Devona wasn’t too thrilled with what I had in mind. Truth to tell, neither was I. But we needed to talk to Varma, and in order to do that, we had to find him. And the most likely place to look was Lord Galm’s party.
“You said yourself that Galm won’t be there, that he’ll be meditating to prepare himself for the Renewal Ceremony. And I can stay out in the corridor while you hunt for Varma in the ballroom. Then the three of us can go somewhere private and we’ll see what your cousin has to say for himself.”
She agreed, but she didn’t look happy about it.
We went back downstairs, and I took up a position in the corridor about fifty feet from the ballroom entrance.
“Good luck, Devona. Oh, and you, uh, might want to zip yourself up.”
She looked down at her jacket, which was still open halfway to her waist. She smiled. “I suppose I should if I don’t want to attract any more attention than necessary.” She pulled the zipper tab upward, and then headed for the ballroom. Considering how tight her leather outfit was, I thought she would attract attention no matter what she did.
I crossed my arms and leaned against the wall and waited. I’d waited quite a bit during my two decades as a cop, and I was real good at it – and being dead made it even easier. I listened to the sounds of celebration wafting from the ballroom, stared at the opposite wall, and let one part of my mind wander, while another kept watch for Devona’s return.
I don’t know how much time passed, but eventually I became aware of someone approaching. I turned, expecting to see Devona, hopefully with Varma in tow, but instead a middle-aged woman in an elaborate pre-French Revolution gown and a towering white wig staggered down the corridor toward me. Her skin was ivory white, and I doubted it was because she powdered it. She wore a fake beauty mark in the shape of a tiny bat on her left cheek. Cute.
“Pardon, Monsieur, could you direct me to the – ” That was as far as she got before doubling over and vomiting a gout of red-black liquid all over the corridor floor.
I was sympathetic vomiter when alive; all I had to do was hear someone retch and my own gorge would start to rise. My zombiefication had cured me of that, but I was still uncomfortably aware of the booze I had drank at Skully’s while waiting for Honani to show up, still sitting undigested in my stomach. I knew I had to get rid of it soon, before it pickled my dead innards.
When she was finished, she straightened and wiped her mouth with a dainty hand. Her wig had gone slightly askew, but she didn’t bother to right it. She smiled shyly at me.
“Forgive me, but I have such trouble resisting the temptation to overindulge at these affairs.”
I was hoping that would be the end of it, and she would return to the party. But she stood looking at me expectantly, so I said, “No apologies necessary.”
She looked into my eyes and I noticed a thin red line dimpling the flesh of her neck. From an encounter with Monsieur Guillotine? “Well, aren’t you a gallant one?” She reached out and drew a long, blood red fingernail lightly down my cheek. “And you’re rather handsome, in a consumptive sort of way.”
Some compliment. But I didn’t say anything.
She smiled lopsidedly. “Did you know that the Bloodborn do not cast shadows? It’s true. And I miss mine something awful. Perhaps you would be a gentleman and take its place for a while?”
Before I could answer, she linked her arm in mine, and started pulling me forward. Despite appearing middle-aged and being inebriated, she was still a vampire and strong as hell. I couldn’t resist, not unless I wanted an arm torn off for the second time that day.
“I’d be honored,” I said as she dragged me toward the ballroom. At least she’d mistaken me for a Shadow. I could only hope Lord Galm’s other guests would do the same.
* * * * *
“Matthew, allow me to present the honored Amadeo Karolek. Amadeo, this is my new Shadow, Matthew.”
The male vampire, who was dressed in a coat of gold brocade, didn’t bother to hide his disgust. “Charmed,” he said in a voice which let me know he was anything but.
I almost offered my hand to shake, just to irritate him, but the way he glared at me, he’d most likely have crushed it, and then torn it off.
“Excuse me, Calandre, but I see someone I really must say hello to.” And then Amadeo collapsed into a pool of black water and flowed away across the floor.
Calandre – which meant lark, she’d told me – still had a death grip on my arm. But after introducing me to more than a dozen vampires, all of whom acted like I was some new species of giant maggot, I was considering sacrificing the limb, like an animal caught in a leg-hold trap, desperate to escape. But I’d already had an arm reattached once that day, so I resisted the urge.
I knew next to nothing about Bloodborn etiquette, but from what I was able to observe as Calandre hauled me about the ballroom, Shadows were supposed to walk or stand at least three feet behind the vampires they belonged to, keep their heads down, and remain quiet. But Calandre, still drunk – or whatever the vampiric equivalent was of gorging on too much blood – was parading me around like I was her new lover. And the other vampires definitely did not like it. I had the impression her behavior was akin to that of a human woman going to a party and introducing everyone to her favorite vibrator.
So much for my keeping a low profile. I could only hope that Devona would eventually find me and come to my rescue, or that Calandre would tire of me and let me go.
Calandre licked her lips. “I’m dreadfully thirsty, Matthew.” She smiled, displaying her incisors. “Dreadfully.”
This was bad. If she bit into my flesh, she’d realize I wasn’t alive. My blood had long ago turned to dust in my veins. It’d be like someone expecting a nice, refreshing drink of water suddenly getting a mouthful of chalk instead.
I returned to contemplating spending the rest of my unlife as a one-armed zombie, when a statuesque woman in an Edwardian frockcoat walked up, her features scrunched into an expression of supreme distaste.
“Really, Calandre, this is too much, even for you!”
Calandre drew herself up haughtily, which wasn’t easy since her wig looked as if it would topple off her head any moment. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, Naraka, nor do I care. Now why don’t you take your little penis-envy pageant elsewhere?”
Naraka made a sound deep in her throat, and I realized she was growling. This did not look good, especially since Calandre still had hold of me; I didn’t relish the prospect of being caught in the middle of a catfight between two vampires.
“Ladies, please, there’s no need for – ”
“Silence, Shadow!” Naraka’s hand flashed out and her nails, which had suddenly become claws, raked my left cheek.
“Really, Naraka, you didn’t . . .” Calandre’s voice trailed off, and I had a pretty good idea why. She had noticed that the deep scratches Naraka had inflicted on my face weren’t bleeding.
“Father Dis!” Naraka swore in disgust. “It’s one thing to drag a human around as if he were one of us. But a zombie!”
“But I . . . He . . . I didn’t . . .” In her surprise and confusion, Calandre released my arm, and I decided that, zombie-slow or not, I was going to make a run for it.
And then the torches along the ballroom walls dimmed, and the noise and music ceased as if a switch had been thrown. Everyone looked upward, even Calandre and Naraka, who seemed to have forgotten all about me. I didn’t know what was happening, and I didn’t care. I was just grateful for the distraction.
I started to edge away from the two vampire women, but then I stopped. The atmosphere of the ballroom felt charged with energy, like before a violent storm breaks loose. It had to be a psychic and not physical sensation, or else I probably couldn’t have perceived it, but whichever, it stopped me in my tracks and made me look up along with everyone else.
Darkness gathered along the mirrored surface of the ballroom walls, thickening and growing. And then the darkness exploded into a thousand shards which darted and whirled through the air, a cyclone of shadow. One of the black fragments dipped near my head, and I could see that what had been formless pieces of darkness had assumed the shape of large bats. Not actual three-dimensional animals, but instead shadowy silhouettes circling madly about the room.
And then the flock of shadow-bats drew close together directly above the gushing fountain of red, and coalesced into the form of a huge, well muscled man, who wore only a loincloth, boots, and a cape made out of black fur. His skin was white as bone, and his body looked hard as marble. He had long brown hair, and an equally brown beard which spilled onto his chest. His eyes were frost-white and cold as glaciers.
I didn’t need a formal introduction to tell me this was Lord Galm, progenitor of the Bloodborn and ruler of Gothtown – and, if I was lucky and Devona managed to persuade him to help me, my eventual savior.
“My children.” Though Galm spoke softly, his low rumbling voice echoed through the ballroom in tones as cold as an arctic plain at midnight.
As one, the assembled vampires fell to their knees and bowed their heads. “Our Lord,” they chanted in unison.
I was about to kneel myself to keep from drawing the Darklord’s attention, when I felt someone grab my arm and start dragging me backward. It was Devona – and she looked scared.
I didn’t know what to do: stay and risk being exposed as a zombie and a party-crasher – thus earning Galm’s wrath – or go with Devona and risk drawing the vampire lord’s ire for not displaying the proper obeisance. In the end, simple fear won out and I turned and we both ran like hell for the exit.
I felt a freezing-cold sensation on the back of my neck, as if it were suddenly coated in ice. I didn’t have to turn and look to know the Darklord was watching us. But for whatever reason, he did nothing, and we reached the corridor, turned left, and kept going.
As we ran, I thought it was a good thing I was dead. If I’d been alive, I would surely have needed a change of underwear at that point.
* * * * *
We didn’t stop running until we were a couple blocks from the Cathedral. Devona put her hands on her knees and gulped air – another sign that she was half human; a full-fledged vampire wouldn’t have needed to breathe, let alone catch her breath. I just stood and waited for her to recover, not fatigued in the slightest myself, although I thought my left arm was a trifle looser than it had been.
“Will Galm send someone after us?” I asked Devona when her breathing had returned to normal.
She shook her head. “He’s going to be too busy receiving guests for the next few hours. But I’m sure he’ll tend to us later.” She slumped back against the wall of a building and rubbed her forehead, clearly upset.
I laid a hand on her shoulder. “Maybe Galm will be more forgiving of our disrupting his entrance if we can recover the Dawnstone, or at least discover what happened to it.”
She gave me a weak smile. “Perhaps. It’s something to hope for anyway.” She stood straight, took a deep breath, and did her best to regain her composure. And then she noticed the cuts on my face. “Oh, you’re hurt!”
She reached a hand toward my wounds, but I took a step back. I didn’t want her smooth, half-living hands touching my dead flesh, didn’t want to see her possibly pull away in disgust.
“I’m a zombie; I can’t be hurt. Don’t worry, Papa Chatha will just take care of it the next time I see him.” Or in a couple days I’d be gone, and a few scratches wouldn’t matter anymore. I changed the subject. “Did you locate Varma?”
“No one had seen him. He’s probably off celebrating in the Sprawl somewhere.”
“Do you have any idea where he might be? Any favorite hangouts?”
“I know a couple places that he frequents. So we’re off to the Sprawl, then?”
“Not just yet. First, we need to find out as much about the Dawnstone as we can.”
“How are we supposed to do that? We can hardly ask Father, can we?”
“Maybe not. But I know someone else we can ask.”
I smiled. “Do you have your library card on you?”