I pushed the keyboard off to one side, accepting the mug of peppermint tea from Judi with one hand and rubbing my eyes with the other. Four days into our home based honeymoon, all three of us were deeply disturbed. With Jack Hill helping Wayne and Sissy with Rodeo Iron security and putting out minor brush fires such as customers with questions the lesser office staff couldn’t handle–but not severe enough to interrupt the idyll being enjoyed by the CEO, Security Chief, and Office Manager–the ancient Protector hadn’t had the time to sit and chat with us. That meant we hadn’t yet been able to ask him, “Hey, old man, did you give us these Taurus Curve .380’s and a thousand rounds of silver hollow tipped bullets to shoot supernatural critters…or what?” That left us with the Diamond Paws donation, Faerie Trvth, and of course the Internet.
The world wide web was more disturbing than the gruesome woodcuts in the vintage book.
Beginning as a ha-ha ho-ho ain’t this funny project (though not really; we’d all seen too much to dismiss anything out of hand), we’d split up our research. Ignoring the possibilities of elves, dwarves, elementals, Satanic cults, and a host of others, it had been a natural thing to focus on the Big Three. Sissy, whose Native American ancestors had been more than a little familiar with the concept of shapeshifters, had volunteered to research werewolves. Judi’s long dead great aunt had once been a practicing witch of some sort, or at least that was the family legend, so she gravitated in that direction. Which left me with, thanks a lot, freaking vampires.
Freaking being the operative word here. I’d been hard at it for three…no, nearly four hours now, surfing the Net, coming to the reluctant conclusion that real humanoid vampires (not really human, but humanoid) must exist. If nothing else, studying for my Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy had taught me how to apply rigorous mental discipline to the study of pretty much anything. That could be a double edged sword; I didn’t really want to accept the idea that bloodsucking two legged leeches walked among us. Yeah, ancient long lived Protectors like Jack Hill walked among us. Considering Diamond Paws and his people, it was obvious aliens with extraterrestrial origins walked among us. But vampires? That sucked. Pun intended.
One website listed the Top Ten Vampiric Creatures known to man. Plenty of insects and arthropods in there, of course; nobody would even try to challenge that. Not if they’d ever been bitten by a mosquito or a bedbug or a chigger, they wouldn’t. Then there were those infamous bloodsucking leeches. The water dwelling kind, not the house guests that never seem to leave or the relatives you never knew you had who show up in droves the moment the word gets out that you have money. In salt water, the lampreys, clearly the models for Frank Herbert’s giant sand worms in his science fiction classic, Dune. Among the birds, there was even a vampire finch, although the little pecker used Galapagos Island booby blood as a supplement, not its entire diet. (Get your mind out of the gutter, okay?) And of course, duh, among the mammals there exist the vampire bats, Dracula’s best known wereform as far as the public is concerned.
Okay, I thought, sipping my tea, let’s assume for the sake of argument that if another mammal could evolve to live on blood alone, then the ubiquitous humans….
Absolutely. In the vampire bats, the normal anti-clotting agent all of us mammals possess internally…how did the authors put that? Ah. Yes. The bats added the agent to their saliva, keeping the blood of their victims from clotting. Sort of like whipping up a milkshake that was yummy thick yet thin enough to easily sip through a straw.
How about some of the claims in literature? Pale skin? Well, sure. If you slipped around mostly at night so there was less likelihood of getting caught when you were feeding off your victims, that would make sense. Dying in sunlight? Didn’t seem likely, unless of course one foolishly overdid a sunburn or contracted melanoma. Super strength and super speed? Oh, come on; really? That didn’t seem likely, either. Stake through the heart? Yeah, I supposed that would do it for pretty much any species out there. Silver bullets? Wait; weren’t those more for werewolves? And besides, it seemed likely that belief had arisen from the simple fact that relatively few bacteria and viruses could survive direct contact with silver. If a simple (think stupid) person considered a creature of the night to be a “disease” rather than a normal member of our planetary ecosystem, though, it would be easy enough to mentally connect the two.
“Penny for your thoughts, Tree.” Judi’s voice was soft, as was her hand on my thigh. Nothing sexual in it at the moment. Sensual, yes. Always sensual. Sissy was closeted in a back room with her own computer, hard at the shapeshifting question; for the moment, it was just me and what we jokingly called my Paper Wife, the wife who showed up on paper at the Powell County courthouse.
“Vampires exist,” I said bluntly. She nodded, unsurprised, her blue eyes fixed on my face.
“I suspect most of the super powers attributed to them, even–or perhaps especially–the undead nature of vampires as depicted in books and movies and TV shows…Hollywood. Bogey man stuff. Not real. Although if zombies turn out to be a real deal, then all bets are off; it wouldn’t be a big jump between those two. But to stick to the topic at hand, yes, there have to be those among us who have evolved to live on blood and blood alone. And who prefer human blood, never mind the likelihood of passing dangerous organisms to the blood sucking predator from the victim. Look at this excerpt I printed from Wikipedia.”
Drinking blood and manufacturing foodstuffs and delicacies with animal blood is also a feeding behavior in many societies. Cow blood mixed with milk, for example, is a mainstay food of the African Maasai. Marco Polo reported that Mongols would drink blood from one of their horses if it became a necessity. Black pudding is eaten in many places around the world. Some societies, such as the Moche, had ritual hematophagy, as well as the Scythians, a nomadic people of Russia, who had the habit of drinking the blood of the first enemy they would kill in battle. Some religious rituals and symbols seemingly mirror hematophagy, such as in the transubstantiation of wine as the blood of Jesus Christ during Christian eucharist. Psychiatric cases of patients performing hematophagy also exist. Sucking or licking one’s own blood from a wound is also a behavior commonly seen in humans, and in small enough quantities is not considered taboo. Finally, human vampirism has been a persistent object of literary and cultural attention.
“Growing up,” she murmured, “I wondered about that.”
“Wondered about what?”
“About Christians, some Christians anyway, getting off on drinking the blood of Christ. How vampire is that?”
“The article mentions psychiatric cases. Doesn’t psychiatric simply mean something mass society refuses to accept?”
“Hm. Pretty much, I guess. That, and/or a mental or psychic or emotional condition that prevents an individual from functioning in society. Which I guess is kind of the same thing when you think about it. Back to the study of blood sucking specifically, though, the mention of drinking the blood of the first enemy you killed in battle really gave me the creeps. All I could think of was picking up AIDS or malaria or some exotic form of blood cancer the guy was packing around before I killed him. Of course, cannibalism at least can be a form of psychological warfare, like Liver Eating Johnston, Jeremiah Johnston the mountain man, eating the livers of the Crow warriors sent against him after he declared war on their tribe for murdering his wife.”
“Raw, or did he fry it up good first?” My girl grinned up at me, mischievous. I’d never known a cuter package to cover a tougher interior.
“Don’t know,” I admitted.
“So you think the vampires are around somewhere, but nothing special as a threat?”
“Didn’t say that. They have to have gotten awfully good at hiding in plain sight. Could be they’ve evolved to have something we so called regular humans would see as special powers. Really good at hypnosis, for example, or simply excellent sneaky Ninja types when it comes to slipping up on a victim unnoticed. You know, something else just occurred to me.”
“Hormones. Wouldn’t it be logical that a vampire would have to be kind of selective about whose blood it was drinking? I mean, seems to me a diet of blood from a diabetic versus a diet of blood from a person in extreme good health….”
“Oh, I don’t know about that. Tree, we regular humans eat all sorts of meat, don’t we? And we don’t bother to ask the chicken if it’s blood sugar is out of balance before wringing its neck.”
“True. But then there are the studies showing American girls hitting puberty way early, connecting that with eating meat from livestock that’s been hit with growth hormones…I just don’t know.” I threw my hands up in frustration, fortunately remembering to set my tea mug down first. “I do know I’m not in denial any more about the existence of the species. But beyond that, babe, I’m fumbling around in the dark here. Which I suppose the typical vampire would appreciate, but it’s driving me nuts. I’m pretty sure throwing holy water or garlic at a six foot, two hundred pound, humanoid parasite would do nothing but make the bugger wet and smelly. Beyond that, it’s anybody’s guess. The popular literature, like The Dresden Chronicles for example, always depict them as being too much for one any normal human to beat in one on one combat–but that doesn’t make a lot of sense unless you figure, hey, wow, either it’s, you know, either blood magic or some damned good PR by the vamps themselves.” I patted her knee. “Any better luck with the witchcraft?”
“Some,” she admitted. “My brother didn’t want to give up the info, said it wasn’t something the family was ever proud of, but my witchy auntie ancestor was apparently known as the real deal. He’s sending me a packet of old letters that talk about spells she did. One was a longevity spell, which was kind of ironic, since she died at age forty-three even though she apparently looked to be in her early twenties at most.”
“Oh?” I got up to start the Mr. Coffee; peppermint tea was growing old. “How did she die?”
“More family legend. Her heart stopped, but the grapevine had it that it had a little bit of help. Like, she crossed another witch who was tougher, or quicker on the draw, or something. None of the other relatives were into flying brooms and pointy hats, so the few references in the letters are mocking if anything, denial in full roar. According to my bro, who’s not the best source. I can’t see him as having done more than skim the material, what with his dyslexia and general hatred of reading. Which is why I bullied him into sending me the letters; I wouldn’t trust him to find his own ass with both hands if he had to read the instructions to do it. The package should hit the Ovando Post Office tomorrow or so if it doesn’t get lost in the mail entirely.”
“Interesting.” It was, too. “Anything else?”
“Hard to say. There’s sure a lot of interest in the topic. Just for comparison, I Googled real vampires and got eight million results versus more than fourteen million for real witchcraft and twenty-five and a half million for real witches. That makes sense in a way; witchcraft would have to look relatively easy and safe compared to becoming a vampire. I’d guess you can be a little bit witchy if you want, just play around a bit, but vampires are like pregnancies. That is, you either are or you aren’t. It’s all or nothing, no middle ground.”
“Strangely, on page one of the real witchcraft results, there’s a page claiming it can teach you to cast spells to create a vampire. I didn’t see anything claiming a vampire could bite you and turn you into a witch. Guess that one’s a bit of a one way road.”
I chuckled, though it was hard to be sure if she was joking or not. Judi could pull your leg while keeping a perfectly straight face or she could be dead serious. Or in the case of vampires, undead serious. Dang. We’d forgotten to pick up more half and half when we were in Butte; we were almost out. Unsurprisingly, we had a bit of a problem with our research into the supernatural. None of us were about to cross the spiritual line by trying to cast spells for either black or white magic, understanding as we did that we’d be setting ourselves up for a drastic spiritual fall if we did so. The spiritual rules we followed were few and simple, but they were also absolute, zero tolerance pillars that did not condone messing with people’s karma (witchcraft) or pirating their blood (vampires). Shapeshifting…I couldn’t think of any specific prohibition in that arena, though I’d hate to half-learn it and end up stuck in a nonhuman form. Or, God forbid, halfway between.
“Jude,” I said softly, pouring coffee for all three of us, “what sort of world are we bringing our baby into?”
One side of her mouth quirked up, though her eyes stayed somber. “Question of the ages, big man. Bet the parents in the caves, back when humans were lunch for cave bears and saber toothed tigers, asked that very same question. We just have to do the best we can to protect our kid during the early years and provide the training to make her tough enough to whup the monsters out there as she gets older.”
“She?” I stared at her, startled. “You know something I don’t, honey?”
“In any way I can prove?” She grinned. Her eyes were lively now. Dancing, in fact. “No. Had a dream, though. Beautiful little girl, came to me, asked if I was sure I wanted her.”
“I presume you said yes?”
“Well, duh! She seemed relieved and happy when I did, too.”
“You’re sure she was a girl?”
“Hey, just asking. So…sonogram or no sonogram, we’re officially going to be surprised if the baby turns out to be a big, strapping boy, eh?”
“I should say. And no, I haven’t told Sissy about the dream yet. Figured Daddy ought to get the news first.”
“Why, thank you, Mommy. Mind if I tell her?”
“Nah. Go ahead, cowboy. I have about thirty witchcraft sites I still need to check out. A lot of them don’t feel safe, but some do.”
Pondering, I headed back to the den where Sissy was hunched over her laptop, reading an article. “Anything good?” I asked, handing her a mug of coffee before pulling up a chair to sit and chat. She didn’t answer for a long moment, first straightening and knuckling the small of her back. I’d have offered to massage the area a bit, work out the kinks, but she’d made it clear on more than one occasion that I was better off not offering unless I had time to jump her bones. The chemistry between us was that strong. Besides, the coffee was still hot; wouldn’t want it to go to waste. I took a sip of mine and waited.
“Not much I can pin down,” she said finally, pausing again to take down a long swallow. Leather throated woman, that one. Inside, not outside. Outside, her skin was still as soft and supple as any teenager’s. She picked up the laptop and placed in on the desk, settling back into the chair with a sigh. “Tree, I’m thinking…I’m thinking we need to…could you please ask Judi to join us for a minute?”
My eyebrows raised at that. “Sure.” I got up, went back down the hall to speak to my Paper Wife. We could call out to each other, and sometimes did, but mostly it was a matter of house courtesy to keep our voices down. When Sissy asked us to move the cats out of the room and close the door, though, we knew something was up for sure.
“You’ve got the floor, Sis,” I told her simply.
“Yes. Well. About that.” The six foot tall mixed race warrior woman looked at each of us in turn, held our eyes for a few seconds. She seemed almost nervous, which didn’t fit our no-paper Jackson one little bit. “I’m not finding as much about shapeshifters and shapeshifting online as I would like, but…when I was a wee thing, still able to walk under a table without bumping my head, I was fascinated by the stories I heard. Legends, I guess, but at that age I took them at face value. Nobody wants to run into a skin walker; those ugly spirits are just no fun at all. But I got to thinking…hey, it didn’t sound so difficult. I bet myself I could do it. I began practicing, in secret because even the people I heard telling the stories, they either mocked the reality or they feared it. I didn’t want to be mocked or feared, so I figured out right away that if I learned to shift, I darn well better zip my lip, keep it to myself.
“So like I said, I started trying to do it. For a long time, or at least what seemed like a long time to a three or four year old, my biggest problem was picking an animal to change into.” She laughed, a brief, barking sound. “An embarrassment of riches, so to speak. Little as I was, I was really practical about choosing. Wolves were too big and scary, and besides, white men hunt them, shoot, shovel, and shut up.”
Despite not being a white man, I winced at that. Ouch. How many of the mutant wolves had we helped hunt down for Sam Trace before the issue was settled?
“Bears weren’t as scary for some reason, but they didn’t feel right, either. But I had a tough time deciding between the red tailed hawk, the raven, the bobcat–and don’t ask me why, the coyote. It took me nearly a year to narrow it down between those four. I was leaning toward the hawk when, one particularly fine summer morning, a big black raven came swooping down out of the sky, landed on the ground not thirty feet in front of me, and said loudly and firmly, “Ra!”
“From that moment, I was hooked. The raven might or might not be my medicine animal. Heck, I didn’t much care about medicine animals at that age. But I knew I was going to turn myself into a raven. I’d found my focus. And over time, another six months or so if I remember the seasons correctly, I began to get results.”
She stopped, glugged her coffee, not looking at us. Judi and I shared a glance but said nothing; we would wait her out.
“It’s been a long time,” she said, staring at the floor, “a lot of years. But I’d like to try again. Even back then, I never managed the completely change but….”
“Go for it,” Judi and I spoke in unison, coffee forgotten. I was too chicken to try it, but….
Sissy nodded, sitting up straight n her chair, her arms on the chair arms, eyes closed. She didn’t chant or sing or anything, just went silent, became utterly still. Figuring my bride knew enough to do the same, I did the best to empty my mind except for letting the Hu flow silently through. We waited. Watched. Waited some more.
And it happened. First at her shoulders, Sissy’s form began to fuzz. Blur around the edges. Cliché literature would have me say her form rippled, but it wasn’t that. It was simply a matter of seeing our bedmate as we knew her at one moment…then seeing something on which we couldn’t quite focus, or perhaps something our eyes simply could not accept…and then the shoulders of her tan shirt were no longer cotton polyester blend but glossy black feathers. The feather effect shifted a bit, taking in the pectoral area. Her breasts disappeared into massive muscles that would, we knew, power her eerily light, hollow bones into the air once the transformation was complete. Her upper arms flattened and spread, reaching down toward and then past the elbows, finally including the limbs in their entirety.
But no more. Yes, our beloved now possessed an ebony feathered cape of wings that looked capable of lifting even her six foot frame once the rest of her human form joined in the change, but that feathered cape began to tremble, so slowly at first as to escape notice, then more strongly. My gaze shot up to her face. Despite her closed eyes, her countenance fairly radiated intensity. Sweat rolled down her face. Shocked, I suddenly realized she was fighting to keep the change going, or at least to hold it where it was…and she was losing.
Her breath suddenly exploded from her mouth, her nostrils flaring as he her eyes snapped open. The change immediately reversed itself, moving rapidly, her fingertips emerging first as the wings once again became arms. I glanced at the wall clock, realizing an amazing amount of time had passed; it must have taken her twenty minutes or more to achieve as much change as she had, change that reversed itself in seconds.
She passed out. Lunging forward, I barely caught her as she tumbled out of her chair, landing on me as the two of us crashed to the brand new, still off-gassing carpet. Sissy Harms is no lightweight; it took Judi’s help to extricate myself without simply rolling over and dumping her unconscious body unceremoniously on the floor. When she came around a few minutes later, Judi and I still had not spoken. Not verbally, anyway, though our eyes had transmitted volumes to each other. I had my arm around Sissy’s shoulders by this time, holding her in a semi-sitting position, angle-cradled across my lap. “You okay, babe?” I asked.
She didn’t answer at first, struggling back to her feet before settling once again in her chair, but she knew where she was. “I could use a Coke,” she croaked, and damned if she didn’t sound like a raven, too. Judi dashed out to get the drink; we didn’t go through many sodas, but we kept a few on hand for visitors. Mexican Coke in real glass bottles, made with real sugar, not that fructose corn syrup crap. Sissy took down half the bottle before apologizing. “I’m s-sorry I couldn’t get any f-farther.”
“What?!” We both stared at her, incredulous. My mouth ran away with me. “Are you shitting me? Sissy Harms Jackson, you just showed us a full one quarter transformation into a giant six foot raven, you did that after not having worked on your skills since you were a little kid, and you think you didn’t do enough? Are you out of your mind?” It occurred to me that I’d forgotten all about telling her Judi had dreamed about a little girl, but that could wait.
“Um.” She locked eyes with me then, blinking more like an owl than a raven. “I, um…never think I’ve done enough. Hadn’t you figured that out by now, Tree?”
Well…no, I hadn’t figured that out. Stupid me, taking the woman’s light hearted way in deadly combat and deadly serious way in the bedroom for granted. But, slow to get the picture or not, I had learned one thing for sure. If Sissy could teach herself to do what we’d just seen, there were shapeshifters out there, all right. And there was one in here as well.