Chapter Three


Amelie grabbed Claire's other arm, and before Claire could so much as grab a breath, she was being pulled through the portal. There was a brief wave of chill, and a feeling that was a little like being pushed from all sides, and then she was stumbling into utter, complete blackness. Her other senses went into overdrive. The air smelled stale and heavy, and felt cold and damp, like a cave. Amelie's icy grip on one arm was going to leave bruises, and Hannah Moses's warmer touch on the other seemed light by contrast, although Claire knew it wasn't.

Claire could hear herself and Hannah breathing, but there was no sound at all from the vampires. When Claire tried to speak, Amelie's icecold hand covered her mouth. She nodded convulsively, and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other as Amelie--she hoped it was still Amelie, anyway--pulled her forward into the dark.

The smells changed from time to time--a whiff of nasty, rotten something, then something else that smelled weirdly like grapes? Her imagination conjured up a dead man surrounded by broken bottles of wine, and Claire couldn't stop it there; the dead man was moving, squirming toward her, and any second now he'd touch her and she'd scream. . . .

It's just your imagination; stop it.

She swallowed and tried to tamp down the panic. It wasn't helping. Shane wouldn't panic. Shane would-- whatever, Shane wouldn't be caught dead roaming around in the dark with a bunch of vampires like this, and Claire knew it.

It seemed like they went on forever, and then Amelie pulled her to a stop and let go. Losing that support felt as if she were standing on the edge of a cliff, and Claire was really, really grateful for Hannah's grip to tell her there was something else real in the world. Don't let me fall.

And then Hannah's hand went away. A fast tightening of her fingers, and she was gone.

Claire was floating in total darkness, disconnected, alone. Her breath sounded loud as a train in her ears, but it was buried under the thunder of her fast heartbeats. Move, she told herself. Do something!

She whispered, "Hannah?"

Cold hands slapped around her from behind, one pinning her arms to her sides, the other covering her mouth. She was lifted off the ground, and she screamed, a faint buzzing sound like a storm of bees that didn't make it through the muffling gag.

And then she went flying through the air into the darkness . . . and rolled to a stop facedown, on a cold stone floor. There was light here. Faint, but definite, painting the edges of things a pale gray, including the arched mouth of the tunnel at the end of the hall.

She had no idea where she was.

Claire got quickly to her feet and turned to look behind her. Amelie, pale as a pearl, stepped through the portal, and with her came the other two vampires. G?rard had Hannah Moses's arm gripped in his good hand.

Hannah had a bloody gash on her head, and when G?rard let go, she dropped to her knees, breathing hard. Her eyes looked blank and unfocused.

Amelie whirled, something silver in one hand, and stabbed as something came at her from the dark. It screamed, a thin sound that echoed through the tunnel, and a white hand reached out to grab Amelie's shirt.

The invisible portal slammed shut like an iris, and severed the arm just above the elbow.

Amelie plucked the stillgrabbing hand from her shirt, dropped the hand to the ground, and kicked it to the side. When she turned back to the others, there was no expression on her face.

Claire felt like throwing up. She couldn't take her eyes away from that wiggling, fishpale hand.

"It was necessary to come this way," Amelie said. "Dangerous, but necessary."

"Where are we?" Claire asked. Amelie gave her a look and ignored her as she took the lead, heading down the hall. Going through this didn't give her any right to ask questions. Of course. "Hannah? Are you okay?"

Hannah waved her hand vaguely, which really wasn't all that confidencebuilding. The vampire G?rard answered for her. "She's fine." Sure, he could talk, having one hand burned to the bone. He'd probably classify himself as fine, too. "Take her," G?rard ordered, and pushed Hannah toward Claire as he moved to follow Amelie. The other bodyguard--what was his name?--moved with him, as if they were an old, practiced team.

Hannah was heavy, but she pulled herself back on her own center of gravity after a breath or two. "I'm fine," she said, and gave Claire a reassuring grin. "Damn. That was not a walk in the park."

"You should meet my boyfriend," Claire said. "You two are both masters of understatement."

She thought Hannah wanted to laugh, but instead, she just nodded and patted Claire on the shoulder. "Watch the sides," she said. "We're just starting on this thing."

That was an easy job, because there was nothing to watch on the sides. They were, after all, in a tunnel. Hannah, it appeared, was the rear guard, and she seemed to take it very seriously, although it looked like Amelie had slammed the doorway behind them pretty hard, with prejudice. I hope we don't have to go back that way, Claire thought, and shivered at the sight of that pale severed hand behind them. It had finally stopped moving. I really, really hope we don't have to go back there.

At the mouth of the tunnel, Amelie seemed to pause for a moment, and then disappeared to the right, around the corner, with her two vampire bodyguards in flying formation behind her. Hannah and Claire hurried to keep up, and emerged into another hallway, this one square instead of arched, and paneled in rich, dark wood. There were paintings on the walls--old ones, Claire thought--of pale people lit by candlelight, dressed in about a thousand pounds of costume and rice white makeup and wigs.

She stopped and backed up, staring at one.

"What?" Hannah growled.

"That's her. Amelie." It definitely was, only instead of the Princess Gracestyle clothes she wore now, in the picture she was wearing an elaborate sky blue satin dress, cut way low over her breasts. She was wearing a big white wig, and staring out of the canvas in an eerily familiar way.

"Art appreciation later, Claire. We need to go."

That was true, beyond any argument, but Claire kept throwing glances at the paintings as they passed. One looked like it could have been Oliver, from about four hundred years ago. One more modern one looked almost like Myrnin. It's the vampire museum, she realized. It's their history. There were glass cases lining the hall ahead, filled with books and papers and jewelry, clothing, and musical instruments. All the fine and fabulous things gathered through their long, long lives.

Ahead, the three vampires came to a sudden, motionless halt, and Hannah grabbed Claire by the arm to pull her out of the way, against the wall. "What's happening?" Claire whispered.

"Sorting credentials."

Claire didn't know what that meant, exactly, but when she risked moving out just a bit to see what was happening, she saw that there were lots of other vampires in here--about a hundred of them, some sitting down and obviously hurt. There were humans, too, mostly standing together and looking nervous, which seemed reasonable.

If these were Bishop's people, their little rescue party was in serious trouble.

Amelie exchanged some quiet words with the vampire who seemed to be in charge, and G?rard and his partner visibly relaxed. That settled the friendorfoe question, apparently; Amelie turned and nodded to Claire, and she and Hannah edged out from behind the glass cases to join them.

Amelie made a gesture, and immediately several vampires peeled off from the group and joined her in a distant corner.

"What's going on?" Claire asked, and stared around her. Most of the vampires were still dressed in the costumes they'd worn to Bishop's welcome feast, but a few were in more military dress--black, mostly, but some in camouflage.

"It's a rally point," Hannah said. "She's talking strategy, probably. Those would be her captains. Notice there aren't any humans with her?"

Claire did. It wasn't exactly a pleasant sensation, the doubt that boiled up inside.

Whatever orders Amelie delivered, it didn't take long. One by one, the vampires nodded and peeled off from the meeting, gathered up followers--including humans this time--and departed. By the time Amelie had dispatched the last group, there were only about ten people left Claire didn't know, and they were all standing together.

Amelie came back to them, saw the group of humans and vamps, and nodded toward them.

"Claire, this is Theodosius Goldman," Amelie said. "Theo, he prefers to be called. These are his family."

Family? That was a shock, because there were so many of them. Theo seemed to be kind of middleaged, with graying, curly hair and a face that, except for its vampiric pallor, seemed kind of . . . nice.

"May I present my wife, Patience?" he said with the kind of old manners Claire had only seen on Masterpiece Theater. "Our sons, Virgil and Clarence. Their wives, Ida and Minnie." There were more vampires bowing, or in the case of the one guy down on the floor, with his head held in the lap of a female vamp, waving. "And their children."

Evidently the grandkids didn't merit individual introductions. There were four of them, two boys and two girls, all pale like their relatives. They seemed younger than Claire, at least physically; she guessed the littler girl was probably about twelve, the older boy around fifteen.

The older boy and girl glared at her, as if she were personally responsible for the mess they were in, but Claire was too busy imagining how a whole family--down to grandkids--could all be made vampires like this.

Theo, evidently, could see all that in her expression, because he said, "We were made eternal a long time ago, my girl, by"--he cast a quick look at Amelie, who nodded--"by her father, Bishop. It was a joke of his, you see, that we should all be together for all time." He really did have a kind face, Claire thought, and his smile was kind of tragic. "The joke turned on him, though. We refused to let it destroy us. Amelie showed us we did not have to kill to survive, and so we were able to keep our faith as well as our lives."

"Your faith?"

"It's a very old faith," Theo said. "And today is our Sabbath."

Claire blinked. "Oh. You're Jewish?"

He nodded, eyes fixed on her. "We found a refuge here, in Morganville. A place where we could live in peace, both with our nature and our God."

Amelie said, softly, "But will you fight for it now, Theo? This place that gave you refuge?"

He held out his hand. His wife's cool white fingers closed around it. She was a delicate china doll of a woman, with masses of sleek black hair piled on top of her head. "Not today."

"I'm sure God would understand if you broke the Sabbath under these circumstances."

"I'm sure he would. God is forgiving, or we would not still be walking this world. But to be moral is not to need his divine forgiveness, I think." He shook his head again, very regretfully. "We cannot fight, Amelie. Not today. And I would prefer not to fight at all."

"If you think you can stay neutral in this, you're wrong. I will respect your wishes. My father will not."

Theo's face hardened. "If your father threatens my family again, then we will fight. But until he comes for us, until he shows us the sword, we will not take up arms against him."

G?rard snorted, which proved what he thought about it; Claire wasn't much surprised. He seemed like a practical sort of guy. Amelie simply nodded. "I can't force you, and I wouldn't. But be careful. I cannot spare anyone to help you. You should be safe enough here, for a time. If any others come through, send them out to guard the power station and the campus." She allowed her gaze to move beyond Theo, to touch the three humans huddled in the far corner of the room, under another painting, a big one. "Are these under your Protection?"

Theo shrugged. "They asked to join us."

"Theo."

"I will defend them if someone tries to harm them." Theo pitched his voice lower. "Also, we may need them, if we can't get supplies."

Claire went cold. For all his kind face and smile, Theo was talking about using those people as portable blood banks.

"I don't want to do it," Theo continued, "but if things go against us, I have to think of my children. You understand."

"I do," Amelie said. Her face was back to a blank mask that gave away nothing of how she felt about it. "I have never told you what to do, and I will not now. But by the laws of this town, if you place these humans under your Protection, you owe them certain duties. You know that."

Another shrug, and Theo held out his hands to show he was helpless. "Family comes first," he said. "I have always told you so."

"Some of us," Amelie said, "are not so fortunate in our choice of families."

She turned away from Theo without waiting for his response--if he'd been intending to give one--and without so much as a pause, slammed her fist into a glassfronted wall box labeled EMERGENCY USE ONLY three steps to the right. It shattered in a loud clatter, and Amelie shook shards of glass from her skin.

She reached into the box and took out . . . Claire blinked. "Is that a paintball gun?"

Amelie handed it to Hannah, who handled it like a professional. "It fires pellets loaded with silver powder," she said. "Very dangerous to us. Be careful where you aim."

"Always am," Hannah said. "Extra magazines?"

Amelie retrieved them from the case and handed them over. Claire noticed that she protected herself even from a casual touch, with a fold of fabric over her fingers. "There are ten shots per magazine," she said. "There is one already loaded, and six more here."

"Well," Hannah said, "any problem I can't solve with seventy shots is probably going to kill us, anyway."

"Claire," Amelie said, and handed over a small, sealed vial. "Silver powder, packed under pressure. It will explode on impact, so be very careful with it. If you throw it, there is a wide dispersal through the air. It can hurt your friends as much as your enemies."

There were real uses for silver powder, like coating parts in computers; Claire supposed it wasn't exactly restricted, but she was surprised the vampires were progressive enough to lay in a supply. Amelie raised pale eyebrows at her.

"You've been expecting this," Claire said.

"Not in detail. But I've learned through my life that such preparations are never wasted, in the end. Sometime, somewhere, life always comes to a fight, and peace always comes to an end."

Theo said, very quietly, "Amen."

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