KISS ME DEADLY – excerpt – © Michele Hauf 2007
Two months ago, a slayer killed Nikolaus Drake.
Not any slayer, but a vigilante witch with death in her eyes. As if acid, her blood ate into his flesh. Felled in an instant, Nikolaus had gasped for breath, and could not find it. His heart had stopped beating.
A vampire isn’t supposed to survive the death cocktail—that’s what vampires call witch’s blood—but, after being hit, Nikolaus had collapsed onto the body of one of his dying cohorts. Crazed by the active decimation of his body, he’d drunk from his friend, racing to take the blood before death’s release of the mortal soul made it useless.
The blood had served to restart Nikolaus’s heart. He wasn’t sure how he’d made it home, or how he’d been able to stop the caustic effects of the death cocktail.
And it didn’t matter anymore. Nikolaus had survived. He was now a vampire phoenix, risen from ash and blood. But his injuries had forced him into seclusion, for a witch wound proved a stubborn heal. He still bore scars and could yet feel his left lung wheeze when he exerted himself.
Before being transformed to a vampire, Nikolaus had been a surgeon, a man who had witnessed many survive incredible odds to recuperate and heal. But yes, sometimes they also died.
Experiencing recovery for himself had changed him. It had fixed a lust for vengeance into the scarred sinews of Nikolaus Drake’s soul. He, a man who had always strived for peace, now desired a bloody revenge.
Foremost, Nikolaus could not stand back and do nothing when he knew the witch yet stalked the shadows in search of one more vampire to make ash.
Summer solstice arrived in two weeks. That night, Nikolaus planned to return to tribe Kila.
Yet he could not do that until the anger that had brewed within him for two months was settled. Before the attack, Nikolaus had led tribe Kila and served them well for twenty years. The tribe was wary, but none were safe from death cocktail—save Nikolaus. He possessed immunity now—the witch could not again harm him—so he would fight for his tribe and destroy the enemy.
One thing could tip the scales and return his mind to the peaceful resolve needed to lead properly.
Tonight, he would kill the witch.
The witch’s name was Ravin Crosse, and she rode a big black street chopper with the word venom curved across the gas tank, and wore more black leather than Nikolaus did. Small, but imposing in her costume, which also included visible weaponry that could annihilate a vampire in less than a minute, the witch walked as if she owned the earth. She was the only slayer in the Twin Cities area that Nikolaus was aware of.
Not for long.
Nikolaus had located the witch’s hideout. She lived at the edge of Minneapolis, but three miles west of him, at the top of a warehouse recently rehabbed for luxury flats. Nice, but not half so spendy as his digs in the Mill district.
He did not give a fig for a witch, her life, or her nasty soul. Let her burn. And he would proudly present her ashes to his men.
He had been observing, at a distance, her comings and goings for the past ten days, the first days since his pseudo-death that he’d felt able to leave his home.
The vampire killer went out three nights a week on the hunt—Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Nikolaus had not witnessed her execute a kill.
His own tribe numbered eleven, and had claimed Minneapolis’s inner city as territory against two rival tribes.
There were a few independent vampires, not aligned to any tribe, but they were stealthy and kept to the shadows, and very often, the suburbs and smaller towns in the state.
Minnesota was not a vampire hot spot. This surprised Nikolaus. The state offered a healthy six months of winter, which meant little sunlight and plenty of dark basements in which to hibernate. And a vampire could regulate his body temperature so the below-freezing weather affected him little. A bloodsucker’s haven, if you asked him.
Tribe Kila was small, but not stupid. Nikolaus had purposefully kept their location away from New York, Miami or New Orleans, major vampire breeding grounds. The average metropolitan area hosted perhaps a hundred vampires, or less. By no means were they in the majority, let alone a countable minority.
He had prided himself on leading the most civilized tribe in the States. While others, such as Nava, Zmaj and Veles stalked the night, wreaking havoc and creating blood children indiscriminately, Kila strove to keep their bloodlines pure and peaceful. No accidental transformations, no witnesses, no mistakes. That had become Nikolaus’s personal mantra.
There were a few incidents to be overlooked, though.
Hell, they were vampires, not tamed lions. The blood hunger was a powerful thing, and not to be ignored or put aside as if it were a habit one could easily break.
They, all vampires, were called the dark. But none in Kila murdered for the sake of taking blood to sustain life.
Over the weeks since the witch’s attack, Nikolaus had slowly healed. Initially, Gabriel Rossum, his closest ally, had brought him donors daily. The infusion of warm, mortal blood to his system had been supplemented with a weekly draw from Gabriel.
Vampire blood proved more powerful in the healing process as opposed to mere mortal blood. Flesh had grown over Nikolaus’s exposed ribs within three weeks, and slowly the charred skin on his arms and torso began to heal.
Now, only the skin on his left arm, up along his neck and down his left side to his hip was puckered with pink scarred flesh. It looked abysmal, but Nikolaus wasn’t concerned with appearance. He’d once wandered the streets bald, exposing a scalp full of tattoos, a defiant growl to anyone who would cringe.
That was when he’d thought his life was over.
It had been over. Dr. Nikolaus Drake no longer existed. Hell, to imagine performing brain surgery around all that blood now?
At the sound of the front door sealing shut, Nikolaus set down the fifty-pound hand weight and strode out to the living room where subdued afternoon sun snuck through the one window Gabriel had commandeered for an assortment of huge, leafy plants.
After the witch’s attack, Gabriel had returned to the tribe with word their leader was still alive—a phoenix—and that he required time to heal.
A month ago, Gabriel had moved in with Nikolaus after losing his apartment to a pissed-off girlfriend. It had been easier for the non-confrontational vampire to walk away than to divide up belongings and listen to her angry wails. He was on the lookout for new digs. Though now Nikolaus didn’t require twenty-four care, he appreciated the company and was in no hurry to rush Gabriel out the door.
“Tonight the night?” Gabriel asked as he tossed the day’s paper onto the coffee table and flicked the sunshades open. The electrochromic blackout glass seamlessly changed to clear, providing an evening view of the Mississippi River and the industrial barges moored on the opposite bank. “It’s still too soon for you to be going out on the hunt. You sure about this?”
“Never been more sure of a thing in my life,” Nikolaus growled. He punched a fist into his opposite palm.
Maintaining the anger was part of the plan. Not that it was difficult. But fair-haired and dimple-faced Gabriel always played angel-on-the-shoulder to Nikolaus’s feral need to get things done, be it by force and fury or by talking through a vexing issue.
A man learned patience in the medical profession, and Nikolaus had spent a good number of years doing so. But along with his mortality, his patience and empathy had been sluiced away with the blood that fateful night of his transformation.
“It’ll close a chapter in your life.”
“It’ll feel damn good.” Rubbing a palm up his torso, Nikolaus strode across the room. The scar tissue on his side always drew his attention. It sent out the message “not whole, incapable” to any who might see it.
As he strolled into the kitchen, he punctuated his mood with a slam of his fist to the gray marble counter.
He needed the witch’s limp body sprawled before him. That was the only ointment that would completely heal his wounds, both physical and emotional.
In the fridge, he eyed the bottles of wine Gabriel kept for his evening sacrament. He sniffed. The corks gave up the rich aroma of eighteenth-century soil steeped with raspberries and limestone and the poignant cry of tiny black grapes plumped to bursting from the sun. “You pick up the fish oil?”
“In the bag on the counter.”
Much as blood served his only means for regeneration, Nikolaus believed some natural remedies certainly couldn’t hurt. Wouldn’t the AMA get a chuckle over that? A former neurosurgeon using natural remedies. Of course, he’d always held the belief that the brain could not heal itself if a person insisted on bombarding his or her body and blood with chemicals.
Flexing his left arm, he eased his palm over the rippled flesh.
“You know,” Gabriel commented, “you’ve got an opportunity to steal some of the witch’s magic if you don’t do the deed too quickly.”
Right. Nikolaus was immune to her poisonous blood now. Or should be. A risk he was straining at the leash to take.
And should a vampire manage to drink witch’s blood without harm? The witch’s magic would flow into him. “Bewitched” is what they called the ancient vampires who were once able to enslave a witch and consume her blood in order to increase their own strength.
Nikolaus had never met any of the ancients, though tales told of half a dozen that yet lived.
“Any blood magic I gain will be a bonus,” he said as he slipped on his dark sunglasses.
He was a phoenix. And though he’d yet to test his strength, he wondered about the legend that a phoenix was indestructible. He didn’t feel it, but he was still recovering.
He glanced to Gabriel. “The kill is what I’m after, and nothing but.”
“Do you know how odd it is to hear such a declaration from you?”
Nikolaus shrugged. “Yes.” For he preached avoidance of the deadliest drink.
“You know this is necessary, Gabriel. I do this for the entire tribe. One less witch in this world is one less nuisance for the vampire nation. I’m out of here.”
“Have a nice evening!” Gabriel called.
Nikolaus smirked as he strode for the front door.
Nice? He hadn’t known so sublime an emotion since before he was turned. Since before, when he’d been the newest neurosurgeon to grace the Mayo clinic, the smart young resident with dreams of changing the world in hand and a self-righteous God complex to put the most arrogant men to shame.
The world was not nice. The world…demanded presence. And tonight Nikolaus Drake intended to return with a vengeance.
Making a deal with the devil Himself is always a bad idea.
Three obligations had been set to her, in exchange for the valued skill of the Sight.
When offered the deal months earlier, it had been a no-brainer. To gain the ability to actually See her enemies—and rule out the possible mistake of killing a mortal—Ravin had jumped at the offer.
Jump wasn’t exactly the word. A guarded “sure” had sealed the deal. For her soul was no longer her own. She hadn’t so much sold it to the devil as loaned it.
Marked across the chest with a palpable tally, she had then set to obligation number one. So easy, she almost had to wonder why she’d lost sleep about making the deal. To merely locate a sin eater and shut down his protection wards? Seemed to have pleased Himself immensely, so Ravin wasn’t about to question whether or not she had gotten off easy. When the devil was happy there could be no doubt who was the winner of that round.
There remained two obligations to repay her debt—and to see her soul returned. Right now, she focused on the second—another deceptively simple request.
Bent before the cupboard between her refrigerator and the stainless-steel sink, Ravin eyeballed a six-inch glass vial, her tongue sticking out the corner of her mouth.
All week she had gathered ingredients for a love spell—a child’s innocence and a cat’s seventh life being the most difficult to come by. After careful measuring and summoning, she’d brought the whole batch to a boil, and then let it cool for an hour.
Now she hefted the copper brewing pot over the vial and poured. Spiced-pear air freshener scented the room, overwhelming the stench of the pot’s contents. She was careful to ensure not a single drop was wasted.
Unless the entire contents were consumed, spells could prove less than effective. In this case, six ounces of liquid could either be drunk or spread over the skin like a moisturizer; it wasn’t particular, as long as the ingredients were absorbed into the bloodstream. Magic would render the absorption rate instantaneous.
“A freakin’ love spell,” she muttered.
Setting the pot back on the cool burner with a clang, she straightened and searched the counter for the little square of plastic wrap she’d cut out earlier. Overhead, a jungle of hanging spider plants tendriled down, some tickling her head. Plants gave her vital energy and kept the apartment’s balance.
She sighed wistfully and shook her head. “This is so not what I should be doing right now.”
On the other hand, the occasional dabbling in actual spell craft and mixing kept her skills from fading. And it helped to tilt the balance back in her favor—or so she hoped.
Ravin was a witch, had been for more than two centuries. Though she had mastered earth and water magic, air still eluded her—and she had no intention of touching fire.
She didn’t spend much of her time sitting about, brewing up spells or chanting to the goddess. In fact, it was rare she indulged in her own magic for any purpose other than to ward her home against intruders. Which is why her life was dangerously misbalanced right now. A witch wasn’t a real witch without consistent practice of spell craft.
So where had her focus gone over the years? Ravin strived to make a mark on the world. As a slayer, Ravin’s job required she destroy vampires. The only good vampire was a pile of ash.
Out in the living room on the rosewood coffee table, a row of empty shotgun cartridges waited to be injected with her own blood before she went on patrol this evening. The Kila tribe had been stalking the suburbs, stirring up the wolves. Ravin had nothing against werewolves, so their enemies were hers.
Not that she needed a shove to go after a blood-sucking longtooth.
But by slaying, as opposed to using her craft, she pushed her life balance far to the dark side.
“And I am the light,” she murmured, though the declaration was absent of all the belief her ancestors had instilled in her since an early age.
Witches were the light. Vampires were the dark. And while they were just terms used by the witches for centuries, it was the rare witch who abandoned the light of the craft to surrender her soul to darkness. And those who did?
In the eighteenth century, after she had mastered earth magic, Ravin had watched a fellow witch take revenge against a farmer for raping her by blighting his crops. That revenge was not so singular as it should have been. The farmer’s entire family starved to death that winter. And the witch, drawn to the dark by her act of vengeance, continued to wreak havoc against any slight. She became a hag with a grotesque aura all creatures could see, and all chose to avoid. Eventually she was consumed by darkness.
Since witnessing that fall to darkness, Ravin had vowed that she would strive for balance. While slaying was necessary, it also marked her soul darkly. So she would always use her magic for good to keep the balance.
Of course, if she didn’t practice magic, her balance angled out of whack. And, having dealt with the devil, she was now quite desperate to begin bringing light back to her out-on-loan soul.
Which is why she’d bargained for the Sight in the first place. Sacrifices had been made, but ultimately, it would be for the greater good.
Referring with a glance to the instructions from the dusty old grimoire she’d dug out of grandmama’s trunk, the potion now had to sit high and loosely covered overnight. A courier would arrive at daybreak for pickup.
What happened after the potion left her hands should concern her. Ravin suspected Himself wished a certain mark to fall in love with another certain mark of opposing forces for reasons that would summon a demented thrill in Himself. The playing of enemies against one another? Right up the devil’s sinister alley.
Ravin looked the other way. It did not serve to poke one’s nose into this type of business.
Standing on tiptoes—though some would label her short, Ravin liked to think of herself as average for a seventeenth-century woman—she carefully placed the vial on top of the refrigerator. The plastic wrap fluttered over the circular opening, but she didn’t press it to seal over the glass lip.
“See you in the morning—“
Arms still raised high, Ravin averted her attention from the vial and focused her senses in all directions of her periphery.
A nonmortal being was close. She always felt such a presence as an intuitive clamp tightening her scalp. Who or what—?
A discernible wave shuddered through her apartment, as if it were a frisson moving the air. She could actually see the air molecules and walls and furniture be displaced in a wavery movie-like shiver.
Her heart dropped two inches. Her mouth grew dry.
“My wards are breeched?”
Impossible. The entire block was warded to warn her of impending danger. The apartment building was cloaked and set to alarm should an enemy cross the threshold to the first-floor foyer. And if anyone, creature or being, got past all that, the repulse ward she’d set up to span twenty feet about her property should have alerted her like a punch to the gut.
“Something must have glitched.”
Again, impossible. But Ravin felt the intrusion like a blade to her kidney.
Wood creaked. Heavy metal bolts tore from hinges.
Weapons. She needed to protect herself.
A loud slam echoed from around the corner of the kitchen. The crash of the front door to the floor made Ravin jump.
Chaotic commotion vibrated throughout the apartment.
Ravin spun around, but her elbow hit hard against the refrigerator door handle. Splattered with an officious rain of potion, she scrambled to right the vial, but swallowed and gasped at the dripping mess.
“Screw it!” She didn’t have time to deal with the nonessentials.
Someone—or something—had invaded her home. And her closest weapon was in the artillery closet across the living room.
Ravin took two steps and slammed into a force so substantial it set her back and thumped her shoulders against the fridge.
A man stood in her kitchen. Big and imposing. Dark, so dark. Coal-black hair flowed about his head and broad shoulders like a wicked flag warning against cutthroats. Black leather creaked as he fisted his fingers. And he snorted like a bull for the red cape.
Droplets of the spell dribbled down her forehead. Ravin spat at the liquid.
She saw the intruder for his truth—a vampire. Their kind wore an aura like glittering rubies shadowed with ash. Indeed, the Sight was valuable. She’d never regret making a deal with the devil.
But that this creature had permeated her wards and stood in her home staring her down as if she were his next meal, infuriated her. How had he entered without verbal permission? A vampire could not cross a private threshold uninvited.
Whatever the glitch that had allowed him entrance, Ravin wasn’t about to bemoan her privacy, or her safety. She didn’t need weapons. This one she could battle with her hands tied behind her back.
Ravin bit the inside of her cheek, tasting the blood and sucking it into her saliva. The longtooth would be ash in no time.