Horse Head

You wanted more Meg and Lucy banter? You’ve got it! This was an immensely fun story to write, though it took a disproportionate amount of research, ranging from women’s fashion to wine tasting to Filipino mythology. Filipino culture is amazing, by the way. Anyway, this story was fun to write, and hopefully it’s just as much fun to read. Special thanks to Karen Cardwell, Stephen Macasil, and Chris Candari for the translation, and Meghan McGovern for information on wine tasting and Sonoma County. You’re all great.

This story contains dialogue in untranslated Tagalog. Look HERE for a translation.

This story takes place a few months after Blood Hound.

“No,” she said. “No, Lucy. You’re not going to Wine Country like that.”

Megaera, Immortal Fury, the Avenger of Heaven, stood at my door. Her hands were on her hips and she looked quite cross.

“Tough words for someone in capri pants,” I said.

“You are not dressed appropriately for vacation,” she said.

“Meg, you’re wearing a shirt that says, ‘Raise Hell, Darlin’,” I commented.

She rolled her eyes at me. “Lucy. Lucy, babe. Dear. It took months to plan this weekend out, and you’re not going to frump it up.”

“Frump? Meg, I’m a vampire. Vampires are stylish, you know that.”

She gave me an appraising glance. “Trench coat, fedora, and skirt. You’re like a bad cartoon character, Lucy.”

I stuck out my tongue at her. Immortals were like that – there eventually came a point where we just stopped putting on airs. That, and I knew Meg well. Really well. Really, really well.

She rolled her eyes, running her fingers through her curly hair in annoyance. In her true form, Megaera was a nightmare. Thankfully, she spent most of her time looking like a cute, vivacious redhead, instead. As for me, I was always the same short brunette, unless I felt like turning into a bat. But I made an adorable bat, so things were fine.

“Lucy,” Meg said, leaning against the doorjamb. “You’re not leaving this apartment until you’ve got decent clothes, and that’s final.”

“I am wearing decent clothes,” I said. “It’s what I always wear. I feel comfy like this.”

“Slim ribbed henley,” she said. “Skinny jeans. Bare minimum.”

“Oh, come on, Meg,” I said.

“We’re going to the mall,” she grabbed my car keys – my keys – from the key rack by the door.

Hey!” I said, and reached for the keys.

Nordstrom’s is open for another couple of hours,” she held them away from me. “If we hurry, we can make you look like you’re from this century, and still make it to Sonoma before the sun comes up.”

Meg, I have a budget,” I said. “And work’s been a little slim this month.”

Lucy, I work for heaven, and I’m Zeus’s favorite auntie. I literally have unlimited money.”

Meg,” I whined.

Nope,” she winked. “No more protests. Bring an empty suitcase, we’re gonna fill it.”

Some women are built for clothes shopping. To them, it’s like a drug, their raison d’etre. The very zest of life itself. The same goes for vampires – many among us are impressive fashionistas, whereas others still wear opera capes in the 21st Century. As for me, I liked my overcoat. I liked my hat. I felt comfortable with routine. This wasn’t to say that I didn’t have other clothes, but I stuck with what I liked. That coat was like a cozy, firearm-concealing hug. Who could ask for anything more?

Well, Meg could. And did. She hurled me headlong into a fashion frenzy worthy of a musical montage.

I looked at my new shirt. I had to admit that it was comfortable and slimming, sure, but…

I can see my boobs,” I said, and tried to fasten the top buttons.

So, what? The girls need some air,” she said. “It’s not that bad, Lucy. Your secretary shows off more than that, and you’ve never complained.”

Yeah, but she’s a secretary,” I said. “And look, it’s really worse for me when I puff my chest out like this.”

Don’t puff your chest out,” she said.

I sighed, and deflated.

Yeah, just like that,” Meg nodded. “Okay, that’s the henley, the shell top, portrait-necked wrap, the self-tie off the shoulder, and the sleeveless sweetheart in case you decide to loosen up. Three new pairs of jeans, two skirts, two new pairs of shoes… I’m not gonna be ashamed of you, Lucy. We could be sisters!”

Really?” I asked.

No, because we look nothing alike,” she said. “Now, come on. If we start now, we’ve got plenty of time to make the drive.”

Vacations were difficult for vampires. Sunlight was a constant looming threat whether you flew or drove, and some touristy things just didn’t happen after dark. Meg had found a midnight wine-tasting months ago, and insisted that I come along. Apparently, I needed it. Actually, her exact words were, “You’ve been sharing too many introvert memes,” but I got the gist of it: I hadn’t been myself since I fought that demon last October.

Helping people is my job – it’s my life. Id been a private detective for a long time, and had handled more than my share of supernatural cases when someone decided to summon a hellhound who happened to be the author of all murder. It hadn’t been a fun week, all told. I guess it had bothered me more than I thought, or at least it was visible to others, because Meg hadn’t really given me a choice. “Wine therapy,” she had called it, and even quoted Psalm 104 to me – Wine gladdens the heart of man. And woman.

Somehow this ended up with Meg buying me a new wardrobe, repacking my suitcase for me, and driving my own car up north. San Francisco traffic meant that almost half of our multi-hour trip would be spent idling in the city, but it began to speed up as soon as we got past the bridge.

So, we’re going to Santa Rosa,” she said. “There’s a little hotel attached to a vineyard near Annadel Park. Since they’re holding the tasting, it means we could conceivably spend the entire weekend without leaving the building.”

But we’re not going to do that, are we?” I asked.

Hell, no,” Meg said. “We’re going to have fun.

Meg, it’s Santa Rosa,” I said.

Okay, yeah, good point,” she said. “They probably have a bar, or something.”

After the wine-tasting?” I asked.

Lucy, this is why you need to loosen up,” she said. “Hey, I made a pun.”

That’s not a pun,” I said.

Loosey Lucy,” she mused. “Okay, that sounds awful. I’m sorry. Please forgive me, Lucy.”

No,” I said, reaching to tuck my hat down over my eyes. But I wasn’t wearing a hat today, thanks to Meg’s meddling. I gave her a frown.

Would a coffee make you less grumpy?” she asked. “Do I need to pull over to Peet’s?”

I’m just playing it up for sympathy,” I said. “So sympathize with me, Meg.”

Instead, she pulled over for coffee. I got myself a honey macchiato, and all was forgiven.

The barista was flirting with you,” Meg said when we were back on the road.

Nah, he was flirting with you, Meg,” I said. “I might as well have been invisible.”

You always say that.” I was amazed at her ability to drive while holding a cup of coffee in her hand.

You exude Greek mythological sex” I said. “Everyone’s invisible next to you.”

Firstly, I’m not mythical,” Meg said. “I’m completely real. Secondly, I don’t ‘exude’ anything. And thirdly, he was totally eyeing you up. You’re off your game, Lucy babe.”

Well, was I? Come to think of it, vampires were naturally attractive, so maybe that was at work, one supernatural aura temporarily overriding another.

Also, you’re cute,” Meg said. “Like, cute as a button. Every time I talk to you, I want to poke your nose.”

Meg, you’re mean,” I said.

Justice ain’t always soft,” she chuckled.

We had three hours of this. Nothing but banter and coffee, all the way until we reached Sonoma County.

We pulled into the parking lot of a fairly rustic-looking hotel next to a vineyard. As Meg had said, they were clearly connected to each other – probably even offered full vineyard tours, though I doubted we could get anything after the sun went down. Santa Rosa’s downtown was fairly close by, but the vineyards and general reputation of the area left it fairly rural.

Well, here it is! Chateau D’-dammit, I forgot the name,” Meg said after we parked. “Wait, lemme see.”

Bautista,” I said, having already looked it up on my phone. “Dictator or pro wrestler?”

It’s probably the name of the guy who owns the place,” Meg said. “Thanks to the out-of-place and gratuitous French, I’m gonna guess he’s either a really backward American, or a relatively recent foreign transplant.”

So he’s either natural-born or he moved here,” I said. “Yeah, that really narrows it down, Meg. Good one on you. Your powers of deduction astound me.”

The hotel featured a faux-rustic aesthetic, with enough fake mahogany to cast the entire room in moody, brownish lighting.

Honestly,” I said to Meg as we walked in. “For a place holding midnight wine tasting, I’d have expected something more Gothic.”

Well, we’ve got class, instead,” she said, looking around before approaching a few small wooden horse statues lining the lobby. “Look! Horses.”

It fits the theme,” I said.

Yeah, maybe we can do some riding later,” she said, and lightly knocked on one sculpture, which looked like a bust with a horse’s head. “Huh. Anyway, you get to check us in, because you were rude back in the car.”

Sure,” I said, shaking my head.

The receptionist was kind of a little guy, his height disguised by the very tall stool he sat on. I immediately felt guilty for thinking in ethnic terms, but I guessed that he might have been Mexican.

Hi, we have a reservation,” I said, my tone turning it into a question.

Welcome!” he said in a relatively thick Filipino accent. “I’m Alden Bautista, owner of Chateau D’Bautista, and the Bautista Vineyards. What name is the reservation under.”

It’s, uh,” I turned back. “Meg! Whose name is it under!”

Mine,” Meg said, already leafing through a newspaper.

I silently mouthed the words, “Which name, dammit?” because she technically had no last name. Meg smiled at me, and then returned to the newspaper.

I sighed, and turned back to Bautista. “Megaera?” I tried.

The little guy typed a few things into the computer. “I don’t see a Megaera,” he said.

Meg?” I tried.

No Meg,” he said.

I facepalmed. “Meg, please.”

Meyer,” Meg called out.

I wanted to facepalm again. “Meyer,” I said.

S. Meyer and E. James, reservation for two,” Bautista said without skipping a beat.

I did facepalm that time. I couldn’t help it.

You’re in Room 203,” he said, handing over a pair of key cards. “And you’re here for the midnight tasting – I hope you enjoy it, sincerely.”

Thank you, I said, taking the keys. “I guess this is a family business?”

I’ve been moving my cousins here one by one for the last twenty years,” he said.

Well, Meg won. He was definitely either a natural-born resident or an immigrant. Personally, I was hoping for someone born right on the border, half-in and half-out, but such was life.

Well, we’re really looking forward to the weekend here, Mr. Bautista,” I said. “This place looks great.”

Thank you!” his grin was infectious. I found myself breaking out of the minor funk I had been in since Meg first showed up at my door. “If you need anything, feel free to call the front desk.”

Will do,” I said, and turned around. I tossed Meg’s key card at her, and hit her on the nose.

Ow! Lucy!”

You deserve it,” I chuckled. “Come on, let’s get our bags and go.”

Once inside, Meg tossed her suitcase and newspaper onto the bed nearest the AC unit.

Mine!” she said. “You can take the other one, Lucy.”

I put down my suitcase filled with new clothes. “Sure, claim the nice one,” I said, glancing to the curtains. One layer of heavy, dark fabric and another of essentially gauze.

Well, this way, if the curtains don’t block the sun out, you can just roll off the bed and hide,” she said. “I’m making that sacrifice for you, Lucy my sweet.”

Yeah, huge sacrifice,” I said. “So, we’ve got hours ’til daylight. Whaddaya wanna do?”

Meg tapped her finger to her lips, and grinned. “Hmm, I’m thinking we can go downtown, grab a bite to eat, and plan out the rest of the weekend. Sound good?”

We ended up watching cartoons for hours.

You know, true friendship.

Okay,” Meg stretched, standing up. “Sun’s just about up. I don’t have to sleep, so I’m gonna go cruise around for a bit while you snooze the day away.”

See you in a bit, then?” I asked, already beginning to change.

Yeah,” Meg winked. “Be showered, dressed, and ready to go five minutes after sunlight, or I’ll heckle you until you are.”

You’ve got a deal,” I said to her, and got in bed just after Meg left. To be honest, I didn’t really want to know what she was up to during the day. As friendly and sarcastic as Meg was to her friends, I was under no illusions about her true purpose. One of the three Furies of legend, Megaera, “The Jealous One,” was a razor-winged bloody-eyed monstrosity who dragged sinners into hell. I had gotten used to the monstrous appearance of her true form, but actually seeing her in action had never lost its terrifying edge. And, vacation or not, she was probably out working while I slept during the day. Well, she could afford to have a work-ation. I had even left my guns at home.

Hotel sleep is a weird thing. Some people can’t do it – the strangeness of the room, the new shape of the bed, the unfamiliar sounds from outside, or even just the excitement of a trip stops many from sleeping. On a more puerile side, just thinking about what a hotel bed looks like under a black light is enough to keep anybody awake all night. I tossed the frightening bedspread aside and tucked myself under the sheet – hotel beds were always so well-made, it was like being mummified in an envelope. The curtains did more than their job in keeping the sunlight out, so I slept decently.

I woke while the sun was still up, showered and changed into another one of Meg’s chosen outfits, opting for the sleeveless sweetheart top just to prove to her that I could loosen up, and whiled away some of the time by reading that newspaper she had brought in.

If you know what to look for, you can tell a lot from the local police beat and classifieds. For one thing, I noticed that Santa Rosa didn’t have much of a vampire community – I didn’t see many of our call signs in the classified section. I did my usual scan of reported crimes or missing persons, a habit that I would never really drop, and took mental note of any anomalies I saw. And immediately, I began to wonder how much Megaera knew.

One strange murder reported about, and at least three missing persons in the police beat. Santa Rosa was a big enough city that those could have been the normal course of things, but something bothered me. The short article didn’t specifically say “drained of blood,” but I could read between the lines. It often happened that way – most of the victims chalked up to runaways or kidnappings, until one of the slipped through to muggle law enforcement. Of course, it could just be nothing. Again, Santa Rosa was a big city. These kinds of things happened all the time without anything supernatural being involved.

Okay, Lucy. Do you really want to spend your whole weekend on a wild goose chase? This kind of thing is the reason why Meg dragged you along in the first place. And besides, if she knew about it, that was probably what she was up to during the day, and I couldn’t exactly join her. Just let it go. Don’t jump at shadows.

But it still bugged me.

I put down the newspaper just as I heard Meg unlock the door. She burst into the hotel room, striking a pose worthy of a musical.

The cold never bothered me any – No fair, you’re awake,” she said. “I wanted to startle you out of bed.”

That stopped working on me years ago,” I said, and smiled. “So, Meg, what’ve you been up to all day?”

I got really bored, so I plane-shifted into the Heavens and caught up with my sisters for a bit.”

No work?” I asked her.

Nope, this is vacation!” Meg said. Her eyes flicked to the newspaper, and then back to me. “Lucy, no. You’re not working this weekend.”

But Meg, there’s–”

You’re not even armed, Lucy dear,” she leaned over, and ruffled my hair. I tried to straighten it out again.

Meg!” I said.

She chuckled. “Anyway! We’ve got some time before the tasting starts. Wanna go on a walk in the park?”

National parks are really pretty in the daytime. They look nice at night, too, but I’m pretty sure something is lost when you only get to go after dark. Instead of the majestic glories of nature, we had a spooky walk in the woods. Annadel State Park had hills, hiking trails, fields, and forest. This late at night, it all felt like spooky woods. We walked one of the trails, blanketed in moonlight.

It didn’t directly say it in the article,” I said. “But I think the body was drained of its blood, so–”

Lucy, you’re doing it again,” she said.

Anyway, I don’t think there are a lot of vampires here,” I continued. “So, I was thinking maybe it was worth a look, you know?”

No, there isn’t a huge vampire contingency in Santa Rosa,” Meg said. “That’s why I had you pack a case of bottled blood, it’s a little pricier around here. So, why don’t we talk about something else?”

Why are you avoiding it, Meg?” I asked.

She poked me with her finger. For a moment, as we passed under the shadow of a tree, I could see her real shape. “Because you’ve been burning out,” she said. “Ever since that demon, you’ve been withdrawn and listless, like you’re fading little by little.”

I looked at the poking finger. “So you’ve taken me out for a weekend of fun and wine,” I said.

And to talk to you,” Meg added. “We’re alone in the woods now. Wanna talk about it?”

I sighed. We really were alone, except for the sound of crickets. “I’m fine, Meg.”

Lucy,” she said. “You’ve got a lotta ‘splainin’ to do.”

I rolled my eyes. “All right, all right. I haven’t been feeling well. It’s nothing major.”

Vampires don’t get sick,” she said.

Sometimes we do,” I shot back.

Then why don’t you tell me about it?” she placed her hand on my shoulder, and gave a reassuring squeeze. I leaned into it a little bit.

When I fought Caacrinolaas,” I said. “I had to use the dark metamorphosis to make it even. I wasn’t thinking straight, and I bit him.”

Meg gave me an odd look. “You bit a demon?” she asked.

Yeah,” I shook my head. “I dunno, I felt a little queasy for a week or two, and I just haven’t had as much energy lately. It’ll probably pass. Like, has a vampire ever bitten a demon before? Any idea what happens?”

No idea,” Meg said. For a moment, her hand on my arm felt… sharp. Like the razor claws I knew she had were out, but it was gone after a second. “I’ve never heard of it before in my life. But if I had to guess, I’d say that demon blood isn’t the best thing for one of you. It’s been months and you’re still standing, so you’re probably fine – but maybe instead of hiding at home like a sad introvert, you should do a few more things you enjoy. The demon blood could have hurt your soul a little bit, maybe no more than a bruise. And the more soul-healing stuff you do, the better.”

I frowned. “You think that’s it?” I asked.

Well, even I don’t know the exact nature of vampire Metamorphosis,” Meg said. “But you’re like, twice as vampirey when changed, and your curse is already resists every known attempt to cure it. So I can’t imagine that demon blood would be strong enough to do any lasting damage.”

You think so?” I asked.

Meg answered by hugging me, tightly. I idly wondered if she was going to change into her true form and embrace me with her wings as well, but she didn’t.

So,” she said after a while. “Wanna go back? Midnight wine tasting?”

A little wine’s good for the soul,” I chuckled.

By the time we made it back, Bautista’s winery was gearing up for the tasting. I realized a few things at that moment. Firstly, Alden Bautista was from the Philippines, and had been in the States for roughly twenty years. Secondly, there was a sizable Filipino community in the area, he was a known figure, and the vineyard served as sort of a central hub.

And thirdly, he was shorter than I was. It felt great – normally, nobody was shorter than me. I looked down on nobody, and up at everyone’s noses. In fact, heights were down in general in the area, leaving Meg’s average build looking amazonian in comparison.

You know,” I commented once we were inside. “I honestly assumed it’d be goth-themed or something.”

It’s not themed at all,” Meg said. “It’s just a convenient opportunity for transplanted people to maintain a community. Something you could sympathize with, right?”

Was that a vampire comment or a Jew comment?” I asked.

Neither,” she said, and grinned. “It was a short joke.”

Alden Bautista shuffled over to both of us before we could make our conversation any more awkward.

Ladies, you’re back!” he grinned, showing an amazing set of pearly whites. I shook his hand.

Yeah, we totally wouldn’t miss this,” I said. “So, what’re we supposed to do?”

Mingle,” Alden said. “Meet people if you want, or keep to yourselves. We’ll start serving soon – you can use the spittoons, or you can drink the wine. But it’s a lot of wine, so be careful!”

He chuckled. I chuckled with him. Meg chuckled even more. It is very hard to get a vampire drunk, and Meg could pretty much control her level of intoxication at will. I for one planned on being very careful. As careful as a cow on ice skates.

That meant I had no intention of being careful. Metaphors can be hard to unpack sometimes.

We’re gonna have so much fun,. Right, Lucy?” Meg interjected, elbowing me. “We can’t wait to try your stuff, Mr. Bautista.”

Stuff? Really? So we were playing the part of airheads, then.

Yes! We’re starting with a dry Riesling in a few minutes, if you can sit tight.”

Sure,” I said.

We’ll mingle!” Meg grinned, and took me by the arm, dragging me with her.

Okay, so we’re mingling,” I said to her. “Are we going by our real names?”

You can go by your real name all you want Lucia bat-Belaset,” she said.

I thwapped her. “You know what I mean!”

Okay, then. Meg and Lucy,” she chuckled. “Sounds good to me.”

Two of the cutest people I had ever seen sidled up to us. I don’t mean that in a sexual way, either – both women were really attractive, but they also struck every single adorable, nurturing nerve in my body. I wanted to put bows on their heads. That would have been horrible patronizing.

I’m Althea,” one of them said in heavily accented English.

And I’m Amihan,” chirped the other. “We’re the Dimsalangs.”

Hi, I’m Lucy,” I said, offering a hand. I took a side glance to Meg, and saw that she was forcibly withholding her squeeing side, too.

We came here with our brother,” Althea said, wide-eyed. “But I think he does not like wine. SO here we are!”

Your bro is missing out, hardcore,” Meg said. “Need help finding your way around?”

The two chattered to each other in what I assumed was Tagalog for a moment before Amihan turned back to us, and nodded vigorously. “We’d love to!” she said. “It’s good having friends.”

It’s amazing when two young, single women look at the vampire and make fast friends, but that’s what’s kept all us Draculas in business for centuries.

Totally!” Meg said. “I’m Meg, and this is Lucy. We’re not related, but we’ve known each other for ages.”

I grinned. “She’s like an annoying older sister,” I said. Well, Meg was older, and we had known each other for ages, so those statements were true in a literal sense.

She doesn’t look annoying,” Althea said. “She looks beautiful, like Brave.”

Who?” Meg asked.

The movie Brave,” Amihan said. “The one with the Scottish girl.”

Am I that frizzy?” Meg asked. “Because I’ve always thought it was more of a ‘softly cascading curls’ thing.”

You’re only frizzy in the morning,” I said, mentally adding when you pretend to sleep so your mortal partner isn’t freaked out.

And you look just like Encantadia,” Meg said to the two of them. “Same name, too.”

The girls giggled. “Marunon ka bang man Tagalog?” Althea asked. Said. Something, I only caught the name of the language in that.

Of course I do,” Meg said in English. Well, of course. I figured she knew every language.

“Swerte naman natin!” Amihan giggled again, to her sister.

Guys”, I said. “I don’t know Tagalog. That was Tagalog, right?”

“Oo,” Meg said.

I sighed, and shook my head. “Come on, please?”

Sure, Lucy,” Meg chuckled. “We’ll be good. Right, girls?”

“Oo, naman,” Althea said.

I shook my head, but chuckled nonetheless. “Girls,” I said. “I know ancient Hebrew. Do you want me to bust that out?”

You both know so many languages!” Amihan said. In English.

A few,” I said.

Alden began announcing with a little microphone, breaking up our teasing conversation.

Attention,” he said. “Attention, everybody. We are about to start. Please find yourself some tables, and we will be serving in five minutes. You’re free to move around once you have your wine.””

Hey, there’s four of us” I said.

Hmm,” Meg said. “Should we stick together, or split up?”

Together!” said one of the Dimsalang girls, I wasn’t looking.

With the option for splitting to flirt!” Meg added. “Gotta flirt. Lucy, you’ve gotta flirt, too.”

Yeah, yeah,” I said as we settled around a small round table, decorated with four wine glasses and a spit bucket. “Anyway! So, girls, where are you from?”

The two girls looked at me like I was crazy.

I’m from San Francisco,” I said. “So’s Meg. This isn’t a weird and condescending immigration question. Like, if you’re here on vacation, from where? Local to Santa Rosa? Los Angeles? Idaho?”

Oh,” Amihan said. “We are from Manila.”

We’d like to come here,” Althea said. “But it’s so expensive. Too expensive.”

Yeah, immigration’s crazy,” Meg said. “It was way easier when I did it.”

Back when I first came to the United States, the requirements for citizenship involved going to Ellis Island, getting a new name, and then getting treated like dirt in the Bronx. Meg probably came over back when it involved making a charter with England.

Oh, but it’s worth it,” Amihan said. “Expensive to get all three of us, but worth it. We are almost there!”

So, how long have you lived out here?” Meg asked.

Six months,” Althea said. “But they say we re fast-tracked, so only three more to go!”

Hey, that’s great,” I said. Nine months was way better than two years, so good for them.

A server came by, and poured little servings of white wine into our four glasses.

Okay,” Meg grinned like the devil. “So, first you take a sip and ruminate like an educated artist. Then, if you wanna spit the wine so you don’t get drunk, use that bucket. If you just wanna drink it all, that’s fine, too. So, girls – spit or swallow?”

I almost spat. Instead, I just took a drink. “It’s uh… dry and oaky?”

Dry and oaky,” Meg said, taking a sip. And she, who had been drinking wine since grapes were first crushed, said, “It’s white. Nice white wine.”

The girls giggled.

Wow, Meg,” I said. “Great analysis. Althea? Amihan?”

We don’t know,” they said, and took a sip in uncannily choreographed unison. “We like it.”

Then it’s decided, I said, setting the glass down. “It’s good, right?”

Right,” Meg said. “Totally good.”

We’re horrible wine tasters,” I said.

Utterly horrible,” Meg said. “But at least we know it’s just an excuse to drink in public, so we’re the best wine tasters.”

Here’s to being the best!” I lifted my glass.

The best!” the girls shouted in disturbing unison, clinking their glasses against mine.

You guys practiced that,” I said.

Of course we did,” Althea said. “It’s cute.”

Or scary,” Amihan added.

Hell, cute and scary is my life,” I chuckled. The servers came by again, and began to fill our glasses with another white.

This is our house Sauvignon Blanc,” Alden Bautista said. “Please enjoy the its crisp flavor.”

Crisp?” I asked, taking a taste. “Huh,” I said, and closed my eyes and tried again.

Ah ha,” Meg said. “It’s just a little herbal, kinda – almost like they put a hint of thyme in it.”

But it’s just grapes, right?” I asked.

Yeah,” Meg nodded. Amazing, isn’t it? Girls, what do you think?”

I don’t know,” Althea said. “It – can’t find the words. But good.”

The next one was a Chardonnay. And I could have sworn there was apple in it. I know that wasn’t the case, but that was apparently a running theme with Chardonnays. It wasn’t that I hadn’t noticed various wines before, but I had never approached them like this, or unpacked their taste to that level of detail. Maybe I could really get into this wine-tasting thing. It tasted way better than blood, anyway.

Psst, Lucy,” Meg whispered in my ear as they poured a Pinot Noir.

Nyeeees?” I asked her back, trying my best eyebrow-lift.

That guy wants to hit on you,” she pointed almost all the way across the room, to a table with a single occupant.

Nah, I think he’s looking at the girls,” I said. “He’s like, in his twenties.”

You were in your twenties when you died,” Meg said. “C’mon, wink at him.”

Meeeg,” I whined.

Wink at him,” she insisted.

I winked at the guy. Even from that distance, he winked back at me again. I turned red.

Do it,” Meg gave me a light shove.

Do it,” Althea said.

Yes, do,” Amihan added. “We will keep your friend company. Now go. Go. Flirt with him.”

Okay, okay,” I said, picking up the Pinot Noir that they had poured while we were gossiping, and taking a step toward that table. Then another. Then another. It felt easier as I moved further from my Megaera security blanket, all the way toward the lone, young guy. Seriously, he looked like a kid. Was it just me?

Hey, I’m Alex,” he said. “Alex Molina.”

You know what, it was just me. Dude could have been in his thirties, maybe – he had the kind of face that didn’t look like it would age very quickly, and his hair was just short enough to be spiky.

Hey, Alex, I’m Lucy,” I said. “So, just like the actor?”

Actor?” Alex asked.

The guy who was in Spider-Man,” I said. “Alex Molina, right?”

That was Alfred Molina,” he said, shaking his head.

Oh,” I winced. “Well, uh, hi, nice to meet you. Pinot Noir?”

Juicy acidity that drives its dark plum and berry fruit flavors,” he said. “With a dry core of tannins from Bautista’s exquisite aging process.”

Damn,” I said. “I just thought it was tasty.”

You have a lot to learn, my young Padawan,” he said. “Be glad I came up here.”

Well, I haven’t been to Sonoma before,” I said. “Are you from around here?”

Alex shook his head. “I’m an Angelino,” he said. “I’m a wine buyer for a big LA hotel, so I get to hit all the vineyards on business. Meeting pretty ladies like you is just a bonus.”

That was a horrible pick-up line. I still blushed.

So, uh, this is your job, then?” I asked.

Yeah,” he said. “Except my client already buys from Bautista. I come back every year to prove that we’ve made a good choice.”

To good choices,” I said just as they began to serve a Merlot.

I think I’m making a great choice right here,” he said.

I attributed it to the shirt Meg chose for me. Must’ve been, right? I stole a glance back toward the others, and saw that all three of them were hanging around a hapless guy who had chosen to join them. Sly move, Fury. Sly move.

The last wine of the evening was a Cabernet Sauvignon. I had always known that Cabernets were sweet, but Bautista’s was positively luscious, with little hints of fruit and licorice that I hadn’t taken the time to notice in other wines before. Also, Alex pointed them out to me. Good man.

See, it’s a dessert wine,” he said. “So it’s sweet. But not as sweet as you.”

I laughed. “That’s such a lame pickup line” I said, leaning toward him. I was feeling the wine, but mostly because I had psyched myself up to feel it. It was hard to get vampires drunk, so I had to lean a little on the placebo effect. Not that I needed it, he had been strangely charming – this guy managed to make office work sound interesting and exciting. And okay, sure, this was ceding to Meg in our disagreement – but hey, if you’re gonna be wrong, be wrong in a way that lets cute guys flirt with you.

Is it okay if I’m lame?” he asked. “Did I just hurt my chances?”

Nah,” I said. “Lame pickup lines are cute.”

Oh, they are?” Alex asked.

Yeah,” I nodded.

Is your face a map? Because I keep getting lost in your eyes.”

Too lame,” I said. “No cringing allowed.”

Well, okay,” he nodded.

When you look at me, it makes me self-conscious,” he said. “Because you’re small and cute, and I know you’re nervous, but you’ve got this understated elegance about you, like a noble lady from the old world. I can see it in your eyes.”

I blinked. “Wow,” I said.

Oh yeah, the pickup line,” he said, looking around. “Uh, um, is this college? Because I want to study you.”

Stop, stop,” I said, laughing a little. “But wow, that compliment was kinda crazy.”

Yeah, it’s a lot for a first meeting,” he said. “So, what are you doing after this?”

I leaned a bit towards him. “Well, I didn’t have any plans set in stone,” I said. “What about you? You doing anything tonight?”

Megaera walked up, and stuck her face in between both of us. I opened my mouth to protest, but then she spoke to Alex.

Your wife knows what you’re doing, Alex,” she said. “She doesn’t want to admit it, but between the long business trips, the late nights, and the credit card bill, she’s figured it out.”

What the fuck?” Alex asked. “Who are you?”

You can still salvage your marriage if you get your head out of your ass,” Meg said to him. “But stop thinking you’re clever. You’re not, and you’re killing her slowly. Don’t even ask what it’s going to do to the kids when she finally grows a spine and leaves you.”

He looked like he had been shot. His mouth opened, but he didn’t say anything.

Meg?” I asked.

You wanted to know who I am?” she asked, her eyes flashing for a second. “I’m your last warning. Now stop hitting on my friend, and go think about your fucking mess of a life, Mr. Molina.”

He jumped out of his seat, almost knocking it over. “Who are you?” he asked again, his voice lined with the numbness that I had learned to associate with Meg’s potential targets.

It really doesn’t matter who I am, honey,” she said. “What matters is you stopping that shit before it lands you on the street, or worse.”

I knew what the “or worse” was. He didn’t, but he began to back away from her like she was on fir. People started to look at us.

Uh, I have to go,” Alex said, and stumbled once before speed-walking his way out of the winery.

Wow, Meg,” I said after taking a breath.

That was for your good and his,” she said and then turned back to me, suddenly all smiles and cheerfulness again. “Hey, so what if you struck out? We all do! The sisters managed to enthrall every guy who came near our table. They’re cuter than Hell.”

You’re telling me,” I said, looking into my remaining sips of wine. “But still, I kind of hope he doesn’t drive drunk.”

He was sober,” Meg said, sitting down with me. “Are you okay?”

I shook my head. “He was really charming,” I said. “I sort of let myself go a bit. It felt nice, you know? To actually be flattered a little?”

That’s good,” Meg said. “You got to be happy for a moment. Just wait until it comes from somebody who isn’t a scumbag.”

Yeah, well, there’s this cop I’ve been flirting with a little back home,’ I said. “I don’t know if it’s going anywhere, but he seems nice.”

She leaned over, and planted a light peck on my forehead, then ruffled my hair. “You do you, Lucy,” Meg said. “Don’t lose heart, all right?”

I nodded, and then finally finished the Cabernet. “This is, like, really fruity. I have to compliment Mr. Bautista the next time we see him.”

Yeah,” Meg said. “His wines are like magic.”

The Cabernet Sauvignon turned out to be the last wine of the evening. Alden Bautista gave a great little speech thanking us all, and the crowd began to dissipate. I spotted the girls again before they left, and gave them a friendly wave from across the room.

Even from all the way over here,” I said. “They’re adorable.”

I can’t imagine what their brother’s like,” Meg said, and shook her head. “Anyway, we’re here, the night isn’t over yet – wanna find a random bar? We’ll practice your chatting-up skills with a different breed of sleazebag!”

Meg,” I rolled my eyes. “I don’t think either of us should drive.”

Meg sobered up immediately, in the literal sense – alcohol just stopped having an effect on her. “Nope, I’m good to go!”

And so, we went from the elegance of wine tasting to a sports bar downtown.

Okay,” Meg said as she held the door open for me. “I’m thinking tomorrow, we can go drive down to Bodega Bay. Look out over the coast, pretend we’re in The Birds or Puppet Master or any of those movies. Maybe even do a little flying, if you’re up to turning into a bat.

Flying sounds nice,” I said, giving her a grin. “Next vacation’s gotta have a theme park, though. Just one that’s open after dark.”

I stepped through the door, and stopped dead in my tracks.

I’m sure we can find something,” Meg said, and then frowned. “Lucy, are you okay?”

I saw him, there. Seated alone in a booth in the corner, staring down into a drink.

Look,” I said. “It’s him.”

Well, whaddaya know,” Meg said, frowning. “Okay, we’re going somewhere else.”

No,” I said. “I should talk to him.”

Lucy, he cheats on his wife,” she said. “If I were working right now, I’d be tearing his soul out.”

I shook my head. “but you’re not, so just let me talk to him, okay? Maybe he’s about to call her up and apologize.”

You’re the boss,” Meg said. “I’ll be at the bar.”

I approached Alex Molina, and sat across from him before he noticed me. He looked up.

Oh, you,” he said. His eyes soon dropped down to his half-empty glass, thousand-yard staring through it.

Yeah, it’s me,” I said. “Fancy running into you, here. You doing all right?”

How does your friend know me?” he asked.

You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” I said. “But she knows things. She was right, wasn’t she? You’re married, aren’t you?”

Even though he didn’t actually move, it looked like he shrank. “What does it matter?” he asked.

It matters a ton,” I said. “So, what are you going to do now?”

I dunno,” Alex muttered.

Well,” I said. “I guess you have a few options, Mr. Molina. You can keep doing what you’re doing until she leaves you, I guess that’s one. But you don’t want that, right?”

He shook his head.

You’ve got kids?” I asked.

He didn’t say anything. He brought out his phone, turned it on, and placed it on the table between us. I noticed that it was already open to a photo of himself, a woman who looked a little like the sisters we had been hanging out with, and a pair of tiny, tiny children.

Cute kids,” I said. “Cute wife, too.”

I never meant to hurt Malaya,” he said. “I still don’t want to.”

Well, I think we’re a little late for that,” I shook my head. “But you can stop hurting her now. Do you know what you have to do?”

I’ll stop,” he said.

Will you?” I asked. “Will you, really? Because in my experience, a lot of guys who say they’ll stop manage to be good for a year or two, and then fall right back into it.”

So what, do I have to tell her?” he asked.

I shrugged. “Maybe,” I said. “Okay, you could just not tell her anything. But you’d still have to change your life a bit. Take her with you on business trips, always call her to check in, maybe go to marriage counseling, find a friend you can be accountable to – that would look kind of suspicious if you’ve never done anything wrong, wouldn’t it?”

He grunted.

Alex,” I said. “I’m not being mean. You could do that, and it’s worked for plenty of people. Or you could talk to her. Tell her what you’ve done. It’ll break her heart, and she might leave you – but then again, she might not. If my friend Meg is right, and she pretty much always is, then she already suspects. Telling her is going to hurt – you and her both – and she has every right to leave you, but maybe, just maybe, if you’re really sorry, and you try to take steps to save your marriage, you can salvage anything. If nothing else, you’ve got the kids to think about. You can tell her, and then both of you can go in for marriage counseling. You’ll have to be accountable to her – she wouldn’t trust you again. You’d have to take her with you on trips, call her and let her know what you’re up to, let her look at your emails, confide in her when you feel like slipping… it’ll be hard work, Alex. But maybe you’ save your marriage. You love her, right?”

He didn’t say anything.

I said, you love her, right?” I asked.

He muttered in the affirmative.

Look me in the eyes,” I said. “In those elegant high-class lady eyes you complimented so much. Look me in the eyes and answer.”

He looked up, finally. His eyes were rimmed red and puffy, but focused on mine. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I love her. I just don’t know if she’ll take me back.”

Well, the best you can do is try,” I said, and smiled to him. “Lots of people have been where you are, but only a few have actually tried to fix things.”

I watched as Alex Molina picked up his beer, and took a sip. Then he paused, and drank the rest of the glass dry, and set it down forcefully.

I’m going back to the hotel to call her,” he said.

Good,” I smiled. “And fly home immediately. Tonight if you can, or maybe tomorrow morning. Don’t give yourself a chance to fall again – and don’t give her a gap of time when she doesn’t know where you are.”

I’m not telling her over the phone,” he said. “That’s stupid. I’m going to tell her that there’s something we need to talk about, and book a flight home as soon as I can.”

I nodded. “So, you’re telling her in person,” I said.

Yeah,” he stood, and stumbled. I jumped up to help him, but he waved me off.

I’m fine,” he said. “I can walk it off from here. It’s walking distance to my hotel, anyway.”

You weren’t staying at Bautista’s?” I asked.

Nah, that’d be weird,” Alex said, and paused to look at me. “Thank you,” he said. “You’re like an angel.”

I shook my head. “Nah, my friend’s more like an angel than I am,” I said. “She’s just a kick-in-the-pants angel. But I guess we all need it sometimes.”

I needed it,” he said. “I’m going to go home now, I guess. And try to fix things.”

Good luck,” I said, and watched him go. Thirty seconds after he exited the bar, Meg joined me with two very fancy drinks.

Look,” she said. “Umbrellas!”

You know, it’s funny,” I said. “These drinks are fruity and girly and fancy and everything, but they’re usually the strongest drinks in the bar.”

That’s because they used all the sweet flavoring to hide cheap, harsh alcohol during Prohibition,” Meg said. “So, you talked to him? How did it go?”

I’m sure you were listening in,” I said.

Maybe,” she chuckled.

I think he has a chance,” I said. “he knows how badly he screwed up, so maybe he’ll really try to change. Or maybe he won’t, and we both got conned.”

I usually know whether someone can change or not,” Meg said.

I shuddered with a memory of Megaera versus two criminals. One she spared, and gave him a week to turn his life around. The other she dragged screaming into the flaming pit, her claws tearing into his throat even as they disappeared into the fire. Meg was a real sweetheart to me, but not if you were on her list.

I can keep track of his karmic signal,” she said. “Let you know if he reconciles with his wife.”

I dunno,” I said. “That feels creepy somehow.”

Hi, I’m Megaera, the Fury,” Meg said. “I can learn a person’s sin just by looking at them. But anyway, looking past the whole married-guy-being-a-scumbag deal, you’ve gotta admit: I was totally right. You’re cute, and guys check you out all the time.”

Whoa, mood whiplash,” I said, and started on my drink. “You crazy lady, you.”

It’s what I specialize in,” she said, and sighed. “Well, here’s to our vacation, right?”

Right,” I nodded.

Meg leaned back and her posture relaxed, but then she sat up, suddenly.

We’re going, Lucy,” she said.

What?” I asked.

I too a look at Alex Molina’s karmic signature,” she said, already standing up and fishing through her purse. “He’s in trouble.”

Where?” I asked.

Get out of the bar and turn left,” she said, taking out some money. “Run three blocks down. Go, I’ll catch up.”

I left Meg to pay for the drinks, and broke out into a run as soon as I made outside. What the hell was going on? Did he stop to hit on some chicks the moment he got out of sight? Seriously, man?

No, Meg said he was in trouble. That was different. A lone, drunk and depressed man, walking the streets in the middle of the night. Maybe he got mugged. Or worse. And I had left my guns at home, of course.

An unearthly, inhuman moan echoed through the streets. I ran faster.

I turned the corner into a dark alley, and my eyes adjusted just in time to see some thing – vaguely humanoid, but that was all I could tell – drop him and jump away, bounding for the lip of the alley behind us. I started to give chase, but heard the sickening sound Alex Molina made as he hit the ground. I dove for him, instead. The monster that had been feasting on him turned back toward us, and I saw the lights of its eyes, like orange lanterns before it leapt into the night with another moaning cry, black wings stretching around it as it flew away into the night sky.

He was bleeding. So much blood. My hands were sticky with it, and I could smell its pungent, sickening-yet-appetizing stench in the air. At least I had fed.

Alex!” I said, carefully supporting him in case he was hurt even worse. “Alex, can you hear me?”

He moaned something, and Meg came into the scene. Her wings filled the alleyway for a moment, but then were gone as she reverted to her human form.

Lucy, what happened?” she asked, running up.

Call 911,” I said. “He’s still alive!”

She pulled out her phone. “Did you see what it was?”

I shook my head. “No, I couldn’t. It ran away. I think it had wings.”

She frowned, and held the phone up to her ear. I didn’t listen too closely as she called emergency services, instead focusing on the unfaithful man bleeding out in my arms.

We’re getting help,” I said. “You’ll be okay, Alex. What did this to you? Did you see it?”

His eyes closed. I could still feel his heart beating, but he had passed out.

Come on, stay with me,” I said. “Please.”

He was still alive when they loaded him into the ambulance a few minutes later. I leaned on Meg, and she put her armed around me.

I’m getting blood on you,” I mumbled.

It’s fine,” Meg said, giving me a squeeze. We watched the ambulance pull into the street. “Well, now his wife’s going to come out to visit him. Funny how that works, isn’t it?”

Yeah, I guess,” I said.

Are you okay, Lucy?” Meg asked.

I don’t know. He almost died,” I said. “What was that thing?”

Meg frowned. “We’re going back to Bautista’s,” she said.

What?” I asked.

Alden Bautista,” she said. “If he’s not a supernatural creature, I’ll eat your hat.”

You mean, you’ll eat your hat,” I said.

No, I don’t have one. You do,” she said, beginning to walk with me back in the direction of our car. “But we’re going to make a social call.”

I frowned. “This is the same thing as that murder in the paper, isn’t it?”

I’m sure of it,” she said. “Let’s go, Lucy.”

By the time we returned, Chauteau D’Bautista was as silent as the grave. Just like when we had first seen it, it was empty of staff except for the tiny, pudgy owner behind the front desk. All the wine tasting guests had left, strange considering how the tasting had only jut ended. But I could tell why the moment we stepped into the lobby. There’s a feeling when supernatural things are happening – it’s hard to quantify, but ordinary mortals tend to stay away. They just don’t feel like going to a certain place, or sticking around. It’s blessed us with silence and invisibility for centuries, and has served as a nice little warning for those of us in the know.

Meg outpaced me on the way to the front desk. Bautista looked up at us, and smiled.

Ladies, welcome back,” he said. “Did you enjoy the tasting? I tried my hardest.”

What are you?” she asked.

His smile dropped. “What?” he asked. “I think I am understanding you wrong.”

Drop the act,” she said. Meg didn’t change form, but she let a little bit of it through – her eyes turned the color of blood, and I could smell brimstone. “What. Are. You?”

I caught up. “You’d best cooperate, buddy,” I said, letting my fangs out.

Alden Bautista vanished. No, that wasn’t the right description. He melted away. At first, I thought he was just running away from us, but his shape changed as he bolted from the desk and through the door into the back room. Growing, lengthening, twisting into something else. The stool he had sat on fell over as the door to the back swung shut in his wake.

Dammit, he ran,” I said, vaulting the front desk. “So, what the hell is he?”

I think I have an idea,” Meg said as she followed. “I’d bet money that at least one of those horse statues is of him.”

We kicked open the door, and rushed into the darkness. It was just a hotel back office, but the exit hung open, stretching out into the vineyards behind the Bautista lodge.

A horse?” I asked.

A Tikbalang,” she said, and we ran. I didn’t think to pick up a weapon – but then, what would I grab? I had my own strength, and Meg had hers. I silently wished that I had thought to bring my guns on vacation, but then realized that they’d be nestled safely in our room right now, and still out of reach. We were going this alone.

What’s a Tikbalang?” I asked.

A Filipino trickster horse spirit,” she said. “They’re born from aborted fetuses who are denied Limbo. It’s a complicated thing.”

Weird,” I said. “So, what do we do?”

We exited from the darkness of the office to the moonlight-bathed vineyards. Rows upon rows of grape vines, propped up by stakes and trellises, lined the horizon. Meg and I walked between the rows, looking for any sign of our quarry.

Well, if a Tikbalang tries to trap you, you can foil it by turning your shirt inside out.”

Meg,” I frowned. “Be serious. This is not the time to try to get me to take my shirt off.”

No, really,” she said. “Trust me.”

Not gonna do it.”

If you pluck the three golden hairs from a Tikbalang’s head,” she said. “It’s forced to serve you.”

Okay, that’s weird,” I said.

It’s only weird because it’s foreign,” she said. “Now shush.”

I nodded, still looking around for any sign of Bautista’s whereabouts. It didn’t take long, he found us first.

“Anong ginagawa nyo, Bampira at Tagapaghiganti sa aking Ubasan? Anong akala mo sa sarili mo?” The voice was recognizably his, though deepened, and fiercer when speaking his own language. Of course, I couldn’t understand a word of it.

“Nandito kami, para ipaghiganti ang mga naging biktima mo, Demonyo!” Meg called back in the same language.

Hey!” I shouted. “Talk so I can understand you!”

“Biktimas?” Bautista responded to – well, he must have been answering Meg, because there was no way in hell I knew what he was saying. “Nag-kakamali kayo.”

I saw a flash of movement to the left, hidden in the shadows two rows deeper into the vineyard. I took careful, silent steps as Meg continued to talk to him.

“Maraming buwan tao ang nawawala,” Meg called out. “Isang bangkay ang natagpuan, makalawa lang. Tapos, kanina lang, naligtas namin ang bago mong biktima.”

“Na-iintindihan ko kayo,” Bautista said. “Pero, hindi ako ang pumapatay, kundi ang mga Berbalang.”

I lunged through the trellis as the monster, leaping into a tackle. I saw him clearly for a moment before I crashed into him. He was much taller like this, with limbs long enough that, crouched down, his knees extended over his head. Much more muscular, too, and with his horse’s head, Alden Bautista was no longer recognizable as the chubby little man who hosted our evening. I hit him like a linebacker, driving him into a row of grapevines.

Lucy, Wait!” Meg shouted, vaulting the grape vines to run toward us.

We hit the ground, and the Tikbalang brought an elongated arm around to try to shove me off. But we were in close quarters, and his abnormal limbs meant he couldn’t get the right leverage on me. He strained and writhed under my grasp, and I tried to punch him in the side of his horsey face. He headbutted me in the nose, and I nearly let go from the pain. Bautista flipped around, planting his hooves on the ground, and rose up to his full height, forcing me to cling to him like a monkey to stay on.

Let go!” He shouted, and dove for the ground, slamming me spine-first into the dirt. I grunted and wrapped my fingers around his neck, trying to choke him out. He whipped me around, crashing into another set of grape trellises. One of the wooden stakes jabbed into my back, and I nearly blacked out as it sank in. As my body began to reflexively go limp, I put all my strength into one last, desperate grab at his mane. But I fell off, hitting the ground limply, the impact jarring the wooden stake lodged in my back.

Wood sucks when you’re a vampire.

Alden Bautista leaned down, grabbing the stake in one of his hands. I seethed from the jolt of pain, but was powerless to fight back.

Bautista, stop it!” Meg shouted, moving in between us. “Let her go!”

I can’t hurt her,” he said in English. Bautista pulled the stake out of my back, and I gasped in the sudden shock of pain and blood loss, but my strength began to return immediately.

What?” Meg asked.

I pulled myself up to a sitting position, catching my breath as I felt the stake-wound begin to knit. I looked down at my hand. Clutched in the handful of mane hair I had ripped from the Tikbalang’s head were three golden spines, almost like quills.

Oh,” I said. I looked up at him. “So I guess I win now.”

Bautista jammed the stake back into the ground, and looked at the grape plants we had crushed. “You’re ruining my vines,” he said.

Yeah, well, you’re eating people,” I said.

Lucy,” Meg sighed. “He’s innocent. That’s what I was trying to tell you when you jumped at him.”

Well, I guess it’s nice to know that now,” I said, standing up again. I still felt a little shaky on my feet, but was managing to shrug off the effect of the stake. I looked at the golden quills in my hand, and then at Bautista. “I don’t think we need these,” I said, and dropped them to the ground.

He nodded. “Thank you for freeing me.”

Right, right,” I shook my head. “Okay, so if it’s not Horsehead over here, then what are we looking for?”

It’s a Berbalang,” Meg said.

What’s a Berb–Wait, is it some sort of Filipino monster” I asked.

A Filipino vampire,” Bautista said. “Or ghoul. Berbalangs feast on corpses, but have been known to turn to human flesh, instead. I have been hunting this one for months.”

Okay, vampires and ghouls are two entirely different things,” I said. I knew what I considered a ghoul, but the word was sometimes very elastic. “Tell me more.”

It’s a bat-winged creature that spends most of its time sleeping beneath the earth,” he said. A Berbalang will split its soul from its body into an astral form, and use that to seek out prey. The only way to kill one is with a kris dagger soaked in lime juice, and the only way to protect yourself from one is with a coconut pearl.”

A coconut pearl?” I asked.

I incorporate it into my wines,” Bautista said. “To keep my people safe.”

I didn’t taste any coconut,” I said.

It doesn’t taste like anything,” he said. “Did the Berbalang attack someone who was at my wine tasting?”

I nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “It did. So I guess it didn’t work.”

If he still lives, then it worked well enough,” Bautista said. He reached behind his back and unsheathed a long, wavy dagger. “I have driven this beast from its lair before. I intend to draw it here and kill it.”

Okay,” I nodded again, looking to Meg. “Well, it almost gutted a guy I kind of like. He has a family.”

That was intentional,” Bautista said. “I drew its intention tonight. The Berbalang sent its heralds to my wine tasting. Forgive me, but I thought it was the two of you.”

Yeah, we only herald happy stuff, like sunshine and rainbows, or Galactus,” Meg said, shaking her head. “So, why’d you pick on us?”

Meg, shush,” I said. “Alden, do Berbalangs suck blood?”

No, they devour entrails,” he answered.

I tensed. “That killing we saw in the newspaper. Somebody had sucked the blood from that victim. Alden, are there any actual Filipino vampires? Like, ones that drink blood?”

Yes,” he said. “There is the Manananggal.”

Don’t ask me to pronounce that,” I said. “So, what does it do?”

The Manananggal’s body splits in two, and it uses its tongue to suck the blood of its victims,” he said.

Wow,” I said. “And I thought our transformations were gross.”

To stop one, you need to make it impossible for its spine to rejoin again,” he said. “Smearing its lower half with salt is the best method, though you have to have the salt, and it has to hold still.”

Yeah, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” I said. “Your opinion, Meg?”

Shit,” Meg hissed. “Dammit! And I liked them!”

Huh?” I asked.

The two girls,” she said. “Lucy, don’t tell me you missed the supernatural vibe those two were giving off.”

I shook my head. “Totally missed it,” I said.

Yeah, you are in vacation mode,” she sighed. “They looked innocent, so I didn’t probe. And stop looking at me like that, Lucy. I can only see the sins of humans. I have to make a judgment call on fellow monsters.”

Yeah, and they said their brother didn’t like the wine,” I said. “Well, maybe we can reason with them.”

You can’t,” Bautista said.

You’d be surprised what happens when you sit down and talk,” I said. “So, what’s the plan? How are we going to find them?”

I set out the challenge by including coconut pearl in my wine,” he said. “They will come to me. This is why I thought they were you.”

I rubbed at the spot on my back where he had stakes me. The wound had healed, but I still felt sore from the wood. “Yeah, well, mistakes were made,” I said.

Hush,” Meg said.

We both turned to her. She lifted a finger to her lips. In the silence, I felt the atmosphere change again. We weren’t alone.

All right,” I said. “I get it, I get it. You want suspense. Show yourselves, girls.”

The sisters appeared at the nearest edge of the vineyard, gliding nearly arm-in-arm between rows of grapevines. They still looked adorable, which ruined the spooky effect a little bit.

I really should have known,” Meg muttered.

I took a step forward. “Althea, Amihan,” I said. “Hey, girls. What’s up? There seems to have been kind of a misunderstanding.”

They grinned at me in unison, their expressions lacking the warmth and cheer Meg and I had enjoyed earlier. The girls parted, Amihan moving to the left while Althea stepped to our right.

“Nandito ka lang pala, tagausig ng aming kapatid,” Althea said.

“Mamamatay-tao, ang kapatid ninyo,” Bautista said to both of them.

Hey, guys,” I said. “I can’t understand a word you’re saying! Please, for the love of all that is holy, stop doing that.”

“Hindi mo ba kami kilalala? Manananggal at Mambabarang kami,”, Amihan said. “Hindi naming kailangang magsalita ng salita nyo. Makapangyarihan at kinatatakutan kami.”

Bautista held the kris up, and gave a loud, horsey snort. “The other one is a Mambabarang,” he said.

Okay, can we just start explaining things the first time you mention them?” I asked. “This is getting silly.”

The girls laughed, and then Amihan unhinged her jaw. Well, there went the cuteness.

We had fun with you earlier,” Althea said in English. “I’m sorry that you have to be so stupid.”

Well, all right,” Meg cracked her knuckles. “You two aren’t human anymore, so dragging you into the Pit is totally out of the question. But your twisted little family has been eating people, so let’s do this.”

I’ll take the vamp,” I said. “You can handle the Mamb… Mamba… yeah, her.”

Meg nodded, and we each split to face one girl. Bautista stood between us, Kris still at the ready. He seemed to be watching for something.

Okay,” Meg said to Althea. “To be fair, I don’t really know what a Mambabarang is, either, and I know, like, practically everything. Wanna explain it to us?”

It means this,” Althea said, and clapped her hands together. She tensed, every muscle straining, visible even in the relative darkness. Then her skin burst as clouds of insects swarmed out of her pores. The cloud of bugs swarmed on Meg.

What the fuck?” I shouted.

Amihan’s extended jaw tore apart into a pair of mandibles, her tongue extending like an insect’s proboscis. Her body twitched and then jerked, twisting and tearing at the waist as the force of her extended spine literally ripped her torso in two. A pair of long, batlike wings unfurled from her back just as the spinal cord snapped, lifting her upper body into the air, viscera dangling underneath.

What the fuck?” I shouted again.

A moan filled the air – the same one I had heard when Alex was attacked. I had a quick glimpse of glowing, lamplike eyes, and then a shadowy, winged figure swooped in from the night sky, tackling Bautista into the ground. His kris went skidding into the grapevines.

What the – oh, never mind,” I said, and tried to focus on Amihan again. The horrific, mutilated monstrosity of a cute girl dove at me and I ducked, dodging to the side, only for her lower body to run up and whip at me with its length of severed spinal cord. The bones had somehow grown spikes, and they cut into my hip as I tried to get out of its way. I tripped and rolled to break my fall, catching myself on the ground.

The Tikbalang and the Berbalang wrestled on the ground, and I got my first clear look at the Berbalang as I steadied myself. It looked like a cross between a gargoyle and an emaciated corpse, papery skin wrapped around bone, surrounded by a pair of massive wings. Bautista used his reach to shove the monster off him, but then an identical copy of the Berbalang, only slightly transparent, rushed him from behind and hit him in the base of the spine. He fell to his knees, and both monsters jumped him.

“Kainin mo sya!” Althea shrieked as more bugs poured out of her body and onto Meg. I could guess at what she meant.

I kicked off the ground in time to avoid another Amihan dive bomb, and reached to grab her dangling spinal cord as she passed by. My hands wrapped around writhing bone and nerves, as well as the stinger she somehow sprouted, and we lifted off into the air. She wobbled, trying to account for my weight as she flew, and I let go with one hand to swipe at her wing. Amihan’s dangling organs lashed out at me, having grown rings of lamprey teeth.

I bore through the pain and yelled as I caught the Manananggal’s wing, and she shrieked in pain as I wrenched it back. We spiraled down into the vineyard again, crashing into a trellis. One of the wooden stakes scraped my side, but I avoided impalement as Amihan twisted herself free from my grip, her spine and viscera lashing at me as she pulled away.

Can you please stop being gross for just one second?” I asked, pulling myself back to my feet.

Amihan’s spine lashed at my face, the stinger catching me across the forehead. I fell backwards into the grape vines again. Her lower body caught up and kicked me in the ribs, and I blindly grabbed one of the wooden stakes that had fallen over, yanking it free from the grapes to swing at her. I smacked her disembodied hip, pushing it away just enough to allow me to stand again. Her upper body had taken flight again, her wings apparently unhurt from the fall, and she dove at me once more, slashing at me with her claws and spine.

I swung at her like a major-league batter, catching her on the chin. Her momentum carried her past me, spinning in the air before skidding into the ground. I kicked her lower body in the knee and ran after the rest of her.

Bautista threw off one of the Berbalang copies and grabbed the other one, using his superior reach to keep the ghoul away from him. He lifted it by the neck and squeezed, beginning to crush its throat before the other one came back and lunged at him, biting into his shoulder. He made a loud, screaming horse sound, and buckled again as the two Berbalangs double-teamed him. There was a dark lump of insects where Meg should have been, completely covered and immobile as Althea, the only one still remotely resembling a human – though that was debatable – continued to direct her skin-crawling little minions.

I ran up to Amihan’s torso with the stake, and thrust the pointy end at her. She shoved it aside and rushed me, rising up enough to shove against my chest. She bumped me hard enough to move me a couple of steps, and I backed into her lower body, tripping on it and falling onto my shoulders on the ground.

…Seriously? Did they really just pull a kneel-and-push on me?

Amihan pounced on me while I was down, her claws digging into my arms and holding them down. Her spine stabbed into my gut, and she lashed at my neck with her proboscis-like tongue. I responded to the pain by headbutting her as hard as I could. That also hurt, but it loosened her grip enough to let me push her away, and punch her in the jaw. She bit down on her proboscis and shrieked, giving me enough space to get up and rush her. I hit her in the chest, throwing enough of my vampiric strength into it to hear one of her ribs crack, but she responded by swiping her claws at my face. She hit me in the eyes and I staggered back again, giving her enough time to pounce on me once move, wrapping her arms around me to immobilize me as all of her other appendages lashed out again.

I wrapped my arms around her sides and threw myself backward, trapping the Manananggal in a suplex. She hit the ground headfirst and lost her grip, tumbling into the dirt behind me. It gave me a second to catch my breath as I got up again, though I ached from all the various ways she had gouged and bit me in the last couple of minutes.

Amihan crawled away on her arms, her spine lashing behind her. I pulled myself up just in time for her legs to kick me in the face, staggering me back again.

Shit, I really had to end this soon. I had to keep the halves from reuniting, right? With salt?

Okay, that was just my concussed brain trying to find salt in the middle of a vineyard at three in the morning.

I caught the lower half’s length of spine and swung, lifting Amihan’s legs off the ground to hammer-throw them away from me. I flung them away just as her upper torso regained her senses from the suplex, and took to the air again.

All right,” I said as her disembodied legs landed a couple of rows of grapevines away. “You’re the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen, and I’m going to put you down right now.”

She pointed a clawed finger at me. “I will bleed you dry, vampire,” Amihan said in English, the words slurred because of the new and exciting shape her mouth had taken. “I’ll tear off your head and crush your skull in my teeth!”

I liked you better when you were confusing Meg with a Disney movie,” I said.

She swooped down at me, and I tried to catch her in mid-air. Amihan had learned from her last few attempts and pulled up at the last second, striking me across the face with her spine. She dropped a I recoiled, pinning my lower arms to my side this time, and jabbed her proboscis deep into my throat. Everything bit into me at once; her split jaws, the teeth on her intestines, and the stinger on her spine as she started to mangle me. Bleeding a vampire out was a valid way to take one down without access to any other of its weaknesses, and even though she hadn’t thought to grab one of the stakes off the ground, this was working well.

I tried to wrench away, but Amihan’s legs caught up with us again, and stabbed me in the back with its length of spinal cord, effectively sandwiching me between both halves.

Nearby, the Berbalang threw Bautista to the ground. He fell, covered in blood, in a heap by some of his undamaged grapevines. Both copies of the Berbalang moved to flank his fallen form, speaking in unison, their identical voices echoing in a distorted stereo.

“Nabigo ka sa pag patay sa akin, Tikbalang,” I could guess what it was saying – probably something about Bautista’s failure, or how it was going to kill him. “Dugo mo ngayon ang gagamitin ko, pang dilig ng mga ubas mo!”

As one of the Berbalangs lunged to bite at his throat, Bautista twisted. Moonlight glinted off the blade of the kris he had retrieved when he fell, and he plunged the lime-soaked dagger into the Berbalang’s chest. The winged monster gave a breathless gasp, and its orange eyes widened. The copy faded away.

Ang tanga mo naman! Itaw ang nabigo. Hinayaan mong linlangin ka ng isang Tikbalang na tulad ko,” Bautista said something that was probably very witty if I could understand a word of it. “Sa wakas, mabibigyan na rin ng katarungan ang pagpatay sa ga na-biktima mo.”

The lights faded from the Berbalang’s eyes, and it crumbled to the ground. Bautista rose up and stood tall over its body.

“Kuya!” Althea called out.

Megaera stood up, still covered in swarming insects.

All right,” she said way too casually. “It’s been fun, but I’m really sick of the bugs now. Fun time is over.”

What?” Althea asked in English.

The area around Meg exploded in the sulfuric flames of purification, wiping out the swarm just as easily as the vegetation surrounding her. She stood in a ring of fire, having taken her true form. With razor-sharp red metallic wings, claws and talons like jagged knives, and eyes that dripped bloody tears, the Fury had been unleashed.

You are about to be judged, witch,” Megaera said.

“No!” Althea shouted, pointing with her finger and summoning another swarm of insects to attack Meg. They burned up before they even reached her. Meg crossed the distance in a second, her knife-like talons slicing into the witch’s throat like butter.

Meanwhile, Amihan the Manananggal was still bleeding me. But there’s a fun thing about that – an ability available to older vampires, and even then only when they’ve been bled just enough to be put into danger, but not enough to start growing weak. Hell, using it was what had evened the playing field against that demon months ago. I gave in to the ugliest, strongest power my curse gave me access to.

Oh, Amihan,” I said as I felt the dark metamorphosis begin to take hold. “You’re not the only one who can transform.”

She pulled back when the first surge of the transformation hit, the wave of dark energy startling her from her feeding. My body began to change, to grow taller, stronger, inhuman. My fangs were like daggers. My claws like spears. Wings stretched between my arms and torso as I became more bat than human, my transformation shredding the clothes Meg and I had bought last night. I also felt the sudden bloodlust that came with the transformation, the overwhelming urge to bite, rip, and tear. And there was something new, a heated, darker undercurrent that I had never felt before. I ignored it in favor of the monstrosity still trying to bite and stab through my leathery skin.

I ripped her arms away from me, easily shrugging off the Manananggal’s pitiful attempt to pin me down. She twisted to break free, and I let go with one hand only to grab her by the proboscis, and tear it off, her foul blood spraying over us both. She shrieked in pain and lashed at me with her spine and viscera, but I ignored all the tiny biting mouths, instead lifting the half-a-monster above my head. I grabbed the lower torso with my free hand by its section of spine, pulling it in front of me, as well.

I had to keep the halves from reuniting properly, right?

I turned Amihan Dimsalang’s torso upside-down, and jammed her headfirst into her lower torso’s spinal cord. There was a horrible mixture of cracking and squelching sounds as I crushed both halves of the Filipino vampire’s body together the wrong way, mutilating her into a pile of twisted and broken limbs and organs. When I was satisfied that it wasn’t going to reassemble itself, I hurled the mangled remains away, listening to it crash into a row of grape vines, and go still.

And then I felt it, that new undercurrent trying to force itself to the surface, to twist my already dark and corrupted mine even further. The desire to do more than bite and tear. For more than blood. To burn. To make everything burn, to reduce it to ashes at my feet. I felt my blood grow hotter, feverishly boiling with the need to

No. Not this time.

I let go of the metamorphosis, and it faded almost instantly, my body already beginning to shrink back to normal as the vampire curse receded once again. I felt the sudden wave of guilt that always accompanied a transformation, though it dissipated just as quickly.

Okay, Lucy. You let yourself turn into a giant bat-monster again. But it all worked out for the best, so everything was okay, right?

Alden Bautista, suddenly restored to his tiny, pudgy little human form, walked up to me.

Let’s get you some clothes,” he said. “I think you need your clothes right now.”

Meg laughed.

Oh, yeah. Embarrassment. I also felt that after every transformation. Yeah, definitely embarrassment.

By the time I had gotten back into the hotel room to put some decent clothes on, I was feeling both fatigue and blood loss. I helped myself to one of the bottles of blood I had brought from home, and then Meg put me to bed. I had no trouble sleeping until the next sunset.

Lucy,” Meg said about five minutes after sundown. “Lucy, wake up. We’ve got a delivery.”

Huh?” I asked, blinking awake. I had healed from the previous night’s exertions, though I still ached a bit just from leftover fatigue.

Look!” Meg said, and struck a Price is Right model pose over two crates stacked next to the door.

Huh?” I asked again, sitting up. “Wine?”

Yeah, and this,” Meg said, lightly flinging a greeting card at me. It hit me on the nose.

Ow! Meg!” I said, and then opened the card to read it.

All my people, and all my family thank you two forever. Please take this gift, and enjoy a free case of my best wines every year from now on. It’s the least I could do to express my eternal gratitude.

-A. Bautista

Wow,” I said. “I feel kind of guilty for wrecking all those plants, though.”

He can replant the grapes,” Meg said. “But nobody can bring back the people those monsters killed. Thanks to us, they’re no longer a threat to anybody.”

Yeah, we totally ruined our vacation,” I said.

She shrugged. “Yeah, well, we’ve still got the rest of the weekend.”

I began to climb out of bed. “All right. So, after I get myself cleaned up and dressed, and we go and give Alden like twenty gigantic friendly hugs for the free wine, what do you want to do tonight?”

Meg yawned. “I dunno,” she said. “Maybe we’ll just relax for once.”

Friends, relaxation, and wine country. Best vacation ever.