Aaron was partly awakened by the sound of his tent’s zipper being opened, then thoroughly awakened by someone pulling his sleeping bag out into the dusk desert air. The sun was just setting and he’d been asleep for about an hour.
“Wake up, bloodbag,” said Marcy. “Night is falling and the Vamps are out.”
“Y’know,” said Aaron, begrudgingly rising to his feet, “I could handle this if it was the same time every night.”
“Can’t rely on a schedule. You have to be ready to fight any time anywhere. Now keep up your fists and stay light on your feet.”
For a week, Aaron had trained with the Hunters. After the incident in the sewer they drove in their RV out to the desert outside of LA. They set up tents, and they began teaching Aaron what he needed to know.
Marcy, the young black woman, had been teaching him to fight, both hand to hand and with weapons. Aaron proved surprisingly talented at shooting, so most of their time was spent practicing hand to hand combat. She was a fighter, Marcy, a hard-ass with real skill, who liked to make Aaron sweat. She was also drop-dead gorgeous with skin that glistened like obsidian in the sun, but that was another matter.
Overseeing all their sparring was Clive, a man of Irish birth, well over six feet in height with broad shoulders and a wide, strong, friendly face, topped by a mess of curly dark brown hair showing the first signs of gray. His hands were strong and gnarled, his stride was purposeful, and his smile was infectious. He was the leader of this band of Vampire Hunters. He remained calmly stoic as they fought, but at other times proved a friendlier, more jubilant counterpart to Marcy. You could tell he’d been doing this a long time. Aaron liked him.
Richie, the sickly looking “dhampir” with the Texan accent was significantly more distant with Aaron. He would avoid getting too close to him, and often avoid speaking to him altogether. His sickly disposition was visible in more than his appearance, which was ragged and anemic, his dark hair a rat’s nest, his posture poor, his stride weak and jerky. Several times a day he would take iron and calcium supplements. This was apparently due to his being a dhampir, the offspring of a human and a Vampire. This description most likely also applied to Aaron, though that was apparently the difference between the ostensibly human Strigoi and the monstrous and bloated Revenant breeds of Vampire.
Overall, they were an oddly quiet group. None of them spoke often, small talk was literally unheard of, and Aaron’s attempts to strike up conversations were dissuaded promptly. For all their intent to teach him how to fight the Vampires he now knew were real, they seemed intent on leaving him in the dark about their actual nature.
From his encounter in the sewer, Aaron had learned little about what Vampires, or Motetz Dam as they called themselves, were. Only enough to be frightened of them. He’d seen movies about vampires, but he had the feeling that those were less than reliable. And the Hunters had yet to tell him more. Aaron was unsure whether this was part of some standard initiatory process for new hunters, if they were all just normally quiet and secretive people, or if they felt they had reason not to trust him.
He could have left. He could have decided he was sick of their bullshit and he didn’t want to be a Vampire Hunter and that he would go back to his normal life. But that would mean ignoring his true nature for the rest of his life, the power that he had. It would mean living under the surveillance of a similar group of Vampire Hunters waiting for him to go Dracula. And it would mean living in fear that those same Vampires would come to recruit him again.
Aaron was a Strigoi Viu. A living vampire. By some quirk of birth and fate Aaron had been given extraordinary powers, and a curse. From the battle in the sewer he had seen that he could move objects with his mind, freeze things with a touch. He hadn’t used any such powers before or since then. But it also meant that, when he died, he would rise again as a Strigoi Mort, an undead vampire doomed to walk the earth feeding on the blood of the living. At which point vampire hunters not unlike his new friends would promptly kill him. Standard Vampire stuff. He tried not to think about it too much.
Instead he learned to fight from Marcy. Which usually consisted of her beating the crap out of him for an hour and berating him on what he was doing wrong. And looking good doing it.
As his cheek hit desert sand and his arm was twisted into a position he would have assumed was impossible, what really stuck out to Aaron was the feeling of Marcy’s breasts lightly grazing his back as she spoke loudly to him at a distance that would normally be reserved for a whisper.
“What did you do wrong there?” she asked.
“I’m gonna go with ‘survived infancy.’”
She twisted his arm an inch more. “You’ve made that joke already.”
“Gimme a break, I’m sleep deprived. I sacrificed my footing because I fell for your fake out and went for the right hook. Happy?”
She released his arm and got up, allowing Aaron to stand and shake out the arm that had been twisted within an inch of dislocation.
“You can hit a beer can you’ve drunk from thirty meters with a revolver,” Marcy said, “but you can’t land a punch within three feet of your target. I just don’t get it.”
“Yeah, well––you don’t look as good in a tank top as you think you do.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Get some rest,” she groaned and walked away.
Aaron sighed with relief. He crawled back into his tent and slumped noncommittally on top of his sleeping bag. The Saturday sun was just going down, and his eyes drooped as the sky reddened into black.
Aaron awoke into a dream. Like when one has a dream that fits reality, where he wakes up in his bed only do so again moments later.
Only Aaron wasn’t in his bed.
He was in a Chuck E. Cheese’s.
And he was surrounded by Vampires.
It’d been a long time since he’d been to a Chuck E. Cheese’s, but Aaron could be reasonably sure that wasn’t normal.
The restaurant was dark, having already closed. The group of monsters was the same one he had seen in the LA sewers a week before, with the addition of several ruddy, rotten Revenants, all standing around a single long, colorful table, looking at a large map of the US lit by numerous candles.
The first to notice him was a swarthy Mediterranean man in a tan suit and fedora whom Aaron had seen transform into a massive owl. Slowly, silently he was followed by the pack of Revenants and their even more rotten and deformed leader, Frank. Then a thin redheaded woman in a long dress and a group of three, one black man whose dress sense came out of the seventies, a young woman with died-black hair and gothic black clothes, and a young man with nervous eyes clutching what appeared to be a large mason jar of dirt. The last vampire turned to reveal a thin, pronounced face with grey, slicked-back hair and a small white beard, dressed all in black save for a red tie and a long gray coat that he knew concealed a short, curved sword. “Aaron,” Gregor said on seeing him, his words carefully pronounced as if speaking a well-learned second language, “I was wondering if you would show up.”
After a pause Aaron was able to whisper, “How did I get here?”
“You aren’t here,” Gregor said as he calmly grabbed a candlestick from the table and threw it at Aaron’s chest. He tried to catch it but found that it passed through his hand and subsequently his chest as if he were not there at all, and clamored to the ground behind him, its light extinguished. “Astral projection,” proclaimed Gregor. “A trick made possible by your particular disposition. Your body remains where you fell asleep, but your soul has moved here.”
“So––I’m a ghost?”
“Hardly. I must apologize that our previous meeting was cut short. Though your little ruse was impressive. It fooled even some of our own.” He shot a disdainful look at the monstrous Frank, who rolled his bloodshot eyes and left the table. “I am sorry that it was necessary. We can forget that not all of our allies are resistant to bullets.”
“Oh, no big deal. Me and my silly survival instinct.”
“Indeed,” Gregor said in a tone that indicated that he recognized that Aaron was joking but had decided to take it seriously anyway. “Those Scavengers and their community will be keeping a close eye on you, we’ll have to take measures to divest them of you. But all that later. For now, introductions are in order.”
Aaron took a moment to consider his options. He was unsure if the Motetz Dam could be trusted. They had already shown disregard for his life and in any case hardly seemed like upstanding moral beings. However, all the same could be said of the Hunters he had left behind.
“One question, first,” said Aaron. “Why are we in a Chuck E. Cheese’s?”
“Would you ever think to look for the clandestine meeting of a diverse group of preternatural entities in a Chuck E. Cheese’s?”
“Fair point. Lead on.”
Gregor led Aaron over to the table and indicated the group of three who had been standing next to him. “Aaron, these are my apostles. The people I’ve changed into other Strigoi Mort.”
“So you’re not all born like I was?”
The black man in the seventies’ leisure suit and mustache held out a hand to Aaron. He was tall, with a swimmer’s body and a narrow, friendly face featuring a small, barely noticebale scar running from the end of one eyebrow down to his cheek. “Nice to meet you.”
“Likewise,” Aaron said and was surprised to find he could easily shake the Vampire’s hand, despite the candlestick having passed through him earlier.
Gregor indicated the girl in gothic, all tight black leather and sheer fabric with a frilly black skirt, who would be very pretty if she weren’t wearing so much black and white makeup, and let her hair grow out in it’s obvious natural blonde. “Ellen. And the newest of our family, Dick.”
The nervous looking fellow, a young man with short, light brown hair and other rather unremarkable characteristics briefly shook Aaron’s hand and said, “Hey,” while clutching his jar of dirt.
Gregor whispered in Aaron’s ear “Still within a few years of the change, he’s still a bit skittish.”
“What’s with the dirt?”
“It is soil from his grave. We become attached to our surroundings when we return from death, and being away from the material we quickened around can be…uncomfortable for the first few years.”
Gregor turned to face the redheaded woman. She was very slender, but the long dress she wore clung to what curves she had in a very appealing manner, and her blue eyes shone like sapphires in moonlight. “This,” he said, “is my right hand in this enterprise, Marigold.”
“Charmed,” she said in a British accent. Aaron cautiously shook her hand.
“So what are you?” Aaron asked as he blinked to keep from staring. “In the sewers I thought I saw you grow claws.”
She smiled. “Baobhan Sith,” she said, carefully pronouncing it “Bah-vahn Shee” with a devilish smile. “Comes from the British Isles, in case you couldn’t tell. All female clan.”
“Well, it’s not as though we need the men for breeding.”
Gregor continued, “Here we have Nikolas,” he said and indicated the swarthy man in the tan suit whom Aaron had seen turn into what looked like a large owl, “a Strix, a Greek clan, and our representative from a larger group of Striges.” Nikolas simply tipped his hat slightly.
“Lastly, I believe you’ve already been acquainted with Frank and his apostles.”
“Right,” Aaron said nervously, addressing the tall, monstrous man approaching, who’s skin was rotted and ruddy and who’s nose and ears seemed over grown to the point of the grotesque and who wore a long coat similar to Gregor’s except that it was black leather. “You’re the one who had your purple mega-zombie sidekicks try to kill me.”
Frank grunted and roughly shook Aaron’s hand. “You’re lucky you didn’t kill any of them, boy.”
Aaron swallowed. “Y’know,” he said, mostly hiding how frightened he was, “‘Frank’ just doesn’t really say, ‘killer vampire,’ does it?”
“Shut up,” Frank rasped.
“I mean Francis might work, but––” Frank walked off. “Sensitive, isn’t he?”
Gregor chuckled. “Try not to tease him. All the rest of us do, but we’ve known him longer. A few of our other allies you saw in Los Angeles are absent at the moment, but I am sure you will be introduced later.”
“Uh huh,” Aaron said, beginning to accept what was going on. “So why am I here? Why now, it’s been a week since I met you?”
“It’s Saturday night,” Gregor replied as if it was obvious and returned to the table with the map.
“It’s just the time of week that Strigoi meet. It’s in our biology.”
“Our magic biology.”
“Okey-dokey. Way to make biology more complicated, I already got a C in high school.” Aaron looked at the map that was laid out on the table. It was a large, tattered map of the U.S. made of thick paper, of the kind that would roll down in front of the whiteboard in a classroom. Ink markings in various shapes and colors, most of them red, had been sketched all across the nation and outside the borders.
“What’s this?” Aaron asked, and attempted to lift the map, but his hand simply passed through the paper as the candle had through him. He tried twice more with the same result then pressed his hand straight through the table. “I can touch you guys but not the map?”
“We are magic,” Gregor explained. “The table is not.”
“Ah. Lots of rules to learn. Hey, why don’t I fall through the floo––” Gregor caught him by the shoulder as he was falling through the floor, suddenly up to his chest in sticky, colorful carpet. Greger lifted him to his feet with one arm, making Aaron think he must be very strong until he realized he wasn’t actually lifting anything.
“Okay,” Aaron said. “Wile E. Coyote rules. You don’t fall until you think you should fall.”
“You will learn to control it better with time, along with your other abilities.”
“What kind of abilities, anyway?”
“Hard to say. So much is lost in rumor. They are never very many Strigoi Viu, and most go through their lives oblivious to their gifts. Some say they can summon the elements, alter the heavens, limited only by the energy they can take from the living things around them.” Gregor paused dramatically, staring over the table.
“Um…‘kay. So what’s with the map?”
“Our efforts,” Gregor said. “Our goals. Our allies. Our enemies.”
“All in America?”
“For now. It’s a land of immigrants. And excellent microcosm for the world as a whole.”
Aaron thought about where he was, about what he was doing here. “What’s the endgame?”
Gregor idly scratched at his beard, staring into the map. “Peace,” he said, a final answer.
Admirable enough answer, thought Aaron, but the implications, the possibilities of what Gregor meant unnerved him some. Peace for whom? And by what means?
“Must you always be so dramatic?” Marigold asked, looking at him slyly.
“For now,” Gregor replied, fittingly.
“So what is the endgame?” Aaron asked Marigold.
Gregor leveled a weighted glance at her and she raised he palms in mock surrender and sat down in one of the little chairs. Her long dress lifted over her feet briefly and Aaron got a glimpse at what he thought to be cloven hooves.
Aaron glared at Gregor. “You’re not telling me? You’re not even letting me know what’s going on?”
“All in due time.”
“Aaron, dear, don’t bother,” said Marigold.
“No, no, none of you give me that bullshit. You all track me down, rifle through my head for information, drag me into this whole fucking Dungeons and Dragons world in which I’ve been shot at and beaten up repeatedly, and summon my damn soul to a Chuck E. Cheese’s God knows where, and you won’t even tell me why? Fuck that! I have the fucking right to know this shit!”
“It is not important right now that you know the entirety of the plan,” Gregor said.
“Bullshit!” Aaron cried and all the candles in the room puffed out.
Gregor swiveled until his eyes were a mere inch or two from Aaron’s. In whatever dim light was left for his nonexistent eyes to adjust to Aaron could see that he had no reflection in Gregor’s eyes, in which the rest of the room could be seen upside down. “You have a bit of a problem with authority, do you not, boy?” Gregor said quietly.
Aaron edged closer still to Gregor’s face and whispered, “Who said you were authority?”
Gregor smiled a toothy, notably fangless smile. “Good. I like that in a soldier.” He stepped back. “You will be told what you desire in due time. For now I can say this: For far too long the Motetz Dam have been––”
“Wake up, lazy bones,” rang Clive’s voice as Aaron awoke in his shaking tent. The impression of his astral projection quickly faded away but for a brief moment he could sense both ends, unable to hold them both in clarity. He unzipped the tent and poked his head out into the nighttime desert air where Clive was crouched.
“Pack everythin’ up, we’ve go’ a job.” He stood and walked towards the RV. As Aaron rubbed dust out of his eyes Clive stopped and craned his head back at him. “Heard you mu’ering something in your sleep. Any idea wha’ that was about?”
Aaron took a long, dreadful pause. “No idea.”
In a matter of minutes the RV had been packed up and the group were on their way down the highway. The Job Clive had referred to was a few mysterious deaths in Oklahoma which they were being sent out to investigate. It would apparently take a couple of days to get there even driving constantly, which they apparently planned to do. Clive had first shift.
“Isn’t there anyone else to do this?” Aaron asked. “We’re driving half way across the country.”
“There’s one other major group of vamp hunters that’s fit to travel around like this,” Marcy explained. “They’ve been pulling a long job up in Washington for a while now. Whatever’s up there, they really want to make sure it’s dead.”
Aaron looked around the RV. It was an old thing, but kept in good shape, the engine running smoothly and all the surfaces clean. It was also very quiet. Clive drove in silence while Marcy occupied her time cleaning a variety of pistols on the table across from Aaron and Richie laid in the bunk in the back idly flicking a lighter, apparently attempting to sleep.
“Okay, what the hell already?” Aaron yelled, almost without thinking. All eyes turned to him. Well, no going back now. “You drag me into all this, and then spend a week not telling me shit. How about a little tutorial? An intro class? A brief introduction to Vampire hunting? Anything?”
The three of them all glanced at each other in turn. Marcy said, “You never asked.”
Aaron’s jaw slacked open slightly. “I tried! You always avoided the conversation.”
“What,” Clive said from the front, “all tha’ bloody small talk?”
“It would transition into asking about the whole vampire thing! Was I supposed to just walk up and say, ‘Please inform me of proper Vampire killing methods?’”
“Well, Yah,” said Clive. “Say whacha mean, man.”
“I…In any case, don’t you think that’s something you should explain up front?”
“Hey, for all we knew,” said Marcy, “those Vamps you met beamed the information right into your head.”
“Along with who knows what else,” Richie drawled from the back. “And you ain’t been too forthcoming with what you know about that group either.”
“Well, they didn’t! And I’d have gotten to that if you’d let me talk to you. So, please, inform me of proper vampire killing methods.”
They glanced at each other again. “What d’you know so far?” Clive said.
Aaron sighed. “I know that Vampires are real. Or, Motetz Dam, that’s what they call themselves. I know there are different kinds of them, like Strigoi, and what you call Revenant and they call Vampire, and Baobhan Sith. I know that they have all kinds of powers like invisibility and shapeshifting and climbing on walls. I know I’m whatever the fuck I am. Short of that all I know is movie magic.”
“Wha’ about the group you met?” Clive asked.
“Uh, they’re a diverse group, bunch of different kinds of vampire. Led by a Strigoi named Gregor. He seems…confident. Arrogant, even. He has three ‘apostles’ with him. His second in command, Marigold, a ‘Baobhan Sith,’ seems more level headed than him. I think the bulk of their group are vam–– Revenants, under the control of a leader named Frank.”
“Frank?” Marcy said. “Not a very menacing vampiric name.”
“That’s what I said.” Aaron couldn’t let them know he’d met them in his sleep. “That’s all I really know. So now it’s you’re turn. What do I need to know?”
Marcy looked to Clive. He shrugged, and the two of them switched places, Marcy taking the wheel without them even bothering to stop the RV, and Clive sat across from Aaron. “First thing’s first,” he said. “Disregard everything ya know from movies. Vamps don’t die in the sun. Movies made that up. They’re nocturnal by nature, much weaker during daylit hours, some can take a monstrous form and will die at dawn if they’re not human again, but none’ll get burned by a ray of sunshine. Were that true, I personally wouldn’t even need weapons,” he grinned and shrugged jokingly. “Garlic’s relatively useless. The cross thing is largely psychological, any of them over a few years old should be over it. Nothin’s keeping them from crossing a threshold, ‘less it’s hung with mistletoe, and again, that’s mostly psychological. Anything you’ve heard about silver is also bull, iron can be toxic to ‘em but it won’t burn to touch.”
“I get it, there’s lots of bullshit. What’s real?”
Clive idly continued Marcy’s work cleaning guns. “No two breeds are alike,” he said. “But there are a few near universalities. Especially when it comes to killin’. Beheading. Burning. Always good options. We usually go for staking, though, and that’s not quite like the movies either. Stake has to be made of a holy wood, like oak, or ash, or of iron. The stake has to go all the way through the body, doesn’t much matter where, and then the pointy end has to be grounded in the earth.”
“That’s why Marcy jabbed the arrow in that revenant I saw’s neck into the pavement.”
“Bingo. I mean, any pike stuck through their torso’ll kill them. But death isn’t exactly permanent for the buggers, and anything less than the whole routine and they’ll pop back up come the next sunset after it’s removed. The point is grounding the energy that animates them.”
“Sounds needlessly complicated.”
“Bet your arse. But we ge’it done.”
“They don’t have fangs, either, do they?” Aaron said, remembering Gregor’s smile.
“Nope. Most breeds just got teeth. Good enough for breakin’ the skin. The ones that do have fangs usually have a variety of other frightening characteristics to go with ‘em.”
“Gotcha. Anything else I should know?”
“Plenty,” Clive said, “but right now you look tired, and should get some sleep.”
“Yeah, I’m good,” Aaron said, remembering his last nap.
“Good or not,” Clive said, jabbing a thumb at the bunks in the back, “when we get where we’re going you’re gonna wanna be rested.”
Aaron reluctantly walked to the back of the RV and climbed to the stiff, narrow bed, where he covered himself in a musty blanket, rolled to face the wall, and lay awake for several hours.
“What?” Aaron stammered at a question he had missed.
“I asked if you were okay,” Clive repeated. Aaron was not okay. He hadn’t slept for nearly two days.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” he said. “I just don’t sleep well on the road.”
“Well, we’re here, so get ready t’go.” The RV was parked awkwardly outside a large cemetery on the outskirts of a county in Oklahoma who’s name Aaron had forgotten. Marcy was fiddling with some sort of device filling the inside of a backpack. Richie was setting up a rig composed of what appeared to be a wheeled oxygen tank which, rather than connecting to the tube around his nose attached to a shiny wooden cane through a tube that went under Richie’s sleeve. His left leg was held rigid with what appeared to be a rack of several thin metal spikes. Clive had a concealed revolver made to look like a banana Aaron decided it was best not to ask about.
Due to a combination of sleep deprivation and having learned that the Hunters weren’t big on conversation, Aaron didn’t ask about what they were doing until they had already found the grave they were looking for, Richie faking a pronounced limp and carrying the air tank behind him the whole time. It was a fresh tombstone, the earth still lacking grass. Clive and Richie stood before it as if in mourning while Marcy casually dropped her backpack onto the grave and looked at her phone.
“What the hell is all this stuff?” Aaron asked after making sure no one was in earshot
“Souped up sonogram, basically,” Macy said. “We use it to take a look into the grave, make sure the body is where it’s supposed to be.”
“Then we use this here to pin it there,” Richie said, indicating the cane. “Tank’s just pressurized air, makes a shaft and stake inside the cane extend a full six feet. Shaft pulls back up, leaves the stake in place and I reload,” he patted the rack hidden under his pant leg.
“Okay,” Aaron said. “Why?”
“We got a report of mysterious deaths ‘round here a few days ago,” Clive said. “Since then the numbers have only gotten higher. We see if it’s our kinda’ thing, and hopefully take care of it quickly if it is. This is the first repor’ed death we could find.”
“How do you afford all this stuff?” Aaron asked.
“Our Coroners, mostly,” said Clive.
“People who work for us,” Clive explained. “Well, I suppose you could say we work for them. There’s one or two in just abot every town. They alert us to jobs, help support us with money from their regular jobs, get rid of the bodies we rack up and dump some of the ashes in the water supply.”
“When most kinds of Vamp bite a person, they’re infected,” Richie said gravely. “Won’t kill ‘em, but when they do die they come back as whatever kinda’ vamp bit them. Only cure we know about is a vampire’s ashes mixed into water. So we have Coroners burn a few of the bodies and throw the ashes into a reservoir. Keeps the general population from rising too often. Course that wouldn’t work with you.” He shot an acidic glance at Aaron. “Curse is in your DNA.”
Aaron ignored the jab. “So my friend, West, who got bit by that revenant, he’ll be fine as long as he drinks some tap water?”
“Oh, sure,” Clive said. “No harm done, besides maybe a bad dream that night. Bite won’t even leave a scar.”
“Good to know.”
“We have a problem,” Marcy said, coming up with the backpack in tow. “The graves are empty.”
Clive made a clicking noise with his tongue. “Thing must be holdin’ up somew––Wait, Gravesss?”
Marcy nodded. “I checked this one, a few of the others that were reported, even a couple random ones that looked fresh. All empty. This is our deal all right, and it’s gotten up to hide from us en masse.”
Clive ran a hand through his hair and mumbled a curse in Irish. “Richie, can ye pick up a scent?”
Richie closed his eyes and took a deep breath, as if focusing his mind. When his eyes opened they were distant and still. He swept his gaze over the graveyard, breathing low and steady. When Aaron came into his vision he flinched away, unwilling to look at what he could see in the Strigoi Viu.
Richie’s breathing and stance returned to normal. “There are def’nite trails, but I can’t quite make them out this time of day.” He lifted the deadly cane to point into the deeper, older parts of the cemetery. “Lead off that way, I think. I’ll be able to make it out better––”
“Come sunset,” Clive interrupted. “When they’ll be awake.”
The Earth turned, and the sky grew violent shades of blood. The four of them stood where they had that morning, now armed to the teeth. Police riot gear protected their chests, Aaron using what he presumed to be a spare. Clive (once again in his green-brown Akubra hat, apparently something he picked up in Australia) and Richie each held automatic weapons, along with holstered pistols. Marcy wielded the Overkill, the machine gun/crossbow hybrid she herself had invented and wore several knives tucked into pockets and straps, and a belt of grenades, along with whatever was in the backpack she now carried. They gave Aaron a shotgun and a couple shovels to carry.
“You know where we’re goin’, Rich?” Marcy asked.
“Yep,” Richie said and walked past the grave toward the deeper parts of the graveyard. They followed in silence in the dimming gold light of dusk, weapons held ready. Weaving through tombstones Richie led them to a large, aged tree on a small hill that had likely been there since before there was a graveyard, dropping leaves out of season, surrounded by boulders at its base.
Richie placed his hand over one of the boulders, a large, angular one that reseted on the tree’s trunk. “Under here.”
“Must be cramped,” Aaron said. They glared at him. Not fans of tension-breaking humor, apparently. Aaron should get along great with them.
Clive pointed his weapon at the rock and Marcy followed. Aaron hastily dropped the shovels and leveled his shotgun, making perhaps an unnecessary amount of noise in doing so.
Clive nodded to Richie and said, “Move it.”
Richie wrapped his hands around an angle in the rock and heaved with a might that shouldn’t have been possible for a man of his composure. The rock slowly gave way from the earth and landed with a loud thump on the ground beside them.
Beneath it was a tunnel. The earthen cavern was less than four feet tall and three wide at its opening, but seemed to expand as it stretched blackly into the ground. In the dim light it seemed to Aaron that the walls had a rough, crosshatched pattern, as if clawed out by human hands.
“Well, ain’t that just unnervin’,” Clive muttered. He held out a hand to Marcy. She let her overkill hang by its strap and went fishing through her backpack.
Aaron turned to Richie. “How is it you need calcium supplements to walk, but you can move a two ton boulder like it’s nothing?”
Richie grunted. “The strength ain’t so much physical as metaphysical. Mind over matter in a way,” he said and backed away as if that was the end of the conversation.
Marcy handed Clive…a small pumpkin, only as big as an apple, hollowed out from holes cut in its sides with a small candle fused to the bottom. Clive lit it with a match he struck on another rock and hung the pumpkin from its stem on a metal stick Marcy handed him.
“What’s with the Jack-o’-lantern?” Aaron asked.
“The light’s repulsive to them. Shows their true nature even when disguised.”
“Why do you think people started putting them out?” Clive took a few more implements from Marcy’s backpack and then turned to Richie. “Kill anythin’ that comes out that isn’t us.”
“Wait,” Aaron said, “you’re going down there?!”
“We,” Clive said, indicating that Aaron was going too, “are. Ye got a better idea?”
“Seal it off and throw down some napalm?”
Clive chuckled as he crawled into the hole.
“Here,” Marcy said, handing him a two foot by two inch metal cylinder with a rubber grip before shoving him into the cavern. “Spring loaded stake. Press the hollow end against something and push the button to launch it. There’s a counterweight so there won’t even be a recoil. You can reload by pressing your weight against the butt.”
After a pause Aaron said, “Thanks,” and crouched after Clive into the vampire tunnel.
Clive kneeled, far too large for the start of the tunnel, lighting the way with his pumpkin on a stick. In his other hand he held aloft his pistol, the revolver designed and painted to look like a large banana. He waddled down the tunnel.
Aaron remained crouched for a moment with Marcy waiting behind him. “I’m surrounded by crazy people.” He looked back at the opening of the tunnel and saw Richie standing there, holding his automatic. Coming from his hands Aaron saw a faint, white aura wrap around the weapon in a way that made Aaron fearful in a primal, inexplicable way. Marcy shoved him forward and the three of them crawled into the dark Earth.
As they went deeper the tunnel widened, to the point that within fifty yards the three of them could walk comfortably without crouching. The light of the jack-o’-lantern and the light on the scope of Marcy’s gun cast eerie shadows over the clawed walls. The tunnel declined steadily, but not sharply, turning and winding only occasionally. The three of them walked for nearly a half hour, and Aaron tried not to show that his arms and legs were getting tired.
They came to a sudden drop in the tunnel, a dark, steep chasm that stretched deep into the ground.
“Where the hell did all this dirt go?” Marcy whispered.
“Must’ve been here longer than we thought,” Clive said. “Just started actin’ up now for some reason.”
“I’ve got some rope, we could rappel down, but I wouldn’t trust this soft dirt.”
Clive looked over the tunnel with his pumpkin light, holding it low as if searching for something. “First give me another jack,” he said. “One with a flare.”
Marcy produced another pumpkin, this one with a shortened road flare stuck in it. He flicked the cap off the flare and the tunnel was lit by bright, scattered red light through the holes in the pumpkin.
“Watch,” Clive said and gently tossed the pumpkin flare down the hole.
As the light fell forms were illuminated which had not been there before, hazy red auras that had no other physicality, the forms of men and women clinging impossibly to the sides of the cavern, teeming dozens of them piled over one another all around the sides of the hole, staring with wide, dead eyes, at the three of them.
“RUN!” Clive bellowed as he fired a single shot into the crowd from his banana gun, eliciting an eldritch scream from a revenant shot in the head that went on for almost a minute. In that time Marcy fired several shots and arrows from the overkill, carefully aiming each shot before running after Clive. She nudged Aaron out of his state of shock and he quickly fired a shell at the swarm then took running himself.
The vampires came with alarming speed, leaping through the narrow tunnel and crawling over the walls like so many massive, vile insects, scrambling over each other in a cloud of gnashing teeth and ragged claws, dimly visible now in the shifting, distant light. Clive, with his long legs and head start was already far ahead of them, and occasionally fired back a well aimed shot from his revolver. Marcy panted under the weight of all she carried and shot off bullets and arrows behind her in volleys. One of the faster vampires leapt at her and in a single action she pulled one of her staking devices off her belt and jabbed it at the thing’s stomach, unleashing it with a mechanical shuck and a gooey, organic squish as it penetrated the belly of the beast. She ripped the now nearly four foot long stake out with a similarly disgusting sound as the vampire fell. Aaron slowly outran her out of sheer fear, occasionally remembering to fire a shell over his shoulder.
As Aaron and Marcy rounded a corner she tossed a grenade, crying “BOOM!” to alert him of the impending shock and the deafening meaning of the onomatopoeia shook him moments later, followed by the rough rumble of the tunnel behind them collapsing between them and the vampires. “That won’t hold for long!” she yelled. They kept running.
It was another few minutes before the vampires caught up to them. The blockade had slowed them from a wave to a trickle from where they could get out but they were still coming in ones and twos. Marcy and Aaron fired off more shots, barely bothering to aim. Distantly they could make out Clive’s light. He and Richie crouched by the opening with their machine guns, waiting for Aaron and Marcy to get close enough that they wouldn’t risk hitting them. They were within two hundred yards of that goal.
Something hit Aaron across the side of his back. He began to fall forward and turn, the shotgun flying out of his hands. As he turned to face the vampire that tackled him, an ugly, ruddy creature that must have once been a middle aged woman, Aaron on instinct reached out with his tactile will. The staking device he had shoved into his pants pocket shifted and in a single arcing movement swept into the creature’s side where it deployed, puncturing the vampire diagonally through its heart and letting it fall to the tunnel floor seemingly dead.
Without missing a beat Aaron regained his balance and resumed running, not bothering to pick up either of his weapons, only caring to get to the safety of Clive and Richie’s weapons now a hundred and fifty yards away. A hundred.
Marcy fell. A vampire hit her in the back dead on, landing down on her and pushing her to the ground where she dropped her gun and stake. It held up her torso up in front of it so Clive and Richie couldn’t shoot it. It reached for the back of her neck with it’s jaws…
…And it burst into flame. It happened suddenly as though a match had been struck on gasoline and the vampire flailed and screeched for only a few moments before it collapsed to the ground, a smoking carcass.
Marcy scrambled to her feet and picked up her gun, and looked up to see Aaron standing in the tunnel in front of her holding out one hand to where she was laying, staring at the vampire’s corpse.
“I think I did that with my mind,” he stammered.
She jogged past him, firing behind her and said, “So, do it again!”
Aaron looked at the approaching, thickening swarm of terrible, undead creatures lunging towards him. Somewhere in the distance he heard Clive yelling at him to run. The first vampire was nearly on him, one lunge away from pinning him down. But all he could feel was heat in his soul.
The lead vampire leapt at him as Aaron arched his arms back, pushing the energy of his will into the palms of his hands. He felt himself become warm, the tunnel filled with light, and the whole world around him seemed to scream in fury. A moment, a mere instant before the first vampire would be on him Aaron shot his hands forward and brilliant scarlet flame careened out from his will, blasting the leaping vampire back and apart before him and reaching into the tunnel after the others, dancing over their writhing, horrible bodies and crackling as their rotted flesh melted and their bones shattered, the might of the fire washing over them, eliciting inhuman screams. Black, thick, putrid smoke filled the tunnel, reeking of sour, burning meat.
After a furious minute there was no movement left in the tunnel that could be seen through the smoke, and Aaron released. He wobbled on his feet, whether from the effort or the smoke inhalation he couldn’t be sure. He felt the world around him shift into darkness, and fell back into strong, waiting hands. Clive dragged him to the mouth of the tunnel, shouting and coughing distantly.
Aaron felt clean air rush into his lungs as the mouth of the cave passed around him. He began coughing, hacking, and flailed around in mild panic, prompting Clive to let him drop. After a moment Aaron sat up on the ground, panting, drool and mucus dripping from his mouth, his lungs aching, feeling utterly exhausted. The other three each stared at him with some combination of awe and fear.
Marcy’s eyes were the first to wander. She glanced all around them and said, “Guys, look.”
They did. They were surrounded by death. The grass around them had become brown and crisp. The tree above the tunnel’s mouth had dropped the last of its leaves, and seemed brittle and gray. Flowers left by graves had withered. Here and there the bodies of birds littered the ground. Even the soil was dry and lifeless. The other hunters all looked back to Aaron.
“Huh,” he said. “How ‘bout that?”
Clive turned to the others. “When the smoke starts to clear, go through and make sure everything’s taken care of. Ground stakes, cut heads, be thorough. You,” he turned to Aaron, “walk back to the RV. Get some rest. On your way keep an eye out for any strays.”
“In case there are, could I get one of those stakes?” Aaron asked as he shakily lifted himself to his feet.
Clive raised an eyebrow at him.
“I really don’t think I could manage anything like that again,” Aaron said. “Not tonight.”
Clive shrugged and tossed him one of the cylinders and a flashlight.
Aaron left, dragging his feet. He made his way, alone, through the empty graveyard, at around midnight, with little more than a small flashlight. Most people who hadn’t just broiled an army of bloodthirsty mega-zombies would consider that a frightening prospect. Aaron found he was oddly confident
The sound made him jump and scream in an unmanly manner. Aaron swung his flashlight at it and saw the familiar face of a young Asian man, now wearing a suit that had been torn and frayed and dirtied, and covered in dark splotches. The face itself was now darkened, and bloated, and ruddy.
“West,” Aaron whispered gravely.
“Hey, man,” his now undead friend replied. “Long time no see.”
“It’s been a week and a half.”
“Feels like more.” There was a long pause where Aaron simply looked at the vampire.
“After that thing bit me, after I ran off––sorry for leaving you like that, by the way––I got in my car and drove. But I was scared, and I was wasted, and–– I hit a guy. He was fine, I think, had a truck, but I––I didn’t make it.”
Aaron swallowed. “You’re a vampire. Like the thing that bit you.”
“I figured.” West looked over the bloated, purplish flesh of his hands. “Not as sexy as they make it sound.”
“Not in your case, no.”
“Not what I meant. Go on.”
“I went back to my family. I thought they could help, but–– I think I killed them. Or at least hurt them. I didn’t stick around to check. I couldn’t control myself, man. It’s like this––tiredness, all over your body, you know? And then there’s this ache, like hunger but it’s in your veins, and in your heart. And by the time you’re in your right mind again…they’re dead.
“So I ran. I tried to find you, I was able to pick up your scent like a fucking bloodhound. But by then, by the time I’d gotten to where you’d been in the desert, you were already gone again. So I kept going. You wouldn’t think I could keep up with a car, but apparently the undead can move pretty quick. By night, anyway. Most of the time in the day I had to sleep, just lay dead on the side of the road. I’m surprised no vultures took a bite out of me. That first day, I––I figured I’d burn. But instead I just kept on.” There was a pause. “Kept on killing people. It only got worse the faster I went. The farther I got from home.”
“You’re attached to your grave,” Aaron explained. “The further you got from it the more anxious you got.”
“I got a lot more than anxious, man,” West snapped. “I hurt people. So––so many people. Because of me…”
West leaned against a headstone and put on a fake smile. “So what’s going on with you?”
Aaron couldn’t help it. He needed to vent. He told West everything. The Hunters, the Motetz Dam. Every detail. After it all he sat on the gravestone next to him.
“Wow,” West said. “Quite the tale. What are you gonna do?”
“I don’t know,” Aaron confessed. “I really don’t. I trust the Motetz Dam. But what if that’s just some instinct that’s bred into me? And at least the Hunters never hid anything from me. No one quite trusts me. And I shouldn’t trust anyone. I don’t know what the right thing to do is, I don’t even know what’s most likely to keep me alive. I can’t choose.”
“Why should you?”
“You have been listening, right?”
“Yeah, but…what is it you have to gain from either of them? The Hunters want to kill vampires. The Vampires want Peace or whatever. What do you want out of this?”
Aaron stopped to think for a moment. “I want to know why.”
“Big question, man.”
“Why me, I mean. Why did I end up with this? Of all the people with all the mothers in the world why did was I the one born with one foot in the grave?”
“You want the meaning of life?”
“Not in general. Just mine. Lucky someone already knows it.”
“Yeah. I’m still left with a choice I can’t make.”
“You say either side could get you killed. And either could help you. So pick neither.”
“Until one’s about to get you killed. Then you have the other.”
Aaron sighed. “I’ll keep that in mind. Look at you, all deep all of a sudden.”
“Not that deep. Just six feet or so.”
Aaron grinned emptily. “Thanks anyway.”
West put his hand on Aaron’s shoulder. It felt cold. “You’re welcome. Oh, and uh, good luck with the whole life after death thing. Hopefully you handle it better than I did. And thank you.”
Aaron looked at him. “You’re welcome.” He pulled the staking device out of his pocket and swung it against West’s chest, deploying the sharp point directly through his heart and out his back. The two of them fell back and Aaron drove the protruding point of the stake into the earth, watching as a red black aura washed over West’s corpse from the point of impalement outward. The look on his West’s face was one of calm relief.
Aaron got up and pulled out the stake. He walked away in the calm surety that his friend was dead.
Aaron focused on the space above his incorporeal hand and willed tiny bursts of flame into the air, watching as the leaves fell off the small plant in the Olive Garden he wasn’t actually in.
“Dozens of them!” Gregor cried, throwing his hands in the air. “I could feel it happen from here!”
This was apparently not a full-fledged meeting of this group of Motetz Dam, as the only ones in the building were Gregor, his apostles Max, Dick, and Ellen, and his second in command Marigold. Frank, whom Aaron assumed to be one of the more powerful and prominent of the group, was absent. Aaron was grateful for this, as he doubted Frank would react as nonviolently to Aaron having killed the vampire swarm as Gregor was.
“Do you have any idea what kind of message you’ve sent? What others will think of this?”
“I’m sorry,” Aaron interrupted, “how exactly do you expect me to deal with a swarm of things trying to eat me in the future.”
Gregor groaned. “The kind of power you have displayed today, the kind of malice, you are only making it harder for Motetz Dam to accept you, to trust you. And therefore to trust us.” He seemed more concerned with the negative publicity of Aaron’s actions than the actual harm done to members of his kind, or for that matter the humans they once were.
“Can you do all this stuff?” Aaron asked, trying to change the subject. “The fire, astral projection, moving things?”
Gregor sighed. “No. Then again you cannot shapeshift, turn invisible, or maintain a healthy complexion despite having been dead for three hundred years.”
Marigold muttered, “Three hundred fifty.”
“In any case, Aaron, you are on thin ice among the Motetz Dam as it is, if they know you’re able and willing to slaughter them in droves, you––”
“Slaughter?!” Aaron said. “What part of, ‘Trying to eat me’ do you not––” Aaron woke up back in the RV, Clive standing over him. He could feel his distant astral self fading, but he focused, narrowed in on it and forced it to continue. In a moment he found he had balanced both realities, and looked at both the Hunters and the Motetz Dam at once. “Sorry, nodded off there for a bit,” he said. It came out in both versions. He could maintain both awarenesses, but he couldn’t differentiate them. He had to think fast if he wanted to get away with this.
Gregor began to continue his tirade and the Hunters asked him if he was okay. The conflicting noises were confusing.
“Okay look,” Aaron said to both sides at once. “I need you to just…let me talk for a minute. Okay?” Either side nodded in reluctant approval. Aaron sighed. “I’m still in contact with them,” he said. “You know who I’m talking about. Hell, I was just with them. That’s the miracle of astral projection for you.” The Motetz Dam knew what he was talking about, but the Hunters also seemed unsurprised. “But you knew that already.”
Clive shrugged. “You talk in your sleep.”
Aaron continued, “I’m caught between two worlds here. Yours and theirs. I didn’t know where to go with that for a while, but when you get down to it, they’re the monsters.” To the hunters this was fact. To the Motetz Dam, cosmic irony. “I’m on your side, 100%,” he said to both groups. “But they don’t have to know that.” Each side seemed to realize at once what he was talking about. “They don’t know that I’m still with you. They think I’ve slipped you and I’m hiding from you even now. They trust me, to an extent. So I can keep up with them. I can know their every move, keep track of all their activities. And all the while report back to you. And they’ll have no idea.
“So. Can I be your personal spy in the enemy camp?”