The trees were bare, their leaves long gone and snow on the ground would make hiding his tracks almost impossible. He should turn back. There was every chance a blizzard could set in, the weather report had said as much, not that the cold would have any effect on his body. For Gabriel every day was like a winter’s morning, cold and dark. For years he had felt nothing and how could he? He was dead.
Taking shelter behind the only thing he could find, a decaying wooden fence that had seen better days, Gabriel knelt down and took one last look at the house. Navy awnings extended out from the windows like giant eyelashes and a curling trail of smoke rose up from the chimney. A garden of sunflowers reached up toward a sun they couldn’t see, and a cobblestone path wound around to the back door. There was a horse-yard with stables, a bird feeder that looked handmade and a pink hammock, its fringe so low that snow had dampened the tassels.
He tore his eyes away from the house and cursed at the slush seeping into his pants. He was stalling, but if there were more of them inside then bursting into the old farmhouse could be a very bad idea. On the other hand, if he didn’t have the courage to carry out his plan then what the hell was he doing out here in the first place?
Inside the farmhouse a shadow moved across the window. It was in there.
Knowing he had already stalled for too long, Gabriel got to his feet. As his fingers brushed the metal stake strapped to his belt, he nodded his head to no one in particular and stepped forward. He had come too far to turn back now.
Underfoot the snow crunched, icy and sharp, the determination of his steps echoing like gunshots across a battlefield. He tried to shake off the feeling that it was a bad omen, perhaps a sign to turn back, but he couldn’t do that. Not now.
He reached the veranda and stepped cautiously onto the old wooden boards. They creaked and moaned under his weight and Gabriel caught his breath. His mother’s porch had made the same sound once, the tired wood bowed and aching, but that was so long ago and so much had happened since then. He paused and rubbed at his forehead. He had not expected to feel conflicted about coming here, never figured himself to be a coward, but something just didn’t feel right. His brain should be racing, sharp and focused, but instead it felt like spiders had spun webs through the corners of his mind. Hating himself and his indecision, Gabriel ran a hand through his thick dark hair and tried to shake it off. If he wasn’t going to carry out his plan, then what was the point of any of this? If he wasn’t going to see it through, then what the hell was he even doing here? He shifted his weight from one foot to the other and glanced nervously back toward the forest. Shrouded in fog it was difficult to tell where the field ended and the tree-line began. How far had he travelled? How long would he be exposed if he chose to turn back?
Above him the evening sky poured across the horizon like wet cement, the weight of it pressing down as childhood memories crept in, taunting and teasing. It had been a long time since fear had found its place and yet now, when it mattered most, Gabriel was second guessing everything.
Somewhere in the distance a wolf’s lonely cry rang out, bringing him out of his thoughts. He was here for a reason, to make things right and that’s what he was going to do. No more stalling. He pushed the fear to the back of his mind and quieted the uneasy voices in his head. It was time.
Before he could change his mind, Gabriel took a deep breath, stepped back and kicked at the door as hard as he could. It crashed open and he immediately took a fighting stance, ready for the thing to run at him. But to his surprise everything in the house remained quiet and still. Nothing moved and all he could hear was the soft chatter of a television drifting in from somewhere toward the back of the house.
As he cautiously stepped inside, the entry foyer opened up to reveal an unexpectedly warm living room complete with a floral couch, mint-coloured arm chairs and wooden coffee table. Pale curtains gathered at the windows and he noticed a small figurine of a woman with a bird on her shoulder perched on a shelf. Confused, Gabriel slowly lowered his fists and looked around. Somewhere, someone was inside. He could sense it, smell it. He just couldn’t see them.
He took two steps forward and peered into the living room. The television was on. A coffee mug was on the table, a tiny fog of condensation gathered at its base. As Gabriel pondered what to do next, the sound of footsteps on the stairs caught his attention and he quickly spun around, blade at the ready. “Stop where you are! Do not move!”
The man on the stairs froze and stared at him with wild eyes. “It’s you…”
In the background chaotic sounds of deforestation cut through the silence. Scenes of falling trees flashed across the television screen and for a moment Gabriel became distracted. As he watched them fall, questions grew in his mind. Why had the occupant been watching that? Why would he even care?
“It’s you,” the man said again, pulling Gabriel’s eyes back toward him. “You’re real, you’re the strigoi Aurora saw in her vision. I… I can’t believe it.”
Gabriel quickly forgot about the trees and stared back at the man on the stairs. With sleepy eyes and smoky hair he looked more like a stoner than a vampire. And what was that word he had used, strigoi?
“Can you hear me?” The man was asking. “Are you alright?”
“You’re a vampire,” Gabriel managed, pushing aside his confusion. “I know what you are.”
But his words hung in the air, too heavy to be digested. Had he really just stood inside this country farmhouse with its over-stuffed cushions and matching curtains and uttered the word vampire? The room began to swim and he squeezed his eyes closed. This was not the time to succumb to the past, but the memory was already pushing its way in. Not now he thought, struggling against the familiar sense of dread. Not now. As the room began to change shape around him, Gabriel clenched his teeth. Above him the ceiling gave way to a clear night sky and he knew that any moment he would be back there, dirt on his boots and cold night air in his face. His arms slick with a mix of sweat and blood. The dead weight heavy in his arms.
“Did you hear me?” The man was asking. “If we can just talk… There have been no other strigoi for hundreds of years. I’m no threat to you I swear it. If we can just talk, work this all out…”
Gabriel silently screamed at himself. He had to pull himself together, there was too much at stake to fall apart now. “If you’re not a vampire then what are you?” He managed, pushing the memory to the back of his mind. “You can’t be human, I tracked you here. I used your scent.”
The man held out his arms in mock surrender. “I know you don’t understand any of this, but I’m a descendant and believe me, that’s nothing like a vampire or strigoi. I’m no threat to you.”
“You’re a descendant? Of what exactly?” Gabriel willed himself to stay focused, but the man’s innocent appearance was completely unnerving. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to go. He had expected the scene to play out like it did in the movies. He would bust down the door and the vampire would run at him fangs out and screaming bloody murder. He would stake the vampire and it would turn to dust. End of story. What the hell was going on here?
“I know what Aurora saw in her vision,” the man continued, daring to drop his arms. “But maybe it doesn’t have to happen like that. If you could just let me explain…”
For all his searching, Gabriel had never seen another vampire. He hadn’t caught a glimpse of the monster that attacked him all those years ago, because like a coward it had jumped him from behind. But as he stared at the thing in front of him he told himself it made sense a vampire would look just like a man, because so did he.
“Don’t think you can fool me,” he spat, angry the thing was trying to confuse him. “I don’t know what’s going on here, but either way I am going to rid the Earth of you.”
As Gabriel delivered the threat, he noticed the man’s foot tapping nervously. He noticed how the sound it made echoed out across the room like the tick of an old grandfather clock. He noticed that familiar cold feeling churning through his body, the one trying to tell him that something was wrong.
“You’re making a mistake,” the man tried again. “I’m not a strigoi, but I know why you’re here. If you can just wait until Aurora and the others get back…”
“The others?” The words struck Gabriel like an invisible fist. “There’s more of you?”
Despite the ill-feeling twisting in his gut he knew he had to act. The thing had mentioned this Aurora person as though she was the leader and now there were others as well. If he stood around waiting he would be outmatched and outnumbered. The risk was too high.
“We’re a family,” the man said. “Please, just put down the stake. This doesn’t have to play out the way she saw it.”
But Gabriel’s mind was reeling. Putting down the stake could be the biggest mistake he ever made. Then again, if he destroyed the thing and it wasn’t a vampire… The memory slithered through the darkest places of his mind. He couldn’t let that happen again. Not another innocent…
Determined to make the right choice, Gabriel scanned every corner of the room desperate to make sense of his surroundings. Bunches of freshly cut sunflowers smiled up from their vases and a warm fire crackled in the hearth. An over-sized dog bed was tucked up against the wall and a scented candle stood on the mantle. On the couch he saw throw cushions, a woollen blanket and a scattering of women’s magazines. None of it made any sense, but whoever Aurora was she had known he was coming, the man said as much. He had to be in the right place.
Outside the horses were restless. Something had them spooked and their hooves were pounding against the earth, the drum roll before an execution. Distracted, Gabriel lowered the stake and shook his head. Maybe he did have this all wrong. Maybe he should go back to the cabin and make a new plan. Maybe he should…
Shattering glass exploded across the room and instinctively Gabriel threw his hands up over his face. There was a rush of movement and he cracked open one eye just in time to see something running toward him. It was too fast to be more than a shape, but it was big. Before he could react, the thing bashed itself against him and he stumbled back. Sharp claws tore through his flesh and he cried out in pain. Lashing out wildly with the stake, Gabriel twisted and turned, trying to make contact but it was like fighting a ghost. The thing was fast, and it was fierce. Desperate to get the upper hand he grabbed for the wooden table searching for balance but was quickly overpowered. He fell to the floor and screamed as sharp teeth sank into his shoulder. And then he felt it, curling and twisting like a serpent in his chest. Heat seared through is body and his mind reeled. It had taken a long time for him to learn how to control it, to push it back down, but not this time. This time he needed the heat and the hate, he needed the sickening power the transformation brought him. His top lip peeled back and sharp incisors cut through the soft flesh of his gums. His eyes bled to black and guilt was overtaken by greed. It was the thing he hated most, the thing he had hidden from the world, but he needed the power it brought. Tightening his grip on the stake, he lashed out once, twice, and found his mark. He twisted the stake and felt the sensation of course hair against his arm. A wolf.
He leapt back to his feet but the animal rushed at him again and again, pushing him to the ground. Gabriel’s knuckles turned white as he battled to hold the animal’s snapping jaws away from his face. Long tentacles of saliva dripped onto his cheek, its hot breath an assault on his senses. He only had one chance. He curled up his legs and with all his strength kicked up against the soft skin of the wolf’s belly. His feet connected, and using his extraordinary strength, he swung to the side hurling the enormous wolf out across the room. The animal sailed through the air and crashed into a coffee table, the collision sending a vase of lilies smashing to the ground. Gabriel flipped back onto his feet, the monster inside silently dictating his every move. He started toward the wolf, determined to kill it, but the animal was already bounding back toward him. It leapt over a fallen chair and before he could get out of the way, Gabriel was hit hard in the chest. He fell back taking the animal with him and beneath its weight he twisted and turned trying once again to catapult it off him. The wooden floor scraped against his spine as he and the wolf locked eyes, both snarling, both in the fight of their lives. Then suddenly the wolf inexplicably fell still and silent. It stepped back, turned and left him lying on the ground.
Gabriel held his breath and waited before daring to open one eye. When he realised the wolf was gone and the attack was over, his body softened, his mind quieted and he rolled over onto his back. A long sigh escaped from his lips and he reached up to his mouth. With the threat gone, the incisors had retracted into his gums. He swallowed hard, closed his eyes and wondered if the queasy churn in his stomach was in fact a serpent, slipping back down into the depths, curling up the muddy pool of hate he kept inside. He patted himself down and found that although his body was covered in blood and pieces of broken glass, aside from a few scratches and missing skin he was still in one piece. He hoisted himself up onto one elbow and prepared to stand, until he caught sight of the wolf standing quietly on the other side of the room. It was staring down at the ground, its eyes focused on an object he could not see. Gabriel considered whether it was just reacting to its injuries. Maybe it was dying or about to collapse. Careful not to make any sudden movements, he steadied himself and followed the wolf’s gaze. And then he saw it. The man lying on his back, his hand pressed hopelessly against his neck as blood spiralled out like a scarlet ribbon. Beside him the wolf dropped down, its giant head coming to rest on the man’s chest. It had been protecting him and when Gabriel lashed out blindly with the stake, the man had rushed forward and tried to intervene. With a sickening twist of his stomach, Gabriel realised that in his transformed state and overcome with rage, he had never even seen him. It was not the wolf he had stabbed, but the man. Another casualty of the monster within.
As the wolf tucked its nose up under the man’s chin, guilt spilled over Gabriel’s heart like a stain. He told himself it was an accident, he had no choice, but the excuses felt all too familiar. The room began to spin and forgetting himself, Gabriel rubbed at his forehead. Sensing his movement, the wolf lifted its head and locked its gaze on him. Yellow eyes burned into his and Gabriel knew any effort to try and help the man would be futile. He also knew that any attempt to make it out to safety would end the same way. He had no choice but to lie there, still and silent and hating himself. Around him the air disappeared from the room and silence stung at his ears. Even the walls seemed to hold their breath as the urge to clutch at the neck of his shirt became overwhelming.
“I was trying to help you.” The man’s rasping voice broke the silence, catching Gabriel off guard. “It’s Aurora, she’s close. The wolf, he’s -”
Gabriel opened his mouth and looked over, ready to say something, anything that might make this right, but it was already too late. His mouth fell closed as the man’s lifeless eyes stared back, a mix of pain and confusion. He had made a mistake, that much he knew. Not because there was any proof the corpse on the floor belonged to a man and not a vampire, but because of the cold fingers that pried at his insides. He had felt them before, tugging and twisting, wrapping themselves around his heart and squeezing. It was not the first time Gabriel had looked at a dead body and known he was responsible. Worse still, he didn’t even know if it would be the last time. It was another sin he would have to carry, another debt to repay. As if reading his mind, the wolf lifted its head and growled. Its thick black gums curling back to reveal teeth that could tear skin from bone.
“Easy now,” Gabriel whispered, inching back across the floor. “Easy there…”
The wolf got to its feet and stepped slowly and carefully over the body, its eyes never leaving his. Wolves were smart, smarter than most people gave them credit for and this one knew exactly what had been taken from him. As it moved forward, its enormous foot crushed the head of fallen lily, the petals scattering like pieces of a broken heart. Desperate to find his weapon, Gabriel glanced around wildly. When he spotted the stake lying over by the window, he knew it would take a miracle to reach it in time, but he had to try. Knowing the moment he moved the wolf would strike, Gabriel summoned all of his strength and curled his body into a spring. As he dived toward the blade, immediately the wolf growled and leaped toward him.
At the sound of her voice, the animal stopped where it was and dropped obediently to the ground. Gabriel could tell from the sound of the woman’s footsteps that she was striding toward him. He braced himself, but she passed right by and crouched down beside the body, her back turned so he couldn’t see her face. As he looked over, he saw the flames of red hair that fell in loose tangles to her waist and the pale skin of her arms. He longed to take her in, to see her properly, but his body ached and his arms were bleeding. His nerves were fried and he hurt like hell. He just wanted to get the hell out of there and back to the cabin where he could sit down and figure out what had just happened. But before he could move, she stood up and turned toward him.
“Why did you kill him?” She hissed. “There was no need for you to take a life.”
Dressed in black jeans and a tight white singlet, the woman stared at Gabriel until he could feel the grip of her gaze like fingers around his throat. He had no idea how to describe the feeling that swept through him when he looked at her, but it was more than the flutter of his heart and stronger than a twist of his stomach. “I didn’t mean to… It was the wolf. I mean, I did, but…” Nothing was making sense, including him.
“Do you have any idea what you’ve done? What you’ve taken from me?”
An inked image of a wolf drew its way up along her right arm, and painted on her left shoulder he saw the dark rise and fall of a raven’s wing. Gabriel could only stare in wonder as her blue eyes melted into a bright fire that danced inside him.
“He was my brother, and an innocent. Why would you do this?”
Gabriel wanted to answer but it took a moment to find his voice. “I came here to destroy a vampire.”
It was a foolish response and he immediately cursed himself for sounding so stupid.
“You fool! Stefan is not a vampire.” At her feet the wolf growled but she immediately quieted it. “Ssh Aurel, you can go for now. I need no help to annihilate this fool.”
The wolf retreated and Gabriel wondered what kind of woman could control a wild animal, especially a wolf.
“You’re a strigoi,” she continued, her tone implying she needed no response. “But that cannot be, there are no strigoi left in this world.”
Gabriel had no idea of the difference between a vampire, a strigoi, a descendant, or whatever the hell she was talking about. All he knew was that she was having an effect on him and he had two choices, kill her or get as far away from her as possible. He glanced toward the door and wondered if he could make it out before the wolf tore him to pieces.
“Do you really think you can make it to the door before I kill you?” She hissed.
But before he could respond, five women chatting easily between themselves stepped in from the porch their arms full of grocery bags. As they came toward the kitchen, one looked up and saw him staring. She screamed and a bag of oranges spilled out across the floor like brightly coloured marbles.
“Stay there!” Aurora shouted at them. “Do not come in here.”
“But Stefan…” the woman cried, her eyes taking in the body on the floor. “Is he…?”
The math alone was enough to make Gabriel’s decision. It was five vampires and a wolf against him, just him, with no weapon. Not good odds in anyone’s book. He turned to the red-haired woman and stared her deep in the eye. “I’m leaving, but this isn’t over between us. I will be seeing you again.”
“You ignorant fool, you have no idea what you’ve done. We are not strigoi women, we are not the living dead. Can you not sense the warmth of my skin, or are you so blinded by yourself that you see nothing?”
“I can see exactly what’s going on,” he lied. “I know what you are.” He forced himself to sound strong, to appear confident, but inside he just felt sick.
“Fool! You did not even have the strength to defend yourself against my wolf, Aurel. How do you expect to take down a vampire should you ever find one? My brother was a descendant, an innocent.”
Gabriel glanced back toward the body. He willed it to move but knew the course had already been set. “Say what you like, but this isn’t over.”
“Oh, you’re right about that,” she told him. “I should kill you right now, but if you are what I think you are, it would be breaking the treaty.” She stepped back clearing a path toward the door. “Leave now hunter, but you are right about one thing. This is not over. It’s not even close to being over between you and I.”