Book Four of "Laws of the Blood"
(From Ace - September 2002)
An owl hooted over his shoulder. There was no other sound anywhere in the walking world. Nothing but the dark of vision spread out before him, pregnant with possibilities, the details as yet hidden. He could go or stay. Staying was safe, sane, normal. Falconer took a deep breath, though he neither heard nor felt himself do so, and stepped onto a path lit by moonlight. He automatically memorized details as he walked further and further beyond his body. The woods on either side of the narrow asphalt path were thick, but he could hear traffic all around the wooded area. Night sky held a sprinkling of stars and lots of low flying airplanes. The nearby sound of rushing water masked some of the city noise in the distance. He found it hard to move, even though he knew he was Walking and nothing should have gotten in his way. It wasn't like he was really there. This just felt more real than usual, that's how he knew it wasn't a dream.
Falconer came upon the man suddenly. One instant Falconer was on the path, the next he was standing by the creek, looking at a man outlined by moonlight. The man was standing up to his waist in the center of the fast-moving creek. Falconer automatically memorized details despite the darkness. The man in the water was young, with long dark hair, wearing a denim jacket over a dark shirt. Good looking in an unremarkable way. Then he turned his head and looked straight at Falconer. There was no mistaking that he saw the Walker in the woods.
Falconer changed his mind immediately about the young man's looks being unremarkable. People with fangs and glowing red eyes were anything but unremarkable.
He didn't normally wake up with a start, but he blinked and told himself the reaction wasn't unwarranted. After all, he wasn't supposed to go Walking outside of business hours, but his subconscious never had taken orders very well. He wasn't happy about it, as he didn't want to bring his work home with him. Falconer was unpleasantly surprised to find himself in bed, to realize that he had been sleeping. He let himself hope for a moment that he'd been dreaming, but he knew the difference.
It was a windy night and the bedroom curtains weren't completely closed. A tree outside the house was caught in the light of a streetlamp. The combination threw stiff tentacle shadows across the wall and ceiling and the top of the chest of drawers covered with framed family photos. The long dead people in the pictures seemed to move in a dance with the wind. On another night Colonel Michael Falconer might not even have noticed, tonight the moving shadows seemed like an invasion. They seemed to claw toward him as he stared in sleep-drugged fascination. His thoughts spun, his senses followed. The dizziness eventually became so bad he had to rush to the bathroom to throw up. Walking always made him nauseated, but rarely to this extent.
When he came out of the bathroom a glance at the clock told him it was eleven in the evening. He'd only been in bed for about half an hour before his dreaming self strayed into the psychic territory where the subconscious moved in the real world. Falconer guessed he'd suffered stronger side effects than usual because what his mind had done had been unintentional and uncontrolled. He hoped it never happened again. He certainly wasn't ready to go back to bed and risk falling back into the nightmare.
And maybe that was all it had been, a dream of Walking, no matter how real it had felt. After all if he'd been Walking he wouldn't have seen-
No. Not going to think about any of the dream images. He wasn't going back to bed, either. He was weary, and still a little dizzy, but habit almost drove him sit down and start making notes - but he was at home. The Georgetown row house he'd inherited from his mother was nowhere for him to carry on classified activity. And it didn't feel big enough to hold him at the moment, either. It felt - creepy. He needed fresh air, the open sky. He needed to run. The least he could do was get dressed and go for a walk.
"I had a situation in Chicago."
No greeting, no preliminaries, no suggestion of anything between them in his voice. Olympias smiled as much as she ever did. There was glee in that gruff voice on the telephone, and animosity, and that said all that was necessary about their relationship. "Hello, Istvan," she answered, brittle, bright and polite. "What about Denver?"
"It was the same situation. Moved to the Midwest."
"I don't do situations. Certainly not Midwestern ones. What happened?"
"The bad guys are dead. Your secret is safe."
Which was what she expected to hear. "It's your secret too, Istvan."
"So I'm told. Now I'm taking a long vacation."
Which she hadn't expected to hear. Olympias coordinated the activities of vampires in North America, and Istvan was her chief Enforcer. Istvan didn't take time off. "What's the matter? Are you feeling all right?"
"I think it's time to get in touch with my inner vampire."
"You told me you don't have an inner life."
"Where are you going?"
He had to be joking. "Did you bite a nice person?"
"A nice one? No."
"Are you teasing your old mother?"
She wished she hadn't asked, hoped he wouldn't answer. He'd been hiding something from her for quite a while now. She hadn't probed. She didn't now. It would hurt her to discover the cord finally cut from the last great love of her long, long life. It was even more annoying to think she might be losing his very skilled services, even for a little while.
"Yes," he answered her after a significant pause. Then he hung up.
Bitch put her huge black head in Olmypias' lap and Olympias scratched the hellhound's ears for a few moments before she remembered what she was wearing and pushed the animal away. Fur on a Badgley Mischka gown. Great. Her own fault for kicking off her shoes and settling on the floor in the narrow front hallway of her house. The house rule was that what was on the floor belonged to the dog. Fortunately, Olympias had just returned from the fundraising party at the Kennedy Center, so Bitch's shedding on her clothes was aggravating more than disastrous. Sara wouldn't see it that way, Olympias supposed, since she would be the one took the dress to the dry cleaners.
Sara was overworked, and didn't hesitate to complain about it. Olympias suspected she would be soon, if her best Enforcer was thinking of leaving the force. She'd suspected that was what he was calling about even before she answered the telephone. The phone had been ringing as she came in the door. She almost hadn't picked up the cordless receiver sitting on the entrance hall side table, since she'd had a feeling she'd be hearing from her most difficult offspring this evening. The foreknowledge had put her in a mood to bite something all night.
"You're home. Have a good time?"
Olympias looked up as Sara came into the hallway from her office. "Until a moment ago," she answered her slave. "Now I'm feeling a bit peckish."
Sara smiled hopefully. "I'm always available."
The girl didn't know how tempting she was, but Olympias had learned the hard way to resist temptation. Olympias scratched the dog's ears and relaxed against the wall. She had her black velvet skirt hiked up around her long legs, and the black and white floor tiles were cool beneath her bare thighs. "I'll keep you in mind," she answered Sara, but didn't really mean it. Sara deserved other rewards for her service. Service. Olympias sighed. "You have something you want to talk about, don't you?"
"Afraid so," her right hand answered. "There are situations that need your attention."
"Situations. What an awful word."
"Better situations than crises. You could have a few of those if you like."
"No thanks. Forget Istvan, I'm the one who needs a vacation," Olympias complained. She pushed the big dog off her lap and rose to her feet. "There's very little you can't handle on your own," she told Sara as she tossed the phone back onto the table.
"I appreciate your confidence, but flattery won't work. You have to decide-"
"In the morning. Talk to me about - whatever - in the morning."
"You won't be awake in the morning."
Olympias smiled. "How about that?" She glanced at the black dog that was eyeing her dropped shoes. Olympias scooped them up. "Your auntie Sara is being such a pain - all right, I'll say it - in the neck. I don't want to play dictator tonight." Bitch, of course, merely looked at her devotedly, then raced up the stairs ahead of her as Olympias went to change clothes. She could feel Sara watching her as she went, but ignored the mortal's frustrated displeasure. The night wasn't all that old, Olympias decided she had plenty of time to take a long run.
Whoever was behind Falconer wanted him to know they were there, he was sure of that. The cool breeze blew her thoughts to him, like a sharply scented perfume. Whoever she was, she wanted him to feel vaguely uneasy, perhaps a little threatened by the presence of a nearly silent stranger in the darkness. There was a hole in the moonlight where she was. He knew that if he turned around he wouldn't be able to see anyone, even though the narrow cobblestone street was quite well lit. He had the feeling that she, and he was sure with no proof that it was a she, had been waiting for him to leave the house. She'd been watching him for a long time. From the outside, not in his dreams.
Falconer shook his head. This was all post-Walking paranoia, of course, some odd flight his imagination chose to run off on when the only objective fact was that there was someone walking behind him at one in the morning.
Falconer was a careful man, carefully trained as well, though his commando years were behind him. He was still confident of his own abilities, certainly not afraid to walk the streets of his own neighborhood at night. Georgetown was as safe as you could get in the Washington area, anyway. Sometimes it was said that there were more police than citizens in this affluent neighborhood of embassies and historic houses.
He'd been rattled and restless when he started out, distracted certainly, by more things than he wanted to think about, but he wasn't so bad off that he didn't soon realize that someone was following him. For a few minutes he let himself think that the person moving so quietly behind him was simply going in the same direction, then the paranoia set in. It wasn't a long walk from his house to the Canal. The long street that fronted the Canal was a popular place; the almost silent footsteps came from that direction. Maybe it was some lost tourist. Maybe he should pause and ask if she needed help.
Maybe or not, he began to walk faster. The darkness got darker, though the light from the frequently placed streetlamps still shone as brightly. When he heard the laughter in his head there was an unmistakable undertone of sex to it. The silent sound told him this was neither dream nor Walking, but waking nightmare. She wanted him and would have him and then he would know what it was like-
Falconer did not panic, but he did begin to run. He went past Christ Church and up P Street, but from that point on he had no idea where he was. The world around him simply grew darker and darker, and filled with the scent of a spicy perfume. Her arousal bit into his self control, and her anger seared him. Anger at him because he refused to let terror overwhelm him, anger because her arousal sparked no answering heat in him. She could catch up to him anytime, she wanted him to know that. He believed it, but he didn't let it matter. He concentrated, fought to punch through the surrounding darkness. He could hear his own ragged breathing, and the pounding of his heart, and her bubbling, vicious laughter. For a long time they were the only sounds in the world.
But they weren't alone in the world, they were still in the heart of a great, noisy city. Even the quiet evening streets of Georgetown, there was plenty of traffic. Hunter and prey were not the only people in the world. He wouldn't let himself forget that. The thought brought him back to sanity. It lifted the suffocating darkness a little. He listened for the sound of cars and the pounding of his footsteps on the hard pavement, and not to the drumming of his heart. Falconer hunted for the outer reality, and found a wisp of it in the sight of a black gaping hole. For a moment he thought he was running toward the mouth of hell, then realized it was only the entrance to a park, a simple iron gate flanked by tall old trees. He pelted through the gate and into the silence of the park, knowing it was a mistake even as he did so, but he couldn't make his feet go any other way.
She was close on his heels, and her hungry laughter grew even louder as the world narrowed down to the two of them again.
"What the hell?"
Bitch shot away from her side even as Olympias halted and swung sharply around at the scent of the hunt. She sniffed the air in the dark emptiness of the quiet side street, tasted the tang of fear and arousal with a swift flick of her tongue. It took less than a heartbeat for her senses to spread out and flow through every living thing in the crowded neighborhood. Olympias sorted easily through the mortals and discarded them as pale imitations of real thought and emotion. It was the electric wave of ecstasy and hunger from one of her own kind that tingled through her blood, bones and mind which washed through her, and jarred Olympias to the core. Her stomach churned and roiled so hard that she gagged and had to lean against a building for a moment to get herself under control. Her claws scraped against the wall, going through thick layers of grime and paint to gouge narrow channels in the old bricks.
She hadn't experienced this for a long, long time, and would be happy never to feel it again. She brushed the reaction aside, forcing the old ache down. It was only residual lust, nothing to do with her. All she'd thought she'd wanted was to take her dog for a quiet run around the neighborhood, it seemed her restlessness had had another purpose all along. It was nice to know that her gifts were still intact, even if she didn't have to use them all that often.
She took a deep breath, and let her claws extend further as she turned to follow the hellhound. She grew hunting fangs, as well, though she didn't go so far as to make the full transition to her Nighthawk form. Nobody messed around in her town. Olympias kept pace with Bitch, coursing with her, a partner in the hunt. She didn't need the dog's help to follow the scent, but knew the animal might need her for protection if it tried to interfere with a hunting vampire on its own.
She passed the hellhound at the entrance to a nearby park. Bitch followed her past an overturned bench and into a stand of trees. Traces of mortal fear grew stronger with each step she took, but they didn't lend any exciting edge to her emotions, and the vampire's hunger disgusted her. The only thing she felt was fury when she reached the downed man on the ground and the creature kneeling over him.
The vampire shot up with a snarl, swung around and leapt at Olympias. Olympias slammed the smaller woman against a tree with all the force at her command. The tree shuddered, wood splintered and cracked, and small branches and leaves rained down from the impact. The female vampire slid to the ground. Olympias stood over her and planted a Nike-shod foot on her chest. By this time Bitch was standing on the mortal's chest, bared teeth resting at his throat.
Olympias ignored the man to concentrate on her own kind. "What do you think you were doing? You do know where you are? You do know who I am?"
The woman glared up at her, full of lust and hate and hunger, but with their gazes locked Olympias had the advantage. She remained calm, but for the righteous anger that she let burn into the woman's brain. Moments passed into minutes, minutes in which the intruder was allowed to know that Olympias was letting her live. She let the young vampire know that she allowed her to regain control. Finally, the girl's glowing eyes changed back to something closer to a look that might pass for human. Her hysterical need tamped down to a controllable level. The girl's fury remained, but she managed to put it on a leash.
Finally, she answered Olympias. "I know who you are."
"And you know where." Olympias spoke very, very quietly. She stepped back and let the younger woman get to her feet. Bitch lifted her muzzle from the prone mortal's neck, just enough to watch. The man took this small opportunity to try to move, but the hellhound let out a warning growl, and he subsided. Olympias left the dog to do its job. "I believe I have a dagger on me somewhere," she said, and backed the girl up against the tree once more. "You have five seconds to explain before I use it, strig."
The girl bridled at the insult. "I'm no strig!"
"Three." She put a hand under the girl's jaw and pricked claws into her exposed jugular. "Two."
"I wasn't going to kill him! It wasn't a hunt! You know damn well--!"
Olympias squeezed the young vampire's throat. "Quietly," she whispered. She was within her rights to kill this trespasser in her territory, but she felt the woman's need through the heat of her soft skin and the pulsing blood so close beneath aching flesh. Her longing perfumed the night, stinking against more than one of Olympias' senses. "Puberty," she said in disgust, and took a step back. While the girl shuddered in reaction, Olympias finally took a look at the mortal man the girl'd set her sights on. "Who's the bunny?"
Olympias laughed at the girl's intensely jealous reaction, and the man's gaze slowly, carefully, lifted over the dog's head and met her own. He shouldn't have been able to move. He was big, broad-shouldered and rough looking. He had a wide, narrow mouth and narrow pale eyes. Someone had broken his nose once upon a time. She figured that standing upright he'd be at least six foot four. The young woman who'd been chasing him was maybe five two, not that controlling him would have taken any effort for her. At least not physically.
She nudged him with her foot, and the girl snarled and moved up behind her. Olympias laughed again. Ah, to be so young! Thank the goddess she was not. She looked over her shoulder. "What's your name?"
The girl's eyes looked like two dull coals in the night, her breath came in sharp, hard gasps cutting through the gentle evening breeze. "Lora."
"He's mine," was Lora's insistent answer. "My right. You can't stop me."
Olympias put her hands on her hips, and reminded Lora of the rules. "You have a right to claim a companion if you're ready, but not in this town. Not without my permission."
Lora made a sharp, furious gesture. "My nest leader said I could-"
"Your nest leader didn't talk to me."
"I want him!" Lora pointed at the bunny. "That doesn't interfere with your rule, your highness."
Olympias had been a queen more than once in her life, and took the title as right rather than as the sarcasm it was intended to be. She nudged the man in the ribs.
To her surprise he had will enough to grab her around the ankle. "Don't." The word was barely even a whisper, but he shouldn't have been able to speak at all. Bitch stirred, looked at her questioningly, but she didn't order the hellhound to rip his throat out.
Instead, she stepped back, and smiled down on Lora's intended trophy. "Well, well, well." She didn't want to probe too deeply, but didn't have to to realize what a psychically gifted prize Lora was defending so tenaciously. Tough with it. Trained to use it? "Quite a find you have here."
"You're getting boring." She made herself concentrate on the girl. Olympias backed Lora up against the tree, slowly, revealing the knowledge of just how powerful she was to the young vampire, step by torturing slow step. The girl hadn't shown much respect up until now. Lora was crying like a suckling by the time the back of her head hit the shattered trunk of the tree. "Maybe he's yours," Olympias conceded once she'd put Lora in her place. "Maybe he's a dead man."
The girl's concern was touching and disgusting. Olympias didn't know whether to sneer, snicker or give Lora a reassuring hug. What she didn't give was an inch. "You have no right to hunt even for a companion in this town. I could kill you for stepping over the border into my territory."
"Not your - territory." Lora fought against terror, and Olympias' control. "Not here-"
She grabbed Lora by the jaw again, made her meet her eyes. "I could kill you, couldn't I?" She didn't wait for a nod, but forced Lora's head to nod up and down. "I'm glad you agree." She backed off, and gave in a little to the girl's obvious need. She could remember what it was like to be so young, mores the pity. "Maybe I'll let you have your love bunny, but I have to check him out first. See if there are any complications. Your nest leader should have given me a call, then this would have been settled already."
She waited for Lora to give her the name, but the girl said nothing and was able to block Olympias' quick probe. All Olympias was able to discern was that the block had been enhanced by a stronger talent than Lora's. So whoever her leader was didn't want any part of this trouble? Slacker. Olympias took as little interest as possible in nest politics, she preferred to concentrate on the mortal kind, so she didn't bother to express her disgust.
She jerked a thumb toward the park entrance. "Get out of here," she told the girl. "I'll be in touch."
"But - how? He-"
The hellhound sprang at the young vampire, all fangs and red-eyed ferocity, and two hundred pounds of sleek, immortal muscle and fierce loyalty to its mistress. Lora shrieked and ran, the hellhound close, but not too close, on her heels. Olympias had every intention of calling the hellhound back as soon as Lora was out of the park.
In the meantime she glanced down at the mortal lying on the ground. She was going to have to be very firm with this one to get him to forget. His eyes were wide and too alert for the situation as she bent over him. "Who needs a companion?" she asked rhetorically, brushing fingers over his short-cropped hair. "When you can have a dog?"
Copyright © 2002 by Susan Sizemore