Title: The Hunters' Tales: Falman and Breda
Author: Jordanna Morgan
Archive Rights: Please request the author's consent.
Rating/Warnings: Strong PG for fantasy violence, vampirism, and a bit of suggested gore.
Characters: The alternate-world incarnations of Vato Falman, Heymans Breda, Tim Marcoh, and a couple of extra guests.
Setting: First anime. World War I in the alternate world beyond the Gate, as reinterpreted in my story "Blood Ties".
Summary: The backstory of Falman and Breda, as depicted in my Tiesverse. An exploration of who they were in ordinary life, and how they joined the invisible war against the undead.
Disclaimer: They belong to Hiromu Arakawa. I'm just playing with them.
Notes: In my CoS-alternative epic "Blood Ties", the doubles of several characters on the other side of the Gate were presented as Hunters: members of a secret organization sworn to protect humanity against the homunculus-vampires plaguing their world. A few were human, while the rest were dhampirs, or half-vampires. By varying degrees, I hinted at all of their backstories, and how they came to join the Hunters. This story is part of a series intended to flesh out each of those histories.
Heaving a sigh, Lieutenant Vato Falman slipped out his pocketknife to sharpen his pencil, and tried to ignore the raucous singing of four drunk enlisted men.
Most soldiers would be relieved to be rotated from the front to the support lines. It had its advantages: away from the trenches on the edge of no-man's land, a fellow could at least stand up straight without having his head taken off by a sniper. Supplies were a bit more accessible, and conditions were slightly better. The dug-out shelter in which Falman now lay, carved into the side of a hill, was certainly superior to the front's shallow cubby-holes that collapsed when the ground shook from the impact of German shells. His rations that night had actually resembled a meal, and most precious to him of all, he was able to procure a new pencil that was almost unused.
The thing was… Falman appreciated the quiet, sometimes, on the front lines. In between random shellings, and the customary "morning hate" of machine-gun fire meant to discourage dawn attacks, men were as silent as possible to avoid drawing the notice of snipers. Quietly they sat, locked in stalemate, as the battle lines stood for weeks and months without shifting—and they waited. Waiting for orders, for an enemy attack, for a bullet through the skull that could reward the slightest wrong move.
Waiting to go mad from the waiting.
Falman had seen more than one man quite literally go mad from it. Seen a boy not twenty, soul-sick of it all, throw himself out of the trench and try to run home; seen him fall back again into the mud, shot dead before his boots even struck level ground.
However, Falman's mental constitution was different. Some men would sooner have died than sit idle, but he was infinitely patient. There was no point in brooding over the horrific possibilities that might happen at any moment. He would think about fighting when it came, and about death when it found him. In the meantime, the nothing of waiting allowed his mind to travel elsewhere.
Namely, to his wife and their little boy.
Ruefully he looked down at the small, dirt-smudged notebook that lay before him. He had probably missed his son's first steps by now, but the image underneath his pencil was still that of the baby he had last seen, cradled in his wife's arms. She was smiling, in his picture, instead of the tears of his last farewell.
From the other side of the dug-out, a bottle crashed amidst uproarious laughter. Falman scowled and turned the page.
Odd that he could feel more at peace in the trenches with the shadow of death, than here with the mirth of fellow soldiers. His rank as an officer distinguished him from the men—but beyond that, he felt nothing in common with them. Their carousing held no appeal for him. He was as far removed from them as an anthropologist studying some primitive tribe.
Faintly amused by that thought, he began sketching the men on a blank page of his book, like the chronicler of a scientific expedition.
Thomson, the freckle-faced youngster; too naïve for his own good, ripe pickings for the resident cardsharps. Brent, one of those cardsharps, a small shifty man with an evil-looking face. Walling, big and gregarious and the loudest of them all. Harper, the ladies' man, full of bawdy tales of his conquests.
And in the shadowed corner adjacent to Falman…
Sergeant Heymans Breda was the one man in the company who held himself as distant from the others as Falman. Some would have assumed it was because he was unfamiliar with them, newly transferred from another sector—but the lieutenant knew better. As the ranking officer, only he had been made aware of the man's history, and his reason for being removed from the front lines.
Breda was a killer. His reputation for savagery was well known at his old post farther north. Rumors varied as to just how many enemy soldiers he had single-handedly taken out, but one fact was not in dispute: once he started killing, he had sort of a problem stopping.
During a nighttime recon foray, Breda and a few comrades had stumbled upon three Germans engaged in a similar mission. Neither group could dare to draw their firearms, knowing the sound of shots would invite a hail of machine-gun fire from both sides, and certain death for them all. Hand-to-hand combat broke out instead. Breda personally snapped the necks of two of the three opponents, and then tried to go after the lone escapee. His superior stopped him from giving chase; and at that point, still in the grip of an almost berzerker-like rage, he had nearly killed that man instead.
After that, Breda was quickly shuffled back from the front lines to cool off for a while. His effectiveness at destroying the enemy made him too valuable to discharge on mental grounds, but being executed for the murder of a comrade would also have wasted his talents.
Not that Falman had observed anything terribly threatening about Breda so far. Here where he wasn't in combat mode, he seemed to be as quiet as the lieutenant himself, and even more reclusive. He had barely spoken a dozen words to Falman or any of the men since he joined them. He merely sat alone and apart, watching—always watching, his eyes shifting back and forth on constant alert. At first the men were made uneasy by that faint sense of paranoia about him, and the sheer presence of his large iron-muscled figure, but they got used to it eventually.
Falman studied Breda at the opposite edge of the lantern-light, raising an eyebrow. This was the first time the big man had been treated to one of the boys' serenades… and unlike Falman, he actually seemed to enjoy it. His head was canted at an angle, watching his singing companions with an interest he had not previously shown, as one foot quietly tapped the dirt floor in time to their lusty drinking song.
Hmm, Falman thought absently. There must be truth in the old saying that music soothes the savage beast, after all.
In his scrutiny of the other man, Falman was the only one who noticed when Breda abruptly turned his head, looking toward the entrance of the dug-out. That familiar intent look came over him, and he sat straighter, chin raised and meaty fists clenched. In Falman's mind, he presented the very image of a watchdog, listening for untoward sounds in the night.
Something about that act made the hairs rise at the back of Falman's neck. He pushed up from his cot, waving a hand to still the rowdiness of his subordinates.
"Shh, wait a minute. Listen…"
The rusty ballad tapered off awkwardly as the men looked up, their focus sharpened to a fine point. Above all else, survival hinged on paying attention, even at this distance from the forward lines.
"What is it, sir?" Harper asked quietly.
Against the far wall, Breda slowly stood up. His hand slid underneath the blanket on his cot, in search of something, and Falman knew it could only be his sidearm.
There came a soft rustling at the entrance of the dug-out. The gas curtain that hung over it was pushed aside, and a figure stepped in, framed between the timbers that supported the doorway. Shadows obscured him, but his dark clothes did not appear to resemble any sort of uniform. He simply stood there at the threshold, looking in on the occupants of the shelter… and Falman could have sworn his eyes reflected a faint scarlet sheen in the darkness.
A chill slipped down the lieutenant's spine. He considered going for his own gun, but he had taken off his holster for the night, and its leather flap was fastened to protect the weapon against the dug-out's dampness. Instead, he discreetly began to reach for the knife in his pocket.
"Identify yourself," he commanded the stranger, in a clear, firm voice.
The intruder was still for a second longer. His lips seemed to part in something like a smile, and in the dark beyond the lanterns, the expression turned his pale face into a death's-head.
It was the last thing young Thomson would ever see.
Until that moment, nothing would have convinced Falman that anything in human shape could move that fast. Two animal bounds carried the intruder from the doorway to the table where the men sat—and Thomson, the closest, never had a chance.
An animal snarl, a spurt of red across the cards on the table; but no sound of a scream. The lad didn't even have time for that.
Before Thomson's body had slipped to the dirt floor, the thing was on to Harper. He did scream, or started to, but the sound was swallowed up by the roar of several gunshots in the confined space. Breda: eyes wild, pistol clenched in both hands, firing until all his bullets were spent. The attacker flinched and let go of his victim, but there was already a gaping hole where Harper's jugular vein should have been.
Walling tried to fight, but the empty bottle he swung never reached its target. The attacker's hand shot out with serpent speed and caught his arm, freezing its motion. An instant's shocked stare at the monstrous force that gripped him, a dull gasp as he was jerked forward into a horrific mockery of an embrace… and then Walling was gone too.
Brent tried to run, pushing over the table as an obstacle to buy him time. It was a gesture that meant nothing. The superhuman assailant leaped over the toppled barrier and landed almost squarely on Brent's back, dragging him down to the floor.
Then it looked up at Falman.
Blood-streaked jaws, lips drawn back from clenching fangs, eyes like burning coals. Curly dark hair and dimpled cheeks and a face that was so very, very young…
In his mind, Falman saw the face of his child, and the still-folded knife slipped from his fingers as the lunging monster's weight slammed against him.
It didn't hurt so much, really, when those jaws clamped down on the softest part of his throat. There was only blunt hardness and shock; too much shock, perhaps, for the pain to penetrate. Hands like steel gripped his left shoulder and the back of his neck, holding him in place as cold lips found warm blood, and the sound…
The sound was the worst, the most awful part of it.
After a moment, the thing pulled back just a fraction. It took a breath as its fingers squeezed tighter, possessively.
"Not drunk," it whispered, close to his ear. "I like that much better."
The monster's head bent toward his neck once more—
And then reared back in a banshee screech as Sergeant Breda loomed over it and Falman both, driving all his weight down on the broken-off table leg that was clutched in his hands.
Falman felt a wave of heat rip through his lower chest—and an instant later, a sickening pulling as the thing wrenched away from him, taking with it the stake that had passed through its body and into his. The jagged point that protruded from its torso was painted with red, and not all of that blood was its own.
Glancing down, Falman could see the fast-spreading crimson stain on his own shirt… but he couldn't feel it.
The thing stumbled away toward the entrance of the dug-out, growling and clawing at the stake. There was an angry snarl, a harsh rip and snap as it tore down the hindering gas curtain; and then it was gone, vanished into the night from which it had emerged only moments before.
Breda lurched into view again, holding another broken table-leg wrapped in his arms, like a child clinging to a teddy bear. He half-sank, half-fell into a sitting position, staring toward the doorway where the monster had fled. His stout frame shook violently, all over, with naked terror… and then with delirium, as he threw back his head and roared with insane laughter.
Dimly Falman knew he had to move, to make a sound, to let Breda know he was still alive and needed help—but his body did not respond to his effort of will. A tingling numbness was rapidly spreading through him. His entire being felt heavy, sinking, like slipping under the surface of a deep dark water.
It was just as well that he had never given much thought to death. He never could have dreamed it would come like this.
His vision grew fuzzy, but he managed to turn his eyes to one side, searching for the place where he thought his little sketchbook had fallen. He could just make it out in the fading haze. It lay open to his drawing of his family, the pages spattered with blood.
I'm sorry, he thought, and the blurred image faded gently to black.
The smell of blood was so strong.
Falman opened his eyes. His vision was slow to focus; for the moment he saw nothing but indistinct shadows. There was a deep-down ache in his bones, and when he made an effort to reach up and rub his eyes, his stiff muscles did not easily respond to his will.
He remembered. Grinning fangs, slaughtered men. Sergeant Breda with the stake.
All at once the mist cleared from his sight. He was still sprawled where he had fallen, his shoulders resting against the earthen slope where the floor of the dug-out curved upward and became the wall. Every sign of the carnage remained around him: the overturned and broken table, the shattered glass bottle Walling had tried to defend himself with, the crumpled gas curtain torn from the doorway.
The bodies, and the blood.
Hesitantly, Falman touched the front of his shirt. The blood that had soaked into it was dry. With one hand he tore the buttons open, sliding his fingers beneath the fabric… but where there had been a fist-sized hole in his chest, he could find no trace of a wound.
He clasped his hand to his neck. The creature's bite had also vanished. Still more disturbingly, no pulse fluttered underneath his restored flesh, and even his heart did not jump at that eerie discovery.
If this was not death, it was something else that was not good at all.
Before that dark thought could progress any further, a faint sound captured his attention, triggering an alertness that felt even deeper than his instincts as a soldier. His body tensed of its own accord, and he glanced around warily, realizing that most of the lanterns had burned out. Only one was flickering low, its oil nearly consumed—yet if anything, the room seemed brighter to him than it had when fully lit.
Finally he noticed Sergeant Breda. The big man sat huddled in the corner, partially barricaded by the remains of the table. He was rocking back and forth slowly, still clutching his second stake against his chest, as he stared with wide unblinking eyes toward the dug-out entrance.
It was obvious that Breda was too far out of his mind with shock to be any help now. The only question was how he might react when one of the corpses surrounding him decided to stand up and walk.
Slowly, Falman braced his hands on the floor and pushed himself forward, rising. Everything remained stiff—had his body even gone through rigor mortis?—but he managed to get on his feet with only a slight stumble. Throughout that awkward process, he never took his eyes from Breda.
At the lieutenant's first stirring, Breda's head snapped toward him. His eyes grew even wider, and what color was left in his face drained away; but his only movement was to wrap his knuckles a little more tightly around the stake. He did not shrink away, or try to attack. He only watched as Falman took one staggering step forward.
"I won't hurt you," Falman promised faintly, holding his open hands before him.
Breda stiffly released one hand from the stake. His shaking index finger pointed up crookedly at Falman, and a ragged, stuttering laugh scraped its way out of his throat.
Yes, he understood. Falman did too, now—and he couldn't erase the reality of what had happened by denying its proper name.
The thing that had attacked them was a vampire… and given the evidence of his healed wounds and his unbeating heart, it seemed exceedingly likely that he had become one as well.
Although tales of the undead were never much to Falman's taste, he was a very literate man. He knew something of the traditional folklore, and he had read Dracula—but he didn't dare to assume that the fiction was true to the reality. Especially not when the fiction painted a picture so horrific. The vampires of legend were supposed to be soulless, evil things, existing only to satisfy their undying hunger.
Surely he was not that. He still felt like himself, and he had no desire to hurt anyone.
Yet the vampire that brought this upon him was truly a monster, just as the legends described… and perhaps it had not descended into that horror all at once, either. Even if Falman was his own master now, perhaps he too would slowly become like that wretched creature, as the same hunger for blood overcame him.
A deep shudder passed through him, and he closed his eyes.
Now more than ever, he couldn't let himself think of what might happen. He could only respond to what was. The existence of something more monstrous than the War itself had been revealed to him, and as long as his soul was his own, he could desire nothing but to fight it.
He considered his options for a long moment. A memory came to him, and he seized upon it with a distant trace of hope.
A few months earlier, Falman had met a doctor: a great man, open-minded and compassionate, interested in things beyond what was normal in medicine. His name was Marcoh, and he volunteered at a field hospital farther removed from the front, some twenty-five miles away. Part of the work he carried out there was his own independent research. Although he was highly secretive about it, he had said it was dedicated to saving lives both on and off the battlefield.
Falman resolved to seek out Marcoh, and place himself in his hands. Even if the doctor could do nothing for him, he could study this thing, and use the knowledge to save others who might fall prey to it.
By this time, Breda's uneven laughter had tapered off. He was quiet, his chin hanging down over the stake he hugged so tightly. Falman looked thoughtfully at him, and wondered what to do with him or for him. If a man with his record was discovered mad among four dead comrades, the wrong conclusions would be all too easy to make… but in Falman's mind, the alternative seemed an even greater risk.
"I'm going to find a doctor I know," he said gently, although he wasn't quite sure Breda would hear him. "I'm going to tell him the story of what happened here, so someone can find that thing and stop it. I'm afraid to leave you alone like this, and I'm sorry, but… I'm more afraid of what might happen if I take you with me. If I—change." He grimaced and turned his eyes away. "I promise, if I reach Doctor Marcoh, I'll make sure you aren't blamed for these deaths. Maybe he can help you recover… even if he can't help me."
There was no response from Breda. Falman sighed and turned away, limping slightly as he moved over to his cot and his meager belongings.
He divested himself of his torn and bloodstained garments, and put on a fresh change of clothes, minus a uniform jacket. A second spare shirt went into a rucksack. He briefly considered the few small, precious books he had always kept with him; but on foot, the trek to the field hospital would be long and arduous, and he had no wish to carry any unnecessary weight.
His gaze fell to his sketchbook. He picked it up—but the smell of blood on it was frighteningly powerful, and it made something in his stomach twist and tighten in an unfamiliar sensation. The book slipped from his fingers at once, and he shut his eyes, resisting the sudden sting of tears.
It was clear to him then that he could never return to his wife and child again. Not like this. Even if he had felt no fear of hurting them, the one thing he was sure of was that he had become something wretched and unclean, and the thought of letting his family see him or touch him was unbearable. Far better for them to believe he was dead… which he might yet be soon enough, after all.
With a will, Falman suppressed that ache of grief. He opened his eyes and turned back to the task at hand, pondering what sort of provisions a living dead man could possibly need for a journey.
Then footsteps outside the dug-out entrance caught his attention.
Not entirely by his own will, Falman tensed like a cornered animal, watching and listening. He saw shadows move at the doorway. Someone stumbled on the fallen gas curtain, and quietly muttered an oath.
After a moment's hesitation, two figures crept warily into the dug-out: a captain and a lieutenant, both of whom Falman recognized from one of the other nearby posts. The latter was holding his pistol at the ready. They looked around uncertainly, as if they could not quite make out what was around them. Falman realized then that with a single lamp burning low, the room was far darker to their eyes than it was to his own altered sight.
The captain switched on an electric torch—and swore again, vehemently, when the first thing its beam fell upon was Brent's contorted body, and the half-dried pool of blood that had drained from his throat. At his side, the younger lieutenant looked away, with the choked sound of a man resisting the urge to throw up.
A part of Falman thought he should step forward, say something, at least try to explain what had happened. Another part of him was paralyzed by the thought of revealing himself as he was. A man of science like Doctor Marcoh might have the curiosity and patience to hear him out, but these two soldiers' nerves were already on a razor's edge.
While he stood frozen in indecision, the captain shifted his light, probing deeper into the dug-out. The beam missed Falman in the very darkest shadows against the wall, but it passed one by one across the bodies of Thomson, Walling, and Harper… and then it found Breda, huddled at the back of the room with his makeshift weapon, staring up glassy-eyed at the two officers.
"He finally did it," the lieutenant breathed. "He went crazy and killed them all…"
Breda made a fateful decision at that moment. He moved suddenly to rise, and although his face reflected nothing but the bewilderment of a lost child, he was still possessively cradling the stake to his chest.
The lieutenant didn't wait for orders. Falman saw the pistol in his hand twitch upward fractionally, saw his finger tighten on the trigger, as if in slow motion. He reacted purely on impulses of his own then—and this time, he couldn't believe that he could move so fast.
Falman lunged forward, plowing into the lieutenant head-on. His hands locked around the young man's wrist to jerk the gun away…
A shot exploded from the weapon, and sudden fire bit into the left side of Falman's stomach, tearing deep into his torso.
The pain triggered new instincts of pure self-preservation. He snarled, a deep primal sound he could never have imagined making before, and twisted the gun out of the lieutenant's hand with such force that he felt bones crack in his grip. The man howled with a pain and terror that was mercifully short-lived; Falman's elbow snapped upward, slamming violently into the side of his head, and he was unconscious before he hit the ground.
In the moment it took for the shot and the struggle to occur, the captain turned, raising the heavy electric torch for a blow to Falman's skull—but then, astonishingly, Breda was there. His big fist connected squarely under the captain's chin, dropping him to join the lieutenant on the floor.
Reeling, Falman staggered back a step, to clutch at the burning in his belly. The bullet wound wasn't bleeding nearly as much as he would have expected, but the pain was intense… and other, less easily defined sensations were roiling through his being. He didn't understand what these signals were that his changed body was sending him. All he knew was that they frightened him.
Uneven footsteps shuffled closer. Breda. The big man remained mute, but his face reflected such a strange and unexpected expression: one of concern. Again he made Falman think of a faithful dog, fretting anxiously over its injured master.
"…Don't look at me like that."
Less than gently, Falman pushed Breda away with his unbloodied left hand. He drew a deliberate but unnecessary breath, and straightened up slowly. Although it still felt as if a hot poker had been pushed between his ribs, the wound had almost stopped bleeding already, and he found he could move—gingerly, at least—without producing more than a slightly sharper pulse of pain.
His next thought was for the two officers sprawled on the floor. As he recalled the savageness of his blow to the lieutenant's head, a guilty fear welled up in him, and he lurched forward to kneel over the pair.
Both men, he observed, were breathing steadily. Although they were impressively concussed, and the lieutenant's hand was indeed fractured, they would recover fully.
Relieved, Falman braced himself to rise; but then he paused, as his gaze wandered down from the developing bruise on the lieutenant's temple. The young man's neck was twisted at an uncomfortable angle, exposing far too much of the tender flesh of his throat. This close to him, Falman could almost feel the heat of the blood under his skin, almost hear the thrum of the pulse in his veins, and the air was still heavy with the rich scent of spilled human life…
A dull ache twinged in Falman's upper jaw, and he felt two hard points prick against the edge of his lower lip.
The sensation brought him back to himself, and he recoiled, seized with an overwhelming horror. He pressed his left fist to his mouth, so hard that the fangs almost drew blood from his own lip, and bolted unthinkingly for the entrance of the dug-out.
Outside, the moonlight was as crystal-clear as daylight to him. He fell to his knees half a dozen steps beyond the doorway, eyes closed tight, struggling to fight down both the physical sensations and his terrified emotions. He understood now what his body was trying to tell him: his unnatural resistance to his injury did not come without cost. He needed new energy to replenish what his system was expending in healing itself.
In short, he needed blood.
Perhaps, then, it was already beginning… Falman's tongue flicked across the wicked sharpness of his fangs, and he shuddered with revulsion. Perhaps he was already starting to become like the thing that had murdered his men.
If that was the case, he had not one more second to lose.
While he could still think, still resist such an abominable act as he had just been tempted to commit, he was more determined than ever to reach Doctor Marcoh. It wouldn't matter what happened to him after that. His body was now only an item of evidence that needed to be placed in the proper hands, so this monstrousness could be exposed and fought before it spread further—if it had not already.
Clenching his fists, Falman looked toward the horizon, in the direction in which he knew the field hospital stood. Most of the ground he had to cover would be deserted farmlands, patches of forest half-felled by the army for timber, and the empty fields and trenches of earlier battle lines. In those ravaged landscapes, it was possible that he might make the journey without encountering a single human being. Perhaps if he saw no one along the way, he would be spared another such arousal of his new appetite.
He braced himself to make the first step, but he was given pause by a scrape of boots from the dug-out entrance.
With reflexes that remained frighteningly wired, he turned to see Breda stepping out of the shelter. Slung over his shoulder was the rucksack Falman had begun to pack—and his cherished stake was tucked into his belt, hanging at his side like a sword. He lumbered closer, and stopped three paces from Falman, regarding the lieutenant with a sort of dull, bovine patience.
"Oh, no." Falman turned away, grinding his fangs against his lower teeth, and stretched out one hand in a halting gesture. "You can't possibly follow me. After everything you've seen, how can you even be fool enough to want to? Don't you know what I almost did in there?" He took a trembling breath. "The next time—and there will be a next time—it would be you. I can't. I won't."
He expected no spoken reply, and received none; but when he glanced back, Breda was still looking at him with that same expression. Blankly dispassionate, entirely unexpectant, yet somehow resolved and completely implacable.
To his surprise, Falman felt the vicious points of his fangs shrink back within his mouth. He was still in pain, still in shock, but the black hunger in him subsided—at least for the moment.
"…Fine, then," he said brusquely, but the tone came as much from a lump in his throat as from anger. "Just don't come near me."
He grimaced, turned his back on Breda, and started to walk… feeling a throb of mingled gratitude and fear as heavy footsteps shuffled behind him.
Through the remainder of the night, the two men traveled.
Falman didn't know how much distance they covered, but he knew it was less than he would have liked. He was slowed by the deep lingering pain in his midsection, as well as by Breda's pace, which was steady but not particularly swift. Many times, Falman moved so far ahead that he was almost out of Breda's sight… but somehow he always found himself pausing, waiting, as his uninvited traveling companion caught up to him.
In his own mind, he insisted that he only stopped to give his wound rest from the strain of walking—but he knew he was lying to himself.
As the stars began to fade overhead, Falman slowly grew conscious of a new feeling inside him. It was not the pain from the gunshot, or even the ghastly inner ache that had signified his first hunger for blood, but it was decidedly uncomfortable. A strange tension seemed to be coiling tight in all his nerves, chafing at his altered instincts in a way he couldn't quite decipher. He had no frame of reference to compare the sensation to. Whatever it was, it only made him feel more uneasy and high-strung.
By contrast, at the same time, he felt physical and emotional exhaustion setting in deeply. Breda also appeared to be tiring, so Falman welcomed the eventual sight of an abandoned farmhouse at the edge of the overgrown field they were crossing. The front door hung off of its hinges, the windows were broken, and it had clearly been stripped of anything remotely useful that its owners may have left behind. However, its roof and walls were intact, offering a chance to rest in at least some measure of shelter and concealment.
Dawn was just beginning to lighten the horizon. Falman squirmed as the tightness within him intensified, and quickened his pace.
On closer inspection, the house was truly a wreck, half-rotting and emptied of every last stick of furniture—but Falman quickly ceased to take interest in the structure itself. In the empty space that had been the kitchen, he discovered the open door to a small root cellar. As he looked down the steps into the black void below, an inexplicable craving for that darkness overwhelmed him, and he simply couldn't stop himself from giving in to it.
He glanced over his shoulder. Breda had dropped into a corner, withdrawing the stake from his belt, and was evidently prepared to settle down on the spot. Satisfied that his shell-shocked companion would remain there for a while, Falman descended the creaking steps into the cellar, and pulled the ill-fitting wooden door shut behind him.
Utter blackness surrounded him then, impenetrable even to his eyes, but he sensed there was no danger. Although his newly empowered sense of smell found the close space odorous of dampness and mold, no animal scents lurked there. He sank down to the earthen floor and lay on his back, as still as a corpse, indifferent to the hard ground beneath him and the subterranean chill of the air.
He recalled the snatches of vampire lore he had picked up from Dracula. It disturbed him to compare his sudden urge for enclosed darkness against the Count's affinity for coffins… but at least he did not seem to be suffering for lack of a sample of his native soil. He thought it likely that detail was an invention of pure superstition, rather than a part of the very real biological truths of his condition.
Yet there was no denying what he had become. Falman pressed his palm against his heart, listening to the silence under his hand, and tried to push away the dark, creeping whispers of need within him.
Before an alien, dreamless sleep took him away, he wondered if he would still be himself when he woke up.
Consciousness returned to Falman all at once. His eyes snapped open, taking in the blackness of the cellar without surprise or confusion. He felt a fleeting sorrow when he realized the last night's events were no dream, but he did not allow himself to dwell on regret. Instead, he focused on taking stock of his physical state.
The hunger was still there—if anything, just a little more firmly rooted, a needling ache in the depths of his being. He still felt a twinging internal pain from his bullet wound as well, and suspected his new recuperative powers might be hindered by his lack of nourishment. Also significant, however, was what he did not feel: the vague inner pressure that had plucked at his nerves that morning was now gone. Its disappearance was just as much a mystery to him as the reason he had felt it in the first place.
He wondered next about Sergeant Breda.
Rising a little reluctantly, he felt his way over to the cellar steps, and climbed up to the door above. When he pushed it open, he was startled to discover that the abandoned house lay in night-darkness. He had, it seemed, slept through the daylight hours in complete oblivion. Given the exhaustion and trauma of the previous night's events, the physical toll of his transformation, he supposed he couldn't blame himself—but he was troubled to realize he had wasted the entire day.
Then, as he stepped up onto the sagging wood floor of the empty kitchen, he was taken aback by another realization. Breda was no longer in the corner where he had been settling when Falman first retreated to the cellar. He was not in sight at all.
More alarmed than he wanted to admit, Falman hurried from the kitchen, prepared to search the entire house; but as he entered the living room, a flickering orange glow outside the front window caught his eye. Stepping up to the broken panes, he saw Breda's bulky form crouching over a small campfire in the yard.
Judging by the progression of his actions since the attack, the silent soldier was growing ever more coherent. Intrigued, Falman made his way out through the open doorway. Noticing that the stake hung from Breda's belt once again, he approached the firelight with slow, direct strides, lest he startle the other man.
Breda glanced up, meeting Falman's eyes; simple acknowledgment, and little else. Then he sat on the ground, shifting the stake in his belt as he eased back onto his rump. He leaned forward to poke at something that jutted over the flames. Reaching the fireside, Falman saw that he had apparently found some stray potatoes growing wild, and was roasting them on makeshift skewers.
Falman managed a faint chuckle. "I think there's more going on in your head than you let on." He sat down across the fire from Breda, and studied the sergeant's rounded face. "I only wish you'd woken me up earlier. We can't waste any time… because I don't know how much time I have."
The big man raised his eyes. Falman thought he frowned, just a little. Then he reached out to pluck one of his skewered potatoes, and began to tear off chunks of the fleshy tuber, chewing them with little enthusiasm.
Watching him eat made Falman more painfully conscious of his own body's yearning for sustenance. He looked away, gritting his teeth, half-afraid that he would feel his fangs emerge again. After a moment, he glanced back at the potatoes, wondering if blood was truly the only thing that would satisfy him.
Breda made no objection when Falman reached out to claim a potato. He turned it between his fingers for a moment, feeling as if the simple vegetable had become a bizarrely foreign thing to him. Even after twenty-four hours without food, it looked and smelled no more appealing to his appetite than a stone. After a long hesitation, he broke off a small piece of it, placed it in his mouth, and swallowed so quickly that he never tasted it.
His stomach instantly roiled in rebellion. He barely had time to lean over into the grass before he coughed the morsel up again.
Wiping his mouth with his fist, he glanced up at Breda, and caught a subtle expression of ruefulness before the sergeant glanced away.
"…You really are crazy." Falman closed his eyes, giving in to self-loathing. "If you were in your right mind, you would have killed me last night at the dug-out. By all accounts, you of all people have no qualms about killing—and with that stake you've been carrying, you obviously have a good idea of what ought to be done with something like me." He looked up suddenly at Breda, his eyes heated. "So why haven't you?"
His mortal companion returned his gaze steadily, silently, for a long moment. Then, at last, he sat up a little straighter, drawing a deep breath.
" 'Cause you're not one of them."
The very fact that Breda had finally spoken was enough to make Falman flinch back. His eyes widened… and then the surprise gave place to a terribly eerie feeling, as he fully absorbed Breda's words.
"Not one of…" he repeated faintly, only to hesitate as Breda looked away into the surrounding dark, resting his hand on the butt of the stake at his side.
"You've seen them before… haven't you?"
Breda's fists clenched. For a moment Falman thought no answer would come, but then Breda spoke again, without looking up at Falman's face.
"I'd only been at the front a few weeks. The trench I was in got hit by a shell. I was hurt pretty bad, but everybody else…" His hand moved, in a short, jerking gesture of ugly finality. "All I could do was just lie there and wait for help. Must have been hours. Then the sun went down… and they came out."
He closed his eyes, a shudder passing through him. "There was six, seven of them. Not sure. They started in on the bodies—every one of 'em they could get their hands on. Crawling over dead men, tearing open their necks and…"
Falman also trembled then. It was not entirely due to the horror of the mental image, but because the very thought of blood—even the blood of corpses—made his vile hunger twist more sharply inside him. It was a monstrous, disgusting thing to feel.
Perhaps Breda had realized the effect of his words on his newly undead companion, or perhaps he simply couldn't continue to dwell upon the memories himself. Whatever the reason may have been, he paused for an uneasy moment, and spoke more carefully after that.
"One of 'em found the guy closest to me. Not much farther from me than you are now. Didn't even know he was still alive… 'til he screamed."
Swallowing hard, Falman barely found the voice to ask, "How did you survive?"—and was surprised when Breda let out the barest sliver of a hysteria-tinged laugh.
"They just never got to me." He rubbed the back of his neck, looking vaguely bewildered, and somehow strangely guilty. "I guess… they got all they wanted before any of 'em reached me."
Closing his eyes, Falman shook his head. "It's no wonder people thought you weren't quite right. Shock, survivor's guilt—a lesser man would be far worse off than you."
"I got pulled out of there the next day. Wanted to tell what I saw—scream it out to the whole world—but I… I just couldn't. Nobody would've believed me, anyway." Breda grimaced. "So after I healed up, I went back out to the front. Guess I thought if I ever saw one of them again, then maybe I… Only, I didn't after that. Not really. It's just, once I got to killing Germans… The times when it got bad…"
"It was them you were seeing in your mind," Falman concluded for him, very quietly.
Breda winced and lowered his eyes, a tacit confirmation.
"After all that… I don't understand why you let me live for another second when you saw what I'd become. Much less—this." Falman waved a hand at the night around them, indicating the strange odyssey Breda had chosen to undertake with him.
"I told you. You're not one of them." Breda's eyes locked on his, filled with a grim conviction that was startling. "The things I saw then—and the thing last night—they weren't human."
"And you think I still am? Knowing how I've changed, and what I…?"
"I don't know what you are now. I just know that if you were like they are, you wouldn't have taken that bullet for me. You wouldn't be fighting this thing in yourself—and you wouldn't want to fight them." Breda leaned forward, his eyes hard and intent. "Right now, you've got a chance to do what I couldn't. You can show this doctor of yours the truth… and that's why I'm gonna do whatever it takes to make sure you get to him. That's a promise."
A lump rose in Falman's throat. He gulped hard, drew in a willful breath, and fought to steady his voice before he could speak.
"What if I have yet to become like them, Breda? What if I lose myself before we reach him?"
Breda's gaze shifted away. He set his jaw and stared into the fire.
"…Then that's what this is for," he answered, quietly and firmly, placing his left hand on the stake that was nestled against his hip.
It was a horrific promise—yet at that moment, nothing could have been more reassuring to Falman. If what was left of his humanity did slip away, he was now certain he could rely on Breda to prevent him from doing harm, and to grant him release from that hellish existence.
With a hollow smile, he nodded to his unexpected friend: in acceptance, and in gratitude.
The sergeant did not return the smile, and it was understandable that he took no joy in the prospect of keeping such a vow. Producing a short-handled spade from the rucksack beside him, he pushed himself to his feet, to begin smothering the campfire with dirt.
"We better keep moving."
That night was largely a blur. For many long hours Falman and Breda walked, speaking little, and pausing for rest even less.
Falman's hunger continued to deepen. He felt his strength faltering as the hours passed, and he knew the cause was not mere weariness from their hard travel. What he had become may have been something more than natural, but he was still bound to one of nature's most basic laws: the need to consume. Inevitably, there would be a limit to how much farther he could go on without nutrition to fuel his exertion.
"There's somethin' I don't understand," Breda spoke up after a long silence, as the night crept toward morning.
"And that would be?" Falman asked, without glancing over his shoulder. At this point, he had begun to deliberately avoid looking at Breda—because he found that his eyes were increasingly drawn to the sergeant's throat.
"Why you?" Breda paused awkwardly. "I mean… the others back at the dug-out got bitten, too. But you're the only one who…"
Falman smiled humorlessly. "I take it you've never read Dracula."
"According to that book, simply being bitten isn't enough to change someone. The vampire has to give his own blood to the victim. Of course Dracula is only a work of fiction, but at least some of the folklore Stoker drew upon obviously has a basis in fact, and that part of it seems to ring true." Falman hesitated. "When you ran that stake through the vampire that attacked us, it also went into me. It must have carried his blood into my body, and… infected me."
Breda's footsteps behind him abruptly ceased. He dared to look back, and saw the big man staring at him, with an expression of startled horror.
"You mean… what's happened to you is my fault?"
"Don't blame yourself, Breda," Falman said quickly. "Because I don't. Even without being wounded by the stake, I would have bled to death from the bite, like the others—perhaps a little more slowly, but still. And in any case, becoming this has given me a chance to expose it, just as you said. I think that's better than to have simply died there…"
He grimaced, averting his gaze before it could stray below the line of Breda's jaw, and turned to walk on.
"…At least, I do for the moment."
Presently, the sparse woodlands that surrounded them petered out, and they emerged onto a vast expanse of farmland—or what had once been farmland. The ground was still scarred with the signs of a recent battle. Although no bodies were left there, the field's unripe stalks of grain lay rotting where they had been trampled by men, horses, and machines, and the once-rich furrows of soil were churned into caked, dried crusts of mud. This hauntingly barren landscape stretched into the distance, where Falman's sharp new eyes could just make out the deeper darkness of another tree line.
Dawn was nearing. Falman hesitated at the threshold of that broad open ground, wondering if it would be safe for them to cross it openly in the daylight; and at the same time, he realized the strange tension he had felt the previous morning was creeping into his body again. He still didn't know what the feeling meant. All he knew was that he suddenly longed to turn back to the woods, to find a hollow tree and curl up inside it for the day, just as he had done in the farmhouse cellar.
He turned to look at Breda, intending to suggest they make camp among the trees, to wait for the cover of the next night before venturing out across the open field… but against his will, his gaze settled on the human's neck, and he felt the dull ache of his fangs emerging.
Stifling a gasp, he turned away quickly. There wasn't a moment to spare, much less another day. It was becoming almost impossible to ignore the fact that the man who walked behind him was full of fresh warm blood. If they were to reach Doctor Marcoh before these impulses overcame him, surely there was no choice but to press forward.
As for his yearning for darkness… well, Dracula hadn't especially liked to move about in daylight either, but it did him no harm. If Stoker was right about the means of vampiric infection, he was probably right about that, too.
Cautiously Falman risked another glance at Breda. The sergeant was looking at him intently, and the fingers of his left hand were curled into the fabric of his shirt collar.
"Don't think I didn't see. I been watching you—and you really don't look so good right now. You need it bad."
He tugged his collar down, just a fraction, and leaned a little closer.
"…If it would help…"
The hot, bright hunger that surged up through Falman's body was like a stake through his chest all over again. His right hand shot out toward Breda; but by some fantastic effort of will he would not have believed he still possessed, he shoved the human back instead of seizing him. His left hand pressed over his mouth as he turned sharply and bent over, and for a moment, all he saw and thought and felt was red.
"You idiot," he gasped, when the scarlet fog had dimmed enough for him to put words together. "Don't you ever do that again."
Breda's voice behind him sounded puzzled, anxious, and slightly frustrated. "Listen, I dunno how much longer you can live if you don't have any—and I want you alive for that doctor to look at. I thought, if you could just take a little—"
"No," Falman ground out through his fangs. "In the first place, there'd be no just a little. Not now. If I started, I couldn't possibly stop myself before I killed you. And in the second place… I can't explain it. Everything in whatever's left of my soul is telling me I can't take your blood, even if…"
Even if everything in my body is screaming for it.
He sucked in a harsh breath and shook his head. "We've just got to keep moving. We have to reach Marcoh. Then he can drug me, put me in a cage, whatever he has to do to keep me from hurting anyone—as long as he can study this thing inside me."
There was a moment's somber silence behind him. Then he heard Breda take a step forward.
"Okay. Let's go on."
The two men set out over the ravaged fields, but Falman was frighteningly unable to calm himself after Breda's ominous offer. His hunger was still intensely, painfully aroused, his half-healed bullet wound ached, and the seemingly unrelated sense of pressure within his body was only growing more pronounced. Between this assortment of miseries, he felt as if he was being both crushed and torn apart at the same time. Were it not for his resolve to deliver himself alive to Doctor Marcoh, he would gladly have snatched the stake from Breda's belt, and released himself from everything that was happening to him.
Still, a part of him was able to marvel at what Breda had been willing to do. Even after witnessing firsthand what creatures such as Falman were capable of, he was prepared to give himself over to the horror he had escaped once before, by serving as living prey. He was that committed to bringing Falman to Marcoh, in the hope of sparing others from becoming victims of this curse in either sense.
If it was at all possible, Falman hoped he could ensure that Breda was not only cleared of their comrades' murders, but awarded a medal.
The horizon beyond the trees was now a steadily brightening pink. Falman shifted his shoulders uncomfortably, staring up at the sky. Since his change, neither night's chill nor fire's warmth had made any difference to his unliving flesh, but now… Perhaps it was his imagination, but he could have sworn that his skin was beginning to feel a slight prickling heat.
Was it a fever? No, surely not. He couldn't imagine that any germs would find his reanimated body a hospitable place to infest. Nor was it likely to be a symptom of his progressing change, because the vampire that bit him had felt ice-cold instead of feverish.
Unless, perhaps, it was the heat of his own flesh decomposing around him, as it died entirely for want of blood. His imagination seized morbidly on the idea of such a fate, staggering onward single-mindedly as his insides melted and parts of him fell away, until his last crawling remnants finally succumbed and dissolved into a puddle of gore…
He shook his head fiercely to dispel those repugnant thoughts. That would not happen to him. Long before he reached the point of death, he knew his growing predatory instincts would overwhelm his weakening mind and body, compelling him to kill for survival. When that happened, he was far more likely to die at the point of Breda's mercy-giving stake than from his starvation itself.
The pink above the distant tree line had lightened to orange and gold. Falman realized his eyes were beginning to hurt, and put his head down. Evidently his vision, rather than being adaptable like a cat's, was now permanently attuned to darkness—something he had not expected from his rough knowledge of vampire lore. As the sun rose, perhaps he would be forced to close or cover his eyes entirely, relying on Breda to guide him through the daylight hours.
Or did the painful sensitivity of his eyes point to an even greater vulnerability?
Falman halted in his tracks, touching his face with his fingertips. His unshaven jaw was rough with two days' worth of stubble, but underneath that, the hot, raw tingling of his skin was growing worse. It felt rather as if he had just gotten a shave—with a very dull razor, and no water.
In a word, his skin burned.
His silent heart clenched with a sudden anxiety. On an impulse, he turned his back to the dawn. Breda had paused uncertainly behind him, but he avoided meeting the sergeant's puzzled gaze.
"Breda, listen to me." Falman sank to his knees, sheltering his face behind his hands. "You've got to bury me until nightfall."
"The sun, Breda. My skin is starting to burn already, and if I'm exposed to it any more, I think…" He hissed and contorted abruptly as the first full ray of the sun broke over the trees, and its soft light seared the unprotected back of his neck like a branding iron. "Just do it!"
Thankfully, Breda did not allow his confusion to interfere with his obedience. He quickly dropped his rucksack and reached into it, withdrawing the spade. He hesitated then for a brief second, but when Falman threw himself face-down on the ground with his face pressed into his hands, the big man stepped forward. Falman heard the edge of the blade biting into the hard-packed soil.
"I'm sorry," Breda choked out quietly, and the first hard clods of earth fell onto Falman's back.
The hours that followed were a nightmare Vato Falman would not have wished upon the Devil himself.
Breda did well what he had been asked to do, shoveling a mound of earth several inches deep over Falman's prostrate form. It was no grave, but it was enough to protect him from the light of the sun, and his unbreathing lungs gave him no need to fear suffocation. In that makeshift cocoon of darkness under the soil, his undead body was safe… but his mind and soul were still human enough to feel the instinctive horror of being buried alive.
In the blackness behind his closed eyes, he remained conscious for what felt like an eternity, alone with nothing but every monstrous thought of where he was and all that was happening to him. In spite of its relative thinness, the weight of the protective layer of soil above him felt like tons of concrete. His entire being raged with the impulse to escape, to break through the dirt and feel air on his skin—but he was certain now that the sun would be his death. Where its light had touched him, the back of his neck still throbbed with as real a burn as if he had held a torch to his flesh.
At some point, mercifully, Falman's awareness faded. He would never be sure whether he slept, or whether his mind simply fled for a time.
When he was conscious of anything again, it might have been a few minutes or a thousand years. He was no longer thinking. Not exactly. Like an animal, he only felt, and sensed… and hungered.
The alien feeling of inner tension was gone again, as if something inside him had been unchained—and with logic and reason no longer in the way, a deeper, darker part of him understood perfectly. That pressure was his body responding to the sun, but now its absence meant freedom. Night. Darkness had fallen, returning to him the half-life daylight had stolen.
And more, this time, after the soul-shattering ordeal of his hours in a temporary grave.
Just as Falman was beginning to stir, to brace his hands beneath his chest and press upward against the layer of soil that covered him, he dimly felt vibrations from the other side. Scraping movements transmitted themselves through the loose earth, and its weight began to lessen. Above him, something was digging.
A part of him remembered Breda's face—but not his name. Not even his humanity. Only the heat of his skin, the blue shadows of his blood-rich veins standing out darkly underneath it…
With the growl of a beast, Falman surged upward, breaking through the crust of soil on top of him. The digger fell back with a startled yell. Free from his abhorrent refuge, the undead predator filled his empty lungs with a breath, and captured the scent of living flesh dampened with the sweat of labor.
It was the scent of easy prey.
Falman was on top of Breda before the human could right himself. Something in him remembered the stake at Breda's belt; his right hand closed around it, pinning it flat to the ground. His left hand locked crushingly onto Breda's upper arm, paralyzing it and likewise pinning him, bearing down on him with a monstrous strength. Breda grasped the front of Falman's shirt with his good hand, pushing back with all the power of his formidable muscles, but he might as well have been pushing against a solid wall.
They were face to face then, but Falman's scarlet eyes were unseeing, unrecognizing. He was aware only of what his other senses brought him. Breda's body heat was inviting as a campfire, and his scent was spiced with the sharp tang of fear. Constricted blood vessels throbbed against Falman's restraining palm, as if begging for his attention.
Heedless of the strong but ineffectual arm braced against his chest, Falman leaned down slowly. His entire body trembled with anticipation as he bent his head, his fanged jaws opening wide over the soft throat of his prey.
Then his would-be victim stopped struggling.
The single, familiar word was just enough to make Falman pause, raising his head slightly. He was in no condition to fully understand what it meant, but the feeling of it was somehow connected to him—and it was something that mattered. It mattered even more than the all-consuming need to nourish his failing body.
"It's not you." Beneath the murderous fangs hanging over his throat, Breda's voice was taut and breathless; yet it was also calm, quiet, and steady, as a man might speak to a frightened animal. "You're not one of them."
A vision of firelight glimmered through Falman's mind. Breda, sitting across the fire from him, looking him in the eye and saying the same words with such intent conviction that he believed it…
Falman raised his eyes to his comrade's face, and remembered himself.
With a harsh, barely-human cry of anguish, he twisted away from Breda and crumpled to the ground. His fingers clenched, digging deep into the earth to physically hold himself in place, while every impulse in his corrupted body demanded to turn again and finish what he had started. His earlier, eager trembling intensified into spasms of dry sobbing. He didn't know where the pain of self-loathing horror ended, and the pain of starving hunger began.
The rasping entreaty was met with a momentary silence. Then he heard Breda move behind him.
Still barely able to process conscious thought, he watched from the corner of his eye. Watched Breda rise gingerly, clutching his right shoulder where Falman's animal strength had gripped it; watched him wince, hesitate, and at last take two unsteady steps, carrying him behind Falman and out of his range of sight.
The stake. The stake would end the pain, the hunger. Only a moment more.
Breda's single quiet word shot through Falman almost as intensely as the killing blow he expected. He flinched and nearly turned, but stopped himself, not daring—not worthy—to look into the face of a living human being.
"You—have to…" He swallowed hard, struggling to find even the simplest words in the depths of his once-great intellect. "Or I'll kill you."
"I guess I'm gonna make you prove that." Breda stepped forward into Falman's view, looking down at him. His left hand rested on the butt of the stake, but only lightly. He flexed his right arm with a grunt of pain, and raised his hand to touch his thankfully-unscathed neck. "You didn't do it. You pulled yourself back."
"There's not gonna be a next time. We're not too far from that field hospital now. I won't let you get that way again… at least, not until Doctor Marcoh can lock you up. But you're not giving up on me yet." The sound of a wan smile crept into Breda's tone. "Sorry for givin' you orders, sir, but I think we both know you're not exactly fit for command right now—and there's regulations about that."
Falman closed his eyes, aspiring for a brief moment to achieve some kind of organized thought, and just as quickly abandoned that goal. His mind was nothing but a haze of bestial sensation and writhing human misery. Everything was pain: the bullet wound, the burn on his neck, the hunger itself, the torment of his soul. He just wanted it all to end.
But if it ended now—if he ended now—would others end the same way who might yet be spared?
In his mind, that thought was not nearly so coherent, but it was there. It was the motivation that had driven him this far, a purpose dwelled on so fiercely for the last forty-eight hours that it was wordlessly embedded in his consciousness.
Lieutenant. Yes, that was what the word meant, somewhere at the root of it. It meant he served others before himself, no matter the cost.
Others, like the son he would never see again… but who might one day meet something else like him.
A soft groan dragged itself out of Falman's throat. He opened his eyes, staggered to his feet, and slowly began to walk in the direction of the distant tree line.
And Breda, once again, followed watchfully in his steps.
Four hours later, the two men reached the forest edge—and Falman began to smell blood.
It was rancid and dry, but it was very nearly enough to sweep away the scattered fragments of self-identity he had yet managed to recover. He was only fortunate that Breda still walked several paces behind him, because if the human had been in his sight at that moment, had been in his reach…
With a guttural sound of both loathing and longing, Falman broke into a run toward the trees, deaf to Breda's alarmed shout in his wake.
The scent grew stronger, more insurmountably compelling. He quickened his pace, and a dozen yards into the woods, he found its source. Two human corpses lay close to one another; wounded enemy soldiers who had retreated from the battlefield, only to die there, now lying forgotten under the trees instead of being found and buried by comrades. Their bodies were decaying, torn by animals, swarming with flies.
Falman's mouth watered.
He stood frozen for only a moment, a single tear of wretched shame sliding down his cheek… and then, slowly, he began to creep forward. No conscious abhorrence could restrain the actions of his starving body any longer. The scent and sight of what he craved had propelled his need beyond the farthest limits of his refusal.
Behind him, the undergrowth rustled as Breda pushed his way through. The sergeant halted in his tracks, standing still more than long enough to make out the scene before him in the patchy moonlight—but he wisely did not step forward.
They both knew there was no alternative this time. If Breda interfered, he would be the victim instead. It was just that simple.
Blood. Human blood. The very fact of it was all that filled Falman's awareness. Even as he staggered toward the bodies, the core of his soul cried out with disgust, but by now he could no more resist the compulsion of instinct than he could stop time itself. He would have blood, or go mad—even if the source of that blood would drive him mad just as surely.
It was then that a twist of fate intervened. As he drew nearer to the soldiers' remains, he glimpsed a large, dark shape that lay just beyond them, in deeper shadows. This smelled also of death, yet not the same…
Falman's night-predator eyes suddenly recognized it as the carcass of a horse.
His silent heart turned over. Hurling himself past the two human bodies, he fell upon the neck of the dead animal; and then, for a while, he did permit his mind to leave him.
Afterward, mercifully, he did not remember much of that first nightmarish feeding. The awful moment when his fangs broke the skin. Vile, slimy coldness pouring over his lips. A rotten taste, wrong even to his abominable new instincts… and a need that forced him to drink all the same. Then, at long last, satiation, as a new strength and wellness coursed through his body, washing away his physical pains.
Breda standing not far away, his gaze somberly averted.
When it was over, Falman woke as if from a trance, to realize what he had just done. He turned away quickly, not looking at the damage he had inflicted on the horse's lifeless neck, and bitterly wiped his mouth against the back of his hand.
And then, wondrously, he began to realize the change that had come over him.
The ravenous need that had possessed him for two and a half endless nights was gone. There was no hunger, and almost no pain. His body was sated, his instincts quiet, his mind clear. His entire being was renewed, made whole—no longer at war with itself. Although his flesh was still cold and silent and inescapably inhuman, his spirit felt once more as if it was fully his own, freed of murderous impulses and revitalized by a fresh infusion of life.
Life, from death… but at least it had not been human life. At least chance or mercy had afforded him that.
"You okay?" Breda asked softly, as Falman slowly rose from the mossy ground.
Blinking in mystified wonder, Falman looked down at himself, and briefly explored his body with his hands. His clothes were still filthy from his daylight burial. His pale skin was also dirt-streaked, but it had regained a resilient firmness. On the left side of his stomach where he had been shot, he found only the smallest scar; the bullet must still have been lodged somewhere within his body. His fingers also found light ridges of scarring where the sun had burned the back of his neck. However, he no longer felt any pain in either wound, and the sense of agile strength in his muscles was almost entirely new. This, it seemed, was his first experience of full health as an undead.
He was still unsure what he would become in time, or what consequences his soul might bear for taking even animal blood. But for the moment, he felt no hunger, no desire for prey—and that was what mattered. As long as this sustenance lasted him, he would not endanger Breda.
"…I think I'm alright," he murmured. "At least for now."
Breda almost smiled, but not quite. He merely nodded instead, still searching Falman's face in the darkness.
"You look better. Before, you…" The sergeant grimaced. "It was like you were wasting away. Sorta—withering, like some kinda dying plant. Now you look almost normal, 'cept for being so pale." His eyes broke their contact with Falman's in a moment of hesitation. "Why'd you pass it up from those two men? You couldn't hurt 'em now."
"I told you before. It's not about that." With deliberate steps Falman moved away from the soldiers' remains, refusing to look at them. "I can't stop feeling that… that their blood, or your blood—it would hurt me. No matter how much I wanted it."
His companion followed him. "Then you think… I mean, if you're okay now, does that mean animals would be enough for you to live on?"
Falman shut his eyes. "I don't know. I don't know if this was only a stopgap to delay the inevitable, or even…" He glanced back at the carcass of the horse with a shudder. "If I could want to go on living that way, even if it wasn't human life. I'm a monster, Breda."
The sergeant looked at him thoughtfully, a melancholy frown twisting his lips.
"Doesn't take a vampire to be that," he said quietly, and Falman knew he was thinking of the many lives he had taken in the heat of battle and half-madness.
Sobered and speechless, Falman regarded his friend with a feeling of gentleness he had not known since his change. He dared to reach out, to place his hand on Breda's shoulder and squeeze lightly. At least for now, he could touch again without feeling the urge to seize and kill, and he took as much comfort from the simple contact as he hoped it offered.
"Come on," he said, with a trace of warmth in his voice. "I think we can reach the field hospital before sunrise."
For most of the remaining hours of the night, they continued their journey without incident. Passing through the woods, they skirted the edge of a small town that had been successfully defended against capture by the Germans—yet almost destroyed in the process. Perhaps one day, its rightful citizens could return and rebuild, but for now the once-thriving community was little more than a darkened and burned-out ruin. The few buildings that survived fire and shelling were occupied by Allied forces, to serve as a base of operations and supply hub.
On the far side of town, the former residence of the mayor had been converted into the field hospital that was Falman and Breda's destination.
As the two men crossed the final few miles, Falman's heart was a little more at ease than it had been in quite some time. It seemed that his feast of days-dead horse blood, repulsive though it was, had truly been enough to tide him over. For now, no impulses of subhuman hunger intruded on his mind and will, freeing him to focus on his purpose.
They would reach Marcoh. It seemed all but certain now. After that, even if he changed further and animal blood became insufficient for him, it wouldn't matter. Once Marcoh had his body to study, his mind that had struggled so desperately to bring him this far would not be needed.
Yet, if animal blood did permit him to keep existing with his mind intact…
Falman wasn't sure he liked the thought of that. Even if it was proved that he could safely feed and control the beast within him, what possible meaning could there be in going on as he was? He could never return to his family, and he had no desire to create some other life for himself in ordinary society. Not without them… and not when the secret of how monstrously different he was would always be a great weight within his heart. It was not in his character to live an illusion like that.
No. If his will was indeed left to him, he would submit to survival only as long as Marcoh wished to study him alive, and then he would ask the doctor to destroy him. He felt certain Marcoh was the sort of man who could grant such a request as an act of kindness.
There was irony in Falman's calm planning of his own demise. In the last few days, death had held a firm grip on his entire being: the slow death of his body as he starved, the compulsion to survive through the death of something else. Yet now, even as he contemplated giving himself up voluntarily to death, something in him felt more alive than at any time since his transformation.
His senses, no longer preoccupied with the desire for prey, had awakened to a world of perception he could never have imagined. The woods they traveled through were brimming with plant and animal smells he had never known when he was human—and without understanding how, he knew what creature or what kind of vegetation each scent belonged to. He reacted to sounds Breda could not hear, observed movements in the dark that Breda could not see. This awareness operated on a primal level that was still unfamiliar, and its inhumanity vaguely troubled him, yet a part of him couldn't help but be fascinated by it.
As they passed along the outer edge of the town, Falman could even smell traces of humans other than Breda. These were stifled under odors of motor oil, gunpowder, long-discarded cigarette butts, and other byproducts of military activity; but now and then, in places where men had passed by, their scents became distinct to him. Although he doubted he could track and find the owners of the scents the way a dog could, he suspected he would recognize their smells if he met them.
These experiences were not entirely a thing of wonder. Each time he detected a human scent, it came with an instant's instinctive red flag that it was a sign of food, of a creature filled with blood. Because he was not hungry, those impulses did not persist when he quickly and disgustedly pushed them aside—but it was a sobering reminder that the very essence of his being had been redesigned as a predator. The beast inside him identified even the species he was born to as prey, and no compromise offering of animal blood would entirely suppress that instinct.
Having circled around the town's wooded border, Falman and Breda came at last to the side nearest Doctor Marcoh's field hospital. It would be located a few streets in from the forest edge—at least, if Falman could trust his memory. With an hour remaining for him to move freely before dawn, he and Breda stood at the dead-end of a deserted, tree-shrouded road, looking toward the darkened buildings in the moonlight.
"So, what?" Breda queried laconically. "We just walk into the hospital and ask to see Marcoh?"
"I suppose so." A brief, humorless smile crossed Falman's lips. "I'm sure I look enough of a sight for any orderlies to believe I'm not well. But I… I'll need you to keep anyone else from touching me, Breda. I don't think I'd try to hurt them now, the way I almost hurt you, but—I don't want anyone to realize that I don't have a pulse. No one but Marcoh, at least."
Breda's head jerked once in an affirmative. "Leave it to me. Nobody but the Doc gets close."
"Alright. Then I—"
Falman broke off suddenly, in the middle of a word, as his nose fully processed the breath he had taken to speak. It was tinged with the already familiar forest-scents from behind them, smells of churned-up road mud and gasoline and wood fires ahead of them. But underneath it all, from a direction he could not quite define, there was a faint whiff of something else…
"What's the matter?" Breda queried.
"Wait." Falman breathed deeper, tasting the air, and found it again. The smell was new to him, yet some element of it was startlingly familiar—because it resonated with his unconscious awareness of his own scent.
"Something else like me has been here."
At once, Breda grasped the stake on his belt, looking around more intently at the night surrounding them. Falman was certain he could hear the quickened beating of the human's heart.
"Where? Is it still around?"
"I don't think so, but this is too new to me to be sure. I just know something passed by here that wasn't human or animal—and I think the smell of it has something in common with mine. It… feels different." Falman avoided Breda's eyes. "Animals, even people, even you—my instincts respond to all of them as things to be hunted. But not this."
Breda growled quietly—though Falman wasn't sure whether that was a reaction to the possible threat, or the idea of being categorized as prey. He slid the stake out of his belt and gripped it close to its narrower pointed end, like a club.
The sergeant said nothing more. There was no need to.
Falman did not trust himself with a weapon, but that too was unneeded. He knew the strength he had developed. If something attacked them, if he could only restrain it for a few moments, Breda and the stake could do the rest—assuming another undead would even attack one of its own kind at all. The scent of the other did not register in Falman's being as food, so presumably it would not react to him that way, either. Breda was a different matter, but perhaps Falman's closeness would mark him with possession or protection, and deter the other.
He could only wonder what it meant that another like him was lurking around the encampments of soldiers. Had it already been picking off men who strayed alone to smoke a cigarette or gather firewood? Or could it be… could it possibly be that it had found a way to hold onto its human self, as he had up to now, and come seeking help?
Whether the thing had created victims, or submitted itself as a patient, the answer would surely be at the field hospital.
Placing one hand on Breda's elbow to keep him close, Falman began to walk forward. They were only a few minutes from the hospital now. He glanced around keenly, breathing at regular intervals to test for the scent of the other undead. He was sure it was becoming a little stronger, but it was so very subtle: not alive the way animal and human smells were alive, yet untouched by decay as well.
The pair crossed one intersecting street, and then another. A sense of familiarity came over Falman as he studied the shadowed, often damaged buildings around them. He could recall clearly now that Marcoh's makeshift hospital and laboratory was only one more street away.
He opened his mouth to say so—and froze as he suddenly caught a much stronger scent of the other undead. It was now distinct enough for him to pinpoint its direction. He lifted his head sharply, looking up toward the eaves of the two-story building at their left.
His warning was cut off as something dark detached itself from the shadows above, leaping from the rooftop. Even with his enhanced reflexes, Falman only had time to shove Breda aside before the thing crashed down on top of him. It dragged him to the ground, pinning him beneath its weight; and as it hastily raised its head to look up at Breda, Falman was astonished to see female features turned to the moonlight.
"Run!" she snarled at the human, before turning her full attention back to Falman's struggling underneath her.
But faithful Breda did not run. Instead he let out a yell and strode forward, raising the stake as if to bring its blunt end down on the skull of the female undead.
The shouted command came from a nearby doorway, freezing all three figures involved in the melee. Falman twisted his neck, and glimpsed a blond-haired young man with a revolver—which was pointed not at the female on top of him, but at Breda.
His next realization was that the scent of the man was entirely human.
In Falman's moment of confounded hesitation, the female took the opportunity to rise. Her hand moved to her side, to draw an extraordinary weapon: a long steel saber. She allowed the sharp point to hover a few inches above Falman's heart, her cold features looking down at him with wary appraisal. Long brown hair fell loose over her shoulders, and she was dressed in a rather old-fashioned black coat.
Strangely, the young human was quite similarly clothed. He stepped forward with caution, keeping Breda covered with his gun, and inquired of the undead female by means of one unfamiliar word.
"This one—but not him." Her eyes darted quickly to the stake that was still in Breda's hand, although lowered under the threat of the revolver. "Now I'm not so sure which one had the other…"
With confusion giving rise to anger, Falman clenched his fists and looked back at the young man. "What are you doing? Don't you know this thing you're talking to is a monster?"
The female did not react, but to Falman's surprise, the man's mouth fell agape as if he himself had been personally injured by the words. "No she's not!"
"…Relax, Denny." The female sounded oddly weary. She regarded Falman with a tilt of her head, and slowly let the point of the saber fall to her side. "I'm starting to think we were mistaken on both sides here."
Cautiously Falman sat up, and then stood. Glaring at the man with the gun, Breda quickly moved close to Falman, as if to protect him—which might almost have been funny, if the situation had not been so grave and bewildering.
Falman eyed the female with resentful distrust. "You're…"
"Harmless—if you don't make any sudden moves." She gestured slightly with the tip of her blade, but her next words were addressed more to her human comrade than to their semi-captives. "Come on. Doctor Marcoh will—"
"Marcoh?" Breda barked out in astonishment. "He's the man we came looking for!"
That statement brought an instant change. The eyes of the undead female widened slightly, and she turned to look Falman up and down, taking in his filthy and bedraggled appearance. As she did so, her face softened, almost imperceptibly.
"In that case, he's definitely the one who should sort this out."
Subsequently, Falman and Breda were escorted down the block and around the corner, to the mansion that had been converted into Marcoh's field hospital and laboratory. The undead woman led the way. Her saber was sheathed, but her human companion brought up the rear with his revolver still in hand, a silent warning against misbehavior.
Falman's impulse was to question, but he was loathe to speak to the undead, or to a human who seemed to be her willing partner. Although her intent was not yet clear, her scent and the very sight of her aroused memories of the creature that had attacked and bitten him, stealing his life from him. She was his own kind, but even his primal instincts did not feel drawn toward her. Instead, his remaining humanity was as repulsed by her as it was by the darkness in himself.
Breda followed Falman's lead, and remained silent as well—until they reached the open ornamental gate of the mansion-hospital, and they both saw that the windows of the building's north wing were tightly boarded up. Then Breda glanced at Falman with an urgent whisper.
The same fact was clear to them both. Falman was obviously not the first undead to be known to Marcoh… or to be harbored alive by him.
Inside the front doors, a makeshift reception desk stood in the foyer. A middle-aged man sat behind it; human, by the smell of him. Instead of a military uniform or a doctor's coat, he was dressed in the same utilitarian black clothing the undead and her colleague wore under their coats. He raised an eyebrow at Falman's ragged appearance, but showed not the least surprise at having men led past his desk at gunpoint. No words were exchanged, only a few short gestures and nods between himself and the undead woman.
Passing by the desk, the two travelers and their armed hosts went onward, down a hall that led to the north wing with its sealed windows. The woman stopped at a door near the end of the hall, knocked firmly, and received a prompt summons—in a voice which Falman recognized as that of Doctor Marcoh himself.
The woman opened the door and stepped into a large white room, allowing her human associate to usher Falman and Breda inside. The space was unmistakably a laboratory: spotlessly cleansed and sterilized, yet cluttered with books, medical equipment, and racks of test tubes.
It was not lost upon Falman that the fluid in many of those tubes was a deep red.
At the back of the room, Tim Marcoh sat at a desk heaped with handwritten papers and folders. He looked the same as Falman remembered him, heavyset and graying, with careworn lines etched into a face that was not unkind. As his four visitors filed into the room, he looked up with wide-eyed interest, and closed the notebook that lay open before him.
"Well, Maria—what have we here?"
The undead woman, now identified as Maria, gave a slightly awkward shrug. "We found them coming down Second Street. At first I… well, I thought the sergeant here was in danger, but now I don't know exactly what to make of either of them. He says they were looking for you."
"I see," Marcoh said quietly. His steady gaze rested first upon Breda, and then on Falman, with even more significance—and something in his expression left no doubt that he knew precisely what the lieutenant was.
Wary of the gun still ready to be pointed at his and Breda's backs, Falman stepped forward, with his hands carefully spread in plain sight. "My name is Vato Falman. You may not remember, but we… we met once before, Doctor."
"I do remember." Marcoh stood up slowly, taking in the undoubtedly pathetic sight of Falman's pale figure: his hair disheveled, his skin dirty, his clothes stained with mud and blood. He seemed to read it all like a book, and a great sadness filled his face. "I'm sorry, Lieutenant."
He did know. Whatever else was happening here, he was aware of the monstrosity Falman was possessed with… and if he kept another such being in his presence, surely he had some knowledge already of what to do about it.
Falman's hope surged. However, before he addressed his own reason for seeking Marcoh out—before he said another word—he wanted to be sure the record was clear in Breda's case. He wanted to declare his friend's innocence, before anything might happen to silence his testimony on Breda's behalf.
He took a deep breath. "Sir, the sergeant with me is—"
"Heymans Breda. Yes, I know—and you seem to be lucky neither one of you was found out on your way here." Marcoh's lips twisted almost wryly as he picked up a sheet of paper from the desk, and held it out for both men to see.
The paper was a wanted bulletin, with Breda's photograph and description, and a summary of the murders the vampire attacker had committed at their post.
Breda stared down at the notice in a moment's understandable shock, but Falman looked up hotly at Marcoh. "He didn't do that!"
"I know that, too. I was sent to examine the scene myself, the day after—and believe me, I'm well aware that nothing human could do what was done in that dug-out." Marcoh let the paper flutter down to the desk, and fixed a hard, searching gaze on Falman. "The question is: did you?"
"No!" Falman shot back vehemently.
"He's telling the truth," Breda seconded. "It wasn't him, it was… something else. One of them. It killed all the others. And it bit him, and I tried to kill it, only I…" He stumbled into silence, and Falman quickly squeezed his shoulder, fearing that to delve any deeper into the memories just then would not be healthy for Breda's state of mind.
Marcoh studied both men intently, for a long moment. Then he sank back into his creaking chair, folding his hands over his broad stomach.
"I thought as much. I just had to be sure." Gravely he leaned forward again, looking Falman in the eye. "You can swear to me absolutely that you haven't tasted human blood?"
Although the shame of his new nature made it too difficult to meet Marcoh's eyes, Falman nodded quickly, and Breda offered for him: "Not one drop. It nearly killed him, but he—he didn't. He wouldn't. All he's had was from a dead horse, last night."
That statement caused Marcoh to draw a sudden breath, looking up at Falman with something bizarrely akin to admiration.
"You mean to say you came all that way, over more than three days, and you resisted for that long?"
Falman nodded again, shakily, still unwilling to face the doctor's gaze.
"…You're a rare man, Lieutenant." Marcoh turned to the black-clad watchdogs in the room. "Denny, you can put away that gun. Will you and Maria please bring in a bottle from the icebox, and something for the sergeant? I think our guests are more than worthy of every hospitality we can offer them."
Denny and Maria obeyed, quietly retreating from the room, and Marcoh settled back with a rather sad half-chuckle. "Poor Denny. Somehow he managed to fall madly in love with her… even though he knows he can never have her in this life."
Slowly, Falman sagged into the chair that stood in front of the desk, opposite the doctor.
"Somehow I remembered you… after. How much you seemed to care about research and saving lives. I thought that if I could reach you—if I could show you what I've become, what it was that killed my men—"
"But now you find I'm already more experienced in the field than you ever could have imagined." Marcoh smiled, gently and ruefully. "All the same, I'm glad you took it into your head to come here, Lieutenant. We can help you—and if you have half the inner strength your journey must have taken, I believe you can still help us."
"Just who is 'us'?" Breda demanded suspiciously, before Falman could speak. "What's really going on here? How much do you know about these things—and what about her?" He jabbed a thumb viciously toward the door through which the female undead had exited.
"Trust me, Maria is no threat to human life. On the contrary, she's as dedicated to saving lives as I am—and she's been fighting for that cause for nearly four years now."
Falman raised his head sharply. "You mean… she's been a vampire for that long?"
"Maria is not a vampire—and neither are you."
The doctor's calm, assured declaration struck Falman speechless. He stared incredulously at Marcoh, his trembling fingers slowly rising to his chest, where the blood of that murderous creature at the dug-out had entered and poisoned his body.
"The monster that attacked you and killed your men was a vampire. Oh yes, I have little doubt of that. But it wasn't like you, because it was never human. True vampires are a different order of life entirely… if life is even the word for it. Those creatures are death incarnate. They live to kill—and even their blood is like a disease." Marcoh studied Falman keenly. "During the attack, I take it you either swallowed some of its blood, or were exposed to it through an open wound."
Breda looked away shamefacedly, and Falman slowly nodded.
"That was how you were infected. You might think of the vampire's blood as something parasitic that takes root in a human host, and changes them—adapting their bodies to hunt, using them to perpetuate the bloodlust of the creature it came from. That's hardly a scientific description of how it works, but… to be perfectly truthful, we have no scientific explanation yet. I can only help you understand the effects, not the exact nature of the cause."
Falman closed his eyes and grimaced. "I don't understand. With the hunger for blood I've felt, what can I be but a vampire?"
"Only a half-vampire. A dhampir—a word we borrowed from ancient folklore as a name for the infected. For all you may have changed, believe me when I say you're nothing like a true vampire. You don't have a fraction of their power… or the pure sense of evil that seems to exist at the core of every one of them. In your heart and mind, you're still human. That's something the true vampire never has—and it's what gives you the strength to overcome its corruption in your body." Marcoh gave Falman a sad smile. "But I think you might have discovered that already, if you were able to fight your urges for that long before your first taste of blood."
The door opened, admitting Maria and Denny once more. The human carried a covered plate on a tray, from which spilled scents of the normal, cooked food Falman's stomach now rejected; but in the hand of the woman Marcoh had called a dhampir, there was a glass bottle filled with red.
Without speaking, she held it out to Falman, and he looked away in horrified shame.
"It's just beef blood. It's safe, and it will do you good." Her voice became surprisingly gentle. "I know you want to fight it, but if you try, you'll lose—and someone will get hurt. You can't stop the need. You can only control it."
Beneath the quiet steadiness of Maria's tone, Falman sensed pain, and a terrible depth of understanding… and his loathing of his fellow victim was unexpectedly transformed into compassion. Marcoh was right. A part of Maria was still human, like him—and unlike the unnatural creature that had robbed him of his life.
Meeting her eyes awkwardly, he accepted the bottle from her hand. When he unscrewed the cap, bloodscent welled up, enticing his fangs to emerge in response. He wanted to turn away, to hide himself, to not let them see the animal in him… but new hunger overwhelmed that desire, and the bottle was raised to his lips before he quite knew what he was doing.
He briefly lost himself in his need again. The blood was fresh and heady, spilling a feeling of warmth through his cold veins. His palate still took no pleasure in the taste, but it was far better than the decaying stuff he had drawn from the neck of the dead horse.
Then somehow the bottle was empty. He lowered it bemusedly to his lap, awash in satisfied fullness—until his mind resurfaced to realize that Breda, Marcoh, and the doctor's confederates were patiently observing him. Their expressions were thoughtful and sympathetic rather than disgusted, but he was stricken with shame nonetheless. He hung his head, covering his face with his hand.
"He'll be alright," Falman heard Marcoh say, as if to give Breda assurance. "But you're fortunate he never took human blood. Dhampirs who do… it overwhelms them. They're driven to seek it, to hunt and kill, until they become hardly more than animals. There's no help for them then. All we can do at that point is put them out of their misery."
Falman swallowed hard, raised his head, and wiped his mouth on his sleeve; it was already so hopelessly soiled with dirt and blood that a few more small crimson streaks could make no difference. He looked up brokenly at Marcoh.
"What now?" he asked, his voice rough and uneven. "I thought I was something you could study, to save others, even if you couldn't save me. But if you already know all this—if you can't use me to learn any more than you already have… I came here for nothing."
"Oh, not at all!" Marcoh rose, leaning forward over the desk with sudden enthusiasm. "I told you, the strength you showed in getting here is a rare thing. Denny, Maria and I, and the rest of my staff here—we're part of an international network that's secretly been at war against vampires and rogue dhampirs for centuries. There's no way known to destroy true vampires, but at least we can slow their rate of killing. And rogues… I already explained what we have to do with them. Humans and dhampirs alike are cooperating in this mission, just as you see in this room. But it's difficult, dangerous work. Our losses can be heavy. That's why… we're always in need of more Hunters."
Falman gaped—and was thankful that his fangs had once again receded. "You want me to join you?"
"You came here because you wanted to fight what's happened to you, even if it was only by offering up your body to science. I'm telling you that we could use your body and your mind in this war. Nearly all Hunters started out like you, as victims—but few have skills and experience like yours." The doctor smiled thinly. "I believe you're a right man for the job."
It was an extraordinary thought. Falman had been willing, and even expected, to die as a lab specimen—but instead, Marcoh proposed that he live as a soldier in a new kind of battle. Closing his eyes, he briefly tried to imagine such an existence. Using the very strengths his inhumanity gave him to save human lives from bloodthirsty monsters. Finding comradeship with others like him: not vampires, but dhampirs whose souls were still human, who knew and shared the pain of all he had lost.
Having only the memory of his wife and child for as long as he lived. Hiding himself from the light of the sun… and always, consuming blood to pacify the parasitic hunger in him.
"I couldn't," he breathed, his head bowed and fists clenched. "I can't live this way."
He was suddenly seized by the front of his shirt and jerked forward, causing the glass bottle to roll from his lap and crack on the floor. Opening his eyes in surprise, he found Maria standing over him, her gaze hard.
"For every dhampir like us who says that, more innocent people die—or worse, they're turned. There's nothing I hate more than self-pity." She released him roughly, pushing him back into his seat. "Maybe this burden isn't fair, and maybe it hurts every day… but just remember that if you refuse to fight, others will be left to take your place, because you weren't there to save them."
Those words left Falman physically trembling. He stared up at Maria in mute astonishment, his soul pierced with a convicted guilt.
"Now, Maria…" Marcoh interjected gently, but Falman quickly cut him off.
"No. She's right." He stared down at his hands. "What brought me this far was the thought that I could save others from this. I have no excuse to stop looking beyond myself now. If what you say is true, and I can still do even one thing that makes a difference for someone else… death would only be selfish." Smiling wanly, he forced himself to meet Maria's eyes. "Thank you for reminding me of that."
She returned the smile, sadly but warmly, and nodded once before stepping back to Denny's side.
"You needn't make any hasty decisions. Among the Hunters… all dhampirs are given the right to die when they choose." Marcoh's expression was briefly sober, but then the hopeful shadow of a smile crossed his lips. "All the same, Lieutenant, I don't believe my faith in you is going to be misplaced."
"So what now?" Falman asked quietly, with a sense of surrender that felt nothing at all like defeat.
Denny spoke up. "Depends on orders from the Hunters' Council, but you'll probably be called to the main headquarters in Paris. They'll check you out and give you training before you get assigned someplace. We're not exactly set up to handle foundlings here."
That seemed to settle the question of Falman's immediate future. With thoughtful acceptance, he began to relax; but then his gaze shifted to Sergeant Breda. He had to make sure that all would be made right for his friend, the man who had followed him and trusted him at the risk of his own life.
"What about Breda?"
Marcoh waved a hand almost casually. "There's nothing to fear for him. Although the Hunters are independent of any government, we do have certain… connections. I'll see to it that he's cleared of suspicion in the killings." He glanced at the big man looming beside his desk. "I think we can trust you not to talk about the things you've learned. On that condition, you'll be allowed to return to your life and duties, as if none of this had ever happened."
"Ixnay," Breda replied bluntly, prompting stares of surprised confusion.
Falman leaned forward anxiously. "Breda—"
"Listen. You think I came through all this with you, just to turn around and go back to killing other human beings? Uh-uh. You know this is the kinda chance I was itchin' for a long time before I ever met you." He turned resolutely to Marcoh. "If you wanna clear my name officially, that's great—but either way, I'm goin' with him."
Marcoh gaped. "Sergeant, I don't think you can possibly have any concept of what you'd be letting yourself in for."
"Yes he does." A hard smile twisted Falman's lips. "You'll never know what Heymans risked for me. You said the strength that got me here was something special—but it wasn't really my strength. It was his."
Raising an eyebrow, Marcoh glanced back at Breda, and his look of bemusement slowly changed to one of consideration.
"I'm starting to have a rough idea of what you mean." The doctor spread his hands in acquiescence. "Alright, then. If it's truly what you want, Sergeant, I'll request that the Council evaluate you along with Lieutenant Falman."
"It's what I want," Breda agreed, unhesitating.
"I'll send off a message to the Council now. Maria, if you'll come with me, please… Denny, see about a hot bath and a private room upstairs for the gentlemen. Their journey isn't over, but the least we can do is give them a day or two of decent rest." Marcoh rose, smiling at both Falman and Breda with sincere warmth. "I'll see you later."
Marcoh and his two fellow Hunters exited the laboratory, leaving Falman and Breda alone in the room. Falman leaned his head back and closed his eyes, trying to take in the enormity of all that had happened—and the weight of the future he had chosen.
He was going to live, but not for himself. Only for others. For innocent strangers stalked by vampires, for a son he hoped would never imagine such things existed… and perhaps even for Breda, if the splendid fool continued to stick his neck out—in a hopefully far less literal sense—for undead comrades.
Silverware rattled, and he looked up to see Breda investigating the dinner tray Denny had left on a nearby counter.
"How can you think about food at a time like this?" Falman asked dully, blinking at him.
"Easy for you to say, Lieutenant. You already ate."
Falman frowned, briefly tempted to object to the flippant remark; but he quickly realized he was not really upset, after all. He was grateful for a friend who did not suffer the affliction he did, yet could accept it with kindness, even after all it had nearly cost them both.
Perhaps in time, when he became sure of who he was now, he could learn to look at himself in the same fairness with which Breda saw him.
"Heymans," he said gently. It was a familiarity that earned Breda's full, startled attention. He shrugged at the bigger man, smiling genuinely for the first time since their journey began.
"It seems safe to say neither one of us is in the Army anymore—so maybe you'd better get used to calling me Vato."
Breda's eyebrows quirked in surprise… and then he grinned.
© 2014 Jordanna Morgan