Knowing the thoughts of those around you seems like a wonderful gift, but I imagine the truth of it would be a mixed bag. As much curse as blessing. I wonder what Nika thinks?
The midnight blue Ford Mustang rolled down the exit ramp and off the busy highway, entering into Kansas City’s old warehouse district, known locally as West Bottoms. The car was a new model, maybe only a year or two old, and rumbled with tightly restrained power as if it balked at traveling so slowly.
This time of night, West Bottoms was quiet. During the entire month of October, the evenings would see it filled with hundreds of young people seeking the thrills of some of the largest, most extensive Halloween haunted houses in the United States. At least four of the giant old multistory buildings had been converted into elaborate, twisting, creepy scare houses that drew eager visitors by the thousands during the month of Samhain.
Many other abandoned old industrial buildings had been converted to thrift shops, antique stores, flea markets, artist lofts, cafés, and architectural salvage shops. A few, a very few, were still just warehouses, if not visibly busy ones, and now, in early spring, the nights were quiet and empty. Mostly.
The Mustang prowled the beat-up streets between hulking old buildings, nosing deeper into the old industrial area. It swerved into a shadowed lot between two buildings and shut down, the rumble of its powerful engine dropping off into the pings and tings of cooling metal.
The darkened car sat for a moment, as if watching, then the driver’s door opened and a slim female figure rose from inside briefly illuminated by the soft interior lighting before the door thunked shut.
Dressed in black slim-fit jeans, black calf-high boots, black shirt, and a black leather jacket, the woman’s pale skin and blonde hair stood out in the faint luminescence of the few widely spaced street lights.
She stood utterly still, soaking up the night, her milk-white skin seeming to pull the light into it. Then she disappeared.
One moment there, another gone. Thirty feet away, a dark shadow appeared for just a moment, then slid into the gloom cast by the bulk of the nearest building.
Up close, blonde hair and white skin suddenly lightened the pool of blackness. Nika of the Coven, Guardian, and Vice President Of Corporate Negotiations for Demidova Incorporated, stood frozen, listening with five supernaturally acute senses and a sixth sense that was just flat-out supernatural.
Her face swiveled as she acquired her prey, then she leapt twenty feet up the side of a building, Clinging to flat brick and crumbling mortar. She crawled up the wall at about the same speed an Olympic sprinter might cover the one-hundred-meter race on flat ground, flowing around the corner and then leaping to the next building over.
Below, on the the street, a dark figure lugged a baby seat up the steps of yet another building, pausing to unlock the heavy, unmarked doors and scurry inside.
Nika leapt to the same building her quarry had entered, hitting the outer wall of the third floor without a sound. A beat-up window, loose in its frame, yielded to a moment of her attention and the lithe figure lightly rolled into the rundown structure.
Inside, she paused to sense her surroundings. Footsteps sounded down below, but it was her innate mental ability that told her the man she was following was feeling satisfied, secure, and anticipating a hefty payoff. Without a sound, she moved to the empty hallway and found the stairwell.
Closing her eyes once more, she felt her surroundings. Bats, mice, and a flock of pigeons were the only living things in the floors above. Likewise, the two floors below were also silent and empty, but below the ground floor, she felt the presence of people. A jumble of emotions, images, and disjointed thoughts reached her mind when she lowered her shields. At least four in addition to her prey, and possibly more. Some were curiously muddled.
Like a ghost in the night, she descended the stairs, the soft rubber soles of her stalking boots making no noise on the concrete steps. Deep below, she heard a door open, its hinges oiled yet still enough out of alignment to let out the very softest of metal-on-metal squeals. Then voices, too indistinct for even her hearing to decipher, yet her extra sense filled in the conversation as if she were right there.
“Successful I see,” a male said.
“Told you I’d come through,” her quarry said.
“What kind of outcry for this little bundle of delight?” the first man asked, his tone mentally and acoustically sour.
“Illegals. They won’t dare raise much of a fuss or ICE will get them all,” the second said, smug.
“Hmm. It should do nicely,” the first said.
“She… she should do nicely,” the kidnapper said, almost affronted.
“Whatever. It won’t matter to them,” the first said.
“Yeah, I guess not,” the child stealer said, tone subdued.
Nika was down to the first floor, her feet just entering the flight that led below ground level, the voices loud enough that she could now hear them with both ears and mind.
“Bring it… her in,” the greeter said. Nika hurried, still moving in silence.
The door below creaked open a little wider, followed by the scrape of hard plastic on concrete. The greeter was thinking that finally those he answered to would be satisfied, at least momentarily. The kidnapper was thinking of dollars, dinners out, debts paid, and a bottle of Jim Beam. The little one in the carrier was dreaming of milk.
Feet shuffled, the sound louder as she closed the distance. She swung around a landing and spotted the bottom of the stairs. With one jump, she cleared the last flight of steps, landing behind the man with the child car seat. Her landing was almost silent… almost. Some small sound—a tiny scrape or minute crunch—reached the ears of the last man through the door. He paused and turned, more curious than alarmed. He saw blonde hair, a beautiful face, and then a cold hand that covered his eyes while another slim hand touched the back of his head.
A sudden shearing hard force, a snap in his neck which was his last official feeling, and then it all went black.
The car seat clattered as the dead kidnapper dropped it, his body still held upright by a woman who looked to be half his weight. The greeter heard the sound and turned, freezing for a second at the sight of the dark-clad woman holding his associate’s limp body by his head—which was turned one hundred and eighty degrees in the wrong direction. His thinking brain couldn’t make sense of what he was seeing, but his older, more primitive mind sent a signal to his hands. He simultaneously reached for the gun at his waist with his right while his left hand groped for a tiny white plastic box with a button in its center that hung around his neck.
The left hand made it to the button just as the woman was suddenly in front of him, her own hands grabbing for his. He felt all ten fingers and most of the bones in both appendages snap and grind into splinters in the awful grasp of a woman who looked like she belonged in catalogs or movies.
A door at the rear of the mostly empty room opened and two men in dark suits entered, raising large black handguns toward the woman and the man she now held in front of her.
The greeter’s initial relief at seeing the guards coming to the rescue vanished in a wave of terror as they raised those massive guns and pointed them at the woman who was now behind him.
Both guns fired at once—not with a roar or bang but with a deep whump that Nika felt in the soles of her shoes. She moved, grabbing the car seat in one hand and drawing her own weapon in the other.
The greeter, who she had left behind, exploded twice at the same time, his head vaporizing in a cloud of red, white, and gray while his torso burst apart in bigger, redder, wetter chunks.
Nika moved at a diagonal to the two new killers, toward the corner of the room nearest them. She moved faster than they could and her odd silvery pistol spat three times as they tried to draw a bead on her.
Both men spread apart at her shots, faster than a normal human. Oddly, the projectiles that leapt from her barrel twisted in mid-flight, each slamming into a body. Whatever it was that hit them was larger than a standard bullet and the result was each guard shuddering and jerking like a man touching a live wire. Somehow despite the disruption of their nervous systems, each was able to fire off another salvo at Nika.
She couldn’t feel them with her mind, like she had with the two dead child dealers, but she still possessed reflexes far beyond human or whatever the guards were. She leapt straight up, flipping to land her feet on the ceiling, child carrier staying oriented to the floor as her feet fastened themselves. Waves of energy, maybe something sonic, blasted the space she left behind. Her own gun coughed two more times and the rounds found the guards’ heads. Now both were incapacitated, bodies jerking and jumping, eyes rolled back in their skulls.
She jumped down, flipping again, landing softly, the car seat hardly shifting as her hand spun around the handle. Reholstering the pistol, she drew a long, curving kukri knife from a thermoplastic sheath hanging down her back. Her hand flicked twice and the heads of the men in black suits rolled free from their bodies. Another flick of the blade to clear the worst of the blood, which was a darker red than any human’s. The bodies of the guards smelled like thyme, the herb. The bodies of the child traders smelled like shit.
Her big knife disappeared under the back of her jacket and the pistol came back out. She looked at the baby in her carrier. Sleeping. Mentally she reached down to the little one and reinforced that sleep, making it even deeper. Then she hefted the carrier and stepped up to the next door. Pausing, she listened, smelled, and felt with her mind.
Soft, slow heartbeats and a scent like dried thyme. But no mental feeling—no busy thoughts, emotions, or presence. She glanced down at the dead guards. Still dead, no heartbeat, bodies cooling.
Maybe not infected with the Black Frost technology, but no longer fully human either. And more inside. Two more guards and… something… else.
She considered, then finally set the carrier down. She loathed leaving the little one behind. She had little ones she watched over on a daily basis. Darkkin or no, she had found that her maternal instincts were decidedly intact and maybe, as vampires have a tendency to go a bit overboard with any feeling, it might just be stronger than when she’d been human.
But babies had no place in combat, she thought, then considered the two in her world. Not sure about those two.
With a mental shrug, she checked over her gun, pulled her kukri out with her now-freed-up left hand and, without a second’s pause, slid through the doorway.
She went in low, crouched below the doorknob, then sprang up and to the right, her leap sending her to the top corner of the room, which was a good twenty feet high. She observed that this space was vast, even as a blast of force passed above her as she first entered, a second burst of energy brushing the tips of her blonde hair when she jumped from low to high. The silver gun in her hand spat silver streaks that swerved around inconvenient obstacles like desks and countertops and impacted the two silent man-shapes that fired at her. Without pause, she ran around the upper perimeter of the room, feet sticking to the top of the wall, jumping and landing behind the shooters, who were quivering and shaking yet still trying to bring weapons to bear.
The kukri lashed out twice, almost too fast to see, and two heads dropped and rolled on the ground below.
She stood up and looked around. This was the main warehouse floor. It was vast, the empty space only broken up by support columns spread at regular intervals—and a space ship.
There was no doubt that’s what it was. A silver-gray torpedo shape that rested on massive steel braces. About the length of a good-sized motor home, it appeared to be either under repair or under construction. Multiple openings in the smooth metal skin showed underlying machinery that looked more organic than metallic.
Besides the spaceship, there was one other interesting feature to the room. A massive circle on the concrete floor, almost dead center of the big space. The circle was circumscribed by a continuous arc of black rectangular blocks each about the size of a shoe box. There had to be fifty or sixty of them marking out the perimeter of the circle, and the center of the space looked slightly blackened. It had to be over fifty feet in diameter.
It wasn’t the chalk or sand circle that Stacia’s warlock would have made, but to Nika it was clear as a bell that it was nonetheless a portal.
Something pressed upon her mind. It came from the partially completed craft, and it was strong. She moved across the open space, arriving at the base of one of the aircraft’s supports in about the same amount of time it took a professional athlete’s heart to beat twice. Now she could really feel the presence above her, inside the vehicle, silent but questing with a sense somewhat like her own.
Under the belly of the craft, she could see a lowered ramp offering entrance into the windowless fuselage. She lifted a foot, eyes on the ramp, and suddenly froze solid. It wasn’t her choice. Her body locked up rigid, her muscles frozen. She was barely aware of her physical problem as her mind had come under the most intense assault she’d ever experienced. For the first time since she had Turned, she felt a mind with greater telepathic power than her own. It surrounded her, an overwhelming pressure from every direction, demanding entrance to her mind, demanding control and obedience.
Her mind was her fortress. She wasn’t the most dangerous fighter like Tanya and Chris, she didn’t have the raw magical power of Declan, but the defenses of her mind were unmatched—till now.
She could feel the walls pressing in, feel cracks forming in the diamond hard walls of her will. Shock flooded her as she realized she had met another telepath and come up second best. She was going to fail. And most likely die, as would the baby. That thought brought, unbidden, the image of two more babies to mind, two that would either grow up without their Aunt Nika or would also die at the command of this thing in the ship.
No—never. An idea formed in her mind and she leapt at it, pulling away every bit of attention she could spare from her defenses and concentrating it on her right hand. On the fingers of her right hand.
Seconds ticked by, the pressure on her mind growing. Outside the big room, she heard the baby rustle as she began to awaken. For a split second, she felt the thing in the spacecraft turn to the babe. In that micromoment, she took all her resources and shoved them at her hand. The fingers spasmed, opening. The silver pistol fell from her twitching fingers, dropping toward the concrete floor.
It never hit. The expected clang never came. Instead, multiple whirring sounds filled the air and a second later, her vision picked up a five drone swarm of micro-robots that had, moments ago, made up her gun.
Without pause, the micro-flyers buzzed under the aircraft and disappeared up into the vehicle. The pressure on her mind suddenly lessened as the sounds of a struggle ensued inside the craft. Then the awful mental assault disappeared completely and she regained control of body and mind.
Moving at her very fastest, she flashed up the ramp, entering a single open space the size of a mobile home living room. That’s all the impression she had time for, as the space was the scene of an intense struggle.
A single entity dodged, twisted, and spun, trying to evade the bolts of blue light that shot from the five flying mini-drones that were, in turn, dodging blows from a tool-like object in the hands of the alien.
It looked just like every picture or drawing she’d ever seen of a big-headed, big-eyed gray alien, except taller. Maybe all of five feet tall. It was fast, too, swinging its long-handled tool at Omega’s agile fliers. A Vorsook, in the pasty gray, naked flesh.
It turned and leapt at her, empty hand outstretched to touch. The touch of a super-telepath. Like that was gonna happen.
Her kukri flickered and the Vorsook’s hand disappeared in a spray of greenish blood. The alien looked at its stump for a silent second but then a drone flashed by, laser flickering, and the Vorsook’s left eye vanished in a puff of smoke. It squealed a hellish high-pitched sound that Nika felt in the bones of her skull. Her knife chopped down from overhead, thunking into the middle of that huge forehead, the squeal ending like a switch had been flicked.
The alien collapsed, surrounded by the swarm of deadly little drones. Nika stepped back and took a breath. In well over a hundred years as a vampire, she’d seen much violence. But this brief struggle had been the most shocking.
She reached for her phone. “Already placing the call,” the AI Omega said.
“Well,” came Lydia’s voice from the speaker not two seconds later. Then the screen cleared and her face was visible on the screen.
“Warehouse cleared. Tell Stewart to send an Oracle team. This place is totally Vorsook,” Nika said.
“Staring at a dead one right now.”
“Okay, getting drone shots on my tablet. Ugly fucker, huh?” Lydia said.
Lydia had grown up with strict New England parents. To this day, she almost never dropped an F bomb. Nika had noticed that the few times she had, the subject was usually the Vorsook.
“Couldn’t capture it live?” Lydia asked, face twisted in interested disgust.
“It almost ate my mind. Strongest mental adept I’ve ever been near. It would own any human, were, or Darkkin that got near it,” Nika said, slumping back against the spacecraft’s smooth interior wall. “Tell Stewart we’ve got a UFO for him. Looks like they brought it through a gate, piece by piece.”
“Well, haven’t you been the busy little bee. How bad is this thing?” Lydia asked.
“It almost had me, Lyd. Omega’s drones saved me.”
“Would it have taken Tanya? Or Chris? Or the kid?”
“I don’t know. All three can block me when they choose. Declan could maybe build a ward against it if he was prepared. But think how bad that would be if it got one of them and controlled them?”
“Okay, let’s get that beanpole man-boy witch to see what he can brew up. Omega’s already got hold of Stewart and the local team is on its way. You can assume control and oversee the cleanup.”
“Negative. I’ve got a baby to get back to its mother,” Nika said.
“A baby? What the hell?”
“Yeah, don’t know. It was kidnapped earlier and I followed the kidnapper. He led me to this place with all these treasures.”
“How will you find the parents?” Lydia said.
“I am monitoring a large number of frantic cell phone calls in a predominately Hispanic neighborhood east of here. The community is marshaling the friends and neighbors of a young couple who are frantically searching for their infant daughter. I am ninety-four percent certain that the infant in the car seat is the same missing child.”
“What did we ever do without you, Omega?” Lydia asked as she lifted a brow at Nika on the telephone screen.
“You mostly succeeded, but at great and costly effort,” the AI said back. “Mostly.”
Nika stayed till the Oracle crew arrived, seven big black SUVs full of serious black-clad men and women.
Oracle was running the Joint Task Force of government units that was leading the intelligence efforts against the Vorsook. Team Demidova reported (as much as they reported to anyone) through Nathan Stewart.
The Oracle team treated Nika with cautious respect, most of them watching her from the corners of their eyes as they began to efficiently process the scene. But her job here, at the factory site, was done, while her final task was yet incomplete.
“Come along, little one. You have a date with your mother,” she said, expertly buckling the car seat into the back of her rented Mustang. “Good thing I have little zaykas of my own to watch over, or I would never get this right.”
Fifteen minutes later found her cruising slowly along the streets of a neighborhood on the eastern part of the city, a neighborhood that buzzed with more activity than a school night should bring.
Omega guided her to the correct address and Nika drove smoothly by it, the porch of the little house crowded with people who studied her tinted rental with suspicious eyes.
She drove another three blocks, parked, unbuckled the carrier, and slid into the shadows.
It was harder to get close to the house than it had been to infiltrate the warehouse, the neighborhood watch being much more sensitive with one of their own missing. That’s not to say it was actually hard.
She easily found the watchers in the darkness, and just as easily tweaked their perceptions to guide their attention in other directions.
Approaching the back of the house, she knelt down and scanned the inhabitants with her mind. The baby’s mother was easy to find—a well of black despair and heart-shattering anguish, exhausted and destroyed, lying in a back bedroom.
Nika called to her, placing a little thought in the young woman’s head. Her baby—in the backyard. The mother hardly stirred, but that was to be expected, as she was completely exhausted. NIka did it again, adding another layer of certainty to the suggestion. The young woman might have had a touch of talent, as she rather suddenly came up out of her resting place, the second nudge enough to get her full attention.
Nika could feel every little bit of trepidation as the mother moved toward the back door, driven by an impulse she couldn’t name and didn’t trust, yet unwilling to ignore because any possibility might be the one. In some ways, that awful anxiety—that tiny seed of hope fighting with the logical certainty that her baby could not, would not, be magically returned—was more painful to experience as a telepath than the horror of imminent death.
Nika had experienced it all, riding the thoughts and emotions of a thousand minds over her years, but this was the most sharply real, the most heart-wrenching, twisted knife feeling she’d ever ridden.
She was a Guardian of the Coven, sister to the Young Queen, high-ranking officer of the fastest growing company on Earth, associate of God’s Own Warrior, and yet she was overcome with a sudden intense need to call New York and check on the safety of her young charges. It didn’t even help knowing that the twins were snug in a virtual fortress, guarded by heavily armed, highly motivated killers, two of the most dangerous individuals on the planet, and the most advanced AI in human history.
A young woman’s face appeared in the window of the back door. Her grief-reddened eyes blinked in the sight of the blonde vampire dressed in black and standing in her backyard. Nika raised one hand and pointed at the porch in front of the door, bringing the mother’s eyes down below her initial line of sight.
The car seat sat, tiny occupant facing the house, three feet from the door. The door burst open and the mother shot out onto the porch, collapsing to her knees to gather her baby from the carrier. Nika had removed the impulse to sleep from the young one and the little daughter woke, smelling her mother’s familiar and comforting scent.
Eyes wide and flooded with tears, the mother, whose name Nika heard was Sonia, looked up at the vampire.
“Peace, little sister,” Nika said in perfect Spanish. “The ones who took her are no more. She is safe, untouched and perfect.” Then she started to step back into the gloaming.
“Why?” Sonia asked.
“Why did they take her? I do not know. They will never take another,” Nika replied.
Sonia shook her head. “Why did you save her?”
Nika was startled by her own sudden tsunami of emotion that welled up at those words. “Why? Because we don’t harm babies. We protect babies,” she hissed, her hand moving toward the pocket where her phone sat.
Sonia pulled back at the sudden vehemence of her words, her heart rate thundering clearly in Nika’s ears. She cradled her baby girl, who she called Luisa in her own head. The blonde telepath drew a deep breath and pushed her emotions down, allowing the anger to fall off her face.
“I have seen you—on television. You are with Her… and Him,” Sonia said. “You are an Angel like them?”
That brought a smile and unbidden chuckle. “No, I am Darkkin—vampire. But yes, I call Her sister.”
Sonia stood slowly, clutching Luisa to her in both arms, shaking her head. “No. You are Angel too.”
Nika just gave her a final smile and shake of her head, then pulled back into the darkness.
She cruised back by the house on her way toward the airport, neighbors and friends now crowding four and five deep around the porch, celebrating the miracle, Sonia and Luisa surrounded by immediate family. Sonia raised her head and looked at the deeply tinted Mustang, pausing in her explanation.
Then she raised a hand, a clear salute to the driver she couldn’t see but who she somehow knew was her personal hero.
The crowd turned and looked at the powerful car, confusion and suspicion on most faces changing to awe as the young mother continued her story, pointing at the car and giving a final wave.
Maybe Sonia had more than a touch of talent, to feel so strongly about the unseen driver of a mysterious car, Nika mused.
The rental car chimed with an incoming phone call. Nika had never connected her phone to the Mustang’s systems, not that it seemed to matter with Omega around.
“Hey Nik, you headed back yet?” Lydia asked.
“What’s the matter? Need me to get the twins to sleep?”
“You’d like to think so, but I got secret weapons,” Lydia replied.
“A giant furry nursemaid and a middle school babysitter named Toni who sings a mean lullaby,” Nika replied.
“Yeah, well I’ve only got the kid on the weekends that she’s down from Vermont. But listen, you need to get your ass on that plane and get back here. Things are heating up,” Lydia said.
“There’ve been seven thwarted school mass shootings in the last three days and at least seven homicides with a decided occult pattern to them.”
“All the shootings were prevented?” Nika asked.
“Omega is monitoring all social media, weapons sales, and health records. He’s taken over the background check system and is failing purchases left and right. Then he sends the FBI. But it’s all a pattern.”
“We think so. Chris has been having visions again. Some of those visions were actual murders.”
“Great. We’ve got Vorsook building aircraft and now an upswing in demon stuff,” Nika said.
“Thanks to your work, I am now reverse engineering that Vorsook craft. Earth will benefit from their advanced designs. Also, I have asked my Father to look into shields against powerful telepathy. He will need your help to test his theories,” Omega interjected.
“Which leaves the A Team for demon work,” Nika said.
“And you know how I love it when a plan comes together,” Lydia said.
“Lydia Chapman, did you just quote a defunct television show? I’m gonna tell Declan you’re a bigger nerd than he is,” Nika said, smiling.
“Just get your ass back here, Guardian. We’ve got work to do.”
“Don’t we always.”
Copyright John Conroe