Midnight Skies are Brightest

"Look who decided to show up."

I couldn't contain my blush as Laurenz and I strode into the room with all sets of eyes upon us. Applause followed our trail. Several men slapped Laurenz on the back as we passed, and a few grasped my hand and shook it. I found Louis' gaze at the front of the room, his blue eyes surrounded by nasty purple bruising. Two black eyes from one punch to the nose. I wasn't sure whether to feel guilty or proud of my handiwork.

Laurenz pulled him into a sort of embrace before stepping back behind him. Louis reached for me, his lips pecking each of my cheeks. He sent me a wink before gesturing to a chair near the end of the table. I sat. My eyes scanned the room. I spotted Erik, who caught my eye and smiled. Some female vampires I'd met at a party here and there acknowledged me with a nod. I did not see Anna.

The room settled down of shuffling and chatter as Louis approached the table, his hands folded neatly behind his back. "I'd like to welcome back Laurenz, who has made a speedy recovery from a duel with death."

Just as soon as it had gone quiet, the room roared again with wolf whistles and claps. It took a few moments for Louis to silence the crowd. Louis held his hand up for quiet, Laurenz crossed his arms, shifted his weight from foot to foot.

"Laurenz's death was feigned in order to catch his brother's assets off guard. For the past fortnight, we've apprehended several major weapons dealers and goons in the midst of celebrating the demise of what they liked to call a 'loose end.'" Louis jerked his head toward Laurenz, who curled one side of his mouth into a smirk.

"His brother, as expected, did not take the bait. He's tightened his innermost security and hoarded whatever weapons he can get. As we speak, I've got a tactical unit trying to find what he's got to play with."

"Who tipped his brother off?"

Louis scratched his head. "Well, no one. The only ones who knew of this plan were Laurenz, Anna, and myself." He glanced at me briefly, and only for a moment did I feel the burn of anger.

"Then how did his brother get hold of such information?"

"Ettienne and Laurenz are not only born of the same human mother, but they're also tied in a psychic way." Louis shot Laurenz a glance, who simply nodded, his eyes fixed on the ground. "Ettienne is Laurenz's Master."

Heated murmurs and chatter circulated around the room again. I couldn't make out anything specific. I was too deaf, too dumb to take in anything but Laurenz's face. Betrayal gnawed at me. All this time, he knew. That was the tie between them. It made sense now. Ettienne wanted me because Laurenz had me. Not because of typical brotherhood jealousy. But because through hierarchy, whatever belonged to Laurenz, belonged to Ettienne.

I stared at Laurenz for a long while, blinking down the tears from my eyes. His jaw strained. You can't even look at me.

Louis leaned his hands on the table, cracked his knuckles, and gestured for two cases to be brought forward. Erik stood, opened the cases. Several people leaned in, and more than a couple individuals whistled long and low. Stacked to the brim of each briefcase were piles of money, wrapped into neatly folded squares. Erik grabbed a handful and began tossing one stack to each individual in the room.

"We ask you for your service," he rattled off, his tone nonchalant and obviously practiced, "fifty grand upfront. Twice that once the job's done. Plus whatever you find along the way. Questions?"

"What services do you want us to bring to the table?"

Louis nodded. "We'd like your strength, as well as any contribution of weapons and any knowledge you have on the matter of Ettienne and whatever else—"

"Why?" A voice deep in the back corner stopped Louis midsentence, and my hurt at Laurenz turned to deep irritation at the gall he had. The man stepped from the shadows and removed his leather gloves. I glared at him for several moments. Who was this stranger, dressed in all black, demanding such insolent questions? "What makes this our problem?"

Before Louis opened his mouth to reply, I stood. "Remove your sunglasses. You are not in the Matrix, and we're not here to satisfy some gothic mafia fantasy of yours. Show some respect." When he did not immediately move, I bared my fangs. My hands gripped the table so hard, I could feel splinters digging into my skin. Slowly, he removed the cover from his eyes, and I lowered myself back into my seat.

Laurenz stepped forward, and even though I silently glowered at him, silently willed him to look at me, he did not. "Ettienne is everyone's problem. He doesn't play nice with others. You think you had Rogues and bloodbaths before? You think Vetala exist only in your nightmares? My brother was a catalyst in spreading the Black Plague. He's learned how to tap into the dead and whatever psychic marks they leave behind and raise them up again. Do not. Fuck with him. Do not underestimate him."

A loud crash, followed by the roar of bullets smashing through dry wall and framing, shook the house. Laurenz stopped speaking, his mouth ajar, his eyes flashing as he gazed up at the ceiling. Louis snapped the briefcases shut, pulled on leather gloves.

"If you're in, you need to decide now. I need at least two groups of four to make a perimeter. Also, put two people on each floor." Louis grabbed a Glock off the desk behind him. "Move."

Although I knew it wasn't necessary, I jumped up and climbed up onto the table, clambered to the other side, and beelined toward the door. I wanted Laurenz to take the hint to leave me alone, that I didn't want to be near him. Louis caught my eye and I signaled that I'd take the first floor, crouching to peel the small pistol from the holster around my calf. Veering off to the right, I paused at the swinging door to the dining room.

"Can we talk?" Laurenz's soft murmur nearly made me pull the trigger.

Without looking back at him, I said, "No." Under the table, clear. Windows were closed and bolted. I rolled my eyes, having momentarily forgotten that vampires could just will their way into a house; we no longer had to wait for permission like our ancestors did.

"I only wanted to protect you." Laurenz took cover behind the doorway leading into the kitchen and did a quick sweep through with his eyes.

"Protect me? From what? Being ignorant doesn't keep me safe." I jabbed the barrel of my gun into his chest. "We are supposed to be partners. You said you were going to treat me as an equal. You lied." I whipped around and stomped into the kitchen. Clear.

Laurenz grabbed me by my shoulders. "You're all I've got."

Heat surged through me. My nostrils flared, and momentarily my vision went red. "So you want me to stay fragile forever? Instead of conditioning me and allowing me to be better prepared, you'd rather take the role of protector?"

A crash of china exploded just out of the doorway leading back into the grand foyer, and I spun just in time to see Anna emerge from a side door. Her clothes were tattered, covered in grime and blood and reeking of gunpowder. She cradled an arm close against her body; the other hand contained a pistol. Blood leaked out of her nose.


She motioned towards the foyer with the gun. "Outside. I've got something in the house. Ripped Derek and two others to pieces." The three of us formed a triangle, moving as a unit out toward the front door. Something screeched from the kitchen.

Laurenz flew backward as someone tackled him straight into the gut. Movement blurred in the corner of my eye, then again directly in front of me. I couldn't tell what it was, but Anna cocked her pistol. A flash of color bumped the chandelier, a pillar on the far wall, the staircase. Anna and I fired blindly, each time it seemed the bullet would hit a solid target, but at the last minute, it would move. Fear coursed from Anna to myself. What sort of creature had reflexes faster than a vampire's reaction time?

And then I felt myself being rammed into the air, mauled by an unseen enemy. My skull hit the marble floor hard. Blackness, then redness, then stars, showered through my vision. I saw Laurenz fighting someone hand-to-hand, I saw someone at the top of the steps grappling with someone else for a gun. I saw Anna, standing in one place, convulsing, trapped under the grasp of a gangly, miniature sized person. Trapped, as it tore at her neck with its teeth. She collapsed, taking the parasite latched onto her with it. I shook my head, still unable to focus, unable to hear anything except a dull buzz in my ears. I blinked, watched as the creature crouched over her and sank bony hands straight into the meat of her stomach.

The world sped up again, and I heard the crack of a neck snapping. Laurenz called my name. I didn't respond. I dragged myself up, snatching my pistol, reloaded in one swift movement. I expected screaming, but there was nothing, only the sound of soft flesh being torn and quiet gurgles of blood. My weapon fired off twice. The creature didn't stop his digging. Not until I stood directly over it and put a bullet into its chest. It squealed once, hit the floor, then scurried up and scrambled away.

Anna looked up at me, her eyes dull. I sank to my knees. Her small frame spasmed, and I put a firm hand on her torso to still her. My hand sank into mush, into what was left of her abdomen. I withdrew my hand slowly, put my arms into my lap. There was nothing I could do. Feeling helpless, I watched as blood seeped from her nose and her mouth and the hole in her stomach. I watched her reach for my hand.

"No!" Louis bellowed somewhere off behind me. I heard his heavy footfalls, his ragged breathing. His hand fisted into my hair, and for the second time, I found myself airborne.

I landed in a pool of glass, and I yelped as a shard embedded itself into my palm. My forearms stung. Sitting up, I yanked the glass from my hand. I let the blood seep through my fingers as I rocked back and forth slowly. Sweat beaded on my upper lip, trickled down the nape of my neck. One snarl drew my eyes upward.

The creature approached me slowly, its joints twisted in places that weren't natural. Its body crunched noisily as bone scraped against bone. By the way it approached me, it seemed almost doglike, crawling to me by all fours, crossing leg over leg. I could hear it breathing, short, shallow breaths, interrupted by broken gurgles, like something wet was stuck in its throat.

In one short burst, the creature crouched directly in front of me. It looked inherently male. The face was human, though it was hard to tell under the collection of puckered gashes and blisters on its skin. His eyes were completely red, as though painted over with a brush doused in blood. The pupils dilated to the entirety of the eyeball, then shrank to the size of a needle's eye. The creature bared fangs, then twisted its neck completely until it stared at me upside down.

The weapon in my hand no longer felt heavy. I'd seen enough. I didn't want to know any more about this thing. Slowly, I lifted my hand, rubbed my bleeding palm against the barrel of my pistol. The creature righted its head with a series of cracks and eagerly it opened its mouth to lick the metal.

Brains and gunk splattered onto the floor in front of me, and I wiped droplets of blood away from my eyes. I watched the body seize, stiffen, then collapse. Dizziness swam through me.

Someone in black knelt before me. Laurenz cupped my face in his palms. He picked me up onto my feet with ease, and I leaned against him heavily as he stroked my hair. I looked up at him.


He pursed his lips, his green eyes solemn, "Dead."

"Louis?" I tried to push past Laurenz. All I could hear were agonized groans, his choked wails of denial and anger. Laurenz grabbed me and held me back.

"Don't." Laurenz shook his head. "He's lost his mate. You try to approach either one of them and he'll get dangerous."

I looked over where the body would be. Louis gave out a guttural roar, a noise so deep that it sent vibrations through my sternum and punched spikes of agony into my stomach. People crowded around from a safe distance away, blocked the view. Blood seeped past them, underneath their shoes. I remembered trying to stop her from spasming, remembered sticking my hand straight into her gut. Feeling her tattered organs between my fingers.

Pushing past him, I rushed toward the front door, stepped outside into the chilly night. I needed air. Something lumped in my throat. I could hear Laurenz pursuing me, his voice tight with worry, his mind coaxing me to speak to him. I tripped on the driveway gravel and fell hard on my knees, and with a wet gag, emptied the contents of my stomach. Blood splashed up onto the tiny white rocks, a canvas of death come alive with horrors I'd never dreamed of.

Laurenz's strong arms wrapped around me. I turned to sob into his neck. I wanted to be furious that he hadn't told me Ettienne was the one to turn him. I wanted to be given hope that Anna had a chance of making it, given enough blood and time. I wanted to be promised that everything would be over soon. All I could think about, all I felt, was the very real fear that one day I'd be kneeling over Laurenz's body, damning life and everything that had meaning into oblivion.