Twelve

Marianna paused for a split second, purposefully pressing the toes of one foot into the dusty ground as the other was already pressed against the wood on the other side of the threshold. She couldn’t be trapped in if she wasn’t completely, yet she could use the threshold as a barrier herself for either side. This was only a split second, though, because as soon as she’d realize there was another presence in her home, she’d also realized what—or who’s presence. Huffing, but smirking, she sauntered inside and leisurely made her way past her flat’s tiny entry and living room and down the three-step hallway. She purposefully didn’t look to the side at her little kitchen, and it wasn’t until she’d leaned half her body against the doorway to toss her bag into her room that he finally let out a grumble of annoyance. Marianna stayed with her body facing into her room for a second longer, schooling her smirk into not being too wide—that would just be mean—before whirling to face his scowl with her hip cocked. And her smirk still very much present. Oops.

“It’s rude to enter a person’s home uninvited,” she quipped, pursing her lips in mock annoyance. “And stupid to enter a witch’s home as an uninvited vampire.”

His disinterested, bored expression was lost under a smirk, like pouring hot caramel over ice cream as it washed over his face, and he pushed himself away from the counter he leaned on to take slow steps towards her. Marianna fought to keep her smirk casual. Each of his steps was measured, landing purposefully and heavily to eradicate the space between them of existence—despite the easy smirk. Even after knowing him all this time—well, to her it was at least half her life, to him it was barely a blink—he could easily make Marianna nervous. Well, it was probably because she knew him that he could scare her.

It wasn’t until barely an inch was between their bodies, his frame looming over hers so that she looked up through her lashes as he bent his head and shoulders down, that he spoke. Or she breathed.

“Ah, but you forget, I am no ordinary vampire,” he cooed. “Am I, my little blackberry margarita?”

It was that stupid term that made Marianna scoff and shove his chest, playfully but effectively, as she stepped around him. Her quiet laugh intertwined in the air with his easy chuckling.

“That stupid nickname,” she shook her head, rifling through her cabinets in search of a snack, and probably a sugary one. What? Food is food, and Marianna Diya would be damned if she had to compromise her sweet tooth because of some witch-turned-vampire not-technically-invited-at-the-specific-moment-but-casually-usually-welcome best friend.

“I love it, and I’m proud of it,” she didn’t even need to turn around to know he was shrugging and had an imitation of a humble genius plastered on his face.

“We’ve had this exchange how many times now?” her fingers wrapped tightly around a bundle of licorice—the old-fashioned kind that was in handmade strings and wrapped together with twine. It was small, she’d have to buy more soon, but it was definitely enough. She grinned at it in victory.

“More than enough for you to already know before opening your mouth that it won’t change,” he quipped as a hand reached in front of her face and plucked three strings from the bundle. She pouted as it left only two strings left.

“Tony,” she whined, turning in time to watch all three disappear into the black hole he called a mouth and digestive system. He winked at her, chewing slowly.

Reaching out to pat her head—yes, on the top of her head, like a damn puppy—he assured her, “don’t worry, little one, you can always buy more.”

Damn his snicker for being contagious.

The two froze when a sharp, hollow knock on her front door interrupted the easy laughter. Antony watched Marianna’s amused face and bright eyes fade into a frown of confusion, eyes wide and looking up at him as her chin tilted down. Likewise, she watched the concrete wall slide over his face, eyes narrowed slightly and lips in a line. His face was stone, and dared anyone to try to threaten him, but she knew by now that he was just as confused as she.

Marianna moved first, careful to keep her steps quiet as she moved towards the door. Still, her body remained relatively loose and she only curled a small amount of power into her palms, just enough to push someone a few feet away from her. Antony shifted and she could feel him behind her, his presence thick and practically looming over her. She resisted an eyeroll. She didn’t often get visitors, and even more rarely did she get people showing up at random. Nevertheless, the rest of the world was full of humans who operated normal human lives, so it was very possible that it was a solicitor or a neighbor asking for a favor.

A man and girl were standing on the other side of the door, both looking casual yet expectant. With a confused but polite smile, she let the door swing just less than halfway, and kept her body on the inside of the threshold.

“Uh, hi,” she tried, and groaned internally. Even after so many damn years, you’d think she’d just naturally be better at people skills by now. To be fair, it didn’t help that Antony was still nearly pressed up against her, and she could feel his scowl even when it wasn’t directed at her. “Can I help you?”

“Good day,” the man nodded politely, tone light but measured. Marianna had the urge to straighten her shoulders under his gaze. He stood in a casual suit, his hair gelled enough that it held a shape but didn’t look greasy or shiny, and he was clean shaven and his hands were clasped in front of him. His whole person felt collected, but highly aware of absolutely everything around him. “Are you one Marianna Diya, by any chance?”

She leaned back, letting her back line up with Antony’s chest as he stepped forward, nervousness and anger and the unadmitted touch of sadness swirling in her stomach and pulling her into a slight hunch. She felt tiny vibrations as Antony practically growled, “And who’s asking?”

The man’s eyes widened slightly, taking in the powerful being who Marianna knew was already gearing up to tear his throat out. Marianna debated that he was perhaps overreacting, but then she remembered the many times throughout her life that various types had shown up to hurt her, harass her, threaten her, and even occasionally kill her themselves. So she let him be threatening and vicious.

The man, however, stayed calm. “Apologies for my forwardness, but my companion and I,” he gestured to the girl standing with her shoulders squared beside him, “seek your help. It is very urgent, and I believe highly important, too.”

“Who knows you’re here?” Antony demanded, but Marianna whirled to look up at him. The violence in his voice was gone, all that remained was a businesslike suspicion.

“I keep my business to myself, and only concerns myself and my companion,” the man answered equally, dark eyes staring straight at Antony. Marianna bit down her surprise, most didn’t dare to look her friend directly in the eye—vampire or human, every being had a survival instinct.

Marianna felt her elbow being tugged, lightly but abruptly, backwards, the threshold opening up a few inches. Antony remained beside her, not in front of her, and the man nodded when she looked up questioningly at him. Through her surprise and confusion, Marianna took a few seconds. He nodded again, this time with a more prominent tilt of his chin toward the doorway. Oh, right.

“Come in,” she said quickly, voice shaky and the words practically on top of each other. The well-dressed man nodded politely and stepped smoothly over the flat, narrow piece of wood that separated her from the vampire. The girl at his side narrowed her eyes slightly, glancing at him then at Marianna, before her eyes cast down and she watched her own feet step into the apartment.

As the two vampires stepped into the living room and took in their surroundings, Marianna whirled on Antony and hissed, her eyes wide, “What the hell is going on?”

His palm cupped her shoulder, fingers digging in slightly to angle her so that his face looked into hers. When he spoke, his voice was low and gravelly, so that only she could hear. It also made his accent sound thicker.

“It is alright, I know the man,” he assured her, though it only increased her confusion. “He’s a very good friend of…an old acquaintance,” he added, and at that Marianna arched an eyebrow. He smirked at her briefly before looking back at the newcomers and letting a blank wall fall over his features.

“What brings you here, then?” he asked evenly, voice loud enough to be clearly, unmistakably heard without attracting attention. She did have rather thin walls.

The well-dressed vampire faced him squarely, clasping his hands loosely behind his back, while the girl kept her arms crossed and a bored expression.

“First of all, I apologize for the slip in manners,” he spoke. “I am Lars, and this is,” he hesitated for a moment, before his jaw stiffened and he continued, “this is my ancestor, Cass.”

Marianna saw Antony nod beside her, and she inhaled deeply as she felt something heavy settle in her stomach. Two vampire showed up looking for her, one of them known and obviously fairly trusted by Antony, and the two newcomers were blood related.

“Long ago, I was given an object which was known to be very powerful,” the man began. “However, it seemed dormant. No power ever exuded from it, nothing unusual happened for a few hundred years. And then, I passed it on to Cassille just a few weeks ago, and just days ago it…well, it seemed to activate. We were hoping you, Miss Diya, would be able to help us identify and understand this.”

“What is it?” Marianna spoke up, stepping forward in curiosity. His words set a small spark in her, a hope that perhaps her power could be beneficial instead of feared and alienated. That, and, since the two had entered her home, she’d felt something shifting in the air. Almost like another heartbeat, or a small black hole. It seemed to be slowly pulling and pushing the atmosphere around, not quite taking it away but just…twisting it. It sent pricks of ice down Marianna’s spine, while her fingertips tingled with contrasting warmth as she unconsciously rose to meet the new force.

The girl held out her hand, a large yet delicate-looking ring encircling her index finger. The witch stuttered as the air was shoved out of her lungs, and she didn’t process her legs moving even as she was inches in front of the other girl’s face.

Marianna had seen drawings and read small passages about a ring identical to this one, in one of the older books Antony had helped her collect. It was supposed to just be a legend, but she knew better than to just dismiss stories like this. She studied the ring, light dancing and leaping off of the facets despite Cass’s absolute stillness.

“Xiuhcoatl,” she murmured, feeling the two men step closer but ignoring them. “T-there’s a legend that an Aztec witch, Izel, was paranoid about vampires, said she saw the future rise of them,” Marianna explained, words slipping out before she’d even thought. She just knew them, despite having only read the story once or twice. “No one really knows what it does, but I read that it has the ability to destroy vampires.

“It’s only mentioned once or twice in history, though,” Marianna frowned, finally noticing the edginess and tension filling the room. “It’s just supposed to be a myth, a scary story for baby vamps,” she laughed weakly, giving an awkward smile to Antony. He just raised an eyebrow, not amused. “I didn’t even give it too much thought, but…this looks just like it, and feels,” she let out a breath and shook her head, stepping back from Cass, not bothering to finish her sentence. She felt rather than saw Antony’s apprehension, he alone fully realizing that she was, on rare occasion, speechless. Marianna Diya was rarely at a loss for words.

“Bit surprised at the lack of pitchforks and holy water, then?” Still, he smirked, and she suddenly wanted to smack him. As usual, really.

Lars let out a breath through his teeth. “So, it being safest to overestimate rather than under, let’s say this is what you think it to be,” he began, nodding at Marianna. “Who would know about it, and who would we potentially be meeting soon?”

Marianna shrugged, lost. Her own mind was still whirring, trying to process the thing in front of her, its existence, its dark, piercing presence. It felt like another set of eyes raking her form, fingers pinching and trying to unravel her soul and the tendons in her muscles, shifting the roof and her skin away to be exposed to the universe above them.

“I can just feel it, I could feel it as soon as you came in,” she sighed, opting to start with the obvious. “So, try to steer clear of witches,” she grimaced.

“Shifters ought not be too much of a problem, but probably shouldn’t go talking too loudly,” Antony mused, and Marianna agreed. The shape shifter species, Genesis in 329 BC, long after witches but a bit before vampires. They weren’t common, only a handful ever coming into existence, so the species hadn’t spread out much. They couldn’t create themselves, like vampires could, and nature didn’t seem to favor them as it did the abundance of witches—though, sometimes, Marianna wondered why.

“They haven’t left Egypt or North Africa—maybe Europe by chance,” Antony snorted, dismissing them. “Besides, they all fight with each other so much, I doubt they pay much attention to vampires unless they’re being directly threatened.”

Cass shifted her weight, Marianna seeing her eyes flash to the side before refocusing on the being at her side.

“A weapon intended for the mass destruction of one of the two supernatural species that greatly surpasses them wouldn’t be attractive?” Lars challenged, voice remaining level. Marianna bit her lip, he had a point. Antony shrugged, smirking slightly.

“Higher chance it’s considered myth, and, as you know, vampires are in far greater numbers and survival strength. Too risky,” he concluded, taking a seat in one of the chairs facing the other three, making himself comfortable.

“More likely don’t even care,” Cass muttered. Antony tilted his head at her in agreement.

“Hunters would be all over it,” Marianna realized, her shoulders straightening as she threw Antony a significant look. Hunters probably kept the myth alive, and would notice it even more than vampires. That also gave her another idea, and she stepped towards one of the bookshelves, looking up at the top that she could barely reach, so she kept the books she rarely read or found useless up there. She reached, fingers flicking over the spines, while still keeping engaged in the conversation.

Cass’s head whipped to the side, and even Marianna bit down a wince as she saw the sharp glare the vampire threw at Lars. “Hunters?” she asked, voice clipped, though…it didn’t sound angry, or betrayed, but interested. Demanding information, rather than an apology for not telling her.

“Hunters, an enemy designed for really all supernatural beings, but they most commonly target vampires,” Antony explained, rolling his eyes. Marianna held in a laugh, he would huff at the creation of an entire supernatural group that was a mere inconvenience to him.

“They’re extremely rare, and still human,” Marianna admonished, talking mostly to Cass. “They’re humans with enhanced strength and stuff like that. They only developed within the last few centuries, and even then at a slow rate. They’d be raised as normal humans anyway, so they wouldn’t know about this unless they actually talked to a vampire—”

Antony’s loud “ha” interrupted her, and she rolled her eyes despite her back being to him. “And one who even knows about the myth, too,” she finished slowly.

“Cool,” Cass nodded, though Marianna doubted she really felt any comfort—or nervousness—anyway. The four stood quietly, glancing at each other and each coming up with their own conclusions.

“Here,” Marianna said, pulling out an old, thin book between two thicker ones. It wasn’t even in leather, just pages with a covering of cloth, it was more of a journal, or diary. The yellow pages were packed with writing, the words climbing into the margins and over each other until there was hardly even any yellow showing through the mass of black. “Xiuhcoatl,” she murmured, letting her magic find the right page. When it flipped open, she read aloud, turning to face them.

“This is a diary from an Aztec witch, who lived in Izel’s time,” Marianna explained. “The rest in here just looks to be spells and observations, but here she does mention Izel.”

At Antony’s nod, she took a deep breath and read the short passage, her mind translating the words from the ancient symbols on the page to broken English.

“’Izel foresees threat and vampires rise—rise of vampires—today she helps the balance. She creates her gift to nature weapon to ruin vampires forever. The weapon named Xiuhcoatl, while as her people shun her, after the destruction goddess. It is in garnet and black diamond, and great power will be locked until given to a human without humanity, from blood to the same blood. That is all she will say, and I know. I am sure Serena she knows more, but I fear for their minds, for they are not the same and yet neither safe. Zeanya.’”

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