The final chapter...|
by Michael Finson
QUEEN OF LIGHT AND DARK
Dream Walking and Consequences
Even though it had been nearly two years since James Duncan had walked in the sun, Molly still dreamed about him occasionally. By this time, though, those had faded into wistful, melancholy visions of her friend and one time lover turning his back then walking away from her without so much as a goodbye.
Seeing that hurt. A lot. I would have made a point of making my farewells, and telling her that I did love her in some ways, had I only been given an opportunity to do it. Still, I resisted the urge towards just such an act by inserting myself into her dream image of my old self and telling her those things anyway. Her grief remained, as much for the sudden disappearance as for the prolonged absence of someone she had believed to be more than simply a friend.
I had been, and in a way was yet, though she wasn't consciously aware of me or my off and on watching of her dreams. Gently smoothing several ripples of stronger grief in her sleeping psyche with delicate strokes from my mind, I forced myself to turn away until her dreams moved on to something happier. Like Steve, who I well knew had been the firm anchor she required to let go of James, and their place in the city that was filled with such poignantly hurtful memories.
Or the sprawling farm they had purchased far enough away from their condo that not even the city spawned haze was visible over the rolling hills and through the forested slopes between them and myself.
A new start for both, I knew, hoped, that would give them some measure of peace. At least with each other.
"Be happy, Molly," I wished her in a voice that could have been no more than a breath of the breeze she felt across her face. "Forget James, he won't be back in any kind of form you'd ever recognize, or wish to if you did. Sleep well, my dear friend. Sleep quietly."
Her dream landscape expanded slowly as another shape took on substantial form at her side. Steve had moved in his sleep and rested a hand across her back, I knew. He had more or less accepted the idea that I would never return, and loved Molly enough for both of us. Enough to have weathered her determined, if useless efforts to find me, or what had happened to me.
"It is good that you love each other," I whispered again, not manipulating, only affirming what existed. "Treasure what you have, and hold to it."
That was enough for me. I had just entered my own wide expanse of Dreamscape, they would be emerging from theirs into wakefulness soon. I had no wish to be present, or even nearby -- figuratively -- when that happened.
"You shouldn't even visit them like this," I berated myself, like I always did after such an early morning flitting into the only aspect of their lives I could risk being part of ever again. "They don't need some half assed ghost walking around in their heads, even if they're asleep. And you don't need the pain, Magda."
Once again, I resolved not to return to them. As I had many times in the past, and likely would in the future. There wasn't much I could give either one of them given the present circumstances. If I could help them towards peace with their past, and sharing of their present and futures, that would have to do.
I turned away regretfully, but with more than a little relief too. Maybe it's foolish, but I don't let go of friends and loved ones easily, or happily. Even when hanging on hurts badly. Shaking the tears from my own eyes, I drew in a breath and flitted over the surreal landscape that had become nearly as familiar, and comfortable to me, as the things around me when I was wakeful.
That Dreamscape, a vast, misty plain reaching away from my view towards a range of mountains so high that they couldn't have existed in reality, was something I'd come to almost consider my private preserve. Though I knew better, and chided myself over becoming arrogant, overconfident, and possessive of something that belonged to the whole world. A place of healing, retribution, or both, depending upon individual circumstances and perceptions.
I was still awed by the knowledge that every living creature on Earth had access to that place and made use of it regularly. Unreal as it often seemed, the Dreamscape was a vital, living thing pulsing with more energy and life force than anyone's meddling, or just simple observation, could disturb any more than a mosquito disturbs the warm blooded creatures it feeds on. A quick sting, then gone.
The awesome power of the place needed no reasons for being, excuses for what it did, or a custodian. No dream weaver in creation save the one who had dreamt everything in the first place could ever hope to lay claim to such a lofty, and frightening, responsibility. All I, or any other Dream Weaver did was smooth a few, individual, rough spots, or gently alter the direction of one dream at a time.
And be greatly thankful that we had been allowed to roam the place so freely.
I was enjoying the feeling of actual serenity entering it generally gave me whenever I was simply cruising through on what amounted to autopilot. Soothing waves of soft pastels shot through with the occasional bright shred of a stronger color denoting someone else's dreams and the gentle wash of an entire world's dream thoughts had me more relaxed than I'd been in weeks.
Flowing around and past the sharp chromium and black spikes of nightmares, then swooping over feathery fountains of brilliantly colored joys, I was managing to have a wonderful time. I had become lulled enough, that the gradual sharpening of details had been happening for some time before I actually noticed. The forest glade I had entered just as things began to solidify took on the distinctly sharp outlines of near reality that had become familiar to me during my own periods of real Dream Weaving as opposed to the floating I had been indulging in after my visit to Molly.
I hadn't initiated that particular Weaving, though was fairly well caught up within it. Which was worrisome, but no reason to blindly panic and flee both the Dreamscape and sleep. But something clung to my consciousness like sticky strands of spider silk, insistently holding my mind to the glade someone else had formed with their own.
Her mind, I could tell, once the loginess of the earliest contacts had faded and my brain really began working on its own instead of being prompted by the subtle, and clever outside influence. The flowers, haphazard but pleasing in their spread of unfamiliar pink and lavender blooms along velvety green vines, with the sweetness of birdsong, amid the soft rustle of a zephyr playing in the leaves had a feminine, very female ambience.
That and I could see a clearly female figure taking shape in the glade's center.
Dream Weavers can shade things whichever way they like, but showing themselves, as this one was doing, always presented a basic image of themselves. This figure was so filled with living presence that I knew the body and face at least were my caller's true ones. Pictures of her soul if you like to hang definitions on things which are really indefinable.
I don't myself, and unprepared as I was for encountering another with my powers just then, nearly flipped head over heels from the blasting waves of hostility emanating from my counterpart like radiant heat. That by itself informed me that this was another Dream Weaver, and that I was caught up in her sending. There was time for me to inanely think, So this is what it feels like on the receiving end, before the lovely, unidentifiable flowers sprouted steely thorns and the green vines they grew out of reached out with malign intelligence to envelop me.
Those vines, monstrous and hungry for flesh, had my legs and were circling my hips and waist by the time I shook myself out of the near daze I had been in. Gathering my own talent, I realized that this confrontation was far from harmless fun, or even meant to change my mind about anything at all. It was made to kill. A trap more deadly than most ever managed in the waking world because of it's seductive beauty and invitation to give up and enjoy the show. While it destroyed you.
Those suddenly metallic thorns, discolored at their needle sharp tips, began trying to work under my dream flesh as the vines started to apply crushing pressure to the parts of me they had covered while reaching higher each moment. Tingling numbness started spreading from where the spikes had managed to work themselves into my flash and a dangerous lassitude was threatening to blank my thoughts out before I was able to rally even a small bit of resistance.
Aware that I'd been drawn in very carefully by another like me, but one with much more experience, I dumped any thoughts of subtlety I might have mustered or attempted and fell back on sheer brute force. The resultant blast shredded the flowers, sending their metallic thorns whirling towards my attacker like small, needle pointed propellers flung off a child's toy airplane.
Blackened, curling in my projected blaze of flame, the vines shriveled into harmless ash. My reaction had, in fact, cleared a circle of ground several yards in diameter with me at its center.
"Crude," my adversary, a tall Oriental woman with flowing, medusa-like masses of shining black hair, sneered. She was beautiful, elemental in her honey colored nudity, and seeking to personify an outraged Earth Mother in her sending.
"Maybe so," my voice grated through the still present birdsong and gentle breezes. "But it worked."
"You Westerners," my adversary shrugged disdainfully. "Have no conception of subtlety. But now that you are in my dream, I will undertake to instruct you. My dream, my rules, I fear. This lesson ought to be the last one you ever learn, upstart."
"Oh, I've just heard something familiar, haven't I?" senses ranging, I detected a small cloud overhead loaded with corrosive fluids instead of water and, with some work, deflected it back in her direction to harmlessly unload its nasty cargo between us. Another part of the glade smoked and hissed as the oily drops landed.
But she remained in control of events as I sought to distract my opponent long enough to figure out a method to wrest that away from her, or at least escape being subject to it. "Tell me, Su Ling, does Vincente know you've come out to play today? Or did you sneak out the back door while he wasn't looking?"
"Ah, Magdalena," Su Ling Xiang, the one powerful Dream weaver in Vincente's camp, inclined her head with a cool, almost gently chiding smile. "You seek to unbalance me with the unsurprising knowledge of my name and person. While filling me with fear for going against that overbearing Priest's wishes.
"A ploy doomed to failure," retaining the coolly superior smile she shook her head as if at a precocious child who had overreached herself. "Ones such as we do not require permission to Weave, do we? It is simply something we do. I have been awaiting this meeting, and unlike you, preparing to succeed where those other incompetents failed."
"Which would be?" stepping out of the cleared circle I had made was difficult. The soil had become spongy and was doing its best to suck my feet down into it. "Never mind, let me guess. You've come to visit me with a fatal dream. Right?"
"A Death Dream, just so," nodding with a wide smile of approval, her perfect features serene, my adversary waved a slim fingered hand negligently. "Since you have determined that, shall we say the lesson has concluded?
"Defend yourself as best your feebly trained abilities will allow," my too perfect adversary's laugh trilled like a cruel imitation of the bird songs which had gone quiet. "I shall very much enjoy witnessing your struggles, and savor your final death for many years to come. As will many who witness our meeting, child."
The gentle forest glade faded into threatening shades of grey as mist filled with firefly points of light edged into the clearing from all sides at once. I wasn't idiotic enough to believe it was only mist, or to hold to any illusions as to what would happen if the least bit of it so much as brushed against my flesh. I would regret it, briefly, then die for real.
Concentration on my part came up with a strong, cool breeze that circled me like a clear dust devil. Maintaining such a thing in a dream someone else was exerting skilled control over was more difficult than I had thought it would be, and the effort of keeping that mist at figurative and literal arm's length was taxing my strength more than I had expected it to.
The mist stayed away, but those points of light weren't deterred by my little whirlwind. They spun through it as if nothing at all was interfering with their progress towards the target they had been sent to seek. Me.
Before I could come up with a counter, the floating, darting sparks became spinning blades buzz sawing at me from all sides, razor sharp and lusting for my flesh with the intelligence of the person directing them. Most spun harmlessly past as I fought to become insubstantial myself for the time needed to avoid the things.
I wasn't quite fast enough to avoid all of them. As I faded from the seemingly physical, a number of the nasty little things ripped at my legs, arms, back, and nearly got my eyes. Fiery pain ripped along my senses from where the blades drew blood, sending shock waves to my brain that just about knocked me off my feet. Fortunately I managed to complete the shift into a wraithlike form before more than four or five inflicted their damage.
"Slow, Little Dreamer," nasty, tinkling laughter from my adversary taunted as I staggered from the impact of a mostly diverted attack. "I had expected so much more from the newly proclaimed, and so vaunted, Queen of Light and Dark."
Those damned blades had been poisoned. Such things don't affect our kind in life but during dreams, physical realities are generally ignored. Fuming, and bleeding, I flushed the toxin through the pores in my palms, formed it into a pulsating dark purple ball, then hurled it in the direction of my tormentor's voice.
It sped from my hand, and elicited a most satisfying little shriek of enraged pain which told me my aim had been better than I'd hoped. Unless the bitch was faking. A possibility I couldn't ignore, since I was already injured and in danger of taking enough damage in the dream state to actually kill me in reality, just as Su Ling had threatened.
As her control faltered, I managed to convince those glittering, mindless points of light to go play with the nice birdies in the surrounding trees. Birdies that had given up their sweet singing to grow quite wickedly curved talons and beaks full of jagged teeth before diving straight towards yours truly.
With predictable results once the spinning blades met them. The sudden rain of sliced feathers, rancid blood, and bird parts was most satisfying, but I had no time to spend in self congratulations as my adversary once again exerted her considerable influence on the proceedings.
No longer quite so pristine, she stood glaring at me out of one eye, the other covered by a mass of swollen, reddened flesh. Without a word she launched yet another attack.
"Now you're mine, little whore," Vincente hissed into my ear as his tongue ran acid tracks along my bare flesh and his fangs descended towards my defenseless throat.
"You're a slimy bastard even in a damned dream," choking, and fighting to control screaming nerves and senses that told me my worst enemy was really present, I turned in his grasp to spit in his lust filled face. The flame of my breath burned his face away in moments, and I found myself hoping he really had been able to hook up with this dream attack and was suffering the fate I'd just handed his image.
"A good fire should clean that up nicely," I finished as his form was engulfed in hot white flame.
A rancidly sweet chuckle from behind alerted me to still another strike. As I turned and dove to my knees, a flash of bright metal arced through the spot where my now acid singed neck had been.
Salome, with her head under one arm, believe it or not, held the blade I had taken from her ready for yet another strike. The head sneered, then let out another cloying giggle. "I'll take your head to Vincente, upstart."
"I killed you once," finding an identical blade in my own right hand, though mine came complete with a nearly blindingly bright white glow, I ran the already beheaded apparition through the chest, then twisted the blade as its flesh sizzled, then crackled into flame. "And can go on doing it now for as long as you like, but this is beginning to bore me, Su Ling."
"Try this, then, Little Queen," my adversary's voice crooned as the world tilted, flickered, and regained solidity with me standing upon an isolated, flat topped crag. Chill wind shrilled around my bare form out of a black, starless sky. The blade, named Lightning long before I ever picked it up, drove away the soul freezing cold, warming me as it shed a strengthening light over the tabletop mountain I had found myself perched on.
Then the flood of images began, marching in out of the blackness with mindless determination and lethal intent. Every person I had ever killed, either in my dreams as Magdalena of Jerusalem, or in person since I had become Vampyri returned, craving my blood, flesh, and soul.
Clayton D. Meyer, waved a pudgy hand and tossed an arm load of stained sheets in my direction. "Make the bed, bitch,"
I shredded the sheets with one angry thought, then my glowing blade sparked into the empty heavens and a bolt of lightning answered. It lanced downward to burst Clayton into brittle shards that crumbled into dust then whirled away in the furious winds surrounding but unable to reach me.
My arm grew heavy as I continued slashing, hacking, and pointing the blade at the sky to call more lightning. The last to try my fading strength were Elizabeth Bathory and Myles Crenshaw.
Panting on the empty plateau, with dust heaped knee deep in spite of the still persistent wind, I found myself crying with near exhaustion. A familiar, and loved voice soothingly cut through the whipping winds as a cool hand lightly touched my shoulder. "They're gone now, luv,"
"Cecelia?" I turned incredulously to see our much missed dead twin smiling gently at me. "How did you get here?"
"I was sent," her soft brogue sent little ripples of happiness through my soul as she brought her other hand from behind her back. "To bring you home with me."
The clawed, scaled monstrosity on the end of her left arm flexed its horribly long fingers then moved towards my breast, and the still beating heart underneath it. "Make it easy on yourself, don't be fighting me now, luv."
"Get away from me," my hoarse whisper rose to a scream of injured fury as Lightning separated that horrid hand from the familiar body of my friend and sister. "And GET OUT OF MY MIND, you filthy, grave robbing bitch!"
Celia's shape writhed, rippled, changed at the sudden stab of rage I had directed towards it. My poor murdered sister metamorphosed into the enemy I had first seen in the forest glade, surprise and shock written across her still swollen face.
"You went too far," voice hissing with the glacial fierceness of an aroused Deathbringer, I reached forward to grasp her by the throat. "Enemies I destroyed once were one thing, but I will not allow you to desecrate my loved ones, either alive or dead."
Her flesh stiffened, then grew brittle as ice in my grip while the emotionless, hissing blizzard of The Deathbringer's voice crooned to her of vast, frigid white emptiness without uttering one coherent word. Even her injured eye opened wide with horror as the true killer within me arose to devour her soul.
"Go to sleep, now, you've lost but I won't be needlessly cruel about this," Seeing, and tasting her terror, I became far too weary to visit the torments I'd vaguely planned upon her. Circling her shaking, helpless form in my arms, I softly crooned as if soothing a frightened child. "Close your eyes and dream, Su Ling Xiang. You can be at peace finally. Just let the sleep take you gently."
The Deathbringer's presence retreated, leaving me gripping a very cold, very dead, figure that seemed to have been transformed into clear bluish ice. I tossed it aside, not even watching as it shattered on the once again bare rock of the plateau.
"This one goes to me, too," I sighed, conscious of every hurt and throb in my body from injuries and exertions during this dream excursion. "I guess. Time I got myself home."
Wearily reaching out to find my sleeping body, I found it still safely in bed and gratefully fell into it.
* * * *
"Magda!" No sooner had I reattached my wandering spirit to its fleshly housing, than an insistent. worried voice reached my groggy consciousness. Along with a pair of strong hands frantically shaking me for attention.
"Wha?..." I questioned, opening my eyes to behold a very worried looking Cyrus staring down at me. With others behind him that refused to come into focus. I felt Charles, Cassandra, Cinda, Marilee, and others in the room. "I'm all right, Cyrus. Need sleep."
"Not until you tell us that you're back and intend on staying with us." his grim demeanor faded into one of relief as I tiredly forced myself to sit up. "We all witnessed part of that, and were sure the other was going to kill you. But I couldn't wake you, and no one else could either. Or even reach your mind."
Groaning, noting that my neck was still painful, like I had a half healed sunburn, and feeling the cuts from those living blades out of their mist, plus every muscle protesting from exertions they hadn't really been put through, I drew in a deep breath air to answer.
"I think I heard you," I muttered, then leaned into Cyrus' arms with a contented sigh. "But I was a little busy staying alive. Damn near killed just about every enemy I ever had, along with a few I never saw in my life. But I'm real sure Vincente's Dream Weaver is dead."
"We saw," Sun Yee's voice penetrated the buzzing in my ears. "You were uncharacteristically merciful at the finish, Little Dreamer."
"It's time someone," my voice dragged with weariness. "Involved with this mess figures out what the word means. Maybe I just did, or at least showed some others the way. I don't know, I was just tired of the nastiness. And Su Ling really believed I was a menace, a danger to the world she had to fight. I couldn't bring myself to pile more injury on her than her life already had, that's all. I was too tired to be vengeful or mean.
"You're hurt," Cyrus softly cursed as he saw the extent of the damage my Dream Battles had done to my actual flesh.
"No kidding?" sarcasm was a little more than I could manage just then, so I settled for giving in to the tears I felt pressing at the back of my eyelids. "She used Cecelia's image at the last, nearly got me with that one. I need rest now. Please let me sleep, without dreams, preferably."
"You heard my daughter," Le'Lyeth's mellow voice stopped the incredulous chatter that threatened my not too steady sanity at the time. "Leave her to recover. She has very likely just fought, and won, the most deadly battle yet.
"What she most needs now," a warm hand stroked my forehead then pressed at my shoulder, forcing me to lie back on the bed. Which wasn't all that terrible a thing far as I was concerned at the time. "Is rest, and blood."
"Stay with her, Shaman," my adoptive mother commanded quietly, then shooed everyone else out. "The rest of you, find something to do besides stare. Her injuries will heal, and she is safely back among us. Give her quiet, and privacy. Or I will know why."
I think I tried saying something to her, or to Cyrus, but the comfortable blankness of real sleep pulled its folds over my mind and eyes before I could properly start whatever it was.
* * * *
My recovery from that experience took several nights. Le'Lyeth herself fed me on several occasions, with Cyrus insistently taking up the rest of the task. It was, he maintained, the duty of my sworn mate to see that I had all the nourishment I required until I was strong enough to get my own. I vaguely recall a few of the Human male staff members offering themselves as well, Cooker and Sly among them more than once. Fortunately for them, I was at least coherent enough not to dangerously drain them, while Cyrus, Cinda, or Le'Lyeth were around to brave The Deathbringer's possible rise and make sure I didn't do that.
The scored flesh along my legs, arms, and back healed first, then the burns along my neck faded until gone. Abused muscle and joints took longer, as did the simple drain upon my internal resources that battle caused. Evidently, dream or reality, calling the lightning through the like named blade was a serious matter, and one with a high energy expenditure.
I had lost considerable weight that night as my body gave up tissue to feed the need for power. The Deathbringer had fueled those power drains in past fights with its ravenous taking of my victim's life forces. The only real life force available in the dreamscape had been mine until I actually did kill Su Ling and take hers. Which had given me the strength to return and appear halfway alive once I had.
Sly and Cooker were working on their bikes when I found them the first night I could move around under my own power without appearing to be either a spastic drunk or newly raised corpse. The bikers who had been enlisted to aid Cyrus along with Cinda first glanced up, then hastily cleaned the grease and oil from their hands when they saw who had come in to see them.
"Hey guys," my smile was warm, and I was relaxed, wearing a pair of jeans, sweatshirt, and running shoes. "How are things?"
"Pretty good overall," Sly admitted, then waved at the bike he had been changing the oil on. "Baby wants some attention, so just figured on doing it while things were kind of quiet."
"And I thought I might as well take care of my sweetheart, too," Cooker added with a grin, then turned serious. "You got something for us to do? We could have these back together in a few minutes and be ready whenever you want."
"No, nothing special," I waved towards the bikes. "Seems like you're doing something pretty important to you as it is. I won't keep you long, just wanted to thank both of you.'
"Thank us?" Cooker gave me a blank look, then slid his gaze towards Sly who winked but otherwise held to his straight face.
"I know who the Human volunteers that fed me over the past few nights were," my own face flamed, and to my embarrassment, I found myself blushing. "It isn't very often I get to personally thank someone after I've fed from them. Thanks guys, if you ever need something special, don't hesitate about coming to me. I'll do whatever I can to get it for you. Okay?"
"Cinda came," Cooker gave me a lopsided, half wistful grin. "And told us what you needed. Hey, You've been there for us, and made sure we got things better than since the army, Lady. No sense backing off when you really had to have something we could give, you know?"
"Would have been plain ungrateful of us, Lady." Sly added.
"As I recall, you two were there when I needed help another time or two," I grinned, pulling a pair of bottles out of the canvas bag I was carrying. One was a fine single malt scotch that Cooker favored, the other an expensive Canadian whiskey Sly preferred. "And since you've both seen me at my worst, when I was just scared, lost, Magda, what's this Lady garbage? You know my name, use it, okay?"
"Sure, Magda," Cooker accepted the bottle with a grin.
"I gotta tell you, Magda," Sly added quietly. "You did make our sacrifices well worth the effort, and I don't mean this.
Holding up the Canadian blend, he gave me a surprisingly shy smile before plunging on. "You were positively the best lay I ever remember having. Period."
"Hey, man, watch it," Cooker warned with a glower before my delighted laugh eased the sudden tension caused by his partner's supposed gaffe.
"Ah, you two are good for me, too," I chuckled. "Just keep on treating me like a person and I'll keep you both in supply of whatever it is you drink. Promise.
"Well," turning towards the door, I waved in the general direction of the bikes. "Enjoy, and thanks again."
"Wait a sec, Magda," Sly called.
"Yeah, babe," Cooker put in with a slow grin of his own while holding out the bottle. "Ain't exactly polite, bringing us this stuff then leavin' without havin' a drink with us. Right?"
Sly agreed with the question tossed his way. "Damn right. We'd be insulted if you didn't at least take a sip of each, woman."
"Oh," turning back, I grinned, shrugged, and smiled with a slight tilt of my head and cocking my hip provocatively. "Wouldn't want you insulted, now would I? Anything else in mind, guys?"
"Uh, uh," Cooker shook his head emphatically. "I was two damned days getting over our last little party. Just friendly drinks, conversation, and watchin' us finish up what we're doing here, was what I had in mind."
Sly agreed with a vigorous nod of his head. "Sit down, hang out, relax. That's all."
"Okay," taking the bottle from Cooker, I sipped at the fiery malt and gasped before handing it back and sitting carefully on part of the workbench they weren't currently using. "Wow, I forgot how much that stuff burns on the way down."
"Gonna get your clothes all greasy, sitting there," Sly handed me the much more civilized Canadian whiskey, which I sipped at as well, then removed a bottle of wine more to my personal tastes from the bag.
"I'm rich," shrugging wryly and chuckling, I popped the cork on my own choice of beverage and grinned. "Clothes can either be cleaned up or replaced, you know. Friends tend to be a little more difficult to take care of."
"Suit yourself," Cooker took a slug of his scotch that had my eyes watering from just watching. "Hand me that wrench you're sitting on there, could you?"
"Got all the grease off, I see," Marilee sniffed, then chuckled. "And into something more appropriate for evening wear."
"I'm not a total barbarian," my tart reply was softened by a little grin and I knew there was a humorous glint in my eyes from my sister's reaction.
"No," thoughtfully regarding my choice of a green silk sheath that left the shoulders and arms bare, while showing a generous amount of cleavage and leg, with appropriate accessories including heels and a gold chain belt, she nodded. "I'd say that you're about half civilized now."
"Thanks," I dryly responded as I checked the mirror for one last time before turning away in satisfaction. "High praise from you, big sister."
"Now," Marilee sighed with a patently put upon expression as she sighted someone beyond me. "All I have to do is get her to at least try and look like a member of this family once in awhile."
"I already told you," Cinda gave us both a mock aggrieved look as she raised both hands. "Skirts and bikes kinda get along like a pair of wet cats in a burlap bag."
Wearing a deep burgundy leather pants and jacket ensemble with a silver silk tank top underneath, our newest sister looked elegant and mean enough to ride with any bikers she liked. Especially with those high heeled, steel toed boots she'd special ordered.
"You look great," I assured her, and saw that Marilee agreed in spite of her half serious teasing. "With your figure, face, and hair, the guys'll want to eat you alive in that outfit."
"Just so long as I can get at least one interested enough to sneak out back for a quickie," Cinda smirked as Marilee winced at her deliberately crude expression to describe her feeding. "That's all I ask."
"No worry there," Marilee recovered to smirk back while purring. "You should scare just about any man you want into doing anything you tell him."
"Good," Cinda chuckled. "I'm off to see Cooker and Sly for a few minutes. Later."
"Magnificent," Marilee observed without trace of irony as my redheaded friend and new sister lithely moved down the stairs, then raised an eyebrow while allowing a tiny grin to move the corners of her mouth upwards slightly. "Even though her choice of clothing often seems to need a whip to complete the look."
"Don't give her any ideas," I laughed out loud. "I don't think I could take seeing something like that coiled up at her belt without dissolving into helpless laughter."
"You too?" Marilee smiled widely. "I seem to have been more successful with you than I first thought."
"Nope," shaking my head, I grinned as evilly as I could manage. "According to those damn prophecies, I'm the one's supposed to get the whip."
"Share with your sister," Marilee gave me a quick pat on the cheek showing her mirth at the expression of stunned surprise on my face with a self satisfied, "Got ya!" look.
For the life of me, I couldn't field a comeback for that at all. So, chuckling, I made my way downstairs to the cavernous sitting room.
Cinda rejoined me downstairs a few minutes later, sinuously folding herself into one of those chairs I still had trouble identifying as something meant for people to sit in with a sigh.
"That was nice, what you did for Cooker and Sly."
"What they did for me, and have done in the past, deserved more than a couple of bottles," I replied, dubiously eyeing another identical chair and wondering how to manage it in a short skirt before opting to lean against the one Cinda was using.
"I mean spending some time with them," she softly answered, then chuckled. "And they're still toasting your health, by the way. But have started on their own private stocks. Neither one of them is going to be worth much until tomorrow night sometime."
"Everybody should get a day off once in a while," I shrugged. "If I can't give one to my friends off and on, what good is this Queen business anyway?"
"Good point," she nodded with a grin, then looked past me with an amused expression. "Speaking of, here comes your personal Aide de Camp and his conqueror."
Hassan, an obviously happy and pleased with herself Monica draped artfully around his massive form, halted in front of me with an awkward little bow thanks to his extra baggage. "It is good to see you well, my Queen."
"And you, Hassan," I nodded regally, as he expected, then flashed him a mischievous little smile. "Your wardrobe seems to have grown since I last saw you. Especially in the accessories department."
"We do seem to get along well," unembarrassed, the ancient prince of Opar gently disengaged himself from Monica who darted a quick kiss to his cheek as he lowered his voice to a deliberately conspirational whisper that carried through the room. "I think this delightful young lady wishes for a more or less permanent mating."
"Oh, an' here I was thinkin' I'd have tae trip ye," Monica drawled in equally deliberate brogue. "An' then be sittin' on yer darlin' stomach till ye surrendered, Boyo."
"I know better than to fight a battle I don't wish to win," Hassan grinned. "Though you can sit on my stomach whenever you like. I think you'll find I surrender quite often and easily. To you."
"Seems to me like he already has," Cinda opined with a mournful shake of her head. "Several times. Men just aren't any fun to chase any more."
"Well, let's go let some chase us," with a significant glance to the elderly grandfather clock tocking and wheezing to itself in a nearby corner, I raised an eyebrow and grinned. "I'm famished."
"You're always ready for a feeding," Cassandra entered the room and conversation with a light chuckle. "I never could figure out whether it was the blood or the sex, but you do tend to enjoy your meals, little sister."
"Puzzle it out later," I purred with a protruding tongue running along my lips. "Let's get going. I feel like having a good time out for a change."
"No picking fights and ruining your clothes?" Cinda laughed. "Or mine? Going to be a real boring night, then."
"So?" I grabbed her arm and headed towards the door, Hassan and Monica right behind while the others trailed after. "We deserve a little boredom tonight. Enjoy it while we can!"
"I'm agreeable to that," Cinda smiled, waving at Charles, Cyrus, and Sarge, who were headed out as well with called out instructions as to where they would be for the evening.
"Enjoy the titty bar, guys!" Cinda returned with a raucous laugh and an elbow in my ribs. "We're going to find a place with male strippers and howl some ourselves tonight!"
Our progress to that end was interrupted briefly. Just as I finished my feeding and sent a very happy young stud dreamily homeward, or wherever, my senses tingled with the approach of other Vampyri. Plural, as in a group and a large one, none of whom were familiar to me. They were gathered quietly and unobtrusively along the street I had to use if I left my feeding ground by conventional means.
Since I couldn't fly, and wasn't exactly dressed to do much in the way of climbing, I sent out a wary call to my companions, and headed out to confront whatever was brewing.
Stopping at the street level door of the expensive apartment building, I scanned the street, then made sure my exit was just as unstudied and deliberately framed as most of my entrances into rooms were. Deciding that if trouble was waiting, I may as well walk into it head up and ready, I adopted a regal, deadly poise Hassan would have been proud of, and stepped out to the sidewalk.
"All right," I called in a voice meant for Vampyri hearing, soft, but one that carried over the whole block. "I'm not really in the mood for trouble tonight, so am giving fair warning now and only now. If it's a fight you're after, I can give it to you. If it's something else, get on with things so I can get on with my own plans."
"Lady," A large boned male, good looking even by our kind's standards, accompanied by a delicate appearing female who didn't look old enough to get into a regular bar but was actually centuries old, moved out of the shadows carefully. "We merely come to pay our respects, if you will accept them."
"That and to confirm," the young looking Vampyri gave me a halfway speculative look that slowly changed to one of near awe, then smiled tentatively. "That you are indeed the one we hear the very wind proclaiming. I see the truth in such claims standing before us. Please accept our homage and fealty, my Queen."
She was the leader of the group, but being from a time when females were supposed to relegate themselves to the background and let their men do the talking, she still fell back on old habits. But her approval was the key for that large group, who one at a time or in pairs, moved up to greet me with formal bows, curtsies, and even light touches to my hand when one or another grew bolder.
"I am Lila McClain," the young/old female offered once her entire brood had passed and were dispersing to their own varied pleasures. Her cool grey eyes measured me once again, and she dipped in a very formal, antiquated curtsy that really needed voluminous skirts instead of the little thing she was wearing for best effect.
"We are yours Lady, now and always." with a small grin, she tilted her head towards the street. "I had wondered if you truly were the terrible creature rumors paint you as, if perhaps we had made a mistake coming to you this way. Until you stood calmly in that doorway and invited us to either make what trouble we had come to do, or get on with more pleasant things.
"All of us felt your power, then," Lila sighed, giving me the feral smile of one predator to another. "And knew you were prepared to unleash it if necessary. But you held that in check, did not strike before our intent was clear to you. Or did you know already that we had not come with hostile intent?"
"I felt your tension," I admitted, "But no overtly hostile emotions. So I decided to see what it was you wanted. Say I was curious."
"And unafraid," her companion hesitantly reached out to take my hand and place a light caress of lips against the palm before releasing it and standing to his full height.
"Is it true? That you have killed Powers?"
"Afraid so," I nodded with a grim turn to my mouth, then shrugged. "Though only when they refused to be reasonable about things and outright attacked me. I'd really prefer not to do so if it can be avoided, but am not weak kneed or stomached about things either if it comes to a crunch."
"That is only right," Lila nodded. "And well said on your part. A Queen should temper her mercy with a strong, deadly response to those who would break her Peace."
"That's pretty well about how I see things lately," my answer was soft voiced, but firm. I stepped down and enfolded a startled Lila in a quick hug. "Welcome to my side of this."
"What should we do?" Lila recovered her composure but still seemed a bit overwhelmed at what I'd done. "Rally to you when the final battle comes? Begin warring on The Priest's partisans now? What would you have from us?"
"Silence," my answer again surprised her, and I waved away any idea that I had meant the here and now. "Let the other side wonder, and have your brood keep their heads down and stay out of things unless I call. Believe me, you'll know it if I do. Otherwise, I think this has reached a pass where only a few will actually be directly involved with bloodletting.
"Defend yourselves as you must," I shrugged, then smiled. "But hold to my Peace as long as you are able unless I do sound the call."
"As you command," the lovely, delicate little Vampyri smiled, evidently deciding that I'd honored her with that hug and proud of being its recipient. "We shall do. Feed well, and safely, my Queen."
The pair bowed to me once again, then quietly faded into the shadows without another word spoken. I was feeling very strange when Cinda and Hassan, followed by Le'Lyeth and Monica joined me. It was as if I had fed in an entirely new way, and was filled to brimming with a powerful, warming energy that was akin to but not at all like the feeling I had after a good feeding.
"That was interesting," Monica breathed, still staring into the shadows. "What was it about?"
"Paying respects," I answered, nearly intoxicated by what was singing through my soul at the moment. "Affirming my Peace."
"They swore fealty to you, did they not, my Queen?" Hassan questioned with a solemn expression.
"I guess you could say that," staring at the now empty street, I sensed another surge of Vampyri awarenesses in the distance.
"You bonded them to you," Le'Lyeth replied. "With mental and physical touch. That is as it should be. A queen must have loyal subjects to rule properly."
"Uh, Magda?" Cinda pointed at the street. "You gotta see this to believe it. The street's lined with Vampyri on both sides. They're packed on the sidewalk like someone waiting for a parade."
"I know," sighing, I turned to begin walking up the street. "And guess who the parade is?"
It was an eerie sight that night, walking down the middle of the street with Cinda and Hassan ranged in front of me, Le'Lyeth, Cassandra, and Monica behind, all warily surveying a seemingly mute crowd for hostile intent that wasn't there. We walked for over a mile, seeing pale faces and hearing the sibilant hiss of clothing as everyone I passed bowed like saplings in a fleeting gust of wind.
It was like nothing I had ever heard of or imagined. There were fledglings barely in control of their senses who I somehow sent out comforting and welcoming empathic touches to caress. There were old ones centuries, even some at least a thousand, years old in that strangely, awesomely silent gathering I warmly encouraged to join with me as the very young ones had. Along with every other age between. A hedge of faces and bodies flowering with a sense of wonder and gladness mixed with a little fear. I caught all that from them, in addition to the anticipation they all felt.
"There must be thousands of them out here," Cinda wonderingly eyed a bold fellow who stepped off the curb to greet us, me, with a graceful, formally elegant bow. "All waiting to see you."
"Us," I replied with a small smile, feeling the heady inrush of repeated links and bonds forming as I walked past. "They've come out, just about every nonaligned Vampyri in the city and surrounding countryside, to see legends walking around in flesh and bone. That's us, my friend. Kind of scary, isn't it?"
"Yeah," Cinda replied, then grinned. "But a good kind of scary, you know? Like ghost stories around a campfire, or finding out you've won something really important in a contest."
"We have, you know," constantly sending out my own part of the mass bonding process more or less on automatic, I gave a little shrug to hide my growing elation. "Won something immensely important here tonight. But why now?"
"It was your dream battle with Su Ling," Le'Lyeth answered simply from directly behind me. "Every Vampyri in the Eastern half of this continent felt, and saw, at least some of that. Your victory, defeating a legion of enemies, and loving a friend enough to stop the lightnings you'd called to your defense.
"Su Ling's death at your hands was oddly gentle compared to what she had done to you, and was trying to do." my Blood Mother added with a hint of pride in her husky voice. "That is what convinced all these that once you have conquered, which these are all certain you can do, that you will make a fit ruler for them. They are singing for joy and an end to over a thousand years of bloodshed between Vampyri. Can't you hear them?"
"I hear all of them," my answer was subdued, awed as I was myself by the massive display and willingness of that forest of faces to submit to my will and bond with me. "Every individual in this crowd, I hear. It's a song that's just about to break my heart.
"Looks like I've got my work lined out, huh?" I shook my head as we passed even more of the silent host lining the streets. "For the next few lifetimes at least."
"You are truly becoming a Queen now, my little sister," Hassan beamed at me. "And handling it remarkably well. Congratulations and Hail! Magdalena, Queen of Light and Dark, PEACEMAKER!"
That unnervingly silent throng, ghostly as they drifted in and out of shadows, took up that last pronouncement. "THE PEACEMAKER." sighed from countless throats like the first hopeful breeze of spring following a long, hard winter.
They were almost chanting it, Vampyri fashion; mentally and emotionally in addition to the light, breeze like whispers hissing through the air when we reached the end of them and found Cyrus, Charles, Sarge, and the other old ones who had first come to my calling waiting with our vehicles.
Their expressions ran from nearly thunderstruck in Sarge's case all the way to exultant in the Old Ones, and Charles. Cyrus merely sent me his love, and approval without changing expression once, even when he turned to see the dispersing throng that had watched our group's progress along that street.
"I wouldn't have ever believed this if I hadn't seen it for myself, Little Dreamer," my lover, my mate, my beloved Shaman bowed in European formal style, then leaped into the air with a loud warbling whoop of pure unalloyed joy before lifting me off my feet and swinging me around in the air. "Hail Magdalena, THE PEACEMAKER, indeed. My Queen of Light and Dark, I've never been so proud of you as I am at this moment."
"Well," laughing in spite of my very undignified position, I held to his shoulders until he put me down, then gave all of them a sober look. "I seem to have acquired a large set of responsibilities back there tonight.
"Which I'm still not all that certain of my ability, or capacity to manage," Holding out my hands while shaking my head to forestall any protests or further congratulations, I drew in a breath before going on. "Much as I appreciate all of you and your elation over what happened tonight, there is one minor detail we seem to be overlooking.
"We still," I dropped my voice to a sibilant whisper. "Have active, powerful, enemies who are yet to be defeated. Any celebration would be premature before Vincente and his remaining cohorts and partisans are dealt with once and for all. This thing hasn't been won yet, and all of us are at risk until it has been."
"On that note," I finally allowed the tiredness that had been creeping up from my legs and feet to wash all the way through me with a weary exhalation of breath. "I think I'd like to go home. This has been a very exhilarating, but tiring experience."
Our departure was interrupted by the diffident approach of several Vampyri, Lila and her mate among them. The group was just about bodily carrying several Humans, and deposited them on their feet in front of me while holding them to keep the men from bolting.
"My Queen," Lila, who had been recipient of my embrace, seemed to have a fairly high status among those gathering that night, whether from my show of personal trust for her earlier, or simply because of her own personality and strength, I wasn't sure that evening, approached with another curtsy and negligent wave towards the captive Humans. "One of these claims to be a friend of yours, or at least to know you personally. We brought them to you for judgement."
"Mr. Nathan," shaking my head, I reached out a hand to the disheveled, slightly bruised agent. "Your continued shadowing of my nightly business is becoming rather commonplace, not to mention more and more dangerous. I trust that you and your companions are relatively intact?"
"We were dead," Nathan warily accepted my hand, to the sighs of near frustration and satisfaction from some of his escort. "Until I got out that you knew me, and I'd been sent to give you a message. None of us counted on running afoul a Vampyri convention out here.
"This lady," nodding to Lila with a grimace that might have been an attempt to smile, he held to my hand like a man overboard at sea who has been thrown a life preserver. "Kept the others from killing us out of hand and brought us here.
"Thank you," he finished simply, actually performing a creditable bow in her direction without releasing my hand.
"It appears that you do have dealings with our Queen, Man." Lila gave him a slight smile in return. "So should know she is not one to anger needlessly, or without careful thought. Thank her for your life, since her prohibition against indiscriminate killing of Humans once we have fed is all that kept our hands from your throats."
"I noticed," he quietly replied with another grimace. "But thanks all the same. You're the one who decided to bring us to her and I am in your debt, lady."
"Manners," Lila smiled, showing her fangs, then pulling them up out of sight. "In a Human these days is something rare. You have courage as well. Come see me should you ever grow tired of Human frailty. I would welcome you."
"Another conquest, Mr. Nathan?" I questioned with a hint of humor in my voice. "Take care, Vampyri females seem to have a weakness for you."
"To be honest," Giving me a wry grin as he pulled his hand out of mine, Nathan actually managed a weak chuckle. "I'd much rather be liked than otherwise in that case, though the attention does get a bit unnerving."
"Then stay clear of us, Mr. Nathan," I seriously answered. "Or you're likely to find yourself being initiated into our ranks whether you consciously wish it or not. But there was mention of a message, I think?"
"Cavanaugh wants another meeting," Nathan gave me an apologetic little smile. "There have been -- incidents -- lately that he feels you should be apprised of, and to be honest, I think he needs a bit of reassurance as to your own plans. He and the people he reports to are going to be especially nervous once they hear about this."
"Ah, and how is Mr. Cavanaugh these days?" I smiled, temporarily ignoring the allusion to the gathering which still had my head spinning. "Other than being needlessly worried about my intentions? I gave him my word, Mr. Nathan, and will keep it. Tell him that."
"This," gesturing towards the small group of Vampyri who had brought him and his companions to me, and the now nearly empty street, I shrugged. "Changes nothing. Except to possibly strengthen my position and chances. If your Mr. Cavanaugh desires reassurances, buy him a teddy bear, or a puppy. If he truly requires a meeting for other matters, I will make myself available for a telephone conversation, then a face to face meeting should I deem that necessary."
"I'll pass that along, Lady," Nathan responded with a grimace, "But he isn't going to like your answer, I can tell you that right now. He wants another meet, and he wants it soon. The man, and a lot of others on the periphery of this thing, are getting scared. They want to be sure of at least one ally, or friendly face among you folk, and my boss seems certain that you're as close as we're going to get to that."
"Have him call," with a tiny wave of my hand, I dismissed the subject, then turned my attention to his companions, both seeming to be in shock, but otherwise unharmed. "Who would these two be?"
"Associates," Nathan curled his upper lip in contempt. "Cavanaugh doesn't entirely trust me to be fully honest in my reports any longer. Thinks I might have another agenda with regards to you and your kind."
"Do you, Mr. Nathan?" I questioned, sending enough strength to both of the other Humans to reduce the effects of shock and bruised minds they were suffering.
"Maybe," giving me a direct look, he nodded. "Maybe I do, at that. I just have the feeling that you're dealing fairly with us, and are not inimical to Humanity like your opposition is.
"Are they going to be all right?" he questioned, turning to examine his companions, still hanging in the grasp of my newest supporters.
"They will sleep for a while," shrugging, I turned away from them. "That is about all I can do for them at this point. They should awaken none the worse for the experience, but I imagine they'll both enjoy some wild nightmares for the next little while. You humans are far more resilient than many of my kind give you credit for. That's one of the reasons I'm doing what I am, Mr. Nathan. I defend your kind as well as mine. Tell your Mr. Cavanaugh that for me and hold out these two as further proof of my good intentions. You're free to go, now, with or without my blessing, as you choose. Just go while you still can."
He didn't waste time. Taking my dismissal to heart, he began shaking his companions into a semblance of coherence and hustling them away into the lights of the nearby street.
Hassan had provided a wealth of information regarding the other side, at least as far as he had been included in the planning they did. Which wasn't completely since for some reason, well justified as things bore out after our first meeting, Vincente never had totally trusted my self appointed bodyguard and tutor in the fine points of being royalty.
"The Priest and his cronies were working on something that had all of the inner circle nearly jumping with excitement and expectation, my Queen," the huge black man offered when asked about the lack of response from the enemy for my last victory over them. "All of them fear you, but seemed to believe that whatever it was they were doing could neutralize, or at least balance your power. What exactly that was or is, I can not say for certain, but I do believe the fools were attempting to raise a dead ancient to aid them."
"It's been done before," giving Charles a wry look, I shrugged. "At least in part, because I'm the result of that and am most definitely walking around and giving Vincente and his ilk all the grief I'm able to pass along.
"Have you got any idea of who it might be that they may be trying to bring back?" I questioned, aware of stirrings in my dream journeys that were far from comfortable but unable to pin anything down about that but a vague sense of dread no matter how hard I tried. "Did they give any hints?"
"None, my Queen," Hassan shrugged expansively with a frown of concentration. "Though rumors abounded, including one nearly as ancient as our Blood Mother, all the way back to Vlad himself, who masterminded and managed the downfall and defeat of your predecessor in the past. I simply do not know, but was not Vlad's body destroyed when he was killed?"
"Magdalena of Jerusalem's body was destroyed, too," Charles heavily pointed out. "With acids, flame, and grinding the ashes and sludge remaining into widely then scattering those to well separated places on the earth.
"Yet you see her duplicate before us," my Maker gave me a warm smile then lapsed back into the solemnly thoughtful expression of one momentarily lost in memory before returning his attention to the present. "Anyone Vlad Made, would hold the genetic codes and keys to bringing his physical self back, while connection to the dream planes could summon his spirit to inhabit the new shell and displace the unfortunate they used to create it. Drugs, suggestion, and a clear image of the one being recreated is all it would take, though I do believe that Magda's Making was more luck than anything else. Chances of failure in such an undertaking are very high, and chances of the Changed One cooperating enough to allow the takeover would depend upon the strength of mind and spirit of that one. Very chancy, since even the most timid would fight ultimate extinction such a coming would cause."
Charles grinned at me. "As I discovered much to my one time dismay, our Magda was quite strong minded about who and what she was even in the beginning."
"If they have succeeded in raising Vlad," thoughtfully pricking the upholstery of my chair with a fingernail, I watched both Hassan and Charles for reactions to my question. "Would he be able to pose a real threat to me? Remember, Magdalena feared him, but didn't know any more about him than I do, which isn't much even with what all of you have been able to tell me."
"He might," Charles grimly nodded. "Vlad was powerful, and cunning, though in a head to head confrontation, his only advantage would be sheer physical strength, I think. No, I do not believe a returned Vlad would seek to face you in even battle, Magda. Vincente was his equal in power, and The Priest fears you more than he has feared anything but the final death in his life."
"Also, my Queen," Hassan put in softly, "Your killing of their most powerful Dream Weaver might have slowed anything or anyone they were able to raise from becoming what they had hoped."
"We can wish for that," sighing, I arose, moving to stare out the window at the well patrolled and guarded estate grounds. "But I wouldn't count on it with any degree of faith. You two see what else you can dig up, find out if the other side has suddenly been getting advice or aid from a Power we don't know about. I'll cast through the Dream Realms on my daily jaunts to see what I might find there.
"The thing we need to avoid," looking to the north and a country house I couldn't see, but felt whenever I reached mentally, I turned back wearing a grim expression. "Is overconfidence. That failing has resulted in Vincente losing about a third of his Ancient allies and at least half of the younger ones. Let's not give whatever advantage we've gained because of that back to them. I'm neither immortal nor omnipotent. Just incredibly lucky up to now. And am still nothing more than an infant in most ways among our kind."
"Oh, I disagree," Hassan bowed deeply, then peeked up with a half wicked grin. "You have at least progressed to the toddler stage, my Queen. We might even have you fit for polite company, so to speak, within the next year or so."
"Hah!" I grinned back. "You'd better hope I'm fit for polite company before that, my loyal advisor, and fit for the more impolite sort soon. We're going to end this damn war one way or the other before the year is out, and I intend to be one of the people left standing when it's over with.
"So let's get moving," waving at the door, then moving that way myself, I turned to give both of them an impatient glare. "We all have things that need doing, and most of them needed to be done yesterday."
"Your creation is going to be a hard Queen," Hassan stage whispered to Charles. "Please make sure she doesn't learn to use a whip."
"You're the one teaching her how to be a ruler," Charles snorted back with a tinge of humor. "It's up to you to keep that kind of thing out of her hands, not mine. I lost control of her right after she was Made. You she listens to once in awhile. Me? She just gives orders to and expects me to jump.
"Which I fully intend to do, right now," grinning, with a leering wink in my direction, he passed me while going through the door. My own severe expression was difficult to maintain, but I managed. At least until both had left my rooms and the closed door masked my own chuckles.
But there was a pall threatening to extinguish my mirth and good feelings about my extended family. I very much feared the name attached to that cloud was Vlad, and that my Dream Twin's nemesis would return to give me more grief than I wanted to think about.
WHEN THE BUGLER PLAYS (We too must dance.)
I awakened all tangled in sopping sheets and covered with a reddish, salty sheen of sweat. Cyrus was anxiously hovering at the side of the bed, looking tired and relieved that I had come out of sleep at all. The Dream Plane had been getting stranger than usual and my sleep had become restless to an extreme because of that.
"God," I breathed, giving the stained, ruined sheets a distasteful examination to cover a waking disorientation that was becoming more of a habit than I cared to admit to even myself. "Ruined another set of sheets, didn't I? How many does that make now?"
"Three this past week," Cyrus quietly answered, then reached to help me out of the bindings our bedding had become for me with all the thrashing around I'd been doing. "I couldn't wake you, couldn't rest beside you, so ended up on the couch again."
"I'm sorry," I really was, and becoming concerned by things I was repeatedly running across in my Dream Weaving. I put that worry aside while giving my mate a tight hug, getting my own blood tinged sweat all over his bare chest. "Something's going on that I can't quite track down out there. Something bad, Cyrus. Something very, very bad."
"You don't have to convince me," he responded, ignoring the mess I was transferring to his half nude form as his arms wrapped protectively around me. "I thought you were involved in another battle around noon, you were so restless and muttering odd things in your sleep.
"Take a break, my love," his intense black eyes regarded me with something like pleading in their depths. "You can't reach every living, intelligent being on the planet no matter how hard you try. The strain is beginning to get to you. Give it a rest, please? Just for a day or so while your system recovers and your strength builds up again?"
"I can't," whispering as I slowly, reluctantly withdrew from his embrace to begin at least wiping myself partially clean with the already soiled sheets, I refused to meet his gaze for a few heartbreaking seconds even though I knew he was genuinely worried for my sake. "I'm getting close to whatever it is. I can feel it. It's trying to hide, playing a game of some kind with me, twisting the dreams of others simply by being present, and the damn thing's taunting me!"
"It's wearing you out is what it's doing," Cyrus matter of factly stated, gripping my shoulders and guiding me towards the bathroom where a steaming tub of water was already waiting. "And you're letting it. Give things a brief rest, Magda. You aren't invincible, or invulnerable."
"I know that," irritation rose from the depths of my being with the threat of all too familiar icy anger right behind. I resolutely pushed that back down until a time when I needed it and the person it was aimed at truly deserved to receive such a thing. "But can't shake the feeling that if I don't solve this, whatever it might be, all of us are going to regret it terribly."
"What exactly," he questioned while bodily lifting me into the tub as if I were an invalid. "Is it that bothers you so much about this trace of something you keep tracking. Are you sure it isn't just a result of the strain you've been putting yourself under lately?
"I know how extravagant you can be, spending yourself, love," he began scrubbing my back as I washed the front. "Especially when you feel like something important is falling to the wayside. You can't do it all, and no one expects such a thing of you."
"Better tell all the people hovering around our perimeter these days that," I sighed as the warm water and his gentle touch relaxed muscles I hadn't even realized were tensed up. "And keep telling me while you're at it.
"I'm just afraid that something I could do will go undone, and that everything will collapse because of my inattention, or inability to recognize something I should have as the threat it really is." Arching my back, I began to feel better, if still weary, and started noticing the pangs of hunger my body was sending to my clearing mind.
"You're a Power, not a god," Cyrus informed me gently. "And a young one at that. "Maybe we've all put too much faith in your strength lately, mistakenly treated you like the Ancient you sometimes seem to be. And it's your power drawing all those strangers to the walls and gates. They simply want to see you, or at least feel your presence close up. None of them believe that you're omnipotent, or all powerful.
"Scary as Hell let loose in a schoolyard, yes," he chuckled, trying to lighten the mood as his dexterous fingers sought the spots he knew were ticklish and being rewarded with first a few giggles, then a soft howl of protest out of me as his attacks escalated, moving to the soles of my feet. "And capable of meeting just about any of our kind on more than even terms. You have been kind of rough on Vincente's Ancients since they first attacked you, after all."
"Without really being sure of either what I did, or how I was doing it most of the time," I pointed out quite honestly. "I've been very lucky so far, and anyone who knows the truth of things has to realize it.
"No matter which side they might be on," I grimaced, then surrendered to his now soothing massage to the bottoms of my feet while settling deeper into to hot water. "Which is exactly why I've been trying to reach so many, and am worried about these other odd, foul traces of another presence I've never experienced before. Something's going on, Cyrus. Something I can't quite pin down, and you may be right about its being a deliberate ploy to wear me down."
"I'm certain it is," he answered quietly, tightly. "Though do not doubt your own feelings regarding it either. But weakening you would be a danger to just about everyone on this estate, and quite a few others into the bargain. Like it or not, young or otherwise, the stakes in this fight are extremely high, and seem to pivot squarely upon your lovely little shoulders.
"Direct strikes failed," he went on, offering me a towel as I finally just about forced myself out of the tub. "I'd have tried something more subtle, indirect and taxing just as this is, after the first one failed so miserably. Vincente is no fool, my dear Lady. The last ones you killed had gone against his wishes and direct orders when they tried to destroy you. He is, I am positive, gleefully watching you spend your strength chasing a phantom he has specifically tailored to both unnerve and attract you."
"You're probably right," standing on tiptoe to plant a far from chaste kiss on his mouth, I drew back wearing a thankful expression. "What would I do without your wisdom, My Shaman? Without your strength to hold me up when no one else is around? To let me simply be the frightened little fledgling I really am even yet when we're together and I'm feeling inadequate to the task God and everybody else seems to think I'm specially made to accomplish?"
"Cope," responding with a light kiss to my neck, he chuckled before finishing. "But you'd probably be a whole lot harder to get along with while you did."
"Beast," I threw the towel at him, he negligently caught it and moved to rub my back with it. "Just do one thing for me and I'll let this thing go."
"What did you have in mind?" he began tickling my ear with his tongue.
"Not that just now," pulling away to face him, I smiled to take some of the sting of my abrupt tones out of the conversation then turned serious. "Walk the Dream Plane with me in the morning.
"If you don't feel anything wrong," shrugging, I gave him my very best earnestly honest look. "I'll stop chasing will-o-wisps and worrying about things that aren't really there."
"Deal," He grinned, then turned serious himself. "Anything to get you to really rest for a change. I'd walk barefoot to the White missionaries' Hell and tweak their idiot devil's nose if that would work."
In spite of my smile, and relaxed appearance, I truly feared that we might have to do just that. Or its equivalent. Moving decisively towards the closet, and clothing, I tossed over my shoulder. "I'm famished. Let's get dressed so I can get some nourishment into my system before I dry up into dust that the maid will have to sweep up while she replaces our sheets. Again. And maybe all of us should stay in groups for the next few nights. I really have an awful feeling about something looming in the shadows right now. We should take as few chances individually as we can."
That idea went against instinct and habit for all of us. Vampyris are by nature solitary hunters and feeders for the simple reason that a large number of us doing that would attract more attention than it might survive from our potential food sources.
As a species, we tended to be stubbornly proud, and fiercely individual even when serving another's will, if that makes sense at all. Even the most abject slave to another's will would not tolerate much in the way of encroachment by another during the hunt and subsequent feeding. Overbearing Masters had fallen to fledglings because of that, and stupidity.
In short, Vampyris are not pack hunters, and never will be. Which is the one weakness I truly feared our enemies would finally begin exploiting with their Human minions. Humans are pack hunters, always have been, and even when primitive, were fearsomely dangerous, and deadly, when gathered into a group with one specific prey in mind.
We never did take that particular Dreamwalk together. It turned out that Cyrus had been right. The opposition had been deliberately taunting me, seeking to weaken me in preparation for their next strike. I still don't understand how I could have been so stupid as not to see the truth in front of my eyes, so to speak, and still tend to blame myself for what happened that night. At least for not being aware that such events were not only possible, but far more direly imminent than I had feared.
I had just finished a feeding, most indelicately for me, by completely draining a hapless psycho who thought a lone female would be wonderful sport. Gorged, and sated, I cast the empty husk into a dumpster then turned to rejoin Cyrus, Cinda, Hassan and the others when a jolting bolt of agony caught me in the midsection and nearly had me vomiting out the sustenance I'd so badly required.
That was followed by yet another, from a different source, and I knew that it wasn't physical pain I was experiencing, rather mental/emotional echoes of someone else's. Several someone else's to be accurate. Shaken, no lets be honest, devastated by the blows, I was only able to voice one despairing scream, then cast out for help mentally with all my strength.
Yet another, different lance of mental torture hit me in the middle of that, and I found myself face down on the filthy pavement writhing with phantom, but very real to me, pain. That one lingered, with traces of rage, fear, and a supreme struggle to not succumb to whatever it was that caused the pain. I caught a flash through Cyrus' eyes of several Humans directed by a Vampyri armed with repeating weapons, crude wooden stakes and short, wickedly sharp blades as I sensed the very real danger my beloved was in.
With a scream of near insensate rage, I was back on my feet and almost flying in the direction I knew him to be. The Deathbringer had risen without my calling, of her own accord just as she had when first manifesting through me. And she was both frightened and more furiously angry than I had ever felt before. It was as if a whole glacier had suddenly taken up residence in my soul. A sentient, all encompassing block of horribly frigid Ice that stormed through my being like a northern blizzard in February.
Knowing Cyrus was at hazard, I didn't even attempt to control that flashing, pulsating wave of white arctic rage so awfully cold it burned.
Somehow, I was beside him right at the moment I first felt his pain, screaming my defiance and intent wordlessly at the three Vampyris gathered around him and their human minions. Instead of withering away as my previous victims had, those three simply disintegrated into dust that my fury blew into eddies then dispersed in the wind of my telekinetic after blow. The murderous Humans simply ceased to exist at all in that blast of freezing, killing wrath.
Cyrus was still alive, barely, and it took everything I had in the way of willpower to reach within myself and awaken The Lifegiver from the frigid depths of Deathbringer's fury. I literally forced the life forces stolen from his attackers into his battered form, watching in awe like I was a spectator as his horrible wounds closed, became thin scars, then vanished entirely. A piece of his shoulder, blown completely away by one of the projectile weapons regenerated in less than a second, and blood lost in the struggle renewed itself and flowed freely within his veins.
I made very sure his heart was pumping strongly, and his spirit remained within his body with a light mental caress of encouragement, then made just as sure no other potential attackers were nearby while someone I trusted, Hassan, was there to guard his still unconscious form while I continued my hunt.
Once certain that my love, my beautiful Shaman was protected, The Deathbringer closed back over the gentler, if equally insistent aspect of Lifegiver and I launched myself in pursuit of those other painful strokes to my psyche.
I wished to a seemingly uncaring God that I hadn't, or at least been a little faster. My first stop brought me to the headless, and crumbling shell I recognized as Irene, though barely. It may seem like it from some of my descriptions, but I am not a true miracle worker. I need some spark of life to give The Lifegiver even a basic chance to save someone. Poor Irene, who had lived through all the tumultuous history of Ireland since pre-Roman times, was dead and there was nothing at all I could do to change that no matter how hard I tried or wished it otherwise.
My next stop, I'm still exactly unsure of how to describe the kind of traveling I did that night, it was a lot like simply seeing where I had to be and stepping through the intervening space as if it were only an insubstantial curtain, was to discover the equally ravaged, and dead, body of another friend.
Marilee had given nearly as good as she received, as attested to by the four decomposing bodies scattered around her poor, mutilated form. But that failed to change the facts. I had lost another sister, and friend who had been part of my life since I was just beginning to understand what Cassandra and her family really were.
My grief stricken scream was torn from the gaping wound in my soul where her presence was achingly absent. My throat hurt for days after that, and I know the force of my absolute rage and loss drove my mental voice to proportions that shattered glass and shook doors for miles in every direction.
"Vincente!" I howled in my own agony, physical voice wailing wordlessly as my mental one became marginally coherent. "Damn you to the kind of Hell your contemporaries threatened gullible peasants with! If it's in my power, you'll be a prime resident of such a place.
"Soon!" My mental casting softened into a hissing promise as my vocal cords and lungs finally gave out and silence enfolded me. My mind still crooned viciously even as that happened. "Soon, Apostate Priest. You're mine now. I mark you and claim your filthy soul for all you've done. From the time you were born Vincente. All of it, damn you to eternal torment, all of your miserable, self seeking life. There isn't enough time in all eternity to exact the retribution I'm promising you. Not in every shred of existence that ever has been or is yet to be."
Falling to my knees beside the nearly unrecognizable remnants of my lovely, and loved sister, I finished with quiet certainty. "Your reckoning will come, Vincente, my time of vengeance. I'll dance among your ashes, old pervert, and rip your soul to tatters once I have."
I was reduced to silent weeping punctuated by little froglike croaks by the time the survivors of that attack reached me. Only my family dared approach, and even they did so with extreme caution. I'm afraid that I wasn't all that sane most of that remaining night, alternately raging and weeping. Zeroing in on my enemy's lair and wanting only to get there so I could rend him as he, or his partisans, had rent my life once again, I have no real idea of how anyone kept me from attempting just that. Except that Cyrus' still critical need held my crueler, more savage inclinations in check. Barely.
"She was always so neat," My voice sounded dead, even to me, as I stood beside a still weak Cyrus watching the funeral pyre consuming all that the enemy had left us of Marilee. As the hungry red and yellow tongues of flame chewed away at what we had brought home earlier that night my voice rose in mixed anger and grief. "Why did they have to savage her that way? Killing her wasn't enough, they had to mutilate her too.
"I should have seen it coming, Cyrus," I whispered, too worn by that terrible night to maintain my anger, or anything but grief. "I should have warned everyone and insisted that we stay in groups."
"You had no real way of knowing, love," Cyrus soothed, reaching an unsteady arm to circle my shaking shoulders as I began sobbing. "Our kind don't work well, feeding in groups, but you tried warning all of us. You can't blame yourself for our stubbornness."
"Yes I can," my answer was loud enough that all the grim faced mourners heard it, and turned their faces towards me to hear what I was saying. "I called the tune early on, by killing the ones I did, hitting Vincente's faction where it hurts, with attrition.
"They've responded," I sighed miserably while watching the flickering pyres, one for Marilee the other for Irene, gradually burn down to ashes that were gently lifted by the wind in a final glory of bright sparks and flaming trails. "By dancing to my call."
"Only," I shuddered, thinking of how close I'd come to losing the man at my side, "They escalated things with the tortures and mutilations before death took our friends and my sister."
"It was a message," Cyrus tiredly agreed. "We aren't untouchable or invincible, and they wanted us to know it in very certain terms."
"Message received," I grated, then softened my voice. "Have you ever heard a song by an old singing group named Abba, called The Soldier's Song?"
"I vaguely recall it," he answered quietly. "Rock music was never among my favorites.
"There's a really heartbreaking line in it," I went on. "It goes, "When the bugler plays, we too, must dance. I never really understood all the implications of that, you know."
"Until I became Vampyri and all this blew up on us," I gathered what coherence I still possessed, addressing all of the assembled gathering made up of family, near family, and friends. "Well, I'm dancing now, and Vincente is going to regret it. I swear that on the Gates of Heaven and Hell, the twisted bastard is going to truly regret what his people did tonight.
"I was willing to be peaceable, leave him and his alone," I murmured wearily, then gathered strength into at least my voice and forced myself to straighten and give my remaining friends and family a level, clear eyed examination. "But he wouldn't have it. Since the first time I walked the night as Vampyri that bastard has wanted me dead, and used me as an excuse to wage war on anyone who didn't fall into line with his own aims.
"Well, I'm serving notice," my voice dropped to a harsh whisper. "His fears were justified."
"We all heard your promise tonight, my Queen," Hassan quietly spoke for everyone there, cradling Monica as if she were still in danger and he intended to keep it from her by any means he found available. "And felt it even more keenly. I would be pleased to kill Vincente for you, but as you so powerfully commanded, that one is yours."
"Hell, big sister," Cinda grimaced, then gave me a sickly little smile. "Every Vampyri on the continent probably heard you tonight. I sure wouldn't wish to have that kind of anger aimed at me, but I'm with you whatever you decide to do."
"Tomorrow," I nodded, to all of them. "We begin to finish this horrid dance, and I don't care any longer how public it gets, or what The Humans might make of it should it become messy.
"This madness will stop!" My voice rose in a furious, wounded scream that filled the estate's compound with it's agony and determination. "And it will not be done gently! The time for that possibility has passed."
"We've been playing at war up to now," I dropped my voice to a hissing whisper that still carried to everyone. "The game, this avoidance on our parts, is finished. I want blood, and by every god that ever was, I will have it! Rivers of it, my faithful friends and loving family. The Destroyer is awake, and knows nothing of mercy. Remember that, I am The One in your Prophecies, and I fully intend to live up to the direst of them until this idiotic warfare among our kind is nothing but a bad memory.
"Understand that," I calmly commanded, looking into each face, and ruthlessly testing each will in that group. "Because nothing else, nothing, matters any longer. Be ready."
Stunned by the multiple losses of that night, and my sudden emergence as the personification of the prophecies they had hoped I was from the beginning though just discovering what a fearful thing it was they had desired, the members of that funeral gathering from the youngest to even my ancient foster mother, regarded me with something akin to awe mixed with terror. All any of them did in response to my peremptory assumption of full command was to acknowledge it with silent respect.
And no little fear. For themselves, for the world in general, whatever. I could have cared less at the time, much to my current shame, but I was being driven by a rage fueled by grief that threatened to consume every fiber of my being up to and including my soul. No wonder they were afraid. If I'd had any sense of self preservation or caution left by then, I would have been terrified myself.
"I am The Deathbringer!" I screamed to the heavens for no reason other than get it out of my system, I was bursting with such rage, grief, and pain. "Beware, all. The Destroyer has risen! And she is not pleased with the state of the world she has awakened to find."
That last sentence had come out in a mournful, sorrowing whisper, but it did nothing to lessen the threat of the being I had embraced becoming at long last, the destiny I had denied for so long had finally swallowed me whole, like a shark consuming it's prey.
Pity this poor Earth, if my rage didn't subside.
None of us slept well, or easily, that day. Cyrus moaned lightly in his sleep, still shaking off the effects of nearly dying then being bodily dragged back to life and reasonable good health, while I kept reaching for him to assure myself that he was indeed beside me and hadn't been the centerpiece for one of those pyres we had watched in the predawn hours.
I felt the unease, anger, and grief from all in our extended family, and unhappily, had no more ease to give them in sleep than I had in wakefulness. What roamed my lightly sleeping, restless mind was nothing gentle or soothing. I believe I managed to keep that restrained. I hope so, everyone was in enough shock without my personal demons rampaging through their dreams to shatter what rest could be gained.
The dream plane was dark with forbidding flashes of lightning and the distant rumble of thunder pervading anywhere I went. Flitting shadows of other dreamer's souls which would normally stop for at least a tentative stroke from my ethereal hand fled my presence. The dark, almost presence, that had plagued me before was conspicuous by its total absence. Whoever it really was, evidently had considered it wise to not encounter me just then.
Too bad. I really wanted something to shred in my demon's claws, someone to scream in agony like my friend and sister had done, like Cyrus, my lover and mate had. I would have not been kind about it either. My torment would have been meted out slowly. Days could pass on the Dream Plane in the space of an hour. I'd really hoped someone I hated would be foolish enough to let me find them.
"You bleed, Little Sister," Instead, my Dream Twin, the original Magdalena came. She touched my cheek with a gentle brush of her hand and I shuddered, beginning to lose the coherent rage that had driven me through countless byways and over lost miles in the dream state.
"Your screams echo into the realms of the dead, your grief wails at the gates of Heaven, and your rage batters the grim gates of Hell. Is that what you wish to hear?
"Should I tell you Demons cower at that, Angels shed bitter tears, and the dead stir in their almost-sleep?" stroking my hair with a finger while her head tilted quizzically, she shrugged. "And to what end?"
"I desire Heaven's tears, Hell's quaking, and the dead to know that two more, who I loved, have joined their ranks tonight," I could see my words spiraling outward from my mouth, like phantoms, or smoke from a dying fire. "And to let Hell know I'll be sending them some more tenants soon.
"I want them to know," my voice sank to a hoarse whisper, nearly shredded from what I realized had been my own keening screams of grief and rage. "To know. That's all."
"In truth, Heaven is ignoring you, Hell is laughing while preparing a place for yet another fool, and the dead care no more one way or the other," Magdalena of Jerusalem changed tacks, growing stern instead of soothing me. "And those who deserve your rage are safely cocooned away from it while you spend it so extravagantly here.
"Grief, the rage it fuels, and your own personality will surely put you into their hands, and sooner than you are prepared to believe," my doppelganger, the source of my name, my appearance, and power, not to mention all of Charles' family, shook her head derisively. "And you spend your strength throwing a tantrum that is only giving poor mortal children nightmares. Nothing more, Little Sister. Nothing more than that. Is it enough? Or too much? Free the little ones from their terrible dreams, my beloved sister. Free yourself from them. If you are to have a chance of winning over what is arrayed against you, that must happen, and soon. Soon."
"What?" The lightning faded, and the rumble of thunder dissipated into a memory. The flames I now realized had wreathed my shadow vanished, leaving me chilled, but more in control than I had been, much to her satisfaction. "What should I do?"
"Grow up." her voice was tart, firm with the chiding an adult gives a errant child who should be old enough to know better than throw open tantrums, or even private ones. "Simply grow up, Little Sister, and stop blaming the world for what you are, for needing what you've become, and for awaiting you through long centuries.
"I failed, because I wouldn't see that," Hugging me tightly to her, she whispered. "Do not make the same mistakes I did. You know what those were, where I was weak, and my overweening confidence that no mere fledgling, Lord or not, could harm the likes of me.
"But Vlad wasn't the direct cause of my death, Little Sister," she continued softly, almost mournfully. "I died the real death because I could not, would not, accept what the world wanted of me. Grow up as I did not, and triumph where I perished. Fail to do that, and you too will be nothing more than a memory, a shadow to frighten naughty children into better behavior, no matter how much power you draw to yourself or unleash."
"Have I been that bad?" I felt as if on the verge of tears, and fought them back, shamed by the idea of allowing them to start, fearful that once they did, I would never be able to stop. "That much of an idiot about all this? I don't want to believe that."
"Believe it," Magdalena softly, firmly announced while shaking my shoulders with hands far more powerful than anything that small and delicate should be. "Stop railing against what is when you can do nothing to change it, mourn for what has been lost, that is only proper, but stop feeling sorry for yourself and begin changing those things you are able. Give Humans the freedom to grow that you espouse so loudly, give yourself and your kind the same thing. But you must grow up and accept what you are. These aspects you compartmentalize are not separate beings who seize control of your actions in times of stress or danger. They are all you, subject to your own conscious control. Use them for the tools they are, or become the monster you truly fear simply because you lack the resolve to control your own actions."
The tears flowed in spite of my attempt to hold them back. Bitter with grief for lost loved ones, Human and Vampyri. For my seldom thought of Human parents, for my Vampiric Ancestress, for my lost humanity, and because of my very real fear of what I was becoming.
"I -- I'm not strong enough to save the whole damned world," I sobbed, "I don't want that kind of responsibility, I never did."
"Then join me in death," Magdalena quietly withdrew her embrace to give me a solemn look from eyes I saw in the mirror every night. "Or become Vincente's miserable, helpless slave. Because the responsibility has fallen to you regardless of your personal preferences. Take it or throw it all away, the choice is yours, and yours alone to make."
"Oh, God," my voice broke in a series of sobs once again as I reached for the return of the comfort she had withdrawn from me.
"God isn't listening," my Twin coldly informed me, then drew me back into her arms. "But I am. Cry, Little One. Get it out, cleanse yourself, then consider what I've told you here.
"And remember that I do love you," she finished, smoothing my hair and continuing the motion to stroke my tense neck and shaking back. "Regardless of how you choose, or how that choice turns out, I love you. As many others do."
"Thank you," It seemed like an eternity before the tears, the stomach wrenching sobs, and outright bawling my eyes out dried up and vanished. I felt cleaner, more at ease than I had since first opening myself completely to Cyrus. "I'll remember what you've told me, and carry your memory with me whatever I do."
"You'll be carrying me, child," with a chuckle she gave my form a rapid up and down once over. "In everything you are and do, so to use the crude vernacular of your own time, don't fuck up. I left things in too much of a mess as it was. See if you can't get some of that, at least, straightened out, could you?"
"Uh, sure," non-plussed by her use of modern vernacular, and by how suddenly lighter I felt, I could only nod and give her that brilliant sounding reply. "I can give it a shot. No, I'll get it done. Somehow."
"Of course you will, dear," Magdalena beamed, not being at all condescending with her statement. Then gave me a crooked little grin and impish gleam of green eye that I knew all too well from having seen it on my own face so often. "Just try not to shake things up too badly while you do it. Things haven't been at all restful for any of us since you were Made. A bit of peace and quiet might be nice, if you understand what I'm saying?"
"Might be a little tough to deliver in the immediate future," I grinned back with the same expression. "But I'll see what I can do about giving you and your Egyptian, excuse me, Khemite isn't it? Some time to yourselves pretty soon."
"Khemite is the correct name," Magdalena nodded. "And that would really be appreciated. You've kept me quite busy over the past few years, you know."
"You've been kept busy!" I snorted. "Try it from my end."
"But I have, dear," was the laughing response she threw back at me, then grew serious again. "Now, though, it is time that you began doing what you should without prompting, or being pushed into it kicking and screaming about the unfairness of it all."
"You made your point," with a sheepish smile I glanced down at my feet. "No use beating a horse already going as fast as it can in the direction you want it to go, is there?"
"Not once you really have its attention," she agreed, then planted a motherly/sisterly kiss on my cheek. "Which I finally seem to have gotten. Now go rest, you have a very busy time ahead and will need all the strength you can get."
"Yes, Mama," I meekly cut back, then withdrew from the Dream Plane. It may have been my imagination, but the place seemed clearer, brighter, than it had in a long time.
The snorted retort that followed me was undeniably real, though. "I'll Mama you, young lady." I wasn't sure if it was pride, or just amused pique in her dwindling voice.
* * * *
Charles appeared drawn, and at his limit for endurance as we gathered in the immense living room for a deliberate council of war; with the one aim of destroying our enemies so completely that they would never mount another round of attacks like the previous night.
"Are you going to be able to sit through this?" I questioned my Maker with a worried look. "If not, we'll understand, Charles."
"I have not run from unpleasantness up to now," he returned quietly, wearing a set, and to anyone knowing him, deadly expression. "We should have heeded your warnings last evening, Magda. Since we failed to do so, I will be part of our response to what they have done."
"There will be no throwing away of more lives," I coolly informed him. "Either casually or extravagantly. We have already lost too much. I won't have anyone charging off on their own for vengeance tonight. Is that understood?"
"Yes," he vented a shuddering sigh, then seated himself with a hand covering his eyes. "It is quite clear. I will attend to business as you deem fit, Magda."
"I'm truly sorry, Charles," I returned tiredly to my own seat, a large, comfortable chair in a position to be visible, and survey, the others drawn up for our council. "Marilee meant as much to me as to you, but we can not allow this newest outrage to draw us out pell mell. That is what they want, what they expect."
"Twice," Charles tightly told the room in general. "Twice now, Vincente has been involved in the horrible death of the one I loved. I will not sit idly by for long. Be warned of that."
"A few more nights," I assured him gently. "Then there will be an end to all our waiting, and the reckoning every one of us gathered in this room, and elsewhere, have been hoping for will come.
"Be patient a little longer, my Father, my Brother, my friend," I was speaking to him alone, but the gist of my meaning reached the others too. "Losing you on top of everything else would be more than I'm prepared to deal with just now."
"I have said it," he returned without heat. "Another few nights, I will accept, but no more of being a target whenever Vincente's creatures feel the urge to kill one of us."
"None of us will be unprepared targets again," I promised, hoping that would be true. "But for now we must only defend, not attack in a fury of grief and rage."
"Inactivity on our parts, a lack of response, may encourage more such attacks," Cassandra pointed out carefully. "Our enemies will take such a reaction from us as a sign of weakness, an inability to fight any longer."
"So let them interpret our quiet as they wish," I countered firmly. "We know differently, and messages are even now being passed to our supporters around the world. We were not the only ones to suffer last night, my family and friends. These commands I have to give here are being echoed in every enclave that yet holds to us, and I would imagine will be as unpopular there as here.
"But they will be obeyed," my voice dropped, but gained force as it grew quieter. "Or we will lose this war."
"I would suppose you do have a plan formed," Sun Yee gave me a halfway dubious look, then cast a concerned glance towards a silent, and obviously angry Hatesphut. "It might be as well to share it with us immediately."
"I am," my nod was sharper than I'd intended, but I had no doubt at all regarding my own position, or what I wished to be done over the following few nights. "We will allow Vincente's people to believe our losses were more catastrophic than they really were, to think that we are reeling in shock and despair, unable to muster any kind of response at all other than huddling together in a proven doubtful safety.
"While quietly preparing all our force for one major, decisive strike at their hearts," drawing in a deep breath, I favored each one with a glare that I was later told had been so regal, and chilling, that no one even thought of contradicting or questioning what I was telling them. "Gather our weapons, our allies, and our resolve to end this madness forever. I have not given up on my words from last night, people. Nor have I weakened.
"Only let them believe we are staggering from the terrible blows delivered to us last night, that we aren't capable of responding, and will not," I clenched a small hand into a fist and set it gently on a coffee table beside my chair. "For just another few nights."
"Then," my arm rose and fell with enough force to shatter the table. Once the noise had subsided, I whispered. "We will do this to our enemies. Be prepared for that, my loved ones. I swear to all of you both living and dead, that what occurred last night will not go unanswered!"
The reports from our scattered enclaves were discouraging on the surface, with an endless seeming list of losses. But a telling point to each on was that our side had recovered quickly, and the attacking forces rarely made it back with even fifty percent of their numbers intact. Our defenses had buckled, but held when the chaos of the previous night was closely examined. And we had hurt our enemies nearly as much as they had hurt us. More so in many cases.
"Magda," Sly quietly interrupted a small conference to coordinate movements of our separate groups, "There's a phone call for you. Man say's his name is Cavanaugh and that you know him. Gave him this number to call if he needed to. So you want me to put him off?"
"No," sitting back in my chair, I took the portable phone he was holding with a grimace. "I'll talk to him. Thanks."
"What might I do for you tonight, Mr Cavanaugh?" I opened the conversation with the question, and implication that I had far more than a worried Human, no matter how powerful he might be, to contend with. "Please make your point. Things here are more than a little hectic at the moment."
"I'll bet they damn well are," he returned with anger in his voice. "After last night, there isn't one high office on the continent, or maybe the world that isn't in an uproar. What in the hell did you think you were doing, Lady?"
"Being attacked," I responded tartly, barely containing my own anger. "And doing our best to survive it."
"This "little War" of yours has overflowed its boundaries," he grated. "People, innocent Human people are dead because you failed to contain it as promised. My bosses are breathing down my neck to do something that will insure there isn't a repeat of the bloodshed."
"It was none of my doing, Mr. Cavanaugh," my response was quiet, deliberately allowing my own weariness, and grief to fill the voids. "And if reports I've been receiving from over the world are accurate, many of my people perished protecting yours, getting them out of harm's way, outright, openly defending the innocent ones.
"Not that Humans were the only innocents that suffered last night," I went on before he was able to interrupt. "A number of declared neutral groups of my kind were nearly wiped out of existence in these attacks. Again, many of those died saving Humans."
"I'm fully aware of that, Lady," he answered softly. "Which is the only reason I've held back the information my superiors, and a number of foreign governments are raking me over the coals with red hot tongs to get. And why an all out retaliatory strike against your people hasn't been ordered."
"Hold them off, Cavanaugh," I forced the tones of command through the mouthpiece, and felt his mental shudder as they reached him. "Things are quiet now, and will stay that way provided we are not also attacked by panicked Humans.
"Please remember that I am the closest thing among our kind you have to a friend," I continued soothingly. "And do me the courtesy of accepting my good intentions towards both races on this planet. We require a healthy world to survive, too. Human intervention in our conflict would escalate the situation far beyond your worst nightmares and my own capabilities to moderate the results. I hope you understand that."
"Your guarantees aren't much good to my superiors after last night," Cavanaugh countered. "But your relative good will towards us is. Lady, we'd far rather have you in power among your kind than your opposition."
"Then give me the leeway to finish what my enemies have started," I shot back with the irritation in my voice clear for his hearing. "I have suffered some quite personal losses myself in all this, Mr. Cavanaugh."
"I know," the response from his end was faint, almost sorrowful, but it hardened again after a moment. "I need to be able to tell my superiors that there won't be a repeat of last night, Ms. Durant. Can you give any assurances at all regarding that?"
"Any you'd care to hear," I replied softly, then chuckled unpleasantly. "But you know full well I would be lying if I did. In fact, I can just about assure you of the opposite. I am not in complete control of this situation, there is another autonomous faction reacting to whatever we choose to do."
"I understand that," it was his turn to try and sound conciliatory. "But a lot of powerful people behind me don't. They will not tolerate another night like the one that just happened. Surely you understand that?"
"I do," closing my eyes, I plunged into to crux of our conversation. "But there will be one. I can't possibly promise you otherwise.
"But I can promise this," my voice tightened, became chill with echoes of The Deathbringer. "The next occurrence will be the last. My side will either win or be obliterated when it happens. Truce with our enemies is not a workable option. There is far too much blood on both sides to allow for that. I wish there was something more positive I could give you, but I have been honest with you up to now, dealt fairly, and feel you have done the same with me. I won't gloss over the truth, or lie to you about the probabilities for a peaceable finish to all this. Only ask, no make that implore, that you keep your people away while it is concluded."
"You're sure that things will reach a conclusion soon?" he was digging, and sounded very upset at the prospect of my not being around once they were. "And if so, how will we know whether you've won or lost?"
"You'll know," was all I could say. "Be ready, Mr. Cavanaugh, but please, for the safety of this entire planet, do not interfere."
"Finish it, then," he wished almost fervently. "One way or another finish this God Damned mess, and get it done soon, Lady. I can't hold things back on this end for long, no matter how much I'd prefer to do that."
"Then allow me to return to business," I replied, more of a command than request, and the overtones in my response made it clear that I was growing impatient with our conversation. "I have things to do, and you are taking precious time away from those."
"Is there something else?" I questioned pointedly as the silence on his end lengthened.
"Yes, one thing, Lady," I could hear his indrawn breath, as if he was gathering his emotional resources for something he hadn't wanted to do. "Good luck, and I hope that whatever Gods you acknowledge are kind to all of us."
"As I do, Mr. Cavanaugh," my response was more fervent than I'd intended, and I was secretly touched by his sentiment, which had come from deep within himself. "As I do. If you pray, please include me in yours. God doesn't exactly hate me, or my kind, since He created us in the first place. As with much else these days, He just seems to have lost interest in us."
"Then God be with you, Queen of Light and Dark," he quietly told me. "Goodbye, Lady."
"Goodbye, Mr. Cavanaugh,"
* * * *
Another disturbing, no make that terrifying, development came through from a few garbled reports from nearby enclaves, one of which had been almost entirely wiped out during the previous night.
"You're certain of this?" I questioned tiredly as the grim faced messenger slumped in a chair in front of me. "That a new Power has come into things on the other side?"
"As sure of it as I am that you sit in front of me," he nodded, then straightened with visible effort. "He was huge, at least as tall as your Charles, and bulked out with enough muscle mass to not seem so until you got close. And savage, my God, Lady, he gloried in causing pain more than the killing. He was laughing as he dismembered my mate, like the act was more fun than he'd had in a long time."
"I'm sorry for your mate," Charles answered quietly. "And for your loss, I too lost a mate last night. Please describe this one in more detail, if you can."
"Not likely to ever forget," the male, seeming no older than I appeared, ran a shaking hand through his thickly curling mane of honey colored hair then gave us both an almost hopeless look before launching into the details my Maker had requested. "Long dark hair, black as night, rugged features with a long, hooked nose, thin lips, and eyes, oh god, those eyes."
"What about them?" Charles prompted, obviously worried at what he had heard. "What about his eyes?"
"Ice blue," the other shuddered at the memory. "With nothing except rage, and madness behind the glitter of intelligence in there. I'm only here now because he let me go, with a message for you, sir, and you Lady."
"Message?" Charles was pale, and I had a very good idea why. I'd read his personal diaries and held an image very close to the one described from my dream memories of Magdalena herself.
"He said he'd killed you once," his voice shook as he recalled that while telling me. "And he would do so again, my Queen. "And that he intended to rectify a lack in not doing so with you long ago, sir," he finished with a look to Charles, who had closed his eyes upon hearing that.
"Vlad," he whispered. "The fools, the damned desperate fools! They managed to bring him back after all. He wasn't sane when Vincente had him Made one of our kind and only grew worse as the years went on. Centuries of death can't have improved that at all."
"That would explain the sheer physical savagery of last night's attacks," A subdued, and frightened Hatesphut breathed.
"As opposed to Vincente's mental emotional kind," I nodded, then gave the messenger a compassionate look. "Have you fed tonight? If not there are any number of willing, safe humans here to choose from."
"Thank you, Lady," his toneless reply betrayed how worn he was, and his exhaustion. "I have already been seen to in that regard, but would appreciate a place to rest. It has been a very hard few nights."
"The staff will see to you, then," I rose to offer my hand to help him rise. "Rest for now, in safety if not comfort. I'm afraid that we're a bit overcrowded tonight."
He accepted my hand with mild surprise, then gave me a weary smile. "Just so long as I have room to stretch out away from the sun for a few hours. Thank you again."
"God I hate being in this position," with a drawn out sigh as we watched the weary Vampyri make his way out to the garages, which were the only spaces we had left that would shield anyone from the sun, I waved Sarge over to my side. "Vlad touched that one, and let him go reasonably intact. We'll need to have him watched very closely, and kept away from the majority of our preparations."
"Someone's on it, Magda," Sarge grimaced, then offered me a weak smile. "Damned shame we have to do it, but none of us want another Howard at this pass, do we?"
"Thinking of beautiful, treacherous Howard, who's betrayal had resulted in Cecilia's death and my separation from the Family for almost two weeks, I shuddered and shook my head. "No, but that doesn't make me feel any better about this. That poor man has been through enough without having our suspicions added to his grief. Not that I'm going to tell you not to do it. We just can't take the chance at this stage."
"Bad news, that Vlad has returned" Sun Yee mused thoughtfully, with a long look at a still silent Charles, then to me. "But not entirely unexpected, is it?"
"No," reaching for the glass of wine that had been sitting ignored for hours, I took a cautious sip and grimaced, then leaned back in my own chair with a long, hissed out breath before giving Charles another careful glance.
"I killed him once," my Maker smiled grimly. "And am fully prepared to do it again. Remember that, all of you. Vlad is mine."
"Fair enough," I nodded, then let out a half bitter chuckle. "We all seem to have chosen partners for the last dance, haven't we?"
No one argued that point, since we all had at least one particular enemy in the other faction and felt that we deserved an unimpeded chance at killing them.
"Well, people," I arose with a wide yawn and a morose look at the morning sunshine beginning to fill the campground the estate's once immaculate lawns had become. "I don't know about any of you, but I need some sleep. There's nothing more we can do just now, anyway, is there?"
"What about your Human friends?" Monica questioned tiredly before offering. "I might be able to stay awake long enough to run out and check on them if you'd like."
"No," I thanked her with a smile and shake of my head. "We're all strung tight as a high G string on a guitar right now, and if something had gone wrong out there, I'd have known it. Our farm next door fought their attackers to a dead halt within about five minutes during that disaster of a night. Vincente's people didn't even try to approach Steve and Molly. So maybe they really don't know where they are."
"Or how important to you they truly are," Charles gave me a smile that said he was finished fighting me over that pair, and had been for some time. "Let's just hope they remain ignorant and get some rest if we're able. This next few nights are going to be a pretty fair imitation of Hell come to dinner unless I've got everything scrambled so badly that nothing moves at all."
"You're my War Leader," I simply told him with confidence in his ability that needn't be voiced aloud. "If you've gotten things that messed up, then the rest of us have already sold our side down the river and are following close behind. Won't do much good worrying about it now, will it?"
"So you say," Cyrus reached an arm around my waist to help me stand without wavering with the near exhaustion I felt. "But I know better."
"I'm a female," was my soft reply. "By definition I'm allowed to worry. You menfolk are supposed to be reassuring me, you know."
"Then come to bed," he ordered. "Before you fall to the carpet and make a spectacle of yourself, and me since I'll just pull up a piece of it right next to you for the day."
We more or less supported each other up the stairs and into our rooms. Didn't even bother to undress before literally falling into bed and losing ourselves in deep, dreamless sleep.
The following night was a busy, if thankfully quiet, one as we continued picking up the pieces we had left after Vincente's, or Vlad's assaults on our scattered enclaves. As we of the Queen's Council, some idiot dubbed our family circle and remaining Ancients had expected there were actually far more of them than it appeared to outside inspection.
"Things are going far better than I had hoped," Hatesphut joined me on the grounds outside the mansion to watch our gathered "refugees" going through the finishing preparations for our planned counterattack. "Your poor Cyrus is chafing at the need to remain inside through all this."
"He isn't alone," I answered with a half humorous, grim chuckle. "Just about a third of our actual striking force worldwide is doing exactly the same thing. I wonder if the other side is buying it?"
"They have wounds to lick and gaps in their ranks to fill, too," the ancient priestess moved a hand in a sharp cutting gesture wearing a savagely satisfied expression on her face. "That last series of attacks hurt them, as well. They paid a horrifying cost themselves from all the intelligence we have received. Perhaps that was a last gasp attempt on their parts to break us."
"Right," I nodded, stepping farther from the house. "And maybe the Moon Goddess herself is going to come down to Earth to help us when we pull ours."
"We still have no confirmations regarding the whereabouts of either Vincente or Vlad," Hatesphut shrugged. "We can always hope those two are among the unidentified, unidentifiable, dead."
"Like I said," walking slowly towards the garages, where Cinda was in earnest conversation with both Cooker and Sly, I frowned at the distant cityscape. "No sense getting attached to pipe dreams now. I know those two, and Vincente's remaining Ancients are still out there waiting and watching. They sacrificed an awful lot of older Vampyris, younger ones, fledglings, and Human lackeys, but there isn't one verified instance beyond Vlad's participation, that any of them were even close to any of those attacks."
"Good," my ancient companion smiled grimly and hooked her hands into claws tipped with sharp fingernails. "Because I very badly wish to find at least one of the gods be damned bastard's throats in my hands soon."
"Don't we all," my response was far more savage than I'd allowed to show up to then, and I had to force myself to quell the icy stirrings deep in my being. "I personally want to hold Vincente's heart in my hand and make him watch while I crush it into black, stinking pulp."
"Well, enough pleasant musings," Hatesphut grinned at my bloodthirsty reply, then waved towards another group of outbuildings, gardener's sheds and such, behind the house. "I must go check on our telepaths and see that they are still screening themselves adequately."
"I'm sure they are," I grimaced at memory of more than a few very grueling sessions myself with the dusky skinned Khemite she devil beside me. "Since you're the one who has been giving them a crash course in how to do it."
She only laughed in response. waving farewell as she parted ways with me. I regained my own composure and entered the garage where Cooker and Sly dept their immaculate Hogs and my now fully repaired Camero.
"Cinda, be reasonable," Cooker was almost pleading, but sounded quite firm in his resolve to resist whatever my fire haired friend wanted. "Me and Sly aren't fit company for you, let alone Magda. We just wouldn't fit so good."
"I used to say the same thing," she countered coolly, then turned her lambent green eyes to Sly. "Come on you guys. Just because I ended up with Sarge doesn't mean I'd take losing either one of you all that well. Especially not after what happened a few nights ago. It doesn't hurt, really."
"Not the point," Sly shrugged, then returned his attention to the carburetor he had in pieces on the grease stained workbench. "Me and Cooker got plans for being dirty old men later on, we won't get old if you had your way."
"Done a lot of things, some nastier than even I care to talk about or even remember," Cooker nodded in agreement. "But I won't become a blood drinker, babe. No offense, and thanks for thinking of us, but we talked the idea over and neither one of us can see ourselves as one of you folks, no matter how much we like some of you."
"Now this argument sounds awfully familiar," I interrupted with a slow, lazy smile for all three of them. "Doesn't it, Cinda?"
"Yeah, it does," the redhead grimaced, then cast me a pleading look. "Please, you try and convince them. I'm running out of ideas."
"You convinced yourself, hon," I quietly pointed out. "Neither I, Sarge, or anyone else really forced the decision on you, did we?"
"No," she leaned back against the wall and folded her arms with a lopsided little grin and shook her head. "But all of you sure were hinting real hard for a long time before I caved in."
"Still, those were only hints," settling down on a convenient crate I gave her, then the two men a lightly amused look before turning serious. "When the time came, you were ready. Weren't you?"
"You're no help at all," she grumbled,
"If they're ready, they'll join us," I shrugged, then offered both men a brilliant smile. "The Family would welcome either or both of you, I know that.
"And I for one," lifting my arms in an even larger shrug and grinning, I finished with a great deal of certainty in my voice. "Would never be ashamed to call either one of you brother. I already like to think you're friends."
"Hey, how about that," Cooker grinned insouciantly at Sly. "We got connections to The Powers That Be just like we always wanted."
"Can't hurt," Sly mumbled, then looked up from his work.
"But the answer's still no," both of them declared firmly in unison.
"How could we get roaring drunk, or blitzed on other harmful chemicals if we got ourselves turned into Vampyri?" Cooker reasonably questioned with a lift of his eyebrows.
"Yeah," Sly put on a sorrowful expression for our benefit. "That'd take all the fun out of life."
"Okay, okay," Cinda held her hands out in front of her then raised them over her head. "I give up. I promise not to bring the subject up again."
"Until the next time, anyway," Cooker chuckled, then reached out to pat her behind. "But that's okay, Cinda. We'll still love you."
"Was I that stubborn?" she looked at me with a disbelieving expression.
"Yep," I answered with a laugh as I stood up and dusted of my own behind. "I seem to recall one time when you stood up and swore to a gathering of, at the time, very scary Ancients, that there was no way you'd ever become a Vampyri."
"Oh, yeah," she sounded halfway subdued for a change with that admission. "I did do that, didn't I?"
"Give them time," I chuckled, gesturing an invitation for her to walk with me. "They'll either give in or not, but forcing the issue wouldn't be such a wonderful idea with those two."
"Guess that's right," Cinda snorted as she joined me. "They're bad enough now when they get pissed off. I'd hate to see them with Vampyri powers in one of those moods."
"Scary thought, isn't it?" It really was, kind of, since that pair could and had, held their own against rank and file type Vampyris without so much as showing that it cost them much in the way of effort.
* * *
"Where are we going?" Cinda idly questioned once we'd left Cooker and Sly to their machines and each other.
"Morale boosting," I grimaced. "You know, kind of showing the flag to let our people know that we're aware of what they've gone through and that all of us in the main house are involved too."
"Ran you out of the house, huh?" Cinda chuckled, then took a leisurely look around. "Where's your self appointed bodyguard?"
"Oh, I imagine Hassan will be along pretty soon," with a shrug I glanced up to the windows of the rooms the fellow was now sharing with Monica. Not that it meant anything, but there weren't any lights showing from them. "Monica is keeping him out of my hair when I don't really require his presence."
"Good of her," Cinda chuckled, then gave me an innocent look. "Taking that responsibility to give you a break once in awhile, I mean."
"Hah!" my reply was lost in a peal of laughter from my redheaded companion, who shook her head again and waved anything else I had to say on the subject off.
"Well," I went on with a smile of real pleasure. "It's good that Monica has found someone to live for again. Plotting vengeance and stewing over that kept her going, but I was kind of worried about what she was going to do once all this craziness was over."
"Yeah," she nodded without further comment on that, then changed to a similar subject with an expression of genuine concern. How is Charles holding up? I haven't seen much of him since the other night."
"Not so well," with a sigh, I thought of my Maker and the way he had been stalking the grounds and house alternately glowering with impatience or morose with grief that he was barely holding in check.
"Marilee meant a lot more to him than he was willing to admit up until recently. Losing her has been a terrible blow to him. I can only hope the rest of us who knew her will be able to give him the support he needs for the next little while."
"We will," my friend gave the house a quiet, thoughtful look. "But he's resilient, and has been through losses like that before, hasn't he?"
"Yes," was all I could say to that because we had reached the first group of mixed Vampyris and Humans who had taken shelter within our walls.
The next few hours was difficult. No make that heartbreaking with the hollow eyed people I visited grimly determined not to show me anything except their intent to follow my seemingly timorous commands regarding our present lack of real activity.
"Lady," one of those, a male Vampyri still bearing the marks of the savaging he had taken during the most recent attacks, approached us almost diffidently but with a firmness to his voice and question in his eyes that belied any hesitance. "Why do we sit here like this? Every one of these people, Human or Vampyri, would give their lives for you, and have reason to wish for a time of retribution to come soon."
"It will come," I answered softly, then sat down on a nearby bench to give him time to say more, or for someone else to join in. He didn't, nor did anyone else, all of them merely stared at me with an unnerving mix of sullen anger and acceptance.
"I know all of you have suffered losses recently," my voice nearly broke as their grief surfaced, for nearly as many dead as there were living in front of me. "We all have, my own beloved mate was nearly killed, and two others I loved are dead. But I can't allow grief, or rage to rule my decisions now."
"We all heard, and felt your screams, Lady," the spokesman, slight, naturally pale, and beautiful enough under his healing wounds to have passed for a female with a little work, shook his head and waved vaguely towards the others in his group. "Your rage, your grief, mirrored our own. We had hoped for something more than hiding behind walls from you after what happened. That's all. I don't presume to second guess, or question your judgement, Lady, I only..."
"Wonder why we've done so little as of yet," I heavily responded, interrupting him. "And you are questioning my decisions.
"Which is all right," I assured him as he flinched as if ready to be struck down by my anger at his presumption. "I am not a war leader, and have to rely on wiser, more experienced minds for our strategies on that.
"My original wish was to ravage the other side as wantonly as they did to us, and immediately," My voice had fallen to a near whisper, but vibrated with the fact that my wishes hadn't changed at all in that. I seemed to try and deflect the subject to another subject abruptly. "What would your name be?"
"Johnathan Moore, Lady," he responded quietly.
"All right, Johnathan Moore," I nodded with a tired smile. "How old would you be right now?"
"I have seen three centuries, Lady," he answered with a puzzled look on his face. "And about fifteen years beyond that."
"Then you are far older than I am," was my own response as I reached out to touch his raggedly scarred and healing cheek. It showed clearly the aftermath of some serious burns. "But I am not using that for an excuse. Continue getting ready here, rest, feed, regain your strength. Our losses were terrible, but not nearly so bad as we're letting the opposition believe. And I promise you, Johnathan Moore, and all you others here or elsewhere who are crying for their own vengeance. Before the week is gone, either you will have it, or I will be dead. We will not sit idly to await another assault on our selves and the ones we love like fell on us two nights past. Be patient another night or two, that is all I ask, and pass the word quietly among the others you see that I have said it."
"I will, Lady," Moore bowed deeply, his chafing at the inactivity fading under a renewed hope for something other than nursing his wounds and griefs, or inadequately bolstering the same in his followers. "We all will."
"Tell them, while you're at it," Cinda quietly told him, and the others gathered nearby. "That The Peacemaker keeps her promises. I know that for a fact, and stand before you because she does, and refused to abandon anyone pledged to her. Remember that, too, Johnathan Moore. I live to say this, and others are alive now, because of that."
The other groups we visited were much the same. By the time we were finished, I fervently wished that I was still able to get at least a little drunk. As it was, I went to my rooms and cried where no one but those closest to me could see.
The Dream Plane reflected my own turmoil that day with its usual riot of soft colors interspersed with brighter flashes almost overwhelmed by a thin, greyish pall that was nearly like fog. Fear, uneasiness, and pain throbbed through that almost colorless shroud and there were more spiked thunderheads of nightmares visible in my vicinity than anything else. The world's living creatures, intelligent or otherwise, were in some way aware of the conflict between Vampyri factions, and that it was drawing to a potentially catastrophic ending.
They may not have been consciously aware, those capable of such awareness, but in some way all of us, Vampyri, Human, and life in general, were connected subconsciously. Waking or sleeping, that awareness, uneasiness, and outright fear, made the Dream Scapes I generally found soothing in most cases, into something ominous.
Then there was the sure sense that I had been drawn into the place without my own consciousness having much to do with the act. I had sensed the unhealthy emanations and simply been pulled into the Dream Plane because someone was needed to ease so much suffering.
An impossible task, I knew. What was required would be an end to the conflict of Powers in the Earthly realm to the physical. The Vampiric Wars of Division would have to be brought to a halt before any healing could happen in this plane.
"Deathbringer," a chill voice, small with distance reached me, calling with something akin to longing. "Destroyer."
I stood almost rooted to the spot as the calls were repeated, with more strength, from closer to my position, and watched a dark clad figure who seemed to possess wings stride towards me through the greyness. The wings resolved themselves into the flapping folds of an enormous, supple leather cloak edged with sable at collar and hem. The figure wearing it, a male Vampyri, was just as huge when he drew to a halt less than ten paces away to regard me with open admiration.
"Magdalena," Vlad towered over me by head shoulders, and half a chest, out massing me by at least three times, but he didn't intimidate me. Noting that, he nodded in regal approval. "I have been wanting to see Vincente's nightmare, this nemesis of his and others who has risen so suddenly phoenix-like and with such terrible wrath, for myself.
"You are every bit as magnificent as I was led to believe." he whispered in a hushed voice. "You could be your unfortunate namesake, Lady."
"I am not her," I returned without expression.
"No," he agreed with a thin, cold smile of appreciation. "You are not. Which is the reason I chose to meet you here, before we confronted one another in the flesh."
"You were no Dream Weaver Before," my voice cracked like a whip of ice against stone. "Did being among the dead teach you that skill? And do you plan using it to fight me here?"
"Peace, Lady," spreading his empty hands wide in a placating gesture of non-aggression, Vlad favored me with another thin smile and look of pure admiration. "I did not come here to contest with you, or regale you with tales of my time with the dead. I am no real Dream Weaver, only know how to open the paths to reach one already in this realm."
"Why seek me out?" I questioned, still ready to strike at him, and knowing he could strike back, or first, with savage ferocity and horrible strength if he chose in spite of his protestations otherwise. "I would be very disappointed if it was only to have a look at me, Lord Vlad."
"Prince," he corrected blandly, raising an eyebrow to gauge my reaction. "And no, I did not seek you out just to favor my eyes with your not inconsiderable beauty. I have come to make you an offer, my Lady. There is no need for further incidents such as occurred several nights past, though I am sure we have proven that your side's position is the weaker. You will surely go down in defeat if you stubbornly insist upon continuing this senseless resistance. I have come here, found you, to make certain you know that, and to give you a chance for saving your followers."
"An offer," flat toned, my voice held no interest in either his threats or implication that they could be withdrawn. "One that can save my followers and loved ones? How might that happen, Prince? When our first physical meeting is likely destined to be our last?"
"That will happen, that meeting in the flesh," he assured me smugly. "As you well know, Magdalena The Revenant. That is what Vincente and his call you, did you know that?
"But what those puling, terrified weaklings call you means nothing, to either you or me," he went on while giving me a head to toe looking over that had my flesh rippling with revulsion, though I held myself perfectly still, and silent. "Our meeting in the flesh need not be the bloodbath you seem so certain it shall be, you know."
"I would be interested in learning why you might think that." I conceded with a chilly smile of my own, while beginning to arouse The Deathbringer so he would truly feel the cold, ravening fury I held so tightly leashed within myself. "But am also sure that you mean to tell me here."
"I come to propose an alliance," his desire for that was open as his physical wish to have me. "A joining, Magdalena, Queen of Light and Dark. Deathbringer, Destroyer. Think what I could accomplish with you at my side, Lady. What we could do with the world and its races working together instead of at cross purposes and set upon killing each other."
"A match made in Hell," I nodded thoughtfully. "But I don't think so, Prince Vlad. There is far too much between us, of blood, loss, and grief for an easy solution like that to be even thinkable. Even if I'd consider doing such a thing to the world, my friends and loved ones, those who already look to me for direction."
"They would live, Lady," he promised smoothly, putting an earnest expression on his rugged face that almost seemed real. "All of them, even the pair who I have reason to hate most. No one would have to die over this. You would, of course, have to agree to the same with my followers."
"Of course," I nodded with a small smile of acknowledgement and no little sarcasm. "Fair return for your generosity would require that."
"I had hoped you would be at least reasonable in this," If he noted my resistance to the idea, or my outright horror at the thought of being even politically mated to him, he didn't show it. "Enough to hear me out, and see the wisdom, and fairness of the offer."
"I've listened," looking up into his face was like straining to see the top of a mountain you stood at the foot of, but I neither flinched or withdrew, simply rose in the figurative, malleable air until I was able to look him eye to eye. My burning green to his arctic blue. "And if I should turn your offer down?"
"That would be regrettable," shaking is head in near disbelief, he began reaching towards me, then thought better of it without a gesture of negation from me. "If two beings were ever made to be together, for one another, it is you and me, Lady. We are two of a kind."
"Are we?" tilting my head slightly, I pursed my lips in a seductively thoughtful, and under the circumstances, risky, pout. "Why then, would you not have made this same offer to my namesake long ago? We are much the same, she and I."
"You are far stronger than she was, Lady," Vlad declared simply, without flattery or inflection. He just stated a truth as he saw it. "Nor are you too soft hearted to rule. Or weak stomached for the task. Your namesake wanted nothing to do with being a leader, let alone a ruler.
"Whereas you have already declared yourself to be one," he acknowledged with a bow of respect. "And proven your right to those claims quite effectively. I would have you beside me, not against me, Lady. Make no decision now, consider it, and in time we will meet again. Then you can give me your answer."
"I already have a mate," I answered simply myself, not turning him down outright, but making it clear that I would not give up Cyrus.
"Your Shaman?" with a grin, Vlad waved negligently over his shoulder. "I would not object to your keeping him. I have favorites of my own, Lady. What I propose here is a political joining not one of the heart. What need do ones such as you and I have for such foolishness when dominion of the Earth is within our grasp? I will have that, Lady, with or without you. Yet it would be much sweeter with you beside me.
"Easier, as well," I chuckled without humor, then favored him with a direct stare and expressionless face. "As we both are aware. You may be right in saying my faction is not strong enough to successfully oppose yours. But we would not lie down and die, either. Not without exacting a payment that the survivors would be long in recovering from."
"Fit to be my Queen," pulling back, he favored me with a yearning look, then bowed once again. "As I said, Lady, I have never beheld a more magnificent female of either race. This offer would let you forge that peace your followers insist that you will bring to the world. Consider that, as well. One brought without further bloodletting on either side. I know you are also called Lifegiver, and Preserver. Give the softer side of your nature its own peace and become my consort, my Queen, and rule over the lives you will have saved."
"A most eloquent appeal, Prince," I gave him a formal curtsy, in response. "One that could bear thinking of."
"Continue opposing me," he warned with a hint of threat. "And either you will be mine unwillingly, or given to Vincente. I beg you, Lady. Take the easy path I have given you."
"I've never yet managed to choose the easy path," my answer held something akin to amusement, and that shook him out of his superior confidence in his power over me. "I don't imagine fate ever intended that I'd even catch sight of such a thing, Prince Vlad.
"But I thank you for the offer." I began turning away, which took every bit of willpower and courage I possessed and my back itched and burned in anticipation of a blow even so. "I trust you can find the way back to your physical self without my direction?"
"I can, Lady," with a cold laugh, he began moving away. "For truthfully, I trust you no more than you trust me. It could be different. Only say the word and it will be. My word on that."
"You already know my answer, Prince," was all I would give him.
"Reconsider this foolish refusal, woman," his voice faded along with the wintry chill that had come with him. Shuddering, I realized that he was possibly the only being, Vampyri or otherwise, I had encountered during my short life capable of making me feel such a horrible mix of revulsion, terror and yearning. "I will await your answer in hopes that you become sensible."
I was alone again, shivering on the Dream Plane, and more than a bit reluctant at the idea of returning to my own physical form until I could shake off the absolute disarray my personal plans had been thrown into.
"Peace," I murmured to myself, and felt a rush of cold at the way I would have to attain it should I so much as consider his offer. "Would it be worth betraying everyone, even myself, to get it so easily?"
"Surely, sister," a quiet voice intruded upon my turbulent thoughts, and I turned to see Magdalena of Jerusalem regarding me quizzically. "You don't intend to accept his offer?"
"It is tempting," I answered with an unhappy exhalation of breath. "And would bring peace between the factions without more bloodshed and good people on both sides dying.
"There are good people serving Vincente's side," I told her, then shook my head with a bitter laugh. "But Vlad named me right at first. Deathbringer, Destroyer. "I can't bring myself to even consider such a joining. There will be no peaceful end to this. Not even if I would betray everyone and everything that has come to mean so much to me. It would be nothing but surrender, would it? If I accepted what he proposed?"
"It would be worse," my Dream Twin mournfully answered. "Though I wish it could be otherwise just as you do, little sister. What will you do now?"
"Go on as if this never happened," I shrugged, then lowered my head in grief for all the ones who would die because of my decision. It took a few minutes for me to regain control enough to raise a tear streaked face to her again. "No, I'll mourn for the rest of my life over this. But I won't see the entire world under that monster's hand. I'd endure it, if it would change anything, but believing that would be foolish in the extreme, wouldn't it?"
"Would it help to know," Magdalena gave me a commiserating look. "That he really held no hope of your agreement, that this is just another cruel ploy to weaken your resolve?"
"Not at all," again, I shrugged, seeming to have no other gesture fit for the way I felt other than abjectly falling to my knees and curling into a tearful, shaking ball. Which was something I wasn't going to do. No, it wouldn't help one damn bit, big sister. Even when I know it's true."
"Vlad delights in causing pain," Magdalena agreed with a bitterness in her voice I had seldom heard during our conversations before that. "And what he has just given you, is enough pain to please even his rapacious appetites for inflicting harm."
"Accept and I betray everything, everyone, myself included," with a nod I straightened. "And give us all to him for eternity.
"Refuse," with a shudder of fearful anticipation I turned to stare in the direction he had gone upon leaving. "And who knows how many more are going to die within the next few days? With the guilt squarely on my shoulders and soul.
"How can I face all those people," I questioned almost plaintively. "With them knowing that I could have stopped the whole bloody mess, saved them any more grief and loss, with one word I was too stiff necked to say?"
"The same way you always have, little sister," Magdalena smiled at me, then reached out to take my hands in her's. "With more courage than one small female of any species should be expected to possess, and clear knowledge that however painful, what you have decided is right. In this case I assure you that is so."
"I hope everyone else thinks so," I chuckled mirthlessly. "When I tell them about this."
"They will," her assurance was helpful, a little anyway, but did very little to ease my own heartache. "Because with or without you, sister, my beautiful, strong, Queen. They would not submit to Vlad, Vincente, or any of that faction. The war would continue, with you effectively out of it, or on the other side no matter how unwilling you might have been."
"So, the bastard wins either way right now," my voice was filled with reluctant admiration, and more than a small amount of loathing. Then firmed up and became grimly amused. "But that isn't saying he'll win is it?"
"No, little sister," Magdalena, serious faced, shook her head. "It doesn't mean that at all."
"I have to go back now," reluctant again, but for different reasons, I turned towards my waiting physical self. Through the past few years, and all the difficulties, I had gotten to know the original I was patterned after quite well, and loved her in spite of the faults many still cursed her for.
"I was never," she seemed to answer part of my unvoiced thoughts, "loved so well, except by one other, little sister. I was not strong enough to be you. You are far too strong, in all your different facets, to have ever been me. Go back and do what you feel is right. I will understand."
"You're no weaker than I am, beloved twin," my smile was warm as I said that and enfolded her in a tight hug. "Only too much the Mother to inflict what I'm going to on our people. Stay with me to make sure I don't grow too hard."
"You won't," she seemed much surer of that than I could claim while returning my hug with a squeeze of her own. "And I'll always be with you, little sister. How not? You have only to look in a mirror to see me, and remember."
"Then you won't be back?" I felt my heart lurch at the idea, and held her tighter because of it.
"I am tired, little sister," her whispered answer held a weariness that could have weighed down the heavens. "But, no, I will not leave you until this War I failed to prevent is finished. That is my own penance, you see. To not rest until that happens."
"I know," giving her shoulder a comforting pat, it didn't even occur to me that our roles had been suddenly reversed, with me giving her what ease I was able instead of receiving it. "I'll get you that peace, big sister. But not by selling myself to your real murderer."
"As it should be," swallowing, she pulled away with tears in her eyes. "I have to go now, too. Be strong for your loved ones, and all who look to you for answers in time to come. But most importantly, be strong for yourself."
"I will, Twin," She was gone then, just like always, without even so much as a flicker. As usual, I briefly wondered if she had really been there at all, then dismissed the idea as pointless. I had other worries, and things to do. Which she had pointed out.
It was time to go back.
I was up before sundown, dressed and seated on the edge of the small balcony off my living room. This was a quiet time, when Humans began their diurnal slowdown and Vampyri awakened to their own nocturnal rhythms. I sat quietly, listening as I never had before.
Heartbeats like drums is what I heard. From the light, high speed pattering of birds and other small creatures, to the slower, but still rapid and majestic thrum of Human hearts, all the way to the deeper, slower resonance of Vampyri all through the compound and city.
The sound was vital, rich with the lives and blood that fed it, and holding a martial tone and beat for my ears. It was the sound of drums ready for war, with all the fear, terror, courage, and purely elemental outpouring of so many lives preparing to spend themselves for something their holders considered more important than personal continuance.
And I could have stopped it, then and there, with one damned word to the right person. One traitorous, powerful word that I refused to even think when the subject crossed my mind could save so many of those heartbeats, and the beings who contained them.
But for what? And how many of those who would live as result of my weakness, my desire to save them, would die later? Die cursing the day, or night, they had ever set eyes on me and sworn to support a Queen who was too weak to stand by her own decisions?
"I'm only one person," I pleaded with them, but insensate to my own pain, they continued with a quickening of the beat, and insisted that I hold to promises made.
"All right," I whispered, giving in and settling back in awe at what I was hearing, and sensing. "But I swear I'll hear most of you beating to a song of peace, and joy with the world we have left after this. I swear that you'll have that much from me at least. That chance."
"But for now," drawing in a shaky breath, I smiled sadly at the vista beneath my perch, at the people moving around, occasionally glancing up to see me and waving, or simply watching for a moment before returning to what they were doing. "We have to listen to that God damned Bugler, and match the beat that's already playing. This is one dance no girl, or man, should have to join in, let alone start. But I guess that's part of what I'm supposed to do, isn't it?
"After all, the prophesies clearly said that I'd bathe the world in blood to forge my peace. Hope you can live with that, hope I can."
"You're up early," Cyrus joined me on the balcony with a hug once I jumped off the railing. "Couldn't you sleep?"
"Not real well," I truthfully answered, then briefly allowed myself to huddle within the relative, perceived, safety of his arms. "I met Vlad on the Dream Plane."
"And both of you are still alive and uninjured?" turning me to face him, and lifting my chin to verify that I was unmarked by battle, he gave me a questioning look.
"He wanted to talk," I dully replied, not taking my eyes away from his. "He wanted me to, to join with him. Be his Queen. He promised to stop the killing if I did that. The Wars of Division would be over with, Cyrus. And I turned him down.
"All those lives," waving out to the overpopulated lawn and city beyond, I shuddered. "I could have spared them with one word, and wouldn't, couldn't, do it."
"You'd have condemned them," he offered, with a comforting reach of his arm around my shoulders. "My poor darling, you did the right thing, no matter how it seems to be otherwise. None of those, or any of us here, would have submitted to such a peace."
"I know that," even so, it was just about more than I could bear at the moment, and I began quietly crying against his shoulder. "But it doesn't change the fact that I could have tried. Maybe moderated his excesses, if I'd agreed. All those lives that are going to be lost, Cyrus, and they're going to be on my head for the rest of my life and beyond."
"Monarchs and leaders throughout history have faced the same dilemma," Cyrus soothed me, stroking my back and massaging my neck as he spoke softly into my ear. "You've heard what life under Vlad was like, my love. It would be worse than all of us dying in the coming conflict, believe me. Ask Charles and Cassandra, or your namesake. They'll tell you the same, that you've made the right choice."
"Doesn't make it any easier," getting myself under control, I reached my arms around his neck and pulled his head down for a kiss. "I have to wonder just how sane those other decision makers managed to stay. With the way I'm feeling about this."
"Most of them managed," he shrugged, then grinned at me. "Just like you will."
"Well, so much for my feeling sorry for myself time," I forced a chuckle, then managed a real laugh, though it held little in the way of real humor. "It's time to let the others know about this. I'd rather they heard it from me than Vlad, Vincente, or one of their people."
"Are you all right now?" he questioned with a concerned look at me.
"Yes," nodding, I shooed him away. "Go get yourself presentable. I'll be in pretty soon. Just have to tell someone something."
"Huh," giving me another odd look, he shook his head, giving up on figuring that one out. "See you in a few minutes then."
Once he had gone back inside, I turned to listen to my innumerable drummers one more time. "I am The Peacemaker. And I will keep my promises."
Maybe it was my imagination, but the feeling I got from that weirdly lovely, frightening gestalt, was one of acceptance, and satisfaction.
* * *
"Lady," the Vampyri who had first approached me over our apparent inactivity during my earlier tour of the grounds, Johnathan Moore, gravely offered me a deep bow, with the small group of remaining followers what remained of his brood, behind him by a cautious ten or twelve paces. "Might I have a brief word with you?"
"You might," I allowed with an unhappy smile. Word had gotten around, and my own Family group, including the Ancients who had come to my first calls for help, had been outraged by what I'd told them. Not that I'd refused, turned down a way to end the bloodshed immediately, but by the fact that Vlad had been arrogantly sure enough that I would meekly accept him and his offer to save the ones I loved.
I had been morosely wandering the grounds seeking some quiet place where I might sit in private for a time, but that was hopeless. Cinda and Hassan shadowed me, and Le'Lyeth wasn't far away, so whatever privacy I could have managed would have been no more than illusion. But an illusion I would have treasured for the few moments I had it.
The hedged bower where I had first greeted Cinda on these grounds had seemed to be such a place, but the active, purposeful throng of Humans and Vampyri moving about their varied businesses made even that a spot where one wasn't alone.
"Sit with me, then, Johnathan," seating myself on the padded bench, I first gestured, then patted the seat beside me. "And have your word, if you don't mind being that close to me."
He hesitated, obviously wanting to kneel in front of me, but taking in my unhappy, lonely, state of mind, he took the offered seat, and carefully took my unresisting hands within his own delicately shaped ones and gave them a squeeze.
"Possibly I'm presuming again, Lady," he started, not looking straight at me, but at my hands in his, as if he couldn't believe I was allowing such familiarity. "But your agonizing over the choice you made with Vlad is a source of grief to all of us. Do not fear that we will turn away because you refused his offer of peace and union. You did the right thing, my Queen.
"The blood rites for traditional joining of are not simply a ritual, you know," he went on, gaining strength of purpose once he had gotten the previous line out and I hadn't contradicted him, or risen to leave.
"You would be expected to take of his blood, be bound to him, before giving your own, and your power into his hands with it during the ceremony. That would have made you, no matter how unwillingly, his creature, Lady.
"I am sure you know life under that one was terrible," he finally looked directly into my face, with eyes that gleamed from things other than memory and emotion. "It would be no better now, and far worse with you enslaved, subject to his rule as everything else in creation would be. That would be one of his conditions, the traditional joining ceremony."
"I know that," my answer was quiet, and my face held the revulsion I felt at the prospect, even from a safely removed distance. "And found I couldn't contemplate such a thing without a great deal of shame on my part. It would have been a terrible betrayal to all of you, my loved ones, and the memories of those who have already died in this madness."
"And of yourself, My Queen," Moore softly added with another squeeze to my hands before standing and giving me a deeply formal bow. "Never doubt us, Lady, we are yours. All of us."
"I never have," rising myself with a warm smile, I took his hands in mine and gave them a squeeze. "Johnathan Moore, anytime you wish to risk seeming presumptuous with me, I'll listen. Thank you."
"All of us wanted to affirm our faith in you," he shrugged uncomfortably. "I more or less got elected to tell you, is all."
My faith in them, and the rightness of my decisions and chosen path, were strengthened by that short conversation. Knowing that they would approach the so terrible Queen of Light and Dark, I still had a little trouble seeing myself in that role, on such a personal basis also buoyed my spirits considerably.
"Better now?" Cinda questioned innocently as she rejoined me on my much livelier walk through the grounds back to the house.
"Yes," my response wasn't exactly light hearted, but I did feel better about some things, and it showed in both my face and walk. Our progress to the house was slowed by more than a few people of both races moving forward to offer at first hesitant greetings and ventures to touch or be touched, then more comfortable approaches once it was certain I was approachable.
"They love you, my Queen," Hassan observed with a small smile playing at the corners of his mouth. I could have sworn he was actually proud of me.
"I love them, too," was about all I could think of to say in response once he had closed the door behind us.
"They know that, daughter of my blood," Le'Lyeth, who had flitted inside with us in her usual fashion, told me. "We needed to make certain you knew it."
"Oh, I know it, have known it for some time," I admitted, without complaining about the additional load of whatever that piled on me. "One of these days maybe I'll actually deserve it from them."
"You're getting there, daughter," The Eldest grinned at me. "You already worry about and over them like a mother with her brood of rambunctious children."
"Oh no you don't," I protested with a real laugh, my first since awakening that evening. "I'm still getting used to having you call me daughter. No way am I ready to be a mother. I'm still growing up myself here."
"Aren't we all?" Cinda put in acerbically. Which seemed to be a fine finish to that particular conversation.
* * * *
"When did these arrive?" I questioned Abraham Hollis, the Human who oversaw our daytime security in a carefully level voice while staring at the boxes with their grisly contents. "And how were they brought here?"
"By messenger," Hollis gave the opened cartons, addressed to me with printed out address labels a half sick, angry look. "About an hour ago. There were five more, but all the same thing.
"We checked the contents like usual," his voice was tightly controlled, too, the deliveries had been the severed heads of a mixed security team stationed at the farm I had purchased adjacent to the country home Steve and Molly now lived in. Three of the bodiless heads, mouths gaping in screams telling that they hadn't died easily, were his own people, the other two were Sarge's. "And found these inside. I thought you'd better at least see these."
"Thanks Abe," Sarge, giving me a long, careful looking over, nodded quietly. "Were you able to catch up with the messenger?"
"Long gone," Hollis shook his head. "A common carrier, though and we got the number from the van and have called the company. We should be able to talk with the driver pretty soon."
"Nothing else came with these?" Sarge asked unnecessarily, the message was quite clear to all of us, but the silence needed to be filled by something other than the sounds of our breathing.
"No sir," Hollis answered. "Just these, and the other five."
"Which still leaves some of our people there unaccounted for," Sarge thoughtfully began to pace, mirroring something Charles had often done before Mairilee's death, along the carpeted floor. "None of those have checked in though and we don't know what the exact situation out there is."
"That pretty well covers it, sir," Hollis agreed with a frown, then turned an almost apologetic look towards me. "Except we can be fairly sure the place has been at least neutralized, if it isn't entirely in the opposition's hands."
"You couldn't have done any more," I assured him, trying to ignore the leaden ball rolling around in the pit of my stomach. "It wouldn't have been practical to set up an army out there. I'm sorry about your people, Abraham."
"So am I," giving me a brief nod that accepted my comment, he returned his attention to Sarge. "Got a chopper off just before I came here. It should have something for us in another few minutes."
"Keep us posted," Sarge quietly told him, then the man helped his underlings gather up the ghoulish gifts and left us to our own discussions.
"Can you reach anyone out that way?" he questioned me once that had been accomplished.
"No," closing my eyes and trying not to visualize the horrors I feared my two Human friends might be experiencing that second, I reached with my mind once again. I could sense the helicopter crew, and their tension, but to the north nothing but blank fuzz. "Someone out there is screening, and they're very good. I had not the slightest hint of trouble before Hollis brought us those heads."
"Not your fault, Magda," he quietly consoled me, "You aren't omnipotent, for God's sake.
He answered a call on his own secured link cell, filling the still heavy quiet in the room with the burr of his quiet conversation before folding up the little phone with a grimly relieved expression. "There haven't been any other strikes today, all our other enclaves report quiet, but everyone's on alert."
"Only the farm," I mused, then noted with mild surprise that I had shredded the heavy brocade fabric of my chair arms with my nails. "I should have felt something. Should have known things were wrong out there."
"No," Charles moved to catch my still clawed hands and keep me from doing more damage to the upholstery, or my own flesh. "Sarge has said it already. You aren't all knowing, all seeing, or any of that idiocy. You do know that. Vincente, or Vlad, probably used just about every telepath they had to screen this assault from you or anyone else who might have felt it."
"The bastard," I breathed, finally relaxing my hands and rubbing them to ease the ache from fingertips to wrists. "Never expected me to consider his offer. He just wanted me distracted while they set this up."
"Obviously it worked," Sun Yee settled back in his own chair with chin cradled by one cupped hand. "This is clearly an invitation to meet them in the open."
"Lady?" Marcie, one of the house maids, and Hollis' people, capable in both her capacities, interrupted the conversation with a light knock on the frame of the still open door to the hall. "I'm Sorry to bother you, but there's a Molly Johnson on the telephone asking for you. She sounds very distraught."
"I'll take it here, Marcie, thank you," reaching for the telephone sitting beside me, I turned it on with a telekinetic flip of my mind and picked up the receiver. "Hello?"
"Magda Durant?" Molly's voice, tightly under control but shaking with something I recognized as terror came through to my ear and I felt a measure of relief that she was at least alive. "My... my name is Molly Johnson. I was told to call you, and say that Steve, that's Steve Klien and I are still all right.
"Who are you?" she plaintively questioned, then went on. "Why do these people insist that I talk to you?"
"A friend," I answered quietly, "Of a friend. Which people are you talking about, Molly?"
"The ones who stormed in here this afternoon," her response was more than simply frightened and angry, it was terrified. "Then some others came after sundown and had me make this call. Please, call them off..."
"Magdalena," Vincente's mellow voice, filled with amusement and satisfaction, took over after a pause in Molly's interrupted plea for help from someone she considered a complete stranger. "I hope you received our little tokens of appreciation earlier?"
"I did," gritting my teeth, and holding my rising fury in check I went on. "What have you done with them, you little monster?"
"I would have thought receiving their severed heads should have told you that," he replied smugly, purposely misunderstanding my question. "Call them a betrothal gift from my Prince."
"Harm then, Vincente," I grated, passing over his comment about a betrothal. "Even a little, in any way, and I'll have your black, shriveled heart in my hand while you watch it stop beating. Do you understand that, Priest?"
"They're untouched," his amusement was clear on the telephone, and his pleasure in my own anger. "Vlad was right, you are bloody minded enough to be a fit match for him with certain constraints placed upon you.
"But we already knew that, didn't we, my dear?" chuckling, he drew out the pause for a few moments. "About your bloody mindedness, anyway. The Blood Rites of Joining will curb that, at least towards those of us you have sworn vengeance upon.
"Your pet Humans are sleeping," he went on as if never leaving the subject. "And will continue doing so for the next little while, though I can't guarantee they will have sweet dreams in that slumber. They will be quite safe in our gentle hands, Revenant, for another few days.
"So what do you want from me?" I questioned, the anger in my voice crackling enough to singe ears. "Since I'm certain you haven't called just to exchange threats and other little pleasantries."
"We both already know what I desire of you," his voice flattened, became vicious, then lightened again. "But my Prince has other ideas. You are to present yourself, here, tomorrow night an hour past sundown, ready for participation in the Rites of Joining with Vlad. Bring along that flame haired bitch who always shadows you, and your lovely sister Cassandra for attendants, and the traitor. You know which ones I speak of."
"If I don't?" my voice had grown faint, quiet with suppressed rage and fear. Fear for my friends, the ones already in the monster's hands and those he had so peremptorily ordered me to put in his hands the next night. "I have already turned your Prince down. Why should I change my mind now?"
"Then your little pets will suffer for a very long time," Vincente cheerfully informed me. "Vlad will give them to me at sunrise of the day following the night of Joining in the event you fail to appear as commanded. I have ideas for that already, little bitch, which are entertaining me simply thinking of them. Perhaps I will convert them into a matched set of female slaves for my enjoyment over the next century or so, there are so many possibilities I almost hope you do stay away."
"I'll be there," my voice was frigid, overflowing with The Deathbringer's arctic rage and The Destroyer's joy of mayhem. "When you see me, Priest, make peace with whatever God you still believe in, because you'll already have one foot inside the Gates of Hell."
"I have been in that position for centuries," he responded genially. "And avoided being pushed in further by better than you, little whore. I will look forward to presiding over the ceremony tomorrow night."
The connection broke, and I literally crumpled the plastic of the innocent telephone receiver until it shattered in my hand. Then glared at my bleeding hand without moving to remove the jagged shards of plastic and electronic debris embedded in my flesh.
Cyrus gently lifted my hand to do that, then held it in both of his until the wounds had healed.
"Well," I managed to get out weakly. "It seems that Vlad really did mean it."
"You can't possibly intend to go through with such a thing," Hatesphut looked from me to a pale Cassandra, then an angry Cinda and impassive Hassan. "You know the attendants in such a ceremony are bound as surely as the bride? And that Ancient tradition requires a blood sacrifice, Vampyri blood?"
"We're already bound to Magda," Cinda answered without emotion, and Cassandra nodded silently. "All of us are in one way or another. If she goes, so do I. At least I'll be right there instead of taken by surprise when she does whatever she's going to do there."
"I'm going, too," Cassandra faintly added. "There will be nowhere to run anyway if this Joining is performed. Not for me, or any of us related by blood to her.
"True enough," Hassan, put in quietly, then gave me a look of profound sorrow. "You do intend to appear as commanded, do you not?"
"Yes," I answered heavily. "I do."
"This is madness!" Hatesphut exploded, moving to confront me in a flurry of skirts and tinkle of jewelry. "We have given you everything, Little Dreamer, everything up to our lives! And you mean to throw it all away for the sake of two Humans! Madness, I tell you."
"I haven't ever," I noted with a small, humorless grin, "Been considered particularly sane by any of you, anyway, have I?"
"Madness," she repeated desolately, turning away to lift her hands to Cyrus, then Charles, "You talk her out of this insanity."
"Possibly not," Sun Yee gave me a thoughtful glance, then flashed a fleeting grin. "What is it, exactly, that you have in mind Little Dreamer? Like our so vocal friend and sister, I believe you have gone mad also, but you have no intention of going through any Rites of Joining, do you?"
"Think about it for a moment," I answered with a grim smile. "Vlad will be sure to have all the Ancients, and Powers he commands present for such a thing. His ego, and arrogance would allow for nothing less. Thanks to that, for the first time since I got embroiled in this insane war, every one of our major enemies will be gathered in one place. At the same time."
"With you at their center, and mercy," Hatesphut had lost her anger, but was still against the idea. "Not even The Deathbringer in all her fury with The Destroyer aroused could stand alone for long against such an array of foes."
"No," I admitted, then gave all of them a wicked smile. "But maybe the new Trinity could, with Hassan for support. Until the rest of you got there and jumped into the fight. I can just about promise that the participants on the other side would be far too busy for a short time to watch their backs, or the approaches to the place."
"It just might work at that," Charles nodded, then glanced at his sister, and a quiet Le'Lyeth. "But how will you get her there instead of my sister?"
"Simple enough," An identical twin for Cassandra answered from where Le'Lyeth had stood moments before. My Blood Mother's features and shape flowed back to her own once she had performed her transformation and she grinned at everyone's surprise. "So how is it that you think I managed to remain apart from the world for such a length of time? Not even I could stand total isolation that long, or am good enough to elude all the beings that have sought to find me."
"Do you," Sarge looked at me, then Le'Lyeth, with admiration as he mildly questioned. "Have any other little secrets that maybe we ought to know about before tomorrow night?"
"That's it," I answered, then sighed. "I know it isn't much of a trump, all things considered, but it's going to have to be enough. Or I'm going to find myself either dead, which would be preferable, or permanently mated and subservient to Vlad."
"It's an awful chance you're taking, Little Dreamer," Sun Yee quietly made the rounds with a cart holding each individual's favored treat, stopping to pour me a cup of fragrantly steaming coffee with a wrinkling of his nose. "I never could understand how you Westerners could tolerate this brew when tea is so much gentler on the palate."
"It involves the concept of freedom." I supplied, taking the cup gratefully. "Read about The Boston Tea Party sometime and you'll get the idea."
"It involves pure stubbornness," he responded before moving on with a grumbled. "Such as the kind you have become so famous, or infamous, for, Lady."
"If anyone has a better idea," I demanded after sipping delicately at my coffee. "I'm open to suggestions."
"Your Human friends will probably be killed in the fighting," Charles pointed out, hoping that might change my mind.
"Better that," I sighed, "Than have them spend the next few centuries as Vincente's, or Vlad's playthings."
"You knew Vincente would eventually find those two," my maker accused, giving me a look he usually spared for business rivals who had managed to outmaneuver him. "And would use them in just such a manner to draw you into the open. You used both of them for bait, and fought me tooth and nail whenever I brought up giving them up for good, or at least bringing them safely into the family.
"You planned for this, Magda," shaking his head in reluctant admiration, he seated himself and stared at me as if I had changed into something other than what I had been at that instant. "While making all of us so certain that you would defend them with your own life."
"I still will," I answered coolly, not caring much for myself at all now that it was finally out in the open. "I really do care for that pair, but for the trap to work I had to possess an apparent weakness the other side could exploit without much in the way of risk to themselves. Exposing myself to attack, and just about inviting them to try didn't work. I had to come up with something that would."
I didn't add that my fervent wish was that it had been something else. Or that I would be fighting pangs of guilt for an awful long time after this was finished for what I'd done. Provided I survived the upcoming night.
"You crazy, cold hearted bitch," Sarge voice what just about everyone else in the room, myself included, was thinking.
"Guilty," I nodded, then favored all of them with a chilly smile. "You all wanted a Queen who could make the hard decisions when it was required.
"Well now," my voice broke but I held my composure with an effort of will that seemed to drain me. "You have her. Just make damned sure that things are ready for tomorrow night so I haven't wasted this one.
Rising, I headed for the door intent on going to my rooms, and waved Cinda, then Cyrus away with a tight little smile. Right now, I want to be alone for awhile."
* * * *
The drumbeats were still there, surrounding me with their vital, compelling need. All those hearts, with the unvoiced, and largely unconscious demands most of them made of me, while mine was threatening to break in my self imposed isolation on my small balcony.
"I never asked for this," I quietly told them, insensate as they were to my own desires. "Fought the idea for a long time, then hoped someone else might miraculously come along to take the weight off my shoulders.
"But that didn't happen, and none of you even cared what I thought about this, or wished for myself and the ones I love," without either anger or self pity, I shrugged at the night in general. "Well, you've got what you wanted, I'm here, and going into the fire for all of you tomorrow night. All I hope is that you can accept the results, whatever those might be, because in spite of any protest I might make, or have made, I'm doing my best here."
"Which means, I suppose," leaning forward to peer into a tree and a birds nest with sleeping young guarded by their parents, I finished with a wearily accepting smile. "That you have your Queen, for whatever it's worth. And God help me, I have all of you whether I want it or not."
"Come," I called in response to a light knock at the door, turning to see a somewhat shamefaced Sarge alone in my sitting room.
"Hey, Lady," offering me a smile, he plunged into things without preamble. "I guess I owe you some kind of apology for the way I acted downstairs earlier, all of us do. Here we've been ranting at you to take charge of things, telling you to start making the tough decisions and living with them, then go into something like shock when you do.
"I'm sorry," he shrugged, then turned to leave. "That's it. See you later."
"Sarge?" he turned at my call. "You know that inside I'm still the half wild fledgling you took in when you first came to us, the poor little thing you comforted after some of her nightmares when no one else would dare.
"I have changed, but not so much as you seem to think." I finished almost pleading with him to understand that, and that I didn't much like myself for what I was currently doing, or the way I'd managed to have it happen. "This hurts, being a Queen. To Hell with the glory and adoration that's supposed to go with it, this all hurts like nothing I've ever gone through in my life."
"I know," he answered, moving back into the room and circling me with his arms, like he had before, seeming centuries ago, in a room much like this one. "But now your nightmares could engulf a whole world, or your dreams could rebuild one. Hell of a thing to dump on a nice lady like you, but none of us can take it away. Just go on loving you like we always have, I guess, is about all we can do.
"That," he gave me a squeeze, "And give you a hug once awhile, when you'll let us."
"That's more than I deserve at this point," my chuckle held some life again, and I was getting back my sense of purpose. "But I'll take whatever I can get. Let's go back downstairs, I want to be with my whole Family for a while."
The drumming of numberless hearts accompanied us out of there, and down the stairs. Part of it swelled with relief, and something I recognized as love, when I entered the big living room to rejoin my Family.
"I still think this idea is nuts," Planting both hands on her hips, Cinda watched the innocent looking house, light streaming cheerfully from it's many windows, nestled in the small vale ahead of us.
"You could still back out," I offered, turning to her with a look of honest concern. "I won't hold you to going into that with me, or think any less of you for not coming any farther."
"Hell with that," she snorted with a grin. "I've aided and abetted your craziness since we first met. No way am I going to miss this one."
Le'Lyeth, in her guise as Cassandra, agreed with a soft mental touch edged with sharp humor and chiding me for even thinking of turning her away from the coming trouble. I also got the once familiar image of her cradling an active, dark haired infant.
"All right, Mother," I sighed in defeat, then turned to face an equally firm Hassan. "How about you?"
"I was made to be with you, little sister," he shrugged. "Our Mother knew you would need my strength. I will not turn away from you now that things begin to finally get interesting."
"Interesting," I snorted in my turn, then waved at the gravel road leading to our goal. "And people think I'm crazy. Let's go then, waiting here isn't going to accomplish anything except give me an ulcer worrying about all of you.
"Remember," I told Cinda for about the tenth time that evening. "When the action starts, you cover Hassan until he can get Steve and Molly clear."
"I will, I will," she impatiently waved in acknowledgement. "But I still don't like leaving your back unprotected, Magda."
"If everything goes as I hope it will," I grimly told her. "You'll be back covering my behind before anyone down there can get organized enough to be much of a problem."
If things didn't go well, I didn't say, at least my flame haired sister and Hassan would be out of harms way. With two Humans I still loved far more than was healthy for them or myself safely out of my enemies' hands.
* * * *
It seemed like an awfully long walk for the quarter mile or so that we were still unescorted. Not that we were alone for much of it beyond the rise where we had halted to gather our collective nerve. There were guards scattered along the way, and around the house's grounds in a broad, ragged perimeter. I saw nervous Humans clutching weapons, a number of younger Vampyri supervising those, and felt at least several older presences flitting through the night.
But all the Ancients, Vlad included, were waiting in the house. Every one of them, and whoever had been screening them from psychic location had stopped. Their auras, the powerful presences, glowed arrogantly in the nonphysical realms for anyone able to access those to see, feel, and taste.
"I am to bid you welcome, Lady," A tall, massively built Vampyri, obviously centuries old and working to hide his fear of standing directly before me, had moved quietly from the side of the drive to greet us quietly. "And your attendants.
I regarded him silently for a few seconds, and the females that gathered in a clump behind him. No one else spoke, or moved during that brief time until one of those moved to join him with a taunting smile on her lips. "Come, Lady, you are to be our Queen soon. Can you not break your quivering anticipation with at least one word of blessing for your soon to be loyal subjects?"
"Either let us pass," I answered softly, "Or lead the way. My blessings would not be something anyone sane would ask tonight, but I would gladly set one on you if you insist."
Drawing back a pace as she felt The Deathbringer rise to my hand like a well trained dog, she shook her head with a crooked smile. "No Lady, that won't be necessary. I am to be your personal handmaiden tonight, as these others are for your attendants. My name is Elise, and I will take great pleasure in performing my duties to you. It is time that your wild, upstart powers were curbed."
"Take all the pleasure in it you like," I told her tonelessly, dangerously, and saw the male and other pair of females flinch as I did. "But bear in mind that curbed or not, those will still be in me, and I will not forget the honor you do me here."
"I am your new master's favorite," she hissed, smiling cruelly as she reached to tear the light blouse I was wearing loose and pull it off my body. "So very much doubt he will allow you to harm me, little bitch. Threaten all you like, after the Blood Rites of Joining you will obey his commands as meekly as the rest of us."
Soon enough I stood naked in the wan moonlight, as did "Cassandra" and Cinda, though they had been disrobed more gently. I had endured Elise's hands on my person and didn't so much as flinch when her hard nails drew blood. Or even acknowledged the indignity with anything other than a small smile for her when she was finished and stood regarding my blood streaming breasts, hips and buttocks with satisfaction.
"Weak," shaking her head to hide the flare of fear that smile aroused in her, and giving me an overdone curtsy, Elise shook out her pale blonde hair and gestured to the house. "To come this way for two Humans. You must walk the remaining distance as you are, Lady. Your bridal gown waits below."
"This is not required, Elise," Hassan's voice held contempt and anger, though it was mildly pitched. "My guardian turned to the still unnamed male with a frown. "And you, Brendan, I had not thought you so cruel as to be a party to this kind of treatment of my Lady."
"He has nothing to say about it," Elise nearly snarled, "Nor do you, traitor.
"The Lady, is to be humbled," giving me a sickeningly sweet smile, she waved towards the house. "As is prescribed by tradition, she is to be presented for her ritual cleansing and robing with nothing but what nature gave her. I am to see that such is carried out. Now, shall we go, m'lady?"
My cuts had healed, though my flesh was still streaked with drying blood. I knew from reading and being told that normally such disrobing was done at the doorstep and secluded from the view of any but those participating in that part of the ceremony but held my silence, only giving Hassan, and my equally, if more gently, disgraced sister and Mother an encouraging smile then turned an expressionless face back to my appointed "Handmaiden".
"Enjoy this," I told her, "You won't be Vlad's favorite forever. As I said your care will not be forgotten, Elise."
"You've already said that once," she shrugged with feigned unconcern and turned to walk down the hill. "And I will enjoy this, bitch. Each wincing little step you must take until you are firmly bound to your Master will be a joy to me."
Another group of Vampyri joined us then, armed with ugly, combat grade shotguns I knew were loaded with phosphorus and explosive shells. The six of them, three on either side fell in with our slow pace as Elise favored me with a nasty smile. "Your honor guard, M'Lady."
"Afraid I'll change my mind?" I mildly questioned, then poured on the sarcasm. "After the greeting I've received, why would anyone think I might?"
"Shut your mouth and walk, bitch," Elise ordered, losing her smile, and giving me a small shove to get me started again.
That was an odd procession, working a painful, for four of us, anyway, path down to the house. The cool air brushed my naked flesh, and the males of the "Honor Guard" spent much of the walk eyeing the three naked females being prodded over the roughest parts of the drive Elise could find. My feet were a mass of small cuts and bruises by the time we reached the front door of the place. Not one of us even so much as flinched during that walk, which greatly disappointed my "handmaiden". Sometimes the small victories, and pleasures, mean more than the big ones.
"Witches should be burned," she later informed me while pouring icy water over my body and roughly rubbing me dry with coarse toweling. "And their ashes ground into dust then into the earth, not honored by being wed to a prince.
"You killed my brother with your vile sorceries," she hissed venomously as she finished. "My truebrother, little bitch. And my maker, without so much as noting their presence beyond being someone in your way to reach more important targets during the fighting.
"There wasn't even enough left for a decent pyre," her voice held an all too familiar grief, and rage. I felt a pang of sympathy for her then, briefly.
"I have lost loved ones, too," I answered something she had said for the first time since being brought into the house. "This, my coming here, is to insure that such things will stop. We have all had enough of it, don't you think?"
"Not nearly enough, witch," Elise replied softly as she held out a mass of blood red silk the resolved into a long, old style gown. "But reparations will be made after tonight. I will see the murderess of my loved ones bound to the prince for all time. And will continue to serve as her loyal handmaiden once it is done."
"I wish you joy of it then," was the only answer I felt could be safely given without my own grief and rage striking prematurely, and in such a petty manner. "Now help me into this thing so the abject abasement you look so forward to will proceed."
"Still arrogant, aren't you?" she held the gown as its skirts slithered over my head then guided my arms through the sleeves as it settled around me. "You'll lose that soon enough."
The gown fit closely to my shape, clinging to my breasts and waist then falling in elaborate, hampering folds of skirt to my feet, which had been covered with soft satin slippers of matching hue. The tight sleeves were designed to slow and constrict movement as well, but the overall effect was more than lovely. It was breathtaking, especially with the gold linked chain belt draped around my hips and the other gleaming jewelry at throat and wrists. Even the ritually demanded chains connecting my wrists and holding them even more closely to the body than the gown's sleeves were gilded. Though they were strong steel under that.
Elise checked my bindings, loose enough for movement, tight enough to hold me to small ones, then curled my hair and applied cosmetics to my face. Standing back in satisfaction, she gestured for me to precede her out of the small bedroom that had been set up as my robing chamber.
"My Lady is quite lovely. Your Lord will be pleased with my work, I think."
"Then we shouldn't keep him waiting, should we?" I prompted and she held the door open with poor grace after a moment.
"There is one final thing, m'lady," she grinned, holding out a gold chased silver goblet. "Your pre ceremony libation, little bitch. Drink it all."
I reached out carefully, and with some difficulty, to grasp the goblet in both hands, then raised it to my lips to take a delicate sip. Which wasn't good enough in my "handmaiden's" estimation. She gripped the base and tilted it so a flood of wine laced with some bitter drug poured into my throat.
"That will dull your abilities for long enough," she smugly told me as my vision swam and my mind reeled. "You should be coherent enough for the Joining, but much too scattered of wit to be much of a danger to anyone."
I hadn't expected that, or that much of anything could cause such disorientation of my senses. Nothing I had taken, either directly or through the blood of my victims, had ever affected me at all.
"It is Witchbane," she answered my unvoiced question with a wickedly cruel smile. "Tincture of mercury, which is deadly poison even to our kind, Lady. Not enough to kill, of course. Just sufficient in that cup to dull your mind and hold your powers down until you are safely bound to your Prince.
"You will be terribly ill," she chuckled at my dazed expression. "Though that won't set in until well after the ceremony, so have no fear, you won't foul your bridal gown, or the ceremony with the contents of your belly. And I will be there to attend you when it comes in the morning."
"Bitch," I murmured hazily, and reached forward to strike at her only to have that gesture abruptly halted by the chains linking my wrists to the chain around my waist.
"So!" with evident delight, she began leading me out of the room by tugging at those same chains. "Your composure finally breaks. I assure you that is only the first thing about you to be broken tonight, my sweet Lady. And the least."
* * * *
The mercury induced haze numbed me to just about every sensation but pain; physical, mental, and emotional, I was in an agony of pent up, undirected fear driven fury that pulsed all the way to my fingers and toes with every beat of my heart. I fought with all my fading strength to regain some manner of control over my senses, and vision cleared along with hearing. But my extra ones still flitted tantalizingly out of reach, and so did my powers.
Speaking of Powers, all of them were there, all of our old enemies and some new, eagerly leaning forward to catch full sight of my subdual in preparation for being given to their lord.
Takashita, the twelfth century samurai, Sun Yee's old enemy, Bowed to me with correct, but overdone formality, then raised his lean face to favor me with an evil smile of anticipation. All the Powers sworn to Vlad were entitled by tradition to taste of my blood, and power, once the Joining had been concluded. That one was already savoring the flavor of mine, and wondering how much of my power he might steal with the blood.
Abduhl Mamoud, the Moorish Satrap who had terrorized the infidels of Spain quite as completely as Vlad had those of Islamic Turkey, though for a far shorter time before he became Vampyri and anathema to his former people eyed me dispassionately. A stripped and bound Hassan, his old enemy and sometimes ally, chained so restrictively I wondered how he could breath, was tethered to that one's hand by another length of gleaming steel chain.
Gilles deHarcourt, a Frenchman who had participated in Joan d'Arc's betrayal and burning grinned boyishly as I passed my gaze across his slim, seductively, treacherously handsome face and form. That one had initiated DeSade into the other nobleman's infamous pleasures.
Julian DuLac, a purported descendant of Lancelot, and the one who had first seduced deHarcourt into the blood, lounged beside his one time fledgling indolently. The bastard gave me a warm smile, then pulled a lace edged handkerchief from his pocket and held it to his nose, as if to save himself the unpleasantness of smelling a nasty odor.
Francesca DeLeone, a contempory of The Cid himself, and reputed seductress of the weak king that magnificent Spaniard had served to no real purpose other than his own premature death, glared at me from her smoky, seductive brown eyes, and tossed her mane of sable hair away from a pale, bared shoulder with a derisive laugh of pleasure at seeing me in such a state.
William Trask, the only Power among that group who had actually been born in America watched my progress with carefully disguised disgust. He disapproved of monarchies in principal, and of what was being done to me through some remnant of his colonial upbringing. But I knew there would be no help from him, some of the worst excesses on Vincente's side had been committed by that unsmiling, puritanical male.
Gustav Von Thayer, a German from the time when it had been The Germanys, thoughtfully chewed his mustache before deciding on showing some little courtesy by offering me a sweeping bow. Monica, and Cecelia, when she had lived, had run afoul of him on several occasions in troubled Ireland. I knew Monica had good reason to loathe him, but had never really pulled the details out of my Irish sister. But she used his name as a curse, spitting it out with more venom than I had once thought I could manage even if terribly wronged.
Marya Illescu, a Hungarian countess who began her life in the same Carpathians that had spawned Vlad, gave me a full Curtsey, then grinned up at me through her wings of honey blonde hair. This woman had been accused of selecting young boys from the countryside, and dressing them as maids to serve her. Then of bringing those unfortunates into the ranks of Vampyri as either female, or something in between. In spite of her simpering courtesy, I felt the waves of purely evil mirth escaping from her as she watched me moving so gracefully and slowly through their ranks.
I did take some solace from the absences that were conspicuous in that predatory, silent group. Bathory, Crenshaw, Salome, and Su Ling Xiang, would never again stand to taunt or torture anyone on this world. And that had been my doing. Which gave me more than a little satisfaction, even if it was rather meaningless under the circumstances.
Antoninus was not present either, so I knew he had done as promised. Withdrawn from the conflict, and hidden himself away. I wondered how he would have reacted to seeing me chained and being led to a Joining that should have been a joyous occasion instead of a sentence to slavery as Vlad had planned. I doubted he would have taken any great pleasure in it.
Cinda and Le'Lyeth, still in the guise of Cassandra stood at the altar improvised out of a heavy dining table and draped with gilt edged crimson silk. both were turned in my direction and gave me the same glassy eyed, half drugged stare I knew my own eyes returned to them. So my attendants had been poisoned as well. I felt a surge of remorse, and despair that we had actually lost for being foolish enough to believe Vlad would have allowed any of us near him without some precautions to insure his safety being taken.
My crimson gowned sister, and Mother also bore chains similar to the ones restricting my movements, though their flowing, floor length gowns appeared less constraining for movement than mine. Le'Lyeth widened her eyes for a brief moment, all sleepiness gone as they flashed in anger and concern. I got a quick, fuzzy, mental image of a child being shaken awake by her frantic mother, and knew the child was me and the fuzziness a product of my mercury induced daze.
I tried to shake off the horrid lethargy, and my mind did clear enough for me to send back a desperate plea for more help. But my Blood Mother's eyes had become glazed, and heavy lidded with sleepiness before I could do more.
"Little sister," a familiar voice pleaded, commanded in my head with ringing force. "You must wake up!"
I turned, finding myself in the greyish plain where I had first met her face to face, and lifted my chained arms out to Magdalena of Jerusalem as far as they would go.
"Can't. Trying but poisoned. Mind all scattered and fogged."
"Fight it, little sister," She insisted, reaching forward to take my shoulders and give them a rough shake. "If you fail to overcome this, you will suffer something far worse than the death I did. And all you love will be dragged into the pit with you. Wake up, I say! There is no time for indulging in self pity, or the pain you feel."
"Tired," I mumbled. "Sorry, Twin, so damn tired. Can't think."
"Open yourself to me," her voice cracked with authority, and a rage of fear for me that did shake my scrambled mind back into some semblance of order. "Let me in little sister, or everything you love will be lost!"
"You'll die," I shook my head, knowing that there was a very great chance that her spirit would be overwhelmed and subsumed by my living one if she did that. "You told me that yourself more than once, you'd cease to exist."
"I exist in you, little sister," her voice gentled for a moment then hardened. "You have taken everything else of mine, little one, why balk at this?"
"I love you," trying to pull away, get away so she wouldn't try such a thing, I protested. "I don't know how!"
"Take what I have left to give," she urged, pulling me towards her with a strength I couldn't match. "You were a man once, you remember how. Take it, little sister. My final gift and your one chance for survival as a free being. Now. There is no more time for argument."
With that she flowed into my arms, and wrapped her legs around my waist, fastening her mouth to mine and whispering through the so intimate kiss. "Take me, all I have is yours, little sister. Take it and have at least the chance to triumph. or to die as your own person."
Then she simply faded away, being drawn into my own spiritual shape and melding with that. It was as if we were separate metals being blended in a white hot crucible into an alloy far stronger and more resilient than either when alone. I felt the heat, and the fibers of my being wound around with those of hers, mixing and flowing together until the two were inextricable, and unrecognizable as anything but one.
Clarity returned with that agony of merging, and grief that further fueled the amalgamation of spirits, souls, and minds that had managed to remain individual if similar through all of our meetings. Like the impromptu Joining I had experienced with Cyrus, this one filled me with wonder at the being who now shared a mind with me, and our love for one another added even more strength to the mix.
But when it was over, she did not withdraw. I felt her last independent caress and screamed my loss into the Dream Plane. "NO! This is too much, I will not let it stand!"
And snapped back into the physical, to find myself facing a leering Vincente. But I was fully awake, and in such a fury that I was serenely calm. With a twitch of my Lifegiver's aspect, I flushed the poison from myself and the others, cautioning all three to show no sign of that as of yet. Three fiercely joyous surges of acknowledgement flared in response, then obediently faded.
"So," Vincente regarded me with the beatific smile I recalled from the meeting in an alleyway off Times Square. "The bride is ready. You clean up very nicely my dear. I had thought you too clever to fall for this, that you would refuse to come."
"I keep my word, Priest," was my deliberately muzzy response. "Where are the Humans I came to free?"
"Right here, little whore," he stood aside to show me both Steve and Molly, attired in crimson gown and robe, staring glassy eyed at the gathering. "Well, and intact, as promised."
"Let them go," I told him, letting an edge of pleading enter my voice. "You have me, let them go."
"We will," he agreed placidly, then gave me a light kiss on the cheek that sent waves of revulsion thrumming through my flesh. "Once they have witnessed the ceremony. It would be rude to exclude your friends from that since they have given over their own home for you to have it in."
"Bastard," I breathed, gathering all my varied abilities and preparing to unleash them in a frenzy of distracting, and deadly, destruction. "I told you I keep my promises, didn't I?"
Before he could respond, I used my telekinesis to shatter the bonds on myself and the others who had come with me. His eyes widened as the shackles fell from my wrists, but I had already punched a clawed hand into his chest to find what I wanted.
And drew his still beating heart out in my open hand, holding it up so he would be sure to see it. "This one especially. Have a fine journey to Hell, Vincente. I have prepared the way for you."
He was dead, really dead, before his stiffened form crumpled to fall onto the table made into an altar, and the blood gushing from his open chest, mouth, and nose anointed the already crimson coverings as Hassan's had been meant to do.
I turned with deliberately languid smoothness to confront the gathering as both The Deathbringer and Destroyer surged in my soul, then reached outward. Still holding the grisly trophy I had wrenched from their one time leader's chest, I raised it above my head so all of them could see it for what it was. Then crushed it into a pulpy mass that I dropped to my feet.
"You all thought to share of me, later," I gently told them with a growing smile on my face, then raised both arms in invitation and unleashed both my darker aspects. "Come, then. Taste my power now."
Pandemonium broke loose in that room, as all the doors and windows slammed shut, and a howling Elise was negligently tossed off my back with a flick of my power that only singed the vengeful, vindictive creature. I had other concerns at the time.
"Get them out of here!" I shouted to Cinda and Hassan, who each literally carried one of the Humans I had risked to reach this position over their shoulders, but were hesitating at the sealed front door. "It will open for you! Go!"
Without another word they bolted out the door, which again slammed shut in the faces of several lesser Powers who
sought to stop them. It crashed open a moment later, admitting my flame haired sister and stolid brother, along with other Ancients and Powers of my own faction, who poured
into the already crowded area and added to the rampant confusion.
Which was just as well. I turned to confront Marya Illescu, who had been using her own TK to counter mine as much as she could, and reached out a hand to grip her wrist and hold it tightly. "Never," I promised her sweet faced facade that began crumbling into a mask of terrified fury. "Never again will you have done to some innocent what was done to me. You coveted my power? Have some of it, then."
She shriveled into a still croaking husk in my grasp as The Deathbringer sucked her life force into me. I flung the already disintegrating corpse into the face of Trask, who had flung himself towards me with a wickedly sharp, and huge, knife. That deflected his attack long enough for me to realize that Cinda was back with me, a carefully respectful pace behind and to my right, wielding flame tongue with more deadly effect than I thought anyone capable
of. She had Trask sectioned before he had finished flying past her.
Sun Yee paused long enough to toss me Lightning, which
flared with light and thrummed with power once my hand
closed over its hilt, then moved to engage his old, and hated enemy, Takashita.
Charles was grappling with a crimson clad Vlad, and the two were rolling around at the feet of other combatants with the savagely intense unconcern for anything else that only two powerful males with blood and grief between them could show.
Monica had found Von Thayer, and was slowly twisting the blade of a long, needle pointed dagger in his back while firing a pistol into his face at point blank range.
Le'Lyeth, now in her own shape, was at my left and slightly behind, engaging both French Vampyri with an abandon I could only interpret as joyful release. Evidently, she had scores of her own, and that pair were first on her list of settling old grudges.
Hassan was slowly tightening a loop of chrome steel chain that had confined him earlier around the throat of Abdhul Mahmoud, who was thrashing in his grip but unable to reach behind his shoulders to more than uselessly flail at his adversary's back. Hassan's gleaming black features held nothing but serene satisfaction as he jerked yet another link through his bleeding hands to further secure the deadly noose he was using. If it got much tighter, the Moor's head would be literally torn from his shoulders. Which is what Hassan intended.
Cassandra indiscriminately moved through the lesser powers with a pair of ancient six shot pistols in her hands,
firing until the ammunition in them was gone, then turning them in her hands to use as clubs. She was slowly moving towards the spot where Vlad and Charles still savaged each other with a look of pure hatred on her lovely face.
That turned to fear as Vlad arose with a still struggling Charles cradled in his massive arms like a child. That tableau held for only a breath, and the huge prince of Wallachia brought my maker down onto his knee with shattering force. I heard the crack of Charles' spine across the room, and felt his agony in my own.
The dark prince, in his crimson wedding raiment, then raged through the press to backhand Cassandra with enough force to send my night haired sister caroming off a wall clear across the room. She slid to the floor in a nearly boneless heap, and Vlad turned his attention to me.
The Frenchmen, though pressed, seemed to be giving Le'Lyeth all she could handle for the moment, and Cinda was embroiled in a whickering, singing, sparking contest of blades with a stolid faced Japanese who had to have been a fledgling and pupil of Sun Yee's enemy. Who also still stood and fought savagely, with occasional yowls and screams fit to terrorize a demon.
Monica was too far away to be in immediate danger from my intended mate and master, locked in another struggle with DeLeone, though without much in the way of real power herself was being hard pressed to stay on her feet in the press of fighting.
"A fit Queen for me," Vlad set his eyes on me with open admiration glowing in them. "You treacherous, clever little bitch. I won't ask how you avoided the libation, or shook your attendants free of it.
"But I will Thank you for the Magnificent Blood Offering you made for our Joining," he softly told me while stepping nearer, unconcerned about the blade in my hand or the ravening power I had demonstrated already.
"A gift worthy of your greatness, my beloved, and of mine. This is a wedding night that history will remember, my bride."
"I changed my mind," I told him gathering my strength and hurling a spike of killing cold in his direction. "That is a woman's way, after all. We have always been accused of being fickle, prince. Find yourself another bride."
He shrugged that attack off as if it hadn't been thrown, much to my dismay, and laughed as he drew nearer, negligently tossing both his and my partisans aside in his progress. "No, M'Lady, I think not. I will have you after this night, and together we will install such a reign of terror on the Humans that they will fall to our feet in supplication just to survive. Those of The Blood will be supreme, and subject to my will, with your own to support it."
"Over my dead body," I grated, staggering from the force of his will exerting itself on me and me alone. "I'll die before that happens, monster."
"Will you?" he questioned with a slow smile of anticipation as he waved towards Lightning which was wavering in my shaking grip. "Put down that ridiculous toy, it is not suited to a woman, and kneel to me, Magdalena, my Queen, my Lady, my slave."
I dropped Lightning. More like let it slip from numbed fingers, and fought to remain on my feet. The poison, shaking it off through my namesake's intervention, Losing her into myself, the extravagant spending of strength during the first frantic, bloody seconds of my resurgence, and the fatal injury to Charles had all contributed to weakening me. I couldn't face this one and come out the victor, not as things stood then, possibly never.
But I tried. Oh, sweet gods of Humanity and Vampyri, I tried. No matter what force I rallied to my defense, he had an answer that deflected it. The Deathbringer's arctic chill was met with heat like the sun's, and fled in confusion. The destroyer's joy of mayhem was sent spiraling into another part of the room without so much as a blink on his part. That aspect of myself cared little, so long as it was able to wreak destruction. I exerted a great deal of will to wrench its course from Monica enough that it hit her opponent, Deleone instead. That one began dissolving the moment it touched her. Her wails bubbled into nothingness as the power of that strike forced her dissolution in a matter of seconds.
My mental attacks rebounded from his own shields, then were abandoned to strengthen my own besieged defenses as he exerted himself to force my compliance to his commands.
"Kneel!" he thundered into my face, reaching forward to grasp my shoulders and press me down to the floor.
"NO!" a feral scream barely preceded a flame haired Valkyrie wielding a glittering blade, who somehow broke his physical grip and set herself between the two of us in a stance of raging defiance.
Vlad batted the sweeping blade away with one hand to its flat, and Cinda in the other direction with a sweep of his other. "Such fierce loyalty, your followers have for you, Lady."
"I will remember that, and reward them appropriately once we have been Joined," his face grew sterner, and his eyes fairly bored into mine. "And you will watch all of it, naked and crouching at my feet. KNEEL to me."
With a sob I realized there was nothing else I could do. There was no more strength in my legs, or arms. And my spirit was in full retreat from his power. I could see how he had held such sway over Vampyri and Humans for so long, and why my namesake had both hated and feared him enough to die rather than even risk becoming his creature. But I couldn't resist him any longer.
Hating myself for the weakness, and mourning all that might have been, my knees buckled and I fell to the floor, barely holding my head from bouncing off his boots by extending rubbery arms to break my fall. The breath whistled from my throat in gasping, moaning little catches, like a battered child's quiet crying in the dark.
"Now, little one," Vlad's voice was almost gentle as he reached a hand down to grip my chin and pull my face upwards to present it to him. "The Joining will begin."
He slit one wrist and held it out to make sure the blood welled freely, then lowered it to my unwilling mouth. Somehow I dredged up enough of my waning will to pull away from his grasp so it bathed my shoulder instead of my half open mouth.
"Defiant to the end, little one," my world now centered upon his face, which was smiling in cold amusement and reluctant admiration. "It might make you feel better to know that no one, no one, has ever resisted me for so long. Let that knowledge comfort you in the times to come, my sweet. Now drink, and take me as your Lord when you take my blood."
Finished with speech, he again forced my head around then began to bring his wounded wrist back to my mouth. And I dejectedly parted my lips to receive his awful gift.
"Forgive me," I whispered to all the beating hearts I had failed, then closed my eyes and fastened my mouth over the bleeding wrist pressing against my mouth.
Only to have it wrenched away before more than a drop of the thick, salty black fluid burned my lips.
Free of his smothering will for the moment, my eyes snapped open to see the one who would have been my Master, drawing a stained gladius out of his side with a pained grimace that became one of rage. One who was once my namesake's lover, and who would have been mine had I allowed it, had struck him hard enough to dislodge both his grip and attention from me.
"You should have remained in the hole you had crawled into, Antoninus," Vlad grated as he plunged the roman sword into my savior's guts and twisted it. "You might have lasted a few more years if you had. Is she worth dying so terribly for, Roman? I'll crucify what is left of you when this is finished, and the one you tried to save will stand below you and watch the life ebb from your body until it is completely gone."
My right hand, scrabbling across the floor in a blind effort to find something for use as a weapon crossed the familiar, leather wrapped hilt of a blade I had never thought to hold again. Lightning flared into glorious, lifegiving heat as I touched her, and I felt a surge of energy that galvanized me to stand and raise the blade in a final, hopeful, attempt to hold at least my own soul as mine.
And against all expectations, watched it part Vlad's head from his neck before that one could turn to slap me down again. I kissed the bloody blade even though it burned my mouth and cheek when I did. "Thank you, oh Gods, thank you."
Vlad's vitality was horrible, and his body still refused to admit to death, reaching blindly and stumbling towards me with some echo of his original intent. I had to literally dismember it, and kick the still writhing pieces of flesh away from my feet as I did to keep them from grasping at me.
I was a screaming, mindless fury, savaging what was left with no thought other than to see him in so many tiny shreds that there would be no hope at all for putting them into even one pile for burning.
"It is over, Little Dreamer," a gentle voice forced its insistent way into my red hazed mind and Sun Yee just as gently removed Lightning from my clenched fingers by prying them loose one at a time. "He is truly dead again, my Queen. Now there are others who require your attention. The fighting still rages, though the enemy forces are now leaderless. You must stop it now, Dreamer of Worlds.
"Something else first," I staggered over to where Antoninus sprawled on the floor to discover that he was still alive. Barely.
"Hail, Queen of Light and Dark," he whispered. "Did I not tell you the world would be bathed in blood before you established your peace?"
"Why, Antoninus?" I questioned. "Why did you come back, and do what you did?"
"Too many betrayals," he gasped out as the light began fading from his eyes. "Call it my atonement, my gift to The Vampyri's new ruler."
He was dead, his spinal cord severed by Vlad's furious slashing. I closed his fading, beautiful eyes with a fingertip and leaned forward to kiss his cooling lips. "Magdalena will be pleased, Roman. She always felt you were better than your actions showed."
"Magda," Sun Yee insisted. "You must do something to stop all this, and soon. Finish it, as you swore you would. It is time, my Queen."
"I don't have the strength left," my voice sounded hollow, and my ears rang, but I sent my spirit out into the Dream Plane anyway. And with my last flagging shreds of willpower found the strength to shout with such force that my throat bled from the sheer volume of it.
"ENOUGH!" and saw all of them.
Lila, the childlike Vampyri who had been the first to honor me in that weird parade, halted in mid stroke over a snarling opponent, who's snarl faded into a an expression of wondering fear.
Johnathan Moore, covered in blood, and carrying awful wounds, lowered his own weapon, a ragged stave of broken oak, then dropped it at the force my command.
Ross Nathan, with an embattled group just outside of the house I stood in, lowered his automatic and peered towards the house with a look of surprise on his usually bland face. He began to smile as understanding of what was going on began to dawn on him, and turned to give the female Vampyri who had been fighting at his back a spontaneous hug Then kept his grip and danced his dumbfounded partner around the yard in his sudden flush of exuberance.
The man who chose to name himself Cavanaugh when communicating with me, blinked his eyes, then spoke into the telephone he held. "Never mind, call it off. Don't argue, I just know. Do it, the danger is past."
Cinda shook herself, and gave my physical body a wide eyed stare while a weeping Cassandra looked up from her brother's body.
Hatesphut, who had remained outside the house to ward Steve and Molly laughed joyously and turned her face towards the pair she had been watching over.
"What is it?" Molly questioned in a shaking voice, feeling but not understanding. Steve shook his head in puzzlement, then pulled her into his arms and held her without a word.
"A miracle," The ancient priestess quietly told them, then raised her voice in a beautiful, warbling song of triumph.
Cyrus with Sarge beside him, whooped with blood curdling joy and began running towards the house. Sarge, grinned at his friend's joy and followed at a slightly more sedate pace.
"THIS WAR IS FINISHED." My voice rolled through all the realms of earth and spirit, thundering my pronouncement to everything with ears and spirit to hear. "PUT DOWN YOUR WEAPONS AND CEASE THIS IDIOTIC BLOODLETTING. THERE HAS BEEN ENOUGH, AND I SAY IT IS DONE!"
Longtime enemies stared warily at one another across bloody expanses, then dropped their weapons and continued staring. But with a dawning comprehension that the fighting was over with, and would not start again.
"I am the Peacemaker," my voice lost its thundering force, but still carried to all I wished to hear it. Now I soothed, and stroked. "Break my peace at your peril, for I am also The Deathbringer and Destroyer. and there is no place on this world beyond my reach.
"But I am also the Lifegiver," I crooned, finding an undiscovered conduit into the world's own life force and funneling that through myself for the tasks I needed to do next. "Feel my power, and my reverence for all life."
Wounds healed, shattered limbs straightened, faltering lives returned to health. All the living who had been maimed, or injured in the furious fighting of that night, and before, were healed with no more than a thought, a caress of my spiritual hand.
Then I turned my attention to the dead. Of both sides.
"Go in peace," I told them gently, and opened a way out of the Earth's dominion for them to use. "Rest, as all of you deserve. The world will remember you, have no fear of that. But it is time for all of you to go."
Something, someone, very dear to my own life, drew herself out of me to stand with brilliant smile in her ancient Persian regalia. "You have done it, little sister. It is at long last finished. I am so proud of you."
"I couldn't have done it without you," I returned, moving to enfold her in a tight embrace. "But now we have to say goodbye, Twin. Your work here is done, but mine is just beginning. Go to your Khemite, Amon, and give him my love."
"He already has it, in full, little sister," Magdalena of Jerusalem gently disengaged herself, then turned eagerly for the gate I had opened before turning to give me one last smile. "I had hoped to see this one day, little sister. Prayed for it to come. May you have a long, happy time before you join us in that other place. But we will be waiting to greet you when you arrive. Goodbye, my little sister, my other self."
"Go home," I urged her, and all the others, living and dead. "Go home and let the healing begin."
"Tell Cassandra," Charles, whole and smiling sadly at me reached out a hand to touch my cheek. "That I am sorry I can't stay with her, with all of you. But I have done what I was meant to and want to rest. I am also sorry for what was done to you. Forgive me, Magda."
"Long ago," I assured him, then swallowed as the power began fading. "You'd better go now, I can't hold the gate open much longer. Give Cecelia and Marilee my love, and tell them I'll see them all when what I was meant to do is finished."
"We will be waiting." he promised, then dove into the diminishing gate without another word.
And I fell out of the Dream Plane as if a load of rocks had been tied to my feet.
* * * *
The survivors were still picking themselves up when I returned. Cyrus and Sarge, who had made it into the house crowded their way into the overflowing shambles that had been a fairly decent country house before I'd unleashed my power.
A terribly scarred, and very weak but grinning Ross Nathan was being almost completely supported by the female he had been with during the fighting. I gave him a slow, rueful smile. "Mr. Nathan. You seem determined to join us, don't you? You should have stayed away from this."
"I was in the neighborhood, Lady," he chuckled, then gave his companion a squeeze. "By the time things started popping, it was kind of late to run. And as for joining up, I'm beginning to think maybe that isn't such a bad idea after all."
"So I see," with a tired laugh, I gave his companion, a young, but strong beauty in a half shredded blue dancing dress, a nod. "Be kind to him. He's one of the good ones."
She only nodded mutely, embarrassed, or overwhelmed at being personally addressed by such a lofty individual as she seemed to think I was. Under the circumstances, I let it pass.
Then I gave Cyrus, who was also staring at me with more awe than anything else, a mischievous little smile and beckoned him to join me. "What? Don't I even rate a kiss after all this?"
"Anything you want, my Queen," his arms felt more wonderful to me than all the other things going through my still wide open mind put together.
"Cut that crap out," I tickled his nose affectionately with the tip of my tongue, then wormed deeper into his arms. "You are the fellow I Joined with that night after we staggered home in that beat up old Camero, aren't you?"
"Guilty as charged," he answered, tightening his hold. "If you still want me after all this. I'd imagine I seem a little tame now."
"You, tame?" I chuckled tiredly. "Stop talking and get down to business here, lover. I thought I was going to lose you for sure a little while ago, and that was the worst grief I've ever known. Show me you really are here."
"What about them?" he gestured towards the silent gathering still watching us, me, with near rapt fascination.
"I think they're capable of getting along without us for another few minutes, don't you?"
"Some Queen you're turning out to be," he muttered good naturedly. "At the very moment of your triumph, probably the biggest damned thing to happen in centuries if not all creation, all you want to do is take me off somewhere private and make love."
"I'm leading by example," was my soft answer. "Now will you please let me do it?"
Le'Lyeth, bless her, shooed everyone else out so we could have some privacy.
* * * *
Don't go thinking that everything was easy after that. If anything, life was a lot more difficult over the next few months.
Not all the nastiness disappeared, this isn't some fairy tale where there's a happily ever after and nothing else goes on.
I spent an awful lot of time breaking heads, or sending Cinda out to do it for me. That girl has a lot of talents, but being my personal peacekeeper seems to be the one she was born for. That and driving her patient mate, Sarge, almost to distraction with her joyful risk taking on my behalf.
Oh, Cooker and Sly not only survived that last terrible night of fighting, they stayed just as they had been. In other words, the same irascible, endearing, Human, selves they had been. Both of them just cranked up their hogs one morning and took off without even saying goodbye. I guess they figured we'd be here whenever they decided to drift back this way. They're right.
We all made adjustments regarding those who were gone, and spent a suitable time of mourning for loved ones, and even some of our dead enemies. Cassandra went to work immediately reorganizing our diminished household, with the willing help of one Johnathan Moore. I always knew that one had more going for him than his almost feminine shell showed the world. Their Joining was something beautiful, as such things were meant to be, and my night haired sister finally, if somewhat dazedly, settled down with a male willing and able to receive her bounty of love and generosity while returning it in like manner.
The shadows of that damned war, like any other, still haunt those of us directly involved. But they're fading, if slowly in some cases.
Like Hatesphut, and Sun Yee. That pair stayed around until things were reasonably settled, then departed on their separate ways with fond wishes, and promises to keep in touch. They'll probably break all of them, not on purpose, but just because they've gotten involved with other things important to them.
That's okay, though. I'm still Queen of Light and Dark. Which means I can cheat whenever I think one or both of them has been gone too long without a word. Like I said during my one Earthshaking pronouncement, never, I fervently hope, to be repeated, there is nowhere on Earth beyond my reach if I choose to exercise my power. Which I'd really rather not do. The world as a whole is doing quite well without my meddling. I've already fixed enough for one person, don't you think?
Le'Lyeth grew restless soon after the other two ancients departed. My Blood Mother stopped by long enough to give me a goodbye kiss and bathe me in her pride, then visited Cinda and Hassan with equally brief farewells. She's out there somewhere, probably glorying in her renewed freedom, and the knowledge that she's no longer a legend to be whispered over around campfires at night. Just a legend now. But one that is well loved by a lot of living folk who remember her as a boundless fount of both love and energy rather than something to be worshipped in some stuffy, or drafty, temple. I know that pleases her.
What my own plans involve is really childishly simple. I intend on living quietly, enjoying the company of my beautiful Shaman, and other loved ones, and pretty well let the world go it's own way. With the provision that the hesitant rapprochement between Vampyri and Humanity returns things to the way The Creator planned for them to be.
We weren't made to rule Humanity, and truthfully, as a race, don't have the temperament or inclination to do that. Humanity wasn't created to be our slaves, hunters and killers, or cattle. Making hard heads on both sides of the racial boundary understand that has been the most difficult part of my rather loose suzerain over the world.
But it will come. We're still legends and horror stories to most Humans, while they are still slow, short lived, and precious to us beyond all else. Without them, we wouldn't even exist. It's definitely time for that partnership envisioned by creation, and espoused by a very wise, and very ancient Vampyri, to become reality.
And that, my friends, is what my true purpose on this Earth is. To bring the races back together in peace and mutual respect.
I guess that's not such a bad job to have after all, is it?
BURNT BRIDGES AND OLD ACQUAINTANCES
Finished with my story, I sat back with a small sigh to allow my audience time for collecting their thoughts and bringing strident emotions to heel. Reddish light reflected off a scattering of emptied out wine bottles, though none of us were even close to being intoxicated. I glanced through the window to see the approach of dawn.
As always, it was coy, coming in fits and starts, as if uncertain of it's welcome and innocent of anything but that endearing hesitance to break the quiet of night. Once that was overcome, the sheer joy blazed out of the east in white rimmed reds and yellows as another day emerged, triumphant in the renewed certainty that it would bring wonderful things to the world it lighted.
While my still silent friends held to each other and digested what I had told them, I idly wondered if my car had been returned and cast outward in question. It had, and its reluctant guardian was crammed into the tiny back seat snoring quietly as he tried to find a more comfortable position. That brought a small smile to my face. He had taken my warnings very seriously, wisely so, and meant to guard the property entrusted to him until I saw fit to reclaim it. With an internal sigh, I wondered if there was a place for him in my own widely spread organizations and holdings. There was more good in that youth than even he suspected. It seemed like a shame to let it go to waste. I'd leave him a card along with the arranged payment, and leave that to fate. With a little push to his subconscious. Like I said, I'm not above cheating when I think it's justified.
Molly was the first to break the by then brittle silence, sitting straighter and staring at me with shining eyes. "So you're the one. The one those others had me call, the one who had us rescued that night."
"Yes," I answered with a little smile. "I'm the one. Forgive me for putting you both at such risk. I had little in the way of viable choices that would have allowed either one of you to keep your Humanity, or lives for that matter."
"Jim?" she asked tentatively, half hopefully, as if expecting her lost friend and former lover to shed this outrageous guise and return.
"Once," my reply was gentle, sorrowful, but firm as I touched my head and heart. "He's still here, in a way, but I'm afraid that your friend is gone for good otherwise. The love he carried for both of you is still here, though. Gods know it was almost the death, or worse, of me, that love. But I couldn't let go of it any more than he could have. Do you understand that?
"I'm sorry, but no matter how any of us might wish otherwise, he's gone."
"Are you?" she questioned, with tears streaming down her cheeks and her shoulders held stiffly against the shaking they were tending towards.
"More than I can tell you, or put into words," I felt her heartache, an echo of my own, and drew in a long breath before I trusted myself to go on. "I miss him, too. Owe my very existence to him. He was someone to honor, you know. Back at the start, he bought your lives with what was left of his, and became me so you might go on living as unmolested as possible.
"That should mean a lot to you," I told her with real emotion surfacing in my voice and face for a moment. "It does to me."
Another silence stretched between us, tightly holding any sounds we might wish to make stillborn in our throats until Steve looked up from his clasped hands and incredulously questioned. "Do you really expect us to believe all that? Vampyri, I'll go with, because the proof has shown itself to us far too often, and is sitting in my living room right now. But restless spirits sending you dreams? After you were somehow transformed from our friend, who just happened to be male, by the way, into the creature seated here drinking my wine? Into some kind of weird goddess or something?"
"You'll believe," I carefully answered. "What you choose. I am no goddess, believe me on that, but am what I say, and part of me, an important part was once your friend. I would be again if you allow it."
"Then shouldn't you be flying off to your coffin or something?" he questioned a little hysterically. "Since you are a real Vampire and the sun's rising?"
"You know better than that," I chuckled softly, letting him calm down before going on. "The worst that even the noonday sun might do is blind me temporarily and give me a terrible sunburn. Sunglasses, and a good sunscreen, with adequate care, are usually enough to shield me from that.
"As for coffins," I shuddered slightly, then shook my head. "I've always thought of those things as terribly cramped. My kind prefers cremation. As for sleeping, I am nocturnal by nature, so do get damnably sleepy if I'm up past noon. But I much prefer sleeping in my own bed, with clean sheets, and my mate beside me. I confess to being rather attached to my comforts."
He accepted that, with a snort and shake of the head. "So much for all those monster movies, huh?"
"Sorry to disappoint you," I laughed, a genuine belling of mirth for a change.
"You mentioned a mate?" Molly hesitantly returned to the conversation with a vague gesture at herself, me, then a still half dazed Steve. "You've mated permanently then. With a male?"
"Of course," my smile as I thought of Cyrus was no different than any other woman's when she thinks of the man she loves, and who loves her in return. "I am female, after all, and have the same basic needs you do. Is that so strange?"
"No, I suppose not," she gave me a long, searching look while Steve continued to glower, then asked the one question I'd dreaded most all night. "Why did you come here, tell us this story? You didn't have to, and I can tell it's been painful for you. So why do it?"
"Jim Duncan," I carefully replied, "loved both of you deeply and fiercely. The confrontation with Charles over you that I told of early in the story was the end of him in any sense but memory. As I've already said, he gave up what was left of himself for the two of you.
"That alone deserved to be honored," I finished. "That and the legacies, many of them, he left behind that enabled me to find the strength to do all that I've told you about here.
"His caring for you," I paused to search for a way of putting it, then gave up and resorted to bluntly letting it out. "Is one of those, one that held my link to Humanity open when it desperately needed to be there. So, even had his caring for you not carried over to me, I would have still been compelled to honor that remarkable man's memory by telling you his story, and mine. He deserves no less of me, and far more."
Each of them mulled that over for a time, in their own private hearts and spaces of soul where I refused to intrude. Though I could tell when first Molly, then Steve accepted the truth of what I'd told them, though it wasn't easy for either one.
Giving me a curiously longing, yearning glance that had little to do with sexuality and everything to do with a friend he had lost, then rediscovered in a vastly changed state, Steve vented a ragged sigh before asking. "Does that mean we can expect you to be regular visitor here?"
"Hardly," the unease on his face, and openly readable desire that he felt was a betrayal of his vanished friend brought a sympathetic chuckle out of my throat. "I'm not exactly what you'd call easy company for Humans these days, or for a lot of Vampyri for that matter. I certainly wouldn't go to any pains including me on your guest lists for parties or inviting me to fill out an odd numbered gathering."
"Now that would be one hell of a blind date to set up one of our single male friends with, wouldn't it?" Molly murmured with a twinkle in her eyes that came from mirth instead of tears.
"And quite dangerous," I pointed out with another chuckle of my own. "My appetites being what they are now, a man's being my friend could prove just as dangerous as being my sworn enemy, though I do exercise some control. It is not easy being my friend, as you should know for fairly obvious reasons, having experienced it first hand yourselves."
"We sold the country house," Molly's face clouded as she recalled that harrowing night and her eyes showed the fright such memories still brought her. I lightly caressed her psyche, giving what emotional ease and reassurance seemed safe.
"There is no need for any more fear," I assured her quite seriously. "The remaining Vampyri in the world know better than to even approach you two, let alone offer you any harm. Most of them would probably die protecting you from any.
"I am their long awaited Queen, after all," my voice dropped as the distance between us increased again. "With a very long, very implacable reach, as I've amply demonstrated in the past. Believe that none will offer you harm, Molly. Not ever again, on my word."
She nodded, still uncomfortable with the idea of what I was in addition to Vampyri. Then changed the subject with an aplomb I found quite admirable. "So if you aren't going to come around, what happens if we need you for something? Or just want to see you for a while?"
"Call," I reached forward to lightly touch her forehead, but she already knew what it was I meant. I will hear, and come if I am able, or send another I trust if the need is urgent. But please remember that calling me is no small thing any longer. You should be prepared to meet my price whenever, if ever, you do that."
That drew worried looks from both of them, and Steve gathered his resolve to brave the question and ask. "Price? What should we be prepared to pay for you coming?"
"Little enough," I waved a hand in dismissal and gave him a warm smile. "Nothing more than a friendly word or two, possibly your continued kind regard for an old friend who has strayed far away from places any human should chance. I'll be most appreciative, and will probably need something like that from Humans, Humans I already know, from time to time."
"That's all?" he questioned again, obviously not sure I was telling the whole truth, which I wasn't.
"One other thing, if you could bring yourselves to it," I lowered my own eyes in embarrassment that time, but plunged on since I had gone that far already. "I would accept your love, should you find yourselves ready to give it. Know that you have mine, in a measure I can't begin to express with plain words. I know, it's hard, and more, I swear it on my soul and the souls of the departed I hold so dear. I won't force the issue, or even mention it again, but thought you should know.
Well," rising with a tired smile I gestured towards the hallway leading to the door. "I have taken up far too much of your time as it is already tonight, or this morning now. And quite rudely kept you both from your bed and much needed rest.
"The young man who is being so gallant and watching over my car will soon be in very deep trouble with an inquisitive, and unsympathetic police officer if I don't return to it soon. My thanks for your hospitality. Goodbye."
Molly accompanied me to the door as Steve stared stonily at the chair I had occupied through the night.
"He'll come around," she noticed me watching him with a half wistful look and smiled her reassurance.
"I know," At the open doorway, I nodded in acceptance of that observation. "What I've told you two is more than a little hard to swallow. Sometimes I have trouble believing all of it."
I had to look up to see her eyes, which with some memories was still a jolt. Jim had always looked down from his six foot plus height to behold those clear blue orbs. Now they held something besides disbelief, tears, or mirth. And she was wearing that little Mona Lisa smile that clearly said she had seen through any prevarication Jim had ever attempted. "But you did lie about one thing, didn't you?"
"What would that be?" she had always been, still was, far too perceptive for my comfort at times.
Jim's still in there," Tapping my forehead, then chest with an extended forefinger, she shared a smile with me. "The part that made him worth knowing, loving, is anyway. Magdalena, Vampyri Queen of Light and Dark, and all those other things would never have taken the time or trouble to visit a pair of Humans mo matter how indebted to them she felt. Jim Duncan would have felt the obligation to do so as if it was a weight on his shoulders that wouldn't go away until he'd done it."
She hugged me then, a tight, convulsive embrace with lingering, bittersweet overtones. A final farewell to James Duncan, I think, and welcome for Magda Durant. She breathed into my ear just before breaking that, "Thank you."
I returned her hug with a gratitude, and fierceness, I hadn't expected. "Be well, Molly. Be happy and take good care of him."
"I will," Came the promise. "Goodbye now. You be happy, too."
"I'll do my best," I returned.
"You'll be back," Sure of herself on that, she closed the door behind me and went to rejoin her husband.
As I drove east, after extricating my car's guardian from his difficulties, and leaving him with the promised payment and a business card, I noted that a road crew was already industriously working to repair a bridge that had seen a few too many years. It occurred to me then, consciously, that even burnt bridges could be repaired, or rebuilt with enough effort. I had, after all started just such an effort the previous night.
Holding the memory of Molly's last hug to me like a blanket on a bitter January morning, I sped into the rising sun to be with my own mate, and get on with things that needed doing.
TG magic horror mind control Rated-R
Read More Maggie Finson