Moving day and Saturday collided with the expected chorus of complaints. Although she did not like it, April finally relented and permitted the girls to move Aiko into the second-floor apartment. She liked even less keeping the girl caged in a cell in the basement, and once she had made up her mind, she ran roughshod over the objections of Gabriel and Cantara. There was no doubting who was in charge of the brownstone and the girls who lived in it, and the hierarchy of the Brotherhood and the Church was powerless in the face of her maternal authority. Mother knows best, and the Pope could suck it up.
The women gathered in Jean-Claude’s room with their packing boxes and enough Kleenex for a thousand colds – or one really good cry. This would be a long, painful chore. They were packing away memories, and their grief with his belongings and each treasure discovered was examined, its history shared.
The day and its tasks were perhaps hardest on Gwen. Jean-Claude was the closest thing to a father in her life, and their relationship had been full of special moments. She worked with tears streaming down her cheeks, quietly sobbing to herself until she discovered the drawer containing mementos from over the years. Jean-Claude had saved everything she had ever given to him, from a shell found on a beach in Cuba when she was seven, to her scribbles from pre-school. She would sit with him at the kitchen table for hours, jibber-jabbering away a mile a minute and insisting that he chose the colours for their great works of art. And every bloody one of them had been painstakingly glued into a collection of scrapbooks, every page dated with a title and description of the picture.
Gwen collapsed in a heap of tears. Aiko knelt to see if she was hurt. Uncomfortable with any emotional display, her recent separation from Shadow helped her understand the hurt of losing a father. She let the human girl fall into her arms and instantly regretted the indulgence as Gwen blubbered and cried, soaking the shoulder of her blouse with spit and tears. Crystal smirked down at her and Aiko looked back with a flat, dispassionate stare. She really was developing a taste for succubus blood and imagined sinking her teeth into Crystal’s throat. She was sorely tempted when Crystal and April included Aiko in a group hug, Crystal’s neck centimetres from her fangs. One bite, that was all it would take.
“Not even in your wildest dreams, little sister,” Crystal whispered into her ear, displaying that unnerving habit of reading Aiko’s thoughts. One of many new talents that had grown stronger since that night in Upyr.
Crystal kissed her teasingly below the ear. Aiko shivered. There was nothing more deadly to a vampyre than the kiss of a succubus. Maybe she didn’t care to dine on succubus after all.
Crystal leaned her forehead against Aiko’s until their eyes met. “Like it or not, little sister, you are loved.”
Aiko looked helplessly up at Cantara. If the djinn dared join this love-fest, it was time for blood and steel, even if it meant suicide. Seeing her distress, Cantara gave her a mischievous smile and dropped down to throw her arms around the vampyre. Anything that made a vampyre’s life more miserable was all right in her books. Her hatred for vampyres went back centuries, and even their extinction would not slake her thirst for vengeance.
“One day,” Aiko muttered, “I will rip your heart out.”
“But not today, sweetie!”
“You two behave,” April warned, having followed their byplay with the corner of her eye, “or I will send you to your rooms without supper.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Cantara replied contritely.
Aiko hissed in frustration. This gaijin country grew more insane by the minute. Chastised like a child by a woman who was not even a tenth of her age! Even the djinn, perhaps the oldest creature in the room, had taken her rebuke in good grace. Sometimes she thought she would have been better off if Shadow had managed to kill her. Not that he could, not even as weak as she had been when he had found her alone in her cell. Aiko had the strength and skill no one in the Hand had been able to match for more than two centuries.
At noon, with only half the room packed up, the women stopped for lunch. Since coming to live with the humans, Aiko found herself hungry three times a day and not once every two or three weeks. She had not fed properly since that prostitute in Amsterdam. A pint of blood only whetted her appetite, but Alvaro was right – her body was adjusting. Her meals were not as tasty without the fear and agony of the victim adding certain chemicals and endorphins to the bloodstream. It was like eating bread without butter – plain, and rather bland, although still as nutritious. And the urge to tear into one of the soft throats that surrounded her was slowly fading, and with it, she thought, her will to live.
Cantara brought Aiko her meal in a bowl and handed her a spoon. The others were eating spring rolls and soup, and they were trying to fit her needs into the regular routines of the household.
The djinn lay a hand on Aiko’s shoulder. “Is this going to be okay?”
Aiko thought about it for a long minute and then nodded by bowing her head. “Hai.”
“How are you three going to get along? I feel like I’m leaving a cat, a dog and a mouse in the same cage.” April asked with a warning in her voice.
“We will be fine,” Crystal assured her. “I’m making room in my closet and dresser for Aiko. And Cantara is a pussy cat.”
“Are we talking about the same Cantara we all know and love?” April teased. “The one who eats her chickens live, beaks and all.”
“I haven’t killed a roommate in almost a month,” Cantara complained.
“Okay! Okay!” Crystal protested. “I won’t leave my wet towels on the bathroom floor anymore.”
“Somehow, Aiko,” April commented, “I think you are the only normal one in this bunch.”
Later that evening, after April had left to attend a meeting of her coven, the three girls sat in the living room watching Cantara with a wary eye and whispering amongst themselves. She knew something was up when Aiko sat uncomplaining between the two girls, each with an arm about her waist. Normally, when those two got huggy, Aiko hissed and glared before finally retreating down to her cell. Crystal’s invention of International Hug A Vampyre Week had all but caused World War III, and if she looked close enough, Cantara could still see the shiner Aiko had given her.
“Cantara?” Crystal called, turning off the television. “We need to go out tonight. You can come if you want to.”
“Where?” Cantara asked suspiciously.
“Nowhere special,” Crystal hedged.
“Only to an abandoned building to train,” Gwen added helpfully.
“We intend to clean out a nest of vampyres,” Aiko said calmly. “You can come or sit here, shining your sword.”
There was a hint of a challenge in her words, and Cantara smiled in return. Despite being a vampyre, she liked the spunky little critter. But she kept in the back of her mind the knowledge that this girl was more of a hardened killer than the worst of her kind. Aiko was still a Ninja vampyre, an assassin who would kill anyone or anything if it were in her power. Blood oath or no, she still did not trust the cold-hearted bitch.
“I’m in,” Cantara decided, “if for nothing else than to keep you three out of trouble.”
“Okay,” Crystal breathed a sigh of relief. “Gwen and Drake have planned it out. The others will be arriving in half an hour to go over our action.”
Gregor sat brooding over the last cup of blood. It was still another two hours until sundown, and already Hegar was starting his litany of complaints. He felt a headache growing behind his eyes and raised a hand to the bridge of his nose to rub them. He knew it was a combination of stress and blood deprivation, and it made it difficult for him to sort out the jumble of doubts and fears tumbling through his thoughts.
“We need blood!” Hegar complained. There was no more Magistrate Gregor.
“There is one of our blood banks near here,” Gregor decided. “Tomorrow is Sunday, and the humans do not work on Sunday. It will be empty.”
He shivered as he said the name of the day, the very word raising hackles along his spine
“We should leave this forsaken city,” Hegar half demanded, half pleaded. “We need to find a place where our families can live in peace without this constant hunger.”
“It’s too soon,” Gregor explained, sighing in exasperation. “We must be smart about this. The Brotherhood still has its traps and ambushes everywhere. Better to wait until they think we have all fled, and relax their guard. Still, we will leave after we have secured a supply of blood. Tomorrow night we will raid the blood bank, and the following night we will head west out of the city.”
“Yes, Magistrate,” Hegar grated. His hackles were up as well, and he felt that time was running out for them all. He could feel it in his bones the way any hunter who had spent hundreds of years stalking prey in this concrete jungle could.
“We can go nowhere without enough blood to feed ourselves,” Gregor said, suddenly feeling the need to explain himself. “Once out of the city, we cannot hunt until we have travelled hundreds of miles from here. Without the blood, we would leave a trail leading to our new den that a novice could follow.”
Hegar nodded. For once, the man was making sense, and maybe he was finally overcoming his cowardice and was done hiding. The next two days would see - if they survived that long.
By seven p.m., the Ghost Sisterhood and their allies had gathered at the brownstone. Altogether there were seventeen of them, heavily armed and armoured. Drake and Gwen had set up a chalkboard – a relic from Gwen’s early childhood – and they were busy sketching out the neighbourhood surrounding the abandoned apartment building. While they worked, Aiko, Crystal and Cantara held a whispered conference in the corner. As they talked, Aiko noticed Razor and the girl Ember watching her suspiciously. She, in turn, was eying the Nosferatu, Brendan, speculatively.
Despite sharing a common taste for blood, his kind was more acceptable to humans than her own. She had lived with that discrimination all her life, and she seldom gave it any thought. Prey did not love the hunter. Yet his relationship with Crystal fascinated Aiko. Did everyone date their food? And why was he not afraid? Aiko herself found the succubus’ touch unnerving, and she was a warrior trained to face her fears from a young age. True, that pair never touched, so Aiko had to credit him for some sense. But still, it was a fatal attraction.
“Pretty, isn’t he?” Crystal teased.
“He is Nosferatu. Our kind cannot breed together,” Aiko replied. “Yours, either.”
Crystal’s eyebrows rose in surprise. Then a big smile lit her face. “And sometimes there is nothing better than a quick tumble.”
“And he is only a boy,” Aiko concluded, a slight grin pulling at her lips.
“And I am only a girl,” Crystal replied with a wink.
Cantara slung an arm around each of their shoulders, “I see living with you two is going to be very, very interesting. Shall we sit and see how we plan to dispose of this nest of pests?”
Gwen stood in front of the blackboard. She did most of the talking while Drake added comments from time to time. Their plan was simple. Razor and his group of four would climb to the roof, waiting in ambush; Drake and another four would cover the back, and Gwen, Kristen and three of the Wiccans would cover the front door. She and the Ghost Sisterhood had crafted their own ῾vampyre zinger᾿, and she now wore it on her right hip like the colt 45 of a Western sheriff. That left Cantara, Crystal and Aiko to storm the basement lair and flush the vampyres out.
“It’s simple,” Cantara commented. “Although you don’t have adequate lines of support.”
“I know,” Gwen replied. “But there are only seventeen of us. So.”
She got up again and stood before the blackboard. “The trick here is to make them think that Drake’s and Razor’s groups are larger than they actually are.”
With a cheeky grin, she held up a miniature tape recorder. When she pressed the play button, a cacophony of confused shouts, stomping and the sounds of fighting filled the apartment.
“Razor and Brendan have rigged these with a tripwire and a small amplifier. The first step in our plan is to place these around all the approaches to the back door and the roof.”
“Effectively trapping them between the assault force and your position,” Cantara nodded in understanding. “If it works.”
“There are no trained soldiers at this site,” Drake replied, defending their plan.
“And whose idea was this?” Cantara asked suspiciously, pointing to the tape recorder.
“Girl, you are far too sneaky for your own good,” Cantara chided, grinning as Gwen blushed and looked down guiltily. No wonder Cantara was having so much trouble keeping these three in the apartment at night. No doubt, the human girl had found three doppelgängers to replace them or made some of her own.
Before true dark, the Ghosts moved into position. On the roof, Razor and Brendan moved down into the stairwell while the others guarded their retreat. At the first doorway, they paused, Razor taking up a position to guard the approach while Brendan rigged the first tripwire. The building creaked and groaned with age, and somewhere in the distance, a door slammed, sending Razor’s heart pounding in his throat. The two froze, listening.
“I think it was the wind,” Brendan breathed.
Razor listened for another minute and then nodded. “Aerie to Ground One.” He breathed into the headset he wore.
“Ground One,” Gwen’s voice came through the earpiece. “Everything’s as snug as a bug.”
“Wiccans!” Razor muttered, rolling his eyes. “Their concept of radio discipline is so bad you would think they were gossiping with their girls on MSN or Facebook.”
“Aerie to Ground Two,” Razor called into his microphone.
“Confirm all eleven birds in the nest,” Drake replied.
Razor nodded to Brendan and led the way down to the next floor. The problem with sneaking around abandoned buildings, especially ones that were not completely unoccupied, is that you could not tell the difference between the groans and moans of its settling and the sounds of its occupants. They started at each noise, every creak. And with each start, they paused, waiting. They would wire three of the six doors leading into the stairwell and then several spots across the stairs themselves, and at this rate, it would take half the night. Anyone approaching from the fourth floor up would trip their little booby traps, both alerting those waiting above and setting off a riot of sound. And neither boy wanted to be in the stairwell when it happened.
Below, in the alley, Drake and Ember followed behind the assault team. From the stairwell leading into the basement, they began to lay their tripwires. Drake paused. Their containment plan relied first on a bit of sleight of hand, and then on Gwen and Morgana and her vampyre zinger. It was not even fatal. Trust a Wiccan to invent a doomsday device that only tickled a vampyre. Turning back to the task at hand, he reached out and helped Ember clip the tripwire in place. She smiled up at him. Ever since she a vampyre bit her, Ember had lost a lot of her self-confidence and had compensated by honing her hand-to-hand combat skills to the point where surprising her could be painful.
“Another Black Rose in the making,” Drake muttered.
Cantara turned to her two companions. Both of their eyes shone with the bloodlust of their inner demons. In the dim light of the basement stairwell, the two looked like twins – raven black hair, elfin features, and eyes like glowing rubies.
“Aerie set,” Razor’s voice came through her headset.
“Ground One, set.”
“Ground Two, set.”
With Drake’s report, the three women crept forwards. Somewhere along the stairwell, they expected to find the guards the vampyres had set, and Cantara was surprised that they had not run into one yet. She tapped Aiko on the shoulder, signalling for her to lead the way. A vampyre running into another vampyre would not immediately raise the alarm, and hopefully, that delay would allow her companions to close in unnoticed.
At the djinn’s signal, Aiko slipped down the stairs. Hugging the far wall, she moved with cautious steps. The guard was there, inside the hallway at the foot of the stairwell. The vampyre teen sat in a chair, leaning back against the wall in bored indolence. Even without the two earbuds blasting music from an MP3 player, Aiko’s approach was so silent he would never have heard it. She had no compunctions about cutting his windpipe or finishing him off with a single stroke of her sword that carried away his head. His people, after all, had betrayed her clan and thrown all the vampyre nations into a war they did not want.
“Come,” she said in a barely audible whisper.
Crystal and Cantara followed her voice down into the basement. They paused, listening to the noises of the vampyre flight coming from further down the passageway.
“Pablo!” Hegar called. “Pablo, where are you? If you’ve fallen asleep again, boy, I will knock you back into your mother’s womb!”
His voice trailed off into the darkness as he moved down an unseen corridor that led away from the stairs. Coming up to the cross-corridor, Cantara signalled Aiko to follow him. Meanwhile, she and Crystal continued further into the basement, where the sounds of activity led them towards the main body of vampyres. Crystal felt no pity for these creatures – they were the ones who had plotted to kill her and had taken Jean-Claude from her. Ever since that bloody night in Upyr, she had become much more like Cantara and Aiko. A merciless killer with nothing but vengeance in her heart.
They found Gregor in the first room. He managed to scream before Crystal was upon him, slamming Jean-Claude’s crucifix deep into his chest.
“Well,” Cantara remarked as she paused at the door to check if the hall was clear, “so much for the element of surprise.”
Crystal shrugged, following her down to the next doorway. Opening the door, she turned to Cantara and said, “surprise.”
Hegar had run into Camber when Gregor’s cry echoed through the basement. Turning, he heard something coming from the direction of their lair. A survivalist, Hegar had no intention of returning to defend the flight– that only brought danger. He had no wish to play the hero. That the young vampyre followed meant nothing to him either as long as he did not slow him down. And if he did, Hegar would not wait for him.
Aiko heard her quarry make a break for it and quickened her step. Frowning, she discovered another stairwell climbing out of the basement that they neglected in their planning. Years of missions had taught her how to adapt to unforeseen circumstances, and she knew that they could not afford to allow any of these vampyres to escape. She was the best asset on the ground to intercept them –as fast, more skilled, and far more deadly.
The stairwell ended in the back of the front lobby, and, cut off from the front door by Gwen and her Wiccans, the two vampyres had fled up the main stairwell. Close on their heels, Aiko caught the near edge of Gwen’s vampyre zinger – the wavefront somersaulted her through the air. She landed on her feet, sending a hiss back over her shoulder as she raced after her fleeing prey. The weapon impressed Aiko. For something non-lethal, it packed quite a kick. And the half-step she had lost while tumbling through the air had made her miss her kill. The two would have a long talk when this was over, and maybe one of them would end up bitten.
In the stairwell, Hegar and his companion ran into the first tripwire. The sounds of a pitched battle resounded in the narrow confines. Panicked, her prey came thundering back towards her. The delay allowed Aiko to make up the lost time. The two had barely cleared the door to the third floor ahead of her when she caught sight of them. Stepping into the hallway, Aiko stood with her back to a large bay window. Between the two vampyres and their only way out, she paused and waited for her quarry to realize that they were trapped.
Aiko drew her swords and held them ready as the vampyres turned back towards her. Patiently, she waited as the older vampyre crashed through door after door, only to find empty apartments on the other side. Desperate and frustrated, he faced Aiko. Although older and more powerful than the girl, he was no match for someone trained by the Hand.
Sweeping Camber up in one arm, he suddenly threw him at her like a missile. Lightning quick, Aiko cleaved the head from the boy. Unable to avoid his dead weight, she fell back through the window. Its glass brittle with age, it shattered under their combined weight. Windmilling, she fell thirty feet to the sidewalk below.
Her sudden collision with the concrete distracted Gwen and her coven. Turning toward the falling bodies as Hegar sprinted out the door, they could not bring their weapon to bear in time. The vampyre scrambled up the building on the far side of the street. One had escaped, or so it seemed without taking into account Aiko and her hunting skills.
Her one sword, its blade hopelessly tangled in the disintegrating body of the boy, was left behind as Aiko leapt to her feet and gave chase. Clambering up the side of the building, she reached the roof a step behind Hegar. Although older, he did not have her experience and expertise. Too many years living in the safety and luxury of a conclave had dulled his survival skills. And he quickly realized that he could not outrun her up here on the rooftops. But the underground was his world. If he could reach the sewers and the tunnels beneath these streets, no one would be able to follow him.
Aiko trailed him off the roofs and onto a four-lane thoroughfare. He had miscalculated. The leap from the rooftops left her barely a step behind. Focused on their chase, the two vampyres ran blindly out into the oncoming traffic. Her blade found his neck simultaneously as a truck, a semi with a fully loaded trailer, struck them at almost seventy miles an hour.
For the second time that night, Aiko found herself somersaulting head over heels through the air, a severed head spiralling at her side like two synchronized swimmers. She watched as dark plumes of dust trailed away from her gristly companion, her fascination ending as the tarmac leapt up to meet them.
Aiko lay stunned for a long moment. Crystal trotted up carrying her missing blade, quickly followed by Cantara with the one she has lost in the collision with the truck.
“Well,” Cantara concluded. “It looks like you’re the trophy tonight.”
Turning, she issued instructions into her microphone. “Drake, take Gwen home. Send the others home too. Debrief tomorrow evening.”
This gaijin country grew more insane by the minute.
Aiko sat in the warm bath, head bowed in shame, waiting for the punishment that was long in coming. Crystal sat perched on the edge of the tub, patiently picking glass slivers out of her back with a pair of tweezers.
“Why so sad, little sister?” Crystal asked, gently hooking a lock of hair behind Aiko’s ear.
“I failed,” she said. “I let my target escaped out to where the mortals could see.”
“That was hardly your fault,” Crystal shrugged, returning to her work on Aiko’s lacerated back. “No worries. Anastasia will take care of it. Besides, Gwen was the one who zinged you instead of the other vampyre. I guess you all look alike.”
So there would be no punishment for her failure. Its lack doubled the depth of her shame. Although she feared punishment at the hands of a succubus, the rebuke had always been part of the ritual to banish her guilt. She thought about it for a long time, watching the tendrils of her blood dissolve in the bathwater. Crystal was more approachable tonight than she had been since that night in Upyr – that night that had changed everything. And there was something she had wanted to ask for a long time.
Finally, Aiko’s curiosity overcame her reticence. “How come you do not hate me, and why do you call me little sister?”
Crystal leaned over and looked at Aiko with the corner of her eye. A warm and mischievous smile tugged at her lips. “Because you remind me of myself when I was your age, and because I am many, many times older than you.”
At first, Aiko’s shoulders stiffened, her first instinct to refute Chrystal’s claims, and then she remembered that succubi and incubi were the elder cousins of her kind. “How old?”
Crystal laughed at the other’s suspicion. “Physically, in this incarnation, about seventeen or eighteen human years. But I have lived one kind of life or another almost since the dawn of time.”
“You have been reincarnated many times?” Aiko asked, thinking it was not the same as her twelve hundred uninterrupted years.
“I am a true demon, Aiko,” Crystal replied. “I can only inhabit this plane for a set number of years. I never truly die, merely move from one plane of existence to another. I retain my memories, my sense of self, but lose all sense of time when I leave this place.”
Crystal wiped the last cut and applied a bandage on one of the deeper ones. Satisfied, she stood up.
“Come,” she instructed. “I’ll help you dry off, and then you can come sleep in my bed. It’s not as lumpy as the pull-out couch, and Gwen can join us. We can giggle and talk about boys all night.”
“Do you gaijin know nothing about men?” Aiko muttered, and Crystal laughed.
“More than you could ever imagine.” Crystal whispered in her ear.
Later, as Aiko lay in bed bracketed by the succubus and the human child, Crystal stroked her hair and said, “I’m proud of you, Aiko.”
“I missed my target and lost my blades,” Aiko sulked miserably.
“At least you did not zing one of your own guys. Twice.” Gwen complained. “I think Cantara’s going to take my vampyre zinger away from me, and I love my vampyre zinger.”
“I got hit by a truck,” Aiko concluded, daring either girl to top that disaster.
Crystal laughed, teasing, “and I bet that’s one truck that won’t mess with the Ghost Sisterhood anytime soon.”