Another day, another hunt.
Today, however, Adonai faced a challenge finding his target. For the past week, he’d tried to locate the vampire that terrorized Fraemead, but the people were so on edge they clammed up when asked about it. Made his job much more difficult.
For now, he loitered at the local tavern, seated alone at a corner table with a map of the seaside town spread in front of him. For all he knew, the undead creature discovered the hunter on its tail and disappeared.
Adonai would stay a while longer to make sure. Stay out of sight and keep an eye on things. If he couldn’t track the vampire soon, he’d rethink his approach.
Once the hunter had decided where to search next, he folded the map and stuffed it into his pocket. As he left the table, he thought he heard a rhythmic tapping somewhere nearby. He couldn’t pinpoint the source, though, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary, so he shrugged it off and continued out the front door.
The town was quiet for mid-afternoon. A few vendors wandered the main road as they attempted to sell their wares, but most of the townsfolk ignored them. It had rained earlier that morning, and now the sun shone brightly in a clear blue sky. The air felt hot and sticky, so no one wanted to be outside. They sought to finish their work as fast as possible so they could go home.
The heat itself didn’t bother Adonai, although the humidity did make him uncomfortable. While he could tolerate it most of the time, on days like this, he wished he had a jacket to ward off the moisture.
He stepped behind the tavern with plans to take a shortcut to his destination, but almost immediately, a terrible burning sensation shot through him. In the struggle that followed, it took a moment to realize what happened.
A rough group of men had thrown buckets of cold water at him and jumped him, forcing him to his knees and holding him down. The water soaked through his clothes and clung to his skin, and it left his entire body numb.
One of the ruffians had a particularly husky build that he took full advantage of to keep Adonai in place. Had it not been for him and the unwanted bath, the hunter could have broken loose.
He lifted his head to see one of the men, presumably the leader, approach him with a double-edged sword. Adonai attempted to move, but the tingling in his legs and arms made it difficult.
Though he did his best to mask his unease, his tone likely ratted him out. “The hell’s your problem?” he spat.
The man snickered. “Birds of fire are rare these days. A guy can collect a pretty penny for the head alone. Couldn’t let you get away, now, could we?”
“You’re delusional. The phoenix is just a myth.”
“Yeah? Story goes they sport fiery orange eyes to match their hair in their human form. I’d say you fit that description. And now that you’re watered down, you can’t fight back, can you? Or use your fire.”
Damn it. The guy did his research. Adonai could deny his fire magic all he wanted, but he couldn’t hide his eye or hair color.
As the leader raised his blade, the phoenix tried again to break free, but the burly man had a tight grip. If Adonai could just find a bit of slack -
His eyes snapped shut when he sensed the sword swing downward … but the peaceful blackness of death never came. Instead, he heard what sounded like a short scuffle.
When Adonai looked again, the leader lay in the grass, moaning in pain and clutching his stomach - and another person stood over him. The newcomer was awfully slender and didn’t look like anything special, but that head of silver hair sure stood out.
To his credit, the stranger sported an icy glare that could frighten the average street fighter. “Unless the man you hold hostage is a criminal,” he warned, “I suggest you let him go.”
Adonai paid little attention to the rest of the argument. The husky fellow’s grip loosened just a little bit, and now that some feeling had returned to his limbs, the hunter could break away. He took advantage of the other’s distraction and jerked free. His leg caught his captor by the ankles to knock him off balance.
After that, all hell broke loose. A few of the thugs went for the newcomer, while the rest came after Adonai. During the melee, the phoenix couldn’t help but notice the other man’s abnormal speed. Perhaps it was nothing; maybe it appeared the albino could move so fast because of the fight they found themselves in.
Regardless, it raised the hunter’s suspicions. While speed alone didn’t make this silver-haired stranger his target, it definitely caught his attention.
A moment later, Adonai heard a familiar animalistic growl. Having scared off the last of his attackers, he spun around to see the albino do the same. Only this time, the entire group scattered at the sight of white eyes and elongated fangs.
He wanted to vomit. The idea that a vampire had gotten him out of a tight spot didn’t sit well with him.
While the undead creature had his back to him, Adonai pulled a silver-bladed short sword from his belt. He didn’t give the stranger time to react before he pounced and pinned him on his back.
But before he could shove the blade through the vampire’s heart, the guy caught hold of it. Yet to his surprise, Adonai didn’t feel as much resistance as he expected. Just enough to keep the weapon at bay.
It caught him further off guard that the vampire didn’t try to fight back. Not really. In all his years of hunting, not once did his target refuse to put up a struggle. And something about the look in the other’s eyes seemed … odd.
The stranger appeared to relax a bit when he noticed Adonai’s hesitation to kill him. He kept his grip on the sword tight, though, as if to discourage another attack. “You’re a hunter, right?”
The phoenix didn’t answer.
The vampire took that as his cue to keep talking. “I know it’s your job to eliminate threats like me. So I won’t stop you. In fact, you’ll be doing me a favor. I only ask one thing first.”
Adonai’s suspicions rose again. The silver blade stayed level, but he tensed in preparation for a sneak attack. “What’s that?”
“I want to see my family one more time. I need to know if they’re all right. After that, you can have my head.”
The lack of emotion under those words made him pause again. A vampire was trying to bargain with him. He didn’t know what to think about that.
The stranger must have taken his silence as a refusal. He released his hold on the sword to pull his collar down and expose his chest. “May as well keep it clean.”
Before Adonai could process the situation, the vampire’s eyes suddenly flashed white again, and his fangs slid from his gums. Expecting an ambush, the hunter readied the short sword and aimed for the heart. But instead of attacking him … the other man shoved him away and sprinted in the opposite direction.
A little stunned, it took a second to realize he’d heard the stranger mutter to himself. Something to the effect of, “I won’t be blamed again.” Who knew what the hell that meant, but he couldn’t let the vampire out of his sight. If it killed someone, the consequences would be on him.
He took off after the silver-haired man. By now, much of the numbness from the water had faded, so he could keep up.
As he weaved between buildings, hot on the vampire’s trail, he noticed an increasingly strong coppery stench in the humid air. Blood. There was a fresh vampire kill somewhere. Too fresh, in fact. The one he just encountered couldn’t have done it.
There was another monster in town.
The stranger disappeared behind a storage building by the pier. Before Adonai could do the same, he heard a loud snap and a god-awful shriek. He recognized that sound as a dying vampire.
Sure enough, by the time he rounded the corner and had the two creatures in view, the silver-haired one stood over the other. The second had clearly suffered a violently broken neck.
Adonai had a hunch his expression ratted out his confusion. Today was full of firsts for him. Besides a vampire who willingly agreed to be killed, the same one just took out one of its own.
This guy went against everything he knew about these monsters.
“If it’s all right with you, I’ll dump this waste of space and get him out of your hair.”
His attention veered back to the situation at hand when the other spoke. Unsure how to respond, the phoenix simply nodded. He watched as the vampire dragged the dead one to the water’s edge and shoved it off the dock.
The stranger stood in silence for a moment to watch the body sink out of sight before he turned back to the hunter. Though he didn’t say anything, Adonai could tell he wanted to get his own execution over with. It would be easy enough to accomplish, and a fireball engulfed his hand on a reflex.
Glancing at the flames, the vampire closed his eyes and stepped back to balance on the pier’s edge. “Make it quick.”
Adonai hesitated yet again at that deadpan tone. On any other job, he would have wrapped it up by now and disposed of the evidence. So why the hell couldn’t he do it this time?
Finally, he sighed and let the fire die. He knew what bothered him, but he didn’t want to acknowledge it.
Disgruntled, he at last spoke up. “All right, look. You want to find your family, go ahead. But I’m keeping my eye on you. Step outta line, and I’ll end you.
A look of transparent shock flashed across the other man’s face. No surprise. Adonai was flummoxed himself to hear those words leave his mouth. But that cursed thing humans called a conscience would eat at him if he killed the guy where he stood - monster or not.
Neither of them really had time to ponder it. A child’s shriek from farther down the pier caught their attention, and the stranger took off in that direction. Adonai followed close behind, hoping he wouldn’t have to off this guy in front of kids.
To his surprise, the vampire stopped when he reached the children and made no move to hurt any of them. Rather, he stood at the edge of the dock and peered into the rippling water. “What happened?”
The boy pointed toward the disturbance on the lake’s surface and yelled frantically, “My sissy! She can’t swim!”
By the time Adonai caught up, the other man had already dived into the water. The hunter still had a hand on his weapon, but he couldn’t follow into the lake. He’d have to wait this one out.
It felt like an eternity passed, but it couldn’t have been more than a few seconds before the vampire surfaced with the little girl. Soon as she could get air, she coughed hard and could barely hang onto the silver-haired man. He helped her back onto the dock and sat with her while she caught her breath.
Adonai continued to hang back and watch, both confused and curious. The vampire’s self-defacing demeanor could have been a front, but this kind of behavior wasn’t easily faked. He’d been around long enough to realize that much.
The girl’s brother eventually approached the stranger and thanked him for saving his sister. Adonai also heard something about his mother owning the inn down the road and offering the guy a place to dry off and stay for the night.
The vampire offered what looked to be a warm - if somewhat weary - smile. “I appreciate that, but why don’t you make sure it’s okay with your mom before I intrude? I’ll watch your sister if you like.”
“Okay!” The boy disappeared between the buildings in the direction of the inn.
Adonai watched in silence in the moments that followed. His hand rested on the hilt of his blade, ready to react if the undead creature showed any intention to attack the child. But the guy simply sat next to her and muttered reassurances. She gradually began to calm and soon turned her attention to wringing out her skirts.
More than once, too, the phoenix caught a sideways glance from the other man. The silver-haired stranger was on edge for his own reasons, and Adonai could guess he would behave as long as he was being watched.
A short while later, the boy reappeared. Clearly, he ran the entire way. His breath came in quick pants as he tried to spit out his words. “Mama’s … more than happy to … give you a room … for the night.”
The vampire didn’t respond verbally. Instead, he stood and motioned for the girl to do the same. By now, the adrenaline had worn off, and she could walk without trouble. She took the stranger’s hand and walked alongside him and her brother down the street.
Adonai hovered a few paces behind.
* * * * *
“Lukiel, would you mind watching Johnny and Alli a little longer? I need to visit the shops before they close.”
The vampire somehow managed an answer as he juggled the two kids who climbed on him. “I’d be - oof! - more than happy to, ma’am.”
Alli squealed in delight. “Yay! Luki’s gonna stay with us!”
Adonai quietly watched the goings-on from where he sat on the sofa. The thought flashed through his mind how, if the woman knew what the silver-haired stranger was, she wouldn’t be so quick to leave her kids with him. Humans trusted too easily.
After Mrs. Lendon left, the hunter slipped a hand down to the hilt of his blade. The vampire clearly saw it, even if he pretended otherwise. He said nothing, but a palpable tension hung in the air as he continued to play with the children.
Good. He wouldn’t try anything while the mother was gone.
Adonai kept his focus on the vampire, but after a while, his thoughts strayed to the predicament he found himself in. He’d agreed to let this albino find his family, but that meant he had to follow the man wherever he went - and for however long it took.
Now that he considered it, he didn’t know how viable this arrangement would be.
Besides his own doubt as to whether he could put up with Lukiel that long, the phoenix knew the Guild wouldn’t be happy if they caught wind of this. Vampires were to be killed on sight. No exceptions. He could only imagine how the news would be received.
His thoughts snapped back to the present when he heard a shriek. He almost withdrew his sword - but he quickly put it away when he realized the source of the commotion. Little Alli had broken down into a sobbing fit.
The vampire kneeled in front of her and took hold of her hands. “Hey. Alli, what’s wrong?”
Her words could almost be made out around her crying. “I lost Daddy’s necklace! He gave me it before he went away! I gotta find it!”
Lukiel bit his lip, and his gaze strayed to the phoenix. A moment later, he stood up and took the girl’s hand. “Don’t worry, we’ll find it. We’ll start looking at the pier, okay?”
The little girl nodded and dried her face with her free hand.
The vampire then glanced back at Adonai. “Maybe what’s-his-nuts can help us.”
That raised the hunter’s hackles. Had the children not been around, he’d have had some choice words for the other man. Instead, he stifled his agitation and rose to his feet, hand still resting on his weapon’s hilt. “Watch yourself,” was all he said to Lukiel.
If Adonai didn’t know better, he could swear he saw a smirk on the albino’s face.
When they reached the docks, he didn’t actually look for the locket. He didn’t want to let his attention wander from the vampire, so he watched the group as they searched. If the others noticed, they gave no indication. The kids wandered along the planks, while Lukiel scanned the water’s surface.
After a while, Alli lifted her gaze and yelled, “I found it! It’s on a nail!”
Lukiel and Johnny joined her at an area of the pier where the wood wasn’t in the best shape. Alli pointed at the space between the boards, and the vampire leaned over to peek between the rotting slats of wood.
Johnny sat down and tried to fit his small hand through the space, but it didn’t quite work. “How are we gonna reach it?”
Lukiel straightened up to glance around them. Pretty soon, his gaze landed on a fishing pole someone had left nearby. The pole itself was broken, but the line and hook could still be used.
“Wait here a second, guys.” The vampire left the kids to grab the pole, and he bit through the catgut to separate it from the line and hook. When he came back, he stretched out onto his stomach to lower the hook between the planks.
The kids watched with interest as Lukiel carefully “fished” for the locket. It took a few minutes, but he eventually pulled the line back up. Alli let out a happy laugh when she saw the chain looped over the hook.
The vampire sat up and carefully pulled the locket free. Alli had trouble sitting still in her excitement, so he had to signal her to plant her feet before he could latch the chain around her neck.
She took it between her fingers and looked it over, as if searching for any damage. She apparently saw none, and a huge grin spread across her face. “Thank you!”
Lukiel returned the smile and reached out to muss her hair a bit as he stood. “No problem, kiddo. Let’s get you guys home, huh?”
Adonai had watched all this without a word, but he nearly reacted when the little girl spun her attention around to him.
“Come on, Mr. Nuts!” she called, her voice loud and cheery.
Again, the vampire didn’t bother to hide his smirk. And this time, an amused snort escaped before he could bite it back.
The phoenix barely held his tongue. For now, he settled on a scowl.The walk to the house passed with little excitement - until a blood-curdling scream echoed through the streets.