I stepped outside and went along the curving path toward the edge of the lawn, where six vampires waited. Sean followed me. The men at arms watched us. All above six feet, all with identical square bulges under their trench coats, that made them look like football players with their pads on. Syn-armor. They weren’t playing around.
No banners. Odd. Usually they had a banner.
“Armed protocol,” I murmured. “Maximum level threat.”
Behind me things slid as the house prepared for attack.
It’s been a long time since I’ve dealt with the Holy Cosmic Anocracy and back then I always had my parents to back me up. Now my back up was a possibly insane werewolf who was prone to making snap judgments and acting on them with maximum force.
The largest vampire stood in front of the others. big, with broad shoulders, a great wealth of brown and gray hair cascading down his back. A short beard traced his square jaw. Human males tended to bulk up with age. For vampires that process was even more pronounced: they grew more muscular and grizzled. The one looking at me now had to be close to sixty. And because he stood with his back to the street light, I couldn’t see him clearly.
I sent a pulse of magic into the broom. The top of the handle glowed a gentle blue. The vampire’s eyes caught the light and reflected it back, glowing pale red like the irises of a tiger. The blue light of the broom played on his syn-armor, molded to the lines of his powerful chest. I covertly looked for the glyphs glowing with dark red. His rank would roughly translate to Knight Sergeant. Bad news.
I stopped about six inches from the boundary of the inn.
Another vampire stepped forward and snapped a tube up, holding it horizontally in his hand about eye level. A dark red banner unfurled, almost touching the grass. Ah. Here was the banner.
A predator’s head with large fangs and vicious eyes was embroidered in gold on the red. It looked like a cross between a bear and a saber tooth.
“House of Krahr!” the vampire with the banner barked quietly.
“Krahr,” the other four vampire exhaled and glared at me.
Usually they roared their house name at the top of their lungs, trying to intimidate…. Oh. They were trying to be inconspicuous. I bit my lip to keep from laughing. I’ve never heard an attempt at intimidation whispered at me before.
“Gertrude Hunt greets the House of Krahr and offers her hospitality to its brave warriors,” I said. Protocol was important. It kept everyone civil and limited the disembowelment to a bare minimum.
“House of Krahr greets the innkeeper,” the older vampire said. “We wish you no ill will.”
“Would you like to come in?” I asked.
“We must regretfully decline,” the older vampire said. “I’m Lord Soren, son of Rok, son of Gartena, Baron of Nur Castle.”
“Dina Demille, daughter of Gerard and Helen. My lord, why are you wearing trench coats?”
“We must blend in,” he said. “This is a covert operation.”
Don’t laugh, don’t laugh, don’t laugh… “It’s very hot,” I said. “Trench coats are a cold-winter garment.”
Sean cleared his throat, “Half a dozen big guys in ill-fitting trench coats pouring out of black Hummers into the Texas heat? I don’t think covert means what you think it means.”
Lord Soren’s bushy eyebrows came together. “Is there a warm weather alternative?”
“Rain ponchos,” Sean said. “If it’s raining. Otherwise oversize football jerseys and helmets are your best bet.”
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like to come in?” I asked.
“No. I’ll come straight to the point: we’ve come for one of your guests.”
It’s like this then, huh. “My lord, if the House of Krahr feels entitled to threaten the safety of my guests, I’m afraid you simply haven’t brought enough.”
The vampires snapped up guns, swords, and axes. A quiet buzz announced blood blades being primed. When activated, a blood blade could chop down a wooden telephone pole. I’d seen it happen.
I plunged the broom into the lawn. Blast shutters clanged into place, guns swung into view, and magic churned around me, stirring my robe. Next to me Sean tensed, his eyes predatory, his face hard.
“Wait.” Lord Soren raised his arms. “Will you walk with me?”
“As you wish.” Walking away didn’t diminish my ability to target them.
We strolled along the boundary, he on his side, and I on mine.
“We seek the dahaka,” he said.
“It’s a private House matter. A matter of honor. We owe him a bloody debt and we always settle our accounts.”
The dahaka had killed someone. Someone important. “Is this a mission of revenge?”
“It is a private matter,” Lord Soren repeated. “He is a monstrous creature. Produce him and this is over.”
“I can’t do that.” Come on, tell me why you want him.
“I do not wish to resort to violence.”
“Lord Soren, you come from a predatory species that brings down its victim by biting through its neck. At any given times there are at least five ongoing military conflicts between the Houses of the Holy Anocracy. You come to me wearing syn-armor and I’ve heard you prime your axe. I would argue that you do not have to consciously resort to violence. It’s your default response.”
Lord Soren stopped and stared at me. “I have five men-at-arms. All seasoned veterans.”
“I have my broom and the alpha strain werewolf.”
Lord Soren glanced at Sean, who blocked the five vampires with his arms on his chest. “Really?”
Sean made a bigger impression than my broom. Obviously they knew more about alpha strain werewolves than I did.
“If we start something, it will be loud and bloody. We wish to avoid detection, but this isn’t our planet. We will crush you and leave.”
“You will try.”
“Even if you succeed, you will be left to deal with consequences.” He was right. It would be very messy.
“Earth is a neutral ground,” I told him. “If you attack me without provocation, the Innkeepers will revoke your House’s access our services. I’m sure that House Krahr is a powerful House that has enemies who would take full advantage of your travel delays.”
He loomed over me. Didn’t like that, did he?
“Nobody has to know that you surrendered the dahaka.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Are you suggesting I compromise my honor?”
Lord Soren paused. I’d backed him into a corner. Honor wasn’t a concept a vampire was comfortable compromising. Especially a knight.
“If you were to revoke his welcome, he would no longer be your guest.”
“We do not surrender our guests to the first armed person who comes to the door.”
Lord Soren chewed on that for a long minute. “Then we shall set up camp and watch the inn until he leaves.”
He wouldn’t give me any information. Time to end this. “That would be quite useless, my lord, because he isn’t a guest.”
“Do not toy with me. We are locked onto his trackers’ signal.”
I pulled the two trackers out of my pocket.
“Explain,” Lord Soren growled.
“Don’t give orders to her,” Sean called.
Werewolf hearing. Much more sensitive than anticipated.
“Explain please.” Lord Soren said.
“He’s killing Earth’s citizens, livestock, and hounds. He killed my neighbors’ dogs, so I killed his stalkers in retaliation.”
Lord Soren pondered the situation. “You activated the trackers. Why?”
“To draw him near.”
“That isn’t your way. You are neutral.”
“Lord Soren, I run a specialized type of inn, catering to a very specific clientele. I don’t handle things the way other innkeepers do. You and your men are welcome to join us and wait until he shows up.”
Lord Soren looked at his men, looked at Sean, and back at me. “No. As I said, the House’s honor is involved. We will handle it alone.”
Anything I would say would be perceived as impugning his honor, and his House’s honor, and his men’s honor, and the honor of their parents… “That’s your prerogative, my lord.”
Lord Soren studied the trackers in my hand. “House of Krahr desires to purchase the trackers from you.”
“I would be willing to part with one.”
“It will do,” he said. “Name your price?”
I held my hand over the boundary and dropped one tracker into his palm. “A gesture of good faith, my lord. Perhaps next time we meet, we will not open our discussion with threats. I ask only that you do not involve my neighbors in your battle.”
He blinked and bowed. “It will be so.” Lord Soren raised his hand with a tracker in it and bared his teeth. Inch-long fangs glistened in the street lamp’s light.. The vampire weapons vanished as if by magic and they grinned at him, their sickle teeth on display.
He turned to Sean. “This is our hunt. Stay out of it.”
“Knock yourselves out,” Sean said.
I walked over to him and we watched them pile into their Hummers and speed north, up the street.
“Thank you for watching my back,” I said.
“No problem. Vampires, huh?”
“I heard a heart beat and I saw one of them sweat. They’re not undead.”
“No, they’re a predatory strain of humans. We are situational predators and omnivores. They’re carnivores.”
“How do they get mistaken for corpses?”
“They have thick skin. They don’t blush, their core body temperature is lower than ours, and you saw how their lips are pale. They also tend to put themselves into stasis in coffin-like modules when they know they’re stuck on our planet and they have to wait for a long time to be picked up. Sometimes they bury these modules, because they don’t want to be accidentally found.”
We started back toward the house.
“That’s a long way from a walking corpse,” Sean said.
“Myths tend to spiral out of control. Do you howl at the full moon and steal maidens to devour?”
“Depends on the maiden,” he said.
Was he flirting with me? Devouring didn’t really go with flirting, but his tone of voice did. Was this how werewolves flirted? Hey, baby, if I had to kill any girl and eat her flesh, it would be you…
“They look human.” Sean shook his head.
“They are. There have been vampire/human hybrids.”
He turned and looked at me.
“There are werewolf/human hybrids.” I shrugged. “The basic set of genes is the same…”
A howl of pain cut through the night. It came from the north.
Sean spun toward the sound. He blurred and suddenly a monster rose in his place. Tall, muscular, with enormous shoulders, he was covered with dense, dark grey fur. His big squarish head, more wolf than human and equipped with colossal jaws, rested on a thick muscular neck. His hands, armed with two inch long claws, could enclose my head. He was huge. The werewolves from my memories would be like kids next to him.
Fear gripped me, born from pure instinct. My knees shook.
He snarled, his eyes bright amber. A deep voice came forth. “Stay here.”
He dashed across the lawn, impossibly fast, clearing the hedge in a single leap.