The next day, I introduced Marcus to Kat. Xander and he had already met, so they exchanged familiarities like reunited brothers, clapping each other on the back as they gave each other a hug. Kat, however, seemed unconvinced that Marcus was the ally that Gloria had promised us would come.
“Are you absolutely positive this is the right guy?”
“Why? What’s the problem?”
“I don’t know. He just seems so…unassuming?”
“You mean to say you think he’s too nice?”
“Kind of. Don’t we need a beast to come in here and clean Cressida’s clock?”
I laughed. “I can’t believe I’m hearing this. You really think we need some sort of behemoth of a vampire to help us out?”
“Yeah. Like that big vampire we ran into when we were looking for the Boston colony. That guy was huge!”
“Oh my god, Kat. Seriously, size doesn’t matter when it comes to vampires. Hell, look at me! Do I look like I would turn into a panther and bite some other dude’s hand off?”
“And there you have it.” I glanced over at Marcus with Xander. “I still don’t know what his abilities are. I think he can fly, though. At least, that’s what I remember Michael telling me.”
“Fly? Like ‘The Boy Who Could Fly’? Or more like Neo in the Matrix?”
“I’m not sure. I’d love a demonstration, but I doubt he’s going to provide one just yet.”
“True. He just got here. Oh!” Kat bounced where she stood. “Let me go get everyone a drink. Beer?”
“Don’t mention it!” She took off through the house towards the kitchen.
I decided to join in on the conversation between Marcus and Xander. I eased closer until I was standing just behind them. Xander was talking about our foray into the Great House.
“The fortifications are simple. But they continue to have an advantage over us. I just can’t figure it out.”
I leaned forward. “It’s the rats.”
Xander and Marcus whirled around to face me, startled that I had crept up that quietly. “Come again?” asked Marcus, his brow knit in confusion.
“The rats. That’s how we keep getting ‘ratted’ out.” I threw my hands up and made air quotes. A good pun wasn’t going to waste here. Not on my watch.
Xander just rolled his eyes, and Marcus continued to look confused as hell.
I cleared my throat. “Cressida has the ability to control rats, or animals. Maybe just rats. I don’t know which.” I threw my hands in the air. “But I do know that they are giving her information about what goes on around her house. She’s very aware of where we are and what we’re doing when we show up. The rats are the only thing I can think of that would be keeping her ‘in the know’.”
“So the ability to control animals. That’s good to know…” Marcus had been lost in thought, and he glanced up at me. “Do you think that would work on you when you’re a panther?”
Startled, I stammered back, “N-No…I don’t think it would?” However, he’d given me something new to think about.
Xander’s attention went back and forth between us, clearly not happy with the implications that my abilities could be put under Cressida’s control.
As the tension weighed heavily on us, Kat came bounding around the corner holding two beers in each hand. As she outstretched her hands, I happily took one from her, cracked it open, and began to guzzle it down. Immediately, Kat froze and looked around.
“Did I miss something?”
I laughed out loud, and soon after, Xander and Marcus also began laughing. Kat laughed, too, nervously at first, but then realized the laughter was good for all of us. There the four of us stood in the main hallway of Michael’s house, laughing and clinking beers together to toast one another.
If only Michael could have been there.
* * *
“Tell me more about you and Ramses.”
“You want to know about us?”
Marcus eyed me over his eighth beer and eventually shrugged.
Kat and Xander had left a few minutes prior. We’d come up with a plan, so they were going to ensure we had all the necessary equipment to make it work. I was left alone with Marcus, and we sat at the dining room table, swapping stories about our vampire lives. I had told him about the bout with Devlin Raines and our run-ins with the SpellCasters. It was only fair for him to tell me a story or two about himself.
“C’mon. Don’t be shy.”
Marcus looked wistful for a moment. “Oh I’m not. I’m just not used to people asking about him.”
I paused, then gently prodded. “So what was he like, then?”
“He was…larger than life. He was defiant and difficult, and at times the most stubborn horse’s ass that had ever walked the earth.” Marcus laughed at a memory. “There was one time that we had to fight the Turks, and the Sultan’s army had made camp at the top of a steep hill. From that angle, you know – they had the advantage over us.” He leaned forward. “You never fight a battle uphill.” Leaning back, he continued. “Well, I told him that we needed to approach during the nighttime to avoid being seen, but he didn’t care. First thing in the morning, dawn lights up the world, and there he is, bellowing out demands to the army to come down and surrender to us.” Marcus chuckled. “He was a surprise and a half.”
“He sure sounds like it. How did you meet him?”
“Well, first you must know that he was Ramses. Not just someone that happened to have his name. No, he was Ramses I of Egypt.”
“Ramses the Great? That Ramses?”
“No, he came later. Ramses I was the first pharaoh named Ramses in Egypt, back during the 13th century BC. He didn’t have a long reign, but he had a solid military background as leader.”
“What did he look like?”
There was that wistful smile again. “Ah… He was tall. Wonderfully tan. Deep dark eyes and the most beautiful black hair… He would shave all of it except for a bit he kept tied up at the back, around here.” Marcus pointed to the middle of the back of his head. “He kept that hair long, and it was so straight! You know, to this day I’ve never seen hair that straight on anybody except for him.”
“He sounds amazing. How did he go from being a pharaoh to fighting alongside you? Seems like an awful lot to give up.”
“It was that military background of his. When he was made a vampire, he left the throne to his son, Seti I, and traveled the world as a mercenary. From then on, he went from empire to empire, selling his sword in exchange for battle. He was a mercenary for Spain when I met him.”
“You met him in Spain?”
“Yes. We both had been led there by war: him with the Almohads and me with the Templars.”
“Wait.” I had to pump the brakes on that bit. “Wait just one damned minute. You…” I took a breath. “You were with the Templars? As in the Knights Templar?”
“Oh my God…”
“Honestly, God had very little to do with it. I just got roped into it by my family and my king. It was the Crusades, after all.”
“But I thought the Templars were crusading for the Church?”
“Stuff and nonsense.”
“You see, it was really all about the money. We were all the best fighters, paid for by the wealthiest of families. It was more of an Order of Wealth than of Church. The Church arranged for one or two fighters, but the rest of us were acting as paid mercenaries of a sort. Honestly it was part of the reason that the French king, Philip IV disliked us so much. He didn’t trust us to stay in line.”
“Wow. Okay. So you were a Templar, and you were fighting in the Crusades when you met Ramses?”
“Right. You see, we were in the same place, fighting as mercenaries for the opposite side. But the trick of a trebuchet, and we were stuck together in a building under some debris. He was buried much worse than I was, and I pulled him out of the wreckage. In return, he decided to switch sides.”
“Just like that?”
“As was his way. He had fierce loyalty to his friends and loved ones, but not to the people that paid him.”
“Interesting… Please, continue.”
“So he began touring with me, and we fought neck and neck against the Moors in Spain. He stood by me when the Templars were tried for heresy, too. Then the time came that we, the Templars, were no more, and he was preparing to leave. I’d grown so close to him, those years together, fighting together and watching over each other. I couldn’t hide it anymore, so I told him in secret that I loved him.”
“And what did he say?”
“He confessed that he loved me, too.”
“Ooh!” I squealed. “What happened after that?”
Marcus raised an eyebrow. “I think you can guess what happened next.”
“Squee! So you two were now officially together–”
“–and you were no longer part of the Templars–”
“–so where did you go? I can’t imagine it was easy to be together back then. Hell, it’s still not easy to be together today. So stupid…” I muttered the last bit under my breath.
“We traveled the world: Germany, Morocco, Romania, India, the Colonies… Well, it was a few centuries before the Colonies came about. Before that, we were friendly with the Mayans and the Cherokee. Ramses, as I said, was a larger than life presence, and over the years, he’d developed an impressive ability to immerse himself among new peoples and tribes. He was also incredibly charming. There was no one he met that didn’t want to get close to that man.”
“So everyone loved him?”
“Everyone loved him.”
“How long were you together?”
“Up until the day he died. That was nearly three-hundred years ago, right around the time that I met Michael.”
“Did Michael know Ramses?”
“No, unfortunately they never met.” Marcus smiled. “I think Ramses would have liked him.”
I sighed. “I wish I could have met him. He sounds phenomenal.”
“Thank you. He was.”
After a moment, my curiosity got the better of me. “May I ask what happened? I mean, if it’s alright with you… Don’t feel like you have to tell me.”
“No, it’s okay. It was a long time ago.” Cracking open another beer, Marcus continued his story. “We were fighting in the French and Indian War, on the side of the British, of course. The Colonies needed some help, so Ramses and I signed up to assist. We were shipped off to a relatively new fort they had built in New York called Fort William Henry.”
“Wait – the same one as in Last of the Mohicans? That fort?”
“The same. You’ve seen that movie?”
“Boy, did I! It was amazing.”
“Well, it was a bit dramatic, but the plot that befell the fort was the same.”
“You were there? When everything happened?”
“Oh my gosh, tell me everything!”
“Well, the initial few months were spent simply fighting against the Native Americans. Nothing major, just the odd skirmish here and there. But the French began to attack, led by Marquis de Montcalm. Lieutenant Colonel Monro, our commanding officer, did his best to withstand the assault, but it was no use. The French pummeled the fort with gunfire and cannons, attacking us day and night for days on end. It was constant: debris flying, the earth shaking, men crying out. We had women and children in the fort, too.”
“Was it true that no one could escape without being killed?”
“Yes. No one was safe. We would try to send word to General Webb that reinforcements were needed, but Native Americans were hiding in the woods with scouts from the French, picking off anyone who tried to leave.”
“Yes. Nearly everyone who attempted to flee was killed.”
“So how did you get out of there?”
“Well, it was during one of the last attacks that Monro finally agreed to surrender. He realized Webb wasn’t sending reinforcements to back him up, and the French were practically at our doorstep, so he put up the flag, called a truce. An agreement was struck, and after an evening to prepare, we filed out of the fort with the French watching.”
“That had to be scary, having the enemy that close.”
“Ramses and I were fine until the column was in the woods. Do you remember when the Native Americans attacked in the movie?”
“After they left the fort? Yeah… Wait. Are you saying that really happened?”
“It did. It was during that attack that Ramses was killed.”
“Are you serious!”
Marcus nodded. “We had some French soldiers with us, but it did no good. The majority of them simply didn’t care. The Native Americans came attacking the rear of the column and surprised many of us. Ramses seemed to know something was off. I’m still not sure how, but he knew. He began striking back, firing his musket and then two hunting knives to fight back. It was while he was fighting one Native American that another came up behind him and hit him along the back of the neck with a tomahawk. I was too far away to get to him in time. The tomahawk severed his spinal column and cut cleanly through half of his neck. Once I reached him, I could see he was done; the damage was too great for him to recover from.”
“That’s horrific. I’m so sorry, Marcus.”
Marcus stared down at the beer bottle in his left hand. “I think I went a little mad. I picked up his hunting knives and took out as many attackers as I could, including some French soldiers that were simply standing by. Men died by my hand, some swiftly and some less so. I just wanted them all to suffer, anyone who might be responsible.”
He looked up at me. “The Mohawk gave me a nickname after what I’d done. Kahòntsi Kario – Black Animal. I’d say I earned it.”
I just stared at him, unsure what to say. After a minute or two, I cleared my throat. “I have no doubt that I’d go mad if something happened to Michael. Considering things, like the fact that it was Ramses and there was a war going on, I’d say you handled yourself pretty damn well.”
Marcus chuckled softly. “Yeah, I suppose so.”
“Well, now that I’ve thoroughly wrecked this evening, I’m going to bid you adieu.” I reached out my hand to collect his beer bottle, which he willingly gave up before standing up to meet me.
“Let me help you clean up.”
We collected the bottles from the table and headed into the kitchen. I dumped them in the recycling bin, and he followed suit. Those would get trucked into town another day.
Turning around, I gave Marcus a big hug. “Ramses would be very proud of the vampire you’ve become.”
Surprised, Marcus hesitated before putting his arms around me and gripping me tightly. “Thank you. That really means a lot to me.” He leaned back. “Michael would also be proud of you and how much you’re doing to rescue him.”
“Good. I’ll let you tell him when he comes home.”
With that, Marcus titled his head back and laughed, a deep and hearty laugh that spoke of genuine happiness. I smiled. It was good to have him here. I could see why Michael considered him a friend.
We walked up the stairs together, chatting about the plans for tomorrow, until we got to the second floor. I bid him goodnight and headed to my room while he made his way to the room at the end of the corridor. I waited until I heard the sound of his door close before closing mine.
Heading into the bathroom, I washed my face and neck, then changed into a simple oversized t-shirt. The bathroom light was shut off as I went back into the dark bedroom and padded across the floor to the bed. Lifting the covers, I climbed under the blanket and tried to pretend that Michael was there, lying next to me. I reached out a hand and pushed a dip down into his pillow, then ran my hands over it, imagining his head had just been there, and he’d simply gotten up for a glass of water. Letting my hand stay on his pillow, I closed my eyes, and eventually I fell asleep.
* * *
The dream returned.
I was running in a black space, away from her, away from the woman I now realized was Cressida. She was moving stealthily, watching me, and moving when I moved. Suddenly she pounced, and as she struck me, I felt myself falling, over and over again with no end.
When I eventually landed, it wasn’t hard and angry; it was soft and gentle on the ground. I realized I was on sweet green grass now, the black having disappeared. A beautiful sky hovered above me, white wispy clouds dancing through the blue. I heard a voice, someone calling to me, and I looked around.
It was Gloria. She was across a field.
“Come, cher. I must tell you something…”
Her words echoing across the space to me, I pushed myself up, my hands getting damp from the wet earth beneath the grass. Now standing, I slowly walked over to where Gloria stood. She was dressed in layers upon layers of sheer champagne-colored silk. At her neck was a large lapis lazuli cabochon captured in gold, and a circlet of gold studded with small lapis stones was around her head. She looked like a goddess, and I knelt at her feet, staring up at her.
But as she opened her mouth to speak, a rat came crawling out, pushing and shoving past her lips. Where it ended, another began, then another and another. The rats surged forth and crawled down her body. I tried to get up, but in dreams your body doesn’t behave the way you want it to. I fell over and began crawling, trying to get away from the rats that were now chasing me and jumping onto my back. I felt them in my hair and tried to scream but nothing came out.
As I fell over from the weight of them, one of them scurried up to my face and stared at me. Its eyes were abnormal: golden and streaked. As I watched, it opened its mouth and lunged toward me–
I shot upright in bed. Sweat dripped down my back despite the chill in the room. The dream was over, but I knew it was a prophecy.
I grabbed my phone, not cognizant of the hour, and dialed Gloria. After two rings, a man answered it. His accent was heavy.
“Ya. Who dis?”
“I’m looking for Gloria? My name’s Celie. I’m a friend.”
“Oh, you come too late. She’s gone, cher.”
“Aye. She’s gone to de afterlife.”
I let the phone drop from my fingertips. It landed softly on my lap, and I could barely hear the man’s voice as he continued to speak. My brain was imploding from the news that my dream was true.
Cressida had killed Gloria.