1: Dropping Anchor
I THOUGHT we’d have more time!
The words shattered something deep in Tristan’s soul, jolting him out a fitful slumber. He was sweating and his forearms ached as if he’d been clenching his fists in his sleep. He always thought that that whole jerking awake, gasping and crying from a bad dream thing was bullshit. But after more than a year of doing just that, he knew it was completely real. He’d even woken talking, muttering to people long gone. He’d awoken shouting and crying too.
This was the first time he’d had this particular dream though. And despite his panic and fog, he recognized it as the night on Crete when he almost died. It was Ash’s pain he felt and he ached for her in that moment. He was falling apart and needed her to hold him together. The past week had been a little more fucked than usual.
He sighed when he got just what he wanted and a cool hand smoothed over his cheek. He opened his eyes. Ash was smiling at him, such a gentle, sweat smile that he couldn’t breathe for a moment past the emotions it ignited in him. God, he loved this woman.
The plane banked slightly and Tristan yawned to pop his ears.
“No, it’s nothing.” He scrubbed his hands over his face, feeling five days’ worth of stubble. Jesus, he probably looked worse than he felt and he felt pretty fucking crummy. His knee, which he’d sprained during his time with Xuejiao, wasn’t bad enough to slow him down. But his broken finger still hurt enough to wince when he tried to use it. At least it was on his left hand. He’d ignore the pain until he couldn’t anymore.
“I’m fine,” he answered in a low voice, reaching out for Ash, letting himself relish a small moment with the woman he loved.
She sighed, collapsing onto his lap and kissed him, gentle and slow, her cool hands holding his face in place, caressing. “Mmm,” she muttered against his lips. “You need to shave.”
“Do I have time for that?” He really didn’t think he had it in him to do something so mundane as shave but what would his old friend think if he greeted him after all this time looking like a mountain man? Not that his half-Asian genes let him grow much of a beard.
“Just,” she answered tartly with a bit of a concealed smile.
Obviously she didn’t care for the new facial accessory. Tristan lifted Ash off him and stood, a little unsteady in his not-quite-awake state. He grabbed ahold of the chair he’d been sleeping in and leaned down to look out the small port window and saw only darkness spotted in the tiny lights of civilization below.
“We should be on the road in the next thirty minutes.”
Tristan took in a deep breath and let it out slowly, eyes scanning the dark outside, not really looking for anything in particular. He grunted and pushed off the chair to go in the back and shave, hoping he finished before they touched down.
Eight minutes later he emerged from the back, looking less like a cretin. Rubbing his hand over his chin, he stopped, unsure what to do. There was so much on his mind, more than he even knew how to deal with. So much had happened in such a short time and suddenly he was home again. Sure, he planned on returning to Maryland, and soon, but there was a greater purpose than just getting away from Yukihime now.
Tristan pulled the letter from his pocket and sat down with it as he felt the altitude drop for landing. He read it again, the short message from his second best friend, Eric, asking him to come home.
“Gillian’s been taken by… something. It was a monster.”
If there was one person in this whole world Tristan would drop everything for, aside from Ash, it was Gillian. They grew up next to each other, best friends from the first day they’d met. A few times they’d crossed the friend line, though not by much, but they agreed they weren’t meant to go together like that.
Tristan met Eric in college and Gillian and Eric hit off. They’d been together since. Then Spike and Julia Blum died and Tristan felt like Gillian and Eric both let him down, didn’t help him when he so obviously needed it. Gave up on him. But that didn’t make his love for either one of them any less fierce. Gillian was family, always would be. Eric too. Hence, his coming to her rescue now even though he was sure his presence near them would only hurt more than help, in the long run.
“Tristan?” Ash said gently as she moved to the seat next to his. Despite the obvious awkwardness of sitting with her beloved katana, Murasaki Kaeru, it was nonetheless close at hand.
He shook his head, staring blankly at the paper in his hands, the words blurring out of focus. “Who would have thought that halfway across the world I could still manage to hurt those I love.” He’d hurt plenty that he didn’t love, too. That knowledge, the sin was a weight on his soul as of late and not getting any lighter.
“We do not know yet if it was a vampire who took her. Might not have even of been a shinwa or heikō, just a symbolic monster. A simple man.”
Tristan rolled his eyes. “Please. If it was anything, it was a vampire. I mean, I’m a fucking Uruwashi. I just thought they’d have a go at me first before they started dragging my loved ones into it… Maybe we should stay in Japan after all.” Or hide out in the Canadian wilderness, in the middle of nowhere.
Ash pursed her lips together for a moment and then sighed. “We can talk about it after we tend to Gillian. In fact, we have much to talk about.”
He glanced at her, feeling the coldness in his gaze. It wasn’t Ash he was mad at, just the opposite. But he was having a hard time dealing with all that’d happened in the last few days. And while he hadn’t even seen her for five days, he didn’t doubt that Ash was all caught up on current events.
A job Tristan had been reluctant to accept from the kitsune turned out to be a farce and before he knew it Tristan was protecting a vanilla vampire from a violent death at the hands of his angry Master, who happened to be Tristan’s favorite Scot, while the real danger was from a kodaijin. The super ancient vampire, Xuejiao, was all of seven when she’d been turned and a frightening foe with two seikonō and claiming the originator of the vampire kind as her Master. It took an army, and a ton of stupid luck, for the child vampire’s defeat. But the cost of her defeat, Tristan was afraid, was his soul.
And in the middle of it all, who comes out of the darkness but the very pythia who’d harkened his coming and set Malik against him. Lilith laid on him then in a strange metaphysical space where he was a part of Ash’s conscious, the scariest truth he’d heard since this whole Uruwashi fiasco started. Mother was awakening and it was all his fault.
That’s right, the mother of all shinwa was coming out of her multi-millennia hibernation in the pits of yomi—or hell—for him and him alone. There wasn’t much time left now to stop her. Only, stopping her might be too big of a burden for Tristan to shoulder, the task required for her awakening into the vessel of her choosing. Such a task would utterly destroy him.
Tristan shivered at his own dark thoughts. He believed in Mother and that belief scared him more than anything he had to face to date.
Then, the cherry to top it all off, Xuejiao’s Master, Apos, had to go and add his own helping of grief, claiming that he’d made the Uruwashi alongside the First Pythia, Jason—who happened to be Lilith’s biological father. Everything was so fucked, leaving Tristan overwhelmed and confused and angry.
“Fine, we’ll talk later.” He shoved the letter into his back pocket and plopped back into the seat, buckling up seconds before the first impact on the tarmac made the little plane bounce. “If anyone’s hurt Gillian… I’ll fucking kill them.”
Ash watched him reservedly, a worried frown curling her lips the only indications of what she might be feeling.
Tristan barely waited for Lance to give them the all clear before he barreled off the plane and to the private shuttle that would take them to their rental car. Leaving Lance behind with his fellow fae brethren, Simon, the couple moved luggage free, yet burden laden, towards the one car in the whole place that that could only be theirs.
He snorted under his breath as he got in behind the wheel of the Aston Martin. “Jesus, Ash, really?”
She smiled brightly climbing in next to him. “What? I like convertibles.”
“Ah-huh,” he said with a bit of a smile. At least it was warmer here than in Japan. Might not even been too bad with the top down with the heater on full blast.
Still smiling to herself, she shrugged. “I liked the look of one Lucien drove, thought I’d try it out before I bought one.”
Frowning at the thought of the dead, fire-wielding vampire, Tristan pulled out of their parking space and onto the highway. He didn’t care anymore to ask why she let him drive, not after mentioning Lucien’s name.
“How long?” Ash asked as she gathered up her thick brown hair into a quick but tidy bun using a pen from the glove box to fix it into place. He’d gotten used to her new, dark coloring and loved the glow of life it gave her.
“Uh, after we hit 97, ‘bout half hour, give or take.”
They stopped for a red light; the sign for state highway 97 was just beyond. Ash glanced at the time. The flight was delayed enough that they were already late for the meeting time designated in the note. “Pretend you’re me and drive.”
He shot her a concealed look. She was being her old stoic self again and he couldn’t read her mood. “I’m not going to risk getting pulled over. Granted, I’m no granny…”
She laughed a little. “If you do happen to catch unwanted attention, it won’t slow us down a but a moment. Don’t be reckless, but move with purpose, the rest is inconsequential.”
As he stared at her, contemplating what she really meant, the car behind them honked. The light had changed to green. Suddenly he smiled, making Ash smile in return, and stomped down on the gas, shifting hard enough to chirp the tires and almost took the left turn, even as wide as it was, onto the exit too hot.
“Remember, you asked for this!” he called over of the roar of the wind and the motor as he accelerated way past the posted speed limit. By the time he hit 95 mph, they were both laughing as if they hadn’t a care in the world.
Their laughter faded away long before they reached their destination. Tristan managed to find a spot at Ego Alley, but only because Ash got out of the car and “persuaded” a couple that had just parked to give up their space.
For March, it was a surprisingly nice night. Being right on the water made it cooler, but it was still far warmer than the high 20’s they’d left behind in Akita and definitely above average for this time of year. And no snow, that was always a plus in Tristan’s book. Nice to look at, a bitch to drive in.
“It’s going to rain,” Ash mused softly as Tristan got out of the car. “Very soon.”
Tristan huffed and got back in to put up the top. When he was done, he stood beside the car and tugged on his jacket wishing he could take it off but with the gun and knife he had on him, it was impossible. And there was no way he was leaving either behind.
The abnormally warm evening made downtown Annapolis busier than usual and Tristan took a moment to scan the crowd, unable to shake the feeling that they were being watched. Which, in reality, they were, seeing as they pulled up in a brand new Aston Martin. And Ash, she was fucking gorgeous.
“Do you see him?” she asked softly.
Eyes still going over everyone as he slowly moved towards the boardwalk, he shook his head. The note had only said to meet Eric downtown near the docks. The area was small, but it would require walking to cover it all visually since Ash had no idea what Eric looked like, but it wouldn’t take much time at all.
“What does he look like?” Ash asked suddenly as if she could read Tristan’s mind.
Without poking at his mental defenses, he knew his block was solidly in place. He’d had a steel grip on it since they left Apos behind in Alaska and he wasn’t ready to let anyone, not even Ash, in just yet.
“Uh, well he’s half Chinese, but looks more European. He’s a straw taller than you, thick dark hair, dark eyes, strong jaw.”
Just as Tristan finished describing his friend, he felt Ash’s attention fix on someone in the crowd. A moment later, before Tristan even had a chance to take a step, the man looked up as if he felt Tristan staring and waved frantically, smiling big.
Ash and Tristan both started at the man’s exuberant reaction. “Tristan…,” she warned in a low voice, looking around. She reached inside her own jacket and Tristan wondered if she had a gun on her since she’d reluctantly left her sword behind in the car.
“Just keep an eye out,” he said as he started to rush through the throng.
“Eric,” Tristan breathed, utterly surprised as his estranged friend walked boldly up to him and took him into a big hug.
“Oh, man, it’s so good to see you!”
Tristan took a step back and grabbed Eric’s face between his hands, staring at him like he didn’t believe he was really there. “It’s been so long.”
Eric laughed, taking another step back and dislodging Tristan’s hold. “It has. To be honest,” he said, smile slowly slipping away, “I was surprised when I heard from you. But I’m glad, we can’t go on not seeing each other, man.”
“Wait.” Tristan flinched when Ash touched his back. He’d been so focused on Eric that he didn’t even feel her sneaking up on him. But the touch was a comforting one, not a warning. “What do you mean?”
“Um…” Eric looked away, over his shoulder and back but didn’t meet Tristan’s eyes. “I missed you, you know. You left so suddenly and—”
“No no, you heard from me?”
“Er, yeah.” Eric met his eyes finally. “You sent me a letter by courier last night…” He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a folded bit of paper. “It looked like your handwriting, so I thought—What’s going on?”
Tristan reached out. “Can I see?” When Eric nodded, he gave a thankful little smile and took it. He was grateful his hands didn’t shake as he opened it, but he couldn’t hide his surprise when he saw his handwriting inside.
Ash, who’d been quietly taking it all in, standing just out of Eric’s sight, came around from behind Tristan. The other man gave a little start and smiled as he realized she was with Tristan.
“Hello,” she said and Tristan flinched, shooting her a look when he heard the Greek accent in her ashy voice. “I’ve heard so much about you, it’s nice to finally meet you. I’m Asta Moriakos, but, please, call me Ash.”
Now Tristan was plain outright staring, looking dumbfounded. Ash gave him the tiniest of looks, a warning to play along with her persona.
“Eric Freeman, nice to meet you too.” His grin broadened. “I’m guessing this lovely lady is your girlfriend?”
Tristan nodded, still in a daze. “Ahuh.”
Eric’s grin got bigger yet. “So, where’d you two kids meet?”
“Japan,” Tristan answered as Ash said over him, “Greece.”
The couple looked at each and Ash said, “We met in Greece.”
Eric, seeming curious about the obvious discrepancy, gave Tristan a look.
“Er, yeah. We met in Greece, but we live in Japan right now.”
“Man, Japan? Is that where you ended up after—” Eric pursed his lips and then huffed softly. “Look, man. We really need to talk, about a lot of stuff. I got us a table at Buddy’s.” The cell phone in his hand made a noise and he glanced at it, coming back with a big smile. “But there’s someone here who wants to see you first.”
When Eric turned his back on him, Tristan felt the tingle of goose bumps all across his body. He looked around but didn’t find anyone watching him. And he trusted Ash to warn him if there was.
“Over here!” Eric called out and Tristan whispered under his breath, “Gillian.”
Ash flinched. “You’re sure?”
“Of course I am.”
She scoffed and maybe had more to say but then there was an excited redhead throwing herself at him.
“Oh my god, it’s really you!”
Tristan laughed when Gillian tumbled right into him. He scooped her right up and spun in her a little circle, lifting her off the ground. And then they both were crying as she covered his face in wet kisses.
“I can’t believe you’re really here. I’ve missed you so much.”
“Oh god,” he whispered, shutting his eyes and hiding his face in her hair. “I’ve missed you too. I’m so sorry.”
“No,” she said as she motioned for him to put her down. “I’m sorry.” She wiped her tears away before reaching out and grabbing Eric, pulling him in close to her and Tristan. “We’re sorry. We didn’t mean for you to think we hate you. We just, we wanted to help and didn’t know how and—”
“No, Gillian.” He shook his head, smiling sadly. The few tears that had escaped were already gone but he felt like crying all over again. “I was the asshole. Look, there’s a lot I have to say but I just need to know, right now, are you okay?”
“Eh? Well, um, yeah. I mean, I’m feeling a little emotional but that’s nothing out of the norm. Am I right?” She gave Tristan a little punch on the arm as Eric snickered.
“Perfectly normal. But I mean, has anyone been bothering you lately? Anything… strange happen?”
She frowned, bunching up the freckles on her nose. “No. Not in particular. Unless you call seeing you again like this after so long, strange. What’s going on?” She looked to Eric and he shook his head.
“I just—” Tristan started and then stopped when he felt it, eyes widening.
“Sore wa wana da!” Ash hissed, her fingers tightening on his arm.
It’s a trap, indeed. He was starting to wonder as much and now, well, now he knew for sure.
Tristan cursed more than a little, causing the other couple to take two big steps away from him.
“Fuck me,” he said finally through gritted teeth, darting a look around. He could feel the fucker but damned if he could pinpoint where.
“Tristan, what’s going on?” Gillian almost looked panic, like she might lose him again.
“I, I don’t have time right now--fuck. We’ve got to go.”
“Go? But you just got here. I thought we’d have dinner and talk.”
Tristan sighed, glancing over his shoulder. Nothing but water and boats. “Dammit, I know, but I just, this is important.”
Gillian frowned. “So are we.”
He darted forward, almost too fast, and startled her but held on to her arms despite the fear in her eye making him want to flee in shame. “I promise, we’ll talk and really soon. Tomorrow, maybe, but right now I’ve got something super important to do. I’ve—it’s hard to explain.”
She considered him a moment and then swallowed hard, nodding. She glanced at Eric and then let her attention fall on Ash, considering her for a long moment before going to Tristan again. “Okay.”
“Okay,” he repeated and gave her a tender kiss on the cheek.
“Tristan,” Ash warned even as he felt the real warning closing in. God, they’d been so careless.
“I promise,” he said softly as if meant only for Gillian. “I’ll see you again.”
He heard her confused noises and whispered words to Eric as he and Ash put their backs to them and walked away. It broke his inhuman heart.
“I can’t believe how fucking stupid I’ve been.”
“We were both careless,” Ash said.
He shot her a furrowed look. “Not sure if I should be insulted or not.”
She sighed. “I should have known it was a trap.”
Tristan squinted up at the sky when he felt the first few drops of rain. “At least the rain will help clear out the area.”
Ash jerked to her left. “And none too soon.”
“Jesus,” Tristan whispered as he sensed the sudden presence of the vampires. It felt almost as if they were dancing in glee like a bunch of wood nymphs in the rain. “What the hell are they doing?”
Ash squinted at him. “You can feel that?”
“Yeah,” he answered, feeling a bit itchy all over. That he could tell they were several streets over bothered him too. He’d never been able to feel a vampire so far away. Worry tickled his nerves as he wondered if Apos had done something to him in those moments between being knocked out and Ash coming to his rescue. He didn’t care what Ash and Netty said, he wasn’t convinced that creature he met was anything but the First Vampire. “What is that? What the fuck are they doing?”
Ash glanced back as the night crowd gave a collective gasp when the sky opened up and pour down on them. Distantly, almost past the row of buildings where the museum and Mangia’s was located, were Eric and Gillian as they rushed for to their car. The complete opposite direction of the three vampires he felt.
Pushing a few stray strands of hair from her face, Ash sighed. “They are killing someone right now.”
Tristan’s eyes widened. “Then we have to hur—”
Ash shook her head. “It’s already too late.”
“But they’re not dead,” he hissed through his teeth. How he knew that, he wasn’t sure.
“He’s lost too much blood. It’s too late to save him, with modern medicine or vampire wiles.”
Tristan roared an angry noise, right there in the middle of downtown. He felt the presences pause, take notice of his frustration and then laugh at him.
“They’re mocking us!”
Ash put a hand on his arm, making him stop to look at her.
“How the fuck can you be so calm? They’re killing someone right now, right here in the middle of a busy downtown and you’re fucking calm like it means nothing to you!”
Ash knew his attitude wasn’t directed at her. He was a man, undoubtedly, led more by his actions than words. She didn’t even look fazed in the face of his rage.
“Human death means many things to me. Sorrow, for one, just as you feel. I just chose to keep it to myself, rather than scream and yell about it.”
Tristan sighed at her and shook his head. “Sorry. I know, okay? It’s just, I don’t understand what’s going on here and I’m frustrated and I’m… I don’t know.”
“Then let us un-frustrate together.”
Oh boy, did that sound like something completely opposite of what they were about to do. Shame too. He could use some vigorous frustration relief right about then.
“They’re over here,” he said, pointing to the east.
Ash nodded. “Yes, but there’s something not right about this. I just, I cannot put my finger on it.”
“Great,” Tristan grumbled.
“Is that the Naval Academy?” she asked when they came up against a brick fence.
“Uh, yeah,” he answered looking around, fighting desperately with the rain in his eyes. “I’m sure I felt them right here though. Ballsy fuckers to break the law right on top of the Academy. There’s MP’s n’ shit.”
“Master at Arms.”
“What?” he snapped.
“They are called—never mind.” Ash bit into her lip, tilting her head. “I never felt our foe move. One is completely gone now.”
“And the other two have split up. Should we?”
Ash frowned hard. Obviously she didn’t want to any more than he did but it was their best bet at catching the two left behind.
“It’s not like I can’t handle one alone. Not after—” He stopped short, frowning hard as the image of the child vampire burning alive in the sunlight bubbled to the surface. His eyes stung as phantom shrieks filled his ears. His stomach dropped into his belly when he realized he was hearing real shrieks of terror.
Ash eyes widened and she pointed the direction towards the docks. “You go after that one.” She pointed towards the water and the shrieks. “I will take care of this one. But be careful. That they can move without me sensing them…” she shook her head in dismay. “These two are dangerous.”
Tristan harrumphed. “Aren’t they all?” he muttered.
He started to turn to leave, thought second on it and spun back towards Ash. Almost as if she could read his mind, she turned into him in that same moment and they kissed hard and fast. He just hoped it wasn’t a farewell kiss. Then again, a good luck kiss didn’t seem right either, not with a dead body on the ground and three vampires in the wind.
Primal Burdens coming July 2017