Being catapulted into orbit by the summoning gate was about as fun as riding one of those really high carnival rides without restraints. It made you want to vomit and you were pretty sure that you were going to die. Logic said that only three seconds passed from the point Sean and I stepped into the blood red glow until the moment we landed in the transport bay of Arland’s ship, but it felt like much longer. I blinked, adjusting my backpack on my shoulders. Arland estimated that the entire trip would only take two days, and I had packed light.
Sean had packed heavy. A large, military-style duffel bag rested on his back. He carried a smaller duffel in his left hand. I had a feeling that the smaller duffel was the one with his clothes.
Pale flat square stones lined the floor under my feet. Similar stones lined the hundred-foot-tall bulkhead of the huge chamber around us, imitating castle walls, complete with vines dripping down, their pale pink flowers spicing the air with gentle aroma. The crimson banners of House Krahr stretched over the walls. In the middle of the chamber a beautiful old tree with black bark spread its massive branches with wide green leaves and crimson blossoms. A stream rushed through an artificial river bed, falling in an artful cascade of small waterfalls and winding under the arches of the tree’s roots.
I glanced at Sean.
He shrugged. “It’s space. No friction means little need for aerodynamics.”
“But mass is still a factor.” The heavier the ship, the longer it took to accelerate and decelerate and the more fuel it required.
“Vampires,” Sean said, the way parents usually said “teenagers” when their children were out of earshot.
A door slid open in the far wall and Arland appeared, in full armor, walking briskly toward us.
“Look,” Sean said under his breath. “He’s making an entrance.”
Keeping the two of them civil would prove a challenge. “He’s doing me a big favor. Do you think you could refrain from baiting him for the duration of this trip?”
“I’ll try. But it’s going to be difficult.”
A female vampire in full armor ran up to Arland and thrust some hightech tablet under his face. Arland waved her off and marched on.
“Very difficult,” Sean said.
“Try harder. I’m sure you can do it.”
“My deepest apologies.” Arland hit me with a dazzling smile. “I was held up by the petty minutia of House matters.”
“No apologies necessary,” I told him. “Thank you so much for your help. I’m deeply grateful.”
Arland turned to Sean and narrowed his eyes. “That’s a lot of hardware.”
They must’ve scanned Sean’s big duffel.
“Better to be prepared.”
“Where did you get the weapons?”
“I have my ways,” Sean said.
“I’m watching you,” Arland told him.
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
And that’s just about enough. “Lord Arland, it’s so kind of you to lend us your ship.”
He smiled. “It’s my pleasure. Please, this way, Lady Dina.”
Arland held out his arm bent at the elbow. I was on the grounds of House Krahr. When in a vampire castle… I rested my hand on his forearm just below his wrist. He didn’t shoot Sean a triumphant glance but his expression told me he really wanted to. We began walking down the path around the tree to the exit.
“I must ask your forgiveness. While this is my personal vessel, humble as it may be, it is still of military purpose and by necessity of function is spartan in appearance.”
I caught a glimpse of Sean’s face. His expression was completely neutral.
“It’s very beautiful, my lord.”
“It pleases me immensely that you like it. It is home away from home, so to speak.”
We passed through the doors into the hallway.
“I’m curious, how will the inn fare without you?” Arland asked.
I had avoided thinking about the inn for almost three minutes. He had just broken my winning streak.
“My sister provided me with exact coordinates. With luck, she will be waiting for us, so we should only be gone for a short while. The inn can take care of itself.” Assuming Officer Marais didn’t come snooping, Caldenia didn’t murder anyone because she found them appetizing, Orro didn’t have a nervous breakdown because he couldn’t buy groceries for two days, and if all of it went well, the inn should be fine. I hoped. At least the Ku checked out of the inn before we left.
“I have looked at the coordinates you’ve given me. According to our records, this place is a Road Lodge, a tavern and an inn in the middle of nowhere where travelers stay for a night or two before continuing on their way elsewhere. The type of place that attracts convoy raiders, bandits, and other characters of ill repute.”
Maud knew how to blend in.
“As unpleasant as this possibility might be, I must ask what will happen if your sister isn’t there.”
“She will be there.”
“Your faith in your family is to be commended,” he said. “We may encounter resistance.”
“I’m sure we will.” If there was no resistance, Maud wouldn’t be hiding in some hellhole.
“In the event of such occurrence, I once again offer you my full support. Allow me to be your shield, Lady Dina. For you and your sister.”
“Thank you, Lord Arland.”
I had no idea how Maud’s husband would react to that. Melezard was the second son of the Marshal of House Ervan. Here is hoping no ancient feuds existed between House Ervan and House Krahr or things would get awkward.
The door in front of us opened and we walked into an observation room. Two hundred and seventy degrees of transparent glass beyond which the galaxy stretched in all its glory, the distant nebulae in a hundred colors swirling among the stars. Tables and booths dotted the floor. Arland turned and led me up a staircase to the balcony, where a long table waited for us, filled to the brim with food, most of which seemed to be various cuts of meat.
“Of course, the skills of my chef cannot match your Quilonian, but I don’t believe you’ll be disappointed.” Arland pulled out my chair. “Please.”
I took it. A gentle melody, at once soothing and haunting, floated down to us from some invisible speakers. To my left Sean rolled his eyes.
This was going to be an interesting trip.
Arland was right. Karhari really was the anus of the Galaxy and I was getting an eyeful of it from my seat in Arland’s landing shuttle. Flat, dry, ugly, the planet stretched for miles without any reprieve for the eye. Its soil was brown, the plants that grew on it were greenish brown, and bur, the giant herbivores that moved through the plains like shaggy boulders, were also brown. I’d shoot myself within two days of living here.
Arland’s family crest granted him the right to enter Karhari airspace, but the Road Lodge sat far outside of his relative’s lands. Technically it was within a different House’s territory, a local House. Arland had planned to land with a squad of his soldiers, but the local House shot that idea down. Words like invasion, provocation, and armed excursion were thrown around. After tense negotiations, Arland won the right to bring a single shuttle and two people. I had to be one of them, because Maud wouldn’t trust anyone but me, and I had insisted that Sean was the other.
Back when we met, during his first trip to Baha-char, Sean had found a shop run by a veteran werewolf. The shop had contained a special armor made specifically for an alpha-strain werewolf like him. When he put it on, the armor became a part of his body. Normally he kept it relegated into tattoos just under his skin, but right now it was out, sheathing his body like a black jumpsuit. I caught a glimpse of it under the collar of his loose T-shirt when he’d climbed into the flier.
The agreement Arland made specified that none of us could carry range combat weapons. The list of what we couldn’t bring was quite long and axed most of everything Sean had in his duffel. Sean and Arland had a long conversation about it and the vampire House politics, at the end of which they concluded that we were being set up but that they had it handled.
The bleak terrain rolled outside the shuttle’s window. Why, Maud? Why Karhari? What happened to the castle? Was little Helen with her or did she somehow get here by herself? The more I thought about it, the more uneasy I became. Neither Arland nor Sean asked me why my sister might be in this hellhole, and for that I was grateful.
“There it is.” Arland pointed to the dark rectangular structure.
Put together from pre-fab hard plastic and studded with five foot spikes, the Road Lodge looked about as hospitable as the raider fortress from Mad Max. I pulled my gray travel robe tighter around myself. So far from the inn my power was much weaker, so I brought something from the days Klaus and I had zigzagged across the Galaxy trying to find my parents.
I hadn’t heard from Klaus for so long.
“You sure you don’t want a knife?” Sean said. He’d offered me one twice already.
“No, thank you.”
“Lady Dina will be perfectly safe in my presence,” Arland said.
Sean gave him a cold stare and settled back into his seat.
Lady Dina would be safe in her own presence. I checked the glove on my left hand. It was more of a gauntlet than a glove and it looked like several layers of latex gloves were fused together with superglue and then dipped in wax. It was made to the mold of my hand from a spit of a rare alien animal that hardened once the alien expelled it from its body. Despite its thickness, it was surprisingly flexible, but I wanted it off all the same. It wasn’t the glove. It’s the memories of what I did when I wore the glove and the anticipation of what I might have to do that made my skin crawl.
Hopefully, we would just get there, pick up Maud and whoever was with her, and get out, quick and quiet. Quick and quiet.
I swallowed. My heart was speeding up and I needed to calm down fast. Vampires were like cats; if it moved, they swatted it and if I walked into that place agitated, they would zero in on me. I didn’t want to attract attention.
“What could they gain by killing you?” I asked Arland.
“A war with House Krahr on this planet. They’re a local House and they likely have no idea of our capabilities. They probably want my uncle’s cousin’s land. Or perhaps they want to claim that I attacked them, so that they can demand financial compensation.” He grinned at me. “Either way, it will be exciting.”
The Road Lodge grew as we neared it. Sean pulled on a dark grey windbreaker and pulled the hood over his face.
Arland circled the lodge and landed on a landing strip, next to a couple dozen different vehicles. The shuttle’s door swung open and I climbed out into the dirt.
Hold on, Maud. I’m almost there.
Sean landed next to me. Arland was last. He’d pulled on a dark cloak with a deep hood. The draped fabric hid most of him, but did nothing to obscure the fact that he was wearing armor. He tossed something into the air. With a quiet whirr, a small grey sphere the size of a pecan hovered above us.
“What is that?” I asked.
“Insurance,” Arland said. “Whatever happens, I need a record of it. Follow me,” he said, heading to the the doors.
The door slid open at our approach and we stepped inside. A purple light slid over us – a weapon scan. Arland’s camera passed through it without setting off any alarms and rose up toward the ceiling.
A cavernous room spread before us with a long bar counter on the right side and a mass of tables and booths on the left. A big metal cage on the left, just by the door, held an assortment of firearms secured by a metal lock and, judging by the ring of dead insects near it, electrified. Right. Leave your gun at the door kind of place.
A staircase in the middle of the dining area led upstairs, probably to the guest rooms. Big shaggy heads of bur bulls, horned and tusked, decorated the walls. Vampires of every age and size occupied the booths and the chairs, most cloaked and all armored. Here and there an odd alien nursed some weird drink, his or her eyes weary. Scents of mint and the deep, nutty odor of caffeine laden vampire liquor hung in the air.
Not a single banner. Dust on the floor, grime on the tables. The contrast between the pristine beauty of Arland’s vessel and this place was startling. The Holy Anocracy and its laws and rules were very far away.
Nobody turned and looked at us as we came in, but they watched us, the weight of their gazes cold and pressing down right between my shoulders blades. None of the people looked like Maud.
I sat at the bar. A vampire woman, her armor dented and having seen much better days, stopped by me. “What will it be?”
“Mint tea.” I dropped credit chips on the counter. My mother always told me to keep common currency on hand, even if only a small amount, and I had raided my stash for this trip.
She swiped the chips off the bar and looked at the two men next to me.
“I’ll have what she is having,” Sean said.
“None for me.”
The cloak’s hood hid most of Arland’s face, but judging by the curve of his mouth, he could barely contain his disgust.
The tea arrived in semi-clean cups. I sat on a stool by the bar, sipped the tea, and took my hood down. Here I am.
Nothing. If Maud was here, she was waiting. I kept drinking my tea.
“Big guy on the left,” Sean said quietly into his cup.
“I see him,” Arland said.
A huge vampire, his face cleaved by a ragged scar, rose from one of the tables on the left and started toward us. He was older than Arland by at least a couple of decades. A mane of dark hair hung loose down his back, and judging by the greasy look of it, if his hair had ever known what shampoo was, it had surely forgotten by now. Scuffs, dents, and gouges marked his armor, its original black luster lost beyond repair. A sword hung from his waist, not the typical blood weapon of the Anocracy’s warriors, but a savage-looking hacking blade.
He stopped a few feet from Arland. “You’re not from around here.”
“Such keen powers of observation,” Arland said.
“Your armor is clean. Pretty. Do you know what we do to pretty boys like you here?”
“Is there a script?” Arland asked him. “Do you give the speech to all who enter here, because if so, I suggest we skip the talking.”
The vampire roared, baring his fangs.
“A challenge.” Arland smiled. “I love challenges.”
The bigger vampire went for his sword. Arland punched him in the jaw. The other vampire flew a few feet and crashed into a booth that conveniently broke his fall.
The bigger vampire jumped to his feet and charged, sword in hand. Arland ducked under his swing and hammered a short brutal punch to the vampire’s ribs. A loud crack sounded, like a dozen firecrackers going off at once, as the armor split along some invisible seam. Arland grasped the protruding edge of the breastplate and jerked it up. The armor crunched on itself, collapsing. The older vampire tumbled on the ground, his right arm immobilized, his left bare.
“Nice,” Sean said.
“If one is going to wear armor, one must properly maintain it,” Arland said.
The older vampire tried to rise. Arland waited until he got halfway up and kneed him in the face. Blood poured from the bigger vampire’s face. Arland kicked him. The attacker collapsed and lay still.
“Anyone else?” Arland asked.
Seven vampires rose at once.
“Couldn’t leave well enough alone, could you?” Sean said, pulling a large knife with a dark green curved blade from the sheath on his waist.
“Might as well get it over with.” Arland ripped off his cloak and tossed it aside. His face wrinkled in an ugly snarl, showing his fangs.
Five more vampires stood up. This wouldn’t end well.
“Stay behind me,” Sean told me.
A figure in a tattered brown cloak jumped onto the table behind the vampires, jerked a blood sword and a dagger out, dashed to the nearest standing vampire, and sliced his head off.
The swordsman sprinted through the room, running on the tables, slicing and cutting like a whirlwind. Everyone moved at once. People screamed, pulling weapons, and overturning tables. Some ran to the back, others charged us. Sean sprinted forward, carving his way through the attackers.
A vampire grabbed the swordsman’s tattered cloak and jerked at it. The cloak came free, revealing Maud in blood armor, her short blue-black hair flying. She dropped to her knees on the table and buried her dagger in his throat. Blood sprayed her face. She pulled the dagger out with a short jerk, rolled on the table, just as another vampire shattered it with a blow of his blood mace, and sliced across his face with her sword.
Next to me Arland stood frozen.
I reached over and pushed his mouth shut. “Arland!”
He stared at me, as if waking up from a dream.
I pointed at Maud. “Help my sister!”
For a stunned half a second he stared at me, and then he pulled his blood mace, roared, and tore into the mass of bodies like a raging bull.
I slipped the handle of the energy whip into my right hand and squeezed it. A thin flexible filament slid from it, dripping to the floor. There was Maud. There was Sean and Arland. Where was little Helen?
I moved forward, picking my way through the fight to where Maud had originally jumped. A female vampire charged at me, her mouth opened, her hammer raised for the kill.
Sean hurled his attacker aside and turned toward me.
I flicked my wrist. The filament ignited with bright yellow and the energy whip sliced at the oncoming vampire. She howled, the deep gash that nearly sliced her chest in two instantly cauterized. I flicked the whip again – she wouldn’t recover from this injury anyway – and her head rolled off. That was the problem with energy whip. A wound to the torso almost always meant a slow and painful death.
I kept moving.
A chair flew at me. I ducked and ran straight into a male vampire. He grabbed me, jerking my neck to his mouth. I grasped the end of the whip with my left hand – the glove was the only thing it wouldn’t cut – and pushed the stretched whip through the vampire’s face. It cut straight through the helmet and bone, and the top half of the vampire’s skull slid to the floor. The body crashed, with me on top of it. I rolled to the side, under the table, scrambled on my hands and knees and saw a small shape under the table in the distance.
The small creature under the table turned toward me. Found you.
I crawled from under the table. In front of me vampires clashed, all local – whenever there was a big fight, people settled personal scores. I flicked my whip, lengthening it. It made a sharp electric crack. Once you heard it, you never forgot it. Suddenly the floor before me was clear. I ran through the opening, dropped to my knees, and pulled Helen from under the table. She clutched at me, a five-year-old girl with pale hair and the round green eyes of a vampire.
She remembered me! “I’ve got you.”
I scrambled up, supporting her weight with my left arm. A vampire rushed us. Helen hissed, pulled out a knife, and swiped at him. He leaned out of the way, his axe swinging toward us. Sean thrust himself in front of me, catching the axe in mid blow. The vampire strained. Sean sliced at him, the green blade cutting through armor like a sharp knife through a pear.
I chased him through the slaughter. Midway to the door Maud appeared next to me, her swords bloody.
“Arland!” Sean roared, his voice covering the din of fighting.
I turned and saw him, covered in blood, roaring, as his mace reduced armors and bones to a bloody pulp.
“Arland!” Sean yelled.
The Marshal saw us and turned, following. We tore out of the front door and ran to the slick black shuttle. The doors swung open – Arland must’ve activated the remote – and Sean jumped into the pilot seat and started flipping switches.
Maud jumped into the passenger seat and I handed Helen to her.
A clump of vampires pushed out the door. It fell apart, revealing Arland snarling, fangs bared. He swung his mace and cracked one attacker’s skull, grabbed the other by his throat with his left hand, snapped his neck, and threw him aside like a rag doll. Maud’s eyebrows crept up. She paused for a second, while sliding Helen into the seat restraints. “Who the hell is that?”
“Marshal of House Krahr.”
I landed into the seat next to her.
Arland brained the last attacker, ran to the shuttle, and jumped next to Sean.
A screaming crowd exploded out of the doors and ran for the shuttle.
“Do you even how to fly, werewolf?”
“Buckle up.” Sean pulled a lever.
The shuttle streaked into the sky.
My sister hugged her daughter to her.
“What happened? Where is your husband?”
“Melezard is dead,” Maud said, her eyes haunted. “He led a revolt against his House. They stripped him of all titles and possessions and sent us to Karhari. Six months ago he crossed the wrong local and the raiders killed him.”
“We killed them back,” Helen told me.
“Yes, my flower.” Maud petted her daughter’s hair, an eerie smile on her lips. “Yes, we did.”