On the sixteenth day of our flight, Nina Castle shook me from a dream of dark and haunted lands. One look at her face and the dream was forgotten.
“What’s wrong?” My hand had instinctively gone to my gun.
I relaxed. Slightly.
But suddenly something didn’t feel right. A shudder wanted to work its cold way through me.
“Be ready,” Nina said, her eyes darting about, her face tight.
“For what?” I asked, looking around as well. The distant drone of the Icarus’ engines was the only sound. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, now that I had gotten used to the enormous aircraft.
“Just be ready,” Nina snapped. “Remember what you’re here for. Remember where I found you.”
Nina hurried aft, her posture stiff and alert, her radar up.
She’d found me drunk in an alley in Hong Kong. There had been too many of them, even for me. But she’d seen enough of the fight to decide she wanted to hire me as a bodyguard for her father, Milo Castle, billionaire and creator of the Icarus, which had been flying at supersonic speed now for sixteen days. We’d landed only once for refueling, which I figured we’d be doing now.
But why would refueling cause Nina such concern? She wasn’t the type to sweat the small stuff.
I began to get a bad feeling about this job.
I checked my HK .45 caliber compact handgun, and then got to my feet to go to a window. I looked out into the flame of a sunset. We had already begun our long descent, but, looking down, I could see only mountainous terrain beneath us. There was no sign of a city or an airport.
It suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t seen the sun actually setting in a long time. Nor had I seen darkness, not since I had boarded the Icarus.
“We’re going to test the Icarus,” Nina had told me when we’d boarded. “She’s my father’s invention. She’s a hybrid, uses solar energy to convert nitrogen from the atmosphere into fuel for the jets, which is mostly what we use. A single fill up will last us for days. She’s also equipped with jet lifters for vertical takeoffs and landings. She’d invisible to radar, and too fast to shoot down, so we don’t have to worry about flying unfriendly skies. And,” she added, “we’ll not only keep up with the sun, but we plan on rewriting the aviation records book.”
I thought about it. She hadn’t told me why a test run of an experimental aircraft needed six bodyguards. And, she’d said it with resignation, not with the pride that such an accomplishment should have fostered in her. At the time I’d thought it just the forbearance of a doting daughter on an eccentric father. Now I wondered.
I’d met the elder Castle shortly before takeoff. Nina had introduced us. He’d looked me over, seemed unimpressed.
“So you’re the new man my daughter told me about?”
I said nothing.
He turned to the silent mountain of a man standing nearby, always nearby. “Let’s see how you do against Luther.”
Luther stepped forward. He was at least six foot four, big boned and slab muscled, but he moved light on his feet. He appraised me warily, and my estimation of him raised a notch or two. Most dismissed me, just as the other bodyguards, the pretty boys, had.
Luther feigned and I simply looked at him. He gave a barely perceptible nod of approval and punched from the shoulder, with the first two knuckles of his fist.
I brushed the blow aside and caught his wrist, using his momentum to turn him slightly off balance. Then I kicked him in the stomach.
It was like kicking a bag full of sand and gravel. But he bent over, more to absorb the kick than from the force of it, and I hit him hard on the point of the jaw, knocking him to the floor.
It was the knock out button and should have at least dazed him, but he rolled lightning quick into my legs. I managed to jump over him but he threw up an arm and tripped me.
I landed awkwardly and the next thing I knew I felt his big forearm slip around my neck.
In close I was at a severe disadvantage. I gouged the tender spot of his elbow, the funny bone, with my thumbnail; it was long and pointed slightly for in close, dirty fighting. I felt his arm weaken and slithered out of his grasp.
A moment later we were both on our feet, facing each other. He was favoring his left arm, but only slightly.
“That’s enough,” Milo Castle said. “You’ll do.”
Luther relaxed, reluctantly. He nodded at me. I nodded back, acknowledging that he was a worthy opponent. He was certain he could take me, but he didn’t know what I knew.
That had been the end of that.
I felt the gentle turbulence as the lifters kicked in and the Icarus slowed. I looked out the window to see forest rising up around us, brilliant in its autumn foliage.
The plane set gently down and the lifters were cut. The engines slowed to a barely audible drone.
Uneasy in the sudden silence, I got to my feet. If we were landing in a forest, then something must be really wrong. I hurried aft just as Nina was ushering her pretty boys into the elevator.
“Set up a perimeter,” she said to the four. They looked like Polo models, or clones of Tom Cruise in MI2, with their chiseled features and long hair. Martial arts and weapons experts, they acted like they were itching to kill something.
I had a feeling they would get their wish. Down in the pit of my stomach a cold knot was forming. I had no idea why, but I knew better than to ignore it.
The elevator door hissed shut and whisked the four down through the belly of the gargantuan craft.
Nina turned to me. Considered for a moment. “They can take care of the perimeter. Luther is with father,” she said needlessly; Luther was always with Milo Castle. “You stay with me.”
I nodded, wondering again what I was getting into. The late sun was angling in through the port windows as we headed forward, painting the cabin in orange neon.
We headed through the living quarters into the private quarters where Nina and her father lived. Beyond was the crew quarters and cockpit. The Castles lived in splendor, I noticed, not with surprise. Everything was black leather and chrome, lushly furnished with plants that gave it the look of a conservatory. The walls were mirrored, giving the impression of vast roominess.
“WHAT THE HELL DO YOU MEAN, FOUR HOURS?”
I looked up, startled, to see Milo Castle and the flight crew just inside the crew quarters hatchway. Nina hurried toward them, after waving me away.
I turned to go.
“This ship has to be in the air before it gets dark, and that is final,” Castle snapped, his voice quieter now but bristling with anger and authority.
He’s scared, I thought, incredulously. But of what? The dark?
I caught a strong whiff of garlic, and the odor triggered a dark collage of memories that shuttered through my mind and disappeared. They left me feeling vague and uneasy.
I checked my guns again as I exited the ship, deciding that I’d rather be outside. The air was cold with a hint of frost. We were in a large, sloping clearing, roughly hourglass shaped, which looked to be at least a mile long. Most of the tall weeds were dead or dying, and the broom sage stood golden in the long, serrated shadows that stretched across the clearing. I peered around, noticing the position of the others standing guard, each with an Uzi in hand.
A hundred yards away the forest loomed, looking dark and foreboding in the swollen red glare of the sinking sun. There could have been legions hidden under the trees, watching me, for all I could see. I made my way around to the other side of the Icarus, my eyes scanning the countryside for any signs of life. Though I knew I’d never been here before, there was something oddly familiar about it. But not in a nostalgic sort of way; it was more like a nightmare memory.
On this side of the Icarus the forest looked less ominous, the rise of it capturing the last of the sunlight, which gave it a festive, harvest look.
A cold wind swept down the clearing and made a sibilant whispering in the sage. I shivered as it found its way down the collar of my jacket, adding to the chill of apprehension that was already congealing around my heart.
And then I smelled something that made me even colder, something feral, animalistic.
I turned. Nina was striding toward me. She looked angry.
“I thought I told you to stay with me,” she snapped, but her pale, drawn features robbed the words of their venom. Her dark eyes were everywhere. Her equally dark hair stirred across the oval of her face.
“What are you afraid of?” I asked, watching the forest.
She didn’t answer, which was surprising. I had expected her to go off on me.
The sun slid inexorably down behind the horizon. Night shadows had nearly claimed the wooded slope in front of us; only its peak was sunlit. The long clearing was acquiring the slightest hint of ground fog. The distant sentries moved through it, wraithlike.
“The repairs almost complete?” I asked at last.
She looked at me and I saw the fear in her eyes. No, not fear, terror.
What the hell was going on here? The Icarus was more than sufficient to shelter us for the night, or for many nights, if needed. We had communications, but even if we didn’t, what was there to fear?
She shook her head, and I saw her usual insouciance return. Fear still lurked deep in her eyes, but it was controlled.
“No, I don’t think so. We‘re having EMI problems; all our electrical equipment is affected.”
“Where are we, any idea?” I asked, more to keep her talking than wanting to know.
“Somewhere in the Appalachians,” she replied, her eyes on mine. “Kentucky, I think.”
Kentucky. The bad feeling grew stronger.
We watched the forest, like Hansel and Gretel, as it grew dark and mysterious.
The sun sank lower; the shadows gathered. The tip of the mountain was all that was left to remind us of daylight.
The wind gusted cold, turning our breath to vapor.
That smell again, igniting a flurry of memories that flashed through my mind and vanished.
A moment later the sun was gone and we were a captive audience to the coming night.
The shadows grew closer, thicker, bolder.
“You better get back--” I started to say.
A scream shattered the gloaming.
A woman’s scream is a terrible thing, but a man’s scream is worse, for it hasn’t the octaves necessary for screaming, and makes one cold inside.
One of the perimeter guards, a pretty boy.
Nina snatched up her walkie-talkie. “Report!”
“Ross here,” came the reply. “It sounded like Michael. Going to assist.”
“NO!” Nina yelled. “Protect the ship. Shoot anyone who approaches, including me, if you don’t hear from me first. Is that clear?”
“IS THAT CLEAR?”
A moment of silence. A burst of static. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Let’s go,” Nina said, turning and dashing toward the rear of the Icarus. I started after her.
We approached the area where the scream had come from and slowed.
There was no sign of Michael.
We looked around.
“Over there,” I hissed, nodding toward the forest where a dark, prone shape parted the sage like a comb.
Warily we approached, guns pointed at the night sky, which was beginning to turn a deep purple. Venus hung over the horizon, like an evil eye.
Michael lay in the sage on his back, his wide eyes staring up at the night sky, frozen in an eternal look of horror.
Nina knelt beside him and put a finger to his throat, never taking his eyes off the surrounding clearing and the forest, which loomed dark and ominous over us.
The wind stirred sinuously through the trees and made the sage stir uneasily. A strong, atavistic odor corrupted the air. It was the smell of cairns and charnel houses and animal dens.
The hair on the back of my neck prickled. My nose wrinkled.
“Nina,” I said softly.
“Get back to the ship, right now. Get inside and batten down the hatches.”
“Why, what’s wrong?”
“Your father needs you, Nina. Go on. I’ll be along in a minute.”
I turned toward her. Looked her in the eyes, which were wide and glowing. “Get back to the ship. Now. I’ll be okay.”
She turned and vanished back toward the great hulk of the ship outlined against the lavender sky.
With a dreamy slowness I turned back to face the forest.
Among the multitude of shadows something shifted.
The voice, that terrible, forgotten voice, stripped away the dark veil that had hung over my youth with a frightening ease. With the pellucid, golden acuity of childhood I felt the terror and exhilaration of hurling downward through a dark night sky, remembered being deposited on the tin roof of a barn atop the sounds of fiddle and banjo and foot stomping. My ears once again heard the screams of terror as the merrymakers came face to face with a nightmarish horror.
Equal parts fear and excitement filled me. I felt then as a master painter must feel when he puts the first strokes of paint on a masterpiece, or as a lion must feel surveying an impala. The years of carousing and brawling sloughed away like old skin. In the cold dark air I felt my flesh crawling with goose bumps.
“Namer,” I said, narrowing my eyes toward the deepest of the shadows, feeling the powerful force of his gaze
“You remember, my son.”
I didn’t want to believe it. But now many things made sense: The vague shadowy memories of my childhood, the long dark afternoon of my adolescence, the forgotten years that had passed like dreamy decades.
I shrugged. “It’s coming back.”
He moved toward me in the dying light. I resisted an urge to back up and instead stood my ground. I slipped the .45 back into its shoulder holster. It would be useless against such a creature.
“You have done well?” he asked, stepping into the sage to stand beside his latest victim. Though I could make out only his tall, lanky shape and not his features, I knew that his face was an ax like slash, his nose large and hooked, the intense, rabid red eyes hooded beneath the dark, shaggy eyebrows that met over his eyes, in sharp contrast to the wheat colored sweep of lank hair. He was a pale, cadaverous man with fangs the color of old ivory, a creature of the night, like a grub worm or mosquito, dressed in the usual hillbilly garb: Overalls and brogans. The only thing missing was a pitchfork. Some have romanticized the vampire, but to me it was like romanticizing a maggot swimming in a putrefying carcass.
Or so I told myself. But in spite of my twenty first century sophistication (or lack of it, some might argue), I felt the appeal of the night, heard the siren song of the predator; my tongue tingled at the thought of hot blood made irresistibly saccharine by terror.
He sensed my thoughts and I saw the toothy smile glow ghostlike in the night.
“What do you want with Castle?” I asked, looking away from the hypnotic spell of his eyes.
“He’s the reason I roam the night; he’s the reason I lost my mother when I was a kid. He’s the reason I hate.”
I doubted that. Hate needs no reason. “How so?”
“I grew up in these hills, just as you did. Castle’s father, whose real name is Hacker, by the way, made his first millions by raping these mountains long ago, when strip miners had only to tear the coal from the land and leave its scars to heal as best they could. He wanted my mother’s land--our land, because it had seams as tall as a man’s head underneath it. My mother wouldn’t sell or give him the rights to strip it, so he arranged for her to have an accident.
“Her blood--our blood--stains these ancient hills.”
“So you want revenge.”
He laughed and it was an odious sound. “They say that revenge is a dish best eaten cold. I have had my revenge, but in my dark quest I also ran across one of the undead.”
I listened, fascinated in spite of myself. Here was the key to my own origins, if I could keep him talking.
“Talon? Report.” Nina’s voice on the walkie-talkie.
I turned it off.
“I didn’t know, or care, that Hacker had a son, until recently, when I began to think about you and the grandson you must sire for me.”
That startled me. I gaped and then regained my poker face.
But he had either seen it with his acute night vision, or sensed my reaction to his words.
“Yes, a grandson. My blood runs in you, and I want to ensure my immortality.”
“You have that already.”
He chuckled, and it was an evil sound, like burping blood.
“Yes, in a matter of speaking. You don’t realize the effort, the willpower it took to restrain myself from taking your blood, making you one of us. Ah, like sweet ambrosia, the virgin blood of an infant!
“But I resisted. And I took you along on the hunt, knowing you would in time forget everything, but that a part of you would never forget.”
“You wanted your human line to continue.”
“Yep. And I wanted you to remember, on some level, so that when this day came, you wouldn’t disgrace yourself with fear, as everyone else does.”
“But what has this to do with Castle?”
“He has a daughter. A very beautiful daughter, in case you haven’t noticed.”
I had, but so what?
“I want her to be the mother of my grandson.”
“The daughter of my enemy coupling with my son. There’s a poetic sort of justice there, wouldn’t you say?”
“What if she doesn’t want me?”
His sigh was like the wind through winter bare trees. “What does want have to do with it?”
I had no answer for that.
“Besides, it’s not like he has a choice in the matter. He either does what I want or he joins my dark legions.”
As if to give credence to his words vast assemblies of shadows shifted and rearranged in mesmerizing patterns behind him; I felt the multitudes of eyes on me, drawing me into deep wells of eternity. Such an easy falling, forevermore.
I forced my eyes to consider the ground. “How did you know Castle was here, so soon?”
“We move with the ease of thought, or as bird and wolf. My enemy draws me.” He said it dismissively, as if growing bored with talk.
The night was now complete, the sky an uncaring sprawl of ancient galaxies.
“Tell Castle of my proposition. I tried to talk with him before, but unfortunately, his daughter is an unusual woman. She was, shall we say, familiar with the undead. How I don’t know, but she knew the, uh, charms that repel us. As I said, an unusual woman. Another reason I want her to be your bride.”
Everything made sense now.
I lifted my walkie-talkie. Thumbed it on. “Nina?”
“Talon? What happened? Are you all right?”
The concern in her voice filled me with dread and desire.
“I’m coming in.”
“Okay. Hear that, guys?”
There were several affirmatives. “Do you want me to bring Michael in?” I asked, testing Namer’s words.
“NO!” She spoke too fast, and I knew. “I mean, we can get him later,” she finished lamely.
“Ten four,” I said. So, she knew Michael had joined the undead.
“Tell him to meet me here, or I will come aboard,” Namer said, a touch too smugly. “Either way, I don’t care.”
“Send the others away.”
Sinister shadows dissolved into dark flight, causing the night to shiver.
“I’ll tell Castle what you said.”
I hurried back to the Icarus, my mind awhirl, not only at Namer’s mad proposal, but at my easy acceptance of the sheer impossibility of things that were only fables. Surely I was dreaming.
But I moved through the chill of reality and not the diffident fluidity of sleep.
I stopped at my locker and took out the battered duffel bag, the one I’d had most of my life and hardly ever opened. I did so now, and removed the ancient artifacts that I’d never really understood why I hung on to. I pocketed the crucifix and secreted the seasoned ash wood stake, darkly stained and sharpened to a point on one end, in the back of my pants.
“Namer wants to meet with you,” I told Castle as soon as I entered the living quarters.
“Who the hell is Namer?” Castle blazed.
“The vampire you flee,” I said, watching him.
Nina’s eyes grew large. “You know about them?”
Her eyes hardened with suspicion and I noticed her hand move slowly to her gun and the other to the large silver crucifix that lay between her breasts.
“How is it that you are alive to tell it?” Castle asked, his eyes hard and suspicious as well.
“I know about such things,” I said, meeting his eyes. “He has a proposition for you. Either you can go out or he can come in.”
“No, father!” Nina said hurriedly. “Never invite a vampire into your house; then the charms don’t work.”
She was indeed an unusual woman. My respect for her, always high, was growing in leaps and bounds.
“What does this…Namer want?” Castle asked.
“He wants your daughter…” I paused, uncertain how to proceed.
Castle’s face turned an ugly shade of purple. “I’LL SEE HIM IN HELL FIRST!” he roared, spittle flying, fear forgotten.
“He doesn’t want her for himself,” I said hurriedly.
“Then for WHAT?” Castle snapped, still dark with rage. “I’ll not meet with that bastard,” he said, regaining control.
“Dad,” Nina said quietly. “Maybe we should listen to what he has to say. We can’t run from him forever. Sooner or later we’ll have to face him again.”
Castle was pacing the carpeted deck. His anger was fading, unable to stand long against his old fear of the unknown.
“Well, we meet again,” a voice said, and we all turned to see Namer standing there.
He was as terrible as I remembered, and it was like looking at a faded photo that has lost its luster. The personification of evil. He seemed to emanate it in dark waves, but his magnetism was strong and dreadful.
Namer smiled his terrible smile and started toward Castle. “I have waited long for this moment.”
Castle stared into his eyes, mesmerized, the way a toad stares at a snake.
Luther stepped between the two, a large Magnum in his hand.
The next moment he was slamming into the mirrored wall, shattering it. He slid to the floor and lay groaning.
“DAD!” Nina screamed. She leaped forward, brandishing her crucifix.
Namer smiled at her, stopping her cold. He considered the cross for a moment, and then said, “Sorry, but those have no effect on us. I only pretended to be rebuffed by you before, my dear. This ship, however, very impressive. Stay ahead of the night and I truly cannot get to you.”
Castle was turning a gray, sickly color. But the contact with the vampire’s eyes had been broken. He wiped his chin, which was slick with drool.
“The charms must be blessed,” Namer said. His lips curled back from his fangs; his smile was a wolf’s smile, and I felt a sick dread fill me “Unfortunately, the Church was conquered by the Roman Empire, contrary to what has been claimed, and the Roman Empire was always pagan. Little by little the Church absorbed it until it was as corrupt and ungodly as the barbarians it pretended to disdain. There have been no holy men, no vampire killers or exorcists for eight hundred years.
“And now I have the son of my enemy at my mercy.”
He turned back to Castle, pinning him with those terrible, hypnotic eyes, and the fear slowly dissolved from Castle’s face. An eagerness, almost a lust, glazed his eyes.
“You lied to me,” I said, desperate to distract him. My hand gripped the ash stake tucked inside my pants.
“No,” Namer said, tilting his head to take the neck exposed to him like a sacrifice. “She is yours to marry and sire my grandson, just as I wished.” His voice quivered with anticipation at the closeness of the carotid artery.
He bent to his prize.
I brought the stake around with all my strength and plunged it between his shoulder blades, hoping against hope that the spine didn’t deflect it from its target, hoping as well that the stake didn’t have to go in from the front. If it did, we were all dead.
Even worse, we would be undead.
Namer arched his back and screamed an unholy scream that caused us all to cover our ears and scream as well. The horror of that sound penetrated like glass shards deep into the marrow of our bones, our very being, a painful and degrading raping of the soul.
Namer turned toward me and hissed, but his face seemed to be caving in. His mouth became a puckered maw as black as death; his eyes fell in and the sockets grew with cancerous greed as his face dissolved and his body shriveled into a twist of oily smoke that resembled a great bat-thing that slowly tattered into dirty rags and seemed to seep into the walls. In my mind I saw a vast flight of bats fill the night sky and vanish.
The stake clattered to the deck.
Nina looked at it, eyes wide, face white, and then looked at me the way Michel must have looked at David the giant killer.
I shrugged. “I didn’t trust him,” I explained.
Castle looked like a sleepwalker who’d been rudely awakened. He tottered to a chair and collapsed into it.
Luther made his painful way over to him and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Can I bring you a drink, sir?”
Castle nodded wordlessly.
“How did you do it?” Nina asked, her eyes narrowed in puzzlement. “Our charms didn’t work.”
I bent to pick up the stake. “There are a rare few men of God still around,” I said. I put the stake away and looked at her. “You just have to know where to find them.”
The pretty boys hurried in, guns brandished. They looked around for some ass to kick.
“It’s okay, guys,” Nina assured them. “Go back out and keep an eye on things.”
They left, obviously disappointed.
The Jim Beam fetched color to Castle’s face and he was soon on his feet. “Thank you, young man,” he said, offering his hand. “As long as I am alive, you have a place of employment, and a place to call home.”
Home. How long since I’d had a home?
I shook his hand.
“I appreciate that, sir.”
“What did he mean about you and Nina … does that mean--”
I nodded wordlessly.
“I’d like to hear all about it,” he said, “but right now we have a plane to get off the ground.”
He turned and headed forward to check on the progress of the repairs.
“I think I’ll be getting off here,” I said to Nina. “I have some unfinished business to tend to.”
“There are others?” she asked.
“I’m coming along,” she said. “You’ll need someone to watch your back.
“Besides, you don’t know for sure he’s dead, do you?”
I thought about it. Unless he was centuries old, he shouldn’t have disintegrated the way he did. You were supposed to cut the head off and stuff it with garlic, and bury the body with roses, or something like that, to ensure it didn’t return.
“No,” I sighed. “But he fears me now. So I need to take it to him, rather than wait for him to come to me. Pursue him while he’s off balance.”
And besides, I might in the process learn a thing or two about myself.
“I’ll pack a few things,” she said. “And inform Father.”
She strode off and I saw by the set of her back that nothing would deter her.
She was indeed an unusual woman.