The patrons fell silent as the stranger entered the smoke-filled taproom, for he was nearly seven feet tall, dressed entirely in black, and had a large sword strapped to his back. The rowdy farm boys shut up as he walked towards the counter. Even Molly, friend to all men in more ways than one, fell quiet as he brushed past, his cape and wide-brimmed hat obscuring his features. When he reached the counter he offered no indication that he even noticed the effect he had had on the otherwise so noisy inn.
“I require lodging for myself and for my horse.” His voice was a quiet tenor, by no means aggressive. Everyone listened intently anyway.
Mistress Dot tilted her head to get a better look up under the hat. “I've got beds,” she said. “I've got a stable. But I ain't got the kind of food your kind sometimes wants. Reckon I can get you a steak not too well done, though.”
“That'll do.” The stranger dropped a few coins on the counter and she swept them into the drawer.
“Molly'll show you upstairs, then.” Dot stared hard at the shadow that concealed the stranger's features. “No funny stuff. If anything happens –”
Molly, somewhat plain of appearance but popular among her patrons, sidled over and gestured towards the stairs at the back of the room. “This way, sir.”
Silence lingered in the wake of the tall stranger's footfalls as they ascended the stairs and vanished from sight. Mistress Dot turned to glare at her patrons. “That's enough gawking. Go back to your drinking.”
The nearest farmer held out his stein for a refill, breaking the spell. The taproom filled back up with the usual noise and laughter. Cigarette smoke and drunken jests mingled with speculation: Was that really? No kidding? Think there's going to be trouble, then?
Night fell and blanketed the town in dark velvet pierced only by the lights streaming from windows. Sometimes they flickered as people moved about inside. The occasional blue shimmer of the force fields that kept the town safe from the beasts and creatures of the wilds created strange patterns of light that went ignored by the distant stars. Voices and the occasional peal of laughter from a child drifted about and sometimes, cattle mooed in displeasure when a farm maid was tardy with the milk pail.
The force fields at the edge of town flickered as they admitted a lone rider on a chestnut horse. A farmer thumbed his hat in acknowledgement as the newcomer steered his horse towards the town centre and the inn. The rider dismounted there and left his horse to wait, not bothering to tie it to the post. He entered the taproom with confident strides. Once again, the room fell silent and then, grudgingly, most of the patrons nodded their acknowledgement. A merchant stared openly. Two travelling tinkerers decided that they preferred the open road instead and left.
This man too was tall, if not as tall as the other stranger, the dark one. Nor was he shrouded in all black but instead donned a dove grey silk coat that left his features clearly visible above a white neck tie. His hair fell in loose auburn locks to his shoulders, obscuring pointed ears, and his eyes would have been handsome if they had not been the colour of blood. He was unarmed but for a riding crop, and he twirled it in one hand as he strode up to the counter.
“Your Lordship,” Mistress Dot greeted him cautiously. “How can we be of service?”
The Noble glanced back at the taproom. The patrons promptly found interesting things to look at in their glasses and plates. “I've come to see the hunter. I don't see anyone like that here, though.”
“He keeps to his room,” Mistress Dot agreed. “Molly, go tell him he has a visitor.”
The girl slunk towards the staircase, hesitating.
“Go on,” the vampire lord encouraged her. “I don't have all night, dear.”
Several more patrons quietly left. A few pulled their chairs closer as well, too curious or too drunk to worry about their own safety. The vampire made himself comfortable in an armchair in front of the fireplace, stretching long legs to reveal riding boots that were slightly dusty from the road. He rushed a hand over his coat to remove a miniscule speck of dirt and sheathed the riding crop in one boot. The air in the otherwise warm room appeared to drop well below freezing as Molly returned, accompanied by the tall, dark vampire hunter.
The maid slipped past the hunter, to the relative safety of having the counter between herself and the two men. The hunter did not draw his sword, nor did his hands wander towards the pouches on his belt. He did not even glance about to assess the situation and look for possible escape routes. He simply stood.
The Noble looked him up and down, then gestured with one hand towards the chair next to his own, in front of the fire. “You are the hunter that some call D?”
The hunter nodded, silent.
“Dhampir, vampire hunter, solitary, and indeed, dark and silent,” the vampire mused. “I've heard quite a bit about you. I've looked forwards to meeting you in the flesh. Do you know who I am?”
The hunter did not reply. Nor did he move towards the chair.
“Oh, please.” Annoyance flashed across the Noble's pleasant features. “Don't just stand there waiting for me to make the first move. Don't I get to make a speech first? I believe I get to boast my superiority and berate you for turning on your own kin before I die? Perhaps Molly can play damsel in distress for us?” He found his composure and chuckled. “I've not come to fight you, D. I've come to hire you.”
Molly dropped a glass at hearing her own name spoken. The girl did not look like she cared to get involved.
The hunter nodded. “I'm not interested.”
“Might want to hear what His Lordship has to say,” Mistress Dot murmured from well behind the counter.
The vampire's pale lips twitched into a pleasant smile. “She keeps a crossbow under that counter. Each bolt is edged with a cross. Just in case.” He nodded at the innkeep, then turned his crimson gaze on the hunter again. “You're a vampire hunter. You kill vampires, and people pay you for that. Well, I so happen to have a vampire in need of killing and the money to pay for such a service. Will you refuse simply because I am a Noble myself?”
“He's not from around here,” Mistress Dot said apologetically and then fell silent at a reproving, crimson look.
The vampire drew the riding crop from his boot and tapped it against his palm in a display of impatience. “You disposed of the Bloody Countess, or so I've heard. Compared to that, the task I have in mind is menial. Quite classic, really. Girl gone missing, sealed castle – your typical search and rescue operation. The only not quite standard part is that I intend to go with you.”
The room temperature seemed to drop another couple of degrees.
The Noble pushed himself out of the chair and walked to stand in front of the taller hunter, casual demeanour fading. “This town is part of my domain, vampire hunter. Take a good look at it. It's peaceful. Well defended. You were not turned away or refused service in spite of your – condition.” He glanced at the few patrons who had not yet managed to disappear or will themselves invisible. “These men are afraid. Not of me, but of you.”
The dark figure's cloak rustled slightly as the dhampir looked at the men. Then he looked back at the vampire and nodded.
The Noble dipped into a pocket and produced a topographical map. The name of the region was neatly printed near the top right corner, but even without that it was easily recognisable. He tapped a point on the map with the tip of his riding crop. “This is Castle Millefleur. In spite of the pretty name it is not very – hospitable. You'll want to avoid the surrounding villages, too. The villagers there will not ask before shooting when they catch sight of your dark, silent, and cheerful self.” He smiled. “Of course you're going to go have a look anyway. I know your reputation. I, however, prefer to not get shot at, so I will meet you here.” He tapped the map again. “At the river fork. You can keep the map, I know the way.”
The hunter said nothing.
The vampire lord smirked and then inclined his head towards Mistress Dot. “Have a pleasant evening, dear. I do apologise for the disturbance.”
“You too, my lord,” she mumbled as he strode out without waiting for her reply – or, apparently, any concerns about a seven foot crescent sword finding its way into his back.
* * * *
The cold, ethereal beauty of the vampire hunter drew people to desire him or at least get confused about their own gender preferences. Like moths to a flame, there was always one or two who felt brave enough, or death driven enough, to test his resolve. He or she or they would turn up when he was alone, trying to strike up a conversation or make a more direct proposition. The hunter was not at all surprised when Molly slipped into the stable in the early hour before dawn, just as he was securing the saddle straps on his cybernetic horse. “Sir?” she asked.
He waited for her to say her piece.
She edged a few steps closer but did not open her bodice. Nor did she run her fingers suggestively through her hair. She just looked at him. “Are you going to meet the viscount as he said to?”
“Please don't kill him,” Molly begged. “He's very nice. Really.”
The hunter put a foot in one stirrup and gracefully mounted the horse. The girl kept looking at him.
“Think about it. Please.”
He made no reply. The pressure of his booted heels against its flanks made the horse spring into motion, past her. Soon he was a disappearing speck of blackness on the road leading out of town.
Molly sighed and went back to work.
* * * *
The hunter reined in his untiring horse atop the hill crest. He dipped into his belt and produced the map that the Noble had left for him, then studied it. The river rushed along below, snaking its way through rapids and gorges – and the road followed the same general direction, winding around nature's obstacles, towards a valley where the river was joined by a tributary and became wide and shallow. Several villages were marked on the map, forming a semi-circle in which Castle Millefleur constituted the centre. The road wound its way through the villages before reaching the castle. On the map it was marked as wide but in actuality it seemed to have less traffic the closer to the vale he got.
The valley was beautiful in the afternoon sun. The river was a silver ribbon that curled its way between fields and meadows. A skylark frolicked in the air, its trills rendering a carefree mood to the scene and almost glossing over the sobriety of the gallows next the road, and the reek of decay wafting from the corpse dangling at the end of the rope.
The hunter studied it. A man's body, neck broken by the fall before he could suffocate from strangulation. It was too far decomposed to have much face left but to judge from its attire, it had once been a farmer or shepherd in his mature years. A sign hung around the corpse's neck, a rough-hewn plank of wood upon which was scrawled in charcoal, “LIAR”.
“Cute,” the hunter's left hand observed. “D, you really know how to pick the scenery. Can we at least move upwind of that thing?”
The horse plodded forward in a relaxed trot, the kind that ate up the miles, and took its rider towards the valley and the first village marked on the map.
“We could just go the other way,” the hand pointed out. “You've not been given any actual money for this gig yet. And that vampire viscount being all buddy buddy? I don't like it.”
The hunter ignored the complaints of the small, wrinkled face on his palm. “Glamour,” he offered as an explanation.
“Definitely not,” the symbiont retorted. “We've both seen enough Noble glamour to know what it looks like and I'm telling you, D, that girl wasn't under some vampire charm spell – and neither was that innkeep with the crossbow. Are you even paying attention? Those charming country folk were not scared of their local vampire, they were scared you'd run that big knife of yours through his pretty coat.”
The dhampir nodded.
“And that doesn't strike you as a little off? How many benevolent, beloved Noble rulers have you happened across lately? Pillar of the community, donates, goes to church on Sundays, runs an orphanage in his spare time? It's a trap, duh.”
The road turned and offered a better view of the village that lay around the next bend. The great, cybernetic horse trotted ahead at a pace that was considerably faster than that of its unmodified brethren. “Well, that looks like crap,” D's hand broke off its complaining.
It did, though, it really did. The houses were worn-down hovels that seemed to be standing mostly because they had not gotten around to make the effort to collapse. There were fences to keep out – things – from the wilds, but they were mostly barbed wire, not even electrical wire. In places, even the barbed wire was missing. The fields were neatly tended but tidiness stopped at the village edge, took a look around, and left for better standards somewhere else.
The hunter halted his horse and remained shielded from view by the trees that offered shade on the road. His gaze roamed the village exterior, scanning for life. There was not much that qualified, and what little there was, looked like, well, crap. A few thin cows. A woman drawing up water from the village well, dressed in a ragged shift and tailed by two children with big eyes and stick limbs. A small graveyard lay on the outskirts, as dilapidated as the rest, and entirely too many graves were fresh.
“Plague?” the symbiont questioned. “Hey, bucko, get me down to the ground and let me have a taste.”
The hunter dismounted and knelt to place his palm against the soil at the roadside. Little crunching, munching sounds ensued, interspersed with muffled observations. “This is some good clay, oh yeah. Nothing wrong with the dirt around here! This isn't some mutant plague or sickness, D. Top soil's perfectly healthy, pristine even, hang on.” The wrinkly little face in the hunter's palm looked like a prune as its brow furrowed. “The dirt's fine, D. It's too fine. It's virginal. It's perfect.”
The hunter stood and looked down. Dandelions, bindweed, and other wild flowers utterly failed to react to his inspecting glare. He prodded a tuft of grass with one boot, noticing others like it that formed a vaguely linear pattern across the soil. “This land was tilled once.”
“Yeah, that's kind of what I'm saying, D. Not like you're going to find anywhere that's flat and never ever has been ploughed or burned or whatever people like to do to good, flat, fertile land. It's not natural, my pretty boy.” The symbiont tongue lashed out. “Wouldn't mind another bite though. Could you put me back down? It's delicious.”
* * * *
Moonlight draped its silvery, shimmering tendrils around the dark figure approaching on the dark horse. This was the kind of scenery that might inspire an artist soul to never open his eyes again lest he see something that might dilute that perfect memory. The vampire lord, atop his own chestnut horse under the oak tree, admired the view before coaxing the mare into a trot. He let the horse fall into an easy gait alongside the other man. “I'm guessing you did go and look at the village?”
The hunter nodded almost imperceptibly.
“All right, then. Let's dispense with the banter and cut to the chase, shall we? My name is Aldan Thorne. I am the viscount of that pleasant little valley you left behind this morning. You may address me as Aldan, I'm not really a stickler for formalities, and besides, we're family after a fashion.”
The hunter turned his head just enough so that the Noble was in no doubt that he was being glared at from under the widebrimmed hat. He chuckled. “Don't, hunter. What do I call you? Just D? There are a lot of stories about you, some of which hint of your parentage in most curious fashions, but I prefer to not leap to conclusions.”
“D it is, then.” Aldan shrugged goodnaturedly. “I'm positive that you're absolutely ready to burst from curiosity about myself and my agenda here. Please don't hesitate to make inquiries or by any other means break that ridiculous silent and brooding mood you've got going. Or, if you'd rather, do keep quiet and I'll do the talking. I'm quite good at that as it happens to be. You'd be surprised to find out how long I can prattle without actually having anything to prattle about. Would you like to give it a try?”
“No.” And then, after a moment, “What do you want?”
“Oh, I want many things. I want to get rid of an inconvenient neighbour, obviously. But most of all, I want you.” The vampire flashed the hunter a smile that contained sharp fangs but somehow managed to remain disarming. “Not in that way, obviously. You're very pretty but my fancy does not swing that way. I want your mind. I want to know how you think.” He paused. “Oh, and there is a girl that needs to be saved from an evil villain. I'm sure that's right up your alley. We'll want to leave the road here.”
* * * *
The moon was near the end of its nightly journey across the heavens when they reached the edge of the forest that the vampire had guided them through. Now they were on a hill, looking down on neatly tilled meadows and fields bathed in the silvery mist of night.
“It's beautiful, isn't it?” Aldan's voice was soft with appreciation. “Everything here is so very beautiful, except the villages. They pay such a high price.”
The dhampir raised an eyebrow. His face was hidden under the shadow of his hat and there was no way that even the excellent night vision of a pureblooded vampire could detect it, but Aldan must have guessed it. “Count Landon enjoys beauty. In fact he's quite obsessed with it, in all its forms. Everything you see here is his creation. He's got other quirks, of course. He rather disapproves of deception, one might even say that he's a little, ah, obsessive about it. We'll reach the castle tomorrow night – for now we'll have to seek shelter in a cave nearby.” He paused. “Well, I'll have to. I suppose you don't need to.”
The hunter shrugged but when the viscount spurred his horse back in between the trees he followed.
The cave was concealed from view by hanging vines and shrubs. In a time long past it had been seen use as a shepherds' shelter, that much was evident from various bits of tools and old crockery still lying scattered around. A small circle of stone made it up for a fireplace under a small, natural chimney. It had been a long time since then; the fabric of an abandoned wool blanket had turned to moldy dust.
“No one alive knows about this place besides you and me,” Aldan explained as they lead their horses inside and reinstated the greenery to conceal the entrance. “If you kill me in my sleep, well, then you'll be the only one.”
The dhampir rummaged in his saddlebag, ignoring the Noble's observation. He took a long draught from a leather-encased bottle before putting it back.
Aldan's crimson gaze swept around the cave. “It's hardly first class accomodations but it'll do. The dirt is looser in the back if you need to bury yourself. Do you need to bury yourself?”
The hunter scowled at him.
He shrugged. “I really know next to nothing about dhampirs. You're the first one I've spoken with. Or to, I should be saying, given that I seem to be doing all the talking. I know you can endure the sunlight and that you can subsist on human food, at least for a while. That's pretty much all I know about you. I'm familiar with the stories, of course – dhampirs are born destined to be vampire slayers, blah blah, but from what I've been told, most of them spend a relatively short lifetime fawning and sucking up to the Nobles instead. Except you.”
The vampire pulled the saddle off his horse and saw to its legs and hooves before pulling a blanket out of his saddlebag. He made himself comfortable, breaking the seal on a glowstick and placing it on the derelict fireplace. Its blue glow spread around them, providing far too little light for human comfort, and a bit of warmth. He stretched out and rested his head against his saddle. “Not a word still, eh?”
“There is nothing I need to say,” the hunter replied and sat cross-legged, face towards the cave mouth.
“Not even the slightest curious? Shouldn't you at least be mocking my confidence?”
“I did not ask you to come.”
Aldan yawned, displaying his sharp fangs. “Suit yourself, then. The sun is coming up and I intend to sleep soundly and safely in the comforting knowledge that I am watched, and watched over, by a living legend. Undead legend. Whichever you prefer.”
When at last the sun broke through the mist of the morning the vampire lay unmoving and for all intents and purposes dead. He did not breathe as he lay, head on his saddle and blanket pulled up to his waist, looking quite peaceful. In this light he looked more like a marble effigy than the murderous predator he was.
“That's one messed up fangboy,” the hunter's hand observed. “Has he got a deathwish or something?”
D nodded. “Something.”
“I guess you're not going to be smart about it and stake sleeping beauty while he's out cold? Drag him outside to catch a few rays, maybe cut his head off and kick it around a bit?”
The dhampir removed his hat and placed it carefully on the saddlehorn before sliding down to rest. “Not yet.”
* * * *