Zoltan quickly regained his balance and looked around. Countryside. Treeless, rolling hills. Yellowish grass nearly to his knees. A half moon and countless stars gleaming in a clear sky. “Where are we?”
“You shouldn’t have come. Go back home.”
Zoltan showed him the arrow, still grasped in his right hand. “This is the only clue I’ve found in almost eight hundred years. Tell me where it came from.”
A streak of anger sizzled through Zoltan. “I’ve been helping you for two years, so you will tell me—”
“Dammit, Russell!” Zoltan clutched the arrow tightly. “It’s because of an arrow like this that I became a vampire. I couldn’t stand the thought of dying without knowing what happened. I had to stay young and healthy to keep searching for the truth. I gave up my mortality for this, so tell me where you found the damned arrow!”
A pained look crossed Russell’s face. “Fine. Two weeks ago, I was following Lord Liao and a troop of soldiers when they were attacked by a smaller force. I figured the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and they were taking some heavy casualties, so I helped them. We killed most of Lord Liao’s soldiers, but of course, he teleported away. I was wounded and fell unconscious. I would have died when the sun came up, but they saved me.”
“Who are they?”
Russell groaned. “The only thing they asked for in return was that I not tell anyone who they are and where they live. I’m sorry. I really do appreciate all you’ve done, but I can’t say anything more.”
“Very well. Keep your mouth shut and point in the right direction.”
Russell snorted. “Why is this so important to you?”
Zoltan lifted the arrow. Moonlight gleamed off the steel tip. “An arrow much like this one killed my father.”
“You want revenge then?”
Zoltan shook his head. “I’m sure the culprit is long dead. I want answers.”
Russell shifted his weight. “Sometimes there aren’t any. Just go back home. They want to be left alone.”
“Who are they?”
“Go home.” Russell teleported away.
Zoltan lunged toward him, but he was gone. “Dammit.” It was just as well. Russell wasn’t going to give him any more information.
Pivoting in a circle, Zoltan took in his bearings. The middle of nowhere. No weapons on him, other than the arrow. He took out his cell phone and checked his location on the GPS. Tibet.
He considered returning to the castle to grab more weapons and a coat. Even though it was the middle of May, spring was late here. A cold wind was blowing from the north, ruffling the grass that had yet to turn green.
On his phone, he spotted the nearest village, over a hundred miles to the southwest. Why waste time going home? He could be at this village in half an hour, asking questions.
He set off at a brisk pace, excitement building inside him. This was a lot more interesting than what he normally did every evening. Work in his office in Budapest. He was dressed for work—white dress shirt, red tie, an expensive Italian suit and loafers. Not at all suitable for an adventure in Tibet, but if he got into any sort of trouble, he could simply teleport back home.
Tibet. Did the people who had killed his father travel all the way from Tibet? When he’d searched for them centuries ago, he’d covered Eastern Europe, western Russia, and the Middle East. Finally, in the northwestern part of India, he’d given up, unable to believe that anyone would travel that far to kill someone in Transylvania.
Was his father’s murder somehow connected to his mother’s mysterious background? She’d been from the east, but no one knew where exactly. His father, a merchant who traveled the Silk Road, had fallen in love with her and brought her home.
Could she have been from Tibet? Zoltan’s pulse quickened. After almost eight hundred years, he might finally get some answers.
He teleported as far as he could see, then repeated the process until he was close to the village. The landscape gradually changed, growing more hilly and forested. He teleported to a high branch of a pine tree so he could survey the village. It was nestled in a valley along the sides of a stream. No electricity. A few lanterns were lit along the one main street. He checked his cell phone. Out of range. If he returned, he’d need to bring a satellite phone.
He dropped to the ground, adjusted his suit and tie, then sauntered casually into the village. An old woman was hunched over a homemade broom, sweeping her front porch.
When Zoltan greeted her, she straightened, eyeing him with suspicion.
He greeted her again, using English and giving her a smile. Then he showed her the arrow. “Do you know where—”
She launched into a tirade of angry words, shook her broom at him, then rushed into her ramshackle house, slamming the door behind her.
Zoltan sighed. He should have realized there would be a language barrier. Over the centuries, he’d learned nine languages, but the Tibetan spoken in this village was not one of them.
He spotted a man sitting on another porch, drinking from a leather pouch. “Good evening.” He lifted the arrow. “Do you know where—”
The man stumbled to his feet, muttering under his breath. Then he waved his arms as if trying to chase Zoltan away. When that didn’t work, he spit in the dirt, then rushed into his house and slammed the door.
Silly human is trying to get himself killed.
Zoltan turned toward the voice but saw only a dog resting on a porch a few houses down the road. Of course. Since early childhood, Zoltan had possessed the strange ability to communicate with animals. They were often his best source of information, since the conversations were purely mental and devoid of any language barriers.
He walked slowly toward the dog, sending him a message. Why would my questions get me killed?
The dog jerked to a sitting position. What was that?
It’s me. Zoltan stopped in the street, ready to teleport away if necessary. It was always hard to predict how an animal would react. Most dogs were friendly, but every now and then, one would feel threatened and attack.
What? The dog tilted his head to the side and quirked his ears. Are you talking to me?
Yes. I have the ability to communicate with animals.
Are you kidding me? The little spotted dog leaped off the porch and scampered toward him. Can you really talk to me? Can you hear my thoughts?
Yes. And you can hear mine.
Holy dog poop! The dog pranced around him in a circle. This is so awesome! I didn’t know humans had thoughts. Some of them don’t seem very bright, you know, so I wondered. Have you always been able to do this? Could you do it when you were a puppy? You must be a weird human. I think you smell a little weird. Do you like to eat? I like rabbit. Would you like to be my friend?
Sure, Zoltan replied as the dog circled him for the fifth time. This was obviously one of the friendly dogs. Can you relax a little bit?
Why? Are you having trouble keeping up? I’ve always suspected humans are slow. You don’t smell like the other humans I know. I could pee on you so you’d smell better.
No thank you.
The dog suddenly jumped and looked to the side. What was that?
I’m not sure.
I think it was a rabbit. I like rabbit the best. Are you hungry? I am. If you throw your stick, I’ll bring it back to you.
Zoltan showed the arrow to the dog. I’d like to know more about this stick and the people who made it.
The dog sat in front of him and tilted its head. Do you have any food with you?
No. But I could pat you on the head.
The dog’s tongue lolled out while it considered. Okay.
Zoltan patted its head. Good dog. So what do you know about the makers of this arrow?
The dog’s tail thumped on the ground. They’re hunters. Fierce warriors. The humans here are afraid of them. You should stay away from them.
Zoltan rubbed the dog’s ears, and its tail wagged so hard that its rear end wiggled. Why should I stay away?
Because they’ll kill you.
Zoltan paused. Where are they?
You stopped petting me. And I shouldn’t tell you, cause you’ll get yourself killed. I’ve always suspected humans aren’t very bright.
Zoltan patted its head. What a smart dog you are. Where are they?
In the mountains to the south. Do you want to play with me now?
I have to go. Thank you for your help.
You’re leaving? But we just met. And you’re my friend now.
You’re a good dog. Zoltan gave it another pat, then zoomed out of the village.
Wow! The dog’s voice grew dimmer. You’re really fast for a human. I bet you could catch a rabbit. Just don’t get yourself killed, okay?
Neona pressed a hand into the round earthen mound where her twin sister, Minerva, was buried. Two weeks had passed. Two weeks since half her soul had been wrenched from her. Tears sprang to her eyes, and the same litany of questions ran through her mind.
How can I live without you? How will I face each day? Her hand fisted around a handful of dirt, squeezing it into a hard ball as a jolt of anger ripped into her grief. Why didn’t you fight harder?
A tear rolled down her cheek, and Neona dropped the clod of dirt. She knew the answer. Seven years earlier, her sister had given birth to a son. Male children were not allowed in Beyul-La, so Minerva had been forced to give the little boy to the Buddhist monastery thirty miles away. Her broken heart had never quite mended.
At first, Neona had tried her best to alleviate her sister’s pain by putting up a cheerful front. But as Minerva’s despair had grown more entrenched, frustration and regret had seeped into Neona’s heart. She and her sister should have defied the queen and kept the baby boy.
With a sigh, Neona lay back on the grassy hillside and gazed up at the stars. How could they have defied the queen, when she was their mother? They could have ended up banished from Beyul-La. How could they have left their home and everything it meant to them?
Neona loved Beyul-La. It was the most beautiful valley in the Himalayas. In all the world, she suspected. It gave them life and purpose, while the outside world seemed to promise only hardship and death. But there had been times when they’d lounged on the grass, stargazing, that Minerva had claimed they were prisoners.
“Look how vast the sky is,” Minerva had said. “The world around us must be just as wide. Do you not yearn to see it?”
Neona had attempted to soothe her sister’s unhappiness by repeating the words they’d heard since childhood, the mantra that had comforted them for years, making them feel special and important. “We are the chosen guardians of this sacred valley and its secrets. Our mission is noble and necessary.”
“What is noble about being forced to give away my baby?” Minerva had muttered bitterly.
With a sigh, Neona wiped the tears from her face. The mantra no longer provided comfort. And her sister had escaped the only way she knew how. In death. The battle two weeks ago had claimed her and four others.
“Neona!” a sharp voice reprimanded her. “You shouldn’t spend your life here among the dead.”
Neona sat up to see Lydia approaching her. For a few seconds she considered reminding her old friend that she had some of her family members buried here among the dead. A line of five new earthen mounds now marred the hillside, alongside one older mound covered with grass. But the haggard look on Lydia’s face stopped Neona from speaking. Lydia was suffering in silence.
All the warrior women of Beyul-La were suffering. The battle two weeks ago had been devastating. In a matter of minutes, their number had gone from eleven to six.
Lydia stopped halfway up the hillside. “The queen has sounded the alarm. An intruder has crossed into our territory.”
Neona leaped to her feet and rushed down the hillside. “Only one?”
“It appears that way.” Lydia accompanied her to the small village of a half dozen stone buildings with thatched roofs.
The other women were there, lighting a few torches before the main campfire was extinguished to leave the valley in darkness. Then the five women hurried to the cave where Neona’s mother, Queen Nima, was waiting.
The torches were slid into brackets on the stone walls, and the large room brightened. Pink- and cream-colored stalactites glistened with moisture high overhead, and sparkling water fell from a fissure in the stone wall, splashing into the pool below. Behind the pool, a narrow corridor wound deep into the inner recesses of the sacred mountain. In front of the pool, there was a wide stone floor, worn smooth over the centuries.
Queen Nima paced across the floor and motioned to the owl perched on the back of her throne. “He has spotted one male intruder, invading our territory from the north.”
Lydia’s niece, Winifred, muttered a curse. “Do you think it could be Lord Liao?”
“Possibly,” Nima replied. “Or one of Master Han’s soldiers.”
“They’ve never gotten this close before,” Neona said. The battle two weeks ago had occurred forty miles from their border. The women warriors of Beyul-La had borrowed horses from the nearby village to travel that far to fight the enemy, for it was imperative to keep the sacred valley a secret.
“No man can be allowed to see Beyul-La,” Nima warned them once again. “Freya, take the eastern territory. Winifred, the west. Neona, the north. And Tashi, the south. Find him. If he’s a lost villager, show him the direction home. Threaten him with death if he returns. If he’s one of Master Han’s men, kill him without hesitation.”
The four women bowed their heads to acknowledge the acceptance of their orders.
Neona rushed to the area where they kept their armor and weapons. She always wore the breastplate and helmet left by her father, a warrior from Greece.