Lothaire awoke to a piercing pain in his gut. His umber colored eyes blinked open to the pitch-dark of the room, and he sat up in his broad, sumptuous bed. Looking down the edges and valleys of his muscled torso to the focal point of the pain, Lothaire gritted his fanged teeth. It had been a century and a half since that Confederate ball had found him on the battlefield of Antietam, and though his immortal gifts had long ago healed his mortal wound, the pain still ghosted across his flesh every night at the moment of his waking.
The healers called it “The Reaper’s Stigmata.” It was a common phenomenon for vampires that were turned moments before a wound or illness was about to rob them of their mortal life. Vampire lore claimed that the pain remained as a reminder to the saved vampire that the Reaper, who had been robbed the chance of freeing a mortal soul from its body, would one day return to collect on his slighted bounty. Lothaire thought the notion to be grimly poetic, albeit gallingly painful—a small price to pay for the gift of eternity.
As Lothaire continued to glare at where the ball had struck him, the pain began to quickly subside. In mere moments it was once again nothing more than a smoky memory, repressed until the following night’s awakening. With an exasperated grunt, Lothaire flung the sheets from himself, and stood.
Lothaire’s bare feet padded softly across fine South African mahogany floors as he made his way towards the bathroom. The room was yet shrouded in total darkness.
“Open shutters,” he said, scratching his fingers through his long hair.
Instantly the computer controlled louvered shades that covered the floor-length windows of the east wall, twisted open with a dull whir of electric motors. Light from the rising moon combined with the artificial glow of the still bustling city, flooded into the room. The modernly appointed interior of the Covenarch’s Suite was illuminated brightly in the glow of the young-night, and Lothaire had to squint to shield his keen eyes until they adjusted. In the west, the sun had just set, and the green of Central Park was still verdant from the suite’s vantage point just across the street, and twenty stories up.
Once inside of the large bathroom, Lothaire stripped off his shorts, and came to stand naked in front of a full-length mirror. He gazed upon himself intently, twisting his figure to and fro in the warm glow of the bathroom’s artificial lights. For the next fifteen minutes he inspected every inch of his body. He looked through his thick hair to his scalp, behind his ears, on his eyelids, below his tongue, down his neck, and on and on, until there was no surface he had not seen.
It was not vanity that drove Lothaire to this intense scrutiny. This daily addition to his waking routine had only just come about over a month ago. He was not searching for any natural flaws, or blemishes. It was the mark that he sought to find; The Tattoo that denoted the first signs of the Sol Blight.
The deadly disease was said to begin as a small swirl, or series of black dots upon the skin, usually at the side of the neck, or upon the upper chest. As it progressed, it would quickly spread across the afflicted vampire’s body until the skin appeared to have been decorated with a black tattoo of morbidly beautiful filigree. These markings were universal, and every documented case of Sol Blight bore the accompanying black lines.
Lothaire let out a breathless sigh. He had found no mark.
With his personal inspection finished, Lothaire was free to complete the rest of his nightly ritual. He showered, trimmed his short beard, polished his teeth to a gleaming white, and dressed.
Smelling subtly of sandalwood, and clothed in a charcoal suit, a white dress shirt open at the neck, and black leather wingtips, Lothaire stepped from the Covenarch Suite into the Great Room. The expansive, and luxurious space was dimly lit with only a few lamps and wall sconces, as the electronic shutters were yet closed over the windows. When opened, they too would allow a prized view of Central Park, and the skyline of Eastern Manhattan.
The Sanguinoso Covenus owned the entire block along Central Park West between W 101st Street and W 102nd. It was a complex of handsome mid-rises, covered in a façade of polished limestone and granite, complete with beautiful Roman-style statues at the top corners, and stone columns flanking the entrances. To the mortal world, The Hamiltonian, as the complex was called, was a combination office building and residence for some of the most mysterious and exclusive people in Manhattan. It was a popular site for tourist photo-ops and cheesy selfies, as the distinct set of buildings had been a unique feature on the island since before the Civil War. The Hamiltonian even had a highly reviewed bar, that strangely enough was closed to the public as oft as it was open.
What the public did not see was that the Hamiltonian was a veritable fortress, designed to keep out any unwanted guest, as well as every shred of sunlight. The entire complex was controlled by a cutting-edge security system that managed everything from the temperature, to the false images displayed on the outside of the windows to hide the interior, to the UV sensors that kept the window shutters locked until the sun set. It was also guarded by a select few human security personnel, most of which were members of trusted mortal families that had served the coven for generations.
Lothaire’s suite, and the Great Room in which he stood, was in the tallest of the Hamiltonian buildings, and the central hub of the coven. Most of the vampires that were a part of the Sanguinoso Covenus lived within the many custom rooms of the Hamiltonian. Each member was given a space of their own upon joining the coven, and they were free to modify it to suit their tastes.
With a quick word, Lothaire opened the shutters to the Great Room. As before, the distinct light from the city that never slept filled the space as the electronic louvers spun. The interior lights automatically adjusted, bringing the room into a warm equilibrium.
His hair still wet, and slicked back across his skull, Lothaire wove his way through plush chairs and tables covered in books. The path he took led him to the “kitchen” which was nothing more than a large wet-bar in the center of the room. It held taps for blood, as well as a vast assortment of spirits.
Priorities, Lothaire thought with a smile. Even in death, one can’t do without good liquor.
As he was still the only one in the Great Room, Lothaire picked up the day’s copy of the The Times, and folded it under his arm before pouring himself a tumbler of blood, as well as another glass with a finger’s worth of Grey Goose vodka.
With a glass in each hand, and the paper under his arm, Lothaire intended to make his way to his favorite chair beside the windows. What he saw when he turned, however, made him stop in his tracks. There, lying upon the floor, silhouetted in the light of the windows, was the figure of a woman. Her body was contorted and frozen in the throes of agony. Through her open mouth, fangs were visible, as well as black char that seemed to crawl its way upwards from her throat. Her eye sockets were hollow and burnt, and the hair on her head looked brittle and straw-like.
Lothaire recognized instantly she wasn’t a member of the Sanguinoso Covenus; he knew every one of his coven-mates on sight. This was an unknown vampire, and a complete stranger to his recollections. How she had gotten inside of the Hamiltonian, Lothaire couldn’t begin to explain. But what he did know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, made his body quake, and his dead breath catch in his chest.
There, crawling up the flesh of the vampiress’ neck, and running up her jaw to curl over her sunken cheeks, was an elegant and stunning array of twisting black lines.
Charlie felt the subtle shift in the air that indicated the sun had dropped below the horizon, and she slowly opened her eyes. The comforting hum of her personal servers permeated the air, reassuring her that all was right for the moment. Of course all of the Coven’s data was backed up on their machines, secured by her, but she liked to keep the extra special stuff close to her, like she used to keep her babies in a crib by her bed, like she used to keep a rosary round her neck and next to her heart. That’s just how it worked.
With a flick of her wrist, before she even got out of bed, she started one of many show tune playlists stored on her MP3 player – a little pep to start the night off right. Stretching out of the bed, she reached up for a brush to run through her tangled red hair.
“When you’re good to Momma,” she sang as she pulled out the last of the snags. Chicago was such a good way to start the day. Any good looking woman could work the system. Not, Charlie mused, that she was particularly good looking. Being turned hadn’t taken care of her stretch marks after all. But she did know how to work the system.
Turning to her machine, she slipped into a pair of jeans and a black tank top. In the pale light of the screen, she used a compact mirror to do a quick scan of her neck and chest for the marks. It was habit now. She checked herself several times a day, making certain that no freckles had darkened or black spots appeared. She told herself she wasn’t afraid. She told herself that the Coven was safe. No one had been infected yet. She told herself they could stop the spread of this disease with enough resources working on it. She still used the compact to check herself.
Tapping in a series of passwords, she entered her personal database. No new alerts popped up. No new messages. With a quick sigh, she logged out. She would have more time to check on everything from the main computer room after she had a drink to get her mind going. She grabbed a maroon lace cardigan out of her closet and tucked her cell phone in her pocket. Turning off the music, she left her room and began to make her way through the halls of the compound, heading for the Great Room. If there was anything specific she needed to work on tonight, she would find out there.
A few moments later, Charlie opened one of the doors leading into the Great Room. She noticed Lothaire, drinks and paper in hand, heading across the room to his usual spot. With a smile, she headed over to greet him.
“Good evening,” she said warmly, making her way through the tables and chairs. Then, she saw what had made him stop. It made her stop, too. “Oh, shit, Lothaire. Tell me that’s not what I think that is.” Belatedly, she remembered who she was talking to. "I'm sorry, sir. But could you please still tell me that is anything other than what it looks like."
It wasn't his, nor was it intended to be a meal. The splotches of brownish-red staining his white button-down belonged to Felipe Escamilla, a member of the Sanguinoso Covenus. Needless to say, Lothaire was not likely to be pleased.
Had Sebastian expected things to turn into a fight for his life, he wouldn't have worn white, but he hadn't considered Escamilla a threat. He hadn't expected Escamilla to attack a vampire twice his age and serving the Covenarch himself. He also hadn't expected Escamilla's apartment to be so potentially deadly. He hadn't expected a lot of things, and now he'd ruined his new shirt.
When Lothaire's enforcer had arrived at Escamilla's apartment - he lived apart from the rest of the coven, claiming to need his privacy for whatever orgiastic excesses he partook in when feeding - it had been to talk, nothing more. In light of the Sol Blight, Escamilla and a few of the younger vampires had come under the impression that Lothaire was too stuck in the past to properly combat a modern disaster. They were wrong, of course, the Covenarch was doing everything he could, but being incorrect rarely stopped anyone anymore.
What should have been a short discussion dripping with threats turned into a scramble for weapons the second Sebastian mentioned Lothaire's name. And now Escamilla's lifeless body sat exactly where it had fallen, perfectly into a recliner. If the body were still attached to the head, the man could almost pass for living.
Sebastian sighed, still trying to clean out the blood in the bathroom sink. He spared a brief moment to check for obvious dark whorls, but when nothing stood out, he made his way back out to the living room. "Damn fool," he said to what used to be Escamilla. "You brought this on yourself." He resisted the temptation to kick the corpse in anger, telling himself he was better than that.
After turning for the door, he came back a moment later and kicked. Apparently he wasn't better than that at all.
As he pulled out his phone to call the Covenarch and inform him of the unfortunate turn of events, he practiced his opener. "Hey, boss. Escamilla was more of a threat than we expected, I had to-" He shook his head, it was a bad idea to lie to Lothaire. "Mister Hamilton, sir. When I arrived, Escamilla quickly made clear that he was unstable and unfit to be a member of the-" Another shake of his head, and then a deep breath. The phone was ringing. And ringing. And ringing...
She felt it when the moon rose, a buzzing ache in her bones that had no parallel sensation to anything she’d felt in her mortal life. It was just an unsettled feeling that would spread through her body from her very marrow until it was such a thin veneer of sensation that she eventually ceased paying it any mind. She ignored it the same way she’d ignored the sunlight slipping between her organdy curtains back when she’d been one of the unenlightened.Just as she had when she’d been a girl, Zoe screwed her eyes shut tight and held herself very still hoping she could stay abed and not face the bright day with all its boring moments and trite tasks. Why dry dishes when the air will do it given time? Why wear socks when it simply crushes your toes? Why tell the teacher that two plus five is seven when she already knows?
Because, because, because.
So Little Zoe would lay in her bed, still as a corpse and pretend to be asleep. And now Big Zoe would lie in her bed, an actual corpse and pretend to be asleep. Great big heaving breaths that buzzed like saws filled the small unfurnished room that held a mattress—bare but for a white sheet—and an old soup can re-purposed into holding a collection of sharpies. All were black and all were in varying states of ink and not a single one had been purchased. Found here and there, or acquired through feats of dexterity and clever fingers. They each held secrets, she knew this. When she picked them up, from pocket or gutter she held them, waiting for some sign. If they buzzed in her hands she would know that they had something to tell her. If not she would let them fall, trusting that in time they would have something to say and would find their way back to her.
She took them home and when she felt them calling to her she would let them tell the story they wanted on the walls and floors of her room. The room was white, stark white, or it had been. Now the walls and floor roiled with black lines and letters, intertwining and swirling all over in a narrative that almost made sense to her-almost. She was missing something, some key that would decode the whole thing and reveal to her some grand truth, except that she was running out of room. Her mattress was ringed about with runes, glyphs and little tendrils of black that looked like vines twining up the sides over the crisp cotton. She thought that if she didn’t find the answer they would rise up off of the fabric, becoming manifest and twin about her while she lay in the state that was somewhere between sleep and death.
She wasn’t sure she wouldn’t welcome such contact.
Sitting up she reached for her latest acquisition, a thinner pen with teeth marks changing the landscape of the cap. She twiddled it, sliding it between her fingers, feeling the story that wanted to be told. She shook her head, her eyes narrowing as she looked down at the pen.
“It’s in poor taste” she said, even as she uncapped the pen and regarded the tip for a moment before nodding and putting the pen to work, acquiescing to greater wisdom.
She liked the way her boots sounded. A deep bok-bok sound that bounced along ahead of her as she strode down the utility corridor from her little box of a room towards the club she ran for the Coven. They were black boots that ended above her knees. They were perched on blocks of wood, planed down into pleasing wedge shapes that added inches to her respectable height and were counterbalanced against thin little needles of wood with an ingenious steel core that propped up her heels. These were the source of the satisfying sound. The little chorus of “don’t fuck-with-me”s that skipped down the hall ahead of her. Such boots could say nothing else. Such boots would be paired with nothing less than a little black dress from the latest up-and-coming designer whose name she never bothered to recall. It didn’t matter, they were gone long before they died, fleeting and unimportant. Around her head was a leopard print silk scarf, wrapped haphazardly through her uncrushed bush of hair that almost managed to look artful and deliberate but was anything but. A particularly stubborn dreadlock hung just behind her ear as she paused to key in the code that would get her into the backdoor of the club.
She was late, but it hardly mattered. The lovely little herd of workers knew what they were about and would be industriously setting up the place, polishing the brass and lining up the bottles and making certain all the mirrors positioned all over the club in seemingly random placements were clean. The light fixtures that gave ambient illumination to the place were expensive brass affairs, all with odd numbers of lights and all hung at varying distances from the arching ceilings leaving pockets of light and dark that were rather extreme. The tables too bore some resemblance of relation to each other but varied in height, circumference and even in the number of angles and edges they bore. The chairs around them were in clusters of odd numbers and should an even one make its way to a table, it was removed when it was empty or the occupants found an empty chair joining their ranks.
She let the door close behind her and tilted her head to catch the bit of base that thrummed along with the electronic music that made her heart race even as it stilled her mind. She blinked and let her eyes close as her fingers walked over her abdomen and the new faint black lines that graced her flesh, hidden under the black fabric of her dress. What did it all mean? She wondered as she opened her arms to accept the little blonde waitress with soft brown eyes who stared up at her hungrily.
“Oh yes.” She said, her breath a cool caress across the woman’s parting lips. “There is much yet to be told.” The woman tasted of cigarettes and cheap whiskey which meant she’d come to work well lubricated and just a little too eager. That wouldn’t do. Even as Zoe slid her fingers into the silken strands and twined her tongue with the woman’s, she was running through the woman’s background and contacts, to determine whether a firing or an early grave would be the least trouble.
The diminutive woman stopped mid-stride, turning to the call of her name as gracefully in her elegant leather pumps as a ballet dancer might across the Koch Theater stage. The man leaning subtly from the driver’s side window of his taxi stilled like a doe before the lioness as the gaze of those matchless grey eyes fell upon him yet again this night, his heart thrilling – as always – at the sight of an otherworldly creature come down from some heavenly height to grace the cold grey streets of New York City. Her golden hair illuminated by the silver-white streetlights from above, its wavy lengths framed her ivory face like a halo, spilling over her shoulders to the middle of her back and glistening like rivers of shimmering starlight against the dove grey silk of her Dolce & Gabbana sheath dress.
“Yes Ashur?” Her voice was like a lover’s caress to his ears, and he smiled wistfully as the hand not wrapped about her leather clutch purse reached down for him. Her cool fingers, hard as steel, cradled his upturned face with such loving tenderness. The old man could not resist pressing his cheek into her palm, his dark eyes fallen closed for a moment with a sigh of such perfect contentment. For a decade now, Ashur Asmar had personally driven his beloved Ophelia through the streets of New York City, wherever she might need or ask from her West Village home. Only last year he sold his taxi company to another Iraqi expat, with the contingency that so long as he live, so long as he could still drive safely, he be given the use of a single car nightly for his Ophelia.
“You’ll not forget me?”
“Never, my dearest. I would never forget you.” Ophelia’s eyes welled with tears at the words, pale pink, blood-tinged droplets rising at the corners of her eyes and shamelessly falling down her cheeks, no matter the sweetly reassuring smile she wore just for him, for her Ashur. The vampiress’ thumb ran lightly along his cheekbone, her preternatural sight only finding the beauty that remained to him now, the high noble forehead and the strong, square jaw, the salt and pepper hair brushed back in still-thick waves from his face and those beautiful, mahogany brown eyes…
God have mercy, how she loved this man. Ashur was an Assyrian Christian, fled from the Ba’athist regime in the mid-1980s with his wife and youngest son. His two daughters had remained in Iraq, choosing to stay with their husbands’ families in their beloved home. Success had come for Ashur in America, the immigrant’s promise made manifest through hard work and devotion, and a taxi company that provided more than he and his wife could ever spend on themselves.
Yet the decades to come in this fallen world had not all been kind to this good, loving man. Ashur’s son died in an auto wreck in the Catskills in 1992, his wife passing on five years ago with uterine cancer. And his daughters, and all his pretty grandchildren? In the cruelest blow of all, ISIS had come to power in the wake of the precipitous U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq, the vacuum of power filled in the very worst way by the foulest of beasts, intent on genocide. A year ago, Ashur learned what family remained to him had not made it to the refugee camps among the Kurds, were not huddled in squalid safety with the remnants of the Yazidi…
And yet he remained faithful in all his ways, Ophelia’s precious Ashur. He prayed for the strength to continue unwavering in his devotion to his God, for the strength to forgive the unforgiveable… Never once in all these centuries had she created a vampiric child of her own, but for this man? For this man alone, she had made that offer, the thought of his light gone from this world near too much for her to bear. And yet he refused her – gently, lovingly, even knowing the cancer eating away his lungs would give him no more than another six weeks in this mortal coil. “I already have eternal life, Ophelia,” he had said, smiling comfort for the vampiress who could not bear the thought of a world without him in it. “Eternal life, with my God and my family… One day, my lovely dumaya,you will be the one to join me, and we will rejoice together – your family, and mine.”
“I am a little afraid. Sometimes… Of the pain.” Ophelia nodded her understanding, her heart aching at his almost child-like admission. The vampiress bent just enough over the taxi window to press her lips to his, a chaste kiss lifted as the tips of her fangs grazed his lower lip, a gentle reminder of the depth of her promise.
“There will be none, my Ashur,” she whispered, her gaze holding his a moment longer. “None. I swear it. I will take you to Heaven’s gates myself, and you will not suffer.” Ophelia’s glamor wrapped Ashur in its spell, the wisp of anxiety in those dark eyes disappeared entirely. The vampiress stood to the whole of her diminutive height now, her night’s work only just begun as she turned from the taxi and to the complex known as the Hamiltonian. No matter her love for this one mortal man, there were still others requiring the attentions of the beloved Culler this night.
It should likely go without saying, that staring at the body of an unknown vampire, ravaged by the infernal privations of the Sol Blight right there in the Hamiltonian great room, was nowhere near how Ophelia imagined she’d spend even a moment of this night. Her business with the Covenarch should have been quite routine, a simple update on the status of state legislation concerning the establishment of blood banks and tightening blood donor screenings.
And yet here she stood, walking in on this strange tableau only seconds behind the Covenarch and the technician. “Oh my… Well this is certainly...” Ophelia sighed, and then tsk-tsked softly as she knelt by the body, shaking her head sadly as her long fingers brushed a lock of singed hair from the dead vampire’s face.
“Unexpected. Poor child.” Perhaps she ought to have worried more for her personal safety, so close to a recently dead victim of the Sol Blight. No one could yet tell how one contracted the mysterious disease, by contact or through the air, by blood or sex or magical curse for all that any of them knew. Yet over the centuries of her un-life, there were still a great many things in this strange and terrible world Ophelia ought to have learned to fear. Death was not – and never would be - one of them.
“She is not one of ours, is she Lothaire?” the diminutive vampiress asked, mostly rhetorically. Of course she was not, and Ophelia could not conjure this face anywhere in her own memory, though there were certainly those among her Sanguinosa Covenus brethren with far greater skills at recollection that than she.
Ophelia’s attentions turned then to the still-living youngling as she stood back to her feet, to the little one who called herself the man’s name. To Charlie. She smiled sweetly, those silver-grey eyes lit with a gentle light. “You are the… The worker of cameras, of the many electric eyes?” The golden lengths of her hair shimmered as her head tilted curiously. “Do you think there might be anything found there, how this poor creature ever made her way here to die, or if she did so alone?”
“Oh, and where in the world is Sebastian?” Ophelia fished her cell from her clutch, tapping in her PIN swiftly and expertly with her thumb, no matter those eyes still widened with appreciation and wonder as she did so. The ancient vampiress remained absolutely enchanted by the fact in this near-magical ‘now,’ she could contact most anyone anywhere in this world in an instant, simply by pressing her fingers along a wee flat glass screen. How absolutely delightful! It almost placated her irritation with Lothaire’s self-appointed guardian, who seemed to have absented himself from his charge’s side at the exact wrong moment.
His phone turned over to voice mail, and the Culler sighed with frustration though she left a message nonetheless. “Sebastian, this is Ophelia – could I trouble you to come to the Hamiltonian, mijn kleine kind? At your swiftest convenience? We have a… “ Her voice trailed off for a moment, brows furrowing sympathetically as those silver grey eyes took in the scorched, agonized rictus on the dead vampiress’ face all over again. “We have a situation, and I imagine the Covenarch would appreciate your company.”
The setting sun signaled the death of another day over New York City, and the rise of yet another night. Theodore lifted his head and looked toward the high windows of the library, unable to see any kind of moon or stars behind all of the light pollution but he could feel them as the sun finally faded behind the horizon. There were downfalls to staying up all day, to hiding out in the library under the guise of important research but the night always invigorated him, always gave him that extra boost he needed to feel a little more there, a little more coherent. Looking away from the window, Theodore smiled to himself and closed the heavy book that had been splayed across his desk.
Although he had been caught up in cataloging, rereading and transcribing the earliest moments of the coven, early evening was the best time to catch Lothaire. While some may not have considered his work a very high priority as of late, organization helped to keep Theodore sane and if his mind was busy, there was no room to worry about anything. The distress that he had been experiencing over the last several decades had continued to worsen, but Theodore was much too proud to acknowledge his particular case of cabin fever, a condition that he firmly believed would come to pass with enough time.
The Great Room was just a short elevator ride away, and Theodore left his materials on top of the large, oak desk for later. As the sleek, modern-looking carriage carried him up from the basement, Theodore drummed his fingers against the railing, blue eyes transfixed on the counter as it got closer to its destination. Inwardly, he hoped that Covenarch was still around, that he hadn't gone out for the night or gotten wrapped up in more pressing matters.
When the doors parted, opening up at the long end of the Great Room, Theodore immediately noticed the small crowd. He furrowed his brow and stood for a moment, letting the doors close behind him as he watched Lothaire, Charlie and Ophelia staring at something...or rather, someone. With caution, Theodore approached the group, sure that they could all hear his sneakered feet padding across the wood floor. “Is everything--” he paused mid-sentence, blue eyes falling on a sight that nearly resulted in a gasp and an insensitive jump back.
No one was sure how the Sol Blight spread, but everyone knew that it was deadly. Until now, Theodore had done his best to avoid laying eyes on the dying, their fragile form often too much to handle for more selfish reasons, a fear that one day, that insidious tattoo would consume him too. “Who is that?” he asked, slowly looking to the others when he failed to recognize the shape of the woman's gaunt face. Their fortress was one of complete solitude, and gone were the days when others could simply wander in, but complacency was clear as the mystery woman lay dying at their feet. If she had gotten in, there was nothing to say that others wouldn't follow in time, or that the Blight wouldn't infiltrate their ranks.
Even though this woman wasn't one of their own, it felt wrong to simply leave her there and let her final moments consist of nothing but agony. “We should move her, shouldn't we?” he asked, uncertainty muddling his features as he looked to Lothaire. “She deserves her dignity, at least.” It was a lot to ask for, and Theodore knew that, but he couldn't ignore the memories that sparked in his mind, the nurses and doctors who had tended to him instead of worrying about their own safety.
Standing before the corpse of the Blight stricken vampire, time seemed to melt into a fluid eternity. A million incongruous thoughts burst into Lothaire’s mind like sparks, each calling for his attention, and yet robbing him of it in the same instance.
Who was this vampire? How did she get inside the Hamiltonian, and to the Great Room, no less? Was this some kind of malicious attack? A means to infect the Sanguinoso Covenus with the Sol Blight? Did someone inside the coven have anything to do with this?
On and on, the churning litany of thoughts continued to bleed through his consciousness, consuming every vestige of his attention. It wasn’t until he heard the voice of the coven’s tech specialist, Charlie, that his mind escaped from the hamster wheel in which it had fallen.
Lothaire turned fractionally to Charlie, though his eyes never left the corpse. “I fear that this is exactly what it looks like,” he said to her. “We’ve got to lockdown the Hamiltonian…” he added in a whisper, almost as an afterthought.
Ophelia’s arrival came only moments later, followed by several others of the Sanguinoso Covenus that resided in the Hamiltonian. Lothaire was no expert in contagions, or the correct response when handling such things. However, it didn’t take much for him to conclude that the more vampires that came near the corpse, the worse it would be for the coven.
“Lock down the Hamiltonian.”
The computer recognized the Covenarch’s voice, and immediately began to comply. The numerous doors that led to the Hamiltonian’s warren of corridors began to lock. Heavy metal bolts could be heard engaging throughout the room, clanging shut like grim and inharmonious chimes. All the building’s massive shutters closed and lock, adding their own booming cacophony to the air. In less than twenty seconds, the Hamiltonian has assumed the trappings of a fortress—a task it had not been called to do for almost a century. The dozen or so vampires that had made their way into the Great Room began to murmur with excitement, and even fear. It was a sound wholly unfamiliar to Lothaire’s ears, and it sent a hum of dread down his own spine.
It was then that Lothaire noticed he still held the glass of blood, and the tumbler of vodka in his hands. The realization made him curl his mouth in a grim and sour smile. He drained both in two gulps before setting down the glassware on a nearby table. With his hands now free, he retrieved a throw blanket that was folded across a back of plush chair.
“Dignity?” Lothaire said to the historian. “She’ll have to do only with what I can manage, I’m afraid.”
Unfolding the blanket, Lothaire bent down beside the corpse. His face contorted in revulsion as his nose filled with the scent of burnt and defiled flesh. If he had resided in a human body, he would have vomited from the stench. Setting his jaw, Lothaire went about his grim work.
Gingerly, and with as much reverence as he could muster, he began shifting the stiff corpse of the vampiress onto the blanket. The dust of scorched skin wafted in eddies as Lothaire moved the body. He cursed, trying to move quickly, yet simultaneously cause the least disturbance. It was an impossible task. By the time he had finished wrapping the body, and had picked up the diminutive figure, he was coated with a fine layer of dust.
Holding the corpse in the crux of his arms, wrapped in the blanket as it was, it looked like some strange parody of a babe clinging to his breast. With his eyes burning with rage and disbelieving disgust, Lothaire turned to the vampires around him. Looking to them, he wondered if this would be the last time he would see them standing on his own two feet.
“Listen carefully,” he said, speaking to his coven-mates. “If we are going to survive this, I need every shred of your support and cooperation. Make no mistake, we are facing the gravest threat in this coven’s history.”
His copper colored eyes looked first to Charlie.
“I need you to do two things for me, Charlie. The first is to grant special access privileges to yourself, Sebastian, Ophelia, Theodore, August, and Zoe. I want you all to be able to move freely throughout the Hamiltonian during the lock down.”
“Secondly, I want you to go through all the security and camera data. I want to know everything about how this vampiress came to be here. Enlist whomever you require to help to that end, that I have not assigned another task.”
Next, Lothaire turned his attention to Theodore. “You, my silver-tongued friend, I need you to work your magic. Go down to the club, and speak with Zoe. Tell her what has happened, request her assistance, and then discretely do what you can to gather as much information from the patrons. It is a long shot, but one never knows where insight can be found.”
Lothaire then handed out instructions to several other vampires. He detailed the need for a thorough cleaning of the entire Hamiltonian, especially the common areas. The trusted humans that aided the coven were to specifically be employed here, as they bore no threat from the Sol Blight.
Moving towards the nearest exit to the Great Room, Lothaire made his path take him close to the culler, Ophelia.
“You’re with me,” he said quietly, slowing his gait only fractionally. “I’m taking her down to the basement incinerator, and we've much to discuss.”
Having an efficient means of body-disposal was essential for any legitimate coven.
Continuing to move and speak to Ophelia, Lothaire’s attention was diverted enough that he bumped into a low table. The action sent a small cloud of the corpse’s dusted flesh up into his face.
Enraged, Lothaire’s eyes flared, and he had to take a slow breath to calm himself. When he at last spoke again, his teeth were gritted tightly together.
August awoke in a manner that was both immediate and disoriented. His room reeked of a stench he had no real memory of, and the smell struck his nose in likeness of a freight train barreling down a track with no brakes. The smell was sickly sweet, that sort of smell that's equally parts choking and charming, sort of like gasoline, but not quite as potent. Was it, he wondered, some sort of cheap perfume? Had he went to his bed with a short-sighted love affair?
The Blood-Keeper opened his eyes, having kept them shut just to let himself gather his bearings, and turned over on his side, noting how the blankets, as useless as they were to the undead, seemed more disturbed than usual, not covering half his exposed figure. There, next to him was a vampiress, one who had only been with the Coven since the latter half of the previous century. What was her name again? Illiana, that was it. A beautiful name, uncommon for the period of her birth. She had been changed on the eve of her 19th birthday, if he remembered her story correctly, though in honesty half of it was probably falsified to hide something, or to give a false image.
Pity August didn't take lovers anymore, else she'd be someone he would not let himself unlive down for passing up. She knew this too, as did most in the Coven. August was a beast in that his own code of morality had somewhat skewed itself as his eternity came closer into view, though the Sol Blight has shown to affect his unwavering arrogance in this. That didn't keep him, however, from being the most stubborn monster the Coven had to offer in times like this, because truthfully few could stop August from doing what August does best: being August.
August threw himself out of bed, clothed in a button down shirt (torn open), and a pair of boxers. He dared not wake the girl until she awoke herself, cause otherwise that'd be rude. Cause hey, wavering morality doesn't mean forgetting your manners. He walked softly, padding across the floor to an ornate set of closet doors that opened into a closet for the vain vampire he was. August worked through the classy suits and ornate vests, pants, shoes, and what not before deciding on the day's outfit, a black vest decorated with silver chains and a pendant shaped like an arrow hung from one of them, a pair of vertically striped grey and black pants, shiny black loafers, and a white button down to go underneath the vest.
It wasn't till he half had a sock on his foot when the Hamiltonian went on lock down, it startled August, making him hop to attention, knowing something was really wrong. He began to run out of his closet, clumsily putting on a shoe and darting out of the door, paying no attention to the lass he had probably awoken if she hadn't already left. He dropped from a run to a faster paced walk, so fast he was tempted to skip. The main room came into view and he walked a bit faster, coming in just as Lothaire was walking away with the body.
"Would someone mind telling me what the hell is going on?" he asked, in a tone that was more confused than anything else. That was another thing about August, vain as he may be he's confused half of the time when nobody is talking. He follows words fairly well but defaults an aloof personality when let alone to be with himself and/or his occasional pleasure-er.
The urge to please the Culler was deeply ingrained in Charlie. She could have confirmed for Ophelia that what was left of the vampiress on the floor had no relation to the Sanguinoso Covenus. A quick flip through her photographic memory confirmed that she had never personally met the vampire or seen her in a social setting. However, as the “worker of the many electric eyes”, she had many more tools than her own thoughts at her disposals. She pulled her phone out of her pocket and swiped a complicated pattern across the face. Then, she held it up to her eye for optic recognition.
“There should be a trail,” Charlie muttered, staring into her phone. “There are cameras all over the Hamiltonian, and you just can’t get here from there without passing at least a few of them.”
Charlie’s hair fell over her shoulder and across her face as she swiped and tapped the screen of her phone. Her lips turned down, and her fingers moved more frantically. She could access the cameras, but nothing was coming up from them. It was pure black. On all thirty-two of the cameras that she had tried to get to thus far. She raised her head to voice her concern when Lothaire began to speak.
After she heard Lothaire’s instructions, she figured she had better find out more about the camera problem and get on the main system to grant privileges before she became the girl that cried wolf. After all, it could just be something with her phone and accessing the system.
“Of course, Lothaire,” she said, though she doubted that he actually heard her. He was the CovenArch. He spoke, and obedience happened. There was no other option. Verbal confirmation was a mere formality.
Charlie hit a button, and her phone screen went black. Lothaire and Ophelia carried the body one way, and she went the other. Charlie still needed that drink of blood to get her mental juices completely going, and at this point in the evening, she needed them completely going very badly. Her hand shook a little as she poured a glass of blood, and she almost dropped it, when she heard August behind her.
She took a huge gulp of blood, unsure if she should try to explain or if she should let Theodore. Often in the coven, age took precedence. Also, she did have a job to do. However, she might need to get Theodore or August to come with her to help her get things going in the main room and find out just what happened while they had all been asleep. Taking another gulp to steady herself, she turned to August.
“There’s been an incident,” she said, proud that her voice didn’t shake. “A vampiress with the Sol Blight was found dead here in the Great Room.” She swallowed. “Now, we still have to find out what the hell is going on.”
Since his death and subsequent immortality, Theodore had seen plagues come and go time and time again. Being a vampire offered a certain degree of protection against disease, and with no healthy cells to infect, he had been able to move freely through the night while humans were sometimes dying in the streets around him. In all of his years of living, of watching the world turn, Theodore had never expected a plague to come for his kind. The first murmurings of the Sol Blight had made him anxious, worried that everything he held dear would soon come to an end, but there was no threat when the Blight was happening to others, and Theodore had managed to put it out of his mind. Now, there was no ignoring it; the disease had found them.
While Lothaire didn't seem keen on the idea of death with dignity, Theodore wished there was more they could do. Instead, the covenarch had found a blanket to wrap the unknown woman in, now perished and rapidly crumbling before the group that had gathered. The smell was almost unreal, filling the Great Room with the acrid scent of burnt skin and hair, but Theodore didn't flinch away and returned his attention to Lothaire when he was finished wrapping the vampiress, now himself covered in a questionable layer of dust. Theodore shuddered to think of what would become of the coven if their leader became the sickness' next victim.
For now, and hopefully for centuries to come, Lothaire was still there to give out orders. He always seemed to have a plan for everything, even the most extreme situations and that confidence set Theodore at ease. For a brief moment, the historian thought that there was nothing for him to do, that he would be doomed to spend the lockdown where he spent almost every other night, but the covenarch had other plans. Theodore picked his head up, eager to help in any way that he could and getting out of the Hamiltonian for the night was infinitely more appealing than trying to occupy his anxious mind.
“Yes, sir,” Theodore agreed with a firm nod. “I'll do my best.” The night was sure to be a long one, but Theodore wasn't one to come back empty-handed and Zoe had her own means of persuasion—together, they may have been unstoppable.
Turning to leave, Theodore passed August on the way toward the door. The man's questions were only logical, but Charlie explained the situation before he could speak. “Good luck here,” he warned before slipping out of the Great Room entirely. He moved with purpose through the iron-clad Hamiltonian, the building that had been his home for longer than he could count, the place that was no longer safe. It was all so very shocking, and worst case scenarios continued to pop into his overworked mind as he descended toward the underground tunnels, heading for the club that so many of their own frequented on a regular basis. Thinking on it, any of them could have brought the Blight to their doorstep.
The loud thumb of electronic music reached him before he entered the bar, loud and supercharged, vibrating the walls and ground as it entertained. Theodore paid no attention to those around him as he entered, eyes not needing to adjust to the darkness as he sought out Zoe. While he didn't know her terribly well, no long nights spent delving into her personal life, Theodore supposed they got along well enough. She was excellent at what she did, always managing to make everyone feel comfortable and taken care of, but he was by no means a regular. He supposed all of that would change now that they were working together.
After a bit of searching, Theodore found his target tangled up with a waitress, the blonde looking like putty in the dark-haired woman's hands. He cleared his throat and offered a cheeky grin, perhaps a bit inappropriate all things considered. “So sorry to interrupt your good time, but I need you for a minute.” Longer than a minute, really, but discretion had been stressed and Theodore wasn't about to fail Lothaire.
One distraction was replaced with another as Theodore shifted the world around them, letting the blonde think that she was alone, maybe just tired as she stood there with the dance music blasting in her ears, drowning out any sound that he or Zoe were to make. “Something happened at the house,” he explained quietly. “There is...was a woman with the Blight. No one's sure how she got in, but Lothaire wants us to find out.” It felt like a shot in the dark, like finding a needle in a haystack but Theodore was more than willing to try.
“Anything out of the ordinary around here?” he asked before finally deciding to send the waitress on her merry way, far the fuck away from their conversation.
The softest of frowns marred Ophelia’s alabaster-sculpted face as she peered up to Lothaire, as much a grimace of concern as she dared show for the Covenarch. No matter her age, she would not undermine the elevated position and respect he had long since earned among his people, the dearest child of Alexander – a vampire she remembered with no small affection. She would not second guess the wisdom of his choice to wrap the Blight-stricken corpse himself, that he breathe in the ash of her demise as he carried her down to the incinerator – at least not aloud.
Ophelia did not fear death for herself. She never had, but she could (and did, with an alarming frequency of late) fear for those she loved most. “Alastair, your kerchief, please?” She held one elegant hand out to the well-dressed vampire closest to her, snapping her fingers with just a touch of impatience for the youngling no older than half a decade or so, who had found himself with nothing better to do for the moment than gawk and gape uselessly in the great room. Her hand was filled almost instantly with a lovely lilac silk, and with the same hand Ophelia helped herself to the glass of ice water shaking precariously in the hand of a dear little creature, all wide violet eyes filled to the brim with terror beneath a short, shining black bob.
“Thank you Susan,” she said, her voice pitched for reassurance as she patted the taller vampiress’ shoulder tenderly, and then stepped past her to their Covenarch.
Her silver eyes narrowed thoughtfully as she fell in easily beside Lothaire, reaching up fearlessly with her one free hand to cover the corpse’s face just a little more with what had become her makeshift funeral shroud. Ophelia peered from what she could see of the dead vampiress’ face to those furious eyes of living flame. Someone was going to pay for this desecration of the Hamiltonian. Oh yes, someone, or perhaps many ‘someones,’ made a fatal misstep this day, and would pay dearly - and in vast oceans of blood if she was any judge.
“Be still Lothaire, for just a moment.” One small hand, cool and strong as steel, wrapped about Lothaire’s arm, stilling his retreat from the great room for just a moment longer. “We will talk, but first? First you will suffer me this.”
Cold water and kerchief were put to good use, Ophelia wetting its corners and gently wiping the ash and cinders from his face. No one knew how the Sol Blight was contracted – or at least, not yet. She had come this night to discuss the possibility of a blood-derived illness, that their very food supply had been tainted, or was being actively poisoned to infect the vampiric community. Was it a parasite? A bacteria? Virus? Manmade or a natural mutation, one crafted or created to protect humans from the predations of vampires? The possibilities seemed vast, endless, and all too often their research relied on the human scientists, motivated either by a fear of death or the hope of immortality. There was no true compassion, no true love among them for the vampires they served. What trust could her people ever truly place in such fickle faith? Ophelia remained a creature of her time, no matter the turn of the centuries. Faith mattered. Loyalty and truth and love – all these were still very real, very tangible entities in the world of Anneke Dies.
But in this new 'modern' world (whether it was brave or not, remained to be seen), where all decadence and perversion and obscenity could be had at a keystroke or the swipe of a tablet, Ophelia knew such notions seemed laughable to humans and fledgling vampires alike. There was only one thing she counted on entirely among her breathren, one article of faith she had left in this world. “You will outlive me Covenarch, and you’d best hear me well! It is the only command I will ever give you.”
The vampiress laughed gently, setting aside the water though she wadded Alastair’s kerchief into her hand. Unfortunately it too would have to burn in the Hamiltonian’s furnaces, and the Culler made a mental note to buy the sweet child a replacement the moment this crisis passed. “Besides, do you think me such an artist I could properly capture those fiery eyes of yours in oils?” A small, sardonic little smile upturned her lips. “Come, we will talk, you and I, before laying this poor child to rest.”
The taste didn’t improveupon longexposure. Ashtrays and plastic bottles leaching chemicals into alcohol. Lies laced with hopes and unrealistic expectations bore a particular tang she found offensive. This one wanted things she couldn’t have, things that were more than just a taste of life. The wants were unformed, unspoken and undefined. Just more. This one wanted more, so much more and she sought part of it in the arms of her employer.
Zoe broke off the kiss and ran her open mouth down along the woman’s jaw, pressing without promising while the woman heard what she would in the motion, finding dialog between the notes of the thrumming song that filled Pentheus even at this early hour. Suffering Man, foolish man. Silly woman. Zoe pressed her mouth into the soft skin of the woman’s throat, just under the sharp edge of her jaw. She breathed in deep, taking in the scent of so many who had been there before.
“I will give you what they didnot.” Zoe purred as the woman whimpered and writhed, pressing herself against what she thought she wanted most in the world, at least for the moment. Such hunger as hers was never slaked.
Zoe kissed her flesh, a little promise just as a voice spoke from behind her. She could feel the woman stiffen, her scent growing coldand hot in turns as her hands tightened on Zoe’s shoulders as if to hold her. Silly woman, Zoe had been done for some time now.
“You go.” Zoe said to her, cupping her jaw with ink-stained fingers. “We will talk later. I am not done with you yet.”
Turning, the woman already gone from her mind, Zoe straightened herself up to her full height, augmented by the clunky platforms of her boots. The entirety put her at an inch above the vampire standing before her. She cocked her head and let her tangled hair fall across her face so that all that could be seen was the curve of her crooked smile and a gleam of eye.
“It wasn’t a good time.” Zoe said, even as the woman scuttled away, casting a look of death towards Theodore when he released her from his whatever he’d done. Zoe wasn’t certain but she’d felt it like spider webs across her eyeballs. It made her toes curl.
“It was business and promise and endings.”
She sighed and slipped her arm through Theodore’s walking him with her towards the office where she did what business was needed to run the bar. Mostly she let her humans tend to it, simply running over the numbers. Such pretty things, numbers. So fixed, so fluid. They seemed so inscrutable when stacked just so, or run in patterns to fast to follow. But they were simple things, little things and they always did what they always did. They never changed, it was the person viewing them who changed, who lost the pattern or forgot that they did what they did. Zoe never forgot. She liked numbers.
When they were in the dim-leather-dark-wood-someone-respectable-works-here-space of her office she let the door close and the arm of her companion slip as she walked across to her desk and the shiny bits of modern on top of it. She sat in her chair, across the back of which was draped a leopard skin, the claws intact.
“Now tell me it all again. Tell me it like you would paint me a picture, with pretty words that make me see. And then you will tell me what Lothaire said and then what you think he meant. He has such pretty words, that one. They slip, slide over his slickness and into our ears. But mostly I want you to tell me how she looked. Did she know she was dead? Was she pretty with that lace of ink all over her form? Did it improve her?”