Chapter 13: The Cultist and the Prodigal Son

This has got to be the longest night I’ve ever lived through. I wish I’d never come here.

The rain still patters away, big, fat drops that steadily lose strength as the clouds empty what reserves they have. The flickering motel sign appears in the distance, illuminating the glistening street like a fata morgana, beckoning me closer. Yellow and green light bounces of the two cars parked in front of it, competing with the three street lights surrounding the parking lot. The utter brightness is such a startling sight I almost don’t know how to deal with it. If I weren’t so exhausted, so shook up, I would call it pretty. But nothing in this godforsaken place will ever be pretty.

I hadn’t realized why people call this district ‘Dark City’ instead of just ‘the southern ghetto’, until tonight. I mean, yes, I already heard about the lack of electricity before I came here, about the gang wars and mafia killings that led to the city trying to smoke them out by turning off all utilities to this particular part of the ghetto. I always thought the city was overreacting and using the most stupid way possible to deal with a problem that should have been left to the police force. It didn’t even work, except scaring away the cops for good. The gangs are still going strong. The Mafia is still here.

But there are more consequences to the city’s idiocy than anyone could have foreseen. Broken street lights never sounded that awful. It’s just dark, right? Electricity issues aren’t that bad when you’re not in a third world country.

An hour long walk through the devastated streets taught me different.

The dark makes people vicious. The dark births demons. The dark will eat your soul.

Tonight, I saw a man get stabbed for his social security card. I saw a group of at least ten men go at each other with knives and baseball bats over a car parked in the wrong spot. Someone shoved a whore out of a second story window across the street. Her scream echoed down the street until it cut off, followed by a silence that still makes my skin crawl. I tried to help, I did, but three men with fucking machine guns were suddenly there and the ensuing fire fight sent me sprinting off as fast as my blistered feet would carry me.

This whole district is a war zone. Humans are vile.

The hotel light hums softly above me as I pass the front desk room. I feel like a ghost as I shuffle past empty guest rooms with drawn curtains and dirty windows, soaked hair still dripping water. I’m so cold, I can’t remember what being warm feels like, but I’m about to find out. Two more turns to the back of the motel, and I’ll be home. Aschure’s voice drifts around the building already and I speed up, wanting nothing more than to be safe.

The short side of the motel is startlingly dark, illuminated only by a flickering vending machine and the sign above the ice box. I stumble into the darkness blindly.

Cloth hisses against the side of the vending machine. An arm shoots out and snags me around the neck, one hand covering my mouth as the other snakes around my chest to pin my arms to my sides. I yelp hoarsely and try to kick back, but the grip becomes a steel wrench around my body and cuts off my ability to breathe. My struggle is a silent, pathetic thing that does nothing but tire me out further.

Black dots dance through my vision when the kraken grip finally loosens. Lips brush lightly against the bite wounds on my neck, warm air tickles through my wet hair, and the stink of unwashed clothes, old blood, and old pain tells me all I need to know.

“Shh,” whispers Cor against my throbbing neck. The hiss draws goosebumps out my body. I writhe a little when other parts of my body also take notice. A pocket of throbbing warmth builds in my pants as tiny shocks of lust accompany each touch of his mouth against my skin. Even the painful bites tingle and pulse where he brushes over them, driving the cold out of my body and leaving me breathless and confused. He is dirty, dangerous and violent. My brain knows I shouldn’t react to him that way. I’ve vowed to kill creatures like him after all. I’m a Hunter, for god’s sake.

My cock seems to have been brainwashed into thinking differently.

Cor draws me tightly against his body, molding himself against my back like a protective cocoon. The hand across my mouth kneads my cheeks for a moment, as if feeling my face. His lips stay against my neck, his chest rumbling against my spine as he growls out another word, almost unintelligible.

“Listen.”

I don’t know what Cor means. I continue to writhe and shift, if only half-heartedly, until I hear the voices. They are low and hushed and I wouldn’t have noticed the second one before, but now it’s hard to ignore them.

“I gave you valuable information, just like I promised. What is there to discuss now?”

I recognize Arzel’s voice as soon as I hear him. It’s hard to forget his simpering singsong. He sounds vaguely put out, but that cultivated lilt is still there. What is he doing here?

“You didn’t tell me the vampire was an elder! Your ‘just a renegate’ bullshit killed my partner and almost cost me my life,” hisses Aschure heatedly. She takes a deep, shuddering breath. “I killed him and I’ve got what you want, but the price just went up. You’ll have to add a bucketful of money to my fee.”

I only realize I’ve stopped struggling when Cor’s arms relax around me. He pets me like a nervous dog, just this side of too distracting, and rubs his cheek against my jaw. He doesn’t let go of my mouth though. People just don’t trust anyone anymore these days.

Arzel giggles. He actually giggles, as if delighted by Aschure’s words.

“If that is what you require from us, in addition to your freedom, you shall get it. Now give me the key.”

Cor’s body turns into a steel wall behind me, his arms a prison for my body. His rough voice growls right into my ear, breathless. “Key,” he rumbles agitatedly, as if that should tell me something.

A moment of quiet, then Arzel screeches. “You little whore, you broke it!”

The sound of a slap reverberates through the night, closely followed by the ratchet of a gun and the plink of a discarded bullet casing.

“Call me whore again, see what happens,” Aschure snarls. All life has left her voice, turning it into icy steel and a promise of pain. “I got it, I made sure it didn’t get damaged, I gave it to you. That was the deal. If your precious magic amulet is broken, it was that way before I got it. Do you have any other issues you want to discuss or are you gonna play nice now?”

The rain suddenly stops, leaving us to the cold wind. It howls around the corners of the motel and distorts Arzels ugly sneer into something akin to a frustrated whine. “My master will be… unhappy with this outcome and I am not ready to pay for your ineptitude. I am willing to keep this failure between us, though. Give you another chance to make it up to him and persuade him to give you what you want. It will not be as easy as this task was, but that is the price you pay for disappointing me.”

The shot I expect doesn’t come. Neither does she laugh or tell him to fuck off. She just harrumphs and clicks the safety back on. “Fine, but only this one more favor. And only because I can’t risk you blabbing to my bosses. If this fails too, you’re shit out of luck and I’m taking you down. What, when, and where?”

Arzel sniffs high-handedly. “I will call on you as soon as it is necessary. For now, leave the amulet with me and go about your business. And don’t make a face, if I have to wait a little longer, you will gladly suffer with me.”

Aschure’s muttered “fucker,” mingles with Arzel’s quick steps. He’s coming toward us. I squirm and mutter against Cor’s hand, but I don’t get far; he flips us, pushes me into the corner between vending machine and wall, and simply hides my glaringly white shirt with his dirty, scantily clad body. I freeze and hold my breath as Arzel wanders by, my pulse thrumming though my body until I hear my heartbeat, but he doesn’t stop. Doesn’t notice us at all. Thank you lord for small miracles.

It takes me a little while to notice Cor hasn’t let go of me yet. When I mumble a protest against his palm he takes his hand off my lips, only to grab my throat and pet it languidly. My skin reacts with a heat that is almost painful, each nerve coming to life and driving out the cold. A low, satisfied rumble vibrates against my back as he shuffles closer, pushing all that is him against me. Letting me feel his mind has wandered into decidedly more unsavory territory. His length is a warm, pulsing, heavy weight against my ass, and I can’t imagine how it must hurt him to hold still and not hump me like a randy dog with a hard-on like that. The man has the self-control of a rock.

“Uh, Cor?” I whisper, keeping my voice low. He answers with an annoyed growl and otherwise doesn’t react.

For a moment I’m at a loss on what to do now. I haven’t paid attention to Aschure’s movements since Arzel passed by and I absolutely cannot risk her finding me in a situation like this. But I can’t risk Cor getting frisky with me either, and by the way his rumble turns into a full-on purr, I’ll have to act fast if I don’t want to end up doing a quickie right here. My body doesn’t agree, though. My own length thickens in my suit pants, bobbing against the side of the vending machine like it has a mind of its own.

His hand swipes down my chest, tangling with the buttons a few times before his fingers touch the waistband of my pants. He hesitates, then shoves his hand in with a satisfied grunt. Right down to my cock. His rough fingertips draw a single line along its length and I’m ready to shoot, right here, right now. It’s like he’s grazed a button that says ‘push for cum’. I didn’t even know I had a button. Of any kind.

“Cor!” I buck him off, barely able to keep my voice down. He stumbles back half a step, bobbing back and forth like a dashboard toy, grinning unrepentantly. Wolfishly. Then he raises his hand to his lips— the hand that touched my cock just now— and licks his fingertips. A shudder rushes through his body and he closes his solid black eyes for a moment, grin widening into something grotesque, and for a moment I’m sure he will be on me again. Hunt down that tiny taste to its source.

He stays put, barely. Half a step away from me, hovering as he shivers with restraint. Close enough to smell the wet dog scent clinging to him. Close enough to hear his powerful breaths, to feel the thrumming heat his body is giving off. A small part of me knows that he let me break free, that I wouldn’t have a sliver of a chance against him if he decided to force me, but for some reason I’m not worried about that. I don’t know why, but I’m not afraid of him that way. Yes, I am afraid of his strength and how he doesn’t seem to be all here, mentally speaking. He could crush me by accident, or push me too hard and send me flying, or strangle me by accident, that’s all true. But I am more afraid of the strange, oozy, sickeningly sweet flutter in my chest. Of the cold-hot tingling in my crotch whenever his black eyes wander over my body. That’s not normal. No way is that normal, no matter what my dick thinks. He is a vampire, for Pete’s sake!

Cor glances down at my crotch, unabashedly eying my raging erection. He tilts his head as if he’s trying to decide on what to do next, but there is a proprietary glimmer in his eyes that I don’t like at all. Like he’s staring at a piece of art he just finished. I have to distract him. Now.

“What did you mean by ‘key’?” I ask hoarsely and lean against the wall to keep my legs from buckling. My brain shuffles through all the information I got on vampire venom when I was still in training, but for all I know, the effects should have long worn off. It’s supposed to last maybe half an hour, sometimes less. I’ve been on this hellishly horny trip for ninety minutes and it doesn’t seem to be losing steam. At all. My cock is killing me whenever I look at him. Or even think of him. Or, god help me, breathe in his coffin-person-stink. I don’t want to know how unhinged I’d be if he showered.

The leer lessens until Cor looks solemn and sad. He takes a hesitating breath, raises his chin and points at his neck, where the acid-like wounds still heal much slower than they should. Half of his chest is a crater of pain. The other half is splattered with the crusty remains of his prison guard. “Key,” he says.

I can’t remember if the amulet I tore off his neck had a lock or not, but maybe that’s not what he means. I turn my head towards Aschure’s room and nod pointedly. “The amulet Arzel mentioned, that’s a key? To your, eh, chain?”

A grunt followed by a nod and a sly grin. Damn, he’s really pretty beneath that caked layer of grime. Why did he have to make me notice that?

“Okay. So this Arzel guy said it was broken. Which is good, because you were about to become a puddle of satiric goo back there.” A tiny army of ice cold shudders marches up my back and I frown. “But why did he want it anyway? And how did he even know about you, or it? What does it do?”

Silence. Cor glares at me as if I just called his mother a harbor whore in polite conversation, but that’s it. I’m still unsure how much he actually understands, and he can’t seem to form more than single word sentences, so my hopes weren’t high to begin with. But something about what we just heard, what I experienced tonight, makes me queasy. And it’s not just the callous way Aschure wrote me off as a work accident. That’s a Hunter thing and I will rip her a new one later. But from all I’ve seen and heard, something fishy is going on here, and not just because Aschure just openly took a bribe from a supe.

Shaking my head, I rub my temple and glare up at Cor. He’s shifting and tugging at his rags, lips curling unhappily as he eyes the surroundings. “Do you know what’s going on, Cor?” I ask him in a low voice, slowly, each word pronounced carefully.

He gazes back to me at the sound of his name and tilts his head slightly, again giving me the impression of a dog trying to figure out what its master is cooing about. He starts to shake his head, then whips around before he finishes the motion. A low snarl slithers out between his grinding teeth as he strains his ears, and I lean forward on instinct, trying to catch on to what he is seeing. Or hearing. A little further, and I can finally peek around the edge of the vending machine—

He is gone before I finish the motion.

A second later, Aschure saunters around the corner, ice bucket clutched beneath her arm.

She’s almost past me when she finally notices she’s not alone. Alone, like I was when she left me. I gnash my teeth and twist my lips into a snarl.

“Hello, Aschure.”

Her squeak warms my vindictive heart, even when the ice bucket hits my chest hard enough to make me cough. Her gun is pointed at my forehead before I finish gasping, her eyes as black and empty as the muzzle in front of my eyes. Fearful. Resigned. It feels like an eternity passes until her eyes find that spark again, until she finally relaxes and lowers the gun, fingers shaking. “Jesus, Gideon!”

Another moment later, she’s on me, hugging me so hard I can’t breathe. “Jesus, Gideon,” she repeats, choking up.

We end up in our motel room, me freshly showered and condemned to idleness, and Aschure scavenging the first aid box for supplies. The telltale redness on her cheek where Arzel hit her is already fading. I don’t think she even knows it’s there.

“I really thought you were dead,” she mutters, thumbing through the sterile wound compresses. “I heard you shoot and shoot and then suddenly stop and I thought he killed you. So I ran. I’m sorry.”

Her eyes wander over the fresh bite wound and the half-moon impressions of fingernails on my neck, arms, and chest. She looks back down on the collection of sterile pads and gnaws at her bottom lip. If I didn’t know better, I would say she looks guilty, but Aschure is a Hunter. Has been a Hunter longer than I’ve been allowed to drive. Hunters don’t feel guilt.

On the other hand, Hunters don’t lie to each other either, and at the moment Aschure is full of it. “You heard me emptying my clip into that ugly bastard,” I say calmly. I don’t feel calm, but my voice hasn’t got the memo. Not a flinch, not a twitch, not a shiver. I might have become a psychopath some time tonight. “He was down—” -ish, “and I called for you but you were already gone.”

Already half-way out the window while I was still shooting Cor’s prison guard. Not even close to what she described. She didn’t even attempt to wait for me. Had what she needed and high-tailed it out of there. I want to yell at her face what a liar she is, but that would be showing my hand. There’s too much weird shit going on to risk it.

Aschure’s face lightens up with relief. “So he’s dead? Thank fuck. Good job, puppy.”

I’m not a fucking puppy. I want to snarl the words at her face, but I swallow them down. That, too, would tip my hand before I’m ready.

I could of course simply ask her outright what she was doing with Arzel and what magic amulet they were talking about, but she would just clamp up, give me some excuse and make sure I never ever get near her again. As long as she doesn’t know I’ve heard more than I should, she will keep on being sloppy. Unfortunately I also can’t act like a total moron either, because if she’s half as clever as I think she is, she will see right through that, too. Happy middle it is.

“I thought Arzel maybe told you the good news already,” I say, pulling on all my acting talent to sound resonably surprised.

Aschure freezes. Her fingers tense around the disinfectant spray. “You saw him?” ‘What did you hear?’ says the slight tremble in her voice.

“He passed me when I reached the hotel. Didn’t see me though.” I shrug and grimace when the bite wound smarts. Ouch.

Ripping open one of the compress packages Aschure scoots closer and lifts the wound spray. “Hold still,” she orders and proceeds to set fire to my neck. I wince and growl and curse under my breath until she presses clean white fibre cloth against the teethmarks and pokes me with the spray. “Hold that there so I can tape it.”

I do as she asks and try not to wiggle. I was never good at acting, but I’m a people watcher. Aschure wants to say something, ask something about me and Arzel, but if I prompt her, she will spook. Which means I have to sit here, act dumb, and wait for her to make up her mind. It sucks.

When she finally speaks, I claw the bedding to keep myself from jumping up and hooting.

“Arzel was here to ask me if his information helped. I guess he’ll want something in return at some point,” she mutters vaguely. “And he wanted to know if we saw anything strange or out of place. I told him thanks and no, and that was it.”

Then she stares at me quietly, motionless. Intently. Waiting for me to call her out on her lie.

If I hadn’t been left to die today, if I hadn’t met Cor, if I hadn’t had to shoot three more vampires, fight for my life, lie to a bunch of vikings, and finally walk alone through the hell that is the Dark City district, I would flinch. I couldn’t keep a straight face. I would be emotional, hurt, betrayed, a puppy.

I take a deep breath, grimace again, and look at her with a calm I don’t feel. “Everything was strange and out of place for me, so I can’t say if I saw anything or not. Looked normal enough to me. Vampire, thralls, shootout, vampire dead, thralls dead, job done.”

Her cheek tics. “So you didn’t think a big silver box was strange?” she asks slowly, brow rising.

Ah. “As I said, everything is strange and out of place for me. It was my first mission, remember?”

She doesn’t look convinced. Fine then. “But now that you mention it, what was up with that box?”

“No idea,” she sighs, smiles relieved and opens the medical tape roll. “Let’s patch you up and get outta here. I’ve had it with this city.”

And suddenly everything comes back and I realize I will have to leave Babylon City. Leave Cor. All alone, surrounded by enemies. With no-one to turn to. I’ll be gone and he’ll be here, wondering what happened and why I up and left. The thought spears my heart and scrapes painful claws down my back.

I hate it, hate it with fiery passion, but there’s nothing I can do. Nothing but hope and pray that I won’t have to come back to kill him someday soon.

END OF PART 1