Author's foreword: I do not own any of the characters appearing in the following story, even the ones I've created. This story is not intended to generate profit, merely the enjoyment of writing it and, hopefully, your enjoyment in reading it.
My thanks to Joe Stoppinghem, for beta reading.
Chapter 1: We Can't Stay Here
Pain and weakness, that's what his so-called life had become. Pain from his torn throat and wounded shoulders; weakness from having is body drained so completely that he thought the bastard Marcus would squeeze him like a tube of toothpaste. Andreas Tanis lay on the floor of his home, his prison, watching the lifeblood drain from his flesh.
Still, the rampaging elder had finally left. Tanis wasn't ashamed to admit that he was terrified of Marcus. The original vampire had never been patient or understanding. Being caught between him and Victor had been an absolute nightmare for the vampire historian. He remembered the only time he had ever seen them smile in each other's presence. Shortly after they had given him the task to record the coven's history, they had demanded that he record only the truth.
"Whose truth?" He had demanded.
Marcus and Victor had glared at him for several, heart stopping minutes before glaring at each other. Suddenly, both horrifying elders had burst into laughter, conceding the point that they both wanted certain events colored to their own liking.
"The objective truth," Victor had told him, recovering his wits before his rival. Marcus had merely nodded his agreement. Of course, that didn't stop either elder from beating him when the objective truth wasn't to their liking.
"Can't let my mind wander like this," he chided himself. "Have to make use of the precautions I made."
Spending centuries caught between the two violent, egotistical immortals had taught Tanis to take certain steps to insure his survival. Several of these contingencies had failed him but others remained. With supreme effort, he began to slither across the floor.
If Marcus had left him with another liter of blood, would the additional strength be enough to overcome the additional weight? It was something to contemplate. Something to keep his mind off of the fact that he was in a slow, dragging race against death. With each second, with each push of his trembling limbs on the cold, stone floor, the last precious drops of his life leaked away. Still, there was a chance…
He was actually shocked when his head struck the wall. His aim had been true! He looked up to see the wine cask, resting on the stand above him. For a moment, hope surged through him, only to wither again. There was no way he was going to be able to stand, much less tap the cask.
Still, he refused to give up. He looked around and spotted the lighter, the long, brass pole with a wick at the end, which was used to light candles. Thinking quickly, he seized the pole and broke off the end. With the last of his strength, he jabbed at the wine cask. He almost wept with relief when thin wood gave way under prodding brass.
The cask wasn't full of wine, of course. It was full of the vampire coven's synthetic blood, cooled by a hidden refrigeration system. This fake blood now poured out of the gap he had forced in the wood; pouring out in a stream that the sprawled Tanis caught in his mouth. While Tanis might prefer the real thing, the fake stuff was filling his body with new strength, healing his wounds. All too soon, the flow ended.
Tanis, however, now had the strength to stand. He still felt weak, ravenous, but he could at least stumble through the one-time monastery, down to the cellars, where he kept his emergency supplies. Deep in the earth, he broached another container and indulged in the life-giving fluid. Before, he had been ravenous, like a man dying of thirst, guzzling water from a garden hose. Now, he was more composed, like a thirsty businessman sipping an iced latte while reading the morning paper. Much like that imaginary businessman, he contemplated how recent events affected him.
He couldn't stay here, that was obvious. If he was to believe Selene, then Victor, Lucian and Amelia were all dead. Now Marcus was active and hunting Selene and her hybrid lover, who were seeking Lorenz Marcus. All things considered, he predicted that a major confrontation was about to take place. Whoever came out on top (his money was on Marcus) was sure to have a beef against him. Of course, someone would eventually come for his records, so he had to leave soon. Still, the sun was about to come up, which gave him time to consider his best course of action.
The historian refilled his goblet and seated himself at a computer terminal, thinking about where he could go. Not only was anywhere in Hungary out of the question, he also discarded all of Eastern Europe as being too close to Hungary. After a moment, he discarded the notion of remaining in Europe, using the logic that all of Europe was too close to Eastern Europe. For a moment, he considered the Orient, before discarding the notion. Adreas Tanis wasn't a racist, he thought humans of all sorts were delectable, but he was a realist. While he had no doubt that there were plenty of Europeans to be found in the orient, he would be better served relocating somewhere where Europeans were in the majority, giving him a better chance to blend in. That meant North America, Australia, or New Zealand.
For a brief moment, a little bit of an adventurous spirit rose within him, prompting him to relocate south of the equator. Then, reality imposed its will upon him again. To the best of his knowledge, there had never been a vampire coven in the Southern Hemisphere. Tanis wasn't a pioneer and he didn't have the time and resources to set up a safe haven from his prison. He had no intention of stepping onto a new continent blind, with no safe haven awaiting him. No, if he was going to flee Europe he was going to have to flee to Amelia's New World Coven, located in New Orleans. He sighed, knowing what he would have to do.
As the vampire's historian, Tanis had recorded the New World Coven's travels. Elders, like Amelia and her trusted lieutenants, traveled in luxury. Underlings and rogues, like him, traveled in modified shipping containers. He knew the proper companies and individuals to contact, so he started to make arrangements. He experienced a moment of panic when he realized that he wouldn't be able to actually leave the continent for several days. Then he started to think again and arranged for some less than luxurious quarters, in Antwerp. Even if he couldn't get out of Europe right away, he would be able to get away from his prison and disappear. It was going to be a long, uncomfortable journey, but it would be preferable to dying.
"We can't stay here," Selene informed Michael.
"Of course we can't," her lover agreed. "We have to get back to the nearest town so we can…Oh, you mean we can't stay in Hungary, don't you?"
Selene merely gave the young man an odd look. Soon, the hybrid, would-have-been doctor was squirming like a schoolboy who hadn't done his homework.
"Okay, could you tell me how stupid I am, instead of just rubbing it in my face?"
"He isn't stupid," she realized. "Just inexperienced. How many of my own coven, vampires who had existed for centuries, failed to realize that it was time to flee Ordoghaz?"
"The last couple of days have been the worst disaster the vampire coven has ever seen," she informed him, all business as she led the way out of the shattered castle. "All three elders are gone and Ordoghaz, the seat of vampire power, is no more."
"I'm still not understanding," he confessed, falling in step behind her.
"You don't understand immortal politics," she informed him, not breaking her stride. "The surviving vampires are going to be seeking to seize control of what's left of the coven."
"That's not so different from human politics," Michael protested. "From what I've seen, the coven owned vast, rich resources. Anybody would want to control that."
"So far, so good," she commented on his limited understanding. "What you don't realize is that all of the older, well connected vampires will be trying to prove their fitness to lead the coven." She stopped and turned, giving him a dire look. "The best way to do that will be to bring in the heads of anybody responsible for the elders' deaths."
"Meaning the two of us," Michael finished.
"I slew Victor and Marcus with my own hand," she explained, turning and continuing her march. "While I had no hand in Amelia's death, nobody is going to be questioning that. If one of the remaining viceroys kills us off, all the surviving vampires will assume that we were guilty for all three elders' deaths."
"I take it we can't just go to ground and wait this out?" Michael offered.
"Not in Europe," Selene informed him. "The coven has safehouses and informants all over the continent. While the British Isles, Scandinavia and Sicily aren't compromised; they're just too close to the mainland to remain safe. We have to leave soon."
"How long before they start hunting us?"
"A few days, maybe even a week," she mused. "Even the most ambitious vampire will wait that long to make sure that Marcus isn't still around. Then it will take a few days for them to find out who's still alive and start forming power bases."
"Why don't you seize control?" Michael asked. "You know the truth and you put an end to Victor's treachery and Marcus's mad dream. Isn't that worth anything?"
It would be," she told him. "But it wouldn't work, for two reasons."
"First, I don't have the head for ruling a group of irrepressible ego-maniacs," she snarled. "I've spent my entire adult life as a soldier, not an administrator. I wouldn't be able to deal with the bureaucrats and functionaries, even though I know they're necessary. If I were to seize control, it would turn into an unmitigated disaster."
"The second reason?" He prompted.
"The remainder will never accept you," she told him. "So much of our identity as a coven was based upon eradicating the lycans. If I were to waltz in to a meeting with you at my side, I'd have a revolt on my hand."
"So if you were to just leave me behind…"
"That's not acceptable, Michael," she curtly informed him. For a moment, he thought he heard a quaver in her voice. Perhaps it was his imagination, since she was all business a moment later.
"Come," she instructed him. "While sunlight doesn't harm me anymore, we're hardly in a favorable position. We need to find a safehouse. The first policeman who sees us is going to arrest us, just on our appearance alone. We've also been injured and need to feed. Once we find some shelter, I'll decide where we go next."
Message received. She had informed him that she was still calling the shots but he was warmed by the idea that she refused to abandon him.
"Hey John, need a beer?"
"Maybe in a couple of hours," John answered his neighbor. "I appreciate it, but I've learned that the work doesn't get done after I've popped the first top. I want to finish, since I have a nephew showing up tomorrow."
Keith chuckled at his neighbor. John was a good sort, the kind of guy who worked his butt off, day after day, but wasn't too proud to joke or to meet up for a drink or two at the roadhouse. The middle-aged farmer stepped forward and gave the younger man a hand with his fencing. Keith was a wheat farmer and John worked on an adjoining cattle ranch, so keeping the fence in good repair was a good way to remain friends with the neighbors.
Keith frowned just a little when he thought about the ranch John worked on. The term ranch might be a little bit misleading; colony came closer to the truth. Keith had read about various cults and nut groups that had set up here, in the American West and he knew that some of the locals suspected Farrier Ranch of being such an organization.
The ranch housed several families and they tended to keep to themselves. For one thing, they must home-school the kids, since they didn't have any children in the local schools. Keith had met most of the adults that lived on the ranch, and he couldn't believe that that many young couples wouldn't have a few kids. Secondly, they didn't socialize with the other locals, just for the sake of socializing. This made the more distant neighbors a little nervous.
Still, Keith was sure that they weren't some sort of dangerous cult or anything like that. While they didn't go out and mingle, they were friendly when you ran into them, like John was right now. Also, they would stop by the roadhouse for a beer and some conversation, whenever they were in town to sell off cattle or buy supplies. Also, they were welcoming and friendly whenever you went over for a visit. They may prefer solitude, but they knew how to be neighborly. Finally, they didn't act differently than the other locals. From what Keith had read (he didn't put much faith in the rumors that went around) cult members and other groups tended to act differently, like they were trying to stand out from those around them. The people who lived on Farrier Ranch dressed the same as the other locals, spoke the same, cussed the same, and complained about the government, just the same.
No, they weren't some sort of cult. Keith figured that they were a bunch that just preferred their own company. If the more distant neighbors didn't realize that, at least they had the decency to not make trouble. All told, Keith considered the Farrier Ranch to be full of good neighbors and hoped that they considered him the same.
The two men continued to work, fixing the four-mile length of fence that separated their property. Once done, John took him up on his offer of a beer. The two men sat in the shade of Keith's pickup, discussing the weather and local politics. Both men were jaded, ignoring the sweeping vista of Montana plains and hills spread out before them.
"So, this nephew of yours," Keith offered, as a way of making conversation. "Is he some sort of city boy that wants to see what the country's like?"
"No, he's just getting out of the service," John answered. "He'll be living here for at least a little while."
"What branch?" Keith asked. Like many of those in the rural west, he had put in an enlistment.
"Army, Infantry, Ranger," John answered. Keith nodded in a show of respect. The farmer had put in four years as an infantryman but had never sought to join the more elite units.
Finishing the beers, the two men shook hands and went their separate ways, to their separate chores.
Keith never suspected that his neighbor and distant friend, John, was quite possibly the deadliest being on the face of the planet.
"So this in New Orleans," she thought, looking around the city. "It could be almost any city in France or Spain." Although she had never left Europe, she had expected something…different…from a North American City. She remembered reading some world traveler's remarks, in which he said that he considered New Orleans a European city that woke up one morning to discover that it was in America. Still, there were subtle changes that reminded her that she was no longer on the continent of her birth.
The streets were alive tonight, or was this normal for this…hedonistic…city? The atmosphere hummed with a stirring vitality and the air carried the scents of fine food, sweat, alcohol and the other substances with which humans altered their perceptions. She was sorely tempted to sample the nightlife but realized that she had to take care of business before indulging herself. It wouldn't do to be caught without shelter after sunup.
She had a vague idea where she needed to go and fortunately, she had learned English. While her grammar probably made her come across as strange, her Hungarian accent explained her odd choice of words. She was a foreigner, here to enjoy the sights and spend her money. She was smart enough to stay on the public streets, where people were friendly to visitors, when she asked directions. Before long, she was in a cab and on her way to the city's outskirts. The cab pulled up in front of a large, ornate house and she realized that she hadn't taken the time to change her Euros for American currency.
"That won't be necessary," the cab driver told her. "If you can tell us what happened to our coven mates, that'll be payment enough for both transportation and shelter."
She was frightened that she had failed to recognize one of her own but she quickly swallowed her anxiety. She had nothing to do with Amelia's death. Surely those inside wouldn't seek revenge on her.
"My thanks," she offered the driver. "I had expected proper hospitality once I found my own kind but it is wonderful to find the hospitality seek me out."
Her praise, backed up with her most alluring smile, had the desired effect. The driver got out and held the door, like a proper gentleman, and escorted her to the front gate. An attendant ushered her into the house and to a comfortable office. Shortly after the attendant left, another man walked into the room.
"Good day, Miss…" the man prompted, holding out his hand.
"Erika will do," she replied, studying him as he kissed the back of her hand. He appeared to be a fit man in his early forties, fit, pale and inquisitive. She would have to show some caution.
"Erika," he repeated, as if committing the name to his memory. He straightened and walked around the desk, where he seated himself.
"Erika, I'm going to be perfectly blunt with you," he said, steepling his fingers in front of his face. "I've been waiting for your arrival ever since an…employee of a certain shipping company told me about a special shipping request. Now, you arranged for your transportation after Amelia was due to arrive in Europe. The last communication we had, from her entourage, was that they had arrived safely in Le Havre, and that they were embarking upon their special train car, for Budapest."
"Less than a day later," he continued. "Various Hungarian news agencies reported gunfights in Budapest, including some sort of multiple murder at the train station, at roughly the time Amelia's train was due to arrive. When we contacted Ordoghaz, a functionary told us that Victor was awake, that there was a great deal of confusion and that he would try to sort out what was happening. When we attempted to contact Ordoghaz again, there was no response and now the news agencies report that it has burned to the ground."
"Now," here, the man's eyes became intent. "Shortly after the mansion burned down, you made your travel arrangements. We hoped we would receive Amelia. We expected to receive the regent or maybe another high ranking functionary. Instead, we receive a youngster whom, although appealing in her own right, doesn't have the stature we expected. We are desperate for any knowledge we can glean about Amelia, her party and our European kin. So, I hope you can appreciate that your reception, your very existence, depends upon what you can tell us about these events in Hungary."
"Like you said, I'm not a major player," Erika admitted, buying herself a little time. She decided to be truthful, deceit could always be added after she had gained his trust. "Here's what little I know. I know that the entire mansion was on edge, anticipating Amelia's arrival and Marcus's re-awakening. Of course, whenever the elder's exchange places, the regents, viceroys and other functionaries change as well. I got caught up in a power play."
"A power play against the elders?" The tone was mild but the expression behind it was not.
"No!" She insisted. "I-I don't know how things work in this coven, but in Hungary, we were always vying for position, trying to get the best stations for ourselves." She glanced at her host and saw a gleam of recognition. He knew what she was talking about.
"The current regent hoped to maintain his authority, even after Marcus assumed his stewardship." She met her host's gaze and continued. "I attempted to…align myself with the regent, in the only way I had available."
"I assume your attempt proved futile," her host's look wasn't accusing and disgusted, it was actually sympathetic.
"As you've noted, I'm not an experienced functionary," she continued. "So this appeared to be my best option. That and the regent was sort of cute. Unfortunately, I had a rival. The real tragedy was that she didn't want to be my rival, but Kraven was obsessed with her, even though she didn't want anything to do with him. He ordered her confined to the mansion and I orchestrated her escape."
"Getting her out of your way?" The host asked, with approval in his expression.
"Exactly," Erika nodded. "That's when I realized that the regent's actions went…well beyond simple maneuvering for position. I overheard conversations that suggested Kraven might have…allied with lycans. Then the news arrived that Amelia had been killed, my rival had awoken Victor and Kraven had fled. I feared that anyone associated with the regent, even those who simply wanted to be associated with him would be tainted. I fled the coven and when I heard that the mansion had burned, I fled here."
The host looked at her with a level gaze, staring at her until she couldn't help but squirm.
"You're exhausted and famished," he declared, pushing a button on his telephone. "I will arrange for a repast and sleeping quarters, before questioning you again. I suggest you review what you know and be very truthful. We will use all means at our disposal to verify your story. In addition, another has recently made arrangements to travel here, from Europe. We will see how your stories match with each other."
A polite knock sounded at the door and the host gave permission to enter. Three large vampires strode into the room and ushered Erika to a guestroom, where a large snifter of spiced blood awaited her. Although the three had impeccable manners, Erika knew Death Dealers when she saw them. She had managed to obtain a stay of execution but her continued existence depended upon whom this other mystery traveler was and what he had to say.