Our landscape maze was dotted with blooming ruffled blue hydrangeas and silken purple azaleas. Each colorful bush was larger and more colorful than the previous one I had passed. The air was thick with the floral perfume of thousands upon thousands of petals, and I inhaled deeply as I walked among the towering bushes. While Michael lay in a cage in Cressida’s basement, spring had come to Bantum, bringing with it warm sunshine, gentle rains, and fragrant breezes.
Rather than wallow in the house, I decided to take daily walks in the maze. It was of no use, though. Each turn of a corner brought me face-to-face with another memory of us. Today was particularly rough, especially after the failed attempt to break Michael out once again.
After our last ‘visit’ to Cressida’s Great House, we had come up with a simple plan: I would break in, remain stealthy, and steal away with Michael. Besides, I figured, since I was a vampire, what better way to take on vampires than by using another vampire, right?
Wrong. The plan did not go as expected.
You see, I had carefully watched the property for over a week. During that time, I began to recognize a routine in the comings and goings of the guards. At dawn and dusk, they would rotate through, taking shifts of eight hours each: 8 hours in the front, 8 in the back, and 8 patrolling the grounds, with a couple of guards at each post. When one position was relieved, say those at the front, it was usually an hour before the second position was relieved, and so on. I decided that the best time to go would be in the hour prior to the initial group’s shift change, when most guards would be tired from their shift and ready for relief.
Knowing the first position would be relieved at 8pm, I headed to the Great House at dusk. I snuck in over the wall this time, and crept along the fenceline. Under the cover of darkness, I morphed into a panther and headed towards the first guard standing watch next to the garage. Taking them down was easy. Sniffing the air, I crept up behind them and swung out with one of my great front paws, slicing their throat open from jaw bone to collar bone, blood spurting across the gravel. I chuffed in satisfaction at their quick death.
The second guard was closer to the main entrance door. Slinking and edging closer, I waited until their back was turned before I pounced on them, letting my full weight slam their head down onto the driveway pavement and crushing it. The only sound was a ‘squish’ as I lifted my paw from their remains.
Having silently dispatched with the front guards, I closed my eyes and willed myself back into my human shape. Hunching down, I began stripping the guard out of their clothing. I tugged on their pants and shirt and stepped into their boots. Then I made my way into the house by literally going through the front door.
I was alone, with no one to give me away; it seemed like the fastest route.
The main hall was large and open, with a twenty foot ceiling and a winding staircase at the opposite end from the door. The air was chilly like the hard marble flooring beneath my feet. Doors sat on either side of the hall, with several hallways branching off from it. I took the corridor immediately to my left, knowing it would lead me in the direction of Michael.
Before I could reach the stairs leading to the basement, I rounded a corner and encountered two vampires I hadn’t seen before. One was a female: small, tan, and ready to fight. Her face held one of the most pissed off expressions I had seen in ages. The other was a tall male, near seven-feet in height, with a dark crew cut and a knife in each hand. He shouted, “Yippee ki-yay, motherfucker!” right before he began to charge at me.
Startled, I halted mid-step; what was this crazy horseshit? Then I backed up and began running away. I was in no condition to take on two vampires at the same time, especially without knowing their abilities. Despite my own ability to morph into a panther, I knew I couldn’t win against both of them without help.
“Come back here! We just want to talk!” came the male’s voice, his laughter dominated by a southern twang.
“No thanks! Had enough talking today!”
Using my mental ability, I called on the ghosts of Cressida’s house to assist me. Please, if you have any hatred of Cressida, please help me fight against her. Within mere seconds, grayish-green ooze began seeping out of the dingy walls. A horrible wailing echoed down the corridor, and I stopped and turned around, feeling a stronger, more intense kind of cold creep into the air. The male and female vampire had come to a stop and were being rapidly surrounded by apparitions. Ghosts, ghouls, specters, and the like were swirling around them and, in some cases, through them, leaving behind slime and residue. The male vampire leaned over and vomited, his skin pale and sweaty, while the female swung her fists through the air trying to hit the spirits that tormented them.
It wasn’t my affair. I left them where they were and frantically continued my search through the house. The hallways were a maze of long, plain corridors. It took me a minute or two, but eventually I found a hallway with a plain, cream-colored door leading to a set of stairs. Opening it quietly, I stepped inside the doorway. An overhead light came on, and it cast the staircase in a faint and sickly yellow light. I could barely see the bottom, but I was able to make out that another door lay beyond.
Before I could take a step further, a surge of rats came pouring forth from underneath the bottom step, taking each one with determination to reach their target – me. Brown, white, gray, black: the rats were numerous, with glowing red eyes and tiny sharp claws, tails whipping around behind them. I tried calling the ghosts to help me, but despite their best efforts, the rats were unphased by them.
I spun around and headed back where I came from. Legs pumping hard, I made it out of the hallway maze and back into the main hall, launching myself out the front door. I did this just as two guards caught on and began to sprint across the main hall to pursue me, their footsteps echoing behind me.
As I ran down towards the property wall, tears welled up in my eyes, and I swallowed hard. I hit the wall hard, slamming into it. Reaching up, I grabbed onto the top and pulled myself up and over, then jumped down to the ground. Pushing myself from where I fell, I raced down the street and hopped into my vehicle. I turned the car on and hit the gas, peeling out of the parking space and towards the highway.
I had failed.
* * *
“You tried. That’s the best you could do.”
“But it wasn’t, Xander. I failed to bring him home.”
“Back in the military, we learn that you do your best, at all times. We also learn that sometimes things happen that you can’t account for. It’s okay. You can’t blame yourself; you learn from the mistakes, so they don’t happen again.”
Xander reached out and put a hand on my shoulder. “Besides, we have another option.”
I sniffled and smiled faintly. “Marcus Pendleton.”
Xander smiled. “Marcus Pendleton.”
We sat around the large wooden kitchen table in the house in Bantum. Wine was flowing, mostly to calm my nerves. Xander and Kat had come over to talk with me about the events from last night and our next steps.
Kat walked over from the refrigerator, the door shutting softly behind her. She placed a blood pouch on the table in front of me and gestured for me to proceed. Without saying a word, I made a tear in the pouch and poured it into my empty wine glass. Once it was filled, I set the pouch down and brought the glass to my lips. The blood was cool, sweet, and tasted like fresh berries and vanilla. (It must have come from a dancer; they always tasted like that.) The chilled liquid ran down my throat, sliding quietly down my insides and pooling in my belly. I closed my eyes and sighed, then immediately opened them.
I had found myself wondering if Michael was being fed.
“Do you suppose they’re letting him die slowly?”
Kat gasped, her expression one of shock that I would suggest such a thing.
“No, I’m serious, Kat.”
“I’m serious, too!”
“It’s a possibility. They could be torturing him with a slow death.”
“My god, Celie. How could you even think of something like that?”
“Because I am trying to be a realist.”
“Well stop it!”
Xander held up his hands. “No fighting at the dinner table.” I cradled my wine glass in both hands as he pushed away from the table and stood up. Walking over to the counter, he grabbed the sandwiches they had brought for dinner. It was his idea that we all share dinner together, a way to bond over the current tragedy and simultaneously strategize.
Walking back to the table, Xander handed Kat her BLT sandwich, then he sat down and opened up his Buffalo Chicken one. Kat began to unwrap her sandwich, then grimaced and stopped, slowly pushing it away from herself.
“What? You’re not eating?”
Kat looked up at me. “I’ve lost my appetite.”
“Is it because of what I said?”
“A little bit.” Kat’s gaze returned back to her half-wrapped sandwich. “This whole thing has been blow after blow. I’m just waiting for it all to be over.”
“Well that’s going to be awhile, sweetie. And if you wait until we have Michael back, you’ll probably starve to death.”
“Oh c’mon, Celie!”
“No, I mean it! Enough of this pity party that we’re throwing. I’m tired of it all. We have to be realistic about this thing. ‘Blow after blow’ or not, Michael needs us, and we can’t just stop eating because we’re depressed or some bullshit. You may think you’ve got it bad, but he has it worse than you, or you.” I gestured from Kat to Xander. Then I gestured to myself. “Or even me. This isn’t the time to curl up and die. We have to fight.” I gritted my teeth, then brought my wine glass up and took a big mouthful of blood and swallowed. “I won’t give up on him. I refuse.”
Kat sniffled. Xander looked over at me and frowned. Damn, I needed to pull my shit together. Here I was taking out my frustrations on my best friend. I was being a real asshole.
“I’m sorry, Kat. I just need all of us to have our heads on right. Part of that means that you need to eat.” Kat glanced at me. “Will you please eat your sandwich?”
Kat sniffled again. “Fine. I’ll eat my damn sandwich.” She looked up and suddenly her expression turned into a glare. “But I won’t like it!”
I laughed. “Fine. Fine. Don’t like your BLT.”
Xander winked at me, then turned to Kat and placed a hand gently on her forearm. She looked at him and gave him a tiny smile. I smiled at both of them. It did my heart good to see them happy together, even if Michael and I couldn’t be right now.
Xander refocused his attention on me once my glass was drained. “Alright then. Next steps. Marcus Pendleton.”
“You wanted me to find him, right?”
“That was your job, yes.”
“You found him? So soon?”
“Well, I was right; he’s a pilot with British Airways. I gave them a call, told them I was a lawyer that needed to depose him for a lawsuit with the Airline Pilot Association. They immediately gave me his contact information.”
I gave Xander the devil horns hand gesture. “You bad ass, you! Did you talk with him?”
“I did. He’s finishing up a series of flights out of Germany and will come by the house.”
“You told him where we are?”
“Yes.” Xander pulled back for a moment. “Wait, should I not have done that?”
I knew the expression on my face said more than what I wanted. “Well, I would have liked to have met him before telling him how to find the house. There’s a reason Michael shields it.” Then something else dawned on me. “Crap, I bet the house isn’t even hidden right now.”
Kat looked up from her sandwich. “Oh… That’s an excellent point…”
“With Cressida’s people doing their crap-ass magic on him, he probably doesn’t have the ability to hide it.” I shrugged at her. “Oh well, we’ll figure out what to do with Marcus when he gets here.”
I looked back over at Xander. “When can we expect him?”
“He should be here within a couple of days.”
“That’s good. That’s good.” My eyes turned down towards my hands on the table. When did they start to look like adult hands? It occurred to me that I was taking charge of this entire thing like an adult. Adulting in the most fearsome of ways, in all actuality. When had that happened? When did I become an adult? There were no more kid games. There was no more reliance on others to fix my issues. Despite my age, I used to feel in certain ways that I was still a teenager. At what point had that changed? I stared at my hands for a minute longer, overtaken by my own thoughts, before my gaze returned to Xander. “I guess we wait until he arrives?”
Xander nodded, and the three of us sat in silence.
* * *
I looked the man up and down. “You’re Marcus Pendleton?”
“I am indeed, madam.” His accent was decidedly British, although I couldn’t place what part of the country he was from. It wasn’t Liverpool, and it certainly wasn’t Southampton. Maybe Oxford?
“Well, well. Madam is it? Okay then. Come on in…” I held the door open for Marcus, and he crossed the threshold, entering the main hall.
Marcus was not what I was expecting. Oh he was handsome alright: dark blonde hair, a Grecian nose, and a strong jawline that any normal red-blooded person would want to stroke with their tongue had it not been covered under a generous amount of blonde stubble. He was slightly taller than me, with expansive shoulders and a trim waist.
The surprising part was that he had a strong scar that started at his right eyebrow and ran down over his eye to just overtop his cheekbone. While his left eye was a piercing blue, his right eye was an opaque white. I imagined it must have happened before he was made into a vampire. It was a starling combination and seemed to lend itself to his overall allure.
Needless to say, I was curious how he was able to fly a plane with an eye like that, but I figured I would leave it for another conversation.
“Welcome. We’re happy to have you with us.” I led him into the sitting room, gesturing for him to have a seat on the green sofa.
“Thank you for calling me. I hadn’t heard from Hawkins in quite some time, but I’d assumed it had something to do with you. Positively speaking, of course.”
“So what’s the fellow up to?”
“He’s been kidnapped.”
“No, I’m pretty fucking serious.”
“That’s the freakishly interesting part: his mother.”
“His mother, Cressida Hawkins.”
“But she’s…she’s dead…” Marcus looked flabbergasted. “She can’t have kidnapped him!”
“Oh, she’s very much alive. And a vampire to boot.”
“You heard it here first. Cressida is alive and well, and a vampire.”
Marcus, who had been leaning forward on his elbows, fell back against the sofa. “Bloody hell. That’s some devilry.” After a moment, he leaned forward again. “How did this come about?”
“Apparently, Michaels’ sire, Amelia was the one wh–”
“Amelia is her sire? Well that’s just mad.”
“You’re telling me…”
“The two of them, separated by centuries but having the same sire. How astonishing…”
“‘Astonishing’ is certainly one of the words you could use in this instance.”
“Oh right. Sorry.” He held up a hand in apology. “Please, you were saying?”
“Amelia sired Cressida, but she did so at the same time that Michael thought he saw her die, so he didn’t realize she had been turned. Cut to months later, and Michael kills Amelia, but Cressida didn’t find out for decades, centuries even. Now she wants revenge against Michael for killing her sire.”
“So Cressida was sired by Amelia. Roger that. But why this bloodlust for Michael?”
“Amelia was…shall we say…more than just a sire to Cressida.”
“Ah…” Marcus nodded his head. “Say no more. Something similar happened between me and my sire, Ramses.”
Shocked, I didn’t know what to say. “You mean you and yours…were, um, together?”
Marcus simply nodded and smiled. “Those were the good old days. The two of us against the world, fighting battles side by side.” He shook his head, as if to clear away the fog of memory. “That was a long time ago, though. Ramses is, unfortunately, no more.”
“Oh. Oh, I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be. It was his own fault, really.” Marcus chuckled, his singular blue eye lighting up. “Not that I don’t miss the curmudgeon.”
I smiled for him. “Love is a wonderful thing to experience.”
Marcus smiled back. “Indeed.” After a moment, he slapped his hands on his knees. “So tell me more about Hawkins’ kidnapping. I gather you need my help to get him out?”
“We do, actually.”
“Splendid! I’m happy to oblige. What resources do we have?”
“You’re basically looking at ‘em.”
“Can Hawkins not use his abilities?”
“No, they’re dampening them somehow.”
“And what about you? What are your abilities?”
“Oh, right to the point, huh?” I maneuvered over to the sofa and sat down next to him. “So I can turn into a panther. A big one. Huge. I can also summon ghosts.”
“Ghouls, specters, banshees, spirits: you know, ghosts.” Marcus’ lower lip stuck out, and he made a “mmm hmm” sound as if impressed. “And you? What can you do?”
“All in due time, Miss Celie. All in due time.”
“Oh come on… That’s not fair!”
Marcus laughed, and it seemed to ease my mind. “I promise you’ll learn them soon enough.”