THE STARS WERE WINKING FROM THEIR NEW backdrop of ever-deepening navy. Mencheres was in the center of the lawn. We'd cleared the snow off the ground so the large tablecloth placed on it didn't get wet. Mencheres sat cross-legged in front of it, and I couldn't help but think that with his center positioning, the dozen or so vampires in the background behind him…and the bones lined up on the white linen, this looked like hell's version of the Last Supper.
None of us knew what was about to happen. After making that cryptic statement, Mencheres had simply said to be dressed for battle at sunset and then he went up to his room. I half wondered if he'd make a break for it via an upstairs window, but Bones seemed satisfied that Mencheres would keep to his promise, and here he was.
Earlier I made a call to Don to tell him something was going down tonight. Maybe with a heads-up, he'd be able to come up with a better cover story than avalanches and mini-earthquakes. Problem was, I couldn't tell him where this event would take place. Or what time. Or what it would consist of. Or any other helpful details that would allow him to minimize human interaction and prevent a full-scale media fallout, he scathingly told me.
Well, I didn't have those details, so I could only relay what I knew. Don's frustration was understandable. Here I'd warned him that for the second night in a row, the undead were going all-out with a black magic attack, but I didn't know if bodies would be crawling from their graves-or raining from the sky. Don had cause to freak, sure. Me, I had other concerns aside from keeping the existence of vampires a secret. I had to stay alive. So I was dressed for battle, wearing over my traditional black spandex various knives, a sword, several silver bullet-filled guns, and even some grenades.
"I don't want any of you to speak," Mencheres said in the first words he spoke himself since sitting down in front of the bones. "Not until I am finished."
And how are we supposed to know that?I thought.When you take a bow? When the ground opens up and things crawl out from it? A memory of those horrible rotting creatures flashed in my mind and I shuddered. Ugh, if I never saw one of them again, it would be too soon.
Something prickled in the air, centering my attention back on the Egyptian vampire. His head was bent, long hair hiding his expression, but through gaps in the black strands I saw his eyes were glowing green. Next to me, Bones shivered, and I darted a glance at him. He seemed fixated by Mencheres. I took his hand-and almost dropped it from the electric sizzle that met my flesh. Whatever Mencheres was doing, it was also affecting Bones. Apparently that exchange of power between the two of them still had a thread of connection left. That disturbed me, though I couldn't say why.
All at once, the bones of the people who'd been killed last night rose from the tablecloth. They hovered in the air, forming a circle around Mencheres, and the bones began swirling around him.
At first they rotated slowly, hanging as if by invisible strings, but then their speed began to pick up. They circled Mencheres, moving faster and faster, until soon it was hard to distinguish any of their pieces except the skulls, grinning morbidly with their jaws swinging in the tornadolike wind. Mencheres's hair blew all around him, and my flesh crawled with a sensation of a million invisible ants. The power pouring off him intensified to incredible degrees, until I wouldn't have been surprised to see lightning strike where he sat.
With a crack, the whirling bones imploded around him, showering Mencheres in a fine cloud of white. I gripped Bones's hand, not caring about the sear of voltage that seemed to shoot up my arm, and stared in disbelief at the powdery remains of his friends.Dust to dust, I thought numbly. Mencheres just blasted away all that was left of those brave men. Why? Why would he do that?
Without raising his head, Mencheres pulled a knife from his lap. Then he stabbed it straight into his heart.
I did gasp then, in openmouthed incredulity as he twisted the blade.Must be steel, not silver, I found myself thinking. Or he'd be as dead as the grainy remains of those men spackling him like grayish snow.
Dark blood poured from the wound, flowing as steadily as if his heart still beat. It covered the knife, his hands, and his clothes with a murky crimson liquid. Soon I wasn't even staring at that, however. I was staring with growing incomprehension as the red-smeared powdery substance that was the bones of the men who'd died began to separate, expand…and then form into figures.
"Madre de Dios," I heard Juan mutter, breaking Mencheres's edict of silence.
My own thought was less religiously charitable:What the hell is going on?
Before my gaze, it looked like ghosts formed, shrouding Mencheres. He was muttering something in a language I couldn't even begin to recognize, and those hazy forms kept increasing. They grew until they looked like shadows come to life, because I could still see through them, but they were three-dimensional, all right. Three-dimensional figures of opaque, naked men. One of them turned, and Bones let out a soft groan.Randy, I thought in shock.That's Randy!
More of them formed from the bone dust that coated Mencheres. He kept the knife in his chest, the wound continuing to bleed, until I wondered how he still had any juice left in him. But the more he bled, the less hazy the figures looked, until I could pick out every wraithlike person. There was Tick Tock, just a little to the side of Zero, oh God, Randy…
Only when all twenty-three people who'd been killed the night before stood around him did Mencheres pull the knife out and speak.
"These are not our friends. They don't recognize any of you, and they have no memory of their former lives. They are the mindless rage that lingers in the remains of all murdered people, and I have yanked that rage from their bones and given it form. They will be drawn to their murderer with the single-minded purpose of revenge. All we have to do once I release them…is follow them. They will lead us right to Patra no matter where she hides."
I'd barely wrapped my mind around that before Mencheres said an unknown word and the wraiths shot up into the night like they'd been fired from ghostly cannons. Wow, were they fast. How were we supposed to follow them?
Mencheres stood, raising his arms-and I screamed. The ground was twenty feet away…thirty…fifty…more…
"We need to hurry," I heard him say amid my whipping my head around to see that every person who'd been standing on the lawn was now airborne and being hurtled through the night as if by invisible jet streams. "They will find her soon."
Patra was holed up in an abandoned hotel about eighty miles away as the crow flies. Or in this case, the undead. Bones had me grasped to him, but it wasn't out of need, since Mencheres was still pushing all of us along with an amount of power that was truly mind-boggling. In my wildest imaginings, I hadn't known it was possible for a vampire to do these things, but here we were, following on the magic carpet of Mencheres's power behind the vengeance-filled wraiths he'd raised. Later I'd ponder the significance of that. Like when I wrote my report to Don and watched him faint while reading it.
The hotel was in the middle of a city slum. From the sounds, not many people lived here. In fact, this area was probably going to be razed for new construction soon, because I caught glimpses of bulldozers and other such equipment scattered around. Mencheres brought us down about a hundred yards from the hotel. How did he know it was where Patra was? Because the wraiths flew right into it, moving through the walls like they weren't even there. Neat trick. Sure beat taking the stairs.
"You must cut through her people," he rasped to Bones, gesturing to the building. "I can't go with you. If I am killed, the wraiths will fade, and they are the only things stopping Patra from fighting against you."
They were sure doing something, I knew that. Moments after they'd disappeared into the hotel, there were the most horrible ear-splitting screams.
"Why don't you just kill her yourself?" I blurted. "If you can raise vengeful spirits and levitate two dozen people almost eighty miles, she should be a piece of cake."
Mencheres seemed to fall onto the sidewalk. "I can't," he whispered. "Even now, I can't."
A brief surge of pity filled me before I squelched it. He might still love Patra, but she didn't return the sentiment, and we'd all be dead unless that woman was in the ground.
Bones gave him a cold, quick glance. "I'll keep my promise. We'll get you when it's over. Juan, Dave, you stay with him. Make sure no one comes near."
Juan started to protest being left behind, but a warning glare cut him off. Then Bones cracked his knuckles and faced the hotel.
"All right, mates. Let's end this."
Patra might have had several guards around the perimeter of the hotel. She might have had some in windows, on the roof, in the basement, and manning the entrance. But if nothing else, having twenty-three pissed-off wraiths suddenly swarm the hotel made for a hell of a distraction. In addition to Patra's ceaseless screaming-what were theydoing to her?-there were the scrambling sounds of multiple people running up the stairs, new shouts, an eruption of gunfire, and several odd popping noises. I cast a look at Bones and thought,Huh? The rage-wrought specters weren't even solid, what could they be doing that would make it sound like World War Three in there?
Bones shrugged. "One way to find out."
Once we reached the building's entrance, whatever guards had been stationed there were gone. Spade frowned, shaking his head.Trap, he was saying. I took four grenades from my belt, pulled the pins, and then chucked them inside. Second later, glass shattered and the building shook as they detonated. Whoever might have been waiting for us wasn't there now.
We rushed in, the vampires fanning out to the sides. Bones and I kept low but raced forward. Those screams and awful noises from several floors up got louder. Finally we saw about a dozen vampires burst through an entryway under what I supposed was the grand staircase. They went down in a hail of silver before they even had a chance to back up.
"Where is everyone?" I said low to Bones. Aside from that paltry dozen, the downstairs seemed shockingly vacant.
Bones cocked his head. "There are more upstairs that I can hear. Something's got them in shambles. It must be the wraiths, but I can't imagine how."
I agreed it sounded like a Chinese fire drill upstairs. People were screaming, footsteps were thundering up and back, and there were more of those popping noises that were like nothing I'd heard before them. Whatever was going on, Patra was still alive. She was the one screaming the loudest.
Bones held out three fingers, indicating the group was to split up. Eight of us would take the stairs, another eight would climb the exterior of the building, and the remaining eight would go up the elevator shafts. It sounded like the most activity was about nine floors up, near the top of the building, so that's where we were headed.
We were on the third floor when a small group of vampires came darting down the stairs. They had blood covering them, their clothes were ripped-and they barely even looked in our direction. But that didn't stop me from unloading my M-16 with silver-bullet ammunition into them. They collapsed, their hearts shredded from the barrage of silver from my gun and the men unleashing their own weapons by my side. Sure, knives were my favorite, but this was easier when it came to distance killing.
There was more scrambling on the floor above us. Something was causing an all-out panic. Surely it couldn't just be the sight of the wraiths? I mean, yeah, they were scary-looking, but this wasn't a kids' slumber party they were crashing. This was the stronghold of a Master vampire who'd been around when Jesus walked the earth. You'd think the undead would be a little harder to rattle.
"This is almost too easy," Ian whispered, echoing my thoughts.
Vlad shot him a sardonic glance. "Never underestimate Patra's ability to make a grand entrance."
"Stay sharp," Bones said. "Whatever's going on, the shank of it is taking place up there. Let's join the party."
There were two more sets of vampires on our way up the stairs. They were each running as if from hell itself, which made it more of a slaughter than a fight to take them down. The closer we got, the more frenzied the commotion sounded above us. Finally we reached the floor where the noise was the loudest, and followed those horrible screams to the room they were coming from.
There was no guard at the door, and it was open. Vlad sent a ball of flame ahead of us, but it didn't prove to be necessary. We entered the room without anyone jumping out at us, and once inside, I stopped and stared.
Patra, far from the elegant, imposing figure I'd seen before, was writhing on the ground. Blood came from her nose, mouth, eyes, and various parts of her body. All around her-God, allthrough her-the wraiths converged. They coiled around her body like gray snakes, whipping her about, diving straight into her only to come out the other side and do it all over again. She kept screaming for help, in a number of languages, it sounded like.
Even as we watched, a wild-eyed vampire, who couldn't have been older than fifteen when he was changed, was flung away from her with both arms missing. The wraith nearest to him-was that Zero?-dove into his chest until it disappeared entirely. The vampire screamed, and then there was a pop and he came apart. His head, legs, and torso went in different directions. The wraith appeared out of the wreckage of his body, hovered for a second, and then returned to Patra until he was indistinguishable from the other blurring gray forms encasing her.
All around us were the bodies of her fallen guards. There were scores of them, and they looked like they'd been similarly blasted from the inside out. Pieces of them, their clothing and weapons were scattered everywhere. Those lethal shadows who'd done this amazing amount of carnage ignored us and continued to pitilessly torment Patra.
She was contorted in agony, her skin bubbling up each time one of them drove in and out of her. I was certain her insides had to be pureed from this. Seeing what they'd done to her guards let me know they could have killed her if they'd wanted to. The fact that she was still alive said their idea of vengeance was much more sinister than mere death.
Bones held his hand out. "Everyone stay back," he said, and gripped his knife.
I cast a frantic look at the decimated guards. "If you go near her, those wraiths will rip you to pieces!"
He brushed my face. "Not me. Don't you see? Mencheres knew it would come to this. He saw it. That's why he chose me to share his power with. It still connects us, so I'm the only person they won't harm. I can feel them…and as they can't hurt him, they can't hurt me."
He dropped his hand and walked toward Patra. I don't think she was even aware of him. She didn't seem to be aware of anything even though her eyes were open. Blood continued to streak from her as she was besieged by the merciless, tireless remains of the men she'd murdered from her spell last night.
One of the grayish figures rose from her and streaked to Bones when he came within a dozen feet. I started forward, but the whiplash of his voice stopped me.
I wasn't the only one who paused. So did the thing, who I saw with pained recognition was Tick Tock. Or it used to be. All that was left of him now was a rage-filled shadow. But he froze, hovering where he was even though he was quivering with what I guessed to be a conflicting desire to attack.
Bones kept coming forward. I alternately gripped my knives and let them go in frustration-not much good they could do against pissed-off phantoms! The other wraiths soon slowed their assault on Patra to glare in Bones's direction. He held out a hand to them in much the same way he'd done moments ago to us.
Bones growled the words, and I felt the power roll off him with each syllable. The wraiths responded by retreating with each forward step he took. Soon they weren't touching Patra, but were poised in crouching threat on the ground just beyond where she lay.
After a few seconds, Patra quit her frenzied thrashing, and the countless welts on her began to heal. Her eyes, those big, lovely dark orbs, lost some of their mindless panic-and then widened as she saw who was now standing over her.
"You're dead!" Patra exclaimed, as if saying it would make it real. She began to edge away from him, stopped when she saw that she was inching closer to the silently snarling wraiths with that motion, and then looked around for help.
"No, luv," Bones said with quiet grimness. "You are."
I saw realization grow on her face as her gaze took in the bodies of her fallen guards, the rest of us standing in the doorway with numerous weapons at the ready, and the wraiths forming an impenetrable barrier behind her. If ever a person was trapped, it was her, and she knew it. Patra threw her head back and let out a cry of rage.
"Damn you, Mencheres! Do you have no mercy?"
I marveled at her nerve. After all she'd done, she truly expected Mencheres to step in and save her? Knowing full well she'd just try to kill him as soon as he did?
Bones caught her when she attempted to scramble away. She yanked back, trying to wrestle the knife from his hand…and that's when Mencheres shouldered past Spade.
For a split second, Patra froze. Her gaze-pleading, desperate-met his. A glance showed his face was streaked with colored tears. I tensed, wondering if we'd have to jump on him en masse to prevent him from interfering, when he bowed his head.
"Forgive me," he whispered.
Bones rammed his knife through Patra's chest, giving it a sharp twist that stilled her. Her eyes were still fixed on Mencheres, an expression of pained disbelief stamped on her face. Then, as inevitable as time itself, her features began to tighten. Her skin lost that lustrous honey shine, and when Bones dropped her to the floor, she was already starting to wither.
Behind her body, an invisible wind blew. The twenty-three wraiths slowly disintegrated into the breeze until there was nothing left of them but a faint gray dusting on the ground. Bones let out a long sigh.
"Perhaps now you can rest in peace, my friends. Someday, I shall see you again."