At this speed the bike was eating up the distance between Cathedral City and City 7 but it would still take him another full day to cover the distance across the wasteland. That left him with far too much time alone with nothing on the horizon except for the occasional ruin of an old city destroyed during the centuries of war between humans and vampires. It gave him too much time to think about the past and all his losses and regrets.
Owen had been wrong when he said, 'the Church took away a boy and brought back an old man'. He had left childhood behind when he married Shannon and helped her bring a baby into the world. His baby... Lucy. When the Church discovered his abilities - his speed, accuracy and agility - they had not cared that he was a full grown man with a family. They had called upon him to fulfill his duty to God and family, and out of that sense of duty and a need to protect the very people he loved, he had gone with them.
The Church had taught him how to hone his skills, taking away one life from him and giving him another within the priesthood. He had taken the vows of celibacy commanded of him by the Church, as seen in the eyes of his God, and they had placed their mark upon him so all would know who and what he was.
The same mark that had once commanded respect singled him out in the years following the war, after the priests were disbanded. No one wanted to employ a vampire killer, unable to see beyond the cross tattooed upon his face to the skills that lay beneath. She, the priestess, was not the only one of them who had been forced to accept lowly work in the aftermath of the war in order to survive. He had labored in the bowels of Cathedral City, shoveling the excrement and waste of those living on the streets above without complaint as he waited for God to reveal his true purpose for him once more.
He thought of his brother.
Owen had wondered why he had not come back to Augustine after the war, to pick up the pieces of the life he had been forced to leave behind fifteen years earlier, but that life had become lost to him during those terrible years. The horrors he had witnessed still haunted his dreams, reliving the death and destruction that was seared into his soul, deeper than any tattoo pierced into his flesh. He belonged in the dankness of the cities, buried beneath the effluence of humanity rather than with the sweetness of the wife and daughter that he had once loved with all his heart.
He still loved them.
The desolate towers of a once great city rose in the distance. Legend said that it had been called Phoenix but unlike that mythical bird, it had never risen from the irradiated ashes that had destroyed it a millennia before the seemingly unending war with the vampires. The radiation levels had since fallen but the scavengers had stripped the skeletal remains of anything worth taking, often paying for their intrusion into those old tombs with their lives as the remains of those buildings crumbled around them. The wastelands had already claimed most of the ancient cities, and all that truly remained were the bones to be picked over, and those held no interest to him.
It was said that the vampire race arose from the genetic mutations brought about by that ancient war of human against human; a war that sent the world spinning back into the Dark Ages. It had left the world a radioactive wasteland, destroying most life on the planet and turning the seas to acid. Unable to tolerate sunlight, the vampires hid during the day and crept out of the ground at night to feed upon man. Stronger and faster, they had ruled the hours between sundown and sunrise, and the only advantage of man for a time was his ability to stand under the rays of the sun.
The Priest he had once called a brother, and now called 'Black Hat', had defied that law of vampires and man, standing upon the roof of the train under the heat of a midday sun, unaffected by the ultraviolet rays that touched his pale skin. He was a different kind of creature, no longer human and yet not entirely vampire either. Instead, he was something in between that belonged to neither world yet who clung to those who had stripped him of his humanity; this Queen of Sola Mira that he had waxed poetic over as they faced each other.
He still dreamed of Black Hat, of those last terrifying moments in Sola Mira towards the end of the war. It had been a cleverly laid trap, drawing them deep inside the hive before the trap was sprung, and so few of them had made it out alive. They were not supposed to know fear but he had seen it in Black Hat's eyes as the creatures tore him away from his hand, and from the sunlight.
He was not supposed to feel empathy and yet he had screamed out in loss as Black Hat disappeared into the darkness beyond.
He truly thought his friend was dead, torn to pieces by the ravenous creatures that fed on human blood. He had never expected to see him again except in his nightmares, though perhaps the events of the past few days could be considered such. The Queen had turned him; made him into one of her familiars in a way never seen before, by feeding him her blood.
Had she known what would happen to this captured Priest?
It was so easy to think of all vampires as mindless beasts, and perhaps most of them were nothing more than that, enslaved by their Queen and by their lust for blood to assuage their hunger. This Queen was clever though, breeding an army and using a Trojan Horse in the form of a train to breach the walls of Cathedral City. If her plan had worked then he could only imagine the carnage that would be wrought among the humans packed into dark streets that never saw sunlight.
The priestess believed that the vampire Queen had laid another trap by abducting Lucy, bringing the remaining priests far from the city and deep into the wastelands at Outpost 10 and Augustine. Too far away to stop the anticipated carnage in Cathedral City, except Black Hat had proved at Jericho that even priests were no match for him.
Three of them crucified; hung as a warning to all humanity that nothing could save them, not even their vaunted priests.
Both he and Black Hat had known each of those priests in that other life. They had slept, and eaten, and fought beside them during the last war, and now he had laid them to rest in a burning pyre. Yet if Black Hat had known he was faster and stronger than any priest, if he had no fear of them, then why had he lured them out? Why had he lured HIM out? Why had he chosen Lucy, and kept her alive and human for so long?
As he left the ancient ruins of Phoenix far behind him, he wondered if there was still some small spark of humanity alive inside Black Hat, one that had wanted to see the Queen's army stopped before it could reach the human city.
Was... not had been, for he had seen no proof that Black Hat was dead. The black hat that had descended to his feet after the destruction of the train bore only singe marks, as if it had escaped the wall of fire created by the explosion. He had to believe that its owner had escaped in a similar fashion and, unlike the creatures traveling with him, Black Hat had no fear of the sun.
With only a few hours of sunlight left, he pulled over into the shade of a small, misshapen tor, drawing out the solar recharger unit to replenish the power in his bike so he could travel through the night and the following day without needing to stop. From the top of the tor he could see in every direction for miles, making it as good a place as any to stop for a few hours to rest his arms and his eyes, and to stretch muscles that were becoming sore from spending too long hunched over the bike.
Perhaps Owen had been right in that he had returned an old man.
He smiled wryly, aware that he was still feeling the injuries from his fight with Black Hat. The priestess had stitched and bandaged the knife wound in his shoulder, and he had remained stoic to the pain throughout the long day, but now it ached fiercely. The ritual calisthenics eased other aches, the movements calming his mind too until he sank down onto the hard ground, eyes closed in meditation and prayer. The Church might have excommunicated him, but he still believed in God.
Even in his trance he felt the lengthening of the shadows and eventually opened his eyes. He ate a meager supper, offering up a prayer of thanks for each morsel of food, before gathering up the solar charger and starting the bike. Moments later he was racing across the vast wastelands, chasing the dying day as the shadows of night quickly overtook him.
He rode through the night and through the following day without stopping, but with the sun starting to set, he had to hit the nitro button if he was to reach the main gates before they were locked for the night. They would not open again until sunrise except under the most dire of circumstances, locking the humans away in relative safety - relative because no one could protect humans from the avaricious or murderous intents of other humans. It was a dog-eat-dog world, reminding him of Black Hat's words upon the train roof.
Humanity had always been its own worst enemy; at least it was until the rise of the vampires. Even with the threat of annihilation or enslavement by the vampire queens, humans still managed to find the time to fuck over each other. He had seen first hand the corruption of the Church, and of the clergy who ran it, so he could almost understand why Black Hat would find temptation in the simplistic goals of the vampire race.
Feed, sleep and breed.
In all the battles he had fought against them, he had never seen one vampire turn on another, not even over the spilled blood of a potential meal. They had no materialistic needs; no desires beyond what they needed to survive. Simple and perversely pure. He could see the attraction, especially following the brutal life he and his fellow priests had endured for the protection of humanity. Yet he saw the goodness in humanity too - the occasional bright sparks of love, loyalty, honor and friendship that shone above the deep mire of treachery, deceit and dishonor.
Hicks was one of those bright sparks of decency, and so was Lucy. Shannon and Owen too, and for that reason alone he could never turn his back on humanity and offer himself to the vampire Queen as Black Hat had asked of him.
And yet Black Hat had been one of those beacons... once... shining a light of friendship and trust, and perhaps a small amount of hero worship upon him. They had spoken often and though celibate, they had lain together, sharing blankets during the cold nights out in the wastelands. Where he had been a man when he was taken from his family, Black Hat had been just a small boy torn from his mother's arms. Where he had known of love and family, Black Hat had known only pain, the intensity of training, and the strictness of the Church. Where some believed that he had made the greatest sacrifice for giving up a life outside of the reaches of the Church, he saw the sacrifice of having never experienced life beyond that of the Church.
Black Hat had not chosen to be a priest. It had been forced upon him when the Church discovered the genetic mutations that could mold him into a warrior and vampire killer. If his story was true then he had not chosen to become a familiar of the vampire Queen either, bonded to her by the infection from her blood.
By now the massive gates were in reach, slowly closing as the sun settled on the horizon, and he zipped through the closing gap, braking hard once he was inside the city walls. The gates closed behind him with a long dull thud that reverberated around him, cutting out the last of the natural light as the city went into lock down. He stored his bike and made his way to the rendezvous point within the city, sensing others like him from the moment he stepped into the darkened room at the back of an old style saloon bar.
Pulling back his hood, he offered the smallest of smiles at the familiar faces, each marked with a cross such as his own. The priestess was among them and she came forward and clasped his hands. When she pulled away, his fingertips rubbed over the rosary that she had pressed into his hands, and for a moment he wondered how she knew he had lost his own - broken back in Cathedral City when he defended himself against the Clergy's guards.
"We may have stopped the army of vampires heading towards Cathedral City, but their Queen was not among them." He looked around. "The hive at Sola Mira contained nests for far more drones than those I saw on-board the train, and the reservation of Nightshade was empty save for a few too weak to follow their Queen."
A scar-faced priest stepped forward. "Reservation 46... Umbra... was also empty but for a few familiars and their weak masters. They attacked but were swiftly overcome. None of the familiars would betray their masters."
Others gave similar reports that confirmed that the Queen had not only bred a new army within what they had believed was a long abandoned hive, but that she was slowly gathering together those of her drones that had been spread across the reservations over these past years. If he was right then she had a powerful army at her disposal with the ones on-board the train little more than a small hunting party.
"She must have gone to ground somewhere," stated scar-face, and he nodded his agreement.
"Perhaps one of the other hives is not so abandoned either?"
There were three of the massive hives within a two thousand mile radius: Sola Mira, Canta Deum, and Torus Fal.
They agreed to split up, with half of the group heading to Canta Deum and the rest to Torus Fal but he spoke again before they parted to rest until dawn.
"There is another threat. Something... altogether different. A familiar of the Queen, created from her own blood, who was once one of us. With her vampire infection within him, he has all of our skills, and all of their speed, strength and agility."
"Who is this ex-priest?"
"One whom I believed had fallen many years ago at Sola Mira. Do not underestimate him."
They nodded in acceptance of his warning and disappeared into the night. They would meet again just before dawn, to begin the hunt.
Black Hat went down on one knee at the edge of the massive tor overlooking the town of Absalom, sighing appreciatively as he looked across to where the sun was hovering just above the horizon. The sun would set in less than an hour and he could already feel the restlessness within the hunting party of sixty vampires, which had burrowed deep into the caves within this rock formation, away from the burning sunlight as they awaited for night to fall. Without high city walls and closed gates, the town could not stand against them, and he licked his dry lips as he anticipated the blood that would feed him this night.
He needed blood; needed to replenish his body after the long flight across the wastelands after escaping from the exploding train. Although able to walk in sunlight, even he could not stand the rays of the sun for too long before his body dehydrated and his skin began to crack and burn. None of his familiars had survived and he had found no prey - easy or otherwise - over these past few nights. Tonight he would have his fill though. Tonight he would regain his strength.
His thoughts returned momentarily to Jericho, and how he had been tempted to drink from those who had confronted him. He had hung the remains of the three priests on crosses, with their blood still flowing through their veins untouched by any vampire. He should have taken them alive, incarcerated them so he could take them back to his Queen, and allowed her to infect their special blood to make them his brothers once more. Instead, the temptation to make them his familiars had been stronger but he knew they would never be like the weak-minded humans that begged to be infected. They would never subjugate themselves to him willingly without first suffering for years, just as he had once suffered at the hands of the Queen, and he did not have years to devote to them, or even days.
Jericho was the last stop before the train reached Cathedral City, and his Queen wanted to see that city of humans fall beneath her army.
At least, that was the excuse he had fed himself.
At the time he had been convinced that if it had been him, the Worldly Priest who had come to the order of the priests as a man rather than as a child, then he would have made an exception. Yet, when he'd had that priest within his grasp he had left him to burn rather than drain him or infect him, or imprison him for his Queen. He had turned his attention to the daughter instead, wondering if her blood would be as sweet as he imagined that of her father's.
Just as he had done at Jericho, he had shown mercy to his former brother-in-arms, and that thought unsettled him. After years hidden within the dank depths of Sola Mira, used as the personal slave and familiar of the Queen, he thought he was beyond doubts, beyond a conflict of memory. Yet he had seen his face and remembered cold nights huddled together, battles fought side-by-side, stories and memories shared around a campfire, and hours sitting in contemplative silence with their knees touching as they meditated and prayed. His body had remembered him from their training fights, anticipating moves from years of living and fighting together, except now he was the faster and stronger of the two of them.
The sun touched the horizon, slowly sinking, and he could feel the darkness creeping up behind him, and the hunger building within him, echoed by the vampires slowly crawling to the surface of their daytime tomb as they anticipated the fall of night. He hissed as the sun disappeared, plunging the wastelands into a darkness lit only by the street lights and fires of the distant town.
It was time.
As fast as the pure-blood vampires, he ran ahead of them as they raced across the barren land separating them from their prey, hearing the first chilling screams rent the air. Humans ran in all directions, panic stricken as the vampires set upon them, tearing some limb from limb and drinking greedily. He snatched a rifle from the hands of one brave man with shocking speed, fangs sinking into the man's throat, ripping and tearing as he feasted on the free-flowing blood.
He dropped the desiccated husk and flew at another, drinking his fill and wiping away the blood dripping down his chin with the back of his hand. With his hunger sated, he walked along the center of the dusty street and watched the madness around him; the arc of arterial spray, the trajectory of a severed limb, hearing a woman's scream turn to a gurgle as two vampires sank their fangs into her - breast and thigh. An object caught his eye and he drifted over towards it, taking the black, wide-rimmed hat from the head of a man being drained and placing it upon his own head. A fitting replacement for the one he had lost.
As the night moved on and the moon rose and set, gradually the town fell silent except for the occasional scream as a human was dragged from their hiding place and devoured. Eventually the only sound remaining was that of the vampires still hunting through the houses for any remaining humans. He called to them through the hive mind, drawing them back to him.
"Time to go to ground."
There was another rock formation halfway between here and City Seven. It would take several hours to reach but they would be there an hour before sunrise if they left immediately, giving them time to dig in for shelter through the coming day. Without another word spoken aloud, he turned and began to run, and his vampire brethren raced after him.
The heavy city gates swung open as the first rays of the sun spread across the wastelands, reflecting off the pale dust like fire racing across the flat landscape. He had found sleep elusive that night, caught up in memories of Black Hat and Lucy, but mostly in the confusing actions of the half-vampire.
If you had wanted me to burn, then why did you not cast the lamp at my body?
He rubbed at his shoulder, recalling the pain as the knife plunged through and pinned him to the inner wall of the train, suspended with his feet too far from the floor to take the weight of his body. The intense pain had robbed him of consciousness for a moment, and when he came to, the fire was already spreading from curtain to curtain, running across the carpeted floor. Dazed and barely conscious he had seen Black Hat grab hold of Lucy, and had seen him cast an oil lamp to fan the flames. Black Hat was fast and accurate, and his single word - Burn - was harsh, full of anger and menace. Yet he had cast the lamp into the circle of fire beyond him instead of right under his suspended feet.
Had Black Hat wanted him to suffer for longer? Had he wanted him to see the flames crawling across the carriage to consume him? Or had he not wanted him to suffer at all, wanting the acrid smoke to overcome him and send him into peaceful oblivion before the first licks of fire could touch his skin?
These were questions he could not answer, not knowing if Black Hat had acted out of sadistic pleasure, or out of mercy. Yet, as he sat astride his bike, waiting for the gate to finish opening, he thought of Jericho.
Black Hat had ripped the hearts from the chests of all three priests who had confronted him in Jericho, so they were long dead from this world before he raised them up on a crucifix. He had chosen not to feed from them or allow the pure vampires to feed off their blood; and he had not allowed them to be torn limb from limb, with their body parts scattered across a street already running red with the blood of all those slain that night. Instead he had shown more mercy to those priests than he had shown to the normal humans in Jericho, giving them a quick death and leaving behind a body that could be honored, prayed over, and cremated according to the will of the Church.
Perhaps some spark of humanity remains within you, my brother, he thought as he started the engine of his bike.
He glanced around the small group of priests, nodding at each in turn as he wondered if he would ever see some of them alive again. With the priestess at his side, he zipped forward, heading through the gate and quickly veering east towards Torus Fal. The group splintered as half of them turned north-west towards Canta Deum.
The ground moved fast beneath them as they headed towards to the distant horizon, wanting to put some distance between them and City Seven as it was only a matter of time before the Church reached out this far to have them detained for blasphemy. The Monsignor refused to believe that the vampires were a threat once more, having subjugated most of the remaining human population with promises that would disintegrate beneath the weight of the lies carried by the Church. To that end, the Monsignor had declared them renegades and had excommunicated him and any priest who rode with him, but none of the priests who had answered the call had much faith left in the Church.
As they moved swiftly through the shadow cast by the tor that rose majestically above the otherwise flat plain, he felt a shudder of wrongness, as if a hundred eyes were watching them. In the past he would have been tempted to stop and investigate but the mission they had undertaken was of far too great importance to delay on a gut feeling. If there was something in that rock formation that intended harm then he would have to rely upon the high walls and the strong gates to keep it out of City Seven until he and the other priests could return. It was far more important that they carry on to Torus Fal to see if the vampire Queen of Sola Mira had made that her new nest.
A few hours ahead of them was the town of Absalom but they would avoid the town and camp out on the plains tonight. The fewer who knew of their intentions and whereabouts, the fewer the problems they would encounter. Yet he felt a certain amount of disquiet at the inactivity in the lands around the town, having expected to see some sign of human activity in the area.
The priestess looked across, and he could read the disquiet in her eyes too.
The hours passed quickly, spent in meditation for the most part as he became one with his bike and the landscape around him. Occasionally his thoughts came back to the world as they passed a man-made structure that reached up to the sky as if trying to touch God. Often these were effigies of Church leaders and heroes of the last war with the vampire race, though none had ever raised images of the priests who had turned the tide of the last war in favor of humanity. He should have felt bitter at the lack of recognition but he had never looked for glory. None of them had.
With only an hour left until sunset, they stopped and set up camp, setting the bikes' solar recharger units up to capture the last rays of the dying day. After the sun set, the temperature dropped fast and he wrapped himself in his cloak, drawing the hood fully over his head, casting his face into shadows caught by weaker moon and starlight. By silent agreement he took first watch.
He smiled when the priestess sat beside him, allowing her to place her hand over his for a moment.
"I felt the touch of death in Absalom," she murmured.
"Yes," he replied to her unasked question of whether he had felt that touch too. The town had given him the same creepy sensation down his spine that he had felt in Jericho but, as with Jericho, there was nothing they could do. Their only hope of saving humanity came from finding the renegade Queen and defeating her once and for all.
They sat in silence for a while longer before the priestess curled up within her cloak to sleep. He watched over her until her breathing deepened into sleep, wishing he could offer her the same love and devotion that she felt for him.
In the darkness it was easy to allow his memories free rein, and they turned to the lost priest once more; to Black Hat.
Once more he deliberately focused on motives, looking for some sign of remaining humanity within the tortured half-man, half-vampire but as the moon set, deepening the darkness that had crept across the already bleak landscape, he acknowledged his attempts to fool himself. He had avoided looking too hard at his own emotions, afraid to delve too deep in case he did not like what he found there.
As he thought of Black Hat, his chest tightened just as it had on the day he lost his friend at Sola Mira. The pain of loss had overwhelmed him then, and even knowing his friend was alive had not lessened that pain. Instead he felt the conflicting emotions of joy and loss, of hope and despair. After losing his friend, he had fought harder, lost in a coldness of heart where all emotion was stripped from his soul and directed back at the vampires that had slain yet another of their number.
He was a priest but he was still human, and as he examined his feelings, he realized that he could now give a name to his feelings for the other - for Black Hat. Love. It dwarfed his feelings for Shannon. He recognized that his love for Lucy was as strong, but different. Lucy was his child and she owned a piece of his heart and soul. The one he now called Black Hat owned the rest.
Movement caught his eye and he nodded once to the priest taking over the watch before lying down, wrapped in his cloak for a blanket. Tired from the long day behind him and from thoughts of the day ahead, he allowed sleep to steal over him, falling into dark dreams of inhuman eyes filled with the bitterness of betrayal.
After eating a small breakfast that was bland but nutritious, they climbed back onto their bikes and set off towards the rising sun, and Torus Fal. Yet even with nitro they wouldn't make it before sunset, which would place them in dangerous territory after nightfall if the hive was being used by the Queen. But it was a risk they would have to take.
The day passed much like the one before but they stopped at another of the rocky tors that dotted the barren plains; one that might offer some defense against a vampire attack. From the top, he could see the massive hive rising above the plain in the distance, perhaps an hour away by bike. They would leave here at first light, giving themselves plenty of time to enter the hive during daylight hours.
He beckoned over two of the four priests who traveled with him.
"Take first watch, and awaken me in two hours."
They nodded and took up positions that gave them a commanding view of the plain in all directions. Two hour shifts would allow them all to remain hyper-vigilant. Using the rock face as a backrest, he settled down, pulling his hood over his face and drawing his cloak around him so that he blended into the shadows. Trepidation filled him, concerned that the itch between his shoulder blades was a foreshadowing of an imminent attack. It was tempting to stay awake just in case but he needed to be fully rested for what lay ahead, especially as he was still recovering from his fight with Black Hat.
He moved through several meditative steps to ease his troubled mind so he could sleep, but his dreams were as dark as the night before, filled with memories of years past overlapping with recent events. Black Hat featured heavily in his dreams once more but this time his heart pounded from desires that he had vowed against. Forbidden yet beautiful, as his memories of passion with Shannon morphed into the half-vampire who had once been his friend. He awoke with a start, freezing instantly as he let his senses take in the darkness around him.
Nothing stirred. Not a scrape of rock or a rustle of clothing, and yet something had pulled him from his sleep. He tensed a fraction as a stone skittered, seeing a dark shape move in the shadows but easing a little when he realized it was his turn to take guard. The other priest nodded towards him before curling up much as he had done earlier, leaving him to carefully make his way up towards the top to take position.
With just over an hour of darkness left before the dawn, while he took his second watch of the night, he heard a rumble in the distance that was drawing closer. Quickly he alerted the others and together they lay near the top of the tor, looking down onto the wasteland below. A mass of dark shapes raced past, and he thought he saw a human shape among them, knowing it could not be a familiar. Humans were too slow to keep pace with the vampire horde, which left only one other creature - Black Hat.
At least he had a partial answer now, knowing Black Hat still lived. The vampires were heading towards Torus Fal to hide out through the coming day, but the question of whether the Queen and the rest of her vampire army were also there, still remained a mystery. He looked to the East and waited patiently, finally rewarded by the increasing light at the horizon as the sun rose on a new day.
It was time to enter Torus Fal and search for the Queen... and Black Hat.
Two Days Earlier at Sunrise
When the sun rose and his vampire hunting party crawled deep under the rock into makeshift tombs, Black Hat stood silent and still at the top of the tor, melting into the dark shadow of the rock face. The plan had been to search for weaknesses and attack City Seven this coming nightfall but he frowned as he watched a group of eleven bikes exit the city. They split into two groups with one group of six heading North West while the second group headed straight towards his hiding place. As they grew closer, he hissed in annoyance, recognizing the dark cloaks of the priests... and one priest in particular.
Due East of City Seven were several small townships and outposts but his vampire brethren had already feasted upon all the humans they had found in those places. After those towns there was only one site of note - Torus Fal. His Queen was sleeping within the depths of that long-thought abandoned hive, and he could not allow the priests to arrive there before him, especially the Worldly Priest, though why he should be fixated on that one man was a concern to him. He calculated the distance and speed of the bikes, one sharp fang worrying at his lip and drawing blood when he realized the priests could be there before noon on the following day if they did not stop to rest during the dark hours.
He and his vampires could not hope to match the speed of the bikes.
He cursed up at the sun that kept his vampire brethren in hiding, aware that the priests would be a full day ahead of him by sunset, and hoping they would not risk traveling by night once the moon had set. Although mostly flat, the wastelands were still dangerous to those who could not see in the dark, such as humans. He calculated that if they did stop to rest then they would reach Torus Fal much closer to nightfall on the following day. No priest would risk entering a hive during the hours of darkness, even one thought long abandoned. There was a strong possibility that they would stop for a second night on one of the rocky formations that ringed Torus Fal, and plan their entry into the hive at first light.
Black Hat had to believe that this would be the plan, aware that it would take his vampires racing through both nights to reach Torus Fal, and even then they would barely reach the hive before sunrise. Those who could not keep up would be abandoned, forced to seek cover from the sun alone... or die beneath its rays.
With his plans for City Seven in disarray, he knew he would need to rest if he was to keep up with the others who were stronger and faster than he, but at least he did not fear the sun.
Finding one of the many holes excavated into the rock, he crawled inside, over the bodies of sleeping vampires, and laid down. Sharp claws scratched across his clothing from a semi-conscious vampire, catching on the fastenings but otherwise leaving the material in one piece. Black Hat growled and shoved the claw-like hand aside, rolling to face away from the other creatures sharing his tomb, and closing his eyes.
As always he saw the other priest's face in dreams filled with bittersweet memories of brotherhood and friendship; the quiet smile lifting the corners of lips, and the sparkling in blue eyes were the only signs of pleasure, and Black Hat drank in every memory. He remembered the touch of skin on skin as they practiced hand-to-hand fighting, of the weight of the other in his arms as they wrestled. He recalled dropping his head to the other's shoulder, lips pressed against his throat and tasting the salty sweat as they both drew ragged breaths from the exertion of the training fight.
His lips had pressed against many a throat since then as he drained them of their life blood, but none had ever tasted as good. None had ever made him feel so good, filled with forbidden desires. Except he was no longer a priest so those vows of celibacy no longer applied. He could take what he wanted from any man or woman, and yet it was only this one man, this Worldly Priest, who filled his thoughts and haunted his dreams, then and now.
Eventually he fell into the deep sleep, awakening as he felt the pull of the sun lessening. The others stirred around him and he crawled across their bodies, pulling himself from this hole in the rock in time to watch the sun set on another day. As the last of the sun's rays dipped beneath the horizon, he snarled out to those below him and ordered them back to Torus Fal, setting the pace as he raced ahead of them once more.
They ran through the night, and he cursed anew when he felt the approach of dawn, leading them to whatever cover he could find. Looking over the mass of vampires, he saw the first rays of the sun catch those at the back who were caught out in the open. Their bodies ignited, filling the air with screams and forcing the others to move faster as they scrabbled up the rocks and dug beneath the dirt. Within minutes the sun was fully up and Black Hat threw back his head and gave an almost inhuman howl that would carry for miles, knowing his quarry was far beyond range, for now.
Exhausted, he slept through the long day and when night fell, he was first to emerge again.
"RUN!" he ordered, and took off at speed.
He was still relying on the priests stopping in the late afternoon rather than pushing on to Torus Fal and reaching it at dusk. If the priests stopped for one more night then he had a chance of passing them before sunrise, though why he felt the need to reach the hive before them still remained a mystery to him. The Queen would have scouts during the dark hours, and familiars by day to watch for any attack. Yet his need to be there before the Worldly Priest consumed him with a desperation that was almost... human.
With little more than an hour before the dawn, they passed in the shadow of another rock formation and Black Hat had the sensation of being watched tingle up his spine. He could not afford to stop though, not if he was to reach Torus Fal before sunrise. Ahead he could see the great hive rising majestically above the plain, knowing its shadow would afford the vampires a few more precious minutes to reach safety. Many were ahead of him now, scurrying up the face of the hive and diving through holes into tunnels built into a massive structure that had been made from hard-packed soil mingled with vampire excretions of saliva and feces.
Clambering up the side of the hive, he moved into the first tunnel he reached. Instinctively, he knew his way through the maze of passages leading towards the chimney. He could feel the cooler air flowing in behind him, which would mingle with the hot, stale air rising from the galleries far below where the Queen nested. Quickly, he descended, moving unchallenged into the massive chamber where she lay attached to her egg sac. Far smaller drone vampires moved around her, waiting for a signal to breed with her while she was waited upon by many of her children. She snatched one of them and sank her teeth into its throat, draining it of the blood it had ingested from its human prey, before discarding the husk.
Black Hat watched as the vampires removed the drained husk from her chamber before he approached and knelt before her. He felt her clawed hand scrape across his head as her will subjugated him once more. She read images from his half-vampire thoughts even though he felt strangely unwilling to share them. Moments later he was flying across the chamber as she backhanded him, hissing her displeasure as she learned of the failed attack on Cathedral City and the aborted attack on City Seven. He hid his own snarl of displeasure, bowing his head in an act of subservience while he waited to see what she would order him to do next.
It occurred to him then that his demeanor had changed towards her. He no longer felt as if she owned him even though nothing else had changed. He was still hers, for her DNA was still wrapped around his own but the memories of better times, rekindled after seeing the other priest again, were shrouding the years of pain at her hand. She had broken him once, and the shards of his soul had been numb for so long that he had half-forgotten how to feel anything. The other had reminded him of all he had lost during these past years, and though he had fought against it at the time, the other had reminded him of his humanity.
With the Queen preoccupied with giving orders to her pure vampire children, Black Hat slipped away, heading back up towards the honeycombed entrances to the hive where he could wait for the priests to arrive. Movement in the hive decreased rapidly as the lethargic effects of the sun filtered all the way down into the galleries and chambers where the vampires slept. One of the massive hive guardians prowled along the higher levels while Black Hat spotted several familiars that had followed their masters to the hive when the Queen had sent out the mind call. Once infected, they became enthralled by their master, willing to do anything to protect the vampire who had turned them.
Black Hat had lost his familiars during the train explosion but had felt reluctant to take another since then, no matter how much one of his human prey had begged to be spared death at his hand.
As he sank down, mostly concealed in the shadows at one of the many entrances, he looked out across the sun-drenched wasteland towards the rock formation where he had sensed the priests. Once more his thoughts churned inside him, dredging up memories and making him question his actions since he first started out on his Queen's command.
From his memories of the Monsignor, he had known exactly how to lure the priests out of Cathedral City, to leave it vulnerable to his train filled with vampires. Of them all, only the Worldly Priest still retained the strong bond of family that would cause him to defy the Church - and the Monsignor - and Black Hat had used that against him by capturing Lucy. The Monsignor's arrogance had betrayed him as always, unwilling to see anyone contradict his orders even at the risk of excommunication. It was inevitable that he would send the other priests after the one who defied him, and all Black Hat had to do was wait for them to arrive in Jericho.
And that was when his meticulous planning went awry. He was supposed to capture the priests and take them back to the Queen where she would turn them, just as she had turned him all those years ago. Yet when he looked into their eyes, he didn't want them by his side as half-vampire brothers. He only wanted one priest by his side, and when that opportunity came, he could not do it. No matter his words at the time, he could not take that man and hand him over to the Queen, even though he would have him by his side for more than a dozen human lifetimes if they were both half-vampire.
There was a way he could have everything he wanted, but he was afraid of what he would lose in the process, but it was a risk he knew he had to take.
"We will need to take great care," he said to the three priests who remained with him. The fifth one of their group he had sent to Canta Deum to bring back the others, for the more he considered it, the more he was convinced that the Queen lay hidden within this hive. He could see no other reason for Black Hat's presence among the vampires racing towards Torus Fal, desperate to beat the dawn. "They may be lying in wait for us."
The priestess nodded her agreement and he wondered if she was recalling that fateful day at Sola Mira where they lost their friend - Black Hat. The more he thought of the fate that had befallen Black Hat, the more he felt sickened inside. Black Hat had accused him of letting go but that was so far from the truth. His friend had been torn from his grasp by too many vampire hands that were far stronger than his, and going back in would have been suicide. Yet he would have gone in after him in a heartbeat if it had not been for the others holding him back. Having already seen one of their number torn to pieces and sucked dry by the vampire horde, he had truly believed that his friend had suffered the same fate.
He had mourned his loss and was almost surprised to discover that the grief had become such a huge part of him that it took until now to realize that he had never stopped mourning. And he was still mourning that loss even though he knew Black Hat lived... or at least, existed. The man - creature - that fought with him on the train was just as fanatical in his beliefs as before, but now his faith seemed to lay with their enemy.
The priests climbed quickly and he mentally prepared himself for what lay ahead, taking a deep calming breath before entering the first of the tunnels leading inside the hive. It was silent as a grave, which was to be expected at this time of day, but he knew they would need to proceed with caution. The vampires would not remain unguarded, and not all of those who protected them feared the hours of daylight.
They moved quietly, heading deeper into the hive and he felt a prickle between his shoulder blades; a sixth sense of being watched. The last time he had felt this sensation within a hive, it had been a trap, and he had lost his friend. He glanced anxiously at his companions, seeing the disquiet lining their faces too.
Trap or not, they needed proof that the Queen was here to take back to the Monsignor of Cathedral City or better yet, they needed to slay her and take back her head. The decapitated head of an ordinary vampire was not enough, for the Monsignor could easily explain it away as one of the vampires killed at Reservation 98 - better known as Nightshade. He had told them to check out the burned wreckage of the train just beyond the city walls for more vampire bodies, but if the Monsignor had sent out men then he was deliberately hiding the knowledge of what they had found. It was a dangerous game to play as it left the cities and their human populations complacent - and vulnerable.
There was another advantage to killing the Queen. It could buy humanity a few hundred years of peace before a new Queen rose to take her place; plenty of time to deal with the vampire threat once and for all time.
The attack came suddenly from behind, cutting off any hope of retreat back into the sunlight. They turned to fight but the narrow passageway was as much a disadvantage to them as it was to the vampires pushing towards them. He saw one of his priests fall beneath the vampires packed into the passageway, his screams dampened by the mass of bodies leaving fears of him being torn limb from limb. Knowing they couldn't afford to become trapped in this passage they raced onwards to where the passage ended, hoping to backtrack down another passage close by that would lead them back out of the hive. Eventually, the passage opened into a large chamber, just as it had in Sola Mira when he had ventured in with Hicks, but this time the chamber was not empty. Crouched on the ledges facing the passage were at least sixty or seventy vampires, who began to snarl and hiss the moment he and his priests emerged, and in a sudden flurry of motion, standing right before them barely ten feet away was Black Hat.
Black Hat raised his head, offering the sight of amber eyes that were no longer fully human, and he smiled, revealing sharp fangs.
"Take them," he ordered, and the vampires attacked.
There were too many of them but it was obvious right from the outset that the vampires meant to take them alive and he knew what would happen to them if they were brought before the Queen. They would suffer the same fate as Black Hat, subjugated to her blood and to her will. It made him fight all the harder, slashing out at the vampires until the bodies lay four deep around him. He saw another of his priests go down under the sheer mass of vampires, only to surface moments later as he was carried away screaming. It was a battle they could not win, and for one dark moment he debated taking his own life even though it went against the doctrines of the Church, but almost as soon as that thought blossomed inside his head, the vampires fell back and Black Hat stepped forward to engage him in battle.
A quick glance proved that he was now alone, with even the priestess torn from his side and carried deeper into the hive to her fate. They circled slowly, looking for weaknesses in each other, almost a mirror of those long ago practice fights. A smile still played about the soft, lush lips, and the amber eyes glowed with anticipated pleasure as Black Hat feinted forward.
He tensed in readiness as he recalled their uneven fight on the train. When it came, the speed of the attack shocked him, making him wonder if Black Hat had merely played with him before - like a cat toying with a mouse. Physically, he was no match for the half-vampire even when at full fitness but now, slowed by fatigue and injuries, he fell quickly beneath the onslaught, driven back as Black Hat pressed his advantage forward. Thrown like a rag doll, the back of his head cracked against a wall and he dropped, legs splayed and head spinning from the blow. A hand grabbed the front of his tunic, dragging him up into the air until his feet left the ground, leaving him suspended as he looked down into Black Hat's triumphant face. He lashed out uselessly, his fist barely grazing Black Hat's cheek.
"Take him," Black Hat ordered, and clawed hands grabbed at him, lifting him high as they carried him into the hive, along dark passageways and across smaller chambers towards their Queen. In a far larger chamber, he was pressed down upon a smooth rock with the shredded remains of his clothing hanging in tatters.
Unable to resist, he could only watch as each of the other priests was held down and fed upon until they were too weak to move. He cried out when the vampires fell upon him too, feeling the slashes of claws and teeth cutting into his flesh. Weakened by blood loss, he could barely move when a non-human shape appeared from the dark shadows deeper inside the chamber. Larger than the drones and soldier vampires, the Queen approached and he tried to struggle as she moved from one priest to the next. He heard the priestess cry out, abhorred by the transition from human to half-vampire as the Queen's blood was forced into her mouth. Her skin paled and her eyes turned a deep amber as fangs lengthened to cut into her lower lip. When the Queen reached him, he summoned every ounce of strength to pull away but it was not enough. He turned his head aside as she stood over him but strong once-human fingers held him tight, forcing open his jaw. The thick, cloying blood of the Queen dripped into his mouth and he gagged on it, trying to spit it up even as it slid down his throat. He could feel the changes creeping through his body as the blood infected him, throwing back his head and howling in both outrage and grief as he became less human. His vision grew sharper, his wounds stopped aching, with the cuts from bites and scratches closing to leave his already pale skin flawless. He felt the pressure in his mouth as his incisors elongated, catching on his lower lip to draw fresh blood that trickled down his throat. He could feel the Queen's presence in his mind, along with thousands of other inhuman thoughts that were almost animalistic in nature. Her razor sharp mind pushed harder into him, pervasive and insistent, tearing at the tattered remains of his humanity, and he knew he was lost.
Movement snapped his head towards Black Hat, and with vampire eyes, he saw the arc of a sword above him followed by a scream that echoed through his mind and through the entire hive as the Queen's head was severed from her body. In complete disarray, the vampires screeched and ran in all directions. He could feel the increasing silence as many threw themselves into the sunlight, burning under the sun's rays in frantic acts of self-immolation as they followed their Queen into true death. His own blood boiled inside his skin but Black Hat reached for him, holding him down with superhuman strength until the urge to sacrifice himself passed. From the corner of his eye, he saw one of the half-vampire priests race away with the pure bloods, hearing the priest's voice silenced soon after.
The Queen's thoughts were gone, leaving his mind in a silence broken only by the soft thrum of only three other mind voices even though he could see dozens of vampires still surrounding them. Most of those vampires had latched onto the dead body of their Queen, drinking from her corpse.
The voices remaining inside his head were insubstantial, barely registering as more than a mere presence but he knew who they were. He sat up slowly, frowning as he took in the two remaining half-vampire, half-human priests who had entered the hive with him - and Black Hat. Black Hat's thoughts were the strongest, and he watched as Black Hat sank teeth into his own lower lip, seeing the blood flow down his chin before Black Hat leaned in and pressing their mouths together. No longer wanting to resist, he tasted the rich blood, feeling the mind bond strengthen as he drank, until he could hear more than just whispered mind words but also sense all the emotions churning through Black Hat too.
Those feelings for him were stronger than anything he had felt in so many years, amplified by the want and desire that he had denied for so long, but that now thrummed between them. He was shocked and awed by his own reaction, scrabbling at Black Hat's clothing until they were both naked, and pulling them both down onto the soft ground, wrapped in each other's limbs.
The kiss deepened and intensified, robbing him of all thought except a desire to consummate the power of this lust with the half-vampire pressed tight against him. He felt long, sharp fingernails rake across his back, tearing skin that healed almost in the wake of those nails. His body arched up against Black Hat, desperate to feel him, and he cried out as he felt his body breached, losing a virginity that he had once sworn an oath to protect.
Sensations overloaded his mind and body, his orgasm ripped from him, tearing a guttural cry of pleasure from his throat as he came.
Black Hat watched the approaching bikes from one of the high entrances to the hive, seeing the plumes of dust stirred up in their wake. From the position of the sun, he knew they would not dare enter the hive until the following dawn, hiding out instead. He smiled wryly because their caution would be their undoing even though the hive was now empty of all pure blood vampires; he and his half-vampire brethren had slain all of those vampires that had remained behind, finding them easy prey without their Queen to command them.
The newly arrived priests were another matter entirely. He did not wish to kill them but infect them with his blood and make them a part of him. Then together they would ride out to find and destroy the other vampire Queens.
In return for ridding the world of the pure vampires, all he wanted from the humans was the taste of their blood, freely given. He knew that his half-vampire brethren and the humans could reach a truce that did not require the destruction of the other now that the urge to rip and tear at his human prey had died along with his Queen. He no longer felt her voracious appetite for blood or her desire to kill all humans, pulsing through her mind-link with him, and neither did his bonded mate or the two new others of his kind.
He felt his mate's presence at his side and sighed in pleasure.
"We will take them after the moon rises," he stated softly, and felt his mate's nod of agreement as arms wrapped around him.
Black Hat turned all his attention on the Worldly Priest who was now his bonded mate, sending a questioning thought through their shared link as he gazed into blue eyes that glittered hard like sapphires.
"My name was once Michael."
"Michael," Black Hat echoed.
Taken by the Church as a small child, his own name was long forgotten but perhaps, one day, after they rid the world of the pure blood vampires, he would find a new name to call himself.
An hour passed slowly but he had learned patience from childhood as a priest, drifting into mediation with his thoughts and his body warmly entwined with Michael's. The sun was setting, with long shadows drawing across the wasteland, and joining the shadow of Torus Fal until the only light remaining was the stars glittering in the heavens.
He smiled as the moon began to rise, heralding the new vampire dawn.
Banner artwork by Rubystandish
Fanmix Cover by Gryph