Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Cambion Chronicles: Book 4 Chapter Five

Here's a little creepiness just in time for Halloween. It's a bit long, but let me know what you guys think in the comments!

Click HERE to read Chapter Four.


Caleb barged through his suite and nearly ripped the double doors off the hinges. The wood bounced against the wall, the brass knobs punched holes into the plaster.
I followed him inside the room, fearing his current aggression might evolve into a full scale demolition. Drenched in dark wood and earth-toned hues, the bedroom matched the square footage of Caleb’s townhouse, and the furnishings looked way too expensive to replace. But I’d seen Cake Boy at his worst, and four walls rarely stayed intact after one of his temper tantrums.
I closed the doors for privacy. Things could get ugly and nobody needed to witness uncivilized conduct. “Would you stop and talk to me?” I pleaded.
He swung open the armoire, spotted his empty luggage then set it by his feet. “There’s nothing to talk about. We gotta get out of here.” Caleb punted the suitcase toward the bed then went for the hanging clothes in the cabinet.
My eyes tracked the bag’s flight across the room and its soft crash to the mattress. “We can’t just leave. We’re expected to meet everyone for dinner in half an hour.”
 “To hell with that. We’re leaving now. Tonight.” He gathered slacks and shirts in his arms then carried the bundle to his suitcase.
 “And how’re you gonna do that? The valet guy took your keys to park the car, remember?”
“I’ll call a cab.” Caleb darted to the dresser, his glowing eyes leaving purple streaks in the air. He pulled out drawers and sent socks and underwear flying over his head. Some made it to the bed while most landed on the floor. “You better get packing, too.”
  “Why? I’m not leaving and neither are you,” I stated matter-of-factly. “Angie went to a lot of trouble setting this up and she would be heartbroken and embarrassed if we bailed on her.”
“She should’ve thought of that before pulling this stunt. We never asked for a party in the first place. It’s just one of a hundred things she’s failed to tell us. How many times do we have to bow down to them? What’s next? Do we offer up our first born?”
He might’ve been overreacting, but his anxiety was highly contagious, and watching him tear through the room like the Tasmanian devil made me dizzy. Trying to maintain my cool, I took a timid step toward him. “Okay look, I get that you’re upset—”
“Upset? Upset? Sam, it’s taking all the strength I have not to ram my fist through the wall.”
“Well, can you reel it in for a second and tell me why? You’re talking real crazy and you’re making my heart race!”
At my words, the packing and underwear-flinging stopped. Caleb braced his arms on the top of the dresser, dipped his head and drew a series of deep breaths. Soon, a less angry Cambion crossed the room, wrapped his arms around my waist and pulled me to his chest. Our foreheads touched, our breaths mingled as I channeled that inner peace and clutched the reins of my galloping pulse.
After a few seconds of quiet, he said, “Empathic mates who mirror pain of one another are expected to spill blood for the viewing pleasure of Cambion dignitaries. As if we have anything to prove to these assholes. And I seriously doubt a paper cut will be enough to satisfy them, Sam.”
He had a point, but it was hard to concentrate with Caleb standing so close with his nose buried in my hair. He inhaled deeply and released a moan that sounded an awful lot like a purr. “Can’t you see what were up against? I can’t stand the thought of you being hurt.”
I caressed his face, gliding my fingers over the soft stubble on his jaw.  “Same here, but that comes with the territory. I’m not scurrying off into the night like some punk. We’re in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by woods, and us melanin folk don’t do the great outdoors. Let’s not forget that you and your brothers are still criminals by Cambion law. Your tie to me and the Petrovsky name will keep your family from persecution. I’ve got some choice words with the Santiago crew myself, but running is not an option.”
Eyes closed, he pinched the bridge of his nose in a quiet command for calm. I could feel the internal battle taking place, his fight or flight instinct vs pure ego, mixed with other emotions too jumbled to name. His last effort to reason with me came out in a breathy plea. “Samara.”
 “This bonding thing goes both ways, you know. If it means I have to shed a little blood to keep you safe, I’ll do it. We took down a full-fledged incubus—what can a few snooty aristocrats do? We have to trust each other and have each other’s backs.”
Soft kisses rained over my forehead and cheek, low moans invaded my ears, and warm breath fanned my face as he whispered, “Hear my soul speak. The very instant that I saw you did my heart fly to your service, there resides to make me slave to it, and for your sake am I this patient man.”
I had to lean back on that one. Since before we started dating, he had jokes for days about me talking Shakespearean at random. Now dude was quoting lines from a play that he’d never read. Truth be told, he didn’t need to, because I was the one book he knew by heart. Line by line. “Wow, The Tempest. I’m rubbing off on you.”
“Not in the way I’d prefer.” He dove in for another kiss, but I wiggled out of his arms.
“Ah, no you don’t. We have a hot meal and awkward chitchat to get through. I need your head in the game, Cake Boy.”
Caleb flung his head back and growled out his frustration. “Fine. Let’s get this over with.” He suddenly noticed the collage of half nude women painted on the ceiling. “Hey! I’m starting to like this room.”


Though our hosts made a big deal about showing up to dinner on time, Caleb and I arrived downstairs ten minutes late. Our wardrobe change wasn’t what caused the delay, but rather the two acre, five-story labyrinth they called a house. I refused to believe that a dwelling this big had no elevator and in my hunt to locate one, we’d gotten lost somewhere between the second floor and Narnia. Luckily, some helpful workers had steered us in the right direction, but the whereabouts of the secret elevator remained an urban myth.
 By the time we reached the grand stairwell, six men had gathered in the reception area below. Dressed for cocktail hour, they stood with their backs to us as they encircled the tall blonde in the center. Olivia, the only female in the group, looked both prudish and goth in a black shirt dress trimmed with a white collar and wrist cuffs. Since her mother was nowhere to be found, she’d filled the void by distracting the menfolk. That was until Caleb and I descended the stairs. The room fell quiet. One by one, the men turned and revealed their faces to us. The exact same face.
“Holy Xerox, Batman!” I lost my footing on the middle step and would’ve fallen flat on my butt if Caleb hadn’t caught my arm.
Vinnie the loan shark, complete with shiny suit and slick black hair, stared up at me from ground level. Multiplied times six. That included David Ruiz and the teen hitman in training, Xander. Aside from height and facial hair, they were nearly impossible to tell apart. If this was a sign of what to expect at the party tomorrow, I seriously hoped the guests wore name tags.
Caleb leaned in and whispered, “You okay?”
“Yeah. Just trying to figure out which Scorsese film I just walked into.”
“My guess would be Goodfellas,” he muttered as Ruiz greeted us at the bottom step. At least I hoped that was Ruiz.
“Samara, what part of ‘eight o’clock sharp’ do you not understand?”
Yep. Definitely Ruiz. “Which one? AM or PM?” I asked.
Far from amused, he stole a glance over his shoulder then spoke in a lower voice. “Do not embarrass me in front of my family. I promised your mother that you would be on your best behavior while you were here. Try to honor that.”
Did he just pull the mom card? And why was it automatically my fault for being late? “We had a little mishap and then we got lost,” I answered quickly. “You guys need to post highway signs or drop some breadcrumbs so we can find our way around this place. And where’s the damn elevator?”
 “In the rear quarter. It’s for staff only, so you might have to burn a few calories to get around.” He held up a hand to pause my perfectly good comeback. “Save it. Let’s just get through the introductions, okay?” Ruiz ushered us toward the center of the floor and with a wide sweep of his hand, gestured to the men. “These are my younger brothers: Anton, Leon, Marco, and Enrique. Anton Santiago is the standing ruler over the East territory.”
“Oh yeah? Who’s the sitting ruler?” I quipped.
Ruiz hesitated for a moment then said, “That would be our uncle, Ernesto. He isn’t well and won’t be attending the celebration.”
Before I could inquire further, a tall man broke from the group and reached for my hand. His regal posture named him the head boss without introduction. “You must be Señora Marshall. Buena noches. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, querida.”
 “Is it?” I stuck my hands out, expecting a firm shake, but got a wet kiss on the knuckles instead. I could’ve done without the Latin lover routine, but his gray eyes were stunning. They shimmered against dark lashes like liquid mercury. All the Santiagos possessed those metallic peepers, except Ruiz, for the obvious reasons.
Anton held my hands longer than politeness allowed then let go. “Of course it is. You are our guest of honor. As are you, Señor Ross.”
“Baker.” Caleb was quick to correct him. “It’s Baker. I go by my mother’s maiden name.”
PerdónameMy mistake,” Anton replied, though his tone implied deliberate error. “And I certainly understand why you would make such a change.”
Ooh, the shade! And we hadn’t even gotten to the dining room yet. “Yes, just as we understand why you also go by aliases.” I peeked around the leader’s broad shoulders to address Xander.  “Isn’t that true, Señor Santos.” 
Xander’s response was a quirked brow and a cold, silvery gaze. He must’ve worn black contacts when we met at the gas station. The occupational hazard of a spy.
“Oh. You’ve met my son?” Anton asked me.
My eyes narrowed at the boy in question. “Yeah, we’ve met.”
“She’s a feisty one, Pop. I don’t recommend you getting too close,” Xander commented.
“Wise advice that applies to all of us, young man.” A husky, feminine voice directed our attention to the top of the stairs.
The statuesque woman in a red, floor-length gown stood poised against the balustrade. She began a slow slinked down the winding staircase, giving flight to the bride’s veil of white blonde hair. Long, slender fingers curled around the golden railing as her blood red nails and cut gems winked in the chandelier light. But the floral perfume and her spirit’s presence were what led the royal procession that was Evangeline Petrovsky.
“Hi, Angie!” I called out, which caused the men to gawk at me as if I’d slapped the Pope. Not my fault if they weren’t on a nickname bases with the woman.
“Hello, little one. My apologies for not greeting you when you first arrived. I was left to entertain these brutes.” She flashed the men a flirty wink then pulled me in for a hug. Spreading my arms wide, she stepped back to inspect me. “As usual, you are absolutely adorable. I could simply eat you alive.”
“Please don’t,” I said when she pulled away.
Most Cambions had a way of sizing up a person that came off predatory and pervy. Angie had that look down to a science, leaving every male in the room panting to be her next victim. “And how are you, Mr. Baker? I trust you’re behaving yourself,” she asked.
He threw a hot and naughty glance my way then answered, “Not really.”
The front doors swung open and two no-neck bodyguards marched through the vestibule. They parted and allowed yet another set of doppelgangers to enter the room. These clones I recognized and was actually happy to see. Michael and Haden Ross strolled into the reception area with a cloud of dust and hella attitude. Haden dressed in his evening best: a black t-shirt, dirty jeans and a biker jacket. Michael, the family screw-ball, sauntered by his brother’s side in khakis, a tuxedo t-shirt and Jesus sandals. His gray trench coat flapped behind him like a hero cape and his waist-length braid hung over his shoulder.
Anton spread his arms in welcome. “Gentlemen, good of you to come.”
“Like we had a choice.” Haden’s purple eyes darted to the heavies-for-hire who’d brought them here.
“What’s all this, mate? I thought the big shindig was tomorrow,” Michael asked, his Cockney accent ringing loud from annoyance. His twitchy gaze skittered from wall to wall, likely casing the joint for something to steal.
“It still is, but we’ve requested your presence tonight for an introductory dinner.” Anton peered around the men and toward the door, expecting more visitors. “You appear to be minus–one tonight. Where is Broderick Ross?”
“He’s at home with his family, resting up from his last meeting with you lot,” Haden replied with a nasty smirk. “He’s fine by the way—gained all feeling back in his fingers and toes—thanks for asking. He sends his regards.”
Anton nodded. “It’s good to hear that he’s recovering quickly.”
Caleb stepped forward, prepared to lunge, but my hand on his chest stopped him. “Did you have to torture my brother?” he asked.
“Yes,” one of the other Santiagos—Marco, I believe—replied as if he’d doled out the punishment personally. “He’s your eldest; therefore, the most responsible for not reporting your father’s crimes. The capture of the demon Tobias and Señora Petrovsky’s entreaty has spared you from a harsher sentence.”
Slinging death threats was not a good way to start a dinner, so Angie did damage control. “Let’s not discuss such barbarism on an empty stomach. A wonderful meal has been prepared for us. Come, let us enjoy.”
On the way to the dining room, Caleb sidled next to Haden and asked, “Is Brodie really okay?”
Keeping his eyes trained on our hosts, Haden nodded. “He’s on crutches and has trouble seeing in one eye, but he’s alive.”
I scooted closer, getting all in the brothers’ business. “What’s wrong with Brodie’s eyes?”
Haden hiked his stern chin toward the men walking ahead of us. “They dripped olive oil in them with an eyedropper. Had him pinned down for hours.”
I winced at that horrific imagery. Lilith’s previous encounters with that volatile substance caused her to squirm up my back and rattle my spine. Such senseless torture for what would equate to an accessory charge. By Cambion law, that was just a slap on the wrist. It could’ve been a whole lot worse for all of the brothers, and we knew it.
In need of a less gory topic, Michael asked Caleb, “How was the wedding?”
“Bittersweet. Eva looked beautiful, though. Just like mom.”
Both brothers nodded and conveyed no further emotion, but I felt their heartache wafting off them like rank body odor.
 A long banquet table greeted us in the dining room, loaded with enough food to feed a small country. Cambions sure loved their grub—the sweeter and more fattening, the better. We were instructed to sit and dig in. I hadn’t eaten since that morning, so it was an order I had no problem obeying.
 The Ross boys weren’t so quick to dine at their enemy’s table, no doubt believing it was poisoned, but their resolve broke once they saw the Santiago men tearing at the spread. Next thing I knew, Caleb’s plate was piled high with meats and pastries. Not a single vegetable in sight.
 Olivia and Angie sat daintily across the table from us and nibbled at the modest portions on their plates. It hadn’t escaped my notice that Olivia deliberately sat next to Xander, and I wondered if she was catching feelings for thug junior. He seemed like her type: rude and surly with the temperament of a stone slab.
Halfway through the meal, Angie kicked off the small talk with, “Samara, are you excited about your big day tomorrow?”
I swallowed a mouthful of baked ham before answering, “I would if I knew what to expect. I leaned over my plate to see the leader at the head of the table. “What’s going to happen at the debut?”
 “I thought David explained the itinerary.” Anton glanced at Ruiz seated next to him. “It will be an elegant banquet dinner with your fellow Cambions. We’ll begin with a demonstration of your union, your induction into the Petrovsky family line, then a meal, live entertainment and dancing.”
 “But what about the consummation rite? How much blood would we need to shed?” I pressed.
He seemed puzzled by the question. “A simple prick of the finger will suffice. Nothing to worry about.”
 I glared hot death at Caleb, getting annoyed all over again. All that drama we went through upstairs over a pin prick? Then I redirected my hate ray across the table to Olivia’s smirking face.
Enrique, Leon, or whoever sat next to Xander, spoke up. “It’ll be quite the spectacle. Many of the guests have never witnessed a consummation rite, and your union will be the talk of the town for weeks to come.”
That got Caleb’s attention. “Why?”
“Cambions rarely mate each other,” the man explained. “The children they’d produce would be a blend of the two families, and most want to keep their bloodlines as separate and distinct as possible. If the intermingling continued, in a few generations a child would emerge who is linked to all ten families.”
Why would that be a problem? Unless… “Ten original families. The ten pieces, right?” I asked. “You’re talking about the Crux, the Original Being? You think intermarriage might bring it back?”
“Of course not, dear. It is silly bedtime story used to frighten children.” Angie paused to sip her wine. “But prepare to receive a response from the guests tomorrow. Some are highly superstitious and may view your union as a sign of the apocalypse. Pay no mind to it.”
How could she be so nonchalant about eugenics? My own family history has taught me to hate bigotry in any form, and this whole “let’s purify the race” vibe had me seeing red.
“Calm your rage, little one. I see the fire in your eyes where there is no need,” Angie admonished sweetly. “Cambion bonding is unseemly to some, but not illegal. Their opinion means nothing.”
Anton tapped his wine glass with a fork, bringing the room to silence. “Speaking of the ceremony, I felt it best to have all agreeing parties present to discuss certain matters that need to be addressed beforehand,” he began. “After tomorrow, you will become heirs to the Petrovsky line. However, Samara and Caleb will reside under our dominion, and such are expected to abide by the rules therein.”
“We understand,” Caleb replied.
“I’m not sure that you do,” Anton intoned then addressed the group. “Each of you has had contact with an incubus and lived to tell about it. A heroic feat in many respects, but also a powerful learning tool. Could you imagine legions of those creatures walking among us? There would be no end to the terror.”
I could feel the whole room shutter at the thought.
“Our kind operates under a strict code,” Anton continued. “This code has helped us thrive for centuries and afforded us the luxury we enjoy now. It is rarely broken for anyone. Your ordeal should help you understand the extent of our devotion to the cause. However, I believe a demonstration is in order.” He threw down his napkin and rose from his chair. “Come, we will show you.”
“Must we do this now?” Ruiz asked the leader, his tone pleading.
“Yes, we must set an example for the others. Being the oldest, you should know that.” Anton buttoned the front of his suit jacket, popped out his sleeve cuffs then exited the room with true mob boss swagger.
Reluctantly, we vacated our seats and followed him out of the dining room. Haden dragged his brother by the arm while Michael stuffed dinner rolls in his trench coat.  
Lined up in pairs, we passed the main stairwell and entered a service entry off the side of the kitchen. Inside laid a long, vacant corridor with blank walls. The space was wide enough for six to stand shoulder to shoulder, and the caged fluorescent lights overhead made everything pea green. Our footsteps echoed the passage as we marched toward a metal door at the end of the hall.
“You may not be aware of this, but our family specializes in security and tactical detail,” Anton informed us as we walked. “A spoiled heiress needs a bodyguard, an ambassador’s kid gets kidnapped, or a CEO needs to locate a spy in their company—they call us. We’ve developed several monitoring systems to keep track of those under our dominion. Hence the bracelet on your wrist, Samara. We custom designed them for the Petrovsky family.”
I looked down at the gold chain slash GPS tracker on my wrist. I’d known the pricey gift wasn’t just for decoration, but was unaware of its manufacturer. I glanced over my shoulder to Angie, who affirmed the claim with a nod. Olivia glowered next to her, fingering the matching bracelet on her own arm.
Anton stopped and punched a code in the keypad on the wall. “With all that said, it’s fairly easy to find someone we want. What to do with them afterwards is another matter.”
The door slid open, revealing a large steel room covered wall-to-wall in plastic. It bared a frigid, industrial purpose reminiscent of a morgue or a meat locker. Or maybe the chill I’d caught had to do with what sat in the middle of the room tied to a metal chair. 
Even with the duct tape over the man’s mouth, his resemblance to the family was unmistakable. His heavy crow’s-feet and the gray hair plastered to his sweaty head clocked him at about sixty-five. He stared back at us with wild, bloodshot eyes; his body rocked in the chair so bad that I feared he might tip over.
Anton stepped inside the room, stood behind the chair then tapped the top of the man’s head. “This is our dear uncle, Ernesto Santiago, former ruler of the Eastern territory. He served our people well for thirty years, but power—as it usually does—had gotten the best of him,” he announced.
My stare zig-zagged from Anton, the bound man and then stopped at Ruiz. Was this the same Uncle Ernesto he’d said wouldn’t be attending the party tomorrow? I now knew why. My unsettled stomach told me that he’d miss more than a party after this.
As if the whole captivity thing bored him, Anton continued drumming his fingers atop the man’s skull. “He’s been on the run for weeks, eating his way across the territory border. We caught up with him in Tennessee a few days ago, feeding on three helpless women in a hotel room. Two died on the way to the hospital.”
The story sounded way too familiar, a page straight out the How To Become An Incubus In 30 Days handbook, written by Nathan Ross. I knew Caleb was recalling his father’s binge-fest as well, but kept his expression neutral and his eyes trained on the leader.
“Within five states, dear Ernesto has gotten greedy and risked exposing us,” Anton reported. “He’s killed eight women, sucked all life energy from their bodies and left children motherless. He is unrepentant and beyond rehabilitation. It is our obligation to protect innocent people from this atrocity.”
“What will you do with him?” Olivia piped up, eager as a teacher’s pet. “He is your family; you cannot kill those in your direct line. The connection between our spirits won’t allow it.”
 “I like how you think, Olivia.” Anton commended her with a grin. “It’s true. The spirits in us prevents the harm of our own. Luck would have it; we have one among us that can do what we can’t.” He gestured for the chosen one to come forward.
Ruiz stepped from our huddle and shook off his jacket. He tossed the designer threads to one of the goon brothers then rolled up his sleeves. His mood was hard to read, even for an emotional shut-in like him. The lights had clicked off behind his eyes and all humanity had peeled away with the jacket. What remained was a soulless killing machine approaching the chair.
“Anton, if you wish to do this here; please excuse my daughter,” Angie insisted.
“I want to stay, Mama,” Olivia whined.
She would.
“Let the girl stay. Her abduction this winter has earned her a glimpse into our world. It is not all champagne and caviar, Evangeline, and her hands will get dirty eventually,” Anton said then snatched the tape off Ernesto’s mouth.
Angie’s response was cut off by the crying man in the chair.
“¡Por favor! You don’t have to do this, Sobrino. This is no longer your fight. I know what losing your spirit has done to you. But you are the most fortunate among us to be free from this curse!” The old man teetered in his seat, wiggling loose the restraints, but he didn’t get far.
This was agonizing to watch, but sympathy never fell into the equation. The man deserved his outcome, and like most car wrecks, looking away proved impossible. Especially after I saw the size of the knife in Ruiz’s hand. Did he have that thing on him the whole time?
“David, listen to me,” Ernesto pleaded, watching the blade in his nephew’s hand. “You don’t have to prove yourself to your brothers, the family or the region. You are not obligated by the laws anymore. You can live the life you want.”
Ruiz stood over Ernesto and pulled his head back by the roots of his hair. “No one can live the life they want, Tio. There is a price for that kind of freedom, as you well know.”
Ernesto jerked and bucked harder. “¡Sobrino, lo siento! Please—don’t…”
The old man didn’t say much after that. The tape had been placed back over his mouth to drown out the screaming, but did nothing to hold back my dinner. Or Olivia’s.
Very few words were exchanged among the group, not when we exited the hall twenty minutes later or during the somber climb up the stairs to the third floor. Caleb’s brothers branched off to their appointed suites in a sedate trance. Olivia hugged herself and shuffled by her mother’s side on wobbly legs. Loose strands hung around her face, wet and stringy from her own vomit. In that moment, she resembled the frighten girl who’d escaped her demon-possessed captor and sought refuge in my house on New Year’s Day.
We’d all seen more than the brain could process, and talking it out meant reliving the event. I wanted so bad to call my mother, curl up next to her and let her calm my fears away. This was beyond her reach, so I went for the next best thing.
“Angie?” I called out.
 She stopped in the middle of the hall and spun around. Even now, the woman was flawless: her makeup intact, her expression placid with the baring of a true queen. The eyes alone revealed the uncertainty in what she’d seen.
Those same eyes lifted to a spot over our heads as she said, “Consider the wall behind you.”
Caleb and I looked, and at the end of the hall, we could see a portion of the giant mural that hung in the main corridor. From this distance, I could see the ancient bonfire and the villagers screaming in madness after they’d inhaled the demonic smoke. Using nails and teeth, they attacked themselves and each other. Some flung themselves, as well as their children, into the fire to appease whatever god they’d offended. We were savages from the very beginning.
“These violent delights have violent ends,” I recited the quote in a whisper.
“The Cambion race is a freak occurrence,” Angie said. “It was never meant to thrive, but progress into the incubi and succubi from which we came. It was only meant to be a transitional period, as adolescence divides childhood and adulthood. The battle to maintain is ongoing and will continue for as long as you live. There will be no rest from it. The energy you take whether it be from Caleb or another male, needs to be conserved. Moderation, Samara. Control. Or else a similar end will befall you both.”
I nodded, knowing all too well about the in-between. I’d walked that tightrope my entire life, neither black nor white, accepted or denied. Seeing mother and daughter now standing together, identical in every way but age, revealed a new duality. I bore no freaky family resemblance to them. No blood tie. Only my eyes, only Lilith were the reasons I’d been given a place in this world, a status that not even natural-born Cambions were granted. It was what kept me alive for all these months and what now prevented Caleb and me from sharing the same fate as that man in the chair. But how long would that free ride last? How long would it be before we did something that Angie’s power couldn’t protect us from?
Caleb beat me to the punch by asking her, “Are we safe?”
“As you saw tonight, no one is truly safe, Mr. Baker.” Her answer lingered long after her languid form disappeared into her room. The words roamed the hall in an echo, a ghostly presence more sinister than the one forever sprawled on my living room floor.
There was no way I was sleeping alone tonight. Caleb agreed and followed me in to my suite. Too spooked to worry about propriety, we stripped down to our underwear and crawled under the covers.  As we clung to each other in the dark, something passed between us that didn’t require discussion. It spoke through our thudding heartbeats and the trimmers in our locked hands.

We should’ve run when we had the chance. We should’ve snuck out the front door, hit the highway and waved down a car, luggage be damned. That wasn’t an option anymore—not that we would’ve gotten far. The family was good at tracking people; it was their specialty, in fact. They were very big on loyalty and making examples out of those who broke their rules. Their teaching methods needed work, but the lesson would stay with me for years and leak into my dreams. It took a few hours, but I finally drifted off to sleep, having no illusions about the world I’d entered now, and no question as to why Ruiz was called the Cuban Necktie.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Cambion Chronicles: Book 4 Chapter Four


 “The hell wrong with you, Sam? Never mind — trick question. But how you gonna blow up my boy’s spot like that? X ain’t been to school all week on account of you snitchin’.” Hot air and noisy spittle crackled the line as Dougie fumed on the other end of the phone.
I dropped a folded pair of jeans in my bag and glared at the phone by the nightstand. I had Dougie on speaker while finishing the last-minute packing I should’ve done last night.  Angie insisted that I wouldn’t need anything, but if I was going to stay at a strange place for a whole weekend, I wanted to be prepared. The operation required two free hands, thus allowing this grown-man hissy fit to commence in stereo.
“Dougie, real talk, do you have any white friends? I mean any? In regards to your argument, you guys knew each other a month and now you act like you lost a soul mate. And let’s not forget that ‘your boy’ was a plant sent to spy on you!” I stressed the last bit, hoping logic would sink in quicker.
“But why would he think that, though? I’m not one of you.” The way he said that made me think of how my Grampa would refer to Dad as one of “them people.” Though two different issues, both annoyed me for the same reason.
“And what’s that supposed to mean, Douglas?” I stuffed extra underwear in my suitcase. “Oh, we’re cool to hang out with, but you wouldn’t want to be one, right? You like the swagger, but none of the ugly that comes with being what we are.”
“No. What I don’t like is someone playing puppet master with my body,” he snapped. “What are you even talking about?”
That was a good question because I didn’t know anymore. “Look, if Xander’s gone, then that must mean you checked out okay. He might move on to a new suspect. Or he might show up to school on Monday, business as usual. At least now you know what’s up.”
“Man, this is some BS!” Dougie’s petulant whine reminded me of a kid picked last to play kickball. “First Caleb, then that Olivia chick and now Xander. Whenever I meet a new friend they end up being a demon—”
“Hey, watch it with the D word.” I cut him off. “We’re Cambions. It’s not the same thing.”
“It’s close enough. Where’s your boy anyway?” he asked.
Using my elbow, I dropped down on the bag in a body slam, which scored me an extra inch of room. “Why you ask? You miss him?”
“No,” Dougie answered a little too quickly to be believed. “Just wondering why you’re breathing so heavy.”
I stared down at the luggage on my bed, stuffed with three days’ worth of clothes and calculating my next move. “I’m trying to close the zipper to my suitcase. I’m leaving in a few minutes and I don’t have time to repack.”
“Try sitting on it then zipping it up. Works for Mia when she over-packs.” He suggested.
To my surprise, the trick actually worked. “Thanks, Dougie.”
“Yeah.” A long, awkward pause occupied the line before he spoke again. “Listen, I gotta go. Have fun at your monsters ball. Try not to eat anybody.” He hung up. No goodbye or anything. Typical. Dougie and I still had a ways to go, but we were making progress. At least he was calling, even if it was to chew me out.
I tucked my phone in my pocket, did a quick scan of my room, and then took a final inspection in the mirror. The black curls piled on the top of my head were a battle I’d lost hours ago, and it was best not to disturb that sleeping beast unless absolutely necessary. Since I’d be around Cambions all weekend, I saw no reason to rock the brown contacts I usually wore to school. Lilith, ever-sensitive to eyewear, was grateful for the reprieve. My tan sweater was a cashmere, off-the-shoulder number that Mia bought me for my birthday and it probably cost more than my entire wardrobe. It made for a better first impression than the hoodies and jeans that were my uniform. But I was ashy as hell and needed lotion.
While slathering on half a jar of cocoa butter, I felt that familiar tingle on the back of my neck. It traveled to the base of my skull and hovered with the light pressure of a kiss on that very spot. The unearthly twinge started late this morning, right around the time Caleb’s plane touched down on Virginian soil. Then, it had been just a faint hum, the booming sound system from an approaching car. But now, Lilith vibrated on a supersonic frequency that gained intensity upon Caleb’s approach.  It activated all my senses at once and streamlined into a singular craving. I needed to touch, smell, taste, and hear him.
I grabbed my suitcase and dragged the load downstairs. Mom must’ve heard all the clunking noises and she met me at the bottom, ready to share her latest paranoia straight from the headlines. There was little time to hear the impending cautionary tale. Caleb was close, less than a block away now.  I could feel his thumbs tapping his steering wheel, his eagerness a mirror reflection of my own.
Like a kid who’d heard the ice cream truck, I dropped my luggage in the foyer, ran passed Mom, and flung open the door just as his black Jeep rolled to a stop at the curb. It took all my physical strength to keep cool and not run to him. Cambion-mate or not, Samara Nicole Marshal hadn’t completely lost her mind over a boy.
Who was I kidding?
As soon as his head appeared over the roof of his car, my feet sprouted wings. He stepped around the side of the Jeep, looking tired from his travel. Weary eyes likely hid under those dark shades, but his smile, my morning sun peeking over the horizon, was on full display.  His pace quickened with mine until our collision stopped us in the middle of the yard.
He caught me in his arms and I wrapped my legs around his waist. I snatched the shades off his face and kissed him for all I was worth. My fingers sank into his soft brown hair, messing it up even more. We were a hot pretzel of lips and limbs for what Caleb would later tell me were five minutes, but time didn’t exist when you’re this far gone. The slight trimmer of Caleb’s body told me he felt the same way, but he was better at playing it off than I was.
“I don’t think I can make it to the car like this, Sam.” Caleb chuckled between kisses.
“Try,” I murmured with my mouth planted to his.
Between hooded lids, pale lavender light slid through his thick lashes, courtesy of the homesick spirit within. Capone was hyped for our reunion as well, and Lilith preformed her own lightshow for her mate.
We heard a throat clear in the distance and soon realized we weren't alone in the yard. Mom had stepped out of the house with my suitcase in tow. Caleb ambled to the porch with me latch to his torso like a koala cub.
“Hello, Ms. Marshall. You look beautiful,” he told her.
“Uh-huh,” Mom replied with a guffaw. “What color is my dress?”
Caleb loosened his hold and set me back on the grass, keeping our bodies connected on the way down.  His stare never left mine as he answered, “Green with gold flecks.”
“Her dress is beige with white flowers,” I corrected him.
“I'll take your word for it.” Caleb pulled away then jogged up the porch steps to collect my bag.
As expected, Mom ran down her list of safety measures, but thankfully kept the weeping and baby talk to a minimum. If I hated the whole party idea before, seeing Mom’s watering blue eyes sealed the deal. She’d occupied the front row of every ceremony and award I’d ever received and now the right to witness my biggest achievement was stripped from her. Angie promised she would send Mom pictures, but it wasn’t the same. Not even close.
“Try not to worry, Ms. Marshall. She’s in good hands.” Caleb gave her shoulder an assuring squeeze.
In a blink, her expression changed from happy housewife to rabid mama bear.  “You have more at stake if something happens to her than anyone else does. I don’t need to warn you what carnage will ensue if Samara is hurt? We’ve done this dance before; you don’t need a refresher, do you?” she asked with deadly sweetness.
“No, Ma’am.” Caleb cleared his throat and backed away from the porch slowly. “I will protect her with my life.”
Mom nodded in approval. “I’m counting on it.”
After loading the car and a final round of hugs, Caleb and I high-tailed it north on the interstate. For two hours, we fought over the satellite radio stations and discussed school drama, work, Xander, and my argument with Dougie, which he found amusing. Like Ruiz, Caleb wasn’t shocked by the follow-up visit from a Santiago. “It’s all protocol. They’re anal like that,” he’d said with his eyes trained on the road.
The only topic off limits seemed to be his sister’s wedding. He made a flippant comment about the drunken deejay and getting forced to do the Chicken Dance, but withheld any detail that signified a pleasant trip. Clearly, things didn’t go as well as I’d hoped, but I wouldn’t pry the details out of him, either by memory extraction or good old fashioned nagging. Cake Boy had more issues than Cosmo, of which he would reveal to me in his own sweet time.
I wasn’t the only one picking up on bad moods, because from out of nowhere, Caleb said, “I get the feeling that you don’t want this party. Any reason why?”
“I can give you five off the bat.”  I nestled back into the head rest and ranked each issue based on annoyance. “Number five: I don’t know these people. Number four: I really, really hate being the last to know stuff. Number three: the party’s for me, but none of my friends and family are invited and I have no say over the music selection. Number two: I don’t have a fancy dress. And taking the number one spot for ten consecutive months is…” I tapped the dashboard for drumroll effect. “Whenever there’s a celebration with us involved, something bad happens. It’s a given at this point.”
“Yeah, I thought of that, too.” Caleb agreed with a furrowed brow. “But it’s too late to cancel now, and I’m sure Evangeline will help you out in the wardrobe department. Whatever you wear, it has to be jade green.”
That struck me as odd. “Well, it is my favorite color.”
“It’s also Lilith’s signature and your eye color. All the Petrovsky females will be wearing green. The Cambion families will be color coordinated the same way.”
I leaned away and gave him a good once over, imagining him rocking a purple suit. That alone was worth going to the party. “So what was your debut like?” I asked. “Maybe you could give me some pointers on what to expect.”
“I didn’t have one,” he replied.
What surprised me more than his answer was that I didn’t know that already. Then again, not all of our memories transferred through feeding and not all of them remained once the energy wore off. For that reason, I pounced on the chance to learn something new about him for a change. “Why not?” I asked.
Instead of an answer, he tucked light brown strands behind his ear, drawing attention to his dire need of a haircut. The longer his hair grew, the wavier it got and it now hung at his neckline, brushing his shoulders.
“Our family isn’t part of the inner circle,” he said finally. “That sort of celebration is for the flaky upper crust. My family’s influence is basically zilch in the Cambion circuit. And thanks to all this crap with my father and the Santiago justice league, our stock has taken a nose dive.” He rubbed his face as if to clear his mind. “We’re bottom rung, Sam, and I can guarantee that if you weren’t my mate, my brothers and I wouldn’t have been invited.”
Damn, Cake Boy just couldn’t get a break, forever on the outside of something, dancing in that in-between where you’re neither and both. Yeah, I knew the lyrics to that song by heart, and having another outcast by my side made the music a bit more tolerable.
I took his right hand from the steering wheel and held it in mine. Brown and pale white fingers fastened together like teeth on a zipper. “Well, I for one am proud to be with you. Even in public, in broad daylight.” I smiled at him.
Keeping our fingers locked, he brought my hand to his lips and kissed the wrist.
The GPS alerted us that we reached our destination, but only forest and empty road lay ahead. The Jeep took a sharp left onto a path you could’ve easily driven past if you weren’t looking for it.  Hidden from the main road, a tall iron gate capped with gold emerged from the foliage.
Caleb rolled down his window, pushed the intercom then announced our arrival. A moment later, the gates parted and we cruised up the mile-long path of Downton Abbey. Acres of green rolled out before us, sectioned in quads by four garden mazes. Water fountains stood inside each maze, their spray arched high over the spade-shaped trees that lined the paved drive.  Then there was the house itself, a stone giant with outstretched arms ready to engulf visitors and pull them towards its chest. Its head was a gold-plated clock braced on the shoulders of stone cherubs. More gold dripped from the roof onto the top windows and balconies like melted wax. At the top of its lungs, the place screamed Old World decadence, further proving that this party wasn’t a chips and dip sort of gig. 
“Intimidated?” Caleb asked, his eyes glued to the narrow path ahead.
“A bit,” I admitted, wondering if I needed a corset and a powdered wig to enter the place.  “I never knew we had palaces in Virginia. Just mansions and old plantation houses.”
“It’s actually a French chateau. Some rich tycoon modeled it after the Palace of Versailles and went bankrupt a third of the way through construction. The place stayed on the market for years before the Santiago’s bought it on auction.”
“A third? There was more to this place?” I asked. The building alone was the size of two football fields and made my grandpa’s mic-mansion look like a double-wide. I was definitely out of my element.
“Have you ever seen the real Versailles?” He saw the annoyed look on my face then said, “Never mind. It’s a like a small city. Maybe I’ll take you to France one day as a belated birthday gift.”
“Nah, you being here is gift enough. And those kickass headphones you gave me. And the balloons.  And the ten free slushies coupon,” I added.
He smiled at that, his dimples sinking into his cheeks. “You’re so easy to please.”
“Depends on if you know what I want.” My statement hung in the air as a challenge.
He answered with a heated leer that promised we would settle that score later.
The path fanned out to a wide rectangle where several expensive vehicles were already parked. Caleb pulled into the space by the entrance then climbed out. I joined him on rubbery legs that had fallen asleep during the long commute.
Servants in white poured out of the tall glass doors to assist with the luggage. With a lot of bowing and curtseying, they instructed us not to lift a thing while on the property. As one of the butler people took Caleb’s keys, I noticed the man’s eyes were a deep Crayola green, the color of fake grass.
“He’s a Cambion too?” I whispered to Caleb on our way up the stone steps.
“Everyone here is. Non-Cambions are prohibited at these gatherings.”
I got that much, but were they relegated to wait staff? “Wouldn’t they be guests as well?” I asked.
“Only the thirteen families are guests. Everyone else is a civilian. They’re not good enough to attend, but good enough to serve,” Caleb replied, and the bite of his words revealed more about his lowly status than the worker’s.
We stepped through the vestibule, taking in the Phantom Of The Opera vibe of the interior. The curved staircase owned the room, a mythical serpent with two heads branching toward opposite ends of the second floor. The high ceiling revealed five stories, and curious eyes peered down at us from theater balconies.
More domestics in white greeted us in the lobby, their heads bowing as they addressed us by name. They moved about in a hurry, carrying bouquets and chairs toward an open room where I assumed the festivities would take place.
“You’re late. I was beginning to believe you wouldn’t show. I should be so lucky.” A heavily accented voice spoke nearby.
Like twins, Caleb and I groaned in unison and turned toward the archway on our left. Olivia Petrovsky, Cambion ‘soul sister’ and queen of Resting Bitch Face, leaned against a pillar, looking bored and unimpressed with life. Wearing a white button-down shirt and a gray pleated skirt, she appeared to have been dragged out of her private school to come here. She was the spitting image of Nadine: a tall, captivating blonde who owned a death stare that would make Medusa look away. Olivia even wore her hair in the same messy braid over her shoulder as Nadine had. On sight, Lilith whined in remembrance of her former host and longed for the sibling comradery she once shared with Olivia. Too bad reconciliation wasn’t in my list of priorities. The girl was prickly on a good day and intolerable the rest of the time.
Caleb bowed his head. “Olivia.”
“Caleb.” Her emerald eyes darted to him in the briefest of acknowledgements. “Mama is in a meeting with the Santiagos, so she wanted me to show you around. That is if you’re not too busy.”
“Aw, I always have time for you, sis.” I gave her a nasty grin, which she returned with venom only her reptilian kind could produce.
“We’re having dinner at eight with the family. In the likelihood that you don’t have formal attire, clothing will be provided for you. Come along.” She glided toward the open mirrored entryway that held all the commotion. “We will have rehearsals in the morning and then a last-minute resizing for your gown.”
“This is beginning to sound more and more like a wedding,” I said and turned to Caleb for backup. He nodded and quietly surveyed our surroundings. 
“In many ways it is. The celebration has a dual purpose, a political statement of sorts,” Olivia explained. “In order for Caleb’s family to be acknowledged as part of the Petrovsky line, your bonding has to be publicly declared. Since all the families will attend the event, it will be set in stone.”
It all came off as some outdated feudal system, but I rolled with it.
Caleb and I followed her to what I’d forever refer to as the “Hall Of Stupid Money”. It ran the length of an airplane runway and hit every item of the bourgeois checklist. Bleached marble paved the flooring below, crystal chandeliers hung from above with naked, chubby babies painted on the ceiling. Wall mirrors galore, gold plated everything, and curly-Q antique furniture that was once owned by Louis the whoever. I’d need a map to find my way out of the place, or at the very least, a golf cart. By the time we reach the third floor, I wanted to punch out the idiot builder who forgot to install an elevator.
Olivia led us through yet another frou-frou hallway and announced, “This wing is where the guests of honor reside. Mama and I are down that hall and the two of you are at the opposite end.”
Her voice faded in the background when I noticed Caleb lagging behind. He faced the wall to our right and stared, transfixed at what I’d dismissed as funky wall paper. Under closer inspection, it was an eight-foot-tall mural that ran the length of the entire corridor. After examining the figures inside the desert landscape, realization hit me square in the gut.
“Is this what I think it is?” I asked Olivia and marveled at the masterpiece.
She joined our side, and for the first time since we’d arrived, a smile brightened her face. “Yes. It is the Origin Tale in living color. The Santiago’s commissioned Mama to paint it.  It took her two years to complete and required seven men to transport it to the estate.”
That made sense. The Petrovskys were the historians of the race, and Angie’s paintings were sought by private collectors around the world. Seeing her brush work up close, I understood why she was in such high demand. The grains of sand, the tiny huts; the expressions of each character had been captured with haunting detail.
Touching the mural’s bumpy surface, we charted the sequence of events down the corridor. Scenes I’d read in Angie’s journals preformed a reenactment on canvas: the celestial event, the birth of the inhuman child, its bewitchment and terror upon an entire village, the villagers’ retaliation, the brutal execution of the creature, and the curse that rose from the flames and plagued mankind for centuries. It was all there, our history blending in with the rest of the gaudy décor, hiding in plain sight.
 “There are no known records of a name, but the ancient ones referred to the being as ‘The Crux’, the root of us all,” Olivia supplied with the grace of a museum tour guide. “They say that the being had no gender and grew into an adult in a year’s time. Its beauty was so profound that gazing into its eyes would cause seizures.”
Caleb stopped at a depiction of an ancient victory dance around a bonfire. “Did the villagers really chop the body into ten pieces before burning the remains?”
As a hardcore fan of the morbid and macabre, Olivia traced fingers along the pyre’s black smoke in a manner of worship. “Yes. This is why there are ten original families. The other three are byproducts of the ten.”
“Byproducts?  You mean like a spinoff of the original series? How does that work?” I asked.
Olivia blinked out of her momentary trance then backed away from the mural. “Consult a mirror and your own experience for that answer, Samara. You are not the first offshoot among our kind and you won’t be the last. You are simply the most recent to date.”
I poked out my bottom lip. “Aw, shucks. And here I thought I was a rare and special snowflake.”
“You would. This way.” Olivia slinked down the hall, her long braid wagging behind her.
My hands enclosed the space in front of me as I imagined it was Olivia’s neck. A warm hand settled on my lower back and eased me away from the wall-sized picture book.
“Leave it alone, Sam,” Caleb mumbled out the corner of his mouth. “She’s being civil, all things considered. Remember, we’re outsiders encroaching on her turf.”
Olivia spun to a stop in front of a set of double doors. “Your suite is through here and Caleb’s is right across the hall.”
Caleb snapped to attention and blurted out, “Suites? As in plural?”
 “Yes, Caleb, Plural. The Santiagos are very conservative. Perhaps if you two were legally married, you could share a suite, but for now we must remain respectful to our hosts.” She flung open the doors and we entered the Fabergé egg that was my new lodgings.
All the extravagance should’ve been old news by now, but as I pivoted in the middle of the floor, wonderment returned in an emerald and gold color scheme. A four-post bed covered with embroidered pillows took up most of the room.
I was tempted to dive in, but I paused on sight of the black cocktail dress and matching flats lying on the bed. There was no need to check the size—I knew it would fit. The same way I knew that all my things had been unpacked and put away by some low-ranking Cambion turned house elf.  I would’ve never picked out that getup on my own—not my style and nowhere near my price range. I suspected the dress code was one of many ways the Santiagos threw their weight around, and more shot-calling would likely accompany tonight’s dinner.
Caleb leaned against the door frame with his legs crossed at the ankles. Wearing a reserved, almost blank expression, he regarded the fresco painted on the ceiling. “This is some honeymoon suite. Separate but equal.”
I rolled my eyes. Of all the things to gripe about, Caleb chose the sleeping arrangements? “Funny, ‘cause I don’t remember us getting married,” I told him.
He slid his hands into his pockets and drew deeper into the room. All his focus, all his energy was centered on me with an intensity that emitted a violet glow from his eyes. “You don’t remember New Year’s?”
Fighting the urge to blush, I said, “Vividly.  But I wouldn’t constitute that as a wedding. You should know what one of those look like. Didn’t you just leave one?”
“I did, so I can say in all confidence that it pales in comparison to what we have.” His throaty reply made me painfully aware of the king-sized bed sitting three feet away.
“If you two are quite finished,” Olivia cut in. “I need to get ready for dinner before I lose my appetite. Perhaps after the ceremony and you complete the consummation rite, the family will reconsider the sleeping arrangement.”
Whatever I was about to say took a back seat to Olivia’s announcement. “I’m sorry—the what?”
 “The consummation rite. It’s an act to show everyone you are a mated pair,” she clarified.
“What kind of act?” I asked, taking the defensive. “It sounds like the Cambion A-list is getting dinner and a show. I’m not getting naked in front of a bunch of strangers.”
“Trust me, no one here wants to see that. I certainly don’t,” she said dryly. “Anyway, the Santiagos hate to wait, so you’ll need to arrive downstairs at eight sharp. There’s a phone and a directory by the bed if you need assistance.” She went for the door, but I blocked her path. 
 “Not so fast. Let’s back up to this consummation thing. Why am I just now hearing about it? How do we prove that we’re mated?” I asked.
Olivia peered down at me with a wicked quirk of her lips. “Wy musicie krwawić w oczach świadków.”
Say what? Language wasn’t the problem, but what the words meant for me and Caleb. I pushed out my hands to stop the crazy train from moving any further. “You wanna run that by me again?”
“You are fluent in Polish, yes? There is no need to repeat myself.” She stepped around me and sauntered to the door. “As amusing as your imagination is, it is not as bad as you might think, Samara. It’s just a formality.”
I wasn’t convinced, and Mia’s comment about rituals and chanting sounded less farfetched. By the time I recovered from that little bombshell, Olivia had disappeared. “Wait—hold up. Olivia!” I called after her, but she was already gone.
“What did she say that’s got you so worked up?” Caleb asked. “Whatever we have to do can’t be that bad.”
 “Sure, if you don’t mind opening a vein in front of—” I turned and found Caleb laying spread eagle in the bed with his eyes closed. I didn’t need empathic powers to feel his fatigue from across the room and I didn’t have the heart to send him to his own suite. But we were at the mercy of our hosts, in more ways than one.
Caleb’s head lifted from the pillow and shook the fog from his brain. “What did you say?”

I froze to the spot, unsure how to translate psycho cult activity into Standard English. He was just as clueless as I was about the ceremony and he had a right to know what was in store for us. I took a deep breath and my next words ruined whatever rest he’d planned on having tonight. “In order to prove we’re legit to everyone, we’re gonna have to bleed.”

On My Emo Days...

On My Emo Days...
Some days are blacker than others