First story of the series. 20,600 words.
The evening was uncharacteristically warm for April in Vermont, and perhaps that was having its effect on some of the youngsters of Easthaven College of the Liberal Arts. Jazz music with a swinging dance tempo wafted from the Student Union ballroom, at least it was a ballroom now, having served as a study hall this morning, and a debating auditorium the night before. It was a busy structure, as popular as mere stone and glass can be, and served many purposes at need, one of them being comfortable, familiar surroundings for the wealthy students of the school.
Onto the broad veranda came a young man, handsome and strapping, dapper in his white suit. He escorted, or rather towed, a girl behind him, her cloche hat, knee length dress, rolled stockings and long necklace of imitation pearls marking her unmistakably as a flapper, one of the trendy young women working hard to upend Victorian mores, and bring about an era of freedom for love and women. Her presence at a party on this campus marked her as wealthy, and her presence in the company of Charles Finn, star Hooker on Easthaven's overachieving rugby team, could only mean one thing; she was marked for conquest.
"Charles, wait," she cajoled him, laughter in her voice. "I need my jacket."
"Don't be silly," he cajoled her right back. "It isn't a bit cold tonight, and anyway, you'll soon be warmed up."
Slowing down, he drew her more gently, more protectively, onto the wide concrete patio. Wealthy and athletic, Charles Finn did not consider himself a boy, nor did he consider that any normal limits applied to him. When young Mr. Finn took a girl on a date, his aim was not a kiss, a feel, and a mushy good night. This girl was in more danger than she might have imagined.
Draping one arm possessively around her shoulders, he commented on the beauty of the silver moon illuminating the wispy clouds around, all the while seeking a vacant corner out of the light to steer her toward. But the choicest corners were occupied by couples, some nice, some naughty, all in any case enthralled by the first night of the season that the weather was allowing outdoor activity. He bit down his irritation at her for resisting his advances until the best hidden nooks were taken, and drifted slowly toward the stairs giving access to the path leading to the men's dormitories on the other side of the carefully cultivated woods that provided privacy for both locations. She was still resistant, but he distracted her by pointing out the configuration of the Dippers, with Draco, the Dragon, twisting between. She couldn't quite see from where she was standing, and before she quite realized it, she had been maneuvered off the portico, and found herself standing in the pine needles at the edge of the miniature forest.
The dapper Mr. Finn turned and gave her a tender kiss, allaying her qualms with his passiveness, and led her a little further up the trail.
"We aren't supposed to leave the Hall, Mr. Finn," she told him, a fact he knew very well.
"We aren't leaving," he said, "just looking for a little privacy. I can hardly bear to speak my feelings with all those fraternity boys listening, giggling, acting like grade school twits. You're such a lovely girl, I want us to be the only people in the world tonight."
Because she was young, impressionable, and not nearly as sophisticated as she thought herself, she relaxed and convinced herself to believe him. After all, wouldn't every girl on the campus give her eye teeth to be on the arm of Charles Finn tonight?
So they strolled along the path as he silenced her hereditary survival alarms, one by one, with the sweetest words the sweetest boy had ever whispered to the sweetest girl, and before long, the sound of jazz music was a distant undercurrent to crickets, frogs, and katydids.
And the sharp snap! of a twig, trodden under something heavy. They stopped, and he looked around, mentally thanking the foraging raccoon, or opossum, or whatever it was, for helping him play the knight in shining armor. They began to stroll through the moonlight once more, but they hadn't taken a half-dozen steps before there came a thump, followed immediately by a rasping scrape.
Oh, I get it, he thought. Some of the fellows saw us come out here, and now they want to play games.
"Evan, is that you?" he shouted. "Marv? Don't think I'm not going to have my pound of flesh at practice tomorrow! You'd better clear out of here if you know what's good for you!"
The noise stopped. They listened for a moment, and when nothing further happened, they began to walk again. Almost at once, another branch snapped.
"All right, God damn it, I'm warning you!" Finn took a few steps off the path in the direction of the sound. "You'd better clear out now, or your own mother won't recognize you!"
There came another scrape from a little deeper inside the wood, and a sound very much like someone clearing his throat.
"I warned you, you son of a bitch! Now you're going to pay!" Finn charged ahead, deeper into the little patch of woods. "Got you now, you sorry— Ahh! Ahhhh! Help! Arrghhh!"
Within a very few seconds, the screams weakened, then mixed with a bubbling sound, then stopped.
The girl took a step back toward the Hall, now so hopelessly far away.
"Charles?" she called tentatively. "Charles, this isn't funny."
The thing came bounding at her from the darkness of the woods, galloping frightfully fast on all fours like a large dog, but incongruously wearing clothes, nice clothes, her mind somehow produced, and then it was on her, bowling her over, scraping her back on the hard-packed dirt, settling its weight on her chest and arms. The face was almost human, but badly deformed, with lumpy growths and open cracks from which no blood flowed. As she watched, unable to look away, it opened its mouth and grew a set of fangs an inch long or more, sliding out of their sheaths in eagerness to pierce her flesh. Mouth wide open, it ripped her bodice back out of its way, and darted that terrible maw toward her throat, a throat torn with the last scream of life.
And then, at the instant before contact, a blur from somewhere above her met that horrible face in its descent, and the thing, whatever the hell it was, was thrown over backward and left scrambling to reorient itself as a small leather boot landed beside her face.
A figure stood over her, and unaccustomed as she was to evaluating new acquaintances from the ground, it looked like a female, despite the khaki trousers and hard leather boots. Her only clues were the small size and the tip of an auburn braid hanging to the small of its back. As she watched, the woman, for woman she was sure it was, took a small crossbow from a holder on her belt, the bow no more than a foot across, leveled it at the thing that had attacked her, and as it gathered itself to rampage over her benefactor, she triggered her weapon. The bolt struck home and the creature went wild, writhing, hissing, howling, tearing at its own flesh. Then it began to dissolve. Flesh bubbled and turned to goo as foul-smelling steam rose from the disintegrating corpse.
And then, mercifully, she passed out.
~ ~ ~
The young woman cocked the powerful spring of her hand bow, it taking all her strength to pull the cocking handle back. Weapon reset, she snapped another bolt into the track, its thin copper wire down the center of the teak wood shaft ready to rid the world of another of these abominations. The woods were becoming noisier by the second, and she drew a glass-handled dagger with her left hand as she looked around.
"How long?" a rich sonorous voice asked from the darkness somewhere behind her.
"Not more than three minutes."
"We have to go, then."
"Agreed," she said, and returning the dagger to its sheath, she began to drag the young woman along the path by her wrist.
"What are you doing?" the unseen male asked.
"We have to bring her with us."
"Bailey, you know that isn't possible."
"Leaving her here isn't possible. The woods are full of these things. They'll feast on her!"
There was no reply, and she wasted no time waiting, beginning to pull the unconscious girl behind her again, the potent threat of the small crossbow keeping the unseen horrors at bay.
"You know I'm right," she called, panting. "Help me!"
"All right," the man said, suddenly beside her, "but this is on you."
Her partner, a tall, distinguished man in traditional Japanese clothing, sheathed his katana and lifted the unconscious woman in a fireman's carry.
The woman consulted an instrument strapped to her wrist, a large brass circle seemingly half compass and half sundial, and precisely neither, then pointed out a direction between woods and veranda. The man steadied the girl on his shoulders and began to trot in the indicated direction, the woman, Bailey, he had called her, following backwards, watching the woods behind them.
One of the creatures, unable to bear the thought of their prey escaping, charged from the darkness at a frightful pace, but she was the quicker, her deadly accurate bolt taking it in the top of its shoulder, and beginning the disintegration process anew. With no time to reload, she hung the device back on her belt, and drew a pair of daggers, always backing, attention on the woods, tracking the man by sound.
There was a clearing past the Student Union building, and a set of handball courts blocked the view from the party. The man rounded the corner, the girl still on his shoulders, Bailey close behind, to confront a hole in the air. It could be described no other way. A black opening rimmed in purple electricity hung before them. Without the slightest hesitation, he stepped through, Bailey following. The hole closed like a camera lens, slicing toward the center, and when the energy met at the center, it was gone, and the three people with it.
~ Part I ~
Bailey reclined uncomfortably on the worn out divan in the hospital room, the small of her back feeling every protest of springs a generation old. It had been over twelve hours since she and Makoto had carried the helpless girl through the collapsing portal with seconds to spare, and of course, the older man had made out like the whole incident was her fault, something she had contrived to inconvenience him. Never mind that she was completely right, and he knew it!
So she lay on a piece of furniture that should have been discarded a decade ago, trying to nap in her day-old clothing, boots on the floor, weapons belt on the hook behind the door, faintly smelling her own sweat, and hoping no one else could.
"You'll have to stay with her," Makoto had told her. "She'll wake disoriented and need to be comforted."
There sure as hell wasn't any doubt about that, Bailey agreed, and so she waited for the girl to come around as the Dolorons went quietly and efficiently about their business. Best doctors in Nexus, she thought, shifting yet again to settle into a marginally more comfortable position. They sure could give a body a turn, though!
She had finally nodded off, dreaming pleasantly of being in her comfortable bed dressed in her altogether, when she was yanked awake by a blood-curdling scream, and the clang of steel utensils hitting the marble floor. Jerking to a seated position, heart pounding, she snatched one of her daggers from her hanging belt as she took in the scene. One of the Dolorons, its slug-like body thickened to reduce its height, held out its rubbery appendages as it sought to be comforting, its steel tray and instruments littering the floor as the girl cowered in the corner of her hospital bed, sheet held in front of her nakedness, terrified, bawling, "Keep away! Keep away!"
Dropping the knife in her boot, she stood and approached.
"It's all right, Nechezebarra," she told the Doloron physician, "I'll take care of it. Please send for Nagoya at once."
The Doloron made a sound like a boot being extracted from wet mud, genuflected grotesquely, and slithered out of the room on the stump-like base of its body.
"It's all right," Bailey said to the wide-eyed girl, "you're safe now."
"Safe? I don't feel safe! Who the hell're you?"
"My name is Bailey. Do you remember me?"
"Of course I don't remember you! What was that thing?"
She was screaming every syllable, plainly frightened out of her mind.
"That was a Doloron," Bailey told her, trying to make it sound as natural as, "That was a Texan."
"What the hell is a Doloron? What have you done to me?"
"Try to stay calm, lass" Bailey said, making soothing motions in the air between them. "Lie back down, and I'll explain everything."
"I'll do nothing of the kind! Where are my clothes? What is this place?"
Bailey pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to stave off the impending headache.
"I'll try to explain everything if you'll just stop shouting," she said.
"I'll stop shouting when you tell me where I am!"
"All right. You're in the Doloron hospital in the city of Nexus."
"City of . . . I've never heard of a place called Nexus. What was that thing, and what was it doing?"
"It was a Doloron, as I keep telling you. They are most gifted in the fields of medicine, generations beyond what human science has reached. She was trying to aid your rapid recovery."
The girl's eyes made it clear that Bailey's explanation wasn't really explaining anything.
"Human science? What are you talking about?"
"There is much to explain, I know. I was awake the first time I came here, and I didn't feel much better about it. Just try to relax, and I'll explain it as best I can. You've been unconscious for almost sixteen hours, lass. What was the last thing you remember?"
"I was at a dance. My date and I had gone outside. He was telling me about the stars."
"Aye. And do you remember the attack?"
"Attack? Yes! Noises in the woods, and Charles screaming, and then that thing knocking me down, and someone kicked it off, and then . . . I must have fainted."
"You did. It was me that kicked it off of you, and my partner and I brought you back to Nexus, because had we left you where you were, the pack would have done horrible things to you."
"You? What pack? This doesn't make any sense."
"I couldn't agree with you more," Bailey said. "Look, I don't want to tell you too much. I'm just a soldier here, and I'll likely just confuse you more. My partner is much more experienced, and he should be here soon. I can tell you for the moment that we were summoned to the scene because of a dramatic rise in supernatural activity, and we barely arrived in time to keep the creatures from having their way with you. It is not normally our policy to bring Innocents to Nexus, but we saw no choice, as there were too many creatures in the woods for us to fight, and to leave you there would have meant your death, or worse."
"So, you saved me, but there were many other students there. What about them?"
"For whatever reason, the creatures were focused on you. We don't believe they were interested in the others. Our next step will be to figure out why, then."
"You're Irish, aren't you?" the girl asked. "Is Nexus in Ireland?"
"I was born in Ireland and brought to America as a young girl. Nexus doesn't exactly appear on any maps. Now I'm just confusing you again. The less I say, the better, I think. My partner can explain it much more clearly. What's your name, then?"
"Charity. Charity Schuyler. You may have heard of me."
Bailey thought about this for a moment.
"No, sorry, can't say that I have."
"My family, then. Schuyler is a huge name in the shipping industry."
"A bit outside my field, I'm afraid."
"Maybe that's why I was singled out, to extort money from my father."
"I doubt that. Money is rarely an object for the things we deal with."
"What, then, and where is Nexus?"
"Nexus is a city whose location varies," came a deep male voice from behind Bailey. "I know you have many questions, and I hope my young protégé hasn't confused you too badly."
A tall, distinguished Oriental gentleman of late middle-age stepped up beside Bailey. He wore traditional Japanese clothing, loose and comfortable, primarily brown in color, decorated in green leaf patterns and white symbols. He bowed to her from the waist. So compelling was he that, though it was against her nature, she lowered her head in return from her seated position on the bed.
"Makoto Nagoya," Bailey said, "this is Charity Schuyler."
"Pleased to meet you, I think," Miss Schuyler said.
"I know you have many questions. So do we. We will endeavor to provide you some answers, and in exchange, we will ask some of you."
He turned and motioned the Doloron forward. Schuyler shrank back as it approached.
"This is Nechezebarra. She is a medical professional, one of the best of her race. I know she is a bit shocking to the human eye, but she is as gentle as a lamb, and more capable than any human doctor you have ever known. She is going to examine you to ensure that you haven't been harmed in some way we haven't seen yet, and when you are released, Bailey will accompany you to a conference with the heads of our order where we shall attempt to get to the bottom of what happened last night."
"I'm afraid," she said, eyeing the Doloron warily.
"Bailey will stay with you every step of the way. It's merely a formality. Please trust us, we have no interest in harming you."
"You'll stay with me?" she asked Bailey.
"As ordered," she said with a sour look at Nagoya.
"All right. I'm completely naked under this sheet, so I'll have to ask you to leave, sir."
"As you wish," Nagoya said to her. "What do you think, Nechezebarra, an hour?"
The Doloron made another wet, gurgling sound.
"All right, then, Bailey, an hour it is. The Routing Desk will direct you when you arrive."
"Oh, come on, boss! I've been in these clothes for a day and a half."
"Another half a day shouldn't matter, then. Anyway, you heard her. She wants me to leave. We'll see you in an hour."
~ ~ ~
This dream was more fitful than the last. In it, she was fleeing a cadaverous monster. She was quicker, but it was relentless, plodding ever toward her, never needing rest, left behind by her bursts of speed, but always gaining ground in the balance. She would lose. She would . . .
A hand grasped her shoulder, and Bailey's own snapped up to seize the wrist, already beginning to twist as she came awake. Seeing one of the white-clad human nurse-assistants to the Doloron, she released her grip at once.
"Sorry," she said. "Is anything wrong?"
"No. You nodded off, and Miss Schuyler said to let you sleep. Apparently, you've been through it last night."
"Yeah. Is she all right?"
"Yes, she's just dressing now. She'll be ready to accompany you in a few moments."
Bailey wet her hands in the examination room's sink and slapped her face, shocking herself into full wakefulness. She recognized that she was at the end of her tether. If they didn't let her rest soon, she was in danger of breaking.
Maybe that's the plan, she thought.
She used a handful of paper napkins to dry her face.
"Here is your charge, Miss Bailey," the nurse said from the door.
Bailey lowered the napkins to see Charity Schuyler dressed modestly in a dark grey mid-calf skirt and a high-necked peach blouse. She wore no jewelry and was a far cry from the choice bit of calico they had carried away from the creatures the night before.
"I haven't properly thanked you for saving me," Schuyler said. "I understand you placed yourself in great danger to free me from those creatures."
"Just part of the job, then," Bailey replied. "I could have become a seamstress. Is she ready to travel?" she added to the nurse.
"Doctor Nechezebarra has given her a clean bill of health," the nurse told her. "She's probably more ready than you are."
"I don't doubt that," Bailey agreed. "So, are you? Ready?"
Schuyler pinched her face into a determined expression.
"My daddy always said, 'when there's a rough patch ahead of you, Charity, pull up your boots and get a wiggle on!' What's going to happen?"
"I'm going to take you to the Operations Center where you'll be handed a bale of horse feathers over what's going on here, then asked a million questions about what happened to you last night. After that, I'm going to get some sleep if I have to kill somebody to do it."
"Why wouldn't they level with me?" Schuyler asked. "I was the victim, wasn't I? Don't I have a right to know?"
"Let's walk," Bailey said, and started down the long, sterile corridor. Keeping her voice down, she continued. "It's for your own protection. If we showed you everything that goes on here, shared every secret, and you went back home and started blabbing about it, somebody'd have you in the looney bin within the hour."
"Why, what could possibly be happening that's so crazy?"
"Cor, lass, what'd I just say? If I tell you, they'll be putting you away for sure."
"I can keep my mouth shut," Schuyler said, "and my mind's pretty open as well. Try me."
Bailey looked her up and down and drew a deep sigh. She steered them to a pair of elevators and pressed the call.
"All right," she said as the door to one opened and they stepped in. To Schuyler's amazement, she took hold of the control handle herself and started them toward the ground. "Are you familiar with any sort of physics or astronomy?"
"Goodness, no," Schuyler replied.
"Have you ever heard of the theory of alternate universes or astral planes?"
"I have a friend who tells fortunes, gives seances, and the like. She talks about the astral planes, and the creatures that supposedly inhabit them. It's all a lot of hooey, of course."
"No, it isn't."
Schuyler turned to look at her as if she'd lost her mind.
"You see?" Bailey asked. "You've lived through it, and you blanch at the very suggestion that there might be something to it."
"Lived through it? I, well, I was attacked by some sort of creatures."
"What sort of creatures were those, Charity?" Bailey asked as they reached the ground floor, and she slid the door back. "Wolves? Dogs? Mountain lions?"
"Well, I . . . I don't know, but that doesn't mean that . . ."
"Doesn't mean that they're supernatural?"
They reached the front door which Bailey opened and held for Schuyler to walk through.
"Welcome to the Nexus, Miss Schuyler," she said.
"What in the name of the Almighty?" Schuyler asked, trying to make sense of what she was seeing.
They stood at the bottom of a gently curving bowl, streets and buildings spreading out in all directions over the rising ground, but Schuyler couldn't quite orient herself, because it seemed that as the hills in every direction became steeper, the buildings tilted more and more toward her until at a few miles distance, she was sure she could make out rooftops. That couldn't be possible, of course, as with the ground rising in every direction, she should be looking up at the buildings, not down. The light was pleasant, but somehow odd, easy on the eyes like that on an overcast day, but with no sense of where the sun might be. Additionally, there were no actual clouds, the sky just became hazier as the distance increased and the land rose away all around them.
"What do you think?" Bailey asked as she led her off down the sidewalk. "Ever seen anything like it before?"
"I . . . What is this place?"
"This is the Nexus, the physical spot in all of creation where all those astral planes, those alternate universes, come together. Their intersection forms this odd piece of physical terrain where beings from one realm can cross into another."
"Now who belongs in the looney bin?" Schuyler asked. "What you're saying is madness."
"Oh, it gets better," Bailey assured her. "The land we occupy is a sphere, like the Earth, only unlike the Earth, we're on the inside of it. You're always standing at the lowest point you can see, and if we were to walk a few miles from the hospital, when you looked back, you'd be looking up at it, just as you're looking up at all the other buildings from here. If it weren't for the haze inside, you could look straight up and see the roofs of buildings directly above you. Of course, they'd be so far away that you might not realize what they were, but you'd be able to see the whole inside of the sphere. You'd have no doubts then."
"That's madness! What you're telling me is the dream of a hop-head."
"Is it? Tell me, Charity, what sort of person was Doctor Nechezebarra? Japanese? Tasmanian?"
"No!" Schuyler shouted, then looked around again. "No."
"I've told you too much," Bailey said. "I should have known. Mr. Alistair will probably have me flogged."
"I won't let on," Schuyler assured her. "But in God's name, if this is true, what are we doing here?"
Schuyler led her into a small lobby with several barred windows such as would be found in a bank. She stepped up to one, manned by an elderly gentleman wearing a green visor and sleeve garters on his pinstriped shirt.
"Good evening, Miss Bailey," the old gentleman greeted her. "How does the day find you?"
"Exhausted," she said.
"Well, it's about to get better. A guide and one passenger to the Ops Center, please."
He busied himself with a hand punch, clicking out holes on a heavy three-by-three piece of cardstock, and handed the result to her through the cage.
"Tube fourteen, as always," he said.
"Thank you, Barclay," she answered. "Take care of yourself."
"I will, Miss, thank you."
A panel in the side wall slid back as he manipulated a control, and Bailey led Schuyler into the exposed corridor which led down a long flight of stairs and into a subterranean chamber that held dozens of metallic six-foot diameter tubes. They took a route onto an elevated platform before they reached the floor, and Bailey led her to an open section of one of the tubes emblazoned with a white "14." Arriving in the tube to meet them was a device that resembled a huge artillery shell. It stopped in the opening, and Bailey lifted a door on its coppery side, exposing two seats, side by side within. Bailey climbed in and signaled for Schuyler to join her.
"Just pull the door down," Bailey said when she was seated, "and listen for the click."
Schuyler did so, and Bailey lined up the cut corner on the card that Barclay had given her and slipped it into a slot. There immediately came a rising hum and a sense of acceleration, and Bailey reclined against the far wall and continued her story.
"We haven't much time, so listen carefully. The edges of the Nexus are porous, susceptible to being breached by portals of energy. We have learned to create them at need, but they periodically appear naturally, and when they do, denizens of one plane gain the opportunity to cross through here and take up residence on another. Sometimes, that other plane is the one we know, and sometimes the place of residence is Earth. It is generally believed that many of the monsters of myth and folklore are actually creatures who have emigrated from other planes of existence. There are some who believe this is true of all of them. The races, peoples, whatever you want to call them, that believe in order, the rule of natural law, again, whatever you want to call it, have created this outpost where we attempt to prevent, mitigate, and where possible, reverse the effects of these transgressions to the greatest extent possible."
The hum and the motion stopped. Bailey reached across Schuyler to release the door latch, and Schuyler pushed it up, revealing the fact that they were indoors, in a large lobby with a broad desk across the open space, several human women behind the counter, some talking on telephone handsets, and two dealing with customers across the counter. Bailey caught Schuyler's arm to delay her walk to the counter.
"The reason we are here, those of us who live and work here, is that humanity is one of those lawful races, and we are members and active participants in this organization."
She set out, leading Schuyler in a brisk walk toward the counter.
"Don't let on like you know any of this, but listen with your newly educated ears, and perhaps it will make more sense."
Before Schuyler could think of a reply, they reached the desk.
"May I help you?" one of the women asked.
"Bailey O'Keefe and Charity Schuyler for debrief."
The woman consulted a suspended board holding a row of cardboard strips.
"Yes, Miss O'Keefe, they're expecting you. Conference room one, at the end of this hallway."
~ ~ ~
Charity Schuyler, a thoroughly modern girl quite accustomed to demanding her own way in the world, was thoroughly intimidated by her surroundings and the information she had just been given as she stepped through the door the brash Irishwoman held for her. She found herself at the top level of three in a semicircular room, each level two feet below the last, overlooking a small half-circle of floor before a raised dais. The sky-blue walls shimmered in the harsh filament light bulbs above the royal blue carpet, giving one the feeling of standing on the ocean floor. Three-dozen desks, each with space for two people, lined the rings of tiers, with two more on the floor, and three on the dais itself. Most were unoccupied, only a few strangers being present, but she noticed Miss Bailey's partner, the Japanese gentleman, seated on the lowest ring to the right. Two men were seated at the center desk on the dais, and to her dismay, Bailey took her elbow and guided her directly down the center aisle to stand behind the seats at one of the desks there.
The two men on the dais had the forbidding look of heartless inquisitors. One was bulky, corpulent, with a large, round head, completely bald, and the other, long and gangly, had a tall, narrow face with thin, tense lips, and mousy brown hair cut short and parted nearly down to his ear. Both had the fishy eyes and sallow skin of corpses. They terrified her.
"You're late," the corpulent one said to Bailey in a tone that matched his look perfectly.
"My apologies, Director," Bailey said as she pulled a chair for Schuyler and motioned her to sit. "No specific time of reporting was conveyed to me."
"In that case," he said in his deep, rumbling voice, "you might have taken a few moments to freshen your appearance on your way here."
Bailey was well aware that she still wore the same clothes she had worn on last night's mission and had only been able to grab a few hours of fitful sleep while she waited in the hospital for Schuyler. Her hair felt like there might be leaves stuck in it, and her clothes could well be torn in places she couldn't see. Nonetheless, she knew very well that she was a great asset to the organization, and she wasn't about to swallow this sort of public humiliation, even from the director himself.
"Could you clarify a point for me, Director Alistair?"
"It would fulfill a lifetime goal of mine to be able to make anything clear to you, Miss O'Keefe," he said.
"Well, then, are we here to address a possible threat to humankind as we know it, or to discuss my personal grooming habits?"
As a couple of people gasped at the effrontery, Alistair gave her a look that would have frightened mold off a coffin. She held his gaze, and they locked eyes in this contest of wills for an uncomfortably long few seconds.
"Your reputation has shielded your protégé from discipline for quite some time," Alistair addressed Nagoya without surrendering eye contact. "I would strongly suggest that you take her in hand before her reputation spills over onto yours."
"I shall counsel her this very evening," Nagoya said impassively.
"Very well. Since you are so eager to turn to the business at hand, Miss O'Keefe, tell us in your own words what action transpired the evening last."
Pretentious asshole! Bailey thought, and not for the first time, but she couldn't win a contest here, so she held her tongue.
"Yesterday evening," she began, "we received an alert from the Operations Duty Watch of an event in progress. They gave us preliminary coordinates, and based on the perceived urgency, Nagoya-san directed me to use those coordinates to open a portal at once."
"Isn't that a bit irregular?"
"As you well know, Director."
"And you didn't protest?"
"I did not, given that you yourself had taken me to task over my supposed insubordination not half a day before we got the call. I followed the orders I was given."
Bailey was amused to see his hands twiddling in agitated fashion with a pen as a vein above his left eye throbbed ominously.
"And what was the result?" he asked her.
"We appeared on a small college campus in rural Vermont and missed the event epicenter by about a half-mile. Fortunately, the action was approaching us very rapidly, at least at first, but then it slowed as the creatures attacked a human male. By the time Nagoya-san and I arrived at the scene, Miss Schuyler had been knocked to the ground, and one of the creatures was preparing to feed. I dispatched it, and I presume Nagoya-san was doing the same, though I didn't have time to watch him."
"Mr. Nagoya was playing his part perfectly, I can assure you," the director said. "Did you attempt to ascertain the condition of the male victim?"
"And why not?"
"We hadn't seen where he had gone down, and we had a female victim, Miss Schuyler, right in front of us. The creatures were gathering for another attack in numbers that made us unlikely to prevail, and on top of that, we were facing an imminent portal collapse. I decided that our best course of action was to bring Miss Schuyler back with us."
"I suggested. After a brief discussion, Nagoya-san agreed."
"Based on what factors?"
"The creatures were gathering to attack her again, for what purpose we still don't know, but if they merely wanted to feed, there was a hall packed with students within plain view. They were focused on Miss Schuyler to the extent that they didn't have a glance to spare at all that helpless meat just a hundred feet away. This caused me to believe that the most important thing to do was to get her away from them as quickly as possible."
"What about the male, they attacked him, didn't they?"
"We believe he tried to defend her, and had he taken no action, he would have been ignored as well."
"An interesting theory. Mr. Nagoya, your view on this?"
"In the absence of hard evidence, I believe Miss O'Keefe is correct," Nagoya said.
"Pity. As much as it pains me to say it, Miss O'Keefe, I believe you have done very well under the circumstances. You may have a seat. Now, Miss Schuyler, you are the victim in this case?"
"Yes, sir," she said quietly, standing up when Bailey tapped her elbow.
"And you are a student at this college?"
"The reports of our agents say that you were attacked directly by at least one of these creatures, is that right?"
"Yes, sir. If it hadn't been for Miss Bailey here, I don't doubt they would have had their way with me."
"I'm sure Miss O'Keefe appreciates your testimonial. What do you remember about the creatures?"
"Well, sir, they wore clothing, at least trousers. The one that knocked me down had had a dress shirt on, but it was in tatters. The face was . . . it was horrible, like a dog had been crossed with an ape. There were growths and open sores. They moved like dogs, but I couldn't shake the feeling that they were humans, or at least that they had been at some point."
"You say they moved like dogs. In what way?"
"They loped. That's the only way to describe it. They put both hands down together, pulled their legs up beside them and planted their feet, pushed off, and put their hands down again. It sounds awkward, but they were frightfully fast."
"The one that knocked you down, how did it accomplish that?"
"Just before it reached me, it leaped up so that we were face-to-face, put its hands on my shoulders, and just pushed me over."
"What did it do before Miss O'Keefe dispatched it?"
"It opened its mouth and its two pointed teeth, these," she indicated her canines, "grew to an inch long or more. It had just dipped its head toward my throat when Miss Bailey arrived. If she hadn't—"
"Yes, yes, we quite understand that part. Mr. Howard," he said to the lanky man seated next to him, "does this description suggest anything to you?"
"Well, sir," the man said in a nasally tone that was quiet and hard to understand, "the descriptions of laymen are seldom useful. The teeth suggest some form of vampirism, but I don't recall any creatures with vampire teeth that move in the manner described. It will require further research."
"Well, that becomes your job as soon as we leave here."
"Sir, I've been on duty since early this morning," Howard protested.
"Well, do what you can. We have to know what we're up against here. Miss Schuyler, in view of the fact that those creatures were so interested in you, and that they remain in place around your place of residence, I'm afraid you will have to remain our guest here until we work out a solution to this problem. You seem fond of Miss O'Keefe. I'm sure she won't mind putting you up in her lodgings for a few days."
"What?" Bailey said, looking up.
"Good, it's settled, then," Alistair said with what could almost be described as the beginnings of a wicked grin playing at the corners of his mouth. "I would like us all to meet back here at ten o'clock tomorrow morning to see if there has been any progress. That is a time of reporting, Miss O'Keefe. And wear something that smells a little more feminine. Mr. Howard, bring whatever tomes you feel may be useful."
Bailey stuck her tongue out at him when he turned to address Howard, but when he turned back at Schuyler's giggle, it was safely stored behind her closed lips.
"All right, then, let's call this meeting adjourned at five twenty-five PM. Put on your thinking caps, people, and let's have a productive session tomorrow."
~ ~ ~
"Kafele," the woman called down the hallway. "Kafele!"
"Coming, Mistress," came the accented voice from the distance, echoing through the empty mansion.
The woman was young in dress and appearance. She wore tight-fitting men's trousers of recent but not-quite-current fashion, and top-quality ladies' shoes with modest heels and sexy ankle straps. A fashionable crepe blouse with shell buttons completed the look of a modern yet still modest woman of the rapidly changing times. Her black hair hung long and lush in soft curls and waves, but there were touches of gray peeking through, and something around the crystal blue eyes hinted at an age far beyond her otherwise youthful shape and fashion.
The room multiplied the strange effect by a factor of ten. It was a huge bedroom, bigger than some peoples' houses, the turret set off one corner marking the architecture as Victorian. Everything was dilapidated, covered in seasons of dust, fabrics torn, furnishings in bad need of repair. A small corner of the roof had collapsed, most of the damage being confined to the adjoining bedroom, but the small shaft of daylight admitted was sufficient to highlight every aspect of the broken-down manse in the New Hampshire hills. Some family's summer retreat, now abandoned and forgotten, it made a perfect lair for one such as Ekaterina the Undying.
"Mistress called?" the stocky man asked as he reached the door, bowing deeply as he spoke.
"Mistress did," Ekaterina said to him. "I had expected to be on the way home with the chalice by this morning. What happened?"
The man, middle aged and powerfully built, appeared to have nothing to fear from this slip of a girl, but he made no attempt to dismiss her irritation.
"There was a complication."
"Obviously. I do not employ you because there aren't enough fools in my life, Kafele. It was a simple task. What complication could have interrupted my breeds?"
"Some sort of hunters, Mistress."
"We have dealt with hunters before. How many?"
"Two, as nearly as we could tell."
"Two?" she repeated, voice rising for the first time. "You had nine breeds out there!"
"And now I have five. They were remarkably effective. And, of course, they had the element of surprise."
"They sound as if they could pose a problem," she said, taking a seat on the dusty bed. "Tell me of them."
"A man and a woman. The man is Oriental, Japanese, if his sword reflects him accurately. He wields a long katana with a grace I have rarely seen."
"And the woman?"
"Young, mistress, and quite athletic. She is European or American, dark red hair, so perhaps Celtic in descent. A terrific fighter, in any case. Her favored weapon was a small crossbow with which she killed two breeds, but she first attacked one hand-to-hand, so her courage is not in question."
"No. The Celts have a long history of their own. She used a crossbow, you say?"
"Nasty. You can make darts of any material you choose. We will have to treat her as a special case."
"There is no time to send for more breeds, Mistress."
"No matter. They have lost the element of surprise. I will deal with them myself, if need be. Where are they now?"
"We do not know, Mistress. They eluded us quite thoroughly. The breeds followed their scent to an athletic field near the dance, but there they lost it, and the chalice as well."
"Hmm. They must have entered some conveyance and driven away together. Don't worry, Kafele. If they are hunters, they will be back. Those meddlesome creatures are so predictable. All we need do is be ready."
"I worry, Mistress."
"For what reason?"
"It has been long since you have taken hunters, and these hunters are formidable."
"They are mortal, are they not?"
"As are you, Mistress, should one find the key."
"Do you know how many of these worms I have slain?"
"A thousand?" he guessed.
She gave a sharp, one-syllable laugh.
"Since I have known you, perhaps. Ten thousand would be closer to the mark."
"Still, your condition . . ."
"What condition is that?"
"The time for rejuvenation nears. You are gravely weakened."
"My weakened state is a hundred times stronger than a mortal on his best day, something you would do well to remember, thrall. Last night, they surprised you. The next time we meet, I will surprise them, and that will be the end of these formidable hunters that you fear so greatly. We need only put in an appearance to draw them out of their den. Come, my faithful servant, let us prepare our surprise."
~ Part II ~
"Who are you people, really?" Schuyler asked as she sat on Bailey's convertible sofa. As she awaited an answer, she reached to Bailey's leather belt on the end-table shelf, and drew the green-handled dagger, a smooth, double-edged eight-inch blade topped with a handle of glass blown around a huge, perfectly preserved green spider some two inches long.
"Be careful with that!" Bailey shouted, springing to her side like a cat, taking the weapon from her, and replacing it in its sheath.
"Poisoned blade," she said by way of explanation to Schuyler's startled expression.
"See, that's what I'm talking about. Who keeps a poisoned dagger by her bedside?"
"Everything was explained to you yesterday," Bailey said, dropping onto the couch beside her, one leg curled under her.
"Everything and nothing. All that mumbo-jumbo about interdimensional gateways and such, well, it just isn't sane, that's what."
"It may not seem sane to you, but it's the underlying reality that we all have to—"
She was interrupted by a sharp rap on her door. Removing the knife from its sheath and concealing it behind her back, she stepped to the door.
"Who is it?"
Relaxing, she opened the door, turning back to replace the knife.
"Expecting company?" her Japanese partner asked as he entered her quarters with a bow to her and Schuyler.
"I was told to protect this woman with my life. I'd have been holding a machine gun if I had one."
"Your diligence is commendable. I have come to relieve you of that duty. Mr. Alistair's meeting has been cancelled for this morning. Mr. Howard wants to see you as quickly as you can arrange it. He has information, and a new piece of equipment for you."
"Lovely. Well, at least I don't have to butt heads with Alistair to start my day."
"Yes. You'd best get going, and you'd be well-served to leave that attitude here. The director would like nothing better than an excuse to banish you from the Nexus."
"That's his prerogative," she said, strapping on her dagger belt, and checking the feel of the two blades held horizontally behind each hip. "He shouldn't have let me in in the first place."
"It would be a hardship on me. I would hate to have to start over, training a new partner."
She looked at him with a quizzical expression.
"Well, and I'll take it under advisement, then. I'll be back as soon as I can."
She bowed to Nagoya, who returned it, and slipped out the door. He locked it behind her.
"What is her story?" Schuyler asked as Nagoya took a seat in the easy chair across the room from the couch.
"The impetuosity of youth," Nagoya said, like that explained everything.
"That's not what I mean. Who is she? Why is she here? For that matter, why are any of you here?"
"Those are difficult questions, and not easily answered," Nagoya told her. "As to Bailey, she was given to me to train not long after she arrived here."
"When was that?"
"She has been here for, let me think, something close to six years now."
"What did she do, fill out a work application?"
"Hardly. Like many of us who do this work, like you yourself, Bailey was rescued during an attack. Unlike most, she asked to be allowed to stay and serve."
"And how does she serve? I mean, she told me she was a soldier here, but what does that mean?"
"That is exactly what she is. Bailey has no use for the spit-and-polish of garrison life, and that is very much what we are here, a garrison. She rails against the discipline that the director imposes, which leads to the friction you have already witnessed. The science behind this, the research, the book-learning all leaves her cold. What she wants to do is kill monsters. Those are her words, kill monsters, and she is unbelievably efficient at it. I have rarely seen so natural a fighter. I myself am a samurai, trained from childhood to use a sword and auxiliary weapons, and I could not guarantee that I could defeat her in a one-on-one fight. She improvises on the fly, and is completely unpredictable. In addition to that, she has become quite adept at using the often-strange equipment we are provided with here. I would rather have her at my side than five large men."
"And that's why you protect her from this director?"
"That is correct. At the end of the day, you see, our work here is not keeping things clean, or wearing neat clothes, or showing the proper deference to superiors. It is killing monsters, and in that regard, Bailey has few peers."
~ ~ ~
An attentive observer could have followed their progress by the songs of the crickets. The little breepers went silent as the group passed stealthily by, resuming their music only when the feral creatures' terrifying auras had passed on. The creatures cared nothing for crickets, nor, it seemed, did anyone else. They went silent and unnoticed as they approached the back wall of the three-story dormitory building through the carefully tended wood so lovingly planted to give the school atmosphere.
Five creatures assembled just inside the trees, six if you counted the Mistress's thrall, but of course, he wouldn't be taking part in the festivities about to ensue.
"You all know the target?" he asked, turning his bulging eyes from creature to creature.
"We know, master," one of the humanoid wolf-creatures replied. "Mistress was quite clear."
He stood on two legs shorter than a man's, despite his six-foot plus height. The old trousers and ragged shirts the five wore concealed the nature of their bodies, but they didn't bother at all to conceal their faces with their short, baboon-like snouts, sharp, spiky teeth coming into view as the thing spoke.
"Good," Kafele, the thrall, said. "Feed on the others as you wish, but bring her back alive and unharmed. Spread out, no closer than every other window. When I give the signal, begin your work."
The creatures lined up at the windows, not enough of them to cover the whole width of the building, but sufficient to cause panic and mayhem on the unsuspecting youths within. Kafele listened for a moment, his heightened senses picking up nothing but snores and the deep breathing of sleep in the rooms nearest. He nodded to himself and lifted a whistle on a fine gold chain around his neck. He blew it hard.
It seemed to make no sound, but the creatures heard it well enough . . .
~ ~ ~
Sylvia Brentwood lay on her dormitory bed in the darkness, hovering on the edge of sleep. Only a distant cousin of the Vanderbilts, she was nonetheless close enough to be accustomed to the wealth. She would have been asleep hours ago, but she was troubled. First the Schuyler girl had disappeared, and now Marigold Mayweather, her roommate, had gone out with friends early last evening, and had not yet returned. What if she didn't, she wondered. What if there was a killer on the campus?
Down such paths was her mind running when the night exploded with multiple crashes of breaking glass on the floor below. She sat up, fighting off her sleepiness, slid out of bed, and went to the window that looked out over the woods behind the building. As she squinted into the darkness trying to resolve the spooky, irregular shapes, screams began to ring out on the first floor, accompanied by splintering wood, and heavy objects falling or being thrown.
Snatching up the diaphanous robe that went with her nightgown, she threw it around her shoulders and opened the door. She started toward the staircase and was almost to the top when a male figure bounded up the stairs and confronted her. Cowering against the wall, face-to-face with it, she could plainly see that it wasn't a man, or was a badly deformed one if it was. Ragged clothing hung in tatters from its tall, muscled body, but the face, my God, the face!
Almost human, but not nearly close enough to suit her, the extended muzzle protruded from the face, a shiny, dark substance gleaming even in the dim hall light. She could smell the blood, and had no doubt where it was coming from. The thing studied her for a moment, tilting its head like a dog trying to understand something just beyond its ken, then it threw her aside, raking her upper arm and shoulder with a handful of sharp claws, and bounded off down the hall, crashing through the first bedroom door it came to. The screams began anew.
Miss Brentwood was far gone in panic by now, but this time, it served her well. She crawled across the hall to the small room where the cleaning supplies were kept, let herself in, closed it behind her, and pulled over a shelf that fell at an angle across the door, blocking it. She took refuge behind it, scooping fallen debris around her to hide herself, and listened in terror as the screams went on and on and on.
~ ~ ~
Kafele waited outside in the edge of the woods. He would have loved to join the feasting inside the dorm. The screams and cries of terror were music to his ancient soul, but there was more important business to be done, and mistress would not be pleased should he allow the hybrid creatures to get out of control, so he waited. After five minutes, the screams had died down from a chorus to individual performances. After ten minutes, most of the screaming had been replaced by the sounds of wood and glass being broken as the creatures ransacked the dormitory in search of their quarry. A few moments after that, sirens could be heard in the distance, and it became time to depart.
Kafele took up his whistle again and blew three sharp blasts that were audible to no one but the hybrids. He waited a moment and blew three more. They began to emerge from the broken windows, each empty-handed. He waited until the last one had come up to join him.
"Where is the girl?" he asked in his guttural accent.
The creatures all looked to one another, then back to him.
"She was not there," one of them struggled to articulate through his mouth full of teeth with its misshapen palate.
"That's impossible!" Kafele snarled at him. "She has to be here!"
"If she was here, we would have her," the thing retorted. "She was gone."
"Damn!" Kafele swore. "Mistress will have our skins!"
He led them off through the woods as the sirens approached the campus, slowing to turn in through the gate. After a few minutes' walk they came to the hole in the fence they had made to enter, slipped out, and joined Ekaterina in the Ford touring car she had acquired for their use.
"Where is she?" The woman asked as Kafele slid into the driver's seat beside her while three of the creatures piled into the back seat and two more took up positions on the running boards.
"She was not present," her servant replied as he operated the electric starter and maneuvered the big car out of the edge of the woods and onto the dirt road behind the school.
"Then, where has she gone?"
"We cannot know, Mistress, but do you recall the people who appeared when we were about to take her before?"
"How could I forget those who killed four breeds?"
"They may have taken her somewhere, especially if they realized that she is special to us."
"Then we must draw them out, Kafele."
"I shall consult the spirits. They will know the means."
~ ~ ~
"None of the research precisely describes the creatures who attacked Miss Schuyler," Mr. Alistair intoned, his voice the perfect match for his perpetually displeased face, "so we are going to need some more direct evidence."
"That could prove difficult," Nagoya observed.
"Indeed. We cannot summon these creatures at will, so Mr. Howard has conceived a plan to send you and Miss O'Keefe into the school in a clandestine capacity."
"We don't belong there, and they'll all know it," Bailey pointed out.
"In the broader sense, Miss O'Keefe. Mr. Howard, would you care to explain?"
"Delighted, sir," the cadaverous assistant said. "Our research has discovered that Easthaven College is one of several small but elite schools owned and operated by the Parthenon Group, a private and very agenda-specific educational firm based in Boston, Massachusetts."
"Let me guess," Bailey said, "their agenda is harvesting money."
"Actually, Miss O'Keefe," Howard told her, "their agenda seems to be increasing the likelihood that the elite money of the United States remains within a handful of great families."
"We aren't here to judge them, Miss O'Keefe," Alistair reminded her. "Our function is the suppression of otherworldly creatures, and nothing else."
"As I'm well aware, sir," she replied. "Doesn't mean I don't have opinions, then."
"The midst of a mission briefing is not the place to share them. Do continue, Mr. Howard."
"Yes, sir. As I was saying, as Easthaven is owned by a parent entity a good distance away, it is reasonable to suppose that the faculty of Easthaven is unlikely to know every member of the staff of that distant office. Less so the local police, so we have created identities for you, with appropriate credentials, of an investigating team from the home office, sent to look into the recent attack."
"Sounds like there's a huge risk of getting caught, then," Bailey said. "What do we hope to gain?"
"Information, Miss O'Keefe," Alistair replied, "a commodity that we are sorely lacking at the moment. The simple fact is that we have none. The city's archives hold nothing that reads exactly like the creatures you encountered, and then perhaps more importantly, we don't know why they are so fixated on Miss Schuyler, and that information is vital. So, you're going in. As contrary as it is to your nature, Miss O'Keefe, I would suggest that you are much less likely to be questioned if you refrain from angering anyone in authority. Meek and humble will do just nicely. Mr. Howard, continue please."
"Yes, sir. We'll insert you Sunday around noon. Most of the faculty should be off campus, or in their housing, in any case, away from the students. We understand that the school is taking a week off from their classroom schedule in order to come to terms with this catastrophe. What we need you to do is question anyone who saw anything, visit the dormitory that was attacked, and bring back whatever samples you can, dried blood, hair, teeth, nails, whatever you can find. That's two days off, so you can train, study your packages, and get yourselves well-prepared. Here are your papers, badges, identity cards, and files with everything we know so far. Present yourselves at the insertion center in thirty-six hours."
"Promptly," Alistair added. "We don't anticipate that you will be attacked, though you'll want to go armed, of course, but only with weapons that can be easily concealed. That means no sword, Mr. Nagoya, and no crossbow for you, young lady."
~ ~ ~
The portal delivered them into a secluded spot across the road from the gate. Nagoya was dapper in his dark blue business suit with ebony walking stick, and Bailey looked every inch the secretary in her prim and proper calf-length skirt, cloche hat, and soft-sided briefcase on a shoulder strap. A dainty watch graced her wrist in place of the bulky chronambulator, and Nagoya's stick concealed a sharp, narrow blade. After a brief check of one another's appearance, they crossed the road and entered the gates, walked up the short driveway to verify that the offices were closed for the weekend, then stood on the broad portico while Nagoya consulted a small hand-drawn map.
"The student union building where the first attack came is over that way," he said, pointing off to the left. "The dormitory that was the scene of the second attack is in the same direction, but further back on the campus. I suggest we start there."
It was a ten-minute walk in the pleasant spring air, and they arrived invigorated in the courtyard that was surrounded on three sides by long three-story dormitory buildings. Some of the young ladies were seated on benches, studying, talking, enjoying the spring air after a typically brutal New England winter, and Nagoya approached one of them at a leisurely pace.
"Excuse me, Miss," he addressed her, showing the badge the Phillips had provided, "I'm Makoto Nagoya, and this is my assistant, Miss O'Keefe. We've been sent by Parthenon to investigate the attack that took place here, and I wonder if you happened to witness it, or could direct us to someone who did?"
She examined his badge carefully before replying.
"I don't live in that hall," she said, indicating the one to the left of the courtyard. "Some of those girls over there do, I think. I just heard the screaming. It was terrifying, I can tell you!"
"No doubt it was," Nagoya said. "Thank you for your time."
He led Bailey slowly toward the proper building.
"They targeted a single building," he said quietly. "What do you bet that that's where Miss Schuyler lives?"
"Damned likely. We're assuming these things are wild animals, but they certainly seem to be working to a plan."
"Or they're well-directed. Good day, ladies," he said, badge in hand, as they reached a group of four young women sitting around a wrought iron table. "My colleague and I have been sent from the home office to look into the attack that took place here earlier this week. I wonder if any of you could provide any information about it?"
"I was in town," one of them said, "so I missed all the excitement."
"I imagine you were getting plenty of excitement in town that late, Marigold," one of the others said to a chorus of giggles.
"It sounds like you were present," Nagoya said to her.
"Yes, I was, but I wasn't attacked. Three girls were killed, though, and close to a dozen put in the hospital. The police grilled us all for hours, but we couldn't tell them much."
"What could you tell them?"
"Only that it was a group of, of things. They were the size of big men, and they wore rags, tattered clothing, I suppose, to be accurate."
"Did you see any of them?"
"Only far down the hall. Once I got my wits about me, I ran like everyone else. But wait, Marigold's roommate came face-to-face with one of them and lived to tell about it."
"What is her name?"
"Sylvia," Marigold replied, "Sylvia Brentwood. That's her right over there. Sylvia!"
A plain-looking girl in plain-looking clothes opened her eyes and looked their way.
"Sylvia, these people are investigating the attack. They'd like to talk to you."
"I'm not interested," she said as Nagoya and Bailey started over. "Once was enough to go through that."
"We just need a little information," Nagoya said, showing his badge as he reached her bench. "It's vitally important that we get to the bottom of this."
"Are you the police?"
"No. We work for the school. They are deeply interested in discovering the reason behind this attack and preventing any more in the future."
"That's an outlook I can sympathize with. But the police have my statement. Why don't you get it from them?"
"We represent a private firm. The police consider us meddlers."
"Not surprising. What do you want to know, then?"
"Anything you can tell us. Your roommate said you were face-to-face with one but weren't attacked."
"That isn't entirely true," she said.
She pulled the neckline of her blouse to the side, revealing a fresh bandage taped to the top and front of her shoulder.
"Nasty thing. It clawed me, and apparently, it was pretty filthy, because the doctors are having a hard time with this infection."
"I hope they succeed in bringing it under control. Can you show us where your encounter occurred?"
"Why not? Not much in the way of privacy out here, anyway."
She stood and led them through the door of the dormitory, a darkened hall with debris strewn around, the broken remains of furniture, doors and the like, turned left and led them to the base of an ornate stairway.
"I was in my room on the second floor when the screaming started. I came out into the hall and started to come down the stairs." She led them up as she was talking. "One of the creatures reached the top at the same time I did and cornered me against the wall right here. It studied me, do you understand? It was very much a thinking creature, and I could feel it trying to make a decision. It decided that I wasn't anyone it was interested in and threw me out of its way. I think clawing me was incidental, like it didn't care if it did or didn't. It wasn't important, you see?"
"What did it do then?"
"It ran down the hall and crashed through the door of the first bedroom there. I don't know anything after that, because I barricaded myself in that broom closet, and didn't come out until I heard men's voices in the hallway."
"A wise course, I'm sure. Miss O'Keefe, perhaps you might check the door frame for marks or evidence?"
"Of course, sir," she said, playing her role to perfection, and headed down the hall, opening her briefcase as she went.
"You're a very brave young woman," Nagoya told Sylvia. "It was good thinking to hide yourself like that."
"It was blind panic, I can assure you," she countered. "You know, we aren't supposed to be in here. This is what the police called a, what was it, a crime scene, and they don't want anyone disturbing it."
"Well, we won't tell if you won't. Perhaps you should go back outside. No sense you should get caught if they find us in here. You've been most helpful. Thank you."
"You're welcome, I guess. I can't think what will come of it."
"One never knows. Our laboratories can work wonders these days."
"Good luck to you, then," she said with a nod. "I hope you find these, whatever they are."
Without further comment, she went back down the stairs. As soon as she was out of sight, Nagoya joined Bailey at the door frame.
"Hair," she said without being asked, holding up some black fur with a pair of flat-bladed tweezers before sealing it in a small glass vial. "I can check the room for blood or something, but I doubt that any of these girls got a piece of one of those things."
"You're probably right. Still, it can't hurt to look."
"Who's up here now?" came a loud male voice from the direction of the stairwell.
"Or we could go with what we've got," Bailey said.
"Capital idea," Nagoya allowed. "Can we transport from here?"
"You have to ask?" Bailey replied, reaching into the briefcase for the chronambulator.
By the time the beefy policeman had reached the room, the portal had closed behind them.
~ ~ ~
"Ah, so," Ekaterina breathed, lowering her binoculars. "This explains everything."
~ ~ ~
"We cannot afford to wait forever, Mistress," Kafele said, head bowed obsequiously before the slip of a girl who slumped in the decaying arm chair on the ground floor.
"You think I don't know that?" Ekaterina asked. "Do you think I can't feel my body deteriorating further with every passing hour? We must have this girl, and we must have her soon. We still have to get her back home after we take her, and if those meddling dimensional travelers have taken her off this plane—"
"Which they undoubtedly have."
"Yes, well, it is for us to find a way to force them to bring her back."
"That may prove difficult, Mistress," Kafele said. "Are you certain there are no other bearers of the blood that we can reach?"
"You know how long it took to find this one. We can ill-afford to start over. Every century we go through this. I am thinking that I may not completely drain this one."
"What will that mean for your rejuvenation, Mistress?"
"That it won't last as long. But if we hold this one captive, breed her, create our own child of the Blood, a vessel for the sacred fluid that we own ourselves, then we can eliminate this whole search and abduct cycle completely. Think of the freedom, my servant!"
"I am thinking of the stagnation, Mistress. What happens to you, to us, when you are no longer compelled to travel? Will we then be reduced to sitting in the tomb, reminiscing about happier times? Vampires in their dotage?"
"Hardly. We will be free to roam, to feed, to feel the joy of helpless victims squirming in their terror! But now is not the time for counting our chickens, Kafele. We need a plan to draw her out, and if she comes, those hunters will undoubtedly come with her. We need to get her here, separate her from her protectors, and spirit her away. If we can accomplish that and perform the ceremony before they work out where we have gone, then it will be too late for them and all their fancy tricks. A plan, Kafele. That is your part in this. Make a plan to bring them out, and to seize the girl without hindrance. I shall await your presentation. Don't dally, thrall."
~ ~ ~
"We realize that you must be very anxious to return to your home, Miss Schuyler," the beefy, imposing man she knew only as Mr. Alistair intoned, "and I believe we may have a plan in the works to accommodate that wish."
They had been summoned to his office, Nagoya, Bailey, and Schuyler, and Charity was certain that President Wilson himself didn't command such ostentatious surroundings. The man's desk would have made her an apartment, and the items displayed in his bookshelves and cabinets, mostly of an occult nature, were certainly no cheap copies.
When Miss Schuyler didn't respond, he continued.
"Mr. Howard, kindly inform these persons of our findings."
"Yes, sir," the cadaverous technician replied, rising to his gangling height from a chair in the corner. "There have been three more attacks since our team visited the college. They are lightning strikes, in and gone before we, or even the local authorities can react. We sent a technical team in after the second, and from what they reported, the things don't even seem to be feeding. They just appear, mutilate a few people at random, and retreat as quickly as they arrived. Oh, and that hair sample you brought back from the college?"
"Yes?" Nagoya said.
"It's werewolf fur."
"Are you sure? Everything we learned about the first attack pointed toward vampirism as the instigating effect."
"I'm afraid it's unmistakable," Howard replied. "It isn't hard to pick out once you know what to look for."
Nagoya and Bailey looked at one another with puzzled expressions.
"That isn't all," Alistair continued the briefing. "These attacks have been spreading outward from the college. The whole region is on edge. About half the population of the local town, Cabot, has fled, and the other half is up in arms. They seem to be on the lookout for wolves or wild dogs, which is not unreasonable, given what they've seen there. But it's just a matter of time before these well-meaning citizens do some serious harm to themselves, or some uninvolved bystanders. It needs to stop before it gets out of hand."
"That much is obvious, sir," Nagoya said, "but I hardly see what we can do about it."
"We can stop the attacks," Alistair said. "Remove the source of the problem, and the problem is no more."
"The random nature seems to preclude that remedy."
"We don't believe they are entirely random. Mr. Howard?"
"Yes, sir. Based on the information we received following the first two attacks at the student union building, and again at the women's dormitory, we believe the creatures are attempting to seize Miss Schuyler, though for what purpose, we are at a loss to say."
"What could anyone want with me? Well, besides father's money, of course."
"I assure you, Miss Schuyler," Alistair replied, "whether we are ultimately dealing with vampires or werewolves here, these creatures have no interest whatsoever in your father's money."
"That's what we have yet to work out. What does seem clear is that they are searching for you. They failed to find you when they returned to the college, so they are spreading their field of search with the college at the center. What we propose is to send you back, and deal with them when they arrive."
"Now, hold on just a God damned minute here!" Bailey shouted, rising to her feet so fast that they left the floor by a fraction.
"Sit down, Miss O'Keefe," Alistair ordered, barely keeping his own voice calm.
She turned to Schuyler instead.
"Do you hear what he's saying? He means to make you a tethered goat and hope that we can protect you when the creatures come!"
Schuyler blanched at this, drew a deep breath, and held it.
"Sit down, Miss O'Keefe," Alistair said again, then turned to Schuyler. "Our impetuous young operative has, as she often does, cut to the crux of the matter. These creatures show every sign of wanting to get their claws on you for reasons unknown. They can't get here to find you. For that matter, they may not even be aware of the Nexus's existence. What this means is that you can hide here safely forever if need be. Meanwhile, these attacks continue to maim and kill innocent people."
"That's not fair!" Bailey said, rising again.
"One more outburst, Miss O'Keefe, and I will have you removed. As I was saying, the attacks continue as they search for you. I presume that you will want to return to your home and family at some point?"
"And can you recognize that that will be exceedingly dangerous for you until these attackers and their purpose are identified and eliminated?"
"Yes. Yes, I can."
"So, unless you want to live the rest of your life here in Nexus, maybe becoming trained as a technician or an operative as your career, you will have to do this at some point. It's a huge decision, I know. Would you like some time to think about it?"
"My daddy always told me, 'When there's a rough patch ahead, pull up your boots and get a wiggle on!' If I think about it for a week, or a month, it isn't going to get any easier. What do you need me to do?"
"You will be fully briefed and provided with whatever training you're likely to need. Does her reasoning meet with your approval, Miss Bailey?"
"Yes, sir. I'm sorry, sir. I don't like to see innocents used as tools for our machinations."
"Nor do I, Miss O'Keefe. In this case, the only way to end this is to expose her to it, and she seems to realize that herself. You seem to have developed a friendship. Would you like to accompany her during her instruction period?"
"Yes, sir, I'd like that very much."
"Then it shall be so. Mr. Howard, construct a plan for utilizing this brave young woman's services in a way that presents the least risk to her. Present it to me as soon as you have it formulated, any time of the day or night."
"Yes, sir. I'll give it top priority."
"Very well. This meeting is adjourned, then. Let's put an end to this, shall we?"
~ Part III ~
It was late in the evening, the campus quiet, when the crackling purple gate opened in the woods behind the Easthaven Student Union Building. Nagoya, Bailey, and Schuyler stepped through, the two operatives crouched, weapons ready, Schuyler erect, looking nervously about.
"It's quiet," Nagoya said. "We should get inside."
"Could be an ambush," Bailey offered.
"No. They couldn't know we were coming here, but if the director's hunch is right, they'll sniff us out soon enough. Best be ready to beat a hasty retreat."
"Couldn't agree more," Bailey replied, setting the chronambulator's coordinates to 000-004-001, the square in front of the humans' Operations Building in Nexus.
Weapons at the ready, they approached the rear of the darkened building. It was the work of a moment to find an unlocked window, and they boosted Schuyler into a shadowy corner of the main hall, following her in.
"Where now?" Bailey asked.
"Somewhere with limited access," Nagoya replied. "They can come at us from all sides in here."
"There are some faculty offices upstairs," Schuyler suggested.
"Let's go, then."
They climbed to the second floor, tried a few doors until they found one open, and entered an office containing the obligatory large desk, two visitor chairs, a sofa, and three tall bookshelves along the side wall. Bailey closed and locked the door behind them.
"That won't make any difference," Nagoya said.
"No sense making it easier for them."
"I suppose not. All right, Miss Schuyler, take the professor's chair. This could be a long night. Move it over to that corner, at right angles from the door. Make yourself comfortable and turn on the harness. And remember, once you do that, you can't get within five feet of us unless you turn it off first."
"I'll remember," she said, moving the chair. "Is this good?"
She had pulled it into the corner along the same wall that housed the door, and as far away from it as she could get. When Nagoya nodded his approval, she reached up to what appeared to be a choker and gave the stone a ninety degree twist. A faint blue light flickered beneath her clothing, then was gone. Nagoya turned one of the visitor chairs to face the door, sat down, and laid his katana across his lap. Bailey stretched out on the couch, right arm trailing to the floor, crossbow in hand.
"You aren't going to go to sleep, are you?" Schuyler asked.
"I might," Bailey teased. "I've been known to wake up pretty quick, though."
They settled in to wait. Time dragged by. Nagoya searched for his ki, found it, and let the hours slide from him like raindrops. Bailey tried to do the same, as he had taught her, but could only manage to slow her breathing enough that there was no sound of it rushing in her ears. This only allowed her to hear every ambient sound with crystal clarity and kept her on edge and eager for action. Schuyler, the known target of the creatures, and the only untrained civilian in the room, fidgeted in the chair, jumping at every sound; at least she kept quiet.
The attack came after midnight, as sudden as a clap of thunder. The door and window exploded inward simultaneously, admitting furry, misshapen bodies, large, feral, musky, tattered clothes trailing behind. Bailey shot the first one through the door with her crossbow. As it fell to the side, beginning to scream and thrash, smoke rising from the spreading wound, she drew her daggers, and turned her attention to the window, where one creature was already on the floor, and another climbing in behind it. She sprang to the professor's desk and intercepted the one in the window, slashing it viciously with both blades.
Nagoya was on his feet in an instant, ignoring the monster that had been hit by the crossbow bolt, and unleashing his sword on the second, slashing it with a dozen deep cuts before running it through.
The one that had gotten by Bailey reached Schuyler unfettered, and as her scream rent the air, it wrapped its brawny arms around her . . . And flew back across the desk as the harness beneath her clothing discharged thousands of volts through its body, causing its powerful muscles to contract spasmodically, launching it into uncontrolled flight.
"Suit's discharged," Bailey warned Nagoya.
"I see it," he replied, but the creatures had stopped coming. Apparently, there were only four of them.
Out in the hallway, Nagoya saw a large, corpulent man appear from the shadows, facial skin stretched with fat, eyes bugging from a face too fully packed to contain them. Incongruously, he wore a red fez, tassel swinging. That was all he could take in before the man's arm drew back, an object in his hand.
"Watch out!" he shouted to Bailey, spinning aside as a small blur of silver flew past him to strike the front of the desk. There was a blinding flash and a thunderous explosion that caused pictures to fall from the walls, books to leap from the shelves, and Nagoya's lungs to squeeze around his heart.
Bailey, thrown to her back with the wind knocked out of her, saw a blur of motion through the huge spots swimming in her vision as a figure dived through the window landing in a perfect somersault, wrapped Schuyler in a bear hug, and completely unaffected by the discharged harness, darted to and out the window as if Schuyler weighed no more than a house cat.
Bailey tried to pull herself together, got to her knees by pulling herself up on the desk, but when she tried to stand, her dazed senses wouldn't allow it. Nagoya knelt by the door, sword pointed up, ready to defend against the pop-eyed man, but he was gone.
"What the holy hell . . ." Bailey asked, voice trailing off.
"He threw something in here, a bomb of some sort," Nagoya replied, trying to rub the ringing from his ears, "but I don't know why it didn't kill us in this little space."
"I don't think it was supposed to," Bailey said, finally getting to her feet, although leaning against the desk was an absolute necessity. "Somebody got in and took Charity."
"What?" Nagoya looked to the empty chair in the corner for the first time. "How?"
"A figure came in through the window while we were stunned. A woman, I think, at least it had real long hair. I couldn't see anything else. Scooped her up like she weighed nothing at all and jumped out the window with her."
"But not one of these creatures?"
"No. I think this whole thing was a diversion, so she could make the snatch."
The creature that had been stunned by the electrical harness groaned and started to sit up. Bailey kicked it hard in the face.
"Shut up! People are talking, then."
"Oh, that thing's still alive, is it? Why don't we find a wall socket and see if it would be so kind as to talk to us?"
"Why, that's a scathingly brilliant idea!" Bailey said, and turned to scan the walls for an outlet.
~ ~ ~
"The creature is definitely a hybrid," Mr. Howard said, standing beside the laboratory cage where the exhausted assailant captured during the college raid slept fitfully on the bed of straw provided.
"A hybrid of what, exactly?" Mr. Alistair asked, studying the thing with his nose wrinkled distastefully.
"Specifically, after performing several tests on the blood, my best estimate is that this werewolf, which it was originally, was bitten and turned by a vampire. By the way, Miss O'Keefe, this creature, or one like it, is the source of the hair you brought back from your reconnaissance trip."
"Interesting, to be sure," she replied, "but does it help us?"
"Not a bit!" Alistair huffed. "What we need to know is what they want with Miss Schuyler, and where they've taken her to carry out their nefarious plan."
"We do have some clues," Mr. Howard said. "First off, it isn't any garden variety vampire that has the power to turn a werewolf. This one may be a thousand years old or more. It would have to have had time to accumulate its power by incremental stages, and much of that would have been achieved by studying the accumulated lore of the ages. This thing could have been born in ancient Babylon, for God's sake."
"I doubt God had any part in the creation of this particular demon," said Alistair.
"No," Howard agreed, "but the laws of God's nature work for us, nonetheless. A creature this powerful has an aura that can be detected by some of the more sensitive instruments we here in the Nexus have access to. In addition, I didn't realize what we were dealing with when you two took Miss Schuyler back to the college, so I outfitted her with an unobtrusive brooch that our instruments can track precisely."
"You expected us to fail?" Bailey asked, angered by the presumption.
"Let us say that I anticipated the possibility and made allowances to compensate."
Bailey glared at him.
"A wise exercise of foresight," Nagoya said before the volatile young woman could get started.
"And a fortunate thing he did, Miss O'Keefe," Alistair pointed out, taking yet another opportunity to needle his young agent. "Thanks to his foresight, we now have an opportunity to correct your glaring error. Agents Pennyworth and Crispus will be returning from a routine assignment this evening. They will accompany you when you make the assault to reclaim Miss Schuyler from these villains."
"Is it safe to wait for their return?" Nagoya asked.
"For now, though that could change. Mr. Howard?"
"Both Miss Schuyler's brooch and the vampire's aura are moving toward the Pillars of Hercules at a rate that suggests aerial transport. The distance from Vermont precludes any fixed-wing vehicle, so we are assuming they are moving by lighter-than-air vessel, most likely a dirigible. Once they settle in their destination, we will transport both teams there via chronambulator."
"What is our mission once we arrive, sir?" Nagoya asked.
"First and foremost, you are to kill the vampire," Alistair said. "Failing that, you are to determine what this creature's purpose is, especially as regards Miss Schuyler. Finally, if it is at all practicable, you are to return Miss Schuyler to Nexus with you."
"That isn't first?" Bailey asked incredulously.
"The death of one young lady would be unfortunate, Miss O'Keefe, but if you are contemplating for one moment putting the safety of that one young lady ahead of ridding the world of this evil and powerful creature, then I will dismiss you right now."
"That won't be necessary, sir," she said sullenly. "I've spent time with her is all, by your direction, may I add. Her death would sadden me."
"That, at least, is understandable. As long as we're discussing your feelings, how do you feel about working with Pennyworth and Crispus?"
"I've trained with Crispus," she replied. "He's a good fighter, powerful, though he's too slow to cope with me. We should complement each other well, though."
"I don't know him."
"Does it bother you that Crispus is black?"
"Obviously not. We train in hand-to-hand fighting. If it bothered me, I wouldn't allow him to put his hands on me."
"Hmm. And would it bother you to hear that Pennyworth is English?"
"I've heard that you Irish have a blood feud with the English."
"Some do. My only feud right now is with this vampire."
"So, if Pennyworth got himself into difficulty, you would save him without hesitation?"
"Aye, I would, and I find it insulting that you think it necessary to ask me that."
"Well, plan on being insulted more, Miss O'Keefe. The only thing I find predictable about you is your unpredictability, so I will continue to ask insulting questions every time I feel I need to know something, understand?"
"I do," she said, "so long as you understand that the answers are like to be as insulting as the questions."
"Be careful, Miss O'Keefe. You're on the short end of the see-saw here."
"That I've always understood."
"Good. All right, you two have several hours, maybe as long as a day, before that ship lands somewhere. I'd recommend you soak your weapons in Holy water, or whatever you think will give you an edge, and get yourselves some rest. There's no way to know what you might face at the landing site, but you can certainly expect the fight of your lives."
~ ~ ~
"But Lady, there is nothing for miles around. It would be certain death to put you down here!"
The captain of the Wayfarer stood beside Lady Ekaterina on the bridge of his small dirigible-for-hire looking over his helmsman's shoulder at a hundred or more square miles of the Sahara Desert. He had no real idea where they were, somewhere over the interior of Morocco, he thought, but he couldn't even be sure of that. His passenger, the elegant eastern European noblewoman who had engaged him in Boston to cross the Atlantic for the price of a king's ransom, had come to the pilot house when they had made landfall, and guided him to this spot as decisively and unerringly as if it were an intersection in her home town. But her instruction to strand, no, to maroon her with her creepy attendant and a pile of luggage was tantamount to an execution, and though he assumed she was some sort of criminal fleeing from justice, it was an act he wanted no part of.
"Hardly, Captain," she dismissed his concern with a airy wave. "We will be joining a caravan here within the hour."
"In that case, we can wait here until they arrive. An hour, give or take, is of no consequence to us."
"I assure you, Captain, that will not be necessary."
"Milady, I insist," the man replied. "There is no conceivable way that I'm going to strand a lady of your obvious quality in the middle of the Sahara and fly off over the horizon without a care in the world. I may be a rogue, but I am at least a gentleman."
"The captain is too kind," she said. "Very well, I accept your chivalrous offer. Perhaps your men could help us unload our luggage?"
"Of course, Milady. I'll assemble a working party at once, but I'm not leaving until you have safely joined your caravan."
"I do appreciate that, Captain. I'll just tell my attendant to prepare our things."
She took her leave and walked back along the narrow corridor to where she and Kafele had been given cabins facing one another and gave their coded knock at his door. It opened at once.
"Listen carefully," she whispered, slipping inside and pushing the door shut. "This fool of a captain has insisted on waiting for us until our caravan arrives."
"I had to tell him something. He refused to just leave us in the desert with a pile of luggage, so here's what I want you to do. Start getting our belongings assembled and ready to take off the ship. There are a lot of open girders in the luggage bay. It will be quite natural for you to go there to identify our belongings. While you're in there, find an out of the way spot up near the gas bag, and plant one of our bombs where it will ignite the hydrogen."
"A risky course, Mistress."
"Not for us. Once these aeronauts carry the last of our gear out of the bay, set the timer for thirty minutes. That should give us time to get clear, while leaving them insufficient time to get anywhere they can tell someone about us."
"Good. They should be here soon. I'm going to go distract that silly captain. I'll see you on the ground."
~ ~ ~
"Bloody hell!" Upton Pennyworth cursed, looking around the barren landscape. "Where the devil are we?"
"According to these coordinates, approximately twenty miles northeast of Zagora, Morocco," Bailey replied.
Pennyworth, a tall Englishman who somehow seemed aristocratic even when clad in khakis, looked at her skeptically as she surveyed the sand stretching to the horizon in every direction.
"I say," Pennyworth said to Nagoya, "she's just trying to impress us, isn't she?"
"I wouldn't count on it," Nagoya said. "She reads the chronambulator like a book."
"Tosh!" the Englishman dismissed. "If she's such an expert with it, why didn't she warn them that their calculations were off? I mean, look around here. Not a hut, not a tent, not a bloody insect for all that, nothing but sand and sun."
"I thought you English liked your sun," Bailey said with a mischievous grin, "but I didn't warn them because they're tracking Miss Schuyler's brooch, and they sent us right to it."
"Where is it, then, girl? Look around. Do you see anything?"
"Aye. Sand." She raised her wrist and made some fine adjustments to the chronambulator. "It shows up as being in that direction."
She pointed north, a direction in which there was no more nor less sand than in any other.
Pennyworth stared at her for a moment.
"You've been cheated, Nagoya," he said, turning to the samurai. "They've obviously given you this girl because she's out of her mind!"
"And you obviously put a great deal of stock in the opinions of Mr. Alistair. The one thing you both have in common is that you've never been into the field with her. What can you tell, Bailey?"
"The reading's strongest along this line," she said, still turning the bezel of the device strapped to her wrist. "It seems to be below the surface."
"Well, there you are," Pennyworth said. "Assuming she knows exactly what she's doing, all that shows is that the villains discovered Miss Schuyler's brooch, and threw it over the side where it buried itself in the sand."
"No," said Bailey, raising a brass arc on the chronambulator's body to the vertical and tilting the main bezel to some thirty degrees. "That would have gone a few inches down, no more. Charity's brooch is down twenty feet or more."
"That's impossible!" Pennyworth declared.
"Not if there's a structure."
"All right, I'll concede that, but there would have to be an entrance."
"Why?' Bailey asked. "Maybe they travel the same way we do."
"Then why did they need a dirigible to cross the ocean?" Pennyworth asked.
"You've got me there," Bailey allowed with a smile. "Still, that's the signal. I just need to get a few readings from different spots to triangulate the source."
"Look, I don't care how good you are with the chronambulator, it simply isn't that accurate."
"I would oft have to agree with you," she replied. "It doesn't read the vampire's aura at all, but Charity's brooch is tuned to the circuits, and it's very precise."
"Very well, then, carry on."
Bailey did so, walking a wide circle, stopping every hundred feet or so, making some calculations in a small notebook, narrowing her circle incrementally until a last, she stood at a spot near the point she had originally indicated.
"Miss Schuyler, or at least her brooch, is approximately forty-five feet below our feet," she announced.
"What do we do now?" Pennyworth asked, a frustrated look on his face.
"Go in and get her," Bailey replied, making adjustments to the rings and arms of her chronambulator.
"What are you playing at, girl?"
"With these devices, we can open portals anywhere on earth," she said. "There's no reason that can't apply to in earth, as well."
"She is right, you know."
"In theory! She's talking about opening a portal where that signal is coming from and stepping through it! That is what you're talking about, isn't it?"
"Aye," she replied, attention on her chronambulator.
"This is madness," the Englishman shouted. "Nagoya, you need to bring your protégé under control. What she's suggesting isn't possible!"
"What she's suggesting is the only means of completing the assignment."
"And what if she steps through into solid rock, what then, huh?"
"Well, I won't suffer long, will I?" she said, settings complete. "It'll give the archaeologists a hell of turn someday, that's for damned sure!"
"That's not bloody funny! Nagoya, you have to stop this."
"Oh, I'm going with her. Give Crispus the coordinates, Bailey. You'll have to make your own decision whether to follow us."
"Yes, sir," Bailey said. "Your settings are 828-022-136."
She waited as the big African repeated them back, setting his machine as he did.
"If you stand right in our footprints, a declination of sixty should work."
"You hope, missy," Crispus said.
"With all my heart! Any last words?" she asked Nagoya.
"You lot are insane!" Pennyworth said.
"I didn't mean you, actually."
"Activate it whenever you're ready," Nagoya said.
"Be as close to me as you can when we go through," she said, "and be ready for anything."
She drew her crossbow and aimed it ahead. Nagoya's sword appeared, and he placed a shuriken between his fingers on the handle.
"Here we go," she said, and activated the device. The familiar purple shimmer began in front of them and opened into the hole in reality where nothing could be seen, and one had to step through in the blind faith that something waited on the other side.
Shoulders touching, she and her mentor took the step.
~ ~ ~
They stumbled out into darkness, but at least not inside anything fatal. There was air to breathe, and torchlight coming from a broad stone doorway at the end of the cavernous room in which they found themselves. They both looked around, getting their bearings, then moved into the cover of some crates piled along the side.
Pillars carved with ornate symbols marched in neat rows, supporting the massive roof some twenty feet above. The room seemed to be a storage area, about fifty by a hundred feet, dark and unoccupied, which was fine with the pair of hunters.
"Where is she?" Nagoya whispered.
"Hang on, then," Bailey replied, adjusting the chronambulator. "She seems to be . . . right over there."
She pointed across the room.
"Odd," Nagoya said. "Maybe they've locked her in a box or something. Come on."
Moving across to the opposite wall, they lifted the lids on a couple of large boxes, to find various figurines and carvings, plus more mundane items such as cloth sacks and clay pots, but nothing large enough to hide a fully-grown woman in. Bailey consulted her strange device again and walked over to a nondescript cardboard shipping box some two feet square and a foot high.
"It's coming from in there," she said.
With a worried look, Nagoya lifted the lid, to find the rough canvas clothing that Schuyler had worn the night she had been taken.
"Damn," Bailey said, lifting the jacket to see the brooch. "How will we find her now?"
"Don't be too reliant on the technology," Nagoya told her. "This proves that she's in here somewhere and given all the trouble that vampire went to to capture her, I don't imagine that she's far away, either."
"Well, and you're a veritable wellspring of good information, then."
"I only state the obvious, and don't lose sight of the mission. We're here to kill the vampire. Everything else is bonus, but that vampire dies, or we do."
"Oh, and you're a cheerful sod, as well."
"Never mind. Let's start looking."
The obvious direction to look was through the door lit by torches; it was in fact the only exit, and they approached it cautiously, senses on high alert.
"Do you hear that?" Nagoya asked.
"Some sort of chanting, way off in the distance," Bailey replied.
"Whatever they're doing has already begun. We need to move quickly."
Taking his own advice, he started down a stone corridor that led to a right-angle turn some twenty feet ahead. As they made the turn, another appeared in front of them, and the chanting became louder.
"Someone's coming!" Bailey breathed in a magnificent stage whisper, and her crossbow bolt took a large figure in the throat as it turned the corner. Nagoya's sword finished the job, slicing it from the right shoulder to the opposite hip, and the creature fell, writhing, any cry it might have made silenced by the wood shaft stuck through its larynx.
"This is bad," Nagoya said, kneeling to study the figure by the dim torchlight reflected around the corner.
"What?" Bailey asked, but she needed no answer as she knelt, reloading her crossbow. The figure may have been a man at some point in the distant past, but now it was a collection of leathery skin stretched over bones, youthful-looking eyes jammed without care into the orbits.
"Jesus Christ!" she blasphemed.
"Careful," Nagoya warned her. "If you go to hell, there's going to be quite a reception party waiting for you."
"What is this thing?"
"Obviously, some servant of the vampire created by her power. Possibly used to be a mummy."
"We're a long way from Egypt."
"They aren't the only ones with the skill. We need to get moving. This thing must have been sent to fetch something, and when it doesn't come back, she's going to start looking for it."
There was nothing to argue with there, and they set off along the corridor at a faster pace, still careful, but focused on finding the object of their search.
After a few more right-angle turns, they began to smell incense, something bitter, maybe myrrh, and the chanting constantly became louder. They came to a small room holding baskets of beads, urns, knives, ropes, all the things that might be used in a blood ceremony, but none of it gave any clues as to why a vampire wouldn't simply feed on Schuyler and leave the empty husk by the wayside. There was no time to try to puzzle it out, as through the door, at the far end of the room, the vampire, the long-haired woman from the college, stood, arms raised, before an altar, where a figure in a white chemise, obviously Schuyler, lay chained to the slab. The chanting was being done by two dozen figures kneeling around the altar, bowing repeatedly, their otherworldly words becoming ever more frantic as the ceremony neared some kind of crescendo.
"Got any ideas?" Bailey asked.
"I fear not," Nagoya replied. "We know nothing about these worshipers, their strengths and weaknesses, nor even what they are."
"They don't matter," Bailey said. "She's going to be the problem, anyway."
As the chanting increased in volume and tempo, the vampire raised a bright green knife, possibly made of pure emerald, above her writhing captive.
"That does it," Bailey said. "Here we go!"
Ignoring him, she stepped into the doorway, drawing the knife on the right side of her belt, the one whose clear glass handle had been blown around a small bone. Drawing it back beside her ear, she threw it at the vampire with all the strength in her compact body. Whistling through the air end over end, it buried itself to the hilt between the woman's shoulder blades.
Her scream rent the air like that of a banshee as she turned to regard her tormentors.
"You!" she intoned, a long, twisted syllable of disgust.
"Unchi! Nagoya had time to say, then the worshipers were up and moving toward them.
There were more of the mummies, some human-looking followers, and three pure monsters, large of bulk with scaly skin. All moved at their own rate, the humans arriving first. The first one met Nagoya's katana driving through his chest. Bailey fired her crossbow into the nearest face, drew her remaining blade, the one with the spider blown into the handle, and slashed across an arm that reached out to grab her. The owner screamed in agony, and recoiled from her, but he was replaced by a half-dozen more. Bailey and Nagoya both began to move in their attack patterns, Nagoya precise and disciplined, Bailey whirling like a dervish, ducking, leaping, slashing at all comers. Two more humans and a mummy fell before her, but when she stabbed at one of the scaled monsters, her blade glanced off as if its scales were metal. The thing repaid her attention by backhanding her across the face with an iron fist.
Nagoya had no better luck, neither his sword nor a shuriken having any effect at all. Two of the reptilians forced Nagoya back away from Bailey, keeping them separated, while the other worshipers took swings and thrusts as openings appeared. Bailey, barely armed with a dagger, was being forced back away from the altar toward the anteroom, and Nagoya, though the sword's reach enabled him to hold his position, could make no headway toward her. The vampire, ignoring the dagger in her back, fetched her emerald knife and turned back toward the altar.
Bailey had been backed almost all the way to the door, and the press of bodies was so close around her that she could no longer use her primary weapons, her speed and agility; she knew she couldn't hold on much longer. She fumbled a crossbow bolt out of her pouch and began to thrust with it as if it was her second dagger, but it didn't help nearly enough.
And then a blur swooshed above her head, and a huge black fist wrapped in studded leather backhanded one of the mummies in the face, crushing the bones and tearing the leathery skin. Crispus stepped up beside her then, both hands tight on a baseball bat with a ring of iron spikes around the end, and swung with all of his nearly three hundred pounds behind it. When it struck the lizard-like humanoid's chest, everything just caved in, and it didn't matter that the scaly skin didn't show a blemish.
"Get to Miss Schuyler," Pennyworth's voice said from right behind her as he lobbed a glittering object out into the middle of the room. The explosion of his black powder grenade scattered creatures like tenpins, clearing a path to the altar. Nodding her thanks, Bailey sprinted toward the altar, slashing a mummy as she went. Reaching the vampire, she jammed the green-handled dagger deep into her back near a kidney.
With another bone-shattering shriek, Ekaterina of Tingitana spun, ripping the dagger from Bailey's hand and leaving her armed only with a crossbow bolt. Bailey was stunned; she knew well the effect that that blade had had on every creature it had bitten. Yet this vampire had shaken it off as if it were of no more consequence than a raindrop. Now the dark eyes narrowed, focused on Bailey's startled face.
"Surprised, girl?" she asked. "What did you think you would face when you challenged a two-thousand-year-old undead master? Now you must forgive me. I have work to do."
She raised her left hand, palm out, and thrust it a few inches toward Bailey, who flew a dozen yards across the room and crashed onto her back. Free of the young warrior, the creature turned back toward Schuyler and raised the knife.
"Nooooooo!" Bailey screamed, scrambling to her feet and sprinting across the floor. Reaching the altar, she leaped into the air, knees landing on the woman's shoulders and carrying them both across the altar to land in the alcove beyond. Bailey rose to her knees and punched the woman with a sharp jab, then dived onto her in a tackle, and they rolled out onto the floor. The vampire kept trying to get her hand up between them, and Bailey, assuming that was the precursor to another magical attack, kept punching and kicking without letup.
Ekaterina got an open-hand slap in, knocking Bailey back with a power belied by the woman's lithe frame, and got to her feet. Bailey recovered hers as well, throwing herself at the vampire and grabbing her wrist, wrenching her arm down and twisting it. The woman just smiled and began to pull her arm back. Bailey applied all her strength but couldn't hold her. She pulled her arm loose, picked Bailey up by an iron grip on her biceps, and ran her backward against the stone wall, knocking the wind out of her.
"I tire of you, girl," the vampire said. "Now, die!"
She opened her mouth and extended her fangs as Bailey, frantic but exhausted, struggled against the woman's supernatural strength. The woman actually laughed when Bailey landed a solid kick on her shin.
"I'm going to enjoy this," she said, lowering her head toward Bailey's neck.
Bailey, having exhausted all of her options, closed her eyes and gritted her teeth against the coming pain.
"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want," she began the familiar prayer, her soul's last defense, as death came to claim her. "He maketh me to lie down in green pastures . . ."
The liquid sounds and the smell from the vampire's mouth surrounded her as she waited for the end. One more long, hissing breath before the strike, then suddenly it stopped as the grip on her arms clamped tighter. Her eyes snapped open to see Nagoya, sword at the end of a horizontal strike as Ekaterina's head rolled loose across the floor. Bailey wrenched herself loose as the body collapsed, black blood running out in a sticky carpet on the floor.
"I wouldn't touch that," Nagoya suggested, stepping back.
Bailey followed suit, approaching from opposite the flow to retrieve her daggers from the vampire's back. She moved then to the altar as Nagoya turned to help Crispus and Pennyworth finish the worshipers, at least those who hadn't run off at the death of their goddess.
"Did you miss me?" Bailey asked as she began to unscrew Schuyler's shackles.
"I thought I was dead," Schuyler replied, streaks of tears lining her face. "I thought you wouldn't find me."
"Now, that pains me. Come on, let's sit you up. Did she hurt you yet?"
"No, other than chaining me to this slab."
"That's bad enough. Let's see about getting you home."
"We've a little work left yet," Nagoya said, wiping his blade as he approached. "There are some scrolls under the altar that we should take back, and if we see anything else, jewelry, icons, or whatnot, we should take them, too. And the vampire's head, of course."
"We need to separate it from the body, and probably cremate it when we get back. We don't want to take any chances with her somehow resurrecting."
"All right, you're carrying that!"
"I'll find a bag."
He moved off toward the anteroom.
"It's good to see you decided to trust my figures," Bailey said to Pennyworth as he brought a box to start loading the scrolls.
"It was hard," the Englishman said, "but Nagoya seemed to have complete faith in you, and when Crispus said he was going with or without me, well, who wants to live forever, eh what?"
"Well, thanks for coming, anyway. And you, my old friend," she added to the huge African, walking over to be wrapped in a hug that no bear could equal.
"You know I wouldn't leave you, Little Red," he said. "This is hell of a job you've done."
"Maybe," she replied. "This place still gives me the creeps though. I can't wait to get out of here."
"That will have to wait a bit longer," Nagoya said, overhearing her remark as he returned with a sack to contain the lady's head.
"We haven't seen that big fellow with the bugged-out eyes, the one who threw the bomb into the room the night Miss Schuyler was taken. He's probably hiding in here somewhere, and we need to dig him out, lest he start another one of these covens, or whatever the hell this is."
"Are you kidding me? The vampire's dead. What the hell is he going to do?"
"I don't know, and I don't want to find out. Upton, you and Crispus take the scrolls and Miss Schuyler back. Bailey and I will make a search of the compound."
~ ~ ~
"Well, if it isn't the late Miss O'Keefe," Alistair said in a sarcastic tone as Bailey entered Mr. Howard's intimate conference room.
"Sorry, sir," she said brightly, green eyes dancing over a mischievous smile. "You were so concerned over my grooming at our last meeting that I took the time to see to it."
Indeed, she had, having bathed, scrubbed her face, cleaned her nails, and even gone so far as to wear an attractive dress with proper shoes; anyone who didn't know her would think they were addressing a lady.
"Yes. Well, now that all of us are here, Mr. Howard, you can go ahead with your briefing."
"Thank you, sir." He regarded the faces around the table, the director, the two teams that had made the final assault on the monster's lair, and between them, the innocent young civilian whose blood had set these affairs into motion. Innocent no longer.
"Miss Schuyler," Howard began, "I cannot tell you how sorry I am that you were dragged into this, and though the creature was killed in the end, we can offer you no guarantee that this unfortunate incident will never be repeated."
"After all that all of us went through?"
"I fear not, child. What our teams gleaned during the confrontation, coupled with the documents they brought back, suggest that the woman who seized you was a vampire of incredibly ancient origins, possibly made during the reign of Emperor Trajan of Rome."
"That would make her two thousand years old!" Schuyler said. "Is that even possible?"
"Well, we don't know as much about the creatures we name vampires as we might like. We lump them with ghosts and zombies under the terms undead, and immortal, but there is a theory that most all animated creatures eventually expire, even vampires. The scrolls suggest that this woman was aging badly, and in order to hold that process at bay, she needed periodic infusions from the blood of a certain line of old northern Africa and Iberia, possibly the line that made her. For whatever reason, Miss Schuyler, we believe that your line contains some fraction of the blood she needs, and that she sought you out for that purpose."
"You mean, what, that I have vampires in my family tree?"
"It is almost certain, given their chosen methods of operation, that most if not all of us do. It doesn't change who you are, Miss Schuyler, and it doesn't mean you have any monstrous tendencies. What it does mean, may mean, is that if you had an ancestor that far back in the line who made a vampire, he or she may have made others, and if one of them found you, others might as well."
"But if it's my blood they want, I have sisters, cousins, parents. All must be in danger. Why did she single me out?"
"There's no easy answer to that, my dear. The relatively new science of genetics suggests that there are variations within strains, and one of those may have attracted her."
"Yes, but what does that mean?"
"A strain is a direct line of inheritance, genetic inheritance, and a family could be considered a strain. Your family might be known for a certain trait, perhaps the unique shape of your nose. But once in a while, there comes a child who lacks that telltale trait. No one planned it, certainly, and it may cause some embarrassing questions, but it is perfectly natural, and what scientists call a variation. Is it so strange to assume that such variations might show up in your blood as well as on your face? This vampire and her minions may have hunted you down because no one else in your family has the strain of blood she needed."
"Then I will be at risk for my whole life, no matter what I do."
"We don't know that," Bailey said, laying her hand on Schuyler's arm.
"Nor do we know otherwise," Howard continued. "The only thing to do is to live your life normally, do all the things a young woman should do. The alternative is to live your life in constant fear. This cannot be that common an occurrence."
"So, what are you telling me, that I should marry, create a family, all the while knowing that I may be condemning my unsuspecting husband and innocent children to horrible deaths by vampire attack?"
"We can't tell you how to live your life, Miss Schuyler," Alistair said, "only warn you of possibilities we are aware of."
"So, I should die alone, living in a convent?"
"Miss Schuyler," Howard began.
"No! Even a convent wouldn't have me, not knowing of the demons that haunt me. I might as well stay here for the rest of my life!"
"I'm afraid that isn't an option," Alistair told her.
"Why not?" Bailey asked. "You took me in, and it was my family that was attacked, not me. If possession of the blood doesn't give her the right to stay, then none of us belong here."
"At ease, Miss O'Keefe. What our hotheaded young agent is trying to tell me is that we potentially have a place for everyone, but you need to bring a useful skill in order to remain. Miss O'Keefe, you see, graces us with her mastery of the barroom brawl, a talent that is not lacking amongst the Irish, I'm told. But blood is not a talent, and we are getting ahead of ourselves, in any case. Whether to apply for asylum with us is a decision for you to make in your own time. In the meanwhile, with the immediate threat concluded, you may return to your college, or any other destination you like."
"How, then, will I contact you should I decide I want to be here?"
"I'll have your friend, Miss O'Keefe, visit you in two weeks’ time. Should you choose to apply, she can bring you back at that time. Meanwhile, Mr. Howard, you had more to impart, I believe?"
"Yes, sir. Those vampire-werewolf hybrids you encountered were exactly that, and this vampire went to great lengths to learn how to create them. The information is in those scrolls, which all evidence suggests were written by her own hand. There is no further reference to them in my extensive library, and that suggests that these creatures were unique."
"Not in your library, Mr. Howard?" Alistair asked. "How would you know that? You could have a Mississippi sternwheeler in that library, and not be able to find it. How are your organizational skills, Miss Schuyler? If you do decide to apply for asylum, I may put you to work excavating the nest of our human pack rat here."
"In any case," Howard continued, "that's all I have been able to decipher for now. The oldest scrolls are written in Latin script, but in an obscure central European dialect, and the translation is painfully slow. Still, I have hopes of gleaning much valuable information from it."
"Hopefully, it will contain the identity of that other creature that Nagoya described,” Alistair added. “Share that with all of us, won't you, Nagoya?"
"Yes, sir. It showed up in the hallway outside the office we were in the night Miss Schuyler was taken. It threw some sort of bomb into the room that didn't harm us, but that incapacitated us while the vampire affected the capture. He was large, bulky, and seemed human, albeit at the extreme end of the size scale. His complexion was swarthy, though not exceptionally dark, and the chief feature of the face were the bulging eyes, as if they had swollen too large for the sockets to contain. He didn't exude that aura of fear that true vampires give off, and yet he certainly wasn't one of those wolf-vampire hybrids, either. I think it's just possible that he was a true human serving the vampire for his own reasons."
"Interesting," Alistair mused. "And you haven't found any reference to this in the material you've translated, Mr. Howard?"
"No, sir, though I should point out that, given the longevity of humans vis-à-vis vampires, she couldn't have known him longer than a few decades, so he wouldn't appear in the older material I'm working on at the moment."
"Yes. Well, he probably isn't our biggest worry at the moment. Prepare a memo for the field operatives describing those wolf hybrids, with the caveat that meeting one is considered highly unlikely, then carry on with your current work."
"Miss Schuyler, are you still getting along with Miss O'Keefe?"
"Yes, sir. I believe we're becoming friends."
"All right. I suggest you spend the day with her, then. Discuss your situation, and life here in the Nexus. It may help guide your decision. And, Miss O'Keefe, none of your nonsense! Tell her how things really are here without your customary embellishments."
"Why Mr. Alistair, I don't know what you mean!"
Kafele knelt, trembling, before the throne, head pressed to the marble floor, heart pounding with the anticipation of great pain.
"So, the great Ekaterina has met her demise?" the demonic creature slouched on the throne asked.
"Yes, my Lord and Master," Kafele said weakly, barely able to push the words out past the terror constricting his throat.
"Well, I can't say I'm surprised, given how carelessly she has conducted her affairs of late." He seemed to notice the groveling mortal before him for the first time. "Lift your head, look into my eyes, and tell me, how is it that you have outlived your mistress?"
Kafele obeyed, lifting his eyes from the floor barely far enough to regard the demon's countenance. Its red skin rippled with yellow rivulets, like a cloak of molten lava as its yellow, reptilian eyes regarded him with less respect than a human has for a spider.
"How I . . . She- she- she sent me, Master, sent me to warn you—"
"Warn me?" The thing's powerful voice set the marble ringing. "Warn me of what, thrall? Speak quickly!"
"The hunters, Master. They are clever, yes, clever, and they carry devices of great power. She felt it her duty to send me—"
"No, Master, no!" The terrified man lowered his head to the marble, sobbing in his agony.
"What devices, what wisdom could a handful of mortals possess to threaten me?"
"They defeated her, Master," Kafele got out between sobs. "Feeling their bite, she may have felt that they could threaten you as well."
"You lie poorly, little worm," the monster said, its voice soothing now. "Still, you could be of use to us."
"Then I am to . . . live?"
"For a time yet. But you will be of much more value as one of us. Rise, human, and approach the throne."