Chapter One – Hunter of Hunters
Darkness fell as it always did. Silent. Total. Covering the land in a bleak, heavy shroud that muted the colours and shapes that gave life to the Earth. Sounds seemed to intrude upon a world in mourning, echoing through the deep, still shadows; sharp upon the cool air.
Tarmeth yawned, exposing glinting fangs to the watery light of a full moon shining feebly from behind concealing clouds. His long, dark hair fluttered in the stiff breeze, caressing his strangely pale face and shadowing eyes that, though they were usually a deep, dark brown hue, now glowed eerily red.
"Seth!" he cursed softly, his voice little more than a hiss, like gas escaping through a hole – quiet, but pregnant with danger. He tapped his long, skeletal fingers lightly against the branch upon which he was resting, impatiently gazing down at the narrow lane below. Where was she? She normally passed by here much earlier than this. He was growing bored, restless – he could think of better things to do than sit around here, waiting for someone whom he had no guarantee would turn up.
She will come, he told himself – but he wasn't exactly confident that his assessment was correct … she did, after all, pride herself in being unpredictable.
Then he heard it; hurried footsteps below, coupled with terrified sobbing. Tarmeth leaned forward, peering through the shadows at the approaching figure, noticing the tousled hair and ruffled clothes. The woman's face was streaked with tears, causing lines of mascara to leak down her cheeks.
Something is amiss! He dropped from the branch, landing with agile ease on his feet, right in the woman's path.
"Seth!" Tarmeth repeated, "Be quiet! I'm not going to hurt you!"
The woman backed away from him, her blue eyes wide and terrified beneath the waving strands of her flyaway blonde hair. Tarmeth ignored her; he turned away, running swiftly in the direction she had just come and grabbing the tall, heavily built man that had been pursuing her by his long, greasy, unkempt hair.
"I dislike men who prey on women!" he snarled, digging his nails into the screaming man's scalp before flinging him violently to the ground.
The man howled with pain, reaching a chubby hand up to his head, where runnels of crimson were cascading down his bloated face. He looked up at Tarmeth with a mixture of fear and anger in his eyes.
"You'll regret that!" he yelled, pulling a knife from his pocket and scrambling to his feet, "No one gets in my way and lives to talk about it!"
Suddenly he lunged at Tarmeth, plunging the knife's blade deep into his chest. The woman, who was hovering nearby, too terrified to move, screamed and covered her face with her hands, whimpering in fear.
Tarmeth, however, merely laughed. He grabbed the man's hand, dragging it, and the blade, away from him. The wound healed seamlessly, leaving no indication that he had ever been injured.
"You can't kill me, Ardanath," he hissed, a wide grin exposing his fangs, "Someone beat you to it, many, many years ago."
"Wh … what are you?" his victim stuttered, trying to back away but finding himself held in Tarmeth's steely grasp.
The vampire grinned still more widely, his eyes glinting with bloodlust, "I'm your demise, you great, ugly, pestilent excuse for a life-form!" In sudden rage he grabbed the man's head, tilting it back violently to expose his neck and the veins that pulsed beneath the surface of his repulsive skin. He struggled, but the frenzied vampire held him fast, plunging his fangs deep into his neck, snarling as hot blood spurted into his mouth, trickled down his throat.
The woman screamed over and over again, but Tarmeth paid her no attention as he felt his victim's struggles fade to nothing and the man become still and limp. He allowed the corpse to drop to the ground and wiped a dribble of blood from his lips with the back of his hand, smirking with satisfaction.
Another attempted rape thwarted, another monstrous excuse for a human destroyed … and yet it still wasn't enough. No amount of blood could repay what he had lost. He growled, turned away from the corpse, and closed his eyes against the memories he did not want to remember – that he shouldn't remember Sometimes he wished he could just cry, to find some release through tears – but vampire eyes could not weep. Instead of tears, he had shed blood, killing the killers and rapists that had stolen so much from him – but nothing could alleviate his pain. Tears or blood, enough could never be spilled to satiate his thirst for revenge, for justice.
He growled angrily, trying to dislodge the memories, then turned, looking for the girl.
She was gone, only the distant echo of her running feet remaining to attest that she had ever been there at all.
"Scath!" Tarmeth cursed again, sighing. He hadn't, of course, expected her to hang around after what she had just witnessed, but if she called the police it would cause more trouble than he was willing to deal with – he was on the run from too many … people … already.
Sure enough the wail of sirens soon contaminated the silent atmosphere of the night. Tarmeth snapped his head up as dancing blue lights cast rippling patterns across the damp pavements and quickly shrank into the shadows, concealing himself so effectively that to anyone watching it would have seemed like he had magically vanished.
The vampire watched in silence as two cars screeched to a halt and disgorged four police officers, who quickly found the corpse of Tarmeth's latest victim. He gazed on emotionlessly whilst they muttered amongst themselves, comparing this death to a long list of similar killings, wondering if this victim, too, would also fit the pattern of murderer-come-murdered – then, growing weary, he turned and melted away; moving as silently and unobtrusively as the shadows that had become his sanctuary.
"Leaving so soon?" it was barely a whisper, but the liquid voice had such a dark quality that it seemed to pulse upon the air, as if the whole world heard and held those haunting notes, that mysterious tone. Tarmeth stopped in his tracks and looked up, his mouth stretching in amusement.
"I was beginning to wonder if you had not found something more interesting to occupy your time."
The figure sitting idly on the crumbling fire-exit stairway of a nearby building flashed him a grin that caused her sharp fangs to glint in the watery moonlight, then she dropped to the ground beside him. The dark cape slung over her shoulders billowed around her as she landed neatly on all fours then straightened, tucking errant wisps of fine hair – russet shot with natural amber highlights – behind her ears. Her slim figure was clasped by a sleeveless black shirt with a generous neckline, tight black trousers and high-heeled black boots. Her hair – that of it which had stayed put – was piled in a bun on the top of her head, the escaped strands helping to soften the features of her unnaturally gaunt and pale face.
"You have not been idle during my absence, I notice," she commented, flicking her violet eyes in the direction of the cluster of police officers around Tarmeth's most recent victim, "there go our plans of hunting together."
"You haven't gone hungry," Tarmeth accused idly, noticing a trickle of blood on her lip, "You were as much distracted as I was … what was it this time, Caledra? Someone robbing a little old lady?"
"A drug dealer, if you must know." Caledra responded, cold anger flickering in her eyes at the memory of it, "Approaching youngsters near the school."
Tarmeth nodded – Caledra cared as much about people who targeted children as he did about murderers and rapists, having lost her brother to a drug overdose when she was still human.
"If you haven't stuffed yourself with that great, greasy lump," Caledra wrinkled her nose in disgust at the sight of the man Tarmeth had recently slaughtered, "We have a job to do."
Tarmeth held out his hand for the piece of parchment fluttering in his partner's bony hand and stared down casually at the curly, red letters scribed across it.
"Another one of your old order, I see," he remarked, recognising the name, "Wanted for siring too many vampires in a given territory and drawing suspicion from mortals. Do we kill this one, or capture him and take him to Mara'at?"
"Now you know better than that, Tarmeth," Caledra smiled wickedly, "When it comes to my old acquaintances, we take no prisoners."
Tarmeth shrugged, folded the parchment and tucked it safely within the folds of his cloak before glancing up at the dark sky. Good; the night was still young.
"Let's go." He suggested then, turning into a large, black wolf, he shot off into the dark, taking care to stay in the shadows so that no one would see him and be alarmed by the sight of a wolf in an English city. Silent as a spectre, he slipped through the backstreets, arriving quickly at his destination and concealing himself behind the dustbins.
An owl landed silently on the rooftop above him, bobbing her ghostly-white head as her eyes surveyed the scene below, gazing malevolently at the tall, dark building just ahead of them – from within which they could both hear muted voices and the ragged breathing of someone who's life was just about to ebb away. Their target, apparently, was changing another victim.
Tarmeth resisted the urge to growl, as vampire's had acute hearing and could tell the difference between a real animal and one of their kind in disguise, and pressed himself closer into the shadows as the door of the building opened, revealing a tall figure swathed in a dark cloak, concealing his features. Silently Tarmeth transformed back to his normal form and casually moved forward, seeming to materialise out of the shadows.
"Da'acrat," he said, his voice dark and commanding, "You have risked the breach of the vampire law of concealment by siring too many fledglings in a given area. As a Bounty Hunter of the Queen, it is my duty to carry out your sentence."
The vampire in the doorway stopped at the sound of his voice and turned, snarling, his eyes glowing an angry red in the dark of the night.
"You'll never take my by yourself, Bounty Hunter!" he snapped, "What business of yours is it how many fledglings I sire?"
"Rules are rules," Tarmeth said, unconcerned by this show of aggression, "I suppose you're aware that the sentence for this crime is annihilation?"
"Like I said," Da'acrat snarled, "You'll never take me alone!"
"He is not alone." The owl swooped down, changing back into Caledra just before its feathered feet touched the ground. The female vampire snapped her fingers, causing a crossbow to materialise in her hands just as Tarmeth drew his sword from the sheath on his back.
Da'acrat snarled again and leapt towards Tarmeth, the blade of his dagger glinting in the moonlight. Tarmeth dodged the attack with the Roman skill that had been drummed into him when he was still alive and brought his sword sweeping up, cruelly slashing through his enemy's shoulder.
Da'acrat howled in pain and brought the dagger down towards Tarmeth's chest, barely missing the Bounty Hunter's still-vulnerable heart before he rolled out of the way and struck the other vampire hard across the back with the flat of his blade. Da'acrat staggered, snarled, then recovered himself and charged at Caledra, the dagger raised high. The female vampire held her ground, her eyes fixed firmly on the enraged male. At the last possible second she bent her knees and launched herself high – unnaturally high – into the air, far above the reach of his weapon. Her feet landed on the top bar of a lamppost and she flipped back, let herself drop, then grabbed the bar with her slim hands. She swung with agile ease; effortlessly dodging the dagger as it was hurled in her direction, then, pressing her feet against the post, launched herself at speed into the air again. She tumbled gracefully to the ground and rolled to her feet, turning to face her quarry again as Tarmeth staved off another attack with a heavy blow from his sword.
Da'acrat turned, his fangs bared and his small eyes burning red with anger, raking out at Tarmeth with his claw-like nails. Tarmeth dodged and swung the sword again, almost decapitating the other vampire before he managed to duck out of the way. Da'acrat swiped again, again Tarmeth dodged it, this time managing to strike his opponent in the arm and draw a thin line of crimson in his pale flesh. The wound healed, but not before the sting of pain enraged Da'acrat further. With frightening speed he launched himself at Tarmeth, grabbed him by the shoulders and brought his fangs plunging towards the Bounty Hunter's throat.
Caught by surprise, Tarmeth tumbled to the ground with Da'acrat still clinging to him. Runnels of crimson ran down his arms where the other vampire's claws had dug into his shoulders, almost blinding him with the pain. Snarling, he grabbed Da'acrat's throat and pushed him back, forcing his fangs away from his neck, knowing all too well what the bite of a fellow vampire would do. The two grappled for what seemed like an age, rolling over and over, deadlocked, neither able to gain an advantage over the other. Blood was flowing freely; both vampires had their claws embedded in their opponents flesh and their combined, pain-induced rage only served to make the battle more vehement. They were both matched in strength, were equals in age – but there was one minor, yet vital difference … Da'acrat had fed most recently, he had just that little bit more energy – the little more energy he needed to gain the advantage and pin Tarmeth to the ground.
"You should have kept out of my business, Bounty Hunter!" he hissed, triumph gleaming in his eyes as he bent his face closer to Tarmeth's, his fangs brushing the delicate flesh of his exposed neck, "I told you that you couldn't take me alone!"
Tarmeth struggled, his eyes ablaze with anger and a hint of fear as the other vampire bent closer – closer – his fangs almost breaking the skin …
Then suddenly Da'acrat's head snapped up and he let out a long, loud howl of rage and pain – a second later he was gone; lost in a whirling cloud of dust that was whipped away into the darkness by the chill night winds.
"Only fools turn their backs on me," Caledra snarled, wrinkling her nose in disgust as some of the dust that had once been a vampire settled over her feet. She was still clutching her crossbow and the wooden bolt, which had saved Tarmeth's neck, lay on the ground, coated in dust and blood.
"You took your time," Tarmeth rose to his feet and brushed himself down before returning his sword to its sheath. Caledra shrugged.
"I was waiting for a clear shot – I could have shot a bolt straight through the both of you, of course, but what a waste of a perfectly good partner!" she grinned, showing perfect white teeth. Tarmeth returned the smile, picked up the bolt and began to wipe it clean with the corner of his cloak.
"Two villains and one of your old order," he remarked, his grin widening, "Tonight was not so boring after all!"
Caledra didn't respond, but the gleam in her eye left no doubt as to her feelings about the night's events. She leapt into the air again, turning into an owl mid-jump, and swooped away silently over the rooftops. Tarmeth watched her go, then turned towards the building from which Da'acrat had emerged. He lifted the crossbow bolt, aimed and hurled it hard and fast through the grimy window. Amidst the crash of breaking glass, he heard the agonized scream of Da'acrat's latest fledgling as the bolt struck her through the chest, destroying her even as her afterlife began.
The wail of sirens once again pierced the silence of the night – an unsuspecting neighbor had, no doubt, heard the sound of the skirmish and called the police – but they were too late. By the time the same officers who had discovered Tarmeth's last victim arrived at the scene, their torches casting shimmering beams of yellow light across the dark ground, all they found was a mess of broken glass, a pile of rapidly dissipating dust and what they took to be a large, grey dog melting away into the shadows.
Tarmeth, one time Roman soldier and Bounty Hunter to the Queen, had eluded capture again.
"Damn it!" Keitha cried angrily, just about resisting the urge to throw her torch down when she found the scene deserted with almost no signs of conflict at all, save for the broken glass. It was the same one, she knew it was – the same attacker whose work they had dealt with earlier, and by the looks of things they had only just missed them.
"The justice-dealer again?" Her partner came up beside her, casting the narrow beam of his torch along the ground, searching for clues, "I'll say this for him; he leaves his crime scenes tidy."
Keitha glared at him, "This isn't a joking matter! It' s a mass-murderer we're dealing with here, Aiden!"
Aiden shrugged and looked up as another member of the team emerged from the besieged building with a shout for attention; he was holding something in his hand. Aiden reached for it, but Keitha got there first, almost snatching it out of the hands of the officer who had discovered it. She stared at the long, pointed shaft of the crossbow bolt for a moment. Crossbow? Who used crossbows nowadays? And why wooden bolts – weren't they normally made of metal.
"Get this DNA tested," she ordered, handing it back, "Maybe we'll get a lead, this time."
"Not likely," Aiden sighed, "This guy never leaves any evidence – the only DNA we ever find is that of his victims, there's never any trace of him whatsoever.
"That's not the weapon he used earlier," Keitha said thoughtfully, "That left two parallel puncture marks in the victim's neck, severed the jugular vein. I've never seen anything like it."
"I have, when I worked Down Under," Aiden responded – Aiden had once worked as a nurse in Australia, "We used to get patients in with similar injuries from snake bites …"
"What are you suggesting?" Keitha demanded, "That this guy bites his victims to death? Those puncture wounds don't match the pattern of human teeth for a start, unless you're suggesting that a giant snake did this?"
She glowered angrily, her eyes narrowed to the thinnest of slits.
"Of course not," Aiden responded, waving his hands at her as if to fend off an attack, "Just saying what it reminds me of, that's all."
"I don't like being made a fool of," Keitha said, breathing heavily through her nose, "I've been chasing this guy for months and he always manages to slip past me! I've never failed to catch a criminal yet, and I'm not going to start now. Sooner or later he will slip up – and I'll be there to pounce on him when he does!"
She turned and stalked away, back to the waiting car, her hands clenched tensely, her face taught with stubborn determination.
"With his record, you'd better watch he doesn't pounce on you first," Aiden muttered, though quietly enough that Keitha couldn't hear him. All the same, he thought to himself as he also made his way back to the vehicle, he wouldn't like to be that guy once she caught him – Keitha's temper was almost as famous throughout the Met as her determination – and it was true; she had never failed before to catch a criminal. This villain, whoever he was, had damaged the young officer's pride and that was a very, very, dangerous thing to do.