Live Prey, Episode Four

“Oh my God!” Aaron screamed. “Would you stop that!”

Richie had been sharpening a very large hunting knife for about two hours, steadily staring at Aaron the entire time as he tried to read. “Doing what?” Richie drawled innocently.

Aaron looked him up and down. “I’m pretty sure it’s sharp by now.”

“Care to see for yourself?”

“Hey!” Clive cried from the driver’s seat of the RV. “No stabbings in the RV. I just cleaned the floor.” It was near midnight and they were driving fast through rural Iowa. “If you’re gonna kill each other, step outside.”

Marcy moaned from the top bunk in the back of the RV, “Shut. Up. Some of us are trying to sleep.” She rolled over to face away from them, clutching an automatic weapon like a teddy bear. The action pulled the blanket mostly off her ebony back, revealing she was wearing only underwear and a bra, each of which had several small knives tucked into it.

“He started it,” Aaron said under his breath.

“Hey, what’s your problem, man?” said Richie.

“What’s my problem?” Aaron drawled, mocking Richie’s southern accent. “My problem is, I’m living in a tiny RV that’s packed with sharp instruments and never stops, with a giant, deranged Irishman,” Clive waved into the rearview mirror, “a woman who literally wears more weapons to bed than clothes,” Marcy grunted through her pillow, “and a man who’s blind distain for me I’m pretty sure counts as racism.”

Richie glared at him for a moment and then went back to sharpening the knife, now looking down at it.

“Don’t dodge the question,” Aaron said. “Look. I get that I’m sort of a Vampire. I get that I’m the kind of thing you normally would kill if you knew about me. But for the moment, I have a pulse, and I’m helping you guys, so I would appreciate it if you would show me some respect and tell me what the fuck is bothering you.”

Richie ran his thumb over the blade of the knife. “Nothin’ to tell.”

Aaron groaned. “I––” he felt a wave of clarity flow through his mind, as when one wakes up suddenly from grogginess. “Oh good,” he said. “I’m being summoned. I’m actually fleeing to a group of bloodthirsty demons to get away from you people.”

Richie looked up from his knife. “Tell them I said, ‘Hi.’”

Aaron rolled his eyes and crawled into the bunk under Marcy. He fell asleep almost immediately.

……

He woke up standing in a hot, humid environment, the night sky above him washed out by the city to one side of him. The sound of seagulls and waves filled the air. He was on a street next to a line of beach houses. The Motetz Dam had never summoned him outside before.

“There you are,” Gregor said as he approached, his grey coat flowing in the briny breeze. A smaller than normal company came with him, consisting only of his second, Marigold, her long red hair flowing alluringly around her, the grotesque Vampire Frank, and the three young women he’d yet to be introduced to. One was slightly short, pale and stunningly beautiful, with jet black hair and eyes a blue so deep they were almost violet, and wearing a leather jacket and pants. He’d seen her before, and knew only that her name was Carmen and that she was something called a Lilin. By her side stood a girl of about eight who had the exact same features as her, the same dark hair, the same eyes, the same stunning beauty, wearing a little pink dress; and a taller woman with long, blonde hair and tanned skin, who would seem unbelievably gorgeous were she not standing next to the other two, dressed similarly to Carmen. In introducing Carmen, Gregor had mentioned she traveled with her apostle, someone she had turned into another Lilin, and her “daughter.”

“Small group,” Aaron remarked to Gregor. “Where are your apostles?”

“We have reason to keep our group as small as possible in this instance.” Gregor said. “Why? Looking forward to seeing Ellen?”

“What? No, I––”

Gregor chuckled and turned to walk away. “Come along.”

After a moment of thought Aaron jogged after the group. “So where are we?” he asked, not expecting a clear answer.

“Miami,” Gregor said. “We’re meeting with a potential ally to negotiate.”

“Oh. So why the small group?”

“This particular individual can be a bit…territorial. There are no other Motetz Dam within the city limits. We’re lucky we were allowed seven.”

“You’re telling me this guy claimed all of Miami? That he just put down a flag one day and everybody else stood clear?”

“Of course not.” Gregor said. “She killed every one she could get her hands on until the rest got the message.”

Aaron made a choking sound. “And we’re going to have tea with her?”

“She’s powerful,” Gregor said with a shrug. “She’s feared and respected. For the community to know she stands with us would be invaluable. Also I believe she prefers coffee.”

“What makes you think she’ll listen to us?”

“Those two,” Gregor said and indicated the Lilin walking in front of them. “Carmen and young Lizzy’s line of Lilin has been on good terms with her and her kin for many centuries.”

“Hey, why do those two look so much alike?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Carmen asked and turned to face them, walking backwards. Her voice seemed to carry in itself the beauty of the whole, ringing with her dark hair and violet eyes converted into sound. Aaron’s eyes danced over her long legs. She put a hand on the shoulder of her young body double. “Lizzy is my daughter.”

“Uh,” Aaron said, shaking his head clear. “So, human dad? Like how I’m probably the son of a Strigoi?”

“Not exactly,” Stella said, looking around at them, leading Lizzy along by the hand.

Gregor leaned over to Aaron and said, “Lilin can reproduce through parthenogenesis.”

“What’s that, a Greek monument?”

“It’s the process by which a mother can give birth to an identical daughter.”

“They can clone themselves?”

“Essentially.”

“Is there a point in this endeavor where the weirdness plateaus?”

“We’re here,” Marigold said.

They stood in front of a disheveled beach house. The white paint was peeling off the dirty walls. Plants in the front yard had long withered and died. Leaves and seagull poop had accumulated on the front walk. Gregor walked up first to the door and banged three times with an ornate iron door knocker under a bare and burnt out porch light. Moments after knocking the door opened as if of its own volition.

The inside of the house, by contrast, was lavish and well kept. Beautiful furniture of carved wood or dark leather adorned the hardwood floors. The walls were painted various shades of red and pink and violet. Large windows on each wall would light the space well during the day, and the silk curtains hung by them would do little to stop it. A variety of lamps, all set on low light, dimly illuminated the room. In the center of an inset living room was a running hot tub that filled the room with humid warmth. Exotic potted plants littered the area, scattering the dim light. The only irregularity was a set of women’s leggings laying crumpled on a couch.

Aaron turned his head to look behind him and glanced around as if looking for something. “So when exactly did we enter a porno from the 70s?”

A lascivious chuckle rounded the corner from another room. Its source followed closely after.

From the waist up she was almost a beautiful woman. Her curved figure and ample breasts were not hidden by the ragged edged Led Zeppelin tank top she wore. Her jet-black hair rolled over her shoulders like a waterfall. Her features cried of a Mediterranean goddess, sharp cheekbones surrounding gleaming dark eyes. Except those eyes had slit pupils, and her skin was scaly, and a deep, reptilian green. Also she would have been over seven feet tall had she had legs in proportion to her body. Instead she had a long, serpentine tail that sprouted from her wide hips, rolling over the ground in arching coils that propelled her forward with a deviously feminine serpentine fluidity.

“Perhaps my tastes are a bit outdated, Live One,” the creature hissed in a disproportionately alluring voice. “But why change what works for you?”

“So that’s a no on the plateau thing,” Aaron muttered.

“Miss Vasilisa,” Gregor said with a slight bow. “Your reputation precedes you. We spoke over the phone but it is an honor to meet you in person.”

“An honor rarely given,” said Vasilisa as she slithered over to them. “In no small part because it is so rarely requested. I was, shall we say, surprised to hear of your interest.”

During this exchange Aaron leaned over to whisper in Marigold’s ear, “What the hell is she?”

Marigold smiled and arched her head so her mouth was nearly on Aaron’s ear. “Lamia. Greek female clan. Tough bitches, them.”

“Another all-female clan?”

“Yep, just like me and the Lilin over there. There are quite a few like that, actually.”

“Are many of them this terrifying?”

The Lamia suddenly spoke up, “Are you afraid of me, Live One?”

Aaron turned to find Vasilisa standing (if that was the right word) in front of him, her hands laced behind her back with her head turned down and a bit to the side to him, her chest puffed out. It would have been cute if she weren’t a reptile.

“I wouldn’t say afraid,” Aaron said, terrified. “Wary of the possibility of being swallowed whole, perhaps.”

A literally devilish grin stretched its way across her face and she moved closer to Aaron. As she did her form began to change. Her form began to shrink to a more human size (though Aaron would swear her breasts didn’t loose an ounce), and her skin lost its scaly texture and color, revealing a smooth Mediterranean tan. Her tail receded from the tip, and seemed to become soft, and legs (long, smooth, curvy legs) melted out of the mass to step forward, the remainder of the tail dissolving into them. Her eyes now sported regular, round pupils. The only thing that remained the same was her long black hair. By the time she reached Aaron she was merely a very beautiful woman of about his height. Who wasn’t wearing any clothes from the waist down. “I am so glad you phrased it like that,” she breathed as she adjusted his ethereal red jacket, and allowed her mouth to hang slightly open for a moment afterwards. Then she winked, not with her actual eyelids, which hadn’t moved since he’d seen her, but with a single membrane that slid across her eye beneath them.

Gregor cleared his throat.

The Lamia made a toothy smile. “My apologies, Mr. Gregor, it’s second nature to me.” She walked, bouncing with each step of her newly formed legs away from Aaron and into the living room. She plucked the leggings that lay crumpled on the couch with an unnecessary amount of bending over. As she turned back she said, “I’m sure your comrades understand,” indicating Marigold and the elder Lilin.

“Oh, sure,” Marigold said. “I’m well known to show no self-restraint toward a young boy whose blood I can’t drink, and who doesn’t even have blood in his current form for that matter.” The Lilin giggled, but Gregor subtly leveled a glance at her. Marigold just kept smiling.

Vasilisa laughed lowly as she walked back towards the group and put on the leggings. She moved to where she and Marigold were mere inches from each other, staring one another down. The Lamia suddenly stuck out a long, forked tongue and ran it up Marigold’s neck, both ends slithering over her ear for a moment before shooting back into her mouth. Marigold didn’t flinch. “I like you,” Vasilisa said.

“Feeling’s mutual,” Marigold said with a smile.

The Lamia smiled. “Come along them,” she said as she slipped on a pair of heels that were by the door. “All of you. If you want to have your little talk so badly, you can do it after we all get something to eat. Oh,” she addressed Gregor as she was walking out the door, “and tell those three little piggies I hear you keep around with you to come. I do so love the young Motetz Dam. I’d only assumed you’d be bringing them instead of these three,” she waved a hand at Frank, Marigold, and Aaron.

“My apostles are just outside your territory, I can have them be here within a few minutes,” Gregor said cordially as he walked after her.

The Lilin followed closely after, Carmen saying, “Where did you have in mind to eat?”

Frank, Marigold, and Aaron paused for a moment in the Lamia’s house.

Aaron said, “Well, if that wasn’t the most frighteningly arousing conversation I’ve ever had, I don’t know what is.”

Frank rasped, “I don’t like her.”

“Neither do I, and you didn’t see me complaining,” Marigold countered.

“So,” Aaron said, “we’re trying to get the dragon lady to sign on with our whatever-this-is-that-no-one-will-explain-to-me?”

“Basically,” said Frank.

“And if she doesn’t like our offer, we’ll get thrown out of the city.”

“That’s optimistic,” Marigold said as she and Frank left to go after the others. “More likely, she’ll try to rip us to shreds.”

Aaron stood there for another moment before walking after them. He absentmindedly tried to pull the door shut by the door knocker, but when he touched the iron he felt a jolt like electricity and his ethereal hand seemed to blur and went numb. No. Not numb. Numb implies a sort of tingling sensation, and the awareness that the body part was still there. He ceased to have a hand. He may as well have never had a hand. The spectral form of his hand had faded utterly out of clarity and was now nothing more than a general yellowish haze. Slowly the appearance, and existence of the phantom appendage (which ironically was the normal version) reappeared. He shook it off and left the door open.

……

The club Vasilisa led them to was only a few blocks from her house. Lizzie wouldn’t be allowed to enter so the blonde, who was apparently named Stella, agreed to lead her elsewhere. Frank tagged along with the Lilin invisibly, afraid he might stand out in a crowd. Vasilisa, Carmen, and Marigold entered the club, ostensibly a dull grey concrete block of a building with a neon sign that read Sanguine. The muscle-bound bouncer waved the Lamia along and nodded to her in recognition. Gregor held Aaron back and told the bouncer, “I’ll be in in a moment, I’m waiting for a few more people.” The bouncer simply stared at the apparently middle-aged man.

Aaron followed Gregor to an alley beside the club, realizing as he walked that the bouncer hadn’t been able to see him. He was, after all, a mere astral projection, essentially the phantom of a living man, more or less unable to interact with anything not infused with magic.

He stood there with Gregor for a moment and was about to say, “So what are we waiting for?” but before he could say a word a barn owl swooped down from the sky and alighted on the ground near them, and at once seemed to dissolve into thick dark fog that reshaped itself into the form of a tall black man wearing a dark blue leisure suit. “Present, sir,” Max said as he caught a large mason jar full of dirt dropped by another, similar owl flying overhead before it too landed and changed shape, this time into a young white man with nervous eyes wearing jeans and a T-shirt. Dick walked over to grab his dirt from Max. “What can we do for you?” A final form flew out of the night, this time that of a large, squealing bat. It fluttered down and took the form of a woman of about twenty, dressed head to toe in black silk and lace with highlights of red, including a short cape, wearing a layer of makeup that verged on face paint, complete with a whited out face, distinctive black eyeliner and bright red lipstick, with roots of blonde peeking through her died-black hair.

Gregor sighed at Ellen. “I’ll never understand why you insist on taking the form of a bat when the owl is so much more efficient.”

“I don’t have many principles, but I stick to them,” she retorted. “And you don’t see me criticizing the big pointless coat and the weird curvy sword do you?”

Gregor shook his head. “The mistress of the area has taken us to her favored feeding spot. You will find her inside with Marigold and Carmen.”

“Oh, good, I’m starving,” Dick said as the group walked out of the alley.

“Be careful,” Gregor warned him.

Ellen addressed Aaron with a smile, “Hi.”

Aaron remembered what Gregor had implied about her earlier. He smiled back, slightly awkwardly. “Hi.” He walked with them up to Gregor. “So you can all do that?”

“The shapeshifting? All Strigoi can. So can some other clans,” Ellen said.

“And you can be whatever you want?”

“I wish. Only certain forms, mostly nocturnal animals. Some clans have a wider range.”

As they reached the door, Gregor told the bouncer, “They’re with us,” indicating his apostles. The bouncer may have raised an eyebrow at the appearance of a man with dress sense from the ‘70s, another lugging a jar of dirt, and a Goth woman, but he let them pass. Aaron looked up at the man, a typical bouncer with a shaved head, staring off into space, oblivious to Aaron’s ghostly presence. He waved a hand in front of the bouncer’s face and the man didn’t flinch, however after a moment he furrowed his brow and let out a breath through his mouth that condensed into a visible cloud in the otherwise hot Miami night.

“Cool,” Aaron muttered as he stepped literally through the door of the club.

The pulsating music of the establishment was nearly deafening, but the voices of the Motetz Dam in the room seemed to cut through the noise and Aaron could hear and locate them oddly clearly. He suspected it had something to do with telepathy. He tried to find a way through the crowd before realizing he could pass right through the crowd, and simply walked through the gyrating bodies of the club’s patrons, who all did nothing more than flinch as he passed as if hit by a sudden cold breeze.

He made his way to Gregor, who was leaning on a wall by the bar, overseeing the room and his associates within it. “How many ‘clans’ are there anyway?” he asked, continuing the conversation from outside.

“Oh, dozens,” Gregor said quietly, though Aaron could hear him perfectly over the music. “Nearly every corner of the Earth has produced a variant or two.”

“Hm. Sorry I’m asking all these questions.”

“No, no, it is perfectly all right.”

“It’s just there’s so much I don’t know. The Hun––the Scavengers have given me their basics but what they know it’s all so…surgical. Defense, tracking, killing. There’s so much I want to know.”

“Like what?” Gregor said invitingly.

“Well––I––” Aaron racked his brain for something to ask. There was something he’d been meaning to ask about almost since he’d been introduced to this whole world, but it was of a more personal nature, and he thought he ought to lead up to it gradually. Eventually he said the first thing that came to mind, “What about Vlad the Impaler? And Elizabeth Báthory?”

“Historical psychopaths. What about them?”

“So they weren’t–– Oh, come on! I mean, he would have his dinner as he watched men slowly die of impalement. She would lure young girls to her castle and bathe in their blood in an attempt to preserve her youth.”

“My boy, if every psychopathic national leader and beauty-obsessed crone were an undead, the human race would have been overthrown long ago.”

Aaron laughed despite the fact that Gregor was being serious. “I’m sorry. That was a stupid question.”

“Yes. It was.”

Aaron laughed again and looked out over the crowd with him for a moment. Then he said, “What’s it like? Coming back from the dead?”

Gregor inhaled sharply through his nose. “Do you remember being born?”

“No, of course not.”

“Neither do I, particularly,” Gregor said and walked into the crowd.

Aaron almost told him to wait, told him that he needed to ask more questions, to ask if he knew who his father was. But he didn’t. He let Gregor walk away into the crowd. He’d ask him later, he told himself. It could wait, couldn’t it?

Aaron looked out into the club. Carmen and the Lamia danced together in the center of the room, whispering to each other like old friends, every man and a sizable portion of the women either occasionally glancing or outright staring at the two of them. Marigold had gathered her own crowd of young men dancing around her, running her hands over them in turn with a look between haughty satisfaction and boredom on her face, as if annoyed at being forced to make a choice. Max stood by the bar with an unexpectedly colorful cocktail in hand, overseeing the situation with the stoic calm of a castle watchman. Dick was leading a muscular young man into the men’s room, apparently having already made his choice of entrée. Ellen was sitting on a small, high table meant to be stood at, sipping a martini and playfully ignoring mens’ advances.

Aaron thought again about what Gregor had said when he asked where his apostles were. What he had implied about him and Ellen.

“Oh,” Ellen said through a static smile. “That’s a nice trick.” With a careless thought Aaron’s spectral form had vanished where it was and appeared beside her.

“Yeah. Barely have to think about it,” he said, trying to keep annoyance out of his voice. “Hey.”

“Hi,” she said quietly, not looking at the empty space that he occupied. She blushed a bit. “Again.”

“Right. So, uh, how long have you been with Gregor?”

She glanced at him this time. “Are you asking me how old I am?”

“No, I––” Dammit, this was hard. “Forget it. Why so coy with the guys here, aren’t you, well––”

“Hungry?”

“Yeah, that.”

“Sure. I’m just,” she waved the martini in her hand to indicate the crowd as a whole, “surveying my options first.”

“Ah. The people you––feed on, you don’t––uh––”

“Kill them?”

“––Uh––Yeah.”

“No. Last thing we want is to draw attention to ourselves. A little sip, here and there, fills us up just fine.”

“So they walk away a bit anemic with a bite mark.”

“Bite heals pretty fast, actually. Side effect.”

“But doesn’t that leave them––y’know––infected?”

“Don’t worry about it. Vampires like Frank and his lackeys, they can’t control that, but us Strigoi, we have a bit more control. Usually doesn’t pass on unless we want it to. Really want to, for those of us who have been turned. Besides, the Scavengers taint the water with ashes to cure any random affected.”

“You know about that?”

“Not hard to figure out. There’d be a lot more of Frank running around.”

“He does have a lot of people he’s turned with y––us.”

“He didn’t turn all of them. Some just popped up and he took command.”

“He can do that?”

“He’s pretty old. And powerful. And they’re confused. They seek out guidance and Frank somehow seems like a good source.”

Aaron looked out over the club and found Gregor chatting with a young woman who was clearly a bit tipsy.

“Ellen,” he said, “do you know Gregor’s master plan?”

She snorted. “Oh, no. Nobody knows what’s going on in Gregor’s head. I don’t think anybody’s ever gotten a grip on all of what that old bastard is planning.”

“No one?”

She shrugged dramatically, a bit of her drink sloshing out of its glass. “Marigold probably knows a good chunk of the plan. Carmen a bit less, and she wouldn’t hide anything from Stella. Frank might know bits and pieces, but I guarantee he doesn’t know as much as he thinks he does. Max, by simple virtue of being around Gregor so much, may have figured a few things out. Besides that we’re only told what we need to know.”

“That doesn’t worry you?”

“Of course not,” Ellen said as she slid off the table. A fit, handsome young man with a swimmer’s body was approaching, and she had apparently made her choice. As she turned away from him to set down her drink she said to Aaron, “Gregor made me what I am. He’s been like a father to me for a long time. I have no reason not to trust him.”

Which Aaron thought sounded like something someone who’d been brainwashed might say.

As Ellen left went off with the gentleman Aaron looked back into the crowd. Vasilisa and Carmen had split off from each other and were each dancing with someone else, their meals-to-be no doubt. Vaslilisa had chosen a tall, well-dressed man and Carmen danced with an attractive woman in a cocktail dress.

With another thought Aaron was by the bar next to Gregor. The old Strigoi turned to see him and excused himself from the young woman he was talking with.

“Sorry,” Aaron said, “am I interrupting?”

“Do not fret about it. I am not terribly hungry anyway. At my age, I can live on a pint a month. What is it?”

“Remind me again why we’re dealing with snake lady. Who, by all reports, can and may kill us all on a whim.”

“Simple. Every Motetz Dam who knows her name, fears her. More than that, they respect her. As do a number of other entities. If it were known that she stood with us, there are not many who would stand against us. She would give us an outstanding word of credibility.”

“She’s really that big a badass?”

“You saw her in her true form. She is ancient. Elder than I. No Scavenger has come to Miami since she has been here because she does not let anything else set foot on her territory without a damn good reason, and she is careful enough that her own feeding never sticks out beyond the standard rate of missing persons.”

“If all that’s true, what makes you think she’ll sign up with us?”

“Our cause definitely has certain long term benefits to her. And it would not infringe on her lifestyle too drastically, all it would take is her complacence. If she sees reason, she will join.”

“And if she doesn’t?”

“Then we still have an opportunity to gain the respect of the Motetz Dam in the area.”

“How?”

“We can kill her,” he said calmly.

……

“That’s why he had me come, isn’t it?” Aaron whispered as they walked back to the Lamia’s house. She, the three Lilin, and the four Strigoi Mort walked up ahead, talking, while Aaron, Marigold, and Frank lagged behind. “You guys are all tough, but you’re not flame-throwing ghosts.”

Frank grunted in response. “Called you a secret weapon.”

“It goes deeper than that,” Marigold said. “What you did to the Vampires in that cave made the weaker members of the community think you were a threat to them. If you’re the one who kills her, suddenly you’re a liberator.”

“You mean an attack dog,” Aaron said. “It’s Gregor showing he has the Live One under control.”

“Maybe.”

“Maybe my ass. He’s not used to his inferiors being out of his control. You’ve heard the way Ellen and his other apostles talk about him?”

Frank shrugged. “To trust the man that turned you is instinctual. It’s not unfounded in this case.”

“And they do have their own free will,” Marigold reassured him.

“Even still. If things go south with Snake Eyes, Gregor expects me to take her down, no questions asked.”

Frank and Marigold glanced at each other. She said, “Do you suppose that you can?”

Aaron thought about it for a moment. “Maybe. Hell, I don’t know, I haven’t exactly been doing this a long time. Those Vampires––hell, she probably could have whipped them all down in half the time I did. That wasn’t exactly hard, they were in an enclosed space, and all sort of lined up for me. I doubt the reptile will let me corner her like that. Also, I passed out afterwards so I’m not likely to get two shots.

“Besides, the power, the energy I use, it doesn’t come from nowhere. I have to absorb it from the life around me. That wasn’t so hard in the tunnel. There was a tree right above me, a few more scattered around me, we were near a forest, I think. There was grass. Birds. Rich soil full of bacteria and fungus and worms. Fucking chipmunks. I used fire for maybe 10 seconds and I took it out of everything within a half mile of me. Here, there’s––sand. Palm trees and beach life might help, but I’m not sure what my range on psychic vampirism is. Plus there are people here. I think in the tunnel I subconsciously shielded Mar––the Scavengers, but I’m afraid if I try anything big here I could give everyone in Miami a heart attack at once.”

“So be it,” Frank said.

Aaron blinked at him. “I thought you guys tried to keep a low profile?”

“If it’s what needs to be done, it’s what needs to be done.”

“Well, aren’t you melodramatic.” Marigold said. “Keep it low energy if you can, Aaron. The rest of us will be there too. Anyway, hopefully it won’t come to that at all. Maybe she’ll be reasonable.”

“And maybe she’ll offer us a basket of apples to go home with,” Aaron said. They glanced at him. “Yeah, she’s a snake, I heard it as I said it.” He was quiet for a few steps and then said, “If it comes to it, I’ll do my best, but I can’t make any promises.”

The others were already inside when the three of them reached the Lamia’s house. As they entered Vasilisa was already lowering herself into the hot tub, naked, the clothes she’d been wearing scattered on a beeline from the door. Aaron briefly wished he hadn’t lagged behind before the image of her true form shot into his mind.

“So is that really all you want, Strigoi?” Vasilisa asked Gregor. He was about to respond when she said, “Any of you who wish may join me in here.”

Frank took a step forward but Gregor held him back with a hand. Aaron stifled a sigh of relief at not having to see the walking corpse disrobe. No one else moved.

“Yes,” Gregor said. “All we ask is your publicly stated allegiance.”

“I’m not a very public person,” she retorted, shifting as to very nearly lift her breasts out of the bubbling water. “I went to much trouble to secure my hold on this city, to rid it of all others of our kind. Becoming a subordinate member of a power bloc seems…counterintuitive to that effort.” Gregor didn’t stir at her words. “That is what you’re doing is it not? You claim to be a movement, but look at who you’re collecting as members. A family of respected Lilin. One of the eldest and most powerful Vampires in the country. That crusty old Strix and his avian retinue. How long did it take you to hunt down an actual, living Strigoi Viu? And now me. You couldn’t care less about simply influencing the Motetz Dam, you want to––”

“Are you going to stand with us or not?” Gregor said.

In a flash of dark green the Lamia had resumed her scaly form, lunged herself from the tub with her massive tail, sending hot water splashing across the room, and halted herself half an inch before hitting Gregor, staring with manically wide, slit-pupil eyes into his. Gregor never flinched, though probably everyone else in the room did. The Lamia hissed, “Do not interrupt me, you whining piece of petrified shit.”

Well, I guess that makes sense, Aaron thought in that particular instant. He knew that there were more important things going on, that this was probably the last time to go around noticing things like this, but for a fleeting moment he could only focus on one particular detail: She didn’t have any nipples. It made some degree of sense, given she was a reptile at the moment.

Shortly after that particular instant Marigold came rushing into the conflict, brandishing long, sharp talons on each finger, her deadly hand already on an arching path towards the Lamia’s head.

In another flash of green motion the remainder of the Lamia’s 20 foot tail shot out of the water and coiled around Marigold’s neck, lifting her off the ground so her head was nearly to the high ceiling. Marigold raked at the python grip about her neck with both taloned hands, but any scratches she made were clearly superficial and the Lamia showed no sign of pain or mercy. “Ooh,” the serpent cooed, mocking pain. “Ouchie.”

I knew it! Aaron thought, again focusing on the trivial as Marigold’s elevation allowed him to see clearly that she did, in fact, have cloven hooves instead of feet. Also that the carpet matched the drapes. Dammit, focus.

“Aaron!” he heard Gregor growl. He snapped to attention and saw that the Motetz Dam all had their blades out and faced the Lamia armed. Gregor held out the curved yatagan sword he hid in his coat and eyed him, arching his head to the Lamia. Aaron drew in the power of the life around him, the houseplants around him withering in response, and threw his arms out toward the Lamia. A flood of scarlet flame rushed out from his entire spectral form like water from a dam towards the serpentine threat.

In another flash of movement the creature’s tail flicked Marigold away  as if she were a crumb, sending her careening through one of the room’s large windows as well as a portion of the wall next to it. The tail whipped around the room, sending an arching wave through the hot tub and in a blink wrapped itself around Aaron’s throat and lift him off the ground as it had Marigold.

Aaron supposed he didn’t need to breathe as an astral projection, but someone really ought to tell his brain that. He struggled to inhale through the Lamia’s grip. The fire he had sent out splashed against her, igniting her hair and provoking a mild grunt of discomfort, but otherwise leaving her unharmed. Within her grip he tried to use cold as he had before, to freeze her tail where it touched his skin, but as he tried, her grip only tightened, discouraging further attempt. He considered throwing waves of pure telekinetic energy at her but before he could even form the thought she had tightened again.

“Get out of my city,” the Lamia hissed, “or I’ll rip your pet’s psyche in half. His body may not be here for me to play with, but with what I have planned I doubt he’ll wake up sane, if he wakes up at all.”

She can do that!? Aaron thought as he writhed in her grip, trying to transport somewhere else but finding that her constricting grip made it hard to concentrate. Of course it would be hard now.

Aaron couldn’t see what was below him very well, but he heard a growl that he thought might belong to Frank edge towards the Lamia. “We’re going,” Gregor said, cutting Frank’s growl short. Aaron managed to crane his compressed neck around enough to see the entire group of the Motetz Dam back slowly out of the door, Gregor shepherding them all out behind him. “Don’t fucking leave me with her!” Aaron tried to say. As the last of them left the building Gregor held his sword out in front of him and began to close the door. Suddenly he grasped the iron door knocker and ripped it from the wood, throwing it with the speed of a professional pitcher…directly at Aaron.

The iron hit him like a bowling ball falling into a tub full of water. At first it burned in his side where it hit him, but then the pain fell to the same not-numbness he’d felt in his hand earlier, as if he no longer quite was where it hit anymore. The sensation spread through the knocker’s path through his body and spread outward in a wave. Like a puff of air it went to his head, and suddenly he was no longer choking, as if the serpent grip had fallen away––no, fallen through him––no, it was he that had fallen through it. And suddenly there was no room. No Lamia, no Motetz Dam at all. No anything. Not even him. There was no darkness, only the blindness. No silence, only deaphness. No sensation, no hot nor cold, only the total lack of anything but thought. All this happened in the span of an instant.

Am I dead? Aaron thought. Should I be capable of wondering if I’m dead if I’m dead? He remembered being put under anesthetic to get his wisdom teeth removed, and supposed this could be considered a comparable experience, if substantially more, or perhaps less, intense. Imagine being the puff of smoke that remains after a firecracker has gone off. To be so ethereal, so transparent and gaseous that you can barely be said to exist at all, especially compared to the flash that came before.

Suddenly the firecracker went off in reverse.

Aaron awoke in the bunk in the RV, wholly physical, and thrashed violently until he fell on the floor. Clive picked him up by the collar of his jacket and deposited him back on the bed. He was breathing quickly and raggedly.

“What the hell happened?” Clive asked. “A minute ago you started making choking sounds, then you went dead quiet for a second and then fell on your arse!”

Aaron waved his hand in front of him to indicate that none of that was important. He took a moment to catch his breath and looked around the RV. Richie was driving. Marcy’s head poked into his vision from the bunk above him, her eyes bleary but worried. When he felt ready Aaron rasped, “What do you guys know about Miami?”

Marcy and Clive looked at each other. Richie even craned his neck around to look back at them.

“It’s a notorious blank spot,” Marcy said. “Big city, but nothing goes down there that would bring any sort of hunter out of his way.”

“There’s a reason for that. How fast can you get a team down there? A well-armed team?”

……

The soon-to-rise sun was painting the ocean horizon all shades of vibrant red as Aaron reappeared in the Lamia’s beach house. It bore a few differences from when he’d first seen it. The hot tub was nearly empty of water, and the carpets and furniture around it were darkly wet. Many of the exotic plants had withered into shades of brown from Aaron’s use of power. The window and the portion of the adjacent wall Marigold had been thrown through remained gaping and open, letting in the smell of sea-brine. The front door had been all but torn off its hinges, which Aaron hadn’t seen happen, so he assumed it was the Lamia’s reaction to Gregor throwing that door knocker at him.

Vasilisa, in her human form, stepped out from the other room naked, holding a mug that read “World’s Best Grandma” full nearly to the brim with blood. Her feet had tiny scratches on them, as if she’d been attacked by a cat, presumably the aftereffect from Marigold’s fruitless attack. When she saw Aaron in her living room her unblinking eyes became wide with insane fury.

“You again!” Her green scales rippled over her body, her slender legs merged and elongated into that deadly tail, and her entire form grew into the terrible thing Aaron had come to fear. She slithered at the pace of a fast walk toward him. “I told you to get out of my c––”

In a single moment there was a popping sound and the sound of breaking glass, and the Lamia’s head jerked slightly to one side, a small jet of dark blood erupting just below her left ear. She suddenly held still, shaking slightly, and made a few choked gargling noises.

Doesn’t much matter if you’re human, a walking corpse or a giant slithering monster. When a bullet rips your brainstem in half, it’s gonna at least slow you down.

Even silenced, the sound of gunfire that came next drowned out the sound of the sea. Each of the large window sets on the three exterior walls of the room shattered and sent shards of deadly glass flying inward. The Lamia’s entire body jerked in every direction as precision-aimed iron bullets ripped through her. Blood too dark to belong to a human splashed over the furniture. Over the din of flying bullets something that could vaguely be called a scream could almost be heard. One of her arms was ripped off, sent twirling through the air like a tossed baton.

After about thirty seconds quiet returned. The Lamia wavered slightly, then fell with a squish to the floor. Its tail twitched every so often. Its body resembled deli meat that had been left in the sun too long more than anything else. Her right shoulder was a mass of bloody tissue. The arm that once hung from it lay on the other side of the room, and the left one wasn’t much better off. Her jaw was practically hanging by a thread, and blood somehow still flowed from a hole in her skull the size of a man’s palm. Her reptilian eyes still stared out in fury at Aaron.

A vehicle screeched to a stop in front of the house a moment later, and van doors slid open. A young Hispanic woman in police armor stepped through one of the shattered windows brandishing a machete. The Lamia made a few quiet gurgling noises as the blade came down on her throat. Aaron saw a dark red aura wash over what was left of the body from where the head was removed.

A group of men and women in surgical scrubs came in through the same window holding a tarp and bottles of bleach. They moved quickly and dumped the ground serpent onto the tarp to be carried away.

Eva looked up from her bloodied machete and glared directly at Aaron. He had no doubt that her Sight allowed her to see him as clearly as the Vampires did. “Tell the Vamp Hunter they owe us for stepping out of our niche,” she said to him. Then she added, with a minute smile of reluctant approval, “Freak.”

“Will do,” Aaron said. He felt a sudden wave of clarity pass through him as it had before. With a thought he moved from the decimated house to a spot on the beach some ways away. He and Gregor could see it in the distance as men with rifles ran from the beach.

“I can’t stay long,” Aaron said, “they might notice a time difference.”

“I will not argue. You should leave before the sun rises. How did you get them to come?” Gregor asked.

“Told them I had a dream,” he lied. “Said it was probably nothing but they should send someone out in case it was me seeing through the psychic link. Guess I was right.”

“Do they know that you were in there?”

“They still don’t even know I have this ability. That was just me edging her into their sights.”

“Clever. Sorry I had to disperse you with iron earlier, there was unfortunately no other way to get you out of her grip.”

“Oh, is that what you did? Felt like you injected me with distilled existentialism. But it was sure as hell better that the chokehold. Thanks. Till next time.”

Aaron woke up again in the lower bunk of the RV. Richie was driving, Clive sat at the table and Marcy was sitting by his side. “It work?” she said.

“Perfectly. I drew her out just like we planned and a second later she was Swiss cheese.”

“And you’re sure the Vampires won’t suspect you?”

“I doubt they’ll even realize for a while,” he lied again. “They were already out of there, and from what I can tell, telepathy only goes so far and news travels pretty slowly with them. Besides, I told them that you guys got a good enough look at all of them back in LA to put out a description, so they should buy the idea that someone in the club was part of the Hunter community that saw them and put two and two together.”

“Alrighty!” Clive said, clapping his hands together jovially. “Not a bad night for our side! Took down some lizard-bitch with the run of an entire city, finally explained what the deal always was with Miami, and threw a major wrench in Greg and Company’s schemes to boot!”

“I’ve read about Lamias,” Richie said, “talked to people who’d fought them. Most of them were missing friends and limbs. We were damn lucky we could get it by surprise like that before it could join up with that group.”

That may have been the closest Richie had ever come to paying Aaron a compliment.

Not a bad night at all.

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