July 10th, 1964
Fire raged throughout the building. The smoke and heat disoriented Asenath’s senses enough that she could hardly even tell where she was, a situation that was hardly helped by the sounds of those crying out for help that seemed to be coming from every direction at once. Almost every part of her subconscious screamed for her to run straight for the closest exit she could find, to save herself.
Instead, the vampire moved for the nearest sound of screaming, coming from behind a thick wooden door. Her hand found the knob, but it was too hot to touch. With a grimace, feeling the flames creeping closer to her with each passing second, the girl reared back and kicked out hard. The force of the blow blew the door off its hinges. Before it could fly into the room beyond and risk injuring someone else, however, Asenath used her incredible speed to reach in, grab the side of the door, and fling it behind herself into the already burning room. The flames eagerly swallowed it with a roar of approval.
Inside the next room, she could see a little bit better. The smoke wasn’t quite as bad in here, though it was rapidly getting worse. As the girl sped into the room, her eyes found the source of the cries for help: three small children, two alters and one human. One of the alters was a dryad sapling, so small and young that her skin was still a pale, barely noticeable green rather than the much darker shade it would become as she matured. Beside the terrified sapling was a young satyr, his equine ears twitching violently toward every new sound as tears streaked down his face. His hands clutched the human child, a young girl slightly younger than the two alters whose cries of terror were almost painfully loud.
Seeing the children there, Asenath took a step toward them. As she moved, however, her hearing picked up the faintest disturbance in the air. At the same time, the children’s eyes moved from her to some spot just over her shoulder, widening in newfound fear. Twisting around while ducking, she felt the rush of air as a sword blade passed through the spot where her head had just been. Her fist was a blur as she lashed upward toward the figure’s throat, striking with enough force to put it through solid concrete.
Yet her hand was caught by an equally fast grasp, and Asenath found herself being yanked around like one of the children she was in the room to save. Her face hit the nearby wall with enough force to stun her, and she sensed that sword coming straight for her exposed back. At the last second, she managed to kick outward and back, knocking the blade off course so that it stabbed into the wall beside her.
While her opponent was yanking the sword free, Asenath spun away from the wall, planted one foot against it to boost herself up into the air, and lashed out with her other foot to kick the man in the face.
The Heretic recoiled, his expression invisible through the smoke-filled room. If the vampire had needed to breathe at all, she would have been violently coughing. As it was, the smoke all-but destroyed her senses, reducing her sight, smell, and hearing down below what a normal human was capable of.
The man came at her in a blur of motion then, so fast that most would have been cut through three or four times by the time they had even noticed the first strike. Asenath, however, wasn’t most. As the blade swung toward her the first time, she met the man’s incredible speed with her own. Her foot kicked the metal leg off a nearby table, snapping it off its mounting and into her waiting hand just in time to smack the incoming blade out of the way. No less than five additional strikes followed, all in the span of two seconds and all from entirely different angles. Each one she knocked aside, though several were such near-misses that she couldn’t entirely avoid them, taking a few cuts here and there. And with each blow, her table leg was being broken apart. In spite of her care in not letting the sword strike it head on, always smacking the flat of the blade, it was still taking its toll. The leg wouldn’t last.
Worse, the smoke had reached the children. They wouldn’t last much longer, not without help. The flames were working their way into the room as well, but the smoke would have done its job by the time the heat of the fire made it far enough to matter. The flames wouldn’t kill them, but it would erase their small, helpless bodies as thoroughly as the smoke would have extinguished their too-short lives.
Acting quickly, Asenath threw the remains of the table leg at her opponent’s face. He easily ducked away from it, but the move gave her time to turn and lean down. Her hand snatched up a fallen metal folding chair. The next strike came an instant later, and she barely managed to put the chair between herself and the blade. Not that it did much, the sword went straight through the metal chair like it wasn’t there, stabbing directly into Asenath’s torso, filling her body with near-blinding agony.
Giving a snarl of triumph, the Heretic’s grip on his sword tightened, ready to shove upward. His eyes flicked toward hers, clearly expecting to see sudden terror as she realized that she was about to die.
Instead, he found her smiling through the pain. Asenath met his eager, hungry gaze with a toothy grin, letting him see her fangs. Then she returned her formerly limp hands to the metal chair that the blade had stabbed through to get at her. Before the man realized what was happening, she gave the chair a hard twist, spinning it almost all the way around while simultaneously yanking on it. The blade, trapped in the metal of the chair, was spun along with it and yanked out of the man’s grasp. Doing so sent another spasm of agony through Asenath as the blade was turned inside her, yet she ignored it.
As the sword was spun up and away from his grasp, the heretic lunged for it. But Asenath was faster. Not for herself, but for the children she was trying to save. She ignored all of the pain and leapt upward. Her foot lashed out, kicking the man away from the sword while her own hand closed around the hilt. Pain immediately filled her palm and rushed down her arm, leaving it almost impossible to keep hold of the sword. A Heretic defense, preventing Strangers from taking their weapons.
Near-blinded by smoke, the flames already filling the room, pain from her deep stab wound leaving her almost delirious, and now feeling bone-crushing agony inside the hand that was holding this Heretic weapon, Asenath pushed on through all of it. For three torturous seconds, she held that sword. Landing, one second. Turning into a full roundhouse swing, two seconds. Slicing straight through the neck of the man who had been so intent on killing her and most likely two of the innocent children. Three seconds.
His head hit the floor an instant before the rapidly discarded sword did, followed a moment later by his body.
Falling to her knees, Asenath brought her uninjured hand up to the wound in her stomach. It was healing, but she didn’t have time to wait. The flames were taking over the room, and it was already impossible to see further than a foot through the thick smoke. Her senses were no better than a human’s in this burning room, and her injuries meant that she wasn’t that much better physically either.
But it would have to be enough. Pushing herself back to her feet through little more than intense willpower, the vampire went for the children. Their sobs had turned to whimpers that barely reached her ears, and it took her a moment to find them in the burning room. Finally, her groping fingers found the leg of one of the children, who immediately flinched away from her with a little squeal of terror.
Rather than risk any time trying to talk, Asenath wrapped an arm around the squirming figure (the human as it turned out), and drew the child up under her arm, holding her awkwardly but firmly. At the same time, her other grasping hand found the arm of the satyr child, and he too was hauled up under her other arm. By that point, the heat of the flames was burning her skin, and she could hear the children screaming anew, their terror overwhelming the smoke inhalation.
One more… one more… Grimacing, Asenath turned her head toward the satyr child. “Hold onto my neck!” She ordered loudly, forced to repeat herself once more before the boy shifted and wrapped his arms so tightly around her neck that he would have been choking her if she actually needed to breathe, his small body pushing in against her chest as he fought to make himself small to escape the fire.
With the satyr boy latched onto her, Asenath grabbed the remaining child, the dryad, with her free hand. Hauling her up, she forced herself back to her feet. The smoke and flames worked together to disorient and distract her. Three children hung from her, blood continued to spill from her not-yet-healed stomach, and if she’d had a free hand to hold in front of her face, she wouldn’t have been able to see it.
Still, she knew where she was in the room, because she remembered where the children had been. Assuming they hadn’t moved, the doorway should be to her left, the rest of the room straight ahead of her, and a little to the right… she turned that way, running in a blur of motion while the children clung to her, their cries of fear growing louder in those couple of seconds before they reached the window.
Just before they would have hit, Asenath spun around and threw herself at the window backwards while clutching the three children tight against her chest. Her own scream matched theirs as her back crashed through the glass, shattering it on the way through. They then plummeted a couple of stories before landing hard on the ground. It hurt, but she cushioned the children’s fall as much as possible.
They lay there together in the fresh air while Asenath healed. The children clung to her, crying heavily.
A familiar figure appeared, standing over her with a grim expression. Another Heretic, so alike the one whose head she had so recently removed from his shoulders… yet so different as well. “Senny,” the blond man spoke gravely, his voice clearly shaken. “Are you all right? They… they took them.”
Asenath blinked, still disoriented by the fall, as well as her wounds and the smoke. It took a moment to find her voice, and she could barely focus. “Uggnn… Tobias? I’m okay. But, who took who?”
“Ruther’s Heretics,” Tobias spat the words hatefully, his anger obvious. “They took the children.”
“No.” Disoriented as she was, Asenath didn’t understand. “I’ve got them. They’re right here.”
“Not those children,” Tobias shook his head. “Hers. They started the fires up where the kids rooms were on purpose, Senny. They wanted to keep us busy. Then they killed the guards at the nursery and took her children, snatched them right out of their cribs, the fucking cowards. They started these fires near innocent fucking kids just so we’d be too busy to stop them from kidnapping her children.”
His words were sinking in, and Senny found herself groaning. “No. No, not the twins.”
“Yeah,” Tobias snarled, his hand clenching tight. “They took her twins. That’s how they’re going to end the war. They think they can make her surrender by taking her fucking children away. How do these motherfuckers call themselves good guys, huh? How are Ruthers’ people the god damn heroes here?”
“If you ask me, they’re the real fucking monsters.”
A hand shook her shoulder while a low voice whispered, “Senny? Yo, wake up. Are you okay?”
Opening her eyes, Asenath blinked a couple times, orienting herself. It took a moment to get her brain caught up. Right, she was in Flick’s house, in the girl’s own bedroom actually. “Twister?”
Now she remembered what was going on. The day before, she and that Eden’s Garden Heretic, Miranda, had barely managed to make sure that the girl’s Heretic-teacher didn’t run into Flick’s father and spot his shapeshifter tail. Since Senny couldn’t go out in the sunlight, that had required calling the reporter from a disposable phone, disguising her voice, and distracting him with a false story to keep him busy. Meanwhile, Miranda had run out there, whispering to as many animals as she could see before finally finding the right one. The two of them had then barely managed to get out of sight before Lincoln gave up on listening to Asenath and hung up on her. A moment later, Hisao had found him. If getting Twister out of sight had taken any longer, the man would have seen either her or Miranda. Whichever one it happened to be, there would have been entirely too many questions to answer.
Now, the pooka straightened, the dark fox-like ears giving an agitated twitch. “You were thrashing around,” she whispered. “You said something about about children, about twins, I think. And there was something about a fire.” Frowning with concern as well as something deeper, she added, “You had a dream about a fire didn’t you? A fire in a building full of children.”
The dream (or was it a memory?) was already fading. Senny fought to keep hold of the thoughts and emotions it brought up, but they sifted through her mind like sand through splayed fingers. There was something important in that dream-memory, something that she should have been able to hold onto. She had been alive for a long time, yet she remembered things that happened hundreds of years earlier. So why was it so hard for her to keep these thoughts in her head? Twins, children, Tobias, a fire… something else about… she couldn’t remember. It had been there, but now it was gone, washed away.
Her eyes found Twister’s then, and she realized something. “You’ve had the dream too, haven’t you?”
“Fire in a building, lots of kids, yeah.” The pooka nodded before grimacing. “Had the dream three times now. I keep thinking I’ll remember more of it, but it always goes away. I think I remember something about a basement and these two big guys with rifles that are laughing, but then it’s gone.”
“And a war,” Senny remembered, frowning thoughtfully. “Something about ending a war. But how would…” She shook her head, letting out a long, low sigh. “Damn it, I can’t remember.”
“Magic,” Twister sighed, making an annoyed face. “It’s gotta be magic. Heretic Magic. You think it’s got anything to do with all this stuff?”
“Has to,” Senny replied with a sigh before straightening. “We’re rubbing up against the spell somehow. That’s why it’s weakening, why we’re dreaming about it. As far as I know, the only thing we’ve both done that’s so out of the ordinary is meet Flick. She’s the common denominator.”
Before Twister could say anything else, there was a light tap at the door, a soft rap that was followed by a quiet, “Ahh, Asenath? You all right?”
Standing up quickly, Senny walked to the door while Twister shifted herself into the form of a small cat and scurried under the bed. After glancing back to make sure her companion was out of sight, the vampire girl opened the door and gave the man on the other side an apologetic smile. “Sorry, Mr. Chambers. Was I disturbing you?”
“Disturbing me?” The man laughed. “No, I just thought I’d see if you needed any food since I’m headed out to grab dinner. Then I heard talking and thought you might have company. Not that that’s a problem, I mean, make yourself at home. I ahhh,” he coughed, clearly embarrassed. “Okay, sorry, it’s the dad in me. I know, I know you’re an adult. I just heard voices in my daughter’s room and… ahh, guess the impulse to interrupt was a little too much to ignore.”
Asenath couldn’t help but smile a little at that. “I don’t have company, Mr. Chambers. And if I did, I’d tell you. It is your house after all.” Turning, she indicated the room. “I was just talking to a friend on the phone, and I had it on speaker. But uhh, if you give me a minute to get dressed, I’d love to grab something to eat with you. And uhhhmm, maybe I could keep picking your brain about those old stories of yours?”
The man’s own smile broadened. “You keep flattering me by letting me talk about myself and I’ll buy you all the dinners you need, Asenath.”
“I told you before,” she reminded him, “call me Senny. And give me just a minute, Mr. Chambers. I’ll be right down.”
He obliged by closing the door, and Asenath stepped over to the dresser. Twister sprang into view, jumping up on the bed before reverting to her human shape so that she could stretch out languidly on it. Yawning widely, the pooka waved a hand. “Okay, talking later. Sleeping now. Your turn to watch him.”
“Thanks, Twist,” Senny whispered. “I know it’s hard to spend all day playing babysitter. Especially if we’re both having these… dreams.”
The only response she received was a vague thumbs up from the girl, followed almost immediately by the sound of snoring.
With a light cough of amusement, Senny shook her head while reaching out to grab the blanket. She tugged it up and over the slumbering shapeshifter, then moved to quickly dress herself so that she could join Lincoln and keep an eye on the man. Not that she expected Fossor to make a move on him already, and it was far too early for Ammon to have escaped his father’s punishment and made his way back. But it was still a good habit to be in. Flick’s father wasn’t going to end up one of Fossor’s prisoners or petty amusements. Not if she could help it.
Besides, she’d promised to get justice for Denise. And in this case, that justice would come when she ripped Ammon’s head from his shoulders. It would happen. She just had to be patient.
The boy may not even remember the girl whose life he had so callously extinguished for his own petty amusement. But Senny remembered, and she intended to ensure that Denise’s name and face would be the last thing that Ammon thought of before his own life was erased. He would think of that innocent girl and realize that his worst mistake had been in assuming no one would care enough to avenge the life of one girl, that no one would pursue him that far, that he could kill her as easily as any of his other victims.
Senny cared. And eventually, Ammon would find out just how much.