“You make living with vampires look easy.” I chuckled, watching Fallon—my very human best friend—stake her claim in the den.
Since moving in, Fallon had taken over the empty room in our house, turning it into her own ultra-modern studio apartment: half bedroom, half office space. She’d even begun hanging pictures—something Lysander had never done the entire time he’d lived here. On one wall she’d hung a large abstract painting in muted tones of blue and green. She was well on her way to making the room feel homey and completely separate from the rest of the house.
“I’ve had some pretty scary roommates in the past. You guys are nothing!” She waved a flippant hand in the air, downplaying the strangeness of our situation.
Fallon was a rarity, a human possessing knowledge of our kind, who hadn’t been turned or killed. She was never supposed to know I’d become a vampire, but after a hasty retreat I’d made while dodging a hunter from the Acta Sanctorum, I accidentally let the cat out of the bag. My clan, the Peregrinus, weren’t too keen on the idea at first, but after Fallon showed them she was capable of keeping our secret as well as being helpful, they gave in and allowed her to stay.
“Oh, hey, has Lysander called the cable company yet?” Fallon asked as she shoved her head below a small glass-topped computer desk and began fumbling with wires.
For the last few weeks, Fallon had taken it upon herself to bring my two-thousand-year-old boyfriend into the modern era.
And he wasn’t too happy about it.
You just can’t teach an old vampire new tricks. I stood against the wall, remembering Lysander’s first lesson with the computer. It had been hilarious. Not realizing his strength, he crushed the first mouse with a forceful click. The keyboard barely stood a chance.
Fallon had spent many days rebuilding her desktop computer after their last lesson. Still, she hadn’t given up on him. You had to admire her persistence.
Cables snaked across the top of the desk while Fallon bumped and grumbled underneath. “Everything’s plugged in. I don’t know why it isn’t working. Ah ha!”
I heard a loud thump. The whole desk shifted, and Fallon shouted, “Sonofabitch!”
“You okay over there?” I asked, trying to stifle my laughter and sound concerned.
“You know, Lysander may be old and wise and all that, but the man’s an idiot when it comes to modern technology.”
“No one’s disputing that point. What did he do this time?”
Fallon pulled herself out from under the desk and scowled at me. She rubbed a spot on the top of her head, messing up her already-wild blonde pixie haircut. “Damn cable was plugged into the wrong hole. I don’t even want to know how he managed to make it fit.”
I shrugged. “Well, what do you expect? The guy’s ancient.”
Her deep brown eyes narrowed as she shot me one of those I-don’t-think-so looks. “That’s no excuse, Alyssa. Living for two thousand years gives you plenty of time to learn things. You know, adapt with the times, and all that jazz.”
I nodded. She was right. But it did make me wonder: if I managed to live that long, would I be so out of touch? I hoped not.
Fallon stopped rubbing the sore spot on her head, and then pressed the power button on the sleek new flat-panel monitor sitting on the desk. Sighing with contentment as the screen came to life, she flopped down onto the office chair. “Time to start creating user accounts.” She rested her hands on the desk and absently tapped a finger on the edge of the keyboard as if contemplating what to do next. “You know, it would be better if Lysander were here. I don’t want to set up his account yet. He needs to learn how to use this computer.”
“You’re gonna have to wait then. He’s off hunting.”
The sweet smell of fear suddenly permeated the air. Human noses can’t detect the subtle scent, but I wasn’t human, and the sugary fragrance teased my senses. Friend or not, I’m still a vampire, and instincts are hard to ignore. Hunting means blood. Fresh, human blood. Fallon knew this, but she had no reason to fear. As far as the Peregrinus were concerned, criminals were the prey—those deserving of our deadly kisses. No vampire in this house would ever harm her, especially since she’d been made an unofficial member—being human and all—after helping us fight the Acta Sanctorum’s last attempt to destroy us.
“At least he’ll be in a good mood when he gets back,” she said, trying to sound as if it didn’t bother her. I could tell she was lying—beyond the smell of fear, I sensed her unease—but nodded as if I accepted her words at face value. It was understandable and expected of her to be squeamish about the whole blood thing. You can’t truly appreciate the need for blood unless that’s the only thing you can consume. For what it was worth, though, she was handling it well.
“Guess I’ll just check my email while we wait.” She immediately began tapping away at the keys.
I shrugged and turned toward the futon in the center of the room, and spotted a cardboard box sitting on it. “Hey, what’s this? More computer stuff?”
Fallon still tapped away at the keys. “Dunno. It was on the doorstep when I got home.”
I walked over for a closer look. Oddly, there was no address or any kind of shipping information on the box. I picked it up and looked at the bottom, hoping to find a label there. What I found instead was weird symbol: a large circle with what looked like a horizontal capital “I” dividing it, drawn in something maroon-colored. I hoped that was just a new Sharpie color, but after a quick whiff my nose said otherwise. Blood. Old blood.
“You didn’t think it was strange?” I asked, a little annoyed that she hadn’t mentioned this sooner. No tags meant that this hadn’t been dropped off by the postal service.
We lived in the middle of a quiet suburban neighborhood, hiding in plain sight from the humans surrounding us. Thankfully, in a city like Las Vegas with a thriving nightlife, no one ever questioned our nocturnal habits. Maintaining secrecy was rule number one in our clan, and we did our best to remain inconspicuous. That meant whoever stopped by to drop this off must have known who—and potentially what—we were.
“Sorry, Lyssa, I had my hands full with the new monitor when I came in. Honestly, I had forgotten it was here until you mentioned it.”
I hadn’t been a vampire long enough to know all the ins and outs of our culture. Maybe this was a way new vampires announced their presence in our territory. Maybe our recent defeat of Quentin and the local branch of the Acta Sanctorum operation had earned us some respect. Maybe it was a parting gift from Santino, our old nemesis-turned-ally.
What’s the old saying? “Curiosity killed the cat”? But what does it do to a vampire? I wondered.
Absently tapping my fingers on the box top, I debated how bad it might be just to take a peek. No strange odors emanated from the box. No ticking to indicate a bomb—not that I thought bombs ticked anymore, but I felt safer that there was no sound coming from the box. I picked it up and shook it. It felt light as air, and the contents didn’t shuffle around much. Only a muffled thump indicated anything solid was inside, and whatever it was, it was packed to not break.
Curiosity got the best of me. I had to see what it was. I used my fingernail to open the tape across the top. A puff of dry air greeted me as I pulled back the flaps. Instead of packing peanuts, the box had been filled with some straw-like material, like the grass in children’s Easter baskets. “Come check this out,” I called out to Fallon, pushing aside the packing material.
She tore herself away from the computer and joined me, but the moment was anticlimactic. For all the mystery and ominous symbol on the outside, the contents were a bit boring. An ornately carved wooden box sat in the middle of the packing material, tied tight with a red silk ribbon. It was pretty, but not all that exciting.
I reached in, took hold of the box with one hand, and lifted it out. It felt strangely weightless in my hand, as if the wood were hollow or perhaps not wood at all, but some kind of Styrofoam. I gave it a squeeze, though a gentle one—I didn’t want to accidentally crush it with my superhuman strength. It had no give. It was solid as a rock. I squeezed it a bit harder, expecting the wood to crack or groan under the pressure, but that too had no effect.
Maybe it’s not so plain after all.
I shook it and held it to my ear to hear if there might be anything inside. Nothing.
“Let me see,” Fallon said taking it from me. She traced the patterns that looked like ancient writing covering the small box. “It’s really pretty. Should we unwrap it and see what’s inside?”
“I’m not sure we should do that,” I said, though I was hoping to learn the mystery surrounding its contents.
“It wasn’t addressed to anyone specifically,” Fallon said, eyeing the box as if entranced by it. “So it was probably meant for all of us, right?”
“All of us” meant the other vampires that lived in the house, the Peregrinus clan: Rozaline, Nicholas, Crystal, Drew, and Lysander.
“Hmm, good point.” I reached for the box, but she pulled it just out of my reach. Her sudden movement shocked me.
“I mean, it’s not like we’re opening up someone’s birthday present, right?” She continued to eye the box, her curious gaze becoming almost hungry as she inspected it.
“I don’t think vampires celebrate birthdays.”
“Maybe they celebrate deathdays,” she quipped.
“We’re not dead.” I shook my head at her. “Beating hearts… remember?”
“I know, Lyssa. I’m just joking.” She playfully tapped me on the shoulder. “Okay, let’s take a quick peek.”
“Maybe we should wait for the others to get here to open it? This was probably for Lysander,” I said. “An antique for display or something. I doubt he’d appreciate us opening it.” I could imagine it looking nice on his bookshelves. He was, after all, a historian who collected lots of old things.
Fallon started to untie the silk wrapper as if she hadn’t heard me. The carved words (at least, I thought they were words) were haphazardly etched into the wood all over the box. There appeared to be no rhyme or reason to their patterns. I had a feeling if I could read the writing, it would all make sense, but even not knowing exactly what it said, I could still appreciate the intricacy.
“Hey, are you listening to me? Fallon?” I snapped my fingers in front of her face to get her attention, but she was so focused on the box, she wouldn’t look up.
“Weird. It doesn’t appear to have an opening. Looks like a solid piece of wood. There’s no visible clasp or hinges either.”
“Maybe it’s not meant to be opened.” That gave me a small measure of comfort.
Fallon still didn’t seem to hear me. She ran her fingers all over the patterns as if hunting for some hidden button or lock. After staring at it for a few seconds, she found what she as looking for, a hairline seam. It was barely visible within the patterns. “Must be like an ancient shoe box.” Fallon chuckled. “Look. The top just fits over the bottom. Well, let’s see what treasures are inside.”
“Fallon, I’ve got a bad feeling about this. Let’s not—”
Before I could get out another word, Fallon pulled the top off.
A cloud of dust poofed out, spewing chalky ash into my face.
I coughed as it choked out the air around me. My eyes began to water and a tear spilled over my cheek.
Fallon let out a violent sneeze that knocked her backwards into the wall. Her newly hung painting fell with a crash. She dropped the box, spilling murky gray ash into a pile on the splintered canvas.
“Shit, I’m sorry,” she said, shaking herself as if coming out of a daze. She bent down to clean up the mess. “I don’t know what came over me. It was like the box was calling me, telling me to open it.”
I felt a strange prickling sensation across my skin. The hairs on my neck stood on end as if electrically charged. The air around me felt as if it were growing colder, like someone had set the thermostat to zero. A shiver danced its way up my spine, causing gooseflesh to erupt and spread down my arm.
My kind can always feel another vampire’s presence. This eerily cold hair-raising sensation felt very similar, yet somehow amplified.
I turned to find Nicholas looking over my shoulder. It was if he had appeared out of nowhere. I jumped in place, startled by his sudden appearance, and bit back a curse. His scruffy face was mere inches from my neck, though his blue-gray eyes, a trademark of the vampire race, were locked on the box in Fallon’s hand.
“What have we here?” he asked. “Been ordering junk from those websites again, little human?” He folded his arms in front of his chest. Nicholas wasn’t a tall man, but he was muscular and looked very formidable and menacing when he wanted to.
Fallon finished sweeping the ash back into the box and replaced the lid. “No, the human has not been ordering junk.” She shot him a taunting glare.
Human or not, Fallon didn’t take Nicholas’s crap. Once she learned he wasn’t going to kill her, it became almost a game between those two: an ongoing battle to see who could annoy whom the most. It was fun to watch the two of them go at it, though somewhere in the back of my mind, I wondered if it might one day go too far.
“Someone dropped this on our doorstep.” Fallon set the wooden box on the futon and picked up the corner of the cardboard box it came in, showing Nicholas the big red symbol on the bottom. “You’re older than dirt, right? Maybe you can read this.”
He opened his mouth as if to make another snarky comment and then closed it immediately. His eyes narrowed and his brows pulled together in deep concentration.
That startled me more than the odd chill in the air. Nicholas was always quick with an answer or some kind of quip. For him to be silent meant that this, whatever it was, was not the innocuous present I had hoped it would be, and further confirmed my feelings of unease.
“Thanatos?” Nicholas whispered under his breath, as if asking a question rather than making a statement.
Fallon and I exchanged confused looks. I shrugged at her and after a moment of awkward silence, decided to ask the obvious question. “Who is Thanatos?”
“When did you receive this?” he asked curtly.
“It was on the doorstep when I got home from the store,” Fallon replied. “I dunno, probably about seven o’clock or so.”
“What was inside the package?”
“Just this.” Fallon dropped the cardboard box and handed the smaller wooden one to Nicholas.
He took it gingerly, as if he feared to touch the ancient-looking thing.
“Who is Thanatos?” I asked a bit louder this time.
“Death personified.” Nicholas’s voice warbled, hinting at his own worry.
A cold breeze blew through the den, making the curtains covering the large window dance. I looked up to see if the fan had been turned on, but it remained still.
“You mean Death, like the Grim Reaper?” I asked, my voice cracking as the eerie feeling of dread intensified to an overwhelming sensation.
“Exactly,” Nicholas said. He too watched the dancing curtains. “Though I doubt the person who sent this is the actual Thanatos of legend. But perhaps he is closer to the literal truth; something like we are, a vampire, a bringer of death.”
I screwed up my face, confused as always by Nicholas’s cryptic ways of explaining things. Did that mean he thought a vampire dropped it off, or that this box had something to do with vampires in general? “So did this belong to Thanatos?”
Nicholas suddenly looked more annoyed than worried. “Thanatos is the Greek god of death, Alyssa. That symbol is like a calling card.”
“Wait a second,” Fallon interrupted. “Hades is the god of the underworld.”
Nicholas smiled revealing his fangs. “Correct. Two points to the little human. Perhaps you could teach your friend here a thing or two.” He gave me a short sneer. “Hades is the ruler of the underworld, but Thanatos is the bringer of death. He is the one who sends the spirits to Hades.”
“So are you trying to tell me the gods are real? And sending us warnings?” I asked.
“In my day, we believed the gods were as real as your next door neighbor. I, of course, have never met one, but that does not negate the possibility that they might have some physical form. Remember, we were supposedly born of the Keres, grandchildren of the goddess Nyx.”
I nodded, remembering Lysander’s telling of our legend. Vampires were the offspring of the Keres, who were daughters of Nyx, Goddess of the night. The Keres were extremely bloodthirsty creatures that swarmed battlefields to drink the blood of fallen soldiers. They finished off the dying so their souls could pass on to the underworld. According to Lysander’s story, one of the Keres had mated with a dying man, and the first vampire had been born of that union. Immortal like its mother, the new creation carried an insatiable bloodlust, but took on the form and build of its human father. Nyx didn’t wish the new creation destroyed and tried to hide it from the world. She cursed it to only be able to roam at night, where she could watch over it.
The lights in the room flickered for a moment. Again, Fallon and I exchanged worried looks. Nicholas’s eyes narrowed. He glanced from me, to Fallon, then to the box in his hands.
“Whatever this thing represents”—Nicholas held up the box—“it’s very old. We’ll need to bring this to Lysander’s attention as soon as he returns.”
“We probably should have done that before we opened it.” I turned to Fallon.
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t help it. I didn’t mean to open it. I don’t know what came over me.”
“There’s nothing we can do about that now.” A shiver ran down my spine as the words left my lips. Dread curdled in the pit of my stomach.
Fallon’s computer beeped. The twangy mechanical sound startled me from my thoughts. When I looked over, it was in the process of rebooting. The operating system splash screen flashed on the monitor.Fallon scooted into the desk chair. “Why the heck did it do that?” She typed in the password as soon as the dialogue box came up on screen. “Something strange is going on here.”
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