Yes, hate me for starting yet another fanfic that I won't regularly update. Just enjoy what I do write. This is the sequel to Dark Rain, in which Josef meets a special someone. Dark Rain is complete and cute all by itself. Read Dark Rain before this, or you will be totally lost.
Josef sketched, alone, in the dark, in that familiar park a mile or so from the Scarlatti Palazzo. He came here every summer, using the excuse that the alone time with traditional media helped to keep his art "grounded," but really, he was just waiting for someone. He'd been waiting here, on this bench, every summer, for seven years. She probably wouldn't turn up. She was a gypsy, after all. But he always hoped.
And being out in the warm night air certainly was preferable to staying in the Palazzo, where everyone seemed a little bit afraid of him. Many of the familia knew that he was Carpathian—he was, after all, Byron's nephew—but no one wanted to be alone in a room with him. Josef got the distinct impression that everyone was waiting for him to turn vampire.
Perhaps he'd been acting strangely for the last few years. He'd certainly matured as crisis after crisis hit the Carpathian people. He was also somewhat of an outcast from the Carpathian society as well as human. Even the human friends he had were often times half way around the world, and naturally, they inhabitied the daylight, which was impossible for him to share. Many of the children recently born to the Carpathian families had been girls, and none of the overprotective fathers were eager to have an unmated male babysit them, even one as young as Josef.
And then there was Skyler. So maybe Josef had harbored a crush for the grey eyed girl, but more than that, he knew she needed friends—real friends—male friends who weren't intimidating or know-it-all or all-powerful. He had genuinely wanted to help her regain some measure of harmless normalcy in her life, but once Demitri had recognized her as his lifemate, Josef had been jealously exiled from her company.
The elder Carpathians had also turned a cautious eye to him every time he turned a packet of art over to Alex, Aiden Savage's lifemate, and technically Josef's boss. Josef didn't work with color or texture these days. All of his work, 3D renders or graphite concept sketches, was in grayscale. Joseph knew that the other Carpathians were worried about him. Darkness was a burden that all males carried, although it didn't usually manifest until after the second century of life. It wasn't impossible to lose colors and emotions before then, however. Lucian had lost them before he was 50.
Josef knew he was nowhere near succumbing to the seductive whisper of the darkness. But how could he explain to Uncle Byron and the rest of them that colors just didn't matter anymore? It was like those otter-pops that Sarah and Falcon had bought for their gaggle of children one hot summer. The kids had tried to figure out what the red one was, not cherry, strawberry, or watermelon. They had finally decided it was just red. Red 40, to be exact. That's how Josef felt about colors. They had no more significance than numbers, telling a computer screen or printer how to reproduce them. Warm, cool, it didn't matter their arrangement or intensity. They were all equally meaningless.
At the moment, he was working on some concept art for Alex Savage's next video-game, Wild Side. It was a unique RPG in which the player could be a werewolf, were-jaguar, were-eagle, or a number of other creatures. Like all good stories, it just as much truth as it did fantasy in it, many of the character stats based on Josef's encounters with the lupine and jaguar peoples. This werewolf was howling at the moon, clutching a locket in his over-large clawed hands.
"Poor puppy," crooned a familiar, melodious voice over his shoulder.
Josef's heart, so steady until that moment, pounded in his chest. Fighting to keep his composure, he replied, "He's been cast out from his pack for a long time."
"Any hope that he'll rejoin his pack?" the voice asked.
Josef turned to look at the girl sitting on the back of the bench, his heart warming and melting at the sight of her. She looked older, and yet she looked the same. Her hair was a little longer, but still held away from her face with glittery clips. She wore pin-striped pants with a red and black plaid pleated short-skirt over them. Her top was a red t-shirt with a artistic slashes in the shape of a heart showing a black chamois underneath. She seemed to have more bangles on her right arm, gold and silver and enameled and woven, along with several rings set with natural opals and sapphires. She also wore several chains with various pendants. Her skin was a little dark than last time, but still a very smooth and soft-looking olive. And her eyes were the exact same mysterious blue-green-teal shade that reminded him of the Northern Lights.
"Maybe. We're still too early in the game to know," he said.
"Ah, yes, I've heard your name spoken with much reverence in the virtual underground. So this is for one of your games?" Kisha asked excitedly.
"It's in development," he replied, his tone cool with modesty. "I think the more important question is, are you craving seaweed?"
"I thought you'd never ask," she smiled, and it seemed to light up the dark. Josef would have enjoyed watching her smile all night. He might have even be happy to burn alive in the sun if he could only see her smile as he did.
"Then," he said as he flipped his sketchbook closed and wedged his mechanical pencil into the spiral binding. "Would you accompany me to a late night snack?" He chivalrously held out his elbow.
"I would be delighted," she replied as she took his arm. Together, they walked down to the docks to find the small Japanese sushi house they had visited 7 years before. The hostess was just closing up, but when she saw Josef and Kisha, she winked at them and waved them into the restaurant.
When they were seated, Josef took the opportunity to show off a little, and ordered in fluent Japanese the same varieties of sushi Kisha had on their last visit, salmon, eel, veggie rolls, and extra seaweed on the side.
"Well done," Kisha said when the hostess left. "When did you learn Japanese?"
"A lot of our hardware comes from Japan," Josef explained. "Korea too. When one can speak the native language, one is less likely to be ripped off."
"Like anyone would try to rip off the Belandrake and Savage families!" she cried in mock horror.
Josef smiled wryly. "Even we do not have much influence—other than our money—when thousands of miles of phone line separate us from our suppliers. But we're not here to discuss my games."
"No, actually," she said, growing serious. "I asked Gram Yagmir to bring the Caravan back to Italy so I could talk to you."
Josef's heart almost exploded with joy. That she would—
"I need you to take it back."
"Take what back?" he asked, trying to understand her words. Her mind was still foggy and shielded, and all he could glean from her thoughts was genuine distress.
"The binding words. You said something that sounded like a binding spell and it—it did something," she floundered trying to find the right words for her complaint.
Josef blushed. "I was impetuous. I didn't even get out a whole sentence."
"Still, those two words meant something," she insisted. "Can you translate them."
Confused, he replied, "They meant 'you I-claim,' or 'I claim you,' depending on how you translate them. The language is very old."
"Take them back," she ordered, a little desperately.
Josef looked at her as if she was crazy. The sushi was delivered to the table, but she didn't touch it. She just begged him with her eyes, those mysterious, haunting eyes.
"I can't," he told her simply.
"Those words would only work on one woman, my true lifemate. Since we've managed to be separated for 7 years without either of us succumbing to suicidal grief, I doubt we are destined to be more than friends," he forced himself to say the words, even though he desperately didn't want to believe them.
"But something changed when you said them," she persisted. "I used to be the first one in the wagon, ready to see new sights. Now I'm the last, regretting our departure. I find myself distracted by the silliest things—"
"That has nothing to do with me," Josef said coldly. He pulled a few crisp bills from his wallet and dumped them on the table. "You want me to undo what I said years ago? Te szabado. I free you. That's the best I can do." He got up and left the restaurant with barely a nod to the hostess.
Josef went back to the Palazzo, but didn't go inside. Dawn was still many hours away, so he went down to the shore to work out some of his tangled emotions. He didn't have the power to call up an electrical storm, but he was quite adept at using winds to whisk up powerful waterspouts. He concentrated and brought up two spouts and then threw them together. They exploded on contact and salt water sprayed in all directions. He closed his eyes, and savored the sting of the tiny droplets on his face. When he opened them again, he saw his uncle, Byron Justicano, leaning against one of the sea cliffs with a casual ease that belied his incredible power and talent as a jeweler.
"Rough evening?" he asked smoothly.
Josef shook his head. In the Carpathian society, even though he was 30 years old and physically mature, he was still classified as an adolescent, and Byron was his guardian. As guardians went, Byron was amiable enough. But there was an uncomfortable duality posing as a powerful game designer in the human world, and then asking his uncle if he could go out with friends.
"It was Raviv, was it not?" Byron guessed.
"It doesn't matter what her name is," Josef growled softly. Kisha believed in the power of names, and had revealed several of hers to Josef. To him, she was Kisha; to the sushi hostess, she was Amaya-san; she had introduced herself to his uncle as Raviv. All three names meant the same thing; rain. He'd always guarded her name when another Carpathian was in range to eavesdrop on his thoughts. Even now, with the venomous words out in the open, he still shielded his private thoughts from his uncle.
"She finally came back and you are upset?" Byron probed further.
"It's none of your business," snapped Josef.
Byron arched an eyebrow at his wayward ward.
Josef just set his jaw stubbornly and launched himself into the air. He knew he was behaving like a petulant child, running away from the questions. But he didn't care. Kisha didn't want him anywhere near her, then he would go where no one would look for him. North Korea. Never mind that in human terms, it was an inhospitable jungle. But they were also a digital-pirate's dream haven. Occasionally, usually in his loneliest moments, Josef had thought about setting up a base of operation in Korea, away from parents, uncles, princes, and now, Kisha.
He was practical, as ever. If he, a rogue Carpathian hacker, found Korea a good place to hide, it was likely a vampire would share that opinion. In 30 years, he had barely managed to pry the fundamental methods for killing a vampire out of anyone, removing and incinerating the heart, and then the body and blood as both were toxic to all living things. He had wanted to be a hunter in his younger days, but his mother had expressly forbidden it. Now that he fully intended to leave home, he should know how to fulfill his duty in foreign lands and destroy the vampire where he found it.
He needed more experience than time would allow. So he would have to borrow some. Most the greatest hunters known to the Carpathian people were still in the Carpathian mountains, a place he dare not visit if he valued his freedom. Fortunately for him, there were some great hunters who lived away from the mountains.
So his first destination was Paris.
Gabriel eyed the young man in front of him with some misgivings. He knew Josef Belandrake as he had spent time with Skyler, but the whole video-game thing completely eluded him, and quite frankly did nothing for the young man's reputation. Now Josef stood in front of him, asking the ancient to share memories of vampire hunting.
He thinks to use it in his video games, Gabriel groused to his lifemate Francesca. Completely inappropriate—
I do not think so, my love, she corrected him. I sense his desire for such knowledge comes from the perception of very real necessity.
"Why do you want to know these things?" Gabriel demanded directly.
"Because no one else has shared such knowledge with me, and preparation could quite likely save my life," Josef explained calmly. He was expending a great deal of effort to keep his mental shields up and strong. He still felt both Gabriel and Francesca brushing against his defenses like huge whales against a small boat in the open sea. She was an ancient, and he was the second-eldest of their kind, only a few minutes younger than his twin, Lucian.
"So why not ask your uncle or other hunters closer to your family?" Gabriel wondered.
"I have discovered that those close to my family will…censor things. I am sure their intention is protection, but you understand how that protection could prove fatal in the wrong circumstances," Josef explained.
Gabriel shrugged his powerful shoulders. "It is not my call to make."
"But it is mine," Josef insisted.
"It is your guardian's," corrected Gabriel.
Josef held back the sigh of exasperation. "In human terms, I am my own guardian."
"We are not human," Gabriel informed him contemptuously. "Our kind are not considered adult until their second century at least."
Perfect, Josef thought. His next move was entirely underhanded and devious, but at the moment, he didn't much care. "And yet many Carpathian parents are forced to relinquish their daughters at the tender age of 18."
Gabriel growled at the barb. The ancient Carpathian still held a grudge against his son-in-law for stealing his precious and fragile daughter, Skyler, after a brief 4 years in his care.
He has a point, Francesca grudgingly agreed. If we do not treat our young men with the same faith and confidence we do our young women, would it be any wonder if they fall into the clutches of darkness before their time?
"If you believe yourself mature enough to know the dark work of a hunter, then brace yourself," Gabriel warned, his tone dropping an octave until it rumbled ominously. Then he thrust rudely in Josef's mind and quickly replayed some of the most vicious battles of his existence for the youth. He poured the memories of these terrifying and violent exchanges into Josef's mind, until he felt the boy stagger under the weight of it. Then he pulled out.
Josef collected himself and bowed low to Gabriel. "Thank you. You have quite likely saved my life."
"You should know what you may face, should you follow your set path," Gabriel said darkly.
For a second, Josef's heart faltered. Gabriel knew his plans to run from the Carpathian people. Would he stop him? Would he alert his family? But it seemed the ancient Carpathian was prepared to let Josef find his own way in the world.
Josef nodded respectfully. "Then I shall leave you to rest. "
He shifted into mist and left their home. Dawn was less than an hour away, and Josef needed to feed before he went to ground. He chose a burly young man who was out for an early morning jog and only took enough blood to replenish his strength. Then he found a cemetery and settled deep in the earth under the ornamental gardens, far from coffins.
When sun set the next night, he would disappear.
Byron woke to the distress of his lifemate's family. Tasha was doing her best to detour someone who was determined to break into Byron's underground haven, but the stubborn Italian jaguar girl seemed to have met her match. Leaving a kiss on his lifemate's forehead, Byron swept out of the subterranean chamber to investigate the disturbance.
"He's the only one—" a vaguely familier voice insisted.
"If you could just wait a moment in the parlor—" Tasha redirected the frantic woman.
"No, no, no! I can't wait. The longer I wait, the farther away he is—"
"Have you informed the police—"
"You know the police don't police them."
"I'm sure I don't know—" Tasha tried to deny.
"Tasha," Byron interjected softly. "I am here. What is the problem."
"This girl—" the beautiful woman began.
"He's gone," the girl burst out. She was Raviv. Byron had met her years ago in the company of Josef. She looked just as wild and bangled as before, but now there was panic in her mysterious aqua eyes.
"Who?" Byron asked patiently.
"Bo—I mean, Josef," Raviv explained, her tone bordering on hysteria. "He's just gone. I can feel it."
Byron took a moment to search out his bond with his nephew. Josef was indeed far, far from the Palazzo. Byron looked at Raviv with a hard eye. "Why has he gone?" he demanded, certain she could answer.
"How should I know?" she cried. "So we had a bit of a tiff—so what? It certainly wasn't anything to make someone run away."
Exasperated, Byron tried to investigate her memories of the "tiff" in question, but found her thoughts murky and clouded, nearly impossible to read. "What exactly did you say to him?" he asked, exasperated.
"I told him to take back the two binding words he spoke the last time we were together," Raviv said. "And he did. But he was mad about it."
Byron's eyebrows rose in surprise. While it was doubtful that someone as young as Josef could have met his mate, the fact that he could have retracted the binding was even more unlikely. "How did he do that?"
"He said te szabado."
"I free you," Byron muttered to himself. The words were just words and held no power. That didn't explain Raviv's near-panic at sensing Josef's departure. For that matter, she shouldn't be able to sense Josef at all, unless she was an extremely talented psychic woman. "Why are you so concerned that you would nearly break into my resting place to tell me this?"
Raviv twisted her pinky anxiously. "I-I don't know. It just seems important that he stay here."
"Important to me? Or important to you?" he asked seriously.
She looked up at him helplessly, tears of despair welling up in her eyes. "I just—I don't want him hurting."
"He does not feel in pain or danger to me," Byron admonished gently.
"But…but…he's gone," she protested simply. A tear streaked down her cheek.
Byron massaged the bridge of his nose. "If you are so opposed to him leaving, then you shouldn't have told him to do so in the beginning."
"I didn't!" Raviv shrieked. "I just didn't want to be bound to him. I'm a gypsy! We're not the bonding type!"
"You picked a fight over two words that likely held no power in the beginning," he reminded her. "What did you expect to happen?"
"I should have known you wouldn't help," she snapped. "It was probably your idea for him to go to Korea in the first place! You don't care what happens to him—"
"Where?" he barked.
"Korea. North Korea," she snarled. "Interested now?"
Byron felt like cursing. The Malinov's had been assigned to protect Eastern and Central Asia by the prince's father, Vlad. All five had also turned vampire on that continent. Who knew what sort of traps and unpleasant things they had left behind for any hunter to sought to take over their old territory. He reached for Josef again, to order him to return to the Palazzo. But Josef must have taken a jet, because he was too far away to command. Mere communication would take more energy that Byron had at the moment.
"What is he thinking?" growled Byron.
"He's thinking about being independent for once in his life," Raviv said, almost absently.
Byron paused again, his eyes scrutinizing the girl. "How do you know?"
She looked uncomfortable. "I don't know. I just do. The same way I know he's going."
"You must have extraordinary talents to be so connected to him," he mused.
"I'm not," she denied. "We're just friends."
It didn't take more than a few risings for Josef to secure an abandoned warehouse with an extensive basement in an out-of-the-way town. Then he had contractors come in and create the perfect fortress. He ordered computers and other digital hardware under an assumed name, Hwan Yeong. It translated to "phantom." That was what he intended to become. Untraceable. Barely visible. Yet pervasive.
When the hardware came, Josef spent several more risings personally wiring the entire building. There were traps for physical invaders as well as more elusive shape shifting snoops. He wove safeguards that should have been beyond his ability, but Gabriel's shared knowledge and the desperate need to stave off the oppressive loneliness gave Josef a focus and force of will he had never known before. He would know if a mouse crossed the threshold of his fortress. As insurance and for convenience, he set up another spell that would repel all living creatures, from humans to insects. No need to have unwanted intruders of any sort.
Then he retreated to the deepest basement, his technological heart and brain of the entire complex. While working for Alex's videogame company, he had mastered the ability to send his thoughts to wireless digital receivers, and thus manipulate the videogame far more accurately and swiftly than any human with a controller. He intended to hone this ability, invade not only videogame consoles, but the very internet itself.
He would become the first all-powerful cyber Carpathian.