“What did you do with Brother Jonas, Crystal?” April stood at the head of the aisle, hands-on-hips, staring unremorsefully at the girl sitting in the front seat of this bus. “This bus is not going anywhere until you tell me.”
Crystal crossed her arms and stared out the window. Why should she tell her? He was an annoying little pest that Jean-Claude had never liked anyway. And he was trying to kill her.
“Crystal Raven!” April warned. “Don’t you pull a sulk on me!”
“He wants the hallaf of Abraham!” Crystal screamed, turning angrily towards April. “As long as that thing still exists, he stays where I put him.”
“Crystal,” April sighed, exasperated. “The specialists are guarding it.”
“And unless we teach them a hard lesson,” Crystal seethed, “people like Brother Jonas will put the specialists in danger.”
“It’s not like it can be destroyed,” April reasoned. What did you do when your demon child was throwing a tantrum?
“Then put it somewhere where no one can reach it,” Crystal suggested just as calmly, although she had no intention of being reasonable. Not when it came to the hallaf. She would not be bullied, threatened or controlled. Not anymore.
“There is one place I can put it,” Cantara offered, “but I cannot come near that blade.”
“I can carry the blade,” Angel offered, “and protect you from its effects.”
Cantara frowned. She had never carried a person to that netherworld where she was born, could not cross to this plane without her amulet. And after so many years here in the mortal realm, she could not fully return to her home plane. Given this handicap, she wondered if she could carry Angel anywhere, and why she had even bothered to make the offer.
“I don’t know,” Cantara hedged. “You’re a planar being like myself, but for a fairy, you’re heavy. I’ve never tried to bring a non-djinn to the Betwixt-and-Between. First, I don’t know if I can, and second, I don’t know if I could get you back if I did. I cannot even bring myself fully into my home plane.”
“Don’t sweat it,” Angel teased. “Guardian Angels dare where all others fear to tread. How much different can it be from sliding between Heaven and Hell?”
Crystal folded her arms and smiled that pleased little girl smile. It was annoying. She could see April wanted to smack the smile from her face, but April was not in the habit of bitch-slapping her girls. She did, however, have an annoying habit of getting even, and had an arsenal of tools at her disposal, including a mountain of dirty pots that needed endless scrubbing. Crystal had once seen her make a Goth cut the front lawn of the school with nothing but a ruler and a pair of scissors, and suddenly knew she would be in a lot of trouble when she came back. Now it was April’s turn to smile.
Alvaro and the Wandering Jew disappeared inside the brownstone and emerged several minutes later with a small wooden chest. The nearness of that ugly thing wiped the smile from Crystal’s face faster than a lover’s anger. She could feel its effects twisting like a hot knife in her belly, forcing the bile to rise in her throat. Yes, April look told Crystal, it was here all the time. She raised an eyebrow at the girl’s questioning look but chose to let her work it out on her own. Learning to trust was not a lesson that could be taught by others.
Collecting the chest, Angel adjusted his clothes from a suit to traditional robes. It was as much a part of him as his swords and watching him transform parts of his body was as unsettling as it had been the first time Cantara had seen it. With a sleight of hand, he made the chest disappear into one of his voluminous sleeves and flexed his wings to get the kinks out of his shoulders.
“Whenever you’re ready, sweetheart,” he inclined his head towards Cantara.
Alvaro laughed, and the Wandering Jew commented dryly, “sweet is it? Obviously does not know my lady-love very well.”
“Perhaps he’s recently taken a blow to the head,” Alvaro added. “Gossamer fairy wings aren’t what they use to be.”
Cantara stared daggers at the two. “When we get back, remind me to see to flattening a few worms.”
She moved to stand directly behind Angel and wrapped an arm around his waist. With her free hand, she reached into the neckline of her blouse and pulled the amulet up over her head. Nothing happened. For a long moment, they remained as solid as everyone else and then blinked in and out of sight twice like a Christmas tree light on the fritz.
“Think light, you son of a diseased goat!” Cantara cursed.
“Try flapping your wings.” Alvaro cried out, teasing.
“Get up on your tippy-toes, Tinker Bell,” the Wandering Jew suggested, dodging the blade that flashed from Cantara’s hand.
Smiling, Angel gently disengaged himself from Cantara’s embrace. Waltzing her into his arms, facing out, he extended his wings. “Try now.”
And they were gone.
Cantara reached for every ounce of pull – she had no other word to describe what she did - and carried them deeper into the other realm than she had gone in several lifetimes. Everything was sharp angles and colours, black and reds and oranges. They were here but not here, and moving in this world was like wading through mud. The air had a liquid quality to it; the heat was dry and sere. Shadows flitted across the corners of their vision, refusing to take shape. And the voices, like the muffled susurration of a thousand crowds, echoed off every surface. Home.
They did not speak. There was no point adding their voices to the cacophony that washed over them. Even the wind had a voice of its own, and it screamed at them, fighting every move they made. Cantara led them to her family’s crèche, a place of sandstone rocks and sudden silences. Here, in a deep crevice, Angel set the chest. It disappeared, no longer a part of their reality the moment he let go of it.
The gentle pressure of his hand on her shoulder signalled it was time to return. Cantara replaced the amulet around her neck. And they were back.
“Satisfied?” April demanded.
“Then tell me where Brother Jonas is?” April instructed.
“On top of the torch of the Statue of Liberty,” Crystal muttered.
“Inside the torch of the Statue of Liberty?” April probed.
April wanted to laugh but stopped herself. “Where you hung the vampyre? Angel, you better go bring him down. And Crystal, when you get back from this trip, you’re grounded for a month.”
Finally, their trip to Canada began. After the last hour of tension, an edgy silence held the bus and its occupants in its grip. It was some time before anyone ventured to start a conversation, and these few feeble attempts fell flat in the poisoned atmosphere. And then the dam broke, and a tidal wave of giggles, squeals and shouts flooded the bus.
Aiko did not see the point in all this fuss. Secluded in the back of the van, surrounded by black-out curtains, she sat attempting to meditate. Crystal was right to deal with this threat, but Aiko thought she should have killed him. A dead enemy was a safe enemy. She did not understand why these mortals were so squeamish. Although April had some good qualities as a sensei, she lacked the strength to do what was necessary. Even if the filthy hallaf was out of reach, this Brother Jonas would cause problems in the future. Why did they not have the foresight to see this?
Her thoughts turned to Alvaro. For a man with such a pretentious name, he had the manners of a gaijin dog. He and Cantara’s man acted like drunken buffoons. Aiko smiled at the memory of the thrown dagger. While her own dagger would not have missed, it had put those two in their place – on further reflection, she saw that it had amused rather than chastened them. Men definitely were not worth the trouble, at least not for more than a week or two. And Alvaro, he was not worth more than a thought, and she had already wasted too much energy on him.
Shutting out the growing noise, she changed her focus, her mind turning to Shadow and the dishonour they had both brought to their clan. That she must kill him for the dishonour he had led her into, there could be no doubt. And if he could not guard his honour, she had an obligation as a dutiful daughter to do it for him. But who would guard her honour? There would be no ending her shame in death, not with the blood oath to Crystal hanging over her head. Still, death waited for her whether their plans succeeded or failed. Perhaps that was enough to satisfy honour.
Although the concept was alien to her, Aiko suspected she loved Shadow. That she cared about his welfare she could not deny, and that she would miss him after she killed him tonight was also true. It was a weakness, or so she saw it, and one she was unsure of how to purge from her character. Aiko had never been one of those who felt the need to maim or scar herself, needing no visible reminder of her shame. That was a mortal failing.
She curled up on the seat, wishing Alvaro was there to hold her as he had several nights ago. Always her weak mind was dwelling on that insufferable man. She hissed her annoyance.
At the border, they faced a two-hour wait to cross. Cantara and Miss Sweider decided to pause at the rest stop for a quick bite and a washroom break. Already it was dark, the border stations and the rest stop lit by bright fluorescent lights that glared off every metal surface. The lighting gave the night a surreal feeling – a dreamlike quality more nightmare than idyllic.
Aiko felt a chill as she stepped off the bus with her teammates. Amidst their excited babble, she sampled the night air. A faint copper taste tainted the darkness with impending violence.
He was here. Aiko felt that vague sense of dread that only came to her in Shadow’s presence. She knew he would come to her as soon as she left New York, knew in her heart and dreaded the meeting. Shadow would never admit that anyone was more skilled than he, and kept back secrets from his students against the day each must test their skill; she had long since been faster, stronger and more powerful. Aiko had always thought that eating her lovers gave her an edge – their blood was so much more potent than that of mortals. But perhaps there was something to what Alvaro said about their origins, the orphans who came from nowhere, having neither clan nor pedigree. Perhaps there were more of her kind out there than she had ever imagined.
Only animal eaters and Eaters of the Dead were made, bitten, but not killed by the drinkers of mortal blood. Those like Aiko and Alvaro must be born vampyres, yet she had no memories beyond the sewers of Tokyo. No parents, no home. Almost all vampyres have some memory of their birth, of their first taste of milk blood – and for a rare few, of the time in their mother’s womb. Shadow, even in death, could bring her no wisdom in this.
Breaking off on her own was simple. She merely lingered at the back of the bus while the others charged inside to find bathrooms and an end to their boredom. She could sense Shadow as soon as she walked away from the minibus. Aiko knew he would come to her as soon as she found a place away from the crowds and the lights. A truck impound lot suggested itself, and she wandered over towards its shadows and darkness. She took her time crossing the parking lot, studying her surroundings. Yes, she would let him find her there.
Amidst the jungle of the transport trailers, screened from unwanted eyes, Aiko stopped and waited. With the link between them, there was no point for either to sneak up on the other. One moment she was alone, the next he was there.
“Father.” Aiko bowed, a mere nod of her head and not the full obeisance honour demanded. “Have you seen the depth of your dishonour?”
“The dishonour is not mine,” Shadow snapped.
“She is nearby,” Aiko hissed, “open yourself and feel her power. She will kill us all.”
Rather than face the truth of her words, Shadow attacked. He was fast, his flying kick a blur that the human eye could not follow. Impossible, there was nothing there to meet his blow. Shadow felt a momentary touch of pride for his student as he corrected his balance. A blow met him as he somersaulted away, catching him midway down the spine. No!
Aiko’s kick had broken his spine. She leapt in before he could recover, fangs bared. As she drank his blood, letting her venom ease him towards death, she stroked his hair softly. ‘This is not how you thought to end, my father,’ she thought. ‘But I have long since been faster and more powerful than you.’ She drank deeply, tears streaming down her face as she felt his life slowly fade away and into her until he lay still.
Shaking from the chill that gripped her after every feeding, she stumbled back into the bus. Cantara and Crystal found her, bloody and curled up into a fetal position as the ague shook her body uncontrollably.
“Christ, Crystal!” Cantara snarled. “I told you not to trust her.”
“It’s vampyre blood,” Crystal snapped back. “It’s not human. I know you can smell it as easily as I can.”
“Look at her,” Cantara replied, exasperated. “How are we going to cross the border with her looking like this?”
And she was a mess. Blood dripped from her chin, running in rivulets from her two fangs to soak the front of her shirt. Her hair was matted where blood had begun to congeal, and a smear marked her forehead. Almost Crystal missed the tears streaming from her eyes.
“Gwen,” Crystal instructed, “go tell them we have a hemophiliac with a nose bleed and see if we can get one of the showers. Morgana, grab a blanket and a towel.”
Crystal sat Aiko up and wrapped her in the blanket.
“She’s having some kind of reaction,” Crystal voiced her concern. “I didn’t think vampyres got this way when they fed. I thought they got stronger?”
“It’s because she feeds on the blood of her own kind,” Cantara replied, her face wrinkling in disgust.
“She can hardly stand up,” Crystal pointed out. “You’re going to have to help me with her.”
Concerned staff members met them at the door, and Cantara spent several anxious minutes assuring them everything was under control. It looked worse than it was. The nose bleed had stopped, and they only needed to clean her up. They were given the first available shower stall, where they were afforded some privacy. Gwen was thoughtful enough to fetch a change of clothes for Aiko and Crystal, who stood in the shower soaked to the skin. As the evidence of her meal washed down the drain in a red swirl, Cantara wondered what else could go wrong before they were all safely back in New York.