by Sora Junko (空 純子)
Marseilles was a beautiful city, though like many European cities, it subscribed to the ‘densely packed’ school of architecture. The stone buildings practically climbed on top of each other as they marched up the sides of the hill that the city was built into, and the roads were so narrow and parking at such a premium, that most people drove their little cars up onto the sidewalks to park.
Those few who had cars in working condition, that is. Petrol was hard to find these days – as James well knew – and working car parts even more so. There were many vehicles that looked to have been abandoned in place for years, if not centuries. Rusting hulks barely recognizable as vehicles hunched in place on the sidewalks, slowly flaking apart.
At this time of night, the roads were virtually empty, but the cobblestones and cracks in the road made it impossible for him to open up his motorcycle and go quickly. As a result, James was forced to take in a lot of the sights, whether he wanted to or not.
Closer to the water, things widened out a bit and he was able to speed up, the purr of the engine practically swallowed by the susurration of the sea. The famous Old Port was a wide harbour filled with little boats and bordered with a quaint boulevard. Presiding over the mouth of the port, on a spit of land that extended out into the Mediterranean Sea, was a smallish castle-like building, though James happened to know it was actually a fort.
Someone had taken up residence there. As James passed by the area on his way to the local police headquarters where his contact was supposed to be, he saw that several of the windows were lit with what looked like the warm glow of lamplight.
Perhaps that was the reason why there were hardly any people on the streets. Those who were out now, after sunset, moved with a rapid pace and furtive, frightened expressions. But James Grim scarcely noticed the oppressive weight of fear that had settled on the ancient city – he was too used to it.
No one ever invited a vampire hunter to a town that didn’t have a vampire, after all.
There was a single lamp hung outside the door to the police station, the flame dancing merrily inside its glass cage. It could have been seen as a beacon of welcome to the city’s saviour, but James saw its more practical purpose as he knocked on the heavy steel door and a small metal trapdoor slid aside to reveal one frightened brown eye.
It was there so they’d be able to see his face.
“Sorry!” the voice said, muffled by the intervening door. “We’re not open right now.”
James tilted his hat back slightly so the man on the other side could see his face, too pale, angular, framed with black hair and set with startling blue eyes. “The names James Grim,” he said. “I was sent.” His French was articulate, but accented from his British heritage.
Clearly he was understood, though, because the eye widened fractionally and the window was shut with a clang. James folded his arms and waited, listening as the heavy bolts were slid aside before the door swung open. A painfully young-looking police constable regarded him for a moment. “Um, you’re the hunter?” he asked nervously.
“I don’t carry the stakes and silver knife for nothing,” Grim replied. “Aren’t you going to invite me in?”
The young man ducked his head and stepped back. “O-of course, please come in.”
James smiled and stepped into the lobby area, removing his wide-brimmed hat and shaking out his long black hair, before looking up and glancing around. There were only two other people in the room besides him – the constable who’d let him in, and a middle-aged heavy-set man with the uniform of a highly-placed officer.
“Police Chief Doucette, I presume?” Grim asked, stepping forward with a faint smile to shake the officer’s hand.
It was then that they saw his fangs.
The police chief recoiled, crossing himself and exclaiming a plea to God in French that made Grim’s ears smart. The young constable had his gun out and was pointing it at Grim, the hand shaking badly enough the vampire was quite certain he wouldn’t hit anything important even if he was foolhardy enough to fire.
Unfortunately, James wasn’t surprised by the reaction. The vampire held the chief’s gaze for a moment, and then glanced at the constable out of the corner of his eye. “Put that away, boy,” he said. “I’m here to help your stupid ass, and all you’ll do if you fire that thing is put a hole in my coat. And I will make you buy me a new one.” The long leather duster was custom made, and it hadn’t come cheap.
There was silence for a moment before Doucette nodded fractionally. “Put it away, Jacques,” he said, his voice rasping.
Grim watched as the young man clicked the safety back on and, trembling, put the gun back in the holster at his hip. Then he turned his head and met Doucette’s gaze again. “Glad that’s out of the way. Tell me about the vampire problem.”
Doucette swallowed. “The Vatican really sent you?” he asked suspiciously. “This is…not…acceptable.”
Grim rolled his eyes and stuck a hand in his inside pocket – one of many – and he pulled out a square plastic card. “You want proof?” he asked, holding the card out to the man. “My visa, issued by our Mother the Holy Church.”
Doucette hesitated, then took the card and picked up a reader on the desk behind him. In a moment he’d swiped it and was looking over the data on the screen. “James Alexander Grim,” he read aloud. “The passport is in order.”
“But it can’t be you!” Jacques burst out. “We need someone else!”
“Look,” James snapped, turning his glare on the young man. “Yes, I’m a vampire – all the better to kill the monsters with, my dear. What do you care how they die, so long as they’re dead? I’ll be out of town before you know it.”
“That’s not the issue, Monsieur Grim,” Doucette said quietly. He seemed to have regained his calm and as he held out James’ card to return it, his hand didn’t tremble.
“What’s the issue, then?” James asked. “We’re burning darkness, sir, and I doubt you people have time to wait for the Vatican to send a replacement.”
“There is no issue,” Doucette said, shooting a glare at the younger man. “I think the young man is merely hoping you can take care of things quickly and that you do not linger in our city too long.”
“Like I said, that’s the plan,” Grim growled. He sensed there was something here that he was missing, but he was getting impatient with these people. “Look, just tell me what I need to know so I can put my back to this city. It’ll make you happy, and it’ll make me happy, and everyone can be happy. Okay?”
There was a moment of silence, and then the police chief nodded fractionally. “Okay.” He straightened slightly, clasping his hands behind his back. “The vampire, who calls herself Lady Gwenhwyfar the Beautiful, has taken over Fort St. Jean, which you will see at the mouth of the Old Port. She’s been…infecting many people. We don’t know how many vampires are in there now, but perhaps a dozen?”
“A dozen vampires, inside a fortified castle,” James said wryly. “Sounds like fun. No wonder everyone’s hunkering in their houses like the plague has come. What about the zombies? How are your cemeteries?”
Vampirism was a disease – a sexually transmitted one. But it didn’t just make people photosensitive and crave blood. That was if you were lucky.
If you were really lucky, you just got bitten and survived the experience. You might have a few days of fever and mild sensitivity to light. A good priest could drive it off in a couple of hours. If not, you could wait it out and hope you didn’t get hit by a bus before it worked its way out of your system.
If you were mildly fortunate, you got a taste of the vampire’s blood and fully contracted the disease. You’d live out the rest of your – exceptionally long – life as a monster, but at least you would have a life, and a will of your own. That’s what had happened to James Grim some time ago.
Many people, especially those who encountered the real monsters – the vampires so heinous in their crimes that Grim was sent to kill them – were not so fortunate. They died with the disease-laced saliva or blood still in their system.
Usually such people were burned when their bodies were found, but sometimes the symptoms weren’t recognized in time, or the body was left somewhere remote and not discovered. Those people became monsters of a different type. Mindless and vicious, the creatures still craved blood, but unlike vampires, were immune to pain. They’d attack until literally dismembered, and even then might manage to regenerate given enough time. The only way to stop a zombie permanently was to burn them to ashes.
At Grim’s question, the chief went a little pale and swallowed. “There have been a few, but most have been caught and burned before they rose again,” he said hollowly. “Gwenhwyfar has been kidnapping most of her victims and keeping them at the fort. Some of her progeny have been less careful.”
James started, his eyes widening. “So there might be people still kept captive at the fort?” he asked. In that case, there wasn’t any time to lose. Between a quickly growing army of vampires and the captives who could be added to their ranks at any moment, no wonder the city had called for help. What was actually surprising was that the city wasn’t devastated already, given the math.
One thing was sure, though: sooner or later, this Gwenhwyfar would unleash her vampires on the city and it would be a right bloody mess.
The chief nodded, though without much certainty. “There’s no way to know, but I pray to God that some of them are still alive,” he said, crossing himself again.
James winced and looked away at the gesture. Most people couldn’t produce that kind of reaction with a simple movement of their hands, but when it was backed with real faith, even something so small packed a punch. Clearly he had a believer on his hands. Good thing they were on the same side.
“God doesn’t have much to do with it,” he growled. It was time to go. “I’ll go take care of it.” He turned away, placing his hat on his head again as he started for the door.
“Monsieur Grim,” Doucette called after him, a hesitant note in his tone. “How are you going to get in?”
James paused, his hand on the door handle, and glanced over his shoulder. “What difference does it make to you?” he asked frankly.
Doucette blinked, taken aback. “I…I just mean, it may be difficult,” he said awkwardly. “It’s a fort, and you’re a man — by which I mean to say, just one man. The rumours of your prowess are impressive, but how can you storm a castle by yourself? The Lady doesn’t take just any visitor.”
James shook his head faintly, opening the door. “I don’t expect you care much, chief,” he said. “But vampires have a…camaraderie. She won’t turn away a fellow monster at the door. Now are you going to let me go take care of your problem, or keep asking questions all night?” he added in an annoyed hiss.
There was a pause. “I’m sure you know better than I, Monsieur Grim.”
“Yes,” James said, striding through the door into the night. “I do.”
Getting to the castle took only a few minutes. Dawn was still a while away, though it was later than James was comfortable with. Of course, once he got inside he would have lots of time to scope out the place before things got ugly.
The smell of brine and fish was strong in his nostrils as he parked his bike and continued up the slight rise to the fort proper. It was roughly square, with high stone walls and a single squat tower in one corner. Arrow slits glared at him like baleful eyes as he walked up to the heavy banded oak door and knocked.
He was sort of expecting the two double-barrelled shotguns that were shoved in his face as the door opened. What he wasn’t expecting was the two blond women holding them. Both were dressed in voluminous dresses with multiple petticoats and necklines that left little to the imagination. Jewellery glittered at their throats and ears. Bracelets clinked against the stocks of the shotguns as they swung the barrels up.
James stuck his hands casually in his pockets as the door opened and outwardly pretended the guns weren’t there even as he secretly grasped the handles of two silver throwing knives strapped to his thighs.
When he spoke, his British accent was gone, replaced by a vaguely Eastern European accent that wasn’t specifically identifiable as being from any one region. “Is the lady of the castle home? I am the Baron von Liechtenstein. Perhaps you’ve heard of me.” He smiled, showing off the points of his fangs.
The guns didn’t waver. “You’re not welcome here,” one of the women hissed, her own fangs showing prominently, and in a much less friendly fashion.
Now that was a little shocking, and James actually found himself reacting like a real visiting Baron might. He recoiled slightly, his expression darkening as he hissed like a cat. “You dare to offend a visiting member of the family?” he exclaimed. “I come here, claiming right of hospitality. You can’t refuse!”
This was unheard of, and actually quite frightening. One of the few things that kept vampires in check was how damn predictable they were. They loved nobility, gentility, manners. The fact that they were bloodthirsty menaces to society was something vampires almost tried to hide from one another.
The fact that there was a vampire who was not only massing an army, but apparently flaunting all of the conventions, made Grim’s blood run cold.
“This gun is loaded with blessed silver pellets,” the woman said triumphantly. “And the Lady Gwenhwyfar the Beautiful does not permit men in her castle. Get out of our territory, Baron. Now!”
Doesn’t permit MEN in her castle? Grim thought in confusion. “What the–”
The snick of crossbows being cocked reached his ears and he glanced up, seeing the wicked points of wood-shafted bolts poking out of the arrow slits all around him. Two more women were perched on the parapet above him, shotguns in their hands.
He counted at least eight weapons being pointed straight at him, and any one of them actually could really hurt, if not leave him dead. And every person he could see was unmistakeably a woman.
He drew his hands from his pockets, leaving the silver knives he’d been holding in their sheaths, and raised them in a conciliatory gesture. His smile felt pasted on. “Well then, my mistake,” he said, backing away slowly. “Obviously I was unaware of the Lady’s…preferences. Please send her my regards.”
“Like I said,” continued the speaker. “Lady Gwenhwyfar doesn’t like men. You’re better off just getting out of town, and telling anyone else who might want to come knocking, too.”
“I’ll be sure to do so,” Grim replied. As he backed off, the door was shut tight, and he heard the unmistakeable sound of a bar settling into place. The women on the battlement remained in place, watching as he got back on his motorcycle. Swearing under his breath, he gunned the engine and headed back up the boulevard towards the police station.
Ten minutes later he was hammering on the door, and he’d worked himself up into a righteous lather. “Open up!” he shouted, uncaring of who might hear. “It’s James Grim! Doucette, you frog bastard, let me in!”
He heard the bolts being thrown and left off banging on the door, noting with pleasure that he’d left a dent in the steel. Served them right.
Doucette opened the door a crack, but Grim was tired of playing games. One good shove and the Frenchman was stumbling backwards as James stepped inside.
“Go ahead,” Grim challenged him, kicking the door closed so that it slammed. “Lie to me. Tell me you didn’t know I was going to make a fool of myself.”
Doucette’s retreat was blocked by a desk and he put his hands back, leaning on them as if a few extra inches would save him. Grim stepped straight up to him and poked him in the chest with one long finger, looming over the shorter man.
Jacques was still there, as well. He sat at another desk like a statue, petrified.
“I…I tried to tell you…” Doucette began.
“You didn’t try hard enough,” James growled. “Do you think this is some kind of game?” His point made, he backed off a step from the red-faced man, folding his arms.
Doucette coughed, trying to pull himself together. He straightened his uniform, casting quick, nervous glances at Grim as if afraid the vampire was going to attack.
Grim glowered at him and let him worry.
“My apologies, Monsieur Grim,” Doucette said when he’d straightened himself out. “I meant to tell you, but you seemed to be in a hurry. I hoped you would be able to succeed even though you’re not the…best candidate.”
James sighed. “You were afraid I’d leave,” he said bluntly. He rubbed his eyes, the anger fleeing and replaced with resignation. “Give me something to write on.”
With a perplexed frown, Doucette tore a sheet of paper from a notepad and passed it to the taller man along with a pen. James found himself a clear surface and started scribbling a quick list of items.
“You a married man, Monsieur Doucette?” he asked as he pondered the list and added a few more items in his quick, angular hand.
Doucette started in surprise. “Ah…yes, I am,” he said warily, unconsciously rubbing the gold band on his finger.
“Good,” James said. “If you want me to stay, it’ll cost you an additional 500 Euros, plus the cost of getting me the items on this list.” He handed the page back to the policeman. “Have your wife get me these things today. I’ll be back at dusk. Now the night is wasted and I have to find a place to sleep for the day.”
Doucette’s eyes bugged out as he scanned the list. “Are you mad?” he exclaimed, looking up to meet Grim’s determined gaze. “This’ll never work.”
“It better work,” James replied, starting for the door. “Because whatever this bitch is building an army for, I don’t think it’s going to wait for another hunter to arrive from Rome.”
It had been an exercise in frustration and humiliation, but by the time the clock was tolling midnight, James Grim was being driven up to Fort St. John in a horse-drawn carriage. A yawning Jacques was at the reins, dressed in livery and looking quite smart, albeit with dark circles under his eyes from being kept up all last night and the day following.
Turned out he was the only constable still left in town, as Gwen’s bitches had been targeting anyone in uniform for a quick death, which was why he wasn’t getting much sleep lately. Learning that had made James revise his opinion of the kid upwards a few notches.
The door to the castle was open by the time the carriage came to a full stop. Two women – only one of whom James recognized, as one of the ones who’d been standing on the parapet with a shotgun in her hands – emerged from the doorway. They were still holding their guns but this time kept them pointed at the ground.
Jacques cleared his throat nervously and announced loudly. “Introducing her ladyship the Baroness von Liechtenstein here to beg the hospitality of Lady Gwenhwyfar the Beautiful.”
He jumped down and hurried to the door of the carriage just as James opened it, reaching up to help him down.
And it was help he sorely needed.
James reached out as delicately as he could and grasped Jacques’ hand as he desperately tried to rearrange the voluminous skirts, petticoats and the hem of his travelling cloak so he could step down without tripping and killing himself. He felt the ridiculous pointed shoes wobble a little on the first step and heard Jacques whimper as he squeezed his hand hard.
He forced himself to loosen his grip, wincing a little as he imagined the bruise the man would probably have. Then he was safely on the ground and moved up the walk, throwing his hood back.
Madame Doucette had taken to the project like a duck to water, and had made some major alterations to James’ appearance. His fall of long black hair had been transformed into a thick mass of ringlets. His dress was cut high enough not to reveal cleavage he didn’t possess, and both he and Monsieur Doucette had been shocked to learn that women had silicone inserts in their undergarments to provide some added volume to their busts. Four sets of those and even James was filling out his bustier nicely.
All in all, she’d spent two hours coifing, primping, shaving, plucking and painting until he was virtually unrecognizable even to himself.
The hardest part had been finding shoes that would fit. In the end, Madame Doucette had stuffed him into a pair he insisted were still a size too small and told him he’d have to live with it.
As he stepped away from Jacques and toward the women at the door, James caught a glimpse of the young man tugging his high collar up a little further, as if ensuring bite marks were hidden. With the deathly pallor caused by fear and the black circles under his eyes, Jacques was the picture of a vampire’s servant whose Mistress took little care with her toys.
Good boy, Grim thought. Now if only the rest of this complex operation could go equally well.
James minced up the walk, holding his skirts up out of the dirt and trying not to break his ankle on any of the myriad cracks in the flagstones.
As the Baron, Grim had given his voice a subtle accent, just enough to carry the part. This time when he opened his mouth, his r’s rolled like the sea, his th’s were firmly z’s and his voice fluttered like a bird.
All the better to distract from the fact that he was straining his voice just to hit a more feminine pitch.
“Please take me to yourrrr mistress,” he trilled, drawing out the words as if afraid to let them escape their cages. “I have had ze most drrrrreadful trip and simply must rrrrrest my bones.”
There was a choked sound from Jacques, but the young man quickly gathered up the reins and turned the carriage towards town before it could turn into full-blown laughter.
Yuk it up, bloodsack, Grim thought with an inward glower.
The two women exchanged incredulous glances, then looked at Grim cautiously. “There was a Baron von Liechtenstein who came to our door yesterday–”
James was ready with his answering salvo – in fact, he’d chosen his persona and nome de plume with it in mind. He raised a hand in a silencing gesture. “Speak to me not of zat horrrrrible man. He treated me badly – very badly. I do not vish to sink of him! I’m sure he came to you in ze hopes zat I would take him back ven I arrived.”
He narrowed his gaze. “You did not let him in, did you? I had hoped zis vould be a safe haven for me, avay from ze man-pigs!”
“Oh no,” one of the women said hastily, and she actually came out to James and took his arm to lead him inside. “You’ve definitely come to the right place. What did he do, Baroness?” she asked with great sympathy. The other woman had disappeared – probably racing ahead to prepare the mistress of the house for her guest.
James produced a lace handkerchief and sniffled into it artistically. He felt foolish, and couldn’t believe they were falling for it. “I do not vish to dwell on my shame, but I tell you zis – if I never have to see or touch a man again, it vill be too soon!”
The woman made sympathetic noises and a moment later they stepped from the rather dark hallway into an open, high-ceilinged room that might have started life as the Fort’s mess hall. Now it was decorated from floor to ceiling and hung with blazing chandeliers.
A woman sat in a high-backed chair at one end, attended by half a dozen women who sat in smaller chairs or reclined on cushions on the floor. The woman was frankly beautiful, her hair a mass of golden curls, her body slim and narrow-waisted. Her skin had the ethereal porcelain colour of a vampire who kept herself well-fed.
She rose from her chair and approached James, who noted with surprise that she was nearly as tall as he was. “Baroness, I am Lady Gwenhwyfar, mistress of this castle. I bid you welcome here.”
Her accent was English, reminiscent of queens, but Grim’s instincts told him it was as fake as the accent he was using at the moment.
James curtseyed as best he could. “It is my honour to accept your hospitality, Lady Gwenhwyfarrrr.”
Gwen closed the distance between them, extending her arms. For a horrible moment, James thought she was going to hug him, but she just took his hands.
“You poor dear,” she said. “Fleur told me of your harrowing journey from…Liechtenstein. What, pray, brought you to Marseilles in the first place?”
James took a small step away from the woman. It was subtle, but he’d grown up in London and knew what they sounded like. He would bet his motorcycle the woman had been born and bred in Marseilles. Why was she pretending to be a British queen, surrounding herself with pretty vampire girls and hiding in this castle like a fairytale princess?
Even as his quick mind took in and analyzed the various observations, James continued to spin his tale. “My husband and I have been married a c-century,” he said, hiding his face in the handkerchief again and allowing his voice to tremble. “We thought a second honeymoon would rekindle ze spark, so we came to wine country, but before we arrived, I learned…” He shuddered to a stop dramatically.
Gwenhwyfar took his hand again and squeezed. “There, there,” she said. “I understand, you needn’t finish. Men are not worthy of us!” She glanced around, snapping her fingers. Several women hurried out of the room and another one rose from a cushion and approached.
“You must be exhausted. You can rest here as long as you like, Baroness. Do you like Samantha, here?”
Startled by the question, James looked up and met the frightened blue eyes of yet another blond.
This one was human.
Gwen put a possessive arm around the woman’s shoulders. She was young, scarcely more than a girl, and there were healing marks on her swan-like neck. Next to the tall Gwenhwyfar, she looked even smaller and younger. Fragile.
“Take her,” Gwen urged gently, drawing the girl closer to James. “She will refresh you. Just please do me the favour of leaving her alive. I wish to turn her when she’s ready.”
Samantha shuddered and James felt his stomach twist in sympathy.
“Thank you,” he heard himself say, reaching out to take the girl’s hand. “You are too kind, Lady Gwenhwyfar.”
Gwen bowed deeply. “I know you’ll take good care of her. If you follow Jeannette, she will show you to your room.”
The first thing he saw when he entered the room they’d prepared for him was a four-poster bed hung with sheer curtains. In fact, there was no other furniture beyond that, other than a sideboard with a sink.
He released Samantha’s hand the instant the door closed and glanced around to try to get his bearings. He was on the second floor, and on the side looking out over the Mediterranean. The smell of the sea wafting through his window was strong, and not unpleasant.
So far he’d counted at least a dozen vamps in the place. How many more could there be? Even though they were probably all brand new vampires, unused to their new power, this wasn’t going to be easy. He’d probably have to wait until dawn to start his investigation of the place.
He was aware of Samantha as she moved to the bed and curled up on it, her legs drawn up to her chest and her skirts disarranged. James’ eyes were drawn to her ankles despite himself. They were slim and shapely, and she wore some kind of slippers that looked a lot more comfortable than the torture devices he had on his own feet.
He felt himself start to salivate and he looked away, glaring out the window. It had been a long time – he’d been expecting to feed the night before, and now the urge was starting to become acute.
All right, time to get some information.
He turned towards the girl and crossed the room, sitting on the bed. “Samantha?” he said. “How long have you been here?” How badly had she been used? Some people, when held by vampires for a long time, came to love their captors. Grim had never understood why, but there was every chance that she’d betray his mission to her mistresses, instead of wanting to be rescued.
She looked up, and confusion warred for a moment with the nervousness in her eyes. “Two weeks,” she said softly. “Why do you ask?”
James considered her for a moment. “I only wonder how eager you are to be brought into the fold. Is the Lady good to you?”
Samantha was silent for a moment, her gaze growing furtive and uncertain, rather than outright frightened. “What are you really here for, monsieur?” she asked suddenly, her voice pitched in a whisper.
James started, his eyes widening in shock. “W-what did you say?” he exclaimed, his voice cracking as he belatedly tried to hit the upper register.
The girl smiled triumphantly, though her eyes were still wary. “I knew it. You cover your throat, and I’ll bet you anything vampires hardly ever do that, do they? Only Gwenhwyfar does. Your voice sounds funny. And you smell of gun oil.”
“I do not,” James hissed, his mind racing. He was sure he’d fooled them; how had she had figured it out?
But something Samantha had said caught at his mind and he raised a hand to the silk scarf wrapped around his neck. It had been a difficult decision, but he’d had to do something to cover his Adam’s apple or the whole ruse would have been for nothing.
James had never seen a vampire cover their throat. Only their servants did that, to hide the puncture marks; it would be like a queen putting on jewellery made of gold-painted plastic and glass.
But now that he thought about it, Gwenhwyfar had been wearing a dress with a high neckline that covered her throat.
He looked at Samantha and saw her lips curve in a knowing grin. “Gwenhwyfar is a man?” he asked incredulously.
“Yes, monsieur,” Samantha said. She swallowed, the smirk faltering. “Why are you here?”
James was still trying to wrap his mind around the fact that Gwen was not only a fake limey, but a man, too. Next she’s going to tell me Gwen’s not really a vampire.
He wrenched his mind back around to Samantha’s question after a moment, however. Those cornflower blue eyes were searching his expression and he’d already learned how discerning they were. Besides, what did he care what equipment Gwen had between her – his – legs? She’d still burn.
James kicked off his shoes and felt his feet throb with relief, but didn’t take any time to enjoy it. He reached for Samantha and drew her closer, feeling her stiffen as he put his lips near her ear. They’d already said enough that he was pretty sure no one had been listening at the door up to this point, but for all he knew some spy could come by at any moment to check on them.
Better to make sure – and get her used to the position at the same time.
“My name is James Grim. I’m a vampire hunter. I’m here to kill every vampire in this place,” he said. Samantha started in his arms and relaxed slightly.
“Thank God,” she whispered. There was just enough real faith in the word that it made James flinch slightly. “Thank you, monsieur,” she added quickly.
“How many other prisoners are there?” James asked. He could hear the rush of blood in her veins, but held himself tightly in check. “How many left alive?”
Samantha swallowed. “Just me,” she said. “I’m the only one. Gwenhwyfar said…to stop taking prisoners. She said she had enough to rule this city now.”
“That’s her goal? To rule Marseilles?” James asked. His nostrils flared – how good she smelled. Her heart was beating rapidly, fluttering under her breast like a trapped bird.
She pressed her forehead to his shoulder and nodded. As he held her, her body was relaxing slowly in his arms, though he could still feel her nervousness.
“That’s fine,” James said softly. “I’ll stop her, but you’ve got to help me, Samantha.”
She looked up, her eyes wide. “Sure,” she said eagerly. “Of course. What do you want me to do?”
“Don’t struggle,” Grim whispered, curling a hand in her hair and tilting her head back to bare her throat.
She froze for an instant, then cried out, the sound high with terror. “Wait, wait stop!” she exclaimed, pushing at his chest with her small hands. A short string of German escaped her lips, and while James spoke only a dozen words or so of the language, it was enough to recognize that she was swearing.
He paused, surprised enough by that to do so. “Look, Samantha–” he began harshly, but she wasn’t listening to him.
“Please, don’t bite me,” she said, her voice breathless with renewed terror. “I can help you in other ways. Please give me a chance!”
There was nothing for it – James needed to feed, and if he couldn’t feed from her, the desire would eventually overcome him at the worst possible time. At least Samantha was probably already infected and would be in no additional danger from him. In a week or two she’d be out of the woods, regardless of what he did now. This was the way he’d fed his hunger for centuries – from the victims of the vampires he killed.
Some called him a monster for victimizing someone who’d already been through so much, but he figured it at least stopped him from having to hunt on the streets. He’d done that for long enough.
“What can you do?” he asked anyway, his voice tight with need. He needed to get her to calm down. In his current state of hunger, if she struggled while he drank and awakened his hunting instincts, he could easily kill her by accident.
“Lots of things,” she said, clenching her fists in his loose, puffy sleeves. “I’m…I’m not what I seem, monsieur. I…” She swallowed. “I’ll show you.”
Suddenly her body shifted under Grim’s hands. It was the most bizarre thing he’d ever felt in his life. Her hips narrowed and breasts shrank, reshaping themselves like putty. Her face widened and grew less delicate. Her blonde hair darkened to a less golden colour closer to straw and her blue eyes shifted towards the grey of storm clouds.
James jerked his hands away, repulsed by the sensation. In less than ten seconds the girl was a boy, still young and delicate-looking, but rounder of face. He looked to be perhaps sixteen, still smooth-cheeked but starting to show signs of growing into a man. His hair was straight and chopped off unevenly rather than coiled into tight ringlets, and he no longer quite fit the dress. It hung wrongly off of his flat chest and strained at his waist.
“My name is Sebastian,” the boy said softly. Even his voice was different – still youthful, and still with a trace of the unevenness of puberty, but deeper than before. “I had to pretend to be a girl or the vampires would have killed me. Sir, I’ve lived on the streets since I was young. I can get in and out of anywhere. I can hide and sneak. And I’m supposed to be here. I’m sure there’s something I can do to help.”
James stared at him. “Is anyone in this damned building a woman?” he demanded, a bit louder than he’d intended. He immediately clamped his mouth shut, cursing inwardly, and continued more softly. “You’re a shape changer. I thought they were a myth.”
“Shape shifter,” Sebastian corrected, reaching up to scrub a hand through his hair, disarranging it even further. “And if it weren’t for me being one, I’d think they were, too. I’ve never met anyone else like me.” He looked at James warily through the curtain formed by his hair. “Well? Are you going to help me out of here?”
“Of course I am,” James said dismissively. Shape shifters…now that was a new one. They were so rare that he’d never met one – that he was aware of. People called them monsters, but so far as he knew they didn’t hurt humans – no more than other humans did, anyway. People were mostly afraid of them because they could look like anyone they wanted.
Apparently they could even change their own gender.
Sebastian looked immensely relieved and broke into a brilliant and somewhat lopsided smile. “Thank you, monsieur,” he said fervently. “What do you want me to do?”
James sighed and reached out, curling a hand in the collar of the dress and dragging Sebastian against him again. The boy gasped softly and stiffened, putting his hands against James’ chest to keep their bodies separate a few inches. “I want you not to struggle, pup,” he said. “Boy or girl, I still need blood. I’m a vampire, and you say you’re the only person available.”
“But…” Sebastian’s good mood evaporated in an instant and he trembled, straining against James’ grasp. “I don’t understand. You’re supposed to be rescuing me. I…This isn’t right…”
“It’s not about what’s right or wrong, kid,” Grim murmured. “It’s about what I need in order to do what I have to do. Or would you rather I had picked out some random person on the street before I came here tonight?”
Sebastian was silent for a moment. “No,” he said softly. “I wouldn’t rather that.” The trembling eased slightly and he grew more pliant in James’ arms. “This is really what you need? That’s…the only reason you’re doing it?”
“I’m a vampire, kid,” Grim said, and sank his teeth into Sebastian’s throat.
The boy gasped and whimpered softly, his fingers fisting against Grim’s chest. Sweet red blood flowed into James’ mouth and he drank it down greedily. There was a unique flavour to the blood and he wondered if it was because Sebastian was a shape shifter. It…sparkled against his tongue, like nothing he’d ever tasted.
Sweet lord, it made him want more.
The caution, the desire not to truly hurt the fragile creature in his arms beyond repair, flew straight out of his mind. James tightened his grip with a moan and pressed closer, swallowing each pulse of sweet nectar that flowed over his tongue.
He heard a cry of fear, but that only made the taste sweeter.
The heartbeat thundered in Grim’s ears and he shifted his leg over the boy, baring a stockinged knee in a rustle of petticoats. There was far too much fabric, but Grim was beyond caring. There was bare skin under his lips and blood in his mouth, and that was all he cared about.
Suddenly he felt the boy start to shift, but as he didn’t seem to be trying to get away, James only registered it distantly. A hand pushed fabric aside and slid upwards until it rubbed against James’ groin.
Even in James’ current state, he started at the unexpected sensation. But discouraging the boy never entered his mind. He growled softly against Sebastian’s throat and rocked his hips forward a little, feeling his body react. He was sheathed in the nylon from hips to toes, but it did nothing to dull the sensation, and the scanty underwear Madame Doucette had made him wear ‘for shape’ did even less.
The silk of the underpants slid over his cock as Sebastian rubbed with his palm, and James grew hard quickly. Sebastian rubbed faster, the slowly building rhythm sending waves of pleasure through James’ body that enhanced the sweet flavour of the blood that flowed over his tongue.
James freed a hand and delved lower. Somewhere in his mind was the thought that he should return the favour. No one had ever seemed to…enjoy this before, and while he could scarcely think through the pure pleasure of this feeding, some instinctive part of him liked that Sebastian seemed to be getting into it.
After spending an eternity pushing fabric aside, his fingers brushed the inside of Sebastian’s thigh and the join of his legs. The boy was soft and James started to rub with the heel of his hand, the same way Sebastian was, allowing the silk of the underwear to stimulate the boy’s member as much as the pressure of his hand did.
Suddenly the hand left his own groin and he groaned, the sound shading towards a growl as he was left bereft.
“N-no,” Sebastian whispered, his voice thready. He curled his small hand around Grim’s wrist and pulled him away. “Please just…just let me…”
Frowning, James pulled his fangs from Sebastian’s throat. Blood welled up and he licked it away, unable to resist the pull of it. “What are you–” the question was cut off by a heartfelt moan as Sebastian’s hand resumed its rubbing. The scanty underwear was stretched tight by his erection and his cock throbbed as if with the beat of a heart.
There was no response from Sebastian and James was too distracted to press the matter. James closed his eyes and felt the sensations spiral through his body, heightening as the boy masturbated him faster and faster.
His tongue flicked out every few seconds, just to get another taste of that heady elixir that leaked from Sebastian’s throat, but the wounds were closing and the flow was lessening to a trickle.
A few timeless moments later, James shuddered and spilled himself over Sebastian’s hand. The orgasm pulled his mouth away from Sebastian’s neck and he rolled onto his back as he arched upwards, lost in the ecstasy.
The boy pulled his hand back, watching him solemnly, his chest heaving as he pressed his hand to the wounds on his neck. When James finally collected himself enough to look at him, he saw renewed wariness in the boy’s eyes. “Are you done?” Sebastian asked.
Realization hit James like a thunderbolt.
“Does this happen every time someone bites you?” he asked, pushing himself up to sit.
Sebastian slipped off the bed and moved to the basin, washing his soiled hands. He didn’t quite take his eyes off of Grim. “Does what happen?”
It occurred to James that Sebastian probably wasn’t as well acquainted with vampire bites as he was. He swung his feet over the side of the bed to the floor, but saw the boy tense up even from across the room and thought better of standing up.
“Kid, let me put it this way – I don’t usually lose control like that. I was only planning to take a bit, but…Do the vamps always try to kill you?” James said frankly.
Sebastian dried his hands on a towel and then wadded it up and pressed it to the side of his neck. He did leave red spots on the towel, but vampire saliva – ironically enough – had healing properties, and he wasn’t bleeding much.
If you could bottle the stuff, you’d make a mint. If anyone would be willing to buy it, anyway.
“Always,” he said in a slightly haunted voice, his eyes sliding away to study a particularly interesting spot on the far wall. “Gwenhwyfar…she says she wants to make me a vampire. But every time she bites me, I have to do what I did to you…to distract her. That’s how I know she’s a man.”
He glanced at James. “I’d rather die than be a vampire, monsieur. But I don’t want to be a zombie, either.”
James gave Sebastian a wry look. His blood had run cold at the thought of what the boy had been going through, but he didn’t allow much of it to show on his face. “I understand, kid. But I can tell you that neither of those things is going to happen to you. You’ll be back to your life sooner than you know it.”
Sebastian’s lips twisted wryly for some reason, but he didn’t elaborate. “Thank you,” he said, and the words were sincere enough. “Is there…anything I can do to help?” he added hopefully. “I mean besides donating blood.”
“Just keep out of the way,” James said with a sigh, shifting to lie back on the bed again. He needed to get some sleep, and felt pleasantly spent after the good feeding and…other things. “And don’t blow my cover.”
Sebastian glared at him. “Weren’t you listening to me? I can do things!”
“Good,” James said, raising his head enough to meet the glare. It was cute, but not terribly threatening. “Those skills will serve you well after I get you out of here. For now, get some rest. You look like you’re about to fall over.”
Indeed, the boy was pale as death, and swaying in place.
“I’ll be okay,” he said stubbornly, but moved slowly across the room to the bed. Casting a nervous glance at James, he stretched out on the mattress.
James was quite certain that if there’d been anything else to lie down on other than the bed, the kid would have taken it. He glanced at Sebastian briefly, and then deliberately closed his eyes and turned away. “I won’t bite you again, kid. Relax.”
Sebastian swallowed audibly. “Okay,” he said softly.
And that was the last James Grim knew for a while, as he slipped into a satisfied sleep.
James awoke when the shutters on the window were closed with a bang and a rattle. His eyes snapped open and he stared up into the darkness for a few moments, getting his bearings again.
It was close to dawn. He could feel the lethargy setting in and sat up to combat it. All over the castle the vampires would be settling down to sleep, but this vampires wasn’t about to surrender to unconsciousness for the day. He had work to do.
And Sebastian was gone.
The cold expanse of the bed where the boy had been laying gave James pause for a moment. He wasn’t kidding about being able to sneak, he thought, impressed despite himself that the boy had managed to leave the room without waking James up.
Perhaps the blood had been partly to blame for how deeply he’d slept. Yeah, that explained it.
I just hope it doesn’t hang him. Grim didn’t have time to look for him, and if Sebastian was still in the castle when James’ plan went off, he’d die with the vampires.
But there was nothing he could do. Hopefully the boy would find him before it was too late.
James squeezed his feet into the shoes again, ensured that nothing had shifted while he was asleep, and headed out of the room.
A few minutes later he was on the ground floor, working his way around the perimeter of the building. The whole place was shut up tight against the approaching dawn, every shutter closed and latched. Gwen had done a wonderful job of prettying up the place, with carpet runners in the hallways and wall hangings breaking up the cold drabness of the centuries-old stone.
That just made James smile as he put his plan into effect.
He reached into his dress, felt around and then pulled one of the silicone inserts out of his brassiere. A quick reach up his own skirt and he was able to pull the silver knife from the sheath strapped to his thigh. The whole operation would have looked quite odd to anyone watching, but of course there wasn’t anyone around to watch.
He sliced open the insert and started squeezing the contents over the carpet and wall hangings. The smell of the lighter fluid with which he’d filled the things was thick in his nostrils.
He worked his way around, leaving a trail of the highly flammable liquid behind him. James had just started work on the fourth insert when he heard the sound of running feet coming towards him.
Shit! he thought, glancing around quickly for somewhere to hide what he was doing, but a door burst open nearby and Sebastian emerged from the stairwell at a full-out run.
James relaxed immediately, and was about to resume what he was doing, when he got a good look at the boy. Sebastian was female again, but his hair was dishevelled and his dress torn to reveal a bit more bosom than was probably decent.
“James!” Sebastian raced towards him, shifting to male form as he ran. His cheeks were pale and stained with tears.
The shift seemed to throw him off balance – perhaps he’d never shape-changed at a dead run before – and he tripped over his own feet as it completed. He fell headlong into James, who somehow managed to catch him without stabbing him with the knife.
“Hell kid, what the hell is wrong with you?” he demanded. “Where have you been?”
There didn’t seem to be anyone chasing him, so why the flat-out run? Why the tears?
“James, it…it happened,” Sebastian said, then burst into tears, burying his face against Grim’s chest and sobbing. “She called for me when you were asleep, and she made me drink her b-blood.”
James felt himself go very still, his eyes widening. Of all the rotten luck.
He put his hands on the boy’s shoulders and pushed him back gently, putting some space between them. The boy was shaking and his cheeks were reddened – of course, the fever set in quickly when you got a full dose of the infection. It was already starting.
“Sorry kid,” James said in a detached voice. “Guess it didn’t work out. You want me to make it quick? Your body will burn – it won’t become a zombie.”
Sebastian’s grey eyes widened, the tears drying up in his shock. “W-what?” he gulped. “You…you’re going to kill me now? I thought you were going to save me!”
James lowered his hands. “No one can save you now, kid,” he said softly. “And I won’t turn another monster on the world.”
“I’m not a monster!” Sebastian shouted, and Grim winced at the volume. He took a step forward, intending to try to get him to be quiet, and the boy back-pedalled until his back hit the wall, a soft cry of terror coming to his throat. “Please!” he exclaimed, and thankfully he was softer this time. “Please give me a chance. I won’t hurt people, I swear.”
The door opened again and this time Gwenhwyfar emerged. She strode towards them, her head held high. “Samantha you naughty– Samantha?”
Sebastian squeaked and inched away, caught. “Leave me alone!” he snapped.
Despite his earlier words, James stepped between them, the silver knife held loosely in his hand. “Lady Gwenhwyfar,” he said, not even attempting to disguise his voice. “You should be in bed.”
She – or he – stared at James, eyes widening. “B-Baroness you…” her voice trailed off, eyes going to James’ chest, where he no longer filled out the bosom nearly so well, since most of the contents were now spattered over the floor.
“James Grim,” he introduced himself, bowing slightly. “And you’ve made your last monster.” He walked towards her, his steps deliberate. Maybe she’d run. That’d be interesting.
She took a step back, but didn’t run, her fangs bared in a snarl. “You’re a man,” she hissed. “I hate men.”
“You are a man,” James said. He darted forward, closing the gap between them and grabbing her by the collar. She gasped as her back slammed against the nearest wall.
“I am not!” she exclaimed, beating at his arms. He winced at the hits, but held on. “It’s only an accident of birth!”
Suddenly Grim felt a white-hot pain bury himself in his stomach. He gasped and his fingers loosened, allowing Gwenhwyfar to slide to the ground again. She made a twisting motion and the knife she’d stabbed into his gun twisted, tearing the wound open further.
James staggered back, clutching at the knife handle with his free hand. He saw her advance, smirking, and felt a hard-toed stiletto shoe strike his knee, sending a shooting pain through his leg.
All right, he thought through the fog of pain. That’s it.
He forced himself to straighten and shot out a leg, grunting as the movement sent another pulse of pain through his stomach. His boot slammed heavily into her groin and she crumpled to the floor, proving once and for all that Sebastian had been right about her gender.
Before she could recover, he bent and brought his silver knife down fast, stabbing her through the heart.
She shrieked and went limp, her head lolling to one side as she began to dissolve into a pile of ash.
She must have been several centuries old, and mad from it. They often were. And the older the vampire, the more quickly they turned to ash when they shuffled off their immortal coil.
James turned towards Sebastian, who was still rooted to the spot, eyes wide as he watched Grim murder the creature who’d kept him captive. The boy caught his eye and took a step back, swallowing. “I won’t be a monster,” he insisted softly.
James extracted the knife from his stomach and threw it aside, pressing a hand to the wound. He was bleeding, but it’d heal. “You say that now,” he said to Sebastian, shaking his head. He fought to keep his voice even through the pain. “But it’s different when you get hungry. When you can smell the blood. You saw me last night. You’ve seen what these women became.”
“But you do it!” Sebastian pleaded. “You can be good. Why can’t I? Please, monsieur. Please let me go. I swear to God that I won’t be a monster.”
The boy had something in his hand, his fingers clamped firmly around it. When he raised his hands in his plea, his hands opened and the silver cross dropped to dangle from its chain. James flinched back from the sight of it, though the reflex was weak.
He ground his teeth. “…All right,” he said softly.
Sebastian jerked, taking a step towards the older man. “You mean it?” he gasped.
“Yeah,” James said, turning away and moving to finish up the circuit. He had to get this done before the sun rose too high, anyway, or he himself wouldn’t be able to escape. He limped on down the hall. “Get out of here, now, and leave the front door unlatched. But if I ever catch you preying on the innocent, I’ll make your death nice and slow. Got it?”
“Yes,” Sebastian said, and his voice was solemn. “Yes, I’ve got it.”
He turned, starting off, and James called after him suddenly. “Hey kid.” He watched as the boy turned in a swish of skirts, looking at him fearfully over his shoulder.
“You’ll wish you took my offer, you know,” James said. “A quick death here is better than living this way.”
Sebastian watched him for a moment, then turned away, heading off at a good clip. “Maybe so. But living is better than dying, any day.”
James snorted as the boy rounded the corner and was out of sight. “Shows what you know,” he growled.
It didn’t take much longer before he finished up. Once it was lit, the fire spread quickly and he left the building, locking the door behind him and pulling the hood of his cloak over his face. The sun was peeking over the horizon and he felt its oppressive heat even more than the fire that licked up the inside of the building.
Soon he could hear the screaming and he turned away, seeking the safety of shadow.
He couldn’t wait to get out of this damn corset.