The Red Circle
By DB Nielsen
Aislinn was in a blood rage. It came upon her more frequently now, as did the nightmares. The murder of her sister. Primae Noctis. So many deaths, both human and immortal.
One Druid down. But two more were still out there.
It was driving her on tonight. She felt reckless and daring.
The Norton Commando ate up the darkness, hugging the ice-slicked streets with ease. As it breasted the rolling parkland of One Tree Hill, Aislinn saw the city of London below shrouded in white, as if under a funeral cloth of new-fallen snow. From her vantage point on the motorbike, the road bent steeply downward into the dark.
Despite the limited vision from beneath her visor, she saw the slippery black ice on the road surface, mentally taking note to avoid it. But she refused to drop the motorbike to a lower gear. She sought the thrill of speed.
As she crested the hill, it momentarily seemed as if she was flying into London, falling from the heavens on a big, black beast as her tires left the ground and she soared nearly forty feet in the air before landing with exhilarating precision to take the next hair-raising, icy bend in the road. Even professional, daredevil stuntmen would have avoided such madness under these deadly conditions. But tonight, she was pushing the limits, exorcising her blood rage, craving a challenge.
One down. Two to go.
Ten minutes later as she entered the city’s narrow streets, she propelled the bike around a sharp corner and dropped down to street speed to avoid the police patrols on duty. The last thing she needed was something as mundane as a heavy fine for speeding or reckless riding, since it would place her on their grid. Given her surging blood rage tonight, she didn’t need any trouble with the humans, nor with the leader of her coven.
The steering instantly felt heavier with the drop of speed, but it wasn’t necessary for her to concentrate much to ride smoothly through the maze of tightly packed lanes and narrower side streets. This was a familiar route, and Aislinn and her bike were like one entity.
She loved her Norton Commando like it was her very own baby. It was breathtakingly fast and sleek, often demanding and difficult, but a seriously badass bike. She loved the wildness and freedom it gave her, but she could only open the throttle away from the city streets, allowing it to roam like a predatory, nocturnal animal engaging in a hunt. Like tonight.
But even though she’d fed well tonight already, she was left feeling unsatiated. The blood rage continued to simmer away.
One down. Two to go.
Soon, she silently promised her sister as she entered the secured parking lot. Soon, there will be justice.
The engine’s deep rumble broke the tomblike silence of the almost-empty underground facility as she sidled up beside the large bollards in the “motorcycles only” bay. She hooked out the kickstand as the engine’s rumble subsided to a low, angry growl, then to a harmless, kittenish purr, then perfect silence and stillness.
Removing her helmet, her platinum-blonde hair spilled down her back, and she shook it loose and dismounted, swinging her leg off the bike in one fluid, easy motion. Her long, black leather jacket fanned out behind her as she took two purposeful strides forward before glancing back at the bike. Her baby. It looked like a petulant supermodel, glowering at her under the flickering lights. An angry panther being forced back into a cage at the zoo.
She smiled, and it illuminated her preternaturally stunning face.
“Don’t be like that, beautiful,” she said, crooning words of endearment and praise. “I’ll be back for you soon.”
A discordant, raucous laughter filled the hollow underground chamber, reverberating from the concrete and metal, like the crazy jangling of keys.
“Baaaddddaaasss,” the voice drawled, setting off another round of jarring laughter. “B-b-badass. Badass.”
She’d sensed him as she’d ridden into the parking lot but had hoped to avoid any trouble. There was a strange murk—a distinct smell of something putrid and foul about the figure lurking in the shadows, suggesting he was seriously ill. She fought honed instincts urging her to immediately strike an aggressive pose in self-defense and forced herself to turn around slowly. Very slowly. She didn’t want to spook him. After all, he could just be a harmless loony desperate for something to eat and not full-blown crazy.
The figure detached itself from the shadows, and Aislinn realized her mistake.
Nope, full-blown, batshit crazy. Great. Just great. My lucky night.
He had the bulky frame of a bodybuilder jacked up on steroids, with dense muscularity in his chest and limbs, but that wasn’t what caused the prickling sensation on the nape of her neck.
It was the slack expression on his face and the way his facial features had an almost reptilian appearance with the slivered, long ivory incisors. He wore dirty jeans, a faded T-shirt, and a Russian military-styled trench coat, which might have explained his shaven, heavily tattooed head. He was also barefoot, since the digits of both his hands and feet were tapered to razor-sharp claws. She’d never seen anything like it in all her immortal life.
He was a vampire like her. But unlike her, he wasn’t sane, and his humanity had disappeared long ago to become something much more monstrous.
Aislinn looked at the ruined form before her. No longer human, not a normal vampire, but undeniably a monster. He had a feral look about him. It was there in the dark spheres of his eyes and the way his snakelike tongue darted out as if to smell the air.
Careful, Aislinn. Stay sharp.
She remained frozen, trying not to startle him into doing anything rash. Her hands rested loosely by her sides, and she could feel the familiar weight of her skean, sheathed on her hip. Hopefully, she wouldn’t have to use it tonight, though there was something to be said about mercy killings for such a creature. Not only did it put them out of their misery, but it also spared the hapless humans who became fodder in their primal urge to survive.
He took a step forward, and the white Mark of Cain on his forehead flared briefly in recognition of another vampire. He could see she was a Malum, stronger than him and not to be messed with in her answering obsidian Mark blazing beneath pale skin, but he was too far gone to heed the warning.
“I like your license plate, girlie,” he taunted, referring to the in-joke shared between her close circle of friends.
Her motorbike sported the license plate “Badass”, a joke the mad Nubes wouldn’t understand since he didn’t know who she was and what she was capable of.
He stared with lust, taking in the angelic, pixie-faced girl. But it was the bike he was after, not her. “I like your ride.”
His jaws opened as he drooled, showing his fanged teeth. Again, his long, blackened tongue flickered out between wet lips as he gave a low hiss.
“Thanks,” Aislinn said politely with a nod in his direction. She was still hoping to leave the parking lot without trouble, hoping that appearances were, in this case, deceptive. She couldn’t help comparing the monstrosity standing a few paces behind the row of parked cars with Psychic Seth.
The other feral Nubes was as mad as a hatter, but he wasn’t violent and had somehow managed to survive on the blood of animals and the waste material from hospitals rather than attacking humans. She was starting to think of Seth as—well, she wasn’t quite sure what to call him. He wasn’t exactly a friend, but he was more to her than just an acquaintance. Truth was, she felt sorry for him, and for some inexplicable reason, she felt responsible for his wellbeing.
Caleb would have said it was simply her habit of adopting strays. Maybe. But the jacked-up, crazy vampire who was now eyeing her motorbike in a possessive manner would never be one of them.
He took a twitchy step forward. His limbs were jerky as if he couldn’t quite control them, and his hands clenched and unclenched spasmodically, though he seemed unaware of it. His right shoulder gave a nervous jerk every now and again that seemed to rattle down the length of his body, ending with his legs jiggling madly, causing his claws to tap noisily on the concrete floor of the parking garage.
Aislinn braced herself, ruthlessly suppressing the blood rage. It would have been all too easy to lose control. But she didn’t like killing her own kind, any more than killing humans. Particularly Nubes.
It was a sad fact that not all human candidates survived the turning process to become what they hoped. Many couldn’t endure the punishing, painful three days it took for them to turn. The vampire blood they’d ingested was like a poison in their system, which ended up killing them instead of transforming them.
Aislinn suspected it was due to the potency of the sire’s black blood and the intrinsic goodness of the human, but there was no real evidence of this. Still, it was as good a guess as any.
But some of these newly turned vampires didn’t die. Nor did they truly live to be reborn as full-fledged vampires. Some Nubes survived the transition only to be driven insane in their first, usually unsupervised feeding frenzy. These unfortunate victims of a botched turning were heavily infected with madness. And sadly, most of them were abandoned by their sires and left homeless, roaming aimlessly, biting humans in a feverish blood rage or, instead, starving on the streets. And some became dangers to themselves and to the coven since their lust for blood was uncontrollable and insatiable. Like the corrupted vampire in front of her who reeked of the unwholesome stench of death and decay.
“Beautiful b-b-bike. Bee-eau-ti-ful. Beaueewooo–ti–ful.” The sing-song voice ended in a low growl that bubbled from the back of his throat.
Holy shit balls! This motherfucker’s a real pack of mixed nuts, Aislinn thought, staring at him in distaste. Seriously. I don’t have time for this shit.
“I said I like your bike,” he repeated on a sour note as if she had ignored him. His nostrils flared angrily.
He was beginning to annoy her, and she wondered whether she could just kill him now or whether she had to wait until the formalities were over and he made the first move.
“And I said thank you.” Aislinn’s voice was flat, emotionless. Her eyes held a warning though they remained a steady, bright blue.
He snarled, and spittle flew in all directions. “What are you, girlie? Stupid? I said I like your bike. I w-w-want it. G-g-give it to me.” His stutters were accompanied by the tapping of his feet on the concrete.
She laughed, and though it wasn’t a pleasant laugh, it tinkled like bells around the empty parking lot. “No. Sorry, not sorry. That ain’t gonna happen. Especially when you’ve asked so nicely too.” Her eyes flashed obsidian in a deadly cold rage. Razor-sharp incisors broke through her gums, snapping down into place in a matter of seconds.
The beefy vampire didn’t like her answer. A high-pitched shriek tore itself from his throat, and he launched himself at her, jumping over an entire row of parked cars, lunging forward with a savage animalism in his movement. He was so jacked up that it lent his madness enormous strength, and he bounded over the cars with little effort, landing on the balls of his feet as he reached for her with needle-like claws.
Aislinn easily avoided the grasp of his thick arms and hands, sidestepping and wheeling away as if in an intricate dance. Her actions enraged the Nubes further, and he snarled, lips drawn back to reveal the elongated fangs. He pulled back his twitching arm, intending to slam it forward into Aislinn’s face, but she danced around him again.
“No! No no no no no no no—” He gurgled unhappily, his tongue flicking in and out of his mouth agitatedly. “Stop it stop it stop stop stop—”
And then he seemed to change his mind about her and hurtled toward the Norton Commando instead. It was unclear what his intentions were, but Aislinn leaped in his path to stop him. He unexpectedly knocked her to the floor, her head and shoulders slamming hard against the concrete.
She was surprised by the power in him, though there was no explosion of pain. As she stared into his hugely dilated black eyes, she recognized he was possessed by an unnatural, drugged viciousness. This wasn’t just simply steroids. It was something more, but she didn’t have time to think about it now. His face was up against hers, and the foulness of his stinking hot breath made her want to gag.
She shoved hard against his chest, and he flew backward into the air, slamming into the level above and landing like a cat on all fours amidst raining pebbles of bloody concrete. He let out a demonic wail that was cut off on a chortle, but it was difficult to tell whether he was enraged or enjoying himself. His lips twitched as his jaws opened, more drool running down his chin like a slathering animal.
Then he rushed at her again, and this time, Aislinn grabbed him by his coat collar and slammed his body against the concrete wall. His face smashed hard enough to crack the cartilage of his nose, and blood gushed out, mixing with his saliva. She pulled him back a little way and pushed him forward again. And again. Slamming his face into the wall each time. She hoped to knock the incisors out of his stinking mouth.
“This just isn’t your night,” Aislinn said, now holding the skean in her hand.
Instead of responding, the vampire suddenly spun around and kicked his leg out with shocking speed and strength, sending her crashing into a concrete pillar. She saw and heard the skean clatter across the cement—at the same time as the Nubes.
He staggered after the knife, which had come to rest under the wheels of an SUV. But Aislinn immediately dived forward and tackled him to the ground, grabbing his arms and pinning them behind his back to immobilize him.
“I’m gonna kill you. K-k-kill you.” He wrenched himself away, back arching, thrashing like a fish on a hook. His pumped-up, jittery limbs were thumping and rattling, and it was impossible to tell whether he was arching deliberately or reflexively, even as he began to buck wildly beneath her. “K-k-kill. You. Girlieeeeeeeeeeee.”
And Aislinn realized he meant it. He was going to kill her. He was so far gone, there was no hope for him. And there was no way this was going to end well.
She had no choice.
She let go as he reared upward, and in split-second timing, she dived across the floor to retrieve her skean. Her fingers made contact, gripping the bright hilt hard, and she flipped from her stomach where she lay flat on the hard floor to spin in the air, legs cartwheeling over his head to land lightly just behind the drugged-fueled Nubes. Impossibly, his shrieks grew in volume, and he turned on her to tear her to pieces, eyes lit with blood rage.
Holding the skean in the manner Caleb had taught her as the vampire flew at her, hissing and screeching, filling the empty parking lot with his rapacious cries, she swept out her arm in a powerful arc and felt the sharp blade slice through flesh and bone.
The burly vampire collapsed to the floor, body twitching, momentarily causing grisly splattering across the nearby cars, and then lay still. His head was still attached to his body, but only just. Black blood dripped onto the concrete like slick oil, already forming a small puddle.
“Oh man, this is bad,” Aislinn muttered under her breath. “Vlad’s hairy ass and tits!”
Reluctantly pulling her phone out of her jacket pocket, she automatically pressed the number—which appeared not only at the top of her most recent list but was the single most called number on her screen—with trembling fingers. She was going to have a hell of a time explaining this one.
The night had barely begun. It wasn’t even happy hour.
Taking a deep, fortifying though unnecessary breath, she waited for them to answer her call. It rang and rang and rang until she felt a surge of hopefulness that it was going to go to voicemail. But at the last second, finally, someone answered.
“Good evening, Prima Aislinn, how may we assist you?” the cool voice on the other end asked.
Aislinn flinched as if scolded by her drill sergeant and reluctantly stated, “Um, yeah, hi there. I’d like to engage the services of the Cleaner.”
By the time Aislinn headed into the Nocturne, the nightclub she co-owned with Caleb in the densely populated vampire district of London, the news of her disastrous evening had already spread and been blown all out of proportion. She’d already heard from different sources that she’d fought off a zombie, taken down an assassin posing as a homeless man, and singlehandedly overcome an immortal guerrilla force that had been terrorizing the coven.
She wasn’t impressed.
There was a saying which all vampires knew. It came from an old German poem, “Denn die Todten reiten Schnell”, meaning “For the dead travel fast”. Aislinn murmured it in disgust as she ruthlessly wiped dry the wine glasses, wishing that the tea towel she was tightly holding could be used to strangle someone.
Her fangirl, Mia, was sitting at the bar, gossiping about the latest rumor.
“—kicked his skinny ass, and then you took out the underground Russian vampire mafia boss with a paperclip. I can’t believe I missed it. You slayed it. You’re like so totes awesome. I wish I’d been there. Goals AF!” Mia squealed breathlessly in her high-pitched voice.
Aislinn’s eyes flashed like gunfire—two jet-black, piercing stakes aimed at the vacuous foreign exchange student whose guileless words made her black blood boil. The wineglass broke in her hand. What the Vlad? A paperclip? Who came up with this shit?
“Let’s not shatter all the glassware,” Caleb murmured, plucking the broken wineglass she was holding from her vise-like grip before she severed someone’s artery with it. The burly bartender was trying hard to stifle his laughter at his younger partner’s livid response to the fast-spreading gossip. “I’d prefer not to have to purchase new stock just yet, seeing as we bought extra in case of breakages. Though I think we’ve already gone through most of them tonight.”
Aislinn rolled her eyes at him. She continued to mutter curses under her breath, even too low for a vampire to hear, moving on to wiping down the countertop at a speed that was guaranteed to wear a hole in it.
What Aislinn didn’t need on a night that included a run-in with an insane Nubes and a gossip-fest that would last centuries, was to listen to the dyed-blonde Sanguis wannabe pointlessly chattering away in front of her.
But what she needed and didn’t need didn’t seem to make much difference to the fates.
“So I managed to convince the Tailor to put holes in the same style leather dress, which he was reluctant to do, but as you’re one of his elite clients—” Mia babbled on with Aislinn only paying minuscule attention.
The Nubes she’d been forced to kill was jacked up on something more than just steroids. She’d heard there was a new drug on the streets. It had Julius worried. Maybe he had a right to be worried, especially if the effects were anything like she’d seen tonight. But surely, drugs couldn’t change a vampire that much. After all, they were immune to almost everything.
“—ordered from Milan, but now with all the knock-offs from China, all the girls are wearing it and it’s so unfair—”
Suddenly, Aislinn’s eyebrows snapped together, and she seized on Mia’s chatter with dawning horror. “Wait. What? What did you say? You did what?”
Mia grimaced in annoyance, sipping on her blood cocktail. “Yeah, like I said, I ordered my dress from Milan directly through the Tailor in Mayfair. And then some sweatshop in China or wherever copied it. And it really annoys me too because I spent a fortune—”
Aislinn finally was listening and, suspicious, leaned over the counter to look at the female vampire seated directly opposite her. Fixing her gaze, her eyes ran up and down Mia’s length from her blonde roots to her stiletto shoes. To her shocked dismay, Mia was wearing an exact replica of the black, slinky leather dress with its geometric metallic design around the hem which Aislinn had worn last to Styx, complete with the large gash in the side where she had been staked by a hunter.
Stunned, looking up, Aislinn’s eyes ran around the club, taking in at least half a dozen young girls, fashion victims, wearing the exact same outfit. Horrified, she remembered when they copied the flapper girls of the 1920s, then the Twiggy look during the 1960s, and the popstars of the 1980s with lace gloves, bellybutton-baring miniskirts and cone bras—except that now she was the idol they were copying!
“No Vlading way!” Aislinn said harshly, giving a brittle laugh.
“I know. Right?” Mia, oblivious to the meaning of Aislinn’s words, agreed. “It’s hardly fair.”
Abruptly, Aislinn released a low growl from the back of her throat. Caleb’s strong hand caught her shoulder before Aislinn launched herself across the bar at the empty-headed girl. She glanced back at him and frowned darkly.
“That’s it,” he said. “Let’s go down to the cellar and take inventory.” He ignored the fact that she’d done the books only last night before closing, his gruff voice pitched low enough for her ears only. “Something’s got you mean as a rattlesnake tonight, princess. Let’s try not to kill our paying customers. Downstairs. Now. Go.”
Caleb was right.
She was ill tempered and out of sorts, and had been all day, perhaps all week. And she knew exactly whose fault it was too.
Signaling to their manager in training, Lark—the pretty, elfin-looking Sanguis whose olive skin was complemented by her silver-violet ombre-dyed hair—that she was taking a break, Aislinn preceded Caleb downstairs and into the relative quiet of the storeroom cellar.
It was dimly lit, with only the clinical lighting glowing from within the glass doors of the state-of-the-art, med-lab refrigeration units stacked along the walls illuminating the large space. Caleb crossed to the closest one, filled with rows of hanging blood bags, bottles, and trays of vacutainers, and removed two blood bags from the top rack. Aislinn raised a pale eyebrow but didn’t comment.
She was slightly surprised since Caleb was such a stickler for rules from his military training. It was always supplies before surplus, and there was never any surplus in a nightclub filled with thirsty vampires. On the upside, it meant business was booming for both the Nocturne and the Blood Bank.
Caleb threw one pouch to Aislinn, which she deftly caught, and he removed the vacuum tube cap from his, winking before tossing back the chilled, dark red contents of his first drink.
“Vlad, I needed that,” he said with an appreciative shake of his head. “So, give. What’s up, kiddo?”
Aislinn’s eyes narrowed. She didn’t like being called such childish pet names, particularly at her age since she was rapidly approaching her first millennium. She stared aggressively at Caleb, who smiled his slow, lazy grin.
He liked to torment her like any big brother, but she wasn’t in the mood for his teasing.
“Does something have to be up?” she asked, unwilling to give an inch. “We’re vampires. We’re meant to be mean and moody.”
Caleb grunted noncommittally. He was a Malum of few words, leaving her to do all the talking normally. In fact, he perfectly fitted the vampire stereotype of “mean and moody” while it was absolutely true Aislinn did not. And probably never would.
The silence stretched. It was a surprisingly long minute for an immortal.
She sighed in defeat. Caleb was so much better at this than she was. Interrogations were up his alley while she preferred to fill the silences with words. When Aislinn thought about it like that, she realized that Mia was too much like her for her own liking. And that thought really irritated her.
“Fine. But you know I don’t expect you to share my problems.”
He shrugged, taut muscles rippling under his tight T-shirt. “It’s a habit.”
“A habit?” she asked, her voice heavy with sarcasm.
“I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned that we were warned not to ask questions when you first arrived at the coven. Well, maybe I should clarify that Julius was warned and we all followed suit.” Caleb didn’t have to say exactly who warned them. Everyone knew she was the daughter of Kayne, the last of his Twelve Disciples, the father of them all, and it was Kayne who had unceremoniously dumped her on Julius and the London Coven after she’d been turned by him. “We were told not to ask questions. And we were not to harm you or let you get harmed.”
Aislinn raised pale eyebrows in surprise as she waited for her drink to warm to room temperature. She hated the taste and texture of chilled blood. “Well then, you obviously didn’t listen well. I don’t remember you going easy on me in boot camp.”
Now it was his turn to raise his eyebrows. “Oh, believe me, I listened well, all right. A few broken bones that heal in seconds is nothing. Kicking your ass daily wasn’t exactly a joy, but at least you learned fast. You’re the best student I’ve ever had.”
She tensed, waiting for the rest, surprised at where this conversation was going. Surprised that there was a conversation at all.
“Now that you’re all grown up, I have to protect others from you—like that Muppet upstairs that follows you around like a lost puppy.”
Aislinn snorted derisively. “You needn’t have worried. I wasn’t going to harm Mia. Well—much.”
“Who’s talking about your fang-girl Mia? Ha-ha, get it? Fang-girl? Fine. Never mind.” The strapping Malum grimaced and ran his hand over his bald head in a gesture that signaled that she was being a pain in the ass. “I’m talking about your firstborn. Pansy poetry boy. And now that other one who roams around here like a lovesick werepuppy.” He gave a mock shudder.
“Caleb,” she warned, her tone arctic. “Don’t push me.”
“But that’s exactly what I’m going to do, Aislinn,” he said with a grin that was as black as pitch. “I’m going to keep pushing you until you tell me what’s going on because I know something’s been wrong with you since Cooper’s first hunt.”
“Hey, that’s not—” She tried to interrupt him, but he ignored her.
“And you can’t keep putting off your meeting with Julius because he’s just waiting for a reason to tear you apart, limb from scrawny limb, so don’t give him one.” Caleb leaned back against a wooden post and folded his arms across his thick chest. “So, what’s it going to be, kid?”
Aislinn’s eyes were the deepest shade of blue, verging on black. Her hands were clenched into fists as she struggled with the blood rage that threatened to engulf her.
She waited, as if this were a test. The kind of test that Caleb loved. The kind of test she really, really hated. She glanced at Caleb and realized he was as tense as she was. Like she might fail.
It hit her then that he might be right.
And that was the whole problem. She’d never doubted she would reach her goal before. She had never doubted herself.
She might have already fucked up everything by letting the other two Druids go. What if she had let them slip through her fingers? What if it was her one and only opportunity to gain justice, and she’d blown it?
She looked at Caleb. He had known what was bugging her even before she had known it. How could she have been so blind?
When she spoke, it was in a whisper. “I’ve been going about this all wrong. I’m such an idiot.”
Caleb shook his head. “You’re not an idiot. If you were an idiot, I would have found a way to get rid of you long ago—even with strict orders not to harm you.”
She gave him a filthy look. It made him chuckle.
“You don’t get it. I have bigger things to worry about than Julius.”
“Like?” he prompted.
“Like getting justice for Sorcha.” She paused, feeling like the weight of the world was crushing her. “But I’ve been going about this all wrong.”
Caleb’s eyes narrowed shrewdly. “Not all wrong, just not using your head. You’ve been too emotional from the get-go. Can’t blame you though. I never had a sister murdered.”
Aislinn sighed. “I remember when you taught me chess while giving me all those lectures on military strategy. I didn’t really understand why you found it so fascinating, until I realized the whole game represented a battle with different types of soldiers, from foot soldiers to personal guards who protected the king.” She gave a small smile, no longer feeling the blood rage seething, but instead wistful and filled with regret. “All that military stuff, that’s just so totally you.”
“Why, thank you.” He raised another blood bag as if toasting a compliment.
She just rolled her eyes. “But it’s weird how in the game, you protect the king when he’s the weakest piece, and yet it’s the queen who’s the most powerful. I’ve never understood that. Maybe I will one day. Maybe never. But I kind of get why you taught me chess now. You don’t win wars with swords or by cowering behind personal guards. You don’t win by just believing you’re going to win. You win by your wits. That’s why the queen is the most powerful piece. Because she’s not only a soldier. She’s a strategist. It’s upon her that the entire game rests.”
Caleb’s lips curved in a thin smile. There was something ruthless in that smile. “Finally, princess. You’re learning.”