The (not so) Graceful Act of Robbing a Ritualist

This story is part of my ongoing dark urban fantasy series about the character Vanessa Riley. You can find the previous installments here: IIIIIIIVV, VI. It is also the start of my #NaNoWriMo-project for this November.


Magic, madness, heaven, sin…

She is sitting in her car, the stereo blaring Taylor Swift at its loudest and outside the windshield night has brought with it a heavy downpour. The rain is beating furiously against the roof of the car and though the radio is maxed up she can barely hear the music.

In her hands she holds a gun.

It’s not any gun, mind you. It’s the one she took from the ritualist called Mike on the night she rescued Chino from him and his less intelligently endowed friend Pete. The same night, incidentally, as she first found out that maybe, just maybe, the notorious Enjoyment Club is not just midwife’s tales at all – but terrible reality. And after her recent talk with Devin Murdock she’s finally beginning to understand just how terrible, and just how real.

The gun is heavy and big, and it glows like silver in the sparse light allowed through the windshield’s cascading water from the streetlamps above. She turns it over, just as she has done so many times already. The signs and symbols engraved upon its smooth surface are many and delicately executed; a true master must have etched them there. The thought doesn’t calm her in the least, as the meaning of these symbols – at least the ones she is able to decipher – do not bode well for the enemies of the gunman in question. He doesn’t have the gun anymore, sure, but it is she who has stolen it from him, and she is quite convinced that this in itself adds her to his list of prioritized enemies.

She knows that Mike, the gun’s owner, works for the Club – maybe as a hired bounty hunter. They were taking Chino to them before Vahri intervened, and she harbours no illusions that they wouldn’t throw her into the bargain as well if they ever got the chance. Therefore what she is about to do next might seem like a really stupid thing – she’s well aware of that. But right now it’s the only option she has if she’s going to stay one step ahead and hopefully alive as well.

She’s going to use the gun to find this Mike.

Oh, she’s not going to kill him, mind you. Not just because it’s really not her style – she’s just only killed one person previously and didn’t particularly enjoy it – but also because he is only the most immediate incarnation of the threat that is the Club. If he is removed, they will simply send others, she’s sure of that. He might be a dangerously skilled ritualist, but he’s not unique. She’ll definitely have more use for him as a source of information than as an unpleasantly smelling corpse and a blotch on her conscience.

She closes her eyes and concentrates, all the while tracing the gun’s intricate patterns with her fingers. The weapon carries a deep, spiritual imprint of the person called Mike. She can feel traces of his essence just by touching it. Using her inherited magical ability of scrying with the gun as a sympathetic anchor it doesn’t take her very long to locate him.

She can feel the warding rituals he has cast upon himself as another might perceive a mesh across the eyes. They don’t stop her from seeing him, but still pose a slight, annoying hindrance. She can definitely see how his wards would pose a real obstacle for a less skilled magician – but he obviously hasn’t counted on being scried by someone of her aptitude.

He’s walking back and forth in an anonymous hotel room, gesturing with his free hand as he talks to someone on the phone. She’s not able to hear him through her mind’s window, but he is clearly upset about something. Suits you well, honey, she thinks to herself as she watches him aggressively stuff an assortment of items into a bag, phone still firmly pressed against his ear.

Then he throws the heavy bag over his shoulder, opens the door and leaves the room without turning off the lights. She knows that she can follow him outside, see where he goes, but she chooses not to. Because she has seen something else. Right before Mike left the room an object fell out of his overstuffed shoulder bag and onto the distastefully carpeted floor. It is a book, and she needs to know what’s inside it before Mike returns to the room.

Vahri opens her eyes, suddenly back inside the rain drenched Ferrari with the decorated gun in her hands. She has not just been able to see Mike inside his room; she also knows exactly where to find it.

She starts the car and turns back onto the road. Hopefully she will be able to find out parts of his secrets without even having to meet him tonight.

***

The hotel is not fancy. Not in the least, actually. If this says something about the ritualist called Mike it is either that he’s the kind of guy who goes out of his way to stay incognito, or that ritualists simply do not make that much money. Either way the low standard of the place makes it easy for Vahri to slip past the reception and up the stairs. The institution does not even come with an elevator.

She reaches the fifth floor without running into a single soul on the way up. Or, well, not counting the unremarkable apparition of a previous suicide victim hovering solemnly on the third landing, that is. It stubbornly ignores Vahri as she passes by, and she willingly returns the favour.

Getting into the room turns out to be a bit more tricky, but nothing she cannot handle. Apart from the mundane hotel door lock (which she picks easily enough using a couple of just as mundane tools) the ritualist has also cast some kind of arcane mumbo jumbo upon it. It takes Vahri a while to figure it out, but finally the door swings open before her. As she rises to her feet again she can’t help but feeling a spell of vain pride come over her. This ritualist might be dangerous, but his wards at least are no match to her.

She stands at the threshold and looks into the room. It is just as anonymous as she registered while scrying it, and the carpet is just as distastefully pink. And there lies the book, just as she knew it would. A part of her knows very well that this might definitely be an elaborate trap to lure her in – that the lock might have been easy on purpose and that the ritualist’s wards against scrying and finding might have been meant to fail all along. But as necessity knows no law, and as being careful is not really her game anyways, Vahri still steps into the room, picks up the book and quickly closes the door behind her.

It turns out to be a notebook bound in leather, the covers much more nondescript than what she would have expected from a guy whose everyday handgun looks like something drawn by a bored gothic monk on speed. But opening the book to its first pages she finds something else entirely.

Page after page is packed with scrawled notes, verses and illustrations, all done by hand in black and scarlet ink. The lets her eyes wander over the lines of the first few pages, but realizes almost at once that she will have to study the book more carefully and in peace before she’ll be able to make anything useful of it. She’s not a ritualist, after all, and many of the things that this Mike might find commonplace and self-evident she will have to decipher to understand.

She puts the notebook in her bag and starts investigating the room. The clean and impersonal state of it definitely lends credibility to the idea of a person who wants to stay under the radar, able to move on at the blink of an eye without leaving any trace. He has not left the room indefinitely just yet, however. She finds a laptop on the low table in front of the 90’s television set, and a small trunk of clothes and personal items next to the worn couch.

She opens up the lid of the computer and is surprised to see the screen immediately come to life. The computer has not been turned off by its owner before he left the room, but still requires a password to be unlocked. Not daring to sit down on the couch in fear of leaving traces of her visit, Vahri crouches beside the table and opens the screen all the way up. A yellow sticky note detaches from the slick surface where it has been sitting and falls onto the floor. Vahri quickly picks it up.

Boris Granger, the note says – and then a Nevada coded phone number.

She shrugs and puts the note inside the book in her bag, eager to get to work on the computer. The login screen has the picture of a dog in the background. Not your average stock photo, but what looks like a personal photography in slightly bad resolution. The dog is sitting on a porch and seems to be waiting for the photographer to throw it something. So Mike is a dog person, huh? Wouldn’t have guessed. She searchingly tries a couple of dog related passwords, but to no avail. This, however, comes as no surprise. This guy is not stupid. It will take more than that.

Instead she summons up the arcane forces to help her. She has done similar things before, magically “hacking” into Facebook accounts of high school enemies and internet haters, but she realizes at once that the ritualist has used more than secure passwords to protect his digital content. Just like the door, the computer is surrounded by some kind of magical ward that she cannot simply dispel using her own kind of magic. The powers practiced by ritualists are something else entirely from the forces used by mages, just as the powers of a Djinn are essentially different from those of a vampire. She’s going to need time to crack this protective spell – either that, or an exorcist.

Then, suddenly, she hears keys in the door. Someone is coming, be it Mike or somebody else. Either way it would be disaster for her to be found here. She flies onto her feet, reflexively grabbing the computer as she does. The door handle is pressed down halfway, then stops. Vahri doesn’t wait around to find out why. Instead she darts toward the window while thrusting the stolen laptop into her bag, together with the just as stolen notebook.

She pulls at the window handle, but it’s stuck. Vahri panics and forgets entirely about carefulness and magical principles stealth. She reflexively calls the magic to her fingertips as she bends the window to her will and forces it to yield. Just then she hears the door behind her start to creak open, and pulls at the window once more. This time, subdued by arcane forces, it swings up easily enough. She jumps out onto the rain coated metal landing of the emergency stairs and starts running downward.

The metal stairs rattle and shake at every step and the rain makes the stairs slippery. She hits her knee on a sharp edge but continues without pause. High above her she can hear a voice calling, but does not turn around. When she reaches the ground she continues running with unabated speed, the heavy bag thumping impractically against the back of her left leg all the while.

She does not know if anyone follows her, doesn’t dare to turn around and look. She also doesn’t dare steer directly towards her car, in case anyone actually does. Instead she takes a long and laborious detour, passing through several blocks before finally doubling back and returning to the obscured alley where she parked earlier.

Once she has thrown herself into the car and locked all the doors she hurriedly uses her magic to set up an obscuring shield around it. Anyone passing by the alley now will see nothing but crates and dumpster, and definitely not a burning red Ferrari with a terrified magician inside.

Shit, shit, shit.

She’s breathing heavily and her pulse just won’t slow down. Just thinking about what could have happened if the ritualist had caught her in his hotel room makes her want to throw up. Out on the field where she had beaten them and saved Chino, Mike and his companion had been on neutral ground. She had also had the element of surprise to her advantage there. She dares not think of the assortment of traps and advantages that could have been prepared in advance on their own home ground. Images from Devin’s horrible tale flashes before her, images of people like her being tortured, raped and eaten alive by the ritualist’s taskmasters. Images of those same things happening to her. She feels sick and has to sit there in the car for several minutes before the acute felling subsides.

She then starts the car and drives far away from the hotel. She doesn’t stop until she reaches a quiet suburb where she parks behind a closed down pizza restaurant. Not until now does she open up her bag to look at the items she’s retrieved from the hotel room.

She knows that all of the objects, but especially the computer, might be traced – if not by mundane means, then with the help of the arcane. Therefore the first thing she does is to secure and isolate them using the same magic techniques as those she has previously used on the stolen gun. The forces weave themselves around the items, one by one, and effectively shields them from scrying and tracking. Vahri hopes that this will prove to be enough.

Knowing that she will probably not be able to crack the computer tonight, she then picks up the notebook. The sticky note falls out, and she sticks it to the panel of the car for the time being. She’ll have a closer look at it later.

The notebook is, as she has already concluded, full of hand written notes, verses and messages – all to do, of course, with strange and complicated rituals. Vahri recognizes some of them, knows at least a couple of them to be warding and binding rites to be used upon the undead. On vampires, for example. She herself would not be able to use these rituals – not without long and extensive training, at least. Just like a fiddler will not be able to simply switch over to playing the cello – at least not Vahri, and she actually tried once – a magician, however talented, cannot just switch over to conducting the rituals of mortals. It just doesn’t work like that. Thus she is beginning to think that she won’t have much use for this notebook after all.

Well, I guess I could sell it back to him and earn some well needed cash, she mused sarcastically.

But then, turning through the pages at random, the suddenly comes upon a name she recognizes. Walter. There is a page in the notebook seemingly entirely dedicated to notes about someone who goes by that name – or Walter Isher, to be more precise. Stuck to the page with a paperclip is a black and white photo of a middle aged man dressed in coat and hat. It must be an old photo, she thinks. And when she turns it over she actually finds the numbers “1923” written in a faded, elaborate hand.

There is also a list on this page where every row is a piece of information about this man. “Grey hair, 7ft 20 tall, sharp nose, red eyes…”  Wait a second. Red eyes? Vahri realizes suddenly that this Walter must be a djinn, just like Chino. And she remembers now exactly where she has heard the name before, as well. The ritualist was pressing Chino for information about this man right before Vahri had rescued him. It must be the same guy.

So these people are really after an even bigger and badder djinn, and Chino and I just came in the way?

She relaxes slightly, daring for a moment to hope that this shitstorm just might pass above their heads if they’re really lucky. If the bounty hunters are after someone else, maybe they’ll leave once they find him. A disloyal thought, sure, but the Club really scares the shit out of her.

Beneath the list there is a short note, written hastily with another pen. “As soon as we have anything to report on this man, or if we manage to locate him, call B.G.” Then a drawing of a symbol that Vahri knows all too well by now – the symbol of the Club. Vahri’s eyes instantly go to the sticky note on the car’s panel. B.G. Boris Granger. So Boris works for the Club – or might he even be a member? Anyway he definitely seems to be the one who has hired these ritualist bounty hunters and sent them here.

An opening, finally. She has a name and a number to a person who is probably part of the Club in some capacity. This might be her way forward in her quest to find out more about this organization and hopefully outwit them before anyone she cares about comes to harm.

As she puts the book down in her lap and lets go of it to look at the sticky note, the pages fall open upon what seems to be the last entry up until now. Vahri reflexively looks down, and instantly freezes.

The entry is dated earlier this very day, and details a ritual with text and illustrations. But not just any ritual.

“We used the hair found in the djinn’s apartment. We mixed it with the blood of an early bird and murky waters from a restless sea. Then we said the secret words and drew the hidden symbols and uttered the djinn’s True name: Caesar Lino Salinas. It has been done. I will now be able to see and find him wherever he hides.”

Vahri starts trembling and the book falls back into her lap. The ritualist called Mike has performed a ritual directed at Chino in order to spy on him – not unlike the magic she used earlier to locate Mike himself. This is bad, really bad. Chino might lead the hunters to his friend Ivers, who will certainly in turn lead them to Neferthali and then straight back to Vahri herself. And her family. And in any case it’s just a question of time before Chino himself is attacked again. And this time the hunters will be prepared.

I have to do something. The ritual must be undone. Now.

And Vahri realizes that the only person she knows who might be versed enough in ritualist magic to actually undo it is in fact not that far away right now.

Gods bless you, Devin Murdock and your fucking ghosts, Vanessa thinks to herself as for the second time that day she dials the number to Seth Pascal.

Chris Smedbakken, 2017-11-01


You can find the next part here.

Advertisements

The Art of Dating (With Your Vampire Granny as Wingman)

This is part II of the story about Vanessa Riley. It works perfectly well as a stand alone, but if you would still like to read part I first, you can find it here


Her father’s mother once told her that love conquers all, and this might very well be true. But in that case, and Vanessa learned this early on, it normally doesn’t conquer anything for very long. Love at first sight, especially, seldom manages to conquer her attention for more than a messy quickie nowadays. To be fair, though, she should probably ascribe this to her own disinclination towards getting people killed rather than anything else.

She’s sitting at the glossy table, sipping her drink and letting her eyes wander the room. Window shopping doesn’t do it for her anymore, but then again not much else does either. She sighs, and the exhalation turns into drunken laughter before she’s able to stop herself. How the fuck did her life take this turn?

“Well, it’s not rocket science”, she tells the guy leaning towards her across the table. “It all started with the vampire.”

She tells him everything, because she’s bored as fuck, and he listens – of course he listens, it’s a fantastic story. He’s more drunk than her but still manages to nod in all the right places, his hungry eyes making it perfectly clear that he expects this social deed to yield some kind of reward later. She’s a little disappointed that he doesn’t freak out when she tells him about her mother decapitating her junior high sweetheart, but hey some people are just hardened assholes. He probably doesn’t believe her anyway.

“So now I’ve been living with my vampire godmother for seven years, protecting her from hunters and the sun and her own bad taste in men. And women. And me myself… Well, I try to stay clear of either. At least as far as relationships go. You can call me Vahri, by the way.” Neferthali taught her early that names have power, and that if Vanessa Riley wanted to become older than twenty she’d do best to shed her true name, at least publicly, and don a new one. A shadow name, as it were.

The stranger nods and nods and realizes too late that she has stopped talking seconds ago. To his credit he swiftly collects himself as soon as he does. “Ehrm, oh. So, well, are you, you know… A vampire too?”

She rolls her eyes and bites her lip. Don´t snap at him. He might be stupid but he’s hot as hell… as well. You don’t need him for conversation once we leave this place. “No, I’m not a vampire. I’m what they call a magician. No, not like Harry Potter but almost. I read and control minds, amongst other things.” Yeah, boyo, I wouldn’t be telling you all this if I didn’t. You won’t remember any of this tomorrow.

“Ah, okay”, he says, again disappointing her with his all too apparent non-out-freaking behaviour. “Can you show me something then?”

Oh, not again… “No. Definitely not.”

“Oh, comon. Some little trick. Please.”

The terror in Brian’s eyes. The sound of his steps disappearing down the stairs. Brian’s dead body… Snap. “No. Fuck you. What’s wrong with you, anyway? You’re not supposed to believe any of this.”

He looks at her in silence for several heartbeats, neither taken aback nor affronted by her suddenly lashing out at him. “There’s many things wrong with me. I’m broke, I’m probably on the brink of becoming unemployed and apparently I’m also extremely easily fooled. As a direct consequence of this, I am also a djinn. My name is Chino. Questions?”

“A… djinn?” She can’t even pretend to be cool about this. Okay, boyo, you win. She leans forward.

“Yeah, but not by choice. I was tricked, you see. It’s a long story, but suffice to say I promised to look after some guy’s flowers and his cat, and this ended me up as some kind of vacation substitute with magical powers. And yeah, his cat wasn’t really a cat either but some terribly obnoxious guy who was turned into a feline three hundred years ago because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut or whatever. And I was stupid enough to un-cat him so to speak. He’s that guy over there at the bar, if you were wondering. The one with his hands all over that pale woman in black.”

Vanessa turns towards the bar and instantly lets out yet another fit of involuntary laughter. “Him? Are you serious?” The dark haired man in the crimson suit looks handsome enough, and not a bit like a cat, but it is his company that surprises her. “That’s Neferthali”, she laughs. “My, well, the woman I told you about. The–”

“The vampire?” Now it’s Chino’s turn to look surprised, finally.

Vanessa nods. “Yeah, exactly. And they seem to be pretty… well acquainted.” As she speaks she can see how the couple merge in a deep kiss that seems to have no end at all. Suddenly Neferthali opens her dark eyes and meets Vanessa’s gaze over the man’s shoulder. She smiles. Before Vanessa knows it her ancient governor is leading the man in the crimson suit across the room towards her.

“For fuck sake, no…” The djinn at the other side of the table looks away as they approach, apparently not very keen at all about Vanessa being confronted with his friend, the ex-cat. Still, he’s obviously not un-keen enough about it to wish the situation away, because just a few seconds later the two are standing beside their table.

“Vahri, meet Ivers”, Nefethali says as she allows the man to wrap his arm around her waist. “I have known him for nine centuries, but haven’t seen him for three. Thus we have much to talk about.”

Who even uses the word “thus” in speaking? Vanessa can hear Chino’s sarcastic thought as clearly as if he had spoken the words. It’s almost a wonder the others can’t hear it too. Out loud he says: “There’s a good reason you haven’t seen him in so long. I’m sure he’s been eager to tell you why?”

Neferthali raises one of her delicately shaped eyebrows as she turns to her cavalier. “Oh, is that so?”

The one called Ivers bites his lip and clenches his free hand. “Well, no. I mean, of course there’s a good reason, but non that I would wish to bore my lady with”, he says and even manages a gallant smile.

“He’s been a cat. There, now you have one more thing to talk about.” Chino flashes Ivers a victorious face, but then accidentally meets Neferthali’s eyes and is instantly caught.

“A cat, you say?” Her voice is like golden nectar, and when Vanessa sees Chino’s face melt before the vampire’s gaze she knows that her date for the evening has been effectively ruined. Once again.

She takes a long draught from her ceasing drink and pretends not to pay attention while her audaciously gorgeous ancestress talks Chino up and gracefully inquires about everything from his name to his preferences in women. She is not angry, she is pissed off. Why must this happen every fucking time we go out together? She snaps out of her frustrated thoughts at a cold but delicate hand caressing the side of her face.

“Vahri, doll. Me and the young djinn here are going for a stroll. He has such interesting stories and I’m just starving to hear them. You do not mind, I’m sure?”

Vanessa waves her off with an irritated frown. “No, gran, of course I don’t mind. I just laid eyes on him first but please go ahead. Just remember to wipe his memory afterwards because I accidentally slipped and told him everything. You know, like I always do.”

Neferthali gives her a long look, then shakes her head. “Vahri dear, you worry too much. He’s a djinn, remember? It is alright for him to know these things.” And with this she lets her arm slither around Chino’s waist and leads him off into the crowd. Within seconds Vahri can’t see either of them anymore.

She shakes her head in not-so-surprised disbelief. “Oh, of course. How stupid of me”, she mutters and turns back to her glass, just to once again discover its miserably empty state. Then somebody settles down beside her – slightly too close – and she looks up again. It’s the other guy, the one in crimson. Ivers.

He smiles broadly at her and on any other night he would have been a catch. Tonight, however, has taken a turn for the sour and she is definitely not in the mood to be talked up by her godmother’s sloppy seconds. “What the fuck do you want?”, she mutters and once again tries to drink from her empty glass. This time she succeeds. She doesn’t realize she should be surprised until after several deep gulps.

“I’m Ivers”, he says and extends a meticulously manicured hand. “Do you wanna go somewhere, or…?”

“So you’re a djinn too?”, Vanessa sighs as the reason behind her unexpected refill suddenly sinks in. “Wonderful.”

And with that she rises from her chair, grabs her bag and leaves the table.

“Wait, I thought we could… talk.” The voice of the older djinn sounds almost mopish behind her, but Vanessa doesn’t turn around. Instead she extends a gracious middle finger before elbowing her way towards the exit. She’s had enough of bullshit for one night.

And as she exits the club and walks off into the late summer gloom a realization strikes her. Love doesn’t conquer all, she muses bitterly. It’s shamelessly well preserved, antediluvian fucking vampire grannies that do that.


(You can find the next part in the story about Vanessa Riley here.)

Into the Dark

Vanessa Riley’s problem wasn’t that she fell in love with idiots – it was that she fell in love with everybody. She only needed to talk to somebody for ten minutes to fall irrevocably head over heels. No wonder that the morons got to her; they were the ones that made the moves, after all. And to make things worse, she herself was not your average girl-next-door – nor was her family the most average of families. This fact, without a fault, tended to secure her the less-than-average moronic suitors as well.

The first one, not counting all the cute elementary school flings littering her back story like embarrassing piles of unicorn poop, had been a vampire. She had been fourteen years old, mesmerized by the writings of a certain Mrs. Rice and consequently swiped right off her feet by his charm, bottomless eyes and knowing, poetic voice as he spoke her name. It was an intense, crimson and incredibly sexy affair. She had given him her overrated virginity and lots and lots of blood. He had given her almost as much in return and promised to take her “into the night”, as he had so eloquently put it. The romance ended almost as swiftly as it had begun, with her mother finding out and chopping his head off with a rusty shovel – it being all that had been readily at hand in the heat of the moment.

Turned out, though, that he had a family of his own. Fierce old things that didn’t take lightly the death – much less murder – of one of theirs. The fact that his beheading, by some, was unfortunately interpreted as an escalation of the age old cold war between vampires and mages didn’t exactly make things better. The final price and outcome of this seemingly innocent high school romance thus became an increased enmity between two up until now passively warring factions, the violent death of her mother and the turning, as it was likewise eloquently termed, of her own twin sister. They haven’t spoken much since then.

After that she lived with her father for a time, long enough to finish high school. He and her late mother had already been divorced for some time before her death. However, due to him priding himself with having a werewolf somewhere far back in his lineage, nobody had deemed it necessary to intervene in the name of secrecy when their relationship ended. What this intervention would have meant, though, Vanessa didn’t learn until later – and then it was the hard way.

What she did learn at this time, however, was the complete, merciless and entirely uncensored truth about her unusual family tree. Vanessa had already been made aware of her mother’s abilities, that she had been a magician of some renown and that Vanessa herself was expected to someday develop some degree of powers of her own. She hadn’t been aware, though, of the fact that her mother’s family could trace their lineage as far back as ancient Egypt, and that as good as every generation up until now had sported their share of supernatural creatures. Those who never displayed any magical abilities of their own were quickly swept up by the vampires, changelings and ritualists surrounding the family at all times. Thus they had made themselves a name over the millennia, and thus the prospects of the normal life Vanessa Riley had always hoped for instantly seemed farther away than ever. But time had passed and Vanessa had made due and eventually learned to cope with the new state of her world.

Her second boyfriend, not counting all the high school one nighters littering her teens like secretly thrilling but forbidden cigarette buds, had been a magician himself. She had been almost eighteen and had fallen head over heels before his cunning eyes, sly smile and somewhat rough ways. Being finally together with someone who was actually allowed to know her family’s deepest secrets had been a great relief. Up until then none of her friends or partners – save for that one who “got away” – had been residents of the proverbial world of darkness that her own family of secret mages, werewolves and general misfits were a part of.

She could talk to him about all the things that confused and frightened her, and the fact that he was just two years her senior sat really well with her father. They shared one intense summer and then he went to prison. Not your usual, mundane prison, mind you. Rather it was the kind of prison where mages are sent if they, gods forbid, meddle with things more dark and dangerous than what is considered sound, safe and sane by the local coven leaders. The people who came for him made sure to perform thorough interrogations of Vanessa as well, but soon lost interest when it became clear that she hadn’t even awakened to her powers yet. Without them, it was impossible for her to have broken any arcane laws serious enough for them to care. She later learned that he had been exiled from the city, but by then she had already moved on.

Vanessa Riley’s third real boyfriend had actually been an ordinary, human guy. He was the same age as her and they met by chance through a language class they both took after finishing senior high. She was nineteen years old and had only three months earlier discovered that she could see people’s auras and read their minds. Her father had been delighted hearing about her powers, but also somewhat saddened. He had told her that before long the rest of the family would take interest in her and that she then might have to move on with her life – whether she wanted it or not. That this moving on would occur sooner rather than later, and that it would rip open the seams of a world she already believed entirely upside down, was nothing he had told her, though.

The ordinary guy’s name was Brian and when she was with him Vanessa could almost allow herself to believe in a normal every day life where the most groundbreaking thing that could happen would be the neighbours coming by for a cup of sugar. She stayed over at his place more and more frequently and was soon endowed with an empty drawer in one of his closets. They talked about enrolling to the same college, buying a car and skipping town, renting a flat and moving in together and many other things. It all felt so serious that one late and drunken night, as they lay gazing at the stars out on Brian’s balcony, Vanessa decided to tell him everything.

They were both drunk and when she began talking about telepathy, auras and mind control his first reaction was to laugh uncontrollably. She couldn’t help but to laugh as well, but when she realized that he thought the whole thing was a joke she stopped.

This is real”, she said. “I’m not fooling around.” She sat up and stared at him and eventually he stopped laughing as well – at least long enough to draw breath.

Okay, I hear you.” He had to fight back another fit of laughter before continuing. “So you can read minds and make people do stuff. And why haven’t I noticed this before?”

She sighed impatiently. “Because it’s a secret and I was afraid you would freak out. Besides, I learned to do these things only recently.”

At this he finally stopped laughing and managed a somewhat serious look. “Alright, babe. Show me. What am I thinking about?”

Me. You’re thinking about me.”

Well, okay, but that one was easy. What about now?”

You’re still thinking about me, stupid. But without clothes now. You’re also thinking about fish for some reason. Kinky.”

This made him pause, but only for a moment. “I don’t know how you did that, but come on babe, just admit that this is a joke so I can kiss you already.”

But it isn’t –” He reached for her and started pulling her closer, seemingly already haven dismissed the subject as a drunken prank.

She panicked. She had just opened herself up to him like she had never dared before, and here he was, on the edge of joking it all away. “Stop”, she said – and he did. Way to quickly.

Brian stared at her, frozen at an arm’s length’s distance. The terror in his eyes spoke for itself. “What the hell did you do?”

An icy hand gripped her spine. What did I do? What have I done? “I’m… I’m sorry, Brian. I –”

But he had already gotten to his feet and quickly backed away from her. “Don’t”, he said. “I don’t know what you did but I… I can’t…” He backed into the darkness of the apartment. She tried to follow but he held up both hands and shook his head violently. “No, please. Just don’t. I need to…” And with that he turned his back on her and fled out the door.

She stood in his dark living room for several seconds, just listening in shocked silence as his echoing footsteps disappeared down the stairwell and were finally cut off by the sharp sound of the main entrance closing far below. Not until then did she sink to the floor, collapsing in a sobbing pile and feeling the tears stream down her face.

They found Brian’s body the next day. She had fallen asleep on the floor of his apartment and did not awaken until she got the call. The policeman on the other end had gotten her number from her father and was empathetic but matter-of-fact when he told her that Brian was dead. He had been found in a park close to his home, lying under a bush with his neck broken. The police wanted to talk to her in person as soon as possible, seeing as she was possibly one of the last people who had seen him alive.

Vanessa was numb when the call ended and almost couldn’t bring herself to answering when her father called a few seconds later. He came to pick her up and the subsequent ride over to the police station was an eerily silent one. The investigators asked her about the night before, what they had done and why he had left home. She told them that they had fought over some trivial thing – couldn’t very well tell them the truth. They asked her many questions but in the end seemed to accept that she didn’t know anything about his potential enemies, debts or addictions.

On their way home in the car that evening her father tried his best to check on her, console her or at least make her talk. He failed on all three points. As they entered the driveway she still hadn’t spoken a word that wasn’t in reply to a direct question. She was in shock and walked through fog on broken glass. They walked into the house and her father went to the kitchen to make her some chamomile tea. Then he froze on the threshold. When Vanessa caught up with him and saw Her, the woman sitting on the couch, she wasn’t even surprised. She had never seen this woman before and still she knew who she was.

“Neferthali”, she said tonelessly. She didn’t have any tones left.

The woman nodded and rose. “It’s time”, she said and strode over to them, her crimson silk dress flowing behind her as she moved. Vanessa thought that her long raven hair reflected the darkness outside the windows.

“You, you can’t –” Vanessa’s father stuttered as he tried to speak.

“Yes, Jim”, the tall woman said. “I’m taking your daughter. It’s clear as day that you can’t handle her.”

And with that she grabbed Vanessa’s hand and walked her back towards the door. Vanessa tried to turn, to seek her father’s eyes, but Neferthali stopped and grabbed her chin. “You stupid girl, you don’t understand anything, do you? Running around and telling sleepers about the Family and all. Obviously you can’t even handle yourself.”

Her grip was firm as rock and Vanessa could do nothing but stare into those deep, dark eyes that had seen civilizations rise and fall. She shivered involuntarily. “I didn’t tell him about the Family”, she said, tears welling up in her eyes. Tears of shame that she didn’t herself know the origin of.

“No, but you would have”, the woman said. “It always starts this way, with a stupid little girl telling an almost as stupid boy about magic. The rest is history. That’s how it started with your mother and father, and that’s how it started for your mother’s parents before her. Were it not for your father’s animalistic heritage, I would gladly have killed him as well when that sad relationship ended. Yes, Jim”, she said and turned her head halfway towards Vanessa’s father for a split second. “That’s the truth and you know it.”

Vanessa’s father didn’t say anything, but Vanessa could see from the corner of her eye that he was gripping the door frame tightly and stared intently at them. She herself snapped out of her frozen state for a moment when Nerferthali took her ancient eyes of her.

“What… do you mean ‘as well’?”, she whispered.

Neferthali met her eyes again, absolute controlled calm emanating from her eyes. “Like I killed your sleeper boy last night, of course”, she said. No malice in her voice, no sadistic pleasure. Just coldly, calmly establishing a fact.

“You, you killed Brian?” Vanessa felt her legs go weak and her voice tremble as she uttered the terrible words. “You killed him. You.”

Neferthali nodded. “I did. He was leaving you and he knew too much. I had to.”

Vanessa felt the tears break forth again and could do, would do, nothing to prevent it. “He wasn’t leaving me. We would have worked it out. He would have come back, just needed… He just needed some time, that’s all.”

The ancient woman sighed – more as a rhetoric gesture than because she needed the air. “Maybe he would have. But he would have left again, he was a lost cause. Not made for this kind of darkness. You know this, Vanessa. You always did. And still you told him. This makes you the real killer, not me. I’m just protecting the family, like I have always done. I only wish your mother would have let me take you sooner. That would probably have left her alive to one day see you learn from your mistakes.”

So many thoughts, so many disturbing, provoking, heartbreaking concepts. Brian’s death her fault. Her mother’s murder and her sister’s turning just as much. Learn from my mistakes… Yes, she thought. Maybe they were all because of me. And the prospect broke her, pulled her apart with such force that she couldn’t even try to resist it. She would have fallen to the floor if her vampire godmother had let her. She who had, according to the family myths, guarded over her progeny for thousands and thousands of years.

Neferthali picked her up, cradled her in her cold, hard arms like a baby and carried her out through the door. Vanessa shook uncontrollably and her only anchor to sanity then and there was the vampire singing softly to her in a language lost to all but the dead and forgotten gods of yore.

And behind them inside the house her father let out a roaring bellow that was not of a human throat, but still dared do nothing to save his last living daughter from this creature older than modern time itself.

“His first change, finally”, Neferthali mused smilingly as she carried her young ward away. But by then Vanessa Riley had stopped listening to anything but blind panic a long time ago. And thus she was carried off into a night more dark and dangerous than what any coven leader, however hardened, would consider sound, safe and sane.

And that was only the beginning.


You can find part II of the story about Vanessa Riley here.

Chris Smedbakken 2017-05-24