"About nine years ago a rogue Master of the Dead named Gilbert Caillard tried to take over the People by framing Nataraja in a sex-slave ring. Which is richly ironic - I doubt that snake ever had sex, let alone brokered it. Anyhow Gilbert's reasoning was that if the People were shamed and Nataraja got arrested, he could waltz in and take over the operation. He had power in abundance and almost pulled it off."
"You think he's back?"
"No, Gilbert's dead. Nataraja killed him and had his heart burned. He still carries the ashes in a little satchel on his neck. But this feels very much like a Gilbert. The plan has a certain brilliance to it: get the Pack and the People to battle it out and then come in and wrestle control from Nate's weak and hopefully dying fingers."
"Dying is good," Derek said.
"One, we have Pack people being torn apart by animals with necro taint, probably fed on undead flesh. Two, we have vampires being taken out by someone with advanced knowledge of vampiric anatomy. And three, Nate is scared. Look at the battlements. He doubled their patrols. See, the People prize power most of all. They don't exactly encourage violent coups like this, but if the victor offers his obeisance to Roland and makes the appropriate noises, he'll most likely get away with it. I think we have a rogue Master of the Dead on our hands." That had to be it. It made perfect sense.
"Who's Roland?" Derek asked suddenly, intruding on my thoughts.
"Roland? He's the legendary leader of the People. It's rumored that he's been alive since magic last left the world, which was about four thousand years ago. He's supposed to have incredible power, almost godlike. Some say he's Merlin, some say he's Gilgamesh. He has some sort of agenda and uses the People to achieve it, although the majority of them have never seen him. There's no proof of his existence and lay people like you and I aren't suppose to know about him."
"Does he exist?"
"Oh yeah. He's real."
"How do you know about him?"
"It's my job to know." And trust me, boy wonder, I know entirely too much. I know his habits. I know what food he likes to eat, what women he likes to take to his bed, what books he prefers to read. I know everything my father had known about Roland. I even know his real name.
The flow of people to the white arch of the gates had ebbed. It was late or early, depending on the way you looked at it.
Skeletal claws of fear iced my spine. The small hairs on the back of my neck and arms stood on their ends. A vampire. Close.
Derek's gelding neighed, but Frau remained stoic. I loved this horse.
I turned slowly and watched the bloodsucker descend down the snow-white wall of the Casino. It crawled headfirst like a mutated gecko, long yellow talons digging into the mortar. The pallid body, taut with dry, stringy muscle, dripped necro magic.
The vamp crept down until its head was level with mine and raised its face. It used to be female during life. Undeath had sharpened already delicate features, making it look like a concentration camp victim. The bloodsucker stared at me with haunted eyes. It raised a thin hand clutching a small object. Slowly it opened its maw. Its face twitched, trying to twist into a different set of features.
"I believe this is yours." Ghastek's voice said from the vamp's throat. The vamp's fingers opened and the object fell. I caught it: my throwing dagger. How considerate. He had even cleaned the bloodsucker blood off of it.
"Tell me, Kate," Ghastek said. "Why do you paint your daggers black?"
"So they don't shine when I throw them."
"Ahh. Obvious, come to think of it." The vamp's throat stank of death.
"Shall we depart?"
"What's our destination?"
He knew perfectly well where Greg's apartment was. They probably kept the bloody place under surveillance.
"Just take me to the edge of your territory. Corner of White and Maple will do." Too late I remembered that Greg had died at that intersection. "This isn't necessary, you know."
"It is. If you died after a visit to the Casino, we would have to answer many unpleasant questions."
I petted Frau's neck, untied the reins, and mounted.
"A horse," Ghastek said with disgust. "I might have known."
"You have something against horses?"
"I'm allergic. Not that it matters under the circumstances."
He stabled the undead but good old horses made him sneeze.
"Go on ahead," I said. The vamp took off, running up-right in a clumsy, labored manner. Bloodsuckers aren't built for running on the ground. It requires coordination and breathing and the process no longer came naturally to one who does not have to breathe.
I gave Frau's sides a gentle squeeze and she took off, breaking into an easy trot, Derek on his gelding close behind. I had a feeling that if the bloodsucker got within striking distance, Frau would try to find out if it was good to walk on.
Ghastek pushed the vamp for about a block and took it to higher ground. It scrambled up the side of the building and leaped across to its neighbor, defying gravity. Its gaunt form sailed along the third row of windows, talons clutching the wall long enough to push away, soundless, undetectable, a new horror.
We took the backstreets, staying away from the main road. A horseman passed us, riding a snow-white gelding, graceful and mean-eyed, a one-in-a-hundred kind of a horse. The rider wore an expensive leather jacket, edged with wolf fur. He gave me and Derek an appraising look and hurried on his way, adjusting the crossbow that rested on his back. I looked after White's retreating backside, searching for a sign that proclaimed I'm wealthy, please rob me. I didn't see one. I guess he figured his horse made enough of a statement.
Ahead, several kids crowded around a fire burning bright in a metal drum. The orange flames licked the drum's edges, throwing yellow highlights on their grimy determined young faces. A scrawny boy in a dirty sweatshirt and with a tangle of feathers in his lanky hair chanted something dramatically and threw what looked like a dead rat into the fire. Everyone was a sorcerer these days.
The kids watched me as I passed them. One of them cursed with gusto, trying to get a reaction. I laughed softly and rode on.
If we did have a rogue Master of the Dead on our hands, then I had absolutely no idea how to ferret him out. Maybe if I had a big box leaning on a stake, and tied one of Ghastek's vampires under it...
We arrived at Rufus and turned north, heading toward the White Street. It was named for the snowfall of '14, when three inches of fine powder covered the street's ugly asphalt. Three inches of snow was not terribly unusual for Atlanta except that it had come in May and refused to melt in the following months despite the hundred-degree heat. Three and a half years later it finally gave in and thawed during an Indian summer.