I was angry with my friend,
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe,
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
-William Blake, Poison Tree.
A cold wind blew swirls of dust over the empty blacktop as I stood by the side of the road leaning against the van I picked up in Albuquerque. The engine was still hot through the fabric of my duster, warming me in the chill night air. I checked the horizon again, making doubly sure that the sun had fully retreated from the sky. It wouldn’t be long now. After nearly a month of tracking, the possibility of my quarry being so close had me itching for a fight. My hands wanted to stray toward the twin kukris at my back, but I forced them deeper into my pockets. The blades would have to remain sheathed for now. It wasn’t time to cut loose, not yet. For the moment, I needed to concentrate.
The bar across the street stood out garish and loud in the barren New Mexico night. Blue and red neon splashed like bloodstains on the ranks of chrome-lined motorcycles clustered in the tiny gravel parking lot. I shut my eyes to block it out.
Running my tongue along the crease between my cheek and gums, I worked loose a small plastic pill, no bigger than a peppercorn. There were three others to use, my emergency reserve, but one was good enough for now. Just a little kick, I didn’t want to use a full dose only to have this place turn out to be a dead end. The taste of copper hit my tongue as I bit down and swallowed, letting the heat flow through me.
Heat turned to fire. Fire turned liquid and roared through my veins, soothing the raw crawling feeling that had been plaguing me all day. I took a deep breath and let the blood run its course. Let it strengthen me and expand my senses, my mind uncoiling from its mortal confines with practiced ease. My eyes snapped open, glittering and pale in the cold desert night.
The neon signs that barely cast a dim glaze over the parking lot a moment ago now stood out like an inferno, bright and blinding. My eyes quickly adjusted, dialing the ambience down to a muted glow. A phosphorescent grey replaced the chill darkness of the empty night, revealing every crack and pit in the endless hardpan. Scalding bright heat signatures of bugs and rodents scurried through the brush, while undulating wisps of the Earth’s magnetic field soared high overhead, bending and flowing beneath the light of unnaturally brilliant stars. The dusty odor of the desert gave way to a raging kaleidoscope of scents; oil and rubber on the highway, hot metal and gasoline from the motorcycles in the parking lot, and underneath it all, the sickening sweetness of death. Remnants from the bones of things long dead.
With no rain to cleanse the dust, that’s what it always smelled like out here in the desert. Centuries of dead things lying all around, layer over layer until you couldn’t tell where the sand started and the stench ended. It made me wonder how the bloodsuckers put up with it.
Then again, any vampire desperate enough to flee to the American Southwest probably had bigger things to worry about than how the place smelled.
I shook my head; I was letting my mind wander again. Background noise, nothing more. I took a deep breath and focused on the singing, roaring heat blasting through my veins.
A century ago, the bloodrush was novel, an intriguing departure from the mundane, but now all the mystery and allure had faded, leaving behind only the grim practicality of the hunt. I ignored the rush and reached deeper, past the ordinary mortal senses, past the prosaic smells and sights and sounds. Beyond the taste of the air and the crackle of cold against my skin. I reached for something darker, a cold void of emptiness in the deepest pit of my being, a place that exists in all of us, but where few can bear to look. I grasped at what dwelt there, black tendrils of anger roiling beneath the thin veneer of sanity, razor spines and talons threatening to tear their way out.
It was awake, and it was hungry.
As it always did, the Beast fought against its bindings. Like the mustangs that used to roam freely on the western plains, it had to be ridden into submission, bucking and thrashing, until I had proven that my will was the stronger. In the beginning, this had been difficult. Quite a few times, if not for the other hunters guiding me, I would have lost it completely. But that was a long time, and a tall hill of corpses ago. The long, weary miles of my life’s path had forged my will from raw iron into sharpest steel. I would not falter here. I would not fail. Not with my prey so close.
It was over in a second. The Beast was a part of me, after all. A visceral extension of my subconscious with a quasi-sentient urge to kill. Now connected to my waking mind, it knew that the struggle was hopeless. I was no green apprentice. I was a full-fledged hunter, and I didn’t have time to put up with any nonsense from what was, for all intents and purposes, my imaginary friend created by a conscious effort of will.
Hungry. It sent.
The Beast didn’t really speak, as such. More like spikes of impressions that evoked singular emotions.
Patient. I sent back. Soon.
The Beast replied something between contentment and anticipation, and receded back to wait. I had a vague impression of deep red eyes glittering in the darkness, the black leviathan of its body settling down into a coil. Its eyes were wide, and they did not blink.
This is you. Collin’s words drifted back to me from across the years, this is your sleeping mind given form and shape. It will strengthen you, but all strength comes with a price, lad.
I repressed a shudder at the memory and turned my mind back to the task at hand—killing a vampire and stealing his blood. I was down to my last flask, and without it, without the bleeding, and the sigil, and the incantation, I was just another mundane. Another mortal waiting to die a nameless death.
This I would not allow. Not while so many still walked that deserved to burn. Creatures like Damon and his sick, depraved familiars. They all had earned death, and I had come to render payment.
Over three weeks it had taken me to find this place, to puzzle out Damon’s hiding spot among all the abandoned husks left to crumble under the desert sun. The last thing I expected was to find him hiding in plain sight, the proprietor of a legitimate establishment catering to a bunch of mundanes. And bikers, no less. Fairly clever on Damon’s part, especially considering how young he was. I would have to be careful when I went in to take him down, assuming he really was here.
He had to be here. Had to be.
Or he might be underground, or he might be a hundred miles away. Vamps are fast, after all.
The withdrawal was getting to me. Time to do something about it.
I started across the street, boots crunching against asphalt, and kept my eyes down. It would be easier for the leather-clad mountain watching the door to forget me if we didn’t make eye contact, which meant that if things went south I would have less reason to kill him. I try to avoid slaughtering normal humans whenever possible; it’s bad for business, and it has a tendency to bring down the law. With my last hunt in Texas still making headlines in Dallas and Austin, I needed to be careful. This had to go smoothly.
“Where’s your hog?” The bouncer grunted when I handed him my ID. It was a fake, but a good one.
“Back of the van.” I said, affecting a thick Texas drawl and jerking a thumb across the street. “Blew a fucking gasket. Had to call my brother in law to come get me.”
He peered where I had pointed, eyes squinting in the darkness, then back at me. I could smell the whiskey he’d drank before his shift started, and the mouthwash he’d gargled to cover it up. He stank of a bad liver, too much greasy food, and the remnants of an impressive array of narcotics working their way out of his system. His body odor was a physical thing that threatened to knock me over.
“Where’s your brother in law?”
I shrugged. “Probably at home gettin’ drunk and beatin’ on his wife. That’s what he usually does most nights.”
“So what are you here for?” He pressed, his eyes narrowing.
I twisted my mouth into a lecherous grin. “The hell do you think? Beer, pussy and blow, like every other asshole in there. The fuck else is there to do around here?”
He stared at me for a moment longer, and I risked looking him in the eye. My vision narrowed down into the tiny mirror image reflected on his iris, seeing the same man he saw. Tall, but not as tall as him, lean, scalp a few weeks out from its last shave, and a thick goatee surrounded by a shorter, more recent growth of beard. He couldn’t see any of my sigil tatoo’s, but then I wasn’t showing much exposed skin under my long jacket. Between the leather and the scars on my face, I could have been any random ex-con between Juarez and the Black Hills.
After a moment, the bouncer grunted, handed me my ID, and went back to looking bored. I guess I had done a good enough job of looking the part. Now it was time to get to work.
As soon as I pushed through the door, Molly Hatchet blasted my hyper-sensitive ears from the speakers of a run-down old jukebox. Spider web cracks dotted the cover over the album titles, and no one had bothered sweeping up the cubes of glass on the floor beneath for at least a couple of years.
The usual collection of neon beer logos dotted the walls, along with broken mirrors, mounted animal heads, and gaudy, flea market Native American art. Burly, bearded bikers hung out in drunken packs around pool tables while scantily clad women lounged nearby vying for their attention. Some of them were even moderately attractive in an ‘I just started using meth a few weeks ago’ kind of way, while the rest of them were a haggard reminder to the younger ones of what came from hanging around these unsavory types for too long. More than a few sported black eyes and track marks, which was only a quarter step up from the increasingly common meth-mouth. Classy.
I made my way over to the bar as quietly as possible and took a seat. A few eyes followed me over, and the look in them was not friendly. Strangers were an uncommon occurrence in a place like this. The patrons here were not accountants and marketing VP’s out for a weekend ride. These hombres were hard-core, had rap sheets a mile long, and if you rolled into this place wearing the wrong colors, you were apt to get seriously fucked up. By the strong scent of blood on the filthy concrete floor, there were probably more than a few unmarked graves in the nearby desert directly attributable to this place. All the more reason to be careful.
As I sat down, a bartender with pale, hostile eyes, a braided beard, and a frame that looked like beef jerky stretched over a skeleton approached and wiped a greasy rag over the bar in front of me.
“Whiskey.” I replied.
Honestly, I didn’t want anything from this place, but it would look strange if I didn’t order a drink. The bartender stared for a moment, then grabbed a bottle from under the bar and poured me a shot. By its scent, it was much better suited for degreasing engines than for drinking.
“You must be new in town.” He said.
I shrugged. “Something like that.”
The bartender leaned forward to slide me my shot, his hand passing less than a foot underneath my face. A hot, tingling sensation burned in my nose for the barest of moments, and then the hand withdrew. It was only by an effort of will that I didn’t reach out to grab it. At least now I knew I was in the right place.
I downed the shot and did my best not to grimace at the foul taste. Traces of copper, lead, and a rancid menagerie of fungus ridden grains sizzled on my tongue like a wash of acid. God in heaven, where did he make this stuff, a Tijuana pay-toilet?
“Have another?” The bartender said, pulling a pack of menthols from the pocket of his leather vest and lighting one.
“I’d love one, but how about something that didn’t come out of a can with fucking ‘turpentine’ on the label?”
He grinned, showing his missing teeth. “What, you don’t like the homebrew?”
“I think if you poured that shit in the reservoir, half the pregnant women in town would have a miscarriage.” I reached into my jacket pocket, pulled out a small plastic vial, and held it up for the bartender to see. “How about something I can mix my little friend here with.”
He nodded and grabbed a bottle of Southern Comfort off the rack behind him.
“Not that I particularly give a shit,” he said, “but if your lookin’ for ass, you don’t need to go wasting money on roofies. Most of these cunts in here’ll fuck you for a ten-spot and a hit of dope.”
Again, he slid the shot across the bar, and again, I caught the scent mark. Deep in the back of my mind, I heard the Beast begin to growl, its coils slowly unfurling.
“You don’t seem particularly concerned. You’re not worried about the cops?”
The bartender coughed out a wheezing laugh. “Son, the pigs don’t fuck with this place. They know better.”
He emphasized his point by stubbing out his cigarette, pulling a joint out of the same pack, and lighting it. The acrid scent of marijuana smoke billowed across the bar. The shit smelled bad enough without heightened senses; with them, it was like tear-gas at a riot.
Good. I thought. Less cops, less attention.
“Want a hit?” He said, holding the joint out to me.
“No thanks.” I said, twisting the top off my little vial. “Got everything I need right here.”
The bartender leaned closer, looking down his broken nose at the dark liquid as I poured it into the whiskey.
“The hell is that?” He asked.
I held up the glass, swirled it around a couple of times, and threw it back. The effect was immediate. The burning in my veins increased exponentially, the sigils on my skin tingled with power, and the Beast came gliding forward, riding on crimson waves of raw energy.
“Borgras, Vorastus.” I muttered, triggering the sigils on both my wrists. The flames in my blood dampened, like dialing down the heat on a gas stove. The fuel was still there, I just didn’t need it yet. If I tried to use it now, it would quite literally burn me up. What I needed was a conduit, a safety valve, a way to control the flow of energy until it was time to wield it. That was where the Beast came in.
Its usual whisper voice grew in volume, hammering in my head like a gunshot, Hungry. Feed. Urgent.
I sent it an impression of a harness and reins emblazoned with the same sigils that were drawn into my skin. It growled and narrowed its eyes, but did as I asked.
All this happened at the speed of thought, and when I opened my eyes, my waking mind and my sleeping mind were linked, functioning as one. I could feel the power singing through me, begging to be unleashed. The Beast was under my control, and the sigils on my skin were fully charged and ready to trigger. I allowed a little power to creep into Vorastus, the Fist of Iron, and into Atas and Rozas, two of the sigils drawn in a circle on my chest. Iron, air, and force. Three words of power, and more than enough to deal with the bartender when he went for the gun at his back. Now that I was at full strength, I could smell the gun oil, and hear the pounding of his heart.
“Damn son.” The bartender chuckled. “You look like you just blew one in your shorts. Mind if I have a hit o’ that?”
I smiled, and pointed at a tattoo of an anchor on his arm.
“You serve in the Navy?” I asked.
He glanced down. “Yeah, long time ago. Why you ask?”
“Learn anything about sonar while you were in?”
He furrowed his brow and frowned. “Not really.”
“There are two kinds of sonar,” I explained, a smile creeping across my face, “Active and passive. Passive sonar is basically just listening and recording sound waves. Based on the wavelength, amplitude, shit like that, there are computers that can tell you what’s out there under the water. Problem is, if something doesn’t make any noise, you won’t know where it is.”
The bartender had noticed the strange way the neon reflected from my eyes, the afterglow of a wolf in the headlights, and was beginning to register alarm. “I don’t know what the fuck you just took, but if you go all batshit on me, I’ll crack your fucking skull and toss you out on your ass, you hear me?”
“Then you have active sonar.” I went on, ignoring him. “You send out a ping. A loud noise that bounces off of everything in a wide radius. It tells you who’s out there, and exactly where to find them. The risk you take with this is that the other guy can hear the ping too, and now he knows exactly where you are.”
A couple of bouncers who had been lounging in corners got to their feet at a signal from the bartender.
“Son,” he said, edging away “it’s time for you to go. Head first or feet first, your choice.”
The other two closed in, looming close behind me. The scents of sweat, grease, and cocaine oozed off them in billowing swells, elevated heartbeats hammering in my ears. Underneath it all, they bore the same scent mark as the bartender. Good. Three birds with one stone.
“If you send a ping,” I said, my grin widening, “you better have set up a damn good trap for the other guy, ‘cause shit’s about to get real messy, real quick.”
The next part, for anyone with the ability to transmute vampire blood, was easy. Day one stuff. I didn’t even need to trigger a sigil, I could do it by pure force of will. I drew in a small pocket of power, envisioning it at the core of my being, and compressed it. Smaller, smaller, smaller, and then…
A pale blue detonation of energy pushed out of me, staggering the three familiars closest to me and radiating outward through the ground and into the night. Faster than the speed of sound, I felt what I was looking for—a psychic hit. A very specific one. An impression left in the dying mind of a young girl in Texas that had started me on Damon’s trail.
The energy came back to me, and in my mind’s eye, I saw a handsome young man lying on a pallet in the basement beneath me. The power registered with him, waking him from his slumber.
His eyes snapped open, wide with alarm, and an instant later, the floor behind me exploded.