It takes me a long time to build up the courage to poke my head out of the room. It’s quiet, as it should be in an abandoned hospital, but the quiet makes me uneasy. The dead bodies are still where we left them, which means Aschure hasn’t yet returned to clean up. She will, probably sooner rather than later, but still too late to catch my would-be savior.
I strain my ears and listen into the dead hallways. Nothing but the faint dripping of leaking pipes and the howl of rain-heavy wind through broken windows. Sneaking out of the blood-splattered room quickly and quietly, I check each of the thralls for signs of life, then drop ash pearls on their corpses. They disintegrate quickly, their ashes hissing as they crumble into nothingness. The splattered remains demand a fire pearl, so I throw one in and shield my face against the burst of bright flames when the pearl touches the vampire’s blood. The roar of heat races through the room, burning away the remains and leaving the room blackened. No trace left, just as the Hunter’s handbook demands.
Swallowing, I turn to examine the room again, checking for any other traces of supernatural activity, relieved when I find nothing. I can’t do anything about the silver coffin, but besides being freaky, it wouldn’t allow any connections to anything supernatural going on. It won’t make any additional trouble.
Now that all is done, I freeze in place. Either the temperature has dropped, or I’m coming down from a heap of adrenaline, but whichever is responsible for the sudden cold, I’m shaking. I should get out of here, but I’m afraid. Not because of what I just saw or because that freakishly strong vampire could swoop in and eat me, no. I’m afraid because my Hunter’s mark has started prickling and is just about to begin its descent into itching. The branding at the center of my neck, a ring pierced by a sword, is the first warning of something much worse to come. A nicely put hint that I’ve fucked up and better go fix it before it’s too late. If I don’t go after the escapee, I will break my vows. And then my vows will break me, quite literally. Right through the neck, like a butcher knife. As I said; Hunters are animals, especially towards each other.
The idea of having to go after a creature so dangerous still has me shaking in my boots, no amount of prickling, itching or burning will ever change that. Mighty Hunter, I am not. It can’t be helped, though.
Just to make sure I won’t get caught unawares again, I check my gun. Still nine reassuring bullets left. Still nothing but quiet and the howl of wind in the ruins. I sneak back the way I came, grimacing at the squishing sounds my boots make. I’ll have to clean them before I drag pus-speckled vampire blood everywhere, but I don’t want to stop until I’m out of this hell-hole. Thralls, a master vampire, a vampire-in-a-box,… Definitely not my kind of jam.
Thick, cold droplets of rain greet me once I’m outside. A summer storm in all its glory is growing above the city, its clouds bunching and churning, belching lightning bolts and the distant sound of thunder as they lick up the smog from the sky. It’s much later than I thought. Dusk is already licking at the horizon, and the clouds do their part too, blocking out the sun and dousing the world in gloom.
The garden looks untouched, as wild and overgrown as when I came in. The view feels wrong somehow. I don’t know why I expected things to look different, I was only gone for maybe thirty minutes, an hour at the most. My brain is still confused though. I killed three people, I feel different, other, so why is the world still the same?
A rustle further into the thicket makes me tense and perk up. Did someone survive? That would be bad, real bad, especially if it’s a thrall. Mindfucked humans have a tendency to run amok when their master is killed. And setting crazed thralls free to roam the world is almost as bad as being seen on the crime scene of a killing spree by some clueless passer-by. I grab the gun tighter, duck, and snake my way through the brushes and the grass, stepping lightly between twigs and dried leaves, ducking under branches. I’m almost soundless. I wasn’t before. It’s like my shoes suddenly fit.
I’m so focused on my steps, I only notice my savior when I’m already in sight. He’s on the other side of the metal fence, a muscular, sinister creature crouching on a concrete walkway in the rainy twilight. His wide shoulders are hunched, muscular back bowed as he cowers down lower, trying to blend in with camouflage that isn’t there. His skin sizzles a little where the last rays of sunshine break through the clouds, but he pays no mind to the pain. He’s much to focused on me, glowering, lip slightly curled as he growls soundlessly. An animal paces behind those black eyes.
I haven’t thought this through. He didn’t kill me inside the hospital, true, but what made me think he wouldn’t fix that mistake now?
I talk before my throat closes up completely. “Okay, we’re both gonna be calm and cool about this, you and me. I’m not gonna shoot you and you’re not gonna eat me, right? I have no reason to hurt you—,” yet, my mind adds glumly, “—but you have to get off the street before somebody sees you like this. Suck in your fangs and what have you, maybe come back inside here? Once we’ve got you nice and hidden, we’ll call your vampire friends and they will come pick you up, easy peasy.”
My tiny inside-the-head-voice screams at me to not use baby talk with an elder vampire, no matter how wild, but I can’t get myself to stop. A tiger couldn’t scare me more than he does at the moment, and I would talk to a tiger the same way. Hell, I could kill a tiger with one bullet, tigers are way less scary than this guy. But, just like a tiger, there is no recognition in his face. He stares at me warily, cocks his head a little and blinks, but I get the strong feeling that he doesn’t understand a word.
I switch to Spanish and repeat myself, using slightly more civilized phrasing, but still nothing. German gets me no closer to my goal, either. And I’m getting nervous, my shirt going sweaty and clammy as my mind races. How do I get him off the street and don’t get eaten in the process?
The streets are silent, but they won’t be much longer, not after sundown. The Dark City district is the worst part of Babylon, no better than an apocalyptic wasteland in some ways. The only people on the streets here are criminals, junkies, or worse. But crime is a business of the night, which is when the Dark City comes to life. It won’t be much longer until the first whore mongers stroll out and start their day. If anyone sees him, they will get curious. And since he isn’t visibly armed, they will think he’s easy pickings.
I can’t let that happen.
“Come on, get over here,” I beg and take one hand off the gun to reach for him. We are too far away from each other to actually touch him, but maybe the gesture will do what the words didn’t. Inside my mind I’m begging him to be complacent, to come back, to trust me.
Unfortunately, real life doesn’t work like that. With a sharp, teeth-baring snarl, he takes off. On all fours, like a race horse.
Whimpering a curse, I holster my gun and run after him, along the fence, through the gate, down the street, driven forward by the first tendrils of itching on my neck.
I’m a dead man.
I truly thought it would be impossible to track the man, once he got loose in the city. It confuses me that I didn’t, that I don’t. Maybe someone up there has decided to have mercy with me.
The streets are still mostly deserted, the trademark darkness broken only by a smattering of flickering streetlights and the flashes of distant lightning. The sun has finally set, but the smog catches the city lights like a lamp shade, throwing some of it back down on us. Him up front, a sleek, muscular shadow almost a block away from me, and me back here, drenched to the bone and only getting wetter.
I found him an intersection away from the hospital ruins, glancing up at the bulb of a street light, curiosity all over his face. He canted his head, then climbed the lantern and touched the hot glass cover, frowning in wonder. We stayed there for a little while, me hanging back and pressing up to a corner, him playing with the light bulb like it was the most exciting thing he’d ever seen.
Since that, he has been ambling down the street, checking the abandoned buildings to his left and right, stopping ever so often to turn in a circle and get his bearings. And I, obedient Hunter that I am, follow him through his antics and try to come up with a plan.
It’s not as easy as I had hoped. I don’t have a dart gun ready, I don’t have silver bullets, I don’t speak his language—if he even has one—, and he doesn’t seem interested in eating me, or anybody else for that matter. Were it not for his obvious fangs and the animalistic behavior, I wouldn’t have to worry about him breaching the Contract. But how do I make clear to him that he needs to retract his fangs? Can he even do that? Maybe he’s a kind of vampire who can’t, and what then?
There are moments when he staggers, stops, or stumbles, always grabbing his neck, always clenching his teeth, but I can’t make heads or tails of those times. It’s almost like he is in pain, but I’ve seen him up close, he isn’t hurt. I think. The rain makes it hard to see, but I think there is some kind of smoke or haze coming out of his collar. I can’t figure out why, or where it could come from. The only thing I saw on his neck was that amulet, and it wasn’t silver. I would have noticed.
The longer we walk, the better lighted the area becomes. A few of the houses even show signs of habitation, even if it is the vagrant sort. Old apartment buildings seam the street, their entryways filled with garbagebags and old papers. A certain stink permeates the air, a mixture of garbage can bottom and public urinal cake that makes my eyes water. Up front, a dark patch heralds the existence of a small park, but except for a blackout-drunk bum, I’ve yet to get unlucky and run into someone. The vampire stops at the intersection bordering on the unkempt little park, looking left and right like a well-behaved pedestrian. I stop too, ducking into an entryway. He probably knows I’m following him, but I’m no threat and I’m giving him space, so he’s ignoring me for now. His clothes really are tatters, too dirty and thread-bare to look anything but brown. There’s just enough left of them to cover his body, but he’s constantly losing bits and pieces of it, the rags disintegrating with each movement of his body. How long he has been in that box, and why? Who hates him enough to stoop to torture like this?
We both startle when somewhere to the left, a motor revs. The sound of hard braking is next, preluding a sudden, loaded, silence. The vampire tenses, his teeth reflecting the light as he curls his lips in alarm at something down the street and out of sight. I pick up my pace, cursing lowly as I tap my gun and make sure it’s still there. Whatever the vampire is seeing, he doesn’t like it, not one bit. A light swings over his body, unsteady and wavering. A torchlight, which means somebody noticed him. He seems to think so, too. With another low growl, he hops across the road and disappears from sight around a corner and I scramble to catch up. When I reach it, he is gone.
I look left just in time to see a flash of movement as three more vampires rush down the street parallel to the park, spreading out and veering off into the greenery. They don’t spare me a second glance, rustling through the bushes at breathtaking speeds as they run after my vampire. Hunting.
My stomach shifts uneasily. Seems like I’ve got company.
I could stop now, wait for them to collect him and check this job off my list. His people are here, they will take care of any problems he could make for the supe community. But I don’t. The visual of the silver box with a latch in an abandoned building nobody would ever look twice at won’t leave my mind. What if I hadn’t stumbled upon him? What if Aschure and I hadn’t gone after that vampire guarding him? That one looked sick, truly sick, like drop-dead-at-some-point-sick. Whatever happened to that one, he didn’t look like he’d bounce back from it anytime soon. He could have died in there and nobody would have known where to look, or that there was something to look for. How long would my vampire have been in that box then?
Fear tightens my stomach.
Vampires did this to him. What if they catch him just to lock him up again? That would be a fate worse than death. I wouldn’t want that to happen to my worst enemy.
On the off-chance that they are planning to do that, I should be there. I can’t leave him. Not until I’m sure he’s safe. Unclipping my gun, I take off after them.