Maddie and Tomás climbed the dark wooden stairs. "I thought about carpeting, but it is so hard to keep clean," said Tomás.
Maddie remained silent, her heart beating fast.
Tomás moved to the end of a short hall and opened the door. This room was a twin to the living room downstairs, except furnished as a classroom on one end. A thin, balding man with a hawk nose stood at the end of the room writing on a chalkboard, the scrape of the chalk against the black surface loud in Maddie's ears.
"... so prepositions are defined as ..." The thin man stopped mid-sentence and the three children shot out of their desks, running toward Tomás. "Papá! Papá!" He got down on his knees and hugged them, smiling at each in turn.
"Children, this is Maddie Stone. I'm hoping you get to see much more of her in the future, but she is our guest right now."
The two small boys bowed smartly, and the little girl curtsied, though they were dressed the same, in clean pants and button shirts. The boys had their father's dark hair, though the girl had green eyes and brown hair, which fell loosely past her shoulders.
Maddie felt the familiar tug in her chest that told her these were Transformed children. Something squeezed around her heart. She knelt on the floor, eye level with the young vampires.
"Julio, my eldest, named after my brother," said Tomás, introducing the first boy.
The tallest boy held out his hand, his father's wide grin across his face. His clothes were spotless. He looked about six years old and stood ramrod straight, relishing his importance at being the elder. His brown face already showed the signs of his father's good looks.
"I am very pleased to meet you, Señorita Stone." Maddie shook his hand, a smile across her face.
"Thank you, Julio. I am happy to meet you as well." She looked at Tomás. "It is Señora Stone, though."
"Lo siento, Señora." Color rose in his cheeks, but Maddie laughed and smiled at him.
"It's fine, Julio. You are handsome like your Papá and charming as well."
The smile widened, covering his young face.
Tomás waved the other young boy forward. "This is Luis, named after my Papá."
Luis tried to smile, nervously stepping forward and bowing again. Smaller than Julio, his face still had a round, childlike shape. Someone had tried to comb his mop of black hair, but failed, and his hair shot in all directions over his head. His pants came to his ankles. When he looked at Maddie his light brown eyes were bright and cheerful, though nervous. "Pleased to meet you, Señora." His voice was a whisper.
Maddie smiled at him. "You have such good manners and are very brave to be introduced to a stranger. I'm glad to meet you too, Luis." She held out her hand and he took it shyly, a small smile crossing his face as he looked at her.
Tomás waved at the girl, who could barely stand still. When he signaled her, she shot forward and Luis stepped back, his eyes never leaving Maddie. "This is Ashley, my daughter," said Tomás.
Ashley's green eyes sparkled as she grinned widely. "I am so happy to meet you, Señora. We seldom get to meet other vampires..." A look from her father caused her to stumble over her words and she looked down at the floor. "It is nice of you to visit us, Señora. We are pleased to have you here," she finished.
"I seldom meet new people, either, Ashley, so I am delighted to meet you too." She shook the girl's hand.
Ashley looked at Maddie's long hair. "Your hair is golden. Can I touch it?"
Tears stung Maddie's eyes and impulsively she leaned forward and embraced the children in her arms. "Of course you can touch my hair, you darling, gorgeous little girl." Ashley looked shocked, but then grinned and hugged Maddie back, stroking Maddie's hair. After a few moments, Tomás clapped his hands and the children stepped back, standing at attention.
"Mijos. You make me proud." He grinned broadly at them and they smiled back. "Back to your lessons, now."
They all turned except Ashley. "Will we see you again, Señora?" she asked.
Maddie stood up and smiled at her, wiping a tear from her cheek. "I hope so, Ashley. Thank you all for being so sweet."
As they left the room, she heard Luis whisper to one of his siblings. "She thinks I'm sweet."
Maddie smiled and wiped the tear from her other cheek. She stopped on the steps going downstairs. "How old are they, Tomás? It's hard to tell."
Tomás watched Maddie's face. "Ah, there we have a mystery, for they are barely two years old."
Maddie's mouth opened and she blurted, "But they look so much older! At least five or six."
"Yes, we don't know why, but they grow fast." He chuckled. "Fast enough that it is hard to always find suitable clothes to fit them. Luis, especially, seems to be going through a growing spurt."
They continued their descent. "Where are their mothers?"
Tomás's dark eyes clouded over. "They ran away. They did not wish to be mothers, I'm afraid." He frowned. "The children think they are dead."
Tomás waved his hand imperially, and Maddie thought of Jed's hand motion. "Enough about their mothers. I will not discuss them with you."
Back in the living room, Maddie sat in her chair and gulped her red wine. Tomás refilled the glass from the wine bottle. She sipped at the red liquor.
"They are beautiful children, Tomás." Her voice hardened. "Though I don't know why you needed to drug Shelly and Nancy to show them to me." Maddie looked at her two companions, still dozing in their chairs. Shelly's head was back against the headrest. Quiet snores escaped as she slept, her eyes closed. Nancy's head sagged forward, her eyes closed and her breathing regular.
"Mostly for the discussion I'd like to have with you, Maddie." Tomás sipped at his own drink, his face grim. He leaned forward. "How do you combat the desire?"
Maddie shook her head, wisps of blond hair floating. "Desire for what, Tomás?" Her frown deepened.
Tomás stared into her eyes. "The desire for blood, Maddie. The desire for human blood."
Maddie sat back and stared at Tomás. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
Tomás looked in her eyes. "You don't? Those times when your heart races wildly, when your body burns like it has a fever, when you can barely think and want to drink the warm, salty blood of any nearby human?"
Maddie swallowed, sipping nervously from the wine glass. "I don't know what you mean..."
Animated, Tomás moved his hands as he spoke, his eyes glowing. "I didn't know what the feeling was, at first. I didn't know what was happening. When we came to the fortified section of New Pueblo - it was a military camp then - I had times when my heart beat so hard and fast I thought I was dying. I'd snap at my own Papá. I realized what I needed to feel the full strength and power I am capable of." Tomás looked at her, his dark eyes searching and pleading at the same time. "We can exist without the blood, Maddie, but we cannot reach our potential without it either."
Maddie's hand slipped back to her pistol. "You kill people, Tomás?"
He sat straight up. "What? Of course not!"
Maddie moved her hand back to her lap, but nearer her gun.
Tomás sat back and lifted his hands, palms up. "Never! People donate blood for me. Not much - I don't need much. A few pints a month, perhaps once a week."
"So you drink blood - human blood?"
Tomás looked away from her piercing gaze. "Well, yes, but I mix it with a special wine. It helps avoid the craving, Maddie." He sighed. "I wanted to know how you deal with it. I've been told female vampires have a harder time with the desire, since it's the only way they can conceive."
A shock surged through Maddie, numbing her brain and making her speechless. After a few moments, she stared at Tomás, her eyes narrowed. "Are you sure about that?"
"The mothers of my children are vampires. My first companion and I tried for over a year. A few months after she started drinking blood mixed with the blood wine, she conceived and we had Julio." Tomás looked at her. "So far I cannot have children with human women, but each vampire woman can have a child."
"Only one child, Tomás?"
Tomás looked at the floor again. "There are some people working on that problem, but yes, it seems they can each have a single child."
"Do the children crave blood? Do they seem normal except for aging so quickly?" Maddie's breath was short and her voice quiet as she forced the words out.
Tomás sat back in his chair and looked at Maddie. "Aside from how quickly they grow, they are perfectly normal children, though very smart. They have no cravings. I don't know if they ever will, but the few of us who talk about these things guess it might start at puberty. I'll let you know in another few years."
"Could it be coincidental? The drink and the children?"
"I spent many years with a number of women, Maddie, vampires and humans. With none of them was I able to have children, until we started drinking the blood wine."
"And you use human blood? That seems monstrous, Tomás."
He sighed. "We have a system here. Your friend Nancy was clever noticing we have no old people. When a citizen of New Pueblo gets too old to do their share of work..."
"Determined by you?" snapped Maddie.
Tomás waved his hand vertically between them. "No! They volunteer for The Advancement."
Maddie frowned. "And what is that?"
"You and I know that some percentage of people can be transformed by the Z-virus. The volunteers go to a special building where we drain a few pints of blood from them, not enough to kill them, but it helps our supply. We have a complete refrigeration system for the blood, by the way. Then we lock them in a room and inject them with the virus."
Maddie sat, stunned.
"I see you're speechless about that. Yes, that the genius of it, Maddie. We get needed blood, and our old get a chance at becoming vampires. You know that when you are transformed, your youth returns to you. For many of our old people, it's an acceptable gamble."
"How often does it work?" Maddie's voice was a whisper.
"More often than it did originally, I think." Tomás ran his hand through his dark hair. "We give them a large glass of blood wine and they drink it right after the injection. Right now, we had two people survive as vampires and twenty were immune."
Maddie's eyebrows shot up. "Out of how many?" she asked.
"Perhaps four hundred over the last few years."
Maddie frowned. "That's a half of a percent transformed. We originally thought the conversion rate was much lower, with five or six people in every hundred thousand converted."
"Originally I think that was a close number, Maddie. We know people who work to change the virus, though. We try new strains as they are sent to us."
"And that's a lot of immunes, so…" Maddie's face tightened and a small sound escaped from her. "New strains, Tomás? You mean someone is playing around with the virus?"
Tomás hesitated and looked at the floor. "I...can't talk about that, Maddie." He looked at her, his eyes sparkling. "But I promise to tell you everything if you'll stay with me."
Maddie jumped to her feet, but the room swam in front of her eyes for a moment and she tottered. Tomás smiled at her.
"Did you drug me, too?" Maddie looked at the red wine.
"No, my dear Maddie, I wouldn't do that. I gave you a taste of the blood wine." He motioned to the red wine in their glasses. "It makes your head swim when you first drink it, but soon you will feel the tremendous power coursing through your body. You'll see better, hear better..."
Maddie stepped back, her hand on the windowsill while she steadied herself. "Why did you do this Tomás? What do you want from us?"
"Nothing from your friends, Maddie, though I think the young one is pretty enough to stay with me if she desires, at least for a while. No, Maddie, what I want is you, as the mother of my child."
"You're insane," snapped Maddie.
"Not so. I am a visionary," smirked Tomás, relaxed in his chair. "I see a future where my children rule this continent and, perhaps, the world. Where my blood runs in the veins of kings and queens - and you can be part of that, Maddie. There are few vampire women, and even fewer who know the secret of blood wine." He grinned widely at Maddie. "None as beautiful as you, Maddie," he added.
Maddie ran her hand over her eyes, her vision blurring as her knees weakened. "I...I'm not staying with you, Tomás. I have a husband. I have no interest in you."
Tomás stood up and leered at Maddie. "I am sorry to hear that. I wanted to have you be a willing participant, but I think you will come to love me in the future. I already have a room made up for you. And the children will love you." He turned toward the hallway. "I'll get a few men to help us get you settled and take your friends to their vehicle."
Colors burst behind Maddie's closed eyes as she sank to her left knee against the wall. "You better not hurt them, Tomás," she said through gritted teeth, "and when I get past this, I am so going to kick your butt."
"No, Maddie, you won't. I'm the source of the blood wine, and you will want more in the next few days. In a week you'll be begging me for blood wine and willing to do anything to get it."
A pistol cracked in the small living room, muffled by the padded furniture and curtains. Tomás's right leg collapsed under him, blood pouring from the hole that appeared above his knee, and he fell to the floor.
"Like hell she will, you self-righteous fils-putain." Nancy spat the words out as she stood up and helped Maddie to her feet, keeping the pistol centered on Tomás.
The old man ran into the room, a shotgun held in his wrinkled, strong hands. Nancy glared at him, the pistol never wavering from her aim on Tomás. "Put down the gun, Viejo. I don't have a quarrel with you, or anyone here except this sneaky rat." The old man hesitated, looking at Tomás. "Don't look at him, old man. Look at me. I know these Transformed heal fast, but he won't heal from a bullet in his head. I'm a fair shot. You have to head-shot a squirrel if you want anything to eat," she said. Her voice hardened. "So put the gun down."
The old man didn't move. "If you kill him, I will kill you, Señora. And your friends." His eyes narrowed.
Nancy moved Maddie to the empty cushioned chair, her eyes never leaving Tomás, who was holding his bleeding leg with both hands. "Yeah, but he'll still be dead and I won't care. So put the damned gun down." She aimed the pistol at Tomás. "I won't say it again. I'd prefer to shoot him."
The old man looked from one to the other, laid the shotgun down on the floor and stood back up. By this time others appeared at the doorway, but he waved them back.
"May I bandage his leg, Señora?" He took a bandanna from his pocket.
"Sure." The old man started wrapping the makeshift bandage around the bleeding wound in Tomás's leg. Nancy slapped Maddie's face lightly, glancing at her from the corner of her eye. "Hey. You need to wake Shelly up, Maddie!" Her voice became stern. "Wake Shelly. We have to go."
Maddie shook her head and forced herself to stand over Shelly. She shook her by the shoulders, but received a murmured response.
"You won't be able to wake her yet," growled Tomás to Nancy, dark murder in his eyes. "I don't even know why you're awake."
Nancy snorted, a snarl on her face. "You have no idea how badly I want to shoot you, Tomás, but I had to know what your little game was." Nancy looked at him levelly as she moved toward the shotgun and picked it up from the floor, keeping her distance from Tomás and his father. "But to answer your question, I poured that nice glass of water into the seat cushion of that comfortable chair. Like I'm going to drink anything you give me... When Shelly dropped off, I closed my eyes, too. Mostly." With the pistol in her left hand she leveled the shotgun under her arm and cocked both barrels, then switched hands and slipped the handgun into her holster. "I almost followed you upstairs, but I thought I should stay near Shelly."
Shelly mumbled as Maddie shook her. "She won't wake up," Maddie muttered. "Nancy, I can't get her awake."
Sidestepping back to Maddie and Shelly, Nancy twitched the barrel of the shotgun toward the two men. "Viejo, you need to come help my friends." The old man looked at his son, who nodded. "Now, Viejo. I don't have a lot of patience at the moment."
As the old man helped Maddie with Shelly, Nancy narrowed her eyes and looked at Tomás. "So here's the deal, Tomás. I don't underestimate your abilities, so I don't plan to get too close to you. If you try anything, I shoot you, and I plan to take your head off when I do. If your dad tries anything, I shoot you. If anybody tries anything…"
"You shoot me. I get it." Tomás gritted his teeth, but his eyes still blazed with anger.
"Yeah, and I won't consider it a great loss to the world, either, so don't do anything to tempt me." Nancy glared back at him. "You will walk us to our truck and we'll leave. That should end it. You played your game and you lost, so let it go. We'll take your Dad with us and let him go when we leave Pueblo. I'm sure he can find his way back.
"I'll keep my gun in his side until we're gone from here. I'm stable enough to do that, now," gasped Maddie. She looked at Nancy. "My vision is pretty clear now. I feel…better."
Tomás looked at Maddie. "You'll be back, Maddie. In a few days you'll want to come back…" He grinned wickedly, though the pain made his face fierce in the dim light. "You'll beg to come back…"
Maddie gritted her teeth and pushed the barrel of her pistol into the old man's side, making him exhale sharply. "Don't count on it, Tomás. If you're lucky, you'll never see me again." She indicated the doorway. "Yell ahead. Tell your people to leave us alone."
Tomás smiled grimly as he limped toward their truck. Though people lined the streets, nobody interfered as the three women drove away with the old man. Tomás watched them leave, hatred burning in his eyes, his injured leg dripping blood onto the white stones of the pavement.