San Francisco, CA

The air coming off the Bay smelled of brine and death. Rhys shuddered and turned the collar of his leather coat up. His Gucci loafers made no sound on the sidewalk as he quickly walked the two blocks from the parking garage to his townhouse. For the first time since he’d helped the San Francisco Police Department recover the body of a missing person, there weren’t reporters camped out around the block. Rhys almost cried he was so damn thankful for that, because tonight’s job had been particularly gruesome.

The wind whipped up, autumn leaves dancing in swirling eddies across his path. He could feel eyes on him and tensed, immediately looking around and expecting to see a news van. The traffic light on the corner changed, forcing him to stop, but there was no sign of any news vans or reporters lurking anywhere. Still, Rhys was skittish; his was a dangerous business. While it wasn’t the first time and it wouldn’t be the last, he attracted some morbid “fans” because of his unusual talent. Rhys had to be extremely careful. He couldn’t shake the sensation he was being watched, and let out a breath, casting out with his senses to see if he might be in danger.

Woman 200 yards back listening to Rush Limbaugh on an iPod, feel sorry for her… Two men holding hands on the other side of the street, wow, they’re kinda old for that, aren’t they? Woman, girl, girl, boy, man, child, woman, man…

Rhys snapped back as the wind blew in from the Bay and again a foul odor hit his nostrils. He hadn’t sensed anything out of the ordinary, and he’d gone so far as to scan the people in the cars. But he simply couldn’t shake the sense he was being watched. He quickened his pace and hit his front stoop at a run. He had his keys out and slid them smoothly into the lock with his left hand, twisting them gracefully and entering his security code with his right hand. It was a beautiful example of his ambidexterity. All he knew was that he had to get inside, now.

By the time he was hanging his coat on the hall tree and slipping his loafers off, his heart had slowed and he felt safer. He always did when he was home, though he knew how foolish that was, since doors and locks only kept honest people honest. He’d been to enough crime scenes and seen enough murder victims that he knew the determination of evil men and women didn’t stop at a locked door. If anything, the false sense of security people felt in their homes made things worse. Rhys sighed.

He was tired. Worn out, burnt out, and tired. At 19 he should be registering for college at San Francisco State or hanging out up on the Haight…

Or strolling the Tenderloin…

Abruptly he shook his head and went to his bedroom, pulling his clothes off. He dumped them into the dry cleaning hamper then padded into the bathroom. Letting the hot water pound over his pale flesh, he grabbed shampoo and perfunctorily washed the dark red hair that hung down to his shoulders in thick, straight clumps. Rhys stood an inch shy of six feet, and though he tried to work out, even had several of the younger San Francisco PD after him to join them on the obstacle course on the weekends, he couldn’t seem to add much muscle to his lean frame. He seemed perpetually stuck at 165 pounds no matter how much or what he ate, and while training with the officers had given him some crazy definition across his chest and abs, he still looked like exactly what he was: a scrawny, ex-goth computer nerd.

Stepping out of the shower and drying off, he grabbed a pair of the Calvin Kleins he was favoring these days and shoved his wet hair back from his face. This last job had really wiped him. He didn’t want to close his eyes and see the faces of the victims again. Christ. Every time he took a deep breath he smelled the stink of brine and death that was stuck in his nose. He wished he’d taken Jenkins and McKawley up on their invitation and gone to the pub. He wasn’t old enough to drink with the detectives, but at least he wouldn’t be home alone, smelling that smell and worrying about being haunted by images of people who’d been tortured, mutilated, and drained of all their blood.

He just needed to find another job, fast. He sat down in his big, comfortable leather chair and brought his website up, logging in as the administrator and checking his messages. He scrolled through them quickly, deleting junk mail, cleaning out spam, and moving the, “Are you for real?” inquiries into his, “I’ll get to these when I have time,” file. He rapidly found and replied to two inquiries that he would not be accepting, because he didn’t do missing kid cases. The third inquiry, though, brought an instant hum up along his forearms, and as he read, the tingle spread up his arms, across his chest, and down his abdomen. He’d gotten the tingle before; it meant the job was one he had to take, or he’d be haunted by it. But he’d never gotten a full-body tingle, and it scared him. Scared and excited him, because he realized as he vetted the email address and verified the bank routing number that he knew the sender. Hot damn, he’d been waiting for this.


Dunedin, New Zealand

Szeren Kizevicius stared out at the lights of Dunedin, not really seeing the hustle and slide of the second largest city on New Zealand’s southern island. The last of the crates lay open on the floor in front of him, layers of thick, spongy polystyrene and hanks of beautiful, blood red, watered silk scattered around him like discarded toys. His hunger beat at him and he wanted nothing more than to be done with this task and this city, and his existence.

He held the last of the swords in his elegant, broad-fingered hands, testing its weight and balance. Like all of the blades created by the Kizevicius clan, it was perfect, a shining example of Carpathian craftsmanship and excellence. Glancing over at the other wooden crates already sealed and ready for shipping, Szeren’s hunger was a hot ball of pounding agony in his gut and he knew he needed to get this done and get gone. Looking down at the sword in his hand, which just happened to be the sword destined for his Prince, the sword created for the House of Dubrinsky, Szeren wanted to believe he held an instrument of divine justice, but it was just a big, sharp knife. Szeren wished he could destroy them all, twist them into curls of meaningless metal and magic, but short of flying to the North Island and the Taupo volcanic zone where he could climb Mount Ruapehu and throw the damned things in, the swords of his clan would long outlast his weaker flesh. Once, he’d created instruments of precision and strategy like the one in his hands with skill and passion and great joy in his heart. Now, he created nothing, and he felt even less.

He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt emotion of any kind. His world was a gray void filled with endless nights of patrolling streets that depressed him with their modernity. He remembered the shores of these beautiful, wild islands when the Maori guarded them from canoes, when huge black and white raptors stalked moas from the skies and the kauri trees were still soaking up the secrets of the world through their roots. The threat of the undead, which should have decreased in the time he’d lived here in the Land of the Long White Cloud, was on the rise instead. He had not been born a warrior, but an artisan, a swordmaker. He took up the swords his clan spent their entire lifetime crafting only because Vlad decreed the vampires must be sought out and put down, and he’d paid dearly for his obedience. Szeren expected the color to drain from his world as his ability to feel happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, trepidation, tenderness, and every emotion in between slowly faded away every time he killed one of his fellow Carpathians who had chosen to turn vampire. The loss of his gifts, of his ability to shape, mold and create, though, pained him far more than the loss of color and emotion. Szeren could stand it no longer.

He checked to be sure that the sword was locked securely into its scabbard, then laid it gently onto a layer of pure silk, blood red for the precious liquid of the House tied to the blade by magic and locked within the forging. Kizevicius swords had traveled in only one fashion for over five hundred years, and Szeren wasn’t about to let his own lack of affect or feeling interfere with that. Folding the silk precisely, he snapped the titanium case closed over the sword and carefully settled the case onto the layers of polystyrene already prepared and cut to fit snugly inside the wooden crate. Szeren traced intricate safeguards over the case before packing the rest of the foam in and hammering the lid onto the wooden crate.

He was done. Five wooden crates sat about the condo, ready for transport. He did not care for having to involve humans in his affairs, and certainly not in something like this, but he had little choice. A heavy sigh crawled up out of his throat.

“Mister K? All right then?”

Szeren turned slightly to look at the older woman standing by the door wearing a coat and holding a handbag. She looked like somebody’s mother, and she was staring at him with a worried expression on her face.

“All right?” she asked again, her voice even softer.

Szeren stood, coming to his full height of six feet, three inches, his well-muscled frame looking posh and stylish in the simple Levi 505s and black T-shirt he wore. He moved to the bank of dark, polarized, tinted windows, the better to peer out at Dunedin. He was on edge this night, and knew it was because he had to feed before he could leave the city.

“Yes, thank you, Elspeth.” His voice, a lovely, cultured mix of British, Dutch, and the lilting cadence that was unique to New Zealanders drifted across the dark luxury condominium and caressed the older woman’s ears. She smiled at him and answered in her own crisp British accent.

“When will you be returning?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Shall I just ‘ave the place cleaned weekly then?”

“Yes, that will be fine.”

“Safe journey, Mister K.”

“Thank you, Elspeth. Enjoy your visit with your sister.”

Now her smile transformed her entire face.

“That I will, sir.” She was gone and had pulled the door nearly completely closed when she stopped, paused and opened it back up. “I do ‘ope your trip is… restful for you.”

Szeren nodded, not looking at her. His insides were cramping with the fiery pain of his need for sustenance, but he could not depart until his responsibilities were all completed.

He watched dispassionately from the windows as Elspeth finally appeared down on the street, climbing into the shiny black Lexus so that Crag could drive her to her sister’s vacation house, a lovely place in Wellington. By the time Crag returned with the car, the crates and Szeren would be loaded onto the private plane, ready to make one final trip to the Carpathian Mountains.

Before that, though, Szeren had to feed. Need practically slammed him into the darkened windows as he stared out at the cosmopolitan city, full of unsuspecting, achingly naïve human men and women. Szeren shuddered, knowing the women of Dunedin were safe tonight, as safe as they’d been every night since he’d swum ashore in 1642 when he followed the Dutch explorer Abel Tansman to the islands.

Unlike the majority of unmated Carpathian males, Szeren had never been able to feed from females; they repulsed him. He’d never gone through the period of intense interest in sex that most Carpathian males experienced when they reached 150 years of ago or so, when they began to fantasize about finding their lifemates. Whole libraries of erotica on the many ways a male might bring pleasure to his female were available for unmated males to peruse at their leisure, since it was so very common for the unmated male to go through that stage. Szeren not only hadn’t, he’d gone through something… a bit different.

At first, when his interest in the structure and beauty of the male form peaked, he believed it to be merely just another spike of creativity. Szeren didn’t just create blades, after all, but also sculpted in clay, carved wood, and chiseled stone. He could look at the best offerings of the earth: a burl from a hardwood tree, a chunk of granite fresh from an ancient quarry, or a lump of glowing, molten steel, and see exactly what should be created from it. What’s more, Szeren didn’t just see the object to be created; he saw the final artwork, complete with adornment and embellishment, with every bit of skill, grace and beauty that his gifts could bring to bear. So suddenly finding his eye drawn to the power of masculinity, he allowed it to flow into his work, for the energy to run into his hands and come alive under his touch.

The results were… unexpected.

The knife he forged for Kyria Malinov, with its obvious phallic hilt and unabashedly sensual markings, was one of the most powerful pieces he’d ever created. Szeren and Kyria were close friends, not as close as Kyria was with the DeLaCruz brothers, of course, because Szeren wasn’t a warrior, but just the same, he and Kyria often shared private thoughts and sparred together. Szeren was sure he could confide in Kyria, particularly after Kyria saw the blade, held it and used it in battle. But Kyria’s reaction stunned Szeren. He took one look at the blade, remarked that the “rounded hilt” made it “uselessly unwieldy for battle” and then admonished Szeren rather sternly.

“You can’t make things like this is you want to be taken seriously, Szer,” Kyria said. For the first time, Kyria didn’t sling an arm around him, or step closer to him, but stayed back out of reach. He backed away from the blade and Szeren couldn’t fail to see the distaste on his friend’s face, despite his forced joviality. “Now make me a real dagger with a proper hilt, not some ornamental piece I’ll be afraid of snapping in half!”

Szeren was crushed, and he not only hadn’t confided in Kyria, he’d chosen not to confide in anyone. Who he fed from was nobody’s business anyway. Now, over five hundred years later, his secret was still his own, but any shame or guilt he felt over his feeding had faded away with all the other emotions he no longer felt.

Rising, Szeren forced his body to shift into mist. Pouring out into the temperate New Zealand night, he went in search of the warm male blood that would see him back to his homeland and the end. He didn’t have to go far. Caradoc’s was a mere ten city blocks from his condo, and there were always pretty boys draped around the popular club like cheap prints. Pick one up and another would take its place, beautiful but somehow empty of meaning, the kind of decorations nobody ever framed because anyone with a truly discerning eye could see that they were merely factory prints, not artist originals.

Szeren walked past the wait line filled with men in designer suits and women decked out in club clothes, looking out of place in his tight jeans and T-shirt, but somehow right at home as soon as he approached the bouncers. They nodded at him and let him in without checking their clipboards, causing more than a few grumbles from the line. Szeren ignored it all; his hunger was threatening to break free of his control. Feeling as though his skin were stretched too tight, he moved through the crowd ignoring the hands that reached out to touch him and the admiring looks from both women and men. He took up a post by the dance floor and eyed the crowd, trying to find what he needed.

He’d begun to despair and was thinking of leaving, of going across town to Live Wire, an all-male, very gay establishment, when he saw them. Young, mid-twenties, and as sweet as summer strawberries, they had to be cousins, or possibly even brothers. Szeren felt his fangs elongate as his stomach cramped painfully. About six feet tall, the two young men were built like soccer players, lean with strong legs. He knew their hair was dark, probably black, but he couldn’t be sure since he only saw shades of gray. It didn’t matter; he wanted – needed – them both. They moved against each other, sinuously dancing with a kinetic energy that Szeren could almost see crackling around their lithe muscular bodies. With a thought and a push, he was on the dance floor, insinuating his own, taller, broader body in between theirs. The one who was a bit younger looked up with startled eyes, which Szeren abruptly captured with his own icy blue eyes that flashed like diamonds under the neon of the strobe lights.

“Oh God, you’re beautiful,” the young man breathed. He had an American accent, and Szeren smiled, thinking it even easier if they had a hotel room where he could stash them afterwards.

Executing a perfect spin and grind, Szeren faced the older male who had stopped dancing, a frown on his face. He took one look at Szeren and the frown disappeared.

“Where did you come from?” he asked, a smirk curling the corner of his mouth.

Szeren leaned forward to speak into his ear, over the music. “Been watching the two of you. You boys mates? Or relatives?”

“Cousins, but… we’re close.”

Szeren reached back and pulled the younger male’s arms around his waist, drawing him up against his back as he danced to the pounding, throbbing music. They both smelled incredible, the hot, sweet scent of their blood like a punch straight to his gut. “Want to get out of here?”

“We’re staying at the Victorian. I’m Jason, by the way. The one grinding against your leg is Shawn.”

“Let’s go.” Szeren deliberately didn’t give the two of them his name. He let them lead him from the club, and chatter at him as he hailed a cab. In the cab they wanted to maul him, but Szeren didn’t kiss his food. He shook his head and lightly ran his fingers up and down a thigh on each of them.

“I want to watch you,” he whispered. The two men exchanged a look, then Jason pulled Shawn in and began kissing him, and Szeren settled back, pleased that he hadn’t been forced to resort to mind control. By the time they got to the grand old hotel where the two Americans were staying, they were both so turned on by performing for Szeren they nearly dragged him up to their room.

Once inside, though, everything changed. Szeren immediately pushed into their minds and seized control, stopping everything. Jason, the elder of the two, was the one who came across as the dominant, the one in charge who made the decisions, so Szeren went into his head first, viewing the fantasies and expectations he’d dreamt up in the fifteen minute cab ride back to the hotel. When he was certain he’d not missed anything, he switched over to Shawn and checked his fantasies against his cousin’s. Szeren shook his head. As it turned out, Shawn was the dominant of the two, not Jason, who was almost shockingly submissive in his sexual tastes. The two of them had never actually done this before, though they’d talked about it endlessly, and their inexperience and naiveté pleased Szeren.