FIFTEEN YEARS AGO
Isaac rushed over to a corner and retched, emptying his stomach of his last meal. For once, I was happy he didn’t eat much.
None of my soldiers so much as blinked. Considering how much they enjoyed poking fun at him, that said something all by itself. I suspected they were only barely holding back their own bile. Thankfully, I was able to control my own stomach.
The entire building looked like a slaughterhouse. Horrifically mutilated bodies were staked to the walls with various implements, from broken-off chair legs and crowbars to swords and spears. There were a few beds scattered around the floor, with corpses tied to the bare frames with cruel metal wire. In some cases, the victims had been carefully skinned, with strange patterns etched into their muscles or bones.
Blood was everywhere. The walls, the floors…even the ceiling, dripping slowly down like gentle rain. And the smell…the bodies hadn’t been here long, so there wasn’t the cloying scent of rotting meat, but the air was suffused with the sharp iron scent of far too much fresh blood.
“General,” I said calmly. Isaac was expected to be weak. I had to be strong. “Report.”
The recently-promoted General Soun, a thirty-year-old Cambodian and former car thief, nodded a little shakily. “Yes, sir. We’ve cordoned off the entire block. The Norwegians have started a light assault to the west, but we’re holding them off well enough.”
“What about the media?”
“They’re with the English, to the south. We’ve sent orders that they’re not allowed in until they relinquish their weapons.”
I sighed. “That’s unlikely to happen any time soon. We’ll have to issue a statement.”
“Yes sir, I thought you might say that. I have Lieutenant Fitzgerald writing up a draft as we speak.”
Fitzgerald was a relatively new addition, both to the city and to my forces. The various countries of the world still dumped their criminals on us every few months or so. It was the main reason we were staying afloat despite our ridiculously high death rates. The irony of Fitzgerald was that he had been sentenced for plagiarism. Copying stories other people had posted on the internet for free and selling them elsewhere under a pen name and reaping the profits. Now, he was the closest thing we had to a spin doctor.
Still, that wasn’t important right now. “Do we know who did this? The Albanians? The Armenians? Can’t be the Germans…”
The general coughed. “Ah…yes. We know exactly who did this. Perhaps you remember Stefania Dumitru?”
I frowned. “Yes, that Romanian murderer who thinks she’s descended from Dracula. She got a reduced sentence due to her insanity, I believe.” It still wasn’t clear whether Dumitru was really off her rocker or just using a convenient famous name to garner attention. She certainly wasn’t actually descended from Dracula, though. I hadn’t studied Romanian history in too much depth, but to the best of my knowledge he hadn’t had any children. And if he had, they would likely have been killed by his enemies shortly after his death.
“Yeah, that’s her. The thing is…” he glanced over at Isaac.
The doctor struggled to his feet. “I can handle this, Soun, thank you.”
My friend looked much older than he had even a few months ago. He had been playing around with the toy maker, and had used it to add some cosmetic changes, such as wrinkles and gray hair. He probably thought it would make him look more like a scientist.
He took a deep breath before speaking. “You remember those night vision eyes I made? Not actual eyes, of course, just a virus that alters—”
“Isaac,” I prompted.
“Yes, well…Dumitru and her gang bought them. They can all see in the dark now.”
That was…not much of a concern. An extra factor to worry about, true, but hardly worse than anything else they had. Isaac did have a tendency to panic over minor things.
But still, Soun seemed at least as worried. I nodded for the scientist to continue.
“Dumitru has renamed herself Striga. There’s an accent mark in there somewhere, but I’m not sure—”
“A striga is a Romanian witch,” I interrupted before he had a chance to completely derail himself. “I imagine she has a reason for naming herself after an ugly old woman?”
“Well, it’s a witch or a vampire. She is clearly going with the vampire interpretation.” He coughed lightly. “You see…she and hers have named themselves vampires.”
I frowned again. Dumitru…Striga…seemed to have chosen an interesting way of defending herself: Fear. The Romanians had been hit hard recently. I suppose if you were going to form a gang to protect your people, it made sense to choose the most well-known mythological creature of your country. If she did this right, she could terrify her enemies into making mistakes.
I took another look around the room with fresh eyes. The blood was splashed everywhere, but it wasn’t random. Strange sigils and ancient Sumerian runes were etched near the bodies, and I slowly realized that every corpse had a wooden stake thrust through their heart.
“Any word on the gang affiliations of the victims?” That would be the last piece of the puzzle. The Germans had been encroaching on Romanian territory most recently. They would be the most obvious target of this stunt.
Soun stepped forward again. “Well, yes and no, sir. Rather, we’ve determined that there was no known connection between the victims, other than the fact that they all lived in this building. Striga seems to have just killed them because it was convenient.”
I cursed under my breath. “Why can’t anyone in this city ever send messages written in something other than blood?”
The general winced. “Funny you should mention that, sir. There’s something you should see on the thirteenth floor.”
He led Isaac and I up, past twelve more floors of the same unbridled carnage. I realized quickly that the blood dripping from the ceilings wasn’t blood that was on the ceilings—rather, it was dripping through from the floors above.
Killing ‘Striga’ was edging higher up my list of priorities with every floor we climbed.
The thirteenth floor, however, didn’t seem any different from the others. Yes, it was horrifying. Another few dozen people staked to the walls and flayed alive. The entire room, redder than tomatoes. Isaac was retching in the corner again, though at this point he didn’t have anything left to hack up.
But as the leader of Necessarius, I needed to be on top of things at all times. I scanned the room, searching for whatever it was that Soun had considered so important.
Were the bodies laid out in some specific pattern? Not that I could tell. Were there more victims than the other floors? No, if anything there were less. The blood on the walls—
Ah. That was it.
I turned around and peered behind the elbow of the stairwell, the part I hadn’t been able to see coming up. As I suspected, there was a message written there in the blood of the dead.
“The bloody moon is in the sky,” Soun translated. “The vampires have risen.”
A declaration of war. Lovely. “Any information on how many of these ‘vampires’ we’re dealing with?”
“A hundred, at least. Likely more,” the general admitted reluctantly. “Considering the amount of manpower required for something like this, we could be looking at nearly a thousand.”
I frowned. “Terrible as this is, I doubt it would take that many.”
Soun looked uncomfortable. “Ah, sir, you seem to have missed an important part of the message. That’s my mistake, Mary Christina was the one who answered the phone, and I should have known she would just summarize—”
“General,” I growled. “Enough backstory. What am I missing?”
The Cambodian swallowed and nodded. “Yes, sir…see here?” He pointed at something below the message that I hadn’t noticed before, mistaking them as just more bloody scribbles.
“1 din 13,” I read. I narrowed my eyes. “One out of thirteen.” I turned my gaze on my general; he quivered a little, but didn’t falter. “There are twelve more buildings like this?”
Soun just nodded.
“So all of our efforts to contain this have been meaningless.”
“So it seems,” the general grumbled. “I did send men to secure two other sites, but that was before we knew the full extent of the problem.”
I squeezed the head of my cane tightly. We had a genocidal psychopath with a small army on our hands, and now everyone knew it. This would hurt morale.
Right now, we had more immediate concerns. “Send out scouts,” I ordered. “Find the other skyscrapers, and contain them. We need to clean these places up. Start collecting the bodies and scrub down the walls.”
Just as Soun nodded, the lights went out.
I heard the Cambodian curse. “It’s them.”
Of course. Now that they could see in the dark, their first move would always be to kill the lights. This gave them a large advantage over us, especially since it was only the three of us in the room—and Soun was the only dangerous one.
I heard an animalistic hiss from behind me, and turned to see a dark shape in the very dim light leaking in through the windows, prowling in a crouched position. It saw me too, bared long and sharp glistening canines, and leaped towards my throat.
A rifle barked from behind me, the distinctive four-round burst of a Necessarian Saint Euphemia, and the Romanian howled as he took three of the bullets to the chest. The man half-limped, half fell down the stairs, whining like an injured dog.
I had not promoted Soun for no reason. He was quick on his feet, both mentally and physically, and a dead shot. He’d be able to handle one or two ‘vampires’ easily enough, even in the dark.
“Sirs, we need to move. There could be more.”
I nodded, though he couldn’t see me. “You’re right, of course. Isaac, get up.” My fragile bones, even reinforced by the toy maker, still weren’t strong enough to lift him to his feet, but I shook his shoulder, causing him to wince. But when he realized I wasn’t an enemy, I heard him shakily standing upright again.
“I need to check on my men as well,” Soun noted, as he cracked open a small glow-rod, illuminating us all in a soft green light. It wasn’t much, but it would help. “I’ll take point.”
I let him lead without comment. This was his area of expertise, not mine. I had no place second-guessing him.
I almost expected to run into the man who had attacked us on the way down, but he seemed to know better than to try again. We didn’t see anyone at all until we exited the building and walked out onto the sidewalk.
It was like a scene out of a nightmare. There were no lights other than the flashes of muzzle flare as my men defended themselves. Screams tore the night, both the sharp hunting screeches of the Romanians and the terrified cries of my own men.
Soun didn’t so much as flinch. He just cracked a few more glow-rods, tossed them around, and started shooting any vampires that got too close.
“Fall back!” he called. “Into the trucks!”
The soldiers rallied, retreating to the safety of our bulletproof red-striped black vans. Being attacked by creatures out of a horror movie had panicked everyone, but my men were trained well enough to obey orders without question.
Isaac had finally mostly regained his wits, and managed to help me into the back seat of one of the vans. Soun slipped into the passenger seat, and a young woman who’s name escaped me moved behind the wheel and started the engine.
The Romanians screamed at us as we drove off, but that was about it. They hadn’t brought guns—probably to increase the fear factor a little—and they weren’t fast enough to catch us.
I rubbed my forehead; I was sweating buckets. “Soun, update.”
“No casualties reported yet, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time. But at least all five vans are behind us, so that’s a good sign.”
We were at the head of the pack; I glanced back through the rear window and realized he was right. We wouldn’t know for certain until we got back to NHQ, but this at least meant we had enough men left to drive the cars. Could have been worse. Almost was, actually. If the ambush had managed to kill us…
I shivered. I needed to do something. Isaac and I were the linchpins of Necessarius; kill us, and the entire system would fall apart—and with it, the hopes of the city. We needed a new system, better suited to replacing one or both of us.
My musings were cut off by our driver slamming on the brakes, bringing the van to a screeching halt after ten feet of drifting. Behind us, I heard the other vans doing much the same, and there was the sound of at least one crash. I glanced back again. Third van back. It was just dented, but it could have been worse.
I gripped the seat in front of me, cursing the lack of foresight that had left me without a seat belt. “What the hell was that?!”
The driver just nodded at the road in front of us. I followed her gaze, and saw…
A young brunette woman laying in the street, in a pool of what appeared to be her own blood.
I felt my heart stop. I knew who it was. Even though she was lying face-down, the short-sleeved shirt and old jeans were a dead giveaway. No one else would be dressed like that in the middle of the night.
“Christina!” I cried, bolting out of the van as fast as my weakened legs would carry me. I barely heard Soun calling for me to get back in the car.
I collapsed at her side and gingerly touched her neck. There was a pulse. Good. But other than that…I couldn’t see a wound, which was a bit odd. With the way the Romanians were acting, I would have expected them to go for her neck.
“Mary Christina,” I whispered. “Can you hear me?”
She moaned pitifully, and tried to position her arm under her to lever herself up.
“Don’t move,” I ordered, taking her hand in mine.
Isaac sat down next to me, all trace of his normal exuberance gone. “He’s right. We’ll get you loaded up in the van, take you back home, and get you fixed up, I promise.”
I glared daggers at him. “Unless she is lutum informis, yes?”
My old friend winced, and I immediately felt terrible. “C’mon, Artemis, I’m sorry about that…”
Before I could apologize, however, I heard Soun behind me. “Sirs, I need you to step away from that woman.”
I looked up and was surprised to find three men plus my general standing in front of the van, weapons ready. “Soun, what are you doing? It’s Mary Christina. She’s one of us.”
But he wasn’t about to give up that easily. “Sir, we have no proof its her. This could be a trap.” Gunfire echoed from further behind us, and he cursed under his breath in Khmer. “We don’t have time. Please sirs, if it is her we’ll make sure she’s taken care of.”
After only a moment’s hesitation, I nodded, grunting with effort as I used my cane to struggle to my feet. He was right, and if my emotions hadn’t been clouding my judgment, I would have given the order myself. This was a perfect opportunity for an ambush. Even assuming this really was Mary Christina, the Romanians could be using her as bait, waiting for us to let our guards down before attacking.
Soun nodded to one of his men, who moved forward quickly but carefully. He knelt down next to the woman—his comrades keeping their weapons ready the entire time—and flipped her over as gently as possible.
The woman was a bit plain, but not necessarily in a bad way. Normally, she would have been quite attractive. But right now, with her long brown hair clotted with blood, her face covered in deep scratches black with dirt, and a deep and bloody wound in her shoulder, she just looked like someone in need of urgent medical attention.
“Christina,” I whispered. Then I shook my head; we needed to be quick. “General, get Miss Asimov into the van, if you would. I want the convoy moving again before more Romanians catch up.”
My men moved with the same military efficiency as always, pulling out a collapsible stretcher and strapping her in. After quickly binding her shoulder—which looked like a gunshot wound, oddly enough—they put her in the back of the van, and I sat next to her on the floor, though Isaac took one of the seats. We were off again in less than ten minutes.
“When we get to NHQ, do you think you can patch her up?” I asked my old friend.
But Isaac was distracted, drumming his fingers against the armrest. “Something’s not right,” he muttered. “Red dusk, it’s not right. I only gave twenty people those eyes. How are there so many of them?”
“Arty. She said…” Mary Christina tried to speak, gulping down great gasps of air.
I gripped her hand. “Shh.”
She shook her head. “That woman…attacked. Said…” she coughed, and grinned weakly. “Her mother gave her the designs…for the eyes. And…a toy maker.”
I frowned. “Her mother? Who the hell—”
Then I stopped.
She wouldn’t have been that stupid. She couldn’t possibly have—
I pulled out my satellite phone and slammed the first number on my speed dial. Not that it mattered. There weren’t really that many people in the city with portable phones. Mary Christina had an idea about setting up ‘cell towers,’ but I didn’t know enough about technology to understand the cost or implications. She had been planning on giving me a briefing tomorrow afternoon, though that would probably need to be put on hold.
After a few rings, the person on the other end picked up, and a sweet young voice spoke. “Hello? Mister Butler?”
I resisted yelling by an effort of will—that would hardly make her answer any faster. But I still didn’t have time for pleasantries. “Did you give someone a toy maker and eye designs?”
“Uh-huh,” she answered immediately and guilelessly. “The sad lady with the black eyes wanted to let her friends see in the dark.”
Black eyes…Striga. It had to be. Or maybe one of her cronies, but it was definitely Striga’s doing. “Where did you even get those?”
“I always know where everything is,” she said, a little indignant.
Well, she was a smart and cunning little girl. Yes, she had been tricked, but that was hardly unexpected, at her age. “Why did you give those things to her? They weren’t yours to give.”
“She said they were,” she insisted. “She said I’m the Mother, so it’s all mine.”
I closed my eyes. That stupid ‘mother’ thing. Isaac and I knew things would change when we introduced the toy maker, but this was not expected.
“Thank you for your help, dearest,” I said finally, not knowing what else I could do. “I’ll talk to you when I get home.”
“Okay, Mister Butler,” she replied cheerfully, and hung up.
I let the bulky phone fall into my lap. All our plans and security…wasted, because of one naïve and trusting child.
“Sir,” Soun said from the front. “I have news.”
I didn’t bother turning around. “Let’s hear it.”
“Striga has made an announcement. She is offering the eyes to anyone who wants them, so long as…” he paused, likely reading something on the van’s extremely expensive built-in computer. “so long as ‘they are willing to fight for their freedoms.’”
I snorted. “Coming from her, that means the freedom to take whatever they want.”
But I finally understood the point of all this. Getting the eyes and the toy maker, attacking the lab and Mary Christina, the massacres, this announcement…it finally made sense.
She wasn’t warning others away. She was calling them to arms. Arms against who? Everyone, probably. But most especially Necessarius.
I shook my head. This was just one crazy woman and her followers. Kill Striga, and these ‘vampires’ would no longer be a threat.
This wasn’t something worth getting worked up over.
Behind the Scenes (scene 96)
Mary Christina Asimov survives being shot by Striga. Just, you know, in case you weren’t sure. And no, she is not lutum informis. At this point in time, the only clays in the city are Artemis Butler, a young boy named Ryan Hearing, and an old woman named Anupama Sharma.