Leaning against the doorway, I watched as the Berts systematically searched every nook and cranny of Compton’s ancestral home for – as Sookie had called it – a Fairy Mofo Full of Deadly Magical Mojo, silently exuding an air of ‘I told you so’, while tempering the never ending compulsion pulling me to head south.
The French Quarter to be specific.
It had been one week.
One hundred and sixty-eight hours since I’d last laid eyes on her.
One would think rising in a different house every night – places where Sookie had never been – would do away with the potential of being reminded of her at every turn.
That hearing her voice during our nightly phone calls would satiate even a drop of my ever growing need for her.
That killing the drainers associated with Bailey – even if Bailey himself had gone to ground at their disappearance and had yet to resurface – would alleviate some of the turmoil that now permanently resided in my chest.
That tracking the Were pack of those responsible for Sookie’s kidnapping and assault back to their leader, which led to the discovery of their subsequent ties to the King of Arkansas, Peter Threadgill, would be gratifying, if only to relieve the pressure of producing something tangible to hand over to the queen.
That resuming my nightly duties as Sheriff of Area Five, overseeing check-ins of newly arrived vampire and listening to the petty squabbles amongst those in my retinue from my throne – reminiscent of only a short time ago when I’d had no idea of who or what a Sookie was – would be a relief in some small way.
One would be wrong.
As much as I’d wanted to argue her point, she had been right in choosing to leave. The proof of that fact, having materialized not long after her departure.
While I truly believed I could slay nearly any enemy within my sights, I could do nothing against a foe I could not see or sense.
Even I had limits not exclusive to daylight.
It had been a bitter pill to swallow.
The very magic of her inherent nature was both a boon and a weakness neither one of us had been prepared for. Had she not been with Decoudreau when her kin had attempted to ensnare her a second time, I don’t know that I would have been able to stop them.
Magic infused my blood, but not my being. I could not wield it as a weapon or use it to cripple unseen enemies.
It rankled knowing I would have been helpless against them.
Swallowing the ire I still felt over it all, I glanced at the Berts and bit back my want to expound – yet again – that I had already searched the house – twice – and found nothing.
The Three Card Monte game I had struck up with the queen on the night following Andre’s demise had come back to bite me in the proverbial ass. Once I’d given her ‘proof’ of Threadgill’s presence in her kingdom, via the Weres, she had become convinced something more could be found.
The Berts had arrived three nights later, with me steering their pointless search first towards Shreveport. It was, after all, Andre’s last known location.
The next night had been spent in and around Monroe, Compton’s last known location.
With nothing to show for either location I had been forced to accompany them to his ancestral home – the ruse for his appearance in Area 5 – in Bon Temps. Purposely bringing them there from the opposite direction, Sookie’s darkened house was barely visible from where we’d entered.
It was the first time I’d been near the house without being able to go to it – inside of it – where her scent still lingered.
It was a newly discovered level of Hell I’d been previously unaware of.
If I concentrated enough, I could almost convince myself I could scent her from where I stood. It only made me itch to get the Berts back to Shreveport.
Real or imagined, they were nearly as old as me. The last thing I needed was for them to catch wind of even a trace of her.
Vampire catnip that she was, the impulse to investigate its origin would be too great.
The thought itself had barely been completed when karma reared its ugly head, just as the Berts had been moving towards the doorway, by drawing my attention towards her land.
More specifically, the unidentified shadow moving towards where I knew the fairy portal resided.
Freezing every muscle in place, I dove deep into our shared blood tie, worried she and Decoudreau had seen fit to return for some reason, but relaxed feeling Sookie precisely where she should be.
Hundreds of miles to the south, in New Orleans.
I’d recently begun collecting them, like Pam hoarded shoes.
“There,” a Bert grunted from my side, with his meaty paw pointing towards my wife’s property.
The glee I felt on the inside at the thought of her change in status matched what her face had shown when she’d jokingly accepted my non-proposal over congealed meat sticks and fried pig’s skin in my kitchen.
Internally shaking my head at myself at the memory, I should have known then there would be no going back to normal for me.
Acting like I hadn’t seen precisely what he had spotted, my attempt to sound every bit as bored as I should have been faltered, now sensing a foreign energy emanating from the portal’s location, and ended up sounding confused when I asked, “What?”
If more of Sookie’s kin were about to start falling out of the portal, my night was about to get exponentially worse.
And because Pam’s timing was just as impeccable as her taste, I repeated the single worded sentiment into my phone a moment later when she called to inform me, “A shifter smelling of wet dog is here. He claims a maenad has setup camp in that backwater shithole that shit out Compton once upon a time. It is demanding tribute.”
Any other time I would have been annoyed.
Now I felt cautiously hopeful.
Their madness was well-known, as was their destructive powers. A lone vampire attempting to go up against one would be sheer folly.
Andre’s arrogance aside, the idea he had happened upon the maenad, fought her and lost, had enough merit that it could be yet another nail in his coffin.
But only if I could return with one of the Berts still alive in order to tell the tale to their Maker. To come before the queen with neither of her remaining children having survived would only cast more unwanted scrutiny my way.
And perhaps her grief fueled rage.
I had time for neither and having been relegated to the role of chauffeur for the last three nights, the Berts had already decided to investigate what I now suspected was the maenad and were making their way to the small clearing between the cemetery and Sookie’s property.
Mentally whistling Dixie as I trailed behind them, it took only seconds to reach the area where the shadow was last seen.
I barely held in the echoing snort at what had stepped out of the woods to greet the great Saxon warriors and at their twin perplexed expressions, I offered, “Perhaps it is a tribute from Threadgill. His state’s university’s mascot is a Razorback, is it not?”
Staring at the feral pig, I couldn’t decide if Sookie would likely coo at the creature or suggest ways in which to cook it.
Even knowing it was wrong to blame the inherent magic of her nature for my obsessive thoughts, Sookie wasn’t there to call me out on it, so my pride remained intact.
Before I could figure out whether she might view it as a possible pet or an entree, another creature stepped out of the woods. Covered in dirt from head to toe, her nearly naked form was on full display, with bits and pieces of her body covered in what appeared to be fawn skins and twigs and leaves stuck in her matted hair as her only adornments.
Well, that wasn’t entirely true.
She wore her innate power, like Pam wore Coco Chanel on her Don’t-fuck-with-me nights.
Raising the Thyrsus in her left hand, like a king with his scepter – or, in this case, perhaps like a marching band leader preparing to lead the charge at halftime – she looked past the ancient Saxon warriors to me and stated, “Eric Northman. I demand tribute.”
Knowing I would need at least one of them alive, I thought better than to overtly offer one of the Berts and instead asked, “What tribute would be acceptable to one as powerful as you?”
Hoping an ancient Saxon would do, instead of the wine and oxen I might have offered under different circumstances, asking what she wanted would eliminate the need for guesswork.
Giving her an ancient Saxon along with her request could just be considered a bonus.
Preening at the acknowledgment of her strength, I tensed seeing her eyes flicker towards where I knew the fairy portal resided, while her head tilted imperceptibly towards Sookie’s house and all thoughts of using the maenad’s arrival to my benefit disappeared.
My only thought was keeping Sookie’s secret safe and that impulse intensified, hearing her croon, “There is power here the likes of which I haven’t felt in hundreds of years. I thought them all lost to time, but her essence is unmistakable.”
A noticeable shiver crawled down my spine, with my fangs snapping down with it, when she locked her challenging gaze onto mine and gave voice to my closest held secret, stating with an unequivocal air of supremacy, “I want the venefica.”
Moving before she’d stopped talking, I grabbed the sword from a Bert’s back and purposefully took off his head – knowing I couldn’t allow either one of them to repeat that tale to the queen – as I brought it around in a wide arc, aiming to cut the maenad in two. But she moved just enough that I missed her completely.
The razorback wasn’t as lucky.
Nor was I, now that the remaining Bert had managed to overcome his stupor and launched his own offensive attack on me. Nearly matched in age and skill, we would’ve been a blur to human eyes as we moved around the clearing, with only the sounds of steel hitting steel and feral snarls giving away our location.
Feeling the tip of his blade pierce my left side, I arched away in the same moment, but not before he managed to drag it down my body, slicing through the flesh from just above my ribs down to my abdomen.
Blood flowed freely from the wound and down onto the ground, as Pam’s alarm echoed through our blood tie. I could feel her pushing her own resolve back at me as I sensed her now moving as fast as she could in my direction, but all of it only served to intensify my next attack on him.
I couldn’t lose.
If I did, more than just my life would be lost.
Pam would be no match for a Bert or the maenad, but she would undoubtedly attack both nonetheless. Coupled with the thought of Sookie being held prisoner by the queen, it was incentive enough to energize my movements in spite of my blood loss.
While his size could be viewed as intimidating, his bulk was a hindrance, compromising his flexibility. After several more rotations around the clearing, I was eventually able to use it to my advantage and managed to duck, missing the next arc of his blade aimed at removing my head, while spinning around and using his brother’s sword to take off his right leg, just above the knee.
Watching him fall to the ground, now unable to remain upright, my certain victory was less assured when the air around us began to vibrate.
As was the maenad’s body, when my eyes found her standing at the edge of the clearing.
My muscles no longer felt under my control, with the magic she possessed somehow setting my blood to boil, but I managed to bring the sword around one last time to take the remaining Bert’s head from his shoulders.
Whatever magic she was using had my own blood flowing at an even faster rate from the wound at my side, weakening me even further, but I knew I had no choice but to try to go after the maenad.
I could sense that Pam was nearly there.
She would be lost to her magic as well.
And if Sophie-Anne didn’t get to Sookie, the Bacchant surely would.
Using every ounce of strength I possessed, I only managed to take a single step towards the maenad.
Barely closing the distance a single foot of the two dozen that separated us.
Falling to my knees, I thought to crawl the remaining way, but it took all that I had to just focus on trying to will my being into not giving in to what her magic was attempting to force my body to do.
Explode, if I had to guess.
If I could have, I would have laughed.
I would have much rather faced a bunch of fairies falling out of the portal than this.
Blinking once, the vibrations of the maenad’s body seemed to intensify, as did the blood bubbling through – and out of – my body.
Blinking once more, I wondered over my mind’s wanderings at my final moments.
Where I would’ve understood – and honestly expected – seeing a hallucination of Sookie – the most beautiful angel of death, to be sure – what I saw now standing in front of me was a large steed, as black as night except for its glowing eyes, with a woman I’d last seen in that very clearing, sitting astride his back.
Her braids fell forward as she stared down at me, with a look of curiosity on her face.
I would’ve been curious at her arrival too, had I not been in the midst of being ended.
In another blink, the pressure disappeared, with the air settling around me and the Loa now walking on bare feet across the clearing towards the maenad, while I could only watch from where I lay prone on the ground.
“Dis vampire is not yours for the takin’, Callisto,” I heard her say, sounding somewhat amused. “Why you goin’ ‘round my lands, stirrin’ up trouble?”
“I am the immortal servant of Dionysus and I demand tribute!” she growled back, sounding anything but amused. Then lifting her head up and scenting the air, her eyes locked back onto mine as she repeated, “I want the venefica.”
The stallion snorted agitatedly and pawed at the ground, as he turned his massive form putting the maenad directly in his path, as though he’d understood her words. But it was the Loa who exuded an air of danger – and who was no longer amused – when she said, “She is not yours for the takin’ either.”
A force akin to a shockwave swept across the clearing in the next moment. The energy of it was a tangible thing, sweeping up and over my body in nothing more than a warm caress, as it leveled trees around us and seemingly blasted a path straight through where the maenad stood.
And yet I was left untouched in its wake.
The maenad couldn’t say the same.
She couldn’t say anything anymore.
Still hemorrhaging blood, I didn’t blink as it was more like my eyes slowly fell shut before opening again, so I had missed it.
All I know is that when I looked over again, the maenad was gone – perhaps not completely though, as there looked to be bits and pieces of what might be her trailing from the clearing on into the newly formed path through the woods – and the Loa wore a self-satisfied smirk now holding the Thyrsus in her hand.
Pam arrived at nearly the same time and seemingly assessed the situation in a millisecond. I supposed I was the priority when she threw herself down onto the ground, and maneuvered my head onto her lap, while tearing into her wrist and holding it over my mouth, as she huffed out, “I think it’s time for us to have that talk you’ve been avoiding having with me.”
My child was anything but stupid.
She’d known there was something going on – something that I’d been keeping from her ever since my first foray into this godforsaken hellhole my lover called home – but she trusted me enough to not pry, knowing I would tell her when I saw fit.
My deathbed was as good a time as any.
She would need to be in the know if Sookie was to have any kind of protection from the queen.
I merely nodded at her words, unable to stop the grimace from forming on my face when the first drop of her blood hit my tongue. Pam and I had shared blood in the past, but not since she’d decided on exclusively choosing the fairer sex for her lovers.
Even though I suspected any other blood that wasn’t Sookie’s wouldn’t be appetizing, the reality was so much worse. At my age – and given how much of hers I’d consumed in the nights leading up to her departure – I’d been able to put off having to feed on either bagged blood or a donor. But I recalled with crystal clarity that I’d found Pam’s blood to be pleasant in the past.
After all, she was mine, so she was essentially a Pam flavored me.
It seemed as though more of her blood was dribbling from my mouth than I was actually swallowing and I felt her pull my shirt up to expose the gash at my side, when she worriedly said, “Your wound isn’t healing at all.”
“Your blood will do nothing for him, child.”
Two sets of blue eyes looked up at the Loa and I felt Pam’s body tense, with her fangs snapping down, taking the words as a threat.
While Pam might not have known exactly what the woman was, there was no mistaking she was decidedly other.
When Pam made no further move, the woman gestured around the clearing and added, “That his blood is no longer his alone and the amount he’s spilled here is the only reason I knew to come at all.”
It made sense to me, in a weird way, but I knew her explanation would only confuse Pam even more.
I really should’ve explained things to her sooner.
Unable to do so at the moment, I turned my head and noticed for the first time just how much blood had been spilled. I knew it wasn’t only mine coating the ground, but enough of it was.
I didn’t know what to think seeing how much it mimicked the circle of salt Decoudreau had used to call the Loa to this place the first time.
Hearing her words, Pam appeared to actually sniff the air surrounding us, with her eyes widening at the scent clinging to mine, now more noticeable with my open wound.
From the aroma, I suspected I was a Sookie flavored me.
I also suspected it was only Pam’s loyalty and devotion to my wellbeing that kept her from trying to get a taste for herself.
I wouldn’t have been able to stop her, but there was no telling what Sookie’s blood in me would do to Pam, if she were to consume any.
Nor did I want to find out.
“I don’t understand,” Pam forced out in a mixture of concern and accusation. “Why is his body not healing? Why can’t he feed from me?”
Glancing between the two of us, she smirked and said, “It is not my secret to tell, but he will be all the way dead if I do not take him right now.”
Too weak to join in the conversation, I could only listen, feeling Pam clutch my body to hers as she growled out, “Take him where?”
“With me,” she replied, sounding nonplussed at Pam’s deadly tone.
She had in fact just taken out a maenad with seemingly nothing more than a thought, so she likely had no reason to fear my child.
But knowing my child as I did, I used what little fortitude I had left to push acceptance through our bond.
Translating to either my acceptance that I needed to go with the Loa or for her to accept that she was no match for the woman.
Six of one and a half-dozen of the other. It was all the same thing.
Everything faded out a moment later and when my surroundings faded back in, I found myself draped over the back of a horse.
One that was as black as night and, I suspected, fonder of veneficas than he was of maenads.
Sookie was everyone’s catnip.
But the horse and the Loa who led it by its reins were the only things I recognized.
The area surrounding us was completely unfamiliar. It was like something out of a sci-fi novel, as though we were moving through a black hole in space. We were consumed by darkness and patches of fog, with ribbons of color interspersed throughout.
The path we were traveling on was the same color blue as Sookie’s eyes.
“Your child has spirit,” she laughed, noticing I’d come around. “She valiantly fought the urge to rip my eyes from their sockets, when I took you from her grasp.”
“Spirit is one way of putting it,” I huffed out loud.
It was difficult to focus on much of anything. For all I knew I hadn’t uttered a single word.
Still moving at what felt like a slow and steady pace, she glanced back at me and explained, “The dark magic in the young one’s blood is strong and you have had enough of hers that you can no longer take nourishment from any others’ until it has worked its way out of your system. Her blood still inside of you will attack and neutralize anything foreign.”
Then bringing the horse – and therefore me – to a halt, she waited until she had my undivided attention to add, “If you choose to complete the blood bond you have begun with her, you will only ever be able to feed from her.”
Perhaps it was the blood loss, but out of everything she’d just said, I only felt a feral sense of satisfaction that Sookie’s blood was so seemingly possessive of me, that it would rather I die of mortal wounds or starvation than allow me to feed on anyone but her.
If my heart still beat, it would surely flutter at the thought.
What does one give in appreciation of a sentiment like that?
His and hers cyanide capsules?
Sookie’s sense of humor was warped enough that she might find those funny, but I would consult with Pam first.
She would have words of wisdom from Dear Abby on the matter, no doubt.
The single word came out in a tone sounding nothing like my own and answered my previous question.
I definitely hadn’t spoken my earlier thoughts out loud.
The single word had been little more than a rasp, whispered into the ether. I wasn’t even sure what the rest of my thought contained.
Had I been asking a question?
Had I been making an observation?
It ended up not mattering when a literal light at the end of the tunnel illuminated our path, just as she answered my unfinished thought with, “We are here.”