“Scramble! Scramble! Scramble!”
Drake’s bark sent them pelting off in a dozen directions. Crystal fled across the nightscape, her weight bowing a narrow board stretched across two rooftops. She raced through a surreal kaleidoscope of flashes of shadows, snatches of sound, and fragments of smells. Footsteps echoed in the darkness, spurring her to speed. Senses stretched tautly, she felt the night, every second expecting a cry of discovery that would not come. Her pursuers would pounce in perfect silence.
The Goths called it Death Tag and played it across the rooftops of New York City. Somewhere, the chasers from Razor’s pack were out hunting. Speed and balance were all that mattered here in the night. That, and protecting your colours, a strip of rag attached to her back like the flag used in football. Only a fall here wasn’t as pleasant as a tumble onto the soft grass of a field. Not by a long shot, Crystal thought as she leapt out into the darkness, praying the far roof was there to meet her.
“Watch out!” Gwen cried.
Crystal barely managed to roll away before Gwen leapt across to her side.
“We’re busted!” She squealed. “Cantara’s after us!”
“Shit! Ollie! Ollie! Oxen Free!”
Far worse than meeting a vampyre when you were out two hours past curfew, was a run-in with Cantara. Especially when Crystal had dragged Aiko along with them. The vampyre was not Cantara’s favourite person, although Crystal was rapidly replacing her on the djinn’s list of people she would like to drop off a cliff. Her habit of breaking curfew in more imaginative ways was giving the djinn fits. Like, now.
Simply splitting up was not as much of an option as it might seem. Not in this game of cat and mouse, and not when their pursuer knew exactly where they were heading, and only needed to lurk in ambush overlooking their only means of entrance – namely the back fire-escape. Unlike Aiko, Crystal and Gwen could not simply become a mist and drift unseen past their hunter, shamelessly pretending to have been asleep in their rooms the whole time. Sighing in resignation, Crystal accepted that getting caught was as much a part of the adventure as flinging yourself blindly off a roof. Sometimes in life, you took that long drop to the cement of the alley below.
Crystal was trapped, and she knew it. Cantara was following her, but at a lazy pace that kept her between Crystal and the brownstone. Ever since waking up that night in Upyr - that night when Jean-Claude had died - Crystal hated feeling helpless. She lost all reason, succumbing to the blind panic that drove her into a rage. Anger lent her eyes a tinge of red, and she hissed in frustration. Anger also brought the nightscape into sharper focus, her inner demon collating scents, sounds and sights at a faster rate, analyzing her various options in between heartbeats. There was one way she could get behind Cantara, but it was risky. She would need to leap from one side of the street to the other, and then hide in the shadows until the djinn moved on.
Biting her lip, Crystal moved to the edge of the building and looked down. It was a long, bloody way down, and bloody and broken is the way she would end up if she missed. More and more, she was testing herself, pushing the boundaries and stretching her abilities to new limits. It was like there were two of her – one an almost normal girl, and a second consumed by the Pranic energies of more than two thousand vampyres, with almost godlike powers. And there was no way to control which of the two would show at this moment when she most needed her inner demon.
She backed up a dozen steps and took a running start. ῾Shit,᾿ Crystal thought to herself as she leapt into the darkness, ῾why the hell can’t succubi fly?᾿ She kept her eyes glued to the darker blackness that she hoped was the far rooftop. The sensation of flight gave her a mild sense of exhilaration until the roof rushed up and smacked her in the chin. As she hung, half off and a half on the far side, she wondered if succubi bounced. Nervous laughter almost dislodged her from her perch.
“How do you like those apples?” She gloated as she clung to the safety of the rooftop. “You may be a djinn, Cantara, but I’m a full-fledged succubus coming into my power.”
Scrambling with her feet, she managed to inch herself up over the rooftop as Cantara came into sight. Lying perfectly still, Crystal watched as the djinn stopped on the far side of the street, looking in two directions. She turned left back towards the brownstone they shared, and Crystal knew the race was on. It all came down to who reached the rear window first, and Crystal had the advantage. She was on the right side of the street. Cantara would have to climb down, cross the street, race for the door, and then up one flight of stairs. And Crystal knew she was faster than her opponent. Okay, she wouldn’t have time to change, and that would make it harder to fake being asleep, but she could put on her iPod and pretend she had not heard Cantara calling.
Or, she could climb into the attic and hide for the rest of her life. Only the brownstone did not have an attic. And that was the major flaw of that particular plan.
She arrived at the brownstone moments before Cantara. Damn, that djinn was fast! Fortunately, the race across the rooftops had given Gwen time to get home ahead of her. She could see the basement window was closed and locked. Slipping in through the second-story window of her bedroom, she closed and locked it, opening one of her textbooks and slipping on her earphones. Seconds later, Cantara entered the room.
“Where have you been?”
“What?” Crystal replied, pretending she had not heard her and removing the buds from her earphones. “I’ve been here all night, studying.”
“And do you always read Greek upside down?” Cantara asked sarcastically, turning the book right-side up.
April came up with a sulking Gwen in tow.
“Sit there, both of you!” She instructed, pointing at the two girls and then the bed. “It’s time we had a little discussion about your nocturnal activities.”
Crystal had never seen April so angry. She didn’t even try to deny that they had been out past curfew, and neither did Gwen.
“There are still thousands of vampyres lurking in and about New York,” April sighed, exasperated. “It is dangerous out there, and we cannot allow you and your friends to be running around half the night. What do you think you were up to?”
“That’s why we need to train,” Crystal tried to explain.
“And that’s what the school is for,” April countered. “And why you both should have been in bed hours ago.”
“It’s not enough,” Crystal muttered. ῾Not for what we need to do,᾿ she added to herself.
The fall of Upyr was not the strategic victory it had at first seemed. Vampyres, families, and sometimes whole clans, were scattering across North America and down into Mexico. Tracking so many flights was not only difficult but impossible with the limited resources at hand. The Vatican had to recall the Choir and most of its specialists as the crisis spread from North America to the four other inhabited continents, leaving only Cantara and three others behind to watch over Crystal.
“And speaking of sleeping,” April decided to broach the subject tonight, dealing with all their problems at once. It was time for you girls to stop grieving and move on. “It’s time we allow Cantara to move into the second room.”
“No!” Crystal whirled and threw her jacket off in a random direction. “That’s Jean-Claude’s room!”
“Crystal,” April soothed, gently. The girls were still both struggling with the loss of Jean-Claude. “Cantara can’t sleep on the couch forever.”
“Whatever!” Crystal stormed, but she knew that April was right. It had been almost five months since Jean-Claude had died.
“We’ll pack his stuff up this weekend,” April offered, “Gwen, you and I.”
“Cantara can help too, I guess,” Crystal countered in a voice that was a little too snotty even for her ears.
As long as she left the room the way it had been on the night Jean-Claude had died, it felt as if he were only out for the evening and that he would be coming back at any moment. Once they packed up his things, Crystal knew she would have to face that he was gone. How many times had she lived through the various stages of grief? It never got any easier. She seemed to return to this world only to mourn for the loved ones she would never see again. Crystal doubted there were enough pieces left of her heart ever to be touched by love again, but it would come like a thief in the night when her guard was down, and then the pain would wash over her soul once again.
“It’s late,” April concluded, “we’ll talk about this more tomorrow.”
Their morning routine had expanded in the wake of the collapse of Upyr. Sleepy from their shortened nights, one of the two girls stumbled downstairs each morning to let Aiko out of her cell. Shortly after dressing, the vampyre would lead them on a gruelling two-mile run. Returning to the brownstone, they showered and headed out to the Academy, all before sunrise.
The pace was brutal, but Crystal was not willing to let up. Four or five hours of sleep a night, pushing herself and her friends, both mentally and physically – punishing herself for the death of Jean-Claude. She wanted to move Aiko from the cell to the Academy, like Brendan, to free up more time for training and was annoyed by Gabriel and Cantara’s interference. Strangely, Crystal did not blame the vampyre for her part in the battle of Upyr. She knew the fault lay with her, knew he had fallen victim to a personal feud that had brewed for centuries before his birth. She and her lover, Vlad the Impaler, leaders of the Church resistance during the Long Night of the Vampyres, had crossed the Romanovs and earned their hatred and bitterness. Not even Vlad Romanov’s death would end this blood feud.
Today’s run took them down along the Hudson River. Crystal let her thoughts drift, keeping time with the thump of her running shoes on the tarmac, blocking out everything but the rhythm of her breathing and the ache in her legs. Sunrise was still two hours away, and her surroundings were a series of silhouettes against the lighter black of the fading night. She could feel her exhaustion pull at the edges of her awareness and ignored it. Months with only a few hours’ sleep were beginning to take its toll. But she would not let up.
He was out there — the one who was responsible for all her suffering. And her final solution would end everything: the vampyres, him, and herself.
Catching her second wind, Crystal raced Gwen and Aiko back to the brownstone.
“Last one there does dishes for the next month!” Crystal cried, sprinting ahead of the other two.
“No fair!” Gwen complained.
For a human, she was fast, but when those two got their inner demons going, there was no catching them. Even full-out, she would fall behind by a block or two.
“First one there has to kiss the Toad!” She cried in desperation, watching Aiko and Crystal disappear around the corner.
Crystal was making breakfast, and Aiko was in the shower when Gwen caught up to them. The vampyre had a disconcerting habit of walking around nude – not so bad as it sounded in a household full of women, except for her perfect body. Talk about rubbing it in! Lithe and muscular, with full breasts and soft curves - not skinny and boney like Gwen’s figure. Crystal smirked as Gwen took it upon herself to remind Aiko to put on clothes before leaving the apartment. There were three men in the building – Angel, Alvaro and the Wandering Jew – and the outside door was not always locked.
Gwen began peeling off her sweats when she heard the shower stop. She had no intention of taking a shower last when the hot water was iffy at best and slipped into the bathroom while Aiko was still towelling herself off.
“Hey!” Crystal complained, good-naturedly.
“You snooze, you lose,” Gwen giggled, stepping into the shower.
“Just for that, I’m spitting in your coffee!” Crystal threatened.
“You do, and I’ll put itching powder in your bras!”
Aiko lifted her eyes in disgust. Such girlish banter had never been a part of her life. It was too sweet for her temperament. “Threats are a waste of breath. Much easier to rip the other’s throat out and be done with it.”
With a towel wrapped around her waist and a second on her head, she walked out into the kitchen to accept a glass of blood from Crystal. Cantara had woken up and was now stumbling around the kitchen, hunting for a cup of coffee. The two women eyed each other with distrust.
“Dress in Crystal’s room today, would you?” She complained to Aiko. “You’re giving Angel fits.”
Aiko raised an eye and padded down the hall to the bedroom. These gaijin had strange hang-ups and little honour.
“It would be better if you let her live at the school,” Crystal suggested. “Or, at least up here with us.”
“And where would she sleep?” Cantara countered.
“On the couch, as soon as you move into the other room. Not that vampyres sleep anyway,” Crystal replied. She wouldn’t call it Jean-Claude’s room, not when they were forcing her to give it to someone else.
“I don’t see why you trust her,” Cantara commented, scowling down at her coffee.
“I know her true name,” Crystal replied with her customary answer and then thought better of it. “She has given me a blood oath on a Wiccan crystal.”
“Crystal!” Cantara choked on her coffee.
“I need her,” Crystal caught and held the djinn’s eye, “and you know why.”
Aiko emerged from the bedroom dressed in black leather pants, Doc Martens, and a black silk blouse. It was only thirty minutes until dawn, and she would stay at the Academy until sunset. While she read and wrote several languages, she had never received any formal education. Crystal knew by the scowl she wore each morning that Aiko was not sure if she liked it.
“I must leave now,” Aiko interrupted the other two.
“Gwen and I will be along in about an hour,” Crystal replied. “We’ll meet you in the library.”
An hour later, the Ghost Sisterhood met at the Academy’s library. They gathered around a set of tables in the back corner. Most of their real research took place in the Brotherhood Archives hidden in the brownstone’s basement. These morning sessions were about sharing news, brainstorming, and gossip.
Morgana opened the meeting. “Drake has a line on a flight of vampyres. Eight to ten.”
“Are they the ones who killed the two prostitutes?” Kristen asked, her face wrinkling in distaste. Despite the flock of boys she kept dangling on a string, she was rather prudish – much to the amusement of her friends.
“We think so,” Morgana shrugged. Unless caught with their fangs in the neck, as the saying goes, there was no real way to know which vampyre had drained which victim.
“Any sign of Delph?” Crystal asked, hunger tingeing her features.
“It’s scary,” Gwen complained, teasing, “how blood-thirsty you’ve become since that nightmare in Upyr. I don’t blame you, but maybe you should go see someone about it.”
“I am,” Crystal retorted. “Doctor Aiko. She recommends revenge, the bloodier, the better.”
Between Crystal’s human incarnations, the vampyres of Upyr under Lord Vlad Blackheart Romanov had hunted down and slain all of her kind. Being the last Succubus in creation was like being an orphan. She had materialized to become the victim of a brutal attack that had left her broken and near death. Rescued by Jean-Claude, a monk from a secret order within the Catholic Church charged with tracking demon incursions on Earth, Crystal had recovered from her injuries. Through the efforts of this same monk, she had enjoyed the first taste of childhood, making friends with a group of girls, and starting a romantic, although platonic relationship with a boy. She had even managed not to seduce and consume the soul of her rescuer.
And then one night that childhood had exploded. Lord Vlad and a demon, Shax, conspired to kill the last succubus. They had managed to kidnap and drag her deep under New York’s streets to the secret vampyre enclave of Upyr. There her story would have ended, except that Shax had double-crossed his allies.
That night the world almost came to an end. If not for the sacrifice of Jean-Claude, Humanity would be months into the beginnings of Armageddon, and Crystal would have become the key to the gates of Hell. She had become dark and cold since his death, Crystal admitted, more the demon than the girl who had become like the sister Gwen had never had. She wondered what price her loss of humanity would demand of both their futures? More and more, she was becoming a driven stranger who thought only in terms of revenge.
And could any of them condone the genocide she was contemplating?
“Nothing,” Morgana replied. “Not even a hint that he’s still alive.”
“Okay,” Crystal decided. “We won’t report this nest to the Brotherhood. It will be a good test of our training.”
“Drake,” Morgana started. She was going to suggest that he would not like it, Crystal sensed, but that was the old Drake, the one who had died along with Jean-Claude so many months ago. The war was changing them all, and she was no longer sure if she liked it.
“Can plan it out with Gwen,” Crystal finished. “Only we better wait until the weekend.”
“We were so busted last night,” Gwen concluded, “that our great-grandchildren will be up to their necks in it.”
“It’s getting pretty deep at my house, too,” Morgana complained. “Mom thinks I’m screwing around and threatened to send me to the clinic for a pregnancy test.”
“Well, aren’t you?” Gwen teased, dodging a thrown notebook.
“Only in my dreams,” Morgana moaned, and the group broke up in a cloud of laughter.Start writing here…