A shout, the ratcheting of guns being readied, and I know we’re fucked. Thralls. I’m counting seven of them, spread out across the room—once again cluttered—as if guarding something. They look as surprised as I feel at our sudden entrance, swinging around in startled hops as they shout warnings. It takes us no more than one breath to get into formation. I roll along Aschure’s back until I’m on her left side, pointing my Glock before I’ve finished the move. Aschure goes down on one knee, gun swinging right.
We squeeze our triggers before the first rifle muzzle is fully pointing at us, blasting the room with fire, light, and noise. My shots hit in groups of three, stomach, chest, head, and I miss only once. Three of the blood-bound men fall, dead before they hit the ground, before I have to reload. I roll behind a cluster of boxes, making room for Aschure when she follows a lot less elegant than me. Bullets whine over my head, biting into the marble pillars behind us before the shooter aims lower. Another wave of shots clatters along the floor, ricocheting off the tiles and blasting holes into the boxes we use as cover. Aschure pops up and takes down two more, but her aim is off. She’s a much better shot than me, but her hands are shaking badly and getting worse by the minute. Most of her shots go far off target, and when her gun clicks empty, she sobs a frustrated curse.
We’re shit out of luck and I can’t take them on alone. “Tactical retreat,” I call to her, half expecting her to show me the finger. But the tough, veteran huntress is gone, leaving behind a bleeding, scared, person with a gun to make the decisions. Scared persons are what kills people, and I really don’t want to die here. “Run back where we’ve come from, I’ll cover you,” I yell over the rattle of automatic rifle fire and nod my head back.
Aschure turns to do just that, flinches back, and screams. The fucking vampire is right there, right at the door we came through, staring at her with a mad grin on his pus-covered face. There goes that option. “Left, left, left,” I yell, pointing to another, smaller door off to the side. The vampire snarls and charges, and Aschure shrieks and starts running.
Machine gun fire follows her, and I use the shooter’s distraction with her to pick him off with two quick shots. She slams the door behind her, bullets biting into the wall where her head was a blink ago. That leaves the vampire.
I whirl around and point the gun at the side door. The vampire is trying to punch a hole into it, roaring as he shoves his arm through the tiny gap he made and peeling off parts of his arm in the process. The stench wafting from his now bloodied arm is incredible. Quite literally breathtaking. Sweet, rotten meat, pus, and that unique smell of dying from sickness, all bundled into one cloud of odor. I didn’t know vampires could even get sick, but if that creature is still immortal, I’ll eat my shoe. Swallowing bile, I empty my magazine into him as I charge. He twitches and shrieks with each hit, ripping his mangled arm out of the door. He stumbles back as I round him, gun blazing, until my back is to the door, not waiting for him to come to a halt until I’m absolutely sure he’s down. But he doesn’t die. He just twitches and howls, staggering as clumps of—god, I don’t want to look—something fall off his body. A whining snarl follows when my gun clicks empty, and the vampire staggers. Blood seeps from the bullet holes I bestowed on him, and still he doesn’t go down.
No matter how long we live, no matter how many creatures we kill, there’s always that one creature that is simply stronger than the Hunter. It’s why my kind dies off so frequently, nothing surprising. I did have hopes I’d live through my first job though. I still could.
Clenching my jaw, I shuffle backwards, reloading my gun with quick, shaky moves. The vampire turns with me, stumbling and slow. He seems confused, eyes glazed over as he looks around, drool dripping from his indecently long fangs. He doesn’t charge. He should, I’m right here. But he doesn’t. Can he even see me?
I take a chance when my back hits the damaged door and knock with my heel. “It’s me, let me in!”
Nothing. I knock again, pointing the gun at the vampire as he stops and sways, frowning at me. “Fucking open the door, Aschure,” I yell and shuffle to the side so I can try the handle. Locked.
The vampire moves, one hesitant step towards me, still frowning as if he doesn’t quite believe his eyes. I put a bullet through his head and he falls back, hitting the floor with a wet, gurgling grunt. I could empty another magazine into him, but if one salvo didn’t kill him, the next one won’t do much either. Some vampires, especially the old ones, are so good at rapid healing, simple weapons don’t do more than temporary harm, slowing them down but doing fuck-all besides that. He’ll need a good heap of silver bullets to finally get the message, but those are in the car, outside, where they’re safe. It’s a long, long way to the car. And I’d rather be armed and on the run than unarmed and facing off with a creature like that.
But first, I need to get out of here and I’m not going near the twitching heap of rot. My other exit options are limited, and besides, two Hunters are better than one. I need to follow Aschure, make sure she’s not lying on the other side of that door, unconscious. She’ll know what to do, how to bring the fucker down before he can skitter away into the district to find another rat hole. Next to Aschure, I’m a nothing. I’m so far out of my depth it’s not even funny anymore. I need her.
Heart pounding, I worm my hand through the gap the vampire punched into the massive wooden door and fumble for the latch, keeping the gun pointed at the vampire. He’s still twitching in a growing pool of blood and something milkier, but he grows more coordinated with each heartbeat. Wooden splinters cut into my arm, but I still can’t reach the latch.
Whimpering, I give up pointing at the vampire and turn around. I push harder, gritting my teeth against the searing pain of skin being cut open as I bury my arm in the hole. I can just about reach the handle, my fingertips fumbling against the cool, rough metal, my gasps hot and wet against the wood.
The vampire gets up, cackling madly. One of his eyes is so bloodshot it looks black, but he sees me now, and he grins at me as he spits out a bullet. I scream, angle my arm and flip the latch. The vampire staggers forward as I rip the door open, his claws tangling in my jacket. I give it to him, let him tug it from me and jump through the door. Only when I slam and lock the door, I realize that my last magazine is in the jacket pocket. Outside with the vampire. Nine bullets left.
My arm bleeds like a motherfucker, but I don’t have time to tend to the gashes. I stumble back from the door, eyes fixed on the hole. If I managed to open it, the vampire can, too. I have a minute, at most. I whirl around and fight back tears. The fucking room is fucking empty, except for a giant, rectangular box. It’s made of silver and looks like a table, or an altar maybe, but that doesn’t help me. Further into the room and at the back wall, there is a chute that’s pointing up, but a massive, grated metal shutter covers it. And since Aschure is nowhere to be seen, she must have dragged it over the hole, once she was outside.
Locking me in. Leaving me to die.
A sharp, hard impact behind me rattles the door, cracking the wood around the latch. Two, maybe three more of those hits, and the door will give. I scramble over to the silver box and touch it. Feels real enough, and thank you lord, it has a seam around the top, and another latch, well oiled by the looks of it. I don’t wonder why a vampire is guarding a silver box, considering that he won’t be able to touch it without his hands melting off. I flip the latch. You don’t look a gift horse into the mouth, you just get on and ride it like you stole it.
Another crash, and the door goes off the upper hinge, a shower of wood splinters raining down. The vampire screetches as he tries to crawl through the gap, undulating in snake-like movements. The room fills with its unbearable stink, his claws leave gashes, both in the wood and the stone plaster beside the door.
Time’s up. I flip the giant lid, grunting with the effort.
Out of the box comes a monster.
A shape rams into me, riding me down to the floor faster than I can gasp out my surprise, my head hitting the stone floor with a resounding crack. The creature lands on my chest, forcing what little air I had left out of my lungs with a breathless groan, a soft tinkling sound accompanying his impact with my body as some kind of amulet around his neck spills out of this tattered shirt. It’s a man, or at least I think it is, caked with an almost black crust of old blood, clothes torn beyond recognition, brown with caked dirt. Patches of unblemished, pale skin shine out of the mess like beacons, but they are few and far between. He looks like a grotesque, oversized calico cat. Smells like one, too. His hair is wild, as is what beard he has left between all those scars, and his eyes are black. I don’t mean his pupils, but all of his eyes.
I am staring into the void, and it is staring back.
I suck in a shaky breath, head pounding from the impact on the floor. The beast grabs my throat and squeezes, lips curling into a manic grin until his fangs are peeking out. His fingers bury into my neck as if he was squeezing a tomato, breaking my skin easily. Killing me like this, tearing my throat out, wouldn’t cost a vampire like him a drop of sweat. And a vampire he is, I’m sure of it. So much for surviving this mission. I close my eyes, retching as my throat closes up and tickles my gag reflex.
Then he blinks, leans forward to sniff the air above my face. His fangs are elongated, poking out of his parted lips as he huffs. The grin falls off of his face and leaves a grimace behind, almost as if he’s put out he had to tackle me, and his fingers let go of my throat.
That’s when the other vampire finally manages to squeeze through the broken door, falling into the room like a fresh born calf.
The wild man’s eyes snap up and hone in on the pus-soaked vampire. The manic grin returns, as if nothing could make him happier than seeing that abomination right now. He growls softly, then his weight is suddenly gone from my chest.
He’s on the other vampire before I finish blinking. They don’t fight, though. Aschure said that pus-monster was fast, but whatever I let out of that box is faster. He grabs the vampire, one hand on his head, the other at his hips, and… rips him apart with a single tug. No strain, no fight for dominance, just a short impression of bulging muscles, followed by a spray of blood and bodyparts.
I suck in a rattling breath, rolling around and crab-walking backward until my back hits the silver coffin. My mind doesn’t want to believe what I’ve just seen, but my strained gag reflex is pretty sure about what happened. If I wasn’t so panicked, so tense, I would hurl.
The beast stands there for a moment, sucking in a single, deep breath as if he’s never had air before, then he glances over his shoulder. He throws me an appraising glance, like a bear would eye a wolf encroaching on its territory, and I instinctively raise my gun to point it at his chest. His blank stare tells me all I need to know. Either he doesn’t know what a gun is, or he doesn’t give a shit about bullets. If he doesn’t know guns, he’s way, way too old to fuck with him. If he doesn’t care about bullets, my shooting him unprovoked would just piss him off. I eye the remains of the last person who was stupid enough to go there.
Gulping, I lower my gun.
He growls again, low and restless, and rolls his shoulders. Then he stalks off, smashing the broken door right out of its frame as if it is nothing but a slight nuisance.
I stare after him, wide-eyed and hyperventilating.
I just let an antediluvian out of a silver coffin. Not just that, but I watched him march right out of his prison while I’m just sitting here and wondering if the wetness on my pants is blood from the corpse or something more embarrassing. What kind of monster did I just set free?