Sex, Lies and VampiresKatie MacAlister
I blinked in surprise at the completely unexpected question. "I beg your pardon?"
"Imps? You are imp removals, ja?" The woman who had answered the buzzer connected to an expensive cream-colored stone building didn't look insane, but how many people meet you at the door by asking if you were there to remove imps?
Then again, it might have just been jet lag making me think she had asked about imps. What was far more likely was that the jet lag that had hit me in London was still fuzzying my brain. That, or she was speaking in Czech and it just sounded like she was asking about imps.
I shook my head to clear it, held firmly on to my smile despite its lopsided nature, and said slowly, "Good evening. My name is Nell Harris. I have an appointment with Mrs. Banacek. "
"Dr. Harris?" another woman sang out as she approached. "How pleased I am to meet you at last. I take it your flight from Amsterdam was an unremarkable one? Please excuse the mess - we've been positively inundated with imps of late, and poor Gertrud is at her wit's end. "
The voice - smooth, sophisticated, with just a hint of a Slavic accent - almost perfectly matched its owner. I dragged my attention from the woman manning the door (short, stocky, iron-gray hair, and a no-nonsense attitude that had me pitying the imps - whoever or whatever they were) to the graceful creature who floated across the marble-floored foyer. Melissande Banacek was not only the loveliest woman I had ever seen, but her lavish surroundings, expensive address in the heart of Prague, and what I was willing to bet was no off-the-rack pair of crimson and persimmon silk lounging pajamas clearly indicated a woman of no little means. Certainly she was wealthy enough to fly a dirt-poor junior professor of medieval history from Seattle to the Czech Republic on what amounted to little more than a whim.
"Imps," I said, utterly at sea. With my good arm I clutched my bag (beat up with one torn handle) to my chest (stuffed into a bra stretched to its limits to restrain overly abundant occupants), and wished for the tenth time that I had not succumbed to my curiosity (going to get me into trouble one of these days).
"Yes! Do you know how to get rid of them?" Melissande asked, gently pulling her hand from my death grip. "We've tried everything from martins to dragon's bane, but to no good. The infestation seems to be too much for such home remedies, thus we have called the imp-catchers. Come, you must be tired after your long flight. Coffee or tea?"
"Coffee, please," I said, my mind more than a little numb around the edges. Had everyone in Prague gone mad and I didn't know it? Or was I more tired than I thought?
"Do you know a good remedy for imps?" Melissande glided over to a cream-colored couch that perfectly matched the cream carpeting and cream satin striped walls. I sat down gingerly on an adjacent love seat, feeling more than a little as if I were cocooned in an eggshell.
"I don't even know what an imp is. You're - you're not joking about them, are you?" The feeling of the love seat, soft and enveloping beneath me, shook off the vague sense of bemusement that had gripped me since walking through the door.
Melissande tipped her head, her silvery blond hair sliding like a curtain of silk as she considered me for a few moments. "How silly of me. I read your file, and I should have remembered that although you are one of us, you have no experience in our world. "
The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. I wasn't jet laggy now, nor was I bemused. The woman in front of me - my employer for the next two weeks - was obviously quite, quite mad. Disappointed though I was at not being able to study a piece of armor from the much-discussed-amongst-medievalists-but-never-discovered Graven Plate of Milan, at least I had my return plane ticket and enough money to buy me a night's accommodation in the hotel at which I'd left my bags.
Making no sudden movements, I slowly lifted my battered purse from where I had set it at my feet, and rose from the love seat. "You know, I think I forgot something outside. Something. . . uh. . . important. Very important. I wouldn't want the imps to get into it, so I'll just run outside and make sure it's OK. "
A smile curved her delicately tinted lips and tilted already exotically tipped gray eyes so the Slavic influence in her heredity was obvious despite her pale coloring. "You think I'm deranged! How refreshing. Everyone here takes me so seriously, it's a wonderful change to be thought mentally deficient. "
The warning bells that had been going off in my head went into overtime. "You know, I think we've both made a mistake, Mrs. Banacek. So I'm just going to leave now, and everyone will be happy. "
"I'm not, you know," she called after me as I started to back slowly out of the room. "Insane, that is. I've simply introduced the subject to you poorly. . . oh, do mind behind you! Gertrud swore if I squashed another imp into the carpet she'd leave me, and clich¨¦ as it is, good help is so difficult to find. "
I swung around, expecting to see Gertrud with a meat cleaver about to lop off my head, or something equally as gruesome and deranged, but instead found myself staring down at a small creature about three inches tall. It was grayish-green, and was using one set of arms to pull a hairless tail from where it was trapped under my toes, while the other set pounded on my shoe.
"Week, week!" the creature squealed at me, clearly angry.
"Aiiiieeeeeeeee!" I screamed in reply, dropping my bag as I leaped what seemed to be an inordinate length across the room, landing on the love seat. My weak leg buckled under me, but I caught myself before I could tumble off.
"What the hell is it?" I shrieked, leaping up to do a horrified jig on the love seat just in case the beastly thing followed me and attacked.
"Imp," Melissande said sadly as the tiny green thing shook three of its fists at me before scampering out of the room. "Common Central European Imp, to be exact. There's some sort of Latin name for them, but I never can remember it. Not the brightest beings in the world, but not in the least bit dangerous. Not unless you attack their king, and then they do all sorts of nasty things while you sleep. Or so I've been told. "
"I've been drugged, haven't I?" I asked, still standing on the love seat as Melissande closed the door behind the imp. "You were sitting next to me on the flight from London and you put something in my Diet Coke, following which you smuggled me in through customs for some weird purpose, right? Because otherwise - "
"Otherwise you would have just seen an imp and your vision of the world would be radically changed, yes, I know. I'm very sorry I don't have the time to do this properly - indoctrinate you, that is - but my nephew has been held for three weeks, and now my brother has gone missing as well, and there simply is no time to be wasted. "
"Indoctrinate?" I asked, stepping down off the love seat and accepting my purse that she had picked up off the floor. I held it at arm's length in case one of those tiny green things had gotten into it. "This is a cult? You're going to brainwash me? I should tell you right now I don't have any money, and - "
"Nell," Melissande said, handing me a cup of coffee.
I took it, trying to covertly sniff it for signs of drugs. "Yes?"
"Sit down. I have a good deal to tell you, much of which you won't accept or believe, but we must be on our way to Blansko in an hour. "
"You're not going to let me go, are you?" I asked, ignoring the horribly weak tremor in my voice. I just wanted to put my head down and cry for a long, long time, but suddenly my life had gone so horribly wrong, I was sure I wasn't going to be given that opportunity.
"I will not hold you prisoner, if that's what you are asking, but I am begging for your help. " She shoved aside a coffee service and sat on the edge of the glass coffee table, waiting for me to sit down. I did, slowly, not so much because I was wary of her (it was obvious she was the one in power here), bu
t so I wouldn't spill the coffee on the spotless rug.
"Although I imagine an imp stain would be a lot worse to clean than coffee," I muttered to myself.
"A hundred times worse, but common household tips are not why I've brought you here. "
I took a tentative sip of the coffee, ready to spit it out if it had the least bit of an odd taste. It didn't. In fact, its smoky flavor was strangely familiar. My eyebrows rose. "Starbucks French Roast?"
"Of course. Is there anything else?"
"I'm a bit partial to their Sumatra blend as well, but you can't go wrong with French Roast. "
"Just so. Although don't you find Sumatra a bit spicy?"
"Only after a meal. Alone, or in a latte, it's perfect. "
"I've never tried Sumatra in a latte," she mused. "But I will do so at the earliest opportunity. "
From imps to Starbucks in ten seconds. I truly was going mad. "Mrs. Banacek - "
"Call me Mel," she interrupted. I looked at her. I couldn't imagine anyone looking less like a "Mel" than the sophisticated, elegant woman before me. She frowned. "No?"
"Um. . . I'm thinking not. "
"How about Sandy? Do I look like a Sandy?"
I shook my head. She sighed. "I've always wanted to have a nickname but have never been allowed one. Very well, Melissande it is, although I do think the name Lissa attractive. "
"Melissande," I said, setting down my cup and leveling a serious gaze at her. "You hired me to translate the inscription scribed on the inside of an early-fourteenth-century breastplate that has, until this date, remained firmly in the realm of the mythical. You sucked me in with a description and photos of the armor that were so tantalizing, I had no choice but to agree to your offer. I assume you brought me here because you wanted someone who is familiar with obscure European languages, but I'm beginning to feel that you have another purpose in bringing me halfway around the world. I would appreciate it if you would tell me just what that purpose is. "
She nodded. "A very reasonable request. I applaud both your frankness and your efficiency in going straight to the point. Quite simply, you are a Charmer, and I need your assistance to locate my nephew and brother. "
I froze, ice forming in my blood at the word that had so harmlessly tripped off her tongue. Charmer. It was a word I hadn't heard in almost ten years. Ten long years. I swallowed back a sudden lump in my throat, my voice suddenly hoarse. "I assume by Charmer you aren't referring to my excellent people skills?"
"No," she said, her eyes serious. "I mean one who has the ability to draw Charms. You are a Charmer. You were born a Charmer, although I understand that you have not used your abilities after an accident during your college years - "
I put a hand out to stop her, blind with sudden grief, a band of pain tight around my chest as I struggled for air.
"I beg your pardon, Nell. That was an unfortunate reference, but it has relevance to the situation. "
I shook my head to clear my vision, the memory of the dead, unseeing eyes of my friend slowly dissolving into bright silver-gray eyes subtly highlighted with expensive cosmetics, eyes that were watching me closely. "I am not a Charmer," I said carefully, my voice thick with emotion that I would not acknowledge.
She sighed, her gaze dropping for a moment to her hands as they rested on her legs. "I have a nephew named Damian. He is ten years old, and very dear to me, although I've been accused of spoiling him shamelessly. He was kidnapped three weeks ago. My brother Saer was away at the time, but as soon as he heard of the terrible event, he raced home and began to track Damian. Five nights ago he called me from a small town in the Moravian Highlands to tell me that he had found a clue to Damian's whereabouts. He believed the boy had been taken to England. Saer left immediately, and I have not heard from him since. I believe he, too, is being held prisoner, quite probably by the same being who is holding Damian. That or. . . another. "
The pain in her eyes was not counterfeit, nor did I think she was mad. At least, I believed that she believed what she was telling me.
"I'm very sorry," I said sincerely. "Have you contacted the police?"
"Police?" She looked startled for a moment, then shook her head. "No, the police cannot help me. My brother and nephew are beyond their reach. "
"I'm sorry," I said again, spreading my hands wide. "I wish I could help you, but I'm no detective, and certainly no expert in tracking people - "
"I do not expect you to find them for me," she interrupted.
"Then what - "
"You are a Charmer. The aid I seek from you - the aid I need - lies in your ability to charm. "
"I don't. . . I can't. . . " The pain swamping me was so great I could hardly breathe, let alone speak.
"My brother and nephew are Dark Ones," she said, taking a deep breath. "Moravian Dark Ones. I, too, am Moravian. Do you know what that means?"
I shook my head, too confused and distraught to think.
"Dark Ones have walked the earth all the ages of man, alike, but separate. Vampires some call us, although truly my people are not evil, not the horrible creatures common lore makes us out to be. Dark Ones are created either by a demon lord, or they are born to a father who is unredeemed. "
"Unredeemed?" I croaked, wondering if it was too late to change my name to Alice and settle down to a happy life of insanity in Wonderland.
"To each male Dark One there is one woman, his Beloved, who can redeem his soul. Those who remain unredeemed are forever damned. "
I opened my mouth to say that sounded like something out of a novel, but stopped. There was no use in agitating her further by pointing out that vampires - damned or not - were fantastical creatures that didn't exist.
Just like imps, a sardonic voice in my head pointed out.
I refused to think about that. "Let me just make sure I have this right - your brother and nephew are vampires, and you're one too; you drink people's blood to survive, but you're not bad or evil or anything out of a John Carpenter movie. Is that right so far?"
She nodded. "There is more to being a Moravian than blood drinking, but since we don't have time to go into the history of my people, we will suffice with the bare minimum. "
"Just out of curiosity - how old are you?" I asked. "Since vampires are traditionally held to be immortal and all, I assume you're immortal as well?"
"Only so long as I do not give my heart to a mortal, yes. I was born in 1761. "
I did a quick round of mental subtraction. "That would make you two hundred and forty-four. "
"Forty-three. My birthday isn't until December. "
"Ah," I said, then sat back and waited for the rest of the fairy tale to unfold. "Go on, please. I'm all ears. "
She didn't like the note of subdued sarcasm in my voice, but it didn't stop her from telling me the rest. "My nephew is being held by a demon lord by the name of Asmodeus. "
I had a better grip on myself now, so the name didn't freeze me into a block of ice, despite the boundless well of sorrow within me.
"I won't insult you by asking if you are aware of Asmodeus, since I know it was one of Asmodeus's curses you were attempting to charm when you. . . " Her gaze fluttered to the left side of my face where the skin was less taut than the right side. I didn't flinch under her inspection, having learned long ago that if I kept my face immobile, most people didn't notice the slight slackness on the one side. ". . . had your accident. "
"What I had was no accident," I said slowly, enunciating carefully.
She offered no reaction to that statement. "My nephew and quite likely my brother are being held by Asmodeus, bound to the demon lord by his curse. I need your help, Nell. I need you to charm the curse. "
"I don't know what you're talking about. Even if I did, there's no way I can help you," I said quietly, squelching down the feelings of pain and dread and horror that arose with her words.
She gave me a long look. "I can understand your reluctance to regain a part of your life that I'm sure you thought los
t, but you cannot deny the truth of what you are, Nell. You are a Charmer. Most of your kind learn their skills from mages and Guardians, and thus they can only undraw wards and perform simple protective charms, but you were born a Charmer. You are different. You can unmake curses. "
"I cannot charm. I never could. I left that all behind me ten years ago. " Despite my best intentions to remain calm and collected, my voice rose with each word.
Her eyes glittered brightly at me, so brightly it hurt to look into them. I was vaguely aware that she was weaving a spell of compliance with her words, but I would not fall victim to it. I gritted my teeth as her voice, silken with persuasion, rolled around me. "You are one of the few people who have the power to unmake the most powerful bond known to mankind - a demon lord's curse. "
"I will not charm," I ground out through my teeth, anger and fear forcing me to admit something I had worked hard to forget. "Not again!"
"If you do not help me, my nephew will be consumed by the demon lord. Do you know what happens to a Dark One who is thus destroyed?"
I shook my head, sick at heart with the knowledge of what she would tell me. Long-denied memories of a time years in the past tormented me. I wanted to shout to Melissande that it was so long ago, when I was young and innocent, and I believed what I had been told. I was special. I could make a difference. It was all so clear then, so exciting, so easy. . . until Beth died.
"His life force joins with the demon lord. In effect, he becomes him, one of the princes of hell. I would move heaven and earth to save my nephew from that fate, Nell, and all I'm asking of you is your help in bringing Damian home to me. "
I shook my head again, blindly reaching for my bag as I stood. "I'm very sorry for you, Melissande. I wish there was something I could do, I truly do wish it, but what you ask is impossible. I can't do it. "
"You mean you will not!" The words stung me with the force of a whip. Her eyes were molten silver, glowing hot with fury as she stood facing me. "You have it within your power to help, and you deny me!"
Anger, hot and deep such as I had not known for a very long time, burned in my soul, welling up to overwhelm the guilt that had bound me for so many years. "Do you know what happened the one time I attempted to charm one of Asmodeus's curses? Do you know the exact details of what happened?"
"No, not the details," she answered, her eyes once again moving to the left side of my face, down to my left arm. "It is said the charm backfired, that some trap laid by Asmodeus was triggered when you attempted to unmake it, and both you and a companion were injured. "
"You could say that," I said, my breath harsh as I struggled to control it. "If you call death an injury. No, Melissande. I will not help you. You may think I'm your savior, but I assure you I'm not. I bring only destruction, not salvation. I am a murderer, pure and simple. "