Chapter Six – DRAFT

The redhead stared at me, kissing her way along the length of the other girl’s clavicle. It was slow. Methodical. It was meant to be erotic, shot through with the kind of electric abandon that fills the room when one thinks she is the first to ever do something naughty. I watched with as much interest as I could manage. It was the oldest game on Earth. The slow tease. Production. Performance. A nice way to pass the time, admittedly, but nothing terribly new. Not even in its location or execution. The redhead worked her way down to the dip between the other girl’s clavicles, traced her way up the neck with her tongue, tracing the muscles. Sternocleidomastoid.  Sternohyoid. Omohyoid. Thyrohyoid. Stylohyoid. Mylohyoid. Digastric. Up the side of the neck, to the center, to the chin, working up to the lips and a soft kiss. The redhead never once lingered near the jugular. A piss poor vampire if there ever was one.

The girls’ tongues flickered together like dancing snakes, but they stopped there. There was no major penetration. No hot, sweaty consumption. The audience wasn’t big enough for the finale just then. But it wouldn’t take long. Already the handful of club stragglers I had chosen from the window were beginning to trickle in, meandering about with no real intent. The incoming males were immediately transfixed by the mostly naked girls making out on the center table. Their female companions were unhappy, threatened by the loss of their dates’ full attention. The smarter boys pretended to be unaffected, having eyes only for their partners, who were no doubt far more lovely than anything the club had to offer.

I was bored. Two girls kissing was hardly an original concept. It was an attention getter. Nothing more. A visual ice breaker. My hope was that someone would come along with a more original idea, but for that moment it would do. There were worse ways to kick off an evening. The girls were all too eager to do something edgy for the old man. But “edgy” is subjective. I’d indulged in perversions they could scarcely imagine. It would take more than a few chaste, lingering kisses and nails painted with black nail polish brushing against bare bellies to make my mouth water. No, until the redhead’s lips were in more interesting places, preferably upon me, it was like flipping through a magazine in the waiting room of a doctor’s office.

Bored, I watched the redhead watching me, running her tongue along the other’s jaw-line. She might as well have been licking my wallet, trying to fish out as many bills as she could with her tongue, for all the erotic sincerity she put into her performance. But I forced an appreciative smile. If there was any understanding there, it was clearly that you paid to play. That made sense to me. Some things never change.

Rodney chose a perfect time to step into the room with a few more bodies in tow. No one can stifle yawns forever, and I was getting sleepy. I recognized some of the shapes he brought in tow behind him. Not more of my selections. Rodney’s associates. Alesha, the penis rubber. The bouncer with the weak wit. The Asian fellow Rodney gestured to as we came in. Regulars, I suppose. Or staff. Someone had to serve the drinks.

Rodney nodded to me. Alesha smiled at me. The bouncer nodded. The Asian was the only one who broke with the pattern and waved as he came across the room to talk to me. He approached with an extended hand.

“Mister Crewe,” he said without smiling, one businessman to another, “my name is David. I’ll be the wrangler tonight. Let me know if you have any special requests. Whatever you need. And I mean anything.”

I nodded. “Thank you, David. I’ll keep it in mind.” I glanced around the room, at the meandering ghouls in their heavy make-up and gothic clothing. No one seemed sure of the game there. Everyone was expecting something to happen. Despite their youthful beauty and athleticism, the two girls on the table in the center of the room wasn’t quite what anyway had in mind. I laid my hand on the Asian’s forearm. “Tell me, David. Is this room going to warm-up at all?”

David grinned a professional’s crocodile smile. “Well, the crew has arrived. VIP guests are always afford personal attention. I assure you that the entertainment will pick up from here on out. That I can promise.”

“Can or will?”

He genuinely smiled. “Will. Do.”

I shrugged and nodded. It was enough for me. All one ever wants from role-players is that they play their role well. It’s no fun otherwise. I went back to watching the girls. They were running out of tricks. Kissing one another on the neck was repeatedly was becoming tedious.

“So…” a female voice said to me, “what are you?”

I looked up at Alesha, who was watching me with strained disinterest, and I was more than a little surprised I hadn’t noticed her approach. Her hazel eyes watched me as I considered her question. I shrugged. Smiled. Rodney must have told them. Some of it, at least. He should have been dead already. I felt foolish for being there and considered leaving. Foolish is the lion that burrows underground. But I was there. However foolish.

Alesha stepped between my knees and bent over so she might hear me better, resting her hands on the armrests of my chair. Her position afforded me an excellent view right down her impressive cleavage. Which, of course, was the intent.

“So?” she asked me.

“Rodney,” I replied, “is of the impression that I’m a rich old man that can be easily parted from his coins. As near as I can tell, that is my reason for being here.”

A flicker of a smile danced across Alesha’s face. “That may be,” she admitted, but pointed out. “We’ll take good care of you, Mister…”

“Crewe.”

She waited for more. When none was forthcoming, she asked, “Just… Crewe?”

I grinned. “Need more than that?”

She raised her eyebrows, grinned and seemed to shrug without moving her shoulders. Her eyes were wonderfully expressive. Full of mischief. The first real spark I’d seen in the room until then.

“Mister Crewe,” she assured me, “if your credit card is valid, I’ll call you anything you like. And if you have… needs, I can get you and give you anything you have a taste for.”

“Excellent. We have an understanding then.”

“That we do.”

Her breasts were left hovering near my face for a long moment. For full effect. I dutifully watched them move with her breathing. Then she was gone, disappearing quickly into the small crowd. I glanced around me, surprised that she could slip away from me. She wasn’t Upir. There was nothing special about her energy.

Then the first wave hit me. That tell-tale shimmer of reality warping, like heat rising from hot asphalt. The distraction. Alesha slipped away on the crest of a wave she probably didn’t notice. I felt it, though. Upir had entered the room. I looked around me with careful disinterest, but didn’t immediately notice anything amiss. Then I saw them. Two boys. They stood along the periphery of the group, watching me with that melodramatic intensity they’d learned from the movies. If we were in a Hollywood production, everything else in the room would have moved in slow motion, and the dramatic music would have begun to swell. That’s where they thought they were.

In a reality based world, they had marked themselves. Stupid. If you choose a prey, you never announced yourself. It was foolish and felt personal. I assumed they belonged to Jaxom. Why else would they care I was there? Upir don’t challenge Upir unnecessarily. Of course, the younglins were far from true Upir. They were children playing dress up as part of Jaxom’s interactive video game. I vaguely remembered their faces. Which said a lot. If I didn’t remember them, they hadn’t made much of an impression. Naturally they would gravitate to Jaxom’s orbit. The path of least resistance. Old dinosaurs like Crewe would expect too much of them. Crewe might make them swallow a healthy dose of reality. Ruin the party.

Of the two, only one showed any real initiative. Handsome face. Chiseled Hollywood features. He could have been an actor in one of those horrible vampire movies. To his credit he wasn’t wearing a satin jacket or a lacy shirt. No, his image was more the rock star. Long, unkempt hair. Button down shirt left halfway open. More jewelry around his neck than was practical. His body was lean, with just a hint of developed muscle. His look was no accident.

The other boy was along for the ride. His were forgettable features. He was the sort who might pump gas for you at a full service station and would disappear from your memory before you had pulled back into traffic. He looked from side to side, clearly uncomfortable with the situation, no doubt wondering what foolishness his impetuous friend might get him into next. In short, he was the weaker one. The injured calf the lion would fall upon.

My skin tingled with the slightest sensation. That switched my attention back to the pretty one. He was feeling out my energy. Trying to tap me. No one had told him the protocols of survival. Never poke a snake unless you are out of reach of its fangs. Foolish boys. Expendable buffoons. I smiled.

There was nothing they could do to hurt me. I turned my attention away from them, allowing the pretty one to sip some of my energy, and turned to Rodney as he approached me. Rodney’s face was pained with discomfort. He was going to ask me something that one of us wasn’t going to like. He squatted beside me and leaned in to make our conversation a private one.

“Can I ask you a favor?” he asked me.

I nodded. “You can ask anything you like.”

Rodney nodded. Hesitated. “Well,” he stammered, “apparently some of the people here think you’re a performer of some sort. Like an actor. Maybe playing the role of a vampire elder.”

“Really?” I replied, with some amusement. “Where in the world would they get such a bizarre notion?”

Rodney blushed. “Well…” he coughed. “Okay, look. I didn’t tell anyone anything like that. But you know there are a lot of pretenders here. It’s what the club is all about. They think everyone is playing a role of some sort. Vampirism is a costume they put on at night when they’ve left their day jobs. So… everyone is wearing a costume. Know what I mean?”

I watch him for a long moment, until he starts to squirm a bit. “So,” I ask him flatly, “what does this have to do with me? And more importantly, what is it that you want me to do?”

“Well,” Rodney sputtered, “you said you wanted to have a good time. All I’m saying is that there are some people here who would respond passionately to a good show. Not juggling squirrels or anything. All I’m saying is that maybe you could sit here and glare at everyone or something. I mean, you’re pretty good at that. We could introduce you as ‘Elder’ or something, and the whole party could be revolve around that. A night in the presence of one of the old vampire lords. Know what I’m saying?”

A broad grin spread across my face. Yes. I understood it. In a room full of role-players, the one who didn’t have a costume was the odd man out. The lunatic in the psychiatric conference who didn’t have a name tag. I looked around the room. There were already a number of people who glanced in my direction. Which, of course, they would. They were all young and beautiful. Tight skin. Firm asses. Muscles rippling beneath pliant, unblemished skin. Who was this old man among them? To their estimations I seemed to be a man in my forties. Ancient, by their limited standards.

“Certainly,” I told Rodney.

“Excellent!” Rodney burst. “I’ll pass it along. We’ll get the ball rolling. Thank you so much, Crewe. You won’t be disappointed. I promise you that.” He started to rise, but stopped. “And please accept my apologies. I thought we would just drop by and look around. Never thought you’d want to hit the VIP lounge. Must less fund a private party.”

I nodded, and didn’t point out that none of this had been my idea. It had seemed like fun to let myself be swept along by the fates into whatever bizarre fantasies Rodney Dietz hoped to entertain. Now that I was there, I was going to see it through. It certainly beat sitting in my quarters at The Enclave, watching television and going over reports. Jaxom wouldn’t be happy my week’s load of paperwork wasn’t going to be on his desk in the morning. But it was a disappointment he was accustomed to, however unhappy he might be about it.

Rodney had disappeared at some point. The room shimmered again. I glanced at the pretty young Upir again, amazed that he was so brazen. Was he really so foolish? Was it possible that he didn’t know who I was? What I was? Would one leap so passionately into the mouth of the demon if one expected to be chewed up and spit out? He needed to be brought to heel. One needed to be burned by the fire to respect it. Mentally, I took hold of the thin band of energy he had established between us. If my energy was so tasty to him, perhaps he should have more of it.

I pushed out with my own mental fingers and forced a surge of energy along that one thin line. My energy rushed into him. His chest heaved with a sudden, involuntary gasp for air. Surprise. Exhilaration. For a moment he felt his being filled to the brim with life energy. But not so fast, sunshine. Just as he was getting used to it, absorbing it, I jerked it back into me, pulling along with it most of his energy, and that of his friend, too. The two younglings staggered and clung to each other to keep from staggering forward. I savored the brief influx of energy. His was unexpectedly sweet. Feminine. Earthy. No doubt he had been skimming energy from the women in the crowd downstairs.

The pretty one looked at me, his mouth agape. The plain one was in near panic, his face shadowed with fear. I ignored both of them, focusing my attention instead upon the far side of the room, where a commotion was beginning to form at the entrance. Hopefully the boys had learned a valuable lesson. It was minor scolding. A thump on the head. I hoped it would be enough.

Rodney entered the room. Followed by a procession of familiar faces. He had already led this procession once. Behind him, he was followed into the room by Alesha and her impressive cleavage. The bouncer entered behind her. The Asian, David, came in behind him. There were a few others who I was unfamiliar with, but who were clearly staff of some sort. This time, instead of following Rodney into the room and milling about, attending to the needs of the invited patrons, they aligned themselves into something resembling a loose honor guard. This drew the attention of the entire room. I glanced around me as the every eye turned to observe.

Into the room stepped a pretty girl. Blonde. Nice body. Not terribly impressive. At least at first. But as she came closer, the room seemed to brighten. Every sound became more distinct. Every smell more pungent. The room was flooded with her presence, and every soul there felt it. The unaware would call it charisma. The Upir would call if life energy. The air seemed to crackle around her. At least to me. My mouth was agape, so I closed it quickly to regain my composure. In all my centuries of being, I’d never felt an energy so strong in a mere human. That’s what she was. A person. Nothing more. No Upir. No centuries old survivor. A girl. But a girl whose life-force was more intense and radiant than any I’d ever seen. I resisted the urge to shield my eyes, because it wasn’t my eyes that were being overwhelmed.

She came and knelt before me, and bowed her head.

“Thank you, Elder,” she began in a voice that was soft and commanding at the same time, “for honoring us with your presence. We are humbled by the gift of your time, and hope that we may prove ourselves worthy.”

I nodded, and almost said “don’t mention it”, before realizing that every eye in the room had turned instead to me. Clearly I was expected to make some dramatic proclamation. This went far beyond my job description of merely glaring at people.

“My pleasure,” I said, thinking of Jaxom’s poetic readings, “is always to walk with the young ones,” and I glanced at the two boys, who were beginning to recover from my tinkering, “that they may learn from my experiences.” The girl watched me, as if expecting something more, so I added, in a loud voice, “Too many of us have fallen to carelessness already. We must chart our course more wisely.”

This seemed to have the desired effect. The girl smiled.

“I am Winter,” she told me, smiling, her eyes studying mine as if we were musicians trying to read one another’s minds before the next passage.

“I am Crewe,” I replied, hoping I sounded dramatic.

She bowed her head again, holding her position for a long moment as if praying, and then rose to her feet. She held out her hands on outstretched arms and turned in a slow circle, looking into the faces of every person present. When she was certain she had the full attention of the room, a broad smile spread across her face.

“Hail and welcome,” she said in a surprisingly loud, commanding voice. “You have been chosen, each of you, for a special event which has been made available to us through the good graces of those who seldom make themselves known to us. We are blessed and most fortunate to have among us tonight the Elder, Crewe, whose insight and wisdom has helped to guide our kind through the centuries.” Winter turned slowly as she spoke, addressing a segment of her audience one at a time, including everyone. As she slipped into the next part of her little speech, her tone took on a harder edge. The room seemed darken. “Many of you are new to the path, or are guests of revered comrades. I bid you welcome to the Fifth Circle, and ask you to share in our hospitality. If you are new here, you must accept that mutual respect is mandatory. Disrespect will not be tolerated. You are here in this room as a member of the chosen for this evening, and were hand selected by the elder, Crewe, himself. Prove yourselves worthy.”

With that, Winter had completed her circle and was facing me. She clasped her hands before her and bowed slightly to me, then sat beside me in a plush chair that Rodney and few others had quickly pushed over. Then Rodney and his minions set about changing the seating arrangements, pushing the sofa back against the wall and moving leather covered table into the space before Winter and I. Chairs were arranged in a circle around the table, closing on either side of the young lady and myself. Patrons drifted into the circle according to some pre-determined pecking order. The pretty boy who had tried to bother me attempted to find his way into the circle, but was gently rebuffed by the bouncer I’d met the entrance. Otherwise, it went smoothly. We were quickly arrayed in a circle around the table, with the unlucky consigned to the edges, looking in, while some found their way to the many chairs and love-seats that were scattered about the periphery of the room.

I had just started to ask Winter for more details about expectations when Alesha wafted into the room carefully carrying a large silver tray full of short, absinthe type glasses that had been filled with a clear red liquid. Behind her four other women in dresses similar to Alesha’s filed in, carrying the same cargo. Alesha came to Winter and myself, offering us the first glasses, while the other women distributed theirs to the other patrons. Winter took two glasses, offered one to me, and kept the other for herself. The wonderful scent of cherries rose from my glass, but I didn’t put it to my lips. I would wait for my host.

“A toast,” Winter said to the group, “to welcome you. As is our tradition, the evening can begins with a toast with Morlacco’s Blood to welcome old friends and newcomers alike. I toast you! Friends and strangers alike, may we all be family by morning, bound by memories and our shared experiences.”

The patrons seated around the table made their agreement known in various ways and drank from their glasses. I glanced at Winter, who was apparently waiting for me. She raised her glass to her lips, and I did the same, and we both drank of some sort of cherry liqueur. It was chilled but not cold, pungent and sweet. I liked it very much, and nodded my approval. This seemed to please those within the circle. I was playing the game well. Not that it had been a challenge thus far.

I leaned to Winter and asked softly, “Dare I ask who is paying for this? And dare I ask how much it costs?”

She replied, in a whisper, “Relatively inexpensive. Don’t worry.” Then she addressed the room, in a voice loud enough to command attention. “Tell us,” she said to me as she sat back in her chair and relaxed, “where do you come from, revered elder? May we be honored by knowing your story?”

I swallowed another sip of the liqueur and looked around me. Those on the periphery of the circle showed varied degrees of interest, but those within the circle had leaned forward, literally and figuratively, to soak up whatever bits of entertainment I was about to impart. I looked about the room until my eyes found Rodney, who shrugged slightly and motioned me to continue. It occurred to me that I might kill him after all. Not that I minded. I’d played this role for Jaxom’s benefit on occasions. The question was, as always, which role would I play? Should I tell them a story of my exploits of leaping over buildings and throwing evil vampires through the sub-structure of office buildings and warehouses while I thwarted plots to overthrow world governments? Or should I just tell them the truth? Would it matter? They thought I was playing a role. No one would believe the truth. Hell, the real Upir didn’t believe my stories sometimes. I glanced around me, looking for the pretty boy and his plain friend, wondering if they’d ever heard my stories. They had slipped away.

I sat on the edge of my seat. That always made it more personal. Easier to swallow. I looked around me at the faces. Some were eager to have the entertainment underway. Their faces covered the gamut of expected emotions. Amusement. Interest. Disinterest. Boredom. Indifference.

“I was born,” I tell them, choosing truth, “in Novgorod, Russia. If you don’t know where that is, suffice it to say that Novgorod is three hundred and thirty miles northwest of Moscow, and about one hundred and twenty miles southeast of Saint Petersburg. The other Saint Petersburg.” I smiled serenely, then continued when no one noticed my little joke. “The year was fifteen fifty six.”

I sat back in my chair, suddenly feeling my age and remembering that I’d already had a very long day. I glanced at Winter, and studied her beautiful, unblemished face. It was difficult for me to see her clearly through the invisible haze of energy that swirled around her. The strength of her life-force was distracting. It amplified every aspect of her. Presence. Smell. Taste. I could almost lick the salt from her skin off my own lips, so raw was her being to me. The temptation to restore my energy from hers was strong, but I shut down the impulse. It was premature. If nothing else, there were plenty of other souls in the room, and more than enough energy to go around. I’d never known an energy like Winter’s in a human being. It deserved my respect. More than anything, as I sat there looking into her green eyes, I found myself wondering how I had not heard of this amazing young woman before. It’s not like Upir are the most discrete beings. People talk.

Winter smiled slightly. She was used to the effect she had on people, and wasn’t at all surprised to find me staring at her. Her face cycled through a series of emotions until she found the right mask, which she donned and used to switch gears and personalities.

“1556?” Winter reiterated, then added warmly, with patronizing undertones. “You’ve held up well.”

I turned my attention back to the circle.

“The young one use the word ‘vampire’ to describe my… our kind,” I told them. “In my day we were called ‘Upir’. Some use that word now, but not in the same way. It was in 1570 that I was made Upir. In early January Ivan the Terrible came calling. He had come to believe that Novgorod planned to defect to the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, and brought his army to put a stop to things. Of course, Novgorod had no such intentions. At least not that I or anyone I knew had ever heard of. But that didn’t matter to the Tsar. I was there when Ivan entered the city. Archbishop Pimen tried to pacify Ivan with a traditional blessing. Ivan insulted him, had him physically abused, and ordered him paraded around the city on a mare while facing backwards, all while accompanied by skomorokhi – Russian folk minstrels. I knew that when Pimen was finally arrested, it would all be downhill from there. And it was”

I sipped my liqueur and gauged the faces of the revelers around me. For most of them, this wasn’t the entertainment they expected. Which, of course, amused me. No one ever wants the truth of it. Give them the fairy tale version of things and they’ll carry you about on their shoulders. Give them the truth and they’ll burn you as a heretic.

“They slaughtered the innocent for weeks. Five hundred or so were brought before Ivan every day for torture and killing. Monks were beaten on the shins until they revealed the locations of treasure. The entire city was considered treasonous, and Ivan treated everyone in it as a traitor. Men. Women. Children.”

The attention spans were becoming exhausted. Even Winter was beginning to tally up sales tax or something in her head. Which was to be exhausted. Who wants dry recitations of ancient history? Where are the parts about the vampires? Most of them probably didn’t know who Ivan the Terrible was. They needed some shock therapy. Something to snatch them back into the moment.

“Fear has a smell,” I continued, and paused for effect, my heart pausing over old wounds that had long since healed over. “No one ever tells you that. Sweat. Raw meat. Gunpowder. A dash of cinnamon. The smell is indescribable. But when you finally piss yourself because you see Death coming for you, it’s comforting. It’s a relief to smell the urine. Fear is intangible. Piss is real. Human. Normal.”

I shook my head, shaking off the smells and the sounds. Even after all those eons, thinking about it took me right back to Novgorod. Time doesn’t wipe away everything. Horror is like sex. You remember your first. Everything after that fades into relative insignificance. But that first time… it never goes away. You always remember the beating of your heart. The warm, fleshy ache of being alive, pressed into the heat of being, refined and focused on one moment of being when everything changed.

“But I’m boring you,” I told them, with melodramatic disappointment. It wasn’t possible for me to have cared any less, but I was playing my role. “The young never have patience for their history. It’s why they’re such easy prey. They learn nothing from their elders. And when the gaping maw of death falls upon them, they have no defenses.” The rim of the glass was slowly raised to my lips so that I could glare at them with panache.

“No, master,” Winter said quickly, resting her hand on my arm. “We are listening. Or am I listening, at the very least. I cannot speak for my brethren. They are young…”

Assurances were quickly rendered up from those in the circle. Winter’s gentle rebuke had its desired effect, though her mind had been wandering as much as any. It seemed best to wrap it up. This game was boring me. I’d agreed only for the benefit of Rodney Dietz, and it was growing tiresome.

“‘Run Visili!” I barked at them, startling most and causing a few drinks to be spilled. “That’s what my mother told me.” I dredged up my story, in pre-formatted form, from the awful performance Jaxom had occasionally made me do for the young ones in the Enclave commons. “You want the point of this story? You want to know why I’m wasting your time? Consider this. That was the last time I saw my mother. There in the main square. The Oprichniki were coming for us. They were Ivan’s personal soldiers. Like Hitler’s Schutzstaffel – S.S. They were Upir. Every one of them. Mother pushed me away and told me to run. I was afraid, so did as I was told. I ran. But I stopped when I heard her scream. She was still falling as I turned around. An Oprichnik staggered away from her with a dagger in his chest, laughing. Laughing!” I paused for sip of liqueur. “His comrades had already run her through with their swords. Then they came for me. But I didn’t run. I was angry. Defiant! I knew I was to die, but something had snapped in me. I didn’t care. Weeks of bone-chilling despair welled in me and became rage. If I was to die, I would hurt them before I fell. I would hurt them for mother! As they put their hands upon me, I kicked them and bit into their flesh. I chewed off a finger. Got my thumb into an eye socket and popped out the eyeball. I hurt them!”

It was good time to stop for effect and let the story seep in. I stared at the wall for a moment, as if looking out through the mists of time and memory. Good story telling called for a break. I wouldn’t continue until encouraged to do so.

“What happened then?” Rodney Dietz asked me.

I glanced up at Rodney. He was standing outside of the circle, with his arms crossed over his chest. It realized that he had been standing there the entire time, and was disturbed that I had lost track of him. And of Alesha… again. And of the two boys from the Enclave. My thoughts were jumbled. I’d given the boys credit. But it wasn’t that simple, was it? I glanced at Winter. Her energy still seemed to shine brightly in my mind’s eye. Could it be her? Could she be that strong, that her mere presence phased out the details, like light on an overexposed photograph?

“Yes, master,” Winter said, squeezing my arm. “Please…”

“There were too many,” I told her. A ghost of regret flittered through my heart. My mother hand long since become an abstract idea. A face I couldn’t remember. A presence that I remembered only by its being defined as “mother”. But there was a lingering regret there, even after all the centuries. I’d always wondered if I could have done more. Maybe if I hadn’t run. “I was a boy. They were men. They pressed me to the ground with the weight of their bodies. I closed my eyes. My time had come. I accepted it. Death would be my release from the horror the Oprichniki had brought to Novgorod.” I looked up and, like any good story-teller, met the eyes of my audience, one by one, drawing them. “But you know what? They didn’t kill me. They held me to the ground and cut my face with their knives, laughing. ‘I curse you,’ I was told by one of the soldiers. They made me stand. ‘You will live forever,’ he said. ‘You will never forget this day.’ And he was right. He was right. I never forgot.”

A young woman in the circle leaned forward in her chair, apparently deciding that the attentive student was the proper role to play here. “What happened then, master?”

I sipped the last of my liqueur, and continued. “They took me before Ivan himself, on the steps of the Cathedral of St. Sophia. You could see the madness in his eyes. The bloodlust. Historians will tell you that Ivan was not in Novgorod late during the massacre, but I saw him with my own eyes. I tried to spit on him. He did not react. No anger. No amusement. Nothing. No human emotion. He watched me with those searing, mad eyes, and told me ‘You will be mine forever’.” Then I grinned. “If not for Belsky and Godunov, I may well have been.” No one asked who Belsky and Godunov were, so I wrapped up my presentation. “I was made Upir there on the steps of St. Sophia. By Ivan the Terrible himself.”

“Upir?” Winter interjected. “Ivan the Terrible was Upir? A vampire?”

I nodded. “Yes. Ivan and most of his upper command.” I grinned. “The Oprichniki became my family. I served Ivan, living in his castle, until his murder by Belsky and Godunov in 1584. I remained in Russia with elements of the Oprichniki until the rise of the Romanovs, when Mikhail Romanov decided to destroy us. The Oprichniki scattered to the four winds. My fate was to be pursued, along with a few compatriots, all the way from Moscow to Transylvania, where Gábor Bethlen afforded us sanctuary. Of the thousands of Oprichniki at the height of our strength, only a few dozen of us survived, and even those were spread all across Europe.”

“How did you wind up in Saint Petersburg?” Rodney asked me.

I shrugged and grinned, looking down into my empty glass. “I’m afraid that is a story for another time, and, hopefully, another glass. Besides,” I chuckled, looking over the bemused crew around me, “I suspect I’m pushing the outer limits of goodwill here. These good souls did not come here to listen to the ramblings of an old man.”

“An interesting story,” said a gruff, loud voice. “Tell it to many schoolchildren these days? They don’t like the quaint old stories like they used to. They need something with more snap and pizzazz. Their attention wanders.”

I looked up. The younglings from the Enclave had returned. The pretty one was affecting his scariest vampire voice. Just like he’d seen done in the movies. I resisted the urge to ask him if he would like throat lozenge.

Rodney stepped before the two boys and held up his hand. “I asked you to leave,” he told them.

“I asked myself to return,” the pretty one said.

He lashed out at Rodney’s energy without lifting a finger. Rodney’s knees wavered. He stumbled back against the back of one of the chairs before regaining his balance. His face darkened with bewilderment.

“The only children in this room who aren’t interesting in their history are you and your friend.” I glanced at Winter, who was clearly annoyed at the interruption.

“If you cannot observe decorum,” Winter stated in a cool voice, “you must leave this sanctuary. Disrespect will not be tolerated.”

“Disrespect?” the pretty one laughed, and pointed at me. “He disrespects us with his presence,” he insisted, then asked me directly, “Why are you here? Why you go back to whatever dark cave you live in?”

I grinned. This was more like it. A perfect opportunity, as well. There were a number of scenarios that could play out. Any one of them would allow me to take a jab at Jaxom. I’d already bruised one of his minions. How delicious would it be to knock around a few more and send them running home with tanned backsides? My patience with the younglings had been exhausted. I had shredded stronger fare then they as an Oprichnik centuries before the best part of them had run down the crack of their mothers’ asses. It would do my spirit good to bring them into the light of their own reality. There would be no terrible romance writers rushing to their aid with the flick of a pen. No directors calling upon them to destroy buildings with animalistic battle scenes. There would be two lost little boys running home to their daddy, with the laughter of an Oprichnik ringing in their ears. This would be a transformative day. There would be before, and there would be after. Standing in the gap between the two would be me.

The pretty one reached out toward me with his energy. Some will never learn. Lessons have to be repeated. But his energy wasn’t as focused. It was more diffused this time. It seemed almost to be coming not from him, but from somewhere else. Then in occurred to me. In a flash, I understood it all. I looked over at Winter, who had closed her eyes, as if beset by a sudden headache. Of course. It was no wonder those boys didn’t want me here. They’d been feeding on Winter. Now here came this old man to challenge them for their meal. That made sense. Why else would I be there, by their reasoning? Certainly not because of simple curiosity. There had to be a reason I was there. The pretty one was tapping Winter’s energy. I started to rise, but thought better of it. No need for melodrama.

The Asian, David, broke the tension with some finesse. He walked into the circle with the two girls who had been kissing on one another earlier, and helped them up upon the leather table in the center of the circle. Each of the girls was wearing considerably less now; vinyl bikinis and knee-high boots. They looked about nervously for just a moment, and then knelt down together, quickly resuming their make-out session. Which I assumed was the reason they were there in the first place. This distracted much of the crowd. Only the disrupters were unaffected.

David glance at Winter with a raised eyebrow. She nodded slightly, after which David joined Rodney in defiance of the two unruly boys. The bouncer stepped into the room, to the relief of David and Rodney, and quickly shored up their line of defense. He clearly expected the mass of his bulk would be sufficient to remedy any situation. But the boys had barely noticed any of them, and were still glaring at me.

“To all things,” I said loudly, “there must come change.”

I stretched out with my energy and enveloped Winter in a cocoon, breaking the youngling’s tap. He blinked, startled. Likely no one had ever told him that could happen. It didn’t go over well. The youngling lashed out at me with a strong surge of energy. It rippled through the room, making the hair stand up on the back of people’s necks. The attack hit with enough force to startle me, but as he tried to sharpen its edge, like a fish hook sinking into the meat, I was already reeling in his energy again.

Then his friend struck out. The plain one wasn’t as impetuous, but was more dangerous. His attack was more razor sharp, and pierced me. He wasn’t trying to siphon my energy. He just wanted to hurt me, and did so. Between the two, I realized that they weren’t the fools I thought. I needed to put them down quickly.

Winter was the most obvious source of power. I connected to her and drew upon her energy. The taste was already familiar. Sweet. Feminine. Earthy. I took her energy and forced it back toward the boys. It wasn’t expected. As strong as they were, the boys were overconfident. They were staggered by the wall of energy that hit them. Winter pitched forward in her seat. I looked around me, and connected to the nearest women, the girls on the table, then to a man, then two more women, another man, and another, drawing energy from them, connecting them one to other to the next to the next, until the chain came back, amplified, into Winter. She became my batter, and I had just re-charged her. I drew from her that amplified energy, over and above her already impressive life-force, and lashed out at the boys with a defining strike.

The two disruptive children physically staggered back as the energy struck, and crumpled, unconscious, to the floor. A collective gasp rose from the room as the energy surged back along those connections, given each connected body a sudden jolt. No one knew what had happened. For all intents and purposes, their eyes saw nothing more than the boys and I glaring at one another. But suddenly they had fallen, and the room was now awash with a delicious crackle of energy. Like the moment before a huge rock concert, when everyone there knows something is about to happen and is committed to whatever the outcome may be.

Good form should dictate that I released the connected bands of energy between the assembled crowd. But in that moment they had all suddenly come together at the precipice. Even if they didn’t know it. Everyone knew something had just happened. They didn’t know what, but they felt it. Suddenly everyone in the room felt connected, as if they had all drank from the same chalice of drug laced wine. The collapse of the boys had triggered a round of giggling from some of those present, and the giggling had triggered a round of smiles, as each person looked to the others, trying to figure out for himself or herself why they all suddenly felt so wonderfully alive.

No. The girls on the table had started removing what little clothing they had left. Their chests were heaving with excitement, having been connected in the physical sense when the energy chain had washed over them. They were exploring one another with their hands, unaware that they were quickly becoming the focal point of dozens of smiling faces. Every person in the room was connected to every other, and every eye was upon the girls on the table. On my periphery I could hear the sounds of people kissing.

I turned to find Winter staring at me. Her eyes were wide and bewildered. Her breathing was rapid. She’d just had the energy of every person in the room rush through her. It had left her stunned and shocked. But she smiled weakly, unsure of herself or of what had just happened. She looked down at her breasts, and covered herself as we both realized that her nipples were fully erect.

“Sorry,” she said, covering her mouth and stifling a giggle.

I grinned, and glanced across the room at Rodney. He raised an eyebrow, and I understood his question. I nodded. Yes. This was my doing. I’d already made up my mind that I was not going to release the connections between the people in this room. The night would only get wilder from that moment on. I watched as Rodney, David and the bouncer carried Jaxom’s minions from the room. Across from me, around the circle, people had started kissing and fondling one another. Beside me, Winter’s fingers had begun to play involuntarily across her breasts.

“I wonder,” I asked her, holding up my empty glass, “if some kind soul might give me something to consume?”

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