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The Last of the Red Hot Vampires, Page 2

Katie MacAlister

Chapter 2


  "Na then, t'get ta the faery circle, gwain ye doon the road past Arvright's farm - ye know where that be, then?"

  By focusing very, very hard, I managed to pick out words in the sentence that I understood. "Yes. "

  "Aye. Gwain ye doon the hill past Arvright's, then when ye see the sheep, ye turn north. " The old man pointed to the south.

  "Is that north?" Sarah asked in an undertone, looking doubtfully in the direction the man pointed.

  "Shh. I'm having enough trouble trying to get through his West Country accent. " I turned a cheerful smile on the man. "So, I turn left at the sheep?"

  "Aye, 'tis what I am sayin'. Na then, once ye've skurved past they sheep, ye'll come to a zat combe. "

  "Zat combe?" Sarah's face was fierce with concentration. "I'm not sure I. . . a zat combe?"

  I wrote down the old man's directions, praying we wouldn't end up wandering into someone's yard.

  "Aye, 'tis right zat. Full o' varments. "

  Sarah looked at me. I shrugged and said to the man, "Lots of them, eh?"

  Behind my back, Sarah pinched my arm.

  "Chikky, too. They needs a good thraipin', but none here'll be doin' it. "

  "Thraipin'," Sarah said, nodding just as if she understood.

  "Well, thraipin' chikky varments is an acquired skill, I've always found," I said, continuing to take notes that made no sense. "So we go through the zat combe with the varments? Then. . . ?"

  "Ye be up nap o' thikky hill. "

  "Ah. "

  Sarah leaned close. "I recognized a word in that sentence. I think I'm getting the hang of this language. It's good to know that all those years of watching BBC America are paying off. "

  "And that's where the faery circle is?" I asked the man, trying not to giggle. "Up nap o' thikky hill?"

  "Aye. " The old man narrowed his eyes and spat neatly to the side. Sarah looked appalled. "Dawn't ye go kickin' up t'pellum on thikky hill. "

  "We wouldn't dream of it," I promised solemnly.

  "Ye maids be master Fanty Sheeny t'gwain ye ta the faery circle. 'Tis naught good ye find up nap o' thikky hill. "

  "Well, now, that's just lost me," Sarah said helplessly, turning to me for translation.

  I winked at the old man. "Really? Bad, is it?"

  "Aye. 'Tis evil. " He winked back at me, and spat again.

  "That's a common fallacy, you know," I said, tucking away the notebook. Beside me, Sarah groaned. "Although faery rings have been considered places of enchantment for many centuries, they aren't really made by faeries. They are the result of a fungal growth pattern. Mushrooms, you know?"

  The man blinked at me. Sarah tugged on my shirt and tried to pull me to the car she'd rented for the duration of our trip.

  "I know this area is rich in folklore, and faery rings certainly have their share of believers, but I'm afraid the truth is much more mundane. It turns out that there are three distinct types of rings, and that the effects on the grass depend on the type of fungus growing there, although not all rings are visible. . . "

  "Ignore her, she's a heathen," Sarah said, yanking me toward the car. "Thank you for your help! Have a good day!"

  The old man waved a gnarled hand, spat again, and hobbled past us toward the pub.

  "You are so incorrigible! Honestly, spouting off all that stuff about fungus to that very colorful old man. "

  I got into the car, taking a moment to readjust myself to the English-style cars. "Hey, you started this bet, not me. I'm just doing my part to win serious 'I told you so' rights. Ready?"

  "Just a sec. . . oh, whew. Thought I'd forgotten this. " Sarah folded a wad of photocopied pages and stuck them in her coat pocket. "I can't wait to see what effect these spells have on the faery ring!"

  "I am obliged by reason to point out that some weird quasi-Latin words found in a Victorian book on magic are not very likely to have any result other than making your friend and companion don a long-suffering look of martyrdom. "

  Sarah lifted her chin and looked placidly out the window as we crept through town. "You can scoff all you want - these spells were written by a very famous medieval mage, and passed down through one family over the centuries. The book I found it in was very rare: only fifty copies printed, and most of them destroyed. And I have it on the best authority that the spells are authentic, so I have every confidence that you'll be eating that long-suffering martyred look before the sun sets. "

  "Uh-huh. "

  By dint of Sarah consulting the hiking map she'd picked up in London, we tooled along the lazy river that wound around the town, headed over the stone bridge, and turned the car in the direction of farmland and the famed Harpford Woods.

  "Left side," Sarah pointed out as I strayed to the right.

  "Yup, yup, got it. Just a momentary aberration. Let's see. . . down past the big farm, then take the road south to a bunch of trees. Beware of the varments. What do you think a zat combe is?"

  "I have no idea, but it sounds fabulously English. Here, do you think?"

  We pulled off the road and got out of the car to eye the field stretched out before us. It was the perfect day for a walk in the country, what with pale blue, sunny skies, the bright green of the newly dressed trees, hundreds of daisies scattered across the field bobbing their heads in the breeze, birds chattering like crazy as they swooped and swirled around overhead, no doubt busily gathering nesting materials. Even the sheep that dotted the hillsides were picturesque and charming. . . at least when viewed from the distance.

  We gave them a wide berth as we followed what the hiking map showed as a right-of-way through a huge open pasture and up a hill to where a sparse crowning of trees waved gently in the June breeze.

  "This is so awesome. It's absolutely idyllic! And the emanations - my god, they're everywhere. We have to be close, Portia," Sarah said emphatically, looking around us with happiness. "I feel a very strong sense of place here. "

  "Yeah, me, too," I answered, stopping by a fallen tree to scrape sheep poop off my shoe.

  "I knew you'd feel it, too. I can't wait to try the mage's spells - they simply can't fail. Interesting arrangement of the trees, don't you think? They appear to make a circle around something. Shall we investigate?"

  "Lead on, MacDuff. " I followed obediently as Sarah, glowing with excitement, broached a sparse ring of trees. In the center, a space of about eighteen feet was open to the sky, covered in lush, emerald grass.

  "There it is!" Sarah grabbed my arm and pointed. Her voice dropped to an awe-filled whisper. "The famed West County faery ring! It's perfect! Just what I imagined it would be! It's like a holy place, don't you think?"

  I left her hugging herself with delight, marching over to squat next to the bare earth that marked the boundaries of the faery ring. The ring was about four feet wide, a perfect circle of bare earth surrounded by lush grass growing on the inside and outside of it. There was nothing to indicate the cause, no mushrooms visible, but I knew they weren't always seen. I touched the sun-warmed dirt, and mused, "I wonder if there's a lab around here where I could send a soil sample so we can find out just which fungus caused this ring?"

  "Infidel," she said without heat, slapping her coat pockets, pulling out the spell pages, and turning around in the way women who have forgotten their purses have. "Do you have the camera?"

  I cocked an eyebrow at her. "You took it away from me at Denhelm, if you recall. "

  "Oh, that's right - you insisted on taking pictures of the farmer's son rather than the bog man mummy. I must have left the camera in my bag. "

  "You have to admit, the son was much better looking than that moth-eaten old bog man. "

  She straightened up to her full five-foot nothing. "That bog mummy is said to have been used in a druid sacrifice, and thus could well contain the spirit. . . oh, never mind. I can see by the mulish expression on your face that you are closing yourself up to any and all things unexplainable. Let me have the car keys so
I can run back to town and get the camera. "

  "I'll do it - "

  A little sparkle lit her eyes. "No, you stay and meditate in the faery ring. Maybe if you open yourself up to the magic contained within, you'll see how blind you've been all these years. Here, you can read the spells over while I'm gone, but don't try them out until I get back. I want to see everything the ring has to offer!"

  I took the pages she handed me, plopping down to sit with crossed legs in the middle of the circle. "All right, if you're sure you're OK with driving on the wrong side of everything. " I plucked a piece of grass and chewed the end of it as I shucked off my light jacket. "I'll soak up a bit of sun while you're gone. "

  "Portia!" Sarah's eyes grew huge. "You can't do that!"

  "Do what, sunbathe? I'm not going to take off my clothes, just roll up my sleeves," I said, suiting action to word.

  "You can't eat anything that grows in the faery ring. It's. . . it's sacrilegious! In fact, I don't think you should be in the ring at all. I'm sure that's going to anger the faeries. "

  I rolled my eyes, chewing on the blade of grass. "I'll take my chances against the fungus. Remember to stay on the left. "

  She hurried off after delivering herself of a few more dire warnings as to my fate if I continued. I sat enjoying the sun for a few minutes, but that quickly lost its charms. I made a search of the area surrounding the ring, but there was nothing there but trees, grass, daisies and buttercups, and the wind whispering through the leaves.

  "Right. A little scientific investigation is in order," I said aloud to break the silence. I seated myself again in the faery ring, plucking another blade of grass to chew while I consulted the photocopies Sarah had thrust upon me. The text explaining the purpose of the spells was couched in dramatically obscure language, no doubt fooling the more gullible reader into believing its authenticity. "It's going to take a lot more than some lame attempts at mysticism to fool me," I muttered as I ran my finger down the spells. "Magicus circulus contra malus, evoco aureolus pulvis, commutatus idem dominatio aqua. . . oh, for heaven's sake, how hokey can you get? I bet this isn't even real Latin - "

  A glimmer of something caught the corner of my eye. I turned my head to look at it, thinking someone had dropped a penny or bit of glass on the ground that had caught the sunlight, but there was nothing.

  The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end, as if something that posed a threat was approaching.

  "Honestly, Portia, how pathetic is it that you're letting Sarah's chat about magic get to you?" I rubbed my arms against a sudden prickling of goose bumps, and gave myself a mental lecture about allowing someone's enthusiasm to sway my common sense.

  A little flash of light in midair had me whipping around to look at it.

  There was nothing.

  "Oh, this is ridiculous. I'm spooking myself, and over what? Figments of an overactive imagination. . . "

  Directly in front of me, something twinkled in the air again, just as if tiny motes of metal had reflected the sunlight.

  To my astonishment, the twinkling continued, growing thicker until the air around me seemed to collect, flashing like a thousand tiny, nearly imperceptible, lights.

  "I'm hallucinating," I said, closing my eyes. "It's the sun. I'm sun blind, or having heatstroke, or the fungus in the faery ring is a hallucinogenic. "

  I opened my eyes, sure I would see only the top of a sunny hill, but instead gawked as the twinkling lights gathered themselves into an opaque form.

  "It's got to be the fungus," I said quickly, getting to my feet and backing up out of the ring. "It's from the peyote family or something - "

  As I backed away, I stumbled over a lump in the grass, falling onto my butt. My mind came to an abrupt stop as the form turned into a person. I shook my head, blinking rapidly to clear my vision. "All right. Time to get some medical aid. This silliness has gone on long enough. "

  "Oh, there you are!" the hallucination said as it turned to me. "Thank heaven you called me. Quickly, we don't have much time. I must pass on the Gift and be on my way before they find me. "

  The hallucination - in the form of a woman, slightly shorter than me, with long black hair and brilliant blue eyes - stood over me with her hands on her hips, an exasperated look on her attractive face. "Merciful sovereign, are you faery struck?"

  "Don't be ridiculous," I answered, my voice coming out as a croak. I cleared my throat. "There are no such things as faeries. Oh, man, what am I doing? I'm talking to a hallucination?"

  The woman - I couldn't help but think of her as such when she looked so real - rolled her eyes for a moment, then startled me by grabbing my arm and hefting me to my feet. "Don't tell me they didn't conduct the preliminaries with you? You passed the trials, yes?"

  "That must be some serious fungus," I answered, brushing the bits of grass off my butt as I looked at the faery ring. "I could swear I felt someone touch me. "

  "Hello! Can't you hear me? I'm talking here!"

  "It's amazing, absolutely amazing. I'm going to have to get a sample for the nearest lab to analyze. This could be dangerous if children came across it - who knows what sort of thing they would hallucinate. " I dug through my pockets, hoping for a plastic bag or something I could use to hold a sample of the earth. Unfortunately, I had nothing on me other than a package of gum. "Damn. I'll just have to wait for Sarah, then pop back to town to get something - "

  "Are you deaf?" the woman in front of me shouted, waving her arms in the air. I watched her, amused at the lengths my imagination would go to under the influence of a delusionary drug. She looked quite normal, dressed in a tight pair of green pants and a chunky tan and green sweater. She was frowning, clearly unhappy about something.

  "I suppose I could humor my brain," I said, eyeing her. "At least until Sarah gets here. Hello. "

  "What is wrong with you?" the woman asked, slapping her hands against her legs. "Didn't you hear me? We don't have time for you to stand here and be strange!"

  "You'll have to forgive me. I've evidently been poisoned by hallucinogenic fungus spores. What did you want to know? And. . . this is silly of me, I know, but could you tell me your name, if you have one?"

  "Oh, for the love of. . . they were supposed to meet with you and fill you in when they gave you the summoning spells! Honestly, the incompetence these days, it's frightful. You'd think they could do something right after having a few millennia to work it out. My name is Hope. Who are you, please?"

  I smiled at the illusion, giving my brain and the fungus full marks for creativity. "I'm Portia Harding, of Sacramento, California, and I'm currently employed by a biomedical firm as a researcher in Atomic Scale Technology. Is there anything else about me you'd like to know? Favorite color? Perfume? Shoe size?"

  The look from her intense blue eyes had me forgetting for a moment that she wasn't real. "Your shoe size is irrelevant. We don't have much time at all, and even less now that I have to do everyone else's jobs and fill you in. I swear, if I ever get back to the Court, I will file a grievance about their slack ways. . . Where was I? Oh, yes, we don't have much time. Listen carefully, Portia Harding. What I am about to say to you is going to change your life. "

  "Oh dear - the fungus isn't doing some sort of permanent brain damage?" I said, backing away from the circle a bit more. I took a few deep breaths of sweet summer air and tried to calm the worry in my mind. This circle had been here a long time - I couldn't be the only person to suck the fungus off a blade of grass, could I? If it was truly dangerous, surely the authorities would have done something about it.

  "I am a virtue. I am in danger, grave danger, and I cannot stay or all will be destroyed. Do you understand? Everything! Life, existence as we know it, light and dark - it will all be destroyed. Your request came at the perfect time. "

  "Indeed. " The results of inhaling the fungus spores paced around me in an agitated way. I wondered how long the delusions would last. "I hate to sound stupid, but what request - "

bsp; "There is no time for lengthy explanations," she said, snatching up my hand and pressing it between her own. I stared down at them, amazed again at how real the whole fantasy seemed. Her fingers tightened around mine in a grip that I was almost ready to swear was real. . . almost. "I must leave now. As you summoned me, so I answer: unto you I bequeath the Gift. Use it wisely. The penalty for abuse is too horrible to speak of. "

  The wind whipped past us as my hand grew hot in hers.

  "This is absolutely amazing," I said, wishing I had my laptop to take notes on the experience. Heat from her hand seemed to creep up my arm, gaining speed and intensity. "I'm sorry, but I have to try this. . . "

  I tried to yank my hand from hers, but her grip was too strong.

  Her eyes lit with a soft glow as she looked deep into me, all the way down into my soul. It was such a piercing, intense gaze, that for a moment my body froze, leaving me unable to move. As she spoke, she released my hand and touched me on the center of my forehead. "My virtue passes to you, Portia Harding. May the sovereign protect you from those who would destroy you. "

  The heat that had started in my hand now swept through me, a fever of such intensity that I wanted to shred my clothes and find the nearest body of water. My skin burned, my blood boiled, my mind cried out for relief.

  "Oh, great. Now this stupid fungus is making me feverish. I just know I'm going to end up in the. . . the. . . whatchamacallit. Hospital. "

  The need for something to quench the raging inferno inside me left my brain confused and unable to focus, driving out all other thoughts but relief. I struggled to maintain control, to breath slowly and deeply until the worst of it passed, but the fever that burned me from the inside out didn't abate. It consumed me, sweeping me along in its inferno, pushing me deeper into its burning depths until I threw back my arms and screamed to the heavens for deliverance.

  A cold, wet drop hit my forehead. Another struck my cheek.

  "What. . . I. . . rain?" I panted, watching with wonder as, out of nowhere, clouds formed overhead, at first soft, hazy white wisps, quickly merging into clumps that darkened until they were heavy and foreboding. Soft little pats of noise indicated the rain that gently touched my heated skin wasn't just my imagination. . . all around me in the secluded copse, raindrops fell, caressing me, soothing me, blessedly taking away the fever and leaving behind a calm tranquility that gently eased the fire within. I closed my eyes and tipped my head back to welcome the blissful wetness. "Sweet mother of reason, I've never felt anything so good in my life. This is sheer heaven. "

  "No, this is the Gift. I thank you for your help. And now, I must be gone before they find me. "

  So wonderful did the rain feel that I had forgotten for a moment about my hallucination. I cracked an eye open to see if she was still there. The faery ring, and everything around it, was empty of all life but me.

  "Good. Maybe the hallucinogen is losing its power," I said as I swung around to make sure I was alone. Something odd struck me. I turned in a circle again, slower this time, my frown deepening as I looked upward to the cloud that still gently rained down on me.

  There were no other clouds visible in the sky - just a small one over my head.

  "You're part of the whole mushroom thing," I told the cloud. "I'm only imagining you're there, and imaging that I'm wet, and imagining that strange women are appearing and disappearing without cause. Oh, hurrah, Sarah is back. Sanity returneth. "

  Through the trees that ringed the hilltop, a flash of red heralded my friend's return. I was relieved to see her, and struggled with the idea of not mentioning to her that I'd been inadvertently poisoned by potent fungus, but concern that I might suffer some sort of permanent damage convinced me that it would be best to admit all, and seek medical assistance.

  "Sorry I took so long. I had a little difficulty with a right turn. . . dear god in heaven, what are you doing?" Sarah stopped about ten feet away from me, her eyes huge.

  "Hallucinating, if you must know, and all because you wanted to see a silly fungus ring. Would you mind taking me to the nearest hospital? My mind is under the influence of some pretty psychedelic mushrooms, and I think I need to detox somewhere quiet. "

  "You're. . . you're raining!"

  "No, that's just part of the hallucination. " I stopped, a little chill rippling down my back. "Wait a sec. . . are you saying you can see the cloud above me?"

  "Of course I can see it," Sarah answered, walking around me in a big circle. "I'd have to be blind to miss it. It's right above you, one cloud, raining on you. Nowhere else, just you. How on earth are you doing that?"

  "No," I said shaking my head, refusing to believe the impossible. "It's not really here; it's just an illusion brought on by hallucinogenic fungus. You must have been close enough to the ring to have breathed it in as well. We should get to the nearest hospital if this fungus is so potent. "

  "Don't be ridiculous, Portia," Sarah said, coming to a stop in front of me, her face beaming awe and delight. "It's the faery ring! This is part of the magic, although I have to admit I've never heard of rain faeries. Still, even you can't dispute that this is something well out of the realm of normal!"

  "Oh, I admit it's not normal to get high off of fungus found lying around on the top of a hill, but it's certainly nothing that can't be explained by an understanding of chemistry, medicine, and biology. " I thought for a few seconds, my eyes narrowing as I mulled over a possible explanation. "It could have been Hope. "

  "It could have been what?"

  "Who, not what. A woman by the name of Hope. Perhaps she was real after all. It's entirely feasible that this whole thing was a setup, you know. She may well have known that there was a fungus here with properties that left someone susceptible to hypnotic suggestion. "

  Sarah fixed me with a confused gaze. "Someone named Hope hypnotized you while I was gone?"

  "It would explain the delusion about the rain cloud. And the lights could have been the hallucinogenic starting to work on my synapses. Yes. I like that hypothesis. I am willing to bet that if Hope hadn't heard you coming up the hill, she would have tried to rob me. It's probably some sort of a scheme to fleece innocent tourists. We should definitely report this to the police, after we go to the hospital to get checked out, naturally. "

  "Portia, you're not making a lick of sense," Sarah said, shaking her head and pointing to where the fantasy cloud hovered over me, still gently raining. "I have not been hypnotized, nor am I under the influence of any drugs, hallucinogenic or otherwise. You have a cloud over your head, raining only on you. You are standing in the middle of a very famous faery ring, and you ate something that grew out of that ring. "

  "You're right," I said, stepping outside the ring. The rain cloud followed me. I ignored it as best I could.

  Sarah looked remarkably cheerful. "Really? You admit I won the bet? You concede that this is a bona fide paranormal event?"

  "Of course not! I meant that you were right about me ingesting the blades of grass I was chewing on. Not that I ate them per se, but if the fungal spores had been brushed onto them, and I put them into my mouth, it could well mean that Hope had no part in it, and it's all just an unfortunate coincidence. "

  "I think you'd better tell me exactly what happened while I was gone," Sarah said, pulling out a small voice recorder. "Start with the moment I left. Er. . . I don't suppose you can make that go away?" She pointed to the cloud.

  "It's not really here. You just think it's here. No, I mean I just think it's here. . . wait, that doesn't fit the hypothesis. . . "

  "Start at the beginning and tell me everything," she said in a businesslike, brisk fashion.

  I spent the time it took to fill her in puzzling out how she could be witness to my delusion. "It must be mass hypnosis after all," I concluded, eyeing the dirt ring. "There's just no other explanation for it. "

  "There's one all right, only you are too stubborn to admit it. Oh, Portia, this is the most exciting thing! I never thought to ha
ve met someone who's seen a real faery, but you've done it!" She gripped my arm, excitement bubbling off her. "And you said the faery gave you some sort of gift? What is it?"

  I lifted my eyes skyward for a moment, hoping for patience, but all I got for my effort was an eyeful of rain. "We need to leave. Now. This fungus is clearly muddling both our thinking. "

  Without waiting for Sarah to answer, I spun around and marched toward the ring of trees, hoping by the time I reached the road that I might be free from the effects of the fungus.

  "I'll be along in a couple. I want to get some pictures of this ring," Sarah called after me.

  "If you start to see sparkly little lights and a strange, paranoid woman, don't say I didn't warn you. "

  The wind picked up as I approached the trees, the circular arrangement of them giving the wind that whipped past an oddly hollow sound, like a mournful sigh. For some reason, the sound of it made me feel jumpy.

  "It's the drugs," I told myself as I pushed aside a branch, the hair on the back of my neck prickling. "I'm just a little susceptible to imagination right no - grk!"

  For a fraction of a second I thought a tree branch had slapped backward, striking my neck, but as a dark face hove into view, I realized that it was a man who had me in a stranglehold.

  "What have you done with Hope?"

  I was so surprised at being assaulted that my brain, rather than coming up with an escape plan, took a few minutes to notice that his voice was low and mean, with a faint Irish tone to it, while the eyes that burned into mine had a slightly exotic tilt to them. That wasn't what held my attention, though. . . his eyes were black, solid black, with no difference in color between iris and pupil.

  With both hands I grabbed the man's arm where he clutched my throat, subsequently cutting off my air supply, but his grip on me was steely and unmovable.

  "Let go of me," I wheezed, letting go of his arm to search my pocket for car keys or a pen or something I could use to defend myself against the attacker.

  He hauled me closer until little black dots swam before my eyes. "Tell me what you've done with her, or by god, I will snap your neck. "