They wanted my guns. “Why?”
“The inner facilities house a lot of delicate and in some cases irreplaceable equipment. Occasionally our guests experience a heightened sense of anxiety and discomfort due to the presence of vampires, particularly when they visit the stables.”
“I wonder why,” Raphael said.
“We’ve had incidents of accidental discharge of firearms by our guests. We don’t request that you surrender your bladed weapons, only your firearms. I’m afraid this rule can’t be bent. My deepest apologies.”
“That will be fine,” I said, and deposited my P226s on the desk. Without my weapons, I felt naked.
“Thank you. Follow me, please.”
We followed the creature down an opulent hallway to a stairway and then down, and down, and down, beyond the daylight to the artificial illumination of electric lamps. The vampire crept lower and lower, moving on all fours, making so little noise, it was uncanny. We wove our way through a maze of dim tunnels, interrupted only by the occasional bulb of electric light and dark, foot-wide gaps in the ceiling.
“Is there going to be a minotaur in this labyrinth?” Raphael growled.
“The maze is a security measure, necessary for proper containment,” the navigator’s voice answered through the vamp’s mouth. “Unguided vampires are ruled by instinct. They don’t possess the cognitive capacity to navigate the tunnels. In the event of a massive breakout, the tunnels will act as a buffer zone. The ceiling contains a number of heavy-duty metal grilles that will drop down, separating the vampires into easily manageable groups and minimizing damage resulting from bloodlust-induced infighting.”
“How often do breakouts occur?” I asked. The stench of undeath had grown to a nearly unbearable level.
“Never. This way, please.” The vampire scuttled to a brightly lit doorway. “Watch your step.”
We entered a huge chamber and descended a dozen stairs to the floor. Harsh white light streamed from the high ceilings, illuminating every inch. A narrow hallway stretched to the center of the chamber, its walls formed by prison cells. Each six-by-six-foot cell housed a single vampire, chained by the neck to the wall. The chains were thicker than my thigh. The vampires’ eyes burned with insatiable bloodlust. They didn’t vocalize, didn’t make any noise; they just stared at us, straining on the chains as we passed by them. Every hair rose on the back of my neck. Deep inside, my secret self gathered into a tight clump, watching them back, ready to leap out at the slightest opportunity.
The hallway terminated in a round platform, from which more corridors radiated like spokes from a wheel. On the platform stood Ghastek. He was a man of average height and thin build. His light brown hair receded from his forehead, focusing attention on his eyes: dark and sharp enough to draw blood. His attire was black, from tailored slacks to the long-sleeved shirt, collar unbuttoned and sleeves very carefully and precisely rolled up, but where Raphael’s black was an aggressive, kick-ass darkness, Ghastek’s black was the laid-back, business-casual shade, an absence of color rather than a statement of attitude.
He glanced at us, nodded briskly, and turned his attention to three young people standing to the side next to a console. They wore identical black slacks, gray dress shirts, and dark violet vests. Journeymen, the Masters of the Dead in training. One of the three, a tall young male with red hair, stood very rigid. His hands curled into fists. He stared straight ahead, at the cell where a single vampire sat at the end of its chain.
Ghastek nodded. “Are you ready, Danton?”
“Yes, Master,” the redhead said through clenched teeth.
“Very well. Proceed.”
The vampire jerked as if shocked with live wire.
“Easy,” Ghastek said. “Remember: no fear.”
Slowly the bloodsucker took two steps back. The hunger in its ruby eyes dimmed slightly. The chain sagged and clanged to the floor.
“Good,” Ghastek said. “Maria, you may release the gate.”
A female journeywoman with long dark hair tapped the console. The gate of the cell crept up. The vampire stood still.
“Disengage the collar,” Ghastek ordered.
The vampire snapped the collar open.
“Bring him forward.”
The vampire took a tentative step forward. Another . . .
Its eyes flared with bloodlust like two glowing coals. Danton screamed. The bloodsucker charged us, eyes shining, jaws unhinging, huge claws scratching the platform.
I dashed forward, pulling a field knife, but Raphael beat me to it. He swung, slashing in a precise arc, and checked himself in midmove.
The vamp froze. It simply stopped, petrified, one clawed foot on the ground and the rest in the air. Raphael had stopped his knife blade a mere half an inch from the undead throat.
“You have excellent reflexes,” Ghastek said. “A shapeshifter?”
Raphael simply nodded.
“I sincerely apologize,” Ghastek said. “I’m piloting him at the moment, so he won’t cause us any further concern.”
The vampire leapt backward, landing at Ghastek’s feet, and hugged the floor, his forehead pressed to stone. Ghastek’s face showed no strain. None at all.
Raphael stepped back, the knife vanishing into the sheath at his waist.
On the platform, Danton slumped into a heap, moaning softly, white clumps of foamy spit sliding out of his mouth. A medical team with a stretcher emerged from the side corridor and loaded him up, strapping him in.
Both remaining journeymen stared at Danton in horrified silence.
“You may go,” Ghastek said.
“A shame, that,” Ghastek said softly.
“What happened to him?” I asked.
“Fear. Done correctly, the contact with the undead mind, while repulsive to some, is completely harmless.”
The vampire uncoiled and rose straight up. It had been quite tall during life, but its body had shifted to a quadruped locomotion. Yet it stood straight as an arrow, probably in pain but staring right into Ghastek’s eyes. The Master of the Dead studied the twin points of furious red. “Fear of contact, however, can bring about horrible consequences, as you saw.”
The vampire dropped on all fours. “Perhaps we had best continue this discussion in my office.” Ghastek smiled drily. “Please.”
I walked next to him, Raphael on my right, the vampire on Ghastek’s left. “Navigating a vampire is similar to riding a large wave: you have to stay on top of it or it will crest and pull you under. Danton, unfortunately, permitted himself to drown. If he’s lucky, he should be able to regain enough cognitive ability to feed himself and tend to his own personal hygiene. If he’s unlucky, he’ll spend the rest of his life as a human vegetable. Would you care for an espresso?”