Saturday, April 9, 2016

Womb Breaker: A Nekropolis Story




Note: This story takes place not long after the events depicted in the novel Dark War.

Devona let out a bellowing cry that sounded like a cross between a lion’s roar and a pterodactyl’s screech. She was already holding my right hand in an iron grip, but at the loudest part of her cry she squeezed my hand even harder, resulting in a series of popping and cracking sounds as the bones within shattered.

It took a few moments for the worst of the pain to pass. Hers, not mine. I haven’t felt physical pain since I died. There are certain benefits to being a zombie, not feeling pain chief among them. Not feeling anything else? That part wasn’t so good.

When Devona’s mind cleared enough for her to realize what she’d done, she released my hand in horror.

“Oh, Matt! I’m so sorry!”

I held up my damaged hand to examine it. I’d had a fresh application of preservative spells not long ago, and the skin was smooth and healthy-looking. Otherwise, my hand looked like a flesh-colored glove that had been stuffed with gravel.

I gave my wife a smile. “It’s okay. I have a spare.”

I lowered my hand so she wouldn’t have to look at it any longer, but I didn’t offer my left hand for her to hold. I might need it later.

Devona lay on a hospital bed, and without one of my hands to hold onto, she gripped the bed’s railings. They were made of reinforced steel, and even someone with the strength of a vampire – or in Devona’s case, a half-vampire – wouldn’t be able to damage them. Hopefully. You wouldn’t think she was that strong to look at her. She’s a petite blonde who doesn’t look like she could hurt a fly if she wanted to. But in Nekropolis, looks are almost always deceiving in one way or another. She wore a white hospital gown which matched the bed sheets, the walls, the floor, and the plastic casings of the various monitors set up by her bedside, wires running to sensor patches placed on her chest. A blood IV was hooked up, the needle inserted into her right wrist. Her bare feet were placed in metal stirrups, spreading her legs apart. Not the most dignified of positions, but a necessary one if you’re going to deliver a baby, let alone twins.

I know you’re wondering how a dead man could impregnate a half-human, half-vampire woman. The short answer is magic. The long answer is none of your goddamned business.

We weren’t alone in the room. A nurse stood on the other side of Devona’s bed, keeping a close eye on the monitors’ readouts. She wore white scrubs and slip-on shoes. No rubber gloves yet. I assumed she’d put some on when it was time for things to get messy. She’d introduced herself to us as Cassara, and she was a full vampire, or Bloodborn as they prefer to call themselves. She could’ve been centuries old, but she appeared to be in her late thirties. Her black hair was short and straight, and when she concentrated a pronounced line bisected her brow, and the tips of her upper fangs protruded over her lower lip.

“Is everything all right?” I asked her.

“Hmm? Oh, yes. Everything’s fine. Each half-vampire’s body is different in its own way, and it takes me a little longer to interpret the readings, that’s all.”

The nurse didn’t look at us as she spoke. Maybe she was still assessing the monitors’ readouts, but it was also possible that she simply didn’t want to face me. Zombies aren’t held in high regard by the other Darkfolk, and while I’m a unique case – an intelligent, self-willed zombie – I’m still treated as if I was a garden-variety shambling, flesh-hungry corpse. Even my recent elevation to Lord of the Dead hadn’t changed that much. All it had done was make people more afraid of me, but in Nekropolis, fear is more valuable than respect. It’ll keep you alive longer. Not that I had done much as Lord of the Dead yet. The Ossuary – the stronghold of the Lord of the Dead – runs itself for the most part. I had some trouble when the ghosts of the Titanic and the Lusitania had a battle on the river Phlegethon. And Victor Baron’s estranged bride Elsa had tried to kill him in a spectacularly destructive fashion that would’ve taken out half the city if she’d succeeded. But overall, the job had been pretty dull so far.

I wore a white outfit similar to the nurse’s, only I had little white booties to slip over my shoes. The booties reminded me of my time back in Cleveland as a (living) homicide detective. We’d used to put on similar booties so we wouldn’t disturb crime scenes.
Another contraction hit Devona. She gritted her teeth, her body stiffened, and despite how strong the bed rails were, they bent beneath the pressure of her grip. She gutted out this contraction in silence, but I could sense how bad this one hurt. As a half-vampire, Devona possesses a host of psychic abilities that full Bloodborn don’t. Because we’re so deeply bonded as a couple, we share a strong psychic link, and we can usually tell what the other is feeling, both emotionally and physically. Because of this, I wore a special charm created for me by Papa Chatha, my friend and the voodoo priest who keeps my body in working order. The charm was an intertwined circlet of various plants and herbs that I wore on my head. The damn thing made me look like an idiot, but it blocked our psychic link – mostly – so I didn’t have to experience Devona’s pain. She’d teased me that I should feel every moment of discomfort along with her since I was fifty percent the cause of it. But we both knew I couldn’t afford to be incapacitated in any way during our babies’ births. Both of us had too many enemies who might want to take advantage of our vulnerability. That was my excuse anyway, and I was glad she’d bought it.

I carried a second charm, one that would prevent my less-than-sterile zombie body from spreading any germs that might endanger Devona or the twins. Sure, I was pretty fresh at the moment, but my body is always in a perpetual state of decay, so why take chances?

When Devona’s latest contraction passed, her body relaxed and she released an exhausted breath. We hadn’t been here long, just over an hour, but the contractions were taking their toll.

“You doing okay?” I asked.

The nurse dabbed sweat off Devona’s forehead with one hand while she placed the other on Devona’s swollen belly, as if trying to calm her body.

“Do I look like I’m doing okay?” Devona snapped.

“That’s not what I meant,” I said softly.
She gave me a wan smile. “Sorry. I’m not too worried. I am half vampire, after all. And that half comes from a Dark Lord to boot. I’ll be okay.”

Devona’s mother had been human but, as is all too often the case when human women become impregnated by Darkfolk, she died during delivery. Because of this, it would only be natural for Devona to have issues regarding the subject of childbirth, let alone going through it herself. We’d talked about her feelings before deciding to have children, and we’d revisited the issue several times since. I believed her when she said she’d be all right, but that didn’t mean I still wasn’t worried.

“You’ll come through this wonderfully,” the nurse said. She’d stopped mopping Devona’s brow, but she kept her hand on Devona’s belly. “Hybrids are the best of two species. You’re far stronger than you know.” She smiled and Devona looked at her, clearly uncertain how to take the woman’s comment.

“Uh, thanks.”

The nurse didn’t seem to be aware of Devona’s discomfort with the subject, and she continued.

“And who knows how strong your children will be? A half-vampire has never became pregnant before, and a . . . previously living person –” the nurse gave me a quick glance before shifting her attention back to Devona – “has never been a father. The rumor among the Bloodborn is that your children are expected to possess powerful magic of a type the Darkfolk have never seen.”

“That’s what we’ve been told,” I said. But despite all the tests Devona had undergone – magical, scientific, and strange combinations thereof – the truth was no one knew for sure what our twins would be like. All we knew is that we were having one boy and one girl. Otherwise, we were like any other parents, waiting for the mysteries that were our children to begin revealing themselves.
The nurse had continued touching Devona’s belly all this time, but now she glanced down at her hand, almost as if she’d forgotten what she was doing, and removed it.

“I assumed that’s the reason for all the precautions,” Cassara said. “There are Bloodborn guards stationed throughout the Fever House, both inside and outside.”

“My father is somewhat overprotective,” Devona explained.

“To put it mildly,” I muttered. Her father was Lord Galm, king of the Bloodborn and one of the five rulers of Nekropolis called Darklords – which, at least temporarily, included me. Devona hadn’t been close to Galm for the first seventy years of her life – like most vampires, she’d older than she looks – but once she became pregnant with his grandchildren, Galm had softened toward her. I wouldn’t give him an award for father of the year just yet, but I had to admit he’d changed since I’d first met him.

I was surprised that Galm wasn’t in the delivery room with us. The Fever House is staffed primarily be vampires, and as their king, Galm could command them to do as he wished. But when Devona’s doctor had told him he wasn’t permitted to be present during the delivery, he hadn’t argued, although he’d been clearly unhappy about it. Maybe the mighty Darklord was learning a bit of humility.

“It’s good your children will be strong,” Cassara said. She paused and her demeanor grew colder. “Nekropolis isn’t a place for the weak.”

Devona and I exchanged a glance, unsure how to take the woman’s comment. But before any of us could speak again, the door opened and another vampire walked in, this one wearing a white lab coat and black pants. She was tall and thin, her black hair short, her skin like white porcelain, and she projected a brisk, businesslike attitude that bordered on arrogance. Dr. Servia didn’t walk over to Devona as much as glide. She was a very old vampire and had lost much of her human behaviors over the course of her long life.

“How is the mother-to-be?” Servia asked. She didn’t smile and her voice was almost robotically toneless. Bedside manner was not her forte.

Servia’s question could’ve been directed to Devona, Cassara, or both, but it was the nurse who answered.

“She’s very close.”

Servia nodded. “Then let us prepare.”

The two of them scrubbed up at the room’s sink and put on surgical masks and gloves. Servia had even less use for zombies than Cassara, and when she came over to hand a surgical mask to me, she didn’t make eye contact.

“I assume you’re warded against spreading germs,” she said.

I showed her my charm to prove that I was, and she nodded.

“Stay back and don’t touch anything – especially not your wife.”

Her lips pursed in distaste as she spoke this last word. As much as she didn’t like zombies, she liked the idea of one marrying a Bloodborn – even one who was half-human – even less.

Devona let out an ear-splitting shriek at that moment, and she pushed against the stirrups so hard that one of them bent.

“I’d say that’s a good indication that the time has come,” Servia said dryly. She and Cassara went over to the bed and began their work.

I stayed back, as Servia had instructed. I’m not normally one to follow orders, and I hated not standing at Devona’s side to do my part – small though it might have been – in the delivery of my children. But I needed Servia to focus all her attention on Devona, not arguing with me about where I stood. And although I had the charm against spreading any kind of infection, in truth I was worried about harming the babies with my presence. I was a dead man, after all. A walking, talking, and all-too-often rotting hunk of meat. I feared that I would prove toxic to my children, so much so that I was terrified by the idea of being too close to them, let along actually touching and holding them. I hadn’t shared my fears with Devona, though. I figured she’d had enough to deal with during the pregnancy – and with my suddenly being appointed substitute Lord of the Dead when Edrigu had mysteriously left the city. And while that was all true, I wondered if I really hadn’t wanted to talk about it because doing so would’ve made it seem more real.

Men. What are you going to do with us?

Devona had several more contractions, even more powerful than the last based on the volume and intensity of her screams. Dr. Servia and Cassara kept giving Devona instructions and monitoring the diagnostic equipment. They were both calm and professional, and I told myself that was a good sign. When the doctor starts worrying, you know shit has gotten serious. And I reminded myself that Devona’s Bloodborn heritage gave her both inhuman strength and healing capabilities. She and the babies were going to be fine.

I’d thought I’d adjusted to the idea of being a father, but now that the moment was almost here, my doubts resurfaced. I was tough enough to take down the deadliest threats this town could throw at me, but fatherhood was a challenge I wasn’t sure I was up to. What if I screwed it up? I’d be ruining the lives of two innocents who’d never asked to be born, let alone have an emotionally conflicted zombie for a father. Devona had assured me that I’d be a great dad, and I wanted to believe her, but there was no way to know for sure until I tried. And the most truly frightening thing about parenthood to me is that you don’t get a second chance to do it right. Talk about pressure.

Devona’s body stiffened, and she arched her back, thrusting her very round belly into the air. And then, so fast that I almost wasn’t sure I really saw it, her belly deflated, like a falling soufflĂ©. Dr. Servia – who at this point was sitting on a stool at the end of the bed peering between Devona’s legs – displayed the first emotion I’d ever seen from her: absolute and total shock.

Cassara looked at the monitors, her face expressionless.

“The babies,” she said. “They’re gone.”

* * * * *

Devona sat up in bed, and I sat on the edge, holding her hands in mine. She hadn’t been crying, but I knew that was because she wouldn’t allow herself. Me? I wasn’t physically capable of crying, although at that moment, I wished I was.

Servia and Cassara, after determining the babies were truly gone, had remained to help Devona deliver the afterbirth and departed soon after. Once Galm had been informed of what had happened, he’d come in and asked Devona if she was okay – he didn’t bother asking me how I was – and then he held his hands, palms down, several inches over Devona’s abdomen. He was a vampire, but he was also a Darklord – a real one, unlike me – and he possessed powers far beyond those of ordinary Bloodborn. After several seconds, he lowered his hand and bared his truly impressive fangs.

“I detect traces of strong magic,” he’d said. “The children were teleported away.”

He’d gone into full-on action mode after that. He vowed that the Bloodborn – all of them – would scour the entire city in search of the twins, and they wouldn’t rest until the children were found. He’d gone off to supervise the search, and that was the last we’d seen of him.

“Why did this happen? Who could have done it?” Devona said, as much to herself as to me. My wife is a problem-solver, a quality that helped her run the Midnight Watch, the most respected security business in Nekropolis.

“Who I don’t know. As for why, there could be any number of reasons. Someone could want to exploit whatever magic the twins might possess. They also might want to use the twins as leverage against your father, maybe even blackmail him.” I paused, not wanting to say this next part, but knowing I had to. “And both of us have made enemies over the years. One of them might have done this to get revenge on us.”

“Theorizing isn’t good enough, Matt. We have to do something!”

As emotionally devastated as she was – and since I no longer wore the silly-looking psychic blocker on my head, I knew exactly how she felt – she was determined to get her children back. Thinking of our psychic link gave me an idea.

“You carried the twins for nine months. More than carried. They were connected to you in the most primal way one person can be connected to another. They say the bond between mother and child is the strongest there is. And given your psychic abilities . . .”

Her face brightened with the first hint of hope I’d seen since the twins’ disappearance. “I should be able to sense them, maybe even locate them.” The hope left her face then. “Unless they’ve been taken too far away for me to detect them.”

“Try not to think about that. And try not to put too much pressure on yourself either. Any bit of information you can sense will be helpful.”

She nodded. “Okay, I’ll try.”

I started to get up from the bed so I wouldn’t interfere with her concentration, but she held me in place.

“Stay. The twins are linked to you as strongly as to me. Maintaining physical contact with you will help me focus on them.”

She closed her eyes then and her breathing deepened. As a half-vampire, breathing is optional for Devona, but she used it to speak and at times like these, to relax her body and mind. I expected her to go into a deep trance as she extended psychic feelers outward and began the search. But her eyes snapped open only a few seconds later.

“I’ve found them! They’re close by. Still in the hospital, I think.”

I frowned. “Why would they still be here? If someone wanted to kidnap them –”

“Who cares why? Let’s go get them!”

She tore the sensor patches off her body and tossed them aside. She then yanked the IV from her wrist and blood squirted from the needle, staining the bed’s white sheets. Devona ignored the mess as she swung her legs over the side of the bed and stood. I hopped off my side of the bed and hurried over to her. When I’ve had a fresh application of preservative spells, I can move almost as fast as a living man, my movements smooth and fluid. The effect doesn’t last long – a day or so at most – but I was grateful for it then. I wasn’t sure Devona was up to going on a search. She’d just given – well, almost given – birth. Her face was paler than usual, and while her legs were steady enough, her hands trembled.

“Are you sure you can –”

“Don’t,” she said.

“All right, I won’t. But try not to push yourself too hard, okay?”

She didn’t respond to that. Instead she started toward the door. When we’d checked into the Fever House, neither of us had brought any weapons. Not only weren’t they permitted in the hospital, since Galm insisted on posting guards all over the facility, bringing weapons seemed pointless. So I didn’t have my gun or any of the lethal toys I carry in my coat pockets. All either of us had to fight with were our bare hands, and Devona had crushed one of mine. That only left three hands between us. I wasn’t that worried, though. I’d lost body parts in fights before and still won. Still, I couldn’t help wishing I had my Glock right then.

Once we were in the corridor, I looked around for a wheelchair. Maybe Devona would let me push her while we searched. But I didn’t see one. I also didn’t see any of the guards Galm had commanded too watch over us. He hadn’t been kidding about ordering every one of his subjects to aid in the search for the children. I assumed Servia and Cassara had vacated the hospital to join the search, and that the other Bloodborn who worked in the Fever House had obeyed their king’s command as well. Since the Fever House was primarily staffed by vampires, that meant the hospital was almost deserted of staff, giving the hallway an empty, desolate feeling. I hoped Galm had possessed the sense to allow some of the staff to remain behind to tend to the patients.

Devona led the way through the Fever House, and I kept silent as she did so, not wanting to disturb her concentration. I could barely feel her through our link. Her awareness was projected outward, focused entirely on the twins. She kept up a good pace, although I could see how tired she was. Her movements were slower than usual, less graceful, more wooden. Her brow was furrowed in concentration, her eyes gleamed with literal light, and her fangs were pronounced and bared. I didn’t need a psychic link with her to know she was royally pissed, and despite her weakened condition, if she encountered the person that stole our children, he-she-they were in for an underworld of hurt.

I knew exactly how she felt.

We passed staff members and patients, but not many. Devona ignored them all, but I gave each a hard look. Until we found our babies and whoever had taken them, everyone was a suspect in my eyes. Maybe, I reflected, it was a good thing I didn’t have my gun.

The farther we walked, the more we seemed to go back in time. We moved from the Fever House’s modern facilities to an older section, where the walls, ceiling, and floors were made out of gray stone blocks, and instead of fluorescent lights, the halls were lit by magic greenfire torches. The doors to the rooms were made of thick dark wood, and instead of knobs they had large metal rings to pull them open. Nekropolis was founded four hundred years ago when the Earth’s Darkfolk – concerned about the proliferation of humanity and its increasing technological development – relocated to a dimension of darkness. The Fever House was built around the same time, and while it’s been added to and renovated over the centuries, some of the original construction remains. I wondered if this section of the hospital was still in use, and if so, who and what was treated here.

The corridor terminated in a dead end. There was a door here, but it had no iron ring to open it with. On the front was a wooden sign with hand-painted red letters rendered in old-fashioned script. Enter Ye Not, it read. Peril Most Severe.

“Through there?” I asked.

Devona nodded. Then before I could say or do anything, she stepped forward, lifted a leg, and kicked the door hard. She has telekinetic abilities, but I figured she wanted to keep all her psychic energy focused on finding the twins. Besides, as angry as she was, she didn’t need telekinesis. The door broke apart in a shower of splinters. There was only darkness on the other side, so I removed one of the greenfire torches with my unbroken hand, and we passed through the now open doorway, stepping over and around the debris of the door Devona had destroyed.

I can still see and hear, although both of these senses tend to dull as I rot. But even at my freshest, I can’t smell, taste, or feel anything with touch. I’d like to tell you I’ve come to accept my limited sensory capabilities over the years, but I’d be lying. So I couldn’t tell if this section of the Fever House smelled of dirt, mold, and mildew, but from the way Devona’s nose wrinkled, I guessed that it did. The floor beneath us was plain stone, as in the corridor we’d just left, but I had the impression that the space we’d entered was much larger than the outer corridor. Our footsteps echoed in a way that made me think we were in a room, a very big room. After several steps more, I revised that opinion. It felt more like we were in an auditorium, or maybe even in a structure as large as an aircraft hangar. The torchlight’s illumination only extended so far, perhaps ten feet in all directions, and it revealed nothing but stone floor and the occasional stone column. The further we penetrated into the room, the more we began to see damage had been done to the floor as some point. The stone was broken in places, and there were numerous criss-crossing grooves cut into the stone, as if someone had slashed at it with a very sharp objects. Some of the columns were cracked, and a few had been broken into pieces, leaving rubble scattered on the floor.

I was going to ask Devona what she thought had caused the damage, but before I could speak, she stopped walking.

“This is it,” she said. “They’re here.”

“Are you sure? It’s awfully quiet. Shouldn’t newborn babies be crying?” A terrible thought occurred to me then. “Do you think –”

“They’re alive,” she said. “I’d know it if they weren’t.”

We’d known the twins’ genders for some time now – one boy, one girl – and we’d already chosen names. Devona called them now.

“Lily! Toby! Can you hear us?”

I doubt Devona expected the twins to recognize their names, even though she’d been talking to them in the womb for weeks using their names. They might recognize her voice, but it was more likely she was reaching out to them psychically as she spoke. If nothing else, maybe the sound of a human voice would startle the babies and set them to crying. But Devona’s words received no response. Not at first, that is.

After several moments of silence, we heard a shuffling noise, as if something large and heavy was heading toward us. We heard a series of sounds – tiny sighs, gurgles, lip-smacks, grunts, and moans. And then the thing making those noises stepped into the torchlight. It was tall, well over eight feet, and had a hulking naked body whose skin was a patchwork pattern of different colors and textures. Flesh, scale, fur, chitin . . . It was humanoid-shaped – two arms, two legs, one head – but there was something profoundly wrong about its body, something I couldn’t immediately put my finger on. But Devona understood what it was.

“They’re babies.” Her voice held equal part wonder and disgust. “Dozens of them, all joined together somehow.”

They gripped one another’s tiny bodies in order to make a combined humanoid shape. The “head” was actually multiple heads, five in all, and they – along with every other baby head that was visible – stared at us with suspicion and hatred. The reason for the creature’s patchwork appearance was because the Mega-Baby was made up of infants from various species. Lyke, Demonkin, and a number of types which I couldn’t immediately identify.

“Our children are part of that?” I asked.

“Yes. But I can’t tell which ones, not without getting closer.”

The Mega-Baby came toward us, moving with the agility of an exceptionally fat hippo on dry land. I had no idea what sort of magic was holding it together – not to mention making it possible for the creature to move with injuring its component parts. But I did know one thing.

“I’ve seen some pretty messed-up stuff since coming to Nekropolis, but this definitely makes the top ten.” I reconsidered. “Okay, top five.”

“They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”

Cassara stepped out of the shadows and into the light. The Mega-Baby stopped advancing toward us and turned to her as she approached. The individual baby faces smiled and a number giggled. I noticed two of the five that comprised the head scowled, their mouths puckering as if they were about to pass explosive gas.

I caught Devon’s eye and pointed to the scowling babies.

“Any guess as to who they belong to?”

Devon smiled. “I don’t need to guess.”

“I was human once,” Cassara said. “Well, technically I was Arcane. This was a century or so before the Darkfolk left for Earth. I dallied with a moral man and conceived a child. Unfortunately, she didn’t live long after her birth. Despondent, I decided to end my own life, and one night I went down to the river near my cottage, intending to drown myself. But someone intercepted me before I could get there.”

“A vampire,” I said.
“Yes. There are rules now forbidding Bloodborn from turning other Darkfolk into their kind, but that wasn’t the case back then. I was attacked, drained of blood, and left for dead. But I rose as a vampire, and I have lived as one ever since, never telling other Bloodborn that I – like you, Devora – am a child of two worlds. A hybrid.

“Once I came to Nekropolis I began working as a nurse at the Fever House. I had experience with healing herbs and poultices from my time as a witch. My duties as a nurse were varied, but I especially liked helping to bring new life into the world.”

She put a hand on the Mega-Baby’s shoulder and gave it a loving smile.

“I also rescued some of those babies from parents who didn’t deserve them. Parents who were cold and cruel. I waited until they left the Fever House, and then after a time, I found where they lived and used my magic to teleport the children here, to this unused and forgotten section. Large monsters used to be treated here, but they caused so much damage that now they are treated outside on the hospital grounds. So I used this as the home for my sweet little ones.”

The Mega-Baby clapped its hands together as if delighted by her words. Our children continued scowling at her, though. Chips off the parental block, those two.

I remembered the odd way Cassara had touched Devona’s belly, and I realized that was when she had cast the teleportation spell, although she’d waited until later to activate it.

“I can understand why you’d want to protect these babies,” I said, “but why merge them into a single – and more than a little disturbing – body?”

Cassara looked at me. “So they’d be strong, of course. Nekropolis is an extremely dangerous place. Together they are far stronger than they ever could hope to be apart.”

“Why not simply raise them and teach them to be strong?” Devona asked. She gave me a quick glance. “Not that I’m condoning kidnapping.”

“Because they’re happier this way!” Cassara shouted. “My magic keeps them young. Keeps them pure and innocent. This way, they’ll never become true monsters, like their parents.”

Her motives were understandable in a twisted way, but I had no doubt that we were dealing with one crazy vampire. We needed to proceed carefully if we wanted to get our children back without any harm coming to them. Unfortunately, Devona was not in a careful mood at that moment. She walked up to Cassara and leaned in close to her face.

“Are you saying you think Matt and I would be bad parents? Is that why you stole our babies?”

Cassara looked shocked.

“I think you’d both be wonderful parents! But given the special nature of your children, so many people would try to exploit their powers, even Lord Galm, if you’ll excuse my saying so, Devona. This way, the children will be where no one would ever think to look for them. They’ll be safe. And in the end, isn’t that what any good parent wants for his or her children?”

“Safe for what?” I said. “To wander around here, alone in the cold and the dark?”

“They aren’t alone,” Cassara said. She reached out and patted one of the baby heads. “They have each other – and they have me.”

“Do you really expect us to go along with this?” Devona asked. “Just give you our blessing, walk away, and never see our children again?”

“That would make things more convenient,” Cassara said, “but I know it’s not realistic. I hadn’t expected you to be able to track your babies. I understood you possessed certain psychic abilities, but I didn’t realize how strong they were. Oh well. Everyone makes mistakes. The important thing is to correct them. Or, in this case, eliminate them.”

She bared her fangs and her eyes gleamed with feral golden light.

Devona bared her own fangs and lunged toward Cassara. But before she could attack, Cassara gestured and Devona was flung backwards twenty feet. She hit, rolled, came up on her feet, and charged the vampire-witch anew.

I started toward Cassara. Either a Bloodborn or an Arcane can be a formidable opponent, but the combination of the two was a special kind of threat, and I knew it might well require both Devona and me to take her out. But I only managed to advance a few feet before the Mega-Baby stepped into my path to block me. Normally when a monster gets in my way, I do my best to make it step aside, usually in the most violent way I can. But while the creature in front of me had been created by magic, its component parts were innocent babies. And two of them were mine. I couldn’t exactly start throwing punches at it.

I heard the sounds of Devona and Cassara fighting. Hisses, snarls, the crackling of released magical energy, the soundless sensation of psychic power being unleashed. But I didn’t take my eyes off the Mega-Baby. Dozens of tiny eyes gazed back at me, and I tried to gauge what, if anything, the brains behind them might be thinking. But all I saw in those eyes was anger. Except for Lily and Toby. I saw frustration in their eyes.

“Uh . . . Hi. My name’s Matt. I’m the daddy of two of you. The ones on top there.” I pointed to Lily and Toby. “I’d like to be your friend. Maybe I could, uh, tell you a story?”

The Mega-Baby regarded me for a moment, and then the mouths of its component parts opened and let out a chorus of angry cries. It raised its right arm and brought it swinging toward me, moving at unexpected speed. At the moment my reflexes were close to those of a living man, but they were still nowhere near fast enough for me to get out of the way in time. The arm hit me on the left shoulder, and I heard a crack! of bone snapping. The impact knocked me off my feet and sent me sprawling. I hit the floor and heard more bones break. I didn’t feel any pain – always a plus when you’re in a life-and-death battle with a monster – but I wouldn’t be able to assess the damage until I tried to get up. Not that the Mega-Baby intended to give me a chance to do so.

I’d dropped the greenfire torch when I’d fallen, and it had landed behind me. The flame was magical, so there was no danger of it going out, but its light threw my shadow onto the advancing Mega-Baby, making it look even more sinister. It thudded over to me and raised a foot, clearly intending to stomp me to jelly. I glanced quickly at the arm that had struck me, and as near as I could tell none of the babies that comprised the arm had been injured when it had hit me. Cassara had said her magic had made the children strong, and it looked like she’d spoken the truth. I was relieved that the Mega-Baby wouldn’t harm itself attacking me. But that didn’t mean I tended to lie there and get flattened.

I rolled to the side as the Mega-Baby’s foot came down. It hit so hard that the stone floor cracked, and I wondered just how strong the thing was. I tried to get to my feet, but my body didn’t want to cooperate. My right hand – the one Devora had broken – wouldn’t support my weight when I pressed down on the stone. And my left arm was broken in several places from when the Mega-Baby hit me, and it wasn’t much help either. It took a bit of maneuvering to get my legs beneath me and rise to a standing position, and by the time I’d done so, the Mega-Baby had reached me. It swing its arm toward me again, but this time instead of hitting me, it grabbed hold of my broken arm. It didn’t have fingers per se, but rather five baby arms which extended from its wrists. Tiny hands gripped my arm with inhuman strength granted by Cassara’s magic, and the Mega-Baby pulled, tearing my arms free from the socket.

The no-pain thing served me well again, and since my body, even at its freshest, doesn’t work like a living one, there wasn’t any blood, so blood-loss wasn’t going to be an issue. But losing an arm is not only inconvenient in a fight, it’s downright embarrassing. Especially when it happens as often as it does to me.

Once the Mega-Baby had my arm, it paused and looked at it. It shook it back and forth several times, and a number of its heads giggled at the way the hand flopped around. It was at that moment when I understood that despite what Cassara had done to these children, they still were children. And that gave me an idea of how to deal with them.

I risked a quick glance at Devona and Cassara. They fought at the edge of the torchlight, little more than two shadowy silhouettes. They grappled toe to toe, gripping each other’s hands as if they were wrestling. Both women were snarling like animals, and while there were no visible signs of power discharge, I could sense the energies at play between them. It was a psychic rather than physical impression, and it felt like the build-up of energy before a powerful thunderstorm. I could sense Devona’s fury and determination through our link, but I could also tell that her strength was beginning to wane. She’d been through a lot physically and emotionally today, and it was starting to affect her. I wasn’t sure how much longer she could go on fighting like this. Cassara seemed to be struggling too, but she appeared to be holding up better than Devona. I needed to help my wife, but to do that, I needed to deal with the Mega-Baby first.

The creature was still examining my arm, several of the heads gumming the flesh and making it slick with drool. I walked up to the creature, picked one of the heads at random – one that protruded from the chest area – reached out with my broken hand and quickly touched its nose. And then I swiftly pulled my hand back and stuck the top of my thumb between my index and middle fingers. It took a bit of work to make my broken fingers do the job, but I managed. I then held my hand up for the Mega-Baby to observe.

“Got your nose!” I said.

The Mega-Baby’s eyes – all of them – stared at my hand, or more precisely, the tip of my thumb. My arm slipped from its grip and fell to the floor, forgotten.

I wiggled my thumb a couple times, and the babies’ eyes widened. Some of the babies wriggled until they could get a hand free and then reached toward their faces. Before any of them could touch their noses, I reached forward and touched my thumb to the face of the baby whose nose I’d originally “stolen.” The babies touched their noses and found them right where they were supposed to be. They lowered their hands and as soon as they’d done so, I reached out and pretended to snatch the nose one more time.

“Did it again!” I said.

Some of the babies giggled. A few looked like they might cry. Most of them just looked at my thumb, mystified.

I spoke as I wiggled my thumb once more. “Lily, Toby . . . I don’t know if you can understand any of this, but I’m trying to reach out to you through the link I share with your mother.”

The babies tried to check their faces again, so I returned the nose. My children hadn’t reached for their faces this time. Their gazes were fixed on me.

“I don’t know if your being part of the head means you have more control of the body than any of the others . . .”

I snatched the nose one more time, waving my hand in a slow circle for good measure.

“But if you can, try to direct the body to go over and help your mother against the bad lady who did this to you.”

I returned the nose one last time, and then I stepped back and waited. The link Devona and I shared was a primal thing, and it normally didn’t allow direct telepathic communication. That was something Devona had to purposely initiate. And I had no way of knowing if it was possible for me to reach the twins by going through Devona’s mind as if she were some kind of psychic router. I supposed I’d find out in the next few seconds.

The twins closed their eyes and furrowed their tiny brows. The Mega-Baby’s conglomerate body stiffened, and for a long moment, nothing happened. And then it turned and began walking toward Devona and Cassara. It moved slowly at first, but then it picked up speed until it was running. Neither woman saw it coming toward them. They were still caught up in their hand-to-hand battle. A nimbus of pulsing light surrounded them now, as the combination of magical and psychic energies built toward a dangerous level. The Mega-Baby appeared unconcerned about the light. It went to Cassara, grabbed her around the waist, and lifted her off the ground, pulling her free from Devona’s grip in the process. Magical energy discharged and both Cassara and the Mega-Baby cried out in pain. The Mega-Baby didn’t drop Cassara, though. Instead it spun her around until her head was pointed toward the floor. Then – magical energy still crackling around them – it brought her down in a single swift motion. Cassara’s head hit the stone floor with a sickening sound, and the magical energy winked out. The Mega-Baby let go of Cassara, and the vampire-witch’s body slumped to the floor. The Mega-Baby stood there for a moment before wobbling unsteadily and then sitting down.

Devona and I both started toward it, but before we could get there, all of its eyes closed, and it fell backward onto the floor and lay still.

* * * * *

“I think they both look like you,” Devona said.

“Poor things. Maybe they’ll grow out of it.”

We were back in Devona’s room. The four of us. Devona lay in bed, both Toby and Lily wrapped snugly in baby blankets, one held in each arm. I sat on the edge of the bed. My detached arm lay on a small table on the other side of the room, sealed in a plastic bag with a biohazard symbol on it. I’d already put in a call to Papa Chatha and he’d arrive soon to reattach it for me – and to fix my broken bones. I suppose the staff at the Fever House could’ve taken care of me, but I trust Papa more than those quacks any day of the week.

As far as we could tell, our children were completely human. They displayed no signs of being Bloodborn or zombies. I had the feeling they weren’t going to be exactly normal, though, but that was fine. Whatever they turned out to be, it would be perfect, as long as they were healthy and happy and could kick ass when they needed to.

While most of the staff were Bloodborn, they did have some Arcane doctors to deal with magic-based afflictions, and they were able to counter Cassara’s spell and separate the Mega-Baby into individual children again. Our babies had been returned to us, and the others were being take care of in Maternity. We weren’t sure what would happen to them, but we’d told the staff why Cassara had taken them, and we felt confident none would be returned to an unsafe home.

Cassara would survive – after some brain surgery augmented with copious amounts of blood infusions to stimulate her vampire healing abilities. There had been some talk of sentencing her to Tenebrus, but given her mental state, I thought it more likely she’d end up being a longtime guest in the hospital’s psychiatric wing.

The door opened then, and I expected Dr. Servia to enter, coming to check on the babies. But instead it was Lord Galm. He was a tall, well-muscled man with long brown hair and a full beard. He wore a fur cloak, loin cloth, and boots, and nothing else. His skin was hard and shiny as marble, its hue bleach-white.

“Hello, daughter!” he said in a booming voice. He gave me a quick, perfunctory glance. “Richter.”

I nodded. Given how he felt about me, that was an effusive greeting.

He walked over to the side of the bed and looked at each of the babies in turn before addressing Devona. “Your doctor tells me that both you and the children are doing well.”

“We are.” Devona’s tone was pleasant but guarded. Her relationship with her father had improved over the years, but it still had a long way to go.

“I am gratified to see my grandchildren at last,” he said.

Full Bloodborn didn’t produce children, and half-vampires were always sterile. Lily and Toby were the first grandchildren Galm had ever had throughout the millennia of his existence and that – more than whatever power the twins were supposed to possess – made them special to him. At least, that’s what I’d like to think.

He reached out for the twin closest to him – Lily as it turned out – but before he could touch her, Devona bared her fangs and snarled at him like an infuriated jungle cat.

Galm’s eyes blazed red and he bared his own fangs. He was the Lord of all Bloodborn, the most powerful vampire who’d ever existed.

I spoke softly. “It’s a wise grandpa who knows not to piss off the mother of his grandchildren.”

Galm turned to glare at me for a moment, but then the fire left his eyes, and his fangs receded. He turned back to Devora and in a thoroughly chastened voice said, “May I hold my granddaughter? Please?”

Devona smiled sweetly and with no little satisfaction. “Of course.”

She handed Lily to Galm and the vampire lord cradled her with surprising tenderness as he gazed down at her. I expected him to make some sort of snide comment about her not being Bloodborn, but he said nothing, only smiled.

I looked at Devona and we exchanged smiles of our own. It was clear that things were going to very different from now on. And infinitely better.