“I hope they are okay,” the grey-haired woman who held the tablet device stank of body odour, stress, and cabbage. “Elior looks tired, and Ashlynn’s cheek was bruised. Did you see that?”
“They are fine,” a younger man assured her. “A bruise is nothing to a vampire.”
Verity tucked her chin to her chest and edged her way back into the shadows away from the huddle of people. Elior might broadcast nightly, but the number of devices that broadcast went to, and the ability to power them, were becoming fewer and farther between, finding someone who had the ability to access the broadcast was becoming increasingly difficult.
Power and water supply was intermittent, depending on whether Elior’s had managed to get the local power stations operational that day or not. Food was becoming hard to find. Verity had not seen fresh produce for over a week.
Half an hour’s walk from the lady with the working tablet, Verity found an empty house. The kitchen cupboards had been raided but she found an open box of stale cracker biscuits, a can of sardines, and a jar of pickles, and ate the odd combination with a protein bar in gratitude that there had been something.
The house had running water, but she didn’t dare to shower. The bathroom door would give to a good kick. If someone else entered the house, she would be naked, wet, and trapped. The combination was not a good one.
She slept beneath the dining table where she might be overlooked.
She found a tube of toothpaste and an unopened toothbrush head for an electric toothbrush which was no longer in the bathroom and used it to brush her teeth in the morning, before splashing her face and fixing her hair.
The golden daylight was over bright and cast halos in her vision, forcing her to put her head down and scrutinize the weeds that stubbornly flowered in the cracks of concrete as she hurried the rest of the way through streets she had once called home.
Verity passed into a glamour spell and wriggled her way through the fence that backed onto a railway track gone silent and still since the invasion.
Her best friend Faith was in the back yard, hanging washing on the line, but her gun was strapped to her hip whilst she did it.
“You look and smell like shit,” Faith commented.
“Which is why I am here,” Verity replied.
“You could just stay here, Vee, you know that,” Faith was gentle.
“I know,” Verity replied. “But the coven will come looking for me again. It is dangerous enough using your shower.”
“You need to find Alatar,” Faith finished hanging the washing and picked up her basket. “He would shelter you. Gerard is still trying to Send to him for you.” Whilst Faith was human, her husband, Gerard, was a warlock, and Verity’s half-brother Alatar’s friend.
“Alatar will be with the pack. I don’t know why the coven would think I would know anything other than that, he certainly hasn’t bothered with me most of my life,” Verity sighed. Alatar was over twenty years her senior, the only child of their father’s first marriage, which had ended when Theo had impregnated a student, Verity’s mother, who had died not long after Verity had turned eighteen.
“What are you going to do?” Faith waited as Verity stripped off the jumper and heeled off her boots leaving them outside the door, before pulling off her jeans. She wrinkled her nose as Verity placed the items into the washing basket, fingering them with distaste. “I might as well just throw these into the fire-pit and burn them.”
“Probably not a bad idea.” Verity padded into the house in her underwear. She could hear the children playing in the front room and Gerard’s voice. Whatever game they were playing, the warlock was heavily involved from his excitement. “Is that a husband, or a fourth kid you have in there?” She asked Faith keeping her voice low.
“A little from column A, a little from column B,” Faith rolled her eyes. “Go wash with disinfectant, five times. I’ll make you breakfast. What the hell happened to you?” She added as Verity turned to the stairs. “You have bruises and scrapes up your back and butt.”
Verity’s heart stopped, a flash of the winged man over her, his weight grating her into the rubble as he thrusted. “Life on the rough,” she said lightly.
“Pity you can’t heal yourself,” Faith sighed heavily.
“Isn’t it just.”
There was a shelf in the linen closet, its items hidden behind a stack of towels, just for her. She retrieved a change of clothing, a new coat, and new blankets, and took them into the bathroom with her.
Faith and Gerard always had running water, the advantage of being married to a warlock, and Verity threw her underwear into the little bin under the vanity before stepping into the flow of hot water, feeling the sting of the grazes on her back.
She was generous with the soap, scrubbing her skin until she was sure she’d removed a couple of layers. She shampooed her hair twice, as if doing so would compensate for how long it would be until her next shower.
When she was clean, she wrapped herself in towels and stood over the vanity to brush her teeth, and then applied antiseptic to anything she could reach, and pulled on her clean under wear.
Jeans, t-shirt and a thick jumper over-top. The thick jumper disguised the shape of her body so that she would not attract the wrong sort of attention.
Until she took pity on it and healed it. F-king winged hellion.
She brushed her hair before braiding it tight to her skull and then carried the coat and thicker blanket down the stairs. In the kitchen, Faith had a bowl of cereal and a cup of herbal tea waiting.
“You shouldn’t waste milk on me,” Verity scolded her as she sat down at the breakfast bar. “The children…”
“It is only powdered. Gerard found a crate of the stuff, so we have plenty. I will give you a bag to take with you.”
“I won’t say no, if you have enough to spare.”
Verity ate quickly. There was only so long that Gerard could keep the children entertained for and it was dangerous for them to see her, in case the coven came again. Children did not have the ability to be discrete.
She lifted the bowl like a cup in order to drink the dregs of milk, the calories and nutrients too important to waste, and then handed the bowl to Faith who immediately washed it.
Faith placed the bag of powdered milk onto the bench top. “I wish there was more I could do, Vee.”
Verity finished the tea and stood, the coat and blanket under one arm. “You already help me more than you should,” she picked up the back of milk powder and tucked it into her backpack. “I won’t be back again, Faith.”
A tear slid down Faith’s cheek. “I think I knew that.”
Verity forced her lips into a smile. “Keep safe. Keep your kids safe.”
She pulled her boots on, bending to tie the laces.
“If you can, send us word,” Faith said from the door.
“I will try,” Verity waved over her shoulder as she squeezed between the fence panels back out onto the train track. Three steps and she passed through the glamour again. She followed the track towards the city centre.
She had stayed near her home, near her friends, but even as she had done so, she had known it to be a risky strategy. Near her former home was exactly where the coven would look for her.
There were two directions she could take – leave suburbia and head into the country or follow the train tracks into the city. She had debated both options long and hard in the weeks since the invasion from the skies.
The country offered the opportunity to find a spot where there was water and perhaps grow her own food. But to do so would mean walking for long periods of time in the open along the highways or through the fields.
The city had plenty of cover and many people to hide amongst, but the more people she was around, the more the threat of violence against a woman on her own.
She hoped she had chosen the right option.
She pressed herself against a fence line as the shadow of a large flying creature passed over the tracks. She squinted against the sun. Three large creatures. Not winged men, the gargoyles. Another reason she had picked the city.
Gargoyles were territorial by nature, and they defended the city skies ferociously. Even the winged people seemed to respect this, staying clear of the inner-city towers and concentrating their tyranny on the outer edges where skyscrapers melted into industrial estates and suburbs.
But more than that, the gargoyles made her feel safe.
As she rounded a bend in the track, she heard voices ahead. She slid down the gravel embankment into the overgrowth that filled the area between track and fence line. The owners of the voices were not winged and clad in black. Heavily armed, they were inspecting the crossing of a street over the railway line.
She heard a rumble of truck engines, and the reason for the presence of the armed soldiers was explained as a convoy of trucks crossed the tracks. Six trucks, vampires hanging off the sides, guns at the ready. At the rear, two black, heavily tinted 4WDs followed.
She looked up as the gargoyles passed overhead. Lion, goat and griffin, she noted, squinting to make out their details. The lion pivoted on a wingtip and seemed to fall from the sky, landing in a crouch and a spray of gravel near where she hid amongst the undergrowth.
His body was man-shaped, heavily muscled, and well endowed, the carved form perfection. His face, however, was all lion, the lips curled back from vicious teeth in a snarl. His mane was a magnificent artwork of detail brushing against his over-broad shoulders.
The blank grey eyes without defined pupil were disconcerting, belonging to a statue of stone, not the moving creature before her.
She stepped out of the undergrowth, keeping her hands up. “I am just a traveller,” she told him. “Waiting for the way to clear.”
“You are a spy,” his voice was terrifying, a deep, dark growl forced from a stone throat. “You were there last night, meeting with the angel.”
“No,” she heard a thud behind her as the goat landed. The griffin circled in the sky, the tight circles of a bird of prey. “No, that was not what happened.”
“Trading secrets for vitamins,” the lion continued as if she had not spoken. “That you spilled as you fled.”
She heard voices, and the movement of gravel underfoot as the black clad soldiers from the crossing made their way along the track, their attention drawn by the circling gargoyle.
“No,” her heart raced as the goat stepped up to her back.
“You are advised not to fight,” the lion continued. “You have no hope of escape.”
The soldiers surrounded her, and the gargoyles moved back to give them room. A vampire pulled her backpack from her shoulders, whilst another patted her body down.
“Powdered milk?” One of the soldiers was confused by the contents of her backpack. “Protein bars, vitamins, and diet shake powder.”
“I haven’t done anything wrong,” she protested on the verge of tears, their hands on her body unwelcome reminders of the winged man, even though their search was impersonal. “It is food. Just… food.”
She heard the deep rumble of the lion’s voice as he recounted having seen her with the winged man the night before. She had not seen the gargoyle, she thought in bewilderment. Perhaps he had been above, in one of the buildings. But then he would have seen the rape… Or would it have appeared to have been sex?
Her hands were dragged behind her back, her shoulders protesting against the unfamiliar pull, and cuffed in place.
“Please,” she tried again. “It is not what he says. I was running away from the winged man.”
They didn’t answer her, one of the men picking her up and throwing her over his shoulder, forcing the air from her lungs and the blood to her head. They began to trot back along the track to the road.
She saw the two gargoyles take to the air, powerful thighs bunching as they leapt forth, and their wings sweeping up clouds of gravel dust. She felt as they had betrayed her trust, she thought, though she knew that they owed her nothing, a lifetime of adoration and fascination had collapsed under the harshness of reality.
The soldiers followed the road to where two trucks waited, and she was thrown to the floor, crying out in pain as her shoulder impacted the metal tray, as they slid onto the bench seats. One of the soldiers rested his foot between her shoulder blades, pressing her into the floor as the vehicle began to move.
“Please,” she pleaded, desperate enough to reveal her connections. “I am Alatar’s half-sister, Verity. If you contact him, he will tell you I am not a spy. I am just…” The vehicle turned a corner at speed, and her cheek hit the metal painfully. “Please,” she tasted blood.
“Everyone’s Elior’s mistress, Ashlynn’s brother, or Raiden’s love child when they’re caught,” one of the soldiers laughed, the Other flashing red in his eyes. “Alatar’s half-sister is a new one, though.”
The others laughed, the cold laughter of men and women who had seen too much and had lost genuine joy.
“What secrets would I know to share?” She demanded. “I can’t even find food most days, let alone anything the winged people would want to know.”
“The building you were seen leaving was a medical facility helping to support vampires during the war. They were a blood collection site.”
“I know this,” she sobbed. “They were my friends.”
The truck stopped, and the soldiers emptied out, the last one, the one with his foot on her back, dragged her out by an ankle, the slide scraping her t-shirt up and grazing the skin beneath. He lifted her down mainly, she suspected, as the drop would have broken bones.
His grip on her cuffed wrists dug the metal into her skin and pulled on her shoulders.
She looked around as she was propelled around him, struggling to keep her feet under her. They had parked in the bowels of a building and the parking bays busy with trucks and black-clad soldiers unloading their contents.
She was pushed into a stairwell and taken down a flight of stairs into a dark, narrow hallway lined with doors painted in a grim greenish-grey. The hallway branched at the bottom, and at the far end of the left branch, a man and woman stood guard beneath a single, flickering light bulb.
“Spy,” the man behind her announced. “Needs interrogation.”
“Oh, god, please. I am not a spy. I am just someone trying to survive this war.”
“We will find out anything she knows,” the man’s face was expressionless as he wrapped his fingers around Verity’s upper arm and took a ring of keys from his hip.
He unlocked a door and Verity gagged at the smell that came out. Unwashed bodies, piss, and the acrid stink of fear and pain.
People groaned from the shadows, whimpering and sobbing pleas as they shuffled back.
The vampire moved them into the darkness, and Verity was able to detect the sheen of metal within the black of the room, the reflection of the light in the hallway picking off eyes, some of which flashed their Other nature. Cages, she realized. The people were in small, barred crates. Animal pens repurposed.
The man released her cuffs and shoved her into a cage, closing and padlocking it behind her, before leaving.
The light cut off as he closed the door behind him.