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The Demon Hunter
Oliver Nocturne, Book Four
By Kevin Emerson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2009 Kevin Emerson
All rights reserved.
Feast of the Dead
AS THE SUN SET on the final day of August, Oliver Nocturne awoke and headed out to enjoy his last night of freedom. School started the next evening, and he was not looking forward to it.
Freedom for Oliver was not what it was for most vampires. Though he was sixty-four human years old, he was only thirteen in vampire years, and because he didn't yet have a demon, he was still considered a child.
So freedom was not setting off into the night to stalk and terrorize, as it might be for Oliver's older brother, Bane. It also wasn't heading out to attend a sophisticated party where humans were fed upon, as it might be for his parents, Phlox and Sebastian.
But lately, freedom for Oliver was also not hanging out on his own at home, because his parents were around almost every night. Phlox and Sebastian hadn't gone out to any events like the Friday Social feedings all summer. Sebastian hadn't stayed late at work as he often used to, and Phlox hadn't attended a Central Council meeting in months.
Bane was the only one who ever went anywhere. He'd been gone for a few nights at a time now and then, occasionally missing his summer school classes, which put Phlox in a state like nothing else could. Nobody knew what Bane was up to when he was gone, and he wouldn't say. Most nights, though, he returned home as soon as class ended and slouched sullenly on the couch, hogging the TV and video games.
As a result, for the first time he could remember, Oliver was the member of the family who behaved most like a normal vampire, at least when it came to going out at night. But even this freedom was different for Oliver. Other vampire kids would likely be on their way to see some indie bands down in the sewer clubs or at the Vera Project, to mess with human kids on Capitol Hill, or to hang out in Fremont and flirt with the glossy vampires from the east side towns like Bellevue. Oliver's activities, however, were quite different.
That was because Oliver's two best friends—really his only two friends—were not vampires, but instead a human girl, Emalie, and her zombie cousin, Dean. The last thing that the three of them wanted to do was go hang out with the vampires, who would just harass Oliver endlessly about his choice of friends.
Besides, Oliver, Emalie, and Dean had bigger things to do. And so, freedom for Oliver was a night like tonight, when they were meeting to plan and plot about the fate of the world.
Oliver left his underground home on Twilight Lane and crossed town in the growing dark. It was only eight in the evening, yet there was no danger of searing sunlight. Earlier in the summer, Oliver would have needed to travel by sewer. Back then, it seemed like summer would last forever, with its tireless daylight and horrid heat. But before you knew it, the shadows were growing longer and darker again, creeping across the street earlier each evening, and the breeze was edged with a coat-buttoning chill.
Oliver's sensitive vampire nose also detected a change in the air. Secretly, the dying that foretold winter had already begun. Sure, the leaves still looked green, but inside, their cells were shutting down processes, closing off paths of energy. The spiders and yellow jackets might have been at their plumpest, like the apples ripening on trees, but that only meant they were soon to fall, or to curl up under a rafter and shrivel away.
As much as Oliver enjoyed the cool darkness, he couldn't quell an ominous shiver in his gut. The hints of the changing season reminded him that his future was getting closer. Vampires, as a rule, weren't supposed to worry about the future. Sure, they might feel excited about some coming success, like the outbreak of a war or plague that they'd worked on for many years, but they would never bother to fear what was coming.
Yet Oliver feared his future, because he knew that it involved fulfilling a prophecy to open the Nexia Gate. The Gate was at the center of the universe, and most believed that it held everything together.
From the vampires' point of view, opening the Gate would be a wonderful thing, because it would free their inner demons, the vampyr, from Earth, which they thought of as a prison. Where else could you be trapped inside a physical body that could be slain by sunlight or a stake? Where else could you age away to dust in just a few hundred years, extinguishing the demon inside forever? If the Gate was opened, the vampyr would be freed to roam in the infinite higher and lower worlds for eternity.
Unfortunately, this made opening the Gate very bad for a human, or anything living, and even for Earth itself, because, as Oliver had learned back in June, opening the Nexia Gate would also completely destroy the world. Oh well, most vampires would say with a grin. But not a vampire who had human friends and human parents who might be alive out there somewhere.
So, there was going to come a moment when Oliver would have to choose. Maybe it wouldn't be until he was standing in front of the Gate with his demon, Illisius. And that could be years from now. Or maybe it would be later this fall, during the Festival of Waning Sun, when Oliver was to be imbued with the mystical energy that would allow him to travel to Nexia. Or maybe it would be even sooner than that. The only thing Oliver was sure of was that his future was on its way, unavoidable as the changing seasons.
And he didn't want it.
He entered a wooded park and walked along twisting lonely paths until he reached a ten-foot-high fence, which he easily vaulted over. The Woodland Park Zoo technically closed at eight, and that was the time when the gates were locked and most of the human staff departed. It was also the time when the zoo unofficially opened for anyone who could enter as Oliver had just done.
As he wandered along, Oliver listened to the nocturnal shuffling of the animals, finally free to move about unnoticed. Here and there, hollow calls echoed as a bird, a hippo, or a hyena instinctually searched for others of its kind, unable to completely understand the trap it was in for the rest of its days.
A burst of laughter emanated from the direction of the bug house. Oliver recognized the sound of vampires, and hurried his pace. Now another burst of wild shouting echoed from the savanna enclosure nearby. Oliver was surprised that there were so many vampires here. It was the last night before school, so of course everybody was out. But there were many cooler places to go than the zoo. That was why Oliver had picked it for meeting Emalie and Dean.
Ducking onto a narrow, overgrown path, Oliver continued along quietly in the shadows, hoping to avoid any run-ins with other vampire kids. There had been a time, back in the winter, when Oliver had briefly been considered cool and interesting by his peers. This was because he was the first in his class to have a demon dream, which was a prelude to getting your own demon, and becoming an adult vampire.
Oliver's classmates also believed that he had killed Dean and raised him as a zombie. They still believed this, and they still knew he'd had that demon dream. What had changed since the winter was that his classmates also knew Oliver hung out with Emalie, and being friends with a human was shameful enough to trump anything else.
As spring and summer had passed, Oliver found that he cared less and less what his schoolmates thought of him. Even so, tomorrow night would be soon enough to endure their sneers and taunts.
He rounded a corner and neared the gorilla house. Large panes of glass looked in on the habitat. It was full of ropes and logs for swinging and climbing, yet the gorillas often just sat lethargically in the hay. They, of all the zoo animals, seemed to have the best understanding of their situation as captives.
"Unite us!" a young voice suddenly shouted. Oliver ducked behind a leafy bush, just as a burst of fire ignited next to the windows.
"You dork," chided a high-pitched girl's voice. "Who'd want a gorilla nahualli?"
As Oliver spied the two young vampire kids, he cursed to himself. Of course ... Tonight was the Great Feast of the Dead, a celebration that dated back to the Aztecs and one that vampires loved to honor. Oliver knew about it from history class, which was his favorite subject in school.
The Aztecs had believed that each person had an animal that was a spirit twin, called a nahualli. They'd actually gotten this idea from the vampires among them. Each adult vampire tended to feel a particularly strong connection to one kind of animal, and favored it for Occupation. The vampires living secretly in the Aztec and Mayan communities had used their powers, such as Occupying, to portray themselves as powerful shamans. Then they could wield influence over the people, instigating wars and suggesting innovative new kinds of human sacrifice.
Oliver realized that the reason he'd forgotten about the Great Feast was that his parents hadn't been going out for it. Normally, Phlox and Sebastian would have put on formal clothes and painted their faces with chilling animal designs in blacks, whites, and reds, resembling their favored nahualli. Phlox often chose an owl, Sebastian a crow. They'd have attended a feeding party, where the feast would be unsuspecting humans, likely frozen in Staesys. Yet when Oliver had left the house earlier, his parents had been puttering around like any other night.
Vampire kids also painted their faces to celebrate the Great Feast, but beyond that they could only pretend to occupy the creatures, as real Occupation required a demon.
"You don't know it won't work!" whined the boy. He blew on his hand and a burst of flame ignited from it, shooting out and licking the glass. Oliver caught a scent of singed datura, which was a powerful herb used in many enchantments, especially ones involving sight or demon transfer. "Nahualli!" the boy shouted again.
The gorillas looked up with only the slightest interest.
"If I were going to have a true nahualli," the girl intoned, "I'd pick something more vicious and noble, like a snow leopard, or a Bengal tiger!"
"Whatever," the boy grumbled.
Oliver ducked back the way he'd come. He wished now that he'd suggested meeting Emalie and Dean somewhere else. But they wouldn't need to be here long, and Emalie could always use her Orani powers to hide from vampire eyes, as she'd done so effectively in Morosia.
Returning to the main path, Oliver was just about to continue on when something else flashed in the corner of his eye. It wasn't a flame, like the kids had been making. For a moment, Oliver hoped it was a firefly—but there weren't any fireflies in Seattle. He remembered back to Italy, where fireflies had seemed to follow him, to lead him, until they spoke as the oracle Selene, who had predicted Oliver's destiny. Selene had transferred her life force into fireflies in order to hide from Oliver's father, who had been sent by the Half-Light Consortium to kill her.
Oliver had summoned Selene in a temple of the dead above the underworld city of Morosia, and she was the one who'd told him that opening the Gate would end the world. She had also tried to tell him that there was a way to undo his prophecy, only she hadn't been able to finish. And now she was gone, killed by Half-Light. Her life force had been used to raise a mystical object called the Artifact, a key part of Oliver's destiny. Whatever Selene had known about freeing Oliver from his fate, it had died with her.
Besides, the light that caught Oliver's eye just now was not that pale firefly green. It had seemed white. He peered into the pine trees, seeing only shadows.
There it was again: some kind of glowing white object, but its exact shape was obscured by the branches and thick trunks. It seemed to shimmer, its edges tinged with silver, throwing off blue sparks, almost as though it were electric.
As Oliver watched, the white glow receded into the woods. He suddenly felt like he wanted, or even needed to follow it. The light didn't feel dangerous. In fact, Oliver felt a strange connection to it in the forces around him: It almost seemed familiar.
He moved off the path, treading quietly. For a moment, he lost sight of the light completely, but then spied it again. It seemed to be drifting along in no hurry.
Oliver weaved more rapidly through the trees. He closed on the shape. It looked narrow, tall. Not a figure, exactly, but the word apparition came to mind.
An apparition was an energy concentration, almost like an echo of someone or something. It was different than a wraith, which was a person's spirit that was still attached to this world by grief. Apparitions wouldn't be able to act or speak in this world. They were thought to be drawn by a person, meaning that they weren't just beings on their own, but were created by the people who saw them. Like a memory made real. Was that what this was? Oliver needed to get a better look.
The light winked out. Oliver blinked, turning his head about. Where had it gone?
Then he walked into a brick wall. It was chest high, and his knees and torso thumped against it. He stumbled back, annoyed, but spied the light again on the other side. It was about twenty feet away. As he watched, it seemed to lower and sink out of sight.
Oliver leaped easily over the wall and found himself in a cleared area beneath tall pines. The ground was covered with wood chips. Slides for small children had been carved into large rocks. In front of him was a series of concrete mounds with tunnels running beneath them. Oliver approached the nearest entrance. A short flight of stairs led down into the passages. Bending over, Oliver caught another glimpse of the white light. It didn't seem to be moving.
It's waiting for me, he thought, and felt like that was true.
"Hello?" Oliver whispered. He ducked and dropped down the steps. The apparition hovered just beyond a bend in the passage. Oliver moved slowly toward it. He thought he could make out some features now in the blue-white light: arms, legs, a head, and hair.
Hey ... Oliver heard a voice in his mind, weak and distant, and he felt sure that he recognized it. But apparitions weren't supposed to be able to speak.
Oliver tried to make out the face, but couldn't. He needed to get a little closer, see the apparition fully, and talk with it. He really wanted to know what it was ... but something froze him in his tracks.
There was a new sound in the dark: a deep, guttural growl. The apparition began to fade, its light dissolving.
"Wait!" Oliver whispered after it.
The growling increased. It vibrated like a car engine. Oliver looked around, then up.
Above him was a hole in the concrete ceiling, and peering over the edge of this space was a giant, feline face with glowing black eyes. The zoo's jaguar. And it was Occupied.
Oliver scrambled backward, falling. The creature hissed, baring a mouth of razor-sharp teeth, and lunged at him.
Thick paws slammed against Oliver's chest. The weight of the jaguar pinned him to the ground, its spotted face filling his vision. Whiskers brushed against his cheeks. Hot saliva dripped into his eye. The cat unleashed a piercing cry, its sour breath blasting Oliver's face. Its glowing black eyes bore into him. Oliver could also smell a pungent but familiar odor.
Suddenly the jaguar was enveloped in black, swirling smoke. It leaped off Oliver. He sat up to see a figure appearing. Before he could make out who it was, he recognized the laughter.
"Ha! What a lamb!"
Oliver scowled. "Shut up, Bane."
Bane crouched in front of Oliver, a wicked grin stretching the painted pattern of black and red spots that adorned his bone-white face. That gross smell was the coyote and aniseed cologne that he'd been drowning himself in lately.
Behind him, the dazed cat turned to dash off. "Stay, little nahualli," Bane said and flicked his wrist, tossing a tiny glass sphere. It hit the wall beside the jaguar and exploded in a puff of dust. The cat seemed to choke, then slumped to the ground and lay still, chest heaving slowly, its eyes open, its body paralyzed.
"What a creature, eh?" said Bane. "We're demon twins."
"Whatever," Oliver muttered. "Like you could have a jaguar nahualli. They're supposed to be noble—"
Bane socked Oliver in the shoulder. "That's for being dumb!" He glared darkly at Oliver, but then grinned again. He brushed his long bangs, dyed with shocks of green, from his face. "And you should have seen the look on your face! You'd think it would get old, bro, but it never does."
"Yeah, it sure is funny," Oliver mumbled, as he got to his feet.
Bane's arm shot out, knocking Oliver down again. "Watch your mouth, dork."
Something clattered like claws on the top of the tunnels. Oliver looked up to see a wolf peering down at them. Now a black bear appeared. These animals also had glowing black eyes.
"Hey, gents," Bane said to the animals. Black smoke swirled around them, and Bane's friends Ty and Randall appeared. Their faces were also painted with designs in skeletal colors. They produced glass spheres and incapacitated their animals. "Look what I found," Bane continued. "What should we do with him?"
Excerpted from The Demon Hunter by Kevin Emerson. Copyright © 2009 Kevin Emerson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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