This new world has been born and grown old while I was in my tomb. Its dirtiness, debauchery, utter ruin, are the most beautiful things I have ever seen. Dust-clogged streets, riddled with cracks and holes. Buildings so immaculately painted and plastered, only to watch the walls crumble and scrawl rowdy phrases onto the finish. Electricity everywhere, wasted on little bulbs of light to drive away the darkness where it already is king.
The city is bigger, wider, more imposing than I remember, but the skies are clearer. When I was last let out of my tomb, the air was hard to breathe, sharp and dusty and ashen. Tonight I can almost see stars through the fog of smoke and smog, can almost feel the moon’s light on my skin. I breathe, I walk, I explore, I let myself experience the simple pleasure of walking down a dilapidated street at night, surrounded by mouse-like human heart beats and the cold patter of rain. This freedom, as small as it is, makes me forget the slow, steady burn of my leash as it eats into my flesh.
It started shortly after I left what was my prison. Without Isegrim to stop me, I was free to leave, free to make a decision I didn’t have for so long—stay close to the tomb and the keyholder and live, or run to freedom and find death in the most painful way imaginable. The amulet around my neck burns my flesh like the sizzling drip of king’s water, ever so slowly increasing its intensity. The tatters I wear do nothing to protect me from the evil magick woven into the light swirls and playful swipes of silver, gold, and amber. They just give, break away, crumble beneath the featherweight of the jewelry. My skin screams for relief where it bubbles and burns, but it is just pain. Pain I know. Pain I can manage. It is my oldest friend, my only friend. I don’t fear it, not anymore. I keep walking, right through the smoke of my own burning flesh.
The human boy keeps following me. He smells like a Hunter, like books and guns and elder wood, blood and brushes with death, but if he is one of them, the Hunters have changed. They used to be families, fathers teaching their sons how to fight, to kill, to die young, and mothers teaching their daughters how to dig graves and shield the corpses of their loved ones from the hungry mouths of ghouls and skinwalkers. The Hunters of old celebrated death like it was their god. They never would have bothered following me, they would have killed me the moment they had a chance. This boy though? I close my eyes as I walk, recall the feel of his skin, his pulse beneath my grip, the way his heart fluttered when I closed my fingers around his throat, the scent of limes and old paper as he tried not to struggle. Life. That is what he is. That is what he thinks of. That is what he celebrates.
He will not live long.
And neither will I. The amulet’s burn has reached my bones by now and the pain shoots through my whole body. My joints ache, my blood clots and swells as the silver particles reach my veins, making every move, every breath, a lesson in torture. I still have hours to go until the sun rises, but if the decomposition goes on at this rate, I will be clumps and ashes before the sky grows blue. The shadows inside of me, the voices from the dark that eat my soul, don’t understand this. For them, existence is never ending, flesh or no flesh. For them, existence is about feeding, destruction, sex.
A wild patch of greenery appears as I reach an intersection, a thumb print of nature in a desert of concrete. Something niggles at my brain, pokes at my thoughts as if I’m supposed to think specific thoughts at the sight of trees. Sometimes my brain does this, tries to remember things that are long gone, long forgotten, too painful to keep. Thoughts like who am I, where did I come from, what did I do to deserve this, they all barely spring to mind anymore. I can’t remember. I don’t want to remember. Memories are just another flavor of pain that I learned to bear, to ignore. I do like the sight of trees, though.
I am so consumed by the view that I almost miss the movement to my left. The waft of neck-ruffling smell only vampires have. The sharper myrrh layer of my master’s lair. The snaking stench means only one thing: They have found me. How, I don’t know. Isegrim died before he could alert anyone, quick and ruthless. Were they watching? Did I miss something?
Freezing, I curl my lips as I glance around. They aren’t close yet, still far enough out I could outrun them. I’m in no shape to fight them right now, but fight is not always the right answer to a problem. I wouldn’t have agreed some two hundred years ago, but back then I was still mostly man, with mannish thoughts and pride. I am not so stupid anymore. The wind and rain pick up, battering my face and shoulders with a fresh cold I never knew I missed. I tilt my head to the left, snorting the wet night air with flaring nostrils, straining my ears and other senses. My nose sorts through the stench of dirty wet concrete, gas, dog urine, and rotting wood like a player shuffling cards, bombarding me with the few bits and morsels of useful information. Three of them, thick with blood and drenched in aftershave, with a slight hint of gun oil and battery acid. I hone in on the subtle differences in their scent, tilting my head and resettling my weight a little so I can listen better.
My body protests though, no longer letting me ignore the devastation tearing though it. And since I’m not listening to what my nerves tell me, I have long since missed the point of no return. The burn, the torturous thrum in my body flare at the shift, make me waver, tilt, blink, and suddenly they are there. Running outright, eyes focused on me, and I forget how weak I am, how frail, and run too.
Their coats flap heavily as they snap at my heels. Their claws rip what’s left of my shirt into crumbling shreds, snarling when I tug free easily. We break through the underbrush of the park like wildebeests, leaving a path of destruction as we rip through branches and bushes, and for a moment I can almost convince myself that we are one, one group, one unit, hunting something else.
When a wall suddenly blocks my path, I don’t think. I jump and grab the ledge easily, pulling myself over. Something rams into my leg as I pull it up and the world turns white and sharp as my muscles lock up. I tumble down the other side like I am made of wood, arms and legs twitching with cramps. I have never felt anything like it, but it hurts.
I slam into the concrete ground with a grunt, surrounded by the uncaring, gaping maws of abandoned building blocks and cracked foundations, all glistening wetly in the moonlight. My bones ache, my skin crawls and dribbles blood where it split, overripe from the acid coursing through my body. The shadows in me force me up, drive me forward in a confused stumble that skins the palms of my hands. It’s not enough.
One after the other, the three vampires slither over the wall and land softly on the hard ground. The crunch of gravel under the soles of their boots sends icy shivers down my back and fills my head with pictures of broken bones, ground into so much dust. I crawl forward, leaving more skin, blood, and sweat on the cold ground and still getting nowhere. Sooner than I want I have to admit defeat and gnash my teeth when they saunter after me unhurriedly. They look like specters, all three of them, wrapped in leather waistcoats and leather gloves, their steel-toed boots glistening wetly from the rain as they circle me. I do not know their faces, but their taste hangs thickly in the air. They taste young, hungry. Ravenous for their maker’s approval.
A gust of wind pelts me with ice cold raindrops. The water does nothing to curb the incessant, throbbing burn of the amulet sinking further into my body as it hisses and fizzles. I curl in on myself, on the roaring pain, belatedly listening to the drone of their voices, unable to understand, unable to do what they ask. They don’t know. Many don’t know what the amulet does, but even if they did, the outcome would be the same. A boot swings toward my side and slams into my ribs. I tumble to the side, bones crunching, but I don’t get to cough; one of them jabs a metal stick into me and another wave of sickening tingles twists my body and steels my muscles until they contort and drag against my broken ribs. My mind blanks to blinding white.
When I’m pulled back into my body, I come home to a broken mess. Their fists, boots, even that damn metal stick have all but ground my muscles off my bones, rending my heated, swollen flesh open. They know they don’t have to go this far. I am already subdued, rendered mortal by the steady hiss of the chain around my neck. But they seem to know who I am, and they are young. Young and on the hunt for chances to prove themselves. What could be a better proof of power than beating me?
I hope they forget their task, hope they get drunk on this moment of power. Hope they forget that they should bring me home alive.
I hope they kill me.
When they let up, I have to keep myself from roaring at them. My enemies circle me, bodies heated and sweating, their musk a cloud I drown in. By now I can distinguish each of their scents, still hungry for every new sensual input, still drunk on all the seeing, hearing, smelling. Their mouths move, jabbering as they coordinate. One of them, blond and broad-shouldered, points at me and growls something at the other two. He would look better in steel armor, but these aren’t the times where armor means something. But even without it, he acts like their leader, if young flesh like theirs even knows what leading— or submission— actually is. Killing him would scatter the others, give me a chance to flee and lick my wounds. If I could just find a little more strength, a little more energy, …
A strange waver of energy brushes against me, almost like fate tipping on its axis. The next gust of rainy wind carries a scent, strange and yet so familiar, and I have to fight— hard— not to turn and give him away. Cinnamon, limes and the stench of gun oil. It’s like his body adds new nuances to his scent with each hour I’m around him.
The human boy has found me once again. My heart throbs as my mind turns with the new wind. Even if my enemies don’t kill me, the Hunter will. I just have to give him a reason, pressure him into doing it.
And just as I’m getting ready to get up, one of them pushes the electric stick back into my side and I dance merrily for him, twisting and shaking until my mind flees my body once more.
With a last roll of my eyes, I see the blond vampire drop to the ground, a glistening hole blooming on his forehead. Then the brilliant white eats even that.