WE should have rented camels.”
Ash rolled her eyes. For such a short trek, Tristan had managed to complain quite a lot. The reason behind his aggravation however, worried her. His mind may have been currently blocked, but she knew him better than he realized. “There is no need to be so dramatic. Besides, this is Greece, not the dessert. If you want a camel you need to cross the water into Africa or parts of the Middle East.”
He was only half kidding about the camel thing. “Isn’t this Middle East?”
Ash stopped and spun, kicking up a big dust cloud that couldn’t be seen in the dark. There was no moon tonight, obscured by the thick clouds. Rain was on the horizon that they would no doubt be caught in and Tristan was whining like a toddler. She was becoming cranky herself. Suppose it was her own fault for walking rather than taking the car.
“Your lack of geographical knowledge in this modern age is disturbingly astonishing.”
Tristan shut his eyes, huffed and then opened them again. “I’m sorry. Okay? I’m just… exhausted. When you said vacation, this really wasn’t what I had in mind.” What he had in mind was being a lazy ass by a pool, drinking himself stupid for a week before returning to Japan to pack his shit up and move back to the U.S. with Ash. Contractors for their new place said they’d be done by March. Couldn’t come fast enough.
“You said you wanted to see my home, the place I was born.”
“Yeah, but…” Tristan stopped for a moment to look around. It was well after dark since they’d been walking for… for, well who the fuck knew. All he knew was that there was zero population and his feet fucking hurt in the only shoes he had to wear after Sebastian stole his good vampire-kicking boots.
After their stint in Paris, they hopped the first cruise out of Le Havre. Sebastian, the bastard faerie, boarded the ship with the couple but never got a chance to step foot onto dry land again. Tristan never said anything, but Ash could tell the fae’s inevitable parting upset him.
Eight lazy days later the couple then debarked at Itea, Greece. From there they rented a car and drove down into the Mani peninsula—a three-hour trip with Ash behind the wheel that should have taken nearly five—where instead of staying East, Ash was inexplicably drawn West, the opposite side of where she’d grown up. Perhaps, unconsciously, she didn’t want to return home, perhaps she was afraid to. Whatever the reason, Ash was regretting the decision now as staying in Gytheio would have been much closer to their destination near Passavas than Karavostasi was.
Ash sighed and went to Tristan, brushing the hair and dust from her forehead. She stopped close to him, neck craned to look up at his ridiculous height. “I apologize.”
He started. “For what?”
“I just, I forget.”
He raised his eyebrows in question.
“That you are human.”
“Hey,” he said with a mischievous little smirk, “that’s Uruwashi to you, Lady.”
“And that is Master vampire to you, Uruwashi.”
He smiled and drew her in for a kiss. He wanted more than a peck, something deeper and apologetic. Or maybe even an, hey will you look at that, what a great place to make out, sort of kiss. But Ash had her rules and dammed be all if she would break them.
Ash sighed as she separated herself from him, lest things get out of hand too quickly. She wanted him more than he understood, almost more than she could bear. She was hoping to make that clearer to him while they were here if things went the way she had planned, if she found her mother’s biblos... It helped that she was mostly healed from her ordeal with Lucien, a feat she was sure would take months. But with the substantial help of Sebastian’s faerie blood, her healing time was dramatically reduced.
Her left eye was still several shades darker than her right, but she could see out of it again—if only on a human level, but there was sight. And the skin on the left side of her body was darker from forehead to thigh, but not black and dry anymore. She only had to put up a small aura whenever she was in public, the effort not even enough to make her hungry... –er than normal.
“Last time I was here the trek took nearly a fraction of the time since I was in… vampire company. We can run very fast and fatigue very slowly. It had not occurred to me that you would need assistance.”
There was snark in her tone, but Tristan still felt cranky and he muttered something under his breath about needing assistance, albeit on the grumpy-toddler side, as he kicked up rocks, trailing behind. They’d been walking for too long. And all Tristan could think about right then was not how badly his feet ached or how the dust was clogging his sinuses or how they were in the middle of nowhere and how unsafe that was for someone who was allergic to daylight, but how much he wanted a drink. Which, despite his panache for it in the very recent past, surprised him a little.
Something happened when he met Ash, besides falling in love with her, that curbed his desire for drowning in alcohol. Killing Malik had nearly squashed that craving all together. He hardly thought of drinking at all once he and Ash started living together. But ever since they stepped foot in Greece… something just switched on again. That tickle in the back of his throat, that groan in his belly, they craved alcohol the way the vampire craved blood. But worse. Much, much worse.
“Vampire company, you mean Malik?”
He nodded, hating that the name came up. But the insane vampire was such a big part of who Ash was it was hard to avoid his name at all. Or the legacy he left behind. “When was the last time you were here?”
“Greece or my home specifically?”
He kicked at a big rock. Score! Hit that bastard tree. “Uh, both… I guess.” He was trying to sound as casual as he could, talking about something so sensitive.
“We left Greece in the winter of 1682.”
“And your home?”
“The night Malik killed me in the spring of ‘66.”
“Oh.” He shoved his hands deep into his pockets and let the silence hang. What could he say? Sorry? He’d said that plenty, apologizing for the crimes of another man. They’d already killed Malik together, so what more was there to say?
Tristan stopped and looked behind him. To the East the sky was aglow with city light, faint as it was, but he couldn’t actually see the city anymore despite being uphill. They were going to cross the whole damn peninsula soon.
Ash on the other hand was sort of enjoying the reminiscence of the slow stroll. It reminded her of simpler days when she would make this long walk as a human to go into the cities.
“Did you really live all the way out here?”
Tristan grunted, shoving his hands into his pockets. “You’d think that cities would expand out this way, not cluster on the banks.”
“True, a lot does change in three centuries. And yet, some things never do. The city there,” She motioned over her shoulder towards the direct east. “Gytheio was here in my time, though much smaller. I would walk there for supplies, food and such.”
“Looks a hell of a lot closer than where we came from,” he mumbled.
He was right, what was she to say? She could have saved them both a lot of grumbling if she’d taken them into Gytheio, a mere mile’s walk to their destination. Instead, cutting across rough terrain was an almost nine mile trek from Karavostassis, thirteen if they took the paved roads.
Tristan stopped and looked back again at the diminishing city lights between Gytheio and where they’d come from. “So why did the city never expand out here? There were obviously homes out this way if you lived out here. Hell, we passed a few awhile back too.”
“Yes, of course.” There were still homes out this way and beyond, just not very near to her old home.
“Why do I feel a but in there?”
Ash chuckled as she understood without needing to hear his mind that he was staring at her ass. He was so unassuming sometimes, it was refreshing. “What types of people live outside of cities, alone?”
She chuckled again. “Outsiders.”
“Seriously, you were an outsider?”
“In my time, in these lands, yes.” Before Tristan could ask it, she was giving him his answer. “Humanity fears the truths the pythia speak of. They are hardly ever wrong. They fear the power a pythia can wield, the crafts of their kind. Granted, the pythia are not always known as such. In my time we were called witches.”
“My sister and I.”
Right, her. He still was trying to process the whole idea that Lilith, a pythia--The pythia (as far as he was concerned), was Ash’s niece. But Ash herself wasn’t a pythia. “But you said because you’re a twin, and your sister was the one with the pythia abilities, that you’re a null.”
“I am—was. I was merely human, but I was born of a witch, raised by a witch, lived with a witch and by association and such, therefore I was a witch.” She paused for a breath before adding, “We are nearly there.”
He was frowning down at his feet, watching them as he walked when he suddenly felt it. He stopped short and spun, searching the dark behind him, hand unconsciously going to the gun tucked under his jacket. Did he really just feel that? No, that wasn’t possible, right?
“Uh.” He glanced back at her, quickly jerking his hand away from the gun.
Ash was stopped a few yards away, up the slope of a hill. She was close enough that he could feel her in his blood, but not so much that it was distracting. But it wasn’t the cold burn of her distinctive flavor that made him stop and search his back. He was sure, just for a second, that he felt another flavor mix in with hers. It was so fast and so faint, he wondered if it really happened at all.
“Nothing,” he finally said. “It was nothing.”
Ash’s demeanor changed as she shifted her weight to one foot, arms crossed over her chest, lips pressed into a thin line. She didn’t mind walking around naked, that was, without any human weapons, but she still missed the security of her beloved katana, Murasaki Kaeru. Perhaps sending it off with the rest of their things was a hasty retort to her need to get out of France as soon as possible.
“You are blocking your thoughts with a great deal of effort.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “What are you hiding?”
“What? Nothing. I’m just doing what you told me to. It’s kind of hard to let it go after I’ve got the mental block in place.” That was practically the truth. In the time it took them to get from France to Greece, Ash spent the majority of the trip teaching Tristan how to block his thoughts from any telepathic beings—and yes, there were more than just the vampire. Humans even, though a substantially smaller group than that of the vampire who were the most proficient of all the races. He’d had a hell of a time with it at first but after some real effort, he could bubble his thoughts just like she’d taught him. Only, once they were encased in his shield he found it very difficult to let it go. Almost painful. Unless he was upset, then the bubble just slid away like oil through fingers.
Ash sighed. She knew he was hiding something, but so was she. Back in France Yukihime gave Ash most of her stolen memories back. And then took some of Tristan’s. Ash wanted to tell Tristan everything she remembered, but didn’t know how to. She was only just coming to terms with the things she once knew, trying to truly understand them. How was she supposed to expect Tristan to understand if she barely could herself?
She also knew that Tristan couldn’t remember how he killed Lucien and it more than bothered him. He would start asking questions soon, questions she wasn’t sure how to answer. How could she possibly admit to him that she was afraid of what he was becoming? The guilt was starting to eat away at her. She knew she had no right to do that to him, but fear made one react even more rashly than love did.
Then again, it could have been the guilt he felt over allowing Sebastian to die right in front of him that kept him closed off from her. It was obvious he didn’t like the idea of killing the fae, but thought the man deserved it and hated that he felt that way. Tristan was a good man, but at his core, he was built to be a killer. It was a fact that was becoming very clear to them both.
“Just here,” she said and turned away to disappear over the top of the slope.
Tristan felt a twinge of panic when he lost sight of Ash and ran up the hill after her. Of course he could feel her, but he’d yet to learn to completely trust that instinct.
“Something the trouble?” she asked, blinking at him when he’d all but run into her.
“Nope, just trying to keep up.”
She smiled at him as if she understood what was really happening and took his hand. “There.”
Tristan looked to where she was pointing and let out a long breath. The cloud cover made it gloomy but he could see well enough to make out the shape of a rather comfortably sized building made completely of large gray stones overtaken by foliage and decimation. “Your home?”
“Yes,” she said in a small voice, smile lost to her sadness. “I was born here… and died here.”
He squeezed her hand, giving her a soft sympathetic look and then they were marching off again through the brush towards the home. When they reached the front of the house, Tristan let go of her hand and stopped to take a look around him. There was nothing else out here, just this little stone home with its crumbled stone fence. A mile, maybe more, to the west there was the glow of an electric light from a private home, but that was the closest anything to this place.
She gave a dejected little laugh. “Even after all these long years, people still fear the home of the witches.” She knelt near the wall of stone that’d surrounded the home to inspect the weeds. “It is sad really. It was such a beautiful home. But I suppose after so much death, a home is forever cursed.”
“You don’t really believe that do you?”
She looked up. “Oh yes, we Maniots were a very superstitious bunch. Even as a vampire, knowing what I know, I have a hard time letting go of those thoughts, silly as they might be. One cannot help the way they are raised.”
He smiled and held a hand out to her. “That’s true.”
Tristan frowned, taking a step back before she could touch him.
“As the bastard son of a whore, he should have served the house of pleasure as a mere house boy: cleaning and such. Instead, he was forced into service at the age of four.”
Tristan scoffed in disgust. He’d known Malik was a bastard child, but had no idea he was forced to become a whore and at such a young age.
“Despite his impressionable age and being told what he was doing was right, he hated it and wished to be free of his disgusting life. It was just a few years later that the rage reached a peak and he snapped. He savagely killed a cruel prince of the empire. It was only the unfortunate attention of a vampire that stayed Malik’s hand in taking his own life. Instead, the vampire directed that shame and hate onto Malik’s own mother. After he and his new patron killed every last living being in that place, Malik was given a new life.
“Vladislav, the vampire called himself. Vlad raised Malik in a very untraditional manner, even for a vampire. He taught Malik to kill efficiently and enjoy it with a perverse sense of pride. And once the boy was a man, a full-grown man with more worldly experience than most old men die with, Vlad killed him, making him the perfect murderer. A highly functioning sociopath with a lust for life and death.”
“So what, you’re saying you regret killing him now because how he was wasn’t his fault?”
Ash flicked him a dark look. “Being raised by Vlad did make Malik the way he was. He could not help but be the man he was. But no, I still believe he deserved to die. He was too sad and wretched to continue on. He knew he was wrong, deep down, but was unable to overcome his upbringing, centuries of being told wrong was right. It is nearly impossible to overcome something so engrained into a person.”
Tristan nodded his head slowly. He’d always known Malik was broken in a special way and now he understood that more clearly. There was a small part of his conscious that regretted the kill—he was raised knowing that killing was wrong. But the larger part, the part he was afraid he was losing to the Uruwashi in him, was glad. It was piece of mind, the small piece that it was, knowing that man was no longer around to hurt anyone else Tristan loved.
“Thank you,” Ash said softly as she wrapped her arms around Tristan’s waist.
He flinched, not even having notice her come up to him. “For what?”
She just smiled knowingly at him, giving him a warm hug. “Should we go inside?”
He looked past her, into the darkness. Maybe she could see where they were going but he was certain he’d be blind inside that dark house. Ash shot him a look with a huff and turned him around to dig in the back pack he carried and came back with a flashlight.
She smiled, patted him on the arm and stepped towards the house. She couldn’t pass the threshold. It had nothing to do with ancient, and inaccurate, vampire lore and everything to do with her own psyche. There was so much happiness and sorrow in this little home and all those feelings flooded her at once. It was hard to accept the good over the bad, but she wanted to remember this place fondly, not as the grave of a life she mourned.
“You okay?” Tristan asked softly, putting a hand on her shoulder.
The old Ash would have shrugged him off, insisted that she was fine and faced it alone. But this was the new Ash, no longer a child blundering around lost in the world. She was a woman now and would face her world with the understanding that no matter what, Tristan would be there to help her. It was okay to rely on him, even if meant looking weak. That’s what love was all about, right?
Ash sighed, looking up at him with admiration in her eyes. Sometimes she wished that he could read her mind as easily as she could his. Then again, perhaps that was not so wise after all.
She leaned into Tristan and gave him a small reassuring hug. “Yes. There are… so many memories.”
“Just take your time, I’ll be right here.”
She gave his hand a squeeze before turning away to wander about the room. Everything was as Ash remembered it. No, as Asta remembered it. Asta Moirakos, null pythia. That’s who she was in this home, not the person that died on the floor just there.
Ash stepped lightly across the floor as if it were made of glass that would fracture at any misstep. The cold hearth, the place where meals and spells were always on heat, was nothing but a big cave cut into the brick of the home. Some of that brick had started to crumble and weeds had grown through. She stopped just past the hearth, unable to take another step. There was an alcove on the left, a pair of small rooms to either side of the stairs that let up to the sky.
She was quiet for so long, Tristan was nearly unnerved by her stillness. Finally, he couldn’t cope with it any longer. “Are you okay?”
She didn’t answer right away, but eventually said in a small voice, “Father. I remember… Patera.” Her voice caught and she had to take a moment to gather herself again. When she spoke again, her voice was stronger, almost distant. “I cannot recall his face, but I remember the day he cut into our sleeping quarters to make these steps.” She turned her back on Tristan to look at them. “I was five, maybe. Eva and I stood by, hand in hand, asking question after question as if we’d practiced it, parroting off each other… Would have driven anyone mad, but not Father. He was patient and smiling, dripping with sweat and covered in dirt, answered every single question with that unwavering smile.”
Ash wrapped her arms over her middle, head tilted to the side in consideration. “Eva and I, we were so confused about the reason why. Why stairs, where do they go, what happens at the top and the such. His answer was different every time, but I remember one in particular. Asta, he said, these stairs will lead to the stars, just for you. And Eva, these stairs will lead to the truth that should be told to all.” She sighed, relaxing. “We were both so tickled, we stopped asking after that.
“He never had the chance to finish as he was called off to war mere days after he started the those stairs, the last thing he touched in this place.” She turned slowly to face Tristan again and pointed to a spot on the floor a few feet away. “And that, that spot on the floor looking like every other speck of stone, that was the last thing I touched in this place.”
Frowning, Tristan stalked slowly across the room towards her. “Where Malik—”
“Yes, and Eva, just there.” She motioned to the left.
Tristan stopped an arm’s length from her. He wanted nothing more than to reach out and take her into his arms, but hesitated. Why? Was it fear that she’d turn him away like so many times before when he tried to comfort her, show support for her? No. It had nothing to do with her and everything to do with that nagging—that feeling on the back of his neck, deep in his belly.
“Tristan?” Ash asked, voice full of concern. “Is there something the trouble? You seem uncomfortable.”
“You don’t feel that?” he asked in a whisper.
“What? What is it you sense?” Ash trusted his base instincts and wished he would learn too as well.
A voice from the front door said, “Me.”
Tristan spun, hand going to his jacket to open it and stopped, dumfounded for a moment as he tried to figure out who he was looking at. The face of this newcomer was remarkably feminine, but the sideburns and thick beard said otherwise. Even under the hijab, he could make out the very shapely physic of a woman. The breasts, they were bigger than Ash’s.
He forgot all about his gun for the moment. “Who the fu—” His question ended in a gasp when strong hands jerked him back, nearly taking him off balance. “Ash!” he hissed, “what the hell?”
“Vasco?” she whispered in disbelief. And hope. By the Goddess, she hoped this was Vasco and not the other one.
"Khat'e,” the newcomer answered in the negative.
Ash stiffened and Tristan reached inside his jacket for his gun. “Oh Goddess, please, no…,” she said in a shaky voice.
The newcomer’s mouth opened in a big smile, showing a set of rather grown-into fangs. This… person, whomever, he—she was, was a vampire and an old one at that. This vampire was the one Tristan had been feeling, there was no doubt. So why, when it was less than a dozen feet away, couldn’t he feel it?
“Ash?” Tristan questioned nervously. He had no idea if this vampire was friend or foe or what he/she’d been saying. And despite his profession, new as it might have been, Tristan wasn’t going to shoot the vampire for just being a vampire. He needed solid proof of wrongdoing again humans.
“Vasco, he is a dear, dear old friend.”
Ash had friends? Like, real friends?
“And this isn’t Vasco?”
“Then who is he?”
“She,” Ash corrected in a low hiss. Across the way, the vampire lifted her chin, eyes full of amusement as she watched in arrogant silence. “Genoveva. And she is far from friend.”
“I’m sorry, I’m confused here…” Tristan was sure he was looking at a dude. Sure, the face was soft like a woman’s, but after spending six months in Japan, he realized that faces weren’t always an indication of sexual identity. He couldn’t even count anymore how many times he miss-guessed dude or chick from face alone—they all had such pretty, soft faces. But this person, this was the first vampire he’d ever seen with even a shred of facial hair. Full sideburns that lead into a healthy thick beard. Caterpillar eyebrows to match, all in virgin white. Master vampire to boot. Great.
The vampire across the way harrumphed and lifted the hem of his robes to flash what was hidden within.
“Holy Christ,” Tristan whispered unable to avert his eyes. There wasn’t enough darkness to obscure Tristan’s view of the disfigured form of what he could only assume was meant to be a tiny penis and an even smaller sac, or flaps, he couldn’t tell. There was definitely something wrong with the general anatomy of it though. What, he couldn’t say right then, and no way was he getting closer to figure it out.
“I must share this wretched body with Asta’s dear, dear old friend, Vasco…,” she said in a mocking tone. “There’s more, below. Would you like to see? It’s a gashly bone…” She stopped long enough to chuckle at her own joke. “Of contention between dear, dear Vasco and I, what’s below.”
Tristan jerked out of Ash’s hold, position shifting into a ready stance. “Thanks for the offer, but I’m a one girl kinda guy.”
“How human of you.” The statement was simple enough. Only, the word “human” slithered down Tristan’s spine like an electric eel, overwhelming him with fear and anguish to the point where he was nearly paralyzed. Just nearly. The show of power did it for him and the gun came up, trained steadily on Genoveva’s head.
She gave the gun in his hand a dirty look, as if to say, “pa-lease”. “There is no reason to be violent. While I rather enjoy the sight of blood, I’m not in the mood. I just came for the witch.”
Witch? Did she mean Ash? “Why?” he snapped and then gave a little groan as he felt Ash tap into her deeper power. She was going to draw on her seikonō. That wasn’t like her at all. Just what the fuck is going on?
Genoveva tisked. “Still holding a grudge, Asta?”
“You tried to destroy me, everything that I was and believed in!” Ash yelled, sounding scared but fiercely determined. “You spent years and years torturing me. You are utterly mad and tried to take me with you!”
Tristan was finally starting to understand just who this Genoveva might have been to Ash.
“Yes, that’s right,” the epicene vampire said to him, making him realize he’d lost the hold on his mind, allowing the vampires in. “We’re related, in a sort. My Master is Asta’s Great, Great Grand Master. So you see, we’re bound by blood.”
“Good for you, but she’s free to be with whomever she wants and that’s not you, pal.”
“Never again!” Ash screamed and then the entire building shook as she sent out a burst of seikonō energy, calling upon the earth beneath their feet.
Tristan lost balance and was tossed backwards as the earth rippled up under him. Ash was already across the room and on Genoveva by the time Tristan realized he was on the ground. He grunted, lifting the gun to fire but the earth shuddered again. He didn’t even see it coming, the chunk of rock that made up the ancient ceiling. The damn thing was the size of a softball and took him right in the temple and then it was lights out.
Ash screamed a few words of frustration in Greek, lunging for Genoveva again after having been thrown off. The vampire smiled, showing an impressive set of fangs. She didn’t even have to lift a hand to stop Ash and they both knew it. This time when the earth trembled, it was at Genoveva’s behest and it was phenomenal.
Stone chunks the size of kittens rained down all around them. Ash cried out for Tristan, frightened for him, but she knew it was futile. That last bit of stone he took to the head had knocked him out. She could still feel his life, hear his heartbeat and breath, but he was out cold. It was up to her now to make sure they both left the place alive. But as she looked into the face of her friend and foe, as the earth shook beneath them, as the power of her elder overwhelmed her, weighed down on her soul, crushed her physical being to bring her to her knees, she knew that it was a feat she would fail at again.
Ash shut her eyes and let the pain of defeat take her as she whispered, “All I ask is that you leave him alone, that no harm comes to that man.”
“You would give up everything to save this human?”
Ash opened her eyes again and gave Tristan a longing glancing, hoping that it wasn’t the last time she saw him. And even if she did parish at the hand of the mad vampire, he would at least live on to do his work—something she’d been reluctant to admit was very much necessary.
The other vampire narrowed her eyes at Ash. She was trying desperately to probe the younger Master’s mind and failed despite their strong blood tie and Ash’s weakened state. The trouble with Ash, Genoveva had come to realize, that when someone was trained as vigorously to abstain such as she was, they learned to use their gifts to the their best advantage in such a low state of being. That said, Genoveva was sure the day they went head-to-head on equal terms might actually mean the younger--weaker Master Earth vampire would defeat her with an awe of skill.
Genoveva stood over Ash where she knelt and smiled darkly, thinking this day was not that day. Or ever. “And why do you think I will agree to this?”
“Because you only want me.” Ash was shaking now, but she refused to let the fear shut her down.
“You love that human.”
“I do. But he has nothing to do with this. Even if you use him to try and hurt me, it would matter for naught. You know how I am.” Ash held her breath, hoping that she was blocking her mind as strongly as she thought she was. She couldn’t afford Genoveva in her head. She couldn’t afford Genoveva to discover what Tristan really was.
The elder’s mouth curled into a disgusting grin. “Done,” she barked out in angry Arabic.
The world fell silent, the gasp before the scream and Ash shut her eyes, giving herself over to the only person who’d ever scared her more than Malik.