by Davey Jones
The night covered the world in a blanket of stillness, of cold and death.
No stars shone. No friendly moon lit the way for travelers or lovers. The cloud cover was heavy and dark with the promise of thick, wet snow. The winds were cold and bitter and strong, raising a stinging white cloud from the snow-shrouded landscape.
These were mountains in New England, in Massachusetts, perhaps fifty miles inland from the sea. Once, at this time of year, they'd been green and bright, the air fresh and clear. Birds had filled the cloud-dusted blue skies, and animals had roamed the valleys.
There was a house here. It had been white and brown, the doors and windows plain and functional, a wooden porch attached to the back door. It had begun life as a double-wide, hauled up here perhaps fifteen years ago to serve as a summer getaway. The back door and porch had opened on a vista of tree-covered hillsides, and the front door had led to the right to a rain-washed gully that had actually had a stream chuckling merrily in it during the spring, and to the front down a long, gentle slope into a flat, verdant valley thick with flowers.
That had been long ago.
Four years and a few weeks past, evil had been done to the entire world. For a day, night had shrouded the planet. In that night, creatures that thrived on darkness had roamed freely.
Ninety-five percent of the population of the planet had died that night, in screaming terror and horrific agony.
And when that Day Of Night had passed, things had changed.
Now the house that had been built to be a place for entertainment and fun was ramshackle and decrepit, parts of it falling off to lie unattended in the yard-deep snow that covered the landscape as far as the eye could see. The only trees that remained were the hardier evergreens, and even they struggled in a world where sunlight was rare, and the day was hard to tell from the night.
Near the house was a smaller structure of wood and glass and plastic. To the eye, it was as run-down and abandoned as the parent house. It would have taken a close inspection to see that it was actually carefully-tended, snow brushed from the panes during the day so that the plants inside the makeshift greenhouse could get at least that minimum of sunlight they needed to bloom and grow.
There was never any sign of anyone tending the little greenhouse. There were never any tracks between that structure and the house itself. No lights shone from the domicile; the windows that were not boarded up—sometimes with boards that were falling off—were painted out.
From the amount of insulation drifting free of the walls, the place should have been uninhabitable in the permanent winter of the world. Certainly the snow never melted next to the house.
Yet inside, lights burned. They were dim, just short homemade candles, but they gave off enough light—and in the closed living room, heat—to survive in minimal comfort. There was a fireplace that showed the ashes of occasional use, but it wasn't lit now; at present, it wasn't safe to go out and vent it.
In the living room there was a sofa, a rocking chair and an easy chair. There was a low, battered coffee table between all of the seats. There were two small tables to either side of the fireplace; lamps occupied these. Each lamp showed a low level of kerosene. They weren't lit right now because no one in the house really wanted bright lights.
On the sofa a young woman, dark-haired and emerald-eyed, lay on her stomach. Her back was heavily-bandaged, and beneath the bandages could be seen the pale smears of antibiotic cream. There wasn't much medicine left in the world; bandages either. The Day Of Night had brought civilization, including complex manufacturing plants, down in rubble. Nonetheless, those who had brought this young woman indoors to relative safety had used their slim stock of medications to insure her comfort and recovery. Christina Guerrera was one of Simon Ralcadu's paranormals, a Bane. Her paraform hadn't been proof against a load or two of silver buckshot. Good in a fight, she was short-tempered when she was bored—which included any time she was forced to be still.
A huge man, gray-eyed and snow-blond, broad of shoulder and narrow of hip, quietly prowled the dimly-lit room. His shoulders were bandaged as well, but not as heavily as the girl's. He sipped occasionally from a glass of water. Douglas Stern was a Bane as well, one who also swore fealty to distant Ravensfork and its master. His paraform had proven more resistant to the buckshot it had been hit with. He was the kind of person who liked having information about the situation he was in—any situation. As his amble took him to the fireplace he looked at the photographs on the mantle. A man, tall, slender and dark-haired; a woman, blonde and pale-eyed and smiling; a child, a laughing infant girl; and various combinations of the three, all on display. The furniture was comfortable but mismatched; he strongly suspected that the house's owner had brought the pieces back from other homes that had not survived The Day. There were boxes of books along the walls. Without electricity or company, that was probably the most entertaining thing the man had been able to do. He knew the futility of looking out the windows; they were covered most securely against the escape of even a sliver of light.
The girl on the sofa moaned theatrically as she shifted her grip on the pillows beneath her head. She took a sip from her own glass of water. "That bastard's so busted," she muttered in dire tones, with a voice that sounded like it usually laughed. "I'm gonna rip him six new a-holes before I turn the rest of him into hamburger." The weight of bandages on her back did look uncomfortable.
The man looked regretful. "He said he was sorry," he offered graciously.
The girl fixed him with a burning glare. "Hey, nobody sneak attacks me and gets away with it, D-man." She wrestled futilely with her pillows. "He's toast, man. Soon as we get Lilu and get gone, I'm takin' him apart."
"Chris." She glanced at the man. "He was defending his home. He had no idea who we were."
"He didn't know who Simon really was," the man continued. "He didn't know who Lilu was at all. Neither of us looked human, and living out here by himself for this long I'm surprised he didn't have something like land mines placed." Doug sipped his drink. "Give him credit. As soon as SooJin and Simon straightened him out, he was back here making things right." The man called Doug looked off into the distance. "By the time I came to, he already had Lilu de-staked. As far as I can tell, he's been trying hard to make up for all of this since he came back."
"He shot me, man!" Chris protested loudly. "Lots!"
Doug finished his water. He raised an eyebrow at her. "It's not like the rest of us haven't wanted to."
"What? Ow! Dammit—!"
Doug glanced at the closed door to the master bedroom. "We'll be fine. It's Lilu I'm concerned about. He de-staked her and brought her in, but it's daylight now, so she's still comatose. She should be healing, but she's not."
"Fat lot of concerned Kinnison was," Chris pointed out archly. "He's the bastard that staked her in the first place."
"And when he brought her in," Doug countered, "he carried her like she was his own child. It's been a day of education for all of us."
Both people fell silent at the sound from the floor before one pushed-back chair. Doug set his glass on the mantle and picked up a fireplace poker without taking his eyes off of the trap door that creaked slowly open. The door lifted two inches, four, and a pair of dark oriental eyes glanced around the dim room. The woman blinked as she took in the sight of Doug with his makeshift club and Christina on the couch. She nodded. She pushed the trapdoor all the way open. Her hair was black, as were her searching eyes. Her slender body moved with the grace of a natural athlete as she climbed the rest of the way into the house. SooJin Wong was, like Douglas and Christina, one of Ravensfork's paranormals.
Before the Day Of Night, if any of them had triggered—their powers awakening, catastrophically or peacefully—they would probably still have looked human, able to fit in with the people around them, live a normal life if they so chose. After the Day Of Night, the rules had changed. Paranormals had all triggered in the endless overlapping waves of uncontrolled power that had rolled around the planet—and from that time onward, no powered-up paranormal retained a human form.
When Doug triggered his powers, he became bigger, broader, and much, much stronger and tougher; he'd been described by others as a cross between a weight-lifter and a crab. In that form he was a force to be reckoned with, very nearly Dark-proof on his own.
When Christina triggered her powers, she became longer, leaner, more catlike than human, with senses afire and Douglas-made metal claws ready to strike at her enemies.
When SooJin activated her paraform she became a spider, after a fashion. Something about her was out-of-focus, visually, psionically and with reality; it was hard to realize that she was standing next to you, and her natural stealth skills just enhanced this aspect of her power. Neither did solid objects always constitute a barrier to her passage.
Paranormals as a whole hated the Dark, and they hated the distant, unseen master of those creatures of shadow. Paranormals had chosen the name Bane for themselves—as in The Bane of the Dark. Even Bane who looked as though they could destroy the world themselves wanted nothing as much as they wanted the Dark gone from the world, and their human bodies back permanently. Too many Bane had died during The Day, thought to be the very monsters they would eventually fight.
Doug, Chris and SooJin were Bane. And they served a vampire.
The sorcerers who had opened the way for their dark god had been human, but they had been given assistance by others. The Vampires of Earth had, in great part, seen the Earth as theirs, and had resented Humanity's hold over it—and they had viewed humanity's protectors, the Hunters, as something needing obliteration. There were far more humans than vampires; the vampires knew they would never have stood a chance on their own. They knew of an elder god that, if summoned, would be the perfect patron—they sucked the life out of humans, this elder god sucked the life out of humans; it was a match made in hell.
But a vampiric mage was a thing unheard of; Simon's intel put the number at three. There simply were no vampire sorcerers to cast such a spell as it would take to open the way for this elder god to come and claim dominion over the Earth.
So these power-hungry vampires and these focus-desperate humans had come to an agreement, and the spell had been cast, humans and vampires together. And the way had been opened between there and here.
Something had gone wrong—many were the accounts, but some of the most-repeated were that one of their own had turned on them at the penultimate moment—and in the aftermath, even the vampiric population had been stricken. But where ninety-five percent of humanity had died during that endless Day, fewer than a hundred vampires had achieved Final Death—and that had left vampires in a much stronger position in regards to humanity than they had enjoyed in days prior.
Facts about the Day Of Night slowly leaked into the public consciousness. The few vampires who had been publicly known were quickly staked, beheaded and burned. The other vampires had taken to the shadows, living off the ragged survivors and doing their best to secure positions of power when the elder god, Nyogtha, was finally released to wander the Earth as it had done hundreds of thousands of years ago.
So when the owner of this ramshackle house—Jamie Kinnison, a paranormal who controlled and manipulated the magnetic flux of the planet itself—had found a vampire in his back yard, he'd leaped to the normally-correct conclusion that she and the Dark who had seemed to pursue her had been in league with each other. He'd destroyed the Dark as a matter of course; he was one of the few people on the planet who could do so. But he'd put a silver-tipped wooden arrow straight through the girl's undead heart, too.
He'd shortly thereafter been shocked into the awareness that, as all humans are not good, all vampires are not evil, when he found that a sometimes-friend, Simon Ralcadu of the Ravensfork Homestead, was a vampire—and that he commanded the allegiance of Bane, who were notoriously picky about with whom they allied themselves.
Jamie hadn't known that the people at Ravensfork were primarily non-human. Most of the people from Ravensfork hadn't known Jamie was a paranormal—and no one knew why he remained human in appearance when no other paranormal did.
As Douglas had said, the day had been an exercise in education for them all.
Once SooJin was out of the narrow trap door tunnel, Jamie's lean, muscular form drifted up and out of it. When he pulled his white ski mask off, a narrow, high-cheeked face was revealed. His short hair was brown and tousled, and his dark eyes were circled from lack of sleep. Jamie had been up for a long while before today's festivities had started, and he'd just found out that his paranoia had almost led to the deaths of people he might one day consider allying himself with. He didn't anticipate getting any rest until his guests were properly taken care of.
Jamie had survived alone the last four years by developing hair-trigger reflexes and an unwavering devotion to the destruction of the forces of darkness. Today he'd seen just how far over the line his emotions and reflexes had carried him. He didn't like what he'd seen.
He glanced down before putting his feet on the floor. The trap door swung shut, and the latch and lock secured themselves without being touched.
"Welcome back," Doug told them both. Jamie nodded and strode into the kitchen. SooJin took the time to remove her jacket, brushing it off before draping it across the rocking chair. "See anything?"
"Sadly, yes," she told him. Jamie returned, bearing two mugs of steaming brown liquid. There was no sugar or lemon for the tea, but the taste alone beat the taste of plain melted-snow water. SooJin had seen the ragged assortment of different drink flavors Jamie had in his kitchen, and accepted that the tea looked like by far the safest choice.
"Dark?" Chris asked from the couch. The major threat to humanity out here in the wilds were groups of creatures invisible behind cloaks of illusion. No one ever saw a Dark until they were killed by them.
SooJin nodded. "Two Hunts. Both ends of the valley. Both big. Neither was moving in this direction, but they were definitely prowling."
"And it's unusual for a Hunt to be out during daylight hours," Jamie offered from his corner of the world.
Doug nodded Jamie's point. "That one Hunt," he noted, "was after Lilu. We supposed that it was just because she was a live body out at night. What if they were out here after her specifically?"
"How would they have known she was out here?" SooJin retorted. She wasn't discounting Doug's supposition, but offering up points to prove or disprove it.
"How do the Dark know anyone's out?" Doug responded. "Heat, light, sound, scent, breath, kirlian aura, you name it. We don't know. But we know the Dark are sorcerous. So's Lilu. If she made it this far from Ravensfork, she probably used sorcery; the snow's too deep for her to have walked it." SooJin nodded; this was a very valid point. There were places where the years-old snowfall was up to the vampire's chin. "If she used sorcery when she got to her herb farm, that's just more." Doug sipped at his water. "We don't know, and can't know without testing it, but I'd bet you she drew them like moths to a flame. She probably gave off so much sorcerous energy that they'd've found her without any help."
SooJin sighs, molding her fingers around her warm cup. "I can believe it," she said. She sipped her tea again. "Dammit. That's just like her, too. Hard-headed."
"Betcha Simon knocks a little softness into it when we get back," Chris offered from the couch. There was a snort from Doug and SooJin just rolled her eyes. Lilu was one of Simon's favorites, as well as being a Very Important Person in the Coven. She might get talked to sternly, but it was unlikely that she would suffer overmuch on her return.
Doug turned to Jamie. "You said the Dark were pursuing her?"
Jamie nodded, sipping his own weak tea. He'd been responsible for everyone being crowded into his house. Now he was trying to make up for it with his cooperation. "Yeah. 'Pursued' is the word, too. This kid, Lilu, she was making the best speed she could, but the snow was deep even there near the gully. The Dark was after her like I've seen 'em after other people in the past. And the weird thing? They weren't trying all that hard. Kid was having the worst time getting through the snow, but the Hunt was just taking its time following her. Almost like it was playing with her." He took another sip of his drink. "And she sounded terrified."
"I imagine she was," SooJin offers quietly. "The Dark aren't a good way to die." Jamie shrugged; he hadn't had cause to fear a Hunt in years.
"As to why they were out during the daytime?" Doug continued that question. "Don't know. But I think we've all noticed that it's not like daytime now. It's dark as nighttime." Since The Day, daylight was a precious thing, seldom seen, weak and pale when it was there at all. Jamie's pitiful greenhouse was a struggling thing; people used to grow warm-weather crops in worse weather than this in properly-constructed greenhouses. Now? There was enough light during the average day to tell when night fell, but that was usually it. Sometimes one could make out a pale, weak disk behind the ever-present cloud cover—when that pale, weak disk wasn't eclipsed by monstrous things that called the cloud cover home. Jamie could remember only a handful of times in the last four years when the cloud cover had broken, day or night.
"Yeah," Jamie said. "I'd noticed. But I hadn't paid any attention." He shrugged. "I just put it down to extra cloud cover."
SooJin looked off into space for a moment. "Granny warned us," she said to them all. "Lilu before she took off, I'll wager, and me before Kinnison and I came back here. She said that this is a 'bad time.'" Chris and Doug became more attentive, and Jamie noted this with unease. Things weren't cheerful here by any stretch of imagination, but the two injured visitors hadn't been that focused so far. This 'Granny' was sounding like a High Roller. "She said there's something out there, now and for the next few nights."
"She say what?" Chris asked seriously.
SooJin shook her head. "She couldn't say. I know, for Granny that doesn't mean much. Still, that she warned me about it at all makes me believe it." She sipped her drink again. "I could feel it out there."
"Like what?" Doug asked after a moment's tense silence.
"I don't know," SooJin answered softly. She glanced back at Jamie, who was still, listening intently to this. Her eyes met his. He nodded. He had no sense of the paranormal, no ability to detect any of the dark things that had claimed this world. But even he had felt something wrong out in the outside world—something he hadn't felt before. He took a gulp of warm tea and looked away. SooJin turned back to her companions. "Big," she told them. "Quiet. Silence on silence. Dark against the darkness. Never there when you looked, but always there when you didn't. A presence." She looked hard at her tea. Her friends were quiet. They had worked with her, and knew her deadly competence. They knew that her odd paraform had extended senses sensitive to the forces of magic and sorcery and darkness. Anything that could draw such a tense quiet from this woman was something to be taken seriously. "It felt—it felt like part of the sky was alive. Like it was searching." She shook her head. This was a new experience for her, even in this world-after-disaster. "We stayed well under cover most of the time, but... a couple of times I felt like we were close to being found. Too close. We can't chance going out right now."
"And this is daytime," Doug offered grimly. SooJin nodded.
"That what took s'long?" Chris asked, glancing at Jamie.
"No," SooJin told her, and finished her tea. "Kinnison took a couple of hasty flights to warn the two nearest homesteads to power down until this is over."
"Didn't take much convincing, either," Jamie offered quietly. Everyone glanced at him; this wasn't behavior they'd expected of him. Something in their looks conveyed itself to him. "I lucked out. I was out there trapping with this going on. I might've still been out there, and not known about this, thinking I was safe enough in daytime. If I can warn some others, that pays that debt." He shrugged self-consciously. "And I take care of the Robinsons." Doug raised an eyebrow in silent consideration.
"So what do we do?" Chris asked.
"We stay put," SooJin answered her. The woman looked around. "It's not the most spacious place we've been in a while, but it's known to be safe. We leave and it's either on foot or flying. I do not believe Kinnison can carry us all—not all the way back to Ravensfork—and tracks will lead everything Dark here and back home." There were sighs and resigned murmurs, but her partners agreed with her judgment.
"I'm low on meat," Jamie pointed out. "That's the only reason I was out earlier, hunting. There's enough with a little creativity to last this many people a couple of days. Half a loaf of dark bread, and three eggs. Plenty of water. Running low on tea." He glanced at Doug, the most sympathetic of the bunch. "I was figuring on swinging by Ravensfork sometime soon and seeing what Simon had that needed fixing." The big man grinned at this and Jamie grinned hesitantly back. Then he looked at them all. "You're welcome to whatever there is." His voice took on a tinge of guilt. "You guys have superpowers and stuff. D'you heal quicker than usual?"
Chris flipped him a middle finger. Doug grinned again. SooJin answered him. "Given rest and food, yes, we do. Doug will probably be fit to travel in a few hours, and Chris by tomorrow, even if not happily." Chris' finger went to her team leader, who ignored it.
Jamie came back from the kitchen to the bedroom, to find SooJin sitting on the corner of the small bed, gazing at a dark-haired girl's body. The child's skin was nearly as pale as the snows outside, and her dress was as black as her hair. Her blouse was unbuttoned, and a blotch of dark red the size of a fist discolored her chest. When Jamie had carried her in here her face had been dirty as well, splattered with the blood she'd coughed out as she'd again ceased to live. He assumed Doug had cleaned her face off while he and SooJin had been outdoors reconnoitering the area.
SooJin brushed an ebony lock of hair from the girl's forehead, and touched light fingers to the ugly wound on her chest. She sighed. "She needs a true day," she told Jamie. "I brought blood for her, but until she pulls herself conscious enough to take it, I can't get it into her. Given the conditions right now, that could be days. Or weeks."
Jamie looked at the girl for a long silent moment. It was dawning on him now that he'd used deadly force against a child, regardless of the reasoning that had seemed right at the time, and he knew the sick feeling in his gut wasn't because his tea had been too strong. "She's just a kid," he managed to whisper. SooJin's dark eyes darted to him at the tone in his voice, but she said nothing. "What kind of bastard would do this to a kid? Turn her into a vampire?"
SooJin rather liked what she heard in his voice. It told her that there was concern for the girl, and the others wounded, and that there was hope for the man yet. She hadn't approved of the wild look in his eyes hours earlier when he'd confronted her and Simon at Ravensfork. "Lilu," she told him, brushing another bang out of the unconscious girl's face, "is one of the most serious, dedicated people who works at Ravensfork. She's helped Simon for years, in everything from negotiations to political work. She's an Elder in the Coven there, and bears that authority as well."
"An Elder would be—?" Jamie asks, not looking away from the girl's still face.
"Vampires rank their strength mainly based on how old they are," SooJin told him. "She's old enough to command serious power when she wants to." She chuckles softly. "She hates power struggles. She usually just wants to be left alone to work on her research."
"Serious student, huh?" Jamie asked.
SooJin nodded. "Before the day she usually had half a dozen research projects going, in all different fields—medicine, chemistry, physics. Since then she's been more focused on one particular project, mostly sorcerous, for Simon." The woman paused. "She's never, in all the years I've been there, taken a human life. Lilu's managed to... well, 'live' with a clean conscience."
"A vampire that doesn't suck blood," Jamie echoed doubtfully. SooJin nodded. "Huh. That's stretching it."
"Don't know about the Blood and the Hunters, do you?"
He looked at her. "Sounds vampirey. So no, I don't. Should I?"
"No reason you should," she told him, "but it can't hurt if you do." She shifted so that she was facing him where he leaned against the wall. "Late nineteenth century. Vampires were pretty out of control. Humans started hunting them. You've probably heard of men like Van Helsing or Quartermain."
Jamie shrugged; the names were just names to him. "Sounds like a solution," he offered matter-of-factly.
"One, anyway," SooJin acknowledged. "There've always been more humans than Blood. Humans were winning. There was a very good chance that they'd wipe out all but the oldest, meanest vampires. Only thing that kept it from happening was that the human Hunters were fighting a multi-front war. Vampires aren't the only monsters out there." Jamie raised an eyebrow, but SooJin's impassive expression never wavered. He nodded, electing to give her the benefit of the doubt to keep this story going; he figured he could come back to the interesting points later with his questions. "So the Eldest of the Vampires, the most powerful of all of the Covens, convened a meeting with the most powerful representatives of the Hunters.
"Together, they hashed out an agreement. The Law. No Vampire could take human life. No vampire could take human blood against the will or without the prior consent of the human involved. No vampire could create another vampire out of an unwilling host. Any vampire that did any of these things was a law-breaker, and the rest of the vampires were required to completely eliminate the revenant. If they didn't, the Hunters would, and the Hunters made it clear that they wouldn't stop if they had to step in again."
"Vampires not killing people?" Jamie sounded skeptical.
"Vampires not killing people," SooJin confirmed. "Believe it or not, most vampires elected to follow the Law. Most of them found other ways of satisfying their Need, or willing disciples or donators or pets. The Hunters didn't care about those who chose the lifestyle, just those who abused it. When the occasional revenant went on a rampage, the rest of the Blood brought him down." She sees the look on Jamie's face. "Don't get me wrong. It wasn't perfect. But it was a whole lot better—and a lot better for vampires in the long run—to stick to the agreement. The Law's been adhered to enough that vampires and Hunters have even helped each other on occasion."
"Talk about détente," Jamie offered. SooJin nodded agreement.
"But look at her," SooJin said, and Jamie did, noting as if for the first time the gentle beauty of the girl's face and features, a pert nose and thin lips, dark lashes even darker against her colorless cheeks. "She was just a child when she was blooded, and most vampires won't stoop to blooding children. From what I know of her childhood, she'd grown up with an ingrained desire to Do No Harm. Unlike most Blood, she's spent her life living up to that ideal."
"She had to've survived before blood banks," Jamie pointed out darkly, but only half-heartedly, still staring at the girl's face.
He looked up at SooJin, sensing her hard, pitiless gaze. "We've all," she pointed out to him, "done things—questionable or terrible things—when our survival was at stake." Her eyes reminded him of his own actions earlier this day. Jamie looked away first.
Then he sighed heavily and turned to leave. "Hang on a minute."
SooJin waited patiently, and four minutes later he returned. He tossed the cloth-wrapped blood bag down beside her and offered her a baby bottle, filled with crimson fluid. SooJin's eyebrow went up; the bottle was warm. "I think it's about body temperature," Jamie said.
"Feels like," SooJin confirmed neutrally.
Jamie picked up the limp, lifeless body of the girl, and, holding her, sat back down against the pillows and the wall. He shifted the girl until she was cradled like a baby in his arms and legs. He held out a hand and SooJin, frowning, handed him the bottle. "I've tried twice to get blood into her," the woman reminded him. "She's too far gone to respond."
"Yeah," Jamie said absently. The tip of his tongue came out as he concentrated on working the nipple between the cold, dark lips. "Tiny little baby, big little baby. It's all in the wrist." Then he squeezed the bottle gently. For a moment, nothing happened.
SooJin's eyes widened when Lilu's throat worked convulsively. Jamie squeezed again, and Lilu swallowed again. Then she gasped softly, roughly, and began to pull feebly at the nipple. Her small hands fluttered weakly, frantically. "It's all right," he told her softly, making soft shushing noises. "It's all right. You've got it, you've got it. It's all right. It's all right." To SooJin's astonishment, the girl calmed at this, and settled against his supporting arm, drinking greedily at the bottle, eyes closed, chest heaving as she slowly began to breathe again.
SooJin's lips twitched to the side. "Lucky thing you had that. Get it in trade somewhere?" Then she remembered her own walk around the house, and the photos on the mantelpiece—photos of two girls who weren't here now, and of whom Jamie had never spoken when he spoke of his four years of solitude.
"Last one I kept," Jamie said softly, falling into a gentle rocking motion with the girl in his arms—the motion of someone who had once learned to take care of someone small and helpless.
SooJin nodded. "I'm sorry," was all she could offer.
Jamie sighed, leaning his head against Lilu's. "Yeah."
Slowly, so slowly, the world began to emerge around her.
There was a soft star of pain in her chest, and there was an almost unbearable itch on her back. Her left shin ached abominably, a dull red throbbing. She felt too weak to move, but the sharpest sensation was the taste of the blood that she was drinking, the blood her body craved so desperately.
She felt strong arms around her. She was curled up in someone's embrace, cradled as she had not been in so terribly long. Just for that moment she was a baby again, secure in her mother's warm arms. She drifted with that half-dream, loathe to leave semi-consciousness and the anodyne of this happy delight for the cold, hard reality that always welcomed her to wakefulness.
"Anything?" a woman's voice said. She fuzzily identified it as that of SooJin Wong, one of Simon's Bane and one of the many people that she knew casually at home. They were not friends; Wong and she were far too different in interests and drives to be so. But the woman was easy enough to deal with, and had interceded on her behalf before on trips to Arkham. She felt no real interest past realizing who the voice belonged to. She was warm and safe and happy in her mother's arms, and wished to be nowhere else.
She felt one of the supporting arms shift, and she shifted with it to be more comfortable. The pains in her chest and back and leg were not going away, but neither were they growing stronger. She thought this unusual, but not enough to willingly wake up to think about why. "Yeah," a man's voice responded. "She's moving like she's coming around."
She didn't recognize the man's voice. For the moment she concentrated on the flow of blood as she sucked and swallowed, greedily, like a child, but part of her wondered who owned the voice that held her.
"Lilu," Wong's voice said to her. "Lilu. Can you open your eyes? Look at me, woman."
Lilu moaned a soft wordless protest. She was warm, and growing sated, and didn't want to stop. But she knew as well that once Wong wanted her attention, she wouldn't leave off until she had it. The girl surrendered to the inevitable.
She blinked in the dimness of a small, simply-furnished room. More blinks and the blur that was the world resolved itself slowly into the form of the dark-haired woman who was Simon's security chief.
"S-s-soojin—?" she whispered hoarsely, and then went back to sucking greedily at the nipple. She felt a chuckle through the body that cradled her.
"Take it easy!" the man's voice said, and sounded amused. "It's not going away."
For some reason, the man's voice was known to her—but it wasn't familiar. She continued to drink, bringing her small fingers up to hold the bottle and insure that it didn't go away. While she drank, she thought, oh, so slowly and gently.
She remembered as if in a dream the feel of the dirt against her bare fingers as she planted shadowy, soft-edged plants in the dark soil of Ellis' Ridge, and she remembered looking at one of the calendars in her laboratory more and more eagerly as the days passed and it grew time to harvest what she had planted there. These were special herbs, special to her and her experiments in sorcery, and even as they had been planted at a certain time and in a certain place, so did they have to be harvested at a particular time and in a particular way.
She remembered an angry—no, incandescent—argument with the old woman who was her teacher and mentor, known to all only as Granny, about the wisdom of going out to harvest these plants at this time. Granny had told her—and had told Patricia, and Valessa, and Simon—that this was too dangerous a time for Lilu—or anyone else—to be out and about. If this harvest had to be abandoned, so be it; there would be other times.
Lilu, though, had never been a patient little person, living or undead. When she had been denied permission to make the expedition, she had clothed herself against the cold and girded herself against the night and gone off on her own.
She remembered the pins-and-needles prickling against her skin of the cloaking spells that concealed her from hostile eyes. She remembered the spells that negated gravity, allowing her to coast along the winds, to drift along the snows without sinking into them. She remembered the feeling of freedom, being out of Ravensfork for the first time in far too long.
She remembered bits and pieces of digging in the near-frozen ground at the multitude of dark, fuzzy plants, the cold, pale hands of a 14-year-old girl loading her pouches with as many as she could carry, for she knew that this trip would not be one repeated any time soon, if ever.
She remembered weaving the spells of illusion and drifting about herself, and... and...
And she remembered the terror of feeling the touch of the winds of a Hunt of Dark brush across her, their acrid stink metallic and sharp and cold.
"Easy!" the man's voice calmed her as she gulped and choked, remembering that fear.
She remembered—trees? Snow? Trees and snow were everywhere. They blurred together. She had moved fast, so fast, faster than she had ever moved, and had felt herself drifting closer and closer to the snow where lay capture and death bloody and violent as the Hunt of Dark drew closer around her, its malign influence sucking the power from her spells.
She remembered the sharp sting of the cold as she had slapped into the snow, and she remembered her heart pounding as she had struggled to make her way through snow that was often as deep as her chest, glances behind her showing the swirling tornado of invisibility and shadow that was the cloak of illusion worn by the alien Dark.
She remembered thinking of her Momma and her Poppa and her Sister, and wondering if she would still be allowed into Heaven, if only to say good-bye to them.
She remembered falling through a tangle of broken bushes, and seeing a dark, deserted house, and taking a tumble into unexpected emptiness, and feeling the star-filled pain of her leg breaking on impact. The Dark hadn't pooled themselves over the opening she'd made in the snow, but she'd striven to conceal herself nonetheless, heart racing, breaths coming hard and fast.
And then darkness had rolled over her like a blanket, consciousness fleeing.
And the darkness had faded as quickly when she'd felt the touch on her face and neck. She'd cried out in her terror, and a man's voice had ordered her to calm herself as he checked her for injuries. His manner had been brusque, but his touch gentle.
She remembered being very quiet, distrustful and frightened of strangers, as he'd examined her injured leg. She remembered the flare of pain as the man had straightened her injured leg. She remembered the sight of his long hunting arrows when they had touched her leg, and she remembered the searing pain at the touch of those silver-tipped bolts.
She remembered the man's expression slowly going from impatient concern to cold hatred, and she remembered why—because he had suddenly realized that she was Blood.
She remembered a blur of harsh, hateful words, and remembered watching in disbelief as one of his arrows, hanging unsupported in the air beside the man, snapped forward. She remembered feeling as if she'd been punched, the breath exploding from her, hit so hard that she couldn't take another breath. Even as she'd struggled to breathe, to make any sound at all, even to beg for mercy she'd known then she wouldn't be granted, she'd felt the slow, seeping numbness of her feet and hands and legs and arms. She remembered the world fading to an icy silent blackness, and her last thought had been to wonder if True Death was finally to claim her—and to wonder if what she felt was terror, or sad relief.
And now? Now she lay in someone's strong arms, warm and safe and at peace, drinking greedily, slowly sating her Need and wandering reluctantly back to consciousness.
"See?" the man's voice said. "That's one thing that never goes away, no matter how old you get. Suckling."
"I have to admit, I'm impressed," SooJin's voice answered him with quiet amusement. "Lilu! Stay with us!"
Lilu's eyes had been drifting dreamily around the room. Now she blinked sleepily and looked up at who held her.
For long seconds the face was a blur. Then she focused.
Then she recognized him.
The sound she made was barely human, partly a wail of despair and partly a scream of terrified warning, with sharp, shrilling overtones that belied her human appearance. She tore herself free of the man's grasp, hurling herself away from him, toward SooJin, bouncing off the bed and coming to a hard stop against the bedroom wall. Her leg flared with molten agony and gave way beneath her, and that brought her completely back to consciousness as she fell to the floor in a tangle of slender limbs. "SooJin!" she choked, spraying blood, scrabbling like a wild animal to escape her captor. "SooJin!"
Then SooJin was there, hands firm on her shoulders, pulling her close, offering rough comfort in the young woman's terror. "Easy, Lilu, easy. Easy! He's with us, he's with us."
"Non! Non!" the girl cried, doing her level best to back through the wall. "He put a stake in my heart! He was trying to destroy me!"
"And he's the one who figured out how to get nourishment into you when no one else could," SooJin pointed out, nodding at the nearly-empty baby bottle. Lilu's dark eyes darted to that bottle and back to the man as she huddled, trembling, in the woman's arms.
"And if you broke that bottle," the man growled, the kind eyes now narrowed in anger, "I'll finish what I started."
"Kinnison!" SooJin snapped hard.
"Wong!" the man retorted in the same tone, nodding hard at the bottle where it lay on the floor.
Lilu felt SooJin took two steadying breaths. First things first. Get all those involved calmed down and talking, and get this resolved without further bad feelings. SooJin was good at that sort of thing. The woman nodded more calmly to the man. "I understand," she told him, and nodded to the door. "Please. Go see how the others are doing. I'll finish with Lilu." The man's stony look didn't change. The woman caught his eye with a look, her expression softening. "This is the first time in her entire life that someone's staked her." The man jerked as though slapped, reminded of his part in the girl's terror. "Give her time to work it out." She waited for a moment. He didn't move. "Please."
The man's heavy sigh trembled. He nodded and rubbed at his eyes and looked everywhere but the young woman. He'd acted as if he'd never been around anyone terrified of him just because he was who he was. It seemed that it was an unsettling feeling at best for him; knowing that he'd directly caused that terror just made it worse. "Roger," he finally said in a low voice. He levered himself to his feet. "I'll be in the living room." He stooped to pick up the baby bottle. He hefted it, and hesitated, and then offered it to Lilu. The young woman never blinked, never looked away from his face, drawn up as close to SooJin's sheltering arms as she could get. SooJin finally took it from him.
Once the door had shut behind the man, Lilu slowly relaxed, and then jerked and cried out when she shifted her injured leg. "Oh! Oh! Oh!"
SooJin offered her the baby bottle. "Just sit still for a few minutes," she told the vampire, a thin smile on her lips. "Someone's going to have to help you around for a while. We don't have any crutches."
Lilu took the bottle from her and eyed it uncertainly. At SooJin's look of calm amusement she frowned, but removed the top and drained the remainder in three gulps.
Then she took the time to look around the tiny room. "What is happening?" she asked, her voice high and soft and lightly-accented of French. "Where are we?"
SooJin told her, leaving nothing out but embroidering nothing either. Even the normally-calm Lilu had to blink a couple of times at the tale she was being told. When her protector was finished she nodded understanding.
SooJin looked her over carefully where she sat on the floor against the wall. "You doing better now?"
Lilu nodded to her. "My head hurts. My leg is afire. I ache. Everywhere." She stopped, slender hands fluttering to her lap. She felt of herself with growing franticness, her expression slowly turning to one of fear. "My—my underthings! What did that man—"
SooJin shook her head. "I rinsed 'em out. They're drying in the bathroom. Figured you'd been through enough without having to smell like that when you came to."
Lilu's cheeks blazed and she swallowed and worked hard to regain some dignity. "I still thirst," she said, neatly capping the bottle, "but I have borne worse. I can wait until we reach home to feed again."
SooJin handed her a cloth-wrapped blood bag. "We brought enough for you. The bottle was just to get you started." Lilu gave her a quiet smile, accepting the bag. She took a ladylike sip from one of the tubes, and gasped. SooJin cocked an eyebrow at her. "What's the matter?"
"The—the blood," the girl responded, shivering. "It is very cold."
"What's the problem?" SooJin asked her. "You've had to make do with cold blood before."
Lilu nodded. "Oui. It is not pleasant, but it can be suffered." She took up the bottle, fingering it gently as she examined it more closely. "But this—this was warm..." Her dark eyes met SooJin's. For a moment there was silence.
SooJin finally shrugged. "My guess? He heated it up."
"But—but why?" the girl wondered, taking another reluctant sip from the cold blood. "Why would he do such a thing?"
"I suppose," SooJin offered slowly, "because he hoped it'd help you that way."
Jamie's thoughts were dark as he returned to the kitchen. The little dielectric heater on the stove that responded to his magnetic abilities served to warm the kettle, and he refilled his mug.
It still stuck in his craw that he had put an arrow through someone that, as far as he could tell, was nothing more than a very pale 14-year-old. He'd had a child of his own, and had learned to cherish all children because of that. To offer violence to one went against everything he believed in—yet he'd done it with steel in his voice and hatred in his eyes.
And now this girl, this vampire, fourteen years old or many times that, had done her best to flee from him in mortal terror. Some of the sounds she'd made had been eerie, unlike anything he'd heard before—not bestial, but not completely human, either—but the others had been that of a young girl who feared for her life. The panic in those dark eyes had been like a punch in the gut. He didn't mind if monsters hated him—but people, or things that looked like people? Jamie had never been an evil person, and he didn't like finding that he was headed down that road now.
The fact that she was a vampire entered into it, he kept telling himself. He had a right to defend himself against creatures of darkness, and everyone knew that vampires had helped to bring about the Day Of Night and the end of the world.
But this vampire looked nothing like that. She looked— Jamie sipped angrily at his drink. She looked like a child, nothing more. An adolescent, someone dressing up for school dances or laughing with friends on a weekend sleepover. Not a sorceress, and not a political mover and shaker, and certainly not someone with as many years to her as SooJin had alluded to.
And regardless of what her motives were, or her history, or her personality, what made Jamie's hands shake now was what he'd done to her in unthinking fury.
Responding as he had to a monster—something bred of darkness, or the Dark themselves—that was one thing. Responding that way to anything else that could possibly be mistaken for someone equally a victim of the darkness?
He had some serious thinking to do.
He stepped back to the door of the kitchen, watching his guests quietly. He'd seen them in their monstrous forms—their Bane forms—and had thought them equally evil as the Dark. And he looked at them now and recognized them as people he'd met in passing at Ravensfork, as human as he—he snickered at that thought, remembering his own powers—and was glad that he'd been less effective in dealing with them than he'd thought.
Four years alone could do many things to a man. Jamie wasn't liking what those years had done to him.
He moved into the living room and took the rocking chair. Chris glared at him from the couch. Doug looked at him curiously. "What was all the ruckus in the bedroom?" the big man asked politely.
Jamie blew on his tea. "Trying to get some blood into the vampire," he answered minimally.
"With all that fuss, I hope it worked," Doug offered with a grin.
Jamie cracked a bare smile in return. "Yeah, it worked." He drank. "SooJin's finishing up with her." He sat back in his chair. "So," he continued quietly, "what's the deal? What's going on outside?"
"We dunno," Chris answered grumpily from the couch.
"Back at Ravensfork," Doug said, standing before the cold fireplace, "we have people who are really, really good at sorcery." Jamie's eyes flickered to the bedroom door. "Yeah. Lilu's one of them. Hard-headed and stubborn, but dynamite with spells." Jamie snorted softly. "They warned Lilu—they warned everyone at the mansion—against leaving the building itself. We weren't even supposed to go to the upper greenhouses or the maintenance sheds. Anything, anything that gave off light or heat or sorcery—anything really detectable—was supposed to be off, or at least heavily-shielded."
"What happened?" Jamie asked him.
Doug shrugged. "Nothing. Best of my knowledge, everyone back at the place is indoors, conducting their business with nothing showing from outside." He glanced at the bedroom door. "Lilu felt like she had to run an errand, and when she was told not to, did it anyway."
"Really," Jamie chuckled.
Doug nodded. "It's not the first time, either. Simon has his hands full keeping her guarded. She's important to him. To all of us." He sips his drink. "Thanks for your help in saving her." Jamie was silent. "We're working to try and defeat the Dark. I don't know if Simon told you that." Jamie nods. "Lilu's important to his plans. More important than SooJin or Chris or myself, truthfully."
"What's she supposed to do?" Jamie asked curiously. "If she's such a hot witch, how come the Dark almost caught her?"
The door to the bedroom creaked open and SooJin, Lilu's arm around her, joined them. "Let's ask her," Doug suggested equably. Jamie got up to leave the rocking chair free for the girl, but she ignored him, moving with SooJin's aid to take the seat farthest from where her attacker stood. "Lilu, how're you doing?" the big man asked her.
She glanced up at him, then returned her dark, confused eyes to Jamie. "I... am better, thank you," she told him politely. She touched her chest, then buttoned her blouse. "I am healing slowly from—from what was done to me," she told him. Her slender fingers brushed her splinted leg. "My leg still hurts. It will probably take many days to heal in the absence of blood and a place to truly rest." She yawned in a ladylike manner. "And I am still tired, too. It feels as though it is daylight."
"It is," Jamie offered. Lilu didn't even look at him.
"Sunlight hours," SooJin pointed out, "but it's dark as nighttime right now. And what Granny warned us all about?" Lilu nods, eyes wide. "It's out there. Multiple Hunts as well."
"It's not a wonder that you got found by a Hunt," Doug pointed out to her. "The wonder is that you managed to make it to Ellis Ridge and this far back without being caught by a Hunt. What'd you do? What went wrong?"
Lilu cocked her head, resolving jumbled memories. "I made it to Ellis Ridge," she told everyone, "with simple spells, one of misdirection and unnoticeability, and one that allowed the winds to carry me, as though I could still become a mist."
"I thought that was a standard vampire trick?" Jamie asked.
The girl answered his interruption with a dark look. "My spells functioned as I anticipated that they would. It took me perhaps four hours to reach the Ridge. The spells did not cease to function properly until I was making my return." She glanced around the room. "My pouches," she said, distress edging into her voice, "where are my pouches?"
"Big leather bags?" Jamie asked her. "Full of plants?" She nodded curtly to him. "They're still in the gully."
"What?" she cried. "Non! Go and get them!" Her dark eyes were angry now.
Jamie's brows came down. "Get 'em yourself, speedy," he snapped, responding to the anger in the girl's voice. "My aim was to get you into shelter as quick as I could. I figured we could retrieve your baggage later."
"The plants, you fool," she bit out, "are not cold-weather plants. Left unguarded they will spoil and rot, and be useless to me."
The girl actually started to rise from her chair, stopped by SooJin's hand on her shoulder and her own broken leg. "People—" SooJin started, soothing ruffled feathers.
"You're calling me a fool," Jamie snorted, "when you're the one who ran away from home and caused all this trouble?"
"People," SooJin tried again.
Lilu was in fighting mode now. "I did not cause all of this 'trouble,' sir, and I certainly do not attack people on sight merely because I do not recognize them!"
"People," SooJin tried in a slightly louder voice.
"I didn't attack people," Jamie shot back, "I staked a damned vampire! And I'm beginning to wonder why I had a problem with that!" Lilu's eyes widened and she gasped, her fingers flying to the wound on her chest.
SooJin stepped between the two, interrupting their view of each other. Both leaned around, trying to maintain eye contact, and SooJin moved with them. "Enough." She gave Jamie a hard look that the man gradually acknowledged, turning his attention to his mug of tea. Then she looked hard at the young vampire, still showing her shock at Jamie's last riposte. "Both of you. We may be stuck here for the next two or three days—"
"Oh, joy," Chris offered, waving a hand around.
"—and if so," SooJin continued as though uninterrupted, "we're not going to spend it sniping at each other. We have too many other concerns. Am I clear on this?"
Jamie breathed hard for a moment. Then he set his mug up on the mantle. He leaned around SooJin. "Sorry," he mumbled to Lilu. He picked his jacket up off the back of the chair.
"Where're you going?" Doug asked him curiously.
Jamie pulled his ski mask over his face and moved to the normally-locked front door. "To get her her stupid bags," he muttered. He opened the door a crack, glancing carefully around. "Close it behind me." Doug nodded, taking the doorknob in one huge hand. "Back in a minute." There was a puff of cold air as the man drifted out into the night-like day, and then the door was shut.
"As well he might—" Lilu began to huff, and SooJin rounded on her.
"Get your act together, woman," she told the vampire. Lilu stopped speaking as though struck. "He made a mistake. As mistakes go this one was a biggy. But it was understandable, and once he found out about it he bent over backward to fix it."
"He staked me," Lilu responded darkly, her fingers still resting on the dried blood from that wound.
"Not like everybody else hasn't wanted to," Chris offered from the couch. She smiled sunnily as Doug glared at her.
"Yes, he did," SooJin acknowledged, "and yes, it was terrible. But he's the only one that managed to bring any life back to you, and at least he made the effort since then to make up for what he did. If you can't even thank him for making that effort purely on your behalf, then you at least have the courtesy to keep your mouth shut unless you have something constructive to say. I am not interested in putting up with your snarly behavior just because you've got a death hangover."
"'Death hangover'?" Doug laughed.
"A what?" Lilu asked, anger derailed by confusion.
"I mean it, Lilu," SooJin told her. "This is going to take all of us—including Kinnison—to get you back to Ravensfork. We don't have time for your silly temper games. Be as courteous—or as un-discourteous—as you can be 'til we're back at the mansion, and then you can wander off and be as rude as you want to Pat and Granny." She lowered her voice. "He hurt you. I know. I'm not making light of it. But it was an accident, and he has tried to make it better. I'm willing to trust him. Simon, too. You need to as well."
Lilu's lip poked out as she frowned. Then she slowly nodded her head. "You are right," she whispered. "I will do my best not to be the disruptive influence while we are trapped and reliant upon one another."
"Fair enough," SooJin told her, patting her on the shoulder.
"But if the world is too dangerous for travel now," the vampire asked quietly, "then what do we do?"
"As said, we hole up here for a few days," Doug suggested. "Kinnison's offered us the run of the place for the duration. Granny didn't say how long it was supposed to go on like this, but it can't go on forever."
"You hope," Chris offered from the couch.
Doug nodded. "I hope." There was a knock on the door. Jamie drifted back in, bearing Lilu's dark cape and her bulging bags. "In the meantime, we should probably take a few hours to eat and rest. If nothing changes, then we're no worse off. If things clear up, we're better set to leave." SooJin nodded approval of this suggestion.
Chris groaned heavily and climbed up off of the couch. Even a cursory glance showed that her lacerated back had healed up remarkably just in the few hours they'd all been cooped up here already. At that rate, another few hours and she's be back to normal. "Got any way to cook in this dump?" she asked, staggering toward the kitchen.
Jamie hung Lilu's cape up next to the door to let it dry out and warm up. "If you want something cooked," he told her, "I'll have to do it for you."
"I can cook just fine," Chris told him cockily.
"I don't doubt it," he told her, "but I have to run the stove." He held up his hands and Lilu's bags remained stationary in mid-air, suspended by their metal buckles. "Couldn't get gas after a while, but I can run some of the electrical stuff." Chris muttered a curse and disappeared into the kitchen, Doug following.
Under SooJin's watchful eye Jamie squatted beside Lilu's chair, setting the bags where she could easily reach them. "This was all I saw," he told her.
She nodded absently to him. "Two was all that I could carry," she told him. Her little fingers worked at the strap on the topmost bag.
SooJin cleared her throat.
Lilu's eyes went to half-mast. She sighed heavily. "Thank you for retrieving the bags which you caused me to drop when you attacked me, sir," she said, sounding like she was chewing glass.
Jamie looked silently at her for long seconds, expression blank. Then he pinched the bridge of his nose. He snickered. Loudly. "That's got to be the worst thank-you I've ever heard," he chuckled.
There was a loud smack as the girl slapped him. He toppled backward, more surprised than hurt. "What the—"
"Lilu!" SooJin said warningly.
"Do not laugh at me," the girl told the man angrily. "You have not the right and you have not earned the privilege!"
"You hit me, you little—" Jamie bit off whatever he'd been going to say as a bad idea. He'd made no move against her, handicapped by never having felt it right to hit a woman—no matter how richly she might deserve it.
"It is not as though everyone else has not wished to," the vampire told him primly. Jamie's face flushed as Doug's laughter echoed from the kitchen. Lilu's eyes narrowed as the white-clad man rose to his feet. He gave her a murderous glare. Then he puffed disgustedly, and made sure to bump her chair hard as he passed by on his way back to his own room.
Lilu's anger faded somewhat at the look on SooJin's face. "He—"
"—didn't do anything wrong this time," SooJin told her grimly. "Both of you need to grow up. You're so much older than he is that it's not funny. How about acting like an adult for a while?" Lilu flushed and concentrated on her bags.
Five hours later a still-yawning Jamie wandered back into the living room. Chris was asleep on the couch; even to his untrained eye her back looked very nearly healed. Doug had taken the recliner, and looked comfortable enough underneath the quilt someone had draped across him. Lilu, another quilt across her, had fallen asleep in in her chair, her precious specimen bags leaning on the side. Jamie started to deliberately jar the seat just to wake her up.
He stopped himself just inches away. In sleep she was relaxed and peaceful, and there was a quiet prettiness that her normal angry expression didn't let show. Fourteen years old, he told himself. He sighed softly and stepped away from the chair.
He looked up to see SooJin watching him quietly. The woman cracked a bare smile and nodded to him. He'd passed her standards check this time.
"Get any sleep?" he whispered to her, coming to stand beside her.
She shook her head. "Don't need as much as I used to," she told him.
"Boy, that must come in handy," Jamie complimented her with a belated yawn.
She nodded. "It does indeed." She stepped away from the door, motioning him to accompany her. They wound up back in the spare room, and she shut the door behind them.
"Something up?" he asked her.
"I'll discuss it with the others after they're rested," she told him. "I took another trip down your tunnel about fifteen minutes ago. Took a look around." He nodded, silently waiting for details. "The sky still feels wrong, and what few senses I have about that sort of thing says that the feeling of oppression and danger is getting stronger, not weaker."
"Not good," Jamie offered.
She nodded. "Not good." She glances at the other room. "I'm beginning to be concerned about what will happen if we're stranded out here in the middle of nowhere as things get worse. You've done an excellent job of concealing your existence when there was just one of you here. With five of us, sooner or later something's bound to slip, and then we risk detection, and destruction."
"What's your suggestion?" Jamie asked. He agreed with her points, but had nothing to suggest until knowing what she had in mind.
"I think what we're going to have to do is risk being out now," SooJin told him, "rather than risk being out later, when it's worse." She sighs. "There are forests along the whole way from here to Ravensfork. We wouldn't have to hit open space until the end run. But it'll be a much longer trip. You could get Lilu back to Ravensfork in what, twenty minutes?"
"I could have," Jamie answers slowly, "but that was when things were doable outside. If that feeling of 'something' is getting stronger, that means me and her out in the open is likely to draw attention as well." SooJin nods the point. "Night's when the Hunts come out. I haven't seen more than one every couple of weeks for the last year. Now I've seen or been told of three in the immediate area in the last eight hours. What's that say for the entire way back to Ravensfork?" SooJin nodded this point as well. "Yeah. Optimum is for me and the dragon lady to take the next express back. But I just don't see it happening without getting one or both of us killed. I'll defend her, yeah, but me by myself? I usually manage to take on small Hunts because I'm under cover and over-armed. With her along, I'd guess easiness would go out the window."
"I've been thinking of these points as well," SooJin responded glumly. "The only alternative is that we all head out together."
"Chris' back looks almost healed," Jamie offered. SooJin nodded. "I guess Doug's back would be all better by now. What about Lilu?"
"She's in the worst shape," the woman told him, "and it's purely vampire physiology. What happened to her drained her completely. The one bag of blood I brought helped with her physical manifestations of the staking, but it'd take two or three bags, and probably three or four days just resting, for that leg to be healed."
"I don't see the leg mattering as much with her," Jamie responded. "There's no way she can walk back to Ravensfork on that leg, so either she's riding Doug's back or I'm carrying her."
"Can you carry the lot of us?" SooJin asked him. "The snow is deep enough the entire way that we won't make very good speed in humanform, and in baneform we'll all stand out a lot more."
Jamie thought long and hard. He'd carried heavy loads before, from deer carcasses to loads of salvage, and his strength and skill with his abilities seemed to be increasing with use—like exercising seldom-used muscles, he supposed. "If we can figure out something for you all to sit on or hang off of, I think so," he finally offered. "That's humanform. Baneform, I don't know how much you and Doug weigh, but you look heavy." He grinned. "No offense."
"Human form I'd agree," SooJin told him. She gave him a spare grin. "None taken." She shifted gears back to business mode. "If you have a piece of siding, we might be able to shape it and use it as a toboggan. You would power us along the snow without having to fly us."
"That'd work even better," he responded. "I've got a half-dozen big pieces of Quonset siding outside; they just make the place look more abandoned."
SooJin sighed. "Don't like it, but that's the best I was able to come up with."
"If it's any comfort," Jamie offered, "I don't like it either."
"But we've got to get Lilu back to Ravensfork," SooJin told him serious. "That's absolutely vital. It comes before my life, or Chris' or Doug's." She looked hard at him. "I can't demand it of you, but in all honesty, her safe return is more important than your life, too."
"Why?" Jamie asked her levelly.
She shook her head. "I can't tell you. I don't know everything about it myself, but I know she's absolutely key to something Simon's got in mind that might fix the world."
"Fix the world?" Jamie asked. Then he perked up. "As in 'no more darkness'?"
"As in something like that, yes," SooJin confirmed. "Lilu doesn't get let out of the house much—and after this she's not likely to get let out again any time soon without heavy escort—because she's working on something that would have a lasting effect on the world."
Jamie looked long and hard at a point past SooJin's shoulder. Then he sighed and nodded. "You're on. I'll believe you. I want someone to fill in the holes, but we'll do it this way, and one way or another, Bitchiepoo'll get back to Ravensfork intact."
"Jamie," SooJin said tiredly.
"She hit me, dammit," he protested. "And she did it with intent, too!"
"And I've spoken with her about this," the woman told him. "I pointed out to her how much older than you she is, and that it's much more appropriate for her to behave like an adult to set an example for you."
"I think I just got insulted," he said, wincing.
"Show me up," she said, smiling thinly. "Let's see you behave more like an adult than she does. It's not that hard." Her smile disappeared. "Jamie. The three of us, we can defend her all day. But if something happens to us, or if we have to leave to draw danger away from her—responsibility for her's going to fall on you. I'm asking a lot of a comparative stranger. All I can do is offer to make it worth your while in the end."
"Damn," Jamie said, "you people really do have a pitiful opinion of me, don't you?"
"A cautious one, perhaps," SooJin offered back. "Why do you ask?"
"You don't have to make it worth my while," he told her firmly, "if I'm safeguarding someone who's gonna put the world right."
The tunnel that led to a blind in the woods a hundred yards away was cramped, hard packed dirt with support beams every five feet or so, no more than about four feet square. Normal operating procedure called for Jamie to let himself down into it from the living room hatch, drift along it like an underground zeppelin, and come out of the hillside hatch when the coast was clear. This was one way he kept the area around his home tracks-free, and often how he spotted Hunts of Dark far enough away that he could conceal himself from their eldritch senses.
SooJin and Chris had preceded the lot up the tunnel. Douglas, almost as wide as the tunnel, had spent the most time struggling uphill. Lilu had ridden up the tunnel conveyed on a narrow piece of siding, and she had done this undignified bit only after SooJin had in no uncertain terms ordered her to. Jamie had brought up the rear.
The hilltop end of the tunnel ended in a very tiny hollow, big enough for two people—three if they were very friendly. SooJin and Chris had led the way out, keeping watch, as Douglas made his way into the open. Jamie set the siding aside and helped Lilu mount the ladder. With difficulty she climbed to the top, just enough to peek out, disdaining any further help. Jamie drifted up effortlessly behind her, and she ignored him with an angry chill, still distrustful of him and his motives.
"What do you see?" he whispered.
SooJin shook her head, as did Chris. Doug was looking downhill. "Nothing," the man offered. "Jamie, if you'll call that siding we were working on—" He broke off. The others looked his way as he cursed softly.
At the bottom of the hill a Hunt of Dark flowed like a sinuous, ocean-borne snake of gray illusion and shifting night.
"Okay," Doug continued, "everyone back down the tunnel. We'll have to try this again in just a—" He broke off as Chris repeated his curse. Everyone looked where the catbane pointed. Across the valley, from between two thick stands of trees, flowed another Hunt.
"Son of a—" Jamie started, and SooJin held her arm up, pointing uphill.
"The damned things are out in force tonight," she offered grimly.
All three of the Bane looked back at Lilu, whose eyes widened.
There was an explosion of physical motion and where three humans had stood, three Bane now crouched. SooJin had become an oddly fuzzy-edged, sharp-looking spider the size of a car. Chris had become something that held the best of the human and feline forms, everything about her now displaying a catlike grace and feline presence. From where she'd dropped them in the snow she took up two sets of nine-inch claws and carefully fitted her feline fingers into them, pulling the straps tight. Douglas had grown larger than his own heroic norm, becoming something that looked very much like a cross between a crab and a weightlifter. A multiform blue-gray eye twitched back at Jamie and Lilu where they hung, wide-eyed, in the tunnel.
The spider-form didn't speak, but SooJin's voice was nonetheless audible. Jamie. Remember what I told you about her.
Jamie nodded and swallowed. "She'll get back," he promised. "One way or the other, I'll get her there."
I know. Good luck.
Then the Bane exploded from cover. Chris' voice was raised in a glass-shattering wail, half-human, half-great cat, and she bounded with speed beyond belief across the snow at the suddenly attentive cross-valley Hunt. Douglas' own roar sounded very much like an angry freight train, and his gorilloid loping brought him within sight of the downhill Hunt within seconds, the pounding of his heavy clawed feet still felt through the ground for long seconds. SooJin stepped delicately—but surprisingly quickly—across the rock-and-tree strewn landscape of the forest's edge, and the uphill hunt turned in her direction.
Lilu shrieked in spite of herself as she felt herself shoved down on the ladder. The hole wasn't more than nine feet deep, but she was only about five, and she had a broken let. "Sir!" she protested.
"I've got you!" Jamie snapped. "Move your fingers or lose 'em!" Thef hatch shut. There was a momentary scraping.
Then the sound of hell breaking loose echoed through the chamber as the three separate fights, Bane versus Hunts, began almost overhead.
Nightworld 02: Forgiveness is a Feral Hamster Press presentation of a Davey Jones production. All of the characters and situations herein are the creations of Davey, although SooJin and Christina are very loosely based on and expanded from creations of an old friend, Gina Dartt. Copyright 2010 by Davey Jones.
Next Episode: Jamie and Lilu—each the other's favorite person in the whole wide world—are stuck together in Jamie's home. This is bad enough, until Lilu attempts to detect nearby danger with her sorcery—and winds up drawing it to them. Nightworld 03: Flight. Beginning the odyssey. Be there.