Aiko sat out in a park at the end of the block, a small stretch of lawn in front of the race track. Still ill and a little drunk on demon blood, she had the bench and the park to herself. The hour was quite late, back at the house, the others were all asleep, but even there she felt crowded by their presence. Ill enough to sleep herself, confronting the man she thought of as her father and killing him a second time was a hell that drove rest from her life.
Cold. So cold. Aiko curled up in a fetal position on the bench, hugging its wooden slats against the chill of the night. Maybe eating everything she killed was not such a good idea. The demon’s blood still covered her chin and mouth, tasting bitter and foul, like chewing on the stub of a cigarette. Her stomach roiled with what little she had managed to keep down, and she felt nauseous.
Was that what waited for her when she left this life? Was she to become a creature with no true form as Shadow had? Was that the price of their dishonour? Aiko shivered from more than the cold. Until tonight, she had never believed in reincarnation, in the absurd notion that one’s ancestors could become a cricket or a songbird. And then there was Shadow. Less than a week ago, she had drunk his blood, warm and salty, with a subtle hint of fear. Drank and drained the life from him, feasting on the strength of his Pranic energy.
Several days later, she confronted his shade. What dishonour did she commit to drag his soul from its grave? But she knew her crimes well. She had delivered the hallaf to the demon-possessed, and then in a moment of weakness was captured by an old man. She was not there for her clan when they needed her skills and her wisdom the most. She was the Black Lotus – killer of her lovers and demons. No-one, mortal or other, had her skills against such hellspawn.
She neither saw nor sensed him. Even in her weakened state, she should have sensed the nearness of prey. The first she knew of him, he was draping a thick leather jacket over her prone form. The mortal sat uninvited, too close for comfort. Eyes red with anger, she hissed.
Helmand smiled down at her, taking a handkerchief from his pocket and gently wiping her face of demon blood and tears. “Better, Aiko?”
“How do you know my name?” She accused, rising to a crouch.
“I have been watching over you for a long time Aiko,” Helmand smiled. “Are you well, Little Lotus.”
Aiko frowned, almost a pout. Why did she not scare this mortal? He was old and scrawny, too tough and dry to bleed well. “I am well.”
“But you are troubled, no Little Lotus Blossom?” Helmand soothed, ignoring her fangs and red eyes as he brushed a stray hair from her face.
Aiko did not know why she trusted this mortal or why he made her feel safe – only that he did. She found herself telling him about Shadow, of their dishonour and his death, and of the demon who wore his image. She even spoke of the troubling thoughts that were plaguing her, thoughts about mortality and life after death. When he took her hand, this food, she did not object. Nor did she find it strange to be tucked beneath his arm, her head pillowed on his chest.
“No wonder you are so confused,” Helmand chided gently. “Demon blood will get you drunk. This demon you fought was a doppelganger – it steals images from your mind to lure you closer. And, with your last, most vivid memory being of Shadow, it stands to reason that you would be thinking of him tonight.”
“I am doubly dishonoured,” Aiko replied stubbornly. “I failed my clan and did not seek my own death after taking his.”
“It was his time,” Helmand returned gently. “And not yours yet. All our lives are part of the tapestry He weaves.”
Aiko hissed in annoyance, and Helmand laughed. “Like it or not, we are all His creatures.”
They sat together, talking quietly for several hours. Aiko found herself telling him all about her life as a child – living in the sewers of Tokyo, fighting for rats or draining an odd drunk, of how Shadow had found her and gave her a home. She told him secret things about herself, about the sickness that struck her whenever she killed and fed. He listened, no judgement, no recriminations, no matter what she spoke to him about – there was only acceptance and love.
Aiko was talking so much she did not notice that the sky had lightened towards dawn until Helmand said, “it’s past time we got you home.”
She frowned. Already the sun was visible in the sky behind them. She gave him a suspicious look, but there was no guile there, only concern. He walked her towards the house with an arm draped over her shoulder, and she felt sheltered from the baleful effects of the sun. Already she should feel a slight tingling on her skin as it reacted to the ultraviolet rays, and she put down its absence to the effects of the demon’s blood. Walking towards the retreating night, she could see her shadow, one of the most frightening sights a vampyre faced in life. So much so that mortals believed her kind cast no shadow, but too many vampyres suffered anaphylactic shock caused by an allergic reaction to the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Aiko herself was prone to painful burns and blisters and bore a scar on her right foot from a time when she was unable to protect it.
Fortunately, it was a short walk. Only the mortal’s presence kept her from fleeing in terror down the street – like a human with bee allergies caught amidst a swarm. He helped her up the stairs like a gentleman of old and held the door for her – a door she swore she had left locked. Maintaining possession of her arm, he escorted her into the living room, where they took a seat on the couch and continued their conversation. Aiko felt too sleepy to talk, and snuggled into his side, letting him rub her back as she drowsed.
Cantara and Crystal found them like this when they came down to take their turn preparing breakfast. Crystal frowned. She did not think Aiko would need to feed so soon, especially after throwing up half the night to purge her body of the demon blood. And then the old man moved.
“Good morning, Crystal and Cantara, am I right?” He smiled up at their concerned frowns. “Did you girls sleep well?”
“Uhm, yeah,” Crystal husked. “Thank you.”
“Oh, pardon me,” he actually blushed. “I’m Helmand. Aiko and I met in the park. A couple of night owls.”
“A pleasure, I’m sure,” Cantara replied brusquely, “if you will excuse us, it is Aiko’s turn to help with breakfast.”
“By all means,” Helmand replied with old-world mannerism. “Apparently, I have overstayed my welcome and must be on my way.”
The moment the door closed on Helmand, the djinn and succubus turned on a groggy Aiko.
“Aiko Black Lotus!” Crystal hissed.
“Was the demon not enough!” Cantara snapped.
“You cannot hunt here,” they began in a confused babble. “Endanger us all with your recklessness…. enough to deal with without…. wait until I tell April.”
“I am not hungry,” Aiko pouted. “Besides, he is too old and dry. I prefer my meat juicy.”
“If you were not hunting,” Crystal demanded, “what were you doing with the mortal?”
“We were talking.”
“Talking,” Cantara scoffed. “Do you expect us to believe that?”
“You are not the only ones who can play with their food,” Aiko snapped, storming out of the living room and upstairs.
“Well?” Crystal questioned, turning towards Cantara.
“Don’t look at me,” Cantara replied. “I don’t eat Jews. Besides, she’s your pet vampyre. If she wants to date a dried-up old prune, you deal with it!”
“Fine!” Crystal snapped, storming off into the kitchen.
The others, drifting downstairs in fits and starts, listened curiously as the djinn and succubus banged pots and slammed doors at each other. Over a breakfast of runny eggs, charred bacon and crispy toast, it came out that Aiko had had a man over. Equally disappointed that they had not met him, they were doubly so when they learned he was a fossil so old he could barely walk on his own. What good was it sneaking in a man if he couldn’t get it up with a truckload of Viagra? Better someone young and salty.
“What was she doing out of the house so late?” Miss Sweider demanded. God, she felt like a bitch lately.
“That’s hardly fair,” Gwen argued. “She can’t go out in daylight. Even a vampyre must need fresh air, Miss Sweider. Besides, I think it’s sweet she met someone.”
“This is Aiko we’re talking about, Gwen,” Crystal pointed out. “She eats all her lovers.”
“Well, maybe she hasn’t met the right man,” Gwen maintained stubbornly.
“But Gwen,” Morgana giggled, “this guy was old before old-school was old-school.”
“What’s age got to do with anything?” Gwen challenged. “Jean-Claude was twenty years older than Mom, and they were very much in love. Besides, Aiko’s like eight hundred. She’s the one who’s robbing the cradle.”
“Enough!” Crystal threw up her hands. “Does anyone recognize this language?”
Crystal held out the journal Aiko had retrieved from the Bishop’s residence. The girls forgot about boys and fossils and crowded around the table, each trying to study the text at the same time.
“Girls!” Miss Sweider interrupted. “Volleyball. Remember, you have a game in two hours, you might want to get dressed.”
The fourteen scrambled to find their uniforms and fight for bathroom space. Crystal, half in and half out of her pyjamas, carried the journal into the room where Aiko lay pretending to sleep. She bounced on the bed and laughed when the other girl groaned.
“That’ll teach you to bite off more demon than you can chew.”
“I’ll never eat another demon as long as I live,” Aiko moaned.
“Until the next one,” Crystal teased.
Aiko threw the pillow and Crystal caught it, holding it in her lap. “Can you keep an eye on the journal while we’re gone?”
“Hai,” Aiko grumped.
“Are you going to be alright alone?” Crystal asked, concerned. “Should I ask Cantara to stay?”
“I will sleep,” Aiko replied with finality. “I do not require an audience.”
An hour after the others left, Aiko sighed and settled deeper into sleep. There was nothing better than the stillness of an empty house when one desperately needed sleep. A persistent headache had settled between her eyes, driving a spike through her skull every time she moved. Gwen had insisted she drink a willow tea, and while it made her sleepy, it sat in her upset stomach like hot lead having an epileptic fit. She would swear off demons if the furry critter that was making her tongue its bed would crawl out and die somewhere else.
A couple of quiet hours had passed before Aiko wished she had insisted that Cantara had stayed with her, awakening to strange noises coming from above and below. She didn’t feel better and decided, since it was the closest, she would investigate the noises coming from the attic first. She crept from bed and to the door of the attic without turning on any lights. Even in daylight, the attic was a place of shadows and darkness, but she had been up there often enough to practice and meditate.
At the head of the stairs, a stream of blood jetted out from the darkness. Like a fire hose spraying down rowdy rioters, the stream struck her in the chest. Aiko fell backwards down the stairs with a startled squawk.
Helmand raced upstairs wearing jean overalls and a carpenter’s tool belt. He found Aiko lying in the blood at the foot of the stairs. The fall had knocked her cold, and a quick examination revealed she had also dislocated a shoulder. Lifting her gently into his arms, he carried her back into the bedroom and set her on the bed. Searching around the upstairs bathroom, he collected several towels and a bucket of warm water to wash away the blood.
Helmand was off searching for a sling for her arm when the girls came home. Morgana, the first in the room, found Aiko covered in blood with what looked like a bucket of blood at her side and screamed.
“My God! She’s eaten the old bugger already.”
The other girls came running. Crystal took one look at the bloody bed and pushed her way forward. “Aiko! Good Lord, is she okay?”
“From what I can see,” Helmand offered, “none of the blood is hers. She took a nasty tumble from the top of the attic stairs.”
“What are you doing here?” Crystal asked, startled.
“I promised Aiko I would drop by and fix the floor in the front office. I had just finished up when I heard her fall,” Helmand supplied. “By the way, I ordered a new glass for the window.”
“Is she okay?” Gwen asked, already hunting up her healing crystals.
“She’s dislocated her shoulder,” Helmand replied. “I was looking for something to use as a sling. Do you have a first aid kit around here?”
“There’s one in the van,” Ember offered. “I’ll go get it.”
“Where did all this blood come from?” Cantara asked coldly. If the vampyre had a secret stash of bodies, she would personally take her head.
“I can’t figure it,” Helmand returned, puzzled. “Someone covered the stairs and floor with blood.”
“These practical jokes have to stop!” Miss Sweider seethed. “Someone’s been seriously hurt by this nonsense. I don’t care where you got the blood, as soon as Aiko’s settled, you are all marching upstairs and cleaning up that mess!”
But when they came back with buckets and mops in hand, the blood had disappeared.