My name is Ileana. I am an ambassador of the Nosferatu vampires, specifically the Nictuku clan. After Cinder and Halifax were cast out, I became a full-time employee of Necessarius, helping them smooth over some of the more difficult Nosferatu bloodlines—which is to say, all of them.
The point was, the last place I should be was a battlefield.
I dove behind a car as bullets hit the pavement where I had been standing. The American soldiers still had those light amplification goggles on, which meant they could actually see me. We were on one of the side streets near East Gate, pretty far from the Dragon’s ambush spots. There were no angels to drop a daybreak and force the soldiers to take the goggles off. And of course this was vampire territory, so there wasn’t a flashlight within twenty blocks.
The soldiers fired again, bullets pinging off the car. It wouldn’t hold up against them for long. Weren’t Americans supposed to be soft and hesitant? They shouldn’t be willing to shoot at an unarmed observer!
Of course, the soft and the hesitant generally didn’t join the army, much less the infantry. And then the Dragon had decided to use ambush and terror tactics to scare them, make them sloppy. Well, that seemed to be working, it was just gonna get me killed in the process.
I had claws and poison fangs, but that wasn’t anywhere near enough for me to win a fight with five armed men. I didn’t even have any armor, let alone the sort of bulletproof black carapace that Halifax had been so fond of.
I did have one thing, though.
I took a deep breath and tugged at my reservoir, the fuel source for my power. I wasn’t like some people, the ones who never used their powers for one reason or another. Some didn’t want anything given to them by the Composer, some were former screamers who got powers that didn’t fit them, and some were just lazy.
I trained with my power. I knew how to use it. It was too valuable not to practice with it daily. The source was irrelevant.
No, the problem was that I wasn’t used to having to use my power while I was being shot at.
Every bullet that got too close affected my concentration, making it harder to draw out my power. None hit, none even got close. But every time something pinged off that car, I couldn’t help but think that sooner or later, the bullets would punch through and hit me…
Unless I did this.
I took a deep breath, and projected an illusion.
Suddenly, there was a copy of me crouching on the sidewalk behind the car with me. She looked exactly like me, from the dirt on her face to the black eyes to the singed hair. She should; self-projection was the most common illusion I used. Half the time these days I didn’t even talk to people face to face, I just projected an illusion of myself around the corner and let them talk to that. It had already saved my life twice.
I sent her running off in one direction, keeping her low as those she was trying to stay out of sight. The truth, of course, was the opposite. The soldiers needed to see her, because otherwise they might see me.
The shooting paused briefly, then redirected. Gunfire ricocheted off mailboxes and cars farther up the street.
“C’mon!” I heard one soldier yell, and then the sound of running boots.
I stayed still for a few moments, waiting to see if anyone was still there. When I didn’t hear anything, I crept out of my hiding place. I was safe.
Which, unfortunately, was a problem.
If I was safe, someone else wasn’t. My phone had broken in the scuffle. By the time I found someone and sent nightstalkers to deal with these soldiers, they would be long gone. They could do some real damage to our ambushes if they came at us from the right angle. Bashing around backstage, my friend had called it.
With no other choice, I crept forward in the direction the soldiers had gone. I was hoping I would find a radio or a phone or something. My only option was to hope I could somehow use my illusions to trick the soldiers into shooting each other. They might be high-strung, but I had a feeling it would be harder than it sounded.
At least they weren’t making any attempt to be stealthy. I heard them when I was still a street away. Their voices echoed off the empty streets and tall buildings as if they were in a deep cave.
I shivered. Empty streets in Domina City. Even during the Composer’s reign, it hadn’t been this bad. Yes yes, tactics and strategy rather than fear and bloodshed, but still, it brought to mind the worst moments of those days. They weren’t gone long enough that I could just ignore the similarities.
As I got closer, I actually managed to hear what the men were saying.
“Where’d she go?”
“I dunno, Sarge. You think she doubled back?”
“Don’t see how. She probably just slipped into a house or shop or whatever these places are.” I heard someone spit. “Keep your eyes peeled. She’s definitely a spy.”
“She’s just a kid, Sarge.”
“She had claws and fangs, Corporal. She looked like a damned monster. Why would she look like that, if she wasn’t planning to use it?”
Because it was fashionable, you uncultured brute.
A new voice, younger and female, piped up. “Sarge, we’re getting a bit off the beaten path here. You think we should head back?”
I froze. If they headed back, they’d find me. Should I project another illusion?
“Let me see that map,” the sergeant said. There was a pause. “We’re not too far from the gate. Let’s set up a forward outpost here. Corporal, recon that shop, it will do for a start. We’re going to hunker down, shoot anything that comes close.”
“Yessir,” the Corporal said. “You two, with me.”
My mind raced. What should I do now? I couldn’t tell if this was better or worse than them continuing on. If they kept going, they might blunder into something important. It would be hard to dig them out of the shop, but it was better than letting them walk a few more streets and find the orphanages, right?
I was close enough to see them now. There were six of them. Three were heading towards a blood shop. The other three had their backs to the shop, watching the streets. Their guns were lowered, but not forgotten. If someone attacked, they’d have them up in less than a heartbeat.
The shop was abandoned, or at least the first floor was. The streets were deserted, but a lot of people lived out here, above their shops or factories or storehouses. If the soldiers decided to sweep the entire building, they could find innocent bystanders on the upper levels. Well, for a given definition of innocent, anyway. The point was, they needed to be stopped before this could escalate any further.
Evidently, someone agreed.
There was a scream from inside the shop. All three men still out on the street turned, guns raised and pointed in that direction. They spread out wide, trying to cover all exits from the shop at once. The problem was that it was a corner, so they’d have to expose themselves to do so.
“Corporal?” the Sergeant called, advancing slowly. “Report!”
His only response was another scream.
He never saw the vampire sneaking up behind him, a wicked long knife held in his hand.
The blade was darkened with ash, a common practice for the Mals. He stepped up right behind the Sergeant and clapped a hand over his mouth while slitting his throat in the same motion. He caught the body, lowering it slowly to the ground, and kept an eye on the other two soldiers. They hadn’t noticed yet, but he had seconds left, if that.
I wanted to use my illusions to help, but the only sound I could project was my own voice. I doubted I could pass for the Sergeant. Maybe if I—
But it was already too late. One of the other soldiers glanced in the direction of the Sergeant and saw the Mal.
“Contact!” the American yelled, opening fire. His companion joined suit a heartbeat later, and I almost jumped at the sudden staccato of gunfire. I was not built for this.
The Mal yelped and tried to run, but the bullets ripping through his leg and torso slowed him down too much. I concentrated and created an illusion of him, which I sent running into the blood shop. The soldiers followed it, but I’d be surprised if it kept them occupied for more than ten seconds.
I rushed over to the Mal’s side. I threw his arm over my shoulder, ignoring the fact that my heart was in my throat.
To his credit, the Mal didn’t waste time or breath trying to figure out who I was. He just struggled to his feet, hissing, and started limping away from the battle. I had to half-carry him most of the way.
“Hey!” one of the soldiers cried. “They’re over here!” Bullets hit the car next to us.
“Any ideas?” I asked.
The Mal groaned. “No. What’s your power—”
The car next to us burst into flame, and we both threw ourselves to the ground instinctively. But despite what television would have you believe, cars don’t explode at the drop of a hat. This one had probably caught from a one in a million shot, a bullet hitting just the right part of the generator. It wouldn’t get any worse than it was right now.
But a burning car is still pretty bad, especially in vampire territory. The Mal and I both cursed and stumbled away, blinded as easily as a baseline staring at the sun. My eyes were watering and my vision completely white—I couldn’t see two steps in front of me.
But at least we had experience getting blinded. I heard more cursing behind us, the sound of the Americans ripping off their light amplification goggles. They’d recover quickly. We only had seconds.
The Mal dragged us up a few steps, which probably meant into an abandoned storefront. I tripped and stumbled over something on the ground, but he threw me behind a counter instead of just letting me fall on the floor.
I took a deep breath, blinking to allow my eyes to adjust. There was still the fire outside the window, but it was far enough away. There were enough walls between us and it that it was just radiant rather than blinding.
I glanced around the shop. It was a magazine library, with pads and computers chained to desks so that people could read the latest editions of this, that, or the other thing. There were more rooms upstairs, but I didn’t want to lead the soldiers up there in case there were people hiding up there.
“What’s your power?” the Mal, sitting next to me, asked.
He got right down to business, didn’t he? “Illusions. But I think they’re getting wise. You?”
I stared at him. “That’s it?”
He shrugged. “I used to be a Belian. Seemed pretty nice to me at the time.”
I took a deep breath. “Okay. Fine. Please tell me you have backup. Someone else had to have taken out the soldiers in the blood shop.”
“They did, but I don’t know what happened to them. One of the soldiers must have got a good hit in. Still, I’m pretty sure we’re down to two bad guys.” He looked me over, frowning. “How good are you with those claws?”
“I can open bottles. That’s about it. I’m not a fighter.”
“Aren’t you a ferret?”
“Nosferatu,” I corrected automatically. “And I’m not the one who got shot half-dead.”
He frowned, but didn’t press the point one way or another. “They’re going to figure out where we went soon.” He flipped a knife off his belt. “Can you take him out?”
I looked at his knife, then shook my head firmly. “I’m not a fighter.”
“Yes, I heard you the first time.” He sighed. “I’ll have to do it.”
I grabbed his arm before he could get up. “You’re still injured!”
“I have healing buffs. I’ll be fine.”
“We both know it’s not that easy! Even if you have troll-level buffs, you need a few minutes.”
“Use one of your illusions to distract them.”
“I told you, they’re getting wise. And there are no more vampire patrols in the area.” I sighed. “I didn’t want to do this, but we need to go upstairs. There might be someone up there, somewhere, that can help us.”
The Mal looked hesitant. “Nyashk ordered us not to involve civilians.”
I rolled my eyes. “It’s Domina City. Do we even have civilians?” He still looked hesitant. “Look, it’s either we get help, we wait for more Mals—”
“Closest is a mile away,” he said.
“—or we sit here and die. At which point those soldiers might decide to go up the stairs and kill everyone anyway.”
That was a lie. Or a twisted truth, at best. Yes, the soldiers might go on a random killing spree. But American soldiers were known for placing high value on the lives of civilians, even enemy ones. From what I had heard of the battle so far, they seemed to be keeping themselves contained.
There was the tinkle of broken glass outside the shop, followed by a crunch as someone stepped on it. “I think I found something,” one of the soldiers called.
I glared at the Mal, then ran up the stairs.
He cursed under his breath, but followed, swiftly and silently. He made me feel like a lumbering ogre.
Either due to luck or skill, we managed to pass without the soldiers noticing, even as I heard them moving deeper into the store. They’d find the stairs at the back soon enough. They were hidden from the entrance for aesthetic reasons, but nothing more.
The second floor of the building was storage. I left the door open, but otherwise we ignored it. Hopefully it would slow the soldiers down for a few minutes, but that was all we could hope for. We ran up the stairs again by silent agreement.
Third floor was more storage, while fourth was an apartment—an empty one. As was the fifth.
“Noapte adâncă,” I cursed under my breath. “E ca si cum universul conspira împotriva noastră.”
“I didn’t understand half of that,” the Mal panted. “But I don’t think I can keep going.”
I checked his wounds, specifically his chest and leg wounds. They were oozing blood, despite his buffs trying to keep them closed. Running up four flights of stairs had me winded, but it was killing him.
“Sângerare noapte.” I dragged him into the empty apartment, closing the door behind us as quietly as I could. “We need to get you something. A stimpack at least. Have your buffs pushed the bullets out yet?”
“No, but I think there’s only one or two still in me. The rest just went straight through.” He collapsed to the floor. “Deep night… tell me I’m not leaving a blood trail.”
I helped him into a chair. “You’re not.” Of course, I could smell blood from a block away, but these soldiers would have baseline noses. I could barely remember having a nose so weak, but I was pretty sure they wouldn’t be able to track us by scent.
I rummaged through the desk drawers, but I didn’t find anything. No first aid kits, no convenient stimpacks just left lying around. C’mon, there had to be something…
My hand closed on a needle, capped to keep it from poking anything. Hah! Found it! Now I just needed to—
Then I realized that it wasn’t just a needle. It had two smaller vials strapped to either side, ready to mix something into the main syringe at the absolute last second to ensure maximum potency. There was no label, but I didn’t need one. Anyone would recognize this.
Psycho. Belial’s favorite. Increased pain tolerance, aggression, and strength, along with decreased pain awareness, intelligence, and basic reasoning skills. I had seen people buffed with psycho bash straight through a brick wall—without even trying the unlocked door five feet away.
“What is it?” the Mal asked. “What did you find?”
I showed him.
He went silent for a moment. “Oh,” he said quietly. “Well. That would work.”
“No, it wouldn’t,” I said. “Even if not for your power, your body might not be able to hold out.”
“I can turn my power off. And my body will hold. With psycho, a decayed skeleton will get up and kill people.”
“Which brings us to the next problem. I’m sure you don’t mind killing enemy soldiers—”
“I mind a little, but what other choice do we have?”
That derailed me a tiny bit—it was Domina City, who cared about killing people?—but I rallied. “But that’s not the issue here. If you don’t want to use the psycho, that’s fine, but we need something. We’re trapped up here.”
He closed his eyes. “Do it.”
I hesitated, but not for long. “Hold still.” I took his arm, eyeballed the vein, and stabbed in the needle as quickly as possible, wincing as I did. He barely even seemed to notice. A former Belian would never flinch from a needle.
I took a deep breath and pressed the plunger down on the needle.
He twitched, and I pulled out the syringe as fast as I could, before he had a chance to rip it out messily. He bled slightly from the entry would, but it clotted and sealed in seconds as I watched. His buffs really were pretty good.
He stood stock still, like a statue. I couldn’t even see him breathing, but I could smell him exhaling every few seconds, just a tiny bit.
“…Honored Nightstalker?” I asked quietly.
He opened his eyes. They were nighteyes, so they were as pure black as my own, but something about them seemed… crazed. A tint of red, or maybe just a subtle twitch.
“Run,” he hissed through clenched teeth.
I dodged out of the way just in time as he roared in rage and charged head-first towards the stairs. He hit the wall, but just roared again and turned down the stairwell. I didn’t hear what the Americans said when they saw him, but I heard the gunfire, and the answering roar of a man with nothing left in his blood but chemical fire.
I could help him. A few careful illusions in the confusion could be invaluable.
But it would also put me in danger.
As the gunfire from below increased, I opened a nearby window as quietly as I could and slipped outside. The edge was only an inch wide, not even wide enough for my feet, but my claws were sharp and my fingers strong. I managed to cling to the face of the building, slowly sidling along the way until I reached the next one. I opened a window there as well—very nearly falling as I did—and slipped inside.
The gunfire had stopped. It was possible the Mal had killed both the soldiers, but I didn’t hear the roars and rage of a man high on psycho.
I could have saved him.
Instead, I found a corner and sat down with my back against the wall, legs pulled up against my chest.
I wasn’t a fighter.
Behind the Scenes (scene 279)
Ileana has been around for a while, but I haven’t really had a chance to use her. Hopefully this gives a better view of her character.