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everybody's searching for a promised land

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The first rule of hunting vampires is this:
 
Don’t get caught.
 
As a child, he’d thought that sounded rather simple. He’d expressed as much to his mother, who had given him a tight-lipped smile, her hands going still above the protective ward she was sewing into her clothes, the silvery thread taut between her fingers.
 
“You’ll understand someday,” she’d said, “that there’s a reason we train our minds, too.”
 

 

 
“This sucks,” Rian says – shouts, almost, so that her voice won’t be lost in the downpour around them. “Remind me why we’re doing this, again.”
 
Ryuga pauses to blink rainwater out of his eyes, pushing strands of sodden hair back from his forehead. He’s never been this cold in his life, he’s fairly sure. He stopped being able to feel his toes a good fifteen minutes ago. He turns back to look at Rian, shining his flashlight in her face to find her looking half-drowned, glaring at him from beneath the brim of her ineffective hat as she shivers. Privately, he agrees with her assessment, but orders are orders.
 
“Lady Ryume thought it would make it more believable, remember? If we walked the last mile or so.”
 
Rian makes a face. “Yeah, but Lady Ryume didn’t account for the weather.”
 
“We’re almost there, anyhow,” Ryuga says. He squints through the rain and the dark, above the treeline of clustered evergreens at the imposing shape of the castle on the cliff, a few of its windows ablaze with a white-ish light that somehow does not look at all welcoming, even given the circumstances.
 
The locals in the nearby village had given them nervous, furtive looks when they had asked about it. Only one person – the town historian, she’d called herself – had been willing to speak at all about the place, and even then there had been a reluctance. Castel Grozăvie, she’d called it. (“Rather on-the-nose,” their translator Zaruba had said over the phone with a dry laugh, refusing to elaborate on what he meant by that.)
 
Supposedly it had been built in the 16th century, though as they draw closer and the rain begins to thin a bit Ryuga can’t help but note how odd the architecture looks, for that time period or for any time period, really. An all-black exterior with a glossy sheen to it even in these conditions, its oddly sharp towers and arches seeming to stab outward at the landscape surrounding it. Once upon a time the place was perhaps modest by castle standards, but in the centuries since has been expanded in a strange fashion, additional rooms and wings emerging and growing from it like a jagged fungus. What exists now is a building that looks as if it might topple off the cliff into the lake below at any moment. (Either that or grow spidery legs and walk away.)
 
The wrought-iron gate marking the beginning of the castle grounds has been left thrown open, as if the occupants were anticipating their arrival. Ryuga gets caught there for a second, staring up at the bizarre gargoyles that leer over the gate, looking like they might spring to life at any moment, until Rian grabs him by the arm and hauls him along the path with her mouth set in a grimace.
 
The castle looks even more peculiar up close. The shadow that it casts over the grounds feels palpable even at night. Rian tugs him up the steps into the lee of the building, providing a temporary shelter from the rain, and gives him an expectant look as they stand in front of the massive front door, its black surface embellished with relief designs of thorny vines and coiled asps. The metal of the demon-faced knocker is jarringly icy beneath his already-frozen fingers as he swings it against the door.
 
Startlingly, it swings open within seconds. A blank-eyed woman in somewhat impractical maid dress stares back at them.
 
“So sorry to impose on you,” Rian says, plastering on her most winning smile. She’s purposefully stumbling a bit through the lines of Romanian they’d memorized on the flight over. That, Lady Ryume said, would also be more believable. “But our car broke down a bit up the road, and our phones are out of range. Is there any way we could use the phone here? And… maybe stay the night, if that’s not too much trouble?”
 
“Just a couch to sleep on would be fine,” Ryuga adds hurriedly. “We don’t need anything special.”
 
The woman blinks at them without emotion.
 
“The Master and Mistress have been expecting you,” she says, in flawless Japanese. “Please come in and wait in the dining hall.”
 
Ryuga freezes in place. He shares a sidelong glance with Rian, trying to keep his face impassive. Being expected is the last thing they wanted here. But perhaps this is still salvageable.
 
It all comes down to who exactly “the Master and Mistress” are expecting.
 
The foyer is high-ceilinged to an almost dizzying extent, both the floor and walls a shocking expanse of pristine white marble that gets more and more unsettling as they step farther into it. The maid shows them down the hall and through another set of doors into the dining room she spoke of, where a beautiful antique table sits with place settings for at least twenty. Ryuga gets the sense, somehow, that it is rarely used. There’s a fire crackling in the grate at one end of the room, creating the first warmth that Ryuga has felt in quite a while, and he and Rian both hurry to stand in front of it.
 
It’s there, warming their hands and dripping rainwater on to the floor, that he happens to glance up at the painting hanging over the fireplace.
 
It’s an opulent portrait of two people – a man and a woman, dressed all in black, both of them eerily attractive, the woman draped across a chaise as the man stands behind her, a pale hand on her shoulder. They’re both smiling, but there’s something off-putting about these smiles. A sinister edge that seems to follow him even as he steps to the side to look at the portrait from another angle.
 
“Rian, you think…?”
 
“Yeah,” she says. She’s peering up at the painting as well, eyes narrowed. “I absolutely think.”
 
Minutes tick past, and then more minutes, but still they are alone in the silent dining hall. Rian pulls a chair up by the fire to curl up in, but Ryuga can’t bring himself to relax in any capacity. Maybe it’s the way the subjects in the portrait seem to be staring down at them, making the hair on the back of his neck stand on end.
 
When the maid reappears in the doorway, her movements soundless, he nearly jumps out of his skin.
 
“The Master and Mistress apologize,” she says, still as blank-faced as before. “They are momentarily preoccupied and unable to meet you. However, they gladly welcome you into their home for as long as you wish to stay. I have been instructed to show you to the guest rooms. Follow me, please.”
 
Ryuga’s hand clenches and unclenches against his thigh as he exchanges a subtle nod with Rian. This is good, he tells himself. Things would have just gotten much more complicated if their request had been refused.
 
Still, he can’t shake the feeling of unease as he and Rian trail after the maid, up a sweeping staircase and down a corridor lined with polished suits of armor. The halls seem to twist and turn strangely – one moment he is certain he has figured out the floor layout only to be taken aback by what lies around the next corner.
 
“Here we are,” the maid says, stopping short in the middle of the hall and gesturing to the doors on either side of her. “For you, sir. And you, madam. A change of clothes has been provided inside. Supper, as well, if you wish it – simply ring the bell on the table. You are free to roam the castle as you please. It can be difficult to navigate for those unfamiliar, though. Please take care as to not get lost.”
 
She bows, then, taking her leave of them and vanishing around the next corner, ghostlike, without a backwards glance.
 
In the silence left behind, Ryuga lets out a breath.
 
“Let’s just use one room,” he says quietly. “I don’t want to be separated here any more than we have to.”
 
“Probably a good idea,” Rian mutters in return. “Let me go change into those dry clothes and then I’ll come over to yours.”
 
Much like the rest of the castle, there’s a cold, impersonal feeling about the room. The décor is sparse, the furniture inky black against spotless white walls and plush white carpet. Ryuga hastily peels his still-sodden clothes off of himself and checks to make sure his arsenal is still intact. The blessed dagger tucked into his boot has been nearly stabbing him in the heel for a while now, and he fixes the rigging on it, as well as that of the second dagger strapped to his inner thigh, before shrugging on the new clothes provided for him.
 
It’s a simple set of comfortable grey slacks and a white dress shirt, and yet. They fit remarkably well. Almost as if they’d been tailored just for him, and he frowns before shaking his head. He can’t afford to get hung up on these details now, especially because –
 
Because Rian should have let herself in by now.
 
He crosses the hall to knock on her door and receives no response. He tries the handle and finds it unlocked, and opens it to a yawningly empty room, its layout an exact mirror image of his own. Rian’s compact is sitting open on the bedside table, and yet she is nowhere to be seen.
 
His heart in his throat, he spins around to scan the hall outside. She wouldn’t have just wandered off, would she? She’d seemed to sense as well as he did the ominous atmosphere surrounding this place.
 
“Rian,” he calls, his voice reverberating off the high, arched ceiling.
 
No answer.
 
Ryuga swallows hard. She can take care of herself, certainly, no matter where she might have disappeared to. But somehow, in the span of a few mere minutes, the two of them have already been put at a marked disadvantage.
 
He’s finally getting the sense that this may not be just another job.
 

 

 
He encounters no less than three drawing rooms and one art gallery (the walls hung with dark oil paintings of hellish scenes that might be Biblical in nature) before stumbling into an expansive, vaulted library, lined floor to ceiling with books that have faded titles. The mild smell of dust and old paper makes this perhaps the least imposing room thus far, and he wanders in to pick a tome at random off the shelf. The binding cracks beneath his hands as he flips it open to reveal neat lines of text in French that he cannot hope to read.
 
“That’s a good one, y’know,” says a drawling voice from behind him.
 
Ryuga goes very still, alarm bells suddenly ringing in the back of his mind. He turns slowly to find the man from the portrait leaning in the doorway, looking every bit like he just stepped straight from the canvas. Same silvery hair. Same flatly black eyes without any hint of warmth to them. Same aura of otherworldliness, of being there in front of him but also not quite.
 
Ryuga’s fingers twitch at his side, as if they’d very much like to be around the hilt of one of his daggers right about now.
 
“…You must be the owner of his place,” he says, attempting to smooth the wariness from his voice. “Thank you. For your hospitality.”
 
The man smiles, and it feels like someone just ran something sharp down the length of Ryuga’s spine. “Well obviously,” he says. “What was I supposed to do, just turn you away? That would’ve been pretty cruel on my part.” He walks over to take the book from Ryuga’s hand, thumbing through it thoughtfully. “You can call me Jinga, by the way. And you?”
 
Ryuga is trying very hard not to make eye contact. That’s rule number two, of course. He’s become practiced at it over the years – at looking just slightly to the left of their gaze. He wonders why it feels so difficult now.
 
“Takahashi,” he says. “Takahashi Jin. My girlfriend and I, we maybe didn’t plan as well for this trip as we should’ve.” He throws in a sheepish laugh that he hopes sounds genuine. “We would’ve been stranded without your help.”
 
Jinga seems to ponder this for a moment before snapping the book shut and sighing in a rather overdramatic manner. “You know you can quit it with that, right? The whole avoiding eye contact nonsense. What do you take me for, some kind of lowblood fledgling?”
 
Startled, Ryuga can’t help but look at him for real. It’s true, he thinks. He can’t feel any kind of sway over his mind, no subconscious persuasions. And yet. He wonders why he still feels strange, his skin too tight and electric.
 
“Any of us worth a damn don’t rely on that, you’ll find,” Jinga is saying. “It’s a sign of weakness, needing petty mind tricks to catch your prey.”
 
It is only then that the implications of his words catch up to Ryuga’s thoughts, and he backs away with tension tight in his shoulders, settling into a defensive stance.
 
“There you are,” Jinga murmurs, his expression brightening. “Y’know, Ryuga – can I call you Ryuga? – you really aren’t very good at the whole cover story aspect of this job, are you? Your acting could use some work.”
 
“How do you know who I am?” Ryuga asks, unable to keep the waver from his voice.
 
Jinga rolls his eyes. “Please. You Hunters think you’re such an enigma. Your little secret society isn’t nearly as secret as you think it is.” A pause, and he moves closer again, head tilted as he looks down at him. “Here’s the real facts for you, Ryuga: you didn’t come here to this castle of your own volition. I brought you here.”
 
Ryuga can feel his eyes narrow. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
 
“I mean that it’s not so hard, to control you Hunters. Like pieces on a chess board, one might say. Just orchestrate a few incidents around the country to keep all the local Hunters busy. Make sure a Japanese tourist goes missing in just the right place, with all the right evidence, so that the Japanese branch has to sit up and pay attention.” Jinga smiles again, baring his teeth this time, his canines beginning to look rather sharp. “And for such a unique international issue, of course they’d have to send their up-and-coming best and brightest.”
 
Ryuga’s mouth feels dry. “You… Just to bring me here? Why?”
 
“Why not?” Jinga asks. He takes another step closer, and Ryuga’s back hits the bookshelves behind him as he tries to put distance between them. “I just had this feeling. When I was looking through the Hunters’ files and saw yours. That you might be very entertaining. Call it destiny, maybe. A fated connection. To tell the truth, it gets a little dull, sometimes, this existence. Of course, I have the love of my life by my side, so I’m lucky in a way.” His fond look fades back into cold humor a moment later. “But Amily gets it, too. The need for some good old-fashioned excitement once in a while.”
 
Ryuga doesn’t wait to hear any more of this. He reaches down to unsheathe the dagger strapped to his ankle, flipping it over in his hand and lunging for the man in front of him in a single sudden movement.
 
He gets stopped before he can. Jinga’s hand – his fingers smooth and cool like the surface of a statue – is suddenly curled around his wrist, holding him there with any effort on his part, the tip of Ryuga’s blade hovering just a hairsbreadth away from his chest.
 
“See? I knew you’d make things more fun around here,” Jinga says, a delighted gleam in his eyes. “But you’re a bit deluded if you think something like this is enough to kill me.”
 
“That’s what they all say,” Ryuga grits out, wondering if he could reach his other dagger in time to –
 
“Oh, really? Go ahead and do it, then. I won’t stop you.” He releases his hold on Ryuga and taps the place just above his heart, that ideal spot where they’re taught from the beginning to aim, to slay a vampire in one fell strike.
 
Ryuga blinks at him. He’s never had a mark ask to be stabbed before. He’s certain this must be some ploy, and yet he knows he has nothing to lose in this situation, switching the dagger to his other hand and sidestepping before moving in what he hopes is a less readable attack.
 
The blade sinks deep into Jinga’s chest, hitting its target with pinpoint accuracy. Ryuga waits to feel it pierce the long-dead heart that sits between his ribs, waits for that satisfying scream that they always let out.
 
But there is nothing.
 
Jinga smiles broadly. His hand is around Ryuga’s wrist again, tugging him closer, driving the dagger deeper still into his flesh. Old, dead blood stains the black of his shirt even darker. “I wonder, Ryuga,” he says, conversational, seeming to not even feel it. “What’s the oldest of my kind that you’ve fought? Three hundred years old, maybe?” He hums in a way that sounds almost wistful. “I remember being 300. Vaguely, that is. It was a long time ago.”
 
He reaches out to grab Ryuga’s other arm, then, his grip unshakable, and this time when he pulls him closer the space between them feels like a physical thing that is being taken away. Ryuga has to tilt his head back to be able to meet his eyes.
 
“You’d think someone within your little Hunter society would know, but hey. Maybe they’re too busy with boring bureaucracy over there.”
 
“…Know what?” Ryuga asks, heart thudding in his chest.
 
“That at some point, after about 800 years or so, even that old shriveled heart in a vampire’s chest just up and vanishes. Crumbles into dust, maybe. Nobody really knows the specifics. And after that, well. We might as well be truly immortal.”
 
Ryuga’s breath gets stuck somewhere in his chest, his mouth moving wordlessly. That’s not possible, he thinks. And yet. They say so often, in the Archives back home, that there’s much they still don’t know about the enemy. Even after centuries of fighting them, the secrets outweigh their knowledge by far. And Ryuga felt it instinctively, perhaps from the very first glimpse at the portrait downstairs. That this creature is older and more powerful than anything he’s ever encountered before.
 
“You really are green, aren’t you?” Jinga says, leveling him with a contemplative look. “I bet you’ve never even been bitten before. Your blood smells so fresh.” Ryuga is close enough to see him run his tongue over the sharpening tips of his fangs. “Want to try it? I promise to make it good for you.”
 
Ryuga freezes. He can hear his own voice screaming at him in his head to keep struggling, that if he twists his arm just right he could get free, and yet somehow all he can do is stand there as Jinga bends his head, his smile a tangible thing against Ryuga’s neck, those razor-sharp points pressing just above his fluttering pulse –
 
“Just kidding,” Jinga says, and releases his hold on him, spinning on his heel and slamming a kick into Ryuga’s solar plexus that knocks the air from his lungs and sends him stumbling backwards, slamming into the bookshelves and sending a cascade of dusty books tumbling down around him. Dizzy from the whiplash, Ryuga kneels there on the floor, coughing and struggling to draw breath as he stares down at his own hands, at the grip marks on his wrists that look like manacles.
 
“C’mon, that’d be way too easy,” Jinga is saying. “You’re not at your best right now. I’m looking for entertainment here, Ryuga. A challenge. And taking by force hasn’t really been my thing, lately. I much prefer listening to people ask for it. And they always, always do.”
 
He snaps his fingers, the maid appearing in the doorway as if she’d been waiting just outside it.
 
“Make sure our guest gets back to his room, will you? I think he could use some rest.”
 
“Yes, Master.”
 
Ryuga’s hand curls into a fist against the dark, polished wood of the library floor. He can feel Jinga’s eyes on him.
 
“Oh, don’t look so concerned,” he says. “We’re gracious hosts. We may be natural enemies, but we would never do anything… untoward to you in your sleep. I mean it very sincerely, y’know. About wanting to see you at your best.” There is a grin in his voice as he continues: “So good night, Ryuga. Pleasant dreams.”
 
The weight of his gaze vanishes, and Ryuga glances up to find him suddenly, inexplicably gone, as if he’d simply evaporated into the air, no trace of him left behind but for the red marks circling Ryuga’s wrists.
 

 

 
Rian is pacing the hallway outside their room when the maid leads him back.
 
He feels relief crash into him like a wave. “Rian,” he calls, jogging to meet her. “Where were you?”
 
“Where was I?” she echoes, giving him an annoyed look that can’t totally disguise her own gratefulness at seeing a familiar face. There’s a long scratch on her cheek that wasn’t there before. Her hair is in slight disarray. “Where were you? I went to your room like you wanted me to and you were just gone.”
 
Ryuga blinks. “That’s – ” he starts. “That’s not…”
 
He trails off into nothing; drags a hand down his face as he shakes his head.
 
“We’re being toyed with,” he says finally, with a grim kind of certainty. “This place… even this castle is working against us. I think… we may have made a mistake coming here, Rian. There might not be any way out for us.”
 
She doesn’t seem shocked by this – instead merely acceding to some half-buried truth she already knew. The line of her jaw tightens. “You… did you meet one of them, too?” she asks quietly. “The people from the portrait?”
 
Ryuga doesn’t have to answer. She can undoubtedly read it on his face just as well as he can read it on hers.
 
That they’ve both been confronted with something far beyond their capabilities tonight.
 

 

 
They sleep in shifts for longer than they probably should, but true to Jinga’s word there is nothing to disturb them, other than perhaps the eerie sound of the wind rattling a window somewhere (like a taunt, almost, as he has yet to encounter a single window in this place). If they’ve slept the day away he has no way of knowing. His internal clock, a skill taught at the most basic levels of Hunter training, is also thrown off somehow by this labyrinthine castle, leaving him feeling adrift in a void.
 
Meals appear on a silver serving tray outside their door, and in the end hunger beats out wariness. The food – flawlessly cooked cuts of lamb in a dark, rich sauce laid overtop a bed of risotto – is at once the most delicious thing he’s ever tasted and subtly wrong, somehow, in a way he can’t put into words.
 
He and Rian attempt to leave, to scour every inch of this place for an exit, but find themselves hopelessly lost yet again, confronted by a dead end hallway, and then another dead end after that, a massive painting of a shrieking demon staring down at them condescendingly. They get escorted back to their room by the maid, who Ryuga is beginning to suspect is something far from human herself.
 
Hours pass. Or maybe it is only minutes.
 
The maid shows up again at their door, inclining her head as she hands them both a long box tied with a black ribbon.
 
“The Master and Mistress have requested you join them for supper in the dining hall,” she says. “Appropriate evening attire has been provided.”
 
She’s walking away before either of them can so much as protest.
 
He can’t deny that their hosts’ taste in clothing could be much worse: a simple, fitted black blazer jacket and neatly pressed pants for him, a floor-length cocktail gown (also black) for Rian. The idea of following instructions unquestioningly sets his teeth on edge, and yet the alternative could mean angering them, something he’s not sure he wants to risk.
 
He slips the jacket on and finds that it, too, fits him as if it had been tailored to his measurements. That idea is starting to seem more and more plausible with every moment he spends in this castle.
 
He hears the hem of Rian’s dress hit the floor and turns around to find her looking weary, her lips pressed together in a thin line.
 
“Well,” she says. “Shall we go?” She offers her arm to him, expression twisting into a scowl. “I say that, but I don’t think we actually have much choice, do we?”
 
“None at all,” Ryuga mutters, and links his arm with hers.
 



 
“Tell me a story,” Jinga says. He’s leaning his chin on his knuckles, looking rather bored as he swirls the wine in his glass. Across the table, the woman, Amily – an uncanny kind of glow to her pale face and sharpness about her eyes – is twining a lock of dark hair between her fingers as she stares at Ryuga and Rian.
 
“…A story?”
 
“You know, about one of your hunting jobs. You must be proud, I assume. Of the number of our kind you’ve killed.”
 
Ryuga’s eyes narrow. Neither he or Rian have touched the plate of food in front of them, too on-edge from the tense atmosphere in the room, a kind of overwhelming pressure that seems to be grinding down on his shoulders.
 
“Their stories can’t be all that interesting, my dear,” Amily says, examining her nails. “Those were all rather pathetic specimens of our species.”
 
Jinga seems to ponder this before sighing. “True. Maybe we should tell you a story instead.” He smiles. “About two hunters who wandered into a castle one day and never found a way out.”
 
As much as Ryuga hates to admit it, that is looking to be a genuine possibility. Even the way to the dining hall had been changed from what he remembered, the room seeming to have moved to an entirely different wing since they were last there.
 
“What if,” Ryuga says, apprehension twisting in the pit of his stomach. “What if we made a wager?”
 
Rian kicks him underneath the table. Rule number eleven: don’t ever, under any circumstances try to bargain with a vampire. But at the moment he’s not seeing any other way out.
 
Jinga arches an eyebrow.
 
“A one-on-one fight,” he soldiers on. “No tricks. We each have a witness.” He nods towards Amily and Rian. “If I win, you let us leave.”
 
“And if you lose?”
 
Ryuga swallows hard. “Then… you can have whatever you want.”
 
Jinga stares at him for a time before laughing, sharp and sudden, an eerie kind of gleam sparking in his eyes. “Whatever I want? That’s a funny thing to offer to the Master of the house. I can already have whatever I want, Ryuga. But,” here he reclines back in his seat, studying him from over top the rim of his wine glass, “I’ll take you up on it anyhow. Just because you know I’ve been aching to fight you in better circumstances.
 
“Actually, I’ll even sweeten the deal. Even if I win, I’ll still let the two of you leave, if you so desire. I’ll just take a little something first.” His smile widens. “Isn’t that kind of me?”
 



 
In an unsurprising twist, the castle has an armory.
 
“Obviously you’ll need something better than those sad little knives of yours,” Jinga is saying, pacing ahead of him and contemplating the vast selection of weaponry lining the walls. Axes and halberds, morning stars and flails. And stranger weapons, too, blackened things with vicious hooks and multiple serrated blades that don’t look like they were forged by human hands.
 
“Ah,” Jinga says, stopping to point at one in particular. A beautiful golden sword, the pommel of its hilt fashioned to look like the howling head of a wolf. He takes it down and swings it, carving through the air to point the tip at Ryuga’s throat before laughing and holding it out for him to take instead. “I think this’ll do nicely. What do you think? You do know how to fight with a sword, right?”
 
“Of course I do,” Ryuga snaps. Swords are impractical in the field in their profession, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t train extensively with them, just in case. He accepts the blade and finds it less heavy than it looks, with a flawless sort of balance in his hand, the grip of the hilt familiar in a way he can’t place. Like it was meant for him.
 
“You look good with that,” Jinga says with a grin. “Let’s hope you are good with it.”
 
Also unsurprising is the way he leads him through the nearest door into a room that might as well be an arena – a wide, empty expanse of white marble, the only thing to disrupt it being the balcony overhead, where Rian is sitting uncomfortably with Amily leering over her shoulder.
 
“Our audience is waiting,” Jinga says, stopping in the middle of the room and turning back to look at him. He reaches out his hand and unsheathes a sword of his own, pulling it seemingly from the air itself. “Let’s get this started, hm?”
 
This time, without the exhaustion of yesterday weighing him down, Ryuga is ready for him. He parries his first few strikes, blades sparking as they clash, countering with a low slash that Jinga spins away to avoid. For the first few minutes the back and forth is evenly matched, neither of them willing to give up any ground. He’s keeping up with him, he thinks. He can win this.
 
Until he slips, just a little, and lets himself get cut.
 
The edge of Jinga’s sword glances along his forearm. It would barely be worth acknowledging in different circumstances, and yet. Ryuga jumps back instinctively, looking down to see blood welling from the shallow cut, and something drops like a stone in the pit of his stomach. He presses his hand against the wound, staunching it, but it’s too late. A rivulet of blood is already dripping down his arm to pool at the bend of his elbow.
 
He glances back up to find Jinga’s eyes glinting red. His posture changes, rolling his shoulders and straightening up to full height as he inhales deeply.
 
“You humans will never understand,” he murmurs. “How good it smells, when it’s pure and ripe. How… enticing. Even after all these years, it’s hard to keep my composure.”
 
When his next attack hits, it is with a wild strength that Ryuga was not prepared for. He just barely blocks in time, pushed back across the arena by the force of it, struggling to plant his feet on the smooth marble.
 
And so the tide turns against him. The scent of blood seems to have flipped a switch for his opponent, whose jabs are now almost too quick to avoid, one of them slicing through the material of Ryuga’s blazer as he barely twists away. Jinga’s swings seem to be trying knocking the sword from Ryuga’s hands, and finally he accomplishes exactly that, an upward arc that sends his blade flying, landing a good ten feet away and embedding itself in the marble.
 
Slowly, Jinga once again levels his sword at Ryuga’s throat. Except this time there is no humor in his eyes.
 
“I win,” he says softly. He puts the tip of his blade beneath Ryuga’s chin and lifts it up, cool metal against his skin, exposing the line of his throat.
 
Ryuga’s pulse is pounding in his ears.
 
“You did make an honorable wager, didn’t you?” Jinga’s fangs are evident as he speaks. “That I could take whatever I wanted. But I meant what I said before, you know. That it’s far more fun when my prey wants it, too.”
 
“Ryuga, don’t!” Rian yells from the balcony, but Ryuga can’t look away from Jinga’s face, held in place as he is by the sharp edge of his sword (and by something else, too, something he can’t put a name to).
 
He closes his eyes and takes a shaky breath.
 
“Do it,” he says, and can sense Jinga’s smile without having to see it.
 
“As you wish.”
 
The sword gets tossed aside with a resounding clatter. He stiffens as he feels fingers curl around his hip, as he gets pressed back against the wall behind him, the line of Jinga’s body very close to his. Jinga’s other hand twists in his hair, tugging his head to the side to allow better access.
 
When his fangs sink into his skin, Ryuga’s eyes snap open as he gasps. The pain is startlingly sharp – twinging, with a subtle burn beneath it, and immediately he feels weaker, somehow, reaching up unconsciously to put a hand on Jinga’s chest to support himself. He can feel the blood rushing to the surface of the puncture wounds; feel it being drained from him.
 
But as quick as it hit, the pain is already fading. And in its place is a different sensation entirely – heady and hazy like a veil of smoke laying over his thoughts. A tingling floatiness undercut with warmth starts to set in at the tips of his fingers and the soles of his feet, lacing its way up his limbs. It settles somewhere in his core and thrums there with a slow, pulsing rhythm.
 
He knows well the intoxicating effect that vampire bites have on some people. He’s seen enough of them, certainly – blissed out blood slaves in the corners of every seedy vampire den they’ve ever raided. And yet somehow he had never grasped the true reality of it. The way it curls through your veins like a drug.
 
He doesn’t know how long he stays like this, blood leaving him as he seems to drift through a pleasant fog.
 
It’s only when Jinga slots a leg between his thighs that he realizes how achingly hard he is. Before he can stop himself he’s pressing down against Jinga’s leg with a noise in the back of his throat that sounds almost like a whimper. He could swear he feels Jinga laugh against his skin, his thigh sliding against him as his breath hitches –
 
And then his fangs are retracting from his skin, tongue hot against the wounds as he licks the last of the blood away, and Ryuga comes back to himself with a jolt, as if his mind had been someplace far away. Dizzying tiredness slams into him like a sledgehammer to the chest. Realization of what he just let happen lays heavy in the back of his throat as his breath comes quick and erratic.
 
“Not everyone’s as partial to the bite, you know,” Jinga says, pulling back to give him a crooked smile. There’s red staining the corner of his mouth, and he swipes it away slowly with his thumb before licking it clean. “I don’t know if I’ve ever had a human react quite so earnestly before. We really must be fated, you and I.”
 
When he releases his hold on him, Ryuga’s legs give out in an instant, collapsing down on to his knees. He kneels there and tries to lift a hand, to feel the already-healing puncture marks on his neck, but even his fingers refuse to listen to him.
 
“I may have taken a little more than I needed, admittedly,” Jinga muses. “It’s been a while since I tasted anything that sweet. But really, you’re in no position to be leaving in that condition.” He claps twice to summon the maid. “Why not spend another night, hm?”
 
With some effort, Ryuga manages to stare up at him, dread seizing his heart.
 
“Oh, don’t give me that look. I’m a man of my word. You’re free to leave first thing in the morning.” A pause, and there seems to be a note of worrying amusement to his words when he continues: “If that’s what you want.”
 
Ryuga doesn’t have the time or the wits about him to consider the meaning of that before he is being hauled to his feet by the maid and dragged bodily towards the door.
 

 

 

 
He wakes to a pounding headache and Rian’s anxious face peering down at him.
 
“Ryuga,” she says softly. “Are you… okay?”
 
Groggy, he blinks up at her for a few moments before nodding. He actually feels a bit like he got hit with a car, but at the very least he’s regained enough strength that his body is responding to him, allowing him to push himself up into a sitting position.
 
“I can’t believe there are humans who do this on a regular basis,” he mutters. So he says, but. The memory of the other part – the high – is still vivid in his mind, too. Swallowing hard, he swings himself out of bed and on to his feet, swaying a bit from the sudden rush of lightheadedness. He lifts a hand to palm his neck, feeling the already-scarred marks beneath his fingertips.
 
“We should be able to leave now,” he says, and Rian makes a quiet noise of assent. She seems different today. Subdued. The way she’s looking at him is strange, without any of her usual affability and ease.
 
She saw all of that, he thinks, in a sudden rush of clarity, and the reality of that sits like a thorn in his chest.
 
“Let’s go,” he says, his own voice stilted, grabbing his blessed daggers from their hiding place beneath the writing desk and not glancing back as he heads for the door.
 
The maid is nowhere to be seen. Instead, they simply start walking, taking the route that he still has memorized from when they were first led to their rooms. The halls, though usually empty, still seems somehow moreso today, the silence around them rather oppressive. In the corridor lined with suits of armor, he could swear that he feels a pair of eyes fixated on him.
 
But true to the terms of the agreement, the castle’s tricks are no longer at work. They find themselves at the marble staircase leading down to the entrance hall with no trouble. When they reach the front door it swings open for them without issue, and they both shield their eyes against the mid-morning sun, breathing sighs of staggering relief almost in unison. Stepping out into the fresh air is like the world’s most pleasant slap. In the span of such a short time he had almost forgotten the taste of air without that faint undercurrent of age and dust and dried blood.
 
“This… is going to be a tough one to explain to Lady Ryume,” Rian mutters, descending down the stone steps with a sigh as she stretches out her shoulders.
 
A sinking feeling brings Ryuga back down to earth. What will the Hunters’ Society say about all this? They’ll be bringing back vital information on the enemy, yet. They’ve also failed their mission. In the most spectacular and rule-breaking manner. When they ask ‘why,’ what will he say?
 
How much of it will be true?
 
He stops at the open gates, staring down at the worn line in the dirt where the castle grounds end. Rian, already past him and headed down the hill below, turns back to give him an odd, nervous look.
 
“Ryuga, seriously,” she calls. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
 
“Right,” he murmurs. He licks his lips. He wonders why his feet don’t seem to want to step over the boundary, as if they were shackled to the ground. As if there were grasping hands holding him there in place. It feels like moving through quicksand as he forces himself to make the step, the resistance easing somewhat once he has, but still it presses at the edges of his mind.
 
He heads down the hill to meet Rian with an odd sensation pulling at him, as if there were an invisible cord tied around his throat, trying to tug him back towards the castle, the shadow of which he can feel looming at his back even as the path twists and the place itself is swallowed behind the shapes of the trees.