Crouching Vampire, Hidden Fang (Page 3)

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“Last One Standing Shelter, this is Pia. No, I'm sorry, our shelter is closed until the end of the month. We're having some remodeling work done to the buildings, and the animals have been moved to a temporary shelter so as not to be disturbed by the construction and such.” I tapped on the keyboard and pulled up the information on the caller. She was cleared for adoption, but hadn't made up her mind yet on which dog she wanted. A couple entered the office and, after looking around for a moment, headed for my desk. I covered the mouthpiece of the phone. “I'll be with you in just a sec.”

The woman smiled and nodded, and wandered over to look at the board with pictures of all the available senior pets for which the temporary shelter was currently serving as home. I gave the caller only half of my attention, watching the woman and wondering why she looked familiar.

“Yes, you can come by the dogs' temporary housing, although we won't be conducting any adoptions until the remodeling is finished. You're welcome.” I hung up the phone and gave the man standing at the reception counter a bright, professional smile. “Can I help you?”

“Do you run this shelter?” he asked, looking around the office.

“No, I'm just the Internet guru and fund-raising administrator. I'm afraid our office is closed. I'm just about to leave myself, actually. We're having some remodeling done, and-“

“You're Pia,” the man interrupted.

“Yes,” I said slowly, looking at him a little closer. Something about him was ringing a bell in my head, too. “I'm sorry. I have a horrible memory for faces. Have we met?”

“Not formally, no.” He smiled. The woman came over and smiled at me, as well. I stood up slowly, suddenly wary. “We met, if you can call it that, a week ago. Outside the Safeway. Your cart bumped into my wife's, and later seemed to be attracted to my shoe-“

“Oh, yes,” I said, goose bumps marching up my arm. I glanced at the stone swinging gently from the bracelet on my right wrist. It wasn't giving me any sign that the couple was anything but what they seemed, and yet the hairs on the back of my neck were standing on end. “How is it that you know my name?”

The man's smile grew larger. “A new Zorya is always celebrated, no matter where she is located.”

“Oh, no,” I said, backing away slowly. “You're reapers.”

He bowed. “We have the honor of belonging to the Brotherhood of the Blessed Light.”

“Then I did hear you right the other day at the store. And you…” I turned to the woman. “You said something lightish, too.”

She came forward, stopping in front of me to dip an awkward curtsy. “I'm Janice Mycowski. This is Rick, my husband, and I can't tell you how thrilled we are to meet you.”

“So… what, you're stalking me?” I asked in stark disbelief.

“Oh, no! We wouldn't do that,” she said, distress visible in her muddy hazel eyes. She cast a worried glance at her husband. “We were just so excited that you were here, in our area-when word reached us that a new Zorya had been made, and that she was from Seattle, we were naturally excited. But then the governors said that you were a bit confused, and asked us to help clear some things up for you. You can imagine what a thrill and an honor it is for us to be asked to aid a Zorya.”

“Um… all right. I'd be thrilled and honored, too, but I'm not a Zorya anymore.” A bad feeling was growing in the pit of my stomach. “I hung up that hat almost two months ago. What… what exactly are you supposed to be helping me with?”

Janice clasped her hands together, beaming first at her husband, then at me. “The governors asked us to answer any questions you might have-Rick is very learned in Brotherhood history, and I've led more than two hundred welcome sessions, so between us, there probably isn't a question that we can't answer.”

“I've made it a policy to never turn down an offer of help, but I'm afraid I'm still a bit lost. You keep mentioning governors, but I don't know exactly who you're talking about.” The headache that always seemed to be hovering over me like a dark cloud intensified.

“The governing board,” Rick explained.

“Governing board?” I frowned and rubbed my forehead. “I thought the Zenith ruled the Brotherhood.”

“One normally does, but the last Zenith…” Janice sent another glance toward her husband.

He picked up where she left off. “The last Zenith was destroyed by the vampire scum she fought so valiantly against.”

“Whoa, now! First of all, vampires are not scum. I know several of them, and they're perfectly nice people.”

The couple wore identical shocked expressions. “You… know them?” Rick finally asked.

“Yes.” I crossed my arms, daring them to say something. There was absolutely no love lost between the Brotherhood and the Dark Ones-quite the opposite, since pretty much a state of war existed between the two. But I was long past caring what the Brotherhood thought of my knowing vampires. In fact, I considered telling them I was Kristoff's Beloved. That might just guarantee that I wouldn't be involved with their group anymore.

Then again, it might also mean my demise. The Brotherhood held to a no-quarter policy when it came to vamps and their buddies.

Jan and Rick exchanged glances. “That's… unusual,” Rick finally said. “I don't know quite what to say to that.”

“Well, I have some other news that you might be interested in. Those vampires you are blaming for the death of the Zenith are innocent. She was shot and killed by one of your own.”

“No,” Janice said, shaking her head. “The director of the board of governors was there. I read his report on the horrible tragedy, and he stated quite clearly that he was there trying to protect the Zenith. She was killed by a vampire. It was his gun that shot her.”

I sucked my bottom lip for a moment as I moved behind the reception desk, keeping a distance between us. I didn't exactly expect them to fling themselves upon me with knives, but stranger-and deadlier-things had happened during my time in Iceland, and if nothing else, my time there had taught me a certain amount of circumspection where members of the Brotherhood were concerned.

“I was there, too, you know,” I finally said.

Surprise lit their eyes.

I nodded, a little curious by that. I had a suspicion I knew who they were talking about, although I hadn't known he was the director-Frederic Robert, a soft-spoken Frenchman who was no stranger either to power or the ability to use it. But he was in jail in Iceland, although obviously he'd had some sort of contact with the Brotherhood if he had been able to make a report. The question that tickled my mind was why he hadn't told the reapers that I was present at the same time. “I saw exactly what happened, and I can assure you that Denise was not shot by a vampire. But that's really a moot point, isn't it? The fact is that she's dead, and I'm no longer a Zorya, so although I'm flattered that you're so keen to see me, I'm afraid that you're bound to be disappointed. I do not intend to do any more Zoryaing.”

“Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way,” Rick said.

“I don't care what the procedure is to de-Zorya oneself; whatever it takes, I'll do it,” I said sharply. “I will be happy to hand over this stone to whoever wants to take the job, so long as someone takes it, and soon. In fact, there's no time like the present.”

Janice backed away as I walked forward, taking off the bracelet in an attempt to hand it to her. She lifted her hands as if to hold me off. “Oh, no, I couldn't take that! It's the Midnight stone!”

“Someone has to take it,” I insisted. “I'm not going to hold on to it forever.”

“You're the Zorya,” Rick said with a decidedly stubborn set to his jaw.

“Oh, for God's sake…”

The door jangled as a woman entered, her presence and voice seeming to fill the room with sunshine. “Are you ready to go to lunch? Ray found the most divine diner. It's just like something out of… What was that show set in Alaska, Ray?”

Magda, in the doorway, turned to look back at Ray, but all I saw of him was his hand waving as he disappeared down the walk toward the street. Magda shrugged and turned back to me with a smile. “It doesn't matter, although he says the pie there is a definite must. Oh, I'm sorry; I didn't realize you were busy.”

The last was addressed to Rick and Janice.

“They're from the Brotherhood,” I said, my frustration at the situation making me snappish. “This is my friend Magda. She was with me in Iceland. She knows all about the vampires and you people.”

“Then she must know how vital it is that you use your abilities for good, not evil,” Janice started to say, but my temper was becoming more and more frayed. If it wasn't the vamps wanting me for one thing, it was the reapers wanting me to do their dirty work. I rubbed my temples, irritated at being caught in the middle of a war that was not of my own doing. “You cannot turn your back on humanity now, not when we are in such a strong position, not when we have the opportunity to eradicate the vampires once and for-“

“Just how many vampires have you met?” I shouted, startling Janice into silence.

Magda blinked at me. “Pia, I doubt if yelling at the poor woman-“

“Well, I don't doubt.” I turned from Magda to Janice and pinned her back with a look that should have scared her to her toenails. “How many?”

“I… We…” Janice shot a worried look at her husband, who took her hand and answered for her.

“We haven't actually met any vampires, but we don't need to be on a friendly basis with evil to recognize it.”

“Evil, schmevil!” I stormed, my hands waving around as I stomped toward them. I realized I was being rude, but I'd had as much as I could take.

To my secret enjoyment, they backed up. Magda gave me a tolerant smile as she told the couple, “The vamps really aren't that bad, you know. Some of them are very nice, in fact. I think they've probably just gotten a bad rap over the years because of the fact that they're kind of intense. Nice, but intense. And sexy as hell.”

“Nice!” Janice choked on the word.

“Yes, nice. They're no more evil than you are,” I said, trying to calm myself down. “No, I take that back-they're a whole lot less evil than you, because they don't blindly follow some dogma that requires them to hate an entire group of people based solely on their origins. Honestly, at times I think the Brotherhood is no better than the Nazis! How dare you tell me that vampires are evil when you haven't even bothered to meet one!”

“We couldn't meet one! They're murderous-” Janice said, but once again I cut her off.

“Oh, they are not any such thing. They may defend themselves, but they don't go out of their way to harm people. You guys have given them such a bad rap over the years that I don't think any of you really knows what they're like. Yes, it's regrettable that they've had to defend themselves, and that may result in some deaths, but if you people wouldn't attack them, there wouldn't be any deaths!”

“Amen,” Magda said, nodding brusquely.

Janice's spine stiffened. “Oh, there wouldn't be any deaths? Those… monsters that you insist on defending attacked and killed several members of the Brotherhood in Iceland. Without cause they attacked them, so you'll have to forgive me if I don't believe what you're saying.”

“Are you calling me a liar?” I crossed my arms, holding firm to my temper.

Janice cast another nervous glance toward her husband. I'm not normally the type of person who gets her jollies out of intimidating someone else, but I was beginning to see the attraction of doing so with someone so misguided, so intent on refusing to face the truth. If letting her see that I didn't believe in what the Brotherhood stood for would help her understand the truth, then by heavens, I would become the scariest person around.

“No, I would never so insult a Zorya. I am certain that you have been misled-“

I took a step toward her, narrowing my eyes as I did so. “Good, because unlike you, I was present in Iceland, and I can assure you that the only reapers who were killed were a couple of guys who tried to slaughter a Dark One named Kristoff and me in cold blood. They attacked us without warning or cause and told him flat out they were going to kill us both. He simply defended us, and quite frankly, if Kristoff hadn't been there to protect me, I wouldn't be alive now.”

That stopped both of them for a moment.

“Are you sure it was members of the Brotherhood who attacked you?” Rick asked slowly after he and Janice exchanged a couple of doubtful looks. “Did the vampire tell you it was members of the Brotherhood? Perhaps he was mistaken, or you misunderstood.”

“No, they were members, all right. It was confirmed for me later.”

“I don't understand,” Janice said, frowning. “Why would they attack a Zorya?”

I glanced at Magda, now really curious as to what Frederic had told them about the events in Iceland. He knew full well that I was a Beloved, but he didn't appear to have mentioned it.

Magda gave a tiny little shake of her head, obviously just as baffled as I was.

“That doesn't matter now. What does matter is the fact that you are blindly following the precepts of an organization without any justification.”

“We're not mindless sheep, you know,” Janice replied quickly. “The Brotherhood has been cleansing evil from the mortal world for almost five hundred years. It could not have done so without a need for such acts. There is precedent.”

“Precedent,” I scoffed. “That's the blind following the blind if I ever heard it. Tell me, do you even know why the Brotherhood started going after vampires?”

“Er… no,” Rick admitted. He looked a bit shamefaced. “I've done quite a bit of research on the Brotherhood, but haven't gone that far back in the records yet. We only joined a few years ago, after Janice had a bad experience with an evil being.”

“Not a vampire, I assume?” Magda asked.

“No, it was a necromancer, a woman who was trying to raise an undead army,” he said in all seriousness.

Magda and I gawked at him.

“You're kidding,” she said. “An undead army? Like of zombies?”

“Liches, from what I understand,” Rick answered.

I blinked at Magda. She blinked back, saying, “This is so… so…”

“Hollywood bizarre,” I finished for her.

“Like a B-movie scriptwriter gone insane,” she agreed.

“Regardless,” I said, giving myself a mental shake to remove the Night of the Living Dead images from my brain and focus on more important things. It was easier said than done. “Well, hell. I've forgotten my point.”

“Vampires are good; Brotherhood is crazy,” Magda said absently. “What exactly is a lich, do you know?”

I ignored her attempt to sidetrack me. “The point is that you have no real reason for believing that vampires are the evil undead deserving of merciless slaughter, and I for one refuse to be a part of any such organization.”

“But you are a part of it,” Janice pointed out.

“Only until I can find someone to give the Zorya stone to.”

“You were a part of the incidents in Iceland,” Rick said, frowning. “You were involved in all those deaths.”

“I told you, there were only a couple of people killed, and they attacked us-“

“The vampires wiped out the entire Icelandic branch!” Janice interrupted. “There were at least fourteen people altogether that your friends slaughtered.”

I stared in openmouthed surprise for a moment before saying, “They're not all dead! Two were held by the Icelandic police, although the Zenith is now dead, and it wasn't a vampire who shot her. The others are in the custody of the vamps, but they're not dead, either.”

“How do you know?” she asked, and for a moment, I was speechless.

I looked at Magda. “Christian wouldn't kill the reapers, would he?”

She looked somewhat doubtful. “I don't think he would. Not without cause. Did he say anything to you about what would happen to them?”

“No,” I said, frowning as I cast my mind over the events of the last couple of months. “They don't have fourteen people, though. They only caught a couple of them: Mattias and Kristjana, and those two people who Frederic brought.”

“Then it would seem that we aren't the only ones who can be accused of falling victim to blind faith,” Janice retorted. “You don't know that the vampires are treating the Brotherhood, your own people, well at all. You only assume they are, but you don't know for a fact what has happened to them. For all you know, they could be dead.”

I wanted to protest that point, but I had an uncomfortable feeling that any explanation I made would sound just as feeble as their mindless attacks. “You're right. I don't know for certain that they're not dead, but I highly doubt that it's so.”

“They didn't hesitate to kill others,” Janice said, her eyes calculating. “Why should they stop at doing so to those captives?”

“I've told you several times now, they're not that way. They seek justice for the deaths of their fellow vampires, yes, but they did not start this war, nor do they want to continue it. Can you say as much about the Brotherhood?”

“If you truly mean what you say,” Janice said after she and her husband traded silent glances, “then you will not mind proving it.”

“How so?” I asked, wary about falling into any verbal traps.

Janice lifted her chin. “The director of the board of governors sent us to negotiate with you. Yes, that's right, negotiate.”

“What, specifically?” I asked, leaning against the desk.

Magda moved to my side in a blatant show of support.

“The director told us that you would refuse to do your duty.”

“I'd have thought that was made clear by my replies to the letters and e-mails I've been pelted with from you guys demanding I go help out with one cleansing or another.”

She studied me for a second, her mouth tight and slightly pursed, as if she smelled something offensive. “The director authorized us to negotiate a way for you to end your career as a Zorya.”

“Excellent.” I started to take off the bracelet bearing the moonstone.

“No.” Janice held up her hand to stop me. “Removing a Zorya from the Brotherhood is not as easy as simply handing over the Midnight stone.”

“Is there some sort of formal court-martial she has to go through to be stripped of her rank?” Magda asked.

“As a matter of fact, there are only two methods of removing a Zorya from the Brotherhood. The first is, naturally, death,” Rick said.

“Pass,” I said with a wry little smile to myself.

Janice looked like she wanted to consider that option a bit longer, but Rick, bless him, continued on. “The second is an execration.”

“I said that death is out-“

“Not execution, execration . The modern usage of the word 'execrate' means to detest or loathe, but in centuries past it was used to mean 'to curse.' The Brotherhood has long labeled those cast out of the fold as cursed to walk the earth in darkness.”

“There could be worse things than that,” Magda told me.

“Like remaining in. I agree. And I agree to the execration, assuming that there is something I must do in order to get the ball rolling. Make a statement of my beliefs? Provide a witness to say I'm friendly to the enemy? Or do you need some sort of blood oath?”

“Nothing so easy, I'm afraid,” Rick said with a genuine smile.

Despite the fact that he was one of the bad guys, I kind of liked him. His wife, however…

“The director said you would refuse to listen to reason,” she said, her lips still tight.

I almost asked her why she bothered to argue with me, but let that go in favor of ending this conversation more quickly.

“So he empowered us to make a deal with you. You failed acting as Zorya in two separate instances: The first was refusing to send on a spirit who had sought help from you.”

“Ulfur,” I said, a pang of guilt zinging through me at the memory of him. “I didn't refuse him at all. I would have sent him on if I could have, but he opted to remain and help me.”

Janice's lips tightened even more. I was surprised she could crack them to talk. “Nonetheless, you must find him and send him to Ostri, as you were meant to do.”

“I have no problem with helping him,” I said. “Although he said he would be fine when I left Iceland. But he must be tired of poking around with nothing to do but watch tourists. What's the second thing?”

“You must engineer the release of those Brotherhood members whose detention by the vampires you aided two months ago. If you do those two things, the director will ask the board of governors to execrate you from the Brotherhood.”

“Free the reapers?” My stomach wadded up on itself when I realized just what they were asking.

“Mother Mary,” Magda said under her breath, her gaze fixed on me. “The vamps aren't going to want to do that, are they?”

“What you ask is too much,” I protested, my hands flailing a little as I tried to imagine me marching up to the vampires and asking them sweetly if they'd let their mortal enemies go. “Even if I knew where they were being held, there's no way I could get them released.”

“Nonetheless, those are the terms of the agreement. Either you restore to the Brotherhood the four people listed here”-she handed me a card-“or you will fulfill your duties as Zorya.”

“You can't make her be a Zorya,” Magda said hotly.

“Actually, we can,” Rick said, one side of his mouth quirking up. “I always thought it was a bit odd that a Zorya is merely a conduit to the power of the moon, but I can see why it would be useful in just such a case.”

I grimaced at the idea of being used again as a tool of destruction. The very idea made me sick to my stomach. Therefore, the vampires were just going to have to play ball with me. Which meant I would have to face that silly council after all. “All right,” I said slowly, looking at the card. The name Mattias had been written next to a name I recognized, followed by the word “Vienna”; Kristjana was evidently being held in Iceland, while the other two had a notation that they were being detained in Oslo.

“I doubt I can do anything for these three people,” I said, pointing to Kristjana and the two flunkies Frederic had brought in. “I don't know the people in charge of them. But I do know the one keeping Mattias. I will agree to rescue him in exchange for my freedom.”

Janice frowned and looked as if she were going to object, but Rick leaned in and whispered something. She answered, and they spent almost a minute in conversation before Janice finally turned back. “We will concede the rescue of the two Norwegian members, since you had no direct contact with them, but you are responsible for Kristjana being held. Therefore, we will be satisfied if you will bring back to us the sacristan and the priestess.”

“Priestess?” I was momentarily taken aback by the idea of Kristjana being some sort of a holy woman. Devout people did not scream like banshees while flinging themselves on others with the intent of gouging out flesh with their bare hands.

“It is the title given to the person in charge of each chapter,” Rick explained. “It's more an honorific than anything.”

“Ah.” I thought for a moment, but didn't think I could get them to budge on that point. “All right, we have a deal. You can go back and tell your director that. Er… for the record, the director is Frederic, isn't it? For that matter, has another Zenith been chosen?”

“Yes, the director is Monsieur Robert,” Janice answered, picking up her purse. “No Zenith has been named yet. The director and governors are meeting in Los Angeles to discuss candidates.”

“Wow,” Magda said, watching as Rick waved and followed Janice out without saying anything further. She raised her eyebrows as I carefully closed the door behind them. “That was… Frederic? The same Frederic that I met?”

“Yes,” I said slowly. “Somehow he must have escaped jail in Iceland. I wonder how he did that.”

“And he's the director of the governing board? Whew. No wonder you didn't like him. Are you really going to do it? Free Mattias and Kristjana, I mean?”

“I don't have a choice, do I?”

Her face screwed up in thought. “Nope. Can't see any other way out of it.”

“Me either.” I turned off the computer equipment and the lights, preparing to lock up the office.

“Boy, I'd give just about anything to see that delicious Christian's face when you walk up to his door and ask him for the reapers. You have to take me with you-I can't possibly miss something that's going to be so very entertaining.”

“Oh, yes, it'll be a laugh riot, all right.” My stomach felt like lead, my spirits dampened and drooping like soggy feathers.

She giggled, but watched me closely as I gathered up my things and stuffed them into the leather satchel that I used as a briefcase. I stood her scrutiny for as long as I could before turning to her with an irritated, “What?”

She nodded toward the door. “You were impressive with that woman, you know? It was a side of you I hadn't seen before.”

“Needs must and all that crap.” I set down the bag and slumped into a nearby armchair. “I just hate it when someone pulls the rug out from under me. It makes me feel so irritable. And now I have two separate groups pulling two separate rugs, and I don't know how on earth I'm going to do everything they want me to do.”

“Suck it up, buttercup.”

I glanced at her in surprise.

She laughed and gave my shoulder a little squeeze. “That's what my dad always used to say to me. I know you don't particularly want to have anything more to do with the vampires, but this may turn out to be a good thing.”

“In no way will my further involvement with the vamps be considered anything but potentially disastrous,” I complained, rubbing my temples. “Dammit, Magda! This isn't fair!”

“It's called life, and it sucks at times.” She looked up as Ray opened the door and stuck his head in, asking if we were almost ready to go. She told him we'd be right there. “Then again, there are times when it really is very nice.” She sighed happily as she watched him through the window.

“Christian is holding Mattias prisoner, which means I'm going to have to try to reason with him. You know what that means, don't you?” I said glumly to my hands. “He'll make me go talk to their council. And you and I both know what they want to talk about.”

“A certain incredibly gorgeous vampire, so handsome he makes your eyes hurt, and we won't even go into that sexy, sexy Italian accent? Oh, yeah. And I can't say I blame them. I'd want to talk about him, as well. Mrrowr . I mean that, of course, in the strictest of platonic ways.”

“It wouldn't matter if you didn't,” I said, sighing heavily before picking up my satchel and purse. “It's not like Kristoff wants me.”

“Bah. You just need to have a little quality time with him.” Amusement was rich in her voice as she walked out the door. “Besides, I've never been to Vienna. I bet it's very pretty this time of year!”

I locked the door behind us, giving her a little shake of my head. “You can't possibly be serious about wanting to go with me.”

“Of course I am,” she said, whapping me on the arm. “We're here to spend two weeks with you, aren't we? So if you go to Vienna to meet with the vampires, and then pop over to Iceland to pick up Kristjana and Ulfur, we'll go with you. We'll be your entourage! It'll be fun!”

Fun. For some reason, that was the last word that came to my mind.