunset tonight is going to be the beginning of a night much worse than many in a long time. If you can keep them in your home in safety through the night, you can bring them back here tomorrow, or we can arrange to get you help to get them here."
Jamie stared hard at him for a moment. He glanced at SooJin. The woman just tilted her head. The decision had to be his.
He looked down and sighed heavily. "Fine. I'll trust you for now. But I want to know everything about what's been going on here as soon as we bring them back."
"How much can you carry with you?" SooJin asked him. He gave her a hard look. "We already know you can fly. My question is how much can you carry? Could you take a duffle bag of supplies? Could you take me?"
"Is that wise?" Simon asked her.
She looked hard at him. "You were there for the conference. Lilu was adamant about this being the night for her stupid plants, but Granny and Pat were just as adamant about this being a night when something big and nasty is going to be out moving about. Kinnison may be able to manhandle the others back into his place himself, or he may not. If there's going to be something worse than the Dark out there starting tonight—or last night, from the looks of the day now—then Kinnison will need backup of some kind."
"Valid point," Simon said, nodding to her. "Jamie?"
Jamie looked back and forth between these two newly-strangers. His response was almost surly. "I've carried adult deer home, but it slows me a lot. I should be able to manage SooJin. What kind of supplies are you talking about?"
"Mostly medical," she responded. "Changes of clothes for everyone. Emergency rations."
"Take something for Lilu," Simon said, with a glance at Jamie's face. "He staked her. She's going to need—" He broke off.
SooJin nodded understandingly; she'd tended to wounded vampires before. "Give me five minutes to get a med bag packed," the woman said as she rose to her feet. "I'll meet you in the foyer," she told Jamie.
Simon returned his attention to Jamie. "Again, I say please bring them home. They're not just good friends; they're vital to the battle we're fighting against those who hold this world.
Jamie nodded. There wasn't anything else to say.
Five minutes later SooJin, herself cold-weather packed, joined him in the foyer carrying a large, well-packed nondescript duffle bag. He shrugged into it as she finished closing her jacket and pulling her hood up over her ski mask. Jenkins let the two of them out with an air of someone watching people take an afternoon stroll. The darkness of the day seemed that much deeper to Jamie when the door lock clicked behind them.
"Kinnison," SooJin said, her voice little more than a windborne whisper. "Whatever your top speed is, hit it. I wasn't joking. We have two other sorceresses here, one of them stronger than Lilu, and both of them have been adamant that no one should venture out for the next few days and nights. You don't know them well enough to believe in what they say, but I do."
Jamie sighed. He was already in far over his head, and things didn't look to be settling down any time soon. "Can do," he told her. "I've made it from my place to here in twenty minutes before, but that was unladen. I'll push it as hard as I can, but we can count on about a half-hour. I'll stick to the trees as much as possible, but we'll still be exposed more than I like."
"More than I like, too," she agreed with him.
"Any slower and we can be easily-spotted. Any faster and I just feel like we'll be spotted for sure."
"Half-hour from now, then." She turned her back to him and he put his arms around her. "Let's go."
Aleksandr Stepos was tall and hefty, his beard and hair the gray-tinged dark black of one of old European blood. His eyes were a disconcertingly pale gray. He was forceful and unyielding, and he was over three centuries old. Blooded after several decades of life spent scheming and building a personal power base, he was one of the most powerful vampires on the planet.
As one of the three vampires on the planet capable of learning and utilizing sorcery, he was also one of the most powerful beings on the planet at all.
And he had been one of the architects of the Day Of Night, and the summoning of Nyogtha. He had stood at the center of power at the Blue Mound and commanded the universe to bend and twist before his will to allow his god to return to this universe.
And though all three vampiric mages had stood together, one of them had betrayed the others, and the way had been closed before it fully opened. The world had not been reshaped into a form suitable for a Lord Stepos to rule and exploit, but a form suitable only for ashes and gravestones.
For four years now he'd had several goals, all complimentary. He wanted that other mage found. The spell would work best if all three vampiric mages worked together, and he had no doubt that he could 'correct' the character flaws that had led to that mage's betrayal of the cause.
But he also wanted the way opened for Nyogtha's return, and he would make it happen without the turncoat if he possibly could.
He sat now in a room carved from a cavern, on a throne of gold chased with precious jewels, and stared up pensively into the opening so high overhead that displayed the daytime sky of the world. It was black, black as night, and there was a heavy, oppressive feeling in the air, that of power barely checked.
But it didn't feel like it had at Blue Mound.
One of his servitors drifted into the room like a snake-shaped mist, coalescing into solidity to bow bonelessly before him. Her features were smooth and golden and brown, scales creating a rippling, prismatic effect in the dim sorcerous light of the chamber.
"Kamena," he growled at her.
The female creature slowly straightened up. "A report, master," she said, her sibilants more pronounced, her accent almost southern. She was one of his special operatives, empowered by Nyogtha on the Day Of Night itself. He knew those who opposed him called operatives like her Miseries, and it pleased him to have them live up to that sour nickname.
"Speak," he muttered tiredly, deigning to turn to look at her.
She blinked her dark eyes. "The summoning is a failure," she told him. His servitors had long since learned not to waste time sugar-coating their reports. Good or bad, Stepos wanted his news now. "The Kerberos Circle reports that they were able to open the way enough to communicate our intentions with the Great Dark One, but they cannot open it enough for that one to make its way through. Not at this time."
Stepos waved a big hand up at the darkness.
"The Circle reports that for several days the great dark one will be able to see the world, and perhaps influence it, but that the way will close again. How soon, they do not know. During this time the power of the Chosen will be heightened. Lady Prinn recommends releasing all the held forces. There are points of resistance that have been growing, and this may be the time to reduce their power, or destroy them totally."
Stepos thought long and hard. He was not normally a patient man, but he'd managed to cultivate some staying power in dealing with the sorceress Prinn, who refused to work any faster than the universe permitted her to. He'd hoped that this effort on the part of the largest of the circles that had worked to free Nyogtha would be successful, and the great dark one would come permanently to Earth. He'd hoped for it, but he hadn't held out much belief that it would be so. Too much rested on the power and focus that the turncoat had brought to the circles.
But still—a few days of increased power to devote to his followers and his minions?
"Agreed," he told his minion. "See that all of our forces are released. No constraints. Anyone they find who is not of us is to be destroyed. We will do this for as long as the great dark one's power bleeds through to us."
Kamena bowed bonelessly and dissolved into a mist that drifted quickly out of sight, leaving Stepos alone in his throne chamber. She had work to do, and her master? Her master had plans to make, plans within plans within plans, if he was to eventually rule the world.
Nightworld 01: A Tragedy of Errors is a Feral Hamster Press publication of a Davey Jones production. Simon Ralcadu is a heavily-expanded version of the original character created by Randy Duncan. SooJin Wong and Christina Guerrera are Davey creations based off a couple of old Gina Dartt beings. All of the rest of the characters and situations herein are the creations of Davey Jones. Blames and blessings alike should be pointed in his direction. Big thanks to Beta-reader Supreme Simone, who finally got off her ever-widening tail and starting being active again. This story reads much better for her input, and I offer her many thanks for those efforts.
Next Episode: Three cranky Bane, two of them injured, a recently-de-staked (and thus very cranky) Vampire Sorceress, and a magnetic Mutant (started cranky, getting worse), all cooped up in a house about the size of a double-wide. Six feet of snow on the ground, a weak sunrise not for several more hours, and definitely something large and Not Of This World out looming over the unlit landscape. What else could go wrong? Nightworld 02: Forgiveness. It, too, will be a Davey production. Be there.