Francois awoke to the kind face of his lover.
“Oh, Dieu merci (thank God). You are still here.”
“I plan to be.”
“Mmm.” Francois smiled and his face brightened. “That makes my heart sing.”
“How are you feeling, lyubov?”
“I have some ringing in my right ear, but it is otherwise healed.” He looked down at his feet and wiggled his toes. “My legs appear to be mended, too. Huzzah!”
“I need to talk with you.”
Immediately, Francois stiffened. He recognized that tone in Dmitri’s voice. Something serious was coming. “What is it, mon coeur?”
Dmitri stood up and walked over to the door, closing it and locking it shut. Now Francois was doubly intrigued. He pushed himself to sit up.
Returning to his bedside, Dmitri sat down on the chair next to him. “We must keep this brief and quiet.”
“Shh. I must get this out.”
Francois examined his lover’s face and saw a trace of fear in it. Reaching out, he took Dmitri’s hand in his and squeezed it reassuringly. “Je suis désolé. Continuez.” (I’m sorry. Continue.)
Dmitri lowered his voice to a whisper. “We are breaking free. Tonight.”
Francois shook his head. “Breaking free? Je ne comprends pas?” (I don’t understand.)
“My new friends are helping us escape.”
“Da. We are leaving this place.”
“But there is no escape. Not from her.”
“That is why they are helping us.”
In that moment, it dawned on him what Dmitri was saying. “You… You made a pact with the enemy?”
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Francois became agitated. “They took my hand! They kidnapped you! And you made a deal with them? They are no better than her!”
Dmitri glowered. “Everyone is better than she is. She almost killed you. They merely want their friend back, the one in the basement.”
“And who’s to say they will keep their word?”
“No one. But I will not have you continue to suffer.”
“I am fine.”
“This time. Next time, maybe not.”
Francois looked away in shame, embarrassed that Cressida had so strongly abused him. Part of him felt he had deserved it for confronting her prisoner, while another part of him wanted to strike back at her for it. Either way, he didn’t feel confident about a rebellion.
“What about the others? What about her? Won’t we need to keep running from her?”
Dmitri looked him deep in the eyes. “Not if she is dead.”
Feeling dread deep in his bones, Francois shook his head. “No. No. This is impossible.”
“It is possible. We free the man in the basement. Then he and his friends work with us to kill her.”
“This sounds insane.” Francois put a hand to Dmitri’s cheek. “Believe me when I tell you I love you and want us to be together. But Cressida will know. She and the other vampires will kill us all.”
“We have a plan.”
“Oh? Oh. You have a plan. Of course.” Francois fell back against the pillows, vexed but beginning to feel resigned. He loved Dmitri, and if that meant that he would need to die to be with him, then so be it. He’d had a long life.
But living with him would still be preferable.
Turning his head, he studied him. “Does this involve living? Because I would very much like to do that.”
Dmitri chuckled at Francois’ attempt at humor. It meant he was coming around to his way of thinking. Standing up, he held out his hand to him. “Come. We need to find Jonas and Amunet.”
* * *
“No way, José.”
“You must, Jonas.”
“Listen up, Dmitri. I’m definitely not a fan of hers; the bitch has been burnin’ bridges for years. But she’s my sire, and I owe her for this life I’ve got.”
“You did, but no longer.” Moving in closer, Dmitri’s already hushed voice grew quieter. “When you were left for dead in Vietnam, did she come for you? Did she rescue you? Nyet. She left you behind.”
Jonas remained quiet, pensive. He had some ramshackle memories of that time in his life: memories of torture and brotherhood, bloodshed and resilience. Not one of his memories included her help or benevolence. Not when he was drafted, and certainly not when he was caught by the Viet Cong. She had borderline disavowed him.
However, he did have a memory of Dmitri and Amunet coming to his aid. He remembered the night they showed up in the encampment. The Cong had laid down for the evening, leaving a pitiful number of guards on lookout and patrol while they slept. The two of them burst in like a match sparking a flame, slaughtering and killing everyone. They freed him from his cage and pulled him out of there. They brought him back to the United States. They brought him home.
Shaking his head to clear the memory, Jonas looked over at Amunet. She was so strikingly different from him: beautiful and fierce, there was something wild about her. Hell, when he had first arrived at the Great House in the 1960s, he was just another redneck, born and raised in West Virginia. He’d been in the Air National Guard for a while, and they had bumped him to a station in Connecticut before he got out. That’s where he was when he encountered Cressida, and she took a liking to him. Her fascination with a ‘good ol’ boy’ out of his element caused his eventual turning.
But that first night in his new home, he had bumped into Amunet during a guard rotation and fallen instantly head-over-heels in love. It wasn’t just her stunning good looks or her skills on the battlefield that stopped his heart. No, his instincts told him there was so much more to her than that.
From there on out, they trained together, sparred together, and went on missions for Cressida together. He quickly made sure to learn ASL so he could talk with her regularly, too. Their conversations were often poignant and deep, about history, civilization, food, and cultural events. They would exchange stories of their upbringing, and she would tell him about all the places she had been and things she had seen.
When he had been drafted, he had been positive he would never see her again. The military shipped him overseas, and the only thing he had left of her was a photograph. But then she arrived with Dmitri that night, rescuing him from a fate worse than death. It had felt like a dream, as she held him on the truck ride to Da Nang East Airfield. He still remembered how her face looked in the moonlight, backlit by the starry sky. In her arms, he had never felt so protected.
When they returned, they were inseparable, but they still acted like sparring partners; it was as if nothing had changed. Every time he thought he would tell her how he felt, something would come up: an interruption, a mission, something. He had begun to feel like they were never meant to be together.
But no matter how much time had passed, he loved her all the same.
He gazed at her. She pleaded with him but said nothing; it was all there for him to see in her gorgeous green eyes. She was so small, so terribly small. But if she was ready to rebel, to fight Cressida, then he would be, too. For her.
He would do anything for her.
Jonas turned back to Dmitri. “Count me in.”
* * *
I prepared for the fight the same way most people would: I made myself a delectable meal, complete with a glass of Pinot Noir, and sat at the dining room table, rehashing our plan and perusing the blueprints Xander had left behind. Taking a sip from my wine glass, I remembered the last time I had sat here with Michael, and it felt like a lifetime ago.
A small noise behind me alerted me to Marcus’ presence. Opting not to turn around, I simply stood up and walked over to the hutch, grabbing another wine glass and returning to the table. I poured him a glass and, as he came around my side, handed it to him. He gracefully sat in the chair on my right, and I reseated myself.
“No. Not that I could do it much anyway. You?”
“Revisiting our plans.” I leaned back in my chair, my wine glass still in my right hand. “In an hour, we’re going to be leaving for Cressida’s place, and I can’t think of any reason why this won’t work.” Looking from the blueprints to Marcus, I gestured over the plans. “Is that crazy? I’m looking for faults in this thing…”
Marcus shook his head. “That’s not crazy, Celie. You’re being thorough.”
“Is that it? Being thorough?” I looked away. “Or is it fear?”
“It’s alright to be afraid.”
My eyes danced over the other wine glasses in the cabinet. “You know, Michael told me he acquired all of these glasses from an estate in Denmark.” I chuckled. “I wanted to call them Viking glasses, and he tried naming each one after the Æsir from Norse mythology.” Holding up my glass, I said, “This one is Thor.” I nodded to the one Marcus was holding. “That one is Baldur.” My eyes drifted down to my wine. “Michael loved using the Loki glass. Said it was full of mischief.”
“We’re going to get him back.”
“Will we? What if he’s already dead?”
“What does your gut tell you?”
“My instincts are telling me Cressida is going to do a number on us.”
“But is it telling you that Michael is gone?”
Letting myself be still for a moment, so I could feel, I mean really feel my gut, I closed my eyes. “No. I still feel that he’s alive.”
“Then you have your answer.” Marcus smiled and took a sip from his wine glass.
My eyes opened, and my left eyebrow went up. “You’re awfully sure of yourself, aren’t you?”
“I’ve had a lifetime of practice.”
“I wish I had your confidence.”
“You do. You just have some distractions. Let’s see if we can ease some of them.”
Before I understood what he was on about, Marcus was in my mind. I was suddenly experiencing our victory over Cressida, watching her body fall to the floor. She was dead, and the fight was over. One or two vampires ran off, but some of them stayed and actually looked relieved.
Then I was hugging Michael. We were together again, kissing each other as our friends stood around us, smiling. Everyone was happy…
Bam! The vision was over. I was inhaling rapidly in my chair, fumbling my wine glass, and barely catching it before it fell to the floor. Setting it on the table, I glared at Marcus, who was looking a tad regretful.
“You could have warned a girl before you set foot in her brainpan!”
“I thought seeing what it could look like might help you feel better?”
I felt my eyes narrow as I stared at him. “If you don’t want me to kick your ass, you won’t do that again. Not without my permission, anyway.”
“See? You’re already acting more confident!”
Rolling my eyes, I grabbed my wine glass again. “That may be, but I’m still pissed.”
“Maybe that’s your key? You need to be angry to be confident? Sadness doesn’t seem to get you anywhere.”
He had a point. I realized that any time I needed to get a job done, anger was a great motivator for me. It cleared my head and kept me on the right path towards success.
“Fine. Then I’ll channel my anger in an hour. Cressida won’t know what hit her.”
“That’s the spirit!” A brilliant smile lit up his face.
Seeing his exuberance, I couldn’t help but laugh, which caused him to laugh, too. After that we talked about other things, like how he and Michael met. It was nice to have a moment of levity before the storm.
* * *
I grabbed my keys and headed towards the front door, my black combat boots thunking against the floor as I walked. Yoshi followed closely behind me. He was again wearing all black, his nodachi blade in its scabbard. Marcus had put on black cargo pants and a dark gray t-shirt. He met us outside, leaning casually against the side of the SUV.
Xander and Kat were going to sit this one out, having realized that, as humans, they would just be fodder. We wanted them to stay alive, and it would be too much of a distraction trying to protect them. I loved my friends, but this was not their fight.
The guys and I climbed into the SUV, I started the engine, and we headed around the fountain and down the driveway. It was going to be a short drive to Cressida’s place, but each second felt like an eternity. Feeling my anxiety creeping in, I decided to put on some music and selected The Midnight. Electronic keyboard and saxophone flooded the cabin and eased my mind.
“I like it. What’s the song called?”
“Er…Vampires.” I gave him a quick, sheepish grin.
“Ha! Most fitting.”
I laughed. Marcus was definitely going to have to visit more often once this was all over.
* * *
Dmitri was prepared. Those vampires who he knew hated Cressida had agreed to join the fight against her. However, there were so many more who he knew would never cross their mistress. He didn’t bother trying to persuade them. They had seen what she was capable of over the years, and it hadn’t swayed them. There was loyalty and then there was blind loyalty, and Dmitri understood the difference.
Now he must wait for the others to arrive.
It was 8pm, and the sun had set an hour ago. On his way to the west wing of the house, he stopped by the front door. He flipped up the beige panel for the alarm system and proceeded to enter in his security access code.
As he was about to hit ‘Enter’, someone cleared their throat behind him. He whirled around to see who was watching him and found Holden, Cressida’s butler, standing there.
“Privet (Hello), Holden.”
“Good evening, Dmitri.”
They stood in awkward silence for a moment, regarding each other in the same way you might regard a stranger attempting to grab the same last item on a shelf in the grocery store. Dmitri eventually caved and cleared his own throat.
“Can I help with something?”
“No, no.” Holden angled his head to the side and tilted his chin up. “What were you doing there, with the alarm system?”
“Oh. Nichego (Nothing). Just checking that it is armed.”
“Oh. I see.”
More awkward silence.
“I’m just on my way to study. I have to take care of the household bills for the mistress.”
“Well then…” Dmitri gestured for Holden to proceed ahead of him in the direction of the study. Holden sniffed and eyed Dmitri a moment longer. Then he gave a small bow of his head and moved along down the corridor into the west wing.
Damn, thought Dmitri. This will cause disruption to the plan.
He waited for Holden to leave, then completed disarming the alarm system. He hopped on his radio and called for Jonas. Within two minutes, Jonas was standing in front of him.
“Whaddya need, boss?”
Dmitri addressed him in a hushed voice. “I need you to watch Holden in the study. I am going to unlock the window at the end of the hall nearby to let the others inside. The alarm system is off.”
“Will you tell Amunet? We need her at the front door now.”
Jonas ran off like a shot, his lightning-fast ability making him like the Flash. Within mere seconds, he was back and smiling. Amunet was in his arms, and he set her down gently like a giant with a small child.
Amunet nodded to Dmitri and headed to the front door, her sickle-shaped sword, or khopesh, dangling from her waistband. She unlocked it, then turned around. Standing guard, she held her right hand clasped over her left wrist in front of her hips, her expression serious and reserved.
Jonas followed Dmitri into the west wing of the house, pausing outside the door to the study. He made his entry, calling out, “Heya, Holden! How’s your day goin’?” as he entered the room. The sound of Holden’s audible groan reached the hallway before Jonas closed the door.
Dmitri left him to it and rounded the corner to get to the end of the hall. Reaching the window, he swiped open the lock on it, then immediately exited the area. As he passed the study, he could hear muffled voices inside and knew Jonas was definitely keeping Holden busy.
Now, they just needed to keep Cressida away until the others were inside…