Lord of Blood
Rain lashed down from the roiling sky, turning the streets to sludge. The sharp spatter of the thin droplets was almost deafening, a din that filled the air to bursting. The soft squelch of Varakash's footsteps punctuated the drone of the downpour almost rhythmically as he made his way through the winding roads and alleys of the small village.
The hunger gnawed at him. It filled him up, suffusing every inch of his body. It clawed at him from the inside out.
He was painfully aware of the inhabitants of the village, his vampiric senses hearing their slightest movements behind the closed shutters of their windows. He could smell them, the torturous scent of fresh, warm life smothering his nostrils like cloying perfume.
Ahead of him, the door to the village's only inn creaked open. A cloaked man stepped tentatively out, and the door slammed shut behind him. This close to the Wastes, night was not safe.
Varakash's eyes snapped to the man's back as he walked cautiously through the mud. The thirst rose like a beast in his mind, in his chest, and he gritted his teeth to stop his long canines sliding out. A strangled groan gasped from behind his clenched teeth, and he had to press himself roughly against the wall of a house to stop the man from seeing him.
The nearness, the sheer humanity of the man ran through his senses like fire. He had resisted the thirst for over a month, and it was taking its toll on him. At some level, he was aware of his mind deteriorating, beginning the spiral into madness, but he was powerless to do anything about it.
Except to feed.
The hot, thick blood of the man ahead of him would stave off the madness. The vermin that infested the streets and gutters could keep him alive, but their blood was weak, thin, inadequate. His kind was not meant to live off rats. That brought the madness almost as quickly as not feeding at all. But it could sustain him without the need to kill.
Unable to stop himself, Varakash pushed off from the wall of the house and staggered after the man, keeping pace with him a dozen metres behind. The thirst was taking control again. He couldn't afford for that to happen. Even on the northern borders, an entire family slaughtered in their own home caused talk. Dangerous talk, that spread too fast.
And no matter how much he hated himself, he knew he couldn't stop it from happening.
Feed now, before the man was out of reach, locked away behind thick walls.
The thirst stabbed blades of fire into his heart. Kill the man, drain him dry so that others might live. Slake the thirst before it took control completely. The man, or another family could die at his unwilling hand.
Memories surfaced painfully. Three girls, not one above ten years, sprawled on the floor in front of him, crimson with their own spilt blood. A grandmother, dead in her chair, neck wrenched viciously to the side, half her throat torn out. Two men, one the grandfather, one the father, crumpled in a gory heap at the door, the centre of a pool of their own congealing blood. The mother, torn almost to shreds.
He had done that. That, and others. He couldn't let it happen again. The man, or another family might die.
The thirst raged.
The rich, heady scent of the man smothered him. He hated himself for what he was about to do, for what he had to do. He had no choice. If he did not, the madness and the hunger would take him, and he would do worse. So much worse.
The man had stopped by the heavy door of a house. He was fumbling beneath his cloak for something. Keys.
Even as he loathed himself, Varakash felt anticipation rise in him. His long, sharp canines slid from their sheaths. His pace quickened, his long, white hair dripping with rain as he took step after heavy, eager step.
He hated it. He hated what he had become. He hated it, and at the same time, part of him loved it. Loved the surprise and fear that twisted the man's face as he saw him. Loved the strangled scream that he cut off with vice-like fingers. Loved the feel of the man's lower jaw cracking and snapping beneath his grip.
Then he bit down, and nothing meant anything.
Blood flooded his mouth, sweeter than nectar. It coursed through him, infusing him with strength and energy. At that moment, locked to the man, hearing his heart beat its last, pitiful spasms, he was at peace. The anguish washed away, the hate, the self-loathing, all of it was forgotten amidst the warmth of the blood.
The man's heart faltered finally. The blood slowed to a trickle, and then stopped. Varakash let the man fall, his corpse hitting the street with a wet thump, face-down in the sludge.
The thirst was still there, burning at the back of his mind. It never truly left. In some ways, it reassured him. The day he stopped fighting the thirst would be the day he lost the last shreds of his humanity.
He straightened, running a hand over his mouth to wipe away the blood. The madness had receded along with the thirst. He knew why he was here, now. He knew what he had to do. First, though, there was the body to dispose of.
Footsteps splashed slowly behind him. He turned. A tall man stood in the street, wrapped in a brown cloak. His blond hair stirred faintly in the wind, held back from his square features in a loose ponytail. One hand rested on the wooden haft of the plain axe at his belt.
"Thorne," he said. "How long have you been here?"
The Norseman gave a smile that left his ice blue eyes untouched. "Long enough to see you take him," he said, nodding to the body. "Why do you torture yourself like this?"
"We may be predators, Thorne, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.."
Thorne shook his head. "This is who we are, Varakash. You can't change that."
"I know," Varakash sighed. "But this life is all that mortals have, and we take it away from them that we might live another few weeks. Tell me, does that seem fair?"
Thorne gave a low laugh. "Since when has the world been fair? Their own lords take their lives to stock their palaces with jewels and gorge themselves on delicacies, while the peasantry starves. Is that any less fair than what we do? We take a single life each week, each two weeks, so that we can live. Not so that we can live in palaces and feast every day, but so that we don't die. We do what we do out of necessity, not out of cruelty or ambition."
"But how many have we killed over the years?" said Varakash. "Sixty a year, between us, for four long millennia. Over two hundred thousand have died to feed us. Two hundred thousand."
Thorne closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them. "So many," he said softly. "But they are with the Gods now. And over those millennia, we are but a footnote in the reaper's tally. How many deaths have they caused amongst themselves through their petty wars? How many through oppression? How many through famine?"
"You're right," said Varakash, "but how many of those wars were the result of two single people? A war needs soldiers, a king needs followers; they can't happen by themselves. We need nothing but ourselves."
"Not true anymore, my friend," said Thorne. "You felt her call, the same as I did. The same as all the old ones did. How many go to join her, like us? Something is going to happen. Something big."
Varakash looked down at the body. "Whatever she plans, it will be momentous," he agreed. "She was ever one for that. But for now, there are more important things to attend to. If someone sees us like this, standing over the body of this man, it will cause an uproar."
"And you know how much I dislike an uproar," Thorne laughed quietly. "Very well, let's get him out of the way."
"The river?" said Varakash, with a slight smile. Thorne would like nothing more than some excitement to punctuate their journey. They had lost the witch hunters at Praag; or what remained of it after the invasion from the Wastes; and Thorne was itching for something else to spice up the monotony of travelling. Varakash would like nothing more than to complete their journey with as little disturbance as possible. He reached down and grabbed one of the body's arms.
"As good as anything," replied Thorne, taking a leg. It didn't need both of them to carry the body – Varakash could lift a fully-armoured Knight over his head with one arm, barded warhorse and all, if he needed to – but it was considerably less awkward. Together, they carried the body down the street, sticking to the shadows at the base of the buildings so as not to be seen.
The river wound through the northern half of the village, it's meagre yield of fish the only reason for the village's existence. Warehouses and docks ran the length of the banks, home to the fishing boats and nets. The docks were larger than the other buildings of the village, and the rain dripped from their slate roofs loudly.
The two vampires came to a halt in the gap between two of the docks. Varakash glanced at Thorne. "We need a weight to hold him under," he said.
Thorne thought for a moment. "No, wait. I have an idea. Come with me." Varakash followed him into the dock to their left, dumping the body next to one of the fishing boats. "If we just throw him in, he'll wash up somewhere. Maybe somewhere bigger than this little village."
"So what do you have in mind?"
Thorne smiled. "We tie him underneath one of the boats. By the time they find him, we'll be long gone. If they find him. The fish are supposed to be nasty around here."
Varakash echoed Thorne's smile, though he didn't feel it inside. Playing the murderer didn't appeal to him. He couldn't bring himself to see the bodies as just objects, like Thorne did. He supposed it was one of his failings, but it was one that he didn't want to lose. It helped remind him that he had been human, once.
"Just wait here until I get back," said Thorne. He snatched up a coil of rope from the boat, and a handful of nails. Grabbing the body, he took a step and dived into the inky water.
Varakash stood back, closing his eyes. His fingers brushed the hilt of the sword at his waist. It was a simple length of battered steel, sharpened on both sides and with a stabbing point. He had taken it from a Kislevite warrior, almost three months ago now, before the onset of the invasion from the Wastes. The Kislevite had set out to slay the pair of vampires, but had found himself decidedly outmatched when they finally tired of the pursuit and allowed him to catch them. The man had hunted them for nearly thirty years, long enough for him to grow frail and old, and Varakash had thought it would be cruel to let him die without ever getting to fight them. The Kislevite died an honourable death at the end of it all, in single combat with what he saw as a creature of evil.
The human's sword had broken Varakash's during the fight, though, and he thought it only appropriate to take up the Kislevite's blade after his death. Something of a memento, he supposed, to one of the few times when he had had a goal, if only for a few decades. The Kislevite had broken the monotony of their aimless wanderings, given them a spice of excitement. It had been something to do.
Thorne slipped from beneath the water and pulled himself up next to Varakash. He no longer had the rope or the nails. Water streamed off his sodden clothes as he brushed his hands together. "There," he said. "He won't be troubling anyone anytime soon."
Varakash looked at him, then turned for the door. "Come on," he said. "We should keep going."
Thorne caught up with him as he left the building. "We don't even know where we're going," he laughed lowly.
Varakash glanced at him. "East," he said. "Towards her call."
"East," said Thorne sarcastically. "Do you know where we are right now? Where we're headed if we keep up this direction? We can't just keep going with only a vague direction to head in, Varakash."
They both fell silent as they passed the village inn. Refugees had it packed full, and it practically pulsated with humanity to the vampires' senses. Varakash shuddered, then turned to Thorne again.
"We take the High Pass through the mountains," he said. "After that, we'll be close enough that her call will be the only direction we need."
"The High Pass," snorted Thorne. The Everchosen's army came through that pass. How are we going to feed? There'll be nothing left alive in those mountains bigger than a rat, pass or no."
"Then we'll feed on rats," Varakash said simply.
"Rats? Rats?" Thorne spat. "However much you seem to like it, I'm not living off vermin. Not to mention the fact that our minds will be in tatters before we're even through the damn pass. Five weeks, you lasted, and by then you were ready to succumb to insanity. I'm damn sure that crossing the mountains will take a sight longer than that."
Varakash was about to answer, when a cloaked shape stepped from the shadows ahead. It levelled a leather-clad arm at them, the tip of a handbow quarrel glinting in the moonlight.
"Found you, monsters," it growled, and then fired.
The quarrel flashed from the handbow with a thwap.
Thorne looked down in shock at the quarrel where it protruded from his chest, just below his ribcage. "Silver…" he groaned, and dragged the quarrel out of himself. Smoke wisped upwards from the ragged wound it left behind. The tip of the quarrel had melted away. He dropped into the mud. "Silver-tipped quarrels," he grated. "You've learned, von Diesricht. Six inches higher, and you would have found my heart."
Varakash eased his sword in its scabbard, baring an inch of steel. "I though we lost you in Praag, Witch Hunter," he said coldly. He stepped forwards to stand between Thorne and von Diesricht.
The Witch Hunter's mouth twisted in a sneer. "I thought so too, vampire. For a while, I had given up hope of hunting you down. Two years hounding you across the face of the Old World, only for you to slip away. But I know where you are going, vampire," he spat, "all your wanderings, they weren't random. It took me four long weeks alone, but I pieced together where you are heading."
"And where would that be?" said Thorne, harshly. His chest still smoked, but the wound was already starting to heal. His pale flesh was knitting together even as he stood there.
Von Diesricht holstered the handbow. "You're heading across the mountains," he said triumphantly. "I don't know why, but that matters not. It is enough for me that you creatures of evil desire to cross. Whatever you plan, I will not let you achieve it."
Varakash put a hand out to stop Thorne from drawing his axe. "I don't care about your aims, von Diesricht. And I don't care to kill unnecessarily, either. You must know that you can't kill us, even with your silver quarrels."
"You are already dead," von Diesricht spat. "All I must do is put you back where you belong. Sigmar will give me strength enough to banish you monsters back to the hell you came from."
"Sigmar will give you strength?" said Varakash. "I was ancient before your 'god' was even born, von Diesricht. Sigmar is no god. He will not give you strength. I am giving you your life, Witch Hunter, and you throw it back at me."
Von Diesricht snarled, "You die for that, monster." His hand whipped down beneath his cloak and came up gripping a long pistol.
Varakash was moving before he had the gun clear of its holster. He flowed towards the Witch Hunter in a lightning-fast blur. One hand slammed down on von Diesricht's wrist, knocking the pistol from his grip. The other snaked out to snatch the Witch Hunter's throat. He lifted him up off the floor.
"I told you, von Diesricht," he said. "You can't kill us." He grabbed the human's wrist with his free hand and wrenched it up. Keeping the Witch Hunter raised in an iron grip, he shifted his hand to von Diesricht's index finger. A sharp crack sounded, and Varakash winced at the Witch Hunter's low groan of pain. Two more followed.
"We are leaving now," Varakash said. "Do not try to follow. I let you live now, but I won't be so lenient the next time." He dropped von Diesricht in the sludge. The man glared pure hate up at him, cradling his mangled hand against his chest.
"I will follow you to the ends of the world itself, vampire," he said, gritting his teeth. "If it takes me the rest of my life, I will hunt you down and end you. This I swear now by Sigmar."
Varakash shook his head sadly. "We are not evil, von Diesricht, no matter what you think, but come after me again and I will kill you without a second thought." He stepped past the Witch Hunter, gesturing for Thorne to follow.
Neither vampire spoke until they were out of sight of the Witch Hunter and on the main road out of the village. As they passed the stone guide post that passed for the boundary of the village, Thorne looked at Varakash.
"Why did you let him live?" he asked.
Varakash did not answer for a long moment. "He didn't need to die," he said eventually. "And I don't kill what I don't need to. By the time he's recovered enough to track us, we'll be far enough ahead that it won't matter. Once we're past the mountains, how will he find us?"
Thorne nodded. "I thought as much. But what if he rouses others against us? A crusade cannot be beneficial, whatever she plans to do with those who answer her call."
Varakash shrugged. "That is something that we will have to deal with as it comes, my friend. I will not change who I am. Not even for her."