Ara'at let out an impatient snarl as he stood concealed in the shadows of the narrow passage between the block of flats and an adjacent building, waiting for his quarry to emerge. Under his breath he cursed the wizard who had set in place the enchantment that prevented vampires entering an abode without the permission of the occupants – it would have been so much simpler just to barge in and catch them unprepared, rather than attacking when they would obviously be on their guard against a possible ambush.
They will have to emerge soon, he reassured himself, if they hope to track the Blood Star by the time this night is out. They cannot hide in there forever!
He smirked and idly tossed the phial of phosphorescent liquid into the air, catching it as it came tumbling in graceful, glittering circles into his emaciated fingers. The liquid frothed and bubbled horribly, moving like some malignant life form within the confines of its small glass prison. Ara'at grinned maliciously, thinking about the effect the venom would have on living human tissue; how it would poison the blood, mutate the cells, suppress the heart until it stopped beating – yet denying the victim the total oblivion of death. He remembered his own transformation, how excruciating pain had faded to a bloodlust that was too much to bear – too much to be denied. How his struggle to draw breath had suddenly ended, leaving him with an indescribable sense of freedom as he realised that he was immortal – death had already been stripped away; he wouldn't age, he wouldn't die … he would survive through all the centuries of the earth, spreading the anger and destruction that was growing within him like a plague.
Soon Scarla would see that; she would see that human life was fleeting, that her new companion had all the weaknesses of his kind. Once he had transformed she would have to change her mind … for how could she destroy the vampire race when the man she was growing to love had become one of them? Ara'at wasn't blind; he could see the humanity growing within his fledgling, just as he could see the feelings that were developing between her and that damned humans. Well, that would soon end; he'd kill the humanity within Scarla by killing the man she loved – then, once he was a vampire like them, Ara'at could turn her hatred for vampire society to his advantage; he could convince her to help him take over the flying castle, overthrow the Queen – then, once he had gained the power he wanted, Ara'at could destroy the vampire that Daniel Hunter had become!
The sound of voices arguing heatedly disturbed the silence of the night. Ara'at smirked when he saw his errant fledgling and her ill-assorted companions emerging from the building and silently picked up the crossbow he had laid ready in the alley, drew an arrow from the quiver on his back and, pulling out the stopper of the phial with a sickening pop, poured a few drops of the foul liquid onto the cruel head of the weapon.
Smirking even more widely, the vampire loaded the arrow onto the crossbow and took sight, narrowing his blood-red eyes as he focused all of his dark attentions on the young vampire hunter, who was supporting a rather dazed-looking human companion as he staggered out into the night…
Scarla snarled and whipped her head around when she heard the unmistakable sound of the flying arrow and snapped out her arm, catching the missile just as it was about to penetrate Danny's neck.
Danny yelled and stumbled backwards, almost dropping Lee, who was still groggy from his recent fainting fit. Hastily the young vampire hunter lowered his friend to the ground and turned in the direction the arrow had come from, fervently wishing that Mark hadn't made his staff disappear.
"Damn!" Scarla hissed, her gaze fixed on the opposite side of the more-or-less deserted road, where several figures were emerging from the shadows, "Here come the Bounty Hunters, right on time!"
Mark whimpered and shrank back as the enemy group pounced, clearing the road with a single leap and bearing down on the companions, snarling and growling like beasts.
Danny yelled and ducked under the attack of a female vampire brandishing a dagger, dropped to the ground and swung his leg around, tripping her up. He was on his feet again in a flash as she went down, right in time to swing his fist into the face of another attacker and bring his foot up into the neck of a third.
Scarla launched herself into the air, then let herself drop; bringing both feet crashing hard into the face of a male carrying a large axe, then, landing neatly on her feet, she slammed her wing claw into the chest of one vampire then, as the dust whirled around, she grabbed another and sank her fangs into his neck. She and Danny fought valiantly, but there were too many Bounty Hunters; they just kept coming, as abundant as shadows in the darkness of the night.
"Damn it, Foolish One!" Scarla yelled over the hubbub of the battle, "What the hell have you done with my tri-blade, you useless … whoa!"
The instant Scarla said the word 'tri-blade' the weapon was suddenly in her hands, as swiftly as if it had always been there. She stared at it for a moment, stunned at its sudden appearance, but she didn't have time to worry about it; the enemy was pressing in all around her.
Swiftly she hurled the two-bladed half of the weapon into the melee, yanking the chain and neatly decapitating several bounty hunters with one throw. Another tug brought the bloodstained weapon spinning back into her hands, just as she slammed the spike on the other half into a female as she launched herself at the young queen vampire. Dust rose in great billowing clouds as Scarla hacked and slashed, utilising the weapon with enviable skill, quickly dispatching many of her attackers.
Danny, having guessed that Mark's spell allowed them to call their weapons at any time without having to worry about carrying them, had shouted for his staff and was now using it to great effect, swinging the simple weapon with deadly force and keeping a respectable distance between himself and the throng of vampires. Gripping the staff in both hands, horizontally across his chest, he slammed the sharpened ends rapidly into the chests of two vampires coming at him from opposite directions then, changing his grip, he swung it around in a full circle, knocking several more bounty hunters off balance. A snarling male leapt at him, clawed hands outstretched. Danny dropped under the attack, spun around as the vampire landed on all fours behind him and brought the staff slamming down into his broad shoulders.
Mark cowered out of the way of the battle, his sword in his hand but doing little to help in the fight, whilst Lee watched the scene through dazed eyes, not really taking in what was going on around him.
A female bounty hunter snapped her head around, suddenly catching the scent of the stupefied human. Her blood-red lips spread into a malevolent smile and she broke away from the battle, arriving with unnatural speed at Lee's side and tilting back his head before he had a chance to respond.
"No!" Danny screamed, catching sight of what was happening through the corner of his eye as he wrestled with a vampire who was trying to pull his staff out of his hands, "Lee! LEE! Snap out of it, you idiot!"
Lee didn't respond. Danny swore, kicked out at the vampire's shin, yanked the staff free and slammed it hard into the creature's neck. The vampire disintegrated, adding to the layers of dust that were coating Danny, Scarla and the ground beneath their feet.
"Dagger!" Danny yelled, then, when the weapon had materialised in his hand, he hurled it as hard as he could, catching the female in the arm just as she was about to bite Lee.
The female shrieked in anger, tore the dagger out of her flesh and hurled it back. Danny dodged it and threw himself shoulder-first into the vampire's side, knocking her away from the dazed man on the ground.
Snarling, she struck out with razor-sharp claws that left five stinging welts in his arm. Danny staggered back under the force of her blow, but quickly recovered himself and swung out with his staff to deflect a second attack. She struck out again. Again he blocked it, feeling perspiration flowing freely down his brow as he was forced to react faster and faster to her frenzied attacks. He was tiring, his movements becoming more and more sluggish and he missed a few of her strikes, which left more deep scratches to ooze crimson down his arms and face.
"Duck, kid!" a familiar voice yelled. Danny heard a peculiar whirring sound, turned, saw the tri-blade rocketing towards him, yelled and quickly dropped to the ground, out of its path.
The female had no time to react – the weapon sliced through her torso as easily as if it had been moving through butter. She let out one last enraged shriek before she, like her fellow hunters, exploded into a shower of dust. The tri-blade arched in the air and returned to the hand of the vampire that had thrown it, to be hurled once more into the ever-decreasing numbers of the enemy.
Gasping for breath, Danny rose shakily to his feet, still gripping the staff. Most of the Bounty Hunters had either been defeated or had withdrawn from the battle, leaving only a few that Scarla seemed to be handling with frightening ease; the tri-blade was moving so rapidly that it was no more than a blur of flashing steel in the light of the full moon and the street lamps.
Danny threw down his staff and turned, intending to see if Lee was ok, when something struck him hard from behind, almost knocking him out. Blinking in an attempt to get rid of the stars dancing before his eyes, Danny turned and swung his foot up into his attacker's face. The vampire – a huge male with dark, rotten-looking flesh and familiar malevolent grin grabbed his ankle before it could make contact, twisted it round and threw Danny down the alleyway and into the dustbins at the end as easily as if he had been a rag doll.
Winded, Danny struggled to get to his feet as the vampire advanced on him, reaching into the folds of his cloak and withdrawing something that glistened eerily in the darkness of the light.
"I wasn't counting on those Bounty Hunters shooting at you before I did, human," Ara'at sneered, his voice hissing like a writhing mass of angry serpents, "But it seems it wasn't a total loss – you being exhausted from battle works to my favour!"
Danny managed to stand, but his leg, bruised and battered from when Ara'at had twisted it, gave way and he found himself crashing back down again. He lay, sprawled amongst the contents of the upturned bins as Ara'at slowly, menacingly, crouched beside him and closed his hand around his neck, digging rotten nails into Danny's pulsing flesh. Danny gasped and choked, trying desperately to loosen the sneering vampire's grip.
"Even the strength of the blood of a vampire hunter can't help you now, human," Ara'at brought the object in his hand closer and Danny noticed that it was a syringe filled with some kind of phosphorescent liquid that frothed and bubbled unnaturally in the confines of the marked glass cylinder in which it was imprisoned.
"War is imminent," Ara'at continued, baring his rotten, yellowed teeth in a wicked smile that left no doubt in Danny's mind to what he was planning to do, "the world is already starting to sink into chaos. Vampire's and humans will fight for dominance of this pathetic planet, and it's clear to me which species is the stronger!" He dug his nails deeper, making Danny gasp with pain, "the cesspit of humanity has festered on this world for long enough … now it's time for change!"
At the last word he drove the syringe deep into Danny's neck, making him scream as white-hot pain rocketed through his entire body in an instant. Ara'at cackled victoriously, tightening his fingers around the syringe in preparation to drive the last of the venom into his victims body, when something hit him hard in the back.
Screaming in enraged pain the vampire shot to his feet and spun around, his eyes burning like coals as the long, deep cut in his arm seamlessly healed itself, leaving nothing but a reminder of the pain. Scarla caught the tri-blade as it returned and prepared to throw it again.
"Save your energy, fledgling," Ara'at sneered, his eyes fading as smug laughter overcame his rage, "destroying me won't save your … friend. We'll meet again soon enough!"
With one final laugh he transformed into a bat and flew away, screeching into the night.
"Danny!" Lee, who had recovered somewhat, came running down the alleyway just as Scarla knelt beside the exhausted vampire hunter and yanked the syringe out of his arm. "Danny, you ok mate?"
"I … don't know…" Danny said, the words coming out in ragged gasps as his chest heaved. His face had bleached to pure white and sweat was streaming down his face, drenching his hair. "What did he inject me with?"
Scarla sniffed at the syringe, then threw it viciously at a wall. The glass smashed and the liquid oozed horribly down the dark bricks, leaving hideous glowing stains.
"Vampire venom!" she hissed.
"Venom!" Lee yelled, looking worried. "You mean poison?"
"No," Danny closed his eyes against the pain. He knew all too well what this meant, what was going to happen, "worse!"
"Sorry, kid," Scarla said, clenching her fists in an obvious attempt to suppress the rage she was feeling towards her sire, "there's nothing I can do about it … there's no cure."
"No cure? No cure for what?" Lee demanded, looking from Danny to Scarla, then to Mark who was just arriving in the alleyway. Then it seemed to dawn on him. He stiffened, stared at Mark for a long moment, then turned his gaze back on Danny.
"No!" he said slowly, denial in his voice, "you mean he's … he's going to…"
"If Ara'at infected him with enough venom, yes he is … what are you laughing at, Foolish One?" Scarla snapped, for Mark was sniggering at the sight of Danny's obvious discomfort.
"A vampire who's a vampire hunter!" he laughed, "of all the ridiculous notions…!"
Scarla's eyes narrowed, "You got a problem with that?"
Mark, suddenly remembering that Scarla had made a vow to only hunt her own kind, cowered as she glared at him, shadows of red creeping into her eyes.
"Forgive me my Lady … I did not mean you!"
"I'll deal with you later!" Scarla threatened, then turned her attention to Danny, who's consciousness was fast slipping away.
"I don't understand … I thought vampires bit their victims. Are you telling me they use needles?" Lee demanded.
"They do bite their victims," Scarla said impatiently, ripping off Danny's shirt, tearing off a strip and using it as a tourniquet to bind his arm. "But vampires can only turn humans of the opposite sex to them."
"What're you doing?" Lee asked, staring at the tourniquet.
"I'm guessing you don't know Danny from the hospital," Scarla sighed, "it's to slow the venom, to keep him human long enough for us to figure something out."
"I thought you said there was no cure?"
"Then I'll find a cure!" Scarla snapped angrily, her head spinning from what had happened. He couldn't become a vampire – he just couldn't! She couldn't destroy him along with the rest of the vampire kingdom – he meant too much to her. In her mind Scarla was just beginning to realise the true extent of her feelings for Danny, what the emotions she could feel stirring inside her meant. Meeting him had freed the humanity that had lain dormant within her, allowed her to discover sides to her own personality that she had never known before … now she realised why. Danny Hunter was more than just an ally – a friend.
She was falling in love with him – the first love she could remember. She couldn't let him die! She couldn't let him suffer the hellish existence that she herself knew!
"What do we do?" Lee was getting more and more frantic as Danny's breathing became increasingly shallower, "There must be something we can do!"
"Shut up!" Scarla snapped, racking her brain for something – anything – she could do to stop the transformation. Maybe the hospital – no, human medicine could do little to stop vampire venom. There was no one who could help … unless…
"The grimoire!" she hissed, surely there would be something in the Hayes' grimoire that would, in the very least, help to slow the venom?
Without offering so much as a word of explanation to Mark or Lee, she lifted Danny into her arms as easily as if he had been a rag doll and flew off with him, up to the open window of his flat.
She gently laid the unconscious man on his bed and retrieved the grimoire from the table where it had been left. She flicked through the pages impatiently, searching for anything that might help – but nothing she came across seemed to be of any use at all.
Hold on, kid! She prayed, looking at the pale, prone form of the man she loved, please hold on!