Gregor was in his seventh century. Before the fall of Upyr, he had been a low-level bureaucrat in charge of monitoring and controlling the populations of Nosferatu and other animal eaters. Over those sweet years, while reaping the benefits of others’ hard work, Gregor had developed an officious manner that he saw as efficient. In time, he came to see obedience from the lesser castes as his due. He was old enough to remember the lean years of wandering after the collapse of the Transylvanian enclave – the Troubles after the end of the war known to the mortals as The Long Night of the Vampyre. He was wise enough to see the failings of others, or so he told himself, and foolish enough to ignore his own.
The tunnel the Nosferatu boy had led them through that night was a place of the lower castes. If any of his friends or associates had seen him during that wild flight from the Undercity, he would have died of embarrassment. The falling rocks and the scream of the dying still haunted him, day and night. Lord Vlad had been a great man until one false step, one wrong decision that led to the destruction of all he had built. There was a lesson there Gregor was determined to learn, one that was keeping him from making even the smallest decision when decisive leadership was needed.
Small and slim, his slight frame marred by a paunch from years of sitting behind a desk, he did not cast a commanding figure. If he were a human, he would be mistaken for an accountant or a Sunday school teacher. And now he found himself the head of a household of eleven hungry vampyres – the youngest twelve human years old.
Now, he was head of a clan with no idea what he should do. In good times this would not have mattered, but these were not good times. Those responsible for Upyr’s destruction hunted his flight, and he still had a vampyre’s inbred need to remain hidden from the general populace. The indecision left him incapable of issuing a command, and his vanity would not let him capitulate his position to any of the lesser beings under his control.
“We should leave the city,” Hegar was urging for the twelfth time in as many hours.
“We must wait,” Gregor snapped. “Jasper’s flight left two days ago and see what came of that!”
“We can’t stay here much longer,” Hegar reasoned. “There is no blood and nothing to hunt here.”
“We must wait until the search moves out of the city,” Gregor replied. “Patience.”
“Yes,” Hegar replied. “Lord Vlad urged patience too!”
Soon Gregor would have to make an example of Hegar if he wanted to maintain his authority. It was what the lords of Upyr would have done, but they had been ancient vampyres whose power was undeniable. Even though he was born of a higher caste, Gregor did not know if he was strong enough to kill Hegar. That vampyre was born and bred for violence, had led hunting teams for over two hundred years, and knew more about the humans than any of the other survivors. Yes, he would have to do something about him, but he was not sure what or how.
He was also right about needing to leave the city, and Gregor was struggling with the decision of where to take his flight. Hunters were everywhere, even with the Brotherhood Choir having left for parts unknown. He had been right to wait, right that the Brotherhood would scatter and return to their duties beyond the city if his eleven sat tight and waited. And now that they were gone and blood supplies were exhausted, it was time to take his people elsewhere. He would have to decide in the next few days, or he would be left alone in this bolthole. The lesser castes no longer had any respect for their betters, and every day he saw the signs of rebellion grow. Tomorrow he would decide where to take them, and in the evening, he would announce it to the clan. Today, he would meditate on the decision.
Aiko did not understand the need for her to join the volleyball team. Between the end of class and sundown, she had plenty of time to complete her training, and this gaijin’s game seemed to have no purpose. Far better to use her time practicing her katas, adding to her knowledge of armed and unarmed combat that was preparing her for a battle she knew must come. But Crystal had insisted, and so she found herself in the change room with eleven other girls, exchanging her street clothes for a pair of black shorts and a white tee shirt.
And Miss Sweider insisted that she wear a bra. In twelve hundred years of existence, she could count on one hand the number of times she had worn one of these instruments of torture. Aiko pulled at the latex fabric beneath her shirt, trying to adjust it to a more comfortable position. She felt bound, and it constricted her movement as she experimentally twisted her torso from side to side. She could think of a thousand ways she could use this device to cause pain or death, and her two favourites for these imaginings were Crystal and Miss Sweider.
“You look fine,” Gwen assured her, “it makes your girls look firmer.”
“I prefer to avoid wearing a boa constrictor on the field of battle,” Aiko complained. “It binds when I move.”
“You’ll get used to it,” Morgana assured her. “Besides, you wouldn’t want to catch one of those puppies in the face.”
Aiko gave her a cold stare. “In twelve hundred years of combat that has never been an issue.”
“Think of it as a type of armour,” Crystal soothed. “Remember, play hard, but not full-out. Try not to jump higher than a human can, or hit the ball too hard.”
“Finesse is the name of the game,” Gwen summed up.
“Wouldn’t it be easier to kill and bleed the other team?” Aiko complained. “They’re only humans. Plenty more where they came from.”
“It’s only a game, Aiko,” Gwen cajoled. “There is no dishonour in losing. It sucks is all.”
Gaijin had no sense of honour. What purpose was there to an action that did not ask for your utmost? Did the honour of the school mean nothing? And did one not owe one’s school to try one’s best? She was not going to like this volleyball.
The games today against Xavier High were part of their regular league play. The Academy of the Apocrypha was in the upper half of the league standings, hovering above or below the last playoff spot from week to week. Every win certainly counted, and competition at this level was tight, and still, Miss Sweider insisted that all her girls get an equal chance to play during league games. And so Aiko found herself subbed into her first game after only one practice. The concepts of volleyball were simple enough – smack the ball over the net with a spike, bump or volley. The difference between practice and gameplay, however, was another cup of tea altogether. The first ball Aiko came in contact with went off the top of her forehead. It flew back towards the net, where Gwen spiked it home for the point.
Crystal came up behind her and put a hand on Aiko’s back to still her anger.
“Nice assist,” she encouraged the vampyre. “That’s the way to keep your head in the game.”
Aiko hissed at her.
Crystal and Kristen owned centre court today. With Aiko, Morgana and Gwen at the net and the two Nordic twins on the baseline, they went on a run for eleven points. When Crystal and Aiko subbed off, Xavier managed to regain seven of those points. And then Kristen brought the game home with her serve.
“It’s important that you make friends here,” Crystal said, placing a reassuring hand on Aiko’s shoulder.
“I do not need friends,” Aiko pouted. She hated when this girl played the older sister, and she had a slight headache from her collision with the ball. Ever since that night in Upyr, their roles in this relationship were reversed. Even if the succubus had lived thousands of lives, they were not all in the same span as Aiko’s was – she had more experience in this world than the other girl, or at least she thought she did.
“We all need friends, Aiko,” Crystal soothed. “It makes life’s disappointments easier to bear. And this is how I first made friends at this school.”
“I am not you,” Aiko replied flatly, not resisting as Crystal moved her head to lean against her side.
Looking down at the other ancient girl, Crystal smiled and stroked her hair. “We are more alike than you think.”
The Ghost Sisterhood lost the middle game before roaring back to take the third and the set. The win moved them back into playoff contention with a game in hand. The girls met in the centre of the court in a round of group hugs and backslapping. Aiko found herself caught up in this orgy of mutual groping and frowned her displeasure. It was hard to be so close to this much prey and not sink her fangs into the soft flesh of a tender neck. One did not play with one’s food. Not often, anyway.
“Okay, girls,” Miss Sweider called out. “Gather around. I have an announcement.
Aiko found herself standing with Crystal on one side and Gwen on the other. The two girls had their arms wrapped around her waist, and Aiko found herself wondering how a Wiccan/Succubus cocktail would taste? They were her enemies. When would they grow up and stop treating her like a sister?
“We have been invited to an international tournament in London,” Miss Sweider began when an excited cry interrupted her.
“We get to go to England! London, England!”
“This London,” Miss Sweider raised her voice above the excited cries, “is in North America.”
“There’s a London, England in the States?” Kristen asked, confused. She sounded so blonde at the moment.
“No. But there is a London, Ontario in Canada.”
“I own a house there,” Crystal offered. “I can rent some furniture – or buy some. That will save on the hotel.”
“That’s very generous, Crystal,” Miss Sweider replied, not sure of the logistics of such an offer.
“I pay enough for the electric and water,” Crystal replied. “I might as well get some use from it.”
Ever since she had inherited the properties and money from Jean-Claude, she received a monthly statement from an accountant. At first, she ignored them until April pointed out that she had a responsibility to manage her inheritance. And in the end, she decided she did not want to disappoint Jean-Claude. Now she spent three days a month pouring over accounts, bills paid, and bills due, tax receipts for properties spanning North America, and bank statements with so many zeroes her mind spun. Certainly, she should be able to have some fun after all that hard work.
Crystal patted Aiko on the cheek and laughed as she hissed at her. She stuck her tongue out at the vampyre as she ran to join the other girls in the change room, soaking up their excitement as they looked forward to another road trip.
Aiko watched her and did not release her scowl until the succubus disappeared. After the other girls had changed and gone home, Aiko returned to the gym to lose herself in the meditations of her katas. This new life was disturbing. She missed the simplicity of her days in the Hand. She chose to see her new self as another disguise, and this new life as another assignment. Blending into the local culture was a skill of the assassin, something she had done a thousand times in the past to get close to her target. She was Aiko Black Lotus, demon slayer, drinker of blood and a skilled assassin. Treat her as a Human teenage girl, and one day Crystal Raven would learn to rue her mistake.
She found she could not concentrate on her katas and knew the way things had ended with Shadow was disturbing her tranquillity. For almost her entire life, he had been the closest thing to family she had known, and now both – having lost face – were honour bound to kill each other at their next meeting. Like Crystal, she did not blame the other for the death of her father – both knew the fault lay with Vlad and Shax. She had long since been faster, more powerful and skilled than Shadow. Their next meeting would be his last. She was already feeling lonely, orphaned.
After nightfall, Aiko showered and changed into her street clothes. Her workout had been brutal. It left her muscles sore and stiff, yet did nothing to settle the turmoil of her mind. Exhausted, she stumbled home to the basement, glad for once that there would be no playing with the human children tonight. She crept into her cell and closed the door behind her. She felt the first tear roll down her cheek the moment she was alone.
He found her then. Handing Aiko blood in an elegant wine glass, Alvaro began to knead her shoulders.
“And how was school today?” He asked softly.
Aiko shrugged her shoulders in a half-hearted effort to throw off his hands. He stopped kneading and let his hands rest lightly on her shoulders – maintaining his contact.
“I know it’s a difficult adjustment,” Alvaro began.
“What would you know about it?” Aiko demanded. “You are barely a vampyre.”
Alvaro remained quiet for a long spell, pulling her into his arms.
“At one point in my life,” Alvaro whispered into her ear, “I was very much like you.”
Aiko let her head loll back against his chest and took a sip of blood. She toyed with the idea of letting him seduce her and then realized Crystal would never let her kill Alvaro when it ended. How could she take a lover she might have to live with for months, maybe even years? The idea repulsed her.
“I was born in Rome more than twenty-five hundred years ago,” Alvaro began, feeling the girl shiver in his arms. “Ah, my age surprises you. Did you think only Asian vampyres were so old? There are some gaijin twice my age and those are only the ones we know about.”
”My nine brothers and I were in the first of the Roman legions, back before they were even known as the legions. Those were hellion years, the ten of us moving from legion to legion, always at the head of every battle, slashing throats and drinking the blood of our enemies. We killed hundreds, maybe even thousands. I thought we would live forever.”
“What happened?” Aiko asked, breathlessly. Twenty-five hundred years. Fully blooded, this one would be as powerful as the most ancient of the ancients.
“I fell in love,” Alvaro replied with a self-deprecating chuckle. He raised a hand to brush a tear from her cheek before he continued.
“In the days when the Emperor put a bounty on the Christians,” Alvaro explained, letting her catch his hand between her fangs. “Something in me changed. The Christians were a threat to the unity of an empire that had declared its leaders divine. And so, my brothers and I switched occupations. There was more fun in rooting out nests of Christians – we bled whole families.”
“She was a follower of Christ. My brother had caught her, and with one look, I knew I had to make her mine - .”
“You fell in love with food?” Aiko demanded, spinning in his arms to face him. Their eyes were inches apart, but he saw only puzzlement reflected there.
“She was so peaceful and serene,” Alvaro explained. “Not beautiful, perhaps, but she had a radiance, nevertheless. In the end, I killed my brothers to keep her.”
“All nine?” Aiko breathed. He knew what she was asking – how he could slay his entire family, his clan – but chose to misunderstand her question.
“In those days, I was full of blood lust, hunting those who would not fight back. Christians, in that time and place, would rather die than offer violence to another– even a reprobate as evil as myself. No one in Europe was as strong as I was, and so my brothers died.”
“She stayed with me until her death.”
“You married,” Aiko paused, unsure of how to voice her question, “you married a human?”
“Yes,” Alvaro raised a hand to brush her bangs from her face, “and paid the price for my impudence. Our kind is not meant to trade hearts with someone so short-lived. A human’s life passes in a blink of an eye, and back then, their lifespan was not half of what it is today.”
For a long spell, they lay in each other’s arms, lost in their thoughts. Aiko did not know what to think about this vampyre. The prowess he displayed in defeating his brothers impressed her – all nine of them – and she was amazed at his longevity. But to fall in love with food?
“Tell me about how you came to join the Hand,” Alvaro asked, moving a hand to rub her back as a father would soothe a child.
“Shadow found me when I was three in the sewers of Tokyo,” Aiko sighed, remembering as only a vampyre could. “I was running with a band of Nosferatu, scrambling to eat whatever I could catch.”
“What happened to your parents?” Alvaro asked gently.
“I do not know,” Aiko whispered. “Do you think it’s odd that I can remember nothing of them?”
“No,” he replied, sitting up. He bent and kissed her neck. She could feel his fangs brush her skin and never felt so vulnerable or safe. “I too was an orphan. I remember nothing beyond my brothers.”
Vampyres remember every moment of their lives. Some even remember the time within the womb. Alvaro had a theory about orphans such as Aiko and him, but now was not the time to share it. He was not ready to share that knowledge with anyone, not even the four specialists with whom he had spent hundreds of years. It was that kind of quasi-origin myth that sounded inane if voiced out loud, and his had a dark twist to make it a campy tragedy.
Throughout his life, he had stumbled on several vampyres like himself, all orphans, and none of them retaining memories of their lives before the age of three. Almost as if they had not existed before that moment. And with vampyres, that was impossible. True vampyres were born of pure vampyre parents; others, like the Nosferatu, were turned when bitten but not drained. And not every human survived the scourge of vampyre venom to turn, succumbing to the pain and damage it wrought to their veins and arteries. No, those vampyres like himself came from somewhere else, perhaps even from the source of their people, the father of all vampyres.
“He took me to live with him in his Dojo and taught me the way of the assassin,” Aiko continued, leaning back into his chest. “I was the best of his pupils. When I was twelve, he began to send me on missions. No one escaped my blade, not even demons.”
“So why do you kill your lovers,” he teased, biting playfully at her ear.
It was the one peculiarity that made her infamous among her kind. How many had she slain? A dozen at least. With her reputation, she thought it would be hard to find another taker, but there was always another fool who thought he could tame this wild Japanese blossom. She looked back over her shoulder at him speculatively. Too bad Crystal would not let her kill him. He might be fun between the sheets.
“I, like you, never sleep,” Alvaro teased, sensing the direction of her thoughts. He raised his eyebrow in a question.
“Not even the crepusculum immortalis?” Aiko asked hesitantly. She had thought she was the only one who could skip it.
“Not even the crepusculum immortalis,” he teased. “Now, why do you feel the need to kill all your lovers?”
“Because they know my secrets,” she whispered.
He let her turn in his arms and rest her face against his chest, leaning back to allow her to find a more comfortable position. For a long time, they lay like this - he comforting her after a hard day and making no move to push their physical contact in another direction.
“Do you think I am evil?”
Alvaro chuckled. “My wife once told me that we cannot help what we are, but we always have choices. Neither one of us chose to be born a vampyre, to live our lives depending on the blood and the fear of our victims to survive. So no, I do not think you are evil. I do think you should consider the impact of all the killing in your life – not only on your victims but on yourself as well.”
“I am hungry,” Aiko explained, questioning. “I kill; I eat. How is that any different than any other creature in God’s creation? And how does that impact me any other way?”
“You distance yourself,” Alvaro replied, “you shut yourself off from even your fellow vampyre. Your heart is closed, Aiko. Ask yourself why?”
She did not answer, and soon her breathing grew regular. Alvaro held her while she rested, letting her listen to the beating of his own heart as she meditated on his words. Vampyres did not sleep, but when emotionally upset, even they will escape into dreams.