Tina laughed as she roughhoused with Mihos. Mariah and the other two cubs looked on with interest as human and cougar roughhoused. While the two females would occasionally play like this, neither was as well socialized as the male. He seemed to have an innate understanding of how far he could go, and how to let others know he didn't want to play without causing them injury.
"Where is Lisa, again?" asked Tina, breathing hard, as she and the cub took a mutual break. "Her message was kinda... cryptic."
"That Detective she worked with a few weeks ago wanted to show her something," said Mariah. She grinned and leaned closer to whisper conspiratorially. "Y'ask me, I think she likes him."
"I don't know about that," Tina replied, looking doubtful. "Even if she did, from what How said, Toole is terrified of her."
"Well, I'm just glad she has this new rule about having at least two people here at all times," Mariah replied, emphatically. "Though I'm not nearly as worried about me or the cubs being attacked as I am about being lonely. Also, the cubs are big enough now to be a real handful for one person."
"Yeah, well, not only do I like playing with them, I can use the money I get sitting them." Now came Tina's turn to move closer and lower her voice. "How and I are saving up for an apartment."
"Whoa! Congratulations!" laughed Mariah. "Uh-oh; your parents are gonna freak when they hear about this."
"Yeah, well, they already did. When Dad learned I'd been kicked off the basketball team. He even wanted me to break up with How. I finally had to put my foot down and remind him that me playing basketball was his idea, not mine. I prefer track and field."
"You are a running fool," laughed Mariah. "I loved it when you beat that smug werewolf in the obstacle course race Lisa set up out back."
"Well, if he hadn't been so smug, he would've won easy," said Tina, grinning and shrugging. "He tried to beat me in human form, and by the time he realized he couldn't, even switching to wolf form wasn't enough."
The two young women laughed at the memory. Lisa, meanwhile, was most definitely not in a merry mood. Visiting morgues tended to have that effect on her.
"No doubt about it," she said in a low voice, as she held the sheet up and peered at the torn-open throat. "And you say there are more?"
"Seven that we've found," said Toole. He looked around nervously. "No telling how many we've missed, or how many more will turn up."
"Not many, I'd say," was Lisa's guess. She sighed and straightened, lowering the sheet. "Vampires have their own codes of behavior, and blatant feeding is usually a capital crime. If the perpetrators haven't already been caught and punished by the local vampires, they're long gone."
"Vampires," whispered Toole. He shuddered, and looked around again, as if worried someone might have heard him. "Hard to believe."
"C'mon, let's get out of here," said Lisa. "A quick walk outside is in order."
Once they were immersed in the Summer heat and light, Lisa returned to the subject.
"Okay, a quick course in vampires," she told Toole. "Forget all that stuff about them being undead. They are very much alive, but their metabolisms have been altered. That's why some of them smell so bad. A stake through the heart will indeed kill them, just as it would most animals. They are extremely sensitive to sunlight, enough so that prolonged exposure would kill them. They don't seem to age. They're immune to most diseases and heal quickly and completely from most injuries. They normally feed by biting the skin some innocuous place - such as the chest - and licking the flowing blood, not by puncturing and sucking. They only go for the jugular if they intend to kill the victim.
"There are lots of individual variations," Lisa continued, as they crossed a street with the pedestrian signal. "Some are repelled by garlic. Some by mirrors and holy symbols, which is probably psychological. Some are phobic about entering a home without permission, though in most cases asking permission is just old world manners. As a rule they tend to be emotionless and passionless, except when hungry or fighting.
"As I said inside, they have codes of behavior. Vampires don't need to kill to feed. Indeed, many have never killed. For one thing, a vampire just can't hold enough blood in the stomach to do more than weaken a healthy person, so to die from a feeding by one vampire would require the wasting of a lot of blood.
"Finally, they want to keep a low profile. They are stronger and more durable than humans - some aren't affected by anything short of a .44 Magnum - but far from invincible. Oh, and you don't have to worry about any of the victims you showed me coming back as vampires. First, they really are dead. Second, Making a vampire requires a special effort."
"You certainly seem to know a lot about them," said Toole, sounding impressed... and a bit suspicious.
"I've killed several," was Lisa's taught reply. She sighed and shook her head. "Listen, I don't want vampires to become public knowledge. They police themselves, the rogues do less harm than human criminals, and there are some - a few - who are decent people. And the last thing we need is a witch hunt with some innocent who works third shift winding up staked by a mob."
"All right," said Toole, nodding. "I won't go vampire hunting. But if any more of these show up, I'm calling you again, and expecting some results."
"Agreed," said Lisa, nodding.
"One more thing," Toole continued. "I think it escaped your notice that all of the victims were Hispanic. The ones we've been able to ID so far are all migrant workers, most of them Mexican citizens in the US on work permits."
"Damn," muttered Lisa, sourly.
"Sounds like someone's recruiting slave labor for some reason," she mused. Lisa shook her head. "I will check into this. Don't know if it will amount to anything, and even if it does, most likely everyone involved is out of your jurisdiction by now. But I'll check."
* * *
"I'm glad you called," said Brian, holding the door open for Lisa. "As a matter of fact, I am hosting a meeting of Councilors to discuss just this matter."
"When?" asked Lisa.
"We're just getting started," said Brian, smiling a bit.
Lisa stiffened, stopping where she stood in the ornate hallway to look at him warily. She had known Brian for nearly 30 years, and trusted him more than she did most humans. But considering how much she trusted most humans...
"Well, then, I'm interrupting," she said, calmly. "I'll let you get on with it. Though I hope you will let me know what you learn."
"My home has been declared an Asylum for the meeting," said Brian, firmly and seriously. "My guests and I have taken an oath to forsake violence while here."
He looked her in the eyes for a long moment, his gaze unfathomable.
"Trust me, Lisa. I was not going to lead you in there unwarned. Neither will I allow you to enter if those present object. If you agree to swear the oath, I will propose to those assembled that you be allowed to attend. Even if an aggreement cannot be reached, I will appraise you later. However, I think you need to be present."
"It's that serious?"
"It is that serious."
"All right," sighed Lisa, "what's this oath?"
It was simple, clear and to the point. After asking for a couple of clarifications, Lisa swore the oath. Brian then left her in the hallway and entered his large dining room. A few minutes later he opened the door, and nodded to Lisa.
The room dark and smelled musty, with undertones of lavender and cedar and a hint of camphor. Most of those seated around the ancient table could have been described in much those same terms. The Summer night was warm, but the windows here were not only closed, they were also - as Lisa knew from previous visits - screwed shut. Lisa felt tense, uneasy. On the other hand, it was obvious that many of the eight vampires staring at her were likewise quite nervous.
"Did you tell them what I am?" she asked quietly of Brian.
"I explained that you are a shapeshifter elder, who has become involved in the matter we are discussing," said Brian. "Since this matter includes events which risk Exposure, it is in our common interest to see that it is dealt with."
"So who is building a slave army of humans?" asked Lisa blithely, as she slid into an empty seat. An empty seat with two other empty chairs on either side, across the table from most of the others present. She guessed that the vampires had rearranged their own seating before she entered, since they seemed a bit crowded.
"I'm afraid this requires a bit of background in vampire politics," sighed Brian. "Something some of those here were reluctant to provide, but which we all finally agreed is necessary.
"Nearly all vampires today are descended - that is the term we use - from a single individual. The exact nature of his origin is a matter of speculation. However, he first appeared in the record in 815 BC. He was a Greek trader and explorer. Apparently, while journeying through some remote region of Egypt he was Made a vampire. The exact circumstances aren't known. This individual has many names, but is usually known as The Greek."
"Now, we jump ahead a few centuries. About five hundred years ago an ambitious young Italian nobleman was Made. His Maker was only two steps removed from The Greek, which alone makes this man quite powerful. Since the most rapid stage of development of a vampire's power occurs during the first century or two of existence he has already achieved most of his potential. And his cunning and intelligence have given him much non-personal power."
"Sounds like a worthy opponent," said Lisa, smirking.
Most of the information she already knew, but Lisa guessed Brian didn't want his other guests to realize this.
"I know, physically he would about be a match for your left hand," agreed Brian, nodding. "However, while he trains his personal abilities and isn't afraid to use them, he does not rely on them. He has many lesser vampires as loyal servants - most of them his descendants - and a large number of bound human servants. And that's just his immediate, personal retinue."
"Let me guess: he's ambitious enough to want the top position," said Lisa.
"Quite right," said Brian, nodding. "He has - through machinations, manipulations, threats and bribery, plus no small amount of sheer hard work - rapidly risen through the ranks over the past three centuries. It is widely known that he wishes to rule all, but he is careful not to let his hunger for power make him reckless. So far, The Greek has tolerated him for the most part, since he often harnesses such ambition for his own goals. However, about 5 years ago this younger vampire - who currently goes by the name of Il Capo - got a bit too full of himself. And was punished for it.
"This was not a direct move on The Greek," Brian continued. "He's not that stupid. No, he tried to take over the power structure of one of The Greek's chief lieutenants, moving up several levels in a grand coup. The lieutenant successfully resisted the attempt, but at a cost. And The Greek sent word directly to Il Capo that he was to cease and desist. Specifically, while he was allowed to maintain his current level he was to make no more moves to gain power for at least a century."
"So now he's treading water until he can find some way to make a move straight for The Greek or the waiting period ends," guessed Lisa. "Whichever comes first."
"Exactly," said Brian, nodding again. "He thinks he's found a way, too, though what could be in an old railroad tunnel in Harlan County that would permit this is a mystery."
"Knowing the sort of things found in Appalachian caves, there's no telling," muttered Lisa. She frowned as something occurred to her. "Does this have anything do with a vampire named Sigfrid Dorn?"
"How do you know of Dorn?" asked one of the other vampires, speaking for the first time as he eyed her suspiciously. His voice was an eerie, rustling-paper whisper.
"And you are?" asked Lisa.
"You may call me Jelaen," he whispered back. "Dorn, in fact, is a recent acquisition of Il Capo. He encountered trouble running his Maker's territory after that one was killed by a rogue vampire a century ago. Dorn made a deal with Il Capo, and is now one of his chief assistants."
"Well, I know that Dorn was in that part of the country near the end of the 19th Century." Lisa paused, frowning, as she worked out just how much werewolf lore she could tell the assembly. "I assume it had something to do with his Maker's death, since he claimed he was hunting another vampire."
There was some excitement over this, and one vampire - so gaunt as to appear skeletal - seemed particularly upset.
"There were rumors that Skagerra - Dorn's Maker - had some sort of weapon which Dorn planned to use against the madman!" the gaunt one cried. "Dorn must have told Il Capo about it, the traitor!"
"Easy, Janos," said Brian.
"It must be a weapon," said one of the two female vampires present, a fat, short woman with a florid complexion and a Spanish accent. "Il Capo knows he can't replace The Greek and rest easy on his throne unless The Greek is dead."
"A weapon... or a holy relic," said the whispering vampire.
"Pfaug, this is pointless," snapped the gaunt vampire. "We know where he is working. We should send a delegation to confront him."
"But if we..." began Lisa.
"We need more information," said the fat woman. "Jelaen, you have contacts in that area. Use them."
"I shall do so," said the whispering vampire.
"There's also..." Lisa tried again.
"I think a delegation is a good idea," said the other female vampire. "If we let him know we're on to him he will most likely cancel his plans."
"I don't think that's a good..." Lisa was getting quite irritated.
"A bad idea," said the skeletal vampire, with a dismissive gesture. He smiled, a death's head rictus. "Not because we don't trust you, my dear Marguerite, but because your absence from your regular haunts might tip our hand. Genova?"
"So if we..." said Lisa, trying again.
"Perhaps my serv..." began the vampire who had been addressed, speaking for the first time.
Lisa screamed, lunging to her feet and slamming her palms on the table, her chair crashing to the floor. She was already shifting, skin sprouting fur, nails rounding to talons, muscles and tendons standing out in sharp relief. Her lips were peeled back, making plain the growth of her canines. Her chest heaved as she took deep, rapid breaths, and began to narrow and grow thicker front to back. For several long seconds the only sound in the room was her labored respiration. Soon, though, that slowed, and Lisa's change stopped, then reversed. Fully human again, looking firmly at her hands on the table, she waited a moment, then spoke, her voice and body tight with barely restrained fury.
"I realize that compared to even the youngest of you I'm still a child, but one would think you would be willing to listen to suggestions from something which could pluck your arms and legs off and leave you for the sun!"
"I... beg your pardon, dear lady," said Genova. "We shall most certainly pay attention from hence forward. Now, you were saying?"
"I look Hispanic enough to pass. I sneak into this camp someone mentioned and have a look around. See exactly what Il Capo is doing and try to learn what his plans are. Then report to Brian."
Surprisingly, this suited nearly all those present just fine. It occurred to Lisa that beings who could reasonably expect to live for several centuries would be understandably reluctant to take unnecessary risks. Far better to let something much more durable - and in their view expendable - than them do so.
* * *
As Lisa turned into her driveway she frowned. Mariah was here. Also How and Tina; she could see their beater Corolla and sense their presence on her land. However, there was another presence, fainter, and somehow familiar. Warily, Lisa parked her Miata and climbed slowly out, frowning in concentration. Most of them were in the house, but the odd one...
That way, she decided, heading off.
Telling the youngsters about the intruder was not even considered. This was Lisa's territory and she'd deal with any problems involving it. Also, anything she couldn't handle... well if the situation turned violent, they'd just be in the way, whether she fought or ran. Besides, while she couldn't identify the odd presence it felt like a friend.
Lisa realized where the person was just as she sensed another presence, one she had no trouble identifying. And with that she knew who the stranger was. Lisa pushed through the screening shroud of willow branches and, as she had known she would, saw a male figure with another, very tall, female one. The second figure looked very much like Lisa did in midform, only larger, and perhaps a little less wild. Lisa felt a warm smile spread over her face.
"I greet you, Bast, protector and benefactor of my cubs and myself," said Lisa, formally, bowing to the cat goddess. Then she turned, grinning, to the man. "Hello, Al. I'm very glad to see you."
"Perhaps you will change your mind when you hear why I'm here," Al Khityar replied, looking quite grave. "It's about an ambitious vampire... and something he should not have."
* * *
"So I'll need you or How to help Mariah out in shifts," Lisa finished. Her little talk with Al had changed her plans only a bit, mainly by adding urgency. She hadn't mentioned the meeting under the willow to the youngsters. That was not something they were supposed to know.
"You're going alone?" asked Mariah.
"Well, unless you have a better idea," was Lisa's dry reply. She intended her remark to be rhetorical.
"I go with you," snapped Mariah, veering from Lisa's script. "I'm pretty dark skinned. I even speak more Spanish than you do."
"Which means you know just about enough to ask where the bathroom is," said Lisa, dryly. "Besides, dark skinned isn't the same as Hispanic."
"Forget what someone looks like naturally," said Tina. "How can change someone's appearance enough to pass, and make it stick for several days."
"So it's settled," said Mariah, firmly. "What should I pack?"
"I didn't mean you," snapped Tina. "I'm a much better fighter, and speak about as much Spanish as you. And you're the cubs' primary caretaker, after Lisa. We can't have you *and* her going off and leaving them with How and me."
"I don't know about this," said How, uncertainly. "If you go, I should go."
"Which would leave the cubs here with just Mariah," said Tina.
While the youngsters argued, Lisa thought things through carefully. Since she planned to do something quite different from what she had told the vampires she'd do, Tina's suggestion actually sounded quite reasonable.
"Tina, you're going with me," she said abruptly, interrupting the verbal brawl. "How, forget about changing her. That won't be necessary. For one thing, Fey Glamour is detectable. I'll leave her outside the camp to act as backup.
"We leave tonight," Lisa continued, turning to Tina. "It's not even eleven, yet, so we can make it to the area not long after sunup. We camp out in a secluded place during the day, then sneak in to look around tomorrow night."
Which omitted telling them what she actually intended, but that was for the best. Tina would know, of course, once they got there, and the others after they got back, if all went well. In the meantime, they couldn't tell anyone what Lisa's actual plans were, by accident or coercion.
* * *
They spied on the encampment from a nearby ridge, taking turns with Lisa's expensive German night glasses.
"This is terrible," hissed Tina, wiping tears from her eyes after passing the binoculars over. "Those poor people."
"Yeah. There's few things as ruthless as a vampire with a goal," muttered Lisa. "I guess Il Capo wanted the workers strong, so when he and his vampire underlings needed to feed they drained the weakest to death and discarded them, leaving the others full and fit."
"Glah," said Tina.
The work force was digging into an old, failed attempt at a railroad tunnel through the Appalachians. There were apparently two shifts, each eight on and eight off. The workers were being fed and had places to sleep and relieve themselves, but the food and facilities were barely above death camp level. The organizers obviously counted on needing human labor for a short but intensive period, and afterwards planned to eliminate their slaves. Beyond the razor tape-surrounded workers camp were the heavy tents where the vampires spent the day, and the lighter tents for the vampire's servants.
"Okay, I've seen enough to confirm what he's after," muttered Lisa. "Fortunately, they seem to have a ways to go yet. So we have time to try another way in."
"I thought you had more on your mind that just a scouting mission," said Tina, growing excited. "What are we after, anyway?"
"I can't tell you," Lisa replied absently.
"What if something happens to you and I have to go after whatever it is?" asked Tina, pointedly. When Lisa still didn't reply, the young woman became angry. "Listen, I know you have to keep some secrets, but isn't there a clause in whatever promise you made which takes this sort of situation into account?"
Lisa sighed; Tina knew her too well.
"All right. But let's move while I explain this," she said.
They backed carefully down from the ridge, and Lisa led the way through the forest.
"There's a bit of mystic folklore which states that the object used to commit an act for the first time thereafter gains some of the power released each time the act is repeated," said Lisa, deadly serious in tone, as they made their way cautiously through the darkness under the canopy. "One name for what we seek here is The Knife of Caine."
"Jesus..." breathed Tina, numbed by the revelation.
"Much older, actually," said Lisa, with an ironic smile. "It probably isn't the actual weapon which Cain used to slay Able; there are many legends of deadly objects from around the world. You should ask How if he's familiar with the legend of Tamamo-no Mae. She was a tantric wizard from India who was a concubine of Emperor Toba. She was eventually revealed to be a nine-tailed golden fox. After being discovered she was killed while flying away from the court, and fell back to earth, assuming the form of a rock subsequently known as sessho seki or the death stone. Any living thing that came into contact with it died. One legend about this knife states that it was made from a piece of this stone. Whatever its origin, any living thing cut with it dies. Period. And it is very old, much older than that Japanese legend. It has a knapped blade of dark flint, which is bound with sinew and pitch to a use-stained hardwood handle. The design is very plain, very simple. No guard, no knurling. Do *not* cut yourself with it."
"No kidding," said Tina, faintly.
They moved around the work site, and up a narrow gully. There Lisa stopped, shifted to full cougar, and sniffed the night air. Something quickly caught her attention; she turned and headed towards a clump of bushes. There she shifted to her midform and tore the bushes away. Behind those were the remains of an old wooden structure, which had apparently been meant to keep the rain out of a small, square opening slanting downward into the mountain.
"Excellent," hissed Lisa. "This is a ventilation shaft. The tunnel was intended for coal-fired locomotives, after all."
She cleared the wood out of the way. Though long fallen to pieces from rot, it had kept most of the debris and vermin out. Lisa started to climb head first down the hole, but Tina caught her arm.
"Here, let's send this ahead," she announced, turning her flashlight on and rolling it into the hole. She grinned at Lisa. "Even cats can't see in complete darkness."
Lisa grudgingly admitted that this was probably a good idea. They watched the light dwindle to a point, then suddenly vanish. A dim glow could still be seen.
"Okay, it's not that far down," said Lisa, ducking into the hole. "Follow me!"
"Easier said than done," muttered Tina, waiting until Lisa's black-tipped tail was all the way in before complying.
Aside from the grit, grime, dirt and spiders' webs the trip wasn't too bad, and even most of those were swept out by Lisa's passage. The shaft was large enough to move around in and rough enough for a good grip, while not being too large to span or too irregular for easy movement.
By the time Tina dropped into the tunnel Lisa already had shaken and hand-combed the worst of the webs and dust out of her hair and coat. Tina grabbed the flashlight and shone it around.
"Well, we're not getting back up that way without help," said the young woman, looking up at the hole in the roof.
"I'll boost you and let you get a good start, then jump," was Lisa's distracted reply.
Tina grimaced as she remembered just who and what she was teamed with. Sometimes Lisa seemed so normal, even when she was - as now - in half-cat form. Familiarity might not breed contempt, but it did tend to make one forget what extraordinary friends could do.
"I can hear them working back there," said Lisa. "We don't have much time before they break through. I can even see some light already."
Lisa quickly headed towards the rough face at the unfinished rear of the tunnel. And there, lying on top of a large boulder, was an oiled rag, wrapped around something vaguely knife-shaped.
"Wow," whispered Tina. "Is that really it?"
Lisa wasn't listening. Not to Tina, anyway. She motioned the young woman to the left side of the tunnel, herself moving to the right. At her finger-across-throat gesture the light went out.
Tina shivered at the near-absolute darkness, but now she, too, could hear something approaching. Someone. Slow, confident steps. And the glow of a flashlight appeared. The beam swept down the middle of the floor, and halted on the boulder. Lisa prepared to spring.
"I have your children," said a voice, calmly. "I am Il Capo, and I am your master."
There was a moment of stunned silence. Then Lisa snarled in the darkness. The sound made Tina shiver.
"You must think me a complete fool, not to notice your sneaking around," sneered Il Capo. "I knew of the plans against me within minutes of their formation. I had my agents learn not only who those plotting against me were, but everything about them. Discovering your identity, Miss Dawnwind, was childishly easy. You are a minor celebrity, after all. Discovering your true nature was also easy, once I captured and interrogated some of those at that meeting. A feline shapeshifter. Fascinating.
"Learning that you were sometimes visited by a pediatrician was a bit puzzling, at first," he continued, sweeping the beam left and right, pausing a moment on each woman. "I thought perhaps he was your lover. Then came reports of purchases of large amounts of cat litter and kitten food. And with the realization of what that meant came the idea that you might be more useful alive than dead. At least in the short term. I thought that having you explore ahead of us, perhaps finding any traps which existed, would be quite advantageous.
"So, we made a small opening, inserted some discrete sensor devices on the assumption that - as many shapeshifters can - you could hide your presence, and waited, while continuing to clear the rubble from the front of the blockage.
"My men moved in on your home this evening, as soon as we were sure you would be gone for a good while. Once we detected motion in here I knew we had you."
Lisa snarled, shifting menacingly, tail lashing. The vampire halted, raising his hand.
"Please, Miss Dawnwind. No theatrics. If I do not exit from this tunnel in..." he glanced at his watch, "...just over seven minutes word will be sent to kill one of your... cubs. And another, five minutes after that. You will stay right there while your accomplice fetches the blade."
Tina looked over at Lisa, who nodded, not taking her eyes off Il Capo. The young athlete sighed, turned her flashlight on and stepped to the boulder. She hesitated, then carefully lifted the cloth. She was turned away from Il Capo, so he didn't see her expression of surprise. Lisa, however, noticed, and glanced at her young friend. Tina hesitated a moment, then rolled her eyes at Lisa... and gave a slow, deliberate cat blink of approval.
Lisa was startled, but thanks to the less expressive face of the midform managed not to show it. Tina slowly turned and walked to the vampire, holding out the bundle. He snatched it and quickly stepped back.
"Excellent. I would love to stay and chat but I doubt you would want me to, for your children's sake. We will blast the mouth closed after I exit, to make sure you don't follow too closely. I have no doubt you will claw your way out within a day or two.
"Meanwhile, I'll make sure your cubs find a good home. I'll probably even take that young gypsy girl along, to care for them. They should make... interesting pets."
He turned and literally ran into the darkness, out of the beam of Tina's light, the oval of illumination from his own flashlight receding with amazing quickness.
"Is he gone?" hissed Tina.
Lisa listened for a moment, then nodded.
"I hear him climbing the debris at the entrance," she said. "Tina, you better have had a good reason for giving me the high sign! My cubs are at risk, here!"
"That wasn't the Knife! Not the one you described to me, anyway."
"You're sure?" asked Lisa, suddenly hopeful.
"Yeah. Even through the cloth, I could tell that one had a metal blade, and a guard."
"Bless that sneaky old man," chuckled Lisa, not bothering to explain whom she meant. "He left a red herring!"
Al had told her he put the Knife here, but not that he had hidden it, with a decoy in an obvious place. That fit his way; he had told Lisa what the Knife looked like, knowing she was intelligent enough to recognize the deception when she encountered it. Anyone coming across the decoy by accident or with only casual knowledge of the Knife would assume the contents of the bundle to be the genuine article. Someone who knew the true nature of the Knife would know the decoy for what it was.
Both women jumped at a nearby explosion, which was followed by the sounds of rocks falling. Dust billowed towards and then around them, making them cough and sneeze. They lost several seconds, waiting for the dust to settle.
"Oh, I wish I had How's talent for locating things!"
"One thing in our favor, that smug bastard doesn't know about the vent shafts, and thinks we ghosted past those at the entrance," said Lisa. "Another may be that he doesn't know what the real knife looks like, and not realize he has a fake even after he unwraps it!"
She thought for a moment.
"Point your light at the rock and stand back a bit. I have an idea."
The werecougar lifted the large boulder out of position with a minor effort. In a depression in the tunnel floor, under the previous location of the boulder, was a primitive flint knife with a wooden handle. Just lying there.
Lisa hesitated a moment, then took the Knife.
"It feels... strange," she whispered. "Alive. Powerful."
"How long do you think it will take you to get us out of here?"
"About five minutes, with a little luck," said Lisa, smiling grimly. "We just climb back out the vent shaft."
"What if he really does know about the vents," said Tina, shivering, "and has them booby trapped? Or guards waiting?"
"I'll take that chance," muttered Lisa.
The ventilation shaft they had entered by was only a short distance down the tunnel. Lisa hesitated, then held the Knife out to Tina.
"I don't have any place to put it, and I don't have time to hide it," said Lisa, as the girl hesitated. "I don't need it against Il Capo and his lackeys, but you might."
"O-okay," said Tina, nervously, taking the hilt.
Lisa took the flashlight and shone it up the shaft. Tina meanwhile was having the same problem as Lisa. Where to stick the thing? She needed both hands to climb out, so she couldn't simply hold it in one. She didn't have a sheath. Sticking it in her belt would be an invitation to have it jab her as she climbed.
"Damn! Blocked!" said Lisa. "Looks like the shock from the blast knocked something loose."
The vent across the tunnel from the first seemed more promising.
"I don't see any obstructions," Lisa announced, "and I can feel a draft. Here, take the light."
Tina did so, and now had the Knife in one hand and the light in the other. Lisa prepared to spring.
"Wait. If you go out first, how do I get up there?"
Lisa thought for a moment, then fetched the boulder, grunting a bit as she set it under the hole.
"Yeah," said Tina. Lisa nodded, and clambered onto the rock. Tina caught her furry arm. "Be careful."
Lisa snorted, too busy to otherwise reply. She scrambled up the shaft.
Tina took the flashlight in her teeth and climbed carefully on the rock, one hand on the wall, the other holding the Knife away from her body. She winced a bit as some debris came showering down. And prayed.
* * *
There were no traps. There were no guards. Lisa did have trouble clearing out accumulated debris, whispering a warning to Tina before squeezing as much of it as she could down past her own body. The rest she cautiously pushed out ahead, trying for the best compromise between stealth and speed.
Lisa poked her head out of the undergrowth and glanced quickly around. Seeing no immediate threat, she flowed out onto the hillside and stood upright on two legs, taking a better look. Still nothing. Lisa went back to the hole and called for Tina to come on up.
From what Lisa could hear the young woman was having some trouble, but she was making progress. So Lisa set off for a quick reconnaissance mission. By the time she got back Tina was just coming out. Lisa was startled to see that the young woman was holding the Knife between her teeth, the butt in her mouth, lips peeled back in a grimace, and the tip pointing forward. The flashlight was off, and in her pocket; apparently the girl had climbed out in the dark. But the werecougar had more urgent matters to concern her. Even with the less expressive face of the midform, Tina could tell she was upset.
"Problems. Looks like Il Capo was preparing to kill the workers and move his men out. Only someone crashed the party."
The "someone" was tall, broad and muscular, with light hair and a very strong nose.
"The Greek," whispered Tina, the Knife back in her right hand.
He had brought a number of aides with him, but they were holding back. The elder vampire faced Il Capo alone, the two men standing a short distance apart in a small clearing, surrounded by vampires and human servants belonging to both leaders, as well as many of the peasants.
"Time to retire, old fool!" snapped Il Capo, brandishing an ornate, metal-bladed knife with an ivory handle.
"You think that toy makes you a match for me? We'll see who's the fool."
Il Capo lunged, swinging the blade in a practiced manner. The Greek dodged easily, but made no move to strike back. The fight continued in this way for several long seconds, until Il Capo finally scored a small cut on The Greek's left shoulder. The Greek cried out in surprise and pain, staggered back, clutching the wound, then dropped to one knee. Il Capo began crowing, throwing his arms wide and jeering his opponent, acting as if the older vampire were already dead. He was rudely interrupted by The Greek's taunting laughter.
"And twice the fool you are," The Greek snapped. "First, to believe an antique knife held any special power over me. Second, to believe that little bit of play acting."
Il Capo stared in disbelief, first at his very much alive opponent, then at the knife. At that moment The Greek moved in with blinding speed. He grabbed Il Capo, lifted him into the air, then brought him down across one knee. The Italian vampire's back broke with a snap clearly audible on the ridge where Tina and Lisa watched. Even such a wound as that was not normally lethal for a vampire, but The Greek next took Il Capo's knife and used it to remove his fallen opponent's head. It needed no magic to cut well.
Nice touch of theater, that, thought Lisa. Simply stabbing Il Capo in the heart would have been enough to finish him.
"That's it, then," said Tina, numbly. "Oh! Lisa! Your cubs! How do we... Lisa?"
The older woman, now in human form, rose to her feet. She took a deep breath, let it out slowly.
"You still have the extra keys to my car?"
"Get going. Give me five minutes. If I'm not there by then you take the Knife back to Louisville. Don't go to my place. Take it to the Fey Council."
"What are you going to do?" Tina stage whispered, as Lisa headed down the slope.
"I'm giving myself five minutes to save those workers," said Lisa fiercely, more to herself than Tina. "Then all my attention is for my cubs. I can spare five minutes."
They saw her coming, of course. The Greek watched impassively, and when some of his underlings would have moved to intercept Lisa he called them back. Lisa walked up to within 3 meters of the master vampire, stopped, and took a deep breath. She was about to make a huge gamble.
"Since all began," she addressed The Greek, using the spirit tongue.
He looked mildly surprised. As well as quite impressed.
"I remember Al telling me he had a friend in this area," said The Greek, also in the spirit tongue. "What do you want here?"
"What your foe sought, is no longer here," said Lisa. "If you promise that these workers will be taken to a place of safety and allowed to resume their previous lives, I will make sure that the... item is taken back to Al."
He considered this.
"I have no use for it. Al said that you were wise for one so young. If you promise that you personally will not use the blade against me or any of those directly under me, and that you will not willingly give it to anyone who would do so, then I agree."
"I so promise," said Lisa, nodding.
"Excellent," said The Greek, smiling. He chuckled. "Now, how did you know to use that greeting with me?"
"Al told me that there are vampires among the Elders," said Lisa, practically limp with relief and straining not to show this. "I figured one of the oldest vampires known was a good candidate."
The Greek laughed out loud at this.
"Quite clever. Go in peace. For now, our goals do not conflict."
Lisa nodded formally, turned and headed back up the hill. Once over the ridge she shifted to cougar and broke into a run. Tina was waiting anxiously at the Miata.
"Done," said Lisa, human again. "Now I've go to run. Head to my place. One way or another, it will be safe by the time you get there."
Before Tina could ask about this, Lisa turned, shifted back to cougar, and started running. As she ran she faded from sight.
* * *
As Lisa came off the white path and shifted to midform, she was astounded to see Mariah being herded towards one of several black cars and vans parked in Lisa's yard. The two holding her appeared to be merely human, with more of their kind plus some lesser vampires nearby. They were still here!
Of course; only a few minutes had passed between Il Capo's announcement of the capture and Lisa's arrival! There simply hadn't been enough time for the captors to leave! Lisa's heart soared, and her anger surged. She charged forwards. The two holding Mariah had a spare glimpse of tawny doom before falling. Those on either side of the first pair to drop had barely any more warning. Desperate and furious as she was, Lisa still kept in mind that How was here somewhere, and if not already killed was probably in disguise, maybe as one of the hoods. So for now she struck to disable, and not to kill. Lisa speedily took care of three more, which meant all those in the immediate area were out of action. She turned to Mariah.
"Oh, Lisa, they have..."
"I know!" yelled Lisa. "Where's How?"
"Here!" the kitsune announced, sliding out from under one of the vehicles.
"Get yourself and Mariah to safety," yelled Lisa, shooing them away. "Tina's on the way in my car. I'll handle this."
She turned back towards the house, as about a dozen vampires and humans headed for her. Through the living room windows she could see others, including Janos. Whose presence explained much. Lisa looked at the oncoming swarm, and smiled a bit. Even in her midform, this many would be a challenge. But she had something new available, and this was exactly the sort of situation for which it had been given to her. Lisa threw back her head and screamed to the heavens. Then she shifted. To the cougar... and beyond, to the new form given her by Bast, months previously. Even the bravest and most fanatical of those approaching shied back, now, because what confronted them was not a werecreature in midform, but a half-tonne of prehistoric horror.
They had expected to battle a cougar shapeshifter, and thought themselves prepared for that. They were not prepared for the ancient death which now descended upon them, huge bladed fangs slashing. Men and women, vampires and humans, fell before Lisa. Yet though they could not kill her, could not stop her, they did slow her.
So she bypassed them, bounding through the picture window, into her living room amid a shower of fragmented glass and wood. Janos was at the back of the room, near the hallway door, and Lisa could hear the cubs crying in fright. Enraged, she leapt for Janos, but fell short as his minions grabbed at her. She fought furiously, a mother protecting her cubs. And those holding her died. But not quickly enough.
There were too many of them. Any one human or vampire would have been shredded in less than a second, but there were enough here, fanatically throwing their lives away to protect their master, that she could not reach Janos before he reached Lisa's cubs. He lifted Crofta into the air, sneering at Lisa as the panicked cub squalled. Lisa froze.
"You will revert to human form," said Janos. "You will stand by and do nothing while we leave, taking these with us."
Lisa screamed in desperate rage. She could kill all those holding her in seconds, but in that same interval the vampire would also kill her cubs.
"You shall suffer before you die," Janos said, with a slight smile. "You will live to see your children become my devoted servants."
The gaunt vampire turned back towards the other two cubs, who retreated into the corner, hissing. He reached for Roda, but she snarled and lunged, nearly catching his hand in her jaws. Janos did a bit of snarling, himself, then raised his hand to strike the bold cub down. Mihos took advantage of his distraction and leapt, burying his oversized fangs in the vampire's shoulder.
Janos howled in anger and outrage, dropping Crofta. He grabbed Mihos and hurled him across the room. The half-grown cub slammed into the wall and dropped unmoving to the floor, as Lisa screamed again and made a desperate surge forward. She almost broke free. Almost.
And then, a shadow passed over the fallen cub. A shadow eerily shaped like a giant hand, part human and part feline. Lisa shivered, and froze. She had just literally seen the hand of Bast heal and favor her son.
Mihos sat up, shaking his head. He saw Janos reach again for his sister, and screamed... and shifted.
Lisa's heart lurched as the cub went to midform. But that was too tricky to hold for such a novice, and he slid to human. What appeared to be a naked eight-year-old Indian boy struggled upright and staggered towards the vampire on two feet, yelling incoherently. He was the only one moving, even Janos having halted in surprise at this transformation.
Mihos, too clumsy in human form, stopped, glared at Janos, and shuddered. He shifted fluidly back to his base form... and then past it. Janos let out a thin wail as the young sabertooth shook itself, then lunged for him. Lisa tore free of her assailants and resumed slashing. In moments, even those who tried to flee were dead.
Ignoring the blood and gore, Lisa laughed out loud as she cuddled Mihos, and then his two sisters.
* * *
"Good afternoon, Dr. Ohain," said the anthropologist, rising to shake the visitor's hand as the secretary showed him into the professor's small office.
"Please, sit down," said Foster. He grinned. "This could take a while. Even if it's a language I'm familiar with, interpreting what's being said could be tricky. I guess you have the tape you wanted me to listen to?"
Ohain wordlessly handed over the cassette. Foster already had a player on his desk. He popped the tape in and hit play.
The recording was quite noisy, with storm sounds, human babble and a great deal of electronic trash. Suddenly, over everything else, a woman's voice could be heard, crying out dramatically.
"Yeah," Foster, stopping and rewinding, "definitely Navajo. But I can't make out the words."
He played the tape again, and again. After several tries he sat back, shaking his head.
"Maybe if we had a sound expert filter the tape..."
"It has already received that sort of treatment," said Ohain. "This is the best experts in the field can do."
"Okay, then maybe if you gave me some background, it would give me a context."
Ohain hesitated, considering.
"Understand, I can't tell you everything. This was a private research facility. The audio quality is poor for three reasons. This recording is from the sound track of a security camera tape. There was a great deal of wind with bursts of rain. This portion of the recording was damaged and everything else on the tape prior to it was fried when lightning hit the building."
"Lightning?" said Dr. Foster, sitting up suddenly.
He played the tape again.
"Yes..." he mused.
Again, he rewound and replayed. This time he nodded, and sat back in his chair, looking satisfied.
"Definitely. 'Thunderbird, hear your daughter.' Without a doubt. In Navaho."
"Thank you, Doctor," said Ohain, looking quite thoughtful. "You've been a big help. Yes, a very great help, indeed..."
This document is Copyright 2010 by Rodford Edmiston Smith. Anyone wishing to reprint this must get permission from the author, who can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.