Nikolaos danced around him. The skirt of her pastel pink dress swirled around her. The large, pink bow in her hair bobbed as she twirled, arms outstretched. Her slender legs were covered in white leotards. The shoes were white with pink bows.
She stopped, laughing and breathless. A healthy pink flush on her cheeks, eyes sparkling. How did she do that?
"He looks very alive, doesn't he?" She stalked around him, hand brushing his arm. He drew away from her, eyes following her every move, afraid. He remembered her. God help us. He remembered her.
"Do you want to see him put through his paces?" she asked.
I hoped I didn't understand her. I fought to keep my face blank. I must have succeeded because she stomped over to me, hands on hips.
"Well," she said, "do you want to watch your lover perform?"
I swallowed bile, hard. Maybe I should just throw up on her. That would teach her. "With you?" I asked.
She sidled up to me, hands clasped behind her back. "It could be you. Your choice."
Her face was almost touching mine. Eyes so damned wide and innocent that it seemed sacrilegious. "Neither sounds very appealing," I said.
"Pity." She half-skipped back to Phillip. He was naked, and his tanned body was still handsome. What were a few more scars?
"You didn't know I was going to be here, so why raise Phillip from the dead?" I asked.
She turned on the heels of her little shoes. "We raised him so he could try to kill Aubrey. Murdered zombies can be so much fun, while they try to kill their murderers. We thought we'd give him a chance while Aubrey was asleep. Aubrey can move if you disturb him." She glanced at Edward. "But then you know that."
"You were going to let Aubrey kill him again," I said.
She nodded, head bobbing. "Mmm-uh."
"You bitch," I said.
Burchard shoved the rifle butt into my stomach, and I dropped to my knees. I panted, trying to breathe. It didn't help much.
Edward was staring very fixedly at Zachary, who was holding the pistol square on his chest. You didn't have to be good at that range or even lucky. Just squeeze the trigger and kill someone. Poof.
"I can make you do whatever I please," Nikolaos said.
A fresh spurt of adrenaline rushed through me. It was too much. I threw up in the corner. Nerves and being hit very hard in the stomach with a rifle. Nerves I'd had before; the rifle butt was a new experience.
"Tsk, tsk," Nikolaos said. "Do I frighten you that much?"
I managed to stand up at last. "Yes," I said. Why deny it?
She clapped her hands together. "Oh, goody." Her face shifted gears, instant switch. The little girl was gone, and no amount of pink, frilly dresses would bring her back. Nikolaos's face was thinner, alien. The eyes were great drowning pools. "Hear me, Anita. Feel my power in your veins."
I stood there, staring at the floor, fear like a cold rush on my skin. I waited for something to tug at my soul. Her power to roll me under and away. Nothing happened.
Nikolaos frowned. The little girl was back. "I bit you, animator. You should crawl if I ask it. What did you do?"
I breathed a small, heartfelt prayer, and answered her. "Holy Water."
She snarled. "This time we will keep you with us until after the third bite. You will take Theresa's place. Perhaps then you will be more eager to find out who is murdering vampires."
I fought with everything in me not to glance at Zachary. Not because I didn't want to give him away, I would do that, but I was waiting for the moment when it would help us. It might get Zachary killed, but it wouldn't take out Burchard or Nikolaos. Zachary was the least dangerous person in this whole room.
"I don't think so," I said.
"Oh, but I do, animator."
"I would rather die."
She spread her arms wide. "But I want you to die, Anita, I want you to die."
"That makes us even," I said.
She giggled. The sound made my teeth hurt. If she really wanted to torture me, all she had to do was lock me in a room and laugh at me. Now that would be hell.
"Come on, boys and girls, let's go play in the dungeon." Nikolaos led the way. Burchard motioned for us to follow. We did. Zachary and he brought up the rear, guns in hand. Phillip stood uncertainly in the middle of the room, watching us go.
Nikolaos called back, "Have him follow us, Zachary."
Zachary called, "Come, Phillip, follow me."
He turned and walked after us, his eyes still uncertain and not really focused.
"Go on," Burchard said. He half-raised the rifle, and I went.
Nikolaos called back, "Gazing at your lover; how nice."
It wasn't a long enough walk to the dungeon door. If they tried to chain me to the wall, I'd rush them. I'd force them to kill me. Which meant I'd better rush Zachary. Burchard might wound me or knock me unconscious, and that would be very, very bad.
Nikolaos led us down the steps and out into the floor. What a day for a parade. Phillip followed, but he was looking around now, really seeing things. He froze, staring at the place where Aubrey had killed him. His hand reached out to touch the wall. He flexed his hand, rubbing fingers into his palm as if he was feeling something. A hand went to his neck and found the scar. He screamed. It echoed against the walls.
"Phillip," I said.
Burchard held me back with the rifle. Phillip crouched in the corner, face hidden, arms locked around his knees. He was making a high, keening noise.
"Stop it, stop it!" I walked towards Phillip, and Burchard shoved the gun against my chest. I yelled into his face, "Shoot me, shoot me, dammit! It's got to be better than this."
"Enough," Nikolaos said. She stalked over to me, and I gave ground. She kept walking, forcing me to back up until I bumped against the wall. "I don't want you shot, Anita, but I want you hurt. You killed Winter with your little knife. Let's see how good you really are." She strode away from me. "Burchard, give her back her knives."
He never even hesitated or asked why. He just walked over to me and handed them to me, hilt first. I didn't question it either. I took them.
Nikolaos was suddenly beside Edward. He started to move away. "Kill him if he moves again, Zachary."
Zachary came to stand close, gun out.
"Kneel, mortal," she said.
Edward didn't do it. He glanced at me. Nikolaos kicked him in the bend of the knee hard enough to make him grunt. He dropped to one knee, and she grabbed his right arm and tugged it behind his back. One slender hand grabbed his throat.
"I'll tear out your throat if you move, human. I can feel your pulse like a butterfly beating against my hand." She laughed and filled the room with warm, jostling horror. "Now, Burchard, show her what it means to use a knife."
Burchard went to the far wall, with the door above him at the top of the steps. He laid the rifle on the floor, and unbuckled his sword harness, and laid that beside the rifle. Then he drew a long knife with a nearly triangular blade.
He did some quick stretches to limber his muscles, and I stood staring at him.
I know how to use a knife. I can throw well; I practice that. Most people are afraid of knives. If you show yourself willing to carve someone up, they tend to be afraid of you. Burchard was not most people. He went down into a slight crouch, knife held loose but firm in his right hand.
"Fight Burchard, animator, or this one dies." She pulled his arm, sharp, but he didn't cry out. She could dislocate his shoulder, and Edward wouldn't cry out.
I put the knife back in its right wrist sheath. Fighting with a knife in each hand may look nifty, but I've never really mastered it. A lot of people don't. Hey, Burchard didn't have two knives either. "Is this to the death?" I asked.
"You will not be able to kill Burchard, Anita. So silly. Burchard is only going to cut you. Let you taste the blade, nothing too serious. I don't want you to lose too much blood." There was an undercurrent of laughter in her voice, then it was gone. Her voice crawled through the room like a fire-wind. "I want to see you bleed."
Burchard began to circle me, and I kept the wall at my back. He rushed me, knife flashing. I held my ground, dodging his blade, and slashing at him as he darted in. My knife hit empty air. He was standing out of reach, staring at me. He had had six hundred years of practice, give or take. I couldn't top that. I couldn't even come close.
He smiled. I gave him a slight nod. He nodded back. A sign of respect between two warriors, maybe. Either that, or he was playing with me. Guess which way I voted?
His knife was suddenly there, slicing my arm open. I slashed outward and caught him across the stomach. He darted into me, not away. I dodged the knife and stumbled away from the wall. He smiled. Dammit, he'd wanted to get me out in the open. His reach was twice mine.
The pain in my arm was sharp and immediate. But there was a thin line of crimson on his flat stomach. I smiled at him. His eyes flinched, just a little. Was the mighty warrior uneasy? I hoped so.
I backed away from him. This was ridiculous. We were going to die, piece by piece, both of us. What the hell. I charged Burchard, slashing. It caught him by surprise, and he backpedaled. I mirrored his crouch, and we began to circle the floor.
And I said, "I know who the murderer is."
Burchard's eyebrows raised.
Nikolaos said, "What did you say?"
"I know who is killing vampires."
Burchard was suddenly inside my arm, slicing my shirt. It didn't hurt. He was playing with me.
"Who?" Nikolaos said. "Tell me, or I will kill this human."
"Sure," I said.
Zachary screamed, "No!" He turned to fire at me. The bullet whined overhead. Burchard and I both sank to the floor.
Edward screamed. I half-rose to run to him. His arm was twisted at a funny angle, but he was alive.
Zachary's gun went off twice, and Nikolaos took it away from him, tossing it to the floor. She grabbed him and forced him against her body, bending him at the waist, cradling him. Her head darted downward. Zachary shrieked.
Burchard was on his knees, watching the show. I stabbed my knife into his back. It thunked solid and hilt-deep. His spine stiffened, one hand trying to tear out the blade. I didn't wait to see if he could do it. I drew my other knife and plunged it into the side of his throat. Blood poured down my hand when I took the knife out. I stabbed him again, and he fell slowly forward, face down on the floor.
Nikolaos let Zachary drop to the floor and turned, face bloodstained, the front of her pink dress crimson. Blood spattered on her white leotards. Zachary's throat was torn out. He lay gasping on the floor but still moving, alive.
She stared at Burchard's body, then screamed, a wild banshee sound that wailed and echoed. She rushed me, hands outstretched. I threw the knife, and she batted it away. She hit me, the force of her body slamming me into the floor, her scrambling on top of me. She was still screaming, over and over. She held my head to one side. No mind tricks, brute strength.
I screamed, "Nooo!"
A gun fired, and Nikolaos jerked, once, twice. She rose off me, and I felt the wind. It was creeping through the room like the beginnings of a storm.
Edward leaned against the wall, holding Zachary's dropped gun.
Nikolaos went for him, and he emptied the gun into her frail body. She didn't even hesitate.
I sat up and watched her stalk towards Edward. He threw the empty gun at her. She was suddenly on him, forcing him back into the floor.
The sword lay on the floor, nearly as tall as I was. I drew it out of its sheath. Heavy, awkward, drawing my arm down. I raised it over my head, flat of the blade half resting on my shoulder, and ran for Nikolaos.
She was talking again in a high, sing-song voice. "I will make you mine, mortal. Mine!"
Edward screamed. I couldn't see why. I raised the sword, and its weight carried it down and across, like it was meant to. It bit into her neck with a great wet thunk. The sword grated on bone, and I drew it out. The tip fell to scrape on the floor.
Nikolaos turned to me and started to stand. I raised the sword, and it cut outward, swinging my body with it. Bone cracked, and I fell to the floor as Nikolaos tumbled to her knees. Her head still hung by strips of meat and skin. She blinked at me and tried to stand up.
I screamed and drove the blade upward with everything I had. It took her between the breasts, and I stood running with it, shoving it in. Blood poured. I pinned her against the wall. The blade shoved out her back, scraping along the wall as she slid downward.
I dropped to my knees beside the body. Yes, the body. She was dead!
I looked back at Edward. There was blood on his neck. "She bit me," he said.
I was gasping for air, having trouble breathing, but it was wonderful. I was alive and she wasn't. She fucking wasn't. "Don't worry, Edward, I'll help you. Plenty of Holy Water left." I smiled.
He stared at me a minute, then laughed, and I laughed with him. We were still laughing when the wererats crept in from the tunnel. Rafael, the Rat King, stared at the carnage with black-button eyes. "She is dead."
"Ding dong, the witch is dead," I said.
Edward picked it up, half-singing, "The wicked old witch."
We collapsed into laughter again, and Lillian the doctor, all covered with fur, tended our hurts, Edward first.
Zachary was still lying on the ground. The wound at his throat was beginning to close up, skin knitting together. He would live, if that was the right word.
I picked my knife up off the floor and staggered to him. The rats watched me. No one interfered. I dropped to my knees beside him and ripped the sleeve of his shirt. I laid the gris-gris bare. He still couldn't talk but his eyes widened.
"Remember when I tried to touch this with my own blood? You stopped me. You seemed afraid, and I didn't understand why." I sat beside him and watched him heal. "Every gris-gris has a thing you must do for it, vampire blood for this one, and one thing you must never do, or the magic stops. Poof." I held up my arm, dripping blood quite nicely. "Human blood, Zachary; is that bad?"
He managed a noise like, "Don't."
Blood dripped down my elbow and hung, thick and trembling over his arm. He sort of shook his head, no, no. The blood dripped down and splatted on his arm, but it didn't touch the gris-gris.
His whole body relaxed.
"I've got no patience today, Zachary." I rubbed blood along the woven band.
His eyes flared, showing white. He made a strangling noise in his throat. His hands scrabbled at the floor. His chest jerked as if he couldn't breathe. A sigh ran out of his body, a long whoosh of breath, and he was quiet.
I checked for a pulse; nothing. I cut the gris-gris off with my knife, balled it in my hand, and shoved it in my pocket. Evil piece of work.
Lillian came to bind my arm up. "This is just temporary. You'll need stitches."
I nodded and got to my feet.
Edward called, "Where are you going?"
"To get the rest of our guns." To find Jean-Claude. I didn't say that part out loud. I didn't think Edward would understand.
Two of the ratmen went with me. That was fine. They could come as long as they didn't interfere. Phillip was still huddled in the corner. I left him there.
I did get the guns. I strung the machine gun over my shoulders and kept the shotgun in my hands. Loaded for bear. I had killed a one-thousand-year-old vampire. Naw, not me. Surely not.
The ratmen and I found the punishment room. There were six coffins in it. Each had a blessed cross on its lid and silver chains to hold the lid down. The third coffin held Willie, so deeply asleep that he seemed like he would never wake. I left him like that, to wake with the night. To go on about his business. Willie wasn't a bad person. And for a vampire he was excellent.
All the other coffins were empty, only the last one still unopened. I undid the chains and laid the cross on the ground. Jean-Claude stared up at me. His eyes were midnight fire, his smile gentle. I flashed on the first dream and the coffin filled with blood, him reaching for me. I stepped back, and he rose from the coffin.
The ratmen stepped back, hissing.
"It's all right," I said. "He's sort of on our side."
He stepped from the coffin like he'd had a good nap. He smiled and extended a hand. "I knew you would do it, ma petite."
"You arrogant son of a bitch." I smashed the shotgun butt into his stomach. He doubled over just enough. I hit him in the jaw. . He rocked back. "Get out of my mind!"
He rubbed his face and came away with blood. "The marks are permanent, Anita. I cannot take them back."
I gripped the shotgun until my hands ached. Blood began to trickle down my arm from the wound. I thought about it. For one moment, I considered blowing his perfect face away. I didn't do it. I would probably regret it later.
"Can you stay out of my dreams, at least?" I asked.
"That, I can do. I am sorry, ma petite."
"Stop calling me that."
He shrugged. His black hair had nearly crimson highlights in the torchlight. Breathtaking. "Stop playing with my mind, Jean-Claude."
"Whatever do you mean?" he asked.
"I know that the otherworldly beauty is a trick. So stop it."
"I am not doing it," he said.
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"When you have the answer, Anita, come back to me, and we will talk."
I was too tired for riddles. "Who do you think you are? Using people like this."
"I am the new master of the city," he said. He was suddenly next to me, fingers touching my cheek. "And you put me upon the throne."
I jerked away from him. "You stay away from me for a while, Jean-Claude, or I swear. . ."
"You'll kill me?" he said. He was smiling, laughing at me.
I didn't shoot him. And some people say I have no sense of humor.
I found a room with a dirt floor and several shallow graves. Phillip let me lead him to the room. It was only when we stood staring down at the fresh-turned earth that he turned to me. "Anita?"
"Hush," I said.
"Anita, what's happening?"
He was beginning to remember. He would become more alive in a few hours, up to a point. It would almost be the real Phillip for a day, or two.
"Anita?" His voice was high and uncertain. A little boy afraid of the dark. He grabbed my arm, and his hand felt very real. His eyes were still that perfect brown. "What's going on?"
I stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek. His skin was warm. "You need to rest, Phillip. You're tired."
He nodded. "Tired," he said.
I led him to the soft dirt. He lay down on it, then sat up, eyes wild, grabbing for me. "Aubrey! He. . ."
"Aubrey's dead. He can't hurt you anymore."
"Dead?" He stared down the length of his body as if just seeing it. "Aubrey killed me."
I nodded. "Yes, Phillip."
I held him, rubbing his back in smooth, useless circles. His arms hugged me like he would never let go.
"Hush, hush. It's all right. It's all right."
"You're going to put me back, aren't you?" He drew back so he could see my face.
"Yes," I said.
"I don't want to die."
"You're already dead."
He stared down at his hands, flexing them. "Dead?" he whispered. "Dead?" He lay down on the fresh-turned earth. "Put me back," he said.
And I did.
At the end his eyes closed and his face went slack, dead. He sank into the grave and was gone.
I dropped to my knees beside Phillip's grave, and wept.
Edward had a dislocated shoulder and two broken bones in his arm, plus one vampire bite. I had fourteen stitches. We both healed. Phillip's body was moved to a local cemetery. Every time I work in it, I have to go by and say hello. Even though I know Phillip is dead and doesn't care. Graves are for the living, not the dead. It gives us something to concentrate on instead of the fact that our loved one is rotting under the ground. The dead don't care about pretty flowers and carved marble statues.
Jean-Claude sent me a dozen pure white, long-stemmed roses. The card read, "If you have answered the question truthfully, come dancing with me."
I wrote "No" on the back of the card and slipped it under the door at Guilty Pleasures, during daylight hours. I had been attracted to Jean-Claude. Maybe I still was. So what? He thought it changed things. It didn't. All I had to do was visit Phillip's grave to know that. Oh, hell, I didn't even have to go that far. I know who and what I am. I am The Executioner, and I don't date vampires. I kill them.