Lex was hungry, tired, and impatient.
The young woman waited, perched on a thick oak branch as the pearly lavender of dusk touched the sky. The first sliver of the moon became the only source of light as the sun finally sank far below the horizon. Her eyes trained on the dirt road beneath her, listening to the nightlife slowly begin to wake, trying to pick up any minute noise that would signal that they were coming.
Grayson alerted her a few days prior that the river base had been taken by the vampires, men slaughtered and their bodies strung along the trees, necks ripped open so their blood ran into the water. Women and children and men no older than sixteen summers old were left alive; Lex’s lip curled in disgust at the thought of her people being sold away at auctions as slaves, or worse - breeders. How they had been found out she hadn’t a clue, but she hoped that it was the last base they found for a while. Their numbers were small enough already, and the hunters couldn’t have the risk of losing more people.
The path beneath her hideout led straight to Cavastia, the vampire capital, where she was sure the vampires were to take their fresh bounty, the dirt worn with footprints and horseshoes from prior merchants. It was still early enough in the night for her to be comfortable in knowing they hadn’t passed her yet. She received a bird from Grayson earlier letting her know their location was still en route to Cavastia as planned.
Lex knew he was furious with her for going alone, but in her defense he was a fool to think he could casually bring it up and expect her not to act. Where he wrote with a barely legible scrawl, the words were deeply etched from furious pressure. Alaric was supposed to be the one leading the raid and if she could get her hands on him, it would be the first step to the vampire’s downfall. Lex’s fingers twitched impatiently, her stomach emitting a soft rumble. The sound caused her to stiffen and her mind wandered back to the river base massacre.
Along with the people they captured, the vampires had to have taken the rations. Leaving food and supplies out in the woods were only aiding the vampires if the hunters couldn’t get their hands on the resources. I will just take some of the food once I release the others. Just enough to get me through a few days, she decided. Lex wouldn’t be able to bring herself to take more than three days’ worth of preserves. Among the humans captured were the women and children—Lex would be damned if they starved because she decided to be greedy. She knew where to go to steal food, and she didn’t want them having to stop on their way back to the main base, potentially getting themselves killed in the process.
The temperature continued to drop as it darkened, and with each shaky breath, Lex watched small clouds of air swirl up from her scarf that covered half of her face. Pretty soon it would be difficult to find hiding spots in the trees with the leaves falling so constantly. Winter was always rough.
Through the branches, Lex watched the moon climb the sky for hours until it reached its apex. Crouching in the tree put a strain on her tendons, so to keep her limbs from falling asleep she made sure to carefully adjust her weight back and forth. Vampires live forever anyway - they couldn’t care how long they take, she thought, grinding her teeth. Selfish.
Around her fifth weight shift Lex felt the air change slightly, and her ears strained as she heard the first sounds. There were soft clops from hooves, and she heard the creak of the wood from the wagon. The huntress stilled, pressing herself against the trunk of the oak, her breath caught in her throat as her eyes drank in her victims.
There were five of them so far that she could see. Two short men rode dark bay geldings, leading the party. In the center of the group was the caravan wagon, pulled by two horses and a large cloth covering the back, presumably where the supplies and the hostages were held. Lex strained to hear any movement from the wagon, and was concerned to not find any. Bound and gagged, probably, she thought. Behind the caravan were two more vampires, riding two black warhorses.
So they brought two guards and then three soldiers, she thought, eyeing the driver who was busy slurping down a flask. She caught a glimpse of crimson on the man’s lips, his pale tongue swiping at it. Lex’s hand hovered over her shoulder, reaching for one of the dual swords she carried strapped to her back. She forced herself to control her breathing, feeling her stomach twist at the red. After all the years hunting, she still hated the color. All the men wore thick black cloaks with its clasp on their shoulders glinting the royal seal in the moonlight. It made it as though the shadows crept into their stature, impossible to tell what was flesh or void.
The two soldiers in the back of the group spoke quietly, and she noticed the guards boredly scanning the trees. After they made their way a little further ahead, she released a slow breath, the cold air stinging her lungs. She stilled again when she heard another set of hooves. She tilted her head a fraction, her breath caught in her throat and her eyes widened as they landed on the man bringing up the rear. The sixth.
Everyone knew the name, and it consequently left a pit of dread in the listener’s gut. If you didn’t know the crowned prince’s name you were either incredibly blessed or severely ignorant. Most taught about King Maliov’s rampage to power, but it was the his son that helped him keep the crown and enforce all of the new laws when they took over.
Alaric was rumored to be as ruthless as his father.
The prince looked deadly in the night, his dark clothing blending in with the shadows that surrounded him. His hair was grown out of its cropped military cut, now framing his face in shaggy locks. It made it hard for Lex to see the expression he wore, especially when his head was tilted down. The shadows created a harsh marble-esque sculpt of his face, his scowl etched deep into his cheeks. After being promoted to Head of Military, he didn’t have to follow the codes anymore. Now he made them for his soldiers.
That had been moons ago though, Lex remembered, the memory of the hawk swooping to drop a letter in Grayson’s hands. Grayson had looked at her with concern, the wax seal of the royal tiger snarling red at them. Carefully, it had been unraveled. The royal decree had been distributed throughout the country and the hawk had managed to snag one to bring back to the hunters. Alaric’s promotion had been a major blow to the Resistance and shortly thereafter, the scattered bases suffered raids, leaving no human behind. The trees were set ablaze which forced the hunters underground, literally.
Alaric now held himself much like a prince would with his back stick-straight and his eyes dead as he stared ahead, chips trained on the wagon. The horse he rode was as dark as his cloak, and unlike the soldiers, he wore the clasp of the royal emblem over his heart instead of in the middle of his chest. The moonlight caught it and the tiger flashed menacingly. The black stallion passed her tree, the prince oblivious to Lex hiding in the branches. Her fingertips trembled as he turned his head slightly towards her, tilting it to listen. His horse huffed once, a mist of breath clouding around the two.The pause was short lived and he moved on.
The huntress hitched her breath and a few minutes later she could barely hear the horses or the wagon’s creak. Lex counted slowly to 100 after the initial silence before she moved. Her muscles screamed in protest as she languidly climbed down from the branches, her feet finding footholds in the bark of the tree. Oaks were predictable. Quietly, she rolled into the landing, staying crouched down before straightening up. Her muscles were stiff but she couldn’t afford to act like it.
Her hair was pulled back fiercely from her face, tied into a ponytail with a leather cord. Only a few strands of baby hair framed her face. It curled slightly at the nape of her neck, and the rest swung back and forth from the landing, the auburn ringlets catching in the leaves. Sticking to the side of the dirt path, she tried to figure out how to best dismantle the group. She couldn’t attack from behind because she didn’t want to draw the attention of Alaric so quickly - if she didn’t do any damage before he saw her, it would all be over and she wouldn’t stand a chance.
I guess that’s settled then. I have to loop around to the front, she decided, grimly. It was risky; she would have to pass the entire party again without being detected by them. Feeling a new determination take root inside of her, she ducked into the woods off of the path. Lex quickly maneuvered through the brush trying to not make too much noise, attempting to find a shortcut where she could intercept them. With ease, she kept to the shadows and followed the familiar path that she hunted on many times before. If anything, she was lucky that the vampires decided to take this route back to Cavastia.
The cold nipped at her fingers and when she stopped her trek, the air was burning her lungs. Thankfully, they weren’t moving too fast. She crouched briefly, her fingers finding the metal hilt of a knife strapped against her thigh. The leather cord she wrapped around her ankles was tight enough to ensure any weapons she hid there wouldn’t be in her way, and high up enough for her to be able to run and not slice open any skin. The vampires were like sharks when it came to blood--any open wound and their sense of smell heightens. If there wasn’t a wound, their senses are dulled down. She held the blade, peering through the leaves of a thick shrub that grew near the path. Lex flipped the knife, turning it over so that the metal became warm in her palm.
Her ears strained until she heard the familiar creak of the wagon again. Adrenaline pumped through her and she watched the two guards approach her, riding quietly and staring ahead with no emotion. Lex grunted softly as she pulled out the second knife that was strapped to her right leg, holding one in each hand.
When the guards were about two feet in front of where she stood, Lex rose swiftly and with deadly precision threw one knife, and then the other. They both whistled through the air and only seconds after the first one sank into the closest guard’s back, the second knife embedded itself into the thick neck of the second guard, blood spraying out of the wound.
Lex crouched again, and from her left leg she pulled out another throwing knife. She pivoted her right foot into the ground, digging deep into the dirt before throwing the blade at the wagon driver. The geldings reared back as their riders fell, one decapitated and the other hanging limply from the saddle like a marionette whose strings were snipped. The other two soldiers were already moving for her, so her victory was short-lived. With satisfaction, she watched as the flask of blood fell from the driver’s hands and spilled onto the dirt path, the red turning a sickly purple in the moonlight.
Lex reached over her shoulders and withdrew her dual swords, the dark metal glinting as she adjusted her grip. The two soldiers galloped towards her and fury ignited their eyes when they flashed silver. She ducked and rolled, avoiding the hooves of the stallions that charged at her. Dust flew up as she was barely missed.
A soldier jumped off of the back of the horse, bending his knees when he hit the ground. He was handsome and dark, his features sharp as the moonlight created stark shadows against his sculpted face. All vampires were handsome. That’s how they lure you in. Too perfect, too inhuman for comfort.
The man’s lip drew back over his teeth, baring his fangs at the woman.
“Rebels,” the man hissed, his eyes finding the swirling emblem engraved into the base of her swords. Lex smirked, unable to help herself. Let them get distracted, it’ll make them easier targets, she thought. The easier the kill, the faster she could get out of there.
Alaric observed the fight, not moving from his mount.
Movement came from inside of the wagon, the humans hearing the first clash of metal upon metal and knowing that their opportunity to escape would present itself. Lex prayed they used this distraction to their benefit. She didn’t know if she would be able to get close enough to them to get a few of their bindings undone.
Her heart raced as the vampire lunged for her again, the second clang rang through the still air. Lex ducked and dodged easily, avoiding the sword’s tip narrowly with each lunge. Fury danced in the soldier’s eyes as the other members of the party sprang into action. Lex’s blade sliced into the man’s thigh, cutting through the layers of muscle, skin falling in ribbons from the wound. He cried out and dropped to one knee. Just as Lex felt a gust of air from a narrowly missed blow, her own sword drove into the soldier’s chest.
One-handedly, she deflected. The impact from the opposer’s weapon sent her wrist bending in an odd angle and she yelped, releasing her blade. The weapon fell into the dirt, sending a puff of it into the air with an unceremonious thud.
The joint pulsated, and she scrambled to scoop her weapon up from the ground with her other hand.
She dove, accidentally crashing into a leg, her face throbbing from the impact. A boot covered the hilt, pressing it into the path so it created an indent, the toe close to her face as she looked up at the vampire.
“Not so fast,” Alaric rumbled, his voice deep and ringing.
Hazel irises gleamed down at her.
She hadn’t seen him dismount, but she should have figured it would happen soon. There was a pause and Lex feared she would be beaten. This never happens, what am I doing? She thought, eyes widening. The man loomed over her, looking down his nose.
Looks like the cat caught the mouse.
“What base are you from, little one?” the prince asked, as Lex rolled onto her butt frantically scooting away. Her hands roamed her pockets, searching for any other weapon she had hidden in her outfit. She cursed quietly, glaring.
“I don’t have one,” she said dignifiedly. There was one soldier left and he stood slightly behind the prince. His mouth curled into a sneer over his sharpened teeth.
“Scum, I say. Let me have her, I’ll show that rat its place,” the soldier snarled, spittle flying from his lips. Lex steadied herself, the vampires giving her a few feet of space to do so. One of Alaric’s hands hovered over the silver hilt, but otherwise made no move to withdraw it.
Alaric watched her curiously.
“No, don’t bother. I want her.”
Lex glanced away for a split moment breaking eye contact with Alaric, but it was enough to encourage action. One of the dual blades stuck up into the air like a monument from the dead vampire’s torso. It’ll be hard to pull from the flesh, she thought, but felt a flicker of hope in her chest when her hands wrapped around the hilt. Her wrist screamed in protest, but she pulled the dislocated joint anyway along with the sword.
Alaric’s hands wrapped itself into her hair and Lex screeched inhumanly. Foul play! she thought, swinging her blade, the metal biting into the prince’s side. In one second, she went from being forced to stare into the sky to her face being ground into the dirt.
“Enough games.” His voice sent chills down her spine, pooling in the lowest pit of her groin, the timbre low and threatening. “What base are you from? You wear their sigil.” Alaric motioned to the blade in her hand. He forced her into the ground, easily holding her down with one arm as his foot stepped onto her bad wrist.
She hissed, Lex squirming as he settled into his weight. “It takes a bit of time for a sigil to be engraved into one blade, much less two. What. Base?” Alaric pressed.
“I don’t have one,” she gasped again, her brow furrowing in anger. “I travel alone. I pick up information when I come across a party, but that’s it,” she lied. The first part was true. She had too many responsibilities to be cooped up with a base, but she had connections. They relayed information when she asked them to, and that’s how she stayed ahead of the vampires.
Alaric tsked his tongue sharply.
“I don’t believe you. Jael, grab her.”
Lex heard the eerily quiet footsteps of the soldier circle around her, and she felt another hand replace Alaric’s, wrapping her ponytail around his palm. She felt as if she was being scruffed like an animal. When Alaric lifted his boot from her wrist she could already see the bruises forming. Numb down to her fingers, she tried to tighten her muscles in her hands directing the blade behind her.
Please work! she thought and heard the metal slice through the air and hit flesh. The soldier cried out and she winced as some of her hair fell to the ground with the amputated hand. She had but a moment of freedom before she felt a hand wrap around her throat.
Gagging, she choked as she was lifted up into the air.
“Clever. Annoying, but clever,” Alaric grit, and Lex’s eyes bulged slightly as he squeezed. “What were you trying to accomplish? A failed assassination? The rebels really have been declining in their skilled warriors,” he chuckled, tilting his head to the side. A dark shadow passed over his face and he grinned madly.
Whimpers from the soldier were growing louder and Alaric’s head snapped toward Jael. “For fuck’s sake, shut up. It was only your hand,” he snarled, fear coiling in the huntress’s stomach when his face morphed from human to vampire in his fury. His skin paled, nearly translucent as his veins darkened and stood stark against his pallor. Alaric’s fangs lengthened to about an inch and a half, and the ends were so thin and sharp that they reflected silver in the moonlight. His bottom teeth grew, digging into his upper lip and slicing into the skin. Death couldn’t compare to him.
Lex’s eyes couldn’t help but flicker over to the wagon. They unconsciously circled around so that the prisoners on the inside could see everything that was happening. Alaric’s grip loosened slightly as he turned his attention back onto Lex. Several pairs of eyes watched the three of them, all filled with fear.
“Oh, this is precious,” Alaric drawled, his head turning between Lex and the wagon of humans. “You were hoping to free them?” he asked, patronizingly. He studied her for a moment watching as her face turned red from lack of oxygen, and his fingers loosened a fraction. The huntress felt his grip lighten up and she sucked in a shaky breath. Her vision blurred and she blinked frantically trying to keep her consciousness. She saw a flicker of something dark behind his eyes, whether it was pleasure or guilt, she didn’t know.
Time stopped and Lex felt her knees hit the ground, pain shooting up her thighs. She coughed, her hands wrapping around her tender throat.
“Lex,” Alaric repeated slowly, her name rolling off his tongue. He grabbed one of her wrists, twisting her arm behind her back, hoisting her into a position so she was forced to look up. The little voice that spoke she would’ve been able to recognize anywhere.
“Which one of you knows her?” he called out to the wagon, the bound humans looking around fearfully. Jael’s pathetic whimpering stopped, and he cradled his arm against his chest in attempts to stop the bleeding. He was more curious now than before it seemed.
Don’t say anything Leo, don’t say anything, Lex prayed. Silence ensued from the wagon, before the same young voice piped up.
“I know her.”
A few of the older women in the group tried to shush him, then murmured in concerned whispers. “Quiet,” Jael snapped at them.
Lex’s eyes found the blonde boy, his dark eyes wide but determined. His chest was puffed out, defiantly tilting his chin up so he could glare at Alaric. In comparison, he was a mere speck. His mother shushed him and pushed him behind her. Lex hadn’t had too many conversations with Meghan, but she had always shown her hospitality in return for her services and for that, Lex would always be grateful. Leo peeked around his mother’s side trying to move towards Lex, but after being held tight gave up, instead pressing himself into Meghan.
Alaric pulled Lex up to her feet, dragging her towards the back of the wagon. She kicked her legs trying to hit him, or at least loosen his grip enough to get him to release her.
“Who said that?”
The vampire stopped, holding Lex flush against him. She could feel the tautness of each muscle against her back. At least my bony spine can’t be comfortable for him. When no one responded he tugged forcefully on her hair, her eyes watering. She cried out, the pain sharp. “I need whoever said that to step forward, please,” Alaric insisted, his voice lowering in threat. The added ‘please’ was a joke in her eyes.
“Don’t,” Lex rasped, but Leo managed to push through his mother’s arms, finding a new energy.
“No!” Meghan cried reaching out for him, but Jael grabbed her by the arm pulling her away from Leo as the boy scrambled forward. “Leo, no, he’s just a child--he doesn’t know anything!” she pleaded. Lex felt her stomach twist painfully.
How foolish, she cursed, lamenting over her swords.
“Who is she?” Alaric asked, his voice surprisingly kinder. Leo glanced from Lex to the vampire and he shifted uncomfortably. Lex could barely hear the prince because her heart was pounding so loudly, muffling the outside conversation.
“That’s Lex,” Leo mumbled, uncertainly. Lex tried to shake her head at the boy, but she knew he didn’t know better. He is just going to make this worse, she realized.
“What base is she from? Leo, is it?” Alaric asked. Jael maneuvered his way around to Lex, grabbing her by the arm and the hair as Alaric stepped forward to crouch down in front of Leo. Meghan was forgotten about as she watched in horror as the vampire was within a lunging distance of her son’s throat. One snap from that powerful jaw and it was over. The huntress struggled as she was transferred to the soldier, lashing against him to no avail.
“She doesn’t have a base,” Leo stated, trying to stand a little taller despite the tremor in his voice.
“Do you know where she’s from? Which base she frequents the most?” Alaric inquired, tilting his head slightly as he got closer to Leo.
“Central,” Leo answered automatically.
“Do you know how to get there?”
“Don’t tell him, Leo, don’t say anything!” Lex cried out, pulling against Jael’s grip. His only hand fisted in her hair, and his other arm wrapped around her torso, not budging. Hesitantly Leo took a step back, terror flashing in his eyes as he realized what he said.
“N-no,” Leo lied.
“I don’t like liars, Leo. You know your mother and your friend Lex are doing very illegal things?” Alaric said. Leo shook his head, as if shaking away the comment, not uttering a word. When the boy didn’t speak again Alaric sighed softly, and there was a flicker of disappointment in his face as his brow furrowed. “It seems no one has anything else to say. Useless.”
The prince turned, his cloak flowing behind him as he did so, and replaced Jael’s grip against Lex, who had been struggling unsuccessfully.
Even though she slaughtered just about his whole party, Lex was still going to lose all of those humans. All of my people. Frustrated, she pulled against him, her fists balling up and trying to aim for weak spots.
He doesn’t have any! She thought desperately when her hits weren’t making any impact.
“Don’t, don’t kill them!” she pleaded, her voice hysterical as it rose several octaves.
“Why?” Alaric asked, his eyebrow raising. “What have you to offer me in return for not killing them? What could you possibly do?” he pressed. Lex’s eyes met with Meghan who had tears streaming down her face. A moment of understanding passed between them, and Lex forced herself to steady her gaze as she turned back to Alaric.
“I can give you information,” she said slowly and there was a riot as a few of the females in the wagon spoke up against it. She flinched as the word traitor was thrown around. “Release them and I will tell you what I know,” she encouraged before she could change her mind. Alaric paused, debating.
In the background, Meghan had been slowly moving amongst the captured, untying bonds. “Why would I take your offer?” Alaric inquired. “You have nothing over me.” The last sentence came out as a sarcastic bark.
“I have more than you think,” Lex insisted. Her heart raced and she tried to keep his attention on her. “I know strategies, plans, locations,” she revealed and wished she could bite her tongue in half. The more she spoke the more she was getting herself into, but it was her only chance.
“Tell me more,” Alaric insisted, sparks lighting up in his gaze. The corners of his mouth played into a satisfied smile as a look of realization passed over him. “Why should I believe you?” he asked. Lex stole a glance behind him, and she noticed that the fifteen people were untied. Meghan didn’t spare her another look, and she let out a wistful sigh as Leo watched her, terrified for his friend. His mother grabbed his arm and pulled him away from the scene, silent tears streaming down his face as he gave her one last look before turning to run along with the others.
Me too, buddy. Stay safe.
“Alaric,” Jael gasped, and Alaric’s head snapped behind him before slowly turning back to Lex. His hand came up around her neck again and he squeezed tightly.
“Why, you little bitch,” he snarled, and the vampire’s eyes became a luminescent silver. “You’ve lost me my bounty.”
Lex didn’t have enough air to respond and as dots began to cloud her vision, she heard the words echo around her, “You are under arrest by the decree of Alaric Silver, Crown Prince of Vampires.”