Cover 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

 

A TAINT IN THE BLOOD

by S.M. Stirling   <joatsimeon@aol.com>


 

CHAPTER TEN:

 

“Where—Adrian!

Ellen was in a hospital room; greenish-beige walls, linoleum floor, ceiling-tracks for curtains. The air smelled of disinfectant and pain and lousy food. The smell that had been ground into her soul during her father’s long dying as the accompaniment to guilt and anger and relief. Adrian was lying in a cheap hospital gown, the sort that fastened down the back with ties. It looked shockingly incongruous on his beautifully-balanced, lean-muscled body, which she’d only seen either elegantly dressed or naked.

There were bandages on his arm and another large dressing on his thigh, which was held up in a rest. A tangle of tubes dripped plasma and saline into his veins.

“Adrian!” she said again.

His eyes turned towards her and blinked. “Oh... sorry... Ellie,” he said in a slow blurred voice. “Let... me... do something about... this.”

The world seemed to flux somehow. Before she could decide what was happening they were both standing on a beach. It was wide white sand, with a wind whipping up little gusts around their ankles and waves coming in from the east knee-high, hissing almost to their feet. A brown pelican flapped by over the water, intent on its own concerns, and gulls eyed bits of flotsam.

Adrian was in chinos and a loose shirt of beige natural cotton, barefoot, tanned darker than she remembered him last. Ellen looked down at herself; so was she, and she was in a bikini and straw hat. The air was warm and moist, blowing from the ocean and into the low scrub and occasional palm-tree inland with an intense salt cleanliness.

“This is that place we went on the coast in South Texas,” she said slowly. “Last spring. Just after we got together.”

He shrugged. “I can change it if you like. It was a happy time, for me.”

His accent was a little stronger. She’d never inquired about it before; he didn’t like to talk about his past.

“For me too. You grew up in France, didn’t you?” she said now.

“Partly, some time every year as a child, and my foster-parents were French. California, for the rest, until they... died. Then all over the world. Texas, more than any single place.”

A hand went over his tousled black hair. “Where are you now? That is important.”

“I’m... asleep in my... in a place Adrienne put me. I’m alone in the bed, too.”

“Good.” He relaxed a little. “We may have enough time, then. This link is stronger than I thought.”

She blinked. “I remember now! I remember the last time you brought me to a place like this! I didn’t forget, but I didn’t think of it until now!”

Adrian nodded. “And I really am in a hospital bed,” he said. “In San Francisco. Two men with knives tried to kill me. Shadowspawn... perhaps indirectly set on me by my sister.”

“What happened?” she asked, anxiously.

He looked healthy, body glowing like a fine slender racehorse, every muscle moving distinctly under the olive skin. But that meant nothing here, wherever.

“They died. I lived, due to a friend named Harvey Ledbetter who arrived most opportunely. I was badly wounded, I am afraid, but I will recover. I’m very sorry.”

“Sorry?”

“It will delay me.”

Ellen smiled at him, and got a shy answering expression. “Thanks, Adrian.”

“It’s nothing. Let’s walk up the beach, and you tell me what has happened with you.”

She did; he winced now and then. “You’re with some sort of... Resistance movement, aren’t you? The doctor called you terrorists.”

Adrian smiled crookedly. “Not entirely without justification, from a renfield’s point of view. The Brotherhood is not squeamish about collateral damage, particularly to servants of the Council of Shadows.”

“Then it’s all true, what she told me?”

“True enough, if you allow for viewpoint.”

She stopped and looked searchingly into his eyes. “You... aren’t like the other Shadowspawn?”

“I was raised to think of myself as human. It isn’t easy. That is why I have been so much alone. And... your type of human... aren’t instinct machines, and neither are we Shadowspawn. Some humans are good and some less so, according to the choices they make. I shouldn’t be able to blame everything on my genes either. Shadowspawn do blame their genes, but that’s an excuse. The fact of the matter is they were raised to evil, and they embrace it.”

She put a hand on his shoulder, and he covered it with his. “You should curse my name,” he said.

“Adrian, you just fought two men with knives for me and got cut up. You could have been an all-powerful monster. Judging from the way Adrienne acts, it’s fun. You decided to be a human being. An asshole sometimes, but who isn’t? I’m just getting my mind wrapped around this stuff but that part is pretty clear.”

They laughed. “And now you know where I am. I’m—”

She paused, frowning. Her mind felt perfectly clear; clearer than it had been for days, unhazed by fear and tension. But she couldn’t say where she was.

“I don’t think I know, exactly,” she said slowly. “Somewhere in central California...”

“You know,” Adrian said grimly. “You’ve been blocked from saying it. It’s a Wreaking on your memory and volition. Small, subtle, but it would be dangerous to break it—with me weakened, certainly. You’d only notice it if you tried to tell someone who didn’t know.”

“But that should be a clue!” she said hopefully.

They walked again, holding hands this time. The cool salt water ran over their bare feet, and the wet sand made for good footing. Curlews bobbed and probed in the shallows with their absurdly thin curved beaks, crying wheet-wheet-wheet.

“Not as much of a clue as I’d like,” Adrian said. “Ellie, it’s easy to fox records with the Power. The Brotherhood are looking in their records, and those are far more complete.”

“You’ve been fighting with the, the Brotherhood?” she asked, squeezing his hand. “Against the Shadowspawn?”

Now he looked out to sea. “I did. For twenty-five years—”

“Thanks for telling me your real age!”

“I couldn’t—”

“I’m teasing, dummy!”

“Oh. Thank you for that. I... retired a few years ago.”

“Why?”

“Because it was futile. I was the strongest Wreaker the Brotherhood ever had, but there was only one of me. The others were far weaker; and the Council has all the resources of the earth at its call, the governments and the police and the armies and the security forces. All I could do was kill; some who deserved it, many who did not. It didn’t change anything.”

“Wait a minute,” she said. “To use this Power for big stuff, don’t you need—”

“Blood. From the Red Cross, and handsomely paid for.”

“Oh,” she said with relief.

He grimaced. “God, it tastes terrible. And the things it does to my digestion, and the headaches... I can’t even completely cure those with the Power, because that would need more of it. That was another reason to retire. On my mountain, or here, I could... grapple with the cravings, the drives. Learn a degree of peace.”

“Your sister... seems to enjoy the taste.”

“She’s drinking live hot blood, and primed with strong emotions. It’s... a powerful drug. Dead blood is an entirely different story.”

She squeezed his hand again. “I hope you can get me out soon,” she said. “Jesus, it’s... creepy here. The people all act as if it was normal. Even the ones she hurts.”

“To them it is,” Adrian said. “People adapt. If they could not, humanity would not have survived the first rule of the Shadowspawn. But Ellie...”

“Yes?”

“This isn’t just a personal thing between me and Adrienne, as I thought at first.”

“It’s certainly partly a personal thing! There’s all sorts of overtones in her voice when she mentions you. And she thinks about you a lot. Even her children look like you!”

Adrian froze, so suddenly that his hand tugged her to a halt; he was a slender man, not large and so graceful you forgot the solid density of him.

“She has children?” he said neutrally.

“Twins, a boy and a girl, around six or seven. Oh, God, talk about creepy! You didn’t know?”
“No, I did not,” he said in a voice empty of all emotion, so much so that it was as notable as a shriek. “I had no idea.”

Then he shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. But there is some great matter at stake here as well, somehow tied up with me and Adrienne. The Council of Shadow is moving, contemplating... enormous actions. There are factions and factions within factions; that is natural to Shadowspawn, even more than to humans. Please, listen to all that you can. Adrienne likes to talk, when she thinks it safe.”

Ellen nodded. “Does she ever!”

He stopped and took both her hands in his. “And... I hate to say this, Ellie, but until you’re rescued, that advice from the renfield doctor is good. Stay alive! Whatever it takes.”

“I’ll do my best. And you get better and get to work, hombre!”

She leaned forward and kissed him gently. Adrian’s arms went around her, and she stiffened. He let them drop and step back.

“Sorry—“ she began.

A shake of the head. “It’s natural. You’re sensing... what I am. Sleep well, Ellie, and hope.”

He reached out and touched thumb to one side of her forehead and little finger to the other.

“Sleep well, and don’t think of this unless you must.”

A word, and sleep returned. She woke for a moment, grasping at the fleeting stuff of dream, turned over and hugged Mr. Wabbit against her and drifted down into the velvety blackness once more.

 

@@@

 

“Woof!” Peter said. “You do run a lot, right?”

“Told you,” Ellen said smugly.

“God, you long-legged people—it isn’t fair!”

They came down the bike path at a loping trot, then slowed to a walk.

“So it does solve one problem,” Peter said; she’d grown used to the way he skipped mentally among topics.

“What, another one?”

She liked Peter, but his mania for explaining and systematizing could probably wear, after a while.

He nodded vigorously and drank the last of the water in his bottle. “All those old legends, and the books and movies... none of them could explain why, if there were creatures with such power around, they didn’t rule the world.”

“The answer being, as soon as they’re around, they do rule the world. They just don’t like publicity.”

“Exactly. It’s horrifying, but it’s... intellectually satisfying as well. And the dislike of publicity is probably a holdover from the secret societies they started out with—the occultists and ninjas and whatnot.”

“Boy, your hobby rides you hard, doesn’t it? And there’s one good thing about it all.”

“What? That’s a first.”

“We don’t have to blame ourselves for the way the world’s screwed up. It’s them, goofing on us.”

Ellen mopped at her face with the towel hung around her neck as he laughed, breathing deeply but not panting; after a solid day’s rest and two good night’s sleep her body was starting to feel right again.

The world feels wrong but my body is back in tune.

The third run had been best of all so far, and the weather was cooperating—it had rained in the night but the morning was cool sixties, with scattered clouds over the hills to the west. Sweat mixed with the smells of crushed grass and wet dust.

“See you later,” Peter said, as they came out onto Lucy Lane. “I’ve got some remote time on the Stanford machine. I’m working on—”

“—something I wouldn’t understand if you told me twice. Tear ‘em up, tiger,” she said. “Let us know when you’ve solved the mysteries of the universe.”

Or invented a zap gun to kill Shadowspawn. Only they’d read your mind and know about it beforehand. God, that’s depressing!

They walked past Number One, and Monica waved to them from the doorway. Peter went by with a nod and a wave back, but Ellen stopped. Evidently the Sangre schools had a uniform policy, white shirt and blue shorts for boys, shirt and pleated navy skirt for girls, and Monica was seeing her two off. They hurried by with a polite murmur of Hi, Ms. Tarnowski.

Which makes me feel ancient beyond words, she thought, as she returned the greeting.

And... I wonder what they know? What do they think about the times Mom has... company, and they have to stay with Grandma? The boy’s eleven and the girl’s nine; you do think about things at that age. What does Monica’s mother think, that it’s some sort of deeply weird kept-woman arrangement? Could you live here eight years without a clue about what’s really going on?

Monica looked after them fondly as they ran swinging their book satchels and lunch boxes and folded NoteBooks, the morning sun bright on their light-brown hair.

“How are you?” Ellen asked.

“Oh, I’m fine,” she said. “Thanks, though.”

“I, ummm—”

Monica laughed. “Oh, you heard me screaming the other night, did you?”

“Sorry. I was walking by that evening. And you were, uh, sort of laid up yesterday. I wondered what happened, especially...”

“Since it’ll be happening to you too.” A smile and a shrug. “Nothing too bad. I mean, the screams were real but when... I just let it rip, let the hurt flow right up the throat, you know? It helps and she likes it.”

“What happened, exactly?”

“She came in and said Tabasco sauce in the Bloody Mary tonight, Monica, and right away I knew I was in for a wild time. Then she just flipped me over on the sofa, yanked off my underwear and—”

She held up a hand with the extended fingers together, moved it sharply upward, clenched them into a fist and pumped it up and down. Then she giggled again, rolled her eyes and blew air over her upper lip.

“Let’s just say I’m glad she doesn’t have bigger hands! You know what I mean.”

“Ah... yeeeeah,” Ellen said with a wince. “Fisting.”

“That’s what she told me it’s called; I’d never even heard of it before I came here. I don’t really like it all that much even when it’s, you know, not so abrupt.”

I found that out in my own apartment and I’m not inclined to giggle about it. God, I hope your variety of crazy isn’t catching!

“I think that’s harder on the guys,” Monica said thoughtfully. “But you know how guys are. They’re sort of shy, really. They don’t like to talk about things.”

Ellen thought, in what was almost a prayer:

God, Adrian, you’re coming to get me, aren’t you? I swear, I’ll never keep a cat again. The mice and birds would haunt me.

And, as prayer sometimes was, it felt... very slightly reassuring.

Monica went on: “But then she fed, it’s very soothing when she feeds, and then she was, umm, really nice to me.”

She absently touched the band-aid at the base of her throat.

“You play tennis, don’t you?” Monica went on.

“Yes?” Ellen said, blinking at the non sequitur.

“There’s a ladies club that meets at the community center courts; I go after I finish up at the library most days. Care to play a few games this afternoon? I’m not very sore any more and the Doña can reach us there if she wants you for something. She’s reasonable about that. You only have to clear it with her if you’re out of town for more than a few hours. Besides, she was with Jamal last night.”

“Ah... why not?” Ellen said.

I do like playing tennis. Why not indeed? They’re probably not good enough to give me much of a game but you never know.

Just then an ambulance came up the street and stopped in front of Number Three. Two paramedics trotted inside pulling a gurney. Both women froze, then exhaled again as they came out with a living man on it.

Adrienne followed; she was dressed in black motorcycle leathers and boots, and made a beckoning gesture, leaning back against a massive low-slung machine with wide tires, arms crossed on her chest.

Like something alien, Ellen thought; it took a slight mental effort to make herself walk to the driveway. Like something alien and sleek and deadly. All of which are truer than God. Much truer.

“He’s just dazed, I think,” the mistress of Rancho Sangre said absently when they came up, looking after the emergency vehicle. “Possibly a mild concussion. Jamal is...” her voice dropped to a purr “...very strong. And very, very grumpy at breakfast sometimes. Of course, I’m not usually a morning person myself.”

“Well, he should know better than to fight you, Doña Adrienne,” Monica said disapprovingly. “Really, some people are just plain rude.”

Then she cleared her throat and touched the corner of her mouth for an instant.

“Ah, thanks,” Adrienne said, and used a thumb to wipe up the red trickle that ran down to her chin.

She licked it off, scrubbed her face with her sleeve and went on:

“No, it’s actually entertaining, at least for a while. Now, I’m going up to San Francisco. You’re not up to it, are you, Monica?”

“Ah... on the motorcycle?”

Adrienne nodded. Monica smiled and patted the air behind herself for an instant.

“It would hurt a lot,” she said, almost clinically. “Riding that long, I mean.”

“You wouldn’t be very mobile when we got to town, either, which would be tiresome. We wouldn’t want to shock Jean-Charles. Ellen, sluice off, pack yourself some underwear and socks and an extra t-shirt, and your toothbrush. We can do some shopping while I’m there. Vite!”

She jumped at the snap and hurried, flushing with annoyance at herself.

Fear burns itself out, she thought. I can’t be afraid of her every moment of the day. Not that I don’t want to, I just can’t, the way I couldn’t run for twenty-four hours a day either. But I can be nervous a lot longer, the way you can walk further than you can run. I do wonder why we’re making this trip. Surely she’d want to stay here behind... oh, defenses or something? If I’m bait for Adrian.

When she returned Adrienne was astride the big red-black-and-yellow touring bike; it had a V-shaped logo on the front with the trident-and-black-sun inside it.

I don’t like motorcycles. They’re insanely risky.

“What can I say, I’m lucky,” Adrienne said, and grinned beneath the raised visor of the full-face helmet. “There’s a spare padded jacket in the touring bag—that streamlined trunk thing behind the rear seat. You’d be chilly without that, even with me to break the airflow. And a spare helmet. Put ‘em on, spread your thighs over the bitch seat of this vibrator on wheels, and let’s go!”

Just then Monica hurried up. “Some lunch!” she said, and tucked a plastic-wrapped parcel into one of the fared saddlebags beside the rear wheel. “In case you want to stop at someplace pretty and picnic!”

“Monica, you are a wonder,” Adrienne said and stood on the kick-starter. “En avant.

The big V-twin engine roared into life, but then the sound faded to an oddly muted drone. The inside of the helmet seemed to adjust itself slightly, pressing more tightly against her ears.

“Automatic selective sound-damping,” Adrienne said, tapping her ear; the voice came through faultlessly from the mike in the helmet’s chin-bar. “Customized experimental military system, filters things like engine noise. I just love modern technology!”

Ellen mounted; the touring machine had actual if sketchy seats, enough to cradle the butt and hips at least, and her back was against a padded rest. The Shadowspawn’s torso pressed her, and she could just see over her helmet.

“Arms around my waist,” Adrienne said. “It’s the closest you’ll get to a seatbelt.”

She obeyed hesitantly, feeling the other’s back pushing against her breasts and belly through the down jacket’s fabric, and the taut muscle beneath the leather as she gripped.

“It’s a bit late to be shy, chérie,” Adrienne observed. “Hang on!”

“Eeek!”

She did, gripping convulsively as the big machine seemed to hang on its spinning, smoking rear wheel for an instant, then came down and caromed out of the little lane like a wet melon seed squeezed between two fingers.

“Whooooop! Whooooop!” Adrienne caroled.

The cycle leaned far over as they cut right, dodging a delivery truck. Speed built to a blur, and the wind tugged at her head. She hugged desperately, hands joining below the other’s ribs as they headed south. After a few moments that was for sheer warmth as well as safety. The air caught at her jacket and made it flutter sharply, like an awning in a high breeze, a continuous crackling sound; the vibration sank into her bones, with the deeper note of the machine beneath.

“We’re on Highway 46 here,” Adrienne said as they turned west. “Pretty country, but it’s even nicer when we hit the coast.”

All of California Ellen had seen before had been the Bay area and LA. This was pretty, in a way different from both the forested East and the austere piñion-and-juniper high desert around Santa Fe.

Here rolling green hills rose out of the occasional patch of flat land, like a rumpled padded quilt on an unmade bed. Tongues of oakwood and trees she couldn’t identify rose up the notches in the high ground, with sheep grazing in ridge-top meadows. Vineyards pruned and stumpy for winter made geometry across the lower slopes with the first yellow traces of wild mustard beneath, and blazing orchards of cherry and almond were slashes of color against the green. The smells were fresh and moist and the air grew a little warmer as the sun rose; now and then there was an overwhelming sweetness of blossom or a pungent waft from livestock.

Adrienne drove the near-empty road and through the little hamlets with a hard decisive snap that was somehow never jerky, overtaking whatever came her way with a surge that pressed her back against the passenger and Ellen back against the rest. Uneasily, she remembered that Adrian handled the sports-cars he loved in very much the same fearless way, as if he was pushing his own nerve and muscle down the controls into the machine.

She peered over the other’s shoulder at the all-glass screen controls; they were doing ten miles above the speed limit, on this winding roadway.

“Customized engine,” Adrienne said after a while. “Four-stroke 50 V-Twin with 1731 cc displacement. Single overhead camshafts with four valves per cylinder, self-adjusting cam chains, hydraulic lifters. But they jiggered the compression ratio for me and the frame’s special alloy, lighter than the standard. I think I’ll give Jose one for his birthday; he loves it.”

I don’t speak Mechanic, Ellen thought.

Then her mind stuttered slightly. It was impossible to censor the way you talked to yourself!

“You sound like some of my elders,” Adrienne laughed; there was a hard edge to it, but Ellen didn’t think it was directed at her. “A lot of them don’t like machinery either. At least machinery that doesn’t involve shoveling coal into a boiler.”

“The ones who make the middle-management demonic career path hell?” she asked.

“But yes!”

She took one hand off the handlebars to gesture for an instant, and Ellen felt the muscles in her thighs and stomach clench in sudden terror. Was that a wobble in the front wheel?

“Also, their attitudes. Few people change much past their twenties. In this my breed and yours are not so different. Perhaps in the Old Stone Age this was of no consequence; one millennium was much like another. But now matters are different, and that, my sweet, is a matter which concerns you.”

“Why? You’d all want to... drink my blood, wouldn’t you? Torture me and mess with me?”

“Yes. But they rule the world, remember? And not just at dinnertime.”

“Oh.”

Ellen winced. That explains a number of things.

“Imagine again; the ruling elders grew up in the time of the First World War, more-or-less—a little older than my parents. That was when Shadowspawn powerful enough to survive death became more than a very few. Their parents were Victorians, born before Bismarck’s men shelled Paris.”

Ellen gave a sly chuckle. “Sexist assholes?”

“Oh, you have no idea. Exactly two women on the Council, in this day and age!”

“How many on the Council altogether?”

“Thirteen, naturally! Though that is not the worst of it. They have nineteenth-century habits of thought. They do not think of interlinkages and unintended consequences and feedback cycles. This matter of you humans overbreeding and ruining the world, for example.”

“You’re environmentalists?” she said incredulously.

“If you plan to live... well, exist... for ten thousand years or more, you really do not have much choice, my sweet. But les vieux, they also just hate the modern world, many of them. It is not the place in which they grew. They do not understand it; they feel alien in this century, alien to the buildings and the clothes and the music, the very fabric of life. They want the changes to stop. Hence their solution to the problem is... far too drastic.”

“Drastic?”

“They plan to destroy human civilization. Let only a few hundred million survive, as peasants.”

Eeerk! Ellen thought; for a moment she forgot the rushing passage of the roadway.

That’s insane, it’s got to be insane even by... vampire-monster-sadist-werewolf-Saruman-on-steroids standards!

“Precisely. Quelle connerie! I like the modern world. Well, much of it. Yes, yes, there are too many humans; they must be trimmed back, faster than our pressure on governments to promote birth control can accomplish—”

“That was you?”

“Of course. Do you think the Chinese would have given up hope of sons on their own? And our sabotage of the economy—”

“That was you guys too?”

Chérie, you thought it was by accident that all over the world so many intelligent people made the same mistakes at the same time? Yes, these measures are inadequate. We must intervene more directly. But I do not want only a few peasants to survive. Peasants are boring!”

Her voice rose. “I like fast cars, and motorcycles, and my jet! I like towns where the streets are not rivers of shit! I like movies and the Web and digital music libraries and Blackberries and video-on-demand! I like a good selection of lucies, ones who do not have lice and who can carry on an intelligent conversation and have interesting, sensitive minds to torment and degrade! I adore the Louvre, and the Getty, and the Hermitage and the Rijksmuseum and good restaurants and fashion shows in Paris or Milan and Chateau Lafitte Rothschild and the London theatre!”

The voice rose again. “Idiots! Izidingidwane! Baka tare! Fossilized imbeciles! Cretains! Èrbǎiwǔ!”

By then they were moving north on Highway 1, the narrow two-lane coastal strip. The torrent of multilingual insults melded into a sheer howl of rage, not deafening only because the headphones damped it. Acceleration rammed the Shadowspawn’s dense compact torso back into her, and the engine was loud even through the helmet as the wheel screamed against the earth. Everything blurred around them as the cycle surged forward.

“No!” Ellen screamed herself. “You’ll kill us both, nonononono!

They took the curve lying over so far that her left knee nearly brushed the pavement. A minivan loomed up in front of them, and the motorcycle skimmed between it and the rocky cliff-face of the roadway, close enough that she could have reached out and touched either one, if her arms hadn’t been locked around the other’s waist. A swerve outward and another leaning turn, with asphalt rushing by so close to the right that she could see every crack from deferred maintenance. She couldn’t even close her eyes or look away as death loomed up in the form of a rust-eaten Honda Civic with three horrified faces staring through the glass.

A screech, a skid, a rooster-tail of sparks and they were off the road and off the earth. Thud and they landed again, the gas suspension on the rear wheel clanging as the piston met the stops, then corkscrewing down a rough slope of grass and sand towards the beach and the ocean. Adrienne standing, crouched to throw her weight from side to side to keep the massive touring bike from overturning. Swerving in a sideways break that threw white plumes twice head-height from both wheels as they scrubbed off velocity.

It came to a halt, and silence crashed in as Adrienne killed the engine, kicked down the stand and leapt to the ground. She danced around the cycle screeching exultantly, tearing off her helmet to let her black mane fly in the wind off the blue, blue Pacific, punching her fists in the air.

Whooop! Whooop! I am supreme! Now that is the way to burn off tensions!”

Ellen half fell, half crawled, half dragged herself off, swaying as her knees threatened to buckle, dropping the helmet at her feet as she gasped in cool salt air. It felt icy on the sweat that drenched her face.

“I nearly peed myself! I nearly peed myself!”

She clutched at her stomach, fighting nausea for a long moment, staggering a few steps away and back.

“Oh, God! Oh, God!”

Adrienne was laughing, eyes blazing and spots of red in her cheeks. Ellen braced her hands on the seat of the motorcycle, straining to control her breathing.

“You could have killed us ten times over!” she said, voice trembling.

“Only five, if you count the ones where I had to use the Power to shift probabilities. The rest? Matchless skill and reflexes like a leopard, ma douce. Oh, if only you could see your face! And your mind, it’s like an eye that has stared into the sun!”

“Stop laughing at me!”

Adrienne did. The smile died away, and the gold-flecked brown eyes locked with hers. She sank down with her back against a rock that jutted up through the sand of the beach and patted her lap.

“Come and lie across my knees like this,” she said, her voice husky with a growling undertone. “That was an effort. Now I’m a little hungry again.”

Run, Ellen’s mind whispered suddenly.

The fear of crashing into rock and metal and feeling her bones crackle like overstressed bamboo suddenly gave way to something older and more primal. A hundred thousand years of instinct spoke:

Run. Hunter, predator, walking death, it smells your blood, runrunrunRUN!

The Shadowspawn laughed. “I’m twice as fast as you and half again as strong,” she said, in that deadly velvet tone. “I’d chase you down in ten yards. Or I could just use the Power and make your pants fall and trip you. That would be fun, but not for you, and you wouldn’t like the mood I’d be in then. Come here, lucy.”

Ellen felt a whimper building up in her throat, and suppressed it. A remembered sentence ran through her mind:

Make the experience of feeding on you as satisfying for our lady demon as possible, because your life does depend on it.

“Excellent advice.”

She forced herself to walk towards the waiting smile and moistened lips and the fixed eyes, each step as slow and heavy as running in a dream. She sank down on the sand. Breath and heartbeat fluttered.

“To my right, facing me, chérie. Now lean across. Lay your head on my left shoulder, arm around my waist, the other around my neck.”

She did, and knees came up to support her back. The collar pressed against her face with a buttery-soft smell of fine leather and a slight acrid one of sweat and the scent of verbena hair-wash. A hand stroked her nape, her throat, and then cupped her jaw, holding it firmly so that her neck arched. The other hand rested on her hip. Lips touched the hollow below the angle of her jaw, soft and wet, and the tongue. A breathy whisper:

“This won’t hurt at all.”

A hardness, teeth pressing against taut skin. The feeding bite is verra precise. Terror built to a peak; she could feel herself quivering as tears threatened to break free.

“Just imagine I’m Adrian...”

A sting, sharp and slight.

A torrent of emotions fell through her mind, but her consciousness refused to analyze them, and they died away. Suction against the cut, steady and insistent. Coolness spread out from the incision, as if all the fear and tension were leaving her body with the blood. She relaxed with a slight tremulous sigh and felt her mind slow, spinning downward into a bright wash of no-thought. Her eyes fluttered half-shut, filtering the bright sunlight off the white sand and the glitter of water into a blur; there was no drowsiness, only a complete disinterest in moving from where she was.

The gentle liquid sounds of the feeding were distinct; and a soft purring growl, more felt than heard where Adrienne’s throat pressed against hers, working with the swallows. The shsshshshssh of waves and gull-cries ran beneath it. At last the mouth lifted from her neck. There was another slight sting as the air struck the wound; Adrienne put a finger against it and the sting faded to a very faint itch for an instant and then was gone.

The Shadowspawn’s head tilted back. Ellen could see her turn her face upward with eyes closed for an instant, lips parted. They were red with the blood, and beads of it trickled from the corners of her mouth. The tongue came out slowly to lick them up.

“You know,” Ellen said in an abstracted murmur into the other’s shoulder, “I can tell I’m going to be frightened and grossed out in a little while, but right now I’m not. You look so happy.”

“Oh, I am.”

“Good. It makes me feel sort of nice,” she sighed. “I can see how this gets addictive. A floating drifting feeling, like the afterglow. How did I taste?”

Adrienne smiled and kissed her lingeringly; there was a faint flavor of salt and metal to her mouth.

“It’s a pity you can’t appreciate it. Two distinct layers of fear, and anger, dread, longing, resignation, courage... like a very, very good beef Bourguignon garnished with sautéed pearl onions and mushrooms. The sort cooked with a really fine Burgundy and a bouquet garni from a farm stall. Fresh egg noodles with it, and the sort of pain Poilâne bread you get in the morning at that place on the rue de Cherche-Midi, with farm butter. Paired with a reasonable Saint-Emilion; even a Chateau Ausone, perhaps.”

“I’m... glad I’m a gourmet meal, at least,” Ellen said.

“Honest cuisine bourgeois, but very good of its kind.”

She felt as if she were flying in a dream, one of the slow ones, down towards normalcy. It was in sight below, but not there yet. There was no hurry. Right now, normalcy had serious drawbacks. They rested quietly for a few minutes, listening to the gulls and the surf. Then Adrienne chuckled, rose, and pulled her up by her hand, dusting sand off them both.

“It’s a lot more pleasant for you when you relax into the bite, isn’t it?”

“Yeah. I can move now but I feel... like I’m laundry just through the wash. All light. Don’t you get a charge out of stalking and pouncing, though?”

Adrienne nodded. “This isn’t quite as... hot... for me, but it’s more nuanced, too. Are you hungry?”

“I could eat. Yeah, now that you mention it I am hungry. I only had some milk and fruit before I went for the run.”

“Let’s see what Monica packed in the way of solid food. Ah, excellent! Two baguettes, butter, tapenade, thin-sliced ham, some appenzeller style cheese, olives, dried figs, all Casa Sangre organic home-made, and two beers.”

She stood looking out over the Pacific. “Pity I have an appointment in San Francisco. It’s a pretty spot to linger.”

 

@@@

Cover 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Copyright © 2009-2010 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


These sample chapters have been converted to HTML by Bo Johansson

Home! Index Book page smstirling.com