The Ghost and the Graveyard

Chapter 25


Something About Myself
The shell blew through Rick's chest. In the spray of blood and thicker things, I didn't stop to check if any of it was mine. After all, the bullet that passed through Rick could have struck me, standing behind him. I didn't think about myself at all or reach for the man's neck to check if his heart was still beating. None of those things crossed my mind until after the sight of Rick with a hole in his torso elicited a reflex in me. Nightshade came around and decapitated the man before Rick could hit the floor.
I stared, heart pounding as his head rolled to the side of the hunting shack. His body collapsed to the earth in a pool of his own blood.
"I wasn't sure you had it in you," Rick said.
I snapped my head toward the Rick I'd thought was dead, only to see the hole in his chest stitch itself. The wound, once clear through his torso, was now a shiny pink spot on the skin behind his mutilated shirt.
"I thought you were dead," I yelled.
Rick's heady laugh filled the room. "I'm immortal, Grateful. You know that." He reached for me, hands running down my body, checking for injuries.
"Ow," I said as he brushed over my left shoulder. I looked at the source of the pain. The shell had clipped me. Blood soaked my shirtsleeve.
Rick stepped in close to me, his eyes locked on mine, eyebrows knit together in concern. He pulled the neck of his shirt aside. "Your knife, Grateful," he said.
"What? Why?"
"My blood will heal you," he whispered. The grave look on his face made me think he wouldn't take no for an answer.
I unsheathed my blade and sliced the skin over his collarbone. I sealed my mouth over the blood that bubbled there, and the hot fluid ran down my throat. The raw taste of him reminded me of the night before, and my pulse picked up its pace. My hands found his body, my fingers dancing over his newly healed chest. The world around me melted.
He pushed me away, breaking the connection. "Forgive me," he said, his voice cracking.
I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand, blushing at my lack of self-control. My shoulder was completely healed. "Will your blood heal anyone?" I asked.
"No. Just you. I am the vessel of your soul. My blood renews you and only you."
I nodded, my face still hot with embarrassement.
I turned toward the hunter's body. His blood had puddled over the dirt floor, and a thought came to me. "Do you think that blood is getting to Mar-"
An explosion of earth blew through the shack, stripping my skin where it made contact. I was lucky Rick was slightly in front of me. I'd been shielded from the worst of it. But I choked on the cloud of dust that followed, closing my eyes tight against the abrasive grit. It was more than the little shack could withstand; the roof collapsed and then the walls fell in. Rick tried to shelter me with his body.
Marcus stood in the rubble, eyes red and stomach bulging with the hunter's blood. Through the gap between the wall and the fallen roof, the sun's setting rays cut through the woods. Where the light touched Marcus' shoulders, his skin steamed ominously. I raised my blade between us. Rick kicked out the remaining wall and folded over next to me, his skin splitting as the beast burst from within.
I lurched forward, placing myself between Marcus and the woods. The vampire seethed and ran toward me at a full run. I tried to bring Nightshade around, but I was too slow. Marcus body-slammed me. One of his knees hit me in the gut, knocking me to the ground. My back slapped the earth. In a blur, he ran for the shelter of the woods.
Rick finished shifting and attacked, taking to the air for a better view. I caught my breath and followed on foot. The vampire pin-balled from tree to tree with super human speed, then suddenly...nothing. I halted just inside the tree line. I'd lost him.
Do you see him? I thought, testing my connection with Rick's beast.
No. He's gone.
Do you know where he's headed? I asked.
I'm guessing Carlton City. There's a free coven of vampires there.
Do you think we'd have a better chance of heading him off than catching him here?
Considering vampires are most at home in the woods, and he's fortified with human blood, I'd say yes.
I ran back out into the clearing. He landed next to me.
Come, we need the car if we're going into the city.
Why can't we fly?
I'm fairly certain a dragon over Carlton City would cause human panic. Come, I'll fly you back to the cabin, and we'll take the Tesla.
I climbed on his scaly back, tucking my knees behind his wings. With three running steps, he took to the air. I gripped his shoulder blades as he climbed above the trees, soaring toward his cottage at breakneck speed. When he dove for the yard, my stomach dropped. I thought I'd be sick. He landed roughly, beginning to shift before we even stopped moving. I yelped as I slipped off his back, but he twisted his folding body and caught me in his arms before I hit the grass.
His eyes were still black as he carried me into the house. Always the first and last part to change, I watched, enchanted as they bled back to gray. He set me on my feet inside the back door. In a flash, he was dressed and had pulled the Tesla around. I climbed in. Rick floored it just as the last remnants of the sun sank behind my house to the west.
I tested my seatbelt a few times once I saw the speedometer top a hundred. To take my mind off the blur beyond the windshield, I decided to start some conversation. "Do you know where the vampires are staying?"
"TiltWorld, down by the river."
"TiltWorld? The amusement park?" I turned in my seat to face him.
"It's closed for the season. There's a barn near the back of the property where they have a fun house in the summer. The windows are blacked out, and there's a basement. It's the perfect place for them to stay during the day."
"The Barn Blast. I've been there. You walk through a maze of fun mirrors and joy buzzers."
"Hmm, I'm sure they've redecorated."
"Wait, if you know where they are, why haven't you taken them out?"
"They're free, and they're not breaking any laws."
"Is harboring a fugitive enough for us to put them away for good?"
"You are the judge and jury. It's for you to decide. But in the past, you were hesitant to condemn anything that hadn't harmed or killed a human."
"What was my reasoning?" I asked.
"The last thing we want is a supernatural rebellion. We're not strong enough to take out the entire coven. Wielding your power sparingly is the best way to keep balance and control."
I shook my head. "We can't let Marcus go free."
"You're right, of course. But diplomacy may be in order."
"What good is having a bone sword if I'm not allowed to use it?"
His previously serious composure broke, and he flashed me a half-smile.
We hit traffic on the exit to MacArthur Avenue. Still, we made it to the parking lot of TiltWorld in ten minutes-less than half the time it usually took me to drive to the hospital. Rick paid no attention to the Closed for the Season sign as we rumbled up to the gate. A plywood cutout of an alien torso jutted out of a tilting spacecraft above the entrance, its grin indifferent to our arrival. Rick pried the lock open with his bare hands and swung open the massive chain-link door. Climbing behind the wheel, he drove through and then closed it behind us. We drove all the way to the back of the amusement park, the rollercoasters and midway games eerily abandoned.
The sun had finished setting, and the darkness outside the car window reminded me of Marcus' advantage. He could see in the dark and I couldn't. Not to mention he was probably three times as strong now from the hunter's blood. I wasn't sure how big this coven was, but Marcus definitely had the upper hand here.
We reached the Barn Blast, but for some reason I didn't think this fun house would leave me laughing. "I'm scared," I said to Rick. "He's killed me once. I don't want it to happen again."
"I'll keep you safe, mi cielo."
We exited the car and scanned the woods to the west of the warehouse. I didn't see anything. "No red dot. Maybe we beat him here."
"Come," he whispered. Rick motioned for me to follow him to the back door of the barn.
The red dot glowed to life again. "Here. The door. He's gone through here," I said.
He reached forward and twisted the knob. It was locked, but with a slight push of his hand, Rick broke the mechanism, and the door swung open on its hinges. The dark inside was thick, blinding.
"Stay with me," Rick said. "I can see in the dark."
I drew Nightshade, hooked my fingers into his t-shirt and followed him over the threshold. A suffocating smell filled my nostrils, earthy sweet copper I was all too familiar with. I smell blood, I thought to Rick. Better to use our connection than to risk calling attention to ourselves. Then again, Marcus had fed thoughts into my head last night. Maybe it didn't matter.
Not when you have Nightshade, Rick thought. She protects you from vampire mind tricks.
The blood you smell is from the animals. There are carcasses hanging from the ceiling. It looks like they've been draining the blood. This is a good thing. It means they're not using humans.
My shoulder bumped something that felt like meat and bone. I could hear the clink of chains above me and an awful image of a strung-up deer filled my brain. I had serious trouble thinking of this as a good thing.
Be vigilant, mi cielo. I'm not sure I'll be able to smell Marcus over the stench.
We turned a tight corner, deep inside the barn now. Crack. I lost contact with Rick. My skull hit something hard and bounced. Boof. A sharp pain erupted in my ribs. I slid across the floor, Nightshade slipping from my hand. Head throbbing, I patted the gritty, sticky concrete, frantically scanning the darkness.
I heard scuffling in front of me. I had to find my blade! Searching more aggressively through the filth on hands and knees, my hand landed on bone. Nightshade. Her energy sang to me. I gripped her hilt, rolled my legs above my head, and flipped to the balls of my feet. Shit! That was new. Had I ever moved like that before? Rick? Rick? I called with my mind.
To your right!
A fist (or some other bony body part) hit me, and the whole right side of my face exploded. I sailed sideways, my left shoulder slamming into a wall I couldn't see. Luckily, my suddenly tough and nubile body seemed to know how important Nightshade was, and I landed with her still in my hand. I forced myself to stand, the pain in my shoulder, ribs, and head making me gag. My face hurt like he'd broken my jaw and my left arm hung useless at my side. Luckily, I was a righty.
The scuffling grew near. I circled my blade around me in a move that must have been remembered from my past life because it surprised my conscious mind. I hit nothing.
I closed my useless eyes in the dark and focused on my other senses. Fists hit flesh. Growls. A shuffle across the floor in front of me. I smelled blood but also the sulfur scent of vampire. I had to do something, but how?
Use my eyes, Rick thought to me.
Like it was obvious or something that I could do that. I reached out of myself with my power, into Rick's head. Behind my closed eyes, images flickered, a zoetrope of choppy action washed in red. The motion made me nauseous. I broke the connection.
Rick growled. Teeth snapped near my head. Disoriented, I took a deep breath and tried again. The images came back and, this time, I concentrated so hard sweat dripped down my face. I could hold this. I could see what Rick saw.
Half-shifted, Rick grappled with Marcus. The vampire had grown three times larger since the hunting shack, engorged with human blood. Rick's fist shot at Marcus, who turned into a thick black smoke at the point of impact. Whirling, Rick saw the vamp reform behind him, and pulled his own vapor act, narrowly escaping the vamp's slashing claws.
From my front row seat inside his head, I felt Rick's teeth extend from his mouth in the partially shifted way I'd seen the first night we were together. He was resisting the full change. In close combat, it would make him vulnerable. A split second hesitation and Marcus would have the advantage.
Rick tackled Marcus and the two rolled head over heels across the floor. But before Rick could sink teeth into him, Marcus went up in smoke and rematerialized again, lifting Rick by the neck and pounding him against the wall. I had to do something. If Marcus was going to die, it would be up to me.
Heart pounding, I adjusted my sweaty grip on Nightshade. I tried to take a deep breath, but the air rattled in my throat. I only managed a shallow fill of my lungs. Using the image in my head, I walked forward ten big steps, broke my connection with Rick and opened my eyes. In the darkness in front of me was the reddish splotch. Marcus noticed me. I sensed him turning to take me out. But my blade was already around. That part of me that was the witch sprung into action. My sword glowed like a supernova as it sliced through Marcus' neck. Blood sprayed. His head dropped and rolled in the ethereal light. The vamp's blood hissed acid-like on the floorboards. Black ooze pooled near my toes. I stepped back. Slowly, the light from my blade began to fade.
"Nice work," Rick gasped.
Clapping echoed through the barn. The buzz of electricity flowing into cold bulbs reverberating through the large space, and fluorescent light glowed from above. I blinked, trying to force my eyes to adjust. The blood stench seemed to grow stronger as I saw the source. Cows, deer, and even a bear hung strung up from the ceiling near where we'd entered the barn, dripping blood into ruts in the floor that drained, presumably, into the basement. The system was messy. I looked at my hands and saw the remnants of blood, grit, and animal hair I'd crawled through searching for Nightshade. Gross. Rick and I had slain Marcus in a section deeper within the barn near a stage with a paneled screen instead of a curtain.
The panel slid aside to expose the source of the on-going applause. In a suit that draped across his muscular frame like it was some sort of living material, a man approached. His hair was slicked back, movie star style, a deep chocolate color you rarely see in real life. I could tell immediately that he was a vampire, not just because his swagger was smoother than any human could pull off, but also because his eyes were too big for his head, like they belonged in the skull of a nocturnal animal. His pale features had a chiseled appearance, down to the straight white teeth that filled his mouth.
He approached me with a sardonic grin. "Very nicely done, Hecate."
"Julius," Rick hissed. The name might have been a curse.
The vamp ignored Rick and moved toward me. "Allow me to introduce myself," he said with a voice that was both masculine and honey sweet. He held out a hand to me, closing the distance between us. "I am Julius, leader of the Carlton City free coven. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance." He bent to kiss my hand and his eyes flicked up to meet mine. His irises were as yellow as a candle flame and luminescent.
I pulled my hand away before his lips could touch my skin.
"Marcus was here to meet up with you. Why?" I asked.
"I have no idea." He looked accusingly at Rick. "Why was he out of the graveyard? Padnon and I have been away until just this moment."
Padnon? The man I'd battled in the parking lot of Java Jane's stepped forward, his wrinkled face sending an icy current through my nervous system. Instinct took over. I launched myself forward, flipping onto the platform, Nightshade coming around toward Padnon's neck. The blue glow from my blade told me the demon was as good as dead.
A lightning fast blur came from my right. Thunk. I flew backward, caught by the waist. Julius! His other hand wrapped around mine, restraining Nightshade. Fangs grazed my neck.
He turned me to face Rick who was crouched, ready to pounce. "Don't move, Caretaker. I'll drain her like a bloodbag." Julius's tongue licked up my jugular.
Rick didn't move, although I could feel his frustration through our connection.
A firm hand thrust me forward, sending pain shooting through my shoulder. I tripped off the platform into Rick's arms.
"You must have manners, Witch, if you come into my house," Julius hissed.
I turned to face him, Nightshade still in my hand.
Julius tipped his head and pointed toward Marcus's remains. "I only wished to congratulate you on a fine kill. You are a natural, my dear. I'd introduce you to my associate, but it seems the demon Padnon has already made your acquaintance."
How close Padnon had been. And now, how easy it would have been for Julius to kill me. Why hadn't he? I gripped Nightshade tighter, but Rick's hand on my elbow stopped me from a repeat performance. Probably wise. My intuition was doing cartwheels. Rick squeezed my elbow. I glanced up toward a hayloft above us and saw no less than fifteen sets of yellow eyes looking down on me from the shadows. This was a big coven. A very big coven. A very big, pissed off coven.
"We need to go," I mumbled to Rick. He nodded and widened his eyes at me as if to say, no shit. My jaw still wasn't working right, and with the adrenaline wearing off, the pain in my shoulder was almost unbearable. It was dislocated for sure and maybe broken. Plus, I was exhausted. Two beheadings in one night was a lot for a girl.
"Rick is a lucky man to have won you so easily," Julius said, his tone cryptic. "Padnon and I thought you would wait before joining yourself again."
"Watch yourself," Rick snapped.
"Why, Enrique? Should I not tell her the whole truth about who she is? Would you prefer she live believing only your version of the truth?"
"Let's go." Rick took my good arm.
"Wait. What's he talking about?" I narrowed my eyes at the vamp.
Julius had the look of someone you couldn't trust. When he smiled it seemed like there were more teeth in his mouth than there should be. He was shifty, and he was a vampire. Still, I was curious like any person might be about a particular piece of gossip. It probably wasn't true, but I wanted to know anyway.
"The truth is that you, my dear Hecate, are much more powerful than Rick could ever be. You didn't need him to access your magic. He didn't make you what you are. You made him. He used caretaker magic to trick you into joining with him again. You didn't need him at all."
"That doesn't make any sense," I said. Why would Rick be guarding the cemetery if I didn't need him?
"Don't you think it odd, Hecate, that you were powerful enough to reincarnate yourself but needed to join with Rick to gain that power back?"
It was odd, now that he mentioned it. But I bled all emotion from my face, refusing to give him the satisfaction of a reaction. "And what benefit is it to you to inform me of this?" I spat at Julius.
"I am interested in a long, free existence. It is in my best interest to win your good graces. What better way to earn your trust than to unveil this deception to you?"
Wow. He was good. My hackles were up. He definitely had that used-car-salesman vibe. But some part of me wondered if there wasn't a shred of truth among the lies.
"Message received," I said, starting toward the door again with Rick by my side. I stepped over Marcus' head and moved into the forest of carcasses.
"Before you go," Julius called, "I'd like to introduce you to the newest member of our coven." Over my shoulder, I watched Julius sweep his hand toward the left. A door opened. I halted abruptly.
"Gary!" I gasped as my ex-boyfriend walked forward. He'd changed. His blue eyes bulged, and his skin was so pale I could see the map of his veins on his forehead. With a stiff gait, he limped to Julius' side. "What? You're a vampire? You're a vampire." I lowered my eyebrows and peered at him as if an explanation would bloom across his forehead.
"Grateful," Gary said, his nocturnal eyes finding my face. "I'd like to apologize. As you can see, I've gone through some changes."
I managed to close my gaping jaw. "You stole my money!" I accused. After I said it, I questioned whether it was appropriate. I'd just discovered he was the undead. Was it polite to focus on the money rather than the loss of his humanity? I was too tired to think about it.
Julius grinned. "Gary will be paying back his debt to you. I'll make sure of that. As I said before, our coven wishes to maintain a long and prosperous relationship with you, Hecate."
Rick grabbed my arm and forced me toward the door. He wasn't gentle about it.
"Next time, then." Julius laughed wickedly. "I'll remember the pleasantries if you will."
"Rick, stop pushing me. What is the matter with you? Ow!"
"You are injured. Julius is trying to distract you, to delay you, because if we stay much longer, healing will become...complicated. We will be vulnerable."
He was right. Once we were outside, the pain hit full force.
"Help me," I cried to him.
He walked around to my left side. "This will hurt, mi cielo. I can't heal you until your bones are in the correct alignment. I will have to put your shoulder back in first."
I gritted my teeth. I'd seen this done in the ER and, if patient screams were any gauge, it was excruciating. "Go," I said.
He made it quick, lifting and slamming my arm into my shoulder in one smooth move. Still, I screamed until his wrist plugged my mouth and blood gushed over my tongue. The more I drank, the better I felt. Warmth spread through my body, healing my jaw, my bones, and my bruises. With the pain gone, I stopped drinking and started thinking. I pushed his arm away.
"Is it true?" I asked, the taste of his blood still in my mouth.
"Of course not," he said. "Julius' greatest desire is to come between us, to weaken us."
"But how does he know when or how I got my power back?"
"He knows because of the timing. Julius said you'd met Padnon before?"
"Yeah, the wrinkled shit attacked me at Java Jane's a few days ago.
"That is how. Julius knows how it is done."
"That makes sense," I said, feeling tired. I chided myself for doubting Rick, even for a minute. Hadn't he risked his life for me enough times to earn my trust?
I crawled into the passenger's seat of the Tesla. Rick pulled out of TiltWorld and headed for home. I dozed the entire ride, only waking when the car stopped in my driveway. Once alert, the uncertainty still had me in its clutches. A train of thought I couldn't stop took control.
"Rick?" I asked before I climbed out of the car, "Why did you let me go into that barn? You must have known I wasn't ready. I'd never fought a vampire before, and I'm not immortal like you. We were vastly outnumbered. Why didn't you warn me?"
"I needed you. You are stronger than you know."
"But you couldn't have known I would kill Marcus." It dawned on me the moment the words were out of my mouth. "You were using me as bait. You knew Marcus would smell my human blood and come running."
"It was necessary," he said, refusing to meet my eyes.
"Does my life mean so little to you?"
"Mi cielo, you were never in danger. I was with you the entire time."
I raised my hand to my face, to the place where the pain had radiated through my jaw before his blood had healed me. "My shoulder and jaw disagree."
He frowned. "Perhaps I should've been more cautious. Forgive me."
"Yeah," I drawled.
I waited, but that was all the apology he offered. "Did you know my ex-boyfriend was a vampire?"
He looked away, toward his cottage. "No."
My gut told me there was more to the story, but I didn't know what questions to ask to uncover the truth.
"Do you need more of my blood?" he asked, and there was the promise of sex in his voice.
"Not tonight. I'm going home." I climbed out of the car and started toward my house.
Rick knew better than to come after me.