Mastyr Vampire Ethan stared down into Sweet Gorge where two of his Guardsmen hauled up a body on a sling carried between them. They flew side by side, matching their movements by long practice. The night air, though usually fresh in early April, carried a rancid edge, something he’d connected with this area for a long time.
But he’d lost another of his Guard here at Sweet Gorge, killed sometime this past week, but located by a search patrol just a half hour ago. And this was the fourth murder in a month.
Something was on the wind.
“Invictus?” Finn scratched behind his right ear. He was Ethan’s second-in-command, his long red hair a beacon in any situation.
Using both hands, Ethan shoved his own unruly hair away from his face. Sweat dripped from his forehead. The temp wasn’t too warm in Bergisson Realm this time of year, but when his blood-starvation reached difficult levels, he’d often perspire like he’d been battling for hours. “What the hell was Paul doing patrolling in this area?”
Ethan didn’t know Paul well, but he felt responsible for him, as he did for all his Guard. He’d built his force to three hundred strong, but Paul, as a new recruit, wasn’t well-known to many of the Guardsmen.
“He didn’t have orders to go out here, not with three other Guardsmen dead in the past few months along the eastern border.” Ethan let his gaze move from one end of the gorge to the other, then along the monolith to the east. A familiar heavy guilt clawed at his chest. This part of his realm was off-limits having been the place of a massacre forty years earlier.
“Maybe his body was dumped.”
Ethan’s frown tightened his forehead. “Most likely.”
There was a connection between Sweet Gorge and the Invictus. He just didn’t know what it was.
Sweet Gorge used to be a place of great beauty and had once been a modest resort, a place his family had been to a lot in its prime. Fae leadership had also met here often.
Now his mother, father and sister were gone, lost in the attack, along with many loved ones, over two hundred realm killed all at one time.
Afterward, the stream had dried up, the source cursed by a powerful fae of unknown ancestry. No one had seen the fae female or the deed, only that the stream was blocked and no amount of power had ever released it. A wall of crystals resided there and none of the fae he knew would go near it.
Besides, there was always the stench to warn realm-folk away, of something not right, very ancient, and deadly.
He glanced over the wooded ridgeline along the north ridge. A breeze picked up sending sharp pine scents through the air.
But something else struck his nostrils, the scent of dark fae magic, as though it waited there. His muscles flexed involuntarily along the insides of his arms. Yet in all these decades not a single fae of power, in any of the Nine Realms, had been able to figure out where all that power was coming from, not even Vojalie, the most powerful fae he knew.
He reset his long hair with the traditional woven clasp. He’d been flying through his realm for the past three hours, hunting the red wind of the Invictus, a sign that preceded an attack. He hadn’t found anything yet, but the night was young.
He’d used up a lot of precious energy, however, and he needed to feed again, the bane of his station as a true mastyr vampire. All the mastyrs he knew experienced desperate levels of blood-need and lately, for no reason he could figure out, his starvation had worsened.
His mouth filled with saliva as he drew his cell from the pocket of his battle leathers. He sent a quick text to one of his doneuses and wasn’t surprised at all when he got a message back to stop in for a quick tap. Bless the dozen women who serviced him.
Damn, he hurt, deep in his gut. He shifted away from Finn and took deep breaths as a couple of hard spasms pulled on his empty stomach once more.
As the two Guardsmen, levitating with the sling and the body between them, topped the ridge, Ethan stepped aside to give them room. Pines lined both sides of the gorge, trees like the ones in nearby Shreveport, Louisiana, the access point between his plane and the human world.
His realm had seen hard times for the past forty years and for all that time, he’d felt the weight of his realm on his shoulders, pressing down hard, just as it did on all the mastyrs, those nine vampires in charge of about a millions souls each.
Finn’s phone rang. He listened for a few seconds, then brushed sweat off his forehead with the back of his sleeve. “Shit. Well, that dumb-fuck’s been warned.”
Ethan stared at him. “Tom again?”
Finn put his phone away. “Yep. He’s at Club Prave.”
“Are you f**king kidding me?” Ethan knew exactly what Tom had been up to: Violating one of Ethan’s strict laws about how humans and realm-folk interact at a human-based event.
Finn grimaced. “I’ll handle this.”
“No. I want to this time. That ass**le has been warned long enough and now I’m locking him up.”
“Ethan, you’ve got better things to do than to police the human bars.”
“Not this time. Tom Brignall hides behind his cozy relationship with Ry. Time he learned who’s mastyr around here.”
“Then why the hell is he testing my laws and my authority?”
But Finn’s smile was crooked as he said, “Because he’s a vampire?”
At that, Ethan almost smiled as well. But the truth was harsher. Tom had a loyalty to Ry, and had caused dozens of problems in recent years because of it.
But Ethan’s other problem surfaced again, as his blood-starvation cramped him up again. He breathed through the pain wondering what the hell was going on with him. He’d never been quite this desperate where his blood-needs were concerned. And now, because of Tom’s breaking of the non-tapping law at human clubs, he wouldn’t have time to stop by his donor. But he’d make this quick, afterward get his blood craving slaked, or at least moved from critical to just slightly desperate, then jump back in the field.
He left orders for Paul’s body to be taken to the morgue along with word that he’d check in to learn cause of death.
Before any of the men could so much as exchange a glance, or to complain again that he regularly took too much on his own shoulders, he headed south to Shreveport, levitating and flying quickly just a foot or so above the ground. He might have heard Finn grunting his frustration as he took off and he half-suspected Finn would find some excuse to follow in his wake.
Gerrod, the Mastyr of Merhaine Realm, had tried to warn Ethan that he needed to listen to his men more, to trust them more, but he was used to doing things his own way and his way was working just fine. So far, he’d kept the Invictus in check in Bergisson, and to-date, he had one of the lowest occurrence rates in all the Nine Realms.
Of course, reducing lost lives to a tolerable statistic, grated his nerves. There shouldn’t be any Invictus left to battle, but from the time the fighting pairs had come into existence several hundred years ago, there had simply been no way, at least not yet, for his world to get rid of them permanently. Some force resided behind the Invictus, maybe the same magic that had blocked the stream at Sweet Gorge. Mastyr Gerrod believed a vampire, known to the Invictus as the Great Mastyr, and bonded with a powerful ancient fae, was experimenting with the wraith-fighting-pairs, intent on some unknown long-term goal for the future of the Nine Realms.
But where either of these entities had come from, if they even existed, Ethan didn’t know, nor did any of the other realm rulers. Maybe this ancient fae had dammed up the waterfall and the stream, maybe she hadn’t.
He just had a terrible feeling that if he loosened his hold even a little, his Realm would see losses like never before.
*** *** ***
Club Prave gave Samantha Favreau the creeps. From the time she’d arrived two hour ago, one vampire after another had leered at her, asking her to dance, especially the slow-dances.
She’d refused, of course, since in her opinion, vampires were just above slugs in terms of real earthly value.
But that was the point. They weren’t human. They were from a different plane entirely, one somehow attached to earth.
From the time the world of the Nine Realms had made itself known to the citizenry of mortal earth, and started opening up these border clubs, more and more humans had become acquainted with what were called generally realm-folk.
She wouldn’t be here at all, but her sociology professor had suggested using the club as a basis for one of her papers this year. He’d also upped the stakes by giving double points for studying, then writing about any aspect of the realm-world so long as the research included at least three interviews with any of the species of Bergisson Realm.
She’d already interviewed a fae female and a male troll. She was hoping one of the elves would show up. She really didn’t want to talk to a vampire and the shifters in particular seemed very aggressive. Two had been thrown out already this evening for improper display of fur on the premises.
At least the club had rules, which apparently needed enforcing constantly. For instance, there was no blood-sucking allowed, but one of her classmates, Mary, had happily agreed to donate and was doing so across the room.
Samantha could see her seated on a vampire’s lap, just barely visible through the throng of dancers from Samantha’s vantage point. His name was Tom.
She shook her head.
Tom, the vampire.
It just didn’t sound right somehow.
Leaning her back against the bar, she sipped her cosmo slowly. Her gaze shifted from one specie to the next, from the quick-footed trolls who moved like beautiful maniacs, to the lithe elves, taller than most other realm-folk, who swayed elegantly when most of the dancers jerked, twisted, and bumped, then finally to the male shifters who all looked like they could work at Chippendales.
But mostly, she avoided watching the vampires. She could at least admit she found them strangely attractive and it didn’t help that most of the males were over six feet and each carried a lethal air.
From her studies, she knew the basic structure of Bergisson, that a Mastyr Vampire ruled the realm, though each of the towns and hamlets were incorporated and had governing councils. She also knew about the enemy, the Invictus, which never travelled past the access points, at least not that she’d ever heard of.
The Mastyr of Bergisson, therefore, had built up a Guard of over three hundred vampires and as she glanced at the several inching closer to her one-by-one at the bar, she’d bet each was a Guardsman. She didn’t think any of them were under six-three.
She could feel their eyes on her and she could sense their hunger as though their well-known craving for blood became a kind of vibration in her bones.
She huffed a sigh, scoping out where she could go next to get away from the leeches. At least she didn’t feel in any immediate danger. The owner of the club had a staff of shifters who were quite happy to tangle with the vampires and throw them out if they misbehaved.
For that reason, she knew it was only a matter of time before Tom-the-Vampire and her classmate, Mary, got in serious trouble.
The music blared, couples bounced up and down, strobes flashed. A shifter walked by, his fingers turning furry then returning to normal a couple of times as his human date squealed her excitement over this absurd trick.
She rolled her eyes.
One more male just looking to get laid.
She turned once more toward the dark corner where she could just see Mary’s white thighs above her black boots, her butt cheeks almost showing beneath a short red skirt.
Sitting sideways on the vampire’s lap, Mary wasn’t exactly having sex, but giving up a vein to a pair of fangs was about as close as you could get. Her body moved in a back and forth, slow seductive rhythm, as the vampire sucked steadily.
The movement, very familiar in a sexual way, reminded her just how long it had been since she’d been with a man, been in a relationship, even been interested for that matter. Sometimes she wondered if there was something wrong with her, that she couldn’t seem to sustain a long-term relationship with a man.
But as she watched the couples getting to know each other and all the touching, the excitement of dating, she realized part of her would be okay with a one-night anything.
Just not with a vampire.
She released yet another sigh. Okay, so she missed sex, but this wasn’t exactly her idea of a pick-up bar. On the other hand, maybe she’d start making an effort to date again, if only she wasn’t so easily bored with the men she usually went out with.
Samantha scowled into her drink.
The movements in the corner became more pronounced and this time, more was showing than Mary’s skin. Tom’s hand now pushed into one of her butt-cheeks. Donating in public anywhere in Shreveport was strictly forbidden. But what else could she expect from realm-folk at a low-life club like this one?
“Come here often?” The vampire to her left finally made his move.
Samantha’s scowl deepened. Had she really just heard those words?
She couldn’t help herself. Laughing, she turned and met the vampire’s gaze straight on. “You gotta be kidding me? Can’t men, despite the species, invent a better line than, Come here often?”
But the vampire wasn’t in the least deterred. He blinked a couple of times and his nostrils flared. “Sweet Goddess, but you smell good.” His chin quivered.
Samantha didn’t like the way a pinkish sheen came over his eyes as he shifted his shoulders in her direction, licking his lips. She thought of Little Red Riding Hood and other warning tales from childhood.
She tried to move to her right, just to get out of range, but she bumped into another vampire, this one in jeans with lots of chains attached. His nostrils worked like bellows, which really freaked her out.
Did human women smell different from vampire females?