Chapter 45

During the day I learned how to use a shotgun. That night I went caving with wererats.

The cave was dark. I stood in absolute blackness, gripping my flashlight. I touched my hand to my forehead and couldn't see a damn thing but the funny white images your eyes make when there is no light. I was wearing a hard hat with a light on it, turned off at present. The wererats had insisted on it. All around me were sounds. Cries, moans, the popping of bone, a curious sliding sound like a knife drawing out of flesh. The wererats were changing from human to animal. It sounded like it hurt - a lot. They had made me swear not to turn on a light until they told me to.

I had never wanted to see so badly in my life. It couldn't be so horrible. Could it? But a promise is a promise. I sounded like Horton the Elephant. "A person is a person no matter how small." What the hell was I doing standing in the middle of a cave, in the dark, surrounded by wererats, quoting Dr. Seuss, and trying to kill a one-thousand-year-old vampire?

It had been one of my stranger weeks.

Rafael, the Rat King, said, "You may turn on your lights."

I did, instantly. My eyes seemed to leech on the light, eager to see. The ratmen stood in small groups in the wide, flat-roofed tunnel. There were ten of them. I had counted them in human form. Now the seven males were fur-covered and wearing jean cutoffs. Two wore loose t-shirts. The three women wore loose dresses, like maternity clothes. Their black button eyes glittered in the light. Everybody was furry.

Edward came to stand near me. He was staring at the weres, face distant, unreadable. I touched his arm. I had told Rafael that I was not a bounty hunter, but Edward was, sometimes. I hoped I had not endangered these people.

"Are you ready?" Rafael asked. He was the same sleek black ratman I remembered.

"Yes," I said.

Edward nodded.

The wererats scattered to either side of us, scrambling over low, weathered flowstone. I said to no one in particular, "I thought caves were damp."

A smaller ratman in a t-shirt said, "Cherokee Caverns is dead cave."

"I don't understand."

"Live cave has water and growing formations. A dry cave where none of the formations are growing is called dead cave."

"Oh," I said.

He drew lips back from huge teeth, a smile, I think. "More than you wanted to know, huh?"

Rafael hissed back, "We are not here to give guided tours, Louie. Now be quiet, both of you."

Louie shrugged and scrambled ahead of me. He was the same human that had been with Rafael in the restaurant, the one with the dark eyes.

One of the females was nearly grey-furred. Her name was Lillian, and she was a doctor. She carried a backpack full of medical supplies. They seemed to be planning on us getting hurt. At least that meant they thought we would come out alive. I was beginning to wonder about that part myself.

Two hours later the ceiling dropped to a point where I couldn't stand upright. And I learned what the hard hats they had given Edward and me were for. I scraped my head on the rock at least a thousand times. I'd have knocked myself unconscious long before we saw Nikolaos.

The rats seemed designed for the tunnel, sliding along, flattening their bodies in a strange, scrambling grace. Edward and I could not match it. Not even close.

He cursed softly behind me. His five inches of extra height were causing him pain. My lower back was an aching burn. He had to be in worse shape. There were pockets where the ceiling opened up and we could stand. I started looking very forward to them, like air pockets to a diver.

The quality of darkness changed. Light - there was light up ahead, not much, but it was there. It flickered at the far end of the tunnel like a mirage.

Rafael crouched beside us. Edward sat flat on the dry rock. I joined him. "There is your dungeon. We will wait here until near dark. If you have not come out, we will leave. After Nikolaos is dead, if we can, we will help you."

I nodded; the light on my hard hat nodded with me. "Thank you for helping us."

He shook his narrow, ratty face. "I have delivered you to the devil's door. Do not thank me for that."

I glanced at Edward. His face was still distant, unreadable. If he was interested in what the ratman had just said, I couldn't tell it. We might as well have been talking about a grocery list.

Edward and I knelt before the opening into the dungeon. Torchlight flickered, incredibly bright after the darkness. Edward was cradling his Uzi that hung on a strap across his chest. I had the shotgun. I was also carrying my two pistols, two knives, and a derringer stuffed in the pocket of my jacket. It was a present from Edward. He had handed it to me with this advice: "It kicks like a sonofabitch, but press it under someone's chin, and it will blow their fucking head off." Nice to know.

It was daylight outside. There shouldn't be a vampire stirring, but Burchard would be there. And if he saw us, Nikolaos would know. Somehow, she'd know. Goosebumps marched up my arms.

We scrambled inside, ready to kill and maim. The room was empty. All that adrenaline sort of sat in my body, making my breathing too quick and my heart pound for no reason. The spot where Phillip had been chained was clean. Someone had scrubbed it down real good.

I fought an urge to touch the wall where he'd been.

Edward called softly, "Anita." He was at the door.

I hurried up to him.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

"She killed Phillip in here."

"Keep your mind on business. I don't want to die because you're daydreaming."

I started to get angry and swallowed it. He was right.

Edward tried the door, and it opened. No prisoners, no need to lock it. I took the left side of the door, and he took the right. The corridor was empty.

My hands were sweating on the shotgun. Edward led off down the right hand side of the corridor. I followed him into the dragon's lair. I didn't feel much like a knight. I was fresh out of shiny steeds, or was that shiny armor?

Whatever. We were here. This was it. I could taste my heart in my throat.

Chapter 46

The dragon didn't come out and eat us right away. In fact, the place was quiet. As the cliche goes, too quiet.

I stepped close to Edward and whispered, "I don't mean to complain, but where is everybody?"

He leaned his back against the wall and said, "Maybe you killed Winter. That just leaves Burchard. Maybe he's on an errand."

I shook my head. "This is too easy."

"Don't worry. Something will go wrong soon." He continued down the corridor, and I followed. It took me three steps to realize Edward had made a joke.

The corridor opened into a huge room like Nikolaos's throne room, but there was no chair here. There were coffins. Five of them spaced around the room on raised platforms, so they didn't have to sit on the floor in the draft. Tall, iron candelabra burned in the room, one at the foot and head of each coffin.

Most vampires made some effort to hide their coffins, but not Nikolaos.

"Arrogant," Edward whispered.

"Yes," I whispered back. You always whispered around the coffins, at first, as if it were a funeral and they could hear you.

There was a neck-ruffling smell to the room, stale. It caught at the back of my throat and was almost a taste, faintly metallic. It was like the smell of snakes kept in cages. You knew there was nothing warm and furry in this room just by smell. And that really doesn't do it justice. It was the smell of vampires.

The first coffin was dark, well-varnished wood, with golden handles. It was wider at the shoulder area and then narrowed, following the contour of the human body. Older coffins did that sometimes.

"We start here," I said.

Edward didn't argue. He let the machine gun hang by its strap and drew his pistol. "You're covered," he said.

I laid the shotgun on the floor in front of the coffin, gripped the edge of the lid, said a quick prayer, and lifted. Valentine lay in the coffin. His scarred face was bare. He was still dressed as a riverboat gambler but this time in black. His frilly shirt was crimson. The colors didn't look good against his auburn hair. One hand was half-curled over his thigh, a careless sleeper's gesture. A very human gesture.

Edward peered into the coffin, gun pointed ceilingward. "This the one you threw Holy Water on?"

I nodded.

"Did a bang-up job," Edward said.

Valentine never moved. I couldn't even see him breathe. I wiped my sweating palms on my jeans and felt for a pulse in his wrist. Nothing. His skin was cool to the touch. He was dead. It wasn't murder, no matter what the new laws said. You can't kill a corpse.

The wrist pulsed. I jerked back like he'd burned me.

"What's wrong?" Edward asked.

"I got a pulse."

"It happens sometimes."

I nodded. Yeah, it happened sometimes. If you waited long enough, the heart did beat, blood did flow, but so slow that it was painful to watch. Dead. I was beginning to think I didn't know what that meant.

I knew one thing. If night fell with us here, we would die, or wish we had. Valentine had helped kill over twenty people. He had nearly killed me. When Nikolaos withdrew her protection, he'd finish the job if he could. We had come to kill Nikolaos. I think she would withdraw her protection ASAP. As the old saying goes, it was him or me. I preferred him.

I shook off the shoulder straps of the backpack.

"What are you looking for?" Edward asked.

"Stake and hammer," I said without looking up.

"Not going to use the shotgun?"

I glanced up at him. "Oh, right. Why not rent a marching band while we're at it?"

"If you just want to be quiet, there is another way." He had a slight smile on his face.

I had the sharpened stake in my hand, but I was willing to listen. I've staked most of the vampires that I've killed, but it never gets easier. It is hard, messy work, though I don't throw up anymore. I am a professional, after all.

He took a small case out of his own backpack. It held syringes. He drew out an ampule of some greyish liquid. "Silver nitrate," he said.

Silver. Bane of the undead. Scourge of the supernatural. And all nicely modernized. "Does it work?" I asked.

"It works." He filled one syringe and asked, "How old is this one?"

"A little over a hundred," I said.

"Two ought to do it." He shoved the needle into the big vein in Valentine's neck. Before he had filled the syringe a second time, the body shivered. He shoved the second dose into the neck. Valentine's body arched against the walls of the coffin. His mouth opened and closed. He gasped for air as if he were drowning.

Edward filled up another syringe and handed it towards me. I stared at it.

"It isn't going to bite," he said.

I took it gingerly between my thumb and the first two fingers on my right hand.

"What's the matter with you?" he asked.

"I'm not a big fan of needles."

He grinned. "You're afraid of needles?"

I scowled at him. "Not exactly."

Valentine's body shook and bucked, hands thumping against the wooden walls. It made a small, helpless noise. His eyes never opened. He was going to sleep through his own death.

He gave one last shuddering jump, then collapsed against the side of the coffin like a broken rag doll.

"He doesn't look very dead," I said.

"They never do."

"Stake their heart and chop off their heads, and you know they're dead."

"This isn't staking," he said.

I didn't like it. Valentine lay there looking very whole and nearly human. I wanted to see some rotting flesh and bones turning to dust. I wanted to know he was dead.

"No one has ever gotten up out of their coffin after a syringe full of silver nitrate, Anita."

I nodded but remained unconvinced.

"You check the other side. Go on."

I went, but I kept glancing back at Valentine. He had haunted my nightmares for years, nearly killed me. He just didn't look dead enough for me.

I opened the first coffin on my side, one-handed, holding the syringe carefully. An injection of silver nitrate probably wouldn't do me much good either. The coffin was empty. The white imitation silk lining had conformed to the body like a mattress, but the body wasn't there.

I flinched and stared around the room, but there was nothing there. I stared slowly upward, hoping that there was nothing floating above me. There wasn't. Thank you, God.

I remembered to breathe finally. It was probably Theresa's coffin. Yeah, that was it. I left it open and went to the next one. It was a newer model, probably fake wood, but nice and polished. The black male was in it. I had never gotten his name. Now I never would. I knew what it meant, coming in here. Not just defending yourself but taking out the vampires while they lay helpless. As far as I knew, this vampire had never hurt anyone. I laughed then; he was Nikolaos's protege. Did I really think he'd never tasted human blood? No. I pressed the needle against his neck and swallowed hard. I hated needles. No particular reason.

I shoved it in and closed my eyes while I depressed the plunger. I could have pounded a stake through his heart, but sticking a needle in him put cold chills down my spine.

Edward called, "Anita!"

I whirled and found Aubrey sitting up in his coffin. He had Edward by the throat and was slowly lifting him off his feet.

The shotgun was still by Valentine's coffin. Damn! I drew the 9mm and fired at Aubrey's forehead. The bullet tossed his head back, but he just smiled and raised Edward straight-armed, legs dangling.

I ran for the shotgun.

Edward was having to use both hands to keep himself from being strangled by his own weight. He dropped one hand, fumbling for the machine gun.

Aubrey caught his wrist.

I picked up the shotgun, took two steps towards them and fired from three feet away. Aubrey's head exploded; blood and brains spattered over the wall. The hands lowered Edward to the floor but didn't let go. Edward drew a ragged breath. The right hand convulsed around his throat, fingers digging for his windpipe.

I had to step around Edward to fire at the chest. The blast took out the heart and most of the left side of the chest. The left arm sort of hung there by strands of tissue and bone. The corpse flopped back into its coffin.

Edward dropped to his knees, breath wheezing and choking through his throat.

"Nod if you can breathe, Edward," I said. Though if Aubrey had crushed his windpipe I don't know what I could have done. Run back and gotten Lillian the doctor rat, maybe.

Edward nodded. His face was a mottled reddish purple, but he was breathing.

My ears were ringing with the sound of the shotgun inside the stone walls. So much for surprise. So much for silver nitrate. I pumped another round into the gun and went to Valentine's coffin. I blew him apart. Now, he was dead.

Edward staggered to his feet. He croaked, "How old was that thing?"

"Over five hundred," I said.

He swallowed, and it looked like it hurt. "Shit."

"I wouldn't try sticking any needles into Nikolaos."

He managed to glare at me, still half-leaning against Aubrey's coffin.

I turned to the fifth coffin. The one we had saved until last without any talk between us. It was set against the far wall. A dainty white coffin, too small for an adult. Candlelight gleamed on the carvings in the lid.

I was tempted to just blow a hole in the coffin, but I had to see her. I had to see what I was shooting at. My heart started thudding in my throat; my chest was tight. She was a master vampire. Killing them, even in daylight, is a chancy thing. Their gaze can trap you until nightfall. Their minds. Their voices. So much power. And Nikolaos was the most powerful I'd ever seen. I had my blessed cross. I would be all right. I had had too many crosses taken from me to feel completely safe. Oh, well. I tried to raise the lid one-handed, but it was heavy and not balanced for easy opening like modem coffins. "Can you back me on this, Edward? Or are you still relearning how to breathe?"

Edward came to stand beside me. His face looked almost its normal color. He took hold of the lid and I readied the shotgun.

He lifted and the whole lid slid off. It wasn't hinged on.

I said, "Shiiit!"

The coffin was empty.

"Are you looking for me?" A high, musical voice called from the doorway. "Freeze; I believe that is the word. We have the drop on you."

"I wouldn't advise going for your gun," Burchard said.

I glanced at Edward and found his hands close to the machine gun but not close enough. His face was unreadable, calm, normal. Just a Sunday drive. I was so scared I could taste bile at the back of my throat. We looked at each other and raised our hands.

"Turn around slowly," Burchard said.

We did.

He was holding a semiautomatic rifle of some kind. I'm not the gun freak Edward is, so I didn't know the make and model, but I knew it'd make a big hole. There was also a sword hilt sticking over his back. A sword, an honest-to-god sword.

Zachary was standing beside him, holding a pistol. He held it two-handed, arms stiff. He didn't seem happy.

Burchard held the rifle like he was born with it. "Drop your weapons, please, and lace your fingers on top of your heads."

We did what he asked. Edward dropped the machine gun, and I lost the shotgun. We had plenty more guns.

Nikolaos stood to one side. Her face was cold, angry. Her voice, when it came, echoed through the room. "I am older then anything you have ever imagined. Did you think daylight holds me prisoner? After a thousand years?" She walked out into the room, careful not to cross in front of Burchard and Zachary. She glanced at the remains in the coffins. "You will pay for this, animator." She smiled then, and I had never seen anything more evil. "Strip them of the rest of their weaponry, Burchard; then we will give the animator a treat."

They stood in front of us but not too close. "Up against the wall, animator," Burchard said. "If the man moves, Zachary, shoot him."

Burchard shoved me into the wall and frisked me very thoroughly. He didn't check my teeth or have me drop my pants, but that was about it. He found everything I was carrying. Even the derringer. He shoved my cross into his pocket. Maybe I could tattoo one on my arm? Probably wouldn't work.

I went out to stand with Zachary, and Edward got his turn. I stared at Zachary. "Does she know?" I asked.

"Shut up."

I smiled. "She doesn't, does she?"

"Shut up!"

Edward came back, and we stood there with our hands on top of our heads, weapons gone. It was not a pretty sight.

Adrenaline was bubbling like champagne, and my pulse was threatening to jump out of my throat. I wasn't afraid of the guns, not really. I was afraid of Nikolaos. What would she do to us? To me? If I had a choice, I'd force them to shoot me. It had to be better than anything Nikolaos had in her evil little mind.

"They are unarmed, Mistress," Burchard said.

"Good," she said. "Do you know what we were doing while you destroyed my people?"

I didn't think she wanted an answer, so I didn't give her one.

"We were preparing a friend of yours, animator."

My stomach jerked. I had a wild image of Catherine, but she was out of town. My god, Ronnie. Did they have Ronnie?

It must have showed on my face because Nikolaos laughed, high and wild, an excited tittering.

"I really hate that laugh," I said.

"Silence," Burchard said.

"Oh, Anita, you are so amusing. I will enjoy making you one of my people." Her voice started high and childlike and ended low enough to crawl down my spine.

She called out in a clear voice, "Enter this room now."

I heard shuffling footsteps; then Phillip walked into the room. The horrible wound at his throat was thick, white scar tissue. He stared around the room as if he didn't really see it.

I whispered, "Dear God."

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