CHAPTER ONE:THE MEETING
28 APR 2022
There was a cold rolling across the foothills. Wind swept across the empty landscape, tossing the tumbleweeds to the four corners of the little desert valley, kicking up whirling dust devils and sending them spinning through the sands and scrub.
The glow of headlights sprang up from both far ends of the horizon, racing across the desert floor eating up the distance between the two sets of lights surrounded by clouds of dust and dirt. Two vehicles originating from opposite ends of a secluded desert valley tucked away in the hills all alone beneath a night sky filled with an ocean of stars above, lit up beneath a pale half moon.
They stopped some distance from each other, watching one another from the safety inside of their vehicles. Each waiting for the other to make the first move, until at last the doors on both vehicles opened up nearly in unison. Four figures emerged from inside, two from each vehicle, and started moving towards the neutral ground between them in a somber silence.
The dark haired man in the jeans and flannel arrived first with his companion, a pale woman with short cropped hair all in black and a vertical scar across her eye that stretched from her temple to just above the curve of her lips.
The second pair, a slightly older man blonde in a gray suit and wire-rimmed glasses trailed by another man with a similar scar to the woman’s running down from his temple to his jawline over the same eye. The two stood silent for a moment, their faces unreadable, but the supernatural feel of them, the pulsing energy flowing from them unmistakable.
“Tommy,” the older man said, giving a polite nod of his head. “You know Cole I assume.”
“Zack,” the other man replied. “This is Quick.”
“A pleasure,” the blonde said, directing another nod of acknowledgment over Tommy’s shoulder. “Zachary Tyler. You must be new. I thought Angel was serving your Baro.”
“Retired,” the woman replied in a curt, clipped tone.
“Good man,” Zachary said.
Tommy crossed his arms over his chest and regarded the other man in front of him with a wary gaze. It wasn’t often that the two of them met. It wasn’t often anyone like them met without bloodshed. Such was the way of their kind in most circumstances. Trust between Baro never came easy.
“I’m here,” Tommy said. “What do you want?”
“Just to talk,” Zachary replied. “Walk with me. You won’t need your bodyguard, and I’m sure if left alone Cole and Quick can entertain themselves.”
Without another word, Zachary turned and stepped away from the circle of light created by the glow of headlights, and began walking across the desert floor into the darkness.
Tommy closed his eyes and took a deep, calming breath. The scent that filled his senses was both comfortingly familiar, and dangerously foreign. It was an unwelcome combination to say the least. Zachary and his protector were both rats the same as both Quick and him, but they were from different Baro. Different tribes. That fact alone made every instinct he had inside of him scream out that they were enemies. That’s just the way it was.
“Fine,” Tommy replied after a moment, giving a nod to the woman beside him and following along behind Zachary. “It won’t change my answer.”
The two of them walked the darkness in silence for several minutes until they crested a small ridge that overlooked the glittering Santa Clarita lights below them. Even then Zachary kept himself silent as he stared down at the sleeping city off in the distance.
“You can’t keep isolated forever, Tommy,” Zachary finally said after a few moments.
“I can,” Tommy replied. “It’s not my fight Zack. Whatever you, Michael, and the rest of them got going, me and my Baro, my family want nothing to do with it. Kill each other for all we care, just leave us in peace.”
Zachary shook his head somberly.
“That’s not going to work and you know it,” he said. “If you’ve been paying attention, and I know you have, Michael has made that abundantly clear. He’s not going to allow anyone to remain apart and outside of his control. He wants to be king.”
Tommy gave a soft laugh.
“Funny,” he said. “People have been saying the same thing about you.”
Zachary grimaced, and took a deep breath. His hands trembled ever so slightly, and he made a visible effort to calm himself.
“I’m sure they have,” he said. “But I don’t go around enslaving people to get them on my side. I’m not the one who put down the Parkers. All of them. The whole extended family. The whole Baro. He didn’t leave anyone behind.”
Tommy blinked and he turned to regard the other man beside him in open-mouthed shock. This was the first he’d heard of that happening. The Parkers were good people. Unfriendly, but most rats were to those who weren’t from their Baro. Nobody ever had a problem with the Parkers. They weren’t a threat to anybody. Even if they’d wanted to be, much like Tommy’s Baro, they were too small to hold that sort of ambition.
“When?” he asked.
“Some time last night,” Zachary replied. There was tension in his voice. Tension tinged with sadness.”Michael sent Derek in. He ordered them to surrender and fight under Michael’s banner, and when they didn’t, he made an example out of them. Swift and brutal. No second chances.”
Tommy turned away and sealed his eyes closed tight as he began to process what he’d just been told. It wasn’t the first time he’d heard of something like this happening. It was never anything concrete, no proof of who was responsible, but word was had been spreading all throughout the High Desert.
“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s still not our fight.”
Zachary growled under his breath, but made a conscious, visible effort to collect himself and push back the frustration that had flashed through his eyes obvious enough that Tommy couldn’t have mistaken it for anything else if he’d wanted to.
“It will be,” Zachary said. “One way or another, what Michael has in mind, is going to effect all of us. You can’t stay on the sidelines forever, Tommy. None of you can.”
“What do you want me to do?” Tommy snapped in irritation. “What choices are you giving me Zack? What choices do my people have? March under the banner of the Crimson Moon and be your vassals? Be fodder for your vendetta? Or maybe we side with the Iron Crown, end up Michael’s slaves instead. Why can’t the two of you just fight amongst yourselves and leave the rest of us alone like it’s always been.”
“Because it’s come too far for that!” Zachary raged.
Tommy stepped back from the other man and regarded him warily. In all the years he’d known him, he’d never seen the man become so emotional. His trademark tight control had broken. It was only for a moment as the other man had quickly tightened his grip and composed himself, but it had broken.
“I’ve tried to keep this between us,” Zachary said with a forced calm. “But it’s beyond that point now. You think you’re safe out here on the fringes, you’re not. Not you, the Parkers, the Reeds, the Hidden Valley, none of you. Michael has made sure of that. He’s coming for you, sooner or later. And there is nothing any of you can do to stop him. You’re too isolated. You’re too…rat.”
“My father stood up to the Iron Crown,” he said.
“Yes, he did,” Zachary agreed. “And look where that got him in the end.”
Tommy growled out a warning. That wasn’t a subject he was interested in talking about, or even hear being mentioned. No one truly knew who had ambushed and killed his father all those years ago, but there were suspicions. He’d made a lot of enemies in the years that he’d led the Baro. One of which was standing right beside Tommy at this very moment.
“Eric Dane, the legend that he was, led a tribe of warriors,” Zachary continued, pointedly ignoring the growl from the man beside him. “But those warriors aren’t going to be enough anymore. Not by themselves. Not against what Michael can throw at you.”
“We can take care of ourselves.” Tommy replied.
“Really,” Zachary said. “How many warriors do you have, Tommy? Twenty? Thirty. Maybe if the Iron Crown was stupid and only sent raiding parties into your territory you might be able to hold them off for a while. But they’re not going to do that, and you know it. They’re going to send Grigoryan. He’s already promised the Bloodfang your territory. You did know that didn’t you?”
Tommy snarled at the name. Him and his people had always kept to themselves. It was a tradition that stretched back hundreds of years from the old country all the way up until the diaspora when his tribe emigrated across the ocean. Grigoryan however, her and her people were one of the few that Tommy’s Baro would gladly break their isolationism to grind their bones into dust.
“The bitch can try,” Tommy snarled.
“And the vampires?” Zachary asked.
Tommy flinched, and fixed the other man a wide-eyed look of shock and disbelief. No, he thought. He wouldn’t. None of them would do that. No one would sink so low.
“You’re lying,” Tommy said. “Even Michael isn’t that fucked up.”
“I have no proof, I’ll grant you that,” he said. “But what’s been happening down in the city would be too much of a coincidence to ignore. Ask around if you want to. Prove me wrong.”
Tommy shook his head, and glared hard at the other man.
“We’re done here,” he said, turning on his heel and stomping back across the desert floor to the vehicles waiting for him.
“You can’t stay by yourself forever,” Zachary called after him. “I won’t come after you, but they will. You’re going to have to make a choice one way or another, Tommy.”
Tommy didn’t respond. He was done talking to Zachary. Done talking with outsiders who only sought to manipulate and use his people in their own personal wars. He was done even thinking about it. For now anyways. Zachary was right about one thing, he thought as he walked through the darkness, they couldn’t stand on the sidelines of the war that was coming hoping that they’d be left alone. No, he thought, neither Michael nor Zachary would allow that. Him and his people were going to have to do some hard thinking and prepare for what was coming. They had to prepare to weather the storm no matter what banner it flew under.