Tina Kocbek looked up between the brick walls of the houses in the old part of the town, where alleys were narrow and the soles of her boots echoed on the cobblestones. She could see a full moon in the narrow strip of the sky visible between the buildings’ roofs, its light vaguely shadowed by the clouds. She sighed and hurried across the alley toward the bridge that led toward the bright lights and the noise of the night life.
In the church tower a few streets behind her, the bell tolled three times announcing that it was three o’clock in the morning.
The thud of her boots acquired an echo; the steps matched hers, but sounded heavier.
Tina speeded up; she rushed across the street and turned left, hugging herself as the cold wind from the river brushed past her and her breath further dampened her shawl. She caught a glimpse over her shoulder of the outline of the man who seemed to be following her. There was something strange about him, with his hunched shoulders, thin shirt and washed-out jeans. He trailed her steps, his head raised up as if he were sniffing the air as he moved.
She drew her black, woollen shawl tighter around her neck and the lower part of her face, grimacing when the part made damp by her breathing touched her skin. She disliked cold, and it was cold, too cold to be walking around in the middle of the night in only cargo pants, a long-sleeved shirt and a short jacket. Even though she was already wearing a warm shawl, fur-lined boots, a cap and gloves, she would have preferred the additional weight of woollen stockings, a thick woven sweater and a fur-lined greatcoat.
It was all the Dumes’ fault, sending her out without the proper clothes, insisting that a fur-lined greatcoat and a heavy sweater would only hinder her when fighting. She could wield her sword in heavy and thick clothes just fine, and besides, she would have bet that if they had gone shopping she could have found something suitable and light in one of those sports stores in the mall. But no, they had been in a hurry and they didn’t have time to stop. If she fell ill from the lack of warm clothes, she would whine and nag and be the worst patient ever to ensure that they would see that she was snug as a bug in a rug from then on. Not that she could really become sick, not when she had the blood of the Lost’s ex-leader in her veins and when Uriel -- the parent/leader figure in their group of four -- fed her with his special concoction every morning. But she could pretend.
And on top of being cold, walking around alone at three in the morning was also dangerous; she could stumble upon some weirdo or something. Something like the creature slowly closing in on her, whose red eyes she could now distinguish with such clarity. A Deadeater.
Her hand slid under her jacket, at her collarbone where the hilt of her sword peeked from under the Russian collar, hidden under her shawl. Her fingers touched the leather woven around the cold steel.
The steps drew nearer, silently, but she could hear them anyway, as she could feel the body looming over her, the claws reaching out for her.
Her heart raced and time seemed to slow down around her. She pulled out the sword and turned around with a swish. The sharp blade in her hand cut through the neck of the human-looking creature. Its head rolled down and her gaze followed it, knowing that soon it would disappear, leaving only a small heap of fine dust, which would scatter in the cold breeze.
She looked beyond the headless body at the shadows cast by the buildings, where she could see more red eyes glowing as they observed her, waiting for the right moment to pounce. It did not surprise her. Since Angelica’s demise and Petsha’s rise, Deadeaters had started to live and hunt in groups. She and the Dumes assumed that it was because of their fear of Shadows or maybe even because of their hunting down Deadeaters, but they didn’t know for sure.
Time resumed its normal speed.
Tina turned toward the alley and even though her heart wanted to flutter in her chest like a terrified bird, a few deep breaths steadied it.
The red-eyed creatures crawled toward her, their gazes so intent on her, and she could sense their thirst, their desire to dig their canines into her flesh and taste the warmth and thickness of her blood. They were drawn to her blood that brimmed with power -- Damon’s power -- which, just a drop of it, would give them power and strength to rule over other Deadeaters. But she wasn’t afraid of them -- well, at least not too much, even though even the weakest Deadeater was stronger than she was. She had her time-slowing ability, some fencing skills that Uriel had taught her, and she had them, the Dumes, to protect her. She tapped the blunt side of her sword against her leg. Guys, shouldn’t you have joined me already?
Why? You seem to be doing just fine on your own, Uriel’s warm voice spoke in her mind.
But I’m too lazy to take all of them on my own.
We’re coming, we’re coming, Haniel’s voice said.
She lifted her gaze above the Deadeaters, just in time to see a large beast with his wings widely spread dive down.
Two men jumping from the building joined the beast, and together, with their swords drawn, they slashed through the Deadeaters. Crying, the Deadeaters scattered on all sides, but they couldn’t escape the steel and their transformation into dust.
Tina stood there, her blade cutting through the air only when one of the creatures turned in her direction and pounced on her. She hated this, this slaughtering accompanied by the Dumes’ feeding, knowing that, in the end, only one of the Deadeaters would remain standing and he would be used for extracting information. She had seen it once, so she knew that to get information, Muriel would invade the Deadeater’s mind. And if that didn’t work, Uriel would take the matter into his own hands. How he did that, Tina didn’t know and she refused to find out.
The whole thing made her feel as if they weren’t on the right side. But maybe it wasn’t really a case of being on the right or wrong side. Maybe it was just a matter of which side you were looking at the situation from.
She said as much to Haniel as he drove her home on his customized Yamaha motorbike.
“You can’t say that, not when the opposite side are Deadeaters, who prey on Mamaels. When they feed on Mamaels, they kill them and sometimes even transform them. We, on the other hand, never take more than what people give when donating blood, and that is in the rare cases when we actually feed on Mamaels,” Haniel said as he drove them through the opened garage door of the warehouse they had rented when they arrived in the city. He parked his bike by the large black truck that had served as their home for the last couple of months.
Tina climbed off the bike and, rubbing her arms, she climbed the narrow stairs and went into the sheet metal monstrosity through a ‘door’ that was nothing more than a hole in the back of the truck.
No matter what Haniel said, Tina couldn’t really count them as the good guys -- not when she knew that the Dumes didn’t really give a damn about humans, and they definitely weren’t decimating the Deadeaters’ ranks because they had humanity’s well-being in mind.
She passed a space with a large wooden box, under which Uriel stored the black Honda Civic -- Haniel had chosen this car because he liked it the most out of all the cars on the ‘Top Ten Best Cars for Young People’ list. Those guys relied too much on statistics for getting around unnoticed, as if using the most average clothing and vehicles could hide their true nature from people. They just stood out too much no matter how much makeup she used on them or hid their faces under hoodies or caps, and poked them to hunch their shoulders. Nothing helped; people still sensed their power and people’s gazes still followed them more often than not.
She pulled the sword out of the sheath tied across her chest. She set it and its sheath on one of the display shelves on the side of the large box where they stored weapons.
Next, she got rid of her jacket and threw it onto Haniel’s side of the counters that lined both sides of the truck that Uriel and Haniel used as their work spaces. The right row was Uriel’s and the left one Haniel’s; you could pinpoint their owner by the way the right side held nothing except two laptops connected to a microscope and some kind of appliance similar to a juice maker with test tubes, while the left side was scattered with four laptops, a netbook, two tablets, a few handheld devices and all kinds of tools, notepads and whatnot, in what Haniel called ‘an organised mess.’
After storing his sword, Haniel picked up her jacket and followed her past the opened wooden sliding door into the area with kitchen elements hidden under the cabinets on one side and two benches with a table between them on the other, all in the same dark polished wood as the doors.
Tina slumped down on the L-shaped couch that stood behind the bench, opposite to a large cabinet with four drawers. Three Sarniikzis -- sarcophagi that the Dumes used for sleep -- were in the upper three and her bed was in the bottom drawer of the cabinet. As she combed her fingers through her dark-brown shoulder-length hair, she stared at the carved creeper leaves and roses that climbed over the wood.
Haniel stored her jacket and his coat in the cabinet behind the couch then joined her.
“I’m sleepy.” Tina kicked off her boots, stretched her legs on the widest part of the couch and leaned back into the softness of the dark-blue surface.
“Then sleep.” Haniel rested his head on her shoulder, his long black hair tied in a low ponytail fanning over his shoulder and chest.
“I’d rather not.” She unfolded the blanket that rested on the arm of the couch and covered her upper body.
“Are you having those nightmares again?”
“They are not nightmares. Petsha is really feeding on Damon and using his blood to make himself and his underlings stronger. It’s horrible.” She wrapped her arm around Haniel’s shoulder, already used to the youngest Dumes’ need to cuddle. “I try to tell myself that it’s good that I can see what’s going on with him, but... I wish that having a mental link with him would also help us with pinpointing his location.”
“If Father could help us find him, he would already have done it. I think that he’s opening a connection with you subconsciously and that he’s not aware that you can see him --”
“I’m not really seeing him; I’m dreaming him. If I could connect with him in an awakened state, I could ask Muriel to cut in and, I don’t know, strengthen the link or help somehow.” Tina sighed. “And you know, it’s weird to hear you calling Damon ‘Father,’ especially when you look around twenty and he looks like he’s in his early thirties.”
“Doesn’t he look more as if he’s in his mid-twenties like Uriel? Wouldn’t it sound hilarious if Uriel called him ‘Daddy?’”
“He already did, but in a sarcastic way, and it didn’t sound hilarious.” Tina buried her fingers into Haniel’s long mane and leaned her head on top of his. “But it did sound weird coming from Uriel’s mouth since he is more of a parental figure than Damon.”
“What are you two talking about?” Muriel, a preadolescent looking boy, descended on the couch beside Haniel, gazing at Tina yearningly.
“Come on.” Tina made room on her left and lifted the edge of the blanket. She hadn’t even noticed when Muriel, now in his human form, and Uriel came back, but since they all could move silently and through expanses of space, she was already used to their sudden appearances.
Muriel got rid of his shoes, climbed over Haniel and Tina and made himself comfortable at Tina’s side.
“Did you find out anything?” Haniel asked.
“No, nothing concrete.” Muriel shook his head, the longer strands on the left side of his face whipping up with the motion.
Uriel loomed above them with his arms crossed over his chest. “They have all heard about our fight with Angelica -- some of them were even a part of it -- and how she made Petsha stronger and everything that happened, but nobody knows where we could find him or what Petsha’s plans are.”
“But that’s easy; Petsha wants power,” Haniel said.
“We should just focus on finding Damon for now. We can worry about Petsha and his schemes later,” Tina said.
“Maybe, but what if ‘later’ becomes too late?” Uriel sat down on the low table before the couch.
“Too late for what?” Tina’s fingers in Haniel’s hair stilled. “For another end of the human race scenario? I don’t believe there’s another head with Black Death inside lying around, so we have nothing to worry about. And besides, if you three could beat Angelica at her strongest and with all of her Shadows, you won’t have any problems defeating Petsha if needed.”
“We were lucky with Angelica. We knew her main strengths and weaknesses, and she didn’t expected us to join forces --”
“We didn’t even think we could pull it off.”
“We took her by surprise,” Uriel continued as if Haniel had not interrupted, “while with Petsha... We don’t even know how Angelica’s powers and Damon’s blood have affected his abilities and how different he is now from the average Deadeater.”
“Why do we need to worry about Petsha? He is just one of the Deadeaters, the vampires. You’ve never considered them as a threat and you, the Lost and the Damned, regard them as nothing more than animals. Even with Petsha having some of Angelica’s powers and feeding daily on Damon, he’s stronger than the rest, maybe even stronger than Damon, but... he’s just one.” Tina resumed combing through Haniel’s long black tresses.
“Don’t take him too lightly or underestimate him. Just because we see them as vermin and pathetic doesn’t mean that we don’t find them dangerous. If we didn’t, the Damned would never hunt them or reduce their numbers.” Uriel rested his elbows on his knees, his fingers laced.
“I don’t care about Petsha or about the Deadeaters. I just want to get Damon back and for my nightmares to stop.” Tina didn’t want to think about Petsha; just the thought of the blond Deadeater made her hands tremble, so why did they need to discuss him? “And besides, Petsha is the Damned’s responsibility and they are the ones that should do something about him.”
“That’s the kind of attitude that gets Mamaels into so much trouble. Problems don’t go away if you ignore them; it’s the opposite. They just get bigger, and shoving them off onto others won’t help, especially when others won’t do anything about it either.” Uriel leaned closer. “Do you even want to rescue Damon? We can call the whole thing off if you don’t want to.”
“I can’t do that,” Tina said. “But sometimes... sometimes I wish I could. I’m such a coward. I wish that we could just forget about him and buy a house somewhere where we could pretend that we’re normal human beings. That we could send Muriel to high school and Haniel to university. That I would find some work I enjoy or maybe even go to university myself. And maybe you three could even find yourselves girlfriends, and we could be one big happy family.” She could feel a gentle hand on her back, drawing circles. She looked back. Muriel. She gave him a sad smile. “But if we do that, the dreams won’t stop and I’ll see Petsha’s face as he feeds on Damon forever. It’s different from how you feed. It scares me. He scares me. And because I’m a coward, I don’t want to think about him, I don’t want to talk about him, and I don’t want to hear his name.”
“We won’t mention him again.” Haniel’s hand joined Muriel’s on Tina’s back.
“No, we can’t pretend that Petsha doesn’t exist. We will mention him and we will talk about him.”
“Uriel!” Muriel interrupted. “You can’t --”
“Because I won’t allow fears to hold you back, and you shouldn’t either.” Uriel grabbed Tina’s hand. “You are one of us now and when something frightens you, you can count on us to give you strength to overcome those fears.” He looked at Haniel and Muriel. “Right?”
“Right,” they replied together.
They were not being fair, but they rarely were. Tina smiled. “I guess if you say it that way...”
“Good.” Uriel nodded. “Now with that out of our way; Irene sent me a text message. Why haven’t you answered her calls and text messages? Now she is bugging me -- she wants to rendezvous with us tomorrow. I don’t know why, but I have a feeling that she won’t bring good news.”