Three years earlier.....
The house glowered at the street with its Victorian façade, the ironwork bordering its slate roof a crenellated helmet out of step with a neighbourhood in its second decade of urban renewal. Yellow brick, browned with age and half-clothed in gowns of Euonymus, clung to its gloom amongst the sandblasted newness that surrounded it. Dark shadows beneath fir trees bathed the front yard in a perpetual twilight that failed to fade even in the brightest sunshine. Amidst its unkempt garden, the mangled shapes of unattended roses and ornamental bushes lurked in the darkness, casting lurid shadows on the cracked concrete remains of the walk.
Sirens strobed in the darkness, splashing crimson onto the night shrouded street, and washing everything in bloodied hues. Police and emergency vehicles sat parked outside the house. Night lent a brooding stillness. Nothing touched that quiet, not even the girl who sat on a couch on the porch of the house across the street, serenading the witnesses to tonight’s tragedy with the soulful notes of a saxophone.
Empty stretchers rolled in through the door. Patrolmen in dark uniforms stood behind yellow barriers, eyeing the curious mob that gathered in their pyjamas and ratty housecoats. Detective Sergeant Michaels stood in the door of his car, listening to the sounds of the saxophone. The same stuttering notes of a jazz riff played repeatedly became the backdrop against which he collected his first impressions of the scene. The hum and click of cameras from the reporters and forensic teams marked time for the flashes that lit the scene. The hostile iron bars guarding the windows. The twisted form of a dying bush. The glint of a broken beer bottle. The bones of an ancient newspaper fluttering in a bush.
Michaels knew this house. His first murder investigation had taken place here ten years ago. There had been a series of drug busts and noise complaints, and recently he and his partner had come here to question its occupants in connection with several break-ins. Nothing unusual for a frat house or the neighbourhood. But something about this house, about this particular group of kids, had struck the detective as eerie. Maybe it was the house.
“You want to do this, Michaels, or what?”
“No,” Michaels said, “do you?”
“Not really,” Richards admitted, “but it’s why we collect the big bucks.”
“Where are the first officers? I want to talk to them.”
Michaels found the two officers inside the door. One short, the other abnormally tall and stoop-shouldered, they were leaning against the wall in the foyer, arguing about something written in their notepads.
“And that makes thirteen,” Walters insisted, tapping his notepad she now held in Michaels’ direction by way of greeting. “I took down thirteen names when we were here earlier.”
“I am not disputing that,” Bumstead insisted, “but if that‘s human blood up there, where did the bodies go?”
“How long between calls?” Michaels asked, quickly scanning Walters’s notes.
“Long enough.” Bumstead retorted. “You haven’t been upstairs yet?”
Michaels nodded and made his way towards his partner. He paused, looking back at Bumstead and Walters, puzzled by their reaction. He found Richards at the head of the second story stairs, waiting to climb the last flight to the attic and the crime scene. If there was a crime. There were no bodies. Only one kid deep in catatonic shock and the blood. Michaels met his partner with a hesitant grin. Stranger things had happened. Both veteran detectives were convinced of that as they approached the attic door like novice knights approaching their Chapel Perilous, neither able to recall a single incident.
The smell hit Michaels as his foot landed on the first step, the metallic odour of iron and rot that accompanied the scene of every violent death. It was a smell etched into the visceral clutch of his soul, so pungent it called up every nightmare he had ever dreamed, every scene that ate at his courage. He steeled himself for a moment, clinging to the professional detachment he knew would not survive beyond the night. Something brutal and vicious had happened at the top of these stairs, and he dreaded the moment that would bring him face to face with it.
The lone occupant of the room turned red, demonic eyes towards the opening door. The sound of his laughter, hideous and chilling, rose to fill the night…
Alone… exhausted… hungry. Delph ran across the night enshrouded landscape, hugging the deeper shadows and moving faster than the human eye could follow. How long had he been on the run? It seemed like months, even years. He still remembered that night in Upyr as if it had only been hours ago, deep in the tunnels beneath the Crèche, dodging mountains of rock and scree as the world shook itself apart. There had been twelve of them when it had all begun, survivors of another cave-in days earlier slowly digging themselves out. By the time he reached the surface, Delph was the only one left alive.
Escaping from a grave miles beneath the earth was not the end of his troubles. Upyr was gone as were most of his people, but he would not learn this for several weeks. The surface was swarming with Brotherhood soldiers, hunting everything that moved. He had witnessed the slaughter of dozens of vampyres, some whole families, grandparents to infants swept away in a storm of dust. And they had caught his scent before he had made his way out of the city, hardened hunters who had faced elder vampyres and demons in their time.
He had finally lost the thirteen Brotherhood hunters who had tracked him from New York when he crossed the border by swimming Lake St. Clair. On the Canadian side, he had circled, checking his back trail several times before dropping into a ground devouring lope and heading directly towards his destination.
The sky was lightening in the east when he slowed to study his surroundings. He would need to find shelter to wait out the daylight hours. Delph surveyed himself – his dark suit in tatters, sneaking across the countryside like a beggar in the night. This was no way for a Lord of the Vampyres to travel. Every time he thought about how far he had fallen, his hatred rose like bile in his throat. It reminded him how weak with hunger he was – too weak to face the author of his misfortunes.
He could smell them from here – Loogaroo. Delph smiled for the first time in weeks. A good size pack and their lair had to be close.
Jacob sniffed the air and scowled. Only one thing carried the smell of open graves and brimstone, and that did not bode well for him and his family. When the Romanovs began to gather their kind in and around New York, Jacob had taken his family and fled north. Nothing good could come from such a concentration of their kind – he had said it then, and he said it now. And recent history had proven the old adage right. A few deaths were easy to hide, but a few thousand brought too many eyes to pry into the darkest corners.
He was the oldest Loogaroo in the area, perhaps in all of North America. Jacob had grown this old by avoiding all entanglements with the Elder castes and their battles with the demons and humans. Dodging the hunters from all three factions took care, but Jacob had learned how to keep a low profile. He always chose to settle in areas surrounded by wilderness, where the predation of his pack would pass for the work of their wild cousins. And always among a reclusive group, like the Amish or Mennonites – or here, as a family of German Mexicans.
“Joshua,” Jacob called out to the darkness, “bring your brothers and return to the house.”
His sons were quick to obey. With his family safe indoors, he stood on the porch and waited. Twenty-seven werewolves of varying ages lived with him, fourteen of them his blood offspring. Willet was his third wife, and five of his children were hers. The others – the non-bloods – had attached themselves to his pack over the centuries. Two of the oldest and largest of these joined him, including Saul, the man he called his brother.
“I am Delph Romanov of the Sanguinarian,” a haughty voice announced.
“I knew your father, and his father in his time,” the ancient Loogaroo replied. He tipped his head to the side in that peculiar wolfish manner of his kind. “You are welcome in my lair, Noble One. There are still two hours until dawn – you have come far and must be hungry. I will take you where you can feed without fear.”
Delph did not like to owe anyone from a lower caste, but only a fool turned down a gift throat during a blood drought. And, living locally, these Loogaroos would know where death would pass unnoticed. Even the werewolf did not grow so old without learning some wisdom, and this one was old indeed.
Jacob would not like to have to feed him, Delph knew and was probably praying he was only passing through. This kind of death was difficult to hide, and this area was ideal for the Loogaroo. The German Mexicans were a close-knit community that seldom interacted with outsiders, and that isolation made it easier to live without the fear of discovery. True wilderness was within driving distance in three directions, and the region held nothing to attract others. A pack could grow strong in a place like this and Jacob did not look as if he had many years of wandering left in him. There were lessons here Delph could learn, lessons about the lower castes, and about leadership in hard times. Perhaps it was time he learned to leave behind the arrogance of his father and his generation, an arrogance that had led to the destruction of their home.
A mile along the unpaved country road bordering his property, two drifters had made camp in a copse of trees. Isolated, miles from anyone who would hear their screams, they offered Delph a quick meal. After tonight blood would be found elsewhere – stolen from a blood bank or hospital in one of the nearby towns or cities. He would have to spread these thefts out carefully, or his hosts would also be homeless. It was definitely time to consider the needs of those who served him, even if it meant setting his own needs aside. If he did not, there would come a day when he was truly alone.
Delph could smell them a mile away – two women in their mid to late teens. Nodding to his guide, he continued alone, unable to contain his hunger. They lay sleeping, sharing a single sleeping bag, wrapped like two pigs in a blanket. He bit and injected the first with venom to immobilize her, and then fed on the second. Slight and slim, the blood of his current victim did little more than whet his appetite. The second kill was delicious, the pain and fear adding a certain irresistible flavour to her blood, and he took his time savouring his meal as he drained her until her veins collapsed. If these bodies were found, their deaths would alert the Brotherhood, but he could not continue on this course of action without feeding.
Delph raised his bloodied mouth from his kill, already feeling stronger. It would not do, he thought as Jacob and his pack moved into the copse to clean up the kill site, to drop in on Shax in a weakened state. Bad enough to beard a demon in his den, let alone do it in less than full fighting trim. Delph still needed to find that den, and while he had narrowed down its location to somewhere in this vicinity, it was a very large region. Withering plants without drought, dead animals in fields and forests, strange illnesses, unexplained weather phenomena – demonic signs, and also part of the pattern of a complex world sometimes gone amok. A demon always left signs in the region he inhabited, and of these, there were plenty; but if recognizing these signs were all there was to locating a demon, the humans would have long since emptied the Battles of Hell.
It weighed heavy on his mind when they reached the farmhouse.
“We’ve put up a find hard cider,” Jacob offered, frowning, “I don’t remember if your kind is partial to alcohol?”
“Yes,” Delph replied urbanely. “A glass would be pleasant.”
“My wife can mend and clean your suit while we wait,” Jacob offered, adding. “Do you plan to stay in the area long?”
“That depends,” Delph replied, following the other into a back room where he could change. “On how long my business takes. Perhaps you may be of assistance?”
“As my lord says,” Jacob answered carefully.
“Rumour reached Upyr that Shax might be active in this area,” Delph replied delicately. He was learning subtlety – not the master his father had been, but better after several hard lessons.
“The St. Thomas Psychiatric Facilities are said to be a place to avoid.” Jacob supplied.
The day passed peacefully, as most days did in the Loogaroo lair. Daylight was a time for rest, and this pack had fed recently and was lethargic with their full bellies. Two weeks ago, they had driven eight hours north to a place called Davis Lake, where they had built a small log cabin deep in the woods. Moose were plentiful and hunters few at this time of year, and a parasite found in the feces of deer were blamed for the odd death among the herds. Jacob and his pack had killed several bulls and a cow, and a few smaller animals.
In the stillness of the lair, Delph let his thoughts drift to the source of his exile. He picked at that hurt like the scab of a festering wound, examining it from all sides as his hatred for that creature Crystal Raven crystallized. Only something as compelling as his need for revenge could drive him to approach a Greater Demon like Shax. His home lay in ruins, his future had been stripped from him, and worse – far worse -was the death of his love. For Nephafari, and for Nephafari alone did that demon-spawn bitch need to die and suffer before she did.
Some vampyres fell into a vegetative state after feeding, not Delph. There was no escape from his thoughts or from the hatred that was eating at his soul. His obsession fed him more than blood did, gave him the strength to dare anything. It was fitting, he thought, that the plan to lure the succubus here, where the betrayal of the Black Donnellys had weakened the Church and its Brotherhood, was a plot of his father that he had discarded. The irony of succeeding where his father had failed was too delicious.
The last tinge of red bled from the sky when Delph bid his hosts good night and loped off into the growing darkness. His wish to avoid inhabitation sent him west and south. His goal was on the outskirts of a small town, and he would arrive early enough to avoid suspicion from anyone who saw him in the area. But approaching, and even entering the demon’s lair had never been a problem.
Delph was gambling on Shax’s hatred for the succubus being stronger than his hunger. A slim gamble at best. While not common, the rare vampyre had been possessed by a demon, and many more had been consumed. A light midnight snack interspersed with a little murder and mayhem. Such a poor ending to what had been a fortuitous start. If Delph hoped to escape, should his gamble fail, he needed to keep all his wits about him. And a few aces up his sleeve might help, but all he had was an artifact that might or might not be an apotropaic against demons.
Nestled amongst fields of corn and canola, the St. Thomas Psychiatric ward was a minimum-security facility for the criminally insane. Delph felt the pull of the glamour that clung to the place – like walking through a curtain of cobwebs. Beneath the surface of this illusion, nothing appeared changed: a low, industrial building lit with a few lights against the night, a manicured lot dotted with bushes and hedgerows surrounded by a high chain-link fence, and a dozen cars scattered across the parking lot.
As his eyes adjusted and the distance lessened, Delph began to pick out the wrongness. The sign above the main entrance was cracked and hanging askew, sparks machine-gunning into the night like tracer bullets. Several of the bushes were dug up, and a large pile of these burned unattended. At least two of the vehicles in the parking lot had fallen prey to the same arsonist, and a third had been driven into the building at high speeds. And lastly, as if added as an afterthought, a body hung out from a broken window, the glass and blood sparkling in the light of a spotlight below.
Bedlam brought to life, and still, what lay without did not prepare him for what lay within.
A pool of urine competed with the stench of dried blood and shit that covered the walls and ceiling. In the centre of the pool, a fresh body juddered and steamed beneath the voltage of a live wire pulled down from an overhead light. A rat swam away from this unsavoury perch, driven back by the missiles of three men squatting on the far shore. Two wore hospital pyjamas and robes, and the third an orderly’s uniform. When he raised his head above those of his wards, two red eyes and a mouth full of sharp, crooked teeth greeted the vampyre.
“Shax’s is expecting you, little cousin,” it chuffed and fell into a fit of coughs.
It was a long moment before Delph realized that this was what passed for laughter among these creatures. He shuddered as he edged his way past the three, as glad to put distance between them and himself as he was to leave the stench behind.
Deeper along the hall, a girl hung like a rag doll from the ceiling, her body boneless and limp. Someone or something had chewed on one of her legs. Eaters of the Dead were not the only things that preferred its meat ripe. Delph eyed the doors on either side and carefully made his way around the bloated corpse. A cloud of flies rose and buzzed his head, a grim halo disturbed by his passage. Bloodied footsteps told the tale of the last person who had not trodden carefully along this stretch of hallway. When these same footsteps came to an abrupt halt, he wondered who or what had hauled its victim up into the ceiling.
Swearing not to get caught in this madness, Delph kept alert, scanning and planning potential escape routes with each step deeper into the hospital. Most of the lights no longer worked, the wiring either ripped out of the walls or shorted out by slime and the dozens of other liquids that oozed and dripped from every surface. Delph no longer attempted to identify what he was walking through – some things were better left unknown.
Ahead, light and noise spilled out into the hallway. Delph had finally reached his Chapel Perilous and its descent into insanity. He hesitated.
Inside, Shax had slowly subverted the staff – allowing his lesser minions to possess most of the staff. Where once the inmates received treatment or took part in group therapy sessions, their tormented screams echoed in the halls – a symphony of agony that was sweet music to his ears. At that moment, Shax was watching his former doctor administer shock treatment to a woman strapped down to a table. She had been incarcerated in the psychiatric ward for drowning her two children – a three-year-old girl and a two-year-old boy – and now seldom found rest from the doctor’s ministrations. A thick layer of dust lay everywhere, the dry stagnant air rent by yet another scream. Watching the woman’s body arch and whither as his minion found new and interesting places to apply the electrodes, Shax was growing bored with it all.
“Doctor,” he announced, “I believe we need a project.”
“Yes, Great One.”
“Something that will amuse and delight those poor misguided wretches in the world beyond these walls.”
Delph approached the door. One did not beard a demon in his den without placing oneself in mortal jeopardy. Either you brought something interesting to bargain for your life with, or you carried a big stick. Wherever a demon materialized, there was also the means of banishing or destroying it nearby. Those were the rules set down eons ago by God and his angels. The vampyre carried neither a big stick nor a gift, only a proposal. He hoped it was enough. Glass crunched under Delph’s feet as he moved along the hall. The screams never relented, day or night, as the demons recreated a little slice of their homeland here on Earth.
The demon who found him was a hulking brute dressed in an orderly’s uniform. One of his arms was broken and hung at a grotesque angle from its shattered elbow. There were scratches on his face below that glinted with misplaced glee, and his mouth was twisted into a mockery of a grin.
“Welcome,” he greeted with a rough, gravelly voice. “Have you come to check yourself in?”
His giggle at the end of each sentence was unnerving. Delph took a deep breath to calm himself and replied in a haughty voice.
“Take me to Shax. I believe he is expecting me.”
A crafty look passed over the demon’s borrowed face and then disappeared as its features became slack and lifeless. “Very well. This way, please.”
When Delph entered Shax’s throne room, he found a demon trying to wire up two victims in series with mixed results. They managed to shock either one or the other, but not both at the same time. Shax grew weary of the process after the second failure and now amused himself watching a girl chewing on her own arm.
“Great One,” his escort announced with an awkward bow. “We have a guest.”
“A vampyre. Lord Vlad’s whelp, unless I am mistaken,” Shax announced to his courtiers, who ignored him.
“My Lord Shax,” Delph greeted formally.
“Come, my dear boy,” Shax replied easily, “there is no need for such formality between us. Stay, amuse yourself.”
A demon was never more dangerous than when he behaved like a perfect host. Delph knew this too well.
“This is not a social call, I am afraid,” Delph interjected. “And I cannot stay to enjoy your hospitality.”
“No?” Shax replied dangerously
“We have a common –.” Delph paused, choosing his words carefully. “Let’s call her an annoyance.”
“Please go on,” Shax urged, his curiosity piqued.
“I can deliver the girl Crystal Raven to you,” Delph hinted, “and the means of destroying her.”
Shax waved a hand, bringing silence to the room. In the sudden stillness, he sat staring at a crack in the wall.
“Very well,” the demon lord replied after some space, “I will get rid of this annoyance for you in return for a small favour.”
Delph did not let the frown touch his face. This was not going as well as he had planned, and now he found himself in more danger than he had anticipated.
“Always willing to be of service,” Delph replied with a slight bow.
“There is an item I wish you to retrieve for me,” Shax waved a hand lazily. “It’s a trifle, a mere bauble. A small favour among friends as a show of good faith.”
“Yes,” Delph agreed, looking for the trap that must be there.
“Of course the mortal you find with it must be destroyed,” Shax leaned forward in his throne as he continued, letting his true self show through the thin veneer of mortal flesh. “But that should be no problem. I understand she is only a small child.”