“Thou shalt not covet thy human subjects, nor the Pure Ones who are thy slaves. Subjects must be held at an objective distance, ruled by a fair hand. Slaves must be leashed with tight control, mastered by a strong will.”
—Excerpt from the Dark Laws, verse twenty-one of the Ecliptic Scrolls
It was five o’clock when Inanna slipped back inside the hospice.
She had over an hour of night left, plenty of time to collect on the Blood-Contract and make her way back to the Cove before the early rays of winter sun started to weave their drowsy spell around her.
A little known fact was that Inanna felt less of the sun’s adverse effects than other vampires.
Only the Queen was aware of the truth.
To maintain appearances, however, she stuck to the usual vampire routine.
Checking briefly at the guest log on the empty reception desk, she saw that Gabriel had signed out before midnight, having stayed much later than his usual visit. Perhaps he sensed somehow that this would be the last hours he would spend with his wife.
When he saw her next, she would no longer be among the living.
Inanna walked soundlessly through the corridors to arrive at Olivia’s room. She entered as if one with the darkness, a mere shadow flickering against the wall, and locked the door behind her.
Olivia was in the throes of what seemed to be a nightmare.
She was making pained whimpers, gasping for breath, while tossing and turning on her narrow bed, her hands curled into claws as she fervently scratched the skin around her IV and throat.
A cool breeze drifted through the open windows, carrying the soothing scent of jasmine from the trees that surrounded the hospice, but the writhing patient seemed immune to its therapeutic effects.
Inanna had seen this sight thousands of times.
Hundreds of thousands.
It was the last feverish battle of the dying.
The drugs were losing their effects; the patient’s body was rebelling against her. She was flailing against the onset of death.
Inanna knew what she needed.
“I am here, Olivia,” the Chosen said, drawing near to sit beside the mechanical bed, taking one of the patient’s hands and squeezing lightly to calm the frenzied shaking.
“Do not fret. I am here.”
Olivia turned toward the sound of her voice and opened her chapped lips, but only incoherent grunts and mumbles tumbled from them.
As if frustrated with her inability to speak clearly, she began to shake her head from side to side, hot tears slipping from the corners of her eyes.
“Shall I ease your pain a bit?” Inanna asked, not really expecting an answer.
She drew one boney wrist closer and quickly sank her canines into the barely-there vein.
With the first slow draw of blood, the venom from her fangs trickling into the patient’s bloodstream like the most powerful sedative, Olivia stopped thrashing immediately and began to breathe more evenly, more deeply.
Stopping after a few small sips so that Olivia was calm and lucid enough to open her eyes, temporarily clear of pain and drugs, Inanna licked the wound closed and regarded the human woman with patience and understanding.
“Thank you,” Olivia began weakly, “thank you for giving me one more night with him.”
“He needed to hear your heart,” Inanna answered. “You have waited much too long to tell him.”
“I was a fool and a coward,” the patient agreed. “Even at the end I do not think he believed me.”
Inanna felt a long-stored anger unfurling in her stomach, stretching its way toward her throat, burning the tip of her tongue with a caustic reply.
Perhaps Olivia sensed it, for she admitted, “I know it’s all my fault. I have no one to blame but myself. He has given me, in so many ways, for so many years, a love I don’t deserve while I only hurt him with my stupid, thoughtless mistakes.”
The patient’s eyes took on a faraway sheen as she inhaled deeply the soft flowery fragrance wafting from the open windows and murmured, “Our old neighborhood was lined with jasmine trees. He used to follow me around when we were teenagers, you know. At first I thought it was because we walked the same way to school since we lived across the street from each other, and then I thought this shaggy-headed new kid was stalking me.”
She gave a small chuckle. “I was pretty full of myself back then. Being the head cheerleader and prom queen tended to inflate a High School girl’s ego.”
“But later I realized he was protecting me, since I often went home well past dark. Isn’t that strange?” she asked the question, but Inanna did not think she expected an answer.
“He has been protecting me ever since the beginning. But hard as he tried, he couldn’t save me from myself. All the terrible mistakes I made.”
Inanna kept silent, lowering her gaze.
Yes, she knew everything about those mistakes. She knew the couple’s entire tragic story. It didn’t have to be this way, she often thought.
It seemed so blatantly simple for Olivia to make the right choices, more pointedly, to choose her husband.
To choose her son, Benjamin.
But the woman seemed wired for self-destruction. Her choices in life not only hurt everyone who loved her, but ultimately, herself.
What a waste!
She felt a slight tug on the hand that still held Olivia’s wrist and looked directly into the patient’s eyes.
“You will take good care of them, won’t you?” Olivia beseeched her with tear-filled eyes. “Please make them happy. I can’t bear that my mistakes might outlive me.”
Inanna had to swallow twice before she found her voice, made it neutral, soothing. “I always keep my promises. Gabriel and Benjamin will lack for nothing.”
Olivia nodded, trusting the vampire completely.
The vampire who had been her secret friend for as many years as she’d been married. Perhaps because Olivia had a rather fanciful nature, perhaps she simply did not care, but she had known from the beginning of their unlikely acquaintance that Inanna was not of her world.
They’d met while Olivia was hospitalized after the “incident.” She’d shared a room with a patient dying of leukemia because the hospital wards had been over-occupied during the holiday season due to traffic and other accidents. She’d witnessed how this honey-blonde goddess-like creature had all but floated into the room, bent solicitously over the dying patient and whispered words of reassurance, promising to end his pain.
The man had neither family nor friends. He could no longer afford hospital bills and was essentially at the mercy of city charity. He might have been able to linger on for another month or two, but he was in a tremendous amount of pain. Olivia had heard his fervent prayers the night she’d been brought into the ward.
He’d prayed for death.
And death had come for him in the form of an angel.
Olivia had heard some of their hushed words. The woman would stay for hours talking soothingly to the dying man. She’d hold his hand and smile at him with understanding and care.
On the second night that Olivia was there, the night before her release from the hospital, she’d heard them speak of the Contract.
“I told him about you,” Olivia said now to her Angel of Death. “As much as I knew about you.”
She paused and then said, “Except that you’re not quite human.”
A small smile curved Inanna’s voluptuous mouth.
“What a euphemistic way to put it,” she murmured.
Olivia shrugged almost imperceptibly.
“It doesn’t matter to me what you are. You’ve been a better friend to me than anyone else in my life. Except for Gabriel.”
She took a deep, steadying breath.
“Do you suppose he’ll be angry with me?”
“He has that right as the man who loves you,” the Chosen answered. “But what you do with your life is your choice.”
“That’s not what you said when we first met,” Olivia reminded her.
“It was not merely your life at stake at the time,” Inanna replied evenly.
“You were right about that,” the patient agreed. “Benji was by far the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Abruptly, she turned away, facing the ceiling instead of her visitor.
The trembling in her body began again as she flashed hot and cold. The venom was starting to wear off.
“You’ll make sure he doesn’t suspect the arrangement?” Olivia asked for what was probably the hundredth time, her voice starting to fade.
“He will not suspect.”
“He hates to be manipulated. He has so much pride.”
Inanna didn’t answer.
Yes, she knew. Gabriel’s code of honor reminded Inanna of the most ancient Dark Ones.
Steadfast. Fiercely protective. Self-sacrificing. Nurturing.
“Will you be good to him?” Olivia asked.
Inanna cocked her head a bit. Didn’t she already ask this? Nevertheless she answered, “He will lack for nothing.”
“That’s not what I meant.” Olivia sighed and closed her eyes.
Her shaking had intensified. She was idly scratching herself again.
“I want you to be kind to him. I don’t want him to be lonely. I want you to lo—”
She broke off as her panting got stronger, as she struggled to draw enough oxygen into her failing lungs, arching off the bed in a twist of pain.
“It is time,” Inanna said quietly, knowing that the patient no longer heard her.
With a gust of wind, the windows slammed shut, the lights in the hospice room blacked out. In the heavy darkness there was a flash of white fangs.
*** *** *** ***
Gabriel slid into the studio soundlessly just as the first rays of dawn filtered through the crack in the window drapes.
Benji slept peacefully in the bed, his breathing even and deep, a small warm mound under the covers topped by unruly pale blond curls.
Gabriel paused over his son’s innocent form and gently smoothed a thumb down one plump cheek.
Though he was solidly into his boyhood, Benji retained the cherubic sweetness of his toddler days. Perhaps it was the riotous blond curls. Perhaps the rosy cheeks and mouth. Just looking upon his little angel made Gabriel smile, though it was followed almost immediately by a grimace as his split lip split even deeper.
He straightened and, in one smooth motion, pulled the bloodied hoodie over his head, shucking his torn joggers a second later, and made his way, naked, to the tiny bathroom with an even tinier shower stall.
At least the water pressure in the apartment was blessedly strong.
As the blast of hot water drenched him from head to toe, Gabriel closed his eyes and raised his face into the cleansing deluge.
After two gruesome hours in Hell’s belly, and six matches later, he was ten grand richer. Enough to pay off three months of over-due rent, which Mrs. Sergeyev had been kind enough to forgive thus far without interest or eviction, plus one month advance, as well as Olivia’s hospice bills. He even had a nice little cushion left over for food and emergencies.
And all it took was three bruised ribs, bloody knuckles, a few nasty scratches, a split lip and let’s not forget—beating six men into unconscious putty with his bare hands and feet.
His shifu would be appalled.
Gabriel clenched his jaw.
He did what he had to do. He would do everything in his power to protect those he loved. As long as he could live with his conscience afterwards.
He’d made sure those men were merely unconscious, a few broken bones and concussions, perhaps, but no debilitating injuries for the long term. They would recover quickly enough to fight another day.
In truth, it didn’t have to take as long as it did to dispatch his opponents. A few well-placed jabs and kicks would have knocked them out faster. But he needed to play to the spectators. He had to look like he was struggling, on the verge of losing for a while so that the bets were stacked against him, so that his winnings in the end would be that much greater.
Dragging a fight out to look like he was weaker, taking hits without taking proportional damage, was a tricky tightrope Gabriel had to balance upon. He wondered whether he should have allowed a black eye or two and a bloodied nose to appeal more to the audience’s bloodlust. But he had to weigh that against the blood and swollen flesh disorienting his vision, which would have made the fights more dangerous, less predictable.
He couldn’t afford to lose his matches.
Absent-mindedly, Gabriel ran the bar of Dial soap over his bruised skin and aching muscles, diligently ignoring his cock stand as he quickly scrubbed the coarse hair around and the heavy sacs beneath. He must be still too pumped full of adrenaline from the fights, he reasoned, his body was simply reacting to the testosterone overload.
Never mind that it had been a long, long time since he’d had an erection this hard, this insistent.
Twenty-six year-old male virgins in today’s society were as rare as dragons. Probably even more mythical.
Married virgins were likely nonexistent.
Gabriel didn’t choose this path intentionally; it simply was.
His boyhood upbringing by the Shaolin monks on Song Mountain in Henan Province, China, after his missionary parents had died in the Great Earthquake, taught him abstinence, self-control and discipline. Since his grandparents found him and brought him back to the States to live with them, he’d only ever felt a deep connection to one girl.
And despite that she never truly reciprocated his feelings, not even in the end, he’d been intensely faithful. He’d never so much as sought release by his own hand since Olivia’s illness. There was something inherently wrong with him seeking his own pleasure while his wife was wasting away in pain.
It was as if the carnal side of his nature had never truly awakened.
Now he looked upon the jutting staff as if it were separate from his body, something of an oddity, something he didn’t know quite what to do with.
Of its own volition, one large, long-fingered hand smoothed down his pecs to his tight abdomen, stopping near his navel, where the head of his engorged member bobbed insistently. He stared at it for long moments before carefully, loosely cradling the steely length within his wide palm.
He gasped at the startling sensation, and his penis jumped in reaction. Mind blank of coherent thoughts, eyes closed against the shower that had long since turned cold, Gabriel wrapped his hand tighter around the hot, velvety column, testing himself with a gentle squeeze.
And groaned deeply in response, the shocks of pleasure shooting through his body like lightning rods, making him physically stagger off balance.
Leaning his back against the stall wall, his long, muscular legs braced apart, slightly bent at the knees, he pushed himself further with a few tentative fist pumps.
But it was too much.
He felt too much.
His chest heaving with shortened breath, his jaw clenched tightly against the animalistic sounds that threatened to escape, his penis throbbing, his testicles hurting, Gabriel stood helpless as his long-revered control began to unwind like the fibers of a rope stretched too taut.
Until finally it snapped.
On a sharp intake of breath, Gabriel’s eyes flew open.
Someone was watching him.