Ever gotten a stupid gift for your birthday? And when you realized that the crystalline dancing cows are just too stupid to keep in your house, gifted it along to some other sap who would then send it along to the next poor soul? That's kind of how vampires handle our problems. We keep dumping them at someone else's feet. The only problem with being immortal is the cycle just keeps going until finally your problems lands right back to you again and this time, you really can't just shove it off to the next guy.
Especially when the next guy is Ryan and his BMW is parked where it's blocking your shiny new truck (that has yet to be encrusted in zombie parts) in the drive alongside what feels like four feet of snow that's been dumped on your town. I found him making breakfast for the three of us – well, I rather heard. Maria sure can scream when a scary vampire has her in a headlock at three am. I busted into her room and stopped cold. Maria just twisted to look at me, panting, and kicked Ryan in the shin with her bare feet. Her window was open and she had obviously been pulled out of bed, evidenced by her pink pajamas, and there was Ryan acting like this was no big deal.
Actually, he seemed irritated.
"What. The hell," Jeremy said from behind me. I also heard the low rumble of a growl that would be Martin.
"The window's lock was ridiculously easy to break," Ryan said calmly, "I would hope that your rooms are more secure. Or that you consider this one expendable."
Maria bit his hand. He didn't react.
"Alright, let her go and let's settle this out like normal, rational people," I said, "Instead of paranoid vampiric freaks."
Ryan let go and Maria burst into a tirade that was mostly incomprehensible. There was some punching and kicking involved and Ryan just breezed out of her room, to have the door shut behind him hard enough to rattle the frame. I sighed and turned.
"Oh God," I said, covering my eyes, "Martin, put some clothing on, please."
"I always sleep naked," he said, vanishing back into his room, "Some of us turn into bears, you know!"
And that was how we all ended up downstairs in bathrobes, save one very self-assured vampire in a suit.
"You want Maria to escort you to a what?" I said dully.
"A wedding," he replied, "Up north a ways. A business associate of mine is getting married and has invited me as a guest."
"I am not playing the role of your girlfriend," Maria huffed. Her pink pajamas were covered by a very modest blue bathrobe. A bathrobe with duckies on it.
"You can think of it more like a bodyguard if you'd like," he replied, "I'll be staying at the hotel and have already requested certain accommodations and am paying very well for them. However, I want someone to be awake during daylight, as I cannot reach the hotel and one of my safe houses within one night. And I might need some help for more than just a bodyguard."
Martin jumped in before any of us could speak. He was also wearing a bathrobe and now boxers.
"Look, Ryan, no offense, but we've got no reason to help you out here," he said, "I'm sure your friend will understand if the logistics don't work – you are a vampire after all. You'll probably make the guests nervous. You're making me nervous busting into our house like this and threatening Maria. I'm still half-tempted to go bear on your ass and gnaw a leg off."
For a moment no one spoke. Ryan leaned back in his chair and pulled out a small envelope and tossed it onto the table. Some photographs spilled out. They were professionally taken, probably printed off the hotel's website advertising their accommodations for hosting events. And every single one of these was of a fountain, four levels, each level boasting winged babies in various states of nudity pouring water from one level to the other. The very bottom level had lion heads forming a curtain of water and between that were four angels, holding conveniently placed draped cloth.
"Okay," I said, "I really don't get what you're trying to say here, Ryan."
Martin picked up one of the pictures.
"Get a couple more rooms," he said, "I'll go pack my stuff. We're all going."
The druid was already walking for the stairs. Jeremy stood and stared at him in astonishment.
"What? The hell, dude?"
Martin turned and showed us the photo. One of the angels at the bottom was fully clothed, the cloth pulled so only half the face showed.
"So it's a modest cherubim," Jeremy said, "I still don't get it."
"I've got some books on the subject you can read on our drive up there. Veiled cherubim are bad signs. Ryan's friend might as well have his wedding at the gates of hell."
Maria and I turned to look at the elder vampire. He shrugged mildly.
"He's being a bit dramatic," he said, "But essentially, yes, the veiled cherubim is not a good sign. This isn't professional interest. This is me wondering if the fountain is merely a coincidence, copied from Old World architecture, or if yet more of the ancient magic is leaking into America."
"Nothing to do with zombies?"
"If that's what I think it is, almost certainly."
"I'll be back," I said with a forced smile, "Before we leave, there's someone I want to talk to."
Ms. Williams draped the necklace around my neck, carefully lifting my hair out of the way as I stared into the mirror at it. It was old silver and I could feel it even through my jacket. I'd have to be careful to not touch it. The chain was an alloy and wouldn't hurt me.
"There," she said, "My mother wore that at her wedding and I wore it at my confirmation, my baptism, my daughter wore it at her baptism, and I wore it at my wedding and my daughter at hers and I've worn it to my husband's funeral..."
She took a deep breath.
"I don't believe much in mysticism," she said, "But there are holy things in the world and I would like to think that three generations of faith would give that enough holiness to protect you."
"You don't have to lend me this," I said, my hand framing the heavy silver cross, unable to touch it, "Everything else is enough."
"Pish. When I was a little girl I was scared of demons and then I got older and thought there was no such thing. Now we have zombies, vampires, and all other sorts of things I don't want to believe in, but if they're out there, I want them gone and you to come back safe and sound."
She turned to finish packing up everything else. It included a rosary she'd had since childhood, some vials of water from the baptism fount and the oil used to anoint for healing. I didn't know Ms. Williams had a key to the church and that the pastor would be too happy with foisting a good number of highly symbolic items off onto the local Catholic vampire, but she assured me that sometimes, some things were more important than letting our good old priest know what was going on at four am in the morning. She'd fill him – and the local woman's prayer group – on what sort of danger we were going towards as soon as everyone was awake at a reasonable hour.
I took the box and headed for the door. Ms. Williams grabbed my hand and held it fast.
"Be careful," she said, "I don't like that the four of you keep running off to deal with all sorts of things – doesn't seem fair – but if you're going to do this nothing I say will deter you."
"Thank you," I whispered, "We'll be as safe as we can. I honestly don't know what this is all about, but if Ryan is spooked enough to investigate... then we need to go."
Hah. A vampire walking into where an angel was veiling its face. Irony.
It took three days to get to Ryan's safe-house. He had the trip all planned out. First two nights at hotels and then a small house in a little suburban town. We passed lots of scenic sights like fields of snow, more fields of snow, maybe a tree, and remarkable names like "Muddy Creek" and "Three Otter River." We pulled up at about 11 pm and parked the pickup in the garage. Ryan's BMW in the drive wouldn't attract attention but a pickup filled with our usual range of weaponry might, if someone lifted the cover on the back of the pickup. Jeremy had laughed at the bundle I'd brought back from Ms. Williams and had shut up after he realized he was the only one laughing. He'd been in the backseat of Ryan's car the entire time, reading the pages Martin had bookmarked for us.
Apparently, the veiled angel was a sign that something bad had happened in a place, so bad that even God's messengers would hide their faces at the sight. The statues erected were meant to warn those that passed by that they should not linger or spend the night in the area, lest the shadows of the past rise. And this statue was in the middle of a hotel.
"But something would have happened by now!" Maria had protested, "If it's got people sleeping around it all the time!"
"Maybe something has," Ryan replied, "Maybe whatever the angel is warning us of has realized what a great deal it's got going on there and isn't doing anything that would attract enough attention."
"It's gonna notice when a druid and three vampires march in through that door," Martin muttered, "Especially when we've dealt with demons before and Tess is carrying enough holy stuff to make even me cringe."
"If there was enough silver in that cross to form a knife I'd have asked it be melted down, blessed, and then we could stab anything even remotely connected to the spiritual realm and watch it melt like the wicked witch of the west."
I further revised my opinion of Ms. Williams.
We missed the wedding ceremony itself, as it took place before the sun had set and there were windows in the conference room the wedding was taking place in. Maria went as Ryan's date and scoped the area out while the rest of us sat around Ryan's room and brooded. Martin was trying to figure out the best way to attend the reception that would let him shift into a bear quickly while not getting him thrown out for indecency. I think he was just nervous. Last time we'd faced something evil it had not been pretty. At sundown Maria showed up at our door. She was wearing a blue cocktail dress with her hair pulled up and a nice matching purse that doubled as concealed carry for her pistol and two grenades.
I had learned long ago to not ask who her supplier was.
"Dinner is in another room," she said, "It won't have a very good view of the fountain. Ryan and I can go mingle and you guys can scope stuff out."
She took a deep breath.
"And if you need explosives, just yell. I'll be nearby."
Show time. Ryan followed her out, taking her arm despite the glare she gave him for it. We waited ten minutes and then went down ourselves, armed as best as we could. Jeremy carried a pistol and the water from the church. I carried the cross, a knife I'd had for ages, and Ms. William's cross. Martin had settled for baggy jeans, flip-flops, and a jacket he could easily unzip like a scrawny version of Superman.
The guests were in the dining hall by the time we entered the main room. The chairs were still lined up facing the raised platform and behind them was the fountain. It was greenish either from age or fake paint. Jeremy chatted up the receptionist for a moment and returned with a rather scant report.
"Been there as long as she has been working here," he said dourly, "Which isn't that long. She says one of the cleaning staff quit cause it was creepy though. She had no idea one of the angels was fully clothed."
"Very helpful," I muttered, "Alright."
I approached the fountain, Ms. William's cross burning on my chest. I stared at the veiled angel through the curtain of water. There was something odd about it. I reached out and touched it, watched as the green crust crumbled off and revealed plain stone underneath. This wasn't the same age as the rest of the fountain. It was older.
"Hey guys," I said, "Whoever made this fountain didn't make this part."
"Well, he did a shitty job of it," Jeremy muttered, "Cause it's leaking."
I felt a hand on the back of my shirt pull me back. Martin was saying something, talking too fast for me to really understand outside of not to touch the water. It was seeping from the base and spreading rather rapidly, branching off in multiple directions. A skeptic would say it just happened to look like it was chasing us. Thankfully, none of us were skeptics.
Jeremy uncapped the bottle of water from the church and dumped it into the stream that was closest to him. It was a logical move, but I think it could have been done with a bit more prejudice. For instance, Ryan's friend's wedding was now interrupted by the screech of an unnatural being in agony and treated to the sight of an entire fountain of water erupting into black fire.
I just hoped the happy couple had a heckuva honeymoon planned out. Ryan was out of the room first, Maria in tow. Literally. He had her by one wrist while she was digging for her pistol. The fire was spiraling now and then something crushed the top tier, then the second, then the third, until finally the entire fountain collapsed into a pile of cheap stone and black, oily liquid. Only the veiled angel remained intact. The guests kind of quieted down a bit and I could hear their frantic breathing, hear the flow of quickened blood in their veins...
And Ms. William's cross burned. Jeremy and Ryan both looked dazed and hungry and Martin looked like he was about to make a break for it.
"It's been feeding," I murmured, "It wasn't here originally. But someone had the statue... it's bound to that little statue... and somehow it managed to influence the artist to include it here, where there were enough minds to sap the strength out of without killing them. And it's been waiting."
It had a good thing going here, after all. I stepped onto the black liquid and very calmly poured out the anointing oil.
That broke the spell. Martin tore off his jacket and started shimmying out of jeans. Jeremy and Ryan both snapped out of their haze and Jeremy took over directing the frightened crowd BACK into the dining hall, finally snarling and flashing fangs to get them moving. I just stood there while the fountain reformed, this time into a misshapen demon, four-legged and comprised of broken mortar and black liquid. Fire burned for eyes and the veiled angel rested where its heart should be. It didn't say anything. It just roared, used one paw to bat me across the room, and was tackled by an angry bear.
I struggled to my feet. I had easily flown eight feet. And now Martin was not so much mauling the demon, but being engulfed by it. I saw blood and black liquid mix from where the bear was biting and holding on. Maria armed a grenade, threw, and watched the back half of the creature explode. Black liquid spewed across the room and slowly started to seep back towards the demon. I had a sudden, brilliant, idea. It would hurt, but it might work.
I ran, pulling the cross off as I did. The silver seared into my bare palm, right through skin and into muscle, but I ignored the pain best I could. I dropped to my hands and knees and swiped the cross through the liquid that was steadily making its way back to the demon. Wherever the cross touched, the liquid ignited into white flame and left nothing but the smell of ozone behind.
"Oh yes," I said, "That'll do. Martin! Heads up!"
And I lept onto the bear's back and shoved my hand elbow-deep into the demon, cross clutched tightly in my fist.
I came to with a very comforting sight of Jeremy watching over me, broken stone all around from where I had smashed into and shattered the raised platform, glass all over the floor from where every window had shattered, and what looked like a crater sitting where the fountain used to be. Parts of it still burned holy fire. Ryan was talking to a very bewildered policeman, wedding guests were filing out and being promised free drinks in another room, nice and far from this one, and Martin was still a bear, dourly licking parts where his fur had been burnt off.
I tried to sit up.
"We think you broke something," Jeremy said, "Like, your back."
Jeremy just pulled something out of his pocket and carefully draped it back around my neck, not touching the actual silver.
"We had to have Maria pry it out of your hand," he said, "Which you might not want to look at. The silver pretty much ate it away to bone. You're gonna be laid up for a while."
I'd heal. It might take months, but I was a vampire. I'd heal.
"Great," I muttered, "IV blood. Like hospital food. Tasteless, bland, and only adds to how badly you want to get out of there."
"Nice job though, sticking the equivalent of a holy bomb inside that thing," Jeremy said, "Maria says the statue exploded too, so our best guess is that the demon is gone and can't be bothering anyone else."
"Makes you wonder though," I murmured, hearing the wail of an ambulance pulling into the hotel parking lot, "How many artifacts like that are out there?"
Jeremy looked over at Ryan and then at Martin. The look in the bear's eyes was pretty plain. He'd gotten hurt pretty bad and couldn't risk shifting back to human, not with those burns. They'd need to bring in a vet to the hospital as well, at least for a while.
"You know," he said, "I'd rather not think of that."
The cross still burned through the cloth of my shirt. I found comfort in the fact that it burned because it was silver and not because I was a vampire. There was still good left in this world, after all, enough holy to blow up a demon that had taken residence in a very tacky hotel decoration. And if we encountered anything worse... well, there were other Ms. Williams in the world, I was sure of it.