The journey back to their hotel room was a quiet one, neither hunter willing to break the silence. D kept his face forward, eyes scanning the dark storefronts and homes. It was after midnight, but dawn was still a long way off. Once, they both heard the sound of wings overhead, no doubt another night-flyer looking for easy prey.
"Must be a big nest," the blond hunter drawled, testing the waters. The silence was settled around her companion like a shroud, one she wasn't sure she wanted to disturb.
D didn't answer.
Wonder what it's like, always being treated like that. She and her brothers were seen as a village's salvation. Most places in the Frontier wouldn't even take their money, Hunters were so respected. If he were human, the Sheriff would have come bowing and scrapping, begging him for help, instead of accusing him of being the attacker.
Bors was standing at the front desk ringing his hands when they got back to the Courier. He looked between the two Hunters, wiping his palms on his pants. "Everything's well, I take it?" his voice cracked on the last word.
"Night-flyers," was Leila's curt reply.
The innkeeper relaxed, loosing inches as his spine went slack, his shoulders stooped, grateful he wouldn't be blamed for housing a rabid dhampir, no matter how brief. "Well, thank goodness for that!" His eyes darted to D. "Not that I believed you were the cause, sir," he added.
D walked past the innkeeper and started upstairs.
They were in their room, door closed, when he finally spoke. "We should head out as soon as possible after you get up and get what you need."
Leila stripped off her boots and wiggled her toes. "What about you?"
"They don't have what I need."
The blond slipped off her body armor with the ease of long practice and was in the bed in moments. "That side's still open if you're interested." She gestured at the empty half of the bed.
D turned off the lamp and settled in the corner.
Good try, Leila told herself before falling asleep. When she was hovering between dreams and waking she thought she heard D say, in a voice filled with impatience, "Not one word."
By noon the next day, Aristol was a fading smoky haze hovering over the tree tops. Leila had her hands clenched around the pommel of D's saddle, hanging on for dear life for the second time.
How can we be going this fast? she wondered. The horse wasn't taking particularly lengthy strides, or going very fast that she could tell, but the trees whipped past them, faster than they should. She thought a fall out of the saddle now would break her neck and every other bone in her body along with it.
The dhampir didn't stop at dusk. Leila didn't blame him after Aristol. She found herself nodding off in the saddle. There was a terrible moment when she felt herself falling and couldn't muster the strength to do anything about it. A hard hand went to her middle, pressing her back against D's chest. The cloak that had flared behind him draped over her, creating a pocket of warm air. Content, Leila slept as they sped south east towards Elborn.
And missed a very interesting conversation.
"You know, I finally figured it out, D."
His hand tightened on the reins.
Fine, I'll talk to you this way, then, the symbiote continued in his mind. And here you can't shut me out. Look at her. She's sleeping against you, not worried that you'll molest her in her sleep, or that she'll wake up changed. Right now she's off in lala land not worrying about anything. He was silent, then. I know what's wrong with you D, why you can't handle this. It's taken me a while, since you're not exactly Mr. Let's-share-our-feelings, but I finally got it. You're attracted to her for all the normal reasons, but there's something else. She wants you.
The dhampir chuckled to himself. This was his parasite's great observation? His epiphany? He knew she wanted him; he suffered through smelling it for days now.
Yeah, laugh it up. That's not the kind of want I'm talking about, though it has a lot to do with it. You're used to people needing you, just like Doris needed you. Used to people needing you around because you can protect them, because they're wrapped up in myths about vampires being the greatest lovers, because they think there's something you can give them. No, Leila wants you, and that's something entirely different, isn't it?
Oh, no, I think I've finally figured something out. You can't imagine why she'd want you. Why a Hunter, a beautiful woman, would waste her time on a half-breed vampire, a drifter who kills for a living.
She's not panting after you because of some vampire allure, or because she wants a taste of danger. She just wants you. All of you, every last bit human and vampire, and that's what freaks you out, because you want her, too. So much for the man who has no attachments.
"I'm warning you-"
And would it be so bad, having a partner? Oh, I'm sorry, that's right isn't it? The parasite snorted. She's out of the business now. Heaven forbid that you actually settle down somewhere and live a normal life with a normal woman. Heaven forbid that you're actually happy for once in your miserable existence. And it is miserable, admit it. Always moving, never staying still, even though both sides of your blood want some kind of stability. And don't try and talk about Elizabeta. When's the last time you swung by there, a year ago, two?
D clenched his jaw and rode on. The bedamned creature in his palm could talk until the stars fell out of the sky, he wasn't about to let it get the better of him, not this time.
No answer, huh? Well how about this little epiphany. The only thing that causes this kind of drive is hate, bone-deep and soul searing. And the only thing that makes someone hate like that is lo-
"I've had enough of your psychoanalysis for one night," D's words were ice cold, nearly lost in the wind howling past them. "Don't tempt me to do something you'll regret."
The rest of the ride was made in silence.
Leila woke up with a yawn. The thick black cloak was still wrapped around her, tucked beneath her chin and covering her from shoulders to knees. She moved slowly, wincing at the twinges that made themselves known. I can't believe I fell asleep against him.
"Good morning, bright eyes," The creature in D's hand said cheerfully. "We were just about to wake you." They were trotting down a narrow street, cross-topped buildings lining either side of the cobblestone path. The gray stone facades were normal for more established cities, not the wooden structures of most Frontier towns. How far had they traveled in a single night?
D made another turn, and the pair were on a street lined with shops.
People were already bustling about the town carrying loads, most stopping to stare at the pair making their way through the center of town. The sword hilt sticking up above D's head named his profession. No doubt by noon there would be rumors flying about why he was there, and who had summoned him.
Leila glanced up. The dhampir was looking straight ahead, his eyes on the road. As if sensing her gaze he glanced down, and she looked away when an unfamiliar blush began to heat her cheeks. She wasn't shy. Why the hell was she suddenly shy?
"New Verim is still a good ride away, and the big guy needs rest," the symbiote explained to her. "There's a place around here where he can catch some z's, and be ready to travel at nightfall."
The place was at the edge of town, a small, squat building that looked like a cross between a barn and a mill, right on the edge of a river. The roof looked questionable, and when he pushed the heavy doors open the sound of birds taking flight was deafening. "Does anybody own this place?" Leila asked.
"A man named Johnson, and he's not likely to say a word, once D lets him know he's here," the symbiote answered. "Saved his wife a few years back half-price. It's not an inn, but it's better than nothing."
Inside the barn dust-particles littered the air, the cooing of birds drifted down from the rafters. Sunlight came through the roof in thin streamers, making pale bars on the hay-strewn floor and odd, distorted shadows. Old bales were stacked piecemeal in corners.
D led his horse to a leaning stall. "You can stay here while I talk to Johnson. The hay is old, but still good. It should make a proper bed." With that, he was gone.
When the dhampir came back, Leila was bundled up on a large bale, everything but her head covered by the dark material of her bedroll. Sleeping on horseback was uncomfortable, and no doubt her body needed real rest.
"Just like you. So stop staring at her and get to sleep. Unless you're going to take my advice."
D settled down across from his companion, cloak spread about him on the dirt floor. Johnson was dead, had died more than fifteen years ago, but his son remembered the tall, pale man who rescued his mother. Brian Johnson asked him to stay as long as he wanted, had hinted at a possible job for the both of them. D wondered what Leila would think of a side job come nightfall.
It didn't take that long.
Leila woke up when the sun was just starting to dip below its zenith. A hay bale was better than the ground, but not by much. She moved her leg, judging the distance to the end of the bale. No sense trying to get up and falling flat on her face.
The barn was quiet, without even the sound of birds. The caked white splashes on the rafters were evidence that this place was a favorite roosting spot for years, but today they were absent.
It's himshe thought, gaze going to D. Vampires and dhampirs tended to run off everything but larger game and mutants. He was lying on a bale himself, cloak wrapped around him like darkness, hat resting on his sword. He didn't so much as twitch when she stood and approached.
The dhampir looked different in his sleep, the sternness of his features relaxed. Without the wide-brimmed hat to hold it in place his dark hair fell away from his face, framing the pale skin. His features were delicate, almost feminine but for their sharpness. Without that penetrating grey stare he looked boyish, no more than twenty.
He really was too pretty.
Leila walked back to her bale and dug through her saddle bags until she found her mirror. She'd never used it for more than checking around corners, or examining awkward wounds. A vampire hunter didn't need to be pretty. The boys had tried for a while to catch her attention until she turned them all down flat. Well, Grove never tried, but she could feel it in his eye sometimes when he watched her. They told her how pretty she was, how lucky they were that she was their 'sister'. With a deep breath, Leila looked into the mirror.
Her mother's eyes stared back.
She almost put the mirror away. It was the reason she hated looking at her face; so much of her mother stared back, reminding her of things she'd rather leave buried. Leila forced herself to look into the palm sized glass again. Her eyes were more green and blue, less slanted. Her skin darker. Her forehead was higher, a frown line already marring the skin on the bridge of her nose. Her nose was her father's, sharp and pointed, but thankfully not long. She wasn't beautiful, her features were too sharp for that, her face too narrow. The close cut blond hair emphasized all of this. Her body was hard, muscles sculpted from years of work, hands rough from wooden stakes and working with oil and metal. Not like Charlotte, pale and fragile, features rounded and feminine, hair flowing.
Not like her mother.
Leila's eyes moved lower, past her chin. A slight tug revealed the bite, twin holes already scabbed over high on her jugular. She was a vampire hunter for thirteen years, but it wasn't until she gave it up that she was bitten.
I'll never do this again. He sounded like he meant it, too. She didn't want to think of what he'd say if she told him she wanted him to.
D was aware of the exact moment Leila's breathing changed, his own senses were so attuned to hers. He was aware of her approach, could feel the heat of her as she examined him, but he kept his eyes closed, his breathing even. After a few minutes she walked away, the sound of rustling as she went through one of her saddle bags, the metallic scrap of something being opened.
D risked slitting an eye. Leila was sitting on her hay bale, a shaft of light turning her hair brilliant gold as she examined herself. It was strangely feminine, the way her eyes weighed and measured her features, not something he would have expected. There was something fey about her in that light, as if she would disappear if a cloud passed over the sun.
She shifted the mirror lower, one hand revealing the place where he marked her. Her expression was solemn, but her fingers drifted over the puncture wounds delicately. Strange apprehension curled within him. This was something personal, private, and more intimate than if she had been naked in a silk draped room. Wistfulness crossed her face for the barest moment before she fixed her collar. With a final, deep breath, she closed the mirror and dropped it into her saddlebag.
The dhampir gave her another minute until he 'woke'.
It was pathetically simple.
Vampire Hunters were by trade the best of the Hunter class. Even were-hunters trailed far behind when it came to simple strength and endurance.
The jelly beast Johnson told them about made its home on the eastern edge of the town. It would appear, perhaps take two or three people, and then slither back into the forest for days, even weeks, before showing up again. When cornered it became a vicious killing machine, shooting out streams of organic acid that could melt limbs in seconds. The easiest way to kill one was to create a large enough circle around it that it didn't feel threatened, then attack on all sides. Though they didn't use it for hunting, they could be lightening quick when it came to running away. The townspeople sent for hunters, but none had arrived yet. Johnson took it as a sign of providence that D, arguably the best Hunter to ever exist, had chosen that day to come to the town, even though he wasn't necessarily a beast hunter.
Jelly beasts didn't hunt by speed or stealth. Instead, the relied on something much simpler, surprise. Most would pounce on a victim stupid enough to step into their trap, engulfing the person and digesting them. They were easily avoided if you took the time to notice the strange slickness on the ground that signaled one was nearby. With the recent rains to hide its trail this one decided to move closer to its prey.
Leila walked through the forest slowly, hand on her gun. They decided to hunt during the day, and afternoon sunlight filtered around her. It was the section where the most attacks had happened, the thick underbrush making the perfect hiding place for the jelly beast. "I don't plan on getting eaten," she said, turning her head west. D was perched in a tree above her, out the beast's range of senses. The dhampir should have been able to pick up the words. "So you better be as fast as usual."
She wondered if the dhampir smiled at her words.
Entirely too rigid, she thought. He would never let himself laugh or smile, at least not where other people could see. The thought of him riding like the devil to some deep, dark cave just to let out a belly-laugh made her chuckle. She wouldn't put it past him.
"I hope the villagers did what we told them and made enough noise to drive it our way," she continued. "It'll look bad for business if one of them gets killed while we're here."
A subtle movement along the ground caught her attention, a sliding mass thinned out ahead of her, ten yards ahead. The creature was nine feet across, large for its kind. "Hello," she drawled, not slowing her pace. The hunter pulled her weapon, finger on the trigger. The blast wouldn't do more than tear a quick-closing hole, but it might buy her enough time if her companion decided she wasn't worth saving.
The jelly beast shimmered in the afternoon light before it stilled completely, secure that it hadn't been seen. Her feet touched the edge of the creature then continued forward.
Another three steps and the ground heaved upwards, the creature solidifying as it attacked. A wave of purplish ooze came towards her. Leila could see the rough outline of a mouth. If that closed over her, she would be dead in seconds.
A black blur landed in front of her, a silver crescent cutting the mouth in half before hard arms went around her middle. D pushed off, propelling them both onto a tree branch fifteen feet overhead. There was a splitting noise, the sound of a rotted melon being sliced, and the jelly beast collapsed in on itself. A smell reminiscent of rotten eggs and feces wafted up to their perch. D didn't waste any time moving them further away. They dropped onto the forest floor without a sound.
"Stinking jelly beasts," Leila muttered as she watched the pulsing creature slowly disintegrate, leaving a steaming section of forest behind. "I don't suppose I'm getting paid for standing around and looking pretty?"
D's hand chuckled.
"You were adequate bait," the dhampir answered, a rare smirk lifting one corner of his mouth. He was facing away from the blond hunter, already heading back to the village. They could still travel tonight if they hurried.
Leila, however, had other plans.
"Don't you celebrate, just a little?" She asked. After returning from the kill, she went out on her own while D negotiated the price. Now both of them were back at the barn, and the sun was going down.
"And it shows," the blond muttered into her chest. "We always used to celebrate a job well done the minute we hit town," she said louder. "Borgoff would buy the biggest bottle of whiskey he could find." Which was exactly what she had in her hands. While D went to discuss payment with Johnson, she went ahead and poked around until she got what she wanted. And she had every intention of drinking as much of the bottle as possible as soon as possible.
Unbeknownst to Leila, D was trying his hardest not to let out a deep, long-suffering sigh. Johnson told him to stay as long as he liked, and the dhampir had every intention of leaving. With or without her, a small part of him whispered. That part was overridden by the larger part, the one that told her she could travel with him to New Verim.
Leila watched the dhampir carefully, but he was giving nothing away. She didn't want much, just for him to loosen up a bit before his tension made her crazy. There was nothing like liquor to do just that. "Come on, just a few drinks. Then we can sleep all day tomorrow and be ready to go come nightfall." She smirked. "Unless you're just trying to get rid of me?"
Yes! D yelled in the confines of his mind. For your own protection! So stop undermining me! None of this showed on his face. "I don't drink," he said instead.
"Not even a little?"
D didn't answer. Instead, he swung into his saddle and extended a hand. "I said you could travel with me to New Verim, not you must." And thank God he'd found the way round that.
Just like the first time, the hunter waved away his helping hand, settling for pulling herself up by the pommel after tucking her bottle away for later consumption. It would be hard, carrying on the tradition by herself. At least with D she would have had some company.
Leila didn't have time to brace herself before they were rocketing out of the barn, the small town disappearing behind them.
They spent another half-day in the saddle, despite Leila's protests. D's hand agreed with her, but the dhampir refused to stop for anything more pressing than a bathroom stop, even when she commented on how hard it was to eat jerky when a horse was going full tilt beneath her.
The town of New Verim, located at the edge of the Inner Territories and the Frontier, was quiet when the two hunters dismounted in the late afternoon, a town holding its breath, waiting for news. The streets were busy, people attempting to get their business done before nightfall, few sparing a glance for the black clad stranger and the woman in front of him. Those few who did stared openly. Vampire abductions did that to towns. Even if the offending vampire was long gone, the people couldn't shake the fear that they would be next. Leila didn't have any doubt that, come nightfall, there wouldn't be a person on the street who didn't have to be there.
Elborn's house was the largest in the city, and for miles around. The brick building looked fragile in the fading light, as if made of ash and likely to blow away, a reflection of the emotions of those within. The crosses that decorated the front gate were bent and crumpled still, as if the inhabitants couldn't have been bothered with replacing them. Then, why should they? The vampire had already gotten what it wanted.
The two were greeted at the door by a wan maid and shown into an elegant parlor. The shades were drawn, the interior of the house cast in shadow. Leila stared at the lush surroundings: velvet covered couches and gleaming furniture, thick woven carpets and servants. Charlotte Elborn had given all this up to go with a vampire.
She still couldn't understand it.
Love makes you stupid, that's what her father told the village before he went after her mother. Seems it didn't matter if it was a vampire in love or a human, it was all the same.
There was the sound of running feet, then a man skidded to a stop in the doorway. She recognized Alan Elborn, his arm still in a sling. He took one look at the two hunters and backed away, shaking his head. "No," that was all he said as the blood drained from his face, leaving him waxy pale. He half-stumbled, turned, and vanished into the dim interior of the house. Leila pursed her lips.
The worst part of a hunt was coming home empty handed.
Some people screamed, demanded to know if they'd really tried at all, or simply went out of town for a few weeks. Others refused to believe the truth: that their sisters, wives, children, were dead. More than one tried to take a swing at Borgoff when he broke the news.
All of them cried.
The elder Elborn took the news of his daughter's death much better than his son. He looked surprised at seeing the two Hunters together, then sighed in painful understanding. When D dropped the small gold ring in his hand, the old man closed his fist around it and brought it to his chest.
"She didn't suffer," D said in his normal, distant tones.
The old man nodded, though she doubted he understood the words. "This was her mother's," he told them, staring at the gold ring in his hand. "She never took it off, not even to bathe. She used to wear it on a chain around her neck until she grew big enough to wear it properly." He reached into a pocket of his electric chair and pulled out a heavy bag. "20 million dallas, Hunter, as we agreed upon." The sack clinked as it was set on a table.
The dhampir picked up the bag and walked out of the room without another word. Leila followed.
"They were killed, weren't they? Your brothers."
The quiet words stopped her in mid-step. She didn't turn around. "Yeah."
"I'm sorry for you loss."
A moist, heavy weight settled in her chest, threatening to choke off her air. The feeling spread out from her heart, hot and hard, filling her throat and the space behind her nose and eyes. Leila hurried out of the house before she did something stupid, like crumple to the floor and cry until she ran out of tears.
D was already on his horse when she stepped outside, her saddle bag sitting on the stoop. "Don't suppose you'd like to celebrate?"
Something flew in her direction, and she grabbed the heavy bag out of the air.
"10 million dallas, plus the thousand for the jelly beast," D told her.
He was gone before she could say thank you.
Fifty years later.
"You know, you're a real pain in the hand."
D ignored his symbiote as always. The sun was soon to rise, and he wanted to find a place to rest. This last contract had been unusually hard, pushing him dangerously close to his breaking point.
"This ignoring thing is really getting old. If it weren't for me, you'd be dead by now. You never listen to me, and then you go off and get yourself damn-near killed. You have any idea how hard it is to get someone to agree to let you live in their hand?"
The dhampir tuned out his symbiote as he settled into a hollow for the coming dawn. The thick bowl would give adequate protection from the sun, his hat and cloak would do the rest. Once he was settled in, he pulled out his processor.
"It's not even worth it to look at the boards anymore," his symbiote muttered. "It took three years for this one to pop up, the first true vampire in over ten years, not just some dhampir, and we havent seen one of those for near seven. Face it, D, you just might be the last person on earth with vampire blood."
D scrolled through the listings. Were-hunters, exorcisers, priests, all were asked for, but not Vampire Hunters. Perhaps his symbiote was right, perhaps he really was the last.
A simple listing caught his attention, an ornate D its only designation.
I'm dying. Get your ass to the Tyler Hills, a place called Suffold.
Thank you for reading! Special thanks goes out to dumdeedum, Melly, Royal blueKitsune, Kitala, For all Tid, and pheonix 521 for their wonderful reviews!
For those of you wondering, Elizabeta is a character in another VHD fic I'm currently working on, but won't be posted for a while :)