Katelina shifted in her seat. The plane’s engine hummed as the night slipped past outside. After months away, she was relieved to be back in the United States. A lifetime could pass before she’d get on another airplane.
She brushed her blonde hair out of her face and turned to the man beside her. Dark lashes rested on marble-like cheeks. Long black hair fell around his shoulders in a midnight shower. Though he appeared asleep, the silver medallion around his neck rose and fell. Vampires didn’t need oxygen. It was only when they were awake, and only by habit, that they breathed.
Jorick opened his eyes and squeezed her hand. “You should relax, little one. We’ll be there soon.”
“I hope so.” Her mother’s words echoed in her mind. “Sarah’s home!”
Sarah. Her best friend. Who was supposed to be dead — tortured to death by a maniac vampire and his minions last October. Katelina remembered when Jorick told her the news — news he’d learned from a spy who had no reason to tell tales.
He hesitated, as though he had a hard time finding words. “They went to your house, seeking you, but you weren't there. While they tore things apart for clues, someone else came; a dark haired woman with pale eyes.”
“Who?” Though she tried to deny it, she knew the answer; knew who would be at her apartment. “Sarah?”
He didn’t nod, only said, “They took her with them. They thought they’d found you. Once they brought her before Claudius, of course, they found out that it wasn’t you.”
When she’d asked if Sarah was all right, his answer made her sick: “They aren't torturing her anymore.”
Though she’d been ignorant about a lot of things back then, she knew what that meant. “Dead? She is, isn’t she?”
“Yes, she's dead.”
Later, Katelina had spoken to members of Claudius’ coven who confirmed Sarah was tortured to death. They’d heard Sarah scream, commented how her tormentor, Troy, liked to drag things out. Nowhere was there a mention that she’d survived. The coven hadn’t kept her, or Jorick would have discovered her when he stormed the den. No one could have taken her as a pet and run away because every member of Claudius’ coven was accounted for. In the end, Sarah had been nothing to them except a moment’s amusement. She’d been killed and her body dumped with no one to help her.
Or maybe not. Maybe she’d been found by a local farmer and nursed back to health. But why didn’t she come home sooner? Had she been in a coma, labeled as Jane Doe, in a hospital miles from home? Did she remember what happened?
Though Katelina prayed Sarah had forgotten about the vampires, when she’d talked to her on the phone, the sinister edge in her voice seemed to say she remembered everything.
“We have a lot of catching up to do.”
As though she planned to tell Katelina all about it, monsters included.
Hopefully she hasn’t told anyone else.
It wasn’t just that Katelina wanted to keep the paranormal reality away from her friends and family back home, but there were laws. Humans who weren’t marked as vampire property weren’t allowed to know about the undead. Those who found out were permanently silenced.
A loud guffaw interrupted Katelina’s thoughts. She didn’t turn to see what was funny. Traveling with vampires from different eras and diverse backgrounds had taught her not to.
Her attention swiveled to the front of the plane where Jamie scribbled on a pile of paperwork. His long black hair was pulled up in a bun and around his neck hung an emblem like Jorick’s. It marked them as Executioners: official vampire police of The Guild.
She asked Jorick, “Should you do paper work, too?”
Her boyfriend shrugged. “They’ll probably release me on sight.”
Katelina’s eyes lit with hope. Jorick quit being an Executioner in 1868, long before she’d been born. It was only last January when Malick, The Guild’s former leader, forced him back into service. Hopefully the new leader would let them go.
Over the loudspeaker, the pilot asked them to ready for landing. Katelina leaned against the window and watched the ground draw closer. With her new vampire eyes, she could see past the curtain of night: the small rectangles of buildings, the threads of roads, the clusters of trees. The lights of the airstrip throbbed ahead, and she settled back and checked her seat belt. Thank God this was her last flight, and her last chance at crashing. She could still die, even if she wasn’t human.
Not human. The words sent a shiver through her. She knew she should be grateful. It had been immortality or death, but it wasn’t the way she’d planned it. It had been messy, imperfect, and with the wrong master.
Jorick stiffened, as though he’d heard her thoughts. Maybe he had. Like half the vampires on the plane, he was a mind reader. Had things worked out, she’d be a mind reader, too. Jorick would have turned her in a room draped in silk and lit by candles. It would have been beautiful and romantic. Instead, her last memories were of Malick’s desert hideout, followed by vague, half-dream images of her eyes reflected in a knife blade.
She didn’t remember her death. A prisoner, she’d crouched in her cell while sounds of attack echoed from above. Malick’s henchmen stormed inside to dispose of her. She’d tried to fight, but she was weak. Micah and Loren burst through the door and then… then Micah said her attacker slit her throat. Turning her was all he could do to save her.
Now Micah was her legal master, not that he planned to do anything with the privilege beyond train her to fight. Still, she could feel the worry in the back of Jorick’s brain, waiting for Micah to invoke The Laws and command her to be his slave.
The plane touched down and rolled to a stop. The pilot announced that, thanks to time zones, it was just after midnight in Iowa.
Katelina was suddenly aware of the human woman in the seat behind her. The scent of her blood made her stomach tighten. Guilt was instant. She turned and forced a smile, as if that would make up for it. “We’re here.”
Xandria smiled back. “Where is here?”
Katelina tried not to think about how thirsty she was. “We’re at The Guild’s airstrip.”
“I mean where is Iowa? I’ve never been to the U.S.”
Right. Xandria was a foreigner who’d been owned by an Indian vampire.
“How far is it from California?” she pressed.
Verchiel thumped up from his seat in the back. Messy crayon-colored red hair stuck out at odd angles, left long in the back and spikey on top. Violet eyes twinkled and a grin revealed glittering fangs. The emblem around his neck marked him as one of the elite; a third Executioner. “California is around eighteen-hundred miles.”
Xandria choked. “Are you serious?”
“Do you doubt me?” he asked with mock innocence.
Jorick stepped into the aisle. “If she’s smart she won’t believe a word you say.”
“Aw, come on. After everything we’ve been through, we should be friends.”
Torina pushed her way forward. The vampiress’ slinky dress gleamed iridescent in the cabin lights. Long red hair fell over her shoulder to tickle ripe cleavage. “Jorick doesn’t have any friends.”
Katelina rolled her eyes and shoved into the aisle. Lugging a duffel bag, she headed for the door. Outside, Jamie spoke to a vampire in a long gray coat, one of The Guild’s guards.
When everyone disembarked, Jamie explained, “There are two SUVs to take us to the citadel. Oren and his coven are asked to remain overnight in case the council wants testimony.”
Jorick’s fledgling Oren gave a low growl. The sound, coupled with his tawny lion-colored hair and amber eyes, made Katelina think of a great cat ready to pounce. His mood was no surprise. She remembered the conversation he and Jorick had before they left:
Oren crossed his arms and asked, “Is it wise for me to return to the citadel? The last time I was there, I led a revolt against them.”
Jorick motioned the objection away. “Your uprising was overshadowed by Malick. That the head of the council would revolt and attack his followers made a greater impact. And your uprising was only possible because Malick disabled security measures.”
“So you say, but the coven leaders were executed for the revolt. My brother-in-law—”
“Was killed in your place.”
“Only because you incapacitated me and hid me in a closet!” Oren took a calming breath. “For which I owe you gratitude, of a sort. Back to the point, what makes you think they won’t punish me—or Torina, or Micah, or Loren—now?”
“They were released by the council, so they won’t be charged again. As for you, a leader was executed. Punishment was given. The High Council has more important things to worry about than one vampire and a failed rebellion they’ve already recovered from.”
Oren looked offended, and the conversation trailed off. It hurt Oren’s pride, but Jorick was probably right. The Guild was the government for vampires in all of North America. One puny dissident didn’t register.
Following Jamie’s instructions, they loaded into the SUVs and left the rural airfield behind. Katelina’s stomach fluttered nervously as she thought of the citadel. She’d been human the last time; human and afraid of the ancients who ruled the massive underground complex. Would they still be as terrifying?
The trip ended at a grain elevator peppered with outbuildings. Xandria leaned up from the backseat. “Is this...?”
“The Guild,” Katelina finished. “It’s hidden under a grain company. Perfect camouflage for Iowa, I guess.”
“It's a bit disappointing.”
Katelina nodded. After the luxurious and historic halls in Europe and Asia, most hidden under old ornate buildings, the United States’ citadel was underwhelming and very un-vampire.
The SUVs stopped in front of a small white building labeled office. Jamie led the way inside where a wrinkled perma-tan farmer sat behind the counter. A bulletin board with community events and a beat up coffee machine gave a farm-y look. There was even a yellow dog flopped in the corner.
Verchiel rubbed the animal’s head. “Who’s a good boy?”
The farmer looked up from a ledger. “It's a she. I've told you before, don't bother her.”
At a dark look from Jamie, Verchiel snapped his mouth shut, though his expression said everything.
The farmer turned back to the book. “I need to see your official identification.”
When Verchiel and Jorick looked surprised, the farmer explained, “New security measures. Since the attack they've been making rules all over the place. Before you can come in you have to send for a photo ID, then you have to show that to me. Then you check in at the new welcome desk and show it to them, in case you managed to change like a chameleon in between. It's all a lot of crap that don’t serve no purpose except to keep the bureaucrats busy. And computerized. They wanted me to use a gol-durn tablet or some gum. I told them paper’s been good enough for a thousand years, so paper was good enough for me. Now, IDs.”
Jamie flashed a card from his pocket. “I'll take responsibility for them.”
“Even the redhead?”
Verchiel frowned. “You know who I am. I work here.”
“Course I know who you are. That's why I’m asking.” Verchiel mock pouted and the immortal farmer grumbled. “Never mind. He'd only stay up here causing trouble. I’ll get you checked in and you can go.”
He scribbled their names in the ledger. Katelina caught a quick glimpse of a note that said “Executioner Jamie's responsibility” next to each one, as if Jamie would really shoulder the blame for their actions.
The farmer hit a button under the desk and motioned them into a back room. Shelves of seed bags and farm related items seemed normal, but the stainless steel door was out of place. Jamie pulled it open and led them down a set of stairs. A cheerful reception room was painted in autumn colors and complete with a set of overstuffed couches. Katelina had been there before, except there hadn’t been a desk with a welcome sign over it.
“They moved the check in,” Jamie explained as he led them to it. “It’s all handled here, whether you need a room or not. You pay here, too.” He turned his attention to the receptionist. “We’ll need to check in and we’ll need rooms.”
Jamie handed his over and explained the others didn’t have any. The vampiress arched an eyebrow but entered their names into the computer as Jamie reeled them off.
“The human?” she asked pointedly when he’d finished.
Katelina started to say she was with Jorick, then caught herself. They didn’t mean her anymore, they meant Xandria.
“Katelina is her master,” Jamie answered.
Though Xandria didn’t seem bothered, the words made Katelina uncomfortable.
“Everyone but Etsuko, the human, and Katelina are in the database, so I’ve gone ahead and put in ID requests, though they’ll need to submit photos. As for the other three, they’ll need to go to the office and fill out the forms.”
Before anyone could object, Jamie settled their rooms — “The High Council has requested they stay, so you’ll have to mark it free and Council approved for tonight. Tomorrow they’ll be on their own.”— and handed out key cards to Micah, Torina, and Oren’s fledgling Etsuko. Dressed in a peach kimono with white and orange flowers, wooden geta, and a traditional hairstyle, Etsuko looked like she’d stepped from an advertisement for traditional Japan tours. A human servant of a Japanese coven, she’d asked to be given to Oren. When she’d nearly died of yellow fever, he’d turned her. Though their relationship hadn’t been publicly acknowledged, it seemed Etsuko considered them a couple. Oren’s feelings were anybody’s guess.
Katelina tugged on Jorick’s arm to ask where they were supposed to sleep. Verchiel and Jamie had quarters in the Executioner block but— then she remembered, so did they. When they departed for Europe, she and Jorick left behind a furnished apartment, complete with teddy bear bedding.
A printer chugged paper and the receptionist handed over several sheets. “Here’s your registration information. You need to keep it with you until you have your IDs.”
Jamie took the stack and steered them away before they could cause a scene. Once in the hallway Micah exploded, “IDs? Check in? I knew there was a reason I’d never been here.”
“Except as a prisoner?” Verchiel asked cheerfully.
Jamie stepped between them. “Verchiel, Jorick, we need to check in with Eileifr. The rest of you can go to your rooms until you’re sent for.”
“Ain’t that nice?” Micah asked.
Jamie handed out the papers. “Your rooms are on the fifth floor. There’s a restaurant here on the sixth, or you can order room service, which will be added to your bill. If you need any information, check with the welcome desk.” He cast a weary look over them. “And stay out of trouble.”
Micah scoffed. “What do you think we’re gonna do? Rape the women and pillage the fucking villagers?”
“It’s hard to tell,” Jorick replied. “You aren’t known for your intelligence.”
“Fuck you, Executioner dog.”
Jorick turned his back on the seething vampire and met Katelina’s eyes. “I shouldn’t be long.”
Before he could continue, a pair of Executioners appeared. She knew the tall thin one, with chestnut hair, green eyes, and elven features was Ark, the head of the Executioners, but she couldn’t think of the other’s name, though the blond ponytail and green eyes were familiar.
“You managed to drag them back?” the blond asked.
Jamie nodded. “Hello, Beldren. Ark. We’re on our way to see Eileifr.”
“About time,” Ark said icily.
Beldren ran his eyes over the group. “What a ragamuffin lot. You always did like to throw yourself in with the oddities, Jorick.” His gaze lingered on Verchiel, then stopped on Katelina. “Your human isn’t human anymore?”
“No,” Jorick answered.
Beldren shrugged. “Welcome to immortality.” His focus shifted to Jorick. “You won’t believe the rumors floating around. You’ve done everything from leading a revolt to waking the dead. Did you really kill Malick?”
“Yes,” Jorick answered.
Ark sucked air through his teeth, but didn’t comment.
“How interesting.” Beldren’s eyes lit up. “Speaking of interesting things, we had a complaint while you were gone. Kidnapping. Possibly unlawful murder. Collaboration to commit an unlawful attack. You should see the pile of paperwork.”
Katelina gaped. Kidnapping? Did he mean Xandria? She’d had a master named Sanjay, but he was on Malick’s side and disappeared. Had he filed a complaint?
Though Beldren seemed to enjoy dragging it out, Ark cut in irritably, “It’s a woman named Anya. She claims you and your fledgling attacked her house and took her younger brother.”
Anya. Anya and her brother Thomas. It felt like a million years ago when they’d partnered with Kale’s coven to storm Anya’s den and drag her sneering sniveling brother away.
Jorick made a low noise and Beldren shrugged. “I thought I’d warn you. Eileifr will probably throw it at you when you walk in.” He leaned casually against the wall. “Now that Malick’s not in charge, Eileifr is chomping at the bit to show there’s no favoritism; that The Laws apply to everyone.”
“As they should,” Ark added.
Katelina’s heart froze in her chest. Would Jorick end up in prison for something that wasn’t his idea? She remembered Kale’s coven and their thirst for Thomas’ blood, the way Joseff ripped Thomas’ limbs from his body, then buried him in the dirt.
Jorick’s voice ripped her from the evil memories. “Good. Then I imagine he’ll review my unlawful appointment of Executioner.”
“That’s one of the rumors.” Beldren straightened. “We won’t keep you. I’m sure you’re anxious to get debriefed and hand in your paperwork.”
Ark nodded to the binder in Jamie’s hand. “I doubt Verchiel has completed his.”
The redhead put his arms behind his head. “You know me. Wait ‘til the last minute.”
“It’s going to be quite a minute, considering you were gone for three months. Good luck with that.” Beldren nodded to Jorick. “Nice to see you again. We should get together before Eileifr throws you in prison.”
His words left Katelina grasping for calm. They wouldn’t really put Jorick in prison—would they?
Jorick squeezed her hand. “Relax little one. He was joking.”
But something in his eyes didn’t seem sure.